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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Agent Carter fic: Team Player (6/8)

December 10th, 2015 (12:03 pm)
annoyed

feeling: annoyed

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



-o-

The front door was the obvious intended entrance, which meant that Peggy would no doubt have to secure another means. Some of the ground floor doors would probably have been easiest, but since she was essentially entering blind, she wanted to minimize her risk of exposure.

With that in mind, she turned her attention up.

Darting carefully, she made her way to the side of the building, sneaking her way along while she ducked under the barred windows. Then, she got to the fire escape. It was designed to be an emergency exit, but Peggy had a tendency to look at things differently than most people. She was a firm believer that just because something had an intended use, didn’t mean that was the only use it was good for.

If it could get people out, she could only surmise it would get people in as well.

She pulled herself up, willfully keeping her movements as quiet as possible. It wasn’t easy with her heels on the metal rungs, but there wasn’t much to be done for it. Besides, by the time someone really got suspicious about any scuffling, Peggy intended to already have established her entrance.

It took her only a minute to scale the ladder, though navigating the small catwalk that ran along the edge of the upper floor wasn’t particularly easy in her shoes. She had already established Jarvis’s most likely location and purposefully picked a window as far away from it as possible. Any guards would be concentrated there. This was the best choice in order to retain the element of surprise.

That was her only advantage in all of this, but she couldn’t deny that the unknown on the other side of the wall left her with trepidation. No matter her plans and gadgets, this was still a surprise for her too once she got inside.

There’d be no turning back.

To be fair, though, as far as she was concerned there was already no turning back. Not with Howard unarmed, depending on her for backup. Not with Jarvis tied up and beaten. Not with Sousa still waiting for her to set a dinner date; not with Angie waiting for her at home tonight.

Tentatively, she tested the locked on the window. When she found it locked, she reached into her bag of Howard’s tricks with stolid determination.

Absolutely no turning back.

-o-

Howard had called the first tool a lockpick.

Peggy found that term to be humorlessly simplistic.

The device actually cut through the glass, fast and efficient, giving Peggy easy access to the lock for a silent and unobtrusive entrance.

As it turned out, she was having a stroke of luck. The window opened into a small room -- empty, musty and closed off. Clearly, whatever operation Falsone had in this building, it wasn’t particularly expansive. Although, if his sole purpose was to lure in Howard, she supposed there was no need for the extra space.

Which worked out fine for her.

She kept her footing quiet and fast, making her way across the room and pausing at the door. Leaning close, she listened for any sound of movement or activity.

There was nothing.

Feeling mildly reassured, she checked the handle. It was locked, but it was easy enough to turn the deadbolt from the inside. With a soft snick, she cracked open the door.

And promptly ran into a man.

He was burly and armed, and he looked just as surprised to see her as she was to see him.

That was, until she leveled him with a single punch to the head that sent him sliding to the floor. The unexpected action almost made her yelp, and it was all she could do to catch him, almost falling under his weight before she dragged him haphazardly back into the room.

She was breathing heavily by this point -- exertion, surprise, adrenaline, it didn’t matter which -- and she hastily went through Howard’s things until she found the first pair of restraints. They looked like handcuffs; they worked like handcuffs.

Except for the electronic closure that flipped on a green light. Howard had assured her that any movement in these cuffs would result in an instant sedative dose, right into the bloodstream. There was enough to keep a grown man silent for a day straight with nary a scratch on him.

She stood up, dusting off her skirt as she looked at his still form. His nose was leaking blood.

So nary another scratch, she told herself.

Gathering another breath, she took another item from the bag. Although she had subdued the first man, she also recognized her own luck in this situation. This time, she needed to proceed with more than caution.

She needed a few tricks up her sleeve.

The gun she selected looked simple enough, but Howard had assured her that none of the rounds were live. Instead, it acted as a temporary paralytic, which would give her enough time to handcuff anyone else before they became a danger to her operation.

In the hallway again, she found herself unimpeded. Moving carefully, she considered the possibilities of checking each room. While it was true that Jarvis could be in any room, what were the chances of him being completely unguarded?

Besides, she didn’t have time to be thorough, not with Howard downstairs doing God only knew what.

No, Peggy only had time to be right.

Suddenly, she heard voices, and she promptly pressed herself against the wall. Listening, she heard two pairs of footsteps from around the corner, voices hushed in conversation.

Then, they rounded the corner.

And she lifted the gun.

One shot; two shots.

There was no way to stop their fall this time, and she had barely managed to secure them both in handcuffs when a third man approached. This time, she had no time for the gun.

Instead, she smiled sweetly, shrugging as innocently as she could.

It was an outrageous act.

Due to the insipid nature of most men, though, it worked perfectly.

Confused, the man looked at her for approximately two seconds.

Which were the only two seconds Peggy needed to swing her bag at him. It caught him in the face, sending him stumbling backward. Before he could cry out, Peggy had a hand on the stun gun, firing one last, finishing shot.

He spasmed, thumping to the ground, and she quickly dragged him around the corner before putting another pair of handcuffs on him.

Standing up, she took in her handiwork.

Four men down.

Four men closer to the one she really wanted today.


-o-

Although Peggy hadn’t checked any rooms, it was fairly obvious where Jarvis was being kept. Around the last corner, toward the front of the building, Peggy could just catch glimpses of a man on patrol. He was carrying a gun, and from the sound of pacing, she could make out two more men.

That had to be his location.

It also had to be the downstairs access.

This made it far more likely that she would draw attention to herself, which would effectively render her rescue useless.

The thought of it wasn’t very pleasant, not when Howard was counting on her. Howard, who was downstairs with no plan of escape other than that which she could bring. This was what it was to have backup, to put your life in someone else’s hands. This was what it meant to be part of a team, to know that the outcome was not solely yours, for better and for worse.

This was what Jarvis had tried to explain to her all those times. That the only way to take the necessary risks was to know that someone else was there to take the precautions that you couldn’t afford on the front lines.

She’d hated that, and all its implications. Even when Steve had worked as part of a team, Peggy had been something of her own woman. The Howling Commandos had adopted her as one of their own, but only after the fact, only after they’d all lost more than they could ever hope to regain.

And now, here she was. Her current team was haphazard and unlikely. An inventor; an agent; an aspiring actress; a butler. They would never make as formidable of a presence, but they might just work after all.

Assuming, of course, she got everyone out of this fiasco in one piece.

With that in mind, she took a breath, and turned the corner.

Ready to fight.

-o-

They didn’t even see it coming.

That had been the point, obviously. Even so, Peggy hadn’t expected it to be that easy. Two shots, and both men were down, and she had them both secured without as much of a mewl of protest. That was a job well done, even for her.

Standing, she took a few deep breaths and rallied her composure. It seemed ridiculous to doubt things now, when things were going so very well. Because she was well trained and she had planned sufficiently.

But who was she kidding? Of course she was going to doubt now. Nothing in her life ever came easily, and success always came at a price, sometimes a price she was reluctant to pay.

She was getting ahead of herself anyway. This wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

Quickly, she bent down, checking the men on the floor for keys. She discarded what looked like house keys and settled for a pair of keys on a separate ring, hastily taking it to the last door before the exit. The first key didn’t work, and she spared a nervous glance at the exit. She wondered how Howard was faring; she wondered how long it would be before someone came upstairs to check on things.

Anxiously, she tried the second key, her fingers shaking as she turned it in the lock. It stuck slightly, but she jimmied it a little harder before the mechanism clicked into place. Without hesitating, she pulled the key and opened the door.

She recognized the room immediately. The dark, dank space was clearly not an office space like the first room she’d entered. No, this close to the stairs, it had probably been intended as a utility closet, which would explain the exposed ductwork and unfinished walls.

Somewhere, something was leaking, and she could hear a steady ping of water and smell the rank odor of stagnant water. There were no windows and the light that had been featured in all the photos was noticeably dark.

Heart pounding, she reached for the wall, feeling as best she could for some kind of lightswitch. There was nothing there, but with one step, she felt a cord dangling from the ceiling as it tangled in her hair. Reaching up, she pulled it once, illuminating the room in gaudy light.

She recognized the room.

She didn’t recognize Jarvis.

The photos had been intended to shock and scare, but in truth, they hardly did justice to his present condition. Jarvis was still tied to the chair, hands pulled behind him and lanky legs secured to the wood. The rope around his chest was the only thing keeping him upright.

His clothing was in even worse shape than before. The pants were smudged with dirt and blood, and his jacket and vest were gone entirely. The once-white collared shirt was ripped open and rumpled now, and one sleeve was stiff with a rusty stain. The skin on his chest and stomach were livid with bruises -- they had clearly started to settle since the photographs had been taken -- and one of his shoulders seemed to be sitting unevenly with the other.

That was just what she could see. His face was dipped forward, nothing but a mess of hair visible in the bald light.

Standing frozen, her heart clenched in her chest as he roused. With obvious effort, his head lifted, tipping back for a moment before it almost lolled forward again. It was then Peggy could see that he’d been gagged as well, the thick white cloth cutting at the corners of his mouth even as he blinked his eyes blearily and looked up at Peggy.

It took him several seconds for his eyes to clear; several more before the hint of recognition dawned in them.

Peggy forced herself to swallow, reminding herself that this was why she was here. Not as a favor to Howard; not out of obligation to Jarvis himself.

But as a friend.

The smile on her face physically hurt her, but she maintained it anyway. “Well, then, Mr. Jarvis,” she said, as his expression shifted between relief and outright confusion. “I do believe it’s time to get you home.”

-o-

She removed the gag first, trying not to let her fingers tremble as she worked at the knot. It had been pulled tight almost cruelly, and she suppressed the desire to curse as her tugging jarred his head.

“Sorry,” she said instead. “Just a bit here--”

With that, it came loose, and she discarded it without hesitation. He audibly sighed, a shudder of relief shaking his entire body. “Miss Carter--” he said, the word breathless and garbled.

She was already working on his hands. “Easy now,” she soothed, pulling out a knife to make the process go a little faster. “It’ll just be a moment.”

He took another ragged breath, rolling his head back. “Miss Carter--”

With one rope sliced, she promptly made short work of the other, raising the knife to the binding around his chest. “But--” he said, pausing to swallow hard with a grimace. “What are you doing here?”

The shock, she had to think, was less about her ability and more that he simply hadn’t expected her to come. That, and he had spent the last few days bound and beaten. Shock was going to be expected.

With the rope on his chest loosened, she moved around back in front of him, bending lower to cut through the leg bindings. Still, she spared a moment to smile at him. “Retrieving one of Howard’s most valuable assets,” she said. “What do you think?”

A thin line of befuddlement showed between his knitted brows. “But--” he started again. “It’s too dangerous--”

At that, she made a visible display of rolling her eyes, discarding the last of the ropes. “I’ll pretend you didn’t say that,” she said, standing back up again. “Unless you’ve forgotten our previous antics together.”

He took a hitching breath. “Forgotten,” he said, almost surprised. “Miss Carter, I simply thought you would have learned--”

“That it’s important to be part of the team,” she said. When he showed no signs of getting to his feet, she bent down again, gently taking one of his arms and wrapping around her shoulder. “But we really should get moving, if we’re going to stick to the plan.”

He couldn’t fight her -- not even in full health -- but he still shook his head. “No, no--”

“Mr. Jarvis,” she said, trying to move them forward. “I assure you, this is perfectly okay. I’m working with Howard. We have it planned--”

His feet dragged, and he made a small pained sound. “No, Miss Carter--”

“We can talk about it later,” she said, trying to work out in her mind how she was going to carry him out while still fighting off any potential attackers.

“No,” he said, somewhat more vehemently now. It was an obvious effort for him to pull up short, planting his feet hard into the ground and raising his head to look her in the eyes. “You don’t understand.”

He must have been hurt worse than she’d thought. Head injury, maybe. Or just exhaustion and dehydration. Even the stress of the ordeal.

“The plan,” he said haltingly, even as he struggled to steady his own footing.

“Is to get you out of here,” she supplied for him, reaching out to take his arm again.

He shook his head. “The plan isn’t about me,” he said.

That wasn’t what she had expected. Not in the least.

With a gasping, hard breath, his face grew determined. “They didn’t take me for money,” he said, cradling his arm now. “They took me for him.

“Howard’s aware of the risks,” she said.

“They’re going to kill him, Miss Carter,” Jarvis said. “No negotiation; no pretenses. They don’t even care if I get out of here alive, as long as he doesn’t.”

She wanted to say it was a surprise, but it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. This thing had been personal, and she’d known it all along. She’d just been so set on saving one friend that she hadn’t fully accepted the possibility of losing another.

This was the tricky thing about friends, after all. That their lives mattered, even when sometimes their lives had to be negotiable.

“Why?” she said, almost demanding. “Why go through all this if killing Howard was all they wanted?”

Jarvis looked perplexed. “Didn’t he tell you?”

“He told me that Falsone wanted his technology,” she said.

Jarvis shook his head. “Falsone doesn’t care about the technology,” he said. “It’s his daughter.”

The color drained from Peggy’s face, and her stomach went cold. “This is about a girl?”

“To be fair, when isn’t it--”

“Mr. Jarvis!”

“Right,” he said, working to steady himself again. “Falsone’s daughter was quite infatuated with Mr. Stark. When her advances did not play out the way she hoped, she fell into a less reputable crowd.”

“Less reputable?” Peggy asked, sounding far more incredulous than she’d intended. “Than Howard?”

“I make no presumptions--”

Peggy rolled her eyes, reminding herself that time was not a luxury she had. “So how does that lead to Falsone wanting to murder Howard?”

“Well, that’s just it,” Jarvis said, his voice still wavering slightly. “After a year of pining, the girl completely lost her way. The scandal was endless until she jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m afraid. I remember, because I read about it in the papers. Such a horrible waste. Just six months ago.”

Six months. That was the timeframe for when Falsone infiltrated the cover company.

That was it, she realized with a horrible clarity. The missing piece to the puzzle that Howard had been keeping her from the start. He’d known all along why Falsone was after him. Maybe he’d been too embarrassed to admit it to Peggy. More than likely, he felt responsible.

To be true, Howard could be a heartless bastard from time to time. He knew how to make people fall in love with him, and he rarely put any effort into maintaining the relationship.

But this wasn’t his fault.

Not in the way Falsone was asking him to pay at any rate.

It explained the nature of the demands, the way Jarvis had been treated. It explained why Falsone was cutting ties and leaving the company out to dry. Falsone never cared about the money; he cared about familial retribution.

And that was why Howard had tried to keep her out of it at first.

More importantly, it was why he’d entrusted her with Jarvis first and foremost.

She looked at Jarvis again with new understanding.

“Can you walk?” she finally asked, scrutinizing him once more. Bruised and battered -- that was less than ideal. But upright and coherent -- she could work with that.

As if reading her mind, he drew himself taller with a sharp. professional nod.

“Good,” she said, turning toward the door. “Because the plan just changed.”

-o-

Peggy didn’t have much of a plan to start with, and this new improvised version was even more ad-hoc than ever. Even so, Jarvis fell into step with her seamlessly, hardly needing a word of guidance. Keeping close, he took her cues, and he needed no direction as he followed her lead.

He’d told her once that a good butler met needs before they were realized.

Well, as far as Peggy was concerned, he wasn’t just a damn good butler.

He was a good partner.

She’d never been inclined to admit it, not when they were working together. It had been easy to resent him sometimes; easier still to make him the scapegoat of her frustrations regarding the whole arrangements.

But, in retrospect, they’d been a well paired match.

The perfect partner in crime -- or justice, whichever the case may be.

Peggy could be a team player, and she’d developed a positive working relationship with Daniel and even Thompson. In the last month, she’d become a reliable member of the SSR, working side by side with any number of the agents. She appreciated their abilities, and she enjoyed the camaraderie.

All the same, it wasn’t like this.

Working with Jarvis wasn’t as simple and professional.

But it was better.

“By the way,” Jarvis whispered to her as they transferred the sedated men into Jarvis’ prison cell. “I appreciate the rescue.”

She cast him a glance, dropping the second man in an unceremonious heap. “Did you think I would leave you to it?”

“Honestly, I half hoped you would,” he said, leaning for a second against the wall. “I hate to be a bother.”

She wiped her hands on her skirt, catching her breath. “You of all people should know better.”

He smiled. “I might have hoped you would stay away for your own safety,” he said. “But I can’t say I’m surprised. Besides, I was afraid to think what Howard would do on his own.”

“That’s the beauty of teamwork, I suppose,” Jarvis said, wiping at a streak of dried blood on his cheek. “When someone’s throwing themselves on their sword, there are enough hands to stop them.”

In theory, at least. Peggy’s stomach churned. She could still hear the static on the radio when Steve’s plane disappeared from radar.

She’d came to save Jarvis.

But she wasn’t willing to sacrifice Howard in the process.

There had been enough of that.

This time, everyone went home.

She moved briskly back toward the door, assessing Jarvis one more time. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” she asked. “You could stay here--”

“And let you have all the fun?” Jarvis asked. “Miss Carter, I’m somewhat offended.”

“You’ve taken a serious beating,” she reminded him. She scoured his appearance again. “And you’re still favoring one arm.”

He shied away, wincing as she reached out to touch it. “It’s nothing broken or out of joint,” he said. “At least, not anymore.”

“You’re going to need a doctor,” Peggy said.

“And I promise, once we’re out of here, you can take me to one,” Jarvis said.

“I can’t have you slowing me down,” Peggy warned.

“And who’s to say this will be your fastest exit?” Jarvis countered. “Please, I may lack your prowess in the field, but I can’t sit here idly while you and Mr. Stark are in harm’s way. All I’ve been doing is sitting here, waiting.”

He wasn’t lying to her, and he had a point. She wasn’t inclined to let him out of her sight, anyway, not when she’d just managed to liberate him. No, if they were going to do this, they were going to do it together.

“Very well, Mr. Jarvis,” she said, handing him one of her extra guns. “But you better keep up.”

He pulled away from the wall, taking the gun with his good hand. “Miss Carter,” he said. “It would be my pleasure.”

-o-

Back in the hall, she moved silently and quickly, keeping her pace under control both to ensure Jarvis was still behind her and to prevent any noise from tipping off their approach. It appeared as though there were no additional men on this upper floor, which made this part of the rescue relatively easy.

Once they got downstairs, however, she knew it would be a different story.

Worse still, she had no idea what she was coming into. She’d been lucky upstairs; somehow she doubted that she would get that lucky downstairs. If the stairwell was enclosed, that might be something. If it opened up into the main area, well, then this might be the most ill-conceived rescue attempt ever.

Not the most ill-conceived, she forcibly reminded herself. Steve had gone alone into Nazi territory on the off chance that he might recover his childhood friend.

Moreover, he’d been successful.

If nothing else, this was exactly what he would do.

He would try.

Cautiously, Peggy pressed herself against the wall, putting a tentative hand on the doorknob. It was a good sign that there was a door, and she glanced back at Jarvis, who had pressed himself against the wall instinctively.

Either that, or he was using it to keep himself from falling over.

Peggy wasn’t sure at this point.

“Look,” she said. “When we get down there--”

His earnestness was matched only by his unequivocal comprehension. “It could go poorly,” he said. “Is that a fair assumption?”

“I don’t suppose you know what’s down there,” she said.

“As I was unconscious when they brought me here, I’m afraid I can’t be much help,” he said.

“No idea how many people he has working here?” Peggy asked.

“You’ve incapacitated as many as I’ve seen,” he said.

“And you’re sure you want to do this with me?” she asked.

“Miss Carter,” he said. “I would follow you anywhere.”

“That’s reassuring,” she said. “Somewhat terrifying, also, but we’ll go with reassuring.”

“Come on, then,” he said.

She turned back toward the door, muttering under her breath. “Come on.”

-o-

The stairs were enclosed, which was a stroke of luck Peggy was pretty sure they didn’t deserve. At the bottom, she leaned against the frame, listening as best she could. There wasn’t much to hear, a few muffled thumps and maybe the faintest trace of a voice, but nothing close.

Negotiations couldn’t be done yet, Peggy knew logically. Not without someone coming upstairs to retrieve Jarvis or simply declare an end to the proceedings.

This implied that there was likely no one active in their vicinity. At the very least, Falsone was dealing with Howard elsewhere.

Peggy glanced at her watch. It had only been twenty minutes since she’d broken in here. That didn’t seem so long for a rescue, but it would be a laborious hostage negotiation. Of course, given how much Falsone had invested in this, he probably didn’t want to hurry his pay off.

Behind her, Jarvis’ was close but she couldn’t fail to notice that he was listing somewhat, favoring one side more than the other. Even so, he didn’t complain. In fact, he didn’t make a sound, and Peggy didn’t doubt that was a wise choice. Without knowing what was on the other side of the door, surprise could work for them or against them.

She grasped the handle.

Luck had been with them so far.

She just hoped it wasn’t time for it to run out now.

-o-

Jarvis needed no instruction, and Peggy needed no invitation.

She opened the door sharply, pushing her way out with a strong bold move, leading with her gun. As she fanned out to the left, Jarvis limped to the other side.

They had to be an odd looking pair. A woman in a sundress and heels; a butler in blood-stained and bedraggled clothing. They would hardly be intimidating.

But then, she was used to people underestimating her. They rarely expected her skills or tenacity.

And she had learned not to underestimate Jarvis. Not so much for his skills, but for his unqualified loyalty.

All that aside, the posturing was for nothing because the landing was empty.

Peggy made a visual sweep, starting forward while Jarvis fell in step behind her.

The corridor went in both direction, and Peggy followed the one toward the back of the building, hoping that it would give her a bit more cover for whatever situation was about to unfold. The last thing she wanted to do was to walk in the middle of the negotiations without providing herself a little cover first.

The second to last thing she wanted to do was walk head-on into two guards.

She avoided the former, but there was no way around the latter. The duo turned the corner before Peggy had a chance to reach it, and the split second of confusion was pronounced on both sides.

One of the men had his gun up already, and Peggy realized quickly she’d never get a shot off first. Instead, she charged, taking the man’s hand and diverting it up, hoping against hope he wouldn’t have time to fire. Not for the danger of being shot -- not really. But a gunshot would be hard to cover up.

The man grunted, and Peggy kneed him as hard as she could in the gut, slamming her heel down onto his boot. She heard a muffled shot from behind her, and she could only hope that Jarvis’ vision had not been so badly impaired so as to throw off his aim substantially.

There was another wordless grunt, which was a promising sign.

Less promising was the falling figure of the second man, right into her.

It was all she could do not to yelp, turning too late to get out of the way. The unconscious form took her to the ground, and she struggled beneath the sizeable dead weight.

As she fumbled, she saw the movement as the other man stepped over her and headed straight toward Jarvis. She heard the sound of the gun clattering to the floor as Jarvis cried out, and the meaty thunk of flesh and flesh threatened to turn her stomach.

Jarvis was brave enough and he had some instincts in a fight, but he wasn’t trained for this. Moreover, he’d already been beaten enough in the last few days. This wasn’t the kind of rescue Peggy had intended to have.

And it wasn’t the rescue Peggy would settle for.

After all, she couldn’t do all those one-handed push-ups for nothing.

Sucking in a deep breath, she shoved the insensate man off of her, reaching for her gun as she got gracelessly to her feet. The man was on top of Jarvis, pinning him to the ground. As preoccupied as he was with pounding Jarvis’ in, he didn’t have time to react when Peggy came up behind him and pressed the gun to the back of his neck.

He stilled, hands hovering mid-air. She considered using the handcuffs for a more humane surrender, but she saw the cracked skin on his knuckles and decided that humanity would be lost here.

Instead, she pulled the trigger. The close range impact made him tense up and recoil, falling to the ground where he writhed for a moment before going still.

Heart still pounding, she looked toward Jarvis. “Are you okay?”

On the ground, Jarvis lifted his head. His nose was bleeding and there was a fresh cut on his lip. “I’ve been better, I believe.”

She reached out a hand, offering it to him. “Do you need to head back?”

Grimacing, he took the hand, letting her pull him up. He wobbled for a moment, but visibly forced himself to steady. “The job’s not done yet,” he said. “It wouldn’t be in your nature to quit.”

“I’m serious,” she started.

He looked at her. “And so am I.”

She gave him a short, resolute nod. “Okay,” she agreed, retrieving his gun and handing it back to him. “Stay close.”

-o-

The traversed the rest of the hallway with little difficulty, and Peggy considered their fortune that while Falsone appeared well planned, he was not overly well staffed. There also appeared to be no larger master plan. The building was mostly empty with nothing of value or interest whatsoever.

No, Falsone’s only purpose was truly Howard.

This made things easier.

And exponentially harder.

Because there were no more minor threats to deal with.

Just the biggest, most dangerous one of all.

At the end of the hallway, Peggy stopped at the door. “Okay,” she said, voice hushed as she looked back at Jarvis. “I’m just going to peep out there--”

“We do it together,” Jarvis said, almost without hesitation.

“This is just reconnaissance,” she said. “I’m literally just going to crack the door.”


“And what if they see you?”

“Then it will be very short reconnaissance,” Peggy said, trying to sound nonplussed.

“And that’s okay with you?”

“I don’t see how we have another option,” she argued.

He drew his brows together in what looked like painful consternation. “Just remember that we’re in this together, Miss Carter.”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “If I go off and do something stupid, you’re welcome to follow.”

He was moderately mollified. “I hope I don’t have to take you up on that.”

Peggy drew a breath, readying her gun. “Me, too.”

-o-

It was nearly impossible to position herself while still keeping her gun at the ready. She would have to sacrifice protection in order to attain the maximum stealth, a trade off she could only hope she wouldn’t regret.

She got low on the far side of the door, giving Jarvis a look of warning as she reached up to test the handle. It wasn’t locked, at least, but it made the faintest creaking noise as she turned it, causing her to wince.

Jarvis stiffened, but didn’t move, and Peggy took another breath before turning the handle just enough and pushing the door open.

At first, she barely held it open, no more than a crack just to see if anyone was watching -- or worse, was standing right behind it. When there was no obvious response, she steadied herself and pushed it open a little further.

Creeping forward, she repositioned herself until she had a view of the room on the other side of the door. At first, it was hard to make out what she was looking at -- walls and mostly empty shelving -- but the sound of a voice made her startle.

She nearly lost her grip on the door before she realized that the voice, though loud, wasn’t directed at her. Nor was it particularly close.

Quickly, she redirected her focus. She saw a pair of men not too far ahead of the door, and beyond that, a well-lit space. It was mostly empty, with barren concrete floors and a tall ceiling that gave extra breadth to every small thing.

And every large thing.

“Do you still think you’re so special? That the world is yours, to do with as you please?”

The voice was clear but accented, accentuated by snarled. It wasn’t hard to place with the unassuming figure in the center of the space, clad in a dapper suit and styled with slicked back hair.

Falsone. She could recognize him from the file, and it was safe to assume that his role as antagonist was unavoidable at this point.

“Because you think you are some kind of genius, that everyone should be so lucky just to meet you,” Falsone half-spits. “But you are nothing. What is success without a soul?”

With that, the man lashed out, growling as he kicked. One of the guards shifted, just enough to reveal the second figure, bound and on his knees.

Howard.

She was only afford a glimpse before Falsone finished the kick and stood back again, effectively blocking her line of vision to him. But what she’d seen hadn’t been promising. There had been a livid mark on his cheek, and there had been blood -- a broken nose, most probably -- among other things. Falsone had exacted a substantial beating on Jarvis over the last few days. He hadn’t apparently felt the need to take his time with Howard.

For a moment, all she could hear was the sound of Howard’s strained breathing before Falsone took to pacing again. “Do you have nothing to say for yourself?”

She caught a glimpse of Howard as she straightened. “I just came here for my butler.”

“Your butler?” Falsone asked, as if in disbelief. “You think you’re going to walk away with your butler?”

“I told you the money--”

“The money is nothing,” Falsone sneered. “What about my baby girl?”

That was what Jarvis had said, and apparently he’d been right about that much. This kidnapping wasn’t about monetary gain; it was a vendetta. Which explained why there was no getaway vehicle on the ready. In fact, besides Falsone there were only a handful of men in the warehouse. In addition to the two guarding the stairs, she made out two more near the front, all armed and waiting.

“I didn’t do anything to your daughter,” Howard said, or started to say before Falsone lashed out again, sending Howard to the floor in a heap. The sound of flesh on flesh reverberated loudly in the space, making it sound even more unsettling than it was.

That was probably part of the plan. The overall setting provided a secure location and the right ambiance.

It was perfect not for a ransom, but for a murder.

Falsone kneeled down, grabbing Howard by the hair and setting him on his knees again. “You did nothing to her?” he asked. “What about breaking her heart?”

Howard was taking gasping breaths, and Peggy saw blood trickle from his mouth. “I only met her once,” Howard said.

“But what about all the parties?” Falsone asked. “All the special invitations?”


“They went out to half the available women in the city,” Howard said. “I swear, I never had anything to do with that girl.”

“That’s right,” Falsone said. “You ignored her. You charmed her, and then you ignored her.”

Howard seemed to deflated. “I never meant to give her any impression that something was going to happen,” he said. “I had no idea. If I’d thought she’d go and -- if I’d know -- I had no idea.”

Falsone sat back on his heels, smiling. “That’s all right, my friend,” he said. “I understand. You see, I never meant to give you any impression that you would walk out of here with your friend. Or your life.”

With that Falsone stood up again, rubbing his knuckles together. “Your life will not pay for hers,” he said. “But maybe some of your pain and suffering will assuage my own.”

This time, when Falsone struck out, he didn’t stop. As the hits rained down, Peggy slid the door shut and closed her eyes, just for a moment.

“Well?” Jarvis asked, his voice a pressing whisper.

She looked up at him and willed herself to show some resolve. “He’s alive.”

“Obviously,” Jarvis said. “But I meant, I assume you can take them? You have a plan?”

Jarvis was so matter of fact, so to the point, that for a moment it caught her off guard.

Not that it should have.

Because, he was right. Beyond the emotions, beyond the fear, Peggy had a very clear sense of what she had to do and how she was going to do it.


That was the beauty of working with Jarvis, she rarely had to explain herself.

And she never had to doubt herself.

-o-

“So,” Peggy said with a curt nod. “The bad news is that there’s just one exit, so our options will be limited. The good news, however, is that there are also fairly few men. If we can stage a good initial assault, that should be all we need to secure Howard and make our escape.”

Jarvis nodded, brows knitted together. “How many is a few?”

“Four,” Peggy said. “Plus Falsone.”

“That’s five men,” Jarvis said.

Peggy nodded back at him. “Yes.”

“Five is more than a few,” he said.

“I think a few is a somewhat relative term,” Peggy said.

“But it makes a bit of difference when you’re talking about a full assault,” Jarvis said. “Howard is incapacitated to some degree, and I’m hardly in fit fighting form. The odds aren’t in our favor.”

“We’ve taken on worse,” Peggy said.

“And lost,” Jarvis pointed out. “You can’t take out five men by yourself and expect all of us to walk out of here unscathed.”

She huffed, although she didn’t have the audacity to contradict him. Five on one was doable when they were all equally armed and no one was being held at gunpoint. “I don’t see any other plans.”

“We don’t need another plan,” he said.

“Then what do we need, Mr. Jarvis?”

“A distraction,” he said.

She looked at him a full second before she allowed herself to comprehend his meaning. She started to shake her head. “I’m not sure--”

“Yes, you are,” he said. “You’re very sure. Your plan is everything it needs to be, and all it needs is a distraction.”

“It’s too dangerous,” she objected.

“If I let you go in there by yourself, you and Howard will end up dead,” he said. “Do you honestly think I can defend myself or make a sufficient escape without your assistance?”

Her frown deepened.

“Please, Miss Carter,” he said. “I trust that you can do this. So now you need to trust me as well.”

Trust.

What a novel and unsettling concept.

These were the risks she needed to take, however. The personal ones, the ones that didn’t just risk her career or her safety, but her heart and her soul. If Peggy was going to make it as part of a team, then she had to be part of the team.

In retrospect, it would have been easier to just ask Sousa out on that damn date, but there was no time to think about.

She drew a terse breath. “Fine,” she said. “What sort of distraction did you have in mind?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, forcing a smile on his bruised face. “Just playing to my strengths.”

She arched her eyebrows. “With all due respect, I’m a little surprised you’re still walking so I’m not sure what strengths you’re referring to.”

He got shakily to his feet, nodding one last time. “Exactly.”

-o-

It was the best solution, and Peggy knew that. Although they had the element of surprise and she was very good at this kind of thing, the odds were badly stacked against them. A distraction would be the best way to ensure that everyone left safely.

That was the theory, anyway.

Watching Jarvis limp out the door was much harder in reality.

He’d given her his gun, and she could only conclude that the listing was only moderately exaggerated. He looked horrible, and without any pretense of bravery in front of her, he looked like a wounded puppy being sent into a lion’s den.

If this went poorly, she would never forgive herself.

It was too late to second guess that now. Silently, she pressed herself against the wall to the side of the door, poised to strike if necessary and poised to move when the opportunity presented itself. Willing her heart to stay calm, she listened through the wall.

“Please,” she heard Jarvis say, with an affected slur. “I don’t know what happened--”

There was a shout and a shuffling of feet. Falsone barked out orders, and she could hear the people in the room shift.

“I don’t understand,” Jarvis said, voice rising with what sounded like dismay. “What happened?”

In all honesty, he wasn’t that good of an actor, but the intention was clear. If he acted weak, confused, delusional and helpless, he wouldn’t be treated as a threat. Instead, he would be neutralized -- as gently as possible, Peggy could hope -- while Falsone redirected his men to assess what had actually happened.

This meant that the guards were preoccupied -- one or two with Jarvis and at least one other to explore the situation further -- and Falsone would be distracted.

This was it, Peggy concluded, tensing herself as the door opened.

This was it.

-o-

The first man never sees it coming. He comes through the door, but he doesn’t have a chance to get his bearings before Peggy whips her gun across his face and then uses a heel to his gut to send him sprawling to the floor lifelessly.

Common sense would dictate that she should be nervous, but any reservations would probably get her killed. Instead, she came out firing, and managed to nick one of the goons half-carrying Jarvis before he had a chance to realize they’d been infiltrated on this level.

The second man dealing with Jarvis had his gun up, but Jarvis chose that moment to flop entirely bonelessly to the floor. The man stumbled with the sudden weight, and it was the opening Peggy needed to hit him square in the chest with another shot.

Feeling encouraged, she turned to fire again, but this time it was a moving target. This fourth guard had been across the room, and without any time to square up a steady shot, this one goes wide. Before she had a chance to take a second shot, she had to dive forward to avoid one aimed at her.

The bullet pinged off the cement wall behind her, and she soberly reminded herself that not everyone was hoping to minimize casualties in this mess.

All the same, she’d dealt with worse odds before.

Besides, this was beginning to annoy her. Her concern for the relative safety of all those involved was diminished rapidly. Now, she just wanted to get this job done.

Surging forward, she charged the man, using her boldness to throw him off kilter. She hit him square in the chest, deflecting his gun away and bowling him over like a felled pin at the end of an alley. She followed up quickly, bringing her own gun to bear and steadying herself for a shot.

A shot she never got to take.

The man rolled, swiping her legs out from under her.

She hit the ground hard on her back, and before she could move to defend herself, the man kicked her gun away. He moves to mount her -- a position that would be far too precarious for her -- so she brought her knee up hard toward his groin.

It wasn’t a direct hit, but given the anatomy, it didn’t have to be. He oofed audibly, and she scrambled to her feet, getting off another kick to his head that sent him hard to the ground.

He was obviously trained for combat, however. Before she could capitalize on her position, he lunged at her. From his position on the floor, the movement lacked true force, but it was still enough to bring them both down again.

Sensing the danger -- not from the force, but from the position -- Peggy turned hard, throwing him down as she twisted mid-air, letting him not only take the brunt of the fall but allowing her to end up on top. It wasn’t a stable position, and she worked to move up his torso to gain better control, but she reflected dimly, there really wasn’t time for this.

Not when she looked up and saw Falsone pointing a gun at Howard’s head.

Yes, Falsone wanted the production, but he wasn’t an idiot. Revenge was the bottom line, and he wasn’t going to go through all this to end up without Howard’s bloody corpse to compensate him for his trouble and his grief.

It was possible to lose the battle and still win the war, after all.

Peggy wanted to win the war, though.

She needed to win the damn war.

But she was too far away.

There was no way for her to stop the shot.

No way for her to do anything but stand there and watch it happen.

She had forgotten, though, that she wasn’t the only person here.

It wasn’t a particularly graceful lunge, nor was it overly well planned, but Peggy couldn’t deny that Jarvis’ flat footed attack on Falsone was primarily effective. The gunshot went wide, and they fell together, landing in a tangle on the floor.

It didn’t solve the problem, but it certainly did buy her a little bit of time.

That was all she was going to need.

Thus reassured, she turned her attention to the man beneath her. He was twisting, trying to bring his gun up. She pounced, slamming his hand to the ground once, twice -- until the gun skittered from his grasp. In a fluid motion, she picked it up, but instead of bringing it to bear on the man, she whipped it hard against his face, breaking open the skin and leaving him prone and defenseless on the ground.

It had only taken a moment.

A moment too long.

She was nearly on her feet when the gunshot split the air.

Frantic, she brought her gun up, aiming it to where Falsone was still locked with Jarvis.

Then, Falsone staggered, stepping back from the scuffle, gun limp in his grip. As he moved to the side, Jarvis came into view, face white with shock as he looked down.

Before he fell to his knees, fingers touching the growing spot of red on his already ruined shirt.

Regaining his footing, Falsone snarled. “Now you will know,” he growled, raising the gun toward Jarvis again. “How it feels to see a life so pointlessly taken.”

From his position on the floor, Howard yelled.

From her position across the room, Peggy fired.

The sound of the gunshot reverberated, echoing off the lofty ceiling as Falsone crumpled to the ground.

Jarvis fell a beat later.

And Peggy was the only one standing.

She had been here before, hadn’t she? In a war when good men went home in boxes and the best never came back at all. Peggy had survived. With tenacity and determination and the inexplicable curse of living.

This couldn’t be the story of her life.

She would not outlive everyone she cared about.

Not this time.

Her chest was tight as she forced herself to move, stopping by Howard first. The knots tying his hands together were better than she had expected, and she could see that the ropes were carefully tied around his legs as well. Her fingers were shaking as she pulled out her knife, slicing through them as fast as she could.

She didn’t even have a chance to pull them all the way free when Howard was on his feet, crossing the distance. He stepped over Falsone, hitting his knees next to Jarvis.

“Come on, come on,” Howard muttered, shrugging out of his jacket. “Come on!”

Numbly, Peggy followed him, sparing a moment to kick the gun away from Falsone. She was surprised to find the man looking up at her, mouth gaping as he struggled for air.

“Every life is pointlessly taken,” she said, training her gun on him. “But not every life is needlessly taken. Don’t give me a reason to finish this.”

Falsone took another sucking breath, his head dipping to the side toward Howard and Jarvis. “She was...my daughter,” he gasped.

Peggy stood her ground, unwavering. “And they are my friends.”

He looked back at her, eyes wide and desperate.

“Revenge doesn’t bring back the dead, Mr. Falsone. Neither does justice,” she told him. “Only time, and even then, you have to start by letting go.”

He took another heaving, raspy breath.

Before he closed his eyes and fell into stillness.