The first text that Jasper ever gets on the shitty burner phone he’s kept fully charged and within arm’s reach for the past three years is from the number 0000. It reads, Please tell me we didn’t really lose you.
Jasper smiles, then hisses, because it hurts to smile right now, in this bed in a secret medical bunker in the middle of the Sahara. The doctors and nurses are still fussing over him, speaking to each other in three different languages and getting grumpy when he makes it clear that he understands and speaks all of them. He can’t really blame them for fussing, though. He should be dead.
Jasper shifts in the bed and gasps when a sharp pain shoots through his chest, and the nurse wearing the pretty floral hijab presses her small hand to his sternum. “Be still,” she says, in a different kind of Spanish than he’s been hearing from the other nurses, the kind that sounds like busy mornings getting ready for school and gathering the courage to ask Sophia to dance with him at his little sister’s quinceañera. Moving as little as possible, he types into the reply box, Don’t worry, you can’t dump me that easily.
He stares at the message with narrowed eyes for a few long moments, then deletes it and replaces it with, You didn’t really lose me and presses SEND. He wants to follow it up with, You could never lose me, or I could say the same to you, but Nick has never appreciated too much personal information being sent via text message, and Jasper still can’t so much as think about the incapacitating grief he’d felt for that hour when he truly thought Nick had died, doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to really convey to Nick how debilitating his rage and sorrow had been, how Nick had only heard the tiniest fraction of it over a crackling connection. He wonders how long ago Nick was told that Jasper was dead, if he’d excused himself from the room to send the text to Jasper immediately or if he’d been forced to wait, if Nick had managed to breathe through the heavy weight of the news pressing down on the lung that wasn’t already collapsed, if the response from Jasper has made Nick sob, what that relief looks like on Nick’s face.
Jasper doesn’t get a reply. He hadn’t been expecting one.
It’s not even that Jasper isn’t good at undercover. He is good. He is really good. He’d trained under Coulson, who’d thrown himself into undercover assignments with enthusiasm that was both skilled and hilarious, afterward. He’d gone undercover once with Melinda May, who, for all she grumbles and complains, is still exceptional at it. He’d even been chosen, twice, for undercover missions with Natasha Romanoff, and he considered both of them doubly undercover since he’d had to pretend the whole time that she didn’t scare the shit out of him. Jasper is good at undercover.
It’s just that he hates this particular assignment, hates the people he has to fake allegiance with every day, hates everything they stand for and everything they do. Entire weeks pass for Jasper where the only thought occupying his mind, flashing neon red and screaming in a child’s voice, is Nazis Nazis Nazis they are Nazis. It sickens him to see Garrett take Antoine Triplett under his wing, knowing the kind of person Trip is, knowing what Trip’s grandfather fought for decades ago. His skin crawls every time Senator Stern leans in and whispers, “Hail Hydra,” always wants to ask if Stern knows or if Stern’s a double agent too but is afraid to open his mouth at all until Stern is out of his sight. Passing over good, earnest recruits with exemplary records to fill STRIKE teams with Hydra sleepers turns him into an insomniac, could’ve turned him into an alcoholic if Nick hadn’t made it a top priority to be home every night with dinner and a slow, sweet kiss until the recruitment process was over.
Jasper never had the stomach for torture. He could endure it, no problem really, had been expertly trained at withstanding anything, had taken oath after oath to die protecting SHIELD’s secrets, but he could never dish it, ever. At the Academy they’d locked him in a room with a stranger who, they told him, was responsible for the recent murders of four top SHIELD operatives, and ordered him to get the locations of their bodies “by any means necessary.” Jasper had tried, is the thing; he tried torture, and after sixty seconds he was so nauseated with guilt that he had to go to the corner and dry heave for ten minutes. That he was bad at torturing people was why Coulson had selected him as a right hand man even after he’d failed that test. It’s why Nick loves him, this one pathetic thing that guys at the Academy saw as the ultimate weakness but Nick understands as the ultimate strength.
He’s somehow strong enough to not break his cover the first and only time he accompanies them to the Red Room - and honestly, the fact that they call it “the Red Room” makes Jasper’s fingers itch to throttle them all, but what happens there is worse than the name, so much worse. It’s torture, it’s literal dehumanization - they’ve put a metal arm on him, for fuck’s sake, they call him “the asset,” they turned him into a weapon - and he looks so damn familiar that Jasper forces himself to focus his eyes on the man’s face, to look past the vacant expressions and the flinching and the teeth-gritting screaming and memorize the features.
“I know him from somewhere,” Jasper whispers when he catches Rumlow staring at him with narrowed eyes. Rumlow scoffs.
“Yeah, everybody does,” he says. “He’s spent the last half a century shaping history.” Jasper bites his tongue. Rumlow’s got a cocky face and a truly terrifying dedication to the Hydra cause and there’s no one in this Room that Jasper hates more than Rumlow, but that’s only because Pierce is still on his way.
“No,” Jasper says, hoping the dipshit is implied heavily enough. “I know him from somewhere. I’ve seen him before. I just can’t place it.” Rumlow rolls his eyes and shrugs. Jasper wants to punch him in the face.
The man in the chair starts muttering, slurred and quiet, and Jasper has to strain to hear it but he does, one name, pitched high in a whine and repeated like a prayer: “Steve.” It hits him then, where he knows this guy from, and he’s so confused and disgusted that he fakes a call from Agent Hand, gets himself out of there as fast as his feet can take him, and makes it as far as the corner of the next block before he hurls.
“You’re the first person I’ve told,” Nick says. Jasper believes him, even though he wishes Nick wouldn’t talk about work in their bed. He nods silently, glances over at Nick, and replays that sentence in his head, listens to the inflection, layers it atop the searching look on Nick’s face, in both eyes, and realizes what Nick needs from him.
“I think you’re right,” Jasper says. He laces his fingers between Nick’s and rolls over to his side, facing Nick. “Which makes the real question, What are you going to do now?” Nick hums, frowns. Jasper smiles, small and knowing. “What am I going to do now?”
“You’re under no obliga--”
“Yes, I am,” Jasper says. “It’s not just your burden. I’m a SHIELD agent, too, you know. Hydra infiltrated my agency. I’ll do whatever my Director asks of me.” Nick sighs.
“It’ll be difficult,” he says. “For you. I don’t want to put you through that.” Jasper rolls his eyes.
“You don’t,” he says, then covers Nick’s injured eye with his free hand. “But you need to. What’s my mission, boss?”
“Your mission is to get your damn hand off my face,” Nick says, grumpy but fighting a smile, and Jasper laughs, moves his hand to rest on the back of Nick’s head, starts petting little figures into the soft skin. Nick leans in and catches Jasper’s mouth in a kiss, closes his teeth around Jasper’s bottom lip until Jasper lets out the gasp that Nick wants to hear. “Your mission won’t be in any files,” Nick says, hushed and heavy, against Jasper’s mouth. “If you die, no one will ever know it was your mission. If--”
“Nick,” Jasper says, just as quietly, “I understand the risks. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” He doesn’t say that the offer could extend to the edges of the universe, or that anything Nick wants of him, Nick gets of him. He thinks Nick understands that anyway.
It’s blazing hot on the roof, but even if it were subzero temperatures, Jasper would be sweating. Even though it’s part of the plan, Rogers and Romanoff and this new guy with the car and the smart mouth, crowding into his space demanding answers, has him more nervous than he’s been in years.
“It’s really not your style, Rogers,” Jasper says, eyes flashing quick to Romanoff, hoping he’s sealed his fate. If he dies like this, then he won’t have to worry about Hydra retaliating for spilling secrets, or about his cover being blown. When Romanoff aims her kick, Jasper doesn’t even tense.
He doesn’t die, though, doesn’t even hit the ground, because the new guy catches him, flies him back up - flies him back up with a jetpack and wings, and Jasper makes a note to tell Nick to recruit this guy to the Avengers, if he manages to live through this rooftop ordeal. They want to know details about Project Insight, and he tries to explain as best he can one of the worst fucking things he’s ever been burdened to know: the algorithm, the intended result, the targets. Nick’s on the list, and so are Rogers and Romanoff, and Hill and Coulson and May, Hand and Barton and Stark. This new guy with the wings is probably on it, too, was probably added the moment he was seen first speaking to Steve Rogers in a public place. Despite considering himself Hydra’s worst enemy, Jasper is not on the list.
He hesitates, once, says, “Pierce is gonna kill me,” and he can only hope it’s true, that if these three let him live, if he has to report back to Hydra, that Pierce kills him personally and doesn’t send Rumlow to do it.
Jasper fucking hates Rumlow.
Garrett tells Jasper that he got Grant Ward to kill Ward’s own dog before reporting for duty. He says it proudly, with a wide smile and a confident shrug, like it was no big thing, and Jasper levels a blank stare at him, wills himself to not reveal the disgust he feels through his expression. Garrett laughs and slaps Jasper on the back. Jasper digs his fingernails into his palm to keep from reaching behind him and breaking Garrett’s wrist.
When Jasper was ten years old, he’d come across an injured dog in his neighborhood. He’d approached the dog slowly and calmly, had spoken soothing words, and still had received a nasty bite on his leg for his efforts. He’d wrapped his own wound by taking off his t-shirt and tearing a strip from it, and, determined to save the dog from a slow death on the side of the road, torn off another strip and fashioned it into a muzzle of sorts to keep it from biting him again. He’d carried the dog to his house, cried until his dad took the dog to the vet, didn’t tell anyone about the bite on his leg as he tried to doctor it himself. He’d ended up in the emergency room, sick as anything, in desperate need of a rabies shot, and he’d still fucking sobbed when his dad told him that the vet had to put the dog down.
Ward’s teeth are alarmingly white, considering Garrett’s evidently been keeping him in the fucking woods for years like an animal tied to a tree. Ward smiles at Jasper, extends his hand, says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Sitwell.” Everything about him puts Jasper on edge, has him grinding his own teeth, which at least serves to paint a decent picture of a returned smile. Jasper can’t stop thinking about the dog, shot dead in the woods by a man who’d been his friend for years just because Garrett gave an order. He still doesn’t have feeling in the scar on his leg.
If anyone knew - and they don’t, like, resolutely across the board they don’t, because Nick and Jasper are professional professionals - then they would undoubtedly assume that Nick initiated it. He’s pretty significantly older than Jasper, the picture of authority, and Jasper figures it’s pretty easy to imagine himself besotted with Nick, easily influenced if Nick got to him when he was still a fresh enough recruit, flush high on face and fluttering eyelashes, pleased to get called into the Director’s office like a college kid getting seduced by a hot professor. It’s a cute and funny mental image, and Jasper appreciates cute and funny, or else he wouldn’t have ever put the moves on Nick.
Jasper is thirty-three and has worked under Nick for a decade when he wakes up one day with a wicked crush. He’s never been the type to pine from afar, and while he doesn’t bother fumbling around the subjects of romance or attraction with the people he’s attracted to and wants to be romantically involved with, it’s also not his style to be too direct too early. The SHIELD ranks are populated with guys who think being awkward is a flirting style - bad - or that niceness is a winning characteristic that entitles them to all the pussy and dick they want - worse - but Jasper’s family taught him better. He learned eye contact and compliments and stating his intentions from his father; he learned respect and dancing and honesty from his mother; his sisters taught him the power of a good smile and his brother taught him how to not stumble around flirtation.
He knows what he’s doing when he starts bringing Nick a fresh cup of coffee - the good stuff, from Records, not the weak shit they expect everyone else in the building to drink - to every meeting, when he compliments the fit of Nick’s clothes, when he smiles at Nick all soft and lazy in the mornings. He’s seen people of varying gender identity hit on Nick before, and for some reason they always opt for innuendo and inappropriateness, but Jasper knows Nick well enough to have a better understanding of what Nick likes. Jasper keeps it professional, never says anything that could be misconstrued, never does anything embarrassing like rest his hand on Nick’s thigh or whatever. Coffee graduates to coffee and a cheese danish, complimenting Nick’s clothes evolves into complimenting Nick’s clothes and taste in shoes, soft lazy smiles become more frequent soft lazy smiles.
After the sixth danish, Nick presses Jasper’s wrist down to the desk, looks at him for a long moment of tension. Jasper swallows, lets Nick see it, knows Nick can feel his pulse quicken with those strong fingers over his veins, but Nick still asks, “What’s with you, Sitwell?” and Jasper is grateful for the chance to tell.
“I like you, sir,” Jasper says. Nick stares. “I’d like to go on a date with you sometime, if you’re interested.” Nick stares some more, presses harder on Jasper’s wrist. Jasper doesn’t waver, and after a full minute, Nick nods, almost imperceptibly.
“I like Moroccan food,” Nick says quietly. “I’ll see you Wednesday at 6.”
It progresses slowly, has to with their line of work, and the first time Jasper spreads his fingers over Nick’s lower back and presses his lips to Nick’s, it feels like a revival. Nick’s hands are on either side of his face now, thumbs resting at his jaw, pressing in gently and coaxing Jasper’s mouth open. An electric sort of warmth eases through Jasper’s body, a light feeling low in his belly, and he knows enough of science to know that it’s pheromones and endorphins and oxytocin but right here, right now, it just feels like he’s in love.
Nick moves in just before their first anniversary, and finds the tagine pot from their first date at the back of one of the kitchen cabinets. He gets a nostalgic, loving expression on his face as he holds it up, and Jasper slips into the space behind him, arms wrapping around Nick’s waist and pulling the two of them close. Jasper presses a kiss to Nick’s shoulder and says, “I bought that just for our date, you know. Tried like, half a dozen recipes before I could make tagine good enough for you.” Jasper can feel rather than see the surprise on Nick’s face, revels momentarily in the victorious thrill of telling Nick Fury something Nick Fury didn’t already know.
“It sure tasted like you’d been making it for years,” Nick says. Jasper grins.
“I know it did,” he says. “I planned it that way.” Nick shakes his head.
“You think you’re a real smooth operator, huh, Jas?”
“I think an argument could be made that I am,” Jasper says, because he finally got Nick to watch D.E.B.S. last night after unloading all the boxes from Nick’s rented moving van, and he enjoys gloating once in awhile. “I.E., you’re here.” Nick groans.
“Can’t believe I let you talk me into watching a lesbian spy academy movie,” he says. “I should have my clearance revoked. I was trained to hold up under torture for much longer than that.”
“Whatever, you loved it,” Jasper insists, squeezing a little tighter around Nick and smiling against the bare skin of Nick’s shoulder. “You think Natasha is more Lucy Diamond or more Amy Bradshaw?” Nick turns around in Jasper’s arms at that, apparently worthy of a real face-to-face side eye, even while he’s still holding the tagine pot.
“The hell are you talking about?” Nick says. “Natasha is definitely Max Brewer.” Jasper hums.
“I suppose that’s true,” he says. “But Barton is Scud, right?”
He’s been doing research on his own, trying to gather every known fact and rumor about the allegedly late Sergeant James Barnes. Nearly every source turns up the same information: otherwise known as Bucky, Sergeant Barnes was Steve Rogers’ best friend and, as a Howling Commando during World War II, fell from a train during a secret operation and died in the mountains, a sacrifice which was followed up within mere days by Captain Rogers’ own death. But Rogers had turned up alive, just frozen, and when Jasper finally bites the bullet and turns to the high security Hydra files deep within SHIELD’s records, he discovers that Rogers and Barnes had that alive and frozen thing in common.
That’s where the similarities end, though, because Rogers hibernated through every single assassination mission that Hydra handed over to Barnes - after what they did to him, which is a collection of files so revolting that Jasper has to take breaks just so he can dry heave, and he knows some of this sick torture porn shit that Dr. Armin Zola and goddamn Pierce dreamed up is going to find its way into his nightmares for the next several weeks. The list of eliminated marks is long, includes world leaders and international peacekeepers, investigative journalists and human rights activists, President Kennedy and Howard Stark. No one Barnes was likely to have ever killed under his own will. Nothing Barnes would have ever done without Hydra in his brain.
The paint on the motel walls is peeling all over. The room smells of inescapable mildew and cigarettes. Barnes is standing still in the center, looking directly ahead of him at a wall, eyes vacant as ever. Jasper’s been granted a few minutes alone with - it killed him to say it, but he had to - the asset before Barnes gets put in cryo again, made the request of Pierce and cited insatiable curiosity. There’s still two STRIKE Team agents guarding the door outside, but as long as Jasper keeps his voice low, no one will hear anything.
“You can sit, if you want,” Jasper says, after sweeping the room for bugs of both kinds, and Barnes’ eyes drift down, back up, confused and angry, like he’s trying to assess a trick being played on him. Jasper frowns. “Sit,” he says, with as much authority as he can muster, and Barnes sits down on the edge of the bed. Jasper hates himself.
“Do you remember who you are?” Jasper asks. Barnes stares at him. From what Jasper’s gathered, the longer Barnes is out of cryo, the more his memories return, fragmented as they undoubtedly are. It’s why they keep shoving him back in that thing, wiping his brain and erasing his identity from himself. It’s been five days since he was removed from the freezer, and he’s been lashing out against his handlers all day. Jasper’s hoping something good comes from this, knows he probably won’t get another chance. “Do you remember what they did to you?” It takes a few long moments, but eventually Barnes looks down at his left arm. “They gave that to you, didn’t they? Without your consent?” Barnes glares at the gleaming metal before jerking his head up.
“Do you know--” Barnes tries, voice scratchy and weak. He closes his eyes, screws up his face as if he’s trying to recall something very important. He reaches his right arm down and outward, spreads his fingers, like he’s trying to save someone from falling. Jaspers eyes narrow.
“Are you--” he says in disbelief, and Barnes looks at him again. “Are you talking about Captain Rogers?”
“Captain….” Barnes says quietly, repeats it a few times. “He wasn’t always. Not Captain, and not that big. Just a scrawny thing.”
“Steve Rogers,” Jasper offers, and Barnes shuts his eyes again, like it hurts him to hear Steve’s name.
“They told me he died,” Barnes says. “But I saw--I saw. On the cover of a newspaper. He was there.”
“He didn’t die,” Jasper says. “He lived,” and then, aiming for comforting, “Same as you.” Barnes’ eyes open once more, meeting Jasper’s and looking wide and haunted.
“I hope not.”
“Did you know about Barnes?” Nick asks in Bucharest. Jasper doesn’t freeze up, doesn’t make or avoid significant eye contact, schools his features into something resoundingly guiltless.
Still, he answers, “Thought you never asked stupid questions.”
He’s sent on a small assignment to Los Angeles, which is just about his least favorite place in the world, and he’s spent the entire way there trying to figure out why he would be sent for something as low level as checking up on a potential for their Index. His orders are to take a car to a specific repair shop and keep an eye out for the youngest mechanic there. Tall, thin, with a white streak in his hair, is what they told him.
The kid searching through work orders behind the desk when Jasper comes in can’t be older than sixteen, but he’s damn tall and bean pole thin and has a white streak through his dark hair. He’s also undeniably Latino. Jasper tries not to sigh. He makes a mental note to chew out whoever chose him for this assignment, like they threw a token Latino gifted person to the token Latino SHIELD agent.
The boy’s name is Robbie Reyes, and he swears he’s got a real way with cars, will have the problem fixed in no time, sir. Jasper thanks him, asks in Spanish where he can get a decent cup of coffee within walking distance, and Robbie answers in kind, directs him to a diner two blocks east. Jasper nods and leaves, circles back around the block to spy on Robbie working on the car from across the street.
Nothing weird happens. Like, at all. Robbie does everything manually, nothing magically begins working again, there’s no strange science involved in the repairs. The kid was right, though - he does have a real way with cars, gets the junker Jasper’s mom has been refusing to get rid of forever running smoothly for the first time in eight years. Jasper would never have believed it could be done without powers if he hadn’t watched it happen. He narrows his eyes at Robbie and says, straight to the point, “What’s the deal? You magic or something?” Robbie laughs lightly, and Jasper doesn’t hear his response for focusing on any sudden drops of sweat forming at Robbie’s hairline.
He opts to stay in town for the night, just to be sure, because there’s something about Robbie that feels off somehow, like a monster lurking just out of sight. Robbie’s clearly bright and certainly quiet, a hard worker who, from what Jasper can tell through surveillance, loves his little brother so much it could easily be used against the two of them. There’s something there, though, that Jasper can’t quite pinpoint. It reminds him of Bruce Banner, how everything is unassuming and normal until it very abruptly and dangerously isn’t.
Jasper hasn’t done a stakeout in awhile but damn, he’s missed this. Junk food in the car, terrible gas station coffee, binoculars around his neck like he’s a fucking bird watcher, the whole bit. He calls Nick on his personal phone, just to keep himself awake, and Nick actually tries to get him to agree to phone sex right here in the middle of a stakeout. “Why do you always do this?” Jasper hisses, eyes following Robbie, who’s just left home in the middle of the night looking frazzled. “You won’t even let me bring it up when you’re on assignment.”
“Well, I’m not as easy as you, I guess,” Nick says. Jasper can hear the telling hitch in Nick’s breath at the last word, an obvious rhythmic sound in the background. He shakes his head and waits until Robbie gets to the end of the block and turns the corner to start the car.
“You’re unbelievable,” Jasper says fondly. “So what’s the fantasy this time?” He turns at the same corner Robbie took, spots the kid at the end of the street already, picking up the pace just a little.
“Replacing old, sour memories in Bogota,” Nick says. Jasper hums appreciatively. He likes this one. “Better sex with a better man.”
“Wish I was there with you,” Jasper says. “I’d convince you to just fucking go to Bogota with me and make it real for once.”
“When you get back,” Nick says, but he’s been saying that for years. “Wish you were here for another reason, though.”
“Yeah?” Jasper says, his voice gone rough. He licks his lips. “Me, too. I’d get you laid out on the bed and suck you off.” Nick’s breathing picks up, and Jasper sees Robbie turn at another corner a few blocks ahead. “I’d be slow with it,” he says. “Love how you get when you’re impatient and needy.”
“‘m’not needy,” Nick mutters, and Jasper smirks.
“Sure sounds like you’re needing something right now, Nick,” Jasper says, turning to follow Robbie down another poorly lit street.
“Need you,” Nick says, and he’s said it before, it’s not unusual anymore, but it still makes Jasper’s breath catch in his throat. “My hands are out of practice for this. Need yours.”
“You wanna stop with just my hands?” Jasper says, low and amused. “Because I can work with that, you know I’ll make it just as good, but something tells me you’d rather I--” He stops and stares slackjawed at the scene before him.
“Jas?” Nick says with urgent concern. “Everything okay?”
“Uh,” Jasper says. Two short blocks down the street, directly ahead of him, Robbie Reyes is wearing a black and white bodysuit, and is on fire. “Um.” Jasper opens the car door and slowly steps out, not bothering to close it as he begins approaching Robbie cautiously. “The boy’s on fire,” Jasper whispers into the phone.
“What, like Katniss?” Nick asks.
“No, like--like--” but Jasper loses the train when Robbie’s body shifts, leans into the sleek black car next to him, and he realizes that he can see Robbie’s skeletal system. That car--there’s something wrong with it, wrong like a neon flashing warning sign wrong, and Jasper opens his mouth to call out to Robbie, tell him to back up and be calm, but then Robbie gets sucked into the car, into the engine. He can tell Robbie’s still there, in it, possessing it, because it’s leaking flames like oil from every crevice, licking around the hood of the car like Robbie belongs there.
“Like what, Jasper?” Nick is saying.
“Like a house of fucking horrors.”
Nearly everyone - all but two people, his entire time at SHIELD - who has ever told him that he’s good at undercover tell him it’s because he has an unassuming face. They’re trying to compliment him, he knows that, but it has never done anything but instantaneously raise his ire. He wishes they could all tell that to the cops who prowled his neighborhood growing up, known to pick a Latino or Black kid at random and trump up charges to bring them in on at the station, or to the officers who stop him every time he’s staying at his New York apartment or visiting his parents in Brooklyn, crowd him up against a fence and start frisking him unless he’s got his SHIELD badge at the ready to shove in their faces, and even then they usually frisk him anyway because they don’t believe he could possibly be working for an organization like SHIELD, or to SHIELD’s own goddamn Human Resources Department right downstairs, because maybe then SHIELD would hire more apparently unassuming faces like his or Nick’s, and he could stop feeling some days like he’s working to uphold an agency that should rank on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups, like he might as well be one of those dick cops on an international level.
He catches Rumlow staring at him in a van one day, and when he asks, Rumlow just shrugs and says, “I get why nobody suspects. You, I mean. You’ve got a very unassuming face.” Jasper breathes in deep through his nose.
He hates Rumlow so fucking much.
He really does get seasick, is the thing. But Nick wanted him on the Lemurian Star, needed a solid reason to send in Romanoff and Rogers, so he’s here, throwing up over the side of the ship and biding his time before Algerian pirates make their debut.
“SHIELD doesn’t negotiate,” he tells them when they’re tying his hands behind his back and shoving him to the floor. It’s not the first time he’s said “SHIELD” when he meant “Nick.”
Captain America, Black Widow, and a godforsaken STRIKE Team save the day, and Jasper has to look at Brock Rumlow storm in to rescue him and the other hostages, and Rumlow doesn’t even have the decency to look smug like usual. He actually looks relieved, like he thought there was legitimate trouble. Jasper’s eye roll is dramatic enough to induce a headache. Rumlow hangs back and hovers around Jasper while the other agents are boarding the aircraft.
“You okay?” Rumlow mutters, barely even moving his lips. Jasper blinks at him.
“I told them SHIELD didn’t negotiate,” he says. He has no idea what Rumlow’s going for here.
“They didn’t take anything, did they?” Rumlow asks, eyes low as he fixes Jasper with a glare. Out of the corner of Jasper’s eye, he sees Romanoff appear with Rogers, wiping ash off her forehead and shaking debris from her hair.
“Not on my watch,” Jasper says.
Jasper finds out that Pierce is both SHIELD and Hydra’s top brass about a month into this particular undercover assignment. He’s met Pierce only a few times before, always brief, always having to remind Pierce of his name. Now, Pierce greets him proudly, calls him “Jasper,” pulls him in close to say “Hail Hydra” and to literally reach into his goddamn pocket for his phone. When it returns to his pocket - by Jasper’s own hand, he’d insisted on snatching it from Pierce’s fingers before it got too close again - it’s got Pierce’s personal contact information in its memory. Jasper does not pass Nick’s office, does not collect his integrity, just goes directly to the locker rooms and scrubs down no less than four times.
It takes him weeks to tell Nick about Pierce. He knows what it’s going to do to Nick to hear that - Nick called Pierce “Alex” once, ages ago, before Bogota happened, before Nick lost an eye. As impossible as it is for Jasper to picture now, the truth is that Pierce is the only other man Nick has ever loved besides him. Jasper’s been in love twice before, and he can imagine clearly how devastated he would be if either of those women had turned out to be the monster that Pierce is.
He tells Nick over breakfast on a Sunday. Nick stares at him, steady and unblinking, and says, “No.” Jasper has been expecting this. He looks down at the table, pulls out his phone and plays an audio file he sneaked from a recent meeting with Pierce. Nick listens in tense silence for a few full minutes before the sound of flatware clattering to the table and Nick’s chair scraping the floor gets Jasper looking up again, this time at Nick’s empty seat. He stops the recording and pockets his phone again, tries to go back to his meal. When Nick returns, Jasper’s still working on his omelette, and Nick’s got two old photos in his hand. He pulls his chair closer to Jasper’s and sits down, holding out the pictures for Jasper to see.
One is of Alexander Pierce, decades ago, handsome as hell, in what looks like a Senate hearing. The other is of Pierce and Nick, shaking hands. In it, Nick has two good eyes. “That was the first time I met him,” Nick says. He places the photos on the table, taps hard at the one with just Pierce. “This man was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says. “Declined it. Declined it. You know why? He said peace wasn’t an achievement, but a responsibility.” Jasper looks up at Nick, takes in the hurt evident in both his eyes, even the bad one. “And now you’re telling me that he’s the leader of a Nazi organization bent on world domination and destruction? That he was, even then?” Jasper swallows.
“I’m sorry, Nick,” he says, voice thick and pitying. Nick presses the heels of his hands to his forehead, lets out a trembling breath, and Jasper can’t stand it. He puts his arms around Nick and pulls him in close, feels Nick’s body go loose and soft against his, feels Nick shake against his chest.
“I’m sorry,” Nick says, so quiet and weak that Jasper barely hears him. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I sent you into this, I’m sorry you have to deal with these people, I’m sorry I’m having a meltdown over my ex,” he says, burying his face in the t-shirt Jasper slept in. “I’m sorry the omelette isn’t good.”
Jasper’s laugh jerks out of his throat before he even knows it’s there. “The omelette’s great, Nick,” he says, cradling Nick’s head against his neck. “You have much better taste in omelette fillings than in men.”
“I think an argument could be made that I don’t,” Nick says, lifting his tearful face and pressing his lips to Jasper’s chin. “I.E., you’re here.” Jasper turns, smiles against Nick’s mouth.
It’s Jasper who tells Nick that not all the rats went down with the ship. Hydra’s got agents worldwide, and now that Pierce is dead and the sail of the organization is broken, the rats are scurrying to all corners. Everyone thinks Nick and Jasper are both dead, which makes it easy for them to focus on this gruesome cleanup. It’s kind of nice, really. It’s the romantic roadtrip through Europe they always talked about but could never take.
Jasper puts a bullet in a British Hydra agent’s head and asks, “So what about Coulson and Hill?”
“Hill’s working for Stark,” Nick says with a laugh, and Jasper’s honestly not sure if he’s laughing at the thought of Maria Hill working for Tony Stark’s company or at the bodies he just put on the ground. “By now, Coulson and his team should be at Providence with Eric Koenig.”
“Then who got the honors of taking out Garrett?” Jasper asks. He takes a moment to roll his eyes at the gun suddenly pressed to his back before swiftly turning around, stabbing his would-be killer in the stomach and grabbing the pistol. “God, I hope it was Trip. And what about Ward? Shit, that’s gonna hit Coulson’s team hard, isn’t it?”
It’s silent in the room then, finally, the smell and taste of iron filling up the air, and when Jasper turns to face Nick, he sees that Nick’s removed his blood-splattered sunglasses, is looking at him with wide eyes.
“Shit,” Nick says, like he’d forgotten about Ward entirely in favor of major players like Pierce and Garrett. Before Jasper can respond, one of his phones beeps, and a chill washes over him as he pulls it from his jacket pocket and reads the message. He looks up at Nick.
“Hand are Koenig are both dead.”
Nobody around the Hub likes Victoria Hand, except for Jasper. She’s stubborn and authoritative and doesn’t take any shit from anyone, calls everybody out for their sexism and racism and homophobia if she hears it, regardless of their security clearance level. He likes her pink hair and her deadpan gaze and, at least based on one surprisingly not-awkward meeting in a D.C. grocery store, her girlfriend. He likes that she makes tough decisions and doesn’t let anyone make her feel bad for her choices. She does what needs to be done, without apology.
She trusts and respects her agents, is the thing that nobody appreciates or understands. She’s the boss of the Hub, and bosses aren’t required to joke around with their employees to be good bosses. No one would ask that of Nick, everyone accepts his surly demeanor with ease, but Hand is a woman, with a pink streak in her hair, which means no one thinks she deserves to take herself or her job seriously. Of course, Nick gets disrespect that Hand doesn’t - Jasper’s fired multiple agents across several years on the spot for dropping slurs and racist jokes within his earshot - but Hand gets some that Nick doesn’t, too, and she knows what people say about her, but she holds her head high and walks with her shoulders back, and Jasper likes that about her.
Hand tells him one day, over lunch, that he’s one of three agents in the entire building she feels any sort of fondness for. He puts down his sandwich and fixes her with his best intense look. “Okay, well, now I have to know,” he says. “Who are the other two?”
She smiles, just slightly, that sly lift to one small corner of her red mouth. “Guess,” she says. He narrows his eyes.
“May,” he says. She nods. That was the easiest guess. Everyone knows May is the only person stationed at the Hub whose opinion Hand values. Guessing the third one is more difficult. He takes his time, considers his options. It can’t be Coulson, because Coulson gets emotionally involved in things despite his best efforts, and Hand doesn’t care for that. It could be Hill, but she’s not at the Hub often enough to qualify. It would never be Nick, even if he was at the Hub full-time, because he’s too much like Hand but he ranks above her. Jasper’s stumped.
“I have no idea,” he says, shaking his head. She grins, full on this time, a rarity for her.
“Agent Blake,” she says. Jasper’s shoulders slump.
“Come on!” he says, laughing. “Blake? Really?”
“Yes, really,” Hand says, leaving no room for argument, even though Jasper’s still laughing. He shakes his head, picks up his sandwich again.
“He still pissed about Wise?” he asks with a smirk.
“You mean Claire Wise, the woman out there robbing banks with alien weapons? The woman that you not only didn’t take out or arrest but hired for SHIELD, to be Blake’s assistant?” Jasper hides his grin behind the sandwich. Hand rolls her eyes. “Well, it’s been three weeks and she finally knows how to make coffee the way he likes it, so he could be angrier.”
They’ve been dating for three months before Nick removes the eye patch in front of him. Jasper wants to stare, not at the eye, not because of the eye, but because he knows the weight of a move like that. A move like that means that Nick feels comfortable enough to take off his armor for Jasper, and the thought makes Jasper’s knees go weak, but he at least doesn’t stare.
Across the dinner table, he can’t help but get a good look at the injured eye. It makes his jaw clench, looking at it. “It looks like it really hurt,” Jasper says, only after Nick demands they stop ignoring that the armor’s off and his battle scars are all showing. “Does it still?”
Nick shrugs. “It did for a long time, after,” he says. “Some days I still get a phantom pain, but it hardly ever registers anymore.”
“So do you just dig the pirate look or what?” Jasper asks. “Because the scars make you look like a badass. Why do you hide it?” He’s expecting something about how Nick doesn’t need scars to look like a badass, some other joke to shrug it off, but Nick surprises him.
“It’s the one thing I do for other people,” Nick says, sincere after a quiet moment. “Looking into my eyes hurts them.”
“So let them hurt,” Jasper says. Nick raises an eyebrow at him.
“It hurts you,” he says, gesturing with the fork in his hand to the tension in Jasper’s jaw. Jasper shakes his head.
“It’s not about me,” he answers. “It hurts me only because it hurt you.” Nick gives him an assessing look, then smiles and takes another bite of garlic bread.
“For that,” Nick says, “I’m gonna brush my teeth before I kiss you after dinner.”
The eye patch is the first thing to come off when it’s just the two of them, after that. It stops hurting Jasper after awhile, too.
Nick finds him before doing anything else. He knows because when he wakes up in the hospital bed on day three of his recovery, Nick is sitting in the chair next to him, legs bent over the armrest and arms crossed over his chest as he curls up into the seat. Jasper’s just had a dream that Nick really was dead, that the text wanting to make sure he was okay was actually from Pierce, so seeing that Nick has contorted uncomfortably and is looking adorable sleeping next to him is wildly relieving.
Jasper waits another half an hour before Nick jerks awake, hands going for where his gun holster would be if he was wearing it. Jasper raises his eyebrows at him. “Bad dream?” he asks. Nick scoffs.
“Life is the bad dream,” Nick says. “Dreams are actually nice.” He turns in the chair, stretching out his legs and wincing when his back cracks. “That’s how I know they’re wrong.”
“But you’re here, and I’m here,” Jasper says, reaching out to hold Nick’s hand, hissing at the pain of it and ignoring the concern in Nick’s face. “And everybody thinks we’re dead. We could have a lot of fun with that.” Nick smirks.
“I’m already planning our vacation,” he says, squeezing Jasper’s fingers. They sit in comfortable silence for a few long minutes. Jasper thinks Nick has fallen asleep again, but he has to ask anyway, because it’s been nagging at him for days--
“Did they do to me what they did to Coulson?” Jasper asks, his voice betraying him with a tremble. Nick gives him a sharp look. Jasper sighs. “I know what they did to him. I know about the experimental surgery and T.A.H.I.T.I. and GH-325. I don’t want to die, but there’s nothing in my life that I want less than that. Please, please tell me the truth. Did they do to me what they did to Coulson?”
“No,” Nick answers, firm and sincere. “No, I’d never let them--I wouldn’t--” He looks away. “You weren’t gone like Coulson was, when SHIELD found you. You got here in time for treatment. What happened to Coulson wasn’t necessary.” Jasper twists his fingers to fit between Nick’s, squeezes hard until Nick turns back to him.
“Okay,” he says. “That’s all I needed.” Nick pushes up his sunglasses and presses a gentle kiss to Jasper’s bruised lips.
Jasper makes a nonchalant remark about “Nobody Does It Better” being a good contender for their song and Nick makes a point to sing along with it, loud and high and intentionally awful, every time they hear it now, on the car radio, on a TV show they’re marathoning, in a dive bar in Azerbaijan. It’s hilarious every time, Nick crooning horribly along with Carly Simon, and romantic in its own way, so Jasper just laughs and takes Nick’s hand if they’re alone and doesn’t submit any other recommendations for their song.
He and Nick argue sometimes, but not like, regularly. Just. A healthy amount. There’s a healthy amount of arguing in their relationship. It’s rarely over anything serious, anyway, and it’s rarely something that can’t be dissolved with Nick’s hand on Jasper’s ass or Jasper’s mouth on Nick’s collarbone. The only blow out they ever have is over Project Insight. Jasper brings it to Nick as soon as he learns about its development, filled with simmering rage that humans could have the audacity to try something like this, again, expecting Nick to react similarly, and Nick actually leans back in his chair consideringly, and eventually says, “I don’t know. It could be useful.”
The words are like an atom bomb in Jasper’s head, and it escalates rapidly to a screaming fight, and Jasper’s thankful that neither of them are violent people outside of work, because Jasper thinks he could’ve done some real damage over this. As it is, it’s twenty minutes before he’s haphazardly throwing some of his belongings in a suitcase and driving away, seething still, and it’s only when he reaches his New Jersey safehouse that he realizes how fucking stupid it is for him to be the one leaving when it’s his name on the mortgage of the house he’s been sharing with Nick for five years.
He turns all of his phones off and keeps them in the kitchen and tries to sleep, manages to for awhile, but wakes up with a stiff jaw and an aching head. He finally checks his messages while he waits for the coffee to be ready, skims through fifty-two texts and politely listens to his fourteen voicemails. They all start out angry still, yelling more, and get quieter and sadder as they go along, stammering justifications and shaky apologies. The final voicemail is from just an hour ago, Nick’s voice rough and tired but beautiful and sweet as he sings their song with such sincerity that Jasper call feel it down to his bones, even over the distance between them. He listens to it eight times, sends the file to a scrambled email address and encrypts it, then deletes it from his phone. This moment is for him only, from Nick, and he’d walk through fire to keep anyone else from ever hearing it.
He gets assigned to surveillance of Dr. Bruce Banner, alias: The Hulk. Jasper watches the video footage with wide eyes, over and over again, from all possible angles, every single shot, and at lunchtime Coulson sits down next to him with takeout boxes and says, “Heard you were skipping lunch to catch up on a great new show.”
Jasper thanks him for the food, says, “Can you believe this guy? How did this even happen?”
Coulson shrugs. “Every decade or so, some scientist tries again to recreate the formula that created Captain America. It never works, obviously. Nobody gets that it was equally the formula and Steve Rogers himself.”
“Banner’s a mess,” Jasper says. On one of the screens in front of him, the Hulk tears through a building with his fist. “I’m supposed to keep an eye on him now.”
“Hmm,” Coulson says, considering. He takes a bite of noodles. “Well, keep your distance.” Jasper gives him a look. Coulson grins.
Pierce assigns Jasper to distribute trackers to each one of the Avengers and their affiliates as well as several SHIELD agents that he’s notably close to, smirks as he does it, thinks it’s funny. Jasper nods and smirks back and then goes to the gym level and punches a bag for an hour.
Finding a reason to go around Stark Tower isn’t difficult. Stark is still a SHIELD consultant, after all. Jasper introduces himself to Pepper Potts, hands her a folder that she hands to Stark. Project Insight works like this: the targeting satellites will read people’s DNA, no problem, but there are tracking numbers required to sync to the helicarriers, at least at this stage in the development, and Jasper needs to get the numbers. All it takes is a touch - the material on the folder records the necessary information and reports back to Insight’s developers. Jasper’s just the messenger, and Stark and Potts both ask about Coulson’s family, what it’s like working without him, and by the time Jasper leaves, he’s got numbers for Stark, Potts, and a pajama-clad Bruce Banner and is feeling like the worst sort of traitor.
Rogers’ apartment is straight out of a furniture catalog and the saddest fucking thing Jasper’s seen in awhile. Rogers insists he sit down, pours him a cup of coffee before sitting himself and looking over the archived documents Jasper brought with him. Jasper answers questions about old a few old SHIELD missions, tries and fails to stop a Steve Rogers Nostalgia Train Tour before it starts. He says his goodbyes, waits until Rogers closes his door, and knocks on Sharon’s, wordlessly hands her some new intel in a manila folder when she answers, and wishes he could apologize.
Barton and Romanoff are a package set, particularly trusting towards Jasper in their vulnerable state after Coulson’s alleged death. To them, he brings photos, and has to join in as they look through them, sharing memories and regrets. He just saw Coulson yesterday at the Hub. He wants to tell them, wants to warn them, but all he can say is, “I miss him, too.”
He can’t tag Thor, and honestly he’s thankful as fuck for that, so he has to meet Jane Foster and Erik Selvig. He’s a science buff, earned two degrees at once in physics and chemistry, so he can keep up with their discussion of the astronomical analysis he brought easily enough, and they look grateful for it. Darcy Lewis is sitting at a table in the kitchen area, watching a political thriller on her laptop while eating Lucky Charms, and Jasper sits down next to her and asks, “Have you seen the original, from the 70s? It’s even better.” He ends up writing a list of recommendations on the file folder that held the documents for Selvig and Foster and sliding it over to her. She picks it up and thanks him, calls him “dude,” which is new, and he thinks the two of them could’ve been friends if he’d ever gotten to properly poach her for SHIELD.
Hill doesn’t even pause to say hello before taking the file from him. It’s so easy it feels like cheating.
The real cheat comes when he only has one name left on his assignment. He schedules a private meeting with Director Fury and arrives five minutes early. The doors are locked behind him and the windows dimmed. He sits down in a chair chosen specifically for its lack of comfort and slides a single piece of paper across the desk. It’s blank except for three words, and Nick silently presses his hand to it, palm flat and fingers splayed, looks up and says, “I love you, too, Jasper.”
In a relationship with Nick Fury, Jasper has to take a lot of things on trust. He trusts that Nick will come home alive. He trusts that Nick will be honest with him. He trusts that Nick will keep him safe. He trusts that Nick won’t bug his house or any of his apartments. He trusts that Nick will keep his secrets. He trusts that if it ever comes to killing him, Nick will do it respectably and not slowly poison him. He trusts that it won’t ever come to killing him.
Nick knows it’s difficult. He gets sad about it, sometimes, spends entire weekends apologizing with words and actions, and Jasper feels bad accepting it all because the thing is, he’s a spy, too. It’s difficult for Nick, too. There are things neither of them tell each other. There are a few safehouses that each of them doesn’t know about. It was always going to be difficult for at least one of them. At least this way, they’re on the same team.
Nick makes sure that Jasper doesn’t have to take Nick’s love for him on trust, though. Nick tells him all day, kisses his face in the morning and says it, cooks breakfast and says it, texts it to him on a burner phone after they’ve passed one another in the hallways at work, squeezes his ass while he’s cooking dinner and says it with his mouth pressed sweetly against Jasper’s skin, intertwines their fingers while they drift off to sleep and says it a final time with sleep overtaking his voice. Jasper’s had a good life, one full of love, but he’s never felt so secure in it as he does with Nick, like Nick’s love for him is the safest house he could ever live in, even if it was abandoned and crumbling.
He gets the news from Pierce. “Nick Fury is dead.” Pierce sounds as delighted as he’s ever been. Jasper’s throat is on fire. He can barely hear the details and orders Pierce is giving him through the blood pumping violently around his ears. All he gathers is that Rogers was there when Nick died, Rogers knows something about who killed Nick, Rogers isn’t telling anything. It’s the first time Jasper’s and Pierce’s interests have ever coincided. Pierce has a Hydra operation in mind, but Jasper has a personal matter to resolve.
With stinging eyes and rage chasing his blood, he can’t even take pleasure in commanding Rumlow when he sends STRIKE team after STRIKE team to the elevators. He watches on a screen as Rogers jumps through glass and falls and falls and falls and still gets to his feet. He orders for doors to shut, gates to close, the bridge to lock down, sends a plane after Rogers and watches him take it out with that goddamn shield and get away. Jasper thinks it would be easier on his body if he could Hulk out right now, give the ire in his veins more space to breathe and multiply. As it is, it’s crowding his vessels, filling up his lungs, sucking out his bone marrow and replacing it with an incurable and unpleasant vibration that’s causing heat to radiate through his entire body.
“Eyes here,” he demands of the Operation Room. “Whatever your op is, bury it. This is Level One.” He tries to keep his breathing even, tries to keep his voice steady. He can’t just scream at them, but he wants to, god, he wants to. He orders traffic lights red, runways shut down, access to the entire city’s security cameras, and every possible open source continually scanned. “If someone tweets about this guy,” he says, “I wanna know about it.” So I can find him myself, he doesn’t say, and get answers.
“With all due respect,” Sharon says, “if SHIELD is conducting a manhunt for Captain America, we deserve to know why.” Her voice snaps Jasper out of the cacophony of his rage. He looks at her, his favorite agent, like he’s never seen her before, and realizes that he has no answer for her, no cover story. He wants to tell her everything, suddenly, him and Nick and Hydra and--well, what now?
Pierce answers for him. It’s true, and it’s something they won’t question, and when they all get to work, Pierce slaps him on the back and whispers, “You had me a little frightened there. Reign it in some, Jasper.”
Jasper turns away, closes his eyes, lets his anger carry his imagination to a very cathartic gutting of Alexander Pierce. He excuses himself from the room, locks himself in the closest empty closet, rests his back against the door and slides down, presses his forehead to his knees and finally, finally lets out a heaving sob.
Nick surrounds himself with women who are smart, capable, and, quite frankly, a little terrifying. It’s less to do with them being women and more to do with them being individuals who Nick respects to a fault and trusts with his life. Hill and Romanoff and Sharon could probably run SHIELD entirely by themselves, no other agents required, and guys in the locker rooms keep making Charlie’s Angels jokes and Jasper lets them only because it’s going to get them shot one day by Hill or Romanoff or Sharon, or all three, and he hopes he’s there to see it.
He likes Hill and Romanoff enough, trusts them implicitly, of course, but Sharon is his favorite agent in the whole of SHIELD. She keeps information close, never tells anyone that she’s a legacy, withholds facts about herself until she decides a person is worthy of knowing. She knows her way around a gun, has the highest range score of the entire agency - when it comes to firearms, and shit, what Jasper wouldn’t do to see her and Barton switch weapons for a day - but she’s careful about using it, doesn’t wear it out in the open on her body or go brandishing it to intimidate people like Rumlow always does with his myriad of weapons. She’s subtle and she works hard, does the job without bragging or asking for praise, and she could do both and get away with it, because she’s really, really good at the job.
They do lunch together every time they’re both in the same city, and sometimes when Nick is out of town, Jasper takes down their pictures and Sharon comes over for dinner. She compliments his cooking and asks why he doesn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend, and he chuckles and says, “You’ll learn eventually - it’s this life or the other,” and hopes she proves him wrong the way he’s doing. He says, “How do you know I’m not trying to woo you? If you were even a little bit Catholic, you’d be exactly the kind of woman my mom always wanted me to marry,” and she throws her head back and laughs. He says, “Pick a movie that won’t bore me to death, Carter,” and minutes later a Blu-Ray disc case bounces off the back of his head, dead center, like she’d painted a target there when he wasn’t paying attention.
He trusts Hill and Romanoff enough, but he knows Hill doesn’t particularly like him, knows that Romanoff only gives him the time of day because of his working history with Coulson. The thing about being a SHIELD agent is you end up trusting your life to people you don’t really like very much, surrounded every day by people you wouldn’t want to see while you’re on vacation. Sharon’s different. Sharon’s a friend.
It’s nice to have a friend.
He graduates from the Academy and immediately begins training with Coulson. Jasper’s young, but not as young as Coulson was when he started, and he was chosen specifically by Director Fury, so Jasper feels simultaneously proud and impossibly intimidated, like he’s a member of an elite club that he could get kicked out of at any moment. Coulson takes Jasper’s nerves with stride, opens up about his own beginnings, goes out of his way to make sure Jasper’s comfortable.
Sometimes Coulson has him working with a team - always small, usually just him, Akela Amador, who doesn’t much like teams, and Melinda May, who carries all the markings of someone trying to push themselves too far too soon after a trauma. Coulson likes ragtag groups, makes Jasper believe, truly, that anyone can accomplish anything if they’re willing to be a part of something bigger, which is something Director Fury said at Jasper’s commencement that made him roll his eyes. Coulson is the SHIELD Agent of SHIELD Agents, to Jasper, the ultimate of what Jasper could be in this agency if he works hard and follows orders.
Coulson spars with him, asks his opinion on missions they’re undertaking, sits down next to him after the first time he kills someone and says, “It’s hard. That’s just it, Sitwell. There’s nothing to sugarcoat. It’s just really hard.”
“Does it ever get easier?” Jasper asks, a sick heavy feeling still swooping low in his stomach.
“Never,” Coulson says, puts his hand on Jasper’s arm, “and it shouldn’t. If it gets easier, killing people, then you should get concerned. Taking a life, even if it’s the only choice you’ve got left, should never be easy.” Jasper tilts his head back against the wall, closes his eyes and tries to breathe.
“When am I gonna stop feeling like this?” Jasper asks.
“Give it a week or two,” Coulson says. “Always give it a week or two.”
Coulson pulls some strings, gets Jasper a spot in an undercover mission with a recent recruit, and when Jasper meets Natasha Romanoff, she doesn’t smile at him like she did at Coulson. Jasper doesn’t mind, though. He gets it. He killed someone a week ago, and it probably shows all over his face. He hasn’t been able to smile at himself since.
Jasper follows Banner to Brazil. He stays for two weeks, just to make sure this is where Banner’s settling for now, really settling, just to make sure the people in this town are safe. He gets back to his motel room from a stakeout, exhausted and hungry, and barely manages to take off his shoes before stretching out on the creaking bed and falling asleep. He’s awoken less than an hour later by a phone call from Coulson, who’s asking in hushed, hurried tones, “Why’re you taking so long in Brazil? Director Fury wants to know.”
“Well, tell Director Fury he can ask me his goddamn self,” Jasper answers, sleep-deprived and pissed off now, and hangs up. He opens his eyes nine hours later to a shadowed figure standing over him. He scrambles for his gun, panic rising up in his chest, and realizes it’s Fury before he can get a firm hold on the pistol grip. “Mierda.”
“Coulson told me I should ask you my goddamn self why it’s been taking you so long,” Fury says. Jasper rubs a hand over his face and sits up.
“Pinche Coulson, I swear to god,” Jasper mutters.
“I tried calling, but,” Fury says, and holds up the SHIELD-issued phone that Jasper thought he’d simply hung up the night before. It’s shattered.
“Huh,” Jasper says, blinking at it. “Don’t remember throwing that.” He groans. “Look, can I--can I at least brush my teeth before we start talking employment termination?”
“Termination?” Fury says. “I was going to talk promotion.” He pulls a chair over from the table behind him and sits down, picks up a small notebook on the nightstand. “Believe it or not, I didn’t want to disturb your precious slumber, so I flipped through this when I got here, thought I might find some answers to your inexplicable Brazilian vacation.”
“It’s not--” Fury holds up and a hand and Jasper shuts up.
“I know it’s not, Sitwell,” Fury says. He opens the notebook to the last used page, starts reading aloud, “‘Banner settling. Hired at soda bottling plant. Watches lots of kids’ TV. Locals more than likely safe.’” He looks up at Jasper. “That’s what it’s been about, right? ‘Locals safe.’” Jasper nods, anxious still. Fury looks approving. “You took initiative, made the safety of others your main objective, stuck around in case you’d need to make a tough call.” He hands Jasper the notebook, and says, “Welcome to Level Six. Now get dressed. We’ve got a flight to catch.”
The most challenging part is pretending he doesn’t know things he’s still not supposed to know.
He laughs and asks, “Oh, come on, there’s a Level Seven?”, knowing that Nick is Level Ten. He frowns, says, “We all miss him,” knowing that Nick’s got Coulson on an operating table at this very moment, fighting like hell to keep Coulson alive. He’s not supposed to know when Barton could be found underground watching over Project Pegasus or that SHIELD’s trying to use the Tesseract to make weapons. He has to think of it like another undercover mission, compartmentalize information he can’t know at work with Director Fury and information he’s allowed to know at home with Nick.
He’s not supposed to know Director Fury as “Nick.”
Jasper’s dragging his feet getting ready to visit the Smithsonian. On the one hand, it’ll be nice to actually go out with Nick. They usually stay in, especially in D.C., but Nick wants to see the Captain America exhibit and he’s spent the last forty years doing everything he can to make sure every person on this planet owes him a favor, so they’re getting to go in after hours, when the museum is empty, to enjoy it without crowds. On the other hand--
“I just don’t really like Rogers,” Jasper says after Nick asks for the third time why he’s taking so fucking long. Nick stares at him, mouth agape, then actually throws his head back with laughter.
“What’s there not to like?” Nick asks. “Do you also not like labradors?”
“As a matter of fact,” Jasper says, zipping up his jeans, “I prefer smaller dogs.” He studies his side of the closet and chooses a dark red polo shirt, turns towards Nick as he pulls it over his head. “But listen - Rogers is a nice guy and all. I can appreciate that the United States propaganda machine made Captain America into this political weapon that he never actually was or wanted to be. It’s not like that. It’s just--Rogers is superhuman.” He sighs, stares down at a sizeable collection of fine watches, selects the Cartier with the black alligator leather strap. “He’s superhuman, and he’s always asking normal humans to do the same thing he would,” he says, buckling the strap across his wrist.
“And I get it, all of our moral compasses should point toward Captain America, in an ideal world, blah blah, but sometimes people are just trying to live their lives, Nick. He asks people to make sacrifices that, for them, lead to death, but for him it’s just like, a GSW that pops the bullet out as it heals itself. It’s not fair of him to do that. And I know how smart he is, so it’s not like he has no concept of these complexities, he just thinks that everybody should do what he does because what he does is the capital-letter Right Thing. It’s easy for him to say, he doesn’t get hurt.” Jasper’s tying his sneakers now, looks up at Nick and gestures between them. “People like us - normal people - we get killed.”
“Jesus,” Nick says. “Do you kiss Coulson with that mouth?” Jasper laughs.
“I’d rather not get thrown out of a plane, thanks,” he says, standing. “Hey, we’re gonna confiscate the employees’ phones when we get there, right?”
“Hell yes,” Nick says, holding his hand out. “Once I take your hand tonight, I have no intention of letting go.”
Nick’s been working on some extremely advanced lie detector machine for the past six months and it’s finally reached the beta stage. He’s tested it on a few lower level agents already, ones without much to hide, and his baby has worked beautifully, but now it’s Jasper’s turn in the seat.
“Please state your full name,” Nick orders.
“Jasper Tomas Sitwell,” Jasper says.
“Mother, father, an older brother, and an older and a little sister.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“Please list all the languages in which you are fluent.”
“Spanish, English, French, Arabic, Tagalog, Japanese, and Cantonese. But I would like it on the record that I can also get by just fine in Mandarin, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Russian.” Nick raises an eyebrow.
“Who taught you Russian?”
“Agent Romanoff. Intensive language education in an undercover situation.” Nick looks impressed.
“You’ll have to show off that particular skill to me sometime.” Jasper can’t hide his smirk.
“You a linguaphile, sir?” he asks innocently, like he doesn’t know how hard Nick gets when his tongue slips into any language that isn’t English. Nick narrows his eyes at Jasper.
“Next question,” he says pointedly. “What’s the difference between an egg and a rock?” Jasper pulls a face.
“That’s a ridiculous question,” Jasper says. “Eggs and rocks have basically nothing in common, so their differences are nearly countless. I mean, I could start a list, but I doubt I’d even scratch the surface.” He frowns. “Did I answer that right?”
“You answered exactly how I expected you to answer,” Nick says, “so yes. Have you ever heard of Project Insight?” This--this was why Nick had wanted him to do this. The machine had to be good enough to detect even Romanoff’s lies, and to get there, it first had to be good enough to detect someone like Jasper’s.
“No,” he says. Nick looks at the screen in front of him, frowns, which means Jasper passed.
“Have you ever had contact with Alexander Pierce?” Nick asks, eyes still on the screen. Jasper decides to make this more fun, get more elaborate.
“We’ve met a few times, briefly,” he answers. “He never remembers my name.” Nick looks up at him, eyebrow raised. He’s passed another one.
“You wash up on a deserted island alone. Sitting on the sand is a box,” Nick says. “What is in that box?”
“Instructions,” Jasper answers, after just a moment’s consideration. “I’m to wait for the extraction team.”
“What makes you think there’s an extraction team?” Nick asks.
“SHIELD protocol makes me think there’s an extraction team,” Jasper says. “And, just between you and me, the Director’s pretty fond of me.” Nick almost smiles.
“Are you familiar with the SHIELD rules regarding agent fraternization?” Nick asks.
“No,” Jasper says, “because there are none, officially.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“SHIELD thinks its agents assume they’re not supposed to fraternize,” Jasper says with a shrug. “It figures there’s no need for rules. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea.”
“So you’ve never engaged in any sort of romantic and/or sexual relationship with another agent?” Nick asks. His gaze is intense.
“No,” Jasper says. He hears tinny alarms going off, sees the corner of Nick’s mouth lift just slightly, knows that this is where it’s going to lose him.
“You sure about that, Agent Sitwell?” Nick asks, looking smug.
“Yes, sir,” Jasper says, more confident this time, hearing the alarms calming down. He can lie his way out of this. He’s good. He can win. “Like I said, it’s a bad idea. Besides, there’s no one in this agency even remotely interesting enough to fall in love with.”
“I didn’t say anything about love, Sitwell,” Nick says. Jasper swallows.
“My mistake, sir,” he says, but Nick’s not going to let up.
“Who’s the other agent?” he asks. Jasper’s eyes widen, just for a fraction of a second, but it’s enough to set off the alarms again. “Who’s the agent you’re in love with, Sitwell?” Nick asks again, locking eyes with Jasper. Jasper tries to focus on relaxing his muscles, steadying his breathing, but Nick wants him to lie again, and he can’t just look at Nick and lie about this.
“It’s you, Nick,” Jasper says finally, words rushing from his mouth in a whisper, and it’s only then that Jasper realizes he’s actually been holding his breath. The alarms die instantly, and Nick smiles at him, not smug at all like he’d been expecting, but small and sweet and proud.
“Thank you, Agent Sitwell,” he says, quietly. “That will be all.” Jasper’s certainly never been more relieved to leave a chair. He heads for the door without a word, honestly embarrassed, but Nick reaches out and pulls him in close, one firm hand holding Jasper’s head securely tilted up, just slightly, and kisses him. Jasper relaxes in Nick’s arms, digs his own fingers just above Nick’s waist, inside the ever-present trench coat, and a soft, delighted sound escapes his mouth. They barely acknowledge one another at work, never even take lunch together without at least two other agents, and even though they’re in a windowless room with walls so thick that the Hulk would have to hit it twice to break through, the fact that he’s just told Nick he loves him and now Nick is kissing him, at work sends a warm thrill down Jasper’s spine.
Coulson’s new team is rough around the edges, and on the inside, and everywhere. There’s an undercover Hydra agent in there that Jasper isn’t allowed to warn anyone about, two young scientists who have no business being on the Bus with their utter lack of field training, some hacker girl who’s trusted so little that she’s sporting a SHIELD-issued bracelet that tracks her every move and locks her out of tech, and Agent May, who’s recovered from the trauma she’d just endured back when Jasper was working with her in the same way that one would consider a scab a recovery.
It’s one of the scientists he finds poking at a wall panel she shouldn’t even have been able to open in the hallway at the Hub. He has a feeling that the hacker girl is nearby.
“Mister Agent Sitwell sir,” Agent Simmons calls him. She looks spooked. “What brings you to this restricted hallway?” she asks. He’s truly impressed at how bad she is at sneaking around. She’s too eager in her lies, says she was trying to find a bathroom and points to the wall panel, asks if that’s it. He stares at her.
“Why are you accessing it?” he asks, genuinely curious about where she’s going to take this now. She does not disappoint - she honest to god twirls her hair.
“You certainly have a gorgeous…head,” she says. He tilts his head at her, considers the ethics of using a current SHIELD agent to train cadets on what not to do in the field. Simmons leans in, twirls her hair some more, drawls, “I like men that are about my height but heavier than me.” He almost loses it at that. She’s just so earnest.
“Agent Simmons,” Jasper says, “do you have authorization to access that panel?” She stammers another lie, reaches into her bag, and if he wasn’t distracted by how awful she is at lying, then he would be on his game, would be wary of what she’s reaching for - since it clearly isn’t authorization documents - so maybe there’s an argument to be made that she’s pretty good at this after all. But she mutters, “He’s onto me,” as she rifles through her bag, and he’s caught so off guard that he can’t focus on anything else.
“Are you on comms with someone?” he asks, disbelieving. He rolls his eyes at the absurdity of this situation, starts to call for an escort to remove Simmons from the area, but then she fucking shoots him, and he’s conscious for long enough to hear her ridiculous apology before he hits the floor.
Nick laughs so hard he cries, watching the footage.
“So glad you find it so amusing, babe,” Jasper says, but he’s grinning, too.
“Oh, don’t worry, don’t worry,” Nick says, wiping at his eyes. “I’ll delete it from the security files.”
“After you save it to our encrypted drive?” Jasper asks, already knowing the answer.
“Naturally,” Nick says. “But come on, let’s watch it just one more time.”
Nick takes these ridiculous selfies on all of his missions, sends every single one to Jasper, even the ones most people would write off as practice runs and delete later. His face is almost totally cropped out of all of them, and Jasper can never figure out if that’s intentional or not. Usually Jasper can only see the top half of Nick’s head, or the eye patch, or, one particularly memorable time, the tip of an ear. The result is clues in the background to where Nick is, the only way Nick can tell Jasper his location without violating protocol. Sometimes it’s obvious - one good eye and his nose before the Eiffel Tower when Nick’s tracking a truly evil scientist across Paris, almost his whole face shadowed under a bucket hat in front of a banner reading “The Open Championship” when Nick’s trying to recruit a teenager with remarkable mathematical skills and a police record a mile long - but other times Jasper has to work for it, look up the cross streets named on the signs behind Nick’s head, search for the whereabouts of a train station based on only the weather he can discern through the windows.
Jasper saves each one to an encrypted drive, deletes them from his phone after committing them to memory.
“Rogers insisted we take down SHIELD, too,” Nick says, while Jasper watches all the video footage of what happened in the Triskelion, in the Hub, the Academies, the Sandbox. It’s all automatically loaded to dozens of separate drives, including the one here in this nameless medical base in Morocco, and Jasper wants to erase all of it, every last second of betrayal and death and destruction, but he has to watch it first, has to see how it all went down, and that includes Garrett almost killing Coulson, Sharon holding a gun to Rumlow’s head and getting a cut across her arm in return, Romanoff setting all the secrets loose into the world, Trip and Simmons readying themselves to go down fighting for SHIELD, and that guy - the good-looking one with the wings and the jetpack - standing up as best he can against a fighter like Rumlow and finally running, running, leaving Rumlow behind to die in the wreckage of an Insight helicarrier tearing through the tower.
“Do we have confirmation that Rumlow’s dead?” Jasper asks. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a cockroach like him could live through this.”
“Not that I know of,” Nick says. “They’re probably still digging through the mess.” Jasper swipes across the screen, chooses a video clip he’s already watched twice.
On the tablet in his lap, Garrett insists on using deadly force on Hand, realization dawns on Coulson, and Garrett, the smug bastard, lifts his hands in mock surrender and addresses a STRIKE Team, “Gentlemen, I know Agent Sitwell was in charge of filling your ranks, so at least a few of you know what to do in this situation.” The Team’s Hydra agents kill innocent SHIELD agents who’d gone to work that morning thinking they’d live to return home at the end of their shift. Jasper feels sick, wants to hurt, presses in at his broken ribs with his broken fingers and tries not to wince until Nick takes hold of his arm, stretches it out to rest in Nick’s lap, guards Jasper’s hand with both of his own.
“Don’t do this,” Nick says. “Don’t take on all that blame. It’s not yours and you know that.”
“If I’d just told Coulson--” Jasper stops, looks away, willing his voice to be strong when he speaks again. “Coulson was the first agent who ever took a chance on me. He must hate me.”
“He’ll learn the truth eventually,” Nick says. “This isn’t how it ends for you.”
“I’m glad Rogers made that call,” Jasper says, nodding to himself. “SHIELD should never have been what it was. There was a wolf in the herd from the very beginning and I’m not even talking about Zola. It was built into the foundation. It all had to come down.” Next to him, Nick takes a deep breath, and Jasper squeezes Nick’s hand as best he can with his injuries. “I appreciate how hard it was for you, though. I don’t know--I don’t know how you’re feeling, but--”
“Relieved,” Nick says, looking down at their hands. “Honestly, relieved. It’s been far too heavy a weight to carry for far too long. I’ve made compromises that I shouldn’t have, egregious tactical errors….” He looks up at Jasper. “It was cruel of me to put you in there. At the very least, I should’ve gotten you out after New York.”
“I wanted to be there,” Jasper says, shaking his head. “I wanted to help.”
“And now you think you’re responsible for the deaths of all those SHIELD agents,” Nick says, shaking his head. Jasper doesn’t know what to say. They’re quiet for a long minute, and then, “All those names you’ve collected over the years,” Nick says--
“We’ve gotta take them out,” Jasper agrees. “I’ll make contact, see who’s still out there, and we’ll pay my old Hydra buddies a nice visit.” He retrieves one of his phones from his lap and starts typing. “They’ll all be very surprised to see you,” he adds. “They sent out a real celebratory message confirming your death not six hours ago.”
Jasper’s digging his short fingernails into his knees, trying to control his breathing. He’s disoriented, has no concept of how long he’s been sobbing in this broom closet, but he knows he can’t stay hiding for much longer, knows Pierce will get suspicious. He takes off his glasses, presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, startles when one of his phone rings. It’s not the one Pierce calls, not one Pierce or most anyone else even knows about, which means--
0000, says the caller ID. Jasper can barely swipe to answer with how much his hands are shaking.
“Hello?” he whispers into the phone.
“Jasper,” comes Nick’s voice over the line. “Jasper, I’m okay, I’m sorry, I tried to get to a phone earlier but Hill--”
Jasper doesn’t even hear anything else, can’t make anything out over his own renewed sobs. “Fuck you,” he says, and he knows it’s the wrong thing, but it’s exactly how he feels, and it’s not the first time those words have meant I love you, not with them, but it’s the first time they’ve been said with anger and relief and terror all at once.
“I know,” Nick says. “I know, Jasper.”
“Fuck you,” Jasper says again, wiping at his wet eyes with the back of his hand.
“I know,” Nick says, quiet and soft. They’re silent while Jasper gets his breathing under control, and when he tilts his head back against the door, Nick says, “You know what you have to do now.” It’s not a question. Nick knows Jasper’s ready.
“Yeah,” Jasper answers anyways. He stands on shaky legs, turns to press his forehead on the cool surface of the door before resting his hand on the knob. “I know what to do.”
Jasper’s disappointed. He’s trying to warn them, and if they would get their heads out of their asses and just listen to him, then they’d know that.
“Hydra doesn’t like leaks,” he says, and honestly, he expected more from Romanoff. He thought for sure she’d be suspicious of how easily he gave up his intel, was certain she’d question him further, or at least trust him a bit more. It’s disheartening, really, but Jasper’s going along with Nick’s plan, regardless of how challenging it is with these three showoffs in the car with him.
Rogers says they’re going to use Jasper to bypass Insight’s DNA scans and access the helicarriers directly and, frankly, Jasper’s amazed at how awful an idea it is. Like, they’re going to access the helicarriers directly, and then what, he wants to ask, because all they could do from the helicarriers with what they have now - that is, nothing - is exactly what the helicarriers were meant to do.
“What? Are you crazy?” Jasper asks, and Rogers has the audacity to roll his eyes. “That is a terrible, terrible idea--”
A hard thud on the roof of the car. The glass of the window next to him shattering. A gleaming metal hand punching through, grabbing his shirt collar, yanking him out. He barely has the time to scream.
Coulson’s looking for Nick, has been for weeks, but it’s gotten more intense in recent days. He’s loud about it, and Jasper knows exactly what to expect when Coulson sends him coordinates and a time to meet. When he gets to the parking garage, Coulson’s already there, waiting.
“I don’t know where Director Fury is,” Jasper says. It’s not true, of course. He knows exactly where Nick is, could tell Coulson down to the last cross street Nick was at when he took the selfie he sent to Jasper four minutes ago. But Nick wants him to try to smooth Coulson’s issues over, let Nick have time to finalize a plan to flush out the Hydra agents within SHIELD. Coulson looks surprised at Jasper’s straightforwardness, tries too late to school his features into the range of blank. “Don’t be so shocked,” Jasper says. “For a quiet guy, you make a lot of noise. How many favors have you called in?”
“Clearly not enough,” Coulson says. Jasper feels awful. He’s never let Coulson down like this.
“Something I can help you with?” Jasper asks. He’d be willing to beg Coulson to tell him what’s wrong, to let him try to help, but Coulson just keeps looking at him with that blank expression on his face. “Fine,” Jasper says, “but Fury is a high-level agent who’s off-grid. You don’t find him unless he wants to find you.” His voice goes soft, then, realizes how similar Nick and Coulson can be. “You did something like that once, too, remember. I never asked you: how was Tahiti?” He knows the truth, knows how Coulson should answer.
“It sucked,” Coulson says, putting his sunglasses on and driving away. Jasper’s eyes go wide.
“Mierda,” he says under his breath, pulls the phone from inside his jacket to text Nick.
“I gave it all to Coulson,” Nick says when he comes back to Jasper in Bogota, hugs Jasper gently, because their last showdown with Hydra leftovers set back the healing to Jasper’s ribs a few weeks. Jasper hums. Nick guides him away from the stove, takes over the remainder of cooking for dinner.
“Why not Hill?” Jasper asks, reaching over to remove Nick’s sunglasses. “Or Sharon?”
“Hill’s too public in the intelligence community,” Nick says. “It’s better if she stays at Stark Industries for now. I offered it to Carter, but she declined. Said it came with too much baggage.” Jasper can understand that.
“Coulson won’t let you down,” Jasper says. “It’ll be good, whatever he builds back up from this.” Nick nods.
“I’ve been thinking,” Nick says. “I know the unspoken agreement was that you’d go back to being just a SHIELD agent again once we flushed Hydra out of the ranks. Obviously it didn’t all go exactly according to the original plan--”
“Because Rogers is a ruiner,” Jasper says. Nick fixes him with a look and he grins. “Say it, Nick. Say Rogers is a ruiner.”
“Yes, it didn’t go according to plan because Rogers is a ruiner,” Nick says. “Happy?” Jasper kisses Nick on the cheek by way of response, and Nick continues, “Anyway, I know that you going back to SHIELD was still the plan, even with the plan ending up being mostly improvised, but I just--” He pauses, purses his lips and sets his focus on the sauce he’s stirring. “I want you to know that you don’t have to go back. Even under different direction, even without Hydra’s influence, this business--it’s always going to be more of the same. It’ll always ask too much of us and give nothing back. I’ll make sure Coulson knows the truth about you, get your name cleared publicly. If you want to stay dead, I can get your name put on the Wall of Valor. I’m thinking of going that route myself, to be honest. Nobody else has to even know you’re still alive unless you want them to.”
“What would we be doing, then?” Jasper asks. “Dishing vigilante justice to the rest of the scattered Hydra agents? Joining up with Rogers and Wilson to find Sergeant Barnes?” Nick looks at him again, smiles a little.
“Actually,” he says, “I was thinking we could take all those vacations we’ve been talking about for the last seven years.” Jasper raises his eyebrows, can’t help but smile himself.
“Well, we are already in Bogota,” he says.