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The Simple Secret

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If Steve's battle suit wasn't bulletproof, it was damn near. It could turn the blade of a knife and lessen the impact of a punch, and it kept him warm and relatively dry in even the worst conditions.

 

After his first outing, it occurred to Steve to wonder aloud why every man in the army wasn't issued the new body armour. When Howard was through busting a gut, he got out a cardboard box full of invoices and clarified to Steve exactly how much Captain America was costing the United States Army.

 

Steve was mortified.

 

Still, the fact remained that he had the best gear, so as a courtesy to the others, he took the dirtiest jobs whenever possible. He was always first over the wall, carrying a brightly-painted target and putting on a big show to draw fire. And he managed to keep his men safe.

 

Mostly.

 

When Bucky was hit—grazed, he kept insisting, the ball never touched the strike zone—no one took much notice until a day or so after the fact, by which time he was pale and sweating. The hole in the shoulder of his wool overcoat, about the size of a quarter, gave Steve a familiar tightness in his chest, even before he got a look at the soaked cloth underneath.

 

Bucky managed to stay on his feet until they were within sight of camp, when he slumped against Steve's shoulder and had to be carried the rest of the way.

 

The doc said he'd be lucky not to lose the arm.

 

*

 

Problem was, they were due to go out, and they still needed a sharpshooter. Steve rejigged the strategy six ways from Sunday, but there was just nothing to be done: someone had to cover them from the ridge, and everyone already had their part to play.

 

They'd been hunched over the map for hours when Peggy straightened in her chair, tucked her pencil behind her ear and said, “There's simply nothing for it.”

 

Her hand was resting on the table, long and elegant, each fingertip ending in an immaculate red-lacquered nail. It was close enough that Steve could have brushed it with his own without it seeming deliberate at all.

 

“If we had a boat—even a raft—we might be able to…” Even as he said it, he knew it wouldn't work; it was too complicated, left too much to chance.

 

“No.” Peggy rolled her shoulders and tilted her head back. Her spine crackled, and she gave a deep sigh of satisfaction that sent the heat rushing to Steve's face. “We're going about this back-to-front. Keep the plan as it is. I'll find you someone who can shoot.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“He’s going to be all right,” she added, and gave his arm an encouraging pat. “Chin up.”

 

Steve flashed her a grateful smile.

 

“Off to bed, soldier,” she told him, smiling back.

 

*

 

The next morning at the briefing, Peggy was wearing a field jacket and trousers tucked into boots, her curls meticulously pinned under a beret. Steve suddenly realized what she meant to do. He knew better than to protest, but the prospect of having to order Peggy to her possible death made him feel unsteady, as though his bones had been hollowed out and there was nothing left to keep his massive frame standing.

 

Surely Phillips wouldn't approve, he thought.

 

Phillips had already approved. He couldn't spare anyone else—no, son, not even for Captain America—and Agent Carter could coordinate their operations from the field.

 

*

 

The flight over France was uncharacteristically quiet.

 

Normally, the guys would be boisterous—laughing, bragging, swapping stories and insults. Banking their good humour for when the going got tough.

 

Steve thought that the silence might have to do with missing one of their close-knit crew, but he suspected that it was also due to the unexpected presence of Peggy in their ranks.

 

It wasn't that the Commandos didn't know how to talk to a woman; even Steve, the most inexperienced in the group, had made some strides in that direction, thanks to his time with the USO. Girls didn’t seem quite as mysterious or frightening after you’d shared a dressing room with twenty of them.

 

But she was a stranger to most of them and, unlike Steve, they’d never seen her in action, which meant she was an unknown quantity in the field. She was also the person who directed their operations; every man there was wary of being too friendly with a superior.

 

It was a cloudy night, and the wind was high. Steve was glad, for his friend’s sake, that Bucky would be sitting this one out; night jumps made him edgy even when the weather was clear.

 

As they were shrugging into their chutes, Falsworth said, “Ladies first,” and gestured to the jump door.

 

Peggy acknowledged him with a regal nod, gave the rest of the men a polite wave, then leapt gracefully into the yawning blackness.

 

*

 

They hit the ground running, figuratively speaking, and made good time to the factory.

 

The plan went off all right: Falsworth, in a stolen SS uniform, staged a surprise inspection, a distraction that got them in the door. Dernier had made up the tidiest little parcels of explosives, and he and Morita lined the entire facility with PE 808 in relatively short order. The others spread out to make sure there were no civilian workers in the building before it blew, and to gather any intel they could. Peggy, concealed in a tree on the ridge, made sure they all had a clear path in and out.

 

There was a HYDRA squadron waiting for them over the hill, which Steve hadn’t anticipated—they were obviously on the alert for signs of Captain America’s interference in their operations. They had one of Schmidt’s weapons with them, a cannon that expelled a blue-white flame.

 

In the ensuing melee, Steve was able to ensure that no one but him got hit by the blast before he was able to take out the source with his shield. His team did the rest.

 

They came out of it mostly unscathed: Jones had a gash on his arm, Falsworth a dislocated shoulder, and everyone had a few bumps and bruises. Steve itched all over, and felt like he’d had his ribs squeezed in a vice, courtesy of whatever was in the flame-cannon.

 

Peggy was sporting a magnificent black eye, and seemed pretty pleased with herself. As well she ought to be—she’d taken out seven HYDRA foot soldiers, by Steve’s count. Dugan said later that he’d seen her punch a guy in the neck hard enough to stop his heart on the spot.

 

Steve could believe it. He thought his own heart was going to stop every time he looked at her.

 

*

 

They’d mapped out a path back to the line: farmhouses they knew were safe, where they had maquisard contacts, and a couple of nights sleeping rough in between. The weather wasn’t ideal for camping out, but at least it wasn’t snowing.

 

It seemed natural enough for Steve to pitch up beside Peggy while they were walking. The other fellows left them alone, mostly—either out of deference, or disinterest in the conversation.

 

It was in these quiet moments, the interstices of battle, that Steve began to learn about Peggy. Conscious of the rarity of the opportunity, he filed each new fact away carefully, listening intently and asking questions.

 

She'd learned to shoot because she wanted to go hunting with her older brothers, and had brought home more fencing trophies than she could count. She’d grown up a bit wild, she explained, without a female influence in the house; she credited boarding school for a thorough instruction in what she wryly referred to as the feminine mystique.

 

When the war started, she'd trained as a nurse because she’d been desperate to do something, anything; if she’d had her way, she would have joined the RAF, but as it was, she’d been willing to settle for driving an ambulance.

 

Then she'd been recruited for the Special Operations Executive, who wanted to drop her into France to carry coded messages, and she’d (no pun intended, she assured them) jumped at the opportunity.

 

But Peggy didn’t do all the talking. Steve had never been chatty, but she had ways of drawing him out. Before long he found himself telling her the plain, unvarnished story of his own life before the war: the tiny, windowless apartment he’d shared with his mother, the Irish songs she used to sing before she got sick. The way he’d drifted for a while after her death, unmoored, drinking too much and getting in fights at the slightest provocation. How Bucky had been his friend through all of it, the one constant in his life since childhood. It was more than he’d ever intended to say, to anyone, but Peggy was a good listener.

 

She was a good soldier, too: always first to volunteer for the watch, and never dragged her feet on a long march, despite the disparity in the length of her stride and Steve's.

 

She was making inroads with the other fellows as well. She and Dernier and Jones conversed animatedly in French; it was too fast for Steve to follow more than the occasional phrase, but Peggy was telling some story, possibly about a bicycle, that had the guys in stitches. She beat the collective can off all of them at cards, taking in a king’s ransom in cigarettes, because no one could read her poker face. And when Dugan wordlessly offered her a shot from his hip flask, she tipped it back neat and thanked him politely.


There was still, out of necessity, a certain amount of distance and decorum between her and the men. But slowly, inexorably, every last man of them began to fall a little bit in love with Peggy Carter.

 

And Captain America, as always, was leading the charge.

 

*

 

It was a myth that Steve didn’t need sleep; however, unless he’d been active during the day, he didn’t need much, and his threshold for ‘active’ was a little higher than the average. Unless he was on the verge of exhaustion, he found his thoughts kept him awake.

 

On this particular sleepless night, the second of their long walk, Peggy was standing watch. It was drizzling; the men were asleep, sheltered in a natural break in the earth, heads burrowed into their coats to protect against the damp.

 

Steve spotted her, concealed in the shadow of a large tree, her rifle draped over one arm. The combination of moonlight and mist rendered her in stark monochrome—except for her eyes, two glowing embers in the chiseled alabaster of her face. He wished he could draw her like that; charcoal, of course, and a crisp sheet of paper with some tooth to it.

 

He knew she must have noted his approach, but she remained perfectly still, looking up at the sky, until he was an arm’s length away.

 

“Good morning, Captain.” She took a step towards him, made a show of checking her wristwatch. “Bit early still.”

 

“Thought you might like some company.” He felt ridiculous the second the words were out of his mouth. Company! As if she hadn’t just spent the entire day with the whole gang of them crowding her at every turn!

 

But she just smiled that movie-star smile of hers, and said, “Yes, all right.”

 

They exchanged the usual pleasantries about the weather. She’d done her first drop into France on a night just like this one, she told him. Her chute had gotten tangled in the branches of a tall oak, whereupon her contact had wandered onto the scene and philosophically inquired whether all the trees in the area were growing such lovely fruit. Before cutting herself down, she'd told him quite plainly, in French, that he was full of shit.

 

The reality of war work was never as glamorous as fiction made it seem—but Peggy, with her crisp consonants, husky voice, and perfect red lips, would have been just as captivating a narrator if she’d been reading her grocery list.

 

The conversation meandered a while, and then they were quiet, watching the sky, each projecting their own thoughts onto the blank canvas of mist.

 

“Well?”

 

“Well, what?”

 

Are you going to kiss me? I’ve only been waiting,” she checked her watch, “twenty minutes.”

 

Steve felt a jolt in the pit of his stomach. “I didn’t—realize you were waiting,” he said, feeling slow and stupid.

 

“It did seem like the opportune moment. Do I still make you nervous?” she inquired, sounding amused.

 

Steve blurted out, “I really like you.”

 

Peggy said, “That’s a relief,” and kissed him.

 

Apart from a couple of accidental run-ins, Steve’s only solid intel about kissing involved books and movies. He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d expected to happen when he finally got to kiss someone he genuinely cared for. Fireworks behind his eyes, perhaps, or a feeling of being swept away by a tidal wave of emotion; at the very least, a sort of serene blankness of spirit.

 

None of that happened.

 

Quite the opposite, actually: he felt very aware of his body, his movements—too aware—and his thoughts were racing in every direction.

 

There was a bit of awkwardness, particularly around the placement of noses. Once that was settled, he couldn’t figure out where to put his hands, or if he ought to put them anywhere; he decided that holding her by the waist was probably a safe bet.

 

And then… well, he wasn’t sure. Was he moving his head too much? Not enough? Was his mouth open too wide? What was he supposed to be doing with his tongue? Should he put his arms around her, or was that too much? Did she…

 

She broke the kiss, murmuring, “Careful.”

 

Steve made an interrogative noise.

 

“Not quite so—tight,” she added, slightly out of breath, and he realized that he was squeezing her ribcage with both hands out of sheer nerves.

 

Steve immediately stepped away. “Sorry.”

 

“Don’t worry, I’m not the fine china, I won’t break. Come here.” She snagged him by the hand, and he let himself be reeled in. “I’ve not finished with you yet.”

 

*

 

When it was light enough, Peggy lit a fire, then excused herself. Steve took charge of Peggy’s canteen cup as well as his own, boiling water for each of them.

 

She returned (looking fresh as a daisy, despite the black eye and the sleepless night) just as he was mixing up their coffee. She knelt beside him and accepted the steaming cup, her fingers lingering on his. Steve couldn’t help feeling that it was pretty romantic—like they’d been out on the town all night long, and were sitting down to their first breakfast together. Domestic, almost.

 

As the other fellows began to stir, they picked through their breakfast ration boxes, and negotiated a swap of Steve’s allotment of cigarettes for Peggy’s sugar. It wasn’t a hardship for him, as he didn’t smoke, and usually stockpiled them to trade for more desirable comforts. Word of this habit had apparently already reached Peggy’s ears, as she remarked, “I understand from the men that sweets are your only vice.”

 

“The only one I’ll cop to, anyhow,” Steve replied, with a grin.

 

She nodded approvingly. “I never trust a man who claims not to have guilty pleasures. He almost always does, and they’re usually unpleasant.”

 

“Let’s hear that story, Carter,” called Dugan, voice gritty with sleep.

 

“It’s not suitable for children,” Peggy shot back. To the rest of them, she added, “Come on, gents, time to get a move on.”

 

*

 

Just after nightfall, they reached a farmhouse that was known to harbour soldiers. They were cordially received, particularly by the family’s two teenage girls. Both of them were keen to practice their English on Steve, who amused them in return with his broken French.

 

They ate a sumptuous dinner of bread and cheese, supplied by their hosts, and were shown to their luxury accommodations, a barn with a hayloft. For those who didn’t mind sharing it with the mice, hay was as comfortable a bed as one could hope for, and the animals gave off a rising warmth. They each staked out their own little section of the loft, and gradually the room filled with the drowsy murmur of slow, deep breathing.

 

After Steve’s transformation, what had taken the most getting used to was not how colourful the world was, or how clear, but how loud. He could shut his eyes quickly enough when he felt overwhelmed, but he couldn’t close his ears quite as easily. Even in the quietest room, noises bled in from outside. He’d managed to adjust, eventually, but it did make him a light sleeper.

 

It was a footstep that woke him. Not the creak of an aged beam, or the scraping of a boot-heel against dry wood, but the softest press of bare toes against the floor.

 

He sat up, pulse racing, and saw Peggy pick her way around the others to the ladder. She glanced at him over her shoulder before climbing down, a look as clear as an engraved invitation.

 

After waiting a few minutes, he followed, walking out after her into the moonlight. His heart seemed to be weightless, floating in the cavern of his chest, bouncing a little with every step.

 

As they rounded the far corner of the building, she turned and took hold of his arm, fitting it around her waist and standing on her toes to kiss him. He sank eagerly into the kiss, feeling drunk on it, on her.

 

After a short time, she pulled back, fixing him with a hungry look. She put both hands on his chest and gave him a little push, until his back was flush with the wall of the barn.

 

Steve liked Peggy, and he respected her. He had an idea that there were certain things that most girls didn’t like to do—or, at any rate, had to be persuaded to do, and Steve didn’t hold with putting that kind of pressure on a girl.

 

So he would never have asked—would never have dreamed of suggesting—that Peggy go down on her knees for him. But she backed him against the wall and did exactly that, undoing his trouser buttons with long, nimble fingers.

 

He protested, unconvincingly, that she didn’t have to.

 

“No, I don’t,” she replied, as though this should have been obvious. Resting her chin on his thigh and peering up at him, she prompted, “But you want me to?” As though that wasn’t obvious.

 

He nodded, helplessly. Truth be told, he’d imagined this exact scenario an embarrassing number of times.

 

She smiled, peeling his trousers down over his hips. “All right.”

 

It was all over quickly—a perfect storm of inexperience (his) and consummate skill (hers).

 

Afterwards, she lit her last cigarette, and they passed it back and forth between them, leaning against the side of the barn. Steve had no particular fondness for smoking, but there was something intimate about sharing a cigarette, particularly in that moment.

 

He couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious about not having held out longer—not to mention selfish, having taken his pleasure and given none in return.

 

However, Peggy assured him, with a slightly smudged grin, that she’d enjoyed it as much as he had. “I don’t think any part of sex is inherently degrading,” she observed. “Unless, of course, you’re with someone who finds it exciting to degrade you.”

 

“I would never,” Steve told her earnestly.

 

She let her head fall against his shoulder and said, “I know.”

 

*

 

The cold, hard ground, the gloomy drizzle, and the poor quality of the food had an effect on more than just morale; all of the fellows came down with colds. Dugan’s took the form of a barking cough that rang out like a gunshot; Falsworth lost his voice entirely, and had to resort to whisper-shouting. Jones was asleep on his feet, Morita was constantly wiping his nose (he had resorted to using his sleeve before Peggy loaned him an extra handkerchief), and Dernier was running a fever. Peggy was the only one who didn’t appear to be sick, but Steve wondered if she wasn’t just bearing it in quiet English fortitude.

 

At the next house, an older couple offered them hot soup, and said they could stay in either the attic or the cellar. The cellar was ice-cold, and damp to boot, but the attic would have been a tight squeeze for the whole group. Steve, who wasn’t sick and didn’t feel the cold, volunteered to stay downstairs. The rest of the men looked dolefully at Dugan, who was the largest after Cap, and whose cough had kept them up the past two nights running.

 

“Fine,” Dugan grunted. “Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for ya.”

 

“As much as I appreciate your chivalry, Sergeant,” said Peggy, in a tone that suggested quite the opposite, “I’d rather not catch whatever’s going around. I’m afraid Captain Rogers will just have to put up with my snoring for tonight.”

 

Mercifully, the guys were too tired to make jokes.

 

The farmer’s wife left the cellar door partly open. Steve wasn’t sure if it was to allow them a little fresh air, or to protect Peggy’s virtue; either way, they bedded down in their own separate cots and didn’t talk much, except to say good night, lulled to sleep by their full stomachs.

 

Steve woke in complete darkness to the noise of Peggy’s teeth chattering. Once his eyes had adjusted, he could make out Peggy on her cot, huddled under her blanket in a tight little ball. He could also see his own breath on the air.

 

He took off his jacket, and was about to drape it over her when she whispered, “Stay there, I’m coming,” and tossed her blanket across to him.

 

Steve arranged both blankets over himself, made room for her to crawl underneath. She did, shedding her jacket as she did so. He covered up her shoulders, and she slipped out of her damp shirt, folding herself into his arms in just her brassiere. She had goosebumps all over; he rubbed her bare back and arms with both hands, trying to warm her chilled skin as quickly as he could. She hummed her approval, sliding her arms around him.

 

Darkness and adrenaline made him bolder than usual; he kissed and nuzzled her bare shoulder—then had to muffle a startled laugh against her collarbone as her cold fingers wormed their way up under his t-shirt, tiny icicles playing up and down his spine.

 

“Quiet,” she hissed, her breath tickling his ear. But she was laughing too, silently, shaking with it. He captured her hands and breathed warm air onto them, kissed each of her fingers in turn before releasing them.

 

She kissed him, ferociously, her tongue working his mouth open. Steve returned the kiss with equal enthusiasm, one hand kneading the hard muscle of her thigh. He let her inch the t-shirt up his body, slipping it over his head between kisses. A part of his brain carefully catalogued each new sensation: the bare skin of her belly, warm and smooth against his; the lace of her brassiere against his chest, scratchier than he would have expected; the pleasing sting of her sharp little fingernails.

 

Tentatively, he fitted his hand to her breast, his thumb brushing her nipple through the stiff fabric. She inhaled sharply, and bit his lower lip, as if to keep from crying out.

 

There followed a few hot minutes of frantic kissing, during which Peggy managed to get Steve’s trousers undone and down over his hips, while Steve attempted, without success, to unhook Peggy’s brassiere. Finally, with an impatient huff, she did it for him, shrugging out of it in a single practiced motion.

 

Steve wished he could see her properly, but had to settle for navigating by touch. He explored her with lips and hands; sketching from shoulder to collarbone, tracing the curves of each breast. It had been a few days since he’d last shaved, and he worried about scraping her raw, but she didn’t seem to mind: when his chin grazed the tops of her breasts, she arched her back, clutched at his shoulder, and breathed a sweet little sigh, more arousing than anything he’d ever heard in his life.

 

The other night had been too fast and unexpected for him to be anxious, but now his nerves were hitting him in full force: he felt hard, all over, so tense he was almost trembling, aching for her touch. He wanted her, all of her, in all the ways she would have him.

 

He wasn’t certain how far Peggy expected this to go, but he was prepared to follow her lead. The plain truth was, he couldn’t imagine ever feeling this way about another girl.

 

She slid a hand between them, squeezing him through the cotton of his shorts. “Have you got a johnny?” she breathed.

 

It took a second for his lust-fogged brain to translate: a rubber. He shook his head.

 

He could barely make out her face, but he could practically hear the accusing look she was giving him. “I saw you with the tin,” she said, pulling her hand back.

 

Steve recalled certain vague allusions to the general caddish behaviour of soldiers, and he had a moment of purely possessive rage, wishing he could sock every other man who had ever touched her.

 

“Dernier took the last two I had,” he explained. One of the more common uses of prophylactics in the field was to keep equipment dry and air-tight, which was particularly key in the case of explosives.

 

Peggy exhaled heavily, and cursed, her breath warm against his shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “I wasn’t expecting…”

 

“Of course you weren’t. You were doing your job. You must think I’m very forward,” she added, sounding angry with herself.

 

He touched her cheek, tilted her face up to his. “I think you’re amazing,” he said honestly. “And worth the wait.”

 

She kissed him again, sweet and slow this time, stroking the short hairs at the back of his neck. “Sometimes you’re too good to live.”

 

“I want…”

 

“Tell me.”

 

“I want to touch you,” he said. “Show me how? Please.”

 

Definitely too good to live,” she murmured, taking his hand.

 

*

 

Afterwards, despite a nagging feeling that he was being rude, Steve fell asleep with his head pillowed on Peggy’s breast, listening to her heart beating. The last thing he was conscious of before he drifted off was her fingers, threaded in his hair.

 

It was the most peaceful sleep he’d had in as long as he could remember. Certainly since the serum, and probably since he’d joined the army altogether.

 

He woke to the smell of someone cooking eggs upstairs. The cellar door was closed, the room black as night, and Peggy was gone.

 

*

 

They were close to the line at last, and everyone seemed to perk up a little—except for Peggy, who’d been distant with him since the day before. He wasn’t sure what exactly he could have done, and it wasn’t the time to ask.

 

She had caught the communal cold after all, and was snuffling woefully into her last clean handkerchief.

 

“So it’s true,” said Dugan jovially. “Carter’s a real live girl, and not a fighting machine Stark put together in his lab.”

 

“Was that the prevailing theory?” Peggy inquired in a hoarse rasp.

 

“They’re not accustomed to English women,” retorted Falsworth.

 

Steve gave a chuckle. The rest of the fellows piped up indignantly, to brag about all the gorgeous women of various nationalities that they had known intimately.

 

“I think Cap noticed Carter was a real live girl,” said Morita, grinning. The radio operator had always been the most observant of the group.

 

“I noticed you were a wiseass,” Steve replied, elbowing him. He glanced around, but amid all the chatter he didn’t think anyone else had heard—until he caught Peggy giving him a hard look.

 

Morita saw it too, and glanced at Steve apologetically. Steve felt himself flush, annoyed and embarrassed.

 

He didn’t get a chance to talk to her alone until they were within sight of camp. “Peggy, I didn’t—”

 

She waved him away. “Not now.”

 

“Peggy…”

 

She wheeled on him sharply. “Look here,” she snapped. “I’m tired, and half-frozen, and I’ve dirt between my toes. I want a wash, and a cup of tea, and a cigarette, and a moment to myself. If you start with me now, I will finish it. Do you understand?”

 

Steve swallowed his objections and nodded slowly.

 

Peggy turned on her heel and stalked away.

 

*

 

Bucky was on the mend, and bored silly in the medical tent. Steve played Go Fish with him for a while, and told him about how the mission had gone, omitting any mention of Peggy.

 

Bucky, who was never one to miss a trick, asked, “How’d Carter work out?”

 

“She’s a good shot,” said Steve, studiedly casual. “Any fours?”

 

Bucky flicked a card at him and said, “Any idiot can see you’re sweet on her.”

 

“That explains why you noticed.”

 

“Kiss my ass, Rogers. Sevens?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Bucky drew a card. “Dame like that’s too classy for you, anyway.”

 

“Probably,” said Steve, dismally.

 

*

 

Steve gave it a day before going to see her.

 

He geared up for battle by shaving, combing his hair, and taking a bit of care with his uniform. Not because of what Bucky had said about class, but to allow himself time to think, and give his hands something to do.

 

He found Peggy in the tent that served as her field office. Everything was the same as it had been a week ago: the same maps, the same pushpins, the same piles of papers. But it all seemed smaller, somehow.

 

Despite the head cold, and the fading shiner, Peggy looked like a million bucks: she’d curled her hair, applied a fresh coat to her nails, and had even put on a pair of stockings. And, judging by the set of her shoulders, she was ready for a fight.

 

“Sorry to bother you,” he began.

 

“No bother.” She gathered up a stack of papers and dropped them into a box. “What do you need?”

 

He started to say nothing, to apologize again for wasting her time, but instead he came out with, “To talk to you.”

 

She folded her arms, looking at him expectantly.

 

“I was just wondering what happens now.”

 

“Well, you’ll have your sharpshooter back,” she said briskly, looking past Steve at the map affixed to the wall of the tent.

 

“You know that’s not what I mean,” he said quietly.

 

She nodded. “Well,” she said again. “I suppose it depends. Do you still intend to wait until the war ends to go dancing?”

 

“Not unless you do. Like I said before, I think you’re worth waiting for.”

 

He clasped her fingers, lightly at first, waiting to see if she would pull away. She didn’t.

 

“As I recall,” she said, “that was in reference to something quite different.” It could have been the softness of the lantern-light, but Steve could have sworn he saw a flush of pink appear on her cheekbones.

 

“Not all that different.” Her hand, strong yet elegant, fit naturally in his, like it belonged there. “You can teach me the steps.”

 

“I’m not perfect, Steve.” She said it wearily, with resignation, as though she was answering a question she’d been dreading he would ask. “You can’t go on believing I am, or you’ll be disappointed.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Steve protested. “I don’t think you’re perfect. You have kind of a quick temper, for one thing. You give orders in bed like it’s basic training. And you give people the cold shoulder, instead of telling them what the problem is—I think because you’d rather hurt someone else than be hurt yourself. And I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure you cheat at cards.”

 

Dangerously calm, she asked, “And I’m supposed to be grateful that you still care for me, in spite of all that, is that it?”

 

“No! I—I like you even more because of it.”

 

Peggy gaped at him as though he’d taken leave of his senses entirely.

 

“I know you’re not perfect,” he continued, recklessly taking a step closer. He was almost certain that she wasn’t about to punch him hard enough to stop his heart. “I’m not perfect either. But that doesn’t mean we’re not perfect for each other.”

 

“Did you rehearse that?”

 

“No, ma’am.” Steve couldn’t help sounding pleased with himself. “Came up with it on the spot.”

 

With a slight flutter in her voice, she said, “I think you’d better kiss me now.”

 

He did.