Here’s the thing.
“Hey, Sousa,” he says, dropping a file filled to bursting on the desk. “You think you could read this over for me?”
Sousa looks up at him. It’s not quite a glare, not yet, but it’s early still. “Read it over?”
“Yes,” Jack says slowly, putting his hands on either side of the file and leaning closer. “Read it. You can read, right?”
And there it is, not even nine o’clock and Sousa’s full-on scowling. “Yeah, but I can’t read stupid.” He gestures to the papers. “If it’s your report, I’m assuming it’s stupid.”
Jack grins at that, taps the top of the file. “Well, you’re a quick learner,” he says, and walks away before Sousa can say anything else.
He doesn’t look over until he’s been sitting safely at his desk for several minutes. When he does, he finds Sousa hunched over his desk, underlining something. Then he snorts and shakes his head, and Jack can see his pencil scribbling from across the room.
And he should be used to it, by now, the way Sousa looks when he frowns, or the way he always sends Jack’s reports back with more corrections than even Carter. The way he never backs down from Jack.
It still gets him, though. Every time.
Here’s the thing.
They get a new guy on Tuesday, fresh out of school, dressed in a sharp suit.
Sousa’s eyes track him across the room.
Jack snaps a pencil.
The thing is, Jack Thompson has never been unsure. He knows his mind, and he knows that he likes men just as well as any dame, and he knows that he fancies Sousa, and he knows that if anyone found out he would be out of the SSR faster than he could blink.
He knows that it’s not okay, okay in the sense that being queer meant his father would be disgusted, and being queer would get you roughed up on his block growing up.
He knows that Sousa smiles real big at the new guy, and he knows that makes his chest feel tight.
It’s a Friday, and the new guy, Smith, he thinks, has been in the office for four days. During those four days, he has been looking at Sousa more than his own work but has yet to introduce himself. Jack knows because he has also been neglecting his own work in favor of glaring at the pair of them.
But it’s a Friday, and this Smith guy must figure it’s time to screw up Jack’s entire life because he goes over at the end of the day and sticks out a hand.
Sousa takes it, smiling, and the guy gestures to his suit.
Smith says something else, though, and Sousa’s eyes flash up to his. He says something, low, to make Smith laugh, and the tension leaves both their bodies.
They’re still shaking hands.
The first time he met Daniel Sousa, he ruined any chance of even having a friendship with him by throwing out someone offhand comment about God knows what, now. He remembers, vividly, the way Sousa’s face had gone from open and friendly to stiff and cold. He doesn’t remember what he said, but he knows it must have been bad.
He wishes, vaguely, when he lets his mind wander, that he had introduced himself to Sousa like that Smith guy had. The last three years of being head over heels for Sousa might’ve been different.
The thing is, maybe he woulda had more luck.
They crack a big case one evening, a smuggling ring connected to a German spy. They find the guy as he’s trying to make a break for it by sneaking onto an outgoing fishing boat, hiding in the shadows cast by the setting sun. Jack runs him down and knocks him to the ground with a vicious punch, and Sousa starts hobbling over to cuff him. Jack swears under his breath when the struggling man gets an arm away from him and elbows him hard in the mouth before Sousa can reach them.
Sousa finally gets hold of the arm and snaps the cuffs closed, hauls him to his feet. He hands the guy over to Jack, who hands him over to one of the junior agents. They both take a minute to breathe.
The sun is setting, the air smells like the ocean, and the wind is blowing Daniel’s - Sousa’s hair as they watch the spy being loaded into the car. Sousa looks at him, eyes bright and smile stretching wide, obviously still high on adrenaline.
“Nice right hook, Thompson,” he says, and another gust blows more hair over his forehead. “Nice to see all that training in interrogation is puttin’ itself to good use.”
It takes him a second too long to respond, distracted by the way the sun lights up Daniel’s - Sousa, goddammit, Sousa’s face, casts all his features in sharp relief against the concrete wall behind him. Jack throws out a line he thinks is insulting, probably, and Sousa doesn’t notice his slip. Just fires back, and Jacks allows himself a smile. He’s earned it, and he can already feel the ache in his hand and jaw.
Smith is passing behind them, though, so he immediately loses Sousa’s attention. Jack rubs at his knuckles; transference, or something like that.
“Hey, Smitz,” Sousa calls, and Jack thinks Smitz, that was it. “You need a ride? It’s getting kinda cool, and I know you walk.”
The hell, it’s barely September, and the air can’t be colder than sixty. No way in hell is he gonna-
“Yes, sir, that would be great,” Smitz says, looking surprised and tentatively pleased.
“No need for sir, Daniel’s just fine.”
That makes Smitz smile. Jack will be calling him Smith to his face from this moment on.
Daniel leaves his side and walks over to Smitz, away from the scene and towards the road.
Thompson watches and licks at his split lip. Transference.
His gaze tracks them until they turn the corner, watching how their shoulders get closer with each step, and then he sighs and turns back to where the rest of the team is still cataloging evidence.
Turns, and immediately makes eye contact with Carter.
She looks puzzled in a way he’s never seen her, brows furrowed and mouth thin. And then he sees, he sees when she gets it, mouth opening slightly on an “oh” and her eyes flicking to where Sousa and Smitz just disappeared. She looks back at him. Blinks.
The first time he met Carter he was also an ass, and he has continued to be one even in the face of her, at times, staggering competence. He knows that Carter could out him to the whole team, to Sousa, and the knowledge weighs on him all weekend. He knows, logically, that she doesn’t have enough evidence to form any real sort of claim, but he also knows that an anonymous tip works just as destructively as a photograph.
So when he goes into the office on Monday, he’s not sure what he expects. Maybe being called into the chief’s office, receiving some disgusted looks.
He gets neither.
He gets nothing.
He walks in and sits at his desk. There is pain in his muscles from being so tense. He keeps his eyes on his hands for a full minute before his eyes are dragged, helplessly, to Carter.
She’s already looking at him, but not with the disgust or anger he was expecting. She looks thoughtful, and when he meets her eyes she smiles, just a little.
The sheer relief that floods his body makes him sag, a little dizzy. Carter’s smile drops. She stands and walks purposefully to his desk.
“Thompson. May I have a word?”
The office is loud in a way that means everyone is listening but pretending not to. Sousa is openly staring at them from where he’s perched on the end of Smitz’s desk. Jack is so terrified again that he feels like his blood is going to freeze in his veins; like his brain is being squeezed.
“Only if it’s quick, Carter,” he manages, and she nods sharply. She grabs her coat and he grabs a smoke from his desk and follows her out, out of the office and down the street. He starts to ask her where they’re going, but she silences him with a look. The rest of the walk is tense, Jack taking half-hearted pulls on his cigarette and Carter politely elbowing her way through the foot traffic. It’s not long before Carter is turning to step into some diner, the Automat. She leads him to a booth in the back. They sit. Jack tries valiantly not to fidget. It only takes moments for him to break.
“Look, Carter,” he starts and is interrupted by the waitress.
“Hey, Peggy,” she says happily, resting a hand on Carter’s shoulder. She’s pretty in a bright sort of way, hair carefully pinned and eyes shining. Carter smiles up at her, more genuine than he’s ever seen her.
“Hello, Angie.” She shifts her gaze to him. “This is my coworker, Jack Thompson.”
Angie’s face does a million things at once, and Jack knows Carter must’ve told her about his usual behavior because she settles on annoyed.
“Jack Thompson,” she says, and he sees her hand tighten on Carter’s shoulder. “What a surprise.”
“Nice to meet you,” he says, trying to find a smile.
She hums, eyes narrow, and then turns to Carter. “Whatcha eating?”
“I’ll have my usual,” Carter says, and then they’re both looking at him.
“I’ll have that, too.”
Angie raises an eyebrow. “Alrighty.” She doesn’t move.
“Thanks, Angie,” Carter says with a soft smile. Angie pats her shoulder once more and then whisks away in a cloud of perfume. Carter’s attention is on him.
“She seems nice.”
“Right.” He takes a deep breath. “Look, Carter, whatever you brought me out here for, I-”
“You like Daniel.”
He takes a sharp breath. Releases. “Well, I don’t hate Sousa as much as I pretend to, maybe…”
She gives him an unimpressed look. “What are your thoughts on homosexuals.”
It doesn’t sound like a question. He blinks. “Well, they’re...I mean, I don’t...”
She raises one eyebrow.
The edges of his vision are getting a little fuzzy and his heart is beating fast. “Why’re you asking me?”
“Because,” she says, with exaggerated patience, “you like Daniel.”
“Not like that,” he hisses, looking around quickly. “I’m not a-”
“Not a what?” Carter asks, lips pursed. “I could have Angie spit in your food, so choose your words carefully.”
He looks at her for a second and then breathes out, leaning back in the booth and running a hand over his hair. “I don’t know, I don’t...they’re fine.”
Carter hums. “Yes. And there’s nothing wrong with them.” She fixes him in place with a hard stare.
That’s a whole lot to process, too many layers to get through now. He’s never had someone tell him that it’s alright, and it shouldn’t matter at all coming from Carter. It does.
He doesn’t know what his face is doing, but Carter isn’t glaring at him anymore. She’s looking like she was at the office, and he realizes that maybe she wasn’t angry at him but for him. It’s new.
He should be horrified, having this secret. He should be horrified that she knows now, too.
But the thing is, he’s so goddam relieved.
Smitz gets transferred at the end of November, about two months after Carter dragged him to the Automat. Jack tries not to look too smug when he hears the news, but going by the reproving look Carter shoots him, he’s not successful.
“Try not to look so happy when Daniel arrives,” she whispers. “He’s been moping since he heard.”
And of course, Sousa does show up moping, slumps at his desk all day. He doesn’t even respond to Jack’s jab at his crooked tie, just waves a little, and keeps his head down.
Jack puts his feet up on his desk and whistles. Carter throws a pencil at him.
It’s been two weeks since Smitz shipped off, and Jack has been trying to tamp down any wayward thoughts. It’s hard, though, when Carter keeps giving him looks and Sousa keeps showing up with his goddam crooked tie.
“Jack, if you don’t stop tapping your foot I’m gonna stomp on it.”
He does stop his foot tapping, looking up at Angie apologetically. “Sorry.”
She nods decisively, takes a spoonful of the ice cream she and Carter are sharing.
He doesn’t know exactly how this started, but sometimes he, Carter, and Angie spend time together on the weekends. They meet up at a diner far from either their homes or their work, and they spend the afternoon together.
“Jack is just worried Daniel is in danger somewhere.” Carter smiles at Angie, sly. “Always has to be the hero.”
The only thing more surprising than the odd friendship between Angie and Carter was how quickly they warmed up to him. Carter, especially, after all the crap he threw at her. He thinks sharing a secret this big has done some good.
“That is not true,” he says, pointing at her.
“It is!” Carter says, a little too loud. Jack glances around the nearly-empty restaurant quickly, and Carter lowers her voice. “Anytime Daniel is within a mile of danger, Jack throws himself into the line of fire, absolutely no sense of self-preservation.”
Angie snorts, and Jack tries to hold back his own smile.
He’s also less of a jerk to Carter now. That could be a contributing factor to her new toleration of him.
“I just.” It’s still uncomfortable, talking about this out loud. “Do you think he knows?”
Carter rolls her eyes, and now, finally, Jack grins. “Jack, I don’t think he would know if you wrote it on your forehead.”
“Does he still hate you?” Angie asks.
“Yes,” Jack says.
“No,” Carter says, rolling her eyes. “He thinks you still hate him. Maybe try being nice?”
“Hey, Sousa. I like that shirt.”
Sousa looks up and rolls his eyes. “I don’t have time for your crap, Thompson,” is all he says before he’s standing and making his way to the chief’s office.
Jack throws a helpless look at Carter. She’s laughing, the traitor.
“You need a hand?”
“I’m not a complete invalid.”
“No, I know, I just-”
“You just, what, wanted to show off how big your goddam muscles are? Go jump in the harbor.”
Carter has the decency to try to keep her laughter in, this time.
Shot down three times in one day. He’s been staring at Sousa for ten minutes, feeling sorry for himself, before Carter walks over to his desk.
“Your grammar is as atrocious as always,” she says, handing him a file he has no memory of and then clicking back to her desk. He opens it.
The only paper in it says, ‘he likes his coffee black, two sugars.’
“You’re the greatest, Carter,” he calls over his shoulder at her. He hopes it’ll sound sarcastic to the rest of the office, and not as genuine as he means it.
He waits the rest of the day, until everyone but he, Carter, Sousa, and the chief have left. Then he gets up, grabs himself a coffee, and makes a coffee for Daniel. Sousa. Daniel?
He shakes his head as he walks back, and does not look at Daniel as he sets the coffee down.
He makes it back to his desk. He thinks he’s sweating. He can feel eyes on him, so he turns to Carter, who’s putting on her coat.
“Hey, Carter.” She looks up. “How was your weekend?”
He figures that if he’s nice to Carter in public, drops the act that’s been an act for the last couple of months, Daniel might notice he's changed, or something.
“Good,” she says, eyes sparkling like she knows exactly what he’s doing. She probably does, and ‘knows exactly what he’s doing’ is a phrase that he’s starting to associate with her a lot. “I spent it with a friend.”
“Ah, that sounds like code for a dashingly handsome gentleman.”
“Not quite,” she says. “He was terribly annoying, I must say.”
Jack freezes. Carter smirks. He turns, slowly, to face Daniel. “Yes?”
“What the hell is this?” he asks, holding up his cup.
“Coffee,” Jack says. Tries to make his voice light, more teasing than mocking. “I’ve seen you drink it before, you know what it is.”
He’d probably meant the whole trying to be nice situation, but it’s easier to deal with the coffee. Jack looks back to Carter.
“If the guy’s so annoying, you should probably drop him to go out with me.”
Carter laughs, and he’s so proud that for a moment he almost misses Daniel standing.
“I don’t want your coffee,” he says, low, and then stalks out of the room.
Jack watches, a little lost, and very slowly sinks down in his chair.
He sinks lower.
“Word of advice.” She bends low, whispering. “Maybe don’t flirt with me, if you’re trying to win over Daniel.” She pats his head and walks away.
He bangs his head on the back of his chair. Lightly.
Carter invites him and Angie to Stark’s house after work on Friday. Jack initially tries to decline, but seeing as his only plans are to sit in his apartment and read or get drunk, he lets Carter convince him.
The whole place is excessively lavish. An English butler, Jarvis, leads him to the living room. The entire walk down the hallway is like walking through a museum, with paintings on the walls and expensive looking furniture in every room. How many couches does one man need?
When they enter, everyone is already there. Angie is sitting in front of the roaring fireplace, Carter in the soft-looking chair behind her. Stark is in the middle of regaling them with a story, and Jack’s hand instinctively reaches towards where his holster would be.
Carter catches the movement and gives him a look. Jack lowers his hand, but the baked-in suspicion he has of Stark is hard to drop.
“Jack!” Angie squeals, using Carter’s knee to push herself to her feet and then rush over to envelop Jack in a hug. “We thoughtcha weren’t gonna show!”
He pats her on the back. “No other plans.”
“We’re touched, really,” Carter says, but there’s a smile playing around her lips.
Angie plops into the chair next to her, leaving only a seat next to where Stark is standing. Jack sighs, resigned, and sits. Stark looks down at him.
“I’m just curious,” Stark says, much too loudly. “I’ve never met you without the threat of arrest hanging over my head. It’s nice to meet you under these circumstances.”
Jack takes the proffered hand after only a momentary hesitation. “You too, Stark.”
It diffuses the tension Jack wasn’t even aware of. Stark pops open a bottle of wine, Angie adds more logs to the fire, and Jarvis brings out a plate of…something. Jack doesn’t question it, because they’re good and he doesn’t want to know.
The night passes easily. Stark and Angie keep the conversation going, mostly, but he and Carter join in occasionally. They talk about politics, technology, the drama at the Automat. Jack is feeling pleasantly warm and buzzed when Angie leans over and gives Carter a kiss right on the lips.
Jack freezes. Maybe when Angie’s drunk, she kisses whoever’s near her? She’s definitely had a couple more glasses of wine than Jack himself.
But Carter is definitely not drunk, and she looks at Angie so softly before giving her another kiss and suddenly Jack knows.
Carter looks over to him as if sensing his shock. She taps Angie on the knee. Stark has gone very still beside him.
He clears his throat. “You two, are, uh…”
“Together,” Carter says firmly. “We have been for some time.”
Jack lets that sink in. Processes.
“Alright,” he says, and then grabs another mystery hors d’oeuvre.
“What?” Stark yells. Jack immediately tenses, prepared to defend Carter and Angie from whatever the asshole has to say, but Stark is looking at him.
“Well, I thought you were going to be an ass about it,” Stark says, narrowing his eyes.
Jack shakes his head, takes a sip of wine to wash down...duck, maybe? “No.”
Stark throws up his hands. “Unbelievable,” he mutters, and then passes a five-dollar bill to
Angie, who looks immensely pleased.
“Wait a second.” He squints at Angie. “Were you placing bets on me?”
Angie nods, swaying into Carter. “Oh yeah. Stark bet that you’d be upset about it, but me, I knew you’d be ok.”
Jack looks over to Carter, at a loss.
“We trust you, Jack,” she says, twining her fingers with Angie’s.
Something is rising in his chest; not quite painful but aching, and for a moment he can’t breathe. He gave Carter hell for so long, and here she is, trusting him with a secret so momentous that it makes his head spin.
“You’re all saps,” Stark declares. “Want to hear about the time I convinced half of the Rockettes to take a road trip with me?”
Carter rolls her eyes.
They go to the Automat the next morning, because they had forced Jack to sleep off the wine on Stark’s thickly-carpeted floor. He only spares a second to think of how strange it is that he’s been spending so much time out of work with Carter. The thought is discarded almost immediately, because she is better company than he’s had in a long time, now that they’re something like friends. They take their regular booth in the back of the Automat, and god, they have a regular booth?
It’s just a week until Christmas, and the whole place is covered in decorations. Jack almost can’t tell if it’s Angie under the huge Christmas sweater she’s wearing.
She bounces over and puts two cups of coffee in front of them. “Try this, I put a little somethin’ special in it!”
Jack eyes the coffee. Angie looks too bouncy to be entirely free from his suspicion that she’s on something, especially considering the amount she drank the night before.
Carter, of course, picks hers up and takes a sip. Her eyes widen, which he’s learned is about her equivalent of fainting with joy.
“Angie, this is delicious,” she says, taking another sip. Angie beams at her. Now that he knows, Jack isn’t sure how he missed it, the two of them.
He hesitantly raises his own. It looks like plain coffee, maybe a little darker, but you can never be sure. He pushes down the thought and drinks. He almost drops the cup. Angie must’ve added peppermint to it somehow, he thinks, and chocolate? He takes another sip. It’s comforting, warm.
“You like it?” Angie asks, twisting her fingers together. “I can getcha another if you don’t, I was just trying out some new stuff.”
“It’s good. It tastes like Christmas.” He looks into his cup, half-empty. “Can I get another?”
Angie’s smile is fit to crack her face, and she’s spinning away before he can say thank you.
Carter takes a more sedate sip. “I think we’ve made Angie’s day.”
He laughs, leaning back into the booth and rubbing his neck. “Well, it was true.”
Carter smiles, and he’s taken aback by how sweet she looks. Feels a stab of guilt, for ever making her frown.
Angie flies back, plunking another cup in front of Jack and pointing at the door.
“Look who’s here!” she squeals, shoving at Jack’s shoulder.
And there, staring at the three of them, is Daniel Sousa.
He’s wearing a sweater, Jack notes over the clouding panic that’s starting to come over him. It’s a nice sweater, deep blue with white. He never wears sweaters. He tries to focus on that.
“Daniel,” Carter says. Her voice isn’t loud but it carries across the room.
Daniel makes his way over and stands for an awkward second at the edge of the table.
“Peggy, Angie, Thompson.” He wavers, obviously unsure. “I don’t want to interrupt...”
“You aren’t interrupting anything,” Carter assures. “Won’t you sit with us?”
There is a moment where Jack can see him weighing whether it would be worse to sit next to or across from him, before Daniel sighs and sits down beside him. His leg brushes Jack’s as he sits, and it makes him jump.
“So, Thompson.” Daniel’s leg brushes his again, as he shifts. “Why are you here?”
Carter is staring him down. Angie is almost vibrating out of her skin. He sighs.
“Angie makes good coffee?”
For a moment Daniel just looks at him, like he’s trying to piece together a complete puzzle from a bunch of different boxes. Then he sits back, gives his attention to Carter, and promptly ignores Jack.
It’s the best morning Jack’s had in a long time.
The Monday after the Automat Adventure, as Angie had called it when he had stopped in for a coffee, Daniel puts a cup of coffee on his desk. Jack looks up.
“Don’t make it a thing,” Daniel snaps, hobbling over to his desk.
Carter raises a knowing eyebrow.
On Wednesday evening, when almost everyone has gone home, Daniel sits on the edge of Jack’s desk.
Jack tries not to let his nervousness show on his face, but his palms are sweating and he thinks that maybe Daniel will be able to hear how his heartbeat has picked up. He flashes back to September, to Sousa sitting on the end of Smitz’s desk. Same rhythm in his heart, different cause.
“What are you doing for the holidays?” Daniel asks, polite enough for all that it sounds like it’s coming through gritted teeth.
Jack tries to control his racing heart. “Nothing, really. Staying home.”
Daniel looks like he’s fighting a wave of nausea. “Well, Carter invited us to come for Christmas at Stark’s place, if you don’t have any plans.”
Jack leans around Daniel to look at her. She’s very innocently doing paperwork, like she hasn’t masterminded this entire plot.
He looks back at Daniel. “Sure. I’ll be there.”
“Great.” Daniel pushes himself off his desk and looks down at him. “You need the address?”
Jack says no before he realizes that he probably shouldn’t admit to having been over there already.
“I’ll just ask Carter,” he corrects, trying to act casual.
Daniel gives him one last suspicious look before shrugging on his jacket and heading out the door.
Jack lets out a deep breath. Carter clicks over to him.
“Christmas Eve, seven o’clock sharp,” she says. “Bring a nice bottle of wine.”
Then she’s tightening her scarf and following after Daniel.
A nice bottle of wine, he thinks. He can do that.
On Friday night, he stops halfway down Stark’s driveway, the bottle of wine in hand. Up ahead, he can see warm lights coming from the house, Daniel’s clunky car in the driveway. His hands are so sweaty that he thinks he might drop the wine he’s carrying, even though it’s freezing out.
Why had he thought this was a good idea? Four months of half-hearted friendliness and lessened arguing would not have changed Daniel’s mind about him as a person, let alone a partner. He’s glad that he got to know Carter better, he really is, but he is suddenly struck by the thought that even if Daniel eventually comes to consider him a friend, he’ll never be able to trust Jack for more than that. He’s been a bully, poked fun at something that only proved Daniel’s willingness to sacrifice. He’d mocked him for it. The fact that Daniel is willing to spend Christmas Eve with him is baffling. He’d probably done it for Carter, Jack thinks, and the thought makes him feel a little sick. He should leave and let them have a nice night without him.
He almost makes it back to the street, trying to think of some way to call a cab, when he hears the front door open.
“Thompson!” Daniel calls. He hears the door click shut again, and then the sound of Daniel’s crutch on the stone walk.
He looks back. Daniel is limping towards him, brows pulled together. He can see Angie’s head through the front window, peering out at them, before the curtains are pulled shut.
Daniel stops a few feet from him, on the edge of the paved driveway. “You leaving before you even come inside?”
Jack lets out a shaky breath, tries to sound casual. “Yeah, I, you know…”
“No, I don’t know,” Daniel snaps. “You promised Carter you’d be here, and Angie. I know you don’t like me all that much, but I swear if you make Angie upset just so you don’t have to see me I’ll-”
Jack holds up his free hand. “Wait, what?”
Daniel frowns deeper. “What do you mean, what? Angie is a good friend, and I-”
“No, not that. I meant I’m not leaving so I don’t have to see you.” Well, actually, he is, but not for the reason Daniel thinks.
“So why are you leaving?” Daniel asks, a challenge in his voice.
Jack considers saying something rude. It would be easy, so easy, and then Daniel would stop looking at him like that, like he did that day at the Automat. Like Jack is a puzzle he can’t solve. It makes Jack’s skin itch. He knows that one insult and Daniel will be huffing and limping back into the house, and he knows that this time will be the last time, his last chance. There is a sort of vulnerability in the air between them, and crushing it would be the end of any functional relationship. It would be easy to go back to having Daniel hate him. He wouldn’t have to deal with any of this: the feelings, the uncertainty. The words are on the tip of his tongue.
But then Angie’s head pops up again, through the curtains, and Carter appears just above her. He flashes back to Saturday afternoons in small diners, breakfasts at the Automat, sipping wine in Stark’s eighth living room. And suddenly, not losing those things becomes the most important thing. Having them with Daniel, in whatever capacity, becomes the most important thing.
“I’m not,” he says. “I’m not leaving.”
Christmas passes, and then the New Year. Jack spends New Year’s Eve alone like he always does, but Angie drags him out to go shopping with her on New Year’s Day. She tells him that Peggy and Daniel are sleeping off the champagne they drank the night before, and when he asks her why she isn’t doing the same she snorts.
At the office, things are different. Not awkward, Jack doesn’t think, but different. Daniel doesn’t bring up Christmas Eve, how they’d spent almost four hours in each other’s company without a major conflict. Jack doesn’t bring up anything, really, actually makes it a point not to say anything beyond casual greetings and what he hopes are friendly jokes. He won’t force this. He’ll try to make up for as much of his shit as he can before trying to be friends. He’s not the type of person who’s nice for the sake of it, and he can’t change that, but he is going to be better at being nice to Daniel. He leaves cups of coffee on Daniel’s desk when he’s sure he won’t be caught, and he ignores how Angie squeals when Carter informs her of that fact. Things are calm.
A snowstorm rolls in during the second week of January, coating New York in almost two feet of snow. Jack doesn’t have a car, always walks the thirty or so blocks back to his apartment, so he’s getting ready to head out into the snow when someone coughs behind him. He turns around.
Daniel has one arm in his jacket, a scarf tied loosely around his neck. He’s frowning at Jack, but Jack hasn’t said a word to him beyond hello all day, so he can’t think of anything that he’s done. Before he can ask, Daniel speaks.
“Do you want a ride?”
At the edge of his vision, he sees Carter’s head shoot up, but all of his focus is on Daniel.
“I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way for me,” he starts, but Daniel rolls his eyes like he thinks Jack was being sarcastic.
“Fine, get frostbite, see if I care.” Daniel shoves his other arm into his coat, grabs his crutch, and starts marching towards the door.
Jack looks desperately towards Carter, who points to Daniel’s back.
“Wait,” Jack says, and Daniel does. “That would be great. If you’re still offering.”
Daniel grunts and walks on. Was that an invitation? Carter is making a shooing motion at him, so he assumes it was. He buttons up his coat as he follows Daniel out of the building, tightens his scarf as they make their way to the street. Daniel’s car is parked a few down.
For a moment, Jack thinks about what would happen if he went around to open Daniel’s door, and has to fight back a smile. Not only would he be walking the thirty blocks, but he’d also be doing it with a broken nose.
He gets into the passenger seat, and Daniel lays his crutch in the back before starting the car.
“Which way?” he says, not looking at Jack.
“Same way we’re facing, down about twenty blocks and then left, I’ll point it out to you. Then about ten more and we’re there.”
“You don’t know the names of the streets?”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Maybe I just like telling you what to do.”
He freezes as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He’s been so good at keeping comments to himself and he thinks he’s ruined this, but Daniel just snorts and pulls out onto the street. Maybe, Jack thinks, it’s the tone of the jokes that make the difference. Daniel’s got a quick sense of humor; being completely serious would have about the same effect on their relationship as insults.
The ride is quiet. He’s a good driver, Jack thinks absently; cautious but quick, even with his leg. There aren’t too many people braving the snowy streets at this time of night, so they make good time. Jack points out the turn, and then when they reach his apartment building, but other than that they don’t speak.
He gets out, feet crunching in the snow on the sidewalk, but doesn’t close the door. There’s an idea brewing.
Daniel is glaring at him from his seat. “You gonna go home or what? Close the door.”
“You want to come up for a coffee?” Jack blurts.
Daniel looks surprised, just for a flash, and then suspicious, but both fade into confusion. “Coffee?”
“Coffee,” he says, repeating his words from months ago. “I’ve seen you drink it before, you know what it is.”
Daniel obviously remembers, too, because he rolls his eyes. “You got sugar up there in that bachelor pad?”
“No,” Jack says before he can stop himself. “I like my coffee as bitter as you in the morning.”
He’s again worried that Daniel will take offense, but the jab seems to make him more comfortable. He sighs. “Fine.”
Then he’s grabbing his crutch and getting out of the car, and shit, Jack hadn’t really planned any further than asking him. He hadn’t considered that the answer might be yes. He prays that he still has coffee; he’s been getting it at the Automat for a while.
He leads Daniel through the lobby and to the elevator, where an attendant opens the door and greets Jack. They exchange pleasantries while Daniel looks on, confused, like he thought Jack was an ass to everyone. It makes sense.
He’s on the third floor. He thanks the attendant and gets off, not looking back to see if Daniel is following. He’ll be casual about this, dammit. Coworkers, at best, drinking a cup of coffee together. In his apartment. At night. Shit.
When Jack unlocks the door Daniel is right behind him. He looks around Jack’s apartment with interest when he steps inside. Jack is getting the itch again, conscious of what his place says about him. Small, spartan, except for the rainbow quilt knitted by Gamgam on the couch. The one picture he has: a tiny, circular framed portrait of his sister at her wedding. The dust over most of his kitchen. The booze he’d left out on the counter, half-empty; the completely empty bottles in the trash. The piles and piles of books in his bedroom, visible through the half-open door.
Daniel takes it all in and Jack fights the urge to move things, to tidy up. He’s good at masking what he feels at work when he can control his environment. It’s different here. There is evidence of all the things he does when he’s not wearing a mask.
To settle the discomfort, he sets water to boil and then digs through his cabinets. “Make yourself at home,” he calls over his shoulder, and hears the creak of the couch as Daniel sits down.
He makes a pleased sound when he finds that he does have coffee left, just enough.
“What?” Daniel asks.
Jack opens the door to the refrigerator. “I wasn’t sure if I had any coffee left.” No milk. Damn.
He looks up and sees Daniel narrowing his eyes. “You invited me up for coffee when you weren’t sure you had any?”
“Well,” Jack says, feeling like he’s missed something, “I’ve been going to the Automat.”
“Right,” Daniel says. Jack can’t identify his tone. “About that.”
Jack looked down at the water, hoping it’ll be boiling so he can avoid whatever Daniel is about to say.
“What are you playing at?”
Not what he was expecting. “Drinking coffee,” he snaps.
“Not what I meant,” Daniel snaps right back. “Why are you all of a sudden Mr. Nice Guy? Hanging out with Angie and Peggy, not constantly being an ass, making me coffee?” Jack’s mind immediately goes to all of the coffees he’s been leaving on Daniel’s desk, but Daniel is looking at the bag of coffee on his counter.
“Maybe I’ve changed,” he says. It comes out snider than he’d been aiming for. “Seen the error of my ways, was visited by the ghost of Christmas past-”
“Shut up.” Daniel struggles to his feet. “I want an answer.”
“I gave you one.”
“Then I want a real answer.”
Jack flashes back to Christmas Eve, recognizing that make-or-break moment, and thinks this is another one. Daniel’s face is like stone but the hand not on his crutch is shaking. Whether it’s anger or something else, Jack can’t tell.
“I was tired of myself,” he says. Because that’s the real answer, past all the bullshit. Jack Thompson was tired. And he’s letting himself rest.
“We were tired of you, too,” Daniel says sharply.
Jack nods, turns back to the stove. Takes the pot off, measures out the coffee. He hears the couch creak as Daniel sits back down, and lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He pours the coffee into the two mugs that he owns. Sugar for Daniel, black for him. He brings them over to the couch and hands Daniel his, then sits down on the opposite end.
Daniel takes a sip, then another, and his eyes fly up to Jack. There’s the puzzled look again, so Jack focuses on the water stain on his ceiling. He’ll have to talk to his upstairs neighbors again.
“Thanks,” Daniel says, after they’ve both finished and have been sitting in silence too long to be comfortable. Jack nods. He’s not sure they’re talking about the coffee.
January rolls into February, and Daniel starts returning Jack’s hello in the mornings. Whenever the temperature dips below freezing or the snow is deeper than a foot, Daniel offers him a ride home. Sometimes he comes up for coffee, sometimes not. Carter and Angie take much more joy in this than him.
“He’s warmin’ up to ya!” Angie says through giggles, well on her way to drunk.
“Thank God it only took six months,” Peggy says, each word carefully enunciated.
They’re all sitting on the floor in a different Stark living room than before, and Jack vaguely wonders if all the rooms in the house are living rooms. They’ve been sampling Stark’s liquor collection, which Carter had assured him would make Stark mad. He’d been all in.
“Well, now it’s only a matter of time before you two are falling in love,” Angie says, sighing dramatically and leaning into Carter, who presses a kiss to her forehead.
“Nah,” Jack says. He leans back against the couch he’s sitting in front of, warm and comfortable. “I’d be happy if we were friends, Angie.”
“Of course you would,” Carter says with a snort. Something about the combination of Angie and aged bourbon relaxes her, he thinks. “But Angie and I won’t be satisfied until you two are in love and growing old together.”
Angie giggles against her, and Jack tries to glare, he really does.
The doorbell rings.
Angie and Carter share a quick look. “Jack,” Carter says, waving a hand, “would you get that?”
He narrows his eyes at the two of them, trying to figure out what they’re planning, but Carter is a spy and Angie is always a giggly drunk, so he gives up.
“Fine,” he says, using the couch to push himself up, tilting dangerously before he balances.
“But I know you two are up to something, and I’ll figure it out.”
“I’m confident you will,” Carter says, fanning herself with the hand that isn’t holding her drink.
Angie muffles her laugh.
The walk to the front door is hazardous, and he almost runs into the antiques that line the hallway. He wonders where Jarvis is, right before he opens the door.
Daniel looks back at him, blinking. Shit.
They had been alright here at Stark’s on Christmas, and they’ve been alright at Jack’s, but this situation is more nebulous. Angie and Peggy are here, Jack is drunk, Daniel is dressed down; it’s unfamiliar territory for them. There’s no holiday to hide behind, no privacy if things go wrong. Jack doesn’t like being on ice when he doesn’t know its strength.
“Hello,” Jack says, and he thinks it comes out relatively steady. He’s had a lot of practice.
“Hey,” Daniel says. They stand there until Jack remembers why he’d opened the door in the first place.
“You want to come in?”
Daniel mumbles something he doesn’t catch but follows him into the house. Jack stumbles walking back, and Daniel grabs his elbow to steady him.
Carter and Angie look up when they enter, and Jack gets it. This was a setup. Very well executed, he has to admit. He would expect nothing less.
“Hello, Daniel,” Carter says.
“I see you guys started without me,” he says, releasing his grip on Jack’s arm.
“You can catch up,” Angie says, pouring him a drink.
Jack sits back down where he had been, and Daniel sits beside him. Angie sloshes some of the liquor on the floor as she laughs.
Jack doesn’t refill his glass, just watches as the three of them talk and laugh. There’s no fire tonight, but the one lamp they have on gives the whole room a soft glow. Over the course of three drinks, Daniel ends up almost touching his side. Daniel even laughs at him a few times, almost free of bitterness. It’s all going well, until it isn’t.
Carter says something that’s so dryly hilarious that apparently Angie just has to kiss her. Since he, Carter, and Angie do this almost every week, it doesn’t surprise him. He thinks the two of them are cute.
Daniel goes stock still next to him, and then he’s slamming down his drink and shoving Jack’s shoulder.
“Angie,” he hisses. “What are you doing?”
Even through the haze of well-aged alcohol, Jack feels indignant anger clawing up his throat. How dare he, when Carter and Angie invited him, when they’re so happy together? How dare he when Jack had been sure that he had been interested in Smitz, all those months ago? He knows Daniel is better than this. Somewhere, deep down, he’s disappointed for himself. No shot after all.
He goes to say most of that, but Carter cuts him off, looking less angry than he’d like.
“Daniel, it’s fine.” She runs her hand over Angie’s hair. “Jack knows.”
He turns to Daniel and sees that, oh, the anger was directed at him. Daniel had expected him to be a dick about this, the same as Stark. The same as Daniel would have six months ago, when he would have been right.
Hurt blooms suddenly in place of his anger, sharp and bright. “Fucking hell,” he mutters, pushing his drink and Daniel’s hand away. He staggers to his feet. “I’m always the fucking worst, huh? Is that it?”
“Jack, wait,” Angie says, but he can only see Daniel and the lingering suspicion in his eyes.
“No, you know what, screw this.” He blames the heat rushing to his face and eyes on the bourbon when he looks at Daniel. “Screw you.”
And then he’s tottering out of the living room. It’s much less dramatic than he’d like, but he hopes it gets the message across. He hears Carter saying something in a low voice, finally upset, and footsteps following behind him.
Someone grabs his arm, and he spins around to yell at Daniel but it’s Angie.
“Jack,” she whispers. “He just wanted to protect us. That’s all.”
The hurt stabs him right in the chest again, and he blinks a few times. “Well, he should know he shouldn’t have to. I’ve been nothing but nice to him for months, I spend time with the two of you all the time, I leave him coffee every goddamn day. He should like me!” He stops, pushes a hand through his already messy hair. He should have known, should have expected this. It shouldn’t be a surprise.
“He should like me,” he says again, quieter. Thin ice, then. Cracking too fast.
“Please stay, Jack,” Angie says. “Let us explain it to him.”
He wrenches his arm out of her grip and stumbles out the door.
The weekend passes in a blur of drunkenness. When he drinks through everything he has in his cabinets he walks to the market on the corner to pick up more. The owner gives him a pitying look; hasn’t seen Jack buying booze in a long time, probably.
He calls out sick on Monday, citing a pounding headache and stomach pain, which isn’t a lie. He puts on a record, reads halfway through three books, drinks the booze. He’s considering whether he can get away with calling in sick the next day when someone knocks on his door.
He swings his feet off the couch and stops the record player. It’s probably too late to pretend he’s not home, but he’s going to try.
A minute passes before there are three more knocks. Jack groans, but stands and walks to the door. He looks through the peephole.
Daniel. He isn’t drunk enough for this.
He yanks the door open. “What?”
Daniel looks ready for a fight, but his voice is calm when he says, “Can I come in?”
Daniel sighs. “You called out sick today.”
“Well, I was feeling pretty shitty.”
“Yeah.” Daniel gestures at him. “You look it.”
Jack starts to shut the door, but Daniel puts out a hand to stop him. Jack’s never been good about saying no, to him.
“Sorry,” Daniel mutters. “Can we please do this inside?”
Jack walks back into his apartment but leaves the door open. He flops back onto the couch and picks up his book. He hears Daniel shut the door.
The silence is huge. Jack refuses to start talking first.
“I want to apologize,” Daniel says through gritted teeth. Jack laughs, sharp and ragged.
“No, Angie wants you to apologize.” He flips a page, to make it look like he’s actually reading. The book could be upside down and in Greek, for all that he absorbs.
“Wow, Detective Thompson, what an astute inference.”
Jack pointedly flips another page.
Daniel sighs. “I’m not gonna apologize, then. I thought you were gonna be rude about them, and you’ve never given me a reason to think otherwise.”
Jack’s heart thumps. “I’ve been trying.”
“I haven’t seen it.”
Jack closes the book and peers at him over the back of the couch. “You come over here for coffee like once a week. What do you mean you haven’t seen it?”
Daniel looks away. “I didn’t know what that was. Maybe trying to get Peggy to like you through me.”
Jack is suddenly very, very tired. “I don’t like Peggy.” At Daniel’s look, he adds, “Not in any romantic way. She and Angie are very happy.”
“When did they tell you?”
Jack blows out a deep breath. “‘Bout a week or so before Christmas.”
Daniel raises an eyebrow. “And you haven’t told anyone?”
“No,” Jack snaps. “Carter kept my secret, I’ll keep hers.”
Both of Daniel’s eyebrows shoot up, and Jack thinks, oh, shit.
Jack picks up his book again. “Yep.” Calm and casual, he thinks. Shitfuck.
“What’s your secret? I thought you were pretty two-dimensional.”
“That’s the secret,” Jack says, trying to stop his palms from sweating. “I have feelings.”
Daniel snorts, so Jack keeps talking about how hurt he was that no one realized he could be sensitive, using that sarcasm that Daniel likes so much. He hears Daniel pouring himself a drink.
He doesn’t call out sick the next day.
Things shift again, but Jack is getting used to that. He goes along with it when Daniel starts attending all their nights at Stark’s place, even though they still don’t talk much. Daniel shows up at the Automat sometimes, when Jack is there. He always sits next to Jack, and their legs always brush. He goes along with it.
February melts into March. It’s not as cold but Daniel keeps offering him rides home, almost daily, and Jack goes along with it. He gets so good at making coffee that even Angie is impressed. Carter looks at him knowingly. Always knowingly, with that woman.
In April Jack gets shot. Just in the thigh, clean through, he thinks as he falls to the floor. Even though it hurts like a bitch he knows he’ll be fine. Daniel needs more convincing.
He skids to a stop beside Jack, struggling to kneel down. “God, Thompson, shit shit shit.”
Jack presses his hand against the wound, even though it’s pointless because blood will just drip from the other side. Through and through.
Daniel takes off his jacket, covers Jack’s stomach, and then rips off the bottom of his shirt.
“Stay with me, asshole.” He starts tying the strip around Jack’s leg.
“I’m fine,” he says, and Daniel looks at him, pale and wide-eyed.
“Hold on, Thompson, you’ll be fine.” His hands are hovering over Jack’s stomach. “You’ll be fine.”
Jack says yeah, he knows, but it only makes Daniel look more panicked. There’s a cold sensation crawling up his neck, making him feel a little faint. He tries to shift and he feels wetness on his stomach.
Daniel presses him back down into his original position. “Don’t move, Jesus, that’s all we need, all your organs falling out.”
Jack frowns. He doesn’t think there are any organs in his leg, but then everything goes dark.
He wakes up in a hospital bed. His mouth is dry and everything hurts, and he groans as he tries to rub his eyes.
Carter’s face pops into view immediately. “Jack. You’re awake. You’ve been out for a week.”
He groans again, too out of it for words. Shot in the leg, he remembers. He doesn’t think that should make his entire body hurt like this, keep him unconscious for a week, but. At least he didn’t bleed out. Wouldn’t that be rich; dying in Daniel’s arms like some sorta fairy tale.
Carter helps him sip some water and dribbles some down his chin just as Angie walks in. Her face lights up as she rushes over to the bed, hands fluttering around him but never quite touching.
“Jack!” she says, and oh no, those are definitely tears. “You’re okay!”
He’s still aching fiercely, but he summons up enough strength for a smile. “Clean shot,” he rasps. “Through and through, I’ll be fine.”
All three of them turn towards the door. Daniel stands there. He’s got dark circles under his eyes and wrinkled clothes. He looks like shit, Jack thinks. Like he was worried.
“Just my leg,” he defends, coughing a little, because really, do they think this is his first rodeo?
But Carter and Angie are looking back at him, and the lines deepen on Daniel’s forehead.
“You took one in the gut, dumbass,” he says, hobbling over to the bed. “You were spouting nonsense when I was trying to stop the bleeding.”
Oh. That’s why Daniel had looked so panicked. “Tryna’ say I was okay.”
Angie snorts. “Oh, yeah, you look fantastic laying here in the hospital.”
Jack tries to summon up a glare, but his eyes are too heavy for it to work.
“The doctor says you will make a full recovery,” Carter says, setting the cup of water down. “Not without rest, however, so we’ll leave you be.”
Angie starts to protest but Carter is saying something with her eyes, and a second later Angie is smiling like Jack isn’t miserable two feet from her.
“Oh, yeah,” she says, and now she looks sneaky. “Daniel, would you make sure Jack gets some rest?”
Daniel is obviously picking up on the fact that there is something not being said, but he just sighs and nods.
“Wonderful,” Carter says, and the two of them are gone faster than Jack can beg them to stay. Daniel takes a seat in the chair next to his bed and leans back, eyes closed.
“So,” Jack says. He can feel the words running together. “How’ve ya been?”
Daniel laughs, and his shoulders sag. “Terrible. Some schmuck ruined my favorite jacket.”
“Red is fashionable.”
Daniel glares without any heat. “Too soon, asshole.”
“I’m...one who got shot,” Jack laughs and immediately winces at the pain. Daniel is leaning over, then, suddenly very close.
“Stop moving around,” he says, laying a hand on Jack’s shoulder. It’s warm through the hospital gown, and something about it makes Jack’s eyes feel even heavier. The usual flare of nerves that accompanies Daniel touching him has settled into a heavy weight, right between his ribs. Warm as Daniel’s hand. Maybe it’s the gut wound.
“Thanks,” he says, and closes his eyes. “Taking care of me.”
He feels Daniel’s hand slacken for a moment and then give his shoulder a squeeze. “You’re welcome.”
He’s completely out of it, but he swears he feels a hand brush against his forehead.
Months pass. Recovery is rough, and guilt swirls angrily in his gut when he thinks about Daniel trying to recover years ago, thinks about people mocking him. People who look like him. When he’s allowed back he sits in the office most of the time, relegated to desk duty. He feels useless, most of the time, and regret coils in his lungs when he thinks about how Peggy was trapped in his position for such a long time. He pays his dues now. He’ll make it up to them.
Daniel helps. He stops by Jack’s apartment a couple of times a week after work for the months he’s at home, and gives him rides every day once he’s back. He does little things: moves chairs in the office that might be in the way, casually opens doors, looks away when Jack has to take a moment to breathe. He lets Jack know the best way to get up the stairs, how to walk through crowds. He takes all the coffee Jack offers him, and he doesn’t mention it. They do talk about everything else, though, and Jack is pleased to know that Daniel is just as funny as he’d imagined.
He’s cleared for fieldwork in August, and the first assignment he gets is undercover with Peggy. Some high society thing, black tie and invitation only. He and Peggy are going as a couple, and Jack winks at her when they hear. She rolls her eyes, but he thinks maybe it’s fond.
After the briefing, he drags his chair over to her desk and plops down. He wants to put his feet up but that still makes his leg and stomach throb, so he settles for slouching.
“You and me, Carter,” he says, with a charming smile. “Husband and wife, who woulda thought?”
“Not a single intelligent soul,” she responds primly, which makes his smile stretch into something real. Her gaze slides over Jack’s shoulder. “Well, maybe one.”
Jack frowns and turns. Daniel is just looking away, a frown etched into his brow.
“Daniel?” he says. “Daniel knows we’re not…”
“No, he knows that I’m not.” Peggy purses her lips. “You’ve come a long way, both of you, but I simply don’t think anything else will come of it if he is not entirely sure that you’re…”
“Not in love with you?” Jack suggests.
He sighs and rubs his eyes. “Maybe this is all Sousa and I should be.”
“I thought we’d dragged you out of this spiral.”
“No, I know, but…”
Peggy lays a hand on his. “You’ll figure it out.”
She pulls her hand back and gives him a look, and all he can do is laugh.
The mission goes off without a hitch, which is so out of the ordinary that he’s worried out of habit. They manage to get a picture of their target and sneak out the back door before the fifth song is over, and Jack finds their car in the valet parking. He has the camera tucked securely under his arm, and he lets Peggy drive, because… well, he’s kinda afraid to stop her from doing anything, really, even driving the getaway car.
When they get back to the SSR, he hands the camera off to the tech team and stretches his legs with only a slight wince. Peggy is in a big maroon number, all swishing skirts and flowy sleeves. She’s beautiful and he tells her so.
“Thank you, Jack,” she says, examining her fingernails. “I might wear it home.”
He smiles and is about to tell Peggy exactly how much he thinks Angie will like it when there’s a cough behind him.
It’s Daniel, because it always is, and he’s looking everywhere except Jack’s face. “You need a ride, Thompson?’
That throws him for a loop. Daniel had stopped offering him rides a month ago, when Jack insisted that he could walk alright. His leg aches all night, but it’s better than the thick silence of Daniel’s car.
“Of course he does,” Peggy says, and honestly, where would he be without her? “It’s much too hot to walk, and he’s still recovering.”
“Alright, then, let’s go.”
“Do I get a say in this?” Jack asks, just to feel like he has some control here.
Daniel ignores him, and Peggy smirks. Just another day.
The air outside has cooled a little since the party, but his tux still feels like it’s choking him. He takes off the bowtie and undoes the top button, just to breathe better, and catches Daniel looking.
“It’s hot,” he defends, because Daniel got to stay in his comfortable suit while Jack had to wear a scratchy tux and didn’t even get any appetizers.
Daniel mutters something under his breath, but Jack doesn’t catch it.
It’s strange to be back in this situation, even though it’s only been a month. It feels like a different time. Daniel still drives smoothly, and he remembers the turns before Jack has to remind him.
Daniel parks in the same spot he always used to, and Jack hesitates (like he always used to) before shutting the door.
“You want to come up for a coffee?”
Daniel raises his eyebrows. “It’s eighty degrees out.”
Jack shrugs and starts to shut the door, but then Daniel is reaching back to grab his crutch from the backseat and Jack’s heart is hammering so hard it’s a wonder Daniel can’t hear it.
Deja vu, he thinks, leading Daniel through the lobby and onto the elevator. He says hello to the new elevator operator. I’ve lived this a thousand times.
Daniel follows him down the hallway like it’s March again, like the rain is coming down in cold sheets outside. Jack knows the drill. He unlocks the door, leaves it open for Daniel, doesn’t look as Daniel sits down on the couch.
The lights in his kitchen are harsh. He shrugs off his suit jacket and tries to ignore how exposed it makes him feel. Like he’s under a microscope, Daniel seeing all the little pieces of him.
He opens the cabinet where the coffee is and stops.
He hears Daniel shifting, hears the creak of the couch. “What?”
He scrubs a hand through his hair. “I’m out of coffee.”
Daniel doesn’t say anything for a long moment. Jack stares at the counter. This has never happened before; it’s been a month, he should’ve known, but he didn’t think, and now Daniel’s going to leave and he’s gonna have to sit alone on his shitty couch and drink until he can sleep and-
Daniel’s crutch clicks against the floor, stops right behind him. He swallows and turns. They’re close, much closer than they’ve ever been here, and Daniel is looking at him. His eyes are dark even under the lights. His hand is white-knuckled around his crutch.
“I’m sorry, really, I swore I had some, I wasn’t trying to waste your time-”
Daniel steps forward and kisses him.
Jack is too shocked to move, to process anything further than oh. Daniel is warm, and he smells like the paper they use at the office, and he’s kissing him. He can’t move, can’t think, because this is Daniel, he’s been mooning over the guy for years, and now Daniel is kissing him, very soft.
Daniel pulls back. He’s looking down and away from Jack, avoiding his eyes, saying sorry, and that isn’t what he wants so even though he has no clue what’s going on he puts a hand behind Daniel’s head and pulls him back in.
Daniel’s crutch skids on the floor but he doesn’t let go of Jack, just wraps his hand tight around Jack’s collar and opens his mouth a little. Jack steps forward into his space so that their chests are touching. He doesn’t know where to put his hands, so he settles for the sides of Daniel’s arms.
Daniel is the one to pull back again, breathing heavily. “Are you...I mean, are you sure…”
“Sousa, c’mon,” he says, because Daniel cannot have misunderstood that.
But Daniel’s eyes harden and he’s moving in again, this kiss more demanding, and he’s pushing Jack back, towards his bedroom, and Jack’s stomach swoops.
They make it to the door somehow, Jack taking steps back in time with Daniel’s crutch. A buzzing is building in his chest and spreading down to his fingers. He’s moved his hands to Daniel’s hips and he can feel him walking. He can touch, and that thought is so dizzying it takes him a second to open the door behind him.
The books scattered around his room are a minefield. He feels as carefully as he can with the backs of his feet, tries to make it as easy as possible for Daniel. His knees hit the back of his bed, and he lets himself be pushed to sitting.
Daniel looks down at him for a long moment and then slides careful fingers through Jack’s hair. Jack closes his eyes, lets Daniel brush the strands off his forehead. Jack has a window cracked in here all through the summer but it’s still hot, and he tries to blame the heat in his face on the weather. He doesn’t quite manage to convince himself, but then Daniel is shoving at his shoulder and pushing him back again. His back hits the sheets with a quiet thump, and Daniel struggles a little in getting onto the bed. Jack reaches a hand out to help but Daniel shoves it away.
“I got it,” he says, tight, so Jack lets him be. He’s not sure what he’s allowed to do, here, thinks that maybe they should’ve talked about it, but then Daniel is leaning over him again.
It feels like his first time on a roller coaster, way back when. His nerves don’t go away so much as sharpen, letting him feel everything more clearly. He’s aware of every touch, every breath, and he lets himself get lost in it. Usually when he sleeps with someone he tries to keep his wits about him, always on alert, but this is Daniel. He’s seen Jack at his worst, and this is his best; he promises himself it will be, so he lets go. He can tell Daniel likes it when he gasps so he lets himself, and he kisses the sensitive spot behind Daniel’s ear. It turns from fast and passionate to slow and sweet. Daniel looks confused when Jack first presses a gentle kiss against his chest, but his eyes flutter shut so Jack does it again. He’s conscious of Daniel’s leg, makes sure to subtly take more weight than he normally would; Daniel is conscious of his injuries too, brushes feather-light over the scars on Jack’s stomach and thigh. It feels like days, long summer days, sweat and heat and the background noise of New York City at night. Fireworks burst behind his eyelids when he arches, whispers ‘Daniel’ real quiet into the air. Daniel is silent when he comes, buries his face into Jack’s shoulder, and Jack runs a hand through his hair. He thinks about how when he’d gotten off that roller coaster he had only remembered the sensations, but as he lays back now he thinks he will remember every detail, everything, so long as he lives. It’s a sentimental thought he wouldn’t usually allow, but he feels…
Daniel has his eyes closed next to him, asleep or close to it. He leans over and presses a kiss to his forehead.
He wakes up with a beam of sun over his eyelids. The window is still open but it’s letting in a breeze, the perfect morning weather. He takes a deep breath, letting his mind wander over the night before. He’s happy. How long has it been since that’s happened?
He rolls over to ask Daniel if he wants breakfast. He’s greeted with empty sheets.
He reigns in his disappointment. It would’ve been nice to see Daniel with bedhead, still sleeping peacefully, but he thinks there will be time for that later. He doesn’t hear the shower running so he assumes Daniel must be in the kitchen or the living room. Of course Daniel is a morning person. It just figures.
He stumbles out into the kitchen, halfway through insisting that they go to the Automat for coffee, and stops.
Daniel isn’t anywhere.
It’s harder to reign in the panic, this time. He thinks, desperately, that maybe Daniel had gone out and was going to surprise him with coffee. There’s no note, no anything, but he holds onto that thought.
He holds onto it while he takes a shower, then while he gets dressed. Holds onto it while he grabs a book from his floor and flops down on the couch, facing the door, so he’ll be able to see Daniel when he gets back. Holds on through one chapter, then three.
His grip slips after half an hour, and bile starts creeping up his throat. He throws the book across the living room and sits up. He’d been an idiot, a goddamn idiot, holding out hope when Sousa obviously wasn’t coming back. Last night was nothing to him and Jack had been stupid for thinking otherwise.
Alone, he thinks, tests the weight of it on his tongue.
Alone alone alone.
It really is like deja vu: buying booze from the corner store, the pitying look, the miserable feeling of being drunk in the afternoon with nowhere to go and no one to talk to. This time, though, Sousa doesn’t show up.
He doesn’t call out sick Monday. He’d thought about it, especially with the pounding ache in his skull, but then he thinks, why should he avoid Sousa? If Sousa wants to avoid him then all the power, but he will not hide from this.
He storms into the office like he hasn’t in a long time, a time before Peggy and Angie and Daniel, when Daniel was Sousa and Jack spent every weekend in drunken grief.
People move out of his way, the telephone girls and the guys in the office alike. He had forgotten what that felt like, having people take one look at him and step aside. He thinks it used to make him feel powerful; now it just makes him feel sick. He lets himself have one look at Sousa, just one, as he walks to his desk. Sousa doesn’t see him, too engrossed in whatever he’s working on, and Jack clenches his jaw.
He slams his things down and yanks his chair out. He sees Sousa’s head jerk out of the corner of his eye. He presses his pen into his paper too hard.
Peggy gives him ten minutes before she stops next to his desk, hand on her hip. He tries to ignore her.
“Fine,” he snaps, and immediately regrets it. He sits back to look at her. “Sorry.”
Her eyes flicker over to Daniel; he wonders what she sees. “How was your weekend?”
“Shitty,” he says, honest. “I had a really shitty weekend.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her eyes are still moving between them, but Jack doesn’t let himself look over. “Care to join me for breakfast before the day officially starts?”
He flashes back to Friday night, the empty space in the cabinet where he keeps his coffee and Sousa’s eyes. Alone alone alone.
“Sure,” he says. The office feels stifling. Sousa doesn’t look up when they leave.
They walk their familiar route to the Automat. He has to focus on not bumping into people on the street, on keeping Peggy’s hair in view as she walks quicker than he can keep up, but his head is still pounding. There are beads of sweat on his forehead by the time they make it to the Automat. Peggy doesn’t ask any questions all the way to the booth.
A waitress he vaguely recognizes brings over a pot of coffee. Peggy thanks her and spoons two sugars into Jack’s cup and suddenly he thinks he might cry. Right here in public.
“So,” Peggy starts. “What’s going on?”
He takes a sip, blinks quickly. Not as good as Angie’s. “I slept with Sousa.”
Peggy drops her cup. He springs forward, trying to mop up the mess with napkins, but Peggy just sits back and stares at him.
“Well, don’t go announcing it to the whole place,” he mutters, grabbing more napkins and dabbing at the drops on his shirt.
“When did this happen?” Peggy leans forward. “And why do you look so miserable, then?”
He takes another napkin and starts tearing it into strips. “Friday night, after the gala mission.”
Peggy nods. “I knew he loved your tux.”
Jack looks up.
“Sorry,” Peggy says, not sounding it. “Continue.”
“He drove me home, I didn’t have any coffee, he kissed me, and then…”
“Wait.” Peggy’s eyes are bright. “He kissed you?”
“That’s what I said.” He doesn’t like talking about this in public, even whispering. Angie isn’t here this morning, which means that a total stranger could overhear. “And then we...well. And then he left.”
“Are you gonna repeat everything I say, Marge?”
She purses her lips. “I’m just confused, is all. I was so sure he’d stay.”
Me too, he thinks. Me too.
The waitress comes back with their orders, which gives Jack an excuse to stop talking and dig in. He hadn’t eaten much over the weekend and he finds that he’s starving.
Peggy eats her breakfast more slowly. For a while, the only sounds are the clink of silverware and the hum of the restaurant around them, and Jack finds himself relaxing. This is familiar territory; he knows what is expected of him here, what this relationship means. Peggy has become his rock through all of this, and she is saving him from sinking once again, just by having breakfast.
When she’s finished, she sets her fork down carefully. “So.”
Jack sighs. His coffee has gone lukewarm, but he doesn’t care enough to get it refilled.
Peggy leans forward. “Do you want to know what I think?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I think that Daniel is just as scared as you are.”
Jack blows out a long breath. “Or maybe Friday was all it was. One time, and now we’ll be able to move on.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t think so.” She places a hand over Jack’s. “You simply need to talk to him.”
Jack snorts. “Yeah, ‘cause we’re so good at that.”
“Angie and I danced around each other for a long time, Jack. Both of us were scared to take that leap, to potentially lose something so important.”
“Each other.” She takes his hand fully. “Daniel means as much to you as Angie does to me. If you two are anything like us, and I rather suspect you are, then the only way to solve this is to lay it out completely to him. Exactly how you feel.”
“That what you did?”
“No, that’s what Angie did.” Peggy smiles, all soft and sweet. “And look where we are.”
It’s hard to confess his undying love to someone who’s actively avoiding him. Talking to Daniel at his desk is out of the question; actually, talking to him at work in any location is off-limits. Daniel certainly won’t be going to Stark’s in the near future, considering the panicked look he gets when they’re the only two in the bathroom after lunch. The only real course of action he has is appealing to Daniel’s love of social etiquette and basic decency. He does so that night.
Daniel looks up. Blinks.
“Give me a ride home? My stomach hasn’t been feeling great.”
Jack can actually see the internal struggle Daniel goes through. If he says no, Jack would be forced to walk all the way home in pain. If he says yes, they’ll have to have a conversation, which might actually be more painful.
“Of course he will,” Peggy says. She’s turning a pencil over and over when they both look at her. “What if it’s his bullet wound that’s hurting him?”
God, Jack thinks, watching Daniel’s expression tighten. Peggy Carter is a goddam genius.
“Fine,” Daniel says, avoiding Jack’s eyes. “I just gotta finish this up and then-”
“Jack,” Peggy calls, a tremor in her voice. “Are you sure you’re alright? You look very pale.”
“I’ll take you home,” Daniel mutters, stuffing his papers into his briefcase. “Don’t want you passing out here.”
Jack gives Peggy a nod on their way out. She returns it, solemn, and winks.
The ride is, at best, horrible. Neither of them try to start a conversation, and an accident past the SSR means that they’re stuck sitting together for far longer than they have before. When they finally reach his apartment building, Jack makes no move to step out.
Daniel faces him. “Well?”
“We need to talk.”
“Jesus Christ,” Daniel mutters. “I knew this was a trap, the two of you scheming-”
“I love you.”
Daniel’s mouth snaps shut. Jack thinks that in any other situation it would’ve been very funny.
“I have for a while,” he presses on. He tries to picture Daniel’s face when Jack had kissed him back, that first time. Holds onto that, tries not to lash out. “I thought you should know.”
The silence stretches. His stomach does hurt now, a rolling mess of fear and disappointment and a rising of his old anger, because really, Daniel, it shouldn’t be taking this long.
“You.” Daniel clears his throat. “You love me.”
“I’m not saying it again, you lug.”
Daniel finally turns to him. His eyes flash over Jack’s face, catching on every tiny detail, searching for the lie. “Why?”
Jack blows out a breath. “Listen, I just wanted you to know, I’m not writing you sonnets. I also wanted to apologize, because Friday obviously meant a lot more to me than to you.”
Daniel flinches. “That...I mean, you…”
“I can come back out in the morning if you need some time to finish your sentences.”
Daniel gives him a look. “I just, I’ve never done this before.”
So many jokes, Jack thinks, biting back all of them.
“Listen, Thompson. I used to hate you.” His mouth twists but he he stops, like he’s weighing every word before he says it. “You were an ass to me, to Peggy, to anyone who couldn’t boost you higher up on the totem pole.”
Jack very carefully does not react. It’s true.
“But then you started being…”
“Less of an ass?”
“I really didn’t want to say nice.” Daniel gives him a quick smile. His heart thumps. “You were friends with Peggy and Angie, you didn’t care about, you know, them together. And I thought maybe you weren’t such a bad guy. Being civil with you, it was alright. That first night you had me up for coffee, I…”
Jack needs to hear these words more than anything else in his life. “You what? Promise I won’t laugh.”
Daniel sighs. “Well, at first I thought it was a joke. And then you said you were thankful you had coffee, like you weren’t thinking about it. I thought that maybe you’d invited me up for something else. But you didn’t, so I wrote it off.”
“I wasn’t even letting myself hope then,” Jack says. The words surprise even him.
Daniel glances at him. “How long…”
“Years.” It comes out a little hoarse. “Years.”
Daniel looks at him, really looks. “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t want you to.”
He nods. “I mean, I can’t… when I first met you, I thought maybe. You looked nervous, and I wanted to help. Didn’t go over great.”
Jack winces. “Sorry.”
“Yeah.” Daniel rubs his leg subconsciously. “It seemed like maybe you were someone different, behind all the bluster, but. It didn’t seem worth the effort to figure out for a long time. And then I started to know you and I liked you, I really did. When you got yourself shot, I… I was worried. I was worried I was going to lose you.”
Jack cannot breathe. He’s feeling a little dizzy.
“I can’t say that I love you,” and at whatever expression is on Jack’s face, adds, “yet. But I want to, I think. All of it.”
Jack licks dry lips. “So why did you leave? Friday?”
Daniel looks away. “You called me Sousa. I thought that it wasn’t personal for you, or you were just blowing off steam. That it didn’t matter.”
“Well, I know that now. God,” Daniel laughs, running a hand across his face. “God, if you’d have told this would be happening a year ago, I woulda-”
“I know.” He reaches out to place a hand over Daniel’s. “I know. And it doesn’t make up for anything, but. I’m sorry about before.”
Daniel nods. “Thanks.”
It’s a far cry from complete forgiveness, if that’s even possible, but it’s a start. And, Jack thinks, Daniel had said that he could love him. That he wants to love him, to know him. It’s more than he’d hoped for, and certainly enough of a promise to make him grip Daniel’s hand tighter. They have time. They have time to fall in love.
“So,” he says, laying the charm on thick to make Daniel smile. “You wanna come up for a coffee?”
The next week they show up at Stark’s hand in hand.
Angie squeals. Peggy gives both of them a knowing smile.
“Great,” Howard mutters from where he’s slumped against the couch. “Now I’m outnumbered.”