Characters/Pairing: Peggy Carter, Howard Stark; almost Peggy/Howard but not quite
Word Count: 1972
Summary: Just that night, with the smell of Scotch and leather in the air and Howard before her, shirt falling open at the throat and hair a bit mussed, Peggy stopped a moment and considered. (Or, that time Peggy and Howard almost got together, but didn't.)
Warnings: Spoilers for Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter... no other warnings, really. Peggy says "arse" one time?
Disclaimer: Named characters and certain plot elements in this story are © Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures. All content is fictional and for entertainment purposes only, not for profit.
Notes: For the talented and lovely sirona_gs on her birthday. Many thanks to the also talented and also lovely 17pansies for the quick beta and enjoyable mutual wrangling of the English language.
If you haven't seen Agent Carter yet, omg get on that. It gave me ALL OF THE FEELINGS which punched me in the face until I wrote this.
The title is from the song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film "Shall We Dance" and performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as seen in this clip which is totally worth watching. Roller-skate dancing! Peggy and Howard would probably also be familiar with Billie Holiday's cover of the song, also from 1937.
Posted to avengers_2k.
This story also available on AO3.
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The early days in Washington were exhausting, and thrilling—working with Stark and Dugan and Phillips to figure out what SHIELD could and would be, bending politicians to their considerable collective will and combing through rèsumés and personnel files, making office visits and dinnertime phone calls to fill their ranks. Within the bounds of her position Peggy's authority was absolute, and the boys—well, they were her boys. They respected her, and she never had cause to doubt it. Peggy never got more than five hours of sleep in a night, and she had never been more happy.
A lot of things had changed when the war ended, but there were certain things that didn't change at all. Phillips was grouchy and unapologetically opinionated, Dugan was good-natured and dependable, Stark was by turns brilliant and obnoxious. Or often both at once.
“Howard,” Peggy said into the phone, using the tone of voice she reserved for wayward children or genius millionaire playboys, “you were meant to be at the bimonthly status meeting. Need I remind you the meetings were your idea?”
“Now Carter, there's no need to take that tone with me. I scheduled those meetings in good faith! I meant to be there, I fully intended to arrive on time and everything—it's just that the electrochemical transducers are in a sensitive stage in their development right now, and I kinda figured I was more use to the company in the lab than in the conference room today.”
Peggy sighed. “I suppose I can't really argue that your work is of the utmost importance, but we need your input on the hiring shortlist, there's the issue of security clearance...”
“Tell you what, Carter, I'm taking a bit of a break, why don't you bring it on over to the house right now and I'll cast my eye over it?”
Peggy glanced at her watch: 9:08 p.m. “Well, I suppose I wasn't going to turn in anytime soon in any case. I'll be there in twenty minutes.”
Peggy rather expected Jarvis to let her in when she rang the bell, but instead of Howard's crisply efficient butler, Howard answered the door himself. He was rumpled, the way he often looked when he'd been working from home: his tie misplaced somewhere during the course of the day; shirt open at the neck by a couple of buttons; sleeves shoved up to his elbows, ruining their starching. He looked as underslept as she felt, his grin bright and manic as she stepped into the mansion. “Carter! How long has it been since you've graced my humble halls, a month? Too long, anyway, I was beginning to think I'd lost your affections!”
“Pining away, were we?” Peggy teased, raising an eyebrow. “I rather thought Dum Dum had been over nearly every other day?”
“Sure, but I like your face better than his,” Howard replied, grinning. “Seriously, you should come by sometime when we're not working.”
“And when would that be?”
Howard threw his head back and laughed. “Touché, Carter, touché. No rest for the wicked, eh?” He ushered her into his study, throwing himself down onto a sturdy leather couch and patting the cushion next to him. “Well then, let's get this over with.”
One thing you could say about Howard, if he deigned to give you his attention, you got all of it, one hundred percent. He sifted quickly through the profiles Peggy handed him, asking questions that were sharp and to the point, his shrewd eyes quickly picking the relevant details from a sea of typeface. The time passed quickly as they debated the pros and cons of this agent or that soldier, and by the time they'd reached consensus and clapped the file folder shut it was a quarter past eleven.
“Well, that was fun.” Howard groaned and stretched, cracking his neck.
“Mm. And you only had to go through this once today.”
Howard had the grace to look sheepish, but didn't take the bait. “I suppose I oughta let you get back home before your carriage turns into a pumpkin. ...Can I get you a drink first?”
Peggy hesitated, but only briefly. “Scotch,” she said, and just barely stopped herself from adding, if you have any, because of course he did. Instead she said, “Neat. Thank you.”
Howard flashed her his best playboy grin and obliged, going to a cabinet in the corner and pulling out two tumblers and a bottle of what was probably an unreasonably expensive single-malt. He poured two fingers into each tumbler, added ice to his, and returned to the couch to sprawl next to her. They clinked glasses. “To SHIELD,” Howard said.
“To SHIELD,” Peggy answered, and smiled, allowing herself to sigh and relax back into the couch. She sipped her Scotch, letting it linger on the back of her tongue, relishing the smoky flavor. Howard's taste in whisky, at least, was impeccable.
“How are things at the office?” Howard asked. “I mean, I know I don't get in very often, but I keep an eye and an ear on all the reports, and by all accounts you're doing a bang-up job. I wanted to check in with you, though. Everything OK? No insurmountable problems?”
“It's fine,” Peggy assured him, then amended, “It's... brilliant, really. I'd gotten rather fed-up with having to deal with other people's arse-ended way of doing things, it's refreshing to be able to arrange everything to my liking. And things are running as smoothly as can be expected, no major hiccoughs.”
“You happy?” Howard offered up a crooked smile. “You seem happy.”
“I am,” Peggy told him honestly, and bit her lip. “Howard... I wanted to thank you for the opportunity, I don't think I ever did, not properly. I know SHIELD is your baby, yours and Phillips', and I just... I appreciate you letting me in on this. ...Thank you.” There was so much more she could say, about how miserable she had been at SSR's Brooklyn office, forced to swallow her pride in the hope Agent Flynn would throw her a few crumbs, the condescending bastard. It meant everything to her to be there, in Washington, working with men who accepted her on her own merit, who handed her the future of national security to build with her own hands and trusted her implicitly to do it. She didn't really have the words for her gratitude, but she had to say something.
Howard shook his head. “No need to thank me, Carter. I know a good thing when I see one.” His eyes flicked over her, warm... and, well, a bit more than warm.
That was just so Howard, wasn't it? Peggy supposed if he ever stopped flirting with her she'd have to check his pulse. She felt good, though, warmed by gratitude and fondness and good Scotch, so just this once she indulged him, raising an eyebrow and pursing her lips. “And what do you see?”
Howard smiled slow, setting his Scotch aside and taking a good long look. “I see the most dangerous, most intelligent woman on the planet.”
Peggy fought a smile, trying to look admonishing. “Flattery.”
“Fact-based flattery is the best kind. ...Why, is it working?” Howard leaned in a little, a smirk hovering on his lips, the look in his eyes a little bit teasing and a little bit... not. And that was the other thing about Howard, wasn't it? The flirting wasn't entirely idle flirting; it never really had been. There was interest there; intent. And just that night, with the smell of Scotch and leather in the air and Howard before her, shirt falling open at the throat and hair a bit mussed, Peggy stopped a moment and considered.
Peggy's life did not particularly lack for flirtatious men. At least once a day, on the street or at the grocer's or in a pub, a man put his hand on her shoulder or her back or her hand, leered at her and called her “doll” or “sister” or just “legs.” Howard, though... for all that he flirted incessantly, he never forced himself into her space, was never inappropriate with his comments; he kept his distance, kept things light, backed off immediately if she wasn't in the mood for banter. She knew what he wanted—it was perfectly clear—but he held back; he never, ever pushed.
He was a handsome man, there was no denying that. He had warm eyes, an infectious laugh, and the devil's grin. He was slender, and not particularly tall, but she'd seen him working, knew the strength in his arms, his shoulders, his callused hands.
And he respected her, always had. Before the Commandoes saw her as anything other than a skirt, even before Phillips made up his mind that she was a capable and valuable asset to the SSR and not just an annoyance whose presence he was forced to accept, Howard simply assumed she deserved to be there. He'd never talked down to her, not once. He'd been a friend and an ally as long as she'd known him. There hadn't been a lot of men like that in Peggy's life. There had been Steve... and there was Howard.
Howard was still sitting there, leaning halfway in but no further, waiting for her. Peggy thought about everything they'd been through together. She thought about how he'd picked up a phone and called her here, not to work for him, but with him, as an equal. She leaned in, then, leaned in close until she could feel his breath against her lips, warm and humid... and she stopped. She couldn't do it, she couldn't bring herself to move any closer.
There was a pause, and then Howard leaned back a little, just enough to look her in the eye, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Yeah, I kinda thought not.”
Peggy's fingers squeezed convulsively around her whisky glass. “I'm sorry.”
Howard shook his head. “No. Don't be sorry. You were always outta my league. Can't blame a guy for trying, though.” His grin was bright and blinding, softening quickly to something wistful. “I should be so lucky.” He leaned in slowly, deliberately, and pressed a chaste kiss to her cheek. “You'd never be happy with me, and you know it. You'd be settling.” His eyes widened, earnest and serious, as serious as she'd ever seen him, and he added softly, “Don't ever settle, Peggy. Not you.”
Peggy's heart turned over. “Howard,” she said, just that, a formless protest, but there was nothing else to say, because he was right. She would be, she'd be settling. She had his respect without having to bargain for it and Lord knows she could never be with a man who couldn't do the same, but it wasn't enough. She didn't love him, couldn't see herself loving him. Not like that.
Peggy's vision blurred with tears suddenly and she blinked them away, reaching for Howard's hand and tangling her fingers with his. “Damn you for knowing me too well,” she said, and her voice shook unforgivably. She took a steadying swallow of Scotch. “You would drive me completely mad,” she admitted.
Howard squeezed her hand. “I thought I did that already,” he said, and his grin was almost on straight.
It took effort for Peggy to keep her own smile under control. “If you haven't, it's certainly not for lack of trying,” she agreed. She cast her eyes down, then brought them up again. “You're a good friend, Howard,” she said softly.
This time his smile didn't look like a struggle. “You're a better one for putting up with me, Carter.”
Peggy threw back the last of her Scotch; she contemplated the empty tumbler. “Is my friendship worth another drink?”
Howard grinned and rolled to his feet. “I'll get the bottle.”