Sorry for the delay. Endings are tough.
Peggy's limbs felt impossibly heavy. The chemical smell that reached her was definitely that of a hospital room. She opened her eyes. In contrast to the white-lit temples of Science she'd recently visited, this room's warm yellow glow softened the view of peeling paint and faint cracks in the ceiling above. She couldn't force breath enough to cry.
Either she'd been sent back, or it had all been a dream. Which was the better option? If it had been a dream, she'd lost nothing. Hadn't lost the chance to save Steve. But if it wasn't, then she'd gained...
Hospital. The baby. A sudden panic beyond anything she'd felt since the war. She had to find out. She had to get up. Damn! She couldn't lift herself!
"Please don't. You are safe, and you must rest." A familiar voice at her side. She could move her eyes, at least. She forced a modicum of calm upon herself. There sat Mr. Jarvis, in his shirtsleeves and with dark circles showing beneath his eyes. She couldn't quite make out the dark smudge along his sunken cheeks, then was startled when she realized its cause. He was unshaven. Some weeks' so. Her reaction to his scruffy appearance was immediately followed by an instinct to laugh at the absurdity of her shock. She had lately survived a gunshot wound (definitely) and travelled through time twice (possibly), yet here she lay, astonished that Mr. Edwin Jarvis had neglected his toilette.
"I am a daft git," she whispered.
"I must insist upon disagreement." Her eyes left his unkept visage. His hands were resting upon the bed's rail.
"Your wedding ring. It's on your right hand."
He looked down at his bare left hand. "Indeed. An oddly comforting transition, not having to leave it off altogether."
"I am sorry, Mr. Jarvis." Though Peggy had never met Anna Jarvis (whatever her real name may have been), it struck her that the woman's ghost would likely inhabit her friend's thoughts for years to come. Steve's memory had done the same to her. Now, how much more affecting would that memory be, knowing he was alive? Might be alive…
"Was it real? Have I been gone?"
Mr. Jarvis kept his face still, as if he couldn't decide upon an answer, and wished to give nothing away. This would not stand. "Tell me, Mr. Jarvis."
He remained silent, pursing his lips and looking down.
"Do you honestly expect to spare my delicate feelings with a lie? Answer me at once."
He forced his eyes up. "Howard Stark sent you… somewhere. He claims he sent you to some future date. Your grave injuries have seemingly been treated. You are… healthy." Mr. Jarvis' expression was positively grim at this glad news.
Oh. My. What must he think? "Mr. Jarvis, I've had a rather complicated week." She clamped down her teeth over the burst of hysterical laughter that threatened to emerge. And now she felt tears coming. Good grief! Wasn't this hormonal deluge premature? She reigned in her erratic emotions. With relief, she felt her limbs' numbness ebb away. She remembered the lifetime's worth of photographs filling an album. "It went well."
His hand gripped the bed rail a moment, then loosened and moved to cover hers. "Anything that happened to you in the future — can be prevented. Will be prevented. I must ask you for any information that might help. We will track him down."
His tone made his unsaid intention clear. "What exactly do you propose to do, Mr. Jarvis? Murder the grandmother of someone who won't be born for half a century?"
"That is precisely what I propose."
Time travel's jumbled potential consequences gave her a moment of vertigo. She must warn Howard against using this mad invention again.
"Your chivalrous and bloodthirsty plan is unnecessary. Please do stifle all homicidal tendencies for the time being." She rested the hand not held by Mr. Jarvis on her stomach. "Steve was there, in the future. Alive. They found him in the ice and revived him."
Mr. Jarvis stared, and his hand slipped from hers. When he brought himself to speak, his shock was revealed as having nothing to do with miraculous cryogenic stasis. "You returned. You didn't remain."
"I have… unfinished business here." She could feel a passing shadow of regret, and determined to mask it. "In any case, overcrowding would have become an issue. One Peggy Carter per realm of existence is quite enough."
"You were still alive? You met your future self?" She nodded, belatedly relieved to feel more freedom of movement. "Surely your… elder would not begrudge your presence, not deny you a second chance…"
"That second chance will not be the last one. She didn't remain my elder. Young Master Stark administered a concoction of his own making. I saw her… myself… regain youth in minutes."
"Wow!" They both startled at the intrusion. Howard had slipped unnoticed into the room while they were engrossed in Peggy's tale. "The Fountain of Youth. My progeny!" Howard looked positively inflated with paternal pride and ego. "My greatest invention." He sauntered up to the bed. "Hey, Pal. Young Master Stark, huh?" He patted his pockets. "I gotta get some cigars to hand out. Hey, Jarvis, why don't you get yourself a hot meal and pick up a box on your way back."
"You're a bit early, Howard. I didn't ask for his birth date, but from his appearance I would guess you have well over a decade to hone your paternal instincts. Perhaps even two."
"So I'll hold off on the cigars." Howard's face took on an unaccustomed serious expression when he looked at Mr. Jarvis. "You need that hot meal, though." His grin came back. "And a bath." He waved his hand in front of his nose. "Not necessarily in that order."
Mr. Jarvis, seemingly struck dumb, let his eyes bulge out at his rude employer. He then looked to Peggy in silent inquiry. She nodded, and he stood to make an over-theatrical exit.
Howard smiled until the door closed behind Mr. Jarvis, but turned back to Peggy with concern. "Are you Okay, Pal? I got the feeling these docs aren't telling me something, and I really hate that. And maybe you need a better class of hospital." As he sat in the plain wooden chair, he scowled at the walls and ceiling of the drab room. "I picked this one for its top guy, but look at that peeling—"
"Oh, do shut up." Her remark providing instant reassurance of her well-being, Howard fell silent, beaming.
"The medical secret they're withholding is my pregnancy." Howard's mouth dropped open, and his comical stunned expression instantly cheered Peggy. As she realized what her next revelation must be, she felt remorse creeping in on her fine mood. "Howard. Steve was there. Alive. They found him. The serum kept him alive in the ice, and he's still saving the world, in the future."
The open, astonished joy on Howard's face was too soon overtaken by guilt. "They found him. I didn't. Oh, God, Peg. Years, decades in the ice? He wakes up and everybody he knows is gone. He's out there. And he's gonna be a father." He looked up at her. "But you know where, right? He told you, didn't he? Or—. One of them had to tell you." His voice trailed off as she shook her head.
"Steve nearly did. He… was interrupted." How to explain her older self's manipulation?
"I've gotta get back to the Arctic before the summer's out." His eyes lost their focus as he planned his next search for Steve.
"No. Not yet. Just trust me, please." She felt suddenly overwhelmed by the consequences of her foreknowledge. There were too many choices, and she needed time to think about them.
"'Course I trust you, Peg. You really want me to wait?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to give further justification. One priority stood out, fortunately. "In any event, I need to get to California. The SSR had bloody well better have an office out there." This non sequitur was, at least, able to knock Howard out of his immediate gloom. "I seem to be fated to prevent an atomic catastrophe in Los Angeles. I should have demanded an exact schedule. I've no idea when I need to be there."
"Huh." Howard looked preoccupied, and Peggy suspected he was still contemplating a rescue mission. His next thought gave her some reassurance. "I just bought a little film studio out there. It won't be little for long, o' course." His shadow of a grin was brief. "I meant to talk to you about an idea Colonel Phillips and I had about changes for the SSR. We could base it out West...You know, the Coast'd be a nice place to raise a kid. Sunshine, open space. Healthy—once you get that atomic bomb taken care of, anyway."
Peggy's face turned pensive at the thought of the new responsibility she'd barely had time to process. Howard noticed, and his eyes took on a definite gleam as he offered, "I bet MI6 doesn't mind Jarvis coming along. They seem to think that I was dear old Dottie's intended target, for some reason."
"No. Rubbish. You did not know that before I did!"
"Ha! Maybe I should be a spy, ya think? That other boss of his gets braggy with his pillow talk. Told my friend Harry all about how he was snooping on one spoiled American playboy."
"Harriet. She has the greatest—." He caught himself at her warning glare. "Ears. Great listener. Real empathetic gal."
"I'm sure. How long have you known?"
"Not the whole time. Well, almost all of it. It's not my fault old Freddie couldn't keep his… mouth zipped." He smirked. "You won't tell Jarvis I know, will you? He's really the greatest butler. And he might get hurt, getting back into spying full-time. When he's with you, I know he's okay."
"Tell Mr. Jarvis at once."
"Tell me what?" Mr. Jarvis stood, unsteady, by the just-opened door. He'd not taken time enough to eat, but his damp forehead hinted at a quick wash in the loo. Peggy silently cursed Howard for the childish joke that sent her exhausted friend to worry over his odor ahead of nourishment.
Not meeting his eyes, Howard bounced to his feet and drew Mr. Jarvis away from the door. He waited for the butler to settle on the chair. "I know about your job. Your other job."
Mr. Jarvis closed his eyes. "And so I attain new heights of failure."
Howard kneeled beside the chair and shook his arm. "No. No! Your lousy boss failed you. The other one. He blabbed about your very important mission (me) to impress his lady friend. You, on the other hand, have successfully protected me for years. You and Peg made a great team and cleared my name. Where would I be without your help? Locked up? Hanged?" One hand idly loosened his collar. He stood. "How many people's lives you think you saved, tracking down my cockeyed inventions? My stuff is insanely dangerous, but you've stuck with me anyhow, because you're as crazy brave as Peg. Old Freddie and MI6 don't deserve you, and I don't trust them to help keep you safe."
Mr. Jarvis stared at him. "Are you seriously proposing that I continue my charade as your butler? And extend my dismal record with MI6?"
"'Course I am. It's a great cover. Why waste it? Besides, as long as the SSR doesn't know that I know, you won't be stuck at a desk or dealing with paperwork all day." He looked at Peggy as he said the last bit.
"He has a point," Peggy said.
Howard went on. "I'll hire extra staff; you'll have all the time you want for secret spy stuff, and no boring grunt work. 'Sides, Peg might need an extra pair of hands she can trust, for the next, oh, eighteen years or so."
"Howard," Peggy warned. This line of pressure was verging on emotional blackmail.
"You're also one of the three people left on this side of the world who I can count on. Stick around. Please."
"Who's third?" Peggy's question sounded less kind than she intended.
"Well… Colonel Phillips. Though the one time I called him Chester, I thought his stink-eye was gonna turn me to stone. So… Two and-a-half friends, maybe." He looked hopefully at Mr. Jarvis.
"I fear your trust is misplaced. Thanks to my careless oblivion, you have been living in imminent danger."
"I think you've got that backwards, my friend. Anna was supposed to be a threat, sure. But being married to you changed her mind. Dottie shot her for it. Did Sousa tell you what Anna said, in the end?"
Mr. Jarvis nodded.
Belatedly, Peggy remembered. "She wanted to be Anna."
"Yeah." Howard's eyes lost their focus for a moment. "That explains… Huh. I arranged some folks' travel documents during the war. They were all named Breuer, but nobody traced back to Anna."
Peggy smiled. "How many is 'some,' Howard?"
"A few dozen. They were pretty spread out — Hungary, Poland, France. Never did find anybody who knew Anna. Central Jersey's got a lot of Breuers in their phone books, now." He finally noticed his respectively amused and astonished audience. "What? We're always hiring. It's pretty tough to convince anybody to move to Jersey."
"Yes, of course, Howard. They did you a great favor," Peggy assured him.
He looked dubious but glad to end the subject. "I'm getting some real food up here, and you're both gonna eat it. Delmonico's. Fine. Too heavy. Okay, okay. The Waldorf. Gabe's lamb; you wouldn't turn that down." He backed toward the door. "And salmon. It's good for your head. Eat it." His eyes were sad and scared as he shouldered his way through the door.
"Despite his flaws, he's a good sort. He means well." And despite of her miraculous visit with Steve, Peggy had missed her friends, here. "What say you, then? Will you persevere with us, erratic and reckless as we are?" She felt equal parts foolish and reassured in asking her question. She knew what his answer would be, based on that extraordinary future photo album. She would live her life. Not Steve's — not for some time. She placed her hand on his, where it rested on the bed rail. "Edwin?"
His surprise was immediately followed by a familiar look of peaceful joy. Familiar because she'd seen it in a hundred family pictures. "Yes. Yes, Margaret."
"'Peggy' won't do, hmm?"
The smile lines near his eyes deepened. "It never seemed regal enough."