Steve woke on a Sunday.
He waited sixteen days before he asked for the personnel files of everyone he’d worked with during the war. Then, when he realized Cliff’s wasn’t among them, he requested that file specifically. There had been a few puzzled expressions—it seemed not as many remembered the Rocketeer as did Captain America—but the items had been duly compiled and presented to him.
Now, at home with the file, he found he wanted to look, but at the same time he really didn’t.
What had happened to Cliff? The man had been everything a disciplined, dedicated soldier should despise—brash, impetuous and too ready to start a fight—yet Steve had liked him. Cliff was all wrong, but somehow he managed to be wrong in all the ways that came out right.
Steve had felt a kinship there.
He reached for the file, ready to lift the cover and learn what had happened to Cliff and Jenny since he’d gone into the ice . . . then hesitated.
His hand hovered, thumb under the edge of the cover, as the desire to know warred with the finality that knowing would bring.
Sometimes, wondering was easier.
The rebuilding of the rocket had captured Peevy’s focus for several years. The problem he encountered was sustained flight; everything else he could work out easily enough, but keeping the rocket in the air for more than a minute or two without draining the fuel reserves presented a challenge.
The first time he almost-succeeded was in late winter of ’42. He blew up the garden shed and broke three diner windows. Millie wouldn’t look at him for eight weeks, nor speak to him for sixteen more.
Of course by then he’d already put the second together, and that one went rogue all on its own. Later the National Guard (local chapter; three men in their sixties with soft bellies, hard heads and one rusty pistol between them) would solemnly agree it was a Mighty Fine Thing nobody had been around. Eyewitness accounts were sketchy but consisted mainly of “sparks,” “some kind of engine” and “made a crater big enough to lay in a swimming pool.”
Millie, who had no plans to put in a swimming pool, pulled Cliff aside that afternoon and said so help her God, she’d break Peevy’s neck if Cliff didn’t put a stop to it all before Sunday.
“All right, Millie,” he said, “all right. I’ll—I’ll talk to him.”
“You’ll put the fear of God into him is what you’ll do,” Millie warned. “Or I’ll send him right on up there to get the message in person.”
Which was how Cliff came to be standing over a giant, smoking hole in a field, Peevy at his side, saying “—and don’t think she won’t do it, Peev,” just as a long, dark car turned down the road and came to a strangely silent stop.
“Who’s this, now?” Peevy wondered.
“Damned if I know.” Cliff shifted his feet uncertainly. “Nice car, though.”
“Real nice car,” Peevy agreed. “Hughes, maybe?”
“No, I don’t think . . .”
And sure enough, the door of the car opened to allow a man in a suit with a politician’s smile to alight. Behind him, looking awkward and uncertain, was a tall, blonde man of such perfect physical proportions, he was difficult to ignore. Cliff had to, though, when the man with the smile cleared his throat and held out a hand for shaking. Cliff shook it, awkwardly.
“Mr. Secord,” said the man. “I’m Senator Brandt. This is Captain Steven Rogers. I believe we may have a business proposition for you, if you’re interested.”
Cliff looked from the suited, smiling man to the tall one at his side, a man of such height, breadth and shining perfection it was a little like staring at the sun—uncomfortable to prolong for more than a moment or two.
Cliff wasn’t given to sober reflection at the best of times, and faced with a gem of a car, a too-smiley enigma of a man and his godlike companion, Cliff was unable to muster even the appearance of hesitation.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m listening.”
They wanted the rocket rebuilt.
Not truly rebuilt—which Peevy had unblushingly said was impossible, though Cliff knew Peevy was getting closer by the day—but rebuilt just enough to, as the Senator put it, “give folks a real fine show.”
“It's for a bit they've worked out," Cliff told Jenny that weekend. "Brandt says if Peevy can get the rocket back up to snuff, at least enough for short flights, they’d like me to do guest spots with Captain America. He’s going to be touring the area around here, in between making a few movies and things like that. They thought I’d bring in an even bigger crowd. Folks around here still remember the Rocketeer, after all.”
“It didn’t even cross your mind to ask me first?” Jenny said. She heard her voice tremble and hated it, but there wasn’t much help for that.
“Ask you? Jen, it’s the war effort! I mean, we’re talking about helping the whole country! You’re gonna say no to that?”
“I didn’t mean ask my permission. I meant . . . last time, it went all wrong.” She wrapped her hands around her arms and shivered. “I guess I’d thought you’d remember that long enough to check with me if it was going to be okay. If I was going to be okay.”
“If you’re—why?” Cliff asked, confused. “You’re okay. Aren’t you?”
Jenny only shook her head. If he didn’t see it, she wasn’t going to say.
“Just be careful,” she said. “Please?”
“Sure,” he promised. “I mean hell, Jenny, I’m working with an actual national hero! It’ll be great. You’ll see.”
Jenny liked Captain America almost immediately. It was impossible not to. He was beautiful, courteous and so breathtakingly sincere that it almost made her teeth hurt. On top of that, when he learned from Cliff that she was an actress, he’d insisted the director find work for her in all of the Captain America pictures.
“It’s the least I can do,” he explained earnestly. “I mean, given that I’m taking up so much of Cliff’s time with the shows. What kind of parts do you play, Miss Blake?”
So Jenny told him, Steve took that information back to the director, and suddenly Jenny wasn’t just working, she was working regularly. She had lines, she had parts that counted, and she began to make a name for herself on her own account.
Out of gratitude, she went to watch Cliff and Steve put on their show. It was a little hokey, but as a stage piece it was pitch-perfect. The audience loved it, and Jenny found, as long as it meant Cliff was enjoying himself and relatively out of harm’s way, she was able to love it, too.
Then Steve went overseas, Peevy perfected the long-haul option on his latest model of the rocket, and as Jenny would put it afterward, things suddenly got far too real.
The Army soon discovered that a flying, rocket-propelled man made an infuriatingly easy target for German snipers. After the mission during which they discovered it—the details of which Cliff vowed he’d keep secret from Jenny for all time—he was ordered to return home until some sort of stealth option could be built into the rocket. They promised to call if they needed him again, but Cliff wasn’t holding his breath.
Steve was going home too, albeit briefly, and as they waited for transport out, the Captain tossed Cliff a considering look.
“Do you regret starting up again?” he wondered. “With your flying, I mean.”
“Sure. Sort of. I didn't before, when it was just movies and stage tours, but now, yeah.”
“The danger of it?”
“Yeah. No. I mean, not to me. I never much minded about my own neck. But what it could mean for Jenny . . . I hate that. I think she hates it, too. Wasn’t even all that thrilled when we were doing a bunch of display pieces back home, but now that she knows it’s for real, she’s kind of pissed at me, actually.”
Steve nodded. A thought struck him.
“Say,” he said, “I know somebody who might like to meet her.”
As ideas went, it wasn't Steve's best.
Steve would say for ages afterward that their dinner date couldn’t possibly have gone worse. Cliff disagreed; he said there was probably a way, he just couldn’t think what it was.
“My imagination’s not that great,” he admitted.
Jenny reached the restaurant almost half an hour after everyone else; her audition had taken longer than she’d expected, and she explained as much as she seated herself. Peggy met the late arrival with a chilly nod and the rejoinder, “so, you’re an actress,” and the evening had gone steadily downhill from there.
At first Steve and Cliff tried to launch the conversation, then they struggled to steer it, and finally, toward the end of the night when Jenny, tested beyond endurance, made a snippy remark about Peggy’s choice of profession being remarkably unfeminine for a woman of her nationality (“Aren’t the British supposed to be the bastion of propriety against our American hedonism?”) it took their every ounce of courage not to hit the deck and wait for the crossfire to cease.
“Come now, Miss Blake, surely your career cannot be the sum of your ambition. Have you never considered doing something useful with your time?”
“Have you never considered being passably civil to persons you’ve only just met?”
“Of course not. I’m in the Army.”
Dinner ended abruptly and without ceremony when Jenny flung her napkin down on the table and stormed out. Cliff mumbled his good evenings and hurried after her. Steve looked around in bewilderment, as if seeking an explanation for what the hell just happened, here?
Peggy continued to eat.
“If I never see that woman again,” Jenny stormed at Cliff that night, “it will be too soon!”
“Sure,” Cliff said, “sure, Jenny, there’s no need for you to—I mean, you don’t ever have to see her again. I promise.”
Nor did she.
Until three nights later, when Peggy came to the boarding house.
Peggy did not announce her arrival with a fusillade of knocking, as Cliff did his. Just as well, since it was half-past one in the morning, and knocking would have drawn far too much attention. Instead, she shinned up the drainpipe, popped the latch on the window and slipped over the sill as silent as a shadow.
Jenny’s first clue that anybody had entered her room was the light touch on her shoulder, followed almost instantly by a firm, cold hand over her mouth.
The hand muffled her scream, but it couldn’t dampen her terror. That abated only when Peggy put the light on and Jenny registered the identity of her attacker in the same moment that Peggy saw the full force of Jenny’s panic writ across her face.
“Peggy,” Jenny gasped.
Peggy lifted her hand and said “Jenny, I’m sorry. I’d no idea.”
“What,” Jenny hissed, “that I would be startled by your entering my room in the dead of night, unannounced? Yes, who could have guessed!”
“No,” Peggy said gently. “I mean, I’d no idea this would provoke a . . . reaction. A memory?” she paused delicately, then shook her head. “If I’d known, I’d have found another way to reach you.”
Somewhere, in the back of her mind, Jenny registered this confirmation that she was right: Neville had left some kind of deep and permanent mark on her, visible to all who were able to see it. Whoever those were. Not Cliff, obviously, but Peggy, and probably others, too.
Then she realized Peggy was still speaking.
“. . . and I can do a passable American accent, but they’re worried he knows my face already. We’ve no time to get somebody in who’s actually trained for it, and I would be right outside the whole time talking you through, so if you’re agreed, we would be grateful for your help on this.”
Peggy needed her help. Well, Peggy’s bosses, but Peggy was asking for help. With . . . war things. Secret things. The sort of things Cliff was involved with, sometimes, but was careful not to tell her too much about, to her ever-growing ire.
“Why me?” she asked, and even if the lamp hadn’t been on, there’d have been no missing the way Peggy’s lips twisted in self-deprecating amusement.
“Because,” she said, “we need a good actress.”
“Let me get dressed.”
Jenny was flawless.
She gained entry to the crucial depot with a combination of tears, feigned hysterics, and a story delivered so expertly that Peggy, listening in, half believed it herself even though the majority of it was her own creation.
That night, when everything went south, it had nothing to do with Jenny’s acting. The cause of their failure and the near-disaster that followed was somebody much higher up and farther away, who had sold over to the other side and sent the information on ahead long before Jenny had even been recruited. Of course, it still meant she wound up staring down the barrel of a gun for the second time in her life, and found she hated the experience as much as she had the first.
Then, after Peggy's team had breached the walls of the warehouse, when Jenny found her back once again pressed to the chest of a man ready to use her as a shield to get himself out of a messy firefight, Peggy took aim as Cliff had not dared to, and fired.
Peggy’s aim was flawless.
Jenny, abruptly freed, her captor's body still warm and bleeding on the floor behind her, found she’d never imagined Peggy’s aim could be otherwise.
“Quite all right?” she asked Jenny briskly, hustling her into a waiting car and driving her away from what promised to be a long clean-up and even longer debrief as a collection of agents tried to piece together what was left of the warehouse and work out exactly who to blame.
“Y-yes,” Jenny said, then swallowed. “You . . . were wonderful, back there.”
“Mm,” Peggy took the praise in stride. She spared Jenny a sideways glance, a sort of reappraising, measuring-up stare, then looked back to the road. “If I may say, so were you.”
Jenny was stunned into silence for the rest of the drive home.
Peggy asked for her help a year later, on another mission.
Jenny politely declined.
Peggy kept their date at the Stork Club.
Steve did not.
Peggy was on her third gin and preparing for her first cry when the door opened to admit a tall, broad-shouldered man with an aggressive chin and a solemn, petite brunette on his arm. They crossed to stand at her elbow and traded glances, as if trying to work out who should speak first.
“Peggy,” said Cliff, then stopped. He ran a hand through the hair at the back of his head. Peggy gave the pair a bleak, desolate smile.
“Come to cheer the war widow who never got to be?” she said. Her accompanying laugh was mirthless.
Jenny made a small motion to the bartender; Cliff didn’t catch what she said, but the man himself must have, as he brought a cup of tea.
Jenny pushed it across the counter to the other woman. She settled herself on the stool at Peggy’s side.
“I am sorry,” she said. “He was a good man.”
Peggy broke down, her grief ugly in the celebratory flush of the crowd around them. Jenny didn’t hesitate; she pulled Peggy’s head down to her shoulder, and rocked gently side to side.
“I am sorry,” she said, her reading of the accepted script no less genuine for its having been prepared by decades of social convention before her. “Peggy. Peggy, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Cliff did not die in the war, but he came too close to it too many times. He never told Jenny half the details. She knew that, hated it, and it was the cause of most of their fights during those years. One particularly ugly argument blew up shortly after V-Day, when Peggy was in town.
Following the end of the War, Peggy had been assigned to interrogate agents apprehended by Eddie Valentine’s men. The mobster’s goons fancied themselves a disturbing type of vigilante war ally, and if they hadn’t been so terrifyingly good at the job, tying up the various loose ends inevitably left behind in the wake of wartime chaos, Peggy might have run them in as well. Instead she merely told them they had done a fine job, and resolved to set a closer watch on them in the future. Eventually they’d end up recruited or indicted; she was curious to learn which outcome would be preferable.
Her assignment completed, she arranged to collect Cliff and Jenny and take them to supper, only to discover Cliff had been sent away that afternoon, tying up some loose ends of his own. She found Jenny waiting, alone and furious.
It took only three minutes of gentle questioning to determine Cliff was the cause of her fury, and that they’d fought just before he left.
“It scares me, all right?” Jenny's temper flared, the strain of almost knowing having pushed her beyond what she could bear. “All of it. Where he goes, what he does, the risks he takes . . . and then he comes home and has the nerve to try to protect me from it! As though he forgets I've been there from the start. I'm scared he'll die, and I'm scared I'll be the last to know.”
Peggy pursed her lips, considering.
“It's all right for you,” Jenny muttered, groping for her handkerchief. “You're trained to this. You've never been shy of pointing that out to me. I'm only an actress, I know, but . . . but he matters.”
“Not to them, he doesn't,” Peggy said brusquely.
“I know, but—”
“No,” said Peggy, and somehow this time her cruelty was almost a tenderness, “you don't.” She flipped a neatly folded white cotton square from the sleeve of her coat, and held it out to the other woman. “You are not able to know, and I have mocked you for that, for which unkindness I apologize. When I say he does not matter, I mean to say that is all the more reason he should matter to you. To them he has only ever been a number on a duty roster, a body in a van, and, though we hope not, perhaps someday yet a corpse on the field.”
Jenny bent over the handkerchief with a soft shriek of agony, but Peggy pressed on.
“That is why he must matter to you. Because he matters so little to those who control his fate. And one day, no matter what agonies he has caused you in this life, you will offer anything you hold dear in a bargain to delay his passage into the next.”
She smoothed her palm over a wrinkle that did not exist, as though feeling the fabric and promises worn on a lost day.
“This I know.”
Cliff and Jenny married in spring of ’46. Peevy stood for Cliff, and Irma attended Jenny.
Peggy watched the simple, garden ceremony from a ridge above the valley with her eyes trained through field glasses and the best sniper she could find on American soil stationed at her back.
She and Steve hadn’t gotten their day, but she’d be damned before she did anything but her utmost to ensure Cliff and Jenny got theirs.
Cliff said “I do” and Jenny, the sun in her face and stars in her eyes, whispered the words back to him.
Then the tall, broad-shouldered man bent to kiss a woman of half his size and ten times his strength, and Peggy Carter’s lenses fogged over with tears.
Cliff was grounded in ‘47. A routine physical had turned up some issues with his lungs and heart that prompted the Army doctor to advise against “abrupt changes in altitude and any undue heroics.”
Peevy, on hearing this, promptly destroyed the rocket and (he claimed) all papers that would have allowed its rebuilding. He said if Cliff wasn’t going to fly it, then nobody was.
Cliff took the news hard. Jenny was wracked with guilt that she did not.
I should be more upset, shouldn’t I? she wrote to Peggy that fall. I’m a terrible wife. He’s lost something he loves, and of course I hate that, but I can’t tell you how grateful I am to know he’s got a much better chance of coming home to me each day. Is it awful of me to prefer that he walk through the door miserable than not walk through the door at all?
Peggy’s reply, via telegram, was economical to the extreme.
Commit nothing to paper you would not wish seen by your own worst enemy—or his.
It was followed two days later by a second.
Courage. You are better than he deserves. He knows it. This will pass.
Jenny kept both papers until they fell apart with age.
At Jenny’s suggestion, Cliff took their savings and opened a flying school.
It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was as close as he could get. Plus the security, the safety it meant for him, made Jenny happy.
That was enough.
“A baby?” Peggy was sufficiently versed in the social mores and protocols of her day to understand there was only one suitable rejoinder to such news. “Congratulations!”
Jenny, pale and wan, smiled down the wire.
“Thank you. Of course it will be some time yet, but we thought a few close friends should know. When it’s time . . . do you think you could make the trip? I’m sorry, I know it’s very far to come.”
Jenny often paired her requests with some form of apology for making them. Peggy prided herself on never having done so. She felt they could cancel each other out, that way.
“I will see what I can do,” she promised.
Two months later, Peggy again gave the suitable, social rejoinder to shared news. This time, her words were genuine.
“I’m sorry. Jenny, truly, I am sorry.” She shut her eyes and heard grief across the water. She spoke the words again, a heartfelt condolence for the loss of a longed-for thing.
“I am so very sorry.”
There was no more news of that kind for Cliff and Jenny.
At least, none that they shared.
Unexpectedly, Christmas of ’53 found the three of them reunited. Peggy had landed in New York on a diplomatic assignment of some importance, and her shock at seeing Jenny and Cliff in the terminal had been genuine. So was her expression of joy.
“But what are you doing here?” she wondered, after the initial round of greetings.
“Jenny’s doing press,” Cliff said proudly, the words sounding almost natural on his lips. “She’s got a role on a television program; don’t know if you’d have it across the water, but it’s doing real well here. They’ve asked her to do some interviews.”
Peggy offered her congratulations, and invited them both to join her at the Plaza for drinks.
The place was done up for the season, a crop of scarlet poinsettias on nearly every flat surface and fir garlands trimming the remainder of suitable alcoves. Peggy wore red, because she felt the occasion called for it, and they met at a table in Palm Court like the old friends they were surprised they’d become.
Jenny was bubbling with news of her show, and Peggy listened with interest that was the closest thing to genuine. She still had little esteem for the profession, but she held Jenny in warm regard, and that helped enormously when it came to making noises of admiration and approbation—or so she’d always found.
Near the end of their evening, Cliff excused himself from the table and left the two women alone. Jenny leaned across the table, impulsively, and put her hand over Peggy’s.
“Thank you,” she said. Her cheeks were rosy with the afterglow of her wine and her eyes shone with an easy joy Peggy had never shared, but often coveted. “This has been more wonderful than I ever could have imagined.”
“It’s only drinks, Jenny!” Peggy declaimed. Jenny shook her head.
“No, I don’t only mean the drinks. I mean, all of it. Ten years of . . . well, of whatever this has been. The past decade would’ve been a damn sight worse without you in it, so thank you.”
Peggy, genuinely taken aback, shook her head and admonished Jenny not to be foolish.
“What else could I have done?” she asked. Jenny looked surprised.
“Well . . . anything else. Why this? I mean really, Peggy, after the war, why . . . why would you bother with us, anyway? I’ve often wondered.”
So had Peggy. That was the thing: she really didn’t know.
Every letter they’d exchanged, every overseas telephone call she had placed and received with a maximum of difficulty and a minimum of clarity, she had wondered why she bothered. They were good people, the Secords, but in truth she had so little in common with them that the friendship didn’t make much sense.
She didn’t stay in touch because Steve would have wanted it; Peggy never ordered her life around the whims and desires of others, not even Captain Bloody America, thank you very much, so it wasn’t out of any notion of honor to his memory. Now Jenny was sitting across from her, and Peggy thought yet again what a ridiculously soft, kind person she was, compared to Peggy herself. Yet she was also a woman with a core of steel, partnered to a man who valued the bedrock heart of her as much as he did any other part.
Peggy considered the question for the final time, before she put it to rest at last with her reply.
“I suppose,” she said, “it’s my way of staying alive.”
Of seeing what I could have had, if things had gone a different way.
Jenny’s smile grew quieter. She squeezed Peggy’s hand.
“Well then,” she said, “if that’s what these ten years have been, I am especially glad they happened.”
Peggy smiled, nodded, and downed the remainder of her drink.
So am I.
Peggy found herself Stateside several times during the sixties due to a combination of professional assignments and personal calls. Howard Stark received her less frequently than he used to, but she filled that gap in her already sparse social calendar with additional visits to the Secord bungalow.
When Jenny announced that she was taking semi-retirement from acting, Peggy’s expression of dismay was wholly genuine—to their mutual surprise.
“Don’t mistake me,” Peggy added crisply, “I think it was a criminal waste of your talents. You could have done something really significant with that ability; something to help your country, not only your studio. But even so. You were very good.”
Jenny laughed, really laughed, her hand over her mouth and her head thrown back as they rocked together on the front porch swing.
“Oh,” she gasped, “I’m sorry, only I was remembering the night we met, and you said almost the same things and I hated you for it . . . but now you’re saying them again, and somehow it only makes me love you, because . . . well, then I thought you meant them. Now I know you do . . . and that makes it all right. Isn’t that strange?”
“A little,” Peggy smiled. “But somehow, also, not.”
And she laughed, too.
Cliff had been supportive as well, but not that way. He said he only wanted this if Jenny did too, and he didn’t like to think she was giving up on something she truly enjoyed.
“That’s just it,” she explained. “I don’t really enjoy it now. I used to love it, but the industry’s changed so much that it’s not what I want anymore. And we’re comfortable, aren’t we? We can settle with what we have. I think, for now, I just need a break.”
That much, at least, Cliff could understand. They settled down to enjoy their break together, and Jenny would always say from that point on, she had never been happier.
Cliff died in ’78.
Jenny was with him when he collapsed in the yard, the lawnmower sputtering angrily away, and she rode with him all the way to Mercy General. She waited by his side until they called his time of death. Then she called Peggy.
“I know it’s very far to ask you to travel,” she began. Peggy interrupted, without apology.
“Don’t be absurd. I’ll be there by morning.”
And she was.
“The doctor had warned him about his heart. Not just that first time, when he had to give up the rocket, but more recently too,” Jenny explained. They sat together over two cooling cups of tea in the Secord kitchen, a cheery, avocado-green testimony to the success of Cliff’s flying school and Jenny’s judicious investments of the money she’d earned when her various TV series had been at the zenith of their popularity.
“I don’t suppose,” said Peggy, “Cliff took the warning to heart.”
Jenny smiled, then bent over and sobbed.
“God, Peg,” she wept, “oh God, it’s too soon. I don’t know . . . I don’t know how I’ll go on.”
Peggy considered, then rejected, the first three things she had thought to say. The fourth she modified twice before she spoke the words to the air.
“You will go on because it would be the height of idiocy to do otherwise.”
It wasn’t the gentlest sort of condolence call, but then, that was why Jenny had asked Peggy to make it. Because Peggy understood “too soon” and Peggy knew what it meant to go on anyway.
Most of all, Peggy could be relied upon to remind her of that.
“I know you probably have a whole other life overseas,” Jenny began, and again, Peggy interrupted her.
“It will keep. I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
And she did.
Steve still hesitated.
He lifted the cover slightly, then shook his head, as if clearing it of a clinging dream, and let the folder fall shut.