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Chapter One


 If you asked Tony Stark, April Fool’s day was the best holiday in the year.  Fourth of July was unquestionably Cap’s day, and woe betide the person who tried to beat Black Widow to the last pair of high heels on Black Friday, but April Fool’s day was the Tony Stark day.  

He’d been up since the absolutely ungodly hour of seven thirty in the morning, busily preparing Stark Tower for the big day.  He’d already swapped all the DVDs into the wrong cases, turned everything in the kitchen upside-down, tampered with Bruce's computer screen, and was on his way into the bathroom with a roll of plastic wrap when his personal cell rang.

It was Nick Fury.  Tony seriously wished he had checked the number before answering.

Since the dramatic crash of SHIELD a few months before, Fury had been laying low, utilizing some of Tony’s resources and employees.  Slowly he had reconnected with other loyal agents, uncorrupted by HYDRA, and began to rebuild the once-great organization.  Finally, he had moved out of Stark Tower’s basement and vanished off of Tony’s screens.  

Frankly, that was just fine with Iron Man.  He couldn’t stand the guy, so it wasn’t a nice surprise to hear his voice over the line.

“Tony, how many times do I have to tell you off for sending your tech where it isn’t supposed to go?”

“I dunno, lost track,” Tony answered absently, trying to hold the phone with his shoulder while pulling plastic wrap off the roll. He hadn't used plastic wrap since he was a kid, but how hard could it be?

“Well, quit doing it and come get your probe.”

The plastic wrap stuck to his fingers and wadded up at the lightest touch.  He scowled and almost dropped his phone.  “Okay, okay.  Wait, what probe?  I haven’t sent off any probes…”  but Fury had already hung up.

He fought with the plastic wrap for another five minutes before giving up, chucking the entire thing into the garbage can on the way out the door.  Plastic wrap was overrated anyway.  Besides, the longer Fury waited, the more angry the man would get.  Tony didn’t mind how mad Fury got - in fact, it was fun to egg him on - but he really wanted to find out what that probe was.  Maybe it was the glove from the Mark XLII suit that had got its tracking device disabled and had flown off during a battle last month.

It didn’t occur to him that the whole thing was quite possibly an elaborate April Fools’ joke until he had reached the temporary NYC SHIELD headquarters and Fury had ushered him towards a set of doors.  By then, it was too late to do anything but think of a good comeback.  Tony was so busy thinking up a good one that it took him two or three minutes to realize what exactly was lying on the table in the middle of the lab.

It was a piece of Stark Tech, that was for sure.  The large STARK printed in a hexagon on both ends of the long capsule was unmistakable.  What was odd was the fact that Tony couldn’t remember ever having seen that particular piece of technology before, let alone creating it.

“It’s not mine,” he suddenly realized, turning away from the thing on the table.

“It’s got one of your old logos on it,” said Fury, who hadn’t moved from the doorway.

Tony shrugged lightly, spinning his phone in his hand.  “Yeah? I’m not the only Stark who liked to mess around with stuff.  It must be one of Howard’s old things - that’s one of his experimental logos that I used for a few years before I could come up with something better.”  Tony had only used that particular logo twice, and both times Howard had been so dismissive that he’d never bothered to show his father any more of his inventions.  

“If it was your father’s, then it’s yours now.  Get it out of our hair,” Fury said, but Tony shook his head.

“I don’t want it.  You want it, you can keep it, or throw it away or something.  I don’t really care.”

That was how, five minutes later, Tony Stark found himself installed at a desk in Fury’s office, staring at a pile of paperwork at least two inches thick with yellow sticky notes poking out between the pages to mark the places that needed his signature.  Apparently you couldn’t just say, “take it;” you actually had to go through some kind of legal procedure.

Afterwards, he never was able to say how he’d seen it.  It just went to show that he did read small print when he signed things.  Sometimes.  Occasionally.  Maybe Pepper was finally rubbing off onto him.

....whereupon the undersigned abdicates and abjures wholeheartedly and unconditionally the position of next-of-kin to the deceased…

“Wait a minute,” Tony jerked out of his seat as if the yellow sticky note had bitten him, his half-scrawled signature spiraling out into a line across the page.  “Next-of kin?  What deceased?  Who?”

“Long story.  Sign it, and we’ll talk,” Nick Fury tried in his most reasonable tone.

Unfortunately, reasonable tones had never worked on Tony Stark.


The receptionist working in the main office of SHIELD’s new cover facility was used to abrupt interruptions - working for a spy organization, how could she not?  Still, she was startled by the sudden outburst of shouting coming from Fury’s office.  

“How could you not tell me?  Seems to me like this should be the first thing out of your mouth…  ... some kind of farce, trick me into signing it over?”   The door slammed open and Tony stormed out of Fury’s office with an armful of papers, tramping past her desk, looking mere inches from calling a suit and sending the place up in a ball of fire.

“You’ll be hearing from my lawyers!” he tossed back over his shoulder, bristling with palpable indignation.

Uncertain, the receptionist reached for the lockdown button beneath her desk.  “Sir?” she asked, but Fury shook his head, his one eye following Stark’s progress on the security monitors as the billionaire left the building.

“Let him go.”  


Out in the parking lot, Tony heaved the armful of papers into his convertible.  Loose pages tumbled onto the floor and scattered across the passenger seat, and he snatched one up to crumple in his fist and shake back at the silent building. Taking special pleasure in gunning the engine, he rammed his car into gear and screeched loudly into the street.

Even for a daredevil driver such as Tony Stark, New York traffic can be excruciatingly slow, and there was plenty of time to think.  Or try to think - at the moment he was still a little shell-shocked.  

Pepper.  

Pepper would know what to do, she always knew what to do.  Or Bruce.  Bruce might actually take this a little better - despite his status as the Hulk, he was the most low-key guy Tony knew.  Pepper could get a little excitable sometimes, in unusual situations.

This situation certainly qualified as unusual.

Bruce.  Bruce would know what to do.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two


Bruce didn’t know what to do.

“This is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he muttered, shoving his glasses back up his nose and rummaging through the snowdrift of paperwork on the floor, trying to find the next page.  Among the legal papers were digital scans of the inside of the probe, which was most certainly not a probe, and he was finding them very interesting.

“Stranger than turning green when you’re angry?  ‘Cause I know somebody who does that, and some people might think it’s pretty weird,” Tony quipped, scrolling through the SHIELD files on his screen.  Natasha had leaked them online a few months ago at the height of the SHIELD vs. Hydra fiasco. As soon as they’d been able to get their proverbial feet under them, SHIELD had put specialists on the job of hunting down their spilled files and deleting them.  

Fortunately for them, they’d been mostly successful.  

Unfortunately for them, Tony had a private server equipped with his own formidable anti-spyware, and he had copied the entire file dump onto it within seconds of it hitting the internet.  Those files had come in handy a few times already, so he was hoping they might have information on this new situation.

Bruce shook his head and ignored Tony completely, carefully pulling page 692 out of the pile.

“Aha, here we are,” sang Tony, spinning around on his chair and blowing the file up big enough for Bruce to see from where he sat.  “15 August, 1947: Aircraft went missing in the Arctic, manned by her and Corporal Timothy Dugan, yadda yadda yadda - yeah.  Looks like we found it.”

“Found what?”

Tony jumped perhaps six inches and spun his chair to scowl at the newcomer.  “Watch it, Cap - one of these days you’ll sneak up on me and I’ll nail you with a repulsor.”

Steve Rogers grinned and leaned against the doorframe, unlacing his boxing gloves.  He’d been down in the gym again.  “That’ll be the day.  You need help with those papers?”

Tony wasn’t listening; he’d gone back to the file on the screen - the one, Bruce realized with a sinking heart, that was big enough for him to read from his place on the floor, let alone the super soldier in the doorway.  Suddenly he didn’t want Steve to step any further into the room.

“No thanks, I’ve got them,” Bruce started piling the rest of the papers up haphazardly.  “Hey, Tony, weren’t we going to work on that project of yours?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony waved a hand dismissively.  “Say, Cap, this is right up your alley - you ever heard of an Agent Margaret Carter?  Her body just turned up at the North Pole in a Stark Tech capsule from the 1940’s.”

Bruce’s heart sank.

The sparkle died in Steve’s eyes, but he kept his voice light.  “Not funny, Stark - I’m not so old I don’t know about April Fools day.  Clint and I already had to turn the refrigerator right-side up.”

Tony stared for a moment and then started sputtering with indignation.  Bruce cut in before he could make things worse.  “Steve, we’ve been looking through the SHIELD record dump, and I’ve seen the scans of the capsule.  Corporal Dugan and Agent Carter were lost in the Arctic in late 1947.  The wreckage was only recently recovered.”

Steve's face didn't move a muscle, but he reached for the doorframe as if the floor had suddenly gone soft around his feet. "You're saying," he cleared his throat, "you're saying Peggy came after me?"

"It looks that way. Steve, I'm so sorry..." Bruce gestured helplessly, uncertain what to say and hating the feeling.

"Do - do we know how - was it - "

Bruce stepped closer to his friend, trying to figure out how to comfort him.  "It would've been quick. They had a cryo tube with them - they were probably trying to recover your body. We don't know why, but she was found inside the tube, probably in an attempt for protection from the crash.  It shielded her well - the scans show no massive trauma - but she probably froze to death before regaining consciousness. It's doubtful she felt anything, Steve."

Steve nodded, trying to be polite even now. "Ah, thank you for telling me. I..." His voice broke and he turned to go.

Tony, who was in the dark and unhappy about it, broke in.  "Um - wow, you were close, right?  I’m thinking you must've been close.  Bruce?  Stop poking me!  Bruce!"


Hours later, Pepper came out to the balcony with a file.  Steve, sitting near the railing, stood to greet her.  She saw him snap something small and metallic shut and slide it into his pocket, but didn’t comment.  Instead, she sat on the lounge chair beside his, and propped the file on her knees.

“Steve, do you have a minute?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he resumed his seat, not quite meeting her eyes.  She noted the grazed, still healing knuckles and his wet hair - he’d probably just come back from beating up punching bags in the gym, without boxing gloves if his knuckles were anything to go by.

“I know it’s hard,” she began gently as she flipped open her file, “but we have some logistics to go over.”

He ducked his head, swiping his hair back.  “I know.  I’ve been trying to think, but I’m not sure who her next of kin would be.  She had one brother serving on the front lines, but he was killed before I ever even made it over there.”

That, Pepper knew.  “Actually, the records are a little messy, but we think he wound up as a prisoner of war, escaped to Switzerland, survived, married, had three children, and passed away in 1991.”  

Steve's head jerked back a little, surprised she knew all that, and Pepper smiled before continuing. “His children are not her next of kin though.  When SHIELD was formed, Agent Carter signed a number of papers, including one designating Howard Stark as her next of kin.  I don’t think she ever knew that her brother had survived, since he was in a hospital in Switzerland for some time after his escape."

She rifled through the papers on her clipboard, checking to see if they were all there.  "Since Howard has passed on, Tony is the next in line.  At the moment, he has legal custody, and her body will be transferred into his care tomorrow.”

Steve looked out over the city again, jaw set, and Pepper's heart ached for him.  She'd been to the Smithsonian; she'd seen the newsreels of Captain America laughing and joking, surrounded by his peers.  

Now, here in the future, he still smiled when with his friends, but he was different too - more serious, less open.  She worried for him.  He had to have known that Peggy was long dead, but the news that she had been killed looking for him had obviously struck a heavy blow.

Pepper took a deep breath and held out the clipboard.  “I would like your help in planning the funeral.  I didn’t know her, but you did.  If you’re willing, could you be involved?”

Steve bowed his head for a minute, and then nodded.  “I’d be honored, ma’am.  Thank you.”

They sat in silence for a long time, listening to the muffled roar of the traffic far below.

“Her mother and father are buried in England - I’m not sure where,” Steve suddenly volunteered.  “It would be nice if she could be with them.  Assuming, of course, the cemetery is still there.”

Pepper adjusted the hair picks in her bun.  “Why wouldn’t it be there?”

“Lots of things have changed since I was last there,”  Steve said, and for a moment Pepper could see the years in his eyes.  “New buildings, parking lots - it could have been destroyed in the Blitzkrieg.”  An echo of a screaming bomb rang in his ears, and he flinched slightly, snapping back to the reality of the balcony in New York.

“Well, if anybody can find it, JARVIS can,” Pepper reassured him, pulling up a holographic screen and tapping out commands.  “I’ll have him run a search on it, and check the results in the morning.  Do you need anything else before I go to bed?”

He thanked her politely, rising from his seat as she left.  Then he settled back down and stared up at the sky, vainly seeking the otherworldly comfort of the stars beyond the haze of light pollution.  One more thing that had changed - a fellow couldn’t even see the stars anymore.

Perhaps he’d go back to the gym.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three


"Bruce, you around?"

The sound of Steve's voice pulled Bruce from his study of several screens. The super soldier rarely came down to the labs, so the visit was unusual, though not unexpected. Digging his way out from the nest of books and data screens that had somehow developed around him, the doctor pulled off his glasses. "Yes, I'm here. Anything you wanted?"

Since the revelation of Peggy's plane crash, Steve had been more of a ghost around the tower than anything else.  The day before, her body had been transferred to the tower.  Thor had taken Steve to a baseball game, keeping him occupied with foolish questions about the game and the players, though he knew the answers perfectly well.  They had returned late in the evening, after her body had been safely stored away.

Ever since, Bruce had been waiting for this visit.

"I was wondering if I - if it really is Peggy Carter."  The captain hovered at the door of the lab, not quite entering.  His face was set firmly, and he had the air of a man who was about to face his greatest sorrow.  Bruce understood what he was really trying to ask.

"Would you like to see her?  You can positively identify her for us; make sure we have the right person."

Nodding, Steve stepped resolutely forward and followed the doctor to the state-of-the-art cryogenic unit in the corner.  The original cryo tube had been very old, and Tony had expressed concern about how long it would continue to operate. In his opinion, the only thing keeping it cold for all those years was the sub-zero temperatures of the environment it had been in.  

Once removed from arctic to New York weather, the old unit had immediately displayed some worrying temperature fluctuations.  They had promptly moved Peggy Carter's body to Stark's new cryo unit, only installed a few weeks before. It had a large plastic window in the side, which Bruce now uncovered for Steve's benefit.  

The captain's breath caught suddenly in his throat.

She was still the same as ever - the same face, the same hair - no, it was a little longer than when he had last seen it. It had been over two years for her, he reminded himself. Two years since the last time he had seen her.

Of course, the last time he had seen her had been dramatically different.

Her hair had been blown straight back like a flag, fluttering and snapping in the backwash of Red Skull's plane. She had called to him, caught a strap on his uniform, and pulled him towards her, face vibrant and full of life, eyes worried for his safety. That was when she had kissed him for the first and last time, and he had finally, irrevocably lost his heart.

Now she lay white and cold before him in a rumpled khaki flight suit. Her hair, tossed and in a slightly unfamiliar style, lay around her head like a frozen halo, gleaming with frost. One arm was thrown loosely above her head and the other draped across her middle, fingers curled and still, red nails shining beneath their frosty coating.

Perhaps most comforting was the look on her face. In his nightmares, Steve had seen her alone and terrified, slowly freezing to death as she struggled to get out.  Instead of the terror he’d feared to see though, her face was soft and calm; long eyelashes and cheeks sprinkled with tiny ice crystals, looking as if she had been sleeping or unconscious when she died.  

"...teve?  Steve?  Are you okay?"

Steve wrenched his eyes from the still figure in the chamber. He could not smile; his face felt strained and stiff, but he politely nodded his thanks, turned on his heel, and left the lab.

It was only later, after he had broken two more punching bags, that he realized he'd never positively identified Peggy Carter's body to Bruce.

It didn't seem to matter - Bruce never asked him.


Steve filled the next few days as full as possible.  He was glad there was a lot to do.  Besides the usual individual and team training, there were endless reports to fill out, public appearances to schedule, and an ugly hostage situation at a nearby supermarket to settle.  On top of all that, he was working with Pepper on a daily basis, finalizing funeral plans.

Days were fine.  It was the nights that ate him alive.  

Sleep didn’t come easily, because every time he closed his eyes he would remember his own traumatic crash, only with Peggy in the control seat instead of him.  Other times it would be as if she’d never died, and was still alive to toss her curls and give orders in her crisp, decided way.  Those were the worst, because he would wake up and lose her all over again.  He spent most of his nights in the gym.  

The team was incredibly sympathetic, each one trying to reach out in their own way.  Natasha never said a word, but she made him chocolate chip cookies three times that week, slapping Clint's hand when he reached for more.  She also calmly smashed the lenses in two paparazzi’s cameras when they got too close to Steve during his longer-than-usual morning jogs, and threatened a third with dreadful reprisals via her own shoelaces.  They had wisely backed away.

Bruce sat down with Steve when the captain was too tired to think straight, helping him go over the plans for Peggy’s funeral.  He wasn't much good as a planner, but he was an expert at talking Steve to sleep with his low, quiet voice.  The next morning Steve would wake up on the couch to find Bruce’s afghan carefully tucked around his shoulders and the blinds drawn.

Clint completely vanished for four days, coming back with muddy boots and pictures of a graveyard and headstones for Thomas and Louisa Carter - pictures which JARVIS had not, in fact, been able to find.  Eyes full of wordless understanding, he slapped Steve on the shoulder before crashing facedown on his bed for fourteen hours.

Thor, surprisingly enough, was the only one who managed to get past Steve’s iron facade and get him to talk. He listened with the newfound sympathy he’d discovered at the loss of his own brother, graciously looking away when Steve’s voice cracked and he had to swipe at his eyes.  Afterwards, he offered to bring back a set of shieldmaiden armor to be buried with Peggy; an offer which Steve declined with extreme gratitude.  

Tony stayed the most apart.  Uncomfortable with grief, he spent most of his time knocking around in the labs, only emerging once to toss a folder into Steve’s lap with papers engaging a private jet, hotel reservations and a deed for the empty spot next to Thomas and Louisa’s graves.  Touched, Steve had tried to thank him, but Tony had merely waved him off and vanished into the labs again.


Curious at Tony’s reticent behavior, Bruce finally confronted him.  The billionaire was busily tinkering around under the hood of one of his cars, and didn’t notice him until he spoke.   “Tony, you’ve been really quiet.  You okay?”

Tony looked up, face streaked with grease.  “Hey, green guy.  What do you mean, ‘am I okay?’  I’m a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, of course I’m okay.  Pass me that wrench.”

Bruce would not be distracted.  ‘Tony…”  

“All right, fine.”  Tony slammed a piece of equipment into place with a crash and popped to his feet.  “How did you know who Peggy Carter was?  When I told Steve, you acted like you knew exactly who she was.”

Bruce leaned back against the counter, beginning to understand.  Friends of Tony Stark could sometimes forget the billionaire’s paranoia, his fear that the people around him were keeping secrets.  Bruce didn’t know everything, but he did know that Tony had been betrayed by close friends before.

“I wasn’t keeping anything from you,” he reassured.  “Remember - I spent ten years studying everything about Captain America, even before I ever started trying to recreate the Super Soldier serum.  I could tell you where he was born, if you wanted.  Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Brooklyn.  He almost died at birth - if his mother hadn’t been a nurse, he never would have pulled through.  On September 24, 19-”

“Okay, okay, creepy Cap expert, answer me this.”  Tony hesitated, then charged forward: “How did Peggy Carter know Howard?  The cryo tube and the plane were both Stark Tech.”

Bruce realized that this was the crux of the conversation.  Tony had never been close with Howard Stark - that was no secret.  Any unexplained connection to his father made him uneasy.

“Howard Stark wasn’t my focus of study," Bruce admitted.  "I do know that he was the top munitions and defense expert on the front lines and in London during the war.  He and Peggy would almost certainly have revolved in the same circles.  After the war, they were both involved in the foundation of SHIELD - their file dump probably has more on her, if you want to look.  She disappeared from history in the late 1940’s.  I never knew why until now.”

JARVIS interrupted the dead silence.  “Sir, Miss Potts is calling you and Dr. Banner for dinner.”

Tony banged around under the hood of the car for a moment more and then paused, leaning his forehead against the cool metal.  “Thanks, Bruce.  I appreciate it.  Go on up - I’ll be right there.”


 After Bruce left, Tony spent another five or ten minutes tinkering on the car before he decided that to delay any longer would be to invite Pepper’s wrath.  Wiping his face and hands on the least greasy corner of the nearest rag, he got to the top of the stairs just in time to hear Nick Fury’s voice through the open door.  Evidently there was an impromptu teleconference in session.

“We’re recalling Margaret Carter’s body for study and analysis.”

Clint shot to his feet, but a sharp look from his superior quelled him, and he reluctantly slumped back on the couch, glowering at the screen.  Pepper leaned forward, forehead furrowing.  “The funeral is scheduled for next week; will we get her body back in time?”

Fury’s one eye never wavered.  “The body will be retained indefinitely.  You can hold the funeral as a memorial service instead.  No, Rogers - that’s an order.”

Steve’s face was awful in its sudden grief.  He’d had his heart set on burying Peggy properly, and the whole team knew it.  It was the one thing left that he could do for her.

Tony made up his mind abruptly.  Running both hands briefly through his hair, he strode into the room with I-am-Iron-Man written all over him.  “You know what?  I don’t think so,” he airily addressed the director on the large screen.  “I’m her next of kin, it’s up to me to decide.”

“Back off, Stark,” warned Fury.  “She was an agent of SHIELD, and as such we have rights to her body.”

“Really?”  Tony bounced on his toes. “Like I said, I don’t think so.  Got a team of lawyers says I’m right.”

Fury glared from under his lowered brow.  “Back off, Stark,” he repeated slowly.  

"Why?"  It was Steve's turn to break in, regardless of Fury’s order.  "You turned her over to us - why take her back now?"

Fury looked impassive, which was his way of looking uncomfortable.  "SHIELD is still not fully operational. There were some oversights discovered while reviewing the paperwork.  Be aware, we are prepared to take legal action over this issue.”

Tony’s thread of patience snapped.  It was a very thin thread, to be fair.

“You do that, and I’ll pull all my tech from your organization.  All of it.  And don't think I can't do that.”  Tony flipped off the screen and spun toward Steve, looking him in the eye for the first time in days.  “I’ve got this.  You plan your funeral and whatever.”

Steve looked stunned at the unexpected defense.  “Tony…”

“Don’t!  I don’t want to hear it.”  Tony stuck his fingers in his ears and brushed past the supersoldier.  “Purely selfish motives.  I’m her next-of-kin, I’m responsible, and I don’t want Fury and his goons pawing over her.  We’re having that funeral.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Four


Late that night, Bruce wandered down to the lab to get his glasses.  He’d left them on the counter earlier when he was talking to Tony, and he wanted to read his new scientific journal before he went to bed.  

The lab was dark and quiet, except for the blinking of various monitors in sleep mode.  His glasses were on the end of a table, just where he’d laid them down earlier.  Picking them up, Bruce turned toward the door.

“Why do they want her?”

Bruce started violently and dropped his glasses to the floor with a clatter.  Trying to calm his pounding heart, he peered across the dim room toward the cryo freezer.  “Tony?  What on earth are you doing down here?

Tony was sitting cross-legged on a stool, looking through the frosted window of the cryogenic freezer.  He barely reacted to Bruce’s question.

“Why do they want her?” he mused aloud again, and it was obvious that his mind was a million miles away.  “Technically she’s just a frozen body - there must be a dozen others they could get their hands on at a moment’s notice.  So why her specifically?”

Bruce had no answer.

“Unless - unless,” Tony trailed off and pulled up a holographic screen.  

“Tony, you’d better head up to bed soon.”  Bruce knew it wouldn’t do any good, but he might as well try.

“Yeah, yeah, sure Pepper, just a minute,” Tony mumbled, completely distracted.

Bruce shook his head, picked up his glasses and left.  When Tony got like this, you could either drug him to sleep or let him work it off.

Alone in the lab, Tony flicked through the files from SHIELD, and then closed them with a wave of his hand.  “J?”

JARVIS woke with a nearly soundless whirr of servers.  “Yes sir?”

“Scan her again, deeper.  There’s something going on here.”

For the next half hour, Tony paced restlessly, finally pulling up pieces of the Mark XLIII to reconfigure.  He became so absorbed in refining the finger joints that he almost forgot the larger issue until JARVIS spoke again.

“Scan complete, sir.  Foreign substance detected.”

“Quantify,” Tony ordered.  There was a moment’s pause, and then JARVIS replied, sounding slightly affronted.  “It is not in my database.”

“Great!”  Tony hopped over a counter that was in his way, flipping quickly through the results.  The mystery substance looked like some kind of complex protein, but it was hard to tell.  He broke it down into components, swirling them around on the screen.  Then he froze, taking a closer look.

“JARVIS, is this what I think it is?”

“I do not have mind-reading capabilities installed, sir,” JARVIS responded placidly, but Tony hardly heard him, combining and recombining the elements on the screen.  Finally he leaned back, steepling his fingers and staring at the image before him, wryly impressed despite himself.

“Howard, you sly dog.”


The next morning at breakfast, the Avengers received notice of legal action being initiated against them.

Actually, to be more accurate, Steve, Pepper and Bruce received notice.  They were the only ones who were at breakfast.  Pepper hurried out of the room, yogurt in hand, cell phone already to her ear as she called up the Stark lawyers.  

Steve looked awful, Bruce decided, noting the bags under his eyes.  Probably he’d spent half the night in the gym again.  Steve, as if noticing the direction of his friend’s gaze, went diligently back to his breakfast.

“Think we have any chance?” he asked presently, and Bruce shook his head.  

“Ordinarily I’d say yes.  Tony Stark employs the best team of lawyers this side of the Sahara.  They’re the only reason I wasn’t handed over to General Ross ages ago - that and the fact that SHIELD added their protection.  But to have Stark and SHIELD at each others’ throats - I’m not sure who will win.”

Steve shook his head gloomily.  “SHIELD doesn’t play fair anymore.  I’m not sure they ever did.”

The dreary atmosphere was shattered by Tony, who came bouncing in as if he had rubber balls in his shoes.

“So,” he began by way of conversation, “JARVIS scanned your old girlfriend again last night.”

Steve choked on his cereal.  “She was never my girlfriend, Tony.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Like I said, JARVIS scanned her and found an anomaly.  I knew my AI was better than anything SHIELD could cook up!”

Steve looked blankly at Bruce, who mouthed “Artificial Intelligence,” at him.

“Apparently,” Stark went on, in the manner he used when unveiling the next big Stark invention, “she was injected with a cryoprotectant at some point, probably right before the plane went down.”

“A what?” asked Steve, but Bruce was no longer paying attention to him.  He set his teacup down very carefully, eyes fixed on Tony.  

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” he asked, voice dangerously level.

Tony spread his hands grandly, eyes bright from lack of sleep and far too much caffeine. “Why not?  We’ve got one Capsicle, might as well make it a pair.  Besides, once she’s alive, they can’t take her body, can they?”

Steve’s spoon hit the table with a clatter.  The blood drained from his face as he leaned back in his chair, overwhelmed by the implications of what Tony was saying, cereal completely forgotten.

Bruce shook his head, rising to his feet.  “Tony, you’re talking science fiction here.  Nobody has been able to avoid the actual technical problems involved in thawing a cryogenically frozen individual.  Ice crystals rupturing cell walls, brain damage, cells dying, toxicity of the cryoprotectant itself… the theory isn’t even sound!”  His voice rose with every word, every step, and he found himself suddenly furious at the false hope Tony was trying to give their friend.

“Cap here survived it.”  Tony was head to head with Bruce now, crowded against the table, but unwilling to back down.

“Cap had the super serum, Tony!”  An undercurrent shook Bruce’s voice, and a greenish tinge flushed the tight muscles in his neck.  The shocked silence in the room was almost thick enough to cut as Tony quietly stepped away, giving the doctor space as he leaned against the table and tried to breathe it out.  He hadn’t come so close to Hulking out indoors in a long time.

“Cap had the super serum,” Bruce finally repeated in a quieter voice, not looking up at anybody.  “Peggy Carter didn’t.”

“Could we give it to her retroactively?”

Both men turned to face Steve, who hadn’t spoken since the beginning of the conversation.  He was still pale, but resolute in a way neither man had seen in quite a while.

“Steve,” Bruce tried to break it to him gently.  “Nobody’s been able to replicate it.  We’ve tried ever since Dr. Erskine, but it’s no good.  Even SHIELD has tried synthesizing it from your blood without any luck.”

Steve took a deep breath and let it out all at once.  “During the war,” he began, absently playing with his spoon, “we all had these metal tags we had to wear.  We usually tucked them under our collars - nobody liked to think about them.”

“Yeah, dog tags.”  Tony was guilty of interrupting.  “Not to put you off your reminiscing, gramps, but this doesn’t really…”

“We had the same blood type.”  Steve wasn’t staring at his spoon anymore - his eyes flicked back and forth between Bruce and Tony.

“Wait, what?”  The caffeine must be faulty, because suddenly Steve’s words weren’t making sense.  Tony risked a peek into his nearly empty cup.

Steve swallowed hard and his eyes grew distant, looking back at something none of them could see.  “I got real hurt one time, and she checked my tag against hers, offered to donate some blood.  This was before we’d really worked out how fast I healed, and it turned out she didn’t have to, but that’s how I know.”  

“How’s he doing?”  Steve barely heard Peggy’s voice somewhere near the mouth of the tent.  It blended with his dreams, and he struggled uselessly to open his eyes.

“Not too good.”  Bucky.  That was Bucky.  It was hard to concentrate over the tearing pain, but he couldn’t drift off again - his friends were depending on him.

“Has there been any improvement?”  Peggy’s voice came closer, and he felt soft fingers over his forehead, smoothing back his hair.  The relief of another sensation besides the pain was palpable, and he tried to lean into her hand.

“Well, the fact that he hasn’t died of blood loss is encouraging, right?  I honestly dunno how he’s hanging on - he lost way too much, but the guy’s always been a stubborn little punk.”

The fingers left his face and fumbled at his collar.  A distant jingling - what was she doing?  Curiosity helped him force his eyes open.  Peggy was bending over him, face filling his field of vision, intently comparing his dog tags to hers.  It was the loveliest sight he’d ever seen, and the pain receded a little more.

“We have the same blood type, Sergeant Barnes.  Could he use a transfusion?”  His eyes flickered closed against his will before she could look up, the dark vagueness dragging him down again.

“Are you suggesting a blood transfusion?” Bruce asked cautiously.  Steve met his gaze without a trace of hesitation.

“Maybe.”

There was a breathtaking moment of silence as everyone processed Steve’s idea.  The tension was broken by Tony, as usual.  “Ah, won’t that make her big and muscly?  Or green?  No offence, Brucie, but I’m not sure Steve wants a green girlfriend.”

Steve shook his head. "I'm pretty sure it was the vita-rays that caused growth in my case.  The serum just enhanced cell regeneration and formed protective walls.  I don’t know exactly how it works, but it sounds like it could help with those side-effects of freezing that Bruce mentioned.”

“You’re actually the closest to an expert we have,” Bruce admitted ruefully.  “None of Dr. Erskine’s material survived the explosion at the experiment site, and he didn't leave many notes.  We’re not even entirely sure what the vita-rays were.”  Smiling humorlessly, he got himself a fresh cup of tea.  “I always thought they were gamma rays - staked my career on it in fact.”  

“My old man destroyed all his Project Rebirth notes not long after the war,” Tony offered, going to the coffeemaker for a refill.  “I’m sure I could figure it out if I wanted to, though.  Hello, genius here.”

They sat in silence, eating breakfast but not actually tasting any of it, every one of them thinking over the new possibility.  Then Bruce set his cup down with a click. “Circulation,"  he pointed out dolefully.  The other two stared at him in confusion, so he elaborated.  “How can we give her a transfusion if she has no circulation to begin with?”

“Hopefully the cryoprotectant should at least help us thaw her enough to try,” Tony pointed out, brandishing his mug.  “Look, if we’re going to do this, it’s got to be soon.  I can make or get all the respirators and medical equipment you want, but if we wait too long, we’ll be in the middle of a legal battle that I’m not sure we can win.”

Bruce nodded thoughtfully, and turned to Steve.  “It’s your call,” he said quietly.  “If you like, you can start donating blood tonight."

Just for a moment, an incredibly tender expression flickered across Steve's face before he looked up with purposeful steel in his eyes.  "I'd like that.  Thanks."

Chapter Text

Chapter Five


Things suddenly started moving almost breathtakingly fast. Pepper found out when Tony stuck his head into her office where she was still talking to the Stark lawyers on the phone.

"Hey, Pep, do me a favor. Drag this legal thing out as long as you can, okay?  We need time to bring Cap's girl back to life."  

"What?" Pepper had all but shrieked, very nearly dropping the phone, but Tony was already far down the hallway and she was left trying to explain her sudden yelp to the attorney on the other end of the line.

Nobody actually told either Natasha or Clint - they just seemed to know.  Tony made a mental note to check the cameras and make sure they hadn’t been tapped.  Clint gave Steve a thump on the shoulder and asked how he could help, and Natasha promptly materialized in her Natalie Rushman persona to help Pepper with the legal issues.  

Because of Tony’s experiences with his arc reactor, Pepper had ensured that a full-fledged medical facility was maintained in the tower, with local physicians on call.  At Steve’s request, Bruce gladly agreed to help with the proposed procedure.  Even though he was not a full-fledged doctor, he had experimented with recreating the serum for years, and had a personal and professional interest in the situation.

The only major discrepancy of opinion was in regards to the post-operation room.

Tony went all out, having JARVIS look up architectural and interior design typical of the late 1940’s, trying to create an environment which would be familiar and reassuring if this whole harebrained scheme actually worked - if Peggy ever regained consciousness.  He didn’t expect Steve’s adamant reaction when he pulled up the proposed plans.

“No.”

“What?”  Tony blinked, squinting at the blueprints on the screen, hunting for a reason for the captain’s refusal.  “Why not?  Look, I’ve hunted around on Ebay and I can get everything I need on there.  Maybe we can disguise the heart rate monitor as a radio…” Tony flicked images left and right on the holo-screen, trying to decide how to hide the medical sensors.  Maybe he could invent a medical scanner and incorporate it into JARVIS?

“I don’t care how accurate you can make it.  We’re not lying to her.”  Steve’s eyebrows were pulled almost halfway down his face, and he was speaking in his most stern tone.

Across the lab, Bruce straightened up in surprise and laid down a medical text.  “Steve?  You okay?  We’re just trying to make it a little more familiar…”

“We’re not lying to her,” Steve repeated firmly, before turning his back and almost fleeing out of the lab.  Tony and Bruce shared mystified glances.

“Um, that went well,” Bruce finally decided, peering over the tops of his glasses and leaning out the door to watch the retreating captain.  “What happened to him?”


“Hey, Cap?”

Of all the people in the world Steve least wanted to talk to right then, Tony made the top of the list.  Resignedly, he put on a neutral expression and turned his head towards his friend.  “Yeah, over here.”

Stark Tower wasn’t just the residence of Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers; it was also the home of a multibillion dollar corporation.  Thousands of people flooded in and out of the lower floors each week: office workers, janitors, foreign representatives and more.  These people needed things like packages, furniture, paper towels, ink jets, staples and lightbulbs, not to mention all the materials Tony Stark required for his own experimentation and the daily life of the Avengers.  All these things were brought in by delivery trucks every week and unloaded at the big docks under the tower.  Nobody ever went in there for any other reason.

That was why Steve had come here.  Seeing as it had been three hours since his overreaction in the lab, he figured Pepper or Bruce hadn’t let Tony ask JARVIS where he was until now.  Either that, or JARVIS didn’t have heat and motion sensors down here - an oversight he doubted Tony’s paranoia would allow.

“What on earth are you doing way down here?” grouched Tony good-naturedly, sinking down to sit on the floor next to Steve.  “I thought you must’ve cut and run to Minnesota or something.”

Steve shook his head halfheartedly but didn’t answer, looking out into the gloom of the huge loading dock, vaguely lit with the glow from Tony’s flashlight.  He hadn’t bothered to bring a light with him - super soldier eyes had pretty good night vision.

“Something’s bothering you,” Tony finally stated.  He fidgeted with the flashlight, causing the beam to swing wildly back and forth.  “It can’t be easy to have had your girlfriend go down in a plane.  I’d go crazy if it were Pepper.”

Silence fell into place between them, though it was a little less strained after Tony’s genuine, if uncertain, attempt at empathy. The flashlight beam swung around the vast dimness of the loading dock, and both men followed it with their eyes for a moment.

“I always said I didn’t remember crashing,” Steve startled himself by saying.  He hadn’t meant to, but suddenly he couldn’t stop.  “It was true at first, but every now and then I’ll wake up and remember a little more.  I tried to put her down in one piece, I tried everything I knew, but I was never much of a pilot.”

Tony turned toward him, surprised at the sudden turn the conversation, but Steve didn't stop speaking, staring ahead into the darkness.

“The - the ship slammed through the ice and I was thrown into the windshield.  It must’ve broken from the impact because the water came in and I,” he swallowed convulsively,  “I couldn’t move.  Must’ve been pinned down by the steering console or broken my back or something, and the cold didn’t help.  I couldn’t see the water - couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black or maybe I’d gone blind from the blow on my head - but I knew it was getting colder and colder and closer and closer…”

He paused and gazed straight through a stack of boxes with eyes that were looking back over seventy years.

“I don’t actually remember drowning,” he quietly finished.  “Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll wake up and remember that too.  I can handle all that - it was my choice to go down, but the thought of her…”

Tony had no idea what to say to all this.  It was not how he’d planned the conversation going.  As far as he knew, he was now the only person who had ever heard Captain America's side of the story of that day.  He scooted a little closer to the other man and watched the beam of his flashlight play against the other wall.

Steve chuckled suddenly.  It was a strained, sad sound, but the wistful smile on his face was genuine.  “She had no sense of fear, you know?  I’ve seen her hang halfway out of an airplane under enemy fire without a safety harness.  But to be helpless, knowing she was going down, locked in a tube - it must have been terrifying. How did she even get in there, anyway?”

That was the one question nobody knew the answer to.  Somehow, in a crashing airplane, Peggy Carter had ended up inside a tube which could only be opened and closed from the outside.  Tony shook the thoughts out of his brain.  This conversation had got way off track from where he’d expected.  Time to do some rerouting.

“I had JARVIS hunt down the security feeds from when you woke up.  Looks like you had a major freak-out.  That why you don’t want us setting up a 1940’s era recovery room?”

Steve, pulled from the thoughts of Peggy’s crash, leaned his head back against the cold cement wall.  “I thought it was Hydra who had me, trying to get me to let down my guard.  It wasn’t until I got outside that I realised…” he trailed off, hunting for words before shrugging a little and squaring his shoulders.  “Anyway, I don’t want to lie to her.  She deserves that much.”

Tony nodded sagely, the effect somewhat ruined by the fact that he was shining his flashlight up his nose.  “True.  Curious though: which will freak her out more, a room that looks like what she’s used to, or a modern hospital room?”

It was a valid point, and having had some time to calm down, Steve recognized it as such.  Together they worked out a compromise.  Sitting on the cold cement floor, they went through schematics and equipment on Tony’s tablet until they were mutually satisfied.  “We’re not trying to lie to her,” Tony pointed out.  “We’re just trying to make it so she won’t punch a hole through the side of Stark Tower or have a heart attack from culture shock.”

Finally, the problem settled, Tony lurched ungracefully to his feet.  “Wow, that cement’s cold.  JARVIS, remind me to do something about that sometime.”

He waited a moment, listening to the empty air and then scowled.  “Steve, remind me to install the vocal interface for JARVIS down here.  If we’re going to spend much time in the loading dock, I want my AI to join in the fun.”

Turning, Tony only made it a couple of yards before Steve's voice came from the dark behind him.

“Tony, should we even try?”

Tony stopped short and turned back, eyebrows raised.  “Um, hello , yeah.  Why?  Cold feet?  It could be the cement...”

“We can’t go around reviving people left and right.  If it works on Peggy, will it work on other people?  Who decides which people should live or die?”  It was a problem that had kept Steve up at night, ever since they’d decided to try the transfusion.  He was only one man, with an admittedly limited amount of blood.  If this worked, he couldn’t possibly save everybody.  

Tony tossed the flashlight rapidly from one hand to the other, creating a strobe-light effect.  “You have a problem with that?” he asked finally.

Steve got to his feet, facing his friend.  “It’s like playing God, Tony.  It’s not responsible.  We don’t even know - what if she’d rather not be brought back?  What if she’s happy where she is?  Will she be a medical freak like me for the rest of her life?”

Silence fell, so profoundly that the captain could hear his own heartbeat hammering in his ears.  He desperately wanted Peggy back - he could not articulate how much he wanted her back.  But at the same time, was it even the right thing to try?  Steve suddenly dreaded the next words out of Tony’s mouth.

Tony finally walked towards him, stopping just outside arm’s length. He tilted his head a little, examining the captain’s face before nodding once, firmly.  “I’m her legal next-of-kin.  You don’t have to make this one, Cap.  I’ll accept the consequences.”

The two men stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then Tony spun around lightly on one heel, stalking toward the exit.  “Hanging halfway out of an airplane, huh?” he called back, “Sounds like a story you haven’t told me yet.”

Steve took long steps and caught up easily, slowing so he matched his friend stride for stride.  “Oh, you don’t know the half of it.  I’ll tell you about it sometime.  Your dad was there too; he was flying the fool plane.  Best civilian pilot I ever saw - until I met his son.”

Unreasonably touched, Tony shoved through the door just ahead of Steve, and turned down the hallway toward his lab.  A hand caught him on the shoulder and he paused.

“By the way, Tony,” Steve’s voice was just the slightest bit husky.  “Thanks.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six


 Three days before the operation was scheduled to occur, SHIELD won the court case.  Tony’s lawyers had labored valiantly, but there was only so much they could do against a spy organization that knew all their secrets and wasn’t afraid to use them.

Fury was wise - he delegated somebody else to call Stark Tower.  A congested looking man with a nametag reading Agent Fischer appeared on the screen, looking down his nose.  “I’ve called to discuss the erection of a monument in the name of Margaret Carter, and to arrange SHIELD retrieval of the corpse,” he started, but never got to finish his sentence.

“Don’t you dare.”

Steve’s voice was low and terrifyingly even.  Bruce’s eyes widened a little, and Clint rocked back on his heels in anticipation.  It was only very brave or very foolish men who stood up against Captain America when he sounded like that.  

“You see her as nothing more than a - ” the captain stumbled slightly on the word ‘corpse’ and couldn’t say it, “ - than a body.  But Agent Carter was a fine, living woman who put everything on the line during times worse than you can imagine.”  

He stepped nearer, looming over the monitor, voice sinking to a stern rumble that was guaranteed to command attention.  “Because of her legacy, you owe her your freedom, your organization, and probably your life.  SHIELD can put up all the monuments they want, but she deserves at the very least to rest beside her parents in the country she sacrificed so much to defend.”

On the screen, the pictured agent looked visibly intimidated, gulping audibly as he faced the prospect of directly opposing the captain’s authority.  Behind Steve’s back one fist was clenched tightly, knuckles shining bone-white through the skin, and his friends could see how hard he was working for control.  Tony took the opportunity to jump in.  “Yeah, what he said.  If you want her, come and get her - we won’t make it easy.”

Fischer’s mouth opened, but Tony was faster than he was.  “Oh, look at that.  I think your face must have broken my clean, sustainable power source - the image is getting fuzzy.”  He pulled the cord out of the wall and the screen went dark.  

Steve took a deep breath and then turned to face the Avengers with resolute eyes.  “Right, I guess that's our cue.  Bruce, how soon can you start the procedure?  Do you have enough blood, or do you need more?"

Bruce did, in fact, have enough blood.  The Avengers led dangerous lives and had their own little blood bank as a safety precaution, filled with units of blood they had donated for themselves in case of future need.  Over the last week, Steve had also given incredibly large amounts, far more frequently than was healthy for anyone who wasn’t a super soldier.  He’d been looking a little anaemic, but insisted he was fine.

"We're not quite ready though," Bruce pointed out. "It'll take some time to get the room all fixed up and finish installing the equipment. I don't estimate being ready to start for at least twenty-four hours, and then we'll have to wait for the medical personnel to arrive.  I'm also concerned that SHIELD will notice their sudden arrival and realize something is up."

Thor cleared his throat to get attention and shifted his weight. "Could we not call in the physicians in advance and permit them to stay in the tower until Doctor Banner has arranged the room to his liking?"

Steve nodded firmly. “Thor, that’s perfect.  Bruce, call the doctors and get them in here one or two at a time at shift changes, blending with the regular employees; then when you're ready, you won't need to haul them all over at once. Small actions will be more likely to fly under the radar than big ones."  

Thinking fast, Tony whirled toward his girlfriend, snapping his fingers.  "Pepper, we still have the funeral arrangements set up in England, right?  Let’s push it up.  Cap and I have a distraction to plan."

The captain balked immediately. "Tony, I'm not leaving."  

Surprisingly, it was Natasha who stepped into the conversation. "Steve, they know she's here, and they know you want to stay with her. If you leave to go stage a fake funeral, they'll follow you and give Bruce and the doctors time to take care of her."

Steve knew she was right, but that didn't make it any easier. At last he nodded reluctantly. “Right.  Tony and I will go to England with a decoy casket to draw them off your backs.  Thor, you’ll stay here.  I want someone with flight capability at the tower just in case.  Natasha, you and Clint stay too.  You know SHIELD better than any of us."

Natasha tipped her head back, arching her eyebrows confidently.  To the uninitiated, she might have looked fairly harmless at the moment, dressed in a pair of fuzzy pajama pants and a tee - but everyone there knew she was fully armed and as dangerous as ever.  

"If they try to come into the tower, we’ll be ready for them,” she promised.  Behind her, Clint cracked his knuckles and grinned.


Everybody was busy getting ready for the grand deception.  Upstairs, Bruce and Tony were squabbling about the installation of the equipment.  Well, Tony was squabbling - Bruce was too absorbed to notice.  Thor had volunteered to do the heavy lifting, and Clint and Natasha were busy enabling security measures that could be snapped into place at any moment.

Steve probably had things to do - he probably had a lot of things to do, but at the moment, only one was at the top of the list.  JARVIS sounded faintly surprised when the captain entered his security code to get into the lab.  In all the time he’d spent in the tower, he had only ever entered the lab on a handful of occasions, and never when it was empty.

Of course, it wasn't completely empty.  Peggy was there.

Sliding the cover of the cryo window open, the captain steeled himself to look at her face.  She looked exactly the same as the other time he’d seen her.  He shook his head.  Of course she wouldn’t have changed at all; she was dead, frozen stiff.  At that moment, his crazy idea had never seemed more wild.  What could a few quarts of blood do for a dead woman?  

Steve squared his jaw.  Then again, it couldn’t possibly make things worse.  The worst case scenario was that nothing would change.

The best - well, he didn't dare think about the best case scenario.

He laid his hand on the thick window and took a deep breath.  Then he let it out again without words, searching vainly for the right thing to say.  “Peggy,” he finally whispered softly.  “Peggy, I am so sorry you had to die for me.”  

The seconds ticked silently by as he looked into her face one more time.  If it wasn’t for the ice sparkling in her hair and on her face, he could have imagined that she was asleep.  

He had only seen her sleep a handful of times; she was normally too professional for that.  Besides, wartime Europe hadn’t exactly been a safe place for women to let their guard down.  On the occasions he had seen her asleep, she had been rolled in blankets; a shapeless blob on the ground with the rest of the Commandos.

Still, there was one time that he held close against his heart.  They had been in the Cabinet War Rooms in London for a briefing, and by the time it was done, the air raid sirens were going off outside and the guard at the door told them it wasn’t safe to leave.

“Is there anything I can do?” Steve asked, following close on Peggy’s heels.

Peggy shook her head, threading her way through the narrow hallways.  Steve didn’t really enjoy being down there; the air was thick and stale, heavy with smoke and body odor and stress.  Even though he didn’t have bad lungs anymore, he still reflexively choked every now and then.

“No, not unless you want to tackle an airplane with your bare hands.  We’ll have to stay the night.”

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time Steve had slept on a floor.  He didn’t particularly mind, though he wasn’t sure if there was a space large enough for him to lie down in without getting tripped over.  Actually, he was more concerned about where Peggy would sleep, though he wasn’t sure how to ask.

“Right this way, Captain.”

She was descending a flight of stairs that went straight down into the floor.  It was narrow, steep and short, and Peggy had to duck under the doorframe at the bottom.  Steve Rogers pre-serum would have had no trouble, Steve thought wryly as he struggled after her.  Of course, he also would have been curled up in a corner, blue in the face from an asthmatic attack brought on by the bad air.

Peggy was waiting for him.  “It’s not exactly the Hilton,” she explained, swinging her hand out to indicate the room, “but it’s dry and supposedly bomb-proof.”

They were standing in a basement just tall enough that it couldn’t quite be called a crawlspace.  The air was significantly worse down here, hot and humid and even more stale.  Beds lined both sides of the long room, most occupied for the night.  “Pick a bed,” she advised, walking past him.  He tried to follow and smacked his head against a low beam hard enough to see stars.  Somebody giggled, and he stooped lower, flushing.

“Peggy,” he hissed, reaching her side.  She was slipping off her shoes at the foot of one of the iron bedsteads.  “This is the girl’s room; where do the fellows sleep?”  

“There isn’t one.  Everybody sleeps everywhere,” she told him, pulling out her hairpins and tucking them into her pocket.  “You can try to kick an officer out of his room upstairs, or go downstairs if you like - but if you think this air is bad, it’s even worse down there.”

There was a level further down than this?  Steve shuddered at the thought.  Peggy shrugged off her jacket and lay down on the bare mattress just as two or three secretaries came down the stairs.  Unlike Peggy, they were wearing dressing gowns and curlers, carrying their sheets and giggling when they saw Steve standing awkwardly in the middle of the floor.  

Blushing fiercely, Steve started toward the stairs going down.  Bad air or no bad air, it had to be better than facing giddy dames in nightgowns.

"Oh, for heaven's sake Steve, get in bed."  Peggy flapped her hand at the mattress next to hers.

Boy, would Howard snicker if he heard that.  Relieved to get out of the public eye, Steve gingerly lay down on the bed she indicated.  It creaked ominously and he hoped it would hold under his weight.

There was a moment of silence.

"Aren't you going to take your shoes off?" Peggy finally whispered.  

Steve thought his face would burn away as he sat up and yanked off his shoes to a ripple of sleepy giggles from around the room.  He pulled off his coat and tie too and hung them over the bedpost before lying back down, self-conscious at the feeling of going to bed in a room full of women.

The bed was too short.  It wasn't a problem he was used to having.  Twisting his legs, he grimaced at the squeal of rusty springs.  He lay still, trying not to make any more noise, listening to the muffled sound of the bombs outside.  Probably nobody else could hear them, at least not as distinctly, but his enhanced hearing could easily pick out each explosion.  How many people would be dead by morning?

Turning his head, Steve’s attention was immediately arrested at the sight of Peggy in the bed next to his, already fast asleep.  She lay on her side facing him, arms curled up loosely.  She looked younger when asleep; the businesslike agent persona fell away and she breathed deeply, like a child.  

Something strange happened in his chest then, and Steve looked away, too much a gentleman to stare at a sleeping lady.  He couldn’t get over the fact that she was comfortable sleeping so near him, with no blanket, no bed roll, nothing to shield herself with.  For some reason, he’d never felt so honored at her trust in him as he did at that moment.

Standing by the cryogenic chamber, Steve traced her face with his eyes.  If he squinted, she looked a lot like she had on that other night, deep underground on the other side of the world.  What if this blood transfusion idea did work?  What if...

Something toppled over with a crash and Steve whirled around, snapping into focus.  

"Ah, sorry," Bruce was trying to pick up the equipment that he had accidentally knocked over.  "I saw you were having a moment and I - uh," he kicked ineffectually at a power cord wrapped around his ankle and finally gave up with a shrug.  "I wasn't going to bother you."

"It doesn't matter," Steve said, and slid the window cover shut.  "Here, let me help."


Getting the casket to the jet waiting at the airport was relatively easy. Tony simply sent for a helicopter, which landed on the tower roof in blatant violation of city airspace rules. Clint's eyebrows twitched upward. "How much of a fine will we get for this?  That's not a SHIELD vehicle - it doesn't have clearance to land here."

Tony, unconcerned, waved away the idea. "Hey, millionaire here. Honestly, what's a couple hundred thousand among friends?  Petty cash. Between Cap and Thor, I spend that much on gym equipment every week."

Shaking his head bemusedly at the exaggeration, Steve shouted over the roar of the rotors. "We'll call from the jet once we're on board."  

Clint nodded, giving him a firm handshake. "We'll keep you updated!" he bellowed back with an understanding grin.

Bowing his blond head against the strong gusts from the rotors, Steve helped Pepper in. Tony followed, nimbly claiming the seat at her side, before Steve swung himself up and closed the door.  Clint squinted his eyes against the sun, watching the helicopter lift off.

"That's the way a gentleman does it," Natasha said in his ear. Clint didn't jump - he'd known her far too long for that.

"Does what?" he asked, not moving his eyes from the rapidly receding black dot in the sky.

"He helps the lady in first. You've never noticed?"

As a matter of fact, Clint hadn't until now, but as he stopped to think about it, he suddenly realized that it happened all the time. "He stands up too, when you or Pepper walk in the room."

Natasha nodded, following the line of his gaze before she turned back to the stairwell. "He does it all the time; I don't even thinks he does it on purpose. It's hopelessly old-fashioned and endearing.  I hope this whole thing works - he deserves a girl who understands him."

Clint checked his watch and trotted after her.  "Okay, let's give the medical team a security check and then finish going over protocols with JARVIS. I estimate we've got twelve hours before SHIELD makes their first attempt at infiltration."

Natasha nodded, and they sprinted down the stairs.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven


Steve returned to Stark Tower seven hours into what they had hoped would be a six-hour procedure.

The funeral had gone off without a hitch, and Tony had initially planned for them to stay in London a couple days more in order to distract the media and perhaps keep SHIELD from discovering the ruse for as long as possible. Upon returning to the hotel however, Pepper collared Tony and dragged him to the side.

"Tony, I need to talk to you."

Tony ignored the wrinkling of his expensive silk tie and beamed down into his girlfriend and CEO's face. "Anything. I'm feeling generous. Need another dress?  Actually, I thought that one looked nice - did I give it to you?"

"Steve needs to go home."

Taken aback at her words, Tony took a good look at their mutual friend for the first time that day. Up until that point, the billionaire had been busily involved in carrying off the funeral, juggling the media that automatically resulted when two Avengers crossed the ocean, and triumphing in his successful distraction of SHIELD’s attention from the tower.

Steve was standing by the window, staring grimly out at the skyline, hands clasped neatly behind his back in parade rest. His shoulders were tight, and what Tony could see of his face was set firmly. It was suddenly painfully obvious that every fiber of his being was straining toward New York, toward the girl whose survival was currently hanging in the balance.

Pepper knew he was going to agree even before he heaved a sigh.  "Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.  I can do this.  You take Star Spangles back home, and I'll stay and distract everybody myself, no problem.  I'm good at that."

"You're very good at it," Pepper murmured with a smile as she smoothed his tie and went to inform Steve of the new plans.

The flight had gone smoothly enough, but New York traffic was incredibly crowded, backed up bumper to bumper. Ten blocks out from the tower, she couldn't stand Steve's poorly-hidden fidgeting any more, and made an executive decision.

"I bet you could walk back faster than this," she told him, touching his shoulder to get his attention. He stared, at first confused and then incredibly grateful at her implied consent.

"You sure?" he asked, and Pepper nodded firmly. Relieved, he went for the door handle. "You're an angel, Pepper," and then he was gone, weaving expertly between cars and pedestrians at incredible speed.  

Pepper stared after him, shaking her head. Then she looked ahead at the gridlocked traffic and sighed resignedly, sinking back into her seat. "I wish I could just take off like that."


Once at Stark Tower, Steve took the stairs.  Folks in this era always expected people to take the easy way, and there was a distinct probability that Clint and Natasha had booby-trapped the public elevators against the SHIELD agents who were certain to arrive sooner or later.  He jogged up the stairs until he reached the private elevators on the fiftieth floor, and took one of them the rest of the way.

Natasha was waiting for him in the hallway, planted squarely in front of the elevator.  "Why aren't you in England, and how did you get past our initial sensor net?” she demanded as soon as the doors slid open.  If she had been anyone else, she would have sounded surprised.  “It didn’t pick you up until you were already in the building."  

"Through the loading dock and up the stairs," Steve explained, attention completely focussed on the door to the medical wing just visible over her shoulder. "JARVIS has limited interface down there, and I have clearance to get through the doors.  You should secure your perimeter better.  How is she?"

The heartbeat of silence before Natasha answered was more telling than her next words, and Steve's heart froze and then plunged.

“As of an hour ago, they were struggling with severe cellular and tissue damage as they raised the temperature,” she finally admitted.  “They’re hours behind, and can’t even get the transfusion started.”

Suddenly there didn’t seem to be any air left in the room.  Natasha’s words had knocked the wind out of him more efficiently than running up fifty flights of stairs.  “Is there...” Steve swallowed hard.  “Is there any chance?”

"You're religious, aren't you?"  Her face was impassive, but her eyes were very soft. "You'd better start praying."


It took Pepper another hour and a half to reach Stark Tower, get past Clint's security measures, and arrive at the ninety-third floor.  Clint had not only booby-trapped the public elevators, but he had also cut their speed to nearly nothing and was busily watching the live camera feeds on all of them, constantly monitoring the regular office employees who came and went from the lower floors.  Natasha, after her talk with Steve, had completely locked down the loading dock and made the stairs her personal priority.  Nobody else was going to get in unobserved.

Out of the elevator at last, Pepper shook back her hair with a sigh, relieved to be home.  Setting her purse on the side table, she turned toward the hallway - and then stopped short.  Ahead of her, Steve knelt by the door of the medical suite, head bowed over his folded hands.

For a heartbreaking moment Pepper feared the worst.  Then, with a rush of emotion, she realized what he was doing. While she hadn't regularly attended church since she'd been a child, she had seen people pray before.  In the awful weeks when Tony had been kidnapped and presumed dead, she had even done a little hesitant, cautious praying herself.  

Now, at this crucial moment, Steve was on his knees, quietly pouring out his soul to the God he so firmly believed in, begging for the life of his girl.  The afternoon sun cascaded through the large windows, gleaming off his blond hair like a benediction and pooling around him as he knelt until he looked like a saint or knight from some old picture.

Pepper stood watching him for a few minutes.  Then she folded her hands and whispered a brief prayer of her own before stepping back from the hallway and into the sitting room. She wasn't much of a praying person, but she could give him some privacy until he was done.  

Perched on a stool at the bar, Pepper sorted out the mail and kept a sharp ear tuned for any sound from Steve.  She threw the routine death threats and advertisements away, and stacked the magazines on the counter before starting on the business communications.  She had just begun answering a few of the most urgent when she finally heard Steve move.

Stepping into the hallway with a glass of water in each hand, she saw he had dragged a chair out into the hall opposite the medical suite.  He realized her intent to join him, and instantly rose to get her a chair as well.  Thanking him, Pepper offered him one of the glasses, and he accepted it with a wordless nod.  For a long time the two sat, watching the light from the early afternoon sun shine in through the windows. Steve sipped a little at his drink, and Pepper nursed her own, kicking off her heels. She noticed that he couldn't get much down, and after a while just held his glass between his knees with an apologetic air.

"Pepper," he suddenly asked, words awkwardly tumbling over each other. "Do you think she'll be...  Do you actually think she could..." he floundered for words and then gave up, ducking his head and trying to take another sip of his drink. Pepper noticed his eyes flutter closed for a second, and wondered if he was praying again.

Scooting closer, she smoothed his hair, patting it back into place from where he'd been running his hands through it.  He was like a big brother to her, a safe ear where she could pour her frustrations when work and Tony had become too much to handle.  Now that he was the one needing support, she wasn't sure how to help.

"Steve, I live in a world where men fly and hammers shoot lightning and aliens show up in the streets."  Pepper laid her hand on one massive shoulder, trying to administer some form of comfort.  The words came slowly, but she meant every one of them.  "At this point I don't even know what is possible anymore, but what I do know is that you have good friends who are doing everything they can. If she can be helped, they'll do it."

Another silence fell, but this one was more comfortable, and she noticed he was able to get a little more water down. All at once, he smiled reminiscently - a quick, fleeting little thing that vanished as soon as it came.  Pepper raised her eyebrows in inquiry, and Steve finally relented.

"You ever slugged anyone, ma'am?"

Pepper blinked, then laughed. "Well, I've certainly wanted to more than once.  Did she?"

Steve nodded, staring at the door as if he could see right through it. "The first time I ever saw her, she slugged a guy who was trying to get fresh. Knocked him clean over."

"Was that when you fell in love with her?"  She knew it wasn't a terribly tactful question, but she had to ask.

It was obviously the last thing Steve had expected her to say, and he nearly dropped his glass. "I - ah," to Pepper's amusement, he blushed faintly. "We never really got the chance to talk about it. I don’t even know if she would’ve had me if I’d had the chance to ask.  There’s a - there was a war on, you know."  

He paused, staring even harder at the door in front of them, and took a large gulp of his drink, as if trying to cool the burning in his ears.  Pepper thought he was done talking until he added quietly, "That’s when I decided she was the right kind of dame though.  She was a real lady, and she knew how to hit."


Pepper sat with him until dusk, when he finally encouraged her to go get something to eat.  She brought him back a plate, but then was called away by the lawyers on the phone and hadn't returned.  Since then, he sat in the hallway, staring at the door and praying desperately in his heart.  The food had grown cold on the plate - he couldn't find it in himself to eat it.

Eight hours after Steve's arrival at the tower, the door opened and Bruce came out, stripping off his gloves and pulling off his face mask.  Steve was on his feet in an instant, and the glass that had been balanced on his knee shattered against the tile.  Neither man noticed.

"How is she?"  Steve forced the words out of his closing throat.  Bruce wiped his face wearily.

"The medical staff are putting her to bed. Where's everyone else?  I don't want to repeat this more than once."

They gathered in the living room, though Steve was loath to leave his place in the hallway. Thor took up one of the couches, and Clint occupied the countertop, while Natasha curled next to Bruce with a bottle of water.  In the better light of the common room, the doctor took one look at his friend and sighed. "Okay Steve, when was the last time you ate?"

Steve couldn't remember, and wasn't hungry, but Bruce adamantly refused to say a word until he had eaten something. Clint tossed him some kind of wrapped sandwich from the kitchenette fridge, and the captain chewed dutifully away under Bruce's watchful eye.  It felt like wool in his mouth, but he choked it down anyway.

Pepper used the time to call Tony up on the screen. Even though it had to have been very early in the morning in England, Tony still looked wide awake, if slightly manic. Steve guessed he hadn't slept at all.

Finally Bruce seemed to think Steve had eaten enough, because he pulled out his glasses and started wiping them: a sure sign he was about to talk.

"I’m not sure where to start,” he began, looking uncomfortable at being the center of attention.  

Thor propped his elbows on his knees and cast a worried look at the captain.  He had never seen Steve so tightly strung.  “Tell us the good news first,” he decided, hoping it would give his friend some ease.

Bruce put his feet up on the table and for once, Pepper let him.  “The good news is that procedurally, the whole thing went pretty close to the plan. There was a really rocky start, but thanks to the cryoprotectant, we were finally able to thaw her body enough to complete the transfusion, and the serum in Steve’s blood seems to have repaired her circulatory system enough to establish a stable blood flow. The equipment worked well, and we were able to get her on life support."

He paused to finish off the bottle of water that Natasha handed him. Clint gave himself a high-five, since he wasn't close enough to anybody else, and Thor beamed all over his face, looking hopefully towards their captain.  Steve didn't move, bracing himself for the inevitable blow.  He had caught the grave look in the doctor’s eye, and knew that something was very wrong.

Tony was the one who finally asked, unable to wait any longer. "So what's the bad news?"  The computer made his voice sound oddly tinny, like it did when it came through the Iron Man mask.

Bruce shot a look around the room, finally settling his gaze on Steve's face and talking straight to him. "Her body's not taking initiative. She’s not responsive at all, her heart's not beating and she's not breathing on her own - the machines are doing the whole job.”  

Every eye in the room flickered toward their captain.  He had lost most of his color, but his back was straight and his face blank, holding himself well in check, unwilling to lose control in front of his friends.  The only tell-tale sign was the half-eaten sandwich, clenched into forgotten crumbs between his fingers.  Thor made a mental note to meet him later in the gym - Steve would probably appreciate a companion, whether it be as a substitute punching bag or a listening ear.

“So… what exactly does this mean?”  Tony’s voice broke the silence.  “Did we fail?  We couldn’t have failed; I crunched the numbers...”

"The human body isn’t a robot, Tony,” Bruce reminded him quietly.  “Numbers don’t always work.”

Pepper put her hand on Steve’s shoulder, but his barely perceptible flinch made her withdraw quickly, aware that he was only just remaining in control.  “We’re not giving up,” she spoke to him as much as to the rest of the room.  “After all, she’s only had the serum for a few hours.  There’s still room for improvement.”

Bruce saw her worry for their captain and nodded cautiously.  “We have no way of knowing the extent to which the serum will be able to affect her, but yes, there is a possibility it may continue fixing the damage the freezing caused."

Thor spoke to the doctor, but his attention was fixed on Steve.  "Is there anything we can do to speed the process?  I would be happy to serve her in any way."  The alien prince had a very large, very soft heart, and he couldn’t stand the bleak pain in his friend’s eyes.

Bruce shook his head. "Not now.  All we can do is wait and cross our fingers. Tony, get off the computer.  You need your sleep.  I can do basic math; I know what time it is over there."

Tony grumbled, but shut off his screen.  The rest of the group slowly dispersed, most of them offering a touch or word or gesture to their captain as they left the room. Thor was the last, clapping him hard on the shoulder. "Courage, my friend.  All will yet be well," he rumbled with his most encouraging smile before retreating, leaving Steve and Dr. Banner alone.

"Can I see her?" Steve asked suddenly.  He knew it was late, but he couldn't bear the idea of staying away.

Bruce didn't answer in words, but the wave of his hand as he left the room spoke volumes, and Steve fell into line behind him as they walked back down the hallway.


Peggy had been moved to a large room adjoining the medical suite. The windows were shaded now, and Steve recognized Pepper's influence in the tasteful drapes. Then he saw the bed and forgot everything else.

Dressed in a white nightgown, Peggy had been carefully tucked under the covers. She would have looked like she was sleeping, were it not for the life support machines and the ventilator tube that covered her mouth and went down her throat. At her side, various monitors blinked and chirped.  The visible flesh of her face and arms was mottled with dark bruises where the damaged tissue had allowed blood to leak and pool beneath her skin.

“Steve,” Bruce’s voice was hesitant.  Steve wouldn’t turn to look at him, but the doctor continued anyway.  "When you were the one thawing, your heart started beating on its own as your body warmed up.  Breathing registered shortly afterwards.”  He paused.  “Cap, you need to be aware…”

“I know.”  Steve couldn’t bear to hear him say it, so he cut his friend off short.  “I know.”  Bruce didn’t take offence, moving quietly to the other side of the room and puttering with odds and ends, giving the captain space.

"Does she need more blood?"  Steve was distinctly aware that he would be willing to give every last drop in his body if it would help. Somehow it was harder seeing her like this than it had been when she was frozen.

Bruce swiped a hand over his hair and scrubbed at his eyes. He looked completely exhausted, drained from the intense strain of the day.  "At this point, there's nothing more we can do. The rest of it depends on her; if she's in there somewhere, and if she'll fight."  

Steve carefully reached out to touch a strand of the soft brown hair. It curled around his finger for a moment before falling limply to the pillow. With his artist's eyes, he studied the curve of her cheek and the spread of her eyelashes.

"She'll fight," he breathed so softly that Bruce almost didn't hear him. "If there's anything left of the girl I knew, she'll fight."

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven


Morning found Steve pacing Peggy's room. At first Banner had stayed with him, but after a few hours the captain managed to talk him into going to bed. The doctor had been initially resistant, but after he dropped a thermometer and almost startled himself into Hulking out, he’d finally agreed that he was far too tired to stay up.

Ever since then, Steve had paced, racked with worry and indecision.

He desperately wanted to stay by her side, but he wasn't sure it was entirely decent for him to sit and watch her as she lay unaware.  In fact, he was pretty sure that if she were awake, Peggy would have slapped him for taking such a liberty.  On the other hand, though, he didn't want her to wake up alone.

Assuming, of course, that she ever actually woke up at all.

Turning to complete yet another lap of the room, he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of Natasha, who had silently materialized in the doorway. She was the only one of the Avengers who could move stealthily enough that his enhanced hearing couldn't always catch her.   

"So that’s who the girl in the picture at Camp LeHigh was,” Natasha said softly.  “She's beautiful.”

They both watched Peggy for a moment. She looked very different from when she had been frozen; her body was limp, half-hidden beneath the life-support machines, and the ventilator made her chest rise and fall, giving the illusion that she was breathing.  The bruises spreading across her skin seemed to have faded a little, which gave Steve hope against hope that the serum might still be working. Her hair had been swept to the side by the medical team and lay in a tumbled, tangled mass.

He agreed with Natasha - she was beautiful.

Her tossed hair reminded him of the days when they were at the front or behind enemy lines.  It had been constantly soaked in snow or rain until it was all she could do to keep it out of her face.  Life had been chaotic, and though she tried her best to keep track of them, her hairpins had eventually vanished one by one; hairpins which she had no way to replace. Eventually she had learned to make do with used grenade pins instead.

“A lady works with what she’s got,” she would retort tartly when the boys laughed, but they saved their grenade pins for her when they remembered.  Steve always kept two or three in his pockets, just for her.  He’d liked the rewarding smile in her eyes when he could hand one to her right when she needed it.  They had been gone when he woke up - probably thrown out as worthless trash.

Natasha took a step forward, a hairbrush appearing in her hand. "May I?" she asked, gesturing toward the bed. At his nod, she made a space for herself near the pillows, easily avoiding the astonishing number of tubes and wires apparently needed to keep a human body functioning.  For a long time, she brushed Peggy's hair in silence.  Steve stepped closer, leaning against the foot of the bed and watching as Natasha expertly gathered the dark curls and carefully worked the tangles out.  

“I had this old babushka once," she suddenly interjected into the quiet of the room, "She wasn’t my grandmother, but she picked me up one day when I’d been shot and hid me in her house.  She was the most frightening woman I’ve ever met - she scared away the assassins who had shot me in the first place, and stared me down when I tried to get out of bed."  

For a long moment she focused on her task, separating the freshly-brushed hair into careful sections and then finished her thought.  "I have a feeling your Peggy Carter was cut out of the same cloth.”

"She was."

A thousand incidents flashed through Steve's mind as he watched Natasha smoothly braid the other woman’s hair: Peggy firing at his new shield, Peggy looking back over her shoulder with a secret glint of mischief in her eye, Peggy holding his head as she gave him water that time he'd been so badly hurt…

“Stark’s coming back.”  Natasha’s voice broke through his thoughts.  “Apparently SHIELD caught on to his distraction faster than he expected, and there’s no point in staying longer.”

She finished twisting and braiding Peggy's hair into a braid around her head, deftly securing the end with a couple of hairpins she procured from nowhere.  "It won't get tangled that way," she explained, lifting her eyebrows as she put the last pin in place. "It'll stay nice and neat until she wakes up."

Until.   She'd said until, not if.  Steve felt a sudden rush of gratitude that nearly swamped him.  Bruce hadn't said much, but he could tell the doctor wasn't optimistic about Peggy’s chances.  The knowledge that there was at least one other person who really believed in her was almost overwhelming.

Vanishing the brush away to wherever she'd brought it from, Natasha rose and walked around the bed, stopping so close to Steve that he nearly recoiled. She studied him for a long moment, her eyes intent on his.

“You know, Steve," she finally spoke, voice very low and serious.  "Whatever happens, you’ll have had this time with her.  You never got to say goodbye before, so everything now is extra.  Don't leave yourself with regrets.”

Then she was gone.  

Steve stared after her retreating footsteps for a moment before turning back to Peggy, mind made up.  Dragging a chair a little closer to the head of her bed, he resolutely took his place.  Whether or not Peggy would consider it entirely appropriate, he would stay by her side as often as allowed until she woke up - or until they had to disconnect the machines and let her go.  He had been so lost and confused and suspicious when he woke - he wouldn’t let that happen to her if he could help it.  At least he could be a familiar face for her.

Besides, if she ever woke up enough to slap him, he would take it with a smile.

He reached almost shyly, touching the hand that lay limp on the covers.  It was cold, and he took it carefully between his own warm palms.  Holding her hand, in the hush of the room, his mind traced backward to the faux funeral in England.  It had been unexpectedly difficult for him.  He hadn’t been there since the war, and while it was good to see the rebuilding that had taken place, the confusing mix of new and old left him with a renewed sense of loss.

There hadn’t been time for sightseeing, but in the hours before the funeral, he had slipped away from Tony and Pepper and walked the streets.  New, shining skyscrapers or skillfully restored buildings rose in places where he remembered smoking rubble.  On seemingly every corner, he had passed monuments or memorial plaques to the soldiers beside whose ranks he had once fought.  Once or twice he actually saw a name he recognized, and paused to pay respect, swallowing hard against the renewed wave of grief.

He hadn’t realized how many of his war experiences had been pushed into the back of his mind; not forgotten, but waiting to be recognized.  America had been comparatively untouched by World War II, and while it triggered memories, there wasn’t much that actively reminded him of the war.  In England though, where the past leaked out at every seam, he found himself struggling more than he had in a long time.  Peggy's soft accent sounded in the voice of every passing stranger, and when a plane flew low overhead he automatically flinched and strained his ears for the whistle of falling bombs.

Standing beside Peggy’s grave had been the hardest part of all.  Even though he’d known her body was back in New York, he had found himself severely shaken as the empty casket was lowered into the earth.  Doubts and fears had plagued him - were they doing the right thing?  What if everything went wrong?  How could he bear to lose her again?  

Pulling himself back to the present, he studied the face of the girl at his side.  “You never got to say goodbye before," Natasha's voice whispered in his mind.  "Don't leave yourself with regrets.”  

Tenderly, he rubbed the cold fingers between his, hoping to coax some warmth back as he pondered.  What would he have wanted to say if he’d had time, if he had kept their date at the Stork Club?

It didn’t take much thinking - he knew exactly what he would have said to her.  It had burned in his heart since he had woken and realized she was left seventy years in the past.  Now he just needed to find the words, because he could not, would not go any longer without letting her know how he felt.  

“Peggy,” he finally tried to say.  The words stuck, and he had to clear his throat.  “Peggy, I don’t know if you can hear me.  I don’t know if you’ll ever hear me, but I waited too long to tell you last time, and I won’t do it again.”

He paused, sorting out his thoughts, and folded her hand more closely within his.  “Peggy, I - I found the right partner.  It’s you.  It’s always been you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine


August 15, 1947


"Howard, you know you can't fly an airplane with that arm. Besides, I need you on the radio."

"Look, my tech, my trip."  Howard Stark was at her elbow, arguing hotly as they crossed the airfield.  He had badly burned his arm in an explosion of a faulty engine two days before, and it hung in a sling across his chest.  "If the tube malfunctions, which it won’t, because I made it, but if it does, what are you gonna do, huh?  I made the blasted thing.  I made the whole plane, for Pete’s sake - I can fly with one hand, no problem.”

Peggy Carter swung around fast enough that Howard had to do some fancy stepping to avoid running into her.  “Howard, if you try to fly with one hand, I will personally knock you out and have Jarvis lock you in the boot of your car until we’re gone.”  She zipped up her flight jacket with a jerk, ignoring Stark’s pout.

“Oh, that’s just cold, Peggy.  Jarvis is on my side, aren’t you, Jarvis?”  Mercurial as ever, Howard dropped the frown and confidently grinned at the tall, lean man who finally caught up.

Jarvis folded both hands behind his back, looking slightly uncomfortable.  “I’d rather not say, sir.”

Howard stared for a moment, jaw dropping theatrically.  “Aw, for the love of - Peggy, how dare you corrupt Jarvis?  There’s gotta be some kind of law against that.”

Peggy finished buttoning her cuffs and turned to face her friend.  “Howard, I need you on the radio to talk us through in case the instruments go down.  Corporal Dugan can fly your plane quite well; I trust him implicitly.  If something goes wrong though, which it won’t, you’re the man I want on the air to talk us back.”  She looked straight into his eyes, trying to show him how desperately she needed him on the radio.  “Please, Howard.”

Howard let a long silence drag out before his shoulders finally slumped in acquiescence.  “Fine, okay, okay, I’ll do the radio.  Just don’t do any funny business with my plane, and come back safely, huh, Peg?  Where’s Dugan?  I wanna talk to him a minute.”

Dugan was puttering around the plane, doing a last-minute check with one of the airstrip personnel.  At Howard’s approach, he grinned cheerfully, growling out a greeting as he tightened the bolts on one of the plates.

“Hey, Dum Dum,” Howard said in an undertone as he reached the big man’s side.  “Come here.”  He pulled the pilot over behind one of the propellers and pulled out two hypodermics from his jacket pocket, folding them into the man’s hand.  “In case something goes wrong and you’re stuck out there, each of you use one of these.  It’ll help keep you from freezing to death until I can get a rescue plane out there.”

Dugan nodded, but didn’t ask questions.  Chemicals and inventions were not his area; he liked machinery and dynamite -  those he could understand.  Carefully placing the two vials in his jacket pocket, he gave a gruff nod of thanks and returned to the safety check.

Howard went to hand Peggy into the plane himself.  “Be sure to lock the Stark Tube up tight before you take him out of there,” he reminded her for the hundredth time.  “We need the temperature to be kept constant to preserve cellular integrity.”  

Peggy rolled her eyes half laughingly, one foot on the step of the plane, poised to swing herself up.  “We are not calling it a Stark Tube, Howard!”

He shrugged, enjoying the banter.  “Well, I made it, didn't I?  Who do you think I would call it after?”  He only just hid a snicker at the disgusted look on her face.

“I think you’re an incredible narcissist.”  Peggy checked her dark goggles around her neck.  Howard pretended to be offended, but then sobered.

“Say, Peg, stay warm and be careful, okay?”

Peggy nodded, strapping on her thick gloves.  “I will, Howard.  Take care of yourself, and don’t get drunk while we’re on the air, or run off with any impressionable young girls.”  

“Hey, now - I’m the model of decorum,” Howard protested with a twinkle in his eye.  Peggy laughed aloud before hugging him briefly, mindful of his sling.  “Goodbye, Howard.”


“Hey, Peg, do you see anything?”  Stark’s voice crackled over the radio with a strange, tinny sound.  “What do you see, Peggy?  Peggy, talk to me.”

“For heaven’s sake, Howard!”  Peggy snapped into the receiver, squinting against the constant bright light reflecting off the ice.  “It’s not as if there’s a line of arrows blazed across the ice saying, ‘go this way.’”

“Oh.”  There was silence across the line for a moment, and then: “How about now?”

Peggy sighed.  Sometimes the man acted as if he was a fraction of his age.  “Howard, that plane crashed two years ago, and we’ve had record-breaking arctic storms since then.  I’m starting to think all traces may have been long since snowed under.”

“Wait, Peggy,”  Dugan spared a hand from steering to point across the ice.  “There might be something dark over that way.”

She leaned forward, straining watering eyes against the brightness, hoping against hope. Although she had long since come to terms with the fact that Steve was dead, something in her heart refused to give up.  Some stubborn part of her couldn’t help dreaming that the super serum had enabled him to survive, and that any moment he might come walking out of the ice, hungry and tired and so very glad to see her…

The plane hit a pocket of turbulence, and Peggy snapped back to attention, carefully scanning the ground for any wreckage.  Of course he couldn’t have survived.  The only thing they could do at this point was to retrieve his body and give him the burial he deserved.  Hence their current mission: Project Sarcophagus.  

She cast a glance behind her to the contraption Howard proudly called the Stark Tube.  It was long, taking up most of the space behind her seat and Dugan’s, with the new Stark logo embossed brazenly on both ends.  A series of latches gleamed down the side and a set of control dials finished it off.  If they could find Steve’s body, this was how they would bring him home.  

The point of their mission was twofold: find Captain America’s body and bring him home for public honors and private testing.  She had orders to maintain his body at a low temperature to conserve cellular integrity until the new SHIELD science division could get their grubby fingers on him, but Peggy had long since decided to sabotage the tube if she found him.  With any luck, her captain’s body would be thawed enough to render his genetic material useless for study by the time her little sabotage job was discovered.  The thought made her almost physically ill, but only over her dead body would they use Steve for monetary gain.  

She had been almost relieved when Howard had been injured, because she knew she could never have convinced him to agree with her on that point.

Crackling static came from the radio.  “Hey, Peg, we just got a weather report radioed in from Reykjavik.  They’re seeing a heavy storm coming up your way.  We’d better abort the mission.”

Storms in the arctic were no joke. Dugan was already turning the plane. Peggy went for the radio receiver.  “Roger that.  We’re turning around now.”  She cast a wistful look back in the direction they’d seen the dark shape.  It was obscured now, and part of her knew she would never see it again.  This had been their last chance.

Dugan must have seen something in her face, for he spared a hand to roughly pat her shoulder.  “We’ll come back sometime, Peggy,” he bellowed good-naturedly over the roar of the engines.  “We’ll find him.”


The weather got worse much faster than either had expected.  Dugan was a good pilot, but the gusts of wind were challenging even for him to navigate.  Peggy took comfort in listening to the well-tuned hum of the engines.  Stark had made them himself - they wouldn't have any trouble.  She swiped her hair out of her face, making a face as it stuck to her gloved hands. The familiar motion reminded her of weeks spent behind enemy lines and the grenade pins the boys used to save for her when her hairpins had been lost.  Steve especially seemed to always have one on hand, offered with a shy, endearing grin.  

“Carter,” Dugan’s voice was strained, and she suddenly realized something was really wrong.  “Radio Stark to tell him the wings are icing up.  Any tips?”

Peggy’s hand slapped down on the receiver.  “Howard, the wings are icing over.  Didn’t you solve the icing problem?”

Howard’s voice crackled back confidently.  “I did, I did!  Use the switch on the dashboard.”

Peggy took a look at the cluttered dashboard.  “Howard, there are about fifty switches.”

“The orange one, in the center at the top.  And there are only fourteen switches - don’t be nasty.”

Peggy reached for the switch, only to find it had already been flipped.  Dugan looked back at her, blue eyes bright over his moustache.  “Peggy, I hate to worry you, but that deal ain’t working.  I tried it fifteen minutes ago.”

Her heart chilled, but she scanned the dashboard one more time - perhaps it had been mislabeled.  She even tried flipping a few others, to no avail.  Howard, when they called him back, insisted it was the orange one.  The concern in his voice was rising, and she tried to be calm, hoping he would follow her lead.

Dugan, ever solid and dependable, gave her a quick, reassuring look.  He couldn’t clap her shoulder - both hands were clutched around the plane’s steering, pulling back with all his might. “Brace yourself, Peggy,” he growled, “I can’t pull her up much more.”

He didn’t say it, but Peggy suddenly realized they weren’t going to survive this.  All around them, the snow was being blown up in great swirls.  When they occasionally caught a glimpse of the ice, it was sharp and jagged, with no safe landing in sight.  The dials on the dashboard swung wildly, impossible to read with certainty.

“Thank you, Corporal,” she told him, laying a hand on his arm, and he nodded brusquely.  They had been through too much together - there was no need for words.  Howard on the other hand…  She swallowed and reached for the radio with a heavy heart.  

“Howard?”

He immediately answered.  “Peggy?  Did you find it?”

Peggy forced her voice to be steady and calm.  She couldn’t bear for him to hear this.  “Howard, none of the switches are working.  I’m afraid we’re heading into a crash landing.”

“It’s the orange switch!  The orange one, center top - I installed it myself!”  His hysteria was mounting, painfully apparent even across the radio waves.  Her heart broke for him.  She’d been where he was now, she knew how it felt.  She tried to make her voice gentler.

“Howard, we’ve tried every switch.  None of them work - I think it’s just too cold.”

“Not again, please God, not again!”  Howard was half sobbing, half praying into the radio.  Peggy spared a glance out the window.  The plane was wallowing badly, and Dugan’s urgent face told her she had only seconds.  

“Get in the tube, Peg,” the corporal told her suddenly.  “I reckon it’s the strongest thing on board.”  Touched at his selflessness, she shook her head firmly, and reached for the receiver again.  There wasn’t room for two in the tube, and she wasn’t about to selfishly take shelter and leave her old friend out.

“Howard, this is not your fault.  Do you hear?  It’s not your fault.  I chose to fly off up here, and I knew the risks when I did.  Don’t blame yourself, Howard.  Promise me that.”

He cut her off.  “Is the throttle still working?  Use those hypos I gave Dugan...”  

Urgently, she clicked the button again.  “Howard, listen to me.  There is nothing you can do.  Don’t come looking for us - I’m not entirely sure where we are, and we’re not going to survive this. I don’t want any more people dying.  Steve wouldn’t want it either.”  Her voice cracked, but she pressed on, watching the ice come closer.  The plane dropped, propellers catching briefly, and her stomach swooped.  Steve had been brave, so could she.

It seemed strangely fitting that she die in the same way he had.  Staring down at the white world filling the windows, she suddenly understood his need for companionship, to be reminded he wasn't alone in his last few minutes, his attempts to comfort her.

Yanking off her gloves for more dexterity, Peggy fumbled out the hypo Dugan had given her and pressed it into her arm though she knew it would do no good in a crash.  The world began to turn a little fuzzy, and she wondered what on earth was in the stuff.  “It’s all right Howard, truly.  Go home, marry a nice girl, invent all those marvellous things you told us all about, move on…”

Dugan was doing something with his belt, using it to hold the throttle as far back as he could, tying it to the arm of the pilot seat before he lurched to his feet behind her. She felt his hand on her shoulder, and then the stab of a needle as her friend unexpectedly gave her his own injection as well. The world started fading faster and the receiver fell from suddenly lax fingers, Howard's frantic cry of "Peggy, Peggy!" ringing in her ears. Dugan pulled her backwards and bundled her into the opened tube behind her seat as gently as he could in his haste. She tried to protest through the gathering vagueness, but wasn't at all sure it worked.

The last thing she heard was his gruff voice close to her head.  

“Cap’d never forgive me if I let anything happen to his best girl.  Good luck, Peg.”

There was an increasingly dim series of clicks as the latches caught.  She never felt the shuddering concussion as the left wing of the plane struck the ice and sent the plane into a spin, shearing off the other wing before the cabin hit the ground and rolled, bursting into flame.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten


Steve’s head jerked upright from where it had fallen onto the edge of the bed, and he stared at his hand, still holding Peggy’s.  Had she…

It happened again.  

Even with his enhanced vision, Steve couldn’t see anything, but he distinctly felt the pressure of her fingertips increase for a moment.  His heart suddenly started pounding so hard he wondered if it could crack his ribs.  “Peggy?  Peggy, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand again.”

It had been three days since the procedure, and he had stayed by her side almost the entire time.  When the medical staff made him leave so they could care for her, he would go down to the gym and work out the feelings of helplessness that sitting beside her bed left him with.  He hadn’t gone through so many punching bags since before the Battle of New York.  Like clockwork, he would then return to sit by her door, freshly showered, and wait for the staff to let him back in.

In all that time, Peggy had shown no sign of life.  Now though - could she really have squeezed his hand, or was it some kind of muscle spasm?

One of the machines started beeping shrilly, and he started, every nerve strained for action.  He had no idea what the sound meant, or even which machine was making it, but it couldn’t be good - could it?

“JARVIS?” he snapped, the emergency turning his voice to steel.


Tony was working on a better life support system in the lab when JARVIS suddenly cut in, his electronic voice somehow taking on a note of urgency.

“Sir, my protocols are being interfsswshhzzzzss...”

The sound cut out in a burst of static, and didn’t come back.  Tony frowned, concerned.  “JARVIS?”

Clint’s tight voice broke through the speakers a heartbeat later.  “Tony, SHIELD agents are in the tower.  They’ve manually hacked an elevator and are on their way up. Not sure what they did to JARVIS, but he’s rebooting - be back up in a sec.”

What? ”  Stark dropped the simulation and took off towards the doors.  He wasn’t much good at running; the whole arc reactor situation had taken a toll on his lung capacity.  Even after its removal, the scar tissue made it difficult to draw a full quick breath, but he knew his tower and every last shortcut better than the back of his hand.  

“I can intercept,” Natasha’s voice came over the intercom, but Tony shook his head before he realized she couldn’t see him.  While either of the assassins could probably get to the invading agents first, their relationship with SHIELD was complicated, and he knew they hoped to avoid a confrontation.

Besides, this was his stuff these people were messing with.

“No, I got this,” he gasped, slamming out of the lab and catapulting down a flight of stairs.  With JARVIS out, and the system hacked, the elevators were unreliable, so he had to do this old school.

It was a race to the fiftieth level, where the elevator shafts that served the lower corporate levels of the tower ended, and where the private elevators began - the elevators that served the upper floors where Tony’s labs, the medical wing, and the Avengers’ living quarters were located. The race was close.  Breathing hard, Tony dropped through a hidden maintenance panel and scrambled to his feet just as the indicator light on the hacked elevator blinked on and the doors began to open. 

Man, that team was fast.  Tony made a mental note to invent something brilliant to keep this from happening again.  

“Look guys, Iron Man here,” he announced, lounging against the wall in an attitude he hoped looked nonchalant, trying desperately to control his voice so they wouldn’t see how out of breath he was.  It was distinctly satisfying to be in charge of the situation, assert his authority.  “Not trying to threaten you - actually, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.  If I have to get out the suit, I will.  Oh, and in what universe do you think you can get away with hacking JARVIS?”

JARVIS apparently took this as his cue to finish his restart sequence and butt into the conversation.  “Sir, incoming message from Captain America.”

“Not now, J.  I’ve got trespassers to deal with.”  Tony surveyed the intruders: six agents, all fully geared up, none of them looking very intimidated.  The leader stepped forward, holding out some kind of official paperwork, which Tony completely ignored.  He hated being handed things, especially by uninvited guests.

“We’ve come to claim the body,” the agent started, but Tony interrupted.  It was his standard defense - if he could keep people from reaching the end of their sentences, they’d get angry or sidetracked, and maybe make a mistake or get distracted from the actual topic.

“Wow, cliche much?  I mean, that sounds exactly like it came right out of some old B movie from…”

The agent barely blinked, cutting in firmly.  “Stark, stop.  We know it’s here, and we have the legal authority to claim it.”  

Well, okay, so that hadn’t worked at all.  Tony rubbed his chin, thinking fast.  He could call the suit, but he was pretty sure Pepper wouldn’t like it if he scorched up the walls again.  She'd just had them painted.  Okay, the suit would be a last resort then, though he wasn’t excluding it completely.

“Urgent, Sir.”  JARVIS again.  Had his AI always been so insistent?

“I said not now, J,” he snapped back at the ceiling, and then turned to the waiting agents.  “Look, you can’t have her.  She’s not just an it, she’s a person who’s important to Captain America.  Captain America, guys!  I mean, where’s your sense of patriotism?  It’s like stepping on a bald eagle or something...”

Steve's voice suddenly came over the speakers, tense and urgent. "Tony, something's beeping - I think something is wrong, but I don't know what to do."

Tony felt a brief flash of mingled irritation and pride - when had Cap learned to activate JARVIS' emergency override codes?  Then the meaning of the words broke through, and he cut Steve off short before he said anything more incriminating in front of the agents. "Really?  Yeah, okay. JARVIS, execute evac code PEP12 and patch Cap through to Bruce."

Turning back to the confused agents, he smiled as innocently as he could, spreading his hands. "Sorry, not sorry, guys. Places to go, people to see."  As per the code he had entered, JARVIS opened the private elevator closest to where he was standing, and Tony stepped backward into it, keeping his eyes on the agents even as they started toward him.  “Still can’t have her,” he called through the closing doors, and grinned at the looks on their faces as the lights suddenly went out.

Man, he loved his AI.


By the time Tony reached the medical center, the incessant beeping had been shut off by Bruce, who desperately needed the calm.  He was bending over the woman on the bed, doing something mysterious with a stethoscope.  Steve, obviously routed from his place by her side, was standing against the far wall.  Tony didn’t even think he’d heard his own rather dramatic entrance - Steve’s whole attention was trained on Peggy’s body, and the tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife.

Bruce suddenly laid aside his stethoscope and glanced up at Steve.  “I’m going to try something, Captain,” he told him tersely.  “Watch that screen and tell me what her heartbeat does.”  Steve nodded wordlessly, trying to look at the screen and Peggy at the same time.  Tony went to stand by Bruce, peering over his shoulder.

“What’s up?” he asked in an undertone, noting the doctor was fumbling with the controls of the external pacemaker system that kept Peggy’s heart beating.

“I need to - ah, there.”  Bruce finally found the control he wanted, and snapped it off.  Tony’s heart leapt into his throat as the machine shut down completely - and the line on the heart rate monitor fell flat.  Steve choked out a wordless, strangled sound.  Tony scrambled for the controls with a yelp, trying to turn it on again, but Bruce held him back.  “Wait, wait…”

Nothing.

Bruce’s face furrowed with concentration.  “Come on, girl, you can do this.”

Still nothing.  The room hung silent in terrible suspense.

“Peggy,” Steve’s voice was softly, horribly desperate, and suddenly Tony knew what he must have sounded like when the plane went down.  “Peggy?”

The line on the heart rate monitor jumped.

It jumped again - and again - and then again and again in an increasingly regular pattern.  Tony found himself whooping in delight, leaping up and down and slapping a quietly satisfied Bruce on the back.  Steve crumpled to his knees by the bed, holding Peggy’s hand to his cheek and hiding his face, shoulders shaking.  

“Thank God,” he gasped very softly. “Oh, Peggy - thank God.”


“So, what exactly was all that beeping about?”  Tony asked, once all the celebration was over.

Steve still knelt beside the bed, looking completely drained, but with a light of hope in his eyes that neither Bruce or Tony had ever seen before.  Briefly, Tony wondered how long the man had been awake - possibly since England, because Pepper had said he hadn’t slept on the plane, and the guy had an enviably insane ability to go without sleep.  Maybe now Steve could get some real sleep in an actual bed, although from the look on his face, Tony was pretty sure it would take more than Iron Man to get him to leave Peggy now.

“It was - um,” Bruce was distracted by some of the other equipment, testing their readings against a clipboard he held.  “Oh, her heart.  It was trying to beat on its own, slightly out of synch with the life support machine.”  He uncapped his pen, holding the cap between his teeth while he scribbled.

"So wait, you just decide to turn the thing off and hope her heart keeps going?"  Tony was a little surprised; it seemed uncharacteristic for the careful scientist to gamble with a woman's life.

Bruce blinked up from his clipboard and pulled the pen cap out of his mouth.  "Tony," he explained patiently, "I know how long a brain can go without blood before it starts to die, and we were well within the safety zone.  I was going to give her four more seconds before turning it back on.  Fortunately," he patted the foot of Peggy's bed affectionately, "she took over."

"Can she hear us?" Steve broke in hopefully.  Bruce frowned, not sure how to answer.  Peggy still showed no sign of consciousness, but her heartbeat remained steady, and Steve stoutly averred she had squeezed his hand before the machines started beeping.  Tony remained healthily skeptical.  Bruce carefully refrained from stating an opinion.

“I don’t know how much brain activity is occurring, or even if there is any,” the doctor admitted ruefully, reviewing the papers on his clipboard and then glancing down at Peggy’s face, still half covered by the ventilator.  “You're welcome to talk to her if you like - it can’t hurt.  Without more advanced equipment, though, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.”  

Tony, at his elbow, brightened visibly.  “I can make it!  What do you want?”

Bruce stared him down dryly.  “You can’t make anything like that without specialized electrodes.  The kind you’ve got will fry her brain before they pick up any information, and we can’t get any fancy supplies in here without Fury noticing.”

Tony bristled a little at the slight to his capabilities. “Wanna bet?  I got some reserves; I bet I can build anything from scratch that you need…”

JARVIS cut in suddenly, much to the billionaire’s exasperation.  Really, that AI had no regard for a good conversation.  “Sir, what would you like me to do with the agents?”

Steve’s head snapped upright, immediately alert.  “Agents?  What agents, Stark?”

Tony squirmed a little under the intense glare of two of his best friends.  “Oh, yeah.  Agents.  Forgot about them.  Little thing, you know how it is...”

Bruce folded his arms, voice very flat.  “Tony, what did you do with the agents?”

“Well,” Tony’s voice went up nearly an octave as he tried to find a way out.  He would’ve escaped through the door, but Bruce was in the way.  “I - put level fifty into lockdown.”

“They made it to the fiftieth floor?”  Steve was somewhere between alarmed and incredulous, and nobody missed the way his hand twitched toward the shield he wasn’t carrying.

Bruce took the news without blinking.  Really, Tony thought, Bruce ought to be somebody’s dad because he was awfully good at it.  “Now what are you going to do with them?” the doctor asked, almost conversationally.

“Well,” Tony gestured aimlessly.  “I just figured I’d leave them there.  Resident pets and all that.  Pepper was wanting a dog the other day, but these will be way easier to housetrain.  I have a secure elevator separate from the rest of the system so I can still reach my Audi…”

“Tony.”

Wow, Bruce was really, really good at going all parental.  Tony raked his hands through his hair and threw up his arms.

“Fine, okay, okay.  I’ll think up something.  Remember, genius here, guys.”


Two hours later, the frustrated agents were getting ready to break the windows and rappel down the exterior of the building when Tony showed up with a blaze of renewed light and a story of technical malfunction.  “Hey, sorry guys.  My computer system has orders to lock this floor down when he’s hacked.  Takes forever to unlock the override codes.”

The lead agent’s jaw clenched, and he looked about two inches from biting somebody’s head off.  “You can’t fool us, Stark.  We all heard Captain Rogers over the intercom.  What was that all about?”

Tony shrugged eloquently, surveying the damage the agents had done trying to get through the stairwell lockdown door.  “Wow, what’d you do, try to beat it down with your heads?  Solid titanium.  Have some self-respect - at least bring a blowtorch next time.”

“Stark!”  There was a warning note in the man's voice that Tony, in a rare move of prudence, decided not to ignore.

“Oh, yeah, all that beeping and stuff."  Shaking his head dismissively, he spread his hands theatrically, opening his eyes wide to look as innocent as possible.  "Tell you a secret: Cap still can’t get used to technology.  The timer on the microwave is still a major shock, every time.”  


The agents left; they had no other choice.  All the elevators were set to take them only to the main floor, no matter what other buttons they pressed.  When they tried to hack their way up again, the electricity for the whole lower fifty floors was instantly shut off.  As per the building's fire code, the stairwell doors remained unlocked, but even the lead agent was daunted at the thought of climbing ninety-odd flights of stairs.  

Besides, they’d lost the element of surprise.

Clint watched the camera feeds grimly as the black cars finally drove away.  His eyes flickered across the screens, picking out agents on nearby rooftops who'd been left behind to keep tabs on the tower.  They were good, but he was an expert, and it wasn’t all that hard to spot them.  Relaxing back into his chair, he put his feet on the counter and continued to watch.  When the first man moved, he would be ready.

SHIELD had retreated, but only temporarily.  For the moment, the Avengers had a reprieve - but everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before SHIELD came back in full force.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven


“Pepper?”

She appeared in the doorway, wrestling with an armful of papers, two tablets, and her phone.  “You’ve got a meeting with the vice -”

“Pepper, cancel the rest of my meetings today.”  Tony finished off his drink and set the empty glass on the counter, staring out the window.

His CEO sighed resignedly.  “Tony, we’ve talked about this, you can’t just do that kind of thing on a whim.  Other people have schedules too, you have to…”

He cut in, talked over her like he always did.  She was the only person who wouldn't give up when he tried to interrupt, and he loved it in her.  “I know, I know, but this really can’t wait.  I need to go to Maine.”

Pepper broke off in the middle of her sentence.  “Oh.  Now?  Do you need…”

“To do this by myself.”  Tony finished her sentence for her.  He fidgeted with some loose nuts and bolts in his pocket, and then turned to look at her.  “Thanks though, Pep.  You’re wonderful.”

She took a long breath, and leaned her forehead against his shoulder for a moment before drawing away.  “Okay, but this is the last time I’ll reschedule that man.  Thursday morning at nine, and don’t you dare…”

“Aww, Pepper, that’s the middle of the night!”

“... cancel him again.  Don’t you dare.”


The elderly couple had been installed in the house on the Maine coastline after Howard and Maria Stark died.  Tony hadn’t been there in ages, though he paid regularly for the upkeep and, since Ana’s stroke, the live-in caretakers.

He landed a hundred yards down the road so the noise of the repulsors wouldn’t startle them, and collapsed the suit into briefcase form.  It was too heavy to carry conveniently for long distances, but he was close enough to the house that it wouldn’t be much of a problem.  

“Anthony!  What a pleasant surprise.”  Edwin Jarvis started to rise from his seat on the porch as Tony skipped up the stairs, but Tony waved him back.  

“Sit down, J.”  He collapsed into the other rocking chair and put his feet up on the railing, enjoying the sound of the ocean waves not far away.  “How’s Mrs. Jarvis?”

Jarvis settled back into his seat, carefully adjusting the cushion behind his back.  Years of service had stooped his shoulders and neck, but he still carried off dignity better than almost anybody else Tony had ever known.  “She’s resting at the moment, but doing quite well.  Speaking of which, sir, we wanted to thank you for your gift of…”

“Yeah, yeah, never mind.”  Tony shifted his feet on the rail.  “This house should’ve had one of those installed years ago.  Raises property value and all that.”

Jarvis watched him closely for a moment, and then returned his gaze to the ocean.  He’d known young Anthony for the boy's entire life; he could tell when the boy had something on his mind, and the best course of action was to back off and wait.  He knew his patience had paid off when the toes of Tony’s shoes started twitching.

“I bet your vacuum’s broken again, isn’t it?”  Tony interjected suddenly, flinging himself precipitously out of his chair, leaving it rocking wildly in his wake.  “I bet it is,” he repeated, only just remembering not to slam the screen door and wake Ana on his way into the house.

Three minutes later, he was back, dragging the brand new vacuum cleaner after him.  Comfortably situated on the floor, he produced a screwdriver from some pocket or other, and started busily taking the thing apart.  Jarvis smiled to himself.  In the many years since he’d first met young Anthony, the boy had never been able to talk about things that disturbed him unless his hands were busy.  It was a dead giveaway, but Tony himself had never noticed.

“Jarvis, tell me about Peggy Carter.”  It was a shot in the dark, but Tony figured it was a good one.  Jarvis had stood by Howard’s side since the war.  Howard had known Peggy Carter, so chances were good Jarvis would have as well.

Jarvis blinked, his only concession to being startled by the question.  He didn’t answer right away, but his gaze grew distant for a moment or two.  

“Miss Carter,” he finally said decidedly, “was one of the most remarkable women I ever had the good fortune to meet.”  He nodded to himself for a moment, but then added after a short pause, “Regrettably, she was also the most stubborn.”

“What happened to her?”  Tony wouldn’t make eye contact - he was busy taking the dust bag out of the vacuum cleaner, scattering fine dirt across his lap.

“She died in a plane accident not long after the war,” Jarvis managed to say.  Even though it had been over half a century, it was hard to get the words out.

Something snapped, and Tony grumbled under his breath about cheap plastic pieces made in China.  “Why didn’t I ever hear about her, if you two were such good friends?” he finally asked.

Jarvis folded his long, knobby hands carefully, a smile quirking at the corners of his mouth.  “Don’t you remember all those stories I used to tell you when you were little?”

Tony finally looked up, confused.  “Which stories?  Like, Goldilocks and the Three Bears stories?”

“Of course not, sir.  You never could stand those stories.  I mean the other stories, the ones I used to tell you if you promised not to tell your father about them.”  Jarvis watched his young master’s face carefully, and saw the exact moment when the light dawned.

“No, I - wait.  The Miss Carver stories?”  Tony’s face was open and blank with astonishment, and vacuum parts scattered as he gesticulated with his hands.  “The ones where you and Miss Carver went out and saved the world before nine-o-clock?   Those stories?  Don’t tell me those were true, Jarvis.”

Jarvis looked as much like the cat that had caught the canary as any ninety-something-year-old man possibly could.  “While I confess I took some liberties with names and plot lines, the basis of the stories was absolutely true.  Agent Carter got me into quite a lot of trouble, but she always got me out again, and we saved each other’s lives a number of times.”  He trailed off, nodding absently as he looked back into the past.

Tony was still not quite over his astonishment that the fictional heroine of all his favorite bedtime stories was currently lying unconscious in his personal medical center, and it was several minutes before he got his thoughts back together again.

“So why didn't my fa - why didn't Howard want me to know about her?”

Jarvis’s creased face fell into deep lines of sorrow as he remembered.  “Her death was hard on all of us, but especially on your father.”  

Tony looked up from under his eyebrows to gauge the effect of his next question.  “Was she one of his girlfriends?”

If Jarvis had been any younger, Tony would have gotten a spanking for suggesting such a thing.  As it was, the older man straightened indignantly, speaking in his crispest, most displeased tones.  “Anthony Stark, she most certainly was not.  She was the only woman who ever stood up to him.  If your father could have had a sister, it would have been her.”

Tony abruptly dropped all pretense of fixing the vacuum.  “So she was a friend. Howard lived through WWII, he lost lots of friends.  Cap, Bucky, Willard, I heard their stories; they were all he ever talked about.  So why didn’t he ever tell me about Peggy Carter?”

Jarvis readjusted the pillow behind his back, deciding how much to tell, and finally sighed, meeting Tony’s eyes directly.

“Your father took her death as a personal failure.  I do not believe he ever forgave himself.”


Jarvis knew something had gone wrong as soon as he stepped back into the radio tower.  Ten minutes before, when he had discreetly excused himself to get the sandwiches from the car, Howard and Peggy had been sniping back and forth like normal.  Now, however, Howard had half risen and was gripping the edge of the table tightly with his good hand.

“Not again,” he panted desperately, not even noticing Jarvis’ presence.  “Please, please, not again.”

Peggy’s voice crackled faintly over the speaker.  “Howard, we’ve tried it, we’ve tried every switch.”

Sandwiches suddenly forgotten, Jarvis stood frozen against the wall, helpless and aghast at the disaster unfolding around him.  For a moment, he was thrown back to the day when Peggy had talked a delusional Howard safely out of the sky.  She had been calm then, even in the face of disaster.  She was still calm now, but he could hear the edge of tension in her voice.  Howard paced back and forth, a bundle of nervous, hysterical energy as he frantically tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

“Marry a nice girl… invent all those marvelous things you used to tell us about… move on…”

Her voice cut out, and Howard almost launched himself across the table.  “Peggy?  Peggy?  Peg, talk to me!”

Heartbeats later, the radio crackled and went dead.  Jarvis closed his eyes for a moment, and realized that for as long as he lived, he would never be able to forget Howard’s despairing cry.


 “He would not stop trying to raise her for an hour, and he refused to leave the radio upon request.”  Jarvis’ voice was heavy with sorrow, even after all those years.  Tony bowed his head, unwilling to watch as the old man relived the last awful moments.


 Howard stayed by the radio through the night, regardless of efforts to move him.  At nine-o-clock, Jarvis went to the phone and mechanically dialed Ana .

“I’m afraid I won’t be in tonight,” he explained to the concerned woman on the other end.  “There’s been a - situation.  No, I’m quite all ri...”

His voice abruptly choked off, which was vaguely surprising, but he squeezed the telephone tightly and got himself at least partly back under control.  “I’m not hurt.  I’ll call again in the morning and let you know where I am.”

“Go, Jarvis.”

The hoarse voice momentarily startled him, until he realized it was Howard.  The man still held the radio receiver with his shaking hand, and his eyes were trained vacantly on the wall, but he tipped his head ever so slightly toward the door.  “Go.”

Jarvis hung the telephone up.  “I would rather not, sir.”

They sat in silence until morning, only broken every half hour when Stark sent out his call signal.  In between, he sat rigid, strained far past the breaking point.

As dawn broke, Howard groped once more for the receiver.  “Peggy,” he rasped, and his mouth worked as he tried to form words.  He never did, dropping the receiver with a crash.  For a long moment, he stood bowed over the table, gripping at the edge, suddenly old before his time.  Then he wheeled and staggered to the door.

“I need a drink, Jarvis.  Take me somewhere - I need to get drunk, I need to get drunk.”

Following him out, Jarvis stooped and carefully picked up the fallen receiver.  For a moment he hesitated, finger tightening on the button until he pressed it down with a decisive click and raised it.  

“Miss Carter,” he paused and then straightened his back to attention.  “It has been an honour.”  

He released the button, gently put the receiver back into place, and left the room.


“He was never quite the same after that,” Jarvis remembered, voice shaking a little with age and quiet emotion.  “For weeks, he cycled down a self-destructive course.  More than once, I feared for his life or sanity.  Later, we discovered one of the airstrip employees had sabotaged the plane.  We never discovered who he worked for, but I would suspect Hydra.  While Howard still blamed himself for overlooking it, the knowledge that it had not been a malfunction helped him begin to recover.”

For a moment he paused, looking down at young Anthony.  He was older now than his father had been, way back then, but the physical resemblance was striking.

“He was a changed man though,” Jarvis finally continued.  “If he had been a perfectionist before, he was doubly so afterwards, and far less trusting.  Still, I believe Peggy Carter was the best influence he ever had.  He married your mother, he pushed forward the boundaries of his field, he did everything she had begged him to do.  I know he never forgot her, and his failure haunted him until the day he died.”

There was a long silence.  Tony had gone back to the vacuum, working diligently to hide his face. Somehow he couldn't help but put himself in his father's shoes.  What if it had been Pepper or Bruce or Rhodey in that plane, and he was the one stranded at home, without the suit, without any way to help them but to stay on the phone and hear them die?  What kind of a man would he have become after that kind of experience?

“Did he ever look for her?” he finally asked offhandedly, rooting busily through the heap of plastic parts for a screw.

“Of course he did,” Jarvis patiently replied, “but it took months.  He would have gone on his own, but was prevented.  Winter storms started early, and the only two rescue teams that got off the ground crashed and needed to be rescued themselves.  By the next spring, new snow had fallen, and they were never found.”

Tony could guess who had stopped Howard.  SHIELD would not have agreed to have their co-founder and chief inventor go gallivanting off on a suicide mission.  He nodded, beginning to reassemble the vacuum and all the dreadful little plastic pieces.  Honestly, what kind of quality was this?

“If I may ask,” Jarvis interposed after a few minutes, “why the sudden interest in Miss Carter?”

That question took a lot of consideration.  Tony wasn’t sure how much to say, especially if SHIELD was tracking his movements, which he hated to admit was a possibility.  The last thing he wanted was to tell Jarvis something that would make the elderly man any more of a target than he already was.  Still, he’d been so broken up over her death…  He finally gave in a little.

“Global warming has its uses.”  He busied himself hunting for the other little screw, not wanting to look at Jarvis’s face.  The soft intake of breath told him exactly when the old man figured out the meaning behind his words.

There was the oddest tone in his voice when Jarvis finally spoke.  “You don’t mean they found the wreckage?”

Tony looked up, just to make sure the man wasn’t having a heart attack.  “They did, and called me because it had an experimental version of the Stark logo on it, one I’d messed around with as a kid.”

“Ah, yes, the hexagon.”  Jarvis’ memory was impressive; nearly as good as his AI namesake.  “He was so proud of the new logo, but he could never stand the sight of it afterwards.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”  Tony distinctly remembered his father’s less than stellar reaction to his early use of it. He’d always thought it was indifference to his creations; never considered it might be the reaction to a painful memory.  Suddenly he found himself looking at their interactions with different eyes, trying to make sense of them in light of the new information he had.

Jarvis’ voice broke through his reverie.  “Will there be any sort of memorial service, sir?  I would very much like to attend.”  The old man was leaning forward, trying to hide his evident interest behind a mask of diffidence, but he was doing a poor job.  Jarvis had never been very good at lying.

Tony, on the other hand, was excellent at the art of misleading.

With an internal wince, he shrugged apologetically.  “Sorry, Jarvis.  The ceremony was unofficial, short, and quick, over in England.  No big fanfare.”  It wasn't exactly a lie, but it was nowhere near the whole truth.

Jarvis, resigned but not especially surprised, leaned back in his chair again.  “I understand.  Thank you for telling me.  We were very good friends, she and I.  I’m glad you know now; I would hate to think her forgotten when I die.”

Tony snapped the last piece of the vacuum back into place, and looked up, tracing the older man’s profile with his eyes, trying to imagine him as a young adventurer saving the world with Peggy Carter before or after nine-o-clock.  For a moment, he almost managed.  Then - it was gone.

Hopping up briskly, he gave the vacuum an experimental twirl around his feet.  “No worries, Jarvis.  I think I’ll remember her pretty well.  What did you pay for this thing, anyway?  Piece of junk, needs to be replaced.  I bet I’ve designed a better one in my sleep somewhere.  I’ll send you a prototype for testing.”

A smile spread across Jarvis’ face as he watched young Anthony leave.  He knew it was the closest that Tony Stark would ever get to saying “thank you.”  Slowly, haltingly, he got to his feet and reached for his cane before heading inside.  

Ana would wake up from her nap soon, and he wanted to tell her that Peggy Carter’s body had been found at last.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve


Five minutes after Tony got back to the Stark Tower landing pad, Fury called up, top priority.

"Tell him no, JARVIS," Tony ordered, tinkering with one of the gauntlets. It wasn't working quite right - something kept pinching his fingers and he couldn't figure out what.

"Too late," Fury's voice came from the screen. "Really Stark, you expect me to hide out in your basement for months and not get myself a calling code?"

Tony made about six mental notes to do a complete overhaul of his AI. After Fury had left his reluctant hospitality to get SHIELD into working order, he'd done a cursory security sweep, but it obviously hadn't been deep enough.  "Right, so you called, hello, goodbye."  He turned back to his gauntlet, resisting the urge to blast the screen with the repulsor.

"Stark, this has gone far enough. We know Agent Carter's body is in your tower, and we want it back."  Fury was adamant, a warning edge in his voice.

Tony was trying very hard to keep his temper.  "What is this, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or something?  Leave me alone. I know my rights.  Oh, and don't call her an it, seriously."

Fury leaned forward.  He was probably trying to look confidential, but it came across as menacing.  "You don't have any idea what's at stake.  Our scans report that she was injected at two sites with an unknown substance right before she died.  We need to know what that was.  Howard Stark might have left one last gift for the world."

Tony found the problem - it was a jammed finger hinge, easily fixed.  He pulled out a screwdriver and used it to pry off one of the plates for better access.  Without looking at the screen, he talked back, paying more attention to the machinery in his hands.  "Is that what this is all about?  Some unknown chemical compound?  News flash: I figured that out ages ago.  Genius, rememb-"

He broke off suddenly, staring past the gauntlet and then over to Fury's face.

"You're thinking - ” his eyes narrowed, “you think it was some version of the super soldier serum, don't you?"  The gauntlet slid unheeded to the floor with a rattle as he slowly stood, realization dawning on his face.  "You think Dad tried to recreate it - and gave it to Peggy Carter so she could stand a better chance of finding Cap."  

Fury looked more inscrutable than usual.  "I don't need to answer your questions.  I just need her body.”  His voice adopted a conciliatory tone.  “We're even willing to return it for burial after we've properly tested it."

It was a big concession, but Fury didn’t know that they were way past the point of wanting to bury her.  Tony pulled up a holo screen while Fury was speaking, and ran a few quick diagnostics.  He was pretty sure he knew where Fury's "calling code" was based, but to be safe, he selected several more servers.  

"No deal.  Get off of my screen, you and your sick bunch of lackeys - I'm going to go throw up now."  With a flick of his fingers he forced the servers to crash, and watched with pleasure as the image died.

"JARVIS, run a complete overhaul on the crashed servers before you restart them.  Close all access points, and lock them off from the rest of the system until I have a chance to look at the log."

"Very good, sir."  The proper British voice almost sounded pleased at the prospect.

"Oh, and where's Brucie boy?  I need a pow-wow.  Like, yesterday."


Bruce paced the length of the lab and back again.  "Well, we can't give them her body,"

"Obviously," interjected Tony from his place on the holo table, surrounded by oversized projections of Peggy's blood cells.  Technically, sitting on holo tables was not advised and tended to distort the images, but he didn't care. Besides, he’d made the thing, he ought to know what it could handle.

Bruce went on as if he hadn't heard him.  Actually, he probably hadn't.  "And we can't offer to give them blood samples instead of her whole body, because thanks to Steve's transfusion, now she does have some serum in her blood.  They’ll think they were right, and want the rest of her for increased levels of testing.”

Tony poked at one of the projections as it passed him, and it fizzled into a blue blur. To be completely honest, biology was not his strongest point. That was more Banner’s area.

“Why can’t we just tell them that she’s alive?”  Bruce fiddled with his spectacles until he accidentally dropped them, and had to crawl under one of the tables to pick them up, voice slightly muffled as he continued.  “Yes, they have a legal claim on her dead body, but the fact that she has an unaided heartbeat is an indication of some form of brain stem activity.  Since she’s not brain dead, we can claim that she’s alive and contest the ruling.”  

Tony shook his head.  “Pep and I have talked about this, and we both agree that’s a no-go. They’re not fools.  If we claim she’s alive, they’ll take that as proof that she has the serum, and be even more determined to get their hands on her.  The court ruling that awarded her body to SHIELD all but declared me unfit for the position of her next-of-kin.  As long as she can’t speak for herself, she’s basically theirs.”

He met Bruce's eyes across the room as they both came to the same conclusion.

Bruce voiced it first. "Then there's nothing we can do. I guess we just have to stand firm and see if she wakes up."

"Who wakes up?  Peggy?"  Clint was suddenly standing in the corner of the room, where he most certainly hadn't been a minute before. Tony annihilated half a dozen cell projections with his startled jump.  

One might think living with two SHIELD assassins would let him get used to the fact they were stuck in stealth mode all the time, but it didn't.  

"Speaking of Peggy, how is she?"  Clint shifted, directing the question to Banner.  The assassin was dressed in exercise clothes with his bow over his shoulder and an apple in his hand. Tony desperately wanted to make a joke about William Tell, but he was interested in Bruce's answer too.

Bruce rubbed his hands together and eyed the apple hungrily.  It had to be nearing lunch time.  "Good news, I think.  Today we took out the ventilator tube - she's breathing almost completely on her own now."

Tony held a spontaneous little celebration on the holo table, complete with simulated Iron Man suits and fireworks.  Clint was more cautious.

"Almost on her own - care to give us a definition?"

Bruce shrugged. "Well, her SpO2 count isn't quite as high as I'd like, so I taught Steve how to use the oximeter.  He's in charge of giving her oxygen every time the count dips below a certain point.  That way he gets to help with her recovery, do something useful instead of just hovering."  Steve had been almost pathetically grateful to actually have something to do, and had applied himself industriously to his new job.

Clint nodded and deliberately bit into his apple, provoking a Hulk-sized growl from Bruce's stomach. Bruce turned red as the proverbial beet as Tony snickered. Clint grinned wickedly, before growing sober.

"So, you think she'll wake up?" he asked around his mouthful of apple. "Steve could use a break. I can't think of a guy who deserves a break more."

"I - don't know," Bruce admitted, shaking his head. "There’s been some eye movement, but her pupils show no reaction to light, and she doesn’t react to stimuli.  She's certainly achieved basic involuntary functions, such as her heartbeat and breathing - but I don't know if she’ll ever be able to fully regain consciousness.”  He looked up at his friends with another shrug, tapping his glasses absently against his palm.  “Even if she does wake up, we have no idea what to expect mentally.  The chances of her being more than a vegetable are slim at best."

Heavy silence settled in the room as each man thought of their captain’s slow heartbreak, waiting hopefully by the bedside of the girl who might never wake up, might never come back to him.


Three floors above, Peggy Carter's eyes opened for the first time in seventy years.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen


Steve didn't notice at first. He was busy putting the oxygen mask away and chatting quietly with the silent girl in the bed in the vague hope she would hear him. To be fair, he had hardly slept at all since the pseudo funeral days earlier, and even the super-soldier wasn't impervious to exhaustion.

"... He’s tracking down some leads for me right now.  You'd like him; he's a daredevil with those wings..."

Steve wound to a halt, heart suddenly skipping a beat as he stared at her face.

"Peggy?"  

Her name tore from his throat without his own volition.  She hadn’t moved, but her eyes were open, looking up at the ceiling.  At the sound of his voice, vague confusion appeared on her forehead.  She blinked slowly, long lashes brushing her cheeks.

Then she turned her head and saw him.

He stopped breathing altogether as hope and fear battled in his heart. She stared back, eyes slowly widening.  If Steve had been watching, he would have seen the silent blip on her heart rate monitor speed up, but he only had eyes for his girl.

“Steve?”

Her voice was rough from disuse, barely audible, but it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.  Heart banging raggedly at his ribs, Steve took his place at her side in a rush, automatically reaching for her hand.  “Yeah,” he tried to say, but his voice came out all strange and his face hurt from smiling.

She stared at him for a long moment, throat working, lips parted slightly in disbelief.  Then her dark eyes overflowed with sudden tears, spilling down her cheeks.  “Steve,” she whispered again, and the dawning shock and joy in her face was almost more than his battered heart could bear.  “It’s been so long…”

“I know, I know,” he choked fervently, fumbling out his handkerchief with his free hand and offering it to her before realizing she was too weak and uncoordinated to take it.  “I know, but I’m here now.”  Tenderly, clumsily, he wiped away her tears, never noticing his own.  He felt her hand move in his, returning his grip as tightly as she could.

“...thought you were dead,” she whispered brokenly, trying to raise her head, trying to sit up, but unable to muster the strength.  

Steve was entirely unprepared for the swamping wave of emotion that crashed over him. He had waited and hoped and prayed for so long, and now the burden of his loss and the strain of the past weeks had lifted, leaving him reeling. With a half-smothered sob of mingled joy and well-worn grief, he bowed his head. Peggy reached for him, unused muscles quivering with the effort as she touched his wet face, and he leaned helplessly into her touch, letting her draw his head down against her shoulder. She was warm and alive, and he felt her fingers twist through his hair as he struggled for self-control.

“So did I,” he finally gasped.  “Oh, Peggy.”

They had never been so close before, but for a long time neither one could bear to draw away.  Steve clasped her hand tightly, and she held his head, running her fingers through his hair over and over, as if still not quite convinced he was real.  The need to comfort her was very strong, and he turned his head more deeply into her shoulder, whispering her name as she trembled with suppressed tears.

“Dugan?” she finally asked, trying to regain her composure.  Her fingers slowly left his hair and swept down his cheek, but she didn’t relinquish her grasp on his hand.  

Steve reluctantly sat up.  He wanted - oh, how he wanted - to gather her in his arms and hold her, but the amount of tubes and wires still attached to her body made it impossible.  Instead, he leaned as close as he dared, folding her hands in his, and shook his head.  It was so like Peggy for her first thought to be for the welfare of others.  “He didn’t make it.  I’m so sorry, Peggy.”

Closing her eyes briefly, she tightened her lips and nodded, steadying herself against the devastating loss of their old companion.  The war had taken so many of their friends, but each new death hurt as badly as the last.  “Howard - tell Howard I’m all right.”

“Stark knows,” Steve pacified his conscience by using Tony’s last name, though he hated himself for it.  He couldn’t tell Peggy now that everyone she had ever known was dead.  She was still disoriented, still incredibly fragile.  The burden of that knowledge would need to be his alone for at least a little bit longer.

"Steve..."

Her eyelids were fluttering but she stubbornly tried to keep them open, fighting to keep looking at him.  He pressed her hands and smiled reassuringly.  “Get some sleep now, Peggy.  I’ll still be here when you wake up.”

A trace of affectionate amusement flickered across her face, and she raised her eyebrows challengingly,  “Can’t give me orders…” she trailed off sleepily.  He choked on the reply to their old, old joke, scarcely able to believe that this precious part of his old life was back.

“Who says I can’t?  I’m a captain, remember?”  His voice shook and broke, and he suddenly wasn’t sure if he was laughing or crying.  Possibly both.

She huffed a sleepy laugh, and her eyes finally slipped closed, but she didn’t let his hand go, anchoring him to her even in her sleep.  He held her hands just as securely, needing the contact, the physical evidence of her fingers laced between his to prove that she had indeed woken, and the whole thing had not been just another dream.

Peggy was awake.  Awake and, despite Bruce’s carefully veiled cautions, she was still herself, with memories and personality intact.  She knew who he was, and the great wonder of it all was that she was still glad to see him.  A great thanksgiving welled up in Steve's heart, almost painful in its intensity, and he mutely bowed his head in gratitude over their entwined hands.

The whole exchange had taken only a few minutes.  For as long as he lived, they would be held among the happiest, most sacred moments of his life.


When Tony found out, he almost threw a fit.  

“Wait, what?  Sleeping Beauty woke up and you didn’t call us?  On that note,” he paused and waggled his eyebrows suggestively, “how did you finally wake her?”  

Steve blushed like a tomato at the insinuation, so Tony made obnoxious kissing noises until Pepper stepped hard on his foot with her stiletto heel and stayed there, masterfully ignoring his startled yelp.

Bruce was professionally and personally fascinated.  “Full cognitive recall,  facial recognition, language mastery - how were her motor skills?  Could she move much?  Asking after Timothy Dugan and Howard Stark suggests she remembers the events leading up to the crash, since they were the last people she interacted with….”

Steve threw an anxious glance at the clock as Bruce rattled on.  The medical staff had put Peggy on a light sedative, and were currently working to remove most of the systems that she had been connected to.  The last thing they wanted was to have her waking up more fully and becoming frightened at the amount of unfamiliar machinery hooked up to her body. While they worked, Steve had reluctantly come down to the surveillance room at Tony’s insistence for for a few minutes to touch bases with the team and update them on Peggy’s situation.

That had been a half hour ago, and now he was desperately trying not to fidget with the assorted clutter on the desk, eager to return to her side.  

Thor noticed his preoccupation and divined the cause.  The millennia-old prince, while not terribly artful with words, had been exposed to too many subtleties at his father’s court not to recognize one when he saw it.  A glance at the rambling Bruce made up his mind, and he took things into his own hands.  Giving Steve a friendly slap on the back that would have crushed a lesser man, he beamed cheerfully.  “I am delighted to hear of your lady’s awakening.  Surely you wish to return to her side?”

Gratefully, Steve agreed and turned to the door, almost quick enough to avoid Clint’s next questions. “So, when do we get to meet her?  Does she know what year it is?”  He and Natasha had been taking turns overseeing the building’s security, and it was Clint’s turn to watch the cameras, which was why they were all meeting in the surveillance room.  

Steve paused and faced his friends, shoulders sagging a little under the weight of responsibility.  “I haven’t told her yet,” he admitted ruefully.  “She was still disoriented and sleepy.  I’ll probably tell her the next time she wakes up."  He’d sworn to himself that he would not lie to her, but she had been in no condition to learn the staggering truth and he had made the decision to wait.

Natasha nodded gravely.  “Do.  Now that she’s awake, she needs to know so that when SHIELD tries to come for her, she’ll be aware of the situation and able to speak for herself.”

“If they want her, they’ll have to go through me first,” Steve swore, his eyes level with purpose.

“They’ll have to go through all of us,” Banner agreed, deceptively mild, and heads nodded around the room. For the thousandth time, Steve wondered what on earth he had done to deserve such wonderful friends.

Pepper broke up the meeting as she finally lifted her heel off Tony’s foot, to his immense relief, and crossed the floor to Steve’s side.  “You go back to her now.  When she's well enough to talk, I'll call SHIELD and set up a conference.  Oh, and let me know when she’s ready to get up and around.  I have some things that might fit her.”  

“Thank you,” Steve started, but Tony, limping dramatically, broke in.  “Yeah, that’s code for ‘I stole her measurements from Tony’s scans, and have a whole wardrobe already purchased.’”  

The CEO pursed her lips and talked over him. “It’s hardly a whole wardrobe, Tony.  Seriously, I just picked up a couple things.”

Clint grinned in anticipation of the upcoming altercation, and leaned back in his chair, winking at Steve as the soldier finally reached the door.  The sound of the couple’s affectionate bickering followed Steve down the hall as he slipped away, back towards Peggy, bounding up the stairs four at a time with a heart as light as his heels.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen


Peggy didn’t wake again until early the next morning.  She stared blankly up at the ceiling, feeling the cloud of deep depression fall over her that always came after waking from a dream of Steve.  For a moment she had genuinely thought he was alive again.  Their conversation, the feel of his hair between her fingers, his tears soaking through the shoulder of her nightdress - it had seemed so real this time...

Setting her jaw, Peggy mentally scolded herself for her foolish dreams, trying to shake them away.  It was going to be a difficult day - she could tell already.  First the dream, and now to top it all off, she appeared to be in a strange hospital room with no idea where on earth she was.  

Dragging herself back to the situation at hand, she cautiously turned her head to scope out the situation.  The room was longer than she’d expected, bright and airy.  Raising her head, Peggy shifted slightly to get a better view, looking for anything that would tell her where she was.  

Then her eyes fell on the man crowded into a small chair by the side of her bed, and the whole world swooped and vanished except for him.

Steve .

He was fast asleep, head tipped down at an uncomfortable angle over his broad chest, the early light gleaming off his hair.  Stunned, Peggy watched the front of his shirt rise and fall with each breath.  He was alive, and was watching over her - or had been, until he’d fallen asleep.

Ordinarily if Peggy woke up to find a man watching her sleep, she would have slapped him silly, but this was different.  Breathlessly, pulse throbbing in her veins, she shifted closer to the edge of the bed, hand drawn irresistibly toward him until the tips of her fingers just grazed his knee.  Her brief touch was feather-light, not enough to wake him, but enough to tell her that Steve was firm - real - solid - and in that moment, Peggy's heart almost burst.

Steve had been dead, she had heard him die, and yet somehow or other he had impossibly survived. Her dream had been reality after all.   

Sunlight played across his slack face, lacing his hair with light. His haircut was shorter than before, but it didn’t look bad, though she would miss the endearing way it used to fall into his face when he was concentrating.  He wore civvies too, which was new, and Peggy suddenly couldn't remember if she’d ever seen him out of uniform before.  Steve looked older, and his face at rest had fallen into deep lines of weary gravity that she had never seen before.  

Apparently their time apart had not been easy for him either.

Pressing her cheek into her pillow, Peggy firmly blinked back the glad tears that threatened to come, and watched, waiting for her captain to wake up. She was still in a strange room, with no idea what had happened or where she was, but Steve Rogers was alive and there , and that was enough for the present.  

With him by her side, she knew she was safe.  Everything else could wait.


Steve had eventually dozed off near dawn.  Over the past few weeks he had run himself ragged, both physically and emotionally, and watching the reassuring blip of Peggy’s wireless heart rate monitor had lulled him to sleep.  Now the early sunlight woke him, and he dragged his eyes hazily open to see Peggy watching him steadily.  For a moment he blinked back, smiling sleepily, only half awake.  She was so beautiful...

Then his mind caught up with him.

"Peggy!" he croaked, trying to straighten his shirt and look alert. " I - um ..."

Her mouth pursed with amusement that she tried to hide, and his heart leaped; he’d seen that look a thousand times, but had hardly dared hope to see it again.

"Have you been sleeping in that little chair all night?" she asked.  She was certainly looking better than she had the day before.  There was color in her face and she seemed to be back to her former self, eyes dancing as she looked at him, one eyebrow raised expectantly.

It suddenly occurred to Steve that he was staring at her like a giddy idiot, and that he probably ought to find something to say in response to her question.  "I didn't exactly mean to,"  he managed.  “How are you feeling?”

“Better.”  Peggy furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, and suddenly Steve didn't want to hear the questions he could practically see hovering on her lips.  Desperately he cast around for a change of topic, cutting her off.   

"Breakfast?  You hungry?"

“I could use a drink,” Peggy admitted, and watched as he unfolded himself from the chair by her bed, biting back a groan as something audibly cracked in his spine. Apparently even super soldiers could get stiff necks sleeping in a chair all night.  

As Steve went to the little kitchenette in the corner, Peggy experimentally tried to sit up against her pillows, following him with her eyes, unwilling to let him out of her sight.  Her mouth was dry and her body felt oddly shaky, but nothing hurt; she guessed she must have been unconscious for quite a while.    

"I got juice and milk.  Take your pick," Steve announced over his shoulder.  Pepper and Clint had stocked the cupboards and fridge in an attempt to get him to eat, but he hadn't been interested until now.  “Do you want any toast?  There's...” he paused and inspected a row of jars, “...lots of jam,” he finally finished, taken back by the variety.  “Oh, and there's marmalade too.”

Orange marmalade had been one point they'd always disagreed on. Peggy was very fond of it, while Steve didn't like the bitter flavor.  Since waking up from the ice though, he had kept a jar in his cupboard to remember her by.  Obviously someone had been snooping through his apartment, trying to figure out what to put in the kitchenette.

“Steve, what are those monstrosities?”

He turned around from where he'd been setting up a breakfast tray and saw her watching him from the bed, nodding toward the blinking equipment that had been fitted into the corner as unobtrusively as possible.  He’d helped carry out as much of the heavy machinery as they would let him the night before, but Bruce had insisted a few of the non-invasive monitoring systems remain.

“A bunch of things Stark knocked together to make sure you were doing okay,” he explained, grinning a little dopily at the sight of her sitting up.  

“Of course he would,” she sighed with a touch of resignation, exploring the braid around her head with curious fingertips.  “Just as long as they don’t suddenly blow me up.  Milk, please, and I'll take marmalade.”

They watched each other wordlessly, as Steve fumbled with the breakfast things. Each was hardly able to believe that the other was alive, hurriedly glancing away if their eyes met, trying to avoid looking like they were staring.  Peggy’s cheeks were very rosy, and when he brought her the tray, she thanked him with a look that made him flush with pleasure.

It was like a picnic, eating over the bedspread, and neither one could stop smiling.  Steve spilled a little juice on the floor, and Peggy insisted on putting marmalade on his toast, just to tease him about the face he made when he ate it.  The bittersweet taste on his tongue mingled with the laughter in her eyes, and suddenly Steve discovered that perhaps the stuff wasn't so bad after all.

Then, halfway through breakfast, Peggy abruptly asked the question he did not want to answer.  

“Steve,” her voice was soft and careful.  “How did you survive?  It's been years."

Steve’s smile died, and he slowly set his glass down, dreading the coming conversation. Ever since Fury confronted him in Times Square and told him the truth, his life had been irrevocably changed.  Now he had to hurt the dearest person in his life, and every square inch of his soul quailed at the thought.

"I froze," he admitted quietly. "The windows of the plane broke, the water came in, and I was pinned down - couldn't escape."  He saw the pain in her eyes and hurried on. "If I understand it right, some Russians found the wreck and contacted the U.S.  When they thawed me out, I woke up."

Peggy's throat tightened.  The moment when the radio went dead had been one of the most awful of her life, and the tight bleakness in his face as he skimmed over his story told her more than any words how terrible it had been for him as well.  "So did they find me at the same time?"

Steve played with the edge of the blanket. "Not exactly.  You somehow ended up in Stark's cryo tube when you came after me."  He glanced up at her, curious whether she remembered anything.

She frowned, shaking her head. "I know it was Dugan, but I don't remember much after that."  The idiot had shut her in there after she had refused to go, and died saving her life.  Peggy resolutely folded those thoughts away.  She would grieve for her friend later, when there was time.

"I owe him one," Steve promised under his breath. "It protected you from the crash, but you froze too. They didn't tell me the details of how they found you - must've been poking around looking for pieces of Schmidt's plane or something."

He hesitated. The hardest part of all was coming, and although he had tried to figure out the least painful way to break the news, he still recoiled from hurting her.

“We,” he cleared his throat.  “We were both frozen up there a long time.”

Peggy nodded, her sharp eyes scanning his face.  She could tell that something was wrong, something was different, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.  “I know it must have been a while.  Dugan and I flew out in the autumn, but it's probably springtime now, isn't it?"  

Steve shook his head, meeting her eyes steadily.  She needed to know.

“It is April,” he admitted, “but it's been longer than you're thinking.  Peggy, we’ve both been frozen for years.”

She grew very still, searching his face for some joke, though he’d never been one to tease her mean-spiritedly.  “How many years?”

He swallowed hard and thought the marmalade’s bitter aftertaste would make him sick.  “Almost seventy.”

Peggy blinked and then half-laughed, incredulous.  “Seventeen?  You’ve got to be joking.  That falls into the realm of bad science fiction.”  The apprehension in her eyes belied the lightness of her voice, and he could almost see the slow fear creeping across her heart.

Steve's own heart was in his throat, throbbing as he tried to talk past it.  “Seventy, not seventeen.  It’s - Peggy, it’s a whole different century now.”

For a long moment, she simply stared at him, face blank, lips parting in silent shock.  Her eyes were a different story though, and he could read every emotion; the crippling sorrow, the panic, the growing realization of loss.  Then, very carefully, she put her half-empty glass on the bedside table, meticulously wiping the condensation from the bottom before setting it on the wood.

“What about Howard?” she finally asked, no strength behind her voice.  She wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he understood she was struggling for composure.

“Peggy…” he didn’t know what to say.  

“Jarvis?  Ana?  Angie?”

Steve reached for her hand, but Peggy shrank away from his touch, and something sharp shot through his heart.  She pressed her palms into her eyes and took deep breaths for a few moments before decisively throwing back the edge of the covers.

“I need to look out of the window,” she demanded breathlessly, still not quite looking at him, and he didn’t try to stop her.  He did get up to follow her though, in case she fell.

Peggy made it to the window under her own power, with Steve hovering closely behind.  For just a second she hesitated, and he could see her fingers shaking before she pulled open the thin curtains in one smooth movement and looked out at New York City, circa the twenty-first century.

A very long moment passed before she leaned numbly against the window frame and put her head against the glass.  Steve could hear her uneven breathing, see her trying to blink back tears, and his heart broke.  He didn't dare touch her, but he stood close by, trying to offer some support.  

"I know how this feels," he said quietly, once she seemed to be regaining some measure of composure.  “SHIELD found me in the ice a couple years ago, thawed me out, and put me to work.”  

From what he could see of her face, he could tell that she was listening, so he continued, feeling his way carefully.  “This world isn't so bad.  It's crazy, and it's got a lot of problems, but there’s still a place for us.  For you, I mean.  People like you,” he hurriedly corrected.  “And me.  I’m still not very good at this, am I?”

Peggy laughed despite herself.  It was shaky and probably three parts of a sob, but she was looking a little more herself as she wiped her cheeks and turned to face him.  For a long moment, she scanned his face closely before poking one finger straight into his chest.

“Steve Rogers, on pain of death, do you swear this is not some kind of hallucination or dream or trick or something?”

“I swear,” Steve answered, and she knew he was telling the truth.

“All right then,” said Peggy weakly, and put an apologetic hand on his arm.  “I think I need to sit down now.”


Once she was back in bed, sitting up against the pillows with an afghan around her shoulders, he sat at her feet and told her everything: waking up in New York City, being re-recruited by SHIELD, the alien invasion, and the birth of the Avengers.  Fumbling out his pocket notebook, he briefly sketched the members of the team, describing them each as he drew, and glancing up at her every few moments.

She watched his face as he concentrated on the paper, large body sprawled half over the little chair and against her bed.  The gravity and weariness were still there, but so were the good humor and strong convictions of the man she had fought beside. Their two years apart had changed them both, and yet he was still the same in all the ways that mattered.

A little more carefully, he told her the more recent story of SHIELD, Hydra, and Bucky Barnes, who was still at large, location unknown.  Peggy took most of it with a stiff upper lip, but he could see she was severely shaken over the fate of their friend, and what her own organization had become.

“To think they were right under my nose, and I didn’t notice,” she cried in frustration. Her lips were a good deal paler than he liked, and her hands were trembling minutely even as she clenched them into stubborn fists. Steve bowed his head.  

“None of us noticed, Peggy, and I know I should have.  SHIELD is rebuilding now, and hopefully they’ll be better for it.  We - the Avengers don’t work for them anymore, but we work with them on a case by case basis.”  He didn’t add that at the moment, the two organizations were in a pitched battle, centered around the woman at his side. There was a good deal more he wanted to tell her, but this wasn’t the right time.

“Oh, speaking of the Avengers,” he suddenly remembered.  “They’ve been wanting to meet you.  Would you like - I can go get them now, if you’d like to meet them.”  He started to get to his feet, but Peggy put out a restraining hand.

“Steve, it’s really very sweet of you, but if I’m going to meet your new team, I’d rather do it wearing something other than a nightdress and a blanket.  I don’t suppose,” she looked a little apprehensive, “I mean, if it’s been seventy years…  Maybe they’ve got my flight suit still, or something I can borrow?”

At the mention of what she was wearing, Steve blushed fire-hot and Peggy demurely pulled the blanket a little more firmly around her shoulders.  Somehow her state of dress hadn’t mattered very much in light of the momentous morning they’d had, but now they both felt suddenly self-conscious.  

Then Steve snapped his fingers.  "Remember I told you about Pepper Potts?”  He flipped through the notebook until he reached the page with the keen-faced woman in a ponytail, and Peggy nodded.  “She said she had some things for you.  You’ll like her.”  

Keeping an eye on her face, he directed his next words to the ceiling.  “JARVIS, will you ask Miss Potts to come here?”

Steve had tried to explain the concept of the AI, but for a split second, Peggy wondered if he was actually teasing her.  Then an artificially modulated, distinctly British voice sounded, although nobody was to be seen.  “Certainly, Captain Rogers.  And may I extend my welcome to Miss Carter?”

“You may.  Thank you, JARVIS,” she answered carefully, and suddenly the weight of all those lost years crashed into her again as she thought of her dear old friend, also named Jarvis, and surely long dead.  

Steve could see that she was struggling with memories; he knew the feeling well, though he wasn’t sure what had triggered it. He desperately wanted to put his arm around her, but wasn't entirely certain she would let him, so he quietly covered her hand with his where it lay on the covers, and they sat a long while in silence.

“I’m sorry I missed our date,” Steve told her at last.  “I overslept.  It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up.”

Peggy surprised herself with a tearful laugh.  “Oversleeping by seventy years - that’s got to be a record.”  

She would never tell him, she decided, how she had sat at the Stork Club that Saturday night, turning down every opportunity to dance, sipping her drink until they closed the doors and started sweeping up the place and asked her to leave.  That had been the night she’d finally fully realized he would never, ever come home to her.  She had walked back to the barracks and fired clip after clip into the shooting range targets until she couldn’t see for the tears, and Colonel Phillips came out to take her gun away and walk her back to her room.

“It’s just hard, you know?” she finally asked, and bit her lips together to keep them from quivering.  “Everyone, everything's changed,” she laughed a bit shakily, “and I should be glad because I thought I was going to die, and I didn't.  But everything’s different now.”

Steve nodded, his eyes seeking hers out, his large hand very gentle around her cold fingers.  “I know,” he said, and she could close her eyes and allow herself to be vulnerable for a moment because he did know.  He understood better than anyone else in the world.  

They sat hand in hand together, each supporting the other, until the sharp tap of Pepper’s stilettoes sounded down the hall, and they had to pull apart.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen


Pepper Potts was a high-power executive in one of the biggest corporations of the the twenty-first century, and she dressed the part.  Her clothing was professional, crisp, and on the cutting edge of fashion. It was also completely foreign to the woman from the 1940’s.

Steve saw Peggy’s eyebrows fly up, and her cool, discreet appraisal of the other woman's dress, and turned his head to hide a smile.  Even when they were living in tents, slogging ankle-deep in mud, Peggy had always tried to keep herself presentable and dressed as neatly as possible under the circumstances.  Of course she would scrutinize Pepper, looking for clues as to what the women of this era were wearing.

“Oh, hi.  You're awake,” Pepper put on her best smile, more than a little nervous. She hadn't known exactly what to expect; but it certainly wasn't the self-possessed woman sitting up in bed, surveying her steadily.

“Peggy, this is Miss Virginia Potts.  Miss Potts, Agent Carter.”  Steve was practically glowing as he made the formal introductions, and Pepper noticed the way he said Peggy’s name and the look in his eyes when he looked at her.  He was so happy - happier than she had ever seen him before, smiling easily in the same way as the man she’d seen in the museum film clips.

Shaking off her nerves, Pepper held out a hand, which Peggy shook cordially.  

“Agent Carter.  Wow, I’m - I’m honored.  Please, call me Pepper. I'm the CEO of Stark Industries.”  The businesswoman was pulling a large wheeled suitcase, which Steve helped her lift onto the foot of the bed.  “I picked up a couple things you might like; I hope you don't mind.”

“Steve.”  Peggy caught Steve’s attention and looked pointedly at the door.  If this suitcase was packed with clothing and undergarments, she did not want him there watching.  He stared back for just a second and then jumped slightly in realization.  “Oh.  Right.  I, ah - I’ll see you later, Peggy?”  Flushing heavily, he vanished out the door, and Peggy bit back a fond smile at his endearing awkwardness.

Pepper snapped the suitcase open, and began spreading things out on the bed. "I'm not sure what kind of clothes you like, so I just brought in a variety and we’ll fill out your wardrobe as we go."  

Looking at Pepper’s selections, Peggy felt a distinct sense of relief.  The CEO had chosen well, and most of the items were similar to what she was used to wearing, if a little different in cut and material.  She would feel much better once she was properly dressed in something besides a nightgown.  Goodness knew what Steve had thought of her; she was sure she looked a fright.


Steve stepped into his own room almost cautiously; he’d stayed at Tony’s tower since the fall of SHIELD, but the suite still didn’t quite feel like home.  Then again, nothing had felt quite right since he woke up in this new world.  At least, nothing until Peggy Carter had opened her eyes, and a whole part of his life suddenly reopened that he’d thought had been closed forever.

Catching sight of his reflection, he deflated instantly.  Had Peggy really seen him like this?  The man looking out from the mirror had rumpled hair, a wrinkled shirt, and dark rings under his eyes, betraying just how little sleep he’d had.  While the super-soldier physique allowed him to run on a small amount of rest, he was rapidly nearing the end of his rope.

A quick glance at the clock showed him it was only a little after seven thirty.  Peggy always had been an early riser; obviously some things hadn’t changed.  Pepper didn’t have to go to work just yet, and the rest of the tower likely wouldn’t wake for another hour at least.  

Steve turned on his heel and headed straight for the shower, pulling off his shirt as he went.  He had at least a little time to make himself presentable.


Tony Stark had obviously inherited his father’s eye for beautiful women.  Unlike Howard’s endless progression of flashy bimbos though, Pepper Potts was intelligent and genuinely pleasant to be around.  Peggy found herself intrigued by the other woman, and vaguely impressed that a Stark could have managed to attract her.  

“So you run Tony Stark’s company.”  Peggy ran a brush through her damp hair. She was still feeling shaky, but Pepper had talked her into having a hot bath, which had done wonders toward making her feel like a person again.  

Pepper hummed in assent, pulling a pair of heels from the corner of the suitcase and handing them to Peggy.  “Yes, I do.  Do those fit, or would a bigger size be better?”

The shoes fit well, and Peggy tapped the toes against each other.  “Does that happen frequently nowdays - women running companies?”

The CEO was in the middle of folding something, but at the question she paused.  “Ye-es,” she drew the word out slowly.  “It’s not uncommon.  I guess that would be strange to you, right?  Wait, of course not; you helped found SHIELD.”

“I did,” Peggy’s voice was low.  “But it wasn't exactly universally acceptable.”  Howard had believed in her, but the other men involved in the project had looked down on her.  Her time in the SSR and SHIELD had been an uphill battle all the way, and she had fought for even a modicum of respect.  The thought of starting all over again was suddenly very discouraging.

“Well, I can tell you right now that you’ll be accepted here,” Pepper told her, and there was such nonchalant confidence in her tone that Peggy could only blink at her.  The idea of immediate and unconditional trust was somewhat staggering; very few people had given her much of a chance after the war.

“I don't want to be tolerated just because of my connection with Captain America,” Peggy cautioned, the words heavy in her throat. For a moment every old slight, every snide comment, every belittling action swept back, but Pepper was shaking her head.

“You underestimate yourself. Yes, I am friends with Steve Rogers, and yes, he did happen to give you an excellent recommendation, but I've seen your files, and they speak for themselves.  Believe it or not, you're a legend in your own right.”

Peggy had absolutely no idea how to take that last statement, so she abruptly changed the topic.  “Tell me about Steve.”  He hadn’t said much about himself; only the brief, biographical facts that correlated with recent events, and she wanted to know more.  

"There’s not all that much to tell," Pepper explained, unfolding a dress and holding it up for Peggy to examine.  “He’s the leader of the Avengers - and how that man can handle all of them, I’ll never know.  He was in D.C. until the trouble with SHIELD.  Since then he’s been staying here between missions. He doesn't have much of a social life outside the team.”  

Peggy coiled her drying hair around her fingers, trying to coax it into curls. “He’s had a lot of trouble, hasn’t he?” she quietly said; less of a question than a statement.

"It hasn't been easy," Pepper admitted.  "Actually, I’ve never seen him so happy as he is now that you’re awake. I swear he looks ten years younger."  

Furiously, Peggy tried to suppress the pleased blush that flooded her cheeks, even as her heart thrilled at the knowledge that he cared so much.  

Fighting with a zipper on the back of a dress, Pepper only caught the tail end of Peggy’s blush, but it was enough to make her smile, satisfied.   "You mean a lot to him, you know. He was absolutely heartbroken when he thought you'd died looking for him. Poor boy was like a ghost. He was the one who had the idea for the transfusion, actually."

Peggy's hairbrush paused. "Transfusion?"

Pepper got up to hang the last dress in the closet before moving on to the slacks. "Well, yes. He didn't tell you?"  She looked uncomfortable. "Maybe I should let Bruce explain."

"No, please," Peggy put on her most engaging manner. "Won't you go on?"


Steve finished buttoning his shirt and took a long look at himself in the mirror as he quickly combed his wet hair.  Pepper and Natasha had both told him that this particular shirt did good things to his eyes, whatever that meant, and he wanted to look nice for the next time Peggy saw him.  

“Gussying up for your girl again?”  Bucky’s voice rang back through the years, and he couldn’t help but grin wistfully at the memories it brought back.  Bucky would have been so happy to see Peggy alive and well.  Perhaps someday he still could.

“Shut up, Buck,” he remembered retorting, and his friend’s old laughter echoed in his ears as he sat on the edge of his bed to tie his shoes.  His eyes were almost ridiculously heavy, but he blinked hard to stay awake.  There would be time for sleep later; he had to get back to Peggy.


“So Steve offered to give you his blood in hopes that it would work for you," Pepper finally finished, and eyed the other girl carefully, trying to read her reaction.

"Evidently it did," Peggy murmured, looking down at her hands.  She rubbed one slowly over the other before bending back her wrists to look at the blue lines beneath her skin.

Steve's blood. She had his blood in her veins - the very blood she had worked so hard to keep safe from the scientists and money mongers who wanted to get their hands on it. It was odd how things worked out. Suddenly she felt closer to him than ever, sharing this special secret.

"Well, nobody knew for sure," Pepper went on, sorting out socks to give her hands something to do; a habit she'd picked up from Tony. "It was really sweet - Steve stayed by your side as much as we would let him. Even when we dragged him out, he just paced or went down to hit things in the gym. I honestly don't think he's slept in a week."

Peggy turned away, inexplicably warmed at the thought of his worry for her. The fact that she'd caught him asleep by her bedside that morning now seemed twice as precious.

A high trilling sound interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up to see Pepper raise something flat and black to her ear.  The woman spoke briefly, and Peggy realized it was some kind of wireless communications device.  Intrigued, she craned her neck as unobtrusively as possible, trying to get a better look.  Such a thing could come in incredibly handy, depending on how long of a range it had.

"I'm so sorry," Pepper’s eyebrows furrowed apologetically as she put the device away and got to her feet.  "Something's come up at work, and I've got to run.  Would you like me to call Steve before I go?"

Peggy shook her head with a smile, and watched the other woman as she briskly left, walking confidently in heels taller than she'd ever seen before.  She desperately wanted to see Steve again, but there was a lot for her to think about, and she needed the time to process it all.  Besides, the eventful morning had left her physically and emotionally exhausted.  Her eyelids were very heavy, and she barely noticed when they slid shut.


"Avengers assemble in the living room, like now! "

Tony's voice over the intercom jolted Steve wide awake and straight off the edge of his mattress onto the floor.  One startled glance at the clock told him that it was almost noon.  At some point after showering and getting dressed, he had somehow ended up fast asleep, face-down on his bed.  So much for getting back to Peggy.

Going by the urgency of the summons, he swept up his shield and sprinted down the stairs to join his team.  There wasn’t time to get into his uniform; hopefully the shield would suffice.  Thor met him in the hallway below, fully armed, thanks to his magical armor, and they entered the room together.

Steve did a quick head count as he entered the room.  Everyone else was already there.  Natasha was wide-awake and immaculately put together as always.  Clint, on the other hand, had all his hair sticking up on one side of his head, and Steve had a sneaking suspicion the man’s vest was inside out, though he wasn't about to mention it. The two agents had been taking turns monitoring the security cameras around the clock, and it had apparently been Clint’s turn to sleep.

Tony stood at the end of the room in front of a bewildering muddle of screens, flipping through them at an incredible rate of speed.  It was actually surprising that he was awake before noon, and the unlikeliness of the event only accentuated the urgency of the situation.  

"What've we got, Stark?" Steve crossed to Tony's side, glancing over the monitors. "Aw, shucks."

Tony glanced up. "'Aw shucks?'  Cap, your vocabulary is as out of date as you are . I think this rates something at least a little stronger than an 'aw shucks.'"

The tower was surrounded by black SHIELD cars and agents.  Traffic was being rerouted to other streets, and curious people were beginning to gather.  Tony sighed and rubbed at his face. "Ten minutes ago, they came out of nowhere.  Nat locked the exterior doors down and called me."

"Breaking news from New York City," babbled a newscaster on one of the screens. "Stark Tower has been barricaded off, with government vehicles completely surrounding it.  Home to Iron Man and the team of superheroes known as the Avengers, the tower is run on a private energy source.  Questions are being asked..."

"Mute that, JARVIS," Tony growled, raking both hands through his hair as the sound abruptly shut off.  "This kind of stuff will shoot my credibility down in about ten seconds flat.  Pepper's on the phone with local law enforcement, but they can't do anything about it."

The cameras showed Commander Fury stepping out of the crowd, facing the tower.  "Put it on speaker," Steve ordered, and the room suddenly filled with Fury's voice.

"...come to speak with Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers.  We want to do this whole thing peacefully - there's no need for anybody to lose their tempers.  We can work this out."

“Yeah, he’s talking to me,” Bruce mused, rubbing his face a little sheepishly.

"This coming from a man named Fury," Steve heard Clint mutter behind him, and then a grunt.  Natasha had probably hit him for that.

Tony turned to Steve, hands spread.  “Your call, Cap.  I’ve still got like five ways out of the tower.  Six, if I deploy the zipline.  Do we get out of here, or would you rather hole up and pour boiling oil out of the windows?”

Steve didn’t answer for a moment, and then decisively tapped the screen, turning on the outside speakers.  "All right, Fury. Come on up.  Just you, none of your agents. We're willing to talk."  He turned off the com, and looked up to see the rest of the room staring at him.

"We are?" Tony finally asked, but his fingers were dancing over the screen, unlocking the front doors long enough to let Fury through.

"Well, we can't let the street stay blocked like that forever."  Steve turned to Natasha. "Romanoff, you usher him up. Make sure he doesn't go wandering around where we don't want him.  Bring him to the conference room on level twenty-eight.  Stark, your job is to stand your ground, but don't tell him anything important.  Stall him as long as you can.  Bruce..."

Bruce fidgeted.  "I, ah, actually think it would be a little healthier for me not to be there.  I'll be in the waiting room though, in case you need me or the other guy."

Steve nodded decisively.  "Good enough.  Thor, Clint, you provide backup.  I'll be right down."  He spun on his heel and went for the door.

"Cap?  Cap!  Where are you going?" surprise made Tony's voice higher than normal, though he would deny it to his dying day.

They could just hear Steve's voice calling back.  "I need to find out what Peggy wants.  It's her life, you know."


"You're telling me," Peggy repeated slowly, "that SHIELD is fighting over my supposedly dead body because they think Howard gave me the super soldier serum?"  

Steve nodded mutely, admiring the growing fire in her eyes.   In his haste, Tony had forgotten to call the members of the team individually, instead sending the call building-wide.  Peggy had been out of bed when he reached her room, slipping on her shoes and demanding answers.  Steve had tried to explain the situation as succinctly as possible, but when he finished, the look on her face was still highly skeptical.

"That," Peggy finally decided, "has got to be one of the strangest stories I've ever heard in my life.  Get out, I need to get ready."

Blinking, he backed out of the room. "Sorry. I - I thought you were. You look fine."

"That's sweet, Steve," Peggy told him absently, already going through the things Pepper had put on her bedside table. "But this is a dressing gown.  Besides, when a lady fights, she puts on lipstick first."

Five minutes later she emerged, and Steve caught his breath.  She looked like herself again, dressed in a neat skirt and jacket set, with warm lipstick and heels finishing off the living memory.  Her dark hair curled softly around her shoulders, and it bounced when she walked.  

"Steve?" she asked, and he snapped himself out of his reverie with a jerk.  

“You sure you should be up?” he ventured carefully.  He had no doubts about her being able to hold her own in an argument, but he worried about her physical strength.  Steve knew better than anyone just how far she would try to push herself.  Peggy had just woken up, and the memory of her reaction to the new era was still strong in his mind.

Peggy shot him a suspicious look, but her face softened at his genuine concern.  “I’m all right,” she reassured him, although she felt a little wobbly.  The bath and unexpected nap had worked wonders, but simply getting dressed had still taken a surprising amount out of her.  

Steve wasn't fooled. He knew her far too well, but he also knew that if she was truly determined to go with him, there was no way to stop her short of locking her in her room.  Actually, that probably wouldn't work either; he'd seen her pick locks.

“At least promise you’ll sit down if you get light-headed.”  He tried to sound authoritative, but Peggy merely laughed as she fell into step beside him, taking the arm he offered.  “Oh Steve.  You never stop worrying, do you?”

He matched his stride to hers, looking down at her with an admiring grin despite his concern.  “Well, somebody’s got to.”

It felt so right to walk side by side again.  Peggy’s steps were slower than he remembered, and she was breathing a little hard when they got to the end of the hall, but her eyes were sparkling with determination, and the color was high in her cheeks.  

At the elevator, he picked up his shield from where he’d left it on the way to her room.  With a catch in her throat, Peggy softly ran her fingertips along the edge, and it thrilled and rang under her touch.

"You still have it," she half whispered, and Steve smiled down into her eyes, a great warmth welling up in his heart. Then the elevator doors opened, and they stepped out into a bright lobby.  Bruce looked up, startled from his magazine, before relaxing back against the couch.  His eyes widened when he saw Peggy, but he didn’t otherwise comment on her presence.

"They're in there," he jerked his thumb down the hall.  "Tony's been yelling, so I figure things are getting pretty tense."  Steve nodded, and ushered her towards the conference room, fingertips brushing her elbow.

At the door they stopped for a moment.  Tony was indeed shouting, but it sounded like Fury and Thor were getting involved too.  Natasha was there, conspicuous by the frosty silence from the left of the door, and Clint was probably with her.  This had to be hard on the former SHIELD agents - they personally owed Fury a great deal, but their allegiance lay with the Avengers.

Steve paused and looked down at the girl beside him.  "You ready?"  For a moment, he felt the old exhilaration of going into danger at her side, and from the look on her face, she felt it too.  Peggy tipped back her head with a breathless laugh, eyes dancing.

"Cover my back?"

His heart swelled. "Always."  

He held the door for her, and they walked in together.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen


Fury was in the middle of a terse verbal duel with Tony Stark when the conference room fell absolutely and completely silent.  Even Tony stopped talking, eyes widening and shifting sideways to look at something past Fury’s shoulder.

Curious at the sudden hush, Fury turned around to see Peggy Carter and Captain America standing in the doorway, wearing the exact same steely expressions.  For a moment he briefly wondered which one had learned it from the other - and then stunned realization kicked in.

Tony finally broke the silence by dropping his head to the table with a dull thunk.  "Dude, not the best timing.  How can I convince him she's dead when she waltzes in?  I'm good, but not that good."

Natasha smiled a broad, dangerous smile, and Clint tipped his chair back on two legs, ready to enjoy the show. Thor, on the other hand, remained angry.  Low thunder rippled outside as he strode across the room to Peggy's side before facing the SHIELD director.  

"Depend upon it, we will defend our shield sister to the death," he rumbled, and then his lips twitched slightly despite himself at the blank look of total shock on Fury's face.  The formidable man looked like he had seen a ghost and was severely reevaluating his priorities.

Peggy didn't say a word. She merely folded her arms across her chest and stared the man down. Steve, shoulder firm behind hers, was a strong presence at her back, and suddenly she was reminded of how badly she had missed his support and confidence in her.

Finally recovering to some extent, Fury opened his mouth. Peggy chose that moment to cut him off neatly.

"I understand you want to take me away and cut me up for study."

Clint snickered. Natasha elbowed him hard, but the archer skillfully kept his balance. Fury, to his credit, regrouped swiftly.  "Miss Carter..."

"Agent," snapped Steve instantly, and Peggy almost cast a surprised glance up at him. He had always been respectful of her title and position, but she hadn't really had anyone stand up for her in a long time, wasn't used to it anymore.

Fury cleared his throat a little awkwardly.  It was one thing to come demanding a body. It was another thing altogether to come and have to explain the situation to the body in question.

"Agent Carter," he corrected himself carefully. "We need to study the serum Stark injected into you before your last plane flight."

Peggy stared him down, unblinking. "Howard never injected any serum into me. He had nothing to work from - I destroyed the last remaining sample of Steve's blood."

"Pardon me, agent," Fury was recovering his stride, "But our scans clearly indicate injection sites in your left forearm and shoulder."

"Frankly, that's none of your business, not to mention incredibly invasive," Peggy retorted promptly. "The injection was designed solely to help us resist the cold.  Corporal Dugan and I each had one, but he gave me his as well."  Her voice threatened to catch at the memory of her friend giving his life for hers, but she held herself well in check.

Fury looked unconvinced. "You attribute your survival to that?"

Peggy's voice dropped ten degrees.  "I attribute my survival to the Stark Tube, the double injection, and the scientific and medical genius of Tony Stark and Doctor Banner, not to mention the trust and faith of Captain Rogers."

Tony jerked in surprise at his name being brought into the conversation, and Fury blinked for a moment, caught off guard by her vehement defense. "Regardless, we need you to come in..."

"I will not."

The room froze.  Even the irrepressible Clint was silent. Nobody refused anything to Fury. Sooner or later, the man always got his way. Peggy felt Steve radiating fierce pride from behind her, and was inexpressibly gratified at his trust.  It had been a very long time since anybody believed in her enough to stand back and let her fly.

Fury's tone was low, subtly threatening. "As an Agent of SHIELD..."

Peggy bit in crisply, voice ringing.  "As an Agent of SHIELD, I outrank you. I am your senior officer by at least twenty years, and a founding member of the organization you so spectacularly failed to protect.  You do not get to order me to heel like an obedient dog."  

For a towering moment, the room was silent. Nobody breathed, stunned at her audacity.  Tony's jaw had dropped theatrically, and he was staring at her with huge eyes.  Then Peggy lowered her voice, though the core of steel was still very much present.

"Now, this nonsense has gone quite far enough. You and your agents outside will stand down immediately.  Those of my personal medical records you require will be forwarded as per my approval.  Understood?"  She leveled her gaze with Fury's.  "I believe that will be all, Director."

Clint gave some kind of gleeful chortle, cut off as quickly as it began.  Nobody looked at him - every eye was fixed on Fury, whose expression was beginning to match his name.  He took two steps forward, and Tony later swore he'd seen steam come from the man’s ears.

"Now just a minute, Agent. You can't just step in and dismiss me like that."

"Can't I?" Peggy interrupted, standing tall and strong and confident.  "Try me."

Fury paused for a moment and for the first time actually looked at the people in front of him. Peggy, radiant like an avenging angel, stood firm, not backing down an inch. Steve was close behind Peggy, just to her side with his jaw set like a rock, star-spangled shield in hand. Thor stood beside the couple with Mjolnir at his belt, eyes steadily fixed on Fury's face, and Clint and Natasha rose to flank the group, stances deceptively casual.  Only Tony hadn't moved - he was too busy staring at Peggy Carter with his mouth open, oblivious to everyone else.

In that moment, Fury finally understood.  He could argue the finer points of seniority and rank all he liked.  The fact remained that the Avengers had claimed her as one of their own, and if he pressed the issue, he would lose all of them.  Helplessly, he glared at them all with his one eye, and then brushed past and through the door, swearing bitterly as he accepted his defeat.

For a long moment, nobody spoke.  Peggy swayed just slightly, and immediately felt Steve's hand under her elbow.  "You okay?" he asked in an undertone, and she nodded.  The standoff with Fury had been as draining as it had been empowering, but she didn't want to leave just yet.  

Then the door cracked open and Bruce cautiously stuck his head in.

"So... I'm assuming we won?  Fury’s goons are all taking off in their cars."

Everyone relaxed then, and Peggy took the opportunity to get her first good look at Steve's new teammates.  He had sketched them for her, but it was different to actually see them in person. Natasha and Clint were filling Bruce in on the confrontation, watching her out of the corners of their eyes.  Thor stood nearby, and when he saw her looking at him, he smiled brilliantly.  

Tony still sat in his place at the table, looking like he'd been hit over the head with Thor's hammer.

"Oh boy," he finally managed slowly.  "Straight out of my bedtime stories."  Popping suddenly to his feet, he bounded over to Peggy and shook her hand vigorously.  "Lady, I owe you, like, a million dollars.  I always wanted to see someone shut Fury up.  Now I know why my old man liked you so much."

Peggy returned the handshake, a little overwhelmed, though she’d never dream of showing it.  It was incredibly strange for her to be shaking hands with the son of her friend - and he was so much older than Howard had been when she'd last seen him.  "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Stark," she replied.  "I've heard so much about you."

"Believe me, you haven't heard the half of it."  Clint Barton smoothly outmaneuvered Tony for her hand, giving a quick, firm handclasp that said more about him than his brief introduction.  "Clint Barton, archer and quasi-SHIELD agent.  Glad to see you woke up all right."

Tony, irritated at being cut out, promptly stole the limelight.  "Hey, guys, breakfast!  I can hear Bruce's stomach from here!"

Bruce blushed heavily and vanished behind the door.  


Breakfast was a late and very lighthearted affair.  Although Steve and Peggy had already eaten, Tony insisted loudly that the majority ruled, and they would just have to eat another breakfast along with everybody else.  Peggy wasn’t particularly hungry, but remembering Steve’s metabolism, was easily persuaded to join.  After all, somebody had to make sure he ate enough.

Steve ended up making pancakes, grinning shyly when Peggy took her first bite and recognized it as her own recipe, which he had seen her make once during the war.  They had been a rare treat in those days; rationing meant the ingredients had been almost impossible to come by.

Natasha took the social gathering as an opportunity to introduce herself. Picking up her plate, she scooted over to sit by Peggy at the breakfast bar.

"I grew up hearing stories about you," she began conversationally.

Peggy had been watching the Russian all throughout the meal. There was something disquietingly familiar about the way she moved that had set off alarm bells in her head.  "Really?  Good stories or bad ones?"

"Depends on your point of view," Natasha admitted, slicing a pancake neatly into eighths. "I'm Natasha Romanoff, SHIELD agent and former Red Room trainee."  At Peggy's blank look, she continued. "Remember a Russian facility that you stormed in the late 1940's?"  

Recognition and alarm leaped into Peggy’s eyes then, and Natasha nodded pleasantly, stabbing a piece of her pancake with relish.  "You were the subject of all the stories the headmistress ever told - the one woman who could walk into the Red Room and out again, the Baba Yaga who would come snatch us away if we failed."  

Interested, cautious, Peggy scanned the younger woman’s expression.  "Should I be flattered?"  

Natasha carefully gathered up her dishes.  "Like I said, depends on your point of view.  They were told to frighten us - but I always liked those stories."  She winked, lips curling into a sideways, warming smile, and then she turned lightly on her heel and sauntered off to steal Bruce's glass of milk.

Peggy blinked after the assassin and turned to Steve, who had been flipping pancakes industriously on the other side of the breakfast bar.  "Do you trust her?"

He smiled boyishly at her and tossed another pancake onto her plate.  "Implicitly. She's saved my life too many times not to."

Thor introduced himself as well, enveloping her hand in his huge fingers.  Peggy quirked an eyebrow in incredulous surprise as he bent to kiss her hand, and scanned his face closely as he straightened.  

She had been furious earlier when Steve told her, ready to give the alien a piece of her mind.  Does he know how many good men died because of that cube?  Men who can never be counted because their dog tags were destroyed with those hellish weapons?  Rollins and Whaley and Saunders and - you, Steve.”  Her voice had suddenly cracked, and she had swallowed hard, unwilling to show weakness.  “You went down because of that cube, and he needs to face the consequences.”

Steve had disagreed, his earnestness written plainly across his face.  “Look, I was angry too at first, but he wasn’t the one who left it here, and he tried to help fix things.  Besides, it’s hurt him too.  He’s been through a lot of trouble lately, and he’s been a good friend to me.”

She hadn’t entirely been sure then, but now, looking up at the alien prince’s infectious smile, Peggy found herself being won over.  Steve had spoken highly of him, and she could see why. Thor’s adamant defence of her to Fury had been a welcome surprise, and she was deeply grateful to him for his friendship with Steve. The idea that he was an alien was still incredibly strange, though.

After Thor had returned to his breakfast, she leaned her chin on her fists, still watching him.  “Not quite the vengeful being Schmidt used to rave about, is he?” asked Steve quietly, pouring more pancake batter onto the griddle.

Peggy shook her head. “He's certainly not what I expected,” she answered, watching as Thor emptied most of the bottle of syrup onto his pancakes.  The alien beamed sunnily, shoving back his brilliant hair and reaching for a fork with an anticipatory light in his eyes.

“So what do you think of all this?” Steve gestured with the pancake turner.  “You know, aliens and robots and the future and everything.”

Peggy considered a moment and then, eyes dancing, leaned further over the bar, nodding towards Thor and lowering her voice. “To be quite honest, I’d feel like Dorothy, only I don’t think he's quite the image of Polychrome that Baum intended.”

Everyone in the room looked up with surprise as Steve dropped his spatula and doubled over the counter, laughing so hard his nose almost touched the griddle.

“Okay, wait - what?  Who are you, and what have you done to our captain?” Tony accused, playfully jabbing his fork in Peggy’s direction.  

“I think she broke him,” Bruce slowly decided, furrowing his eyebrows and chuckling despite himself.  Steve wiped at his streaming eyes, still hiccuping weakly, and Peggy couldn’t help but laugh a little herself as she rescued the spatula from melting against the hot metal.  

Natasha kicked Clint under the table, talking low under the general commotion.  "See, this is why he needs a girl who understands him.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him really laugh until now."

“Hey, I actually got that reference!” Clint crowed, and then buried himself in his pancakes at Natasha’s incredulous look.  “What?  Long stakeout in a used bookstore - I was bored.”


After breakfast, Steve quietly installed Peggy on a couch in the main living area.  He could tell she was flagging, but knew that she would never forgive him if he tried to send her back to bed.  Tony didn’t have things like afghans lying around, so after a few minutes he slipped upstairs to get the one from her room.

Blanket in hand, he returned to a decidedly unexpected scene.  Tony perched on the couch next to Peggy, brand-new tablet in hand.  She was peering over his shoulder with intense concentration, trying to keep track of the rapid-fire series of instructions.

“See, you just press this, slide, and then tap this.  Oh, and when I say ‘tap,’ I mean ‘tap,’ not ‘bang-on-the-glass-until-it-cracks’ like Thunder-fingers here.”

Thor, still at the counter, chuckled good-naturedly over his tenth plate of pancakes.  Tony had never let him forget the way he’d broken the first three touchscreens he had ever tried to use, until he figured out just how softly they needed to be handled.  He’d long since mastered the technique, but Tony still enjoyed heckling him, and he didn’t mind.

Natasha put her plate in the dishwasher and paused by the couch on her way out of the room.  “Girl to girl,” she confided into Peggy’s ear, “If he keeps talking, kick him and run.”  

Tony squawked in outrage.  “I heard that, Romanoff!  She’s joking, Peggy - I can call you Peggy, right?  She’s just joking, seriously.”  Peggy’s answering laugh warmed Steve’s heart, and he stood in the doorway for a long time, unwilling to enter and break the moment.  The team was grouping around her, welcoming her into this new world, and he was incredibly grateful.


It was late at night when Steve finally headed for his room.  The day had been a long one.  After their very late breakfast had turned into lunch, Bruce had insisted on running a number of tests, which had taken hours.  Peggy had been visibly exhausted afterwards, and had actually fallen asleep on a couch for some time.  That, more than anything else, told him that she still wasn’t as recovered as she protested.

Pepper had hustled Peggy off to bed after that, with strict orders to rest up, and Steve finally buckled down to his stack of neglected paperwork.  He hadn’t been able to focus though; his thoughts kept wandering.  JARVIS was programmed to alert him if there was any trouble, but Steve couldn’t help wondering if she was all right.  Hesitating, he finally turned down the hall toward her room.  Perhaps she was still awake, and he could wish her goodnight.

Her room was empty, as it turned out - the door open and an empty tray sitting beside the bed.  Evidently she had woken up enough to eat some dinner before going on a voyage of exploration.  

Steve eventually found her standing in a little alcove tucked into the corner of the tower.  She was looking out the windows to the tiny lighted cars far below, arms wrapped around herself as if she was cold, though JARVIS kept the tower at a comfortable temperature.  He approached slowly and stopped behind her, noting the new dressing gown she was wearing and silently resolving to do something really nice for Pepper as a thank-you.

"Do you ever get used to it?" Peggy asked at last. If it weren't for his enhanced hearing, he would have missed her question, it was so low.

"No," he answered honestly. "Not really. Some parts come easier than others, but you figure out how to live with it."

For a long time, she didn’t move, and he studied her profile against the window, committing it to heart again.  He was watching her so intently that he noticed the nearly inaudible catch in her breath, and the way her lips trembled ever so minutely before creasing into a determined line.  Adjusting to a new life was a difficult thing to do, and nobody knew that better than he did.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Steve,” Peggy finally whispered through the gathering dusk.  She swayed a little toward him, just close enough to feel his arm solid behind her shoulder, needing the contact but too proud to ask. He understood the unspoken request, quietly shifting his weight nearer.

“So am I.”

They stood together, two people from another time, and watched the lights turn on over the city.


Steve wasn't used to sleeping in his room anymore.

For the last few weeks, he had been too emotionally compromised to follow a set routine. Before the procedure, most of his nights had been spent in the gym or going over the funeral plans, waking up on whatever couch Bruce managed to talk him to sleep on. Since the procedure, his time had been spent at Peggy's side.  

Now that she was awake, though, he had no excuse to stay with her. He also had no excuse to lie awake - and yet here he was, staring at the ceiling at two in the morning. At last, he pulled himself out of bed and stumbled down to the kitchen. Maybe some hot milk would do the trick.

Thor was already there, eating Tony's leftover pizza. Sometimes Steve could swear the alien prince was telepathic, since he always seemed to show up when Steve needed a friend.  With an acknowledging nod, the captain poured some milk into a saucepan and set it on the stove, leaning against the counter as he waited for it to warm.

"I was honored to meet your lady earlier," Thor broke the silence first. "She seems a worthy companion."

Steve nodded, thinking back to their quiet moment by the window.

Thor bit through pizza crust with an audible crunch, but the captain could almost feel the weight of his friend’s gaze.  "Have you told her yet of your feelings toward her?"

Well, Thor was never one to beat around the bush. Steve blinked and stalled for a moment, checking his milk solicitously though it was still quite cold.

"No," he finally admitted. "She's stranded in this time, and I'm the only familiar face left.  I don't want her to feel pressured.  It's been years since we've seen each other, and we've both changed in little ways. I don't even know if she still feels the same way."  

Thor leaned back in his chair, inspecting the last piece of pizza thoughtfully. "Do you not love her?"

Steve stirred the milk, staring at it as if it held the answers to everything. "I do."  His voice was very low.  "I always will.  She’s been the greatest miracle in my life, greater even than Project Rebirth.  It gave me my ability to fight, but she gave me the strength and guidance I needed to move forward.”

"Then tell her so."  Thor finished off the last bite of pizza and rose, dusting cornmeal off his palms. He crossed the kitchen, stopping by the captain’s side and speaking with great earnestness.  "I have lived many thousands of your years.  If there is one thing I have learned, it is that all life is fleeting.  Do not squander your second chance."  Deep sorrow fluttered through his eyes as he laid a heavy hand on Steve's shoulder, and Steve knew he was thinking about his brother.

Long after Thor left, Steve sat at the table and nursed his milk. The first early light of dawn was flushing the sky by the time he rolled back into bed.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen


“I have a proposition to make," Pepper began, folding her hands on the tabletop.  "And you can say no," she quickly tacked on, "but I do want you to think about it."

Peggy laid down her fork, intrigued. The two women were eating ridiculously priced food in a restaurant somewhere north of Stark Tower.  Much of the meal was unfamiliar, but after years of eating army slop and being creative with rationed food, Peggy was willing to try almost anything at least once.

She had accepted the offered outing eagerly.  After several days of lying low and recovering her strength, Peggy was very ready to get her life back on track again. Steve and the rest of the Avengers had been called out, so when Pepper had proposed a day of shopping and lunch, she had jumped at the chance. The experience had been somewhat overwhelming, but she was determined not to be daunted by the ghosts of the past.  This was her world now; she needed to learn how to navigate it.

"I have a job opportunity I'd like you to consider," Pepper continued. "We have an opening for a PA,” she offered, and then hurried to explain the acronym, unsure if the woman from the 1940’s would know it.  “I mean a personal assistant.  I’ve never been able to find one that could stand our strange life for more than a few weeks.”

Peggy’s heart sank.  She liked the idea of keeping busy and earning her way, but she’d been treated like a secretary for far too long, and had hated it with a passion.  “I don’t know,” she demurred, trying to hide her disappointment. “I haven’t had much luck answering phones.”

Pepper’s eyes sparkled.  “That’s the best part,” she explained.  “It’s a PA position in name only - you wouldn’t be answering phones unless you wanted to.  Right now, the Avengers need a liaison with SHIELD.  We’ve broken most ties with them, but are willing to remain conditionally involved.  Tony volunteered me, but he forgets I have a business to run.  With your background in SHIELD, and your familiarity with the leader of the Avengers, you would be ideal.”  

She paused to gauge Peggy’s interest before adding the clincher.  “The position would also include traveling, weapons training, and in-house residence.  Interested?”

“Definitely,” Peggy responded unhesitatingly, and the two women shook hands over the hors d'oeuvres.


Hashing out the details took longer than either had expected, and they were running a little late as they stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor and headed down an interior ramp toward the exit. The building’s lobby was was spacious, and featured a waiting area with decorative low stone planters filled with ornamental plants.  It was all very sleek and modern, quite unlike what Peggy was used to.

"I notice most of your buildings are made of glass these days," she commented, looking ahead at the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that offered an excellent view of the street outside. "How can glass be strong enough?  Is it a special type?"  It was one of the most dramatic differences in architecture she'd noticed, and she found herself wondering if it was a type of metal instead.

After all, even if the future didn’t have flying cars, perhaps it wasn’t too far-fetched to assume they had transparent metal.

"They're actually non-load-bearing," Pepper explained as she hunted through her purse for a tissue.  "There's a steel infrastructure that carries the building’s weight; the glass is just hung on like pictures on a wall.  When we designed Stark Tower..."  

She kept talking, but Peggy had stopped listening. Something wasn't right, and every single one of her instincts was screaming danger. Her eyes darted around the spacious lobby, but everything looked so different from what she was used to that she couldn't immediately identify the threat.  Then she looked at the wall of windows again and everything came together in a rush.

“Get down,” she cried, and turned, throwing herself at her surprised friend and using the weight of her body to pull them both down and out of the way.  They tumbled off the far side of the interior ramp and into a low decorative planter just as the plate glass windows shattered and machine gun fire rattled through the building.

Twisting onto her side, Pepper rolled into the narrow area under the ramp and pressed the panic button on her watch, well versed in disasters; she was Tony Stark's CEO after all. Peggy followed closely, reaching Pepper just in time to see the woman yank off her scarf and try to tie it one-handed around her other arm.

"You've been hit," Peggy realized, pulling away the flimsy scarf and producing her own handkerchief to knot around her friend’s arm.  All her training as a nurse came into play, and she inspected the wound as best she could.

"Oh my gosh - um - I don't think it hit anything serious," Pepper responded, but she was starting to look white and sick with shock.  Her blood pressure was kept perpetually low as part of the stabilization for her Extremis.  As a result, any kind of injury always made her feel faint.

From what she could tell in the dim space, Peggy agreed.  “It’s just a flesh wound; we’ll get it stitched up and you’ll be fine.”  Bandaging it expertly, she tried to sort things out.  "Look, are they after you?  Do you have a gun?"  

"No gun," gasped Pepper, trying to shift so she could put her head between her knees.  "Pepper spray in my purse and a taser.  Ugh, I hate my blood pressure right now."

Peggy helped her friend into a more comfortable position and quickly rifled through her bag.  Finding nothing that looked immediately familiar, she put the whole thing by Pepper's hand. "All right, stay here, and use those if anybody gets close - I'd probably hurt myself if I tried.  I'll keep them busy.  When you can, try to reach a phone."

Pepper tried to explain that she'd already sent an alert to Tony, but Peggy put her finger on her lips, signaling silence.  Beyond their hiding space, both women could hear the sound of boots grinding down on broken glass.  The rhythmic s crunch-scrunch-scrunch came closer until it was almost on top of them, and then paused.

"Virginia Potts."  It wasn't a voice either recognized.  "Consider yourself surrounded.  Come out with your hands up, and we'll think about not killing you."

Neither woman answered, both listening intently as the scrunch-scrunch started up again.  It quickly became apparent that there were several people searching the area for them, herding other civilians toward the receptionists desk, although no more gunshots or threats followed.  Evidently the searchers were only interested in targeting Pepper.

Peggy slipped to one side and waited patiently. Seconds later, the first assailant stepped into view and Peggy moved, catching him in a partial headlock and ramming her knee into his stomach, snatching his handgun when he dropped it with a startled grunt.

"Thank you," she told him politely, before slugging him as hard as she could. Her knuckles throbbed, but for the first time since waking up, the feeling of wrong-footedness that came with this new century began to fade.  At least all those years in the ice hadn't made her forget her combat training.  Then a shout alerted her to the fact that the scuffle had not gone unnoticed, so she rolled back behind the decorative planter and started firing.

The attackers, not expecting gunfire, scattered for cover, and for about two minutes, Peggy held the field.  Then, just as one attacker made a run for her position, the hammer fell with a click and she realized with a sinking heart that guns from the future could still run out of ammunition.

Bouncing to her feet, she met the attacker head-on, taking him down the way Bucky Barnes had taught her long ago. They weren't exactly legal moves, but they were effective in a pinch. She got the next man too, but it took far more effort than it should have and she was panting shakily by the time he finally went down.  Peggy’s strength still wasn’t back to where it should be, and the long day of outings with Pepper had been more draining than she’d realized.

Then a second crash of glass and a roar of repulsors riveted her startled attention to the ruined wall of windows as Iron Man made his appearance, accompanied by the rhythmic screaming he called ‘music,’ and livid at the threat to his girlfriend.

Peggy had seen images of the suit, but the reality put even Howard’s wildest dreams to shame.  She stared for a moment before shaking off the distraction, starting to turn back. Then another flash of motion caught her eye, and her breath stuck in her throat.

It was Captain America.

For just a moment, the whole world paused.  This was the first time she had seen Captain America - her Captain America - in uniform since the day she had kissed him goodbye and watched the Valkyrie disappear into the clouds. Heart in her throat, she watched her soldier take on three of the assailants at once.  His fighting style had changed, progressed, and for a moment she couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

Too late she realized her distraction and jolted her attention back. The leader of the band stood, gun trained steadily at her head, too far away for her to reach him before he could pull the trigger. She tried a different tactic, throwing her empty weapon at his head while she rolled toward the temporary shelter of another planter.

She never made it. The wild throw had left her off-balance, and the planter was too far away to reach in time.  The mercenary grinned and cocked his gun even as she threw herself sideways.

Oh, Steve - I'm so sorry...

Throinnnnnnnnngngngngngng

The familiar burnished metal of Steve's shield slammed into the tile flooring right in front of her face just as the gun fired, absorbing the bullet's impact. The next moment she was rolling across the floor, carried to comparative safety behind the planter by his greater weight and momentum.

"You okay?" he gasped, and his face looked very white behind the helmet of his uniform as he helped her sit up.  Glass shards sprinkled his shoulders and he was breathing hard from his sprint to reach her in time.  

"You're late," she panted when she could catch her breath.  He grinned a little at the rush of memories those words brought back, and the tension in his shoulders eased just a bit.  Even so, his hands remained firm on her arms, and she suddenly realized just how close they were.

"I'm out of ammunition; give me your gun," she added crisply, trying to shake off her complete distraction at seeing him in uniform.  This was no time to be sentimental, and she figured a matter-of-fact attitude would reassure him that she was all right.

He huffed a relieved chuckle and shook his head, pressing cold metal into her hand.  "Stark model - shoots electric pulses, handles like my old Colt," he explained, and she nodded briskly.  Howard had made a preliminary prototype for an electric gun, but it had always left her with tingling, numb hands. She hoped his son had corrected that fault.

Movement behind Steve's back drew her attention and she immediately raised her new gun, firing it over his shoulder by such a narrow margin that she nearly grazed his ear.  The mercenary didn't stand a chance, dropping his weapon as he convulsed with the electric shock.  The bullet he had meant for the back of Steve’s head went into the ceiling instead, and pieces of broken ceiling tile rained down around them.

“Thanks,” Steve gasped, and then he was on his feet again, throwing his shield hard and fast, fighting vigorously.  Peggy scrambled to her knees behind the planter and fired over the rim, covering both his back and Pepper’s hiding place beneath the ramp from her vantage point.

"Say, what're you doing on Friday night?" he presently called over the sound of gunfire.

"Nothing, I don't think," Peggy called back, heart suddenly leaping. "Unless you have another of these little skirmishes planned."

"I was thinking how you still owe me that dance."  Steve's own heart was racing wildly, but he held his voice steady. "There's a place down in Brooklyn that has a live band on Friday nights."

For a long time, she didn't answer, and he started to worry that perhaps he shouldn't have asked.  He couldn't see the smile on her face, so big it prevented her from speaking.

"I'd like that," she finally managed, and if she was so distracted that she nearly shot Clint when he came running by, nobody ever mentioned it.

The coast finally began to clear a little, so with one final shot, Peggy got her feet beneath her. “Cover me,” she called to Steve, and ran back to the ramp, ducking low to avoid any stray shots.  Behind her, she could hear him changing his position to keep her safe, and felt a warm glow around her heart.  She had missed fighting beside him; the way they worked so effortlessly together.  

Peggy ducked into the narrow space beneath the ramp, and immediately dropped to the floor, barely avoiding a spray of pungent orange fluid.

“Peggy!  Oh, I'm so sorry - did I spray you?  I thought you were another one of them.”

Pepper was still very pale, but she was sitting up, and there was a fierce light in her eyes.  She held a black device in one hand, and a small canister in the other. At her feet sprawled one of the attackers, obviously out cold.  

Cocking her gun, Peggy pushed the man out of the way with her foot and took a defensive position by the opening, shooting the CEO an approving look. “Steve is here,” she told Pepper, “and Tony and Clint.  The fight is practically over.”

As if on cue, repulsors sounded nearby, and the feet and knees of the Iron Man suit clanked into view, the only part of the suit that visible to the women below the ramp. “Pep?”  His voice was tinny and oddly mechanical.  “Pepper, are you all right?”

Much to his dismay, the Iron Man suit couldn't fit into the small space beneath the ramp. Instead, Steve joined them, shucking off his helmet and holding out steady hands to Pepper.  He saw the bloody handkerchief bandaging her arm, and his eyes flickered to Peggy, who nodded reassuringly.  The wound was not severe; Pepper would be fine.

Tony was very impatient by the time Steve and Peggy emerged, helping a wobbly but undaunted Pepper out between them.  "I'm all right..." she started to say, but Tony wouldn't wait for her to get the rest of the words out, instead catching her in his arms and retracting the face mask so he could kiss her.

"Look here, the next time you get a death threat, I want you to take it seriously," he growled as he gathered her up, preparatory to take-off.  He had the medical team standing by in the tower, and the suit could get her there faster than a car.

"But Tony, I’m your CEO; we get them practically every day..."  Pepper's voice trailed off as he shot into the sky with her.


Afterwards, Peggy didn’t realize she was staring at Steve until he turned and caught her eye.  The local authorities had arrived at last and were taking the mercenaries into custody, interviewing the civilians who had witnessed the interchange.  Apparently the thugs had been hired by one of Stark’s old enemies who had chosen to target Stark’s CEO as a way of retaliating for past grievances.  Steve had been giving his report of the events, but now he walked toward her.

“What do you think?” he asked hopefully, indicating his uniform.

He had kept the old patriotic look. Peggy’s heart abruptly felt too large for her chest.

Howard and the public relations department had put a lot of thought into the design of his original uniform, after Steve had expressed his interest in retaining the theme of his USO costume.  “It makes him look larger than life,” some of the officers had said.  Only the people who knew Steve Rogers understood that the suit was not an exaggeration, but rather an expression of the man he truly was inside.

Peggy suddenly discovered she couldn’t breathe.  She had thought, over the last few days, that she had grown used to Steve being alive.  Now as he stood in front of her, looking so much like he had on that awful last day, the powerful realization swept over her again.  He was not lying crushed to death in the lonely wreck, or frozen in the snow as he tried to crawl to civilization.  Steve was alive and breathing - and right now he was looking down at her, forehead rumpled in concern.

“Peggy?” he asked softly, and she realized she had caught a fold of his uniform tight in one hand.  With a shuddering breath, she tried to let go, but her fingers refused to unclench.  Instead, she looked back up into his face and could see that he understood.  Eyes intent on hers, he covered her hand with his and took a step closer, standing so near that she could feel the warmth and magnetism of his presence surround her.

They had stood at this crossroads before, but duty and tragedy had intervened and the dance they both dreamed of had never been realized. Now, against all odds, they had been granted a second chance, and she was jolly well not going to lose it.

“Excuse me miss, but we need your statement now.”  A short policeman was at her elbow, clipboard at the ready. With one last steadying breath, Peggy was finally able to open her fist and smile graciously, despite a flash of annoyance at being interrupted.

“Certainly,” she agreed, and followed the shorter man away, an extra sway to her step.  Steve was still watching her, she knew, and the thought was exhilarating.  Stopping suddenly, she turned on one heel. “Oh, and Captain?”  

Steve straightened, eyebrows raised inquiringly.  His hair was sticking up from when he’d pulled off his helmet, and she had to fight to hide her smile, though she had never been more serious.  “Don't you dare stand me up this time.”

“No, ma’am,” he promised, and although the words were spoken lightly, she knew they carried as much weight as the most solemn oath.  “I won't.”


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen


“Pepper, do you have a sewing machine?”

Pepper looked up in surprise as Peggy leaned in through the open door.  The CEO was supposed to be resting, but instead was tapping away on a work tablet, arm in a sling.  The wound wasn’t severe, and the plastic surgeon Tony had hired was confident that it would heal without even a scar, but Tony was still overprotective.  He had been popping his head in all morning to see if she was okay.

The bewildered look on Pepper’s face must have answered Peggy’s question, because the woman sighed and came in, leaning against the counter.  A full shopping bag hung from her arm.  “Oh, that’s just wonderful.  Have they gone the way of the typewriter and everything else?”

“No, they still exist,” Pepper hurried to correct her.  “I just - I don’t think we have one.  I’m sure we could buy one somewhere…” To be quite honest, she hadn’t touched a sewing machine since her mandatory sewing unit in middle school, and it had been years since she’d even thought of such a thing.

"No need."  Natasha's voice broke into the conversation, and there she was, lounging casually against the doorframe.  "I have one, and you're welcome to use it.”  She strolled into the room, straddling the back of the couch.  “What are you making?”

Pepper blinked, startled.  Somehow she had never expected the Russian agent to own such a thing.  After all, sewing machines weren't exactly deadly weapons, although she did remember the needle being rather vicious.

“Thank you,” said Peggy gratefully.  “I’m making a dress.”

Natasha’s gaze never flickered, even as Pepper’s jaw dropped.  “It’s upstairs,” she said cooly, flipping her hair toward the door.  “Shall we?”

“Um, Peggy?” Pepper ventured, but the two women had already left the room.  Raising her voice, she hurried after them.  “You do know you can just buy a dress, right?”


Pepper couldn’t understand why a store-bought or tailored dress wouldn't do.  Money was no object, she had insisted, but Peggy was firm.  “I'm afraid I have something specific in mind,” she explained, “and I very much doubt I could buy one like it.”

Fifteen minutes later, Peggy was kneeling over a stretch of fabric on the floor of Natasha’s room, slashing away with a pair of wicked-looking shears.  Natasha herself had been called away, but Pepper stayed, fascinated.

“So are you like a seamstress or something?  You’re really good at this.”

Peggy laughed through a mouthful of pins.  “When you grow up after one war, and fight in another, you have to be versatile,” she explained, voice muffled as she tried to keep from swallowing anything sharp.  “I prefer shooting things, but this does come in handy.  I’ve sewn more parachutes than I care to remember.  Besides, rationing made it ridiculously hard to get new clothes.”

A knock sounded at the door, and Pepper got up to answer.  She wasn’t particularly surprised to see Steve; Tony would have barged right in, and Clint would have probably just materialized somewhere.

“Is Peggy here?” asked Steve, looking a little uncertain.  “JARVIS said she’d come up this way.”

Peggy suddenly swung around Pepper’s shoulder, blocking the visitor from entering.  “I’m sewing, Steve,” she told him firmly, but her eyes were dancing, and she didn’t look half as stern as she sounded.  “I’ll see you tonight.”

Steve leaned against the doorframe with a grin.  “Do I get to see what you’re doing?  Making more potato sacks?”

“If you bring that up again, I will hurt you,” Peggy threatened, brandishing her shears and trying not to smile.  “Now scat, before I make you.”

Pepper stood back and watched their banter with a smile.  Steve was relaxed and smiling, still a little awkward but very happy.  Peggy’s eyes were sparkling and she stood closer to Steve than Pepper thought she realized.

“You know he’s in love with you,” she stated quietly, after the door had shut behind Steve’s back, and Peggy was once more bent over her fabric.  It wasn’t phrased as a question; it was a statement of fact.

Startled, Peggy ran a pin into her hand.  “I do,” she answered after a long moment.  “Is it that obvious to everyone else?”

Pepper almost laughed.  “Peggy, a blind man could tell.  I’ve seen the way Steve looks at you.  He’s never looked at anybody like that.  Before we found you, he hardly ever smiled.  When he’s around you though, his face softens, his eyes soften; he’s somehow more confident and shy all at once.  He’s the man I think he must have been before he went into the ice.”

Peggy tried to hide her fond smile by pinning together two oddly-shaped pieces of fabric, but Pepper saw it and settled back in her seat, pleased.  She was absolutely determined to help her friends find happiness together.  Then she remembered something and sat up again.

“What was that about potato sacks, anyway?”

For answer, she got a dirty look.  “That is one thing,” Peggy told her primly, “that I am perfectly happy to leave in the past.”


The clock on the wall pointed to five-thirty, and Steve got to his feet and reached for his jacket. For the past hour he had been watching the minute hand of the clock, barely paying attention to the meeting.

“Where do you think you're going?” barked Fury.  He had called this impromptu meeting two hours ago, and Steve was willing to bet that the sole reason was to see if the Avengers were still willing to work with SHIELD after the recent standoff.

“I got a date,” Steve announced, shrugging on his jacket. His voice sounded more calm than he felt; he could have sworn a whole herd of butterflies was rampaging up and down his insides. He had a date with Peggy Carter.

Fury’s eyebrows did something fierce. “You're just gonna walk out of a meeting because you've got a date?”  

Steve picked up his notepad.  “With all due respect sir, I am.  This was an unscheduled meeting, and I already had plans. Barton can fill me in on what I miss.”  At the end of the table, Clint snapped to attention and tried to look as if he hadn't been doodling trajectories and floor plans on his data screen for the past hour and a half.

Fury shook his head resignedly as Steve turned toward the door. First they revived the girl, and then Cap went and got all batty over her.

“It's Carter, isn't it?” he asked, voice perhaps a little more acidic than he’d intended. Steve swung around with a defensive glint in his eye, but Tony cut in.

“Yeah, uh-huh, and speaking of Agent Carter, she’s going to be our liaison with you guys, so we won't have to come to as many of these boring meeting things. Fun, huh?  Pep’s going to contact you about it as soon as she draws up the papers.”

The news promptly distracted Fury from the captain’s departure. With a thankful nod at his friend, Steve turned to leave once more. Tony’s parting farewell drifted through the closing door behind him. “Have fun, Cap. Don't do anything I wouldn't do!”


Steve knocked at the door of Peggy’s suite at seven-thirty on the dot.  For some reason, he was incredibly nervous, and he had to remind himself not to crush the flowers in his hand.  He was about to take a girl - the girl - out dancing for the first time in his life, and for a minute he was suddenly, unreasonably afraid that the whole thing had been a dream.

Then Peggy opened the door, and everything else fell away.

She was beautiful, bright and glowing and alive, dressed in the red dress she had worn so long ago in a pub in London, the night she had all but told him that she cared for him, that she would wait for him until the war was over.  Common sense would have told him that it couldn’t possibly be the same dress, but at the moment common sense was very, very far away.

Peggy met his eyes, and the warm light and respectful appreciation she saw on his face reminded her of the same night, when he had first seen her in red.  They never could have dreamed where their lives would take them, that long-ago night, but somehow it felt as if things had come full circle.

At last he came to himself, handing her the flowers and then blushing all over his face when he realized he was supposed to pin them on her dress.  She took pity on him, pinning them on herself, before smiling up at him.

“They’re beautiful, Steve.”

“Yes,” he agreed fervently, never realizing that she was talking about the flowers.  “Peggy, you look like a million bucks.”


The dance was held in a small public dance hall with a worn wooden floor - a throwback from older days that had somehow escaped modernization or destruction.  Most of the couples at the dance were from their own generation, and two or three actually recognized Steve as Captain America.  He graciously spoke a little with each, but kept Peggy's arm tucked in his own, unwilling to let her go, unable to keep his eyes off of her.  

Sudden shyness had seized them both, and neither had anything to say.  He got her some punch, and she sipped it demurely, reveling in his care for her, his intense pride at having her on his arm.  There were only a few young people there, but Peggy felt every girl looking at her, envying her place at his side. She held her head high, very aware that Steve had eyes for no one but her.

True to their agreement so long ago, they waited until the band played something slow, and then Peggy set aside her glass and pulled him out on the floor.  He came nervously, swallowing hard, but with a trust and eagerness in his gaze that made her smile giddily back.  

She had to show him how to hold her, and he obeyed, large hands incredibly gentle.  He had touched her before, tackled her, bandaged her wounds, shielded her with his body, even carried her to safety the time she’d been shot in the back, but this was different and he was hesitant, worried that he might offend her.

“Is this okay?” he asked, eyebrows furrowing cautiously as he looked up from his hand on her waist.

She nodded breathlessly.  “Yes.”  

Even though the music was slow, he stepped on her feet several times until he got the hang of it.  For such a skilled athlete, he was surprisingly clumsy until she got him to forget himself.  It wasn’t until the middle of the dance that he suddenly came into his own.  The steps came more easily, and he watched her with a reverent, tender light in his eyes that took her breath away as she spun into his arms and out again.  

Peggy’s cheeks hurt with her smile, but she simply couldn’t stop.  Dancing with Steve was everything she had ever dreamed of, ever hoped for.  She leaned into his shoulder a trifle closer than before, and felt his hand carefully tighten at her back, daringly pressing her just a little nearer.

The first dance broke the ice, and suddenly there was so much to say to each other. Between dances, they talked about everything under the sun: Howard, Tony, aliens, Leviathan, their respective coworkers, and the end of the war.  Peggy’s eyes filled with tears as she told him of the Howling Commandos’ last toast, held spontaneously before she had left with the SSR for America.  “To the Captain,” Dugan had proposed.  “The Captain,” the rest had rumbled softly, and then they downed their drinks and separated without a word.  

Steve offered her his handkerchief, and they both pretended to ignore his glistening eyes as she wiped her own.  He was deeply touched by the evidence of his men's affection and loyalty.  Peggy slipped her hand into his, and they sat quietly for a long time, listening to the music. When they talked again, it was of happier things.

The last dance of the night was a slow one.  They danced silently, very close to one another, savoring the wonder of being together again.  Peggy laid her head briefly on Steve's shoulder, and he smiled against her hair, dizzy with happiness.  Dimly, as if from a great distance, Thor's words from earlier echoed in his mind as they crossed the dance floor.   "Do not squander your second chance."    

Steve held Peggy closer as the dance ended, and locked every moment into his enhanced memory forever.


As they neared the door of her suite, Steve’s steps slowed.  “Do you want to go dancing again next Friday?” he abruptly asked. “They have a different band come every week.”

Peggy tilted her head to look up at him, and suddenly he was absolutely certain he had said the wrong thing.  “Only if you want to, though,” he tried to clarify.  “You don't have to. I just - I hoped that maybe you'd be willing to dance with me again.”

It sounded more awkward the further he went, and he could tell his cheeks were flaming.  Peggy’s mouth pursed with amusement.

“Just next week?” she asked.

He didn’t even have to think about his answer. “Every week.  Every week that you'll have me, anyway.”  

Peggy’s arm slipped free from his, and she stopped in front of him, studying his face. “Captain Rogers, are you asking me to go steady with you?”

“Yes,” he said, and he had never meant anything quite so much. “I am.”

Instead of replying, Peggy suddenly stood on her toes and brushed his cheek with her lips, so briefly that it was over before he realized what she was doing.  He stared at her, eyes wide in surprise.  "Then yes,” she whispered softly.  “I will.”  For a heartbeat her hands lingered on the lapels of his jacket, and then she slipped into her room with a starry smile.  “Goodnight, Steve.”

Steve stood in the middle of the hall, staring dumbstruck at her door for a full minute, fingers to his cheek, heart racing wildly in his chest.  The unbelievable truth rebounded through every fiber of his being.

He was actually going steady with Peggy Carter.  

Blindly he headed for the elevator, completely unaware of the ridiculous grin on his face.


Peggy's heart sang as she got ready for bed, gently laying the red dress over a chair.  The look in Steve's eyes when he saw her had been worth every minute of the time she had put into it.  Humming a few notes from the last waltz, she stood at the window for a long time, looking vainly for the stars through the haze of smog and city lights.  

Steve had looked so earnest out in the hallway, stumbling over his words. He was obviously determined to court her properly. It was sentimental and sweet, and she found herself absurdly gratified that he thought she was worth the trouble.  

She had lost so much, but through that loss she had gained immeasurably more: the love and respect of a good man, the man of her dreams. He recognized her value and treated her as a companion, a true partner, an individual who was equally strong and inexpressibly precious.  

Heart too full for sleep, Peggy wrapped herself in a blanket and watched the sky.


Stark was still up, muddling around in the common kitchen when Steve floated through, barely touching the floor.  Tony took one look at the captain's elated face and groaned, throwing his hands up.  "Oh, you two are so disgustingly cute, I'm not sure I can stand it."   Passing Steve on his way out, he slapped the captain on the shoulder.  "Nice lipstick," he commented, grinning evilly. "Not sure it's your color though."  

Steve flushed heavily and wiped at his cheek, giving Tony a half-hearted dirty look when his hand came away clean.  

"Oh-ho, so she did kiss you!" Tony crowed triumphantly.  He skillfully dodged the playful swing at his head and snickered all the way back to the lab.  


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen


After their first date, Steve took his girl dancing every Friday night.  There were the occasional Avengers-related interruptions, but if they were in town, they never missed a date.  During the week, Peggy was busy managing relations between SHIELD and the Avengers, but somehow there were always plenty of things she needed to ask Steve about, and as the team leader, he worked closely with her on a daily basis.  

Tony took special pleasure in randomly sticking his head in on their meetings.  Steve suspected he was trying to catch them in some compromising situation, but the captain and the agent were both very, very good at keeping their relationship professional.  They’d had years of practice; the army wasn’t lenient when it came to fraternization.  Besides, they were still circling each other at arm’s length, figuring out their relationship.  

They had spent two years apart, after all.

Friday night dances weren't the only times when they both let their shields down for a few hours.  They took turns stealing each other away to explore the city, or to go out for lunch. Those were the times when they could really talk, feeling each other out, recognizing the changes that their time apart had created, rediscovering the thrill that came with shared laughter over old jokes long forgotten by everybody else.  

Steve hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed someone from his own era to talk to; someone who operated off the same social cues and shared the same life experience.  He found himself waking up every morning with a smile, eager to see her, already planning ways he could spend time with her. For her part, Peggy enjoyed being with someone who treated her like an equal, who would actually listen to what she had to say and take it seriously.  Steve had always been good at that, always made her feel like she genuinely mattered.  It was something she’d missed more than she could say.

Her first meeting with SHIELD had gone well.  Steve went with her to headquarters and showed her around, but Peggy sweetly declined his offer to accompany her into the meeting room.  When she had met with Fury for the first time, she’d had the entire team backing her.  This time, she needed to stand on her own feet and meet him on his own ground.  

When she walked into his office, Fury was busy over something on a screen.  He saw her and rose, stepping around his desk to face her.  For a moment they surveyed each other -  she with her brisk, confident glance, he with his level, one eyed stare.

Then Fury held out a hand.  “Agent Carter,” he said.  

“Director Fury,” she replied, and met him halfway in a firm handshake.  Neither one smiled, but it was a start.  


“I’m assuming you’re the girl Cap won’t shut up about.”

Surprised, Peggy looked up from the tablet in her lap to see a young man leaning through the door, white teeth flashing in a smile. She recognized him from Steve’s sketches, but this was her first time seeing him around the tower. Steve had spoken very highly of this man, and she rose, reaching out her hand.

“You must be Samuel Wilson.  I'm Peggy Carter.”

He stepped forward easily, shaking her hand briefly.  “Yeah, I kind of figured that out.  Googled you.  Cap shown you Google yet?  How about YouTube?”

She knew about Google by now, but YouTube was new, so Sam sat beside her, pointing out where she needed to tap.  “Type in what you want to know, up it comes.  You can find music, cooking tutorials, cat videos - all kinds of junk.”

Peggy raised her eyebrows.  “Cat videos?”

“Aw man, somebody’s been neglecting your education.  Here, let me.”

Two minutes later, he was chuckling over some inane video that seemed to be composed mainly of cats falling off of things.  Quickly losing interest in the film, Peggy leaned back and watched Sam instead.  So this was the man who was aiding in the search for Barnes.  It was easy to see why Steve had turned to him when he needed help.  Good humor seemed to hover around him, but he had a resourceful air.  Suddenly Peggy wished very badly that she could introduce him to the Howling Commandos.  Sam would have fit in very well.  

“I suspect you didn’t come here just to show me cat videos,” she casually said when the short film was over.  Sam laughed shortly as he handed the tablet back.  He didn’t seem offended that the video hadn’t captured her attention.

“No,” he admitted.  “Don’t get me wrong - I’m glad to meet the girl he’s all gooey-eyed over, but I actually came to see Cap.  He around?  I got some news for him.”

Peggy didn’t have a chance to answer before the man in question came through the door.  His eyes flickered to her as they always did when they were in a room together, and then his face lit up as he saw his good friend.  “Sam!  I take it you’ve met Peggy already.”

Sam grabbed Steve’s offered hand and pulled himself to his feet.  “Sure thing, Cap.  She’s been awake this long, and you haven’t introduced us - I’m hurt, man!  Had to take matters into my own hands.”

They grinned at one another, and Peggy saw something familiar in Sam’s eyes.  She had seen it in the eyes of every single Commando, in Bucky’s eyes, and in her own each time she looked in the mirror.  It wasn’t hero-worship, although that was what detractors of Captain America used to call it.  It was faith, pure and simple - a willingness to follow him - and seeing it in Sam’s face made Peggy’s heart warm.  

“You got any news?” asked Steve, and Sam nodded.  Peggy caught the careful glance he threw at her, and had to approve even though it stung.  He wouldn’t blurt out sensitive information in front of people he didn’t actually know.  

Steve immediately claimed the seat next to her on the couch, knee not quite touching hers.  “Peggy knew Bucky too,” he told Sam casually as his friend comfortably slumped into another chair.  “Anything you come up with, you can say in front of her.  She’s got a right to know.”

Without another thought, Sam leaned forward and began his story.  It wasn’t much - in fact, it was pitifully small, but it had potential.  Some specialized parts had been stolen from a computer shop.  Nobody had seen the thief, but Sam suspected Bucky might have been the culprit.

“Whoever did it was good,” he finished up.  “Real good.  No trace, nothing.  But the parts had been special-ordered by a SHIELD tech who we think was Hydra.”

“We think?” Peggy cut in, and Sam bowed his head a little.  

“She was killed in the Triskelion when the helicarrier hit it,” he explained, and Peggy nodded, filing the words away to look up more fully later.  She was familiar with the basics of the battle, but Steve hadn’t liked to talk about it, and she had chosen not to press him.

Steve was thinking.  She could almost see the wheels turning in his head before he looked up.  “If he’s stealing specialized components, he could be trying to do a self-repair job, or maybe make something else.  Do we know if it matched anything in his arm?”

Sam popped to his feet.  “Exactly the reason I'm here,” he explained as he offered Steve a hand up.  “You happen to be living in a building with copies of all SHIELD’s dumped files before they got pulled off the internet.  I’m hoping there’s blueprints or something.”

“The lab just upstairs has the best screens,” Steve agreed, and turned to her, eyes warm and bright.  “You coming, Peggy?”

Peggy shook her head up at him, her tablet heavy in her lap.  She had been in the middle of something when Sam came, and she needed to finish it.  “I’ll be along.”

After the men had left, she turned back to her tablet. Using it was easy - the whole thing was set up fairly intuitively - but the real marvel was in how it worked.  The thing was complex beyond anything she had ever imagined, and part of her desperately wanted to show it to Howard.  The thought hurt.  He had been dead for years, and yet she could still hear his voice as if it was only yesterday.

Tony had showed her how to access his stash of leaked SHIELD files, and today she had finally gathered up her courage in both hands and run a search for her former co-workers. Jack Thompson had gone out in a blaze of glory, killed in a shoot-out in 1959.  Already fatally wounded, he had managed to save the lives of three civilians and another agent by setting his back to the wall and covering their escape through a storm of gunfire.  It was a death she knew he would have approved of.

Daniel Sousa had worked for a few more years in the field before he had been in an accident, breaking his one good leg.  After that he had been relegated to desk work, eventually becoming director of his section and retiring in 1982. Four years later he died of pneumonia, leaving a wife, two stepchildren, and nine beloved grandchildren.

Howard's file was the hardest one to read somehow; perhaps because she had known him the longest. The brilliant, quirky young inventor had become the head of Stark Industries, a weapons company. He had married later in life, and had one child: Anthony Stark. Some years later, Howard and his wife had been caught in a devastating car accident, killing them both instantly.  Recently discovered records confirmed that Hydra had engineered the “accident,” although details were still unclear.

There was something awful about reading the lives and deaths of friends who, from her perspective, she had seen only days before.   Edwin Jarvis, Peggy typed, and her finger hovered over the little blue “Go” button for a moment.  

Should she?

She couldn't.

Taking a shaking breath, Peggy canceled the search. Then she tipped back her head and pressed cool fingertips against her throbbing temples until the threatening tears receded. She could not bear to read about the death of one more friend.  Not today anyway.

Perhaps it was time for a different project.  Maybe that new website Sam had showed her would have actual information on it somewhere - something other than cats.

Triskelion helicarrier, she typed instead, and hit the search button.


Steve was in the middle of a sentence when he stopped short. For a moment it looked as if he was listening intently to something outside Sam’s range of hearing, and then he blanched, the blood draining from his face.   Sam tilted his head. “Hey, man, you okay?”

“I…”  Steve didn't finish his sentence. Instead, he bolted for the stairs as if the house was on fire.

“Cap!”  Sam hurried after him, banging his shin painfully on a low lab stool. “What’s up?”

One floor below, Steve slammed through the stairway door and drew up short. Peggy was still on the couch, her back to him. She didn't turn.

“You're - my - mission!”

The tablet’s tinny speaker was the only sound in the room.  A roar followed, and Peggy’s shoulders stiffened. Steve had seen the footage too many times - he knew without seeing that the support beam had just given way, dropping him into the Hudson. The roar dissolved into a fuzzy hiss, and then the video was over.

The room was very quiet.

When Natasha had dumped SHIELD’s files online, she had pulled out all the stops. Every single security camera in the Triskelion, the secret bases, and each of the helicarriers suddenly uploaded live to the internet. Within seconds, people all over the world had been able to see what was going down in Washington DC.

Some busybody had taken it upon themselves to get the footage of Cap’s fight with the Winter Soldier, edit it together, and post it on social media. Tony had been trying to pull it from the internet ever since, but it had gone viral and people kept reposting it. Peggy had apparently stumbled on a copy.

It wasn't very good - the sound was nearly inaudible, and most of the cameras had been taken out in the first volley of fire. By the end, the picture was at an impossible angle, horribly pixilated, but still recording the last seconds of their fight, when Steve had thrown away his shield and faced his friend. His more controlled voice hadn't been picked up by the microphone, but Bucky’s frenzied shouts came across just fine. Online chat boards had been rife with speculation for weeks, trying to guess what Captain America had said to the assassin, but so far nobody had made the connection between Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier.

With any luck, they never would.

“Peggy?”  Steve breathed her name, and she moved her head a little, enough to let him know she knew he was there.

“Were you ever going to show it to me?” she finally asked.

He had told her about the last fight with Bucky, but had hesitated to show her the footage. “Yeah. I - it just never seemed the right time.”  Wanting to be completely honest, he added a little more slowly, “and I didn't want you to see him that way.”  He paused, but couldn't help asking. “Are you angry?”

Peggy’s laugh was short and sharp, and when she finally turned to look at him over the back of the couch, his heart sank to the floor. Her lips were very red, eyes swimming with unshed tears, and her chin was set the way it had been all those years ago when she’d shot at him in a fit of pique. Anger he could handle, but Peggy’s tears made some undefinable part of him ache.

“Yes, I'm angry,” she told him, and her voice wasn't quite steady. “I'm angry at you for being such a self-sacrificing idiot, and I'm angry at myself for expecting anything less of you.”  She paused to take a deep breath, and gestured vaguely at the tablet. “I'm also angry at the monsters who did all that to him.”

Steve ventured a few steps closer. “I'm sorry,” he told her sincerely, though he wasn't entirely certain whether he was apologizing for being an idiot or for hurting her. Probably both.

Her eyes softened then.  “Oh, Steve - to have Bucky trying to kill you…  At least he was legitimately fighting.”

Peggy and Thor were probably the only people who truly understood how he felt having Bucky Barnes turn on him, his brother in all but blood.  Steve wasn't sure what she meant by her last sentence, but protested anyway. “It wasn't him, Peggy. They warped his mind - he couldn't help it.”

Peggy shook her head, kneeling up on the couch so she could better face him. “No, that’s not what I mean. You were his mission, Steve.  Barnes and I only ever had one mission: to look after you. To make sure that you had food and sleep and dry socks and backup and stayed alive just one more day.”  For a moment her voice cracked, and she bit her lip before continuing.  “You were his mission and his very best friend, and somehow he remembered that, through all their subversive twisting.  He was fighting the control those men had on his mind.”  

Her fingers were gripping the couch cushions so tightly that he thought they might tear, and her lips and cheeks were glowing. Golly, she was beautiful. Steve thought back to the end of that awful fight; Bucky desperately roaring in his ear, trying to kill him with wide, horrified eyes.  

“We're still not sure how to get through to him,” he admitted. Peggy got to her feet, coming around the end of the couch until she was so close he could have reached out and touched her.

“I think you already have, Steve. Whatever you said to him was enough to at least start the process. I've seen what can be done to men’s minds, and I know it can be undone.”  

Her eyes darted over his face.  She must have seen his mingled hope and discouragement because suddenly she took the last step and closed the distance between them, the toes of their shoes mere inches apart.  Steve’s heart leaped at her proximity, and her eyes were intent on his.

“We will get him back, Steve,” she told him firmly. “You found him once before, you can do it again.”

Steve suddenly realized he was grinning. Peggy had always been able to lift him when he was low. She had fought beside him so many times, given him hope when he had none - and he owed her everything.

“As I recall,” he managed, “it took both of us last time.”

“Then we’ll do it together, but we will find your friend.”  For another second she held his eyes, and then her gaze turned stern as she took a double fistful of his shirt, shaking him a little, regardless of how much bigger he was.  “Don't think I'm not still cross at you though, Steve Rogers.  If you ever get on a doomed aircraft again, I swear I will shoot you myself.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Steve promised, and for a heady moment he thought he was going to kiss her.  She was stunning - alluring eyes still wet, red lips pursed in a determined line.  They were standing so near each other, and the dawning awareness on her face made his heart thump raggedly against his ribs.  He would only have to stoop a little, lean in - he was almost sure she wouldn’t shoot him for it...

Peggy’s eyes flickered sideways, and then she let go of his shirt suddenly, stepping backward as someone cleared their throat.  Sam had his arms crossed, leaning against the doorframe and watching with interest.  When he saw they had remembered his existence, he swung away from the wall with a grin.

“That was some pep talk.  Don’t suppose you got a twin sister or something?”

Steve caught his breath, dragged his mind back to earth again.  “Tough luck,” he told his friend, and Peggy couldn't help but smile as she took the arm he held out to her. Yes, he might be a self-sacrificing idiot, but he wouldn't be the man she loved if he were any other way.


“She did what?”  Clint choked on his drink, and Thor pounded him helpfully on the back, making him cough harder.  It had been a long day, and Tony had spontaneously decided to throw a pizza party after training. Now the Avengers were winding down, enjoying one another's company.

Natasha shrugged leisurely.  “I blame the illegal ‘40’s street fighting moves.  I’ve never run into them before - Steve’s too much of a gentleman to fight dirty.”

“Says the queen of dirty fighting,” Tony sniggered into his pizza, and snatched his hand off the table a split second before Natasha’s knife buried itself in the wood.  “Hey, watch it!  No need to go hacking up my good furniture because you lost a fight. Sheesh, touchy.”  

She flashed him a dangerous smile and the billionaire waggled his eyebrows, not really upset. They both knew he didn’t care about the table, and if she had really been trying to hurt him, he never would have been able to move away fast enough.

Peggy slid into her seat and helped herself to some salad.  “Believe me, I doubt I’ll ever beat her again.  She’ll be ready for me next time.”  Despite her words, there was a gleam in her eye that spoke of how much she had enjoyed herself.  It had taken a while, but she was finally recovered enough to train with the others.

Steve passed Peggy the milk and watched as she laughed with the others.  She had done a good job acclimatizing to this world.  True, there were nights when he found her pacing the halls, and days when something would trigger a distant look in her eyes, but on the whole, it was easier for her than it had been for him.  Having instant friends, a familiar face, and work to do had all helped.

He had asked her once how she was adjusting so well.  She had rolled her glass between her palms for a few minutes before answering.  Finally she had drawn a deep breath and met his eyes.  "Everything changed after the war," she told him quietly.  "Everything everybody had worked and prayed and fought and died for was over, and we looked around and tried to remember what life was like before it all."  She had shrugged a little sadly, trying gamely to smile.  "There wasn't much left of mine."

Now, as he watched her bandying teasing insults with Natasha over the table, Steve realized that, like himself, she was finally beginning to get comfortable here.  Neither of them would ever get completely used to it, but they were both coping.

Clint, still coughing, left the room to recover in peace, and after a few minutes, Steve followed.  He found the archer leaning up against the bathroom counter, trying to breathe in a steady pattern.

“You okay?” he asked, and Clint huffed a laugh that turned into another cough.

“You try inhaling half your drink and then getting your lungs knocked out by a Norse legend, see how you like it” he rasped, and cleared his throat explosively.  “Ugh.”

Seeing that Clint was well on his way to recovery, Steve decided it was a good opportunity to ask a question that had been weighing on his mind for a while now.  “Say, Clint?”

Clint sucked in a relatively steady breath, turning his attention to the captain.  “Yeah?”

“How much do you know about Ferris wheels?”

The former circus performer grinned.  “What do you want to know?”


Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty


“Hey, Peggy - you okay?”

Peggy Carter brushed her snow-soaked hair out of her eyes and turned to see Steve Rogers, long legs driving powerfully through the deep drifts as he caught up with her.

“I’ve been warmer,” she admitted, thanking him with a smile for the grenade pin he offered.  

He shifted his gear a little more solidly on his back, eyes fixed on her face as he fell into step beside her.  "Yeah, this cold is getting at everybody. Wish it would let up, just for a minute."

Peggy tugged off her gloves, holding them in her teeth as she fixed her hair back with the bit of wire.  Sometimes it seemed as if the cold would never let up, that she would never, ever be warm again.

Steve seemed to read her mind because after a few minutes of silent tramping, he spoke up again.  "Bucky and I were talking.  After the war's over, we're going to go to Coney Island.  You want to come along?  They've got a swell Ferris wheel, and it'll be lots warmer."

Surprised out of her gloomy mood, Peggy smiled up at the tall man next to her as she pulled her gloves back on.  "I haven't been on a Ferris wheel since I was a very little girl, but I remember it was magical."

"No kidding?"   Steve was genuinely surprised.  "Most of the rides were too much for me, but we both liked the Wonder Wheel.  Man, Bucky and I used to go almost every summer to get away from the heat in town, when we could scratch up the cash.  Seems impossible now, doesn't it?"

They looked out across the bleak landscape for a long moment, trudging through the snow, nearly knee deep in places.  Steve tripped over a hidden log, and only his enhanced agility kept him from planting his face in the snow.

"Depend on it then," he told her as he recovered his footing.  "You come out to Brooklyn after this is all over, and we'll go to Coney Island and take a ride."

She laughed at him then, and her heart warmed at his answering grin as big fluffy snowflakes started to fall around them both.


"Oh Steve, I'd almost forgotten about this!"

"Did you?" Steve asked, helping her into one of the seats. She didn’t exactly need the help, but the opportunity to hold his hand was too good to pass up.  The line wasn't very long for some reason; she noticed the wheel was almost empty.  The attendant made sure the bar was secure across their knees and then the wheel began its slow rotation.

Peggy’s shoulder brushed his as she settled back. To be fair, the seats were rather narrow.  "Not entirely," she admitted at last.  "But I didn't expect it would ever happen."

It was unusually cool for May, and the sun had set and the wind was blowing in off the water. She shivered a little, and Steve leaned forward to pull off his jacket, carefully wrapping it around her shoulders. Sitting back again, he too-casually left his arm along the back of the seat, and she hid a smile at the smoothly executed maneuver.

"That better?" he asked, and she nodded gratefully.  His jacket was warm around her, and sitting next to him was like sitting next to a hot water bottle, due to his higher metabolism.  Peggy got chilly easily these days, possibly as a side-effect from being frozen.  Tests had determined she didn’t seem to have Steve’s souped-up metabolism, and while traces still remained in her blood, Bruce was fairly certain that her body was not actively generating the super serum.  

"It's much better than that winter," she pointed out, and could feel his chuckle vibrate through her shoulder.  "It was so cold that year - I thought I would never feel my feet again."

"You're warm now though?" he asked again, and she nodded.  "I'm warm now."  Warm inside and out, just from being near him.

The lights of Coney Island shone brilliantly, dropping below them as the wheel began another turn. As they rose, she tipped her head back to look at the sky.  One or two stars were just visible through the light pollution and smog of New York.

"The stars aren't as bright these days," she mentioned, leaning into his shoulder.  "It must be all those electric lights - you can't really see them any more."

Steve's heart skipped a beat and he very carefully tightened his arm around her, just the littlest bit.  "I don't need the stars anymore," he told her, and he could scarcely hear his own voice over his heartbeat pounding in his ears.  "You've always been my North Star, Peggy."

She grew very still, but he couldn't quite see her face, couldn't tell what she was thinking.  Then she tipped her head back with a teasing twinkle in her eye.  "Is that why my picture was in your compass?"

Steve groaned in mock frustration.  "Did Tony tell you about that?  He wouldn’t stop giving me flak about it when he found out."

Peggy leaned away from him so she could see his face better.  "I saw it on a newsreel during the war.  You mean you still have it?"  She couldn't stop the smile that grew across her face as he shifted his weight to get at something in his pocket.

"They tell me it was in my fist when they found me," he told her at last, putting the battered metal case into her palm.  Her breath caught as memories rushed over her at the touch of the familiar little instrument.  Settling back against his shoulder, Peggy opened the small case. Her own eyes looked back at her from a scrap of newsprint.  It was faded, damaged by water and time, but SHIELD restorationists had worked hard to preserve it.

"You’ve always guided my decisions, helped me see the right way to go," Steve told her quietly.  "I couldn't think of a better place to put your picture.  I can't tell you how many times I pulled this out during the recent Hydra fiasco, trying to think, 'What would Peggy say?'"

Flushing with pleasure, Peggy carefully snapped the compass shut and slipped it into his waiting hand.  Steve closed his fingers over hers, compass and all, and took a breath. Suddenly the world stilled, closing down to just the two of them on the top of the Ferris wheel, suspended somewhere between the earth and the sky.

"I lost you,” he said, and his voice was very low and very earnest. “And I thought I could learn to live without you, but I was wrong.  You're the most important person in my life, Peggy.  I was wondering - I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want, and I know you haven’t been here long, but I thought maybe..."

His throat closed off for a moment with the intensity of his feelings, and she looked up at him, confused, a ridiculous, incredulous hope bubbling up in her chest.  "Steve, what are you trying to say?"

Very, very carefully, he ran his thumb across her knuckles, loosening his arm around her shoulders a little so he could see her face.  

"I'm trying to say that I love you," he told her honestly, and swallowed hard, blue eyes darting up to search hers, a shy smile beginning at the corners of his mouth.  "If you’re willing, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

Peggy forgot how to breathe as Steve looked up at her from under his eyebrows.  His hopeful smile looked so uncertain, as though he seriously thought she might refuse, but his eyes shone bright and true, waiting patiently for her answer.

She knew Steve loved her - had known it for years, since long before he drove the Valkyrie into the ice.  He'd never been good at saying so, but every word, every look, every touch had told her as surely as if he had shouted it at the top of his lungs.  He was loyal and tender, with a quiet humor and a stubborn streak a mile wide, and Peggy Carter loved him back so fiercely that she thought her heart would burst.

"Of course I will," she told him, and the staunch Brit somewhere inside of her was mortified to hear her voice choke.  Then everything was swept away by the glad light that sprang into his eyes, and she was in his arms, caught triumphantly against his heart with the strong throb of his heartbeat pounding through her whole body.  Burying her face in his collar, Peggy felt happy tears run down her cheeks, and she clutched at the front of his shirt with both hands.  If this was somehow a dream, and he vanished away, then she was determined to vanish with him.  

Steve cradled her close and smiled against her hair until his face hurt, scarcely able to realize his colossal good fortune.  The only girl in all the world that he had ever loved had just consented to be his wife - the impossible realization filled his heart and set every nerve tingling with joy and relief.  His blood was dancing in his veins, and the solid reality of her in his arms made him feel as if he could conquer every foe fate could throw at him.

"Peggy, I swear I'll make you happy, so help me God," he whispered into her hair, half prayer, half promise.  

She tipped her face up to look at him, radiant, cheeks wet and bright.  "Oh, my darling - you've already made me the happiest girl in the world," she breathed, and reached to pull his head down.  He went willingly, bowing his golden head as she raised her lips to his for the first time in seventy years, warm and sweet, with a world full of promise.  

It was better than their first kiss.  

That alone was incredible, because Steve had always thought their first kiss had been pretty good.  This time, however, there was no need to cut it short.  No lives were at stake, no clock ticking down - it was just the two of them wrapped up in each other's arms.  For the first time since their romance had begun, they had all the time in the world.

He kissed her back, tenderly, hesitantly at first, and then again and again until, rosy and breathless and laughing, she slipped her arm around his neck and laid her head against the heart that beat only for her.  Steve blinked dazed eyes and tried to catch his breath, watching the carnival lights gleam on her hair and trying to memorize the moment, the way she felt pressed against his side.  His mind was still staggering at the realization that he was holding the most precious woman in existence - and that she was actually willing to join her life to his, to marry him.  

"Peggy," he whispered, loving the way her name felt on his lips, and she tightened her grip on him, pulling herself even closer, tipping her face up to his.  Steve’s heart skipped a beat, and he lost himself in her dark eyes with a sweeping wave of sheer joy.


"Okay kids, ride's over, break it up," the voice of the ride attendant was vaguely familiar as the wheel slowly came to a halt.  Looking up, Peggy found herself staring directly into Clint's grinning face as he unhooked the safety bar.  It was only then that Peggy realized they must have been riding far longer than the normal ride length. Raising her eyes, she discovered the wheel was completely empty; the other riders must have got off at some point.

"You planned this, didn't you?" she asked Steve as he helped her to her feet.  His bashful smile gave her the answer.  Clint took the opportunity to claim her free hand in a brief handshake. "Welcome to the family, sis," he told her, and then slapped Steve on the shoulder.  "Get rid of the lipstick, man.  Doesn't suit you at all."

Blushing, Steve went for his handkerchief, but Peggy stole it from him.  Standing on her toes, she blotted the color from his lips with great care.  From the look in his eyes, she could tell he wanted very badly to kiss her again, but this was too new and there were too many people around for either of them to be comfortable doing so.  She started to fold his handkerchief, but he gently pulled it from her hands to wipe away her forgotten tear-tracks.  The tender reverence in his touch almost made her break down all over again, so she laughed shakily instead.

Clint stood by, watching the happy couple.  Already, they’d completely forgotten his existence, which was just as it should be.  He nodded decidedly, and smiled at the look on Steve’s face as he tucked Peggy’s arm through his own.  “Yup, he deserved this,” he told the Ferris wheel controls, throwing the lever to start the wheel turning once more.  “Can’t think of a guy who needed this more.  They’re gonna start glowing in the dark if they get any happier.”

The control panel didn’t answer - but he did get a strange look from a couple of passing teenagers.


The moon was nearly full as Steve and Peggy strolled down the empty boardwalk, listening to the ocean, reveling in simply being near each other.  Steve’s arm was close around Peggy’s waist, and she pressed into his side, fingers laced between his.  After a few minutes, Steve suddenly made a small sound of surprise and drew away, hands slapping his pockets.  Then a little sheepishly, he motioned toward his jacket, still wrapped around her shoulders.  "Ah, in my breast pocket - the inside one..."

She opened the front of the coat so he could get at the pocket himself, and stole a glance up at his face as he fumbled around, brow endearingly furrowed with concentration.  Her heart sped up as she realized all over again that this man loved her.  Then he stepped back holding something small, wrapped in tissue paper.  

"I knew I was forgetting something," he admitted, pulling away the paper.  Peggy caught her breath at the sight of the ring in his hand.  

"We can get a different one if you’d like," Steve was saying, but she cut him off. her voice snagging in her throat.  “It’s perfect, Steve.  It’s perfect.”

It took them both a minute to figure out which hand was her left, since she was too excited to think straight and he kept getting distracted by her radiant face.  Peggy held her breath as he finally slipped the cool circlet down over her finger, and then pressed her hand between both of his.  “There, now you’re officially my girl,” he told her earnestly, and she dimpled helplessly, admiring the gleam of the ring on her hand, proud that it was his.

“I don't suppose you'd marry me tomorrow?” he continued, a half-teasing, half-hopeful light in his eyes.  She slapped ineffectually at his chest, and felt the rumble of his chuckle through her palm.  “Tomorrow?  Steve, we’ll have to get a license and a church, and you have the children’s hospital concert in the evening.”

“I can multitask,” he protested, and she couldn't help laughing giddily at the injured tone of his voice.

“Sam flew out to California,” she reminded him gently. “Somehow I don’t think he would ever forgive you if we got married while he’s out of town.”

“Sometime soon, then?”  Steve slipped his arm around her waist again, pulling her close.  “I really, really don’t want to wait much longer,” he added, voice low in her ear, and she understood what he wasn’t saying.  They’d waited too long before, and almost lost their chance at happiness and a life together.  This time would be different.  Thrilling, she put her arms around his neck because he was hers now, and because she could.  

“You’ve been patient for seventy years, captain,” she told him mock sternly.  “You can be patient a few more days.  However,” her voice softened, and she laid her head on his shoulder, safe in his hold,  “I’ll admit I don’t want to wait for very long either.”  

He folded her still closer, and she felt him press a kiss against her hair.  “Saturday then.  Will you marry me on Saturday?”

Peggy tipped up her head, enjoying the way her sweetheart’s eyes lingered on her face. “Saturday sounds wonderful, but don't you have that meeting with the president?”

“The president can reschedule,” decided Steve firmly, and kissed her again.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-one


Tony Stark refused to give the bride away.

“Nope,” he told Peggy when she asked him.  He was in his place on the couch, surrounded by various screens and tablets.  “Don’t think so.”

“Tony,” scolded Pepper as she came into the room, shocked at his rudeness, but Tony shook his head adamantly.  “Nuh-uh,” he repeated. “Not really my place.”  Something pinged on one of the screens, and he swiped it away before swinging himself to his feet, scattering his technology around him.  “Good timing though; great timing actually,” he finished, catching Peggy’s elbow and propelling her with him through the door.  

Peggy had to walk quickly to keep up with him.  She wasn't particularly disappointed - she had largely chosen to ask him because of her connection to his father, but she was curious. “Stark?  Are you afraid people will think I’m your illegitimate daughter or something?”

“Tony, call me Tony.  And no, I’m not, although yes, they probably would.”  He stopped short in the middle of the hall as he processed that.  “Oh, that’s depressing - you’re like a zillion years older than I am.”  Just as abruptly, he sped up again.  “On a not completely unrelated topic, I have a early wedding present for you.”  He pulled her into the elevator and hit the button for the fiftieth floor.  

“Shouldn’t we wait for Steve then?”  Peggy was confused.

Tony scratched his ear.  “Um, yeah, no.  I’ll get him something different; star spangled socks or something.  This is for you.”

The door opened, and he preceded her into the large, cozy waiting room, a spring in each step.  “Come on, come on.”  She followed him, but stopped short, arrested on the threshold at the sight of a tall, lean, slightly stooped figure, who was rising from his seat at her entrance, leaning heavily on his cane.  

“Miss Carter,” said Edwin Jarvis.

His mouth worked as he tried to say something else, but she flew across the floor toward him, throwing her arms around his narrow shoulders.  “Mr. Jarvis!”

Tony, uncomfortable with emotional scenes, bounced on his toes and fidgeted around the room, but he couldn't quite keep the smile off his face at the successful orchestration of his plan. He had rarely ever seen the reserved old retainer so happy.

Peggy finally pulled back, with a laugh that sounded suspiciously like a sob, trying to straighten his lapels.  “Oh, you poor dear - I’ve rumpled your jacket.  Here, sit down.”  

Jarvis’ eyes were very damp as he sank back onto the couch beside her.  “Believe me, Miss Carter,” his voice sounded the same as ever, just older and a little more frail.  “I would be willing to put up with considerably worse to see you again.”

Tony tried to slip out of the room, tactful for once in his life, but Peggy called after him.  “Thank you, Tony.”  Her eyes were very bright, and her smile trembled a little around the corners.  He flapped his hand, trying to act as if he wasn’t touched.  “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he called back as he made his escape, and tried to ignore the unusual glow of warmth around the place his arc reactor used to be.

He had intended for this reunion to be a surprise on both sides, but Pepper had firmly vetoed the idea.  She was not, she had said, about to have Jarvis drop dead from a heart attack the week of Peggy's wedding.  In fact, worried that Tony wouldn't break the news carefully enough, she had gone with him when he went to tell the old couple.


Twenty-four hours earlier, Tony had bounded unannounced into Jarvis’ front room. “You're invited to a wedding,” he declaimed cheerfully. Jarvis, picking up his book from where he had dropped it at Tony’s sudden entrance, raised his eyebrows.

“Congratulations, sir. May I ask when the happy union will take place?”

“Saturday,” Tony answered, flopping onto the couch opposite where Jarvis sat. “But it's not mine. Technically you're not actually invited though, because neither the bride or the groom know you're alive.”  Unable to sit still, he launched himself to his feet and prowled the room, laughing to himself. “It’s funny. One of them doesn't know you at all, and the other one doesn't know that you're alive, and you know that one of them is alive even though you don't know them, and you know the other one, but you think they're dead.”

Jarvis blinked. He had spent a lifetime serving the Stark family, but on occasion they still possessed the ability to baffle him. “Sir, I believe you are inebriated. Shall I telephone Miss Potts?”

“Miss Potts is here already, thank you Jarvis,” said Pepper, wearily stepping through the door that Tony had left open from his dramatic entrance. “And he actually isn't drunk - he just has some news to tell you that he should have brought up a long time ago.”  From the stress she laid on the last words, and the hard look she leveled at Stark, Jarvis guessed this was not a new topic of discussion.

“In my defense, I've been busy,” Tony hedged, rubbing his chest uncomfortably. “Doing things. Anyway, I sort of didn't tell you the whole truth the last time I came here.”

“I beg your pardon?”  Jarvis laid his book aside. There were obviously more important matters to concentrate on.

Tony managed to look unusually nervous and ridiculously pleased with himself at the same time. “Yeah, I said SHIELD found Peggy Carter, but I didn't tell you that she woke up when we thawed her out.”  It was a gross oversimplification, but when he opened his mouth to elaborate, Pepper stepped on his foot in warning and jerked her head toward the old man.

Jarvis was staring blankly at the corner of the room, fine old eyebrows gathered a little in confusion. At last he raised his eyes, and the look in them was almost heartbreaking.

“I - I'm afraid I don't quite understand,” he quavered, and he sounded like an old man for the first time that Tony could remember.

Pepper elbowed Tony out of the way with perhaps a little more force than was necessary, and knelt on the floor by Jarvis’s knees, covering his long, knobby hands with hers. She hadn't known the older man for anywhere near as long as Tony had, but the two of them got along well; they shared a kindred understanding of what it was like to take care of a Stark.

Slowly, methodically, she explained everything - Peggy, the Stark Tube, and the long period of uncertain waiting. The only thing she left out was the little matter of Steve’s blood; the Avengers had agreed not to let that information out for Peggy’s own protection. Halfway through her explanation, she felt the hands beneath hers begin to tremble. When she was done, Jarvis sat back heavily in his chair.

“You mean to say,” he started slowly, “that she's been up there all this time, locked into that tube at the top of the world?”

Pepper nodded, and he took a long, shaking breath, blinking his eyes rapidly.

“And she's all right?” he continued, shooting a sharp eye at Tony’s face. “She isn't - is she changed at all?”

Tony straightened to attention, incredibly relieved that Jarvis didn't sound so broken and old anymore. “Hasn't aged a day,” he promptly declared. “Not that I would know. That's why I'm here - to take you back with me to see for yourself.”

Jarvis’s fingers were still unsteady as he absently smoothed the front of his jacket, checking that it was properly buttoned. A sudden thought struck him, and a gleam came into his eyes. “Captain Rogers - does she know he’s alive?”

Pepper smiled widely, and Tony started bobbing up and down on his toes. “That's the wedding you're invited to. They're getting married on Saturday.”

“Well.” Jarvis pulled out a large white handkerchief, and blew his nose almost apologetically before folding it away.  For a moment he looked closely into the faces of his two young friends, and then reached for his cane. “I suppose I shall simply have to come. After all, someone needs to ensure that he is worthy of her.”

Tony sputtered. “Worthy?  He's Captain Stars and Stripes, the golden boy of the ‘40’s - of course he's worthy.”

Jarvis tilted his head a trifle dubiously. “He may be Captain America,” he conceded carefully, “but she is Miss Carter.  I’m not entirely convinced that anybody is her equal.”


Steve settled himself on the couch opposite Jarvis.  His hands felt too large for comfort, so he folded them between his knees, and looked up at the man across from him who was eyeing him imperturbably. Peggy had told him about Jarvis; he featured in many of her stories, but she had never told him quite how severe he could look.

“Captain Rogers,” Jarvis finally said, and his voice was very formal. “What are your intentions regarding Miss Carter?”

Steve Rogers had faced down bullies and Nazis and backstabbing allies, but none of them had ever made him feel this off-balance. Then again, none of them had ever asked him about his relationship with the woman who held his heart. He unclasped his hands, steadily meeting the other man’s eyes.

“We're getting married tomorrow.”

Even just saying the words sent a warm rush of joy to his heart. The thought that in a matter of hours he would be able to take her in his arms and call her his wife was nothing short of exhilarating. Steve suddenly realized he was smiling broadly, and tried to regain his composure.

Jarvis had been watching him closely. “And why do you want to marry her?”  From the happy, involuntary smile he had seen on the captain's face, he was pretty sure of the answer, but he had to ask.

Steve didn't even hesitate. “Because I love her,” he confessed, and there was a straightforwardness and a purpose in his eyes that Jarvis had seen in a hundred newsreels, back in the day. A little more slowly, he tried to explain. “I've tried living without her and it's a lonely road, believe me.  I trust her with my life, and she keeps my head on straight. She's my partner and my best girl and the strongest person I know, and I want to be with her for as long as I live.”

Satisfied, Jarvis settled his cane against his knee. He had never had the opportunity to meet Captain Rogers before, but both Howard and Peggy had held him in high esteem, and he was starting to realize they had not exaggerated the man’s qualities. “You should know,” he warned the captain anyway, “that Miss Carter is very important to me. She grieved deeply over your death. Should you hurt her again, I will have no choice but to demand satisfaction.”

Anyone else would have howled with laughter at the idea of a frail old man in his nineties threatening Captain America, but Steve never even thought of cracking a smile. “Understood,” he said resolutely, and they sealed the deal with a handshake.

“I wanted to thank you,” Steve told the other man afterwards, settling back onto the couch a little more comfortably. The atmosphere of subtle tension had relaxed, and he smiled the modest grin that had been immortalized in old films and photographs. “I know the years after the war weren't easy for her, and you were her closest friend.”

Jarvis pretended not to be incredibly flattered. “Yes, well - she has quite the persuasive way about her.”

“How did you meet Peggy, anyway?” Steve asked curiously. Jarvis immediately contrived to look completely innocent, though he fidgeted with his cane.

“She - ah, made a rather memorable impact,” he finally confessed. “Apparently she thought I was trying to kidnap her, so she hit me. Quite hard, actually.”

Steve’s shout of laughter carried across the entire floor of the tower, and Peggy gave up eavesdropping from the hallway with a huff. “He had it coming,” she snapped crisply, stepping briskly into the room. “Coming up on a girl in the dark like that; really, Mr. Jarvis.”

There was no bite in her voice though, and her eyes danced as she looked at Steve, who had risen to meet her. Jarvis watched the two of them together, and was content. Peggy looked happier than he had ever seen her, and he could tell from the look on the captain’s face that he would do all in his power to be worthy of her hand.

Perhaps Captain Rogers was her equal, after all. Jarvis decided he was willing to entertain the possibility.


“Did you get it all sorted?”

Steve started a little in surprise - he hadn't thought anybody else was awake. He had spent the last four hours fielding a phone call from Washington D.C. regarding a foreign official who refused to negotiate with U.S. representatives unless Captain America was present.

“Yeah.”  He sank onto the other end of the couch and watched Peggy as she flipped a page over the back of her clipboard, holding her pen in her teeth. “I listened to both sides, gave my opinion, and then told him I was sorry I couldn't come down in person, but that I was headed out of town on a vitally important assignment in the morning.  I don't think the diplomats were too pleased.”

Peggy laughed around her pen, almost dropping it. "You're so dramatic, Steve."

 

"Hey, it's the truth," he protested, grinning despite himself. "Marrying you is the biggest thing I've ever done, and I'm not about to miss it for a trip to Washington."

She smiled and bent studiously over her clipboard, hair pinned back out of the way, red nails gleaming as she carefully filled in another blank space in the paperwork. The lamplight was warm on her hair and face, and suddenly the artist in Steve desperately wanted to capture the moment.

“I'm not much good at making pretty speeches,” he admitted quietly. “I wish I could tell you just how nice you look right now.”

Peggy dimpled surprisingly, and he felt the weariness of the long day begin to dissolve as she threw him a laughing glance. “I suspect it's the sort of thing that has to be learned,” she mused. “Practice makes perfect and all that, you know.”

“Would you mind if I practiced on you?” he asked a little shyly, and she shook her head decidedly. “Not at all. I'm counting on it, Captain.”  Neatly inscribing her name on the last page, she looked down at it for a long moment, before flipping the papers back into place and setting them on the coffee table.

“That’s that, then. I'm off to get my beauty sleep,” she said, and rose. He got to his feet as well, looking down at her. Peggy suddenly stepped close, pulling his head down and kissing him briefly. It wasn't quite as cool or professional as she had intended, and they were both a little breathless when she pulled back out of his arms.

“There,” she said, stepping briskly around the table and starting up the stairs. “That's the last one.”

“Last one?” Steve repeated, dazed from the unexpected kiss. Peggy leaned over the railing, smiling mischievously down at him.

“That's the last kiss you'll ever get from Margaret Carter,” she told him. “Next time I kiss you, I'll have a different surname.”

She was beautiful, leaning down from above him, face glowing, demure and daring and strong. Something swelled fiercely inside his chest, and he could hardly breathe. They looked at one another for a long moment and then Steve drew himself up and saluted her, only half playfully. “Good night then, Agent Carter.”

“Good night, Captain Rogers.”


Peggy sensibly took herself off to bed, going through the familiar routine with her head in the clouds. Curling up beneath the blankets, she reached out and drifted her fingers across the edge of the framed picture beside her bed.

A week before, Clint had dropped a cardboard box into her lap. “Figured you might want this,” he had said without preamble. When she pressed him, he off-handedly explained he had just happened to run across it in a Smithsonian storage facility, and staunchly refused to accept her thanks. Peggy seriously doubted that he had gone through the proper channels to get the things, but since they were hers anyway, she didn't worry about it. There hadn't been much - a few books and papers, her birth certificate, and some photographs. At the bottom of the box she had found her picture of Steve - the one she had taken from his file after the war and kept as a remembrance.

It was too dark to see, but she traced his outline by heart, fingers slipping along the cool glass. By this time tomorrow, she would be Mrs. Steven Rogers. It was a ridiculously sentimental thought, but it was true, and she couldn't help beaming quietly in the darkness.

On the other side of the tower, Steve didn't even try to go to bed. The mattress was always too soft when he was worked up like this. Instead he rolled himself in a blanket and lay on the floor, his compass warm in his hand, excitement and gratitude throbbing through his veins.

Neither one got much sleep that night. Blue eyes and a tender smile danced behind Peggy’s eyelids, and every time Steve drifted off, it was to dream of Peggy Carter in white.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-two


Steve pushed the last button through the buttonhole and tugged at the hem of his WWII dress uniform jacket to straighten it.  He had flatly refused to wear the Captain America suit to his own wedding.  “That’s my work clothes,” he had tried to explain to Tony.  “Before I was an Avenger, I was a soldier for my country.  This is the uniform I signed up to wear.”

Tony didn’t get it.  Peggy had understood perfectly.  

Picking up his hat and shield, Steve took one more look in the mirror, trying to get his hair to lay flat before giving up and pulling his hat down firmly over it.  For a moment he looked at his reflection, taking a moment to slow down and actually process everything that was happening.

It was his wedding day. He took a long breath, and his reflection grinned back at him.

“Steve?”  It was Pepper - the click of her stilettoes was audible all the way down the hall.  “Are you almost ready?  The ceremony starts in forty-five minutes, so we should leave in ten.”  She was the maid of honor, and was capably managing everybody’s schedules.  It was thanks to her that this wedding had been thrown together at such short notice. If it had been left to Peggy or Steve, the whole affair would have been far smaller and more private.

When he opened the door, Pepper audibly caught her breath, staring.  Feeling suddenly awkward, Steve gave his uniform a quick once-over.  Everything looked all right as far as he could tell, but she was still looking strangely at him.  “Is this not okay?” he asked slowly.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Pepper snapped back to herself.  “I mean yes, it’s okay.  It's more than okay.  Wow.  You look really, really sharp.”  She stepped closer, brushing invisible dust off of his shoulders, hands fluttering over the rows of medals pinned to his chest.  “Oh, Steve, I’m so happy for you!”

He couldn’t wait any longer.  “How is she?”  

Pepper couldn’t help but laugh at the eager look on his face.  “She’s fine, very lovely, and she’s already at the church.  You ready to go?”

Sam Wilson was waiting in the parking garage, dressed to the hilt in his dress blues. He straightened to attention when Steve came out. The action was almost completely involuntary - he had never seen the captain in his military uniform before.

“Wow, man, looking good,” he teased. “Too many girls try to hit on you, just pass them on to me, will you?”

Steve’s face was bright, and he slapped his friend on the shoulder. “The only girl I'm after is the one I'm marrying,” he announced cheerfully. “If there are any others, you can have them.”

Pepper was talking to the chauffeur, so after a quick look around to make sure nobody was in earshot, Sam laid a hand on the captain's arm, sobering. “Hey, you sure you want me to do this?  We both know the guy that should be standing with you today. I don't want you asking me to take his place just because we couldn't find him in time.”

Steve set his shield in the back seat of the car before answering, choosing his words carefully. “I'm not gonna lie,” he finally admitted, looking up with serious eyes. “I always thought Bucky would be my best man, if I ever managed to live long enough to get married.  But he - he’s not himself,” Steve shrugged sadly, “and I can't get word to him.  I didn't ask you as a replacement though, Sam. I asked because you're my friend.”

Sam swallowed hard. Somehow it was ridiculously difficult for him to listen to Steve Rogers at his most earnest without getting his emotions touched. “Yeah, I guess that's a good enough reason,” he admitted. “I can live with that.”

Steve swung into the car, and Sam cleared his throat as he crossed around to the other side.  “Captain America’s best man,” he said to himself, and laughed a little incredulously, shaking his head.  “Wait until I tell the girl at the VA.”


No wedding in the history of the earth has ever gone off without a hitch.  This one was no exception.

The media showed up.

The area in front of the church was packed with cameras, since no members of the press were invited inside.  Some of the more ambitious newscasters were there with microphones, hoping to get interviews with people on the way in.  As the car pulled up, they pressed closer, calling questions through the glass.

Steve frowned, concerned. They had hoped to keep this out of the news, both for Peggy’s safety and that of the Avengers. The fewer potential angles for enemies to take advantage of, the better. Pepper growled and pulled out her phone. “If Tony thinks he can turn this into a media circus…” She left the threat unfinished, which didn't bode well for Iron Man at all.

Thor was waiting for them at the curb, and took it upon himself to get Pepper, Sam and Steve into the building without undue harassment.  He pulled it off surprisingly well, centuries of diplomatic experience coming to the fore as he deftly steered them around the news cameras.  Most of the media representatives drew back when they saw him, allowing him to pass.  Not only was Thor intimidatingly large and dressed in his full Asgardian regalia, but he had been known to fry electronic equipment when sufficiently annoyed.

Tony met them at the door of the church and pulled them in. “I swear it wasn't me,” he told Pepper in a rush, throwing his hands up before she could get a word in edgewise. “Well, maybe indirectly, but not on purpose.”  He put on a dazzling smile, waving at the cameras outside before swinging the door closed.

“What happened?” Pepper asked very flatly. Tony tried to look innocent and almost succeeded.

“Somebody may or may not have seen the suit come in,” he confessed. “And Thunder Boy here isn't exactly inconspicuous.”

There was one good thing in all the mess. While the media been attracted by the unexpected appearance of two of the Avengers, they didn't so much as know of Peggy’s existence. Pepper groaned internally as she realized her arrival with Steve in full uniform wouldn't help at all - the tabloids would be full of this tomorrow. She could see the headlines now: Secret Wedding of Iron Man and CEO Potts. Or perhaps she would be paired with Steve this time.

“Well, we can't hold a wedding with them all outside,” she decisively stated, talking over Tony as he kept explaining. “We’ll never be able to get Steve and Peggy out afterwards. Sam, be a dear and get them to go away.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait - me?” Sam asked, startled. Steve smothered a grin at his friend’s discomfiture.

Tony protested too. “‘Sam be a dear?’  Why not me?  I can be a dear.  I'm very good at being a dear.”

“Yes, but you're also good at attracting the media, and right now we need them to go away,” said Pepper shortly, though she finally relented. “Fine, you boys work out something to get them to leave. No, Tony, you may not pull out the suit unless it’s a last resort.  I'll finish getting the bride ready.”

Peggy was in the little antechamber just off the main church entrance, putting the last touches to her hair.  Pepper took a moment to admire the pretty picture before she lifted the veil off the back of a chair and stepped briskly around to where her friend sat in front of the mirror.  "Here, let me get this on for you."

Carefully pinning the veil into place, Pepper spread out the filmy lengths, sparkling like frost over the dark curls.  "You're the loveliest bride I've ever seen," she told Peggy, and then stopped short as she caught sight of the other woman's face in the mirror.  

"Why Peggy," she murmured softly, fingers pausing their busy work.  "Are you all right?"

Tears were shining in the bride's eyes as she looked at herself in the mirror.  

"I can hardly believe this is real,” she whispered very softly.  “I wish - there are so many people I wish could be here.”  She didn’t go on, but Pepper understood and her heart melted.

"My dear," she crooned as she sat next to Peggy on the bench and wrapped her arms around the other woman’s shoulders.  "I know it isn't any comfort, but there are a lot of other people out there who are happy for you."

Peggy laughed shakily despite her wet eyes, and Pepper felt something relax in the agent’s spine.  "I know.  It’s all so much like a dream."

"Well, I should think so.  You're going to marry one of the best men I know, and live happily ever after with a guy who's ridiculously, completely, head-over-heels in love with you."  Pepper hugged her friend and laughed softly at Peggy's blush when she thought of her promised husband.

“Steve’s here, then?” asked Peggy, and Pepper nodded against her friend’s shoulder before pulling away.

“He is, and we’d better hurry if we don't want you to be late for your own wedding.”

Peggy dimpled at that. “I’d never hear the end of it if I was,” she admitted, and quietly folded her wistful thoughts away. Yes, there were many people she would have liked present today - her parents, her brother, the Commandos, Colonel Phillips - but Steve was here, and only a few short months ago that had been more than she ever could have thought possible.


The media finally departed, but it wasn’t Tony who managed to get them to leave.  A taxi pulled up to the curb, carrying a tiny old woman and a deceptively mild-looking man in glasses and a wrinkled tie.  The media representatives stared at him, wide-eyed, as he climbed out of the car. Apparently quite a few of them recognized him from the leaked SHIELD files, and the ones who didn't were quickly enlightened by their neighbors.

Bruce Banner looked at them, and then sighed and rubbed his face. “Please leave,” he said quietly. “I really don't like cameras.”  

Thor, standing at the door of the church, shifted his hammer in his hand and thunder rolled across the clear blue sky. Catching a cameraman’s eye, he nodded warningly.

Ten minutes later, there had not been a single reporter or camera left within a three-block radius. It seemed none of the news outlets were willing to risk triggering a Hulk rampage over a little gossip.  Bruce raised his eyebrows, and then opened the trunk of the taxi to pull out a collapsible wheelchair.

“Amazing what they’ll do if you say ‘please,’” he commented dryly to himself, and stepped around the car to help the little old lady out.


By the time Tony came in to check on them at five minutes to the hour, both women were almost ready.  Pepper was on her knees, fussing with something on the side of Peggy’s dress, so she didn’t see the brief flash of unguarded affection in Tony’s face when he looked down at her.  Peggy saw it though, and wondered privately if there would be another wedding soon.

The moment passed, and Tony whistled loudly in admiration.  Pepper threw a hairbrush at him without looking; her aim was good enough that he had to dodge.  “Wow, it’s dangerous in here.  You girls about ready?  Our soldier buddies are headed for the front.”

Pepper scrambled to her feet, doing a last-minute check of all the details.  Peggy smiled warmly at her friend and took a long, steadying breath.  “I’m ready.”  

Heart very full, Pepper pulled the bride into a quick hug.  “Congratulations,” she whispered.  “I’m so very, very happy for you.”

"Yeah, happy," Tony agreed, slipping his sunglasses on.  As Peggy stepped up to him, he hugged her briefly and whispered in her ear.  "Just so we're clear, you break his heart, I'll dye your hair blue or something."  The threat had no real venom behind it, and he grinned at her amusement before stepping back and letting her pass.

Jarvis was just outside the door, immaculate as always, ready to take the bride’s arm.  He struggled to his feet when she came out, leaning heavily on his cane and staring wordlessly for a moment.  “Miss Carter,” he breathed, “you look like an angel.”  

“Oh, hardly an angel, Mr. Jarvis,” Peggy demurred, but couldn’t help smiling at her oldest friend.  Then a voice from further down the passageway made her pause and turn, scarcely believing her ears.

“He’s quite right though.”

Banner was pushing a wheelchair towards them both.  It took Peggy a moment to recognize the tiny old woman with snow-white hair, bent with age, half her face sagging slightly, though her lipstick was as bright as ever.  Then tears of joy filled the bride’s eyes, and she went to her knees beside the wheelchair, heedless of what it might do to her dress.

“Ana!”

Ana Jarvis only had the full use of one arm, but she hugged Peggy as tightly as ever - and for once, Peggy didn’t protest.  When they finally separated, Ana took her by the chin and scanned her face with great consideration.

“Well,” she said, accent still as quaint as ever, though a bit slurred.  Good humor sparkled teasingly in her eyes.  “You haven’t changed a bit.  It is all very unfair, but I suppose you must have your happy ending too.”

Peggy laughed shakily, and threw a look to Banner that held all her thanks.  This was exactly the sort of kind, thoughtful thing he would do.  “I didn’t think you could come.  Mr. Jarvis said you weren’t well.”

“And you thought that would stop me?”  Ana’s smile was bright, almost mischievous.  Then she let go of Peggy and patted around the folds of the afghan over her knees until she found what she was looking for.  

“Here,” she said, and pressed something soft into Peggy’s hand.  Looking down, Peggy saw it was a handkerchief, yellowed with age, and bordered with what could only be handmade lace. Surprised, curious, she looked back up at her friend, who was regarding her tenderly.  

“It is the one thing,” said Ana very quietly, “that I was able to take away from my home.  My mother and grandmother carried it at their weddings, and I carried it at mine - and now it is yours.  I would wish no one else to have it.”  She paused, and then reached to pull Peggy close again, pressing a kiss to her forehead.  “Mazel tov, ” she whispered.  “May you find as much joy in your life together as Edwin and I have had in ours.”

Peggy dabbed at her eyes when she pulled away at last, holding the precious handkerchief carefully.  There were no words - the gesture touched her more deeply than she could say.  Nodding at them both, Banner wheeled Ana Jarvis back out into the church, and Peggy watched them go.  Then she turned to Jarvis and clasped both his old, trembling hands in hers, still youthful and strong.  

“Thank you, Mr. Jarvis - for everything,” she whispered fervently.  

He pulled her hand through his arm, and straightened his spine as far as he could.  “It has been an honour, Miss Carter.”

So it was that on Peggy Carter’s wedding day, Edwin Jarvis prepared to walk her down the aisle, his old heart nearly bursting with gratitude.  

There were no bridesmaids; Natasha had turned down the invitation in lieu of sitting in the choir loft with her gun at the ready.  Settling the muzzle on the railing, the Black Widow industriously scanned the church for the hundredth time.  Nobody would spoil this wedding, not if she had anything to say about it.  Clint was somewhere among the organ pipes with his bow, for the same reason.

Tony and Thor were settled into the front row to watch the ceremony, along with Jane Foster who had flown out from London for the occasion. On one end of the long pew, Bruce Banner positioned Ana’s wheelchair and sat beside her.  Nick Fury had slipped into the building just a few minutes before, taking a seat in the back row.  He hadn't exactly been invited, but nobody asked him to leave.  After all, he had started the Avengers Initiative - they were all indebted to him.

Narrowing her eyes, Natasha took a closer look at a too-inconspicuous man sitting in the most shadowed corner, and almost smiled, shaking her head fondly. The disguise wasn't nearly good enough to fool her. She should have known the agent would go to any lengths to see his hero get married, although most people would have considered coming back from his own death to be a little extreme. Still, she supposed nothing could surprise her anymore.   


Steve was nervous.  It was ridiculous but true - he was terrified that something would go wrong.   His shield was half-hidden behind a floral arrangement, close to hand in case of need. He also knew for a fact that Sam had a gun under his jacket, Thor had Mjolnir at his belt, and Tony had stashed no less than three suits behind various pillars, on the off-chance that anything got past Natasha and Clint.  

Sam, standing just behind the captain, was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Deep breaths, Cap,” he whispered out the corner of his mouth, and Steve tried to slow his hammering pulse. He was checking that he had the ring for the hundredth time when the organ began to play and a rustle through the building announced the entrance of the bride.  He looked up toward the doors - and forgot how to breathe.

She was radiant.

Her dress was white, and there was some kind of veil on her head, but it was the expression on her face that arrested his attention, full of trust and hope and love so deep that it took his breath away.  In all the world, there was nothing else but her.  She smiled at him across the church, and his heart flipped in his chest.

It had been his dearest dream for a very long time; Peggy Carter coming to him, dressed in white, but the reality was far, far more wonderful than anything he had ever imagined.

Peggy, meeting Steve's eyes from her place on Jarvis’s arm, found that any lingering wistfulness was suddenly swept away before his happy, awed expression. He looked so fine in his uniform; she was pleased that he had chosen to wear it. Looking into his blue eyes, she couldn't help smiling breathlessly. He was the right partner - she had never felt more sure of anything in her life.

Jarvis pressed Peggy's hand a little closer in the crook of his arm, deeply gratified at the thought that he could do this service for her on her wedding day.  He alone of all the guests and friends present, had seen firsthand a little of the sorrow and struggles Peggy had gone through after Steve’s presumed death.  He had seen her - lonely, unappreciated, aching with a loss she could not openly grieve - and his heart had broken for her.  Seventy years earlier, he made a promise to himself that he would stand by her and be a friend when all else were gone.  

Reaching the front of the church, Jarvis straightened himself nearly to his former height as he placed Peggy’s hand in the hand of her husband-to-be.  For a moment, he held onto both of them, meeting Steve's eyes, silently passing on his trust.  Steve nodded, wordlessly accepting the responsibility, and Jarvis stepped back.

Today, his duty was done, passed over to the man she was about to marry, the man she had loved faithfully for all those years.  For the briefest of moments, Jarvis wondered if perhaps this was the reason he had lived so long.  From her place behind the bride, Pepper dabbed surreptitiously at her eyes with a tissue, and gave him a watery smile.  Then Dr. Banner was at his elbow, helping the old man back to the pew where he could sit and watch the rest of the proceedings.  

Beside him, Ana reached out over the arm of the wheelchair with her good hand, and Jarvis gently laced his blue-veined, knobby old fingers between hers.  With a shock of mild surprise, he realized yet again that somehow or other, they’d grown old.  Looking across at his beloved wife, he felt his heart warm with deep affection.  He couldn’t wish for anything better for Miss Carter and her future husband than what he and his wife had found in their long life together.

Up at the front of the church, Steve held Peggy’s hand as if it was the most precious thing he had ever touched, and neither of them could help smiling as their eyes met.  He had no words, struck dumb by her beauty and the wonder of the occasion.  His adoration left her breathless and blushing, and she pursed her lips, trying to regain her composure as they faced the preacher.  

The ceremony wasn’t long, but for the rest of their lives Steve and Peggy would remember the vows of mutual love, respect and faithfulness they took before God and man that day.  Steve’s hands were very steady, very strong as he slipped the wedding ring onto her finger, and there was a solemn sort of incredible joy in his face that Peggy could feel mirrored in her own.

“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the preacher finally said, looking down at the couple standing before him.  Over half a century had passed since they had met and fallen in love, and each had surmounted the most impossible obstacles to reach this culminating moment.  “You may kiss the bride.”

"Mrs. Rogers," Steve whispered, and Peggy’s dark eyes shone back with infinite promise as she met his gaze.

"Stop talking and kiss me, Captain," she ordered softly.  His hand was warm on her waist and he grinned irrepressibly as he reached up to cup her face.  Tangling her fingers in his lapels, Peggy pulled him closer, and the heady scent of the roses in her bouquet hung in the air around them both.

"Yes, ma'am," Steve answered with a twinkle in his eye, and kissed his wife quite thoroughly as the organ music lifted and swelled triumphantly through the church.


 

Chapter Text

Epilogue


Peggy woke up slowly, and for a moment wasn’t entirely certain where she was.  Then she felt her new husband’s arms around her and smiled, remembering. One large hand slowly traced a path up and down her back, rumpling the silky fabric of her nightgown.  The room was dark, although moonlight spilled in through the curtains; she guessed there must still be a few hours left before morning.

“Are you still awake?” she murmured sleepily, and his hand paused.  When he answered, his voice was almost sheepish.  “Yeah.  Did I wake you up?”

Tipping her head back, she tried to look at his face through the darkness, snuggling a little closer.  “You should be sleeping.  I'll still be here in the morning, you know.”

Steve’s hand came up to reverently touch her curls, and she wondered for the thousandth time exactly how well he could see in the dark.  “I know.  It’s just that you - us - this - it’s incredible, Peggy.  I don’t want to miss a minute of it.”

Peggy reached to cradle his cheek, the angle of his jaw prickly and warm beneath her palm.  She kissed him, soft and sweet and slow, because he was her husband and she could. Steve tightened his arms around her, cherishing their new, tender intimacy, dizzy with the freedom of it.

“How’d I get so lucky?” he asked a little breathlessly when she pulled back, and her sleepy laugh made his heart leap.  Then she nestled close, tucking her head under his chin with a contented sigh.  

“Peggy?” Steve whispered after a minute.

“Mmm?”

“I love you.”

He sounded so adorably bashful that Peggy melted, and gave up on the idea of sleep altogether.  “I love you too, my darling,” she told him softly, “so very much.”  

With a rush of joy, Steve gathered her more securely against his heart, and she slipped her arms around his neck, unbelievable happiness trembling in every tender touch.  


The next morning, eating a very late breakfast in the hotel dining room overlooking Niagara Falls, Peggy laughed until she cried at the picture Pepper had sent her.  

Steve looked up inquiringly, a smile spreading across his face in response to her amusement. Not that he needed much of an incentive to smile; he had been beaming ever since waking up to her soft weight in his arms and a vision of tumbled curls and warm brown eyes that fluttered open under his gaze.  Watching his wife wake up, Steve had immediately decided, was the very best possible way to start a morning.

He scooted his chair closer to hers and boldly slipped his arm around her waist.  With a glance up at his face, she leaned back comfortably against him, holding the screen so he could see it.  Distracted by her nearness, it took him a minute before he could focus on it, but then he chuckled until heads turned at nearby tables.  

The photo was of Steve and Peggy descending the steps behind the church with the rest of the Avengers grouped around them.  That part was all very conventional, but everything else about the picture was pure chaos. Pepper had decided to reinstate an old tradition that would be familiar to the bride and groom, and it had backfired slightly.

Thor, hands scooped together, had been caught throwing a jet of rice straight into Bruce’s surprised face.  Apparently nobody had remembered to tell him that the rice was supposed to be tossed at the bride and groom.  Natasha too, was breaking tradition, sneaking up on Sam with the evident intention of dumping a handful of rice straight down his back.  All the rest paled, however, in comparison with Clint and Tony.  For them, the traditional wedding farewell had turned into a personal free-for-all.  Tony had both hands full of rice, doing some kind of dramatic I-am-Iron-Man pose as he prepared to fling it in every direction imaginable while Clint, caught mid-leap, was directing a well aimed double-fisted barrage straight at the bride and groom.  

Steve had his shield raised, deflecting as much of the rice storm as he could, and Peggy hung onto his other arm, pressing close to him as she ducked beneath its shelter.  Somehow Pepper had captured the adoring, wonderful way Steve was looking at his wife, and the tender answer in her eyes as she smiled up at him.  

“I think I'll be finding rice in my clothes for weeks," he commented wryly as she set the screen down.  Peggy pursed her mouth, trying not to laugh again as she remembered the ridiculous amount of rice that had ended up in her hair and Steve’s shoes.  The floor of their room upstairs was speckled with it despite all their efforts to keep it neat.

"So what do you suppose will happen next?” she suddenly asked, looking up at him.  "I mean, now that we’re married and all."

Her face was close to his, and he very much wanted to kiss her, but they were in the middle of a public place and he wasn't quite certain how she would feel about that. Tearing his eyes away, Steve took her hand in his and tipped it back and forth so the jewel on her finger flashed in the light.  

“I don’t know what’s ahead,” he told her honestly, gently tracing the edge of her wedding ring with his thumb before looking back at his wife.  “But whatever it is, I'm pretty sure we can weather it together. I've found the right partner, and I plan on sticking with her for life."  

Peggy's face was shining, gloriously happy and proud, and suddenly Steve’s heart overflowed with gratitude for this second chance that they had been given.  Grinning boyishly, he pulled her closer, and she curled her fingers possessively around the front of his shirt.  The look in her eyes made everything else fly out of his head as he clumsily tried to put into words the breathtakingly sweet things that he only dared whisper, ever mindful of the other patrons around them.

She didn’t let him get very far, public place and curious onlookers notwithstanding.

After that, Peggy had to borrow his handkerchief to wipe her lipstick off his mouth again, though they were both smiling so broadly that it was almost impossible.  Their love was warm and strong and true, and together they thrilled at the wonderful hope of their new life, stretching out before them as far as they could see.


THE END