Avengers-Agent Carter OT3

Agent Carter fic: Home for Christmas

Besides Yuletide, another fandom thing that released today is Agent Carter Winter Wonderland, and I wrote something for that, too. Here's a complete list of the fics.

Title: Home For Christmas
Fandom: Agent Carter
Pairing/Character: Peggy/Daniel + Jack
Summary: In 1947, New York City had a record-breaking blizzard on Christmas Day. Peggy and Daniel wish they were back in L.A., but being snowbound in New York does have certain charms.
Cross-posted: on AO3




In late 1945, Peggy had just begun working for the SSR. Christmas had been a quiet affair in the apartment she shared with Colleen. She'd had it all to herself, since Colleen was back with her family for the holiday. Peggy had a quiet drink by the window and read a book, and tried not to think about much of anything at all.

Her Christmas gift from her family (a pair of rather impractical gloves) arrived three weeks late, having got lost in the post.

In 1946, Angie's family had embraced Peggy to their bosom. It had been a thrilling, hectic whirlwind of a Christmas, filled with food and free-flowing drink and boisterous Martinelli relatives. It was probably the most fun Peggy had had on a Christmas since she was a small child, but also so exhausting that she felt like she needed a vacation to recover from her vacation when she finally tottered into Howard's mansion with a hangover and $11.55 she'd won in the annual Martinelli betting pool on how many relatives would get into fistfights and over what. (She'd guessed at random. Apparently she was a lucky bettor.)

In 1947, Peggy had fully expected to find out what a Los Angeles Christmas was like, complete with palm trees, swishy skirt weather, and (probably) some sort of Christmas dinner involving avocados. But it was not to be: Jack needed Peggy in New York. Dottie Underwood had been spotted at the same bank where she had been apprehended stealing the Arena Club pin last summer.

"But why is she there?" Peggy protested, contemplating a return to wool coats and damp gloves while sitting on the edge of Daniel's desk. It had just become cool enough that it was worth wearing a suit with long sleeves and not expecting to melt every time she stepped outside. And, of course, the idea of a Christmas without Daniel did not appeal in the slightest. "Does she want to be caught?"

"Maybe she wants to lure you into a trap," Daniel pointed out.

"Or maybe she needs something she wasn't able to get the first time." Peggy twirled the pin key Jack had given her between her finger and thumb. They still didn't know what lock it fit.

"Or maybe she's the one who shot Thompson last fall and now she's back to finish the job."

They looked at each other.

"I should go," Peggy sighed, hopping off the desk.

"Yeah, guess I'd better see if I kept any of my sweater vests or threw 'em all in the trash the minute I got here."

Peggy looked up. "Wait -- you're coming?"

"Peg, it's two days 'til Christmas. The earliest we could possibly reach New York is Christmas Eve. You really want to spend the holiday in Stark's big, echoing house all by yourself?"

"I'm sure Angie would have me over," Peggy protested.

"I'm sure she would, but ..." He smiled, almost shyly. "Dad would be over the moon if I made it back for the holidays. And we've been talking about going back East so you can meet my folks. This might be the perfect opportunity, don't you think?"

Peggy felt herself blush. Yes, they'd talked about it -- but things always came up, and her family were safely tucked away in England, while Daniel's were an entire coast away.

Except now she was going to be on that coast. At the holidays.

Maybe work would keep her busy.

"Peggy, my family is going to love you," Daniel said gently. "I can stay here if you'd rather ..."

"No." She reached out to twine her fingers through his. "I'd love to meet them as well."

I'm just not sure I'm what they had in mind as a future daughter-in-law.


***


They stepped off the plane at La Guardia into a bitterly cold wind. It was late enough on Christmas Eve that it was already dark. Peggy flipped up the collar on the wool coat that she had hastily purchased in Los Angeles at a department store on the way to the airport. It had been the only thing on the rack that fit her and was in a color she could bear, but the sleeves were a little short and it was a bit tight in the shoulders. She would need to find out whether Howard's housekeeper had done away with all her old winter things in the closet at the Stark uptown property.

Next to her, Daniel hunched into his own coat as the wind turned his ears red. He looked like he was considering getting back on the plane.

"There's our ride," Peggy murmured. At the edge of the tarmac, a dark SSR car was parked, with an unmistakable figure in a long gray trench coat leaning on it, one hand holding his hat clamped on his head against the persistent wind.

"Joy," Daniel muttered, and they began the long slog across the wet tarmac in the biting wind. Jack didn't come to meet them, but he straightened as they got near.

"Carter. I see you brought a date to a crime scene. You're getting a tan, you know." He shook Peggy's hand, then Daniel's. He was grinning -- genuinely happy to see them.

"I see the weather's just as much fun as I remember," Daniel remarked.

"What are you talking about; at least we don't have to cope with 24/7 sunshine and prickly heat," was Jack's cheerful response.

Despite his upbeat attitude, Peggy couldn't help noting his pallor and the slow way he moved as he opened the car door, favoring his side. He'd still been recovering when he went back to New York, and she knew he had been massively frustrated by the slow pace of his recovery, fighting hard to hide it.

You've been overworking yourself since you got back to New York, haven't you?

But she understood that all too well: not just the need to avoid showing weakness to the world, but the inescapable fact that there was always too much to be done, and too few people to do it.

She and Daniel could rely on each other, but here in New York, Jack had no one he could really trust.

"So the problem, obviously, is that now everything's closed and we won't be able to talk to anyone 'til after the holiday," Jack said as he pulled away from the airport. "No further sign of Underwood since I called, but I've had some of my guys running down witness statements. If you two are up for it, we can head back to the office and go over the files. Unless ..." He glanced into the backseat; Peggy had taken shotgun and Daniel was sitting behind her, his hand in hers. "You two have Christmas Eve plans?"

"Not any more," Daniel said pointedly. They'd decided not to drop in on Daniel's family on Christmas Eve itself, since the cross-country flights were unreliable even at the best of times, and especially not with holiday crowding and bad weather; they were planning to go over on Christmas instead.

"Oh, come on. You might even get a white Christmas. Forecast's calling for flurries tomorrow. Can't get that in L.A."

"Yeah, but you know what we can get in L.A.?" Daniel asked. "We can get warm."

Jack laughed, and stifled a cough in his fist.

Peggy gave him a sideward glance.

"Don't look at me like that. I'm not contagious. Just getting over something."

"You're really selling New York in the wintertime, you know that?" Daniel said.


***


It was strange to be back in the old SSR building, especially when it was midnight-quiet, staffed only by a skeleton crew. Someone had hung some holly over the door. It looked sad and lonely in its institutional surroundings.

Jack retrieved a stack of case files from his office. "It's all in here. Witness statements, contents of the safe deposit boxes -- we asked them to do a full inventory afterwards, to see if anything's missing, but we don't have the results back from that yet, because of the holidays. One of my guys uncovered another possible Underwood sighting a few blocks away on the same day, so we might know the general area where she's staying, or at least have a hint in that direction."

"Assuming she's still in town," Peggy murmured, flipping open the top file. Dottie's booking shot stared up at her with a dark, level gaze. She looked back into those serene eyes and then flipped the page.

"Yeah, that's the big question, isn't it? Say, you two have the key on you?"

"Kinda." Daniel took it out of his pocket and held it out; Jack took it and fingered it.

"Notice anything?" Daniel asked.

"It's lighter," Jack said after a moment.

"We had a duplicate made. Figured it wasn't a good idea to only have one copy of something that important."

"Actually, there's more than one," Peggy said. "Daniel and I each have one now, and we can leave this one here with you. It might come in handy."

"Good thinking." He smirked and pocketed it.

"As for the rest of this," Daniel said, tapping one of the files, "you mind if we take them out of the building? I'm thinking we might as well head uptown to Stark's and go over them there. It'll be a lot more comfortable, and it's been a really long day for Peggy and me."

Jack waved a hand. "Sure, whatever. You want me to run you two up there?"

"A cab will be fine. No need to put you to the trouble," Daniel said. "Okay if I use a phone at one of the desks?"

"You're welcome to use mine." Jack gestured to it.

"Yeah, but I also need to check in with my office, let them know I've landed and see if any fires have broken out while I've been gone."

The office seemed a little emptier without Daniel in it, though Peggy could still see him through the glassed-in wall of Jack's office -- he'd gone to the desk that used to be his, as if by habit. Peggy sat on the edge of Jack's desk and flipped idly through the files. They were comprehensive; Jack had always been thorough.

"So, has loverboy popped the question yet?" Jack asked, looking up from the file spread open in front of him. In the harsh light of his desk lamp, he looked grayish, and older than he used to.

"If that's your way of asking how things are with myself and Daniel, things are lovely with me and Daniel, thank you," Peggy said brightly, and hoped the warmth in her cheeks didn't amount to a visible blush. She hesitated, but ... why not? It was possible he'd already found out somehow; she wouldn't put it past him. She hooked the delicate gold chain around her neck with one finger and fished up the ring that was normally tucked beneath her collar. "And the answer to your question is yes."

"What? Seriously? No. Congratulations, you crazy kids. Lemme see the rock." Jack held out a hand. Peggy leaned forward so he could examine the ring on its chain. "Why all the hush-hush? Just because you're secret agents doesn't mean you have to keep everything a secret."

"Because ... a lot of reasons." Peggy retrieved the ring and tucked it back into its hiding place. "My career, among other things ... And we haven't talked to our families yet. We will most likely have Christmas dinner with Daniel's family in Long Island," she added, and then immediately regretted it when Jack got one of those grins.

"Ooh. Meeting the family. Do they know what they're getting themselves into?"

"Don't --"

"Hopefully you can make it through an entire family evening without blowing anything up or being chased by Russian assassins, but I wouldn't bet on it."

Peggy swept the file folder at him and he ducked, laughing.

"You are terrible and I don't know why I tell you anything."

There was a tap at the door, and they both looked up. The lone agent in the outer office -- aside from Daniel -- leaned in the door. "Hey, Chief, I'm heading out, okay?"

Jack waved him off. "Yeah, Merry Christmas, Barnham. Have a good one."

Peggy looked out at the empty office, Daniel on the phone at his old desk, and then looked suspiciously at Jack. "Are you working the night shift?"

"Someone's gotta do it, right? Chief's work is never done and all that."

"No holiday plans?"

Jack shrugged, a slight roll of his shoulder designed not to aggravate the area of his healing injury. Peggy wondered if he was still in that much pain or had just developed habits to work around it and was slow to lose them. "Nah, not really on good terms with most of Clan Thompson ever since I chose the opposite side from Vernon. Imagine their faces if they knew I'd tried to kill him."

His voice was light, but there was something sharp as broken glass underneath. Peggy remembered how much the break with her own family had hurt, even though there had been no hard feelings on either side. This must be worse.

"Why don't all three of us go up to Howard's tonight?" she asked impulsively. "It'll be much faster to go through these case files if we have someone who's already been over them to guide us."

"Subtle," Jack said, his voice dry and a bit tight. "I don't need your pity, Carter." He interrupted himself with another cough, this one hacking and harsh, and ended up leaning on his desk, fingers pressed into the polished wood surface until the tips turned white.

"What exactly are you getting over, tuberculosis?" Peggy asked, caught somewhere between exasperation and concern.

Jack looked up, and admitted in a mumble, "Pneumonia."

"Jack!" she said in horror.

"It sounds worse than it is. Just a cold that put me flat for awhile and got in my lungs. I was in the hospital for a couple of days, but I got out a week or so ago."

"I can't believe you didn't say anything."

"Says the woman who didn't mention she was getting married," Jack pointed out, the dry note back in his voice.

"It's ... different."

"Oh, is it?"

"Yes, it is," Peggy said, heated. "We're your friends, Jack. Kindly grant us the favor of not dropping dead without at least giving us a heads up about it."

The note of genuine anger in her tone seemed to penetrate at last, and he gave her a long look as if seeing her for the first time. Of course that was when Daniel came back in.

"Cab will be over shortly, nothing is on fire at the L.A. office, and -- did I miss something?"

"Jack," Peggy said, "will be going with us to Howard's, to help us work on the files."

"Someone's got to be here to answer the phones," Jack said, glowering at her.

"That's what the answering service is for."

"You know I'm still technically your boss, right?"

Peggy folded her arms.

"Right." Daniel backed toward the door. "So ... I'll just cancel that cab, shall I?"


***


Signs of Angie's presence were everywhere in the mansion -- clothing items draped on furniture, loose-leaf pages from a script for a play spread all over the enormous dining-room table -- lacking only Angie herself. She'd apologized profusely when Peggy had called her the previous day from L.A., but Peggy had insisted that she shouldn't change her plans and should go ahead and spend the holidays with her family as she'd originally intended.

"You know you can drop by anytime, English. Bring that beau of yours. My family adores you and I'm sure they'll love him too."

"Of course we will if we're able," Peggy had promised, but now, after sixteen hours on planes and hours more spent running to and from airports, jet-lagged and hungry and weary, the idea of collapsing in the mansion and never moving again (or at least not moving for twelve hours or so) was infinitely more appealing than throwing herself into the cheerful chaos of the Martinellis.

Having been alerted to their arrival, the housekeeper had made up bedrooms for Peggy and for Daniel, and there were enough covered dishes in the restaurant-sized, ultra-modern refrigerator to feed a dozen people.

Peggy left her bag and Daniel's in one bedroom; Jack could have the other. She didn't think he'd be scandalized, although the mocking was inevitable. And he knew about the engagement already.

In fact, the first thing she heard when she came back into the kitchen was the clink of dishes along with Jack saying, "So I hear congratulations are in order."

"Peggy!" Daniel said.

"Yes, I told him. He was going to figure it out sooner or later anyway." She lifted the lid off one of the casserole dishes on the table. Hmm. She wasn't entirely sure what that was (there were slices of things? and bits of green?) but it smelled good.

"I just don't want the entire office to know before I have a chance to talk to my dad," Daniel fretted.

"So tell him, Sousa," Jack said, opening the china cabinet on the wall to get down plates.

"This isn't the sort of thing you tell your parents over the telephone, and why are you giving me relationship advice, again?"

"Because someone has to be the adult around here."

"If I happen to see any about, I'll point them your way," Peggy said, poking into more of the covered dishes. Was it sensible to have pie for dinner on Christmas Eve? A small inner voice, which sounded rather like her mother, told her that it was not. She firmly quashed that voice.

Daniel passed her a flowered china plate, and both men stared as she forked out an enormous serving of pie onto it.

"I'm hungry," Peggy said primly, and took it into the parlor, since the dining room table was covered with Angie's script pages and it wasn't as if Howard couldn't afford to replace a damask chair if she spilled something on it.

The other two joined her shortly, bearing plates of food, case files, and, in Jack's case, a bottle of bourbon; he'd apparently discovered Howard's liquor cabinet. He snagged three glasses off a sideboard and poured a couple fingers into each.

"Merry Christmas," he said, with a certain sardonic undertone, raising his glass.

Peggy looked up at the clock on the wall. Six minutes to midnight. They clinked glasses and drank.

"Makes me think of the war, a little," Daniel said. When the others looked at him, he explained, "Think about it. You're not supposed to spend a civilian Christmas sitting around going over witness reports and bank inventories."

Jack barked a harsh laugh and poured another finger of whiskey into his glass. "Really? Maybe your unit was different from mine, but the way I remember it, we made sure to do something special on Christmas Eve, even if it was just saving back the better cans of processed meat instead of C-rations."

"It's only during peacetime that you have the luxury of failing to observe a holiday?" Peggy inquired.

"Something like that."

But he was right, she thought. During wartime they'd seized every moment in the knowledge that it could be their last. Through all the deprivations and rationing, she'd struggled harder to keep her lipstick perfect and find field substitutes for hairstyling products than she'd ever done before in her life.

The mention of the war had cast a pall over the evening. In silence, they opened the files and spread them out.

"I think perhaps," Peggy said after a few minutes, chewing on the end of a pencil, "we should sort the contents of the safe deposit boxes by type. If it is something in there that she was after, then certain sorts of contents can be ruled out completely—money, for example, which she can get anywhere. Jack, when your men were questioning the—"

She broke off when she realized he wasn't going to hear her. Jack was fast asleep, stretched out on a settee with his hand dangling, fingertips brushing a file folder and the half-empty glass of bourbon.

Daniel looked up when she stopped talking, looked where she was looking, and grinned. "You know, Peggy, I realize it's three hours earlier in L.A., but that really doesn't seem like the worst idea."

"Agreed." She rose and went into one of the spare bedrooms, coming back with a blanket that she flipped loosely over Jack. He didn't stir.

Daniel had gathered the dishes and taken them into the kitchen. He came out, yawning. Peggy held out a hand. Daniel curled his fingers in hers, and she led him into the bedroom.


***


Peggy woke in a chill gray dawn, gloriously relaxed and happy, snuggled against Daniel. She drifted awake slowly, only to have her eyes snap open with a terrible thought.

She hadn't bought him anything for Christmas.

It just ... hadn't come up. She hadn't thought of it at all. She wasn't used to doing anything at all in particular except posting a gift home for her family.

He won't care. It is Daniel, after all ...

But what if he'd given her something dreadfully expensive and sweet? It was Daniel, after all. Oh, bollocks ...

"Stop wiggling," Daniel muttered sleepily.

"I'm cold," she extemporized on the spur of the moment, and snuggled closer to him.

One thing led to another, and it was some time later that they finally left the bedroom for the still, cool quiet of the house. Jack had vanished from the sofa, leaving a rucked-up blanket behind. Peggy collected his abandoned bourbon glass as she passed through the parlor, taking it into the kitchen, where she put it with the rest of the dishes in the sink.

"If nothing else," Daniel remarked, "at least there's no shortage of things to eat --"

"Oh, look," Peggy interrupted, gazing out the window. "It's snowing."

Large fluffy flakes were drifting down past the kitchen window, piling on the windowsill. The light in the room had a chill gray quality.

"Jack mentioned flurries," Daniel said.

"It's already built up quite a bit in the back garden."

Somewhere in the house, the heat kicked on with a muffled thump. The massive iron radiators began to tick and ping.

"I don't know about you, Peg, but I'm in no rush to go out in that."

"No reason to," Peggy pointed out. "It's a bank holiday, and no one will be in the SSR office. We might as well see to the files we have here."

It was some time later -- early afternoon -- when Jack lurched out of the spare bedroom, wearing a silky bathrobe that had to be Howard's. By Peggy's rough reckoning, he'd been asleep for at least fourteen hours. His hair was in the most disarrayed state she'd ever seen it.

He made a vague "aargh" noise and headed for the nearest bathroom.

"There's plenty of hot water!" Peggy called after him.

He was out in a half-hour or so, wearing yesterday's slightly rumpled suit. "I've realized," he said blearily as he wandered into the kitchen, "that, contrary to the weather forecasters' predictions, 'flurries' is an inadequate term for what it's doing out there."

Peggy looked out the parlor window and was duly impressed. The gardens were deeply carpeted in a pristine white blanket. Eight inches? she thought. A foot? In any case, driving back down to the SSR offices, or even to Jack's flat -- which she had only a vague idea was uptown somewhere -- would be unpleasant.

"You know, I'm starting to think we aren't going to make it down to Dad's today," Daniel said, frowning out the window at the state of the mansion's grounds. It hardly even seemed to have grown light; there was a dimly ambient light that illuminated everything in a vague, shadowy way. "I could go down on my own --"

"You absolutely will not," Peggy said firmly.

"... Right. I'll telephone."

He limped over to the parlor phone. Peggy rose from the sofa, collecting their plates. It seemed only right to give him some privacy. She went into the kitchen and found Jack eating while standing up, gazing out at the snow.

"I hope you're not thinking about driving," she said as she put the plates in the sink. "The state of the roads appears to be deplorable."

"Thought about it, but I'm not eager to get stuck in a ditch and have to walk home in this. Maybe I'll risk it in a little while, when the plows are out, but right now I'm stuck here without so much as a clean shirt." He glanced over at her and dug his fork harshly into some kind of Jell-O casserole he was eating. "Merry freakin' Christmas."

"Oh, don't give me that look. It's not the worst thing that could possibly happen."

Jack gave her a wry look, as if he knew precisely what she was getting at -- he'd been stifling the occasional cough into his fist. The sleep had already done him good, she thought. He had a little more color. If forced downtime was the only way to make him stop working for a little while, then it would simply have to do.

Daniel crutched into the kitchen. "It turns out that Dad has a houseful of my cousins, so he won't be heartbroken if we can't show up. Of course he was very insistent that Peggy and I are more than welcome when we can make it down, but he also had to stop twice to tell Frannie's twins to pipe down and once for some sort of kitchen emergency involving my aunt Agnes, so I think they're busy enough without us."

Peggy smiled, thinking of Angie's enormous, rambunctious family. "Is it always like that?"

"Only at holidays," Daniel sighed. "It was just me and my dad, growing up -- Mom died when I was a little kid. But the whole neighborhood pitched in. You know what it's like -- well, maybe you don't. Big immigrant families, neighborhoods where everybody knows everybody. Most of my aunts and uncles and their kids aren't really related to me, just --" He paused as Jack turned away from the window and went into the parlor. "Okay, what's with him?"

"Different family life," Peggy said quietly. "But I'm looking forward to meeting your family, Daniel. And your -- er, neighborhood."

"Kinda different for you too, huh?"

"A little. But that's what life is about. Changes." She had to take a breath. "Your family is a part of my life now, Daniel, as are you --"

"Hey, you two!" Jack charged back into the kitchen, open file folder in hand. "I think I know what Underwood might have been after."

They had to take a step back from each other.

"... uh, I'm not interrupting something here, right?"

"Not at all," Daniel said between his teeth. "Please continue."

Jack held out the folder, and Peggy recognized her own handwriting. He'd found the list Peggy and Daniel had made of the contents of the safe deposit boxes. Using Peggy's idea of sorting them by type, they had spent the morning listing out a rough description of every item in the bank's files, sorted under headers such as "jewelry," "documents," "keepsakes," "precious metal bullion," and so on. Some categories could be instantly discounted; if Dottie wanted gold bars, it was likely she'd have picked a less conspicuous place to get them. Others, such as the boxes full of a family's important documents, were difficult to rule out based on the information the bank had provided them. Several of the folders had been set aside in a stack to get more information on later.

Jack was pointing to one of Peggy's scribbled lines under the "documents" header: Will made out by J. Steven Bradford. "I know this name. One of Vernon's buddies."

"And therefore possibly associated with the Arena Club," Peggy said. She took the folder. "She wouldn't want the will, surely?"

"No, but I'd say that particular box is a good one to look at. It's in a woman's name, and her name doesn't sound familiar to me at all -- could be a mistress or a daughter or his wife's maiden name, who knows. Could even be an alias of Underwood's. That's why I didn't notice when I was going through the files earlier."

Peggy flipped open the folder and glanced over the itemized contents of the box. She recognized the folder as coming from their 'not enough information' pile. "Real estate deeds -- that key could fit something on one of these properties. Stock certificates and so forth. We need to look through this box."

Jack nodded. "I know the bank's closed today, but I can call the bank president and pull a few strings. If I have him meet me down there, he can open --"

Peggy gestured to the window, where a curtain of falling snow had nearly blotted the world. The far wall of the garden could barely be seen.

"Okay, so there's a little snow."

"There's a blizzard, Jack. I want to catch Dottie as much as you do. More than you do, probably. But unless you fancy walking all the way down to the financial district ..."

Jack snatched back the file folder. "I can't believe I'm getting no help from either of you."

"You just pulled a clue out of the legwork Daniel and I spent all morning on," Peggy retorted. "In any event, why does it matter so much to you? Dottie is my project, not yours."

"Because we need a win!" Jack shot back. "I don't know if you've noticed, but the SSR is wobbling along on its last leg. We've been rocked by scandal all year, we've lost half our agents to corruption, the War Department was considering pulling the plug even before all of this went down, and now they've reorganized everything and we're being shuffled off to yet another department that's looking likely to pull our funding in the 1948-49 fiscal year --"

"Wait," Daniel interrupted. "Is that happening? I hadn't heard anything."

"It's not a done deal yet, so don't have kittens, Sousa."

"Yeah, but if you have information the rest of us don't, that might affect our ability to get a paycheck in a few months, it'd be nice to share with the class."

"I said nothing's finalized. What, I'm supposed to make sure you both know every rumor that comes down the pipeline? Welcome to the world of doing business in shady back rooms, Sousa. People talk about all sorts of things. Not all of them come to pass --" He interrupted himself to cough.

Daniel made a huffing sound of annoyance.

"But you're fairly sure of this one," Peggy said quietly.

Jack sighed, some of the defensiveness seeping out of his tense posture. "I'm not sure of anything. All I know is, now that the war's over, the only real justification for the SSR is fighting Communism, and if we can't even catch a Commie spy who's been right under our noses for a year and a half, and in our custody multiple times, that doesn't look good, you know?"

"I understand that," Peggy said. "But it doesn't have to be just you, Jack. You needn't play lone savior of the SSR."

"Says the woman who goes vigilante at the drop of a hat," Jack said dryly. "Et tu, Peggy?"

He was right, which only made it more irritating -- that, and his triumphant smirk. Peggy scowled at him. "So says the man who managed to work himself into --" Pneumonia, she almost said, but it wasn't her secret to tell, and she veered off at the last minute and changed it to, "-- illness."

Daniel, unfortunately, was no idiot; his head whipped around. "How sick are you, exactly?"

"Thanks, Peggy," Jack said.

"I notice you didn't answer the question, Jack. How sick are you?"

"Hardly at all right now," Jack said, and then belied his words by erupting in another coughing fit. This one had an unpleasant wheezing undertone.

"Really? Because, now that Peggy mentions it, that cough sounds exactly like the one my cousin Maggie had when she went skinny-dipping on a dare in January and got pneumonia."

"You're both fired," Jack wheezed.

"You're not my boss anymore," Daniel shot back heatedly, "which means you can't fire me. Have you seen a doctor about that cough?"

"Yes, I saw a doctor, Grandma. I was in the hospital for a couple of days, but now I'm fine because it's not --"

"A couple of days in the --! Have you forgotten that you almost died this summer? I've been talking to you almost every day for casework; when did you -- wait --" Daniel's normally good-natured face darkened. "You were calling me from the hospital and talking about the Spinelli case and you didn't think to mention a little thing like 'Oh, by the way, I'm in the hospital with pneumonia'?"

"It wasn't relevant to the case!"

"How is you being in the hospital not relevant to the case?"

"How about you two get off my case?" Gripping the file folder so hard his knuckles turned white, Jack stomped out of the kitchen.

Peggy and Daniel shared a quick look. "You don't actually think he's going to try to drive to the bank in this?" Daniel asked.

"I think he has more sense than that." Though she was not at all certain. "Let me talk to him. I think he'll take it better coming from me."

"You're more than welcome to."

She found Jack in the foyer, putting on his coat. "Oh, Jack," she sighed. "Do be sensible."

To her surprise, instead of anger, she got a twisted half-grin. "Don't worry, I'm not driving. Though I did think about it. I'm just going to take a walk. Clear my head."

There was a part of her that wanted to lecture him on not staying out too long; the frigid air would be bad for his lungs. But then she wanted to laugh at herself. She was no one's mother. Instead, she asked, "Would you like company?"

She expected to be rebuffed, but instead he shook his head, gave a small laugh, and said, "Do what you want."

Peggy put on the ill-fitting wool coat, which reminded her that she'd meant to find out if her old winter things were still in storage. She'd forgotten to look. There's hardly a point, it's not as if I'm staying on this coast for very long ... But, if the future of the SSR was truly as much in doubt as Jack said, she couldn't be sure of that.

"Good Lord," Jack said when they stepped outside. The snow on the drive, lying in a pristine blanket, was not only over the tops of his shoes; it came halfway up his shins. "There must be a foot and a half out here."

It had only taken Peggy a few steps to start wishing she'd put on a pantsuit today instead of a skirt. "How long were you planning this walk to be?"

"A lot longer before I started getting snow in my socks." It was still coming down hard, too, drawing a veil over the world. There were no vehicles passing on the street. It hardly felt like the same city she'd left last summer.

Then, from a few houses down the peaceful, snow-covered street, someone leaned out a window and whooped in a drunken bellow, "Merry Christmas, New York City!"

Jack looked at Peggy, and that was too much: they both cracked up. "Snow or no snow, it's still New York," Jack said, and muffled another cough in his fist.

"Do you want to go in now?" Peggy asked hopefully.

"Yes," was Jack's earnest response.


***


Peggy left her soaked stockings draped on a radiator next to Jack's wet socks, ignoring the incredulous look he gave her, and the two of them padded in bare feet into the kitchen, brushing melting snow out of their hair. In the short time they'd been gone, the house had picked up a rich smell of spices that was like a direct right hook to Peggy's memories, taking her straight back to childhood Christmases she'd hardly thought about in years.

"What are you doing?" she asked Daniel, sliding an arm around his waist. He was stirring something at the stove.

"Making eggnog. Dad's recipe. You're supposed to let to cool for a few hours, but we can either stick it out in the snow for awhile, or commit utter sacrilege and put in ice. There are ice cubes in the freezer. This house has everything." He glanced over at Jack, who was leaning on the wall with his hands shoved in his pockets. "Eggnog's supposed to be good for winter colds, according to Dad anyway."

It sounded something like an apology.

"I'm going to guess that's mostly because of the rum," Jack said, but his smile was easy enough. The tension had gone out of the air.

"Peggy, could you get me some ice, please?" Daniel asked, and she peeled herself off him. "So, Jack, I was thinking ..."

"Always dangerous when you start doing that, Sousa."

Daniel ignored that. "I was thinking that, even though we can't look at those documents 'til the roads are clear and the bank opens, we can still make progress here. Jack, you know this Bradford guy --"

"Our families know each other," Jack corrected him. "That doesn't mean I know him."

"Yeah, but we can start putting together a dossier on him anyway, can't we? If that is the safe deposit box Dottie was after, then it'll give us a major leg up at figuring out which documents she might have wanted, and whether any are missing, if we already have as complete a list as we can get of which properties he owns, known associates, that kind of thing."

"Known associates." Jack's smirk was bitter. "Like my father and Vernon, you mean? This is going to require a lot of rum." He crossed the room to the liquor cabinet.

Daniel looked uncertain now. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to. I didn't mean to --"

"I know you didn't, Sousa. That's the worst part. But you know what?" He turned back from the liquor cabinet with a bottle of rum gripped in his fist by its neck. "Yeah, I do have to. Because they don't want me to. Because doing the actual work of the SSR was never supposed to be what I did in it -- not what Dad wanted me to do, anyway. It was supposed to be a stepping stone, a bottom rung on a ladder. I wasn't supposed to like it. I wasn't supposed to feel like I was making a difference --" He broke off, teeth clenched, and thrust the bottle at Daniel. "Yeah," he said roughly. "Yeah, I have to."

Daniel looked away from him, then back, and nodded.

With glasses of well-spiked and still slightly warm eggnog, they retired to the parlor, where the files were spread out on every surface. Peggy passed Jack a sheaf of Stark Industries stationery, the only scratch paper readily at hand. Jack looked at the Stark logo, groaned softly, and applied pencil to paper.

Peggy sat on the floor with her back against Daniel's legs, because that way she had more room to spread papers out on the floor. She still wasn't convinced there weren't more clues lurking here somewhere. The only sounds for some time were the rustle of pages, the clink of glasses, and occasionally the scratching of Jack's pencil as he wrote, thought, rubbed things out, and wrote some more. Outside the window, the snow fell softly. The soft lamplight in the parlor cast a warm glow over everything.

There was nothing about it that was even slightly like Christmas in any traditional way. But peace and calm flowed through her in a gentle tide, along with the warmth of the copious amounts of rum in the eggnog. Her bare feet were curled under her. The radiators ticked softly, and the snow fell and fell, blanketing the world.

"Daniel," Peggy said quietly, and he looked up from the file he was slowly paging through. "I ... didn't get you anything for Christmas. I'm sure you must have wondered, and I know it's dreadful of me --" The look on his face was not at all what she was expecting. "Are you -- why are you smiling?"

"Because I completely forgot until this very moment that I didn't buy you anything either." Daniel had gone pink to the tips of his ears. "Honestly, Peggy, I didn't even think of it."

Peggy laughed too, and leaned into his legs, curling her arm around his thigh. "We are so bad at this."

Jack made a choking sound and looked up from his notes. "You two deserve each other. For the record, I didn't get anything for either one of you."

Peggy lifted her head off Daniel's knee to say, "Yes, but you weren't supposed to."

Jack snorted and turned his attention back to his note-taking. "Obviously I'm invited to the wedding, aren't I?"

"Only if you sit in the back and wear a bag over your head," Daniel said without missing a beat.

Jack laughed.

"I feel compelled to point out that the Howling Commandos will be there and they will mostly likely be drunk," Peggy said.

"Oh God, I didn't think of that," Daniel said. "Do I have to be there?"

Peggy smacked his leg very lightly. "Yes, you do. It's traditional."

His fingers brushed lightly across the back of her neck, sending pleasant little shivers through her. She didn't realize what he was doing until he snagged, with the tips of his fingers, the chain that held the engagement ring. "You know," he said, "I did give you a Christmas gift, didn't I? You just got it early."

"I said yes, didn't I?" Peggy teased. "I'd say the gift was from me to you. ... Jack, be quiet."

"Did I say something?"

"You were thinking very loudly." She leaned her head forward and pulled her hair off her neck. "Unhook me?"

Daniel unhooked the necklace clasp and dropped it into her hand, chain, ring, and all. Peggy slid the ring off the chain and slipped it onto her finger.

"Remember I want to talk to my dad before he sees that," Daniel murmured.

"I know." She held up her hand, trying to get used to seeing it there. Once, a very long time ago, in a different life, she had delighted in showing off Fred's ring to her girlfriends and family. She could hardly remember what it was like to be that girl.

There were those who said that hard times made the good times all the sweeter. Having gone through some hard times of her own now, Peggy suspected that the people who said that had either never experienced tragedy and loss, or had a selective memory for it. Had it all been worth it -- the war, losing Michael, losing Steve -- to get her here? She wasn't going to play that kind of game. Life was what it was.

But she was glad she hadn't ended up stuck in a life as Fred's wife and the mother of his children. She'd probably have been very happy, and in a way that was the worst part. She would have quietly tucked away those ragged, rebellious edges of herself like loose threads, and she would never know what she was missing, or who she could have been.

She leaned her head against Daniel's knee and rested the hand with the ring on his thigh. His hand came down to cover hers, just as the telephone rang.

"You lovebirds want the third wheel to get that?"

"No, no ... I've got it." Peggy lurched to her feet. "It's almost certainly either Angie or Howard. I can't think who else it would be."

As it turned out, it was Angie, wanting to know if they got in okay and waxing enthusiastic about the snow. "You ever seen anything like this, English? I bet they don't have snow like this back in England."

"I've never seen its like." Actually that wasn't true, she'd seen snowdrifts higher than her head in the Alps, but Angie still didn't know she'd done more than fetch coffee and roll bandages during the war. She'd certainly never seen the streets of the city brought to a standstill. The snow was still falling as early winter dusk gathered outside the window.

"Shame you're missing out on the fun. Uncle Marco brought all his rats and they got out in the kitchen while Ma and my aunts were basting the goose. You never heard such screaming --"

"Why does your uncle have rats?"

"He races 'em. Like, for a business gig. People bet on 'em. They wear little colored vests so you can tell which one is your rat."

"I'm sorry I asked. I at least hope the rats are all right."

"We caught about half of 'em yesterday," Angie said blithely. "Papa had to talk Aunt Constance out of sleeping in the family station wagon overnight. Good thing he did too, with all the snow. Today Uncle Marco is payin' the kids five cents a head to catch 'em, which I guess he ought to know how it was gonna turn out, and maybe he did, 'cause now he's got twice the rats he started with and -- is that Ma screaming in the kitchen? Sorry, gotta run! You have to come over though, maybe tomorrow if the roads ain't a wreck. Bring Daniel! I want to meet him proper this time! Bring anybody else you want to bring too. Yeah, I'm comin' --"

"Angie, wait!" Peggy called, the glitter of the ring on her finger reminding her too late that she hadn't even shared the biggest piece of news yet, but all she got was the sound of something clattering to the floor and Angie's harried, "Gotta run, English, bye!"

Peggy hung up, grinning.

"And how's the famous Miss Martinelli?" Daniel asked.

"Keeping herself entertained. She invited us over. We'll have to go, if we can squeeze it in around seeing your family."

Her social calendar was going to be very full during the time they were in New York, she reflected, between Angie's family and Daniel's, and of course the case which they had come all the way from the West Coast to solve.

Her eye fell on Jack, and she wondered if he'd appreciate being dragged along to Angie's. The happy chaos of Angie's family was probably the polar opposite of the country-club lifestyle he'd grown up with. Still, when she'd been a thousand miles distant from a family she no longer understood and who no longer understood her, Angie's cheerful friendliness had been exactly the antidote she'd needed to the loneliness of the holidays. And with Jack currently estranged from his family, perhaps he'd find some of the same comfort in it.

Or at least a distraction that made it hard to think about other things.

"So, while you were on the phone, I had a thought," Daniel said, and Jack glanced up from his note-taking. "Maybe we've been going about this from the wrong end of things."

Peggy perched on the arm of his chair. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, we've been looking at the contents of the safe deposit boxes as if that's the important thing, looking for something suspicious or odd or connected to the Arena Club. But maybe we should be thinking about it from Dottie's end. What's her game these days? Since we burned her with Leviathan, she's been after two things only."

Jack nodded slowly. "Trying to get back in the good graces of the Soviets, and tweaking Peggy's chain."

"So unless she's occupied in something completely new, she's probably doing one of those things," Peggy said.

"Yeah." Daniel rested a hand idly against hers, knuckles touching, as he spoke. "We know nothing at all about what she's been up to since she vanished in Los Angeles. She went completely underground. And now she surfaces in New York of all places -- why? Either she needed something vitally important from that bank, something she could get nowhere else ..."

"Or she wanted to be seen," Peggy said. "And decided to appear somewhere she was reasonably sure I'd find out about it."

Jack tensed. His shoulder holster was looped over the back of his chair; he'd rarely been far from it since he'd been shot in L.A. by the assassin whose identity remained unknown. Now his hand shifted closer to his service weapon. "She's tryin' to lure Peggy to New York."

"It would appear so." Peggy kicked her bare heel against the side of Daniel's chair. "But why? She hasn't made a move against me."

"Yet," Jack said.

They were all silent for a moment, listening to the ticks and creaks of the house as it settled in the cold.

"I refuse to be paranoid," Peggy said, a little too loudly. "If she thinks she can take on three trained, armed agents of the SSR, then let her."

Daniel's gaze had drifted to the window, where darkness had fallen. Snowflakes glimmered in the lights illuminating the winter-dead grounds. "What if she didn't want Peggy in New York, but instead ..."

"-- She wanted Peggy gone from L.A.," Jack said sharply.

Daniel scrambled out of the chair. "I'm calling the West Coast office."

"No one will be in," Peggy pointed out.

"I'll roust someone. Fuller maybe, or Chang. They're dependable." He was already dialing, impatiently feeding the numbers to the operator and waiting for the switching. "Fuller, hey, it's Chief Sousa. Listen, I hate to drag you out of the house on a holiday, but I need you to run into the office and check on things there. Don't go alone. We think Underwood may be in town ..."

As soon as he hung up, Peggy said, "Is there any chance she might go after Mr. Jarvis and Ana?"

"Wouldn't she, if she could get something she wanted that way?" Daniel returned. "You said they don't do anything for Christmas."

"No, Mr. Jarvis prefers to celebrate Ana's holidays with her, unless Howard requires something."

"Where's Howard now?"

"Somewhere in France, I believe." Peggy let out a relieved breath. "And Mr. Jarvis and Ana were going to join him there. I'm sure they've already left."

"Wouldn't that mean the house is empty?"

"As is your house," Peggy pointed out. "Do you keep anything classified there?"

"Not unless I bring work home with me. You?"

"Not personally, no, but there's no telling what Howard has in his lab."

"Toys," Daniel groaned. "Weapons. Purloined samples of Zero Matter, for all we know. It's an absolute wonderland of things Leviathan would probably love to get their grubby little hands on."

"And the perfect passport for a burned spy looking to get back into the fold," Jack said darkly.

What followed was a couple of hours of telephone tag with various agents at the West Coast SSR, immensely frustrating for Peggy, who hovered over Daniel's shoulder chafing desperately at the knowledge that she was an entire coast away from where she needed to be, and housebound on top of that.

Daniel's agents came back, eventually, with a report that the locks on Howard's L.A. mansion showed signs of having been forced. They weren't sure if anything was missing, not knowing what had been there in the first place.

"Howard will know," Peggy said. "Though I definitely do not want Howard or the Jarvises poking about the house without someone there who knows how to use a gun. It's the middle of the night in Europe now, but I'll ring them as soon as it's morning and tell them to stay where they are, and to look into their personal security while they're at it. Fortunately, Howard being Howard, I don't expect any of them back for at least a week."

"Guess I'd better alert the guys I know in the foreign service and various embassies to be on the alert for Underwood and, better yet, for the possibility of even more pilfered Stark tech hitting the market." Jack grimaced. "Any chance Stark's planning on relocating to France entirely and making himself some other country's problem for a change?"

"Howard does mean well. It's only that his scientific curiosity tends to outstrip his common sense."

"That's not difficult, when he had so little of it to begin with. So all of this --" Jack flicked a sheet of paper, sending it spinning to the floor. "... was a complete waste of time."

"Not entirely," Peggy said, picking it up and putting it back with the others. "It's not impossible Dottie might have taken something from the bank as well, or that she might be interested in Bradford and his Arena Club connections. She rarely does anything for just one reason, and if she was going to be hanging around New York until the SSR spotted her, she may well have decided to kill two birds with one stone."

Jack grunted, unmollified. "Guess that part's for my office to work on, since you two will be on the next flight to L.A. ... Right?"

"Whenever that's going to be." Daniel looked at the window again, at the snow piled up on the sill. "The airports are going to be shut down 'til they get this cleared, and the way it's still coming down out there, I'd say it'll be at least a couple of days."

"We can't leave without seeing your family," Peggy said. She had to force the words out -- she wanted to find Dottie, now -- but she saw him relax slightly in the knowledge that she wouldn't have to force him into a difficult choice.

Still, it stung to know how close they'd been. "If only we could do something with the knowledge that she's somewhere near L.A.," Peggy complained. "She might even still be in the city ..."

"I've had my guys post a guard on Stark's place," Daniel said. "She won't be getting back in."

"I doubt she'll try. She's too careful for that."

Jack had wandered to the window to look out at the falling snow. He turned back to the room, his face grim. "And the SSR gets another black eye, as Underwood waltzes in and steals Stark tech right under our noses. This'll look great on the end-of-year reports."

"It's my office that's taking the hit this time, not yours, Jack," Daniel pointed out.

"Yeah, but we both get funding from the same government tap, and this just pushes us one step closer to having it dry up."

Daniel met Peggy's eyes briefly, before crutching into the kitchen. She joined him there, finding him pouring more eggnog. "You gonna tell him?" Daniel asked quietly, adding a dollop of rum to each glass. "About the thing you're thinking about. The SHIELD project. Or were you planning on bringing him in on it at all?"

"I did plan to ... eventually," Peggy murmured. "But there's hardly anything to tell yet. It's still only an idea."

Daniel huffed a quiet laugh. "I've known you long enough by now to know that there's no standing between you and an idea once you get your mind made up. Anyway ..." He nodded to the kitchen window, where snowflakes drifted down lightly. "This miserable city, with its miserable weather ... it's awfully good to be back, isn't it?"

"I truly enjoy the warm climate and sunshine of L.A. But," she admitted, "it's never quite felt like ..."

"Home?"

Peggy nodded, Daniel clinked his glass with hers.

"What are we toasting?" Jack wanted to know, slouching into the kitchen. He retrieved the third glass, took a sniff, and added another measure of rum. "The slow collapse of our careers?"

"In a sense, yes." Peggy sipped the creamy drink, letting the sweet spiciness of cinnamon and cloves and the sting of the liquor roll across her tongue. "Jack, Daniel and I have been talking about a ... what I suppose you might term an alternative to the SSR. Life after the SSR, if you will. Howard is also involved; it's why he's in France in the first place. There are still a number of hurdles before this project will see the light of day, and I am not going to pretend there isn't a certain risk to our reputations and careers ..."

"Possibly a lot of risk," Daniel murmured, but his hand slipped into hers, fingers twining together.

Jack considered this before tossing back a slug of his drink. "Tell me more," he said.


---

Note: The blizzard is real. From this link:

At 3:20 in the morning it began to snow in New York City. By the time most New Yorkers were going to work the blanket lay three inches deep. But the city, used to ignoring all natural phenomena and reassured by a weather forecast of “occasional flurries,” went about its business. But as the day wore on this characteristic blasé attitude vanished. The air grew filled with snowflakes so huge and thick it was almost impossible to see across the street. They fell without letup — all morning, all afternoon and into the night.

Long after night fall the illuminated news sign of the New York Times flashed an announcement to little groups of people huddled in Times Square that the snowfall, which totaled an amazing 25.8 inches in less than 24 hours, had beaten the record of the city’s historic blizzard of 1880. A faint, muffled shout of triumph went up from the victims.



Another photo of the snowstorm from Tumblr.


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