They aren’t friends. Not really.
But they’re the only two women in a field ruled over by men and that means they aren’t not friends either.
They help each other survive.
Peggy is the older one and after Steve is gone, she forgets she ever had anything resembling a life and throws herself into her work.
Susan is a sweet twenty, new to all of this, to war and sexism and men who think they know better just because they fired a gun first, and Peggy takes her under her wing not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s something to do.
Away from an empty apartment filled with files about a fruitless search across a barren wasteland and Howard’s sloppy letters, promising that they’re getting closer. Closer. Closer.
Susan is, in a way, a distraction. A strange one.
She’s barely twenty but she wades into field hospitals filled with bleeding, dying soldiers like it’s nothing, carries a gun like it’s her god-given right, and never hesitates.
She doesn’t see a lot of combat, how would she, they aren’t going to be given a chance unless every single male soldier in this world is dead, but the look in her eyes says she doesn’t mind.
Because she’s been there before, has seen it all, and knows how it ends.
It’s the look Steve wore after he got Bucky back, after he saw what war is really like, far beyond movie reels and propaganda, like a little bit of his faith in humanity had just died there, in the blood and the snow.
At the shooting range, Susan blows everyone out of the water.
“Nice,” Peggy praises, coming up behind the girl but not startling her.
Susan shrugs modestly, smiles brilliantly. “I learned to shoot bow and arrow as a child. The mechanics are different, but the rest is the same.”
She shoots on the exhale and never misses a target.
Susan lives on base, keeps no apartment or house of her own.
“I had brothers,” she whispers, late at night, after a bit too much cheap gin, “and a sister. A father, too.”
She doesn’t anymore, now. It goes unspoken but understood. Peggy squeezes her hand, feeling warm against her will, and says, “I had a man.”
It’s a lie, though. She never had Steve.
Not in the ways that count.
Susan nods like she knows – she probably does, damn typing pool – and presses their foreheads together. “The pain fades,” she promises. “A decade, or two, and you’ll be able to breathe again, I promise.”
It makes no sense at all, but Peggy appreciates the sentiment.
She doesn’t know how to deal with all the ‘sweethearts’ and the ‘darlings’ and the patronizing smiles.
Under fire, she’s perfectly collected, in the face of a superior dressing her down, she doesn’t flinch.
But aging officers with sly, dirty smiles, whispering filthy things about the ‘two dames’ behind their backs, make Susan hunch her shoulders like she expects blows.
Peggy ignores it for weeks, months, waits for the girl to grow a thicker skin, to put more steel in her spine.
“Ignore them,” she eventually offers, when they walk down a hallway, side by side, and someone whistles in their wake.
Susan shakes her head. “I don’t… I can’t.”
“You can with everything else,” Peggy points out.
The girl stops. “This is different. I’ve been insulted for my skills, my age, my knowledge. That… I proved all those people wrong.” She shakes her head. “I can’t prove I’m not a woman.”
“You can prove you’re a better agent than them.” Because she is and they both know it.
Susan, sweet, gentle Susan, snorts loudly. “How? By killing more people? By stealing more secrets and breaking more bones. That’s playing by their rules, Peggy.”
“We chose this,” Peggy reminds her, because they both did. They knew it would be hard and they came anyway.
But Susan shakes her head. “I make my own rules.”
They’re locked in an empty warehouse at night, in the middle of December. There were more men than expected and they had to run, barricading themselves in an empty storage room.
The bad guys simply blocked the door from outside and ran.
The two other agents with them are dead and they have no way to contact anyone. They’ll be missed by morning, but not until then, and there’s still a chance the spies they were after will come back.
Their guns are empty.
Peggy’s jacket is on the floor and they’re sitting on it, arms around each other, an old plastic sheet between them and the wall, Susan’s jacket covering them, just barely.
They are both shivering, teeth chattering. “You know,” Peggy mutters, between clacks, “I actually liked winter.”
She did. Until Steve went down in the ice and never came up again. Sometimes, she dreams of him, down there, and how terribly dark and cold he must be.
“Now I can’t stand it.”
Every time it gets cold, all she can think of is how much colder it must be where he is.
Susan presses their shoulders together and gives her own back. “My brother got lost once, in winter. We thought he was gone, but he found his way back. He had nightmares for the rest of his life. I used to make him tea, when he did, piping hot, and we’d sit by the fire until morning.”
Her voice is quiet with grief and Peggy thinks of waiting for decades for the pain to pass, and how Susan was probably lying.
“What happened to them? Your siblings?”
Because Susan only ever talks about them when she’s tired or hurt and never anything beyond childhood. Here, shaking with cold and darkness, is the first time she shares them freely.
For a moment, Peggy thinks the younger woman won’t answer, but then she shudders, all over and whispers, “There was an accident. But they didn’t… they were lost to me long before that. Something… something happened to us, during the war, but then it ended and I… I forgot. You can’t live in the past. You can grieve it, but you can’t live in it and Pete, Ed and Lu… they never understood that. They were so mad at me, for moving on. They thought I forgot.”
She turns her head abruptly, bringing their faces too close together. “I never forgot, Peggy. But I couldn’t live there anymore.”
Her eyes close and Peggy doesn’t ask any more questions, just pulls her closer and rubs her arm. For warmth.
In the morning, they are found by their colleagues, who jeer for weeks. Neither woman so much as twitches at their taunts, keeping their heads held high instead.
“There is a mission,” Susan says, with something that would be nerves on anyone else. “In Russia.”
Peggy nods. She knows all about it, about the spy with the red hair who keeps tricking their agents, if she doesn’t kill them, and the ways their men keep failing at securing her.
She’s the one who recommended Agent Pevensie for counter intelligence.
“They chose you for it?” she asks.
Peggy checks there is no-one around to see before hugging the girl.
When they first meet, Peggy imagines herself a teacher, showing a girl who looks like her little sister the ropes of surviving in their chosen lives, the magnanimous if distant patron. But she has it the wrong way around.
It’s Susan who teaches her, who shows her. And after a while, there is no distance at all, anymore.
It’s Susan, with her old eyes and her tales that never quite make sense, who teaches Peggy how not to turn bitter before her time, to love, grieve, and move on.
It’s Susan who sits by her side, after years and years and years, hand in hers after Steve has come and gone, leaving only memories and ghosts.
Peggy is fading and she knows it, too weak to even sit up and Steve was here, but he couldn’t watch. He is so young and she is so old. She wonders what he dreamed off, in the cold, but never dares to ask. He says his goodbyes quietly and Peggy lets him.
Susan though, Susie will not leave.
“It’s okay,” she whispers, her white hair trailing on Peggy’s pillow, mixing with her own. “It’s not a bad place, where you’re going. There’s a lion there, who sung all the world into existence, and it’s never winter for long. The animals talk and the trees sing and it’s warm. It’s so warm, there, Peg.”
And Peggy squeezes that old and wrinkled hand in hers as tightly as she can and thinks of the lost, wise girl she met in the wake of war and goes to sleep with a smile.