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The Bouclier

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She came in every day, or near enough.

She came in at strange times, with no discernable pattern.

She always sat in the same seat, corner of the bar.

She always ordered the same drink, whisky neat.

She always had a notebook and spent the whole time bent over it.

She never ordered food.

For the last, Lance Hunter was grateful. The Bouclier had a kitchen, to be sure, and a cook, he supposed. He’d never been inside. People considered the Bouclier a den of sin, but the true flash point of iniquity came from the filthy kitchens, not the boudoirs. If she ordered food, she was sure to contract food poisoning and never return to the Bouclier, and he couldn’t have that.

Hunter polished glasses, compulsively arranged the bottles behind the bar, served drinks, and watched her write.

“You should talk to her,” said Mack. His voice came muffled from below the stage, where he lay on his back fiddling with something or other that Hunter couldn’t be bothered to learn the name of. Only his legs stuck out, bent at the knees, as he worked his magic below the ancient wooden planks that held up the life’s blood of the old club.

“I can’t,” Hunter said, passing Mack a wrench. The dancers stretched and rehearsed around them. “She never talks to anyone.”

She dressed like a man, sort of. No man Hunter had every seen, surely, but she wore trousers, high waisted and tight above her hips. She usually wore a white silk shirt, top buttons open, collar crooked. Men’s loafers—pale, bony ankles poking out above them and below the cuffs of her trousers.

One might have asked Hunter if he were a tits man or an arse man. His friends knew that he was, in actuality, a legs man. Never would anyone have said he was an ankle man, yet here he was. They’d never call him a wrist man, an eyebrow man, or a knuckle man.

A collarbone man, a cheek man.

Yet, here he was.

“You should, ugh—“ Bobbi grunted as Hunter braced himself against her back, pulling tight to the laces of her corset top. She gasped, a quick tiny inhale as he tied the knot. “You should talk to her.”

“I can’t,” said Hunter. “What would I say?”

Bobbi pinned her hair, powdered her cheeks, and rolled her eyes in the mirror at Hunter standing behind her. Stepping into her heels, she towered over Hunter and all other such lesser mortals. “How do I look?” She asked as she did every night before she went onstage.

“Bloody devastating,” he answered, honestly, as he always did.

Ten AM, whisky neat. Four PM, whisky neat. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday. Dinner time, breakfast, tea. Whisky neat, no food. Notebook. Thursday. Noon. Ankles, wrist bones. So it went.

Hunter made fabulous tips at the Bouclier , a much higher salary than he’d ever made in the army. He was still selling his body, he supposed, but in a different, more honest sort of way than killing. It had to be better to sell love than violence; he had to believe that. When he worked behind the bar, Hunter wore a tailored vest, hanging open, over his bare torso, and he borrowed no small amount of shimmery powder each night from Bobbi to dust his chest, his arms, his navel. As he had when he’d been in the service, he used everything in his arsenal each night: the dimples in his cheeks, his warm brown eyes, his English accent—a novelty, a treasure buried deep in the muck of the Paris underworld. No matter who came belly up to Hunter’s bar at the Bouclier, they found themselves hopelessly charmed.

Except her.

She tipped well, of course she did, but Hunter always felt as though he hadn’t earned it from her—not the way he did with the other patrons. To them, he winked, he smiled, he flirted. To her, he slid a single glass across the bar that had been polished so many times it must surely be more varnish than wood at this point. Whisky neat. More often than not she didn’t even acknowledge the drink appearing at her elbow, or the man who’d placed it there.

The first time, she’d ordered her drink out loud, and her voice was like a bell, like a wind chime. She was English, like him. The second time, he’d said, “Whisky neat?” and she’d smiled, crinkling her eyes, and said, “You remembered?”

Because, how could he not?

He cursed himself, after that, because after that there was no cause for words between them. If he’d been a little less observant, a little more obtuse, he could have heard her say, “Yes,” or “Please,” or even order her drink in full each day. He could have heard her voice form upwards of ten different words, if he’d played his cards right.

Hunter was rubbish at cards.

So, he found other ways to earn his tips. Hunter could tell she didn’t want to be bothered. Occasionally someone would approach her, ask for a dance, and she’d shake her head politely and return to her drink and her book. Her hair fell in loose, bouncy brown curls to just below her chin, and Hunter loved the way they moved when she shook her head.

Hunter watched, she wrote. She worried her lip between her teeth, and her thick brows knit almost to the point of touching, a sweet little crease between them as she frowned down at the page. He noticed that somedays seemed to go better than others. Some days, her pen would fly across the pages, and she wouldn’t even glance at her drink. When she finally paused for breath, she’d down the whole thing. Others, she’d open and close the little notebook about a hundred times, and her drink would be gone before she’d filled even a single page.

One such day, she was plainly furious, getting nowhere with her work. It was a Friday night, busy, and Hunter couldn’t watch as closely as he liked to. He had to keep one eye on the patrons at the bar, one eye on the dancers. The owner of the club hadn’t hired him merely to look pretty and serve drinks. He, like Mack, was there to ensure the safety of the dancers. Most nights, the patrons of the Bouclier were a horny but harmless sort—here to play, for honest dirty fun—but there were always those who sought to push the boundaries, to touch the girls when they didn’t want to be touched (or when they hadn’t paid to touch), to act like they owned what they’d merely paid for the pleasure of renting. Hunter had heaved more than one such into the dumpster out the back.

So, on rowdy nights, Hunter’s eyes had to be everywhere. He served the girl at the end of the bar her whisky neat and went about his shift, watching her lose her temper with whatever she was attempting to pen into that little notebook.

He bit back a groan of frustration when he looked up toward the end of his shift and saw her stool was empty.

Finally, blessedly, the night was over. Bobbi and Mack plopped down at the bar, and Hunter poured three shots as was their custom. They cheersed, and downed the shots, and chatted about the evening. When they took off, Hunter came ‘round the bar to sweep up. He reached her stool of choice, and saw a small rectangle of green leather on the floor beneath it. With trembling hands, Hunter reached for it, broom utterly forgotten.

He set the notebook on the bar, touching the cover. For some inscrutable reason, he blushed. Looking at this notebook felt oddly like he’d found a pair of her knickers on the floor.

He couldn’t open it. He couldn’t . Hunter poured himself another drink, and sat at the bar, looking at the cover, the spine. At the bottom, stamped neatly into the leather, was a name an inscription.

J. Simmons

Simmons. J. Simmons. Hunter frowned, staring at the letters like they were about to change. English, a writer in Paris. J. Simmons.

There was a writer, James Simmons. In fact, he was one of Hunter’s favorite writers. The urge to open the notebook and sneak a peek was overwhelming, so he locked it in the till like it was a cursed thing and went home.

The following day, Hunter was nearly jumping out of his shoes at the thought of giving back the notebook. It was the first snow of the year, which Hunter always liked. The red and gold lights of the Bouclier looked beautiful, winking with the flurries falling all around them.

It was an odd slow shift, peaceful and muffled like the snowfall outside , until a five foot four tornado spun in through the door, cursing.

Bloody snow!”

Hunter’s eyes snapped up, to see J. Simmons flailing across the floor toward the bar, shaking a broken umbrella and dripping all over the wooden planks that Hunter had just mopped. The umbrella was a strangled, ripped, tattered old thing and she flung it down on the stool beside her customary one with a noise of contempt.

What? ” she snapped at Hunter, who was watching from his spot behind the bar.

He raised his hands in supplication.

She huffed, settling herself on the stool, clasping her hands on the bar. “You’re staring.”

He certainly was, at her cheeks pinked with chill, perfect snowflakes in her hair. Hunter coughed, and he could see Bobbi trying to make eye contact across the room. She paused in her stretching, one endless leg up over the barre on the stage. She gave Hunter a significant look, gesturing with her hands in a way that said plainly, “talk to her.”

A million other times he would have ignored it, but today he had her notebook. He had her name . Sort of. As she settled herself on the stool, Hunter turned back toward the till, retrieving her notebook. Wordlessly, he slid it across the bar.

J. Simmons gasped. “Oh, you found it! Thank you!”

“Don’t mention it,” said Hunter, “it was just there under your seat.”

 She reached for it with both hands, fingertips just brushing against Hunter’s. She looked up at him, lifting one eyebrow, eyes shrewd. “Did you read it?”

 “I’m not much of a reader, to be honest,” Hunter lied. He found his life to be easier when he molded himself to fit into the boxes others had built for him.

She cocked her head to the side, like she didn’t believe him. “Alright.”

Hunter turned his back, and something made him bold. Instead of fixing J. Simmons her usual whisky neat, he put the kettle on, took a jar of honey from below the bar and fixed her a nice, strong hot toddy.

With raised brows, J. Simmons looked at the steaming mug before her. “What’s this then?”

Hunter shrugged. “You looked cold. Just give it a try.”

She clutched the mug in thin fingers, holding it close to her lips, blowing on the surface before taking a sip.

“So,” said Hunter, leaning over the bar. He tapped the notebook with his pointer finger. “J. Simmons?”

Avoiding Hunter’s eyes, she lowered her mug to the wooden bar with a thunk. “Yes.”

Something must surely have been making Hunter brave that day, because he found himself saying, “There’s a writer. James Simmons.”

J. Simmons leveled her gaze to Hunter’s now, a challenge. “Yes, there is.”

“You’re a writer.”

“Yes.”

Hunter grinned. “That’s a bloody big coincidence, isn’t it?”

“I s’ppose.”

He let it pass, the deepening blush in her cheeks more than enough confession for him. It was unfair, he reflected. J. Simmons was remarkably talented, what the hell did it matter what was in his—her—trousers? Some fool of a publisher thought no one would want to read a novel penned by a woman? It didn’t change one jot of what Hunter thought of the books; they were bloody brilliant as far as he was concerned.

As his shift wore on, J. Simmons busied herself with her notebook, and Hunter gave her some space. She seemed to enjoy the hot toddy, and Hunter was thrilled to have shaken her routine.

It was a slow day at the Bouclier, the snow keeping all but the most amorous from braving the storm to find warmth in the old club, so Hunter indulged, allowing himself permission to watch J. Simmons as much as he liked. In doing so, he found her eyes flicking to him and away again quite often. He wandered back over to her as she was tucking her notebook into her jacket. As he approached, she fished out a few coins to pay for her drink.

“Nah,” he said, “it’s on the house.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t let you order your usual. You might have hated it.”

That earned Hunter a glowing smile, and God help him he legitimately went weak in the knees. “Well, Thank you.”

“Of course.” A pause. “James.”

She crinkled her nose. “It’s Jemma, actually.”

Jemma . Hunter could not keep the smile off his face for the rest of the day.

***

Though he hated that she’d been worried about losing it, Hunter was grateful for whatever forces had allowed Jemma Simmons to drop her notebook, because after the day Hunter returned it and served her the hot toddy, they’d become friends. He still didn’t disturb her much while she was writing, somewhat afraid of scaring her off—if she didn’t get her work done in her spot at the Bouclier , perhaps she would flee to some other haven for the literati. James Simmons had been publishing for at least five years, and Jemma had only been coming to Hunter’s bar for three months. Presumably she’d done her writing somewhere else before finding the Bouclier. So, he waited for her to initiate conversation, and initiate she did, to his immense delight.

Each day she came in now, Hunter made her a new drink. It became a part of their ritual. Sometimes she liked it, sometimes she didn’t, but she always seemed happy to try them.

“Can I tell you a secret,” she asked him one day, spinning her martini glass by the stem.

“Of course,” Hunter said, and tried not to sound too eager. It was the tenth day since Hunter had made her the hot toddy, not that he was keeping track. He braced his elbows on the bar, locking his fingers together and resting his chin on them.

“I don’t even like whisky all that much.”

“What?” He said, laughing. “You drank nothing but whisky every single day for three and a half months.”

She grinned sheepishly. “To be honest, I just never knew what else to order.”

“Well I’m so glad to be furthering your education, Jim.” He’d taken to calling her Jim. It was almost a nickname for Jemma, and it was definitely a nickname for James. Cheeky. The first time he’d done it, she’d giggled, rolling her eyes—so naturally Hunter had to keep doing it.

He wandered away, checking on his other customers, glancing back to watch Jemma making eyes at him, scoffing and smiling to herself watching Hunter flirt with the other patrons. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, tilting her neck to the side, and spreading her fingers across the long lines of her neck as she looked down to reread what she’d written, and Hunter had to try very hard not to zoom back to her and ignore everyone else in the dance hall. He still had to make a living, after all.

When he swung back past where she was sitting a proper amount of time, she cleared her throat to catch his attention. “Three and a half months?”

“Pardon?”

Her eyes were light with mischief. “You said that I’d been ordering the same drink for three and a half months.”

“Well…” said Hunter. “Haven’t you?”

Jemma returned to her work, smiling faintly. “I suppose I have.”

***

One morning, Jemma stormed into the Bouclier in a towering temper.

She sat down at the bar and Hunter decided it was the sort of day for shots. He poured them each one. It was two months since Hunter had learned her name, and he liked to think that he’d become quite adept at understanding her moods. This, he knew in an instant, went far beyond frustration with her own work, writers’ block or problems with word choice.

She slammed her things down on the bar and downed her shot without even saying hello. She banged the glass down on the bar and indicated Hunter should hop-to refilling it. He swallowed his own and poured them each another.

“Something on your mind, Jim?”

She knocked back her drink and mad a face. “My bloody publisher.”

Hunter leaned down over the bar, ready to listen. “What about your bloody publisher?”

“They want to do a sort of—a well, a Question and Answer at the bookshop. And a reading.”

“About Oz ?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s brilliant!”

The look she gave him could curdle blood, so he thought perhaps that it wasn’t so brilliant.

“It would be, if they wanted me to be doing the answering.”

With a frown, Hunter poured them each a third round. “Who d’they expect to be answering, then?”

“Someone with a prick, no doubt.”

Ah. Hunter finally caught up, joining her in her fury. “Wait—so they’re going to get some bloke to pretend to be you, and read your book and talk to your readers?”

Grim faced, Jemma nodded. Hunter refilled their glasses a final time, and Jemma raised hers with a sardonic smile. “Here’s to the written word,” she said.

It took Hunter the rest of his shift to work up his courage, and to fully form his idea in his mind. Jemma was about to leave for the night, tottering a bit on her feet after the four shots they’d unwisely put away earlier.

“Jim—Jemma, wait!”

She turned. “Yes?”

“What if—I could do it.”

“Do what?”

“Pose as you.”

She frowned. “What?”

“Listen,” he said, and he came ‘round the bar and took hold of her elbow. “You could coach me. That way it’ll still be your answers to the questions, your ideas, your words—instead of some bloody idiot talking out of his arse.”

“You always talk out of your arse.”

“True,” said Hunter with a grin. “I’m serious, though. Just tell me everything they’re likely to ask about, pick the passage you want me to read from—I’ll do my best to honor your book, Jim, I swear.”

Jemma tilted her head to the side, giving him a long, searching look. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll run it past my publisher, make sure they didn’t have someone else already lined up.”

“Of course. Just let me know.”

Jemma glanced down to where Hunter’s hand still gripped her elbow, and he hastily released her.

“See you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

***

“What is all this?” Bobbi hopped up to sit on the bar, leaning over to brace herself on one elbow. She crossed one leg over the other and adjusted her skirts.

“Notes,” said Hunter, distracted. When he’d suggested to Jemma that she coach him on the most likely questions the readers were to ask, he hadn’t expected her to give him this much to study. The whole corner of the bar was given over to the spread of sheaves of paper, from cover art inspiration to character names, to what Jemma liked to eat or drink each morning, how much sleep she got, her favorite tea. Apparently these sorts of events were full of questions about the author and not just the book.

Bobbi picked up a piece paper from in front of Hunter. “’the blue gingham dress was modeled after one I had as a girl—‘” she read. “Hunter what on earth is this?”

Nothing .” He snatched the paper from Bobbi, agitated. He made a mental note to change ‘I had as a girl,’ to ‘my sister had a as a girl,’ or similar if someone asked.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you work this hard.”

“Yes, well,” he snapped. “You’re the one who insisted I talk to her, and here we are.”

Bobbi laughed. “Hunter, you are a hopeless romantic, aren’t you?”

He sighed. “Yes. Now, I really have to focus.”

When Jemma came in that night, Hunter gave her a glass of wine and a scowl. “I didn’t know I’d be going back to bloody University by offering to do this, you know.”

“I’m sorry, back to University?”

“You know what I mean.”

Hunter. ” They both looked, and Hunter saw the owner of the Bouclier, Phil Coulson, stepping up to the bar. “My office.”

“Of course, Sir.”

He gathered up his notes into a tidy stack, tucking them behind the till of the bar, and with a brief nod to Jemma he followed Coulson to his office. Coulson was the type of man in charge that Hunter liked. He was the boss, and he knew it, but he wasn’t an unholy prick about it.  

However, there were plenty of times that Coulson got a look in his eye—kind of, actually, like the one he had right about now—that Hunter knew he was in deep shite. With a heavy sigh, Coulson closed the door to his office, and indicated for Hunter to take a seat.

When Coulson himself sat in the fine leather chair behind his desk, he folded his hands and regarded Hunter with sharp, intense scrutiny. They sat in silence for some time, and Hunter—who hated silence—coughed.

“Boss?”

Coulson straightened in his seat, chewing his tongue. Finally, he reached into the drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle, and two lowball glasses. He poured them each a drink. “Hunter,” he began at last, “I’m not mad.”

Hunter exhaled. “Well that’s a relief.” He downed his drink.

With an indulgent sort of smile, Coulson refilled Hunter’s glass. “That’s nice Scotch, Hunter. Try not to guzzle it.”

“Sorry.” He fidgeted, taking a small and respectful sip from his glass. “So, if you’re not angry, what’s on your mind, Sir?”

“I’m just curious about your infatuation with the lovely young Brit at the end of the bar.”

Hunter blushed, and knew Coulson well enough to know that playing dumb didn’t work with him. “We’re friends,” he said instead.

“None of my friends look at me like that,” said Coulson with raised brows. “At least, I sure as hell hope not.”

“I like her,” said Hunter truthfully, “is that so terrible?”

“Of course not, Hunter.” Coulson leveled him with a look. He cleared his throat. “How have your tips been recently?”

Coulson never missed a bloody trick, damn the man. “They’ve been fine.”

“Really,” said Coulson mildly, “because my bar sales have been in the damn toilet.”

Grimacing, Hunter fiddled with his glass, and for once kept his mouth shut. He honestly wasn’t certain what he should even say.

“There’s a lot of reasons you make out like a bandit when you serve on bar, Hunter. Not least of which is that when you look at someone with those brown eyes of yours, they feel like they’re the only one in the whole damn room.”

“Sir,” said Hunter, raising his brows. “Are you flirting with me?”

Coulson massaged his temple, but otherwise chose to ignore the comment. “The fantasy you concoct—that we all concoct here—only goes so far. The patrons know what they’re buying, but our job is to make them forget all that, for a little while. Kind of hard to sell that fantasy when it’s painfully obvious to everyone, including blind moon men, that you’d rather be talking to the brunette at the other end of the bar.”

“Point taken.”

“I’d hate to see you fail to make rent,” said Coulson, standing, “and I’d love it if my bar wasn’t in the red.”

With a gesture toward the door, Coulson indicated that Hunter was well and truly dismissed. He lifted his glass in mock salute, downed it, and left.

“What was that about?” Jemma asked immediately upon his return to the bar.

Hunter flashed her a smile, and said, “I got busted for talking to you too much.”

“Well,” said Jemma, and a lifetime of learning to read people told Hunter she was trying hard not to let her face betray how pleased she was. “I’d hate for you to get into trouble.”

He shrugged, hoping she wasn’t about to announce she’d decided to write somewhere else.

“Tell you what,” she said, closing her notebook and folding her beautiful fingers together on top of it. She leaned forward, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “When you’re talking to them, I’ll know it’s meant for me.”

Struck absolutely dumb, Hunter stood blinking and gaping like a bloody idiot as she returned to her notebook and shooed him away.

***

Hunter did as Jemma suggested, and over the next week he let pour every flirty, sweet, and sometimes filthy thing he was too scared to say to her. Hunter’s wallet was fat and the bar sales had never been higher, and still Jemma sat on her stool and wrote. Every so often she’d glance at him, give him a cheeky smile, or a wink—and if he was doing really well, he could get her to roll her eyes and blush.

The day Hunter was supposed to pose as James Simmons in the local bookshop, Jemma came tearing into the Bouclier like a small cyclone. She had a garment bag over her shoulder and wild look in her eye.

Hunter set down the rag he’d been cleaning the bar with just in time for Jemma to all but hurl the garment bag at him. He disentangled himself from the bag and she was already babbling at lightning speed.

“—and I didn’t even know if you owned a suit, so I said I’d bring this and I have absolutely NO idea if it’ll even fit because I had to guess, so you’d better stuff yourself into those trousers Hunter because there is not time to fix it—“

“Jim,” said Hunter, holding his hands up. “Calm down. I’ll fit into the suit come hell or high water, alright?”

“Really?”

He set down the bag and grabbed her shoulders, trying to steady her. “Of course,” he said. “Everything’s going to be perfect. I promise.”

“I’m just sure it’s going to be a disaster.”

“It’s your work,” he told her. “It’s going to be brilliant.”

She visibly relaxed, taking a deep breath. “You’re right.”

“I always am.”

Jemma released a tiny scoff. “Sure.”

“I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yes.” She sighed and placed her hands on her hips. “Oh—did I mention? I’ll be posing as your wife.”

Her words took a moment to penetrate his brain. “Wait—hold on a mo—“

Jemma had already turned away. With a coy smile over her shoulder she said, “See you at eight.”

***

Hunter went about the remainder of his shift, but his mind was elsewhere, thinking about what could happen later. He knew the Wizard of Oz and Jemma’s other novels like the back of his hand, and he’d now memorized the pages upon pages of notes she’d given him, but he was still nervous. He wanted to answer every question as if he were Jemma, to honor all the work she’d put into her stories. It made him furious that this ruse was even necessary, but if he were going to be a part of it—he was determined not to let Jemma down.

Hunter spent the last hour of his shift running over everything he had to remember. He was going to change here—if the suit didn’t fit, there would be something in the costume wardrobe that he could make work. He hoped. Otherwise he’d end up at the reading dressed in Bobbi’s ruffled knickers.

At five fifty nine, Hunter raced from behind the bar as soon as the next bartender arrived to start her shift. He flung the garment bag over the changing screen and pulled out the suit. It was very fine, possibly the finest garment Hunter had ever worn. As he pulled on each piece, he found the whole thing to fit him as if he’d gone to the tailor himself. Grinning like a fool, Hunter buttoned up the dress shirt, thinking that just maybe Jemma had been watching him almost as close as he’d been watching her.

So lost in his thoughts of what might happen after the reading, Hunter nearly jumped out of his shoes when the door banged open. “Hunter!”

Bobbi. That tone of voice was a very specific one she used when she was about to ruin Hunter’s night. He sighed. “Yeah, Bob?”

“I need your help.”

Hunter stepped out from behind the changing screen, doing up his cufflinks. Bobbi’s blue eyes widened in surprise as she took in the sight of Hunter in the suit. He liked that; Bobbi wasn’t easy to surprise. “Can’t it wait? I have important plans tonight.”

She crossed her arms. “Clearly.”

Bobbi was wearing a dress quite unlike her usual costumes—covered up and refined, formal. Prim. Her waist cinched tight, ruffles spilling out over the bodice—all the foofaraw giving her the appearance of a proper lady. In fact, Hunter thought they made quite the pair—the dancer and the bar back, playing at high society. “What do you need, Bob?”

“Coulson wants you to watch my back,” she said carefully.

“Watch your back where?”

Sticking out her chin, daring him to find some sort of problem, she said, “Coulson has me on the arm of Grant Ward tonight at the opera.”

“Ward?” Hunter must have heard wrong, Coulson couldn’t possibly be that daft. “He’s bloody Hydra !”

Hydra were a gang, one of the most powerful in the Paris underworld. They covered a lot of territory, running girls and gambling dens and all manner of things, places far less savory than the Bouclier in all its faded finery. Their base of operations, a motel called Obelisk , had played host to countless murders, shoot outs, and all sorts.

“I think he knows that,” said Bobbi airily, pulling on a pair of gloves to match her dress. “Allowing this is sort of like, a peace offering. Testing the waters to see if we can trust them to move into this neighborhood.”

“Well we bloody well can’t. They’re dangerous, Bob.”

“Why do you think Coulson wants you to tail us?”

“And it’s tonight?”

Bobbi gestured at her outfit. “No, I’m dancing the can-can in this ridiculous get up.”

“I can’t tonight, Bob—“

“Please, Hunter.”

Hunter checked his watch, nervous. He hated the idea of Bobbi on her own with a piece of slime like Grant Ward, but he couldn’t be late for Jemma’s reading.

“Just tail us till we get to the theatre, that’s all,” she pleaded. “He wouldn’t try anything in a theatre full of people.”

Hunter glanced at his watch again. “Fine.”

***

That smarmy shite Ward met Bobbi on the steps of the Bouclier , playing the part of the gracious gentleman. He was the darling of Hydra, a real rising star if the talk on the street was true. Ward was unpredictable, unreadable, and capable of horrific violence. Hunter was uneasy, hating the way Bobbi smiled at Ward as she took his arm. He did not like this one bit.

Blokes like Ward had eyes on the backs of their heads, so he knew that if he followed at any sort of obvious distance he’d be made in a heartbeat. His current ensemble also didn’t lend itself well to blend in with the average folk on the street, so Hunter dodged and ducked into alleys and behind benches and bins to avoid notice. Hackles raised, Hunter strained his ears to try to listen in on what Ward and Bobbi were saying to one another, looking for any sign of something amiss. He spared a glance for his watch, it was seven thirteen. The theatre was only another fifteen minutes up the way, giving him plenty of time to hoof it a few blocks to the bookshop in time to meet Jemma at eight.  

A muffled squawk tore his attention back to the matter at hand, and Hunter cursed himself for his split focus. He jerked his eyes up just in time to see Ward shoving Bobbi into a dark alleyway up ahead. A man who had been leaning casually against the wall at the mouth of the alley glanced furtively up and down the street before following them.

“Son of a—“ Hunter took off, running at a low crouch to catch them up. He’d be giving Coulson a piece of his mind, surely—what had he been thinking letting Bobbi go off with a man like Ward?

Heart in his throat, Hunter approached the alley, pressing his back to the corner of the building as he edged around it. The second goon was keeping watch, and Ward had Bobbi pressed up against the wall in the alley. Hunter peered around the corner in time to see him draw a knife.

“Coulson’s pretty little peach won’t be so pretty anymore,” Ward hissed, pressing the knife to the rouged skin of Bobbi’s cheek, she squirmed as he pushed his forearm up under her chin, crushing her windpipe so she couldn’t scream. “You tell Coulson that John Garrett sends his regards.”

“Oi!” Yelled Hunter, fool that he was, anything to startle Ward and keep that knife away from Bobbi’s skin. He barreled toward the alley and launched himself full body at Ward’s lookout, and the split second distraction was plenty enough for Bobbi to stomp on Ward’s instep and knee him in the groin.

Hunter and the other guy went down in a tangle of fists. He was a lot bigger than Hunter, and even with the element of surprise the guy managed to get a few good licks in, delivering an absolute wallop to Hunter’s eye as he went down. Hunter felt his lip split as meaty knuckles connected, and cursing, he seized the collar of his opponent’s shirt, pulling back to slam his head into the ground. He yanked up and did it again, and the man when limp below him.

Meanwhile, Bobbi was having no trouble with Ward. She’d ripped up the side of her dress so she could move, lashing out with her endless long legs to land a kick to the side of his head. He went down on the pavement like a bag of flour, and she stepped on his wrist, grinding her heel into the thin bones until his fingers twitched open and he dropped his knife. She kept grinding until hunter heard several small snaps . Then, she drew back and delivered a swift kick to Ward’s ribs.

Picking up the knife, Bobbi pointed at him. “Get the hell out of here,” she said, pausing to spit on the ground at his feet. “You better not show your face in this neighborhood ever again.”

Ward scrambled backward, getting to his feet and cradling his wrist. Bobbi glanced down at the knife now held in her hand.

“And I’m keeping this,” she said, tucking the knife down the bodice of her dress.

Ward took off running like the spineless little shite that he was.

Panting, Hunter approached Bobbi. “Are you alright.”

“Are you?” she asked, brows raised.

Hunter shrugged, dabbing at his split lip with the sleeve of his jacket. He spit a mouthful of blood by his shoe. “I’ll walk you back to the club,” he said, “And if Coulson’s there I’ll rip him a new arsehole for suggesting this.”

Hunter and Bobbi walked back to the Bouclier .

“Will you stop looking at me like that?” Bobbi snapped.

“Like what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m fine.

“I’m sure you are.”

The rest of the trip passed in silence, and when they reached the club, Hunter said, “Now where is Coulson? He needs to—“

“Hunter!”

“What?”

“Your plans? Jemma?”

“Oh bloody—“ Hunter turned and sprinted out the door. He didn’t even pause to check his watch, because he knew he was late. Hopefully not irredeemably late.

When he reached the back entrance to the bookshop, Hunter knew he was in trouble. Not only was he late, he was covered in blood and grime from rolling around in the alley. His beautiful suit from Jemma was all but ruined, and of course he was sweaty from running the whole bloody way from the club.

He stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

“There you are Hunter, you’re—oh my God!”

Words apparently failed Jemma as she took in the state of Hunter. She was wearing a lovely blue dress, matched perfectly to the blue of his tie, now rumpled and covered in mud. Her hair was swept back in a French twist, highlighting the sculpted lines of her face, and of course, giving Hunter an unobstructed view of her displeasure. She covered her mouth with her hand like the sight of him made her sick and Hunter felt his cheeks heat.

“Jim, I—“

“Don’t,” she hissed. “Just, don’t. I’ll see if we can postpone—“

But Hunter heard soft applause as someone announced that James Simmons was about to step out and do his reading, sign books, and answer everyone’s questions. Jemma scowled, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Go ahead,” she told him, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Your public awaits.”

Hunter stumbled out from the back room into the soft spotlight that shone on the lectern at the front of the shop. He heard a collective gasp as the light hit his face, providing a lovely illumination to his black eye and bloody lip. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, Hunter scanned the crowd, and saw Jemma taking a place by the rear of the small audience, beside two men in suits, probably her publishers. She looked mortified.

Stalling as he got his bearings, Hunter cleared his throat, locking eyes with Jemma.

“Well,” he said, with what he hoped was a winning smile. The silence in the room was thick and painful. “You should see the other bloke.”

A weak chuckle rose from a few places in the crowd, and Hunter took courage from that.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” Hunter went on, “but I had a minor disagreement with a man about the proper use of an Oxford Comma.”

Another laugh. Hunter cleared his throat again, seeing Jemma’s face harden at his cavalier use of grammatical humor.

“At any rate,” Hunter said, locking eyes with Jemma. “You’re not here for me.” He lifted the book on the lectern so that all those assembled could see the cover of Jemma’s book. “We’re all here for this. So, how about I read a passage that I think speaks to the novel as a whole?”

Hunter flipped through the pages, to the bookmark Jemma had slid in, marking the passage that she had selected for him to read.

Hunter decided to ignore what she’d selected, and chose one of his own.

He cleared his throat one final time, and began to read. “’My head is full of straw, you know, and that is why I am going to Oz to ask him for some brains.’”

Hunter knew the passage by heart, so he locked eyes with Jemma again and continued his recitation. “’Oh, I see,’ said the Tin Woodman. ‘But, after all, brains are not the best things in the world.’”

He heard a little scoff slip out of Jemma’s mouth and he couldn’t contain his grin.

“’Have you any?’ inquired the Scarecrow. ‘No, my head is quite empty,’ answered the Woodman. ‘But I’ve had brains, and a heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart.’”

As Hunter carried on reading the passage—one of his favorites—which contained the sorry tale of the Tin Woodman who fell prey to a sorceress while trying to woo the girl he loved, he hoped Jemma wouldn’t be too upset that he hadn’t read what she’d wanted him to.

As he closed the book, the crowd broke into enthusiastic applause, and he only had eyes for Jemma at the back. She had a curious look on her face, and Hunter was certain that she’d realized he hadn’t looked down once at the page during his recitation.

When the applause died away, the owner of the shop came forward and clapped Hunter on the shoulder. “Thank you, very much, Mr. Simmons, for the reading. And now we have time for some questions from the audience.”

Hunter answered the questions perfectly, trying not to sound as though he’d learned all of the answers by rote and rather like he was talking from his own experience. Most of the questions were fairly straightforward, and Hunter was thinking he’d get through this without embarrassing Jemma any further, when the owner of the shop announced that they had time for one last question. Hunter called on a young man toward the back.

“Hello, Mr. Simmons, I just want to start by saying I love your work.”

“Well, thank you,” said Hunter, and it gave him a pang to accept such praise when he hadn’t earned it.

“The story is so full of over the top imagery,” the lad said, “I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the central metaphor for Dorothy’s journey through Oz.”

Hunter ran a hand over the top of his head, stalling—he heard Jemma gasp at the rear of the crowd. They hadn’t really delved deeply into the subtext of the novel in preparing him for the question and answer, since Jemma had assumed the majority of the questions would be fairly shallow.

“Well,” said Hunter, “that’s a mighty big question, Mr…?”

“Koenig, Sir.”

“Right, well Mr. Koenig, I wonder what’s made you ask such a question.”

“I study literature, Mr. Simmons, at University.”

“Ah well, of course—I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Hunter said with a smile. “Now, Mr. Koenig, I suppose you know that I spent a lot of time traveling in America, and the inspiration for the dreary, drab setting of Dorothy’s town is fairly true to life, I’m afraid.”

Appreciative titters from the crowd. Bashing America was always a safe bet.

“Below the surface, though—and I think it’s very important to note that none of us are immune, see. It’s a cautionary tale. The story is based upon the economic strife in America, and how each individual cog in the country’s economy effects the others. Take the Tin Man, for instance. He’s cold, metal—quite literally heartless. With industrialized production becoming more popular, the heart of ‘making’ is vanishing. He’s quite literally on a quest to find what he’s lost as he turned from man to machine.”

“And what of the Lion? And the Scarecrow?”

Hunter flashed a grin. “Well, I wouldn’t want to write your entire paper for you, Mr. Koenig, so I’ll let you puzzle that out on your own.”

More laughs from the crowd. Hunter glanced toward Jemma, who looked utterly flabbergasted.

“Now, we have Dorothy, the innocent, and her magic silver shoes, and the golden yellow brick road. The colors were not arbitrary, but rather chosen to illustrate the great bimetallism debate raging in the higher spheres of American politics. She inherits the silver shoes from the wicked witch, and the golden road stretches out before her—rife with possibility.”

Jemma’s mouth was actually hanging open, and Hunter couldn’t keep the self-satisfied smile off his face. He was correct, of course, in his analysis—he was confident in that, and he hoped that flawlessly explaining Jemma’s central allegory would, at least, make her a bit less peeved at him for showing up late and covered in blood.

“Now,” said Hunter, “the cyclone at the beginning is, if you’ll forgive me, a bit more on the nose.” He looked at Jemma and winked, and she rolled her eyes. “It merely represents the political upheaval and unrest plaguing our former colonies.”

The young man named Koenig had actually pulled a notepad from his pocket and was scribbling frantically.

“Does that answer your question?”

He merely nodded, not looking up from his notes, and regained his seat. The owner of the book shop came forward to call an end to the interview. Hunter bowed as the audience clapped again, and retreated to the rear of the crowd to pose for a newspaper photo with Jemma, his “wife.”

He leaned in to kiss her on the cheek, and she took the chance to whisper, “That doesn’t let you off the hook for being late, you know.”

“Ah, damn,” Hunter murmured in her ear. “I’ll have to make it up to you some other way then.”

***

Arm and arm, Jemma and Hunter left the shop after the crowd had dispersed, and Hunter finally had a chance to explain himself.

“Well,” said Jemma, “I’m certainly glad Bobbi’s alright.”

She seemed much more disposed toward forgiveness now that she knew Hunter hadn’t been late merely to participate in some sort of bar room brawl. Hunter tried very hard not to be offended that that was her first assumption, but then, he supposed he couldn’t really blame her.

“How did you know I spent time traveling in America?” She asked abruptly.

“It was in the notes you gave me.”

“No it wasn’t.” She shot him a sidelong look. “I’m certain it wasn’t.”

Hunter loosened his tie nervously. “Well, I must have read it somewhere then.”

“And how did you know all that, about the allegories? The Gold standard and that?”

“You gave me the book to read, remember?” He said, annoyed. Surely it wasn’t that surprising. “I paid attention.”

 Hunter always did this to himself—he strove to be underestimated, and then felt crushed when people fell for the ruse. He sighed, shoving his hands deep into his pockets, tossing a look Jemma’s way. Her brow creased, and she stayed silent the remainder of the walk.

“Well,” said Hunter, when they reached his doorstep. “This is me. Shall I find you a taxi?” After what had happened earlier that evening, Hunter did not relish the thought of sending Jemma off on the streets alone.

“Unless…” Jemma chewed her lip. She stepped closer to Hunter, their noses only a few inches apart. “You’d like to invite me in for a cuppa.”

Hardly daring to believe it, Hunter swallowed. “That’d be lovely.”

“And,” said Jemma, dropping her voice to a seductive whisper, “I can explain to you everything you got wrong in your analysis of my novel.”

Hunter threw back his head and laughed, fumbling in his pocket for the keys. “Brilliant,” he said, “I’d be a fool to pass up such a chance.”

Hunter unlocked the door to his flat and held it open for Jemma to step inside. It was a tiny flat, but Hunter really didn’t need all that much room. The only thing he truly needed space for were his books. Wall to wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the tiny flat had bookshelves. Hunter had erected most of them himself, to support the weight of his growing collection. Jemma walked into the center of the room, wide-eyed, spinning on her heel to take it all in.

Hunter leaned against the door jam, waiting. She turned to face him.

“I thought you weren’t much of a reader?”

He shrugged, gave her a sheepish grin, and said, “Well, who defines ‘much,’ really?”

Jemma walked around, examining the titles on the shelves, brushing her fingertips along the spines. Finally, she reached a whole set of her own work. Each book well worn, dog eared. She pulled Ozma of Oz from its place on the shelf and flipped through the pages, where Hunter knew he’d scrawled countless tidbits of marginalia.

He suddenly felt naked as she raked her eyes over his private thoughts.

“You’d read my books before.”

“Well,” he said evasively.

“Hunter.”

“Only once or twice,” he said. “or ten times.”

Jemma slid the book back where it belonged. “Did you know?”

“Not until you left your notebook and I saw your name.”

“And you really didn’t read it?”

“Of course not!”

“Hunter, be serious.”

“I didn’t! I figured it was private.”

“Well,” said Jemma, reaching into the pocket of her jacket. “It was, and it wasn’t.”

She held the notebook out to Hunter. “Start on page thirty three.”

He flipped it open, and saw several phrases, scratched out, and one underlined. “ Bouclier de Couers.

The following pages were full of notes, notes about him. How he worked, how he spoke, how he moved. Hunter had never seen himself described like that before. He looked up to see her grinning.

“I thought I’d try my hand at writing a love story,” she said.

Hunter closed the book and set it down. He stepped toward her, snaking an arm around her waist. “And how is it turning out?”

“Alright, I suppose,” she said, allowing herself to be pulled closer. “They’ve just had their dark night of the soul, where she thought he was turning out just as disappointing as any other man.”

Hunter traced the line of her jaw with the fingers of his free hand. “Oh yeah?”

“But, it turned out there was far more to him than she’d thought—so it’s time for the great, romantic gesture, don’t you think?”

Hunter laughed. “Shut up and kiss me, Jim.”

***

The end.