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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Agent Carter fic: Team Player (7/8)

December 10th, 2015 (12:07 pm)
envious

feeling: envious

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



-o-

If only that were that. Falsone was unconscious, but Peggy could not afford to be cavalier -- not when the mission wasn’t over yet. Hastily, she rolled him over, using some of the spare rope from Howard’s bindings to devise a makeshift restraint. As she finished tying the knots, she glanced over toward Howard. “How is he?”

Howard didn’t look back, intent on what he was doing. “Unconscious,” was his reply.

Getting to her feet, she wiped her hands absently on her skirt. “But he’s alive?”

As she approached, Howard craned his neck to give her a short, pained look. “It’s bleeding a lot.”

Stepping gingerly to Jarvis’ other side, she tried to get a better view. Her role in the war had never intended to be combat oriented, but Peggy had managed to slip around that a time or two. Picking up a little first aid had been entirely prudent. If she was going to know how to hurt people, she had to know how to fix them, too.

“Bullet is low at least,” she noted, trying to sound positive as she looked at the blood welling between Howard’s fingers. It coated his hands, and he had inadvertently smeared it across his own pants and shirt. “And it looks like it probably missed his intestines.”

“Won’t matter if we can’t stop the bleeding,” Howard said in a clipped voice. “What about backup?”

“I just have to call them--”

“What about Falsone?” Howard cut her off with a deadly look over his shoulder.

“Alive, despite his best efforts,” she said. “He won’t bother you, though.”

Howard looked at her again, this time the desperation impossible to hide in his eyes. “We need that backup, Peg,” he said. “We need it now.”

Peggy swallowed soberly, not daring to look at Jarvis again. There would be a time for sentimentality, but it couldn’t be now. Jarvis didn’t need her to be a friend right now; he needed her to be an agent. “Just give me a minute.”

Howard grinded his teeth together for a moment. “It better be a fast minute.”

-o-

A minute.

Peggy asked for a minute.

But honestly, she needed a lot more than that.

She’d started this mission to get Jarvis out, to help Howard, to make sure everyone got out alive. And now, here she was. Operating an unsanctioned mission with the perpetrator badly injured and Jarvis not much better off.

All her good intentions meant nothing, because sometimes the end could justify the means for her, but if this fell apart--

If she fell apart--

She took a sharp breath, trying to keep her vision clear as she made a quick line to the office at the back of the warehouse. The door was mercifully unlocked, and she burst inside with full determination.

And nearly fell apart.

She caught herself, staggering against the edge of the desk and letting her head drop down as she tried to catch her breath. Tears burned in her eyes, blurring the red on her hands. She’d gotten it on the dress as well. The floral print might never recover.

Jarvis would probably know how to remove the blood.

Jarvis.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

She wasn’t naive. No, Peggy had been through war, and she’d worked hard and real cases at the SSR. She knew life didn’t always give happy endings. In fact, it served up tragedy more often than anything else in her experience.

If anything, she was exceptionally well skilled in tragedy. After losing Steve, she’d known that she’d never experience anything quite so painful or difficult.

This wasn’t the same. Jarvis wasn’t gone, and they still had every chance of saving him.

But in a lot of ways, it was the same. It was a feeling Peggy had fought against until it was too late to rectify. It was Peggy’s insistence on her own independence at the expense of the friendship from those around her. It was about her need to stand alone until there was no one left to stand with her.

Jarvis, Howard -- they were her friends. Angie and Sousa -- they mattered in her life. She didn’t need the approval of anyone to know her worth, but having people in her life made it more worth living.

She couldn’t put this sort of thing off, not in her line of work.

Not when she’d lost so much already.

With a deep breath, she summoned her courage.

She’d taken her minute.

Now it was time to finish this mission the right way.

-o-

By the time she started dialing, her fingers weren’t shaking anymore. After everything she’d been through in the last few days, she’d like to think this part was a given. But when the operator answered the phone, she had to remind herself that it may just be the hardest part yet.

“Yes, Operative Sousa, please,” she said without so much as a hint of doubt in her voice.

“One moment, please,” the clipped voice said before the line started ringing again.

She kept her head high out of principle, trying not to acknowledge the sweat collecting on her palms. She couldn’t even be sure he’d be back yet. Sousa’s mission had been a set up by Falsone -- she knew that much -- but it could have still been time consuming. That was a part of the plan she’d failed to consider thoroughly, if only because she hadn’t counted on needing backup like this.

Her heart thudded, and she found herself holding her breath. Another ring, and another.

“Come on, Daniel,” she muttered. “Pick up, pick up, pick--”

“Hello?”

“Daniel!”

There was a pause. Then: “Peggy?”

“Ah, yes,” she said, trying to regather her wits.

“I thought you’d gone home,” he said.

“Well,” Peggy said, saying a silent prayer that she’d gauged him properly in her planning. “Turns out, I need some help.”

She could positively see his frown deepening. “Peggy…”

“It’s about the case,” she assured him. “Just...not the part of the case you know about.”

The sound of his breath was audible. “Peggy, you promised--”

“Which is why you’re getting this call,” she said. “Because I need your help, and I need it now.”

That was the right card to play -- it was her only card to play.

It was the only card she needed.

“Where are you?” he asked, the hard edge to his voice giving way to fear.

“An abandoned warehouse,” she said. “774 Wemberly Street. The situation is contained, but we’ll need agents to process the scene and take suspects into custody. We’ll also need a car to transport a casualty--”

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Not me,” she said, not daring to glance behind her. “Edwin Jarvis, the butler--”

“Howard Stark,” he said, the ire apparent in his tone again. “You’ve been working with him all along--”

“It’ll all make sense, trust me,” she said. “And I’ll explain everything you want to know -- as soon as I get that backup.”

He was annoyed with her, as he had every right to be. She’d lied to him, purposely obfuscated the truth, all after she’d promised him explicitly that she wouldn’t. Her intentions were good, her reasons were noble, and he might even come to understand.

But he had every right to be mad first.

“If this is like last time--”

“It’s not,” she said. “And I know you’re mad, but I think you know I’m telling the truth in that much.”

There was a tense silence on the line before he sighed. “You know I’ve got to tell Jack.”

She closed her eyes in relief. “I was counting on it.”

“And Peg,” he said before she could hang up. “I’m counting on a really good explanation.”

She blew out a breath and hung up the phone. “You and me both.”

-o-

All fears and doubts aside, she had a responsibility as the last person standing. Confident that backup was on its way, she made her way back out of the office. She rounded the room first, checking and securing the three fallen guards, before making her way back toward Howard and Jarvis in the middle of the room.

“Took you long enough,” Howard said sharply.

Peggy knelt down, checking Falsone’s pulse. “Backup should be on its way.”

Howard turned away again, intent on the fallen butler. “We need to get him out of here.”

Satisfied there was nothing more she needed to do for Falsone, she made her way back to Jarvis again. “Any change?”

“Not for the better,” Howard reported curtly, studiously avoiding eye contact.

Peggy pressed her lips together, daring a look down. The livid bruising on Jarvis’ face only served to make him look even more garish, and it was hard to believe he had helped her complete this mission no more than ten minutes ago. “He’s stronger than we give him credit for, you know.”

At that, Howard did look at her. “You don’t need to tell me that,” he said. “Jarvis knows how much faith I have in him.”

“Does he?” Peggy asked. “Because sometimes I’m not sure you fully understand just how much he’s willing to do for you.”

“Oh, and you are?” Howard asked pointedly. “Tell me, Peggy, ever since I was exonerated, when was the last time you stopped by for tea?”

She had to divert her eyes. “I don’t want to impose.”

“That’s a cop out--”

Eyes up again, she squared her shoulders. “He’s willing to die for you,” she pointed out. “And for what? So you can sleep around with a girl?”

Howard paled, inhaling sharply. She’d gone below the belt with that one, and she knew it.

Sighing, she shook her head. “To our credit, he does make it easy to take him for granted.”

Howard nodded hollowly for a moment. “I know it seems like all I do is have relationships, but I go through so many people because I’m terrible at them,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’d rather go home alone.”

“As if that makes it hurt less when there’s no one there beside you,” she said, her throat getting tight.

With surprise in his eyes, Howard said nothing.

Peggy offered him a rueful smile. “Sometimes I am disheartened at how similar we are,” she said. “Two sides of the same coin. You choose to be loose, and I choose isolation, but both for the very same reasons.”

“You’ll never find another Captain America,” Howard agreed.

“Neither of us will,” she said. “But if we use that as a measuring stick--”

Howard huffed, looking down again. He sobered. “Help’s coming, right?”

She nodded. “Any minute,” she said, giving the room a cursory glance again. “The SSR will be happy to have Falsone fall so neatly into their lap, I think we can minimize any complications.”

“Yeah, well, Falsone’s lucky I need both hands for this,” Howard said. “Or he’d be a dead man.”

She understood the impulse. But she also knew how little it would accomplish. This was a time she was reminded of Steve -- that there was always a higher cause. “And then the cycle of violence would continue,” she said. “There’s enough blood on our hands.”

Expression taut, Howard kept his eyes down. “Jarvis had nothing to do with this.”

“All the more reason to let it end,” she said. “We can’t be sole purveyors of justice.”

“And why not?” Howard asked. “Is your SSR so much better?”

She refused to take the bait. “Every system needs checks and balances, just like every person,” she said. “That’s why we need friends and family. Not just because it makes us happier, but because it makes us better people, and I for one want to believe that you’re not the man Falsone says you are, that you’re a man that Mr. Jarvis would rightly offer his life for.”

There was a brief moment of indecision on Howard’s face, where he couldn’t decide whether he was going to be be furious or heartbroken. When he looked down again, he let out a heavy breath. “Damn it,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t want to be a better person, you know?”

She reached out, squeezing his shoulder gently. “I think you do,” she said.

“You’re the hero in all of this,” he said, trying to deflect her.

“Just the obvious one, maybe,” she said. “But two sides to the same coin, remember?”

More composed, Howard turned his eyes to her again. “And what does that make Jarvis?”

It was still unsettling to look down, and it was all she could do to keep her composure. “Someone to make us remember.”

“Remember what?”

She met his gaze again. “Why it’s worth the effort.”

-o-

By the time Peggy could hear backup mobilizing itself outside, Falsone was gasping for air. Jarvis had stirred slightly, and Peggy offered him the best smile she could muster.

“We’re all getting out of here alive,” she said, and it was as much a promise as it was an order.

Pinned to the ground beneath Howard’s firm hands, Jarvis took a stuttering breath. “Anything for you.”

Howard jostled him as he faded again, forcing a much more convincing cavalier expression. “For both of us.”

Jarvis looked toward Howard haltingly. “I didn’t know you cared, sir.”

“I would just hate to get a new butler,” Howard told him, almost managing a smirk. “But if you up and die on me, I’m going to have to let you go.”

“Point taken,” Jarvis said, wincing as tears collected at the edge of his eyes. “Though we may have to renegotiate the terms of my employment--” He inhaled sharply, squirming away from the pain. “In relation to hazard pay.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Jarvis,” Howard said. “What do you think, Peg? You think he’s earned it?”

“Oh, I think he’s more than earned it,” she said.

For a moment, the corners of Jarvis’ mouth twitched upward, but he shuddered, the fondness fading from his eyes.

Howard jostled him again.

But this time there was no response.

Peggy drew a stoic breath. “I’ll go direct the help.”

Howard nodded, but said nothing.

She put a hand on his shoulder. “I meant it,” she assured him. “We’re all going home.”

He lifted his eyes to meet her gaze. “I’m going to hold you to it.”

With a glance down at Jarvis, she nodded stiffly. “Trust me,” she said, getting to her feet. “You won’t have to.”

-o-

She made it to the front door just as Daniel and the rest of the team was coming in. Jack quickly took point, stepping between her and Daniel with a pointed look down his nose at her. “You keeping secrets again, Carter?”


“Uh, not exactly,” she said. “The situation developed quite suddenly, but I think you’ll find enough here to not only explain the white collar case Agent Sousa started, but a variety of other more violent crimes.”

Jack looked at her critically. “This isn’t how it works, Carter,” he said. “You can’t finish a case and expect to get away with skipping protocol just because it’s all wrapped up so neat.”

“And here I thought you’d like the present,” she said. “You do photograph well for the papers, after all.”

For a moment, Jack looked like he wasn’t sure if he was amused or insulted. Finally he nodded. “Just remember your place on the team,” he said, filing in behind the rest of the men.

Peggy looked to Daniel, her bravado faltering. “Daniel--”

“You said you needed help,” he said. “I’m not sure I trust you.”

“Then why did you come?” she asked.

“Because,” he said. “You asked for help. You’d never lie about that.”

It wasn’t inaccurate, and it probably wasn’t unfair either. But Peggy couldn’t deny that it hurt. “Is that really what you think of me?” she asked.

“Let’s just say I’m waiting for you to prove me wrong,” he said.

She drew a breath, reminding herself that now wasn’t the time to be sentimental. After all, he was waiting. For her part, she had to believe she was worth waiting for.

Assuming she could learn to be part of Jack’s so-called team.

“Then let’s start with a car,” she said. “Jack can do what he wants with Falsone, but Mr. Jarvis needs a hospital as soon as possible.”

Daniel nodded toward the scene. “Then I guess we better get moving.”

-o-

Peggy liked working alone. It was often easier, and she often found it to be less chaotic and far more controlled. There were fewer extraneous risks, and it was easier to keep a plan in coherent, working order without multiple perspectives and personalities muddying things up.

All that said, she couldn’t deny that having a team came with certain perks. Jack handled processing the scene and dealt with securing Falsone and arranging for transport. With Daniel’s collected approach, they were able to quickly transfer Jarvis to a car.

“You should probably stay here,” Daniel said to Stark. “Agent Thompson is going to want to talk to you.”

“Agent Thompson can talk to me as soon as my butler is taken care of,” Howard replied coolly, climbing into the car with Jarvis. He arranged himself to keep the pressure up. “Now drive.”

Daniel glanced back toward the building with a second’s hesitation.

Peggy took her cue, marching up to the car and climbing in the driver’s seat. “Give me the keys,” she said. “Or I will start this car by other means.”


Daniel scowled, handing them over and getting into the seat next to her. “This isn’t the best way to win my trust, you know.”

She slid the keys into the ignition, starting it up. “You’re forgetting,” she said with a purposeful glance back toward Howard and Jarvis. “You’re not the only person that matters in my life.”

“But I do matter?” he asked.

Putting the car into gear, she smirked. “That was the implication,” she said. “Now, do me a favor, and get the siren up. And everyone brace yourselves. I don’t intend on slowing down.”

-o-

Peggy made excellent time. There was little she couldn’t accomplish with sheer determination.

And a police siren most definitely helped.

At the hospital, things proceeded quickly enough, and she felt marginally reassured by the apparent competency of the medical staff.

All the same, it wasn’t easy seeing Jarvis being carted away from her. She hated to think that her last look of him might be when he was pale and still. Her intentions had been to save him from the start, but apparently he’d had just as much the intention of saving them.

That was the awful lesson Steve had taught her. That trusting people could make you safer and more vulnerable all at once.

Next to her, Howard wiped his hands on his ruined shirt. “I’ve got a phone call to make.”

She looked at him, surprised.

“You think I’m just going to trust these doctors?” he asked.

“They seemed to know what they were doing,” Peggy said.

“And this is one of the best hospital in New York,” Sousa added.

Howard did not appear appeased by that. “I know better,” he said with a long glance down the hallway where Jarvis had been taken. “And I’ll get better.”

“You have some questions to answer, Mr. Stark,” Sousa started.

Howard’s look was dangerous. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” he said. “After my butler is safe.”

It was clear that Daniel wanted to argue, but it was a war of wills he would not win. Hoping to avoid an unnecessary conflict -- especially one she herself had created -- Peggy inserted herself gently between them. “Maybe I can fill in some blanks,” she offered before looking at Howard again. “I trust you’ll keep me informed.”

Trust was a big word between her and Howard, and she didn’t use it lightly. After all they’d been through over the last few days, Howard didn’t appear to either. He nodded his head before turning away, marching straight toward the nearest nurse.

With the situation somewhat disarmed, she turned back to Daniel. “I know you have questions.”

“You lied to me,” he said.

“The demands for Mr. Jarvis’ release were very specific,” she began.

“And we always take criminals at their word?” Sousa returned.

She drew a breath and strove to be steady, no matter how emotionally compromised she felt. “There was no way to trust that local police would have the resources to mount any kind of rescue, and to be frank, I couldn’t trust Jack not to prioritize the wrong things in any extraction attempt,” she explained. “Howard and I were prepared and equipped--”

“And you lied to me,” Daniel said, clearly hurt. “After everything, you lied to me again.

“I know it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Howard is my friend,” she said. “Mr. Jarvis is my friend, and he deserved the very best chance I could give him.”

Daniel nodded stiffly. “They’re your friends,” he repeated. “And so what am I?”

It was a simple, cutting question, and when she opened her mouth to speak, she found herself at a total loss for words. He was a friend, no doubt. A partner, an ally. And more, maybe. If she wanted.

She didn’t know what she wanted.

She just knew that she wanted everyone to be okay. She wanted everyone to come home this time. “Daniel,” she said, reaching out to touch his arm. “Please understand--”

He drew back. “It’s a job, right?” he said, quieter now. “We just have to do our jobs.”

The tone of his voice was no longer angry, and it was nowhere close to cruel. But something inside of her still broke a little. “Daniel--”

He shook his head. “I should go check in with Jack,” he said. “I’ll be back to take your official statement later.”

Before she could protest, he turned and left, leaving her by herself in the hospital corridor.

Here she was again.

The last woman standing.

It was everything she’d worked so hard to be.

And nothing that she wanted.

-o-

This wasn’t what she did.

That was her only thought as she half stumbled into the bathroom. Her breathing caught, and she propped herself up at one of the sinks and tried to catch her breath.

This wasn’t what she did.

She was a trained soldier; a fully experienced and qualified agent. She’d been in war; she’d essentially been a double agent. She’d proven herself, a woman in a man’s world, time and again, with veracity and flair. None of that happened by crying in a bathroom.

Her next inhalation was ragged, and she couldn’t quite catch herself. A tremor shook her shoulders and she squeezed her eyes shut.

Howard and Jarvis, they mattered to her.

Angie and Sousa, they mattered to her.

The people in her life, they mattered to her.

They didn’t define her; she didn’t need them to tell her what her worth was; but they mattered. Howard and his inventions, Jarvis and his proper British etiquette. Angie and her auditions, Daniel and his SSR protocols. She wasn’t ready to stand on the Brooklyn Bridge to say goodbye to any of them yet, and all her dreams for the future weren’t frozen in ice anymore.

She could face any danger; she didn’t flinch in the face of any peril. So why was this so hard? How could Peggy try to save the world when she wasn’t even capable of facing the truth inside her own heart?

Steve had made it look so easy, carrying his heart on his sleeve, even into the thick of war. Steve hadn’t been afraid to fight, and he hadn’t been afraid to care about people. Living out his legacy, she had the fighting down.

But now she had to accept the rest of it.

His death couldn’t be in vain.

She had to remember that he wasn’t just a soldier.

He was a boy from Brooklyn who didn’t walk away from a fight, who risked everything to go save his best friend.

Steve knew what mattered, which was what made his sacrifice all the more telling.

Opening her eyes, she looked at herself in the mirror.

She wasn’t Steve Rogers.

But she was Peggy Carter.

She knew what mattered.

And she would fight for it in any way she could.

Even if it meant not fighting at all.

-o-

Back in the corridor, Peggy kept herself composed. She navigated easily back toward the waiting room, feeling somewhat reassured when she found Howard already there.

He was perched in a chair, bouncing his leg restlessly as he stared at the floor.

“Any news?” she asked, sitting next to him.

He glanced at her, shifting his weight to bounce the other leg. “My medical team is on their way,” he said. “I’m not trusting any diagnosis until then.”

Peggy nodded, seeing no reason to disagree. Howard was many things, but he did work with the best exclusively. “So he’s in surgery?”

Howard hummed distractedly. “He’s going to be fine,” he replied flatly.

It wasn’t spoken with any sort of confidence or fortitude. It was spoken out of necessity, as though Howard couldn’t accept an alternative outcome. She had always thought the worst would be not knowing. The difficulty of having no body to bury had haunted her with Steve, and she hated -- absolutely hated -- that despite the assumption that he was killed in action, his file had to remain open.

Like a festering wound.

Letting his blood go had helped, because it had been something tangible.

But she had to admit, with blood on her hands in a hospital waiting room, the weight of the situation was nearly just as unbearable for her now. The physicality of loss was a force in itself, and the idea of closure seemed like a meager token in return. As if it was easier to see someone die than to lose them to the void.

Loss was loss. It didn’t need degrees or stipulations.

Her saving grace this time was that it wasn’t too late. Jarvis wasn’t dead; Howard was still by her side. Angie was at home in their flat, and Sousa was checking in with Jack. For all that she had risked, Peggy had not forfeited anything yet.

The need to believe in that wasn’t weakness.

It was hope, even of the most uncertain and tepid variety.

Peggy could understand that. With a small smile, she settled back in her chair. “Of course he is.”

The silence that followed was thick, and Peggy was torn between offering comfort and seeking it. So often she chose to defy the stereotypes, to act like these things didn’t bother her. In a world where so many people considered her weak at first glance, she hated to give them any reason to think themselves right.

But this was Howard. She knew his weaknesses better than he knew hers.

Besides, she didn’t want to measure her strength by the tears she didn’t shed anymore.

The internal struggle was unimportant, however. Because for as much as she was doubting herself, Howard was suffering worse.

He blew out a breath, jiggling his knee again as he chewed his lip. “I didn’t even know about the girl.”

Peggy blinked, a little surprised by the rawness in his voice.

He shook his head. “I mean, when I knew it was Falsone, I remembered her,” he continued. “But I didn’t even think…”

“Falsone was wrong in what he did, but I do feel for his loss,” she said.

Howard gave a short, curt laugh. “You know I never even gave her one of my parting gifts? Jarvis never even had to stop by her house to tell her that it was over,” he said.

Peggy frowned.

“Because I knew better with her,” he said, looking at Peggy now. “She was too young and too eager. She really was just a kid, and I thought maybe it was time for me to start showing a little restraint.”

“Wait,” Peggy said. “You didn’t even--”

Howard shook his head resolutely. “She showed up at a few parties, and we talked a few times, but nothing happened,” he said. “Nothing.

Peggy couldn’t help but gape a little.

Howard shrugged. “When Falsone started to come after me, I figured he wanted to buy me for her,” he said. “Become business partners, then maybe something more. But then he took Jarvis -- he set this whole damn thing up -- and I didn’t know.

“You had no idea what the stakes were,” Peggy concluded for him softly.

“I knew the girl was in with a bad crowd,” Howard said. “And every time I saw her, she looked a little worse. But I wasn’t her father. I wasn’t anything to her.”

“You know, that’s something that Steve always made so clear to me,” she told him sympathetically. “That standing up to a bully was always worth it, even when it was utterly inconvenient.”

“Or downright impossible,” Howard said with a fond smile. “He didn’t know how to walk away from a fight.”

“Even the ones he shouldn’t have picked,” she said. “When I first met him, he was nothing but a scrawny kid with a bloody nose.”

Howard chuckled, dipping his head forward again. “I make weapons and let other people do the fighting,” he said. “But that’s not always enough, is it?”

“This isn’t your fault, Howard,” she said, even more gently now. “You never lied to that girl, and you never lied to Falsone. You have changed, you know. You may still be obnoxious, and you may still lie when it is convenient to you, but you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

He smile was rueful. “I’m not sure that makes me feel much better.”

“The good news is that the change you’re thinking about isn’t something you need a super serum for,” she said.

He sat up, straightening his back against the chair. “That’d be a lot easier.”

Easier, most definitely. Not better, though. If anything, Peggy had learned that the easy things weren’t the important things. The changes that mattered were the ones that took time.

Even when time was the hardest thing of all.

She offered him a sympathetic smile. “At least this explains why Falsone took such drastic measures,” she said. “He blamed you for taking something important from him, so he wanted to take something important from you.”

Blowing out a breath, Howard slumped down. “I always thought it’d be my weapons that would get me into the most trouble.”

“It seems like perhaps your charm is your biggest vulnerability instead,” Peggy quipped lightly.

“Maybe,” Howard conceded. “But not with friends like mine around.”

Friends.

Like her.

Because that was what they were, after all. They weren’t associates. They weren’t partners in crime. They were coworkers.

They were friends.

It was as much a revelation for Howard as it was for her.

She nudged him with her shoulder. “Just remember that,” she said, feigning sternness. “I know the nature of your life, and I know you make the best weapons and see the prettiest faces. But that’s not what matters. You may make weapons that protect this country, but it’s the people you surround yourself with that will make a real difference in the end. You can’t take that for granted.”

He looked at her, eyebrows raised. “Are you talking about me? Or yourself?”

Blushing, she looked at her own hands. “It’s a lesson we both need to learn, I suppose.”

“Yeah,” Howard said reassuringly. “Why do you think Jarvis is the best butler around?”

“I would have guessed his ability to starch a shirt, but I’ve come to see his other assets,” she said.

“Friends are hard to make,” he agreed. “But Jarvis is impossible to get rid of.”

“In this case, we’ll count that as his greatest strength,” Peggy said. “Loyal to a fault.”

This time, Howard nudged her back. “We’ll have to return the favor,” he said. “Until he wakes up.”

She met his gaze and couldn’t help but smile. “Until he wakes up.”

-o-

Peggy had never been a particularly patient person, but she had acquired an enduring sense of perseverance. Given her life goals, it had been excessively necessary.

That didn’t mean that waiting wasn’t sometimes the hardest part.

Howard took to the inactivity worse than she did, often pacing and making his presence known at the front desk. He spent some time on the phone, and she was fairly certain that he had talked to every member of the hospital board in an apparent attempt to make himself heard.

The effect was negligible. To be sure, the staff treated them with more deference after learning just how much influence Howard had, but there was nothing they could actually do to make things go faster. Jarvis was in surgery, and he was being treated by the very best money could buy, and that would have to be enough.

Peggy prayed silently that it was enough.

As the hours stretched on, she found herself restless. So when Sousa showed back up, she was so grateful for the distraction that she almost forgot the circumstances of their last parting.

On her feet, she attempted to look chagrined. “Hi,” she said, not sure whether to venture anything else.

Daniel looked tired -- it was late, after all -- and the smile he returned to her didn’t reach his eyes. “So, Falsone’s fine,” he said. “He’ll be out of it for awhile, but that’s probably the least of his concerns, all things considered.”

She tried to take that as good news.

“He confessed, too,” Sousa said with a matter of fact nod. “To everything. Kidnapping, extortion, business fraud. It’s a major victory for the SSR, even more so because we didn’t know it was a fight we were in. Jack’s going to be fielding congratulations for weeks, and the news cycle is going to love it.”

Chewing her lip, she still didn’t know what to say.

Daniel looked at her, shaking his head as he sighed. “You knocked this one out of the park,” he admitted. “Jack couldn’t be happier.”

“But?” Peggy hedged.

“But,” Daniel said, almost with a tinge of regret. “We’re not just SSR agents, Peggy. At least, I didn’t think we were.”

“I told you when it mattered,” she said.

“When it mattered to you,” he replied. “It wasn’t easy trusting you again, and I’d like to think that after everything, you know you can trust me.”

Her eyes widened a little. “I do trust you,” she said.

“Then you should have told me,” he said. “As your friend--”

“As you friend,” she interjected, a little more forcefully than she intended. “I couldn’t put you in a position against the SSR. I wasn’t just trying to protect Howard and Mr. Jarvis. I knew if I told you, you would be obligated to either tell Jack and risk their safety or keep it a secret and risk your own. I couldn’t do that to you, Daniel. Not as your friend.”

Something shifted in his face, something of the edge melting away as his expression softened. “As your friend,” he said, gently now. “I’m telling you that you can. I’ve fought in a war, Peggy. I know that loyalty isn’t just about the government you serve; it’s about the men -- and women -- fighting next to you. I didn’t take up this crutch for the flag, you know.”

At that, she had to smile. He was a good man, Daniel Sousa. He was a true and earnest and noble man. He’d had some hard headed notions, and he was a bit too fond of the proper order of things, but he couldn’t be put so easily into a box.

He had learned to see her differently.

Maybe it was possible for her to do the same.

“I wouldn’t want to ask you to do something you don’t want to do,” she said, offering him one last out.

His gaze didn’t waver. “Then don’t ask me,” he said. “Because I’m volunteering.”

Something tugged on her heart, and her smile was widening despite herself. “Okay,” she said, nodding now. “That is, by far, the best news I’ve heard all night.”

-o-

Daniel of course had more work to do, and Peggy almost felt guilty about it. While Jack would enjoy the accolades, Daniel would bear the brunt of the paperwork because of her. She almost offered to help, but this time the job couldn’t come first.

She glanced back across the waiting room, where Howard was having an animated conversation on the phone.

This case had never been about the SSR. It had never been about proving herself or earning any kind of standing.

She’d come for Howard and Jarvis.

And she would stay until they could all go home.

Settling back down in a chair, she was resolved on that. She would do whatever it took.

Even if it meant sitting in this chair, doing nothing.

-o-

Resolved or not, Peggy was more than a little relieved when a familiar voice broke her from her reverie.

“When I found out what you do for a living, I knew it was dangerous,” Angie announced without any preamble. “But I’d never really thought of it like this.

Peggy looked up gratefully, sighing in relief as Angie settled down next to her. “What are you doing here?”

Angie nodded around. “I should be asking you that question.”

Guiltily, Peggy slumped back. “Things got complicated.”

“I’m guessing that’s an understatement,” Angie said. “Your SSR boyfriend stopped by. He wanted to put a few things on record. I tried to stop him from collecting the paperwork you left behind, but he was flashing all these papers at me.”

Peggy shook her head. “He’s welcome to any of it,” she said. “And I hope you told him the truth.”

Angie wrinkled her nose.

“He’s on my side,” Peggy explained. “Even if it doesn’t always seem that way.”

Angie shrugged dismissively. “I didn’t lie to him anyway.”

Peggy had to roll her eyes. “I’m sure it was a convincing performance.”

More than a trace of mischief flashed in Angie’s eyes. “Too bad I can’t pull that off at auditions,” she said. “But anyway, I put enough together to find out where you were, and I thought you might need some company. How is he, anyway?”

At that, Peggy blanched somewhat. “Mr. Jarvis is in surgery, as I’ve been told,” she said with as much self control as she could muster. “I’m told he has the very best doctors, though, so there is every reason to be optimistic.”

Angie nodded intently. “That’s good,” she said. Then, she hesitated, chewing her lip. “Though honestly, I didn’t come here for him.”

Her resolve threatened to break, because the shoulder Angie was offering for her to cry on was so, so tempting. That wasn’t what she did, though. She grieved alone, in her own way. She didn’t show weakness; she didn’t compromise herself.

At least, that was how it had been. There was a better way to live, maybe, where people didn’t put off first dances and tea times.

Or best friends.

She smiled gratefully at Angie once again. Crying on her shoulder wasn’t going to happen, but she reached out and took Angie’s willing hand, giving it a squeeze.

This time, Angie squeezed it back.

-o-

Sleep was an inevitability, not because it was late or she’d been going for hours, but because she had nothing else to do. She had never pretended to be a superhero, and it felt inexplicably safe with Angie by her side. In a world where so much was going wrong, this much was right.

It wasn’t much -- a touch of solace, a snippet of repose -- but Peggy couldn’t deny what it was, not to herself. Because Angie loved the house and all the perks, things Peggy could live without just as easily.

But living with Angie.

Well, that was about the best thing in the world.

-o-

She was slipping somewhere beyond a dream when Angie nudged her, and Peggy roused enough to look up when Howard started to speak.

“So,” he announced, looking ragged and small. “There’s news.”

Peggy blinked once for the lack of something better to do. She was good thinking on her feet, but she wasn’t on her feet now. The vestiges of sleep were clouded in her brain, and it wasn’t until Angie nudged her again that she managed to get to her feet. “And?”

Howard gave her a critical look, glancing toward Angie skeptically. “And,” he said, “you better come with me.”

-o-

He made it several paces before she caught up with him, and they were past the nurses station by the time Peggy had her wits about her. “What kind of news?” she asked.

Howard didn’t slow down, taking a sharp turn down a long corridor. “I talked to my doctors,” he said, not even sparing Peggy another glance. “They said he was lucky -- if you can believe that -- that the bullet didn’t do more damage. It missed most of the vital stuff, which I suppose if you’re going to be shot, that’s the way to do it, but lucky might be--”

“Howard,” she said, sidestepping a wheelchair as she tried to keep up with him. “How is he?”

“The problem was the bullet was deep,” Howard continued, taking another turn. “And that meant a lot of blood loss.”

She suppressed the urge to shudder, focusing on keeping her pace in tandem with his.

“The good news is that they gave him blood, and he made it through,” Howard said, shaking his head. “Bastards sounded surprised about that, but Jarvis, he’s tougher than he looks.”

This wasn’t exactly the sort of news Peggy had been hoping for, not when Jarvis’ fate was still a question she still very much wanted answered. It was just like Howard, to be so preoccupied with his point of view to be bothered with anyone else’s.

And it was just like Peggy not to sit back and take that.

“Howard,” she said, more forcefully this time even as they turned down another corridor. “What does any of that mean exactly?”

This time, Howard stopped. He looked at Peggy, sighing heavily. His composure, she could see quite suddenly, was little more than exhaustion, as though he were merely too tired to fall apart the way he might actually need to.

For a moment, she thought he might break, right there in front of her.

Instead, though, he opened the door next to her. “It means,” he announced, “that he’s going to need us to be there for him, just like he’s always been there for us.”

The move surprised her, and she took a tentative step inside and stopped short. Because there, he was, on the bed. Eyes closed, skin pale, but still breathing.

Jarvis.

He looked smaller than he had before, whitewashed by the bland hospital clothes. Without the stiff shoulders of his suit, he seemed diminutive. The bruises on his face were settling even deeper, and his tousled hair was disconcertingly worse than before. His shoulder had been braced, and she could see the bandages beneath the thin blankets as he took slow, even breaths.

Howard stepped in beside her with a grave look. “Now the real work starts.”