She wakes to confusion of images, “a catafalque, a bier, a temple again.” Was all her effort for nothing? Someone has mocked her, “the script was a snare.” Where is she? In “a tomb; a small room?” Her heart, her head are alike anguished. But now she remembers, “how I stumbled here out of the snow.” Yes she has “come home.”
-Eidolon 1.8, from ‘Helen in Egypt’ by H.D.
eidolon – (Gr. εἴδωλον) noun nom. neut. – translation “phantom” or “spectre” or even “an idealised person”
The feeling, for as long as she could remember, of being out of place had always been there. Whether it lurked like a phantom limb – a relic, a memory of substance – or raked its nails across her skin, demanding, ever it persisted. Through war, through adversity, through the cracks in history where peace crept in like pale, wintry, phlegmatic sunlight slanting along the walls of St. Dunstan’s before the cloud rolled over Stepney, the burr of that feeling pricked at the ends of her fingers.
Yet, for all that, Peggy had never felt it as keenly as she did now, standing in a New York supermarket in 2012.
Mouth in a firm line, she gripped the plasticky green handles of a shopping basket. Before her a wall of food loomed, rows upon rows of cereals in brightly coloured cardboard boxes and aluminium foil. She planted her feet in the middle of the aisle and let her eyes drift over all the labels, and as a couple of university students passed by her with a series of whispers and second glances, Peggy found herself thinking of rations, of growing up always in ill-fitting clothing, of bland army meals on the front lines, and suddenly now of more choices in granola bars than she could possibly conceive.
(“At least your rags fit now,” Steve jokes, plucking at her sleeve.
Peggy rolls her shoulders in the custom-made red and blue uniform, and feels the material stretch across the breadth there, grumbling, “Just barely.”
"Jesus, what do they feed you army types?" He bumps her shoulder playfully with his own, and it's like throwing himself against a brick wall for all the good it does. His own drab army uniform hangs loosely around his wrists.
"Lots of protein," Peggy answers dryly.
Steve laughs, and the sound is warm enough to ward off the chill of rain unspooling from the tarpaulin eaves of the Command tent.)
In the end Peggy snatched up boxes and cartons at random, stuffing them into her basket and fleeing. It wasn’t until she exited the supermarket and glanced down at the bags in her hands that she realised she had bought exactly one loaf of bread, one sack of plain white sugar, two cellophane-wrapped slabs of marbled red meat, one pat of butter, and no less than seven different flavours of chocolate covered granola bars. Then it wasn’t until she jumped on the bus back to her New York apartment and the vehicle floor was swaying under her feet that Peggy remember that she had originally set out to buy a toothbrush and sanitary pads.
At the time she hadn’t been brave enough to even wander down the aisle of feminine hygiene products. If the future could manufacture so many brands of pasta in the shapes of rockets and mystical creatures, she didn’t think she could handle the likes of shampoo and nail polish remover just yet.
Getting into the SHIELD provided apartment required a key card and passcode that had Peggy fumbling with her groceries to retrieve the hard slip of plastic from her back pocket. The last time she had seen a fraction of this much computing power in one place had been Colossus at Bletchley. Tony mentioned Enigma offhandedly at one point, and when Peggy had stared at him, aghast, he’d laughed and explained the gag order had been lifted in the 90s. She still didn’t feel comfortable discussing it with him.
Once inside Peggy dropped the bags on the kitchen counters. From every corner gleamed marble and brushed steel, fixtures like something from Perelandra. Surrounded by enough blinking LED lights to make her head spin, Peggy stumbled into the bathroom – which had a bathtub sunk into the floor large enough for her to drown herself in – and took a scalding shower, closing her eyes and letting the heat melt her bones away until her skin felt like rubber.
Even after she towelled her hair dry and changed into a new set of men’s clothes, she paced the length of her massive living room with the television blaring in the background into a white static, filling up the empty quiet space that was her apartment. Eventually it wasn’t enough and she turned on the oven to make bread and butter pudding in a desperate attempt to pantomime home in a place where she had never felt more alien.
Forty-five minutes later she was eating straight from the baking tin with a spoon, and idly perusing that morning’s paper. One of SHIELD’s junior agents had tried introducing her to an electronic subscription on the tablet she’d been given – among the many other countless gadgets strewn about the too-large apartment that she didn’t use – but paper beneath her hands was comforting in a way it never had been in the past. The front page was abuzz with news of the Duchess of Cambridge’s recently announced pregnancy. Peggy’s chewing slowed as she skimmed down the article, but she soon flipped to another page. The very last thing she wanted to read about was the fairy-tale romance between the Prince who found his soulmate among commoners.
(“She’s perfect,” Dr. Erskine insists, but Colonel Philips’ gaze hardens.
“Because she doesn’t have a soul mark?” Philips scoffs and waves Erskine away. “I need a soldier, not one of your hair-brained pet projects.”
As Colonel Philips begins to turn away, Erskine darts around him so he can’t leave the tent. “No soul mark means no soul mate, which means no conflict of interests.” He presses on quickly when Philips begins to look restless. “We need a trial run before we think about mass production of troops. I assure you – Margaret Carter will only ever be Subject Zero.”)
Peggy struggled to recognise half of the names and organisations in the paper, but she read every article nonetheless, marking down key figures on a nearby pad of paper to look up later. At the classified section, she paused, spoon frozen midway to her open and waiting mouth. Advertisements for shoddy flats stared back at her.
They were all of them undeniably worse in every way than where she currently lived. Their tenants would probably give a kidney to trade places. And yet –
Scraping the leftovers into a bowl and covering it in cellophane, Peggy placed the pudding in the fridge beside the other groceries and scrubbed the baking tin clean until her hands were raw and pink. Then she grabbed the sliver of metal that acted as her phone from the pocket of her jacket and began to dial one of the numbers displayed on the adverts.
Anywhere must be better than here, entombed alone in halls of cold glass. She’d spent enough time buried in ice for one lifetime.
As it turned out Captain America showing up at apartments in Brooklyn gave people pause. Only insofar as they recognised her from the scene she caused in Times Square less than three months ago. Every John, Jack, and his dog had a camera these days, and the video had gone viral much to her dismay. Though no matter how many times Tony told her she “was a meme” she didn’t fully comprehend what it meant, until she opened an email attachment from Agent Romanoff that showed a stunned Peggy in a SHIELD shirt in Times Square, the image bracketed with the words: “WHERE WILL YOU BE WHEN THE ACID DROPS?”
The fact that it was the first image to pop up on a Google search before her gritty, old, black and white, heroic war photos stung her pride more than she would ever admit.
Or perhaps people were just surprised to see someone so tall looming in their doorway. 6’2” was tall enough for anyone. The dark, bulky clothing Peggy wore certainly didn’t help. Nothing fit unless she shopped from the men’s section of the sports stores. A month ago she had tried braving a women’s retail shop, only to turn tail and walk straight out almost immediately. She hadn’t been able to summon up the courage to return since.
It was the last apartment of the day, and when Peggy knocked for a long moment nothing happened. She raised her hand to rap at the door again, when she noticed a note taped to the wall with an arrow pointing to a button, saying: “Please ring me!!”
Dutifully and feeling like she’d fallen into a Lewis Carol novel, Peggy pressed the button, then jammed her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker. Seconds later the sound of soft footfalls followed by the wrench of a series of locks, and finally the door opened to reveal a young woman with a pair of pink headphones draped around her neck.
“Terribly sorry I’m late.” Peggy smiled and offered her hand for the woman – Angie, if memory from the advert served correctly. “I’m Peggy.”
A blank, faraway look passed across Angie’s face. It was an expression Peggy was unused to after a long day of strangers asking for a selfie with her. At last however recognition seemed to dawn, and Angie grasped Peggy’s hand warmly with a smile. Rather than say anything she stood back and waved Peggy inside, shutting the door behind them.
The apartment that greeted Peggy was too large for one and too small for two. Everything – from the faded paint to the scratched countertops to the second-hand furniture – looked tired. But for all that it was clean, and Angie had put a vase of fresh, bright flowers on the table that acted as a writing desk and dining area simultaneously.
Angie edged around her in the cramped foyer to lead Peggy further into the flat. She pointed into the second bedroom, empty but for a bed with a sagging mattress and a chest of drawers, then into the bathroom, where the linoleum around the base of the shower was beginning to peel away from the floor. The lights had all been changed out with lower watt bulbs, casting feeble flossy rays across every space.
For all that, it was warm. That was the only flattering yet accurate description Peggy could think of. Warm and snug and perfect.
(The lone naked bulb swings over the centre of the room, sending shadows spiralling across the peeling wallpaper, and Peggy’s mother squints as she pins scratchy fabric around Peggy’s waist. When Peggy whines at being stuck with the needle again, she squirms, small angular shoulders caving inwards.
“Stop your wriggling,” Amanda scolds around a mouthful of pins. “And stop growing so fast while you’re at it.”
The latter is muttered to herself. This is, after all, the fourth dress Peggy has outgrown in the last year alone.
When it’s all said and done, Peggy receives a kiss on the forehead for her efforts, and is nudged, grumbling, off to bed.)
In the kitchen, bending down to lean on the countertops with both hands, Peggy admitted honestly, “I like it. When is the room available?”
Smiling broadly, Angie’s hands flashed in motions quick as the dart of swallows. When that was met only with a puzzled stare, Angie’s smile began to appear a little strained and she held up two fingers.
Peggy had been viewing the apartment for a good ten minutes, and was ashamed that it took her this long to understand. The way Angie positioned herself in the room so she could always see Peggy’s face. The attentive way she watched Peggy’s mouth, reading the words right out of the air.
“You’re deaf,” Peggy said dumbly.
Angie waggled her hand. Somewhat.
For all her smiles, she looked anxious now, as though in the past this had proved a hindrance to finding a halfway decent flatmate.
Eyes softening, Peggy straightened. “So, two days? I think we can make that work.”
“Fury isn’t too happy with your change in accommodation.”
With her shield Peggy batted aside a kick aimed at her flank, and advanced to swing a kick of her own at her opponent. “Fury is never happy.”
Natasha easily danced out of reach across the training rink, where they’d been sparring once a week for the last few months. “So, why’d you move?” she asked as she closed distance once more.
Grunting from the force of the blows, Peggy alternatively blocked and dodged the flurry, finishing with a vicious elbow dug into Natasha’s midriff. “Some people don’t like being put in a fish tank for dissection, you know.”
If the hit had any effect on Natasha at all, she didn’t show it. On the side-lines a number of junior SHIELD agents watched the exchange, pausing in their own sparring matches to do so.
Circling, her step light and lethal as a cat’s – one at a zoo that was well-fed and content to not kill you for now – Natasha smirked. “Says the woman who volunteered to be a science project.”
She took advantage of the brief, hot flash of irritation that lanced through Peggy to launch herself forward and send the vibranium shield flying across the room. Peggy saw the move coming miles away, but thawing dulled the senses; she wasn’t as fast as she once was. Slowly the speed was returning, but every day Peggy spent out of peak condition went down in her book as an act of bodily treachery.
Frustrated more with her own sluggishness than anything else, Peggy seized Natasha by the arms and slammed her down into the mat. The resounding smack made all the onlookers wince, and even Natasha couldn’t hide that all the wind had been knocked out of her.
“Still a sore point, huh?” The smile Natasha tried on dissolved into a pained grimace.
“I’m sorry –” Peggy started to say, but before she could finish Natasha shot up, reversing their positions so that Peggy was pinned to the ground between her thighs.
“It takes more than a bit of muscle to put me out of the race, tiger.” She flicked Peggy between the eyes, grinning down at Peggy’s sullen expression. “At least your new flatmate is cute.”
And then Peggy shoved Natasha away. Rather than face Natasha’s amused scrutiny, Peggy fled to the showers with a mumbled, “I hadn’t noticed.”
Of course that was a lie. Peggy had noticed. She’d noticed a lot of things about her new flatmate.
For starters, Peggy had only ever seen Angie without her headphones on two occasions. Once when Angie stumbled sleepily by her, shoulders brushing, into the bathroom at 06:00, when Peggy had already gone for a two hour sprint around Central Park and just finished her second shower of the day. Peggy had greeted her good morning and received a drowsy wave before the bathroom door shut.
Once again when Angie returned home late from her part-time job cooking for and stocking a local café, where the dress code didn’t allow for personal accessories apart from a strict set amount of rings. While Peggy was ordering takeout Chinese food for the both of them from a pamphlet Angie had conveniently stuck to the side of the fridge with magnets, Angie marched through the front door and into her room, only reappearing with her headphones plugged into a slim iPod that probably held more music than Peggy knew existed.
“I hope you’re fine with sweet and sour pork,” Peggy said over the ubiquitous buzz of Angie’s headphones, the bass turned up so that she was constantly heralded by the dull noise like an angry bumblebee.
In response Angie flashed her a thumbs up, then flopped onto the grey lumpy couch in their living room with a rough sigh. Her uniform was still splashed with specks of grease despite the apron she normally wore at the café.
“Long day?” Peggy asked as she replaced the menu on the fridge, looking over her shoulder as she spoke so that Angie could see her mouth move.
Angie turned her thumbs upside down and mimed an explosion. For a moment it looked like she was going to launch into a heated commentary, until she caught her hands in mid-air, expression frustrated. Eventually she dropped her arms in defeat and gestured for Peggy to talk instead.
Not for the first time Peggy wished ASL was anything similar to BSL, of which she knew just enough fingerspelling to scrape by in a pinch. Although by now her knowledge of it was probably outdated enough to be incomprehensible.
“You sure?” Peggy hesitated, picking up the pen and pad of paper they kept in every room for just these situations. “We could -?”
But Angie waved the pen away with a grimace.
Flummoxed, Peggy fished back in her mind for the ASL she’d been teaching herself from a few library books for the last two weeks. Uncertainly and with exaggerated motions, she signed, ‘This morning I ate breakfast. It was delicious.’
It hadn’t actually been delicious. In no era could bland muesli and plain yoghurt be considered delicious. But it was simple, and these days Peggy craved, above all else, simplicity.
Angie’s jaw dropped, and she gaped at her with wide eyes. Then without warning she doubled over on the couch, wheezing with raspy laughter. Peggy could feel heat flooding her cheeks, and, flustered, she shuffled her feet at a loss for what to do.
At last Angie came up for air, tears beading at the corners of her eyes. Scrambling for the nearest pen and notepad, she began to write what Peggy had actually said, the tip of the pen jumping as she hiccupped and had to swallow any further laughter. Tearing off the page she handed it over.
If Peggy thought she was red in the face before, it was nothing to how she surely must look now.
‘This morning I ate a bitch. She was delicious.’
Peggy cleared her throat delicately, but for all her feigned poise she couldn’t tamp down the flush that spread all the way to her neck. She crumpled the page in her fist and crossed her arms.
Angie watched her with bright eyes, biting her lower lip to keep from smiling too broadly. Turning back to the notepad in her lap, she wrote, ‘Thank you.’
“What for?” Peggy couldn’t keep the embarrassed note from her voice.
Angie scribbled, ‘For making my day better.’
Most of the time Angie holed up in her room, keeping the door ajar just enough so that she could peer around and see the light that flashed when someone rang the doorbell. When she wasn’t engrossed in her work, she would wave whenever Peggy walked by to get to either the bathroom or her own room. Returning the gesture, Peggy could see the many instruments strewn across the space.
Spindly-looking violins and cellos. A keyboard with more dials than any self-respecting piano ought to have. A series of boards with broad white buttons. Everything hooked into a thin silver laptop by a jumble of wires.
Over the screen Angie would pour, the light washing her face in a warm glow. Yet for all those musical instruments clustered into a tiny bedroom, Peggy never heard a single note issue through the thinning walls. Though at the end of every week a scruffy looking young man would show up at the door asking for Angie, who would wordlessly hand over a memory stick in exchange for cash.
“Your friend’s a real artist, y’know,” he said to Peggy once over a cup of tea.
He’d showed up early and Peggy had invited him inside while they awkwardly waited for Angie to return from her job at the café.
“I’ve never heard her perform,” she confessed, sipping at her tea, the cup looking almost dainty in her hands. It wasn’t difficult for her to imagine, however – a dimly lit club filled with heat from the cluster of wild bodies all commanded to movement by song.
Immediately his face lit up, and he set his untouched tea aside to lean in closer. “You should visit the night club. We’re just down on 3rd. Her music is a hit pretty much every Friday.”
“Right,” Peggy replied slowly, uncertain. “And what exactly do you do there?”
“Small time DJ,” was his modest reply. “Met Angie while she was busking a few years back. Actually,” His voice faded off and his expression grew contemplative, “Captain America showing up at the club couldn’t hurt business.” Then he snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Would you be interested in showing up for a bit of publicity in your old get-up? Just for a night – I’ll open up a tab for you at the bar. My treat.”
Luckily Peggy was saved from having to give a definitive answer – which would have almost surely involved a lot of panicked thoughts about having to parade before so many people for the first time since her dramatic appearing in Times Square – when the lock clicked and the front door swung inward. Angie glanced up at the two of them and, haggardly toeing off her shoes, waved.
In response he launched into rapid ASL, too quick for Peggy to follow. Angie only nodded and trudged into her room, reappearing with the usual drive in her grasp.
As she handed it over, he gestured to Peggy with a wink and said aloud, “I was just asking if the good Cap here wanted to make a star appearance at the club sometime.”
Whatever response he’d been expecting, it couldn’t have been for Angie’s gaze to harden and for her hands to start gesticulating furiously. At one point she jabbed her finger into his chest, and he backed off with a petulant scowl.
“Ok! Jesus!” Holding up his hands in surrender, he grumbled, “Last time you were this protective of a girl was over your ex back in ’09. Warn a guy when you start dating again.”
At that Angie flushed, eyes flicking nervously between him and Peggy, before she smacked his shoulder and made a gesture even Peggy couldn’t mistake.
Rolling his eyes, he pulled a handful of bills from his pocket and tucked it between Angie’s fingers. “See you next week,” he said, and showed himself out.
Angie glared at the shut door even after he’d gone. Then, avoiding Peggy’s gaze as though her life depended on it, she stomped over to the couch and dropped heavily onto it. Leaning on the kitchen bench that overlooked the cramped living and dining room, Peggy tapped her fingernails along the countertop.
“So…” Peggy ventured after a long silence, during which Angie chewed on her lower lip and plucked anxiously at a loose thread on the upholstery. “Pizza tonight?”
Relieved, Angie nodded.
Angie had a taste for sweet things that no amount of sugary treats in the apartment could sate.
‘Ice cream,’ she signed suddenly one day, emerging from her room after a Saturday of composing.
Peggy’s eyebrows rose and she peered outside where the streets were slicked with frost. “It’s January,” she pointed out. The New Year had passed by without a thought, the apartment abnormally lonely over Christmas when Angie went to visit her family in East Harlem.
Pulling on her shoes, Angie motioned, ‘And…?’
Peggy rolled her eyes, but gestured for Angie to sit. “I’ll get it. I’ve been meaning to pick up some milk anyway.”
Reluctant, Angie slipped off her shoes, kicking them back towards the wall in the kitchen.
“If you feel that bad about it, you can make us some hot chocolate,” Peggy replied to her hesitant expression.
Angie’s eyes lit up as though the idea had never occurred to her, and while she was reaching up on her toes for the cinnamon Peggy slipped out the front door.
The local convenience store was huddled in the cold just down the road. Digging her hands into the pockets of her jacket, Peggy walked briskly, studiously avoiding patches of ice and instead crunching through old slushy snow piled on the sidewalk. An electronic bell rang when she entered the shop, and a middle-aged greying man sidled out from the back room to watch her peruse.
Heading to the back of the store, Peggy yanked open one of the glass doors, reached out a hand, and froze.
Two whole walls of ice cream reared up towards the ceiling. Colours and names all jumbled together, distant and foreign as language engraved upon catacombs, the many variegated brands vying for attention, clamouring upon the shelves.
(When the mortar barrage finally slows, then stops, they pass around meals. It’s too dark to see apart from the merest sketch of shapes, so they carefully transfer the un-bleached packages between them, reaching out to feel that the next person has a hold lest they drop anything. It’s cold and wet and gloomy, and they’ve all grown so accustomed to touch the act has lost all intimacy. There’s such an informality to the way Dugan’s fingerless gloves accidentally bop Peggy on the nose when they’re shuffling around ration packs that Peggy can’t even muster up a sigh of complaint. They’re all long beyond that point by now.
Tearing through the tan-coloured wrapping, Peggy dives into food by touch and sound, hearing the others do the same. All is silent while they eat, but for the creak of tin cans and the crackle of wax-paper.
In the long run there’s not much difference between American and British rations; always the same old packaged meal deals. If there’s one thing Peggy misses, it’s the Tea-Milk-Sugar Combo blocks. Instead the Yanks have substituted those with packs of four cigarettes. Peggy trades them for Dugan’s sawdust-tasting chocolate bar without a word. The act is so routine, he’s already perched the chocolate on his knee nearest to her for ease of access.
When Dugan sticks a cigarette between his teeth and strikes a match, they all flinch. Or maybe they flinch from the renewed whistle of mortar through the air. As the shells continue to stream from the sky like acid raid, they eat, blinded by the glowing end of Dugan’s cigarette.)
Peggy didn’t know how long she stood there, but suddenly the store owner was at her side and yelling, trying to shut the door, which she was still holding open, and the cold had seeped through her jacket to become a part of her very skin.
She didn’t remember leaving the shop and walking back to the apartment building, but the next thing Peggy knew she was slamming the door behind her hard enough to make the frame rattle, hard enough to make Angie glance around in confusion.
Peggy ignored her curious look and strode directly into the bathroom, locking the door, cranking on the shower to its highest temperature, and stepping in – clothes, shoes, and all. Beneath the scalding spray she stood until the cold melted away, fabric sticking to her back and calves, so that when she finally emerged an indeterminate length of time later, she had to peel the clothes off like a tangerine rind.
In fresh warm clothes, Peggy crept out into the living room to find Angie already waiting on the couch with two steaming mugs of cocoa. Shakily Peggy lowered herself down onto the lumpy cushions, the springs groaning under her weight. Angie pushed one of the mugs into Peggy’s hands, and brandished a small bottle of peppermint schnapps, questioning.
Peggy shook her head. “I can’t get drunk.”
In reply Angie grimaced sympathetically, then tipped a bracing dose of schnapps into her own mug.
They sat in silence. Peggy’s hands shook. She gripped the mug until she could feel the ceramic strain in her grip, the heat burning her palms.
“I forgot your ice cream,” she rasped without preamble, staring down into the hot chocolate, which swirled with melted cream. Her voice sounded dull and hollow to her own ears.
For a moment Angie studied the side of her face incredulously. Then she reached over and traced letters on Peggy’s thigh.
Peggy snorted, a reluctant trembling smile tugging at her lips. Raising the mug, she took a sip, and the heat of it seemed to pool down to her toes. Angie left her hand on Peggy’s leg, thumb stroking a soothing path over her knee.
Peggy never got the whole of anything. Always pieces, sections partitioned off like the chambers of an organ. Parts of a book. Parts of a museum. Parts of a television series that never lasted more than three seasons and clawed at ratings.
Out of curiosity she read the chapter dedicated to her in an American textbook. Most of the information was wrong. Some of it was right. But only some.
Apparently they had a wing dedicated to her at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. When she told Angie where she was going, Angie scribbled the address of her favourite restaurant in New Orleans on a slip of paper and crammed it into Peggy’s pocket. Once actually at the museum however, Peggy only wished she’d stayed in New York. Frankly anywhere must be better than here.
She thought she would have to wear a disguise. Don false reading glasses, pin her hair up beneath a baseball cap – the Red Sox, Angie insisted with a stern look when Peggy foolishly returned to the apartment one day with a sacrilegious Yankees cap, which was immediately thrown in the trash ‘where it belonged.’ But all that met her at the museum were empty halls, a bored security guard, and a small alcove behind a sheet of glass that glinted frostily in the glare of lights.
A replica shield was propped against a mannequin wearing her old suit and helmet. The curators had even given the mannequin a wig of victory curls crushed beneath the helm. Plastered to the wall were her original enlistment forms and personal records. The majority of the medals attributed to her she didn’t ever remember receiving. The British and American governments must have awarded them to her posthumously, regardless of whether she truly deserved them.
(“Do you think anyone will remember us?” Dugan asks.
They’re lying on their backs, staring up at the bare, rime-riddled trunks stretching above them towards the cold, distant, glittering stars. They should be sleeping, all of them, but the barrage of shells had only ceased twenty-five minutes ago, and they jump at every creak of wind through the shattered boughs of the trees. Afterwards they laugh nervously and burrow further into the trench they’ve dug for themselves, shallow as graves.
“Should’ve known you only joined for the glory, Dum Dum,” Steve teases.
When the others chuckle, Dugan throws a clod of frozen dirt at him, except he misses and hits Pinky instead, who exclaims noisily. The abrupt sound makes them all fall silent, and instinctively they listen for the whistle of an incoming bombardment.
Nothing comes. But they don’t breathe easier.
“No, I mean –” Dugan continues as they settle uneasily back into their bedrolls. “It’d be nice. To be remembered for all of this at least.”
Gabe hums his agreement, and a few others nod.
“I think I’d rather live,” Peggy whispers to the moaning wind. “Live and be forgotten.”
She hadn’t intended for the others to hear. She was so sure she’d spoken softly enough. A hush falls over the group.
“We should probably get some sleep,” Steve murmurs to her left. Nobody disagrees with him, though they all know they won’t sleep a wink.)
Behind her was a bench to view the screen mounted above Captain America’s display. No sound, only faded, monochromatic footage of the Eastern Front, of London sundered by the Blitz, of a pale, ghostly version of herself delivering sharp orders to troops and being unquestionably obeyed.
A gaggle of schoolchildren trotted glumly into the wing and were herded by the alcove by two harassed looking teachers who paid Peggy no mind. Some of the kids glanced into her face curiously, but their wandering frowns were soon drawn elsewhere.
She sat. She ignored them. She watched her life flicker by on rolls of silent film.
Ultimately Angie’s restaurant recommendation was the only good thing about the trip, and Peggy resolved herself to stay away from any other material about her past.
It didn’t take Angie long to realise that Peggy wore the same three meticulously cleaned outfits on a rotational schedule. Peggy told herself that she didn’t mind, that she’d spent most of her life in uniform when her body belonged to the state, that this was hardly different. Eventually however Angie mentioned it.
Peggy returned from her morning run around Central Park to find a note stuck to the bathroom door when she headed for the shower upon her return.
Do you want to go clothes shopping today?
(Please choose from the following)
With a snort Peggy looked around for a pen and ticked both boxes. Poking her head into Angie’s room, where Angie was bowing an electric bass plugged into her computer, Peggy slipped the note onto her small desk.
Angie shot her an answering grin, then signed around the bow in one hand, ‘Fifteen minutes.’
Twenty minutes later they were catching the bus into town, Peggy freshly showered, and Angie fiddling with her iPod. The ride itself went smoothly enough, but by the time they arrive at the first shop, Peggy’s fingers started to shake. Seeing her hesitate at the threshold, Angie took Peggy by the hand and led her gently inside.
The colour combinations were all different. And the cuts. In the years she’d been interred, Peggy had lost all sense of her own style – what suited her now; what she should be looking for amid the cacophony of fashion.
Luckily this time she had someone to lend a helping hand.
Angie pawed enthusiastically through the racks, while Peggy trailed along in her wake, plucking at various sleeves and hems. Every so often Angie would turn an item of clothing this way and that under a scrutinising eye, and then proceed to toss an article of clothing into Peggy’s arms. A saleswoman approached them once Peggy was laden with a pile of clothes, and together they were guided to the fitting rooms.
It took a great deal of fumbling to arrange everything on the hooks, but soon enough Peggy was stripping off her jacket. Still in the room, Angie quickly scuttled out to give Peggy some privacy while she changed.
Honestly after so many years of service Peggy couldn’t scrounge up a single damn about decency.
With each outfit she would step out for Angie’s reaction, which ranged from a tilt of the head and a scrunched nose, to absolutely horrified head-shaking. Most of the clothes didn’t fit, and more than once Peggy started to pull on a skirt or shirt, only to toss it into the ‘NO’ pile without a second thought.
“Do you have this in a larger size?” was the question of the day, but every time Peggy asked the saleswoman’s face fell.
At last they came across one outfit that Angie agreed upon, and which wasn’t too small. Until Peggy tried to take it off, that was.
Initially she thought the dress had been a tad snug, but it had received the thumbs up from Angie, which was a first. When Peggy reached behind her for the zip running a line down her back however, she both heard and felt the fabric give a warning creak.
Cursing under her breath, Peggy peeked outside and jerked her head for Angie to join her. Angie blinked, but came in, shutting the door and enclosing them together in the cramped space. Peggy pointed over her shoulder and turned to show Angie her back.
No sooner had Angie started to drag the zipper down than the taut fabric creaked again, getting stuck on Peggy’s shoulders. Both of them froze, and Peggy held her breath in the hopes that would help. Angie gave the zipper another experimental tug to no avail, before slipping her hand between the dress and Peggy’s shoulder blade in the attempt to nudge it down one arm.
Turning Peggy around, Angie signed with mock sternness, ‘No more weights!’
“I can’t help it!” Peggy hissed, shuffling her bare feet and trying her damndest not to accidentally rip the dress in two.
Biting her lower lip thoughtfully, Angie moved to stand on the bench along the wall to get a better angle with Peggy’s height. Slowly, painstakingly, they worked the dress free, until at last Peggy heaved a sigh of relief clad in nothing but her underwear.
Angie very carefully did not let her gaze wander, though Peggy noticed the discreet way her eyes darted to the mirror when she thought Peggy wouldn’t notice.
Draping the offending garment over one arm, Angie signed, ‘Next store,’ and left Peggy to clamber back into her own clothes.
By the end of the day they managed to marathon nine different stores, including an additional shoe shop, and returned to the apartment with no less than six new outfits. Feeling drained yet strangely triumphant – neither of them up for cooking – they sank back onto the lumpy sofa with their bags strewn carelessly by the front door, and ordered take-out.
It was, Peggy realised when she crawled into bed later that evening, the first time since coming out of cryo that she had managed to face a whole day outside.
As a thank you for putting up with her for a whole day of shopping, Peggy bought Angie tickets to a live music concert. She’d used her tablet to listen to the band’s music before deciding – rather arbitrarily in hindsight – that Angie might like them. After purchasing the ticket, she figured that at least Angie would appreciate the gesture if nothing else.
Foolishly Peggy hadn’t thought to buy a ticket for herself, a fact Angie quickly rectified.
‘Half the fun of a concert is going with friends, you dunce.’ Angie wrote on the extra ticket she printed out and stuck to Peggy’s door for her to find when she returned from a sparring match with Natasha.
At least it was an excuse to wear one of her new outfits.
‘You look nice.’ Angie pointed out while they were settling into their seats at the venue. ‘You must have a great fashion ________.’
Peggy didn’t know that word. Angie spelled it out with her fingers: ‘advisor.’
Rolling her eyes, Peggy nudged Angie’s elbow with her own, resulting in a playful wrestle over the arm rest between them. She let Angie win.
Behind them people began filing into their seats. “Great,” a woman whispered to her friend. “We get to sit behind Sasquatch.”
Wilting, Peggy tried to sink lower in her seat, but her knees pressed up against the seat in front of her until she felt like a sardine, and the man sitting there shot her an ugly look over his shoulder. Angie noticed, and reached over to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. She held onto Peggy’s hand even as the lights began to dim.
When the music started, Peggy could feel Angie hold her breath as if to catch the vibrations in her chest. Angie kept hold of her hand through the performance, tapping out the rhythms against Peggy’s palms. Every so often her fingers splayed out to match a chord shimmering in the air amidst all the smoke and flashing lights.
(Trumpets blare to the march of drums as Peggy exits the state. The Captain America suit pulls in places she’d rather not mention, but at least the boots are comfortable. She doesn’t know what she’d do if they asked her to prance about in front of a crowd in heels.
“You really know how to work a crowd,” a familiar voice says to her right, and she turns to find Steve leaning against one of the wooden stage struts.
With a harsh self-deprecating bark of laughter, Peggy pulls back the white-winged hood from her mussed curls. “Thank god joining the army didn’t preclude my true vocation.”
Steve’s answering smile is so soft she has to look away and fiddle with the straps of the tin shield on her arm. Then he says, “You’re meant for more than this, you know.”)
The broad-flowing music washed over her, wave after wave. Peggy didn’t notice she was clutching Angie’s hand until her fingers were crushed, but when she tried to let go, to pull away, Angie squeezed back just as tightly.
A high piercing whistle. Then a bang like a seismic explosion, like the memory of shattered bone.
Peggy bolted awake, chest heaving. Her shirt stuck to her like a second skin, soaked completely through with sweat. Eyes wide, her head jerked around, searching for where the next barrage would strike, ready to scramble for cover.
Outside the apartment, a car trundled down the street.
Peggy drew in a slow shaky breath. She leaned her head back against the wall and stared up at the chipped paint on the ceiling. No matter how deep and steady and even she tried to make her breathing, she couldn’t stop the shaking.
Five minutes of this later, she kicked the sheets off and got out of bed. Crossing to the chest of drawers, she hastily crammed her legs into a pair of sweatpants and switched out her top for a lightweight compression shirt.
At 03:00 most gyms would be closed, but she passed by a 24-hour fitness centre on 5th not long ago. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind if she ruined a few of their heavy punching bags.
The first time Peggy noticed Clint Barton’s hearing aid, they were crammed into the back of a carrier aircraft on the way to their first mission together. Peggy had only recently been cleared for active duty, largely – or so she suspected – due to Natasha’s reports back to Fury about their sparring matches and conversations.
‘Do you know ASL?’ Peggy signed to him from where they sat across from one another in the dim belly of the ship. ‘I want to practice.’
He blinked, his fingers pausing in his meticulous counting of arrows in his quiver. Than he signed back, ‘Of course. Why are you learning?’
‘My—’ and here Peggy stumbled because she didn’t know the word for flatmate, so instead she used, ‘—friend. She’s deaf.’
He nodded in understand. ‘How long have you been learning?’
‘Two months.’ Peggy answered.
‘Use –’ he made a gesture she didn’t know, ‘-to express time.’
Slowly she repeated the motion. Clint shook his head and made the gesture again so she could mimic it correctly, smiling when she got it right.
To one side Natasha watched them, her eyes tracking their movements with a certainty that belied her knowledge of the language. Peggy wasn’t sure what secret assassinations required the use of sign language, but they must have existed. Or perhaps Natasha and Barton were better friends than she liked to let on.
When she thought neither of them were looking, she pulled back the gauntlets encircling one wrist to scratch at the skin there, revealing a mass of scarred tissue. Peggy only caught a glimpse from the corner of her eye, but it was enough to realise that was doubtlessly where Natasha’s soul mark had once been.
“Why’s it suddenly so quiet in there?” Tony’s voice crackled through their earpieces from where he was soaring beside the aircraft in his suit. “Don’t tell me you all had simultaneous aneurysms. If you don’t answer: I’m taking it as a yes.”
Natasha hastily covered her wrist once more. “Cap and Clint are using ASL and talking about Cap’s girlfriend.”
“Flatmate,” Peggy corrected, and Natasha smirked.
“She’s cute! And a musician. Nice.” Tony said after pulling up information on his helmet screen. “Hang on. Her SHIELD file says she’s deaf. Apart from the obvious Beethoven, how can you be a composer and be deaf?”
“The same way you can be so intelligent yet such an idiot all at the same time,” Clint replied dryly.
“SHIELD has a file on my flatmate?” Peggy asked, incredulous.
Natasha shrugged, matter-of-fact. “SHIELD has a file on everyone. Have you not looked at your own?”
“I’ve been purposefully avoiding it actually,” Peggy answered.
Natasha gave her a meaningful look. “You might want to reconsider.”
“More importantly,” Tony butted in, clearly miffed that the conversation had drifted so far away from him. He really was his father’s son. “I could just invent a more elegant and effective cochlear implant, thereby curing deafness as we know it.”
“See, that’s exactly your problem, Tony.” Clint recounted arrows and checked his pockets for backup bowstrings. “You think everything needs to be fixed.”
Any snappy comeback Tony may have had stored away for a rainy day was never heard however, as the warning light flashed red, siren blaring.
“Incoming.” Natasha tossed a parachute to Clint. When she made to do the same for Peggy, she was waved away, Peggy striding straight for the open hatch.
In retrospect, diving headlong from a plane hurtling through the air and into a company of ruthless mercenaries wasn’t Peggy’s best idea to date. Though knowing exactly why she did so – pummelling a handful of them before Tony and the others could swoop in to lend assistance – didn’t help much. She always did feel more at home in the thick and thrill of a fight. Teeth clenched. Knuckles bloodied. Face and clothes torn. Which, of course, was its own problem.
She’d be limping and sporting deep scratches for days. But now, here, at last she was temporarily satisfied.
Back at the Triskelion, where she’d cleaned herself up and ignored the glare of a hovering medic, Peggy’s curiosity got the better of her. She snuck into a side room and glanced at her file on a computer screen.
Turned out her brother was long dead – as she had suspected – and she had a niece Fury had neglected to tell her about.
Sharon Carter. SHIELD operative. Agent 13.
Any fleeting satisfaction Peggy had felt in the field earlier that day was well and truly gone now.
Later that same weekend, in an attempt to cheer herself up, Peggy braved the fluorescent halls of a department store and returned home with a record player. A flattened cardboard box and packing pellets scattered across the floor, Peggy was setting the record player up in their living room when she realised that in her haste to return to the safe pall of the apartment, she’d forgotten to buy any actual records. At that moment Angie walked through the door to find Peggy sitting back on her heels and glaring at her latest purchase.
When she saw what it was, Angie beamed and promptly rushed into her room. She returned brandishing an armful of records with scratched and faded covers.
Placing the stack of records on to the floor beside Peggy, she reached into her handbag and triumphantly pulled out her own most recent purchase, signing, ‘I’m making this tonight.’
A box of Captain America themed pasta.
Peggy shot her an unamused look. “I’m not sure how I feel about cannibalism.”
With an impish grin, Angie waggled her eyebrows and shook the box so that the pasta in the shape of Peggy’s face rattled.
Fighting back a smile, Peggy pushed the box away, turning her attention to the stack of records to her left. As she crossed her legs and pulled the records into her lap to browse, Angie wandered into the kitchen to make dinner. Not recognising any of the artists – save Billie Holiday – Peggy picked an album at random; the cover of a wraithlike woman descending into a cloud of ink, emblazoned in pink with ‘THE QUEEN IS DEAD.’
The needle dragged along a black disc, and Peggy turned the volume up before standing to help Angie prepare food. By the time she got there, Angie had already set the pasta to boiling and was running a wooden spoon through a simple cherry tomato, basil, and garlic combination in their only frying pan.
She flashed her fingers to indicate two more minutes, then pointed Peggy to the cabinet where she stored the odd bottle of alcohol. Taking the hint, Peggy hummed along to the music while she pulled down a bottle of wine and began to set the table.
Hesitating, Peggy grabbed two glasses instead of the usual one for Angie. She didn’t want to waste Angie’s wine – cheap though the bottle may have been – but drinking a glass over dinner couldn’t hurt.
If Angie noticed the change, she didn’t point it out as she ladled pasta into each bowl. Taking her seat across from Angie, Peggy speared a piece of pasta with her fork and made a face. Each piece was stamped with the trademark ‘A’ across her forehead, the expression beneath a vapid caricature of herself made all the more grotesque after being boiled.
Fighting back a grin, Angie signed, ‘The resemblance is uncanny.’
“Oh, be quiet,” Peggy growled, stuffing the fork into her mouth and chewing with more vigour than necessary.
Angie sniggered into her bowl. The meal progressed slowly as they sipped at wine and stopped for frequent conversations in ASL, Angie gently correcting Peggy’s mistakes.
‘You’re getting better,’ she encouraged.
Peggy’s fork clinked against the rim of her bowl as she put it down to sign and chew at the same time, ‘Practice.’
‘With that _______ lady?’ Angie asked, using a word Peggy didn’t know.
Puzzled, Peggy repeated the motion. Angie swallowed a mouthful of wine as she reached over to grab the nearby pen and notebook. She wrote down the word and slid it over to Peggy: scary.
Seeing what was written there, Peggy went deathly still. Then she said aloud, “A red-haired woman?”
Angie nodded, a small frown creasing the space between her brows.
“Where?” Peggy asked, eyes hard.
Angie shrugged. ‘At work. She came in. Asked some questions. Said she was your friend.’
With a rough sigh, Peggy pinched the bridge of her nose. “What did you say?”
A soft touch on her wrist, and she realised she’d been covering her face. “Sorry,” she said, looking up into Angie’s concerned face. “What did you say?’
‘Nothing important.’ Angie assured her.
Over the music, Peggy heard a creak and when she looked down, the fork was folded upon itself in her fist. She dropped it, muttering, “Shit.” Then she drew a deep steadying breath and leaned back in her chair. “I’ll handle this. She won’t bother you again. I promise.”
In the background the music slipped into static, one side of the album finished playing. For a long moment – during which Angie sat at a loss for how to salvage an otherwise lovely evening, and Peggy scowled darkly at the now useless fork – it was the only noise. Until abruptly Angie threw back the last of her second glass of wine and rose to her feet.
Crossing to the record player, Angie sheathed The Smiths and dug through the pile for another record. With a wordless noise in the back of her throat, she pulled out an album depicting two monochromatic figures on a field of pale buttery gold. Carefully, the dart of a wine-darkened tongue poking from the side of her mouth, she placed the needle down and turned the volume up a few more notches – right on the bleeding edge of being too loud for irate neighbours.
As she stood, she nodded to the jangle of guitars. By the time she turned around, she was tapping her feet, shoulders moving to the rhythm, and she gestured for Peggy to join her.
Shaking her head with an incredulous smile, Peggy crossed her arms. But Angie reached out to grab Peggy’s hands, and Peggy reluctantly allowed herself to be hauled to her feet. Holding onto both her hands, Angie led, and Peggy, laughing under her breath, danced.
Just one song, she told herself. Nothing bad ever came from dancing one song. And if it made Angie happy, then –
The song changed to a woman’s gentle crooning voice, and Angie laced their fingers together, eyes soft as charcoal smeared across a page. In spite of herself Peggy swayed forward, and Angie had to lean her head back to keep Peggy in her sight. Her head buzzed from more than just a glass of wine. Flossy words like thunder and rain – or maybe that was the bruit of Peggy’s heart in her chest – evoked balmy summers, lightning the chase of heat on the tongue. Angie was smiling up at her, leading her through song, and Peggy was –
("You come back in one piece, you hear!" Steve's voice fades in and out of the comms channel, crinkled with static. "You still owe me a dance."
"I'll be there," Peggy insisted, gripping the steering yoke tight, still trying in vain to pull back on it, to level out the aircraft.
"Don't be late." Whether the words crack from interference or emotion is difficult to tell. "That's tacky even for Captain America."
Peggy barks out a watery laugh. The fuselage groans and shudders, and she can feel the tremor in her bones. Out the window the horizon rushes upwards until she feels like a stationary object waiting for impact.
Angie's hand cupped her cheek across the nearly-healed scrapes from her mission earlier that week, and Peggy flinched as if scalded.
Pulling back, she turned away. "I should-" She had to clear her throat to continue, and barely remembered to move her head so Angie could see her speak. "I should do the dishes."
She’d never known her mother to look so young. Years enduring wartime at home put hollows in her eyes and knots in the joints of her fingers.
But of course this wasn’t her mother at all.
Sharon was the essence of Amanda. Peggy had always taken after Harrison – quick-tempered, sharp-tongued – but her brother had always taken after their mother. Fair-haired. Narrow-wristed. Eyes like an oft-treaded riverbank.
“You wanted to see me?” Sharon prompted her, tone frank, after Peggy had been staring for longer than was entirely proper.
Perhaps there was some resemblance between them after all.
“Yes,” Peggy replied, toying with the folds of her napkin. “I thought it was best we acquaint ourselves.”
“I know who you are,” Sharon said, and there lingered the touch of resentment in her voice. As if she’d been told all her life about the exploits of the Great Margaret Carter. As if she’d gone into SHIELD hoping to make a name for herself, only to be referred to by everyone as ‘Captain America’s Niece.’ As if Peggy were a spirit come back to haunt her in life as she had in death, a figure of myth from beyond the grave suddenly enfleshed.
Clearing her throat, Peggy held up her hand to hail Angie. They were sitting at a booth near the window of Angie’s café. It was adorned with muted pastels and broad strips of chrome like an old American diner. A small shiny box on the table boasted a selection of songs Peggy didn’t recognise for 5 cents apiece, but which only swallowed the nickel and refused to play. Peggy knew. She’d tried it once before.
“Can I get you anything?” Peggy offered to Sharon when Angie approached their table.
Normally Angie didn’t wait tables – too much interaction with other people that required communication – but today two people had called in sick and, short-staffed as they already were, Angie was forced out of her comfort zone in the kitchen and onto the floor whenever an order needed to be taken.
“Cappuccino, please,” Sharon said to Angie, who wrote the order on a little notebook.
“Tea for me, thanks.” Peggy gave Angie a weak smile, and in return Angie squeezed her shoulder before heading off to the kitchens once more.
The gesture was not lost on Sharon, who eyed Peggy but refrained from commenting. With Angie’s absence however, Peggy was once again at a loss for conversation topics.
Eventually, after a great deal of avoiding direct eye contact and forcing herself to stop fidgeting with the napkin, Peggy settled on, “Do you enjoy working for SHIELD?”
Sharon blinked. “I suppose,” she replied slowly, weighing her words. “I can’t imagine myself anywhere else, to be honest.”
“You know, your father –” Peggy smiled softly at the memories, “—he was never one for fighting.”
One of Sharon’s eyebrows quirked upwards, and she said, blunt, “I know. That’s why he got divorced twice.”
Smile fading, Peggy had never been so glad to see a cup of tea in her life. Angie set their drinks in front of them, and Peggy pulled her mug closer with a murmured, “Thank you, darling.”
It just slipped out. Thoughtless.
Angie’s eyes widened, but she recovered quickly. Though not as quickly as she strode away from their booth, and not nearly as quickly as Peggy buried her nose in her cup of too-hot, too-weak tea. The dance that last weekend was still fresh in her mind, simmering away like an ember in water.
Ignoring her coffee, Sharon stared after Angie before turning her attention back to her aunt. “I assume you two know each other.”
“We’re flatmates,” Peggy’s voice was dulled around her cup.
A huff of derisive laughter, and Sharon took a sip of her coffee. “Is that what they called it back in the day?”
Peggy set the tea down firmly. “It’s not like that. I don’t—” Gritting her teeth, she maintained, “We’re friends.”
“Right. And Captain America doesn’t have a soul mark, so she doesn’t get distracted from her Greater Purpose.” Sharon snorted at Peggy’s stricken expression. “Please. I know enough about you to fill a book.”
“Or a museum,” Peggy muttered sourly, thinking back to New Orleans.
“God, I hate that place,” Sharon sighed, and she scowled into her coffee as though it had personally established the museum. “The state stole a bunch of Dad’s stuff to fill it, you know. Your medals and suit. Some personal photographs. Basically everything that should’ve come back to the family of the deceased from overseas. He managed to hide some things, but I bet if they’d found your body, they would’ve stolen that too.”
“In a way they have,” Peggy murmured, tracing the handle of her teacup.
She should never have been exhumed and revived. Only returned to the family for proper burial, even if it was too late for her brother who died in Baltimore back in ’03. At least Sharon could have had some closure, rather than this conversation with a ghost.
It wasn’t the first time Peggy wished they’d left her dead. Things were simpler then.
Sharon was studying her with piercing inscrutable eyes, and Peggy recognised the look from a mirror. “You’re allowed to live. You don’t need my permission. And –” Her mouth twisted into a line and she leaned forward, arms on the table. “—you’re allowed to have relationships apart from your soul mate. I know you missed the sexual revolution of the 60s but, trust me. The whole thing is bullshit anyway. You know what the odds even are of finding your soul mate? Depressing.” She leaned back in her seat and added with a shrug, “Besides, she seems nice.”
With a snort of laughter Peggy said, “Now you sound like Romanoff.”
“So...practical yet scary? I’ll take that as a compliment.” Sharon grinned, and it was the first time Peggy saw her genuinely smile.
The moment didn’t last long before it was ruined by some other customers.
“Hello? Hello?” A man and two of his friends craned their necks three booths over. He waved his arm in an attempt to get Angie’s attention through the gap in the wall leading to the kitchen, where she was working with her back turned.
“It’s the deaf girl,” one of the others reminded him. “Here.”
Crumpling up a napkin, he lobbed it at the kitchen. Chortling, the other two joined in until one managed to hit Angie on the back of the head. Her shoulders tensed and she turned slowly around to find them waving their wallets and mouthing the words ‘CHEQUE PLEASE.’
Stiff, Angie emerged from the kitchen to the till, her expression flat, motions jerky, and rang up their bill. Then she scratched something at the bottom of the receipt in pen and crossed the café to slap it down on their table.
Whatever she’d written had them glowering and muttering as she stormed back to the kitchen. One of them purposefully spilled what remained of his drink for her to clean up after they departed.
“Sharon,” Peggy said without taking her eyes off the three men while they threw down a handful of bills on the table where the crumpled notes floated in soda. “How would you like to join me in teaching those gentlemen some manners?”
Hard gaze tracking their exit from the café, Sharon replied, “Gladly.”
Together they stood and pursued.
In the end, their impromptu family reunion wasn’t such a catastrophe after all.
Peggy jerked awake in a cold sweat again. Her throat bobbed, parched, as she swallowed. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she sat there for a long moment, head in her hands, blood strumming beneath her skin. When the trembling faded to a more manageable frequency, she rose shakily to her feet, running her hands through her hair, which clung to her slicked brow and jaw. On the way to the kitchen, leaving the apartment dark and unlit, she grabbed a towel from the bathroom. She was mopping at her face when she entered the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks.
Angie stood with her back turned, leaning on the door of the open fridge to idly survey its contents. The gentle internal light from the refrigerator clung to the line of her waist and bare legs, and she shifted her weight, feet crossing at the ankles, hip jutting lazily to one side.
Peggy watched her scratch at the back of her neck before Angie leaned over to shuffle through the fridge for something in the back. Then, draping the towel over her shoulders, Peggy tore her gaze away and moved towards the sink for a glass of water.
When a torrent of cold water from the tap ran into a glass, Peggy’s hands appearing like an apparition from the dark, Angie started so badly she dropped the carton of eggs she’d been holding to get at the chocolate hidden in the fridge.
“Sorry,” Peggy winced, grabbing the towel from around her neck to help clean up the mess. “I should’ve known better.”
Together they bent over the ruined carton on the floor to mop up half a dozen cracked eggs. But midway through the task Peggy froze.
Angie’s long pyjama top had slipped down one shoulder, and there across her collarbone Peggy could read an unmistakable scrawl.
Terribly sorry I’m late.
The moment Angie realised what had happened, she shot upright, clutching the carton of eggs in one hand, the other twitching her shirt back into place to hide the mark etched into her skin. Her eyes were wide when Peggy rose slowly, clenching the towel so tightly her knuckles strained white.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Peggy asked softly.
With a defeated exasperated look, Angie motioned to all six feet of Peggy, then to herself, as though the two cancelled each other out.
Twisting the pilled fabric between her hands, Peggy got raw egg on her palm and wiped it away. She couldn’t have picked a less romantic moment if she’d tried. The cold emanating from the fridge pricking at their naked calves and forearms. Egg yolk splattered across the linoleum between their feet. Peggy thinking she must look a disheveled, exhausted mess, while the pale light struck Angie on one side, coveting the shadows at her cheeks and neck.
Old, half-remembered words came back through the years then, and Peggy repeated them now. “It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Funny. When she’d heard them back in ’43, they had sounded so much gentler and sincere. In her own mouth they were heavy, brittle as riverbed slate.
Angie fixed in place a tight smile, then moved past Peggy to put the carton in the rubbish bin – careful so that their shoulders didn’t brush. Meanwhile Peggy sat back on her haunches to finish cleaning up, and Angie returned to bed, pulling the door of her room firmly shut.
Peggy stormed down the halls of SHIELD, eyes blazing, purpose in her step. People got out of her way without question, parting before her like a body of water.
Further down the hallway that familiar head of red curls paused, tilted to one side, then vanished around a corner. With a low growl Peggy quickened her pace and followed. She had to chase Natasha down three different corridors before she finally caught up.
Rounding another corner, she stopped dead in her tracks when she found Natasha leaning against the wall and working her nails with a file.
“You sure do like your showmanship,” Natasha drawled, not bothering to glance up. “Did all those USO shows actually rub off on you?”
Hands clenched into fists, Peggy snapped, “Stop avoiding me, and maybe I won’t have to track you down in public.”
Natasha flipped her hand over to study the fine half-moon shape of her blunted fingernails. “What do you want, Carter? Some of us have jobs to do.”
Stepping in closer, Peggy towered to the best of her abilities. “Leave Angie alone.”
Most people cowered when Peggy loomed, but if anything Natasha seemed bored. “I haven’t touched her.”
“No, but you interrogated her. Which means Fury is almost certainly having her followed.” The muscles at Peggy’s jaw bunched. “Make it stop.”
Natasha gave the nail file a sly twirl between her fingers. “Don’t you want to know what she said?”
“No,” Peggy replied, voice flat, final.
“Well, she lied through her teeth for you.” Reaching up, coy, she tapped the nail file against Peggy’s sternum. “In my book, that means she’s a keeper.”
Peggy pushed Natasha’s hand away. “I don’t need a wingman.”
Tucking the file away, Natasha crossed her arms. “No, but you need friends.”
Peggy’s eyes turned flinty. “You’re not my friend.”
“Only because you won’t let me be.” And for once Natasha looked sincere. Or maybe it was all an act. Peggy could never truly tell.
“I don’t know if I can trust you,” Peggy replied, her words slow and honest.
Natasha’s eyebrows rose, and she countered, “But you trust Angie?”
There was no hesitation. Only an untarnished, unyielding conviction.
For a moment Natasha fell silent and studied Peggy’s face as if raking through ashes for the faintest glowing coal of doubt. Finally she nodded slowly, contemplatively, with a slight furrow in her brow. “I’ll talk to Fury. See what I can do.”
Neither of them mentioned the incident of the kitchen a week ago. Since then Peggy had been away in D.C., and their first interaction since her return was for Angie to burst through the front door with her arms laden with bags of groceries.
Coming over to help, Peggy made to put everything away, but Angie motioned towards the dining table instead. Which is where they found themselves now, sampling a wide variety of sweets, jams, cheeses, and pickled edibles on slices of bread.
Angie had salvaged a large piece of cardboard, taped it to the front of the refrigerator, and titled it ‘PROJECT REBIRTH 2.0.’ Beneath that she drew a chart of the brand names and food types they were eating, all ranked with a series of cartoon faces ranging from happy to excessively frowny.
‘So you can be more comfortable in the shops,’ Angie explained. ‘And so I can try out all these chocolates.’
Halfway through the astonishing pile of food, Project Rebirth 2.0 well underway with an ever growing chart, Peggy picked up a jar. She turned it around to show Angie the label and gave her an incredibly dubious look. Country Style Pickled Lime, it read.
Angie gestured for Peggy to open it, and, shaking her head, Peggy obeyed, slathering a healthy heap of it onto two hunks of flaky bread. Then, handing one over, she raised it as if in a toast, and at the same time they both took a bite.
Their eyes widened. Identical expressions of horror and all-consuming disgust washed over them. When they each saw the other’s face, they broke into stifled laughter, and – chairs scraping back – they rushed to the sink to spit out their mouthfuls.
“Bloody hell!” Peggy scrambled for a glass of water.
After they washed out their mouths, their eyes met over their glasses, and they burst into fresh bouts of laughter.
“That was foul.” Peggy wiped at her eyes, face split by a broad smile. “Never again.”
Still chuckling, Angie grabbed a pen and drew on the cardboard chart a little face with the largest frowniest eyebrows she could fit into the allocated box. Refilling her glass, Peggy watched her.
The feeling – the one that lurked in her footsteps through the years – was nowhere to be found, and when Peggy went instinctively grasping for it, she was met only with admiration for the curve of Angie’s back as she stooped before the fridge in their little apartment. The way the light from the setting sun glanced through the far windows and cast her all in warm honeyed bronze, as if Angie stood at the entrance of a long cavern, gilded. The way Peggy’s fingers itched to smooth across the bright line of her silhouette and feel the heat of skin beneath.
Standing up straight, Angie looked over at her and smiled.
The bell chimed. Peggy entered the florist’s shop. Greeted by the many bunches of flowers – helianthus with their clusters of black seedlings and waxy petals, irises like a bruised summer evening, roses, more roses in more colours than stars in a Belarusian sky or grains of sand along a Normandy beach – Peggy walked through the rows.
Every so often she would reach out and roll a thorny stalk, pinched between her fingers, only to move along to the next. And the next. Nothing seemed quite right. Nothing could capture all the words locked away she so desperately wanted to express.
At last, she decided upon a group of pale, pink-throated lilies. Picking them up, she took them to the back, where the florist waited with the till by his elbow, guarding a wall of vases and crepe-paper and silky ribbons.
“Buying them for a special someone, are you?” he asked with a wink, wrapping the lilies in paper with a grain like crushed silk.
Hesitating, after a pause Peggy answered, “Yes.”
Without another word, she handed over a few notes, bundled up the lilies in her arms, and departed into the grim foggy morning.
The last vestiges of early mist still clung to the cedars when she walked through the fastidiously maintained fields. Green-blooded grass ground beneath every heavy footfall, crisp. The field was otherwise empty. She was the only one, striding through the soupy air as the first filmy rays of dawn flooded the horizon at her back.
When she found what she was looking for, Peggy stopped. Beneath her hands, the wrapped lilies crinkled, and in the trees she could hear the strains of muted birdsong.
The white marble headstone read: STEVEN G. ROGERS 1920-2012
(She traces the black lines of a soul mark across Steve’s skin, right along his flank, and he recoils with a light laugh.
“That –” he says, peppering kisses across her brows and cheeks so that she scrunches up her face, “—tickles.”
In response Peggy grins wickedly, and his eyes widen.
“No,” he says firmly, holding up a warning finger, but before he can get another word in edgewise she’s rolled him over in bed, the sheets tangling in their legs, and he’s squirming away from her touch with wheezing laughter.
At one point he manages to grab hold of both her wrists and pull so that she’s forced to break her fall with her palms against the mattress. Short huffs of laughter still escape them as a wave of her hair falls into his eyes, and he has to tuck it behind her ear.
Peggy’s smile falters, and she asks, “Do you know who it is?”
He shrugs, carding his fingers through her hair, down her neck, coming to rest against the indentation of her spine. His eyes soften, “It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”)
Three months. She’d missed him by three months. If SHIELD had only found her body sooner, she could have – She would have –
Silently Peggy leaned the flowers against his headstone. She turned and walked away without a single glance back, and behind her in neat, white rows the graves extended to the far horizon.
Angie and Peggy’s relationship, for as long as Peggy had known it, had always been devoid of awkwardness, which was why when it finally cropped up Peggy didn’t know quite what to do.
They were cleaning dishes, Peggy with her sleeves rolled up and her forearms submerged in soapy water, beside her Angie drying spoons and glasses with a tea towel. At one point, Peggy handed over a sudsy mug, and their fingers brushed. Angie jerked her hand back as if burned, and if Peggy had been equipped with slower reflexes she wouldn’t have been able to snatch the mug from the air before it shattered to the ground.
Flustered, Angie grabbed the mug from where it was held loosely in Peggy’s grasp, and started drying it with a fixed intensity, avoiding her eye. Peggy turned back to the sink without comment.
After she’d finished, Peggy dried her hands on a spare towel as Angie began putting away the dishes. Utensils in the drawer next to the refrigerator. Cups to the right of the sink and left of the microwave. She was stretching up on her toes to stow away the stack of plates when her hands slipped.
Quick as a bolt from the blue for a second time in five minutes, Peggy was there, reaching over Angie’s head to grab the plates. As she pushed them into the cupboard, Peggy could see the flushed tips of Angie’s ears. Carefully, shrinking away so that their bodies touch as little as possible, Angie turned around where she was pinned between Peggy and the kitchen counter.
It was one of those rare times in which Angie had left her headphones behind in her room, leaving her brassy hair to fall freely around her shoulders. The thought rose – of kissing her, of touching her – and suddenly Peggy reached up, palm cupping Angie’s jaw. Angie’s breath hitched when Peggy ran her thumb lightly over her lower lip.
Snatching her hand back, Peggy breathed, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have –”
Before she could pull away, Angie seized handfuls of Peggy’s shirt and dragged their mouths together.
A small involuntary noise at the back of Peggy’s throat, and haltingly she slid her hands into Angie’s hair, holding her closer. Angie smoothed her hands down Peggy’s front, coming to grip Peggy’s waist, swaying forward until they were pressed flush together.
“We should –” Peggy gasped when she broke away for a brief moment, both of them breathless. “I mean – We don’t have to –” Even as she spoke, she traced the gentle dip of Angie’s clavicle. “I like being your friend, but saying I don’t want anything more would be a lie.”
With a wry smile Angie signed, ‘Luckily those aren’t mutually __________.”
‘Exclusive’ – Peggy guessed from context, but she received further confirmation when Angie took hold of her wandering hand and nipped lightly at her fingertips.
“Very lucky,” Peggy replied hoarsely, inhaling sharply as Angie turned her hand over to mouth at the soft underside of her wrist.
Seeing the piqued look on Peggy’s face, Angie let loose a huff of laughter. Then, keeping hold of Peggy’s hand, she dragged her off to her bedroom.
Peggy soon found out that for someone who normally went through life without speaking, when the occasion called for it Angie sure could make a lot of noise.
They’d used Angie’s bed on account of claims that it was slightly larger, but Peggy swore blue and blind that her feet hung out over the end of the mattress even more so than on her own.
‘Stop slandering my poor bed,’ Angie signed with faux severity – it was difficult to achieve true severity when she was naked and pressed up against Peggy’s side, looking sated and very mussed. ‘It does good service.’
“It’s not slander if it’s true,” Peggy replied with a grin. For good measure she kicked her bare feet so that her calves hit the end of the mattress. “Look! You see!”
In response Angie refused to look and instead grumbled wordlessly into the space between Peggy’s neck and shoulder. A hum of amusement snared in Peggy’s chest, and she carded one hand through Angie’s hair, less in an attempt to tame it than to revel in the feel of it between her fingers.
“In everyone’s life we must all face certain uncomfortable truths,” Peggy continued, and Angie kept her ear to Peggy’s skin to both hear and feel the dampened vibrations echoing there. “And the fact of the matter is: if we want to continue having fantastic sex, then we’re going to need a bigger bed.”
‘Fine.’ Angie hooked one of her legs over Peggy’s so that she was half draped across her. ‘But it’s going in your room.’
Glancing around at the many instruments and cables and the desk crowded in Angie’s room, Peggy conceded, “That’s fine.”
Angie hummed a few notes of agreement, pressing her nose against Peggy’s neck, wrapping her arm tightly around Peggy’s waist.
“Just out of curiosity,” Peggy said after a moment, hand trailing up and down Angie’s back. “Can you speak?”
Leaning up on one elbow, Angie signed uncertainly, ‘Do you want me to?’
Peggy shrugged and laid a kiss along Angie’s hairline, making sure to pull back enough when she spoke so Angie could see, “You don’t have to. Only if you’re comfortable.”
Angie’s eyes narrowed, and she countered with, ‘You’re not going to panic because of your no-soul-mark whatever?’
“I don’t panic.”
Angie gave her a knowing, brook-no-nonsense look.
“Much,” Peggy amended with a huff. “Besides, it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Angie’s expression turned to exasperation at having that same line bandied around again. Then she said aloud, the words round and weighty in her mouth, “You’re an idiot, English.”
She was still laughing when Angie flipped them over to straddle her. Settling her hands on Angie’s hips and stroking at the soft curve there with her thumbs, she chuckled, “Now that would’ve been an excellent soul mark.”
Rolling her eyes, Angie leaned down to kiss her. “It wouldn’t matter anyway.”
“Why’s that?” Peggy hummed against her lips. The breath caught in her chest when one of Angie’s hands wandered down to palm her breast.
“Because,” Angie answered like it was obvious, “the first thing I said to you was in sign.”
It was only when they were halfway through the shop that Peggy realised the mattress store was the very first where she hadn’t hesitated to enter, hadn’t felt the crawl of unease grip the base of her spine.
Flopping down beside Angie on what must have easily been the twenty-fourth mattress of the day, Peggy clambered further up to check if the bed was too short.
“Hmm.” Her mouth twisted, and she frowned in appraisal at her feet. “Not bad,” she admitted after a moment.
On the other hand Angie bounced, searching for any loose squeaky springs with a suggestive waggle of her eyebrows. ‘Anything?’ she asked.
Peggy grinned and shook her head. “Quiet as the grave. Unlike some people I know.”
Angie grabbed a nearby pillow and smacked her with it.
It didn’t take much to fend her off, and soon they were lying side by side and smiling up at the ceiling, sprawled out on the mattress.
‘How tall where you before?’ Angie signed suddenly, turning her head.
“170cm. About 5’7”.” Peggy clarified, gazing up at the floodlights dangling high up among the steel warehouse rafters. “The serum changed nearly everything about me. And nothing.”
She hadn’t spoken about the serum or her time in the war before this moment. Most people Peggy interacted with already knew enough about it that she couldn’t be bothered to correct their rampant misconceptions – that would mean opening up, disclosing secrets she was too accustomed to keeping close to her chest. But here and now – lying next to Angie in a sea of mattresses like clouds while salespeople eyed them from a distance – speaking about it felt calm, secure. Cathartic.
Angie nudged her, bumping their shoulders together. ‘Do you want to try another one?’ She gestured to the many mattresses scattered around.
“No. I like this one.” Peggy shook her head and, smiling, took Angie’s hand. “Let’s go home.”