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In the Cold November

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"Well, this doesn't look like a bad place to spend a weekend," Daniel remarked as Peggy unslung her duffel from her shoulder, just inside the door, and gazed up at the beams of the hunting lodge ceiling above them.

It was an upscale lodge in upstate New York, the kind of place where wealthy industrialists and stockbrokers went to get away from it all and sip drinks, smoke cigars, put their feet up and pretend they were roughing it. The lobby of the lodge was two stories tall, with a high ceiling supported with thick beams and an enormous fieldstone fireplace radiating heat to chase away the dank autumn chill. There was a bar along one wall and a lot of oversized leather furniture attempting to walk the line between "upmarket" and "comfortable." Huge picture windows gave them a panoramic view of the lake, spread out beneath hills that were patchy with late-season red and gold leaves giving way to bare, brown branches.

The lake was the reason why they were here, but it looked perfectly normal at the moment, ruffled into whitecaps by a stiff breeze. The distant hills were draped in mist.

"There you two are. Get lost along the way?"

Jack's voice came down from the balcony looking onto the lobby floor. Peggy had completely overlooked him, standing with one hand on the wooden railing looking down at them -- mainly because he was dressed more casually than she'd seen him at any point except during the early days of his post-shooting recovery. Rather than his usual suit, he wore a thick white jumper, the hem hanging down over tan slacks.

She eyed him critically as he descended the stairs, noting that his casual saunter was studied, his movements slower and more careful than usual. Still, he looked better than he had when she'd last seen him, at the airport two months ago before catching his flight from L.A. back to New York. He was still pale, still a bit thinner than normal -- his wrists looked bony under the cuffs of the heavy sleeves -- but he no longer looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.

"We didn't get lost, we just weren't expecting an eight-hour drive on top of flying across the country." Daniel's voice was sharp, but he held out a hand, and Jack shook it, then turned to give Peggy's hand a quick shake as well, to her surprise. His fingers were ice cold.

"Drinks?" he asked. "Food?"

"Have some mercy," Peggy said. "We've been traveling since yesterday morning. At least let us check in first."

"You're already checked in, courtesy of the New York SSR." Theatrical as always when he felt in his element, Jack made a flourish with both hands that was just short of a bow. "C'mon, you two flew across the country to help my department with a case. The least I can do is put it on our balance sheet. Your room's upstairs."

Daniel and Peggy glanced at each other. Jack had already turned to start up the stairs, so Peggy shouldered her duffel again and they followed him up. The wooden railing was rough under her fingertips, deliberately unfinished like the pole rail of a fence.

"So I'm here, and you're next door," Jack said, indicating two doors side by side in the upstairs hallway. He was breathing hard, Peggy couldn't help noticing, just from the walk up the stairs. She eyeballed him again; he didn't let her catch his eye.

"One room?" Daniel said.

"Gonna be a problem?" Jack asked archly. "You're checked in as Mr. and Mrs. Carter, by the way. Danny and Marge."

This time the look Daniel and Peggy shared was a good deal longer, and more exasperated.

The room, however, did not disappoint, with a huge double bed covered in quilts and a desk under the window. They had a gorgeous view of the lake, despite the rain that had begun streaking the window pane; they'd driven in and out of it on the way up from the city.

As soon as the door was closed, Daniel whispered, "Now I'm remembering why having him on the other side of the country was a good thing."

Peggy smiled as she deposited her duffel on the bed. "Undercover as a married couple for a few days. It's not such a bad thing."

"I can't figure out if he's trying to be nice or just messing with us."

"Does it have to be one or the other?"

Their room included a bathroom, which shared a door with Jack's room on the other side. Peggy checked to make sure that door was firmly closed before refreshing her lipstick and smoothing down her hair in the mirror, restoring some order to the disarray that had resulted from a day and a half of travel.

She'd left the bathroom door standing open to their room, so she got glimpses of Daniel moving about as he unpacked. He'd taken off his jacket, leaving him in his shirtsleeves. It was comfortably domestic. Indeed, very much like being a married couple traveling, she thought with a warm glow, as she pinned her hair neatly into a wave.

Daniel hesitated in the doorway and waited for her nod before he came into the bathroom to deposit his shaving things on the back of the sink. "So are we undercover, or just being ourselves?"

"A little of both, I suppose." She smiled as he slipped an arm around her waist.

There was a brisk knock from the bathroom door leading to Jack's room.

"Occupied!" they chorused.

"Well, all right then," Jack said through the door. "Wasting no time, I see. I'm heading down to the dining room. See you down there, when you're through."

"I'm gonna kill him," Daniel remarked casually as they detangled and he went to pick up his jacket. "Before this weekend is done, I'm gonna kill him. Just giving you a heads up."

"Good to know. Thank you."

 

***

 

The dining room was in keeping with the rest of the place, featuring a 180-degree view of the lake, another fireplace of stacked rocks cemented neatly into place, and tables of polished blond wood with white cloths draped across them. Jack was sitting in front of the rain-smeared window, a glass of wine in hand; he waved to them, and they came over to join him. Otherwise the room was nearly deserted.

"The salmon's good," Jack remarked. "Steaks are a little dry."

"Is this on the New York SSR's dime too?" Daniel asked in a challenging tone, flipping open the menu.

"Sure, why not. Just do me a favor and don't order the lobster."

"Two lobster dinners, then," Daniel said to Peggy. She smiled.

The waiter came and poured wine for them. Daniel ordered a steak, Peggy the salmon. After he'd left, Jack reached down for a briefcase beside his chair, and spread out files on the table.

"You got the package I sent over, I take it?"

"We did." Daniel turned a photograph towards himself, and Peggy craned her head to peer at the fuzzy gray blobs. "We just got the basics, I gather."

"Yeah, there's a ton of this stuff, not that any of it's particularly helpful. Most of the witnesses were blind drunk, or it was at night and raining, the usual. But there are a few reports that are harder to shake off. In particular, last winter, the teenage son of a caretaker at one of the properties down the lake went missing. All that washed up were some torn-up, bloody items of clothing and the mangled remains of his boat. The cops never turned up any suspects, nobody who had a motive, no sign of foul play. It just looks like he took a boat out on the lake and never came back."

Jack's voice had gone serious as he spoke.

"And do you think a lake monster killed him?" Peggy asked, turning another of the files to face her side of the table. Dates, times, places -- lake monster sightings going back to the mid-1800s and earlier.

"Do I think so? Does it matter? A kid got killed, and we investigate weird stuff. At least as long as our funding holds out."

Peggy looked up quickly from the file. He'd been dropping hints like that, but he wouldn't really commit himself to anything specific. She knew Vernon was involved -- had been involved -- in Jack's doubts about the future of the agency, which probably explained his reticence to talk about it. There was almost nothing involving Vernon that Jack would talk about.

"So we're blowing our remaining funding on a stay at a swanky lakeside resort, are we?" Daniel inquired.

"We're fine for this fiscal year, Sousa," Jack said. He gazed out at the rain. "It's the future that's in doubt."

"Whatever the status of our jobs in January, the important thing is that we've a case to solve now," Peggy said, a bit sharply.

There was gratitude in the smile Jack gave her, although she wasn't sure if he recognized it himself, and he pulled one of the files closer to him before flipping it open.

They ate and looked through the files as, outside the window, darkness came down like a curtain, hiding the lake and the rain. Peggy hated to admit it, but there was something about rain that still made her feel at home, in a nostalgic kind of way.

"I really hope you aren't suggesting we go out monster hunting in the dark and the rain," Daniel said.

Jack snorted. "Hardly. I prefer monster hunting on a full night's sleep, thanks. And Carter's falling asleep in her glass of wine."

"I certainly am not," Peggy said sharply, making sure her spine was straight. "Though I think perhaps I should switch to tea if I don't want to end up in that state."

"I suggest we turn in early," Jack said. "More energy for hunting monsters and all that."

Peggy was exhausted enough at this point not to particularly care that it was barely after 7 in the evening. It wasn't until she and Daniel were upstairs in their room -- Peggy pinning up her hair in the bathroom while Daniel sat on the bed and went through his nightly home-care ritual with the stump of his leg -- that the thought crossed her mind that Jack not only didn't seem to mind turning in early, but had actually suggested it.

As if summoned by the thought, Jack knocked at the adjoining door to the bathroom.

"Occupied!" Peggy said sharply.

"This is gonna get real old, real fast," Jack said through the door.

"You're telling us?" Daniel called. "Anyway, you're the one who picked the room."

"A decision I regret already, believe me."

"I'm done, anyway," Peggy said briskly, sliding in the last hairpin as she nudged shut the door to her and Daniel's room with her bare foot. She glimpsed Daniel's curious look before his face was hidden from view.

Jack opened the door from his room and stopped, taking in the sight of Peggy at the sink in robe and hairpins. He'd shared Howard's house for a month or so after his shooting, so it wasn't as if he'd never seen her like that before; she merely raised an eyebrow at him. Jack scowled.

"I didn't intend to use the bathroom with you in it, Carter."

"I'll be gone in a minute. I wanted to ask how you're doing," she said quietly.

He looked startled and, for a moment, young, the way he had on the plane from Belarus, before the usual defensive facade came down again. "I'm fine. If you think I can't handle it, Carter --"

"That wasn't a trick or a trap, Jack. I just wanted to know how you are."

His smile was a sideways thing, but it looked genuine this time, not like the mocking smile he used to deflect. "Well enough. Better after some sleep. Maybe some time away from work is what we all need after the summer we've had."

"Chasing monsters?"

Jack laughed. "Hope you brought your monster-hunting boots."

"Given the rain, Wellingtons will just have to do."

They shared a smile, and she ducked through the door into her and Daniel's bedroom, not quite sanguine about his physical state, but a little more confident about his mental condition, at least.

Daniel was at the window, looking out at the rain. He'd cracked it open; she could smell the fresh scent of the rain and the night. He looked over his shoulder as Peggy lay down on the bed, flopping on her side before propping her head up with her hand. She really was very tired.

In the bathroom, the sound of water running into the bathtub started up.

"What was that all about?" Daniel asked softly. "Making sure he's not going to pass out and fall off a boat into the lake and get eaten by something with tentacles?"

Peggy half-smiled. "You've noticed too, then?"

"Hard not to. He's not bouncing back very fast."

"I think it's the weather, mainly." She glanced at the bathroom door, but she doubted very much whether Jack could hear their quiet voices over the sound of running water. "Well, that and the fact that -- what was it you said to me, that time in the surveillance van? When your body fails you, sometimes you have to put your faith in others to get the job done."

"Good memory," Daniel said with a gentle smile.

"Good advice," she countered. "And it isn't Jack's strong suit."

"I hate to break it to you, dear ..."

Peggy picked up a pillow and playfully threatened to throw it. Daniel smiled and reached to close the window.

"No, leave it open. I want to smell the rain."

Daniel laughed as he came back to the bed, maneuvering deftly by gripping furniture. "My England girl. You miss it in L.A., don't you?"

"Well, not as such," Peggy said, laughing. "I rather enjoy not having rain falling on my head. But it's true that L.A. has always felt more like a stop along the way than a permanent end point."

"Given the lives we lead, anywhere is probably going to be." Daniel swung his one-and-a-half legs into bed and reached to turn off the lamp. Darkness flooded the room, with the soft backdrop of the pattering rain outside. There was a stripe of light along the bottom of the bathroom door. The sound of water running into the bathtub shut off.

Daniel curled into her side, and Peggy sighed, letting her head rest against his.

"He may have intended it as a joke, but this was actually kind of nice of him," Daniel said, lacing his fingers through hers. "Probably by accident. Don't tell him I said that."

"Which part?"

"Either part." He found her mouth by touch in the dark for a slow kiss.

It was true, though, that no one here knew they weren't married yet, she thought as she slid down and turned her face into the crook of his shoulder, resting her cheek against the soft skin of his neck. For the weekend, they could be whoever they wanted to be.

One of the perks of being a spy.

 

***

 

Jack might have been recovering more slowly than he wanted to advertise, but he looked perfectly fresh when he met them beside the fireplace in the morning, blond hair neatly combed, tucked into another of his country-chic jumpers (this one camel colored) with a rain slicker over the top. And he was wearing large rain boots and a rain hat, all in all forming a picture so incongruously different from the Jack Thompson Peggy was used to that she had to work to keep her reaction to no more than a blink.

Daniel opened his mouth and Jack gave him a look, but all he said was, "I don't suppose you've got any more of those, do you? The rain stuff?"

"Got 'em from the front desk," Jack said laconically. "I've also got us a boat. You two brought weapons, right?"

"Shotguns in the car," Daniel said. "You think we'll need 'em?"

"I think we're hunting a lake monster. Can't hurt, right?"

When Peggy and Daniel came down to the dock, toting guns and freshly outfitted in rain gear against the light drizzle, they found Jack wrestling with a massive old outboard motor attached to an open, flat-bottomed boat that Peggy guessed to be fourteen feet long, tops.

"Knowing you, I would've expected something more along the lines of a cabin cruiser," Daniel remarked, giving Peggy a hand down into the bottom of the boat. He handed the guns and his crutch down to her, and she reciprocated by steadying him as he stepped in and more or less collapsed onto the center bench seat.

"It's the off season," Jack said absently, poking at the motor. "All their boats are out of the water for the winter. We were lucky to get this one."

"Do you want some help back there?" Peggy inquired, sitting in the bow.

"I've got it," Jack retorted. He closed the cowling on the motor and managed to get it to cough to life after a few tugs on the pull cord. Then he nearly drove the boat into the dock, followed by almost pulling part of the dock off before they all figured out that the boat was still tied to it.

"We're off to a good start," Daniel said as Peggy leaned out to untie the boat after Jack throttled the engine down.

"Shut up, Sousa."

Things went a lot better once they got out on the lake, aside from the choppy waves and gray drizzle slanting sideways. The operation of the boat was incredibly simple: the motor, which hung off the back into the water, had a single handle for both steering and acceleration. It was simply a matter of swiveling the motor in the right direction.

"May I try?" Peggy called over the wind. She was already drenched; they all were.

"Sure, be my guest." Jack relinquished the motor to her and moved up to the bow himself.

It was actually exhilarating, in its way. Peggy turned, grinning into the wind, and saw Daniel giving her a look of fond exasperation. His hair was plastered to his forehead with spray and the sideways-slanting rain.

"You two look like drowned cats," Jack said.

"And aren't you a vision yourself," Peggy shot back.

"Why are we out here, again?" Daniel asked. "I mean, is there a plan? Or do we just motor around on the lake until we find something, or it finds us?"

"Doesn't this lake see a fair amount of boat traffic?" Peggy asked. "If there's really something out here, there should be more than a handful of incidents through the last fifty years."

"The incidents and sightings are nearly all during the off season," Daniel pointed out.

"Nothing worse than a camera-shy lake monster," Jack said. Sitting on the bench seat in the bow, he looked cheerful; he actually seemed to be enjoying this. Peggy thought it was very likely what he was mainly enjoying was the two California agents getting soaked in New-York-in-November rain.

"I certainly do hope there is some plan beyond circling the lake in this boat until something capsizes us, Jack," she said.

"I was more thinking we could poke along the shore and see if there are any likely ... what would you call 'em? Bayous? Fjords? Coves? You know, places along the shore where something might hide."

"And if we find one?" Daniel asked. "I don't know about you, but I'm not sure how much effect a shotgun would actually have on a lake monster. Which, by the way, I can't believe I'm seriously discussing."

"I suggest coming back with the county sheriff and a dozen well-armed deputies," Peggy said.

Jack pointed at her. "I like the way you think."

"Or some of Howard's gadgets. I'll call him from the hotel tonight. I'm sure he must have something that would help."

Jack twisted around on the bow seat, looking toward the shore. "Slow down. We're about to pass the stretch of beach where the kid's boat washed up."

Peggy throttled down the engine, and they motored slowly along the shore. Rain hissed around them, pattering on the lake. They passed several small islands scattered offshore, little more than rocky humps poking out of the gray water with a few forlorn trees clustered on top. None of them looked like plausible hiding places for a lake monster.

All of the shoreline looked the same as all the rest of it to Peggy, but Jack pointed to a stretch of rocky beach. Peggy turned the boat in that direction.

"Is there any point in landing here?" Daniel asked.

"Not really," Jack said. "Unless any of you think you can find a clue from a crime that happened a year ago."

"And only if you fancy wading," Peggy remarked, eyeing the shallow water along the rocky beach. With one hand on the tiller, she kept them at a slow pace, the boat wallowing through the choppy waves.

Vacation homes were visible, here and there, through trees that had shed most of their leaves -- small tidy houses with steeply slanted roofs. Private docks thrust out into the water, some of them painted neatly in fresh green or white, others older and weathered. In places the beach was low and flat, though it was made up mostly of rocks rather than sand; there would be little sunbathing on these beaches, Peggy thought, even at a more pleasant time of year. In other places, the bank rose steeply, cut by streams coming down to feed the lake. In the less tenanted stretches of shoreline, dead trees overhung the water, their branches sweeping its surface.

"So," Jack said, "anyone see a likely monster lair out there?"

"How about everywhere?" Daniel retorted. "Look, it's tragic the kid died. It really is. But we're talking about rough waters in the winter. People have accidents."

"And the skeptic is heard from. Peggy?"

"Are you a believer, Jack?" Peggy inquired. Her fingers were going numb on the boat's tiller. She shook them out and put her hand back, where spray from the lake and sideways-slanting rain drenched it instantly.

"No, but I think if we're going to all the trouble and expense of coming up here, we'd better have a decent report to show for it, and not 'they drove in circles on the lake for two hours and called it good'."

"I'll call Howard when we get back to the hotel," Peggy suggested. "I should have done before we came. I'm sure he must have something around that can be repurposed for our uses."

 

***

 

Back at the lodge, bathed and dressed in the warmest clothes she'd brought (which weren't very), Peggy called Howard from the hotel lobby phone. She had to try Jarvis first, and endure several message-forwarding situations before she finally managed to contact Howard in his South Carolina lab.

"Lake monsters?" He sounded delighted by the prospect.

"Please try to contain your excitement."

"Yes, I can hear you're setting an example in that area."

"We were out on a boat all morning," Peggy said, trying to stop her teeth from chattering. "It was rather unpleasant. If you have something lying about ... anything that might --"

"Give you a better chance of catching a monster?"

"I was more thinking that it might give us the credible appearance of monster-hunting, particularly for budgetary review purposes."

"Awww, Peg, you have no poetry in your soul."

"I have ample poetry, it's merely frozen at the moment."

Howard laughed. "Look, tell me where you're staying and I'll have some stuff shipped up. You should get it tomorrow."

 

***

 

He was as good as his word and then some. Peggy came down for breakfast in the morning to find a large package waiting for her at the front desk, having arrived via special courier overnight. What had he done, flown it directly to the nearest town large enough to have an airport?

She took it upstairs and knocked on Jack's door. She had to knock several times before he answered, looking bleary with his hair sticking up.

Jack was a habitual early riser. Even when he was staying with them at Howard's California property, Peggy had often run into him wandering about the mansion at odd hours of the night. She gave him an appraising look, noting that his jumper had a general appearance of having been slept in, and in particular the two bright spots of color on his cheekbones. "Jack, are you well?"

"Yes," he said irritably. "I'll be ready to go in a minute. Keep your socks on. Can't face that lake again without some coffee."

"There's no need to broach the waves quite yet. I wondered if you'd like to see the presents Howard sent us." She nudged the large box by her foot.

"Oh. Huh." His slightly-glassy eyes brightened, more of his brain waking up. "Yeah, that might be useful. What did he send, do you know?"

"I don't know. Join us and find out."

He came downstairs a few minutes later, looking a lot more put together. In the meantime Peggy and Daniel had spread out the contents of the box in front of the fireplace. Some of it was reasonably self-explanatory, other items less so. Peggy was investigating an odd canister with wires connecting it to a large box with a screen and a number of dials. Howard had included several sheets of paper with hand-scribbled notes explaining everything ... or at least explaining it to the extent that Howard thought necessary.

"What's that thing?" Jack asked, dragging an armchair closer. They had the lobby to themselves; a soft rain was pattering down outside, and the handful of other guests at the lodge were either still asleep or in the dining room for breakfast.

"Sonar." Peggy held up the canister. "We're supposed to dangle this off the boat into the water. There should be a rather large battery in there somewhere to run it."

"Found it," Daniel reported.

"Huh." Jack picked up another item, a big gray box with a battery at one end. "And this?"

"High-voltage electrical bomb," Daniel said, "which I guess just means, if we get in trouble we can drop it in the water and fry some monster."

"And also any fish in nearby parts of the lake," Peggy remarked. "A weapon of last resort, I expect."

Howard had also sent a couple of net-deploying guns (thick, with stubby muzzles, they looked like large flare guns), a apparatus that recorded sound onto magnetic tape from a probe they could drop into the water, and an underwater camera.

"And he pulled all this together in, what, twelve or sixteen hours?" Daniel said.

"Considerably less," Peggy pointed out. "He had to ship it to us, after all."

Jack looked up from examining one of the net guns. "So basically this is all stuff that he had just laying around?"

"Don't ask questions," Peggy said. "I've learned not to."

 

***

 

They set out later that morning, with the box of Howard's monster-hunting gear wrapped in oiled canvas, along with their shotguns, and a packed lunch from the hotel. This time, Peggy didn't intend to come back until dusk.

... at least if Jack's condition held out. She'd observed him picking at his breakfast without eating much of it, and was now even more sure that he was running a slight fever. However, he didn't seem terribly unwell -- not enough that she was willing to override his own assessment of his condition and insist on taking a day or two off.

Such a conversation was likely to lead to the topic of Peggy's own activities while recovering from being stabbed through the abdomen with rebar, and thus to Jack doubling down on his determination to be out in all weather despite the condition of his lungs. Peggy sighed. Well, he was an adult and responsible for making his own terrible decisions.

"What's Thompson done now?" Daniel asked as they loaded the gear into the boat.

"What makes you think he's done anything at all?"

"Because you have a special sigh of at-wit's-end just for Jack."

"I do not."

"I only wish I was joking. I noticed it while we were still working together at the New York office."

Peggy looked up to the sight of Jack striding down the wet lawn from the hotel. "We can revisit the topic of Jack Thompson when the subject is not at hand. Or, preferably, never."

"Ready for another thrilling day of hunting monsters, kids?" Jack asked. He stepped down into the boat and waved a metal flask at the two of them. "I brought liquid refreshments. Drink?"

"Oh, that's an excellent plan," Daniel said. "This ought to improve our monster-hunting success a hundred percent."

Peggy accepted a swig. It turned out to be piping hot coffee liberally laced with brandy. Daniel sighed and accepted the flask when she handed it to him.

The rain and wind both picked up as they pulled away from the dock, Jack manning the tiller with slightly more skill, or at least a better sense of direction, than the previous day. As rain pelted her face, Peggy mused that this promised to be an even more miserable day than the previous one. However, armed with their equipment, she was reasonably hopeful that they might be able to determine if something was lurking in the lake, at least to an extent that would look credible on a budget report.

Jack wasted little time, angling the boat down the gray, mist-shrouded shoreline. Peggy and Daniel struggled with the sonar rig and underwater microphone, hooking up the battery and uncoiling the wires. Peggy tried to hold the tail of her slicker over the array as they hooked things up, in the hopes of neither destroying the equipment nor electrocuting either of them.

"Testing," Daniel said into the probe for the waterproof microphone, grinning at Peggy under the hood of his slicker. "Testing, testing. My wife is a sight for sore eyes, even if I don't remember the wedding ..."

"That'll teach you to show up to your own wedding blind drunk," Jack remarked from the rear of the boat.

"We're not actually married yet, ya' jerk."

"Yeah, what's the holdup with that?" Jack inquired, steering around a long trail of water weeds in the wake of one of the islands along the shore. "And on more important topics, I'm the best man, right?"

"Not at the rate you're going."

"We are definitely receiving a signal," Peggy interrupted, giving both of them an exasperated look. She retrieved the microphone from Daniel. "We'll have to do the underwater recording and the sonar separately, as the sonar broadcasts its own signal, so it would interfere with the other one."

Jack slowed the boat, and Peggy dropped the sonar probe over the gunwale.

"You know, in retrospect, it would have been a good idea to get more information from Stark on how to read this thing," Daniel said ruefully, inspecting the sonar probe's screen. He rotated it so Peggy could see. "I guess I thought there'd be little fish shapes and that kinda thing, instead of all this mess."

"Tentacles," Jack said, craning to try to see the screen.

"I sure hope not!"

"I think that's an interference pattern with the shore," Peggy said, pointing. "During the war, I spent a fair bit of time on intelligence-deciphering duty. I haven't worked with sonar specifically, but this isn't too different from some of the print-outs I was given." She glanced up from the screen. "Daniel, if you don't mind --"

Daniel shook his head and pushed the screen at her. "Please. If you know how to read this, by all means, be my guest."

Peggy trailed a finger along the screen, squinting at the flickering readout and trying to shield it from the increasingly heavy rain with her other arm. "Jack, can you take us farther from the shore, please? I believe the shallow water is making it difficult to see anything."

"Thanks a bundle, Stark," Jack remarked, steering the boat into deeper waters. Scattered islands appeared out of the mist and rain as the boat neared them, vanishing astern as they passed.

Visibility was getting steadily worse. Jack seemed to be holding up fine so far, but they were all three going to catch pneumonia if they stayed out all day in this weather, Peggy thought, bending over the screen and trying to shield it with her arm.

"I wonder how waterproof this thing is," Daniel remarked, craning his head over it. As the boat bounced over the waves, they were jostled into each other, their shoulders bumping together.

"Howard knew we were taking it out on a boat. I assume it has at least some ability to endure the weather." Peggy pointed to the screen. "See, the readout is clearer without the shoreline obfuscating matters. These are fish, I believe -- these small clusters. That's the island, the one we're passing now."

"I can't see," Jack complained from the back of the boat.

"Want me to take a turn on the tiller?" Daniel asked. "It's not like I'm being super useful up here."

"You ever piloted a boat before, Sousa?"

"Well, no, but you're doing it, so how hard can it be?"

Pushing either of them overboard would just mean she'd have to fish them out again, Peggy reminded herself. She wiped water off the screen. If she was reading this right, there was another island coming up ahead of them. She looked up to warn Jack and then frowned at the choppy gray waves. The only island was off to their left.

Maybe she was reading it wrong?

Daniel started to swing his legs over the bench seat to move to the back and switch places with Jack. The boat rocked sharply and he fell against Peggy. "Hey, watch it back there," he said, steadying himself on Peggy's shoulder. "Are you driving this boat or just watching the scenery?"

"Water's rougher here," Jack retorted. "Must be the wind."

Still gripping her shoulder, Daniel looked at Peggy and noticed her pensive frown. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I hope. I thought I understood what I was looking at, but if this large mass is that island --" She wiped off the screen again with the back of her hand, and tapped one portion of it. "Then I don't have any idea what this other mass dead ahead of us is. Some kind of lake bottom feature, perhaps?"

"Maybe it's the monster," Jack said lightly from the back.

"Oh, that's peculiar." Peggy tapped the screen. "Now it's gone, as if it ... er ... moved."

There was a brief silence.

"I was joking," Jack said. "There isn't a monster. We all know that, right? Oh sure, there's an outside chance there's something weird in this lake, but this is a wild goose chase ..."

Peggy and Daniel were now staring fixedly at the screen.

"Hey. Guys."

"He's right," Daniel said slowly. "I mean, how big was it, Peggy, the thing you saw? If you mistook it for an island ..."

"Quite large," Peggy said, not taking her eyes off the screen. "I agree. There is very little chance something of that size could exist undetected in this lake for so many years without --"

"Guys," Jack said again, urgently.

Peggy looked up.

Off to the side, between their boat and the mist-draped islands, something dark appeared to be rising from the ruffled gray waves. Water streamed off its bulk as it rose like a surfacing submarine. Except ... this submarine had a head, flat and broad and the size of a car, indistinctly glimpsed through the fog.

For the three occupants of the boat, there was a brief moment of staring, followed by a mad scramble for the oilcloth-wrapped shotguns in the bottom of the boat.

The boat rocked wildly, in part because of the actions of its occupants, and in part because at the sudden flurry of movement, the dark mass had vanished beneath the waves again.

"Where is it?" Jack demanded, standing up in the boat as it tilted dangerous under his feet. "Where the hell is it?!"

"No monster, huh?" Daniel yelled at him, sitting down with his shotgun across his knees, but looking just as wild-eyed as the other two.

"You didn't think there was either!"

Peggy leaned over the sonar. "I think I see -- no -- damn it!" She wiped her sleeve across the screen. "It's moving all around."

"How come nobody except a few hobos has ever seen this thing?" Jack demanded of nobody in particular, pointing the shotgun wildly around at random sections of the water. "It's the size of a damned house!"

Daniel turned to stare at the sonar rig. "That thing works by using sound waves, right? You think that critter down there can hear it? Maybe it's making it mad."

"Fantastic!" Jack yelped. "Stark built us a monster-attracting rig. That's wonderful. I mean, it would've been great if we'd asked him to, but this is the opposite of great!"

Peggy slapped the switch, and the green display died. "No more sound waves," she said, turning to point her shotgun at the water.

"Yeah, but without that, we can't track it either," Daniel said.

"Maybe it went away --" Jack began, when the boat lurched abruptly under them with a hollow thunk, as if they'd briefly grounded on a rock.

The three would-be monster hunters exchanged an eloquent look of pure horror.

Jack laid down his shotgun and reached for the tiller. "Dunno about you two, but I say we get out of here and come back with, I dunno, a submarine with torpedoes and an entire Navy detachment, whaddya say?"

"I'm quite all right with that plan." Peggy told herself that there hadn't been a catch in her voice, not at all. It was just that the boat had moved under them again and -- oh, bloody hell --

Jack gunned the motor just as the monster reared out of the water again, not ten feet in front of them. He and Daniel cursed in unison and Jack wrenched the tiller, spinning the boat through a steep curve. Now they were headed straight out into the lake, Jack angling the boat between two of the islands strung offshore.

"Jack!" Peggy said.

"Yeah, I know the shore's over there, but so's our big fishy pal! I'd like to not run into that thing, thanks! It'd be like hitting a brick wall!"

Peggy looked back to see that the monster was gone again -- for something so huge, it was capable of astonishing speed -- just as the speeding boat lurched wildly: something had bumped it from below. For a moment, one side was completely out of the water. They briefly lost speed as the outboard motor's propellers left the water.

Peggy squeezed her shotgun trigger, firing randomly into the water with an eardrum-punching boom.

"Did you get it?" Daniel asked, leaning toward the gunwale.

"I don't know, I can't see --"

The boat gave another wild lurch, tilted sideways, and flipped.

Peggy's experience of boats during the war was minimal, but she remembered falling off a quite tippy little canoe on an outdoor excursion with some of the girls from her boarding school. The experience was similar, the way water exchanged itself for air with such speed she had no time to suck in a breath. There was no sense of up and down, only water everywhere around her. She had the presence of mind to hang onto the shotgun, but an instant later she realized it wasn't worth the way it was dragging her down, and reluctantly opened her fingers, releasing it into the depths so she could kick for the surface. At least now she knew where the surface was -- it was the opposite of down.

Something huge, utterly huge trailed past her in a great rush of bubbles --

And then her head broke the surface to the sound of Jack voice screaming something.

"-- island!" he was yelling. "We're not far away. Where's --" He broke off to cough. "Where the hell is Peggy?"

"Here!" she shouted back, after sucking in a great whoop of air. "Daniel --"

"He's with me! Swim for the island!"

She didn't have to be told twice; the memory of that great, looming presence under the water spurred her onward. The other danger was the cold, leeching the strength out of her limbs and turning them to rubber.

She stumbled out of the water into boggy weeds and immediately fell to her knees, gasping and coughing. Jack was dragging a sodden dark lump up the marshy beach, which turned out to be Daniel. Peggy wobbled over and fell down to her knees beside him.

"Daniel," she said desperately, patting his pale face. "Daniel!"

"He whacked his head on the boat when we went over," Jack explained. He was sitting beside Daniel, sprawled with uncharacteristic lack of grace, arms draped over his knees, panting.

Peggy combed her fingers through Daniel's hair, finding the knot over his ear. He was unresponsive, but he did seem to be breathing. She pulled his head into her lap.

"You saved his life," she said. "Thank you."

Jack stared at her for a moment with an unusually open expression and then waved it off. "Navy man," he explained, coughing again. "Water rescue was part of our training. Goes with the job."

Yes, but she'd bet they never expected to have to practice their techniques while being pursued by an antediluvian lake monster in freezing cold November lake water. Her teeth were chattering, her hands shaking uncontrollably. They were all terribly chilled. We must get warm, or we'll die.

She gently deposited Daniel in Jack's lap instead ("Hey!"), and took off her slicker as she stood up. Jack looked up at her with a puzzled frown that quickly turned to disbelief as she began to briskly strip out of the dark blazer she was wearing beneath.

"Peggy," Jack said, his expression admirably flat, "what are you doing?"

"Giving you this to help keep Daniel warm," she said, shoving the blazer at him before she pulled on the slicker over her foundation garments. It was cold and clammy on her bare, wet arms.

"You're going to freeze."

"I'm going to be walking. Get Daniel away from the water's edge, please, and see if you can bring him round. I'm going to walk around the island and find out what we're dealing with."

Jack didn't even put up his usual token protests that she wasn't the one in charge. "Get back soon as you can."

"I shall."

She began walking briskly, trying to ignore the deeply unpleasant sensation of the wet slicker clinging to her bare skin. Activity would warm her, she told herself, burying her shaking, ice-cold hands in the pockets of her slacks and pressing them against her marginally warmer thighs. Daniel needed it right now more than she did.

As she walked, she looked frequently out across the gray water of the lake. The shore was hidden by rain and mist. There was no sign of the monster ... or the boat, or any of their gear.

The island, she discovered, was not large. It was a rocky knot of land, covered with brush and trees and marsh weeds, humping up out of the lake. She guessed it was about a hundred yards long. From the windward end, she could see to the next island through the clinging fog. It appeared similar to this one.

The only manmade thing she found on the entire island, she stumbled across by accident as she made her way back to Daniel and Jack's location. At first she was completely baffled by the purpose of the little structure, but after some thought she guessed it must be a duck hunter's blind. It was a small shack, not big enough to stand up in nor to properly lie down in, with a tarp draped over the top and mud and weeds piled on top of that. It looked like it had been here for several seasons, from the dead leaves drifted on top, and one side had caved in.

But it was dry inside, and so far, it was the only dry thing she'd found on the whole island.

She broke into a brisk trot. "Jack," she called as she drew near. "Any change?"

"Nope." Jack had Daniel's head resting on his thigh and was bent over him, using a corner of his slicker to keep the rain off Daniel's face.

"I found somewhere we might be able to take shelter."

"Well, that sounds promising," Jack said, looking up. His teeth were chattering, too. "You find a cabin or something?"

"More of a shack," Peggy said. "Actually, shack might be generous. But preferable to a beach in a November rainstorm."

"Beach is probably generous," Jack said gloomily, glancing along the short strip of marshy shore. He wiped his hand on his thigh and reached under his slicker. "Coffee?"

"Oh, Jack." She'd forgotten he had the flask of brandy-laced coffee ... not her favorite drink under normal circumstances, but in her present condition, it was ambrosia. She took a deep swig. It was losing the edge of its heat after being dunked in the lake, but still had an eyewatering alcoholic aftertaste, and burned all the way down. Reluctantly she handed it back; the flask was wonderfully warm to her icy fingers. "Can you get any into Daniel?"

"Tried a little, but I don't want to choke him." Jack put the flask away. "Where's this shack of yours?"

"We shouldn't refer to it as a shack; I don't want to get your hopes up."

"Yay."

Between the two of them, they tried hauling a limp Daniel to his feet (foot, more like it; he'd lost the crutch, Peggy couldn't help thinking). As Daniel's deadweight dragged them down, Jack shook his head. "Never gonna work like this. Help me get him in a fireman's carry."

He crouched, and Peggy helped him drag Daniel across his shoulders. She couldn't help wincing as Jack staggered to his feet -- at Daniel, in that head-down position that couldn't possibly be helping what she was increasingly worried was a very severe concussion, and Jack, who looked like he was about to collapse under Daniel's weight.

"Can you carry him like that?"

"Sure, it's kind of nice, actually. Keeps the rain off."

Peggy steered him, catching him before he stumbled into obstacles, all the while keeping an eye on the rolling gray waves that seemed, now, to hide a thousand ominous secrets beneath their inscrutable depths.

"You think it's still out there?" Jack panted, echoing her thoughts.

"I expect there's no reason for it to stay close. It destroyed our boat. Surely it thinks the threat is gone."

"What, you think all the screaming and splashing didn't tip it off that some of us survived?"

"I don't expect it's terribly intelligent."

"Based on what?" Jack demanded. "It destroyed our boat!"

"Because we were bothering it. I think Daniel's right that the sonar was the instigating factor. Now that it's gone -- oh, we're here."

"We're where?" Jack stared down at the top of the tarp. "Oh. Oh. Are you sure? Your shack is a little bit ..."

"Shacklike?"

"I see why you said 'shack' was generous. On the other hand," Jack sighed, "we bivouacked in worse places in the Pacific. At least there, it was warm."

He half-collapsed, with some support from Peggy, and she helped slide a still-limp Daniel off his shoulders. As Jack started to drag Daniel into the shelter, Peggy caught Jack with a hand on his arm.

"What? We oughta get him out of the rain. And the rest of us too." Jack glanced into the tiny, dark interior. "At least, as much as we can."

"We need to think about this," Peggy said. "We have nothing to build a fire with -- or do you?"

"No," Jack admitted. "Anyway, in a place that small, we might as well just set fire to ourselves."

"So we need to think. We can use our slickers to extend the shelter enough to get all of us out of the rain. Share clothing, as best we can --" She ignored Jack's horrified look. "-- for heat."

"If your lady undergarments are going in the clothes pool, Sousa gets those."

"Don't be crass," Peggy sighed, before noticing that Jack, sitting half under the tarp's overhang, was taking his slicker off. "What are you doing?"

"Exactly what you said to do, unless you changed your mind, which I hear is a female prerogative." Jack grimaced, shook out the slicker, and handed it to her. "Here. You've got nothing on under there, and Sousa -- well -- needs his. You wanted to extend the tent --"

"I think you should take Daniel's off as well. We can make a barrier against the cold, as much as possible."

"I just got it back on him," Jack complained, "after getting him wrapped up in your shirt." But he started working on the buttons of Daniel's slicker.

Peggy gritted her teeth and stripped off her own.

"I think you should put your shirt back on," Jack suggested.

"I think you're right," Peggy sighed, her teeth chattering as cold rain sluiced down her arms. "Could you see if you can find any dry grasses, or moss -- anything we could use as further insulation? Or for a fire-starter?"

"We don't have matches."

"I've had an idea about that." As Jack started to crawl out from under the shelter, Peggy shoved his slicker at him. "Take this back, if you're going to be out and about."

"Make up your mind!"

By the time he got back, she had used her and Daniel's slickers to form a slanting rain shield, weighed down with rocks, and had moved Daniel carefully into the shelter. She had left him with her blazer wrapped around him, and told herself that as long as she kept moving, the fact that she was bare-armed in a November rain should be of little consequence. Her undergarments covered her from just below the shoulders to the waist, with stiffening ribbing besides. Neither of the men had such an advantage.

"You're blue," Jack told her, pulling wads of grass from under his slicker and shoving them into the shelter on top of Daniel.

"I'm fine," Peggy said through stiff lips.

"No you aren't. Get in there."

She submitted ungracefully to being shoved into the shelter along with Daniel, and for further indignity, bundled into her own blazer by Jack (wrapped around her torso and arms; he stopped short of actually dressing her like a doll). Peggy glowered at him as he stripped out of his slicker and wrapped it around the both of them. Finally he shoved the coffee flask into her hands. Peggy curled her hands around its faint warmth.

"Where are you going?" she asked as he ducked out of the shelter.

"I found something," he called back. "Save me some of that!"

He wasn't gone long. When he came back, he was dragging a large, muddy wad of something behind him, leaving a trail through the brush.

"What's that?" Peggy asked.

"Canvas. It was washed up on shore, looked like it'd been there for years. I also found this, if you can think of anything useful to do with it." He held out a tin can. "With all the summer people coming out to the lake, there's junk around. A few old boards and things, too. That's the sum total of our assets."

"Not all of them," Peggy said. She felt a bit calmer now, a bit more together. Crawling out of the shelter, she helped Jack with the canvas, enlarging the waterproof area to free up another slicker that could go under them.

"Yeah, you said you had an idea about starting a fire."

"I do." Peggy reached into her pocket and held out a shotgun shell. "We lost the guns, but I have some spare ammo."

"Of course you do." Even drenched and pale, teeth chattering as he shivered, he looked amused. "And how does that help?"

"Gunpowder. It'll burn, even in these wet conditions. All we need is a spark."

"Which we're going to get from ... where? I knew I should've taken up smoking," Jack sighed.

"Daniel still has his utility knife on him. He carries it everywhere. And," Peggy said, "it's the kind with a variety of attachments, including a flint striker."

"Oh." Jack brightened, looking hopeful despite his sodden, half-frozen condition.

"As our gunpowder is limited, we need a dry place for the fire. Which, thanks to you, we now have," she added, placing some stones to weigh the end of the canvas. "And some dry grass to burn. Come here and help me."

They both crawled into the shelter, a process made a little easier now that it was bigger. Jack detached Daniel's knife from his belt and sawed through the shotgun shell's cardboard casing while Peggy built a little pile of tinder from the driest of the dead grasses Jack had brought back.

"Aha! I think we're ready to go." Jack tipped the gunpowder into a heap in the middle of Peggy's grass nest, and Peggy arranged another handful of dry grasses on top. After a pause, Jack held the knife out to Peggy.

"Wanna do the honors?"

"I can certainly try."

She struck the sparker. It took a few tries before she got the hang of it, and got a spark to leap into the grasses ... where it promptly died. A few more tries, and the gunpowder finally caught. There was a bright flash, making them both flinch back, and an acrid scorched smell. Small flames began to climb through the grasses.

"All right." Jack pumped his fist in the air. "I'll go get us some more firewood."

"No, I'll go. It's my turn." And she didn't want to mention it, but he was coughing again.

They'd all be lucky if they didn't catch their death of cold from all of this, healing chest wound or not. And she really didn't want to think about Daniel's continuing, ominous unresponsiveness.

Jack had been gathering grass near the shore, so Peggy climbed to the higher part of the island, hoping that she might find some dry or at least dry-ish branches under the trees. From up here, she could see the shore, indistinct through the mist. They were so close to it, not more than a couple hundred yards. But, she thought as she crouched beneath a pine tree to gather dead branches, they might as well be trying to get to the moon. They couldn't swim that far in water this cold, even if they didn't know it was monster-infested water.

Maybe we could build a raft?

Yes, because cutting down trees with Daniel's pocket knife sounded like an excellent plan.

Jack had mentioned boards. The shore wasn't that far off. Perhaps it was possible to cling to the boards, if they weren't too waterlogged, keeping enough of their bodies out of the water to avoid dangerous hypothermia before they got to the beach.

But that didn't solve the monster issue ...

Or the matter of Daniel's injuries.

Or the fact that they might have to walk for miles to find help.

"One thing at a time," she murmured aloud, clenching and unclenching her hands to warm them up, and wishing she'd worn gloves. The whole situation was reminiscent of camping in the Alps with the Howling Commandoes during the war, but at least this time, no one was shooting at her. One should learn to consider one's blessings at a time like this.

When she got back, the fire was crackling merrily while Jack knelt beside it, feeding it bits of grass in between stretching his hands out to the flames to warm them. He'd also dragged Daniel closer to the fire.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty was awake a little earlier," Jack said as Peggy dropped her armload of firewood on the nearest available scrap of dry-ish ground and pulled the end of the canvas over it. "Still kinda out of it, and he's back into dreamland now. I got him to take a couple swallows of coffee to maybe warm him up a little." He held out the flask to her. "Saved the last one for you."

"Thank you." It was well past lukewarm now, almost cold, but still bracing. And also the last and only thing they had to eat or drink. Thinking of the tin can Jack had found, she turned it upright to catch the rainwater sluicing off their shelter before climbing under the canvas. They could drink lake water if they had to, but she'd really rather not unless it was a true emergency.

"Been thinking about how long it might be 'til we're missed," Jack said, holding his hands out to the fire.

"As have I." The flames were gloriously warm. Peggy got herself arranged cross-legged beside the fire, with Daniel's head and torso in her lap to try to keep him off the cold ground, before she allowed herself the luxury of extending her hands towards its golden glow.

"Since we took one of the lodge's boats, they're gonna notice if we're not back by dark," Jack said. "They'll probably send someone out to look. I figure worst-case scenario, they'll wait 'til first light in the morning."

"I should hope they won't go out in the dark, with that creature about. We've no way to warn them."

She took turns holding one hand to the fire while the other idly carded through Daniel's hair. Jack was pressed along her side -- not really something she'd have chosen, but there wasn't room in the shelter to do anything other than huddle together.

Nothing to do except think. How could they get a message out? What assets did they have? They'd lost almost everything. One night out here wouldn't be so bad ... had they all been in good health.

She felt Jack shake in the throes of a stifled coughing fit next to her. It was that disturbance, perhaps, that made Daniel twitch and stir.

"Hello there," Peggy said softly, cupping his cheek with her hand.

Daniel's eyes fluttered open and shut again. He smiled at her slightly, or at least she chose to take it that way, and mumbled something.

"What's that?" Peggy asked, bending over him. He didn't open his eyes again.

"Like I said, he's been in and out." Jack looked up from Daniel to meet her gaze, his brows drawn together with worry and glazed golden in the firelight. "Could have a cracked skull. He oughta be in a hospital."

"I know," Peggy said, unable to hide her own worry and misery. "Jack, do you have any ideas, anything at all, some way we could contact the lodge or Howard ..."

"Believe me, I've been wracking my brains --" He broke off, turned away from her, and shuddered through another wracking series of mostly-stifled coughs.

"And how are you doing?" Peggy inquired.

Jack wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and gave her a level stare. "Been better."

"Jack."

"Look, whaddya want me to say?" He dropped his gaze away from hers. "It's not like this is ... rare. Ever since I got back to New York, seems like I catch every cold that goes around the office. Lungs never really healed up right or something."

"It's only been a few months. Give yourself time." She stroked her fingers through Daniel's hair. "It was that way with Daniel too, after the Midnight Oil, for a few months at least. I believe it's one of the reasons why he accepted the L.A. position. The dry air was easier on his lungs."

"Really? I didn't know that."

"You're convalescing. The harder you push yourself, the more time it'll take, in the long run. No one expects you to be entirely well immediately, except for you."

"I like how you waited until we're trapped on an island with no escape to have this conversation," Jack said, with an attempt at a smile.

She smiled back, forcing it past her grave worry about Daniel. "I knew you'd never stand still for it anywhere else."

"Yeah, well, the depressing thing is --" He interrupted himself to cough again, painful and wrenching. "... I can't really argue. After this, a few days in a nice, warm, dry bed with nurses pampering me sounds fantastic."

"I don't think you're quite that bad off." Or at least he wouldn't be, if they could get off the island soon.

Then she was distracted when Daniel groaned softly and jerked in her lap. His eyes flickered open. "Peggy?" he whispered.

"I'm here," she said, bending over him.

"Feel like hell," he mumbled. "I had the craziest dream."

"If there were lake monsters involved, I have some bad news for you," Jack said.

Daniel blinked. "Jack's here?"

"We're on an island in the lake," Peggy told him, brushing back his damp hair. "I'm afraid I haven't much in the way of comforts to offer you. Would you like a drink of water?"

"Are you sure water's what he needs? He already swallowed half the lake."

"Daniel," Peggy said, "I suggest you ignore Jack if he won't be helpful."

"Don't worry," Daniel mumbled. "Got a lotta practice at it."

Jack snorted and leaned out of the shelter to retrieve the tin can. "Rain's stopped," he remarked, tilting the can. "Looks like this is about half full."

Peggy held the can for Daniel to take a couple of sips. As she took it away, he squinted blearily at the dim, smoky interior of the shelter. "Where are we?"

"In an old duck-hunter's blind, I believe."

"Oh," he murmured -- too placid and acquiescent by far.

"Our very own little vacation lake home," Jack said, and Daniel jerked.

"Jack's here?"

"Yeah, Jack's here," Jack said. He reached for another stick to feed to the fire. "You poor devil, your short-term memory's shot, isn't it?"

Temporary, Peggy told herself, it's only temporary. Daniel's brain would heal. He'd heal. Everything would be fine.

But there was nothing she could do for him, and it drove her mad, having to sit here watching him lie there so quiet and still -- he seemed to have slipped back into unconsciousness or sleep.

"If the rain's stopped," she said, "I think I'll go have another look round the island and collect some more firewood. The exercise will help warm me."

"Yeah, just be careful out there," Jack said, shifting so she could get out of the shelter. "You're the healthiest one of us right now, looks like, so don't break your leg or something."

"I appreciate the concern," Peggy said dryly.

After the relative warmth by the fire, the chill of the clammy air was ... bracing. Peggy stretched out her legs, which had stiffened up as she'd been sitting. Moving in her wet clothes was highly unpleasant at first, but improved as she got her blood flowing again.

It wasn't quite late enough to be getting fully dark yet, but it was somewhere past noon, and the day was beginning to darken in a way reminiscent of evening. At least the fog had lifted somewhat, along with the slackening of the rain. From the heights of the island (such as they were), she could see the shore clearly now, with its autumn-bare trees and secluded houses. Here and there, a light gleamed out through the gloom of the cloudy afternoon.

Hmm. She'd assumed the vacation houses along the shore were closed up for the off season. It appeared, however, that there were some year-round residents, or some houses with caretakers.

Perhaps the darkness could be an ally as well as an enemy.

She collected a pile of wood under the trees and went back down to their shelter, surrounded now by a pall of woodsmoke that the weather had forced back down to the ground. Her eyes watered as she crawled into the shelter. This certainly wasn't helping anyone's lungs, she thought.

"I was wondering where you got off to," Jack said. He'd rearranged things somewhat while she was gone; Daniel was now stretched out in front of the fire on a pallet made from dead grass and one of the slickers.

Daniel blinked and looked up when she came in. He seemed to be getting more alert. "Peggy's okay."

"Yes, Peggy's okay," Jack said. "I only told you that ten times. Maybe this time you'll remember it."

Peggy brushed the back of her hand across Daniel's. "I'm well. And I believe I may have had an idea for how to contact the mainland." She set down the small armload of wood for their fire that she'd brought, and selected a sturdy-looking pine branch from the pile. Jack and Daniel both watched curiously as she knotted a handful of dry (or dry-ish) grass around the end.

"If you're planning on setting fire to the island," Jack said as she thrust the end of the stick into the fire, "I admire your enthusiasm but would like to have a word about possible downsides to your plan."

"Oh come now, I've far too much sense to do such a thing." No one commented on this. Peggy decided to ignore that. "The mist's lifted somewhat, and a fire on the island should be visible for some distance."

"There's no reason why anyone would think it was anything other than duck hunters or somethin', though," Jack objected.

"Yes, which is why I intend to use my raincoat to send a message using Morse code."

"That's smart," Daniel murmured.

"If someone's looking this way," Jack said. "And if they know Morse code, which is kind of a big 'if'."

The torch finally caught. "If you have any better ideas," Peggy said, "please do come up the hill and share them. Daniel, how are you feeling?"

"Okay," Daniel said, which was patently untrue -- he looked pale and haggard -- but she'd gladly take it over his limp unresponsiveness earlier.

Peggy squeezed his hand and crawled out of the shelter with the torch.

"Don't burn the island down!" Jack called after her.

This was hardly a risk. The trouble was getting the fire going in the first place, with everything so sodden. With another shellful of gunpowder, she finally managed to get some of the grass to catch before she had to suffer the indignity of going back down the hill to light a new torch. Soon she had a nice little fire crackling on the apex of the island.

It was starting to rain again, a soft light mist, not enough to extinguish the fire, but enough to dampen the parts of her ruined blazer that had finally been starting to dry when she took her slicker off to use it for signaling. Draping the slicker in front of the fire, the sheer futility of it struck her afresh. What were the chances someone might actually be looking this way, might notice the tiny spark of light on the island (especially with the weather coming down again), might know Morse code and recognize that the flashes were significant rather than mere vagaries of wind-blown trees ...

And yet, she could think of nothing else to do. It went against her very nature to sit in that shelter with two sick men waiting for rescue. She dipped the rain slicker through the familiar pattern of S-O-S, over and over again. Sometimes she varied the pattern, spelling out a longer message to stop herself from growing desperately bored enough to make mistakes: their names and a brief description of their troubles such as BOAT CAPSIZED, SEND HELP.

Holding out the slicker, raising and lowering it, didn't seem like much work at first, but her arms grew leaden and then painful. She had to take short breaks to gather more wood, but that wasn't a lot of respite for her aching muscles, and when she finally got tired enough that she melted the edge of the rubber in the fire, she decided to sit down for a few minutes before she set the entire thing (and herself) on fire.

The sound of coughing let her know Jack was coming up the hill. He appeared a moment later out of the growing gloom and deposited an armload of wood beside the fire. "Figured I'd take a turn if you want me to," he said, and then turned away, coughing and resting a hand on his side as if it hurt.

"How's Daniel?" Peggy asked. She knew she ought to get up, but it seemed like too much effort.

"Sleeping, at the moment," Jack said. "Really asleep, I think, not -- you know -- passed out. Thank God." Peggy gave him a look. "Listen, we've been stuck together in what I'd like to remind you is a very small shelter for hours. We tried playing word games. That went about as well as you'd expect, though I think his ability to remember things from one moment to the next is coming back. He certainly seems to remember being annoyed with me." His expression softened. "He'll be okay, Peggy."

"I know he will." Peggy started to lurch to her feet, but sank back into the moss and pine needles as she realized how much she'd stiffened up while she was sitting.

Jack extended a hand. She sighed and let him help her to her feet. The exertion started him coughing again, and she ended up having to steady him.

"We're a pair," Jack said when he could breathe again.

"Yes, that we are." Peggy paused, tilting her head to the side. "Do you hear something?"

"No, I ..." Jack stopped and looked out across the darkening lake. "Is that a boat?"

"Or a plane."

They both stood still in the gathering dusk and listened. The sound faded almost out of hearing, and then came back louder.

"It's a plane." Peggy grabbed for handfuls of wood. "Jack, help me build the fire up."

Their initial efforts were a little too enthusiastic, dumping damp wood on the flames and nearly extinguishing the fire in a great gout of smoke. Peggy groaned and poked at it with a stick, coaxing the flames back up.

"There," Jack said, pointing. Peggy looked up just as the plane roared over the island, very low. It was a small plane, a single-engine puddle-jumper with floats. The pilot must be quite mad to be flying in the dusk, on a day like today --

.... Oh no. She had one guess about who had a pilot's license and might be crazy enough to do something like that.

The pilot had obviously seen them, because the plane banked immediately and started to circle back around, skimming over the waves.

"So," Jack said conversationally. "That's a Stark logo on that plane, isn't it."

"Yes," Peggy sighed. "Well, he got us into this mess, in a sense. It's only fair that he get us out of it."

By the time they scrambled down to the water's edge, the small plane had drifted in to ground itself on mud and water weeds, and the pilot was climbing down. He wore tall rubber boots and a bomber jacket, with goggles pushed back on his head. "Peg!" he called cheerfully. "Found ya! Help me pull Bertha here in to shore before she floats away."

Peggy caught one of the short mooring lines dangling from the plane's wing and hauled on it. Jack was still some distance behind her; he'd ended up doubled over in a coughing fit, waving her on impatiently.

"Howard, I will deny to my dying day that I ever said this, but you are a sight for sore eyes."

"Like I'd let you go monster-hunting without me, Peg."

"At this moment I could not care less why you're here. You could be searching for the Abominable Snowman for all I care."

Jack stumbled up behind her, one hand pressed to his ribs. "Stark. Nice timing. There is a monster in that lake, by the way, so I suggest we collect Sousa, get loaded up, and get out of here before it eats our only way off this island."

"You're telling me there's something in this lake big enough to eat a plane?" Howard's expression landed somewhere between fascination and worry.

"It didn't eat our boat, it merely knocked it over," Peggy said. She handed the mooring line to Jack to hold. "No need to tie off, we're only here for a few minutes. I'll get Daniel."

"Fine, big enough to knock over a plane, whatever," she heard Jack saying behind her as she hurried off along the shore. "You got a gun with you, Stark? Not that it did us much good ..."

She found Daniel half sitting up, with his shoulder propped against the side of the shelter, feeding small handfuls of dry moss to the low fire. "Don't worry about that," Peggy told him. "We're being rescued. Do you feel up to a short hike?"

Daniel squinted at her painfully. "That's a joke, right?"

"I'm so sorry. It's the only way." Or they could rig some sort of litter, but she didn't want to suggest it unless Daniel himself brought it up; she had a feeling he wouldn't take it well.

"No, I can do this. Just ... we might have to take it slow."

"Slow is fine."

Getting Daniel on his feet turned out to be harder than she was expecting. He was mostly deadweight, despite his attempts to help, and extremely unstable, his face screwed up with pain.

"We might have to cut a crutch --" she began, just as Jack appeared out of the gloom.

"Stark says we gotta get moving, because taking off in the dark is going to be hard," he reported, throwing Daniel's other arm over his shoulders.

Between the two of them, they were able to support most of Daniel's weight. As they helped him down the muddy strip of weeds that might charitably be called a beach, the rain swept across them again, heavier this time. It was dark enough that they were stumbling, tripping over driftwood and getting their feet tangled in weeds, by the time they made it back to the plane.

Daniel was woozy, most of his strength drained; it took all three of them to get him into the plane. "I think he should lie down," Peggy said. "He's got a bad head injury."

"He'll have to anyway," Howard said. "I didn't come out here expecting to make a rescue. I've got the back seats taken out for cargo room."

The plane wasn't large enough to have a cabin, per se. Instead there was a cockpit, with two front seats in front of the instrument panels, and behind it, a cramped cargo space. Peggy sat on the floor with Daniel's head in her lap, while Howard -- standing on one of the floats -- kicked at the shore to start them drifting away and then swung up into the pilot's seat.

"Might be a rough takeoff," he said over his shoulder. "This tub wasn't meant to fly in the dark."

"Oh good, just what I need," Daniel groaned, stirring in Peggy's lap. "Peggy, I'm really sorry if I throw up on you."

She combed her fingers through his hair. "You know I don't mind."

"I mind!" Jack said, scooting away from both of them.

"So sit up front then," Peggy told him.

"I'd like to have you up here anyway," Howard said. "Weight distribution's important in these little birds. Need to have as much of it forward as possible."

"Gladly," Jack said, clambering into the shotgun seat.

Peggy sighed and leaned her head against the side of the plane as the vibration of the engine kicked up a notch. Right now she didn't care how unpleasant their takeoff was.

We're going to be all right, she thought, looking down at Daniel's pale face and wishing she could smooth out the lines of pain between his brows. All of us.

 

***

 

"You don't remember any of it?"

"Not the accident itself," Daniel said. "A few hazy bits and pieces after that. Mostly being cold. And Peggy petting my hair." He smiled up at her.

Jack made a gagging sound.

They were in hospital in Albany. Peggy had been treated for mild hypothermia, told to drink plenty of fluids (ironic, she thought, under the circumstances) and released. They'd kept Jack overnight and let him go with a course of sulfa drugs to handle a nascent case of pneumonia. Daniel was now in the fourth day of an extended stay, and finally seemed to be back to full alertness, though he still tired easily and slept a lot.

Peggy was not going to admit to being worried, not for a moment, but it was a vast relief that he seemed to have rebounded to his normal sharpness. He still had moments of fogginess, slightly memory lapses that bothered her -- and probably bothered him more -- but she was much more confident now that he would certainly make a full recovery.

Nevertheless, she didn't intend to let go of his hand anytime soon.

"We got to see an actual honest-to-god Loch Ness monster and I missed it," Daniel remarked, his thumb stroking lightly back and forth across her fingers.

"Next time we'll be sure and take a picture for you," Jack said, stifling a cough. He was perched on the edge of the (empty) second bed, long legs dangling. Peggy didn't like how pale he looked, but he seemed to be taking her advice to take it easy. Of course, the fact that they were stuck in a hotel in Albany and he was having to conduct his SSR-chief duties via phone probably helped with that.

She wasn't entirely sure why he hadn't driven back to New York already, but she wasn't going to point it out. At a guess, she'd say that he was actually taking advantage of the opportunity to have a little time off with a good excuse.

"I still can't believe anyone thinks it's a good idea to give Stark responsibility for bringing the monster in," Daniel said.

"I'm not sure it's a good idea either," Peggy said, "but do either of you have a better one? Howard's completely taken with the notion. He's already making plans to adapt his underwater sonar into a monster-repulsion field to pen it in one of the bays along the lake until he can transport it elsewhere. And really, I can't see a realistic alternative for the SSR other than killing it, which would be a shame as it might be the last of its kind in the world."

"Not to mention logistically complicated as hell," Jack said.

"Logistically complicated?" Daniel asked.

"Yeah, you don't remember -- lucky you -- but that thing's huge. What are we gonna do, take a fleet of gunboats out there? I don't really see a monster hunt ending without losing a few men." Jack's face was serious, all traces of flippancy gone. "If Stark wants to risk his neck trying to catch it, let him."

"The public needs to be protected," Peggy said.

"Warning signs and getting word out to avoid that end of the lake are about all we can do at the moment." Jack smiled briefly. "One thing about it, when luckless SSR agents aren't riling it up with sonar, it's pretty good at hiding. Has to be."

"I told Howard that he has until visitors start coming back to the lake in the spring to do something about it, or the SSR will handle it for him," Peggy said. "I believe he's motivated."

"Great." Jack clapped his hands together. "Now about the other thing."

"What other thing?" Peggy asked.

"Scheduling a date for you two to knock off the courting and get hitched."

This earned him an exasperated look from Peggy and a glare from Daniel. "As if there is any part of that process you'd be involved in," Daniel said.

"I saved your life and I don't even get to be the best man at the wedding?"

"Not if you keep that up, you don't."

Peggy was not about to admit that Jack Thompson had a point about anything, but ... she couldn't help thinking, as Mrs. Daniel Sousa, she would've been able to stay in the hospital with him overnight, rather than just coming in during visiting hours ...

It had been nice playing married at the lodge, if only for a short time. Sharing a room without concern or guilt, no raised eyebrows, none of the care they had to take at the L.A. SSR not to exceed the bounds of propriety ...

"How about Monday?" she said.

Jack choked. Daniel said, "What?"

"Monday. For the wedding. There's a small chapel in the hospital. I expect Daniel can walk that far."

Both men were staring at her as if she'd lost her mind.

"Peggy," Daniel said after a moment, "not to complain about the basic, uh, idea here -- but my dad'll never let me live it down if I get married without inviting him."

"My parents will most likely never speak to me again, it's true," Peggy sighed. There was almost certainly paperwork as well. Shame. It did seem a nice idea, no fuss and circumstances, just the two of them at the altar.

"How about January?" Daniel suggested. "It's not like January in L.A. is going to be too unpleasant. Might be better than summer, since it won't be hot."

"After the holidays, enough time for airline tickets to be obtained -- I don't mind dropping a suggestion in Howard's ear that he might want to lend a hand with that as a wedding present. I rather like it."

Jack was watching them with narrowed eyes as if he suspected that he was the butt of a joke. "That's what you call a marriage proposal, Sousa? And they say romance is dead."

"Don't you have an office to run, Jack?" Daniel asked, reaching up to cup his hand on Peggy's cheek. She smiled down at him.

"If the alternative is staying here to watch this, work's sounding better and better."

"Hey, Thompson," Daniel said as Jack slid off the bed and started to leave. "You gonna be in L.A. in January?"

"Apparently." Jack retrieved his hat from the end of the bed -- he was back to his usual look, suits and hats rather than his casual vacation getup from the lodge. "And you'd better see it through. If you elope without telling me, Marge, you're fired."

"Because my love life is entirely your business, Jack."

"Jack's a great name for a baby, you know. Classic. Strong."

"It's a rather unfortunate name for a girl, though," Peggy said.

"Jacqueline!" was Jack's parting shot before he was out the door.

"He actually did it," Daniel said in wonder. "He actually nagged us into choosing a date. Peggy, you know, I was gonna do the whole thing -- ring, one knee, all of it --"

"I know." She bent down to kiss him with a gentle smile. "We're both busy people. Matters, even important ones, slip by the wayside. You can still do it, you know, a proper proposal. If you like."

"Do you want me to?"

"I'd rather enjoy it, I think."

The smile that spread across his face was soft and wondering. "Soon as we're back in L.A. Uh, you want to help me pick out the ring too?"

"No, surprise me."

You never knew where life would take you, she thought as she leaned down to kiss him again. Fred had certainly done everything by the book with his proposal. He'd taken her to dinner and presented her with the ring that she'd happily showed off to her girlfriends the next day.

She had looked forward to a life of keeping house for Fred. She'd never imagined herself, nearly a decade on, being even more deliriously happy to receive a semi-accidental marriage proposal in a hospital room after being stranded on an island and very nearly killed by a lake monster.

Given that her relationship with Daniel had been launched by a semi-accidental kiss after being nearly swallowed by a hole in the universe, it was probably appropriate.

At the rate things were going, most likely their actual wedding ceremony would take place in a HYDRA prison, or some secret villain's lair under the Pacific Ocean.

"Are you laughing?" Daniel wanted to know.

"Just thinking about our life," Peggy said. "And how I wouldn't change a single thing about it, even if I could." And she leaned in for another kiss.