1961-05-05 - The Stark Truth
Summary: 1961, Peggy finally finds out the horrible secret Howard has been hiding from her. They have some difficult conversations before he goes off on his seeming final mission.
Related: None
Theme Song: None
peggy howard 

Sunday, May Fifth, 1961 0600 hours. Soft music drifts through the the halls of the SHIELD main base of operations. The muffled sounds of somber jazz of a time long since passed. Time was drawling close to the send off of one shield board of directors member Howard Stark.

The Palestine mission was something of utmost importance so it was anyone's guess why Stark had such a vested interest in going personally. He'd been missing from more board meetings then he'd been there for lately. The ones he did show up for he was usually either drunk, hungover, or a mix of the two. Almost everyone else had noticed, but few if anyone had the gall to say anything about it.

The door is cracked slightly open to the room that until today he'd made something of a habit of never using. The man having never quite been a fan of this place preferring to do most of his work either out of his home office or out in the field. Yet as with so many things as of late that seems to have changed.

Of course, nothing gets past Margaret Carter. His missing from meetings, his attachment to this mission, how much worse he's been getting. Hell, has his skin been more sallow as of late, or was it just her mind? She's been worried and she's tried to talk to him about it on more than one occasion, but he's impossible to talk with and she still has an organization to run AND a family at home. So, she has made little progress.

Still, she's almost always the first one in the hallway's of SHIELD in the morning, preferring the quiet early hours to get work done at her desk before the chaos of the day breaks in. That means she's not used to seeing anyone else around, much less Howard's door open and the light on. Just as she was walking to her own well-used office, she frowns as she passes that door, reaching over to it to shut as she just assumes the cleaning staff had left it open. But then she sees a light on.

"…Howard?" Her clipped, quite British tone calls. Instead of shutting the door, she pushes it further open, high heels carrying her into his office without being invited. She doesn't care. They've known each other too long for a threshold to stop her. Concerned dark eyes peer across the room, her red lips in a worried, stern line.

Pushing that door open Peggy wanders into what is akin to a physical wall of smoke. A man sitting at the desk with his cheap cigarette burned almost down to the ring on his finger just head in his folded arms as the music plays out its slow somber dancing tune. Empty bottles litter the floor, medicine containers only partially filled knocked off onto the floor.

The man behind the desk doesn't look quite like the Howard anyone would want to remember, his skin faded with that dull almost sickly yellow shade to it. A wig of all things left off to one side revealing his head of almost completely missing hair patched and spotty. The soft sounds of someone crying covered over by the music.

Now inside, Peggy might not have intended to shut the door, but the moment she sees the room around them, the smoke, the empty bottles, the utter degradation of a man she loves dearly, she sure as hell shuts the door behind her now. She also turns the little middle piece to secure the lock. No one else needs to see this, or to disturb them. "Howard…" She breathes out quietly, immediately moving to his side. She doesn't even bother sitting across the desk.

How had she missed all this? How wrapped up with life and work had she been that she hadn't given in to the now utterly obvious?

She leans there, her hips against the edge of his desk, right in front of him. Her fingertips reach out for his cheek, trying to touch if he permits her. She swallows back a sudden tightness in her throat as she looks over his mostly balding head and sallow skin, "God, Howard… why didn't you tell me how bad it was?"

Howard is silent for a long time just laying there with his head down in his arms, he finally tips off that long drawn down cigarette into the ash tray beside him. The whole thing of what's left just lightly dropped down from his hand into the trey without much thought or life to his movements. He doesn't move to stop her, doesn't do very much moving at all, but he does stop crying when he realizes she's even there.

"Just a little cancer, not like we haven't fought worse right." He finally leans his head back wiping away the tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his iconic suit jacket. The voice sounds confident but there's something there that's lacking in the confidence something hollow as if he doesn't believe his own words.

"Takes a little more then a failing liver and some cancer to kill a man like Howard Anth-" He can't even finish his sentence before he starts violently hacking and wheezing. Across the top of his desk a spray of blood, getting all over the mission briefing he was supposed to be reading as he buckles over somewhat trying and failing to catch his breath.

There is something in Peggy that just wants to scream, that wants to lean down and shake him, to cry out how dare he hide this from here, how dare it let it get this bad. But, other than a faint tremble of her hand against the shell of his ear and the ceasing of her breath for a few heartbeats as she gathers herself, she doesn't let that part much show. He might know it, though. If he's paying attention at all. They did know each other that well, once upon a time, at least. Her hand falls to his shoulder, trying to touch somewhere on him she feels like she might not break by the weight of her palm alone.

"W-we… we have fought worse, Howard. Yes. And we have… the best doctors. Scientists. But… you can't fight this alone. And I know you, I know you've been trying. That's why you keep shutting us damn well out. But you… can't…" And then he's hacking, even as he tries to claim his name, and there is blood everywhere including on the edge of her prim and pristine plain suit. "Howard…" Her voice crackles out again, not totally able to conceal the heartbreak behind her tone.

Frantically, Peggy's dark eyes dart across the desk and behind him, looking for any bit of clean tissue or handkerchief to hand the sickly man, but she doesn't trust a damn thing in this office to be clean now. So she reaches into her own pocket, drawing out a clean kerchief of her own and handing it to him as she kneels at his side. "Here… do you need water? A nurse? Let… let me get you to help, Howard. Please." Peggy has rarely begged him for anything, but she might beg him here.

Using the handkerchief in one hand he slows down his own breathing enough to stabilize himself managing to ruin the perfectly good handkerchief in the process. At least it's nothing that some good old fashioned bleach can't clear. He attempts to say something but the first time around it comes out as little more than breathing, so he grabs himself a flask from his pocket to kick back down his gullet.

"I'm fine Peggy, really." Stated just barely above a whisper in his voice. Creaking out as he tries to collect himself once again fresh. There's no hiding the fact that he's lieing to her, it's plain as day just to see from looking at him that there isn't long for him. "We can deal with this after Lebanon, but right now…" He takes a moment gathering some of those oddball pills of his to throw back into his throat before kicking some alcohol to send it down behind it. "I just want to focus on this one last mission, before I have to worry about breaking anyones heart."
Logfile from 1963.

Howard tries his best to fight back but it's clear there's not as much fight in him as there used to be. He's almost dragged to the door before he finally just shouts. "Dammit Peggy I already went to the doctors. There's not a damn thing they can do about it." His voice is harsh, and booming, almost more power behind it then his frail and failing body can seemingly produce. "Just let me die on my feet, I'm not letting tony watch me wither away like I had to with my father."

The woman walks slow and determined, not wanting to drag him unceremoniously, but keep her best friend on his feet to walk him out to help. She's keeping all other emotions tightly under-wraps, not needing to cry in front of him. She had to stay strong. So, she supports him, body and heart, as they move for the door. But then he's yelling and she stops dead in her tracks. She just stands there a few heartbeats, torn achingly. Finally, she redirects them both towards the little sitting area in his office. She puts him gently at the couch, instead of his desk chair, staring down at him with glassiness across her dark eyes. "Our doctors. Do… do you have files? Let me see them. Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't THEY tell me?"

"This is why Peggy." Howard catches his breath for a moment as he can finally set back down again after that short trip. The medicine he'd been given not quite kicking in yet. "I had the records sealed so that this exact thing wouldn't happen." He runs his hands through what's left of his hair. "I didn't need you, or HYDRA or anyone else knowing what was happening to me. The second they smell weakness we're done." His voice has lowered back down to its more natural tone, and he's gesturing like he used to but there's still something fading about him. "One drop of blood in the water and the sharks start swarming, the Lebanon mission is my last chance."

Peg's eyes shine with unspent tears and anger, staring down at him hard, not able to hide the complete betrayal from her face. Anger is easier than pain, easier than screaming and crying the way something deep in her soul wants to. She's desperately trying to control all of it as she paces away from him, high heels cutting a line in his plush shag carpeting of the re-done office. "Dammit, Howard, I'M NOT HYDRA. I'm not the enemy. I'm your best friend! I'm your partner… We… we were in this together, we always have been. You should have f*cking TOLD ME." Her voice cracks on those last words, breath abruptly cutting off as she tries to choke back the sob.

Howard wordlessly stands back up trying to bring her in for a hug despite the current situation. "I was hoping you wouldn't ever need to find out." He pauses for a long moment. "I was going to go to Lebanon go on this mission, get the relic then come back like nothing ever happened. I didn't need you worried sick about me these last few months and putting a big glowing target on your head."

There is something in Peggy that knows he shouldn't be comforting her, he's the one dying, she should be the one hugging him. But it's been a lot to take in at six am, and his arms are around her now and she can't fight him for once. She just stands there, stiff other than the fine trembling that cuts through her entire slender, stately frame. She wraps one arm around his back, hard, holding on for dear life as she fights with those tears she doesn't dare cry in front of him. "…you… you can't do this, Howard. You can't just… pretend nothing… nothing is happening. Go off like you're fine. You… It's not right. You'll get yourself killed there, too damn fast." She pulls back from him shakily, fingertips reaching for his arms, grasping there so she can look into his face. "Don't make me order you off this mission. Please."

Howard stands there for a long moment silently comforting her before she pushes him right back. He doesn't say anything at first just letting her get it all out of her system. His face barely looks like it's his anymore, but there's something in the medicine that's at the very least sending some of the natural color back to his face. The purpose of the drugs less to actually fix anything, and more to temporarily stabilize.

"That's not an option Peggy" He tries to think up the right words for a long moment for once in his life at almost a loss. "If I go there's a percentage chance of survival, if I don't there isn't. Just do me a favor, if I don't make it back." He pauses for a long moment. "Keep an eye on Tony, and make sure this info dies with me. I'd rather he think his old man got killed on one of his wild goose chases looking for tail, or treasure, when he was still fit as a fiddle, and four times as handsome." Even now trying at least to deflect by a bit of self grandious remarks

"Sit, Howard…please. Sit." Peggy murmurs softly, trying to guide him down into the couch again, not wanting to push him further even if he is getting some of that color back in his face. While emotions had flooded her, Peggy is never one to be a slave to her feelings for long. She carefully wraps them back up in that very British, keep calm and carry on attitude. Even if her eyes are still slightly reddened as she looks down to him, her breath is more even and she doesn't actually appear to be trembling.

"Tell me how there is a percentage. Explain this to me, because if I don't understand it, I am not letting you run off on a suicide mission, no matter how noble you think you are being. Sell me on this one, Howard, and it's your hardest proposal yet." It's the familiar, old business-like terms between them. The same thing she said when they brought up SHIELD. And Project Rebirth. And everything else they've done together which has been madness and madly successful.

Howard is softly guided back down into his chair, allowing for him to actually be comfortable again, without his knees giving way or creaking as much. He looks down for a moment in thought before looking right back towards Peggy. "You remember Roxxon right? The oil conglomerate I tried to buy out right after the war." He pauses for a moment reaching for his wig so that he can at least be somewhat more comfortable with himself. Ducking his head down to adjust it into place. "Long story short slept with his wife, deal fell through, ride was fun while it lasted."

A slight roll of her eyes is given in his direction, "Yes, I remember Roxxon. I had to dig a key out of his damn belt buckle after that whole zero matter mess. Certain things are never forgotten." Peggy mutters below her breath — and the twinge in her hip from that old scar would never let her forget it either. "…So…what the hell does this have to do with Roxxon and their less than savory power generation techniques? I thought there stock was on the fall again since the Red Scare." Peggy now begins to pace, the sort of pacing that comes with her best work ideas, or when she was planning out a mission. She might scar his shag rug with her heels by the end of it, she's pacing with such force.

"Right, back to the point they found a new toy to get into the world domination business." Howard takes time and care adjusting the wig till it looks just like his regular hair. "Roomer has it they found a little pool of water in Lebanon that we might be interested in, and what I heard from his wife only serves to prove it." He pauses for a moment. "You know really all things considered? I think she might still have a thing for me." Drifting off a bit into his own thoughts for a moment. "Long and short of it is we're already heading there to root out some unsavory activity, so the way I see it, I take a little detour mid mission, have myself a nice bath in the waters presto chango good as new."

Howard says, "Bring the source back for the lab boys to have a look over."

"…This is madness, Howard. There is no such thing as the fountain of youth. It's a children's story. A myth. I…I can't send you into the field chasing after an old *myth*." Peggy's pacing stops for a few heartbeats, eyes levelling in his direction, a cool line to her lips. She takes in a slow breath through her nose, trying to keep those emotions back again, but it's hard, especially when he's speaking such madness. "You are going to have to convince me better than that one."

"How many times did we kill hitler?" Howard asks rather out of the blue as if it were just a part of the conversation. "You know a few years ago we knew we were alone in the universe. Before that we knew earth was the center of said universe, and before that we knew the earth was flat." He pauses for a long moment. "Peggy what I'm getting at here is: Haven't we already seen enough, done enough and personally fought enough to realize that maybe, just maybe." He takes an aside. "And trust me, I know it's crazy because I'm the one saying it, but maybe it's not as much of a fairly tale as…" And he starts listing off actually significant relics they'd managed to find over the years since the war, find and lose or destroy maybe but find none the less.

The fact that Peggy has personally packed up and shipped off more 0-8-4s than should ever have existed before is a testament to his words. Then, as he starts listing them, she rolls her eyes to the ceiling and takes a deep breath against the echo of tears which still is threatening to bubble in her throat. In through her nose, out through her mouth. Focusing. Steadying. She shoves one hand back through her sightly bobbed hair, having kept it in the more 50s style as of late even if it doesn't necessarily seem to suit her as well as the old, longer waves of their early working days. "…Howard…if I let you do this and you die…How am I supposed to live with myself? How am I supposed to look Tony in the eye? Or Maria, for that matter?"

Howard puffs out a long low breath of air, now looking almost normal… There's still a bit of that discoloration she'd been noticing, but it's almost like he's a completely different person now. Or rather he's himself again. "I would say we cross that bridge when we come to it, but…" He trails off slightly just abandoning the light hearted jab as an attempt to lighten the mood thinking better of it. You won't have to Peggy, I've already got a video recorded for if that happens, all you need to do, is drop it in the mail."

Her throat tightens again as he says that. Peg was going to need to hide in her office for hours this morning. But she stares at him, studying his slightly discolored face and those eyes she knows as well as her own. She breathes slowly again, steadying herself and calming whatever is screaming at the back of her head. "I… really can't stop you, can I?" She asks quietly, even if it's clear she's already half resigned herself to his not coming back from this.

"Hey, come on now, I'm Howard" He comes to a stand. "Anthony." He adjusts his tie. "Walter." He looks her right in the eye trying to give a smile. "Stark." The full confidence that so many people have grown to either love or hate on display with just that slight bit of almost hollow bravado that betrays that he's worried about just the same thing. "If I was ever going to die it'd be hunting down the fountain of youth or forgetting to eat or sleep because I was too busy working." A slight wink given her way.

While the confidence act doesn't ALWAYS work on her, a ghost of a smile crosses her features and Peggy tries to buy in. It's the only thing she can do, to give her friend his final wish, since this seems to be it. She swallows back tightly, stepping to his side once more and reaching one hand up to his shoulder, "…Come back, Howard. I don't know that I can run this madness without you." Peggy whispers, even if she runs it without him 90 percent of the time anyway — he's been a director in name only for so long — but it's not the same as being truly without him. Her fingertips squeeze firmly against his shoulder, like she was trying to hold on.

"Tell you what, when I come back healthy as a horse, you and I are going to have a nice quite drink, with a bottle of Starks finest." He smiles trying to hide the fact that Starks finest is the name of that failed brand of whiskey he tried to start selling back during the war. Though Peggy likely remembers it for if nothing else that damned cartoon mouse on the cover with those weird globe like ears that made him some of the real money.

"Throw in some nice 'sorry I didn't tell you I was dieing of cancer' chocolates, and maybe if you're lucky I'll even bring over a few movies we can watch, after of course my wife kills me when you inevitably tell her." He puts his hand right back down on top of hers giving another smile. The drugs working their magic to make him look almost passable for the genuine none dieing article.

A slightly crackling laugh rises up in her throat, but he does manage to make her laugh, if nothing else. He can almost always manage that. She gives the most gentle of swats to his hand at her shoulder, shaking her head. "No… Maria's… been through enough. She doesn't deserve this pain, you're right in that." The 'it's enough of a pain being married to you' goes unspoken. "How…how long does what you just took last? When should I get the team loaded up? I'll at least see you off. One of us has to stay behind and hold down the base, for once."

In truth, since Peggy had the first child, she's not gone int he field nearly so often. Still sometimes, she'd never fully retire, but SHIELD had gotten large enough as an organization it actually needed an in-house director almost every day. So, Peggy had served that position, as much as she missed the adventures. There is a flash of almost envy in her eyes for him going off on some grand chase now.

"And here I was just planning on warming up the co-pilots seat for you." Howard still sending out a light hearted jab, despite never having told Peggy the exact percent success margins. Though none of that really matters. He'd noticed her change in attitude since the kids, but with his recent condition he'd been in no place to commentate. Putting his hands back into his pockets Howard looks at her and sighs. "Should last about four hours before I need the next dose. I'd say warm the plane up for me, and get those two agents that are going to be going with me ready soon as you can."

"And trust me Peggy." He adds after a moment with a smile. "You'll do better as director then I ever have, maybe even a bit better without me sitting over your shoulder with my little pitch fork, and red pajamas." He pats her on the shoulder once more before finally letting go, getting himself mentally prepped for what he's going to do.

A long, lingering look comes from Peggy for several heartbeats. She studies his currently more colored, almost handsome again features. If it wasn't for the hair, he'd look like the man she always knew. Peggy then steps just a bit closer, fingertips reaching up to ever-so-gently brush across his cheek. "I already am a Director and I *do* do a better job than you, Howard. Just so you know." She gives him a good smirk, though it's slightly betrayed by the tenderness behind her eyes. Peggy then leans over to press a gentle, single kiss to his cheek. This close, she smells as she always does, a touch of vanilla and tea, even this early in the morning. The kiss lingers but a heartbeat before she lets go of him.

"I'll… get the plane ready and finish briefing the agents. You'll be expected for take off in 30 minute, Howard." She moves for the door, about to leave, before she turns back around to face him a moment. "Don't be late." It's not clear if she's talking about take off, or coming back from the mission. Probably both. One last, bittersweet smile, and she slips out the door into the hallway, the click of her heels echoing away.

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