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It's a Good Life (but it can always get better)

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As much as Peggy enjoyed her life, it was certainly true that she never knew exactly what she was going to come home to. If Jason hadn't set anything on fire or threatened the fabric of the spacetime continuum today, then Howard probably had; if both of them were having the mad-science version of a good day, then she'd find Jarvis chasing flamingos or escaped zebras on the lawn, or Ana and Violet filling every surface in the kitchen with baked goods as Ana helped Violet try to bake the perfect cake for Daniel's birthday (the last one had looked like a wedding cake, three layers tall with fondant flowers all over), or Angie was over from her new flat to chatter happily about her latest bit part in a Western or musical picture, or Jack would be back in town again on some paper-thin pretext -- "You should simply move to the West Coast and save the taxpayers the flight expense," she'd remarked to him not long ago.

Living in the Stark mansion was like living in a zoo. In fact, at times Peggy was fairly sure they literally were living in a zoo. (Howard's latest acquisition was a flock of rare tropical fruit bats, who had immediately escaped from their dedicated arboretum and set up a colony in the east parlor, with occasional forays into the rest of the house to forage from the ornamental fruit bowls.) Peggy loved the whole ragtag lot -- well, except the bats; even Bernard had grown on her -- and she loved her life with a fierceness that she would never have dreamed possible a year and a half ago, when the future seemed to stretch in front of her as cold and empty as an Arctic plain. But there were times when she would have given, if not her left arm, then at least her most comfortable pair of flat-heeled shoes for a quiet evening curled up with Jason, with no distractions, disasters, or out-of-town friends dropping by for a visit.

Tonight, the house was quiet ... almost too quiet. Peggy took off her hat, shooed a stray bat off the hat-rack to hang it up, and slipped out of her shoes as she walked through the house. "Jason?" she called. "Ana?"

She found Jason in the informal dining area adjacent to the kitchen. The table was decked with candles, and two places were set, although one of them (Jason's) had been shoved aside to make room for a variety of brochures and folded newspaper sections, spread out all over the table and spilling into Peggy's plate.

"Peggy!" Jason sprang to his feet and made a hasty effort at tidying the table, which only succeeded in sweeping half the brochures to the floor. Peggy knelt to help pick them up, and they nearly knocked heads. Looking at each other, kneeling on the floor, they both burst into laughter.

"Let me try this again," Jason said. He straightened and pulling Peggy to her feet, then put an arm around her and kissed her long and deep. "Better?" he asked, breaking away.

"Much." Her lips tingled pleasantly. "What is all of this? And where is everyone?"

"Well, this was going to be a nice 'welcome home' dinner. Howard's up at the Malibu place, Edwin and Ana are out late with her bridge club, and shockingly enough, we don't seem to have any houseguests tonight. So." He beckoned her towards the table. "It's just you and me. Dinner is staying warm in the oven. Let me get it."

"Oh!" Peggy endured having her chair pulled out, a deplorable habit she couldn't quite break either Jason or Jarvis of (that and doors, doors were still a problem as well). Having done that, Jason vanished off to the kitchen and Peggy reached for the open bottle of wine sitting beside the half-full glass on Jason's side of the table. There was an empty glass waiting for her. She was more of a bourbon girl than a wine drinker, but Jason knew that, so apparently this was meant to be a bit of a special occasion. She poured herself a small glass, and sipped it while she finished picking up the spilled brochures on the floor and swept them all into a pile to make room for the tableware.

She couldn't help noticing that there was a general theme to all of the brochures, magazines, and newspaper sections spread out on the table. All of them had to do with houses. Most of the brochures were for new family subdivisions going up around L.A., and the newspaper had been opened and folded to the real estate section.

Jason came back in wearing oven mitts and carrying a covered dish. "Nana Wilkes's world-famous ham and bread-crumb casserole. Original version leaning more towards bread and less with the ham, but I've made a few tweaks I think you'll like."

"It smells wonderful. I'm starved." She smiled and moved her glass aside. "What kind of wine goes with ham?"

"A nice local cabernet, from the look of things." He looked around; Peggy guessed what he was looking for and jumped up to retrieve a trivet from a nearby sideboard, placing it on the table so he could set the hot dish down.

Jason liked to cook. Howard did employ a cook, but with Jason and the Jarvises around, all three of whom were deft in the kitchen and generally enjoyed it, the cook's duties were usually limited to preparing breakfast, making sure the kitchen was kept well-stocked, and handling dinner when there were a lot of people over or everyone was too tired to deal with it.

As Jason filled her plate, Peggy picked up one of the brochures. "Palm Island Estates," she read. "Too much to hope it's actually on an island, I suppose."

"More like an island of greenery surrounded by desert. The houses have a nice open floor plan, though." Jason passed her plate back to her and picked up his own. "I hope you don't mind me picking these up. I'm not trying to jump into anything here. I'm just saying, living with Howard and working with Howard --"

"Is rather a lot of Howard. I appreciate your point." Fork in one hand, she opened another brochure with the other. "Oh, these have their own backyard pools. That sounds delightful."

"I wouldn't want to keep you in anything less than the style to which you've become accustomed," Jason remarked. His tone was playful, but there was a rueful element to his glance around their opulent surroundings.

Peggy opened her mouth to say something reassuring -- she didn't care about money and nice houses; she never had -- when a bat swooped down from the ceiling and plunged into her glass of wine.

Jason dropped the serving spoon with a clatter. Peggy lunged for her napkin and rescued the struggling bat, depositing it in a splatter of red-purple wine stains on top of a nearby fruit bowl.

"Well," Jason said, recovering the spoon, while Peggy moved candles and brochures to wipe down her side of the table, "they are Howard's bats. They probably appreciate a nice glass of cabernet."

"Where did that brochure go? Palm Island Estates, wasn't it?"