It starts with the coffee.
The waitress who sets the cup and saucer down by Peggy’s elbow has soft blonde curls and an extraordinarily expressive mouth.
“I didn’t order this,” Peggy says.
The waitress wipes her hands on her apron and smiles. “It’s on the house. I’ll be honest, sugar, you look like you need it.”
“Do I look that dreadful?”
“Dreadful? Now, I didn’t say that.” The waitress reaches out, and Peggy notes her confident, firm grip as they shake hands. “I’m Angie. I’ve seen you come in a few times. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Originally from England, yes, you’re very observant." As the words leave her mouth, she regrets the brusque tone.
Angie leans back. “Sorry, didn't mean to pry.”
Before she can turn away, Peggy reaches out and clasps her hand around Angie’s wrist, fine-boned and delicate. She brushes her thumb over the quickening thrum of her pulse.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Angie,” she says, and watches Angie’s expression soften into an indulgent smile. “Thank you for the coffee.”
(Peggy thanks her again when she comes into the diner the next day – but she doesn't feel like she’s truly earned Angie’s hospitality until she’s leaning into the robust side of the exceedingly rude man who has unfailingly spent each morning making the diner staff miserable; she pushes the fork tines into his flank and relishes the panicked hitch of his breath.
There are several more complimentary cups of coffee, after that.)
What most people who cross Peggy come to learn is that there is violence inside of her, something nasty and brutal that bares its teeth like a cornered animal. She has become ruthless out of necessity, because there is always a threat. So when the newspaper headlines screamed of war and death, she strode headlong into the fray.
Peggy excels at intimidation, at powerful displays of carefully controlled rage. But she is still new to the pungent presence of loss. To the slick, copper taste of vulnerability, bulging like a blood clot in her mouth.
There has always been a steady beat inside of her, a voice that exclaimed I am, I am, the way that waves crash over a coast. She has always wanted the world to understand that she is there, that she exists, and that she will take what she deserves without hesitation.
Angie makes her pause, and that is the most alien sensation of all.
They develop a dynamic, a delicate balance of quips and sarcasm, bits of gossip traded over a single steaming mug on Peggy’s side of the table.
Angie is kind, and generous, and has no business in Peggy’s world of espionage and death. Peggy carries a loaded gun in her handbag, next to her compact and lipstick, and she wears guilt strung around her neck, an ever-tightening noose. She has always known that she was not destined for greatness so much as service of the greater good. She has grown accustomed to sacrifice.
And yet —
(“I’m afraid I wouldn’t make a very good neighbor,” Peggy says, and Angie’s disappointment is a chasm opening up between them. Peggy hardens her heart toward it as much as she can bear.
Colleen’s obituary stares up at her from the counter, accusatory, a blade pushing through an old wound.)
Peggy has become quite adept at hiding her grief. Even those brief, stolen moments in the SSR evidence room with Steve’s photograph are strategically planned and carefully meted out.
Some see her as a silly girl with a silly crush on the great American hero; to the more charitable agents, she is a glorified secretary who may have once been involved with Steve Rogers, but, like so many other things in the wake of his death, has simply been forgotten.
(In truth, she can easily recall the stammering, blushing mess of a boy who sat beside her in the backseat and pointed out, with alarming nonchalance, each alleyway and parking lot in which he had once been knocked down. She remembers the intonation of his final words, each crackle of static over the radio. She dreams about the waver of his last unfinished sentence, hanging in the dead air.)
She mourns privately, in her own way. She walks through alleys and presses her palms to the bricks of the buildings on either side, soothed by the rough stone walls. She’ll play a lively dance tune on the radio sometimes, when she is alone and the apartment is quiet and dark, and she can no longer bear the typhoon of silence in her ears.
She sees him in Angie, sometimes. In the way she squares her jaw before stepping out of the kitchen, cool and proud. That crease in her brow during long shifts, the way she ducks her head when she sighs, out of exasperation or exhaustion.
“You remind me of someone,” Peggy says one day, during a quiet lull at the diner. Angie’s feet are crossed at the ankles, long legs stretched into Peggy’s side of the booth, the side of one shoe tapping at Peggy’s calf.
“Oh yeah?” Angie leans in, chin propped on her hands. “Like a movie star?”
Peggy swallows a laugh as the memory of propaganda reels flashes through her mind. “Yes, that must be it.”
Angie grins and shakes her head. “You flatter me, English.”
“Not nearly enough,” Peggy says, and promptly buries her face in her scalding coffee.
Angie’s laugh is melodic and wonderful, and it hurts more than Peggy would have imagined possible.
Some nights Peggy startles awake with the taste of a knife on her lips, teeth aching from the tight set of her jaw.
These are the nights when the darkness is brittle and her breath comes quick and sharp, and there is nothing she can do to calm the cresting tide inside of her. These are the nights when she flips her palms up, tracks the flow of veins in her wrists, the deep curve of her heart line, and thinks about what her hands are capable of.
(Her lips are a bloody shoreline, and, somewhere beneath the metallic sting, she thinks she might even taste regret.)
“I served in the army, you know,” she says one day, perched on a stool with a drink in her hand that is far more bourbon than coffee. She has no idea what possesses her to admit it; perhaps it is just Angie’s way of chipping away at her resolve to keep her distance.
“I know,” Angie says, wiping at sticky spots with a rag that has seen far better days.
Peggy arches her brows in surprise. “You do?”
Angie seems to fold in on herself for a moment, uncharacteristically timid. “Yeah. I had a brother in the Air Force. He’s long gone now, took off for the coast to chase down an old flame, but…” She takes a deep breath. She clenches the rag in her hands to stop them from trembling. “He was different when he came back.”
The silence between them is taut and nothing short of uncomfortable.
Angie is the one to snap. “You see things that nobody should ever see,” she says, finally, words tumbling out in a rush. “You do things – sometimes you do terrible things.”
Peggy takes a long, deep swallow from her cup. “Yes,” she says carefully. “I suppose you do.”
Angie squares her shoulders and stares hard at her. “You’re a good person, English,” she says, and her eyes are burning bright and fierce and Peggy is nothing short of mesmerized. “You hear me? Whatever you’ve done, I can tell you feel like you owe somebody something. You don’t. You’re a good person. I can tell.”
She goes back to wiping the counter, and after a few more moments of tense silence, starts to quietly hum a familiar song.
For the first time in quite a while, Peggy is entirely lost for words.
Peggy is not a sentimental sod by any stretch of the phrase. But on rare nights, she falls asleep thinking about the stars, out of reach beyond the smog of the city, rolling thick and putrid over the liquid darkness of the sky. She thinks about how big it is, how infinite, and when she is feeling particularly maudlin, she compares it to the emptiness that pangs, on occasion, somewhere below her throat.
Then she thinks about what Angie said to her, words curling like smoke on a breeze, filtering through her and filling her with warmth.
These are the nights when the moonlight slants across her sternum and she taps two fingers on her chest, center mass, and reminds herself that there is always something worth fighting for.