New York. December 23, 2085.
4:32 p. m.
He takes another swing of his drink hearing the familiar sound of her heels approach at a quick pace, as he reaches to loosen his tie and the alcohol burns his throat but doesn't replace the taste of bile in the back of his tongue. He had been drinking since early that morning, for the first time in eight years.
The room remained quiet, but outside it was a different story. When the doors finally open, the woman stands in the middle of his office for a few seconds in silence. He waits for her to say something, to yell at him and scold him. to curse him for damning the world, but it never comes and the silence stretches between them until it becomes unbearable.
The sound of his own name shatters the silence like glass. He shuts his eyes tightly, he shouldn’t have call her.
"Howard, no one can find him" Peggy is breathing heavy, like she just ran a marathon, “Where is- Talk to me”
Howard knows who she is referring to. But he isn’t sure if he should really tell her everything, he isn’t sure why he called her. What if she’s one of them?
A loud crash outside makes her flinch but he doesn’t move a muscle. The house has a protection system that will activate if someone unauthorised tries to enter, he isn’t even sure if it still works but he doesn’t care anymore. His home had been swarmed by the press since that morning, and an angry crowd of protestors followed soon after. They surrounded the property throwing things at the window demanding him to show his face, and as the bottle became more empty he realised that it didn’t really matter if he did.
Her steps are cautious as she walks towards him. Peggy stands infront of him then, and he finally tears his gaze from the half empty glass in his hands to look at her.
“They are coming for me” He says.
The police, FBI, CIA, whoever the fuck was in charge now. Peggy purses her lips and walks towards him to take the glass from his hands, leaving it aside. He notices she takes her time to reach for a coaster to put under the glass, like she’s stalling. He would like to be able to do so too because what he must tell her, what he needs to ask from her it’s not easy.
"I know you didn't do it"
For someone who is said to not have a heart, he sure feels something heavy inside his chest start pounding violently at the woman’s words. Peggy never judged him, as awful as he knew he could get – and probably was – she never held anything against him, it was one of the reasons they had remained good friends. Peggy Carter was his only real friend.
She leans against the desk, "You have flaws, you’re too proud, cocky-"
He chuckles sadly and looks away, "So you came here to insult me?"
"-But you would never do something like this"
"Sell the world, Howard" Peggy reaches for her pocket and takes out a folded picture.
The same picture that appeared that morning in every news paper, television screen, website: Howard Stark meeting with two mysterious men from overseas. When he sold secrets from his nation and… That one thing that he knew was going to be the end of the world as they know it.
"This was supposedly taken on December 19"
He swallows tightly.
"You and I were visiting Maria’s grave”
When he takes the picture he realises his hands are shaking, whether it was the alcohol in his veins or something else he didn’t stop to consider. Peggy knew the picture was fake, she knew he hadn’t done it.
“They took it” Howard looks at her, “And framed me, Peg"
The woman looks at him with a look on her face, between confused and worried, she had been the only person who had ever looked at him with genuine concern apart from Maria. Her hand comes up to his shoulder, and she squeezes softly trying to comfort him despite being obvious that it’s not going to do anything. He reaches for her hand anyways and squeezes back softly. Her hand is warm, his fingers are cold.
"What did they take, Howard?” She asks softly, “Who did?"
"I don't know"
Peggy’s eyes scan his face, “Why?”
“I don’t know”
The man brushes her hand off and stands from the chair walking pass her. He feels a heaviness settle in his bones, he’s too tired, too old, and the hangover is starting to settle in. Or he might be having withdrawals, he isn't sure if that's why his hands shake so fucking much as he runs them through his face and hair. Fear. His mind supplies and he forces the voice to the back of his head.
Someone had stolen his invention. Project M.O.A.B., Mother Of All Bombs. They had stole it, sold it across the ocean and framed him for it. He had been hacked weeks ago, unnoticeable until he scanned throughly and deeply, impossible to trace even when he tried, everything from his bank accounts, personal files, phones and computers. They didn’t take any money, spread any information, threaten him with anything. It was as if they already knew about the bomb, and it was all they needed and wanted.
All Peggy hears is the word bomb. Nuclear, atomic, knowing Howard it could be both.
He doesn't even realise he is telling Peggy about it, pacing around the room like a caged animal while she follows him with her eyes, looking at him with pity like he was a mad man. It’s humiliating. Howard leans against the carved wooden table in the middle of his office.
“I need your help, Peg” He finally says.
“I’ll do whatever you tell me” Peggy says not missing a beat, “We can clear your name, make this right and-“
The man chuckles bittlerly and she goes silence. He traces the carvings on the table, it was new, he had sent it to be made months ago and it had been delivered barely a week ago. She knew it was a map of some sorts, some project Howard and SHIELD had been working on for years, a look of what the world will look like in the future.
Arcadia, he had called it once, five colonies working together to built a better world after the devastation that the war had left. Peggy stares at the carved map.
"I had this... Image of how the future would be once the war ended"
Peggy swallows tightly. She had come to his office for them to find a way to make things right, to make the truth go out and clean Howard's name, but the man looked like he had accepted his defeat, as if he knew there wouldn’t be a future.
"But SHIELD took that away"
She takes a sharp breath in.
Howard looks at her. Eyes narrowed as he straightens and walks towards her.
"Your beloved SHIELD" He chuckles bitterly, "It’s not what you think it is"
Peggy looks away then, because she knows that what he is saying it’s true. She had seen SHIELD slowly become something she didn’t recognise, too many hands controlling it from deep inside.
“You knew” Howard looks at her with a harrowing expression, “You knew and didn’t-“
“I wasn’t sure” Peggy shakes her head, “Or maybe I didn’t want to see the truth”
Just like Howard had built Stark Industries, Peggy had built SHIELD.
“I’m giving a press statement” Howard runs a hand through his face, “Tonight I will announce what project MOAB is about”
Peggy takes a deep breath in.
“No” She says, “It would be like throwing a rope around your neck, Howard”
He lets out a bitter chuckle.
The city would be evacuated, the streets will be chaos, there weren’t enough shelters, and people trying to leave the Walls will only make things worse… It’s too much, too little time. There had to be a way to stop the bomb from destroying their country as they know it, the devastation that would follow would leave only ashes.
“There has to be another way” Peggy says, and her throat feels too tight, “You keep talking as if- as if there is nothing we can-“
“I will try” Howard reaches for her hand, “But I need you to be safe in case…”
Howard squeezes her hand, and looks at her with pleading eyes. Her eyes welled with tears then, and she feels her heart jump to her throat, too tight now to speak. Howard didn’t call her so they could make a plan together and stop the bomb from falling, he had no interest in clearing his name. He wipes her tear falling from her cheek and moves closer to her, he stays quiet for a few seconds, before he lets her hand go and just stays still next to her. She can’t look at him yet.
“There’s a place a few hours from here”
Howard’s instructions are clear, he talks in a hushed tone like he was afraid someone else would hear them. He had always been paranoid, she understood why now and didn’t question him as he told her what she had to do. There was a place, an underground bunker, where she would have to wait for him there.
Before she leaves him, he holds her hand and kisses her knuckles.
Peggy leaves without looking back.
5:12 p. m.
Follow these coordinates. Don’t look back. Don’t trust anyone.
Just two days earlier the streets were full of people Christmas shopping, the chaos she now sees as she tries to leave the island is a different one. Police cars being attacked by groups of protestors, crowds demanding the opening of the Big Walls that surrounded Manhattan so they could leave the island, the people knew there was something going on. Once she manages to get out, using her government ID card, she sees people outside the walls wanting to come in.
She isn’t sure if they knew about Project Moab, but by now there have got to be rumours, leaks in the internet.
As she drives carefully through the sea of people, many start hitting her window and yelling at her. She sees the crowd starts running away, the riot police trying to catch some while other attacked them. Peggy grips the steering wheel and accelerates not wanting to waste time wondering if leaving everything behind will be worth it.
“Come on, Peggy, Come on”
There is a dread invading her despite the bravado she put on infront of Howard, she almost broke when she found him drinking himself to oblivion. A self-diagnosed high functioning alcoholic, Howard never cared about looking for help and it had been Maria who managed to give him some sense of control, but when she died he simply stop caring. He stop caring about his work even when he continued to have control over Stark Industries, there was no passion when he spoke about his inventions or his legacy. That alone made Peggy almost believe he had been capable of selling out like everyone now think he did. Almost.
Don’t trust anyone.
“SHIELD is not only mine, Howard”
She reaches for her phone, an untraceable one that she had gotten herself after she began to suspect SHIELD was compromised. Her fingers shake as she dials the only phone number saved and her eyes dart from the road to the screen.
“Pick up, pick up, pick up…”
But it goes to voicemail.
“God dammit” She curses loudly, dialling again and again.
It isn’t until she finally decides to give up that she realises she’s being followed. She catches two black vans a few feet from her, the road she took wasn’t very transited so they didn’t bother in trying to pretend they aren’t after her. Peggy grips the steering wheel and steps on the accelerator. She reaches for the glove compartment and pulls out a gun, then reaching for her phone again to dial the same number.
“Everyone is looking fo-“
“No time, just listen” She cuts him off, “I went to Howard and he will try to-“ She takes a sharp breath in, “You were right about SHIELD being rotten from the inside”
The line is quiet, and she knows he is just waiting for instructions.
“I’m sending co-ordinates for a place, you must be there immediately, you hear me? And don’t- don’t wait for me”
Always so loyal, form the start, he doesn’t question further even when Peggy can hear him take a shaky breath in. Howard was right after all, that she would try even when everything seemed lost. There was no way she could stop the bomb and save the world, but she would avenge it. Or he would.
“You are all that’s left from SHIELD”
And then one of the cars collides with hers.
The Chicago Tribune
December 24, 2085.
Margaret Carter, founder and ex-director of SHIELD died yesterday evening. Close friends with Howard Stark and his conspirator, she had been found guilty of treason and espionaje, and tried to escape the authorities.
“Margaret? Margaret!?” Nick yells into the phone, “Peggy!”
He curses and throws the phone aside. He was already halfway through his car when he got the call. Margaret had told him she had gone to see Howard and he knew something was bound to happen. Despite wanting to protest, to tell her not to do it because it was a bad idea, she went to his home and he had waited impatiently to hear from her. Something wasn’t right with the situation, just like something wasn’t right with SHIELD and it hadn’t been for a while now. Only Peggy and him seem to know, or care enough to stay alert. When Howard’s face appeared that morning in the newspapers he knew that somehow both things were connected.
The city is at chaos inside the Walls, and outside it isn’t any better. For some reason there was still people trying to get in, despite the Walls being closed for almost three months now. He isn’t sure why Peggy wanted him to go to a place in the middle of nowhere, but he never doubted her before and he wasn’t going to start now. His phone – not the one Peggy got him – starts ringing, and he is sure that is someone from SHIELD, or maybe even Stark Industries, so he ignores it.
A four hour drive gets Nick Fury to the milled of the desert. By then, the sun is gone and he had run through his fuel, and he curses his luck since the place he is looking for seems to be a few miles away.
You are all that’s left from SHIELD.
He punches the steering wheel two, three, four times as the frustration building up inside him hits the limits. He couldn’t let Margaret down, whatever she wanted him to do, wherever she needed him to go, he was so close.
“It’s only a few miles”
Nick leaves his gun in the backseat, only taking the GPS to be able to find the coordinates. It’s cold as hell, and he forgot his coat in his apartment when he left in a hurry.
“Where did you bring me, Peggy?” He asks.
It takes him a second to realise he never asked why.
Why him. Why didn't Peggy call anyone else? Janine Selvig was close friends with her, Jonathan Pierce was the current director of SHIELD... But Margaret called him instead. She trusted him instead.
The man’s legs are failing on him what feels hours later, and his lungs are burning when he finally reaches his destination. But there is nothing on sight for him to confirm it. It isn’t until he sees a strange looking rock that doesn’t really matches the rest of the ones he’s seen. It’s not a rock, he realises as he approaches cautiously. It’s an entrance.
Nick takes a sharp breath in, looking around the cave as he enters, “A bunker”
He made it.
First, he remembers SHIELD had many bunkers available, but he had never seen or heard of this one. The location seemed remote, and he can’t see any of the signals the others had. Then, a pang blooms in the pit of Nick’s stomach, because it meant that Howard knew that whatever was about to happen… Was inevitable, and he had only told Peggy about it. He leans against the inside walls of the cave and takes a few deep breaths, before he finally falls to his knees exhausted, fists clutching so tight his knuckles go white.
Nick lets a deep breath out. That’s when he sees a small golden plaque underneath him, covered by a thin layer of dust. He wipes the dust off it and finds a few letters carved into it.
The earth shakes underneath him, and it takes him a few seconds to realise he’s standing in some sort of platform that starts to descend slowly.
New York Times Online
December 23, 2085.
BREAKING. Howard Stark dead. Stark Industries founder Howard Stark was shot during a press conference in which he addressed the rumours of his participation in a meeting with officials from Europe. He was taken to the New York hospital where he was pronounced dead at 7:43 p.m.
No date of death recorded.