3. I'll Be Seeing You
Peggy and her psychiatrist reached a tentative détente: Steve was allowed to visit twice a week, two hours at a time, as long as it didn’t interfere with her treatment schedule or “cause too much trouble.” Exactly what variety of trouble the doctor expected a celebrated war hero to cause wasn’t made precisely clear, and Peggy sensed that this was not the hill to die on.
Truth be told, the discussions with the doctor were helpful in keeping her grounded; she’d had moments, in the hours and days after Steve’s first visit, when she’d wondered whether their entire meeting were simply a delusion, a sign that she had fully and irrevocably lost her already tenuous grip on her sanity.
As per the new arrangement, Steve returned bright and early Wednesday morning. His hair was windblown, his tie slightly askew, and he had an imposing stack of books tucked under his arm, giving the overall impression of a very large, very wayward schoolboy. There were dark spots of rain on the shoulders of his uniform jacket—a startling reminder of how long it had been since she’d been outdoors.
“Nice digs,” he pronounced, taking in the entire room with a quick, cursory glance. Then, rather unnecessarily: “Brought you some books.”
“Did you really? I hadn’t noticed.” She’d been aiming for a playfully innocent tone, but overshot the mark right into wide-eyed simpering.
“Mm-hmm.” He removed his jacket and carefully, almost ceremonially, folded it over her chair.
He sat next to her on the tiny bed, knees at an acute angle, and gave a concise, thoughtful summary of each book as he handed it to her. There were history books, philosophy books, books on modern political thought, books on popular culture, and books whose subjects were unclear.
Peggy perched, the books stacked between them, and listened. He moved and spoke with such compelling certainty; he seemed at ease in this new world, in a way he never quite had in the old one. Steve Rogers, it seemed, had been a man ahead of his time.
“It’s awfully decent of you to bring so many,” she told him, once he’d completed his review of the last volume in the collection. “I can’t thank you enough.” (The base, treacherous part of her mind had a few suggestions about how this might be accomplished, which she resolutely ignored.)
He ducked his head modestly, peeking at her through lashes that were even thicker than she remembered. “Happy to help.”
“I hope you won’t miss them too terribly?”
He smiled. “Plenty more where these came from.”
She’d forgotten how much he liked to read; there had been a running joke among the boys in his unit, something about there being no room under his new battle suit to smuggle books.
He explained about the SHIELD cultural immersion program he’d had to complete before they’d let him resume active duty. It was meant for defectors and the like (which, of course, it would be; how many people could there possibly be in Steve’s unique circumstances?) but they’d admitted him just the same, and the experience had been beneficial. He’d spent a couple of months in training, and then a semester of study at CUNY. “My grades were lousy,” he confided.
Peggy was perusing the back cover of a slightly rippled blue paperback with the bewildering title of Voltaire’s Bastards. “Tony Stark claims you never swear,” she mused, tapping the book with her fingernail.
Steve shook his head, smiling indulgently. “Tony Stark doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
“I don’t know whether he told you about what I said when I heard you were alive? I quite shocked him.”
“People around here are under the impression that this generation invented swearing. Along with reefer and dirty pictures.”
“I wish they had,” she declared. “You have no idea how many French postcards I confiscated during basic training alone.”
Steve’s gaze flicked up to the ceiling, then to the wall behind her. He looked so decidedly culpable that she almost laughed. Instead, she kept a very straight face and watched him pointedly, until finally he cleared his throat, indicated the book in her hands and said, “Yeah, so. Let me know what you think.”
She nodded, not wanting to speak for fear of betraying her amusement. In some ways, he really hadn’t changed. She thought about reaching out, trying to tame his hair a little, but couldn’t quite summon the nerve.
“Hey,” he said softly, tapping a square of peach-coloured adhesive plastic on her forearm. “You mind telling me how this happened?” There was an undertone of concern in his voice. That damned razor, she thought.
“It’s not a plaster. It’s…” What had the doctor called it? “…medication, to stop me smoking.”
He nodded, looking relieved. “Nicotine patch.”
She touched a finger to her nose. “Got it in one.”
“Yeah, that’s good. Smoking… it isn’t good for you.”
“Oh, believe me, I’ve been made well aware. I have a crack squad of medical professionals here dedicated to keeping me alive, seemingly indefinitely. Regardless of my feelings on the matter.”
It was meant to be a joke, but Steve didn’t laugh.
“It was rather a frightful habit, I suppose,” she continued hurriedly. She wished that she could take back the comment, or that she put her hand up to his face and smooth away the worried little wrinkle in his brow.
“But you miss it.”
“Do you know, I do? It steadied the nerves. It was a way of keeping the time. And it gave one something to do with one’s… ” Her voice broke before she could quite get the last word out. Wretchedly, she locked her hands together in her lap.
Steve reached over and covered both of her hands with his large one, the warmth of his skin seeping into hers.
They stayed just like that, not moving, not speaking again, until an orderly knocked on the door.
Later that night, after waking from a dream in which Steve’s hands featured prominently, she resented the cameras more than ever.
Like the other patients at the SHIELD recovery centre, Peggy’s personalized schedule included physical therapy. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, she was to use the gymnasium on her floor to work on rebuilding what she’d lost during her long sleep.
Peggy loathed the gymnasium. It wasn’t that she disliked exercise—quite the contrary—but doing it in this strange, sterile environment, surrounded by machines instead of people, made her feel quite depersonalized (a word she’d learned from her dreadful psychiatrist). And the whole endeavour struck her as rather silly. Who on earth would choose to ride a stationary bicycle when they could ride a real one and actually get somewhere?
When she arrived at her usual time, there was a man occupying one of the machines. He was lying down, pushing a relatively small amount of weight with one of his legs, gritting his teeth with the effort. He glanced up as she entered the room.
“Pardon me,” she said, checking her watch. She wondered whether she ought to go back to her room and look at her schedule again.
He swung his legs around and sat up, remarkably quickly. “Hey,” he said, wiping his face with a towel. “My new gym buddy. What are you in for?”
She gave him a blank stare.
“How did you hurt yourself?” He passed the towel quickly over his brow and brush cut before tossing it on the floor beside the machine. He had a canny sort of face, and clear grey eyes that followed her as she crossed the room to the treadmill.
“Oh, I’m not…” She wasn’t sure how much to explain, or whether she ought to explain at all.
He nodded. “Classified?”
“Yes,” she said, taking the easy out. She arranged her water bottle and her towel around her and pressed the buttons that started her usual routine. “And you?”
His eyes darkened, and he looked at her guardedly for a long moment. “You must be new,” he said finally.
If only you knew, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Hm. Rather.”
“I tore the shit out of my ACL,” he said, turning to lie on his back again.
Peggy nodded as though she knew what that meant.
“My knee. I had knee surgery.”
Which explained the ludicrously small amount of weight he was using. “Yes, of course.”
“Where’re you from?” he asked, the same way everyone asked the moment she said more than a couple of words—as though they weren’t really invested in any answer other than ‘not here.’
“Yeah. Where, though?” he persisted, pushing his weights again, slowly and steadily.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
“And I suppose you’re an expert?” she retorted, before it crossed her mind that he actually might be. SHIELD employed all kinds of specialists, although the fellow’s formidable arms suggested he probably wasn’t a dialectician.
“No,” he grunted. “It was just an observation.”
“Where are you from, then?”
He tipped his head back and grinned at her, upside down. “Nowhere.”
“Are you a friend?”
“A friend of whom?”
“Okay,” he said, even though she hadn’t really answered his question. Peggy felt, not for the first time, as though she’d stepped through the looking-glass. She wondered whether anything in this strange place would ever make sense to her.
She decided it was best if she didn’t speak to him again.
By the time Steve’s next visit rolled around, Peggy was ready to attempt solid food, so he gallantly offered to escort her on her first outing to the main floor cafeteria. It was also her first glimpse of the larger SHIELD campus that existed beyond the medical wing, and she realized that she’d underestimated the sheer vastness of the facility.
The cafeteria was busy, but not crowded. They stood in line surrounded by all manner of people—Peggy couldn’t even begin to guess at what they all did, as all of their clothing looked so very strange. The snippets of conversation she was able to make out were peppered with unfamiliar words and phrases; even when she was quite certain that it was English they were speaking, the way they spoke seemed so very affected.
Steve loaded his tray with everything in sight: roast beef, green beans, broccoli, a mountain of mashed potatoes, sticky orange noodles. Cake and pie for dessert. Apparently his legendary appetite hadn’t lessened with the passage of time.
Peggy selected whatever looked most familiar: a cold ham sandwich, a bowl of vegetable soup, a rippling wedge of green jelly topped with a dollop of cream.
The cream turned out to be synthetic and the soup far too salty. The sandwich was fine, if a bit bland, the bread marshmallow-soft.
They were deep in discussion of the books Steve had loaned her when a young woman approached their table. She was absolutely stunning, with the fresh face of an ingenue and a sleek coppery bob just slightly too red to be natural, and she moved with a fluid sort of grace.
The stranger placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, purring, “Nice uniform.” Her voice was low and smoky.
Peggy expected him to blush and stammer, as he usually did when a pretty girl paid him some attention. Steve, however, did neither, merely tipping his head back and smiling up at her. “Thanks.”
It was then that Peggy noticed: Steve was the only person in the room in identifiably military dress. This wasn’t what he normally wore, she realized. He was doing it to humour her. She wondered whether it was something her doctor had recommended—or, worse still, something he and Steve had decided on together.
Peggy had never put much stock in the power of prayer, but in that moment she actually, honestly prayed for a cigarette.
“How’s it going?” Steve was asking the girl, who shrugged eloquently. “That good?” he teased. Then, seized by a belated attack of courtesy, he made introductions: “Natasha, this is my friend, Peggy Carter. Peggy, this is Natasha, one of my colleagues.”
Peggy raised an eyebrow. Apparently, Natasha either did not possess or did not merit a surname.
The two women exchanged appraising looks: Natasha wore a sleek, skin-tight version of the standard SHIELD uniform, and Peggy felt suddenly self-conscious in her outmoded skirt and ratty jumper. Nevertheless, she said, “Lovely to meet you,” in as cordial a tone as she could muster, and offered her hand. Like the rest of her, Natasha’s fingers were small, slender, and ice-cold.
“Yes. I’ve heard a lot about you,” replied the other woman.
“How odd. I haven’t heard anything at all about you,” said Peggy, somewhat cattily.
Rather than responding in kind, Natasha simply nodded and said, “Enjoy your lunch.” She petted Steve’s shoulder a final time and sashayed off.
Peggy affected an air of disinterest and remarked, “She seems very nice.” The truth was, she had seemed nothing of the sort; Peggy had found her to be rather off-putting.
Steve popped in a mouthful of food, and bobbed his head enthusiastically as he chewed and swallowed. “Oh, yeah. She’s great.”
“Have you worked together long?”
“A little while. She was assigned to brief me when I first started working with SHIELD.” Seemingly as an aside, he added, “We dated for a bit.”
Peggy paused with her fork midway to her mouth, thinking she must have either misheard or misunderstood. “Pardon?”
“Natasha and I used to go out together,” he repeated, more slowly, and she observed that the tips of his ears had gone pink.
So, not a misunderstanding, then.
“I see,” Peggy replied. She set the fork down carefully, uncertain of where to look or what to do next. There was absolutely no reason why this ought to bother her, she told herself sternly. It wasn’t as though the two of them had made binding promises to one another—they’d kissed, once, and barely that. She saw that moment in her mind as Steve must see it: a curiosity, an artifact belonging to another life.
Steve asked, “Did you ever—was there anyone special? After the war?”
She toyed with the idea of telling him about Howard… but what was there to tell, really? She shook her head, feeling a bit surreal.
“Oh,” he said, a little too loudly.
Peggy didn’t really want to know the answer, but she thought she’d better get it over with: “Do you… I mean to say, are you seeing anyone now?”
“No. Are you?”
“Don’t be asinine,” she snapped. “I’ve been in hospital this entire time, I don’t know anyone here, who on earth would I—” She paused when she saw him struggling to keep a straight face. “You’re having me on,” she surmised, blushing angrily.
“But you do think I’m being silly, is that it?”
“I think we’re both doing a lot of talking to avoid saying what we really want to say.”
“I missed you,” he said simply.
She nodded, and tried not to show her disappointment—yes, of course she’d missed him, but there was so much more to it than that.
But it was different for Steve. He had a home, friends, work, things that tied him to this time. All she really had was him.
Peggy steeled herself. She had never been completely dependent on a man—any man—and she certainly wasn’t about to start now.
“When I come back on Friday,” he continued, “we should go out. Do you mind if I ask your doctor about it?”
“I suppose you could,” she said, offhandedly, as though the whole endeavour were of absolutely no consequence. With an acerbic little smirk, she added, “We’ll wear our own clothes, for a change, shall we?”
Steve appeared startled by her change of tone, but said, “Sure.”
She felt a sharp twist of remorse in her stomach. It wasn’t fair to punish Steve for her predicament, she reflected—not when her own stubbornness had propelled her here in the first place.
“I’m starting to sound like my horrid psychiatrist,” she told him, honestly contrite. “What I mean to say is, please wear whatever you like. Whatever you would usually wear.”
With a slow, sidelong smile, he asked, “What, you don’t like my Class As? Got my fruit salad on and everything…” He gestured to the array of ribbons and medals pinned to his jacket.
“Are you here to visit me in a professional capacity?”
“Well, then,” she said crisply, thereby pronouncing the matter settled. “Where do you think we ought to go on our outing?”
“Central Park? I was thinking a picnic, if the weather’s nice.”
“Do you mean you can’t simply order it to be sunny? You know, between that, the lack of flying cars, and the food I’ve just eaten, I must say I’m rather disappointed in this future of yours.”
“I don’t think cafeteria food was ever that good,” he countered, with a patient smile. “We just complained about it less.”
“If you can promise me a decent meal on this picnic, then by all means, let’s.”“Okay,” he said. “Friday. It’s a date.”