So, this chapter is just a light AU to start off with—we're still in the MCU in the 1940's. Project: Rebirth never worked, so Steve never got big and was never on the scene during the war, but Peggy was still in the S.S.R., and things continued for her as close to the original story as they could. Now it's 1946, in the middle of Season 1 of Agent Carter, and Peggy and Skinny Steve meet in the Automat.
(Mostly rated K, but just a quick content warning for someone getting beat up pretty bad at one point in an interrogation. 'Cause, you know, Thompson.)
"Aw, you really think so? Well, aren't you sweet," Angie said with a laugh.
"Angie, who are you talking to?" Peggy wondered as her friend drifted back along the diner counter to refill her coffee.
"Huh? Oh, I was talking to Steve."
"Who?" Peggy pressed. A glance down at the other end of the counter showed her no one was there.
"He's in the booth on the other end," Angie explained. Peggy craned her neck up and saw there was in fact someone sitting in the booth against the end of the counter, though the counter had blocked him from view. "He's a regular. I was tellin' him about that part I got in that little theater over by the station, and he came and saw me last night." She shot a significant look at Peggy. "Something which you still haven't managed to do, by the way."
Peggy sighed. "I did say sorry. I'm terribly busy at work. But I have every intention of coming this weekend."
"How busy can you be at the phone company?" she snorted, though she didn't seem too put out.
When Peggy finished her coffee and got up a little later, she had evidently gotten up just in time to catch Angie's friend coming out of his booth, because she turned around and collided with him.
"I'm so sorry!" he exclaimed, darting forward to snatch up her purse and the folder she'd dropped. He knelt down and scooped the papers back into the folder, then stood and handed it back to her. Even straightened up, he was still a couple of inches shorter than her. "Here you go," he said, brushing a lock of slightly over-long blond hair out of his face. "I'm so sorry," he said again.
"No harm done," she assured him. "I think this is yours?" While he'd been hurrying to pick up her things, she'd done the same to his, tucking papers back into the leather-bound notebook he'd been carrying.
"Oh, uh, yeah. Thanks," he said.
"My name is Peggy, by the way," she said, extending a hand. "I understand you're a friend of Angie's?"
"Oh, yeah," he replied, shaking the offered hand. His hand was thin and rather bony, just like the rest of him. "I'm Steve."
"Nice to meet you, Steve," she said. "Angie was telling me how excited she was that you went to see her show."
"Oh, well," Steve replied, blushing a little and scuffing one foot against the floor. "I figured it was the sort of thing you do for a friend, you know? Everyone could use someone in their corner."
Peggy smiled. What a lovely sentiment. "Well, thank you for supporting her like that." Outside the window, she saw a familiar car pull up in front of the Automat. "I hate to crash into you and run, but that's my ride," she said.
Steve smiled and nodded. "Nice to meet you."
Peggy nodded back and headed to where Mr. Jarvis was waiting. As she was climbing into the passenger seat, the door of the Automat burst open, and Steve came rushing out. "Peggy!" he called.
"Yes?" she asked curiously.
"I think I picked up one of your papers by mistake," he said, holding out a folded piece of paper.
"Oh," she said, recognizing it. "Yes. Thank you."
She looked it over carefully as they drove away. The paper contained some very sensitive information regarding her search for Howard, but, thankfully, it was encoded and looked like nothing more than a letter from her mother. Nothing to worry about someone else seeing, then.
It wasn't until she returned to the Griffith later that night that Peggy realized Steve wasn't the only one who'd ended up with the wrong papers after their little collision. Tucked inside her folder was a lovely little drawing of a little girl and a dog. It must belong to Steve, so she would take it back to the Automat tomorrow, and if he wasn't there, ask Angie to give it to him.
As luck would have it, he was at the Automat when she arrived, in the same booth he'd been in the day before. "Hello, Steve," she said, walking over.
He looked up from his soup in surprise. "Oh! Hi, Peggy," he said.
"I believe I accidentally collected something of yours yesterday," she said, pulling out the drawing and handing it to him.
Relief washed over his face as she held it out. "Oh, you found it!" he said, looking up at her with rather a lovely smile. "Thank you!"
"Important, is it?" she asked with a smile.
He blushed a bit. "Yeah," he replied. "If I wanted to make rent next week." He smiled as she cocked a curious eyebrow. "I do some freelance illustrations for ads for the newspaper on top of my regular job," he explained. "This one was due tomorrow."
"Well, I'm glad I was able to get it back to you," she said.
"Would you like to sit down?" he asked, gesturing at the other side of the booth. "I could, um, I could get you a cup of coffee or something."
"Thank you, but I've got to dash. I just came in hoping I could return this to you."
"Oh, alright." He looked a touch crestfallen, but still smiled at her warmly. "Thanks again for bringing this back."
"Don't lose it before tomorrow, hey?" she teased. He chuckled and waved as she walked away.
She didn't see him for a few more days after that, but when their paths did cross in the diner again, she decided to take him up on his previous offer to sit with him, though she bought her own coffee. Angie was busy, and it was nice to have someone to talk to. And Steve, as it turned out, was an interesting conversationalist. He'd been a bit awkward at first, as though surprised at her continued desire for conversation, but he was well-read and funny and he didn't once try talking down to her or saying anything lewd. He also seemed more than willing to listen, and actually paid attention when she talked. It was rather refreshing.
Whenever their paths crossed in the diner from then on, they sat and shared a meal together. Steve was an artist, and he worked at the local community college, and while his work was mostly secretarial, he hoped to teach classes some day. He'd done some secretarial work during the war too, handling correspondence for a general, since he hadn't been approved to enlist. He greatly enjoyed hearing Peggy's stories of what she'd done during the War (the ones she was allowed to share, anyway), and he seemed very surprised when Peggy asked to see some of his artwork, but he obligingly brought some of it along the next time.
"Steve, you're very good," she said as he somewhat shyly showed her some projects he had finished. Those thin, bony hands of his she noticed were actually equipped with long, graceful fingers, perfect for controlling the delicate movements of a pencil or brush.
"I—really?" he stammered. "You think so?"
"I do," she replied. "These are lovely."
"Oh." He blushed, but smiled proudly. "Thank you."
It was such a natural part of her job that Peggy rarely gave a second thought to telling people she worked at the phone company, but the longer she knew him, the more she felt bad about lying to Steve. He seemed honestly interested in her, and she found herself longing to tell him the truth about what she did, feeling like he might truly understand the struggle she was facing to prove herself. He also had the terribly sweet, rather inconvenient habit of actually listening to her when she talked, which she hadn't expected because so few people did it, and she found herself having to keep track of what lies she told so she could answer properly when he asked about her day at work or her colleagues.
One thing that was safe enough to share—as long as she left out details of cases—was her frustration with being treated like a secretary. "Not that there's anything wrong with being a secretary," she hastened to add as she remembered that that was actually Steve's job. He smiled like he knew what she was thinking and didn't look offended. "It's just that it isn't my job. I've got clients of my own to look after, and I'm not being paid extra to do Thompson's bloody filing for him."
Steve chuckled. "It's amazing how those tough guys who think they're such hot stuff seem to have such trouble with the alphabet."
Peggy laughed. "Run into that as well, do you?"
"Well, yeah, but it's not too big of a deal, since filing is actually part of my job," he allowed. "But it gets me when they make me go get their lunch. That isn't my job, and it takes time away from actually doing what I'm supposed to be doing. And I think they think it's funny to watch the little guy try to carry everything." He said this last a touch ruefully, then smiled up at her. "There's this one guy over in the Math Department who's a real jerk about it, and it's not my proudest moment, but I have sneezed on his sandwich once or twice."
Peggy arched a surprised eyebrow.
"What?" he protested innocently. "I have asthma."
Peggy laughed. "I must admit, I'm rather impressed. I may just develop allergies myself next time I'm sent for lunch."
"It's too bad you can't just tell him where to shove it, you know?" Steve mused, and Peggy knew he wasn't so much offering advice as he was lamenting the similar situation he found himself in.
"I have often wished for the opportunity to punch him," Peggy admitted. "Him and some of the others."
"I suppose the gentlemanly thing for me to do would be to offer to do it for you," Steve said. "But you look like a lady who can take care of herself."
"Thank you," Peggy said, pleased with his assessment.
"Don't want to steal your thunder or anything. But if you want," he said, cracking his knuckles threateningly. "I could send him a strongly-worded letter."
Peggy laughed. "I might just have you do that, if only so I could see his face when he opens it."
When a message came through on their captured Leviathan communicator that necessitated a mission that included Peggy, she leapt at the opportunity. It was thrilling to get the chance to go back into the field and to show Thompson that she actually knew what she was doing, but Peggy did wonder about Steve when she returned from Lithuania—would he have wondered where she'd gotten to? As it turned out, she didn't get the chance to ask, as several days passed at the diner without any sight of him.
"Angie, is Steve alright?" she asked one day. "I haven't seen him about for a while."
"He's probably home sick," Angie replied. "His asthma acts up pretty bad this time of year, what with all the pollen in the air." She leaned forward across the counter with a knowing smirk. "Why?"
"Just curious," Peggy replied.
"Uh huh," Angie responded. She grinned. "I think you're sweet on him."
"Don't be ridiculous," Peggy replied. "He's simply a friend."
"Sure. A friend who you sit with every time you come in here. A friend who you miss when he's gone. A friend who makes you get that soft little smile when you think no one's lookin'."
"I don't do that," Peggy protested.
"You do too," Angie retorted.
"I don't!" she insisted. "Can I not simply enjoy the company of a man who is neither a pig nor a lech and reads something other than the sports page?"
"Sure," Angie said with a shrug. "If that's what I thought you were doing."
"Angie," Peggy warned.
Angie held up her hands. "Fine. Maybe you ain't sweet on him. Sure looks like it to me, though. But maybe you should think about it. He may not be so much to look at, but he's got a good heart." She picked up her coffee pot and shrugged again. "You could do a lot worse."
Peggy found herself bristling at Angie's comment on Steve's appearance. Yes, he was small and thin, but there was a delicate sort of beauty in the shape of the bones of his face and the structure of his hands. She'd often wondered what it would be like to slide her fingers into those graceful artist's hands, to brush back the soft blond hair that was always falling into his face so she could stare more deeply into those intensely blue eyes. She straightened up with a start. That was the sort of thing she might be inclined to think if she was sweet on Steve. Perhaps Angie was closer to the mark than she'd thought. Peggy bit her lip thoughtfully. She was going to have to be careful. Her line of work didn't exactly allow the time for that sort of relationship. Steve had made no romantic overtures towards her, so maybe he didn't harbor the same feelings she appeared to be developing, but she had still best be cautious. People around her did have a tendency to get hurt. She didn't want that to happen to Steve.
Steve returned to his usual routine at the diner, seemingly in restored health, though he did wheeze from time to time. Once she was assured he was alright, Peggy began slowly pulling away. She couldn't bring herself to ignore him completely, but she started staying in the Automat for shorter amounts of time, taking her food to go and keeping their conversations brief. This had the added bonus of creating more of a professional distance around Angie as well, hopefully giving any outsiders the idea that their relationship went no farther than friendly waitress and regular customer. Friendships and romances could easily be used against her if anyone in Leviathan found out about them, and the distance would keep them safer.
Angie remained professional at work as Peggy pulled away, though she was not above a short temper when they crossed paths in the hallway of the Griffith. Steve, on the other hand, simply looked a bit perplexed at her change in attitude, but would always just nod and leave her alone. After it had happened a few times, he would smile and wave when he saw her, but he stopped trying to engage in anything other than small talk. He probably didn't think she saw the hurt in his eyes when he looked back down at his lunch, but she did. She'd seen it in Colleen's face and in Angie's often enough to recognize it, though it stung more now, for some reason. But then she would see Colleen's face, frozen in death as blood trickled from the bullet hole in her forehead—the memory cut deep, and it was far too easy to imagine Steve in her place. Peggy would force the image away and her resolve would strengthen once more. And she wouldn't ignore him forever. She didn't want to lose his friendship, but as Leviathan loomed ever larger and seemed to be taking more of an interest in her life lately, she just needed to build up enough distance to keep him from getting hurt. She could repair the damage once they were taken care of.
One day, she met up with Mr. Jarvis at the Automat, and as they were getting dessert to hide their discussion on the progress they'd made tracking Howard's mystery woman and plan their next move, something uneasy prickled up the back of Peggy's neck. She turned around slowly. The diner was far more empty than it had been when she came in. Only a few patrons remained, all men trying a little too hard to act casual, and all men she recognized. Oh, this wasn't good.
"Mr. Jarvis, I believe we're about to be in danger," she said quietly. "No, don't turn around!" she hissed. She moved farther down the line, nodding discreetly over her shoulder. "The diner has emptied rather quickly, don't you think?"
"A bit unusual for the lunch hour," he admitted. "What makes you think we're in danger?"
"Because everyone left in here is an S.S.R. agent," she replied. "They've emptied the diner to avoid civilian casualties; there are more of them waiting on the sidewalk outside; and as there's no one else here, either you or I would seem to be their target. Most likely me," she added. "I doubt they would send seven men after you."
"I would be offended had I not seen you in action," he replied. "What do you suggest we do?"
"I will engage the three in here. You find a way to block the door to keep the rest of them out," she instructed. If they moved quickly enough, surprise would give her an edge over the three she was going up against. "After the door is blocked, assist me in taking down whoever may still be standing, and then we'll head out the back."
"Very good," he said.
Peggy gave him a soft count to the three, then hurled herself over the edge of the nearest booth, feet first. Her feet drove into the chest of Agent Kimball, sending him to the floor, and the plate of pie in her hand went flying through the air and directly into Agent Flannigan's face. A foot into the side of Kimball's head made sure he stayed on the ground, leaving her free to deal with Flannigan and Chang.
They were both large men, but both were clearly surprised to see a woman putting up this much of a fight, and she used that to her advantage. She kicked and punched and rolled and dove, and she was distantly aware of Mr. Jarvis shouting that there were too many for him to hold at the door, but she was a bit preoccupied at the moment. There was a harsh scraping sound across the diner floor, and she punched Chang hard enough in the gut to double him over just in time for her to look over his head and see a chair sliding across the tile in Mr. Jarvis's direction. He shoved it quickly into the revolving door, jamming it tightly, then snatched up a napkin dispenser off a table and crashed it into the back of Flannigan's head, sending him to the ground as Peggy finished with Chang. In the momentary stillness, they looked over in the direction the chair had come from.
"Steve?!" Peggy gaped. "What in the hell are you doing here?"
"I was sitting over there," Steve said, hooking a thumb back to indicate his usual booth and looking like he was still trying to figure out what had just happened.
Peggy supposed he was short enough that the agents clearing the diner might have missed seeing him tucked away in the corner.
"I suggest we make our exit," Mr. Jarvis said, nodding at the back door. The men at the front were pounding on the door, and it looked like it had occurred to one of them to find something to break the glass with.
"Yes, I think we'd best," Peggy agreed. "Come on, Steve."
He hurried along behind them, and Peggy burst out the door into the back alley and right into the barrel of Jack Thompson's gun. "I told 'em it would take more than that to bring you down," he said. "Oh, and look," he added as Mr. Jarvis burst out the door behind her. "Stark's butler. Why am I not surprised?"
"I can explain, Jack," she said carefully, raising her hands.
"Oh, I'm sure you can," he replied. "And you will. Back at the office."
"I can't do that now," she insisted. "You've got to believe me. We've tracked the woman responsible for this, and she—"
"Shut up!" Jack warned. "You are in a deep hole here, Marge, and I—"
Whatever he'd been about to say was cut short as something white hurled through the air and collided with the side of his head. The shattering of ceramic accompanied his surprised fall to the ground, and Peggy stepped forward quickly, kicked his gun away, and punched him hard to make sure he stayed there. She turned around to see Steve stepping out from behind Mr. Jarvis.
"Steve, what did you just do?" she asked.
"I'm pretty sure I just attacked a cop with a serving platter," he said.
"Federal agent, actually," she corrected.
"Oh." He looked down at Jack and nodded. "Okay. That's worse, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is." She looked at him curiously. "Why would you do that? Not just here, but back in the diner?"
Steve shrugged. "You looked like you needed help."
Peggy smiled, touched, but shook her head. "And how do you know I'm not some sort of wanted criminal?"
"Well, apparently, you are," he said with a small smile. "But I trust you."
"I'm terribly sorry, but I really don't think this is the place," Mr. Jarvis interrupted apologetically.
"Yes, yes, you're right," Peggy agreed. "Let's stick to our plan to meet at the Dublin. Steve, do you know where that is?" Whether or not he had the full picture, Steve was in this now.
"Yeah, but I can—"
"No, we need to split up so we'll be harder to catch. Meet us there." She turned to Mr. Jarvis. "I need to go back and fetch something from the Griffith."
"What, now?" Mr. Jarvis asked incredulously.
"Yes," she insisted. Hidden in her wall was the last remaining sample of Dr. Erskine's formula. She'd taken it from Howard when she'd learned the genius planned on messing about with the nearly-perfected formula and monetizing the results. She'd punched him then too—she hadn't been able to bear the thought of the work a dear friend had died for being reduced to lining Howard's pockets. She had to fetch the sample now because she couldn't risk the S.S.R. tearing her room apart in their search for her and finding it and doing something worse with it. "Go. Be at the Dublin by tonight and we'll work out our next move."
They split off and ran, Peggy running briefly into Agent Sousa, who begged her to stop, but didn't run after her. Things got rather blurry after that—she managed to make it back and retrieve the formula, thanks to Angie, but then she ran into the very woman she'd been trying to catch who used her own knockout lipstick against her, and she woke up handcuffed in the back of Jack's car. Bloody hell.
It was a very long afternoon—Jack, Daniel, and the Chief took it in turns grilling her, Jack with his threats, Daniel with those big disappointed eyes, and the Chief with his blustering anger. She told them the truth over and over, but they all refused to believe her.
"Fine," the Chief finally growled. He gestured to the mirrored window, and a moment later, Thompson came back in. "I didn't want it to come to this, Carter," he sighed. "But you're not leaving us a lot of options here." He nodded at Jack. "Don't go easy on her just because she's a girl," he said, then left the room.
For the first time, Jack seemed unsure of himself. "You really going to make me do this, Marge?"
Peggy cocked an eyebrow. "I'm not making you do anything, Agent. And I hate it when you call me Marge."
"Really?" he asked. "That's what you're going to focus on now?"
"What else should I focus on?" she asked. "I've been telling you the truth for hours now, and it hasn't made the slightest dent in that thick skull of yours. May as well change the subject."
Thompson sighed. "Look, I don't want to do this, alright? I don't. But Chief's right—we're running out of time here, and you've landed yourself in a hell of a suspicious spot for someone who's innocent."
"I'll give you that," Peggy agreed. "But you really think you can beat the truth out of me?"
Thompson sighed again. "Maybe not. Didn't work on your friend—which kind of surprised me, I gotta say—but talking sure isn't doing it, so what else am I supposed to do?"
"My friend?" Peggy asked.
"Little guy, smart mouth," Thompson replied. "Hell of a throwing arm," he added, rubbing at the side of his head.
Peggy sat up straighter. They had Steve? "He's got nothing to do with this," she said.
"Really?" Thompson asked. "The plate he threw at my head would beg to differ."
"He's just a misguided Samaritan," she insisted. "He saw a lady being attacked and took it upon himself to intervene."
"Sure." Thompson sighed again and rolled up his sleeves. "Seems like he knows you better than that. Though he sure can keep his mouth shut under pressure," he admitted. "Hasn't spilled a thing. We could stand for some of our guys to be that tough."
It was certainly easy not to spill any secrets you didn't know. Peggy swallowed uneasily. Just how hard had they tried to extract her secrets from Steve? "What did you do to him?" she asked.
"Same thing I always do in these interrogation rooms," Thompson sighed. "Same thing I'm about to have to do to you."
Peggy winced, thinking of the beatings she'd seen Thompson inflict on uncooperative suspects, and imagining those fists hammering into those fragile-looking bones of Steve's.
"Jack, please listen to me," she begged. "I'm telling you the truth. You trusted me in Lithuania," she reminded him, and his expression softened. "Trust me again, please." She sighed. "I've told you the truth but…There's one more thing." She nodded at the vial containing what was left of the formula, swallowing hard. She hated to give it up, to think what they might do with it, but Steve had sacrificed a lot for her just now. She could do the same for him.
By the time she finished explaining, Daniel and the Chief had come back in. "That's really what this is?" Daniel asked, eyeing the bright blue liquid curiously. He turned back to Peggy. "Why were you so keen to keep it from us?"
"Because it's the last of what Dr. Erskine made and died for, and I didn't trust you not to abuse it," Peggy replied.
"So why give it up now?" the Chief asked.
Peggy sighed. "So you would know I was telling the truth," she said. Something had to give if they were going to get anywhere with this case, and if they believed her, they could go after Dottie before she got too far. And if they believed her, they would stop hurting Steve.
"So, your little friend," Jack began.
"His name is Steve," Peggy snapped.
"Steve, then," Jack corrected. "He really doesn't know about any of this?"
"He really doesn't," Peggy insisted. A guilty look flashed across Jack's face, and Peggy wondered how badly he'd hurt him. "Can I see him?"
"Um," Jack began, and the nervous knot in Peggy's stomach twisted tighter.
"Take her in there," the Chief said, waving at the door. "And let the little guy go."
"Thank you," Peggy said, getting to her feet. She nodded at the box of evidence they had laid out in front of her. "Everything is there. You should familiarize yourselves with it, and then after I make sure Steve is alright, we can get to work on finishing this case properly." She marched out of the room after Jack, head held high. She wasn't sure what making sure Steve was alright was going to look like, but she wasn't going to let them see her sweat.
Jack walked with her to one of the other interrogation rooms and unlocked the door. The figure sitting in the chair inside straightened up as the door opened, and Peggy's eyes went wide at the sight that greeted her. Steve's face was a bloody mess, swollen almost beyond recognition with welts and bruises. Blood was matted in his hair, he appeared to be having difficulty opening his eyes beyond a squint, and his nose was sitting at the wrong angle. He was doing his best to sit up straight, but he was hunched over awkwardly to one side, one arm curled protectively over his midsection. "Bloody hell, Jack!" she snapped.
Thompson, to his credit, had the sense to look ashamed.
"Steve?" Peggy asked. She stepped forward gingerly, as if even getting close to him would cause him further pain.
He had rolled his head stiffly to glare in the direction of the door, but his eyes widened as much as they could when they landed on her. "Peggy?" he rasped. "Y'alright?"
"Am I alright?" she repeated incredulously. "You're the one who looks like he just went seven rounds with a brick wall!"
Steve blew out a huff of unconcerned air, then winced as though he regretted the gesture. "'ve had worse," he said. "But y're okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, fond exasperation swelling up in her chest. She turned around to glare at Thompson. "Are you going to uncuff him, or are you going to stand there being useless? What were you thinking leaving him here like this? He needs a hospital!"
"No, 'm fine," Steve insisted, and if she hadn't been worried about splitting his head open, she would have smacked him across the back of it.
"No, you're not," she said, moving to the side so Jack could unlock the cuffs.
"Jus' get me home," he said. "I c'n clean up 'n sleep this off."
"Steve," she said, lowering her voice as Jack stepped away again. Steve lowered his hands gingerly into his lap. She leaned down so she could look him in the eye. "Barring the staggering amount of blood you're covered in, you've got a concussion, and I'm not sending you home with that." Even if she didn't know how hard Thompson hit, what she could see of Steve's eyes were unevenly dilated. "You're hurt, and you need help."
"I…" Steve began. Peggy knew that because of his size and his illnesses, he often had to struggle to prove himself, but there was a difference between making other people see your value, which she understood completely, and being idiotically macho, which she hadn't seen in him before and couldn't say she cared for.
"Not going to the hospital doesn't help anything. You don't have to prove to me or to anyone how tough you are," she told him.
"S'not that," he mumbled, looking down, and it was hard to tell under all the bruises, but she thought she could see color rising in his cheeks. He swallowed hard. "Can't afford it," he whispered.
"Oh," she breathed, something tightening painfully in her chest. Very carefully, she placed two fingers under his chin and tilted his face up to look at her. She smiled warmly. "The S.S.R. will take care of that," she said gently, reaching up a hand to brush aside a lock of hair that had fallen into his face. "All things considered, it's the least they can do."
"S'fair enough," he said, giving her a small smile in return.
"Thompson will pay for it personally, if I have my way," she added.
He huffed a laugh at that, then winced. "Don't," he breathed, his arm curling a little tighter around his midsection. "Hurts to laugh."
"Sorry," she said, feeling guilty for not catching that quicker. "Do you need help getting up?"
"Yeah," he whispered.
Peggy started to get him to his feet, then decided it was best she phone Mr. Jarvis for a ride first—he could probably get here in the time it would take her to get Steve to the front door. She hurried into the next room and telephoned, though it took a good deal of explaining to assure him that he could come to the S.S.R. without being arrested; she would be free to leave with him; and all misunderstandings regarding the pair of them and Howard had been cleared away now.
Hurrying back to Steve, she got him carefully to his feet, and had the fleeting thought that this was not what she'd had in mind when she'd thought about putting her arms around him before chastising herself—that was hardly important right now. "Is this alright?" she asked once they were upright, not sure if she was taking enough weight so that he could move.
He nodded carefully. "My feet work alright," he said. "S'long as you c'n keep me from falling over." She nodded. "Sorry I'm bleeding all over you," he added, casting an embarrassed look at her clothes. "Think 'm ruining your dress."
"Don't worry about it," she assured him.
"'s a nice dress," he mumbled.
She wasn't sure what to say to that, so she just started them walking. Mr. Jarvis had indeed arrived by the time they made it outside. "Good Lord," he exclaimed, jumping out of the car and hurrying out to help her move Steve into the back seat.
"Nearest hospital please, Mr. Jarvis," Peggy said, climbing into the back to help Steve stay upright.
"Right away." He hurried back to the front and took off quickly.
"Thanks," Steve whispered. He slumped over sideways, and Peggy stretched out an arm to pull him back up. "Think you're gonna hafta carry me the rest 'f th' way," he mumbled.
"What?" she asked.
"Sorry," he apologized, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.
"Faster, Mr. Jarvis," she said tightly.
Once Steve was settled in the hospital—they told the doctors he'd been mugged—she sank down into a chair in the waiting room to catch her breath. A cup of hot tea appeared in front of her, and she cast a quick smile up at Mr. Jarvis. "An ideal butler provides service without being asked," she said fondly. "Isn't that what you said?"
"Indeed," Mr. Jarvis said, smiling warmly. "A cup of tea seemed just the thing at the moment."
"Oh, very much so," she agreed, taking a long, fortifying sip.
"Now that we're not in danger for our lives," Mr. Jarvis began after a moment. "Who is our injured friend?"
Peggy sighed. "His name is Steve Rogers."
"A colleague of yours?"
"No." She sighed. "He wasn't supposed to be involved in this at all. He's just a friend who frequents the diner." She smiled ruefully. "He thinks I work at the telephone company."
Mr. Jarvis nodded. "Quite a gallant young man," he said.
Peggy swallowed guiltily. "I feel just awful about this."
"It is unfortunate that he should have been injured in assisting us, but the actions of your fellow agents are hardly your fault, Agent Carter," he said.
Peggy shook her head. "It isn't that. I mean," she sighed. "It is—he never would have gotten hurt if he hadn't been trying to help me." She sighed again. "What I meant was, I…I don't know why he was trying to help me at all."
"You did say he was your friend."
"Yes, but…" Peggy sighed. She'd been playing everything so close to the chest for so long, and Steve had been the one person she'd been able to be more free with. Now he was laid up unconscious in the hospital because of her, and… "I've treated him rather badly of late, I'm afraid," she admitted.
Mr. Jarvis nodded encouragingly for her to go on, so she did.
"I've known Steve for some time now, and I've…Well, I've grown rather fond of him," she said. "Perhaps too fond. It frightened me when I realized that; I…People around me do tend to get hurt," she said. "People like Colleen, and friends during the War…I didn't want that to happen to him, and I…" She played her thumb nervously along the edge of her teacup. "I've been giving him the cold shoulder lately," she said sadly. "I thought it would keep him safer."
Mr. Jarvis didn't say anything for a long moment, and when he did, Peggy was surprised at the gentleness in his voice. "Miss Carter," he began. "As someone who lies to his wife about his whereabouts on a terribly frequent basis, I completely understand the desire to keep those you care about safe. You do care about him," he said, cutting off the automatic protest he saw forming on her lips. He smiled warmly. "And that is no bad thing. Just because we must sometimes fight alone, it doesn't mean we must always walk alone. You do walk a difficult path—one that few men would be able to keep pace with." His smile widened. "But that this young man was willing to fight and put himself in danger based only on what he knows of your character…He might well be worthy of a chance at walking with you."
Peggy nodded. "Perhaps." It did sound rather inviting, though there was air to clear between them first. She sighed. But unfortunately, there were more pressing things at hand. "But Dottie Underwood is still out there," she said. "And there's something rotten about Ivchenko. I feel we're running out of time."
"Duty calls," Mr. Jarvis agreed. "Return to your post, Agent Carter. I shall stay here and keep watch over our friend. Ring the front desk if you need me."
"Thank you, Mr. Jarvis."
For what it was worth, Jack did apologize for his behaviour when she returned to the office, though Peggy told him she wasn't the one he should be apologizing to. Now that she'd been proven right, he was willing to listen to her and follow her lead, and the next twenty four hours were a whirlwind as Howard returned from hiding, Ivchenko made his move and they lost the Chief, followed shortly by the massacre at the theatre, then a rush against time to stop Ivchenko and Dottie and their plan to murder everyone in New York and place the blame on Howard.
In the end, it all came out right, though Dottie escaped to fight another day. Howard offered Peggy and Angie a place to stay at one of his properties, and Peggy took the evening to have a nice hot bath and collapse into bed. She was woken in the middle of the night by what she eventually recognized as a ringing telephone, and decided there were definite downsides to having a phone in every room.
"Yes?" she croaked, having stumbled her way to the phone in the far corner of her room.
"Miss Carter," Mr. Jarvis greeted, sounding awfully chipper for such an ungodly hour. "I would have waited until morning to call and offer my congratulations on your victory, but the doctors have informed me that Master Rogers will be waking up soon. I thought you might like to be present."
"Yes," Peggy said, feeling suddenly more awake. "Yes, I'll be right there."
She phoned a taxi, dressed quickly, and hurried out the door. Mr. Jarvis was waiting for her at the hospital. "His condition has improved greatly since you last saw him. The doctors assure me of a full recovery."
"Thank you, Mr. Jarvis," Peggy said with a relieved smile. "And thank you for watching over him." She placed a hand on his shoulder. "You should go home and get some rest," she told him. "I'll stay with him now."
He nodded, smiled, and left.
Carefully, Peggy opened the door to the room Steve was in. He did look much better—bruises still covered his skin, but the swelling had gone down enough to return his face to its proper shape, and his nose was back where it should have been. His left arm was in a cast to the elbow, and Peggy took a moment to be grateful it was his left and not his right—he would still be able to do the drawing and painting that he loved so much.
She sat down in the chair beside his bed, and after a moment's hesitation, she picked up his good hand and held it in both of hers, mindful of the IV needle in the back. "I'm sorry," she said, squeezing his fingers gently.
She sat there a little while longer, then sat up straighter and pulled her hands back when he sniffed and turned his head, shifting on the mattress as he began to come awake. "Steve?" she said.
He blinked rapidly, once, twice, and then again, clearing the sleep from his eyes. They were still ringed with bruised circles, but he could open them all the way now, and there was clarity in the blue staring back at her. "Peggy?" he yawned.
"Hello," she said, unable to stop herself smiling. "You're in the hospital," she added as his eyes darted around the room questioningly.
"Yeah, I can tell," he replied, giving her a little smile. "Not my first rodeo." He moved to sit up and Peggy leaned forward to help him, helping him upright and adjusting the pillows behind him.
"How do you feel?"
He considered. "Kind of like I got hit by a truck," he said at last.
"Do you remember what happened?"
"Yeah. You took out a diner full of federal agents, I brained one of 'em with a serving platter, then we split up and they caught up with me. Then Thompson beat the snot out of me." He sniffed thoughtfully. "I can see why you don't like him."
That surprised a laugh out of Peggy.
"How long was I out?" he asked. "I'm guessing since I'm not handcuffed to the bed or anything, I'm not getting arrested for helping you attack a federal agent."
"No, you're not," she agreed. "The diner was almost two days ago. A lot has happened since then."
Steve huffed a laugh at that, and it didn't look like it hurt as much as it did last time. "Yeah, I'll buy that. Am I allowed to ask what the hell happened, or would you have to kill me?"
She knew he was making a joke, but a guilty knot twisted back into place in her stomach all the same. "No, I do owe you an explanation," she said. "And an apology."
"Lots of things. Lying to you for starters. I'm an S.S.R. agent as well."
To her surprise, he smiled even wider. "I kind of figured. I knew you didn't work at the phone company."
Peggy felt her eyebrows shoot up into her hair. "You did?"
He chuckled. "Remember the day we met? How I ended up with some of your paperwork in my folder?"
"And remember how I told you I worked as a secretary to a general during the War? I handled his correspondence. I know what a Bacon cipher looks like."
Peggy gaped at him. "You've known this whole time that I was a secret agent?"
"Yeah," he said, still smiling and looking quite pleased with himself. "I mean, I didn't know for what agency or anything, but…yeah."
"And you let me blather on about working for the phone company?"
He chuckled. "It was obviously your cover. I wasn't gonna blow it. I wasn't ever upset that you were lying about it. And I could tell which parts of what you told me were real—you get this spark in your eye when you're talking about things you really care about."
Peggy felt embarrassed and touched and wrong-footed all at once. "Well," she said at last. "Thank you for keeping my cover. And I'm still sorry. About the lying, and about you getting dragged into the rest of this." She sighed deeply. "That was…I've seen Thompson in action in those interrogation rooms," she said. She looked at Steve, shaking her head in wonder. "That was incredibly brave of you, standing up to him like that. You know you actually impressed him with the way you kept quiet?" She shook her head again, proud of him and hurt for him. "Why didn't you tell him the truth?"
"Well, beyond some guesses I had, I wasn't too sure what the truth was," Steve admitted. "I told him I didn't have anything to do with what was going on, but he didn't believe me, so I figured I'd zip it and at least annoy him if I couldn't fight back. But mostly…" He shrugged. "I didn't want to get you in trouble."
"You didn't even know what I was doing," she protested.
"I know. But I trusted you." He smiled warmly. "It's the kind of thing you do for a friend."
Peggy felt tears springing to her eyes. It was ridiculous, what he was saying, but he was so genuine. She huffed a watery laugh. "This was a hell of a lot more than going to see Angie in a bad play."
Steve chuckled. "Alright. It's the kind of thing you do for a really good friend."
The words warmed her and twisted the guilty knife in her gut deeper all at once. "Steve, I…That's the other thing I need to apologize for. For the last several weeks, I…I've treated you dreadfully."
Steve's smile fell at that, and his lack of a rebuttal told her how deep her actions had cut him.
"It was nothing you did," she assured him. "I just…People around me tend to get hurt, and I thought if I could push you away, you'd be safer."
Steve huffed a half-hearted laugh. "Didn't really work."
That stung, but she deserved that. "No," she agreed. "And I'm so sorry."
"You know, I, I spent all those days trying to figure out what I'd done to run you off," he said. She swallowed down a painful knot in her throat. "Knowing now why you did it…I get it. But I would have liked to make that choice for myself."
Peggy nodded, looking down at her feet.
"But I would have chosen to stay," he said softly, and she looked back up at him. His blue eyes were blazing with sincerity. "Even if I knew this was coming. I would've stayed." He smiled at her in a way that loosened that guilty knot in her throat and made it easier to breathe. "You're important to me, Peggy. I would have chosen to stick with you."
She looked into his eyes for a long moment, feeling she was right on the edge of something. She'd been pushing people away for so long, to protect them, she'd thought, but it was to protect herself too. She was tired of losing people she cared about. But this time, she hadn't. He was still here.
"You're important to me too, Steve," she said. Somewhat of its own accord, her hand drifted back down to the mattress, picking up his good one and threading her fingers through his. It fit remarkably well. He stared down at their intertwined hands in surprise, blinking dumbly up at her when she continued speaking.
"If I wasn't so used to lying all the time, I would have realized sooner just how important you are to me," she went on. She smiled at him sadly. "You're the first person I've ever felt guilty lying to. I've never felt more respected, or cared about, or, or…comfortable than I have when I'm with you. I…" She couldn't think of how she wanted to say what she needed to, so, before she lost her nerve, she leaned forward, closed her eyes, and kissed him gently.
When she pulled away, he was staring at her with eyes wider than she'd ever seen them. She wasn't entirely sure he was breathing.
"I'm sorry," she said, feeling suddenly embarrassed and letting go of his hand. "If I've over-stepped…"
"No, no!" he said quickly, finally regaining the ability to speak. "No, it wasn't, I mean I…" He stopped, taking a couple of breaths to collect himself. The way he smiled back at her when he looked up again made something flutter inside her chest.
"That was very, very okay that you did that," he said. "It just…" He shook his head in awe. "It really surprised me."
"It did?" she asked. "After everything I just said?"
He lifted one shoulder in an embarrassed shrug. "That kind of thing doesn't happen to me a lot. Well, ever," he corrected. "And just…You're amazing, Peggy. The fight you fight and the fire in your soul and the good heart you have…The longer I knew you, the harder I fell, and I don't know if I've ever seen anything as beautiful as the way you decked that guy in the diner."
Peggy felt herself blushing at that, even as a smile crept up her cheeks.
"I just never wanted to kid myself that a girl like you would go for a guy like me," he finished. "I was more than happy to think we could just be friends. So, yeah, it surprised me." A mischievous quirk tugged his smile up even higher. "I'm ready for it now, though," he added. "If you, you know, if you wanted to do it again."
Peggy grinned and leaned forward again, taking his face carefully in her hands and planting her lips on his. She kissed him with more purpose this time, and this time, he kissed her back.
"Ow," he winced, as one of her hands shifted around to the back of his head, gripping his hair. "I think I've got stitches back there."
"Sorry!" Peggy replied, letting go and sitting back up.
"No, it's okay," he said, leaning after her as his lips chased hers, like he was afraid to let her get too far away. He kissed her again and she leaned back towards him. "Maybe just hold on to a different part of my head."
Peggy laughed and carried on kissing him, a bit more gently this time. She sighed happily when they stopped to breathe, resting her forehead against his. He really did have the most beautiful eyes. She couldn't believe she'd worried so much about this—she didn't know that she'd ever felt anything so right before. She smiled at him. "It's entirely possible that I'm falling in love with you, Steve."
If she'd thought his smile was beautiful before, it was positively radiant now. "I think I'm falling in love with you too, Peggy."
I am a firm believer in the fact that Steve and Peggy would have gotten together even if the serum had never worked. Peggy was totally into Skinny Steve.
So, that's it for the Agent Carter AU. Next up, we'll hop over and drop our heroes off in one of my other favorite shows and they'll fight some monsters.