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True North

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"Hey, Peg. Peggy? Come in, Peggy, over."

Peggy Carter looked up, peering around the shoulder-deep stacks of paper that filled her desk. She had to blink a few times before she could see past the puddle of light from her lamp to the figure standing in the dim distance, in the door to her office. "Howard? What are you doing here so late?"

"You stole my question." Howard Stark leaned against her doorframe and crossed his arms, then took a pointed look at his watch. "You've worked through dinner, and it looks like you're also in danger of working through breakfast. Hardly the thing you want to be doing today, of all days."

"Today?" Peggy glanced at her calendar, but couldn't put any significance to the date. "How do you mean?"

Howard shook his head and let out a sigh that was surely exaggerated. "On the day you've announced your engagement, of course. What else?" He cracked a wry smile. "Or at least, on the day I heard about it. From Thompson, of all people. For all I know, you and Sousa eloped a month ago and never mentioned it to anyone."

"Ah." Peggy glanced at the diamond solitaire on her left ring finger, and she felt herself break into a small, fond smile as the gem winked in the lamplight. "Nothing like that," she said. "He only asked a few days ago, and I accepted yesterday."

"Close enough, then." Howard stepped into the room and held out a hand. "We should celebrate. Get you away from those mounds of paper for a little bit. At least let me buy you a drink, for God's sake, before you're married and it won't be appropriate anymore."

He winked at her, and she sighed. "Howard, you are impossible. But all right, I can take a hint. And a break." She made a note of where she had left off in her report, set down her pen, and stood up. "Just let me freshen up and get my things."

Howard pointed at her. "Downstairs. Five minutes. See you then.”

-x-

"Here you are." Jarvis pulled the car up to the front of the supper club. "Your dinner awaits."

"Thank you." Peggy touched the door handle, then let go as the doorman swooped in to pull it fully open. "Edwin, won't you join us?"

He shook his head. "Thank you, but I need to go home. Anna is waiting. Another time." He touched his cap and smiled at her. "But do come over. Let Anna make a celebratory dinner for us all. Congratulations, Miss Carter. Or should I say, the future Mrs. Sousa?"

Peggy flashed a grin. "We'll see," she said; Jarvis chuckled. "Thanks again."

Jarvis nodded, then leaned further over to catch Howard's eye. "Good night. Mr. Stark."

Howard, who was already standing on the curb, gave a small wave. "'Night, Jarvis. Tell Edmunds to be on call." The car pulled away, leaving Peggy to walk into the club, Howard just a step behind.

-x-

The two of them spent a pleasant hour eating, sipping on drinks, chatting amiably about work, current events, and other non-personal topics. It wasn't until the last plate was cleared away, and the waiter had delivered Howard's third martini and Peggy's second whiskey that Howard leaned forward, a serious look in his eye. “So, you and Daniel Sousa.” He set his drink on the table, rolling his fingers over the narrow glass stem. “I have to say, I wouldn’t‘ve called it. But it makes sense.”

Peggy took a swallow of her whiskey and put her own glass down, ice clinking. “How so?”

“How does it makes sense? Or how would I not have called it?”

“Either. Both.” Peggy folded her hands on the table. “Well, more the latter. I suppose I see how it makes sense, considering how closely we’ve worked together, and that for awhile he was the only man at the SSR who treated me as even half-competent.”

Howard took the skewer from his martini glass and pointed it at her. "Because most of those men were idiots. Daniel Sousa, clearly, is not an idiot." He popped the olives in his mouth, then dropped the empty skewer back in his drink. "At least, he doesn't seem like one."

"I'd say not." Peggy tipped her head sideways. "Though, like all men, he has his moments."

"That's fair." Howard lifted his glass and, as he caught her eye, Peggy did the same. "To a man who has his moments." They clinked their glasses together, then drank. He set his drink back down again, and his face turned more serious. "As for why I didn't call it... I suppose never really saw you settling down with anyone."

Peggy lifted an eyebrow. "Why on earth not?"

"Well, you seem married to the job, for one. Not much apparent interest in taking a breather, making time for a husband or kids." Howard sat up straight. "But also, well, after-- you know. I have a hard time imagining that anyone else would be good enough."

"Ah." Peggy swirled her glass and looked down into the amber liquid. "Well. I can't hold on to him forever. Nor can I measure every person I meet against him. That way lies madness." She drained her drink, then met Howard's gaze. "Daniel doesn't talk about the war much, but I do know that he was in one of the Hydra bases we destroyed, behind Russian lines. Did you know that?" Howard shook his head. "He was gravely wounded and couldn't walk -- and Steve not only liberated him from that prison camp, he carried Daniel to the rescue truck. Without Steve, Daniel would have died long before we even met. Perhaps it's silly to think that Steve brought us together. But-- well. I feel like I have his blessing, in a way. Or would, if he knew." She shook her head with a woeful chuckle. "I suppose that sounds a bit silly."

Howard sat silently for a moment, then held out his empty glass for the waiter, who replaced it with a full one.

The waiter looked at Peggy; she put her own glass on the his tray. "Another�?" he asked, and she nodded.

Once he left, Howard leaned forward again, resting his forearm on the table. "Not silly at all, Peg. Not at all. So often, I ask myself what Steve would do, still, even now. When I don't know which direction to go, or whether I'm making the right decision. He's my true north. Always will be." He cocked an eyebrow. "You got rid of his blood, didn't you. The vial that I had, that you saved from me and everyone else who might use it."

Peggy didn't trust herself to speak, but she nodded, once.

Howard sat back, martini in his hands, and seemed to contemplate its surface for a long moment. Then he took a healthy sip before setting it down. "Good," he said. "I'm glad you put him to rest. It's what he would want."

"Yes." Peggy let the old grief wash over her, over and through, the way she had finally learned to do. It wasn't gone, not entirely, but it would never consume her the same way again. "I never did thank you for that, did I?" She tipped her head to the side. "Because I didn't just do it for him. It was also for me. Taking that moment finally allowed me to start moving on. To start thinking about the life that lay ahead of me, instead of dwelling on everything I'd lost. I owe you."

"Nah," Howard said. "I owe you so many by now, we'll call it halfway to even."

The waiter picked that moment to drop off Peggy's next drink; she lifted it and smiled at Howard. "Ah, but do you owe me enough to pick up the tab?"

Howard chuckled. "If I'd known it would be that easy to clear my debts, I'd have started paying your bar bills long ago." He moved in for another toast. "To remembering the old adventures..."

"And planning for new ones," Peggy finished as she clinked her glass against his. They both drank, and then Peggy caught his eye with another smile. "Speaking of, isn't it time we got you settled?"

"Hah." Howard shook his head. "Between everything going on with Stark Industries, and the work we're both doing to get SHIELD off the ground, I think we both have enough other things to worry about."

Peggy smiled again. "We'll see." And she leaned back in her chair, drink cradled in her hand, basking in warmth from the liquor and this moment of friendship, secure in the knowledge that she was heading in the right direction.