What surprised Daniel most was how quickly the office reverted back to status quo, except that Dooley’s—Jack’s—office lost the faint, anise smell that had clung to the chairs and carpeting. When they’d cleaned out Chief’s things, they’d found a half-full tin of chew beneath a small mountain of Sen-Sen breath mint packets. Under Jack’s first orders as chief, the tobacco went to McRory, who sat three desks down from Daniel and got twitchy if he went an hour without nicotine, and the Sen-Sen to Rose at the switchboard.
Inside the office, Jack had replaced the desk and chair, but no one begrudged him that, not when light scorch marks shadowed the old surface. The new furniture was obviously second-hand, switched out and hastily scrubbed down from where it’d been hauled up from the basement. It was serviceable, if worn.
Jack himself was loudly absent from the room—he was swaggering up and down the bullpen, assigning this, demanding that, and letting Daniel stew in his office on purpose.
“You know,” Peggy said idly, tapping her pen on the newspaper where she was pondering a crossword, “My mother always said if sighing once didn’t make you feel any better, doing it another five times won’t either.” She gave him a pointed look.
He cleared his throat and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
She hmmed. “Thinking about it won’t make him less irritating. You may as well help me with this one. Here, four letters, ‘one attracted to vinegar.’”
“Have you tried ‘Jack’?” he asked sourly.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t fit with thirty down, ‘swilling,’” she replied without missing a beat. Daniel snorted, and she caught his eye and gave him a tiny, conspiratorial smile.
They managed two more (‘hound,’ and ‘Tampico,’ which Peggy only knew because she’d been stranded there once and hated every minute of it) before Jack strode back into the office and closed the door behind.
“My favorite pair of misfit toys,” he greeted cheerfully, blithely ignoring their irritation. Or maybe he did notice and reveled in it. He would, Daniel thought unkindly.
“Very funny, Jack,” Peggy deadpanned, calmly folding up the paper.
“Don’t you mean ‘chief’?” Jack drawled and Daniel didn’t even bother to pretend he wasn’t rolling his eyes.
“Interim Chief Jack, sir,” he drawled, and tossed off a sloppy salute for good measure.
“You’ve got something for us?” Peggy asked, not rising to the bait. She’d been less inclined to humor the two of them since the Ivchenko affair, but Daniel thought that probably wasn’t a bad thing.
“Something special, just for you.” Jack sat down, and perhaps sensing Peggy’s thin patience, pulled a file from the top of his stack and tossed it open in front of them. Daniel and Peggy craned forward.
“Markus Sigler. Councilman in the Lower East Side.” The man in the photo looked blandly politic. Jack continued. “There’s some evidence to suggest that he’s passing information to the Soviets through Germany.”
“What sort of information does a Manhattan councilman have that could possibly interest the Russians?” Peggy frowned, scanning through the documents.
“That,” Jack smirked, “is your job to figure out.”
They sent Yauch’s replacement—probationary Agent Timothy Lie— out for coffee and sandwiches and settled in to hash out a plan. Sigler enjoyed playing up his populist reputation—he was the sort to hold open office hours once a week, when those in his district could address issues to him in person. Or, at least one of his aides. According to Jack’s source, it was a toss up as to whether the councilman would attend his own office hour meet-and-greets, or leave his front office to deal with the common rabble.
“We think it might be one of the ways he’s communicating with the other side,” Jack said, gesturing with his half-eaten roast beef.
“Easy for people to slip and out of his office unnoticed, and no one would find it odd if he took a few minutes to discuss something with a funny sounding man behind closed doors,” Peggy mused.
“Or woman,” Daniel cut in, and then amended, “Probably a different kind of odd.”
“Whatever is going on, if it’s anything at all, I want to know about it. And if information is being swapped, I don’t care if it’s his Aunt Polly’s recipe for Sunday meatloaf, you get it back,” Jack told them.
“Oddly specific,” Peggy said dryly and slightly exasperated, like she couldn’t decide whether this assignment was another lowball or something potentially exciting. “And I don’t suppose your source has any idea if it’s one or the other?” Jack just grinned and shrugged. Then, they both turned to stare at Daniel who was now leaning over an outstretched leg, reaching for his toes.
“Don’t mind me,” he told them. “I’m just preparing for a wild goose chase.”
“It really better not be meatloaf,” said Jack finally, after another marked silence. “I got a go-to recipe already.”
It wasn’t meatloaf. Or a mistress. Or even anything vaguely governmental-conspiracy-like, which Daniel was thankful for, because those affairs always ended up with him and his bum leg soaking in an ice bath before he could walk again. It was actually blueprints and underground subway maps and fanciful notes to blow up Wall Street and end the reign of capitalism, viva la revolution, huzzah, huzzah. Daniel supposed that the councilman wasn’t faking his populist persona after all, and actually, he should probably pick up some ice on the way home anyways.
Peggy and Daniel were sitting in the bed of a vegetable truck, watching the clean-up crew clear away the detritus that twelve crates of exploding cabbages and two boxes of beets created, passing between them a bag of roasted peanuts when Jack arrived.
“Afternoon, Interim Chief,” Daniel greeted. Peggy offered him a peanut. For a long moment, Jack just stared, hands on his hips. Then, he dropped his head forward and pressed at his temples and exhaled forcefully.
“Not bad for a couple of misfit toys, right, Thompson?” Peggy asked brightly. She was still wearing the heavy framed glasses that had been part of her disguise, even though one of the glass lenses had fallen out in the excitement.
“Pain in my backside, more like,” he grumbled. “How is it that you always make the biggest messes?”
“It’s why you keep me around. Keeps you young. You’re very welcome,” Peggy told him briskly.
He glared. “I think you’re a bad influence on Sousa.”
“Credit where credit’s due,” Daniel piped up, “I now know how to build a bomb from the contents of my icebox.”
Peggy just rolled her eyes and hopped to her feet. “And now that you’re here, I’ll be taking my lunch. I’ve got to get home and see if Mr. Jarvis has any advice on how to get the smell of burnt cabbage out of worsted wool.” She strolled off, parting the crowd of respectful SSR agents with enviable ease. Jack pivoted to squint at the councilman’s office building, which was now patterned with blackened streaks and bursts of bright purple red, where the beets had left their mark. Daniel also slid to his feet, carefully nudging a cabbage leaf away before setting down his crutch.
“Next time, keep it contained, will ya?” Jack said, but he looked like he was holding back a smile as he surveyed the mess. When he caught Daniel staring, he quirked an eyebrow.
“What, Sousa, you volunteering to deal to the mayor?” And indeed, a sleek town car had just pulled to the curb to let out a heavyset man with an alarmingly purple face.
“It’s all yours,” Daniel said hastily, and Jack did smile then, small and crooked. Unexpectedly, it made him look five years younger.
“Go fix your hair,” Jack instructed as he tugged his lapels straight. “You got enough green in your hair to stock the produce aisle.”
Daniel took it as the dismissal it was, and crutched out of there before the yelling began. That was one part of the job he didn’t resent Jack for having. When he dared to glance back, once he was safely in the backseat of an SSR car, Jack was working the full Thompson charm, blinding white toothpaste-ad grin, the tilt and set of his shoulders as cocky as a varsity quarterback’s. It was clearly working—the mayor was still speaking, but the angry shouting had fallen to more of a stern talking-to. Daniel couldn’t tell if he was more annoyed or impressed at how quickly Jack’s “golden boy” act had defused the worst already.
Briefly, Jack’s gaze slid past the mayor while he paused for breath. Daniel couldn’t tell if Jack could see him through the late afternoon glare against the car window, but Daniel waved anyways. The movement must have been visible, because Jack smiled, just a lifted corner of his mouth, a sly flicker of wry exasperation that disappeared almost immediately as the mayor’s bulk shifted and blocked most of Daniel’s view. The car lurched into motion and Jack appeared again, projecting an air of farm boy earnestness to all and sundry. The man, Daniel thought, could run a Broadway revue. The thought of Jack tap-dancing in a top hat made him snort, and he spent the rest of the car ride with Cole Porter stuck in his head.
The next time Peggy and Daniel were sent out, there were no vegetables, just a small, exploding speed boat that tore up a negligible corner of Greenpoint. The third time, there was a car that caught enthusiastically on fire, but it happened in rural Jersey so barely anyone noticed. Most recently, there were no explosions, but when Jack and reinforcements finally showed up on the banks of the Hudson, downstream from a gently smoldering--but still intact!-- warehouse, Daniel was down to his undershirt and cradling a bundle wrapped in the shreds of his shirt. Peggy was leaning under the hood of their stalled car, casually checking the state of their engine and tutting knowledgeably. The perp was unconscious and trussed up like Thanksgiving turkey in the backseat. All in all, Daniel felt that the long suffering look on Jack’s face when he arrived was deeply unfair.
“Just once,” Jack started as he crunched across the gravel towards them “Just once I’d like to set you two loose on the world without having—what the hell is that?”
Daniel offered him the bundle, which hissed and vibrated angrily. Jack recoiled. “It’s a demon cat,” Daniel told him. “Should get along well with you.”
“He’s not wrong,” Peggy called, poking her head out from under the hood. “It’s the remaining surviving subject of some ethically dubious experiments Mr. Giles felt obliged to carry on in name of the Fuhrer.” She whistled sharply and gestured for Agent Leakey to help her with the car.
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something that sounded heartfelt-ly obscene. “Someone get Doobin on the line, tell ‘em we’re bringing in a live specimen for the labs,” he said louder. He squinted at Daniel, who was trying to rock the cat to sleep. It wasn’t working. “Can’t you… stop it?”
Sighing heavily, Daniel adjusted the shrill cat in his arms again, trying to avoid the razor-sharp teeth (and ow, those had probably been reinforced with evil Nazi science too) and leveled Jack with his flattest look. “It destroyed my best tie and chewed through my favorite aluminum crutch. But if you’d like, you can try feeding it your finger and see if human flesh will sate its bloodlust.”
Peggy raised a finger. “That’s my theory. The word came up a suspicious amount of times in the notes. Menschenfleisch,” she pronounced with a crisp, academic accent.
“A people-eating cat, created by a renegade Nazi scientist hiding out in Westchester county,” Jack echoed incredulously. “I sent you on a lead for weapons smuggling.”
“Yes, and this is the weapon,” Daniel said patiently, brandishing the cranky cat swaddling.
“You did well, Jack,” Peggy added encouragingly. She slammed the hood shut, motioned to Leakey, now behind the wheel, and smiled smugly when the engine turned over and roared to life.
Jack stared at them with a sort of crushed and painful revelation. “This is a situation of my own making,” he declared to himself, sounding haunted, and stumbled away to order some minions around. Daniel continued soothing the yowling cat until someone arrived with a hastily acquired crate. Then, he allowed Peggy to pull him up to his feet and balance him upright.
“You think we should scale it back a bit,” Peggy asked in a low voice, “maybe try harder to keep things from getting too exciting?” They both stared hard at Jack, who was looming impressively over a thoroughly cowed evil scientist.
“I don’t know, I think he’s enjoying himself just fine,” Daniel finally said. Besides him, Peggy shook with gentle laughter. They grinned at each other stupidly.
“Carter,” Jack snapped, and they both faced forward again. He was striding towards them, looking annoyed. “Ride with Locke. See if you two can have those notes translated by the time we’re back at the office. Sousa, how’s your leg?”
Daniel made a show of looking down and back up. “Still not working, Interim Chief.”
“Enough of that,” Jack grumbled, and slid under Daniel’s arm, allowing Peggy to gently detach herself and head towards Locke’s car. “I thought Stark was going to build you that new leg.”
“Well, he’s also a globetrotting genius inventor with a company to run and gals to charm,” Daniel shrugged. He winced as their slow walk jarred and jounced several new and aching bruises, He breathed deeply, concentrated on the sturdy bulk supporting him. There was a whiff of that citrine after shave, now almost familiar.
“Well, how’re you going to get around now? We got a wheelchair somewhere,” Jack offered, but Daniel cut him off with a hand.
“If you’ll stop by my building, I can grab a spare crutch and a new shirt. I’ll leave the demon cat in your filing cabinet if you put me in a wheelchair,” he promised darkly. Jack laughed, short and sharp, the sound reverberating against Daniel’s side, the wool of his suit almost abrasive against Daniel’s bare arms.
“Alright, Sousa. Let’s go,” he conceded, and between the two of them, they managed to get Daniel situated in the backseat without further incident.
After the demon cat caper, Jack wised up and split them up. Peggy headed across the Atlantic, for another mission with the Howling Commandoes, as well as to attend some higher-up state department gala on behalf of the SSR. Daniel got saddled with rookie duty, which he accepted with ill-grace. On one hand, once the kids saw the office cripple take down a moderate posse of mobsters with nothing but his soulful charm and new, custom-Stark forearm crutch, they learned a valuable lesson about books and covers, etc. etc. On the other, the mobsters never arrived until long after Daniel lost patience with his babysitting duty. He told Jack this, in total seriousness, except that apparently, the minimized paperwork from the lack of explosions and/or demon cats had indeed, improved the interim chief’s mood immensely, and he only suggested Daniel take the kids out for ice cream to buy their affections .
Doobin had been able to semi-tame the hell cat (now called ‘Dolly’ with a distressing lack of irony) with shameless amounts of blood sausage and catnip, but it still hated Jack enough to shred his favorite tie when it somehow wound up in its food bowl.
Peggy returned from Majorca, tanned and relaxed the way she got after applying a judicious beating to the very deserving.
“Don’t worry about the Spanish authorities, Jack,” she told him breezily as they debriefed in his office. Daniel just happened to be waiting outside with some paper for Jack’s signature, and the door wasn’t fully closed. He hadn’t been meaning to eavesdrop at all, but he was also a secret agent, and it was in the job description, after all. “I’ve had a word with Juan Pablo, and it won’t be any problem at all.”
“Dammit, Marge,” Jack sighed, and Daniel bit back a grin at the unprofessional surge of amusement at his frustration.
“As it turned out,” Peggy continued, “we’ve done the local government a substantial favor, and they’ll gladly keep our involvement quiet while taking all the credit for bringing down a predatory weapons cartel.”
“How’s your wrist?” Jack asked tersely, and Daniel blinked. He tried to peer through the half-closed blinds, and caught Peggy touching the sleeve of her right arm.
“Nothing a few days of rest won’t fix,” she retorted, then said softer, “It’s just a sprain, Jack.” From between the blinds, Daniel could make out the grim expression on Jack’s face.
“Look, I know you can handle yourself, but the point is that you shouldn’t have to. Risks aren’t always meant to be taken, Carter, and I’ve read the other’s reports as well. You didn’t need to enter that compound. You could have gotten what you needed from the business contact. You chose to go into that compound, and were damn lucky you sprained your wrist instead of taking a bullet to the head.”
“Did someone lodge a complaint?” Peggy asked stiffly.
“No,” he replied curtly. “The opposite. It’s the legendary Carter, the Peggy we-know-and-love all over again.” He dropped the files on his desk with a slap.
“I’m not quite sure I understand,” Peggy said, even more stiffly.
There’s a forceful sigh from Jack. “Think on it, alright Carter? You’re too smart not to figure it out. And Sousa, you can stop lurking at the door.”
Slightly chastened at being caught, Daniel nudged the door open and poked inside. “I just needed some signatures,” he said sheepishly.
“Then bring ‘em here,” Jack waved impatiently. He glanced at Peggy, who was giving him a narrow-eyed, contemplative look and returned her stare. “We got business, Carter?”
“Not at all,” Peggy said crisply. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take the afternoon off, see if I can stop by the doctor’s office.”
Daniel was close enough to see the surprise flicker across Jack’s face. “Sure, Carter. Do what you gotta do,” Jack said, a little warily.
She inclined her head. “Thank you. Daniel,” she said in greeting, and left the office.
“Just these evals,” Daniel said, sliding over the paperwork. Nodding absently, Jack flicked through the pages and patted his pockets for a pen. Wordlessly, Daniel passed him his own.
“Thanks. Never can find one when I need one,” Jack muttered, scanning the paperwork.
For lack of anything else to do, Daniel let his gaze wander around the office. It was a strange mix of old and new. There was still Chief Dooley’s last receipt for a chicken parm tacked on the board behind Jack’s desk, untouched. And Jack had acquired a narrow loveseat that looked suspiciously like the missing one from the third floor lounge. But the longer he observed, the more… off-kilter something felt. He could feel his eyebrows drawing together.
“Sousa. Sousa!” Jack was staring at him quizzically, the paperwork all signed. “What’s the matter?”
“Huh? Nothing.” Daniel shook his head and collected the papers, hesitating. “Just… nothing.”
“No, no. You got something to say. So go ahead.” Jack sat back and spread his arms. There was a challenging tilt to his chin, and Daniel suddenly noticed the gray smudges of exhaustion under his eyes, the permanent pinch in the center of his forehead. The rings of old dried coffee on his desk, his creased shirt with thin pinstriping. Everything fell in place with an almost audible mental click.
“You been sleeping here?” Daniel blurted out.
Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t that. Jack blinked, taken aback, then scowled. “What makes you say that?” he demanded, a touch too defensively.
Daniel shrugged and ticked off on his fingers. “You’re wearing the same shirt as you did on Monday, and there are three more rings of coffee stains on your desk since yesterday, when you’ve only had one cup so far today. The indentations on the sofa cushions are evenly distributed and you haven’t had any visitors since last Thursday. Also, you spilled some of your aftershave you keep in the bottom drawer.” Daniel sniffed lightly. “The smell’s stronger, right here. Why would you need aftershave at the office, unless you were shaving here?”
For a long moment, Jack just stared. Then, he pulled open his desk’s bottom drawer and sighed at the St. Johns Bay Rum that had tipped over and leaked a neat little puddle under the loose cap. “You’re a real goddamn detective, Sousa,” Jack groused, but without any real heat. He set the bottle upright and tightened the cap, flicking away the wetness on his fingers, and Daniel caught the concentrated scent of limes, sharp and fragrant. “So I work late occasionally. So what?”
Daniel thought about noting that all signs pointed to it occurring at least three times a week, but said nothing. Behind his big, chiefly desk, Jack just looked tired and small in ways Dooley had seemed incapable of being. Although Jack had only been supposed to hold the position for a couple months at the most, there had been no news, not even rumors, of when a new chief would arrive to take over the department. By now, he had been more or less running the office on his own for nearly four months, which was twice as long as everyone’d expected, and he looked it. “I won’t mention it,” Daniel said slowly. The interim chief looked up and nodded curtly.
“It’s appreciated,” he replied gruffly, and handed back Daniel’s pen. “You need anything else?”
“That’s it,” Daniel said, and made his exit.
For a few more weeks, Daniel herded the rookies through the rest of their probationary period. By the end, the other agents were calling him Mama Duck, and humiliatingly enough, his “ducklings” were now fiercely protective of their mentor. After a round of the usual crass but harmless ribbing, McRory and Bocke nearly laughed themselves sick when Junior Agent Lie tried to pick a fight in defense of Daniel’s honor, with junior agents Novak and Santorini flanking him. Even Peggy had to hide a smile as Daniel prodded the rookies back to their seats with his crutch, then accidentally-on-purpose thwacked Bocke’s shin as he swung back towards his desk.
“You’ve got them loyal and honorable,” she commented when they took lunch at the automat.
“Were we ever that young and impressionable?” Daniel grumbled, feeling both embarrassed and reluctantly fond.
“I think it’s very sweet,” Peggy assured, and when he raised an eyebrow at her, she smiled. “It takes a special sort of courage to stand up against bullies, even friendly ones.”
There wasn’t much Daniel could say to that, He bit into his pastrami sandwich sullenly instead.
“In any case, I’ve got a favor to ask,” she continued. He nodded to show he was listening. “Howard wants you to come by and do some follow up tests on your crutch.”
“It’s been working fine,” he told her. “What’s the favor?”
“That is the favor,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s been driving me absolutely mad about getting you down to his labs. I’d give him your number, except I fear he’d abuse the privilege shamelessly.”
“Sure,” he laughed. “Like I’d complain about free maintenance on this thing. I’ll swing by Saturday?”
“Yes,” she agreed, looking relieved. “I’ll also ask Mr. Jarvis about preparing a small luncheon, and we’ll make nice afternoon of it.”
“Sousa, walk with me,” Jack said in a not-suggestion, and Daniel, who’d been this close to heading out for the night swung around to glare at him balefully. Leakey, one step ahead of Daniel, put on speed and dashed through the doors before Jack could call him back as well. To his credit, Jack looked a little apologetic.
“Where’re we going?” Daniel asked, resignedly falling into step besides him, and Jack grimaced.
“Coffee. I’ve been stuck to my desk long enough to grow roots. C’mon.”
“Right now?” Daniel asked. The hour had long ticked past seven on a Friday night, and the last thing he wanted was another night spent wide awake for no good reason. Still, he trailed Jack down the hall to the small kitchenette with the rickety table set and second-hand percolator, and leaned up against the counter while Jack banged around, putting together a fresh pot of coffee. The interim chief went through the motions with a graceless but brutal efficiency, switching on the hot plate and dumping out old coffee grounds in sharp, mindless movement, so familiar it looked almost choreographed. It was recognizably military—Daniel made coffee the same way at home, the practice drilled into him from a hundred mornings in camp.
“You want any?” Jack asked with a lift of his brow, percolator poised under the water spout.
Daniel put up a hand. “I’m planning on sleeping tonight, thanks.” Jack shrugged, filled the percolator, and clapped it on top of the hot plate, ignoring the hiss as stray water droplets rolled onto the hot surface and danced into steam.
“You wanted to talk?” Daniel asked after Jack had rinsed out his mug and set it next to the hot plate.
Instead of answering right away, Jack poked around the cabinets. “Hold on. You seen the sugar?”
Daniel wordlessly prodded the box of sugar cubes over, and Jack tipped his head in acknowledgment. He dug out three cubes and dropped them into the mug, then finally, with a marked air of reluctance, turned around to face him.
“I’ve gone over your assessments for Novak, Lie, and Santorini,” Jack said, leaning hipshot against the kitchen counter and folding his arms across his chest.
“Was there a problem?”
Jack grimaced and shrugged. “No, your reports were fine. In fact, they probably made my day a little harder.”
Daniel felt his eyebrows rise. “Sir?” But Jack just waved it off impatiently and snapped off the hot plate. He poured boiling hot coffee over his sugar cubes and gave the mug a cursory swirl.
“Look, just tell me,” Jack said at last, “out of the three, who makes the best agent?” Even as he drank, he kept his gaze on Daniel, who frowned.
“Are we talking in terms of ability? Or personality?” Daniel shifted his weight uneasily. “I mean, Novak’s got the sharpest intellect, probably, but needs more experience under pressure, and Lie could do with-”
“Yes, I read the reports, I know.” Setting down his mug, Jack wearily ran his thumb under his eye. “Let’s just say, if you could keep one of them, which would you pick?”
“But I thought,” Daniel started, then clicked his mouth shut as he realized what Jack meant. “Oh. That bad?” he asked slowly, finally giving in and pulling out a chair to sink into.
“It’s not good,” Jack admitted. “We’re barely scraping through on this year’s budget, and if we take another case with even a lick of public property damage, we’ll be in the red.”
“Senate’s not budging?” Daniel asked half-heartedly, and Jack joined him at the table with a groan.
“Not so much as an inch,” he confessed. “It wasn’t so bad before, since Dooley knew a few of them from the war, but, well. I’m no Dooley.” The ironic grin highlighted the faint lines that had started etching themselves across his forehead. “Everything’s going into fighting the Soviets. You know they’re considering sending jazz bands abroad? To fight communism?” Jack scoffed. “The government wants to deploy Louis Armstrong against the reds, while the agency whose express purpose is to safeguard global peace languishes without enough for decent coffee.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re getting the leftover army rations from the war,” Daniel agreed sympathetically. “I recognize that faint aroma of disillusionment.”
“Turn your judgment towards the question at hand, Sousa,” Jack suggested, even though he was clearly biting back a grin. “Novak, Lie, or Santorini.”
It grew very quiet in the kitchenette as Daniel sighed and slumped in his seat, staring hard at the ceiling. The electricity droned on in a steady hum, while Daniel considered his ducklings.
“Santorini’s wife just had a baby,” he said out loud, apropos of nothing, and caught Jack’s wince from the corner of his vision.
“I’m working on that,” Jack promised. “There’s no sense in letting two fully trained agents go to waste, and I got a few buddies in the alphabets who owe me favors.”
“Why aren’t you making the decision,” Daniel asked accusingly. “You’re in charge.”
“Who says I haven’t?” Jack shot back, holding his glare steadily.
There was another long moment as Daniel considered the issue unhappily and therefore all the more seriously.
“Lie,” he said finally. “Keep on Lie. He’s steady and loyal, and asked Peggy to teach him that paperclip trick instead of getting angry about being shown up by a gal. And he learned it in two days.”
Jack sat back and nodded, satisfied. “Alright. Thanks.” He drained his coffee, and got up to pour more out. “Go home, Sousa. Get some rest.”
“You too, Jack,” Daniel replied, pushing himself to his feet. “And if you die of a heart attack from drinking that battery acid, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jack followed him out, but headed back into the offices instead of the exit. “See you Monday. Don’t blow anything up.”
“Ha ha,” Daniel deadpanned, and rolled his eyes. He still didn’t like Jack Thompson very much, but at least the guy had a sense of humor, or some poor imitation of it.
Mr. Jarvis could indeed whip up a pretty spread, which he seemed happy to do at Peggy’s request. Daniel arrived at Peggy’s new residence an hour before noon, and found that Mr. Jarvis and his wife had willfully misheard Peggy’s request for a light luncheon and laid out a royal feast instead. They were checking on a beautiful roast in the kitchens as Daniel stumped along after Peggy.
“Anna gets excited when Howard has guests that stay past dawn,” Peggy told him in an undertone. “And now whenever he’s away, she comes here to cook. I’ve had to let out the waist of my skirts by an inch since I’ve moved in. Angie, of course, hasn’t gained an ounce though she eats twice what I manage.”
Since they’d first met at the boarding house, Daniel’d seen the twiggy Angie Martinelli put away her weight in smoked brisket and slaw without breaking a sweat. She wasn’t in the house today, having an early shift at the automat, and then an audition for an off-off-Broadway play, Peggy informed him. Shame, Daniel thought. Watching Angie eat while chattering away a mile a minute could be a spectator sport.
Howard had set up a bare bones lab in the sun room, and he seemed happy enough to see Daniel, or at least his crutch. It took them twenty minutes to get through the initial questions of how-this-works, how-that feels, and another hour for him to disassemble the entire crutch, check for wear, and rebuild it again, promising Daniel improved performance by at least thirteen percent. Daniel wasn’t even sure how he’d begin to calculate that, but Peggy just mouthed ‘humor him’ so he nodded encouragingly and uttered that he’d already felt enormous improvement in comparison to the one the cat ate. It was true—Stark had modified the grip and balance of the crutch so as to relieve some pressure on his shoulders. The eccentric inventor puffed up a little, as pleased with a lowly crutch for some odd G-man as any fancy missile system. He then offered to take a look at Daniel’s prosthetic leg too, professing that he’d always wanted to build a bionic man. Behind him, Peggy was smiling at him with exasperated fondness, and Daniel thought he was beginning to see why she liked him so much, despite his everything else.
They dragged Howard out from the lab despite his protests about wanting to run more tests, and forced him to carve the roast for lunch. Peggy and Howard cajoled the Jarvises in sitting down with them for the meal, and afterwards, Anna brought out a plate of fresh cookies. They nibbled on them in the backyard of Peggy’s Stark townhouse while Howard attempted to explain what he’d been doing four years ago in the bathroom of the Roseland Ballroom with a monkey wrench, two bags of oats, and Duke Ellington’s trombonist. Daniel didn’t try to interrupt Howard’s ludicrous explanations nor Peggy’s ribbing; he was content to listen, suffused with good feeling, ginger beer, and Mrs. Jarvis’ excellent apricot kiflis. The golden afternoon, sun drenched and pleasant, made as perfect a day as any he’d had in recent months.
It was entirely unfortunate that the kidnapping attempt spoiled the rest of the day.
“Now, Jack,” Peggy placated. “It’s not as bad as you think it is.”
“Alright,” Jack replied with dangerous equanimity. “Are you going to tell me I’m not seeing two off-duty SSR agents standing in what used to be the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with Howard Stark there in the corner without his shirt? I can see you, Mr. Stark. Please feel free to join us anytime,” he called.
Howard waved sheepishly and picked his way across the rubble. “Agent Thompson,” he grinned. “Great to see you again.”
“Chief Thompson, sir,” Jarvis murmured. “Shall I fetch your coat?”
“Fantastic idea. I’ll walk with you,” Howard said brightly, but Jack raised his voice over him.
“Don’t go too far, Mr. Stark, we’ll need to take your statements. Agent Lie will assist you with whatever you need.” Jack never looked away from Peggy or Daniel. “You do understand when I asked you not to blow anything up over the weekend, I was serious, right? I mean, I was joking, but also being very serious.”
“It happened quite rapidly,” Peggy said. “They overwhelmed us and snatched Howard when we were walking Daniel to the curb. That’s where the,” she gestured to Daniel’s black eye and swollen lip, and then pointed to her own forehead, where a neat square of bandage was taped over a nasty cut, “Happened. Anna managed to flag down a cab, which we then-”
“Stole,” Jack cut in.
“-appropriated,” Peggy enunciated carefully. “I am assured that Mr. Jarvis compensated the driver handsomely for his troubles. We followed them down to where they were trying to make Howard build them an explosive device.”
“Clearly, they succeeded?” Jack asked, eyeing the rubble, some of it still gently smoking.
“Well, it was this or the U.S.S. Missouri,” Daniel shrugged. “We figured the Navy had three other dry docks to use.”
“Sousa, I swear,” Jack swore, glaring at him. Daniel shut up. “Alright, fine. Great. You saved the military the loss of a vital resource. Bully for you. Did it ever occur to you to call for backup? At any point in time?”
Daniel and Peggy exchanged looks. “I thought you did,” he said.
“I confess I am concussed at the moment,” she admitted reluctantly. “I’m impressed I remember what day it is.”
She squinted. “The weekend?”
“Christ,” Jack swore again, and waved down a passing agent. “You. Take her to medical, then send her home.” Bocke nodded and fell in step with Peggy. “Sousa, you seeing double?”
“Good,” he snapped. “You’re explaining to me in excruciating detail what happened here, how you expect we should contain the fallout, and suggesting five ways we can prevent something like this from happening again. Then you’re going to write it all down and give it to me so I can notarize it and have key points stamped on your foreheads.”
“It’s really not as bad as it looks,” Daniel said weakly, but Jack’s swift, furious expression shut him up.
“Because neither you nor Carter had the foresight to call it in,” he spat, “we can’t even bring it in as an SSR mission. You know I’ve got your back, Sousa, damn it all. But I can’t do anything, unless you let me!” Jack’s face twisted with frustration and worry.
Daniel opened his mouth, but no words came.
“Rear Admiral Dobb,” someone said loudly, and they both spun around to see Howard in an ill-fitting but still hideously expensive shirt and his hands in his pockets. Jarvis stood beside him, stiffly bland. Howard smirked. “That’s the commandant of the navy yard, right? Jarvis, see if you can get the good admiral on the phone, will ya?”
“What are you doing, Stark,” Jack demanded.
“Look, this all happened because of me,” Howard placated. “And honestly, if your best and brightest hadn’t been there to pull me out of the fire, me and that big ol’ boat there, as well as a good chunk of Brooklyn, might well be a burning, ashy hunk. Meanwhile, the military hasn’t been exactly shy about asking for some help with their R&D department. I’m just gonna offer them a few favors, and in return, they won’t care about a couple lowly SSR agents. Heck, they’ll probably thank you for blowing up the docks—it needs a new look anyways.”
“Mr. Stark,” Jack began, but Howard cut him off.
“Chief Thompson,” he said, unexpectedly sober. “This is just money to me—my well-being, not to mention the hundreds of lives around here, is far more important. I’ll take care of this. You and your agents should go, enjoy the rest of your Sunday.”
The sun was already sinking past the Manhattan skyline, the fading light burnished dull and orange through the haze of the smoldering docks. The thick, lingering scent of wet smoke was cut with the earthier salt funk of the East River, but Daniel knew the smell was well and sunk into his clothes, skin, hair. It was going to take the rest of his waking hours to scrub it off.
“You’re insisting, Mr. Stark?” Jack finally relented.
“I am, Chief Thompson. Good evening,” Howard said firmly.
With nothing else to do but follow instructions, Jack waved the SSR agents off from the scene, and Daniel was glad to go—even with the improvements to his crutch, it could only do so much, and he was starting to sway dangerously on his feet.
“Christ, Sousa,” Jack sighed, and steadied him with hands on his shoulders. “Alright, let’s go. I’ll drop you off.”
“S’fine,” Daniel tried to say, but the adrenaline had long gone, taking with it his ability to speak clearly. “I’ll find a cab.”
“I’m going to get the car, and if you aren’t still here when I get back, I’ll track you down and run you over,” Jack told him.
That was not what Daniel wanted to happen, so he obligingly remained where he was, balancing against his crutch and fighting to stay on his feet until Jack returned.
By the time Jack drove up in a company car, the chill wind had picked up, blowing gusts of damp, smoke-scented air down the docks, and Daniel was grateful to hunker down inside the car, even if he had to deal with Jack’s silent treatment. He waited until they had navigated out of the side streets of Brooklyn and had turned onto the Williamsburg Bridge back into Manhattan to say anything.
“I called as soon as I could.” Immediately, he wished he hadn’t said anything at all, but instead of blowing up again, Jack just sighed.
“I know,” Jack said finally. “Half the time I don’t know if maybe I just wish I’d been out there with you two,” he added grudgingly. Against the muted sounds of the city, his confession seemed strangely bare boned. Daniel watched him from the corner of his eye for a long moment before dropping his gaze.
“Yeah,” he agreed lightly. “We coulda used you back there.”
“So could I,” Jack grumbled. “An explosion would’ve been the best excuse to get out of my meeting with the city comptroller.”
For the next few weeks, Peggy and Daniel were on their best damned behavior. They escorted a Japanese nuclear scientist sightseeing around Times Square and the Statue of Liberty with no issues, and diffused a tense hostage situation at the Norwegian embassy with no headline-making antics. Well, Daniel felt that Peggy’s one-woman wrecking show was pretty newsworthy, but Jack stared down the two of them and said, “The best news of all is…?” and didn’t blink until they’d chorused back, “no news at all.”
The SSR had regained most of its composure by now from the Leviathan fallout, and Jack’s contacts with other government agencies came through. Daniel was able to shake his ducklings loose into the wider world of espionage, satisfied that if they had survived until now, they’d probably do alright for the near future, no matter where they ended up. Even Jack finally began to relax. He sometimes left the office before nightfall, though he carted thick files around in his briefcase to read before bed. When someone asked if he was still seeing that girl from Ohio he just laughed in their face and made them take lunch orders for the whole floor.
“You’ll burn yourself right out if you’re not careful,” Peggy warned him over drinks one night. Daniel had been making his way back to the table when he heard her, and immediately swung back around, not wanting to get reeled into whatever conversation they were having, except she’d looked up and jerked her chin sharply at his seat. He sighed and sat down next to Jack, who glared mulishly at her. “How much have you slept this past week?”
“Lay off, Marge,” Jack muttered. “I sleep fine.”
“It’s not fine if you’re living out of the office, Jack, it’s unhealthy and frankly, a little sad,” she told him.
“I got work to do.”
Daniel was looking anywhere else except at either of them, but he could picture the steely look in Peggy’s eyes as she said, “We all do. But not all of it is accomplished at your desk.” It was quiet for another beat, before she added, “You can’t make good judgments if your health is compromised.”
“Is that a threat?” Jack asked in a low voice.
“Not at all,” Peggy replied calmly. “It’s an observation. You know it as well as I do. We’ve all seen war.” And then she swiveled her gaze to Daniel and stared until he cleared his throat reluctantly.
“Don’t snap your cap, but I agree with Peggy. It’s obvious when you’ve stayed too long—you get a little cock-eyed.” He gestured vaguely at his own face, mugging. Across the booth, Peggy huffed with amusement. “Even Dooley went home most nights.”
“I’m not sure,” Peggy mused. “I’m certain I saw him coming out of the medical bay some mornings.”
“It would explain why Dr. Menken kept Sen-Sen packets next to the cotton-balls,” Daniel suggested, and they exchanged mutual expressions of disgust.
“Hey, you think it’s easy to run this department?” Jack snapped and they both stared at him in surprise, but he was glaring into his beer, hands tight around the glass. “I spend half my days talking at fat-heads in power, trying to convince them we need to stay open, while they muck about with Russia and Asia without knowing the hell they’re getting into.”
“What do you mean?” Peggy asked, brows furrowed.
Jack scrubbed his face with his hand and stared at her hard. “You know the SSR better than anyone,” he finally said. “You tell me, what was our primary purpose?”
“Ah,” Peggy said quietly. “And now there is no Hydra, and no war that needs armies.”
“Now imagine I gotta convince the sixteen senators on the expenditures committee that this New York office, which lost its head agent in an explosion in broad daylight in midtown Manhattan, that it should stay operational. You know what they ask me all the time?” he demanded. “’What is the SSR?’ Are we research and development? Covert intelligence? Special Forces? Why do we need such a big office in such an expensive part of town? And without a straight answer, we’re not getting an operating budget.”
“That is a problem,” she sighed.
“It’s a hell of game, Marge,” Jack said, “and we’re stuck in the middle with an identity crisis.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell anyone about this?” she asked. “Not that the whole office needs to know, but Jack, even Chief Dooley had advisers.”
“Yeah? Well they aren’t exactly tripping over each other to introduce themselves, are they?” he snorted.
“You have your own, Jack,” she said exasperatedly. “Daniel’s got a sharp mind and my security clearance is, frankly, higher than yours. And neither of us is much for platitudes.”
”You two?” he looked both surprised and suspicious. “What, am I supposed to run everything by the both of you now? We turning the office into a democracy?”
“No,” Daniel replied. “But we’d find out eventually anyways.”
“Also, that would be an oligarchy,” Peggy added.
Scoffing, Jack finished his pint but continued rolling the glass between his palms. “It’s not your problem,” he said gruffly. “You two don’t need to be thinking about this stuff when you’re in the field. Me? I’m practically chained to the office, it’s just about all I’m allowed to do. I’ll figure it out myself.” He shrugged.
“Well you shouldn’t,” Peggy snapped, impatient. Jack fell silent as she scoffed. “What, you think your judgment is infallible? Or maybe my judgment isn’t?” She leaned forward. “Listen. You’re chief. You need to utilize your best assets, to get the job done. That’s what a good leader does. That’s what you need to keep doing. We’re both here, offering to help you, because we’re just as committed to the future of this department as you. So stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she added curtly, “and start taking better care instead.”
Jack’s expression looked sour and miserable, so Daniel took pity on him for once and nudged his empty pint.
“Anyone want to grab me a fresh one?” he asked hopefully, exchanging a meaningful look with Peggy.
“I’ll get the next round,” she said briskly and swept out of the booth, leaving her colleagues behind in stilted silence.
Daniel cleared his throat and looked sidelong at Jack, who was now slumped over the table. “Nice going.”
“Ah, hell,” Jack sighed. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, making it stick up in blonde spikes. “She’s not wrong.”
“Learned not to disagree with her ages ago,” Daniel agreed amiably. “If it helps, I think she means you’re doing alright.”
“Huh.” Jack tilts his head, considering, then shook his head. “Not really. But I maybe it will after I get some more sleep.”
The conversation marked some sort of turning point for Peggy and Jack. Daniel noticed Jack called her into the office more often now, mostly for strategy sessions that left them just shy of arguing with each other, at which point Daniel generally felt obliged to step in and point out how twitchy their talks made the other agents. One thing was for certain; Peggy was feeling more comfortable telling Jack exactly what he’d done wrong and what he should do instead. Another thing; apparently, Daniel had become the tiny boat navigating Scylla and Charybdis (and you can shoot him full in the face, he was never going to say who was who). On a fairly regular basis, he got called in to referee their debates over each excruciatingly boring detail of SSR’s operations—from cost-cutting tactics (“Peggy, we can’t work by candlelight.”) to glad-handing finicky congressmen (“Jack, for God’s sake, don’t talk corn subsidies with Thatcher, he’s the senator for Iowa.”). Their latest attempts to stabilize the SSR’s downward skidding future came in the form of inter-agency partnering; Jack hoped that if a successful relationship could be established, then maybe they’d get more institutional support. Peggy thought it was a silly notion, and darkly warned that it was more likely they just become an extra branch of whatever they attached themselves to. Then, had to admit that at least, it would solve some of their most pressing issues. Eventually, this led to Daniel stumping up to the office after being called in to debrief for SSR’s first joint-operation with the FBI.
“She’s not allowed to talk to the Flanders, you got that, Sousa?” Jack barked at him as soon as he closed the door behind him. At the other end of the room, a silent, gray-suited man was watching them with a mild expression. Daniel recognized him as the FBI liaison, Carlton or Colton or whatever, whose appearances at headquarters usually meant Jack would be unfit for society for the next few hours. Now, he inclined his head in a curt greeting, and Daniel cautiously returned it.
“How do you propose I stop her?” Daniel asked, turning to Jack and raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, you can’t,” Peggy assured him as she made a note on the casefile in her lap. “But we don’t have a choice. Agent Nantucket is down with the plague, and we need someone to make contact tonight. Agent Nantucket is lithe, dark haired, and accented. I’m the natural replacement.”
“Is Agent Nantucket also a woman?” Daniel asked as delicately as possible, but probably failed since Peggy glared at him coolly.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jack snapped. “The Flanders aren’t to be messed with.”
“It’s like Leviathan and Dottie Underwood never happened,” Peggy marveled. “Trust me, Jack, I can take care of myself. Moreover, if I do this well, they won’t even know.”
“Not the point. The Flanders don’t care about secret societies and evil Russian spies. If I had another one of those to throw at you, trust me, I would. They’re a straight up international criminal organization with enough money and influence to whack a labor union boss at high noon in a county fair and walk away with a slap on the wrist.” Jack struck his desk. “Frankly, I don’t trust this whole thing. It stinks of a set up. They’re animals, and I can’t put a woman in that situation.”
“Can’t, or won’t,” Peggy demanded icily.
“Both,” he shot back. “You think you’re the first to approach them? The Feds tried that in ’41.” He jabbed at the open folder on his desk. “Katherine Dowell. She went in as a typist. When they figured out she was making copies of statements, they strung her up, then minced her in so many pieces she’s still washing up on Chesapeake Bay.” Daniel flinched back at the bleak images attached to the file. Peggy’s expression just went grimmer. “So, no. I’m not putting you on this. I can’t.”
“If we don’t have someone down there at seven on Friday night,” she said very quietly, “we might lose the opportunity to bring them to justice.”
“I’ll take that risk,” Jack said firmly.
“You’re assuming that-”
“Oh, Christ, Marge, will you-”
“-the danger of making contact and-”
“-not argue with every damned-”
“-spending copious amounts of-”
“-word I say, can you-”
“-time with these louts-”
“I said, I’ll do it.”
“-for the love of god-”
“-don’t tell me-”
“Am I cellophane, or something?” Daniel wondered out loud, raising his voice over theirs. “It’s like people try so hard to ignore the leg, they actually convince themselves I’m not there.” They both gawked at him, mouths open. “I said I’ll go.” He leaned forward on his crutch and continued in a heavy Sicilian accent, “Dark haired, unassuming, with an accent. I fit the bill nicely, no?”
“No,” Jack said with conviction. “No, don’t even think about it.”
“Actually,” the Fed cut in, and all three of them flinched, having completely forgotten about him. He stepped forward now, eyeing Daniel curiously. “We can work with him.”
With Daniel’s confirmed involvement, Peggy immediately doubled the pressure on Jack to let her on the op, too.
“Get me in, Jack,” she pleaded. “I should be on hand in case anything happens. It’s a gambling den; that’s easy. Get me a uniform, I’ll pour drinks. I’ll deal cards.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Agent Mike Coulson added. “We can arrange for one of the servers to take sick.”
Jack looked slightly ill himself. “You’re asking me to put my two best agents in a situation that has gotten at least three of your own killed or permanently out of commission. You think I trust you?”
“I assure you, the FBI is giving this operation the utmost attention. If I say I can get them in safely, I will,” Coulson promised soberly.
“I notice you don’t promise the same coming out,” Jack pointed out darkly, but Coulson just smiled a non-smile.
“Wait a minute,” Daniel interrupted. “Since when did you decide we were your best agents? Not that we aren’t,” he added hastily when Coulson turned his bland, thousand-yard stare on him.
Jack eyeballed him incredulously. “Please. I’m not about to announce to the world that my most effective pair of agents is a gimp and a broad,” he said, scornfully. “Unlike you, I can properly appreciate the element of surprise.”
“A gimp and a broad,” Peggy echoed. “Should we be offended, or pitch it to Irving Berlin for his next musical?”
“Why not both,” Daniel grumbled. “The hit musical number can be Gimpy locking his boss in his office with Dolly the cat.”
Jack pointed at him. “You’re fired. And you?” He pivoted to Agent Coulson and jabbed at him. “I don’t trust you.”
“Jack-” Peggy protested.
“But,” he continued, never glancing away from him. “I trust my guys. If your bureau does anything I consider as compromising their security in any way, you will regret ever stepping foot into this office.” Even though he shouldn’t be, not after so many months under Jack’s leadership, Daniel was surprised. That he cared at all? That his concern ran so deeply? That his jerk-ness only sometimes interfered with his duties? It felt like there were two Jacks for Daniel to deal with—the obnoxious wise guy who’d made the bullpen uncomfortably reminiscent of high school, and the interim chief, who’s too busy being responsible and in way over his head to be an asshole in over half a year. Daniel, at least, knew which one he preferred.
“Noted, Chief Thompson,” Coulson replied mildly after an appropriately heavy silence. Jack nodded grudgingly, and Daniel glanced at Peggy, who had already acquired the FBI mission proposal from under Coulson’s nose and was making notes in the margins.
“You’ll want to leave off sending Van de Velde the scotch,” she said out loud. “According to last month’s PM, he’s now teetotal and won’t drink a drop. You’re better off luring him to the stalls with heroin.”
The look on Coulson’s face was priceless; for the first time during the meeting, Jack smiled.
The Feds dressed him up nicely—double-breasted Italian wool suit with a tapered cut, sharply hemmed pants, brown and white oxfords polished to a shine. Peggy folded and tucked a silk pocket square into the front of his suit and adjusted his pale, cream-yellow tie.
“This ain’t bad,” Daniel mused admiringly, staring at himself in the mirror. “You think they’ll let me keep it?”
“A Canali suit will cost you at least $90,” Peggy muttered absently, smoothing out his lapels. “More if you opt for bespoke. I can’t imagine that whoever lent the suit is prepared to let you walk off with his month’s pay.”
Daniel stared at her. “Well, now I really hope I don’t get shot tonight.”
“No one is getting shot tonight,” Jack said emphatically as he came into the room. He looked pissed off, probably because Agent Coulson was still ghosting along behind him. “No one is allowed to get shot, that’s an order. Capisce?”
“Capisco,” Daniel agreed.
“Good. Carter, you ready?”
She stepped away from Daniel and briskly smoothed out her dress—a short, emerald green skirt, décolletage neckline framed in white satin, dark nylons, and glossy black pumps.
“Men are such base creatures,” she muttered, leaning forward to sheath a small knife under her skirt’s flounces of tulle. “This will be insufferable to run in.”
All three men hastily averted their eyes.
“B team is in position,” Coulson said. “Agent Carter, Agent Heinricks will drive you to your destination. You know the protocol?”
Peggy affirmed. “Be careful, Daniel,” she told him as he helped her into her coat.
“You too,” he said, and she gave him a glimmer of a smile before following Coulson out.
Which left him with Jack, who was frowning at his polished cane.
“Will you be fine with this?” he asked, and Daniel rolled his eyes.
“Trust the cripple to know how he walks, alright?”
“Just don’t want you embarrassing us in front of the Feds when you get taken down by a stray banana peel,” Jack replied, but Daniel could hear the thin line of tension thrumming under his words. Instead of responding, he plucked the cane out of his grip and spun it around.
“Here.” He motioned to the tip. “Stark’s personal rubber formula. Lightweight, firm grip in all terrain, heat resistant. The cane is mahogany, with bands of reinforced steel.” He swung it right side up and leaned on it. “Silver-plated ‘L’ handle, and in case I’m really irritated,” he twisted the handle, pulled up sharply, and revealed the thin, needle-sharp stiletto hidden in the body.
Jack whistled. “That’s some leg.”
“It is,” Daniel agreed, slotting the cane back together. “So if you’re done mother henning, can we shake a leg?”
Despite the name, The Flanders Gang didn’t all come from Flanders—only the eponymous man at the top did, the Flanders himself. They’d started out doing the usual—bootlegging, racketeering, a side of gambling here and there, which, grease the right palms and the law won’t rouse from its sleep. Sometime after the war began though, The Flanders moved into smuggling humans, and that was where the authorities decided to draw the line.
The only sign for The Flanders’ gambling den headquarters was a crudely marked lily chalked on the pavement just before the cellar stairs. Daniel self-consciously adjusted his sleeves, practically hearing Peggy tutting to not fuss in his mind. In the car, Coulson had gone over the mission a final time—they weren’t there to do make any grand gestures. Daniel, as Francesco Ramini, was only supposed to initiate contact with The Flanders. Once a line of communication was established between The Flanders and the human-trafficking ring Ramini supposedly represented, the FBI would swoop in and take over. Daniel was set to meet with Billy Witt, second in The Flanders, and convince him he was worth a face-to-face meeting with the top dog. Then, all he had to do was leave a bug somewhere in the office, shake the hand of an infamous criminal and leave as soon as possible.
Daniel’d done worse during libo in port towns.
He descended down the stairs, knocked briskly at the door, and was let in after he’d flashed the appropriate business card. Inside, an unsmiling gorilla of a man led him down a dank, grimy hall, then gestured for him to continue through another door on his own. So Daniel did, and immediately flashed back to that one summer he and his cousin had spent in Atlantic City, trying to sneak into the speakeasies. The lounge was swathed in heavy burgundy wallpaper, the kind with trailing patterns in velvet. Elaborate brass chandeliers swung low from the ceilings. Smoke lingered in the air from couples crowded around tiny high-top tables along the walls, but the majority of people were crowded around the card tables spread throughout the room. Across from the bar was a small circular stage, where a quartet of musicians was playing a jaunty take on “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Daniel found it deeply ironic.
“Mr. Ramini?” Daniel caught himself just in time, and calmly pivoted to face the newcomer.
“Ah, yes,” he said in his maternal grandfather’s accent. “Mr. Witt?”
The tall, pale man before him smiled. “Please, join me.”
They made their way to the back of the room, carving a straight path past the gamblers and drinkers; along the way, Peggy brushed by with her cigarette tray and smiled brightly at him, no sign of recognition.
“Smoke, sir?” she asked brightly in an American accent cribbed straight from Angie.
“Go on, girl,” Witt ordered her. He wasn’t loud or aggressive, but the cool level authority in his tone was unmistakable. Peggy scurried away hastily. They continued in silence.
“Mr. Witt,” Daniel began after he’d sat down. “It is most excellent to finally meet. I must express my employer’s pleasure with this development.”
“As do we,” Witt replied. His face was like a hatchet, anchored with a thin bladed nose, pale, washed-out eyes and narrow, bloodless lips. “We have gone through the terms of agreement your people sent.”
“Excellent,” Daniel enthused, and clapped his hands together. “So, we have accord, yes? We sign the papers, toast some sciampagna, and get to know each other better!”
Witt smiled briefly, though it didn’t reach his eyes, which never seemed to blink. “I admire your enthusiasm. However, there are some concerns we’d like to go over before we put pen to paper.”
“Of course,” Daniel said cheerfully, even as alarm bells began a tentative chiming in his head. “I shall do my best.”
Witt ordered a steak from one henchman and over his meal, with utmost courtesy, pushed for certain contract adjustments, demanding a high percentage on certain transactions, imposing time limits, that sort of thing. With the confidence and bluster of someone who knew the contract was worth absolutely pants, Daniel agreed to everything. Finally, Witt set down his cutlery and dabbed at his mouth with a snow-white linen.
“And, so, yes?” Daniel pressed. “Now we sign?”
“Just one more thing,” Witt said offhandedly, and the alarm bells in Daniel began clanging in earnest.
“Too many changes and my employer will not be pleased,” he warned, impressed that his voice was steady.
“Oh, the contract is acceptable, Mr. Ramini,” Witt assured him. “We just need to verify you are who you say you are.”
Daniel didn’t move an inch. He could feel the warmth radiating off of the goon behind him, likely holding a loaded firearm to the back of his head. “Who would I be if I weren’t me?” Daniel laughed.
Shrugging, Witt made a vague gesture. “Please bear with our overabundance of caution,” he said. “We find that it pays to be thorough.”
“…How would you have me prove myself,” Daniel asked slowly. At his words, Witt smiled again, and this time, it was a true, nasty thing, cold as ice and revealing teeth like a predator’s.
“Follow me,” he said lightly, and slid out of the booth. The two goons silently standing guard fell in step behind.
Peggy drifted by again, catching his eye, and Daniel frantically tried to convey that plans may have gone tits-up with only his eyebrows. She barely nodded, testament to why she was a better agent than the vast majority of her cohorts, and also Daniel’s favorite. With a slight adjustment to her trajectory, she wobbled on her heels and stumbled against him. He felt the slight weight of something slipping into his back pocket. One of the goons roughly shouldered her out of the way, and she squeaked in alarm and sidled away.
“This way,” Witt said, and led them up a set of stairs. With deliberate slowness, Daniel limped up the stairs, mind racing and trying to stall for the time it took Peggy to find back up. He patted his forehead with the pocket square, and as he tucked it back, carefully thumbed the bug to life. It was a Stark device, small, compact, and once turned on, transmitted an entire room’s audio back to the flatbed of the SSR’s undercover vegetable truck, or at least he hoped it would. The original plan had been to leave it tucked somewhere safe and undetectable, but Daniel was pretty sure that whatever awaited him at the top of the stairs, would not be ideal.
Witt didn’t push him or look impatient, just regarded him with that unnerving stare as Daniel leaned on his cane. One guard at the door, three more posted to the ends of the hall on either side. The guard at the door silently moved aside to let them through, and with a bad feeling clenching at his throat, Daniel smiled and walked into the office.
It was a beautifully outfitted space, glossy hardwood surfaces and aged leather everywhere. Black curtains hung over the windows, and thick rugs overlay the floor. Probably useful, Daniel thought weakly, to hide from prying eyes and sensitive ears, the pale, sweating man strapped to a chair in the center of the room.
“Do you know him, Mr. Ramini?” Witt said behind him. At the sound of the door opening, the scrawny man looked up groggily, looking feverish and disoriented. His lank, black hair plastered the side of his ash-white face, and his eyes, wide and blown, looked drugged. Daniel had never met him, but instinctively knew; it was Agent Nantucket.
“No, what is this? Is this a joke?” Daniel blustered angrily at Witt, who didn’t even bother replying. The bastard just smiled evenly, allowing the silence to spin on and on. And Daniel realized that it wasn’t a covert op anymore, not when your target knew what you had been up to the entire time.
“You’re not Bill Witt,” he said suddenly, in his normal voice. “You’re the Flanders himself.”
“Oh?” Not-Witt replied.
Daniel cocked his head. “Witt is notoriously Catholic, and you just had yourself a nice, rare porterhouse on Friday.”
The Flanders spread his hands and laughed. “Can’t fault a man for his hunger. You at least are less stupid than your predecessors.”
“You knew the FBI would come sniffing after the leaks you set,” Daniel continued, mind making a million connections.
“It’s true,” the Flanders agreed. “And now we can clean house, thanks to the fine work of the good bureau.
Grimacing, Daniel shifted his weight and rolled his shoulders. “Well, sir, I guess I don’t feel so bad after all, because you just got two things wrong right there,” he drawled. “For starters, we’re not the FBI, and I for one, am appalled at their so-called ‘fine work,’ that’s for damned sure.”
Almost as if they rehearsed it, there was a decisive thunk outside the door, and before Daniel could do more than step out of the way, Peggy came barreling through in an explosion of noise and splinters, thwomping the closest guard over the head with her cigarette tray.
For the first time that night, the Flanders showed emotion, a split second rictus of shock before he began shouting for backup. Daniel reached into his pocket and grasped the knife she’d slipped him earlier. With a quick flip of the handle, he lunged for the Flanders, slashing for the throat, but the Flanders hissed and jerked so that the blade only sliced across his arm. It was sharp though, and cut deep. From behind, someone grabbed his shoulders and Daniel hefted his cane up and drove it backwards sharply into his opponent’s soft belly. When the man behind him grunted and dropped him, Daniel twisted the cane and managed to catch his balance by driving the point into the foot of another thug, then slamming the L handle up into his jaw.
“Get Nantucket,” Peggy ordered as she crunched one glossy black heel into someone’s windpipe, then slid across the surface of the desk to grab at a letter opener, which she then buried mercilessly in another attacker’s arm.
“Where’s Flanders?” he shouted as he hobbled to the sick agent. He paused only long enough to crack his heavy, steel reinforced cane against a particularly jowly attacker’s head, and barely managed to sidestep him as he crashed to the floor.
“I’ve got him,” she said tersely, sprinting out of the office.
“Where’m I,” Nantucket muttered restlessly as Daniel tugged at his bonds. “‘t hurts. Where’m I?”
“We’re here to rescue you, Agent,” he assured him. “Can you walk?”
“Yep,” Nantucket agreed, lurching forward, still attached to the chair, and crashed into the floor. He just missed the bullet that then buried itself into the solid desk behind them.
Daniel glanced up, and ducked as another goon fired. With one arm dragging Nantucket by the leg, he hastily scooted them behind the heavy hardwood desk, praying that back up arrived before their makeshift barrier was riddled through with bullets.
“’S too loud,” Nantucket cried weakly. “Think’m gonna be sick.”
“Oh, no, no, no, please don’t,” Daniel pleaded earnestly, sawing at the rope around Nantucket’s limbs with the stiletto from his Stark cane. “I’m wearing your suit, your $90 Canali suit.”
The rope finally fell apart and Nantucket sprawled bonelessly onto the ground. Daniel waited a beat until there was a pause in shooting, then levered himself up and threw the stiletto, javelin-like, at the nearest gunman and caught him straight through the chest. That took care of one, but not the other, and he was calculating the speed and distance he could travel without his cane, one-and-a-half legs, and 180 pounds of deadweight who was currently petting the carpet, when he heard the most beautiful words in the English language.
“Freeze! Drop the gun. You are under arrest for attempted murder, kidnapping, conspiracy to murder, and a whole lotta other stuff that probably applies,” Jack ordered from the doorway. “And that, Agent Coulson, is how you make a goddamn arrest.” In the sudden absence of gunshots, the thundering tramping of invading SSR and FBI agents swarming the office was very loud, and reminiscent of a victory cheer.
Daniel sagged to the ground in relief, absently patting Nantucket’s sweat-soaked back.
“Sousa, you there?”
“Behind the desk,” he called back, and a moment later, Jack rounded the corner, looking relieved. Daniel couldn’t help grinning. “Hey, Interim Chief. ‘Bout time you got here. You nearly missed all the fun.”
“You’re a real cocky something, Sousa,” Jack replied, smiling back. “How’s about we get you two on your feet?”
“You’re gonna have to carry Nantucket out,” he managed as Jack gripped his arm and helped him upright. He steadied himself against the desk and waved at Coulson, who was surveying the wreckage of the office around him. “The guy barely knows his name from a pineapple right now; I’m thinking it’s not just the plague eating at him.”
Coulson nodded curtly, and soon, two other agents came around to carefully lever Nantucket up, and whisked him off to medical care.
“They won’t let me take your cane back,” Jack said apologetically. “Not until they’ve photographed it all and did their usual mumbo jumbo paperwork stuff.”
Daniel groaned tiredly and lifted his arm expectantly.
“I think we’ve got this down to an art, by now,” Jack mused, and slipped under Daniel’s arm as if he belonged there.
“Did Peggy get the Flanders?” Daniel asked as they hobbled out of the office.
“Did you ever doubt her?” Jack snorted. “She’s sitting on him outside, making him wet himself as we speak.”
“Good for her,” he muttered.
“Yeah,” Jack agreed, and he sounded unbearably fond. Daniel looked at him oddly, but was soon distracted by the monumental task of descending one flight of stairs. It could have gone worse, except that Jack was right—they’d done this grown man’s three legged race enough times by now that they reached the bottom with minimal trouble, and were soon striding briskly out of the basement club. It was still a relief to be outside, the cool wind refreshingly devoid of the smell of blood, smoke, or cordite, huddles of traumatized looking party goers now facing the reality of being caught doing very illegal things.
As they made their way to the curb, Peggy materialized besides them. “Well, that’s that.”
“You enjoy yourself, Marge?” Jack asked sardonically, and in response, Peggy stretched her arms overhead and arched her back, causing her dress’s neckline to bob and dip alarmingly. Daniel coughed, flustered, and nearly missed a step, and he was definitely close enough to see Jack’s bright red flush crawl up his neck and curl over the top of his ears.
“Very much,” she said with satisfaction. “We must pick up the FBI’s trash more often.”
“If you’ll do the paperwork, sure,” Jack replied gruffly, still staring fixedly somewhere over her head.
“Oh, you can do those during your late shifts at the office,” she dismissed. “I’ll see you back there—or not. I fully plan to be done with my report and going home to a hot bath and a glass of Howard’s horrifically expensive scotch before you finish here.”
“Sounds thrilling,” Daniel said enviously, and she grinned.
“With a good book, and all,” she promised. She sauntered off, but paused. “And Jack?”
She smiled. “Good work back there.”
“Thanks,” he said softly, and watched her saunter off with obvious affection.
“Hey,” Daniel nudged. “Are we just standing here now?”
“Hold your horses,” Jack grumbled, and they began making their way towards the SSR car.
“Chief Thompson,” someone called, and they pulled up short, Daniel cursing silently; they were so close to the car.
“Yes?” Jack replied, half-turning as Coulson, accompanied by a dark-haired, slickly dressed man.
“This is Christopher Gull,” Coulson said, introducing the heavy-set gentleman. “From the DA’s office.”
“Chief Thompson,” Gull greeted, shaking Jack’s hand.
“Mr. Gull,” Jack replied in kind, in what Daniel thought of unkindly as his big-boy voice. “How can I help the district attorney?”
“DA Hogan will be very pleased to hear of your success. It is an extraordinary feat; our office has been very keen to prosecute these men, and with your recordings and your team’s testimonies, we will be able to launch proceedings immediately,” Gull smiled. “You’ve done incredible work here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jack sparkled back. “Glad to be of help.”
“Stop by the office sometime,” Gull suggested. “DA Hogan would enjoy meeting you in person.”
“Of course, sir,” Jack agreed, and satisfied, Gull turned back to Coulson.
When Jack jerked forward under Daniel’s arm, they almost both went down in a pile of limbs. Instead, Daniel lunged forward unsteadily, and they had to stop and re-balance each other. For a moment, Jack looked surprised, as if he’d forgotten Daniel was still there, clinging helplessly to his shoulders. Daniel just kept his jaw tight from saying anything else.
“…You ready to go?” Jack finally asked.
“Don’t strain yourself there,” Jack said, annoyed, as they hustled down to one of the SSR cars. He waved down a junior agent to take the wheel, then lowered Daniel into the passenger seat. “You look like someone just smacked you with a hammer.”
“I’m fine,” Daniel shot back, and stared forward rigidly. Outside the car, Jack still looked dubious, but after another moment, just sighed and slapped the top of the car.
The rest of the night went by in a steady flow of activity as the entire office pulled overtime, to wrap up the case. Daniel had little chance to take a breather; just ducked his head to the typewriter and banged out his report. It was near midnight by the time Daniel finally sat up, wincing as his spine popped and cracked. He pulled his report from the typewriter and tucked it into the final file for Jack’s signature, then slumped into his chair, suddenly feeling an odd sense of detachment now that there was nothing else to do. Over his shoulder, Jack’s office remained brightly lit, the sounds of muffled typing slipping between the cracks of his door. Nothing more to it, Daniel thought, and levered himself up from his chair to head home.
The thing was, Jack had always moved through the world like it was built around him. He was the anointed one, the undisputed golden boy of the SSR; all eyes fell on him whenever they were facing down the next crisis. It didn’t matter how much of Peggy’s thoughtful written analyses or Leakey’s formidable left hook contributed to the win, Jack was the face of reliable SSR competency. He looked the part, too, the tow-headed all-American hometown boy, straight off a Norman Rockwell painting. That level of arrogance had grated on Daniel in the early days, who’d still been getting used to his new, bitter lot in life post-war. But after Ivchenko, after Dooley, Jack had seemed more subdued. In some ways, he’d become more real; still undoubtedly a jerk, but differently. And then there were times when Jack called Daniel into his office while on night shift to pour them both a finger of rye from Jack’s private stash. On those quiet nights, they talked like they could be friends, someday. Daniel had felt like he was picking apart the cracks in Jack’s performance and catching glimpses of the real living boy underneath on those late night talks.
So, even as the night rolled through into a damp gray Saturday morning, Daniel lay wide awake in bed, turning over the last moments of interaction with the prosecutor. He thought about Senator Cooper’s visit to the office after the Ivchenko affair, and the ensuing meeting Jack had with President Truman, all by himself, on behalf of SSR’s New York office, no Peggy, no nothing. Daniel couldn’t sleep, even though his eyes felt like sandpaper and his mind was so tired he could cry. His missing leg ached something fierce, as real as the bruises blooming all down his sides.
Daniel remained in his apartment that weekend, ducking the rapidly cooling weather and sitting in the living room, bad leg propped on the windowsill. He wondered why it bothered him so much, the question of Jack’s character. Nothing had changed, except that where Daniel had once disliked him, now he… didn’t. Maybe that was it. Disappointment, Daniel thought, and the word spread a bitter taste on his tongue.
By the time Daniel got to the New York Bell Co. on Monday, the weather had turned for the worse, and he sorely regretted not calling in sick as soon as he saw the state of the sky overhead. It had been a long, awful subway ride over as well, the trains screaming down the tunnels until they shuddered to a screaming stop for no reason other than to aggravate its passengers. The air had gotten dank and humid in Daniel’s carriage, but the windows had been stuck so he was both sweating and shivering by the time he was stumping out of the station and into the gray, drizzly day.
When he’d exited the elevator into the switchboard room, he was barely able to manage a civil greeting for Rose as she let him through. The office was mass chaos, agents shouting, telephones ringing, papers flying. Daniel neatly spun on his cane and was nearly on his way out again when a terse order stopped him in his tracks.
“Sousa, in my office.” Reluctantly, Daniel made his way through the bullpen, sidestepping a frazzled looking McRory trying to placate someone over the phone. Peggy, he noticed, was already in Jack’s office, arms folded tightly against herself.
He really should have stayed home today, Daniel thought, and closed the office door behind him.
“What’s going on?” he asked, gaze switching between Peggy and Jack, the latter who had a tense, displeased set to his mouth.
“I’m sticking security details on you for the next few days,” he finally said.
“What?” Daniel blinked. “Why?” He looked at Peggy, who looked more angry than surprised.
“They’ve let Cornelius Flaundres go,” she bit out.
“Oh for Christ’s sake—the Flanders?”
“He’s got friends in high places,” Jack said grimly. “Unfortunately, Coulson wouldn’t tell us who.”
“’Course not,” Daniel said angrily. “He’s not the one the murderous, untouchable Belgian will be coming after.”
“Which is why I’m putting agents on you two,” Jack repeated. “You are not to go anywhere without at least one person with you at all times.”
“That’s a bit much,” Peggy protested, but he looked so fierce that she fell silent.
“It’s non-negotiable, Carter,” he said flatly, then added more gently. “Look, it’ll only be for a few days. Coulson assures me the Feds have a rock solid case on him, and it’s just a matter of ironing out the loopholes with the district attorney’s office, where I am off to, in,” he glances at his watch, “Fifteen minutes. They can put him away for good. But for now, we are watching our backs, just in case.”
“Well, do I have a say at least in who I get assigned?” Peggy tried, but Jack just scoffed.
“You’re not allowed to pick Daniel,” he said firmly, and she frowned. “Wilson’s waiting for you outside. He’s already been briefed.”
“He calls me ma’am,” she pointed out flatly, but nevertheless left the office without further protest.
They watched her walk over to Wilson’s desk, who actually got out of his chair and stood at attention.
“So, Peggy gets the Boy Scout,” Daniel said slowly.
“He’s been on security detail before,” Jack said dubiously. “He knows what he’s doing.”
“If you say so,” he shrugged.
“Leakey’ll be on your guard,” Jack told him, shuffling papers and crossing the room to file them into his cabinet.
“Fine.” Daniel examined the hangnail on his thumb and picked at it with his index.
“Alright then,” Jack said, sounding exasperated and looking at him impatiently. “You need anything else?”
“I guess not,” Daniel said, and the curl of belligerence in his words surprised even himself. It startled Jack as well, judging by the way his eyes widened and then narrowed. And maybe it was the idea that some incompetent idiot had let a hardened criminal walk, who was now likely coming for Daniel’s head. Or maybe it was just the weather, with its disgusting gray rain churning the city dust into mud, skidding Daniel’s cane over slick ground, and sinking its cold, dank claws into his mangled thigh and keeping him up until just before dawn with its yawing, unrelenting ache. Whatever it was, Daniel was suddenly spoiling for a fight.
“You got have something to share, Sousa?” Jack asked slowly, closing the filing cabinet.
Dooley’s office now had no trace of the old chief anymore—the lunch receipt thrown away or covered by new postings, furniture replaced. St. John’s Bay Rum scenting every damned corner like a comfortable ghost. So much for interim, Daniel thought.
“How you doing, Chief?” Daniel questioned.
Jack’s chin dipped slightly in confusion, his brows furrowed. “Busy, thanks. Is that what you wanted to know?” Daniel read mild amusement in his skeptical expression, and felt a lash of sullen resentment at his obliviousness.
“I’m just curious, because you look like you’re having a good time,” he said instead. “It’s a nice job, isn’t it? Friends with the mayor, meeting with the DA. You look like you’re moving up.”
The confusion on Jack’s face hardened into stoniness. He circled around his desk and sat down, grabbing a file from his never-ending stack. “We’re done here,” he informed Daniel curtly.
“Credit where credit’s due,” Daniel drawled. “You sure make the best of what you get.”
Jack stared at him, eyebrows raised and mouth slightly open, until he seemed fold up and lock down from the inside. “Look, you got a problem with the chain of command, you take it up with the DC office,” he reminded Daniel briskly, and there was a trace of hurt underneath.
Any other day, Daniel would have stepped back, apologized for being out of line. Instead, he was reckless, mouthy, and fascinated. He wanted to press on, like a bruise, knowing it would hurt and curious about it anyways. “Oh, I won’t,” he replied, “Can’t have that happen to the face of this office. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your road to glory.” The words dropped like ugly, lumpen shapes of lead from his lips. He regretted them as soon as they were spoken, but he kept his chin up as he stared back defiantly.
But the ringing silence was broken when Jack laughed harshly, an ugly, jagged sound. “You think I do this for glory?” he chuckled incredulously, and threw down his pen. He leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide. “What, you want the job, Sousa? You want it?” Daniel stayed silent, but Jack continued, his words flint-edged. “You think you can do a better job, or Carter maybe? Because this is what it’s about, right? Just say the word, Sousa, I’ll walk out today.” He leaned forward, his blue eyes glittering hard and dark. “But I’ll tell ya one thing,” he continued in low, fierce tones, “If it’s glory you’re looking for, you’re better off heading back to Normandy. I don’t dare disrespect what I do. I know full well where exactly I stand in this office, and I assure you, Sousa, that I know a damned sight more than most how important this job is, even though it was never supposed to be mine. And that means trying to keep this city safe and ignorant of the terrible things happening in their city right under their noses, while running this office on fumes. So by all means, hold me to past actions. I’m an asshole, we are all damn well aware of that. But it you think that means I don’t take this job as seriously as I possibly can, you can get the hell out of this office.”
There was nothing Daniel could say after that. After a moment, he turned, and quietly left the room. As he made his way back to his desk, Leakey fell into step beside him.
“Hey, so you’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future,” Leakey said. “Chief tell you that?”
Daniel rubbed his face with his hand. “Yeah, yeah. Thanks for doing this.”
“No problem.” Leakey clapped his shoulder lightly. “Happy to do my part.” Daniel tried for a smile that was more of a grimace. “So, you ain’t upset about it, or nothing?”
“No. Why would I be?” Daniel asked, glancing up at Leakey’s square, boxer face. The veteran agent was a good guy, and he’d never talked down to Daniel or questioned his ability to do the job. He liked working with him when they did get the chance.
Leakey shrugged. “Just saw you two in the office. Looked like some conversation.”
“It was,” Daniel sighed, only then realizing that never once during the course of their talk, did Jack raise his voice above normal. “Ah, hell.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Leakey said sympathetically, “He’s a cocky sumbitch, but he’s just worried. I promise I’m not a bad shadow, either.”
“Thanks,” Daniel replied moodily, and fought the urge to throw something through the next wall.
Nothing happened for the next few days. Hell, the next week was suspiciously quiet on all fronts. Daniel was especially aware of the quietness, because he spent most of his time at work catching up with the stacks and stacks of paperwork, writing report after report, copying and recopying his witness statements for the Flanders case. When he left home, Leakey was there to walk him out and see him back safe. Sometimes, they picked up two pounds of fresh pasta. Daniel cooked it up at home with some bacon grease and tinned tomatoes for the both of them whenever Leakey’s wife worked a late shift. At work, he and Peggy still took lunch at the automat sometimes, but it wasn’t quite the same, with Leakey and Wilson were parked in the adjoining booth. They always ended back at the office before the hour was over.
And Jack stopped speaking to him.
That’s not completely true, Daniel supposed. He still called him over to discuss one thing or another, and handed assignments off to him. But their interactions were consummately professional. There was no more easy ribbing and laughter, no more conversations about a case peppered through with commentary on last night’s baseball game or Sousa’s kid nephew. When Peggy tried to corral them for drinks after work, Jack demurred for the first time in months, citing an urgent meeting with someone-or-other. She’d shrugged it off as just part of the job, but as Daniel slunk out behind her, he cast looks back at Jack’s office, where the lone desk lamp cast that corner of the room in amber-and-black shadows. Jack was avoiding him, and Daniel felt like a heel, because if anything, Daniel was the one who should apologize. At the very least, for not being able to control his tongue.
When he did muster up the courage to, Jack regarded him seriously and nodded once.
“Thanks,” he told him after Daniel was done, “but that was not necessary.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t unless it was,” Daniel assured him, but when no smile was forthcoming, he felt his own tentative grin wilt. “Anyways, that’s… all.” He retreated back to his desk, where he spent the rest of the afternoon reorganizing all the pens in his desk over and over again.
When Daniel was four, he broke his older brother’s favorite toy—a beautiful model of the HMS Dreadnought that Sam and Grandpa Joe had built and painted the summer before. Mama and Pop never let Daniel touch the finished model, but sometimes, Sam had carefully lifted it from its stand to let Daniel peer inside the tiny windows and over the detailed deck. Once, when Sam was out and Mama was in the kitchen, Daniel had dragged the dining chair over to the fireplace and climbed up, just to look at the model. That’s all he wanted to do, except he still wasn’t tall enough to reach the model, where it was displayed on the mantle. So, he’d stretched out and reached for it, his fingers just brushing its glossy red finish.
It went about as well as expected, and along with smashing the model into shiny, varnished pieces, Daniel had earned his first broken arm that day. The miracle probably was that it took Daniel another 24 years to end up permanently disabled. He doesn’t actually remember the aftermath, but his family liked to remind how, for months afterwards, he’d wake up from nightmares and wouldn’t go back to sleep until Sam had assured him he wasn’t mad anymore. Daniel liked to think he’d come a long way since then, except here he was, wide awake at least three hours before he needed to get up, and not at all capable of falling back asleep while his mind pulsed with uneasy guilt and resentment.
“Damn,” he thought, and decided it was time to talk to someone about it.
“Congrats,” Leakey greeted him when he came to pick him up this morning. “This’ll be your last luxury car pick up.”
Daniel blinked tiredly at him. “They got him?”
“That’s right. The FBI finally got his ass back in jail, on ten thousand bail. Chief pulled me’n Wilson off babysittin’ duty this morning. Thought I’d do one more pick up, for old times’ sake,” Leakey grinned.
“Oh,” Daniel said, relieved. “Well, thanks.”
Everyone at the office seemed in a lighter mood; though the Flanders case hadn’t needed much legwork from SSR beyond that one night, it was still good to close that atrocious case file, hopefully for good. The only two that seemed not to be celebrating were Peggy and Jack. In fact, Peggy hadn’t even shown up to work that day.
“Personal day,” Wilson said when he’d asked. He shrugged. “She’s been kind of tense this past week. Maybe just needed a break.” Daniel frowned, because that didn’t sound like Peggy at all. But he wasn’t about to talk to Jack about it either; the interim chief had come over to shake his hand briefly and fill him in on the details of the Flanders case, but the five minute interaction was painfully impersonal, and Jack disappeared back into his office immediately afterwards. Daniel escaped to the labs after lunch, where he annoyed Doobin by asking about various bubbling concoctions under the fume hoods and attempting to befriend Dolly-the-man-eating-cat with his leftover turkey sandwich. The damned cat had looked disdainfully at the dry, white meat in his hand, before eyeing him with more interest, and Daniel was very glad he’d taken Doobin’s advice of wearing rubber gloves before feeding her.
He wasn’t relishing another sleepless night, and so after work, he took a cab out to the Stark residence where Peggy lived. It was dark by the time he got there, the late autumn chill sweeping in sharper than he’d anticipated, and he shivered as he climbed up the stairs to the door. Inside looked warm, he thought wistfully, and rang the bell. There were voices from within—feminine and inquisitive, and a second, more masculine tone. Daniel hastily pulled himself straighter as the door swung open and Howard Stark stared back at him. He blinked in surprise, before a wide grin split across his face.
“Who is it, Howard?” Peggy called, voice drawing nearer.
“Agent Sousa,” Howard greeted, pleased, and held his hand out to shake. “Good to see you again. How are you?”
“Daniel?” Peggy came up behind Howard, fastening a glittering crystal earring in place. “What are you doing here? Is something wrong?” she asked, gaze sharpening.
“Wha- no, no not at all,” Daniel assured them. “You two are heading, wow, heading out?” He tried not to stare, but Howard was wearing an exquisitely cut tuxedo that put Daniel’s borrowed Canali suit to utter shame. And Peggy wore a stunning, crimson evening gown that made Daniel’s mouth go dry.
“Aw, Peggy thinks I need to get out of the lab for bit,” Howard grumbled. “And I told her that I absolutely would love to get out of the lab, just after I finish with this new generator that you are not hearing a single word I’m saying aren’t you?”
“That’s aces, Mr. Stark,” Daniel replied absently.
“Told you to call me Howard,” he said, amused.
“Uh-huh, yeah,” Daniel agreed.
“Daniel,” Peggy smiled, fondly. “What is it you need?”
“I, uh.” Daniel forcibly looked away and gathered his thoughts. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you had plans tonight. I just… had some things on my mind that I wanted your opinion on. It’s not urgent, you two should go, you both look great.” He made to back out of the doorway, except Howard snagged his arm, a glint in his eye.
“Hey, you know what’d be a great idea?” he asked brightly. “If you took Peggy for her night out on the town and I go ahead and finish that generator back in the labs.”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to intrude,” Daniel demurred.
“Howard, you can’t just force others to take your place,” Peggy snapped, rolling her eyes.
“Well, you wouldn’t be intruding,” Howard assured Daniel blithely. “And Peggy, c’mon. I’ll do ya one better tomorrow night, but I gotta get this done today. I promise. Look at him, can you turn down a face like that? Or mine?” He batted his lashes.
Peggy lasted all of five seconds before a smile began tugging at the corner of her mouth, powerless before Howard’s antics. “Honestly, Howard,” she said exasperated. “Daniel, you really are welcome to take his place, if you would like. We can talk there.”
“Sure,” he agreed, still tongue tied.
“Alright, Howard. Lend him your coat, at least,” she sighed, and her friend hissed triumphantly and shrugged it off his shoulders.
“Here ya go, Agent. Thanks for covering for me. Enjoy the band. And you,” he grinned at Peggy. “Lady, be good. Don’t keep him up too late.”
“I won’t,” she smiled reluctantly. “And take your own advice, will you? Go to bed at a reasonable hour.”
“Will do, Carter.” He bussed her cheek, clapped Daniel on the shoulder, and dashed back into the house, tossing his bowtie free over his shoulder with a whoop.
For a moment, Daniel clutched at the evening coat, and opened his mouth. He closed it, laughed softly, and offered his arm instead. “Shall we?” he asked in his best blue-blood accent. Peggy laughed too, and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.
Mr. Jarvis drove them onto 52nd Street where neon signs flashed and danced over the club doorway. He dropped them off at the curb, and informed them he’d be back in a few hours to pick them up. Peggy thanked him, but urged him to go home to Anna; she’d take a cab or subway back.
“Just over here,” Peggy said as she took his arm again, and he escorted her down into the dimly lit interior of the nightclub. Inside, he had barely taken her coat when they were accosted by a jubilant Polish man who, Daniel gathered from the excitable stream of greetings exchanged, had known Peggy in the war. He led them to a corner high-top table, further back from the bandstand, where the bustle of patrons and music receded just enough to hold a conversation. Daniel nevertheless took a few moments to savor the upbeat jazz pounding out from the band.
“I saw him play before,” Daniel told Peggy after they’d ordered drinks. He nodded to the tenor saxophonist on stage. “Back when he was still playing with Fletcher Henderson.”
“Good as you remember?” she asked and he smiled, feeling momentarily lighter.
She regarded him fondly. “What’s going on, Daniel?”
He shrugged. “I changed my mind,” he said, “let’s just listen to these guys swing.”
“Is it about your argument with Jack?” she asked shrewdly, and he felt his mood dull almost immediately.
“How’d you know?” He was startled by her bark of laughter.
“You go from best mates one day to not even speaking, the whole office is going to know. We’re spies, don’t forget,” she laughed, then added more gently. “You wanted my opinion about it, so talk to me.”
Daniel watched the stage at the far end of the club, where the tenor saxophonist and the piano man engaged in a wild and jaunty jazz riff, a mystifying but mesmerizing progression. It would be so much simpler, he thought, if people could just read each other’s minds, as easily as those musicians followed each other in passionate, lock-step musical whimsy. “Peggy,” he said, “I think I screwed up.”
Laying it bare to her was hard. Daniel began to explain the not-argument in Jack’s office last week, and found himself unable to do so, not without thinking back to the past months. It began with the Flanders, or. Earlier, with the late night debriefs over scotch in the office, after late shift had left. But even before then, Daniel had never stopped feeling...
“It keeps circling in my head,” he admitted. “I know words shouldn’t matter. But I’m mad as hell, madder than I think I would be, if I didn’t…” he trailed off, pensive. “Know him better?” He sighed and rubbed under his eye tiredly. “When he was talking to the assistant DA, I was literally at his elbow, and it was like I was nothing. Air. I thought, for some reason, that because we’d moved beyond petty rivalries, things would change.” Daniel sipped his drink. “Stupid me, I guess.”
She watched him contemplatively. “You certainly have thought about this quite a bit,” she commented, and he flushed, and didn’t deny it, taking another sip of his gin and tonic.
“I know what you said about being recognized,” he told her. “But it doesn’t mean you give him a pass.”
“You have a point,” she agreed. “And yes, it is rather unfair.”
He swirled his glass, and prompted, halfheartedly, “But?”
Peggy laughed, and propped her chin up on one hand and smiled at him. “Not my secret to tell,” she said apologetically. “But I will say I have some insight into the matter. And while it doesn’t warrant a full pardon, it does provide some,” she paused briefly, “context.”
“For building himself up as the great American hero?” Daniel asked sarcastically, and Peggy rolled her eyes.
“Jack doesn’t think he’s a hero,” she snorted. “He’d probably be much happier if he didn’t think he had to be one.”
“He doesn’t seem the type to get stage fright.”
“Oh, people get nervous about all sorts of things,” she said.
“And it doesn’t bother you?” he asked.
“Daniel.” She reached over and laid her hand on his arm, and held his gaze steadily. “Believe when I say that while senators and district attorneys may not know me by name, I am far more satisfied with the respect and freedom that I have to do this job. I don’t need platitudes. Besides,” she shrugged, “being underestimated isn’t exactly new. At least with Jack, he’s willing to use that for our greatest advantage. Why do you think he does all the talking during those senate meetings, while I take minutes at the table? It’s certainly not for my shorthand, which Agent Lie is far better at. We’ve got roles to play, like it or not. Jack’s good with putting on faces.” She smiled a bit. “You know he tries to present himself as the perfect leader to everyone else. That way, they don’t see you or me and think, ‘what are they doing there?’ They only see him, the golden boy, so good at what he does that he can employ women and cripples and still get the job done. It’s brutal and ugly social politics, and Jack’s very good at it.”
Daniel sat in silence for a moment, digesting her words while she looked out at the band and watched the dancers spin and whirl below. When she looked back, he gave her an ironic look. “And I suppose you’ll tell me that it leaves us to do our jobs?”
“Don’t need to now that you have,” she replied.
Shaking his head, Daniel cracked a smile at her. “You’re astonishing, Carter.”
“You flatterer,” she smiled back.
He gave up. “So do you think I should apologize?” he asked. “I tried, but I don’t think it worked.”
“Give him some time, Daniel,” Peggy suggested. “He trusts you.” When Daniel raised an eyebrow skeptically, she raised one right back. “You can’t have missed that.”
“He’s always complaining about the extra paperwork I cause,” Daniel said doubtfully.
Peggy huffed and shook her head. “It’s been so long, he should be used to it by now.”
“That’s what I tried telling him last time, and he made me rewrite my report and file an extra weapons report for the fork I used to arrest someone,” he grumbled.
“The slave driver.”
They grinned each other, at Daniel was grateful that at least they were at peace, the two of them.
“So, uh,” Daniel gestured to the band. “I didn’t mean to bring work into your day off,” he apologized sheepishly. “I should have rung ahead.”
She waved him off. “It’s nothing,” she said firmly, and glanced down at her scotch. “To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t come alone.”
“But you would’ve anyways?” Daniel asked.
“No, well, perhaps.” She smiled briefly, but her gaze was still fixed away from Daniel. “Two years ago, someone promised to come dancing with me. He never made it to the appointment,” she said wistfully.
Huh, Daniel thought, then, with dawning horror, Oh lord, she’s talking about Captain America.
“I, uh,” he stuttered.
“Oh, don’t,” she said, mildly peevish. “If you hadn’t come, I’d’ve brought Howard, who would’ve stayed for one drink and a song, then noodled off to seduce the coat girl.”
Daniel waffled between mortification and amusement, but took her word and swallowed his apologies. Instead, he motioned to the server for another drink and fidgeted in his seat, wondering how he could salvage this evening.
“What was he like?” he finally asked, hoping it was the right thing to say.
Peggy smiled, the curvature of her red lips sweet and sad. “Brave,” she said softly. “Compassionate. Stubborn as a mule, too. Steve never knew when to give up.” She laughed suddenly, and leaned forward with a grin. “One time, he and the Commandoes snuck into Vienna…”
Peggy regaled him with stories of the Howling Commandoes, the stuff that never made it into the newsreels and that would have given the military brass ulcers. How Captain Rogers rarely lost his temper, except for that one time a Nazi officer purposefully kicked over a pail of fresh milk just to spite him and Bucky had laughed so hard afterwards that they’d had to carry him back to camp. The way Falsworth and Morita managed to sneak into occupied Paris with sugar and eggs for Dernier’s mother, then snuck back out to present Dernier with a birthday cake. How Gabe Jones had a mellifluous baritone voice that he used to great effect, terrifying his German targets as he rushed them, booming Wagnerian refrains.
Daniel laughed until his sides ached, and responded with stories of his own unit in the war, about the pranks they got up to in between the marching and fighting, and that one time a chicken somehow wandered into camp, and the entire platoon had dropped everything to chase it down, even Lieutenant Kelly, who’d been in the midst of shaving and so ended up with feathers clinging to his shaving cream-covered cheeks.
By the time the clock struck midnight, they were pleasantly tipsy and contemplative, pausing to take in the mellow, wandering saxophone that was just barely recognizable from its original tune.
“You know,” Peggy said, breaking the companionable silence that they’d fallen into. “Sometimes, it doesn’t seem quite real, the way Steve-” Not Captain, or Rogers anymore, “-has become this, grand, great figure of the war.”
“A war hero?” Daniel asked, but she shook her head.
“They don’t make comic books and radio shows about any old war hero,” she pointed out. “He’s become, oh, I don’t know. Mythic, almost.” The lines of her face, half cast in shadow, were pensive and a little melancholy. “But when I met him, during the war, we were just… ordinary people, doing what needed to be done. He never enjoyed becoming the face of that terrible, destructive mess.”
“You loved him very much,” he said softly, and she nodded with a small smile.
“I did, dearly. I admired him as much,” she confessed. “He had conviction, and the bollocks to stick to them.”
“So do you,” Daniel said, and it was true. Captain America was a figure of the newspapers, as real to Daniel as illustrated posters of Uncle Sam and Rosie Riveter. But Peggy Carter was very much fully fleshed and solidly human, with moments of glory and tender vulnerabilities. For him, there was no question which he preferred.
“It’s why we got along so well, I think,” she laughed. “In each other, we found something of a mirror image.”
And Daniel could see it—if the captain was as great as the rumors were, the two of them together could have taken the world together, broken it down into scattered parts, and forged it into something new, shining, and awesome. Bittersweet castles in the clouds, those were all they were though. Instead, Peggy came to watch the band play and wait for a dance partner that would never arrive.
Well, Daniel thought with sudden conviction, not tonight. He set his drink down, and determinedly got to his feet. His crutch felt leaden and weighted with nerves, but for once, he ignored it.
As Peggy watched him curiously, he limped around the table and stopped in front of her. He cleared his throat uncertainly, screwed himself up as straight as he could, and made himself look right into her bright, watchful eyes. “Ma’am,” he said, summoning a bit of that old ghost of rakishness he’d affected, many years and a war ago. “I’m no Captain America, and I got an odd number of legs. But I’d be honored if I could have this one dance.” He held out his free hand, palm up, and waited.
Peggy’s fire-engine red lips curved up slowly, matching his bright grin. “I’d love to,” she said warmly, and took his hand.
The logistics of dancing had been easier when Daniel had two working legs, but they made their way to the floor without issues, and other dancers kept a polite distance once they spotted Daniel’s crutch. With the night winding down, the earlier, hot swing tunes had given way to leisurely, sweet melodies that lingered in the smoky air and suffused the club with a late-night melancholy. Even if they stepped just a half-measure out of tune, and didn’t do anything fancier than clutch-and-sway, no one noticed, or cared. This close, locked in slow simplicity, Daniel caught the scent of Peggy’s perfume, the barest hint of warm skin underneath it. Her hair, brushing against his cheek, was softer than he’d expected, and her eyes had drifted closed as she leaned in. Perhaps she was thinking of someone else, perhaps not. That she trusted him enough to hold her like this—that was already more than he’d ever hoped for. And he couldn’t deny that he loved her, with a fondness and respect that he’d never felt for anyone else; but he understood with bittersweet clarity that Peggy Carter was bound for the world. So, Daniel closed his eyes briefly as well and gathered her in. In his mind, he held onto the smell and touch and warmth of her, the unbearable closeness and sweet smelling curls. And as the saxophone lingered on one last, shivering note, he let her go.
The sky was clear and cold overhead by the time he saw her off in a cab back to the Stark townhouse. Autumn was fast falling into winter, and he drew his thin coat close as he walked to his subway stop. Though it was late, lights still winked and glittered all along the street, and the last late-night pedestrians passed him with brisk steps, intent on home and bed. Daniel was in no hurry though; his head still rang with music, horns and syncopated drums tattooing a cheerful rhythm in his mind and heart. His mood would not last—likely as soon as he woke up tomorrow to a weak head and an aching leg—but who cared? Daniel felt clear-headed despite the drinks, determined to do better, and glad-hearted simply because it had been a good night. He whistled, crunched along the gravel-dirt path, and pulled to an abrupt stop as a shadowed figure stepped into his way.
Daniel stumbled backwards hastily, except there was a second man behind him, who wrenched his crutch away and clapped his arms in a vise-like grip.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Daniel managed to spit out before his mouth was smothered by a huge meaty palm. Within moments, the first man, face shadowed by his flat cap, flicked his wrist; Daniel caught the glint of a blade by lamplight a moment before he felt it slide right up into his ribs, easy as pie.
Later, Daniel learned that he only survived because a drunken coed tripped over his bleeding body on the way back to his apartment. He decided to stick to talking about his missing leg whenever asked about war injuries.
Daniel woke up in the hospital, recognizing that sterile, anti-septic smell before anything else registered. The ceiling was white, the sheets were scratchy but clean, and everything hurt. He tried to say something, but only managed a dry, crackly rasp. From his side, there was a jumble of noise as someone leapt up from their seat.
“Agent Sousa! Sir? You up?” A moment later, Agent Lie’s concerned face filled Daniel’s view. The junior agent looked tired but excited. “Alright, sir, just- stay awake, I’m going to get the doctor, okay?”
“Hnnnnngh,” Daniel said, and heard his steps clattering away.
Within a few minutes, Lie returned with the doctor and a nurse, who arrived with a cup of ice chips, bless her beautiful soul. Daniel submitted patiently to the checks and questions. After they’d finished and gone, he sucked down half the cup of chips while Lie explained what happened.
“The Flanders’ network ran a little deeper than we’d expected,” Lie said darkly. “Chief’s furious; the entire office could hear him shouting at that Fed guy for not doing his job.”
“Good,” Daniel grunted. He was still reclined, carefully trying not to move or stretch in ways that would agitate his stab wound.
“You’ve been out for two days,” Lie continued. “They didn’t think you’d make it at first; the doctors were ready to crack your chest open and get a defibrillator in there.”
The young man continued on, cheerfully oblivious. “Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. But it was a close call. You had us all worried there, sir.”
“He certainly did,” Jack said from where he was leaned against the doorway, arms folded, and Lie leapt again to his feet. “Thanks for sitting with him, Lie. You can head back now.”
“Yes, Chief,” Lie chirruped, and patted Daniel’s shoulder genially before heading out. Daniel rolled his head towards Jack, who took over Lie’s chair, dragging it right up to the hospital bed.
“You look like shit,” Daniel said truthfully.
Jack stared at him blankly. “You’re an asshole,” he finally marveled. But it wasn’t like Daniel was lying; the shadows under Jack’s eyes were purple, his skin sallow with exhaustion and his usually immaculate hair was limp. His shirt was wrinkled, and even though he still smelled faintly of limes, the stubble on his chin indicated he hadn’t shaved in at least a full day.
“Were you here the whole time?” Daniel asked, though the words took energy to form.
“In and out,” Jack replied. “Peggy, Lie, Leakey, even McRory, they all took turns.”
“That’s nice,” Daniel said, flattered. “No one sat with me last time. They thought I was dead.” Huh. He may be loopier than he’d thought.
The gut-punched expression on Jack’s face quickly smoothed out. “Yeah, well, you aren’t getting away from us that easily. You have a job to do, remember?”
“I have a hole in my stomach,” Daniel reminded him.
“We always need someone to look pretty and answer the phones.”
“You tryin’ to be funny,” Daniel said, narrowing his eyes. “You’re not.”
Jack shrugged, barely hiding a smile.
“Hey,” Daniel said quietly. “I meant it last time. I am sorry.”
“Sousa, not now, okay?” Jack sat back and scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“No, no. It’s not fair, I’m stuck in this bed, so you don’t get to walk away right now,” Daniel snapped testily, and winced when his stomach twinged. Jack saw it and hastily scooted forward.
“I’m right here, aren’t I? Don’t get your pants in a twist.”
“I’m not bringing this up again because it entertains me,” Daniel grumbled, fixing his eyes on the water stain on the ceiling. “But because what I said then doesn’t reflect what I actually believe, alright? You’re an okay chief. You could be less of a jerk about it, but nobody’s perfect. I think I get what you’re trying to do.” He snuck a glance at Jack, who was watching him intently.
“I see you’ve caught up with the rest of the class,” Jack sniped, but there was genuine relief under his words.
“Yeah, yeah, don’t get cocky, jerk.” Daniel rolled his eyes.
Jack chuckled, then sighed. “You had a point though,” he admitted after a brief silence. He clasped his hands loosely, elbows propped on his knees, and gave him a wry look. “I’ll admit it rattled me more than I expected. You and Peggy both,” he said quietly, “I take very seriously.”
“I never said you didn’t,” Daniel told him.
“I know. But it helped clarify things. Listen,” he said, his shoulders drooping. “The office won’t last the end of the year.”
“What?” Daniel uttered, and tried very hard not to react physically, if only because his body screamed bloody murder every time he so much as tensed a muscle.
Jack shrugged, and his bowed frame, betraying his naked defeat, was almost too much. “I’ve done just about everything I could,” he admitted. “No matter how you cut it, we’re getting sliced from the budget and our doors are closing. They’re gonna reallocate the money to Brooklyn and DC.
“But it’s not a bad thing for you and Peggy,” he continued. “She’s headed for something bigger, I can tell. And you,” he grinned, faintly impish. “Your thick head and gumption impressed Coulson. He’s made some noises about bringing you into his department as an analyst.”
Daniel didn’t know what to say, except, “Oh, alright.” His confusion seemed to amuse Jack all the more.
“Even if, by some miracle, we stay open, I don’t know what more we can do for Peggy,” Jack continued. “She’s wasted as a run-of-the-mill agent here.”
And Daniel couldn’t say he didn’t think the same. Jack sighed, and glanced at him from under his lashes. “But while she’s with us, for however much longer, you think maybe she’d like a promotion?”
“To… what?” Daniel asked, confused. She was already the most senior agent; hell, she’d been with the SSR since the start of the war. That was years ahead of most everyone else in the office.
“Well,” Jack smiled crookedly. “One good thing about being chief of a dying department is I can do what I want, and I thought I could use a deputy of sorts. Head of field operations, something like that.”
“Hell of a promotion,” Daniel agreed.
“I know,” Jack said. “What do you think?” He watched Daniel with a very blue gaze and a tentative smile. There was that odd expression again; Daniel had been seeing it more and more often in the past year. Unbidden, Peggy’s words suddenly echoed in his mind: He trusts you. You can’t have missed that, and like the last piece of puzzle clicking in place, Daniel thought he finally understood.
“I think she’d like that,” Daniel said.
The New York Bell Company office folded by the end of the year, but Jack had managed to negotiate several transfers for his agents. Some of the boys were moved to other offices along the northeast, but most left the business altogether. Leakey took his severance check and bought a farm up in Vermont for him, his wife, and their newborn daughter. Both McRory and Doobin moved to the main SSR science labs in Virginia, McRory to join the active agent roster and Doobin to head a new bioscience lab. He took Dolly the cat with him, and Daniel was almost sorry to see her go, except that she’d nearly taken his remaining leg when he tried to bid her farewell. Peggy and Bocke transferred to the Brooklyn office, headed by an Agent Thomas Flynn. Jack left for DC almost as soon as the office doors shut for a debriefing and reassignment with Colonel Phillips himself. When it came down to Daniel though, he didn’t go far at all.
The FBI offices only looked different from the outside. Inside was no real surprise. A bit more spacious, a bit more serious, but oh, much the same. The other agents were as cocksure as any in the SSR, but with much less humor and Daniel slid into his analyst role quietly. He accompanied Agent Coulson into mission briefings and strategy meetings, but with the amount of firepower the feds had at their hands, there was no need to send a one-legged analyst into the field, no matter how capable he was. His days were quieter now, less adventurous. It was rare when he saw anyone from the old office, except for Lie, who’d joined the police department. The young officer still occasionally swung by Daniel’s office to drop off a sandwich and have a chat. A few times, he’d met with Peggy for drinks after work, but not often. Jack, he’d seen neither hide nor hair of since he’d left for the capital. It pained Daniel to admit it, but he almost missed the erstwhile interim chief, and was a little stung that he never even checked in anymore.
The weather had finally warmed up enough that Daniel could leave his great coat at home when he received the postcard in his office mail. On the front was a colorized photograph of the National Mall, the Washington Monument rising above the stately green lawn. He flipped it; there was no name, just a cheery greeting and an address and time. He recognized the meeting place almost immediately; it was the automat the SSR agents had often frequented.
“Agent Coulson,” he said out loud, and when the senior agent glanced at him, he smiled. “You mind if I take an extra hour for lunch?”
The automat was crowded when he arrived, but Angie spotted him as soon as he pushed through the doors and waved him over.
“Ms. Martinelli,” he greeted.
She winked. “Hello, Handsome. Long time no see.”
“I’m not in the neighborhood too often anymore,” he agreed, sounding more wistful than he’d meant. Her grin turned sympathetic and she patted his arm.
“I miss you all too, you know. It just isn’t the same without a couple of spooks hanging around and spoiling for a fight. Hey, you’re friend’s here already. In the booth. Want a coffee?”
Daniel nodded and made his way to the table she’d pointed at, where a familiar blond head rose above the red vinyl seats. He paused halfway there to control the smile that was threatening to eclipse his face.
“Well, well,” Daniel said, stepping up to the booth and leaning on his crutch. “Look who’s back in town.”
Jack half rose, grinning, and shook his hand vigorously. “I’ll say. Take a seat. How ya doing? What’s it like working for that bland slice of toast?”
“Agent Coulson is a fine supervising agent, and a heck of a lot more efficient than you ever were,” he replied dryly. Jack just clutched his chest in mock hurt.
“Right where it counts,” Jack drawled, but he looked happy. In fact, he looked far better than the last time Daniel had seen him.
“So,” Daniel coughed after they had spent far too much time grinning at each other in silence. “How’re you?”
“Not too bad,” Jack shrugged. He paused as Angie swung by to drop off Daniel’s coffee and refill Jack’s. “I’m with the field office in DC, and it’s nice to be back pounding the pavement, so to speak.”
Daniel was genuinely glad to hear the utter relief and satisfaction in Jack’s words. “Good for you,” he told him warmly. “So, you just in town for the week, then?”
Jack paused before answering. “Well, I guess it depends on what we’re meeting about,” he finally said, but his words curved up into a question at the end.
Daniel frowned. “Weren’t you the one who sent the postcard?” He fished it from his pocket and laid it on the table. Jack looked at the bright square of paper, then presented his own. The back said much the same, but the front was one of the Statue of Liberty.
“I thought you sent it,” Jack said slowly, “But clearly it wasn’t you. So, the only other person would be…”
A shadow fell over them, and even before Daniel turned, he knew who it would be.
“Gentlemen,” Peggy Carter said brightly. Brown hair, shining and perfectly curled framed her sharp, roguish smirk. Her coat and hat hung over one arm and under the other she had two manila folders which she dropped on the table between them. One had Jack’s name, the other Daniel’s. Over both of them was a rounded logo of a stylized eagle with outspread wings. She smiled widely at the both of them, and Daniel could feel laughter bubbling up behind his teeth.
“I’ve got a proposal for the both of you lucky fellows. What do you two know of S.H.I.E.L.D.?”