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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Agent Carter fic: Team Player (8/8)

December 10th, 2015 (12:13 pm)
uncomfortable

feeling: uncomfortable

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



-o-

Peggy had fought enough fights to know how hollow victory could feel sometimes. She knew the silence of winning; she knew the emptiness of triumph. Because no fight worth fighting could be won without a cost.

And it never seemed fair. That good men had to die. That innocent people got caught in the crossfire. That she could do everything right and never guarantee the outcome.

She nestled back in her chair, letting out an even breath as her eyes flicked from Jarvis’ still form to Howard’s pensive one. He was situated in a chair on the other side of the hospital bed, eyes intent on his butler. It seemed a little silly, honestly, that she should sit here for an unconscious man.

But she wasn’t just here for Jarvis.

And that was more than reason enough not to leave.

-o-

She was stiff by morning, and she made an exaggerated show of sitting up as the sunlight filtered through the slat blinds. The hours had been quiet, interrupted only by regular checks from Howard’s private medical staff. Their reports were vague but reassuring, and when Howard was too terse to think otherwise, she remembered to thank them for their work in saving Jarvis’ life.

Smoothing out her skirt, she drew a breath. “You need to go eat something.”

Howard didn’t turn his gaze toward her, but his scowl deepened. “I’m fine.”

She pursed her lips. “You look horrible.”

“Jarvis--”

“Would be the first one to insist that you take care of yourself,” she said. “Or worse, do it for you.”

That was something he couldn’t deny, but Howard still shook his head. “I can’t leave him.”

“You’re not,” she said. “You’re leaving him with me.”

Howard glanced at her, almost tentative, something wavering in his expression.

“Besides,” she said. “There are other matters I believe that need your attention.”

At that, Howard slumps back into his chair. “The SSR investigation can wait,” he muttered. “And so can Stark Industries.”

“I was referring to Anna,” she said. “You may be able to cover up a kidnapping, but I have a feeling she may notice the bruises and scars at some point.”

Howard’s face paled somewhat. “You know better than to avoid things like that too long,” she said. “Isn’t that the lesson in all this? To take nothing for granted?”

“Friendship,” Howard corrected her with a grimace. “And trust and working together.”

“So call Anna for Jarvis,” Peggy said.

Grunting, Howard started to lever himself out of the seat. “Only for Jarvis,” he said. “Because telling Anna that her husband was injured is going to be me in peril.”

“Oh, please,” Peggy said, swatting the air dismissively.

Howard raised his eyebrows. “You haven’t really met her, remember?”

Her cheeks reddened a bit, and she forced herself to smile. “All the same,” she said. “You attend to that, and I’ll stay here and make sure everything is okay.”

On his feet now, Howard hesitated.

“Howard, please,” she said. “Let me do this for you -- and for Mr. Jarvis.”

Finally, Howard nodded. “I can always count on you, Peg,” he said, sounding truly grateful as he made his way to the door.

This time, her smile wasn’t forced. “Good,” she said, calling softly after him. “Let’s not forget it again, shall we?”

-o-

The grand gestures aside, Peggy still felt rather useless holding a bedside vigil. In her mind, this part should have been easier. It was a palpable thing, to sit there and watch over Jarvis. It was better than being in the waiting room, thinking of the worst. It was better than a dead radio line and a plane she would probably never find.

In that light, it was better than a lot of things.

That still didn’t make it good.

It was a funny thing in life to measure success by the absence of death and misery.

Yet, sometimes, in her line of work, that was really all she had. She could not let herself forget, after all, just how close they had come to a total disaster in this regard. Jarvis almost died in everything, and she would be foolish to forget that now.

All that considered, she missed Angie. Just because Jarvis was alive didn’t mean he was particularly good company at the moment. Not that Peggy was holding that against him -- certainly not -- but watching the even rhythm of his inhalation wasn’t nearly as comforting as she might want.

Nor was it very riveting.

With Howard gone to take care of things, Peggy found the minutes to be long. Angie had stopped by a few hours prior, enough to wish Jarvis the best before taking off for her shift at the diner. Angie had offered to stay, but Peggy had declined. She had already imposed upon Angie more than she should have, and friendship, as Peggy was beginning to grasp it, was a balance of give and take.

Even so, she would have liked the company. She thought Jarvis would have appreciated it as well. When he was awake, she’d arrange to have Angie stop by. Mr. Fancypants wasn’t exactly a term of endearment, but Peggy thought it had potential.

If only Jarvis would wake up.

The doctors had not given any clear indication as to when he might wake up, and she found them to be somewhat less helpful without Howard around to coddle. It didn’t really matter though, because she knew that medicine was not a hard and fast science. Doctors couldn’t make guarantees on their work, and it was frustrating to accept that no news was good news for the time being.

It made her wish Howard would hurry up. She had meant what she told him -- he needed to take care of himself and his other business -- but she could use someone by her side. Not for her own personal comfort, necessarily, but to give her someone to comfort as well.

She needed a mission. She needed a task. She needed something.

At this point, she would settle for Daniel showing up with SSR paperwork -- anything to make the tedious hours pass just a little faster.

Because every idle second was a reminder of her own limitations. Every passing moment was a testament to all she had failed to do. The ongoing pull of the hours was a steadfast statement regarding the fact that Peggy Carter was part of a team.

A mismatched, unlikely team. With a billionaire, an actress, an agent and a butler, Peggy knew this wasn’t the Howling Commandos. But that wasn’t actually the point.

She sighed, smiling at Jarvis’ still form on the bed. “Important missions aren’t just the ones that save the world,” she said. “Which is why you’re just as ready to serve the tea as you are to drive the getaway car.”

And she missed that. Honestly, she missed it a lot. She missed his impossible loyalty and his inability to walk away even when she tries too hard to cut him out. She missed his willingness to help, even when he was far beyond his field of experience. Angie made her laugh; Howard made her act; Daniel offered backup.

Jarvis, though.

He’d offered her the steadfast faith and support she’d needed.

She missed that.

She missed him.

And to think, he’d been there all along.

It took bravery to do her job, to stand in the face of danger without flinching.

It just took common friendship, however, to be there for a friend. That was what Jarvis had always been exceptional at. He wasn’t the greatest spy, and he wasn’t a brilliant strategist under pressure. He wasn’t adept with violence, and he was far too prone to panic. But he was good at the little things, minding the details even when they were inconvenient. People so often thought that heroism was grand gestures, but it was also visible in the little things most people refuse to do.

It took courage to go down with the plane.

It also took courage to stand by a friend, especially when they kept trying to push you away.

Peggy would do the former, no questions asked.

Now she needed to challenge herself to do the latter.

“You really are terrible in the field,” she told him frankly. Then she smiled wearily. “But you are one of the best friends I have ever had.”

He slept on, chest rising and falling.

She couldn’t lose that now.

She settled back, resolute.

She wouldn’t.

-o-

By the time Howard came back, Peggy was nearly beside herself. She did her best not to look relieved, and fortunately, Howard was far too concerned with Jarvis to notice her emotions at all.

“Any change?” he asked.

Peggy sat up, shaking her head. “Still holding steady.”

Howard didn’t appear appeased by that answer. “I’ll have to talk to those doctors again,” he muttered, studying his butler for a moment. He finally stole a glance at Peggy. “You look like hell.”

“Well,” Peggy said, running a finger through her mussed hair. “Not all of us have had time to freshen up.”

Howard did, indeed, look fresh. Shaven and showered, his hair was slicked back and his shirt was crisp.

“Everything okay?” she ventured.

“Yeah,” he said with a shrug of his shoulder. “I got a few things done, but most of it can wait. Your friends at the SSR are quite anxious for me to come down and make a formal statement.”

“I’m sure Agent Thompson can be persuaded to wait,” she mused.

“Agent Thompson is the least of my concerns,” Howard replied.

Peggy nodded for a moment. “And Anna?”

Howard settled heavily in his chair again, resuming his post as if he’d never left. “On her way,” he reported. “So Jarvis better survive this. If he doesn’t, Anna is going to kill me.”

“Now that is an image,” Peggy said with a bemused smile.

“Hey,” Howard warned. “Just wait until you spend some time with her. She’s the sweetest woman in the entire world, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to protect what’s hers.”

“I imagine you could hold your own just fine,” Peggy said.

“I wouldn’t want to take that chance,” Howard said. “You know, she’s a lot like you in some ways. I think you two would like each other.”

Peggy almost choked on a laugh. Just what she needed -- another friend.

Her gaze lingered on Jarvis again. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

“It’d make him happy, you know,” Howard said, nodding toward Jarvis.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t use his near death experience to your benefit.”

“What benefit? I’m trying to help you!”

“Yes, well,” Peggy said. “Why don’t you help Mr. Jarvis and go find a doctor?”

“Only if you promise to go get yourself changed,” he said.

“I’m fine--”

Howard stopped her with a look.

Peggy gathered a breath and flattened her lips into a smile. “Fine,” she said. “You take care of Mr. Jarvis for the time being; I’ll take some time for myself.”

Howard sat back, almost beaming.

Shaking her head, Peggy got to her feet. “Being a good friend is supposed to be altruistic,” she reminded him. “And you look far too proud.”

He shrugged grandly. “What can I say? I’m ready to add “trusted friend” to my growing list of accomplishments.”

“Honestly, that sounds far less impressive when you say it.”

He made a face. “You may be right.”

She nodded, wrinkling her nose.

“Tone it back?”

“Just a notch,” she advised, patting his shoulder on the way out the door.

“Hey, Peg,” he called.

She turned back toward him.

“Thanks,” he said, inclining his head toward Jarvis. “For everything.”

He was a pain in the neck; he was difficult, conceited and impossible.

He was also her friend.

She nodded back to him, pausing for just another minute more. “Any time.”

-o-

At the nurse’s station, she called for a cab. The ride back to the house probably wasn’t long, but it seemed to go even faster when she closed her eyes to rest.

She woke up to the sound of the cabby, asking if this was it.

“What?” she asked, groggily trying to collect herself. She didn’t have her purse, but there was still some money tucked into her shoe, which was more than enough to pay the fare. She thanked the driver warily before climbing out of the car.

She sighed.

New York had never felt much like home. To be fair, though, neither had London. She had dreamed of a flat there at one time, or maybe an apartment in Brooklyn, but those dreams were cold and frozen in the future she would never live.

This, though.

This was home.

Howard’s house. The house she shared with Angie. The house under Jarvis’ purview.

Home.

She could do without the four sturdy walls and ample accommodations inside, but the people were non-negotiables.

That was home.

And nothing had ever looked so good.


-o-

When she got to the bathroom, it was plain just what a toll the last few days had taken on her. To call herself unkempt would be putting it mildly. Her hair was askew and frizzy, and her makeup was entirely faded. The airy dress was badly stained and rumpled, and her shoes were in a terrible need of a polish.

She had left looking like a lady.

She arrived back looking like the walking wounded.

That was hardly the point, though.

The point was that she was still standing, and that was more than some people could say after the last few days. Besides, Peggy knew that most fights weren’t won by brute strength alone. Many times, tenacity was just as important -- if not more so. The dogged need not to quite was worth more than any one of Howard’s weapons.

After everything, she hadn’t quit yet.

She didn’t intend on starting now.

-o-

The shower was hot, and she let her hair air dry as she got dressed. She didn’t have the energy to make herself breakfast, but she poured herself a glass of juice before checking in with Daniel.

“Hey,” he answered, sounding surprised. “I figured you’d still be at the hospital.”

“I left Howard there while I cleaned up a bit,” she said. “Still no change, but that’s mostly a good thing.”


“Well, we’ve had lots of news,” Daniel told her. “Seriously, Peg, Falsone’s entire operation is collapsing. We’ve got people confessing to everything around here. We’re closing cases we didn’t even know we had to open.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s...wonderful.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said. “I’ll be up to my neck in paperwork for weeks.”

Peggy flattened her lips. “I can probably swing by later today to start helping out.”

“What?” Daniel asked. “What about your butler friend?”

“Well, he is unconscious--”

“Peggy--”

“I just don’t want you to feel like I’ve left you all alone with this,” she said.

He grunted. “Now you start worrying about that.”

“Daniel, that’s exactly what I mean,” she started.

He sighed. “And this is exactly what I mean,” he said. “I’m volunteering, remember?”

“You don’t even like Howard Stark,” she said. “And you couldn’t care less about his butler.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “But you do. And if they’ve got you as a friend, then that must be something in their favor.”

Her heart thudded in her chest, and her throat was too tight to speak.

“I trusted you, and now it’s time for you to trust me,” he said.

“Should I remind you how poorly I handle your trust?” she said.

“No,” he chuckled. “But maybe you should just work from my example this time around.”

It was a kind offer, but unlike before, this wasn’t steeped in chivalry. At least, she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt this time around.

“Well, then,” she said. “I suppose I’ll talk to you later?”

“You better count on it,” he said before disconnecting the line.

Chewing her lip, she reluctantly put the phone back on the hook.

It might take a little work, but she could bring herself to count on that.

-o-

There were plenty of reasons to eat out for breakfast: the house was a mess, Peggy was exhausted, and she was a terrible cook.

But mostly she wanted to see Angie.

Settling down at her familiar booth in the diner, she saw Angie smile brightly at her from behind the counter.

Now, if only Jarvis were here, the tableau would be complete.

Stil, Peggy would settle for a hot cup of coffee and Angie’s company in the meantime.

“Hey!” Angie said, pouring her a cup of coffee. “I didn’t expect you. How is Mr. -- uh, Jarvis?”

Peggy’s own smile faltered. “The same,” she said. “When Howard got back, there had been no change, so I took a little time to get myself back together.”

Angie frowned sympathetically. “Well, he’s still alive after being shot and all,” she said. “So that’s good.”

“It is good,” Peggy agreed, trying to sound optimistic. “The doctors really believe that no news is good news at this point.”

“And he’ll wake up soon, be talking and all,” Angie told her. “You’ll see.”

Peggy smiled gratefully. “I hope so.”

Glancing at the kitchen, Angie took out her notebook, tapping her eraser on it absently in a clear ploy to look busy. “If there’s anything I can do--”

“My usual breakfast will be fine, thank you,” Peggy said.

“I meant about the butler,” Angie replied. “If you need some company down there later or something, or I could bring you dinner--”

“Angie, you’ve done enough,” Peggy said.

“Hey,” she replied, scribbling down the order. “For you? There’s never enough to give, okay? Don’t forget that.”

Peggy inhaled, her chest so tight she thought it might burst. “I’ll do my best.”

Angie tucked her notepad back into her apron with a wink. “Your best is always enough.”

She watched as Angie made her way back to the kitchen, stopping to clear another table as she went, collecting a meager tip. Angie was too good for a job like this; Angie was too good for someone like her. It was a friendship she’d never once earned, and she found herself wondering how she’d ever considered leaving it behind.

The best way to protect people wasn’t to cut them out of your life.

It was to keep them closer than ever.

That came with risks, most certainly, but as Peggy tracked Angie back to the kitchen, she decided that it was an acceptable risk.

In fact, it would probably be the best damn risk she ever took.

-o-

After a shower and a warm breakfast, Peggy felt much better prepared to face the day. To be sure, she was still sleep deprived and overly anxious, but she was used to starting things at a total disadvantage.

All that aside, her confidence flagged badly back at the hospital. Talking to Angie and Daniel could buoy her spirits, but all her hopes for renewed friendships still hinged on the fact that Jarvis was still in peril. His nagging had started her on this path so many months ago, and his subsequent kidnapping had been the necessary catalyst to push her to this point.

She would sacrifice no one, and she would make amends with each person she cared about in the appropriate way.

Which meant, very simply, Jarvis had to be okay. She didn’t know if she could open herself up with a second loss.

She was nearly to the room when she stopped short at the sight of Howard in the hallway. He was pacing, head ducked and fingers rubbing anxiously against his forehead. He was worried; he was scared.

As if sensing her, he looked up. His eyes widened when he saw her. “Peg,” he said.

“What happened?” she demanded.

“There’s been a change,” he started, and Peggy’s stomach sank.

No news was good news.

Which meant--

She shook her head. “No--”

His eyes widened again. “What? No--”

“Then what?” she demanded again, more harshly this time.

“He’s awake,” Howard said, emphasizing the word with added inflection. “He’s awake and the doctor’s in there with him now.”

Peggy’s brow furrowed. “And he’s--”

“Okay,” Howard told her, almost laughing with disbelief. “He’s been kidnapped, beaten and shot, but he’s okay.

Peggy heard him, and on some level she probably even understood him. But she had been working so hard to keep all this together, to put all the pieces of her life in harmony, that she hardly knew what to make of it. Maybe it was because she was so braced for failure after Steve’s death; maybe it was because she’d kept people at bay for so long. Maybe her innate independence was a habit that was just too hard to shake.

Maybe it was because it was easier to handle an actual problem than face the uncertainties of the future together.

Maybe she didn’t believe in happy endings anymore.

Even when they were falling into her lap.

Honestly, it was its own kind of terrifying.

Fortunately, Peggy believed wholeheartedly in facing her fears.

She nodded, a smile widening across her face. “Then what are doing out here then?”

Howard turned sheepish. “The doctor sort of kicked me out,” he said. “Something about being a distraction.”

Peggy rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she said, moving toward the door. “It’s not like we’ve ever let something like that stop us before.”

-o-

Peggy put on her most disarming smile when she enters the room and was amply reward when the doctor gave her a friendly nod. He looked less pleased as Howard crept in behind her, but she refuse to let that stop her.

Because, on the bed, propped up by pillows was Jarvis.

He still looked horrible -- there could be no denying that -- but amid the bruises and cuts, he was awake.

It was a moment of sheer giddiness, to actually accomplish her task. She’d set out to save her friends, and while none of it had gone exactly as planned, here they all were.

Battered, bothered but breathing.

“I’m Peggy Carter,” she said, extending her hand to the doctor. “A friend of Mr. Jarvis.”

The doctor straightened, taking her hand in return with a shake. “Mr. Stark said to expect you,” he said. “You were put on the list of approved visitors. Which is fortunate for him, since he has almost been bumped from the list.”

Howard shifted on his feet, rocking back. “I’m just making sure you’re doing the very best for my butler, is all.”

“As am I,” the doctor told him sternly. “And you may be the richest man in New York--”

“And the entire United States,” Howard interjected.

“But I am the only one here with an actual medical degree,” he said. “So in the future, I would appreciate it if you didn’t try to second guess my work since your inventions are designed to kill and not heal.”

Howard had no response to that, cheeks reddening.

“Anyway,” Peggy said with forced cheer. “How is our patient, then?”

At that, the doctor looked back to Jarvis, almost proudly. “Surprisingly well, I’d say,” he said with a nod.

From his spot on the bed, Jarvis managed a half hearted smile.

“We’ll have to watch him closely, though,” the doctor warned. “He’s going to be weak for quite some time, and that head injury could cause some disorientation for a few weeks. And we’ll need to keep those wounds clean and carefully monitor him at all times for infection until he’s well healed.”

It was a heartening report, if Peggy had to say.

Jarvis however, looked less pleased. “As I have already explained,” he rasped tiredly. “I know perfectly well how to properly manage a wound.”

This much Peggy knew first hand. “To be fair,” Peggy said diplomatically. “It is a bit different when it is your own.”

Drawing his arms sulkily across his chest, Jarvis huffed weakly. “The general principles still apply.”

The doctor cleared his throat, looking at Jarvis down his nose. “All the same,” he said sternly. “You will need plenty of rest. The quality of your recovery cannot be rushed.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him,” Howard promised.

The doctor cast Howard a skeptical look.

“We’ll take care of him,” Peggy amended with a polite smile. “Surely it is a two-person job.”

This seemed to assuage the doctor’s rightful concerns. Jarvis was going to need time, and Howard was not exactly known for his ability to manage downtime without, well, complete and total chaos.

With a nod to Peggy, the doctor looked firmly back at Jarvis. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said. “Don’t go messing up my hard work.”

Jarvis managed a weak smile, which was gone as soon as the doctor left the room.

As relieved as Peggy was to be in the company of two people she cared about, she quickly realized she had no idea what to say to them. Congratulations on not dying seemed rather flippant, but a simple how are you feeling didn’t seem to quite capture the moment.

Even Howard, who was typically unflappable, seemed overcome by the unspoken relief between them. It was one thing to wax poetic when one’s friend lingered near death. It was quite another to tell them that after they woke up.

Where words failed Peggy and Howard in the aftermath, Jarvis seemed willing to step up. “Since both of you are here,” he began with a weak cough into his hand. “Can I safely assume that everything else is taken care of?”

It was so to the point that Peggy realized she actually had no idea what he was talking about.

Howard made a face. “Everything else?” he asked. “Hate to break it to you, buddy, but all we’ve been worried about for the last few days is you.”

“That’s touching, really,” he said. “But I assume you haven’t forgotten the kidnappers in all of this?”

“Oh,” Howard said. “Well, yeah.”

Peggy leaned forward with a sympathetic smile. “The SSR is controlling the situation now,” she explained. “Falsone won’t be a problem for you or Howard. Or anyone else, ever again.”

Jarvis drew a tired breath, seeming to slump a little further back into his pillows. “It’s a pity, really.”

Peggy lifted her brows, but Howard scoffed outright. “A pity? The only pity is that he’s still breathing,” Howard intoned. “The maniac tried to kill us.”

“Yes, I am aware of that with painful clarity,” Jarvis said. “But that is the pity. That revenge can make you someone you don’t intend to be, almost without realizing it.”

“He shut himself off, from what I can tell,” Peggy said. “When his daughter died, he turned himself off to the rest of his family.”

“And that was his first and biggest mistake,” Jarvis said. “We all need people around us in our times of need, especially after losses.”

He wasn’t just talking about Falsone. It was what he had told Peggy from the start of their relationship; the one, painful truth she’d been fighting against since Steve’s disappearance over the arctic.

Love came with risks. So did isolation. The critical difference was that the risk of love was worth it.

Howard leaned forward, patting Jarvis on the leg. “Which is why we’ll be here for you. Whatever you need.”

Shifting sleepily, Jarvis blink drooping eyelids. “I imagine I mostly need a lot of sleep,” he mused. “Though a nice cup of tea might be nice.”

Peggy offered him a sympathetic smile. “Probably no tea just yet, not so soon after surgery.”

Distressed, Jarvis knitted his brows together.

“But I’ll talk to the doctor about an ETA on that,” Howard said.

Sighing, Jarvis gave a small, weary shrug. “I suppose that’s better than being beaten and tied to a chair,” he said. “I am afraid that I’ll have to miss a few more days of work.”

“A few?” Howard said with a scoff. “Jarvis, you’re going to miss more than a few. You heard the doctor.”

“I am sore and tired, but I feel mostly fine,” Jarvis protested.

“You’ve been shot,” Howard insisted.

Drawing a breath of exasperation, Jarvis looked positively vexed now. “So everyone keeps telling me!”

Gently, Peggy interjected herself back into the conversation. “What Howard is trying to say is that you’ve earned a bit of time off.”

The ire dissipated from his expression, but his concern was ever more prominent. “I shudder to think the state of things without me so far.”

“Well, don’t,” Peggy said. “We’ll take care of it.”

At the suggestion, Jarvis cast her with a skeptical eye. “I’ve seen your housekeeping skills, Miss Carter,” he said. “You can beat out Mr. Stark, but only because he is not capable of taking care of himself, much less a household.”

“Hey, I can take care of things,” Howard said. Then he shifted, a little embarrassed. “I just don’t have to most of the time.”

“And you are missing the point,” Peggy said. “What was it you just said? About not shutting out the people you care about in your times of need?”

Pale and tired as he was, Jarvis still reddened.

Peggy was right, because it was a lesson she had learned the long and hard way.

“Besides,” Howard said, sitting back again. “You’re overdue for a vacation.”

“I’ve never had a vacation, sir,” Jarvis reminded him.

“Well, there you go,” Howard said. “Once you get out of here, I’ll send you and Anna on a trip. Just the two of you.”

Yawning, Jarvis arranged himself a bit more carefully. “I don’t know whether to be relieved or terrified,” he admitted. “The mischief you two could get into without me around…”

“This time we won’t have to find now, will we?” Peggy asked. “Because you’re fine.”

She glanced toward Howard with a warm smile and put a reassuring hand on Jarvis’ wrist.

“We’re all fine.”

-o-

Back in the hallway, Howard shut the door quietly behind them before turning to Peggy with a grin. “We did it,” he said. “We actually did it.”

Peggy chuckled. “We did,” she agreed. “But we cut it closer than I would have liked.”

“I should have come to you from the beginning,” Howard continued without heed. “The three of us, we make a good team, don’t we?”

“I would like to lecture you about taking too many risks and the perils of overconfidence,” Peggy lamented, but she glanced surreptitiously at the hospital room door. “But we do make a pretty good team.”

Howard rocked on his heels, chewing his lip. “Just imagine what we could do if we didn’t wait until such dire circumstance,” he said. “I could use you, you know. At Stark Industries.”

“Is that actually a job offer?” Peggy asked.

“Why not?”

“If you haven’t noticed, I have a job,” she reminded him.

“I can double what they pay you,” Howard said.

“It’s not about the money.”

“And I can make you a boss,” Howard offered. “No orders from anyone.”

She sighed. “It is a lovely offer, Howard. But I can’t be your colleague.”

His optimism faded.

She smiled. “For now, I can only be your friend,” she concluded.

His expression lifted again.

“Besides,” she told him. “A genius, an agent and a butler. We each bring our own special skills to the table, and are better for it.”

“Throw in a waitress, and things are looking even better,” Howard quipped salaciously.

“Hands off,” Peggy warned with a smirk. “The waitress is mine.”

Howard lifted his hands to feign his innocence.

“Now, I would stay, but I really should check in with work,” she continued.

“Anna will be here soon, so I think we’ve got it from here,” Howard replied.

She hesitated. “If you need anything--”

Howard grinned. “You’ll be the first person I call.”

-o-

As much as Peggy might have wanted to stay, she knew she had abused the good graces of her colleagues at the SSR enough. Although she had technically done the entire agency a favor through her actions -- again -- she knew that trust wasn’t something to take likely. Respect didn’t mean anything if they didn’t think they could count on her.

And Peggy wanted them to count on her. She could be the lone wolf, so to speak, and she could be it quite successfully. But her job was more gratifying when she was part of a team.

She was also more effective.

It wasn’t worth considering what she would have done without Sousa’s backup. Jarvis might not have survived in that case.

But to be part of a team, Peggy had to be part of a team.

Therefore, when she arrived at the SSR office, she marched right up to Jack’s door and rapped her fingers on the outside.

“Come in,” Jack intoned from the other side.

Peggy opened it, keeping her shoulders square as she stood in front of his desk. “I realize that you may have some questions,” she said, seeing no need for formalities. “And, let me assure you, that I never betrayed my duties to the SSR at any time over the last few days. However, I understand that you may question my need-to-know decisions regarding several critical aspects of the investigation. Namely, you were right about Howard Stark being intimately involved, and I chose to withhold that information from you. While I did so for personal reasons, I can assure you that if it had ever interfered with my professional mandate, I would have come to you much sooner.”

Jack watched her, lips pursed.

She cleared her throat. “While I believe I am one of the best agents in this office, I know that I still have something to learn about teamwork,” she admitted. “But you have my promise that I am working on it.”

He rocked back in his chair, chewing his lip. “Is that all?”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Um,” she said. “Yes, I believe so.”

“Good,” Jack said, shuffling through the paperwork. He threw a file on top. “That’s the file on Sousa’s corporate case.” He tossed on another file. “This one is about a string of weapons dealers knowingly buying knockoffs for the last five years.” He put out another one. “And this one, and this one, and this one. And don’t even get me started on the file about Falsone. I’ve still got three agents working full time to put together that thing.”

Peggy swallowed, not sure if she was supposed to be unnerved or reassured.

“It would have taken us years to do all this, Carter,” Jack said. “Assuming we ever got there at all. And I’m sitting in here, fielding thank-you’s and congratulations, and I keep wondering why.”

“Well, Falsone only endorsed the corporate knockoffs to get a plausible in with Stark,” she explained. “Falsone didn’t just want to hurt Stark, but to embarrass him as well. To make his technology as a knockoff is the ultimate insult to someone like Stark.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Jack said. “But why did you go through all this trouble to keep it a secret and then let everyone else get credit for it? I mean, don’t you even care that this could make or break your career? Sousa was at the helm for this one, and it’s going to get him first in line for a promotion. Hell, maybe a commendation. When you did the work. You had the connections. It was your case all along, Carter, and you threw it away.”

Her mouth opened, but she wasn’t even sure what to say. She wasn’t even sure what to think. In all honesty, that hadn’t even occurred to her. Between keeping Howard from doing something stupid and getting Jarvis back alive, she’d been thoroughly preoccupied. Throw in keeping Angie safe and ensuring that Sousa’s career wasn’t harmed and there hadn’t really been time to even think about anything else.

Jack shook his head, huffing a small laugh. “I think you know more about working with a team than you know to admit,” he said.

Surprised, she tilted her head.

“Just don’t forget, Carter,” he said, straightening the pile on his desk again. “You may have a lot of friends, but I’m not one of them. I’m your boss, and as long as you do your job, then we’re good. But if you don’t--”

Peggy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I think I got the message.”

“Good,” Jack said with an affirming nod. “Now I do believe there’s some paperwork to be done. Unless there’s some other mission you don’t want to tell me about.”

“Paperwork,” Peggy replied readily. “Paperwork sounds fantastic.”

-o-

Jack hadn’t exactly given his blessing, but he also hadn’t given her a hard time, and Peggy could feel the nuanced shift in his position quite tangibly. Jack was still figuring out what it meant to be the boss, and he seemed to trust Peggy to do his part.

That was all well and good, but Peggy was still establishing what that part was for herself. Sometimes she had to take more than she could give, but other times, she knew, it had to be the other way around.

Sousa wasn’t at his desk. Curious, she checked around until she found him in the conference room. The entire table was lined meticulously with files, and Daniel was hunched over a form with his crutch leaned up against the wall.

Peggy knocked. “I heard you had some paperwork to do.”

Daniel looked up. “Hey, I didn’t expect you yet.”

“Mr. Jarvis was awake this morning,” she explained. “His prognosis is good.”

“That’s great,” Daniel said.

He had nothing else to say, and Peggy took another step inside the room. “This mission was a success because of you.”

“I only picked up the phone,” he said. “You did the hard work.”

“I’m trying to say thank you,” she said. “And I’m sorry, all at once.”

He sighed, putting his pen down. “I already told you, it’s not necessary--”

“It might be, though,” she said. “A good partnership requires effort and consistency. It requires honesty. Trust has to be earned, and I haven’t given you a lot of reasons to trust me over the last few months.”

“I want to, though,” he said. “I like working with you, Peggy. I really like it. I just wish I knew we were always on the same team.”

“We are,” Peggy said, crossing the distance to him and sitting down in the chair next to him. “I promise you, we have always been on the same team from my point of view.”

“I know,” he said, nodding a little. “Sometimes it just feels like communication is a one way street between us.”

“And that’s not fair,” she agreed. “I know I can’t expect you to trust me after the way I treated you, but your actions have more than proven your loyalty. And I will return the favor to you. I promise you that.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling a little. “Unfortunately, there’s no mission right now--”

“Well, that’s all right,” Peggy said. “I know it’s not glamorous or scintillating, but this paperwork does need to be done.”

He arched his eyebrows. “You want to help me with paperwork?”

She shrugged deftly. “We have to start somewhere, don’t we?”

Chuckling, he handed her a form. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I guess we do.”

-o-

At the end of the day, she bid Daniel good night. He lingered for a moment, before nodding once. “See you tomorrow, Peggy.”

“You, too, Daniel,” she replied, watching him go.

It occurred to her that he hadn’t asked her to dinner. Not that he hadn’t wanted to -- she was fairly certain that he did -- but that he had learned to stop asking. Because when someone heard no enough, they started to believe it.

Paperwork was a place to start.

But Peggy knew it was time for some other changes as well.

-o-

It was late when she left, and though Peggy sorely missed her bed and longed to see Angie, she knew there was another stop she had to make.

She rapped gently on the door, pushing it open. The tableau looked much the same as she left it, though it had been cluttered with various accoutrements. Howard had apparently spared no bother or expense to make sure Jarvis was comfortable, and there were books, magazines and a particularly comfortable looking fleece blanket draped over a chair.

“He isn’t one for half measures,” Jarvis said from the bed.

She came in a little farther. “Howard? Not hardly,” she said. “I think he feels guilty about all this.”

Jarvis shifted on his bed, looking somewhat less pained than this morning if all the more exhausted. The sleepiness had been replaced by a bone-laden weariness that suggested just how much the man had been through over the last week. “There is some inherent risk in the job description, I think.”

“For a butler?” Peggy asked, standing at the foot of the bed.

Jarvis fiddled with the hand-knit afghan that covered his hospital sheets. “For the butler of Howard Stark? I think so.”

Peggy chuckled lightly, tentatively sitting in one of the chairs. “I suppose you’re right about that,” she said. “And you certainly got some practice after spending time with me.”

“Practice I’m afraid I entirely forgot,” Jarvis said, reddening a little. “I didn’t put up much of a fight when they took me.”

“It was an ambush,” she said. “You were at home, where you considered yourself safe. Falsone knew what he was doing; you had no reason to expect trouble.”

“Somehow I doubt that would have stopped you,” Jarvis said, rubbing at one of the bandages on his chest.

“I have more practice than I’d like to admit,” Peggy said. “Besides, you more than held your ground during your own rescue. The whole plan would have been foiled without your help.”

“If by help, you mean getting shot--”

“You willingly provided a distraction at your own peril to make sure Howard got out of there alive,” she said. “I know I was impressed.”

A smile played at his lips even as he diverted his eyes again.

“Anyway,” Peggy said. “Is Anna back yet?”

At that, Jarvis sat up, face a little brighter. “Yes, as a matter of fact,” he said. “You just missed her -- she went to get some lunch, but she should be back for our nightly radio programming.”

The inherent cheer in his voice at the mention of her name was impossible not to notice. And impossible not to smile at. “I won’t bother you long, then,” she said.

“Don’t be silly,” Jarvis said. “Anna would very much like to talk with you.”

“And take me to task for putting you in so much danger?” Peggy asked.

“To the contrary,” Jarvis said, actually looking surprised. “She knows what you did to save my life. She’d like to thank you; we both would.”

Peggy wasn’t surprised exactly, because she had taken it upon herself to make sure Jarvis was safe. What did surprise her, however, was how uncomfortable it made her feel. As though he felt compelled to say it, as if there was some balance to set right between them.

Such a thing wasn’t necessary, not because Peggy was gracious and heroic and didn’t want the attention. And not even because she preferred not to have such conversations.

But because she hadn’t done it to be gracious or heroic or get attention.

She’d done it because she’d lost too many people in her life, and she didn’t intend on losing any more. She’d done it because Howard needed her. She’d done it because, no matter how difficult it was for her to understand, Jarvis was her friend.

That was why Steve had gone after Bucky.

That was why Bucky had followed Steve to the very end.

Friendship. Its power was only rivaled by its mutuality, and Peggy couldn’t fight that any longer.

“A thank you is not necessary,” she said, feeling somewhat hoarse.

“I think it probably is,” he said. “Howard has told me of your heroics, and frankly, though he’s prone to exaggeration, I suspect he hardly did you justice.”

“Oh, please,” Peggy said. “There was never any question, not for Howard and not for me. You, of all people, know how far I am willing to go for a cause I believe in. Well, friendship is the most noble cause yet. I mean, this is all part of what friends do. They support each other in their times of need, right?”

It was a question she knew the answer to, perhaps. But it was still a question she needed to have answered.

From the bed, Jarvis tilted his head in understanding. Tired and weary, he looked brighter somehow. And even more grateful than before. “You would be quite correct, Miss Carter.”

“Good,” she said. “So then you can trust me when I say it was absolutely nothing at all.”

“Nothing,” Jarvis said. “Or absolutely everything.”

Peggy chuffed, collecting her things. “I’ll leave that for you to decide.”

“You really can stay,” Jarvis offered.

Peggy stopped, considering it. She knew Jarvis’ invitation was with the best of intentions, and she knew that she would probably need to spend time with Anna at some point.

But Jarvis was tired, and Peggy knew she owed Angie a quiet night in, at the very least.

She smiled fondly. “Next time,” she said. “When you’re out of the hospital, I’ll stop by for tea.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Miss Carter,” he said.

She nodded back at him. “Try not to get kidnapped in the meantime.”

“You have my word,” he promised. “But with friends like mine.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re lucky that I like you.”

He grinned shyly. “Lucky, indeed.”

As Peggy made her way out, she couldn’t help but smile to herself. As it turned out, Jarvis wasn’t the only one who was lucky.

She had a job she loved; she had a comfortable house.

She had the respect of her work colleagues and the loyalty of her friends.

She also had the best flatmate in the world.

Maybe it wasn’t everything she wanted in life.

But it was pretty damn close.

-o-

EPILOGUE

Anxiously, Peggy checked her watch again. Glancing behind her, the cab was already pulling away from the curb.

She was stuck here, which meant it was time to stop avoiding the inevitable. She was a soldier, for goodness sakes, and she’d been an agent and a spy in successful turns. And this wasn’t even dangerous -- not even in the slightest. This was, by and far, one of the safest things she would do all week.

Still, as she flattened her sweaty palms against her jacket, it was impossible to quell the rapid pace of her heart. Nervous or not, Peggy never shied away from something she had to do.

She wasn’t about to start now.

With a quick breath, she drew herself to her full height and knocked on the door.

The quick flush of adrenaline left her shaky for a moment, and she very nearly left, half hoping that no one was home. Before she could act on that desperate notion, the front door opened.

“Miss Carter,” Jarvis said, sounding truly surprised. “This is a surprise!”

He had been out of the hospital for several weeks, and though his bruises were faded, he still looked paler than usual. Clearly, without his typical suit, Howard had not allowed him to return to work just yet, but he was still wearing a crisp white button up shirt and what she was sure was a hand-knitted jumper.

At her hesitation, Jarvis studied her a bit more closely. “Is everything alright?”

“Oh,” Peggy said, remembering how to speak. “Yes, yes, it’s fine.”

“Good,” he said, smiling again. He hesitated, watching her. When she said nothing, he arched his eyebrows. “Is there something I can help you with, then?”

“No, I mean, yes,” Peggy said, fumbling a little now. She took a breath and tried not to let her cheeks redden. “I just thought I’d stop by and see how you were doing.”

“Oh, well, my recovery is going splendid,” he reported. “I wanted to get back to work but Howard was quite insistent that I take more time off. I feel a bit useless around the house, but I am enjoying the extra time with Anna.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” Peggy said, nodding enthusiastically. “That’s why I came by. To check in. Maybe, I don’t know, have a cup of tea.”

She finished awkwardly, the sentence coming off more as a question than anything else. It sounded ridiculous -- it was ridiculous -- and yet, here she was.

In the doorway, Jarvis blinked for a moment, mouth open slightly, clearly at a loss as to what to say.

This time, Peggy couldn’t keep herself from blushing. “I should have called,” she said with a self deprecating laugh. “I can come back another time.”

“No, no, no,” he said before she had the chance to turn away. He pushed the door open a little more and gestured inside. “Please come in. Anna and I were just about to sit down, as a matter of fact.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Peggy said.

“Don’t be silly!”

Peggy shook her head, truly wishing she hadn’t had the taxi leave already. “I really should have called.”

“Peggy,” Jarvis said.

Just like that, she stopped. Her mind, her heart, her need to leave. He’d never called her Peggy before. Whether it was the nature of his profession or a quirk of his thoroughly English upbringing, she had always been Miss Carter to him.

But it was more than that now. They were more than that. Peggy was opening herself up, and this was Jarvis’ way of returning the favor.

His smile was warm. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “And Anna will be very pleased to finally spend some time with you. So, please, do come in.”

The invitation was sincere and it was open. All she had to do was step through that door. This was why she’d come, after all, and Peggy Carter had never backed away from a challenge.

Howard wasn’t the only one who had taken people for granted. He did it differently and far more frequently, but Peggy had her own devices to put people off. The problem was, the best things in life -- the things that made life truly worth living -- came from letting people in. She’d learned that with Steve, and no matter how much that still hurt, she needed to remember it with Howard. With Angie and Daniel and Jarvis.

Steve didn’t die for fear; he died for freedom. Political, religious and personal. What kind of legacy would she be living for him if she put herself in cages? His entire life was a testament to the exact opposite.

No matter what she did, she could never stop bad things from happening. People would get hurt whether she kept them at arm’s length or as close as family. Planes would go down; people would use others for their own gain; revenge would hurt innocent people. These were the things Peggy would seek to rectify but never hope to control.

She could, however, control herself.

She would make that date with Daniel. She would have a drink with Howard. She would go home to Angie and make a rooftop dinner under the stars. There would be no more missed dances in her life, not if she could help it.

“Okay,” she said, nodding with fortitude. “That sounds lovely.”

He smiled back, leading her inside. “Anna, dear,” he called. “Set a place for one more!”

Peggy followed because it all started here, with this: a single cup of a tea.

And the promise of a whole lot more.