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The Second Time's a Charm

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“Hey, Carter, I know this is hard but could you help-" Thompson begins to say, seemingly as gently as he can.

“No…” she cuts him off, her voice unsteady. Her tears have already begun to fill her eyes, but now she can feel them welling up her throat.

“No, Jack, I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t have anything to do with this.”

The first tear starts to fall, and Peggy pushes herself up from her seat.

“Not again,” she mutters thoughtlessly, hoping afterwards that her voice had been too quiet to hear, and shoves past the other agents huddled in Thompson’s office. None of them dare stop her or talk to her, thank God.

The silence of the bullpen enunciates the sound of her heels against the floor as she stomps across it over to the conference room. She closes the door behind herself, and releases all the blinds, ensuring herself as much privacy as can be managed here.

The glass is thick enough throughout the office that she can only just barely hear anything being said - that is, if she’s holding her breath - so she hears very, very little for the next half hour or so. It feels like so much longer, it feels like an eternity, she just needs it to be over, God, please, not again, please, please, not again…

Eventually, Thompson opens the door, and she turns warily to face him.

His expression is solemn. His eyes, red.

“I’m sorry, Carter.”

The matter of privacy becomes entirely irrelevant. The matter of pride, the matter of dignity...of no import.

She breaks down sobbing, and when Thompson urges her closer to him and takes her into his arms to comfort her, she gets a minute fraction of a second to be surprised before her body is reclaimed by her despair.

***

"Crash Landing on Hudson River Ends in Disaster," reads the headline.

It’s been sitting on her bedside table for days. She hasn’t made it through the entire article, though it’s not as though she’s had anything else to do.

“English,” Angie’s voice is harsh, exasperated. Peggy doesn’t even look up at her, and she comes bounding onto Peggy’s bed a moment later, laying down next to her.

“It’s been two days since you’ve had anything to eat,” Angie continues, her voice a bit softer now.

“I can’t get up, Angie,” Peggy moans, burying her head into her pillow afterwards. She doesn’t want to talk about this. She hadn’t been this horrifically weak after Steve’s death, she shouldn’t be feeling so despondent. But she just couldn’t feel anything else.

“I can get Jarvis to come pick you up. Even just sit you up, so you can eat some of what I brought this morning,” Angie presses, gesturing back towards the other bedside table, where Peggy’s entire breakfast still sits, just as pristinely placed on its tray as it had been when Angie had left for rehearsal hours before.

“Don’t you dare,” Peggy barks, and Angie jerks up into a seated position.

“Don’t I dare? I’ll dare as much as necessary to take damned care of you! For God’s sake, I’ll drag you straight to the hospital in Thompson’s handcuffs if I need to, Peggy! You have to eat!”

Peggy buries her head back into her pillow and groans. She can hear Angie sigh very loudly, but she doesn’t want to move, even to look back up at her, so she doesn’t.

***

“Carter, I really am sorry.”

Her immediate reflex is to slap him, but of course, the cords dangling from her arms are successful at preventing her from doing so.

“Shove it, Thompson.”

He opens his mouth to talk again, and she interrupts him.

“Don’t. There is nothing you can say that will make this better. Yes, that includes reminding me that the scumbag we were after is dead. I don’t care.”

“He ran a massive weapons and prostitution ring, and all of a sudden, you couldn’t give a damn?”

“Daniel died stopping him. Forgive me for not having found any damns left to give.”

He turns his head back to the floor of the stale white room, knowing there's really nothing left to say, and sits there in silence until the nurse returns to check her vitals again.

***

Thompson’s the only one who talks to her at first. None of the others have the courage. Not when she’s finding leads, not when she’s getting coffee, and certainly not when she’s lost herself in staring at the empty desk in front of her.

So it’s particularly telling that Wilkes himself addresses her to grab her attention as he solemnly ushers in a woman and a child, both dressed in black, except for the little girl’s shoes.

“Are you Margaret Carter?” the woman asks cautiously, walking towards her, and Peggy pushes herself up from her seat to go to meet her near the middle of the office bullpen. The woman has to nudge the little girl to come with her, but extends her hand before Peggy’s even reached them.

“Lorena DiMaggio. Daniel Sousa is - was - my brother. I understand you were quite close.”

Not a peep from the peanut gallery, just a doleful silence, but that doesn’t change that Peggy’s not sure how to reply to that.

“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs DiMaggio.”

“And I, for yours, Miss Carter.”

It’s particularly hard not to cry, then, though Peggy’s immensely uncomfortable with the thought of doing so in the middle of the office, surrounded by all her coworkers, but fortunately, Lorena has other plans, and turns to look at Thompson a moment later.

“Is there a place that we could go to talk?”

Thompson’s brow furrows; she looks back at Peggy, trying to gauge her reaction.

“Daniel left something for you.”

“You could go to the conference room. Or, home, if you wanted,” Thompson jumps to say.

“I could use help at Daniel’s place, getting things in order, if you are willing, and I will of course make dinner, but that is probably too much to ask,” Lorena says softly, with a trace of wistful absentmindedness, and Peggy sees that she, too, is on the verge of tears.

“No, I’ll - I’d be honored to help…sort out Daniel’s affairs.”

Peggy can’t look at her when she says it, but her peripheral vision catches a glimmer of a grateful smile on the woman’s face.

***

“During the war, he’d declined to have his things sent to next of kin, but this time around he was better to me.”

Peggy’s brow furrows in confusion.

“What do you mean?”

Lorena’s attention is momentarily occupied by the child squirming in her seat, but she answers quickly.

“If he hadn’t made it, I’d rather have had what little he’d died with than have nothing, not even a…winter hat to hold, or a frayed bible, or anything.”

Peggy thinks back to Steve’s blood. She’d known what it was like to have nothing left of someone.

All that the divers had found of Daniel was the crutch, sitting now in the farthest corner of the evidence locker, so that there was less chance anyone would have to look at it.

Not a single survivor, not even the rat-dog that belonged to their suspect’s wife. And that thing had gotten the honor of a proper burial from its owner's family.

Her tea is still so hot that her hands are overheating just by being pressed against her mug, but Peggy brings it to her lips and takes a gulp anyway, barely noticing and barely caring that she feels it as the burning liquid travels across her tongue and down her throat.

“He loved you, you know.”

Peggy’s head snaps towards Lorena, and her heart is beating so fast that if she couldn’t feel its pressure against her chest she wouldn’t be sure it was beating at all.

“He wanted to spend his forever with you.”

Lorena stands up and goes over to the desk adjacent to the kitchen, picking up a large jewelry box and bringing it back over to the table.

“This isn’t-"

Lorena nods, and Peggy doesn’t even get a chance to open it before bursting into tears.

She hadn’t even had a clue.

Well, perhaps she’d had a couple, but she hadn’t been sure it was anything serious. Every man she’d ever worked with was stunned by her sometimes. Finding her attractive, even being attracted enough to her to lose a train of thought, was not something that could separate him from any other coworker, though he was the only one who had the respect and the grace not to hold it against her. She’d just thought it an expression of how good a man he’d been - had she really been so wrong?

She manages to open the jewelry box, and it’s beautiful - one of those boxes with a ballerina dancing inside it. She’d had one when she was a young girl. Now that she thinks about it, she can’t remember what had happened to it. She’d probably sold it before the war. She hadn't felt particularly attached to it.

“It was our mother’s, as was the ring. She’d’ve wanted you to have them, too.”

“But-"

“I was already married by the time our parents were thinking up their wills. She’d not thought of it, when I married. They accepted the absurd price of this beauty,” Lorena turns her hand to display her sparkling wedding ring, which she still wears in honor of her late husband, “as a ‘modern sort of bride-price,’ or so they attested. Mother let me choose a few pieces of her jewelry that I was sentimental about, and designated those for me, then said that Daniel’s wife should have the rest.”

“I’m not-"

“I know. But you are the closest to that that any woman ever was.”

Peggy’s heart feels heavy with aching, but she pushes on, momentarily.

“Mommy, what’s a bride-price?” asks the little girl, using her tiny hands to hold her head up higher above the table so that she can look up at her mother.

“Shh, Alana, darling. I’ll tell you later.”

The ring box is in the bottom compartment, and Peggy has trouble keeping herself from crying just thinking about opening it. This was so distinctly not how she’d ever wished for this to be happening, any of this.

But it’s gorgeous. A ruby, surrounded by a halo of diamonds, and so help her God, it’s absolutely breathtaking - both in terms of hyperbolic description and in physical truth. Peggy’s tears aren’t a help to her lungs, nor is the hand in front of her mouth as she gasps loudly.

Her decision to put it on is made in a split second, and she has a momentary flicker of uncertainty as to the propriety of doing so as she carefully takes it into her fingers and pulls it from the box. It’s heavy in her hand, but it’s sturdy, with barely even a scratch from the 32-year marriage it had endured previously; and when she does put it on, her heart feels a bit less heavy, and she knows she’s made the right choice.

After all, she’d be lying to herself to pretend that her answer would have been anything other than a resounding yes.

***

Peggy can see how she and Lorena have become attached to one another since they’d met, Lorena having been widowed in the war, and Peggy, well…she could relate well enough.

Lorena wants her to sit up in the first row with her at the service, and she considers declining before remembering that Daniel had no other family.

Most of the people present in the tiny church are from the SSR. Howard brings a few friends, even going so far as to fly the Howling Commandos over. She’s mad at having to explain the ring, as she had promised that she’d be sure to inform them if she’d become involved to the point at which a proposal was appropriate - they wanted a chance to sanction the man’s chance with her. Not that she’d actually let them make the choice for her - especially since her parents were gone, the only person besides herself whose approval she actually felt she needed was Angie’s. The reasons for that were fairly obvious, of course; if your guy didn’t get on with your best friend, he clearly wasn’t the one.

Daniel, she remembered, had got on spectacularly with Angie, after that first blip when he and Thompson had come to arrest Peggy. He’d even sent her flowers to congratulate her on her first leading role.

When Angie comes in, she comes over to Peggy first to give some words and kisses and hugs of encouragement to her and Lorena. She ruffles the little Alana’s hair - and as is everyone’s nature around Angie, the tearful child manages a smile for her - before going to sit in between Howard and Dum Dum.

The moment Peggy allows her eyes to sit on the small memorial set up before the altar, she feels her throat close up with feeling, and is more glad than ever that Thompson had saved her from the difficulty of having to give the eulogy. What would she ever say? There was too much, far too much. She clamps her fingers tightly on her ring to help keep her crying from turning into sobbing.

“Down to the last we ever heard of him, he was fighting, fighting for the underdog, fighting for justice. The plane’s systems had started failing, and even in physical combat with the people he’d been there to stop, he was asking for mercy for the people there that were being victimized. “Please, just land safely enough that the ladies can get out,” he said, in reference to the women being smuggled.”

Thompson stops speaking, pursing his lips and looking down at the podium, as though he could no longer see what he had written for himself to say.

“Daniel Sousa wasn’t just one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with. He was the best man that I’ve ever served with, in any capacity. He will always be missed.”

He has no idea.

***

She arrives home to three distinct sets of tire tracks in front of the house, and fear sets in immediately. Howard had been home more often, but not in the past few days, Angie had gone to stay with a friend who lived in the theatre district, so as to allow her to have a much easier time making it to her god-awfully early morning rehearsals, and Jarvis was the only other person who was consistently on the property. Well, both Edwin and Anna, but they shared a car, and Anna didn’t go anywhere often. She spent much of her time reading, and it was only on occasion that she would be the one to do any of the shopping.

There’s nothing on the porch, and nothing in the mail box, so Peggy knows that no one stopped by just to drop something off for her or Angie - if one of the Jarvises had seen them, they would have let her know; she instinctually pulls out her gun before opening the front door.

She’s deluded, is the first thing she thinks when she sees the man eyeing the photographs on the mantle. She’d been so upset for so much time, it was beginning to distort what she was seeing. It was simply impossible.

She puts her gun back into her purse, though, and a few seconds later, he turns around.

“I’ve never taken a careful look at any of these, you know,” he says softly, and she starts to cry. A small smile creeps into his lips, and as his eyes travel up and down her frame, it lights up his eyes, and oh God, the lack of a crutch is the only thing that makes him look at all different than the Daniel she’d hugged so tightly before he’d left to win over the trust of their suspect.

She sets her purse on the floor with all the gentleness she can possibly muster, with all this…everything…rushing through her veins and then, she bolts at him. His momentary stagger backwards is as much a result of her momentum as his handicap, but he smartly moves so that he’s backed up against the arm of the couch closest to them, either not bothering or not caring to remove her arms from his neck or his from her waist as he shuffles them over that couple of feet.

She’s crying even harder, but she’s crying of joy, and she doesn’t think she could stop if she tried, even as Daniel’s arms pull her so tight against him that she can barely breathe. It doesn’t matter. She could stop breathing for all she cared, now, she’d die happy if it came to that. She knows it won’t, though, and in his nature, Daniel releases her a good bit before there’s enough of a chance of that happening to be worried.

She pulls the littlest bit back from him, just far enough to be looking at him properly. At first, he’s smiling widely, just as she is, but as she moves to place her hands at the nape of his neck his countenance sobers for a moment, and he looks her in the eyes with a very serious sort of look.

“You’re wearing it, aren’t you?” he asks, and though she’d know what he meant anyway, the fact that the only hand of his that remains on her body is up by her left wrist makes the question quite clear. She starts to pull her hand back.

“It’s mine, isn’t it?”

Daniel laughs like her softly-made enquiry is the best news he’s ever heard - and to be honest, she knows it’s probably pretty high on the list - and slips his arms back around her again.

“As long as you want it.”

“Good,” Peggy smiles, her heart jumping inside of her, and she leans forward into him and lets her overwhelming joy show itself in an impassioned kiss. He responds with the same enthusiasm, and after a few moments moves so that he’s sitting on the couch rather than standing against it. Though she follows his movement, she’s then flooded with concern.

“What have you been using?” she pulls an inch away to ask, setting a gentle, hopefully reassuring hand on his knee.

“The shitty one at the clinic was complimentary, but it broke on me earlier. Haven’t had one all day. Part of why I got a cab over, instead of driving. Well, that and, apparently I’ve been declared dead.”

“No one found you,” Peggy says, her initial disbelief showing through, even though she is viscerally and achingly aware of just how real his presence here is. “No one survived the crash, Daniel, and your crutch had washed ashore near the site…it’s been nearly two months…”

Daniel looks down somberly towards his lap - or rather, her hand that she now notices has begun to rest more on his thigh than his knee - and clasps one of his hands around hers.

“I don’t remember a lot, really, I’m sorry. I know I got out of the water, and some girl that works at some clinic - not a hospital, it was just a small place, lots of colored little kids and all, not real expensive - brought me back. For the second time in my life, I spent a good stretch of time in and out of consciousness, but she did whatever needed to be done, and I ate and everything and then I started feeling better. I couldn’t pay much attention - until a couple of days ago, every moment was just…surreal. She never even asked me my full name, just what I wanted her to call me. I guess I’d probably already been declared dead by that point, though, so it’s not like anyone was looking for me.”

Peggy unintentionally shrugs a bit, only realizing she’s done so when Daniel smiles at her again.

“At least, not in terms of bulletins, that is,” he amends a bit cheekily, and though she laughs, her sadness sneaks it way back to her. He sobers as soon as he notices that she’s started crying again. He angles himself towards her more directly, and lets go of her hand to press his against her cheek; he presses a kiss to her forehead, and she leans into him, dropping her head to his shoulder as his arms wrap around her and give her the permission she needs to let herself cry harder.

“God, Daniel, you’d never believe how devastated I’ve been,” she whimpers. “Twice. Twice, I’ve gone through that, and this time I was…I’d been so petrified of history repeating itself, I hadn’t even told you a thing, and it happened anyway, and…”

Daniel tightens his grip around her.

“I’m here now. By whatever stroke of luck, or fate, or God, I’m alive, I’m here…and Peggy, I’m not going anywhere.”

He pushes her back the slightest bit, so that he can cup her cheeks in his hands and look her in the eyes.

“I’m here, and I love you, and we’re gonna be okay. I’m gonna get another crutch, and we’ll get sorted whatever shit needs to be sorted, and we’re gonna get married, and we’re gonna be happy, and Thompson’s gonna roll his eyes so hard at us they get stuck like that someday, okay?”

She laughs, nodding, and his grip starts to soften a bit. She reaches up to hold his hands in hers, moving them to her lap, and leans in to kiss him again, this time far more gently than she had before. She feels Daniel’s fingers rubbing against her ring, and soon after, her smile widens so much that it makes it difficult to kiss him, so she pulls back and lays her head against the couch and looks at him and just smiles.