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.
2. We’ll Meet Again
The world had moved on while Peggy Carter had been asleep.
She woke to find that Project Briar Rose had been discontinued. No one in their right mind thought of space travel as a long-term solution anymore. Which was just as well, since the procedure had a number of extremely unpleasant after-effects.
Peggy couldn’t keep solid food down; she suffered from vertigo so intense she could barely stand, let alone walk; the lights hurt her eyes to the point where she had to wear dark glasses. She had to learn everything over again: grasping objects, going to the toilet unaided, moving her mouth around the syllables of her mother tongue.
She counted herself fortunate, however; she was the only candidate who had survived the procedure.
Lucky number thirteen.
To add insult to indignity, almost seventy years had passed. They hadn’t even been bothered to wake her up on time—“they” being SHIELD, a sort of modern-day bastard child of the SSR. Apparently, the Briar Rose subjects had simply languished in a subterranean vault, until a renewed interest in cryogenics had prompted someone to take a second look.
An endless parade of specialists seemed indecently keen to get a look in, and there wasn’t a single part of her that wasn’t inspected and recorded for posterity. Over the course of several weeks, as she slowly gained her land legs, they put her through the full gauntlet of tests—physical and psychological, invasive and exhaustive.
Eventually, once she progressed to the point of being able to cross a room without clinging to the wall for support, she was relocated to the long-term care unit of the medical wing. She had her own quarters, including an ensuite with a proper bathtub, and her specialized meals and medications were delivered at scheduled times and left outside her door.
She still had daily visits with her doctors: one who insisted that she move her aching muscles daily, one who told her she couldn’t smoke anymore, and an extremely patronizing one who told her she needed to grieve for everything she’d left behind—as if not blubbering like a schoolgirl meant she wasn’t grieving.
She soon had concrete proof that her newfound privacy was merely illusory. One morning, she fell into a protracted reverie while examining the pink plastic safety razor she’d been issued as part of her bathing supplies; the next thing she knew, she was being accosted by two burly attendants in white scrubs, one of whom wrestled the thing from her hand as though it were a pistol. It took a three-hour session with her psychiatrist before she could convince him that she could be trusted to shave her legs.
The entire exercise struck her as ludicrous, considering the number of everyday items in her room that she could have employed with deadly force, had she been inclined towards self-immolation. But she didn’t fancy having her reading lamp or her bedsheets confiscated, so she kept her observations to herself.
In between tests and treatments, her psychiatrist screened a series of educational films: historical documentaries, newsreels, biographies of prominent figures. This last included a short piece on visionary industrialist-turned-superhero Anthony Stark, during which his parents’ death was mentioned only briefly, almost as an afterthought.
Peggy waited until she was back in her quarters before indulging in a protracted cry. Stiff upper lip be damned.
“I’d like to meet him,” she told the psychiatrist the following morning. “Howard Stark’s boy.”
“He’s not exactly a boy,” said the doctor.
Peggy bristled. She hated this, hated having to sit and be handled, as though she were a particularly backward child. “I am acquainted with the use of the calendar,” she replied coldly. “I don’t care how old he is. I really must see him.”
“A little hostile today, aren’t we?”
He made a note. “I think we should adjust your medication.”
Peggy retreated into her chair and folded her arms. “I think we’d prefer not.” She didn’t see what the point was in always saying we when she obviously had no say in any of his decisions. (She was, however, pleased to note that the cameras obviously hadn’t picked up on the fact that she’d experimented with her pills for weeks, in order to find and weed out the blue ones that made her want to sleep the day away.)
He nodded, as if in assent, then said, “We’ll just tweak the dosage a little bit.”
“When can you arrange for me to meet Anthony Stark?” she pressed.
The doctor made a regretful sort of clucking noise. “I’ll check on that. But I think his calendar’s probably pretty full.”
There were two blue pills in her medication tray that night. She disposed of them in the sink while brushing her teeth.
It turned out that getting to meet Howard’s son in person wasn’t the insurmountable task she’d expected it to be—because, quite unexpectedly, he was just as eager to meet her as she was to meet him.
“So you’re the one that got away,” said Anthony (‘call me Tony’) mere moments after they’d been introduced.
“He told you that? How very inappropriate.” She knew she wasn’t supposed to smoke, but she thought it was rather rude of him not to offer her a cigarette. Even his father had been able to rise to that level of civility.
He glanced up at the ceiling and grimaced before looking back at her. He had the most remarkable set of features, and seemed forever to be pulling faces. She was tempted to tell him that his mouth would stick that way if the wind changed. He also had Howard’s piercing gaze, which was at this particular moment aimed at her bosom. She crossed her arms over said bosom and fixed him with a forbidding look.
“He left a provision for you in his will,” he explained, redirecting to look her in the eye. “I thought that was a little weird, even for him—leaving money to someone who’d been missing for such a long time. So I figured you two must’ve had something going.”
“He knew of the project,” she confirmed, deliberately ignoring the latter statement. “He was partially responsible for the technology that made it possible.”
“Yeah, Dad had his fingers in a lot of pies around here.”
Quietly, she said, “He was a good man.”
“Genius, philanthropist. Savior of the free world.” He said by rote, it as though he were reciting bible verses in Sunday school.
“No, I mean… he was a good friend. And I suppose—I suppose I cared for him, after a fashion.” For all the good it did either of them to admit it now, she thought. Seeing Tony smirk, she added, “Not in the way you’re thinking.”
“What was he like?”
The question caught her off-guard; Tony was an adult, or nearly, at the time of his father’s accident. He would have known Howard better than she, certainly?
“Oh, well. Rather like you,” she replied. “Handsome, self-assured, far too clever for his own good.”
Tony nodded, his face suddenly inscrutable. Peggy got the sense that she’d disappointed him somehow with her description.
“Daring to the point of foolhardiness,” she added.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… as an example, one night, he helped me fly another friend across enemy lines. Without orders, you understand—and Howard was a civilian. We were almost shot out of the sky. He thought the whole thing quite a grand adventure.”
“I heard about that. Steve Rogers, right?”
Peggy actually flinched when he said the name—she hadn’t been expecting it quite so soon. “Yes,” she said curtly, trying to still her fluttering hands. “Your father told you that story?”
“Steve told me.”
She examined his face, trying to discern where the joke was, what the punchline would be. “Bullshit,” she declared.
Tony looked impressed. “Don’t you mean ‘bollocks’?”
“I know what I mean, you arrogant bloody—” She paused and took a deep breath; she’d be damned if she was going to lose her composure in front of this man, this stranger mocking her with Howard’s smile. “I know to you he’s probably just a—a picture in a history book, but to me he was—”
“I’m not making fun of you. I thought you were all up to date on current events? We found him.”
She gaped at him.
“Well, I mean, I didn’t personally find him, but… yeah. They dug him up just off the coast of Greenland a couple of years back, and he’s been here ever since.”
Peggy felt as though she’d taken a blow to the chest, her heart stammering painfully against her ribs. He means the body, you silly thing, she told herself sternly. Steve must be buried somewhere nearby. She wondered whether the doctors would let her go and pay her respects. Whether it counted as part of her much-vaunted grieving process.
She braced herself and asked, very carefully, “What exactly do you mean, he’s here?”
“I mean he’s here in New York. Living, breathing, doing whatever it is he does. Wearing Haggar slacks with impunity. Going to diners for the early bird special. Yelling at kids to get off his lawn. We’ve been working on a little project together, maybe you’ve heard of it? The Avengers Initiative?”
She hadn’t, and in fact most of what he’d just said made very little sense to her, but through all of the nonsense she was able to grasp the most essential fact: Steve was alive.
Tony, meanwhile, was having an epiphany. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier,” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “You were friends with my dad. Of course you knew Captain Underpants. Was he as big of an asshole then as he is now? Because…”
Quite unexpectedly, Peggy started to cry—haltingly at first, then more steadily, weeping as though her heart were fit to burst. “Oh, damn,” she said helplessly, unable to stem the tide. “Oh, fuck.”
For the first time since she’d met him, Tony looked unsure of himself. “I said he’s alive,” he reiterated, loudly, as though she were hard of hearing or perhaps a bit dull-witted.
She dabbed at her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She wished he’d do the decent thing and leave the room, give her a moment to collect herself.
Instead, he reached over and awkwardly patted her back. “I’m a big fan of the swearing,” he said encouragingly. “Rogers never curses.”
Inexplicably, this only served to make her cry harder.
Despite his relative ineptitude when it came to comforting crying women, Tony Stark’s famed mechanical prowess apparently extended to greasing the wheels of SHIELD’s bureaucracy machine. He telephoned the following afternoon to inform her that Steve was available to see her at her earliest convenience.
However, it was another, interminably long week before Peggy was able to summon sufficient rhetorical mastery to convince her psychiatrist. He finally agreed to a supervised visit, on the condition that Steve would meet with the doctor privately first.
“You aren’t going to tell him about that ridiculous business with the razor, I hope?” she inquired.
The doctor made a note. “Why shouldn’t I tell him about the razor, Margaret?”
Not for the first time, she wondered exactly how much trouble she’d be in if she belted her psychiatrist in the mouth.
The morning of Steve’s visit, she pulled out every item in her motley wardrobe and pored over them despairingly.
The only thing she had that wasn’t standard issue from the SHIELD medical wing was the plain, practical outfit she’d worn to the lab the morning of the procedure. This had been stored with the rest of the project materials, and included a threadbare wool walking skirt; an indifferent grey jumper that it had taken her most of the war to finish knitting; and a set of underthings, somewhat stiff and yellow with age. (Her nylons appeared to have vanished entirely, causing her to suspect they’d simply been pinched by some shrewd young female archivist.)
Moths had been at the waistband of the skirt during the intervening years; fortunately, that bit was hidden by the hem of the sweater, which had borne up rather well and still had enough ease to flatter her figure. It wasn’t exactly finery, but it was clean and tidy, and most importantly, it was her own.
She tried in vain for the better part of an hour to coax her hair into some semblance of a style, but in the end was forced to settle for pinning it back with elastics and kirby grips. She hadn’t been issued any makeup, but she still remembered the old tricks: she pinched her cheeks until they blushed becomingly, and bit the colour back into her lips. No one wore powder anymore anyhow.
The person watching the cameras in her room probably thought she was quite mad, she mused, stepping away from the mirror to survey the results. They were unimpressive in many respects: she was still too thin, too pale, too bare. But she was, unmistakably, herself.
At ten on the dot, Peggy was escorted to another level of the complex. Two SHIELD agents led her down a long, narrow hallway to a conference room. The door was ajar, and as she entered the room, she caught a glimpse of a long hand, resting on the conference table. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she was seized by panic—he wasn’t supposed to be there yet, she wasn’t ready, she didn’t know the layout of the room, she needed more time, she—
And then she was in the room, her feet having carried her there of their own volition while the rest of her was paralyzed by indecision.
And there he was.
He was exactly the same: an unyielding mass of strong, straight lines (chiseled cheek and jaw, stalwart spine and solid chest) tempered here and there by unexpected gentleness (soft rosy lips and gently curved brows, rounded shoulders, wide eyes fringed by dark, curling lashes). His uniform was different, and had obviously never seen combat, but he wore it the same way: tailored to the swooning-point and perfectly pressed, brass winking in the light. He’d been heavily decorated—mostly posthumously, she remembered.
She longed to say something, anything, but instead she froze, rooted to the spot at the crucial moment, gaping.
He rose from his chair and stared back at her, looking as stunned as she felt.
As she usually did when she was feeling nervous or vulnerable, Peggy defaulted to her strengths. “Close your mouth, Captain,” she said briskly, “before you catch flies.”
He snapped his mouth shut, colour flooding into his cheeks.
She smiled. “It’s good to see you.” Then, acutely conscious of the room’s two-way mirror, she walked over to him and took his hand.
“You too,” he said softly, his long fingers closing carefully over hers. Then, with more confidence: “You’re late.”
Peggy didn’t want a handshake and a quip; she wanted to launch herself into his arms and kiss him until her knees buckled. But this wasn’t the war, and he wasn’t running off to do something reckless. And people were watching.
“You didn’t leave me clear directions to the rendezvous,” she replied evenly.
It was an easy volley, but he let it fly by, confessing instead, “I tried to find you. Your file said you were MIA.” And that was Steve Rogers, all over: compulsively forthright. “I didn’t think…”
“I didn’t either.” Peggy could tell there was a very real danger of her bursting into tears if they continued in this vein. Casting about for a change of topic, she observed, “You’ve cut your hair shorter.”
He scrubbed his knuckles self-consciously over the top of his head, making the hair stand up in all directions. “Yep. What do you think?”
The truth was, it looked unkempt, sloppy. Even so, her fingertips itched to test the pile of those short blond hackles.
“It’s very… modern,” she said honestly.
He nodded, with a rueful grin. “Well, good news is, last time I checked, my name was Steven, not Samson.”
“Steve…” She paused, uncertain.
To her surprise, he reached out and enfolded her in a hug. He even smelled the way she remembered—carbolic soap and Clubman aftershave. Clean, warm, honest, safe.
She pressed her flushed face against his chest, blotting her tears on his lapel. “Steve,” she said again, and started to shake.
His big arms tightened around her. She felt chaotic, breathless, but also—paradoxically—still and quiet, as though she’d wandered into the eye of a storm. The trembling gradually subsided, and she could feel her breathing slowing to match his, the knot of anxiety in her chest beginning to unravel.
For the first time since she’d woken up in this strange place, she felt a sense of coming home.
“So,” he said, calm and sure. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”