Author's notes:

This is my take on what could have happened if the follow-up to the red dress scene had gone differently. As such, it is an AU, but really only a tiny one. A pocket universe, really.

This was originally part of a "5 times _ and one time _ _" story that was going to be about five times Steve and Peggy never hooked up (but could have). But this was the only one that wound up being realized and it took me forever to get right, so I'm just going to be lazy and make it a one-shot.

Title from a quote by Sophia Loren: "A woman's dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view."

It doesn't take Steve long to catch up to Agent Carter. She's easy to spot: a proud red ensign against a field of olive drab. He jogs until he pitches up alongside her, falls into step with the snap of her heels on the sidewalk.

"Hello again," he says, excruciatingly conscious of his extremities. He's slowly getting used to this body: the astounding things it can do, the economy of movement necessary to propel it. Gestures which seemed perfectly reasonable coming from a smaller man become cartoonish when enacted by his enormous frame. He feels as though he spends a lot of time flailing.

She acknowledges his presence with a regal nod.

Steve can't stop staring; tonight is the first time he's seen the formidable Agent Carter in civilian clothes. Not that she doesn't cut a fine figure in uniform, but the uniform seems designed to minimize, to conceal, to avoid attracting any kind of attention. The red dress, on the other hand, is made to do exactly the opposite, and the effect is… heart-stopping.

Aiming for a breezy tone, he asks, "Going out?"

"Coming back, actually. I was at a party with Howard. He dropped me at the pub so I could pass on that message to you."

Steve's cheeks sting with embarrassment. He wonders whether he could have been mistaken about earlier. The softness in her look, the promise in her voice—those things could have been meant for Stark, not him, if indeed they'd ever existed outside his own imagination.

He has no idea where she's headed, but nevertheless he hears himself say, "I'll walk you."

Peggy—Agent Carter, he reminds himself—looks decidedly unimpressed.

"I don't mind," he adds. "Really."

She impales him with a look, then unclasps her little handbag and slips her hand inside. He wonders whether she has a pistol in there. Whether she's about to shoot him if he doesn't back off immediately.

Instead, though, she pulls out a pack of cigarettes. "You don't mind if I smoke?" she inquires.

He shakes his head vigorously. (Truthfully, she could ask whether he'd mind if she socked him in the teeth and his answer would probably be the same.)

She coaxes a cigarette from the pack, slides it between her fingers, and pauses expectantly, watching him. It takes him a minute to realize she's waiting for a light.

He pats his pockets awkwardly. "Sorry."

She gives an elegant shrug, and carefully puts the cigarette away. "I usually carry my own lighter, but it wouldn't fit in my evening bag."

"It's a nice bag," says Steve, obligingly.

"It's a wretched object." She glares at the bag in a way that makes it seem as though its mere presence is a personal insult. He's crazy about the way she talks: the careless tone, the crispness of her consonants, and the expressions she uses, almost like speaking in code.

He isn't sure what to say back—does she want him to agree? To reverse his earlier statement? He opts instead for a pleasantry: "Nice night." When she doesn't reply immediately, he sticks his hands in his pockets, tries to give his movements an air of nonchalance. "Nice to stretch my legs a bit."

"I should think you'd had quite enough walking by now," she remarks dryly.

He feels himself reddening even further. "I seem to be saying all the wrong things."

She gives him an appraising look and says, "Stop trying so hard."

"Yes, ma'am," he snaps back automatically.

"It wasn't an order, Steve." The way she says his name, low and slightly gravelled, sends sparks travelling down his spine.

Adrenaline makes him cocky, makes him grin and drawl, "Good, because technically, I outrank you."

"Is that how you intend to win every argument from now on?" She isn't smiling, not quite, but he thinks she sounds more amused than annoyed.

"Were we having an argument?" The tone is mild, but he's now blown right past sass and straight into downright insolence. "That wasn't what it sounded like to me, Agent Carter."

She stops walking and turns to face him, fixing him with a penetrating look. Oh boy, he thinks, that was the line. You're gonna get it now, pal.

"And what did it sound like to you, pray tell?"

He straightens, his limbs tightening instinctively into parade rest. "Um. Well…"

She growls, "For God's sake," and then she grabs his tie and yanks him down until their mouths meet, bruisingly.

It isn't so much a kiss as a collision, and Steve is too shocked at first to do anything but stand there with his neck craned at an awkward angle, hands still clasped behind his back, trying to remember to breathe through his nose. It isn't that he hasn't thought about kissing Peggy—he thinks about it a little too much, actually—but he's always pictured himself being the instigator.

Which, now that he considers it objectively, was not likely to happen in this lifetime.

He freezes for a long moment, and it's when she freezes too that he realizes this is his shot, this is his one shot and he's blowing it. He surges forward in a flash of panic, eyes squeezed shut, every nerve ending in his body painfully alight. She makes a sharp little exclamation against his lips: surprised and, he thinks, pleased. She tastes a little like gin, and menthol cigarettes, and he laps it all up—more enthusiasm than technique, but Steve has always been a quick learner. It doesn't take him long to work out how to stroke his tongue against hers, or to discover that his hands fit her hips like they were made to hold her. It's a little bit like being in a fight: anticipating the other person's movements, reacting instinctively. And, just like fighting, he thinks that this is something he could get to be pretty good at, if he had a chance to practice.

She pulls away; Steve can hold his breath like an Olympic swimmer, but Peggy is panting a little, which does wonderful things for her decolletage. He's stunned, undone, too drunk on her to do anything but chase her mouth with his own.

"Stop," she commands, the word slightly muffled against his lips.

Steve shies back quickly, rocking onto his heels. He's ashamed that he didn't take the hint the first time—it isn't like him to be so pushy. He wants to say something, but he doesn't feel like 'sorry' is going to cut it. There's also a very small, very childish part of him that wants to say you started it.

"Not here," she adds.

The implication of the statement takes a moment to penetrate his kiss-dazed brain. "Where?" he asks.

Rather than answering, she inquires, "Have you a handkerchief?" She shoots another exasperated glance at her tiny handbag.

Steve nods, and fumbles at his pockets until he finds one; he always carries a couple, even though he never needs them now.

She scrubs the hanky against his mouth, a bit roughly, then holds it up so that he can see the crosshatching of scarlet against the coarse cloth. "You look a bit like the cat that got the cream, darling," she tells him.

He licks his lips, flushing slightly at the unexpected endearment. "I feel a bit like that," he confesses. "Do I pass inspection?"

She examines his face and hums critically.

Steve is wound tight, antsy, desperate to kiss her again. He has to make a concerted effort to keep still and wait.

"I suppose you'll do," she pronounces.

He nods. "What next?"

Agent Carter—Peggy—threads her arm through his, curling her hand around his bicep and squeezing a little. She favours him with a dazzling smile and says, "Walk me home, Rogers."

The next morning, Steve is late for his appointment with Howard Stark.

No one asks him to wait.