August 11, 1989
Peggy Carter strode down the tiled floor of SHIELD HQ, heels clacking and a smile on her face. She liked making noise in the halls with her heels - it reminded the men that there was a powerful woman in their midst. It helped that she noticed the other women in the organization wearing heels of their own and walking with a confident stride.
It made her impending retirement all the easier.
She delayed her retirement for now, mainly for the sake of her unofficial niece, Eliza Stark. Due to her unique genetic structure and SHIELD's ongoing experiment, the girl was brought into the lab once every other month for testing. Basic things, really, like a doctor's visit. Still, Peggy could tell that Eliza hated it. Howard had related a few tales of Eliza's tantrums upon pulling up to the building, how the girl would lock herself in the car after Howard got out.
Until her Aunt Peggy had started attending her check ups and holding her hand, telling her stories to distract her during the blood draws, playing with tongue depressor people while waiting for the next test. She couldn't - wouldn't - do those things with Howard, and Peggy's presence had made Eliza look forward to the SHIELD visits rather than dread them.
A thin pair of arms wrapped around her thighs and Peggy tussled the girl's brown hair affectionately.
Howard lagged a few steps behind his daughter, nodding at Peggy and greeting her in a haggard tone.
"Howard," Peggy asked, "Is everything alright? You look more tired than usual."
"That's what happens when your oldest child comes home wasted at three o'clock in the morning," Howard explained briefly. Peggy could tell there was more to the story, but decided not to ask in front of Eliza.
The girl relinquished her hold on Peggy's legs and tugged at the edge of her blazer, "Auntie Peggy, guess what?"
Peggy bent down to the girl's eye level, "What, dear?"
Eliza jutted out her lower jaw and Peggy noticed a hole where a tooth had once been. "I lost a tooth!"
"Indeed you did! Did the tooth fairy leave a quarter under your pillow?"
"She did! I got a whole dollar!" Eliza reached into her pocket and proudly waved the dollar bill about, a beaming smile on her face. Peggy smiled back, heart filling up with the girl's enthusiasm and suddenly breaking. Eliza's smile disappeared and the dollar bill went back into her pocket as Dr. Smythe strode up behind Peggy.
"Hello, Eliza. How's my favorite patient?" From behind her thick glasses, Dr. Antonia Smythe's eyes glinted tawny in the hallway light. The woman wasn't unfriendly, but like any doctor she could be a bit clinical and cold. Peggy had also had a chat with her about how to deal with children - Eliza in particular.
In response, Eliza hid behind Peggy's legs. Peggy stepped aside, "Eliza, don't be rude. Say hello to the doctor."
"Hello, Dr. Smythe," Eliza muttered, refusing to look up. Dr. Smythe took it in stride and waved them back to the exam room.
"Have fun, ladies," Howard said as he picked up a nearby magazine and settled into a chair.
"Bye, Daddy!" Eliza said, gripping Peggy's hand and following the two women into the hallway. To help put the girl at ease, Dr. Smythe started telling Eliza what their plan for the check up was. It must've worked, because soon Eliza's tight grip slackened.
December 29, 1991
They had pushed the funeral until after Christmas. The sun shone brightly on the cliffs outside their Malibu home, a parade of shiny expensive cars stretched down the street.
Peggy Carter stared numbly at the line of cars, her eyes unfocused and unseeing as she stirred the untouched gin and tonic in her hand. She couldn't believe that Howard was gone; she had always thought he'd become the bionic man in order to outlive them all.
The tragedy of it all was something she couldn't shake. Tony was left to run a Fortune 500 company, Eliza was entrusted to his care. The poor boy could hardly take care of himself and now he had to care for an eight year old girl. Her gut churned at the thought. To say that the idea of Tony raising Eliza when he was hardly more than a child himself gave her wicked anxiety.
CRASH! The sound of glass breaking finally made her turn from the window. Tony's own glass had slipped from his grip and smashed against the marble floors. Even from across the room Peggy could see him shaking. Obadiah Stane had one hand on the young man's back as Jarvis tried to tidy him up, but Tony pushed them both away.
"No! No! No more condolences, no more pity," the young man slurred as he stumbled away from them, before turning to address the whole room, "From any of you! 'I'm so sorry, Tony' and 'let us know if you need anything, Tony' well guess what? I need for you to get the hell out!"
Peggy took long strides and crossed the room, her urge to help the poor boy stronger than her urge to do as he said and leave.
"You heard me! Get. The. Hell. Out of my house!" Tony yelled as Peggy approached, her heels making a gunfire-rapid rapport on the floors as she did. When she got to him she gripped his arm firmly but gently.
"Come on, love, let's take a break," she suggested.
"Let go of-!"
She looked into his eyes and saw all of the hurt and pain that had been there for the last eight days. Dark as a moonless night, brimming with unshed tears she was sure he didn't want anyone else to see. He nodded slightly. With her assistance, she led him up the stairs.
When they entered the office, Tony slumped in the desk chair. Peggy pushed his rumpled hair out of his bleary eyes and sighed at him.
"This is difficult for all of us, Tony," she said gently, "I understand your grief, really. I loved Howard like my own brother-"
"I meant it," Tony interrupted, "No more condolences." With that, he slipped off the chair and made his way over to the bar.
"Well if you won't take condolences maybe you'll take a dose of reality," Peggy straightened her shoulders like she did when she was about to take command of a situation. "I don't like what I'm seeing in you, Tony. Yes, grief is one of the hardest things to deal with but you've got to think about the future now. You've got Eliza and the company to think about, do you have any sort of plan? Anything at all? Or have you spent the last eight days drinking your responsibilities away?"
Tony sat down in a chair that overlooked the ocean, crystal decanter in hand as he drank straight from it. "Guess I'll just wing it."
Peggy wouldn't stand for this. Not from Howard's son. She knew they'd had a contentious relationship, but she also knew that Tony was more than capable of leading his father's company. The only thing that gave her pause was the little girl who had shut herself in her bedroom the second they'd gotten back from the burial.
"And what of Eliza?"
"What about her?"
"Would it help if she came to stay with me for a while? Until the self-pity and binge drinking is over at least," Peggy suggested.
The look that Tony gave her was so full of hate and anger that Peggy took an involuntary step back. If looks could kill, she'd be dead. Tony sprung to his feet and stalked over to her. Even though he was less than half her age he had a good three inches on her in height — when had that happened? — and he used that to tower as best he could. She wasn't afraid of him, but rather for him. And for Eliza.
"She's the only family I've got left, you think I'm going to let her out of my sight? I almost lost her, too! I've been the one waking up to her night terrors and getting her back to sleep, I've been running myself ragged to laywer's offices and dealing with accountants to make sure she'll be okay if god forbid anything happens to me! The last thing I need is for some sanctimonious old broad to come in here and tell me I'm not taking care of my sister!"
"Anthony, you need to calm down," Peggy said gently, putting her hands on his tense shoulders. "I was simply offering -"
"I don't care what you were offering," Tony hissed, his breath reeking of stale alcohol. Peggy held his stare, resolute in her offer to help, to take Eliza while Tony sorted things out, and she could feel his tension building. His unblinking eyes filled with tears again and Peggy saw the little boy he had been. Craving acceptance and acknowledgment of his strengths — something he would never get now that Howard was gone.
Slowly, carefully, she lifted a hand and put it to his cheek. The instant her skin touched Tony's the young man sagged into her and she hugged him close. He needed the comfort, the acceptance.
"I'm sorry, Tony," Peggy said as Tony started sobbing into her shoulder. She let him cry himself out on her shoulder late into the night.
October 17, 2014
Peggy had heard this story before. The detail was so vivid, it was like she was back there. A cold winter's day, anxiety-inducing radio silence, and her heart in her shoes. With every passing hour, it felt less and less likely that Steve would return.
"Until out of the early morning mist, figures began taking shape. The figures solidified into men as they drew closer to the barricade. Sally looked over her shoulder, demanded that the guard lift the gates. When she turned back her eyes landed on the leader of the group, the man she most wanted to see, and her heart shot into orbit -"
Peggy chuckled, "Space flight was the furthest thing from our minds at the moment. Though, I suppose if it had been possible that would've been how I described it."
Eliza paused in her reading, "Yeah?"
Peggy took a moment to admire her pseudo-niece and felt like her chest might burst with pride. The brunette looked so much like her mother, but had eyes sharp as her father's and a wit to match. Maybe Tony hadn't done so bad after all.
"Oh yes. Seeing him come out of the mist...with all those men behind him," Peggy swallowed thickly, "I think that was the moment I knew…"
"Knew what, Aunt Peggy?" Eliza reached out and gripped the old woman's hand. Still beautiful into her eighties, Eliza had hated visiting her in DC. Memory care units terrified her to her core, but after all the care and love Peggy had shown her over the years Eliza felt like she had to be there. Especially since she was trying to write the story of Peggy's life during and after WWII. The video footage she found helped a ton, but Eliza only had a limited amount of time to get firsthand accounts. Steve had come with her for support, but Eliza made him wait in the lobby.
"Knew I loved him of course. I suspected for months, but that was the moment...I felt such relief and awe and…" Peggy's eyes clouded and became unfocused. Her grip on Eliza's hand went limp.
"Aunt Peggy?" Eliza prodded gently, hoping the woman hadn't disappeared.
Peggy blinked a few times before responding, "Maria? Maria, dear, how kind of you to come see me."
Eliza's heart sank. The nurse warned her this might happen, and that she should go along with it. It was easier on the patient that way.
"How is Howard? Keeping busy as always?"
Eliza could feel her voice thicken with unshed tears. "Yes, he is. Excuse me, Peggy. I'm going to get some coffee."
Peggy nodded happily, blissfully drifting off into whatever memory had surfaced. "Of course, dear."
The young woman couldn't get out of the room fast enough. Taking the pages of her manuscript with her, she rushed out of the room. The heels of her boots clacked on the tiles of the hospital floor, echoing down the halls.
Halfway down the hall she had to lean against the wall for support. She could taste the stale smell of hospital cleaner in her throat. As she focused on where her forehead rested against the drywall, she fought tears. Seeing one of the most intimidating, kind, wonderful people in her life reduced to the frail old woman was taking a toll on Eliza. She took deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself, to clear the nagging thoughts of losing yet another person she cared about from her mind, but it wasn't having the desired effect.
"Eliza?" Steve asked, his sudden presence at her side welcome. He spread one of his large hands on her upper back. Eliza felt its warmth through her shirt and turned, clutching her manuscript between them as his arms wrapped around her. The floodgates opened, and Eliza cried into his shirt.
Wordlessly, he guided her out to the car.