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Pack Up Your Troubles

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It was raining when Peggy finished up in the SSR offices, and she wrapped her scarf tight around her neck as she stepped out of the phone exchange and into the street. A sleek black car waited by the door, the darkened windows beaded with rain and gleaming in the streetlights.

"Wow," said Sousa. "That's a thing of beauty. Wonder who it's waiting for?"

Peggy pulled on a pair of gloves. "I've no idea at all," she said, and walked briskly away. She stopped under a lamppost to check her lipstick, and angled the mirror over her shoulder. She saw Sousa give the limousine a last, longing gaze before he turned to walk carefully towards the subway. When he was out of sight, she marched right back to the car and rapped smartly on the window.

It rolled down smoothly to reveal Howard's face, warm and dry and irretrievably smug.

"What do you want?" Peggy could feel the rain start to soak through her coat at the shoulder; she would have to stitch up that tear again.

Howard leaned on the window frame, glass in hand. "Why won't you come out with me? The war's been over for months - when are you going to kick up your heels?"

"My heels are perfectly well occupied, Howard," she said, irritably. "There's work to be done in setting up an agency. You can't do that when you're tiddly on champagne."

Howard raised the glass in a salute and took an indecently large swallow. "How 'bout a ride home?" he asked. "Least I can do. Call it my patriotic duty."

Peggy jabbed a finger towards his face. "Do not come near me when I am at work. I have enough trouble getting people to take me seriously as it is."

"Aw, come on, Peg," Howard started, but Peggy spun on her heel and left. After a moment, the car pulled out from the curb with a gentle purr. She didn't look back to see if it followed her and by the time she was back at her apartment, it was gone.

A week later, Howard was waiting in person, leaning on the wall beside the door to her apartment. The ostentatious car was nowhere to be seen, but he cradled a bunch of flowers in the crook of his arm. "Let me take you to dinner?" he asked.

Peggy brushed past him and into the lobby without a word. Then she reached back through the door and took the flowers; her roommate had been laid up with tonsillitis for two days, and some brightness might cheer her up a little.

It was another ten days before she saw Howard, on her lunch break in the little square of grass that passed for a park one block down from the phone exchange. He walked towards her with his hands in his pockets, and she scowled into her cheese and pickle sandwich.

"I know what you're up to," she said, with her mouth full.

He sat down beside her on the wooden bench. "If you know what I'm up to then the SSR is doing better than my sources say." Pigeons began to gather hopefully at his feet. Peggy scowled at them, too. Even pigeons were susceptible to the famous Stark charisma.

She chewed and swallowed her mouthful. "You do not have sources in the SSR," she said, vehemently. "I would know."

Howard laughed. "Now that I do believe. Do tell, though. What am I doing?"

"You're trying to cheer me up or jolly me along or something ridiculous and pointless," she said. She put her sandwich down on the waxed paper and wrapped it up, suddenly absent an appetite. "I don't need help getting on with things. I'm perfectly realistic about what happened to Steve. There's no point to wallowing in self-pity or crying into my pillow. I'm not that sort of person. I want to keep going with the work we started." She was very proud of the steadiness in her voice. She was fine.

Beside her, Howard was still enough to be a statue. The quietness of him was startling, enough that Peggy looked at him – really looked at him, beyond the dapper suit and the features that were habitually plastered on the social pages. Howard leaned against the bench with a carefully casual posture, ready to leap forward with a joke or some extravagant gesture, but his expression was as guarded as her own. Oh yes, they were both just splendid.

She unwrapped her sandwich, and silently passed him half. They sat quietly on the park bench, eating the sandwich she'd thrown together in her poky apartment this morning. The pigeons crowded at their feet and the traffic bustled past.

"What is this stuff?" Howard said, after a while. "It's disgusting. Next time we're sitting around being maudlin, I'm buying."

Peggy smiled. "Shut up and eat your crusts, Stark."