Natasha and Sam saw her regularly during the move and after, and it was from them that he learned about her extended dementia, and failing health, until he feared he wouldn’t get to see her at all, but then she seemed to recover, and in fact by the time Steve got out of the hospital Natasha described her as being more alert than she’d been in months and months. “Though I’m afraid she might be unconsciously punishing herself,” she’d commented to him. “Having not seen the truth before, she’s not letting herself escape it now.”
He was let into the apartment by Jacinth and Joshua(he could’ve learned their last names if he’d really wanted too, but they’d decided they wanted that information restricted, and he could respect that), and from them got a similar appraisal of her condition. When asked if he could be left to talk alone with her, they took a long look at each other, before Jacinth sagged and nodded.
She was asleep when he first stepped into the bedroom. But even in that state, the moment he saw her, Steve knew she was never going to recover fully from the devastation of her life’s work. She might not die from it, at least not directly, but she was far more faded now, and she looked a hundred times weaker than she had been during his last visit. He was almost afraid of trying to shake her awake.
He might not have even tried, except that as he looked at Peggy, he felt the already strong possibility increase that this would be the last time he ever saw her. Within hours he and Sam had to be at the airport, and while every time the past two years he’d gone off on a mission he’d known he might come home to her funeral, between her health and this mission’s indefinite length, it was much more likely now. It was that which drove him to shake her, keeping it gentle but doing it a little more and a little more, until finally her eyes opened.
For the first moment, he almost wished they hadn’t. Then there was nothing in them but bleakness, the look of someone who felt she was better off asleep because of what she had to face when she was awake, or as if she’d lost her will to live. They warmed slightly when she recognized him, but still the desolation remained, and it was in her voice too, as she gasped out, “Steve?”
“I’m here,” he said, kneeling down by the bed and gently turning her until she was looking at him that way. “I...” He didn’t want to say he’d come to say goodbye, and to ask her how she was holding up felt ridiculous. He was pretty sure she was aware of herself and everything; he’d gotten pretty good at telling when she was demented, and this read very much as not. Though perhaps it would’ve been easier to talk to her if she had been.
“Glad to see you this one last time," she finally said. "No, don’t go saying it won’t be; I’m no fool, Steve.” Indeed, she almost seemed to grow weaker even as she spoke. “I know you must have more work to do than ever, and after being exposed I doubt Hydra’s going to hang around here in DC; and there’s no one for you to report to here anymore either.”
“I’m not going after Hydra,” he said. “But you’re right; I’m not going to be in DC for a while, I think.” And he hadn’t intended to tell her as much as he did then about Bucky, and where he was going, if only because she might tell Jacinth or Joshua about it during one of her episodes, but they would probably keep everything secret anyway, and it felt wrong to keep her in the dark about even the details. He hesitated about whether or not to even tell her about Fury, but that, he decided, was the former director’s right, to let people know about his status or not as he saw fit. Maybe he would come here and tell her, even. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing any of them had ever done.
Even after his long talk, she was showing no signs of dementia. Still he hesitated with the question he’d been intending to ask her, especially since it was about someone they had never talked about before, though Steve knew plenty about him. But he needed to, especially now that he’d explained everything and no longer had the excuse of her not understanding what he was talking about.
“Peggy,” he asked, “thoughout his life, did your husband ever show any signs that he might have been experimented on? Did he take an unusually long time to age, or show signs of being stronger or faster than you might have expected from him?”
It took her a few minutes to come up with an answer, eyes closed, head bent. When she first looked up at him again he had a momentary thought she’d gone demented, until she answered, “I don’t really remember well enough to say anything for certain, but now that I think about it....maybe he did still look young for a little longer than usual. Though his leg was bad; he walked with a brace, and that injury actually happened after you rescued him. And in the end, he wasn’t immune from cancer.” Her voice turned bitter and pained here; he wondered if the memory of watching him die was haunting her more now than it had during her time in the nursing home. “Though he was fairly old by then, and was definitely showing it.”
He would have liked to hear more, but he was pretty certain she wouldn’t recall more. So he started to say, “Thanks. I really needed to-”
But he was interrupted when she said, “There was something I never told him, though. I never told anyone, Steve.” Her voice had turned agitated, he suddenly couldn’t tell if she was herself or not. “I need to tell you, Steve. You need to know.”
Was she, in dementia, able to remember things she couldn’t usually? It was far too possible, and it meant he had to respond, “Tell me, Peggy. It’s all right.”
So she looked him straight in the eyes and said, “I forced Howard to give the Tesseract to S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Oh,” was all Steve could say to that.
She continued, “He was actually getting anxious about its powers, and what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands; I think he understood it better than any other human ever has. When Tony was young I watched him go back and forth whether he would bequeath it to him. But from the start I thought that was wrong, especially when Tony was nineteen and twenty and beginning to show what sort of person he was, at least at the time. And then...”
She stopped momentarily, and let out a hysterical sob. Steve reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, and she forced herself to keep speaking: “There was a young agent. I don’t remember what he said about himself anymore; I doubt now it was true anyway. But he met with me, talked about the Tesseract, and how much S.H.I.E.L.D. could do with it...”
What she had only realized now was obvious. “You couldn’t have had any idea,” said Steve gently. “Your organization being infiltrated by the enemy you thought defeated decades ago? Why would you have thought of it? But...” He drifted off; was it right for him to say it?
But she said it anyway, “But I thought too much of S.H.I.E.L.D., wanted...” It was hard for her to get it out; she was started to struggle to breathe.
This was something Steve had seen afflict her before, though it had almost always been when she’d been demented, and he’d seen the nurses deal with, so he calmly pulled away and went to the door to call for Joshua or Jacinth. He didn’t have to call. He found them both standing outside, talking with each other, and he didn’t think they’d been listening in; but from the rapid way they whirled around, he was pretty sure they’d been expecting this sooner or later.
He didn’t even have to say anything then; when they heard her gasp they immediately both pushed past him and hurried in. “Get the tube,” Jacinth said to Joshua, and he went to one corner of the room while she knelt over the bedside table and reached into one of the drawers. He watched them set a breathing apparatus up, though what they were doing with it they still weren’t sure, even after having spent time in a modern hospital bed himself. This was something about the modern world that still awed him even after nearly three years of living in it; how much they could do with medicine.
Eventually their movement became less urgent, and he’d seen enough of Peggy in her current condition now to tell she was stabilized. That was also when Joshua turned to him and said, “She’s going to be okay, sir, but even so, I would think it best if you left.”
But Peggy made a protesting noise at that, the soft kind that only happened in this scenario when she was still in possession of her mind, and Steve was inclined to agree with her; if she was actually holding on to her wits for this long, he couldn’t help but feel they should take advantage of the opportunity to extend their goodbye, or at least not end it on her losing her breath in the middle of a painful confession.
Still neither Joshua nor Jacinth looked that impressed. After another moment, Jacinth said, “Could you wait out there for ten or so minutes, sir? She really does need to rest.”
“I’ll be back then,” he said, heading back to the door, even as they removed the breather from her.
But as he did, she called after him, “You need to make a confession to me, then. Fair is fair.”
That didn’t entirely make sense, but as he went into the living room and sat down to wait ten minutes out, he found himself trying to think of what he could confess. For the most part anything to do with the last three years was probably out; most of it involved other people who would have to be consulted before he let not only her, but probably also her two caretakers know about it, because he wasn’t sure if they’d leave for it, and even if they did she could always tell them while demented.
That caused one secret to rise to the top of his mind, one that had been constantly in his thoughts since discovering the other person involved in it was still alive, and yet he felt he could talk about it anyway. He didn’t know if he could really tell her this one, though. He honestly had no idea how she would react to it.
But it was still floating around in his head when Joshua and Jacinth emerged, and Jacinth said, “She’s all right for the moment. I must say, this is the longest she’s been rational in over a week.”
That just made Steve wonder how much time they might have left. But when he walked back in, and saw her with that expectant look, too much like the one he’d seen on her so many times way back when, it blurted itself out of him: “I did things with Bucky.”
She looked confused, and part of him wanted to backpedal, but he wasn’t going to retreat, not now. “Sexual things. I mean, I’m not sure if it really counted as sex or not-I don’t think he saw it as counting, definitely, but...”
The confusion vanished; her face turned unreadable. He might as well have out the rest of it, he thought. “I think I might be bisexual.” Strange, that it was she, here, to whom he was finally saying what had been going on privately in his head for well over two and a half years now. Not that he hadn’t known beforehand he was different, though back in the day, he hadn’t known what to make of it. He’d been aware of the existence of homosexuals, but feeling an attraction to Bucky and Peggy both hadn’t fit into the facts as he’d known them. One early relief of the modern world had actually been reading about bisexuality, and feeling it all click together, as suddenly things had finally made sense.
Peggy now looked thoughtful. “Had I known that back then,” she commented, and her voice was much more raspy now than it had been before the breathing attack, “I would not have been happy at all. For multiple reasons.”
“I know,” he said. “But now?”
She let out what would’ve been a chuckle had she had the breath for it. “I know better. I know better about a lot of things. We all do, maybe. Even you on occasion.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “Although...” He had to tell her. He wasn’t going to leave her with any false impressions about this. “When we did things, I mean it was while we were chasing Hydra around.”
“When you were away from women long enough.” She was still smiling. “So, yes, I would’ve been jealous as well. But it’s too long ago and I’m too old to make such a fuss now.”
“And for the record,” she continued. “If you do find him in Russia and things go a certain way...well, one thing I want to tell you is don’t be afraid to love again. Your friend Natasha has been complaining to me about your reluctance to-”
“Please don’t tell her,” Steve said hastily. “About the bisexuality, I mean. If she realized she could set me up with men too, I’m not sure I’d ever have a moment’s peace again.”
Another one of those breathless chuckles. “But still,” she gasped. “It will make your life much better. It made mine far, far better.”
“I know,” he said, though he wanted to protest; it had been easier for her when she’d thought him dead, and even then he knew it had taken her longer than the mere three years it had been for him since they’d talked about that dance on his way down into the Artic. “Though I’m pretty sure Bucky’s straight anyway; as I said, I don’t think he even saw it as counting.” And then there was the other thing he was now thinking about, though this was something they had to be very careful about trying. “You know,” he said. “We still haven’t had that dance.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a partner now, I’m afraid,” she sighed.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Just so long as it wouldn’t put you at serious risk.”
“Whether it would or not, I’m not sure we could persuade Joshua it wouldn’t, but maybe we could persuade Jacinth,” Peggy mused. “She has a pair of Beatles albums she keeps here in the apartment too. How much Beatles have you heard?”
“Natasha likes to play their Revolver album in the car,” Steve answered readily. “And she’s emailed me mp3s too, of ‘Let it Be,’ and just a few days ago ‘Back in the USSR.’” They both had to laugh a little at that, though honestly Steve hadn’t found it that funny. He’d understood and respected why the Beatles had written such a song, but he just hadn’t been able to appreciate it. He’d liked “Let it Be,” though. He thought it might be one of the best songs he’d heard in his entire life.
Jacinth stepped back in. “Joshua wants to start cooking,” she said. “Will you be staying for dinner, sir? You’re welcome to eat with us.”
Steven briefly considered it, but with the amount of time he’d spent here already, he probably needed to run back to his apartment fairly soon. “No,” he said, “but thank you.”
“Jacinth,” said Peggy, “do you think if you could keep Joshua busy, you might help Steve carry me around the living room to the tune of ‘Across the Universe’?”
She frowned. “I’ll be checking your vitals before I even consider that, m’am.”
“But if they seem well enough?”
She shrugged. “I don’t think they will.”
But ten minutes later, having taken her stats, she said carefully, “I think...if you didn’t exert yourself too much, I might be willing to allow that. I’d like to take you to the bathroom first, though. Agent Rogers, could you go tell Joshua to start cooking for three and then get the CD? You’ll find it on the shelf by the door; the blue one with the outline of apples and two discs. The song’s on the second disc.”
Also on the second disc, and right before “Across the Universe,” which was the penultimate track, was “Let it Be.” The stereo was old enough to have a cassette deck; he suspected either Joshua or Jacinth had brought it in, and simple enough even Steve could easily figure out how to get it to play the CD and go to the track of his choice. Which, at this moment, was the song he already knew and had found soothing, and he let himself sit back down on the couch and close his eyes as the piano and single voice washed over him.
Although he became aware for the first time, while he sat there, that the song was really kind of a sad one, too, when the world seemed so heedless of its message. Still a chance that they will see, the voice sang. All Steve could think about how much he had to still believe in that chance. He’d believe it until the day he died, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t often hard to.
He kept on listening to it even as he heard the toilet flush, hitting the pause button only when it ended, just before the two women came in, Peggy leaning very heavily on Jacinth. They both looked relieved when he put his arms around her back and legs and easily picked her up. He’d actually done this a couple of times before back in the retirement home, and it alarmed him how much weight she’d lost, and when she hadn’t even been too heavy as it was.
Still she was smiling, especially as they heard the sound of the stove humming from the kitchen. “Ready, Steve?” she asked.
“Ready,” he said, and Jacinth stepped over to the stereo and turned the music back on.
He liked the song immediately, easily swaying to the sound of the guitar. It had that feeling of the development of multiculturalism that was something he admired about the decades that had passed while he’d slept. Peggy wrapped her arms around his neck and hummed; she knew this song well. “Is this one of your favorites?” he asked her.
“By the Beatles, yes,” she said. “I remember the first time I heard it, back in 1970. I had a colleague who was a big fan of the Beatles, and he played the Let It Be album for us. I didn’t even understand what on Earth the song was about, but I still felt it spoke to me, somehow. Strange, right?”
“Somewhat,” Steve agreed, but hearing that song for the first time himself now, even with the strange lyrics and the foreign language(at least he thought it was a foreign language), on some level he thought he understood what she meant.
“That was Bailey,” Peggy continued; she was starting to ramble. “I suppose he could’ve been Hydra, but I hope not. He’s dead now, anyway-” Then she stopped talking so abruptly, he knew her stream of thought had been interrupted. His suspicions were confirmed when she finished her sentence, “...and we never were entirely sure how. We never figured out who set that bomb off. Everyone agreed he was someone who was going to go far in S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, and wished he could say more.
“How many of them were there?” She now spoke in a bloodless whisper. “How many deaths over the years, missions failed, scenarios where we made things worse and thought we’d done so by mistake? And they got away with it. Getting away with it.”
“They didn’t get away with it,” Steve murmured. “They won’t. We’ll stop them, me and Natasha and Sam.”
“You must,” she agreed, and now, even when it was worn down with age and accompanied by her gasping for breath on occasion in between words, for the first time since waking up and finding her old and ailing, Steve could hear the old Peggy, the one who had taken care of everything and fought the good fight all her life. “If you do that, maybe all of this hasn’t entirely been in vain, maybe whatever wrongs we’ve done won’t be entirely unpardonable.”
“Maybe they aren’t already...” he started gently.
“No, it’s not that easy,” she continued. “Never is, never will be. We’ll spend the rest of our lives fighting Hydra, and we aren’t allowed to give up. Maybe each of us will have done enough by the time we die. It doesn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t our fault, it would still be our job. Or yours. I don’t suppose we can really blame you; you haven’t been here long enough.”
“Or maybe that’s what America has to deal with. Our society let Hydra and this Project Insight happen, and we have to live with that, and think they’re still worth fighting for even when they’re all idiots, and we have to do right, and even when we lose that societal battle we have to not give up…” She trailed off; she said these last words so quietly he could barely hear them, and yet he could still hear the woman he had once known in them.
The wave of emotion, right when the song went back into its non-English refrain, hit Steve so hard he felt like he should topple over; he clung Peggy to himself tighter for fear of losing his grip on her. His lips were by her ear; he pressed a kiss there, and then on the ear itself, and then into her tangled hair. This was what he’d known already, deep down, what had always been the reason to refuse every single woman Natasha suggested to him, because this one was still alive, even if she was trapped in a body and a brain falling apart, and his heart was always going to belong to her until the day hers finally stopped beating.
“I love you, Peggy,” he whimpered, and wondered why he hadn’t said it earlier. “And I don’t care if you think it’s foolish of me, I’m gonna love you until the day I die.” He pressed several more kisses to her temple, almost frantic ones.
But now she was whimpering too, and though he couldn’t make out her words as first, then he could: “But we can’t right now, Daniel; Hydra’s infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. We’ve got to go stop them. I can’t trust anyone but you, Daniel...”
Jacinth had been standing there silently watching, but now, she stepped forward and said, “I think we need to get her back to bed.”
And Joshua must have heard it too, because he came running back in, and cried out, “What in the hell do you think you two are doing?!”
Peggy responded to his yells, pulling away from Steve’s chest to frantically look around. “How do I know I can trust you two?” she demanded, forcefully as she was still capable of, of her two caretakers.
“We were cleared at the Playground?” Joshua offered. “Agent Koenig put us...”
“Agent Koenig?” Peggy interrupted. “But how I do know I can trust him? They’re everywhere, Howard. I suppose you think you’re going to invent a gadget that can find them...”
“To bed,” said Joshua, and neither of the other two were going to disagree. Peggy continued to mutter about Hydra and the government and the Soviet army, while behind them, Steve heard “Across the Universe” end, and the final track on the album begin, that bleak voice singing The long and winding road..
“She’s not escaping it even now,” said Jacinth softly. “Not even when she shouldn’t remember it; she’s still not letting herself forget it. The only escape she’ll have is the permanent one.”
Peggy finally quieted when she was settled into bed. Steve stood there, watching Joshua and Jacinth bend over her, trying to catch glimpses of her face through them. Though that wasn’t what he was looking for. That he knew was gone again, and he couldn’t wait for it to come back.
After a minute or so they were able to turn back to him, and he offered his hand, which they both shook as they wished each other luck. “Take care of her,” he said to them, though he supposed he didn’t really need to at this point.
“We will,” said Jacinth. “Thank you for coming today. It was really very good of you.”
As he walked out of the apartment, the CD continued playing, an instrumental interlude where a violin winding a strong musical path through the sadness, but as he reached the door, that lonely voice resumed:
But still it leads me back
To the long and winding road
You left me standing here
A long, long time ago
When the door fell shut behind Steve, it almost echoed with the sad lament, which continued to ring in his ears as he made his way down the stairs and away.