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I Take Thee

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jack Thompson is an ass. He’s chauvinistic, self-centered, and ambitious to the point of sacrificing anything or anyone hindering his rise to power. He’s wholly insufferable and unlikely to change anytime soon.

None of this, however, meant that you wanted him dead.

So when you came upon his body lying in a pool of what appeared to be a good deal of his own blood, you were met with a moment of complete panic.

“Jack? Jack?” You collapsed next to him, voice rising with each repetition of his name eliciting no response. Your hands fluttered uselessly around him trying to determine what they should be doing. Finally your common sense kicked in, and you pressed your fingers to his neck. His pulse was erratic and faint but still present.

“Help.” The word caught in your throat and caused you to choke. “Help!” you repeated, louder this time. “Help! Someone help! He’s been shot!” A man appeared in the doorway, his look of curiosity quickly morphing to horror. “Hey, this isn’t a picture show! Go get help! Go!” you ordered, grabbing a shirt out of the suitcase on the bed, upending the whole thing in the process, to press to Jack’s wound. The passerby seemed to snap out of his trance and took off running down the hall, yelling something that was indiscernible over the heartbeat in your ears.

“Come on, Jack, don’t be dead, don’t be dead, don’t be dead. Is this really the way you want to go? No, you want to die during some mission so you’ll be remembered as a hero, not as the guy who was shot in his hotel room surrounded by his dirty laundry. Do you know how many people would be upset? Everyone says they want to kill you all the time, but they mean it figuratively because they don't like you and they’ll all feel so guilty if you really die. So all things considered, it’s really not a good time for you to die. Are you listening?”

More men arrived, and everything began to blur. Eventually you found yourself standing in a hospital, waiting for Peggy to arrive. Later you would wonder if she’d been quicker if you’d have been spared the mess you would set in motion over the next several moments. A nurse was asking you questions at rapid fire; questions about Jack, his medical history, what had happened at the hotel, most of which you didn’t know the answers to. Soon a doctor appeared, a surgeon just coming from Jack if the bloodied uniform was anything to go by. The question he asked you would so define the rest of your life, would so rewrite your story, that it could have been phrased ‘once upon a time’.

“He needs surgery immediately, but the procedure is dangerous and still somewhat experimental, so we need permission from an immediate family member. Are you family?”

Once upon a time…

“Y-yes.” You cleared your throat to hide your hesitation. “I’m his wife.”

…there was a lie.

Chapter Text

Sitting on the unyielding bench in the hospital felt almost surreal – not too long ago Jarvis had sat in the same spot as he waited to hear whether his wife would live or die from her bullet. You could only conclude that too many of the wrong people in the world owned guns. You worried each of your fingers in turn with the opposite hand as you tried not to stare at the entrance; you were still waiting for Peggy to arrive, and each minute since the doctor had left you seemed to stretch into hours and days. This whole situation was shaking your nerves to bits, and the only thing keeping you together was the idea that Peggy would know exactly what to do, just like she always did.

Finally, finally, she came marching in, followed closely by two persons you hadn’t expected to see. “Howard?”

“Hey sweetheart.” He swept you into a hug and pressed his lips to your temple. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine – Jack’s the one who was shot, not me. What are you doing here? And why aren’t you wearing shoes?”

“What d’ya mean what am I doing here?” His palms were burning and heavy on your shoulders as his eyes scanned your face with a mixture of worry and irritation. “You called and said you were in the hospital, so I rushed right over.”

At, not in, Howard.”

“I tried to tell him, but he was insistent.” Jarvis gave you an exasperated look over his employer’s shoulder, only to let it slip into a blank expression when Howard turned to glare at him.

“How is Jack?” Peggy broke in.

“I don’t know. They’re still in surgery. But…” You moved your shoulders in kind of a helpless gestured which jostled Howard’s hands he had yet to remove. “Oh, Peggy, there was so much blood.”

“No, now none of that. It will do no good to panic, and I won’t give Jack the satisfaction of worrying us.” Peggy smiled and placed her hand gently on your elbow. “I’m sure he’ll pull through just for the sake of being contrary. Until then, the best thing to do is try to figure out what happened to put him here. Did you see anything suspicious at the hotel?”

You took a step back allowing Howard’s hands to slip away and glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. “No, by the time I got there the hall was empty.” You sighed and tried to rub some warmth into your numb arms. “I’m sorry, I’m not very helpful.”

“Not to worry. Chief Sousa went to the hotel to investigate. Hopefully the police haven’t mucked about the scene too much.”

“Good, that’s good.” You wet your lips and cleared your throat before meeting her eyes again. “There’s, uh, there’s something else. Not to do with the case, exactly, but um…” You trailed off, breaking eye contact and clearing your throat again.

“Just spit it out, wouldja?” Howard demanded, and you only spared him a glace before focusing back on Peggy. Telling her was hard enough, but Howard made you want to swallow your words and go hide in the lady’s room.

“I, well I…” You closed your eyes and took a deep breath as Howard made an impatient noise in the back of his throat. “I kind of told them I’m his wife.” When you were met with nothing but silence you opened your eyes again to meet three blank stares. “Jack’s I mean. I told them I’m Jack’s wife.”

“You did what?” Howard burst out only for you to shush him.

“Howard, you’re in a hospital! Control yourself please.”

“Why would you tell them you were Jack’s wife?” Peggy’s volume was more controlled, but she was no less incredulous.

“They said he needed surgery, but they couldn’t do it unless a family member signed off. Since I didn’t have one of those handy, I sort of panicked and improvised.”

“Oh, you panicked and committed fraud, that’s just great.” Howard angrily ran his hand over his hair before jabbing his finger at you. “You better hope nothing goes wrong with that surgery or you’re going to find yourself in a heap of trouble.”

“You’re so right, Howard, thank you for pointing that out. Before I didn’t care what happened, but now I sure do hope the surgery goes well on my account.”

“Don’t you get sassy with me. You’re the one who’s inviting a law suit. And who do you think is going to have to take care of that, hmm?”

“Thank you so much for your unerring support, Mr. Moneybags.”

“Stop it, the both of you.” Peggy stepped between you and Howard, oscillating her quelling glare from one to the other. “What’s done is done and there’s no sense in arguing about it now.”

All the fight blew out of you like a leaky balloon. “What do we do, Peggy? Should I come clean?”

“No, not yet. For the moment we just need to wait and see how this all plays out. Hopefully Jack will have enough sense not to blow your cover when he wakes up. Though I would advise that in the future you develop a safer response to high-pressure situations than matrimony, yes?”

You averted your eyes to a nearby potted plant to hide your embarrassment and nodded stiffly. You decided not to mention that Jack could only blow your cover if he survived, though even unsaid the words still hung heavy in the air.

“Might I suggest we take a seat? I do believe we are drawing quite a bit of attention which I assume is rather unwanted, given the circumstances. Plus, I would postulate from experience that we’ll be in for quite a wait.”

“I’m so sorry, Jarvis, you don’t have to stay. I can only imagine how hard it must be to be back here.”

“Have no fear. Whatever tragic memories this place holds for me, I am in complete control of my faculties, and I will not allow my feelings to dictate my ability to provide support to a friend in need. Not to mention I would have a difficult time removing Mr. Stark from the premises as long as you are here as the wife of an unapproved man.”

“You have a point there,” you both spared a glance for the moping figure slouched on the nearby bench, “but for the record, I don’t require his permission to take a fake husband. I can pretend to marry whomever I choose, and he has no say in the matter.”

“Quite right. Shall we be seated then?”

You slowly lowered yourself to sit next to Howard, because though he might be acting like a child you were determined to supersede such behaviors, if only to prove yourself more mature than the likes of him. But the longer you sat in silence the more your predicament weighed upon you, and your ramrod straight posture slowly began to curl inwards.

“He was dying, Howard…” Your voice was so low you wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d missed it, but with a burst of breath he straightened up from his pout. He slid an arm around your shoulders and pulled you to lean against his side, one again resting his lips on your hairline.

“I know, sweetheart, I know.”

Chapter Text

You never were very good at waiting. Fortunately, palling around with Howard Stark had limited such situations quite a bit. You had to admit his money, influence, and yes, charm had their advantages. But no amount of Howard’s powers could make the doctors move faster, make their hands surer. It had to be some kind of irony that you were fretting over the well-being of a man you didn’t even like, and you hoped whatever cosmic being orchestrating these events was having a hearty chuckle at your expense.

You allowed yourself to take comfort in Howard’s embrace, his warmth and solidity pressed into your side keeping you grounded. You stared ahead at nothing in particular, lost in your own imaginings of all the ways this scenario could play out. You were in the midst of watching the world pass by through the bars of your prison cell window when Howard jostled you sharply. When you turned to glare at him, he motioned with his head toward the middle-aged nurse you just realized was standing in front you with an expectant look.

“Mrs. Thompson?”

A few more beats passed in confusion before your eyes widened in realization. “Yes, yes, sorry, yes that’s me. Mrs. Thompson. We’ve only just been married – I guess I’m still not used to the name.”

“It’s all right, I understand.” She smiled at you kindly. You, the apparently distraught wife of a man clinging to the edges of life. So distraught that she couldn’t even answer to her own name. The sympathy in that smile sent another spike of guilt through you. You didn’t deserve the kindness, the understanding. It was all based on a lie. You swallowed the confession rising up in your throat. “I just wanted to let you know Mr. Thompson is out of surgery. He’s currently stable, but the next few hours should determine how things will go. He’s still heavily medicated, and I wouldn’t expect him to wake up for quite a while, but you can come see him for a few minutes if you’d like.”

“Uh…” You should say yes, right? His wife would want to see her husband, wouldn’t she? “Yes, yes of course, please.” You rose shakily out of the safety of Howard’s arm and followed the nurse with one hesitant look back at your friends. Peggy smiled encouragingly, and that was enough to confirm you’d answered correctly. Lifting your chin, you swiftly caught up with the nurse who soon stopped in front of a door, gesturing that you should enter.

“Don’t be discouraged by how he looks, dear. There were a few touchy moments in the operating room, but he pulled through every one of them. He must have something very important to live for.”

You hoped she attributed the brittle quality of your smile to the stress of the day.

You immediately saw why she’d felt the need to warn you about his appearance. Jack looked distinctly like a corpse, though you supposed that’s what happened when most of your blood ends up on a hotel floor.

“Well, Jack, here we are.” You looked around his room to avoid his waxy, pale face for a moment. You shuffled awkwardly, then slowly lowered yourself to rest on his bed by his feet. You almost stood again, feeling indecorous for taking such liberties, but after all, what difference did it make when he would never know? A nurse or doctor could walk in at any time, and you needed to keep up appearances.

“You’re not going to believe the situation I’ve gotten myself into.” You forced yourself to look at him again, if only as a reminder why you told the lie in the first place. “Oh, you’re going to have a jolly good time when you wake up. You’ll probably call me Mrs. Thompson until you find a real wife. I hope you realize I did it for you, though, so you could at least try not to be too irritating about it.”

You chewed your lip and ran your eyes over him. You’d never seen him look so weak before – he’d never have let you if he’d had a say in it. Quite the ego this one had.

“In any case, Jack, you won’t get to make fun of me until you wake up. So maybe you should get started on that, don’t you think?’

The words felt incomplete on their own, so you awkwardly reached out a patted his shin a few times. That about covered it, right? It was good enough to fulfill the expectations of an acquaintance/colleague/friend of a colleague turned fake wife, wasn’t it?

“I guess… I guess I’ll be going now. I mean, I’ll probably be back, of course. Your wife would be the one checking you out of the hospital, after all, wouldn’t she?” You sighed and rubbed distractedly at your forehead and the pain growing between your eyes. “I wish I was more like Peggy. She wouldn’t be questioning everything she said or did. Actually, she wouldn’t have gotten herself into this mess at all. Too bad she wasn’t the one who found you, huh? Poor you, you got stuck with me.”

With another pat to his shin you stood up. “Right. Leaving now. Wake up soon and feel better and… other… well-wishes and things… bye then.”

The same nurse met you outside the door – you hoped she hadn’t been listening in the whole time, and considering she didn’t offer up any scalding accusations you decided she must not have heard anything.

“He’ll still be asleep for quite some time yet. Why don’t you head home and change? Get some rest and maybe a nice bath?” She glanced pointedly down at your dress causing you to look as well. You hadn’t even noticed how stiff with dried blood the garment was. A hot blush dusted your cheeks.

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea. Thank you for all of your help.”

“Of course, dear. It’s a shame for a newlywed couple to be going through such hardships, but in the end your relationship will be all the stronger for it.”

“Right, yes. Thank you again.” You scurried off before she could make any more observations. Strong relationship – yeah right. You weren’t even going to be able to look Jack in the eye when this was all over.

By the time you rejoined your friends, Chief Sousa had appeared. Peggy was standing a ways off to the side having a hushed discussion with him. As you approached his eyes shot to you with a look of both disbelief and pity.

“Any news?” you asked quietly when you were close enough.

“Not anything significant. The police had already cleared out everything important by the time I got there. They’re supposed to be assigning it all over to us, but I’m not holding my breath. As far as I can tell, whoever did this was a pro – quick in, quick out, no witnesses.”

“Leave it to Jack to get himself shot in the least helpful way possible.” Your comment caused the chief to crack a small smile, which you gratefully returned.

“We’ll question him when he wakes up – see if he remembers anything,” Peggy offered, and Daniel nodded in agreement.

“You’ll have to wait – the nurse says he won’t be up any time soon. She also recommended I go home and change.”

“I have to agree with her on that. You do look like you’ve been through the wringer.” Peggy gave you a once over, much like the nurse.

“You get covered in a little blood, and suddenly everyone’s a critic.” You blanched at the shocked looks they gave you. “Sorry, that was probably in poor taste. I’ll just be going.”

“Chief Sousa and I shall remain here in case Jack decides to wake up early.”

“Thanks Peg. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“I should hope so. Wouldn’t want to worry your husband.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Chapter Text

You tried to fluff your still slightly damp hair as you reentered the hospital. You hoped you now looked a bit more put together, though the lack of blood probably took care of that. Jarvis had let you off at the door while he returned to Ana, feeling the distance from her all too strongly; Howard had chosen to remain at his house, having lost interest already.

You spotted Peggy and Daniel easily – they looked cozy, which lifted your spirits quite a bit. It’s about time. They rose to greet you at the same moment an entirely new and much younger nurse power-walked her way over.

“Mrs. Thompson, you have excellent timing! Mr. Thompson has just woken up!”

You felt the floor fall out from under you and almost tripped. “O-oh? That was awfully quick. Not that I’m complaining, of course!”

“Yes, your husband does like to keep us on our toes. He’s still a little loopy from the anesthesia, but you’re welcome to see him before he conks out again,” she chirped, smiling at you expectantly. She was probably waiting for you to show more excitement or gratitude or some other spectacular display of emotion.

“Yes, yes, of course I would like to see him.” You cleared your throat, trying to monitor your entire presence for suspicious behavior and wishing once again that you were more like Peggy. “May my friends come, too?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea – I’m sure he’ll love seeing so many familiar faces.”

The nurse turned away, and you sent Peggy a desperate look. If Jack was still doped up, the odds of him picking up on your deception and playing along were much slimmer. And if he gave you away, well… you already had a pretty good idea of how you’d fair in jail, and it wasn’t good. She looped her arm through yours and steered you after the retreating nurse, trying to give you a reassuring smile. “Take a deep breath – you’re doing marvelously.” You snorted. “Well, maybe not marvelously per se, but no one has questioned you yet, which is really all we need for this to be successful.”

Jack was propped up and looking around his room aimlessly, but his eyes snapped to you the moment you entered, causing a cold sweat to break out between your shoulder blades. His eyes were rather unfocused, killing all hope you had that he was at least slightly lucid. Yet another nurse stood by his side, taking his pulse you think, and she smiled when she saw him staring at you. “Here’s your wife now, Mr. Thompson.”

The next few beats of your heart were so accentuated they hurt. Jack squinted intensely and slowly raised a finger in your direction. “This is my wife?” Every system in your body shut down until all you could see and focus on was Jack’s face. He was really going to do it – he was going to rat you out and leave you to rot in a jail cell for fraud or reckless endangerment or something, the ass. You were so busy mentally preparing yourself to be dragged out in cuffs that you almost jumped out of your skin when Jack had a sudden outburst of, “That right there is my wife? That one?” He was now addressing the nurse who seemed as startled as you, but was covering it with a hesitant smile.

“Yes, of course, Mr. Thompson.”

“Son of a gun!” Jack whooped, “I hit the jackpot!” His hand closed around the nurse’s wrist where she still had her fingers pressed to the pulse point on his other arm. “You see that one? She’s my wife. I married her, and I get to take her with me.”

“Yes, Mr. Thompson.” The nurse was trying her best to keep from giggling. All the excitement and sudden movements seemed to have worn Jack out, and he collapsed back on his pillows sporting a grin that could only be defined as goofy.

So that was it, then. He was indeed sober enough to pick up on your ruse and was already mocking you for it. Ass.

The nurse who had brought you down leaned in conspiratorially. “I told you he was still a little loopy. He’ll probably be back out any minute now to sleep off the rest of it.”

“Right. Loopy.” You tried not to pinch the words as you forced them out.

“Do you know how much longer until the anesthesia is fully out of his system?” Peggy stepped in, easily reading your anger.

“It’s hard to say with this one – he seems to be on a faster timetable than the rest of us. Even the hand he appears to have broken not too long ago has healed nicely. I’d give him another couple hours. I can bring in a few more chairs if you’d like to wait in here.”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Peggy smiled winningly at the nurse, which was fortunate because if the girl had looked at you it would have been hard to miss the daggers you were glaring at Jack, who was still grinning at you like a kid at Christmas. She nodded and quickly returned with the promised chairs before bidding you farewell.

The other nurse also made to leave, but stopped short in front of you. “You’re a very lucky woman, Mrs. Thompson,” she offered with a slightly dreamy sigh; she was probably wishing someone would be that excited about her. If only she knew what really fueled his overwhelming happiness.

“Aren’t I just?” You smiled sweetly at her, but she seemed to sense the malice underlying it, because her expression slipped just a little and she quickly scurried out of the room. Now you were alone with your two friends and the bane of your existence. “You think you’re really funny, don’t you? Look, I know this isn’t ideal, but I had to tell them that to save your life, so would you please control yourself until we can get out of here, at least? I really don’t fancy a trip to the police station.”

“Hmm?” He was still grinning, but his head sort of tipped over a little as he regarded you. “You’re a real knock out, you know that?”

“Okay, Jack, enough is enough,” you growled, but your resolve wavered as he tilted even further to the left.

“Prettiest girl I ever-” His words were punctuated with a yawn, though he endeavored to continue around it. “I ever seen.” He smacked his lips in satisfaction and smiled that goofy, dopey smile of his again.

“Jack, if you’re play-acting, now is really not the time.” Peggy’s lips pressed tight with concern.

His head swiveled around like someone had loosened it from his neck, and he regarded Peggy as if seeing her for the first time. “Hey, have you met my wife? Isn’t she somethin’?”

Maybe… maybe he really was still drugged, enough so that he didn't question what the nurses said and actually believed you to be his wife. “I think you’d better go back to sleep now, Jack.” You leaned forward to straighten him, if only because the angle his neck was at looked painful. You immediately regretted the action when it brought you much too close to his sleepy grin.

“Don’t wanna go to sleep. M’not tired. Wanna look at you.” His face was so open and sincere that it was on the edge of terrifying.

“You can look at me all you want when you wake up. Just close your eyes, okay?”

“Fine.” His head was leaning again, face starting to turn towards his pillow and his eyes slid shut. “But I’m only doin’ it to prove… m’not…” And just like that he was unconscious again.

You huffed out a breath and collapsed onto the nearest chair. You definitely did not have the constitution to deal with this.

“Well, whadaya know.” Daniel leaned back in his own seat and propped his head up on his hand. “I think your husband likes you.”

Your only response was a high pitched noise somewhere between a groan and a whine as you buried your face in your hands. Yes, this was definitely going to be the death of you.

Chapter Text

A doctor showed up a few hours later. He was a refreshing change from the gaggle of female nurses who came in to stare and tell you how lucky you were. It would have made a lovely drinking game if any alcohol had been available, but without intoxication it became rather annoying. The doctor had just meant to check Jack’s vitals, but in the midst of the exam, the unconscious man began to stir with a groan. His eyes squeezed tight and then blinked open a few times.

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Thompson. How are you feeling?”

“Well, I’ve got a pain in my side that won’t go away.” Jack’s voice was raspy from disuse as he moved his hand over his wound and winced.

“That’s to be expected when one gets shot. I’ll have a nurse bring in something for the pain.” The doctor picked up a nearby clipboard and began to flip through the pages.

“Wait,” Jack shifted and winced again, “I was shot?”

“Yes, don’t you remember? A robbery gone sideways, according to your wife.”

“My wife…?” He turned his attention to you. You held his stare, trying in vain to communicate the whole story with just your eyes. He obviously didn’t remember anything from the first time he’d awoken.

“Let’s try coming at this from a different direction. What do you remember?” The doctor asked absently as he continued to peruse what you assumed was Jack’s chart.

“I…” He was still looking at you, but his face was so blank you couldn’t read what he was thinking. “I don’t know. Nothing.”

“That’s not unusual,” the doctor replied, still flipping pages. “The brain has a way of suppressing events it finds traumatic. It wouldn’t surprise me if you never fully recalled the robbery.”

“No,” Jack turned back to face the doctor with a befuddled expression, “no I don’t mean that. I mean I can’t… I can’t remember anything.”

“You can’t…” No longer distracted, the man regarded Jack with a furrowed brow. “Mr. Thompson, what year is it?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“What city are we in?” He pulled out a small light and shined it in Jack’s eyes, causing him to squint even more than usual.

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know, but I’m gonna guess part of it is Thompson!” Jack jerked his head away from the doctor and his too bright light. He was getting increasingly agitated, and a part of you felt like you should be offering some form of comfort. However, that part was drowned out by the rest of you trying to figure out what exactly was happening.

Of course, Peggy wasn’t having any trouble functioning. She leaned forward to clasp Jack’s hand, bring his focus to her. “Jack, do you know who we are?”

“No.” His gaze ran over each of person in turn before landing on you. “I guess I probably should though.”

The guilt you had managed to tamp down started to well up again. Not only had you forced him into a lie without his consent, but now he was distressed because he couldn’t remember a wife he’d never had.

“Doctor, what’s happened to his memory?” Peggy asked softly, still holding Jack’s hand loosely.

“It’s hard to say. As I said before, the mind does funny things when faced with severe trauma.” He turned off his light and stowed it in his coat pocket. “And honestly, I’m no expert in this field. I’ll see in anyone from psych is still around and send them over to have a look at him.”

“I don’t need a head doctor!” Jack snapped. “I’m not crazy.”

“No one said you were, Jack – we just want to help you,” Peggy soothed. Jack gave her a cursory glance, but his gaze still skirted back to you, as if he was constantly checking your reaction to everything. Which obviously made sense given that he believed you to be his wife, a role which you were performing rather poorly at the moment.

You took a deep breath and attempted to rearrange your features into something encouraging. “You might as well. It can’t hurt, right?”

“Fine,” he relented after a few beats of silence, in which he unnervingly never broke your gaze, “I’ll talk to the guy. But if he tries to say I’m crazy-”

“He won’t,” you cut in. “You’re a lot of things, Jack, but we all know you’re not crazy.”

That probably wasn’t the appropriate thing for a newlywed to say to her husband, yet it seemed to relax him somehow. Maybe a part of him recognized the normalcy in your not-quite-sardonic comment; you’d certainly said much worse to him. The doctor left, and you began to wonder how one was to fill a silence with a man who couldn’t even recall his own name.

Luckily, Jack solved the problem for you. “So I was shot, huh? Seems like something a guy would remember.”

“It may come back to you yet, and then you might find you miss not knowing.” Peggy gave his hand one more squeeze and then released it, sitting back in her chair.

“You said it was a robbery?” His gaze slid once more to your form sitting stiffly in your chair. “You… you okay?”

You blinked in surprise at his question and the hesitant concern underlying it. “…you mean right now?”

“No. Well, yeah, but… the robber, he didn’t… didn’t…”

Oh. Oh! “Uh, yeah, er no, I mean-” You pressed your lips together to be sure no more nonsense got out until you were sure you had yourself under control. “I mean yes, I’m fine. I wasn’t there.”

“Good…” he looked away and ran his tongue over his teeth reflexively. “Did they catch the guy?”

“Not yet,” Daniel interjected, “but we’re working on it.”

“You a cop?” Jack asked suspiciously.

“Something like that.”

“Shouldn’t you be out looking then? What are you doing here?”

“Being a friend.”

“I don’t even know you.”

“I didn’t say I was being your friend.”

Peggy rolled her eyes at you, obviously put out by the boys’ apparently natural tendency to bicker. You tried not to smile – you should probably act upset in some fashion, considering your husband was now amnestic in addition to wounded.

“Actually, you do know him. You-” You were cut off by the sudden entrance of yet another man in a white coat who briefly introduced himself as the requested psychiatrist.

“If you three wouldn’t mind giving me a few minutes with the patient?” He stared at you all pointedly.

“Yes, of course.” Peggy smiled benignly and rose to her feet, followed by Chief Sousa. You also stood, but before you’d moved from the bedside, Jack grabbed onto your wrist. Startled, you looked at him to see something akin to panic in his eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry,” you laid your fingertips on the hand that clung to you, “he’s not going to say you’re crazy. And if he does…” you leaned in to lower your voice, “I have a great right hook and a friend with enough money to hire a good defense attorney. We’ll be right over there – just call if you need reinforcements.”

Jack swallowed once and nodded, slowly releasing your arm. You gave him what you hoped was a reassuring smile, and moved away to join Peggy and Daniel by the door.

“So what’s next? Do we tell him as soon as the doctor leaves?” You wanted out of this lie as soon as possible. You didn’t know how much longer you could take the way Jack kept looking at you.

“Actually, I think it’s better we wait,” Peggy answered quietly, eyes still watching the doctor interact with Jack.

“What? Why?” At your raised pitch, Peggy turned her focus to you.

“Jack is obviously not in his right mind currently. If we tell him he might give you away, even unintentionally. It’ll be safer to wait until he’s off the premises completely.”

“You want me keep pretending to be his wife until he’s discharged? That could be weeks!”

“I have an idea about that. You two stay here – I’ll be back shortly.” With that, Peggy turned on heel and left the room.

“An idea about what? Where is she going?” You demanded of Daniel, still unnerved by the idea of keeping up this charade.

“Like I know what’s going on in her head any more than you do. For now let’s just do as Peggy says and wait for her to come back.”

You pushed your mildly frazzled hair away from your face and glanced back over at Jack. Once again you found his eyes resting on you. You tried to smile, but you seemed to have limited control over your facial muscles. You thought your part in this would have ended after he woke up and laughed you out of the hospital with that infuriatingly smug smirk of his. Instead, you had to deal with him staring at you like you held the key to his locked up memories. He was going to be awfully disappointed when he realized you didn’t hold anything.

Not even the title Mrs. Jack Thompson.

Chapter Text

“It’s impossible to tell the cause of his amnesia. There’s a chance it’s purely psychological, and with time and care his memory may return on its own. On the other hand, according to his chart he died twice on the operating table, and the lack of oxygen to his brain could have caused permanent damage. In that case, he may never regain full functionality.”

A beat of silence. “He did what on the operating table?” you burst out.

“Ma’am, please remain calm.” The doctor regarded you with disdain, apparently seeing nothing wrong with the callous way he’d thrown Jack’s death out in conversation. “I recommend we keep him here for observation until we can learn more about his condition.”

“That won’t be necessary, doctor, thank you.” Peggy strode back in for all the world like she owned the place. “We would like Jack to be discharged as soon as possible – tomorrow would be lovely.”

The doctor stared at her gobsmacked for several tense moments. “That is quite impossible! The man has sustained severe damage, and it would be both dangerous and negligent to release him before-”

“Yes, I’m well aware of the severity of his injuries,” Peggy cut him off, astonishing the man so fully that he shut his mouth with an audible pop. “However, we have arranged lodging for him with a friend of ours, who happens to have access to some of the country’s best physicians. He’ll be well cared for, I assure you. Perhaps you’ve heard of our friend – Howard Stark?”

Now you and the doctor were equally flabbergasted. Howard was no fonder of Jack than you were. Still, the game was pretty much over once the Howard Stark card was played, so the doctor could do no more than turn an interesting shade somewhere between red and purple. He let out a burst of air that was probably intended to convey his immense displeasure with the situation, and then marched out of the room without another word.

“Can’t say I’m sorry to see him go,” Daniel muttered when the man was out of earshot.

“Howard really agreed to let Jack stay?” you asked Peggy with a small amount of disbelief.

She raised an elegant eyebrow. “Yes, why wouldn’t he?”

“Because Howard only likes to entertain guests of a certain persuasion, and Jack doesn’t have the right attributes.”

“He let Jason Wilkes stay without question.”

“Fine, so Howard likes women and wayward scientific ghosts – Jack still doesn’t fit the profile.”

“Then perhaps this has less to do with Howard’s hospitality and more to do with the amount of favors the man owes me.”

“Now there’s a story I can believe.” You glanced back over at Jack who, though obviously worn out by the ordeal, appeared rather on edge as he watched the three of you. You moved back over to stand by his bedside. “How was it?”

“Like being hit in the head repeatedly with a baseball bat.”

“Should I have punched him?”

“Nah, he’s not worth it.” Though the idea did relax his shoulders somewhat. “What’d he say?”

“I think his last words were something like ‘HRRMP’, but it was difficult to hear over the pretention.” You cracked a small smile at his half-hearted snort of laughter. “Before that he said there was no way to tell why you can’t remember anything, and your memories may or may not come back.”

“Well, that’s just dandy.” Jack turned his head away from you to glare at his feet, all mirth completely forgotten.

“Hey now,” you started, compulsively laying a hand on his arm and then fighting not to jerk it back when you realized what you were doing, “What does he know? What do any of them know? They didn’t think you were going to make it through the surgery, but you survived anyway. Then they said you wouldn’t regain consciousness any time soon, and the next thing we know here you are! You appear to be doing whatever you want regardless of what any medical professional might believe. So the psychiatrist says you might not regain your memories? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had them all back by tomorrow.”

He’d met your eyes again at the beginning of your speech, and had watched you thoughtfully the whole time. Now his lips tilted into a small smile. “You really think I’ll be better by tomorrow?”

“Oh, no, you’re not getting me like that. If I say yes, then you’ll probably postpone for months just to be contentious. You’ll get better whenever you get better.”

“They gonna keep me in here until then?”

“Not a chance. You’ll be staying with a friend of ours. We’ll hire an in-house nurse or two – no psychiatrists,” you promised, watching as the rest of the tension eased from his features.

“Thank you,” he pulled his elbow back, sliding his arm under your hand until he could hold it in his own. His serious expression and the sudden intimacy of his touch made your breath catch.

“Actually, it was Peggy who arranged it. I haven’t really done anything at all.”

“You’ve done plenty,” he stated softly as he squeezed your hand. “And I really appreciate you being here with me.” Your breath caught and held this time, but he didn’t notice.

He let out a short huff of laughter, and you smiled slightly. “What is it?” you questioned, trying to keep your voice level.

“I just realized I don’t even know you’re name. Some husband, right?”

Your smile stiffened, and you couldn’t help but trip over your introduction when you automatically tried to include your surname – you really needed to work on answering to Thompson while still in the hospital. You covered your slip quickly by introducing the others.

“Nice to meet you. Again? I’m assuming we’ve met before…” he motioned vaguely to his head.

“Yes, actually we’ve all known each other for quite a while.” Peggy’s expression was full of comfort and encouragement. “Don’t worry – I’m sure it will all come back to you in time. But for right now, you should get some rest. You’ll be leaving this dismal place tomorrow if I have anything to say about it.”

“And trust me – she does.” You reached behind you to pull a chair closer until you could sit. Peggy smirked a little at your statement before turning on heel and leaving the room again, presumably to ensure Jack’s early release. “I also agree with her about the rest – you should get some sleep. Maybe some things will come back to you in the morning.”

“Don’t know how I’m supposed to sleep with you all staring at me,” Jack grouched rather childishly, but you allowed him the luxury considering the day he’d had.

Before you could answer, the younger nurse from before walked in. “Hello again, the doctor sent me down with something for your pain. It’s pretty strong, so don’t worry a bit if it makes you drowsy again.”

You chuckled quietly, causing Jack to raise his eyebrows at you in question. “Ask and you shall receive.”

He rolled his eyes, but you could detect the twitch in his cheek that alluded to a repressed smile. The nurse injected him with some clear liquid, and minutes later he was once again sleeping peacefully.

Now Daniel Sousa was a considerate man, and so out of consideration he was trying to find anything in this tiny room to occupy his attention rather than the scene between you and Jack.

Because even asleep, the man still had a firm grip on your hand.

Chapter Text

Peggy had to be some kind of miracle worker. How else were you to explain a man getting discharged who had not woken up from surgery more than 24 hours prior? Yet early the following morning a doctor appeared and announced Jack’s coming release. You were still a little groggy, having only dozed on and off with your head pillowed on Jack’s bed beside your hand, which you’d never managed to extract from his. Peggy and Daniel also looked the worse for wear – trying to find a comfortable sleeping position in the unforgiving hospital chairs was no easy feat. Jack didn’t have the courtesy to wake up at all, though the doctor did assure the injection would be out of his system by the time you were ready to leave. He prescribed some pain pills and antibiotics to be picked up from the nearest pharmacy at your earliest convenience, and then vanished as quickly as he’d come.

And so, here you were now, riding shotgun (ugh, you were going to need to avoid that expression for the foreseeable future) as Jarvis navigated the streets of Los Angeles back to Howard’s property. You continually glanced back at Jack who once deposited in the vehicle had promptly fallen back asleep, wedged against the door with his long legs stretched out behind your seat. Every time you looked he appeared more ashen, his body a little more tense with the pain, and a whole new strain of guilt began to build. He really shouldn’t have been released for another few weeks, and now you were putting his entire recovery in jeopardy to cover up your lie. Sure, the bullet had been on the smaller side, meant to do a cleaner job, and so hadn’t caused too much damage – the bigger threat had been how close it came to some important part of his internal anatomy coupled with extreme blood loss – but that didn’t mean he was in the clear. What if something went wrong that the in-house nurse wasn’t equipped to deal with? Protecting yourself would be meaningless if Jack died; his life was the very reason you’d lied in the first place.

“It’s not because of you, you know.” Jarvis’ voice interrupted your musings.

“Hmm?” You realized you’d been staring at Jack for longer than you’d intended, worrying the inside of your lip, and turned back to the front almost too quickly.

“Chief Thompson’s relocation is a matter of safety, and has very little to do with ensuring your deception is not revealed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone made an attempt on his life, but that attempt was unsuccessful. Given that we are unfamiliar with both the hospital’s staff and medical practice as a whole, anyone could get in and finish the job, and we’d be none the wiser. Not to mention the danger such a person would present everyone else in the building. No, I dare say shielding you is the last thing on Miss Carter’s mind at the moment.”

You considered Jarvis' words, mulling over the logic in everything he said. “How did you know I was feeling guilty?”

“You are extraordinarily easy to read when you are distracted. You would make a perfectly awful spy.”

“Gee, thanks, pal,” you snorted, but then let a genuine smile overtake your expression. “But really… thank you.”

“Of course.”

Not much more was said for the rest of the drive. You still glanced back at Jack frequently, but tried to be less obvious about it. Without the shades of your guilt, he didn’t look quite so close to death’s door. Soon Jarvis was pulling up next to the monstrous mansion Howard called home – at least when he wasn’t occupied elsewhere.

“Jack?” You called back, and then turned to see he was still asleep. Jarvis opened the driver’s door, and Jack still didn’t stir, so you hesitantly pressed your hand to his knee. “Jack,” you repeated, giving his leg a little shake, “it’s time to wake up. We’re here.” He let out some muffled noise and started to blink groggily. “Hey, you need to sit up a little so Jarvis can open your door, okay?”

He blinked at you a few more times, squinting in the sunlight, before turning his head to see Jarvis waiting patiently beside the car. With a grunt he shifted so his weight wasn’t resting against the door and looked at you again as if seeking approval. You smiled at him softly – honestly, the man was almost adorable when he was half asleep, his hair unhindered by product falling gently down over his forehead and eyes still a little unfocused like he was trying to parse out reality.

That thought caused all of your mental processes to screech to a halt, and the smile slipped into a look of mild horror, which you quickly hid by turning to your own door. You did not think Jack Thompson was adorable. He was irritating at best and a flat out pain at worst – and very infrequently was he at his best. Just because he didn’t remember how awful he was didn’t mean you should forget as well.

When you pulled yourself to standing you were once more in control due to an intense internal reprimand. You found Jarvis in the midst of helping Jack out as well, and you moved to their side of the car to provide back up if necessary. Jarvis guided Jack’s left arm around his shoulders so he could support most of the injured man’s weight. It didn’t look like the most comfortable of positions for either of them, Jarvis trying to stoop and yet still being too tall to be on Jack’s level.

This is your friends place? You’re saying all of this belongs to one person?” Jack was staring at the sprawling estate in bafflement, and you couldn’t keep your smile from returning. You remembered your first visit to the property and how overwhelming it could be, and that was with your experience of Howard’s other holdings.

“It is rather elephantine. Actually, I think there might be an elephant around here somewhere.”

“No, I’m afraid we were not able to secure the proper permit for such a large creature. However, we do have an interesting assortment of wild cats.”

Jack bounced his incredulous gaze between you and the butler. “You two are pulling my leg, right?”

“If only. Would you be so kind as to retrieve the bags?” Jarvis asked you with a nod towards the trunk of the car. Jarvis had stopped off and picked up some necessities for Jack, as his suitcase was still considered evidence.

You stepped back to regard the trunk. “Where’s the key?” you questioned absently.

“Oh, it’s, erm…” Jarvis cleared his throat, and when you looked back up you noticed his cheeks had gone a bit pink. “I’m afraid it’s in my pocket. Would you…” For a moment you thought he was going to suggest you try to fish it out, which would have been awkward for everyone involved, but then he tilted his head towards Jack.

“Uh, yeah, sure.” You slid over so you could take Jarvis’ place under Jack’s arm. The position caused Jack lean down a bit, since you were considerably shorter than Jarvis, and the shift must have pulled at his stiches. He let out a suppressed grunt, the arm around your shoulders tightening and the other coming to wrap around his midsection. “Sorry,” you mumbled softly, trying to stay steady under his weight.

“Don’t worry about it.”

But you did worry. You worried that you were causing too much strain on his wound. You worried that he didn’t have the strength to be standing this long. You worried that he was too tall for you to support effectively. You worried about how warm he was pressed into your side, wondering if it was a fever or if he was always this temperature. You worried he would notice just how uncomfortable being this close to him made you and would question such odd behavior in a spouse, and this really wasn’t the place you wanted to come clean.

You worried that Jarvis wouldn’t get the trunk open before your heart gave out from the anxiety.

Jack must have noticed something was wrong, though, because he continued as if changing the subject, “I still think this place looks more like some swanky hotel than somebody’s home.”

“Lately it’s felt that way, too, so I guess it all works out.” Howard sauntered out the front door and looked you over. “You okay there, sweetheart?”

“Yes, fine, Howard.” You tried to relax, if for nothing else than to assuage Howard’s obvious concern.

“Jarvis, what are you doin’ makin’ the lady do all the work?”

“He’s not-”

“Quite right, so sorry.” Jarvis had finally popped the trunk and slid back over to relieve you. You saw Jack’s lips tighten as he was once again shifted to a new height. That much fluctuation couldn’t be good for a gunshot wound…

“Well, come on, might as well get him settled. You got the blue room set up, right Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then Hotel de Stark is officially open for business. Let’s go.” Howard turned and started to make his way back to the door. You leaned over to grab the bags out of the trunk and fell into step beside Jack and Jarvis.

Jack turned his face slightly towards you, though he was still eyeing the house. “Is he the friend with enough money to hire you a good defense attorney?”

Howard whirled around so fast the tails of his Hawaiian shirt flared out. “Why do you need a defense attorney? What did you do?” He glared and jabbed a finger in your direction.

“Oh for goodness-, nothing! Now into the house. Go on, shoo!” You waved a hand in his direction, but Howard just narrowed his eyes until you glared back. “Jack needs to get off his feet, Howard.”

“Fine,” Howard relented, “but this discussion isn’t over.”

“Five dollars says you won’t remember to bring it up again,” you muttered when he turned his back, and threw an apologetic look to Jack. “Sorry, Howard is under the impression that all I know how to do is get into trouble.”

“Well, you do have a history of-” Jarvis began before you cut him off with shushing noises.

“We have an injured man in need of a bed. Let’s go find him one, shall we?” You quickly walked away before Jarvis could share any embarrassing stories. Jack looked at Jarvis who merely shrugged his free shoulder and made to follow.

Chapter Text

“Here we are, let’s just set you down nice and easy… there.” Jarvis slowly lowered Jack until he was sitting on the edge of the royal blue bedspread. You’d finally made it to his room without further incident, though Howard had veered off part way there. “Is there anything I can get you? Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“No, thanks Jarvis. I don’t think I can stay awake long enough to eat anything. Those pain killers the doc’s push are really something.” Jack did look about ready to collapse as he hid a large yawn behind his hand.

“If you are certain, I’m afraid I must take my leave. I need to go check on my wife. However, if you do find yourself in need of anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I will do my best to ensure your stay here is comfortable and… healing.”

“Thank you, Jarvis.” You smiled at him as you set your cargo down on the nearby dresser. The man really was one of the best. With a nod to you and another to Jack, he was out of the room, leaving you alone with your not-husband.

“What’s wrong with his wife?” Jack asked, tilting his head in the direction of the empty doorway through which Jarvis had just exited.

“She was also shot, a few weeks ago.” You swallowed at the memory, fiddling with your fingers uncomfortably. “You can see we haven’t had the best of luck with guns lately.”

“Another robbery gone sideways?”

“That’s…” you began, but then paused as you fully considered his condition, “a long story, and for another time – one where you don’t look like you’re about to fall over. Didn’t you say you were going to get some more sleep?”

Jack grimaced but looked resigned. Slowly and with obvious difficulty he attempted to unbutton his white shirt, and you were struck with the sudden realization that he intended to disrobe with you standing there. And why wouldn’t he? He believed you to be his wife – underclothes probably weren’t such a big deal in marriage.

You should stop him. You should tell him the truth now, before things went any further. He had the right to know that the woman he was undressing in front of had never seen him take off more than his coat. But watching him struggle with the pain of moving his right arm, you came to a decision and steeled your nerves. The truth would have to wait – you just hoped he wouldn’t think you a pervert later.

“Here, let me.” You kneeled in front of him and slid your hands under his, quickly undoing each button. His arms fell limply to his sides as he watched you work. When they were all open you stretched up and helped him push the shirt off his shoulders.

“She’s all right, though? Jarvis’ wife?” His voice brought your eyes back to his face, which you realized much too late was very close to your own in your current position. You paused, distracted, hands still barely touching the slopes of his shoulders.

You swallowed hard and tried to maintain eye contact. “Yeah, she’s as well as can be expected, I supposed.”

“She know who she is?” His mouth quirked up on one side, a smile tinged with a hint of bitterness.

“She does,” you replied, managing to make it sound a little like an apology, but as to not put too much emphasis on Jack’s unfortunate situation, you continued, “You’ll like Ana. As soon as she’s more rested, she’ll probably be in here spoiling you.” You returned to the removal of his shirt, so intent on your task that you didn’t notice he wasn’t moving his arm out of the sleeve, but rather to place a rough but warm palm to your cheek. You froze, his shirt still hanging off his elbows, your eyes wide as his scanned your face, using his hand to turn it to the light so he could examine your features more fully.

“You could do with some more rest, too. You look exhausted.”

You tried to pull a cheeky look. “Aren’t you a charmer?” He smirked a little, and that familiar expression put you back on solid ground. With a tug on his sleeve, you managed to pull his hand away from you and get the garment off, trying and failing not to note the muscle definition in his bare arms. After laying the shirt to the side, you moved on to his shoes, and then with a twist of your lips considered your next move. “Do you think you can stand again for a minute?” He nodded, and you positioned yourself under his arm to help him, making sure to keep to the left side away from his wound. When you had him upright, you took a deep breath and hurriedly undid his slacks. It felt wrong to be getting so familiar with this man to whom you’d hardly ever said a kind word – especially when he couldn’t know just how many liberties you were taking. To him, his wife was just helping her injured husband prepare for bed. He couldn’t possible comprehend how inappropriate this was.

When he was left in nothing by his undershirt and boxer shorts, you reached around him to pull back the covers of his bed. Gently you lowered him to sit once more and helped support him as he swung his legs around. You settled him back against some pillows and pulled the blankets back up, relieved when his relative nakedness was covered. Needing to busy yourself until you could somewhat clear your head, you retrieved his discarded clothing and folded it as neatly as you could, laying it beside the bags on the dresser, and feeling his eyes follow you the whole time.

“Well…” Finished with your task and with nothing else to distract you, you turned back to him with your hands clasped in front of you, unconsciously pulling at your fingers again. “Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat or drink?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

“Well…” you repeated and took a deep breath. No more stalling. You needed to tell him who you really were, though it was going to be even more awkward now that you’d helped undress him. “Jack, I should…”

You intended to tell him, you really did. But then you saw his eyes flutter, saw him suppress another yawn. He was still pale from the ordeal of the whole trip, and the last thing he needed now was to find out that the only thing he knew about his life wasn’t even true.

“I should let you get some rest.” You gave him a wobbly smile and started to make your way out.

“Are you leaving?” Jack’s question stopped you at the doorway. You turned to see he looked somewhere between confused and disappointed. He also looked unfamiliar and… wrong, lying in that big bed surrounded by pillows. He was in such a defenseless position. It made you uneasy.

“I, ah, thought you might like to be alone for a while. You haven’t really had the opportunity since you were admitted. But I don’t have to… I can stay if you want.”

“Would you mind? At least until I fall asleep? Shouldn’t take too long – I think I’m halfway there already.”

“Sure.” You pulled a nearby chair closer to his bedside so he could easily see you. You sat back, resting your elbows on the arm rests, and tried to look away from those intense eyes that were always, always on you.

“Thank you,” he murmured, before finally allowing his eyelids to drift closed.

Soon his breathing was rhythmic and even, and you knew he was fully asleep. Still, you lingered for minutes longer, watching the blankets rise and fall and the lines smooth from his face.

Chapter Text

You almost jumped when you heard your name called, wondering for a split second how Jack spoke without moving his mouth. You quickly realized it wasn’t Jack at all, but Jarvis who stood in the doorway like he’d been there for a while.

“Miss Carter and Chief Sousa have arrived,” he informed you when he saw he had your attention.

“Oh, thank you, Jarvis.” With one more glance at Jack sleeping peacefully, you rose and followed Jarvis into the dining room. You were somewhat surprised to find not only Daniel sitting at the table with Peggy standing nearby, but Howard slouched in the corner nursing what appeared to be some kind of alcoholic beverage.

“How’s the patient?” Peggy questioned immediately upon seeing you.

“Asleep again. He can’t seem to stay conscious for long, between the stress on his body and the painkillers.” You averted your eyes to stare at the china hutch against the far wall, clasping your hands in front of you and absently tugging them back and forth. “I…I didn’t tell him.” Your eyes flashed back to Peggy and then skittered away again without fully making contact. “He was just so worn out. It didn’t seem like the right time.”

“Good,” Peggy declared. Your eyes flew back to hers and locked this time, her easy acceptance throwing you off. “We’ve discussed it, and decided you shouldn’t tell him.”

The silence that followed was heavy, the weight increased by the pressure of everyone’s eyes on you. You started to get light headed, and realized that in your shock and confusion you had forgotten to breathe.

“What?” you managed to choke out, the word getting stuck on the air you finally managed to swallow.

“It will be safer if for the foreseeable future you will continue pretending to be Jack’s wife, at least until we catch his shooter or he regains his memories.”

“What do you mean ‘safer’?” you asked incredulously.

“Jack is in danger, and without his memories he has no idea how much or how to handle it. If you pose as his wife, you’ll be able to keep him occupied and away from this investigation. It’s the perfect excuse to be around him constantly in case his attacker returns.”

“And what do you expect me to do about that?”

“Recognize the threat and take measures to avoid it. I’m sure Ana will sew you a garter holster as well.”

“A garter holster? You want to give me a gun?” Your tone went up in alarm, just shy of horrified.

“Just as a safety precaution. Realistically I don’t believe anyone will attack, especially if they realize Jack is currently out of commission. Not to mention we don’t know why someone shot him to begin with. If word gets back that he has an unaccounted for wife, they might decide they had the wrong man and simply leave you in peace.” Peggy rattled all of this off as simply as if she was sharing a cake recipe. You stared at her, jaw loose and tongue shifting as you tried to rewet your extremely dry mouth.

“Have you lost your mind?” Your gaze danced over everyone in the room, astounded that no one else seemed a bit upset at this idea. “That’s a terrible plan!”

“Why do you say that?” Peggy asked calmly, tilting her head as if humoring a child.

“Why do I-, why-,” you sputtered, unable to even comprehend the question. “You know what a terrible liar I am. I’ve barely managed this long, and what you’re suggesting could take weeks. Or longer! There’s no way I’ll be able to keep it up.”

“Yes, I’m quite familiar with your inability to lie. However, the beauty of this situation is that Jack doesn’t even have an inkling of what the truth could be, so he won’t be able to identify when you’re not telling it. This is actually the perfect opportunity to practice your skills.”

“To practice my lying skills? By trying to convince a man that he’s my husband? Do you hear what you’re saying?”

“It’s not as dramatic as all that. I do believe you’re overreacting.”

“Overreacting?” Peggy’s nonchalance was really starting to grate on you. “You are asking me to play wife to a man with whom I’ve barely ever had a single civil conversation. We don’t even like each other!”

“Jack doesn’t remember he doesn’t like you, so half your problem is solved already. Actually, back at the hospital he seemed pretty keen on the idea of being married to you,” Daniel piped up, and almost recoiled when you turned the full force of your glare on him.

“He was drugged! He would have been just as happy to find out the hospital had strawberry Jell-O. It’s not something you can base a marriage on.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, we’re not asking you to really marry the man.” Peggy rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“No, you’re just asking me to convince him I did! The whole idea is ridiculous. You can’t really expect me to pull it off.”

“This might help.” Daniel laid a small box on the table and slid it in your direction. You looked at it warily, and then back at him, but his expression remained set and his gaze never wavered. Slowly you sat in the chair across from him and reached for the box. The lid was hinged, and when you popped it opened you were met with the most beautiful set of rings you’d ever seen. “Stark called a local jeweler and had him come up with something in a rush. Jack may not know a whole lot, but I’m sure even he would question where your wedding rings were.”

Of course it was Howard. That would explain how the rings were so perfect. He’d been privy to every single one of your opinions on engagement rings. You'd had numerous discussions over the years on the subject. Well, not so much discussions as a monologues that he’d put up with for the sake of your friendship. Howard probably had a better idea of your ideal engagement ring than you did – and the proof was sitting innocently in your hand.

“No,” you declared quietly, and then louder, “No!” You snapped the lid shut and placed the rings on the table with shaking hands. Your chair was almost upended as you violently shoved yourself back and launched upwards to stand again. Your stomach began to turn, and you tried to breathe deeply through your nose to combat the rising nausea. Those rings brought into focus just how wrong this whole situation was, this plan to masquerade as a man’s wife while he had no idea that it was all a show. The rings were right, perfectly right, but intended for a man who wasn’t. “It’s not… I can’t…”

“You can and you will.” Peggy’s voice had taken on a sharp edge, her patience with you running out. “So long as Jack is not in his right mind, he is in danger. Someone tried to kill him, and as soon as they learn he’s still alive they may very well try again. We need to buy time and keep him at a distance. If we can keep up the pretense that he believes himself to be nothing more than an average husband, perhaps his extermination will fall under less urgent matters.”

You saw the steel in Peggy’s resolve, and how Daniel aligned himself with her, so instead you turned to Jarvis, who’d been standing quietly by the door. “Jarvis?”

He at least had the decency to look uncomfortable and a bit guilty. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m not very well-versed in matters of intrigue, and so I have to trust that Miss Carter knows best.”

Finally in a last ditch effort you looked to Howard, who had until this point remained conspicuously silent, staring into his drink. “Howard, you can’t possibly agree with all this. Tell them. Tell them what a horrible plan this is,” you pleaded. But when his dark eyes met yours, you knew it was hopeless.

“Sorry, sweetheart, but it sounds like a pretty good way to keep you both out of trouble.”

The breath you let out trembled embarrassingly, so you clamped your lips shut and stared at Howard with so much disappointment that he eventually had to break away and stare at his drink again, mustache pulled down with the weight of his frown.

“May I remind you,” Peggy’s voice cut into you with almost physical force, “that you are in this situation because of your own choices? You chose to tell the hospital the very lie that you are railing against so strongly now.”

“I only told them that because-”

“Yes, I know, you were trying to protect his life. Now you must continue to protect it.” She reached for the box on the table, and grabbed your wrist before you could back away. She yanked you forward and pressed the box firmly into your hand. “You made a choice, noble as it may have been, and now you must deal with the consequences. You will continue as Jack Thompson’s wife until directed otherwise. Do you understand?”

You’d seen Peggy give a dressing down so many times, but never had you thought you’d be on the receiving end. You felt like the world had suddenly tilted, and you now walked at an angle to it.

“Yes.” That word took so much effort to force out you expected it to be louder, yet it came out so quietly that it probably wouldn’t have been heard if the room hadn’t fallen into absolutely silence.

Peggy released your wrist and you stepped back reflexively. Your eyes ran over all the faces in the room once more, seeing various levels of strain, before you turned and practically ran from the room. You made it out the door, but still managed to hear Howard’s, “I’d forgotten how terrifying Commander Peggy could be.”

You didn’t slow your pace until you made it to your room. You whirled around and shut the door, making a conscious effort to do so with control to avoid slamming it. Then you pressed your back to the solid wood and slid down until you were sitting on the floor with your knees drawn up. You held up the box clasped tightly in your fingers and stared at its velvet covering. Slowly you tipped the lid back until you could see the sparkling diamonds winking at you almost mockingly. A choked sob burst from your throat before you even felt it coming, and you pressed your hand over your mouth in case any more tried to escape, but it did nothing to stop the tear that dripped on to your thumb.

Taking a deep breath you pressed your eyes closed tightly. You were not a child. You could deal with the consequences of your own actions. This was no time to wallow in undeserved self-pity. With new resolve you brushed brusquely at your damp cheeks and opened your eyes to face the rings once more. You ignored the trembling in your hand as you carefully pulled out the twinkling engagement ring and delicate matching wedding band. Setting the box down, you slid the rings onto your finger, only missing once or twice. Only after appraising them for quite a few very long minutes did you realize you’d put them on the wrong hand.

When you finally got them sorted, you picked the box back up to consider the final ring. It looked like yours, but bigger and more solid, meant to stand out on a man’s hand. It wasn’t ostentatious or overly ornate – Jack probably wouldn’t think twice about wearing it. He wouldn’t know it represented a lie. It wouldn’t weigh down his finger as yours did. His ignorance should have been a comfort to you, knowing he wouldn’t bear the burden of treating something trivially that should have been so meaningful. But instead the whole thing made a pain grow right in the center of your chest. You stood, still leaning against the door for support, and pulled the ring from the box with almost reckless abandon, tucking it into the pocket of your dress before it could cause you even more desperate thoughts.

You needed to get back to Jack. You should be there when he woke up. You paused with your hand on the door knob, and turned back into your room to grab a book from the nightstand beside your bed.

It could be a long wait, after all.

Chapter Text

You lost track of time as you sat by Jack's bedside reading. He was almost too still, and more than once you found yourself staring at his chest until you were absolutely certain he was still breathing. It made you wonder if he always slept like this, or if the drugs put him so far under he appeared comatose.

The next time you looked up while turning a page, you discovered Jack watching you quietly. When your eyes met Jack’s you jumped and stared for an inappropriate amount of time before you found your voice. “Oh, hi. I didn’t realize you were awake.”

“That’s all right – I haven’t really realized it myself yet,” he assured, which brought a genuine smile to your face. He was bordering dangerously close to adorable again, all tucked in and sleepy looking.

“Are you hungry yet? Would you like something to eat?”

“Yeah, I’m starved, but,” he shifted to push his covers down, blatantly reminding you of his state of undress, “what I could really use right now is the bathroom.”

“Oh. Oh! Sure, of course. Um…” You closed your book and set it aside, moving to help him sit up. You did your best to support him as he swung his legs over the side of the bed, but from the way his muscles tensed with pain you didn’t feel like you were really helping much. “The bathroom is through the door straight ahead. Do you think you can make it that far?”

He considered the distance, which was mere feet but could have been miles for his damaged body. “Yeah, I can make it.”

“Okay then, one, two, three, up!” You braced yourself to lift his body, and managed to get him up with only minor tilting. The pace to the bathroom was slow and shuffling, filled with concentration – his on taking even, measured steps and yours on ignoring just how much of his bare skin was pressing into you right now. You reached the door and paused in a moment of panic. What did you do now? Were you really expected to further invade this man’s privacy by holding him up as he relieved himself? Where was that in-house nurse you’d been promised?

Fortunately for you, Jack seemed just as uncomfortable with the idea. He cleared his throat and slowly removed his arm from around your shoulders. “I think I can handle this part by myself.” He stepped forward, but then swayed and had to grip the door frame for balance.

“Are you sure? I could… I could go find Jarvis…?”

He looked back at you over his shoulder, that ever familiar smirk tilting his lips. “No offense to Jarvis, he seems like a great guy, but this is really something I’d rather not share with him.”

“But-”

“Don’t worry – I’ll be fine. If I tip over or something I’ll yell, okay?”

“Okay…” you agreed, still unsure. His smirk stretched into more of a real smile, and then he took a few more slow paces until he could shut the door behind him. Uncomfortable and unsure of yourself, you stepped away a bit, trying to create some kind of privacy. Luckily, Jarvis chose that moment to appear in the doorway.

“Hello, thought I’d pop in and see how everything is.” He was trying so hard to sound natural and failing miserably. But after the earlier altercation, he was understandably uncertain of how to approach you. He glanced at the bed and then back at you in confusion. “Where is Mr. Thompson?”

“Bathroom.” You tilted your head in the direction of the closed door.

“Oh, I see.” He paused and then cleared his throat awkwardly. “Does he… I mean to say, is he… will he be all right on his own in there?”

“He’s forgotten a lot, but I’m pretty sure some things come naturally.” You tried to keep a straight face as he looked at you aghast, but you couldn’t stop the grin from breaking your façade. “I’m just pulling your leg, Jarvis. I think he’s fine.”

“How long has he been in there? He really hasn’t healed enough to be up and about on his own. I could always-”

“He already said that you were not invited to this event.”

“What an oddly specific statement…”

“I’m worried too, but it’s only been a minute. I’d say we should give him a few more before we bust his door down.”

“Yes, quite right.”

“He did say he was hungry, though. Do you have anything left from lunch? Or is it almost dinner by now?”

“A bit past dinner actually,” he gave you a look of slight reprimand, seeing that you’d been neglecting your own care in the face of this madness, and you replied with a half-hearted shrug, “but I’m sure I can pull something satisfactory together.” With a new purpose he turned sharply away, but paused and angled his body back towards you. “And… how are you doing?”

You saw his eyes shoot down to the glittering ring on your left hand, and you curled your fingers into your palm to shield it from view, bringing his eyes back to yours. “I’m handling it.”

“I just worry-”

“It’s fine Jarvis. Food?”

“Good, good, yes, right, food. I will return shortly.”

When he had swept from the room once more, you relaxed your hands and stared down at the ring. Curse Howard for getting it so perfect. How would a real engagement ring, should you ever receive one, even begin to compare?

You were pulled from your negative thoughts by the sound of the door opening behind you. You turned to see Jack leaning heavily on the frame, and quickly made your way to his side again. He was noticeably relieved to have your support once more, and you couldn’t help but feel bad that he’d had to exert himself so much over the simple act of using the facilities.

“Were you talking to somebody? I thought I heard voices,” he questioned, voice slightly strained as you both shuffled back towards his bed.

“Jarvis checked in. He’ll be back soon with some food.” You got Jack situated back in his bed, pillows propped up behind him so he could sit more upright. The only downside was that the blankets no longer covered his torso. You supposed you were just going to have to get used to talking to this man in his underwear.

“Great, I feel like I could eat a horse.”

“Unfortunately, we’re fresh out of horse. But I’m sure whatever he brings will be suitably edible,” you quipped, secretly enjoying the way his lips quirked up. You always did appreciate a sense of humor that could roll with your off-beat brand of sarcasm. If Jack had been himself he probably would have just rolled his eyes, and you wavered between pleasure at his positive response and guilt because he didn’t know how he really should be responding.

“I guess I’ll just have to take what I can get.” He shifted a little, settling back further into his pillow mountain. “Jarvis a good cook?”

“The best. I’ve gained ten pounds alone off all the apple torte he’s been making.”

“Why so much apple torte?”

“It was a promise he made Ana when she was in the hospital, along with something about a tie and a brown cardigan. I think he’s just doing it to avoid getting the dog he also promised her if she’d wake up.”

“Did you make me any promises?” Oh, he was fishing, smug jerk. You thought back to what you’d spoken to his unconscious body in the hospital – that he needed to wake up so he could tease you for lying about being his wife. But it wasn’t like you could tell him that now.

“You woke up too soon,” you offered instead, plopping down in your chair after assuring he was situated. “Maybe next time you should drag it out longer so I have more time to fret.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Please don’t. I’d rather not go through that again, if it’s all the same to you.” Your expression slipped a little, and you fell into the familiar habit of pulling at your fingers. This had the unintentional side effect of drawing his gaze to your hand.

“Where’d those come from?” he questioned, and you realized he meant the rings.

“Oh, um…” You cleared your throat and continued more firmly, “We just got them back. I thought it’d be a good idea to have them cleaned.”

He stared at them, thinking hard. “Did I pick them out?”

“Uh, yeah. Though I probably gave you a pretty good idea – I’ve never been short on commentary when it comes to engagement rings. Also, there’s, um…” you struggled as your words ran out, so you settled for weakly waving a hand at the nearest nightstand, bringing his attention to the last ring meant for him.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, he reached over to pick it up. He held it up to eye level, face unreadable, and then he slid it easily onto his left ring finger. Leave it to Howard to get the ring size right on the first try, and leave it to Jack to actually know which hand it belonged on. He stared at it resting on his finger, before looking back to your hand. “Can I see yours?”

“Mm, sure…” You slid them off and passed them over. He held them delicately, like he was afraid they would break in his too big fingers – either that or they would bite him. He regarded them silently for a while before holding them back out.

“I have good taste. Expensive too, it looks like. What kind of job does a guy have to have to afford something like that?”

“Um…” You had to stop pausing like that – it made you sound suspicious. But you had to think of something that would keep him away from the S.S.R., and you weren’t very good at coming up with things off the top of your head. “You’re an insurance agent.”

“Insurance agent?”

“Yep. Really good – top of your company.” Honestly, even you didn’t think you sounded believable. Jack opened his mouth to say something else, but a much-welcomed reprieve came in the form of Jarvis blustering in with a tray full of food.

“Mr. Thompson, good to see you up. I’ve brought you an assortment of things to eat, but first I think it best that we check your bandages.”

Jack nodded his assent, probably still thinking about being an insurance agent. Jarvis moved up the side of the bed and then looked at you. “Miss-us Thompson,” he stumbled over the unfamiliar title, trying to draw out his ‘Miss’ into a ‘Mrs.’, “would you be so kind as to help your, erm, husband sit up a bit.”

“Of course.” You moved to sit next to Jack and helped support his back with your right arm and shoulder, your left hand resting on his shoulder to stabilize him. He still grimaced a little sitting up, his hand shooting out to balance himself – and managing to land right above your knee. It took all of your will power not to tense up completely, especially when his hand tightened just a little to combat the pain in his chest.

This was something else you were going to have to learn to handle. You couldn’t panic every time you made physical contact. That was also pretty high up on the list of suspicious behaviors in a wife.

“Let’s see here,” Jarvis lifted Jack’s shirt up, and sweet Christopher Columbus... no, no, stop it, look away! He's injured and without memories and does not deserve to be ogled so inappropriately in his time of need. You were so distracted trying to keep your thoughts in line that you almost missed Jarvis’ struggle to get Jack’s shirt up high enough to access the bandages. “Oh dear. Mr. Thompson, would you mind terribly pulling your arm in?”

Yes Jarvis. Yes, we would all mind very much. But Jack was already struggling through the motions with Jarvis’ help. Soon his undershirt was bunched up around his neck and under his other arm, showing even more of his physique, and you’d never felt like more of a voyeur.

All of those thoughts came to a screeching halt, however, when Jarvis finally pulled the bandages away from Jack’s skin, revealing the ugly wound beneath. The sight made you swallow thickly, your heart breaking over the agony he must have gone through, must still be going through. Jarvis puttered about doing various first aid related things, but you couldn’t drag your eyes away from the dark stiches and the puckered skin still stained with blood.

“Hey,” Jack called softly, removing his hand from your knee to lay it over your hand that still rested on his shoulder. You finally managed to look away to meet his concerned gaze. “I’m okay.”

“Yeah,” you agreed automatically.

“Really. It looks worse than it is. And with all this pampering, I’m sure I’ll be as good as new in no time.” He gave your hand a squeeze, and you found it hard to comprehend that he was the one sporting a fresh bullet hole and yet was comforting you.

“Yeah, I’m sure you will be.” You tried to smile at him like you were reassured, but you still felt unmatched relief when Jarvis covered the wound with fresh bandages and helped Jack readjust his shirt.

“Now,” Jarvis began cheerily as if he hadn’t just tended to a man’s near-fatal wound, “who’s hungry?”

Chapter Text

Much to your relief Jarvis took up residence in another chair, apparently intending to hang around until Jack was done with his meal. For you, this meant having someone else to keep up the conversation and not being left alone with a man who didn’t realize you were practically strangers. You inquired after Ana, and Jarvis told you she was doing well. He asked you if you weren’t also hungry, since you’d skipped lunch, and you assured him you were not – truthfully, your stomach was too tied up in knots to feel anything else. But then Jack offered you his roll, and he looked so concerned and… sincere, so you accepted with a smile and gradually tore small bites off to pop in your mouth.

You’d almost relaxed, lulled by the easy atmosphere, when Peggy appeared in the doorway and all of your muscles tightened once more.

“Hello, Jack, you’re looking better.”

“If you mean conscious, then I’d have to agree,” Jack scoffed.

“Considering how you’ve been looking, I would count any improvement as a victory,” Peggy returned, causing Jack to tilt his head in acquiescence while wiping his mouth on a cloth napkin. Point made, Peggy turned her attention to you. “May I speak to you privately for a moment?”

Your heart jumped, but you tried not to let it show. “Yeah, sure.” You stood and smoothed your skirt before following her out of the room. She stopped a ways down the hall, and you braced yourself for whatever may be coming. However, your preparation was for naught when you were completely caught off guard by how sad her eyes became.

“I wanted to apologize,” she began, further startling you. “I realized I was rather harsh with you. This is not an easy situation, and I shouldn’t have treated it so flippantly.”

“No,” you managed to blurt out, “No, I was being overly dramatic. Of course Jack needs to be kept safe, and if maintaining this lie is the way then so be it.”

Your newfound resolve brought a smile to Peggy’s face. “Still, I need to learn to stop treating civilians like soldiers. Look what happened to Jason. And Dottie.”

You snorted. “I think we can both agree that Dottie Underwood was no civilian.”

“True, but she was still an outsider acting under my orders. I just want you to know that I understand how difficult this is for you, and I will offer whatever support I can, just say the word.”

“Actually, there is something. What do I tell him if he starts asking about himself? I don’t really know anything beyond his job at the S.S.R., aside from his generally unpleasant disposition and penchant for punching people.”

“You didn’t tell him, did you? About being chief?”

“No, I, uh… I told him he’s an insurance agent.”

Peggy let out a laugh that was equal parts amusement and disbelief. “Are wife and insurance agent the only two lies you know?”

“Well, I don’t know if you recall, but in an earlier conversation I believe I told you repeatedly and with much conviction that I am not very good at this.”

“Yes, yes, sorry. I’ll see if I can dig up Jack’s file to give you something to go off. Until then, I’m afraid you’ll have to do the best you can.”

“Fantastic.”

“Try to stick as close to the truth as you can. You’ll be able to remember what you’ve said easier and be more believable. Who knows? Maybe you’ll trigger his memories and be done with this all the sooner.”

“We can only hope.” You let out a huff of breath and then steeled your shoulders. You started to turn to go, but Peggy’s hand on your arm stilled you.

“For what it’s worth, I believe you can do this. You are more capable than you realize.”

Your shoulders relaxed minutely as you smiled back at her. “Thanks, Peggy. That’s worth a lot.”

You almost collided head on with Jarvis as he exited Jack’s room with his tray full of empty plates. “Oops, so sorry.”

“No problem, Jarvis. Jack done, then?”

“Yes, though he did refuse to take his pain medication. Perhaps you’ll have more luck persuading him?”

“I’ve never had luck persuading him of anything before, but I can certainly try.”

“Are you quite certain you wouldn’t like something to eat? That roll is the first thing I’ve seen you consume since Mr. Thompson entered the hospital.”

“I’m fine, Jarvis, thanks. I don’t think I can stomach food right now.”

“As you wish. However, should you change your mind, my kitchen is always open.”

You thanked him again, and he disappeared down the hall with plates rattling. Taking a deep breath you reentered Jack’s room to find him staring at the portrait of Howard hanging to his right.

“It’s a set,” you offered with a smile, stepping further into the room. His eyes flashed to you for just a moment before landing back on the picture.

“It’s weird,” he countered, “and… what’s that word that means it makes you uncomfortable?”

“Disconcerting?”

“Yeah, that. It’s like he’s staring at me all the time.”

“Why don’t you want to take your pain medication?” Your change of subject brought his attention streaking back to you.

“I don’t like how fuzzy it makes me.”

“It’s making you drowsy so you can sleep.”

“I’m tired of sleeping.”

“Your body needs rest – it’s been put under a considerable strain.”

“It’s resting right now.” He held his arms out as if present the fact to you, but then winced when the movement pulled on his stitches. He tried to cover it up when he saw your lips tighten with concern. “See, hardly moving at all.” He dropped his hands at your deadpan stare and went with a different tactic. “Come on, I can sleep later. Just give me an hour or two.”

You breathed out slowly through your nose, taking in his pleading eyes. “Fine. But you tell me if the pain gets too bad. Don’t pull any tough-guy stunts with me.”

“Kind of hard to be a tough guy when I’m lying bedridden in my underwear.”

“Jack-“

“Okay, you have my word – I won’t be a tough guy. Happy?”

“Overjoyed,” you answered pleasantly, seating yourself in your chair once more.

“You always worry this much?”

“When someone gets shot? Generally.”

“No, I mean about me.”

Your chest tightened with the fear that you were already giving yourself away. “Should I not?”

“It just seems like it’d be hard on you.”

Relief shrouded you like a warm blanket. Taking a deep breath you tilted your head back to stare at the ceiling in thought. “I guess you don’t usually give me a reason to worry.”

“No? Not a whole like of danger in the life of an insurance agent?” Jack was smirking when you looked at him, but there was a hint of something else – like he was disappointed to find out he held such a menial job.

“No, but that’s not really… I guess it seems like you’re always trying to take charge of whatever situation you’re in. I don’t stop to wonder if you're okay because you seem to have everything under control. I’ve never seen you...” you trailed off and waved your hands weakly at his bedridden state. “But then finding anyone lying in a pool of blood is bound to cause concern.”

“Wait, you found me?” His eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“Yes, who else?”

“When you said you weren’t there I assumed you were out shopping or something. I thought you’d found out later and came to the hospital.”

“No, I was privileged to be the first to know. Though you’d probably have been better off with someone else – it took me an embarrassingly long time to remember how to check for a pulse. And then I ruined one of your shirts.”

“Hey, I’m still sitting here, so you couldn’t have done too bad. And I’m sure I’ve got more shirts.”

“Yes, but unfortunately most of them are in police custody. Or New York.”

“New York?”

“That’s where you’re from. And me too, I guess,” you quickly amended. You’d fallen into such easy conversation that you’d almost forgotten the part you were supposed to be playing.

“So what are we doing out here?”

You cleared your throat before coughing out, “Honeymoon. Howard recommended it.”

“Honeymoon? Guess that means we haven’t been married all that long.”

“Mm, just about a week or two.”

“You don’t know?” The needling was so much like the old Jack that for a moment everything seemed almost normal.

“I’ve kind of lost track of what day it is in all of the… excitement.”

“That’s one word for it.” He looked away, for which you were grateful – the constant attention made you feel paranoid, as if he was searching out holes in your story. His gaze landed on your discarded book laying innocently on the nightstand. “What were you reading?”

You smiled fondly at the book. “Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin.”

“Never heard of it, though I guess that’s not saying a whole lot.”

“I doubt you’d read it beforehand anyway. It’s not really up your alley.”

“What’s it about?”

“Marriage and society in the British Regency during the early 19th century.” You tried very hard not to crack a smile as he stared at you blankly.

“Fascinating.” His short response broke your control and you let out a rather unladylike snort of laughter, to which he smirked. “I think I can see why I never touched it.”

“Well, you’re missing out. It’s hilarious.”

“How could a book about the British Regency in the early 1900’s be hilarious?”

“1800’s – the 19th century refers to the 1800’s. And here, I’ll show you.” You leaned over and retrieved the book, flipping until you came to one of your favorite passages. “So right before this Mrs. Bennet found out that the man who’s going to inherit her husband’s estate is planning to marry their neighbor, Charlotte Lucas, which means that after Mr. Bennet dies, Charlotte will have more of a right to everything than she does. So she says, ‘Indeed, Mr. Bennet, it is very hard to think that Charlotte Lucas should ever be mistress of this house, that I should be forced to make way for her, and live to see her take my place in it!’ And he says, ‘My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.’

“This was not very consoling to Mrs. Bennet, and, therefore, instead of making any answer she went on as before. ‘I cannot bear to think that they should have all this estate. If it was not for the entail, I should not mind it.'

“‘What should not you mind?’

“‘I should not mind anything at all.’

“‘Let us be thankful that you are preserved from a state of such insensibility.’” You looked at Jack expectantly, but were met with the same blank expression. “Basically, Mr. Bennet told his wife that if they were lucky he’d outlive her, and then that they should be thankful she had something to complain about.”

“Why couldn’t it just say that?”

“Because writing is about more than just saying things bluntly. And Jane Austin is an artist with words.”

“Still seems like a lot just to say, ‘I hope you die, you whiny old biddy.’”

“You truly have the heart of a poet, Jack Thompson.”

“Better than a head full of words I don’t need.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure there’s plenty of space up there.”

“Did you just call me stupid?”

“No…” You shut your book again, setting it in your lap. “Though I did imply it pretty heavily, didn’t I?”

“How do you like that? Here I am with a bullet wound in my chest, and my wife just sits back and calls me names.”

“I didn’t call you anything. I made an implication.”

“Same thing.”

“Not in the least.” You should probably stop. This was exactly how most of your previous interaction with Jack had gone, but it was probably the exact opposite of how interactions with your husband should go. But Jack just made it so hard. You were about to attempt some sort of apology when you noticed Jack’s shoulders shaking slightly – he was laughing, the ass.

“I bet we’re never bored, are we?”

“Not so far.” It was true. Your conversations with Jack were always annoying or heated or downright rude, but you wouldn’t describe any of them as boring. A prickle of guilt nudged you, so you continued, “You’re not, though. Stupid,” you explained when his brow furrowed with lack of comprehension. “You might not remember, and I didn’t want you thinking you really were.”

“Good to know.”

“You’re actually pretty smart, though that’s not saying a lot coming from me considering I’m not all that smart myself.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Why?” you asked with genuine interest.

“You know when the 18th century was and words like disconcerting, and you make ‘implications’ instead of outright insults. You don't sound too dumb to me.”

“Right, well, uh…” You faltered, unsure of how to respond to what felt like a sincere, if backhanded, compliment, something you rarely traded any other time with the man. “Hour's up. I think it’s time you take your pill and go back to sleep.”

"Come on - it hasn't been anywhere close to an hour."

"Don't try to tell me you're not tired. I can see it in your face."

He opened his mouth to argue, but then shut it again before any words came out. After some consideration he offered, “Fine, I’ll go to sleep, but no pills.”

“They’ll help-”

“No pills,” he repeated firmly as he slid down to rest on his back once more. “Keep reading from your marriage book – that’ll knock me right now.”

You rolled your eyes, but flipped back to the beginning of the book and began to read. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Chapter Text

“Favorite color?”

“Red.”

“Favorite season?”

“Fall.”

“Favorite food?”

“Cheeseburgers, but really high-quality, all-American cheeseburgers. No filler, thick patties. Good cheese.”

“Favorite dessert?”

“Scotch.” You almost laughed at the look he gave you, but you diverted your attention to picking up the three of hearts from the discard pile. However, you couldn’t quite contain a mischievous smile. “Dessert is what you have after a meal, right? Scotch.”

“Fine,” he groused, drawing a card and discarding it immediately. “What about family?”

“Your parents live in Vermont, and you’re their only child. Your grandmother lives in a retirement home near them. You call her Gam-Gam, if I recall.” This time you did chuckle at his grimace as you exchanged your ten of spades for a queen of clubs.

“What about you?” he asked, picking up your ten and laying down a queen of hearts.

“What about me?” you returned, taking the queen.

“What’s your family look like?”

“Last I knew, my parents lived in Brooklyn,” you answered distractedly, adding up your cards in your head.

“Last you knew?”

“I haven’t spoken to them in years.”

“They didn’t come to the wedding?”

You paused with your hand on a card, trying to figure out what wedding he was talking about. When your brain finally caught up, you quickly shuffled your cards around to mask your hesitation. “No, probably because they weren’t invited.”

You’d decided long ago that if you ever had the opportunity to marry you wouldn’t tell your parents about it. They hadn’t been a part of your life for years, so why would you want them at something as important as your wedding? You saw no reason not to include that fact in the narrative you were spinning. But since you didn’t really want to discuss your relationship with your parents at the moment, you laid a card face down on the discard pile and spread out your remaining cards. “I knock.”

“What?” He stared at your runs in disbelief, effectively distracted, and with a grunt of resignation laid out his single run and added a two of hearts to one of yours. Suffice to say you won this round.

“Again?”

“Yeah.” He watched you carefully as you shuffled the cards back together. He’d woken up this morning still unwilling to take any pain medication. He said he was sick of sleeping but unfortunately soon found himself quite bored, so you’d located a pack of cards and taught (re-taught?) him how to play gin rummy. So far, it was not his game, though he had taken the opportunity to grill you about himself. Fortunately, Peggy had returned with the promised file last night, so you were at least a little prepared. “So what about us?”

“What do you mean?” You looked at him with genuine confusion as you dealt another hand.

“Tell me about us – our lives together.”

You cleared your throat uncomfortably, keeping your eyes on your cards as you organized them. “What do you want to know?”

“How’d we meet? Was it love at first sight?”

“Hardly.” You choked on a laugh, and finally met his quizzical gaze. “I called you an ass, and you tried to have me ejected from the building.”

His eyes narrowed, cards all but ignored. “You called me an ass? When we met?”

“To be fair you were being a rather large one.”

 

“Peggy, I don’t know about this.”

“What are you talking about? It was your idea.”

“No, it was Howard’s idea. And it seemed much easier before we got here and I recalled what a lousy liar I am.”

“Well, it’s too late now. Head up and act like you belong. Don’t make eye contact and stick close to me.”

You attempted to follow Peggy’s instructions, trying not to look like you were sneaking into the S.S.R. in broad daylight – which, of course, you were. “Everyone’s looking at me,” you murmured, eyes darting around.

“Look straight ahead – no eye contact,” she repeated quietly. “Confidence is key.” You made it past all the other agents to the far side of the room where she quickly hung up her coat. You leaned against her desk, trying to blend in and look nonchalant.

Before Peggy even had a chance to turn around, a man abruptly burst from a nearby office commanding everyone’s attention. Peggy subtly shifted to put herself between him and you, trying to shield you from his view. You quietly flipped through the pages on your clipboard, half-heartedly listening to him make some speech about how he was in charge and no one would be resting. Finally he ordered everyone to line up to receive their assignments. As all the agents began to shuffle forward, one broke away to talk with Peggy until he caught sight of you.

“Hi, I don’t think we’ve met,” he held out his hand with a measured amount of suspicion. You swallowed hard and reached to accept his greeting.

“I’m-” you were cut off by the bossy man’s reappearance.

“Hey Sousa, where do you think you’re going?”

“To do some real police work, oh man of action,” the agent dubbed Sousa replied. His hand fell away, and you quickly returned your attention to your clipboard.

“Eh, Sousa, now that Krzeminski’s dead, that makes you our biggest yo-yo.” His callous insult caused you to look up just in time to see Sousa’s face fall the slightest bit. Hadn’t that guy just made a big deal about this Krzeminski’s death, and now he was throwing it around so flippantly? You peeked around Peggy to see he had turned his attention to her. “Marge, start taking the lunch orders.”

And with that he was headed back into his office.

“Wow, what an ass,” you commented. You hadn’t meant to say it out loud, and only realized you’d vocalized your thoughts when Peggy and Sousa snorted in unison. You realized just how loudly you’d said it, however, when the man stopped in his tracks and turned back around.

“Excuse me?” His eyebrows were raised, hard gaze focused on you so that you could no longer hide behind Peggy.

“Uh…” Great, so much for not drawing attention. Peggy stepped to the side as he advanced – no point in trying to keep you hidden now. You considered standing to meet him, but with the worry that your knees might give out you decided to remain perched on the edge of Peggy’s desk.

“Who are you exactly?” Without waiting for a response, he turned his anger on Peggy. “What is she doing here? You know, this is supposed to be a covert intelligence agency, not some tea house to meet with your gal pals.”

You let out a short laugh before you could stop yourself, drawing his attention once more to you. This man was truly ridiculous. “You do hear yourself, right? You can’t really disagree that you sound like a colossal ass.”

He blinked in surprise, like he couldn’t believe you’d actually said that to him, before his glare hardened. Through gritted teeth and without taking his eyes off yours, he spat, “Get her out of here. Now.”

Your eyes narrowed in response, but before you could insult him any further Peggy stepped in. “That wouldn’t be wise. She’s here to help with the Stark investigation.”

“How so?” Jack bit out, eyes flashing to Peggy before coming back to you.

You took a deep breath and cleared your throat. Confidence is key. “I work for Mr. Stark’s insurance company. They’ve sent me to inventory the inventions you’ve recovered.”

“And why should I care?”

Oh, now he was just being purposefully ignorant. “How did you get to be in charge again? Do you really not see the value in this just because I hurt your feelings?”

He leaned over until his hand rested on the desk a short distance from your hip so he could get right up in your face. “Do you really think I care what some secretary has to say about me?”

You refused to back off, even going so far as to lean forward yourself. “I think you care that someone finally said it to your face.” You smirked as his eyes narrowed even further. “And I’m an insurance agent, not a secretary.”

“What’s the difference?” It may have been phrased as a question, but he obviously meant it as an insult. Fresh anger spiked through you. How dare he belittle your job, even if it was only a cover?

“The difference is I have a list of Mr. Stark’s inventions that could actually help you with this investigation you are mishandling so spectacularly.”

“Mishandling?” His eyes flashed with anger, giving you undo satisfaction, and so you decided to dig in just a little deeper.

“Tell me, where is Howard Stark right now?”

“That’s it-”

“What she means,” Peggy cut in, “is that the insurance agency is willing to partner with us on this.” She threw you a quelling look that had you shifting uncomfortably, straightening your spine to create some distance as you nervously fiddled with Howard's camera pen.

“Right,” you agreed, trying to look less combative. What were you doing? You were supposed to sneak in and out quietly so you could relay to Howard what inventions the S.S.R. had obtained. An argument with the man in charge was definitely not on the docket, no matter how incendiary he might be, especially one where you brought further attention to Howard’s fugitive status. You felt so stupid at how quickly one altercation had managed to make you lose sight of your mission.

“They want to know which of Howard’s invention are still missing and so do we. It makes sense for us to work together. Don’t you agree, Jack?” Peggy said in a light-hearted, you-disagree-and-you’re-an-idiot tone.

“Fine,” Jack could barely get the word out through how tightly his jaw was clenched. His squinty eyes still didn’t leave yours, though he did pull himself up to his full height, which you had to admit was impressive. “Take her down to the lab, and then escort her off the premises.” He turned on heel, hands stuffed in his pockets, but threw over his shoulder as he strode away, “And get the eggheads’ lunch orders while you’re down there.”

 

“What exactly was I doing that was so bad?” Jack’s voice broke you out of your memory and brought you back to the present. Clearly you couldn’t relay the actual story to him, but the gist shouldn’t be too hard to translate.

“A while back Howard got into trouble with some of his inventions which your agency insured, so I stopped by on his behalf. Your boss was gone and left you in charge, so you were barking orders like some army general. Since I lack a certain amount of self-control and tact, I let you know my feelings about that quite clearly. We fought, and you decreed I should be removed from the building.”

“I don’t get it. If I was in charge why shouldn’t I give orders?”

“No, it wasn’t so much that as you were being… theatrical about it. And insulting.”

He was silent for a few moments as he considered either your words or his cards – probably both. “You know what I think?”

“Rarely.”

He shot you a smirk as he swapped out a card, but continued on without comment. “I think it was all for you.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I probably laid eyes on a pretty girl and thought I could impress you.”

“By being an ass?”

“By being the boss.”

“I highly doubt that. You didn’t even know I was there.”

“I bet I did.”

“Then you definitely need to work on your flirting,” you muttered, and laid out your cards once more. “Gin.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He threw his own cards down in disgust. “Shouldn’t I be getting a handicap or something, given my current situation?”

“Don’t be a sore loser.” You smirked slightly as you gathered the cards up. “Maybe you’d prefer Go Fish?”

“Clam up and deal.”

Chapter Text

Jack called it quits on gin rummy when he finally managed to knock only to be undercut on his deadwood, losing his points to you anyway. You’d moved on to a simple game of poker, which he did marginally better at, beating you at least part of the time. Partway through the game you noticed he would occasionally rub his hand against his cheek and grimace; at first you thought this might be a clue to what kind of cards he held, but he seemed to do it whether he had a flush or a pair of twos. Eventually you realized he was merely reacting to the thick stubble that had grown since his release from the hospital.

“If you want that to go away you’re going to need to use something sharper than your palm,” you stated, growing tired of the repetitious movement.

“It just feels weird.” He dropped his hand away from his face, not even bothering to question how you knew what he had been fussing over. “Itchy.”

“I think you developed a habit of being clean-shaven during the war. A beard would mess with how your gas mask fit.”

“I was in a war?”

“A big one. You earned a medal and everything.”

“Guess that explains how I got all these scars,” he muttered, eyes on his cards. You expected him to ask more about his medal, but he remained silent, eventually raising his hand to scrub at his face again.

“There’s probably a shaving kit in the bathroom,” you offered, seeing the extent of his discomfort. Maybe a nice shave would help him feel more like himself.

“I don’t think I can handle that right now.” He experimentally shifted his right shoulder and winced. “Brushing my teeth with my left hand isn’t so bad, but I’d be worried about cutting my own throat with a razor.”

“I could do it.” The words were out of your mouth before the thought had completely formed.

“You wanna give me a shave?” he asked incredulously.

You made an attempt at a shrug. “If you want.”

You thought he might refuse, but then his hand made another pass over his rough cheek. He pulled a face and nodded slowly. You set your cards down and moved swiftly to the bathroom before he could see how much you regretted making the offer. Shuffling through some cabinets you finally found the shaving kit. Unable to locate anything to hold the necessary water aside from a bowl filled with decorative rocks, you shortly dumped its contents into the sink, mentally asking Jarvis to forgive you. Supplies in hand, you exited the room to find Jack peeking at your cards. “Hey!”

He dropped them immediately at your exclamation and tried to look innocent, failing magnificently as he couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. “Sorry. I just wanted to see who would have won.”

“You wanted to cheat is what you wanted to do, you scoundrel.” But your words had no real bite to them, so his smirk just settled into an easy-going grin. You set everything down on the lap tray you’d been using as a playing surface and cleared the cards off so they wouldn’t get wet. You tossed a damp towel in his direction. “Here, wash your face first. You can do that one-handed, yes?”

He rolled his eyes, but nevertheless followed your direction as you began to work the shaving soap into a thick lather. It smelled nice, and you tried to focus on that instead of how familiar you were about to get with this man who, despite appearances, was still definitely not your husband. Towel discarded and lather applied, you then approached him with the razor. “Now hold still and maybe we can avoid any bloodshed, all right?”

His cheeks shifted, pushed out by his mouth pulling into an amused smile. Though this was in direct contradiction to your orders, it had a relaxing effect on your nerves, so you decided to not to comment. You placed the fingers of one hand delicately on his cheek amidst the soap for stability, and gently ran the razor down the other from cheekbone to jaw. You repeated the process in silence, focusing intently on your work and resolutely ignoring how close your face was to his and how nice his warm, slippery skin felt under your fingertips, even with the prickly stubble.

Despite your discomfort at the proximity, there was something almost soothing about shaving a man’s face, especially one with such good bone structure. He apparently found it relaxing as well, his eyelids slowly drooping and facial muscles going slack under your touch. He looked half asleep by the time you’d completed his whole face. Taking hold of his chin, you slowly turned his head from side to side so you could survey your work. You fingers absently ghosted over the now smooth plain of his cheek, and then dropped abruptly when you became conscious of what you were doing. He also raised a hand to inspect the results.

“Not bad,” he comment. “Where’d you learn how to give such a good shave?”

“I’ve had to help Howard out a few times.”

His hand lowered, expression something along the lines of mildly unsettled. “You’ve helped Howard shave?”

“When he couldn’t find a mirror and Jarvis wasn’t around.” You paused, taking in his still disquieted demeanor. “It wasn’t really something I thought to ask about when I signed on as his personal assistant.”

“Personal assistant?” He visibly relaxed.

“That’s me. Or was, I suppose. Okay then, let’s just get your neck, and then you’ll be as beardless as the day you were born.”

You hadn’t really thought about your position with Howard. You were going to be neglecting an awful lot of your duties to keep up this pretense with Jack. You hoped he would be able to get by with just Jarvis for a while, though caring for a man who was used to taking absolutely no responsibility for himself was a lot of pressure to put on one person.

You saw Jack look over your shoulder, but you were so deep in thought that you didn’t fully consider what that might mean.

“What are you doing?” a voice questioned sharply from behind you. You had the razor poised directly above Jack’s jugular vein, and the suddenness of the sound made you jerk – a movement that would have sliced directly across his throat if he hadn’t been quicker. His left hand shot up and grasped your wrist, pulling it away before any damage could be done. Your heart skipped and then doubled in speed as it tried to escape your chest. You stared at the razor, and then met Jack’s startled gaze with your own wide eyes. His grip on your wrist was firm, and you knew he could feel how fast your pulse raced.

“Breathe,” Jack ordered quietly. You hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath.

Regaining some of your wits, you turned to face the figure standing stiffly in the doorway. “Howard, don’t you know not to sneak up on a woman when she’s holding a razor? I’m really not in the mood to kill a man today.”

That the safety razor probably wouldn't have done more than knick him didn't matter much to you amidst your erratic heartbeart.

“Why are you doing that? Why didn’t you get Jarvis?” Howard seemed almost personally offended by your actions, and his underlying censure grated on your already jumping nerves.

“Because I’m sure Jarvis has other things to do, and I am perfectly capable of doing it myself. Was there something you needed?”

“Yeah, where’re my notes?”

“In your briefcase.”

“Where’s my briefcase?”

“In your office. I know you don’t spend much time in there, but you do remember where that is, don’t you?”

“Yes, and I looked there already,” he retorted with obvious annoyance.

You huffed out a resigned sigh. “Okay, I’ll be there in a minute.”

Howard nodded, though he eyed the two of you suspiciously, most likely because Jack still had a solid hold on your wrist, for which you were grateful – you were sure that hand was shaking as much as the other hidden in the folds of your skirt. You raised one eyebrow and gave your needy employer a pointed looked. He narrowed his eyes, first at you and then at Jack, before finally swiveling around and leaving the room. With a second sigh, you turned back to Jack.

“Sorry,” you murmured, though for Howard or for your slip with the blade you weren’t entirely sure.

“No harm done,” he replied with a slight quirk of his lips. “You gonna be okay?” He’d probably taken note of how unsteady you still were, how your pulse was still elevated.

“I’ll be fine, though I doubt you’ll ever trust me near you with a razor again.”

“Nah, we’ll just lock the door next time.”

That simple statement should not have made your mouth go so dry – he hadn’t been referring to anything even remotely lascivious. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he tugged your wrist forward until he could press his lips to the back of your hand. He lingered, and you could feel the breath of his exhale tickle over your skin. It all seemed completely natural to him, a simple act of affection meant to calm – even if it had the exact opposite effect on you.

You really hoped he was too distracted to notice how your pulse jumped again.

“You should go before Howard barges back in.” He released your wrist and plucked the razor from your hand. “I think I can finish up the rest.”

“If… if you’re sure.” You swallowed hard, trying to smooth out your voice. “I’ll be right back.”

Howard was waiting a short distance from the door, hands shoved deep in his pant pockets, glaring at the wall like it insulted his mother. “Shaving? Don’t you think that’s a little intimate for a man you claim to hate?”

“I never said I hated Jack,” you returned smoothly. “And I’ve helped you shave loads of times, and you never complained about it being too ‘intimate’.”

“That was different – it was in a professional capacity.”

“So was this. My job is to do whatever it takes to maintain the guise that we’re married.”

“And what else are you gonna ‘help’ him with? You know, a man expects certain services from his wife. Exactly how far are you willing to go to keep up this charade?”

You didn’t want to think about that, not when you could still feel the press of Jack’s lips on your hand. “Fortunately for everyone, Jack’s not in any shape to be looking for those kinds of… activities.”

“That never stopped me.”

“Why are you so agitated by this all of a sudden? I’m following the plan, which you fully supported, may I remind you.”

“That doesn’t mean I hafta like it.” His glare faded to remorse. “Look, I know you feel like I turned against you when I agreed with Peggy, and I’m sorry about that. But I knew as soon as you called from the hospital that you were going to throw yourself into this mess, trying to help, following Peg into who knows what. At least this way you’re out of the direct line of fire.”

“Unless someone comes after Jack.”

“They’ll have a hell of a time getting through my new security.” He stepped closer to you, expression earnest. “I just want to protect you.” He glanced behind you to the door for Jack’s room so quickly it might have been unintentional. “From everything.”

You tried to suppress your smile as you finally figured out what was eating him. “Howard, are you afraid my heart will get broken?”

“I don’t want to see you get hurt, and acting like a guy’s wife is bound to give you ideas.”

“You are worrying over nothing. I know none of this is real, and I’m certainly not getting any ideas.”

“You sure about that? It’d be real easy to forget, what with all the time you two are spending together.”

“You’ve known me my entire life. When have I ever lost my head over a man, let alone one I’ve been arguing with from the moment we met? I’m not about to forget all that after a couple days of civility and a few rounds of gin. Either Jack will come back to himself or Peggy will catch the shooter soon enough, and then everything can go back to normal. Until then, I’ll figure out how to handle him – without performing any ‘wifely duties’.”

“Just promise me you’ll watch yourself, okay sweetheart?”

“Sure, Howard.”

A few beats of silence passed amiably with the two of you just watching each other, but then Howard spoke up again. “You win those rounds of gin?”

Your mouth quirked upward bringing a sparkle to your eyes. “Of course.”

“Atta girl.” He wrapped an arm around your shoulder to draw you close enough to press a familiar kiss to your temple. You stayed in the safety of his embrace for longer than necessary, reveling in how easy everything was with Howard. But this was no time for unwarranted self-indulgences, and so you shortly pulled away to face him again.

“Now, did you just call me out here for a little heart-to-heart, or do you actually need help finding your notes?”

“Both.”

You exhaled through your nose as you scrutinized his sheepish look. “You didn’t really look in your office, did you?”

“You caught me. I haven’t even been to that side of the house.”

“For a genius you can be utterly worthless.”

“Love you too, sweetheart.”

You journeyed to Howard’s office on your own to retrieve his notes. The room was pristine, probably from lack of use, and the briefcase you’d mentioned set prominently on the desk. You shook your head at Howard’s blatant laziness and snapped the case open to verify its contents. Shifting through the pages you came across a forgotten layer of brightly colored books at the bottom. An idea formed, and you removed them upon deciding that you had greater need than Howard. Closing the lid once more, you hefted the briefcase, your spoils under your other arm. First to Howard, and then back to Jack, who you were sure was wondering what was taking so long.

Chapter Text

Jack raised his eyebrows at the brightly colored pile you dropped on his legs. “What’s this?”

“You got eyes,” you quipped, smiling to lessen the snarkiness. You had begun to realize that Jack didn’t mind your teasing nearly as much as before his injury, even seemed to enjoy the banter it brought around. If that’s the kind of marriage he was okay with, you weren’t about to rock the boat – you were at least well-versed at keeping this boat from capsizing.

He rifled through the stack and lifted one to better scrutinize its cover. “Comic books?”

You tucked your skirt under you as you returned to your designated chair. “Howard is doing a film adaptation of Kid Colt and had these on hand for reference. I figured you might enjoy them more than my ‘marriage book’.”

“Now I might never find out if the guy and girl ever stop fighting long enough to figure out they’re in love.”

“So you were paying attention?” Your eyebrows shot up in genuine surprise at this accurate, if vague, summary.

He gave a noncommittal shrug, eyes on the comic. “Not a lot else going on.”

“You’re more than welcome to read Pride and Prejudice instead.”

“Nah, I’m good.” He was already flipping to the first page, and you smiled softly to yourself, feeling like you’d finally gotten something right. You were about to reach for your aforementioned book when he spoke again. “This doesn’t seem like it’d be long enough for a whole movie.”

“It’s not a word-for-word copy. The writers used the characters and wrote a new story based on the original ideas. Though they did include a few scenes pulled directly from the comics.”

“Like what?”

“Mm…” You stood and moved to his side, leaning your hip against the mattress to peer over his shoulder. You reached out and tapped one of the panels. “Like this dueling scene. And the outfit that Kid wears.” You slid your finger over to a full body drawing of the character.

“Spiffy duds.”

You squinted a little at the picture and then at Jack. “You know, now that I see the two of you side by side, Kid Colt looks a little bit like you.”

“Maybe I missed my calling.”

“To be an actor or a vengeful cowboy?”

“Cowboy – I think I’d look good in spurs.” He looked up at you with a grin equal parts smug and cheeky.

“Why don’t we talk about it again when your bullet wound heals?” you answered, refusing to comment one way or the other. “We wouldn’t want you falling off your horse.”

“This hole in my chest is really starting to interfere with my life,” he stated in all seriousness, but he couldn’t stop the smile that broke out in response to your stifled laughter. “So what else is going to be in the movie?”

You spent quite a while combing through the comics with Jack, only stopping when Jarvis made a sudden appearance in the doorway. He was fully poised to say something until he caught sight of you and startled.

“I don’t mean to interrupt…” he finally managed to say, and for the first time you took stock of the position you were in. At some point during your discussion with Jack you had seated yourself fully on the bed – he had even scooted over some to make room. Lost in the colorful world of the old west, you’d unconsciously made yourself comfortable, tucking your feet up under you and leaning in to get a better view of the book. In fact, if you leaned over any further you’d be pressed right up against Jack’s bare bicep. It was as cozy a scene as any, but wholly inappropriate based on your scant relationship with the man, especially when he was the next thing to naked. Jack didn’t realize this, but you certainly should have known better.

“Nothing to interrupt,” you assuaged, quickly straightening and placing both feet on the floor until you just barely rested on the mattress. You really hoped Howard didn’t have Jarvis reporting back to him – you didn’t think you could take another lecture on boundaries.

“I came to inform you that lunch is prepared and see if you would like it now.”

Jack nodded, laying down his comic, and replied, “I could eat.”

“I’m fine, Jarvis, thank you,” you smiled, but it faded when he raised a skeptical eyebrow at you. “Really, I’m fine. I had breakfast.”

“She had a piece of toast – dry,” Jack piped up, and you turned to him with eyes narrowed in betrayal. He shrugged. “What? That’s not much of a breakfast if you ask me.”

“I didn’t. And I don’t need you tattling on me to the butler either.”

“Two lunches, then? I’ll return shortly.” Jarvis’ parting smile was far too smug for your taste, so you redoubled your glare back at Jack.

“What do you have against food?” He met your glare neutrally, and you huffed in annoyance.

“I don’t have anything against food. I’m just not hungry.”

“How can you not be hungry? All you ate today was a piece of crunchy bread.”

“If I wanted to eat I would eat.”

“It can’t be good for you to eat so little.”

“I don’t really see how it’s any of your business,” you sniffed haughtily.

“I’m you husband. It’s my job to take care of you,” he said carefully, as if the premise was obvious and he wasn’t sure why you didn’t know that.

Husband. Right. You deflated instantly and rubbed at your forehead to clear away the remaining agitation.

“You’re right, of course you’re right – I’m sorry.” You tried to smile, but it was strained and he still looked dubious.

He regarded you silently for a few beats. “Is that something we fight about a lot?”

“Me eating?”

“I don’t know, whatever just happened. Seemed like I hit a sore spot.”

“It’s hard to tell – you may have noticed, but we bicker over just about everything.” That was probably not something you were supposed to tell your fake husband – he might question why you got married if the relationship was so fraught with discord.

Jack, however, merely waved off your remark, completely nonplussed. “That’s not fighting – not really. I'm talking about real fights where we really get angry.”

“Real fights, huh?” Your thoughts wandered back to the Jack before the accident; he certainly hadn’t thought all your disagreements so benign. However, you decided not to mention that and instead went with, “I guess I’m not very good at letting someone else have a say in my life, so when you try I tend to get snappish.”

“You’d think I’d have figured out not to boss you around then,” he responded amiably in an attempt to lighten the cloudy atmosphere of the room brought on by your knee-jerk contention.

“You’d think,” you agreed with a smile, then you sighed a long-suffering sigh and continued on reluctantly. “To be fair, though, usually your bossing has to do with some unsafe situation I’ve gotten myself into.”

He watched you without speaking for several moments as if waiting for you to reveal that had been a joke. “Unsafe situations?”

 

The only thing you could hear clearly was your pulse pounding in your ears. There was a sharp pain in the side of your head, and when you managed to pry up your eye lids the world remained a garbled blur. You stirred just enough to raise your head off the too-hard concrete and tried to analyze your surroundings.

You spotted the man you’d been after, the one who took Howard (Ivchenko? Fennhoff? Faustus? Your brain was too rattled to remember which name was real and which was fake) standing just in front of you, back turned to face Agent Sousa who for some reason had his gun pointed away from your enemy. Following the trajectory, you saw his target was Agent Thompson, laying a few short feet from you, hands raised as if that would fend off the gun shot. It all looked ever-so dire, until you saw Sousa’s eyes shoot back to the not-so-good doctor. Picking up on the agent’s intentions, you jabbed your foot out and nailed the man right behind his knee. Thrown off balance, he had no time to anticipate, let alone react to, Sousa’s pistol barrel crashing into the side of his head. He went down like a sack of potatoes and moved no more.

Upon seeing Daniel remove something from his ears, you recalled your own blockage and dug out the bits to tissue you’d shoved in there before entering the building. You got them out just in time to hear Agent Thompson call Agent Sousa a rather rude name, so you turned to him incredulously.

“Wait, were you the only one who didn’t think of that?”

Jack’s glare was revving up to full force until he caught sight of you, which caused him to (confusingly) swear and yank his handkerchief from his pocket. He moved so quickly you barely had time to realize he was reaching towards you before he had the cloth pressed to the dull ache on the side of your head. The pressure caused the ache to double into a jolt of pain, and you would have pulled away if his other hand hadn’t come up to the opposite side of your face to box you in.

“What are you doing?” you hissed.

“You’re bleeding,” he muttered, eyes glued to your apparent wound.

“I got hit with a blunt object. Something had to give, and contrary to what you might think, my head’s not that hard,” you replied, but his only response was to press more firmly, causing you to flinch away again. “Would you lay off? It’s not that bad.”

“What were you thinking?” His voice stayed low, but you could see his anger rising in the narrowing of his eyes.

“Just now I was thinking, ‘Ow, ow, that hurts and I wish he’d stop.’”

“I told you to stay outside by the car where it was safe.”

“Well, see, it just so happens that I’m not one of your agents, so I don’t have to listen to you.”

“You could have been killed.”

“But I wasn’t. At least not yet, though you seem to be trying awfully hard to push through to my brain.” Finally having enough, you forcefully shoved the now bloody hanky away from your person, ducking away from his other hand in the process.

“I wouldn’t worry – you need to have a brain before it can be damaged.”

“Oh, that’s rich, coming from the guy who didn’t even think to plug his ears against the man who kills you by talking.”

“Look, I get that being Stark’s ‘special friend’ makes you think that you can do whatever the hell you want, but some of us have actual responsibilities that actually make a difference. The next time you disobey a direct order and impede a federal investigation, I will make sure you get real familiar with the inside of a cell.”

“You are so full of it! From what I can see, you ended up on the ground just like me. The only one who had a real handle on the situation was Agent Sousa.” You flung your arm out to gesture at the man, who was currently gagging the unconscious doctor and seemed extremely uncomfortable at being brought into your argument.

“The only reason I got caught off-guard is because I lost my focus when I saw you lying here. If you’d stayed by the car, or better yet back at the S.S.R. office like I wanted, everything would have been fine.”

“Oh, so you mess up and it’s somehow my fault?”

“It’s my job to protect you, which would be easier if you didn’t run into dangerous places you got no business in.”

“It’s not your job to protect me! In fact, everything you do could not have less to do with me. If I want to walk up to every gangster in New York and insult his taste in ties, that’s my business. And when my friend gets kidnapped, you don’t get to tell me to wait in the car or back at the office to wring my hands and fret over his safety. Oh no,” all the fight abruptly drained from your face and your eyes widened in panic, “Howard!”

You leapt to your feet and took off running towards the control room, stumbling just a bit at the start and completely ignoring Jack’s shouts behind you.

 

“Howard is a very powerful man, and that comes with its own risks. Since danger and I both follow him, we’re bound to meet every now and again.”

“You can’t really blame me though, can you? Any guy would be upset if his girl was in danger.”

Except I’m not your girl. “You make a fair point. However, you knew how I was before you and I…” you stumbled over how to word it, “became us. If someone I care about is in trouble, I’m going to be right there with them.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to be there, too.”

His easy acquiescence threw you – in your entire acquaintance with Jack, you’d never known him to just give in like that. He met your look of bafflement with an easy smile, but there was something else in his expression that you’d not noticed before, something that made your heart stumble and your ears warm.

Because in all of conceivable existence, there was not a scenario, a situation, a chain of events you could have begun to imagine that would make Jack look at you with what appeared to be…fondness.

“Well, hrm,” you cleared your throat awkwardly and glanced at the door, hoping for the timely intervention of Jarvis with the promised lunch. “I guess you will, if that’s the only way you can… can… get along with my… my adventures.”

“You can have whatever adventures you want, as long as I can make sure you don’t get hurt.”

“I suppose we have a deal. Though I must request that you acknowledge I am capable of looking after my own well-being.”

“Sure. I’ve seen how handy you are with a razor.” He snickered at your affronted face.

“That was Howard’s fault, and you know it. Besides, you’ve got nothing to complain about – you’ve never looked so good.”

You knew you’d made a mistake when his habitual smirk made an appearance. “You think I look good?”

“Oh no, we’re not doing that.”

“Bet you’d cop to it if I was wearin’ spurs.”

“For the love of-, where is Jarvis?”

Chapter Text

The following days with Jack were surprisingly easy, if not a little boring in their routine. His color was improving, and he was able to make it to the bathroom and back with minimal assistance on your part. In a fete of bravery unknown to most, he allowed you to continue giving him his daily shave. The periods of time he spent awake lengthened, which posed the difficulty of filling those hours with some sort of entertainment. Cards was a quick go-to, but there was only so many hands you could play before the monotony became intolerable. He liked the comic books, but as he pointed out they were short, and soon he’d been through them all multiple times. You could see him getting fidgety, so you decided one morning after the breakfast dishes were cleared that enough was enough.

“All right, Mr. Thompson, it’s time to rejoin the real world,” you declared, dumping a pile of his clothing on the bed next to him. “We are going out.”

“Out?” he questioned skeptically.

“Well, at least outside. I thought maybe sitting by the pool would be a nice change of scenery. Do you think you can make it that far?”

“Honey, I would make it to the moon if it’d get me out of this room.”

“Up and at ‘em, then. The morning’s a-wastin’.” You chose to ignore the endearment, used to add punch to his dry sentiment. Hopefully, he wouldn’t make it a habit.

Surprisingly, dressing him was just as uncomfortable as undressing – you’d think it would be better, but unfortunately you seemed to be anxious no matter which way his clothes were going. At least now he could do more of it on his own.

He still walked with an arm around your shoulders, but he carried most of his weight himself. Even more encouraging, he was only slightly winded once you deposited him on one of the wooden chairs poolside. At this early hour the temperature was still cool enough to be comfortable even with the bright sunshine. Jack closed his eyes as he turned his face to catch a slight breeze, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

“Man, I missed fresh air.”

You smiled softly down at him though he couldn’t see it. You knew how active he was, and being cloistered in bed for so long must have been akin to torture for him. Add to that the constant pain and the strain of not knowing himself, and the whole sum left you immensely relieved to see him enjoy something.

You were about to move away to another seat when his eyes opened and he shot you a grin that lit up his whole face. He reached out and caught your fingers with his own, giving a tug that threw you off balance until you landed on the chair next to him, hip bumping into his thigh. You raised your eyebrows, trying to look unimpressed at his manhandling, but he just leaned back to get comfortable, expression never faltering and fingers still lightly hitched to yours.

“You look good in sunlight,” he observed, seemingly out of the blue.

“I… what?” Your brows now swept downward into a look of perplexity.

“Not that you don’t look good all the time,” he amended, misunderstanding the source of your confusion. “But the sun does something special for you. I noticed it the first time I saw you reading your book. You were all curled up in your chair, and the sun was coming in through the window like a spotlight on you. I couldn’t tell if I was awake or dreaming.”

“That’s… that’s awfully poetic of you, Jack.”

“Am I not allowed to be romantic with my wife?”

“I’m just trying to figure out if you want something.”

“Nope,” he grinned again, curling his fingers slightly to squeeze against yours as if to remind you of the connection. “Got everything I want right here.”

You choked on a laugh of amusement or horror or just plain awkwardness and quickly clapped your free hand over your mouth to conceal it. “What’s gotten into you today?” you asked when you finally gathered your faculties.

“Hard to say.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Guess I’m just happy.”

‘Happy’ says the man with the hole in his chest and the empty memories. Maybe the old saying was right – ignorance is bliss. But he seemed to be implying that he was happy with you, and that turned your stomach so that you regretted the extra breakfast he’d talked you into. You wished there was a way to detach your hand without raising suspicion.

You felt yourself about to make a mistake. You decided to make it anyway.

“Do you ever question it? Feeling happy?” You regretted asking as his eyes squinted at you suspiciously.

“I don’t get your meaning.”

“You don’t remember how you felt before… everything. Maybe you weren’t happy then. Maybe you wouldn’t be happy now if it hadn’t happened and you could remember everything.”

“What happened before? Did we have a fight – a real one? Is that why you were out on your own when the robber showed up?”

Mister, we’ve been having a fight since day one.

“No, it’s… it’s nothing like that. I just worry that when you get your memories back, you’ll feel… cheated.”

“Cheated out of what?”

“I don’t know, your own emotions?” You made a frustrated sort of noise, trying to work out the best way to explain yourself. “You don’t have the whole backstory to frame what you’re feeling. You woke up in the hospital and were told you have a wife, a job, a life you don't know anything about. How do you know you wouldn’t have been happier without all that?”

“It all seems pretty good to me.”

“But you can’t know that because you don’t have a comparison.” You huffed and dropped your gaze to your hands and the ring that sparkled all the more brightly out of doors. You almost jumped when his thumb ran over your knuckles, knocking the ring sideways. Your eyes flashed back up to his face to see that fond smile reappear.

“You’re right – I don’t know how I felt before, and I can’t say how I’m going to feel after I remember who I am. What I do know is that right now, sitting out here in the sunlight with you, I’m happy. And that’s good enough for me.”

It was absolutely too much for you. This was all so wrong, this illusion of happiness, and he had a right to know he didn’t choose this, wouldn’t choose you. Yet, there was no way you could tell him and keep him safe as Peggy intended.

You opened your mouth to say something, not sure as all what it was going to be, but before you could make a single sound another voice calling out interrupted. You and Jack turned in unison, your little bubble shattering as the familiar scientist came striding out of a nearby door.

“Good morning, Dr. Wilkes,” you greeted with a smile, relieved at the reprieve from your tangled emotions and the conversation you shouldn’t have started in the first place.

“Good morning! And to you, Chief Thompson. I’m surprised to see you – I thought you’d be on the first plane back to New York.”

Oh. Oh no. He didn’t know. You felt every inch of your skin tighten at once as a shrill ringing began in your ears.

“Yes, well, we had an unfortunate mishap with a robber and his gun that set us back a bit. We’ll be heading out once Jack has recovered fully.” You spoke rather too fast and too brightly.

“We…?” Dr. Wilkes cocked his head to the side, brows low over his eyes as he looked between the two of you, noticing for the first time the connection of your hands.

“I bet you’re looking for Howard!” You leapt to your feet, startling both men. “He should be inside somewhere, but he can be terribly tricky to find when he’s avoiding his responsibilities. Why don’t I help you track him down?”

You reached out and linked your arm through his, forcibly directing him towards the house.

“Um, sure, that’d be great.”

“I’ll be back in a jiff, Jack. Just wait right there.”

“Okay…?”

Once you’d gotten Jason indoors you dropped his arm and scrubbed your hands over your face hard enough to leave the skin reddened. Jason observed you with bewilderment. “Am I missing something? Is everything all right?”

“No, everything is so far from all right that we’ll need a speed boat to get back there.”

And so you explained the situation, watching his face grow more and more shocked as the story went on. Once you’d reached the end, he seemed almost as upset as you.

“I am so sorry. I didn’t know – I’ve been at the lab so much I haven’t had contact with anyone here.”

“No, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. I’m sure it’s fine.” Then, “It will be fine.” Finally you settled on, “I’ll make it fine.”

“He really can’t remember anything?”

“Not a thing. The doctors didn’t know if it’s physical or mental, but so far nothing has come back to him.”

“And Peggy has no leads on the shooter?”

“None. We might have written it all off as an actual robbery, except as far as they can tell none of his things are missing. It’s like someone just opened his door, shot him, and walked away, which really only narrows it down to anyone who’s ever spent five minutes with the man.”

“Five minutes?”

“That’s all it takes to want to shoot him.”

“Ah, yes, I do recall observing a certain… antagonism between you two.” He let out a short chuckle. “Actually, it’s kind of funny that you ended up being the one in a spurious marriage with him.”

His mirth faded when he saw the deadpan look on your face.

“Right.” He cleared his throat awkwardly and looked back towards the outer door. “How long are you expected to continue like this?”

“Until Peggy catches our guy or Jack remembers who he is.”

“Have you considered what you’ll do if neither of those things happen?”

“I try not to. But I have faith in Peggy. If anyone can solve a seemingly impossible case, it’s her.”

“She is remarkably good at her job. But from what I can see, so are you. Chief Thompson is obviously quite smitten.”

“He’s not-” you sputtered and then changed courses halfway through, “I’m not trying to make him ‘smitten’.”

“You aren’t? Isn’t that a natural part of your marriage narrative?”

“It’s… I… it’s complicated.”

“I can only imagine. I should really let you get back to it. You said Mr. Stark is in here somewhere?”

“As far as I know. I’d check his lab, though it’s early enough that he might still be in bed. You could always just track down Jarvis – he’d probably be more helpful.”

“Thank you, and once again, I’m very sorry. I hope I haven’t done too much damage.”

You tossed out some obligatory assurances and watched him venture further into the domicile. Once he had disappeared from your sight, you made your way back to the door, though you paused at the threshold.

Confidence is key. Jack doesn’t even have an inkling of what the truth could be, so he won’t be able to identify when you’re not telling it. Breathe.

Throwing your shoulders back, you strode outside with a smile plastered on your face. Jack was as you left him, idly rubbing his fingertips over the smooth wood of the armrest as he watch the wind draw ripples in the pool water. He glanced up at you as you neared, but this time you maintained a safe distance so he wouldn’t be able to grab hold of you again.

“How are you doing? Are you getting too hot? Do you want to go inside?”

“No, not yet. Who was that guy?”

“Dr. Jason Wilkes – he’s going to work in Howard’s lab in Malibu.”

“Lots of people coming in and out of this joint.”

You gave a helpless shrug. “Hotel de Stark.”

“Why’d he call me ‘chief’?”

“That’s your title at the agency.” You were unnecessarily proud of how quickly you responded.

“I’m chief insurance agent?” he asked, tone bordering on scornful.

“One of them. Dr. Wilkes is a big fan of formality. Not many people outside of your workplace call you that.”

You thought he might push the issue further, but instead he just nodded and looked behind you towards the covered area near the house. “What’s all that?”

“Sporting equipment: fencing swords, weights, punching bags. Jarvis considers himself quite the Judo master.”

“Judoka butler – sure, why not?” Jack mulled something over, and then continued, “Think he’d let me use the equipment?”

“Jack, you’re really not in any shape to-”

“I’m not talkin’ anything too hard. I’m just worried about what lying in bed all day is doing to me.”

You sighed deeply and tilted your head slightly as you considered him. On one hand, you were concerned about the damage any kind of stress on his body could do. On the other, he was giving you a face he’d probably used to get a second helping of dessert as a child. “We’ll ask Jarvis the next time he comes to change your bandages,” you finally relented. “If he clears you, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be willing to share some of his toys.”

The smile he shot you was much too proud of himself for your liking, but all you could do was shake your head. “Why don’t you come back over here and tell me another story about you an’ me?” he cajoled as he patted the empty space next to him where you’d resided formerly. You arched an impertinent eyebrow and walked a pointedly exaggerated curve around him to seat yourself in the neighboring chair. He rolled his eyes, though his smile didn’t fade, and settled himself comfortably.

“Let’s see,” you began, smoothing out the wrinkles of your skirt, “a story about you and me…”

Chapter Text

”What is going on?” Jack murmured almost to himself as he brought the car smoothly to a stop, staring at the wall of vehicles ahead.

“Traffic jam. I think they’re worse out here than in New York. More people own cars but less are actually skilled at driving them. This could take a while. And so…” You leaned forward to rifle through the bag at your feet. Holding out one parcel wrapped in white paper you offered, “Sandwich?”

He pinched his lips, glancing between the immobile mass beyond your windshield and the tempting food in your hand. “We really should be getting those back.”

“What are you going to do, pick up the cars and move them? Besides, Peggy and the others are all so wrapped up in their gamma whatsits that they probably won’t even miss us.” Seeing him continue to hedge, you rolled your eyes and set his sandwich on the seat between you. “Suit yourself, but I’m starving.”

You tore into your own dinner and took a healthy bite, letting out a hum of satisfaction. Your enjoyment seemed to break his own reservations, and he was soon tucked into his food as well. The car was silent, but not in an unpleasant fashion. Then he had to go and ruin everything by opening his big mouth. “So what’s the deal with you and Stark?”

Your eyes narrowed though you didn’t look up from your sandwich. “What deal?”

“Are you and he…?” he trailed off, and this time you did look at him.

“Are we what?” you prompted, brows low with genuine interest.

“You know…” You obviously didn’t, so he continued, “You together? Romantically?” He asked slowly like he was speaking to someone who was mentally deficient, which you resented and understood in equal measures since you were having such a hard time following his train of thought.

“I’m his personal assistant. And his friend.” You turned you attention back to your infinitely more interesting food.

“That’s it? You run away with a guy to Peru, and he’s just your friend?”

“I didn’t run away with Howard. He had business in Peru, and it’s kind of difficult to personally assist him if I’m not personally present.”

“Okay, I get it, you two get real personal.” His voice held a tone that made you stop and stare at him, even as he ignored you in favor of taking a large bite.

A lightbulb flickered on in your head, and you asked him flatly, “Are you trying to deduce whether or not I’m in a sexual relationship with Howard Stark?”

You didn’t feel remotely bad as he choked and began to cough.

“Because that is absolutely none of your business,” you continued, “and it was quite crude of you to go about it this way.”

“You’re right – I shouldn’t have pried. I’m sorry. Boy, am I sorry.” He actually sounded somewhat apologetic, so with one last sniff you dropped your glare and returned to rest of your dinner.

The following silence edged much closer to unpleasant.

“And no,” you added eventually. “Howard is my oldest and closest friend, and I owe him more than I could ever repay, but there has never been nor will there ever be anything romantic about our relationship. Especially by Howard’s standards of romance.”

“That’s-” Jack started but then cleared his throat as if some sandwich was still caught. “Okay, so why not?”

“What do you mean, ‘why not?’” you demanded.

“You say you’re close, and you spend enough time with him. Other women seem to like the guy well enough. Wouldn’t be too hard to make the leap from friend to… something else.”

You carefully folded the wrapper further back on your sandwich, feeling Jack’s eyes on you all the while. “Tell me, would you use a toothbrush you knew had been in a hundred other mouths?”

He made a choking noise again even though his food was nowhere near his mouth. “And you called me crude.”

“But you do see my point? Howard is wonderful, and I love him dearly, but he’s also a deplorable human being.” You sent him an unimpressed look, sandwich halfway to your mouth. “Satisfied?”

“More than,” he scoffed, waiting for you to swallow your bite before asking, “What did you mean you owe him?”

“He saved my life,” you answered simply before noticing his skeptical look and adding, “in a way.”

“And what way would that be?”

“It’s a bit of a story. Are you sure you want to get into it right now?” you tried to delay, but he looked towards the still stagnated traffic and back at you as if to say, ‘where am I gonna go?’, so with a sigh you began. “The short of it is my parents were blackmailing me into marriage and Howard gave me a way out.”

“What’s the long of it?”

You sighed heavily through your nose and resigned yourself to telling the whole story. “They wanted me out of their house, so they and gave me an ultimatum: marry our upstairs neighbor or leave and never return, which wasn’t very appealing considering I had nowhere to go and very little money of my own. Luckily, Howard was in town for a visit and stopped by. He could tell immediately that I was upset, and when he found out why he told me he’d take care of everything and rushed back out again. I didn’t hear from him all the next day, so that night found me standing in the kitchen with my bag packed, facing down my parents and Mr. Snyder from upstairs, whom they had invited down in some final effort to change my mind. Howard suddenly burst in and announced I couldn’t get married because I’d be too busy working for him. He had an employment contract all drawn up and ready for me to sign. From that moment I became his personal assistant, avoided a life on the streets, and haven’t spoken to my parents since.”

“Why’d they want you out so bad?”

“I was a scrawny child, sickly to boot, and wasn’t growing out of it even as I entered adulthood. I tried my best to find a job to help pay the doctor bills, but no one wants to hire a girl who looks like a stiff breeze will be the end of her. I’d find work for a while, but they’d replace me as soon as someone, anyone, else came along. Eventually, my parents got tired of it.”

Jack popped the last bit of his sandwich into his mouth and thoughtfully chewed as he smoothed out the wrapper. “You’re not so scrawny now.”

You considered making a comment about a gentlemen bringing up a woman’s weight, but decided not to ruin the tone of the conversation. “I did eventually come into my own – it just took me longer then it reasonably should have, and at that point in my life we’d pretty much given up on it ever happening.” You sighed again, fingers rapidly tapping on your knee. “In their defense, not that they really deserve to be defended, but they did lose out in the child area. They were friends with the Starks for a long time before Howard and I were born, but then it soon became apparent that my parents had gotten the short end of the stick. Howard showed early signs of genius, signs that he could lift his family out of poverty, and there I was, wheezing my way to a failing grade in math every year. I think the disappointing contrast wore on them until the only option they could see was to pawn me off.”

“What was wrong with the upstairs neighbor?”

“Mr. Snyder was thirty years my senior, rarely bathed, and was never more than halfway sober. I have no interest in a marriage of convenience, let alone to a man I can’t stand.”

“I hate to break it to you, but what you’ve got goin’ with Stark is pretty much that. All that’s missing is a piece of paper and shiny ring.”

“Maybe that piece of paper is what makes all the difference. I may have a contract with Howard, but nowhere in it are the words ‘until death do we part.’”

“So you never found a fella that made you want to say those words?”

“Can’t say I have.” Tired of talking about yourself, you decided to flip the conversation. “What about you? Has there ever been a girl in your life that made you seriously contemplate marriage?”

“Once.” He stared at the tail light of the car in front of you. “We were going together before the war. The day I shipped out I promised to buy her a ring when it was all over.”

“So what happened?”

“I got back, and we tried to pick back up, but whatever was there before never ignited again. Eventually she started hinting that she’d like to get to know the sergeant who’d moved in across the hall from her better. So we split. I started working at the S.S.R., and she married her sergeant and had two kids.” He turned his gaze to the wrapper still in his hands and started to crease it carefully.

“She certainly didn’t waste any time,” you muttered. “Do you ever regret letting her go? Do you wish it was you with the wife and two babies?”

“Nah,” he rolled the word around his mouth like he was tasting it just to make sure. “She’d changed while I was gone. Or I did. I don’t know, maybe we both did. We wouldn’t have worked out in the long run. Besides, I’m happy with the way things turned out, so there’s not a whole lot worth regretting.”

“That’s a very mature way of seeing things.”

“I also took out her mailbox with a baseball bat after I saw them together one night, which made me feel a lot better.”

“…that’s less mature.”

“I’d had a lot to drink.”

“I should hope so.” A giggle bubbled up from your chest and he huffed out a soft chuckle in response. You watch his hands work the paper, folding it over and over until you lost track. “Do you still want to get married? Even if that girl didn’t work out?”

“Eh, probably. Someday. What about you?”

“I suppose, if I could find someone I could stand to be around that much.”

“Good luck with that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” you bristled.

“From what I can tell you can’t stand anyone for very long.”

“No, what you’re referring to is my low tolerance for you and your being an ass.”

“You ever stop to think that I’m only an ass because you start every conversation like you’re waiting for it?”

“What else would I expect when that’s all I’ve ever seen you be?”

“Well, then I guess there’s a lot of me you haven’t seen yet.” He held out his sandwich wrapper which he’d deftly folded into a crane. You took it from him delicately, turning it over in your hands. It was beautifully done, especially for what had initially been trash, and you were so flabbergasted that you forgot exactly what you’d been fighting about. You looked up to comment, but the flash of red outside drew your attention.

“Oh, look, the traffic is starting to move.”

You watched the wave of taillights brighten and dim as each car shifted out of park and released the brakes. Soon enough Jack followed suit and began to inch forward. You looked down at your wristwatch at let out a soft sound of surprised pleasure.

“Twenty minutes. That’s not too bad at all.”

“Being stuck in traffic for twenty minutes isn’t bad?”

“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

 

“A twenty minute traffic jam? What a lousy first date.” Jack shifted in an attempt to relieve some pressure from his injured shoulder. You could tell he was going to need to lie down again soon. Getting him to see that as well was going to be a challenge, but you’d leave it for later.

“It was, actually. I think we probably ended up talking more than we would have otherwise.”

“And that’s what you wanted – talking? I thought most girls expected something more romantic.”

“Few things are more romantic than a good conversation. It establishes a connection in a way nothing else can. Any man can learn to dance or recite poetry or take a girl to a movie. But any of those would become extremely tedious if he had nothing interesting to say.”

“So what did we talk about that was so fascinating?”

“Marriage.”

“Marriage? On the first date?”

“Not to each other. You were halfway engaged before the war. I narrowly escaped an arranged marriage. You thought I was sleeping with Howard. All very good fodder for conversation.”

“Wow, we don’t do anything normally, do we?”

You stared at his chest, thinking about the wound there, the amnesia, this farce of a marriage. “No, we certainly don’t.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t know, Peggy. Physically he’s improving all the time. He can get around on his own pretty well now. He uses the weights every day, so he’s already getting his strength back. But so far he hasn’t remembered a single thing. I’m starting to get worried that he never will.”

“I wish I had better news on my end, but none of the hotel guests we’ve interviewed has been the least bit helpful. I’m honestly not sure what to do next unless Jack comes back to himself so he can tell us his side of the story.”

“So we’re rightly and truly stuck. Wonderful.”

“Perhaps if you visited places he’s been it might jog something. Why don’t you bring him by the office later this afternoon?”

“What are you going to tell the other agents – to all pretend they don’t know him? No offense, but I’ve met most of them, and some are even worse liars than I am.”

“I must say, you have vastly improved on that front since the start of this.”

“I’m not sure if that’s something I should be proud of…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. I’ll call later when it’s all arranged.”

You nodded, slowing to a stop in front of Jack’s door. You balanced your tray on one side and reached for the knob. “Well, then, once more unto the breach.”

“Or close the wall up with our English dead,” Peggy continued the quote, and you made a face.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She walked away with a smile, and you bumped the door with you hip to open it the rest of the way. You made no effort to keep quiet as you strode in. “Good morning, good morning! It’s time to wake up, sleepy head.”

You were met with a groan as he turned his face further into his pillow. He was lying on his side with his back to you, so you shifted to the opposite edge of the bed and tried again.

“Come on, lazy bones, rise and shine.”

“Do I hafta do both?” He opened one eye to squint at you in the dim light. “What’s with the early wake-up call?”

“Jarvis is taking Ana on a day trip, so breakfast had to be moved up. I thought you’d rather have it now, but I supposed you might enjoy cold eggs just as well.”

With another muffled grunt of displeasure, he propped himself up on his elbow to get a better look at you, already fully dressed and prepared for your day. “Do you ever sleep?”

“Frequently. Breakfast: yes or no?”

“Mrph, give it here,” he muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. He pulled himself to sit up fully, and you marveled for a moment at how easily he could do it, even with a healing bullet wound in his chest. You snapped out of it quickly and passed him the tray laden with breakfast foods. “You eat?” he asked as he scooped up some eggs, trying to sound disinterested and failing.

“Yes.” You rolled your eyes as he sent you a skeptical look. You collapsed onto the empty side of the bed and leaned over to snag a piece of his bacon. “I had more than toast, I promise. You know, for everything that’s wrong with me, you sure chose something trivial to fixate on.”

That caused Jack to pause. “What are you talking about, everything that’s wrong with you?”

“Well,” you shrugged, a half smile quirking at one corner of your lips, “there’s an awful lot to choose from. I’m impulsive and rude because I never think before I speak. I’m stubborn to the point of making very foolish decisions, and I get in to trouble more than I’m willing to admit. I have no useful skills to speak of, I’m moody and emotional, and sometimes I get so distracted that I’ll do something twice because I’ve forgotten the first time. I’ve also given up on getting my hair to curl the right way,” you pulled a small section down in front of your face to study it, “and have accepted that it’s always going to be a mess. So you see, my eating habits should really be the last things you need to worry about.”

“Is that really what you think of yourself?” He had stopped eating completely to stare at you in disbelief. You shrugged again, suddenly uncomfortable with the turn this conversation had taken. “I didn’t know girls who looked like you had thoughts like that.”

“Everyone has thoughts like that. And I’m pretty sure you’re the only who’s all that impressed with the way I look, which I attribute to marital bias.”

“Trust me, I’d still like the way you look even if you weren’t my wife. I’d also think that all that stuff you said wasn’t nearly as big a deal as you make it out to be, especially when you consider all the good stuff about you. And,” He reached out and caught your hair, combing it back out of your face and threading his fingers through to the ends. “I happen to like your hair.”

You tried to swallow around the sudden blockage in your throat caused by his gentle touch and kind affirmations, but it did nothing to stop the words that burst forth. “Were you disappointed?”

His hand dropped in surprise, and you could tell he didn’t understand your question.

“At the hospital when you found out you had a wife – were you disappointed that it was me?”

“No, why would I be disappointed?” He seemed truly confused, which you supposed was sweet in a way.

“Because for a minute there it could have been anyone – it could have been Peggy. But instead you wound up with me.”

“No,” he answered carefully, “no, I wasn’t disappointed. Peggy seems great and all, but I’m glad I woke up to you.”

The words spun around your head until you felt a bit dizzy. It was such a reversal to all the times you felt inferior when measuring against the woman you believed to be wholly exemplary of your sex.

You swallowed again. “You should hurry up and eat, cold eggs and all that.”

With a smile that said he knew exactly what you were doing, he returned to his food. The quiet lasted until he was almost done, he engrossed in eating and you trying not to fuss with your hair.

“Can I ask you something?” he finally broke the silence.

“It’s been three weeks – I don’t know why I’d stop you now.”

“Why’d you marry me?”

“I don’t… what?”

“You said our first meeting didn’t go over so well. How do you go from calling me an ass to calling me your husband?’

“Who said I ever stopped calling you an ass?” You gave him a teasing smile to cover up your nerves, but his refusal to respond demanded an answer more than his words could. You thought back to the night of the traffic jam – the first time you two had been alone together where you hadn’t been at each other’s throats. You thought about how he’d agreed to pick up the dinner orders, about seeing him give Peggy the Arena Club key, about how he hadn’t mocked Samberly for fainting. You went over all the time you’d spent together since the shooting, how different he seemed without all the weight of your past interactions. “I guess… I eventually allowed you to exceed my first impression of you. When I accepted there was more to you than I first thought, I stopped being so hostile, and then you could see there was more to me, too.”

“And how long did it take us to have these epiphanies,” he said the word so loftily, obviously proud of himself for knowing such an eloquent term, that you had to giggle.

“Longer than it should have, probably. Are you done?” you asked, looking down at his mostly empty tray.

“If I say yes, can I go back to sleep?”

“Nope. We’ve got things to do today. You’d better be dressed by the time I get back.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Your things to do actually involved walking around the homestead while you awaited Peggy’s call. Jack hadn’t been through most of it since he’d moved in, and you thought this tour might jump start the plan to revisit familiar places. Not that he’d seen much of it before, but he had confronted Peggy at least once on the grounds, so that had to count for something, right?

“What’s a guy like Howard need this much space for?” Jack questioned as you made your way into one of the many parlors. It was a lovely, bright room with arching windows and glass doors that let in the midday sunlight.

“Impressing women. And generally showing off.”

“That for impressing women, too?” His hands were shoved deep in his pockets, so he indicated the object of his question with a jerk of his head. You smiled when you realized he was referring to a nearby baby grand.

“You catch on quick.” You moved to run a hand over the smooth, dark wood.

“Does he even play?”

“Not a note.”

“Do you play?”

“I never picked up on it. I’m afraid the only attention it gets is from Ana when she has a free moment.”

When he sat down on the bench, you assumed he had gotten tired from walking around so much, and so his next words threw you for a moment.

“Can I play?”

“I don’t think-” you were cut off as he deftly ran through a few scales. “But I could be wrong.”

“It’s nice to be on this side of the information for once.” He shot you a grin, fingers never ceasing as he began a song you shortly recognized as ‘Amazing Grace’.

“I guess I don’t know everything about you after all.” You leaned your forearms onto the piano’s smooth surface, enjoying the music and the vibrations it caused.

“Maybe I couldn’t play before.” He moved into something you thought might have been Beethoven.

“I feel like that’s the set up to a joke.” You gave him an amused smile which he returned before the music shifted again. “Oh, I think I know this one.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh huh.” You hummed a few bars before joining in. “Wandered around, finally found, somebody who… da da da doo…” you trailed off causing Jack to chuckle.

“You sure those are the words?”

“Shush, just give me a minute,” you admonished, simultaneously trying to pick the lyrics back up. “Hmm hmm others I’ve seen might never be mean, uh, never be cross or try to be boss, but they wouldn’t do.”

You were recalling better now, able to get the words out more confidently. “For nobody else gave me a thrill. With all your faults, ah, mm mm mm ‘ll,” you tripped as you lost the flow, but managed to finish with flourish. “It had to be you. It had to be you.”

“Very nice,” he broke off with a laugh, hands stilling on the keys. “I didn’t know you could sing.”

“Okay, but that’s not nearly as remarkable as me not knowing your talent.”

“It’s nice to know I can still surprise you.” He mirrored your posture, crossing his arms and leaning forward to rest on them. Unfortunately, he seemed to have forgotten that he was sitting at the musical instrument, and it let out a resounding cacophony of notes under his weight.

He jumped back like the keys were hot, and then looked so embarrassed that you honestly tried not to laugh, drawing both your lips between your teeth and biting down in an attempt to smother your smile. All your efforts were in vain, though, as a giggle escaped anyway. You released your lips into a full-blown grin as you leaned forward to ease the lid down as if to keep him from making the same mistake again. You glanced up at him, eyes sparkling with mirth, to find that he wasn’t even paying attention to you – at least not all of you.

Jack was staring at your mouth. You realized too late that your current position brought you within grabbing distance, something you’d been trying to limit since that day by the pool, and a mistake you’d made earlier at breakfast. His casual affection wreaked havoc on your conscience, knowing they were all based in untruth, but you didn’t know how to stop him without raising suspicions. Though at the moment you were on the verge of telling him everything in order break the spell that had the two of you frozen on the precipice of what felt very much like the prelude to a kiss. Which would be so very wrong for many reasons, not the least of which being that a part of you wanted to close the distance and find out what it would be like.

You jolted backwards almost to the point of falling when a shrill ringing shattered the tense atmosphere. You were ashamed at how long it took your addled mind to recognize the sound as heralding a phone call.

“I should… Jarvis is gone, so someone else has to… I’ll be right back.” You were further shamed by your inability to form a complete sentence. Jack didn’t seem any more clear-headed, however, as he just nodded blankly and didn’t comment at all when you rushed into the hallway, ignoring the receiver not three feet away from you.

“Stark residence… boy, Peggy, am I glad you called… no, no, everything is fine, just ready to get out of the house… yes, all right, see you soon.”

As you hung up you heard new strains of music make their way into the hall, and for just a moment you allowed yourself to pretend that everything was as simple as the song he had chosen (something soft and light you couldn’t identify) and you weren’t blurring the line between deceiving him for his own protection and outright cruelty.

Chapter Text

“This doesn’t look like a police station.”

“Why would we go to a police station?”

“I thought Sousa said he was a cop.”

“No, I believe he said he was something like one.”

“So why are we at a talent agency?”

“Because the something is inside.” You met his disparaging look with an impertinent smile and led the way into the Auerbach Theatrical Agency. Finding Rose sitting behind her desk stretched your expression into something much more genuine.

“Peg said the two of you were going to be stopping by,” she greeted, rising to hug you.

“And here we are!” You left her embrace to address the man standing quietly a few steps behind you. “Jack, this is Rose Roberts. She is wonderful in every possible way.”

“Oh, stop.” Rose swatted you playfully at the praise.

“It’s nice to meet you Ms. Roberts,” Jack spoke while shaking her hand, “or have we already met?”

“I’m afraid we have,” she answered with a sympathetic smile, “and Rose will do just fine.”

“Sorry, I’m not doing so good with names and faces these days.”

“Don’t you worry one bit. I’m sure it will all come back to you before you know it,” Rose assured, but Jack’s only answer was an indulgent smile. “You’d best not keep the chief and Peggy waiting. You remember the way?” Rose asked, gesturing towards the nearby doorway.

You nodded and looked to Jack, who raised a skeptical eyebrow but made his way through the indicated entrance anyway. You made to follow, but paused at Rose’s gentle touch to your elbow.

“How are you holding up?” she asked lowly.

“About as well as can be expected. It’s all a bit stressful, but we’re managing.”

“I can only imagine. I only had to pretend to be married to Aloysius for two minutes, and that was burdensome enough.”

You were about to reply when Jack appeared in the doorway once more. “You comin’ or what?”

"Yes, yes, hold your horses. It’s not a race.”

“Good thing or you’d lose.”

“Oh, please, I think I could easily outrun a man still recovering from a bullet wound to his chest.”

“And yet here you walk slower than molasses.”

“Can you believe the impatience of this man?” you threw back over your shoulder at Rose, who you saw looked a bit perplexed, unsure of how this situation was unfolding. You sent her a smile to assuage her worries.

Rose returned the smile hesitantly, but then her mouth dropped into an “Oh!” She turned and picked up a stack of letters, holding them out to you. “Would you mind taking the mail to the chief?”

“Not at all.” You accepted the pile, and then followed Jack through the doorway.

“You sure this is the right way? ‘Cause it looks like we just entered a room full of filing cabinets.”

“Do me a favor and twist the handle on the R through S drawer.” You almost rolled your eyes as he stood unmoving, staring at you with that skeptical look again. “Just do it.”

With an overly put-out sigh, he reached for the appropriate drawer and gave it a tug. You almost snickered when his jaw went lax and his eyes widened as the hidden staircase was revealed. When his shock had abated, he turned to meet your smug expression. “Okay, that's pretty impressive.”

“Control yourself, Thompson. I can’t stand it when you gush.” You smacked him with your envelopes teasingly, but then let out a noise of discontent when he plucked them from your grasp. “Hey, Rose asked me to give those to the chief.”

“You misused the goods, and so you stand relieved.” He caught the hand reaching to retrieve the letters and held on. “Now, are we goin’ somewhere or are you just gonna stand there yapping?”

“Honestly, so impatient…”

And that’s how you ended up walking into the bullpen of the S.S.R. hand in hand with your fake husband.

Peggy lit up at the sight of you, and you thought she did very well hiding her astonishment at your situation. “I wondered when the two of you would get here. How are you feeling, Jack?”

“Well, I just walked up a flight of stairs and didn’t pass out, so all in all I’m doing just great.”

“But as you can see his sense of humor hasn’t improved in the slightest.” Taking advantage of his distraction, you snagged the letters back and held them out to Daniel. “Here, Chief Sousa, Rose asked me to deliver your mail.”

“Oh, thanks.” The letters transferred to Daniel, and you thought he did a much poorer job of hiding his astonishment and additional amusement. Luckily, he immediately shuffled off to his office to sort through the delivery in private.

“It’s awful dead in here,” Jack observed. “You two the only ones who work in this place?”

“Not quite. You just happened to hit us at lunch time,” Peggy offered, though you were sure that the curious lack of agents had more to do with her than hunger pains.

Jack wandered away to get a closer look at the giant S.S.R. logo emblazoned on the back wall. You and Peggy both watched him attentively, waiting to see some sign of recognition.

“Any change?” Peggy asked, voice barely above a whisper.

“Nothing big, but… when we were getting ready to come up he did say, ‘You stand relieved.’ That’s army speak, right?”

“Yes, but I don’t think it’s something we can hang our hats on. He appears to have retained most of his vocabulary through this ordeal, and phrases like that are probably natural to him at this point.

“I suppose you’re right. I could really use a positive sign right about now, though.”

You held your breath as Jack turned back around to face you, but then let it out in a gust when all he had to say was, “Nice bird.” His smirk fell away when he saw your hopeful expression fail. “What? Why do you look like I just cancelled Christmas?”

“It’s just… you’ve been here before. I guess we were hoping it might bring back some memories.”

“Oh…” He looked around the room once more as if he might have missed something familiar but then met your eyes again helplessly. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.” You smiled reassuringly. “It was a just an idea.”

“Why were we here before?”

“We were helping with a case.”

“Helping?”

“We brought dinner.”

“Ah.” He might have had more to say, but Daniel yanked his office door open just shy of violently and addressed you and Peggy.

“Can I see you two for a minute?” His gaze darted to Jack and back again.

“Of course, Daniel. Jack, make yourself comfortable – we shouldn’t be a moment.” Peggy smiled benignly at Jack and then walked with quick strides into Daniel’s office.

Jack looked at you warily. “Everything okay?”

“I’m sure it is. Why don’t you sit down and take a breather? This is the longest you’ve been on your feet since the… incident.”

He nodded slowly, still unsure. You left him to sort himself out and found Peggy and Daniel both scrutinizing a piece of paper intently. At the click of the door closing, both sets of eyes shot to you, not at all comforting in the apprehension they held.

“What’s going on? What’s happened?”

“Daniel found this mixed in with the post today.” Peggy held out the paper to you. You hesitated briefly before accepting, not sure at all you wanted to know its contents.

The sentence was printed carefully in all capital letters – someone was trying very hard to make their handwriting as indistinguishable as possible.

WHAT WAS SHE DOING AT THE HOTEL?

“The ‘she’ is presumably you, and it’s actually a very good question.” Peggy stated, but when you looked up at her with hurt flashing across your face her tone softened. “You and Jack never got on, so it’s rather odd that you would visit him on your own at his hotel room. It's really something we should have questioned before now.”

“So what were you doing there?” asked Chief Sousa, because he was being Chief Sousa and not Daniel the friend you’d made through Peggy.

“I went to ask him about the file.”

“What file?”

“I… I’m not sure. Jack found it in Vernon Masters’ things the night you were all working on the rift generator. Jack had gone to call in the dinner orders, and since I wasn’t much use to you guys and he was doing something nice for once, I went to go volunteer to help him. I saw him digging through Masters' briefcase, so I hung back for a bit to see what he'd find. He pulled out the file and then the Arena Club pin – that’s when he figured out that it was also a key. I thought you should know, but Jack had been behaving much more… cooperatively, so I decided to give him the opportunity to tell you himself. He gave you the key, but he didn’t say anything about the file. I went to confront him before he left, and when he didn’t answer my knock I thought he was just being an ass again, so I barged in anyway. With all the blood and matrimony, I haven't really thought about it since.”

“Did you see this file in the hotel room?”

“I can't say for sure - I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to my surroundings at that point.” You looked back and forth between the two as an idea dawned on you. “Was it not among the things you recovered?”

“No, it wasn’t,” the chief confirmed, mouth thin.

“Do you have any idea what was in the file?”

You shook your head. “I didn’t get a very good look at it. It was brown, pretty thick. I think it said S.O.E. on the front.”

Peggy’s eyes lit up with recognition. “The file Jack attempted to blackmail me with. When he was still working with Vernon Masters, Jack presented me with a file implicating me of some sort of heinous war crime. At the time I believed it to be a forgery, but perhaps there is more to this.”

“So someone else knew about the file? We just need to figure out who that could be, and then we'll know who shot him?” you asked, new hope blossoming.

“That’s not our only problem anymore,” Chief Sousa said sourly, glancing at the note in your hand. “Somebody else knows what’s going on, or at least knows way more than they should. There was no postage on that note.”

“That means the person who sent it was here?”

The thought left you vaguely uneasy.

“Or intercepted the mail en route," Peggy added. "I’ll check with Rose to see if she noticed anything suspicious about our carrier today.”

“But whoever it is seems like they’re trying to help us," you offered neutrally.

“If that were true, why not just come forward? Why the cloak and dagger?” the chief argued back.

“That’s what you did, Peggy. When you were working to clear Howard’s name you spent a lot of time pulling strings in the background.”

“It feels less like pulling strings and more like someone’s yankin’ our chain,” Daniel spat.

“What we have is too many unknown players in a game we don’t fully understand yet.”

“What do we know?”

“We know Jack was most likely in possession of a mysterious and damaging file which is currently M.I.A. We know this file could possibly be the motive behind his shooting. And we know that someone else is aware of this investigation and knows enough about your prior relationship with Jack to find it odd that you would be going to see him,” Peggy ticked off.

“That is all incredibly vague.” Your hope was once more receding.

“We've also confirmed that Jack is in an incredible amount of danger,” she added.

Daniel's brow furrowed. “How do you figure?”

Peggy glanced at him, but then zeroed in on you once more. “You said his door was closed when you arrived. Our gunman didn’t want anyone to find him in time to save his life, a plan you obviously foiled.”

“It wasn't just about incapacitating him to get to the file. The objective was to kill Jack,” you realized, horror causing your face to pale. You'd known from the start that this might have been an attempt on his life, but knowing it without a doubt made everything feel more real.

“That was the intention, yes. And since Jack is one of the few living people who actually knows what the file contained, I would wager it still is.”

“So what do we do?” You began to tug at your fingers until you realized you were crumpling the note, and damaging evidence was probably not going to help the situation.

“The same as you have been doing. Stay with Jack as much as possible and keep trying ways to jog his memories. If he could identify his shooter we’d be in a much better position.”

“Okay, okay, I can do that. I can-” you cut off abruptly as you looked back out at the bullpen to see the room empty of the man in question. “Jack!”

You leapt from your chair and flung open the office door. Your eyes flew around the room frantically, but he was gone.

“Jack!” you called out again, like he might be hiding behind one of the desks. When he didn’t emerge, you took off for the exit, fully intending to chase whoever had taken him into the streets. You couldn’t believe you’d lost him already. You had one job – to keep Jack safe. What if the gunman had managed to sneak in? What if the note had just been a distraction, a trap?

You ran into the hall and almost fell when you brought a sudden halt to your forward momentum.

“Oh, hey.” Jack smiled, walking towards you. “Did you guys get everything worked out?”

“Jack!” you exclaimed, panic refusing to relent just yet. “Are you okay?”

You raced forward, stumbling when you neared. His hands shot up to your shoulders to keep you upright. “I’m fine. What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“I looked out, and you were gone, and I thought, I thought something might have happened-”

“Hey, hey, calm down – nothing happened.” His hands slid down to hold by your elbows which you bent so you could grasp at his arms to combat the sudden dizziness left in the wake of your waning adrenaline. “See? I’m here, and I’m fine.”

You nodded, closing your eyes and trying to control you breathing so your heartrate could slow from hummingbird back to something normal. When you opened them again you found his concerned gaze still glued to your face. “Why did you leave the bullpen?”

“That big room with all the desks?” He jerked his head in the direction you’d come from, and you nodded. “I was trying to find the bathroom – guess I got turned around. Sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“No, no, you don’t have anything to apologize for. You should be allowed to use the bathroom whenever you want without telling me. I suppose I’m just a little on edge.”

“I think that’s probably normal for people who get robbed.”

“Probably,” you agreed.

The sound of a throat clearing made you jump, your head whipping around to see the other two standing in the doorway.

“I found Jack,” you offered lamely, dropping your hands as if caught doing something you shouldn’t.

“We can see that,” Peggy said in her child humoring voice. Daniel, because now he was being your friend Daniel and not the intimidating Chief Sousa who suspected you of ulterior motives, simply smirked, eyes bright with the thoughts of future teasing.

You had a feeling this wasn’t going away any time soon.

Chapter Text

"Okay, well then..." You swallowed hard, wishing you could step back, but Jack's grip was firm enough that any attempt to extricate yourself would appear violent. “I’m sure you two have work to get back to, so we should probably be going.”

“Actually, if you have the time I'd like to show Jack one more thing,” Peggy interjected casually.

“Me?” he questioned, seemingly confused by the notion.

“Yes, do you mind?”

“I guess not.” Jack finally released you, and you tried to create some distance as surreptitiously as possible.

“This way.” Peggy led towards the labs. Once inside she took Jack immediately to the wall safe. You would have followed, but Daniel caught hold of your arm at the door.

“You doing all right?” he asked quietly so as not to disturb Peggy and Jack.

“Yes, sorry. I kind of had a moment back there, didn’t I?” Your embarrassment made maintaining eye contact difficult.

“It was a bit extreme, but understandable considering your current… position.” His expression was full of kindness, and you were immeasurably grateful.

“I suppose I feel responsible for him somehow. He just seems so vulnerable without his memories."

“Looks like you two are getting along pretty well.” There was a hint of the teasing you'd feared, but you chose to ignore it.

“Surprisingly, yes. You were right about it being easier when he doesn’t know how much he dislikes me.”

“Makes me wonder if he really didn’t like you to begin with.”

“Let’s not get carried away.” You huffed out a laugh, but then your expression turned guilty. “I should probably confess that I borrowed your engagement story.”

“You what?” His brows pinched together.

“He asked how he proposed, and I don’t have a story for that, so I appropriated yours. Sorry.” You shrugged, trying to look as helpless and apologetic as possible.

Sousa sighed and rubbed at the tension in the back of his neck. “You might as well keep it. I guess I don’t really need it anymore.”

You followed his gaze back to Peggy and Jack, leaned in together looking at the Arena Club key. “Have you done anything about that?”

“About what?”

“Have you asked Peggy out yet?” Your expression turned stern as he looked away guiltily. “Come on, man, it’s been weeks.”

“You might not have noticed, but we’ve been pretty busy.”

“You solve mysterious crimes for a living – you’re always going to be busy. Take a night off and ask Peggy to dinner.”

“It’s not that easy,” he protested, eyes shooting to the woman in question. “It’s Peggy.”

Your lips curled in a soft smile at the open adoration in his voice. “Yes,” you agreed, bringing his attention back to you. “But on the other hand, you’re Daniel. No, don’t,” you admonished when he scoffed. “It’s true. Do you honestly believe she’s not as nervous about this as you are?”

“Peggy doesn’t get nervous.”

“Of course she does. She just hides it better than the rest of us mere humans. And she cares for you a great deal.” You pressed your hand to his arm, leaning in as you spoke quietly but with great conviction. “Ask Peggy to dinner.”

“What are you two talking about?” Jack abruptly broke in, eyeing your hand and general closeness to Chief Sousa.

You straightened, allowing your arm to fall back to your side. “Making time for what’s important. Speaking of which, I do believe it’s past lunch. Is there anything else we can do before we head out?”

“No, I think we’ve accomplished all we can for today. We’ll let you know if anything more comes up.” Peggy smiled at you, but she couldn't fully mask her disappointment at the lack of results your visit had brought forth.

“Do you want us to bring you back anything?”

“No, thank you, we sent our lunch order with one of the other agents.”

“I guess we’ll be on our way then.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Peggy offered. “I wanted to speak with Rose anyway.”

You bid Daniel farewell and made your way to the exit, hands clasped in front of you to prevent Jack from taking hold again, should he be of a mind. The last thing you wanted was to walk hand in hand with Peggy right next to you. With a wave to Rose, you and Jack left her to Peggy’s questioning, stepping out into the heat of the midday sun.

“So Sousa and Peggy,” Jack began once the door had swung shut, “they together?”

“Almost. Why do you ask?”

He gave a half-hearted shrug, more with one shoulder than the other. “You two seemed to be having a pretty good… conversation.”

You choked on a laugh. “First Howard and now Chief Sousa? You seem terribly intent on setting me up with every bachelor in town.”

“Yeah, well, I guess there’s some things even amnesia can’t change. And seeing other guys... enjoying you is one of 'em.”

“I assure you, you have nothing to fear from either of them or anyone else for that matter. Just because good conversation can lead to romance doesn't mean it will. Now, how about we…” you trailed off when you caught sight of a man standing a short distance away, seemingly not paying you a lick of attention, but you knew better. You’d spent enough time around agents now to recognize the bulk of a holster hidden under a suit jacket, to see through the carefully constructed nonchalance. Your breath came up short; this man was obviously a threat of some sort, and you had absolutely no way to defend yourself or Jack.

“What? What is it?” Jack started to turn, and you were immediately gripped by the idea that he could not know of this man or your suspicions. Before he’d made it half way round you’d grabbed his hand to hold his attention to you.

“You know, I forgot to ask Peggy something. Come on, it’ll just take a second.” You all but dragged him back into the talent agency office where Peggy and Rose both looked at you in obvious surprise. “Peggy! I,” you cleared your throat trying to get your bearings, “I just remembered that Jarvis wanted me to ask if you’d be home for dinner."

“Dinner?” she questioned, confused but trying to play along.

“Yes, he wants to make sure he cooks enough to cover any unexpected guests.” You tried to glance meaningfully at the door without attracting Jack’s attention.

“Oh, yes, of course, dinner. Did he happen to say what… time… we’d be eating?” Peggy kept her voice light, but her eyes told you she was on to your game.

You quickly worked out where the man had been in reference to the way Peggy was facing. “He said if you were coming it’d be about seven o’clock. Having only one man in the kitchen is bound to push everything back.”

“Let me just step outside to… take a look at the weather. Daniel and I were thinking of doing a little on-site investigation tonight, but we won’t be able to if it rains.”

“Rains? I didn’t think it ever rained out here.” Jack finally broke into your dialogue of double-speak.

“You never know. I thought I saw some ominous looking clouds earlier – better to be prepared.” Peggy was out the door in a few quick strides, you hot on her heels, still holding almost too tightly to Jack as if your mere touch could protect him. Her eyes scanned the direction you’d indicated, but when you looked the man was no longer there.

“Looks like the clouds must have cleared up,” you stated, equally relieved at the absence of danger and disappointed that you'd called Peggy in for nothing.

“I supposed I won’t be making it to dinner, then.” Peggy met your eyes for confirmation, and you nodded slightly. “Where are you parked?”

“Just over there.” You pointed out the car, and she fell into step with you as you moved towards it.

“What were you thinking of for lunch?” Peggy made conversation to normalize the situation.

“I thought it might be nice to revisit the sandwich shop.”

“That sounds lovely. Well, enjoy yourselves.” With one last smile and a nod, she stepped back and stood unmoving on the sidewalk.

Jack gave her a funny look before entering the vehicle, and when you had shut your door as well he turned to you. He ran his tongue over his teeth contemplatively. “Anyone ever point out that she’s a little weird.”

You smiled, trying to shake off the lingering anxiety. “You’ll see soon enough, ‘we’re all mad here.’”

“Come again?”

“Have you never picked up a book before?” you asked in exaggerated disbelief. “That’s it, I’m going to educate you in literature if it’s the last thing I do. I think I still have a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland somewhere.”

“Oh goody.”

“Don’t be like that. There’s no marriage in this one – just absolute nonsense, but in a very entertaining manner.”

“Fine, but you’re feeding me first. Didn’t you say something about sandwiches?”

You tried to hide your disappointment when the shop elicited no sign of recognition, and even more so when he crumpled up his sandwich's wrapper without a second thought. So far your plan to return his memories was not going well, and you found yourself becoming more and more discouraged. He, however, seemed to have nary a care in the world, and you tried not to be bothered that you cared more about his damaged mind than he did.

Once fed, you decided to return to Howard’s estate. Jack tried to hide his exhaustion, or maybe he just refused to acknowledge it himself, but you could see it plainly written across his face and posture. You hustled him back into bed, over all his objections and disdain, and started in on Alice. You weren’t sure how much he actually heard, since he drifted in and out until dinner (which came closer to six o’clock, but Jack didn’t seem to notice). Despite his cat naps, Jack still looked tired when darkness fell, so you decided to call it an early night. Jack, however, appeared to have other plans.

“Where are you going?” His question halted you halfway out the door.

“I told you – it’s bedtime. I’m going to bed, and you should go to sleep.”

“But where do you go every night?”

You ignored the twinge of nerves his inquiries brought about. “I have my own room from working for Howard.”

“What do we need two rooms for?”

“We thought you’d heal better with a bed all to yourself. You wouldn’t have to worry about me bumping into you in the night.” You tried for casual despite each and every vertebrae in your back tightening in turn. You could guess where this was headed, what he was angling for.

“I’m doing better now though, right? Jarvis said my stitches could come out soon. I don’t see why we need to take up any more of Howard’s rooms.”

“Trust me, Howard has no shortage of space.”

“I think I might sleep better with you here.”

“You’ve been sleeping fine.”

“Then maybe it’s that I like having you around. Is it so unusual that I want to sleep in the same bed as my wife?” He lay there so innocuously, asking for a basic element inherent in marriage. You hated that you were doing this to him again – convincing him of a relationship you were unwilling to participate in. He didn't know the real reasons behind your hesitations.

“No, no, of course not. I just don’t want to interfere with your recovery.”

“I don’t think that’s a problem.”

“Okay then, sure. I guess I’ll be right back.” You could hardly get the words out over your panic. You focused on keeping your steps measured as you left the room.

You had to think this through logically. Yes, it was entirely inappropriate for you to be sharing a bed with this man. Yes, he was completely unaware of that. Yes, it was broaching on morally wrong with his ignorance factored in. Yes, Howard was going to have an absolute fit when he found out. Yes, the whole idea made you almost dislocate your fingers with your intense fiddling. Yet in the end, none of that really mattered. Jack had to be protected, the deception had to be maintained, and if that meant spending the night in the same bed as your pretend husband, so be it.

You would not, however, change if front of the man. Upon reaching your room you pulled your nightgown out and looked on it with new distaste. You’d always liked the garment, finding it both pretty and comfortable. Now the neckline was too low, the waist too fitted, the straps too thin, the material too inviting to touch. What had before been one of your luxurious indulgences now became a blatant tool of seduction.

You needed to purchase pajamas as soon as possible, something loose and boxy that swallowed your body in an unappealing fashion. Tonight you would just have to make do.

Jack was still awake when you returned, nightgown hidden under your silky robe. His eyes landed on you the moment you entered and never strayed, which was entirely discomforting. You switched off the lamps in the room before shedding the robe and laying it aside. Sliding into the empty side of the bed, you kept your back turned and stayed as far off center as possible in hopes of preventing any kind of encouragement. It must have worked, because Jack made no move to initiate contact.

“Night,” he murmured shortly, and you replied in kind. Soon you heard his breathing even out, and you momentarily considered sneaking away, but nixed that idea when you contemplated his reaction if he woke up to find you missing. No, you would have to stay the night through and hope Howard didn’t find out before you had a chance to prepare him.

Now the only trouble was finding a comfortable position.

You were all too aware of the heated body resting such a short distance away. You didn’t want to turn, didn’t want to see him, but lying on one side is only comfortable for so long. Soon your arm began to tingle underneath you. Then your back started to ache from its stiffness. Your legs grew restless as they fought to stretch. You tried to keep your readjusting to a minimum, but you failure became apparent when a great branch of an arm landed across your waist and tugged you flush up against the body you’d been avoiding.

“You part rabbit or something?” His voice was rough with sleep and annoyance, each word stirring your hair where his mouth was pressed.

“Sorry,” you managed to force out around your stalled breathing, “I guess I’m having a hard time falling asleep.”

“Maybe if you’d stop jumping around for a few minutes, you’d have better luck.”

“Sorry,” you repeated, not knowing what else to offer. He made some kind of sleepy grunt, arm tightening momentarily before he stilled once more. You were fairly certain he had already dropped off back to sleep. Lucky jerk.

You couldn’t just lie there stiff as a board all night, so with a slow, deep breath you focused on relaxing one part of your body at a time, starting with your toes and working your way up. You’d only made it to your abdomen when you too drifted off, still in the arms of your temporary husband.

Chapter Text

You woke up slowly and then all at once. The light of sunrise was just starting to peek through the curtains, but this time of day was in no way unknown to you. The unfamiliar weight around your middle at first caused alarm. When you remembered where you were and who it was pinning you, your feelings coasted much closer to full on horror. You attempted to control your breathing, which was made incredibly difficult by the fact that you could feel each of his own exhales ghosting over the top of your head. You needed to extricate yourself from this situation and quickly.

Delicately you took hold of his forearm with your finger and thumb. Ever so slowly you lifted the appendage off and wriggled out from underneath. Once you were far enough away, you gently tucked his arm back against his body. He made a muffled noise of discontent and curled his fingers like he was trying to grab hold of something, but he didn’t awaken. With a silent sigh of relief, you carefully rose from the bed, grabbed your robe, and all but ran from the room. Now you just needed to make it back to your own quarters without being seen and all would be well.

You should really have known by this point that nothing ever goes quite according to plan.

“Good morning,” Peggy greeted you as her expression grew curious. “Are you just coming from Jack’s room?”

“Um…” you drug the word out. “Yes?”

Peggy paused and considered you intently, taking in your apparel and bedhead. “Did you spend all night in Jack’s room?”

“…yes?” You imagined you looked guilty as sin itself.

Peggy appeared astonished for mere moments before her face fell into a look of resignation. “I was wondering when we’d reach this state of affairs.”

“You knew this would happen?” you exclaimed, almost accusatory.

“A husband would obviously wonder where his wife was sleeping at night – it was really only a matter of time before Jack thought to question it.”

"I suppose.” You heaved a great sigh and pulled your robe more tightly around your body. “Peggy, what are we going to do? The longer we keep this up the more upset he’s going to be when he learns the truth.”

“I know, and I am truly sorry to have dragged this out. But your visit yesterday provided a few more avenues to investigate. Perhaps one of those will lead us to something.”

“I hope so. You know,” you began as a wry smile twisted your lips, “back at the hospital when I started this whole mess, I fully expected Jack to wake up and laugh in my face while assuring me he’d never marry me, even if it did mean saving his life. I certainly never imagined that this would be how things went.”

Peggy looked thoughtful for a moment. “You have a lot on your mind right now, and I don’t mean to add to it, but I feel you may have overlooked a bit of relevant information.”

“And what’s that?”

“You and I entered Jack’s hospital room at the same time, but when the nurse announced his wife he never even looked at me. I had half a mind to be insulted.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“For a man you are so sure dislikes you entirely, he was rather enthusiastic at the idea of having you as wife.”

“Peggy, that wasn’t Jack. It wasn’t and it still isn’t,” you insisted when she raised her eyebrows in blatant disagreement. “It’s been over three weeks since he got hurt. Since then he’s not remembered a single thing about himself, and we still have no idea who shot him in the first place. Yet, he appears wholly unconcerned on both counts. I may not have known Jack all that well before, but I can’t believe he would have been content sitting around doing nothing.”

“I must agree with you on that,” Peggy acceded.

“You see? You may be right that this Jack, who ignores his own case in favor of lounging around another man's estate, likes me well enough, even enjoys thinking he voluntarily married me. But the real Jack… I can’t imagine he’s going to be very happy about what we’ve done these past few weeks. And they’re both going to feel manipulated and hate me when they realize how I’ve been lying to them.”

Your heart squeezed painfully as the words left your mouth. You hadn’t realized until that moment how difficult it was going to be – returning to the animosity, worse than before, after weeks of the peaceful ceasefire. You’d found that you actually liked getting along with Jack, and you were going to feel his absence from your life acutely.

Who would have thought the day would come when you’d miss Jack Thompson?

“If Jack has any sense, he’ll appreciate all the effort you've put into keeping him alive.”

“Are we really willing to bank on Jack having sense?”

There you are.” Peggy’s smile warmed considerably with fondness. “I was afraid we might have lost you.”

“Can I ask a favor? Can you not tell Howard about this new… development?” You gestured between yourself and the direction of Jack’s current domicile. “I really don’t want to have that conversation.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” she promised, and you sent her a thankful smile before turning in the direction of your room.

“I should probably go get dressed.”

You made it a few steps before her voice stopped you again. “I know it’s none of my business, but just so I’m certain of what I’m not telling Howard, you did just sleep in Jack’s room? No other… activities… took place?”

You blinked at her, unable to comprehend her question for the longest time, but when you did your eyes flew wide and heat rushed up the back of your neck. “N-no! No, no. No, no, no. Just sleeping. Completely platonic sleeping.”

And a little unintentional – albeit totally innocent – cuddling, but you decided she didn’t need to know that.

“I thought so, but it’s nice to verify that we haven’t totally abandoned the realm of propriety.”

You quickly bid Peggy farewell and scurried to your room. You were embarrassed by Peggy’s questioning, and further embarrassed by how embarrassed you were. You were a grown woman – talking about sex shouldn’t fluster you so much. But there was a marked difference in discussing the idea of sex and discussing the very real, concrete example of the man with whom you’d just spent the night snuggled up in bed.

You took your time choosing your outfit for the day, more to stall than anything else. And if you overcompensated for the amount of skin revealed by your nightgown with clothing more on the conservative side, who could blame you? Then you decided to sit and read for a while before facing the real world again, but that wasn’t so unusual. Jack wouldn’t wake up for a bit yet, and his room was one of the most secure in the building. It was on a major thoroughfare, so the other residents of the house walked past it quite frequently should anything happen or Jack need something.

Your downfall, unfortunately, came in the form of a terribly interesting story, and when you finally managed to peel your eyes away to check the time, the day had already progressed well into the morning. Jack would have been up long ago, clueless as to where you were.

You had to take a deep breath and count to ten in an attempt to combat the ever-familiar panic when you found his room empty, his bed already made and no sign of the man himself. You’d just reached eight when you noticed something lying on the pillow you’d used the previous night. Upon closer examination it revealed itself as a note written in barely legible script.

Out by the pool

The thought behind the gesture brought a smile to your face. After the display you’d put on yesterday, he was making an effort not to worry you again.

You found him sitting on a bench rhythmically lifting a relatively small dumbbell. You had requested that he stick to lighter weights until his injury had healed more fully, and surprisingly he’d obeyed your wishes. You moved into his line of sight to keep from startling him, but refrained from any greeting, knowing that he was probably mentally tracking his repetitions. For the moment you contented yourself with watching how his arm flexed beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his white button-down (even in the California heat he refused to wear the cooler yet exuberant shirts that Howard and Chief Sousa both favored).

Eventually, he set the weight down with an extended and satisfied exhale. “I was wondering when you’d make an appearance.”

“I stopped by your room.”

“I left a note.”

“I saw – thank you.”

“You were long gone by the time I woke up – bed was cold and everything.” There was enough accusation in his tone that you wondered if he’d been hurt by your absence.

“I’m a bit of an early riser.” You surreptitiously glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot of your conversation.

“I didn’t even feel you get up.”

“It helps that you sleep like a log.”

“I guess you’ll be the one getting up with the baby at night then.” He stood up and stretched, and you were momentarily distracted by the long line his body could make. Whatever else Jack could be, he was certainly a specimen of the male physique. The amount of dedication that must go into maintaining something like that was admirable.

“Baby?” you repeated absently.

“When we have kids,” he stated plainly. You didn’t know if you made some sort of sound, but he must have picked up on your unease somehow because he looked at you with eyebrows high. “We plan on having kids, don’t we?”

“I don’t… I don’t know…” you faltered.

“You don’t know?” He was incredulous again; you needed to redirect this discussion.

“It’s a little bit early for children, don’t you think?”

“Well, yeah, but haven’t we talked about it?”

“I guess,” you cleared your throat in an attempt to loosen the words, “but always in terms of maybe and someday.”

“Do you want kids?”

“Maybe. Someday.”

“Did I want kids? Before?”

“I would say if you want them now, you probably wanted them then, too,” you answered evenly. You’d only broached the idea of marriage with the man once, and you’d certainly never even come close to discussing his plans to reproduce. If you had, you’d probably have recommended against it, cautioning that they might turn out like him. Now, however, the thought of him playing with some little girl or boy seemed nice, and you hoped he’d get the opportunity someday – if you didn’t put him off the idea of marriage entirely, that is.

Before either of you could say anymore, your attention was diverted by the start of soft music floating out from inside somewhere. You both turned curiously towards the sound until a smile cleared up your serious countenance.

“Ana must be cooking,” you mused, listening to the deep voice of Vaughn Monroe as he sang warnings to his heart. When Jack looked at you still puzzled you further explained, “She always turns on the radio when she’s in the kitchen. She says the music adds its own flavor to the food.”

Jack nodded. “What flavor do you suppose this is?”

“Hmm, something robust,” you offered sagely, though a smile pinched at the corners of your mouth. It fell away in confusion, however, when he held his hand out to you.

“Come on,” he prompted against your bewildered immobility, “you can’t tell me we don’t dance.”

“No, I…” You eyed his outstretched hand warily. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, what with how much you exerted yourself yesterday.”

“I think the twenty hours I spent in bed after that was more than enough time to recover.” He was smirking when you finally looked him in the eye. “Dance with me. Please?”

It was a please that did it. Still hesitant, you slowly lifted your own hand a placed it in his. He drew you forward until he could wrap his arm around your back. When your hand landed high on his shoulder he began to lead you in time with the music.

“You okay?” His sudden question broke you out of your stupor of staring at his chest, and you realized how stiffly you’d been holding your body, keeping yourself as far away from him as his reach would allow.

“Yeah, sorry, it’s just… been awhile.”

“Didn’t we dance at the wedding?”

“Erm, yes, I suppose.”

“It was only a few weeks ago.”

“Seems like ages.”

“Well, relax.” He abruptly swung you into a quick, wide turn which caused you to stumble and laugh, and when you found your footing again the rigid distance you’d maintained had shrunk considerably. “Let me do all the work for a change.”

And so you did. Jack was light on his feet and a firm lead, making falling into the motions of the dance so easy you almost didn’t need to think about what you were doing – which was good, since if you thought too much about it your throat started to constrict. You tried not to concentrate on the warmth of his hand pressed to the center of your back or the roughness of the callouses earned by his frequent use of a firearm. You had the hardest time settling on a focal point because every time you looked at his face his eyes were on you, completely at ease and crinkled slightly by his smile, almost abnormally blue in the clear, bright sunshine.

“What was our wedding like?” he broke the silence after seconds that could have been hours.

You hummed thoughtfully, imagining what kind of ceremony you’d want. “Small – just the people we care about the most. Church, white dress, flowers, the whole shebang. Howard gave me away. Your best man tricked you into thinking he’d lost the rings, because of how you proposed, you know.”

You weren’t quite sure where that last part had come from, but you thought it added a nice personal touch to the story.

“You said your parents weren’t invited.”

“My parents and I haven’t been on speaking terms for a number of years.”

“You have a falling out?”

“Something like that.”

Beware My Heart faded and made way for a slower song, causing Jack to slow your dancing to match. You’d just recognized the melody when a grin broke out across his face. “Well, whadaya know. They’re playing our song.”

“Our song, is it?”

“Makes me think of you, so it must be.” His smile turned teasing, so you braced yourself expectantly. “And it even has real words and everything.”

“Mine had real words, too!” you defended, though you were finding it nigh impossible to keep from returning his happy expression. “Just not all of them.”

“Maybe if you pay real close attention you’ll actually know the words next time.”

“Keep it up, bucko, and there won’t be a next ti-yum!” Your threat ended abruptly in a yelp when he dipped you backwards without warning. Your grip on his hand and shoulder tightened in an attempt to keep yourself grounded – not that you had anything to worry about, as he seemed to have no trouble holding you up on his own.

“You were saying?”

“You’re a menace, Jack Thompson.” Your head spun slightly as you were righted, and you almost ran right into him trying to get your feet under you again. You gave him a smack on the shoulder for good measure, but when you looked back to his face all his teasing humor had fled. He had the same expression of concentration he’d worn at the piano – the one that seemed to imply he was thinking about kissing you.

You realized this time around that he intended to turn thought into action as he began to encroach more into your space, lips heading decidedly for yours.

But it was wrong, all wrong – all this talk of weddings and dancing and sentimental songs. You had let everything go too far. The sudden jolt of conscious had you pulling back, breaking out of his arms almost frantically.

“You know, I just remembered I promised Howard I would do something for him. I’d better go do it before he realizes I forgot, or he’ll be upset with me.” You were babbling, words coming too fast, all the while putting as much space between you as possible.

He was blinking rapidly, as if he'd lost some time, and you were feet away before he seemed to catch on to what was happening. “Wait, hold on-”

“No, sorry, can't. I really have to go before Howard-” Once more your sentence was cut off by a sharp noise of surprise as you found yourself falling backwards again, this time without Jack’s strong hold to anchor you. Everything around you slowed and blurred – all except Jack’s stunned expression as his hand reached out futilely towards you even though you’d created too much distance for him to be of any help. Then everything disappeared entirely as you were fully enveloped by the shockingly cool waters of the pool.

Your skirt was heavy and tangled around your legs, making movement difficult. Finally, you managed to determine which way was up. Breaking the surface, you sputtered ineffectually, swiping at your wet hair to clear your vision. Still half blind, you paddled to the edge and got ahold, and then took the time to wipe your eyes more completely. Unfortunately, the first thing you saw was Jack crouched in front of you, offering a hand.

“Oh, no. I’m not having you pop something open, or worse yet fall in and soak your stiches.” Ignoring his hand, you boosted yourself up until you could twist and sit on the pool ledge, feet and shoes still submerged, but you couldn’t bring yourself to care. With a deep breath of blissfully dry air, you started in on the process of wringing out your hair, trying to ignore the rivulets of water running down your back. Peripherally, you noticed Jack lower himself fully to the ground behind you, stretching out one leg while keeping the other bent so he could rest his elbow on his knee. The silence was strained and awkward, alleviated only by plunks of water dripping off you into the pool where they belonged.

“You wanna tell me why my wife just jumped into a pool to keep from kissing me?” His voice made you flinch, though he’d asked calmly.

“I didn’t jump…” you muttered in lieu of a real answer.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on? You don’t want to sleep in the same room with me, you get all flustered when I say something nice, and you act like you’re about to get hit every time I try to touch you. Wait,” his voice jumped with apprehension, “I don’t hit you, do I?”

“No!” The very idea had to whipping around to look him in the eye, hair slapping against your face with the force. “No, of course not. You would never.”

The sharp lines of his face softened with your reassurance. “Then what is it?”

You sighed, pushing back the strands that had stuck to your cheek. “It’s going to sound ridiculous.”

He looked from you to the pool and back again. “I think we’re way past ridiculous.”

“Fair point…” You chewed your cheek, thinking of how to explain. “I know you’re Jack Thompson.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“No, I know you’re still Jack Thompson, the same Jack Thompson I’ve always known. But you, you’ve in essence only known me a matter of weeks, which would rightfully consider me a stranger to you. And if I’m a stranger, whatever relationship we had can’t be the same, meaning that our relationship is now different and you are something of a stranger to me, too. So whatever I do with you feels like it’s happening with a completely different person, albeit a very familiar one, but I can’t shake the feeling that you’re someone new, and the whole thing just feels… unfaithful. To the Jack I know who knows me. Does that make sense?”

“Can’t say it does,” he replied evenly, and with a disappointed noise you closed your eyes and turned away just a bit so you no longer faced him head on, pressing the heel of your hand to an aching spot between your brows. “But if that’s how you feel, then I’ll back off.”

Your eyes flew open and back to him, hand falling into your lap with wet splat. “What?”

“Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I won’t respect it. I’m not gonna force myself on someone who’s not keen, even if she’s legally stuck with me.” He stood up and offered you his hand again, which this time you chose to accept. “Can you do something for me though?”

“Probably.”

“Will you still stay in my room? No funny business, promise.” He released his hold on your hand and held both of his up in surrender. “I’ll stay on my half of the bed. Turns out I was right when I said I’d sleep better with you there. Must have gotten used to it in the week before the robbery.”

He was so full of it, and you couldn’t even tell him why.

“Sure, if that’s what you want.” Looking for a distraction, you smoothed down your rumpled dress, sending droplets of water splattering to the pavement. “And thank you for… accommodating my… concerns.”

He nodded, but the corner of his lips quirked up into a half smirk. “You just let me know if you change your mind, all right?”

“Ah, hrm, sure. Well,” you switched gears, shaking your hands to rid them of the remaining moisture, “I’m going to go change. I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll be around.”

You looked back once to see his eye still on you, but you couldn’t tell if the smile he wore was amused at your expense or some kind of doting despite your eccentricity.

You decided you were probably better off not knowing.

Chapter Text

You found him in the kitchen of all places, sitting at a short table and attacking a large, sticky-looking, white glob with fervor. You’d been gone for maybe ten minutes, rinsing the pool chemicals off your hair and skin and grabbing a wonderfully dry dress. The one you’d gone swimming in might be salvageable; your shoes, however, were decidedly ruined.

You entered the room still resettling one of the pins holding your hair up to keep the heavy, damp mass off your back and neck. Jack spared you a quick glance and smile before focusing back on his project. “Hey,” he called by way of acknowledgement.

“Hey,” you returned, moving to his side so you could see more clearly. “Are you kneading bread dough?”

“You know what happens when someone enters my kitchen with empty hands,” Ana chirped. You hadn’t even noticed her bustling about by the stove.

“Aha, so he was drafted.” You couldn’t help but smile at the scene – Jack with her shirt sleeves pushed back and flour up to his elbows. It was such a domestic switch from the gun you were used to seeing in his hands that the whole thing was almost comical. “Well, sign me up, too. What can I do?”

“Actually, Mr. Jarvis was hoping you would help him with something. He’s in the west parlor, I think.”

“Oh, okay, sure.” You nodded to Ana, and then looked back down at Jack. “You set for a while?”

“Yeah,” he grunted distractedly, “but before you go, would you mind…?”

He jerked his head in the direction of a newspaper laid out on the table. How he could read and still pay attention to his task was unfathomable, but Ana wasn’t chastising him, so he must be doing a fine job. You flipped the page over as requested, he unable to do so without making a mess.

“Thanks,” he muttered, still preoccupied. You had to admit, it was nice not to be the sole focus of his attention for a change – you didn’t feel like you had to monitor yourself quite so strictly. With a parting smile to Ana, you left in search of her husband.

You located him in the indicated parlor, scrubbing vigorously at a spoon with a soft cloth. Your cleared throat managed to startle him enough to jump. For his sake you tried to suppress your amusement. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

“Quite all right – no harm done. You always have been light of foot.”

You let your smile free at his description. “Ana said you wanted me for something?”

“Oh, yes,” Jarvis held up his spoon, “I wondered if you would very much mind assisting me with polishing the silver.”

“Of course not,” you replied, though you were rather perturbed, “but why? You never ask for help with the chores.”

“Well,” he dragged the word out, “we, that is Ana and I, and Miss Carter as well, thought perhaps you could use a… break. You and Chief Thompson have been spending all your time together. It would be enough to overwhelm anyone. Not that you haven’t been doing a marvelous job or that any of us are in any way displeased with the work you’ve done. It’s just that-”

You cut him off by grabbing onto his head and pulling him down so you could lay a loud, smacking kiss on his cheek. His cheekbones turned a delightful shade of pink and his mouth seemed to be trying to form words though no sound came out. You grinned at him, letting your hands fall away. He still stayed slightly hunched over, like he was in too much shock to move back to his full height.

“What on earth was that for?” he finally managed to question.

“You’re wonderful, Jarvis,” you sighed by way of explanation. “I could use a break. But is Ana going to be okay on her own with Jack?”

“My wife has not met a person with whom she could not carry on a conversation, and she and Chief Thompson have a few key things in common. If anything should go awry she has promised to alert us immediately.”

You nodded your acceptance and picked up a cloth of your own. For a few long minutes neither you nor Jarvis broke the comfortable silence, the ease of menial labor creating a rather relaxed environment. Eventually you were the first to speak. “Has Howard sequestered himself in his lab? I haven’t seen him for a while.”

“Mr. Stark ventured out to his studio yesterday and never returned. I believe he had a new crop of production assistants to… train.”

“Ew,” you commented, wrinkling your nose. “He didn’t tell me he was going back to set…”

“I’m sure he merely wished not to disturb you,” he tried to placate, but you just snorted.

“When has Howard ever cared about disturbing me?”

Jarvis tilted his head back and forth at he chewed over a thought. “Are you familiar with what occasionally occurs when a family welcomes their second child? Often the first becomes jealous and resents all the attention the new baby receives.”

“Are you saying that Howard is a big baby?”

“That was not quite my intention, though I wouldn't say the description is entirely inaccurate.”

You gave him a bright grin despite the lingering sting of Howard's slight. You knew you’d been neglecting Howard while taking over Jack’s care, but to leave completely without saying goodbye was a bit drastic. To make the matter worse, he returned to a project you’d had quite a large part in. The movie may say Stark Pictures, but it was a product of your blood and sweat as well. That Howard would pick it up again with no warning felt like a slap in the face.

You knew your smile was slipping, so you turned your face down to your work to hide your expression though you couldn’t quite keep your voice flat when you said, “I didn’t mean to upset him.”

“Of course not – you are merely following the plan as laid out. However, Mr. Stark has become accustomed to having your undivided attention, and now that he must share you I believe he has become envious. It is a condition for which you can do nothing, and you are not to be blamed.”

“Careful, Jarvis, I just might kiss you again.”

“I can assure you there is no need for that." He automatically leaned away from you, face wary, and you had to bite your cheek to keep from laughing.

You polished without speaking for a bit, trying not to dwell on Howard’s sudden exodus. For all of Jarvis’ assurances and your own posturing, you still cared very much what your oldest friend thought of you. This was the first time in years you felt out of sync with him, and the idea left you with an almost physical pain.

“So,” Jarvis interrupted your brooding, but you could tell by the way he refused to look up from the serving tray he was buffing that this was headed in an awkward direction, “how are you and the chief getting along?”

“Daniel and I get along splendidly. Just yesterday I encouraged him to take Peggy out.”

“You know very well that’s not to whom I was referring.” He sent you a mildly exasperated look.

“Yes, but that one was easier to answer.” You sighed and rolled your head to try to work out the kinks in your neck. “We get along as well as can be expected when one of us can’t remember anything and the other does nothing but lie.”

“For his safety.”

“I know.”

“Regardless, the two of you seem to be becoming quite close.”

“As you pointed out we’ve spent almost all of our time together for weeks.”

“Yes, but you must admit it’s a marked improvement from your previous relationship which was so… volatile.”

“Why do you all act like I’m somehow supposed to be grateful for this?” You dropped your head to glare at the table, hands pressed to it to support your hunched, livid posture. “Sure, we’re great friends now when he can’t remember anything, but do you know what’s going to happen when he does? He’s going to be angry because I’ve allowed him to become invested in this mockery of a relationship. He’ll lash out and we’ll fight, even though I deserve every bit of his ire, because I don’t know how to back down with him even when everything is my fault. This… this… disaster is not the first step towards peaceful comradery. It’s the final nail in the coffin of any friendship we could have had if we bothered to call off the war.”

Despite your best efforts at control, your breath shook as you let it out. It had been easier this morning with Peggy, before the pool and the dance and the could-have-been kiss. You could no longer ignore the look in his eyes or how he had a different smile when it came to you. You had to face the facts – he had come to care for his wife while you were merely stringing him along, and no matter what the others believed, the fallout was going to be catastrophic.

You started when Jarvis’ hand fell gently over yours – you’d been so wrapped up in your disparaging thoughts that you’d forgotten he was there.

“I am sorry,” he said with aching sincerity when you tilted your head up to meet his eyes. “It was not my objective when calling you here to cause you such repeated distress."

“No, I’m sorry, Jarvis. I do believe I’m being overdramatic again. You have enough to worry about without me unloading my problems on you like that.”

“I consider you a very dear friend, and that means that your problems become my problems. I would much rather you share them than try to bottle it all up. I am here to support you.”

The breath you pulled in rattled just as much as the one you’d released moments before, but now for a completely different reason. “You should leave.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m on the verge of a ridiculous display of emotion and affection, which you will find completely embarrassing, and that’s no way to thank you for being so great. So you should leave before I give in to the urge.”

He straightened swiftly. “Erm, yes, I think it’s time I check on Ana.”

“Good idea.”

He made it several paces before he paused once more. Though you weren't facing him, you could feel his hesitant gaze on you. "Can I... bring you anything?"

A laugh that probably sounded a bit hysterical bubbled up from your chest. How could he be so awkwardly sweet? "No, thank you, Jarvis. Now run, man, run! The end is nigh."

He was out of the room in a blink, leaving you to stare down at your hands. You were so strung out that you barely felt human. You wondered if you were going to be having regular breakdowns until this was over. Sometimes you truly despised how emotionally unstable you could be.

You counted to ten slowly and then back down to one. This was unacceptable – you had to calm down. So Jack was going to hate you – it wasn't the end of the world. And at least he wouldn't be dead.

You had a handle on this, and to prove it you followed in Jarvis' wake to check up on what was happening in the kitchen. What was happening turned out to be Jarvis and Ana having a moment with Jack nowhere in sight. He had a hand cupping her cheek, and she had one pressed to his chest while they just sort of leaned into each other. It was intimate and beautiful and something he'd never have participated in if he knew there was an audience.

You were just on the edge of realizing you shouldn't be watching this when Jack appeared at the end of the hallway and called out, "There you are."

You darted to the side out of the doorway, hoping to remain unseen by the couple in the kitchen. You moved to meet Jack midway, and unfortunately it wasn't until this point that you noticed the damp trails on your face. Surprised and unsure, you touched your fingers to your cheek just as you reached him and realized with a stab of shame that you were indeed crying.

"What's going on? What's wrong?" He seemed almost afraid, standing frozen a step or two in front of you.

"Nothing, nothing's wrong, I don't-" You stumbled over your words and paused to swipe anxiously at your face. "I'm fine. I'm just... I'm fine. How was bread baking?"

"It was a real adventure. Ana’s pretty great.” He seemed unconvinced of your state, but consented to making conversation none-the-less.

“So’s her husband. I suppose sometimes the right people find each other.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, and the way his lips quirked up just slightly on one side had fresh tears welling. He apparently noticed, frowning once more. "You sure you're okay?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine. I’m sorry. It's just... not stopping... for some reason." You laughed unsteadily. "I'm good – I promise. Nothing's happened. I don't even know why..."

At least you weren't willing to acknowledge why. Probably a combination of your lack of progress, your meltdown earlier, and seeing the Jarvises with their wonderful, loving marriage had stirred up something so intense that it was now leaking out through your eyes.

So you stood awkwardly in the hallway, tears still slowly trickling down your face and neither of you knowing quite what to do. Finally, Jack seemed to come to some decision, jaw tightening as he swallowed. He abruptly grabbed your hand with a muttered 'c'mon' and pulled you off deeper into the house. When you reached the room containing a familiar piano, he led you to a nearby settee and gently pushed on your shoulders until you sat. Without another word he slid onto the piano's bench and started to play.

He was trying to cheer or distract you, and as lovely as that sentiment was it had the exact opposite effect. Because he was being sweet and thoughtful when you had earned neither, and the injustice brought more tears to the surface. But you wouldn't allow yourself to be so ungrateful as to stop him, and so instead you closed your eyes and rested your head against the cushion behind you.

Maybe someday, when you were separated from Jack by years and miles, you'd be able to recall this memory with fondness instead of pain.

Chapter Text

Things were pretty uncomfortable between you and Jack for a few days after that. You still slept in his bed every night, wearing pajamas you'd stolen from Howard's room after you realized your boss wouldn't be home for quite a while (turns out, he had a lot of new production assistants). True to his word, Jack stuck to his side of the bed and never even attempted any kind of contact. In fact, he seemed hesitant to touch you at all. He treated you very gently, like a wounded animal who might burst into hysterics at any moment. You hated the strained atmosphere, hated that he thought you so weak. You’d worked so hard to prove to the real Jack that you were stronger than he gave you credit for, and now that you had a second chance you’d blown it straight out of the water. You had to do something to reestablish some equilibrium between the two of you. You just didn’t know what that would be yet.

You found him sitting by himself at the dining room table one morning (you were in the habit of sneaking out of bed early), ignoring a cup of coffee and a delicious looking array of muffins in favor of the newspaper.

“Any good news?” you chirped in an attempt at cheeriness, glancing down at the paper over his shoulder.

He grinned up at you, and for a moment everything was almost normal. “Yankees won – that’s our team, right?”

"Sure is." You smiled in return, grabbing one of the aforementioned muffins and tearing off a bite as you fell into the chair next to him. "I'm surprised you remember that."

"You know what's weird? I think I can tell you how many games the Yankees have won over the past few years, but I have no idea when your birthday is."

You slowly chewed your muffin, buying time around the fact that he’d never known that. "Well, do you remember your birthday?"

He paused thoughtfully before, "Nope."

"Maybe you've just forgotten everything that has to do with you directly. I mean, you still know how to talk and eat and play poker. You just don't remember anything about your personal life."

"I guess that makes sense – it's stupid, but it makes sense. What good does knowing that a straight beats three of a kind when I can't remember my own middle name?"

"William. You know – for future reference." Wanting to clear up the tension that had sunk into Jack's features and desperate to change the subject, you quickly perused the printed words before him. "Oh, hey, look – there's a Marx Brothers movie marathon today at the theater: Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup."

"Either those movies are very personal to me or I've never seen them."

You offered a smile at his attempted humor. "They're over fifteen years old now, but I remember scraping together the money to go see them when they came out. Never laughed so hard at anything in my life."

"Sounds like I'm missing out." He picked up his coffee, which you were sure must be a disgusting lukewarm temperature by now, and stared into like he was about to drink but paused. "Do you... wanna go?"

"To the movie marathon?" You tilted your head curiously at his intense interest in his cup. A sudden impossible thought tickled you, so you quickly hid your smile behind your muffin. "Jack William Thompson, are you asking me on a date?"

He cleared his throat awkwardly and began to swirl the coffee around in his mug. “It’s about time I did, don’t you think? We’ve been married over a month now.”

“I suppose that true,” you agreed. Now the question was whether to say yes or not. Would going lessen the boundaries you’d been ardently working to maintain? Would he see it as reopening the door you had shut so firmly after falling into the pool? On the other hand, a movie was a fairly innocent endeavor, and you did need something to put your relationship back on even ground. And didn’t he deserve some kindness? After all, you pushed him away and then cried uncontrollably without offering an explanation – putting up with that should earn the man something.

Your silence apparently wore on him because he finally looked up from his coffee with an expression so blatantly self-conscious that it made your decision for you. So you continued to pick at your muffin and asked casually, “Can I get popcorn?”

The smile that broke across his face betrayed his relief. “Sure. I’ll even throw in some Raisinets.”

“Now who could say no to a deal like that?” You returned his smile even as you fretted over this being yet another mistake. He tried to hide his obvious pleasure at your positive response by taking a drink from the cup still in his hands, and the face he made at its less-than-ideal temperature was almost worth all your worries.

Oh well – you’d wanted to see those movies anyway.

“What are we doing here?” Jack questioned a short while later when you pulled up not in front of the movie theater but the Auerbach Theatrical Agency.

“I need to pick something up.” You contemplated the situation. You didn’t want to leave Jack alone out in the open like this, but you also didn’t want to drag him needlessly from the car to pop inside for two seconds. Finally, you decided on a bit of middle ground. “Stay here – I’ll just be a moment. Don’t talk to strangers.”

You hopped out of the vehicle, doing a quick visual sweep of the surrounding area, and then stepped just inside the doorway of the S.S.R. front. After a short exchange with Rose, during which you never let the door shut fully behind you, she tossed over the purpose of your visit. Item in hand, you returned to the car; the whole thing took less than a minute.

“Here.”

“What’s this?”

“Your wallet. Peggy said they were done with it. You expect to ask a girl to the movies and then make her pay?”

“There’s still money in here,” Jack said with a hint of confusion. “I thought I was robbed.”

“You were.” You cleared your throat and shifted the car into drive. “If I had to guess, I’d say you objected and put up a bit of resistance, which was when the guy shot you. He must have lost his nerve and skedaddled without anything of value.”

“Did you just use the word ‘skedaddle’ while talking about me getting shot?”

“Yes I did.”

“Seems a bit fanciful for something that almost killed me.”

“Did kill you – twice if that insensitive quack of a psychiatrist is to be believed. But Jarvis took your stitches out yesterday, and all signs indicate that you’re going to pull through. In the end, the skedaddling robber didn’t accomplish much aside from giving us a nice, long vacation.”

"Speaking of that, do we need to get back to New York soon? I'm guessing the insurance agency is expecting me to work again sometime.”

“You’ve got quite a lot of time off coming to you. You haven’t taken a day since I’ve known you.”

“Maybe I shoulda gotten shot sooner.”

The ticket booth was worked by a slip of a girl with fluffy, blonde curls and a little button nose who looked decidedly bored until she caught sight of Jack. She immediately threw back her shoulders and bit down hard on her lips – a well-known trick for when lipstick wasn't at hand.

“Here you are, sir.” She smiled and batted her eyelashes just a tad as she passed Jack’s purchase through the window.

“Uh,” he glanced down at the single ticket in his hand and tried to smile kindly in return, “I’m actually gonna need two.”

You gave a little wave as the girl’s eyes found you for the first time, and her friendly expression quickly melted into a frown. “Of course you do.”

She passed Jack a second ticket and blandly wished you enjoyment of the show, though it came off as more disappointed than angry. Moving out of earshot, you chanced a look back to see her shoulders once more slumped with boredom. “I think we just dashed all her plans for a fairy tale wedding.”

“Too bad for her – I’m already spoken for.” He shot you a grin, hand reaching out for yours before he caught himself and shoved both into his pockets instead. This caused you to feel badly all over again – he’d just turned down the advances of a not unfortunate looking girl for a relationship with you that didn’t really exist where he wasn’t allowed the pleasure of even simple affectionate contact. What a mess.

Maybe the Marx Brothers could get your mind off it.

He led you to the concessions stand to pick up your popcorn, mood only slightly dampened by his near slip up. You both stood there for a moment, waiting for the young man behind the counter to acknowledge you, but eventually Jack had to clear his throat to break the guy out of his apparent reverie. His face promptly colored as he stuttered over the scripted greeting. Popcorn obtained, you and Jack headed for your theater.

“If the ticket girl wants a date so badly, she should just talk to the concessions boy. He's obviously dying to take her out," you mentioned off-handedly, busy delighting in the delicious smell of the bag you carried. You didn't even notice the funny look Jack was giving you.

"How do you figure?" Jack fired back, and his skeptical tone managed to drag your attention back to him.

"You practically had to knock on his head to get his attention. The boy was positively pining."

"How do you know that's what he was doing? Maybe he was thinking about baseball."

"While staring longingly at the ticket booth? Hardly."

"Maybe he's already asked her out and got shot down. That could be why he's... pining."

"Nah, he was still too hopeful for that. What we have, my good sir, is a classic case of a boy with a crush on a girl, but he's too afraid to do anything about it. At least if he asked he'd have an answer."

"Which could be no. And a lot of laughing."

"Still an answer. Better than just standing around making googly eyes," you stated with finality, sliding into a seat mid-theater.

"You really think it's that easy?" he questioned as he folded himself into the seat next to you, accepting a handful of popcorn when you offered.

You shrugged. "Granted I don't have any personal experience in this department. Still, the worst she can say is no, admittedly in a rather humiliating way, but he probably won't even remember it in a year or two. And then he wouldn't be wasting time wanting to be with someone who didn't want to be with him."

"You're talking about love like it's logical and makes sense."

"I'm not talking about love at all. Love is much too complex a subject to be sussed out before movie previews. What we're discussing is risk and reward."

"Does that make you my reward?" His expression turned smug as he helped himself to more popcorn.

"I'm pretty sure I'm still the risk," you answered as a joke, but for some reason it caused him to pause like he was about to ask what you meant by that. Fortunately for you the lights dimmed and the advertisements began, bringing an end to your conversation for the moment. You snuggled comfortably down into your seat and happily munched on your popcorn as you waited for the first movie to start.

He sat through Animal Crackers quietly, but part way through Monkey Business he leaned over to whisper, "So the one always walks like he's thrown his back out, the other always talks in that weird accent, the blonde guy never talks at all, and the last one is just... there?"

"Sometimes Zeppo sings," you replied, also leaning but still facing forward.

"Are all their movies like this?"

"Pretty much."

"Doesn't that get boring?"

You finally peeled your eyes away from the screen to look at him, too galled to be put off by the fact that you were now breathing the same air (honestly, you were probably becoming far too used to his recurring facial proximity). "Why don't you watch the rest of the movies and then tell me if you're bored?"

"I'm not-" he began, probably some argument if history was any indication, when a voice cut in from behind.

“If you two are going to neck would you do it in the back with the rest ‘em?” the man bent forward to ask grumpily. The admonishment had your spine straightening so fast you worried it might have gotten stuck. Sure, you were talking during a movie which could be annoying, but you were doing so quietly and the man didn’t have to pick a seat directly behind you – there were plenty of openings all over the theater. As if the subject of kissing wasn’t already perilous enough between you and Jack, this guy had to go and draw attention to it again. You realized too late that you’d squeezed the sparse remains of your cold popcorn too hard and crushed the puffs into crumbs.

“First date?” a soft voice lilted from your other side. The young woman separated from you by an empty seat had come in during the short break between the two movies and was now smiling at you kindly.

“Something like that.”

She must not be able to see your ring obscured by the dark and the popcorn bag.

“Don’t let that sourpuss get you down.” She sent what was probably supposed to be a glare in said sourpuss’ direction, though it was ineffectual coming from her sweet face. “You’ll notice he came to the movies alone. Besides, the two of you look so good together.”

Her sunny smile was back, and you did your best to return it. “Uh, thanks.”

With that the both of you turned back to the movie, though your attention was actually on your peripheral view of Jack, who had also straightened away from you and looked wholly uncomfortable and just a little dejected. You wanted to go back to the picture, but you couldn’t when you’d once again erected this blockade he wouldn’t understand with your unmistakable recoiling. Honestly, you were just tired of causing the man misery over and over again. And so, knowing that it was a bad idea but pretending you didn’t, you carefully reached for his hand and threaded your fingers through his. He started at the touch and stared first at your conjoined hands and then your face. You gave him a small, slightly uneasy smile and squeezed his hand to assure him the contact was intentional. After another moment of stalled surprise, his expression softened and he relaxed back into his seat, content and reassured.

Bad idea, yes, but one you decided to ignore in favor of appreciating how well your hand fit in his.

You stayed that way until the movie ended and you were given another short break to stretch. When the opening credits began for Duck Soup you didn’t renew the contact, nor did he start anything, though he didn’t seem upset by the absence. In fact, he seemed rather placid and even appeared to be entertained by the movies despite his misgivings at the repetitiousness.

Until about three-quarters of the way through when he tapped the back of his hand against the side of your leg to get your attention. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To use the facilities. I shoulda done it between shows, I know.”

Well, this wasn’t good. He was going to go off on his own where who-knows-what could happen. But what could you do? You’d already blown a gasket once when he’d disappeared to the bathroom; if you did it again he was going to think you truly mad.

“Okay,” you swallowed down your misgivings, “hurry back. The big musical number is coming up.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss that. Don’t let anyone take my seat.”

You tried to wait patiently, you really did, but the longer he was gone the more things your brain presented you with that could have gone wrong. Maybe you should have feigned your own need for a restroom and accompanied him. Would it be suspicious to follow him now with such an excuse? But what if you missed him and he came back to find you missing?

You finally decided to give him five more minutes before becoming a one-woman search party. In three he was sliding back into his seat, eyes glued to the screen.

“What took you so long?” you couldn't help but demand, realizing too late what a strange and indelicate question that was.

Instead of being offended he merely held a package out at you with a rattling shake. “I forgot your Raisinets.”

“Oh,” you accepted the box as you rapidly tried to switch mental tracks, “you didn’t need to do that.”

He turned his head to give you that smirk of his. “I promised you Raisinets, and I’m a man of my word.”

“So you are. Well, thank you.” You gave him a little, affectionate nudge with your shoulder.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, his smile genial and a tad charming. That is, until the ill-humored man behind you cleared his throat pointedly. Jack’s smile fell away as he rolled his eyes and sent you a look that spoke of shared suffering. He appeared like he was about to turn around and give your tormentor a piece of his mind, but you quickly placated him by holding out the now open box of candy. He allowed you to fill his cupped palm and then threw the whole handful into his mouth at once. Then, in a sudden fit of brazenness, you turn around to offer the box to the grump. His only response was to narrow his eyes at you and make a sort of ‘hrmphing’ noise. Shrugging off his disinterest, you made one last presentation to the friendly woman on your other side, who happily accepted, and then wriggled down in your seat to enjoy the rest of the movie.

Chapter Text

"So what's the final verdict?"

"They were funny."

"That's it? That's all you've got to say after five hours of movies?"

"They were very funny, and I liked them. Now I'm hungry."

"Fine, spoilsport. What are you in the mood for?"

"Whatever you want – I'm not feeling picky." He watched a downright impish grin take over your face and grimaced. "I'm gonna regret that, aren't I?"

"Hard to say." You tossed your trash in the nearby can as you made your way back to the lobby, shooting him another glance that spoke volumes of the mischief you were planning. As you strode towards the doors, you happened to notice the concession stand was currently unmanned. You came to a full stop when you realized why – said man-er was instead leaning up against the door frame of the ticket booth, grinning like a goof at the equally daffy girl inside who was holding her very own box of Raisinets. "Huh."

"Looks like he took the risk," Jack observed from your side. You looked up at him and his obvious amusement and then back at the two happy young people.

"And she got the reward. Smart boy, knowing that chocolate is the shortcut to a woman's heart."

"We have a codebook for women. Most of it is blank," he added when he caught your skeptical snort, "but it does mention chocolate. And Cary Grant. It's a bit outdated."

An uncontrollable giggle bubbled up from somewhere deep in your belly, and you quickly clapped a hand over your mouth so you wouldn't disturb the two new lovebirds. Jack seemed almost overly pleased with himself for eliciting that reaction. With a shake of your head and a smile that wouldn't quite fade, you led the way to the exit and out into the early evening sunlight. Jack turned in the direction of your car, but you quickly halted him with a pinched tug on his sleeve. "We can walk – it's not too far."

"To where?" he asked as if he actually expected you to tell him. Instead, you clasped your hands behind you and rocked back on your heels, eyebrows high and head slightly tilted. Then you turned sharply and began to walk in the opposite direction at a brisk pace. You barely caught his put-out huff of disbelief before the sound of footsteps signaled his following. He was beside you shortly, his longer legs eating up the distance with very little effort. "You're a handful, you know that?"

"Maybe you should consult your codebook," you shot back.

"I'm pretty sure you break every standard in that book."

"I'd think most women would, being as it's so outdated."

"Outdated or not, you're something else entirely."

"Should I take that as a compliment or an insult?" You questioned, but he merely mimicked your expression from early, coupling it with a rather smart-aleck smirk. "Cute."

"And I'm not even wearin' my spurs."

"Oh, Lord, deliver me," you pled, face tilted to the clear sky. Your banter was cut short when you pulled to a stop in front of a brightly colored shop front.

Jack regarded the sign and then turned his dour face toward you. "An ice cream parlor?"

"Problem?" You tried so hard and failed completely to keep a neutral expression in the face of his consternation.

"I thought we were getting dinner."

"We are."

"This is not real food."

"Pish posh. It is our right as grown adults to fulfill every child's fantasy to have ice cream for dinner."

"You're serious?"

"As a bullet wound." As soon as the words left your mouth you dug your teeth into your bottom lip, before trying to look petulant even as a part of you still wanted to laugh like the horrible person you are. "I'm sorry, I apologize, that was bad, very bad."

Jack's response was to cast his eyes skyward in his own plea, though his was made silently, and yank the door open. "Come on, let's get your dumb ice cream."

"Careful – I'm not afraid to withhold sprinkles." Before he could fire off a retort, you pointed out a board on the wall that listed the numerous flavors available. “Anything look good?”

He mulled over the selection, seeming almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options. “What would you recommend?”

 

You hadn’t bothered to look up when the bell over the door rang out, too engrossed in your sundae to care about incoming patrons, until a voice addressed you directly. You turned to see Jack Thompson of all people, smirking at you smugly with a hand jammed in his trouser pocket. “You following me now?”

“It would more likely be the other way ‘round, Agent Thompson, considering I’ve been occupying this stool for quite a while."

"That's Chief Thompson."

"Oh, yes, of course, you got that promotion because of all that fantastic work you did on the Stark case," you scoffed dryly. "What brings you around here? I wouldn’t have pegged you for the type to frequent ice cream parlors.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Ice cream is fun.”

“You sayin’ I’m not fun?”

“I wasn’t saying it, but you picked up on my meaning anyway, clever boy.”

“You know all that ice cream’s gonna ruin your figure, right?”

“You like my figure, Agent Thompson?” you asked snidely, purposefully dropping his old job title, and emptied another spoonful into your mouth without breaking eye contact so you could watch his jaw tick.

He opened his mouth, probably to unleash another volley of snark, but was interrupted by a young girl appearing at his elbow. “I washed my hands – that means I can have an ice cream cone, right?”

Jack’s face went through a dramatic transformation as he looked down at her, softening and easing into a warm smile. “You bet. Go pick out what flavor you want, and I’ll be there in a minute.”

She grinned and rushed away full of sugar propelled exuberance, braids flying behind her like banners. Jack turned his attention back to you, and the placid expression quickly tightened down again when he caught your dumbfounded stare. “What?”

“Where did you get yourself a child?” you questioned, undeterred by his sharp tone.

“What’s it to you?”

“Nothing, but I must say your date seems a bit on the young side.”

“She’s my cousin,” he managed to get out through gritted teeth. “She’s visiting from Oklahoma.”

The girl reappeared, tugging on Jack’s arm. “I can’t decide. What are you getting?”

The warmth was back again, making apparent his fondness for his little cousin. “I’ve always been partial to Rocky Road.”

“I don’t really like nuts that much.” She wrinkled her freckled nose in distaste.

“Then your parents sent you to the wrong cousin,” you muttered to yourself, though you managed to catch her attention in the process.

“What?” she questioned, apparently not hearing your actual words.

“The peaches and cream is fantastic,” you offered instead of your snarkier comment, “but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. They’ve got the best ice cream in all of New York.”

“That’s what he said.” She looked up to Jack for confirmation, still hanging off his arm.

“Oh really?” You met Jack’s gaze to see his eyes narrow in preemptive reprimand at the teasing expression on your face. “I guess we finally found something we can agree on.”

“Who are you?”

The question was backed by simple curiosity, lacking the ire her cousin was directing your way, so you decided to go easy on him. “A friend from work.”

“At the phone company?”

“Yeah,” you answered carefully, catching Jack’s warning look, “at the phone company. And what’s your name?”

“I’m Lucy,” she chirped happily with a friendliness you didn’t encounter much in the city.

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Jack says you’re visiting all the way from Oklahoma. What do you think of New York so far?”

“It’s huge! The buildings are so tall, and there’s so many people.”

“That’s why we needed the tall buildings. We couldn’t spread out so we had to stack everyone up.”

She giggled, relaxing into Jack’s side a little. “We’ve been to see everything: the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, even the Eiffel Tower!”

“The Eiffel Tower?”

“She means the Empire State Building,” Jack supplied.

“Yeah, that one! It’s the tallest building I ever seen!”

“Me too.” You chuckled quietly at the little girl’s enthusiasm. “It’s awfully nice you’ve got your own personal tour guide to show you all these things.”

You almost laughed out loud at the surprised look that crossed Jack’s face, but Lucy was already plowing on. “He’s the best! He promised to buy me ice cream if I didn’t get myself kidnapped.”

“Now there’s a good deal.” Your words shook with your repressed mirth. You took a moment to check your wristwatch and discovered how late it had gotten. “Oops, I’ve got to dash. Lucy, it was truly an honor to meet you.”

“Thanks! It was nice to meet you, too!”

“Oh, and Lucy,” you leaned conspiratorially as you stood, “you take good care of that cousin of yours, all right? You never know what kind of trouble he’ll get himself into.”

“Don’t worry – I’ll keep him in line.” She nodded solemnly, and you couldn't resist reaching out to give her shoulder a squeeze.

“Good girl,” you straightened, and just because you were feeling friendly you gave Jack a couple pats on his shoulder as well. “You two enjoy your ice cream.”

You didn’t look back as you pushed through the door, but you did manage to overhear Lucy asking the soda jerk for a cone of peaches and cream before it swung closed behind you.

 

“Try Rocky Road.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You liked it before. And it’s got nuts in it, so it’s almost like real food.”

He apparently still liked it, as he ate two scoops without complaint. ‘Dinner’ taken care of found you heading back in the direction of your vehicle. Between the movies, the dessert, and the overall minimal awkwardness in your conversations, you were in a ridiculously good mood, practically skipping down the street humming to yourself. Jack for his part was keeping stride with you, and generally looked amused by your jocularity.

“Thank you,” you eventually broke the comfortable silence, and continued after catching his inquisitive expression, “for taking me to the movies.”

“Thanks for the ice cream. Even if it doesn’t really count as dinner.”

You had a retort poised and ready to launch, but then you heard a strange noise and a shout of surprise. Looking up you saw that you’d just walked under a pulley lifting a new window to an upper story. Something seemed to have come loose because it was now swinging precariously away from its intended destination. Seconds later you realized the mechanism was failing and the window was now hurtling down with the force of gravity straight towards you and Jack.

With the only coherent thought in your mind to protect Jack, you launched yourself forward to shove at his chest. At the same time, his hands closed vice-like around your upper arms and he forcibly swung your body around until you were on the opposite side of him. Still, you’d built up some steam, and the momentum pulled him a few more steps forward, causing him to stumble into you until you were both out of the way just as the glass hit the sidewalk and shattered impressively.

Your hands clutched his shirt while your face was pressed somewhere near his shoulder. You swallowed hard, trying to gather your bearings. You pulled back to find him staring at you in concern.

“You hurt?” he demanded, and you shook your head.

“You?”

“I’m fine.”

“Woah, you two all right?” One of the workers operating the pulley jogged up.

Jack abandoned his grip on your arms but still kept his hand near you, in case of collapse you supposed, as he turned to face the man, rage clear in the tight clench of his jaw. “You tryin’ to kill somebody?”

Jack’s heated accusation pushed the man back a step, scratching his head. “I dunno what happened – never had it give out like that before.”

“You damn sure better figure it out. Nobody around here wants to go home with a skull full-a glass.” Jack didn’t wait for a response. He proceeded to guide you the rest of the way to the car with his hand pressed to your back near your hip, arm almost protective around you. “You want me to drive?” he offered when you reached the vehicle.

“No, I’m okay.” You turned and his arm fell away. You caught sight of red staining his shirt collar, and reached up to tug it down so you had a clear view of his neck. “You’re bleeding,” you murmured, hand trembling slightly.

He reached back to run his fingers over the area in question and then stoically regarded the red smeared over them. “It’s not bad. A shard must’ve caught me.”

You breathed slowly through your nose to calm your nerves and dug your handkerchief out of your handbag. “Here, hold this on there.”

“No, I don’t want to ruin it,” he protested, taking in the frilly edges of the dainty material.

“It’s just a handkerchief, Jack.” At your insistence he accepted, taking the cloth gently and pressing it to the small wound. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

The rest of your evening was uneventful by comparison. When you arrived back at Howard's, you forced Jack to let Jarvis tend to the cut on his neck; the injury really wasn't that detrimental, but you needed to keep him occupied so you could call Peggy. The incident with the window may very well have been a coincidence, but you had a hard time accepting that it could be something so innocent. Peggy was inclined to agree with you and promised to head out straight away to investigate.

You returned to find Jarvis securing some gauze over Jack's sterilized wound, declaring that he wouldn't need stitches. At least that was something to be thankful for – it'd have been disheartening after he'd just gotten the others out. Jack rolled his shoulder, testing the give of the dressing. You watched him quietly, absently worrying your fingers, and hardly noticed when Jarvis took his leave.

"Some day, huh?" Jack's smile was small but still sincere. "Can't say I pictured it ending like this."

For sanity's sake you decided not to ask him what he had pictured. You did take a step closer, needing to somehow reinforce that he was still here. You'd allowed yourself to get wrapped up in a false sense of security to the point you'd forgotten to keep your awareness open for signs of ever-present danger. You should have been better – he deserved better.

Your new proximity meant he now had to tilt back somewhat to see your face, and apparently what he saw was cause for concern. Almost reflexively he reached out to take your hand, pulling it from your own grasp to bring a halt to your fidgeting. "You okay?"

The correct answer was no, but it seemed inconsiderate when faced with everything that had happened to him. You stared down at your connected hands and instead remarked softly, "You ask me that a lot."

"I guess I worry about you a lot."

You looked up to see his blue eyes smiling at you. "That seems backwards."

"I like to think of it as an even trade."

"I'm sorry," you blurted, grip tightening around his fingers. "I wasn't paying attention, and I didn't... I should have seen it, I should have-" You cut off because you could feel a sob building in your throat. You swallowed it back down and half-coughed, gaze falling away from his again in shame.

"Hey, hey, woah, what are you talking about?" He ducked in an effort to regain eye contact, but you instead fixated on the stark white of his new bandage.

You gently brushed the fingertips of your unencumbered hand over the dressing and the laceration you knew it concealed. "It's my fault. I should have seen it, and you only got hurt because you put yourself in front of me."

"Let's get one thing straight." He stood so that your hand ran down his chest to his abdomen before you could think to pull it away. "I will always get between you and whatever is trying to hurt you."

You shook your head. "You shouldn't."

"I will," he insisted, expression hard and set.

"I suppose we'll be circling a lot, then, you and I." The statement came out a lot more earnestly than the blithe sentiment you'd intended to lessen the tension. At least it still brought a smile back to his face.

"And another thing," he began, slowly drawing you forward until his free arm could hug around your back and his chin press to your temple, unaware of your now unblinking stare half-filled with the solid line of his shoulder. Your fingers unintentionally curled into the fabric covering his ribs. "Nothing that's happened is your fault. You can't anticipate everything."

He had a point. You certainly hadn't anticipated anything like this moment. The thought pulled a choking kind of laugh from you which caused him to ease back so he could see your expression. The close quarters seemed to bring him a realization, and he stepped back, calves knocking into his vacated chair. Still, his fingers remained hitched to yours even as his other arm fell back to his side, as if reluctant to give up touching you completely.

"Sorry," he offered with a slight smile that looked almost painful, "I promised to stop doing that."

"No, it's okay. I appreciate the... the comfort." The words sounded awkward even to you and brought color to your cheeks. He, of course, noticed, and his smile immediately morphed into a smirk. So you smacked him on the shoulder and laughed, because everything in your life was ridiculous and at least for the moment you just couldn't fight it anymore.

Not that such a sense of serenity could last very long.

You called Peggy the next morning. The scene had been completely vacated when she arrived – not even a shard of glass still remained on the sidewalk. If your doubts about the "accident" had been shaky before, they solidified with this new development – why would everything have been cleared out so quickly and completely unless something malicious was going on? She had obtained information on the company contracted to replace the window, so it appeared her afternoon was spoken for.

Not a second after you laid the receiver down did the phone take up ringing. Startled, you picked it up again. "Hello, Stark residence."

"How you doing, sweetheart?"

"Howard?"

"Don't tell me you've forgotten my voice already! I've only been gone a couple days."

"It's been almost a week, Howard."

"Semantics. Look, I need a favor."

"You leave for a week without even saying goodbye, and now you want a favor?"

"I was in a hurry, and you were preoccupied. C'mon, sweetheart, don't be mad at me."

"What do you want?"

"I need you to come here."

"To the set? Why?"

"I require your help with something."

"With what?"

"I'd really rather explain it in person."

"You mean that if you told me now I wouldn't come."

"See, you're the only one who really understands me. How soon can you get here?"

"Howard, I can't. Jarvis took Ana to the park. What am I supposed to do with Jack?"

"Bring him. Next to the house, Stark Pictures is the safest place you could be. Aren't you supposed to be taking the guy to familiar places to jog his memory?"

"I don't think the first memory we want him to recover is the time we all almost got sucked into a dark vortex of indeterminate evil."

"Would you rather he spend the rest of his life an amnesiac as you continue to play his wife? Wait, that's not what you want, right?"

"Of course not."

"Then what's the problem? Two birds, one stone. C'mon, I need you."

"Fine. Fine! Just stop wheedling."

"I don't wheedle. I charm."

"We do not understand that word the same way."

"See you soon, sweetheart."

"Yeah, yeah."

The security guard recognized you easily and waved your car right through. Jack had been quiet most of the ride, watching the scenery pass through his window. It wasn't until you both alighted from the vehicle that he spoke up. "What are we doing here again?"

"Howard needs a favor – he wouldn't say what."

"I thought you didn't work for him anymore."

"Which is why this is a favor. Come on, it's a movie set for a comic book – your inner child has to be at least a little excited."

"I think my inner child is still comatose from all the sugar we had for dinner last night."

It didn’t take long to track down the location where Howard was shooting – the flurry of activity was an unmistakable indicator. You managed to pinpoint the man himself at the epicenter, and when you eventually grabbed his attention you found yourself swept up into a hug that began and ended so quickly you almost lost your footing.

"You're finally here!"

"We just hung up all of an hour ago."

"The whole world can fall apart in an hour, and don't you forget it."

"I hope you didn't call me out here to save the entire world."

"Just mine. See, we're getting ready to shoot the musical number in the saloon."

"Okay. So what do you need me for? " You questioned when he didn't elaborate any further. His only reply was to clear his throat and look at you expectantly. Your expression immediately locked down into a glare. "No."

"Come on, sweetheart-"

"I told you no back in beginning."

"I know, I remember, but I-"

"I thought you got some big-name star to do it."

"I do! But apparently being so famous is exhausting and often requires hours of rest between fifteen minute takes."

"So recast the role."

"I can't! She's the most well-known actress in the whole picture – I lose her, I lose my headliner. What I need is to get this scene all worked out so we can get it in one take the next time she's feeling up to doing her job."

"You have a blatantly unnecessary amount on production assistants – throw one of them in there."

"They don't have the chops for something like this."

"Then use an extra. I'm sure any one of them would love the opportunity to do something more than stand around with her cleavage on display."

"They don't know the scene like you do. No one does."

That was certainly true enough. When one of the writers had suggested that a musical number might be a fun addition, you'd immediately pitched this idea. Then you'd worked with the choreographer for weeks giving your vision feet. It was colorful and humorous and something you were admittedly proud of. Even so, you'd told Howard repeatedly that you didn't want a part in the actual scene. Yet here you were, allowing him to give you that look that always wore on your resolve.

"I just need to get the scene blocked – that's all I'm asking." And then he delivered the final blow. "Please?"

You held out for as long as you could, creating something of a staring contest with your "friend". But then you brought your hands up to cover your face and let a growl of frustration build in the back of your throat.

"That's my girl!" He crowed and slapped a hand to your shoulder, and then completely ignored your glare from between your fingers as he continued, "You wanna put on the costume?"

"Don't push it."

"All right, all right, no costume. Let's get you into position." He slid his hand to the base of your neck so he could steer you onto set. At that moment you remembered the man who’d been trailing behind you as you sought out Howard. You planted your feet, refusing to move any further as you looked back and found Jack standing with his hands in his pockets, eyeing everything blankly.

"Sorry, I have to, um... this'll only take a minute, okay?"

He nodded once slowly. "Sure."

"I'll be right back. Just... just wait here."

"Okay."

You allowed Howard to finish dragging you over to a raised stage. Once there, he turned you once again to take hold of both your shoulders like he was readying you for battle. "You already know how most of this is gonna go, and everyone else pretty much knows their parts. So just go with the flow until we can figure out what works and what doesn't. Capiche?"

"Aye aye, captain," you deadpanned, still rather put out by this whole ordeal. You planted your palms on the surface behind you so that you could hoist yourself up to sit. Howard stepped forward and bracketed your hands with his.

"You sure you don't wanna put on the dress? Might help you get into character."

You leaned forward and dropped your voice. "I am not afraid to deck you in front of all these people. No one would even question me."

One side of his mouth quirked up in that little half-smirk of his. "Break a leg, sweetheart."

"I'd rather break your leg," you muttered, but he was already gone. Carefully, so that everything important stayed covered, you stood and smoothed your skirt back down as you moved to what you believed to be your mark. You automatically sought out Jack once you'd gotten into position. He was standing off to the side, like he was trying to stay as far out of the way as possible. You offered up a wobbly smile when his eyes met yours, one he returned though he still looked like he'd rather be anywhere else. Maybe he was picking up on the negative emotions of last time's near disaster, even if he couldn't explicitly remember it.

You tore your gaze away – this was going to be embarrassing enough without seeing him see it – and found Howard again. He appeared to be having a few words with his assistant director who shortly scurried off. Then Howard's eyes swept the various bodies sprinkling the stage. His "everybody ready?" was met with various noises of affirmation, and then he looked to you for final confirmation. When you nodded reluctantly, he motioned to a man sitting behind an old looking piano. "All right, let's go. Action."

You took a deep breath as he hit the first chord, and then started in. "Opportunity, opportunity is knockin' at your door." You stomped three times, your heel making a rapping sound. From the corner of your eye, you thought you might have seen Jack smile again, but you didn't have time to focus on that. "Opportunity knocks but once and don't come back no more."

The first time you'd heard the song you knew it would be perfect for the scene you'd imagined so vividly. You'd convinced Howard to buy the rights to use it, and then met with Julia Lee yourself to negotiate the deal. It had been modified slightly, becoming less jazzy and more old west saloon, but the tempo and emphasis remained very much the same.

After the first few lines the pace picked up significantly, and the actors around you burst into frenzied activity, interlacing what would have otherwise been a fluffy musical number with a juxtaposition of fighting, gambling, and drunkeness. The idea was to have Kid Colt's love interest attempting to put on a show in the midst of this chaos, dodging in and out of unruly patrons as she went. It was supposed to serve as a spectacle while at the same time fitting in with the movie’s tone as a whole.

You were so immersed in trying to remember what was supposed to happen that you almost missed Howard gesturing at you emphatically of put more umph into your performance. You rolled your eyes but complied – if you had to do this, at least you were going to do it to the best of your ability. A short instumental break came on in which you knew the singer wouldn't be featured in favor of exploring the action in the rest of the bar. You took the time to assess everything around you, more and more of the plotting coming back to you.

You stepped to the side just as two men landed where you previously stood, one pinning the other down by his shirt front. You jabbed the one on top with the toe of your shoe to get his attention and then held your hand out. Another cowboy appeared at your other side just as the lyrics picked up again. As you sang "grab it on the left, grab it on the right" they took hold of your respective hands and lowered you to the floor. The first man was knocked back as his opponent roused himself from the stage to renew their tussle, leaving the second to tug on your arm, twirling you into his body just in time for "grab it in the middle and hold it tight."

"You better snatch and grab it, snatch and grab it."
He tilted his hat back like he was preparing to lean in, but instead you winked and grabbed his whiskey off the table next to him with your free hand and threw it back like it was water (it was apple juice).

"Better snatch and grab it, baby, 'fore it gets away."

You twisted back out of his arms and stepped up on a nearby chair, allowing yet another man to hand you back up onto the stage while you held your skirt out of the way.

The rest of the song involved sashaying about the platform, ducking under a glass as it shattered against the wall, stepping over a drunk who dared pass out on your stage, and another instrumental break you knew would be overcut with a short dialogue. By the end you couldn't deny that you were having fun. You may not have Julia's voice, but you thought you were at least doing her song justice.

You were mildly surprised when a completely new man vaulted onto the stage as the song was winding down – you didn't remember this part, but changes had probably been made while you were gone. You would just follow the guy's lead and hope you didn't throw everything off. However, nothing could prepare you for when he grabbed you up around the waist and planted a big one right on your lips as the last plunks of the piano rang out.

He ended the kiss, you too caught off guard to move yourself, and smiled at you roguishly as Howard called cut. Your shock wore off quickly, and you couldn’t help but giggle at him. That was going to add punch to the movie, and would serve as a source of friction for Kid. You almost wished you had thought of it.

You didn't even see Jack until he'd whirled the actor around with a firm grip on his shoulder and slammed his fist right into the cowboy's nose.

Chapter Text

Your mouth fell open as you watched the man drop like his strings had been cut. He landed soundly on his posterior, hand immediately coming up to cover his face.

"Are you crazy or somethin'?" He snapped, sounding stuffed from all the blood now gushing from his injured nose.

"Why don’t you keep your hands off my wife?" Jack seethed, fist clenched like he might have a second go.

"Wife?" The man looked from Jack to you in confusion, and you finally snapped out of your stupor.

"Jack Thompson, what do you think you're doing?" you hissed, your own fingers curling into your palms.

"What am I doing? What are you doing?" he returned, eyes alight with his rage, almost to the point of setting you back if your ingrained stubbornness hadn't rebelled so fiercely at the thought.

"I was helping Howard block a scene until some maniac decided to try and start a fist fight."

"I'm a maniac, am I?"

"I have a list of other descriptive words if you'd prefer a different term. I know a really good one that starts with 'a'."

"Hey, you two!" Howard barked, striding through the astonished crowd. "Take it outside."

"Howard-"

"I don't want to hear it right now. Just go have your lovers' spat somewhere else."

You glared at Howard and his choice of words, but your anger at him was tempered by your anger at yourself and Jack and your embarrassment at the whole situation. And so you turned back to Jack, who didn't look like he was quite ready to leave his victim in peace yet. With a firm shove to his shoulder, you pushed him to the edge of the stage where he hopped down. The next thing you knew his hands were wrapped around your waist as he pulled you to the floor as well. You heard him suck air in through his teeth and almost railed into him about pushing himself too much, but the attention of everyone around you pressed in too heavily. Instead you silently grabbed hold of his arm and dragged him out the door, studiously ignoring all the stares.

You only managed to make it a short distance before your temper had you whirling around to face him. "What was that about?"

"You've got some nerve – you know that?" His eyes were narrowed and so hot you almost expected the blue to start boiling.

"I've got nerve?" Your eyebrows shot up in disbelief.

"You kiss some guy in front of a room full of people, and you wanna know why I'm upset?"

"For a scene in a movie! It wasn't real!" You were having trouble controlling your volume in the face of his ludicrous affront to such a benign interaction.

"Yeah, well, why should that guy get to kiss my wife when I can't?"

That actually did set you back. All the anger melted from your face as he swallowed and averted his gaze, hands once again shoved deep into his pockets. He seemed almost ashamed of his admission, which only made you feel worse.

"I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't think about it like that. I should have."

"Just tell me something…” He sighed heavily and looked back at you, his fight gone as well. “Why him? What makes him so much better?"

You paused for an extended moment, unable to look away from his eyes that had become so discouraged in the wake of his waning rage. "It didn't mean anything with him. It would with you."

"How is that a bad thing?" His ire was sparking again.

"Because it wouldn't mean the same thing to you as it would to me, and that's not fair to either of us."

"Maybe I don't care," he scoffed almost petulantly, but the dissipation of your own anger had left an almost firm serenity in its place.

"Maybe you should."

He watched you in silence for a few beats before echoing, "Maybe I should." He pulled his hands from this pockets to rub over his face, suddenly looking exhausted.

"Hey," you called softly so he'd look at you again, "next time I upset you, can you maybe just… use your words instead of your fists?”

He snorted. "I'll try. But I don't know what everybody is so upset for. I was just making him look authentic – you think a real cowboy'd still have a face that pretty?"

You covered up your giggle with a cough and tried to look stern. "That's not funny."

"Then why are you laughing?"

"I'm not." Snicker, cough. "By the way, the guy you clocked is named Benny, and he's planning on proposing to his girl on her birthday next week."

He didn’t even have the decency to pretend to be contrite. “She’s bound to say yes now with that shiner. Women go crazy for that kind of thing.”

“You read that in your codebook?” you questioned, tone dry.

“Page 32, right after always noticing when a girl gets a new hairdo.”

Howard chose that moment to appear, preventing you from coming back with anything clever. “You two make up?”

“We’ll live to fight another day,” you offered mildly.

“So will Benny, though you wouldn’t know it from his whining." Howard rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You’d think the guy had never taken one to the face before.”

Jack heaved another sigh. “Sorry about that – guess I overreacted a little.”

“Don’t worry about it. The punch actually worked really well with the scene, so we’re going to keep it in for the movie.”

“What do you know?” you chuckled, raising an eyebrow at Jack. “Maybe you have a future in pictures.”

“No thanks, I think I’ve had my fill of Hollywood,” he grimaced.

“You could finally wear those spurs,” you goaded, smiling as the rest of the agitation left his body with his smirk.

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“I don’t think I wanna hear this. What you two get up to is your own business.” Howard looked mildly disgusted, which made you glower at him.

“Don’t be so perverse. Are you all set for when your starlet makes her next appearance?” you deftly switched subjects.

“Yeah, I think we’re good to go. Unless you’ve changed your mind…?”

“Not a chance. I told you – I have no interest in seeing myself on the big screen. And you’ve got the big star, remember?”

“You know I’d drop her in a second for you, sweetheart.” He gave you a side hug and went in for his customary kiss to your temple, but you quickly turned before his lips could make contact.

“This was…fun.” You patted his chest amiably, trying to ignore his surprised expression. “We’ll see you the next time you decide to make an appearance at the house.”

“Sure.” He dropped his arm and took an obvious step back. You tried to smile at him in a way that communicated your apology and reason behind the evasive maneuver, but an expression can only say so much. When had your life gotten to the point that no matter what you did you were always disappointing someone?

Jack must have noticed your mood drop, but he held off asking until you reached the car. “Are you-”

“I’m fine,” you broke in, reading the ever familiar question. “Just… a bit tired from all the excitement.”

He nodded in understanding, sitting quietly as you drove off the lot and joined the midafternoon traffic. After a few more moments he began a new conversation. “Why didn’t you want to wear that costume Howard was talking about?”

“If you’d seen it you wouldn’t have to ask. It’s absolutely garish. There are feathers involved.”

“Is that why you didn’t want to help Howard with the scene?”

“Maybe in part, but mostly I knew it would just make Howard think he’d be able to talk me into doing the movie, too. That, and I don’t like to sing in front of people.”

“You didn’t have a problem singing in front of me.”

“You’re not people,” you huffed. “You’re you.”

You heard him inhale like he was about to ask something else, but the question never came. Instead he let the breath out slowly, eventually saying, “You were really good. It’s no wonder that Howard wanted you.”

“Your bias is showing again,” you deadpanned, checking an intersection before executing a turn, pretending that you were being cautious and not avoiding eye contact.

“Just because I’m biased doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

“Maybe we should have told him about your musical talent. He could have cast you as the piano player.”

“Rather be the guy throwing the punches.”

“You already played that part.”

“And I did a really great job, apparently.”

“You’re a natural.”

Back at the house you left Jack to his own devices for a while, figuring you could both use some time apart to let the leftover tensions fully disperse. On the way to your room you passed Peggy’s, and found her present for once. She was a contained tornado of activity, methodically shoving things into a small bag.

“Are you going somewhere?” you asked from the doorway.

If your sudden presence surprised her she didn’t show it. “Yes, actually: London. We’ve got a lead I’m going to investigate.”

“From the window company?”

“No, that turned out to be a dead end – the manager said they were scheduled to install a new window, but not until next week." She spoke rapidly, flurried movement never ceasing. "He had no idea who was there yesterday, but he swears all of his men are accounted for, and unfortunately he has the records to prove it. However, I called the New York office earlier to check in on how they were doing being left on their own, and the agent I spoke with happened to mention that Jack recently made a trip to London without any explanation. I did a little digging and found out a man who now works in a former S.O.E. office keeping records also attended the same college as Jack around the same time.”

“You think that’s how Jack got hold of the file.”

“It’s a good possibility – one I’d like to look into further.”

“How long are you going to be gone?”

“That depends on how quickly I can find out what this man knows.”

“Leaving soon?”

“There’s a flight taking off in a few hours, and I intend to be on it.” She finally looked up from her packing to assess you fully. “And you, how are you doing? Everything with Jack going well?”

“I suppose. He punched somebody today,” you announced, absentmindedly twisting the rings on your finger.

“He what?” She seemed more curious and amused than aghast.

“It’s a long story, and you have a plane to catch. The point is it was a very Jack-like thing to do, and by now I’m taking even the smallest of victories.”

“If we’re lucky, we’ll have some bigger victories very soon.” She threw the clasps on her bag and prepared to hurry out. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact Chief Sousa. I’ll send word as soon as I have something solid.”

“Be careful, Peg. Whatever that file is, it’s bad business.”

“Take care of yourself as well. I know this has all been overwhelming, but you’ve far exceeding anything we could possibly ask of you. Just hang on a little while longer. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Then she was gone with a swish of her skirt. You took a moment to lean against the wall and take a deep breath. Peggy had become something of a safety blanket for you, always knowing what to do and saving everyone from evil. Without her you suddenly felt defenseless. But she believed in you, and that had to count for something. With refortified resolve you straightened and continued on your way, chanting a new mantra in your head with each step.

Just a little while longer, just a little while longer, just a little while longer…

Sleep didn't come easily that night, and at first you thought the reason had to do with your anxiety over Peggy's absence. But then you realized that wasn't it at all – the problem was the quiet. Jack never quite snored, but his breathing was always audible, deep and rhythmic as he slept. That you couldn't hear him now was somewhat worrisome. You rolled over to find he too was awake, lying on his back with linked hands resting on this diaphragm.

"What's wrong?" you asked quietly, the darkness of the room pressing your voice down to a whisper.

"Nothing – just thinking," he matched your volume, eyes still on the ceiling.

"'Bout what?"

"Why you're still here."

You propped yourself up on your elbow so you could better see his face in the scant moonlight allowed in through the curtains. "Where else would I be?"

"Where would you rather be?" His gaze shifted to yours, face still blank and without a hint of sarcasm.

"...I don't understand."

"Everything that's happened," he lifted a hand to wave around before dropping it to his chest once more, "I'm sure it's not what you signed up for. You must have had a different idea of what this all was gonna look like."

"You're not wrong." You curled your arm under your head as you lay back down. "But 'for better or worse', right?"

He scowled at the air above him. "Yeah, well, what are you supposed to do when all you get is worse?"

"We've had better, too." You smiled at him when he turned to you with a challenging expression. "Playing cards, reading books, movies and popcorn, surviving everything that’s happened. The worse just helps us know when we have the better."

He studied you in silence, and you had to force yourself not to look away from his intense scrutiny. Despite everything you'd done with him, this loaded conversation in the dark felt like the most intimate.

"Would you change it?" His question finally shattered the quiet. "Knowing what you know now, would you go back and refuse to be my wife?"

Your heart stuttered so badly it hurt. How could you answer that? Of course you'd rather not have had to walk this path, but not for the reasons he'd think – not because he wasn't worth all the trouble. If it kept him safe you'd pretend to be his wife over and over again.

"No, I wouldn't change it." You were probably more surprised than he was by the truth in that statement.

He was watching you again, and you tried not to squirm.

"Sometimes I don't believe you're real," he said, the words sounding like a confession, eyes running over your face even as your breath stalled in your lungs. "I think I must still be unconscious in the hospital and I've dreamed up all of this."

You weren't sure how to respond to that, so you simply reached forward and gently pinched the skin near his elbow. "Feel that?"

He smiled for the first time since he'd started talking. "Yeah."

"Guess you're not dreaming then." You retracted your hand to pluck at the blanket between you. "Though maybe you should start. It's getting pretty late."

You didn't even jump when his hand covered yours and squeezed.

"Sorry to keep you up."

"I don't mind."

He gave your hand another little squeeze and then released it, rolling over to his side until you were met with the broad expanse of his back. You fisted the hand still warmed from his touch and pulled it closer to tuck under your chin.

Just a little while longer...

Chapter Text

Your hair was tickling your face. You brushed at it impatiently, trying not to wake up completely. You tucked your hand back under your chin, intent on falling back under as soon as possible. But then your hair returned, this time running over your nose so that you exhaled sharply trying to redirect it. You shifted so that your face was further buried in the pillow, but as you felt the tickling move to your cheek you knew continued sleep was now out of your grasp. With a small displeased noise, you blinked open your eyes to find Jack twirling a section of your hair between his fingers.

“Mornin’, sunshine,” he greeted blithely when he saw your glare.

“You are walking a dangerous line, cowboy.” You were oddly grateful for the morning gruffness in your voice – it made you sound more threatening.

He, however, remained wholly unaffected, continuing to smirk down at you. “And here I thought you were a morning person.”

“What are you doing up so early anyway?”

“You better check the time again – it’s not all that early.”

A glance at the clock confirmed this. It was almost nine, hours after you were normally out of bed. You must have stayed up later than you thought.

You took in Jack’s grinning face as he continued to run his thumb over the strands of hair in his grasp. “What’re you so happy about?” you questioned bitterly.

“I’m just not used to waking up with you still here. Think I might like it.”

Oh, heaven help me.

“And you thought the best way to celebrate this was to poke me in the face with my own hair?” you groused, pulling the hair from his fingers and smoothing it back into some semblance of order. He just shrugged his free shoulder, smile never fading. “In that case, since you’re so excited to wake up, we might as well get going.”

That knocked his smile clean off. He let out an extended groan, flopping onto his back and throwing his bare arm over his face. “Get going on what? What could we possibly have to do? I’m an invalid.”

“Oh, please, the last thing you are is an invalid,” you scoffed, trying to drum up some exasperation instead of the amusement that made you want to smile at him with sickening fondness.

“No, really, I think I pulled something yesterday.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t go around picking fights.”

“We should probably stay in bed. Just in case.”

“Fine, you stay in bed. I’ve got things to do.” You didn’t, but there was no way you were going to lounge around in bed with him. Who knows what that might lead to?

He lowered his arm to watch as you sat up. “Now where’s the fun in that?”

You were too busy rolling your eyes to notice his hand snaking behind you to grab the far side of the sheet still covering your body. One swift yank had you toppling back over with a yelp, arms pinned to your sides by the impromptu bindings. The bedspread fell over your face, partially obscuring your field of vision.

“Jack Thompson!” you exclaimed around a laugh you hadn’t agreed to as you peered at him over the edge of the blue expanse.

“Yes?” He was the picture of innocence, all the while holding fast to the sheet as you attempted to escape.

“You can’t just tie me up to keep me in bed. You’re not a caveman.”

“Jack capture. Belong to Jack now.” He grunted furrowing his brow to make a ridiculous face that had you giggling anew. You managed to wriggle one of your hands over the top of the sheet to push the bedspread back from your face, taking a deep breath of the cooler air outside. Jack’s face smoothed back to normal, almost content as he looked down at you from his elbow. You hated to take that away from him, but you knew very well what would happen if you both stayed in this room much longer. To your knowledge Peggy was the only one aware of your new sleeping arrangement, and you very much wanted to keep it that way.

"That’s not how it works.”

“Then how do I keep you?” His tone changed enough to set you on edge.

“By feeding me when I’m hungry. Like right now.”

"You yelled at me the last time I tried to make you eat.”

"I wasn't hungry then – now I am.”

"Still doesn’t keep you here.”

“Jarvis is going to wonder where we are.”

“Let him. Guy worries too much.”

“But then he’ll come check to make sure you’re okay.” And you didn’t want him walking in on this.

Jack heaved a great sigh and released your blanket prison. “Why does he have to be such a nervous Nellie?”

“You’re an invalid, remember?”

Jarvis was indeed concerned when you and Jack showed up to breakfast later than normal, but you quickly assured him that you’d both just overslept. He still seemed uneasy, and Ana was smiling like she knew something. Since you couldn't identify the extent of her knowledge, you decided the best course of action was to pretend nothing was out of the ordinary.

"You two have any big plans for today?" Ana questioned as you took your time spreading jam on a cold piece of toast (a downside of late hour).

"Yesterday I punched somebody, so I don't think she's in any hurry to let me out of the house again," Jack muttered, eyes on the newspaper Jarvis had considerately saved for him.

Said butler paused, rattling the dishes he'd been collecting. "Oh dear..."

You just rolled your eyes. Of course Jack would be so nonchalant about socking a guy. He even sounded a tad proud of himself.

"I actually hadn't thought about what to do," you answered fluidly as if Jack hadn't spoken. "We've had an exciting few days. Maybe some quiet time at home would do us some good."

"We flyin' back to New York?" Jack glanced up at you, eyebrow cocked, when you didn't answer immediately. "Isn't that home?"

And just like that everything was awkward. Jarvis kind of coughed and tried to casually return to gathering dishes, fleeing to the house soon after, while Ana couldn't seem to decide whether to watch you or Jack.

"Home can be more than one place," you proposed, finding an outlet for your need to fidget in brushing at the crumbs on the table. "This time I was referring to here. Are you in that much of a hurry to get back?"

"Not really." He shrugged, focus back on his paper, completely immune to the tense atmosphere he'd created. "Seems like there's still a lot of California I haven't seen. Or remember seeing."

Well, now that was interesting. You had no idea where he might have visited before the shooting. Had he made time to check out any of the tourist attractions? Gone to any of the places Los Angeles was known for?

An idea began to take shape, and you didn't even realize you were smiling until Ana asked you curiously, "What are you thinking of?"

"Nothing really." You looked between her and Jack, whose attention you'd regained. "I just figured out what we're going to do today."

Jack waited expectantly for you to share, but when you instead took a bite of your toast, he let out a resigned sigh. Ana was giving you that look again, causing your own mischievous expression to slip away.

"Why do you look like you know what I'm getting for my birthday and you're just waiting for me to ask?" You watched her warily as her smile simply widened.

"I look forward to hearing all about your escapades later. You two have fun." She stood abruptly and swept off after Jarvis, leaving you to glance at Jack in bewilderment.

"Don't look at me. I don't even know what you're thinking most of the time."

"Right now I'm thinking we should go get ready. We've already lost most of the morning."

"Ready for what?"

"An adventure," you announced dramatically, which was met with a deadpan stare. "Don't worry – you'll like it, I promise. Probably."

"If you say so. But what do you mean 'get ready'?"

"Come with me – I'll show you."

You practically skipped down the halls to your shared bedroom while he trudged along a step or two behind. Once you'd reached your destination you shoved him through the doorway with a hurried 'wait here' and darted away. Upon your return you found him still standing just past the threshold, looking like he didn't quite know what he should be doing. With a grin you presented to him the shirts you'd gone to collect. He eyed them and then you, his jaw set.

"I'm not wearing any of those."

"You have to. It's important for today's agenda." You shook the handful of brightly color fabrics at him for emphasis.

"Why?" He demanded, posture not giving an inch.

"Because if we're going to be tourists we need to look the part."

"Tourists," he repeated flatly.

"Yes, there's a lot of California you haven't seen yet." You thought his expression might have softened just a bit, but he still made no move to do as you wished. With a sigh you extracted one of the shirts, a sunny yellow concoction, and shoved the rest into his chest, surprising him enough that he hands came up to catch them. "Here, I'll wear one too so we'll match."

The garment was huge, purchased by Howard for Jarvis shortly after the relocation to the west coast. The butler had promptly packed it and every other one in a box, never again to see the light of day. It hung down almost to mid-thigh on your significantly shorter frame, so you left the bottom buttons undone in order to tie the tails up at your waist. It still billowed ridiculously and was sure to be warm over top of the blouse you were already wearing, but overall you didn't think it was too, too awful.

Satisfied, you held your arms up in presentation to Jack. "See? Not so bad, right?"

He stared at you as if waiting for you to back down and call the joke, but you merely raised a challenging eyebrow. With a huff he dumped the pile on the bed. "Fine. But if I punch somebody today it's gonna be your fault."

"Hey now, that's not Hawaiian shirt talk," you teased as he stripped off his white button down to swap in one colored in shades of blue with palm trees scattered about.

"Good?" He asked grumpily, obviously not pleased with how the situation had turned out.

"Perfect," you answered with less than total sarcasm. It did look good on him, the color bringing out the different blues in his eyes and shorter sleeves showing off the hard work he put in with weights. You turned your gaze to the dresser, taking a moment to settle your errant thoughts. When you turned back to toss over his wallet that had been laying there, your face was clear of any lingering admiration. "Ready?"

You'd lived in Los Angeles for quite a while by this point, but somehow showing it to Jack felt like seeing it for the first time yourself. The city was as bright and colorful as the shirts you both sported, a strange mixture of glamor and grunge. You took Jack to all the most popular tourist attractions, making sure to keep with the crowds and always pay attention to your surroundings. You had to keep Jack occupied, especially now that he kept bringing up New York, so going out was a necessary risk. However, you were absolutely not going to let a repeat of the window incident occur.

You’d explored Chinatown and just eaten lunch at this wonderful Italian deli when you came upon an especially crowded section of street. The air almost vibrated with the sound of brassy horns and the excited chatter of the throng. Peering through the mass of bodies revealed multiple couples spinning to the lively music, feet moving faster than you could follow amidst swirling skirts and shiny shoes.

"Look at 'em go..." you marveled, a kind of awe coloring your voice. People who could move that fast and not trip or collide with anyone else never failed to impress you.

"You ever dance like that?" Jack asked, for some reason looking down at you instead of the captivating sight before you. How he could take his eyes off them for one second was a mystery to you.

"If the question is have I tried swing dancing, then yes. However, I have never danced like that." You'd gone out with Jarvis and Ana once, but one song in had your head spinning. You’d had a hard time balancing your attention between your feet, your partner, and all the other dancers. Not to mention just the one dance left you wheezing. You’d come to the conclusion that you weren’t wired for that sort of thing, but you’d never lost your appreciation for the art.

"You wanna try?"

"Not in the least. I have no intention of making a fool of myself in front of all these people. Plus, we just ate. I'm pretty sure we should let our food settle before stirring it all around again."

"You sure?" He reached for your hand gently, giving you plenty of time to pull away. When you didn't he lifted it above your head and made a movement to spin you.

"Haven't you had enough song and dance?" You questioned even as you obliged, though slowly and not at all in time with the music.

"Not as long as it's me dancing with you." He dropped his arm midway through a second time around so that it rested around your shoulders, hand still attached to yours. You tried to ignore how accustomed you’d become to his hanging on to you in one form or another, how it still made your heart race but for an entirely new reason that had nothing to do with the stress of maintaining your deception.

Before you could spiral too far down that path, a sudden voice broke you both out of your little bubble. “Well, if it isn’t the Thompsons.”

You had to fight not to visibly wince as Daniel Sousa sauntered up to you (at least sauntered as much as his crutch would allow). “Chief Sousa, what are you doing out here?”

Yes, what are you doing here? Why have you picked this moment, when we’re practically snuggled up together, to discover us? And why isn’t Jack letting go?

Jack was still holding on to your hand, which meant the only way you could create some distance would be to do some awkward twirling maneuver – either that, or you could bodily lift his arm over your head to shift it down to your side, but that would be just as obvious. So you were stuck with Jack around you and your arm pressed to your chest and Daniel smirking and your face heating up steadily and the music still blaring like some mocking soundtrack to your embarrassment.

“There’s a take-out place near here that I like.” Daniel held up a brown bag as if presenting his defense, amused expression never faltering.

“Don’t you have minions to do things like that for you?” Your response was probably less than cordial, but you were feeling decidedly self-conscious and it was affecting your social skills.

“There’s no reason I can’t get my own lunch. Besides, I needed an excuse to escape for a while and clear my head.”

You relaxed, embarrassment fading as you noted the deepened lines at the corners of his eyes and the weary way he leaned on his crutch. “Worried about Peggy?” you inquired, tone much kinder.

His mouth tightened, but all he said was, “Peggy is more than capable of taking care of herself.”

“That doesn’t mean you stop worrying about a person,” Jack broke in, arm shifting so you were pressed incrementally closer to his side.

“That’s right,” you agreed. “We just work harder to hide it from them.”

Daniel smiled, and you braced yourself as you saw the teasing twinkle return to his eyes. “And what brings you two out here? Dressed like that?”

Peripherally, you saw Jack’s face drop into a warning look, so you hurriedly cut in. “You’re just upset that you’ve been wearing them for months and we still look better than you.”

“Hey now, there’s no need to get mean.” But he was chuckling, so you knew he wasn’t really insulted.

“We’re playing tourists. She said we had to dress the part,” Jack griped, accusation clear.

“I see. I guess I’ll leave you to it. I should probably get back anyway. Between picking up the slack with Peggy being gone and Samberly complaining about people moving his stuff, my plate has gotten pretty full.” Daniel's smile turned wry. He straightened, though you could still see the fatigue in his shoulders, and you were struck with the want to lighten his burden somehow, though you hadn’t the faintest idea where to start.

“Let us know if you need anything.”

He nodded and was gone, leaving you alone once more with your always-not-husband, who looked down at you curiously. “Where’d Peggy go?”

“London.”

“She visiting family?”

“I don’t know if she has any family in London. Anyway, this trip was for work – she’s investigating something for the S.S.R.” Not wanting to dwell on Peggy or bring too much attention to his real place of employment, you moved on to another topic. “You ready for our next adventure?”

“Unless I can talk you into that dance.”

“Maybe another time.” You smiled to ease the refusal and ducked under his arm. Still, you merely readjusted your hold on his hand instead of dropping it completely. It’d be easier to keep track of him amongst all the people this way.

At least that’s what you’d say if Sousa ever dared bring this up again.

Your last stop, however, was completely deserted, so losing him wasn’t a big concern. The stretch of beach was pretty open, and you felt you’d be able to see any threat easily enough. Still, you took extra care in your visual sweep of the area before you even exited the car.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the ocean!” you announced grandly, throw your arms out as the salty breeze sent ripples through your shirt.

Jack glanced over the panoramic view and then back at your eager face. “It’s nice?”

“Nice? Nice? That’s all you have to say?” you demanded, clearly affronted by his unenthusiastic response.

“Don’t we have the ocean in New York?”

“That’s the Atlantic Ocean. This is the Pacific. Come on – shoes off,” you commanded, removing your own to leave by the car and wriggling your bare toes in the warm sand. He hesitated skeptically, but then moved to follow your lead. Soon you were both ambling towards the water. “Now, don’t get me wrong, the Atlantic is great: Ellis Island, lobster, England is just on the other side. But the Pacific just feels… I don’t know, grander somehow.”

“Well, now that you mention it, it’s downright majestic,” he needled, making it another few steps before he realized you’d planted your feet to glare at him.

“Look, if you’re just going to-”

“No, come on,” he slung an arm around your shoulders, dragging you forward to continue your stroll, “I’m just japin’. It’s a great ocean – best I’ve ever seen.”

“That you can remember,” you sulked.

“Don’t be like that.” He gave you a little shake. “You got a whole grand beach to appreciate. But are you sure you want to get this close to water again? Last time you ruined a dress.”

“You know what?” You jabbed him solidly in the ribs with your elbow until he curled inward and released you. You pivoted around, now walking backwards to face him. “I don’t think you deserve the majesty that is the Pacific Ocean.”

“It’s too late to take it back now,” he retorted mildly.

“Then you’d better start being impressed real quick.” You spun back around, and he was by your side once more in a few quick steps.

“Hey, what’s over there?” he asked, looking at some dilapidated buildings in the distance.

“Really? You have the whole splendor of nature surrounding you, and you want to know about some old warehouses?”

“I promise I am duly in awe of your majestic ocean. Now I’m just trying to change the subject.”

Relenting, you considered derelict area. “That used to be the shipping district before they built a nicer port a few miles north. Now most of it’s abandoned.”

He chewed the information over for a moment. “Seems like a pretty big waste.”

“That’s progress for you,” you shrugged.

“Kind of ruins your view.”

“Not really.” You took hold of his arm and turned him to face the other way. “See? Nothing but beautiful ocean vistas. It’s all about perspective.”

“I guess it is.” His hand found yours and threaded it the rest of the way around his arm so he could escort you as the stroll continued. “You seem to like this place a lot.”

“I do,” you agreed, nimbly stepping over a pile of seaweed.

"Another one of your homes?"

"I suppose."

“You gonna miss it when we leave?”

You wished he’d stop bringing that up. You never really knew how to answer. “I’ve always been fond of the ocean, whichever side of the country it’s on.”

“I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

It’s a little too late…

“The same goes for you.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve got nothing to regret.”

Yet. You averted your face before he could see the discomfort there. Your eyes alighted on something half buried in the sand, and you pulled yourself from his hold to uncover it. “Ooh, a sand dollar!” You lifted the bleached white disk and brushed it clean. Holding it out to Jack you instructed, “Throw it into the water and make a wish.”

“Is that something people do?” he questioned, taking it from you carefully.

“It’s something I do.” You watched him toy with it for a minute longer, apparently considering his options. Coming to a decision, he pulled back his arm and sent it flying. You smiled at him warmly as you continued walking.

“Aren’t you going to ask?”

“Of course not – wishes are personal, and everyone knows if you talk about your wish it won’t come true.”

The sun was heading for the horizon by the time you made it back to the car. You retrieved your shoes after brushing as much sand off your feet as possible. You didn’t notice the dark-skinned man standing a short distance away until you were straightening up again. Regretfully, you saw Jack already staring at him.

“Oh, hey, that’s one of Howard’s business associates – I thought he lived somewhere around here. Do you mind waiting while I go say hi?” you asked casually.

“I’ll come with you.” He got a step forward before you planted your hand on his chest to halt him, perhaps pushing a little too hard.

“No, no, that’s all right. I’ll just be a minute, and if you wait in the car I’ll have an excuse to keep the conversation short. I’ll be right back.” You pressed the keys into his hand and strode away quickly before he could make any more objections. When you snuck a glance back over your shoulder, you saw that Jack had gotten as far as opening the passenger door, though he still stood outside the vehicle.

The stranger watched you approach without a change of expression or making a move towards you himself. He was tallish but otherwise unremarkable, intimidating by steely expression more than physical presence. You knew from experience he could fade into the background as easily as blinking. “Mrs. Thompson,” he greeted cordially when you were close enough.

“Mr. Hansel,” you returned. “Anything interesting to report?”

“There was an armed man following you earlier, but I couldn't get a good visual on him. He broke off while you were talking to Chief Sousa, and I’ve had no sightings since. Otherwise everything has been quiet.”

“I see. I think we’re heading back now, so if you can just follow us to the front gate you should be finished for the night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I appreciate you keeping an eye on us today.”

“Just doing what you paid me for, ma’am.”

“I appreciate it none-the-less. Enjoy the rest of your evening, Mr. Hansel.”

“You as well, Mrs. Thompson.”

You couldn't be certain whether he really hadn't uncovered your true name, but at least he was willing to play along.

Jack had yet to enter the car by the time you returned. “Everything all right?”

“Of course.” You didn’t offer further explanation as you slid behind the steering wheel, holding out your hand for the keys, and Jack didn’t question. When you looked back, the man was gone as if he'd never been. You weren't surprised, not really. What else would you expect from a former OSS operative?

Chapter Text

“Well, I for one am bushed,” you announced as you shut the car door firmly. The sun had truly set, and the yard was full of shadows cast by the house lights and the near full moon. It was beautiful in an almost mystical kind of way, like magic hung in the air, waiting to be unleashed. Fanciful nonsense, of course, but nights like this were made for poets, and you couldn’t help the whimsical bent of your thoughts.

“Too much adventure for you?” Jack asked lightly, sidling up next to you.

“No such thing,” you contradicted in the same manner. “However, I will say that I’ve had just enough adventure to last me for quite a while.”

The clear sky was alight with stars and the weather was temperate, so you decided to take the long way around to get inside. Jack followed your lead easily without question. When you next looked you found him staring down at you, just a hint of a smile tilting his lips and eyes oddly soft. Not an entirely unfamiliar expression these days, but you couldn’t be sure what brought it about this time.

"What?" you asked suspiciously, eyebrows pulling in.

"I knew you looked good in sunshine, but moonlight works for you, too."

"Oh, come off it, Jack.” You rolled your eyes and picked up the pace just a mite. “We've been running around all day – I'm covered in sweat and sand, and I'm sure my hair looks like a bird's nest."

“Why do you do that?” He stopped abruptly, the lines of his face hard.

“Do what?” You weren't sure what to make of his sudden mood change; he seemed almost angry with you.

“Say stuff like that? You make all these little negative comments like it’s normal conversation. You have a bullet point list at the ready of everything you don't like about yourself. Who does that?” He was on the verge of ranting, almost as worked up as he'd been after Benny kissed you, but now you were having a hard time understanding why. What did it matter to him what you said about yourself?

“I don’t… we just had a really good day – why are you bringing this up now?” You didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to let him see the dark places you kept covered up. You felt like you'd just gotten past the absurd crying incident, and here you were fighting once again to obscure your emotional instability. But the wall you put up was flimsy at best, and his doggedness wasn't helping – already you could feel it cracking under the pressure.

“Half the time you act like you're ready to take on the world and the other half like you’re expecting someone to criticize everything you do. Why are you so hard on yourself?”

Crack

“Because it’s easier to say those things than to hear other people say it.”

Crack

“What other people?”

Crack

“Any other people!" Oh, how easily the wall crumbled. "I’ve spent most of my life facing rejection – by teachers, employers, my own parents. The only exception was Howard and the people who came with him, and I try so hard not to need them too much because I don't want to make them leave, too. But you spend enough time being unwanted you eventually realize it’s you, that there’s something so wrong with you that everyone automatically tries to get away. It’s easier to warn people ahead of time – that way they’re not disappointed when they find out for themselves.”

If anything, his glare deepened. “That’s crap.”

His blunt response to your revelation had you off balance. “What?”

“There’s nothing disappointing about you. I don’t know what sort of morons you’ve met that gave you that kind of impression, but it’s a load of bull.”

“Jack, I told you that because you asked, not so you’d pander to my insecurities. I’ve made my peace with my weaknesses – I know who I am.”

“No you don't,” he shot back, jaw jutted out with his defiance. “If you did you'd be able to see that you’re… you’re…”

He seemed to run out of words. You were of no help, paralyzed by the intensity of his expression and terrified of what he was struggling to say. He paced away with a frustrated grunt and then was back again, far too close, but your legs refused to remove you to safety. His eyes darted around your face, like your expression might give him answers, but you had no idea what he might be searching for.

His hand came up slowly, so close to your cheek, but still all your muscles remained frozen. “I-”

A nearby squawk made you both jump, his hand flying away as if burned. Your heads turned simultaneously towards the flamingo strutting around a short distance away.

“What is that?”

You swallowed, trying to get some moisture back in your throat. “Bernard Stark. Jarvis’ arch nemesis.”

“His arch nemesis is a bird?” he questioned, voice flat with derision.

“A rather testy bird.”

As if he understood your crack, Bernard bristled and extended his wings menacingly.

“I can see that,” Jack muttered disparagingly before turning back to you. “Look, I-”

Another screech and Bernard advanced a few more steps, causing Jack to glare towards him heatedly at the continued interruption. “What’s the bird’s problem?”

“He’s probably hungry.” The banality of the conversation felt so surreal in the wake of the previous minutes’ asperity.

“Well, how do I let it know I don’t have any food?”

“Shoo, Bernard. Go find Jarvis if you want supper.” You waved a hand in his direction, but that seemed to do little to deter him as he continued his approach, neck stretched to his full height.

“Something tells me he doesn’t speak English. He always this aggressive?”

“I don’t think so, but then again he’s normally Jarvis’ problem.”

The creature snapped his curved beak as he neared, sending you and Jack both back a reflexive step.

“He in the habit of attacking people?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” You took another step back as Bernard let out a final angry noise and began what looked distinctly like a charge, sending your voice up a notch. “But I’ve been wrong before.”

Jack grabbed hold of your hand and took off running, leaving you to join or be dragged. Ridiculous looking pink monstrosity or not, an angry flamingo is anything but welcoming. You had no time to consider how stupid this must all look to an outsider when that intimidating bird was still giving chase with murderous intent glinting in his beady eyes.

You weren't even paying attention to the direction of your fleeing until Jack's hand was gone from yours and grasping at your waist instead. You let out a yelp at suddenly being airborne, latching onto a tree limb as it came into view, more out of instinct than conscious thought. You heaved yourself up as his grip left you, and turned to sit just in time to see him leap for another branch and drag his own body up. He sat as well, pressing a palm over where his wound had once resided, face twisted with pain.

"You didn't reopen anything, did you?" you asked around great gulps of air you couldn't quite get enough of.

"No, no I'm good. I think some things are just going to hurt for a while."

You brushed away the sweaty hair clinging to your forehead and looked down at your pursuer, still flapping about and yawping angrily. Almost as if he felt your scrutiny, he reared his head back and snapped at your hanging feet, which were just high enough to be out of reach. Without warning, the madness of the past several minutes caught up with you, spurred on by waning adrenaline. It started out a small giggle, but soon your whole body was vibrating with repressed laughter.

Jack eyed you suspiciously. “What?”

“We just ran full tilt from a flamingo who is now holding us hostage. We are trapped in a tree by an angry pink bird.” You flung one arm out, wrapping the other around the trunk before you could fall, still giggling madly. “This is all completely absurd!”

He slowly succumbed to the contagious nature of your mirth until he too was laughing, leaning his head against the tree as he shook. Which of course made the situation even more bizarre, because now the two of you were sitting in a tree cackling like loons.

“Ooh, my stomach,” you bemoaned, clutching your ribs and gasping, trying to calm yourself.

“Okay,” Jack took a deep breath and readjusted so he was looking at you, “so how are we going to get out of this?”

You kicked an ineffectual foot at your captor and sighed. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any shrimp in your pockets?”

“No dice.”

“Then I guess we’re stuck here until Bernard gets bored or dies.”

He glanced down appraisingly. “You know, if I landed just right I could speed up that second option.”

“You are not killing Howard’s pet flamingo.”

“Just throwing out suggestions,” he relented. “I’d never get it off my shoes anyway.”

“The bird gore or the guilt?”

“Both.”

“I say, what are the two of you doing up there?” a familiar voice called out, tall figure silhouetted in the light of an open doorway.

“Jarvis, did you by chance forget to feed Bernard?” you dodged his question with your own.

“Come to think of it, I did,” Jarvis mused thoughtfully. “All right, you brute, we’d better give you supper before your temper takes a turn for the worst.”

“Too late,” you muttered, but Bernard had already abandoned you in favor of the man that regularly fed him. Immediate threat removed, you allowed yourself to relaxed against the tree trunk. “Jarvis to the rescue.”

“That was humiliating.”

“I’ll never speak of it again if you won’t.”

“Agreed.” Jack pulled upright, preparing to leap down, but hesitated to look at you. “Hey, about earlier…”

Please not again…

You interrupted before he could figure out what he wanted to say. "I shouldn't have gone on like that. You probably think I'm crazy enough without hearing all the details."

"You're doing it again," he warned, frown returning.

"Sorry..." You shrugged helplessly. "I just don't want you to think I've been fishing for compliments or constant reassurance."

"How could I think that when you get dodgy every time I say something nice?" He snorted. "Bottom line: you're not what you think you are. And you’re not gonna scare me off." He must have seen something in your face shift, because his expression turned stern. “Don’t,” he ordered. “Don’t make a joke so you can ignore what I’m trying to say.”

You could only hold his gaze for another few moments before your eyes fell to the far away ground. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“Just say okay so we can get out of this tree.”

His eyes were unyielding but kind when you managed to meet them again. “…okay.”

He smiled and shoved off the branch, landing easily on his feet. He turned and held out his arms to you, which made your eyebrows shoot up.

“Are you kidding?”

“Don’t worry – I’ll catch you.”

“Aren’t you in enough pain?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re crazy is what you are. You’re going send yourself right back to the hospital.”

“I put you in the tree, and I can get you back out again. What, afraid of heights?”

“Crushing you from heights, yes.”

“You’re not gonna crush me. Would you just get down here already?”

You growled quietly in frustration and squirmed your way towards the edge of the branch, hand still gripping at the tree trunk. He gave an encouraging wave of his hands, apparently impatient with your constant hedging. Taking a deep breath, you braced yourself and jumped. Unfortunately, the cloth of your skirt caught on the bark and threw off your trajectory. He saw and stepped forward to compensate, but this left you both unsteady and caused you to crash into him with more force and less accuracy than intended. You managed to avoid your heads colliding, but your shoulder definitely hit his throat with some force.

And so you found yourself hanging from his neck, one of his arms around the small of your back and the other running over your shoulder blades to keep you up as your feet dangled uselessly inches above the grass. You pressed your mouth into your arm, nerves singing with your embarrassment. You didn’t want to look at him, but you didn’t really have another option – he was going to put you down eventually. Riddled with apprehension, you slowly loosened your hold and leaned back to face him.

His grip held you high enough that your eyes were more on level with his forehead. You had an apology poised and ready, but it trickled away when you came face to face. All at once you became very aware of his breath on your skin, of every place his sturdy form was pressed into your body. His eyes, a deeper blue in the dark and moonlight, darted to your lips and back.

He swallowed hard and then spoke ‘please’ with a voice barely there, and you exhaled a ‘yes’ which felt much more like of course, and then his mouth was on yours.

The impact hit you like a truck, and you inhaled so sharply through your nose it almost hurt. A feeling you couldn’t identify spread underneath your skin, racing out to your fingers and toes. The sheer intensity of it had all of your joints flexing, until your feet were even further from the ground and your hands clenched in the back of his borrowed shirt. You slid down a little, and the angle changed, settling in so perfectly that you could only wonder why you waited so long to let this man kiss you. Your legs began to relax until your toes touched the reality of solid earth, and then suddenly all the reasons came back to you.

Your hands moved to his shoulders, and you pushed yourself away with a gasp. His arms still encased you, so for an eternity of seconds you just stared at him wide-eyed and panting. Eventually he too seemed to come back to himself, and you were released as he stepped away. He had to swallow a few more times before he could get out a simple, “Sorry.”

“No, no, it’s not... it's not you… we just shouldn’t…”

“I know – I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for – I wasn’t exactly fighting you off.” Being near him was becoming both confusing and painful. “I need to go.”

“Wait!” His hand shot out and caught yours, face shifting with distress. “I'm sorry – I shouldn't have done that. You don’t have to leave.”

His expression coupled with his grip brought you back to the hospital and the psychiatrist and Jack’s alarm at your withdraw, so you rearranged your hand to return his hold. “I’m not leaving, and I promise you didn't do anything wrong. You asked, and I said yes. I just need some time to straighten my head out. I’ll meet you back in our room after a bit, okay?”

Because he needed it, and frankly so did you, you gave his hand a reassuring squeeze before you pulled free. You left him standing under the tree and refused to look back, your pace carefully maintained to look like something other than the fleeing it was.

Chapter Text

You walked the hallways on automatic, paying little attention to where exactly you were headed. When everything became too much you simply stopped and pressed your hands to the nearest wall, closing your eyes and leaning your forehead against the cool plaster in an effort to do something about your overheated skin.

Breathe in, breathe out, in, out, don't think about it, don't think about anything...

"You look like you could use a good talk."

You exhaled a short laugh that held no humor. "Talking isn't going to fix the mess I've made."

"And what mess would that be?" Ana came to stand close to your side, her expression full of compassion as you opened your eyes to look at her.

"Everything. I botched it all up, and now..." You closed your eyes again and knocked your head against the wall. "I should have... should have..."

"Should have done something to stop him from falling in love with you? What exactly could you have done? I watched Edwin face accusations of treason because he loved me. It is not something that can be easily stopped."

"I should have tried harder. I should have found a way. What kind of person does this to someone else? Let’s a man who doesn’t know any better think…?" The words caught in your throat, so you changed course. "Howard warned me, told me to watch out for my heart, but neither of us thought about Jack’s. The very idea seemed so ridiculous." You pushed away from the wall only to turn around and lean back against it, too worn down to support your own weight. Ana watched you patiently, radiating sympathy that you didn't deserve. "What am I supposed to do now?"

"You could let him love you," she said, as if it was easy, as if the situation could allow for that.

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"I've manipulated him into it. It’s like stealing."

"You can't steal what's freely given."

"Of course you can. They have a special word for it – a con."

"You did not set out to con him."

"What does it matter what I set out to do? It's still what happened. It's not real. None of this is real. He's not even real."

"His feelings are real, and so are yours. He has already lost so much – must he lose this as well?"

"If that makes it hurt less. Because it's going to hurt when he leaves, one way or another. It's going to hurt the both of us. There is no way this ends without pain."

"If this is true, then why invite tomorrow's pain in today? The pain may come, but it doesn't have to right now. Now could be happiness with a man who truly loves you. I have learned that you must hold on to that as long as you can."

You wanted it to be so simple. You liked Jack, liked the time you spent together even with the sense of dread you were never fully able to ignore, liked how he kissed you as if it was somehow important to him. And if you were being honest with yourself (because you should be, considering you couldn’t be honest with him) the idea of someone loving you, you who could count on one hand the people you felt truly connected to, was almost irresistibly appealing. Still, it felt wrong. At least if you continued to put him off, to hold yourself apart, you'd have a ready defense. You could claim that you had never stopped trying. But was it really fair to hurt him now in a potentially futile effort to avoid hurting him later?

"I don't know how to do any of this," you admitted, tilting your head farther back as if that would keep the tears from spilling out. You would not allow yourself to indulge in any more weeping brought on by undue self-pity.

But Ana, generous to a fault, replied, "No one does. That is why love is something we do together."

You continued your wandering for a while longer after Ana left you, trying to sort out all the tangled threads of your thoughts and somehow fit yourself into this new reality where Jack could love you. Where Jack could love you and it would somehow be okay.

 

The agency was eerily quiet when you walked in – most of the agents were independently involved at their own desks with limited interaction between them. They paid you very little attention, too used to your presence at this point, as you made your way towards Peggy’s desk to pick her up for your weekly lunch date. You could see from a distance that she was currently absent, and so when you saw Chief Thompson slouched behind his desk staring into a tumbler of amber liquid, you knew you’d have a minute or two to kill.

You pushed the cracked door further open and greeted him with, “It’s a little early for that, don’t you think?”

His mouth pinched tight as he glared even harder at his glass. “I am really not in the mood to deal with you today.”

“‘Deal’ with me? Wow…” You drew the word out sarcastically, crossing your arms and leaning a hip against his doorframe.

He finally looked up at you, eyes tired but extremely irked. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s Wednesday,” you answered as if it was obvious. “I’m always here on Wednesdays. It’s the day Peggy and I get lunch.”

He knew this. He commented on it every week.

“Yeah, but see, this ain’t a social group. It’s a covert government agency that handles sensitive and dangerous work. Work that’s real hard to do when we’ve got civilians traipsing through here like it’s Central Park.”

“I’m not exactly your average civilian. I did sort of help you save the city once.”

“You got knocked unconscious, and then found Carter just in time to hear her talk Stark down.”

“Which isn’t really all that different from what you did, ‘agent.’”

He sat up straighter, near slamming his glass down on his desk. “You have no idea the things we have to deal with on a daily basis while you’re busy eating bonbons in some fancy penthouse.”

“You’d think I’d stop being surprised at some point by how low your opinion of me is, but you’re certainly being a special breed of ass today.”

“When are you going to face the fact that you don’t belong in here? All you are is a liability to the hard-working, rigorously trained agents out there. We got no openings for a secretary with romantic delusions of espionage.”

“I see,” you stated calmly after a stretch of tense silence, though your insides felt like you’d just taken a turn on the Tilt-o-World. “I didn’t realize my presence created such a perilous environment. I’m very sorry to have caused you such aggravation. I’ll leave you to your terribly official business.” You gave a pointed look to his drink and pulled the door shut with just enough force to make the glass rattle.

 

Eventually you found yourself staring at the door to his room, wondering if he was already asleep and trying to work up the courage to go in regardless. You opened the door cautiously, tiptoeing in to find him sitting on his bed, staring blankly at the wall and absently rubbing his hand down over his mouth – he hadn’t even changed out of the shirt he’d fought so hard against. He froze a moment later when he noticed you lingering uncertainly at the edge of the room.

“Hi,” you greeted awkwardly, twitchy fingers finding distraction in fidgeting with your rings.

“Hey.” He dropped his hand from his face, though his hunched posture remained, as if too much movement might scare you away.

You were having difficulty finding anything to say. “I thought you might have already gone to bed.”

“You said you’d meet me back here.”

“I did.”

“Did you get your head straight?”

“Not quite, but straight enough.”

“Anything I should know about?”

“Not yet.”

You both waited, watching without fully understood purpose. Finally, Jack stood, but made no move towards you. “You wanna sleep on it?”

“That would be nice.”

“In your own room?”

“No, I…” You stopped, swallowed, started again. “Here is fine.” Stop. Start. “If that’s okay with you.”

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot that would make me not want you here.”

What if I told you I wasn’t your wife? That your want for me here is based in untruth? How quickly could I make you retract that statement?

When you did make it to bed, you lay staring at the wall for an unknown period of time, listening to him breathe and knowing he was awake as well.

 

Peggy met you from the opposite direction as you neared her desk. “Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“Not really. Are you ready to go?” you asked a tad shortly, wishing to vacate the premises as soon as possible. If she noticed your clipped words, she didn’t comment.

The fresh air and noise of the city helped to ease your tension some. Early on in these outings you and Peggy happened upon a nearby café, and it had become your regular lunch spot. About a half-block away you finally asked, “What’s got Thompson’s goat today? He seemed especially bad tempered.”

“I didn’t realize you’d spoken to him. I suppose that explains why you’re walking like you forgot to take the hanger out of your coat.”

You turned to your friend and for the first time noticed the haggard look of her face, the rigid lines in her posture. “Peggy, did something happen?”

“We had a case this morning that didn’t go the way we hoped. A man took several people hostage, including a child. We were… unable to save them.”

You stopped walking to face her fully. “Oh, Peggy, I’m so sorry.”

“I always expect that someday I will grow immune to losing people, but so far that is not the case.” Her eyes were distant, focused on something only she could see. Your heart broke for her in a way you couldn’t quite express, the want to provide comfort warring with your lack of ability to do so. What did one say to ease such a complex burden? Did such words exist?

“I shouldn’t have dragged you out like this. We don’t have to get lunch.” In the end all you could think to do was meet a practical need to be away from any extraneous stimulation. Perhaps Peggy was already feeling overwhelmed, and you were just selfishly making it worse.

“No,” she was quick to reassure you, “I do believe this is exactly what I need – a reminder of why I continue with this work, even after days like this. I have people to protect, and sometimes I can’t protect everyone, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying.”

“Good. I don’t want to face a world that doesn’t have you as its guardian.”

Peggy smiled at you, but it was fleeting. “Unfortunately, Jack seems to have taken our failure rather personally, and I think the lives of those men and women are weighing heavily on him.”

You grimaced, looking away as you confessed, “Now I feel bad for calling him as ass – at least this time. Do you think there’s something I could do to help?”

“Nothing comes to mind. I wouldn’t worry too much – he’s a big boy and a good agent. I’m sure he just needs time to reconcile with what happened.”

“You’re probably right. I’m sure the last thing he wants is to see any more of me than he has to.” You held the door open for Peggy before following her in. “Now, order whatever you want – my treat. And we are most definitely getting the most decadent and unhealthy dessert they have.”

 

You didn’t often dream, but tonight your head seemed too full to allow you any kind of satisfying rest. A nightmare ripped you from your sleep like claws through flesh, dark shapes and grizzly images becoming fuzzier and fading, leaving you with general impressions of terror and regret. You felt something grab onto your hand, and your initial response was to fight, but soon a familiar voice slowed your struggle.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” His voice was gruff with sleep but alert at the idea of danger. You realized your hand was fisted in his undershirt – you must have flung your arm out in your sleep to find purchase on whatever was nearest. No wonder he was awake and ready to face whatever threat had you so frantic.

“Nothing. I had a nightmare. I’m sorry for waking you.” Your grip loosened. His did not.

“It’s fine, but that must have been some dream. You’re breathing like you ran a marathon. Wanna talk about it?”

“I can’t really remember anything. I think something terrible happened, and people got hurt – maybe died. And it was my fault.”

“You got a homicidal streak I don’t know about?”

“It was more like I couldn’t save them. That I did something or… didn’t do something, and then…”

“You’re shaking the whole bed. C’mere.” He used his hold on your hand to tug your trembling body to him, curling you into his side, head pillowed over his blessedly steady heartbeat. You couldn’t even find it within you to become uncomfortable with the arrangement. “It was just a dream. No one is dead because of you.”

Yet…

You soon found your pulse slowing with the comfort of his embrace, but you didn’t try to pull away. There was safety here, safety you weren’t ready to give up in the darkness and lingering miasma of your nightmare.

“You know, I think I’m afraid of psychiatrists,” Jack mentioned casually into the silence, hand running soothingly up and down your arm.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, back at the hospital, I know I didn’t want to talk to the guy. But when he showed up my heart started racing and I didn’t want to be alone with him. Seems like something more than just not liking ‘em.”

“Could be.”

“You know anything else that scares me?” He was talking to fill the empty space and clear the shadows, and renewed appreciation for him warmed you like good liquor on a cold evening.

“Crying women,” you offered lightly.

“I’m afraid of crying women?” His obvious skepticism bordered on disdain.

“You just don’t know what to do with them. Unless there’s a piano around, apparently.” Your fingers twitched over the soft fabric covering his chest, and you fought to still them. You didn’t want him questioning what the touch might mean.

Neither of you spoke for some time after that. His hand still ran over your arm, and the other came up to thread through your hair.

“I’m afraid of letting people down.” The admission slipped from your lips unbidden, but surprisingly without the traces of shame you expected to find in its wake. “Of not being good enough.”

“Good enough for what?”

“Anything. Everything. Whatever people need of me.”

“People like Howard?”

“Howard. Peggy. You.” You paused, trying not let the words suffocate you. “I’m so afraid of failing you.”

“You’re not going to fail me.”

“You can’t know that.”

“Sure I can,” he declared with all certainty, not feeling any need to explain himself or offer any supporting evidence for this claim. You sighed, closing your eyes and turning your face just a little further into him. “You want to know what I wished for?”

“No, I already told you, you’re not supposed to talk about it.”

“It was about you.”

“Keep your wish. You can tell me some day if it comes true.”

 

Peggy rapped her knuckles sharply against Jack’s office door before barging in without waiting for the leave. He glared at her for the impertinence, but didn’t bother to scold her aloud. She plunked a small brown bag in front of him and made to exit without saying a word. He glanced at it and then at her retreating back suspiciously, hesitant to open the mysterious parcel. When he finally bucked up enough courage to look inside his eyebrows shot up and the snap of his voice stopped Peggy at the doorway. “What’s this?”

“Ice cream, I believe.” She angled back just slightly, obviously not intending to stay and discuss the delivery.

“Why?” He pulled the tub out, seeing a familiar label.

“She thought it might help if the scotch didn’t.” Peggy didn’t specify the ‘she’ or wait for his reply, striding out and shutting the door with a resounding click even as his lips parted to question her further. He huffed with annoyance and turned his attention back to the container that was steadily chilling his fingers.

Peggy told you later that he ate the entire pint of rocky road as he sat there. Then he put away his mostly full bottle of scotch and pulled out a new case file.

 

For the first time in all the weeks you'd been waking up in Jack's bed before him, you didn't immediately abscond from the warmth in order to avoid any uncomfortable morning encounters. You could have easily – gravity had slackened his hold on you, one hand now resting on his stomach and the other on the bed near your hip. Still, you chose instead to remain, your chin resting on your hands as you stared at his sleeping face, feeling the rise and fall of his chest with each breath as you laid half-sprawled across him.

You were going to speak with Peggy when she got back, you decided. It was time that Jack be told the truth, the truth about everything. You could explain to him who he really was and why all these measures had been implemented to keep him safe. He seemed reasonable enough, and you didn't think it would take too much convincing for him to continue on in a similar fashion, laying low and away from the investigation. Perhaps he would even be able to understand your part in it, though you weren't holding out too much hope – somehow your betrayal seemed greater than the rest. Regardless, he deserved to know – maybe not knowing was the cause of his prolonged amnesia. Maybe his ignorance had done more harm than good.

No word had come from London yet, but it was really too early to expect anything. You should probably call Chief Sousa to be sure. You didn't want to proceed until you had a chance to talk it over with Peggy, so you needed to figure out what to do with Jack until then.

Ana was right that he deserved to be happy, and so far he generally seemed to be. But honestly, that had more to do with his curiously upbeat attitude than with whatever you had been doing. Mostly all you'd accomplished was sending him mixed signals, and that was hardly fair in the face of his unwavering devotion towards you. He had been so thoughtful throughout all of this while you'd been too busy worrying about the charade to return his kindness. You really should do something to make up for it.

The first sprout of an idea left you grinning as you continued studying him. A part of you wanted to run your fingertips over all the lines and planes of his face, adding texture to the mental picture of him you carried, but you refrained. The last thing you wanted was to have him wake up to you staring like some unhinged psychopath. You slid away and out of bed, careful not to jostle him too much.

You had a phone call to make.

Your return was not nearly as conscientious. You burst into the room, repeatedly calling his name as you'd been doing since halfway down the hall, and launched yourself onto his bed, narrowly missing his legs with your knees. The mattress hadn't even settled before you were shaking his shoulder, dragging him from his slumber in the most unpleasant way possible.

“Whassamatter? Where’s the fire?” At some point after your departure, he’d rolled to his stomach. Now he turned to his side to address you, pulling the blankets and toppling you over. He blinked in sleepy confusion over your sudden disappearance until he caught sight of you again as you righted yourself and pushed the hair back from your face with an impatient huff.

“Hurry, get up! We’ve got to go!”

“Why? What’s wrong?” His concerned manner was perplexing until you realized he was misinterpreting your enthusiasm for panic.

“No, sorry, nothing’s wrong,” you assuaged, consciously forcing yourself to calm down. “I have a surprise for you, but we need to leave as soon as possible.”

“Where are we going?”

“If I told you it wouldn’t be much of surprise, now would it? Come on, then, up’n at ‘em!”

You were off his bed with a bounce and out the door again before he’d even sat up.

Chapter Text

You watched Jack attentively, trying so hard not to grin like a complete goofball. He still looked wholly stunned, ambling along beside you without any presence of mind.

“So…?” you finally prodded, unable to take his silence any longer.

“I can’t believe I just did that.” He turned his gaze to you, though still not really seeing. “I just played catch with Joe DiMaggio. Catch. With Joe DiMaggio.”

“And…?” You were practically bouncing on your toes as you walked.

“I just played catch with Joe DiMaggio,” he repeated, dazed expression never abating. You smothered a snicker, about to give up when his arms were suddenly around you. Your feet left the ground, and you clutched frantically at his shoulders, surprise turning to amusement as he spun you in a circle. You were laughing breathlessly when he set you down again, his excitement contagious. Then his hands came up to hinge your jaw back so he could kiss you hard.

It didn’t last long before he broke away, palms still warm on either side of your face. “Sorry, I’m breaking the rules again.”

“It’s okay.” You smiled at him because you meant it, your hands wrapping around his wrists. “Sometimes the rules need to be broken.”

He didn’t move for the longest time, simply staring at you like he'd just discovered some fantastical creature. “How’d you manage to pull this off anyway?”

“Joe McCarthy is an old poker buddy of Howard’s and owed him a favor.”

That tidbit seemed to be especially interesting to him. “Howard gonna be mad that you cashed in on his favor?”

“Eh,” you shrugged your shoulders up into his hands once before letting them drop again, “he’ll get over it. I’m the one who tracked down the T206 Honus Wagner card for Joe anyway.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful, but why did you go to so much trouble?”

“It wasn’t really that much trouble.”

“You called in a favor from the manager of a major league baseball team so I could meet one of the greats. How can you downplay that?”

“All in a day’s work?” You tried to wave it off, but he had that stubborn set to his face, so with a sigh you tried to find a way to explain yourself. “You’ve had a hard couple of months, and I haven’t made it any easier with how… inconsistent I’ve acted. But you’ve been really patient with everything. I just wanted to do something nice for you.”

“Well, you certainly succeeded. I think that might’ve been the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.” He sounded almost awed by the idea. Then it was as if some switch in him flipped, and his wonder melted into something serious and almost sad. He dropped his hands from your face and instead laced his fingers with yours. Pulling on your hands and tilting forward himself brought your bodies close though not quite touching. The press of his lips on your forehead wasn’t exactly a kiss – more like they found a place to rest as he took a deep breath to air out his thoughts.

He’d said this was the nicest thing anyone had done for him, but in reality it was just the nicest thing he could remember. Who knows what happy memories were lost to him, maybe at this point forever. He must be feeling the emptiness acutely now, finally letting it catch up to him after weeks of acting like everything was okay – like he could be content with nothing but the short time he’d spent with you since the shooting. Jack was strong, but the human soul can only take so much.

You watched his throat work as he swallowed, feeling the breath he let out stir your hair. Without seeing his face you couldn’t be sure how far in his own head he was, so you made your next words quiet. “This isn’t even all of your surprise.”

He leaned back, expression unexpectedly even for the magnitude of emotion you thought you’d sensed in him. “What could you possibly do to top this?”

“I asked Jarvis to make pizza for dinner tonight. I swear, no one in Los Angeles knows how to make pizza properly. You’ll understand when you taste it.”

He sort of chuckled, eyes shifting between yours. “You really are sunshine, you know that? What did I do to deserve you?”

“Probably something terrible in a former life,” you quipped dryly and then winced at the disapproving look he shot you. “Sorry, force of habit. I’m trying to get a lid on it, I promise. Anyway, we should go before security finds us loitering.”

You dropped one of his hands so you could tug him along by the other. He didn’t speak again until you were at the car. His silence had a peculiar quality, almost brooding, and you felt awful for ruining the moment with your ill-timed attempt at humor. But then he surprised you by asking, “Do you think I remember how to drive?”

“I don’t know. You seem to have held on to most of your other motor skills.”

“Can I try?” He watched you mull the idea over, saw the hesitation. “Nothing crazy. I’ll stick to quiet roads. Dinner isn’t for a while, right?”

“I guess it couldn’t hurt…” You cautiously handed him the keys. “But if you run into any problems or something seems unfamiliar, make sure you ask. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Meeting Joe DiMaggio may have been a high point for you, but I really don’t want it to be the last thing I do before I die. No offense to Mr. DiMaggio.”

“Yes ma’am.” He smirked at you, releasing your hand with a quick squeeze.

He seemed confident enough in himself, but you had a hard time relaxing as a passenger. You’d never hear the end of it from Howard if something happened to his car because Jack mixed up the brake and gas pedals. However, after ten minutes or so you had to admit he was doing remarkably well. He stuck to back roads, always came to complete stops, remembered to signal. Eventually you allowed your worries to abate and eased back into your seat.

"Why the sudden interest in driving?"

"Just wanted to see if I could still do it. Seems like a pretty important skill to have." He wasn't looking at you – hadn't since you'd left the stadium – which was a curious turn from his near-constant attention over the time you'd spent together and not nearly as welcome as one would expect. You allowed your eyes to run over him, noting the slight tension in his muscles, the pinched quality of his mouth, the furrow in his brow. He surely couldn't be so anxious about piloting a vehicle?

"What's wrong?"

His lips twitched, grip tightening around the steering wheel as if bracing himself. "Why'd you marry me?"

Well, that was not a question you were prepared to deal with. You felt your nerves begin to light up, so you laced your fingers together in your lap and rubbed a thumb firmly over your palm as an outlet. "Why do most people get married?" You tried for a light tone, but all you accomplished was agitating him further.

"I'm not asking about most people. I'm asking about you."

"I don't..." Don't what? Know? Have an answer? Want to have this conversation at all? "Jack, what's going on?"

"Nothing, just answer the question."

"Why?"

"Answer the question. Why did you marry me?"

"Because..." Why had you done this? Why had you lied at the hospital to save the life of a man you'd never gotten along with? What had you seen in Jack Thompson that was worth saving? "Because you're dedicated and... and hardworking. And sometimes you're ridiculously kind, and you always care so much. I've seen you make bad decisions, but in the end I think you want to do what's right, and that means that above everything else you're good. So I wanted to protect you and take care of you and... and help you as much as I could. Because you deserve to have someone looking out for you, and so much of the time you won't let anyone else do that." You took a deep breath through your nose, hands clenched so tightly the diamonds from your off-kilter ring were digging into your middle finger. What power did this man hold over you that always left you blabbering on?

"Thank you." He glanced at you, but it was fleeting and didn't really catch. "In case I forget to say it later. And for the record, you deserve to have someone looking out for you, too."

You didn't really have anything to say to that, and figured you'd probably talked too much as it was. You turned away to look out the window instead, and finally took stock of your surroundings. “Oh look, you found the ocean again.”

The coastal drive was beautiful, the salt in the air so thick you could almost taste it in the car though the windows remained closed. For having no idea where he was going, Jack certainly had keen instincts. Even more extraordinary, soon you found that not only had he located the ocean, but the very beach you’d brought him to the previous day.

(Had it really only been a day?)

You thought he might stop and revisit the sight, but he kept driving until you found yourself among the dreary mass of abandoned warehouses he pointed out on your last sojourn. If that wasn’t odd enough, shortly he was pulling to a stop and shifting the car into park. It wasn’t until he removed the keys completely that you asked, “What are you doing?”

“I just want to take a look around.” He smiled like it was completely normal.

“Why? It’s a bunch of old buildings – you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all.”

“All of this left behind, and you’re tellin’ me you’ve never been curious?”

“No, not really.” But he was getting out of the car, so you speedily undid your own seatbelt and threw open the door. “Jack, this is private property. We’re trespassing.”

“Who’s gonna see? I won’t tell if you won’t.” He was already making his way deeper among the buildings, leaving you gaping at his back.

“Jack. Jack!” You ran to catch up.

“Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Probably somewhere getting a tetanus shot,” you muttered, casting a wary glance at all the rusted metal poking out menacingly. The area was in even greater disrepair than it appeared from a distance.

“Let’s explore, just for a few minutes, and then we can go have pizza. Okay?” Something about his countenance was off, as if his nonchalance was too carefully crafted. But what possible ulterior motives could he have? The man only had two-months’ worth of experience – not nearly enough to have something to hide, especially involving some strange urge to investigate an area of town he’d never seen before yesterday.

“Okay…” you agreed cautiously, even though you were pretty sure it wasn’t. But what harm could there really be in indulging his sudden need to snoop? Maybe he’d get bored quickly and you could get out of this eerie place.

Your stomach lurched when he pulled on a random door to find it unsecured, but you were afraid putting up a fuss would just encourage him – he did so like to argue with you, even now. The inside was musty and dark, the windows too filthy to allow much extra light in. Still, he pressed on with you close behind him. You were mostly focused on trying to combat your nerves, until your eyes began to adjust to the dim interior and you came upon an admittedly intriguing sight.

“Is someone living in here?” You shuffled around Jack to get a better look. It was like a small apartment had sprung up amidst the dust and grime, a weird anomaly in the otherwise expected degeneration of the structure.

“Looks like it.” He continued moving forward until he was right in the middle of the incongruous space.

“There’s a pretty big homeless population out here, but this would be a terrible place to set up camp. There’s nothing for miles that would provide any kind of support.” You wandered from him to look at a rack of dresses. “And I don’t think a bum would have things of this quality – these are nicer than some of mine.”

You heard a creak, and turned to find him digging through a trunk. “Jack, what are you doing? You can’t just go through someone else’s things!”

“Why not? If they wanted privacy they shouldn’t be squatting in an old warehouse.”

“But we’re not supposed to be here either! Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Though you had to concede that all of this was very strange. He continued to ignore you, and you elected to allow him his nosing around, if only so he would get done faster. You moved further away, coming to an iron-framed bed; not just a cot, but a full on bed. Why would someone take the time and effort to move such a thing into a place like this? Something glittered on one of the bars, so you leaned in to get a closer look. You then stumbled back a few steps, your breath trapped in your lungs as your heart rammed against your ribs. “We need to go.”

“I know, we’re trespassing, I get it. Just gimme a minute-”

“No, we need to go right now.” Because there were handcuffs on the headboard, which meant-

“So soon? But you just got here. Don’t you know it’s rude to leave without greeting your hostess?” Her voice rang out from the surrounding darkness, feeling like it was coming from everywhere at once. You frantically scanned in all directions until she stepped into a nearby sunbeam, strangely threatening even surrounded by swirling dust particles.

You’d never met Dottie Underwood in person – you’d been in Peru during the Chadwick fundraiser debacle, and by the time you'd made it back the living weapon was long gone. But there was no one else this woman could be, with her mocking eyes and her smile that spelled death.

You swallowed hard and took a shaky breath, trying to steady yourself. She’d never seen you before either, so there was still a chance to get out of this. “Oh, are these your things? We are so sorry! We didn’t know anyone was living out here. We’ll just get to scootin’ and be out of your hair.”

All the time you’d been slowly working your way back over to Jack, who’d stood up from his crouch when she’d first started speaking. Your intention was to get ahold of him and out of there as fast as you could, but you expected that would prove difficult as she stood between you and the only known exit. She watched you calmly, lines of her body relaxed, the same terrifying smile painting her bright red lips. Her eyes flitted from you to Jack, and your chest tightened anew. “And you brought the blonde one. Agent Thompson, right? No, it’s Chief now, isn’t it?”

“I think you must be mistaking him for someone else.”

“Tell me, handsome, what was your plan for coming here? Did you expect to catch me by surprise? You really should know better than that. Remember the table in the interrogation room?”

“Look,” the word was sharp enough to bring her attention back to you, “I can assure you, he does not know who you are. Just let us leave, and we’ll pretend we never saw you.”

She made a disapproving tut with her tongue. “I would have thought Howard Stark’s assistant would need to be smarter than this, but I suppose he’s never really considered brains a priority.”

“Please,” you were on the verge of begging, almost standing in front of Jack now, “please, he doesn’t remember. Just let us leave.”

“You poor, delusional little thing.” With a flick of her wrist she had her blade out. “I was really hoping for Peggy. Maybe she’ll come calling when they find your bodies washed up on the shore.”

She leapt so quickly you almost couldn’t follow the movement, but then Jack was shoving you away and surging forward to grab her wrist before the knife could make contact. You landed hard on your side, flipping over to see the two grappling. Then Dottie kicked him square in the stomach pushing him back several steps as he tried to pull in air. She swiped at his torso repeatedly, sending him further and further away from you – as if you’d be of any use to him anyway.

“You know, I offered to kill you once, but Peggy and the man with the puppy face said no. They really should have taken me up on it. Do you see all the trouble you’ve caused? Now you’ve gone and gotten your pretty girlfriend involved, too. How beautifully selfish.”

Jack made to punch her, but she ducked easily, whirling around to slam her foot into the side of his head. He went down in a blur and hit the ground with a sickening thunk.

She was advancing on his immobile form, and you were still on the ground, still too far away to do anything. Another trunk set near you, this one on wheels, so with a firm jab of your foot you sent it hurtling into Dottie’s legs, knocking her off balance and bringing her focus firmly back to your person. She was stalking towards you with an unhurried manner only the most vicious of predators had the luxury of employing. You scrambled backwards until you hit a wall, frantically looking around for anything that could be used as a weapon. But there was nothing, and she was looming over you much too soon.

“Little girl, you are so out of your league,” she cooed with fake pity.

“He was shot,” you began in a last ditch effort. “He has amnesia. We didn’t mean to find you. Please.”

She tilted her head to the side, regarding you with a mixture of amusement and impatience. “I can’t tell if you still expect to talk your way out of this or you really believe that. Do you honestly think you came upon my secret hideout by accident? That you just happened to pick out the one warehouse I was occupying? Even you can’t be that gullible.”

Your teeth clenched around the knee-jerk denial, because you couldn’t find any fault with her logic. Jack had seemed strangely intent on searching such an abandoned part of town, investigating this particular building. Still, what she was getting at made no sense either, and so you glared at her, adrenaline making you reckless. “Aren’t you supposed to say ‘focus’ before you try to fill my head with lies?”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not the one lying to you. But if you want to die clinging to that, who am I to deny you?” She stepped forward, blade poised as you pressed yourself further into the wall.

A sharp crack rang out, and the silence left behind was almost as deafening, aside from the ringing in your ears. Dottie’s body jerked into her next step, eyes wide with surprise and confusion. Then, slower than you ever thought possible, she fell to her knees and then to her stomach, face landing too close to your leg for comfort and her knife clattering even closer. You stared at her, jaw loose as you watched dark red slowly blossom in the back of her dress.

With a great deal of effort, you tore your eyes away. You tracked the trajectory from her prone body through the dust on the floor you’d stirred with your clumsy retreat all the way to Jack’s figure where he stood a short distance back – face blank, eyes hard, gun still raised from killing Dottie Underwood.

Chapter Text

"Jack?"

His expression didn't change, set and somehow resigned, though you did catch the tick in his jaw that revealed the tension there. He still didn't look at you but remained staring intently at the body even as he lowered the gun to his side.

"Jack? What's going on?"

You heard his intake of breath, saw his chest expand with it, and then his gaze finally met yours. Gone was the easy smile that lit up his eyes and relaxed the lines and sharp angles of his face. The blue now shone gray with steel, the give of his lips now tight with resolve. This was not the Jack who danced with you by the pool, played piano when you cried, wanted to while away the morning lying around in bed with you. This was Jack the agent, who threatened to beat suspects for information, who held a gun as often as a pen, Chief Thompson of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. And this, the presence of this man who was both wholly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, made your throat feel like you’d swallowed acid.

"Jack?" The word was strained, followed by a 'please' that hung silently in the air even without being given voice.

"I'll explain everything, but not right now. We need to get this cleaned up in case anyone heard the shot."

Get this cleaned up. He's referring to the dead body. The dead body laying at your feet. Sudden awareness had you lurching upright in an effort to get away from the prone woman who'd been inches away from killing you moments prior. Nausea swirled as you tried to breathe in slowly through your nose. When you looked up again Jack had disappeared, and you were gripped by panic at being left alone with the recently deceased assassin. Fortunately, he reappeared quickly with what seemed to be a tarp he'd appropriated from some nearby machinery. He methodically spread it out next to the body and rolled her onto it, her blank eyes now staring unblinkingly at the ceiling, and the turbulence in your stomach roiled all the stronger. Still, a part of your brain that refused to participate in what was currently happening wondered where he had put his gun, where it had come from to begin with.

As if sensing your discomfort (or reading it plainly in your ghostly pallor), Jack made short work of wrapping Dottie up completely until all you could see was a roll of plastic. He was closer to you now, a few short steps from where you stood incapacitated against the wall. He’d stuffed his gun in the back of his pants, you saw, and the same divorced section of your brain wondered if it wasn't hot and uncomfortable. But then, you really didn’t know all that much about gun anatomy. He surveyed the scene for a moment, teeth clenching and unclenching, before turning to you again. "Would you mind?" He jerked his head toward the neatly wrapped package.

Would you mind? Would you mind picking up the feet of a dead woman to hide the evidence of her execution? Would you mind?

He must have picked up on the near hysteria in your eyes, because his tone dropped as if he was trying to be soothing. "We're almost done. We just need to make sure no one realizes she's dead for as long as possible. The sooner we get her out of sight the sooner we can leave."

As he watched you levelly, you were struck with the thought that none of this could possibly be real. Any moment you were going to wake up with your hand grasping at Jack again. Or maybe you would awaken to the realization that all of the past two months had been a bizarrely in-depth dream. With a new kind of detachment from your body and reality as a whole, you moved to take your place down by where Dottie's feet must rest. With Jack supporting the bulk of her weight, you managed to move her to a shadowed corner of the warehouse, blocked by old machinery, crates, and general clutter. Then your moment of dissociation was quickly torn apart, your mind syncing back up with your body so unexpectedly that you visibly flinched.

The next thing you knew you were standing outside in the afternoon sun, arms clenched around your middle as you tried to keep from completely flying to pieces. There was a tsunami in your brain and a hurricane in your stomach, and somewhere amidst all that chaos you managed to acknowledge how badly your body was shaking.

Jack was beside you, not touching but trying to get your attention though you couldn't make out what he was saying over the high-pitched whine in your ears. Eventually you allowed him to lead you back to the car. He still held the keys, which was probably for the best because you still found yourself losing whole minutes between moving from one thing to the next.

You were halfway back to the estate before full presence of mind returned, and even then the first thing out of your mouth was, "How did you know she was there?"

Jack didn't seem surprised by your regained ability to speak, but rather as if he'd been waiting for it. "She's been communicating with someone through the newspaper. I’ve had the New York office working with a specialist out here to decode the messages."

You faced the window, unable to look at him when he was still so old and new at the same time. "When?"

"Every couple days or so."

"No," you forced your eyes to him, trying to seem confident to cover up how unbalanced you felt. "When did you remember? How long have you known who you are?"

He stared resolutely forward, but his jaw worked like he was chewing his answer first. "I never forgot."

The silence pressed so hard it hurt.

"What?" The word was much quieter than it sounded in your head.

His eyes flickered to you but flashed back to the windshield before fully making contact. "I never had amnesia. I've been faking it the whole time."

"The whole time? The whole..." A shudder ran through you as all your muscles tensed at once, your brain trying to shift the past two months to compensate for this new perspective but unable to process so much information effectively.

"Hey, breathe. You need to breathe."

This wasn't entirely accurate, as you were breathing – just much too quickly, not really allowing the oxygen to settle before it was expelled again, and black spots were beginning to dot your vision. Still, you were feeling caustic enough to respond with, "Oh, do I? Good thing I have you around or I would be in big trouble."

He had the courtesy not to counter that one and just grit his teeth while keeping his attention on the road.

"This whole time, this whole time, that I've been floundering around trying to convince you that I'm your wife and you knew. You knew, and just let me keep going? Is that how you get your kicks now?"

"That's not why I did it. I've been running my own investigation. I needed the cover."

"Cover? You've been using me, letting me drive myself crazy thinking I’m the worst kind of person, for a cover?"

"It wasn't like that."

"Really? What was it like then? Because it sounds an awful lot like you've been letting me make a fool of myself while you sat back and laughed."

"That's not what I was doing."

"You've been lying to me for months!"

"That really the hill you wanna die on?" He was angry now too, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. "You haven't exactly been a shining example of truthfulness lately."

"I was trying to protect you, which apparently was entirely unnecessary. And you could have stopped it at any time! All you had to do was tell us what was going on!"

"I needed to keep a wrap on it. The quickest way to blow a cover is to have too many people know."

“What exactly was your plan here? Keep up the pretense until you got what you wanted? ‘Don’t worry, guys, I’ve cracked the case!’ And then we’d all clap and cheer because the great Jack Thompson has done it again, regardless of how it affected everyone around you? Are you really that self-centered?”

“I get that you’re upset, I do,” he spoke each word in staccato, pulling into Howard’s car park, “but I’m not going to apologize for doing what needed to be done. It was a good plan.”

“I don’t give a rip about your plan. Do you understand how hard this has been, watching you and thinking I was making you…” You couldn’t say the words, couldn’t tell him you’d thought he’d developed feelings for you, loved you, “and when this was all over I’d have to tell you that none of it was real? I’ve felt like a terrible person for months, only to learn now that all of it, everything, was just an act? Can you possibly comprehend how demoralizing that is?”

He didn’t have a reply to that, and so you squeezed your eyes tightly shut and shook your head to clear away the lingering turmoil.

“I am so stupid.” You thought he might have made a noise like he was going to protest, but then you opened your eyes into a glare so fierce it actually set him back. “I can’t believe I thought I could see decency in you.” You burst from the vehicle, slamming the door with more force than necessary, and headed for the house.

He was out and around the hood of the car in a flash, hand reaching for your arm. “Would you just hold on a-”

“Don’t,” you ordered, yanking your arm back and dodging away before he could make contact, tone as hard and burning as your eyes. Your next words were deceptively calm but sharp as knives. “Don’t you ever touch me again.”

This time he didn’t try to stop you as you stormed off.

You walked around in a blind rage for a bit, finally coming to stop in a random room you didn’t take time to identify. All you cared about was the large window it contained, a way for you to get out of your own head, or attempt to anyway.

What were you supposed to do now? Where did you stand? Should you call Chief Sousa? There was obviously no reason for he and Peggy to continue their farce of an investigation when Jack was completely fine. The fact that he had wasted your friends’ time as well just rubbed salt in the wound left by his deception.

But what of your deception? Could you justify your lies and denounce his? The whole thing smacked of hypocrisy, and that grated on you. You knew why you had lied, could argue for its perceived necessity even as it left a bad taste in your mouth. Jack’s reasons, however, were still unknown to you beyond what little he’d managed to divulge in between your outbursts.

You began the tedious process of picking apart every interaction you’d had with the man over the preceding months, and the more you thought the more you realized you should have caught on a lot sooner, should have known the minute Jack started acting infatuated. No man had ever taken the slightest interest in you, and suddenly this unnecessarily good looking one thought you funny and smart and pretty? You should have known something was wrong straight off. Even with amnesia, even believing you to be his wife, the very idea of him thinking that highly of you was laughable.

Your self-contempt was rivaling that which you held for Jack by the time you finished your scrutiny. You were disappointed in yourself for not spotting his ruse sooner, and even more disappointed in how deeply you’d let your belief in it take hold. Were you so starved for affection that you’d so readily ignored all reason? Were you really so depressingly desperate?

You needed to cling to reason now. Any overemotional response would do more harm than good, so you needed to remove the emotion and consider everything logically. What word did Peggy use? Dispassionately? You also had to admit that you’d been unfair to Jack. You’d known him to be harsh and even near heartless at times, but never cruel. Even in the midst of your fury you had to acknowledge that it didn’t fit into the image you held of him. So whatever motivations fueled this plan of his, they couldn’t have anything to do with torturing you, even if you wanted it all to be that simple. But none of this was simple, and treating it as such would be a great disservice and frankly rather stupid.

You had to give him credit – he waited a full hour for you to cool down before making a second approach. You heard him walk in, knew it was him by the sound of his steps, and hated yourself all the more for that.

“I’m sorry,” you spoke before he’d even opened his mouth, eyes still focused out the window, but you could feel how you’d tripped him up.

You’re sorry? What for?”

“Your lying doesn’t excuse my own. I don’t have the right to condemn you and absolve myself.”

“Okay… so you’re not mad anymore?”

“Oh no, I am still unbelievably furious. If you walk out of here without bloodshed I will be very surprised. However, throughout this whole ordeal, all I really hoped for was that in the end you’d give me a chance to explain. So that’s what I’m giving you.”

You finally turned to meet his gaze, face as expressionless as you could manage save for a disdainfully arched brow.

“But it had better be a really good explanation.”

Chapter Text

He let his eyes wander the room, rubbing his hand over the bottom half of his face while he considered what to say. "When I woke up in the hospital and the doctor started talking about my wife, I wasn't sure what to make of it. But you were looking at me like saying the wrong thing would get me throttled, so playing dumb seemed like the safest thing to do. I figured I'd wait until somebody explained, but no one ever did. Then I realized I was in the perfect position to investigate. Nobody'd be looking at the guy with amnesia."

"You took a page out of Peggy's book and made yourself invisible." Your face was still blank until he nodded in reluctant agreement to your interpretation. Then your brows cut low as your eyes grew hotter. “That’s a fantastic plan and all, but did you ever think that it would be simpler to just tell the S.S.R. about the man who shot you? They could have used their resources to track him down and this whole case could have been wrapped up in a week.”

“That woulda been great, but I didn’t get a good look at the guy. He had his hat pulled down, and I was more focused on the gun he was pointing at me.”

“So why keep it a secret from us? Why not let Peggy and Chief Sousa help you?”

"I told you – the more people who know the quicker your cover gets blown."

"Then just me – why didn't you tell me? Why'd you put me through all this?" Your anger melted into something sadder and more desperate, and you thought you might have seen a bit of contrition flash across his face, but you couldn't really trust yourself to read him correctly anymore.

"I knew how bad you were with lying. At least this way you were lying to me and not somebody who could cause trouble."

"How do you know what I'm bad at?" you asked sourly.

"You told me – when you brought Stark in after the theater massacre. I said I shoulda known you weren't who you said you were, and you said, 'Yeah, you really should have. I'm a terrible liar.'"

You hesitated, recalling that memory. "I suppose I did."

"And could you really have kept it from the others? Jarvis and Ana? Peggy? Howard? Any one of them knows and soon everybody's in on it. Keeping it from you was the only way I could be sure I wouldn't get found out."

You mulled it over, trying to see everything objectively even through your wounded feelings. "So all the questions, the stories you made me tell you, the fake memories I had to come up with...?"

"A guy with amnesia would want to know about himself, and I needed to make sure you had your story straight. It's easier to lie if you have it all worked out ahead of time."

Your eyes narrowed. "Sleeping in your bed?"

That one left him visibly uncomfortable. "A married couple sleeping in different rooms woulda been suspicious."

"I gave you a perfectly good out."

"I was worried, all right?” Now he was uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. “I had a target on my back, and pretending to be my wife put you in the crosshairs, too. At least in the same room I could protect you."

"Unless somebody came after you directly and found me there, too."

"Yeah, well, I didn't really think the whole thing through. I saw the guy outside the S.S.R. and thought about you being in your room all alone." He paused, running a hand through his hair. "I didn't want anything to happen to you because of me."

"You saw the man with the gun?" You didn’t even remember him turning in that direction when you’d left the theatrical agency office.

"What, you think I don't know how to spot an agent trying to act natural?" His habitual smirk made its first appearance, goaded by his amusement. "I really enjoyed your cute little covert conversation with Carter, though. I've never heard two people discuss dinner plans so dramatically."

"I wouldn't make fun of me right now – I'm still mad at you."

"I thought it seemed like you understood." He sounded betrayed.

"This isn't something you just stop being upset about because the reasoning makes sense. I've spent the past two months falling all over myself to convince you we’re married, and you knew the whole time! So on top of all the guilt from lying I'm also completely humiliated. What am I supposed to do now that you’ve won?"

His eyes went all squinty like they always did whenever he’d get confused. "What are you talking about?"

"This!" You waved a hand between the two of you. "Whatever this thing we do is. You've won and I've lost, so how am I supposed to face you now?"

"What, are we having some kind of competition I didn’t know about?"

"Please, that's all we've ever had. Who's right, who has the best insult, who can get the last word in. And now no matter what, you're always going to have the time you led me around by the nose for months. Face it – you've got all the good cards, and there's no way I can come back from this."

Maybe he understood what you were saying, maybe he just saw how truly dejected you were, but after watching you steadily for a moment, he offered, "What if I could even up the hands again?"

"How could you possibly do that?" you questioned on a sigh.

He worked his jaw for a moment, stalling as he tried to get his words in the correct order. "You know how I said I made you tell me all those stories so you'd have an easier time keeping up the front?"

"Why yes, considering that we had that conversation no more than five minutes ago, I do remember."

His eyes darkened at your snarky tone, but he didn't comment. "Don't get the wrong idea – that was mainly why I did it. But I might have been more... thorough than I needed to be."

"You mean excessive?"

"Would you just let me talk?" he snapped, and you could almost laugh at how quickly you both fell back into old habits, except something in your chest twinged just a little at the loss of the easy repartee the two of you had built. So you pressed your lips together and waved your hand grandly in a gesture for him to continue. "At first it was just interesting to see what you'd come up with, but then... I guess a part of me liked to pretend for a while."

"Pretend what?"

"That a life like that was something I could have. But what I do, this job, it doesn't allow for that. Dooley's marriage was on the rocks before his wife became a widow. Sousa's engagement lasted, what, a couple days? You aren't even my real wife and it almost got you killed – twice. Church wedding, kids, house with a picket fence – I'm not headed for any of that. So for a while it was nice to hear you talk and imagine it could really happen."

You tried to temper your reply, drum up some modicum of empathy, but in the end it still came out on a scoff. "Jack, you are much too fatalistic for your age. Of course your job is dangerous and stressful and would make marriage hard. But if you find the right girl, none of that will matter. Heck, find a girl like Peggy and she'll be punching out the bad guys right next to you. The only thing that determines whether a marriage works out or not is the two people in it. There's no reason you have to settle for my once upon a times when you can go and find your own happily ever after."

For some reason he didn’t respond immediately, which left the two of you staring at each other in awkward silence. Then, "You just can’t help it, can you?"

“Help what?”

"Nothing, forget about it. So we even?"

"Not even close," you snorted, but then smiled a little in spite of yourself. "But knowing that you have a gooey little sentimental side? It's a start."

"Fine. What about you and me – we gonna be okay?"

You paused, fully considering his question. On the one hand, he'd lied to you for an extended period of time. On the other, you'd also lied to him, even if he did know about it all the while. If you had a third hand, that one would be taken up with the fallout from faking a marriage for this long, all the casual affection and sweet words. Could you really recover from something like that? "Probably. I don't... I don't really know where we go from here. But I do know that I don't want to fight with you anymore."

A hint of a frown dampened his expression, and he looked almost as tired as you felt. Loathe as you were to give him any leniency, you had to admit that this couldn't have been easy on him either. Yes, though he denied it, you were sure he enjoyed watching you scramble. Still, he’d had to be equally creative to cover his own tracks. He'd found ways to investigate without alerting you, had even snuck in contact with his coworkers back in New York. Maybe he was more comfortable faking endearment than you were, but even that had to eventually wear on him.

"So we'll find a way to make us okay," you finished. Because you both deserved that much.

"Good. I found this in Underwood's stuff." He dug something out of his pocket. "We figure out what it's to, we might find out who was running her."

You stared at the key in his palm while your mind raced to catch up. "'We' as in 'you and me' we? You expect me to keep going along with this?"

His expression turned wary. "I can't start showing up places without you – it'll look suspicious if I'm out on my own when I'm not supposed to remember anything."

"You can't be serious. You killed a woman today because of me." The memory still brought an acidic taste to your mouth.

"That was self-defense."

"No, that was in defense of me. You had to shoot her because I couldn't take care of myself. I don’t belong in this - you said so."

"When did I say that?"

"Back in New York when I caught you drinking scotch in your office. You've 'got no room for a secretary with delusions of espionage.'"

"I didn't mean it,” he argued impatiently. “I was upset, and I'd already been into that scotch for a while. We'd lost a pack of civilians earlier that day. Then you show up all carefree and breezy like you always do, and I start thinking how easily something like that could happen to you. But it's different with this – I'll be right there the whole time to make sure you're safe. I can protect you."

"This isn't about keeping me safe – it's about keeping you safe. Having someone who can watch your back as much as you watch theirs.” You decided to ignore that he’d somehow gotten the ludicrous idea you were anything close to carefree. “My job was to keep you away from the people trying to kill you, but if you're going to be running right at them then I'm not the person you need. I know you didn’t want anyone else to know, but considering everything that’s happened, we should figure out how to get ahold of Peggy. She'll know what to do."

His demeanor changed in an instant, fist curling back over the key. His words came out clipped through the tight clench of his teeth. "I do not need Carter."

"Nonsense, it's not that big a deal. She went to London to interrogate your old college buddy, but I'm sure she'll hop on the next available flight when she hears you're all better."

"I know why she went to London. I'm the one who sent her."

The inconceivability of such an action indicated that you must have misheard him. "What?"

"I told Agent Henry to mention my trip the next time Peggy called."

"Why would you do that?"

"I needed someone to look into where that file came from."

"You've got a whole agency full of men that could have gone. Why would you send Peggy halfway across the world when she's our best shot at solving this thing?"

"You think I don't know how good she is? That'd she'd have my job if she wasn't a woman and would probably be better at it?"

Now you were truly confused. Your day had taken so many sharp turns that it was becoming impossible to keep up. "Peggy being capable doesn't make you any less so," you suggested carefully, unsure as to the root of his apparent resentment. "Anybody can see you're good at your job."

"A promotion I got for saving the city from Stark's crazy gas. Let's review that night, shall we? Peggy talked Stark down, Sousa took out Fenhoff, and I got knocked unconscious. And I'm still the one who got promoted, all because I was the closest able-bodied man."

"That was one case, which you put a lot of leg work into ahead of time. Chief Dooley trusted you enough to put you in charge of it to begin with. Obviously you'd earned a reputation for yourself long before Howard got robbed. You've got a navy cross, for heaven's sake! That's got to mean something."

"It means they'll give it to a murderer if he's got the right story," Jack spat, face taut as if in pain. You weren't often at a loss of words with him, though it had happened more frequently since he'd taken up the mantle of doting husband. Now you could only stare at him, wondering what his proclamation could possibly mean. Your silence seemed only to agitate him further, and so he barreled on. "I shot six Japanese soldiers who came into our camp, and then I buried the white flag they were carrying."

You watched him blankly as this new information settled in your brain. His whole body was rigid almost to the point of vibrating, and you wondered what he was expecting your reaction to be. And what exactly should your reaction be, considering he just confessed to a war crime he'd covered up only to be rewarded for later? You should probably be outraged or disgusted or at the very least disapproving, but a quick mental check revealed none of those feelings. Instead you found yourself methodically working through all the ramifications of his admission, like filling in the empty spaces in a crossword puzzle.

"Peggy knows, doesn't she?" you eventually asked levelly. "That's why you tried to blackmail her – you were afraid she'd use it against you."

He hesitated, but then nodded sharply. You saw his eyes dart down to your hands, and you realized you were once again fiddling with your wedding bands. You dropped your arms back to your sides.

"But you didn’t know." This one wasn't a question, and your surety had his eyebrows riding high. "You didn't know they were there to surrender."

"Peggy told you.” The words were angry but accepting all at once. You fought not to roll your eyes in deference to the serious tone of the conversation, but it was like he’d completely forgotten the question you’d asked him seconds ago.

"Of course not. I may not know you well enough to spot when you're faking amnesia, but I do know what kind of man you are. You're arrogant and pigheaded and infuriatingly smug, but you're not a cold-blooded killer, Jack."

"So what, it doesn't bother you?"

"It was a terrible thing, and I'm sorry for everyone involved, but I can't blame you for doing what you thought was needed to protect the rest of your unit or how you reacted in a moment of extreme pressure. Besides, I think you blame yourself enough for the both of us."

It explained so much about him, really – how he'd worked so hard to prove himself, why he'd always been so threatened by other's excellence. He'd made a career out of trying to earn an award he didn't feel he deserved. No wonder he was so averse to bringing Peggy into this when her help would just make him feel further deficient, like he was taking credit for someone else’s accomplishments again. He needed to show that he was able to succeed on his own.

"Let me see that key again," you ordered, palm out. He appeared thrown by your abrupt change of subject, staring at you without complying as you waited him out. You saw the moment when your full implication registered, the tense muscles of his face easing. You were going to keep his secrets, both of them, and help him solve the case without the interference of others. He held the key out carefully, dangling from its attached tag, and his eyes said the thanks his mouth wouldn't.

Chapter Text

You turned the key over in your hand, examining it from all angles. It was ornate, obviously intended to leave an impression of opulence. Inspection of the tag revealed an elaborate golden 'V' engraved into the supple leather. You ran your thumb over it slowly, trying to reconcile its familiarity.

"I know this," you muttered absently. "It's for a hotel, I think. A chain of them: Vanderbilt Suites."

"So Underwood had a hotel room?"

You glanced up at Jack, eyebrows low with thought. "I guess that would make sense, but then why was she also squatting in an abandoned warehouse? Vanderbilts are some of the swankiest places you'll ever find."

"Because she's a crazy Russian assassin who sleeps handcuffed to a bed. I don't think she cares too much about being comfortable."

"I suppose. What's really odd is I wasn't aware of a Vanderbilt hotel in Los Angeles."

"Why is that odd?"

"It's something I've had to keep track of for Howard – the local lodging availability. Sometimes he needs places to put people up, the fancier the better." You were momentarily confused by the disgusted face he pulled before you realized he thought you were talking about setting Howard up with locations for his romantic liaisons. "No, not like that. At least, not always like that, and most of the time he has Jarvis take care of those details to protect my delicate sensibilities, as if I had any left. I meant for his business associates – the ones he wants to impress but also keep a safe distance away from his personal property."

"So you're saying if there was one of these hotels in Los Angeles you'd know about it?"

"I would have thought so, but it wouldn't be the first time I've missed something. Why don't you head back to your room, and I'll meet you there after I track down a phone book? This isn't the most private of places if you're serious about keeping this a secret from everyone else." You watched him patiently, waiting for his acknowledgment, but he merely stared at the key in your hand without giving a response. "Jack?"

"Yeah, sure, sounds good." The agreement was quick, his eyes finally meeting yours. You were hoping he'd share what had been on his mind, if he had some kind of hunch, but he didn't say anything further. You held out the key for him to take, just in case he'd been concerned that you weren't going to return it. He glanced down momentarily, and then back at your face, accepting without a word. For some reason the exchange felt much more serious than it should have, and the whole thing left you vaguely uneasy.

“One more thing: if this is going to work, if we’re going to get along until we’re both safely on our own sides of the country, I’m going to need you to be honest with me from now on. No more lies – from either of us.”

“No more lies.” He nodded, unblinking and seemingly sincere. You wanted to believe him, and that was almost as worrisome as your doubt over whether you could. The enterprise you were embarking on would require trust, but now you weren’t even sure you could trust yourself, let alone him.

You tried to push the worries away as you rifled through a set of drawers under the most commonly used telephone in the house. Overanalyzing his every word and action wouldn’t help, especially now that you’d learned how inaccurate your prior analyses had been. You’d just have to take this one step at a time and hope he didn’t pull the rug out from under you again.

"Looking for something?" Jarvis' unexpected appearance caused you to jump and ram your hand into the top of the drawer. Biting back a curse you turned to address him with a smile, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible.

“Phone book?”

“Bottom drawer.”

“Marvelous.” Objective obtained, you turned back to the butler in hopes of making an immediate escape, but the curious look he was shooting you suggested otherwise.

“May I ask what you need a phone book for?”

You cleared your throat quietly and rocked back on your heels, book clutched tightly in front of you. “Oh, just making sure I haven’t missed something Jack should see. You know how… full… Los Angeles can be. Who knows what I might have overlooked.”

He continued to study you while you fought not to squirm. “Are you quite all right?”

“Sure, why do you ask?” Your words felt wooden to your own ears, and you were struck with the sudden comprehension of why Jack had tried to keep you in the dark.

“You seem… nervous. Did something happen today with Chief Thompson?”

“Mm, no, nothing unusual. He did enjoy meeting Joe DiMaggio quite a bit.”

“Where is he now?”

“Joe DiMaggio?”

“Chief Thompson.”

“Oh, around here somewhere. He's to the point where he really doesn't need me with him so much anymore. Which is good, great, of course. We've spent way too much time together already as it is. I mean, I’ve seen him in his underwear more than I ever imagined. Not that I really imagined it. It’s just, at night, and he didn’t like the pajamas and… uh… I mean…” You felt heat creep up the back of your neck. You were so high strung that you seemed to have lost the connection between your brain and tongue.

Jarvis' expression slipped from hesitantly concerned to carefully blank tinged with discomfort. His eyes, no longer able to meet yours, turned to the vase sitting next to the phone, and he began rearranging the flowers inside restlessly. “Is this about your current sleeping arrangement with the chief?”

You swore you actually felt his statement vibrate the air around you. “You know about that?”

“Please, I know everything that happens within Mr. Stark’s estate,” he scoffed, wrinkling his nose at the perceived insult.

“Ana told you, didn’t she?”

“…yes.”

You knew she’d deduced more than she let on.

“But rest assured,” he continued, finally looking you in the face once more, “you will feel no judgment from either of us. We understand the position you are in, what you must do to maintain your charade, no matter how… unpleasant. Please do not feel the need to tiptoe around me.”

“That’s… that’s good to know. Thank you, Jarvis.”

“Of course.” He smiled, and then straightened his posture, hands now clasped behind his back. “Dinner should be ready shortly. Should I come and fetch you?”

“No, we’ll venture out in a few minutes.”

"Oh, and one more thing: a Mr. Hansel called and seemed rather desperate to reach you."

"Oops, I was supposed to call him, and it slipped my mind. I'll do that now, thank you."

Jarvis left, and you quickly dialed the number the former operative had given you should you ever need to contact him. It rang twice before he answered with a gruff identification of his name.

"Mr. Hansel, I am so very sorry that we lost you earlier. Jack wanted to drive, and I think he enjoyed turning a bit too much."

"I am pleased to hear that you are safe, Mrs. Thompson."

"Yes, and I do believe we have sorted out our problems and won't be needing your services any longer." You paused and wondered at the silence on the other end of the line. "Mr. Hansel, are you still there?"

"Mrs. Thompson, your business is your own, and I make it my policy never to ask questions of those who contract me."

He was hesitating, and that was unusual.

"Yes?"

"I have been doing this work for longer than I care to admit, and never, not once, have I lost my target."

Your fingers tightened around the phone as you stared unblinkingly at the floral print of the wallpaper. "I'm sorry-"

"I'm not looking for an apology, Mrs. Thompson," he cut you off sharply, but not unkindly. "I take responsibility for my own failings. What I'm asking is for you to be absolutely certain that you are ready to sever our arrangement."

He was concerned for you, this stoic man who had never smiled in any of your interactions or given any indication that he saw you as more than his next paycheck. It was touching and made you feel just a little guilty. "I do appreciate you, Mr. Hansel, and you will be the first name that comes to mind should I or anyone I know ever be in need. But for the moment, I promise you I am certain."

"As you wish, Mrs. Thompson."

The journey to Jack's room was slow, your steps measured but your mind awash with everything you'd learned that day. The longer you were given to think everything over the more questions you found yourself left with. And now with what Mr. Hansel had just said...

The noise of the door closing brought Jack’s attention to where you leaned against it, phone book pressed to your stomach. "Did you know Mr. Hansel was following us?"

He blinked at you blankly from his perch on the bed, a newspaper spread out before him. "Who's Mr. Hansel?"

"The man I paid to follow us."

"The guy from the beach?"

"Did you lose him on purpose?"

"Yeah, I didn't want any witnesses."

Your eyes narrowed fractionally. "Did you go to that warehouse to kill Dottie Underwood?"

"No," he denied immediately, standing up like that would solidify his defense against your accusatory tone. "No, of course not. I wouldn't have taken you if I'd thought she'd be there – I wouldn't put you in that kind of danger." He paused, frown deepening. "You said you knew I wasn't a cold-blooded killer."

Your eyes dropped from his face, staring at nothing in particular, before returning. "I'm having a hard time being sure of what I know at this point."

His expression didn't alter much, but you did note his hand curling into a fist before he jammed it into his pocket. This time he looked away, gaze returning to the newspaper he'd been scrutinizing before your return. "No, I didn't think we’d run into her. According to this," he gestured to the paper spread out over the comforter, tone going harsh with anger, "she was supposed to be out. But obviously, somebody got their wires crossed."

You pulled yourself from the door and moved to his side, head tilted curiously to get a better look at the small print. "Where does it say that?"

"In the ads. Can't say I really know the details, but the boys in New York assured me she'd be off the premises meeting some contact."

You picked out a familiar movie listing which now brought about confusion. "That's the Marx Brothers marathon advertisement."

"The paper is from a few days ago. I checked every day since, and there wasn't anything new. She should have been gone."

"Any number of things could have changed between then and now. Maybe they rescheduled via some other means of communication."

"Seems unlikely after going to all the trouble setting up a secret code in the newspaper."

"Unless they knew you'd figured them out." You saw the shift in his eyes as this new idea settled.

"The whole thing could have been a set up." He swore vehemently, and smacked a palm to the paper before he near collapsed to sit and glare at the far wall, hand scrubbing over his mouth irritably. "If they know, everything I've done is worthless. I've just wasted two months."

That shouldn’t have hurt, but it did. Still, you had a trained response now that wanted to reach out and touch him, comfort him in his distress. Your hands gripped the phone book tighter. "We don't know for a fact that they do know, at least not about you. Dottie might've been expecting someone, but that doesn't mean she was waiting for you specifically. I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater just because he's a little wet now."

His expression cleared somewhat, and when he spoke a bit of humor returned to his voice. "You come up with the weirdest metaphors."

"I like metaphors. It's how we add color to language."

He nodded thoughtfully for a moment, hint of a smile lighting his eyes, and then huffed it away with a sigh. He pinched the bridge of his nose as his brow furrowed. "Okay, so if they're on to us we're going to have to go about this even more carefully, but I still think the next step is to figure out why Underwood had a key to a fancy hotel that's not in Los Angeles."

"May not be in Los Angeles. I brought the phone book." You held it up as proof, and then felt a little ridiculous.

"Great." His hand dropped so he could level an expectant look your way. "There any Vanderbilt hotels in there?"

"Um..." You hadn't even thought to look before now. You sat down beside him and started to flip through the pages. "Not under hotels... or lodging... or 'v'… shoot, I don't think so. I could call information and see where the nearest one is."

"Let's keep that option on hold. The lines might be monitored, and I don’t want to attract any more attention."

"So what do we do now?"

"Now..." He stood and stretched. "We go to dinner. I smell pizza."

"Seriously?" How could he just up and decide to eat at a time like this?

"We're not going to figure anything out sitting around here talking, and I'm hungry." He tugged the book away from you and set it aside, then extended his hand. "You promised me pizza."

"Fine," you groused, taking his hand without thinking and allowing him to pull you up. It wasn't until you were on your feet and less than half a step away from him that you realized what was happening. He seemed to catch on around the same time, and you both stood frozen with your hand still in his. The simple interaction born of casual physical contact had become natural over the course of time you'd spent together since this whole thing had started but wasn't at all a part of your prior relationship. Only a few hours ago you had ordered him never to touch you again. Now you stood on some blurred line between what you two were and what you'd become and what you were supposed to be now, and it felt a little like trying to find your balance on a sheet of ice – one wrong move and you were going to break something important.

You swallowed around the dryness in your throat and awkwardly detached yourself. "It's probably a good idea to head down anyway or Jarvis will come looking for us."

"You gonna be able to handle it? Dinner with the Jarvises?" He seemed to have recovered quickly with renewed concern over his continued mission.

"I don't really have another option, do I? I already ran into Jarvis once, which made me realized how hard it's going to be to lie to him, to both of them. You were probably right not to let me in on this to begin with."

"Wait, what was that about me being right? I didn't quite hear you."

"Don't get smug. Only the first one is free."

"How much would it cost to get you to write it down?"

"Howard doesn’t even have enough money.”

Jack made dinner easier by chattering on about Joe DiMaggio. You didn’t have to say much, which meant you didn’t have to perform much. Still, you felt like you may as well have been shouting ‘I have a secret’ repeatedly, and you hoped Ana’s dishonesty instincts weren’t tingling. When you weren’t busy overthinking the way you chewed your pizza crust and whether it was suspicious or not, you were watching Jack morph into amnesia-Jack, all smiling with crinkled eyes lit up by the excitement of meeting his idol. He so fully became the Jack of the last couple months that you had a hard time remembering he didn’t really exist, and every time you reminded yourself was like seeing him with that gun all over again. The more you saw him pretending, the more you realized how attached to the façade you’d become, how you’d allowed yourself to imagine things that were completely impossible.

Here was where the first inklings of the pain you’d feared began. But you had agreed to help Jack, and you would. You just had to get your head back into reality and stop mourning the death of something that had never existed in the first place.

The next awkward part came when everyone retired for the evening. You and Jack walked back to his room in silence, but when you reached the door he paused with his hand on the knob. “I guess you’re going back to your room.”

“Um, well…” You saw his gaze wander down to your hands and realized you were already wringing them. “Jarvis knows. That I’ve been sleeping here. If I suddenly stop, he’ll wonder why.”

“So you’re staying?”

“If that’s okay.”

I don’t think there’s a whole lot that would make me not want you here.

Stop it.

“It’s fine with me.” He hesitated. “I can sleep on the floor.”

“That seems a little silly at this point. We’ve managed to share a bed this long. Just make sure you keep to your side.”

He picked up on your attempt at levity and tried to match your tone. “Sure, as long as you don’t hit me again.”

You’re shaking the whole bed. C’mere.

Stop it.

Unable to block out the memory entirely, you let your curiosity get the better of you. “Are you really afraid of psychiatrists?”

“I don't know if I'd say 'afraid.' I definitely don't trust them.” He shifted his stance, hand still on the doorknob. “When I got back from the war my parents sent me to a psychiatrist because I was acting ‘wayward and moody.’ The guy said all the fighting had snapped something in my brain to the point I couldn’t ‘feel a sense of accomplishment’ anymore. He wanted to admit me to his facility for observation because I was a ‘potential threat to myself and those around me.’”

“Oh, you would have hated that. Your very soul would have shriveled up.” Even now you could easily see the impact it had had on him - he was still able to quote what the doctor said, like the words had been branded on him.

“Luckily my parents listened when I told them it was more for the doctor’s benefit than mine – he wanted them to sign a release so he could publish a paper on my case, something about post-war trauma among soldiers. Instead my dad called Vernon Masters, and I joined the S.S.R. Turns out I just needed a good kick in the pants.”

“You needed a mission.” You sighed when he raised his eyebrows at your assessment, tucking your hands under your arms to stop their tell-tale fidgeting. “You were a soldier, and after what happened in Japan… I imagine you were feeling a little… unproductive. The S.S.R. provided you with a goal, with something to protect, with meaning. You were a knight without a kingdom – of course you were aimless.”

He was giving you a more restrained version of that awed look again, and it made you decidedly uncomfortable. Eventually, he quietly asked, “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Get behind something and see it from the inside out.”

“I don’t…" You shrugged your shoulders uncomfortably, trying and failing to keep your eyes on his. "I guess it’s like I told you at the beach. It’s a matter of perspective.”

I don’t want you to have any regrets.

You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve got nothing to regret.

Make a wish.

Stop.

“I think there's more to it than that. Like you’ve got a way of seeing things other people miss.”

You finally managed to look back at him just in time to see the blatant sincerity painting his features. “Obviously if I was really that perceptive I would have caught on to your game a lot sooner.”

Now he was smiling a little bit, leaning into the handle so that the door finally opened. “You don’t seem to see things as clearly when you’re personally involved in them.”

You’re not what you think you are.

STOP.

"I'm going to go get ready for bed. I'll be back in a little while."

The day felt like the longest and most complicated of your life, so you were proud to have made it through without breaking down completely. You held off until you were alone in the shower with the water too hot to be comfortable and the steam thick enough to mistake for fog. But with the streams of water to hide your tears and sound to hide your sobs, you allowed yourself to cry for everything you’d lost – the dreams you never should have dreamed, the feelings you’d never acknowledged, and the man who’d never been.

Chapter Text

"Tell me something that's true."

"'Scuse me?" Jack questioned over top of his cards.

"Tell me something that's true," you repeated, laying down a card and picking up another. "You've told me lots of things that aren't true. I want to see if I can tell the difference. But it has to matter – not just, 'I like cheeseburgers' or something like that."

He seemed to be thinking your demand over carefully as he shuffled his hand around. He'd put in a call to New York earlier in the morning, and you were currently making another attempt at teaching him gin rummy to fill the hours until he could call back. "Lucy still asks about you sometimes."

"Your cousin Lucy? What does she ask about?" You were honestly surprised the little girl remembered you at all

"She wants to know if we ever get ice cream. You shoulda heard how upset she was when I told her you'd moved to California."

"That’s sweet. I guess now you can tell her yes we have gotten ice cream, and it's just as good as New York." Talking about the things you’d done during his presumed memory loss was much easier than you’d anticipated. Since you'd returned to his room the previous night, Jack seemed to be letting you set the tone for your interactions, and you had decided (after getting all the crying out of the way) that if you acted unbothered eventually you would be. At the base of it, how much of what had happened was really a problem? So the two of you had been rather physically affectionate, and yes he had kissed you. Okay, twice. But Howard had been known to get cuddly, and he kissed you all the time. Sure, not the way Jack kissed you, the way that you were embarrassed to admit had curled your toes, but in the end what was a kiss (or two) in the grand scheme of things? Friends (or whatever you and Jack were) could kiss. It wasn't that big of a deal.

The harder part to get past was all the nice things he'd said to you, knowing now that they'd been used to dupe you into accepting his ruse. You'd allowed yourself to believe his words, at least a little, and the affirmations had begun to make you feel less... unwanted. On the bright side he did still want you around, if only for his investigation. It was something.

An idea tickled the back of your mind, so you asked, "Has Lucy ever been out west?"

"I think her trip to New York was the only time she's ever left Oklahoma."

"If...” you hesitated, not wanting to sound presumptuous, “If she ever wanted to come to Los Angeles, she could stay here and I could show her around. I mean, I know your family doesn't know me-"

"I'd vouch for you,” he assured, looking up as he played his card. “That'd be good enough. Especially if Lucy found out you offered. The kid makes a face that’s impossible to say no to when she wants something."

“Now where could she have possibly learned that?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.” But he was trying not to smirk down at his cards, so he very well did know.

On your part you were trying equally as hard not to smile into your own hand. He trusted you with his cousin whom he obviously adored, and that warmed you in a way that was hard to ignore. "I bet she'd like the ocean."

"She'd love it. You'd never get her to leave." He tapped his cards on the table restlessly. "Okay, your turn. You tell me something true."

You chewed your lip as you drew from the deck. "When I was a little girl I once stole a piece of penny candy from a corner store."

"Heinous."

"I certainly thought so. I felt guilty for ages but was never brave enough to go back and apologize."

"So you're still at large?"

"I suppose I am."

"I stole a kid's fountain pen in the second grade."

You coughed out a laugh at how casually he’d copped to his crime. "Why would you do that?"

"He kept going on and on about how great it was. I got fed up, so I swiped it and gave it to the homeless man who lived in an alley near the school."

"You were a tiny Robin Hood."

"I was a real champion of the people, all right. Go on, it's your turn."

You weren't sure if he meant with the card game or to share something, so you continued with both. "I couldn't tell left from right until I was sixteen. It still trips me up sometimes."

"I don't like spinach."

"That doesn't count – nobody likes spinach."

"I don't like licorice either."

"Merciful heavens, you are a strange one."

And so it continued. You swapped stories about childhood antics, covered affinities for everything from food to New York bus routes, laughed at knowledge gaps. He even told you more about his family. Soon the cards lay discarded entirely as you listened with rapt attention to Jack's recounting of a particularly intense capture the flag match at summer camp when he was twelve.

"So Michaelson is down a shoe, Jenkins is completely missing his pants, and I'm left trying to shove the flag in my shirt before a kid on the other team who was built like a linebacker catches me."

"Did you make it? Did you win?"

"We did. Then later that night the linebacker cornered me behind our bunkhouse and took out his frustrations on my face."

"Over a game?"

"And I might have made time with a girl he was interested in. It's hard to tell what irritated him more."

"Little twelve-year-old Jack, getting into fights over girls. Have you always been such a tough guy?"

"Hey, according to you I’m not the only one picking fights. What about that mean right hook you mentioned?"

"Truthfully, that claim may have been a little exaggerated," you admitted over a dramatic sigh. "I've never actually punched anyone in my life."

"Color me surprised," he responded dryly.

"Yes, it might shock you, but I'm not nearly as tough as I look."

"I think you're tougher than you think you are."

"I wish I could say that, but there's a lack of supporting evidence. In all honesty I've never had to fight for anything. The closest I came was defying my parents' demand that I marry Mr. Snyder. But then Howard swooped in and saved the day, and he's been doing that ever since. For all I know I'm as soft as a warm marshmallow."

"Trust me, if you were that soft I wouldn't have had near as much trouble with you."

"Well, I suppose as long as I'm causing you trouble, I'm doing something right." You smiled as he snorted derisively. You leaned more weight on your elbow as you scrutinized him from your position curled up on the couch. He looked so relaxed, reclined in his chair with his hands interlocked behind his head. You thought this must be the most genuinely at ease you'd ever seen him. "Jack, are we friends?”

His eyebrows shot up. “Is that what you want?”

You stared at the table between you as you hedged. “I think so.”

“Then yeah, we’re friends.”

This shouldn't have been so important, but it felt monumentally so. You needed something to come from everything that had happened between the two of you. You couldn't just go back to being nothing, couldn't just brush it off. There was too much. You blinked a few times and then looked him straight in the eye again, trying not to seem as intense and vulnerable as you felt. “Tell me something true.”

“We’re friends,” he answered firmly, eyes not leaving yours for several seconds afterwards. Then he broke the moment by leaning forward and gathering up the scattered cards. “Though I kinda expected after all of this that you were just going to keep hating me forever.”

"I never hated you, Jack." You smiled just a bit as he scoffed. "Sure, I had times I didn't like you that much, but you have to admit you can be rather unpleasant."

"You weren't always all sugar and spice either."

"No I wasn't," you agreed readily before smiling at him in what you hoped was a genuinely friendly manner. “Even so, I've never hated you. And it turns out you're actually not half bad."

"Gee, thanks friend."

“I might even write to you when you’re back in New York.”

“Really?” He seemed honestly surprised, and your smile slipped some with your confusion.

“Um, sure, I could drop you a post card now and again.”

“Does that mean you aren’t planning on moving back any time soon?” he questioned, focusing once more on his busy hands.

“We don’t have any plans at the moment. Howard has his heart set on producing his movie, and now he’s opening a new research facility in Malibu. I think he’s found California to his liking.”

“And why wouldn’t he? Except for the ungodly heat and the lack of decent food.”

“It’s a dry heat, and good food is what we have Jarvis for.”

“I don’t think I could do it – just pack up and leave New York like that.”

“I do miss it sometimes. I’ve lived there my entire life. But I work for Howard, and Howard is here. So I’m here, too.”

He didn’t say anything for a few long moments. He spread the cards out over the table, and then slid his finger under the first in the row. With one deft movement he flipped it over, sending a domino ripple through the line until they were all face up. You made some sort of impressed noise, but instead of acknowledging it he asked, “What would you do if you didn’t work for Stark?”

“Starve,” you replied with a smile that deflated when he just sent you a deadpan look. “Oh come on, that was funny.”

“Guess we’re gonna have to agree to disagree again.” He scooped up the cards and resumed his shuffling.

“What else is new for us?”

“You really not gonna answer that one? After you’ve already confessed to petty theft and being directionally challenged?”

“It’s not that I won’t answer – I just don’t have an answer. Working for Howard is all I know.”

“You never thought of doing anything else?”

“The very idea is mildly terrifying. What about you? Have you ever considered what you’d do if you didn’t work at the S.S.R.?”

He didn’t look up, but you could still see the corner of his mouth curl into a smirk. “I guess I could be an insurance agent.”

“Har har.”

He let his smirk ease into a more convivial expression as he met your eyes again. “I’d probably end up working my dad’s farm.”

Now that was an interesting image. “Would you be happy doing that?”

“I don’t see why not. Pops has done it for years.”

“What makes your parents happy isn’t guaranteed to make you happy.”

“Yeah, well, my parents never tried to marry me off to an old, drunk man.”

“Thank your lucky stars.”

Jack’s hands stilled on the cards as his expression took a serious turn. “Have you really not talked to them since then?”

“I have not.” His question put you on edge, so you had to concentrate to keep your tone carefully even.

“You ever going to?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“They’re your family.”

“Howard is my family. They’re just some people I used to live with.”

“That’s a little harsh.”

“It’s necessary, and very much none of your business.” Despite your best efforts, the words had bite to them, and you saw immediately that Jack felt the pinch.

He held up his hands again, this time in a gesture of surrender. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

You let the silence hang for a few long moments, staring at the cards in his hands. “For the record, I’m sorry, too.”

You couldn’t know for sure if he realized you were referring to the situation with your parents, but the understanding in his eyes certainly indicated that he did. He glanced down at his watch and set the cards aside. With all the implication of the gunshot that signals the start of a race, he said, “I’m going to call the office again. You mind standing watch?”

And they’re off!

Chapter Text

"You know your way around L.A.?" Jack's sudden appearance at your side made you jump – you'd been so busy playing lookout you hadn't even realized he'd hung up the phone.

"Pretty well. Why?"

"I got an address for the guy we've been using to decode the newspaper ads. I think it's time I had a word with him face to face."

His tone was foreboding, sparking your curiosity. "Do you think he deliberately gave you false information?"

"That's what we're going to find out." He started off in the direction of Howard's car collection. You fell in step, eyeing him warily.

"Why does it sound like you're going to use your fists to do the asking?"

"Because my reputation precedes me."

"You could just ask first. He might not have had anything to do with it."

"You want me to say 'please,' too?"

"It wouldn't hurt." You were forced to stop walking when Jack planted his feet and gave you a look like you'd suggested he try to get the information through choreographed dance. "All I'm saying is a little diplomacy could work just as well as brute force."

"I'm aware of that. I know how to do more than throw a punch."

"Yes, you can also play piano, knead bread dough, and lose spectacularly at gin rummy."

"At least you've rounded out your opinion of me."

The car ride was quiet for a bit, almost awkwardly so, as you drummed your fingers against the steering wheel until something you had been wondering reappeared in the forefront of your mind. "Where are you keeping your gun? Where did you even get a gun?"

He leaned over to tug up his right pant leg, revealing a holster strapped above his ankle. "I nicked this from the S.S.R. lab that day we stopped by."

"Oh, so you're the reason Dr. Samberly complained to Chief Sousa about people moving his stuff."

"He can have it back. It's a pain to get at."

"It is a pretty inconvenient location. I don't suppose it’d be practical to stop a fight so you could tie your shoe. Then surprise! I have a gun!"

"I don't see that working out too well,” he agreed, letting the fabric fall back into place and relaxing against the seat once more. “What you really want to do is get it before the fight starts."

"And if that doesn't happen?"

"You take a hit that puts you on the ground and pull it out when they think they've got you down."

"Clever. And painful. Maybe I should have taken Ana up on the garter holster."

"Garter holster?"

“Peggy has one.”

"Why am I not surprised?” he muttered sarcastically before his tone evened out into straight interest. “Do you know how to shoot a gun?"

"Of course not. But it'd be more accessible than yours, and now that I know you know how to shoot, I could have transported it for you. Like a living holster. All the convenience, none of the chaffing."

"I'll keep that in mind." His response was backed with humor that matched yours which left you smiling.

The address he gave brought you to an unexpected place. "Appliance repair?"

"He's not just gonna write 'Top Secret Decoding' on his door."

"What if it's a mistake, and you walk in there and rough up some humble appliance repairman?"

"So we'll do it your way: talk first, and then I'll rough him up."

"That sounds fair."

Except the door was locked, and no one came even as Jack pounded on it with the side of his fist.

“There’s not some secret knock, is there?” You shrugged when he sent you a put-out look. “Maybe he really likes codes.”

“Maybe he knows when to tuck tail and run.” He slammed his hand into the door once more and let it rest there, leaning on his forearm in mild defeat.

“So what now?”

“Now,” he glanced down at you, and you thought his eyes might have darted a bit to the left, but then he was smiling like you’d just given him great news, “now we take a walk.”

“What?” Your brow furrowed at his abrupt mood change, and your confusion only worsened when he wrapped his arm around your shoulders and all but dragged you down the block. At first just his switch of attitude caused you pause, but then it registered that he hadn’t been this physically affectionate since his ruse had been shattered. Now your concerns were further aggravated by how commonplace his touch had become, to the point you still didn’t question it even after everything that had happened.

You didn’t have much time to dwell on your deviant sensibilities, however, since Jack leaned towards your ear as a man might when he was saying something secret and sweet. “We’re being followed.”

“It’s not Mr. Hansel, is it?” You tucked yourself into the side, for all appearances like you’d been swayed by his flirtations. “I told him that it wasn’t necessary, but he seemed worried.”

“No, it’s not your man. He knew how to stay out of sight. These guys blend in about as well as an alligator in a room full of cats.”

“And you make fun of my metaphors. Wait, guys? As in plural?”

“I count three so far.”

“Really regretting the lack of garter holster now.”

“Don’t worry – we’ll be fine.” But then his mouth tightened and he halted. “Five.”

You saw them now as well: two men with obviously ill-intentions striding toward you through the crowd. You could only assume the three men behind you were of similar ilk. Jack’s arm left you, all pretenses dropped. The next thing you knew his hand was gripping yours as he dragged you into a nearby alley. You stumbled after him, just trying to keep up, but as he rounded the first corner between two buildings he pulled to a sudden stop again at the sight of two more ominous-looking men.

“Seven,” you panted, hand tightening around his. He turned slightly to see the rest of your pursuers closing in from behind, and you felt him shift to block you, slowly backing you towards the brick wall of the nearest building to provide as much coverage as possible.

“Evening, gentleman.” Jack held up his free hand as if surrendering, eyes flashing between all the men, trying to discern who might be in charge. “We’re not looking for any trouble.”

“Too bad that ain’t really up to you,” one of them, a shorter man with his hat pulled low, grunted. He stepped forward, and you felt Jack’s hand squeeze tighter for just a moment before releasing so he could plant it in the other’s face. He went down, but his friend was quick to retaliate, sending Jack sprawling. With a shout of his name, you tried to come to his aid, but two beefy arms pulled you back so sharply your feet left the ground.

Somewhere amidst the struggle you heard a ‘hey’ barked from further up the alley. All movement instantly ceased, leaving Jack slouched on the pavement cradling his jaw and you hunched over in an attempt to escape the grip of your captor. You turned your head to follow the sound of the new voice, only to find a familiar figure standing casually with his gun trained in your general direction.

“Why don’t we all just calm down for a minute, huh?”

“Joe, what’s this all about?” Your eyes shot to his weapon and back to his impassive expression. He motioned with the gun, and you were immediately released as the entire group took a step back.

“You’re on a first-name basis with a mobster?” Jack questioned incredulously as he lurched to standing.

“He grew up in the same neighborhood as Howard and I,” you answered, not looking away from the one and only Joseph Manfredi.

“Of course he did.”

“Howard. Howard Stark. Do you have any idea what he’s done? What he did to Whitney?” Joe’s impassivity was quickly melting into anger.

“What are you talking about?”

“Whitney, my Whitney! Except there’s nothing left of her. She sits all day talking to herself and clawing at her beautiful face, trying to get back what she lost, what was taken from her.”

“Joe, that wasn’t Howard’s fault.” You decided it was best not to bring up that he’d come to all of you asking for your help in saving Whitney from the Zero Matter in the first place.

“It was his machine that did this to her! His machine, and that devil woman’s plan, and you!” Manfredi jabbed his gun in Jack’s direction. “She was all right until you showed up and started making eyes at her. That’s when everything went south. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all to blame. And I’m here to collect restitution.”

Your pulse jumped when he returned both his dark stare and weapon to you.

“And what kind of restitution are you expecting here?”

“See, the way I figure, the one thing all of them got in common is you. They took my Whitney away from me, so I’m gonna take you away from them. I kill you, and maybe they’ll all get a taste of what I’m going through.”

You knew what Jack was doing the moment he started to move – he’d taken a punch and gone down, which could only mean he’d come up with his gun. You threw your arm out towards him, but you were too late. You suddenly found yourself surrounded by nine firearms, most of them trained on your person. You could see Jack’s stance out of the corner of your eye, arm raised and gun pointed at Joe, but you refused to turn your attention away from your childhood acquaintance.

“Jack, don’t.”

He didn’t respond or move an inch.

“Jack, put your gun down,” you ordered with more heat, heart rate increasing with every passing second.

“Tell him that,” he snapped back, weapon still unwavering.

“Joe, you don’t want to do this.”

“I beg to differ, sweetheart.”

“Don't call me that when you're pointing a gun at me," you demanded with enough bite that Joe's eyebrows rose fractionally with his surprise. "I know you don’t want to do this because you’re not really mad at Howard, or Peggy, or Jack. You’re mad at yourself because you feel like you failed Whitney. And you’re mad at her, too. You’re mad that she never learned the right way to love, least of all how to love you the way you needed.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I love Whitney.”

“I know you do, which is why feeling mad at her makes you feel guilty, like feeling that way is somehow wrong. But you’re allowed your own emotions. You’re allowed to be angry as long as you don’t direct that anger at the wrong target.” You looked down at his gun, and then back up at his face. “Do you really want to shoot me, Joe?”

You watched his mouth work at he tried to keep control of himself and knew you’d made a direct hit. Slowly the intimidating man crumbled before you, eyes filling with pain as his gun lowered until it pointed at the ground.

“She’s talking to him – her dead husband. I did everything for her. I loved her, supported her, gave her everything, and still it’s him she talks to. What else am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s this. I guess you can move on and forget about her. Or,” you quickly continued, seeing his grip tighten around his weapon again, “you can stay with her through whatever madness she’s caught in and hope she comes out the other side with a better perspective. And for the record you did right by her. Whitney was going to self destruct one way or another. At least you saved her being eaten from the inside out.”

“You’re right.” Joe raised his gun-wielding hand to scratch at the side of his head with his thumb before holstering the sidearm. His men followed suit, but you had to throw a pointed look at Jack before he consented to lowering his. “I shoulda known – you’re always right.”

“One of my many annoying qualities.” You slowly approached the disheartened man as he slumped onto a nearby crate.

“Sorry about all this. Grief makes a man do crazy things.”

“I know. I don’t take it personally.”

“I wish there was some way to make it up to you. Hey, you need somebody whacked? I’m still in the mood to shoot something.”

“No, thank you. We could use some information though. Do you know where the man who runs the repair shop back there is?”

“The codebreaker?” He looked smugly between the shocked expressions that both you and Jack sported. “Yeah, I know who he is. He packed up and took off a couple days ago. Figured he snitched on the wrong guy and decided to hightail it while he could.”

Disheartened, you tried a different approach. “I don’t suppose you know of a Vanderbilt hotel in Los Angeles?”

“Vanderbilt? Nah, that’s not really my scene. You’re gonna have to find some highfalutin, classy society people for that one.”

"I was afraid of that."

"If it helps, I think that guy Nathaniel Vanderbilt has a, uh, whadayacallit, vacation home out here. You want I should track him down and bring him to you?"

"No, really, that's all right. I'm sure we can find another way to contact him other than kidnapping. Thank you for the offer, though." You saw Jack’s impatience, and knew you should wrap this up. “We really should be going. Will you be okay?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, and then with more conviction, “yeah. You’re good people, sweetheart.”

You smiled as he took hold of your hand to press a kiss to its back. You squeezed his fingers before pulling away. “Try to find a way to be happy, Joe. One that doesn't involve breaking too many laws.”

"I make no guarantees. I still owe you for this, though. Don’t think for one second I’ll forget." He let you get over to Jack and then almost around the corner of the alley before he called out, "Hey, pretty boy!"

Jack's face pulled into a grimace, but it was blank when he turned back to face the mobster. "What?"

"You take good care-a her, you hear me?"

You were on the verge of ordering him to knock it off, but Jack just nodded once sharply and then resumed his exit. With one last wave to Joe, you left him in the dirty alleyway with his gaggle of thugs as you and Jack headed back to the street crowded with people completely unaware of what had transpired just out of their sight.

"Does every man you know call you sweetheart?" Jack questioned bitterly as he paused to stow his gun while still partially obscured by the buildings on either side.

"Howard started that early on, and Joe just picked up on it. I'm not even sure he knows what my given name is at this point. So where to now?” You watched him tug down his pant leg before straightening fully again. His eyes were still focused downward when he replied.

“Home.”

“What, already?”

“You just talked the biggest crime lord in L.A. out of killing you while seven other guys held you at gunpoint. I think that’s enough adventure for one day.”

“I didn’t talk a crime lord out of killing me. I talked Howard's old friend Joe out of it, and that’s much easier.”

“Easier on who?” he muttered, taking off for the car. "Do all of Howard's old friends pull guns on you?"

"More than you'd think." You almost laughed when he shot you a look out of the corner of his eye. "I'm kidding. Joe is pretty much in a category of his own."

He was obviously still keyed up, and understandably so. He hadn't had the full context for what just happened, didn't know all the history beforehand. You had been reasonably sure that you'd be able to get through to Joe, but all Jack would have seen was an unforgiving man and a pack of guns.

“Honestly, you worry too much,” you teased, trying to clear away his lingering anxiety. He merely grunted noncommittally, so you pushed further. “Though it was kind of adorable. You thought I was some damsel in distress, when in reality I just happen to know the head of one of L.A.’s biggest mobs. That’s not something you read about in fairy tales."

"He was gonna shoot you."

"No he wasn't, not really. He's just upset and lashing out. Either way, I'd like to know what you thought you were going to do against eight heavily armed mobsters.”

You had the driver’s side door partway open when he planted his hand on the top and forced it back into place, leaving him leaning partially over you. His eyes were stormy, but there wasn’t anything threatening about his proximity. His frustration wasn't aimed at you. “I said I would protect you. How am I doing so far?”

“Oh, come on, Jack. What exactly could you have done that would’ve made a difference?”

“I should have spotted them sooner.”

“No one got hurt, and that's what matters. You can’t anticipate everything.” The familiar words parroted back to him caused something to shift in his expression, and the tension eased from his posture with his sigh. “And anyway, after what happened with Dottie, I need to start taking some responsibility. I told you before that you need someone who can watch your back as well. I still don’t think I’m best suited for the job, but since you’re stuck with me I have to try at least, and I just so happened to be uniquely suited to deal with today's altercation. This one was mine – you can get the next one.”

“Next one, sure. There’s something to look forward to.” But now he was smiling, and the position you were in suddenly felt much more intimate.

“I am getting rather sick of guns.” You poked his chest, over where the scar left by the bullet lay hidden beneath his shirt. He let his arm drop and straightened, giving you a bit more breathing room.

“I was right, though,” he stated smugly. “You do see more than other people. You saw right through Manfredi.”

“That data is compromised by my prior relationship with the man and unusable to prove your hypothesis.”

“Whatever you say. But I’m starting to think you’d make a pretty decent agent.”

“Now there’s a laughable picture,” you snorted, reopening the door so you could climb inside. You were pulling out into traffic before you spoke again. "So you were making eyes at Whitney Frost?"

"I was trying to sell her the idea that I was handing over Vernon in exchange for a seat on the Council. I may have turned on the charm a bit."

"Listen to you: 'turned on the charm'."

"Hey, she bought it, didn't she? What's it to you?"

"No, no, she seemed great, if you have a taste for the whole unhinged, murderous thing. Must have been a little like flirting with a rabid dog while her ill-tempered pet grizzly bear watched."

“That’s…” he paused thoughtfully, “…not too far off. I'm pretty sure Manfredi threatened to kill me, and he wasn't even the scariest thing in the room."

"But really, who hasn't threatened to kill you?"

"Sometimes you gotta do whatever it takes to make a mark feel comfortable and... receptive." He sounded like he was smirking. You couldn't help but wonder how often he'd applied that logic to you during his memory loss days. "Trust me, Whitney Frost is definitely not my type.”

“That’s reassuring. I don’t know that I’d feel safe running around solving crimes with an obviously unstable individual who thought insanity a good look on a girl.”

“You can feel safe.” He was serious again, and you could actually feel his eyes boring into you. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Even if it comes down to me against eight heavily armed mobsters.”

“I know." You turned to smile at him for just a moment so he'd know you meant it. If there was one thing Jack had proven, it was the lengths he was willing to go for your protection. "I trust you.”

And heaven help you for that bit of foolishness.

Chapter Text

Two days passed without anything of note happening. Jack had called New York again upon returning to Howard’s mansion, hoping the agents there would be able to get a bead on your vanished code specialist, but so far no leads had turned up. You and Jack filled the hours driving around the city at random, hoping to come across some sign of a Vanderbilt, but with so much space and absolutely no direction that path also was lacking in any results. After yet another discouraging canvassing, Jack decided to call off early and you both returned with every intention of procuring food and eating your disappointment.

You heard the Jarvises’ voices before you entered the kitchen – not really fighting, but sounding mildly distressed.

"It seems like such a shame to waste them."

"Yes, but the ballet is only in town for one night. You've been looking forward to going for months."

"What's the matter?" you asked as you strode through the arched doorway, only to pause as Ana's eyes lit up.

"Oh, here is the solution to our dilemma!"

"What dilemma?"

"Darling, I hardly think they'll be interested."

"Interested in what?"

"Why ever not? The party sounds lovely."

"What party?"

"Considering the current circumstances, I am certain-"

"Would one of you please talk to me instead of about me?" you cut in sharply, causing them to look at you guiltily.

"Yes, quite right, our apologies. You see, one of Mr. Stark's philanthropic efforts has resulted in two tickets to a gala tonight, but I just now realized that Ana and I have a conflict with our plans to see the Russian ballet. Now it would seem she has become concerned with wasting the gala tickets, as Mr. Stark has absolutely no intention of using them himself."

"But of course you should go!" Ana bubbled excitedly. "I know how much you enjoy dancing."

"Oh, no, I don't think-"

"Sounds like fun," Jack spoke for the first time, smiling easily as your eyes shot to him.

"It does?"

"Sure. Bet it'll be bursting with highfalutin, classy society people." He quirked an eyebrow until you caught onto his meaning, and then his smile turned a tad smug. "Besides, when was the last time I took you dancing?"

Oh, he was such an ass.

You turned your attention back to the perplexed-looking Jarvis and his grinning wife. "I guess we'll be taking those tickets off your hands, then."

"Wonderful!" Ana clapped her hands together and then reached to grab hold of your arm. "Come, come, we have to get you ready."

You stumbled beside her as she ushered you across the room towards the exit. "Ready? Now? It's one in the afternoon. The thing isn't until later tonight, right?"

"We are getting a late start, but we should have just enough time."

"You know there's no arguing with her," Jarvis commented. "Best to just go along."

You threw one more helpless look at Jack, whose confusion seemed to be sliding into amusement, before he and the kitchen disappeared behind the door frame.

You weren't sure how it was possible, but Ana had been right about your time constraints. By the time you found yourself fully put together, you had to immediately rush out the door. Jack was driving based on the claim that he knew where the event hall was located, though you suspected it had more to do with not wanting to show up being driven by a woman. However, this left your hands free, which was truly a hassle.

Don't touch your hair.

You quickly redirected your hand to your lap.

Don't fuss with your dress.

You pulled your fingers away to rub at an itch near your nose.

Don't smudge your make up.

You wanted to swear with frustration. Why was being a classy lady so hard?

"You okay over there?" And then there was Jack. Stupid, dapper, handsome, cuts the perfect silhouette in his tuxedo which he probably put on ten minutes ago Jack.

"Yes, sure, fine."

"What's wrong?" Stupid, perceptive Jack.

"I suppose I might be nervous. I've only ever been undercover once before, and we both know how that turned out."

"Don't think of it as being undercover. We're just going to a party, and if we happen to find out the information we need, goody for us."

“Goody for us,” you echoed. You wanted to pick at the silky fabric of your skirt, so you made sure to clasp your fingers together tightly. Glancing down still startled you – you weren't used to seeing this much of your décolletage on display. The dress was lovely, of course. Ana had such a good eye for these things.

Jack pulled the car to a smooth stop in front of the building. A man in a bright red vest opened your door and held out a hand to assist you from the vehicle. You turned just in time to see Jack pass the keys to another valet before he was quickly by your side. “Take a deep breath. You’ll be fine.”

"I have a feeling everything is about to go horribly awry." You tried to find a graceful way to hold your skirt up as you ascended the steps to the beautiful entryway, only to have those doors opened for you as well.

You felt his hand warm on your lower back as he leaned close to speak into your ear in the growing crowd. "You’re overthinking this. The main thing is not to look like you're up to something."

"And therein lies the problem: I'm very bad at not looking like I'm up to something when I am most assuredly up to something."

"You sound like you need a drink." He began to steer you in the direction of the open bar.

“And how exactly is alcohol going to improve on this situation?”

“It’ll help you relax. And give you something to do with your hands before you break your fingers.”

You hadn’t even realized you were fidgeting again. “Horribly, horribly awry.”

But it didn’t, at least not in the span of time it took you to get to the bar and get a drink in your hands. You and Jack stood close to the wall, surveying the room while you sipped what you thought might be wine. Everywhere you looked there were people dressed to the nines, shining and sparkling and shimmering like a tiny piece of the galaxy shoved into a ballroom and told to smile.

“What is this shindig for anyway?” Jack eventually asked from behind his tumbler.

“Hard to tell. Howard tends to donate indiscriminately. The man has more money than he knows what to do with.”

“Poor guy.”

“It’s a nightmare at tax season.” Your nerves got the best of you, so you threw back the rest of your drink all at once and set the empty glass on the tray of a waiter as he scurried past trying to be invisible. “So how do we get started on this… whatever we’re doing?”

“I’ve already started.”

“With what? All you done so far is get us drinks.”

“I’m scoping out the room.”

“Really?” you questioned dryly. “What exactly are you looking for when you scope out a room?”

“Exits, hiding places, suspicious characters.”

“And what have you made out so far?” You still weren’t sure whether to take him seriously or not.

“I count three exits, four if you wanna get creative, seven places that could hide a full grown man, and couple at ten o’clock who’s acting real shifty.”

“That would be Adrian Townsend,” you identified on a glance in that direction, finding a man and woman obviously in a conversation but facing away from each other, “and his business partner’s wife. They’re having a very secret affair that absolutely no one knows about.”

“Makes sense. You know everybody in this room?”

“Um, probably not everybody. But a lot of them. Howard tends to forget things, including people, so it’s up to me to keep track for him.”

“So let’s say you show up to a fancy party with a guy nobody’s seen before. And that guy just happens to be wearing a wedding ring that matches yours. Would social protocol require that you parade him around making introductions?”

“You know, I think it might.” You shifted closer to his side and threaded your arm through his. “Any particular place you’d like to start?”

The next hour was filled with ‘hello mister so-and-so’ and ‘how are you’ and ‘this is my husband Jack – we just got married’ and ‘of course I’ll let Mr. Stark know you’re trying to reach him, I’m sure he’d love to do lunch.’ You made so much small talk that it started to feel scripted. Eventually you took a break with another round of drinks at one of the many standing tables scattered around.

“Please tell me we learned something?” you near whined.

“I’ve learned that rich people can be duller than bricks.”

“I could have told you that and skipped talking to all these people. It’s exhausting.” You heaved a sigh, leaning on the table dejectedly.

“Woulda thought you’d be used to things like this now.”

“I actually don’t attend very often – Howard usually finds other companionship. I’m only on deck in the event of an emergency. Or if there’s someone already at the event he intends to leave with. Then I’m tasked with getting our car home.”

Jack seemed almost offended on your behalf. “Why do you put up with that guy?”

“Because he’s my dearest friend, and he’s good to me, despite what he is to the rest of the world. A lot can be forgiven when you love a person.” Your perch on the table allowed you to see around Jack, and when you spotted a balding man at a nearby table you gripped your companion’s arm in excitement. “Do you know who that is?”

“No, should I?”

“That’s Nathaniel Vanderbilt.”

That piqued his interest. “Time for another introduction?”

“No, I’ve never been formerly introduced to the man myself. Quick, do I look presentable?” you questioned hurriedly, trying to smooth down your dress.

“Presentable for what?”

“I have an idea. I’ll be right back.” You scooped up your drink and made a wide arch until you were coming at your target from the other side. As you neared him you stumbled over your unfamiliar heels, managing to spill some of your champagne on the sleeve of his expensive looking jacket. “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry! I can’t believe I just did that. I honestly don’t know why Mr. Stark lets me out in public at all.”

The man’s thunderous expression instantly melted away when he saw you dabbing frantically at the damp spot. “Not at all, my dear, accidents happen. I must admit, I’m not overly fond of this suit anyway. Now I have an excuse not to wear it again.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, Mr. Vanderbilt.”

“Forgive me, have we met?”

“Oh, no, sorry, it’s just… well, I love your hotels. They’re positively scrumptious and have ruined me for all other forms of lodging.”

“You flatter me, but now you have me at a disadvantage. Did I hear you mention Mr. Stark? As in Howard Stark?”

“Yes, I’m Mr. Stark’s personal assistant."

"I thought you looked familiar."

"That man absolutely refuses to stay anywhere but the Vanderbilts if they’re an option. Once he found out there was one in the town where we were staying and had a fit that I had booked our rooms somewhere else. He didn’t let me forget it for months. Oh no,” your eyes widened in horror, “please don’t tell me you have a hotel in Los Angeles I didn’t know about! Howard will have my head.”

“No, no, you’re perfectly safe. I did once upon a time, but we closed it down some years ago for remodeling. Unfortunately, other matters took precedence and we haven’t been able to reopen.”

“That’s a shame. Where was it located? I can’t imagine how I’ve missed it all this time.”

“The part of town where it is has… degenerated quite a bit. I’m not at all surprised a lady like yourself doesn’t frequent the area.”

“I see that I have somehow fooled you into thinking I’m a lady, even after I ruined your lovely suit. The places I frequent may surprise you yet.”

“Unless you spend much time at Sydney’s Pub, I very much doubt that.”

“Can’t say that I have.” You tilted your mostly emptied glass in his direction with a mischievous smile. “I prefer O’Donoghues myself.”

“Oh ho, you are full of surprises.”

“I like to keep people on their toes. Would you mind very much giving Mr. Stark’s office a call when you reopen your Los Angeles location? I’m sure between the two of you we can get that area of town turned around in no time.”

“I would be more than happy to.”

“I am so pleased that I ran into you, Mr. Vanderbilt, though not so much in the literal sense.” You reached out to shake his hand. “I hope the rest of your evening proves to be much drier.”

He clasped your hand warmly. “The pleasure was mine, I assure you. Any friend of Howard Stark’s is a friend of mine.”

Jack was leaning an elbow on the table when you returned. “That is not how I thought you’d play that.”

“I'm not exactly the most physically intimidating person around, and dropping Howard’s name usually does the trick. What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, that you’d bat your eyelashes and giggle more.”

“You thought I was going to flirt with the man?” you asked around a chuckle. “He would have laughed me right out of this ballroom.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know how to flirt.”

“You’re joking.”

“Why would I joke about this?”

“I thought all women automatically knew how to flirt. Isn’t it in their DNA or something?”

“Then I suppose I must be missing that gene.”

“Come on, it’s not that hard. Mostly it’s just smiling and making implications you may or may not follow through with. Trust me, if you had made a comment about wanting a ‘personal’ tour of one of his hotels Vanderbilt would have followed you out of here.”

“He’s married, and if he saw my hand he’d believe I was married, too.”

“Doesn’t matter – just look at Townsend and his partner’s wife. People want to feel important, like they’ve got something about them that’s valuable, and if you can give them that feeling they’ll want to keep you around.”

“Noted. In any case, we’ve got the information we came for." You were about to ask him if you could leave when a petite blonde appeared out of nowhere on his other side.

"Well, hello there, stranger." She smiled at him, stirring her drink around. "I didn't think I'd get the chance to see you again. Your, um, tall friend with the glasses isn't anywhere around here, is he?"

"No, not tonight." Jack answered evenly, returning her smile. You watched the two of them curiously. Who was this woman? And was she intentionally ignoring you or did she honestly not notice your presence?

"Good. I'd hate to miss another opportunity to improve your night." She leaned in, laying the fingers of one hand just above his elbow. "And I was right – you’ve got a really great smile."

Ooooh no. This woman was flirting with your fake husband. Now that's just unacceptable, regardless of whether her observation about his smile was accurate.

"Hello," you greeted cheerily, tilting just a little more around Jack and startling the woman enough to retract her hand. "I don't believe we've been introduced. Are you a friend of Jack's?"

"I... we've met. At another party."

"Oh, was that the one I had to miss because I was in Peru on business?" You glanced up at Jack who was now eyeing you with interest. "I felt so badly about that. You know how I hate making you go to these things by yourself." You placed your left hand on his shoulder to rub soothingly and then looked back to the still unidentified woman. "He just gets so lonely, you know."

Peripherally you noticed Jack's mouth tightening in disapproval, but you were much more interested in the look on the woman's face when she noticed your rings for the first time. You kept your smile friendly, though you couldn’t say if your eyes were as kind.

"Oh, um..." She was stumbling, unsure of herself now. You probably shouldn't be enjoying this so much.

"Are you here with your husband?" Okay, now you were being a little mean. You should definitely rein it back.

"No, uh, my father. He's a diplomat, so we're always being invited to things like this."

"How fascinating! I bet you get to meet all kinds of interesting people."

"If you think a bunch of old men who complain about gout are interesting."

"It can't be all that bad. You must run across someone worth talking to now and then."

"Not as often as I'd hope." She gave Jack one last look tinged with longing and disappointment. "You'll have to excuse me – I see someone I know."

You would have thought the girl had wings on her shoes with how fast she moved. When she was far enough away, you allowed your hand to drop as you drained the rest of your champagne. You set the glass down only to come face to face with Jack's smugly amused expression. "What?"

"What was that?"

"I was being friendly."

"You looked like you were thinking of challenging her to a duel."

"I believe you're exaggerating."

"With swords."

"You have to admit it was a bit presumptuous of her to start chatting you up when I'm right here. Honestly, I hope she'll know better next time."

"So you were just doing her a service."

"Exactly."

"No other reason at all."

"Nope." You wished you still had something left to drink. He was giving you his knowing look, and eventually you caved. "Hey, you got to play jealous husband multiple times. I think it only fair that I get my turn, too. And she was being rude."

Now he was smiling through his knowing look, but instead of commenting further he straightened and offered you his hand. "Let's dance."

"Why? We found out what we came here for. Can't we just go?”

“We can’t leave right after you talked to Vanderbilt. It’ll look suspicious.”

“I swear, if this is some kind of trick-”

“What trick? It’s just a dance. I thought you trusted me.”

“I trust you to keep me safe. I don’t trust you not to amuse yourself while doing so.”

“Fair enough. Come on – one dance. That’s why Ana offered us the tickets, right? You know she’s going to ask.”

You sighed heavily, but accepted his proffered hand. The music changed as you entered the dance floor, and you glanced up at Jack to find him smirking. “Did you do this?” you asked over the strains of an admitedly lovely rendition of It Had to Be You played on strings.

“I slipped a waiter a few bucks and asked him to make a request. Thought you might appreciate the nostalgia.”

“You are unbelievable.” In response he merely twirled you around and looked even smugger when you came back to center. “Where did you learn to play piano, anyway?”

“My mom had me in lessons for years. She said, and I quote, ‘God gave the boy a pianist’s hands, and I’m not one to argue with God.’ She had some crazy idea that I could make it on Broadway. I think it about killed her when I didn’t study music in college, and even more when I joined the army. I tried to make it up to her by learning this song when I got back – it was always one of her favorites.”

“That was sweet of you.” You never thought you’d say those words so devoid of sarcasm.

“All right, my turn. How did you know my favorite color is red?”

“You wear more red ties than any other color.”

His eyebrows went up. “That's pretty observant of you.”

“I like behavioral patterns – almost as much as I like metaphors. They tend to show you things about people they might not even be aware of themselves. What did you wish for on the sand dollar?”

"That's personal." His smile was teasing and caused your chin to raise a fraction in defiance.

"You said it was about me."

"You said not to tell you unless it came true."

You scrutinized him through narrowed eyes before declaring, "I don't think you really made a wish at all, and now you’re just trying to cover it up."

“Then I guess you'll never know,” he countered smugly, and switched to, “Why’d you go with fall for my favorite season?”

“You have that trench coat you seem awfully fond of. I figured fall would be the best weather for it.”

“You pay this much attention to everyone’s wardrobe?”

“Behavioral patterns. Was I right?”

“Close. If I had to pick, I’d say winter. I like Christmas.”

“Why’d you pick me?”

Your sudden seriousness threw him. “What?”

“At the hospital, when the nurse said you had a wife, you looked at me and not Peggy. Why?”

“What nurse? The doctor was the one who pointed you out when I woke up.”

“No, before that. You were acting like you were all loopy from the anesthesia. Honestly, it was a little over the top. Did you just know that Peggy wouldn't have gotten herself into a mess like that?”

“I don’t…” he trailed off as a look of realization overtook his features. Then it abruptly disappeared as he cleared his throat and spun you again. “Guess I figured you’d be easier to get along with than Carter.”

“That seems a bit far-fetched considering our history.”

“At least you haven’t threatened to shoot me.”

“I think you made a mistake,” you admitted, tone somber and tinged with a sadness you couldn’t restrain completely. “I know you didn't really have a choice in the matter, given I'd already told the original lie, but Peggy would have been so much better at all of this.”

“Yet another thing we’ll have to disagree on. And what you did saved my life. I'd be stupid not to recognize that.” He dropped his hand from your waist and tilted his head towards the front door. “Let’s get outa here. I think we paid our dues.”

You allowed him to keep hold of your hand as he led you back out into the night, trying not to overthink the past hours and hoping desperately for once that he was right and you were wrong.

Chapter Text

“Wait, there it is! That’s Sydney’s Pub. Do you see anything that looks like an old hotel?”

“Like a building with a big ‘V’ on the gate?”

“That sounds like a pretty solid place to start.” You peered out the windshield at the expansive structure, which seemed to be in fairly good repair for something that was supposedly in the midst of an abandoned remodel. “Should we sneak in and see what we can find?”

“Slow down there, Madame Spy. We don’t want to go in blind. We need to gather information first.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you stay here and surveil the building while I go make use of that payphone over there.” Jack had called his office after you’d returned home the previous night but hadn’t had another chance this morning due to the Jarvises’ intense interest in your evening of drinks and dancing.

"Then what?"

“Then I’ll come back and we’ll both surveil the building.”

“For how long?”

“Until I’m satisfied that I know what we’re going into.”

“How long will that take?”

“Longer if you don’t stop with all the questions. Geez, weren’t you worried about running headfirst into danger a few days ago?”

“Yes, but now I’m committed and we’re here and we finally get to find out what Dottie’s key is to and you’re talking about sitting in a car for an unknown period of time. It’s rather anticlimactic.”

“Just think of it as your first stake out. That’s some bonafide detective work right there.” He smirked as he pushed opened his car door and was gone before you could reply. You huffed out your aggravation as you watched him stroll over to the payphone; that man knew how to push every single one of your buttons. However, as your glare followed him, you noticed what appeared to be a butcher’s shop directly across the street from the hotel. An idea struck you, and you were alighting from the vehicle before you could consider what Jack’s opinion of your maverick course of action would be.

A bell jingled as you made your way through the front door, attracting the attention of the teenage boy behind the counter. He looked both bored and surprised, as if he wasn’t used to seeing customers at all.

Well, time to try out Jack's flirting tips.

“Hello there,” you tried to smile winningly while at the same time keeping your voice airy, “I’m dreadfully sorry to bother you, but my husband and I are in town on our honeymoon, and we’re looking for a place to stay. Do you know if that hotel across the street has any vacancies? The front gate was locked.”

“Plenty of vacancies, ma’am, but no rooms for rent.” He didn’t look like he was over his shock yet, staring at you almost unblinkingly as you approached the counter.

“Now what do you mean by that?” You leaned your elbows on the surface, still smiling broadly, and tilted your head in what you hoped was an inviting manner.

“Well, ma’am, it’s been closed for years now, since before I started workin’ here.” He was relaxing a little, hesitantly returning your smile.

“Did they go out of business?”

“No, ma’am, they closed for remodel, or so I heard.”

“Remodeling for years? What are they doing, trying to recreate the Taj Mahal?”

He laughed a little too loudly at your miniscule joke. “They might be, but if you ask me, I don’t think they’re doin’ any remodlin’ at all.”

“Really? How do you know?”

“Usually when there’s construction goin’ on you see supplies delivered, people workin’.” He leaned his own elbow on the counter to bring himself into conspirator range, lowering his voice for dramatic effect. “But I never seen anythin’ like that. The people I see don’t look like construction workers at all.”

“What do they look like?” you lowered your voice to match his, seemingly intrigued by his story.

“Real shifty, that’s fer sure.” His enunciation was slipping the more at ease he became. “Like they don’t want anybody seein’ ‘em there, or like they got somethin’ ta hide.”

"Oh my! But don't you feel unsafe, seeing such unsavory characters come and go all day long?"

"They ain’t around all that often, maybe once every couple weeks or so. They bring somethin' in or carry somethin' out, then nothin'll happen fer a good long time.”

"No wonder the remodel is taking so long!"

"Like I said, I don't think there is any remodel. I think it's a cover up."

"A cover up? For what?"

"Who knows? Maybe they got somethin' in there they don't want anybody knowin' about. Maybe it's the headquarters fer a crime ring. I just try ta keep my head low. Never know when somethin' like that's gonna blow up."

“You think the hotel is going to explode?” you asked, aghast.

“Well, I don’t mean it literally, ya see. I jus’ mean ya never know when things'll get a little bit dangerous.” Now he was smirking, though on his too-young face it didn’t have near the effect as Jack’s own smug expression. You didn’t know if he was trying to impress you with his bravery or his enrapturing storytelling abilities, but you thought he was probably a bit too proud for what either justified.

“How intriguing!” Before you could say anything more, the bell over the door rang out cheerfully again, causing the boy to jump back like he was caught doing something he shouldn’t be. You locked eyes with Jack as he stormed in, obviously displeased with your disobedience. “Honey, there you are! Did you have a nice chat on the phone?”

“Yeah, it was downright pleasant. I thought I told you to stay in the car.”

“But I wanted to find out about the hotel across the street, and this nice young man has explained that it’s both closed and the location of mysterious goings-on. Isn’t that fascinating? Just like a mystery novel!”

“That’s great, but we really need to be going.”

“Oh, of course.” You turned to the boy behind the counter again, vacant smile still in place. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“N-no problem,” he assured, eyes darting to Jack a few times.

You unhurriedly exited through the door Jack held open, smile dropping as soon as it swung shut behind you. “Now before you read me the riot act I just want to say that I know you told me to stay in the car, but I found out some very useful information you’ll be interested in hearing, so-”

“Later. We need to get to the S.S.R.”

“Why?”

“New York says that they just had a call from Sousa, who was all riled up about something. Thinks it has to do with Carter.”

“Okay, so S.S.R. Quick, quick, let’s go!”

The agency was an absolute madhouse, and at its center was Daniel Sousa. He was barking orders left and right while rushing around precariously on his crutch. You had to all but tackled him to get his attention. “Chief Sousa, what’s going on? What happened?”

“Peggy’s in trouble,” he declared impatiently, trying to maneuver around you.

You stepped right back in his path. “How do you know?”

“She called, trying to tell me something, but then all of a sudden she’s gone. I heard a struggle, and then the line went dead. I gotta get over there. I never should have let her go by herself.”

“You know she’d kill you for saying that, right?”

“Better me than her.”

“When are you leaving?”

“As soon as Agent Fisher,” he gestured to said man who appeared to be frantically trying to convince someone of something on the other end of the phone, “can book me a ticket. But the airline is saying they don't have anything available for hours yet.”

Without another word you spun on heel and strode over to Fisher’s desk. He looked up at you just in time to see you depress the plunger that ended his call abruptly.

“Hey!” the agent protested, only to be shushed as you relieved him of the receiver. He opened his mouth to argue, but was quickly silenced by your stern look. He said nothing more as you dialed a familiar number and waited until the line was picked up.

“Tim, we’re going to need wheels up in about a half hour. Kindly inform Jeffers and make the preparations."

"Uh, that may be a problem." The voice on the other end side sounded as young as the boy's face looked in person. At the moment it sounded even younger, filled with anxiety as if he was about to be severely reprimanded.

"Why?" The word was short despite your efforts not to sound irritated. Tim wasn't usually one to push back against directions.

"Well, Captain Jeffers has, um, retired to his quarters. He's hung a sign on the door that says 'do not disturb'."

"I don’t care what he’s hung on the door – you will disturb him."

"But, ma'am, you see, he's not... he's not exactly... alone in there. If you catch my meaning."

Oh, the absurdity of this 17-year-old boy thinking you couldn't pick up on a blatant innuendo.

"Then put the nice girl in a cab on us, and tell Jeffers if he’s not prepared to fly Chief Sousa to London in 29 minutes I will come down there myself and explain my displeasure in excruciating detail so he fully understands why he is no longer employed. Is that clear?"

"Y-yes ma'am."

"Good, then you’d best hop to it.” You returned the receiver to its cradle, gave Agent Fisher a curt ‘thank you’ for the use of his phone, and turned back to Daniel. “There’ll be a plane waiting for you at Howard’s airfield as soon as you can get there. It’ll be quicker and infinitely more comfortable than whatever commercial flight you’d be able to book on such short notice. Just give Captain Jeffers the coordinates, and he’ll fly you wherever you need to go.”

The man was hugging you much more quickly than you’d anticipated his leg would allow. “Thank you. I owe you one.”

“Just bring Peggy home safe, okay? And you, too.”

You then found yourself once again largely ignored in the craziness. Deciding you were of no further use, you were about to ask Jack what he thought you should do now, only to find him watching you with a kinder version of his habitual smirk. “What?”

“That was something.” He sounded impressed, maybe even a little proud, and you felt the beginnings of heat in your cheeks.

“Howard has planes. He would want one of them to be used to help Peggy.”

“I’m talking about the authoritarian act you just pulled. I don’t know who Tim is, but I’m pretty sure he’s close to wetting his pants right now.”

"You're acting like you've never seen me get bossy before."

"Not like that. Never seen you do anything like that."

You honestly had nothing to say, not as long as he kept looking at you like you were something valuable. You blinked a few times in quick succession, fingers itching to fidget. You clasped them behind your back, knowing how he often read your nervousness there.

You had a feeling he knew anyway, because his smile shifted incrementally as he tilted his head toward the door saying, "Come on."

"Are we going back to the hotel?"

"Yeah, but first we need to make a pit stop."

"Pit stop where?"

"It looks like things are about to get messy, and I want my actual gun."

You followed him down the hall to the lab where Jack’s things had been stored since their analysis. He surreptitiously glanced around the door frame to find the room deserted. “Stay here and keep a lookout for anyone coming,” he ordered before disappearing inside.

He’d only been gone moments when you heard a muffled rush of water followed by a door opening some ways back down the hallway. Dr. Aloysius Herbert Samberly ambled out, wiping his hands on his lab coat. A stabbing pain shot through your chest as you realized where he was heading and that you had no time to warn Jack. You hadn’t even formed a plan when you called out, “Dr. Samberly!”

He jumped, startled that someone would be calling his name and in such an excited tone. “Oh, hello. What… are you doing here?”

He was suspicious. Of course he was suspicious. Your very presence here was suspicious, and you were acting suspiciously, so what else could he be but suspicious?

Okay, okay, calm down and think.

“I was…” you hurriedly walked towards him, desperate to stop him as far away from his lab as possible, “looking for you!”

“Okay,” he agreed, coming to a halt when his only other choice was to run into you. “Why?”

“Because…” Curse your still underdeveloped lying skills! “Because… you made that memory inhibitor whatchamacallit, right? The one that gives a person short-term amnesia?”

“Yeah, I built that.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ve been alerted to Chief Thompson’s current… situation. Do you think you could come up with something that does the opposite? Returns memories instead of erasing them?”

“Look, I already told Agent Carter and Chief Sousa that I couldn’t do it. Do they really think that sending you to ask would change anything? Interrupting the pathways in the prefrontal lobes of the brain to inhibit short-term memory creation is one thing, but reconnecting synapses to retrieve years’ worth of memories already lost or being repressed for some unknown reason? I’m a scientist, not a brain surgeon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some actual, viable work to get back to.”

He made to step around you, and in a fit of panic you grabbed his arm with a shout of “Wait!” He was pulled up short, now turned towards you with his back to the door of his lab.

Dr. Samberly blinked at you in shock for several long moments before he suddenly smiled knowingly. “Oh, I see what’s going on here.”

“You… you do?” You dropped your hand, suddenly feeling very exposed. You couldn’t be so bad a liar that he somehow figured out Jack was in fact not amnestic and currently pilfering his own sidearm from the lab, could he?

“I’m flattered, I really am, but you see… Rose and I are kind of a thing.”

He paused, and you wanted to ask if Rose knew that, but bit the question back until all you let out was an, “Oh?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry,” he laid a hand awkwardly on your shoulder, “I’m sure there’s a guy for you who’s just… just great.”

“A guy…” You glanced down at his hand and then back at his face full of pity, and what he was getting at finally clicked. “A guy, yes, a guy, and you and Rose are… of course you are, so sorry. But, um, thank you for, uh, letting me down so gently. Very kind of you.”

“Sure. You just hang in there, kid.” He chucked you under the chin softly, and after a weirdly long moment cleared his throat and returned to his journey. You were so stunned by the odd turn of events that you didn’t even think to try to stop him until he was at the door. You’d just opened your mouth to call out again, not sure at all what you were going to say, when he pulled the door shut to reveal Jack pressed up against the wall behind it. He must have snuck out while you were distracted by Samberly’s unwarranted rejection.

“Please tell me you got your gun?” you asked tiredly as he approached you, and in response he held up a bundle that include both gun and holster, as well as his jacket. “Thank goodness. You owe me big time for that.”

“Why?” He pulled you into a nearby alcove so he could slide the shoulder holster into place without fear of being seen.

“Because I just got shot down by a man I have absolutely no interest in, and if that’s not a hit to the ol’ self-esteem I don’t know what is.”

“Wait, Samberly thought you were coming on to him? Guess you have to appreciate that kind of self-confidence,” Jack snickered, reaching for the coat he’d given you to hold.

“Appreciate isn’t the word I’d use right now. How is it that I just learned about flirting and suddenly random men believe I'm employing such tactics? Have I been doing it unintentionally this whole time? Has it ever seemed like I was flirting with you?”

He shrugged the jacket over his shoulders, smoothing it down to obscure the weapon it hid. “Nah,” he answered, eyes on the lines of his coat, and he left it at that.

It made sense – after all, he’d already confessed to thinking you hated him. Such a stance could hardly be confused for amorous intentions. You reached up automatically to fix the collar of his shirt. Then you stepped back to appraise him, smiling just a bit.

“What?” He eyed you warily.

“Nothing, it’s just that… you’re starting to look like you again. All you need is your hat and a tie, and it’d be like the past couple months never happened.” You’d gotten used to seeing him in less formal attire, just his shirt and slacks held up with suspenders, but the man was nothing if not a sharp dresser. Now with him looking so familiar, you found it easier to remember that the other Jack didn’t really exist.

"Lucky for me I still got a pain in my chest as a reminder." The bitter edge in his tone had you feeling guilty even though you couldn’t pinpoint what had triggered it. You thought he’d be pleased that things were getting back to normal. He shook it off quickly enough, bitterness gone when he said, “Come on, we’ve got a hotel to investigate. And you need to tell me what you found out from that kid when you were supposed to be waiting in the car.”

Chapter Text

You had knowingly been an unofficial agent of the S.S.R. (at least that’s how you thought of yourself) for just over four days. In that time you’d been held at gunpoint, gone undercover, and extracted intel from a key witness (or the bored employee of a butcher’s shop, in laymen’s terms). Now, as your fourth day came to a close, you had learned one indisputable fact: stake outs were indescribably dull.

Even after you’d reported your acquired information, Jack still insisted of sitting in the car, partially hidden under the low-hanging branches of a tree, with a pair of binoculars trained on the nearby hotel. The beginning hadn’t been too intolerable, your inexperience leading you to believe something exciting would happen quickly. But as the hours dragged on with absolutely no change, your patience was shortly exhausted. You were on the edge of falling asleep when the sudden ring of the car phone made you yelp. Jack snorted over a muffled laugh, causing you to glare at him even as you answered the call, which turned out to be Jarvis inquiring about your dinner plans.

“I don’t think we’ll be making it back,” you answered with your best nonchalance. “Jack and I are kind of in the middle of something-”

“Tell him we’ll be there soon,” Jack interrupted, laying aside his binoculars.

“Hold on, Jarvis.” You pressed the receiver to your chest before addressing your disbelief to Jack. “What about our stake out?”

“The hotel will still be here tomorrow. It’s not like we can do anything in the dark.”

“I would think that’d be the perfect time to do something.”

“Just tell Jarvis we’re coming before he gets suspicious.”

You relayed the message and hung up, then stared at your companion who was resolutely ignoring you in favor of starting the car. “Why the sudden urge to make it home in time for dinner?”

“We’ve done all we can for the day. No reason to miss out on a home-cooked meal.”

“We didn’t do anything – we sat in a car for almost eight hours.”

“Comprehensively scoping out a target is basic procedure. Not everything we do is actioned-packed.” He still wasn’t looking at you, so you studied him until his jaw tightened and he snapped, “Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Doing that thing where you try to find the underlying motive. This is part of the job, and if it’s not exciting enough for you, then tough. We not jumping into anything until I know exactly what to expect.”

“Oh, I see.”

“No you don't. There’s nothing to see.”

“You’re worried we’re going to have a repeat of Dottie Underwood.”

“Underwood is dead.”

“And apparently her ghost is haunting you.”

“I told you to stop it. You’re disobeying direct orders.”

“I’m still not one of your agents. What, you think just because I’ve been your fake wife for two and a half months that I’m suddenly going to start listening to you?”

“That’d be nice, yes.”

“Jack, it’s not going to happen again. You’ve got a second set of eyes now that I know what’s going on. You don’t have to carry this whole investigation on your own anymore.”

“I’ve put you in danger twice. I’m not doing that again.”

“Somebody almost killed you, and we’re trying to figure out who. The danger is inherent and unavoidable. But I know that, and I’m still here. Don’t compromise your investigation now because of me.”

He was quiet for what felt like a long time, but he eventually declared, “We’ll go in tomorrow. But the second we leave the car, you will follow my orders.”

“Of course. As long as they make sense.”

“This isn’t up for discussion.”

“Just don’t give any orders that don’t make sense and we won’t have a problem.”

"I’ll leave you in the car.”

“See, now this is a prime example of those nonsensical orders I was referring to.” You heaved a sigh and laid you head back against the seat. “Come on, Jack, I’m not so arrogant as to think I know better than you – obviously I’m going to be deferring to your experience. But it’s equally ridiculous if you’ve brought me along as just one more thing to worry about. Work with me, not around me. I’ve got to be good for something.”

“And I get that, I do. But you’ve got to understand that if anything happens to you, it’s on me. Yeah, yeah, I know,” he cut in over the beginning of your disagreement, “you’re a grown woman, you can take care of yourself. Doesn’t change the fact that we’re only doing this because of me, that you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me, so I’m responsible whether you can take care of yourself or not.”

You considered everything he said in silence for a moment. “Okay, so we’ll make a new deal. I’ll do my best to behave and try to stay out of trouble if you try not to worry so much about whether I’m doing either of those things.”

“I guess I can handle that.”

You smiled at him, even though he was focused on the road and wouldn’t be able to see it.

Your good mood lasted until after dinner when Ana found you alone in the hallway. You’d come to realize it was easier to face her and her husband when Jack was with you to provide back up, but he was most likely already tucked away in his room to prepare for bed. So you were completely on your own when she smiled and observed, “You seem to be much better than the last time I came upon you in the hall.”

“Yes, I got myself sorted out. You helped quite a bit with that, so thank you.”

“Your relationship with Mr. Thompson looks to have settled as well.”

“We…” Keep as close to the truth as possible. “We talked about it. I think we’ve come to an agreement.”

“You know… it has been quite a while and his memory still has not returned. You might consider telling him the truth.”

“I have considered it. I thought I’d wait until I had a chance to talk it over with Peggy.”

“That is a good idea. I was also thinking… without his memory, it would be unsafe for Mr. Thompson to return to his job at the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Perhaps… perhaps he could find a new job here, in Los Angeles.” She was watching carefully for your reaction, but you merely blinked at her unresponsively. “Then he could stay here. With you. Would that not make you happy?”

“I… I don’t…” you swallowed around the sudden dryness in your mouth. “It’s a little early to be thinking about that. We should really take this one hurdle at a time.”

“Of course. Merely something to consider.”

You tried not to be angry with Ana. She didn’t know the reality of your situation, and you were the one keeping it from her, after all. Still, you wished she wouldn’t put such ideas in your head. You were back to the point where you could acknowledge that you would miss Jack when he was gone, but you weren’t foolish enough to believe he wouldn’t immediately return to New York once he solved his case. His whole life was in New York, as yours was in L.A.

Maybe you would send him postcards when he was back home. Maybe you’d stop by if Howard ever had business on the east coast. Maybe you’d bring him ice cream. Maybe that was as much as you could rightfully expect to come from the short time you’d managed to insert yourself into his world. It was probably more than most people could say about the fraud they committed.

Your adventure began anew early the next morning. Jack wanted to camp out and watch for a while longer, just to be absolutely certain that nothing had changed. You did your best to be patient.

Finally, finally, he set his binoculars aside and reached for the door handle. "Let's do a walk around the perimeter."

“Wait!” you ordered before he could get it open. You began to rifle through the glove compartment in front of you until you came up with a pair of sunglasses which you presented to your companion.

“What’re those for?” he questioned, not accepting your offering until you shook it threateningly.

“A disguise.” You continued digging until you found another pair along with a head scarf Howard kept on hand should a woman become concerned about the appearance of her hair.

“You really think a couple pairs of sunglasses are gonna do anything?”

“It's not like they could make us more recognizable.” You wrapped the scarf around your head and slid your glasses into place, checking your appearance in the rearview mirror before shoving your door open. “Besides, it’s bright outside and you squint enough as it is.”

"What are you talking about?" he demanded over top of the car as he followed you out, tone just shy of offended.

"Your oh-so-serious 'I'm thinking really hard' face. Your eyes get narrow and your mouth gets all pinched. You make it whenever you're confused or suspicious. Or trying to work something out. Actually, it happens so often it may as well be your normal expression." You spoke as you rounded the vehicle to find him making the exact face you'd been talking about, even though it was somewhat hidden by the glasses. "Sorry, I don't mean it as an insult. It's not a bad face."

"Never mind my face. Let's just get to work." He indicated the nearby hotel with a tilt of his head, so you slid your arm through his as you began your journey over, using the closeness to talk quietly without looking strange to any potential observers. He still seemed somewhat unsettled, and this hunch was proven true when he broke the uneasy silence with, “You fidget when you’re nervous. Usually with your hands.”

You rolled your eyes hard enough that you were sure he felt the derision even though he couldn’t see it. If the man was trying to win in a competition of observational skills, that really wasn’t the best foot to put forward. “Wow, Sherlock, what an astounding deduction! Perhaps next you’d like to comment on the color of my hair or speculate on the possibility of me having some sort of connection to Howard Stark.”

“You clear your throat before you lie.”

“I… what?” You were so deep in your sarcastic response that his declaration legitimately took you aback.

“Clear your throat – like you have to shake the words loose or something.”

“Don’t you think that’s something I should have known, considering my directive?” you sputtered, flabbergasted and embarrassed.

“And give up my advantage? Don't get too worked up - I don't think anyone else has picked up on it yet.” As you passed the front gate he casually reached out and tugged on one of the bars. It creaked and rattled but didn’t budge. Jack’s pace didn’t falter, and soon you were around the corner following the high stone wall of the Vanderbilt’s fence. “Let’s see if there’s another way in around back.”

“It’s probably best not to go kicking in the front door.” You rounded another corner, and soon came upon a second, less elaborate gate made of simple wooden planks that had seen better days. It had probably been a service entrance while the hotel was still in business, used for deliveries but kept out of sight so as not to interrupt the guests’ stay, as if seeing that food and supplies didn’t magically appear would somehow spoil their experience. A large, spreading tree grew just on the other side of the wall, blocking the view of the gate from most directions inside. “Now this door we could probably kick in.”

“I’d prefer a quieter entrance.” He reached out to rattle this gate as well, finding it equally unwelcoming, secured somewhere on the inside. “Unfortunately, I left my hatchet in my other coat.”

“You don’t have another coat,” you pointed out offhandedly, scrutinizing the height of the wall before releasing his arm. “Give me a boost.”

“Pardon?” You couldn’t see his eyes, but you knew the blue would be clouded with incredulity.

“If you give me a boost I can get a better view and figure out how to open the gate.”

He stared at you silently, jaw slack, like he had so many arguments running through his head he couldn’t pick just one. Finally, he settled on, “You’re wearing a skirt.”

“I’m sorry – I didn’t realize there was a dress code for breaking and entering. Come on,” you cajoled, bouncing on your toes slightly. “It’s not like jumping a fence will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a dress. I once snuck Howard out of a third story window wearing an evening gown. I mean, I was in the gown – not Howard.”

“Thanks for that image. I hope you got a bonus.”

“That was my senior formal. He came back so I wouldn't have to go alone, but while I was taking a powder he got caught behind the bleachers with the quarterback’s girlfriend. Tried to say he’d been teaching her CPR. The jock didn’t buy it. Now stop being such a worrywart and give me a boost!”

His mouth tightened around what you suspected was further defiance, but instead of voicing it he merely cupped his hands to give your foot a resting place. With one hand against the wall for balance, you stepped onto the waiting perch and soon found yourself airborne and within easy reaching distance of the top. You’d shortly hoisted yourself up and sat astride, glancing to both sides in order to get your bearings.

“You doing okay up there?” Jack was obviously uneasy with the whole situation, probably already regretting giving into your demand.

“Yes, it’s just…” You trailed off, leaning over to get a better view of the inside of the gate. “Oh, well that’s just stupid.”

And with that you pulled your other leg over the wall and dropped to the other side. You heard muffled, rather angry words coming from Jack, but you were too busy throwing the latch to really pay attention. The barrierr swung open easily, revealing his worried expression, though it quickly slid into surprise.

“It’s not even locked – just had a sliding latch. It’s like they want people to break in.”

“Don’t do that.” His mouth had locked down into a frown, even as he stepped through the opening and shoved the gate back into place.

“Do what?” You were confused by his apparent vexation towards you – shouldn’t he be pleased that the hurdle was so easily overcome?

“Disappear somewhere without telling me what you’re doing. You want to work with me, then the information goes both ways, got it?”

“Uh, sure, sorry. Got distracted by their poor security measures.”

“It’s fine – let’s go.” It obviously wasn’t fine, but you weren’t about to argue with his overprotective streak. It’d be like trying to convince the earth to loosen up on gravity a little.

You made your way towards the building, keeping low and to the side, Jack always somewhat in front of you. You didn’t mind, really – your stomach had begun to stir with the beginnings of misgiving. This was by far the riskiest thing you’d done since becoming Jack’s cover wife, at least where you knew of the risk ahead of time. You kind of missed just thinking Jack was a little off his rocker for wanting to explore a dirty, old warehouse.

The next door you encountered was actually locked, and even as you were pondering this new obstacle, Jack was hooking his sunglasses over his shirt and pulling a bundle from his jacket pocket. It turned out to contain all manner of small tools, and he pulled out a couple before kneeling in front of the knob and inserting them into the keyhole. You watched in abject fascination as he wiggled the doohickeys around with a look of deep concentration wrinkling his brow.

“Are you… are you picking the lock?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you learn to pick locks?”

“Summer camp.”

With a resounding click the door cracked open and Jack returned his tools to his pocket. When he caught view of your astonished expression, his mouth pulled into a smirk, erasing all signs of his frustration from earlier.

Ignoring his smug amusement, you now looked him over like you were seeing him for the first time. “You’re actually quite dangerous, aren’t you?”

It was odd that this was what made you come to such a conclusion after seeing him in brawls and wielding a pistol, but somehow it brought into perspective just what he could accomplish if he put his mind to it. If anything, his smirk settled in more firmly, and then he winked at you. “Stay behind me and stick close to the wall.”

You crept carefully into the dim hallway, pushing up your own sunglasses to rest on the scarf still covering your hair and trying to stay as close to Jack as possible without stepping on his heels. He'd pulled his gun from under his jacket and held it loosely by his side, ever ready for any incoming threat. He maneuvered the halls warily, past the long abandoned kitchens and laundry facilities. When you came upon the reception area, still without encountering another living thing, Jack’s posture straightened as his eyes scanned the area. You fell in beside him to get a better view of the empty expanse.

“I think my friend at the butcher’s shop was mistaken. This place seems pretty deserted.”

“Don’t let your guard down yet.”

“What exactly are we looking for?”

“Whatever Underwood’s key opens.”

“Are we just going to go door to door until we figure it out?”

“I’d say finding a locked one would be a pretty big clue. It’d be pointless to lock all the rooms in this place when nobody's staying here.”

You continued on, finding that most of the handles turned easily. The rooms all looked the same – stripped beds and furniture covered in plastic to keep out dust. “You know, it’s really a shame,” you commented at one point. “This place looks like it was really something when it was open.”

“What are you complaining about? Where you live is nicer than this.”

“I’m not saying I want to live here. I just hate to see it go to waste, that’s all.”

Jack let out a quiet whistle through his teeth as you came upon what appeared to be a ballroom. The space was huge and the wall hangings were dramatically ornate. You followed him out towards the center, footsteps echoing off the high ceiling. “You weren’t kidding when you said these places were swanky.”

“We’re in an abandoned building and I still feel underdressed.”

“Maybe not so abandoned. Notice?” He scuffed his shoe across the floor. “No dust. People come through here regularly.”

“So we’re headed in the right direction?” You couldn’t prevent the lilt of hope that snuck into your tone.

“Looks like it.” He smiled a little at the hint of success. You followed him to a set of heavy looking double doors off to the right. “Where do you think this goes?”

“Probably to more rooms. It’s too nice to lead to any staff areas.”

He made some noise of acknowledgement, grabbing hold of the golden handle and tugging the door open. It offered more resistance than the smaller room doors, the wood much thicker and more solid. A weird noise followed, and your first thought was that something must have fallen. Then you were further confused when a sort of hissing started up. It appeared to be coming from a device sitting just on the other side of the door. You were still processing all of this when peripherally you saw Jack’s eyes fly wide. With his gun-wielding arm he attempted to shove you behind him while he slammed the door shut. Unfortunately, neither of these things did much good because the next moment the it was blown right off its hinges and directly into both of you.

Chapter Text

You couldn't see. You couldn't hear. Pain radiated from your shoulder and your hip. Were you sleeping? Then why did it hurt so much? Your eyes are closed, definitely closed. But not sleeping. You could feel too much, feel a heavy weight pressing you down. Why does everything hurt? Why couldn’t you move? Why are your eyes closed? What's that noise? Your ears are ringing and there's a fuzzy sound like static or the ocean accompanying the high pitched whine, and it's too much coupled with the ache in your head. But through the cacophony is a base line that's straight and solid, like a rope you could hold on to. Something soft and light rubbed over the side of your face and then attached, covering your ear and making all the noise compress.

You finally dragged your eyelids up, but the world was a finger painting done by a toddler, all swirling colors uncontained by defining lines. You blinked and blinked again, squeezing your eyes tight trying to clear the fog. The pressure on your face shifted, and that base line rang out with urgency. Finally, everything straightened and locked into place, and you found Jack Thompson staring at you, talking though you couldn't make out the words. You remembered: the hotel, the explosion that stole your hearing, the heavy door that now pinned you to the ground under its substantial weight.

Panic shot through you at the idea of being trapped, freezing you in place until you couldn’t feel your muscles to make them move. When you were seven you'd gotten stuck in a narrow drainage pipe Howard had dared you to crawl through. You'd remained for hours, unable to shift by anything but inches, until help could be located and a plan devised to rescue you without damaging the pipe. Howard had been exceedingly apologetic, and you'd brushed it off as best you could for his sake, but you'd carried a fear with you ever since.

But Jack was here, and he was still talking.

"I'm going to push up," his words broke through, felt more than heard, "and then I need you to crawl out. Can you do that?"

You nodded vacantly, agreeing automatically without really comprehending, and realized that it was his hand on your face trying to get you to focus. Could you move? Probably. Your muscles were loosening in his presence, panic abating into a not-quite calm but better than paralyzed. Everything hurt, but nothing felt numb or broken, aside from your obviously impaired mental state. He lingered a moment longer, trying to verify that you truly understood, and then he nodded and pulled his hand back so he could press it to the floor. With a grunt he strained upwards, and suddenly the weight on your shoulder lessened. You rolled to your stomach and fought with your tingling arms to drag yourself forward. You managed to get enough of your body out to lurch up on your knees, relief flooding your system at the regained freedom of movement.

You didn't allow the appreciation to distract you for long however, and turned to wedge your shoulder under the door. Too late you realized you should have used your other shoulder, the one that hadn't taken the brunt of the impact. You clenched your teeth and ignored the pain, holding the door up so Jack could escape its confines as well. As soon as he was clear, you dropped the weight with a resounding bang, one that you could now hear much more clearly as the ringing in your ears faded somewhat. You sat back on your legs, trying to remember what normal breathing felt like.

"Are you okay?" Jack's familiar question was tinged with a panic of his own, he eyes flying over you to check for damage.

"I think so," you replied, wondering if your voice was as loud as it felt. "Just bruised and disoriented. I’m not a fan of tight spaces.”

“Drainage pipe, right?”

You blinked at him in momentary surprise. You’d shared that the day you swapped stories to pass the time, but you hadn’t expected him to remember it. You nodded and asked, “Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good." He shifted slightly and winced, leaving you to wonder how much of that was a lie.

"So, a booby-trap," you began, trying to get your feet under you to stand. "Does that mean we were going the right way or the wrong way?"

He beat you to standing, and held out his hand to help you up. "It depends on what we find behind the door."

He didn't release your hand when you were on your feet, and instead reached to brush his fingertips along your hairline near your right temple (you must have lost the scarf under the door). His touch stung, causing you to jerk away with a hiss. His fingers came away tinged red, and you raised your own hand to inspect the cut yourself. It was small, not bleeding very much at all for a head wound. Jack had a similar injury, though bigger and already bruising. He'd been closer to the door, taking more of the hit.

Wiping your blood off on your dress, you used your clean fingertips to brush his hair away from the bump to get a clearer view. "You're going to have quite the knot."

"It's not the first time I've been hit in the head," he shrugged it off with a half-hearted smirk. "I'll survive."

"That's something we have in common." You smiled up at him, body aching but in one piece. The once pristine room was now littered with debris, the ornate door you'd tried to pass through lying uselessly on the scuffed floor. Your appearance was decidedly rumpled, as was his, and on top of it all you'd created a blood stain on your dress. Still, he returned your smile as if you were discussing something mundane, as if you hadn't just lived through an ordeal that could very well have killed you both.

And he was still holding your hand.

"Shall we see what's behind the explosive door?" you asked, ignoring how oddly composed you felt, even with frazzled hair and bloodstained dress.

"Yeah, I just need to find my-"

They came in a swarm from every entrance; men with firearms, large ones, all trained on you, surrounding you from every side.

"...gun," Jack finished quietly, eyes darting between all the men and his hand tightening around yours. The trapped feeling returned along with the panic. This was different than Joe and his ambush. These men would shoot you without hesitation or second thought, and with Jack's gun lost among the rubble, you were completely defenseless. Looking at Jack’s face you realized with a jolt of shock that he was afraid, and your hand squeezed into his fierce grip as well.

Then somehow you became utterly calm. You weren’t trapped on your own, stuck and unable to move while Howard ran off to find help. Jack was here, Jack who’d sworn to protect you, Jack who you’d sworn to protect. This was not going to be the end of you – you would not allow such failure in your mission. Your hold relaxed even as Jack’s didn’t, just as one of the gunman began barking orders.

“Hands where we can see them!” he commanded, but Jack’s eyes grew fierce with defiance, refusing to give up his hold on you as if it offered some defense against a rain of bullets. “Now!”

You tugged on you hand, trying to encourage Jack to let go. No escape would be had if you were gunned down now. You saw his eyes shoot to you though he didn’t turn, and you nodded just a little to reassure him. His mouth pinched tight, but his grip loosened until you could both raise your arms separately in surrender. A handful of men moved forward to search you for weapons. They yanked Jack’s coat from his arms so they could relieve him of his holster, even bereft of pistol as it was. They discovered a small pocket knife on him as well, and even that was taken.

You, of course, were free of any kind of weapon, which actually made you grateful for your negligence in obtaining a garter holster – you’d rather not have endured the confiscation of that. Still, these men had no qualms about propriety, and when their search of you became a little too friendly Jack’s expression turned enraged and he tried to vault forward to your defense with a shouted, “Hey!”

He was immediately restrained none too gently by numerous hands. The man performing the search remained impassive, though his voice had a ring of smug amusement to it when he threatened, “Pipe down or I’ll make hers a strip search.”

“Now I think that would just make all of us uncomfortable,” you replied dryly, appearing to take the man by surprise so that he paused and just stared at you in confusion. You stared back, speculating whether flippant commentary was ill-advised given the current situation.

Eventually, the man regained his focus and declared you clear. Your arms were yanked back so that your wrists could be bound with cord, as were Jack’s, and the two of you were shoved out of the ballroom and down the hall. A dark staircase later found you in a dimly lit basement area. Two chairs were plunked down back to back towards the center, and you and Jack were both roughly shoved to sit. Then the majority of the men left, leaving a guard inside the room, and most likely more outside the door.

The quiet was discomforting after all the noise and movement. The cord bit into your wrists, and leaning back on your arms made sitting awkward. You side-eyed the guard as you attempted to test the give of your bonds without attracting his attention; it was a moot point, however, as there was no give to test. You weren’t secured to the chair itself, and a part of you wondered what he would do if you stood up, but the smarter part saw his large gun and had no desire to see it put to use.

“I’m sorry.” Jack had been silent for so long that you thought he must be concocting some elaborate escape plan. His quiet admission caught you off guard.

“Sorry for what?” You turned your head away from your audience by the door, trying to sneak a look at Jack, but he continued to face resolutely forward.

“I told you that I wouldn’t apologize for a good plan, but obviously I screwed this up big time. You were right – I should have called in Carter. She wouldn’t have gotten you killed.”

“First of all, I’m not dead yet and neither are you. And Peggy has a complex about the people around her dying, so don’t ever say anything like that around her.” You dropped your volume just a little, worried that you might be overheard. “Jack, I said I trusted you to keep me safe, and that hasn’t changed. Even more so, I trust that between the two of us we can figure a way out of this, but if you give up, we really will be as good as dead because I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. Most of the time, actually. Or ever.”

He turned then, allowing you a view of his profile in your periphery. “You don’t give off that impression.”

“I do a wonderful job of faking it.”

“I don’t know if there is a way out of this.”

“You’re being fatalistic again, and I reject such an outlook.”

“You can’t reject reality, sunshine.”

“Watch me. It’s only reality if we let it be. Come on, cowboy, I need you – don’t let me down now.”

“Quiet over there!” the man by the door snapped, and that was just about the breaking point for you. However much confidence you had in Jack, this whole situation was still new to you, which was cause enough to be nervous. So you did what you always did when you were unsure of yourself.

You got mouthy.

“Look, are we waiting for your boss or don or sitter or whatever you want to call the person who holds your leash?” you asked as you turned to stare down the guard. “Because I’m impatient on a good day, and this is what I’d like to think of as the exact opposite of a good day.”

“I said quiet.”

“Yes, I heard you, but I don’t do quiet well – just ask my friend here.” You jerked your head at Jack, ignoring the stiffness in his posture caused by your unexpectedly reckless nature. “And as I mentioned before I am certainly not running over with patience right now.”

Your impertinence seemed to gall the guard, who shortly leveled his firearm in your direction and snarled, “Quiet.”

“Please, let’s not play games. You don’t have the kind of authority required to shoot me. If you did you wouldn’t have been stuck with chaperon duty." It was a gamble, a rather dangerous one born from your agitation and anger, but as you said the words your realized their accuracy. They'd tied you up and trapped you in a room – smart money said they wanted you alive for something. "Does this work like a restaurant? I’d like to speak to your manager.”

“I’m warning you.”

“Oh, is that what you’ve been doing? Sorry, I don’t always pick up on social cues. It’s a miracle no one’s threatened to shoot me before.”

“I think I have at least once,” Jack countered, easing into your game, and you almost broke character to giggle.

“I stand corrected. Come to think of it, I’ve never threatened to shoot you. That seems one-sided.”

“Maybe that guy’ll let you borrow his gun if you ask real nice-like.”

“You think?”

“I said shut up, both of you!”

“Actually, you’ve only addressed me and said quiet three times, which is a synonym to shut up, but if we’re being literal you’ve said neither ‘shut’ nor ‘up’ since we’ve met. Until just now. When you said both. I stand corrected again.”

“Since we’re being literal, you’re technically sitting.”

“And a third time. This is a terribly poor showing on my part.”

“If either of you says one more word-”

“You’ll do what?” Your tone had dropped and your words now verged on blantant disdain. “We’ve already established that you don’t have the authority to shoot us. In fact, you can't do a single thing without the permission of whoever’s in charge of you. Congratulations, you've reached the status of a child. So where exactly were you going there? Nevermind, I doubt you have an answer to that. Let me explain something to you since somehow, unbelievably, you’ve not managed to pick up on it yet. This posturing with your big, scary gun only works if we’re afraid of you. And we’re not,” you enunciated slowly, facing his rage with unblinking disinterest. “So put your gun down like the good little peon you are. Unless you can pull out something a lot scarier, you’re done here.”

“On the contrary – we’re just getting started.” A new voice spoke out as a figure emerged from the darkened doorway, surrounded by a pack of armed accomplices. He was older, balding, but sharply dressed and sporting a smirk backed by genuine confidence entrenched in the knowledge that one undoubtedly had the upper hand. And underlying all of this was a feeling that managed to inspire a kind of terror you hadn’t felt since Howard disappeared in an unknown police car on V-E Day.

Perhaps even more surprising and terrifying by turns was the press of Jack’s shoulders against yours as he pushed himself to sit ramrod straight. Then he said one word that felt like the tightening of a noose.

“Vernon?”

Chapter Text

Vernon? As in Vernon Masters? The man who had exploited Jack's admittedly less redeeming qualities and left behind the file at the root of his shooting?

"Hello, Jack. Long time no see. I hear you've gotten married. I'm hurt that I didn't receive an invitation."

"Hard to know where to send it to when a guy's supposed to be dead."

"Well, you see, that's the thing, Jack. When you try to kill someone you should really make sure you finished the job." His falsely congenial smile was gone in an instant, and his eyes almost seemed molten. "Otherwise it just tends to piss them off."

"Vernon, you of all people should understand why I did that. You were the one who taught me the importance of making the tough calls."

"Your silver tongue isn't going to work on me – you can't cheat a cheater. Seems like the tables have turned, hmm, Jackie boy?"

You'd been stuck in a drainpipe for hours when you were seven. You'd watched Howard turn blue in the headlock of an angry quarterback. You'd lived on the run for months, always looking over your shoulder for someone to arrest Howard for selling weapons to the wrong people. You'd gone undercover in a room full guns wielded by the men searching for Howard to arrest him. You'd waited to find out if Jarvis had had to shoot your best friend down to save an entire city. You'd come back from Peru to Ana's near fatality and a maniacal woman capable of killing with a thought. You'd seen Peggy fight to save the life of a man she cared deeply for. You'd spent months on edge masquerading as a wife, always questioning everything you did and even everything you thought. You'd nearly been shredded by a falling window, been held at gunpoint twice in a matter of days, and been blown up and nearly crushed by a very heavy door.

But none of that held a candle to the paralyzing, chest-tightening, heart-pounding, cold-sweat-inducing, absolute and all-encompassing terror that this man caused with his mere presence. The feeling was familiar in essence, if not in intensity, and the words were out of your mouth before your brain had fully realized the implication: "Zero Matter."

"Oh, the girl does have a voice," Vernon observed snidely. If possible, your chest tightened even more now that his attention was focused on you. "And she's perceptive, too. Bravo, Jack, you've got yourself a real winner."

"What are you talking about?" Jack's interference sent a trickle of relief through you, but breathing was still a tricky business.

"Be honest with me – haven't you been dying to ask how I survived? You saw the room, the destruction left behind. Surely you must have realized I shouldn't have lived through that. Luckily, as your little companion here pointed out, I had some assistance."

He held out his hand, and its flesh was suddenly replaced with an oozing black mass you had come to know so well as Zero Matter. The shift only lasted for a moment before his skin reappeared, but the image was burned into the backs of your eyes. You’d thought all the alien substance had been defeated, sent back to where it came from, but here it was again, like a disease that kept returning no matter how many times you cut it out.

“Vernon, listen to me,” Jack implored, suddenly earnest and urgent. “You need help. That stuff messes with your head-”

“‘That stuff’ is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Frost may have been completely insane, but she was right about Zero Matter’s potential, the power it provides. And ‘that stuff’ kept me alive after you tried your damnedest to blow me to hell.”

"Is that why you shot him?" you broke in, voice smaller than you liked as this man who radiated danger looked back at you. "You wanted revenge?"

"What makes you think I shot him? Believe me, I've got bigger fish to fry than Jack Thompson."

That didn't make any sense. You were here because of Jack's shooting. He had to be lying, had to be pulling some kind of con, because otherwise... otherwise...

"Sorry, peaches, looks like you've been investigating the wrong crime."

That was in equal parts frustrating beyond measure and too ridiculous for words. You would have laughed if having Vernon so near hadn't made your heart wedge into your throat.

"If I'd had my way, Jack would be back in New York right now, and you would be doing whatever it is you do for Howard Stark. Unfortunately, you decided to interfere with my business, which has led us here."

"So it was a trap. Underwood, the hotel key – was Vanderbilt in on it, too?” Jack questioned, drawing Vernon back once more.

“Vanderbilt is a weak-willed man with aspirations to power he wouldn’t know what to do with – ring a bell, Jack?” Vernon taunted lightly, and you could practically feel Jack’s anger seeping into your back. “What happened with Underwood, well, that was unfortunate – she was useful to me, as far back as the plan to rob that safety deposit box in New York before she even knew who I was. But we’d been monitoring the codebreaker for quite some time, and realized he was sharing our information with someone, though we didn’t know who yet. Underwood was holding out hope for Peggy Carter. I’m sure she was disappointed when you showed up. I have to hand it to you, Jack, I didn’t think you had it in you to shoot a woman in the back like that, though I guess you had plenty of practice while putting a knife in mine. Now we're going to need to even out the score a bit.”

"Look, Vernon, I know that you have every reason to hate me, but she's got nothing to do with this." You felt his hair brush yours as he tilted his head toward you.

"Did you really think you could drag her around with you, letting her believe she could play detective's assistant, and not face any repercussions? She's been every bit as much a part of this as you since you pulled her into this ridiculous scheme of yours. Acting like you had amnesia, thinking no one would notice you pulling at loose threads. It’s all a little melodramatic, don’t you think?"

"So what is it that you want?" you interrupted again, not least of all because you didn't appreciate being talked about when you were right there, especially when they were making you sound like some gullible dupe.

"One thing, and I would have preferred going about it a different way, but since we're here..." He moved to stand in front of Jack, stretching out a hand to rest on the back of his chair, leaning over him with unrestrained malice. "I just need you to tell me where the Arena pin is."

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me, Jack. I won’t ask nicely twice.”

“It doesn’t matter how you ask – I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

“You always were a stubborn son of a gun.” Vernon said it almost regretfully, like he was sorry for the consequences he was forced to enact due to Jack’s noncompliance. He made a motion with his hand, and immediately even more men entered carrying equipment you couldn't identify beyond something that looked like a chair. “Tell me where the pin is, Jack. You’re not going to like what follows.”

This time Jack just remained silent, and you could imagine even without seeing that his face had fallen into that stubborn look with its narrowed eyes and pinched lips. It almost made you want to smile, despite the situation, despite the danger. Because this man, who had given you permission to call him friend, was staring down someone who, from what you heard, had previous experience with torture, and was flat out refusing to comply to his demands. It was brave and probably stupid and really just so impressive. And you were here with him, and it gave you some kind of self-indulgent satisfaction. You wondered if you’d ever be able to express these thoughts to him in a way that made sense and wasn’t embarrassing should you make it out of this.

From your position, just slightly turned and with your neck craned, you could see the grim seriousness of Vernon’s face as he ordered, “Take the girl.”

You weren’t able to make out Jack’s almost shouted response to that as you were hauled from your chair by two burly gentlemen, the pull on your arms painful from their bound position. You made a half-hearted attempt at a struggle, but you already knew it wasn’t going to work. The cord was cut from your wrists, but only so your arms could be strapped down after you were forcefully pushed into the new chair. It was made of some kind of dark wood, but the texture changed to something colder and smoother and somehow damp where your wrists were pressed down.

Now you had a clear view of Jack, who was being wrestled back into his chair by multiple men as they attempted to bind his shoulders down to prevent further escape attempts. He was putting up a good fight, but his hands were quite literally tied. Vernon looked on with obvious amusement, still firmly in control of the upper hand.

“It’s always amazed me what things some people can come up with,” Vernon began when everyone was situated. “I’ve never claimed to be a creative man myself, but I’ve come to seek out and recognize talent when I see it. Do you know the idea for the electric chair was first conceived by a dentist? A dentist! He electrocuted hundreds of stray dogs to find a consistent way to euthanize them. Still, the first time it was tried on a human the prisoner was only knocked out by the first shock, and they had to wait for the generator to recharge before they could try again. Took eight minutes for the man to die. Somebody said, ‘they would have done better using an axe.’ Messy business in the beginning, but you have to admit they’ve smoothed it out quite a bit now. Except for the unfortunate incident in Louisiana not too long ago, though I must say it provided some interesting... inspiration.”

Your nails dug into the arms of the chair as Vernon rounded Jack and started towards you at an easy pace. Men had been fluttering around you busily, connecting wires and setting up the rest of the equipment. Vernon looked it over with approval, casting you a smile that froze your blood.

“An intoxicated guard set up the machine incorrectly, and all it did was cause the young man intense pain until they finally shut it off. A certain scientist took a special interest in the effects of electrical current on the human body, which as it turns out is a pretty decent conductor. Low amounts of electricity are, of course, generally harmless – might cause a bit of tingling. You up the voltage, though, and then you really start to feel it. Your muscles contract, and your skin can burn. Go higher and it’ll start in on your heart and nerves. It’s truly astonishing how much your body can take before it gives out.”

You were trying very hard to breathe slowly through your nose. Jack was still fighting against his restraints, unable – tied as he was – to fully turn and see what was happening. Vernon sidled up beside you and stroked the chair almost lovingly. “So I offered to fund this scientist’s research if he used it to build me something I could use to get information out of my more… uncooperative detainees. Your typical electric chair involves electrodes, but this beauty is laced with metal in the arms to create a circuit through its occupant's body. We can control the voltage anywhere between slightly uncomfortable to deadly. It was born from science, but somehow I feel like it’s more of a work of art.”

“Vernon!” Jack shouted, voice rough with anger and something like panic. “Vernon, stop! She doesn’t know anything!”

“Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. But we both know that you know something, and we both know that you’ll cave much quicker this way.”

“You’re wrong,” you managed to get out, pretending like your voice didn’t catch and rasp.

“Wrong about what, sweetheart?”

“You’re not going to get Jack to talk this way. The man can hardly stand me. He used me for months, pretending to have amnesia so I’d run around playing his wife. He needed a cover, he said. Months of lies, of sweet talk and manipulation, so he could solve a crime – which, obviously, was all a total waste because it wasn’t even the right crime. He puts on a good show, but above all else Jack Thompson is still the most selfish man there is. Do you really think he’ll undercut himself for the likes of me?”

Vernon watched you steadily, his air of amusement not wavering the entire time you spoke. When you’d finished, he hitched up his pants and ever so slowly bent to crouch until he was on eye level with you. “Yes, I do. Because I’ve been watching you. I know exactly what Jack did. I know how you found out. I know that you’ve been going along with his plan willingly ever since. And I know the way he looks at you. In his mind, you are something that belongs to him, something he wants to protect, and something that I’m about to play a little too roughly with. You see him? He’s practically coming apart at the seams already, he’s so afraid. So you go ahead and put on your brave face, honey, but ten minutes from now I’ll be leaving with everything I’ve ever wanted to know.”

He straightened and you swallowed hard, the lump in your throat making the task difficult.

“One last chance, Jack. Tell me where the Arena pin is.”

“I don’t know!”

“Wrong answer.”

The first jolt surprised a yelp of pain from you, but then you bit down hard around it, narrowly avoiding your tongue. Vernon wanted to use you to get to Jack, well, too bad. Your body jerked with the involuntary muscle contractions he’d mentioned earlier, ache spreading through your limbs to the tune of the machine’s buzzing. Even so, you clenched your teeth and screwed your eyes shut. You would endure. Jack would not be compromised by your failures.

“Look at her. She’s not making a peep. She’s almost as stubborn as you are, Jack.” Vernon was taunting him, knowing that his position made it next to impossible for him to see what was actually happening to you. “Let’s see if she can keep it up when we increase the power.”

Your nails were digging into your palms hard enough to break the skin (you assumed, but your nerve endings weren’t functioning well enough to tell you for sure). You’d probably cry if you had even a modicum of control, but at the moment you couldn’t even draw in a breath effectively. But no noise came from you, even as you shook with the effort.

When it all stopped suddenly you sagged sideways in your chair, unable to hold yourself up. You breathed in the air greedily, noting an acrid scent and realizing it was the smell of your burnt flesh. A cold hand landed on your overheated shoulder and pushed you upright, fingers splaying up and across your neck. Your head lolled weakly.

“Oh, Jack, I wish you could feel her pulse – it’s positively racing. And yet she never made a sound. Where do you find such strong-willed women?”

“Vernon, please.” Merciful heavens, Jack Thompson was begging. You wanted to say something, lob some snark at Vernon, if for no other reason than to reassure Jack that you were holding up, but your voice box was locked down as if the electricity was still active.

“You can save her any time you want, Jack. Just tell me where the pin is.”

“I gave it to Carter. I don’t know what she did with it.”

“This is the end of the line. The next time I turn on this machine, her heart will explode.”

“I already told you – I gave it to Carter.”

“Game over, golden boy.”

Vernon reached for the switch, and you knew Jack could see the movement as he craned his neck dangerously. You squeezed your eyes shut.

“It’s at the S.S.R.!” Jack yelled, bringing Vernon’s hand up short. You opened your eyes to look at the man straining so hard against the ties that held him to his chair. You wanted to tell him to stop, that you were okay, but your voice was still trapped. “It’s in the lab’s safe.”

No one spoke for minutes that lasted days. Vernon was scrutinizing Jack thoughtfully, hand still much too close to your chair’s switch for comfort. Eventually, the limb fell back to his side and he spoke evenly and with very little intonation, “I will verify this information. If I find out you’re lying to me, you will not walk out of here.” He stepped in front of you, leaned over and placed his hand uncomfortably high on your thigh so that you were forced to meet his eyes. "Neither of you."

He straightened and snapped once. The room quickly emptied save for the same guard at the door. You slumped, still strapped down, exhausted but so keyed up.

“Are you okay?” Jack called quietly, still unable to see you fully.

You wanted to laugh at his ridiculous question. You wanted to cry from the soreness that lingered in your muscles. You wanted to castigate him for giving up the pin’s location. But all you could get out around your slowly loosening vocal cords was a croaked, “Yeah.”

“I’m so sorry-”

“Stop.”

The silence returned, which you were sure pleased the guard quite a bit. You worked on flexing every part of your body you could manage. As far as you could tell Jack was merely staring at the wall in front of him. And so you waited, you waited in silence and strain and the precarious foothold of cracked promises. You waited until the guard’s radio crackled with something unintelligible that still propelled him forward, big gun shifted to his side so he could remove a smaller firearm from his hip. It wasn’t until he had it leveled at the back of Jack’s head that you understood what he intended to do.

“Stop!” you commanded, as if it would make a difference.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn soon enough,” he called over his shoulder, not even bothering to turn to address you.

The next few moments were something of a blur, even to you. A great tearing noise blotted out the cocking of the man’s pistol. He never got to pull the trigger however, because the next thing he knew your knee was slamming into his ribs, pain curling his arm in and destroying his aim. Then he knew nothing as his head smashed into the nearest wall (oddly a good ten feet away) and his world fell black.

And there you stood, lungs laboring under the exertion, wrists blackened and skin sallow, but very much free and much more vigorous than you had any right to be after what you’d just undergone. Jack stared at you without moving a muscle, even to blink. An absurd part of you wondered if the shock had killed him.

You looked at the unconscious guard and then back to Jack. Your tongue darted out to wet your cracked lips, and with a voice that still shook you said, “I guess it’s my turn to explain a few things.”

Chapter Text

“I guess it’s my turn to explain a few things,” you’d said, and then followed with, “but not here.”

The prone guard had a knife strapped to his thigh which you quickly procured to cut Jack free. He was still staring at you like he couldn’t function around his disbelief. You went to lick your lips again, but it did little good due to the dryness of your mouth. “I know, Jack. I know this doesn’t make sense. But we need to go before he wakes up or someone comes back.”

The déjà vu was almost overwhelming, except now it was turned on its head. Now you were the one trying to convince Jack to work past his immediate misgivings. To his credit, he fought his way back to reality much sooner than you had. He shook himself, the tiniest of tremors, and then stood up to face you. “Okay, let’s go. We need to get you to a hospital anyway.”

“No. No hospitals.”

“You were just electrocuted within an inch of your life. You need to be examined.”

“No, Jack, I really don’t.” You brushed your hair back in agitation, and saw his eyes dart to you temple. Suddenly one of his hands caged the side of your head while the thumb of the other scrubbed at what you concluded must be the blood from the cut the door had given you hours before. You also saw the moment he realized the small wound was completely gone. His hands lingered as a whole menagerie of emotions crossed his face. Then they passed away like chalk erased from a board, and his hands dropped.

He eyes slid down to your wrists, and you knew he was checking to see if the skin there was still singed, wondering just how quickly you could recover. You didn’t have to look to know the wounds were as prevalent as ever, too fresh and through too many layers of skin to have healed already, and the throbbing was rather distracting. That’s when you registered additional pain in your finger, and you raised it to see the area around your rings to be blackened as well, angry red welts peeking out at the edges. Your body must have overheated the metal to the point of burning. With a sigh of resignation, you took hold of the rings and slowly but determinedly forced them off your finger. You hissed as quite of bit of damaged skin left as well, and you heard Jack gag slightly at the sight. You glanced up at him guiltily. “Sorry – it won’t heal properly if there’s something blocking it.”

He nodded sharply once, swallowing and looking away. You dropped the rings into your dress pocket, hoping against reason that you’d be able to clean them again. Representative of a fake marriage or not, they were beautiful and you’d hate to lose them like this. Looking back at Jack, you saw him staring behind you at the chair you'd escaped from. The straps were torn impressively, the arms cracked and splintering from where you'd wrenched yourself free.

"Oh, we probably shouldn't leave that," you murmured before striding over and lifting the chair to smash it into its controlling machinery as hard as you could. The console shattered magnificently with a rain of sparks and furious hissing. The chair wasn't in much better shape, pieces littering the area around the twisted metal that had once powered it. Satisfied that it would be of no further use to anyone and wouldn't provide any clues as to your escape, you turned to find Jack staring at you again, furthering your discomfort. Not that you blamed him in the least, but the palpable tension made you want to wring your hands, which really wasn't an option at this point unless you fancied searing pain.

You shifted uncomfortably, and that seemed to break Jack out of whatever train of thought was holding him captive. After a quick scour of the area, he picked up the guard's discarded pistol as well as the larger firearm. When you'd reached his side (slowly, as you might a wary animal), he held out the smaller of the two to you. When all you did was gawk at it, he instructed, "Hold it with both hands because the kickback is bigger than what you'd expect, then aim and pull the trigger. Just try not to hit me or yourself."

You hesitantly took it from him, proud that your hands didn't shake too noticeably. You really weren't in any state of mind for a crash course in firearm protocol, but you followed him obediently out the door, though you couldn't bring yourself to walk around with the gun constantly raised as his was. You held it loosely down by your side, praying you wouldn't be called upon to use it. Fortunately, the halls all seemed deserted as you slunk your way around corners. It was as if they'd all gone and left you in the hands of the one guard. Still, you knew from experience that they could appear from anywhere at any time and that the abandonment could very well be an illusion.

Not this time, apparently. You encountered no one and nothing, making it safely back out the service entrance and off the hotel grounds. The sun was at the end of setting, most of the sky a navy blue with some orange and purple just at the horizon. The near darkness was to your favor as Jack led you around the back of the nearest house, choosing to duck through yards and behind whatever plant life you could find instead of the direct path following the street. Your aching body protested to the strenuous movement, but at least you were less likely to run into anyone who'd need shooting.

Jack didn't relax until you were back in the car and miles away from the hotel, and even then 'relax' was probably an overstatement. You swallowed at least five times before trying, "Jack-"

"Not yet." His words were clipped and his eyes remained steadily on the road. You pressed your lips together and drew them between your teeth. Out of habit your fingers laced in your lap, causing you to let out a muted grunt of pain when you brushed over your ring burn.

The interior of the car was oppressively silent until he navigated into Howard’s car park. “Jack,” you began again only to be cut off a second time.

“Not yet.” He was shoving his way out of the car before it had settled into park, yanking the key from the ignition with very little care. Still, he waited until you were by his side before marching toward the house. His objective appeared to be the kitchen where he immediately pulled the first aid kit from its cupboard. You were on the cusp of asking how he knew its location, but he was already yanking a stool over and motioning to it, though he still refused to look at you. “Sit.”

“That’s really not necessary.”

“Look, I don’t…” he cut off, eyes now on the welts that had risen among the charred skin on your wrists. “It’s not a good idea to leave those out in the open. They’ll get infected or something.”

They wouldn’t, but he still wasn’t allowing you to explain that to him. You obediently perched on the stool and waited (almost) patiently for him to clean and dress the wounds with white gauze, which he twisted up over your left hand to include your ring finger. All the while his gaze never strayed up once, and so you swapped yours between watching him work and trying to read something in his expression. The bump on his head had smoothed and blackened – it should probably be iced. He didn't seem to be in a very obliging mood, however, so you chose not to mention it.

He tied the bandage off and packed away the kit, so you decided to make yet another attempt. You’d barely opened your mouth before he was holding a finger up in your general direction, still focused on putting everything away. “Not yet.”

Your lips pressed tight as you let a frustrated breath out of your nose. He shut the cabinet door with a bit more force than required, and then he made straight for the “secret” key to Howard’s liquor stash where he poured a generous helping of whiskey into a tumbler. He gulped down a good half in one go, and then finally his eyes met yours. “Okay. Now.”

And all of a sudden you were the one unable to look him in the eye. You felt foolish for wasting all the extra time he’d given you instead of carefully plotting out every word you would say. You decided you might as well start at the beginning. “You know how I said Howard saved my life?" He nodded once. "Well, I might have meant that more literally than I let on. Howard was a lead scientist on Project Rebirth, and in return for his work he was given a vial of Captain Rogers’ blood, which you’ve already encountered.”

He pinched his eyes closed and sucked in a breath like he’d been hit, and so you could hazard a guess that he already had an idea where you were going. He drained his glass and refilled it before motioning for you to continue.

“Well, when the war ended one of his first projects was to reverse engineer the super soldier serum. So one day I find him completely strung out on coffee and Jim Bean, and he says he’s cracked it.”

“And who’s the first person he thought to use it on?” Jack slammed his once-more-empty tumbler down on the counter hard enough you worried it might shatter, but you were too busy being appalled to scold him, rising to your feet as you jumped to your friend’s defense.

“Oh no, I begged him to use it on me. I was in my twenties and still looked twelve. I was weak and sickly and worthless in every way that mattered. I just wanted to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without needing a ten-minute break afterwards.” You stopped to take a deep breath, gaze dropping again as you tried to detach yourself from the memories so you could tell this story as impassively as possible. “But Howard wouldn’t do it.”

“Yet here you are, throwing men around like they're stuffed.”

“One day the doctor gave me a diagnosis – I had an infection in my lungs that wasn’t going to clear up. He gave me months, at most. So I told Howard what did it matter if I was going to die either way? At least this way I could go out being useful to him.”

“So what, you’re the new Captain America?”

“More like his disappointing second cousin. Howard did his best, but without any of Dr. Erskine’s original notes he was trying to figure out the beginning from the end. I don’t look like an adolescent anymore, but I didn’t bulk up like the Captain, which I’m not too busted up over. I might be a bit stronger than average, but I’m not going to be lifting motorcycles any time soon. My lung infection cleared right up. Actually, most everything cleared up and has stayed that way. Howard says my body constantly works to maintain homeostasis. So I don't need to eat or sleep all that much, and any injuries I get, few as they are, tend to heal pretty quickly. Really, the most remarkable thing about me now is my ability to just keep existing.”

The kitchen was quiet as you stood across from each other. Jack had yet to get a third refill, but the way he was still gripping the tumbler was concerning, like he might turn and hurl it at any moment.

“You should have told me,” he eventually stated softly, and then louder, “You were the one who said no more lies, from either of us.”

“I wasn’t lying! I just didn’t tell you something that had nothing to do with you or what we’ve been doing.”

“Bull. If I had known, I never would have taken you with me.”

“You find out I’m some kind of indestructible, and your thinking is, ‘I should have left this one at home’?”

“Do you have any idea what Vernon will do to you if he finds out? Or the Russians or the Germans or even our own government?”

“Which is why I didn’t pick up a shield and start campaigning. I’ve kept this secret for a long time, Jack. I know what’s at stake – not just for myself, but for Howard, too. He destroyed everything but the Captain’s blood because he knew what a danger it could present if it fell into the wrong hands. But if the government finds out he had even a little success in recreating the procedure and didn't share with the class, we’d both be in trouble.”

“You threw a grown man across the room! And we left him there alive. What are you going to do when he runs straight to Vernon?”

“Oh, what’s he going to say, that a woman half his size overpowered him? No one would believe him even if he did.”

“You took an unnecessary, not to mention stupid, risk.”

“He was going to shoot you!”

“And Dottie Underwood was going to kill you. Where were your super-powered heroics then, huh?”

“I didn’t-” You swallowed hard, trying to fight the adrenaline coursing through you. “I couldn’t let her find out. Not when she'd already threatened Howard before.”

“But it’s okay to let the cat outa the bag on my account?”

You closed your eyes as you breathed deeply, consciously relaxing the fists clenched at you side. When you looked at him again you found him watching you, demanding an answer, his jaw still tight. “Any day of the week I’d give my life to protect Howard. But I couldn’t do the same with yours.”

After a brief staring contest, he finally released his glass to scrub both hands over his face. Like the breaking of a spell, the tension washed out of the room leaving behind exhaustion and probably a little hurt. “This was supposed to be so simple.”

“I don’t think faked amnesia is a good way to start something out if you want it to be simple.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He dropped his hands and looked so worn down that your heartstrings drew tight. “Sousa oughta be tracking down Carter as we speak. When they're back we’ll report what we know about Vernon and the Vanderbilt, then you can go back to working for Stark and I can go back to New York and find a case that’s normal for once.”

“That’s it? One bad run in, you find out my secret, and now it’s, ‘Sayonara, I’m out of here’?”

“What else am I supposed to do? Vernon wasn't the one who shot me, and I’m all out of leads.”

“Vernon is still a whack job contaminated with Zero Matter. Is that not interesting enough for you?”

“It’s not my jurisdiction. I have my own office to run.”

“That’s not what this is about, and we both know it. You have to stop lying to me because the truth is inconvenient for you. Tell me something true!”

“You want to know the truth? The truth is you were in trouble and I couldn’t do anything. You had to save yourself and then me, too.”

“If this is some misogynistic thing because I’m a woman-”

“It’s got nothing to do with you being a woman. It has to do with me sitting there listening to that machine hum and Vernon’s color commentary and not stopping it. I can’t take you back out there, not knowing what I know. It’s too dangerous – Vernon is too dangerous. I was the one he wanted to talk and you’re still the one who ended up in the chair. I can’t do that again. I can’t keep you safe, and I can’t risk you.”

“It’s my choice.”

“Not this time.” He pressed the heel of his hand into his eye, dropped it again, and then announced, “I’m going to bed. You should get some rest, too.”

“Wait,” you ordered through clenched teeth as you grabbed hold of his arm when he tried to move past you, “at the very least we need to call the S.S.R. office and see if Vernon got away with the key.”

“He didn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Because it wasn’t in the lab’s safe.” He ran his thumb and forefinger over the inside of his suspender (one of the few things not taken from him) and pulled out the very pin in question. You stared at it slack jawed, but he was apparently too far gone to even be amused anymore when he tricked you. “I took it from the safe while you were distracting Samberly. When things started to run back towards a high society crowd, I figured this might be involved somehow.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Your accusatory tone dropped into something much more hostile when all he did was raise his eyebrows pointedly. “No, you do not get to pull that – this is not the same at all. This was information that was actually relevant. You agreed not to keep anything else case related from me when I agreed to keep playing your wife.”

“If anybody asked I wanted you to be able to say you didn’t know and mean it. I thought you’d appreciate one less thing you’d have to lie about.”

“There are so many things I’d appreciate right now, but you justifying your continued lying is not one of them.”

He shrugged like he couldn’t care less and tucked the pin back into whatever secret pocket it had come from. Without another word he left you standing alone in the kitchen, too angry to even begin processing what more you had to say to him.

You ignored the phone the first couple of rings, then regarded it with annoyance. Where was Jarvis? With an irritable growl you stomped over to the nearest device and tried not to snarl, “Stark residence.”

“Oh, I was hoping I’d get to talk to you,” the oily voice of Vernon Masters slid over the wires and right down your spine.

“What… what do you want?”

“The same thing I wanted three hours ago: the Arena Club pin.”

“Jack told you it was in the safe at the S.S.R.”

“I knew that was a lie when he tried to peddle it. You see, I have somebody working for me at the S.S.R., and he checked there as soon as that sap Sousa was gone.”

“Then I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Mm, Jack was right to keep this from you. You really are a terrible liar.”

Your hand tightened around the receiver, breaths starting to shorten.

“Now,” he continued, “since Jack isn’t willing to play ball, I’m going to need you to go ahead and bring me what I want.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“I think you will.”

A shout of pain rang out in the background, one you recognized very well. “Howard?”

“I knew Jack would slither out of the hotel one way or another, so we came to pay your old pal a visit. One thing I always admired about Howard Stark is he never skimped on appearances. His studio is really quite something.”

You were shaking so hard you were afraid the phone would slip.

“On to our deal – you bring me the pin, I won’t see how many of Mr. Stark’s bones I can break before he loses consciousness. Sound fair?”

“I don’t… what do you expect me to do?” Panic made your voice high and sharp, but Vernon sounded unfazed.

“You’re a resourceful girl, or so I assume. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. But if you need a little help, you’ll find something in your pocket that could come in handy.”

In your pocket? How did he know what was in your pocket? You slid your hand inside, at first feeling your grimy wedding rings, but then coming across a much larger object. Upon pulling it out you found a lipstick tube with the words Sweet Dream etched into the side.

“I’ll be seeing you real soon.”

“Wait-” But the click and dial tone revealed he’d hung up. For the longest time you continued holding the phone aloft, like somehow that would keep the call from having happened, like the moment you hung up you’d actually have to decide what to do. You knew what he’d been implying, knew what this lipstick was good for, but a part of you refused to acknowledge that as an option.

But what about Howard? Howard your savior, Howard your protector, Howard your best friend. Howard who had risked everything for you. You couldn’t just leave him.

Your first stop was your room to reapply your original lipstick – you needed a basecoat as a barrier. Hopefully Jack wouldn’t have paid enough attention to notice the difference.

You didn’t bother knocking, considering what you were there to do. You caught him as he exited the bathroom wiping at his face with a towel, and he’d made it all the way to his bedside before he noticed you. His shirt was unbuttoned and untucked in the front, and he looked blatantly surprised to see you there.

“I just…” You were on the verge of clearing your throat, and almost choked in an effort to stop yourself. “I wanted to apologize. I seem to be in a habit of making light of situations that I truly know little about. Vernon Masters is a dangerous man. I should be more appreciative of your efforts to keep him away from me. Or me away from him.”

You were approaching him slowly, all-too aware of his intense scrutiny. All you had going for you was that he couldn’t possibly suspect what you were up to.

“I guess I can’t blame you. I don’t always explain myself the right way. Especially to you.”

“I don’t make it easy.” You were in front of him now, heart hammering so hard you were sure he could see it shaking your body. On a deep breath you reached up to straighten his collar, as you had done the previous day in the hallway of the S.S.R. Then you looked him directly in his too-blue eyes, for once fully prepared for how close you were.

You saw him swallow, watched his gaze dart around your face as you tried to steel yourself for what came next. His eyes landed back on yours, and his voice was hardly over a whisper when he asked, “What are you doing?”

“Making another mistake,” you whispered back before giving the fabric in your hands a firm yank so you could pull his lips to yours.

You’d closed your eyes so you wouldn’t have to see him, see his surprise and suspicion. His hands grabbed onto whatever was closest, in this case your waist. One still held the towel, now caught against the top of your hip. His fingers spread and tightened, like he was trying to find purchase. And then he started to tip backwards.

You let go of his collar to catch his arms, striving to slow his descent. His hands released your waist to grab hold just above your elbows. His eyes, wide and confused, clashed once more with yours, and you hoped he saw all of your apologies there. The towel landed in a heap on the floor.

“I’m sorry.” Your voice wavered around tears you didn’t deserve. He was sitting on the bed now, gradually falling back against the pillows, still clinging to you as you were to him. “I’m so sorry. They have Howard. I don’t have a choice.”

He had just enough time for comprehension to tighten his expression before his eyes fluttered closed and his hands fell away. Unsure what to do, you shifted his feet up onto the bed as well, hoping he’d at least be grateful to wake up without a crick in his back. Guilt clawing up your throat from your stomach, you felt around his suspender until you located the pin to pull free and drop into your pocket. Then you seized hold of the discarded towel and scrubbed at your lips until they felt raw.

Chapter Text

You had a pretty good idea of what Vernon expected of you. He had a gaggle of guards posted at the front gate, where he probably thought you’d get taken into custody and brought to him like a prized elk. Except you’d spent an excessive amount of time on the studio lot and knew it better than just about anyone, maybe even the actual security staff, so you were well aware of the secret tunnel constructed in case Howard ever had to make a timely escape. It ran from the street out back, under the wall surrounding the perimeter, and up behind the costume and props building. No one had bothered to watch this part of the compound, so you were able make it into and navigate the storage facility easily. You made your way to the third floor where you knew there was a window next to a ledge and near the roof’s eave.

You climbed out on the ledge and carefully pressed yourself against the wall until you could reach up and hook your fingers over the edge of the roof. Only then did you turn so you could pull yourself up. You remained crouched low as you gazed out over the rooftops – it was nearing the middle of the night at this point, but the moon was also coming up on full and gave off too much illumination for comfort. Your goal was five buildings over, and while you did not exactly relish what you were about to attempt, it would be safer than traveling on the ground. So with a deep breath, you backed up several paces, adjusted the strap of your bag across your chest, and took a running leap over the rather dangerously wide gap to the closest building.

Your landing wasn’t as graceful as you would have liked, and the amount of noise you’d made was concerning. Luckily, you were still a fair distance from where the guards were loafing. The next jump wasn’t as far, and the one after that came more easily despite the considerable distance. The fourth, unfortunately, you miscalculated. Your foot hit at the wrong angle, sending you sprawling and sliding towards the edge over the smooth tiles despite your grasping fingers. Completely helpless, you pitched over the side, fully expecting your next point of contact to be the pavement. Instead you were jerked to a sudden halt, your bag's strap pulling tight against your breastbone hard enough to steal your breath.

You swung midair for several long moments in abject confusion, clinging tightly when your arm almost slipped out, before you had the good sense to look up. By some miracle your bag had snagged on a crack in the gutter, both saving and stranding you. You could try to climb back up the strap to the roof, but you weren’t sure how firmly it was wedged in. Then you realized just what building you were at, and glanced behind you to find a window within reach. Ever so slowly you wriggled your fingers under the edge and worked it open. With that accomplished you stretched further to slide your fingertip over the sill – just in time for your bag to come loose and gravity to come back into effect. Your nails dug in painfully as a countermeasure, arm muscle protesting at the sudden abuse, but you did not fall.

You swung your feet until you got enough height to catch on with your other hand, bag falling back over your shoulder with a snap. The toes of your shoes scraped against the false brick of the wall, unable to find purchase on the smooth surface. Finally, you managed to get enough resistance to boost yourself through the window and onto the floor inside. For a few seconds you allowed a brief respite, leaning against the wall and trying to catch your breath. Then you were back on your feet, taking in your surroundings. This building would do, but you needed a room on the other side.

Finding a suitable location, you set up in front of a window offering a view of the moonlit gate leading to the street and the guards still awaiting your arrival. Bag on the floor, you held up the air horn you’d liberated from the props building, steeled yourself, and hit the button. The noise was almost deafening, but you continued to hold it out. You needed to give them time to find you.

A whole pack of men with their ever-present guns burst through the nearby door minutes after you'd cast aside the horn. They found you casually holding what appeared to be a small blowtorch, the hiss of its bluish flame barely audible in the wake of the previous commotion. “Hello, boys. I have a meeting with the man in charge. Would you mind letting him know I’m here?”

One of them stepped forward, firearm trained on you. “Put your hands in the air.”

“Oh, no, I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to the man pulling your strings – the one taking orders from the extradimensional space goo?”

“We have orders to deliver you to Mr. Masters.”

“I’m not a package. If Mr. Masters wants what I’ve brought, he can come to me.”

“Drop your weapon and put your hands up!”

“This?” You held up the torch and derived amusement when they all tensed as one. “This is not a weapon. This is a miniature acetylene torch that Howard designed. What it does is produce a very hot flame – over 3000 degrees. Which should be more than enough to damage this,” you raised your other hand to reveal the Arena Club pin balanced precariously between two fingers, “until it is no longer functional. So you can go tell Mr. Masters that I’m here waiting for him or you can tell him that the thing he so desperately desires no longer exists. Your choice.”

You had a short stare down that your opponent abandoned first, jerking his head at one of the other minions which was apparently code for get to scootin’. Then you were left in a quiet standoff between the five remaining guards with their guns as long as their arms and you with your little blue fire. Yet you remained at ease, going so far as to smirk at them, because you knew darn well that they couldn’t shoot you and risk the pin falling too close to the heat.

Vernon marched in angrily, but when he caught sight of you his face broke into a smile. “Well, Mrs. Thompson, this was much sooner than expected. And you somehow made it past all of my sentries. How did you manage to get all the way in here?”

“Trade secret.” All your bravado had melted away upon his entrance, and you could no longer tell if the sweat breaking out on your palms was caused solely by the intense heat of the flame. You wondered if he had been this terrifying before becoming the Zero Matter’s new host.

“That’s fine,” he said soothingly. “I see you’ve brought my pin. Now just hand it over, and you and Mr. Stark will be free to go.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I’m here to renegotiate the deal.”

“This was never a negotiation.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working for Howard it’s that everything is a negotiation if you have the right leverage.” You moved the pin incrementally further over the flame of the torch, and saw the slight twitch in his cheek that had to be unease. “So here’s our new deal: from this window I can see the front gate. When Howard walks through that gate, alone, and is far enough away, then you can have the pin. If he doesn’t make it out the gate, or I suspect anything at all, the pin becomes scrap metal. Do you agree to these terms?”

He was silent for several long minutes, eyes never leaving yours as he measured your resolve. You stared back unblinkingly until he smiled that creepy smile again. “I do believe I’ve underestimated you.”

“You’d think you’d have learned after Peggy Carter.”

“You’d think. Very well, I accept your terms.” He turned his head to address the man behind him, though his gaze remained trained on you. “Radio down and tell them to release Stark. Make sure he leaves out the front.”

The following minutes dragged as if coated in molasses. You angled yourself to see out the window while still keeping one eye on Vernon, which was difficult to do to say the least. The only sounds were the shifting of the guards and the hiss of the blowtorch, which was becoming more difficult to hang on to with every passing second as the heat started to work on your skin painfully and the sweat reduced the friction to almost nonexistence. Finally, you were able to make out the form of your friend stumbling through the gate and out into the street. With a deep sigh you allowed your shoulders to relax.

“Well, I’ve kept up my end of the bargain.” Vernon stated easily, holding out his hand for the pin.

You stared at his hand, not moving an inch. "You do realize it's a parasite?" You paused to raise your eyes back to his. "The Zero Matter. It finds a host and then draws the very life out of them. It ate away at Dr. Wilkes' strength and Whitney Frost's sanity. What's it taking from you?"

"It's keeping me alive, which became necessary after your boy Jack left me to die."

"But Jack's bomb never went off. The explosion was caused by Dr. Wilkes expelling all of the Zero Matter trapped inside him, so by your logic the thing that is keeping you alive is also the thing that would have killed you. Does that not strike you as odd? Can't you see how the Zero Matter is manipulating you?"

"If I ever want the opinion of an over-glorified secretary, I'll ask." He was gradually losing his casual nonchalance. "Until then, you have something that belongs to me."

You sighed heavily through your nose, and then began in a more conversational tone. “You know, Howard is such a flake that a lot of people forget he’s also a genius. Take this miniature torch for example. It’s 60% smaller than anything else on the market, which means it’s incredibly portable and can fit into harder-to-reach spaces.”

“I don’t care.” His patience was obviously at its end.

“But while Howard may be a genius, a lot of his inventions have one thing in common: they’re incredibly unstable.” With that you chucked the torch right into the middle of the pack where it promptly exploded in a most impressive fashion. The men were blown off their feet in all directions, and even Vernon was knocked to the ground. As for you, the blast threw you backwards and straight out the window – fortunately, you’d been prepared.

Well, it wasn’t a perfect plan. You'd forgotten to put your bag back on, and going through a pane of glass hurt no matter how much foreknowledge you have. And the fire escape that you’d counted on to save you only added to your pain when you were slammed into railing with enough force to send you flipping over the edge. You grabbed the bottom rung and dangled for several seconds while you got your bearings. But as you heard the start of stirrings back inside, you grabbed onto the clip under your decorative belt and pulled out the hidden cord. You attached the carabiner to a bar on the fire escape, and pressed a button to release further cord until you were hurtling downwards.

The descent happened quicker than you’d expected, and you just barely managed to release the button again in time to keep from hitting the ground, though the pull around your middle made it feel like your gallbladder was trying to share space with your pancreas. You cut the line with a small pocket knife you’d also hidden behind the belt and fell to the pavement much harder than you would have liked. The impact left you further disoriented, but with your limited window of time growing smaller every second, you lurched to your feet before your head had even settled.

You ran around the edge of the building, keeping to the shadows, and took a mental survey of the pains in your body. You had several lacerations from the shattered window’s glass, and everything felt like one big bruise, but you didn’t think anything was broken. You quickly ducked into the small space between buildings, hearing the sounds of hurried movement all around. You may have miscalculated the number of goons Vernon had at his disposal. You backed down the narrow alley, keeping your eyes trained on the entrance for any signs of an attack. In retrospect, after playing agent for a few days, you really should have known to watch your back. You turned quickly when you felt a presence behind you, only to be pressed into the wall with a hand over your mouth.

“It’s me,” he announced before you had the opportunity to put up any real struggle. He dropped his hand and stepped well back once you met his eyes.

“Jack? What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? I’m here because apparently when I leave you alone you jump out of windows!” he hissed, jabbing his finger back the direction you’d come.

“One window. And there was a fire escape.”

"We had a deal – you're supposed to be staying out of trouble. This is not staying out of trouble."

"I know, but I didn't have a choice-"

“Trust me – we’re going to have an extensive conversation about every choice you’ve made tonight. But right now we need to get to safety.”

“There’s a tunnel no one knows about out back if we can reach it.”

"That way?" He indicated with his head and you nodded. "Okay, let's go. You stay behind me, you understand?"

You nodded again, even though it didn't make as much sense as you leading since you knew where the tunnel was. But after everything you'd put him through that night, you figured he could have this one.

He made it to the end of the alley before he pulled up short with you very nearly running into his back. You peered around him to see guards methodically sweeping the area. Looked like you weren't going to be making it out that way.

"I don't suppose there's a secret tunnel to the secret tunnel?" Jack questioned disparagingly.

"Unfortunately, there isn't." You both took a step back in tandem when one of the men swept a flashlight in your direction. "However, there is a door a ways back that we might make use of."

You backtracked, but were further stymied when the door proved to be locked. You chewed your lip thoughtfully as you watched Jack rattle the knob a few times carefully, conscious of how much noise he was making. The sound of the searching men got closer, and so you smacked at his hand gently, whispering, "Let me see..."

You gripped the doorknob, and with a firm twist and the crunching of metal the door swung inwards. Jack stared at the opening blankly, prompting you nudge him until he shuffled inside with you on his heels. You closed the door gently behind you – luckily the latch was still intact, even if the locking mechanism was now toast.

"That's a neat party trick," Jack muttered through the darkness, but without seeing his expression you couldn't tell for certain what he really thought.

"Don't get too excited. That wouldn't have worked at all if Howard had invested in higher quality locks over aesthetic appeal."

"Any idea how to get past all those guys without being seen?"

"Well, I came in on the roofs." You could practically feel the disapproval radiating off him. "But that probably wouldn't work now that they're actually looking. We can try cutting through here and checking out the situation on the other side."

"Got a light?"

"No, I left my bag back... um, no, but I think I know where we are." You reached out blindly to where you thought he was. You managed to run your fingers into his side and felt him flinch away from the unexpected contact. You murmured a quick apology and shifted your hand until it could wrap around his wrist, fingers finding purchase on the fabric of his sleeve. "Just try to walk where I walk so you don't run into anything."

"What was that word you used the other night? Awry?"

"Hush, I'm trying to concentrate." Though you were half-tempted to run him into something – would serve him right for his obvious lack of faith.

"What, seeing in the dark isn't one of your superpowers?"

"I don't have super powers. I'm not a comic book character."

Whether by skill or luck, you successfully navigated the gloom, keeping a tight hold on Jack's arm. At least until light spilled over the entire area, half-blinding you with the unexpected brightness. Even as spots danced in your vision, Jack twisted his wrist under your hand to grab yours instead and ducked behind the nearest cover, in this case what appeared to be a large pirate ship. You'd been correct in believing this to be a set for Howard's potential second film – the swashbuckling tale of a woman kidnapped from her own wedding only to fall in love with the dashing pirate captain. Honestly, that man-child was just trying to bring to life as many of his boyhood fantasies as possible.

As your eyes began to clear, you heard cursing and arguing coming from the other side of the ship. From what you could tell, one of your pursuers had accidentally run into the control panels for all the electrics, which produced the sudden burst of illumination. Despite the slip up, made by a man named Frank apparently, they still intended to search the rest of the building thoroughly, which of course meant that you and Jack were in renewed trouble.

The boat wasn’t going to hide you for long, leaving you to search intently for your next way out. Your eyes landed on a platform near the prow of the sip which in turn lead up to a catwalk. You nudged your companion and pointed. The look you received in turn was close to disgusted. You raised your eyebrows in an obviously challenge of, ‘you got a better idea?’ and he was left to nod resignedly, though he still looked decidedly disgruntled.

A ladder leaned against the ship’s side not too far from where you stood. He climbed up first, and then helped you over the edge when your foot caught in your skirt – you really should have thought to change your dress before beginning this escapade. Unfortunately, this delay lasted seconds too long, and one of the men cried out as he spotted you. Jack was quick to pull you down and under his arm when the gunfire started up, bullets lodging in the wood of the boat and tearing through the backdrop behind it. His voice could barely be heard over the ruckus, even as close as his mouth was to your ear, but you made out that you needed to make a run for the front of the ship.

More men were beginning to climb up the sides, like pirates boarding a merchant vessel you thought with some kind of deranged humor. Hunched and with Jack still leaning over you protectively, you’d almost made it to the forecastle when the boat pitched violently. Jack grabbed onto a nearby line with one hand and caught you around the waist with the other as you were both flung towards the low wall at the edge. The back of your legs hit it with some force, almost sending you overboard (stop making inappropriately timed pirate jokes!), but Jack’s arm pulled tight against the rope he held and kept you both on your feet. A glance over your shoulder found one of the men had discovered the special effect control panel. At least his plan had somewhat backfired, because he had also knocked several of his team off their feet as well.

Jack swung you back around and then boosted you up so you could clamber over the railing of the raised deck, and then you practically threw yourself back to offer him a hand. You both made it up while the men on board were still struggling to get their feet under them, but the boat continued to rock wildly as if on stormy waters, and the madman at the controls had somehow activated the sea spray, making the deck even more treacherous and your eyes blurry. On top of that, the platform you were aiming for was now coming in and out of reach sporadically, meaning you were probably going to have to jump and pray.

Jack went first, climbing up on the railing and then the bowsprit that jutted out from the ship's prow, clinging to the forestays though the ropes were now slippery with moisture. He slid out slowly and you followed suit, all too aware of how exposed you both were in this position. On the next upward swing, he was able to leap onto the platform and skidded to a halt. You tried to take his place so you could do the same, but suddenly the ship lurched even further up and your foot slipped off the curved surface beneath you. You landed on you stomach with great force, further aggravating your internal organs, and clung as you soared through the air, trying desperately not to fall to the ground that appeared so far away – knowing that you would in all likelihood survive the drop didn’t make it any more appealing, and you'd already hit the ground quite enough for one day.

Jack was feet below you now as you slipped and slid, trying to maintain your grip. You knew he was probably cursing you six ways from Sunday for ever suggesting this course of action – not that you were far behind him. The ship jolted to the side, almost jarring you loose again. It then fell quickly and jerked to a stop, forcing your body further down with the momentum until you were scrabbling with your nails and still slithering off. But then you noticed the new proximity of the platform and Jack who was reaching towards you, so right before you lost connection completely you swung your legs and launched.

Your feet hit the surface, and his fingers wrapped around your hand and pulled you to his chest so his arm could come around your waist to steady you. You buried yourself there for a few moments before looking over his shoulder to see a complex array of levers and pulleys. You reached around him to grab one and gave it a yank, turning slightly to watch the ship go crashing down as its main support rope was released. The men were now lost amongst the wreckage, more than a few most likely sporting injuries.

“Howard’s gonna be so mad – he really liked that set,” you observed absently, and Jack could only nod in silent agreement. You looked up at his face, needing to tilt back a little still pressed against him as you were. “We should go – that’s not going to keep them distracted for long.”

He nodded again, arm releasing slowly to make sure you could stand on your own, and then he allowed you to lead the way across the catwalk and through a door into a hallway. From there you found a staircase leading down and another door that took you back outside. The ranks of guards had thinned substantially, no doubt drawn away by the noise inside. Still, you and Jack had to be carefully quiet as you skirted around buildings, trying to get to the tunnel before they realized which direction you’d gone.

This time when a call got too close, you were the one pushing Jack to cover. You ducked under a half-open garage door just as one of your pursuers walked past where you’d been. This building too was dark but had large windows that allowed in the bright moonlight. You’d found your way into the lot’s vehicular storage, and with a rush of relief you realized that a door on the other side would lead almost directly to the tunnel’s entrance.

The facility seemed to be deserted – Vernon must have forced Howard to send everyone home – but you still stuck close to the walls out of precaution. The back door also contained a window that Jack used to check the coast, which apparently was not yet clear. “As soon as those guys move on we should be able to make it.”

You stared at him, his face alight from the bright moon streaming in through the thin stretch of glass, and suddenly blurted, “I’m sorry.”

“What?” Jack’s brow came down as his eyes darted to you and then back out the window.

“I'm sorry – I wanted to say it now just in case… in case. I’m sorry that I… for the way I went about this. It was unfair, for lack of a better word.”

“It was stupid,” he countered bluntly. “You should have told me. We could have figured out a better way.”

“I couldn’t tell you. You’re too good at your job.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You would have known that the right answer in this situation would be to keep the key as far away from Vernon as possible, that one man’s life isn’t worth the risk of whatever Vernon has planned. And I understand that – I even agree it’s the right choice. But it wasn’t one I could make.”

“Because it was Stark,” he filled in, tone suspiciously flat.

“He’s my family, Jack. What would you have done if it had been your dad who’s worked a farm for decades, or your mom who wanted you to play piano on Broadway, or your cousin Lucy who obviously thought the sun came up in the morning because you told it to? The right choice suddenly becomes a lot less important when the people you care about are on the line.”

“I get that, I do, but none of it changes the fact that Vernon has the key now, and we have no idea what he plans to do with it.”

“No he doesn’t.”

“Doesn’t what?”

“He doesn’t have the key.” You reached into your pocket and pulled out the object in question, somehow miraculously still there and intact. “Why do you think I blew something up?”

He stared at your hand almost in awe. “No wonder they’re still after you.”

“Here,” you offered, holding the pin out to him, but he shook his head.

“No, you hang on to it. If Vernon catches up to us he’ll be expecting you to hand it off.”

“Did I hear my name?”

Your heart promptly leapt into your throat. You whipped around to find Vernon standing casually amongst the prop cars like he’d been there the whole time. What happened next was so nightmarish that your brain couldn’t keep up and everything felt too slow and too fast at the same time. You heard Jack tell you to run as he moved in front of you, pulling a gun from somewhere (His pocket? He didn’t have either holster anymore, and you hadn’t seen it in the back of his pants.) and aiming it at Vernon. You weren’t sure whether he ever got the chance to fire because Vernon seemed to suddenly explode, as if his entire body became Zero Matter. His arm, now a long mass of black gunk, whipped out and slammed into Jack, sending him hurtling into a car’s windshield and tumbling over the other side.

You didn’t have a chance to worry about him, because the next second Vernon was in front of you with his hand closed around your throat, pinning you to the wall. You tried to scratch against his arm, to hit him, anything to make him let you go so you could breathe again, but no attack landed. Your vision was growing fuzzy and spotted, all focus on the man’s smug and all-too-pleased smirk. If hearing could also be fuzzy, yours was definitely headed that way, sound becoming muted like you were submerged in water. You heard a loud crack, and for some reason Vernon smacked you below your right shoulder, but everything was far too faded for you to care. You felt him pull the key from your fingers, and didn’t have the presence of mind to stop him.

Then as quickly as he’d taken hold, he released you and stepped back. You collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. Seconds passed before you felt a sharp pain where Vernon had hit you. Then it doubled as full feeling began to return with the oxygen, and your breath left you once again. You pressed your hand to the spot and let out a choked noise, quickly pulling back to see your fingers now coated in blood that seemed far too bright. How had Vernon hit you so hard that it made you bleed?

Now Jack was kneeling in front of you, face white and drawn with panic. He also pressed a hand against your shoulder, which caused you to cry out and jerk away. He started to apologize, to tell you that it needed pressure on it or you’d bleed out. Pressure on what? Why were you bleeding? Where was Vernon?

He was still apologizing. He’d been aiming for Vernon. He didn’t know what Vernon did, how he’d gotten the bullet to just pass through him like that.

Oh, that was it. You’d been shot. This was what being shot felt like.

Being shot hurt. A lot.

Through the haze of your pain you reached up and fisted your bloody hand in his shirt, stopping his frantic attempts. “You need to dig the bullet out.”

“No, I can’t, we need to get you to a hospital-”

“Jack,” you grit out, hand tightening around the fabric it clutched. “I’ll be fine, but it won’t heal properly if something is in the way. I need you to dig the bullet out.”

You didn’t know whether you were telling him the truth or not – you’d never tested your healing abilities against something as severe as a gunshot wound. But a hospital was out of the question, and you knew your body wouldn’t be able to do anything with a blockage. Already it was starting to slow the flow of blood, and you knew it was going to knock you unconscious soon to lower your heart rate. You let go of his shirt to fumble behind your belt – moving your other arm was unbearable – and managed to fish out the knife you’d used to cut yourself free earlier that night. You pushed it into his hand and gave him one more imploring look, though the edges of your vision were starting to go black again.

He swallowed and grimaced and then steeled his expression. He wrapped one hand over your shoulder to hold it steady and inserted the knife into the wound right under your collarbone. You hadn’t thought the pain could get any worse, but you’d been wrong. You bit down hard, but a sob rose from your throat unbidden. You could practically see the guilt tighten the corners of his eyes, but then you weren’t really seeing things clearly at the moment.

The burn lightened infinitesimally moments later when you felt the bullet pop free along with the knife. By now you were hardly conscious at all but still fighting to stay awake because you had to ensure that he would return you to Howard’s. You were vaguely aware of him pulling his shirt off and tearing it, creating a crude wrapping in an attempt to staunch the continuous flow of blood. Then he lifted you up and pushed his way through the door with little care for any residual guards, but no one called out or tried to stop him. As he entered the tunnel you feebly tried to remind him about the hospital, but you lost consciousness completely before you could hear his answer.

Chapter Text

”Peggy! I’m glad you could come!”

“My pleasure. By what stroke of luck do I get to see you twice in one week?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it a stroke of luck – stroke of Howard, perhaps.”

“What’s the man done now?”

“Well, he’s… he’s accepted a defense contract out west, and, uh, we’re moving there. Out west. To California.”

“Oh… that’s rather… unexpected.”

“Yeah… leave it to Howard to decide on making a cross-country move in less than a day.”

“How long, that is… when will you be leaving?”

“Two days.”

“Two…”

“Jarvis is staying back to pack what we’ll need – what Howard can’t just buy more of.”

“I can see why you wanted to meet now. I would have been rather confused when you didn’t show up next Wednesday.”

“I would never have stood you up. But calling you from Los Angeles seemed inconsiderate.”

“I must admit, this is all rather jarring. I’ve become so accustomed to having you that I’m not sure what I’ll do when you’re gone.”

“We’ll… we’ll call. And Howard can fly you out. Anytime you want.”

“A beach vacation on a whim? I suppose there are a few perks to your relocation.”

“I’m going to miss you, Peggy.”

“I’ll miss you as well. Hmm, um, will you be coming to make the farewell rounds at the office?”

“At your office? I’m not exactly getting lunch with anyone but you. Who else would I need to see?

“What about Jack Thompson?”

“Why would I need to say goodbye to Agent Thompson?”

“There’s quite a bit between you two to just leave it unfinished.”

“I think he finished it up nicely when he told me I was a useless liability.”

“You know he didn’t mean that. He ate all of your ice cream, you know.”

“That’s good. It’s really great ice cream. I’d hate for it to go to waste.”

“You’re truly not going to come see him one last time?”

“You make it sound like I’m abandoning him. I have never met anyone who so blatantly couldn’t stand me, and I’m not going to put myself through the embarrassment of having him laugh in my face because I was so sentimental as to say goodbye to him. He probably won’t even notice I’m gone.”

 


If you'd had any sense about you, you would have woken up in a panic. Instead you were mildly confused and still rather sleepy. You appeared to be in a bed – Jack's if the familiar blue bedspread was any indicator. Sunlight peeked in through the drapes, so you couldn’t tell for sure how long you’d been out. Then you noticed a gentle hand on your neck and jumped in surprise.

"Sorry, I was just checking your pulse," Jarvis reassured quietly, retracting his hand. "You gave us quite a scare, but you seem to be stable now."

You nodded and moved your shoulder experimentally to find only a lingering soreness. Before you could respond verbally Jarvis was already saying, "I should go inform Miss Carter that you've awoken. She's been waiting quite anxiously."

Peggy? But she was in London. You were still trying to clear out the remaining cobwebs in your head when she marched in, visible relief flooding her features. "Oh, thank goodness. You're awake."

You blinked at her wearily, and finally managed to get your rough voice to ask, "When did you get back?"

"Early this morning – just in time to encounter Jack carrying you inside, both of you liberally covered in blood." She sat down on the edge of the bed, and the light hit her face so that you could see how sad her expression was. "I was terrified that I was about to lose another person because of my carelessness."

"You and Jack," you chuckled. "You're both are so quick to take the blame for anything and everything that goes wrong. How was London? Chief Sousa seemed convinced you were in trouble.”

“Perhaps for a moment, but we got it sorted out.”

“I’m glad you’re back. I feel much better when I have ready access to you.”

“You and I both. Still, we obviously came out much better than you did. How on earth did you get shot?”

“That’s kind of a complicated story, and probably better told by Jack. Where is he anyway?"

Considering how seriously he took his supposed responsibility for your health and wellbeing, you were admittedly surprised that he wasn't hovering somewhere near. You were pushing yourself up to sit, and Peggy's eyes widened with concern, hand reaching out in an attempt to prevent this. "No, no, don't try to get up. Your injuries are too severe. I can't understand why Howard is so insistent that you remain here instead of going to a proper hospital."

You batted Peggy's hands away and sat up despite her protests, an anxious feeling beginning to claw in the pit of your stomach. "Peggy, where's Jack?"

She was staring at you in mild astonishment, but conceded to answer. "I'm afraid he disappeared soon after we got you settled, and we haven't seen him since. Daniel has agents combing the area, but honestly there's too much ground to cover."

Los Angeles never stopped being too big.

"What time is it now?"

She consulted her wristwatch. "About four o’clock."

Four? That meant Jack had been missing for hours already. Jack who had accidentally shot you and would be feeling an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt, not to mention fury at the man who had caused everything to begin with. There was no way this could be good.

You began throwing the covers off and pulling your legs up so you could get around Peggy, who was now near frantic. "What do you think you're doing? You are in no shape to get out of bed."

"I'm fine." Your mind was elsewhere, with Jack and all the possible calamities that may have befallen him.

"You are nowhere near fine. You've been shot."

"Which is why Jack has flown off to do who knows what. I have to go find him." You were on your feet now, a little wobbly from disuse but not debilitated.

"You most certainly do not. We have agents out looking for him. You need to get back in bed before you further injure yourself."

"No, there's no time. They don't know. I have to go. I have to find him."

"Calm down," Peggy ordered sternly, finally moving to bodily block the door for which you were headed. "You cannot help him in your current state. Trust that we are handling the situation. Exacerbating your wound is not the answer."

"Peggy, I promise it's okay."

"You are obviously delusional from pain and adrenaline."

"I'm really not."

"You need to get back in bed before you collapse."

"Peggy," you reached up to pull off the neat, white bandage Jarvis had affixed, the still fresh medical tape pulling against your skin painfully, "I'm fine."

There was still some dried blood painting your skin, so you licked your thumb and rubbed at it to reveal what could hardly be called a puncture. It started to dribble red just the slightest bit from your rough handling, causing you to rub at it impatiently with the spent gauze, but there was no mistaking the small wound for anything made by something as catastrophic as a bullet.

"How...?" She trailed off, staring at your mostly mended shoulder.

"That’s also a long though less complicated story, but we don't have time for it now." You were able to bypass her easily in her shocked state. You made it halfway down the hall before you were stopped by a low whistle coming from behind you. You whirled around to find a pack of unfamiliar men all staring in your general direction.

One of them with a thick mustache and a bowler hat smiled a little. "You know, Stark, I might have to visit you more often."

You followed their rapt attention to realize you were currently clothed solely in your undergarments. The slip covered what was important but was in no way decent. Still, you couldn't find any space left in your frazzled mind to care.

Peggy appeared in the doorway, and with one look between you and the men barked out a stern, "Gentlemen!" which had them all immediately turning to face the other way.

All except for Howard, who continued to stare at you in surprise. "What are you doing?"

You knew he was going to object to the answer, so you elected not to reply at all. Instead you turned back around only to be brought up short by the presence of yet another man standing directly behind you, as if he'd been unsure of the best way to get around. He was tallish and thin with a thick beard and rather unkempt hair so that you might mistake him for a homeless man who'd wandered in, but his eyes were alert and kind, and he seemed almost more afraid of you than you might be of him.

Hall full of mysterious strangers or no, you were on a mission and could not be sidetracked. So with a curt 'excuse me' you stepped around the disheveled man and finished your trek to your room. It didn't take Howard long at all to follow you, entering just as you were pulling a fresh dress over your head. It didn't do a whole lot of good, considering you had now gone something like two days without a shower while running about and getting soaked by salt water and blood – nothing was going to save your appearance at this point. But you couldn't very well go around in your underwear, so a clean dress it was.

Before your friend could open his mouth you were already speaking. "Howard, did you finish that miniaturization you talked about after the Whitney Frost incident?"

"Yeah, sure."

"And it works?"

"Of course it works – I built it." His face dropped into a bit of an indignant pout when you raised an impertinent eyebrow from below your arm as you twisted oddly in an attempt to do up the buttons on your back. He made a frustrated noise in his throat and stepped forward to spin you around so he could fasten them himself. "Yes it works. Why do you want to know?"

"I need to borrow it. Thanks," you threw at him quickly, scurrying on to the next step of your mad dash.

"Why do you need to borrow it?" He was close on your heels as you entered his lab, stuffing various sundries into your pockets.

"I..." You thought about your promise to Jack and pulled up short. "I can't tell you."

"You're raiding my lab, and I deserve to know why."

"Jack needs my help."

"How would you know? He ran off while you were still unconscious. And why would you need..." His clever mind caught up quickly, expression dropping into a stern glare. "No."

"Howard-"

"No. You're not going anywhere, especially not if you need that thing, and that's final."

“One of you tell me what is happening,” Peggy demanded from the doorway. You didn’t know if she’d just arrived or been there for a while.

“Howard will explain everything. Try not to punch him this time, please. He was doing it for me.” You were out and around her before she could respond, though you could just hear Howard barking your name.

You almost ran into Jarvis as you took a sharp right upon exiting the door. He stepped back in surprise, though he did seem pleased to see you up and around. You were about to shoot past him with another quick apology, but he held something out to you. "Here, I would like to return these."

He was holding out your rings, good as new and glittering in the low light. "Oh, Jarvis, you didn't need to do that. It must have been awful getting those clean."

"Yes, it was quite... grotesque. But I thought they might have garnered some... importance for you."

You accepted the rings, staring at them in your palm for a moment before clenching them in your fist and giving Jarvis a grateful smile. "Thank you."

"Of course."

Then you heard Howard call your name in that stern tone again, apparently shaking off Peggy, so with one more nod to the now confused butler, you took off once again.

Howard chased after you all the way to the car park, finally catching up in time to grab hold of the driver’s door before you could close it. “Get out of the car and come back in the house.”

“Howard,” you stood obediently, but refused to move any further, “I have to go.”

“Go where? Nobody even knows where the guy went.”

“I do. At least, I know how to find out.”

“Then tell Peggy – let her go after him. Let a professional handle this.”

“I can’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

You couldn’t explain, so the only response he got was, “It has to be me, Howard.”

He stared at you like he was trying to read your mind, but then his hand tightened around the edge of the door. “No, it doesn’t. He is not your responsibility anymore.”

“Not officially, but he still needs me.”

“He doesn’t want you!”

Even not quite understanding what he meant the words hurt. “What?”

“He told me not to let you follow. He knew you’d try, so he charged me with stopping you.”

You figured the numbness in your face must have translated to a pretty blank expression. You had to keep your voice quiet to make sure it didn’t tremble. “You knew he was leaving? And you let him?”

“He was a man on a mission! What was I supposed to do, tackle and sit on him?”

“If that would have kept him here! You have no idea…” You trailed off as the horrors danced through your mind, and then gave another tug at the door. “I need to find him.”

“You already came back half-dead once. I’m not going to let you go after him and finish the job. I forbid it.”

The words were startling, more from their unfamiliarity than the forceful tone he tried to affect. Howard wasn’t one for giving explicit orders, at least not to you. On the other hand, you’d never really given him a reason to. There wasn’t a whole lot you wouldn’t do for Howard (aside from singing in his movie), and you were often even ahead of his asking, providing support before he knew he needed it, which is why you were an excellent personal assistant. So when he said those three words, you knew he fully expected you to move out from behind the car door and walk back inside with him – a large part of you expected that, too.

You truly looked at him for the first time since you’d woken up. His lip had been busted and there was bruising around his right eye, mementos of the rough treatment he’d received under Vernon’s care. Underlying that was obvious fatigue indicating how much what had happened to you had terrified him. He had dark circles under his eyes, noticeable even with the bruises, which made you wonder if he’d looked in a mirror or was simply too tired to care about his appearance.

You rose up on your toes so you could press your lips to his temple, holding out the contact and then resting back on your heels to look him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Howard.”

You fell back into the seat and yanked the door from his hand before he could react. Even as he yelled, telling you to stop, you had shifted gears and peeled out, not looking back in order to protect the strength of your resolve.

Chapter Text

You pulled off the road in a heavily forested area about a mile out from your target location, the coordinates of which you’d acquired from a battered man you’d come across handcuffed to a column in the almost entirely abandoned Vanderbilt Hotel. At the end of your discussion, he’d informed you that Jack had gotten the same information some hours before. You planned to cover the last bit of distance on foot in an attempt to fly under the radar a while longer – the last thing you wanted was to attract attention before you had the chance to find your fake husband. The shine of your rings was muted in the dim light left by the last sliver of sun before it disappeared, but they were a comforting weight on your finger, like you were still connected to Jack somehow. The skin underneath was as smooth and unmarred as the rest of your hand, with no sign at all that anything had ever happened.

You hiked for quite some time, immune to the branches that attempted to grab hold of you in the ever increasing darkness. Everything smelled like damp earth and leaves, something that seemed almost out of place in the California you were used to. This world was so serene and picturesque that coming up over a ridge and finding the hard concrete and metal of a huge structure built right into the side of a mountain was intensely jarring. It was surrounded by a high chain-link fence and a whole new multitude of burly looking men with unnecessarily large guns.

You’d found the base – now the question was how to find Jack. Had he already made his way inside? On the other hand, your breaking in would be silly if he was still out scouting the perimeter somewhere. But on your nonexistent third hand, this space was huge and dark in the cover of the trees. Just running into him somehow would be a miracle, and you had no tracking skills to speak of. The best way would be to bring Jack to you, to let him know you were here, but you couldn’t exactly start calling his name. Too bad you hadn’t come up with a secret signal for such an occasion.

But then, maybe you had, unintentionally. You licked your lips and started whistling, absently, like a bored guard on patrol duty might. You sang the now familiar words in your head as you went along.

It had to be you. It had to be you. I wandered around and finally found somebody who… could make me be true, could make me be blue. And even be glad just to be sad thinking of you. Some others I’ve seen might never be mean, might never be cross, or try to be boss, but they wouldn’t do. For nobody else gave me a thrill. With all your faults I love you still. It had to be you, wonderful you. It had to be you.

You let the last note drift off into the night air which suddenly seemed much too quiet. Now came the hard part – waiting patiently to see if Jack would answer your call.

You knew that he knew better than to go crashing around so close to enemy territory, yet you were still somehow surprised when he appeared almost silently from the tree line, especially considering the enraged expression he bore. You thought for a moment he was going to march right up and shake you silly, but he stopped at least two paces away, close enough to be heard but not close enough to touch.

Relatively speaking, he wasn’t looking so great. His eyes were tired around their fury, tired enough to indicate he hadn’t gotten any sleep since you’d seen him last. The moonlight turned his beard stumble into dark lines crossing his face. His jacket was rumpled and stained with bits of forest, but you were still able to recognize it as the one taken from him the previous night. He must have been able to retrieve his possessions from the hotel after he’d finished with his interrogation.

His words were forced out through his clenched teeth. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Yes, probably.”

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

“Then try this: go home.”

“No,” you stated flatly. He was close to seething, but you could easily see behind it to the deep fear he’d never admit. Neither of you spoke more for several long moments.

“How did you know where to go?”

“The same way you did, except I asked nicer. Though, to be fair, you’d already loosened the lid on that jar quite a bit.”

"You went to the Vanderbilt?”

“Found evidence of your handiwork. I’m pretty sure you broke his nose and cracked a couple of his ribs. I barely had to touch him and he was telling me what he had for breakfast this morning. Bright side: he’s going to make a very convincing Quasimodo come Halloween. I called him an ambulance and alerted the police to nefarious goings-on in a local abandoned hotel. Then I came here.”

“You shouldn’t be up at all.”

You held up your hand so he could see the healed skin and yanked the collar of your dress to the side to reveal the faint mark that was the only remaining evidence of the violence you’d endured. “Homeostasis.”

He was quiet again, and you allowed him the privilege. Then he spoke even more softly, like the lower volume would somehow be more convincing, “You know I can’t take you with me.”

“No, I don’t know that.”

“If Vernon sees you-”

“So he won’t. I worked for Howard for years, and your agency which deals in intelligence had no idea I existed. I know how to keep out of sight. I’ll stay behind you. I’ll stay hidden. I won’t go near Vernon Masters. But I can’t let you go in there alone.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“Which is why you need backup. Jack, we can’t keep leaving each other behind citing protection just to end up here again. Either I go with you or you leave with me. There’s no third option. But you’d better decide quickly, because I turned on the car’s tracker and it won’t take the others more than an hour to get here.”

He didn’t say anything – he hardly blinked. He was thinking so hard you could almost see the smoke rising from his ears. When you spoke again, you kept your voice even and quiet, imbuing as much sincerity as you could. “Do you remember what I said when you asked me why I married you? The part about you being hard-working and caring and good? How you deserve to have someone looking out for you – how I want to help you? I still want to do that, Jack, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this it’s that we’re better together.”

It was hard to see in the shadows, but you thought he might be studying your face, trying to determine if you were truly being honest. You let him, though it was eating into the time he had left before the others would arrive and ruin his opportunity to take care of everything on his own. You were going with him one way or another, and if this is what he needed to do to make his peace with that, then you’d wait.

Sooner than you’d expected, however, he was saying, “The place is pretty well fortified. The weakest point is around the side – only two guards.”

“I think I can take care of that.”

“I’m not letting you fight two guys alone – I don’t care how super-powered you are.”

“I never said I was going to fight them. And for the last time, I don’t have super powers.”

You followed him around to the side where he pointed out the two guards. You judged the distance and the angle, noting the lack of wind on your skin, and pulled a palm-sized disk out of your pocket. He eyed it warily. “Do I want to know what that is?”

For once you don’t give him a verbal response, just smirked a little and pulled on a small rip cord that started the center spinning until it lifted off out of its canister. It made a light whirring sound as it flew through the air, losing altitude as it neared its directive until it was hovering between the two curious guards at about chest height. Three clicks and a pulse that stirred the air almost silently knocked both men off their feet, and neither rose, now very much unconscious.

Jumping the fence was easy, and you even managed to keep your skirt from catching on the way down the other side. You retrieved the spent disk, not wanting to leave any evidence that could be connected back to Howard in case things went sideways – not like anyone would have a hard time figuring that out anyway, but at least he could be exonerated in court.

The base had been built directly into the side of the mountain, the very building clawing its way out as if trying to escape from whatever evil was hiding within its walls. You found a door with only one man on watch, and this time Jack took care of him, cutting off his air supply with one arm as the other pressed a hand over his mouth. Soon he too was laying on the ground unconscious.

The door wasn’t locked, because apparently one guard was sufficiently secure (morons). The light inside was much too bright, walking from night to artificial day. Jack stepped carefully, trying to minimize the echo in the empty hallway. You readily let him take the lead – no more running into danger headfirst for you. Still, you wanted to ask him a pack of questions – how did he know which way to go, what exactly were you looking for, how would you know when you’d found it? But you stayed silent, trusting that he knew what he doing.

The men you came upon appeared to be avoiding their duties, lounging in a hallway with a bottle of something most likely contraband. You saw Jack’s hand slide over the gun hidden under his coat, but he didn’t unholster the weapon. The noise of the discharge would attract attention. He glanced back at you and then down at your pockets, and you shook your head in answer – you didn’t have another one of those knockout gadgets.

He rolled his shoulders, and you noticed the stiffness in the one left by the exploding Vanderbilt door’s impact. It made you worry, but this time he shook his head. He was fine. Still, there were four guards around the corner, and he was obviously not in top form. So you reached into your pocket and pulled out a weighty baton an inch or two longer than your hand. At his curious tilt of his eyebrows, you pressed a button on the side that had the snap of electricity sparking at one end. He grimaced, the memory of your time in Vernon’s chair too fresh for such a reminder, but you just shrugged. Desperate times and all that.

The skirmish was over quickly. None of them was paying attention until Jack had jerked one around to slam a fist into his face. At the same time you took out the one on the other side with a debilitating shock to his neck. Even as you held the device to his skin, you twisted and drove your elbow into the diaphragm of another. Jack tackled the final man who was the only with enough sense to reach for his weapon. They hit the wall, and Jack twisted his opponent’s arm so that he dropped his gun. You let up on the electroshock so that your victim could drop to the floor, but before you could employ it again, the second man had straightened and pinned your arm to the opposite wall from Jack, too far away to make contact or to expect any assistance. He pulled back once and then bashed your hand back down, smashing your device and rendering it useless.

Your only thought to get the threat away from you, you lifted your leg to jam your foot into his already bruised stomach. But you held back, all too aware of what your full strength could do, which unfortunately lead to his hold loosening but not letting up completely. He moved in closer, preventing you from accessing the full movement you'd need to gain any kind of momentum, and you truly weren’t sure what should come next. Then Jack appeared, clobbering the man with the butt of his gun, and he too went down. You were breathing heavily but otherwise unharmed, and he appeared to be the same. You almost smiled at him over the success, but then you heard a noise to your right.

“Freeze.” The new guard had managed to sneak up on you, leveling his rifle and slowly advancing. “Put your hands where I can see them.”

You both complied, Jack’s gun still held loosely in his grasp.

“Put your weapon on the ground and kick it away. No sudden movements.”

You knew Jack would do as ordered. The guard’s approaching angle put you directly in front of Jack, and he wasn’t about to see you get shot again regardless of how easily you could heal from the resulting wound. So you turned your head just a little to address him quietly, eyes never leaving the man currently threatening you. “Jack, do you remember that thing I was going to ask Ana about?”

“No talking!”

You saw Jack swallow from the corner of your eye. He slowly passed his gun to his left hand and crouched to place it on the floor. His fingertips barely whispered over your stockings as they trailed up your leg, hidden underneath your skirt, unnoticed by the guard whose focus was taken up by the weapon now on the ground. Jack’s hand closed around the gun stashed in your garter, and he had it out and engaged before you could blink. The bullet lodged in the other man’s hand, the sudden pain making him drop his own weapon. Without any actual thought, you leapt forward and plowed your fist into the side of his head, completely surprised when he fell and didn’t move. Then your nerves caught up with the situation and you bit down hard to keep from making too much noise.

“Ow!” you yawped quietly and turned to Jack, cradling your now pulsing hand. “How come no one ever said how much that hurts? Why have you made a career out of this?”

You could see a flash of his dimples as he handed you back your gun and reached to examine your injury. “Doesn’t feel like anything is broken. Remind me to teach you the right way to throw a punch.”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it? Nice shooting, by the way.”

“We’re lucky I got a shot off at all. That thing is tiny.”

“Well, it’s not like I can fit a Colt under my skirt.” You unceremoniously lifted the edge of your dress up to replace the small pistol. Honestly, you were probably way too comfortable with this man, but after everything that had happened you couldn't really imagine being shy about something as basic as showing a little leg. When you looked up from rearranging your clothing, you found his eyes on your face, so your flash of impropriety couldn't have been too distracting.

There was an open door nearby which turned out to be a closet. Between the two of you, all five unconscious men were shoved in. With a small amount of force, you pulled the knob upwards until it cracked and refused to turn anymore.

"That's actually coming in pretty handy."

"That's me, professional doorknob breaker. Where to now?"

You were able to avoid any more confrontation – the hallways were a maze, and if one was blocked another option always presented itself. You both abruptly halted when the ever-familiar voice of Vernon Masters floated around the corner. Jack, pressed against the wall, peeked around the edge and reported, "Two men guarding a door. Sounds like that's where Vernon is."

"Can we get the drop on them?" You glared indignantly when he shot you an amused look. "I think I've more than earned the right to speak spy, thank you very much."

"We won't be able to take them both out before they make us, and the last thing we want right now is a commotion."

"What if we came at them from opposite directions?"

"And how do you propose we pull that off?"

In response you simply pointed a finger up to indicate an air vent in the ceiling. He looked at it and then glared at you, but you just leveled a challenging look at him, daring him to come up with a better solution. He huffed and glared some more, but you knew you had him.

"Get behind the guy and lock your arm around his throat, tight enough that he can't breathe. If he fights, pull him back away from the door so he doesn't give us away. And try not to kill him."

"Aye aye." You saluted him jauntily. He rolled his eyes, but cupped his hands to give you a leg up. He held you steady as you leaned to where you were almost sitting on his shoulder while you used a powerful magnet that began spinning silently at the touch of a button to undo the screws until the grate swung open. You heaved yourself inside and began the arduous process of squirming along on your stomach. At one point the vent brought you directly above the two guards, and you held your breath as you prepared to cross the slotted grate over their heads, hoping their quiet conversation would be enough cover. But then you heard something that made you pause.

“That thing in there just gives me the creeps is all,” one guard muttered to the other.

“You talkin' ‘bout Masters?”

“Shut up!” the first hissed. “What if he hears you?”

“Don’t tell me you mean that great big rock?”

“It moves. I’ve seen it.”

“You’re crazy.”

“It’s true! You know what else they say about it, about how they use it to sacrifice men to some kind of monster? The rock just sucks 'em right up, and they're never seen again."

“You’ll believe any baloney they try to sell to keep us in line. What’s it matter anyway? You know this is only a temporary hub until everything gets reorganized. Those religious fanatics will come to get that thing soon, just like the others and their soldier. Even we're getting out of here when Masters finishes his business. Don't be such a pansy.”

If you lingered any longer Jack was going to be following you into the vent, so you quickly wriggled onward, trying not to worry about what exactly you'd gotten yourself into. Space goo was one thing, but human sacrifices? What was wrong with these people?

You followed the angles of the vents until you found another grate looking down into a dark room. The magnet worked just as well from this side, and the screws fell to the floor below with soft plinks. It wasn't a long drop, and soon you found yourself crouching in the darkness, trying to discern the shadows cast by the window in the door. You appeared to be in a storage area if the crates were any kind of indication.

There was one anomaly in the stacks of closed, wooden boxes. You weren't sure what to call it, some kind of tall container made of metal and glass. Unsure but curious you crept closer, finding the glass clouded with condensation – whatever was inside must be really cold. Something was engraved into the metal, and you'd traveled enough with Howard to recognize it as Russian, though you couldn't identify the word itself. Impulsively you reached out to rub away the water, and just managed to contain any noise as you leapt back.

Why in the world did they have a dead body in here? And why was he frozen? Were they preserving him for burial or something? He didn't look much like a prepared corpse. He certainly wasn't dressed for the occasion. Truthfully, he was hardly dressed at all from what you could see, aside from a bandage wrapped around where his arm should have been. He looked for all the world like he could have been sleeping except for the fact that the human body should not be that shade of hypothermia blue.

'You don't have time to dwell on dead bodies,' you reminded yourself sternly and turned back to the door, peeking out the window to make sure the hallway was empty. Slinking out, you found the corner that would put you directly opposite Jack, and realized with a sudden jolt of panic that you still hadn't worked out a signal. You didn't think whistling again would be advisable, but there was another song you had in common that might work. You weren't wearing your heels, so you made use of the magnet once more to rap on the wall three times, paused, and then once more, strains of Snatch and Grab It echoing in your head.

Opportunity knocks but once and don't come back no more. Better snatch and grab it, Jack.

You didn't hesitate, having faith that he would understand, and stealthily dashed into the hallway just in time to hear the cynical guard ask the other, "Was that you?"

His companion didn't have time to answer because you'd jumped up and wrapped your arm firmly around his throat, dragging him backwards so he wouldn't be seen through the doorway. He struggled, but you were strong and had taken him by surprise. Soon he was slumped on the floor, as absent from the world as every other guard you'd encountered so far. A glance at the other man showed a similar fate at the hand of Jack, who was now giving you a look that you figured had to do with your favored method of signaling him. You shrugged again – if he wanted something un-song-related, he should have established such prior to this.

You posted yourself to one side of the door as he took the other. Vernon's voice was louder here, and just the sound sent tickling fingers of fear walking up your spine. You saw Jack looking at you, eyebrows asking if you were okay, so you nodded sharply. You'd come this far, and you refused to turn tail now.

Flanking the opening as you were, you were both able to glance around the frame simultaneously. The room was cluttered, oddly so, like it wasn't meant to be storing half of what it contained. The disjointedness reminded you of when Howard had gotten the carpets cleaned and all the furniture from the living room had been shoved into the kitchen. Vernon was standing by the far wall in front of what looked to be a vault, one of the few things that seemed to truly belong. He appeared to be giving orders into a small radio, though you couldn't make out his actual words.

Jack caught your attention again, motioning to a mass of machinery behind your side of the door. You nodded in agreement, and shortly you were both concealed behind it, successfully avoiding all notice. From this vantage point you could more clearly see Vernon and his vault. He looked impatient, like he wanted to wrap up whatever conversation he was having quickly. Behind him, though, was far more interesting. The door to the vault had a strange locking mechanism with five tiny slots, four of which were filled with Arena Club pins. You could only assume the fifth was meant for the one he'd stolen from you.

"I don't know what's in there, but I don't think we want Vernon getting to it," Jack spoke quietly, sizing up the situation much the same way you had.

"So we need to get at least one of those keys."

You watched his lips pinch as he thought. "You got anything in those pockets that can create a distraction so I can get in behind him?"

"Not anything you're going to want to use in here," you answered dryly, and though he seemed perturbed by the comment he merely returned his gaze to Vernon who appeared to be wrapping up his conversation. You had an idea but were hesitant to mention it, knowing he wasn't going to be a fan. "You could... you could be the distraction, and I could go get the key."

That brought his eyes snapping back to you. "You said you'd stay out of sight."

"Which is why you're the distraction. As long as you keep him talking, I can sneak around, grab the thing, and disappear again without him ever seeing me.”

He was chewing on the idea, which in and of itself was surprising and proof of how few other options he could see. Vernon made to put the radio down, and all of Jack’s features tightened.

You grabbed onto his arm in an attempt to convince him. “Just get him monologuing – he loves that. Then we'll have time to spare. I can do it, Jack.”

“Okay,” he finally relented. “Okay. But be careful.”

“You too.”

You were already making your way around the edge of the room before Vernon's hand left the radio. He didn’t waste any time inserting the last key, and that was when Jack stepped into view, gun raised as he gently shut the door to the room. “Stop right there, Vernon.”

The older man’s shoulder’s tensed before he could fully hide it, but when he turned around he was smiling. “Jack. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. How’s the missus? That was a pretty bad shot you got off.”

Jack’s hand tightened around his gun. “Step away from the vault.”

“Come now, Jack, don’t be like that. She was spunky, sure, but she’s not worth getting so emotional over. Why don’t you just cut your losses? There’s no reason to further sully the waters between us.”

"You know I can't do that."

"Why not? None of this has anything to do with you." He took a step and then another in Jack's direction, uncaring of the weapon leveled at him. "Walk away now, go back to New York. I don't want to hurt you, Jack. Regardless of what a disappointment his son turned out to be, your father and I go way back."

"What's in there that's so important, anyway?"

Attaboy, Jack. Act like you're interested, like you might be swayed back to his side. You were almost directly to Vernon's left at this point. Next was to start edging behind him, but you needed his focus to be pinpointed on Jack.

"Nothing of consequence."

"You went to an awful lot of trouble for 'nothing of consequence.'"

"It wouldn't have been so much trouble if you'd just given me what I wanted when I asked the first time."

You came up behind a large glass case and almost missed its contents completely, your attention was so wholly engrossed in the interaction of the two men. But then something slammed against the glass, and as you leapt backwards you watched the molten material suck back into itself and solidify. This must be the rock that scared the guard outside so much. Was it some kind of solid form of Zero Matter? One that could completely consume the human sacrifices he'd talked about? Or was it something else entirely? Who were these people?

"I didn't like the way you asked."

Oh, yes, the men were still talking.

"Because you went and got a soft spot for Stark's assistant. You really should have known better than that. Peggy Carter was bad enough, but some civilian with a silver spoon in her mouth? Count yourself fortunate that nothing worse happened to her."

"Worse than being tortured and shot?"

"Trust me, things can always be so much worse. She's about to find out. Stop right there, missy."

Chapter Text

Every muscle in your body froze, your fingertips just brushing the nearest key. How could he possibly have known you were there? You hadn't made a sound, you were certain, and you were still mostly hidden behind a stack of crates.

Then his head turned to black ooze and the next thing you knew one of his eyes was laughing at you from where his bald spot once began. It made your stomach turn, and you had to quickly swallow the excess saliva that flooded your mouth to keep from becoming demonstrably ill. From Jack's greenish tint you'd hazard a guess that he was being gifted a similar view.

"I believe I've underestimated how much I underestimated you." His body regained its normal appearance as he turned to get you in his line of sight as well.

"Well, that would make you a bit stupid, wouldn't it?"

Why did your mouth always run straight to trouble whenever you were upset?

"I suppose it would."

"Before you make the same mistake a third time, let me tell you something that I've realized," you jumped straight into report delivery mode, hoping that the familiar tone would aid you. "This facility belongs to the Arena Club, of which Hugh Jones is a member, which is turn explains why this vault door has similar security to the elevator at his Roxxon facility. If anyone attempts to open it without following the proper procedure, countermeasures will activate, ones that I'm reasonably sure will destroy its contents. Now, I think you know this, considering you've worked so hard to get the five keys required as opposed to just blowing the door off its hinges, so I'm really only bringing it up so that you know that I know. And so that you'll know I am fully aware of what I'm doing when I use this," you pulled the increasingly useful magnet from your pocket, "in an attempt to circumvent its locking mechanism."

Now you really had Vernon's attention. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

"Why not? You've already decided to kill us, so what do I have to lose?"

He paused, took in the stubborn set of your face despite the slight tremor in your hand. "Jack, she is far too clever for you by half."

Ha! Clever implied you had a clue what you were doing. You were making this all up as you went along. And if Jack's expression was any indication, he certainly didn't appreciate it.

"All right," Vernon continued, "how about we make a deal, sweetheart? I’ll tell you what’s behind that door, and then you can decide whether you want to destroy it or not. Sound fair?”

You didn’t take your eyes off Vernon, but you waited until you saw Jack nod behind him to give your go ahead.

“That vault contains records of everything the Council of Nine has done for the last thirty years.”

Well.

“Every receipt, every memo, every dirty contract and dealing – it’s all there. You really want to see all that disappear?"

No?

"You know, I'm feeling generous. I'll add to our deal. There's only one thing in there I'm interested in. Everything else is yours. No one needs to die today."

Now your eyes did dart to Jack – what should you do? Your fake confidence was quickly running out.

"I thought you stood with the Council. Why would you willingly turn over all their secrets?" Jack had his gun pointed at the floor, unwilling to level it with you so close by. You almost cried in relief when Vernon looked away from you.

"The Council is in shambles, and frankly not my concern anymore."

A horrific thought came to you. "How did you get the rest of these keys?"

"You seem to have the strangest idea that I engage in senseless killing. I prefer a much more subtle approach."

"Extortion and theft?" Jack observed dryly.

"Those are some ugly words."

He mispronounced the word 'accurate'.

"So what do you say? Do we have a deal?" Vernon continued to look to you for answers, but you knew your fearless leader would have to make the call on this one.

Jack easily broke in over your uncertainty. "What do you want from in there?"

"Nothing that will cause any noticeable impact."

"What is it, Vernon?"

"Just a few coordinates."

"To what?"

"That's my personal business and irrelevant to this conversation."

"What are the coordinates to?"

"What does it matter? I think this offer is most generously in your favor. I am handing you the means to take down one America's most powerful and corrupt organizations. Think of it, Jack. Imagine turning in a haul like that. When you look at the benefit versus the cost, I think the right choice is clear."

You suddenly very much wished you weren’t holding the magnet. You didn’t want this decision being made by your hands. The draw of a vault full of incriminating evidence was hard to ignore. But Vernon Masters felt like the embodiment of everything evil coupled with all the very worst of your nightmares, and whatever he wanted those coordinates for could not be good. You most certainly did not want to make a deal with the likes of him, no matter how beneficial it looked for you on the surface.

You now only had eyes for Jack, watching him think it over. You could practically see the images dancing across his mind. This could be it for him, the redeeming achievement that would finally give him a sense of accomplishment. You couldn’t begrudge him that, didn’t even know if choosing it would be the wrong decision.

And so you watched him, watched him work through the options, play out all the scenarios while he held Vernon’s gaze. Vernon, for his part, appeared certain of his success, that Jack would not be able to resist the temptation of glory. He waited patiently for Jack to agree so he could get what he wanted and be on his way.

Maybe the Jack Vernon knew would have agreed without hesitation, would have taken the deal and run. But when Jack’s eyes moved to yours, you could see what he had chosen clearly, and you pressed the magnet to the vault door and activated it. Vernon’s head whipped around just in time to catch a hiss that indicated something had happened inside. His expression became the single scariest thing you’d ever faced. You wanted to move further away, but the wall was already at your back.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

He took a step towards you, and Jack’s gun clicked menacingly. “Don’t.”

“Jack, you know that won’t do anything to me.” Vernon turned back to look at Jack condescendingly.

“No, but this might.”

He was just able to see you brandishing an entirely new gadget before it went off and he was bombasted with a pulse of some kind. The force had even knocked you back fully into the wall, but you recovered quickly and darted around the now convulsing Vernon to reach Jack's side. He took hold of your arm as soon as you neared and tugged you into the last few steps. You were shaking from adrenaline and fear, and his hand was strong and reassuring and just on the edge of painfully tight.

You both stared at Vernon as his form twisted grotesquely, shifting from man to Matter to man again. His whole body was losing its shape, Zero Matter striking out and then pulling back in. It looked excruciating, though even that seemed too gentle a word. Then abruptly, it all condensed until he appeared mostly human again, even though parts of him routinely turned that inky black.

"Young lady, you are far more trouble than you're worth." His glare was made even more threatening by half of it disappearing part way through the sentence. Your hand tightened around the device you held. "So Stark managed to miniaturize the gamma cannon? That man is as talented as he is irritating."

You wanted to tell him he had no right to talk about your friend that way, even if it was true, but you were still reeling at his continued union with the Zero Matter. History had shown that the cannon could knock the parasite right out of a person, but somehow it was still clinging to Vernon.

"Don't feel too bad. That was a nice try, but the Zero Matter hasn't just taken up residence in my body. We have merged completely – it's a part of me now as much as I'm a part of it. What God has brought together let man not separate."

Jack's grip on your arm was almost bruising. You didn't resist when he slowly started moving you backwards. "You need to run," her murmured, eyes still locked on Vernon.

"So do you."

Neither of you got the opportunity as multiple offshoots of Zero Matter came hurtling towards you. Reflexively you activated the cannon again, blasting them to either side. With a sharp yank Jack was dragging you towards the exit, but before you could make it the Zero Matter came flying past to slam into the very door you desired, knocking it askew. Jack released your arm to jerk on the door, but it was jammed too tightly to budge.

You were abruptly thrown to the side by a stunning blow to your ribs. You hit the ground and rolled a few times uncontrollably. You laid there for several long moments trying to get your breath back until you could finally raise your head to see Jack in a similar state on the other side of the room. You fought to press yourself upwards, hand still tightly clutching the small gamma cannon. You saw another tentacle coming your way, so you dove behind a nearby stack of crates. You collapsed against them, mind racing, trying to see some way out of this.

You edged around to the far side, taking the risk to peek back out only to find Vernon wholly focused on Jack, as if he’d forgotten your presence completely. Jack was doing his best to dodge, but he was being pushed back farther and farther. Soon he’d be caged in by the wall with nowhere else to go. Then you saw it – the strange moving rock directly across from you. Could you make it without Vernon noticing? You took one hesitant step, and then another. Then you broke into a run when the inky black tendrils began to wrap around Jack.

“It really is a shame, Jack. You had so much potential. But then you had to go and make the wrong enemy. I’ll break the news to your father myself – tell him you died valiantly trying to do the right thing. Would you like that?”

Jack didn’t answer, of course, because his air supply was being ever-so-casually cut off.

“Don’t worry, my boy, it’ll all be over soon. Then I’ll track down your companion and end her, too.”

Another gamma pulse hit him straight in the back, loosening his hold on Jack. He turned to see you standing a fair distance away, cannon raised in warning.

“Why wait?”

“Oh, I bet Jack had a lot of fun with you these past few weeks.”

Fun. Right.

Vernon started stalking towards you, coils of Zero Matter still trailing from his body to wrap around Jack. You held your ground, waiting impatiently for him to move into range. But then he stopped mere steps from where you needed him, leaving you confused until you felt something cold snaking up your body. You looked down, already knowing what it must be – Zero Matter was curling around you, rising from the floor. You’d been tricked and soundly so. One tendril jerked on your arm hard enough to knock the cannon from your hand. It landed uselessly by your foot, unable to be retrieved now that you were bound.

“Where has all your bravado gone? You wanted my attention, and now you have it. Come on, at least make it worth my while.”

But you didn’t look at Vernon – you looked at Jack, slumped on the floor, still loosely restrained. But Vernon was spreading himself thinly, so while he could hinder you the hold lacked the strength he’d employed previously. So with a mental conversation you hoped Jack had heard and a swift kick, you sent the gamma cannon flying towards him.

Everything slowed down. You saw Vernon rotating to track the device. You saw the cannon spinning through the air. You saw Jack pull one hand from clutching at the Zero Matter around his neck to prepare for the catch. You saw another tentacle shoot out in an attempt to intercept. Then Jack’s fingers closed around the weapon and time snapped back into proper motion. He engaged the button on its side and hit Vernon square on. The force pushed the half-man back the last few steps you required and forced him to slacken your bindings. Without another thought you opened the mysterious stone’s glass case, trying to use the door as a shield. The suddenly molten rock lashed out, wrapping around Vernon even as his body twisted between Zero Matter and human flesh.

He was crying out, but you weren’t really paying attention to what he was saying. Unfortunately, while the substance had retreated from Jack to put up a fight against its new opponent, it had only tightened around you. You struggled fiercely, seeing Vernon being steadily drawn in despite his continuous endeavors to escape. If you didn’t break free, you feared you’d share his fate, whatever it might be.

Eventually, Vernon was completely enveloped, and you were left clinging to the soldered edge of the case. You were almost ready to give up and let go, arms burning and shaking with the effort of holding on. But you should have known better. Jack appeared, hands wrapping around your arms with adamant determination. He pulled as you did, and all of a sudden you were free, falling to the floor just near enough to kick the glass door closed, entrapping whatever spawn of Satan resided inside once more.

When you were able to focus on your surroundings again, fading adrenaline taking your tunnel vision with it, you found Jack sprawled next to you, hands still closed around your biceps. In a fit of pure exhaustion you gripped the front of his bedraggled shirt and pressed your face into his chest. You inhaled shakily, realizing that your entire body was trembling. He wrapped his arms around you, one hand buried in your rat's nest of hair and the other pressed tightly to your waist, offering comfort you were immeasurably grateful for.

“Are we done?” you questioned, voice muffled because you refused to unbury your face to speak. “That’s got to be enough, right? I don’t think I can take any more adventure.”

“I hate to break it to you, but we still need to get out of here.”

You let out a long half-whine, half-groan, still unmoved from your position. You felt the vibrations of Jack’s repressed laughter as he tried to remain serious in deference to the dire situation you were still in.

“Okay,” you relented, pulling away and forcing yourself to stand, for once making it on your own without Jack’s assistance (even if you swayed a little at the end). “So how do we get out of here?”

“You think you can get the door free?”

Getting across the room took longer than usual, you both being understandably worn out. You’d just laid your hand on the knob, preparing to give a firm yank, when something banged against it from the other side, startling you enough to jump backwards. Angry voices followed, and you realized Vernon’s men were trying to batter the door down.

You looked to Jack with fresh worry. “I think they heard our ruckus, and they don’t sound like our biggest fans at the moment.”

He was staring at the door, a look of grim resignation sharpening his features. He gestured to the machinery you’d hidden behind when you’d first entered the room. “Get behind there. When they get in I’ll draw their attention. Hopefully that will give you the chance to get out.”

“Draw their attention? You mean their fire, don’t you?”

“My gun is still fully loaded – I’ll be able to take a few out right when they come through.”

“That won’t be enough, and you know it. You’re trying to make a sacrifice play.”

“We don’t have another choice. Would you rather we both get caught?” The question should have sounded scornful, but his quiet tone only held a patience he’d rarely exhibited in the past. “They’ll shoot me anyway, and then they’ll find out what you can do. We can’t let you fall into their hands.”

“So we find another way! I didn’t spend months running around like an idiot trying to keep you safe just to watch you get gunned down at the finish line. They’re not in yet – we still have time.”

With a sigh he took a step back, rubbing one of his hands over his hair as his eyes ran around the cave searching for inspiration. Then he looked back at you, arm still raised. "What was that thing you didn't think I'd want you to use in here?"

Surprised he’d remembered, you fished around in your pocket until you pulled out a cylinder covered in ridges. You twisted a single disk off the end, revealing that the ridges actually indicated breaks between different parts. "Each of these holds a pretty explosive charge. Using them in here could bring the whole house down, which I figured we probably wanted to avoid." You gave a weak smile that Jack didn't return, his eyes once again darting around the room as another ramming shook the door and caused loose rocks to tumble from the cave walls. "...unless we don't?"

"How big an explosion are we talking? Can they be controlled?"

"Howard made them, so I'm guessing rather big and probably not."

"You're not hiding some kind of shield in there, are you?"

"Still not Captain America, Jack. But..." You trailed off, looking back at the vault which still held all five keys, "that thing is probably meant to hold up under stress.”

“You want to go in there?”

“‘Want to’ is putting it strongly. But when my other choice is being crushed or shot, I’ll go with it.”

“Okay. Okay, set the charges.”

You split up, you wedging each disk into some part of the surrounding walls and Jack going to open the vault’s door. You weren't watching him, but you could hear (between the banging of the men trying to get in) the small noise each key made when it was turned. The sound of the vault opening was much louder and accompanied by a rather unpleasant smell, most likely from whatever destroyed its contents. You briefly considered whether locking yourselves in there would poison and kill you anyway, but hopefully you wouldn’t be inside for long.

You finished and joined Jack next to the vault, but he threw his arm up to prevent your entrance. “I just thought of something.”

“Yeah?” You raised an eyebrow at him.

“How are we going to get out if we cause a cave in? The door will be blocked.”

“Oh… that is an excellent point…”

“What if we move one of your little guys over here?”

You shook your head as you replied, “No, they all go off simultaneously – we’ll still be buried.”

The thought already had your heart racing.

“You think this could handle it?” He produced something from his own pocket this time. Your jaw fell lax as you stared at the silver sphere in his hand.

“Where did you get that?”

“Stark gave it to me. I told him I needed something powerful, and he said this would blow anything to kingdom come.”

“It could have also blown you to kingdom come.” So not only had Howard not stopped Jack from running off into danger on his own, your employer had also provided him with the means to get himself killed even if Masters hadn’t managed to do it himself. “That ass.”

“It’s nice to hear you talking about someone else for a change.”

“Yeah, well, currently he qualifies as a bigger ass than you ever were.” You took the explosive away from him carefully and released the latch that allowed it to split in half on a hinge until the two parts rested together at a 90 degree angle. One side clung to the door, and the other lit up with a red screen blinking zeroes. You ran some quick calculations in your head. “Do you think five minutes will be enough?”

“Better make it seven to be safe.”

The countdown started just in time for your only barrier to give way and men to flood the room. You were sure one or more of them was shouting orders at you, but it was all background noise now. Jack’s hand on yours tugged you into the vault, as if you needed any more encouragement. The two of you pulled the door closed, listening to the pinging of the bullets bouncing off. You were sealed into oppressive black silence, and a part of you wanted to reach out and cling to Jack except for the other part that argued he wouldn’t appreciate that. Instead you fished in your pocket for the last piece of the cylinder which served as the trigger. The the first explosion went off, and you decided this was what being inside an active clothes dryer must feel like. But Jack’s hand somehow found your elbow in the dark, holding you up and chasing the beginnings of panic from your mind.

This was going to work. You’d accept no alternative.

Chapter Text

Peggy Carter had experienced a lot in her relatively short span of time on this earth, resulting in the ability to handle just about any situation that life threw at her. But she had to admit even she was baffled when upon arriving at the mission location, she found the S.S.R. agents in a standoff with one Joe Manfredi and his eclectically armed men and another Howard Stark who didn’t appear to be armed at all. Then, as if that wasn’t bizarre enough, the ground suddenly shook, the side of the nearby mountain collapsed inwards, and men in tactical gear began to flee from the facility in all directions. She barely overheard Daniel order his agents to round them up, she was so entranced by the destruction before her.

Howard was pacing in agitation at her side. “She better not be in there. I swear, if she’s in there, I’ll dig her out myself just so I can bury her again. This has her name written all over it.”

“Calm down, Howard,” Peggy snapped when she was finally managed to break herself free of her shock. “Just because her car’s signal led here doesn’t mean she was the cause of the explosion. She surely can’t be that reckless.”

Even as Peggy said the words she knew that you most certainly could and would be. Before Howard could respond, another smaller blast rocked the ground and sent a shower of stones soaring through the air. Peggy barked out an order to take cover, and everyone ducked as the projectiles sent dirt flying every time they hit the ground. The group was still recovering from the barrage when a loud, metallic clunk sounded, followed by an eerie silence that was entirely unsettling.

When two figures appeared amongst the rubble, Peggy was just about ready to shoot them and be done with everything. But then she was able to make out the identities of the very pair she’d come to rescue, picking their way carefully over debris, Jack frequently holding out a hand to assist his female companion over the more challenging obstacles. Peggy walked forward without conscious thought, followed closely by Daniel, Howard, and Jarvis.

“Oh, hello everyone,” you spoke before anyone else had a chance, the rasp in your voice making you sound like a bad radio connection. You were covered in a thick layer of dust and cradling your right arm to your middle, but otherwise seemed almost chipper. “Sorry, we made a bit of a mess. Joe, what are you doing here?”

Peggy hadn’t even noticed the man on the outskirts of their group.

“Whitney got, what’s the word, ‘lucid’ earlier. Said she could sense more Zero Matter – sent me out here to find it.”

Zero Matter?

“She’s going to be disappointed – it’s all gone now.”

What?

“Good. The last thing I want is for that evil black goo to get ‘hold of her again. And what did I tell you, huh?” Joe was abruptly gesturing angrily at Jack. “You call this taking care-a her?”

“Honestly, Joe…” you rolled your eyes in annoyance before Howard pounced, his hands on your shoulders almost shaking you.

“What were you thinking?”

Peggy ignored the rest of Howard’s chastising speech in favor of noticing Jack take an obvious step back, face falling passive except for the gleam of something in his eyes as he watched Howard lay into you. But then the genius millionaire made some reference to blowing things up which left you rolling your eyes again before looking back at Jack with a grin. “Surviving explosions is kind of what I do now.”

Peggy saw the joke pass between you, saw Jack’s façade break with an answering smile, saw Howard see the exchange as well and take his own step back. She wondered if you even realized the position you’d landed in, or if you’d know what to do with it.

Mostly, however, she knew that the two of you needed care and rest. Everything else could keep for another day.

You’d fallen asleep almost immediately after getting in the car. Jack had ridden back in a different vehicle with Peggy and Chief Sousa, so you didn’t know how he fared. But if his sleepy expression was anything to go by, not much better. Jarvis insisted on splinting your forearm (you'd most likely fractured one of the bones getting out of the vault), and then you’d gone straight to bed, in your own room, which was weird. Even as exhausted as you were, you lay awake for quite a while, pretending that you didn’t need the sound of Jack’s breathing to sleep.

When you woke up in the early afternoon, Jack was nowhere to be found. Jarvis informed you that the chief had only slept a few hours himself before journeying to the S.S.R. office to report on your adventures. You asked if they were anticipating your arrival as well, but he explained that Miss Carter was planning on returning shortly so as not to make you leave the house again so soon (whereby further antagonizing Howard).

The rest of the day passed quickly with still no sign of Jack. Peggy told you he was working with Daniel to interrogate the men that were captured last night (early this morning? The timeline was blurry). She also let you know they were currently in the process of excavating the landslide you’d created. She hadn’t heard anything about the living stone or a frozen dead man, but the whole process was delicate and taking some time, so there was still quite a bit of ground to cover.

Peggy then told you about her trip to London, and how, ironically, she’d solved the mystery of Jack’s shooting. The file he’d possessed was surprisingly about Peggy’s brother Michael who she thought had died years before. In actuality, he’d been a part of a clandestine unit that ended up doing some pretty awful things. He was going to turn himself and the rest of them in, so they’d tried to silence him permanently. Unbeknownst to them, he’d survived and had been on the run ever since.

Long story short, one of the men from the unit had shot Jack in order to recover the revealing file, and Peggy had found her brother and a whole lot of trouble in London. She’d brought him back to the states for his protection (he was the kind-looking, hairy man you’d almost bowled over), and the 107th regiment was taking him up north for hiding (Jiminy Christmas, the Howling Commandos had seen you in your underwear). SIS was looking into the whole affair in England, and Peggy was doing what she could from L.A. All in all, it sounded like she’d had just as much excitement as you.

"What should I do now?" you questioned once everything had been verbally sorted.

"Whatever you want. You are formally relieved of all your responsibilities towards Jack and anything else having to do with this case. Excellent work, agent," Peggy commended formally, though she couldn't fully repress her smile.

"Right, ‘agent,’" you scoffed good-naturedly. "I barely kept it together. Who knows how I even managed to make it this far?"

"I know." Her smile softened, bearing more weight. "I knew you were remarkable the moment I saw you in that boxcar."

"No you didn't," you denied on a laugh. "You thought I was Howard's latest conquest."

"All right, so maybe not the moment, but you immediately made it clear that you were not there to warm Howard's bed, and I gained much more respect for you."

"I spat out a babbling mess of words until Howard cut me off. I was so intimidated by you I almost didn't say anything."

"Intimidated by me?"

"You're, well... you. I just wanted you to like me, but I'm not very good at the ‘making friends’ business. And then after I went along with Howard's lie about Captain Roger's blood... I was sure I'd blown every chance I had. I don't know that I ever told you how grateful I am you forgave all of us."

"I'm grateful, too. I would have suffered a great loss in never getting to know you."

Your heart warmed immensely, which somehow forced heat up into your ears. You ducked your head, unable to maintain eye contact when you were so filled with emotion. You found your hands clasped tightly in your lap, so with conscious effort you released and rubbed them together to get the blood flowing again. "So... I supposed I'll go back to assisting Howard. And Jack will head back to New York. And you'll...?"

"I plan to stick around here for a bit. Lots to do, and well, Chief Sousa, he... he asked me to dinner."

"It's about time, the big goon." You grinned at her sheepish pleasure – the great Peggy Carter, cheeks a light shade of pink at the idea of a date. "Seems like everything will be going back to normal."

"Not everything." She leaned forward, hand coming to rest over both of yours. "I believed in the girl on the train from the beginning. I hope now you do as well."

You went to bed that night at a reasonable time for once, still in your own room, still without having seen Jack, and your whole world felt strange. You hoped he would make a point of getting some sleep soon – he’d been up for so long, not counting the quick nap he’d taken earlier or the time he’d spent in induced unconsciousness because of you. You knew he was tough, but he was going to run himself ragged if he continued on like this.

Days passed into a week and you'd still seen neither hide nor hair of your former fake husband. You wondered if he was purposefully avoiding you, but that seemed silly and unjustified. Nothing had ended on a bad note, so what reason could there be for any avoidance? But then why hadn't he even dropped in to see how you were?

You were sitting in the dining room one morning, absently flipping pages in a book you couldn’t remember the title of, when he finally sought you out. Your smile had only just begun when you spotted the suitcase in his hand and the expression started to slip. “Are you leaving?” you asked without any other precursor. He'd been absent for a week and now he was disappearing entirely?

“Yeah, flight takes off in a couple hours.” He looked down at his bag instead of at you. He seemed uncomfortable, even though he was looking much better with his recent shave and unsullied clothes. He was even wearing a tie again, a red one. When you didn’t say anything further he met your gaze once more, a smile that didn’t look real tilting half of his mouth. “If I don't get back to the New York office soon they’re gonna replace me.”

“As if they could,” you muttered, standing so you didn’t feel so asymmetrical to him. “I guess… I guess that’s good. You’ve been away a long time. I bet you’re itching to get back.”

“It’ll be nice to be home.”

Why did this all feel so awkward, like you were reciting lines from a script you’d only seen once?

"Jack, can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

"Maybe don't use that term," you retorted quietly, and though his answering smile was still reserved at least it was genuine. "Back there, with the vault, destroying all of it – was that the right decision? I mean, all that evidence against the Council, all of it gone. And it could have been so good for you."

"And really bad for everybody else. One of Vernon's goons got real chatty, told us that the coordinates he wanted corresponded with locations of nuclear materials, enough to blow the whole North American continent off the map."

"But what if there was a way we could have lured Vernon over to that man-eating rock without destroying the vault?"

"What if there wasn't? We couldn't take that risk."

"I just wonder-"

"Stop. We did what we did, and now the world is safe for one more day. We did good. None of the rest of it matters."

"I suppose..." You worried your hands for just a minute before you smiled at him again. "We did do good, didn't we?"

"Yeah," he agreed. "Yeah, we did."

"Thank you for all of that, by the way."

"Which part? Where I almost got you killed by a psychopathic freak? Or when I shot you myself?"

"That was an accident. What I mean is..." What did you mean? "You chose me to help you, believed that I could. I discovered I'm capable of a lot of things I didn't know about because no one had ever asked me to try. Turns out I'm not so much of a marshmallow as I thought."

"For the record, I said that from the start."

"Thank you for that as well."

"I think I'm supposed to be the grateful one. I couldn't have done it without you."

His admission was unexpected – he wasn’t the type to share credit or admit that he’d needed help, or at least he hadn’t been. It seemed like there was still more to learn about the man who’d been your husband for such a short period of time. However, the conversation felt so final, and you couldn't pin down why. Logically, you knew you'd probably see him again, considering your friendship with other agents in the S.S.R. and Howard's propensity to get into trouble. Still, for some reason this felt like the last chapter in a book you weren't quite ready to put down, and with every page turned you expected to encounter the words 'The End'.

"I should..." He trailed off as he stared at you, fingers flexing around the suitcase's handle restlessly. You perked up, waiting patiently for what he was going to say, anticipating a potential epilogue before the story ran out. Something that would make everything feel more complete, that would put to rest the unsettled stirring in your stomach. "I should probably head out."

No, it was just a trick, like the blank pages sometimes left at the back of a book.

“Oh, yeah,” you cleared your throat, straightening your shoulders and trying to smile at him like you thought you should. “Don’t want to miss your flight.”

"At least try to stay out of trouble, would ya?"

"I don't make promises I have no intention of keeping," you answered and made him smile almost genuinely. Your fingers were twisting each other restlessly, so you moved them behind your back, though you knew he had already seen. "But I will say I'm not going to be looking for any trouble for quite a while."

"Too much adventure?"

"No such thing. But just enough."

Your head spun with memories. Maybe death wasn't the only time your life flashed before your eyes.

He nodded in understanding, and you wondered if he was sharing in your reminiscence. You hoped he was, as silly as that seemed. The page was running out of words. "I'll see you next time," he said.

The End

Except...

“Jack?” you called out, startled by the sudden movement of your vocal cords.

He paused in his turn towards the door, looking back at you with something like anticipation. “Yeah?”

You hadn’t expected to speak at all, so you had no idea what should follow. But he was staring at you, waiting for you to share some preconceived thought, so with a swallow you hoped wasn’t as noticeable as it felt, you supplied, “Be safe.”

What should have followed was some kind of acknowledgement – a nod and smile, a grunt, or even a similar sentiment expressed in return. Instead, he did and said nothing. He simply continued to stare at you, still at an angle from where he’d looked back, though now the curious light had gone out of his eyes to be replaced with a mixture of disbelief and what appeared to be irritation.

Finally, he looked away with a muttered, “Typical.”

Now you were confused. Had you misheard? “What?”

“I said, ‘typical’.” He faced you fully again, irritation sparking into an inexplicable anger. “As in I really should have expected this, but for once I thought you might actually say something.”

“‘For once’? What are you talking about? One of my many issues is that I don’t know when to stop talking.”

He knew this better than anyone. You’d called him an ass within minutes of meeting him. You’d mouthed off to Vernon while he was threatening to kill you. If anything you had a problem with saying too much.

“There you go again, talking about how screwed up you are. Lady, the only issue you have is for some reason you have no idea what you’re really like.”

So after a couple months he now knew you better than you knew yourself? What an inconceivable ass. “Oh, do tell – what am I really like then?”

“You’re impossible! You talk about how you have no idea what you’re doing, but you're resourceful in some crazy way I can't even begin to understand. You said you weren’t smart, but you throw words around like you’ve got a dictionary in your brain and a sword instead of a tongue. Every conversation with you is like some… some duel, and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost way more than I’ve won. You don’t act like any other woman I’ve ever met, and at this point I can’t even tell if you’re pretty because all I can see when I look at you is all this crap I’ve picked up about you while you’ve been insulting me every chance you get since we met. You’ve been rude and disrespectful, and most of the time you refuse to follow orders. Which you’d think would prove that you’re not good with people, but then I watch you charm the socks off every person we meet. You care so stupidly much about everyone else, but you won’t care about yourself, and you’ll be damned if you’ll let anyone else care about you. You get up too early. You don’t eat enough. You don’t rest after you’ve been shot. You’re always fussing with your hair. You get all touchy feely but you won’t let me kiss you, even though you seem to enjoy it, and then you only kiss me so you can knock me out and run off to save your philandering boss. You wear a dress into the field, which just goes to show that you don’t belong there, but you help out on a couple cases and you suddenly think you’re a bonafide super agent even though you have no training and you can't even throw a punch the right way. You dive headfirst into trouble, but in the rest of your life you’re just a coward, making up these defects about yourself so that no one can get close enough to hurt you. And the damn cherry on top is that after everything, all you can say to me is, ‘Be safe.’ You might be the most infuriating woman I have ever known, and that’s saying something considering I’ve worked with Peggy Carter.”

Okay, so now not only was he going to insult you, but he was going after your friends too? “Please, Jack, don’t hold anything back on account of my feelings.”

“Ah, your automatic defense – throw up a sarcastic comment to push everyone back to a safe distance so they can’t see the cracks in the wall you’ve put up. But that won’t work with me – I invented that trick. It’s not protecting you anymore. The only thing you’re doing is making it impossible for me to tell you-”

He’d cut off abruptly, jaw ticking as he clenched his teeth as if to force the words to stay in his mouth. At this point you were so angry that his reticence only served to further infuriate you. You pushed each word out between your own gritted teeth as you ordered, “Jack, if you have something to say, just say it.”

“I’m in love with you," he spat out, and you’d never heard a declaration of love sound so angry before. “And I’m sick of pretending I’m not.”

He stood there just shy of glaring at you, like somehow you were to blame for all of this, and you were aware in some detached manner that your mouth was still slightly open from the comeback you’d been prepared to make. You stared at him, frozen and unblinking, until finally he couldn’t seem to take it anymore and snapped, “Well?”

You closed your mouth and your eyes and took a deep breath, common sense taking over. “Jack, you’re not in love with me.”

“’Scuse me?”

“We just spent an extended period of time acting like we were married, and then on top of that we lived through a very dangerous situation that logically we shouldn’t have survived. It would be very easy to imagine some kind of… feelings in the wake of that, but I’m sure when you’ve achieved some distance you’ll see it was all part of the fabrication.”

“You think I ‘fabricated’ that I’m in love with you? Because we acted like we were married and almost died?” His incredulous tone was grating.

“That’s the only thing that makes sense! We weren’t even friends until recently, and now all of a sudden you think you’re in love with me?”

“All of a sudden? Like this is something new – I just woke up one day and decided I liked pretending to be your husband so much that I must be in love?” He was quieter now, and he shook his head slowly as if the very idea was incomprehensible. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since the day we met. And believe me, I tried.”

Chapter Text

Jack Thompson: interim chief of the S.S.R. Had a nice ring to it. Maybe someday Dooley would retire and they could remove the interim permanently. Until then he would just enjoy the promotion while it lasted. Not that he wasn’t going to earn every bit of the trust Dooley had in him. No, everyone would have a bruise on their behinds from the swift kick in the pants he was going to deliver to each and every agent. When he got back, his boss would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’d left the right man in charge.

It was really more coincidence than anything that he looked out into the bullpen when he did. Of course there was Carter, making it in just in time for her shift to start – typical. However, the girl trailing on her heels like she was attached to Carter’s shadow was definitely not typical. He leaned over in his chair, trying to get a better look at her, but his line of sight was constantly blocked by agents, and he had no interest in that view. He’d been meaning to rally the troops anyway – now was as good a time as any. Might as well let their visitor see who was in charge.

He gave a very well-crafted speech if he did say so himself. Poignant – that was a good word. Really put Krzeminski in a positive light, for whatever positive light there was. Not that he had anything against the guy. But he was a pretty big smuck. And speaking of smucks, what did Sousa think he was doing? He was supposed to be lining up to get his assignment, not making a move on the mystery woman. So he called the cripple out, let everyone know exactly where they both fell on the food chain. That the woman would know what kind of man he himself was, well, that was just a bonus.

“What an ass.”

…what?

He turned around slowly, preparing to get his first good look at the girl as Carter shifted to the side. It felt like someone punched him in the stomach. She was sitting on the edge of Carter’s desk, clinging tightly to a clipboard and pen and looking a little bit like a startled deer, which meant she probably hadn’t expected him to hear her comment. The sun from the windows hit her straight on, lighting her up until it looked like she was glowing from the inside out.

Of course the woman who’d insulted him couldn’t be ugly.

The interaction that followed was not at all what he imagined in his head. Not that he’d thought it all out play by play or anything. But having her continue to belittle him was not what he’d had in mind. By the end of it, all he wanted was to get her as far away from him as possible and forget he’d ever laid eyes on her.

 

‘Part of her hair had fallen down – I wonder if she knew?’

 

‘Her nails were the same color as her dress. What does she do, repaint them every day?’

 

‘I was doing my job. Who out and out calls someone an ass without even being introduced?’

 

The next time he saw her she was holding a box and standing next to Stark’s butler while a room full of men pointed guns at her. Even so, she looked wholly unconcerned, even amused by Jarvis’ frantic reaction.

“How the hell did you get in here?”

“You know who designed the S.S.R. security system?”

“Yeah, the same outfit that secures the White House.”

“Exactly. They stink. You shoulda hired me.”

“Well, that wouldn’t have helped them, Howard. You’d still know how to get in.”

“I was trying to make a point. Would you stop ruining it?” Howard sent her a sharp look, to which she rolled her eyes.

He ordered Stark into the conference room, considering the interrogation room had been handily destroyed, thank you Carter. The butler and the girl made to follow, but he blocked them by slapping a hand down on the door frame. “Not you.”

“Oh, no, I go where he goes,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“Of course you do. I shoulda known” that you belonged to Stark “that you weren’t who you said you were.”

“Yes, you really should have.” Her flippant response had his eyebrows high. “I’m a truly awful liar. I can’t believe you bought any of that.”

She shifted somewhat impatiently, obviously getting tired of the delay.

“What’s in the box?”

“Files. May I?”

He held out a few moments longer, wishing he could be petty enough to tell her no. Then again, maybe it’d do her some good to see her buddy Stark knocked down a few pegs. He straightened and let his arm drop, though he didn’t step back, leaving the space through to the door rather more narrow than it had to be. She smiled in a way that was more triumph than kindness, and squeezed right on through without even grazing him. The butler took a step forward, but he held up his hand.

“You can wait out here.”

 

Flashes of her, flashes of her arguing with Howard about waiting with Sousa instead of standing with him on the platform, flashes of her panicking when Stark was taken, flashes of her lying on the ground still as death. Her anger at him for telling her what to do, for trying to keep her safe. But then Stark comes out and says the exact same thing and what does she do? Caves, crumples, apologizes – at least that’s what it looked like from a distance. Then the man who had almost killed most of the city wrapped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the head and this really should not be making him as mad as it is. She was Stark’s, end of story, not even worth a fraction of the thought he’d given her. He’d probably never see her again.

 

What was she doing here?

"I just came to pick up my paycheck."

Not Carter, Stark's girl who was once again following the female agent.

"She'll be back. And what are you doing here?” he directed to the other woman.

"Howard wants me to arrange the return of his inventions."

He snorted. "Good luck with that."

"Meaning?"

"That's a whole room of dangerous materials. We can't just pass them off. Something like that's going to need approval from higher up, and unfortunately Stark's heat vest killed the man in charge."

He felt a twinge of guilt for being so brash when her eyes filled with sadness. He might have been about to apologize, but then a new voice called out, "Which one-a you fellas is Jack Thompson?"

Maybe he shouldn't have accepted the senator's commendations so readily. Maybe he should have thrown some of the recognition at Carter and Sousa. But a senator was personally commending him, and it sounded decidedly like a promotion was heading his way. This was an opportunity he'd be stupid to pass up. He'd buy the others a bottle of whiskey later.

Carter and Sousa both moved to the side to make way for the senator's march towards the chief's office, but Stark's girlfriend stood her ground, the sadness gone from her eyes and replaced with derisive amusement. The senator appeared confused by the obstruction, but he kept his expression carefully schooled even as he felt his spine pull tight. She looked like she was thinking very hard about causing him trouble.

She reached up and casually straightened his tie before observing mildly, "Still such an ass."

Oh, he wished he had some reason to arrest her.

She turned back to Carter (who was quite obviously trying to hold back a smile). "If there's going to be that much red tape, Howard will have to deal with it. Just let us know when things settle down around here."

She shot him one last infuriatingly knowing look, waved farewell, and strutted out of the S.S.R. like she'd won a cage match. The senator was looking to him for some kind of explanation, so he offered, "She came with Stark. Looks like she's picked up his lack of respect for authority. Wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t all she picked up from him."

She had better never step foot in this establishment again.

 

What was she doing here?

"What are you doing here?"

“Howard wants his inventions back, and apparently he's much too busy doing something else to take care of it himself.”

She sounded irritated.

"So he sends his girlfriend instead?"

"Ha, girlfriend. He's lucky I'm not his murderer. Who do I need to talk to?"

"You're looking at him. Jack Thompson: acting chief of the S.S.R." He held out his hand for her to shake, only a little sarcastically. Come to think of it, the two of them had never really been introduced.

"Congratulations, you must be terribly proud." Her tone was flat, but he couldn't tell if that was aimed at him or caused by her apparent frustrations with Stark. Either way she shook his hand. "That title come with an office we can meet in?"

He indicated with his head, and she fell into step beside him, still quite obviously agitated. He knew the other agents were looking on as they made their way to his office, wondering about this female associate of Howard Stark’s and why she had returned (again) without him. He ignored the stares as did she, or perhaps she didn’t notice them to begin with.

“Wait,” her order as he went to shut the door had him shooting her an incredulous look, which she also didn’t acknowledge, “call your head scientist in here.”

“Why?”

“Because I am not a scientist and I assume neither are you. We’re about to discuss things that are highly complex, and I would like someone present who actually knows what he's talking about.”

He couldn’t find a reason to refuse, so he called out to the nearest agent to summon Dr. Doobin.

The “discussion” that followed quickly morphed into an argument.

“When can you give us access to the lab so we can begin moving Howard’s inventions out? I can have a truck here within the hour.”

“Woah, hold on there. Who said you were going to be moving anything out of here?”

“They’re Howard’s inventions.”

“They’re dangerous weapons.”

“Irrelevant. Howard was acquitted of all charges, and since his inventions are in no way contraband, you have no right to withhold them.”

“What are you, a lawyer?”

“Hardly, but you tend to pick up a thing or two when you spend enough time with Howard Stark. What you are attempting to enact is illegal seizure.”

“It’s a safety precaution.”

“It’s theft.”

“The S.S.R. cannot in good conscious release a pack of unstable weapons back to the man who lost them to begin with.”

“Need I remind you that two of those weapons were stolen right out from under your noses. By your own employees, no less.”

“And what’s Stark going to do the next time something turns up missing? Flee the country again?”

“Howard plans to destroy all of his bad babies as soon as he gets them back.”

“Bad babies?”

“His name, not mine.”

“In that case, those weapons are in the right hands. I’m sure Dr. Doobin and his team are more than capable of disposing of everything – after we've had ample time to finish studying them.”

The scientist had spent the entirety of the argument looking like he’d rather be anywhere other than on the edge of this increasingly heated discourse. His squirming only increased now that the attention was focused on him.

“Dr. Doobin,” she sounded kind for the first time since she arrived, “you’ve spent quite a bit of time with Howard’s inventions. Do you honestly feel equipped to handle them?”

“On the one hand, I think we stand to learn an enormous amount from Mr. Stark’s inventions. On the other,” the slight man continued before the beginnings of triumph had even set in, “we haven’t even begun to understand a single one, and we’ve just learned we were storing most of them inappropriately. In my opinion, the best course of action would be to return the lot to Mr. Stark for their destruction.”

“We’re settled then. I’ll schedule the truck.” She didn’t gloat, not with words anyway, but she did shoot him a glance before continuing to address the scientist. “And if he tries to fire you for disagreeing with him, give us a call. Howard is always looking for men who can recognize common sense when it threatens to blow them up.”

He swore at that moment that she would never return to his agency again or his name wasn’t Jack Thompson.

 

What was she doing here?

“What are you doing here?”

“Peggy and I are going to get lunch.”

“Protocol dictates that Rose call before sending someone through.”

“Peggy is finishing something, and it’s noisy downstairs. It’s not like I haven’t been up here before.”

“What do you think this is, a social club?”

“I don’t know, you’re being pretty chatty right now.”

He was going to have to have a serious talk with Rose.

 

“Why are you here again?”

“Peggy and I have decided on weekly lunch dates."

 

“Again?”

“What did you think weekly meant?”

 

“Why don’t you just meet Carter somewhere?”

“But I do so enjoy these talks of ours.”

 

“Look who’s back.”

“It’s me. It’s always me. It’s always going to be me. Every Wednesday at noon. Would you just come to terms with it already?”

 

He probably should have made two trips, not that he’d admit that out loud. But on top of two substantial boxes of files that had the slightest chance of pertaining to the case currently stumping him, the apple he’d snagged on his way back was precariously perched at best. Inevitably, it rolled off the top box and headed for the floor as he looked on, incapable of doing anything.

But right before it hit, a hand shot out and made a catch any short stop would be proud of, a hand he recognized even before he’d followed the arm up to the amused smile that accompanied it.

“Need some assistance, Agent Thompson?”

“That’s Chief Thompson.”

She still called him agent, even after his appointment as chief was made official.

“My mistake. Want me to take one of those?”

“I can carry my own boxes.” There was no way he was being seen letting a lady lighten his load, especially not a lady as smug as she was, even though his muscles were starting to strain with the effort.

“Of course, excuse me for the impertinence of my offer, Agent Thompson.”

He got the impression she was laughing at him. Then, to make matters worse, she took a large bite out of his apple, never once breaking eye contact, and then laid it on its new divot so that there was no longer a danger of further escape attempts.

He was still staring at it when she walked away. She didn’t even slow down when he shouted after her, but merely wiggled her fingers over her shoulder in some kind of coy farewell wave.

He ate the apple anyway. No reason to waste good food.

 


“Carter!” he barked from his office doorway, motioning for her to join him and then shutting them in. “What's the story with your lunch buddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean when we were investigating Stark, we looked into all of his known accomplices and she never showed up once. Since she seems intent on traipsing through here whenever she gets the urge, I took the initiative to run a background check.”

“And?”

“She doesn’t have one – a background, a police report, a parking ticket! It’s like she just popped up out of nowhere. How is it she can be practically attached to one of the most notorious men in New York and have absolutely no records?”

“From what I’ve seen she likes to avoid the spotlight as much as possible, which means distancing herself from Howard’s more… prominent activities. It’s actually quite impressive considering how long she’s been working for him.”

Working?

“Working?”

“Yes, she’s his personal assistant. I thought you knew.”

Personal assistant. Interesting.

“We can’t have some unidentifiable woman walking through here on a weekly basis.”

“She’s hardly a threat, Jack.”

“We have no way of knowing that.”

“Then I will vouch for her personally. I believe I have more than proven myself trustworthy.”

“Fine. But if anything happens it’s on your head.”

 

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“Who?”

“The lady who just left. The one who works with you at the phone company.” Lucy clarified around licks of her dripping ice cream cone. “Aunt Jean told mom that she thought you had a girlfriend.”

“Aunt Jean talks too much.”

“You’re not supposed to call her Aunt Jean," she lectured. "You’re supposed to call her mom.”

“I don’t want to claim her when she’s being a gossipy hen.”

“So the lady's not your girlfriend?”

“No.”

“How come? Don’t you want her to be?”

“What makes you say that?”

“The way you look at her.”

“How do I look at her?”

“Like you want her to like you.”

It was hard to argue with that logic.

“Well, you little spy, you can tell your mom to tell Aunt Jean that there’s no girlfriend, and there isn't going to be one any time soon. She and I are just friends.”

If we’re being really loose with the word friend.

“That’s too bad. She seemed nice. She didn’t talk to me like I was just some dumb kid. I think it’d be okay if you were sweet on her.”

“You’re about to have something sweet on you if you don’t hurry up.” He pointed to a large drip of ice cream slowly sliding down the back of her cone towards her hand. She let out an exaggerated yelp that left him smiling and dove straight for it, too immersed to continue with her noisiness. He poked at the soupy remains in his bowl thoughtfully.

Maybe he did want her to like him. But what was he supposed to do with that?

 

“Where’s your little friend, Carter? Haven’t seen her for a while. You two get in a fight?”

She hadn’t been back since he’d berated her in his office, propelled by scotch and shame. He’d thought the ice cream she’d sent back with Peggy had been a peace offering, that she would return the following week just as she always did. He’d come up with a plan – he’d apologize (with actual words and sincerity), thank her for the gift, and ask if he could repay her with dinner. He knew this really nice Italian place. She seemed like she’d like Italian. But then she hadn’t shown up. He written it off as a fluke, but then the next week and the next passed with her continued absence each time. Finally he’d cracked and tried to casually inquire as to her whereabouts when he dropped off a stack of paperwork for Carter about the Underwood case.

“She's having a little difficulty with the commute, what with an entire country in the way.” Peggy looked up when he made no reply, tilted her head a little as he just blinked at her in mute confusion. “Howard Stark moved out to Los Angeles for a defense contract. Didn’t you know? It is our policy to track persons of interest, is it not?”

“Who said anything about being interested in her?”

“I was referring to Howard,” she replied slowly. “He may not be in the business of keeping weapons of mass destruction around, but he’s still a genius with far too much money. It would behoove us to keep tabs on him.”

Behoove. Sounded like something to do with a cow.

“Guess that's what I've got you around for.”

So much for apologies and dinner. So much for anything at all.

 

"Chief Thompson, I have a Vernon Masters on the line for you."

"Put him through... Vernon, what can I do for you? She did what? All right, yeah, I'll take care of it. I've been meaning to visit the L.A. office – might as well do that now."

 

“Where’s Stark anyway?”

“Peru.” Carter’s answer was impatient.

“What’s he doing in Peru?”

“Well, I suppose that’s his business, isn’t it?”

 

"Okay look, I'm not a scientist, but I'm here to help."

"How about collecting the dinner orders?"

"You know what Marge-"

A snort from the corner interrupted him. From the edge of his vision he could see her sitting on a table, flipping through several sheets of paper. She didn't look up, but he just knew she was waiting, waiting for him to react negatively, waiting for an excuse to call him an ass. Well, he'd show her.

"I'm gonna do that for you." He had to work very hard to keep his expression neutral when her head popped up like a prairie dog. "What do you guys want? Gotta be good takeout some place in this city."

She watched him suspiciously from her perch as he made the rounds, noting everyone's orders. He finally had to let his smirk show when he got to her. "What about you?"

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because hungry people gotta eat. You think I have some ulterior motive for ordering dinner?"

"I'm just trying to figure out if you want something."

"Right now I just want to get you a sandwich. But if you don't give me some idea, I'm just going to bring you the same thing Samberly's getting."

"Well, if you're going to threaten me..."

 

“Hey, Jack, Whitney Frost basically went all out crazy, right?” She was relaxed back in her seat, still cradling his sandwich wrapper crane. Traffic was moving again, but hardly.

“Yeah, why?”

“Do you think in the midst of the crazy she would have thought to take the gamma cannon?”

“I don’t know. Her mind seemed to be pretty one-tracked.”

“I’m just wondering… I mean, the others are trying to come up with a rift generator and make a new cannon from scratch, but what if the old one is still available and in working condition?”

“Only one way to find out.”

She might not be a certified genius, but at the moment he thought she must be smarter than the lot of them.

They found the gamma cannon sitting right where they had left it, completely untouched and intact. The truck they’d used to transport it was still there as well, and Vernon Masters had been kind enough to leave the keys in the ignition. They loaded it up (carefully), and he took on the mantle of trucker so she could pilot the smaller car. The return of the cannon was met with resounding gratitude, and now everyone could focus all efforts on the rift generator. She stood off to the side, not participating, but she seemed pleased she’d been able to help somehow.

“That was some good thinking.”

She smiled at him, a real genuine smile that made his lungs shiver. “I suppose even I have to luck out once in a while.”

He thought of all the things he should tell her, how it wasn’t luck, how she was brilliant and witty and so beautiful it sometimes made his eyes hurt. No, he probably shouldn’t say it like that. That could be misconstrued. Why was his mouth so dry?

“Hey, sweetheart, come hold this for me!”

Howard Stark was quite possibly his least favorite human being on earth.

She rolled her eyes, but her smile didn’t lose its authenticity. Now it felt like she was sharing some secret with him, like a silent conversation. Then she’d walked over to her boss’ side and, he was once again alone on the outskirts of everything that really mattered.

 

"Peg, I want you to know, I'm not thinking any unsavory thoughts about you right now. Wait. There's one."

"Howard, if we die because of your uncontrollable libido, I swear I will track you down in hell." Despite her harsh words, she was clinging to her boss desperately, arms wrapped tightly around his middle and hands fisted in his jacket.

As much as he hated himself for it, he could kind of see where the rich playboy was coming from. He somehow ended up in line behind her, and it was hard to keep his own thoughts on the task at hand, despite how dangerous it was. The wind from the portal was whipping her hair around so close to his face that he was half tempted to duck out of the way, but then he'd be buried somewhere in her shoulder, and that was just not a good idea. Still, she smelled like how it felt to sleep wrapped in a blanket on a cold winter's day, and it was really distracting.

This was so stupid. Here they were on the verge of imminent demise, and he was wondering how she could still smell so good after being in the heat all day and coming up with descriptions that didn't even make sense. But she was soft and warm and he could feel the exact spot where her waist flared out into her hip, the area constantly pressing into his arm and reminding him of how good holding a woman could be.

It all just got worse when the portal closed so suddenly that they’ll were all thrown to the ground, or in her case right in his lap. Now everything felt close and intimate and he really shouldn't be thinking such sentimental thoughts when they'd all almost died and for some reason he couldn't make his hands move. He waited for her to scramble away, feeling awkward and harassed, but instead she just turned and beamed at him like 'oh boy, we did it!', and the next moment she'd thrown her arms around his neck to hug him fiercely.

He should have hugged back, should have done something, but then she was letting go and leaping up, heedless of his lingering hands. She was hugging and smiling at everyone, so excited by the success, by everyone making it through safely. He pulled himself to his feet, and found Samberly at his side. Annoying at the scientist was, it was still nice to know Frost hadn't killed him.

He watched her continue to celebrate with the others, and realized this was the end. He didn't belong here, but she so plainly did. He would go and she would stay, and he'd acted like an ass for too long to justify any attempts at further contact. The window had closed – he'd missed his opportunity.

At least she seemed happy. Maybe he'd be able to use that to drown out the pounding of 'What if?' that echoed through his brain.

Chapter Text

No man should ever have to wake up in this kind of pain. He’d been having some crazy dream about Stark’s assistant and drunkenly confessing his feelings to her, but everything was kind of blurry now. Was somebody touching him? He should fight back, but his body was too tired to comply. He only managed to let out a noise that was so quiet he could actually feel his masculinity shudder.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Thompson. How are you feeling?"

So it had been a doctor. That was good. Not a threat. But why was there a doctor? His brain felt as fuzzy as his muscles, and everything was all mixed up. The man was saying he'd been shot. That sounded kind of familiar. But what was this about a robbery and his wife? No, it couldn’t be… the doctor appeared to be referring to the woman of his (literal) dreams. His stomach twisted in the way it always did when he saw her. She was his wife? No… but… was it possible that everything he knew about his life was the dream and this was reality? Maybe she really was his and not Stark's, maybe...

No, no, that was ridiculous, and she was glaring at him like she was trying to send telepathic messages. She looked angry, or worried, or… something. Probably best just to play dumb. Even better, he’d act like he didn’t know anything about anything. This way he stood less of a chance of compromising the situation, whatever it was. Someone would explain the whole thing to him eventually, right? The doctor left, and he thought about asking but realized someone could walk by at any time and overhear.

Besides, it was kind of fun making her nervous.

 

They’d relocated to Stark’s property, and still no explanation came. He must look pretty awful for her to keep this up, even going so far as to help him undress. He should have been ashamed of that but couldn’t muster up any regret with her close enough to see all of the different colors in her eyes. He also probably should have felt guilty for using her concern to get her to stay, but he liked having her close when there were no angry words flying between them or some external force threatening their lives. It would all end soon anyway – who could blame him for enjoying her company while it lasted?

She was still there when he woke up again. How did she always manage to put herself in the perfect spot to catch the sunlight? He’d probably see her just like this, curled up with her nose buried in a book, every time he thought of her for the rest of his life. She turned a page and glanced up, then jumped when she found him staring. That was embarrassing, which was stupid considering she'd already gotten a close-up of him in his underwear. She was going to tell him the truth for sure, now that he was away from the hospital and well rested. But no, she leapt straight into the role of caregiver, helping him up and across the room. He had to pee something fierce, but he'd rather pass out from the pain than invite her into the bathroom with him.

 

Why was she making small talk instead of telling him what had happened at the hospital? How long was she going to drag this out? What was her end game? Maybe if he had a little fun he’d force her hand, push her into giving it up. She got more and more uncomfortable until she started fiddling with her fingers like she always did when she was nervous. Something glittered and caught his attention. Were those…?

They were. She was wearing wedding rings. She was more than dedicated to this weird make-believe or whatever was happening. Unless… unless he really was wrong about his real life. A person couldn’t actually make up an entire life while unconscious in a hospital bed, could he? No, that was ridiculous, and this had Carter written all over it. For whatever reason, they'd decided to keep making him think he was married. Maybe they were trying to keep him safe since he had amnesia.

Oh…

All he had to do was tell her and they'd call the whole thing off. He should definitely tell her, before she had to do something even more intrusive like giving him a sponge bath or something.

But then... this could work out.

(Not the sponge bath, shut up.)

He hadn't gotten a good look at his shooter, had no idea why he'd been shot at all. He could use this – run his own investigation without anyone knowing. Besides, if he told the truth now they'd probably stick him with Jarvis, and he much preferred his current company.

And as far as he could tell, she didn't seem to mind him all that much either.

 

He had not been prepared for how torturous the next few weeks were going to be. He couldn’t investigate anything while stuck in bed, and he was so incredibly, unbelievably bored. She was the only bright spot, and he didn’t want to think how much worse it would have been without her. She did her best to entertain him (he did like the card games and comic books), but his favorite activity by far was asking her questions and seeing what she would come up with on the fly. In his defense, these were the kinds of things a wife should know about her husband, just in case any outsider got curious. She’d obviously gotten a rundown of his basic information, and Sousa must have blabbed about Gam Gam, but some of the things she said couldn’t have come from a file. Some of it was off, but what were the odds she’d magically guess his favorite color?

His other favorite pastime was finding excuses to touch her, because he liked seeing how flustered she got. Okay, fine, that was only part of it. The other part was because, well… he liked the feel of her. But he kept it mostly innocent – when she found out everything he’d be able to brush it off as just teasing, which it was mostly… partly… half and half, at least.

But eventually even he couldn’t deny he’d blurred the lines in his own mind. It started the day at the piano. He knew she thought he was some dumb brute who couldn’t do anything with his hands but make fists, so he’d only played to prove her wrong. Then she had to smile like she enjoyed it and start singing so pretty, and he was fooled into falling for his own story. So when she’d leaned into his personal space, he hadn’t thought of the consequences of trying to kiss her beyond whether or not she’d let him.

He never had to find out. She answered the phone, and he began to play Simple Gifts as he tried to dust her out of his senses.

 

He couldn’t believe his luck when she took him to the S.S.R. office. With a sleight of hand he’d mastered cheating at cards during his teen years, he slid a note between envelopes when he took the mail from her. It caused a stir, and while she was squirreled away with Sousa and Carter, he snuck down to a storage closet that contained a vent which carried the conversation from Sousa's office so clearly he might as well have been in the same room. When they moved past what he wanted to know (namely the info about the absent file), he turned his attention to the lab. He needed a weapon, something that his ‘wife’ wouldn’t discover, even though he’d really rather have his Colt.

He heard her yelling for him just as he strapped the smaller pistol to his ankle. She sounded so panicked he felt a little guilty – he hadn’t meant to worry her. He quickly made his way back out into the hall and just rounded the corner when she burst from the door to the bullpen. She looked both frantic and relieved when she caught sight of him. She almost ran full tilt towards him, and his hands came up automatically to steady her when she stumbled.

Was she really taking her job as his guardian so seriously? Or was her concern for him rooted in something deeper?

‘She loves me.’

That’s a stupid thought. They barely knew each other. But maybe, just maybe, she liked him, and that was a damn good start.

 

She read to him again, which he enjoyed even though he slept through a lot of it. He was starting to hear her voice in his dreams. His dreams also showed him a repeat of the armed man outside of the S.S.R. That night he pushed, harder than he probably should have, to keep her with him. It was inappropriate, but he had to see her safe, to protect her at all times. And it’s not like he’d never had a woman in his bed before, after all.

But she didn’t seem all that comfortable with this arrangement. He couldn’t help but wonder about her previous relationships. Had the near-miss with her drunken neighbor put her off men entirely? Or was it just him?

‘She loves me not.’

Either way, he really shouldn’t have stared at her in her nightclothes like he did. But was appreciating the fine figure she cut in her silky nightgown all that wrong? What was the point of owning something so… so pretty if no one ever recognized it? Unless Stark… no, she’d said there was nothing romantic between them and he believed her. At least he tried to. He hadn’t meant to touch her at all, honestly. But he was half asleep and she wouldn’t stop squirming around, so he had to blame his natural instincts for the way he’d pinned her to his body to hold her still. He just wanted to sleep.

His pillow still smelled like her in the morning.

 

Getting her to dance with him by the pool was another excuse to touch her, in a much more acceptable way, and another chance to show her how cultured he really was. She was stiff and that bothered him more than it should have. So he made her laugh, something he had found he very much enjoyed doing. She relaxed a little, and everything became easy, like they’d been dance partners for years.

‘She loves me.’

He had her describe their wedding, and it sounded nice. But then he made the mistake of asking about her parents, and she got all tense again. No, he had to fix this. He wanted her carefree, glowing with sunlight and happiness.

He was getting sick to his stomach at his own sappiness now.

He teased her, and she seemed to ease up a bit. He dipped her on a whim, and it was like he’d never brought up her parents. Jack Thompson was still a smooth son of a gun, thank you very much. But then he set her on her feet and brought her squarely back into kissing range. Everything aligned, everything before this had been leading here, and now he would kiss her for the first time and then as often as possible after that. Damn propriety, sensibility, integrity – no one could expect him to hold out against something this strong. No one would fault him for giving in.

But she pulled back so quickly. Why had she moved? How could he kiss her when she was so far away? Wait, behind her, she needed to stop before-

SPLASH

In the case of Jack versus jumping in a pool with her clothes on, the pool had won.

‘She loves me not.’

No, no this was good. Not her falling in the pool, but the interruption. He'd gotten so caught up that he’d forgotten his whole investigation. And the way he’d almost taken advantage of her – disgusting. But now they had clearly defined boundaries. He was a soldier and an agent, so he knew how to operate within boundaries. This would help him keep his focus, keep him from getting emotionally involved. Yes, it was for the best, even if his blood still hummed and all his muscles felt antsy. Maybe he should take a dip in the pool.

Instead he took out his pent-up frustrations on a lump of bread dough. Something was off with the newspaper he browsed, originally just to keep his brain occupied. After the bread had been put in the oven to bake, he excused himself with the need to wash up. He found an empty room far from the kitchen and called the New York office. Carter had previously explained to his employees that he’d gotten in on another case and wouldn’t be back for a while. He now told Agent Henry not to let Carter know that he had called or what they talked about. The man agreed to find someone outside of the Los Angeles S.S.R to check out the newspaper and report back.

Things were looking up. And then he found his ‘wife’ crying in the hallway. She was ashamed, obviously, but couldn’t seem to stop. It had to be something to do with him, one way or another. He’d never imagined she would have such a hard time with this, that she would feel so guilty over something so basic as lying.

‘She loves me.’

He needed another distraction. Dancing hadn’t gone so well. When was the last time she’d been okay, really okay?

He took her back to the piano and played until she fell asleep. She’d tipped over with her head on her arm, and he stood watching her for too long as he wondered what to do. A blanket was over the couch’s back, and he gently laid it across her, trying to ignore the shining lines on her face where her tears had been

He wanted to kiss her. He had no right to want that. So he left the room.

‘She loves me not.’

 

He was careful over the next few days. He knew she didn’t like it, but he couldn’t make himself act any other way. He also hadn’t been able to call New York back. Nothing was going as planned until the morning she pointed out the Marx Brothers advertisement.

He was still seeing patterns in the newspaper, which made him even itchier to call the home office and see what they might have figured out. When she popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, he’d panicked that she might have noticed how intently he studied the paper and mentioned the first bit of news he could think of.

“Yankees won.”

Stupid. He shouldn’t even know who the Yankees are. But she didn’t question him. She even came up with an explanation. He was relieved and felt terrible all over again. She trusted so completely she almost took all the effort out of lying to her.

Then she mentioned the movies, and he could honestly say he hadn’t been so nervous asking a girl out since he was a teenager. He needed her to say yes if he had any hope of calling New York without being caught. And, okay, he also just wanted her to say yes to a date with him. No guy liked being shot down.

‘She loves me.’

 

She had the most surprising ability to understand the things people didn’t say, like she could see straight through to what really made them tick. She took one look at the situation between the employees at the theater and laid out their love story. The skill had always been impressive, but he’d never let himself appreciate it because he couldn’t help but fear she’d turn it on him someday.

He snuck out of the dark screening room and made his way to a payphone, glad she’d thought to return his wallet. Agent Henry informed him that the code he’d see in the paper appeared to be orders to a hired mercenary, which he could only assume was Dottie Underwood. Today’s edition said that she would be away from her hideout, some abandoned warehouse by the coast, in a few days’ time. He told Henry to casually bring up his trip to London the next time Carter called. The agent didn’t question his orders.

He stopped off to buy the promised Raisinets as a cover. The poor clerk was still moping like an abandoned puppy. He got one box, and then as an afterthought asked for a second, which he passed back to the boy.

“Take it from me: don’t wait.” He looked towards the ticket booth. “One day she’ll be gone. Don’t wonder what could have been.”

He tapped the box once against the counter, and then went back to his movie.

 

All Stark had to do was make a phone call and she was running back to his side like a dancing monkey. As much as she denied it, the man had a hold over the she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) shake. Stark had to be in on everything, right? So why was he calling up another man’s wife and demanding she come to him immediately? And why had she agreed?

‘She loves me not.’

Seeing her sing in Stark’s ridiculous show was both entertaining and aggravating. She was blatantly having a great time sashaying around like the saloon singer she was playing. But he had to share the sight with a room full of others, mostly men and all the level of attractiveness that could earn a spot on the silver screen. His fists had clenched unconsciously when the first cowboy had wrapped her up in his arms, but she’d spun herself back out with a jaunty smirk that made him snort with amusement.

Then the second cowboy, that smug son of a bitch, had kissed her full on the mouth in front of God and everyone. He didn’t even remember how he got to the stage – all he felt was the satisfying crunch of the man’s nose under his fist. She was appalled, which made him even angrier.

“What makes him so much better?”

“It didn’t mean anything with him. It would with you.”

“How is that a bad thing?”

“Because it wouldn’t mean the same thing to you as it would to me…”

What would it mean to her? Probably far less than what it would mean to him.

‘She loves me not.’

“I don’t like to sing in front of people.”

“You didn’t have a problem singing in front of me.”

“You’re not people – you’re you.”

What did that mean? Who was he to her?

‘She loves me?’

 

He lay awake in his bed, painfully aware of her nearness. She could have been hurt, killed even, by the window he was sure had been meant for him. She’d tried to save him, he remembered, and he’d been lucky to get her out of the way in time. He hadn’t thought of the potential dangers his plan might present – why would anyone attack a man with amnesia? Obviously, someone didn’t care two figs about his mental state.

He could still see her singing and dancing. She was captivating, full of light and life, while all he did was endanger that life and punch men who showed the slightest interest in her when he had absolutely no claim of his own. In hindsight, what he was doing to her was entirely unfair. Why had he not thought of all of this from the beginning?

Somehow she’d known he was awake. He couldn’t help but question her reasons for going along with this charade, even if she didn’t know the whole story. Why was she still here when all he did was cause her trouble and pain? But she answered simply, as if she truly believed he was worth her effort. He wanted to tell her then, everything, but he held back. Instead he let slip some embarrassingly soupy drivel about her being a dream.

Just because he thought it didn’t mean he should say it out loud.

 

She was still there the next morning. She was still there the next morning. She was never there when he woke up, yet when he turned over he was met with her passive face partially hidden behind her hair. He froze, heart sticking to his ribs uncomfortably. Somehow this felt incredibly intimate, seeing her so unguarded, all morning breath and bedhead. He felt like he was seeing something he shouldn’t.

The morning after was generally his least favorite part of spending the night with a woman. They never looked as good in the morning light as they did in the shadows of the previous evening – makeup was smeared, hairdos were undone, and very rarely had they brushed their teeth. He was struck now, however, by how he didn’t feel any differently about her at this moment than he had at any other. She was still just the same woman as always, unkempt or not.

He reached over to brush her hair back, and her nose twitched and wrinkled at the tickle. He smiled, and continued the game until she woke up.

“Mornin’, sunshine.”

The nickname just slipped out. Sure, he’d been connecting her to sunlight for almost the whole time he’d known her, but he’d intended to take that secret to his grave. Still, she didn’t seem to notice, and he was oddly grateful for the distraction of her irritation. And she called him cowboy. It felt like a link between them, a new step in their relationship, fake as it was.

He’d never liked the morning after until this morning after. This, the banter and laughter and waking up with a beautiful woman who could make him smile even as she laid into him, was something he thought he could get used to. He’d never snicker at another man who said how much he enjoyed sharing a bed with his wife.

‘She loves me.’

 

Nothing new in the paper this morning.

She made him wear a Hawaiian shirt.

‘She loves me not.’

 

“Throw it into the water and make a wish.”

This was silly. He should just throw the thing and make up something to tell her. It’s not like he could share what he really wanted: a way to investigate the warehouses, to find where Underwood was hiding out, to solve a case without Carter’s help for once, to earn the confidence everyone had in him.

But as he thrust his arm forward and released the sand dollar, only one thought filled his mind.

‘Please just let me keep her.’

 

She was having them followed. He would need to remember that.

 

The night, the moon, the argument, those dangerous words he almost said, the tree, that damn flamingo. The press of her body to his, how soft she felt against him, how she almost trembled from her embarrassment. The kiss he shouldn’t have started but couldn’t bring himself to say he wouldn’t do again.

‘She loves me.’

How he ruined everything in just minutes. How his investigation would not be moving forward. How absolutely destroyed she looked. How she ran from him.

‘She loves me not.’

She came back. Despite everything, she kept her word and returned to their room – not his, but theirs. She was staying. He could continue investigating. Why did he still feel let down?

 

She was afraid of failing him – that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He was lying to her, using her as a cover without her knowledge, and she was afraid of letting him down. If anything, he was failing her. He held her close in a way he knew he shouldn’t, knew was just going to make everything harder, and pretended he didn’t care. For now she was his responsibility, and he would do whatever it took to make her feel safe.

“You want to know what I wished for?”

If she had said yes he would have told her. If she had said yes he would have told her everything, fessed up to his lies, begged her to stay if that’s what it took.

She didn’t say yes. He didn’t say anything.

 

She gave him Joe DiMaggio. His hand stung from playing catch with Joe DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio told him he had a good arm. And she had done all of it, cashed in a favor from Stark to make it happen. She’d let him kiss her, even after his promise, even after the tree and the flamingo. A fluttering warmth started in the center of his chest, spread to his stomach, and then all the way out to his toes and fingertips.

“I think that might’ve been the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him, and it was based on a lie. She hadn’t done it for him – she’d done it for the man she thought she was deceiving into being her husband. She’d brought Joe DiMaggio to the kind, ever-patient amnesiac who put up with her incomprehensible mood swings. She was the most amazing, generous woman he’d ever known, and he’d earned her attention through false means.

‘She loves me.’

He was in love with her. He couldn’t imagine how he’d only realized it now. He couldn’t even pinpoint when he started. Maybe he’d loved her after her nightmare. Maybe it was the kiss under the tree that did it, or the sand dollar at the beach. Maybe the dance by the pool, maybe as she read to him, maybe during the shave, maybe with the lie she told at the hospital. Maybe it was the ice cream or Lucy or the apple. Maybe he’d fallen for her the moment he saw her leaning on Carter’s desk in New York, lit up by the sun streaming through the window like a lone spotlight on a stage empty of everyone but her. Maybe she’d pushed him into it with, ‘Wow, what an ass.’

He gripped her hands, pulled her so he could rest against her forehead and stare out into space while he thought. He could salvage this. He could skip the warehouses, go back to Stark’s with her, and tomorrow wake up with his ‘memories’ restored. He could act embarrassed at his behavior over the past couple months but be grateful for her efforts and patience. That could be the turning point in their relationship, and given some more time he could tell her that he loved her. He could have his happily ever after.

If only he gave up everything he’d been working for.

But he couldn’t – it was too late, too far, too much to give up. But he had to ask, had to give himself the luxury of knowing, why she’d told that first lie, why she’d agreed to play his wife. If she cared for him, even just a little, he’d be able to make it through the rest of this. He had to know if there was any part of her that could have come to love him, too.

Then he watched his happily ever after fade into the distance, replaced by a red stain on the back of Dottie Underwood’s dress and the look of betrayal and horror on the face of the woman he loved.

‘She loves me not.’

 

She came back. Yes, she was betrayed and horrified and so very, very angry, but she was staying. She was going to help him. She didn’t think him a murderer or a scoundrel or a worthless imposter. He loved her so much he thought the words would burst from him, but in the end he was a coward and they remained locked up inside his chest.

It was his room again – not theirs, just his. Regret felt like a bitter knot in the back of his throat.

 

How could she ever think she wasn’t wanted? She was friends with mobsters. She was friends with millionaires. She was friends with secret agents and genius scientists and Judoka butlers. And now she was friends with him.

‘She loves me not.’

But she trusted him.

 

He waited for her impatiently. How long did it take a lady to get ready to go out? He’d shaved, put on his tuxedo, and was ready to go. What was she doing, making a sacrifice to the gods of hair and makeup?

He turned at the sound of her footsteps and immediately forgot to breathe out. She paused in the arched doorway – the back of her shoe had slipped off her heel, and she held onto the doorframe as she adjusted it. The dress she wore hung off her shoulders and fell like water all the way to her feet. Her hair was twisted up off her neck and pinned intricately in a multitude of curls. Ana had done something to her face that made all the familiar features pop with a new kind of definition, and even from where he stood he could see the shadows her darkened eyelashes cast across her pink cheekbones in the low lamplight.

Stunning.

Dazzling.

Beyond words.

Beautiful.

She’d caught him staring.

“Is this okay?” Her brow furrowed with worry. “Not that I doubt Ana’s judgement, but Howard usually picks out my attire for these things.”

Stark’s name was like a bucket of ice water poured down his spine.

“It’s good. You ready to go?”

 

He’d never seen someone work a crowd so easily. She said she didn’t know how to flirt, but she had Vanderbilt practically eating out of her hand. Then she’d firmly but passively shut down the other woman who’d come to talk to him. Not that she had anything to worry about – even as far back as the first party he had no interest in the blonde stranger because all he saw when he looked at her were the ways she wasn’t the woman he’d really hoped would be there.

She’d noticed the color of his ties.

‘She loves me.’

He hadn’t realized the hazy conversation he could barely remember about his ‘knock-out’ of a wife had actually happened outside of his subconscious. That was humiliating. She thought it had been an act. He wasn’t going to correct her.

 

The Jarvises were in bed by the time they got back. The moment she walked through the door she started fussing with her hair. “I think Ana used about a hundred pins in here. I don’t know how I’m going to find them all.”

“Here…” He halted her with a hand on her upraised arm. Deftly and without much thought he began pulling pins from her hair right there in the hall.

If this had been real, if he were really a husband assisting his wife, he would have leaned over and pressed a kiss to her bare shoulder. He would have buried his face in the smooth column of her neck while he muttered how beautiful she’d looked that night, and how happy he was to have her all to himself again.

But it wasn’t real, and he kept his touch professional.

‘She loves me not.’

As each pin was laid on a side table, her curls began to tumble free. When all the ringlets lay about in the most appealing disarray, he ran his fingers through from root to tip in search of any stragglers. He almost swallowed his tongue as she made a sound of contentment very much like a purr.

“You’re very good at that.”

‘She loves me.’

“You’re going to make some woman an excellent real husband someday.”

‘She loves me not.’

 

Sousa was panicking. But she was unflappably calm, even when finding out her friend was in trouble. She marched over to the phone and immediately took charge of the situation.

“Tim, we’re going to need wheels up in about a half hour. Kindly inform Jeffers and make the preparations."

She was matter-of-fact, the tone she used born from an expectation of being obeyed without question.

"I don’t care what he’s hung on the door – you will disturb him."

Her voice was authoritative, no nonsense.

"Then put the nice girl in a cab on us, and tell Jeffers if he’s not prepared to fly Chief Sousa to London in 29 minutes I will come down there myself and explain my displeasure in excruciating detail so he fully understands why he is no longer employed. Is that clear?"

Tim must be terrified. He would have been.

"Good, then you’d best hop to it.”

The agents back in New York were familiar with her, had seen her with Peggy, knew she worked for one of the richest men in the U.S., heard stories about what she'd done. But Sousa’s men, they hadn't seen her, hadn't heard of her. They were experiencing her for the first time. He felt pride welling up, knowing that they had seen him come in with her. Yes, this woman who was steel and fire and still somehow as soft as the sunshine he so frequently compared her to in his head, she was with him.

Marvel and covet, gentlemen – this one was his.

At least for the moment.

‘She loves me.’

 

“Have I been doing it unintentionally this whole time? Has it ever seemed like I was flirting with you?”

‘She loves me not.’

“You’re starting to look like you again. All you need is your hat and a tie, and it’d be like the past couple months never happened.”

Never happened.

‘She loves me not, not, not, not…’

 

He’d killed her. She was dead. She wasn’t moving, hadn’t moved since the door hit them. He called to her, willing her to live. He managed to get a hand up to her face, trying to feel for any sign of life. Her eyes blinked open, and he felt his gut unclench.

 

He’d killed her. She was dead. They both were. So many men, so many guns. He held her hand too tightly, as if that could somehow protect her. She was the one who stayed calm, who followed orders, who made self-deprecating comments even when being felt up by enemies and snide remarks when threatened with a semi-automatic.

 

He’d killed her. She was dead. Vernon was going to torture he until her body gave out. She’d only shouted once, but Vernon wouldn’t keep his mouth shut and kept up a steady commentary. The machine made an awful humming sound like a generator. He could even smell the searing flesh, and he would have been sick, but what right did he have to that when she was facing so much worse? He could make it stop. All he had to do was reveal the pin hidden in his right suspender.

Instead he told another lie, yet one more untruth he’d come to regret in a very short while. She was right to call him the most selfish man in existence.

 

She had super powers. She was a product of Stark’s experiments. She was a medical marvel, a scientific breakthrough, and he’d almost let her fall into the hands of the enemy. He’d almost gotten her killed. No more.

 

She kissed him, and for a short time he thought his wish was coming true. He wanted to hold that moment out forever.

‘She loves me.’

“I’m so sorry. They have Howard. I don’t have a choice.”

No.

‘She loves Stark.’

 

“You didn’t see her?”

“No, they just told me to get out and use the front gate.” Howard’s bruises showed up all the more starkly as his face paled. “Are you telling me she’s in there with them?”

“Stay here and have the car ready to go.”

 

Vernon had her pinned to the wall by her throat. The monster wasn’t even taking the key from her – he was just smiling grotesquely as her eyes slowly got glassier.

He didn’t even think about it. He just raised his gun and fired a shot square at Vernon’s back. He wished he could say that everything after that was a jumbled blur, but each detail stood out clearly in her mind. Vernon seemed to fade for just a moment, then he released her and stepped back as she crumpled to the ground. She seemed stunned. A splotch of red was blossoming just under her collar bone, eerily near where his own wound had been.

Vernon was gone and he didn’t even care. He had killed her. He had literally killed her, shot her with his own gun. She was bleeding so much, staining that cumbersome dress she shouldn’t have been wearing in the first place – who wore a dress when they were planning to scale rooftops and rappel out a window?

Dig out the bullet, she says. Just stab a dirty pocket knife into my sticky, torn, singed, bleeding flesh, wiggle it around, and pop out the hunk of metal that’s killing me. I’ll live if you dig out the bullet.

‘Please just let me keep her.’

 

Stark almost collapsed when he saw her. They drove a few miles before the other man spoke. “I know it looks bad, but Jarvis should be able to stitch her up. Going to the hospital isn’t really-”

“I know.” He didn't look up from his seat in the back where he cradled her suddenly fragile body to his and pressed his torn shirt more firmly to her wound.

“What?”

“I know. Just go home.”

 

She was patched up, no stitches, and resting comfortably when he prepared to leave. Stark blocked his way. “You can’t leave. She’s gonna want to see you when she wakes up.”

“You need to make sure she stays here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s going to try and follow me. You have to stop her.”

“She’s been shot. She’s not going anywhere.”

“She’ll try. You know she will.”

The following silence proved he did know.

“What can I do to help?”

“You got any of your bad babies left? Something with a lot of kick?”

 

It took only seconds to recognize the tune being whistled. Stark had failed.

“Homeostasis.” She held up her hand to show the healed burns, but that’s not what he noticed. She was wearing her wedding rings. So was he, but hers had been ruined during the torture. He’d seen her take them off and put them in her pocket. Yet, here they were, clean and sparkling like new. The charade was over, so why had she purposefully put them back on?

‘She loves me.’

 

Inside the vault was the darkest black he’d ever experienced. He grabbed her elbow somehow by luck, originally just to steady her as the ground shook, but then he heard her breaths coming too rapidly.

“You’re gonna hyperventilate.” He shifted his grip as a reminder of his presence.

“Sorry, I know, I just… I don’t like…”

“I know. Drainage pipe.”

“Drainage pipe.”

Silent seconds ticked by.

“You know, with everything I jammed into my pockets, you’d think I could have fit in a flashlight.”

How much longer?

“Did you see all the strange men at Howard’s? Do you know who they are?”

He hadn’t seen them. He hadn’t seen anything until he’d gotten to the Vanderbilt and found a target to take his roiling emotions out on.

“Oh no, what if the bomb is defective? What if-”

BOOM.

They really should have anticipated that the blast would end up jamming the vault door much the same as Vernon had jammed the room’s door. She’d pulled out her handy magnet and fiddled with it somehow. Then she’d aimed it at the door (he assumed, it was still very dark). He heard a noise, and then the vault door was blown outwards. He blinked in the sudden light, then looked around for her. She’d been knocked back into a pillar by the recoil.

“I… I think I might have broken my arm…”

 

He stood in the doorway, watching her absently turn pages in her book. She had to be positioning herself in the sun on purpose, had to know the effect it had on her appearance. In the seconds between when he got there and when she looked up, he ran over their entire time together in his mind. He remembered every smile, every laugh, how they made her eyes sparkle like some damn fairy tale princess. He remembered her concern for him, genuine concern for a man she’d had such a rocky relationship with. He remembered each and every touch, focusing on the one’s she had initiated – her hand on his arm in the hospital, her fingers between his at the movie theater, tugging him past the swing dancers, straightening his collar at the S.S.R, worrying over the bump on his head at the Vanderbilt.

He was in love with her, but he didn’t know where the tally of ‘she loves me’ vs ‘she loves me not’ had landed. He had an office to get back to, and she had a life here. But could he really survive letting her go a second time?

Chapter Text

This was not your life. You didn’t have blurted confessions of love before lunch. This was insane and ridiculous and impossible and absolutely could not be happening to you of all people.

But Jack seemed real enough as he continued to stare at you. His jaw ticked with more and more frequency as minutes passed in silence. Still, when he spoke again his volume was remarkably controlled. “You got an opinion yet?”

“I… I don’t…” you stumbled over your words and blinked rapidly. “I haven’t done this before. I don’t know what comes next.”

Now you felt stupid along with gobsmacked. Were you really asking for instructions on responding from the man who’d just done the confessing?

“Considering I just told you I was in love with you, it’d be nice to know how you felt about me.”

This entire conversation felt very dry for being about love.

“I don’t know.”

At least five beats of silence passed.

“You don’t know,” he repeated flatly.

“I haven’t thought about it.” You hated the almost whining defensiveness your tone had taken on.

“Well that’s just fantastic,” Jack scoffed, whipping his hand through the air like a prosecutor gesturing to a nonexistent jury at a trial. “We were married for two months – how could you not have thought about it?”

“I didn’t let myself! We had an expiration date. Eventually you were going to be gone, so I never let myself imagine beyond the next day or hour or minute.” You felt the tiniest of trembles starting in your midsection. You crossed your arms, hoping to still the movement before it got worse. “Why didn’t you say anything before? Why have you waited until now, when you’re leaving and my answer won’t make a difference either way? What do you want from me?”

“I want you to come back to New York.”

Your ears were ringing – was that a sign of a stroke?

“What?” you whispered. Your voice had already been so close to cracking that speaking any louder might have broken you entirely. Your arms fell limply to your sides.

“I want you to come back to New York,” he repeated, shifting his weight impatiently. “I want to take you to movies and out dancing and lose at cards and watch you read, and I don’t wanna have to jump on a plane to do it. I want you on the same side of the country, in the same city, and in the same room as often as possible.”

He took three steps closer to you, and you had to fight not to back away. His eyes were intense but soft, running over your face rapidly in between latching on to your own eyes. The trembling extended to your hands and you clutched your skirt like a lifeline.

“You say you’re afraid no one wants you,” he continued, softer now, “but I’ve never wanted anything the way I want to be with you.”

You prayed he wouldn’t touch you. If he touched you now, you would shatter.

“Please come back with me.” His face was so earnest. This was only the second time you’d ever heard him beg, the first being for Vernon Masters to spare you from torture. Now he seemed to be pleading with you to spare him.

You spoke with difficulty, words cracking over your dry throat and thick tongue. “I can’t.”

Nothing moved. Somehow you had broken time itself, and you would be forever stuck balanced in this moment of hell.

But no, time hadn’t stopped. Though he remained expressionless, his mouth moved to form the question, “Why not?”

“Because my life is here.” Tighter and tighter your fingers dug into the fabric by your thighs. “My home, my friends, my job-”

“Stark.” Each of his features lit with anger as he nearly spat the name at you.

You felt your anger rise to match his. “Considering that he is my friend and employer who gives me room and board, yes I mean Howard.”

“You are so predictable.” He took a step or two back, as if repulsed. “Of course you won’t leave your precious Stark. You won’t do anything without his permission.”

“You obviously had no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t? He became a fugitive and you went on the run with him. He moved across country and you picked up and moved with him. He goes off to huddle in some jungle in Peru and there you are by his side.”

“It’s my job!”

“It’s your cage. You jumped straight from being trapped in an arranged marriage with one man to being shackled to another. Everything you do revolves around Stark’s schedule, Stark’s needs, Stark’s plans. Face it – you’re his most successful invention, and he’s got you locked up in an ivory tower to keep you a secret.”

“And what would you do?” The question rang with accusation, and you could practically feel the heat emanating from your eyes. “You found out about the serum, and your immediate response was to hide me away like some glass princess!”

“I know better now! Go through the training and join the S.S.R. for all I care! But don’t tell me the only reason you won’t go back with me is Stark.”

“Stop it,” you demanded, tone sharp. “Stop setting yourself up next to Howard and trying to make me choose. It’s not fair.”

“Because you know I’ll lose.” He said it assuredly, as a statement of indisputable fact, and it was galling that no counterargument would come to you. This wasn’t a contest – the categories were too different to even compare.

“Howard is my family.”

“Then what am I?”

It was like a whip crack, and suddenly you felt cowed. “…I don’t know.”

“I guess that’s still our problem,” his face was once again impassive though his eyes were bright, “Because I am so sure. But I guess it doesn’t matter. Good luck with Stark – I hope you two are very happy together.”

He turned abruptly to leave. You called his name once, but he never slowed. It was probably for the best – you didn’t really have anything to add to the conversation. Even so, you continued to stand there staring after him, part of you expecting him to reappear at any moment while another part of you argued that you’d imagined everything that had just happened.

At some point you sat back down in your chair though you never made a move towards your discarded book. Instead you let your eyes and brain lose focus as your hands moved restlessly on the table. You didn’t even notice Howard until he suddenly spoke from the chair beside you. “You just gonna keep wearing those?”

You startled and blinked rapidly, trying to catch up to wherever he was. His attention was on your fiddling hands, and you realized you’d been twisting your engagement ring.

“Oh…” you murmured, and slipped it along with the wedding band off. You laid them on the table and gently ran a fingertip over the warm metal. “They truly are lovely. I still can’t believe you were able to get them made so quickly.”

Howard cleared his throat, drawing your gaze up to his face where you noticed a tinge of embarrassment. “To be perfectly honest, I already had them.”

Your brow furrowed, but he never looked up from the rings. “Why did you have a set of wedding rings?”

“Look, don’t overreact or anything, but someday I’m gonna need to settle down and have an heir or two, and I guess I figured when that day came I’d be settling down with you.”

You couldn’t help it – you giggled. “…you want to marry me?”

The mere idea was preposterous, and you really couldn’t take another confession of love today.

Howard, for his part, seemed only mildly irritated at your response. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? We’ve known each other our entire lives, you’ve been taking care of me for years, we already live together-”

“We do not live together. We… coexist in a shared space.”

“Close enough.”

“Howard,” you leaned over and placed your hand on his, “can you really imagine yourself marrying me?”

His mustache actually twitched as he mulled over the idea for a few moments. “No, not really. Every time I try to think about waking up next to you, all I can get to is you holding my briefcase and telling me I’m late for work.”

You laughed again, giving his hand a squeeze. “Exactly. As much as I love you and you love me, we’re not in love with each other and never could be. I know we’re going to end up spending the rest of our lives together, but it’s not going to be as husband and wife. Besides, marriage isn’t supposed to work like that anyway. You don’t decide you’re ready and grab whoever is most convenient – you get the girl first.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m not wired for that.” He made a face that was almost disgusted. “It’s not like I haven’t been scouting the field. But the thought of one woman for the rest of my life…”

He actually shuddered and you resisted the urge to smack him.

“Someday you’re going to find a girl that makes you want to marry her, and I hope I’m there to watch her knock you on your rear end.”

“It’ll be one cool day in hell before that happens.” He smirked, but then the look softened. “And what about you?”

“What about me?” Your spine stiffened warily.

“How do you expect to get married when you’ve shackled yourself to me?”

Your eyes narrowed and you pulled your hand back. “You were eavesdropping?”

“If you don’t want to be overheard don’t fight in a public place, especially in my own home. Sweetheart, when I offered you this job I never intended it to become just another prison sentence for you.”

“Those were Jack’s words – I never thought that.”

“He’s not wrong.”

“He’s always wrong.” Even you could tell that the response held more habit than belief. You’d have to stop making snarky comments about Jack if you couldn’t do so with any kind of conviction. You swallowed hard around the question you didn’t want to ask but needed to. “Howard, are you trying to tell me you don’t want me to work for you anymore?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed with such disgust that you had to believe him. “If I had my way you’d focus on no one but me until one of us kicks the bucket. But that’s not fair to you. You deserve a life of your own.”

“I like working for you.”

“Why wouldn’t you? I’m fantastic. But that’s not enough.” He stretched to take hold of your hand. “You can’t build your life around me. For one thing, this is just a job. For another, I don’t deserve it. You can’t give up your fairy tale dreams just to clean up after me all the time.”

“So what was I supposed to do? Pack up and fly back to New York with the guy?”

“It’d be a start.”

He should not be able to say something like that so rationally.

“People don’t do that in real life. Especially not with men who magically fall in love with you overnight.”

“Call me a wild romantic, but even an idiot could see he’s been in love with you for a lot longer than that.”

“I think I would have noticed if he’d been in love with me before now.”

“Sweetheart, you wouldn’t have noticed if he wore a sign around his neck, stood on the roof, and shouted it to the heavens.”

Your lips pinched in offense, though it might have been more of a pout. “I’m not that stupid.”

“Not stupid, just oblivious to your own charms. I can’t count how many times I watched men approach you, only to get rejected.” He smiled, eyes distant like he was remembering fonder times. You pulled your hand out from under his to poke him in the shoulder so that he would wholly focus on your petulant expression.

“What are you talking about? I never rejected anyone.” You crossed your arms, daring him to prove you wrong.

As it turned out, he was all-too-willing to oblige.

“Adrian Washington offered to buy you a drink.”

“I already had a drink.”

“Wilbur Ferris tried to get you to run away to Paris with him.”

“He was just talking about his most recent vacation.”

“Simon Landers called you ‘absolutely stunning.’”

“He was talking about my dress, which you picked out.”

“Men aren’t interested in dresses, sweetheart, just what’s underneath.”

“Okay, fine, let’s pretend for a moment that what you’re proposing isn’t completely ludicrous.” Which it was. Obviously. “Why didn’t you ever say anything about my long line of suitors?”

“None of them deserved you, and I didn’t have to chase them away when you were doing such a fine job yourself.”

Had you really been chasing all these men away? True, Adrian could plainly see the full drink in your hand, and Wilbur had mentioned Paris with unnecessary frequency, and Simon’s interest in your dress had been peculiarly intense. But you couldn’t really be so obtuse as to misinterpret all these signs, could you?

You turned to a different tactic, trying to get the conversation back on track. “Even if I am terrible at identifying flirtation, it doesn’t negate the fact that Jack couldn’t possibly have been in love with me for as long as he thinks. He didn’t even like me back in New York.”

“Sure he did,” Howard replied flippantly as he looked down at his hand, blinking in confusion as if suddenly realizing it was empty of any kind of unhealthy substance. “Why do you think we moved to Los Angeles?”

With a sigh you moved over to the sidebar to pour him something or other. “Because you received a defense contract.”

“That may have been the main reason, but getting you away from that smuck was a solid side benefit.” He smiled at you gratefully when you set the glass before him and sunk back into your seat. “I saw the way he looked at you, and for some reason he wasn’t put off by your usual lack of interest, so when they offered me a contract out west I took it.”

“What did you have against Jack? Obviously he was an ass, but a cross-country move seems a bit extreme.”

He took a swig of his drink and hummed in approval. “I didn’t know for sure if you’d be able to withstand his advances, given your lack of experience.”

“Gee, thanks a lot.”

“I couldn’t take the risk – he wasn’t nearly good enough for you.”

“And, what, he is now?”

Howard was silent for an uncomfortable length of time, staring once again at the rings still laying innocently against the dark grain of the table. “He knows your secret – our secret.”

“Yes, I know, I’m sorry-”

“No, you don’t know,” Howard’s dark gaze landed on yours again, voice more serious than you’d heard in a long time. “What I did, what you are, is the greatest scientific advancement since Captain America. It could save lives, win wars, dominate the world. Something like this could make Thompson’s career, set him up for the rest of his life. But he didn’t even consider the possibilities.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw it in him, when he carried you out of the studio lot, bloody and half-dead. The man’s first thought has always been your safety, though it makes me wonder why someone so dedicated to protecting you dragged you into such a dangerous situation in the first place.”

Your fingers went back to tracing the wedding band, unable to look Howard in the eye any longer. “He didn’t exactly drag… I pretty much went along with his plan willingly.”

“Which leads to my next question: why are you still here?”

Amazing how the man could grab your attention again so easily.

“You can’t be serious. You honestly think I should have agreed to move back with him?”

“I think you’re putting a lot of effort into ignoring how you feel.”

“I’m not ignoring anything. I just haven’t had time to figure out how I feel.”

“You just spent two months pretending to be the guy’s wife.”

“To save his life. I would have done that for anyone.”

“You took him to your beach. You haven’t even taken me there, and I’m the one who bought it for you.”

“He needed to see the ocean, and it was safer than a crowded, public beach.”

“You told him your secret.”

“I had to – he saw me throw a man twice my size across the room.”

“You picked him over me.”

That one stalled you for a second or two.

“No I didn’t.”

“I told you to come back into the house. You stole one of my cars and drove straight into trouble. That’s when I knew.”

“Knew what?” You were tired and frankly sick of the conversation. You were back to watching your finger slowly shift your wedding band in circles when a familiar paper crane dropped to the table in front of you. “Where did you get that?”

“I found it on the dresser in your room, and I don’t have to be a genius, even though I am one, to figure out that a guy who toured in Japan would pick up a thing or two. It’s strange,” he poked the bird in a manner that could almost be called sulky, “I’m not used to being the second most important man in your life.”

You picked up the crane and gently ran a finger over a crinkle in its wing.

“He’s gone,” you finally murmured. A glance at your watch had shown hours had passed since Jack’s departure. Howard had given you quite a while to think before he’d sat down.

“Jeffers has the plane gassed up and ready to go.”

Your eyes flashed up to him. “That’s… I can’t…” You swallowed around the knotty blockage that had taken up residence in your throat. Panic was beginning to make your heart speed up. “What if I missed my chance? What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

“The guy pretty much laid his heart out only to get it steamrolled. I think it’s your turn to take a little risk.”

“Risk and reward…” You returned your attention to the crane for another stretch of silence. “I’m afraid.”

Howard reached over and drew you into his side, lips pressing to your temple, familiar and comforting. “That’s a good thing. It’s how you know you’ve got something important to lose.”

You continued to trace the sharp folds of the bird, leaning into your dearest friend as you tried to muster whatever gumption you still held. No matter what, your life was going to be different now. Just knowing that out there was a man who had loved you would change things, change your perspective. And wasn’t Howard right? After everything, didn’t you owe that man a little honesty of your own?

You exhaled slowly, resolve still shaky but solidifying.

You turned your face a little further into your companion. “I do love you, Howard.”

“I know, sweetheart. I love you too.”

Chapter Text

“Welcome back, Chief,” Agent Henry called out as Jack strode into the New York S.S.R.

“Good to be back,” he replied easily, shifting his coat over his arm and approaching his colleague. Since the plane had taken off from Los Angeles, all he’d wanted was to throw himself back into work and erase everything else from his mind. But then his connecting flight in Dallas had been delayed, and they’d misplaced his luggage when he finally did make it back to New York. He was so put out that he hadn’t even bothered to go home and change.

Suffice to say, Jack Thompson was not having a good day. Still, he wasn’t about to lay out his convoluted problems to someone he worked with. “Thanks for holding down the fort while I was gone. Looks like nothing blew up, at least.”

Henry let out a laugh, but then his eyes latched onto Jack’s hand. “What’s that?”

Jack looked down and realized the other man had zeroed in on his wedding ring. He’d completely forgotten about it. Jack’s response was rather more harsh than he’d intended, considering he’d only been back for two minutes. “Nothin’ you need to worry about. I’ll be in my office,” he threw back over his shoulder as he walked away, surreptitiously trying to work the band off his finger. The little bugger seemed to have molded itself to his skin.

“Oh, boss, there’s something else-”

“Can’t a guy have some time to settle in before you jump on him?” he all but snapped. The ring still wouldn’t budge.

“But you should know-”

Jack took one step inside and froze.

“-you have a visitor.”

Visitor, indeed. At the noise you turned from your position at the window, sunlight now behind your back and surrounding you like some divine halo. Your face was paler than normal, and you seemed completely shocked at his presence, which was dumb considering you were standing in his office. Your eyes flashed from his face to his hands and back again, anxiety breaking minutely with a small smile. “It’s hard to remember, isn’t it? Like it’s become a part of you. My finger actually feels strange now when I take them off.”

He looked at your hand automatically, and saw you too wore the symbols of your fake marriage. He met your eyes again, still adrift on his confusion. “What are you doing here?”

“Howard invented a fuel that can fly a standard jet plane 32% farther than current averages on one tank. His private jet is considerably smaller, so the time to fly between Los Angeles and New York is cut by a fairly wide margin.”

“No,” his tone hardened as his thoughts began to settle. He reached behind him to shut the door. “Why are you here?”

“Oh, yes…” Your hands disappeared behind your back. He knew this was your new method to hide your fidgeting. Not that it mattered – he didn’t need to see your hands to know you were nervous. “I, well, I didn’t really like how we ended things.”

“So you flew all the way across the country to tell me that?” He did his best to appear indifferent to your sudden presence. He laid his coat on his desk and left his ring alone, pretending he hadn’t just been on a mad quest to wrench it from his finger. He hadn’t given his rumpled state much thought until he saw you clean and neat and glowing; now he wished he’d at least taken time to shave and change his clothes in the airport bathroom.

“Sort of. And also…” You paused, took a deep breath, briefly bit into your lip, seeming to weigh your words. “Do you know what I thought the first time I saw you?”

He so wanted to roll his eyes. He settled on the most disparaging tone his could manage. “Yeah, that I was an ass. I think we’ve covered that one.”

“No, well yes, but that actually came later. My first thought was, ‘I wonder what’s wrong with him.’ You see, you were quite possibly the most attractive man I’d ever been that close to, and God doesn’t give with both hands, so they say. Then you started talking, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s it. He’s an ass.’”

“Is there a point to this or did you hop a jet just to insult me?” He was finding it harder to keep up his unaffected front.

“No, no, I’m sorry, I’m going about this all the wrong way.” You huffed in frustration, running a hand over your hair. “What I’m trying to say is whether you were or were not an ass didn’t really matter. I’d already decided something must be wrong with you, so I was going to believe you were an ass either way. It’s kind of a defense mechanism, I think. A way to make your opinion of me less important. What do I care what an ass of a man thinks of me? Does that make sense?”

He didn’t move for lengthy moments, but then he tipped his head in a kind of accession.

“The problem was that I did care what you thought of me, so I had to work very hard to find continuous proof that you were an ass. Anything you did or said I categorized in my head to reflect negatively on you. But then it got harder and harder to fit you into that box because you weren’t always an ass. Maybe you were even mostly not an ass. Yes, we fought a lot, but even then I knew you were usually just trying to do your job. And trying to keep me safe, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Then we got back from Peru and rushed off to save Peggy, and there you were. I had to try to rationalize why I was happy to see you.”

He remembered that. They’d been fleeing from the newly re-empowered Whitney Frost when Jarvis had come flying up with Howard Stark and bowled the actress over with his car. You’d leaned over your boss to get a better look, and the moonlight had caught your hair as it’d swung into your face. He’d chastised himself for wasting precious seconds admiring the view.

“You were just as hardworking and stubborn as always, except you were also cooperative and easy to talk to and still so good-looking in a completely unfair manner. And then you were dying, and I thought I must be crazy for being willing to commit fraud for a man I didn’t like who didn’t like me. What was really crazy was how easily I did it. I didn’t think twice, and even after everything I would have done it again.”

"Would you change it? Knowing what you know now, would you go back and refuse to be my wife?"

“Then you went and made everything worse because you were a really good fake husband. You were understanding and sweet and funny and didn’t hate me at all, and I was this horrible person for liking it too much.”

That was his fault. He’d let you feel like a horrible person.

“That’s when I started focusing on the short term. If I started thinking longer, my brain would begin imagining things, pitching between daydreams I tried so hard to ignore and nightmares about how much you were going to hate me when you found out the truth – I was so afraid you were going to hate me. So I fought the daydreams and the nightmares. I focused on the mission, telling myself it was all that mattered.”

How oppressively relatable.

“But it was so hard, being with you every day, acting out something I knew could never happen. It’s the same way you might want to imagine what it would be like to live on the moon, but you don’t waste the time because the idea is so preposterous. That’s why I didn’t have an answer for you – not because I didn’t feel anything, but because I was determined to ignore everything in the hopes it would hurt less. That didn’t really work out as planned.”

Another pause, another deep breath. You took a few steps forward before you pulled to a stop abruptly, as if afraid you might have overstepped your bounds. One hand slipped into the pocket of your skirt and withdrew the crane he’d folded so long ago. “I’ve never been in love before. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize it.”

Pause, breathe, swallow.

“But I’d very much like to go to movies and out dancing and beat you soundly at gin rummy. And maybe also get ice cream for dinner sometimes and take walks on the beach and see with my own eyes that you come back from cases safely.” You seemed to shrink a little, uncertainty tinting your words. “That is… if you still want to.”

He watched you, and knew his expression had to be unreadable and disconcerting. It was hard to believe that the sum of your relationship had led you both here, standing in his office, wearing fake wedding rings, talking about things that five minutes ago he’d thought impossible. He smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I still want to.”

An expression of relief and tentative hope cracked through your uncertainty as the meaning of his words sunk in. “Really?”

“Yeah, really,” he laughed. In three long strides he was upon you, hands fastening to your jaw so his aim was true when he kissed you. This kiss, more than any of the others, slid straight down to your bones and infused you with almost giddy happiness. This was what kissing was supposed to be like – joyful and perfect, not stolen or conned or stunted by doubt. The crane fell to the floor as your hands gripped the front of his shirt, your whole being sinking into the feeling like a warm bath.

“This mean you’re really going to marry me?” he asked, barely pulling away from your mouth to do so.

“Woah, slow down there, cowboy. Why don’t we start with a date where everybody knows who everybody is?”

His jubilant expression didn’t falter. “I think I can handle that.” Then he was kissing you again.

The experience was so euphoric that the unexpected applause and whooping from somewhere nearby felt like a truck barreling over you. You and Jack both whipped back simultaneously and turned towards his office window, though it was a little difficult because he had yet to release your face. The blinds were cracked, and you were suddenly very aware of the audience of agents out in the bullpen, all now cheering enthusiastically.

“It’s about time!”

"Way to go, Chief!"

“I owe Carter five bucks.”

You couldn’t contain the almost hysterical giggling that bubbled up, even as you blushed and buried your face between your hands in Jack’s shirt. In response he wrapped one arm around your back while the other hand buried itself in your hair. He glared towards his raucous colleagues.

“Don’t you mooks have something more important to do?” Jack yelled out, and men reluctantly turned away with a few more smirks and whistles.

You pulled back just enough to get a look at his face. His question was a tad pot-and-kettle-ish, considering he’d just gotten back from a two-month leave. “Don’t you?”

He grinned down at you, hand shifting to brush the hair back from your face. “Nope,” he answered simply, causing you to giggle anew. He glanced down at your hands, and lifted the left to scrutinize the rings on your finger. “You gonna return these now?”

“Of course not!” you replied, aghast.

Now he did frown. “Stark bought them.”

“Yes, and they’re gorgeous.” Your fake effrontery melted into a downright impish smile. “Besides, I need something to remember my first husband.”

His smile was indulgent and near heart-melting. “I’ll give you something to remember,” he assured right before he resumed kissing you.

He wasn’t wrong.

Chapter Text

Steve stood at the front of a beautiful church and hardly noticed. He only had eyes for the picture of the woman he’d once loved so much. She’d been his one connection to the past, to what he still sometimes thought of as his real life, and now she was gone. With the Accords and rift in his team, he was suddenly adrift with nothing left to anchor him. He was about to be lost at sea again, and this time he wasn’t sure he could be brought back.

“Captain Rogers?” The voice was quiet and a bit hesitant, but not exactly timid. He turned to find a woman standing nearby, on edge as if she was ready to leave the moment she became a bother. He’d put her at middle-aged, maybe 40’s or 50’s, though her face had a quality that made its years hard to pin down. Her black dress looked expensive, if a bit dated, and her hair was styled simply but in a way that made her look impeccably put together. Her only outlandish feature was a shade of lipstick a bit too bright for modern sensibilities, especially considering she seemed to be dressed for the funeral, but the color reminded him of the way Peggy looked, even during battle, so it seemed somehow appropriate for the somber occasion.

He was pulled from his musings when she repeated his name, followed by, “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“No,” he reassured, turning to face her more fully. “No, it’s fine. Can I help you with something?”

“No, not really. I just wanted… I guess I just hoped I could talk to you for a minute or two.”

His eyebrows lowered a touch. “Have we met?”

Her lips curled into a smile that he couldn’t quite understand. “Once, but it was a long time ago.”

“It couldn’t have been that long, ma’am.” He smiled back in spite of his reservations. “I’ve only been out of the ice for a few years.”

“You’d be surprised, but then I didn’t quite look like this back then, so I doubt you’d remember either way.”

He fought not to take a step back, but she seemed to notice his sudden tension and raised her hands in either surrender or reassurance. “Oh, dear, that sounded ominous, didn’t it? Like I’ve donned some sort of disguise. That’s not what I meant at all. Sorry, I don’t seem to be handling this very well. I do have a history of saying the wrong thing.”

He relaxed slightly, but remained on his guard none-the-less. Whoever this woman was, there was more than met the eye here. “Maybe you should just tell me what you wanted to talk about.”

“Yes, that’s a good idea.” Her hands lowered so her fingers could lace together and hang casually. “But before I begin, I should tell you that I was very close to Peggy and a number of people surrounding her, so you shouldn’t be surprised by the things I know. I promise I’m not some kind of spy. I would be a terrible spy anyway, so the world is better off that I’m not.”

Steve considered her carefully. She was odd, but not overtly threatening. “How did you know Peggy?”

Now her smile turned warm and exceedingly fond. “She was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. I latched onto her and followed her around until she couldn’t help but be my friend. She actually introduced me to my husband.” Her smile became bittersweet, though no less fond when she noticed him glancing around for the aforementioned man. “I lost him a few years back – ALS.”

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. He was a good man. And the loon was actually proud to have shared a disease with a famous baseball player.”

He returned her smile, and she took a deep breath before continuing. “But I didn’t come here to tell you about my late husband. You remember how I told you not to be surprised by what I know? One of those things is the Sokovia Accords.”

Steve blanched and swallowed hard, but still managed to hold his ground even as the tension returned to his muscles.

“I know what they’re for, and why the U.N. is trying to enforce them now.”

Lagos. She knew about the explosion and humanitarian workers’ deaths. How could she know about that?

“Please, don’t feel threatened. I promise I’m not here to throw around wild accusations. I just happen to be very familiar with people who carry the world on their shoulders and feel its pain in their very bones when they believe they’ve failed it. But you need to know that you haven’t. You are still a hero, have never stopped being a hero, but unfortunately there’s only so much you can do. War always comes with casualties. Sometimes you can’t protect everyone, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying.”

He let out a huff that came close to a wry chuckle. “Or next time maybe nobody gets saved.”

“Exactly. The people who get mad, the people who wrote the Accords, they don’t understand that. They see the pain and need to find a way to fix it, but no one can say whether their fix will make things better or worse. The reason I had to talk to you is to make sure you know there are people who do understand. Peggy was one of them. She never doubted you for a moment. She died knowing you were a hero, no matter what some governing agency has to say about it.”

“I… I guess… thank you.” Steve hadn’t realized he’d been worried what Peggy thought of him at the end. Had she heard about Sokovia, about Lagos? Did she think he was a murderer?

According to this mysterious woman, she didn’t.

“There’s something else, but you may find this one harder to believe. I owe you a personal debt of gratitude as well. You just so happened to have saved my life, once upon a time.”

“Were you in the battle of New York?” It was the only thing he could think of, unless she’d been involved in one of his lesser SHIELD missions.

“No, this was long before that.” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a square photograph, presenting it to him with a look that said she knew it was unbelievable. “I told you the first time we met was long ago. It was arranged by Howard Stark while you were still touring the States, before you went off to war.”

Steve could only stare at the picture, which seemed to be of the woman alongside Howard Stark and Peggy, who was wearing a wedding dress and smiling brightly as she hugged the two. Except the woman in the picture and the woman who stood before him couldn’t possibly be the same – the photograph showed three people of roughly the same age, which would put her in her nineties. Yet, he couldn’t deny the remarkable resemblance.

“When we met,” she was still talking, and Steve struggled to focus on her words, “I was somewhere around twenty, but I looked like a sickly twelve-year-old, an affliction I believe you’re familiar with. After the war, after your plane went down, Howard came home and attempted to recreate Project Rebirth. He wasn’t completely successful, but he did stop me from dying. Actually, he stopped me from dying for a very long time now. But he couldn’t have done it without you.”

Steve finally managed to look up, and her face was so honest that he couldn’t find it within him to deny the truth of her story. He held the picture back out to her, frowning as he replied, “I appreciate your gratitude, ma’am, but I can’t accept it. I didn’t do anything. The scientists, Howard, did all the work – I just had to lie there.”

“Yes, you did. But first you had to agree to the procedure. You had to agree to let them experiment with your very body in hopes of finding a way to win the war. You had to say yes. And because you said yes, I’ve gotten to live longer than anyone could possibly have imagined. I met Peggy, I saw the founding of SHIELD, I own a computer. How much easier is a word processor than a typewriter?”

A commiserating smile erased his dour expression. “I’m a fan of the internet myself.”

“Oh, the internet! The wonders of this age never cease.” She grinned, almost shyly now. “I also got to meet the man I’d come to love more than anything and spend a beautiful, chaotic, wonderful life with him. All thanks to you.”

“Glad I could help.” The response was dry but still genuine.

“Mom?” A new voice called down the aisle. A woman with black hair in a slick French twist and dark, almond-shaped eyes approached cautiously. She too wore black, and if he hadn’t known better he’d have said she was almost the same age as the woman before him.

“Captain, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Margaret.” She was grinning as only a proud parent could, with just a little mischief thrown in when his eyes darted between them upon hearing her name.

“Everyone calls me Maggie,” she informed as she shook his hand. “Margaret is a hard name to live up to.”

“Steve Rogers. Nice to meet you.”

“Trust me, the pleasure is all mine.” She released his hand and turned to her mother. “I don’t want to rush you, but Dennis says the kids are driving him crazy. And we did tell Tony we’d have his jet back soon.”

Tony?

“Oh, yes, of course. Give me a few more minutes, and I’ll be right there.”

“Sure. I’ll be waiting out front.” She smiled once more at Steve and then left again as he tried to process all this new information.

“Maggie’s husband is a college professor, and unfortunately while he is very intelligent his acumen seems to run out when it comes to his two teenage children. The girl just discovered make up and the boy just discovered girls.” Her voice was dripping with fondness. She obviously loved her grandchildren, even if they were teenagers.

“Your daughter,” Steve wasn’t sure how to phrase this in the most politically correct way. “She, uh… she doesn’t...”

“Look much like me? You noticed that, did you?” Her smile remained friendly, bordering on teasing now. “The serum wouldn’t allow me to carry a child to full term. Unfortunately, it took three tries before we found that out. But God saw fit to send my daughter to earth another way. We just had to find her. My husband fought it Japan, and I believe he felt that adopting a child from there would somehow make up for the lives he was forced to take.”

“She mentioned Tony. Did she mean-”

“Tony Stark? Yes, he was kind enough to lend us his jet. He’s also the reason I’ve managed to stay inconspicuous as long as I have, which is something of a miracle considering how prominent my husband came to be. It’s very useful to have a tech genius with a penchant for hacking as a godson. Though he’s taken to calling me Aunt Forever Young, which I could do without.”

“The man loves his nicknames.”

“I should get going before Maggie comes back to drag me off. Thank you again, Captain, for everything you’ve done, and everything you will do.” She stepped forward and tentatively reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. At first a little surprised and unsure, he soon found himself returning her embrace. She didn’t hold it for long, but she was smiling as she stepped back and started towards the door. “If you ever need anything, or just want to talk about the good ol’ days, give me a call. One of your SHIELD friends probably knows where to find my file. Tell them to look under Thompson.”

 

You stepped out into the sunlight, blinking in momentary blindness before you spotted Maggie leaning against the railing, typing what was probably a reassuring text into her phone. She looked up at you and smiled. “Did everything go okay?”

“Yes, I think so. But I wish your father could have been here.” You felt tears pricking at your eyes, and let out a kind of coughing laugh. “Though he wouldn’t have appreciated me hugging Captain America. We’d have to explain why the front page showed pictures of an elderly man trying to punch a beloved national icon.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember the story of the cowboy.”

“Jack Thompson was certainly one of a kind.”

“I know, Mom.” Her hands landed on your shoulders before she pulled you into a hug and whispered, “I miss him, too.”

“Well, now,” you said as you pulled back and wiped brusquely at your eyes. “We should be getting Tony his airplane back. Do you think he’d notice if we had the stripper pole removed?”

Once upon a time there was a lie.

Until the lie became the truth.

And they lived happily ever after.