Rating: PG-13 (for now)
Pairings/Characters: Peggy Carter/Steve Rogers, plus other pairings less central to the story
Spoilers: Captain America, The Avengers
Word Count: still ridiculous
Summary: Peggy Carter is frozen in 1946 and awakened by SHIELD in 2012.
4. A String of Pearls
“I need new clothes,” Peggy announced.
Tony Stark was sprawled across her cot, flipping aimlessly through a dense tome about the Cold War. He couldn’t even be bothered to remove his shoes. “Sure. Yeah. I can make that happen,” he said, in a tone that made it quite clear he wasn’t paying attention.
She surveyed him critically. “Can you?” she asked, dubious. After all, the man was perpetually dishevelled, and was at this very moment wearing sunglasses indoors. “Are you now a couturier, in addition to your other accomplishments?”
He lifted his head and appeared, finally, to be listening to the conversation they were having. “Did you just call me something dirty in French?”
“Feet off the bed,” she ordered, in the clipped tones she had traditionally reserved for training new recruits.
He sat up automatically, tossing the book aside in a manner that suggested he didn’t particularly care where it landed. She wondered whether his inveterate carelessness, like that of his father, extended to other people’s hearts as well as their possessions.
“New clothes,” he echoed.
“Yes. Clothes, shoes, makeup. Where does one even begin?”
He appeared nonplussed for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Pepper,” he declared, jabbing an emphatic index finger in Peggy’s direction.
“I assume you’re referring to a person of some sort.”
He nodded. “She’s my—associate.”
Peggy made no comment, but couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at his word choice.
“And she’s a fashion junkie. I’ll get her to come and take you on a shopping tour of Manhattan.”
Peggy wasn’t keen on the idea. Her past experience with so-called women of fashion—particularly the ones who attached themselves to men called Stark—had shown them to be vain, empty-headed creatures. “Isn’t Manhattan supposed to be rather expensive?” she hedged.
“I’ll give her my credit card,” Tony assured her. “Sky’s the limit. Go nuts.”
Peggy could feel her cheeks warming. “I didn’t mean you should…”
Tony flicked his hand dismissively—a gesture she’d seen Howard make a hundred times over, whenever she’d offered to pay for her own meals or drinks or cigarettes. “Just let Pepper take care of everything. She knows a lot about this stuff. And she’s pretty sharp. You’ll love her.”
It was obvious that someone certainly did.
“I doubt my doctor will approve two outings in one week,” she mused.
“Your doctor is a fascist.”
“Have a care,” said Peggy tightly. She had very little patience for the way modern people seemed to use words like fascist (or—heaven forbid—Nazi) so casually, as though despotism were merely a rhetorical concept.
“I’ll handle it,” Tony insisted, with such a stubborn look that she smiled in spite of herself. Despite his eccentricities and his complete and willful ignorance of common courtesy, he had been unfailingly kind. And, though she would never admit it, his antics amused her.
“Has anyone told you how very like your father you are?” she asked.
He rolled his eyes elaborately. “We’re having a nice time here. Don’t ruin it.”
Pepper Potts called for Peggy precisely on time. True to Tony’s description of her, she was smartly-dressed, and seemed very sweet, if slightly anxious. She apologized for things that weren’t her fault—the gloomy weather, her lack of foresight in not bringing an umbrella, the unavailability of parking in Manhattan, the nonexistent mess in her big silver car, the cacophony of noises on the radio that passed for music. She editorialized her own stories in the middle of telling them, veering off onto strange tangents or pausing to expand on statements that really didn’t need to be qualified.
Peggy had known, through the films she’d watched and the books she’d read, that New York was different, but the impact of actually seeing it hit her like a sledgehammer the moment they were away from the SHIELD campus.
She knew she must seem terribly thoughtless, but she couldn’t tear herself away from the window long enough to give her full attention to Pepper’s conversation. She felt as though she’d stepped into the pages of a novel by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.
But there were parts of the island that appeared to have been bombed out—rain pelted the decimated hulls of buildings, broken glass and warped steel, ragged chunks of cement and concrete.
An awful thought occurred to her. “Are we at war?” she asked.
Pepper glanced over at her. “No. There was an attack,” she said quietly. “About eight months ago. We’re in the process of rebuilding.”
“An attack by whom? By what?” She tried to picture the siege engine that could have wrought such wholesale destruction. She hoped it wasn’t some small-scale descendant of the atomic bomb. Howard would be turning in his grave. (Which, she reminded herself, was owed a visit.)
“Would you believe me if I said extra-terrestrials?”
“Men from space, you mean? War of the Worlds?”
Peggy struggled with the enormity of this for a moment. “Does that often happen?” she asked.
“This was the first time. You should ask Tony about it, he was there. He helped to stop them.”
“I was out of town,” said Pepper, her voice breaking a little. Peggy sensed it was a raw subject, and opted to let the matter drop.
The rain had lessened to a misty drizzle when they arrived at Pepper’s favourite clothes shop. “I think we’ll be able to find you something here,” she said, pointing to a window display. A black lacquered mannequin—legs apart, hip saucily cocked—modeled a trim grey wool suit, not unlike what Peggy would have worn before the uniform became her daily fare. Further along, a white mannequin, posed even more provocatively, sported a chic pair of wide-legged sailor trousers and a boatneck sweater. For the first time, Peggy felt as though modern fashion made sense to her.
Then she spotted the sign over the storefront. “I’m not going in there,” she announced.
Pepper was clearly puzzled. “You don’t like the designs?”
“It doesn’t matter. She was a spy for the Nazis.”
“Coco bloody Chanel, that’s who!”
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t know.” Pepper, now slightly wilted in the damp, looked down at her own stylish pantsuit guiltily. “We’ll go somewhere else.”
Peggy’s face felt hot. She told herself she was being unreasonable—and what was worse, rude. “That was a long time ago,” she conceded, conscious of Pepper’s quietly sympathetic gaze. “One can’t hold the name responsible for the actions of the individual.” Deliberately casual, she added, “I suppose young Master Stark is living proof of that.”
“I suppose he is,” said Pepper. The faint blush that accompanied her smile appeared to confirm what Peggy had already suspected. Dryly, she added, “I hope you called him that to his face.”
“I’ve called him a number of things,” Peggy replied austerely. “He’s rather a preposterous man.”
Pepper’s narrow lips twisted, as though she were biting back a laugh. “I can’t argue with that.”
Pepper had a good eye for a frock, and made suggestions that were both practical and becoming. Peggy gravitated towards fabrics that felt familiar and cuts that were deemed conservative by modern standards. Under Pepper’s conscientious supervision, she soon acquired a solid week’s worth of basics: skirts, slacks, tops, a light jacket.
The key, Pepper explained, was to build a palette around a single basic colour, so that all of one’s pieces could be worn interchangeably. “With your skin tone and hair colour,” she suggested, “I think red is the way to go.”
While Peggy refused to modernize either her shoes (serviceable dress ties) or her cosmetics (specifically her favourite shade of lipstick), she did let Pepper talk her into a couple of purchases that were decidedly more daring than anything she’d ever worn.
One was a pair of jeans, her first: indigo denim, snug as a second skin, with a zipper in the front rather than at the side. The fabric was a bit stiff, and bulky at the seams, but Pepper assured her it would become more comfortable with wear.
The other item was a flouncy scarlet number that Pepper characterized as “a show-stopper.”
“And me without a show,” Peggy retorted, examining herself critically in the dressing-room mirror. The line of the thing wasn’t bad—a fitted bodice and a gauzy A-line flare, perfectly suited to her generous figure. However, the neckline was quite low, to the point where her entire brassiere was exposed.
“It’s perfect,” said Pepper reassuringly, patting her on the shoulder. “You just need a camisole underneath, and a different bra. I’ll get someone to bring you a few to try. What size are you?”
Peggy glanced down at her cleavage. “I’m… not quite sure. What sizes are there?”
Obviously not one to be caught unprepared, Pepper dug into her handbag and came up with a dressmaker’s tape measure. “We’ll figure it out,” she said, with such grim determination that Peggy couldn’t help but laugh.
After the shopping, Pepper conducted her to a coffee shop and treated her to a much-needed restorative; Peggy had the distinct sense that she was being handled, but it was done with so much respect and genuine good feeling that she really couldn’t bring herself to protest.
With her miscellany of bags and boxes tucked around her under the table, she suddenly found herself feeling considerably better-equipped to face the new world.
Peggy selected her outfit for the picnic with due care and deliberation. In addition to helping her shop for clothes, Pepper had provided her with a thick stack of glossy magazines to help her get up to date on the modern fashions. The titles were mostly ones Peggy recognized—Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle—but the contents were vastly different. She was accustomed to looking neat as a pin and twice as sharp, but nowadays it was the done thing to look as though one hadn’t taken any pains at all in dressing.
In the end, she chose a cap-sleeved sundress (crisp white cotton, with a pattern of blowsy pink-and-red camellias along the hem) and a soft grey cardigan which the label claimed was wool (Peggy had her doubts). She wore her hair loose, letting it fall naturally, and went without nylons rather than risk the indignity of cheap modern pantyhose rolling down around her waist. She’d gone bare-legged for the war effort anyhow, so it wasn’t really a hardship. At least now she wouldn’t have to draw the seams onto the backs of her legs.
She missed her tidy victory rolls, her hat and gloves, her uniform—not the most flattering, but solid and serviceable. She missed heavy fabrics, and sturdy shoes; most of all, she missed her structured undergarments. Even wearing both a brassiere and a camisole, she still felt as though her bosom was on display, to say nothing of her backside.
It wasn’t that Peggy was ashamed of her figure; privately, she’d always thought it rather admirable. But the plain truth was, a garment that she would have called a slip was now considered to be a dress. One couldn’t help feeling a bit self-conscious parading around in public in these flimsy, low-cut, ready-for-bed-in-the-street clothes.
She met Steve in the front foyer of the medical wing. She expected him to be appreciative of her efforts, or at least her décolletage, but he showed no reaction to her attire at all. He’d clearly had time to adjust to the modern aesthetic. (She couldn’t help but wonder how hands-on his experience of it had been, and whether the formidable Natasha had been his only tutor.)
For his part, Steve was wearing crisp tan chinos, brown penny loafers, and a blue gingham shirt, the sleeves carefully folded up to the elbows. He looked almost exactly as he would have seventy years ago—trouser cuffs were worn slightly longer now, waistlines slightly lower, but the essentials hadn’t changed.
She’d been to Central Park before—not that her previous experience counted for much. There was graffiti everywhere: some of it was quite lovely, if unintelligible, and much of it was plainly obscene. (Which, Peggy reflected wryly, summed up her thoughts on the modern world in general.)
Steve walked with purpose: he had a destination in mind, which turned out to be a large cherry blossom tree. He spread out a blanket in the shade, and they both sat down, a respectable distance apart.
“When I was in the cultural immersion program, I used to come here sometimes to study,” he told her.
It was a bright summer day, and the park was a popular destination; the whole world seemed to rush past them, loud and bright and alarmingly fast. Peggy couldn’t imagine being able to block all of it out with the level of concentration necessary to read a single word.
“It’s lovely,” she said distantly.
Steve started to pull food out of his rucksack: sandwiches, bottled drinks, packets of crisps, fruit in clear plastic boxes. She examined his profile, his head bent to the task, and thought about what it might be like to run her palm over the close-cropped bristles at the nape of his neck, or kiss the delicate scrollwork of his ear. How would he react—would he freeze, or startle and shy away? Or was this new world Steve Rogers a practiced hand at dealing with the advances of the women in his life?
“Hope you’re hungry,” he remarked, cheerfully oblivious to the turn her thoughts had taken.
“Ravenous,” she replied, in a husky voice that conveyed somewhat more enthusiasm than she’d intended.
Steve didn’t look up, but a faint blush coloured his cheeks. “I heard Pepper took you shopping,” he said. “Did she show you a grocery store?”
Peggy shook her head.
“The first time I went to one, it got a little out of hand. There was so much variety, and the packaging, the design of it is very alluring. The colours, the way it’s all arranged. A hundred different kinds of cold cereal alone—and I don’t even like cold cereal.”
She understood exactly what he meant. The thought of all that choice was thrilling, but wearying at the same time. Especially when none of the choices were what you really wanted.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d like,” he continued, “but I figure this beats K-rations.” The corner of his mouth quirked in a grin.
Fruit was much larger than she remembered it, and not quite so flavourful. Fizzy lemonade was far too sweet, and tasted of something chemical.
Peggy felt sun-dazed, and the cloying smell of the cherry blossoms made her head feel as though it were about to burst. She couldn’t quite break free of the nagging feeling that she ought to be doing something, that it was terribly wasteful of them to be outside picnicking in the middle of the day.
“When we were overseas, I used to daydream about doing this with you,” Steve was saying.
“Whatever for?” The words were out of her mouth the instant they’d formed in her brain. She hadn’t meant to sound critical—but the banality of the fantasy was so surprising. In her own daydreams about Steve, on the rare occasions when she’d permitted herself the luxury, the setting had been largely immaterial.
Steve’s body seemed to slacken, his broad shoulders folding inward; for just a moment, she caught a glimpse of the smaller man he’d once been. He shifted on the blanket, reached up and plucked a few petals off a branch overhead, scattering them to the wind.
All around them, people seemed to be exchanging easy caresses, taking pleasure in one another’s company. He was so close; it would have been such a small thing to reach out and touch his arm, to kiss his cheek, to wrap her arms around him. She had no doubt it was what an ordinary woman would do, a woman of this time. But she just sat there, limbs heavy as lead.
At length, she began, “It’s just all rather…” But what it was, exactly, she couldn’t quite put into words.
Steve was drawing breath to reply when, out of the corner of her eye, Peggy caught sight of a black-and-white object hurtling towards them. She started and grabbed at Steve’s arm, trying to yank him out of the way, her heart going jackrabbit-quick—then felt incredibly foolish when the projectile, a football, glanced harmlessly off Steve’s shoulder.
A teenage boy was moving towards them at a loose-limbed canter, calling out, “Little help?” As he approached, Peggy could see that his t-shirt had Steve’s shield stencilled on the front.
Steve held out the ball, gripping it in one large hand. “Be a little more careful, son,” he cautioned, in a voice Peggy had only ever heard him use onstage.
“Whatever,” the boy retorted, snatching the ball back and jogging away.
Peggy realized she was still clutching at Steve’s sleeve. Mortified, she released it and settled herself on the blanket again. Steve watched her quietly for a long moment.
“You’re doing much better than I did my first time out,” he observed.
“I went on a bit of a rampage when I first woke up.” He grinned ruefully. “Busted through a wall, smacked some guys around… caused quite a stir.”
“I imagine it would, yes.” She could picture it quite clearly; she’d had similar impulses upon waking, though not being able to stand or see had prevented her from having much of an impact.
He reached over and slowly, deliberately, freed a fallen blossom from her hair. “Let me know if it gets to be too much,” he said, tucking a few wayward strands behind her ear before lightly tracing the line of her jaw with his fingertips.
“I will,” she told him, and if her voice shook a little, it wasn’t only due to jangled nerves.
The sun was low in the sky by the time they arrived back at SHIELD. The city had already begun to transform, slipping from the hard clean lines of daytime into sparkling evening finery.
Rather than the main entrance to the medical wing, Steve walked her around to one of the side doors, where the foot traffic was less frequent. Peggy stood, toying aimlessly with the electronic pass card she’d been issued, and continued to chat with him for almost fifteen minutes.
She could tell by the way he was staring at her mouth that he was thinking along the same lines that she was. And thinking was marvellous, it really was—but it wasn’t quite in the same realm as doing.
“I had a lovely time today, Steve,” she prompted, stepping forward until her toes bumped the caps of his shoes.
He was nodding, a determined set to his square jaw.
“Thank you so much for suggesting it,” she continued, in what she hoped was an encouraging tone.
“I’d like to kiss you now,” he told her earnestly. His “May I?” overlapped with her “Yes, please,” and then he was smiling even as he leaned down.
Their first kiss had been a frantic push, a last-ditch effort to tell him everything she had never been able to put into words. This, now, was Steve’s response: a gentle brush of his lips against hers, a squeeze of her trembling fingers. He kissed her once, softly and slowly; and then again, a quick peck that served to punctuate the statement.
It wasn’t quite the passionate embrace she’d been dreaming about—but then, there was time for that.
Steve said, somewhat incongruously, “Your outfit is nice. Really pretty. I should have mentioned it before now.”
“Better late than never,” Peggy replied, trying not to laugh.