She was dead on her feet the day he came back. Three weeks of a truly horrendous deep cover op had left her exhausted. The jetlag was terrible, and all Peggy wanted was get home, be pulled into one of Angie’s bone-crushing hugs, and pass out in her arms. Tomorrow there’d be a proper hello, with kisses and tangled sheets, and Angie demanding that they stay this way indefinitely, that Peggy never leave again.
She couldn’t make that promise, and Angie knew better than to expect it. She could, however, show Angie just how badly she’d been missed. After a good night’s sleep, and after the briefing Peggy wished desperately could be put off.
Because she rarely got what she wanted in this line of work, Peggy dragged herself into SHIELD headquarters near the crack of dawn, wondering how Angie’s latest audition went. Until she realized that half the office was staring at her, the other half doing a bad job of pretending they weren’t. Eyes narrowed, Peggy searched their faces as she crossed the room. She didn’t look her best, that was a given, but all this open gawking was ridiculous. She was about to snap at whoever caught her eye next, except that person happened to be Chester Phillips in full dress uniform. He was supposed to be overseeing the Washington office, but here he was, standing in front of her office door. And then Howard came dashing up. He too looked like he hadn’t slept in days, yet she’d never seen him more awake.
What he told her, she’d have called it a joke and probably decked him for it if Phillips weren’t there to lend credibility. She might be ready to drop, but Steve Rogers had just woken up from a very long sleep.
The plane was found three days earlier. Howard insisted he would’ve told her immediately, but Phillips refused. She’d have lost focus on the mission, compromised herself and others. Besides, until an hour ago, Captain Rogers had remained in hibernation. Almost as if he’d been waiting for her arrival.
Not nearly as long as she’d waited for his. Over two years.
There was no lie-in with Angie. When Peggy did finally see her, she forgot to ask about that audition.
“So, you gonna have that date?”
Peggy blinked, then stared. They were in the living room, Peggy on her feet while Angie sat perched on the very edge of the couch. She hadn’t moved an inch since Peggy started talking.
“I mean, you have to, right? After that long of a raincheck? You should wear the red dress. He’ll love—”
“I told him about us,” Peggy said, hardly recognizing Angie’s voice. The words made even less sense, but she supposed Angie was in shock. She could relate.
“Oh, How’d that go?”
For reasons Peggy couldn’t fathom, Angie sounded surprised, like she hadn’t expected Peggy to reveal their relationship. “He apologized for his tardiness, then said he was glad I didn’t wait for him. He’s happy for me. For us.”
Angie released an odd half-laugh. “Thought you said he didn’t lie.”
“He doesn’t,” Peggy said, recalling the look on Steve’s face and fighting back tears. It seemed that was all she’d been doing for hours now.
“Well, he’s better than me then. You should go. Is the Stork Club still open? Must be, right? If not, I’m sure Howard could buy it and reopen it.”
“You want me to go on a date with someone else.”
“He’s not ‘someone else,’ he’s Steve. Your Steve.”
“He was never mine, Angie, not really.”
The silence after that stretched too long. “He could be. Now.”
Forcing her knees not to shake as she moved, Peggy crossed the room, kneeling at Angie’s feet. “Stop this,” she said, not as sternly as she’d meant to. “I love you. This doesn’t…” She trailed off, bit her tongue.
Angie’s smile was so sweet and so fragile as she cupped Peggy’s cheek. “Change anything? You know it does, English, but thanks for not lying about it.”
Leaning into the touch, Peggy cursed inwardly as the tears finally came. “I love you. More than I could ever express. You, Angie. Whatever Steve and I had, it’s in the past.”
Angie wiped at the moisture with her thumbs. “Love you too, Peggy. Scares me how much. But you and him, that’s not the past. Not anymore.”
Steve stayed in one of Howard’s penthouse apartments. It shouldn’t have surprised her anymore, the number of spare residences he had scattered throughout the city. It didn’t, really, but she focused on that as she knocked. It was the only way she could keep herself together, focusing on the mundane while her world spun on its axis.
Peggy fidgeted. She never did that, made herself stop. He was taking too long to answer, and it unnerved her. What if he was gone again? What if this was all an incredibly detailed dream from which she would wake momentarily? That would make her sick. It would also simplify things.
The door opened. Suddenly she felt like he’d rushed to it, like she hadn’t had enough time to prepare. Steve was there, within touching distance. This was the first time she’d seen him outside of a SHIELD facility. Surprise turned to happiness on his face, Then his smile dimmed, grew pained. It wasn’t the look she’d always gotten from him, and that hurt. It hurt that she’d never see that look again, except in fleeting moments when he forgot himself. He would be guarded now, she could see it, always watching himself with her. Putting on a performance. She wouldn’t see the real Steve anymore, and damn did it hurt.
He greeted her, invited her in. That too was painful. There were blankets on the floor of the living room, one pillow. Steve’s eyes were horribly bloodshot, with dark circles underneath. He’d looked that way during boot camp, before the serum. Exhausted every day, but still keeping at it. She wanted to touch his cheek, kiss his eye lids, take away the weariness that encompassed every inch of his muscular frame.
She couldn’t do that. Couldn’t think it.
He offered her tea, hands shaking as he made it. It was wretched, but she drank anyway, joining him on the sofa. The record player in the corner played softly.
“Sorry. Tea was never my specialty.”
“It’s all right. I should’ve rang first,”
“You don’t ever have to apologize for seeing me.”
He said it so earnestly, then dropped his eyes. It was so like him and, for the thousandth time in a matter of days, Peggy wanted to cry. “Then I’ll apologize for not doing it sooner.” It wasn’t that they hadn’t talked, just, they hadn’t talked. Nowhere that privacy was assured, where he wasn’t being pulled away for tests and debriefings every other minute. “I wanted to, you must know that.”
“I do, Peggy. It’s okay.”
It wasn’t, but he kept up with that pained smile. Peggy looked away, at the ruffled blankets and pillow on the carpet. “If there’s one thing Howard wouldn’t forget to put in his house, it’s a bed.” She didn’t quite ask him a question. The answer was too plain.
Steve followed her eye line. “Think I’ve had about as much sleep as I can take.”
Obvious, as she’d thought. Then he told her that the bed was too soft, he couldn’t get comfortable even when he did try. Peggy nodded. “I had the same problem. For months.”
Not anymore. She had Angie. Angie, who was sympathetic, but would never understand the way Steve did. Angie, who wanted her to go out on a bloody date, but backed off some when she agreed to visit Steve away from work. “It will get better, Steve. I promise.”
She wanted to wrap her arms around him, make it better herself. Make him understand about Angie, the way he claimed to. He couldn’t though. Couldn’t realize how much Peggy loved her, how desperately.
Old newspapers littered the table in front of them, all the major headlines of the last two years. Peggy scanned them, mostly to give her eyes something to do. Pushing one page aside to examine another, she found something hidden beneath the newsprint. Steve’s compass. It was closed now, but she recognized it from the footage, from the theater. She touched it with the tips of her fingers, blinking hard as she met his eyes. “You still have this?”
“It was with me on the plane. I thought…”
“Please,” she said, and maybe that was cheating, because she knew he’d never deny her anything. “Please tell me.”
Steve tensed. “The water was coming up so fast.”
Peggy swallowed hard. More time. For so long she’d replayed it, thought if they’d just had more time, things would’ve been different.
“I was a terrible swimmer, you know. With the asthma and everything else. And the water was rushing up. I was scared. But I tried looking at your picture instead, pretending the ocean wasn’t there. I thought that if I could just look at you, if you just kept talking…”
Peggy hugged him. Hard, nails scratching against the fabric of his shirt. This close she could feel his breathing, and it roughened hers. She choked back sobs as his arms went around her.
“I’m sorry, Peggy.”
She stroked his hair. Their cheeks touched, tears mingling. “What could you possibly have to be sorry for?”
“I’m hurting you. I never wanted that.”
The bloody fool was apologizing for being alive. For inconveniencing her with his presence. Reluctantly, she pushed away from him, framed his face in her hands. “You will not apologize for coming back. Not ever.”
In different circumstances she would’ve kissed him. She’d certainly pictured it often enough. But then those fantasies that were supposed to be impossible were replaced by Angie. Real, solid Angie who, like Steve, was too good to her. She didn’t deserve either of them.
Steve held perfectly still at her touch. “I’m not trying to ruin anything for you.”
Peggy half-laughed, half-sobbed. “I know that, you idiot. You never could.” He smiled, as if being insulted by her was a high honor. “And what about your life, Steve? You were willing to give it up for everyone else, but what now?”
Very slowly, he leaned into her palm, closed his eyes. “I don’t know.”
She pulled him close again, on instinct. He returned the embrace, clinging to her, rocking them in place. A new song floated from the record player, something by Glenn Miller. Peggy wouldn’t appreciate the irony of that until long after she headed for home.
“I saw Steve.”
“About damn time.”
Angie was a phenomenal actress, but the levity still came off forced as she paged through a script in the library. Peggy stood there, waited, surrounded by some of the greatest words ever written, yet lost for them herself. “Are you going to ask how it went?”
Setting the script aside, Angie offered another soft, sad smile. “I don’t have to. Unless you wanna talk about it.”
If that was a trick question, Peggy was too exhausted for it. “Nothing happened.”
Angie laughed. The sound was only slightly hollow. “I know, Peg. So, how is he?”
“Figured. Struggling too much for a night on the town?”
“You had a date, right? A promise. Everything I know, Steve’s not one for breaking promises, and neither are you. And if I’d lost out on two years of my life, a night with you would be just about the only thing that might cheer me up.”
Peggy remained silent. She couldn’t talk and unravel this at the same time.
“Tell you what, English. I’ll chaperone if that’ll make you feel better.”
“Since you’re being all twitchy about it, yeah. Look, Peg. You owe this to each other. He needs you, and you can’t turn him away. You shouldn’t. Besides, I’ve spent ages hearing about this guy, wishing I coulda known him.”
She had. They’d talked about it. Angie asking what Steve might’ve thought of her, Peggy musing aloud about what it would be like if the two best people in her life had gotten to know each other. It was meant to be idle talk, heartfelt or not.
“Come on, Peggy. I wanna meet the guy in the Cap costume. And you should definitely wear the red dress. You’ll knock him dead in that.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I can. Angie asked you to.”
“Are you implying something, Howard?”
“I don’t imply. I’m stating a fact. That girl’s had you wrapped around her finger since day one. Hand me that, will you?”
He was tinkering with some contraption that would probably blow up at any second. Peggy passed him the wrench he’d asked for, shoving it hard against his chest. He wasn’t wrong, and that was part of her anger. Steve could deny her nothing, and she couldn’t say no to Angie, not when there was a choice. Which was why she was hiding out in Howard’s lab for as long as possible before going home. To get ready. For her ‘date.’
“I don’t know what you’re so upset about,” said Howard, massaging a place on his sternum that would probably bruise.
Peggy gave him a look.
“Okay, scratch that. What I mean is, they’re going to meet eventually no matter what you do, right? Unless you plan on cutting Steve out of your life.”
“Of course not!” She had no right to sound so scandalized, not when she’d put so much effort into avoiding him.
“Well then, they’re going to cross paths. Better to do it now, before the world finds out he’s back and everything gets even crazier.”
Howard was right. She rather hated when that happened. She’d pleaded with countless government higher-ups to give Steve time to adjust, but that time was running out. It would only get harder for him, the boy from Brooklyn who never wanted all the accolades and attention that were heaped on him.
“Do it in a controlled environment,” Howard continued, pulling at a clustered knot of wiring with his bare hands. “Nice quiet restaurant where you can talk a while without getting rushed. Where the booze is top shelf. Tell me where, I’ll open up a tab for you. You look like you could use a drink.”
“Steve can’t get drunk, Howard.”
“You can. Angie definitely can. And I was working on something for him before…before. Shelved it, obviously, but now. Think I can come up with something to test even Steve Rogers’s liver.”
“Splendid.” She was turning to leave when Howard dropped his machine, quite unceremoniously, and brushed her fingers with his.
“Peg? It’s going to be okay. Really. Just keep calm and carry on, to steal a phrase from your hometown.”
Chuckling in spite of her turmoil, Peggy gave him a nod. “Thank you, Howard, for that profound and well thought out advice.”
“No problem, pal,” he said, turning back to his work.
As she exited the lab, Peggy smelled a sudden burst of ozone, then smoke. An alarm went off somewhere. She was too used to this to break her stride, would only do so if Howard started screaming.
She stopped, looking over her shoulder. Howard was expertly wielding a fire extinguisher, shouting to be heard over the noise of the smoke detector. “Howard?”
“Wear the red dress, huh? Whatever happens, it’ll go better in the red dress.”
She wore the damn dress, only because Angie insisted. Angie looked gorgeous as ever, but when Peggy told her so, she gave that odd-half smile and shrugged the words away.
They met at a place that wasn’t the Stork Club. Howard offered to clear out the building for them, but Peggy declined. Steve and Angie, nothing and no one between them, she couldn’t handle that.
The sight of Steve in a suit was almost too much. He’d preceded them there, stood up as they approached. Peggy felt like he was the only one in the room. Yet she was acutely aware of Angie’s presence next to her.
This was a bloody terrible idea.
There was an awkward moment where Steve couldn't decide if he should pull out their chairs. Another when everyone sat down and the waiter commented on Steve’s resemblance to Captain America. He brushed it off, something he wouldn’t be able to do in a few days, when the news broke.
There was a protracted silence after the initial formalities. Steve broke it by telling her she looked beautiful, then looking at Angie with an apology in his eyes. Angie waved it off without an actual gesture. He complimented Angie’s appearance too, blushing furiously.
The drinks came. They sipped as long as they could. Peggy was drinking faster than she meant to. Perhaps she should’ve let Howard open that tab.
“I met you once before. Kind of. Saw one of your USO shows.”
Steve’s laugh almost sounded normal. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.”
Angie chuckled, told him he looked taller up close. Passaic led to a discussion of old neighborhoods, which led to the revelation that some of Angie’s cousins, distant, she stressed, were among the long line of people who used to beat Steve. Peggy nearly spewed bourbon all over her dress when that came to light.
“It was Ralphie, wasn’t it, the guy who started it? He always was a bully, and the other two meatheads just followed his lead. Idiots!”
“It was a long time ago,” said Steve. “They were basically kids, I’m sure they’ve changed for the better.”
“Not really. Marty and Eddie are mooching off my uncle, stealing food from his restaurant. And Ralphie’s dead, the moron. God rest.”
Angie crossed herself, then raised her glass to no one in particular and took a long drink. Steve’s mouth was curving, but he was holding back. Peggy looked at him and shrugged, quite familiar with what he must be feeling. When she smiled fully, he returned it.
Talk of old neighborhoods and old fights got Steve recounting the brawl outside the movie theater, one of many Bucky had to save him from. Steve spoke a bit about his best friend, adding to the stories Peggy had related to Angie. It got difficult quickly, and she had to remind herself how fresh the loss was for him. Angie brought the conversation back to lighter topics, changing direction with her typical ease. She told him what movies he’d missed, the ones worth seeing, told him that she’d wanted to audition to be one of his USO girls, but her mother wouldn’t allow it. Steve said he would’ve been lucky to have her there, but was glad she’d stayed out of danger. Peggy knew he meant it on both counts.
He told Angie stories about Peggy’s Army days, including some she wished he hadn’t. She couldn’t bring herself anywhere close to being mad at him. Peggy told him about her work with Howard before SHIELD was founded, how Angie had saved her skin at the Griffith. Angie reenacted some of her more brilliant lines from that encounter and Steve laughed, really laughed, for the first time since Peggy informed him of Angie’s existence.
When Peggy eventually got a glimpse at the time, she realized they’d been there much longer than she’d thought. A moment after that, Angie declared her need to use the facilities. Peggy rose to follow, stopped by Angie’s hand on her shoulder.
“Uh-uh, Peg. I never believed in that rule about women going to the bathroom in packs. Back in a minute.”
Before the other two could say a thing, Angie had disappeared into the crowd, leaving Steve and Peggy to themselves.
“Is she always like that?” Steve asked after a few moments of silence.
“More often than not.”
Nodding, Steve sipped from his drink. “You should hire her as a part-time interrogator. The way she kept me talking, made me want to…”
“Yes. Rather unnerving, isn’t it?”
“Bet she’d be a real asset to SHIELD.”
“Probably, but I don’t think the rest of my staff could handle her.”
“Probably not. I’m proud of you, Peggy. Founding an entire intelligence operation on your own—”
“Howard did assist. Somewhat.”
“I’m just, I’m really proud of you. For whatever that’s worth.”
“It’s worth everything, Steve. It always will be.”
His hand was on the table. She wanted to take it in hers and not let go. Never let go again. She’d forgotten for a while, a good long while, what a terrible idea this was.
Steve shifted in his seat, rearranging his napkin. “You sure Angie’s okay in there?”
She was losing time again. Angie had been gone too long. Peggy considered going after her, then her eyes fell on the dance floor, the couples holding each other close. “Of course,” she muttered, shaking her head. Steve was confused so she explained, briefly, what was happening.
“You really think she’d hide in a bathroom until we had a dance?”
“And what if we just sat here until closing?”
“Then she’d hide in the bathroom until closing, come out long enough to force the owner to stay open longer, then disappear again until we did what she wanted.”
He seemed more impressed than anything else. It took them another thirty seconds to agree that dancing really was the best option. Just to appease Angie, of course. It was awkward at first, like the beginning of their night. Steve kept worrying about his feet, held her too far from his body, and Peggy let him because looking at him and feeling him would be so, so dangerous.
But then one song ended, and the club’s singer moved into ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ and Peggy wondered if Angie was behind this, because this was the song. The one she’d always pictured them swaying to, if this impossible thing happened. It was a popular tune, probably just coincidence, but if Angie was responsible…
It wasn’t fair, damn it.
She didn’t pay attention to who moved first, closed the distance between them. Probably her, but her eyes were blurry and her mind was worse, so it was hard to tell. Steve relaxed a bit, pulling her near. His hand in hers was so warm. So different from Angie’s but not wrong. “You’re better at this than you think,” she said, almost whispered. She’d been staring resolutely at the line of his jaw, but couldn’t maintain that anymore. She needed to see his eyes, dangerous or not.
“Only because you’re leading.”
For long moments, they just moved. Peggy let herself touch the hair at the back of his neck. She put her ear to his chest, needing to hear the heartbeat there. She was breaking the rules she’d set for herself, which wasn’t surprising. She’d always done that where Steve was concerned.
“She’s…she’s something. Angie.”
“I’ve told her the same about you. Many times.”
Steve chuckled as though that were ridiculous, then tightened his hold on her, just a fraction. “Thank you. For this.”
He should really be thanking Angie, but Peggy couldn’t seem to tell him that. She clutched at his suit jacket. “So what happens after the song ends?”
“You tell me. You’re leading, you always were. And you outrank me.”
Peggy had to concentrate on breathing past the lump in her throat. “I will always be here for you, I promise. You won’t be alone. But I can’t…”
Steve put his head close to her shoulder. She couldn’t see him properly, couldn’t look him in the eye. His breath was close to her ear, his voice thicker than usual. “I’m not asking for anything.”
“Peggy. Please. Let’s just finish the dance. Have to concentrate. Angie would have my head if I stepped on your toes.”
Peggy nodded, still holding tightly to his lapels. Angie would be here soon, and all she wanted to do was fall into her arms. If only she could do that without letting Steve go.
They managed to end things on a light note, somehow. Steve thanked them for a lovely evening, Angie thanked him for saving the world, and if everyone was a little stiff, no one commented on it.
Angie was quiet on the way home, quieter as they entered the house. Peggy wasted time turning on lights that didn’t need turning, straightening up in the living room. Because a quiet Angie usually needed space more than anything else. So Peggy busied herself doing nothing as long as she could. But while she’d lost sense of time at the club, she was very aware of it now, of how long Angie had been gone without giving her any kind of signal.
Unable to sit idle any longer, Peggy climbed the stairs to their room. She found Angie in the en suite bathroom, still fully dressed and leaning against the counter. There was a mirror in front of her, and Peggy approached it slowly, watching her lover’s reflection. “Angie?”
Angie gripped the sink hard enough to turn her knuckles white. Snaking an arm around her waist, Peggy stood behind her, kissing her cheek, her jaw. “Talk to me, love. Please.”
Angie’s swallow was audible in the otherwise silent room. “Went pretty well, didn’t it?”
Angie nodded. Then dropped her head and shook. She held the counter as if her legs were about to give, and Peggy instantly wrapped her in a tighter hold as she sobbed.
“Oh, Angie.” She’d seen Angie cry onstage before, convincingly enough that her chest hurt, even knowing they were crocodile tears. This was different. This was violent and shuddering, Angie fighting to breathe through it. This was nothing Peggy had ever seen. Still holding her up, she kissed Angie’s face again, her hair, wherever she could reach.
“I wanted you to be wrong,” Angie said, gasping for every word. “I knew you weren’t, but I wanted to meet him and see that he wasn’t everything you said. Everything everyone said. But he is. It’s not some pedestal he’s been sitting on since the war, it’s real. He’s real. And I like him, dammit.”
Murmuring nonsense words, Peggy steered Angie into their bedroom, coaxing her to sit on the mattress. Her makeup was running everywhere, but Peggy barely noticed as she took away the moisture with soft hands and gentle kisses. “Listen to me. You and I. That’s real. This,” she kissed Angie softly on the lips, “is real. Steve can never, ever change that.”
Angie’s smile was watery and broken. “But you and him, that’s real too. I saw it, Peg.”
“It may be, but it’s—”
“In the past? Still a no-go, English. If it was, if that’s how you felt about it, you wouldn’t have been so terrified to face him.”
“I was not—”
“You’re a great liar, Peg, but not with me. And not with this. You told me nothing happened. Like I ever thought you’d do that. But clearly you were worried about it.”
Angie shook her head, almost violently. “Just…shut up a minute, English. I need to get through this. You’re afraid of how you feel for him. I know, because you used to get that same look around me. But you shouldn’t be afraid, because there’s nothing wrong with it. And…and if I wasn’t around, you wouldn’t have to eat yourself up over it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t want—”
“What’d I say about interrupting? Look, the whole country knows how it was supposed to go with you two. Fight the good fight, come back, live happily ever after. But it didn’t go that way because of some psycho with a skin problem. It was supposed to, though. And if it had, you woulda married Steve and lived like a couple newlyweds for the rest of your lives, and even if you two happened to stop in the L&L for lunch one day, you never woulda looked twice at me. You’re Captain America’s best girl, Peg, and I’m a wannabe actress. You and I, that only happened because someone screwed up a few pages of the script. Now…now you get a rewrite, and you should take it.”
Peggy was gripping Angie’s hands, had to check her hold so she wouldn’t cause pain. “May I respond?” she asked, with only a slight quiver in her voice. Angie didn’t say yes, but didn’t say no either, and Peggy guessed that was all the permission she’d get. “I write my own damn script, in case you hadn’t noticed. And I hope that what you just said is simply a reaction to this insanity. Because if you truly think of our relationship that way, then I’ve mucked it up terribly, and I’m deeply, deeply sorry. Yes, I loved Steve first, but that doesn’t make you second choice. You’ve never been a replacement or a placeholder for him. I love you for you, for everything you are. And even if things had gone differently with Steve, I would’ve looked at you. I would’ve seen you, like I always have. And I cannot see my life without you in it. I refuse to.”
“I wouldn’t fall off the face of the earth. We were friends before; we could be that way again.”
Angie seemed to be choking on the words, but Peggy was the one with a wretched taste in her mouth. “You expect me to be friendly with you? Carry on as if I’m not totally in love, pretend not to know that you feel the same?”
“Isn’t that what you’re planning to do with Steve?”
Peggy’s breath hitched. It felt like she’d taken an especially hard punch. Meanwhile, Angie wore that sad, knowing, infuriating smile as tears continued to flow.
“I can’t hold you back, Peg. Not when the thing you’ve wanted since before we met is right there.”
“And I can’t hold myself together without you! How can you not see that? Besides, Steve has already stepped away from me. Multiple times.”
“And? You think he wouldn’t step back if I took myself off the floor?”
“He doesn’t want to get between us!”
“I know! I told you, if he did, if he was being a jerk about it like any other guy would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But he’s not, and he loves you. And you love him.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to act on it. He never would, not if it meant hurting me.”
“Yeah. Because not acting on it worked so well for you guys last time.”
Another blow, hard enough to make her chest tight and her eyes sting.
“It’s not a way to live, Peg. Not for you, or Steve, or me. Can you honestly say that you’re gonna stay with me the rest of your life and not wonder what could’ve been with him? Never, not even for a second?”
Peggy looked away.
“See? I can’t be with you, always worrying about which of us you’re thinkin about.”
“So, you want me to leave?” Peggy asked after a silence that threatened to crush her.
“No! I don’t…you’re all I want, the only one I could ever want. But I’m not that for you.”
Angie was sobbing again, almost convulsively. Gathering her into her arms, Peggy laid them both down on the pillows, facing each other. Their heels were still on, dresses wrinkling. Peggy pulled Angie close while the other woman cried into her neck.
“You think I wanna lose you? That thinkin about it doesn’t make me sick? I don’t even know how to breathe without you anymore, but I can’t…what am I supposed to do?”
“Shhh, love,” Peggy murmured, stroking her nails down Angie’s back, dropping butterfly kisses everywhere. “Shhh, my darling. I love you. I love you, darling. So much, Angie. We’ll sort it out, I promise.”
She kept soothing with words and hands until Angie fell asleep. Then she let her own tears fall, silently, wondering how she was going to keep her promises.
To both of the people she loved.
“So instead of fighting over you, they’re arguing over which one should leave you.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Sounds like them,” said Howard, adding something to a large vat and stirring the contents. “That’s what you get when you fall for the noble ones.”
“Indeed. And I suppose I should pursue someone like you instead.”
Howard shrugged. “It’d be much less complicated.”
He had a point, the cad. As Howard’s latest project began to produce a foul smelling steam, Peggy wondered again why she was here. Howard was the very last person she’d generally consult on matters of the heart. She could’ve gone to Jarvis, Anna, perhaps. Except neither of them knew Steve, not yet. Howard, he’d watched her fall in love twice, something that couldn’t be said of anyone else in her life.
Also, he had a way of not paying complete attention to what she was saying, which actually made things easier.
“Impossible choice, huh? You could flip a coin.”
“Oh, sod off.”
Howard didn’t look up from what he was doing. “Or skip the choice altogether.”
Peggy blinked, watching his chemical mixture turn a putrid green. “I don’t follow.”
“Don’t make it a choice if it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes I can’t decide if I want chocolate ice cream or strawberry. They’re both delicious, they’re both right there in the kitchen, so I grab a bit of each. No more agonizing indecision, problem solved.”
She hadn’t slept properly in over a week, so it took Peggy longer than it should have to process his words. “You disgust me,” she said once she had.
“What, you don’t like strawberry?”
Sighing, Howard turned to face her fully. “Let’s look at this logically, okay? You’re crazy for both of them. Both are falling over each other to do the honorable thing, which to them means getting the hell away from you. So where does that leave you? Alone. And Steve, and Angie, alone. Everyone’s sad and miserable, you’re all real buzzkills at parties. The alternative is that you pick one. Which we both know you can’t do, but just for argument’s sake. You’re still left wondering about the road not taken, and whoever you choose will forever think that the other person could’ve done their job better. Again, everyone’s miserable. But if you found a way to have the best of both worlds—”
“I’d be a gluttonous pig, like you with your bloody ice cream.”
“If you’re calling me fat, I thoroughly resent you for it. Seriously, Peg. There are plenty of cultures where people have more than one partner.”
“There are plenty of cultures where people practice cannibalism, but I’ll pass on that as well.”
“Don’t be so British, I thought you were more open-minded than that. Besides, it’s not like the three of you have to crawl in bed together. Though if you did, I wouldn’t mind photographic documentation. Listen!” Howard insisted when Peggy made to leave. “Steve liked her, right? And Angie liked him.”
“Steve likes everyone, he’s too kind for his own good. And Angie’s rather fond of our milkman, but I’ve yet to invite him into any sort of…arrangement.”
“Stop treating this like a joke.”
“How else am I meant to treat it? It’s utterly preposterous.”
“Why, because of all that right partner crap? There are billions of people in the world, Peg. Why’s it so hard to believe that you could want more than one?”
Her eyes were starting to burn. No doubt due to Howard’s concoction. “It’s obscenely selfish.”
“Being in love? For God’s sake, Peggy. You saved the damn world, more times than anyone can count. You deserve whatever you want, whoever you want. I don’t have many real friends, Peg. You three are in that very small group. And if you’re all lovelorn, despondent sad sacks for the rest of your lives, that’ll have a negative effect on me.”
Peggy rolled her eyes. “And what? Steve and Angie are meant to share, make due with half my affections? How is that fair?”
“Because you love them both. With everything you have. I know it and you know it This split you’re talking about, it isn’t there. Do I need to draw you a diagram?”
“What makes you think they’d agree to it?”
“What’s the harm in asking? I can ask, if you like. I’ll draw the diagrams.”
“Steve would have an aneurysm.”
“Nah. That’s pretty much impossible with the serum. But you’re right, it probably never occurred to him that you can fondue with more than one person. Here,” he said, grabbing a beaker from his workstation and dipping it into the vat. “If you do talk to him, give him some of this.”
The stench was worse closer up. “What in God’s name is it?”
“Basically? Jet fuel. Specifically? My home brewed alcohol for Steve. Sorry it took so long.”
“It looks toxic.”
“It’s not. Not to him. Just tell him to add a little soda, maybe chase it down with some lime. After you talk to Angie.”
Eyeing the seemingly poisonous mixture, Peggy decided she’d rather slam back a pitcher of that sludge than present Howard’s ‘solution’ to Angie.
She settled for bourbon when she came home to an empty house later that day. She should’ve stayed at work longer, but wasn’t doing much good there anyway. There was also a sick feeling that if she stayed away too long, she’d find Angie packing her bags, all set with a speech explaining why this was the right thing to do.
That, or the house would be empty for real, Angie’s things already gone.
Small favors, Angie left a note reminding her of the audition she’d gone to. Waiting, Peggy sipped her drink and read the same sentences in the same books half a dozen times, retaining nothing. Held stiff on the couch, her head snapped up embarrassingly fast when she heard Angie step into their home.
It made her heart race in a panicked rhythm to think that this place might not be their home for much longer.
“How was the audition?” she asked the moment Angie was in her sight.
“I’m sure you didn’t. Did they say as much?”
“Didn’t have to, with how quick they threw me off the stage.”
“I’m so sorry, love.”
“Not your fault, English.”
“You’ve been…distracted. Because of me.”
“I’ve been distracted because this world we live in is nuttier than a stale fruitcake. You haven’t done anything wrong, Peg. How many times do I gotta tell you that?”
“Fair question. How many times must I tell you that I want and need you with me?”
“Well, about that…”
Peggy frowned and got to her feet. Angie’s expression was strange and unreadable, even before she dropped her head and began rummaging through her handbag. “What is it?”
Tossing the purse rather carelessly onto a nearby chair, Angie produced a folded bit of paper. “Mr. Fancy was waitin for me outside the theater, with this. Offered me a lift home, but he looked like he’d rather crawl into a six foot hole than look me in the eye, so I didn’t take it. And after seein this, can’t say I blame him.”
Curious and alarmed, Peggy crossed to Angie’s side, brushing a hand along the small of her back and thrilling when the contact wasn’t rebuffed. Her spark of a good mood was forced out the moment she got a look at Angie’s note. Howard’s familiarly messy handwriting was at the top.
Because Peg will probably chicken out, and everything’s better with visual aids. You’re her best girl, Martinelli. Keep it that way.
Below that, he’d drawn a diagram.
He’d drawn the bloody diagram.
“Howard, you meddling, ignorant, arrogant, wanker!” In an uncharacteristic loss of control, Peggy crumpled the message in her hands, knuckles going white. For good measure, she threw it to the carpet.
Angie looked on with raised eyebrows and a smile. A real smile, for the first time in days. “Gee, Peg. Don’t hold back now.”
“Darling, I can explain.”
“I think the picture did most of that. Pretty thorough. But yeah, can’t say I’m not dying to hear your version.”
Peggy faltered. Froze. “Perhaps you’d like some tea first.”
“I’ll pass. Not on some of that, though,” Angie said, nodding to the liquor Peggy hadn’t bothered to put away.
Later, after many stops and starts and a terrible amount of blushing, Peggy finished her explanation, Angie sitting next to her on the sofa. “Say something,” Peggy begged once the silence became too much.
“I’m working on it.”
“Oh.” A pause. “I told him the whole thing was utter madness.”
Peggy didn’t know whether to lean forward or recoil. The tone of that one syllable, it wasn’t what she’d expected. “Oh?”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m not sure you wanna know.”
“I always want to know.”
Angie seemed to consider it, measure her words. “I think Sarah had something like this goin on, back in our Griffith days.”
“Sarah the slut?” That really wasn’t what she’d meant to say, but she was quite thrown off, and it was harder than usual to filter herself.
Angie cast her eyes downward for a moment. “Maybe I shouldn’t have called her that. If she hadn’t stolen my schnapps and hurled it back up when she came to return the empty bottle, I probably wouldn’t have. Anyway. Maybe…maybe the sneak was on to something.”
Peggy wondered briefly if she hadn’t been captured on a mission, if everything leading up to this absurd conversation wasn’t a drug-induced hallucination. “You think this idea has merit?”
Angie threw up her hands rather suddenly, forcing Peggy to scoot back to avoid injury. “I don’t know, Peg! I mean, what if I said yes?”
“I…would you be comfortable with this? I don’t see how that’s possible.”
Worrying her bottom lip, Angie took Peggy’s hand in hers, running circles with her palm. “Can’t say I ever thought about it. But I don’t wanna lose you, Peggy.”
“Darling,” Peggy murmured, using her free hand to stroke Angie’s cheek. “You don’t have to do this to keep me. You don’t have to do anything.”
“I know, English, that’s not what I’m saying.” Angie released a harsh breath, shaking her head in frustration. “I don’t know how to explain this.”
“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”
Angie smiled again, up to her eyes. “I know you wouldn’t leave me. But I’ve never really had all of you, have I? There’s this huge part of who you are that’s only there because of Steve. And I could never really see it, because it wasn’t mine. It was his, and he was gone, and even when you finally let me in, I couldn’t get to it. I saw it the other night, at the club. When you talk to him or look at him, it’s different.”
“Different. Bad different?”
“That’s the thing. It hurt that he could bring out this side of you that I couldn’t, but not in the way I thought it would And it was still you. And I love you.”
“I love you. Madly.”
“Okay, so. Good. We agree on that.”
“Right. And, are you suggesting we ask Steve to agree to…things?”
“I’m suggesting that I love all of you, and you ain’t whole without him. Like it showed in the diagram—”
“Please. Leave the diagram out of it.”
“I feel like I’m asking so much of you, after all you’ve given already.”
“You’re not asking, English, we’re just talking. I got no real idea how this would work, but I’m willing to try.”
Peggy leaned in close, putting her forehead to Angie’s and kissing her soundly. “I adore you. You amaze me. But if we somehow get Steve to wrap his mind around this, whatever this is, and he agrees. If it hurts you in any way—”
“I know, Peg. I’ll tell you.”
“Good,” Peggy said, releasing a breath she didn’t recall holding. “But Steve. How in God’s name am I supposed to explain this to Steve?”
“With help. If you want it. I say we take him out again, he probably needs to get out more. We should wait until after the appetizers, at least. You don’t talk about these things before the stuffed mushrooms show up.”
Peggy would’ve asked when Angie became such an expert on the subject if the phone hadn’t interrupted. Hit with a sudden stab of panic, Peggy dropped a kiss to Angie’s knuckles before standing. She had a hunch, but hoped she was wrong. Crossing to an end table in the corner, Peggy picked up the phone.”
“Peggy? I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have called but…”
“I gave you the number for a reason, Steve. You don’t need to apologize for using it.”
There was a pause on the other line. “Thanks, but you might rethink that in a minute. Howard’s butler, he showed up at the apartment. Left me this…this picture. Of…”
Bugger. She wasn’t wrong. “I know what it is.”
“Oh thank God.”
Indeed. The poor man would’ve swallowed his own tongue if he’d had to explain it. Holding the receiver to her ear, Peggy half-turned to look at Angie. “Perhaps we should…talk?”
“Yeah. Yes. If, you’re okay with that.”
“I…I believe I am.”
Angie stood, kissing Peggy’s shoulder as she walked past. “Guess stuffed mushrooms are out. I think we still have some of that dip Anna brought over. I’ll find the crackers.”