Peggy was still slightly short of breath when she picked up the shrilling phone in the living room. She collapsed into the armchair, tilted her head back, and took a moment to catch her breath before saying with admirable poise, “Hello?”
In the brief pause that followed, Peggy eyed Jack, lying flat on the floor across the room, clutching his chest and gently wheezing. The coffee table had been overturned at some point, and a lamp was smashed out in the hall, but the hostile agents were effectively neutralized, and SSR agents were five minutes out.
“Oh dear,” said a woman's voice on the other end. “I think the operator might have made a mistake.”
“May I ask who you are calling for?” Peggy asked politely.
“I was trying to reach my son, Jack. I have his number here, oh what was it…”
“You've reached the right place, Mrs. Thompson,” Peggy assured her. Across front her, Jack bolted straight up, then turned a curdled-milk pale and clutched his tender side. Still, he shot an alarmed look at her and made grabby hands.
“Oh? I have? Oh, good, good.”
“He's indisposed at the moment, but I can take a message,” Peggy offered. Jack gave her a thumbs up, then made a wind-it-up motion.
“And who are you, dear?” Jack's mother asked, curiosity rampant even over the static. Before Peggy could reply, she added, “Wait, wait, let me guess… you must be Margie!”
Peggy blinked. “I- beg your pardon?”
“Jack has told us so much about you!” The warmth in the woman's tone was effusive. Peggy cast a bewildered look at Jack who motioned wildly for her to hang up. “I can't tell you how thrilled I am to hear your voice! And you're English! He mentioned your accent. Oh this is wonderful—”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but might there be a misunderstanding?”
“You are the Margie in the New York office, aren't you? Who brought Jackie back from Los Angeles?”
Peggy’s exhausted, jet-lagged brain began grinding out the connections slowly but gleefully. “… Yes, I suppose I am that Margie,” she said, grinning toothily at Jack. His expression was horrified, and he began the laborious production of scrambling to his feet, leveraging himself up by various pieces of toppled furniture. Peggy scowled and mouthed at him to sit down.
“How wonderful!” Mrs. Thompson enthused. “I wanted to make sure Jack was coming down to the farm for Thanksgiving—or if he’s not up for the ride, Ernest and I can drive up with the McLarens.”
“I'll be certain to pass on the message, Mrs. Thompson,” Peggy said dutifully.
“Call me Bess, please! You know, I was going to tell him to invite you down as well, but since I got you on the phone, I’ll extended that invite directly. We’d love to meet you, finally!”
“That's so kind, but are you sure I wouldn’t be intruding?" she asked sweetly, shamelessly elbowing Jack's weak shoulder to keep him away from the phone.
"Pish tosh, you would be a breath of fresh air! And we've all been itching to meet Jack's sweetheart—he’s been talking you up –”
Jack snatched the receiver from Peggy. “Ma! Hey! How's it going?”
Peggy stared very hard at him, but he'd turned shifty, cradling the telephone to his chest and avoiding her gaze.
“Uh huh, yeah, okay. No, Ma! I'm fine. Just got back from the airport. It was fine…” An outright understatement; there were still two foreign agents knocked out cold and piled in a heap of handcuffs and bruises in his foyer. “Yeah, that was uh, Margie, but no, no, she’s got plans, she can’t come.”
Peggy jabbed his shoulder and he flinched. “I'd love to go, Bess,” she called over his shoulder, and heard a burst of excited chattering from the phone. He gave her an outraged glare. Out in the hall, the doorbell rang, and Peggy reluctantly left the parlor.
“You are explaining this, Jackie," she mouthed, and went off to boss the SSR agents around.
The clean-up team was thorough, and even righted the furniture before they'd left with the two suspects. Jack had wanted to catch a ride to the office, but Peggy threatened to sit on him if he'd tried. Then he appealed to her own sense of curiosity and righteousness, and they went back and forth until agreeing that they would both attend the interrogation first thing tomorrow morning, once they had some sleep. By then it was well after the dinner hour, and Peggy refused to be kicked out. No one had been able to track down the gunman who'd nearly killed Jack in Los Angeles yet, or had any sort of leads, and now they'd returned to New York to find two more yahoos lying in wait with silencers and gasoline.
“I’d rather you come with me to the Stark house,” Peggy said sharply, tracking his slow progress back and forth his apartment. “Howard has his custom alarm system, as well as reinforced windows and locks.”
“I’m fine, Carter,” he snapped. From what Peggy could spy, the only thing edible in his kitchenette was… a can of beans and a dusty pack of chips. Everything else had gone off; the carrots in the fridge were alarmingly flexible. He grabbed the chips and returned to the living room. Peggy pursed her lips. “Go home, I can take care of myself.”
She ignored him. “There’s plenty of room, and I expect Angie’ll be in Connecticut for her show, so it’ll be quiet as well.”
“Hey, aren’t you sick of me yet?” Jack asked desperately.
“Terrifically,” she said, heartfelt. “That being said, your surgeons didn’t spend a full work day wrist deep in your chest trying to keep you from bleeding out two months ago for me to let someone else finish the job. If you won’t come back to Stark’s, then I’m perfectly comfortable right here.” And she settled on his ugly green sofa as properly as a duchess.
He rolled his eyes as he sat down and propped his feet up on the coffee table, shoes on, because it annoyed her. Her mouth twitched, but she didn’t rise to the bait.
“Besides,” she added slyly, “We’ll only be seeing each other again on Wednesday when we go down to your parent’s place for Thanksgiving, won’t we, Jackie?”
“No!” he half-shouted, flinging a potato chip at her. She snagged it from the couch cushion and popped it into her mouth, smiling smugly.
“It would be terribly rude of me to back out now; your mother was so kind to invite me over the phone!”
Jack looked as though he were wondering, not for the first time, if life wouldn’t be better if he’d simply had the fortitude to expire on the operating table two months ago. “I’m begging you, if you have any friendly feeling for me at all, you will pretend that never happened. Please.”
Peggy hooted. “Did you really make up a beau to your parents? And think that they wouldn’t ever want to meet her?”
Sighing, Jack tipped his head back on the sofa, one hand absently over his injured side and stared at the ceiling. “You don’t know what they’re like,” he said glumly.
“Would you care to wager?” she snorted. “My mother’s fair stopped speaking to me three years ago for various crimes against familial expectations.”
Jack worked his jaw. “Pops had a heart attack last year,” he said. “It was a bad one. They only got to him in time because Ma forgot her grocery list and had to run back into the house for it. He’d recovered mostly by Christmas, but it shook them both pretty bad. After that, Ma started asking and asking about marriage and grandkids. She did before too, but,” he shrugged. “I guess it’s different now, urgency, mortality…”
“So you told them I was your sweetheart,” Peggy said,
“No, see, that’s where you’re confused,” he corrected. “I made up a girl, that happens to share some qualities with you.”
She ticked off on her hand. “Same name, same accent, same job…”
“I borrowed some characteristics,” he hedged. “Ma woulda guessed the truth if I made up some perfect gal. It’s the flaws that make it convincing,” he smirked and she rolled her eyes. “Listen, Peggy, don’t worry about it. I’ll tell her it didn’t work out. I don’t want this to come between you and Sousa.”
“You can’t possibly think he’d be threatened,” she said in a way that clearly indicated he would not.
Jack mimed a shot to the heart. “You know in some circles, I’m quite the catch.”
“Your mum's knitting club doesn’t count,” she retorted.
“Uncalled for,” he said, and climbed to his feet with a wince at his aching—everything. “Fine, you can take the couch, but you’re not coming to Thanksgiving.”
“Oh, my goodness, you are just so pretty,” Bess Thompson cried, and came for Peggy with open arms. She was delicate, slender in a blue dress, with a soft, cloudy puff of ash-blonde hair, but her arms that encircled Peggy were surprisingly strong.
“It’s so lovely to meet you, Bess,” Peggy said, embracing the slight woman in return. “You are so kind to have me here this weekend.”
“Well, it’s about time,” Bess said, turning to her son with mock outrage. “I’ve only been hearing tales of how wonderful you are for a whole year.”
Jack grinned, strained but genuine and allowed himself to be hugged and kissed. “Hello, Ma.”
“You look so thin,” Bess mourned, patting his face. “I should have gone out to Los Angeles. I wish you’d let me!”
“I know, but I’m fine, and I’m here now, aren’t I?” Jack said. His mother smiled back tremulously, eyes suspiciously bright, which only reinforced Peggy’s impression of her as a fragile hothouse flower.
“Come inside, come inside,” Bess said after a moment, and pushed the screen door aside to wave them into the two-story farm house that was straight out of a Currier and Ives print. Inside, it was warm and amber-lit, the scent of beeswax mingling with the savory fragrance emerging from the kitchen. “You’re just in time—twenty more minutes and the roast’ll be done. You like roast beef, honey?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Peggy assured.
“Where’s Pops?” Jack asked, setting down their suitcases at the foot of the stairs.
“Oh, it’s Goat Kimball’s day off so they’ve gone fishing,” Bess said absently. “Jackie, I’ve set up your old room for Margie, and there’s a cot in my sewing room for you. Go get settled, and then come join me in the kitchen; I’ve some lovely cider and doughnuts on the table.”
Jack grimaced. Peggy beamed.
“Thank you, Bess, you are so kind,” Peggy said, grinning at Jack who looked unamused. “I promise I won’t be too nosey.”
“Don’t worry, Marge, my expectations for your self-control are non-existent,” Jack grumbled as he led them upstairs.
“Rude,” Peggy said.
The upstairs hall was narrow and low-ceilinged, but sunny butter-yellow walls and white Cape Cod wainscoting made it less claustrophobic than it might otherwise have seemed. Jack nudged the door to Bess’s sewing room open with one foot and dropped off his suitcase, then crossed to the other side of the hall and gestured Peggy inside through an open doorway.
“Well,” Peggy said as she stepped inside and looked around, “This is quite… expected. Positively Rockwell-ian.”
“Yeah, yeah, hey, here's an idea; let's not make this any more humiliating for me this weekend?” Jack grumbled, ankling the door shut behind them and crossing his arms. Peggy sat down on the rustic quilted bedspread and peered about the room, beaming.
“I think it's sweet; Jackie was, in fact, a real boy. Plucked from the pages of a Sears Catalogue, but still. Oh, look, you're toothless here!”
Jack snatched the picture frame from her hands and shoved it face down on the dresser. “You done?”
Biting back a smile, Peggy gestured agreement. “You going to sit down? I told you, you should have let me drive.”
“I got a mom already and she’s downstairs,” Jack grumbled.
“Yes, and don’t think she didn’t watch you like a hawk going upstairs,” Peggy said.
Jack glared at her. “Carter, if you're going to be playing spooks and spies the entire time we're here, I’d rather you do it where I won’t have to listen.” His tone was mild, but thin in a way that set Peggy on alert.
“This is really bothering you,” Peggy said after a moment, and straightened up. “Jack…”
With a wipe of his face, Jack sighed and sunk into a desk chair. “I’m not comfortable with this situation, alright? I panicked and made up a big dumb lie and now I gotta deal with the consequences. But I’m a big boy. I’ll be fine. Just please, don't…” he trailed off, substituted his words with a grimace and expansive flail.
“Of course,” Peggy said. “Jack, if you want me to go, I can-”
“No, no. It's fine. I'm just gonna check in with the office,” he sighed again. “You stay and… don’t snoop.”
“Promise,” Peggy swore. Jack shot her a suspicious look and left.
Even without actively snooping, Peggy couldn’t help observing—the room was compact and lovingly maintained—the book shelf and trophy wall snugged up against a desk topped with framed photos of Jack through the ages, like some Americana-themed evolution of mankind: Jack swaddled in a soft blanket, Jack in a sailor dress, presumably toddling straight towards the navy, Jack with a baseball bat, Jack in a high school football uniform, Jack in his dress blues. In several, Bess was a beaming, crinkly-eyed figure of maternal pride. Peggy unpacked slowly, tucking her clothes into the heavy walnut dresser, a little scratched with age, but freshly polished and dust free. She eyed the books on the shelf. Plenty of old pulps, a comic here and there. Some biographies of great statesmen taking up a solid line of cracked spines.
“Predictable,” Peggy muttered, but couldn’t deny that it came out fonder than intended. She shoved her suitcase under the bed (spotless but for the prerequisite shoebox of boyhood treasures), and straightened her skirt. A muffled noise caught her attention, and peering out the window, she could see a battered gray truck crunching up the road, idling next to Jack's car before the engine cut and two men climbed out. From the passenger side emerged a thin, tall man with a full head of graying hair. When the driver, a younger man tucked under a blue baseball cap, extracted a cooler from the truck bed, the passenger attempted to take a hold and was batted away, their loud, good natured argument muffled through the glass.
Peggy watched as they ambled up the drive, voices rising and falling in well-worn grooves of familiar jokes. At the foot of the house, the tall man paused and before she could move away, tilted his head back and met her gaze straight on. The gaze was steely and dark, as sharp a Jack's was when he was being serious. Caught, Peggy smiled brightly and waved.
To her surprise, the thin man scoffed, expression souring as he resumed his path into the house. Blinking, Peggy straightened up. Perhaps she was overthinking it. In any case, she couldn’t much avoid him, she sighed, and headed downstairs.
“There you are,” Bess said as Peggy peeked into the kitchen. “Just in time, Ernest just returned as well.”
Peggy smiled and allowed Bess to draw her out into the living room, a cozy, warm space dominated by a set of wide, comfortable leather love seat and armchair. The fireplace was yet unlit, but it looked clean and well-used. And as Peggy peered curiously at the family photos on the mantel, heavy footsteps and cheerful conversation grew louder. She had enough time to stiffen her spine and paste a demure smile on her face as Bess reentered, ushering two men into the room.
“This is Margie,” Bess said, and drew the tall, gray haired man forward.
“Ernest,” he said, shaking her hand.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you both,” Peggy said. “Jack has told me so much.” Mostly in the form of a debrief, with accompanying typed report, in a manila folder to be filed somewhere, presumably Peggy's collection for alternate identities.
“Mmh, yes,” Ernest said, and only a lifetime of garden parties at Lady Purcell's country home kept Peggy’s expression pleasant. His unenthusiastic response lingered awkwardly until his companion introduced himself with a cheerful grin.
“Brian Kimball, Miss, I’m a friend of the family,” he said; his features were otherwise plain and a bit rough-hewn, but his smile was transformative. Peggy found herself smiling back with genuine warmth.
“Pleased to meet you,” Peggy said, shaking his hand and pretending not to notice Bess dig a pointed elbow into Ernest's side. Peggy asked about their fishing, rather than risk another hostile silence and Brian happily obliged. His way of speaking was as likable as his demeanor—engaging without being overwhelming, generous, and suffused with a casual, dry humor that was utterly charming.
Still, there was only so much chit chat that could thrive in the face of hostility radiating from one corner, and Peggy was swept with relief when Jack came stomping into the living room, scowling.
“Ma, you get the telephone guy on- oh, Pops. Hey, Brian,” he said, stopping short, blinking rapidly before drawing up with his brilliant, social grin, shaking hands and clapping arms.
“Hi Jack,” Brian said, amiably fond. “You’re looking well; I’m pleased to see it. You never could stay out of trouble, hey?”
“Happy to oblige,” Jack said with a crooked grin. “And you’re one to talk. Who d’you think I was following into all those detentions?”
“And now look at us, paragons of the law,” Brian laughed.
“Brian here’s the local deputy,” Jack explained, seeing Peggy’s polite curiosity.
“You staying for dinner?” Ernest said.
“Naw, I got Corinne and Dad waiting for me; in fact I better skedaddle.”
“Invite them over,” Ernest said jovially. “We haven’t seen Corinne in ages.” Bess, Peggy noted, sent a surprisingly vicious glare at her husband in between sunny smiles and hostess-y noises. Jack’s expression was so pleasantly bland that it was unnatural.
“Corinne’s already got dinner on the table by now, but maybe after the holiday,” Brian suggested.
“Well, alright,” Ernest said, visibly disappointed.
“Hey, Brian,” Jack piped up, “You know what’s going on with the phones?”
“Haven’t heard anything out of the ordinary, but then again, I haven’t been in the station all day. They on the fritz?”
“Yeah, I think so. You mind ringing the telephone repair for us when you get back?”
“That’s not true,” Bess said. “Did you check the wires?”
“I know how a telephone works, Ma,” Jack said exasperated. “Please, Brian, if you could just get—who’s the guy? Is it still Syl?”
“I’ll give him a ring,” Brian assured, and Ernest took the opportunity to see him to the door.
Peggy found herself alone in the sitting room and took the opportunity to gather her thoughts. What to make of Ernest, and his chilly demeanor, Peggy couldn’t begin to guess. It was certainly possible she’d managed to offend him if their paths had crossed back in the day, but it was not likely. He had been a chief analyst in the War Department for several years, a commander in the Navy before then, but retired since the end of the Second World War; nowhere in his career was there even a hint of covert ops or secret agencies, and Peggy felt sure she would’ve remembered doing something to earn such enmity. Or perhaps not, she sighed; occasionally, her temper had gotten the better of her. She was theorizing on the situation that would inspire such mixed reception when Jack came loping back into the room, Bess trailing behind him.
“Hey honey,” he said and coming up to Peggy with a casual hand to her back. “D'you remember where we packed the toolkit?”
“Oh, sweetheart, if you need tools, your father's got one under the sink,” Bess said, and Peggy leaned around with a bright grin.
“It’s no trouble, Bess! I’ll take the chance to freshen up,” she said, and allowed Jack to herd her gently upstairs.
“The phone line is down,” Jack murmured in her ear as they hurried upstairs.
He gave her a look.
“I’m only asking because you’ve never been the most adept with technology,” she said.
“It was one time, and in my defense, it didn’t look like a stapler,” he said.
“Yes,” Peggy agreed soothingly, and crossed the room for her bag. “Do you think it’s a coincidence?”
Jack shrugged. “Maybe. This isn't the most reliable town for service. On the other hand, with my luck-” He sighed and pushed a softened lock of blond hair back with the heel of his hand.
“With our luck indeed,” Peggy agreed, gently emphasizing the second word. She dug out the small case stamped with the Stark Industries logo and opened it to reveal the scattered parts of what looked like a radio and a telegraph straight-key. Howard had presented them with the portable, remote typewriter as a parting gift and for that alone, Peggy would never stop owing him. He hadn’t been able to devise a working receiver yet, so the message would only go one direction. Still better than nothing; the New York office was nothing if not antsy about the two assassination attempts on their chief in the last half year.
She set up the wireless telegraph, absently handing Jack the portable antenna to angle out the window, looking up when he stumbled and cursed. He glared at the antenna and the trailing wires, and glared at Peggy until she left the straight key, took the antenna from his hand and plopped it on top of the dresser, and guided him to a seat on the bed. It spoke to his fatigue that he went without grumbling. “Meanwhile, you need to rest—you really should have let me drive a little longer.”
Jack waved her off. “Yeah, the backroads would’ve been much easier for you to recognize. I’m fine, Marge.”
“Somehow, I’m not convinced,” she said dryly. “Then again, as you’ve noted, I’m not your mother, and we’ve got messages to send. What do we tell the office?”
He rubbed at his temples as Peggy hovered over the straight key. “Arrived. Alive. Continued status not guaranteed.”
Peggy keyed, “Safely arrived Stop telephone down Stop check-in another twelve hrs Stop if no send back up Stop”.
“Your father hates me, by the way,” she said lightly as she packed the antenna and straight key back into the case. Jack, by now flat on his back with a pillow over his face, grunted. “You haven’t told him… anything, have you?”
“Christ, Marge, he doesn’t hate you,” he said, muffled. “And I never talk to him.”
“Maybe if you did, you’d agree with me,” she muttered. “Well, there’s nothing to be done for now.”
Jack flung the pillow aside, but remained flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. “Don’t you wish you’d stayed in Los Angeles now? There’s still time, you know. Daniel’d probably requisition a plane to get you out there if you asked.”
“Why would he when I can fly it myself?” she shot back, irritated by his gloomy self-pity. She tugged him upright briskly and straightened his tie, which he submitted to ungracefully, scowling and slapping at her hands. Rolling her eyes, she turned towards the door. “You’d best get up before your mother comes up here insisting on—oh!”
Ernest Thompson stood just behind the door, expression blank as stone. Behind her, Peggy could practically feel Jack’s posture stiffen.
“Dinner’s ready,” Ernest said after a beat, those familiar blue eyes flicking between them.
“Thank you, we’ll be right down,” Peggy said calmly.
Ernest nodded and looked behind her. “Jack?”
“Yeah, Pops, give us a minute, willya?”
Bobbing his head, Ernest turned and lumbered down the stairs. Peggy watched him leave, and then caught Jack’s eyes. He frowned faintly and shrugged.
“Better go,” he said, and shouldered past her.
Peggy glared briefly and sighed. He wasn’t wrong, was the thing. She did wish—more than just about anything—that they’d just stayed out west, in the company of friends and family and Daniel, solid, steady Daniel, who made everyone around him a little kinder just by being himself. Without him, Peggy and Jack ground against each other like broken glass.
Not for the first time that day, Peggy wondered if she was in over her head. Then, back straight and smile pasted on, she went downstairs for dinner.
Thanksgiving morning dawned cold and pale, the sunlight weak and washed. Still, it was a beautiful view out of Jack’s bedroom window—the rambling drive up to the house, thick clusters of maple and oak and birch beyond, mostly bare limbed and spindly, with occasional bursts of bright, autumnal colors. The ground was gold and red with unraked leaves, and thin, white trails of smoke in the distance marked homes further down. It was still early, but Peggy could smell breakfast cooking downstairs. She dressed and went downstairs. Following the sound of cheerful conversation to the kitchen, she found Bess lording over a stovetop bustling with frying eggs, bacon, and potato. Jack stood back to back with her, pressing orange halves through a juicer.
“There you are,” Bess greeted cheerfully. “I was just about to send Jack up to l fetch you. How do you like your eggs?”
“Scrambled, please,” Peggy replied. “Good morning, Bess. It smells wonderful. Can I help?” She glanced at Jack as she said so, checking almost automatically for stiffness or signs of pain.
“Oh, we have it well in hand, go sit down, dear,” Bess said, urging her towards the breakfast table.
“This juicer’s got me on the ropes, but I'm not down yet,” Jack said dryly.
“It’s the juice I’m worried about,” Peggy said, eyeing the liberal splashes of orange liquid on the counter.
“Go away, you harridan. Ow, Ma!” He flinched as Bess snapped her dishtowel at him.
“You both go away, and get me some more eggs,” his mother ordered cheerfully, and handed him a basket. “Go on; and be quick!”
Jack grumbled, but took the basket and obligingly led the way out the back door, Peggy trailing him and hiding a smile. It was obvious mother and son loved each other—not surprising. But Jack had never seemed capable of such tender, mild moments. Not that Peggy’d never seen him without his guard up, but well. Spies and assassins rarely had need of softness, and Jack’s shell was thick with thorns.
“Didn’t realize you’d grown up a farm boy,” she said as they stumped out across the yard to the chicken coop. The air was bitingly chill, wind rustling the long grass in the field beyond, but Jack, coat-less and with his sleeves rolled up, barely seemed to feel it. Peggy quashed the urge to feel his skin for fever; useless remnant instinct from his long, unsteady recovery in Los Angeles.
“Was never really,” he replied, unlatching the door to the coop and ducking inside. There were three hens pecking and scratching at the dirt in the run, and one nestled and fluffed on the roost. “Mostly we were in DC or Westchester, where my pop’s folks were. But most summers and the last three years of high school, I spent here. My mom grew up here, and when my grandparents died, the house went to her and she refused to sell it.”
Peggy nodded. “I can see why; it’s charming.”
Jack grunted in reply as he searched for eggs, bending over and hissing when the stretch tugged at his side.
“Oh, just hold the basket,” Peggy said, breaking her staring contest with the hen and taking his place next to the nesting box, quickly pulling out the two from the straw.
“I’m not an invalid,” he said testily.
“A very recent development, in the grand scheme of things,” she shot back, and dropped three more eggs in the basket from the other nest.
He glared, but then sighed. “Have you followed up to HQ yet?” he asked instead.
“Wired out an update before coming downstairs. Any luck with the telephone line?”
“No, but someone should be coming around, hopefully. I’ll drive into town and check in anyways after breakfast.”
“Perfect; I would love to see more of town,” Peggy said firmly.
“Bess’ll want you to help with the turkey and casserole for tonight,” Jack said quickly.
“And I shall. But I’d like to check in with Los Angeles too, Jack. Don’t you want to as well?” she said serenely, and took the basket off his arm as they exited the coop.
Jack scowled. “Why you think I’d be interested in calling anyone in that hellmouth of a place, I can hardly fathom.”
“I can think of plenty, among which letting your concerned colleagues know you’re alive and the hens haven’t pecked you to death yet is foremost,” she said.
“You know, you make a lot of assumptions about what people want to know and what they want known,” he told her sharply.
“Jack, I hardly think this is—Jack,” Peggy said, whirling around and forcing him to a stop. Her free hand pressed firmly at, but didn’t hold his arm. She peered at him keenly, and he glared back. This felt—fraught, in a different way. Ever since they’d left Los Angeles, maybe. Peggy wrestled back her instinct to simply shake the—whatever was wrong, out of him. Straightening her shoulders, she dropped her hand. “Alright, I’m sorry.”
“What are you even,” he sighed, but she didn’t budge.
“I’m sorry that you’re stuck with me, in a place where you don’t want me to be, clearly. I understand, and for that, I truly am sorry. But it was me, or Thanksgiving with Agents Roberts and Cohen in the office. And I’m trying not to hover, but you’ll have to forgive me, given the circumstances,” she added. His gaze had dropped away to fixate at their feet.
“Look, Carter, I know you’d spin the world on its axis for it if you could, but trust me,” Jack said after a moment, “for once, it’s not about you, alright? It’s just—me. And you’re right, I don’t like that you’re here. But I’ll live.”
They both grimaced simultaneously, and Jack tacked on, “God willing.”
“I will it,” Peggy said, and with enough conviction that Jack couldn’t help the crooked smile.
“Alright, you two lovebirds, can I have my eggs now? Breakfast’s getting cold,” Bess called out the kitchen window, but she sounded indulgent. Peggy and Jack exchanged a speaking look, and headed inside, dropping the eggs off in the kitchen before sitting down at the breakfast table, where Ernest was chewing morosely at a bowl of plain oatmeal topped with chopped bananas.
“Morning, Pop. No bacon?” Jack took his seat next to him.
“Doctor says he’s not allowed, and you’re not allowed to slip him any either,” Bess sang from the kitchen.
“She was gonna take my coffee too, but I’d rather take my chances with death,” Ernest said darkly.
“My mother felt the same about,” Peggy confided. “Drove herself mad trying to source any beans during the war.”
Bess made a noise of sympathy as she slid a full plate before Peggy, but Ernest just continued to chew sourly. Peggy could feel her smile take on some strain; she glanced at Jack, who looked as mystified as she was.
“Do you plan to stay in America, Margie dear?” Bess asked as she took her own place at the table. “Last night, you mentioned you hadn’t returned to London in some time.”
“Oh, I think I’m quite settled here for the time being,” Peggy said, gaze flitting to Jack briefly. It was certainly true, especially considering the plans they’d sketched out tentatively in Los Angeles. An organization, remade from the mess around them, especially to tackle the unexpected and unexplained. If it went anywhere, Peggy couldn’t see herself leaving anytime soon, especially back into her childhood bedroom in England.
“Oh?” Bess echoed, thrilled.
“Ma,” Jack said, “can I get more hash browns?”
“So how did you come to work with Jack? He’s told us some, but not nearly enough. You were with the SSR during the war, is that right?” Bess said, ignoring her son and pinning Peggy to her seat with bright, curious eyes.
“Yes, specifically with the, ah, military science division,” Peggy replied. “I’d worked with Colonel Phillips as an aide, and after the ceasefire, they offered me a position with the New York office, which is, of course, where I met Jack.” She patted Jack’s arm after a pause, and he shot her a look. “He was… quite difficult to ignore.”
Bess laughed. “Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it. Jack was such a sweet child growing up, but monstrously spoiled. In second grade, he once came home with an entire basket of Valentines—”
“Ma, please,” Jack said, pained.
“Bess, leave them alone,” Ernest said. “Jack, are you going into town later?”
“Right after breakfast. I need to track down a phone and check in with the office.”
Ernest frowned. “It’s Thanksgiving, son. The office can do without you for one day, if they’re any half way competent.”
“It’s protocol, I’m afraid,” Peggy cut in, seeing the tic in Jack’s jaw. “And after the attack in Los Angeles, we’re taking it quite seriously. But really, it’s mostly precautionary.”
“You haven’t even arrested anyone,” Ernest said sharply.
“We’re working on it, Dad,” Jack snapped, and shoved a forkful of food into his mouth.
Silence prevailed uncomfortably, the scrapes of the forks and spoons against plates particularly loud.
“So, when is the wedding?” Bess chirped.
Jack choked on his eggs, and fell into a coughing fit so hard that Peggy excused them both from the table under pretenses of fetching more water.
After breakfast, Peggy elicited a shopping list from Bess and shoved into the passenger seat of the car before Jack had even climbed in behind the wheel. From the porch, she could feel Ernest glaring through the rear windshield, straight through her Spray Net-set curls.
“Step on it, Thompson, before your father comes at me with a shotgun,” she said grimly.
Jack said, with a hopeful glance, “We could be back in Manhattan by dinner.”
Peggy was tempted briefly. “We can’t; it’d be unfair to Bess’s turkey.”
“Almost had you,” Jack said, snapping his fingers.
“But really, what have you told your father about me? He looked like he was about to leap over the table and garrote me with his napkin,” Peggy muttered.
“Nothing! I’m as perplexed as you are. Did you knock him off the pier on your last rampage or something?”
Peggy threw up her hands. “I don’t knock people over willy-nilly, Jack, I’m a professional!”
All she got was a good, long side eye in return.
“Subtlety, you are not, Marge,” Jack said, and she sucked her teeth at him in annoyance.
They hurtled down the country road in silence for a bit, stewing in the ever-growing suspicion that they’d gotten in over their heads in a very alien arena, and were perhaps in the most fellowship they’d shared thus far.
“Why don’t you and Ernest get along, Jack?” Peggy asked after they’d turned onto a paved main road. Outside the car, empty fields with bales of rolled hay flashed past, dotted with the occasional cow or horse. The sky was white and hazy; maybe snow soon, or just more clouds. Beside her, Jack worked his jaw thoughtfully.
“Do you and your parents?” he asked.
“More or less well, until I joined SSR,” Peggy said.
“Your brother?” Jack pressed.
She admitted, “Less well.”
“Yeah, see, there’s no particular mystery to my pops and I,” Jack said. “Father and son, butting heads and egos; dads who think they know best, sons who want to make their own way. It’s the same, over and over, a hundred families over.”
“Well, now you make it sound trite,” Peggy said.
Jack laughed shortly. “It is, Marge. The more you talk about stuff like this, the sillier it gets. C’mon, let’s call in.” They’d pulled up onto the main street, a few blocks with enough buildings to crowd out the fields beyond, and showing some more signs of life. Jack pulled over next to the curb and motioned for Peggy to follow him. The town was quite scenic, with red brick storefronts, hand painted signs and sidewalks lined with autumnal trees in red and gold. Jack barely seemed to take in any of it though, striding past a grocers and haberdasher and turning the corner to where the library, a neat, red-roofed building dominated the block. At the edge of the stairs leading up to its main double doors was a phone booth.
Peggy squeezed in while Jack slouched against the door, glaring at anyone who seemed inclined to wait in line. She dialed the office and checked in with the operator on duty, who passed on her cheerful holiday greetings before putting her through to the actual office. There, Agent Cohen picked up, and they exchanged reassurances of well-being before agreeing on another check-in the next day. There was nothing new in terms of the assassination attempts—their captured agents were no more than hired thugs, who hadn’t known nor cared about the who or why of their employment. Disappointing, but unsurprising. She hung up and waited a beat, hand still gripped around the receiver. Behind her, Jack continued his appraisal of main street, hat tilted against the weak sun overhead. Lifting the receiver back to her ear, she rolled another coin down the slot and keyed in the next number.
It took a little longer to get connected, but then finally the line was ringing.
“Sousa,” Daniel said. He sounded absent, and Peggy could picture him seated at home, in his favored couch corner with his leg propped up and a stack of folders on the cushion besides him. It made her ache.
“Hello, Daniel,” she said warmly, sinking against the press of plastic against her ear. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Peggy!” Daniel cried, pleasure suffusing his voice. “Hey, I thought I wouldn’t hear from you ‘til the weekend. Cohen said Jack’s folks are having phone trouble.”
“We’re in town right now, running some errands for his mother.”
“What’re they like? They uh, they everything you expected?”
Peggy could hear the suppressed amusement, and sighed. “I’m afraid it’s a disaster with Ernest. His mother is lovely though. If we aren’t careful, she’ll be setting a wedding date.”
Daniel shouted with laughter, and Peggy smiled reluctantly. “I can’t tell if you’ve overachieved your mission objective or not. Am I invited?”
“You could stand to be a bit more proprietary,” she chided. “I suppose it’ll be a matter to sort out if I survive the next two days.”
“How’s Jack holding up?”
Peggy glanced out at Jack briefly. “Well as can be—he’s on his feet and walking, but snipes at anyone who thinks to offer him a chair. And, well.”
She traced the steel telephone line idly. “He’s not thrilled to have me here.”
Daniel hmmed. “Embarrassed, probably,” he suggested, and Peggy almost shrugged.
“That, yes, but perhaps something else as well. But it’s not a good time for our attention to be split like this,” she sighed. “I wish I hadn’t pushed for this silly charade, and just kept us all in Manhattan.”
“Hey, it’s not so bad. Besides, it’s still safer out there, and you get a homemade meal to boot,” he said optimistically. “Meanwhile, I’m looking down the dark, dusty corners of my cabinet to the canned yams and green beans I picked up last month.”
“You liar. Ana would sooner cut off her arm than let you wallow alone on Thanksgiving,” Peggy said, smiling.
“You see, I would appeal to her romantic sensibilities; it makes for a better story if I’m lonely and abandoned, only my crutch at my side, eating creamed corn straight from the can and glancing wistfully at your picture in my locket. To sell it, I’ll light a single candle instead of turning on the lights,” he told her cheerfully, and she laughed.
“I miss you,” she blurted out. “Oh, Daniel, I wish you were here.”
“I know. I do too,” Daniel said, voice softening. “But you'll be fine, you both will. And we’ll see each other soon. “
“I'm holding you to that,” she said, smiling. Behind her, Jack tapped at the door and gave her an exaggerated gesture of impatience when she turned to look.
“You'd better get going, before your fiancé notices you talking sweet to another man,” Daniel said.
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Actually, you in a hurry?”
Daniel yawned. “Not particularly, just reviewing paperwork in bed. “
“Well, then,” Peggy said, and pulled the door open.
“Finally,” Jack snapped. “You in there negotiating a treaty or something? What, what’re you doing?” He frowned as she handed him the phone receiver, squeezed past him, and shoved him into the booth. Pressing a couple nickels into his palm, she glared.
“Be pleasant. I'm going around the corner to the grocers, will be back shortly,” she ordered, and left before he could call her back.
The list Bess had given her was brief and organized. Peggy ducked into the grocer and gave the teenager on cashier duty a smile and nod. The boy ignored her in favor of his Batman comic. There were only a few last-minute shoppers; a young couple deliberating over cans of molasses, a teen in the back plucking at potatoes, and a middle-aged woman taking up most of one aisle.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” said the woman; she wore a pale violet coat and black rimmed glasses. She had a basket of eggs and butter, but it hung off her arm at a careless angle. When she saw she had Peggy's attention, she beamed and scurried closer.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Peggy replied politely, and grabbed a couple onions.
“I couldn't help but notice I haven’t seen you around before. Gladys Beimer,” the woman said
“Margie,” Peggy said, and shook her hand briefly. “Yes, just visiting with a friend.” She wound past the young couple and nabbed a string of garlic from where they hung from the corner of the shelf.
“Oh, an Englishwoman!” The light glinted off her glasses as her head tilted in interest. “Say, you wouldn’t be staying with the Thompsons, would you?”
Peggy smiled, and took up a bottle of milk. “I suppose news travels fast around here.”
“Well, whaddaya know,” Gladys said, pleased, following her. “The whole town’s been waiting to get a look at you.”
“Why on earth?” Peggy laughed, surprised to a stop. Jack’s little white lie couldn’t really have spread that quickly, could it?
Gladys paused, then chuckled self-consciously. “Oh, now I’ve said the wrong thing. Never mind me; are you picking up for Bess? Oh, she likes this brand, here.” She handed Peggy a can of stewed tomatoes.
“But what exactly have you heard, about me? Does everyone really know we’re in town?” Peggy asked, a low-grade concern beginning to creep in.
“Oh, no, no, no, I just see Bess every week at the rotary club, and she’s just so excited. She’s had such a hard year, poor dear, with what happened to Ernest, and then Jack.” Gladys sighed a little and shook her head. “What a horrible fright—did you know he was offered a position with the State Department? Oh yes, only last spring. When he turned it down, Ernest took it hard.”
“That—I didn’t know,” Peggy managed.
Gladys blinked at her. “Oh, now I’ve said the wrong thing again. Are you alright, dear?”
“Fine, thank you, Gladys,” Peggy said with a brisk smile. “It was lovely to meet you, but I must be on my way.” She handed the spotty cashier a wad of bills and swept out as soon as her things were bagged and change given.
“Oh—happy Thanksgiving!” Gladys called, and Peggy, feeling very much caught in a strange circular dialogue, echoed the greeting and hurried back out onto the street.
So Jack was going to leave the SSR—or had the opportunity, Peggy thought as she headed back up the street. Not surprising; he was young, ambitious, and despite some personal failings and an egregiously large ego, fairly competent when it came down to the actual work. It was entirely expected that for him, SSR would only be a stepping stone to one of the big federal departments. But he had elected to stay with the SSR. Well, Peggy thought. It might explain why Ernest disliked her so much, if she was a living reminder of Jack’s choice.
When Peggy rounded the curb, the phone booth was still occupied; Jack leaned against one side of the booth, head bowed against the receiver. His head was turned away from her, so she couldn’t see him, but the lines of his shoulders were relaxed; as she came closer, she could hear his low murmurs, amused and light. He laughed at something Daniel said, and even through the scratched glass of the phone booth window, his expression was quietly happy.
The sight of it stopped Peggy in her tracks; she couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked so. At that moment though, Jack glanced up and caught sight of her. She smiled weakly as he straightened up, his expression slipping into something more rigid. He was only on the phone for a few more moments before hanging up and exiting the booth.
“What happened, you get lost on the one street in this town?” he asked dryly.
Peggy said, with effortful lightness, “Cornered by who I assume is your town gossip; I’m afraid everyone knows we’re here.”
Jack’s face twisted briefly before he rolled his eyes. “Was it Mrs. Beimer? Is she still there? Old bat used to operate the central switchboard around here, and never got used to not knowing everything around town. How fast can we get to the car?”
“Look at me like you’re saying something awful so no one else will try to stop us,” she muttered.
“Why do I have to be the bad guy?” he snapped.
“Perfect, just like that,” she said, and handed him the paper bag of groceries. “Now hand me the keys, it’s my turn to drive.”
“You don’t even know where we are,” he sighed, but yanked open the door of the passenger side.
“It is very strange the amount of pride you take in these so-called backcountry roads,” Peggy mused, situating herself behind the wheel and starting the engine. “Considering there’s only two stoplights on the main street.”
He just gestured irritably for her to drive and slumped back in his seat. He really must have been tired, if he wasn’t going to put up more of a fight, and with that in mind, Peggy kept silent and navigated all three intersections and two stop lights with exaggerated care. By the time she’d left town and was headed back towards the house, Jack was asleep.
Which was, of course, when they picked up a tail.
Jack woke with a start, and only Peggy’s hand, shoving him down in his seat kept his skull from catching a bullet.
“Carter!” he shouted, scrambling for his holster. “God damn it, Peggy!”
“I didn’t go looking for them!” she hissed back, and fired again out the back window. The car swerved and Jack cursed again. Behind them, a black Chevrolet with tinted windows gained on them with unnerving determination. “How did they even find us?”
“Just—drive!” he growled, and leveled his gun at the rear window.
“Will you stay down; I don’t fancy pulling another bullet from you again so soon!” she snapped.
“You can’t do everything yourself, Carter,” he said, and shot again. From her rearview mirror, she saw the car behind them fishtail suddenly and wildly. But it was hard to see if it was the car or driver having issues.
Ahead of them was the rambling, uneven road that wound past acres of empty farmland—there were no intersections for another half mile at least, and no witnesses.
A bullet whistled past her ear, and she cursed. “Jack!”
“I got ‘em,” he said grimly, returning fire in a couple deafening bursts.
There was a brief squeal of tires from behind, then the unmistakable rev of engines, and Jack hollered, slapping her shoulder, “Drive, drive drive!”
Peggy floored it, but they were in a standard company issue Ford and the Chevrolet behind them came charging up and ramming their bender. She gritted her teeth and struggled to wrench the car straight as Jack ducked.
“Gimme your gun,” Jack snapped. “Quick!”
“I'm out,” she replied tersely. “Throw something else. But nothing too heavy; you know what the doctor said."
“Damn the damn doctor!” he cursed as their pursuers crashed into them again, sending them both lurching forward painfully. Up ahead there was a slight incline and curve
“Milk,” she gasped as she steered them around a pothole at too-high a speed.
He groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re worried about the shopping list, we aren't going back to town!”
“No, no, milk! Throw the milk!” she snapped.
“You’re gonna have to let them close,” he warned, twisting back to rifle through the paper bag. “I’m not exactly Bullet Bob, right now.”
“Bob Feller! You know. Baseball player, the pitcher, he was in the navy—”
Peggy slammed on the brakes. “For God's sake, throw the damn milk!” she roared.
Jack gripped the headrest and as their pursuers came shooting up too fast, lobbed the bottle out the shattered rear window. A pained groan hissed between his clenched teeth, but his mark was true—the glass broke and spattered local, full-fat Pennsylvania milk all over the windows.
Peggy wrenched the wheel and their car took the corner on two wheels. Behind them, their pursuers, sight obscured by the glass and milk, missed the turn and shot off the road, their front wheels spinning on air before the hood caught the opposite bank of the ditch with a hard and final crunch.
Peggy pulled over on the road and parked. “Jack, are you alright?”
He was slumped in his seat, faced pale and tight with pain, but nodded curtly. Impulsively she ran her hand down his arm, needing to check for herself, and then turned to grab her purse and spare ammunition. With loaded gun in hand, she stalked out the car and towards the wreck, ignoring the faint cursing from behind as Jack scrambled to catch up.
The black Chevrolet was steaming from under its crumpled hood. It sat at a downwards angle, one wheel still slightly suspended.
The driver’s side opened and an arm and shoulder fell out, flailing. Peggy shot at it with extreme prejudice. She missed, but barely.
“Carter, wait,” Jack wheezed, having finally made his way out of the car, but she didn’t look back at him. A brilliant, incandescent fury had somehow lit her chest and heart afire and it was all she could do not to drag the assailants out onto the road and slam their heads into the pavement. “I know you're mad, but-"
“Wait here,” she snapped back, and stormed to the edge of the road. There were two figures slumped in the front seats, but it wasn’t easy to make out if they were dead or alive. She steadied her gun and scrambled down the edge of the ditch and made her way to the driver’s side.
“Hands where I can see them,” she barked. Only one of the two men were conscious; the passenger lolled over the dashboard, bleeding from his forehead. The driver glared at her, breathing in shallow, pained drifts. “Your hands,” she repeated, and the man laboriously set one bloody hand, then the other on the dashboard.
“Who do you work for?” Jack demanded. He stayed on the road, hands in his pockets and bored derision curling around his words. An act, by the careful, stiff way he held himself, ever so slightly angled towards his right side.
When the man remained silent, Peggy put a bullet into the headrest behind him and said, “Answer him.”
The other man swallowed. “I-I don’t know,” he rasped, a thick Jersey accent slurring the edges off his words. “We only spoke on the phone.”
“What did he sound like?”
“Can’t say.” He hastily explained when Peggy cocked the gun. “They put their voice through some sort of scramble. Maybe foreign. That's all I know."
“Foreign?” she said sharply. “How could you tell?”
The driver wheezed. “Kept saying shit like ‘zed’ and ‘naughts’. That ain’t American.”
“And what did they tell you to do?” she demanded.
The driver didn’t look away from her gun. “They wanted something.”
The man’s eyes flickered to the rearview mirror—to Jack, then back to her. “A funeral."
Peggy matched his gaze steadily until he swallowed. “They'll get one,” she promised. She looked up and caught Jack’s eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
“Alright, we’ll need to call it in,” he said. “We’ll need-”
The sound of an approaching car silenced all of them. As Jack turned up the road, Peggy kept her eye on the driver and lowered her gun. The car slowed, then honked. To her consternation, instead of sending them off, Jack shouted in surprise.
“Stay put,” she ordered. The driver gave her a pained look, pinned as he was to his seat. “Jack?” she called cautiously. “Everything alright?”
There was the sound of conversation, but nothing she could make out. Then, as she was climbing back onto the road, Jack reappeared and gave her a hand up.
“Margie,” he said with a funny sort of expression, “this is Corinne, Brian’s sister.”
“Howdy,” said a grinning woman dressed in dungarees and a short shearling coat. Next to her Brian stepped out; side-by-side, it was easy to see their resemblance, with the same black hair and high nose, and largely the same outfit, except that a deputy sheriff badge was pinned to his breast. Parked behind them was a battered blue flatbed truck.
“Hello,” Peggy replied cordially, darting an uncertain glance at Jack.
“Looks like you could use some help,” Corinne said, sauntering over and peering at the wreck below. “What happened here?”
“Accident,” Jack said. “They took the corner too fast.”
“Right,” Brian said. “And the bullet holes?”
“They’d been hunting,” Peggy replied, poker faced. Brian raised an eyebrow.
“Their own cars?”
“They weren’t very good,” Peggy said.
“Brian, stop winding her up, come help me with this,” his sister shouted. Peggy caught sight of her unwinding cables from the flatbed and starting for the wreck.
“Oh, goodness, not yet,” she said, and scrambled after her. “We may need an ambulance first.”
“You reach anyone?” Peggy asked from her seat in Brian Kimball's office.
“Office said they would send someone,” Jack confirmed, and handed her a cup of coffee, then sank into the empty chair besides her with a groan. “Until then, there's not much we can do. Doc says the pair of them are fine to transport, but one’s got a broken arm and concussion and the other has cracked ribs and a bullet in his arm. They'll live,” He added dryly.
“Wankers,” she muttered. “Have you spoken with your parents?”
Jack grimaced. “No—Brian confirmed, their whole party line’s down. No one’s going to be able to fix the wiring until tomorrow. Doesn’t look like sabotage, at least.”
“We’d better get going; your mum must be frantic,” Peggy said, just as the door opened and Corinne sauntered inside. She’d removed the coat, and was wearing a silk blue blouse that looked out of place with her heavy boots and denim.
“I snuck you some pie,” she announced, handing a plate to Jack and Peggy each.
“If this is your famous bourbon pecan, then I’m glad we stuck around. Thanks, Rinny,” Jack said, and she grinned widely at him.
“’Course. Doesn’t make up for the fact that Bess’ll strangle me and Brian next time she sees me. This is your first Thanksgiving back home in what, six, seven years?”
“Just about. How’ve you been, Rinny?” Jack asked, forking up his slice of pie. Peggy did the same, suddenly realizing she was ravenous.
“Been better,” Corinne shrugged. “I was welding at the Philly Naval Yard until they sacked the lot of us last year. And today, I was supposed to be in town to pick up some turkey and feed before supervising Dad in the kitchen. Now I’m here, and he’s probably burning the casserole. It's good to see you, Jack. Glad you’re on your feet again.”
Jack swallowed his mouthful. “Thanks. You too, Rinny.” They shared a brief smile before Corinne turned to Peggy with cheer that wasn't all forced.
“So, Margie! The whole town’s been agog to meet you. How’d you two meet?”
Peggy pasted on a smile. “Oh, it's a very boring tale. We work in the same office in New York. When you see someone every day, it’s hard not to get attached. Despite yourself,” she added sweetly.
Corinne laughed. “Boy, do I get it. I grew up with this lug. His face is about the only bearable part of him.”
“That's impolite, Corinne,” her brother said mildly as he stepped inside, “but fair.”
“And you wonder why I haven't been back in years,” Jack said, but he didn't seem upset.
“Deputy,” Peggy greeted. “Any updates?”
“You're trying to change the subject,” Corinne chided, and switched her focus to Jack, who was shoveling pie down his throat as if hoping to choke. “I'll bet Jack here drove you crazy first didn’t he. Champion pigtail-yanker, he was.”
“Most assuredly,” Peggy agreed.
Corinne laughed. “So how’d he get you to give him the time of day?”
“Well,” Peggy met Jack’s hunted look, and softened her gaze. If anything, he looked more alarmed, which made the fondness that welled up and colored her voice even more real. “He can be a real pain in the ar- ah, neck, but he doesn’t let you down when it counts. Even if it takes him a little more time to get there.”
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Jack drawled.
“That and his great big heart of gold,” Peggy said with relish.
Brian chuckled and Corinne smiled, her dark eyes glinting with cheek. “You’re a lucky gal, Margie. Hope you two make it further down the aisle than we did.”
“I’m sure we shall,” Peggy said, with a surprised, fixed little smile
Jack just pressed his knuckles hard enough into his temples to probably hurt.
With a sigh, Brian stood up then and opened the door to his office. “Sis, thank you for the pie. Please go check on Dad and the party now, and let me get Jack and Margie squared away so they can get home before dinner’s over.”
She pouted but did so, bending down to kiss Jack’s cheek and waving before heading out with the empty plates and shutting the door behind her.
In the brief silence that followed, Brian sighed and raked his hand through his hair, tousling the black curls that had been flattened with Brylcreem.
“Sorry, Jack. You know how she is,” he said with a faint smile.
“I’m not offended, Brian. I know how she is,” Jack agreed easily.
“It’s good to see you again so soon,” Brian said. He seemed to mean it as well. “But this is a pretty situation indeed.”
Jack didn’t exactly grimace, but Peggy still caught the shadow that flashed across his face. “Sure is, but all you gotta do is hold onto those two until my agents get here, then we’ll take care of it.”
While the two of them hashed out the arrangements, Peggy hummed agreement at the right places, but couldn’t help puzzling and turning over the last few minutes in her mind, until the pieces had all shaken out and were being recombined in increasingly startling, but not necessarily surprising patterns.
“—do you think?” Jack asked, turning to her.
“I'll take you back and come back, wait for the office to come pick up these goons.”
“No" she replied immediately. “Jack, we will both go back and have a decent meal with your parents, and afterwards, we will both come back and babysit."
“Why spread the misery?”
She fixed him with a steely glare. “If you dare leave me alone to face your own parents at Thanksgiving dinner, John Thompson, I will drag you back to Los Angeles and drown you in the river myself.”
“She’s kidding; the river’s like an inch deep,” Jack told Brian.
“Go home, Jack,” Brian replied easily. “We’ve got it handled.” He stood up then and shook their hands before ushering them to the door.
“Brian,” Jack said in farewell, and Peggy watched as he turned towards the exit with an odd set to his jaw.
They drove back in cold silence—the wind whistling through the missing rearview window made it near impossible to talk anyhow, but it was oddly tense. Peggy drove quickly, well aware of the rapidly aging daylight, and Jack rode back beside her with his head back against the rest, hat over his face.
As they pulled up to the house, the door swung open and Ernest framed the doorway. The irritation on his face gave way rapidly to shock. He watched silently as Peggy parked and gently shook Jack awake. She took the surviving groceries from the back of the car and waited until Jack had emerged from the car to pace him up to the house.
“Jack,” Ernest said sharply.
“Not now, Dad,” Jack replied, and shouldered past him into the house. Which left Peggy to make nice.
“We ran into some car trouble,” she said delicately, and smiled brightly. The look she received in turn was half scathing, half befuddled. “I'm just going to drop these off with Bess."
Stepping into the kitchen, Peggy was slapped with heat—she counted three pots at a full boil and the oven blazing away as well as a counter stacked with covered dishes, ready to be reheated and set on the dinner table.
“There you are,” Bess cried, the worried lines of her face smoothing out at the sight of Peggy. She frowned again as she took in the state of Peggy's outfit and hair. “Oh dear.”
“So sorry, Bess,” Peggy said, handing over the surviving groceries and snagging a spare apron of the hook. “Now, please put me to work!”
In short order, Peggy was stirring gravy on the stove and keeping an eye on the casserole while Bess dug through the grocery bag and distributed the ingredients.
“Any milk, dear?” she asked.
“Afraid we forgot,” Peggy lied. “Is this about done?”
Bess glanced at her pot. “Excellent. Let's get it out into the bowl. “
Peggy held the gravy boat steady as Bess ladled it carefully in. Outside the kitchen, raised voices escalated into brutish snaps and staccato roars.
Bess flinched as something heavy clunked to the ground; hot gravy splashed into Peggy's wrist, but Bess didn’t even seem to notice.
“So you saw Brian and Corinne?” Bess asked, desperately polite.
“Mm yes. Lovely, the pair of them,” Peggy said. “They seemed to know Jack quite well. Corinne, she mentioned that she and Jack, they had been, ah. Engaged?” She was proud of how light and casual she sounded.
Bess laughed shortly. “Between his graduation and through the war, sure. It didn’t last, Margie dear.”
“Oh, no, I was only curious, I don’t,” Peggy insisted, but Bess cut her off gently.
“He’s a serious boy, my Jack,” she said, taking the gravy boat from Peggy's hands and setting it on the counter. “You wouldn’t think it, but he’s…” her gaze went distant. “Sensitive.”
Peggy's knee jerk reaction was skepticism, but she bit her tongue. Bess seemed to intuit her thoughts anyways, because she grinned.
“Oh, I know. He's an arrogant little firecracker, with a vanity to match. Don't look surprised; I raised him after all. But you know as well, don't you? It's all surface with him. He’s terrified of being left behind, I think. And people only try so hard when they’re protecting something.”
“With Corinne, what was he protecting?” Peggy asked. Bess gazed at her with pale blue eyes, unreadable.
“Himself, I suppose.” The timer went off then and Bess gently shunted her aside to check on the turkey. In short order, Peggy was handed a pair of potholders and instructed to carry the large casserole dish to the dining table.
“What- what about me, do you think?” Peggy asked suddenly, without really intending to.
Bess, bearing the glorious glistening turkey towards the dining table, said, “I can’t say, dear. But I will tell you he’s never lost his temper in front of Corinne.”
Peggy followed her, frowning. “They must have been quite a match.” Footsteps were pounding in time with the shouting, until it all cut abruptly with the slam of a door.
Bess smiled, strained. “Ernest certainly thought so.”
After a beat, Peggy set the casserole down and pointed out towards the hall. “Is it really alright to let them carry on like that, or shall I…?”
“Don’t worry, honey,” Bess sighed, and wiped her hands down her apron. Then, visibly steeling herself, she headed out of the dining room, down towards the living room where Ernest was fuming, red faced and scowling. “Ernest, what on earth happened? Where's Jack?”
Ernest whirled on them. “That- idiot boy is impossible; he’s going to get himself killed for what?” he spat.
“You’ll kill yourself if you keep on like this,” his wife said sharply, crossing her arms. “Please, please calm down.”
“Did he leave?” Peggy asked with some concern—the room was empty, but the backdoor was unlatched and swinging gently.
“And you, for you,” Ernest seethed, jabbing a finger in her direction. “It’s you, you’ve scrambled his head. Vernon warned me about you, said that you were holding Jack back. You think I want him at some pathetic has-been agency playing cops and robbers with you? He shoulda left years ago—he was going to be a diplomat! He would have been safe, but he threw it away because of you. He wouldn’t have been shot if it weren’t for you.”
“Enough.” Bess’ voice cracked like a whip.
“I’ll go find Jack,” Peggy said in the sudden silence, and made as quickly as possible for the door. As she slipped out and down the porch stairs, she could hear them pick up arguing again, and walked a little faster. There was not much light except for from the house, and it was cold enough that Peggy regretted escaping the house without a sweater and torch.
Beyond the chicken coop and small field was fenced-off pasture. Peggy peered at the shadows and set off towards a thick cluster of shadows, hoping that Jack was not the sort to walk off a head of steam. She stumbled a little and cursed at the uneven ground and by the time she passed the coop, was beginning to really regret not convincing Jack to have stayed at the station.
“Jack?” she called as she approached the fencing. “Please be out here in this general direction, or else I’ll feel like a right ninny.”
There was a sullen silence, then a wordless grunt. Peggy veered off towards the fencing that passed by a gnarled old oak and found her man sat atop the wooden post like some gloomy old crow. He didn’t look at her, his gaze penetrating some far-off spot of pasture.
“It’s freezing,” she muttered after a moment and swung up to sit next to him. Wordlessly, he crooked his arm and after a moment, she scooted closer and looped her arm through, sharing body heat along one side.
“I warned you,” he said tonelessly.
“Mm, you did,” she agreed. “I’m beginning to wish I trusted your call on this now.”
That startled a reluctant bark of laughter from him that quickly turned into a sigh. “You’re lucky, Peg. Nothing gets to you, it just-" He made a ‘fft' noise through his teeth.
“On the contrary, I am more often than not preoccupied by all manner of concerns,” she demurred. “I think the difference is only that I’ve spent a great deal more time fighting them off than you have.”
He huffed and shook his head. “How’d you do it, then? Leave it behind and break your mother’s heart?”
“First of all, we are British and not inclined to appalling displays of melodrama,” she said. “But in any case, your answer is, not easily. Before the SSR, when I was working at Bletchley Park... Did I ever tell you I was engaged to be married?”
Jack turned to look her so fast that Peggy had to clutch his arm for balance. “What? Not to Captain America?”
“To Fred Wells, actually.”
“And what kind of dynamo force of nature was this Fred guy?”
“He was a lieutenant posted to the Home Office. Worked out of London for the most part.”
There was a brief silence as Jack digested this.
“A pencil pusher? No wonder you ran away.”
She elbowed him. “It would have been a good match. He was kind and loyal- and-"
Thankfully, Peggy was forced to stop as Jack threatened to topple off his perch, whooping with laughter.
“You’re being most unsympathetic, for someone also with a history of broken engagements,” she said, but was smiling.
“So what happened?” Jack managed. “How’d Miss Fay Inchfawn escape Freddy and land Captain America?”
“My brother died,” she said, and he quieted. “We found out during my last fitting for the dress. Michael wasn’t like other people. He always saw exactly who I was, and what I could do, even when I couldn’t believe it. He was the one who recommended me to the S.O.E., convinced that I’d be a natural fit. I was so mad at him when I found out—I’d worked so hard, I thought, at- at doing all the right, proper things a young woman should do, and who was he to say that I was doing it all wrong? But after he died, well.” She shrugged. “I figured I had to give it a shot, if only to prove him wrong.”
“He sounds as stubborn and infuriating as you,” Jack said.
“Oh, worse,” Peggy assured him with the complete confidence of being able to have the absolute last word. “My parents were horrified of course—to their credit, they were equally aghast at the impropriety as well as the threat of losing their last child to war. My father threatened to wash his hands off me, but my mother couldn't bear it. She knew that wouldn’t stop me.” She paused. “I left, but it wasn't easy, Jack. My father died at the end of the year, and I found out a week after because I was somewhere on the front lines. Missed his funeral, which my mother still hasn't forgiven me for, and neither have I. But it does mean I have some experience dealing with unhappy parents, if you’d like to talk about it.”
“Very subtle,” he said dryly.
She gave him a look, not like it was visible in the dark. “You’ve been dreading this visit without telling me why, exactly, and had I known, I would have happily called Cohen up to stand guard outside your apartment while we ate meatball sandwiches.”
“So, this is my fault,” he said sharply.
Peggy rolled her eyes. “You know how missions tend to go with insufficient intelligence.”
He glared out over the dark pasture for a long, cold age.
“My dad hates this place,” he said. “When we came out here for summers, he’d stay a weekend, and then drive back down to Manhattan or DC while I stayed on the farm. Every year, like clockwork. I asked him once why he kept sending me down here, if he didn’t even like it. He told me that farm boys polled especially well in the Midwest. I was eight,” Jack added.
“He wants you in office,” Peggy surmised.
“He’s a dreamer,” Jack laughed shortly. “Had his head so far in the clouds that he was convinced until I was twenty that he was father to the next New York senator.”
“What convinced him otherwise?” Peggy asked, but gently, sensing they had come to the crux of the matter.
Jack let out a long, whistling sigh. “Corinne and I decided not to get married.”
“He does seem quite keen on her,” Peggy said.
There was another long, long silence. Out in the pasture, a lone cricket chirred mournfully.
“We weren’t in love,” Jack said. “Or it’s more accurate to say, it wasn’t her I wanted.”
Peggy did her best not to react, but she couldn’t help the slight hiss of indrawn breath. Against her side, Jack was impossibly rigid, shoulders braced as high as his ears, and she recalled the last time he’d looked as though he was about to fly apart, head against the airplane window and sunlight a blinding wash over his pale eyes as he whispered about six soldiers in the night.
After a brief moment, she nudged him gently. “Was it Brian?” She more felt than saw his curt nod. “Did your father… know?”
“Oh, Christ, no,” Jack said in a bitter rush of humor. “Not even Brian knew.”
“Oh, Jack,” she sighed.
“Corinne didn't care that I didn't love her. She just wanted to get out of this place. I think she must have suspected, but never said so. Then there was the war and she found that she could leave on her own, no wedding necessary. And me, after I came back from Okinawa, I could barely get out of bed. When I did, it was straight to the liquor cabinet. Missed all the interviews for the senator’s offices and law firms Pop had set up. Of course I did all that here in the country, away from DC so no one got the wrong idea about his war hero son,” he said wearily. “He only came to see me once. Saturday afternoon, September. Caught me off my face and passed out halfway up the stairs. He took one look at me. Just stared with- revulsion. I guess I must’ve—must’ve reached for him or something, because he just stepped back, and then. Wheeled right around without a word. Drove back to Manhattan. Left Ma behind to haul me back upstairs and clean my mess.”
Peggy pressed her lips together tightly and glared hard into the night. Her heart beat with indignation. It startled her, the strength of her helpless anger on his behalf, the alien surge of protectiveness that rose within her.
“He should have done something,” she said.
Jack huffed. “Oh, he did. How’d you think Vernon got involved? He had him shove me at the closest respectable job opening there was. SSR was some hokey dinosaur agency, filled with misfits and on its way out. And it was—easy to sink into the work. Guess he never thought I’d actually stick it out.” He trailed off, and she nudged him gently.
“It pains me to say it, but I’m glad you did,” Peggy said.
“Yeah?” he replied, something uncharacteristically fragile lacing his voice.
She squeezed his arm. “I wouldn’t lie about that.” Then, “Was it hard, seeing the Kimballs?”
Jack lifted his shoulders briefly. “It was fine. I… it was a long time ago. It was good to see them, but they’re the past. I’ve barely thought of him in years.” He snorted. “Pop thought Corinne was what had kept me on the straight and narrow,” he said, darkly amused. “Might be why he’s gunning after you.”
Peggy thought, from what she’d seen of Corinne, that had the match gone through, Jack might’ve been the one to do the steering.
“Do you suppose we’ve been away long enough for your parents to have gone to bed, and we could sneak in for leftovers?” she asked instead.
“That’s a nice delusion to harbor, but I think Ma’ll strangle all of us herself if we deprive her of a proper Thanksgiving after all this. C’mon,” he said, slithering off the fence and waiting for her to do the same before slinging a companionable arm around her shoulders. “Just so you know, this won’t happen again. I don’t have any more secrets to tell you.”
Peggy rolled her eyes, but didn’t shake him off. She liked his warmth and sure-footed stride beside her in the dark. “If you don’t, then you aren’t a very good spy. And Jack, despite your many failings, you’re decent.”
The scrape of forks against Bess’s grandmother’s china were the loudest sounds around the table. Indoors, Jack and Ernest indulged in a cool standoff while Peggy took the opportunity to stuff her face with Bess’s masterful sweet potato casserole.
“Absolutely marvelous, Bess, truly,” Peggy enthused. “I must ask for the recipe.”
Bess smiled, though it was a little strained. “I’m afraid it’s a family secret. But if circumstances change, my dear...”
“I will certainly try again in a few years,” Peggy said brightly, smiling widely at Jack who rolled his eyes and took another long sip of his wine. ‘
Bess firmly ignored Ernest’s sullen glare as she broke off a piece of her dinner roll and dabbed it in the gravy on her plate. “I don’t mean to poke any bears, but why not set a date earlier? You could have the ceremony here; there’s plenty of room, and it’s lovely in June.”
“Yeah Marge, why don’t we get hitched?” Jack added with a grin. Their earlier conversation seemed to have exorcised all his nervous energy, with the consequential discovery that Peggy still found his natural state mildly obnoxious.
“You know very well why not,” she shot back sweetly, and turned a resigned look towards Bess. “Jack would find it such a distraction; perhaps once we resolve some concerns at work.”
Jack leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. “Sweetheart, I’d march down the aisle right this minute if I thought I could get you to the church.”
Peggy narrowed her eyes at him. “Why darling, I seem to recall a conversation in which I decided to leave the SSR and you told me not to do anything I’d regret.”
“No,” Bess gasped, and turned wounded eyes on her son.
“Because we were in Los Angeles, and she was miffed at me,” Jack pointed out. “Not because we were getting married.”
Bess swiveled her eyes on Peggy.
“Your son was getting in the way of my work,” Peggy said pointedly.
“And what exactly do you do,” Ernest cut in. They all looked at him, but he remained granite faced, stabbing at a sliver of turkey.
“Whatever needs doing to get the job done,” Peggy said at the same time that Jack said, “Secretary.”
She glared swiftly at him, and he grimaced, slightly shame-faced.
“My duties are complicated. I have some specialties carried over from the war,” she elaborated. “Ranging from code breaking to taking this one’s lunch order.” She paired the last phrase with an infatuated smile and well-aimed kick, both directed at Jack.
Ernest nodded, a grim rictus of an expression on his face. “In the war, you say?”
“British Armed Forces, then as the British liaison to the SSR, under Colonel Phillips,” she confirmed. “I’d be happy to provide references, sir.”
This time, Jack was the one to kick.
Ernest nodded slowly. “You must have known Commander Gregor Yves”
“Yes, of course! Bumpy Yves. He was an associate of my brother’s,” Peggy said. “How did you know him, if I may ask?”
“The commander was the British counterpart on a team negotiating a joint exercise between the Soviets and the French,” Ernest said curtly.
“His name was Bumpy?” Jack cut in.
“Yes, everyone called him that,” Peggy said. “He was a terrible dancer.”
Jack's eyebrows rose in confusion. “A bad dancer?”
“Atrocious,” Peggy affirmed. “You know, sort of,” she raised her arms to hold an invisible partner, and bounced them unevenly to simulate being dragged along by a dance partner constantly a step ahead or behind. “Bumpy.”
“Dear, dear,” Bess said with a smile.
“Poor lug,” Jack laughed.
And Ernest, with a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth, said, “That old liar. He told me it was because he had a reputation for cracking heads and leaving bumps.”
“His own, perhaps,” Peggy said. “he wasn't the most graceful man.”
Ernest tilted his glass at her. “That, I can believe.”
The tension around the table finally eased somewhat, and Peggy had a moment to refill her glass, she caught Jack's eyes and exchanged heartfelt looks of relief and fellow feeling. He mouthed, ‘one more day’ and then stuffed in a mouthful of potatoes when his mother glanced his way.
Afterwards, Bess booted Peggy out of the kitchen and dragged Jack in instead to help with the washing up, leaving Peggy to join Ernest in the living room. He stood next to the fireplace, carefully ramming at the contents in the firebox and waited until she'd warily perched on the edge of the loveseat before levering himself upright with a groan.
“When my son was thirteen,” Ernest began. Peggy blinked slowly, but didn't startle. He was leaning on the mantel, watching the fire lick at the wood. “He was fool enough to pick a fight with the son of an ombudsman in Arlington. By the time the teachers got to them, Jack had a broken nose and blood all down his shirt. He was pissing blood for days. The other kid?” Ernest scoffed. “A scratch and a half and two days detention. The kid was twice the size of Jack and meaner than a wet cat. I took Jack home and sat him down. Told him, ‘Son, there’s brute power, and there’s true power. When you’ve done things the right way, there’s no punching necessary.’” Ernest shook his head, his expression a mixture of resignation and reluctant pride. “But he never could sit still, not when he could go in to a fight swinging. God damn it.” Shaking his head, Ernest glanced at her, thin-lipped and stern. “I apologize, Margie, for my words earlier. It wasn’t right.”
She inclined her head once in mute acknowledgement, and he returned to contemplating the fire.
“Even if it weren’t you, it’d be something else,” he murmured bitterly.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Peggy spoke after a brief silence. “Why was he fighting the other boy that time?”
Ernest lifted and dropped one shoulder. “I never asked. Didn’t think it mattered, in the end.”
On the couch, Peggy stared at his bowed shoulders backlit by the warm fire glow and could only bring herself to feel faint pity.
When Jack and Bess came in with mugs of hot cider, Peggy tugged Jack down onto the cushions beside her. Even though it was for show, his arm curled against her back with a natural ease. Peggy leaned against him, irrepressibly fond, but also missing, missing, missing Daniel who would have fit perfectly into the empty space on their couch.
“Jack,” Peggy said as she was shaking out the quilt, “can I ask you something?”
“That’s one already,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb, toothbrush dangling from his mouth. He grinned at the look on her face and disappeared, came back a short while later sans toothbrush and face damp. “What wisdom does the high and mighty Margaret Carter need from this unworthy cad?”
“Nothing Shakespearean,” she said. He rolled his eyes and shut the door behind him. After a moment, she sat on the bed and considered him. “How’s the wound?”
Jack shrugged. “I’m fine. Probably over did the PT today, but as long as you take the next pair of killers, I think I’ll live.” He looked at her, narrow-eyed. “Call me crazy, but that one was too easy.”
Shrugging, Peggy said, “Dispensing with pleasantries.”
He pulled out the desk chair and sat down, folded his arms. “Is this an interrogation?” he asked lightly, but there was a gleam of wariness in his eyes.
“Oh please; as you can see I have neither carrot nor stick in sight,” she said.
“That hardly qualifies, Marge, you’ve always prided yourself on subtlety,” he said ironically. That pulled a smile out of her, and he leaned back, smug at this small victory. “Alright, go on,” he waved magnanimously. “What’s got your pretty little head all a-tizzy?”
“Jack, have you,” she said, and stopped, then tried again. “Have you thought about… the future?”
He stared at her. “Is this a… I’m still the bureau chief, you know that, right? It’s in the job description. I know I’ve been out on injury, but no one’s replaced me yet.”
“For yourself, I meant,” she said.
“Look, whatever happened with Vernon,” he said, his mouth twisting, “I think it’s clear where I’ve thrown my lot. You’re stuck with me.”
She flapped a hand at him impatiently. “Yes, that is very clear, Jack, I have no doubts. I- I only meant,” and here, her voice failed her, and she stared helplessly at him.
“Peg?” he asked.
“Jack,” she said, “You know that I—that neither Daniel nor I, would. Well.” She shrugged. “You’re well stuck with us. You’ll not drink alone again, if I can help it.”
“Nor get shot at?” he asked wryly and she smacked him ungently.
“Seven hours, my dear. Seven hours we watched and waited outside the operating room while they sliced you open and fished for the bullet that had scrambled you like eggs. There was so much blood in the operating room I thought for sure you’d gone, and I was so angry.” She shook her head.
“That you couldn’t chew me out?” he asked lightly.
“So much more,” she laughed, thickly. “At your- your sheer audacity for being shot. At that blasted shooter. At myself, for letting my guard down, and thinking we were all going to be alright. But when the surgeon told us you had cleared the worst and would live, all I could think was, ‘My god, my god, I can’t be so careless again with this idiot.’ And I mean to, Jack. I’ll be the one to keep you on the straight and narrow now. I’m stubborn, you know I can do it.”
“Is this a confession of love, Marge?” Jack asked, something wavery under the blustering amusement.
Peggy flushed and scowled irritably. “I’m quite sure you’re taking liberties now.”
He gave her a sly look. “I’m telling Daniel.”
“As if Daniel could possibly object, Jack,” Peggy said softly. “He was right there beside me the whole time, waiting for you to pull through.”
From his seat, Jack blinked and coughed, red creeping up and curling about his ears. “Oh, yeah?” he said, nonchalant.
“There were many tears shed, and I won’t say who’s,” she said cheerfully.
Jack snickered, a little hysterically, but he grinned up at her boyishly, and she couldn’t resist cupping his face briefly with affection.
“I think you’re stuck with us for now, for better or worse, if you don’t mind,” she told him, and his eyes dipped closed, in peaceful resignation to such a fate.
The sound was very, very slight and would have likely passed unnoticed had Peggy not woken from uneasy dreams and been unable to fall back asleep. The last hour of predawn she’d stared at the insides of her eyelids trying to discern if it was the overwhelming amount of food from the night before or the looming list of tasks awaiting them in New York.
As it was, Peggy’s ears pricked to attention at the sound and she rolled to her feet, sidling up to the window and peering covertly out into the dim predawn. Only shadows were visible.
But there it was—a jagged little shadow moving slowly up the path towards the house.
Peggy grabbed her gun from her bag, then the baseball bat mounted above the bookshelf and crept out of the room and down towards back door.
Outside the air was toe-curlingly cold, but the fresh adrenaline had cleared Peggy’s mind and focus—she eased out of the back door and eeled stealthily around to the side of the house, back against the wall, hoping to catch the intruder by surprise.
Whoever it was, there was only one of them, and approaching on foot. Slowly, she thought, frowning and twisting the bat in her hand. Not like he’s trying to hide at all. And there was something familiar about the cadence of those footsteps.
Whirling out of her spot, she stormed towards the figure, now coming up the driveway. He gave a strangled yelp of surprise as she charged at him, a sound that gave way to laughter as she threw the bat away, and her arms around him.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Daniel said, his grin just visible in the low light. “Did I surprise you?”
“I nearly bashed your silly head in,” she shot back, pulling back just enough to frame his beloved face between her hands. “What on earth are you doing, skulking up here in the dead of night?”
Daniel tilted his head back and squinted at the slow dawning morning. “Bad timing,” he admitted. “I caught the early flight out of Burbank and got to the office just as Lonnie and Peter were headed up to pick up your perps, and you know I can’t pass up a ride, not when I can sleep in the back and have them drop me off at my convenience.”
“Yes, but why did you come here?” Peggy asked, still smiling, but puzzled now. “Daniel, you do understand what exactly Jack and I are up to here?”
His eyebrows went up, but he was struggling to contain his amusement.
“Shouldn’t that be my question?” She rolled her eyes and he grinned, unrepentant. “I’d heard tell of some Shakespearean, high melodrama going down, and I suppose I should be here to exact my revenge and steal away the new bride,” he mused.
She stared at him, briefly appalled, until he started chuckling at which point, she shoved him gently. “Jack’s mother will kill you. His father though may very well shake your hand,” she added.
“Not a fan of the Carter Charm Assault?” Daniel asked sympathetically.
“Rather more complicated, I’m afraid,” Peggy admitted. “But really, Daniel, I think we should hide you away for now, until we hash out a story. In the chicken coops, if you don’t mind the hens.”
A flood of light washed over them suddenly, and Peggy froze, still encircled in Daniel’s arms.
“You’ve got twenty seconds,” Daniel muttered, and then, “is that Jack's ma? Does she know how to work that shotgun?”
“The other solution,” Peggy sighed, “is to run for the car and fly back to Los Angeles.”
“Well, you better decide fast because she’s glaring down on us like an avenging fury, and I’d get you behind me except I’m in fear for my life,” Daniel said, releasing her.
Peggy bit her lip and turned to see Bess Thompson hefting an old shotgun half her size with impressive ease on the porch, a steely glint in her eyes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the trenches.
“Margie, dear,” Bess said without blinking away from the scope. “A word.”
Jack tumbled grumblingly into the kitchen, and stopped, mid-yawn at the sight of Daniel and Peggy hunkered down at the breakfast table.
“Sousa!” he cried, and couldn’t help a reflexive little grin that flinched right off when his mother swung around on him, glaring.
“Jackie, dear,” she said. “Sit down, please.”
His eyes switched from Peggy and Daniel’s guilty expressions to his mother’s grim one, then darted back to the kitchen counter. “Can I… coffee?” he tried, and then hastily dropped into the chair on Peggy’s other side at her look.
Bess stared hard at him until Jack squirmed like a schoolboy. “You don’t seem very surprised,” she said coolly.
“It wasn’t my idea,” he declared and Peggy whipped around to glare at him, betrayed.
“Oh, ta very much,” Peggy said sarcastically.
“Marge,” Jack said, “not for the first time, I can say with complete honesty that it was all you.”
“How mature of you,” Peggy snapped.
“Guys,” Daniel said, “Appropriate time and place.” He waved around the table. “This ain’t it.”
“I don’t know who this one is, but I agree,” Bess said.
Peggy elbowed Jack who heaved a put-upon sigh and jabbed a thumb at him. “This is Daniel Sousa,” and his eyes gleamed. “He’s the guy Peggy’s leaving me for.”
“Jack,” Peggy said, exasperated.
“Peggy?” Bess echoed, and now coming down the stairs was Ernest, frowning with confusion.
“Margie, to you,” said Jack.
“Margie is Peggy? Why does she have two nicknames? And why is she leaving you for this man? Bess asked, staring at Daniel. “Who is he? Who are you?”
Daniel opened his mouth, but Peggy slapped a hand over his mouth.
“No one is leaving anyone for anyone,” she said firmly.
“Son?” Ernest said, and Jack coughed and sat up straighter. “Explain.”
“D’you wanna sit down first?” Jack said warily eyeing his father with some concern.
Ernest waved impatiently. “Nothing you’ve done thus far in your life has killed me yet, and I don’t expect this will.”
“Wanna bet?” Jack muttered. Peggy threw an elbow into his side. “Alright, alright!” He sighed and squinted at Daniel. “If you had stuck with the plan and waited at the station, none of this would have happened.”
“You asked me to come,” Daniel retorted. “On the phone. You explicitly said, and I quote, ‘You may as well join us and be a witness for when this goes FUBAR.’ Here I am, witnessing.”
Jack pointed him. “I did do that.”
“Jack,” Bess said, half pleading.
“Fine,” Jack said. He pointed at Ernest. “Pop, sit down.” Ernest looked dour but did so when Bess impatiently tugged him down. “Peggy's not my girlfriend. She’s a colleague from work.”
With his parents watching with blank incomprehension, Jack haltingly described the arc of events that led to them sitting at the breakfast table.
“But why would you lie to us?” Bess asked when Jack fell silent. “Why?”
“Because,” Jack sighed. “Ma, you needed a distraction. And I didn’t want you to worry about me. Not when Pop was so sick.”
“So all this is…a joke to you?” said his father, stone-faced.
“No, Pop, I never said that,” Jack retorted. “It was a little white lie that just… got complicated.”
“And instead of telling us the truth, you thought it was wiser to- to bamboozle your own mother and I into welcoming some- some random woman into our house.” Ernest shook his head. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Mr. Thompson, I understand you’re upset, but Jack is among the toughest, smartest men I have known. I only had his best interests in mind coming here,” Peggy cut in.
Bess said, “Jack, I wished you’d just told me.” She reached out hesitantly and cradled his face.
Jack, turned into her touch, but continued to stare down at his hands. He said quietly. “I just didn’t want you to worry.”
Ernest stared at him in silence. “Excellent work, son,” he said coolly.
“Pops,” Jack said.
But Ernest sighed and held up his hand and the room went still. “Jack I won’t pretend to understand you—Lord knows I never have.” He considered his son as though Jack were a stranger. “You didn’t have to do this,” he said, and turned to leave.
Ernest paused at the door, and added somewhat grudgingly, somewhat pensively, “But it says something you have people who wouldn’t let you do it alone.”
Daniel forced Peggy and Jack into the back of the car as he drove, saying that they needed rest, and he wanted to make the best of this drive in wide-open country. Peggy sat next to Jack for the first half hour in subdued silence before she glanced over at him slumped against the window. In the rearview mirror, Daniel cut his glance between the two of them, and raised his eyebrows at her. She managed a pain grimace.
“Jack,” she said tentatively, and was met with silence. After a moment, she carefully laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m fine, Peggy,” said Jack, tired. He managed a brief lift of his lips. “Really. I’m in better shape than it looks right now.”
“I know." She added, half-promise, half-warning, "We won’t leave you behind.”
“Thanks,” Jack replied, and after a beat, slowly lowered his forehead to rest on her shoulder. Peggy stroked back his hair, pressed a fond kiss to his temple, and let him rest.