Be Yours to Hold it High
"'Scuse me, miss? Miss? Please, miss?"
Peggy almost kept walking.
It had been an awful week - one of the worst of her life. The man she loved, and the man he'd looked on as a brother had become her two most constant companions, and the three of them had grown a friendship that was closer and stronger than any of them had expected.
Now they were both gone, and she was the only one left.
As the two people who had been involved with Project Rebirth from the very beginning to the bitter, bitter end, Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips had been immediately recalled to America via special plane. The people in authority wanted answers, and they wanted them right away.
That's where she had been for the last ten hours - in a room full of military brass and politicians, all of whom had wanted to hear every little detail of Steve's last days. How did he look? Did he give any indications that he was planning to go down? Who neglected to teach him how to fly a plane? Was he depressed? Was he... suicidal?
Colonel Phillips had needed to hold her down after that last question - if he hadn't, Senator what's-his-name would have lost a few more teeth.
No, he had not been suicidal. Steve Rogers had wanted to live, to love, to have a future with her - but he would never save his own life at the expense of others.
As for learning to fly a plane, the United States government itself had vetoed his training, deeming it "unnecessary" and "time consuming." They'd never imagined he would need to know, or perhaps they were afraid he would take off into enemy territory again without warning. Either way, it hadn't been the fault of either Colonel Phillips or Captain Rogers, and Peggy said so, at great length, and with every inch of her vocabulary.
They had asked her about his final radio transmission then, and that was the last straw. Peggy's throat closed off completely, and she sat mute and suffering, eyes hot and prickly as she struggled to maintain her composure in front of everyone. She had cried all her tears, but that didn't mean she wasn't still grieving deeply.
Colonel Phillips took over after that, gruff and annoyed that they had hurt her. He had heard most of the transmission anyway. With an uncharacteristic but unsurprising delicacy, he left out the most private parts of Steve's message, and Peggy had been deeply grateful.
Captain America had belonged to the world, but Steve Rogers had been hers, and his last words had been meant for her alone.
"Miss?" asked the boy again.
He must have been waiting outside for hours - Peggy vaguely remembered seeing him beyond the crush of reporters as she had entered the building that morning. The American press had a collective nose like the proverbial bloodhound, and somehow they had picked up on a potential lead. Nobody knew the story though, so each idea was more wild than the last. Can you confirm that Captain America has gone AWOL? Been sent to Japan? Defected to the Nazis?"
She'd hit that last reporter when he had refused to let go of her arm. Even now, hours later, Peggy's bruised knuckles were sore and her bad shoulder throbbed. It had been incredibly satisfying though, to see him sprawled out at her feet, and a gleam of good humor had fluttered across the colonel's grim face for the first time all week.
The reporters were gone now, probably home to their dinners. An announcement would have to be made to the press later. Peggy wouldn't be the one to make it; the news that Captain America was - was gone would ultimately come from somebody far more politically appropriate, somebody who in all likelihood had never actually known the captain.
The boy was watching her with urgent eyes. Every line of his young, small body was strained to the breaking point, held taut and quivering, desperate for knowledge. Leaning against the wall by his feet was an old trash can lid, and the gleam of the setting sun reflected off a roughly painted pattern of stripes and a star that Peggy Carter would have known in her sleep.
"Yes?" she finally asked, and he visibly screwed up his courage.
"Please, miss - what those guys were saying about Captain America - it ain't true, is it? I know it's prob'ly a secret, but I won't tell. Just say it ain't true."
Peggy hadn't thought her heart could break any more. Apparently it could. Phillips was waiting with the car, but she ignored his probable exasperation. Instead, she stepped across the pavement after a moment of hesitation and settled on a step, closer to eye level with the boy.
"You like Captain America?" she asked, gesturing to the homemade shield. The boy's face lit up.
"Yeah. He was little, like me, but then he turned into this really strong guy and he and his friend got to fight Nazis and stuff. Is he okay?"
Steve had loved kids. He'd been good with them, always made time to talk to them. Peggy closed her eyes for a moment, taking a steadying breath. What would Steve have said to this boy?
The answer came with a warm rush, and she opened her eyes again. "Do you know," she asked, "that even before he was big and strong, there was one thing that Captain America thought was the most important thing in the world?"
The boy shook his head, eyes wide. Peggy bit her lips to keep them from trembling.
"He wanted to keep people safe," she continued, and if her voice was hoarse, she blamed it on the interminable meeting she'd just escaped. "They both did. Sergeant Barnes died saving Steve, and Steve - Captain Rogers - he saved the world. But he…"
She couldn't say it. God help her, she still couldn't say it. Peggy offered up a fleeting prayer for strength.
"Captain Rogers gave his life so you could grow up and live yours," she finally managed, very quietly, and watched as the pleading eyes filled with tears and the child's lower lip wobbled, held in check only by a desperate desire not to cry in front of her. Her own throat tight, Peggy reached to the side and picked up the trash can lid, smoothing her hand across the slightly crooked, painstakingly painted star on the front. Then she held it out, handling it as though it was indeed the same shield that had inspired a nation.
In a way, perhaps, it was.
"Now, you take this," she told him softly, voice breaking in spite of herself, "and you go live your life, and make sure he didn't die for nothing."
The boy took the shield from her hands slowly, and she saw stubborn determination in the set of the childish chin. "I - I will," he promised solemnly.
Peggy didn't expect the pair of chubby arms that suddenly flung around her neck, and it completely took her breath away. Slowly, she brought her own arms around to hug the child back, laying her cheek against the tousled hair. Her broken heart ached anew - a sudden fierce pang that sent fresh tears to her weary eyes as she mourned lost possibilities that could never be, now.
"Thank you, miss," he whispered into her ear at last, and then drew back, holding the piece of painted tin with respect. His small shoulders straightened, and Peggy knew he would make good.
Steve would not have died in vain.
She watched as he left, trudging the length of the sidewalk, holding his shield close to his side. Twice she saw him swipe his grubby sleeve across his eyes, and knew he was grieving the death of his hero. Through the mist of her own tears, she saw him reach the corner and turn, the light of the setting sun gleaming off the painted emblem - and just for a moment, Peggy could have sworn she heard the captain himself.
Go live your life, his voice whispered her own words in her ear. Make sure we didn't die for nothing.
He wasn't there - she knew he wasn't, but when Peggy closed her eyes she could see him, standing straight, jaw firm, gaze warm and blue and steady as ever. Bucky was there too, with his rakish grin and unswerving loyalty, positioned at his captain's shoulder where he belonged.
It was then that Peggy finally understood her part. Steve Rogers was engraved on her heart, and he and Bucky Barnes were embedded in the very core of her being. They might be gone, but they were not forgotten, and their memory supported her still.
It was up to her to continue their legacy.
Drawing herself tall, Peggy wiped the tears from her cheeks with a shuddering breath and opened her eyes, turning toward the waiting car, a firm resolve in her step.
For as long as she lived, Margaret Elizabeth Carter would honor their lives by the way she lived her own.
To you from failing hands we throw the torch;
Be yours to hold it high.
This marks the end of A Rare Camaraderie. Thank you so much for your support and interest - I've had such fun writing it and swapping ideas with you all.
If you're like me, and you're sorry to see this story come to a close, you'll be glad to hear of my other story anthology called Within the Legacy, featuring more WWII adventures of Steve, Peggy, and Bucky, along with the rest of the Howling Commandos.
I am so grateful for all of you, your support, and your lovely reviews. Hope to see you around!
Title and closing quote taken from the 1915 WWI poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.