Howard Stark was no damn good at self-sacrifice.
He liked to imagine that he would be, that a noble death would be the culmination of a lifetime of taking what his analyst (or maybe it was his accountant, in the process of reviewing the year's insurance premiums) called "compulsive unnecessary risks." When one of his risks turned out to be fatal — but also necessary, in fact, strategically vital — the result would be an overflowing room full of people, sobbing and giving testimonials to Howard Stark's courage and his shrewd strategic mind. Two of them — just to pick a random example, Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers — would take the opportunity to embrace, look deep into each other's eyes, and talk about how Howard had taught them to appreciate the precious fragility of life.
It was a stupid fantasy. He knew that. If one of his daredevil stunts got him killed, even if by some chance it had been necessary and strategically vital, nobody was going to think of it that way. Because he was Howard, and they knew him. And what the hell did any of that have to do with Peggy and Steve? It wasn't as though he had any claim on them.
Then, Steve's plane went down, and Howard's fantasy went from silly and embarrassing to horrific. He hadn't meant it to go this way, but of course the "sacrifice" script made so much more sense with Steve at the center of it.
At the end of a hellishly long day, Howard heard Peggy's voice at the over the phone. "Where are you?" she said, with her usual clipped British confidence. Then she stumbled just a little as she said, "What are you doing tonight?" With that quick flash of vulnerability, Howard could see where this was headed and that it was the script they'd been writing for Steve all along, even if they hadn't realized it. Steve was just too good for the world; there was never any way he was getting out of this dirty war alive.
Howard opened his mouth to say that, and to tell Peggy, furthermore, that he could be over that night if it was what she wanted.
What he heard himself saying was, "I'm getting on a boat."
There would have been a salvage operation anyway, of course. The military (cynically) wanted that plane and (sentimentally) wanted a body to bury when they declared a nationwide day of mourning for Captain America. But maybe they wouldn't have looked quite so long and so hard, if not for Howard. He thought, maybe, this was just his part in the script, too, to be the man who kept looking and updated Peggy every night by the captain's shortwave radio.
On the other hand…no one outside of one of the more sensationalist pulp writers would have predicted the next event in the chain, when the ship was boarded by barely-clad men claiming to represent the kingdom of Atlantis. They did not, or so they claimed, know anything about the wreckage of a prototype airplane, but had a story about a blonde man in a block of ice. As weird as that sounded, it wasn't, Howard got the captain to concede, any weirder than a visit from a wingfooted man who claimed to rule a kingdom under the sea. It took a bottle of excellent Scotch and Howard's promise to set up a meeting with his good friend the Secretary of War, but the Atlanteans did indeed produce a man in an iceberg.
And he was alive.
That was the part no one had counted on. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe it was a side effect of the serum. Maybe it was a goddamn miracle. Howard didn't know. It didn't matter, finally. All that mattered was that day in the hospital room in Reykjavik, Steve finally conscious and out of isolation. Peggy put her hand tentatively on his wrist, then yanked it back. "I'm sorry," she said. "You're colder than I thought."
"That's funny," Steve said, with a sleepy grin. "Feels awful warm to me."
They were still staring into each other's eyes when Howard left. He went straight to his hotel, phoned a buddy in Washington, and said he thought it was about time to get his feet back on American soil so where did they need him?
New Mexico, it turned out. He left Iceland in his own airplane before morning, and sent Peggy and Steve a postcard from Las Cruces.
Life's short, kids. Dance while you can. -H
Maybe it all would have happened without him, but he liked the idea that he had given them to each other. He had walked away, leaving himself only … money, genius, and sexual attention from every conceivable direction.
Howard was no damn good at self-sacrifice.
The next time he saw them, it was 1947, at an MGM soiree at the Ambassador Hotel. Howard had been back in L.A. for less than an hour, and the party had been going on for three. That was why he walked in late and dateless, although frankly he did that whenever he could get away with it these days. Who you went home with was more important than who you brought, and Howard had been busy enough since the war that he didn't need the extra publicity.
Or maybe he was maturing. What a depressing thought.
Coming in late was a good opportunity to check out the lay of the room, anyway, and Howard was so busy trying to make out who was the other side of it (was that Douglas Fairbanks? and what was he wearing? Howard's tailor had sworn this jacket was one-of-a-kind) that he almost walked past the handsome couple seated at a table by themselves.
"Howard Stark?" said a familiar, incredulous English-accented voice.
Howard pivoted slightly, in a practiced 'I-was-headed-that-way-all-along' motion and said, "It's hard to believe they started the party without me, isn't it?" With a slight nod, he said, "Agent Carter."
The man next to her cleared his throat, and Howard just had time to adjust to that broad-shouldered form in (very-well-cut) civilian black-tie, when Peggy raised her left hand and said, "Mrs. Rogers."
"That's —" And Howard, who prided himself on knowing everything about everyone, swallowed his ego, pulled a chair from the next table (those other people weren't using it) and said, "Congratulations. I would have gotten you, well, a private island, but no one told me."
"We kept it out of the papers," said Steve. "Please, pull up a chair," he added, glancing at the one Howard had already straddled. Turning toward the couple at the next table, he said, "I'm sorry about my —" He lingered for just a second over "- friend."
The young woman giggled. "It's all right." Leaning toward Howard, she said, "I'm a huge fan of your work, Mr. Stark."
Her date stood abruptly, put a hand to her shoulder, and said, "Nice-to- meet-you-we-were-just-going-to-dance."
He led her away. She skipped along behind him, but turned back twice to wave at Howard.
The three left at the table shared a long look, until Howard broke the silence by saying, "She's a big fan of all the casting directors she thinks I know. But seriously. What brings you honeymooners to the City of Angels? Since, I'm guessing by the look on Captain Rogers' face, it's not a high degree of fondness for the social atmosphere."
Peggy's hand slid over Steve's, so that her blunt but bright red nails rested on his knuckles. "Haven't you heard? The biggest movie of next year is about Steve."
"I did hear. I assume that's why Colonel Phillips is over there dining out on his war stories." He nodded to the center of the room, where a crowd had gathered around the unusually boisterous (and probably intoxicated) Phillips.
"He's a technical consultant," said Peggy. "Also, retired."
Howard narrowed his eyes at Steve. "And you?"
"Not a consultant," Steve said shortly. "And you must have heard the news."
"Of course I heard, but —" What was there to say? He'd thought it was a cover story. The newspaper accounts told how Captain America was retiring and rejoining civilian life, marrying his girl and looking for his piece of the American Dream, just like every other G.I. Joe who found his way home. There'd been no mention of Peggy by name, but Howard had figured somebody in power wanted to play down the fact that Steve's American dream involved a foreign bride. Then, he realized, the Captain's real name, though known in most Army circles, hadn't been included in the press releases, and he'd never been photographed without the mask. Howard's eyes widened, and he leaned closer. "Are you undercover at your own party? "
"In a sense —" Peggy began.
"They send you to Hollywood to root out subversives?" Howard persisted, and it was kind of a joke, but once it was out of his mouth, it made far too much sense. He'd never really believed that the government would let an asset like Cap go, and with the fuss some people on the Hill were making about Reds in the movie studios…
Steve got to his feet and slammed his chair into the table. "Dance?" he said to his wife, as though Howard wasn't there. She took his hand and followed with a scowl back at Howard.
So, Howard thought, I must have been right. Funny that it didn't make him feel any better.
"He resigned, you ass," said Peggy. "He resigned and just wants to be left alone, so he can finish art school."
"Hello to you, too," said Howard. "Don't worry, Miss Sterling," he added to the secretary who was cringing beside the door that Peggy had just stormed through. "You're not fired. I've witnessed entire armies who couldn't have stopped Agent — Mrs. Rogers. Come to think of it, those armies are mostly out of work, maybe I could make a few calls — only joking, Miss Sterling, please don't look so stricken. Butif you could leave us and close the door. I have a feeling this should be off the record." He opened his desk drawer as Miss Sterling made her retreat, "Whiskey?"
"Did you hear anything I said?"
"I did. It didn't make me want a drink any less." He poured two glasses, and Peggy had to move from her stern, arms-crossed position to take one. But she did take it. "I saved your husband's life once, you know. I'd think the man could take a little ribbing."
"Don't try and play the martyr, Stark. It doesn't suit you."
Howard had to concede that one. "Our little encounter the other night made me curious. So I made a few calls, and everything I can find indicates your husband's retirement is entirely legitimate. I apologize for suggesting otherwise."
"It wasn't so easy, you know. His enlistment had run out, but there were people in the military who tried to claim they owned my husband's physiology. It basically took our marriage and the threat that he'd emigrate to England with me."
Howard laughed. "The State Department would have loved that."
"The Foreign Office might have, a bit. It may shock you to know that Americans aren't universally and unexceptionally beloved among your Allies." She flashed a wicked grin. "Special relationship notwithstanding."
"You're glad it worked out this way though?"
Peggy sighed, and walked toward the window, where the California sunshine was streaming through. "Some days. Most days. Other times, I feel guilty being here when — They're saying rationing might not end in the United Kingdom for another five years. I look at the window here, and — I don't trust a place where it never rains."
"Really? That's why I moved here." Howard walked up behind her and took in the view of Wilshire Boulevard. "Not to say that I trust this town. I'm not a lunatic. By the way, every studio guy I talked to at that party wanted to give your husband a screen test."
"So he heard," Peggy said sourly.
"I can see why a man would be insulted by that."
"He's not an actor. These are his words. He might be an artist, he'd like to find out for himself. Although —" Peggy softened into a smile. "He does like the movies. That's why he wanted to go to school here, instead of back East. Everyone who can draw in New York is getting pushed toward Madison Avenue, whereas in California — they're still selling something, I suppose, but it's more of a dream."
"So he's sentimental," said Howard. "So when someone in Congress suggested he use his fame to make connections in Hollywood and report on subversives —" Peggy glowered at him, and he raised his hands in surrender. "Lucky guess."
"You can see why my husband didn't much appreciate your joke."
"In my experience, your husband doesn't appreciate most jokes."
Peggy kept glaring for a second, then broke into a smile. "Very well," she said. "But you still owe him an apology."
"Did you come here to demand that I apologize?"
"Actually —" Peggy swirled her whiskey glass absently for a moment, then said, "I came to invite you to dinner. With me and Steve. We've got a cozy little bungalow in the Hills. It's not the Ambassador Hotel, but I'm doing some translations for the UCLA Library, and between that and the G.I. Bill we get by. Steve makes an excellent shepherd's pie and he wanted me to extend the invitation."
"Steve did?" Howard wondered if, after all, he understood what conversation they had been having. "Why would he want to do that?"
"I believe you saved his life at one point."
"Technically, Namor the King of Atlantis did that, along with a team of Icelandic doctors. I just negotiated."
"Say eight o'clock tomorrow?" Peggy asked. "Try not to be fashionably late."
Steve and Peggy did live in a cozy little bungalow. Not just real-estate-ad euphemism cozy (though it was on the small side) but genuinely comfortable, with soft furniture and decor put together with a designer's eye. The walls held a few pencil sketches of New York streets that he assumed to be Steve's work. There were also photographs of London. There were not, Howard noticed, any noticeable memorabilia of his time as Captain America, although…yes, that was a charcoal drawing of Steve's friend Barnes. Bucky, who Howard had hardly known, and who notably hadn't been rescued from an iceberg by mysterious ocean people.
Steve was also, as advertised, an excellent cook. "Is this a side-effect of the super soldier serum?" Howard asked. "Annoying levels of proficiency at everything you attempt?"
Peggy cocked her head. "How old were you when you designed your first jet engine?"
"Right, right, but that was theory. I didn't actually build one until I was — eleven?" To their matching skeptical looks, Howard said, "I am bad at many things."
"Oh, I find that hard to believe," Steve said, straight-faced.
Howard turned to Peggy. "Are you sure he wanted me here?"
"Before I was a super-soldier," Steve said, "I was a sickly, shut-in kid. You learn your own ways to be useful, when you grow up like that. Skills and abilities you'd never get from a serum." Then he smiled, and Howard wondered if Peggy had told Steve what he said about never appreciating a joke.
Howard smiled in return. "I was, too. A sickly kid, I mean. Not that I learned to cook. My dad built me a gymnasium — or, he had it built — because I read this story about Teddy Roosevelt, and I bugged the household staff until — you know probably this isn't the same story at all. So maybe I should —" His eyes met Steve's across the table, and instead of saying 'shut up,' Howard just did it.
They sat there, quietly, looking at each other, until Steve said, "I'm glad you saved my life, Howard. Thank you."
"I shouldn't have implied you were an informer," said Howard. "It goes against everything I know about the kind of man you are. I'm sorry."
"Does it?" Steve ran a hand through his thick blonde hair and sighed. "The thing is, I thought about it. I hate Communism. God knows. Some of the things that have happened in Europe already. Some of the stories I've heard, things we overlooked about Stalin for the sake of the war effort —"
He let the sentence hang there, and it was Peggy who prompted, "But?"
"But — it seems to me —" He stumbled over the first part, and then the rest came out in a rush. "What some of these Congressmen want to do is call everybody who dares to disagree with them a Communist, and pretend every Communist is like Stalin, and use that to discredit every kind of criticism. Valid or invalid. It's happening in Hollywood, and it's not something I think Captain America's name should be attached to and in fact — I wonder, Mr. Stark."
"I keep thinking there must be a way to use Captain America to speak out against that kind of ideology. I keep wondering. Does Captain America belong to the Army or does it belong to —?" Steve stopped, swallowed.
"To you?" Howard supplied.
"I was going to say 'us,'" Steve told him. "The people or, well. America."
"I remember a time," Howard reflected, "When you were convinced the only way to help America was on the battlefield."
"Maybe I was right, then. Or maybe now I've seen that battlefield, and I'm ready to see what I can do on the other kind."
"Will you help us, Howard?" Peggy asked eagerly.
"Let me get this straight," said Howard. "You came to me because —"
"You're the smartest person we know," Steve said, and, before Howard could make a humble disclaimer, added quickly and without irony, "Now that Professor Erskine is dead."
"Also," said Peggy, "You're too rich to give a damn."
"I wish that were true," said Howard. "But remember, a lot of my money is tied up in contracts with the U.S. military. Given the current climate, it's not as though I could just offer to take my skills to Russia. Not that I'd want to." Peggy opened her mouth but before she could interject, he said, "The Brits couldn't afford me. Sorry."
"So you won't help," Steve said flatly.
"I didn't say that. I'm just not as invincible as I might seem. I admit, I have a lot of resources that the average American couldn't lay hands on, and — I like this idea. It helps that I like both of you. I've been needing a new project, and this is —" He hesitated, now, as visions of stolen afternoons working on secret projects in the cozy Rogers bungalow danced in front of him. It was too close to his wartime fantasies, and none of them even had to die for it to happen. "Why'd you really bring me in on this? Or — what made you think I'd do it? If there's anything in my life that screams 'soft on subversive elements,' I'd like to know about it."
Steve and Peggy exchanged a look, and he was the one that spoke. "It's not just suspected Communists that have to hide who they are in Hollywood. There are, ahh — people say things about your lifestyle."
Howard turned and stared at Peggy. She was part of the secret branch that had given him a background check before the war. She knew things about his lifestyle.
People had tried to use Howard's personal life to leverage him before, and he'd given the 'single man without family, too rich and brilliant to care' line. It wasn't entirely true, but it was close enough, and people either needed him too much or realized hassling a Stark wasn't worth the trouble. But from Steve and Peggy, who wanted his help, who he thought were his friends, he couldn't begin to understand it.
"Is this blackmail?" he asked.
Peggy put a hand to her face and began to laugh. Howard was forced to look at Steve, who, super-soldier serum or not, was blushing through that pale Irish-American skin. "This, ahh —" Steve hesitated. "This wasn't entirely intended as a sociopolitical conversation. That is, you see. I know a thing or two about not fitting in, in this country."
"But you —" Howard stammered. "But this? I really thought the two of you —"
"The marriage is quite real," Peggy assured him. "Just like what happened with you and me in Lucerne was real. The idea of going with women and men, Howard — it isn't something you invented in your garage like a jet engine."
"You have no idea what goes on in my garage," Howard said. Then he looked at the two of them again and said, with dawning realization, "Is this a date?"
"I always wondered why you ran off that day," said Steve. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about that." It didn't seem to answer the question, except that it really did.
Howard turned to Peggy. "You're okay with this?"
"I was rather hoping to be part of this."
"I ran off—" Howard said. "I ran off so the two of you could be together." He let out a sigh. "I've never been any good at self-sacrifice."
"That," said Peggy, "is because you never ask other people what they want."
"I can see that's been a mistake," Howard said. "I'll never make it again."
Howard Stark had made plenty of mistakes. Fortunately, he thought, looking from Peggy to Steve, they had their whole lives ahead of them to clear this one up.