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The Witching Hours

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It was quiet in the L&L Automat, a witching hour between one rush and the next when the world inside the diner seemed to hold its breath, and Angie was wiping down counters. The door chimed, and from the corner of her eye she saw a woman enter—tall, with a strong gait and a smart skirt suit. Angie’s heart stopped and swelled as she looked up, mouth gaping, a broken, hopeful syllable hanging at the back of her mouth.

‘Eng–?’

The woman’s head whipped towards her and Angie strangled the word with a cough and a smile and cheery, ‘Be with you in just a moment!’

The woman went to a booth and Angie ducked below the counter to stow her rag. While she was down there she took a deep breath and covered her face with her hands.

She knew better—had to know better. Peggy was in California, and when she did come back, it wouldn’t be for her. Peggy had promised that nothing would have to change after what had happened, but like most of her promises they said more about what Peggy wanted than what was feasibly achievable. Things were already different, the way they grasped for conversation across the expanse of a breakfast table, the way Peggy stiffened whenever she unthinkingly put a hand to Angie’s shoulder. Angie had defaced at least three of Stark’s extravagant throw pillows since Peggy had left, picking out strands of silk, shredding them down to fibers, watching them blow away through the wide, empty apartment.

But there was nothing she could do to change any of that. Angie straightened her apron and her smile, took up her notepad, and made her way over to the woman in the booth.

‘Hi there, can I get–?’

Dottie Underwood smiled up at her. Angie’s breath was knocked from her chest and her knuckles went white on her notepad. Dottie had dyed her hair dark brown and bought new clothes, but her sharp smile and cold, pale eyes were unmistakable.

Angie cleared her throat and looked down at her pad.

‘C-can I get you anything today, ma’am?’

‘I think I’ll start with a coffee, please. Black. Oh, and a piece of pie. Apple, if you don’t mind.’

Sweet baby Jesus, she was doing the accent and everything.

Angie nodded, her smile frozen in place, and walked back to the counter. It felt like her heart was fluttering somewhere above her ribs. The outfit, the lipstick, the hair—it was all Peggy’s. And now she was in Peggy’s booth, placing Peggy’s order. Angie put the pie in oven to warm. Peggy had never told her everything about what had happened with Dottie, but she knew enough to understand that this was bad. This was very, very bad.

The coffee cup didn’t quite feel real in her hands as she carried it to the booth.

‘Here you are.’ Angie heard her own voice as though from a distance. ‘The pie’s just warming now.’

‘Thank you.’ Dottie looked up at her from beneath her lashes and delicately sipped her coffee. Her eyes fluttered closed as she set the cup back down, and she smiled. ‘Mm. This is wonderful, darling. Really.’

Angie stared at the familiar red print on the rim of the cup and nodded. It was only very slightly different to the print that had first caught Angie’s attention two years ago. But there was no way Dottie could know that. Surely. She sucked in a ragged breath.

‘I’ll be right back with your pie.’

Angie fled. There was a public telephone booth in the back beside the toilets and she threw herself inside of it, slamming the curtain closed and breathing hard. It took a moment for her to calm herself enough to remember the number Peggy had left her, but then she was burning through her quarters to dial long distance.

‘Jarvis residence, Ana Jarvis speaking.’

Angie shut her eyes. ‘Hi, it's Angie Martinelli. I need–’

‘Oh, Angie! It's so good to hear from–’

‘Is Peggy in? Sousa, Stark, anyone?’

Mrs Jarvis went quiet. ‘No, it's just me right now. Angie, are you alright?’

‘I’m fine.’ Angie leaned her forehead against the wall of the booth. ‘But Dottie Underwood just came into the automat, and she– she’s–’

‘Did she hurt you?’

‘No, no. She's just acting like Peggy. She–’ Angie’s throat clicked. ‘She’s dyed her hair, and she's putting on her accent and–’

‘Still?’

‘What?’

‘She’s been doing that. It’s a… well, I don't know what it is but it isn't important right now. Angie, where is she?’

‘She's still here, waiting on some pie. I can't go out there again, can I? I should call the SSR, or the police, or–’

‘No. Listen to me. Angie, you have to pretend like everything is fine. Go along with her. If she'd been planning to hurt anyone, I think she would have done so already.’

‘Okay. Okay I can do that.’

‘I know you can. Peggy’s told me what a wonderful actress you are. This is just another role, that's all.’

‘Okay.’ Angie straightened her back.

‘I'm going to–' There was movement on the other end of the line, then Mrs Jarvis gasped and let out a sharp hiss of breath. 'I-I'll get hold of the SSR offices, let them know what's happening. Keep her there, if you can, but don’t put yourself in any danger. Call me when she's gone, won't you?’

‘I will. Thank you, Mrs Jarvis.’

‘Stay safe.’

Angie put the receiver back down and took three deep, abdominal breaths. This was just like any other time she walked on stage. On the third breath she stood and swept past the curtain, shoulders back, chin high.

The pie was edging past done and the plate was too hot, but Angie's smile didn't falter as she placed it down before Dottie.

‘Is there anything else I can get for you, ma’am?’

Dottie blinked at the pie, the looked up at Angie. There was something close to forlorn in her expression. ‘I didn't mean to scare you.’

Angie felt her smile tic before she pulled it up again. ‘No, of course not.’

‘Well.’ Dottie stared back down at her pie and ran the rim of her hat between her fingers. She sighed and stood, pulled a ten dollar bill from her pocket and laid it down on the table. Then she walked up to Angie and paused, her gaze searching. Angie held her breath, too shocked to move, or speak, or look away from those cold gray eyes as they moved across her face.

Dottie stepped into Angie’s space and placed one hand lightly upon her shoulder. She leaned forward. Angie smelled her perfume, watched the pulse jump in Dottie’s neck. Dottie brushed their cheeks together and left a kiss hanging in the air beside her temple.

‘Until next time, Angie dear.’

Dottie moved past her and Angie swayed. She heard the door open and close behind her. She balanced her clenched fists upon the table and leaned forward, eyes shut, breathing deep. All she could smell was coffee, burnt pie, and the fading traces of Peggy Carter’s perfume.

*

Angie called Ana Jarvis again to tell her that Dottie had left, and that she hadn't been able to delay her at all. Mrs Jarvis tried to keep her on the line but Angie insisted she had to get back to work. She didn’t mention the perfume, or the parting words. It hardly seemed real, and it was too much to deal with while there were customers still to face.

Half an hour later business was picking up, Susan had come back from her break, and two men jogged into the diner. They took a moment to straighten their ties as they looked around and Angie sighed. She’d never seen them before, but she recognised the postures and the deliberate anonymity of their suits. The shorter, broader one spotted Angie bussing tables and nudged his companion. They made their way over.

‘Well fancy seeing you here, agents.’ Angie hoped the lilt in her voice passed for humour.

The tall one was younger, handsome, with dropping dark eyes and hair slicked back above his temples. He met her gaze and held it in a way that he probably meant to be disarming, that might have been on someone more open to such charms and less used to rooms full of matinee hopefuls. ‘Miss Martinelli. We heard you had an interesting guest this afternoon.’

Angie shrugged and picked up her tub of dishes. ‘For a hot minute. She barely finished her coffee before she bolted. Generous tipper, though.’

‘What did she want?’ asked Short.

Angie went behind the counter and set down the tub with a satisfying thud. ‘How the hell do you figure I’d know that? She's not exactly the chatty type.’

Slick put his hands on his hips. ‘Has she come here before?’

‘Not since she, you know,’ Angie waved her hand suggestively, 'tried to kill everyone in the city. Now do you need anything from me or can I get back to work?’

‘Actually,’ said Short, ‘we need your statement. When do you finish your shift?’

Angie sighed. ‘Half an hour.’

‘Alright. We’ll drive you to our office when you’re ready.’

‘You boys are just–’ Angie raised her hands and, inspiration failing her, clenched her fists and shook her head. ‘Go sit down at least. My feet are getting sore just looking at you.’

Short smiled and snagged a menu from the counter. ‘Sure thing.’

The two men retreated to a corner table with sandwiches and coffee. Angie wouldn’t have thought much of it a year ago, but now she realised the position gave them clear views of both the main doors and the service entrance—or, as clear as any view could be in the automat as the dinner rush approached.

Angie got off before the rush hit full stride, and when she had gathered her things, found the two men waiting for her outside the main doors. Short had his hands deep in his pockets, and Slick was leaning back against the wall. Angie pulled her purse higher on her shoulder.

‘Alright. I’m ready to see those credentials of yours.’

The men flashed their badges and shook her hand. ‘Wallace,’ said Short, ‘and this is Ramirez. We’re in charge of the New York office while Thompson’s off soaking up the California sun.’

‘Seriously?’ Angie shook her head. ‘Seems like everyone worth knowing is shipping out for the west coast these days.’

‘Not everyone.’ Ramirez smiled and walked backwards towards the street. Angie crossed her arms and studied the sidewalk. While Ramirez was hailing a taxi, Wallace stayed about a foot behind her, slouched and scanning the passers-by with apparent disinterest. Angie began to speak, then caught her breath and shook her head. Wallace shot her a glance and Angie let her hands fall to her sides.

‘I would have thought baby-sitting one witness a bit below the acting heads of a regional office.’

‘Not where Underwood is concerned,' said Wallace. 'She’s deadly, a foreign operative, and beyond a few vague theories about child soldiers in Russia, we have no idea who she answers to.’

Ramirez stepped back as a cab pulled to the curb and opened the door for Angie. She slid inside as he gave the driver an address and Wallace sat down beside her. Ramirez slid in last and closed the door, adjusting the holster under his arm as they pulled out into traffic. Angie pretended not to notice and turned back to Wallace.

‘I thought there was more than "vague theories" to the whole child soldier thing.’

‘Yeah, well. I don't know how much Carter's told you, but an unaffiliated compound in the middle of the Belarusian wilderness and the unsubstantiated account of a twelve-year-old’s mean right hook isn’t exactly enough to take to the state department.’ Wallace turned to Ramirez. ‘You were there, though, weren’t you Ramirez?’

‘Sure, and I can tell you the place was creepy as hell. What I can’t tell you is what was going on there, or who was organising it.’ Ramirez leaned forward to face Angie. ‘Not everyone has so much faith in Carter’s theories, Martinelli.’

Angie held Ramirez’s gaze, then turned away and watched the city roll past.

It was faster to drive than take the subway, but Angie found it infinitely more frustrating. There was nothing she could do to contribute, no way for her to edge forward when traffic slowed to a crawl, nothing to distract her from the drumming of Wallace’s blunt fingers on his thigh. She shut her eyes and remembered the way Dottie had touched her shoulder, a mere suggestion of contact, and the feel of her cheek brushing against her own. Peggy’s perfume, and the shape of red lips against the rim of a coffee cup. Peggy’s perfume, and a cool night breeze, soft dark curls beneath her fingers.

Angie opened her eyes and gripped the door handle, her heart beating hard in her ears. The cab rolled to a stop.

Wallace patted her knee. ‘Here we are.’

Angie nodded, blinking and clearing her throat as she ducked from the taxi. They were standing in front of the New York Bell Company building, and Angie almost choked on a laugh. What did you know—Peggy really had worked at the phone company.

She followed the two men inside past a small security desk and into a room full of switch boards. Ramirez bent down and whispered something to the woman in the furthest seat and she nodded, slipping one hand beneath the counter. Then there was a door where there had only been wall before.

Angie hardly even had time to be excited by this turn of events before Short and Slick ushered her down a short corridor to a closet sized briefing room.

‘Alright, Miss Martinelli,’ said Ramirez, his voice pitched low and well into that standard issue Serious Government Agent register. He waited for her to take a seat and then started the tape recorder at the centre of the table. He asked if she wanted anything to drink and she declined; he asked her to state her name for the record, and she did. Finally he tapped the notepad before him with his pen and leaned forward. ‘We’ll try to keep this short. How long have you known the woman known as Dottie Underwood?’

‘Well,’ Angie settled her purse in her lap and crossed her hands on the table. ‘She moved into the Griffith hotel last April, maybe May. But she was barely there a full week before she vanished.’

‘And what was the nature of your relationship with her at that time?’

‘Nothing much. She lived next door. We had breakfast together sometimes.’

‘Did she take any special interest in you or any of the other residents at the Griffith?’

‘No, not unless you count her asking Gloria to sew a pickle pouch into her wallet.’

‘Could you please explain the nature of this pickle pouch?’

Angie hung her head and tried to remind herself that there was a point to all this. She had already had this conversation, or something much like it, with the “FBI” agents who had scoured the Griffith after Dottie’s initial disappearance. Apparently they were hoping that time and this new encounter might have shaken something loose.

It had not.

They spent a full two hours discussing the minutiae of Angie’s interactions with Dottie, Short and Slick pushing her to speculate over the significance of each one as she ransacked her memory for obscure details. What side of the parlour had they sat on the night they talked after dinner? Had Dottie taken a liking to any particular chair at the breakfast table? When they finally began asking questions about what had happened at the automat there was so little for Angie to tell it felt absurd to talk about it at all. Still, she told them everything she could think of and related Dottie’s few words as faithfully as she remembered them.

‘It must have been frightening,’ said Wallace, soft and low. ‘But don’t worry, Miss. We’ll get her. We always get our man.’

Angie stared at him and waited for the obvious to reveal itself. Wallace only smiled and she nodded, woodenly.

When they were finished the two agents guided Angie back out the way they had come and into another cab.

‘You fellas really don’t need to chaperone me all the way to my door.’ Angie shifted on the seat, trying and failing not to press up against their thighs.

‘Afraid we do,’ said Ramirez. ‘Until we know what Underwood’s after, we have to cover all our bases.’

The cab pulled up to Stark’s building and they followed her out of the cab, into the elevator, and down the hall. Angie could feel her hands begin to tremble as they approached the door and turned on her heel as soon as she reached the threshold.

‘Well, this is me. I’ve gotta say, you sure know how to show a girl just a swell afternoon.’

Wallace chuckled, but as Angie reached to unlock the door she found it already open. It swung forward at a slight push and Angie hurtled backwards, arms out towards the two agents.

‘Don't worry,’ said Ramirez, hand on her shoulder as he pushed past into the apartment. ‘We’ve had our men going over your place, to make sure you weren’t in store for any more surprises.’

‘That is,’ Angie clenched her jaw, ‘very comforting, I'm sure.’

Wallace entered next and whistled as he looked around the foyer. ‘These are some swank digs.’

‘I’m house-sitting for a friend.’ Angie set down her purse on the side table and stared at her hands. She could hear footsteps moving throughout the apartment, too many to count or to place. She shook her head and looked over her shoulder. ‘Can I get you fellas anything to drink while you’re here?’

Wallace craned his head around the corner from the parlour. ‘Got any lemonade?’

‘We’re good, thanks.’ Ramirez shot Wallace a glare, then looked back at her. ‘We should be about done here, and then we’ll get out of your hair.’

Angie nodded. She stood to one side of the foyer as Ramirez and Wallace found the other agents and conferred over their findings. The three agents who had searched the apartment filed past Angie with the barest nods of acknowledgment, and then Wallace and Ramirez began to give their own assurances and farewells. Wallace paused on the threshold and and Angie was about to smack her forehead against the door jamb when he dug into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a card.

‘Call me right away if you see her again, or if you have any reason to think someone might be following you.’ He met Angie’s eyes and held them. ‘We’ll get her, Miss Martinelli. I promise.’

Angie took the card and raised it in thanks, but kept her thoughts about promises from SSR agents locked behind her teeth as she closed the door behind them.

She rested her head against the wood for a moment, then turned and slid down against the wall until her legs were stretched out against the cool hardwood floor and her dress was bunched up at her thighs. She could hear music playing from the apartment downstairs the slow drip of a faucet echoing in one of the bathrooms.

Angie kicked off her shoes and stared at her socked toes. She wondered if anyone would notice if she just… stayed. If she sat here until someone thought to open the door and move her. How long would that take?

Angie shook her head and pulled herself to her feet. That was a terrible train of thought that she had no desire to follow.

She busied herself for the rest of the evening, singing along to the radio as she made grilled cheese for dinner, then running lines for her morning audition for Finian's Rainbow in the master bathroom’s gargantuan mirror. The one thing she could say about Howard Stark after a year of living in his apartment—aside from his inclination for silk throw pillows—was that the man knew how to pick his lighting. Angie looked like a million dollars as she paced back and forth on the tiled floors, trying out different gestures and postures and memorising the feel of certain expressions on her face.

Angie had a sudden flash of Dottie when she had first recognised her in the diner, the way she had mimicked the turn of Peggy’s brow and the wry twist of her lips, and stilled. If nothing else, it was an impressive piece of acting.

Angie wondered if she could change her own face so entirely.

She tried, manipulating muscle groups, adjusting her micro expressions. She thought she still looked too much like herself either way. Maybe it was a mental trick. She closed her eyes and imagined what it took to slip into another person’s face, to want that. What it would feel like to just… step out of herself, and not look back.

When she opened her eyes she was met by a stranger, eyes blank and staring, mouth lax, empty. The stranger only lasted for an instant before it was her own reflection again, contorted into her own expressions of discomfort and horror.

Angie turned away, arms wrapped tight around her stomach.

It was impossible to get back into character after that, so she went to the guest room where she slept and curled up on the bed with the radio at a low murmur. Telephones and radios, one of each in almost every room. Even for a millionaire it seemed a bit excessive.

Angie began to doze to a soft jazz number around nine, so she washed up and got ready for bed. She was folding away her work dress when she felt something stiff in one of the pockets and pulled out the ten dollar bill.

Angie blinked at it, then put it down on her vanity next to Wallace's card. She would have to give it to the SSR. She doubted it would be of any use, but you never knew, what with all that science could do these days. She put her uniform in the hamper, laid out her audition clothes for the next morning, and went to sleep.

*

Shrieking bells jolted Angie back to consciousness and she dove sideways, crashing onto the floor as her feet and legs tangled in the bed sheets. She whined and held her smarting shoulder as she reoriented herself, disentangled her lower half, and hobbled over to the phone on the nightstand.

‘Hello?’ She bit back a yawn. ‘Carter residence, Angela Martinelli speaking.’

‘Angie? Angie, are you alright?’

‘English.’ Angie sighed and sank back onto the bed. ‘Hi. Yeah, no I’m fine except that I thought the building was burning down for a moment there. I don’t know why on earth Howard’s phones are all so loud.’

‘Oh thank God. I just heard what happened.’

‘What?’ Angie blinked at her clock. It was pushing one in the morning. That made it ten o’clock on the west coast. ‘What happened– oh, you mean with Dottie.’

‘What on earth did she want with you?’

‘Hell if I know Peg. For all I know she was just taking a trip down Carter’s Memory Lane, visiting the old haunts. Apparently she’s pretending to be you now. She was doing the accent and everything.’

Angie heard Peggy sigh over the line. ‘Yes it’s… disturbing. But you’re safe? She didn’t threaten you?’

‘No, not at all.’ Angie bit at the corner of her thumb nail, then shook her hand out and began turning the edge of a sheet over between her fingers. ‘I think she apologised. Or tried to, maybe.’

‘What?’

‘When I brought her pie, after I’d called Mrs Jarvis. She said she hadn’t meant to scare me.’

‘I’m so sorry Angie. I feel horrible that you’ve been dragged into this.’

‘Oh, don’t sweat it. I doubt she’ll be back again, and even if she is it might not be about you at all. Maybe the Kremlin has a dastardly scheme to poach acting talent out from under the nose of Broadway.’

Peggy snorted. ‘Well, I’m glad it hasn’t dampened your spirits.’

‘You know me Peg. Always looking up.’

There was a long, heavy pause, and then Peggy seemed to hold her breath.

‘Do you want me to come back to New York?’

Angie’s heart contracted in her chest, and she was glad Peggy couldn’t see the dampness that sprang to her eyes. ‘No,’ she whispered, bringing up her knees and resting her head against them so that her whole body was curled around the receiver. ‘I mean, of course I miss you and I always want you to come back, but you have work to finish out there. I can’t ask you to leave that behind just because I’m a little spooked by an old roommate who’s copied a few of your outfits. You should be where you’re needed.’

‘Alright. You’ll let me know, though? If you need me.’

‘Yeah, Peg. I’ve got your number memorised and everything.’

‘Alright.’ Peggy cleared her throat. ‘You have that audition tomorrow, don’t you? Have you picked out what you'll wear?’

‘Yeah.’ Angie leaned back into her pillows and wiped her cheeks. ‘I’m thinking the green dress, you know, the wrap around.’

‘The one that shows off your legs? They won’t be able to take their eyes off of you.’

Angie blushed. ‘We’ll see. I’d better get to sleep though, it’s pretty late.’

‘Of course, I—holy cow, Angie! I’m so sorry, I didn’t even stop to think of the time difference. I must have woken you, and–’

‘Don’t worry about it, English. Really. It’s always good to hear your voice.’

There was a pause, and Peggy made a sound of ambivalent discomfort. Angie wished she could swallow back her words. She banged her head against her knees for good measure.

‘Just, call me if anything happens, alright? I’ll blackmail Howard into flying me over. I’m not going to let Dottie lay a finger on you, I promise.’

Angie grit her teeth and her eyes began to smart, more sharply this time.

‘Okay, Peg. Sleep well.’

‘Goodnight Angie.’

She hung up and buried herself in Stark’s ridiculous silk bed, breathing brokenly through her fingers as she let the storm of fear and longing and hurt roll through her. Her chest ached with sobs and she let them come, let them spill out of her, too exhausted for restraint. When it was done she lay there, raw and aching and tear-stained, and stared up at the empty ceiling.

Someone really needed to tell SSR agents not to make so many goddamned promises. Especially not to those still foolish enough to believe them.

Chapter Text

Peggy sat at the counter as the crowd of the automat swelled and flowed around her. She cleared her throat and stuck her fork into her pie, but did not bring it to her lips. There were too many voices at her back and too many shuffling, unsteady footfalls between her stool and the door. She spun her fork, watched the crust fracture and fragment, and begun to separate each piece into a pile with fellows of its own kind at different ends of the plate.

She had been Peggy for three months now, but the persona still felt stiff around her shoulders when she wore it in public. She had never struggled this way before, never wanted to shrink in on herself under the gaze of strangers, never fought to consume and catalogue the data she collected. It was causing problems. She had been caught in the middle of an operation. She had been detained. The persona was extravagant, with so many nebulous desires and attachments, designed for an operative with a different skill set than her own. But that neither explained nor excused her recent failures.

It had gotten worse since her escape, since coming back to New York. Peggy flinched now, a reflex she had learned to control in childhood. She flinched when someone exited an ally outside of her visual range. She flinched when something unexpected came in contact with her neck. She flinched when someone held her gaze for too long. Sometimes, she flinched at the dark. Others perhaps would not notice or recognise these reactions for what they were, hidden behind coughs and sighs and smiles. That did not make them acceptable.

So, Peggy would have preferred to avoid the crowd. But Angie had been frightened when she had come in during a lull the day before and making contact with her was Peggy’s primary objective at the moment. Not only had Angie been frightened, Peggy remembered, pushing more pieces of apple towards their pile at one corner of her plate, but she had been able to contact the SSR. There was no way Peggy could fix her persona with SSR agents breathing down her neck.

No, this way was better for both of them.

Angie came in ten minutes before noon, looking harried and red-cheeked. She was wearing a plain green dress that moved around her legs like water and slipped occasionally to expose the graceful curve of her knee and thigh. She did not notice Peggy amongst the patrons as she went into the back room, but Peggy watched her when she reemerged in her starched work uniform. Her name-tag was slightly lopsided, and drops of water clung to her left earlobe and the hair at her temples. Her jaw was tight and her eyelids just slightly swollen.

Peggy’s fork hung from limp fingers. Had Angie been crying? She examined Angie’s face more closely. Her eyes were clear, but her makeup was lighter than she usually wore and her chest trembled every few breaths. Peggy found herself sitting straighter, an unexpected tension coiled around her lungs.

Peggy must have stared for too long, because Angie’s eyes flicked towards her and stilled. For a moment Peggy saw the same fear there as yesterday, but then Angie set her shoulders and nodded to the customer she had been serving. She walked towards Peggy with an unhurried gate and a smile twisting her lips. Peggy smiled back and put down her fork.

‘Didn’t think you’d be back so soon if I’m honest, Dot.’

Peggy’s smile faltered, but she covered it with a laugh. ‘I’m not her anymore, you know. But I’m glad you’re feeling better.’

Angie shrugged and cast her eyes back to the kitchen. Peggy saw one of the cooks there catch her gaze, nod, and move from view. Peggy sighed.

‘I guess I can’t stay, then.’

‘There’s no hurry,’ Angie flapped her hand, then gestured to the plate of pie. ‘No good? I can get you another if you want.’

Peggy laughed. ‘I had better not. But—Angie, I would like to talk to you, if that’s alright. Like old times.’

‘At the Griffith? Hate to break it to you hun, but I don't think being neighbors for a week counts as "old times."'

‘No—here, when we first met.’

Angie stilled at that, her brows drawn down and her eyes skimming across Peggy’s face.

‘Just think about it. I’ll be in Bryant Park, by the fountain, at two on Sunday. You’ll be off work then, won’t you? Perhaps there we can talk without so many,’ Peggy waved her hand in a tight circle. ‘Distractions.’

Angie's jaw tightened further. ‘I won’t let you hurt Peggy.’

‘I would never ask you to. But I should leave before your other friends descend down upon us. Lovely seeing you, as always.’

‘Yeah, well not sure I can say the same for you, Dot.’

‘That isn’t my name.’

‘Got another one?’

‘Peg–’

‘No,’ Angie snapped. ‘You’re not her.’

They stared at each other, and Peggy grew still and calm as she watched the steely resolve build in Angie’s pale green eyes. It felt a little like watching a fledgling leap from the nest, and a little like dashing beneath an awning just before a storm broke, ozone thick in the air. Then Angie looked down at her fingernails.

‘What about Ida?’

Peggy’s hand spasmed and clenched.

‘Yeah, I heard all about that one. But maybe you’d prefer something else. I can't call you Iowa anymore, but, Russia—that is where you’re from, isn’t it?’ Angie met Peggy's gaze again and leaned forwards, her forearms folded and braced against the countertop. ‘What did Leviathan call you when you worked for them? Did they call you anything? Or did they just jerk you about by the chain like a rabid dog, point you at their target, and let you loose.’

Peggy leaned back and breathed deep, blinking. ‘I think I understand how we became friends.’

Angie straightened, head back and shoulders hunched. ‘What?’

‘You’re ruthless.’ Peggy smiled. ‘And not half bad at manipulation. You’re still a bit of a blunt instrument—try coming at your subject's weakness from the side, instead of head on, next time—but I’m surprised the SSR hasn’t tried to get their hands on you yet.’

Angie’s eyes widened. Peggy patted the corners of her mouth with a napkin and stood.

‘Bryant Park, Sunday afternoon. I’ll be waiting.’

Angie’s mouth gaped, and Peggy may have been tempted to remain and continue their teasing if it weren’t for the sharp, crisp footsteps coming from the service entrance. The SSR was quicker than she expected. She wove through the crowd towards the door. She would have to keep that in mind.

She slipped onto the sidewalk before Angie even thought to close her mouth.

Peggy turned back at the window and watched four men in pressed suits dash towards the center of the diner. Patrons startled and scattered as they covered the space, fanning out, hands close to their holsters, intent upon their search. A young man with black hair and a military bearing turned to Angie and asked a question, but she was still staring at Peggy through the window.

Yes, Peggy understood how they had become friends. She waved, smiled, and drifted away into the crowd.

*

Angie paced the length of the interview room, hands gripped tight in her hair. She was still wearing her work uniform, though she had thrown off her hat and it now lay crumpled amongst a mess of bobby pins in the middle of the table. Wallace sat in the seat across from her, and Ramirez had just left to put a call in to Thompson.

‘Are you sure there isn’t anything else–’

‘I don’t know!’ Angie stopped and took a deep breath. ‘Sorry. I don’t know what she wants from me. I’m trying to think but it’s just—she’s pretending to be Peggy. She must think I’m a part of that somehow. Or it could all be all part of an elaborate ruse and we have no idea what she’s playing at.’

‘So, there’s nothing you can think of that she would want to discuss with you in this meeting in Bryant Park on Sunday.’

Angie’s shoulders slumped and she shook her head.

‘Okay.’ Wallace nodded, and flipped a page in his notepad. ‘Okay, well don’t worry. We won’t let her hurt you.’

Angie grit her teeth and forced herself to nod. The SSR had infiltrated the automat of all places, got one of their men hired as a line cook, yet Dottie had still gotten away. And, to add insult to injury, they seemed to have learned even less from Dottie’s latest appearance than from her first.

It had been a long fucking day. First she woke up with swollen, puffy eyes, then she was late to her audition, and then one of the producers propositioned her on her way to the bathroom. Smooth, he was not. The audition itself was fine as far as she could tell, though Finian’s Rainbow was a broadway production and those always raised her blood pressure. Still, she managed to hit her marks and remember her lines and even managed to deliver most of them with fresh inflections.

She hadn’t even begun to wind down from the stress of the whole morning before she got to work and saw Dottie sitting at the counter, playing with her pie. Since then her whole afternoon had been a wash. Angie had been pulled from work and cooped up in this tiny room for four hours now, staring down at Short and Slick and trying to think of all the ways she might have inadvertently drawn the attention of a deadly assassin.

Ramirez entered the room with a tray of coffee and took the seat beside Wallace. He held out a cup for Angie but she waved it away and refilled her glass of water instead. She didn’t need to be any more anxious than she already was.

‘So,’ said Ramirez. ‘We want you to go to the meeting.’

Angie coughed and had to lean forward so water didn’t go spilling down the front of her dress. She stared at Ramirez and he held her gaze.

‘You want me to what now?’

‘We have two days to prepare a trap for her. We’ll never have a better opportunity.’

‘You know that I won’t be able to stop her if she decides to take me hostage, right?’

‘That’s what we’ll be there for.’

‘She knows I'm talking to you. She’ll see you coming.’

‘Maybe,’ Ramirez shrugged. ‘But it’s the best shot we have at putting her down.’

Wallace turned to his partner and raised an eyebrow. Ramirez nodded to him, but didn’t look away from Angie.

‘We’re not taking any more chances trying to capture Underwood. She’s a threat, and if Thompson and Carter can’t get anything from her on her handlers, then none of us will have a snowball’s chance. There’s no telling how much she knows and we can’t risk the Feds trading her back to Russia.’

‘You’re going to kill her.’ Angie drew in a ragged breath. ‘Add Peggy’s okay with this?’

‘Carter's not involved. Thompson’s orders.’

Angie sat down and stared at the ripples in her water. Helping them catch Dottie was one thing. Helping them kill her…

She thought about Dottie’s smile when they had first been introduced, the over-eager way she had leaned into their hand-shake, the conversation they had swapped during an empty evening about long days of rehearsals and the heartbreak of auditioning. But Dottie had said it herself: whoever Angie had thought she had known back then, that woman was gone, had never really existed. She shut her eyes and remembered watching Peggy's limp form being carried from the Griffith and driven away in the back of a black car, unsure if she’d ever see her again. Her fingers tightened around the glass.

‘It’s normal to be frightened,’ said Wallace.

Angie shook her head and looked up. The SSR had made their decision. They would try to kill Dottie whether she helped them or not. At least this way she was helping to keep herself, and others, safe.

‘What do you need me to do?’

Chapter Text

It was all a bit of a blur, after that. Stiff-collared agents hurtled in and out of the interview room, conferring with Wallace and Ramirez, handing off reports, picking up instructions. A young technician, for some inscrutable reason, approached Angie with a tailor’s tape, but she was able to fend him off with a quick recitation of all the information he’d need and a silent thanks to impatient costume departments the city over. Ramirez handed her a map of the park and she set to study it. The positions of her entrance and all possible escape routes were marked and coded. She had almost memorised it by the time there was a knock on the door, and a sandy-haired man dropped off a plate piled with half a dozen deli sandwiches.

Angie had barely unwrapped what smelled like a reuben when there was yet another a knock on the door. Wallace wiped the crumbs from his fingers and got up to wave in the same technician from before, now clutching a gray wool jacket.

Angie raised an eyebrow and sucked a smear of mustard from the side of her hand. ‘I hope you aren’t thinking I’ll wear that Sunday.’<.p>

Ramirez crossed his arms, and Wallace busied himself with his lunch.

‘In case none of you noticed, it’s the middle of summer. I’ll boil to death.’

‘It’s actually quite breathable, considering.’ The young man looked about the room and nodded to himself. ‘More importantly, you’ll be able to speak to us.’ He flipped the jacket’s collar and held it out. ‘There’s a receiver here, and a wire, sewn into the seams. That’s why it couldn’t be a lighter material, you see, it would show. And then there’s a transmitter—’ he fumbled for the brass button of the right breast pocket ‘—here, in this button. So you’ll be able to let us know if you need us.’

‘Damn.’ Angie closed her mouth with some effort. ‘That’s really something. But she’ll know I’m hiding something if I wear that. It’s not subtle.’

‘Subtlety isn’t our aim.’ Wallace sighed. ‘Usually, we’d want to toss out a lure and reel in the mark before he even thinks to wonder if he’s been hooked. But we can’t out-trick Underwood, not with Thompson and the others stuck in California. We’re blast fishing. All we need to do it keep her in one place long enough for our men to take aim.’

Ramirez stared at him.

‘What? You never been fishing?’

Ramirez shook his head and turned back to Angie. ‘I think what my friend here is trying to say is that you need to trust us to know what we’re doing. She already knows she’s walking into a trap. We just have to hope she wants this talk with you enough to risk it.’

‘So, if you’re going to be listening in, does this mean we get code words?’

Ramirez rolled his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. ‘Sure. You think you can memorise them quick enough, we’ll put a packet together.’

That night as Angie and Wallace shared a cab back to her building, he reached into his satchel and handed her a manila folder. She began to open it, but Wallace slapped it shut before she could get more than a glance.

‘I don’t think I need to tell you this, but you cannot share the details of this with anyone.’

Angie patted his hand and smiled. ‘Don’t worry, Peggy’s trained me well.’

‘That includes Carter.’ Wallace held her gaze as he leaned back. ‘If there’s any chance your conversations with her are being intercepted—we can’t risk giving Underwood any more of an edge than she already has.’

‘But Peggy already knows—’

‘Carter isn’t involved. Not this time.’

Angie’s hands twitched and she gripped the folder until she felt it bend.

‘You can tell her afterwards. But until then her knowing won’t help anyone. You least of all.’

‘How can you tell me to keep this from her in a cab?’ Angie hissed, looking pointedly at the driver glancing at them in the rear-view.

‘Oh, I’m not a cabbie,’ he said. ‘I mean, I am right now, but not usually. I’m Simms.’ His face was pale and round. He barely looked older than Angie.

‘Hear that? He’s Simms.’ Wallace chuckled. ‘He’s one of ours. He’ll be one of your getaway drivers if something goes awry in the park.’

‘I’ll be waiting in an alley off 41st street, all inconspicuous-like.’ Simms tipped his cap. ‘Pleasure to meet you.’

Angie nodded to him and looked back to Wallace. ‘Fine. But when Peggy realises something’s going on, I’m sending her after you.’

‘Go ahead. But I figure you’re too good an actress to let on.’

‘Don’t think you can butter me up that easy, old man.’ Angie smiled as the cab pulled to a stop outside Stark’s building. She clambered onto the sidewalk with the jacket and folder clutched to her chest, but hesitated before closing the door. She leant back down to meet Wallace’s eye. ‘Sunday, then?’

‘Sunday.’ Wallace nodded.

By the time Angie made it back to the apartment it was well after ten o’clock. She flipped through the folder of codes as she brushed her teeth, muttering as she went. Most of the phrases were for intelligence exchanges and other operations that had no bearing on the particular trouble Angie was plunging into, but on the whole they were much more mundane than Angie would have suspected. It was both a thrill and a sad revelation, like seeing a theatre in the bright light of day, all cracked paint and threadbare upholstery.

Angie flipped back to the first page and almost choked on her toothpaste.

Betty Carver, Jesus Christ,’ Angie muttered. It was the signal for “extraction necessary.” No wonder Peggy hated the Adventure Hour so much.

She snorted and met her own eyes in the mirror, and grinning around her toothbrush. She felt ridiculous, and ill prepared, and capable. It was electric.

Angie couldn’t settle to sleep that night. She laid looking at the ceiling for an hour or two before she gave it up as lost and began puttering around the apartment, cleaning dishes, gathering all her various possessions from where they had spread out and rearranging them in her guest room. When the sun rose and Angie was still restless she put on a jazz record and danced through making breakfast and getting dressed, taking special care with her makeup to hide the dark circles under her eyes.

Her giddy energy carried her all the way to the automat and through the first half of her shift. She took her break after the brunch crowd had filtered through, but her sandwich settled like cement in her belly and coffee seemed to set her on edge more than it perked her up. She went outside to clear her head and ended up in the back alley, holding her head between her knees beside the dumpster and trying not to throw up while the world spun around her.

What did she think she was doing? She couldn’t do this, she couldn’t take on a Russian assassin, not without Peggy’s help, not without Peggy even knowing. She was a third rate actress at best, lucky if she landed a place in the chorus. This was madness, and she was going to get people hurt.

Her stomach twisted viciously. And all because she had pushed her way into Peggy’s life. Because she had indulged her feelings for a woman who would never have looked at her like that, would never—wouldn’t even—

The door crashed open and Angie shot to her feet and wiped at her eyes as Susan leaned into the alley.

‘Lunch is starting early,’ she said, jerking her head back towards the diner. ‘Mind coming off break?’

‘No,’ Angie shook her head, ‘I’ll be right in.’

Susan nodded, then paused and looked Angie over. ‘Feeling alright?’

Angie nodded. ‘Yup, yeah I’m fine. Just a bit,’ she waved her hand at her stomach. ‘Iffy. You know.’

Susan nodded and slung one arm around her waist as they headed back inside. ‘Come on, just a few more hours and you’ll be out of here.’

Angie got through the rest of her shift. Her hands shook as she took down orders, and she struggled to look customers in the eye, but she got through it. She almost nodded off on the train, but made it back to the apartment in one piece.

She shut the door behind her, flipped the locks, and let her purse fall onto the side table. She swayed there for a moment, unsure what to do with herself, before accepting the inevitable and pulling herself to her guest room. The air was so hot and thick it felt like soup as she passed through it, and as soon as she made it to the room Angie flung open the windows. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and Angie felt so sticky with sweat it might as well have been syrup.

‘Shower,’ she muttered, yanking pins from her hair and tossing her hat on her vanity. She’d feel better after a shower.

The small adjoining bath was nothing as glorious as the master, but it had all the amenities you could hope for, bright tile walls, and plush rugs. She ducked in the shower quickly, starting the water warm and bringing it down to freezing as slowly as she could. By the time she stepped out again she was chilled and clean. Angie stared at the lavish counter as she dried herself off, with its little jars of potpourri and cotton puffs and who knew what else. She lifted one jar and sniffed at its contents, but the pale gel didn’t smell like much so she put it back. Who knew with Stark.

Angie wrapped herself in the towel and sat down on her bed, staring at her wardrobe as though it might hold some secret answer to what she should wear that day.

Or the next day, holy shit. Angie hadn’t even given it a thought. She ought to stand, go through her clothes to find something practical, inconspicuous, and cool, but the idea was exhausting. She laid down, damp hair pooling beneath her neck, and shut her eyes. She had a gray linen skirt that would go with the jacket well enough. It made her look like a schoolmarm, but… Angie opened her eyes and looked up at the rich red wallpaper. God, she should wear red. Wear red and just waltz in without a care in the world, give Dottie the business. Angie closed her eyes again. She imagined standing next to where dottie sat at a park table, leaning in to keep her from rising, saying something witty and devastating, one hand on the back of her chair. Dottie would stare up at her with that wry twist to her mouth, grey eyes shining as the agents came up behind her and pulled her away in cuffs.

No, that wasn’t right. Angie tried to open her eyes, but gave it up. They weren’t taking Dottie away; they were going to take her out. The imagining shifted. Dottie’s smile, and then a sharp crack and Dottie’s head snapped back in a red spray. When it fell forward again it was a stranger’s face, eyes unseeing.

Angie shiverred and turned over. No red. She wriggled up the bed until her feet were on the mattress and she could reach a pillow.

Maybe there was a way she could make Dottie come in. It wasn’t likely, but…

Scenarios played out in her head, one atop the other as she drifted away into dreams filled with light, pain, and sirens.

Not sirens. Bells.

Angie blinked and raised her head. Yes, that was the phone ringing. Phones, ringing. In every room. At an ear-splitting volume.

Angie crawled up the bed, pulling her damp towel along with her, and answered.

‘Carter resi—’

‘Angie!’ Peggy’s voice burst from the receiver, sounds of loud conversation and Mr. Jarvis’s undignified, full-throated laughter in the background. Angie sunk down on the pillows, eyes closed, limbs akimbo. ‘I’m so glad I caught you! Fantastic news—wait, is it late again? What time—?’ Her voice grew more distant, then came rushing back. ‘Oh, thank Christ. I thought I’d woken you again.’

‘Nah, Peg,’ Angie laughed. After all, no sensible person would be sleeping at—she squinted at the clock—four o’clock in the afternoon. She turned over onto her back. ‘What’s happened? Sounds like you’re having a party.’

‘We are! Er, well, kind of, as much as we can without causing Ana to hurt herself.’

‘Mrs. Jarvis?’ Angie shot forward. ‘What happened? Is she okay? What—’

‘The doctors say she’s going to be fine.’ Angie heard a door creak on its hinges and the sound of the other voices dimmed. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been able to tell you everything, but it’s all over now. Howard hired medical staff to treat her here at home, and now that everything is settled Jarvis can fuss over her to his heart’s content. I don’t know if she’ll be able to stand him for very long at this rate.’

Angie laughed. The emptiness between them stretched, and grew heavy.

‘I’m flying back to New York with Thompson tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow?’ Angie’s hand tightened on the receiver. ‘That’s so soon.’

‘Yes, well, everything is taken care of here and Thompson has been jumpy to get back to New York. There’s nothing holding me here.’

Peggy’s voice dipped low and sad at that last thought. Angie set her elbows on her knees and cradled her head against the receiver.

‘Sounds like you’ve really enjoyed it, though.’

‘I have,’ Peggy chuckled. ‘I almost forgot what it was like to work with Howard. It was nice to have that again, without…’

Without the ghost of Steve Rogers. His presence was a well traversed silence between them. Angie imagined it could only be more so between Peggy and Howard.

‘…not to mention, the weather has been stunning.’

‘I’m jealous. Did you go to the beach? I’d love to see the Pacific.’

‘Not this time, unfortunately. Though in my experience one ocean has always been much like every other. How have things been in New York?'

‘Muggy. Frustrated.’ Angie squirmed until she was lounging side-long across the pillows. ‘No one wants to move too fast in this heat, but no one can bear to slow down.’

‘And no more news of Dottie? Thompson’s been tight-lipped.’

‘Not a peep.’ Angie stared fixedly at the wall and kept her breathing steady. If Peggy had been able to see her in person there was no way Angie could have sold the lie, not with the way her pulse tripped over in her chest. ‘But there is an SSR agent working in the L&L now, in the kitchen. If she shows up again, they’ll catch her.’

‘Good. I’m glad I’ll be back soon, all the same.’

‘Me too.’ Angie smiled. ‘Oh, so you know next weekend is the first of the month?’

‘Yes,’ Peggy chuckled. ‘That is generally how dates work. What of it?’

‘Well, I go back to Jersey every first weekend. You know, check in, go to church, get lectured on how I’m ruining myself in the city.’ Angie swallowed, mouth dry. ‘Would you like to come? I mean, only, work might be slow with you just back and all, and my family’d love to meet you.’

‘Oh, yes of course! I’d love to.’

Angie felt her cheeks heat and tugged at the edge of a pillow. ‘They’d be really glad to see you. I think Nonna has them convinced I’ve made you up.’

Peggy laughed. ‘Do you often make up fictional roommates?’

‘No,’ Angie snickered. ‘Not since I moved to the Griffith, anyway. When I was in school I used to make up classmates and I’d tell Mom all about the escapades I’d wished we had gone on. I wasn’t very subtle about it. I don’t think it took her very long to see through the adventure of Scarlet Dubois and the lost macaw.’

Peggy didn’t respond. Angie held her breath over a shallow stab of disappointment as she heard the brush of something being held over the receiver and a muted conversation beyond. Then more movement over the receiver, and Peggy returned.

‘Angie? You there?’

‘Yeah, Peg. What’s happening?’

‘Ana wants to talk to you. One moment—I’ll see you tomorrow, dear.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ll—’

‘Angie! It’s so good to hear from you. How are you?’

‘I’m fine, Mrs. Jarvis.’ Angie caught her breath. ‘But how are you? Peggy said you were shot?’

‘Oh, call me Ana, please. And I was.’ Ana sighed. Her accent was lilting and musical, and Angie couldn’t help but be charmed. ‘I’m feeling much better now though, even if everyone does fuss too much. I was in the hospital for one day and now it seems as though I barely understand anything that’s going on here. Sush, Howard,’ she added, speaking away from the receiver. ‘There’ll be time to hear about Peru later. I’m talking with Angie.’

‘I, uh, I think I know the feeling.’ Angie tugged at the phone cord. ‘Last Thanksgiving, I invited Peggy to come out and stay with my family for the weekend. She called Thursday to say something had came up, and when I got home Monday morning I found her in the dining room, raw steak held over a shiner with one hand, kitchen knife in the other, and a saboteur tied to the table leg with piano wire.’

Ana laughed and Angie smiled down at the receiver.

‘So that’s what happened to the Bösendorfer! I always did wonder. Did you ever find out—Edwin, put that down or you’ll lose my stitches.’

‘I was just showing off your work, my dear,’ Jarvis’ voice echoed faintly. ‘She's a marvellous knitter. You ought to see—’

‘I should really go.’ Angie bit her lip. ‘But, thank you for the other day, in the diner, talking me through things. It helped. A lot.’

‘Of course, dear. I’m only glad I could help.’

‘Feel better soon.’

Whatever reply Ana made was drowned out by Peggy shouting and the sound of breaking glass. The line cut off.

Angie let the phone fall back into its cradle, then picked it up again and dialed the number one-handed.

‘Hello,’ said a soft, halting voice on the other end. ‘Martinelli.’

‘Hi Nonna. It’s Angie.’

«Passerotta! It’s so good to hear from you». Sophia Martinelli’s voice grew louder and steadier when she spoke Italian. «But why have you called? You never call».

‘I have a workshop tomorrow and it might run late.’ Angie tucked the phone against her shoulder and tugged at a loose thread in her towel. ‘I didn’t want to miss Ma’s call, so I thought I could talk to her tonight instead.'

Sophia clicked her tongue against her teeth. «Nicola and Beppe took the girls to see a picture. You just missed them».

‘Ah.’ Angie nodded and worried the thread with her thumbnail until it frayed in two. ‘Well, can you give Ma a message then? Tell her we’ll have a guest for Mass next weekend.’