PLEASE NOTE: The first part of this chapter contains a scene which may be triggering for a variety of reasons: non-con, character death (sort of) and general awfulness. If you think it might disturb you, please scroll to the first asterisk and start reading from there.
If there's another or a better way I can make this a safe reading experience for you, please let me know.
London lay in ruins: crumbled bricks, mortar dust, columns of ash. The invading aliens had been unexpected, unprecedented, and exceedingly thorough.
None of which mattered at present.
Her little room from before the war, above a seamstress shop, had miraculously survived the attack. It was furnished just the way she remembered it: scuffed chair, worn but workable vanity, stalwart brass bedstead. Simple, clean, comfortable.
She'd had a man in this bed before—saintliness had never been a virtue to which Peggy had aspired—but never thisman. And she'd waited too long for Steve Rogers to let a trifling thing like the end of the world stop her.
His skin was quite cool—from being in the ice, he explained, blushing from head to toe like a shy young bride. No matter; she would blanket him in kisses, envelop him in her warmth.
He tried to sit up, craned his neck to look out the window, dusky amber light filling his eyes.
"No," she said sternly, red nails biting into his cheek as she turned his face away from the carnage. "Look at me."
"Please—I need—" He couldn't seem to find the words, but his hips stuttered against hers, lovers' Morse code. She bent to kiss his open mouth, rocking into him in a way that left them both gasping, breathless. She moved slowly, murmuring encouragement as he gained the rhythm and the counterpoint.
Outside, Armageddon raged on, unheeded.
But his body was colder now, ice-cold. She could actually see the chill growing and spreading through him—his skin turning pale, then paper-white, with a lattice of crisp white frost that fused them together anywhere they touched. Beads of perspiration glittered on his forehead and his throat; his mouth opened wide, its insides indecently red against his pale lips, but no sound came out. He gripped her tightly, holding her against him, impaling her on a shard of ice as sharp as a knife's blade.
"Stop." She struggled, tried to unseat herself, but his steely fingers clamped down on her hips. "Steve, it's too—Steve, don't." Her palms were frozen to his chest—she could hear the flesh start to tear as she pulled away, an awful wet cracking noise.
His breath a puff of wintery air against her cheek, he whispered, "You won't leave me again."
And then his lips locked around hers and the room greyed out.
Peggy considered writing down the details of the dream for her psychiatrist, but she knew he would focus on all the wrong parts. He would tell her that she wasn't dealing with her grief, that her feelings of guilt were unnecessary—or worse still, that she was some sort of repressed sex maniac. Either way, there would undoubtedly be more pills and more restrictions.
She knew that if she were subconsciously worried about going to bed with Steve, she would have dreamt of something unrelated and seemingly harmless, such as dentists or gardening. And the end of the world struck her as a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to be afraid of.
As for feeling guilty... she'd been partially responsible for closing his file; she'd refused to entertain any hope that he could still be alive, and she'd tried her damnedest to convince Howard that he ought to give up too. The fact that Steve apparently didn't hold it against her was immaterial; she'd abandoned him to the merciless iron sea, and it was only by chance that he wasn't there still.
There wasn't anything to be done but grit her teeth and bear it.
She tossed and turned in the sweat-damp sheets for the better part of an hour before accepting the fact that she and sleep had parted company for the night.
Her scheduled workout time wasn't for another ten hours, but she decided to live dangerously.
When Peggy arrived at the gymnasium, there was someone already there, despite the ungodly hour. She recognized the man from before, the one with the injured knee. He was seated, puffing and straining into a weighted leg extension. He was wearing shorts this time, revealing a black plastic contraption that encased his leg around the injured joint.
"It's the nowhere man," she remarked, walking past him to the treadmill. "Hello again."
He whistled a few melancholy notes, then looked to her as if expecting approval. When none was forthcoming, he inquired, "Don't like the beetles?"
Peggy glanced around her curiously, but the question appeared to have been an entirely academic one. "I like them fine," she replied, "as long as they stay out of my larder. Why do you ask?"
He gaped at her in exaggerated disbelief. "Where are you from again?"
"Still London, I'm afraid." She punched in the access code for her preprogrammed routine. The treadmill shifted and whirred into place, and she started walking at a brisk trot.
"You're up late. Can't sleep?"
"No," she said, slightly too loudly, willing herself not to think about ash and cinder and ice. "And you?"
"My regular time slot. Oh-three-hundred to oh-five-hundred."
"How did you manage that?"
He gave a noncommittal shrug. "Unique circumstances."
"You didn't change it because of… anything in particular?" She recalled their last conversation, which had taken a couple of rather peculiar turns.
"Nah. You're about the only person around here I can turn my back on right now."
Peggy composed her features, presenting a neutral expression. She had read about people like this—paranoiacs, they were called. They imagined themselves constantly pursued, watched, persecuted. One had to remember, after all, that one was in a long-term care ward. The poor man obviously had some deep-seated troubles. "That's rather a grim assessment," she observed.
"You really don't know who I am, do you?"
"I'm sorry," she said, because it was the polite thing to to say, even though he didn't seem to consider it a drawback.
Neither of them spoke again immediately. Peggy focused on her jogging, which shifted into running, and wondered whether she ought to speak to her physical therapist about creating a program that was a little more challenging. She'd obviously outstripped the current one; she wasn't even out of breath. She considered attempting to reprogram the machine, though she knew from previous experience that this was almost certainly bound to end in frustration.
She'd already entered her cool-down routine when the man asked, "Where were you during the attack on Manhattan?"
Peggy was caught off-guard—he'd been so quiet that she'd almost forgotten he was there. "Pardon?" she inquired.
"It's one of those questions people ask when they're making conversation. Like, where were you when JFK was shot? Or, where were you on 9/11?"
Peggy was far enough along with her reading to know exactly where she had been during both of those events—underground, forgotten, along with nineteen other girls. "I was asleep."
"Slept right through the whole affair," she said, trying for a breezy tone.
He seemed to consider this, then nodded.
"I have friends who were there," she admitted—and how strange it was, to realize that she thought of Howard's insufferable son as a friend.
"Lots of people do."
He took a long pull of his water bottle before replying, "I don't have many friends." It wasn't particularly morose or dramatic; a flat statement of fact.
"Frankly, I'm not surprised." Peggy had very little patience for wallowing.
He narrowed his eyes at her, declaring, "You're kind of a ball-buster."
She nodded. "When it's called for."
"What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't say."
"I know. What is it?"
"Perhaps I don't have one." After all, two could play at that game. "Perhaps I've only a number."
"I am not a number," he intoned, in a very credible English accent. "I am a free man."
"A peculiar man," she retorted. It probably wasn't very sporting of her to make fun if he was genuinely sick, but Peggy honestly couldn't tell whether he was having her on or not. It was as though they were speaking entirely different languages that happened to use the same words.
"I could say the same about you."
"I suppose you could, but it would lead me to question your powers of observation," she said dryly. "Do you have a name, or shall I continue to think up insulting things to call you?"
He grinned; it lent a sort of rough-hewn handsomeness to his mismatched assortment of features. "Barton." He watched her, warily, waiting for a sign of recognition, but the name wasn't familiar. Nor had she expected it would be.
"Good man," she encouraged, stepping off the treadmill and walking over to him. "Mine's Carter." She held out her hand; Barton didn't hesitate before giving it a firm shake.
"And why are you here, exactly?"
She started to gather her things together, deflecting with, "I told you, I couldn't sleep."
"No, I mean—"
"I know what you meant. I think we'll keep it at introductions for now. Have a lovely morning, Mr. Barton," she added politely.
Barton watched her for a second, then nodded slowly. "You too."
Peggy arrived back at her quarters to find Tony lounging in her chair. He was doing something with his tiny phone that apparently required a lot of attention.
"Nice shoes," he said, without looking up. "Pepper has the same ones."
"Yes." She sat on the bed to unlace her cross-trainers, resisting the urge to hurl one at his smug face. "You're up rather early."
He grinned wolfishly. "I have a very persistent alarm clock."
Peggy decided it was best if she didn't unpack that particular comment.
"How might I help you?" she inquired, saccharine.
And then she saw them, on the windowsill beside him: a bouquet of the most luscious roses she'd ever seen, resting in a simple cut-glass vase. She supposed that flowers, like fruit, must have grown larger with the passage of time.
As she approached, she could tell that they still smelled the same, at least—like a summer window box, like expensive dusting powder. Like home, a home that now only existed in her memory.
She finger-combed the entire arrangement surreptitiously, searching for a card or note, but there was nothing. "Was someone here for me?" she asked.
"Yeah, me," said Tony irritably. "And I hope you like them because I'm done walking around with them. I swear to God, if one more receptionist says 'Oh, Tony, for me?' and giggles at me, I'm going to sucker-punch Rogers right in his star-spangled codpiece."
"That seems excessive." She regarded the flowers with renewed interest. "He sent these with you?"
Tony nodded. "It can take a while to get this stuff through security. Since I'm on the approved visitors list, he asked me to expedite the process." Grinning, he added, "You and Steve-o must have had quite the reunion."
"Thank you for bringing them," said Peggy. She wondered why Steve hadn't sent a message with the flowers. However, she wasn't about to open herself up to further ridicule by asking any follow-up questions.
"I was coming by anyway. Had a meeting with Fury."
"Fury? Nicholas Fury?"
"You know him?"
"I met him once. I understand that he took over the command of Captain Rogers' unit after he—afterwards." Nick Fury had been part of another American experiment, a sort of red-headed stepchild of Project Rebirth, involving a French scientist who'd corresponded with Erskine during the early stages of his work. Peggy's understanding was that the results hadn't been as dramatic as Erskine's, or as stable. But if Fury was still in the game, after all this time, they had to have been worth something. "What's he doing now?"
"He's the big cheese. Director of SHIELD."
"Oh, I see. Good on him. Does he still have the…" She gestured to her eye.
Tony nodded. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," he intoned solemnly.
She smiled. Tony had obviously inherited Howard's love of colourful aphorisms. She was learning, however, not to voice such comparisons aloud.
"He said he was going to be stopping by to see you at some point this week. I told him he should probably call ahead, because your dance card was full of handsome superheroes."
Peggy rolled her eyes at the anachronism.
"Dance card? No?"
"Good try. Bit shy of the mark," she said briskly. "But you say he's coming to see me personally? That's your doing, I suppose?"
"Not me, Aunt Peggy."
She grimaced. "I've asked you before not to call me that. I'm not your father's sister, I'm certainly not old enough to be your aunt, and in point of fact, I want no part of you. I'm mystified as to why you keep turning up here when I've given you absolutely no encouragement to do so."
He clapped a hand to his chest. "How can you be so heartless? I'm an orphan. Who's going to cook me Thanksgiving dinner?"
"Idiot," she said, not without a certain amount of fondness. "Why is he coming, then, if not because of you? You're the only person I know who would have the director's ear."
"Aha. Not true. Your boyfriend has a pretty good grip on the other one."
She felt her cheeks heating up, and tried to conceal her reaction by burying her face in the roses again. "Captain Rogers and I are friends." It sounded weak, even in her own ears.
"Friends who send flowers?"
"You are aware that I've been in hospital? Don't blame him because you happen to have deplorable manners."
"Friends who kiss? He told me all about that, by the way."
She raised her head and fixed him with her iciest glare. "He did no such thing."
Tony shrugged, gleefully unrepentant. "Maybe not. But it took him about fifteen minutes to write this." He produced a small white envelope from some inner jacket pocket and held it out with two fingers. "I didn't read it. You're welcome."
She snatched the card from him and tucked it into the pocket of her sweater without opening it. She wasn't sure why she felt the need to conceal anything—no one really cared, and it wasn't as though she had a reputation to damage anymore. But she didn't feel like sharing any part of Steve with whoever was behind those cameras. And Tony had a gift for exposing one's vulnerable spots and making merciless sport of them—another trait he and his father had shared.
"I'm going to wash," she told him, crossing the suite on a path to the bathroom. "You may do as you like. You will anyhow." She didn't feel a particularly pressing need to entertain him, given that he was uninvited and not overly attached to the rituals of common courtesy.
"So," he said, stroking his goatee mock-thoughtfully. "Cap does like women. I owe Pepper fifty bucks."
He dodged with remarkable agility as the running shoe whizzed by his head.