?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Agent Carter fic: Team Player (3/8)

December 10th, 2015 (11:54 am)
apathetic

feeling: apathetic

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



-o-

Logically, she had deduced that much. Howard’s avoidance; Jarvis’ absence; the mess in the butler’s pantry. It had painted a picture of some kind of foul play, and there had only been so many possibilities that even made sense.

But even so.

She let out a breath, trying to regain her composure. “They took him?”

Howard nodded soberly. “Best I can tell, they disguised themselves as part of a grocery delivery. Jarvis let them in, and they must have overpowered him.”

It wouldn’t take much, Peggy knew. She had leveled the man with a single punch the first time they’d met, and though he was courageous in the face of danger, his physical skills were limited and his sense of combat was that of an amateur.

Namely, because he was an amateur.

“Do you know he’s okay?”

“They sent a ransom letter that same night,” Howard explained. “Sent it via my private mailbox.”

“Which mailbox?” Peggy asked.

“The one only Jarvis knows about,” Howard replied.

She closed her mouth grimly, working her jaw. “So he is alive,” she said. “And I didn’t see any signs of blood. When did this happen anyway?”

“A couple of days ago,” Howard said, sounding more dejected with each answer.

“Which is why he hasn’t been answering the phone,” Peggy said. “And that also explains the chatter the SSR picked up. That’s the ransom demand.”

“Yeah, only they don’t want money,” Howard said. “They’re looking for the technology itself. The number being thrown around, that’s the cash equivalent.”

Peggy’s eyes widened. “What technology could you have that would possibly fulfill such a demand?”

“Well, not one piece,” he said. He shrugged. “At least, not any one piece they know about. They want a collection of pieces, mostly from my expo designs.”

“What exactly are you going to be debuting there, anyway?” Peggy asked.

Howard sighed, making a helpless gesture. “Does that really matter now?”

“No,” Peggy agreed. “I don’t suppose it does. And you haven’t contacted the police?”

He gave her a look.

“Even the SSR,” she said. “They might be able to help and retain a certain security clearance.”

“Like I can trust the SSR to do anything right,” Howard said.

“They did help you out before, back when you nearly made New York self destruct,” she pointed out.

He shook his head. “Even if I thought the SSR or local PD could be useful, the instant they believe I’ve brought on anyone, Jarvis is dead.”

“Most kidnappers don’t want to lose their leverage--”

“They’ve got one guy,” Howard said. “And look at what they’re asking for. They know this is a gamble. It won’t take much for them to cut and run, leaving Jarvis as nothing more than collateral damage.”

“You don’t know that,” Peggy said. “Running around like this in the dark isn’t exactly useful either. And if you’re trying to protect your assets--”

Howard cut her off with a vehement shake of his head. “My assets?” he asked. “You think this really is about my assets? Jarvis is more than my butler, okay? And think of me what you want, but I’m not risking his life so the SSR can get a better look at my technology and have me in their pocket for another favor as they see fit. The guys you work with, they might be able to do their job okay from time to time, but a case like this? Jarvis will be nothing more than leverage for them, too, and I’m not going to work with anyone who doesn’t understand that my primary focus right now is getting him out alive.”

It was more passionate than she’d expected; somewhat more vulnerable. There was no cutting edge, no wry confidence. This was the Howard Stark who hadn’t been able to find Captain America and who had never forgiven himself for the lapse.

This was the Howard Stark who knew what it was to fail.

And intended never to relive such a thing.

She drew a small, decided breath. “What about Anna?” she asked finally. “What does she know?”

The anger drained out of Howard, and he looked away. “Nothing,” he said. “I told her I needed him to do an errand for me out of town and sent her away to the Hamptons to apologize.”

“And she believed that?” Peggy asked, trying not to sound too incredulous.

Howard shrugged one shoulder. “She usually does,” he said. “Sometimes I need Jarvis with me when I travel; sometimes I need him to do things out of town. It’s not always convenient to send Anna along, and she really likes the Hamptons.”

“Don’t you think she should know?” Peggy asked. “She’s not stupid--”

“No, she’s not,” Howard said. “Which is why I don’t tell her.”

“But if something happens--”

Nothing’s going to happen,” Howard interjected forcefully. “Because I’m going to get him back.”

This time, it was harder to pull back her skepticism. “And how do you intend to do that exactly?”

His bravado faltered. “Well, I hadn’t exactly gotten that far yet.”

It was a mess, of course. Jarvis kidnapped, and Howard expected to deliver top secret and probably dangerous technology to get him back. With no support or backup, Howard was relying on his own wits and fortune and brazen luck to resolve this.

There was no way it should work.

Not even Howard Stark was that good.

She could remember with a certain irony, Jarvis explaining to her the importance of backup, the power of having someone in your corner. To never face the fight alone.

She’d resisted it, then.

She would insist upon it now.

With a deep breath, she nodded. “Well,” she said. “We better get to work, then.”

Howard looked at her, brow crinkled. “We?”

“If you think I’m going to trust you with Mr. Jarvis’ well being, then you’re mistaken,” she said.

“This isn’t your fight, Peg,” he said.

“No?” she asked. “Because last time I checked, he was just as much my friend as yours.”

“I can’t promise you how this is going to go down,” he warned.

“As if you haven’t asked me to do anything illegal before,” she said with a terse roll of her eyes. “Besides, if you don’t let me help, I will march straight back to the SSR and tell them everything I know whether you like it or not.”

Howard didn’t look pleased. He also didn’t look overly surprised. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s figure out how to get Jarvis back.”

-o-

When Howard told her that he hadn’t quite figured out the plan yet, she’d presumed that they’d have a lot of work to do. What she hadn’t presumed, however, was that he would have nothing to work with.

This was Howard Stark, after all. Although she found his cockiness to be off putting, his confidence was certainly not misplaced. As much as she hated to admit it, he was brilliant, and she had rarely seen him faced with a problem he didn’t know how to overcome.

First, Steve’s missing plane.

Now, one missing butler.

“Tell me again,” she said, looking around the dimly lit room underneath the kitchen. “Why exactly are we sneaking around your own home?”

Howard was rummaging through a shelf of items with a flashlight. “The house is under surveillance,” he said.

“Could they get close enough to the grounds and not be seen?” she asked.

“No, which is how I know they’re there,” he said.

“And you haven’t thought to take them in because--”

Howard turned around with a huff. “Because the people in the cars, they don’t know anything,” he said. “If someone is going to go through the trouble to try extorting me, then they better know damn well not to leave a viable source of information within my reach.”

Peggy nodded, lips pressed together. “I would assume they’re also watching your lab and other residences,” she said.

“Probably,” Howard said, going back to his rummaging. “I haven’t been around any of them to check.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you need to keep such a low profile,” she said. “The more public you are, the more they’ll know you’re complying with their terms of not involving the police.”

“And you think I want to give them that comfort?” Howard asked.

“For Jarvis’ sake--”

He shook his head, pulling a few items off the shelf. “That’s not really the point.”

“Then what is the point?” she pressed.

He turned back around, this time hesitating. “They need Jarvis to get my technology,” he said. “My labs all have more advanced security with round the clock guards, which is why they haven’t just made a move to steal the technology. Plus, striking a commercial building on a public street? It’s too brazen, even for them.”

“But you don’t just keep your technology in the lab,” she noted, glancing at the vault. It had been upgraded since she’d last been here, and there was a new work space in the middle, behind multiple security doors.

“But they don’t know that,” he said. “And as we both know, people are willing to give my house a go.”

“Surely you’ve compensated for the weaknesses from before,” she said.

“Of course,” he said, looking moderately offended. “But even if that doesn’t stop them, they might see it as a more forthcoming option to get what they want.”

Peggy’s stomach churned. “Making a hostage unimportant.”

Howard inclined his head grimly. “I don’t want to tip them off with anything, so I’ve been keeping a low profile,” he said, reaching back to grab one more item before going to the work table. “The less they know, the better.”

Peggy joined him there, watching as he laid out his items. “We can try to limit what they know,” she said. “But what about what we know?”

At this point, Howard stood for a moment, examining his items. A few of them looked vaguely familiar -- Peggy was certain she had rescued one from some illicit dealer at one point -- but for all the SSR wanted to catalogue Howard’s trinkets, Peggy had come to prefer ignorance. It wasn’t bliss, but it was something less of a headache.

With Howard, that was enough of a feat.

“Well,” he began, chewing his lip. “The front business is pretty straightforward--”

“Yes,” Peggy said. “I stopped there myself this morning, which was how I found the secondary warehouse.”

“Even that’s somewhat above board,” he said. “I mean, they sell knockoffs, which is pretty low brow, but even the mid-level criminals that operate that branch on the side aren’t really who we’re concerned about.”

“That’s a fairly elaborate network,” she said. “Surely with that kind of established profile, they would have raised some red flags by now.”

“That’s what I was thinking, too,” Howard said. “But when I called in a few favors, I found nothing. The company’s been watched for copyright violations in the past, but nothing like this. I mean, corporate espionage is pretty common, and stealing ideas isn’t exactly high level extortion.”

“So it’s out of character, you’re saying,” Peggy continued. “For the company to pursue your technology so vigorous.”

“It’s not just uncommon, it’s stupid,” Howard said. “Think about it. What do they make in a year off their below board sales? What do they risk losing here? Not just the secondary business, but the main one, too. It’d be a total loss.”

“Greed knows no bounds,” she ventured.

“There’s greed, and there’s stupidity,” Howard said.

“I often find the two go hand in hand,” Peggy said.

Howard shook his head, pulling a paper out of his pocket. He laid it out on the table. Leaning closer, Peggy quickly deduced it as the ransom note. “This isn’t amateur work,” Howard continued. “The amount they’re asking; the precautions they’ve taken. No addresses and names listed at all, so there’s nothing to trace.”

“They’ve done this before,” Peggy agreed, perusing the note with more scrutiny. “Which means our company has a darker side that’s gone undetected--”

“Or I’m not the only one being used as a means to an end,” Howard said.

Peggy stood back, wriggling her toes contemplatively. “So you think there’s a third party involved?”

“That’s my best bet,” Howard said. “Which is why I don’t think we’re going to find anything at the company. Jarvis isn’t going to be kept at any of their locations.”

“Maybe not,” Peggy said, mind starting to work again. “But think about it, if this is a third party, there’s going to be a point of contact somewhere. High level, though it may be, someone has been compromised in the business itself--”

Howard’s eyes lit up. “If we can find that--”

“Then we can find out who has Mr. Jarvis,” Peggy concluded. She looked again at the supplies on the table. “What are these exactly?”

Howard almost smiled. “Just a few things we might need,” he said. “Call it an emergency kit.”

“It’s nothing that will implode or cause severe bodily harm, is it?” she asked.

“Only if used incorrectly,” Howard said.

Peggy shook her head. “You don’t even know what we’re going to do yet,” she protested.

“Exactly,” he said, putting a few more items inside. “Which is why I want to be prepared for anything.

“As comforting as that is,” she said. “None of it will help us figure out who’s taken Mr. Jarvis.”

“Well,” Howard said. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

Peggy chuffed. “Just don’t blow us up,” she ordered.

He saluted her. “I take it you have a plan?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “But I do have something that might help.”

-o-

Given Howard’s suspicions about the people who took Jarvis, Peggy insisted on calling herself a taxi, reasoning that if the house was under surveillance, they had already seen her enter. If they didn’t see her leave, that would only lead to more suspicion. They could meet up at her home in a short while.

“And what am I supposed to do?” Howard asked.

Peggy looked at him, a bit surprised. “Well, how did you get here in the first place?”

“I walked,” he said, sounding genuinely put out.

“And you can’t continue to walk?” Peggy asked.

“Not if you want to meet up sometime before daylight,” he said crossly.

“Oh please,” she said. “Call for a taxi to meet you a few blocks from here.”

“I guess,” he said, scuffing his foot on the ground.

She sighed. “We can’t possibly share a cab.”

“I know,” he said dejectedly.

“You’re the one being watched for,” she reminded him.

“I know,” he said, voice even smaller than before.

She straightened in annoyance, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you think that by pouting you can somehow convince me to come up with a different plan?”

He looked up at her, with almost a childlike.

Clucking her tongue, she just shook her head. “This actually works for you? With women?” she asked.

“Not just women,” Howard said. “Jarvis, too.”

She rolled her eyes. Her patience had been more than spent, and the night wasn’t over yet. “All the more reason to get him back, then,” she said curtly.

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, sounding disappointed.

“Besides,” she said, puffing her hair up just slightly. “I would think you like skulking around in the dark.”

He made a face. “Why would you think that?”

She gave him an unrelenting look. “Remember how well I know you, Howard.”

He had the decency to almost blush. Or, at the very least, appear chagrined. “All jokes aside,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“You could have called me, you know,” she said, more gently this time. “I would have helped.”

“I told you, I didn’t want the SSR--”

“If I would help you retrieve your other assets under the radar, don’t you think I’d do the same for one that is far more valuable?” she asked pointedly.

His smile was small but true. “I think maybe I was scared.”

“Of losing him?” she asked.

“Of what you’d do to me when you’d found out I’d already lost him,” he returned.

She chuckled. “Well, we’ll get him back,” she vowed.

He nodded in agreement. “Just be careful out there.”

She inclined her head. “Just this once,” she said, “I wish you’d listen to your own advice.”

“For you, I’ll try,” he promised.

Hesitation, she reached out, squeezing his arm. “For Mr. Jarvis,” she said. “We both will.”

-o-

Despite everything that had occurred inside, Peggy did her best to appear entirely put together upon her departure. She had not arrived in secret, and she made no extreme attempt to leave in secret either. Although she was certain her presence would arouse some curiosity, surely Howard’s tails would be aware that they were not the only ones looking for him.

In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if many people were looking for him. It wouldn’t even be particularly surprising to think that other women had stopped by, some just as persistent as Peggy.

As the cab pulled up, Peggy crossed the grounds, and as she opened the back door, she saw the car parked down the road, just as Howard had predicted. They weren’t exactly well obscured, though the nondescript vehicle had its lights off and without license plates it was easy enough to overlook.

And hard enough to track, even now that she knew it was there. She probably could have learned something distinguishing about the vehicle, but not without tipping off its inhabitants. The payoff at this point would not be worth it.

Especially not with the stakes being what they were.

Peggy provided her address to the driver, and settled herself back, contemplating for the first time the essence of those stakes. She had known for a few hours now, ever since walking into the butler’s pantry back in Howard’s kitchen, but she had been so set on the task of figuring out their next move that she had scarcely indulged the emotions that drove her.

Now, on a quiet car ride back, she found she could no longer ignore them. The gnawing sensation in the pit of her stomach was a deep, keening thing now, and she had to ring her hands restlessly to control the nervous energy.

Peggy was not prone to nerves; that was not something she could afford in her position. But no matter how strong she strove to be, she was still only human. She’d cried when Steve’s voice had given way to static over the radio, and she’d been deeply lonely upon arriving in New York after the war. Sometimes she drank tea just to remember home, and sometimes she regretted letting go of Steve’s blood.

She was hardened necessarily for many things, but Peggy had her weak points. Steve Rogers; Angie Martinelli; Howard Stark.

And apparently, almost against her better judgment, Edwin Jarvis.

He had been a bother at first, an accessory she had not asked for and did not see as necessary. He’d been an ill fit for the spy world, and she’d often found his presence to be precarious at best. He could be useful, but only in a way that kept them both hinging on the edge of total disaster.

More than that, he had lied to her. He’d withheld the truth from her and allowed her to be used for Howard’s sake. That had been hard to face, especially when she’d so wanted to trust him, to count him as a true ally and not just a partner of unlikely convenience.

That had changed, though. It was hard to say when. If it was when he’d endured talking to Howard’s spurned women despite his obvious reluctance. If it was when he’d followed her lead when she needed with no questions asked. If it was when he’d made the shortsighted decision to forge a confession from Howard in a misguided attempt to save her. If it was when he’d agreed to get in a plane and shoot down the man he credited with saving everything that mattered to him.

If it was when he’d taken the vial of Steve’s blood and given it to her, Howard’s wants and orders be absolutely damned.

It was all of it, really.

His absolute constancy; his unwavering faith; his utter support.

Jarvis was not Steve Rogers or Howard Stark or Daniel Sousa or Jack Thompson. He was entirely something else, and that was for the absolute best. It was true that Peggy wasn’t sure how their lives fit together anymore, but she did know now, more than ever, that she wasn’t ready for that partnership to end.

That made it all the harder, then. Jarvis wasn’t completely helpless in combat, but he wasn’t trained for it, either. Despite his willingness to throw himself into a fray, he wasn’t wired to see it coming. He wouldn’t have stood a chance, directing an order in the pantry. He would have been entirely in his element, thinking about making a roast or starching the linens. Two punches, and he would have been down without a fight, without even a word of protest.

It wasn’t pleasant to think about, and even more disconcerting was the state in which he was probably being held. If he was kept in a small, dark room, or if he was tied unceremoniously to a chair.

Worst of all, Peggy knew that Jarvis wouldn’t be worried about himself. No, he’d be upset that his suit was wrinkled, and he’d fret about who had cleaned up the kitchen in his wake, but he’d be worried about compromising Howard or leaving Anna to fend for herself.

At least when Steve had gone down in the plane, he had been a soldier. It had been his choice. That didn’t make it any easier, but it affirmed Peggy’s sense of justice in the world.

She couldn’t lose another person.

She wouldn’t.

Peggy sighed, watching as the cab moved toward home.

She just wasn’t sure how she was going to stop it yet.

-o-

Although she had no reason to suspect that she was being followed, Peggy found herself more vigilant than normal as she paid the taxi driver. She cast a long look down the street, and, finding nothing out of the ordinary, let herself inside.

Locking the door behind her, she tread quietly. It was later than she’d intended, and she knew that Angie worked the early shift at the diner in the morning. She walked quietly through the entryway, stopping in the tidied kitchen to grab her files before making her way to the back living room. Not only was this room the farthest from Angie’s, but if Howard were going to make a covert appearance, she did not doubt that he’d come in the back.

Turning on a lamp, she settled down, starting through the company file from the very beginning. She had already made a page of copious notes, but her second reading gave her new details to highlight, and by the time she heard rustling at the back door, she’d already filled another page with relevant information to discuss with Howard.

She considered letting him inside, but the chair was comfortable, and it was a bit fun to see Howard work for things every now and then. When he finally made his way in, he was breathing heavily and his hair was mussed. “I had to walk the last eight blocks,” he said, as if bewildered by the task.

“Were you followed?” she asked.

“Who cares?” he said, flopping melodramatically on a chair next to her. “At this point, I’d probably let them catch me.”

She drew a small, collected breath. “And you think you’re still the best America has to offer?”

“Intellectually,” he clarified for her, pointing to his head. “The mind is the thing you can’t push beyond its natural limits. The body -- I mean, that’s just biology. It can do anything.”

“Except walk eight blocks,” she mused.

He did not look amused. “As fun as this is, don’t we have more pressing things to do?” he asked. “Like, I don’t know, find out who took Jarvis?”

Peggy sobered immediately, leafing through the file again. “Of course,” she said. “I have the file here, and I was just making some notes--”

He reached over, taking it from her hands.

“Gee, perhaps you would like to look at my top secret file,” she suggested at his brazen move.

Howard was nonplussed. “That’s why I’m here, aren’t I?” he asked, not looking up. “Besides, I know more than your idiot friends at the SSR.”

“If that were the case, then you wouldn’t need my file at all,” she pointed out.

Howard ignored her sound logic, flipping the pages again. When he got to the pictures, he tilted the file, going from one to the next before stopping. “This,” he said, pointing to one of the photos. “Who’s this?”

Peggy leaned over, frowning a bit as she looked at the name scrawled across the bottom. Quickly, she cross checked the name in her file, running her finger down the personnel list until she found a match. “Alan Vincent,” she said, scanning the short biography listed out. “He’s a relatively new partner -- very new, in fact. He has no history with the company prior to two months ago, and it’s strongly suspected that they were looking for an investor. But other than that, he has no ties to anyone.”

“Oh, he has plenty of ties,” Howard said.

Peggy looked up, curious. “You recognize him?”

“Sure,” Howard said. “He’s a personal assistant for Luca Falsone.”

Peggy cocked her head. “Isn’t he a weapons manufacturer?”

Howard nodded. “And not a very good one, at that,” he said. “They bid for every army contract that goes public, but every time they get denied, Falsone looks for other ways to shore up profits. Unlike me, they’re not exactly reputable.”

She gave him a sideways look, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t realize you were.”

Somewhat chagrined, Howard shook his head. “I at least have some code of ethics to work with,” he said. He gestured to the file. “Falsone -- he’ll sell to anyone if the price is high enough.”

“So you think that Falsone bought his way into an established company to increase his sales potential?” Peggy asked.

“Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s done this before,” Howard said. “Think about it. He buys in, uses the name, then cashes out. It’s a short term investment with high dividends.”

“Which would explain the other companies he’s fleeced in the warehouse,” Peggy said. “But I can’t imagine they resort to kidnapping for every client.”

“To be fair, I’m not every client,” Howard said.

“But why would they need your technology so badly?”

Howard looked at her, almost incredulous. “Have you seen my technology?”

She sighed, shaking her head. “But if they have a lucrative operation, then why would they suddenly change their game so drastically?”

“Falsone’s been after me for years,” Howard explained. “I’ve got a lot of offers -- I stopped keeping track. But my answer’s always been the same.”

Peggy considered this. “It still seems like a bit of a stretch--”

“Have you forgotten the things I’ve made?” Howard asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” Peggy said. “But even a man with criminal inclinations has to understand the inherent risks of using kidnapping when he seems to have an established business model to work with. Are you sure there isn’t something more to this? Something else in your history with Falsone?”

He hesitated, just for a moment, something flickering in his eyes as he look steadily at the picture. It looked as if he were about to say something when suddenly, without warning, the overhead light went on.

Peggy’s natural defenses flared. Straightening, she already had her hand reaching to the gun concealed on her thigh, eyes sharpened for a target when she saw who it was.

Though, in retrospect, she should have known.

Angie was clad in her pajamas, looking just slightly bleary-eyed and still somehow gorgeous. “And here you told me you were going to work,” she said, her accent even thicker in the dead of night.

“Ah, well,” Peggy said, forcing herself to relax slightly. She looked nervously at Howard, who was grinning stupidly. Peggy had been prepared to fight; he’d been amply prepared to flirt. “After finding Howard, I thought he could help me clear up this mystery of the missing butler.”

“But it doesn’t have to be all work,” Howard said.

Peggy resisted the urge to hit him, leveling him with a glare instead. The glare, as it turned out, was more than effective as Howard’s smile checked itself immediately.

“We’re sorry for waking you, though,” Peggy added hastily.

Angie did not look particularly convinced by Peggy’s apology. “You know,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m pretty sure I don’t even want to know.”

“We’ll try to keep it down,” Peggy added helpfully.

“I take it this means you two won’t be getting some sleep?” Angie asked with a critical look from Peggy to Howard and back again.

“What? Oh, no,” Peggy said. “Working all night, probably. And Howard -- he’s--”

Howard was a dolt, who found the implication more amusing than he should.

Flustered, Peggy flushed. “It’s work, really,” she said. “Classified.”

“Right,” Angie replied. “I’ll put on the coffee.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Peggy said.

Angie shrugged. “This isn’t quite the social life I was thinking about for you, but I guess it’s a place to start,” she said.

“Really, we can keep it quiet--”

Angie flitted a hand through the door. “I’ve also got pie left,” she said on her way to the kitchen.

“Pie sounds great, thanks,” Howard said, being entirely unhelpful.

Peggy glared at him.

Howard shrugged. “What?” he said. “Just trying to help your social life.”

Peggy leaned toward him, voice lowered. “Keep yourself in check, Howard,” she said. “And don’t forget that I am more than capable of killing you and hiding the body so no one can find it. It’d certainly make my life easier.”

He grinned salaciously. “But not better.”

“That’s a risk I might be willing to take,” she said.

“Is that one or two pieces?” Angie called from the kitchen.

“Two, thank you!” Peggy called back with overt cheer.

Howard settled back, somewhat chagrined. “You’re sort of scary, you know that?”

“Thank you,” Peggy said, reorganizing the file. “That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

-o-

By morning, they had eaten pie, drunk coffee, and thoroughly dissected the file and made note of all other relevant information Howard knew from his dealings with Falsone in the past. While this made them both veritable experts on the company and Falsone’s operation, this did little to confirm anything about Jarvis’ location or condition. Moreover, their efforts to discern what came next were nothing more than pure conjecture, which did not work in their favor since they were working against a deadline.

Howard, for his part, trailed off in the early dawn, a map of the city still in hand. He had been trying to narrow down their search area, but the hour and the weak coffee were not in his favor. She didn’t doubt that Howard was capable of going for days on minimal sleep, but she could not forget that he probably already had. If Jarvis had been missing several days already, this was likely the only time Howard had allowed himself to sleep yet.

It was rest he might as well get, considering there was little else they could do. Peggy could use the resources at the SSR to further determine likely locations associated with Falsone, but if she wanted to avoid suspicions, she would have to wait until normal business hours. She was a bit drowsy herself, but this close to morning, she knew that she was better off with another cup of coffee than trying to sleep.

Besides, she could already hear Angie in the kitchen, and if she was going to get Jarvis back, she owed her roommate a bit of an explanation before entirely disappearing into the task herself.

Angie was busying herself at the stove, eggs and bacon already going.

“Hey!” she said, in a half whisper. “I didn’t want to wake you, but I didn’t know if you two would be hungry.”

“I was already awake,” Peggy admitted, sidling around Angie to snag a piece of still-steaming bacon from the plate.

Angie mixed the eggs with a good natured nod. “And you’re still telling me this is all work?”

Peggy was too tired to even feign incredulity. “Maybe not official work,” she said. “But it’s certainly not pleasure.”

“You’re not playing double agent again, are you?” Angie asked, a note of concern in her voice.

Peggy smiled sympathetically. Angie was clearly trying not to pry, but she was obviously not comfortable with the idea of Peggy playing both sides again. Given that Angie had discovered the truth whilst Peggy stood on the ledge outside her window, it was only fair not to fault her for that. “Not exactly, no,” she said.

“So it’s just a favor for Howard Stark?” Angie asked.

“Howard and Mr. Jarvis, I’m afraid,” Peggy admitted.

Angie looked up with newfound curiosity. “The butler? What’s he got to do with it?” she asked. Then her eyes widened. “Wait, there’s a reason he’s not answering the phone. Isn’t there?”

Her voice was rising, and Peggy made a visible point to draw herself in, lowering her own voice to compensate. “We’re still figuring it out--”

“Peggy!” Angie said, not following Peggy’s cues to be quiet. “Is he missing? Because if he’s missing, then you’ve got to call the police--”

“To be fair, I am a law enforcement official,” Peggy said.

Angie’s shoulders sagged. “Howard’s hiding here, isn’t he?” she concluded. “He went on the lam before, and he’s doing it again. In our apartment.”

“Technically it’s his apartment,” Peggy started.

“Peggy!” Angie said. “You said it would all be above board now, even if I didn’t have clearance--”

“And it is!” Peggy said. “Nothing we’re doing is illegal in any way, shape or form--”

“But what are you going to do?” Angie asked. “I mean, this is what? A kidnapping? And you’re going to track the kidnappers and then magically get around them to get Mr. Fancypants back with no one being the wiser?”



With Angie’s tone, Peggy hated to admit how spot-on she was. Or how foolish it sounded. “The stakes are high,” she explained instead. “If the police were to get involved, it would compromise Mr. Jarvis--”

“So instead you compromise yourself?” Angie asked.

“It’s not like the kidnappers are going to call the cops on us,” Peggy said.

“No, but they might try to kill you,” Angie countered.

Peggy sighed, taking a deep, steadying breath. Angie was arguing with her because Angie cared. Angie had always cared, and Peggy had been afraid to accept that. But Angie had proven herself, and Peggy had made them both a promise.

No more secrets.

Even when she had to lie to everyone else, Angie deserved the truth.

Pressing her lips together, Peggy managed a smile. “If things get complicated, I promise, I will call for backup,” she said. “I won’t risk Mr. Jarvis’ life or Howard’s.”

“Or yours,” Angie said, a little petulant even as she turned to stir the eggs again.

Peggy reached out, a gentle hand on Angie’s arm. “Or mine.”

Angie relaxed, posturing loosening as she turned off the heat and moved the eggs off the burner. “Fine,” she relented, trying to sound more cross than she actually was. “So I expect both of you to eat a good breakfast.”

Peggy nodded dutifully. “Of course.”

“I have to work all day today, but I was planning on running down to the market to pick up a few things before I went in,” she said. “So if there’s anything you need…”

It was Peggy’s first impulse to say no, because Peggy didn’t like to ask for help.

Though, she had to admit, she could use a bit.

“There is one thing actually,” Peggy said, chewing her lip and glancing toward the living room. He wouldn’t love the idea, but he wouldn’t hate it, either. If anything, he’d object to her making the decision wholly without him.

Then again, if Howard was trusting her, then he knew what he was getting himself into.

“Anything,” Angie said. “You name it.”

“I was wondering if you could run by the post office,” she said, reaching for a piece of paper to scrawl down the address and the name Howard used for his private PO box. “It’s a bit out of the way, but I’m sure Howard can reimburse you for the fare.”

Angie shrugged. “I guess I can do that,” she said. “And I’ll ask no questions, but I expect a full report when this is over.”

Peggy smiled. “It’s a deal.”

Angie’s face brightened. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, English,” she said. “Now eat the eggs and bacon. If you’re going to be running around stopping crime, you may not have time for lunch.”

Peggy nodded, allowing herself a mischievous glint. “Yes, mum.”

-o-

Although getting the mail would be helpful, Peggy wasn’t so blind as to think that was what Angie was really good for. No, Angie would do anything Peggy needed -- and then some -- but the thing that she got from Angie Martinelli that she would never find elsewhere was a necessary human touch. It was Jarvis who had told her that she needed a support system, people to be there for her when she needed them most. While that was sometimes police backup or technical support, she could now see that sometimes someone to make her smile was the most important thing of all.

And Angie could make her smile. Always and without fail.

Now if she could only miraculously bring Jarvis back, then Peggy would be all set.

Distracted by her thoughts, Peggy ate her breakfast over the kitchen counter. She was too anxious to sit anyway, and it took a great deal of willpower not to go pull the file to look over it again.

There was nothing new in there. She’d done all she could. She could almost hear Jarvis chiding her to take care of herself. “You’re no good to anyone if you can’t even take care of yourself, Miss Carter.”

He’d probably be upset that she wasn’t sitting to have a proper meal of it. The utter impropriety of eating while standing without any of the proper place settings laid out.

Of course, given his current predicament, it wasn’t even a given Jarvis was eating at all. She could only help but wonder if he was more afraid or annoyed at the given moment, considering the probable lack of etiquette he was being shown as a captive.

She hoped it was annoyance, truly. The idea of him being afraid was not one she relished.

And besides, she rather liked to think that his annoyance could prove cumbersome for his captors. It would only serve them right to be critiqued while they worked.

After finishing her eggs, she poured herself some orange juice, and she was just about to snag another piece of bacon when Howard came staggering into the room.

He was disheveled and groggy, and he slumped miserably against the counter. “I feel horrible.”

Peggy took a bite of bacon. “That can’t be an unusual feeling for you in the morning.”

Howard grunted. “But usually there’s alcohol involved,” he muttered.

Peggy busied herself, grabbing a plate for Howard and heaping some eggs on top. “Somehow that doesn’t make it more palatable to me.”

“That’s because you don’t know how to have fun,” Howard grumbled.

She picked up a fork, putting both on the counter in front of Howard. “And this is your idea of fun?”

The question only served to make Howard look more miserable. “Hardly,” he mumbled. “I keep hoping to wake up and find my clothes pressed and laid out, you know?”

It was tempting to remind Howard that he was a grown man who was perfectly capable of self-care without a babysitter -- or a butler. However, that was clearly not the point.

Not this morning.

She poured him a cup of coffee, placing it down as well. “I do.”

He seemed somewhat comforted by that, and he picked up his fork. “You cooked?”

“Funny, but no,” she said. “Angie.”

“Ah,” Howard said, eagerly scooping up a forkful now. “She’s a nice girl.”

“She is,” Peggy agreed, eyes narrowing just a little. “Which is why you need to not think about her at all.”

“That was an entirely innocent comment,” Howard protested around his food.

“Nothing is entirely innocent with you,” Peggy pointed out. “Besides, she’s out getting your mail as we speak.”

Howard paused, looking confused. “My mail?”

“You told me the PO Box last night,” she said.

“So you thought you’d send some random girl out to check it?” Howard asked, beginning to sound incredulous.

“Not a random girl,” Peggy said. “A nice girl, one that I trust with my life even more so than you. Besides, it’s not like you can go, and after last night, they’ve probably identified me as well. If you want to see if we’ve got any more news, she’s our best bet.”

Howard didn’t look thrilled by the idea, but he couldn’t refute Peggy’s logic. Instead, he turned his gaze back downward, taking another bite. After chewing for a moment, he sighed. “The ransom note never said how long we’d have to wait,” he said finally.

“They won’t want to draw this out,” Peggy replied. “It would make it harder to keep it under control, and it would tempt you to get outside help.”

“You think they’ll send something else?” Howard asked. He was looking at her, trying not to sound too uncertain.

Peggy shrugged. “They sent you the demand and presumably given you time to gather it,” she said. “Next they’ll want to tell you where and how to make the exchange. It’s the only thing that makes the least bit of sense.”

Howard sighed again, poking at his food with his fork. “None of this makes sense,” he said. “I mean, they took Jarvis. They took Jarvis.

“It’s not necessarily so hard to conceive,” Peggy said. “Even the SSR pegged Mr. Jarvis pretty quickly as a valuable asset against you. Someone who is that close to your personal and business dealing -- they’re going to be worth something.”

“I get that I have enemies,” Howard said, still not looking up. “The things I do, the way I work, the products I make. It all comes with the territory, and it’s not like I make friends easily. I’ve always accepted that, and it’s never surprised me, even when it’s been a pain in my ass.”

Peggy took a small sip of juice. “You could consider changing your habits.”

He looked up, vexed. “That’s not the point, though,” he said. “They’re my enemies. I carry that responsibility, no one else. I make a point to prepare myself for anything. Jarvis, though. I mean, he’s a butler. He hasn’t made any weapons; he hasn’t pissed anyone off. He drives the car and does the dry cleaning.”

“I imagine he’s more than a butler to you,” Peggy mused softly.

“You think I don’t know that?” Howard asked. He was tired, and he was emotion -- Peggy could see that plainly -- but he was missing the point. He was talking about the things he couldn’t see coming, when this was something he should have seen. Not this specific attack, of course, but the notion of it. Howard was a genius; he saw things that other people couldn’t even begin to understand, but when it came to simple human connections, he was at a complete loss.

It wasn’t impossible to believe that Jarvis could be used as a bargaining chip against Howard. It was only impossible that Howard hadn’t taken measures to prepare for it.

She drew a breath, and she didn’t know if this was the right time or the right place, but she could think of nothing else. Because she’d been up all night, undoing another one of Howard’s messes. Good intentions or not, Howard Stark managed to hurt everyone he came into contact with, and even when it wasn’t his fault, the line of blame was too easy to follow to be entirely wrong.

She didn’t blame Howard.

But she could not so easily absolve him, either. “Do you, though?” she asked, a slight edge to her voice now. “Do you know it?”

His brow creased, clearly taken by surprise. “Peg--”

She shook her head, because she couldn’t stop it now. Not with this little sleep, this much caffeine. Not with Edwin Jarvis missing and Howard Stark wringing his hands about it. “He’d do anything for you, always. When you were on the run, he was unfailingly loyal to you, no matter how unsavory he found the situations you put him in. The sacrifices you expects from him are so much more than what any employer has the right to ask from an employee, and yet he’s always given that to you, without question and almost without complaint. It seems that everyone can see his value except you--”

Howard tensed, visibly flinching. “It’s not like that.”

“It’s not?” Peggy asked.

“I treat him better than any employer would,” he said. “I pay him more than enough, and I’ve always made sure that he and Anna are comfortable.”

“Except when you’re dragging Mr. Jarvis around and forcing him to make up bad lies for his wife,” Peggy countered.

“What Jarvis tells or doesn’t tell Anna is her business,” Howard snapped, his ire rising even more. “I’ve never put a stipulation on that, and I’d bet she already knows. I saved both of them, you know.”

“So now, what?” Peggy asked. “They both owe you for the rest of their lives?”

Howard let out a short, tortured breath. “He wanted to stay!” he exclaimed, all pretenses of being polite gone now. “I gave him the job to get him over here, and then I was going to let him do whatever he wanted. He volunteered to stay on. He wanted to.”

She pursed her lips. “And you certainly never objected.”

“And why would I?” Howard asked. “He’s loyal and resourceful and honestly, he’s a damn good butler.”

“And all you give in return is the grunt work you don’t want, and the secrets you can’t be bothered to keep,” she said.

“You think I’m the only one taking advantage of him?” Howard asked, face hardening. “What about you?”

Peggy snorted. “What?”

“I know he’s loyal to you, even above me,” Howard said. “And you’re the one who still treats him like he’s nothing but a butler.”

“That’s not true,” Peggy protested.

“Then why did it take you three days to realize he was gone,” Howard said. “Have you even stopped by his place for tea?”

“I work, you know,” Peggy bristled.

“Which is why all you’ve ever asked of him was fresh linens, household repair and an alibi,” Howard said, eyes set and deadly now.

She wanted to protest; she wanted to point out all the ways this was Howard’s fault. But he was right about more than she cared to admit. About how she’d accepted his overture of friendship and done nothing to reciprocate. How she’d thanked him but never showed him the depth of her gratitude.

It wasn’t that it was hard to figure out where Jarvis fit in her life.

It was that it was hard to figure out what parts of her needed to change to make it happen. Change was hard, and she’d only just learned to open herself to Angie. She hadn’t figured it out with Daniel, and she hadn’t felt it necessary to try with Jarvis.

Because he was so easy to take for granted.

“Well,” she finally said, quietly now. “I think we both have our reasons to get him back.”

Howard swallowed hard, the tension draining from his posture. He looked apologetic, wetting his lips as he gathered another forkful of eggs. “Yeah,” he agreed. “We do.”

“For what it’s worth, I know you care about Mr. Jarvis,” she said. “This has just been a long night.”

Howard nodded, but didn’t meet her gaze. “Don’t apologize,” he said. “Especially when you’re not wrong.”

Her shoulders fell. It was possible, she knew, to be both right and wrong. And that didn’t just apply to Howard. “Howard--” she started, her own apology still on the tip of her tongue.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, okay?” he said, and when he lifted his eyes, there was steely resolution there. “We’re tired; we’re stressed. What matters is getting him back.”

“On that, we agree,” she said, putting her empty glass on the counter. “And we will get him back.”

Howard nodded. “You better believe it.”