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Coming in from the Cold

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Peggy had only lived in L.A. for three years, and so she found it interesting how much longer it had taken her to get used to having snow again, compared to how quickly she'd adjusted to not having it. Somehow it still seemed to come as a shock to her each year, how quickly the seasons seemed to turn, bringing a rush of color to the leaves of the trees in their Long Island neighborhood, followed almost overnight (it seemed) by winter-dead branches and wet snowflakes trickling down from leaden skies.

She and Daniel had moved from L.A. to D.C., and now, just a year ago, back to New York, as if they were coming full circle, back to the place where they'd originally met. SHIELD was trading its cramped D.C. headquarters for a new facility in Manhattan. The old D.C. facility would keep the science division, while the new building would get SHIELD's intelligence analysis branch and division head offices.

The new facility was located in an office building that SHIELD had acquired in its entirety -- riddled with substandard wiring, desperately in need of remodeling, and therefore prime to be snapped up by a freelance spy agency funded by a restless multimillionaire. The remodeling was, come to find out, still going on -- Peggy had gotten used to working with the sound of power tools running on the floor below her new office, or detouring around contractors in the lobby.

But it also felt weirdly like coming home. The new headquarters was only a few blocks from the old Bell Telephone building, where so many things had begun and a few had ended. Sometimes she liked to walk by it, just to glance at it from the outside. An insurance company was housed there now. She wondered if they had their own curious remodeling stories to tell, as they'd torn out the old SSR holding cells and labs.

She and Daniel and little Martin had moved in late winter last year, and now she was discovering all over again how much climate difference there was in moving just two hundred miles north. Autumn came earlier to New York than she remembered, and it came with a wicked chill, carried in on a dank, cold wind that seemed to blow straight down from the tumultuous North Atlantic. And now, on Christmas Eve, snowflakes whirled down from a dull gray sky, piling up on the sill of her office window.

Snow in D.C. was not uncommon, but white Christmases were a rarity -- she hadn't seen one while they'd lived there -- and she couldn't help enjoying this one, especially since it was the first Christmas that Martin was likely to remember at all.

She told herself she should go home ... but first, just a little more work. It was so much easier to get things done with everyone out of the building. The contractors were blessedly silent, and no one had darkened her door all morning. The phone had only rung twice, and one of those times was Daniel, asking her if she could find a grocery that was still open on her way home to pick up a jar of maraschino cherries for the Christmas ham.

She'd already promised that she wouldn't go in to the office on Christmas or Boxing Day, but she did plan on taking a few files home with her ... just a few ... and it was so much easier to get work done here, without a two-year-old underfoot (or, at present, without any of her agents underfoot, who were at times very much like two-year-olds who carried guns).

"Well, well," a lazy voice drawled from the doorway, and Peggy jumped. "I thought I'd head straight out to the Sousa-Carter family ranch, because who on Earth would be working at three p.m. on Christmas Eve? Then I thought, no, this is Peggy we're talking about, I ought to swing by the office just to make sure ..."

"Jack," she sighed in mingled exasperation and affection. He was lounging in her doorway, hat dangling from one hand, having somehow managed to get into a locked, secure building without tripping any alarms -- Peggy decided not to ask questions about that. He was getting older, they all were, but his hair still gleamed the same gold, and he still had the same air of lazy grace about him. Snow was melting on the shoulders of his gray wool coat.

"So that's what you call a greeting for an old friend, is it?"

"I'll take you down to our brand-new training facility and show you how we greet old friends around here." Then his words caught up with her. "Oh, bollocks, is it really three already? Everything will be closed. I have a list from Daniel ..."

"Sousa's turning into quite the little housewife, is he?"

"He is still a perfectly competent field agent, you arse." She scrambled up from the desk and began stuffing files into her briefcase. "I didn't know you were in town," she said over her shoulder.

"I didn't know I was going to be." Jack tossed his hat onto the rack with a careless side flip and sauntered into the room, looking at her various decorations, a mix of the practical (a globe, several maps) and the sentimental (a wedding photo, a picture of Martin, various gifts from friends and professional acquaintances). Out of the corner of her eye, Peggy saw him pause with eyebrows raised at the discovery that the gag wedding gift he'd given them (a small bronzed pair of toddler pants, so that, as Jack had said, they would be able to decide once and for all who owned the pants in the family) was sitting neatly on the edge of her desk -- or at least half of it was. Daniel's office had the other half.

"Work?"

Jack just shrugged, and Peggy didn't ask more questions. He'd been with SHIELD for their first couple of years, serving capably as Director of Foreign Operations, and then had been recruited to the CIA. It had been a mutual decision; he'd always been less comfortable working without federal approval than Peggy, and wanted to go back into the U.S. government fold, while Peggy liked the idea of planting a pair of trusted eyes and ears in the CIA.

But their lives were busy, and they'd drifted off in separate directions. There was so much that they couldn't talk about -- increasing amounts of it, as Jack got deeper and deeper into what was now called the Cold War, while Peggy's professional life began to encompass an array of far stranger secrets.

And yet, at times like this, it seemed it had been only yesterday when they were all working out of a cramped office in a suite of hastily appropriated offices in D.C., annoying each other and tossing casual in-jokes back and forth. Those were the days just after she and Daniel were married, before Martin, back when Jack was dating Caroline, one of the new female field agents, and they'd all felt invincible, capable of anything.

"I would love to show you our new building, but right now I really must hurry and see if I can find a shop before everyone goes home. You are staying the night, aren't you?"

Jack shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat. "I didn't want to impose. Figured I could drop by for a visit and then get a hotel, if you didn't have a guest room at the new place ..."

"You utterly ridiculous man, of course we'll make room for you. Unless you've come towing six Russian spies in your wake, and I daresay that would only make life more interesting."

"You probably would be delighted if I brought you some Russian spies. I should've gift-wrapped them. Well, we may be shot at yet, who knows?" He fished the scrap of paper out of her fingers, on which she'd scribbled Daniel's list. "What's this? State secrets?"

"It's a shopping list. Why do I put up with you?"

"Maraschino cherries, parsley, butter ..."

"Give me that." She snatched it back. "Do me a favor and wrack your brains to see if you can remember any shops near the old SSR headquarters that might be open this late on a holiday weekend. You lived in New York longer than either Daniel or I."

She reset the security system on the way out. The snow was already inches deep on the sidewalk and coming down thickly. The usually busy streets were eerily deserted. A few streets over, last-minute shoppers would be abroad on Madison Avenue, but it was all offices around here, and only a few true die-hards bothered to show up to work on a Christmas Eve that was also a Saturday.

"Do you drive or take the subway?" Jack asked.

"Both. I usually park down in Brooklyn and take the subway into Manhattan. Public transportation out to Long Island is a laughingstock." She looked up him and down. He'd put on his hat, and snow was collecting on the brim. "Where's your luggage?"

"Don't have any," Jack said easily.

Peggy gave him a long, suspicious look, which he returned with a guileless one.

"Jack, all joking aside ... if Russian assassins pursue you to my Christmas dinner, in the house where my son lives, I will be very cross."

"It's not likely. I wouldn't have come if I thought it was." Hands shoved deep in his pockets, he lifted his shoulders in a shrug that seemed casual ... but, looking closer, Peggy could see the lines of strain and exhaustion on his face, the cheerful mask he'd worn earlier beginning to slip. He looked as if he hadn't slept in days. "I wouldn't put any of you in danger, but ... I needed somewhere to go."

She reached out to grasp his arm, and it turned by accident into a sort of sideways hug when he slung an arm unexpectedly around her shoulders.

"Ah, Jack ... God," she sighed, leaning against him as the snow collected on both of them. "You can call for help if you're in trouble, don't you understand that? I'd come. Daniel and I both would."

His arm around her shoulders tightened for a moment. "I know. It's not that kind of trouble, though ... not really. Things are just -- complicated, right now."

"Well, if you need somewhere private to lie low for a little while, and don't mind a toddler hanging off your leg, I happen to know of a three-bedroom house in Long Island that might be just the thing."

He made a sound that was something like a laugh but was also choked in a way that made her look up quickly; however, he was already pulling away, retrieving his arm. "Let's go see if we can find some sap with no life who's still selling groceries. I'd hate to see what happens if you go home empty-handed."

 

***

 

They were able to find maraschino cherries, at least, along with a handful of the other items on the list, at a well-picked-over corner shop a long walk from SHIELD headquarters and not especially close to a subway stop on Peggy's line. By the time they made it to Peggy's car, darkness had fallen. The snow was at least six inches deep now, wet and soggy, soaking through her impractical shoes.

Jack swept snow off Peggy's car, using a sleeve pulled over his gloveless fist, while she struggled to start it. Although the vehicle was nearly new, the engine had always been recalcitrant in the cold.

"Want me to come in there and do that for you?" Jack asked, leaning in the passenger side in a shower of snow.

"Bugger off," Peggy retorted. The engine finally caught, and she left the car warming up while she got out to help him brush off the snow. A good swipe off the top of the car accidentally-on-purpose happened to go down Jack's neck while he leaned over to scrape ice off her side mirror.

"Oops," she said innocently when he looked up.

"Don't start something you can't finish. I was a champion snowball-thrower, Carter."

"What makes you think I wasn't?"

He'd started to reach for a handful of snow; now he dropped it, shaking off his fingers. "Right. Let's go."

The car, however, had other plans, refusing to move more than a few inches as its tires spun out in the slick, wet snow. Jack groaned and got out again without being asked. With him pushing, Peggy feathered the clutch -- and then the car jolted forward abruptly, lurching onto a clearer space in the lot where other vehicles had driven over the snow. She glanced back to find that Jack had fallen headlong at the sudden loss of his support, and on top of that, all the remaining snow clinging to the roof of the car had been dumped on him.

She started laughing; she couldn't help it. "I'm so sorry," she gasped, opening her door and starting to get out. She meant to help him up, but she couldn't seem to stop laughing, and then her stupid expensive shoes made contact with the slippery pavement and her laugh turned into a startled shriek. Her feet went out from under her and she went down headlong in wet, slushy snow.

"The Germans have a word for this. Schadenfreude, I believe," Jack said, on his hands and knees.

Peggy could only lie there for a moment, telling herself that it was all right, it was only a jolt. She felt all right --

"Peggy?" Jack said, sounding anxious now. "Are you hurt?"

"No -- no, I'm fine." She sat up, trying uselessly to brush off the muddy slush. "It's only -- I gave myself a scare, that's all. I'm pregnant again, you see."

The words dropped out of her mouth with no conscious thought, and then she regretted them instantly; she was only two and a half months along, and she and Daniel hadn't told anyone yet, including their parents. She really hadn't meant Jack to be the first person besides the two of them to find out.

Jack cursed and scrambled through the snow to her side. "Jeez, Peggy -- okay, look, I'm no expert, but you're okay, all right? You look okay. Tell me you're okay."

"I'm okay, I think. It just gave me a shock, that's all. I'm supposed to avoid falls and jolts." She looked up into his desperately anxious face, and then she took in the whole bedraggled mess of him, and that, combined with utter relief that she did seem to be all right, did it for her -- she dissolved into incoherent laughter.

"Now you're hysterical," Jack said frantically.

"No," she managed between giggles. "No, it's only -- you're such a mess."

"Yeah? Look who's talking. You're a vision in mud." He sank down on his backside in the snow, and then, caught up in her infectious giggling, he started laughing too. Every time they'd look at each other, it would set them both off again, giggling like children in a nearly-empty parking lot with snow coming down all around them under the street lights.

Peggy reached out at last and clasped his hand.

"We need to go," she gasped. "Before the roads are so bad we can't get through at all ... oh, Jack, Daniel is going to kill me for telling you. We were waiting. I'm only a couple of months along."

"But you are okay." He squeezed her fingers, the smile dying away, looking anxiously into her face.

"I am. I'm fine. Oh," she said, wiping water and mud and tears of laughter off her face. "I missed you, Jack."

"Missed you too," he said quietly, and helped her to her feet, very gently.

 

***

 

Seeing their house through the falling snow, with the lamplight shining out and Christmas lights hung around the porch, made something in her chest pang -- it was a happiness so great her heart might break, tinged with an echo of sadness, because the war had taught her that everything passes by, the good and the bad alike. She didn't want this time in her life to end ... but it would, of course.

Jack had spent most of the car ride quizzing her on which names they'd picked out for the next little Carter-Sousa and trying to convince her that "Jack" was a timeless boy's name that would never go out of style. "I mean, you could at least have named the other one after me, but since you didn't, it's a good thing you've got a second chance."

"It could be a girl."

"Jacqueline is a classic. You can't go wrong with it."

Peggy parked outside the garage, which had been converted into home-office file storage and no longer had room for a car. "Do not tell Daniel that I fell down, please. He'll fret, and there's no need. I'm quite fine."

"Yes, there's no reason why he would suspect a thing," Jack said, looking her up and down. "Although I guess it is you. I'd think that having you show up dripping and covered with mud, four hours late, would be a totally normal occurrence."

"You're right, the fact that it's us ought to be explanation enough."

Jack retrieved the sack of groceries before she had a chance. Peggy rolled her eyes at him and trotted up the steps to the porch just to prove that she could.

She opened the door to tantalizing baking smells, the warm tangy scents of holiday spices and bread. Although they both still worked, it was definitely true that Daniel, of the two of them, was the one who had most enthusiastically embraced domestic responsibilities. He'd told her before they were married that he had never done much cooking aside from the minimum necessary to get by as a bachelor, but as the years went by he'd taken to it wholeheartedly, experimenting with everything from old family recipes to new dishes from the cookbooks she bought for him.

"I have cherries and a surprise!" Peggy called, and an instant later was hit in the knees with a mobile dynamo. "Someone's been helping in the kitchen, has he?" she declared, as flour was smeared all over her shins.

"Papa got a big lots of breads and went boom," Martin babbled cheerfully. "Boom!"

"Papa dropped the bread?" Peggy attempted to translate. "Or blew up the bread, perhaps?"

Jack shrugged. "Don't look at me, I don't speak small person."

"I told you not to tell her that," Daniel said, limping into the hallway sans crutch, using the wall for support. "It's okay about the butter, Peg, I found half a pound at the back of the freezer -- oh, well, hi."

"Got your cherries an' stuff." Jack held up the sack. He was still in the doorway, poised awkwardly between the cozy domestic space of the house and the falling snow.

"Peggy."

"It was a shock to me too!" Peggy protested. She scooped Martin up to give him a twirl and got out of Jack's way. "Jack, come in, please."

"You're letting all the heat out," Daniel added, pulling off the oven mitts he was wearing and coming forward to shake Jack's hand and pull him in for a brief, one-armed hug.

"It's finally happened," Jack lamented. "You've turned into an old man. Next you'll be complaining about the loud noise from the kids next door --"

"He already does," Peggy reported, hoisting Martin against her shoulder with a slight squelching sound, which made him squirm as only a two-year old could.

"Mummy! Ick!"

Daniel's one-armed hug had turned into a one-armed shove of rejection when he'd discovered the same thing about Jack. "Ick is right. What happened to you two?"

"New York," Jack said with feeling. "New York happened. Where's the booze? This day would be greatly improved with a drink."

"He drops in unannounced, he drinks our booze ..." Daniel complained. "Jack, you're dripping on the carpet."

"I'm going to change," Peggy announced. "Daniel, can Jack borrow some of your things? He doesn't have anything with him."

"He drops in unannounced with no luggage," Daniel amended. "Jack, if you're on the run --"

"People keep asking me that. I am not on the run." Jack caught the curious brown-eyed stare of Martin, who, upon seeing that he'd been noticed, squeaked and hid his face against his mother's leg. "Hi, kid. I see he's got your social skills, Sousa."

"Get stuffed, Jack."

"Sure, but while I'm at it, can I borrow a towel?"

 

***

 

Jack came out of the bathroom somewhat hesitantly a little while later, in Daniel's borrowed clothes that had been foisted off on him. (Daniel had told him it was that, or sit on the floor until he dried out.) Martin was entertaining himself, temporarily, with a toy truck, and Peggy and Daniel were on the couch, Daniel with a glass of whiskey and Peggy sipping ginger ale. Her doctor had prescribed a glass of wine in the evenings for relaxation, but she'd found that it unsettled her stomach, though she had been able to drink while pregnant with Martin. As other mothers had told her (and what a strange feeling it was, now, being inducted into that sorority) each pregnancy was different, just as each child was.

"I hear our secret's out," Daniel said, offering Jack a glass of Scotch.

"She volunteered the information, I swear." Jack grinned and raised his glass. "Congratulations. Jack's a great name for a baby, by the way."

"Now you see what I had to put up with all the way from Brooklyn," Peggy said.

Martin, who often reverted to the habits of a younger child when he was feeling shy, crawled over to stare at Jack from behind Peggy's stockinged feet.

"Hey, kid," Jack said. "I'm your uncle Jack. You probably don't remember me, but I met you when you were a lot tinier." He flashed Peggy a quick grin. "Kid's got your looks. Lucky kid."

By the time dinner was on the table, Martin seemed to have attached himself to Jack. He spent most of the meal staring the new object of his fascination, holding out bits of food squeezed in his fist, only to squeal happily and curl up into a shy ball when Jack actually turned to look at him.

"Is this normal," Jack said to Peggy after a few repetitions of this process.

"Why are you asking me? I know exactly one two-year-old, the one sitting at the table here. You now know as much as I do."

"Agent Langstrom's daughter has decided she's a cat," Daniel put in. "She insists on being fed off the floor. She's three."

"I cannot believe we all go through this phase and somehow come out as normal human beings," Jack said.

Peggy couldn't help noticing that his dinner was washed down with repeated refills of his whiskey glass. He offered to help with dishes, but she shooed him out of the kitchen. After she and Daniel were done with the cleanup, she poked her head into the living room to find that he'd fallen asleep on the sofa, with Martin sprawled on his chest.

"Well," she said quietly, as Daniel arrived at her elbow, "at least they're getting along."

"He's into something bad, isn't he," Daniel murmured.

Peggy nudged him back, away from the door; they retreated to the kitchen sink, and she reached for a cake pan that had been soaking. "When are any of us ever not, in our line of work?" she pointed out, once the water was running. "He told me he wouldn't have allowed danger to follow him to us, and I believe him. He just needed somewhere to go for awhile."

"Death of the Hired Man," Daniel murmured.

"Sorry?"

"Oh. It's a poem I read a long time ago." He took the cake pan from her, and as he dried it, quoted softly, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Even after knowing him for a decade, Daniel still surprised her. "Something like that. Though I think it's not so much needing sanctuary as ..." She shook her head and reached for another pan. "Just wanting to be for a while."

"And showing up with nothing but the clothes on his back."

Peggy smiled slightly. "It's Jack. I don't think this was a well-planned decision."

 

***

 

They spent Christmas Day snowed in, but it didn't matter; they had plenty of food, and the power only went out for a little while, just long enough to light candles and enjoy the nineteenth-century ambiance before it came back. Martin wallowed in gifts, and one thing Peggy did not expect at all was that Jack had brought him something, buried in a pocket of his overcoat -- an articulated toy soldier, of European make. It was a little too delicate for a two-year-old, so Peggy put it away for Martin to enjoy when he was a few years older.

"Didn't bring either of you anything," Jack said.

"Well, we don't have anything for you, so it balances out," Daniel remarked, sitting with his good knee resting against Peggy's and a glass of wine in his hand.

Jack nodded to Peggy's midsection. "Next time I'll bring something for Baby Jack too."

"We are not calling him that, Thompson."

"Or her," Peggy contributed.

"We are really not calling her that."

 

***

 

It was a relaxing week; Peggy took as much time off as she dared. Their regular babysitter, a neighbor who had three children of her own, was able to take Martin again starting on Tuesday, but they still took advantage of this time as much as possible -- a mini-vacation of sorts, and more than that, a return to those early days of SHIELD, when they were all living in each others' pockets most of the time. They used to work together twelve hours a day, and go out to get drinks afterwards, and stay up until the small hours of the morning, then get up and do it all over again ...

Peggy knew that, at thirty-five, she couldn't do that anymore. Especially while pregnant. But she hadn't realized how much she'd missed it, and for these few days, it felt as if she'd fallen back into that time. As if, between the three of them, there was no problem they couldn't solve, and nothing at all could stand in their way.

But still, she knew he'd leave, and she could tell somehow, as she came downstairs after their final evening together, that Jack was no longer in the house. The door to the guest room stood half open, and she tapped lightly before peeking inside. The bed was neatly made, with Daniel's borrowed pajamas folded on top of it.

"Ah, Jack," she said quietly.

She went and made herself a cup of tea, and stood for awhile at the window, looking out at the slush melting on the lawn in the gray light of dawn. She was still standing there when she heard the soft clicking of Daniel coming down the hall, moving with crutch and bare foot and no prosthetic leg. He came up behind her and put an arm around her.

"Jack moved on, did he."

"I suppose he had to," she said, leaning back against Daniel's chest. "I'd like to talk him into coming back to SHIELD, you know. At least that way I'll know where he is."

Daniel laughed softly and kissed the top of her head. "Director Carter, control freak."

"I just want people to be safe," she said quietly, and closed her eyes, leaning against him. "I want everyone to be safe." A moment later: "This damned pregnancy. I'm a sentimental wreck. It was the same thing with Martin."

"If wanting your friends to be safe makes you a sentimental wreck, then I guess we should all be so lucky."

 

***

 

Ruth Jacqueline Sousa was born in June.

It was a Caesarian section, and Peggy was in the hospital for a few days. She waited until she was out and on a secure line to track down Jack's handler at the CIA and pass a message along.

He called her back promptly. "You know, I really didn't mean that you had to," he said, sounding slightly abashed through the static of a long-distance line.

"I'm aware of that, Jack. Shockingly, I am capable of deciding what to name my own daughter. However, I'm calling to make sure that you know, as your namesake she is also your goddaughter, and there are certain responsibilities."

There was a silence which almost made her think the call had been dropped, until he said, "Such as?"

"Such as sending gifts for all holidays, and being available should she need a shoulder to cry on that her parents can't provide. Oh, and that most time-honored of godparent duties, of course: taking care of our children should something happen to Daniel and I."

"You can't possibly be serious."

"As serious as I've ever been. Or we, I should say. Daniel and myself."

"She's, what, six days old?" Jack asked helplessly.

"She won't always be."

Another brief silence. "You know who I work for, Peggy. This isn't a good idea. You shouldn't have --"

"Enough excuses. You'll figure it out," she said heartlessly.

"What if this one doesn't like me?" His tone was plaintive.

Peggy smiled and looked down at the infant snuggled up against her chest. "Oh, she very well may not, at first exposure. I think she'll come around once she gets to know you. It seems to happen."