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Funeral Games

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Peggy had lost count of the funerals she attended a long time ago.

Many of these were in her capacity as head of SHIELD; others were of a more personal nature. Some were both. Early on, she tried not to develop a routine, believing that this, surely, was the first step to callousness. Later, she realized it was self preservation. She had her collection of meaningful phrases and gestures, and these were safer to use than something indicating the true state of her heart. Funerals, after all, were for the survivors, not for the dead. And the survivors didn't need you to be self indulgent.

Howard thought differently, but then, he was Howard. "If you survive me..." He'd begun, at Janet Van Dyne's memorial service, which most people later remembered for the lack of an actual body and coffin and for Hank Pym managing to get through it without looking at his daughter once.

"I'm not going to survive you," Peggy had cut him off. "We have an arrangement about this, remember? If you believe I'm not going to hold you to it..."

"I'm just saying. If, despite my avowed intention of being the type of bastard who sits around yelling for his drink in his late nineties when he's lucky to get it via IV, I precede you in dying, I want you to do something for me. Don't wear black. I mean, you look great in it, don't get me wrong, but your real color is red. And for God's sake, don't give a speech. I'm going to get speeches by the dozen anyway, and you'll have to suffer through all of them. I don't need you to be bored at my funeral. Find that killer blonde from Russia instead if she's still around and get laid in my honor instead. "

"Every time..."

"What? You wouldn't deny an old man his last wish, would you, pal?"

The lethal, brilliant woman whom Peggy first knew as Dottie Underwood was already dead on the winter morning when Howard Stark and his wife Maria were buried. But Peggy didn't give a speech, and she was wearing red. Her son and daughter, who'd come with her, were slightly scandalized by this, which was ironic if you considered that both had, once upon a time, prided themselves on being anti establishment protesters.

"I know he was just an old war buddy, Mom, but seriously, people are going to think you don't really care," her daughter had said, and her son, who as a boy had adored "Uncle Howard" despite or because of seeing him only rarely, was still glaring at her during the service. No one else commented, which was what she had expected.

She had hoped the dress would help her with removing the funeral routine walls she'd set around herself. Would make her feel that this was different. That this was not yet another funeral she had to go through with impeccable manners and just the right words. But it didn't work. She didn't feel anything, hadn't since getting the news. Which she had done three times in a row. Peggy hadn't been Director of SHIELD for more than a year, but they had still called her before most other people had heard, including Obadiah Stane, Howard's business partner at Stark Industries. Howard had always kept Stane away from anything SHIELD related, which meant that to Stane, Peggy was indeed simply an old wartime friend of Howard's, and he had notified her of the Starks' death in writing, or rather his personal assistant had done. The third notification had been a phone call from Howard's son Tony, whom she hadn't seen or spoken to since Jarvis' funeral. On each occasion, Peggy had felt the long set automatic responses taking over. Delivery on demand.

It still didn't feel real.

There were indeed speeches a dozen, or more. Hans Bethe talked about Howard at Los Alamos. Susan Oliver talked about flying with Howard. There was a message from the President. Stephen Sondheim, who'd been friends with Maria Stark, was about the only speaker who talked about the other victim of the accident, and Peggy noticed young Tony unfroze somewhat while Sondheim was praising Maria's sense of humor. She tried to focus on Maria herself, Maria the determined civilian who had told her at Jarvis' funeral that Peggy was the only other person left who knew what it was like to put up with Howard on a day to day basis through the years, and that they should both be covered in medals for this.

Thinking of Maria didn't make it any more real, either. Peggy almost had given up on trying when out of the corner of her eyes, she spotted someone she hadn't seen in decades. The tiny hairs on her neck rose. She'd dealt with far more dangerous people, but this man had ruled his own little empire of violence and death through the years, and was still alive, which meant that even in his Seventies, he should never be considered harmless.

He'd also known Howard for longer than anyone else present. When Sondheim returned to his seat and the next speaker made his way up the aisle, Peggy started to move as well, closing in on the unexpected face from the past. He saw her, acknowledged her with a nod and moved his chin towards the Cathedral door. The service was a Catholic one, because of Maria; Howard had always said he didn't care one way or the other, though Peggy's current informant at Stark Industries told her Obadiah Stane had spent twenty minutes yelling at a Rabbi who'd not only unearthed the fact that Howard had been Jewish but claimed that Howard had actually visited his synagogue occasionally during the last six months and would have wanted to be buried in the Jewish tradition. The phrase "Now you listen to me" had been used a lot, as had "he got Maria killed with his drunk driving, he damn well can get buried the way she wanted".

In earlier times, Peggy supposed she'd gotten angry about this. But the heart of the matter was that Howard had never expected Maria not to survive him, because of their age difference. Maria had been a Catholic, and he had let any funeral arrangements entirely up to her. And if he'd returned to practicing any faith during the last six months, he'd certainly not told Peggy or anyone else she knew. So she had acknowledged the information without doing anything about it.

The old man waiting for her outside St. Patrick's was less tall than she'd remembered, and fleshier, while the hair that had once been dark gone almost entirely white, like Howard's. She noticed the two bodyguards waiting discreetly in the background.

"Mr. Manfredi," she said in her most neutral tone. "I thought you had retired. To Florida, was it?"

"No more than you've retired to Britain, dollface," he replied. "I visit the Everglades now and then, that's all."

He wasn't the head of his family anymore, as far as she knew; one of his nephews had succeeded him. But that this hadn't happened in a lethal way said something about Manfredi's continued influence.

"So," he said, voice unchanged, if nothing else about him was, "does this make you scream or what?"

Her eyebrows rose. He unearthed a cigarette, one of his bodyguards quickly stepping towards him to light it.

"Patriot this, genius that, yaddah yaddah yaddah," Manfredi said, gesturing with his cigarette before inhaling. "Not a bit about what he was like. One of the most irritating fuckers I've ever met. God, I loved that man."

There it was, at the most inopportune of moments; a chink in the wall that shielded her. Something hot and bitter rote in her, and she tried to push it back. Manfredi squinted at her.

"Tell you what, Madam Director," he said. "Let's get drunk together."

"I'm not the Director anymore," Peggy said automatically.

"Good for you. Howard said... never mind. I bet you could still take me down if you needed to. So, how about that drink?"

Another routine that had nothing to do with grief kicked in.

"Had you spoken with Howard recently?" Peggy asked, focusing on the one part of his reply that the instinct which kept her alive through the decades told her was worth paying attention to. He nodded, neither commenting nor explaining further, just waiting for her answer to his invitation.

She hadn't known Howard was still in contact with a man TIME Magazine had listed under "America's Sinister Top Twenty: Mobsters At Large". Then again, there'd always been things Howard didn't tell her unless pressured, and she hadn't never managed to completely cure him of the habit of lying about those, too, if he believed he could get away with it.

"Was it an accident?" she'd asked Nick Fury, who currently served as Assistant Director to her replacement and would undoubtedly make Director himself sooner or later. Fury had been the first to notify her of the deaths; and while emotions refused to come, logic did. Howard drank a lot. But not when driving, and certainly not when driving with Maria. Then again, accidents did happen, even to the best drivers.

"It looks that way," Fury had returned. She'd trained him herself. She could read between the lines.

Joseph Manfredi had risen from small time gangster to head of one of the big families. He was responsible for countless deaths, he'd profited from the drug trade and prostitution. But one thing he'd never been was involved with Leviathan, Hydra or any of the other organizations mixing technology, science, ideology and brainwashing.

Say Howard actually did visit a synagogue during the last six months. The last time he'd done so was when Ana Jarvis had asked him to, after Jarvis' death in 1984. It would have needed a similarly powerful incentive for him to do so now. Say Howard did talk to a man very familiar with death, but as opposed to most people in that department whom he knew utterly unconnected to either SHIELD or its enemies.

Say Howard had known he was in danger, and had looked for an ally.

Maybe she was just paranoid, too cynical after decades at the head of an intelligence service, too ready to chase after shadows. Surely, if Howard had felt threatened, he'd have told her first and foremost? She could just imagine him doing so. Asking for her help.

Pal, I owe you one. Again.

Peggy, there's something I have to tell you. Now hear me out, I swear, it's not like you think...

Peg, can I talk to you about something?

But he hadn't. He hadn't. The last time she'd talked to Howard, he'd growsed about Tony wasting his chances at the MIT, something he, Howard, would have given his right arm to have had.

But does he listen to me? No. Why does he never listen?

Because he takes after you?

You're a riot, Peg.

"Alright," Peggy said abruptly. "Lead the way, Mr. Manfredi."


Surprisingly enough, the tiny restaurant Manfredi led her to wasn't Italian. It was a neutral, dimly lit affair with artificial leather and real dust in the corners. But the staff clearly knew who he was; Peggy recognized the mixture of deference, fear and a nervous kind of satisfaction they showed. It helped reminding herself just who she was sharing a table with. He grunted a bit as he sat down.

"Can't stand too long anymore," he commented. "Damn hip. Age, huh?"

"My left knee isn't what it used to be, either," Peggy replied ruefully, which was part tactic, to establish a level playing field so he'd feel at ease and be more readily inclined to tell her what she wanted to know, and part plain truth. She had kept in shape, she swam every morning at six and went to the gym once a week still; but her knee was giving her trouble, and the last time she went hiking through the mountains with her grandchildren and great niece Sharon, there was hell to pay.

Howard's only physical problem had been a loss of hearing in his left ear. Quite how he'd managed that, between all the drinking, enough sex with strangers in his younger years to risk every sexually transmitted disease known to man, working on the atom bomb and producing weapons on a regular basis, Peggy didn't know. She had asked him once.

Only the good die young, Peg, he'd said, a bit more serious than warranted. You should know that by now.

Is that a promise, Howard? I'll hold you do it.

Manfredi ordered whiskey for both of them. It wasn't noon yet, but the bar owner didn't blink.

"Did you know Maria?" Peggy asked.

"Because all Italian-Americans are related? Nah. Never met her. Never met the kid, either. Couldn't have the boy wonder realize his old man knows wise guys, right? Though to be fair, I didn't bring him home to my kids, either. Did Howard meet yours?"

"My son thought Howard was the epitome of cool when he introduced him to smoking and bought him his first motorbike," Peggy said. "And then he went to Berkeley and decided Howard was capitalist evil incarnate, while his father and I were the instruments of imperialistic oppression. Life in the early 70s was just row after glorious row."

Her hands itched, and at last she gave in and asked Manfredi for a cigarette. She'd quit several times by now, and she'd quit again, but today, she really wanted some life endangering nicotine in her lungs. He followed through. Peggy noticed there was no tremble in his fingers. That problem with his hip evidently didn't mean athritis all over.

"Young people," Manfredi said, commiserating. "No respect. My Nona would have beat me to death with a broom if I'd mouthed off at her the way the kids do today."

The whiskey arrived, and he instantly took a sip. "Now Howard," he continued, "he was the kid who wouldn't shut up. But he made it work for him. Time was, he could tell me anything was possible and I believed him. Did he ever mention he invented a method to crack safes and then invented better locks when we were still wet behind the ears?"

She shook her head. The story didn't surprise her. She hadn't appreciated the safety and privilege of her own childhood, full of games and gardens in Hampstead, until she'd joined the service and met people from different backgrounds for the first time. But that was many years ago. So many.

A memory of her brother Michael come to her, of two children playing, and she wondered what would have become of them if they'd grown up in New York. In Brooklyn, like Steve. On the Lower East Side, like Howard. She tried not to think of the last time she'd seen Michael.

That whiskey didn't taste half bad.

"How old were you when you two met?" Peggy asked, and heard a few more anecdotes about young Howie Starkovic while she tried to steer the conversation into the direction she needed it to go.

"I have this theory why he left," Manfredi said well into his third glass of whiskey. "No, wait. That's my big theory about people altogether. I started to figure it out after Whitney did all her writing on walls and opening doors to other worlds stuff. She was a lot like him, you know. Like Howard."

"She was mad," Peggy said wryly, unable to let this pass. She wasn' t inclined to be sentimental about Whitney Frost.

"And you think he wasn't?" Manfredi asked, sounding honestly surprised.

"He could be an irresponsible wanker," Peggy allowed, "but he did stop short of trying to destroy the world."

Manfredi started to gesticulate with the hand that held his latest cigarette before she'd even finished speaking.

"That's where you're wrong. She didn't want to destroy the world. She wanted a perfect world, with her on top. She wanted people to see what she could do, and admire her for it. Now see, there's people like me. I'm a simple guy. I wanted power, sure. Enough for a good life. "

A good life for you, Peggy thought. Not for all the people who bled to make that possible. But she didn't say anything.

"And there are simple guys like your boy, the one Howard kept looking for each year. The hero. He just wanted to fight the good fight and protect people, and that got him killed and in a museum, because it always does. But see, Howard, Howard I thought was like me, and so I couldn't understand why he left. He'd have been my right hand man, and gotten rich a whole lot faster if he'd stayed. And he wouldn't have had to change his name. But he was like Whitney. He couldn't stand staying in the shadows. He had this "look, look what I can do!" thing, only hers was worse because they only wanted to look when she was acting."

"Just a crazy idea," Peggy couldn't stop her self saying, "but maybe he objected to your profession?"

Manfredi snorted and gave her a look. "And that's why he got so good at making weapons. And how many people did you order dead per year, doll face?"

"I'm not an engineer like Howard, or a mathematician like Maria, but I don't think you want to draw that equation, Mr. Manfredi."

He harrumphed, and downed another glass.

"See, you do this in between thing, too. Wanting to be good, and wanting to be powerful. Trust me, you can't have both. And I'm fine with that. Whitney, now Whitney tried to make the world so that it saw her as good when she knew she wasn't, and it drove her mad as sure as that zero matter stuff did. Howard knew he wasn't good, too, but he thought if he came up with enough gadgets , it would change him. And that's almost as mad as wanting to change the world. Why do you think he could be such a miserable bastard at times?"

Those few glasses of whiskey must have been getting to her, or else she was starting to develop an inexplicable soft spot for philosophical mobsters. This almost sounded like sense to Peggy.

She thought of Howard in one of his self loathing, mean drunk moods which she usually cut short by turning herself into harshness personified, and the prickling sensation behind her eyes told her the wall might truly be coming down. Purpose, Peggy, she told herself. Purpose.

"How miserable was he the last time you spoke to him?" she asked as casually as possible, and took another drag from her cigarette.

"Oh, he wasn't miserable then," Manfredi replied. "That was before that time. No, last time we talked, he was excited. You know, his busy beaver act. When he had something in the works."

It had been a long while since Howard had sounded excited talking about a project to Peggy. The helicarriers, possibly; he'd loved that idea and was sure he could do it, given some more time. But then Hank Pym had quit over SHIELD trying to reverse engineer the Pym Particle. Peggy had argued with Howard about it, especially the part where he hadn't informed her they were doing it, and the fallout had meant they'd avoided engineering projects as a subject of discussion for the forseeable future, especially after Peggy had decided to step down as Director. Which had had nothing to do with the Pym fiasco; but she'd realized she was getting slower in her reactions and sometimes forgot things she didn't write down, all very normal for a woman at her age, just not right for the head of an organisation as dangerous as SHIELD. She'd always vowed not to let anyone die because of her ego, and she intended to keep that vow.

"Why did you become friends with him, back in the day?" Manfredi asked her, signalling for another bottle. The waiter was a bit less scared and more eager this time, and brought salted peanuts as well.

Given a particularly successful Hollywood biopic of Steve starring Robert Redford as Steve, Natalie Wood as herself and Warren Beatty as Howard had caused most people to assume a war time romance before Steve Rogers or a torrid love triangle, the question was downright refreshing.

"He made me laugh in dark times," Peggy said, surprising herself with unfeigned honesty. "Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but those were very dark times, Mr. Manfredi. I saw the worst of what human beings can do to each other on some of my missions. And then I get back to headquarters, and there's Howard Stark, making bad jokes and somehow finding a way of making Vera Lynn herself show up to sing for the wounded Commandos. And that was before..."

She stopped. Her throat felt constricted. How young they'd all been. How absurdly young, and so convinced they'd live forever, even in the middle of a slaughterhouse extending over an entire continent.

"When Whitney cut her throat, Howard went on a bender with me for three days," Manfredi said unexpectedly. "Couldn't let any of the boys see me like that. You don't go soft over a broad who isn't even your wife, or you're dead meat soon. So Howard took me to some joint in Germany where they had no idea who we were, and we got plastered. That was, what, back in '61? Anyway, back when he was still flying, before he got his face smashed in. He had the hangover from hell when we flew back to the US, a fucking eight hour flight, but he didn't use another pilot because he knew I didn't want anyone else to see me this way. You put up with a lot of bullshit for a friend like that."

Howard, you are the one person on this earth who believes in me. I cannot lose you.

She'd done more than talk Howard out of a hypnotized state and saved Manhattan that night. She had let go of Steve, at last. And it had been the one time in her life she'd tried to put into words what Howard meant to her, swaggering, absurd Howard who devoured life, seemed to regard self restraint as something for other people and came up with five impossible things before lunch. Howard who'd cried without shame when she couldn't, who knew her, all of her, not just the agent, sister, lover.

She didn't realise she'd finally started to cry until Manfredi produced a white handkerchief out of his pocket, leaned over the table, and put it in her hands.

"Whitney never cried," he said. "I always had a hankerchief ready, just in case, but she never did. Only on screen."

He'd wanted to save Whitney Frost, Peggy suddenly recalled. That's why he'd temporarily joined forces with them. Save her from what was eating her up inside out. But he'd only succeeded in destroying that mind Howard had called more brilliant than anyone else's; as the world was saved in the process, Peggy had never wondered whether Manfredi ever regretted helping them, or whether he wished he'd let Whitney destroy them instead.

She told herself to think of the gang wars the Manfredi family had participated in, to say nothing of the day to day misery, but the pang of empathy didn't immediately vanish as it was supposed to. Maybe that was what the first sign of senility felt like. Silently, she dried her tears.

"Think they're done with the speeches by now?"

"Hardly," Peggy returned. Her voice, she found to her satisfaction, was even again, without tremble.

"I bet you'll get a funeral like that, too," Manfredi commented. "Me, I've always known I could end up in concrete or sleeping with the fish. But there'd better be a big wake. I told my daughter exactly how much money to spend. She's reliable that way, not like my stupid boy or my ass of a nephew. Do your kids listen now?"

Her children had both passed from youthful anti-establishment rebellion to middleaged academic success and frustrations. She'd never have to worry about one of them getting threatened by anything more serious than a budget row. Her grandchildren were still too small to make an educated guess as to whether they, in turn, would rebel by joining the army. Her niece, on the other hand, had insisted on Judo classes before she was twelve.

"They hear what they want to hear," Peggy said, and sighed. "Like we all do. The other day little Sharon asked for advice, and I tried to explain that the challenge was to find a good balance between sensible compromise and being true to your convictions. I'm afraid the part about compromise went past her and she only heard that she could ignore everyone else if she wanted to badly enough. I'd say that's what children are like, but are we really any better?"

"And what do you want do hear, Director Carter?" Manfredi asked, voice suddenly free of all sentiment and sharp as a blade. "Why did you come here with me? What do you really want to know?"

It occurred to her that she could have asked him directly from the start, and he might have replied right away. That this seemed so alien to her, so unlikely, was the result of more than forty years of subterfuge. Which didn't mean she had made the wrong call; it was just as likely that he would lie. When it came down to it, she was a copper, and he was a crook. And crooks never told the truth at once.

"What did Howard tell you, the last few times you talked? Did he asked you for something?"

"Maybe," Manfredi drawled. It was shaping up to be a long day, and Peggy's eyes still stung. She lost her patience.

"Look, we're both too old for this. I can do my intimidation routine and can threaten you with renewed surveillance and FBI harrassment; consider it done. You can threaten to break my arm right here and now; consider that done as well. Now can we get to the part where you tell me what Howard was up to, if anything? If his death wasn't just a road accident, I'd really like to know."

"Why?" Manfredi asked to her surprise, because he didn't say it in a taunting manner. Instead, he sounded genuinely curious.

"Seriously?" Peggy asked back in disbelief.

"Yes, why? Now me, I know what I'd do, if I knew. But you, you told me half an hour ago there's no equation between the deaths I ordered and the deaths you ordered. So fine, stick with that."

Peggy pressed out the last of her cigarette. "This isn't about some vendetta. If I had reason to belief someone killed Howard and Maria, I'd go after them. To arrest them."

Manfredi regarded her for a while, eyelids half closed, like a crocodile's. Peggy looked back and did not turn away.

"He had a suspicion," Manfredi said at last. "Wouldn't tell me what. Was really down about it, too. Said if he was wrong, nobody needed to know, and if he was right, all his life had been a joke. And then, a week ago, he calls and is all jazzed up about something. Says he has the perfect bait to figure out whether he was right or wrong. That he finally cracked it. He wanted me to spread the word, because it was supposed to look like a leak so he could spring his trap. But not yet. He wanted me to do it after the wife and kid were off to Switzerland for skiing, or something. And then I hear about the car crash, so of course I wonder, hit or accident? All I can say is that I hadn't told anyone yet. But maybe someone did."

"What," Peggy asked, "what did he finally crack?" Her heart was hammering, and she could feel her blood rushing to her ears. There was one thing so many scientists had tried to recreate, including Howard, and Howard had been in a better position than anyone else to try, because he'd been part of the one and only successful attempt. And if he'd worked on the super soldier serum again, it made sense that he hadn't asked her for help. He knew she thought they should let it rest. And bait? Of all the idiotic things. Of course it would be bait. For just about every military and paramilitary organization on the planet.

She wanted to yell at Howard, ask him what he'd gotten himself into this time. But she wouldn't be able to do that. Not ever again.

"The Pym Particle," Manfredi said, and turned his eyes away.

"You're joking," Peggy said coldly.

"Look, doll, I'm no scientist. But that name is short enough for me to remember. That old sourpuss who said on tv last night he hopes there's an open coffin at the funeral service just to make sure Howard's really dead is called Pym, right? Used to work for you, thinks he's got a feud going with Howard? That guy?"

"Hank Pym is a paranoid jerk with reason for his paranoia," Peggy said. "And he'd certainly do something if he thought Howard had recreated his invention. But he wouldn't have killed Howard and Maria. Never."

Manfredi shrugged. "Didn't say he did it. Hell, I only know the guy from tv and the papers. But that's what Howard said he'd managed to crack. Pym's invention. Now if you want to investigate the guy, be my guest. I'm going to be a good citizen and leave things well enough alone, don't worry. It probably was just bad timing."

He was lying, Peggy thought. Obviously. Or was he? Howard had given the go head to reverse engineer the Pym Particle once already. And he was just the type to remain annoyed by failure and try again.

He was also the type to make a joke about Hank Pym to Manfredi as a cover story. They'd all gotten paranoid through the decades, Howard included. Maybe he'd even mistrusted Manfredi, and used the Pym story as a test of Manfredi's discretion, figuring that if word got to Hank, it would be hilarious and do no harm other than incite further enraged visits. That, too, would be just like Howard.

Would have been. No present tense anymore. He was gone.

We have to let Steve go, she'd told him, and hard as it had been, she'd managed to do so. Not Howard. He still went on his expeditions once a year, trying to find the Valkyrie. Maybe it hadn't been Steve he was looking for as much as it was his lost youth, or redemption, or just someone who could tell him to stop. But he'd done it.

Maybe she simply was looking for an explanation for Howard's death that made sense of it , as accidents never did. Because she wasn't ready to let Howard go. Howard, who'd been with her in good days and bad days for far longer than Steve had ever been alive.

"Let's return to the funeral," Peggy said abruptly. "The speeches should be over by now."

Manfredi nodded, and started to rise. His bodyguards sprang into action, but he waved them away, completing the movement on his own, then rounding the table to offer Peggy, who'd gotten up effortlessly, his arm. There was salt in her mouth and the taste of whiskey.

At her retirement party, Howard had pulled her aside.

I can't believe you're really doing this, he'd said. Handing over the keys to the kids. You know what I thought when I first saw you?
Something unprintable, no doubt,
she'd returned.

Naturally, but I also thought: the Germans should surrender right now. This woman is unstoppable. She'll never let go..

It was the type of cheesy half joke, half compliment he used to give her during the war and which had kept her going in its ridiculousness. She hadn't known then how destructive it could be, not letting go. Neither had he.

But you know what I should have thought back then? he'd continued while the music got a little louder because some of the younger SHIELD agents had just discovered the joys of a stereo cd player.If I'd known? Here she is! I should have thought. At last! My best friend.

She'd kissed him then, for the first and last time. It hadn't been a passionate kiss. Peggy had never been in love with Howard Stark. But she had loved him, and she loved him now, remembering that brief moment of tenderness and calm before the need to be charming, gracious and available for all the other guests had recaptured her.

Be well, pal, he'd murmured as they'd drawn apart. She tried to put that memory between her and the unrelenting winter sunlight that awaited them outside the bar, and the funeral crowd that would be waiting at church. The truth shall set you free, it said in the bible, or at least that was a quote she'd heard at all too many funerals. But which truth?

In the end, there was just one that counted. Salt and the taste of whiskey in her mouth, and next to her was Howard's oldest friend, as she was his best: both of them experts in death.

Howard was dead, and she would continue. That was what she did. She lived, and for as long as she did, she would carry the dead with her while trying to learn from the living.

"Thanks for sharing the drinks," Manfredi said as they came in sight of the crowd that had started to emerge from the cathedral. "It's been the only part of this fucking day that didn't make me scream. Goodbye, Peggy Carter. I don't think we'll meet again."

"You never know, Mr. Manfredi. And maybe that's best. You never know."