. . . . . .
It starts on a rainy night in a small military hospital in northern Mexico. Daniel is lying in a hospital bed with a carefully cleaned and bandaged gunshot wound in his shoulder, gritting his teeth against the pain because he'd demanded the doctors give him as little pain medication as they could possibly get away with because this is still an active operation and he is Peggy's only backup in a thousand miles.
Peggy herself is sitting in a chair next to his bed, looking perfectly coiffed and put together, except for her jacket, which she's taken off because it's now stained with his blood. The room is lit only by candles, the storm having knocked out the power—the hospital's backup generator produces only enough power for essential equipment, and recovery room lights are not considered essential—and he can't help but notice that she's more even more beautiful than usual by candlelight. She's giving him that look she seems to have perfected, polite and well-behaved and pleasant but hiding steel beneath. "I am going," she tells him firmly.
"Not without backup," he responds. "Thompson will be here with reinforcements in 12 hours. We can wait that long."
But she shakes her head. "The people in that compound may be dead by then," she says. "To delay would be disastrous."
"Then I'm coming with you," he says, and starts trying to struggle into a sitting position. But he can barely move, honestly, and all it takes is Peggy's hand lightly touching his good shoulder to press him back onto the bed.
"I appreciate your willingness," she says. A tiny smile crosses her face. "You really are an excellent partner, Daniel. But with that bullet wound in your shoulder . . ."
"And on my crutch side," he says bitterly. Bad enough to get shot on the job, worse still to get shot in front of Peggy Carter, worst of all to get shot in the shoulder that he needs to operate his crutch. He can hobble around a little with his crutch on the other side, but it's awkward—even more awkward than he usually is—and he can't get far.
"You were brave," she says firmly. "But right now you need to stay here." She stands from her chair and picks up her handbag, checking the gun inside it to see how many bullets are left.
"Thompson did not give us orders to engage," he reminds her. "Just to observe."
Her lips tighten. "The situation has changed since then," she says. "He didn't know there would be civilians being held hostage inside."
"So wait until he gets here and then ask," Daniel says pleadingly. The truth is he doesn't necessarily trust or care about Thompson's judgment—in this or any situation—but if it makes her see reason . . .
"It might be too late by then," she says firmly. "I'm sorry, Daniel. I've got to go. Don't you see that I've got to? This—protecting the innocent—is what I've dedicated my life to. If I can't do that . . ." She looks away sharply, then shoots him a tight smile and walks to the door.
He's desperate now—desperate enough that he stops being afraid he's going to insult her. "Did you see that place? I haven't seen that many armed men in one place since the war. I'm sorry, Carter—you're a great agent, probably the best I know. But even you aren't that good. Getting yourself killed is not going to help those people."
And a flicker of displeasure does run across her face, but she forces it down and turns to give him a reassuring smile, her hand still on the doorknob. "I'm not going to run at it head on," she assures him. "I'll think of something."
And if anyone could think of something, it would be her. But his gut is telling him this is a terrible idea; his gut is telling him that if she leaves this place alone, she might come back in a body bag. And as she opens the door and makes to leave, that unbearable image loosens his tongue and makes him say things he never thought he'd have the guts to say to her. "I can't stop you, but I can beg you not to go." He pauses, face burning, but desperation forces him on. And honestly, if she's got eyes, she probably already knows. "Because Peg, I am in love with you, and I can't lose you. So if that means anything to you at all . . ."
She freezes halfway out the door. And then she looks back at him, her body very still and her face carefully blank. "I'm sorry, Daniel," she says, and he doesn't know if she means for leaving anyway or for not returning his feelings. And he doesn't get to find out, because in the next moment she's gone, out to take on a dangerous weapons dealer alone, out to get herself killed, and there's nothing he can do about it because he was stupid enough to get himself shot, stupid enough to lose his stupid leg in the stupid war. And the only people who could help—Thompson and the other agents—are in the air somewhere over Tennessee right now, and with no power at this little middle-of-nowhere field hospital, he can't radio them.
His fists clench and he feels like he's going to worry himself to pieces, and that's how a doctor finds him a few minutes later. The man mistakes his agitation for pain and, without a word, increases the drip on his IV. The pain in his shoulder starts to fade, and with it, his will to stay awake. There's only one thing he can do now, and as the darkness overtakes him, he closes his eyes and prays.
"Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight . . ."
. . . . . .
When he wakes, there's sunlight pouring in through the windows, his head is less fuzzy, and Jack Thompson is sitting next to his bed.
Disoriented, Daniel blinks a few times. "Is it morning?" he says—the first question that pops into his head.
Jack chuckles. "Yeah . . . Thursday morning. You've been out a day and a half, Sleeping Beauty."
Daniel feels an unpleasant jolt in his stomach. "Peggy?" he demands.
Jack merely nods toward the other end of the room, so Daniel carefully turns his head and his very stiff neck—ouch, he thinks, remind me to stop getting shot—to see that the other bed in the room now has an occupant. He should probably focus on the fact that she's alive, but all he can see is the cuts and bruises on her face, the IV in her arm, the unnatural stillness of a drug-induced sleep. He was right, she shouldn't have gone, and he hates himself for not thinking of a way to stop her.
"Captured by Vergeray," Thompson says. "Part of me feels like I should demand to know why you let her go alone, but I'm pretty sure that 'letting' had nothing to do with it." His voice sounds just a bit fond and affectionate when he adds, "You could stop a freight train before you could stop her."
Daniel wants to turn back and smile at the chief—always good to encourage him when he's thinking well of Peggy—but he hurts too much and anyway he can't tear his eyes from the figure in the bed. "What happened?"
So Thompson tells him the story of how they arrived at the hospital only to find Daniel out like the dead and Peggy long gone, having left a note with the doctors to tell Thompson where she was going. They raided the compound, using the intel that Peggy and Daniel had collected before Daniel was shot, and found Peggy beaten and bruised in a holding cell in the compound. "I should reprimand her, I really should," he says, his voice sharper than before. "I mean, she's definitely on desk duty for a month after this. What was she thinking? I ought to suspend her." He hesitates. "But then . . . she's Carter. She'll probably find a way out of any punishment, and honestly, we're a better unit when she's on it. Sure couldn't have taken Vergeray without that intel." He pauses. "Which is thanks to you, too, you know. You're no slouch, Sousa."
Daniel does turn then, painfully maneuvering his head over to look at the chief. "Thank you, sir."
Thompson gives him a small smile and gets to his feet. "Get some rest, Agent. Doctors say you're here at least three days before they clear you to fly home. At which point I'm sending you straight back to a hospital bed."
Daniel sighs but nods his acquiescence. And when Thompson is gone, he turns back to watch Peggy sleep.
. . . . . .
For two days he drifts in and out of consciousness—far more than he normally sleeps, which is probably thanks to the drugs they've got him on. He doesn't much like it; it reminds him of the last time he lingered in a half-conscious state in a hospital. It could be worse, he tells himself with a sardonic grin. He hated it when people would say that to him during his recuperation after losing his leg. It could be worse; you could be dead. You could be paralyzed. You could have lost both legs. Yes, he always wanted to tell them and never did, it could have been worse, but that doesn't mean that what happened wasn't fairly horrible in its own right. But this time he believes it: it could have been worse. He's only here for a few days. He didn't lose another limb. And Peggy's alive.
He assumes Peggy's going through the same cycle of sleep and waking that he is—at least her position in the bed changes sometimes—but he's yet to catch her awake. The doctors say that she's doing fine, that she'll recover soon from the cracked ribs and all the bruising, and every time they talk about it he tries really hard not to worry—she'd hate it if she knew he was worrying about her—and mostly fails.
Finally, one evening he awakes to increased pain in his shoulder but also increased clarity of mind; they've dialed back his pain meds. There's a nurse checking his IV bag, and when she sees him awake, she hurries away and returns with the doctor.
"You're a lucky man, Agent Sousa," says the doctor. "It could have been much worse."
Daniel forces himself to smile.
"Normally we'd keep you longer but your chief wanted to move you as soon as possible. And you're stable enough for the flight back, at least. As is Miss Carter."
"Agent Carter," Daniel corrects automatically, glancing over at her bed and seeing that it's empty. "Where is she?"
"Oh, up and walking around the hospital," chuckles the doctor. "She's quite the little spitfire. Speaking of walking . . ." He glances over at Daniel's crutch, leaning against the wall.
"Not for a while?" guesses Daniel.
"Not for a long while, I'm afraid," says the doctor. "Even if you use the other arm, the strain it will put on your wound could slow your recovery time down a great deal. I'm afraid you're going to be using a wheelchair for a while."
It could be worse, thinks Daniel with an inward sigh. "I guess I'd better get used to that, then."
The door opens then, and Peggy slips in. "Good to see you, Miss—Agent Carter," the doctor corrects himself. "You two had best get some rest; you're going back to the States in the morning."
"Thank you, doctor," says Peggy politely, and he nods and leaves the room. Peggy stands there and watches the door swing closed, giving Daniel a chance to study her profile. She's in a hospital gown and a robe, her hair loose and undone—he's never realized how long her hair actually is, since he only ever sees it up in those curls—and her face clean of makeup. She's beautiful this way; at work she wears her sharp clothing and her blood red lipstick like armor, and she's stunning when she does it, but like this she is . . . lovely. He's smart enough not to say any of this, though.
Actually, he's smart enough—or scared enough—not to say anything at the moment, waiting for her to make the first move. Because he doesn't know how she's going to react to everything that happened: his attempting to all but order her not to leave, his desperate fear for her, his—and his face burns at the memory—his declaration of love. He's worried how she's going to react; he's even worried that she might be angry with him. She doesn't look angry right now, but they've shared a room for two days now and always managed to avoid being awake at the same time, and that's probably just chance but he can't help wondering if she's avoiding him.
But no, she's not angry after all, because suddenly she turns and gives him the tiniest, loveliest smile. "Hello, Daniel," she says, and he's missed hearing her say his name. She walks over to his bed and appears to consider the chair next to it, and then to change her mind, because after a moment she sits on the edge of his bed instead. He wonders if she's noticed that the reason there's so much room where she's sitting is that she chose the exact spot where his missing leg would have been.
"You're looking better," he says, which is not exactly true; the bruises on her face have settled into the blue-purple phase of their healing, and they won't start to fade for a few days yet. But she's up, and that's what matters. She's not lying silently in a hospital bed. She's not locked up in some cell in Vergeray's compound. She's not dead. It could be worse.
She quirks a smile at him. "You're a liar," she says. "But a well-meaning liar, so we'll let it slide." She looks down at where her hand rests on the sheets. "I believe I owe you an apology, Daniel."
He blinks. "No, you—"
"I do," she interrupts. "You were trying to protect me. You saw the situation better than I did. And I ignored you. You are . . ." She hesitates, as though choosing her words carefully. "A valued colleague and friend."
He assumes she chose the word "friend" very deliberately, and he fights back a sigh.
"And as such, I should have listened to your concerns." She grimaces, just a little. "Especially seeing how right you were and how catastrophically wrong I was."
He's about to speak, to assure her that he's really just glad she's okay, when she presses on. "And I suppose that's the other reason I want to apologize—to let you know that I do see how stupid it was for me to have gone there alone. I just . . . I felt so pressed to help those people." She makes a face. "Unfortunate side effect of gallivanting about with Captain America and the Howling Commandos: you start getting these ideas about being duty-bound to do the right thing, even against insurmountable odds." She sighs. "And sometimes, I get so caught up in proving myself and in living up to my wartime activities that I forget . . . I can't do these things alone. Even Captain America didn't do these things alone. I need a team." She gives him a smile. "And you, Daniel, are my team. I should have remembered that." The smile falls from her face. "And I'm lucky my forgetfulness didn't get me killed."
It still makes him shiver to think of how much worse that ill-fated infiltration could have gone. "It's all right, Peg," he says. "You don't have to explain yourself to me. I'm just glad you're all right."
She grows still, and then she turns to him with a warm smile. "I like it when you call me Peg," she says. "Generally, only . . . only people I'm close to call me that."
Oh, and he can just feel his face heating up at that. He feels like a besotted schoolchild around her.
Her face grows serious then, and she clears her throat. "Daniel, I need to ask you something."
Not about that "I love you," not about that "I love you," he prays silently.
But to no avail. "What you said to me before I left," she says, looking down at her hands. "That . . . you love me." She takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders and looks him right in the eye. "Do you?"
His first instinct is to lie. Why ruin a good friendship, a good work partnership, for something that she'll never return? He could tell her it was a ploy to keep her here. But even as he thinks that, he swiftly discards the notion. He's promised himself he won't lie to her, and anyway, she's smart—she's surely seen the way he looks at her. And there's something comforting in the idea of laying all his cards on the table, not hiding his feelings any longer. At least then when she turns him down, he can stop hoping. Hope, he's learned, can be heartbreaking.
So he nods, silently.
She looks immediately down at her hands again, and he watches her profile but he can't read her expression. "I can't say that I think that's very wise of you, Agent Sousa," she says matter-of-factly, and his heart sinks. "I'm really quite bad at this sort of thing. Always was, even before the war gave me a vast array of trust and commitment issues."
He purses his lips and says nothing, his eyes determinedly looking at anything but her. He can be an adult about this; they can still work together comfortably.
But she's not finished. "But in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that at that compound, when Vergeray's goons roughed me up and I spent all night in that cell, to my surprise I thought . . . of you. Of how much better I would feel with you by my side. And how sorry I'd be not to see you again."
Well, that is absolutely not how he expected this to go, and where before he couldn't bring himself to look at her, now he can't make himself look anywhere else.
She looks up slowly and meets his eyes, and there's a hint of a smile on her face. "And so, Daniel Sousa, knowing, as I have now told you, that I am genuinely terrible at cultivating relationships, romantic or otherwise, do you still think you might want to finally go out for those drinks when we're both released from the hospital?"
She looks . . . nervous. He would never have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, but she is nervous waiting for his answer, and the thought that she truly wants him to say yes is better than any drug this hospital has pumped into him this week.
"Absolutely," he says fervently.
She gives him a relieved smile, and reaches out to squeeze his hand where it lays on the sheets. "Then," she smiles, "it's a date."
. . . . . .