Peggy Carter sidestepped as a group of soldiers straggled past, talking excitedly. The entire camp had been waiting eagerly for the USO camp show, and tonight was the night. Spirits were high, despite the mud, exhaustion, and probability of being moved to the front lines within the next few days.
The dim echoes of mortars rumbled in her chest as she continued on her way; more of a vibration than a sound at that distance. They'd been going for almost three days straight in a relentless barrage of the front lines. At first the constant noise had been distracting, but by this time it would've been unsettling if it had suddenly stopped.
"Captain?" she called as she finally saw the man she'd been looking for. He was with Bucky, as usual, but turned when he heard her. Bucky said something in a low voice, slapping Steve on the shoulder before stepping away just quick enough to miss the playful swing aimed at his head. "I'll save you a seat at the show, Steve," he called back, and was gone through the gathering shadows, jauntily saluting her as he swept by.
"Agent Carter," Steve joined her, furrowing his brows at the paperwork she held out to him. "What can I do for you?"
"This is the approved roster of your team for the next mission. I'm afraid Howden won't be able to make it - he wasn't released from hospital in time - but I've included his name at the back just in case." She watched as he flipped through the pages, angling his body so the light from the setting sun fell on the paper.
Finally he tucked them under his arm with an air of finality. "Thanks, Peggy. I owe you one." They both knew she had been working overtime to get his favored list of men approved before the special mission that he was leaving on in a few days. Not that she was officially supposed to know about that mission in the first place. Bureaucracy could be incredibly complicated at times.
"Are you going to the USO show, Captain?"
He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "Yeah, probably. Bucky said he'll make a fuss if I don't show up, and Colonel Phillips wants me to say something to the men afterwards." He fell into step beside her as she started back towards the show grounds. "Would you - um," he shot an adorably nervous look at her. "I don't suppose you'd like to watch it with me?"
Hiding her smile, Peggy started to reply, but was cut off by an enthusiastic voice calling "Boy-o!" Steve started in surprise, and the next second, a peroxide blonde had flung her arms around his neck, squealing delightedly. "Stevie! Aw, kiddo, it's been ages! Where've you been all this time?"
Stevie? Peggy's eyebrows twitched incredulously upward. Steve's eyes met hers over the unnaturally light curls, helpless, mouth uselessly opening and closing as he tried to find words to explain. Peggy folded her arms and tilted her chin. "Friend of yours, Captain?"
"Uh, yeah." Steve wasn't particularly coherent, clearly uncomfortable. "Peg - Agent Carter, I'd like you to meet Kathleen - um," he flushed, but the girl around his neck untangled a hand and reached it out to shake Peggy's.
"Kathy DuPont," she squeaked. "Glad to meetcha, Agent." Then she caught Steve's elbow. "Come on, I ain't got all night and we got so much to catch up on!"
They were gone, the vivacious blonde dragging Captain America off between the rows of tents. He looked back, dismayed, trying to catch Peggy's eye, but she expertly avoided meeting his eyes, studiously checking her wrist for the time.
Never mind the fact that her watch hadn't worked in days, or that she wasn't even wearing it.
The wave of hot frustration took her by surprise, and she stalked through the mud in the opposite direction from the USO show ground. Of course Captain America would have girl friends, would have admirers. First there was Private Lorraine, and now this - this girl. What was that thing people said about sailors? A girl in every port. She knew it was unfair of her - Steve wasn't that kind of man - but for the moment she relished the anger, holding it close and burning against her chest.
Lights flashed brightly and garbled snatches of music filtered through a microphone came from the direction of the USO show grounds. The show had begun, and even from where she was on the other side of camp she could hear the soldiers' roar of approval. Slowing her quick march, she seriously considered missing the whole show and getting some work done. Still, Colonel Phillips had given her orders.
"Go to that show, Agent," he'd gruffly told her earlier that evening. "That's an order. You'll work yourself to death otherwise."
With a longsuffering sigh, she turned on her heel and stalked back, refusing to hurry. That little blonde vixen would probably be prancing around on the stage, and she really didn't want to see that.
Arriving at the show grounds, she debated sitting at the back before changing her mind. Some of the men had drinks, and the idea of fending off drunken soldiers all evening was not appealing. Craning her neck, she saw Colonel Phillips was sitting near the front, on the other side from where she was standing, and it looked like there was an empty seat near him.
Steve's, no doubt. Something sour touched her heart at the thought of why he wasn't there. Still, he was a gentleman and wouldn't mind giving her his seat. She skirted around the back of the stage in order to get to the other side without walking in front of the show.
A little shadow darted out from the boxes and trucks that were cluttering the area back of the makeshift stage. A stray ray of light gleamed off the peroxide hair, and Peggy recognized her.
The chorus girl was only half dressed in her spangles, trying to fasten her belt and put on her shoes, obviously in the middle of a quick change between numbers. She panted a quick little laugh, and then sobered.
"Look, I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what a hussy like me's doing around a guy like Stevie - Captain Rogers," she hurriedly corrected herself. Peggy lifted her chin, ready for the girl to defend herself or gloat on her trivial acquaintance with the hero of the century.
To her surprise, Kathleen did neither.
"I don't wantcha thinking that kind of stuff about Steve. He's a good egg, all around. I worked in the chorus line of his show - a bunch of us girls did. He's a real square guy, nothing halfway about it." She stepped closer, eyes concerned, not, Peggy suddenly realized, for her own reputation, but for Steve's.
"I understand," she broke in, and the other girl visibly relaxed.
"Good, 'cause I didn't wantcha thinking anything. All us girls really liked him - he was like a kid brother or something, and he never tried to get fresh with us just because we worked together."
The girl shuffled into her shoes before continuing. Her eyes flickered sideways and she stepped closer, voice lowered confidentially. "Not like some of the guys. There was this one - Harold - he played Hitler on the stage, and he'd get real pushy with some of us. One night," she struggled to button the back of her collar, "he'd been messing with Hazel - roughed her up some, and she was crying before the show and Stevie found out, got real mad. Hazel wouldn't let him tell anybody, 'cause she didn't want to be put off the show."
Peggy, despite herself, was drawn into the story. Of course Steve Rogers would be infuriated by such a thing. Kathleen's eyes widened as she continued; it was obvious she enjoyed the next part.
"There wasn't any time before the show started, so he went on like normal. There's this part though, where he punches - did you ever see our show?"
At Peggy's nod, she hurried eagerly on. "Well, so you know how he punches Hitler. He usually made sure he missed, but that night he really socked him - knocked Harold clean across the stage and half into the wings." She giggled brightly. "Two of us had to drag the guy offstage, but he never bothered any of us again. He resigned at the end of the run."
A voice hollered through the darkness. "Kathy? We're up!" Kathy gasped and wrenched the last button into place. She took two steps away, and then came back, hand on Peggy's arm.
"He's a swell guy," she told the agent. "Real stellar. Don't think bad about him. I shouldn'ta jumped on him like that, but I was real glad to see him. We never really knew what happened to him after the show was cancelled."
"I understand," Peggy reassured her again, and found that she actually did understand. Steve - her Steve - would never treat a lady less than she deserved, and she should have known that an hour ago. Had known it, but she had enjoyed nursing her wrath a little too much. "Thank you for telling me."
Kathleen nodded and vanished into the dusk. A moment later, the cheer of several hundred soldiers almost drowned out the distant mortars as the chorus girls came on.
"I wondered where you'd got to," Colonel Phillips twisted a little to look at her as Peggy slid into the seat at his side. "Cap saved you a seat until he had to go get ready."
"I was detained," she told him crisply, watching Kathleen pirouette across the stage with the rest of the chorus girls. Somehow the woman didn't strike her as quite so annoying now.
Steve came on at the end, dressed in his Captain America uniform. Unlike the last time he'd stood on a USO stage, this time the air was split with cheering. Soldiers, half-drunk and sober alike, sprang to their feet to hurrah for their captain.
Peggy rose too, clapping. She could tell from the faces of the chorus girls which ones had worked with Steve. Instead of posing and looking at the audience, they were looking at him with the same expression she could feel on her own face - pride and loyalty.
Captain Rogers was obviously taken back by the enthusiastic welcome, and it took a long time to settle the audience. When he spoke, it was of home and family and love of country - the things that kept men going and gave them a reason to fight, a reason to keep freedom in the world. She thought he looked her way more than once, but it was hard to tell over the bright electric footlights.
After the show, there was a lot of bustle as the USO people packed up to move out. They had another place to be in just a couple days, and with the roads as bad as they were, they needed to leave as soon as possible. Some of the soldiers pitched in to help, while others chatted with the chorus girls or went back to their tents to get some sleep before their watch.
Peggy wandered backstage to find Steve saying goodbye to a group of chorus girls, most of whom Peggy had guessed once belonged to his performance. "Goodbye, Stevie," the blonde chirped excitedly, hopping into the back of the truck. "See you in the funny papers!"
The girls laughed, and Steve chuckled too, a little wryly. Peggy knew he'd never liked those comic books of himself. "Sure thing, Kathleen. Hey, Hazel," he awkwardly tried to return another girl's sudden hug. "Take care of yourself, okay?"
Peggy smiled warmly and slipped away before he could look up and see her.
It was pitch black by the time the last truck rolled out. Trying to get back to her tent in the dark proved more problematic than she'd expected. She wasn't used to coming from this side of camp.
"Careful," a strong hand caught Peggy's elbow as she tripped, saving her from planting her face in the mud. "You okay?"
"Thank you, Captain." She pulled her foot clear from the unexpectedly squishy spot in the path. Steve steadied her elbow until she had both feet on fairly firm ground, and then pulled back. Measuring his stride to match hers, he fell into step beside her as they walked together between the dark tents.
"Hey, Peggy - about that girl..."
"It's quite all right, Captain. I completely understand." She kept walking, attention dangerously divided between the muddy ground and his face, though it was too dark to see his expression.
"No, it really isn't." Steve reached for her elbow again as she distractedly stepped on another soggy place. "I owe you an explanation. Half those girls were from the show before I came here. They were just happy to see me again."
She nodded and then realized he probably couldn't see her face. Actually, maybe he could. Who knew what the serum had done for his night vision? "Yes, I know. Kathleen and I had a nice long chat." She couldn't resist adding airily, "She's really quite a nice girl once you get to know her."
He stopped short, but she kept walking the last few yards to her tent, face turned away to hide the secret smile curling her lips, just in case he could somehow see it through the gloom.
"You - what?" Steve sounded surprised. "What did she say?"
Opening the tent flap, Peggy turned to face him. Overhead, the moon finally dug its way through the clouds, rimming his head and shoulders with light. Off in the distance the rumble of the mortars continued, marking the third night of continuous bombardment. She found herself praying that they would stop before Steve had to go on that top-secret mission of his.
"I wish," she told him finally, "that you'd been able to punch the real Hitler. It would have solved a lot of our problems very quickly."
His startled laugh made her glow with warmth, even as she shivered in the cool night wind.
Thoughts? I'd love to hear them.