Even before becoming a spy Peggy’s skill of reading a room and people's moods had slowly but surely been honed. Now that she’d been through war and had spent three years in the SSR working for the agency and behind its back and watching as so many agents were revealed to be corrupt, she could say with little boasting that she was excellent at picking up clues from people’s behaviours.
She could, therefore, tell by the way Agent Holt said “The chief wants to see you pronto” that something was amiss. The atmosphere in the bullpen confirmed it – she'd always felt much more at home with the people in the LA office, as a combination of her Stark-case reputation and Daniel's leadership style had made the LA SSR agents treat her like an equal much quicker and with less fuss. That morning was the first not a single agent but Holt spoke to her or even glanced her way with a good morning greeting or a nod. The number of agents had dwindled significantly when the investigation for corruption had earnestly grilled every person within the SSR, and Peggy was done assessing the various stages of nervousness on all of their faces by the time she was three quarters of the way across the room. That left her a few moments to stare at Daniel’s door and wonder what on earth could have happened in the very short time since she’d said goodbye to him last night that was putting the entire office on edge.
Peggy knocked on the door that was usually left ajar and inviting and waited for the “come in” before she entered, and when she greeted Daniel by calling him chief there was none of her usual fond teasing in the word. There was a man seated on the other side of Daniel's desk, and one quick assessment proved that he was very likely the cause for all the stress. He was dressed in money – everything from his suit to his shiny shoes – had a sharp, pinning gaze that was unashamedly sizing her up as she stood politely at the door to the office. Even more telling was the fact that his presence had Daniel hiding his Hawaiian shirt under a jacket and his crutch behind a filing cabinet instead of on its hook on the wall.
“Agent Carter,” Daniel greeted her, and even if she hadn’t picked up any other clues from the bullpen or the room or the smartly dressed visitor, the title and the tone with which Daniel addressed her would have told her everything. “I'd like you to meet General Lifton.” Peggy extended her hand at once and the general rose to shake it. “He's recently been promoted to one of the SSR directors in DC.”
“Pleasure to meet you, General.” He had a strong grip and was still looking as though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Which was fair; she wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, either. DC had tried to cover their shame as much as possible, but it spoke volumes that a general she had never heard of before was very suddenly filling the place of a powerful somebody who had been poison in their agency and had had to be swiftly removed.
“Likewise, Agent Carter. I've wanted to meet those particularly involved with the Isodyne case for a while, but with all my promotion entails have not yet had a chance.” Lifton sat once more and Peggy went to stand beside the desk, as close to Daniel's chair as she dared. His back was ramrod straight and Peggy knew he needed the support; she wished she could take his hand. “I also wish it was under better circumstances. I explained little to Chief Sousa before your arrival, as I thought it best to only say what I have to say once. Once, after all, is already one time too many.” Peggy managed to stop her frown before it became too noticeable, her eyes flickering to Daniel briefly before they returned to Lifton. Lifton cast a longer, more wary gaze toward Daniel’s door. “Officially, I am still in DC. Officially, my interest in this matter ended when my request for it to be an open case with agents assigned was denied. Officially, the SSR has no record of this conversation. And they never will.”
“You already hinted at this being off the books,” Daniel said carefully, still tense and wary. “But what I don’t understand, Director, is why you’re here, at one of the branches most gutted by the corruption cleanout, ready to talk about doing something that sounds a lot like what we’ve been interrogating and throwing our people in maximum security for over the past couple of months. Sorry to be blunt, but you gotta see why this isn’t sitting well with me.”
The general waved a hand at Daniel’s apology. “Your concern and loyalty are why you’re chief here, Sousa. And also one of the main reasons I came to you for this. It’s…” He hesitated, a flicker of true uncertainty crossing his face for the first time. “It’s a delicate matter. The SSR of years past would have poured its best agents and countless resources into this. But because of the whole fiasco that blew up eight months ago, the heads of the SSR don’t want to…” He hesitated again, eyes flickering from Daniel to Peggy and back again. He changed tracks, suddenly. “I was told to let it go; that it was just another unfortunate ending to an agent like so many other unfortunate endings of the bastards we thought were good agents and turned out to be Red trash. But the Thompsons and I go way back, and their son is…”
“Thompson?” Daniel’s surprise was enough to make him interrupt as the general tried to find the words. Peggy saw Daniel glance at her, very briefly, from the corner of her eye. She kept her face blank, but her heart began to beat faster after it recovered from the lurch it had given at the mention of Jack. “What about Thompson?”
Lifton gave them another unblinking, calculating stare. Peggy stared back. She knew that as one of the DC bigwigs she’d have to continue offering him as much polite respect as possible. However, should he suggest that Jack Thompson be one of those they needed to eliminate because of any sort of disloyalty, the amount of polite respect she would give him would plummet drastically.
Lifton sighed. “Agent Thompson – ”
“Chief,” Peggy interrupted. The general looked at her. She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Chief Thompson arrived safely in New York last week. He was taken straight from the plane by SSR agents and taken to an SSR-approved physician for a final checkup. Not that we didn’t trust your LA doctors but…” Lifton inclined his head. “It was determined that he was, indeed, more than capable to convalesce in a house without any need of anybody assisting him.”
Peggy had to fight a sudden smile at the image of Jack snarling and snapping at some poor New York doctor’s suggestion that he continue to recover under somebody’s watchful eye. Heaven knew he’d given Daniel and Peggy enough grief even when they’d first taken him home from the hospital to Daniel’s house and he’d been unable to sit up on his own.
“He was moved directly to a safehouse, and had an agent assigned to watch him at all times. He did not return to the SSR office, or to his previous home. He made contact with nobody, and was hidden from sight. All the security measures the two of you helped stipulate.” Lifton took a breath. “I was called last night, a little after twenty-three-hundred hours.” His gaze grew strangely blank; too many emotions he was attempting to hide. “Chief Thompson has been kidnapped.”
Peggy’s insides seemed to disappear within her. “By whom? For what purpose?” she demanded, forgetting she had no right to demand things of the DC director.
“I do not know. There has yet to be any sign of a ransom.”
“What were you told exactly?” Daniel demanded, now leaning forward with his hands braced against his desk.
“If I tell you,” Lifton said after a short pause, “it will be because you have agreed to investigate this matter. You’ll do it off the record, with no help and possibly even pushback from other SSR agents. Officially, you’ll both have to be on vacation. And if you get into trouble, there can be nobody to save you. Or your jobs or reputations.”
Peggy glanced to her side and met Daniel’s gaze. In the chaos of the eight months that had passed since she’d first kissed him in that very office, they’d grown very adept at having entire conversations with one another in utter silence. Daniel searched her eyes for a moment and then nodded.
“Agent Carter,” he said, some undercurrent in his voice that made steel start to settle into Peggy’s bones, “please ask Agent Roberts to arrange for us to be on the next flight to New York. When you return, we’ll ask General Lifton to tell us all he knows.”
Peggy and Daniel discussed theories and plans of action in urgent whispers as they sat and waited for the plane, but by the time they were halfway to New York they’d turned over what meagre information they’d been given and beating through the possibilities turned to them sharing their half-baked worries. Jack had almost died on them more than once in those first few days in the hospital. The fact that they’d finally let him, mostly healthy, out of their sight only to have him disappear…
Thompson was an absolute jerk who still frequently made her life hell and who even more frequently deserved a good slap. She’d been as relieved as Daniel to send him back to his own boys in New York after he got well enough to trail around the LA office trying to stick his nose into cases and the way things were run. She was glad he was no longer around to smirk at her and Daniel whenever they stood too close together, or to needle Daniel, or to cheat at cards, or to stand around offering bad advice while she practised on the shooting range, or to cook badly-made suppers when he got bored, using almost every dish and item of food in Daniel’s kitchen and exasperating Daniel to a sort of bemused helplessness.
She was also going to bring about the terror of hell on anybody who dared think it was a good idea to attempt to hurt him.
But her concern for Jack, while at the forefront of her mind, did not obliterate all other things from her notice. So while the plan had been to go straight from the airport to the safehouse and remain awake and searching until they absolutely could not function any more in an attempt to race the already-ticking clock, one look at how the rushing and waiting and plane trip had made Daniel was limp far worse than usual made her immediately offer an alternative plan. But Daniel declined quietly but firmly, and Peggy’s worry for him battled with her worry for Jack and the little voice that was whispering about pots and kettles. By the time Daniel had organised them a hired car and she was stashing their tiny suitcases into the trunk, she’d convinced herself to do no more than insist on being the one to drive.
Leaving their things in the car, they marched up to the plain, tucked away little place (“The House that Jack Built,” Daniel muttered humourlessly) with the full intent to shakedown the agent who had supposedly been guarding Jack. But although they’d both agreed he was the most obvious suspect, one look at the young agent’s face when he answered their secret knock drove most of the conviction of his guilt out of Peggy.
“Agent Carter,” he breathed in tremulous relief, and Peggy allowed him to clasp her hand for longer than was strictly necessary.
“Chief Sousa, this is Agent Lloyd. He was added to the team shortly before I left to join you in LA.”
Lloyd gripped Daniel’s hand just as long and hard, as though clinging to some supernatural symbol of hope. It was all they could do to keep him quiet until they got inside and closed the door for privacy; more detailed information than they really needed poured freely from his lips. But though he certainly gave them more information than Lifton had, the core story stayed precisely the same: There were two bedrooms and two bathrooms in the house, one set upstairs and the other downstairs. Jack had made it very clear from the beginning that Lloyd was to stay downstairs and out of his way. Lloyd obeyed, and spent most of his time in the sitting room on the couch that had a direct view of the stairs. Nothing could come down or up the stairs without him seeing. And he spent his time reading instead of watching television so he could keep alert to the sounds. The night of Jack’s disappearance, he’d not left his post on the couch – even to go to the bathroom for the most basic needs, he assured them twice – except to briefly turn around and close the curtains. He’d heard a noise upstairs that didn’t sound like usual, had paused, had heard another noise and had called up to Jack. When there had been no answer he’d called again and informed Jack he was coming up, risking his chief’s ire. There had been no sign of Jack anywhere, and Lloyd had searched upstairs and downstairs briefly before panicking and calling the SSR.
Lloyd looked miserable and scared enough for Peggy to feel sorry for him; what a rotten, rotten first solo field mission this was turning out to be. He was still not proven innocent, but unless he had acting skills to rival Dottie Underwood’s she was pretty convinced he had had nothing to do with Jack being taken. Seeing he’d calmed down somewhat, Peggy instructed Lloyd show them upstairs and recount what changes to the room had been made by the SSR agents and which things had been out of place when Lloyd had first arrived. Daniel followed her to the stairs, but it only took a while for her to notice he didn’t remain right behind her.
“Daniel?” she inquired softly, hesitating on a step.
“Go on,” he muttered to her. “Go; it’s fine.”
She reached down and squeezed his shoulder once, unable to resist offering him a small bit of comfort, and then turned to follow Lloyd, letting him follow at his own pace. She’d expected the room to be in utter disarray, but it looked more like a bored bachelor had inhabited it and hadn’t been bothered to pack things away properly. None of the furniture was overturned or even shoved violently out of place; nothing was knocked over and broken; there were no stains on the carpet (a fact she was instantly intensely grateful for). In fact, there wasn’t anything but furniture on the floor at all; all his shoes were tucked away and all the bundles were instead draped over furniture or on the armchair present in the room. That made her smile slightly, despite the circumstances; Jack had had the habit of leaving things on the floor when he’d first moved in with Daniel. Then, one day, Daniel had arrived at work with a split lip, and from that day on every time she’d gone over to visit Daniel’s floor had been clear of all hazardous materials. She’d even tested Jack, once; had accidentally dropped her coat on the floor and had watched him laboriously bend to pick it up and fling it across the counter, mid-rant, as though he wasn’t even conscious of what he was doing.
“Agent Lloyd, how much have the SSR tampered with this room?” she asked, making her voice loud enough so Daniel could hear.
“Not at all, Agent Carter. There were only two of ‘em here and they left after an hour of looking around and working me for information. They were told it wasn’t going to be a case so they backed off. It was just me in here after that. And I swear I didn’t touch nothing. Just the ground I walked on and the windows to check they’re still sealed shut.”
Peggy frowned and Daniel appeared in the doorway in time to catch the expression. They looked at each other for a brief moment, and then Daniel asked Lloyd to go and make him coffee. Lloyd eagerly scrambled off to do so and Peggy waited until the sound of him on the stairs had faded before she spoke.
“I don’t like the look of this, Daniel,” she said, quietly. “There’s no sign of a struggle at all.”
“They could have knocked him out.” Daniel inclined his head toward an empty liquor glass on the bedside table.
“They got in here somehow, picked up a drugged Jack and carried him out without Lloyd noticing?”
“It’s slightly more believable than them getting in and dragging a fighting Jack out of here without Lloyd noticing,” Daniel pointed out. He looked at Peggy warily. “Are you thinking something out there like Zero Matter, again?”
“I’m not sure what to think. But how else do we explain something as ridiculous as somebody being abducted in plain sight?”
They lapsed into silence, gazing roving the room, more attempting to collect their thoughts than anything else. Everything seemed entirely preposterous, and if Lloyd wasn’t who he was Peggy would have been sure he’d been the key to the whole operation. Suddenly, loud in the silence, Peggy heard Daniel sigh. She glanced over automatically to see him limp over to the open wardrobe, reach in and remove one of his shirts from the hanger. The look on his face as he tucked the shirt over his arm made Peggy’s mouth twitch upwards. Her smile froze, however, as Daniel froze, staring into the wardrobe. Suddenly his gaze was roving carefully around the room, assessing piles of clothes and blankets and papers as his frown deepened.
“Daniel? What is it?”
“Agent Lloyd,” Daniel called very loudly, going to the door so he could call down the stairs. “Are any of Chief Thompson’s things in the laundry?”
“No, sir,” came Lloyd’s perplexed answer. “We, uh, haven’t gotten around to that stuff, yet.”
“Did he get rid of any of his clothes?” Daniel asked next. “Lose any, bin any, ruin any and have to throw them out, swap any for clothes at home?”
The beat of silence was full of almost audible confusion. “No, sir. Chief Thompson hasn’t thrown out a single thing. And we wanted to wait a few weeks before we sent anybody near his house to go and pick up things he wanted. Just in case.”
“Thanks.” Daniel pulled his head back inside and gestured at the things in the room. “This isn’t all of Jack’s stuff,” he said. “Trust me – living with the guy for eight months makes me know how much of what he has. And this isn’t half of it.”
Peggy stooped under the bed and pulled out a single suitcase. No matter how much she and Daniel hunted, the second one they knew Jack had come to New York with was not in the room. Daniel headed suddenly for the bathroom down the short hall and Peggy followed, arriving in time to see him assessing a rather bare bathroom cabinet.
“None of his meds. Or any of his hair product.” He turned to face her, leaning on the sink, face half perplexed and half very serious.
“Well. Next time we’re in the mood to get kidnapped, we should come to New York – the kidnappers here are very considerate,” Peggy said over brightly. The feeling that something wasn’t right had only intensified, and it now hung like a heavy smog between them. “What in the blue blazes is going on here?” Peggy muttered, utterly frustrated. “None of this makes sense!”
“One of us needs to keep Lloyd busy,” Daniel said quietly, “while the other calls the Acting Chief here and makes sure Jack didn’t organise something that was high level security. Lloyd and the other agents wouldn’t have known if it was.”
“And you think nobody notified Lifton and the other DC bigwigs?” Peggy asked, sceptically.
But it did seem like the sort of thing Jack would do: organise his own escape from something put in place to keep him safe. And Peggy wanted to get character references for Lloyd from some of the agents she knew and trusted a bit more. So while Daniel engaged Lloyd in the sitting room over pointless details, Peggy rang up the New York SSR. She got what she’d expected: as far as anybody knew, Jack’s disappearance had not been planned by anybody good. And Lloyd was green and easily spooked but determined and loyal.
So Peggy and Daniel returned upstairs, looking in the ceiling, the floor and the walls for any way Jack could have been taken. Or could have escaped. But although they were thorough the windows remained tightly sealed and there were no hollow openings or secret staircases anywhere. By the time they were done, it was past two am and both of them were hungry, frustrated and flagging. Peggy’s feet and head ached and Daniel was two or three shades too pale and noticeably struggling. And they were still utterly stumped.
“It would be too much to ask for there to be good tea in the kitchen, wouldn’t it?” Peggy asked glumly, staring with itching eyes at the room while perched on the armrest of the chair Daniel was sunken into.
“I think we may have more luck finding a tea shop in the kitchen than finding out how Jack managed to no longer be in this room,” Daniel muttered tiredly.
“Are you alright?” Peggy murmured to him softly, one hand unthinkingly playing with the curls that had started rebelling against the hold he’d put them in early that morning.
“Mmm,” Daniel replied, leaning his head against her side. She caught his small wince, however, and she sighed, carding her fingers through his hair slower.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, frustrated. “Except tie Lloyd up and work him until he proves himself to be a very good liar.”
“That seems almost as unlikely as Jack walking through walls,” Daniel replied, one hand rubbing firm circles into her neck despite the awkward twist his arm had to do for him to reach without lifting his head from her side.
She sighed in pleasure and let her aching eyes close. But even that couldn’t make her fully relax; Jack had been missing for a full day, and the ticking clock made the chance of finding him – let alone finding him alive – increasingly less likely. But her brain was stalling, and she knew Daniel had to rest and take care of his leg, and so she stood up reluctantly.
“Right. You go and fight Agent Lloyd for the downstairs bedroom, and I’ll sleep here.” At his look she rolled her eyes. “I have slept in sheets that men have slept in before, Daniel. Besides; I’d rather sleep in Thompson’s sheets than Lloyd’s.”
“I’m far too tired to even begin processing that,” Daniel said with an over-exaggerated grimace of horror.
She swatted him lightly on the shoulder and pretended not to notice how much of a struggle it was for him to get to his feet. As they trailed slowly to the stairs, Peggy reflexively kept glancing at the floors and walls and ceiling around her, searching for something they’d missed. They hadn’t spent much time in the tiny hallway; it was just big enough to serve as a stair landing and a connection between the bedroom and bathroom, and couldn’t have hidden anything too impressive.
And then her eyes caught sight of the dumbwaiter, and she wanted to smack herself for her own stupidity. “Daniel!” She gripped his arm, feeling her eyes going wide. “The dumbwaiter.”
Peggy flung herself onto the floor and pried open the hatch. Her heart leapt with excitement as she realised the device was on some lower floor; evidence that it could have been used to lower something. Something like Jack Thompson. She began pulling it up eagerly.
“Can somebody even operate one of those from inside it?” Daniel asked, doubtful. “Doesn’t it need to be pulled from outside?”
“The one at the Griffith didn’t; Howard managed to pull himself up just fine.” She felt Daniel’s gaze turn perplexed. “I had to hide him somewhere. And apparently I was not the first to use it as a method of smuggling men inside.”
She fit inside easily; Jack could definitely have squashed in, even with a suitcase on his knees. And it was possible for her to lower herself; incredibly difficult and awkward, but possible.
“Peggy,” Daniel said, worriedly.
His caution was cut off by Agent Lloyd suddenly shouting, excitedly, “Agent Carter! Chief Sousa! It’s the noise I heard! It’s back again somewhere!”
“I’ll see where this leads and find a way to get you in here as well,” she promised him, and before he could protest she left his concerned face behind.
It was, admittedly, slightly claustrophobic in the dark, laboriously lowering herself in between the walls of the house. There was a brief almost-light, and she guessed she’d reached a closed-off port in the ground floor. There was, to her delight, the possibility for her to go even lower down. And down she went. She only thought of bringing a torch when she ground to a final halt in utter darkness. The only way she could tell she wasn’t simply trapped in the spaces between the walls was the open space to her right. Cautiously, she stuck her hand out and waved it a bit. It met no resistance.
“Daniel?” She called. Her voice echoed horribly, and she winced, rethinking her plan to lead him down there by sound. With a sigh, she began hauling herself up to the ground floor. It was far more difficult than going down, and she was panting and sweaty and surely red in the face when she got to the first opening of the dumbwaiter. It took some beating on the door for Daniel and Lloyd to figure out she was behind a cabinet, and once they’d moved the cabinet and opened the dumbwaiter door, Peggy was rather fed up with the whole business. She briefly explained about the hidden basement, got handed a torch by a very eager Agent Lloyd, and lowered herself down again.
The torch beam showed her a bare, concrete room with stains and things growing she didn’t stop to look at too closely. There were definitely rats living down there. There was one bricked up doorframe on the same side as the dumbwaiter – there had once been another way down there – and a set of small stairs leading to a trapdoor on the other side of the room. Peggy found it immovable when she shoved, but something in the give of it made her pull and then nearly fall down the stairs when it proved to open inwards. Sticking her head through, she promptly bumped it against something very hard. Swearing, she shone the light up and found, to her surprise, a wooden fence. They hadn’t looked much at the garden upon first arriving apart from a quick, cursory glance, but it appeared the little house was very firmly boxed in at the back. Frowning, Peggy pushed at the wooden slats in front of her. With a protesting creak, they moved a little.
“I thought so,” she muttered.
“Peggy?” Daniel’s voice was faint but still made her jump slightly.
She went back to the dumbwaiter and yelled up her discoveries for him to hear, telling him to meet her in whatever was behind the house. She got a few bruises shoving her way through the fence, and her trek made a sliver of doubt begin to gnaw on her mind. Had a still-recovering Jack really come that way? She ended up in a rather broad alleyway that was full of rubbish bins, rather bad graffiti, an abandoned, mismatched couple of armchairs and a faint set of tyre tracks. She was trying to assess how fresh the tracks were when the sound of Daniel’s crutch announced his arrival.
“I told Lloyd to guard the house,” he said when he caught her looking reflexively over her shoulder.
Peggy’s mouth twitched; she wasn’t the only one thinking of the young agent as a forlorn guard-puppy. She showed Daniel the tyre tracks and the place the fence was able to be pushed back. In doing so, she found where her hair had been caught on a sharp piece of wood. In the same crevice, almost unseen, were a few strands of short, blonde hair. Her doubts about Jack going that way eased and were replaced with exasperation; what on earth had possessed him to go climbing through the fence? That answer remained in the same place as the answer as to why he’d left the house at all.
“Some of the neighbours might have seen something,” she said, angling her torchlight to the surrounding houses and block of flats that overlooked the alley on the other side.
“Yeah, but even if they did they won’t tell us if we wake them at past three in the morning,” Daniel’s entire demeanour screamed exhausted, and Peggy couldn’t fool herself into believing she was anywhere near fully functioning.
“First thing in the morning, then,” she said, and left silent their mutual guilt and worry over letting more time tick past on the imaginary clock hanging over Jack’s head. “Do you still think he was kidnapped?” she asked quietly as the house came into view.
The arm she had hers looped through shrugged. “I don’t know what to think,” Daniel answered honestly. “But I know it’s not something good.”
Peggy forced herself out of bed as soon as the sounds of the neighbourhood going about their day woke her, even though she was sure she could have slept for a good many more hours. Agent Lloyd was asleep on the couch, snoring softly, but Daniel was in the kitchen making coffee for himself, a cup of magically-produced tea on the counter beside him. They were still munching dry toast as they began their rounds through the neighbourhood houses, targeting those still inside despite the work day having begun as they were the most likely to be the most nosy.
Despite this hope, Peggy had very little luck; the neighbours didn’t even want to offer her common courtesy, let alone answers to the big mystery of Jack Thompson that weighed heavily on her shoulders. Daniel found her contemplating furiously ringing the doorbell of a door that had just been slammed unceremoniously in her face.
“I rather want to go back to LA, now,” she grumbled, and then sighed. “Please tell me you had more luck?”
“Actually – I just got yelled at by a very affronted mom who said that she wasn’t responsible for what her kid did when he wasn’t under her roof. And I obviously don’t appreciate art because I spend too much time looking in the mirror.”
“Very charming,” Peggy snorted. “And not exactly a wealth of information. The mirror bit, for example, was entirely untrue at all.”
“But it’s a start,” Daniel said, blushing and not quite able to meet her eye at first. “And it’s the only lead we’ve got. Hopefully her kid and his friends were hanging around the alley at just the right time and they saw something that can help.”
There was some half-finished graffiti work in the alley, and they took that as the most positive sign they would get. Once again, both almost howling with frustration, Peggy and Daniel found themselves having to wait. They spent the day getting irritated with each other and Agent Lloyd at the defunct safehouse, apologised for being snappish over dinner and then set up a surveillance point in the rapidly-darkening alley. Neither of them dared say it out loud lest they jinxed something, but both were wondering what they would do should nothing come of the only lead they had. Jack could easily be in another country by then. Or he could have ceased existing on earth entirely. And that last possibility was the exact reason neither of them were talking about it, even though there long stretches where there was nothing to do but wait and talk.
And their stubborn refusal not to borrow trouble seemed to pay off; a little after nine, a group of rowdy boys entered the alleyway, teasing each other and roughhousing in the dark. Peggy briskly leapt up from where she’d been sitting and bore down on the group, leaving Daniel to rise and follow at his own pace and discretion. Predictably, Peggy’s sudden appearance caused a bit of a commotion. But nothing really interesting or worth her while started happening until her questions upset the obvious leader of the gang enough that he started to threaten her, and she used his waving fist as the leverage she needed to throw him very neatly to the floor. His second in command muscle man started forward while the rest stood in dumbstruck surprise (she almost wished it was light enough for her to see the expressions on their faces) but he, too, met the alley floor. His quick decent was courtesy of Daniel’s crutch.
“I shall ask yet again,” Peggy said, very sweetly. “Did any of you boys happen to spy a car that was parked in front of this wooden fence two nights ago?”
Daniel had to cheerfully bang a few more knees, but eventually the truth came tumbling out of the mouths of the more nervous seeming members of the group. It came, surprisingly, in the form of an apology.
“Man, we didn’t know the car belonged to you. We thought it was some schmuck messing with some other dude’s gal and parking in here so his car wasn’t seen. This is our alley. So we thought we’d make him know better than to park here again.”
It turned out they’d more than seen the generic, small black car that had parked in the alley two nights before; they’d also graffitied the side door. After getting an exact description of the graffiti and as much information about the car as the kids remembered, Peggy and Daniel returned to the house and the lost-looking Agent Lloyd and finally, grimly, came to the realisation that they needed some help.
“I’ll call in some favours with the guys in the New York office who owe me from the old days,” Daniel said. “They have the resources to trace a car with that kind of noticeable sign on it. I know Lifton said we couldn’t use SSR resources, but he meant officially. We can still do it off the books.”
“And I’ll call in some favours of my own. I highly doubt that anybody of the calibre we’re looking for will keep an obvious mark on their car for very long.”
“Auto shops?” Daniel guessed.
Peggy nodded. “There are too many in this city for us to reach on our own. Besides; we don’t know the ones people who want to keep this sort of thing quiet would go to.”
She kept turning the logic over and over in her head to negate the old, churning worry that she was leading her friends to the slaughter. Thinking of Mr Jarvis’ words about everybody needing somebody made her call him for help first, leaving out everything except that she was in New York and on the hunt for a graffitied car. Only once she had his eager assurances to help did she dial Angie, who turned out to be even more eager to be part of the action than Mr Jarvis did.
Guilt and worry churning in her gut, Peggy lay awake for a long time that evening, tossing and turning as she thought about Angie and what had happened to Colleen, and the Jarvises, who had already been so negatively impacted from something she’d dragged them into. She remembered Ana’s hug on the day she’d come back home. And, somewhere after that, her thoughts became muddled – visions of Jack slipping further away and the sincere declarations of loyalty from her friends twining and untwining until she finally fell into fitful dreams.
Daniel looked about as rested as she felt the next morning, and by the time it was noon and they’d hit their fifth or sixth dead-end in an auto shop they almost needed some time apart from each other so they could resist the urge of attacking one another without meaning to. Daniel went to find lunch, and Peggy took her time finding them beverages – she refused to suffer through an awful cup of tea on top of everything else – and finally met up with Daniel to find lunch and a bunch of hand-picked flowers. She didn’t care that people stared as she grabbed him and kissed him right on the street. He was wonderful. And he was there. And they were going to find Jack and bring him home.
They returned to the safehouse without any luck, discouraged and aware of the ticking clock but with the limitations of what they could do in a day fully realised. Agent Lloyd was practically bouncing in place as they pulled up, and he didn’t even wait until they were inside to breathlessly inform Peggy that “her pleasant actress contact” had called with news that she’d found a place that had treated a car with the described artwork on the door. She left Daniel to hear Agent Lloyd dutifully recounting Angie’s story of discovery – one that included some friends of friends and a funny family anecdote – and went to call the woman in question.
Angie launched into the story as soon as she heard it was Peggy, breathless with excitement and pride. Peggy let her have the reigns of the conversation for the most part, interrupting only when it turned out Angie had gone to the auto shop to inquire who the car belonged to and where said owner lived.
“Oh, come on, English,” Angie brushed aside Peggy’s scolding. “How else am I gonna practise? I need real, off-the-cuff challenges! And, man, I made him believe this creep really was an ex of mine I wanted revenge on! Got his address and everything.”
Torn between exasperation and gratitude, Peggy carefully jotted down the address of the graffitied car owner, heart beginning to hammer in her chest. They finally had a real break; one that could potentially lead them straight to Jack. She only hoped that it wasn’t a complete dead end. Telling Daniel only that she had the address and he should get ready, Peggy flew upstairs to change into something a lot more suitable for rescuing victims of kidnap. She came downstairs to find Daniel dressed and ready, but on the phone.
“Thank you very much, Sir,” he said, hanging up and frowning at the phone as though it would suddenly do a funny dance.
“What is it?” she asked.
“That was General Lifton himself. He said he was calling from a secure line but couldn’t be long and said he didn’t have time to check in with our investigation, but one of the people he was digging for info came through. He said Jack was seen in a black car on the night he was kidnapped, just before midnight. He can pin the car to a location.”
“I thought the reason we were doing this investigation was because he couldn’t? Or wouldn’t; whatever the case may be.”
“I suppose he didn’t expect anything to come up from the people he was pressing, and then it just so happened something hit a mark?” Daniel shook his head. “The real problem is that the address I got from Lifton isn’t the one Angie gave you. They’re not even in the same neighbourhood; Lifton's is all the way out in Travis.”
And, suddenly, Jack’s life potentially hung on who they decided to trust more – a good friend, or a high-ranking official with the same training as them. If they made the wrong choice, the consequence could be them failing at retrieving Jack. Daniel and Peggy stared at each other, both grim and both undecided. There was only one alternative, and Peggy knew Daniel wouldn't like it.
“We need to investigate both,” she said, quietly but firmly. “And there’s no time to guess and be wrong. We need to split up.”
“Daniel, he’s already been gone for almost three days. Who knows what’s – ” She took a deep breath. “There’s no time. There’s no room for error. We need to both investigate a location, scout it out thoroughly and then meet at a rendezvous point to discuss our findings and our logical choice where to infiltrate to look for Jack’s trail.”
She wanted to push more; fling words and arguments his way until he saw her sense. But she knew and respected Daniel enough to bite her tongue painfully and let him come to the conclusion on his own. His expression was troubled and pained, and she took his hand automatically.
“Scouting only,” he stressed.
“Yes, of course.”
She sighed. “I won’t go into the place guns blazing on my own, Daniel. We can even make the time to rendezvous such that I wouldn’t be able to do anything more than scout without risking not meeting you in time and making you send an entire SSR fleet after me.”
Daniel’s ears reddened a little, but he made her commit to only scouting once again before they parted ways, and kissed her firmly enough that her cabbie was still grinning as he pulled away from the house. Daniel had taken the rental car, as Lifton’s address had him heading to the middle of the marsh truck farming area, and getting a taxi getaway or even a convenient building to slip into would be much more difficult for him. Peggy could, practically, also run a lot further and faster than him. She'd found the fact that she was going to a place in a Frost Street slightly ironic, but as soon as she realised she was in a neighbourhood named English Kills she began to wonder whether the universe was sending her some kind of message. Angie’s information led her to 15 Frost Street, English Kills; a small block of flats that looked rather uninviting and closed off to the rest of the world. Rather cliché, in her opinion. While walking the perimeter, she found a dingy little lot with sloppily painted numbers on bricks in front of each space – marked parking places for those inhabiting the flat. There were a number of black cars, but only one of them had a door that was a slightly different shade to the rest of the car, and it was parked in parking place number nine.
She hung around outside the bolted gate until a surly couple exited, and then she simply slipped inside, giving them a tight smile that was not returned. Trying to act as though she belonged there, Peggy found her way to number seven and then stopped, stumped. There was a light shining underneath the door, making it too risky to pick the lock to take a look around. But she also didn’t know how else to be sure whether this was the place she was looking for. What if the owner of the car parked it in nine’s parking place for extra security, for starters? And even if it was the correct man, how was she supposed to get any inkling whether he was involved with Jack’s disappearance or not by staring at his locked door? She’d learned absolutely nothing from that trip; was still unsure whether this was the lead to pursue or not.
Frustrated, she did the only thing left to her in surveillance mode: she placed her ear to the keyhole and strained to listen, blocking out the noises from the other flats as best she could. Peggy had little hope she would hear anything, even without all the loud talking and faint radio she could hear from the surrounding flats. But she strained her ears anyway, teeth grit and determined to find something concrete that would tell her if this was the lead worth pursuing or if the place Daniel was currently scouting was the real lead to where Jack was.
She jumped rather violently as the person next door began blaring a scratchy radio station, the sound ebbing and flowing horribly as the connection waxed and waned. She sighed and was about to straighten up when there was suddenly the pounding of something heavy hitting the wall.
“For shit’s sake; turn it down!”
She still had her ear close enough to the keyhole to hear that the irate voice and thumping came from inside the flat she was watching. And she had heard Jack yelling enough times to be able to recognise his voice, even muffled by static and a door.
All promises to Daniel about just looking and not doing flew out the window, and Peggy hauled out her lockpicking kit and made quick work of the flat door. Putting her kit away and drawing her weapon, she entered as quietly as she could, hoping the warbling radio would mask her entry. But as she closed the door behind her, quickly scanning what turned out to be a bachelor flat with too many musty pieces of furniture, she noticed a weapon being pointed her way out of the corner of her eye. Swearing internally, she whirled around and pointed her gun at –
“Carter?” His face was nothing short of astonished as he lowered his weapon. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Peggy glanced around, her heart hammering in adrenalin and surprise and relief, and found that Jack’s missing suitcase and clothes were strewn around every surface possible in the flat. There was no sign of anybody else, and certainly no sign that Jack was there against his will. “Rescuing you, you arse!” she replied, relief making her words sharper than she’d intended. “Where the hell have you been?”
Jack’s expression was an amusing mix between confusion, irritation and amusement. “Rescuing me?”
“You bloody disappeared!” She put away her gun, mostly because she was afraid she might be tempted to shoot him if he didn’t explain how he was okay and not kidnapped after all he’d put them through in the past three days. “We were told you were kidnapped! We’ve been hunting you down for days.” She took a few menacing steps forward. “You had better have a good explanation for why you’re here and not in the safehouse you’re supposed to be in! You… you…!”
“Jeez, Marge, no need to go into hysterics.” Peggy levelled him with her best murderous look. “I was told there was a breach in security; the safehouse was no longer safe. I was ordered to get out of the house through an escape route mapped out for me, find the car waiting for me and drive to the location I’d find in the dashboard and not to leave the place until I was told. And I was a good boy and did as I was told.” He pulled a face. “Okay, I went to get the car seen to. Some damn kids decided to graffiti the side and I didn’t want a flashing sign pointing its way to me when I’m – What?”
The bitterness that laced his explanation disappeared as he blinked at her, suddenly confused by whatever he was seeing on her face. “We were told you were gone, Jack. There’s a phone in the lobby of this place! We have secret passcodes! You couldn’t have let us know?”
“Hey, I was told the SSR still had moles and not to tell anybody. Not even Lloyd.”
“You think Daniel and I are Leviathan?”
“No. What the hell are you – ?”
“So then why didn’t you call us and give us a coded message letting us know you weren’t dead, or being taken to Russia, or worse? Three days, Jack! It was sheer dumb luck and circumstance I even found you!”
“You’re getting mad at me for not getting kidnapped?” His face was incredulous. “Now there's logic for you.” Her expression made his scowl deeper. “I didn’t tell you, Carter, because I didn’t think it would – ”
He broke off, suddenly, and there was just as suddenly the strangest expression on his face. Peggy filled in the rest of the sentence: he didn’t think they’d be worried about him. Jack’s eyes slid from hers and he shifted awkwardly, no longer incredulous and confident but uncertain and bewildered in a different way as he seemed to realise what it meant that Peggy and Daniel were in New York. That they had been spending all their time looking for him.
“Peggy…” He glanced at her, and then the shutters came down again as his shoulders squared. “The higher-ups should have denied your request to be on this case,” he said, gruffly. “It’s them you should be mad at. Organising all this and then letting you and Sousa come on a wild goosechase. Using SSR funds we already don’t… have…” Jack’s eyes narrowed. “You’re here unauthorised, aren’t you?”
She felt herself blushing, and got cross at his smile and the shake of his head. "We thought you'd been kidnapped! And nobody in the SSR wanted to help us find you!" Jack's soft bemusement shifted to awkwardness again, and he studied her shoulders instead of meeting her gaze. "Well. That's your bad for jumping to conclusions," he said, lamely. “In our defence,” she said, exasperated, “a DC director came to us with the news. He said this was denied as a case but asked us to pursue it anyway, even after confirming we’d be going rogue to do so.”
“Somebody in DC cared about me that much?” Jack looked pleasantly surprised. “One of the new guys? Who was it – Sanders? Quell?”
“Lifton, if you must know,” Peggy muttered mulishly.
Jack’s face stuttered in shock. “You’re pulling my leg,” he said, and there was something in his voice that made the hairs on Peggy’s arms and neck stand upright.
“I assure you, Jack, General Lifton came to LA, sat in Daniel’s office, and told us you’d been kidnapped and no agents were allowed to be assigned to your case because the SSR wouldn’t make you a case.”
Jack stared at her for a few seconds. “You’re sure it was Lifton? Not somebody pretending to be him?”
“I didn’t ask him for identification. What are you - ?”
“Tall man? Sixties? Scar on the underside of his chin, here?”
“Yes to all of that. Why is this –?”
“Peggy.” Jack moved to stand right in front of her, white and grim. “Lifton was in New York when I arrived from LA. He went with me to get me checked out by the doctors, then pulled me aside and told me the safehouse had been breached. He gave me the orders to run. He arranged the getaway car, this place, everything. If he was also the one to get you and Sousa here…”
Something cold and unpleasant oozed down Peggy’s chest. “It was a trap the whole time,” she realised. A tsunami wave of horror crashed so brutally she reached out and grabbed Jack’s arm instinctively. “Daniel.”
“Where is he?” Jack demanded at once.
“In Travis. Lifton called and gave him the address, saying that his contacts came through and they’d found where you’d been taken. But my contacts had come through and given me this address so we split up.”
Jack wheeled around, bent awkwardly and came up holding a second weapon. “Let’s go get him, then,” he said.
“Who said you’re coming with? You’re not even cleared for field duty, yet! Jack.”
He didn’t even slow his stride, leaving her to close the door behind her. “I’m in charge of keeping this city safe from people like Lifton, number one. Two, you get into too much trouble by yourself, and since I’m technically still your boss, all that paperwork would be mine to deal with. Three, only an idiot would stay in the house the bad guy sent him to stay in.”
Peggy exhaled sharply. “Fine! But if you drop because you’re still recovering, so help me I will leave you there. Give me your car keys.”
Jack slowed so he could look at her. “The car’s Lifton’s. He knows it.”
“Yes, but it’s less conspicuous than a cab and it’s ours to drive. Keys.” Jack had to go back to the flat to get them, and even after he returned there was a squabble about who was driving. “You don’t know where Daniel and I picked as the rendezvous spot,” she pointed out, reasonably.
“You could direct me there.” But she’d already snatched the keys from him. Scowling, he slammed his way into the passenger seat. “And you’re sure the rendezvous isn’t compromised?”
Peggy shook her head, reversing out in a squeal of tyres that had Jack gripping the dashboard with a curse. “We made sure we were the only two who knew.”
Even so, she parked the car in as secluded a place as possible, and made Jack lie across the back seats so he stayed out of sight. She’d parked the one side of the car so close to the wall nobody could approach it from that side, and Jack groused and complained and winced as he had to clamber to the back without leaving the car. She left him, gun at the ready, and entered the quaint automat, half wishing it was Angie’s and that she’d get some relief from the emotions churning dark and unpleasant in her gut.
She was early, and frostily fended off interested gentlemen until their arranged time came. She fended off more interested gentlemen as the clock ticked on. Half an hour late. An hour late. An hour and a half. After two hours, she could no longer deny the facts: Daniel would have arrived by then if he’d been able to come. Heart heavy, jaw clenched, mind spinning, Peggy returned to the car. Jack appeared asleep at first, but his gun hand twitched as she came into view, and when he saw it was her he struggled to sit up.
“Do you know what the address was?” he asked seriously when she entered the car. "We don't have time to go getting stuck in marshes or some angry Polish man's flower crop."
His tone and the look he was giving her were so similar to Daniel’s when they’d made the decision to go after Jack. As back then, Peggy felt steel entering her bones. “Yes.”
Jack nodded. “Get me to a payphone, first. We’ll go in after Sousa, and my SSR boys will come in after us.”
“Daniel might not even be there any more.” Her throat closed at the possibility. Having Jack missing and unreachable had been difficult enough. But Daniel… The thought of having to imagine Daniel as not there any more made something inside of her splinter slightly.
“Then we’ll have a team of trained agents to send out in every direction to find where they went,” Jack pointed out. “Come on, Marge. Isn’t this what you always wanted – to do things your way?”
Jack’s hand hesitantly brushed her shoulder; some awkward attempt at comfort, and Peggy found herself smiling grimly.
They stashed the car as far away as possible, not wanting to draw attention to their arrival. And, as they avoided the marshland and crept up upon what looked like a converted warehouse, they stumbled upon the rental car hidden in a very practical, Daniel-ish way. It gave Peggy hope, somehow; nobody had had enough time to hide evidence that Daniel had been there, at least at some point.
There were two men guarding the door, and Peggy took one of them out while Jack subdued the other. The man managed to get a good elbow into Jack’s chest, nearly dropping him where he stood, and Peggy quickly felled him and then placed a foot on his throat, aiming her gun at him.
“’m okay,” he was wheezing slightly. “Son of a bitch.”
“Where is Daniel Sousa?” Peggy demanded of the man under her foot, leaving Jack to recover and keep an eye on the other man to make sure he stayed unconscious.
“I have no idea who – ”
“This tall, brown hair, bad dress sense, walks with a crutch,” Jack snapped. “We don’t have all night.”
“Tell us what we want to know, and you end up knocked out like your colleague and absolved of any guilt.”
“Keep mouthing off,” Jack added, “and we’ll make sure your bosses think you let us in here, singing like a canary. And I’ll shoot you,” he added as an afterthought.
“You wouldn’t – ”
Jack raised his weapon and Peggy quickly silenced the sneering man by removing her foot from his neck and using it to stamp some place strategic before returning it to his neck.
“Shooting is loud, Jack. We’re trying to be quiet,” she said mildly over the man’s moans of pain. “Where is Daniel Sousa? Where did they take him?” She sighed in irritation. “Fine. Shoot him. Just make sure he can still talk, please.”
“Right, like you left him with a lot to say,” Jack muttered, pretending to take aim.
“He’s still inside,” the man gasped.
Peggy thanked him curtly before she knocked him out and her and Jack trailed cautiously into the dark warehouse. There was nothing on the first floor, but a light was on at the bottom of the stairs. As silently as they could, Peggy in the lead, they crept down the stairs. And found themselves facing a number of passages that ran off from the stair room, each as long and twisted-looking as the rest.
“Finding rats in a maze,” Jack snorted. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
Jack’s words, while not intended as anything more than stress release on his part, proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy: within ten minutes of starting down a random hallway, they found themselves right back in the stairs room that they’d started in. It didn’t take long for them to get very turned around, and without anything they could leave behind as markers they were running blind. And frustrated. Peggy found herself wishing that they’d come across one of the said rats, just so she knew she wasn’t stuck in one of those awful, never-ending nightmares. And then she cursed herself fifteen minutes later when they neared a bend in a new passage and saw a shadow creeping around the corner.
The shadow must have seen them because it froze and waited. They froze and waited. The shadow’s arm raised, and there was a very distinctly weapon-shadow in its shadow-hand. Jack raised his gun and ignored the faces Peggy was making his way, instead simply gesturing for her to cover him. Without another pause, dodging the hand she reached out to grab him with, he barrelled around the corner. Peggy flew after him, and was so intent on his face that she saw the shock as he swore and jerked his gun to the side. That action meant he clipped her, hard, in the stomach as she came around the corner. But it wasn’t being winded slightly from Jack’s deliberate attempt to not shoot that made Peggy breathless when she spoke.
His shirt was ripped and stained with blood – his, if the crusty smears across his temple and bottom lip and nose were any indication. Bruises were just beginning to form and she was careful of those she could see in the dim light as she grabbed him and kissed him, hauling them both upright when his hold on the wall – the only support he had at the moment – proved more tenuous than she’d first thought. The kiss was all swift, crushing relief, and before long he was running anxious, dirty fingers across her unmarked face. And then he glanced over at Jack and did a visible double take.
“Jack? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you,” Jack replied exasperatedly.
Daniel blinked at him, eyes wide. “Oh. Good job, so far. Real helpful.”
“Angie’s address proved fruitful,” Peggy summarised quickly. “I suppose we don’t need to tell you Lifton is a snake?”
“Figured out that much by myself,” Daniel said, grimly. He listed a little, caught himself, and frowned. “Please don’t tell me you two came down here to match the forces of a guy who has money and power by yourselves with two handguns.”
“We have three guns,” Peggy pointed out after a long pause.
“And we did call for backup. It’s on its way. It should be on its way. It’s probably coming,” Jack added.
If Daniel had had a hand free, he would have been pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. Peggy thought it was time to take a hold of the conversation again; they were, after all, standing out in the open, just begging to be discovered. And Daniel was right – for all they knew, they were probably outnumbered. By how much seemed to be anybody’s guess, but she’d rather play it safe.
“How many rounds left in there?” She asked Daniel, indicating the gun that was certainly not his.
“Empty,” he admitted sheepishly.
Peggy opened her mouth, but Jack beat her to having to ask by handing over his second gun wordlessly. She pretended to watch the exchange, using the moment to assess Daniel a little closer. She hadn’t seen him needing to walk without the support of at least sturdy furniture since the rift incident, and she hadn’t exactly been paying attention to his limitations of walking at the time. She knew it had been slow, and could vaguely remember him mentioning once that it was a good thing it was a short walk, and she knew for certain that too much weight on the prosthesis, while doable after the PT he’d received since coming to LA was no less agonising than it always had been. And that was when he wasn’t injured.
She bit her lip. “Daniel,” she said, quietly, as though speaking softly would save him from having to have that conversation in front of Jack, “how fast and far can you go right now?”
His smile was brittle and self-mocking. “I think a herd of sloths passed me back there.” He glanced down the hallway, and the quick turning of his head seemed to make him dizzy for a moment. Peggy started to reach up to the blood stains along his hairline automatically. “It might be better if you two – ”
“We are not leaving you,” Peggy interrupted, fiercely. “Derail all thoughts leading in that direction immediately.”
“So. Hidey hole until the SSR get here, then,” Jack said instead of making some comment Peggy had half expected him to make.
Surprising her even more, Jack marched over to Daniel’s left, pulled the arm away from the wall, caught Daniel as he toppled and began putting Daniel’s arm around his shoulders.
“What are you – ?”
“Faster this way, Sousa. And you know it.” Daniel resisted. “Now is not the time for pride issues.”
“I’m not – ” Daniel flinched. “Ribs, ribs, ribs,” he hissed out, and Jack paused too late, swearing softly.
Jack moved more carefully, but Daniel still groaned more than once as his arm got settled around Jack’s shoulders. Jack’s left arm fluttered uncertainly, unable to grip Daniel around the waist and not sure where else to hold on for purchase.
“This,” Daniel panted, “is not going to work.”
“Shut up, Sousa. You’re the most ungrateful damsel I’ve ever had to rescue. And most of them have been beastly in their manners, let me tell you.”
“Maybe that says more about you than the ‘damsels’,” Daniel shot back.
Peggy took pity on Jack’s awkward flailing, grabbed his left arm and hooked his fingers into the loops of Daniel’s trousers. Both men gave her funny looks, and she just arched an eyebrow and took the lead on taking them back to the stair room. There had been a locked door or two down some of the hallways; now that they weren’t as afraid of making a noise, they could break one down and shoot whoever tried to follow them in. Of course, less afraid of making a noise still meant they had to try and remain as quiet as possible until they simply could not any more, something Daniel and Jack seemed to have forgotten. Both of them were swearing – at each other and in general – as they tried to follow Peggy and found out that walking all slung around each other was a lot more complex than Jack had thought.
“It’s like a damn three-legged race!” she heard Jack say through gritted teeth at one point, his tone exasperated.
They tried some more steps, and Peggy glanced back to check they weren’t being hunted from behind in time to see Daniel almost fold to the ground, practically taking Jack with him. Jack had paled considerably and was starting to sweat and Peggy realised, belatedly, that while a healthy Jack Thompson could support Daniel with relative ease, healing-from-a-chest-wound Jack Thompson could not. She started toward them, but something in Daniel’s expression as he looked up – hurting and humiliated and furious – stalled her steps.
“This is ridiculous,” he wheezed, clearly in a world of pain. “Just put me down and – ”
“Sousa,” Jack panted back. “Shut up and keep walking.”
“Jack – ”
“Shut up, Daniel.” They glared at each other, close enough they almost had to squint. “You’re damn well coming with us. Right now. Keep damn walking.” The glaring continued. “I’m not leaving your sorry ass here, you ass.”
Some tension cracked and broke between them. It took a few more tries to get a rhythm going, but Peggy waited as patiently as she could, and they kept trying until they managed to get it right. It was painfully slow going, and although none of them mentioned it, all of them could tell they were just inviting trouble. As soon as somebody discovered Daniel was missing, or saw the unconscious guards outside, their peace would be shattered. And they’d be lost underground with a swarm of people to try and fight back. Daniel kept trying to force himself to move quicker, but he was struggling at the slow pace as it was, and the more of his weight Jack had to take, the more Jack struggled.
The first shot, Peggy was always chagrined to admit later, caught even her completely unaware. The split-second sound of gunfire left her time to do nothing but start in shock, and then there was searing pain across her shoulder and she was dropping instinctively, rolling to fire back. Daniel and Jack joined in a moment later, also trying to use the small bends in the hallway to their advantage even as a small stream of bullets kept assaulting them from behind a corner. She couldn't be sure how many there were with the noise echoing off the hallways, but glancing at the bodies that slipped around the corner to shoot at them, she guessed three. That made them evenly matched, and even with all three of them injured in some way she was confident about their chances enough to force herself forward in the offensive. Somebody called her name behind her but she ignored them. One hand about to shoot them jerked back as her bullet landed. The hand's backup got taken out by one of the men behind her. No more hands appeared and Peggy strained against the slight ringing in her ears to hear. Eventually, sick of the waiting, she cautiously made her way forward and peeked around the bend. There were blood stains and blood trails, but no people; they'd retreated.
“Peggy? Did they get you?”
Jack rose slightly laboriously to his feet, his eyes fixed on the shoulder that was throbbing up a storm.
“Just grazed me, luckily.” Jack still came over to inspect the wound, tying his tie around it as best he could. Peggy grit her teeth, stared at the ceiling and counted from twenty backwards in Russian to try and distract herself. It still hurt enough that automatic tears seared her eyes. “We have to get out of here before they come back; we need to find a more strategic position than fish in a barrel.”
She glanced at Daniel, suddenly realising he was not beside her as he usually was after a showdown, and found him on the floor resting against the wall. One hand was pressed firmly against his left biceps, and Peggy's heart dropped like a stone.
“Daniel? Daniel.” She knelt beside him painfully, peeling his hand away from his arm. As she'd expected, there was a bloom of red there, rapidly spreading. Jack swore behind her and Peggy began tugging at the tie he'd bound to her wound. Daniel needed it more. Jack caught on fast, undid his handiwork and together they did what they could for Daniel's arm.
"It's also barely more than a graze," Jack said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. "No bullet in there or anything. Nothing to worry about."
"All this from the only one of us who didn't actually get shot." It was barely a discussion; barely words that made sense at all, but both of them were grasping at straws to distract and calm themselves and they'd take what they could get.
"Excuse me? Have you forgotten eight months ago? I'm the expert at getting shot and living. This was some big thing out there having my back and apologising for the last time. I'm pretty sure I have gun immunity for a few years."
"I'll be sure to test that theory when we get out of here. Daniel?" He hadn't done more than give an involuntary whine of pain since she'd knelt beside him. And even then when she called his name he didn't fully respond. She grabbed the hand slick with blood and squeezed, the alarm in her gut hotter fire than even the searing feeling in her shoulder. “Daniel, my love, you’ve got to get up.” He was white and glazed-eyed and his lips were drawn in a thin like as he shook his head. “No, none of that. Come on. Jack, help me.”
“Come on, Sousa. Stop being so lazy. Hell, LA has turned you soft. All that sunlight and those damn avo-whatsits on everything.”
“Come on, Daniel. Please, come on.”
Between the two of them, they managed to slowly and very painfully lever Daniel to his feet. He looked about five seconds from passing out, had yet to say anything, and was trembling in pain. Peggy glanced at Jack, who wasn’t as paper-white, but who was pale in his own right, and knew he wouldn’t be able to support Daniel alone. Daniel wavered spectacularly between them, and Peggy bit off her groan as her wound twinged viciously as she moved to catch him.
“I… ca… You….” Daniel panted, breathing too fast and too shallow.
“Shhh, we’ve got you. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we find a room to hole up in.”
“Come on, Sousa. Shake a leg.” Jack winced. “That was… not exactly what I was…” He gave Peggy a rather endearing look; all contrite little boy who had let his mouth go to places he hadn’t wanted it to.
“We have to keep moving. The SSR will be here soon.” She hoped. If they didn’t get backup sometime soon, they’d all be captured or worse. She realised then, more than half carrying Daniel, that she hadn’t eaten in a while.
A few steps in and it was apparent that the way they had to haul Daniel’s weight along with them was not working for Jack’s chest or Daniel’s ribs; both of the men could barely breathe when they all ground to a halt. Peggy wordlessly moved them over to a wall, replacing Jack with the solid surface and quietly telling him to go on ahead and clear a path for them. He hesitated for a long moment, looking at her and then at Daniel, but he eventually nodded and went on ahead.
Daniel looked down at her, trembling as though freezing, and she cut him off before he could waste energy and air he barely had on saying something she would not listen to. “I am not leaving you. We’re a team, remember? You promised you’d be with me to the end. This is not the end.” He shut his eyes and let his head thunk against the wall, and she gave him a few moments. “Let’s go,” she prompted eventually, hating that she was forcing him through agony but seeing no other alternative.
When he flagged and stumbled, Peggy pulled him closer, wincing as she felt the ribs on his left side shift in a manner they really shouldn’t have. It took him a moment to come back to reality after the wash of pain from that move, and even after that they staggered forward rather than walked. Jack came back to find them, face pinched and worried.
“Found a storage room. We’re nearly there.” He covered them as they clawed their way into the room, and Daniel went down hard when Peggy tried to lower him onto the floor. She bit her lip almost hard enough to draw blood looking at him, eyes screwed tight and jaw clenched painfully. It was clear no amount of cajoling would get him back on his feet this time.
“Okay. Plan,” Jack said, keeping his gun trained on the door. “We’re just going to have to – ” A sudden explosion rocked the building. “What the hell?”
“SSR! Put your hands up!” a muffled voice suddenly yelled. “Hey! I said – ” There was a brief firefight. “Don’t even think about it, asshole,” the same voice snapped a little later.
“It’s about damn time,” Jack groaned, and let himself flop down on the floor beside Daniel. “They drive slower than my grandmother.”
More gunshots and shouting. Peggy considered going to find the firefight and assisting the SSR agents, but instead sunk to the floor beside Daniel and held his hand. She had, she decided, done enough attempted rescuing of SSR agents that month. They could come and find her when they were done cleaning up the men she could already hear surrendering.
Peggy, with her small graze from the bullet and a few bruises and scrapes she hadn’t noticed in the moment, was the first to be released from hospital. Jack was held overnight – much to his absolute fury – and Daniel was kept for almost three days. But Peggy was eventually able to take him home – or, at least, was able to take him to Stark Mansion. Howard was still in LA, she knew where he kept his spare key, and despite being unable to get hold of him knew he wouldn’t mind them inhabiting his otherwise empty place. She half wished Angie still lived there as well, but made herself content with her friend’s frequent visits that brightened up the entire lonely, large mansion and even chipped at Daniel’s rather sombre mood. His left ribs had fared far worse than his right and putting pressure on them and his injured left arm proved to be impossible, making using the crutch on his usual side impossible. He was able to get by with the crutch in his right hand, but it gave him one less limb, much less speed and fluidity and the added task of learning how to re-balance now that the support was on the other side. It took him a few days to get the adjustments of his hips, weight and speed right, and the days of miserable struggling he went through in grim silence tore at Peggy's heart.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured into her ear one night. “I’ve been an absolute monstrous ass. I –”
She kissed him quiet. “The only adjectives you’re allowed to use for yourself from now on are positive ones. No monstrous. No useless. Not even inconvenience.”
He looked at her for a long second. “I’m sorry,” he said, eventually. “I’ve been an absolute handsome prize.”
She grinned at him widely. “That, my darling, you certainly have.”
“You two are sickening,” Jack said from the corner armchair, and whatever mood they’d had shattered instantly.
That was another thing that made Howard’s mansion less lonely and, strangely, less gloomy: Jack had come home with her because he’d had nowhere else to go, and he’d simply decided to stay at Howard’s even when it was declared safe for him to return to his own apartment in the city. While Peggy and Angie caught up and lounged by the pool, Jack and Daniel got on each other’s nerves in that strange, friendly way they’d developed over time, and sometimes even joined the ladies at the pool. Jack got spectacularly sunburnt one day, and he was unbearable for the next few days as he slouched around, sore and grumpy and having to sit in the oddest ways.
Jack was there playing cards with Daniel all day when Peggy was called in to witness against Lifton, making sure he was put away for good when all she wanted to do was keep Daniel company in that tiny, miserable little hospital room. Jack was there when Peggy got bored enough to start helping the New York SSR out with cases, sitting on one side of her while Daniel sat on the other, all three of them tossing ideas about the latest file around. Jack was there when Angie decided to break out some of Howard’s finest liquor. He was right beside her when she woke up on the floor of the lounge the next morning with a splitting headache, and he was there for the rest of the day when Daniel, the only one who hadn’t over-indulged because of pain medication, had amusedly alternated between teasing them and making them snacks for the rest of the afternoon. Jack was there when a maid arrived to air the place out, unaware there were people – let alone a half-naked recovering New York SSR chief – inside the house. She was rather glad he was there for that – she’d laughed about the ensuing chaos for days afterwards.
But she was most grateful that Jack was there when Daniel’s broken ribs combined with the weakness in his lungs that nobody had known about, and he ended up in hospital with pneumonia. Jack travelled to his bedside almost as often as she did, and it was unspoken but also assumed, as though there were no other possibilities about where he would be. They even got removed from Daniel’s room at one point because they got into a flaming row about something, and didn’t speak to each other for a long while, instead sitting in the car or beside Daniel’s bed in stony silence. He was there when Daniel, still coughing and weak, was allowed back out of the hospital.
And it therefore only seemed fitting that when Peggy and Daniel went back to LA so Daniel could fully recover in the drier, warmer climate, that they booked three plane tickets. As Jack said, he was still recovering, too. And LA seemed to be the place to do so best.