Fandom: Captain America/Avengers
Series: To Rewrite History
Pairings: Past Steve/Peggy, Peggy/Daniel Sousa
Ratings/Warnings: R for depression, pining
Word Count: 6507
Disclaimer: If I owned it it would be even more depressing.
Summary: Peggy is determined to bring Steve Rogers home.
I need to find Steve’s body. The thought struck Peggy midway through her breakfast on a fine spring morning in New York. She needed to bring Steve home because she was happy; Peggy was blissfully, incandescently happy in her adopted city and it wasn’t right that Steve Rogers never got to feel the same.
If things had turned out differently, Steve might be the one sitting there across her breakfast table and while Peggy certainly didn't think her husband second-best, she couldn’t deny a twinge of might-have-been. For years, she'd held out hope that Steve would turn up somewhere but enough was enough. Peggy was Mrs. Daniel Sousa now and she didn't want to build their future while dwelling on the past. If she found Steve, maybe she could put those memories to rest so that she could focus freely on her current happiness.
“Pegs? Are you all right?” her husband asked, drawing Peggy from her thoughts. When she glanced up, Daniel looked concerned and she could hardly blame him; her epiphany had frozen her halfway through a sip of tea.
“Yes, I’m sorry. I was just thinking about how pleased I am to be here,” Peggy told said, putting down her mug and then reaching out to take her husband's hand. “And I was also thinking that it’s time for the SSR to bring Steve's body home.”
“Steve? You mean Steve Rogers? But I thought no one knew where he had fallen,” Daniel replied. “I checked the files on his last mission a few years ago and they just said ‘in the Alps.’”
“That’s true officially. Colonel Phillips never put the location down in writing in case the Red Skull’s plan succeeded. No one wanted Hydra to get their hands on Captain America’s body, not with the things his blood can do. But that threat is gone now and Steve deserves a proper burial. None of us would be here if he and the Howling Commandos hadn’t captured Arnim Zola back in 1945.”
“You’re right, of course. And you know I’ll help you any way I can,” Daniel said and that right there was one of the many reasons that Peggy married him. “Do you want to talk to Stark before coming into the office today? You don’t have any urgent cases so this is probably a good time.”
“That would be lovely. Are you sure?”
“Of course. What’s the point of being the Director if I can’t help my own wife out?” Daniel asked with a grin.
“I suppose. Just don’t make a habit of it,” Peggy told him, amusement in her voice. She finished her breakfast and washed up, gathering her coat and kissing her husband before walking out the door.
Howard wasn’t home when she arrived but Jarvis knew where to find him and when the scientist heard what Peggy had to say, he dropped everything. In fact, Howard offered to buy a plane and fly her to Austria that instant and Peggy was reminded that Steve Rogers had been his friend as well. If he’d known the location of Captain America’s last mission, Howard probably would have tried to find him years ago. But the scientist had been in London when Steve went MIA and he‘d never asked Peggy for the details; he hadn’t wanted to poke a bleeding wound.
However, that wound finally had a chance to heal completely and after almost ten years, both of them were more than ready to see Steve brought home again.
Once Howard got an idea in his head, he became a force of nature and Peggy found herself on a plane to Europe two weeks later. This was her first time on a transatlantic flight but planes hadn’t changed that much since the war and her stomach settled soon enough. Peggy gave herself twenty minutes to enjoy the view before going back to work; she and Howard had a general plan already but there were still a few details to hash out.
After some discussion, Peggy and Daniel had decided to let the scientist fund this expedition rather than treating Steve’s retrieval as an official case. While the SSR had a vested interest in the captain’s body, Peggy wanted to ensure that he was treated with the respect that he deserved.
The man she knew had earned a quiet burial – no crowds of well-wishers, no expectations, no one digging up his corpse for the secrets in his blood. The government already had a monument to Captain America – a rather ghastly statue in Peggy’s opinion – and senators had used his name to promote everything from US war bonds to the army’s latest gun.
Thus, as far as the SSR was concerned, Peggy was on holiday. She and Howard Stark were flying to Europe for a reunion of old war buddies and indeed, they intended to pick up the surviving Howling Commandos on their way to Austria.
Although Dugan, Jones, and Morita were all American, the latter two had stayed in Europe once World War II was over and Dugan had always been too reckless for his own good. He’d got himself killed in Korea while doing something brave and stupid that had saved a score of lives. It was a fitting way for Dugan to be remembered but Peggy had still wept at his funeral and she was sorry that he couldn’t be here to see his captain found.
However, the rest of the Howling Commandos met Peggy and Howard in France when their plane landed to refuel. Peggy hadn’t seen most of these men since the war had ended and they’d all gone their separate ways. So the reunion was more emotional than she’d expected. The agent hugged her old friends tightly, trying not to dwell on the empty spaces where their missing men should be.
From France, the group flew on to Austria. Their plane landed in a tiny airport, the closest one that Howard could find to the place where Steve had fallen. Peggy planned to begin their search near the train tracks and then spread out from there; she hoped to find him quickly but she wasn’t counting on it. Who knew how far Steve’s body might have travelled in the last eight years?
So the search party stocked up with enough supplies to last a week before setting out into the mountains. Jones and Morita took the lead; the latter was the best with maps and only Jones had been on the train with Steve before he’d fallen to his doom.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Howard groaned when they stopped to take a break several hours later. “I knew I should have spent more time working on my jet-pack. How much farther do you think?”
“Maybe five miles?” Jones told him before pointing to the higher mountain slopes. “The train tracks run along those cliffs above us but I’m not sure exactly where they fell. We should probably keep a look out from now on.”
The group did just that but no one had seen any sign of Steve when night began to fall. So they set up their base camp near the point where the Howling Commandos had boarded Zola’s train. That seemed like a good location from which to start a proper search and while they could have camped rough, there was no reason for it; Howard needed somewhere to set up all his gear.
“What the devil is that thing?” Morita asked when the scientist pulled a small contraption from his pack. It looked similar to a radio but smaller and with dials that the soldier didn’t recognize.
“It’s a metal detector,” Howard told him with a smirk. “Still a prototype but better than any other mobile detector on the market, I guarantee it. Once I get the battery charged, it should last at least six hours and help narrow down the search.”
“What kind of range are we talking?”
“A mile on a good day,” the scientist admitted. “And probably less out here. But at least we won’t have to search a hundred crevices by hand.”
“Leave the man alone. Of course it will be helpful,” Falsworth interrupted. "We didn't find Steve's shield on Zola's train so it probably fell when they did and even if Cap somehow lost it earlier, that would be a place to start. Hell, you know those old uniforms had enough metal in them to sink a battleship. Steve's outfit might ping that detector by itself."
“Fair point,” Jones agreed with a wry chuckle. “Sarge's coat did have an excess of brass buttons.”
“Right,” Stark replied. “Now that my genius has been proven once again, will you leave me to my work?”
“Come on, boys,” Peggy said. “You can help me with the tents. Unlike Mister Stark here, I don't plan to sleep with the machines.”
This comment received a chorus of agreement and several barks of laughter, chuckles turning to guffaws when the scientist called back, “I'd rather sleep out here than listen to Jones snore.”
The Howling Commandos had camp set up within the hour and Falsworth whipped together a decent meal from the supplies that they had brought. It was certainly much better than some rations that they'd had during the war.
The next morning, Peggy, Howard, and the other men began to scour the mountains for Steve’s body. This first full day of searching left their group exhausted, sore, and empty-handed, Stark's metal detector leading them only to rusted chunks of Zola's train. On the one hand, this wreckage was evidence that they were close to the site of Steve’s final struggle. But Peggy wasn't here for artefacts and after a full night's rest, the agent threw herself into the hunt again.
On the third day, Morita found a body and Peggy's heart leaped in her throat. But as soon as she saw the corpse, she knew this wasn’t Steve. The body was ravaged by wind and weather, most of the flesh torn free and eaten by wild animals, but the agent knew anyway. Because Steve had never and would never wear Hydra's symbol on his chest.
Somehow the skull-faced octopus had remained untarnished, the only bright spot amidst the rock and scattered snow. Although it was nearly summer, there was still snow on the highest peaks and ice in the deepest crevices, the frozen rivers making their search more difficult. Even the soldier's bones were covered in frost and Hydra's pin was cold enough to bite when Peggy picked it up. She put it in her pocket on an impulse that she could not explain, her hand gripping the pin in a tight fist as Dernier and Morita buried their former enemy. Peggy could not object to their actions even though she did not share their mercy, not when the scar of losing Steve was bleeding once again.
The agent wanted to talk to Daniel. Her husband always made the world seem brighter but even Stark didn't have a phone that could call New York from here. So Peggy had to settle for imagining what he might say instead.
“You don't know this soldier’s story,” her mental Daniel told her. “You don't know if he truly believed in Hydra's cause or if he was just a conscript that Zola sent to die and he probably left behind a family. Someone probably mourned him the way that you mourned Steve.”
Present or not, Daniel always made Peggy see a different side of things.
The agent still hated Hydra; that would never change. But when the commandos found another soldier, Peggy managed to find a shred of sympathy. She helped to bury this one, though not before collecting his Hydra pin as well. Once they found their prize, Peggy could tell the German government about the men lost in the Alps. Perhaps the army would know whose bodies were still missing and their loved ones did not need to know that they'd been Hydra when they died.
The Howling Commandos found a few more corpses, marking each grave with a symbol built of gathered stones. Each body was a sign that they were searching in the right direction and they would spend as long as it took to find their fallen friend.
“Hey! I think I've got something!” Stark shouted two days later when his detector beeped. “About a hundred yards up that way.”
“Probably just another piece of Zola's train.”
“I don't think so. It's smaller than the others and the composition's different.”
“So it's a smaller piece of Zola's train,” Falsworth retorted to general laughter but he and Peggy climbed up the cliff to check on Stark’s lead anyway.
Nearly summer or not, the mountain above them was half glacier, a thin sheet of dirt and water over ice. So it was slow going, steep and treacherous, and the agent made sure to tie her lead ropes tightly just in case. Indeed, Peggy was grateful for her training by the time they reached the upper ledge. This was the steepest climb she'd made so far and she never would have thought to check here if not for Stark's device. But when the agent started digging, she saw a flash of red.
“Was that-?” Falsworth asked, too overcome to say the words aloud. After Peggy nodded – her own throat just as choked up – he unclipped his rope and moved around her, dropping to his knees and digging from the other side.
Between the two of them, they uncovered their find quickly and Peggy's breath caught at the sight of Steve's old shield. The paint was chipped and scratched in several places, peeling off to show the metal underneath. But the agent would have recognized that symbol anywhere.
“It's wedged in here right proper,” Falsworth said, tugging on the shield as Peggy relayed the news to the others down below. “They must have hit the rocks at speed.”
Falsworth tugged a little harder and the shield moved slightly. So he braced his feet against the rocks and grabbed the handles of the shield before throwing all his weight into his next pull. One strap snapped in half but the other one held firm, giving Falsworth enough leverage to pull the item free.
“There we are,” he said, brushing snow and mud off metal.
“Any sign of Steve?” Peggy asked, glancing around the ledge. If Steve had fallen here, his body wasn't obvious.
“No, I don't... Shit!” Falsworth shouted as the ground underneath his feet began to crumble. He must have been standing on a hidden sheet of ice, one that had started to give way beneath his weight. Steve's shield slipped through his fingers as he lunged for his guide line. But Falsworth's jump missed by a mile and Peggy couldn't hope to catch his hand before he fell.
So the agent threw the end of her line in desperation, praying that the anchor knots would hold. Peggy saw Falsworth grab the rope as he dropped out of sight and even though she braced herself, a sharp jerk on the guideline almost pulled her from her feet.
“You alive?” she called, dreading silence as the answer.
“Yeah, I'm all right,” Falsworth called back shakily. A few seconds later, he reappeared, pulling himself up onto the ledge carefully.
“Next time keep your damn rope clipped on,” Peggy said, her voice sharp with relief even as she gave him a hand. “I almost wasn't fast enough.”
“Don't worry, I think I learned my lesson,” the other Brit replied, putting words to action and tying on his rope again. “But I still need to climb down there; I couldn’t grab Cap’s shield.”
Peggy looked over the edge of the crevasse. The gap descended into shadow quickly and she couldn't tell how deep it was. But she thought that she could see the faintest hint of metal down below.
“I think we'll need more rope,” the agent told him. “And since I'm by far the lightest, it's probably best I go alone.”
She climbed back down the cliff to talk to the rest of their search party and soon she was ready to retrieve the shield again. Peggy just hoped that her rope would be long enough to reach the bottom of the ice.
“I think it's actually a glacier,” Stark corrected while Jones and Morita rolled their eyes. Jones would be joining Peggy and Falsworth at the top of the crevasse while the rest of the commandos stayed below. None of them were sure how well their radios would work once she descended and it seemed safer to have a couple spotters, Jones to back up Peggy and the other Brit to relay messages.
“All right, whenever you're ready,” Jones said after checking the agent's ropes again.
She set her feet against the edge and started inching downward step by step. The descent took all of Peggy's concentration, her boots threatening to slip on the icy wall despite their special tread. Indeed, the agent's fingers were already starting to go numb from gripping her rope so tightly and she worried that she would slip and lose control.
However, every time Peggy glanced down, Steve's shield was a little closer. The sight of her goal kept her moving despite the cold and tiredness; she refused to end her abseil early when they had come so far.
It felt like hours before her feet finally touched bottom. Peggy tested the ground carefully before putting her full weight onto the ice, not wanting another accident. But it seemed that this sheet of ice lay over stone instead of air. So the agent let herself relax a little, stretching out her shoulders and then leaning down to grab the shield.
“I'm at the bottom,” Peggy said into her radio, the line crackling with static before Jones answered her.
“Everything clear? Did you get Cap's shield?”
''I have it and I think it's safe to tie off; I'll loop my rope around the shield so that you can pull it up. Then drop th- oh my… Oh my god.”
“Carter, are you all right?”
Falsworth voice was insistent, his worry clear even through the bad connection. But the agent couldn't find the words to answer him. Peggy didn't have any words at all.
For when she had looked away from the wall, she’d discovered that the crevasse opened up into a small cavern and there she saw what she'd been searching for. There was Steve in all his glory, his body recognizable even in the gloom. Peggy would've recognized that outfit anywhere.
The agent had been expecting bones, although she hadn't wished to think about it, bones were logical. And yet, Steve looked exactly the way that she remembered; he could be sleeping if not for the layer of ice that covered his corpse from head to toe and Peggy felt her heart clench painfully.
He had been here the whole time - cold, forgotten, and alone. Or no, not alone. When she took a step closer, she realized that the dark patch next to Steve wasn't a shadow after all.
“Oh my God,” Peggy whispered. “That’s Sergeant Barnes.”
Somehow she'd managed to forget that the sergeant had disappeared on the same mission as his captain; her grief had been too focused on Steve Rogers to mourn the man’s best friend as well. In truth, she had liked Barnes well enough but she hadn’t really known him and his death had not affected her the same.
Even in Peggy's memories, the man was largely just his captain's shadow; she had rarely met the charmer that Steve so often talked about. Barnes had been grim and sarcastic in her presence – his jokes tinged with bitterness after he'd been captured – and as a shadow, it seemed almost natural that the sergeant had disappeared once Steve’s light was gone.
Peggy had forgotten Barnes but the Howling Commandos had remembered. Indeed, the agent realized now that they’d been looking for both the sergeant and their captain from the start. Because the others had talked in plurals – always plurals – and she'd just never questioned it. Peggy had assumed the choice of words was some weird quirk of American English when she'd noticed it at all and that casual dismissal sent a stab of shame through her chest when she thought about it now.
“Someone else had better get down here,” the agent said into her radio. “I found Steve. I found them both.”
There was a garbled shout from the other end, the echoes of a cheer filtering down to Peggy's ears. About five minutes later, Morita dropped down beside her and his reaction to the sight of his old friends was no less heartfelt than the agent's own had been.
“Just bad damn luck,” he muttered, walking over to the bodies. “They must have hit that ridge just right to knock them both down here. Cap's shield probably saved them, kept them from dying at the impact. But even he couldn't have climbed that wall, not with a broken leg, and while he might have boosted Barnes up, the sergeant never was the sort to leave a man behind.”
“Broken?” Peggy asked.
Morita nudged Steve's leg, drawing her attention to a rough splint around his thigh. A mix of cloth and sticks from the little she could see, the bits of wood probably left in this cavern by the wind.
Morita didn't speak again but the huddled forms before them told the rest the story on their own. Steve and Barnes pressing close for warmth, hoping to last long enough for the captain's leg to heal and give them both the chance of getting out. Falling asleep shivering and just never waking up, hidden from both searchers and the warm touch of the sun.
On the one hand, Peggy was glad for the ice, the cold that allowed them to find their friends intact rather than bones or partial corpses. She didn't know if she could have handled the sight of Steve like that. And yet the agent cursed the vagaries of fate as well; if the captain's luck had only been a little different, both these men might still be alive right now. Indeed, Steve was so well-preserved that Peggy almost expected her former love to open up his eyes.
“Come on. Let's get them out of here,” Morita told Peggy quietly.
Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that easy. When Morita tried to move Steve's body, he discovered that their friends were frozen solid to each other and the ground where they had lain. Freeing Steve and Barnes without any further damage required several hours of hard labour, Peggy and the others working in shifts to avoid getting frostbite from the cold.
Only when Steve and Barnes had been carved from the ice together could Howard rig up a harness and a pulley in order to lift their bodies out. Even then manoeuvring two frozen corpses from the crevice was an exercise in angles and Peggy honestly wasn't sure how she could have done it without every person there. She was terrified of dropping Steve the entire time, terrified to lose him now that she had found him, and she didn't breathe easily until he and Barnes were resting on solid earth again.
Once everyone had packed up their equipment, the group set out with their prize, the trek back to their camp-site taking much longer then the journey there. Steve and Barnes were an awkward weight to carry even with all six of them around their makeshift sling. However, despite several close calls, they managed to bring their friends back safely and Stark called Jarvis to retrieve them early the next day.
Soon Peggy, Stark, and the others were on a plane back to the states, their hard won prize packed away on ice inside the hold. Smuggling two bodies into the country was surprisingly easy – Stark's endless fortune the difference between a quick wave through customs and reams of paperwork.
The two sealed cases were wheeled from the plane without an issue and the commandos loaded them into the lorry that Stark had purchased special while he made a few quick calls. Then Jarvis climbed into the front seat and drove them to the scientist’s main laboratory, the building located near New York’s waterfront for safety when experiments went bad.
The inside of the laboratory was cavernous and empty, even the security guards given the night off. Secrecy was paramount in the commandos’ mission; only secrecy would allow Captain America to rest in peace when there were so many who would wish to claim his body for the power in his blood. The fewer who knew of his recovery the better and the commandos intended to prepare their friends for burial themselves.
Indeed, Peggy planned to guard Steve until he was safely buried; she didn't trust Stark not to take some samples of the captain's flesh or blood. Given the choice, she preferred to have that information in his hands than Hydra's, but she thought it would be better for Erskine's serum to simply disappear. In her experience, the serum made monsters just as easily as heroes and few men were as good as Steve at heart.
So the agent helped the others move Steve and Barnes into the laboratory and then took up her vigil. Although they needed the bodies to thaw before placing them inside their coffins, the scientist had best keep his syringes to himself.
The rest of the Howling Commandos were quick to back up Peggy when the scientist starting bringing out equipment and she was forced to make her position clear. They'd seen the damage that one truly evil man with Erskine's power could wreck upon the world.
“Just a few quick tests?” Stark wheedled, never one to give in easily. “You can even destroy the samples afterwards.”
“No,” Peggy told him flatly. “One small vial of Steve's blood killed half a dozen people. If word gets out that you so much as touched Steve's body, I give you five days to live.”
“I suppose that's a fair point,” the scientist admitted, his zeal for discovery dampened momentarily at the thought of dying horribly. But only for a moment. Nothing could keep Howard Stark from tinkering for long.
“What about something less invasive?” he asked a minute later. “I have a new body scanner that I've been dying to try out.”
“Fine,” Peggy sighed. A few images probably couldn't hurt and at least his machinery would keep Stark engaged for a few hours. “I figure we have about three hours until they're thawed enough to bury so you had best work fast.”
“Yes!” Stark crowed triumphantly before running off into his lab.
Peggy asked Morita to keep an eye on him, trusting the other man to watch the scientist while she took a short break. The agent didn't mean to fall asleep after she used the water closet but she woke to Falsworth shaking her lightly by the arm.
“Wake up! Stark wants to talk to you. He thinks that Steve's alive!”
“What?” Peggy exclaimed, snapping upright as soon as his words registered. “That's impossible!”
“I know,” Falsworth told her. “But he said it. And he seems dead serious.”
Indeed, Stark was standing by Steve's body with the other commandos when Falsworth and Peggy returned to the laboratory, the scientist pointing at his scan and gesticulating wildly.
“What is going on?” Peggy asked as she pushed her way to the front. “Steve died eight years ago.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I'm telling you he didn't,” Howard replied, his expression a mix of glee and sheer astonishment. “Erskine's serum is even more impressive than I thought. Rogers isn't dead; he's just been hibernating. I think the cold sent him into a state of suspended animation and now he's coming back to life again. My scan picked up a heartbeat, Carter, and brain activity. No corpse would have those things.”
“What about Barnes?” the agent asked. She wasn't ready to believe Stark but she was teetering and she didn't want Steve to wake up in a world where his best friend had dead. He would never forgive himself for surviving when the sergeant hadn’t even if there was nothing that he could have done to save his life.
“Oh, I didn't test him,” the scientist told Peggy with a shrug. “He was never enhanced and a normal man could never live that long.”
“You should scan the sergeant,” Jones said after glancing at the other Howling Commandos.
“But why? He's not...?”
“Just do it,” Falsworth ordered.
“If you insist,” Stark replied, rolling his eyes with a sigh. He wheeled his equipment over to the other man and began to set it up. “I don't know why you're so insistent though. We all liked Barnes and I'm sad as hell that he's dead, but I'm not going to find anyth-”
“Well,” Jones asked when the other man fell silent. “Is he alive or not?”
“I think he is,” Stark muttered, staring at his scan intently. “There isn't as much activity as Rogers but there's definitely something. How did you know? Steve alone is a damn miracle.”
The remaining Howling Commandos traded another set of glances, an unheard discussion passing plainly in front of Peggy's eyes. She couldn’t guess its meaning until Morita finally shrugged.
“Barnes was never quite the same after Hydra captured us. We didn't have any solid proof and he wouldn't see a medic, but he shrugged off injuries that should have knocked him flat,” the man explained. “He was the only one of us who came close to keeping up with Steve.”
“I suppose that does make sense. If Zola was trying to recreate Erskine's serum then Barnes could have gotten a knock-off version,” the scientist mused. “Not as strong as Rogers' maybe, but enough to keep him in the same suspended state until we tracked their bodies down.”
“And what will happen now? Will they wake up or simply perish once they’re thawed?” Peggy asked.
“Honestly, Carter. I have no idea,” Stark told her plainly. “I've never seen anything like this. The best I can do is let them thaw completely and see what happens then. But we might as well move them both to my house while we wait.”
“That seems like a good idea. Cap and Sarge would be more comfortable waking up in a bed than on a table. They don't need to relive those memories,” Jones said and no one disagreed.
So the scientist hooked up a couple sensors to monitor their vitals and then the Howling Commandos loaded their unconscious friends back into Stark's vehicle. Peggy had often given the scientist grief for living so close to his workplace but tonight that worked out in their favour. The group arrived at the scientist's townhouse less than twenty minutes later, the sky just beginning to lighten to the east.
Jarvis pulled the car into the garage and closed the door behind them. Although Peggy hadn't seen anyone watching the house, it was always better to be careful and the agent often felt as though there were spies hidden everywhere. The Howling Commandos carried their captain and sergeant inside the building, setting them up in adjacent rooms on the second floor.
Then it was back to waiting, most of them sleeping in shifts while Stark drank a pot of coffee in order to stay up. He wanted to monitor every second of the change and he would likely take a ream of notes before the day was done.
Peggy took this time to make a quick call to her husband, more than ready to hear Daniel's voice again. She told him that she had returned and her mission was successful, though she probably wouldn't make it home before the evening meal.
“Don’t worry about me,” her husband told her. “I miss you, love, but I know this is important. Do right by the captain and then come back to me.”
“I will. Thank you,” Peggy said before hanging up the telephone. She still wasn't sure what she'd done to earn such understanding but she was grateful for it as she returned to her vigil once again.
The agent had chosen not to mention Steve's miraculous recovery and while she told herself that conversation was best had in person, this wasn’t the only reason for her silence. In truth, Peggy found the thought of her old and new lives colliding strangely terrifying and she didn't know what would happen now. She couldn't know until Steve finally woke.
“Peggy? You in here?”
“I’m here. What do you need?” she asked, looking up at Jones over her second cup of tea.
“Cap is starting to wake up and we thought he’d want to see you first.”
“And the sergeant?”
“Still unconscious but Stark says he's looking stronger so it shouldn't be too long.”
“Good,” Peggy replied, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before going to Steve's room. Jones had been keeping watch inside and he opened up the door when the agent knocked.
“You're just in time; he’s been stirring for a while,” he told Peggy, waving her into the room. “Take as long as you need. The rest of us will keep Stark busy till you're done; his tests can wait an hour and I know Rogers will be damn glad to see you now.”
Jones left the room before Peggy could respond and that was just as well. She would be glad to speak with Steve, glad to know that he would be all right after being frozen for so long and yet... Peggy shook off the flash of doubt and sat down at Steve’s bedside. She took his hand between her own, hoping to keep him from panicking when he woke up somewhere strange.
“You're okay now,” she murmured quietly. “I've got you, Steve. We found you. You're safe from everyone.”
The agent kept on talking for several minutes before Steve suddenly snapped awake, his eyes wild as he glanced around the room.
“I- Peggy?” the blond asked, his voice rough from disuse. “Where am I? I don't remember... We fell and... Bucky! Did he survive?”
“Your friend is fine,” Peggy reassured him gently, hoping that time would not prove her words a lie. “Sergeant Barnes is resting in another room.”
“Good, that's good,” Steve replied. His panicked strength seemed to leave him then and he slumped back on the bed. “How did you find us, Pegs? Our radios were broken and we fell so far. I thought we'd have to hump our way back to camp ourselves.”
Steve trailed off with a weary grin, his smile just as bright and beautiful as the agent had remembered. For a moment, Peggy allowed herself to forget everything that had happened in the years since their first meeting. There was just Steve, his smile and the life they could have had. But then that smile dimmed.
His fingers had caught on Peggy's wedding ring where their hands were linked together and he looked up at the agent with confusion in his eyes.
“Peggy? I don't... we didn't, did we?”
“No, we didn't,” she answered softly, her heart aching in her chest. “It's... It's been a long time, Steve. The war ended almost ten years past and we weren’t expecting to find you still alive. We only meant to bring your body home.”
Steve didn't say anything at first. He just stared at Peggy, his gaze cataloguing every change, every difference from the woman he had known.
“So... the war is over then? Did we win?” he asked.
“Yes, Steve. We won,” Peggy told him.
The agent could almost see the gears of Steve’s mind spinning, trying and failing to believe that the fight was truly done. The move from war to peace had been hard enough for those who saw it coming and even Peggy had sometimes struggled to make the change herself. The shock of losing a whole decade would be enough to make a grown man weep.
Yet Steve had always been stronger than most people gave him credit for and he didn't ask any of the obvious questions. He didn't ask the agent about the future or the war or how she could have given up on their love so easily.
Instead, Steve looked Peggy in the eye and murmured, “You're happy now? With him?”
The pain on the blond's face made her want to tell him no, to run away together and leave the life she'd built behind. But she had never lied to Steve before and when she thought of Daniel, there was only one reply.
“Yes, I am happy,” Peggy said and she truly meant it, even if she hadn't been certain of her answer until now. She would always love Steve at least a little but Daniel was far from being a consolation prize.
“That's... that's good, Pegs. I'm glad that you've found joy,” Steve replied and it sounded like goodbye. It sounded like regret, grief, and the sharp pain of missed chances, and suddenly Peggy didn't feel as though she had the right to sit here at his bedside anymore.
“I'll tell the others you're awake,” she said, standing up again. “I know they'll want to see you while you still have the time. Once everyone finds out that you're alive, it will probably be a circus. Captain America was sorely missed in the years that you've been gone.”
This was the wrong thing to say. Peggy knew that even as she said it but that didn't stop the words from spilling out. She could only watch them hit Steve like a punch and she felt even guiltier when she saw him flinch.
Although the captain tried to smile, his heart just wasn’t in it. Steve's expression was much closer to a grimace and Peggy truly wished that she could make things better. She didn't want to lose Steve and she hoped that in the future, they could be friends again. But Steve wasn't hers to comfort any longer and if she stayed right now, she'd only remind him of the life that could have been.
So the agent made herself scarce as Stark and the surviving Howling Commandos gathered around Steve's bedside. They would take care of their captain and their sergeant, Peggy didn't doubt that, and she just couldn't be here anymore.
Peggy had a life of her own that she needed to return to. She had a job and a husband she loved dearly and it was time for the agent to go home.
Part II: Captain America