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Agent Carter fic: Team Player (2/8)

December 10th, 2015 (11:51 am)
sore

feeling: sore

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT




-o-

Lunch was quite pleasant, a distinction that had nothing to do with the food. She had offered to go back out to the warehouse to continue the investigation, but Daniel had found the idea of being left with contacting Howard Stark undesirable. All things considered, she could not and would not fault him for that, and she took it as a sign of trust that she was being allowed to coordinate contact with Howard, even after her earlier deceptions.

The fact that everyone was taking these developments so well was probably the cosmic catalyst for Howard making it so difficult. After calling all of his residences and places of business, she couldn’t get anyone to pick up a phone beyond a vapid secretary at his main office. The girl, who Peggy could only surmise was very attractive based on her incompetency on the phone, told Peggy that she could make an appointment.

“Do you know when he’ll be back in the office, then?” Peggy asked.

“Well, no,” the girl said. “But maybe if you make one for next month, you’ll just get lucky.”

Peggy was many things, but lucky was not among them. “That won’t be necessary,” she said curtly, mentally composing a scathing review of the help Howard had opted to keep.

Though, now that she considered it, he probably wanted someone inept in that position. It made his random absences and off kilter antics easier to cover up with overt incompetency.

“Carter,” Thompson barked, making his way toward her desk. “You get ahold of Stark yet?”

“Ah, no,” she said, collecting her scattered notes self-consciously. “He’s still out of the office.”

“I thought you lived in one of his houses?” Jack asked.

“He’s out of all of them as well,” she said.

Jack sighed, sounding genuinely annoyed. “So we can’t actually clear him.”

“It’s a formality,” Peggy assured him. “Agent Sousa is already working on another lead--”

“Yeah, the knock-offs, I know,” Jack said. “But we need to cross Stark off our list. The public is satisfied with how the last debacle played out, but that mess still killed two good agents. I’m not taking any chances, not where this guy is concerned.”


“Well, it’s possible he’s around but avoiding contact,” she said. “Sometimes when he’s otherwise preoccupied, he can get rather...private.”

“You think you can find him?” Jack asked.

“I can’t promise anything, but I might,” she said.

“Then do it,” Jack said. “I’m tired of Howard Stark hanging over this department.”

“He’s not our enemy,” she reminded him. “We’d be worse off without him around.”

Jack lifted his nose a little. “That’s not what you were saying a month ago.”

“It turned out all right,” she said.

“That time,” Jack said. “What about the times when it doesn’t? What Howard Stark loses control of something he can’t get back? Then who will get caught in the crossfire?”

Peggy set her mouth grimly. It wasn’t an unfair point to make, even if it was a bit on the cruel side. Peggy had almost been part of that collateral damage, and so had a lot of innocent people.

A little precaution wouldn’t be unheard of.

“I’ll go check it out,” she supplied.

Jack smiled mirthlessly. “That’s what I like to hear.”

Peggy’s smile back was just as humorless. “Anything for the team.”

-o-

Anything for the team.

It had been her rallying cry since the war, but she had to admit, it meant something now that the team was ready to give as good as it got. As much as the SSR owed her, she owed them something in return by the very nature of her employment. Not that she had to be grateful to have a job that she was more than qualified for. But because such was the incumbent responsibility for every public servant in the name of the greater good.

It was a rallying cry that Daniel Sousa exemplified, one that Jack Thompson could be made to agree with.

It was one that Howard Stark probably couldn’t even fathom.

It was such a strange thing, to be friends with a man she found utterly repulsive. To have faith in someone who was so flagrantly faithless.

If she didn’t love the man, she would probably have to hate him as much as Jack and Daniel.

Although, she reflected as she went to another one of his residences, maybe there was room for hate yet. Because Howard was always showing up when she didn’t need him, and then the moment she had a viable reason for his presence, he was nowhere to be found.

Then again, that wasn’t surprising. Howard hardly understood the meaning of team, beyond the loyalty that others gave to him. Teamwork, by his worldview, was a necessary conduit for his personal success.

Perhaps it was a side effect of the genius.

Maybe it was just a character flaw that Peggy had to endure in the name of the team.

It was remarkable, really, that Jarvis had made it all these years as his butler. Despite the debt Jarvis owed Howard, it was hard to imagine a man of actual morals surviving with his sanity intact after all these years.

Though truly, that spoke more to Jarvis’ resolve than Howard’s magnanimity.

Because after only several months with Howard back in her life, she had to admit she was ready for another break.

After she found him and cleared his name.

Again.

In the car, she glared at the vacant home before looking at her address list again. She still had a few options left, and enough daylight to see it throught.

After all, she thought wryly as she told the next address to the driver, anything for the team.

-o-

Fortunately for everyone, Peggy did not give up easily.

In fact, it could be argued that she did not give up at all.

A woman in her position could not.

Would not.

With this sense of determination, she politely talked her way past the mindless secretary (who was quite pretty, Peggy had to admit) and managed to gain access to one of Howard’s labs. Most of his lab work was completed by himself, for all obvious reasons. However, even Howard Stark needed a little help.

“Just to run tests, check things out,” the friendly lab assistant told her. “And we also have a few teams in production for some current orders.”

This piqued her interest. “Current orders?” she asked, trying to sound casual and utterly failing.

The lab assistant, though far too friendly, was not as stupid as the secretary. His smile faded, and he shook his head. “I’m afraid all that’s top secret,” he said.

Peggy batted her eyes coyly. “Surely you remember that I am one of Mr. Stark’s most trusted friends,” she said.

“Well, we all know that,” the lab assistant said. “Everyone who works here memorizes the Captain America file after being sworn to absolute secrecy.”

“Howard Stark and I have no secrets,” she said earnestly enough to make the lie almost believable.

He shook his head, seeming to be genuinely apologetic. “I’m more than happy to give you a tour of the main building,” he said. “But certain things--”

“Oh, of course,” Peggy said with an easy, reassuring smile. “I was just wondering if these were new orders. He’s been talking about several things--”

“Oh, no,” the lab assistant said, relieved. “Nothing new in production just yet. We’ve got several longstanding contracts to fulfill is all.

“Well that is too bad,” she said. “I was so looking forward to seeing some of his latest ideas come to fruition. He’s talked them up so divinely.”

“Well, you could come to the expo next week,” the lab assistant offered.

It was said so casually that it was clear that this was first, not a secret and two, something Peggy presumably already knew. The fact that she didn’t know meant that she was either remiss in her general knowledge of all things Howard or she was held in higher regard around this facility that she had imagined.

Of course, considering the first class treatment she’d received at the mere mention of her name, she was inclined to think the latter was the truth.

Though she couldn’t shake a sense of disappointment in herself for the former. To be fair, however, she’d spent so much time embroiled in Howard’s affairs that she’d tried her best to stay clear of him for a bit.

She should have known that would be a fantasy. This was Howard Stark, after all. If he wasn’t saving the world, he was this close to accidentally destroying it.

“Which expo?” she asked.

“Oh, the Technology Battlefield,” he supplied, sounding almost apologetic for making any assumption at all. “It’s next week, here in the city. Mr. Stark is headlining it. It’s a little industry specific, but he doesn’t want to risk any share of the market. That’s why he’s not here, actually. Preparation has been a mess. But I could get you tickets.”

“That won’t be necessary, really,” Peggy said. “But thank you--”

“Are you sure?” the assistant asked. “I could get you VIP access, anything you want.”

“No, truly,” Peggy said with an appreciative nod. “I do appreciate all the time and attention you’ve given me, though.”

He brightened considerably, half puffing up in pride. “Anything for you, Miss Carter,” he said. “Everyone will be so jealous that I got to show you around.”

Peggy found herself laughing, almost perplexed. “I admit, I’m somewhat surprised to have such a reputation.”

The lab assistant’s eyes widened, as if in total shock. “It’s a thing around here,” he said. “If we want to do the best, we want to do it like Peggy would. Mr. Stark will go on rants, sometimes, when we get things wrong. And he’ll talk about the dedication and commitment of those involved with the Captain America project. And he talks about if Peggy were here--”

This time she laughed outright. “I believe that’s something of an exaggeration.”

“You’re a standard around here, Miss Carter,” he said with wide, earnest eyes. “Mr. Stark only changes things for the very best, and he’d change things for you in a heartbeat.”

It wasn’t actually a surprised. She knew by now just how much she meant to Howard. If she’d had any doubts, their near-miss last month had made it abundantly clear. Howard respected her in a way he didn’t respect many other people, and though she loathed many things about the man, she respected him as well.

It was why she couldn’t hate him, even when she wanted to. She had to surmise it was why someone like Jarvis had stayed with him long enough, no matter with how much he had to put up with in the meantime.

Which was all very sentimental.

And basically useless.

“Well, really, I do appreciate your time,” she said again, as kindly as she could. “If it helps, you can tell everyone else I said hello.”

He looked somewhat giddy. “I will, Miss Carter! Thank you!”

She tried to see herself out, but she was ceremoniously escorted the entire way. She was offered tickets again, and there was a standing invitation to come back whenever she wanted for whatever reason at all. He was being effusively benevolent, and Peggy was truly grateful, but not for any of his kindness necessarily. While it was nice to be doted on a bit, he had provided her with a critical piece of intelligence.

The expo.

It explained his absence fairly forthright, which would close this so-called case up fairly fast. All she had to do was confirm that Howard was frequently the site and maintaining organizational duties, and that would be that.

Another successful case closed for Agent Carter.

-o-

Back at the SSR building, Peggy exercised good, old fashioned police work to both confirm the expo and Howard’s involvement in it. She was not only able to confirm Howard’s commitment to the event, but she got a list of other groups and people who would be in attendance for good measure. A quick cross reference revealed what she’d suspected, that many of the names from the warehouse would be presenting in the expo as well.

All of which led her to believe that someone was targeting the expo in order to get a jump on the market. Greed, after all, was one of the most powerful motivating factors. Whatever was debuted at the event would likely be in high demand after the fact, and a warehouse full of knockoffs would be well prepared to handle any influx of demand.

If they could check on the patents for all the presenters, they might be able to build a criminal case of a different manner. It wouldn’t be quite as flashy as saving New York City from rage-induced hysteria, but it would still be a win for justice.

That was the point, after all. She could still remember Steve, standing up to bullies behind a movie theater with the same determination as he did Hitler’s minions.

It wasn’t the size of the enemy.

But the righteousness of the cause.

-o-

Thompson, however, seemed perturbed by it.

“You’re telling me you spent the whole day and uncovered, what, corporate espionage?” he asked.

“And trademark violations,” Peggy supplied.

“We’ve got a strong case,” Daniel agreed. After conducting his own research, he’d found the warehouse to be under the radar and fully undocumented. “And you know, it’s a big win. We’ll be controlling the flow of some powerful weaponry.”

Jack sighed wearily. “Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ll kick this to the DA and see what they want to do. In the meantime, Sousa, you should probably inform the other companies that they’re being ripped off.”

Daniel nodded.

Jack looked at Peggy. “And you’re sure Stark has nothing to do with any of this?”

“None of his products were at the warehouse,” she said. “And there’s no indication that the chatter is anything more than wishful thinking.”

Jack didn’t look so convinced. “So you’ve talked to him? You’ve made absolutely sure?”

She hesitated. “To be fair, I haven’t exactly talked to him--”

Jack groaned.

“But only because he’s been busy preparing for the expo,” she said. “I talked to his lab assistant--”

“And you think Stark tells them anything? Or that they wouldn’t lie for him?” Jack asked.

“There’s no reason to think any of the contraband is being sold off,” Sousa said. “There are no signs of kickback--”

“I don’t care,” Jack said. “We’re not going to make assumptions. Not where Howard Stark is concerned. Not after Chief Dooley threw himself out a window because of what Stark didn’t mean to start.”

Peggy drew her lips together, refusing to shrink away. But she also wouldn’t disagree. “I will continue to track him down, then,” she said. “As a matter of utmost precaution.”

Thompson visibly relaxed at that, the tension easing from his shoulders. “Good,” he said, his expression softening. “Some things are higher stakes that we realize. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

He didn’t say much, and his expression revealed little, but despite the fact that Jack Thompson was self-seeking and ruthless in the workplace, she knew he had taken the fallout from Howard’s last go-around quite seriously. While Jack had earned his newfound place of authority unscrupulously, he did not take it for granted.

That much, Peggy could respect.

“Don’t worry,” Peggy said. “I’ll track down Stark one way or another.”

“Good,” Jack said. “Because for being one of the so-called good guys, Howard Stark keeps me awake at night a lot more than he should.”

Peggy smiled tightly. “Welcome to the club.”

-o-

When Thompson dismissed them, it was already well past clock-out time, and most of the room was cleared out. She went to gather her things, lingering slowly over the still open file on her desk.

It all made perfect sense.

It truly did.

But something was bothering her.

Something strange and uncertain, niggling right at the back of her mind.

“You’re not convinced,” Daniel said.

She startled, looking up. “What?”

“All that song and dance you’ve done to convince Thompson and me,” he continued. “And you have doubts.”

“Well, not doubts, necessarily,” she said. “There’s no way Howard’s a willing player in any of this.”

“So, what?” Daniel asked. “He’s an unwilling player?”

“His secrets have been stolen before,” Peggy pointed out.

“I would have hoped he improved his security,” Sousa commented.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” Peggy said. She adjusted her stance, chewing her lip. “But all the talk, it’s only about Howard. And nothing of his is anywhere in that warehouse.”

“Maybe it’s all talk because there’s no substance,” Daniel suggested.

“Possibly,” she sigh, tapping her fingers on her desk. “But something just doesn’t sit right.”

Daniel didn’t look surprised; in fact, if anything, he looked almost amused. “And what’s that?”

“Well, look at the intelligence,” she said. “Anything they might make out of that warehouse, it doesn’t compare to that number. Howard’s inventions are impressive, but what could possibly be worth that sum?”

Daniel shrugged. “Beats me,” he said. “But somehow I think you’re going to find out.”

Peggy blushed a little, smiling at him. “It’s a good thing we didn’t have dinner plans.”

Chuckling, Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, good thing,” he said, collecting his coat and briefcase. “Just don’t work too hard tonight, okay?”

“You, too,” she said. “Have a good night.”

He nodded at her with a small wave before taking his cane and making his way to the door. She watched him go before looking down at the file again.

Don’t work too hard.

She had to make time for the little things. For the dinners, for the friends, for the dances.

Even so, she gathered up the file and started toward the door.

Just a little work.

For Howard’s sake.

And for her own.

-o-

When Peggy got back home, she had the file in hand, ready to work.

But she could smell dinner cooking, and Angie was singing off key in the kitchen. Peggy approached quietly. Angie had good instincts and a keen ability to improvise, but she would never be truly well suited as a spy for her lack of awareness. Not to say that she was oblivious, but when Angie focused her attention on something, she committed to it wholeheartedly.

Granted, Peggy didn’t see it often. At the diner, Angie was desperate for distractions, but when she was practicing her lines or engrossed in telling a story--

Well, it was truly something to behold.

Now, for example.

The kitchen was clearly equipped for hired help, which meant that it was nicely outfitted with as many pots and gadgets as anyone could want. Angie, for her part, seemed to have them all out. Bowls with half-mixed sauce were splayed haphazardly about, and there were piles of fresh produce every which way. Something was sizzling on the stove, puffs of smoke spiraling toward the vent, and Peggy could only imagine what was going to be on the menu tonight.

That wasn’t truly the spectacular thing, though. No, Angie was fully engrossed, her song even more off kilter as Peggy stood quietly in the doorway. If the tune was lilting, the words were gibberish, and she bobbed her head in some approximation of a beat that matched neither.

With one hand, she stirred one of the pots on the stove before using the other to add a dash of salt to something else. Her song reached a crescendo, and she worked up her dramatic flair with a spin, bringing her face to face with Peggy.

She stopped short, eyes brightening. “English! You’re actually home!”

“I said I’d be home for dinner, didn’t I?” Peggy asked.

“Sure, you say it all the time,” Angie said. “I just have learned that your idea of dinner is not always the same as mine.”

There was no animosity in her voice; not even a hint of frustration.

Even so, Peggy felt a pang of guilt.

She was too busy for Daniel; she was too busy for Angie. And for what? For her job? For Howard? She would sacrifice neither, that much was certain, but the tenuous idea of having it all was suddenly more appealing than ever.

And ever closer to her reach.

Coming into the kitchen, she put her file down. “Well, I’m here tonight,” she said, rubbing her hands together with a smile.

Because she relished Thompson’s respect; and she enjoyed Daniel’s friendship, but she could never forget she’d always had both from Angie, even before she deserved it. Daniel was a good man; Jack was a good agent. Angie, however, was something else entirely.

She came up alongside, rubbing her hands on the front of her hands absently. “Now tell me how I can help.”

“Well, honestly?” Angie said. “I think I’ve got this covered.”

Peggy looked about the terrorized kitchen dubiously. “Are you certain?”

“Of course I am!” Angie said, going back to stir the concoction on the stove. She looked at Peggy with narrowed eyes. “Why?”

Peggy shrugged. “Nothing.”

“No, it’s something,” Angie cajoled.

“It just looks like a war zone,” she said. “And I would know about that.”

Angie rolled her eyes good naturedly. “You may know about war zones, but you don’t know about kitchens.”

Peggy scoffed. “How do you figure?”

Angie chuckled. “Just watch and learn,” she said, tossing her hair a little bit with a smirk on her face. “Just watch and learn.”

-o-

Peggy watched.

She didn’t learn much, though.

Except that Angie was an exceptional cook.

“This is amazing!” she said when they were seated together on the rooftop deck.

Angie was downright smug. “I know.”

“I’m serious, Angie,” Peggy said with another large mouthful. “This is very good.”

Angie beamed. “Yeah, well, you don’t have to sound so surprised.”

“I just never knew you had so many unexpected talents,” she said.

“Well, you can be the well trained super spy,” Angie said. “Because you certainly ain’t no cook.”

Peggy huffed in jest. “Are you insulting my cooking?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I wouldn’t even call what you do cooking. It’s more like a massacre of innocent produce.”

Peggy’s mouth fell open. “My cooking’s not that bad!”

Angie did not relent. “Have you tried it?”

Closing her mouth, Peggy’s cheeks reddened. “To be fair,” she said, gathering another forkful. “Why do you think I spent so much time at the diner?”

“I had thought it was just to see Mr. Fancypants without his wife finding out,” Angie said, spearing a particularly juicy looking piece of chicken. “But apparently that wasn’t the case.”

Peggy shrugged her shoulders coyly. “Maybe I was just fond of your upbeat service.”

Angie grinned at her, no more pretenses. “Aw, I love you, too, English,” she said. “But seriously, you can’t even cook toast. And those eggs you made last weekend? Were unedible.”

“Well, I can’t let you do all the cooking,” Peggy protested.

“Don’t say that until you’ve tasted my meatloaf,” Angie said.

“But that’s hardly fair--”

Angie waved her hand through the air. “You’re the reason we’ve got this place,” she said.

“I’m serious,” Peggy said.

“Fine, fine,” Angie said. “No cooking, though.”

“I have to do something,” Peggy insisted.

Angie chewed her lip. “Just give me a few minutes,” she said, a growing twinkle in her eye. “I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”

-o-

“You do realize,” Peggy said, “that I am expertly trained with weapons, hand-to-hand combat and explosives?”

“So you’ve mentioned,” Angie replied. “Though you hadn’t really mentioned the explosives bit.”

“Oh, yes,” Peggy said. “And, during the war, I had a fairly high clearance level.”

“Secrets of state and stuff?” Angie asked.

“More than I can tell you,” Peggy said.

“I already know you’re a hero and all that,” Angie said. “What’s your point?”

“I’m just making sure you understand,” Peggy told her. “That you’re asking one of the highly trained women in the world do dishes.

Angie chuffed, taking the freshly washed dish that Peggy offered to her. “You said anything.”

“Yes,” Peggy said, picking up a pan out of the suds. “But I really have seen warzones that look better than this.”

“What can I say?” Angie asked with a shrug as she dried the plate and put it away. “It’s all part of my creative process.”

“Are you sure it’s not just laziness?” Peggy asked.

Angie flicked her with the dish towel. “Hey, none of that,” she chided. “Or next time you cook for yourself.”

“That seems a bit extreme,” Peggy said, rinsing off the newly glistening pan.

“You know, I tried calling Mr. Fancypants again,” Angie started, taking the pan.

“His name is Mr. Jarvis,” Peggy corrected, not for the first time.

“Because that faucet, it’s still not stopping,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have any experience with plumbing in all that fancy training?”

“Sadly, no,” Peggy said, scrubbing the grime off a fork now. “And still no answer at the big house?”

“And not at his private number either,” Angie said. “You said he’s married, right?”

“Yes, quite happily,” Peggy noted, finding another fork in the water.

“So maybe he and the missus are away?” Angie asked. “I mean, even butlers have to take vacation, right? I don’t even know what a butler actually does.”

“I’m certain,” Peggy agreed thoughtfully, pausing to rinse the silverware. “Though it does seem odd, doesn’t it?”

“That someone has a butler?” Angie asked.

“That if Mr. Jarvis knew he’d be away that there’d be no arrangements for someone to take his place,” Peggy said, because she had made sense of almost everything else, but that fact had never fit into any of it. If Howard was busy with the expo, that was one thing. If his name was being used to drum up illegal business, that was another. But if Jarvis wasn’t tending the house; if Anna wasn’t even home; then something was amiss. “Howard may leave some off his residences unoccupied, but the mansion?”

“Unlikely, huh?” Angie said.

Peggy refocused on the dishes, taking the time to clean the spokes of a whisk. “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

They were silent for a moment, the water running as Peggy rinsed the whisk before handing it off. She reached in and felt carefully around the point of a dinner knife.

“You must really be worried about that faucet, huh?” Angie asked.

Peggy looked at her. “What?”

“You’re really thinking about it,” Angie continued, a dripping fork still in her hand. “About Mr. Fancypants.”

“Mr. Jarvis--” Peggy corrected again without thinking.

“Mr. Jarvis,” Angie said. “You think something’s up.”

Peggy looked back down at the water, hurriedly washing the knife. “It’s probably nothing.”

“But it could be something,” Angie said.

“I’ve been in the spy game far too long,” Peggy tried to circumvent.

“Which is why you have to trust your instincts,” Angie said. “You want to go over there and check it out. I can see it in your eyes.”

Peggy scrubbed furiously. “It can wait, I’m sure.”

“Well, probably,” Angie said. “But it matters to you.”

“And this matters to you,” Peggy said, looking up again resolutely.

Angie’s expression softened. “I got my dinner; I got my daily dose of shop talk and then some,” she said. “This whole thing, it’s a two-way street, right? Give and take.”

The mutuality of relationships was not an easy concept for Peggy, not when she’d spent so much of her life fighting tooth and nail for everything that was hers. Steve had perhaps been the exception to that, but considering that he’d disappeared before they’d ever had their first dance, it was safe to say that she was still wholly inexperienced with both giving and taking.

Peggy was good at many things, but relationships clearly was not one of them.

But for the first time in her life, she thought maybe she was ready -- and willing -- to learn.

Angie Martinelli was certainly an excellent place to start.

She smiled, wiping her hands dry on her dress. “You’re right,” she said. “But I’ve done a lot of taking so far--”

“And plenty of giving!” Angie said. “Now go! Investigate! Or whatever it is you do!”

“Okay,” Peggy said, moving toward the door. “But save me a piece of pie.”

“Hey,” Angie said with a wink. “I make no promises!”

-o-

When she finally got to Howard’s mansion, she considered asking the cab to wait. However, sitting outside the gates, looking up at the imposing shadow in the dark, somehow she knew that would be wishful thinking. As if she’d go up to the front door and knock and have all her doubts erased.

Luck wasn’t something Peggy had a lot of, nor did she give it any credence.

No, she dealt with the facts. With reality.

There was something going on at the mansion, even if that meant that strangely nothing was going on there. If her investigation throughout the day had turned up nothing, she could not feasibly believe that she’d have it so easy now.

If, by chance, someone was home and her fears were allayed, then she was sure Howard or Jarvis could make sure she got home without the need of a cab.

“You sure you don’t want me to wait, lady?” the driver asked, looking out his window skeptically.

Peggy withdraw a few bills from her purse. “No, thank you,” she said, holding out enough to cover the trip with a generous tip included. “I think I’ve got it from here.”

The driver took the money with a shrug. “Suit yourself.”

Peggy smiled, opening the door. “Thank you,” she said. “I usually do.”

-o-

Feeling self conscious, Peggy waited until the cab had pulled full out of view before she continued her approach. It was a familiar walk, one she had walked in subterfuge and friendship countless times since moving to the United States. She would never fully admit it, especially not to Howard, but she had become fond of the mansion, not because she needed it opulence, but because it was good to feel like there was someplace she finally belonged.

Only it wasn’t just the mansion. No, all the pieces of Peggy’s life had come together rather remarkably in the last month. Her work at the SSR; her home life with Angie. Everything fit in a way it hadn’t since her time in the Army, working with Steve.

She still mourned that sometimes, the life she’d almost had.

But with all the elements of her life coming together, Peggy could only think that the future looked truly bright. After a lifetime of fighting, Peggy Carter had found a place where she belonged and that belonged to her, and there were no more loose ends.

Except Edwin Jarvis.

To be fair, he wasn’t a loose end necessarily. They were on good terms, and he had cemented his integrity by giving her the vial of Steve’s blood. And when he’d offered her his services, she hadn’t doubted -- previous falsehoods notwithstanding -- that he meant it.

That said, she hadn’t had need for his services. With a more active role in the SSR, Peggy already had teammates. She had people to listen to her; she had backup. She didn’t need to sneak around in the night, making illicit contact.

At least, not most of the time, she reminded herself with a sense of irony.

For all that she had enjoyed the last month, she could not deny that she missed Jarvis. As a duo, they had been strangely effective. True, they had nearly run into total disaster more often than not, but somehow they’d managed to keep it together long enough to save Howard, to save New York, to save Steve.

And, now that she thought on it, to save each other, really.

So in a life that was perfectly coming together, there just hadn’t been a space for Jarvis. That aside, she couldn’t deny that she’d taken comfort in his offer. She liked to think of him, only a phone call away, reliable and trustworthy. In bed by nine.

Although the mansion would be the most likely place to find Howard, she knew that Jarvis would be the more likely person to find, all things considered. Easing her way around the property, she saw Jarvis’ home. With a surreptitious glance about her, she jogged her way closer, slowing as she started across the cobblestones.

The car was still there, and there were a few lights on about the driveway.

That was the only sign of life, however.

Jarvis’ house, along with the rest of the property was entirely dark. She checked her watch. According to schedule, Jarvis should have been watching Benny Goodman by now.

It was possible that she couldn’t see the lights from where she was, though that didn’t explain why he hadn’t answered his phone.

She rapped her fist on the door a few times, listening intently for any sound of movement within. There was nothing, though. Just the sound of the bugs humming in the yard, and total, absolute silence.

Knocking again, she leaned down, trying to peer unsuccessfully through the window. Jarvis was a creature of habit, and she knew the kind of things that could break his routine. They were often life and death things, as she recalled.

Her stomach felt unsettled as she straightened, looking back toward the mansion.

There were still perfectly reasonable explanations. Maybe Howard had gone out of town and taken Jarvis with him. Given all the things Howard was involved with, that wouldn’t be out of the question. And who was to say that Anna didn’t have friends, relatives or interests of her own to pursue? It was no crime to be away from home.

But the chatter at the SSR. The warehouse full of knockoffs. The upcoming expo and no sign of Howard. Time for Benny Goodman and Jarvis wasn’t home.

Peggy couldn’t ignore her instincts, not after all she’d gained by listening to them.

Something was off, be it innocent, sinister or something in between.

And she was going to find out what.

-o-

At the main house, she knocked at the front door. It seemed like a pointless venture, but she didn’t very well want to go barging in on Howard if he was otherwise preoccupied.

No, she had to shudder at that thought.

When no one answered, as expected, she looked around the darkened yard. No signs of movement; no signs of activity. The climate was right for breaking and entering at any rate, but she was somewhat wary of whatever security system Howard had in place. With the way he boasted, she didn’t want to risk having NYPD storming in.

Fortunately, that wouldn’t be necessary. Jarvis had given her a key after everything, and though Peggy had promised never to use it except for emergencies, she decided this was close enough.

Staying calm, Peggy used her key on the door, unlocking both the knob and the deadbolt. She knew there was an alarm system on the inside -- far more advanced than one might expect at a private residence -- but she disarmed it quickly and seamlessly with the passcode Jarvis had provided along with the key.

With those simple tasks completed, she straightened with a sense of accomplishment. She was inside with no problems at all.

That feat, however, was not nearly as momentous as she might have hoped.

Because true, the police were not about the descend upon her, but the darkened mansion hardly seemed ready to divulge any secrets. All she could confirm from her current vantage point was that Jarvis and Howard were not here either.

To be fair, though, here was only a small portion of the mansion. Howard could be sleeping; or he could be in any number of the rooms. He could be with someone; he could be reading; he could be inventing. It was probably even possible that Jarvis was tucked away in here as well, sleeping in one of the bedrooms.

Why? Peggy had no idea. All she had was conjecture at this point.

And a whole mansion to check.

Sighing, she straightened her jacket and checked her watch. At this rate, she was going to miss out on pie after all.

She’d come this far, though, and Peggy Carter wasn’t a quitter.

Even when sometimes she sort of wished she was.

-o-

Determined as she was, Peggy had no intention of leaving the mansion until every nook and cranny had been checked. She had not fully appreciated, however, just how large Howard’s home was.

It was quite honestly ridiculous. There were far too many bedrooms, each one adorned more lavishly than the last. And there was a library and a study and a smoking room. There were living rooms and parlors and breakfast rooms. Peggy had never missed the dying aristocracy back in England, and here Howard was making it even worse with a distinct lack of propriety.

Despite the unnecessary opulence, Peggy had to concede that there was nothing amiss in any of those rooms. Aside from Howard’s poor taste in art, nothing appeared out of place. She considered picking the lock to the master suite, but she suspected it was also rigged to an alarm. Besides, she hadn’t knocked quietly on the door for nothing. If Howard was in there, awake or asleep, he would have heard her. And with the door locked from the inside, she couldn’t foresee any other conclusion except that it was empty.

Just like the rest of the house.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly didn’t help her cause any. She wasn’t sure what she had expected to find, but she had been hopeful for something.

Peggy retraced her steps, double checking a few key areas before making her way toward the back part of the house where she knew the basement access was. The kitchen, she remembered, was not readily accessible, probably because Howard hardly ever used it himself.

Still, that didn’t mean it was never used, and when she went back there, she realized just how right she was. The rest of the house was pristine. The kitchen, though--

It wouldn’t be fair to call it a mess, but it had clearly been used. There were dishes stacked on the counter, and an open bottle of wine still open but full nearby. The pans on the stove showed some kind of chicken broth, and there was a charred piece of meat in the oven.

Someone had got dinner ready and never served it.

Curious, she made her way around the island, tracing the line of activity down past the unwashed dishes in the sink and to the butler’s pantry with the door ajar.

Pushing it open, she met with some resistance. She pushed a little harder as the door yielded and Peggy stepped inside to see what was blocking it. At first, she feared the worst, having too many memories of the aftermath of attacks and assassinations.

Instead, though, it was a bag of rice, spilled out over the floor. A broken bottle of oil olive had coalesced not far away, all suggesting signs of a struggle.

The conclusion was obvious but it didn’t make any sense. Howard was never in the kitchen. Any kidnapping attempt or even an assassination attempt wouldn’t happen in the butler’s pantry.

She frowned at the thought, a sudden dread filling her stomach.

The butler’s pantry.

But before she could think on that, she heard something. Faint but not far.

Instinctively, she reached for her gun, tensing by the door in utter stillness.

Holding her breath, she listened to the silence for a moment.

Then, she heard it again.

Rustling, and then a slight clanking. It wasn’t getting closer, but someone was definitely here.

Peggy took a steadying breath, easing her way back out of the pantry, careful with the door behind her. She used one hand to keep the gun up, keeping the other in front of her as she stepped carefully across the floor, mindful of her heels.

She traced the sound, not back toward the rest of the house but toward the basement entrance.

Her heart was hammering, but Peggy refused to let it affect her. She had the element of surprise; she had the gun.

More than all that, she had the training and skill to handle anything that came next.

At the door to the mudroom, she paused, listening again. The noise was louder, more insistent.

Peggy drew a breath and held it.

Before throwing the door open and aiming her gun. “Freeze!”

The dark figure in the room, duck and spun, coming straight at her. He was slow and his technique was poorly executed. Peggy pulled out of the way, using the man’s momentum to slam him into the wall. As he staggered, Peggy kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling back before she fixed her aim and stared at him without remorse, daring him to move.

On the ground, the figured moved and then groaned. He lifted his head.

Peggy nearly dropped the gun.

Howard grinned up at her sheepishly. “Well,” he said, squinting up at her in the dimness. “Nice to see you, too, Peg.”

-o-

Shocked, Peggy gaped for a moment. “Howard!” she said. “What are you doing breaking into your own house?”

With a grunt, Howard sat up. “Like you’re one to talk,” he said, making his way to his feet.

“I was trying to find you,” she said, as if the rest should be self evident.

Standing now, Howard rubbed his head with a wince. “So you thought breaking and entering was the best solution?”

“I have a key,” she said. “Besides, I’ve been trying to get in contact with you all day.”

“I’m flattered, really--”

She huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Don’t be so vain,” she said. “The SSR picked up some chatter concerning you, and I was assigned to check it out. When you failed to show up anywhere, I decided a bit more aggressive investigation was in order.”

“You know, I do have a life outside of you,” Howard said.

“Normally, I’d accept that as a valid answer,” she said. “But when I couldn’t even get ahold of Mr. Jarvis, the weight of evidence was too much to overlook.”

Howard pinned her with a quizzical look. “What evidence?”

“Evidence that someone offered you a buyout,” she said. “To make knockoffs of high end technology. We found a warehouse full of your competition, all fellow presenters at the expo next week.”

Howard’s brow creased. “Wait,” he said. “You think I would sell out?”

“No,” she said. “Which is why the chatter was so perplexing to me. But someone was clearly trying to target you.”

“The SSR can rest easy,” Howard said. “My technology isn’t going anywhere.”

“So the chatter was nothing, then?” she pressed. “And everything is fine?”

He nodded resolutely. “I guarantee you,” he said, holding her gaze steadily. “The SSR has nothing to worry about.”

He was believable, but then, he always was. Howard Stark was an accomplished liar in the sense that he knew absolutely how to tell the best version of the truth at any given time. Which made her confident that while he was not lying to her now, he also wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

Licking her lips, she did not yield her ground. “So the fact that you’ve been out of communication for a least a day and that Mr. Jarvis and his wife are not at home, that’s all merely coincidence?” she asked.

Howard drew a deep breath.

Peggy refused to relent. “And that mess in the pantry--”

His shoulders fell, and he hesitated.

Peggy’s own disposition slackened. “Howard, if something’s wrong--”

He sighed now, running a hand through his hair as he turned away to pace. “They offered to buy the tech,” he said. “But they weren’t taking no for an answer.”

Peggy frowned. “So what?” she asked. “They tried to steal it?”

“No, they’re not quite that stupid,” he said. “They want me to give it to them.”

Making a face, it was Peggy’s turn to shake her head. “But why would you do that?”

“Because,” Howard said, coming to a stop to look at her again. “They took Jarvis.”