hwc: Red sneakers (red sneakers)
[personal profile] hwc


~~~

“That's yesterday's news, you know.”

Jessica looked up from her newspaper, a small smile already playing around the corners of her mouth at the familiar voice. Clay grinned back at her, eyes hidden behind dark lenses as he shrugged off his coat.

“Sunglasses? That's bold,” she teased, crinkling her nose as a few stray water drops hit her.

Clay chuckled before affecting a vacant look. “I'm going for inconspicuous,” he told her blandly, doing a fair impression of an FBI agent. It didn't hold for long, a smile breaking through the facade like the sun through the clouds after a summer storm.

They shared a short, comfortable moment of silence as Clay settled in and waved the waitress over. The raindrops beat a steady rhythm against the large window to her right.

After ordering a coffee he regarded her quietly, face warm and open. Jessica grew embarrassed under his scrutiny, playing with the edges of her paper as she let him look at her.

“You look wonderful, Jess,” Clay said finally, leaning back in his chair and seemingly satisfied with what he saw.

Jessica blushed. She felt the heat high in her cheeks and at the tips of her ears, squirming slightly in her seat as a pleasant warmth spread through her.

“You're looking pretty sharp, yourself,” she told the paper, sneaking a glance at him through the curtain of her hair.

Clay had always been good-looking, but Jess could admit that the blue of his sweater really brought out his eyes and the white of his teeth. Jessica ran her tongue over her own self-consciously, feeling the grainy coating that spoke of too much coffee and nicotine. His nails were short and clean, his clothes were, if not new, then at least not worn-out, and his beard looked freshly trimmed.

Jessica was painfully aware of how shabby she must look in her old, washed-out sweater and her nails bitten to the quick. At least she showered this morning, she thought as she surreptitiously picked at the cloth at her armpit, hoping her deodorant still held. She bit down on a grimace when her fingers came away slightly moist.

Aw, fuck.

Clay regarded her with a twinkle in his eye, as though he knew exactly what was going through her head and thought she was an idiot. And hell, maybe he did know. Fucking SHIELD, she wouldn't put it past them to have developed some freaky mind-reading device.

His grin widened, as though he'd caught that particular train of thought as well. She glared at him over the rim of her cup, holding it up to her face to hide the renewed blush high in her cheeks. “Right, can we get on with it already?”

“I always want to get it on with you." Clay wraggled his eyebrows.

“That's not what I meant,” Jess muttered into her coffee.

Clay's gaze softened. “I know. But hey,” he continued in his usual voice. “The longer we beat around the bush, the longer I can enjoy the company of a beautiful woman.” Jessica threw him a dark look, and he amended, “Or we can get down to business now, if you want. Ah, thank you,” he added as the waitress set his coffee down in front of him, giving her a lopsided grin.

The girl winked at Clay before turning around, sashaying away. Jess bit her lip to keep in a retort.

“She's, like, fourteen,” she couldn't help but point out as soon as the waitress was out of earshot. Clay looked up in surprise, stirring his coffee absently.

“Seventeen, actually,” Clay replied, a curious glint in his eye. She stared at him from narrowed eyes. “SHIELD checked into the place when you contacted me.”

“Why?” she asked sharply.

Clay held up his hands. “Look, we can't just talk about SHIELD matters anywhere we please. The place had to be vetted first. It's standard procedure, Jess.”

She gave him a narrow-eyed look, a knot settling heavily in her stomach. “How do you know that I want to talk with you about SHIELD?”

Clay shrugged. “It's not rocket science, given your latest case—”

“Are you bastards keeping tabs on me?” she broke in. “Fuck, you are, aren't you?” A sudden adrenalin rush made her light-headed, fight or flight instincts kicking in. She goddamn knew it—it wasn't paranoia when they really were spying on you, she fucking told Luke—

A warm hand covered hers, trying in vain to uncurl her fingers from the tight grip she had on the paper. “Jess, breathe!” Clay said sharply.

The harsh tone snapped her out of it, and she stared at him, feeling betrayed. He softened immediately, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze but pulling back before she could snatch it back.

“We don't keep tabs on you,” he explained when she had calmed somewhat. “I swear we don't,” he said forcefully when she glared at him. “SHIELD just did a check-up when I received your invitation. I mean,” Clay said wryly, “it was hardly going to be a social call after nineteen months of radio silence, was it?”

That stung. “You didn't call either,” she mumbled, hand returning to the paper to play with the edges.

Clay shrugged. “Yeah, but I wasn't the one who said that she needed space to get away from me and 'my fucking spy organization'.” His lopsided smile took the sting out of his words, but Jess still felt them acutely.

She looked away, outside at the contorted view of the New York, blurred through the tears of rain running down the window. Her anger was a sluggish thing now, churning low in her stomach, but Jess could hold a grudge until it died of old age and then spit on its grave. And it's not her damn fault that Clay worked for the fucking Stasi, or whatever. She let the uncomfortable silence go on, feeling a perverse satisfaction at seeing Clay's smile taper off.

“Are you really angry with me because I didn't call?” Clay asked eventually.

Yes. No. “Hell, I don't know,” she said, leaning back in her chair. She stared at the ceiling; it was easier than looking at him. She really had needed to get away from everything at the time. It had been too much; Clay and his support and concern, acting like she hadn't been a complete screw-up at the time (still was), and SHIELD always there, always present, never knowing when they might be watching or not.

Clay had said they weren't, and it wasn't that she didn't trust him. It was them she couldn't trust.

So she'd run and kept her distance. But still, a call would have been nice, especially on those days she spent drowning in her own shit. To know that someone still cared.

“You're not supposed to let me get away with this shit, you know?” She slanted a glance at him. Clay looked amused. “You shouldn't let me be a bitch to you.”

The lopsided smile was back. “You're not being a 'bitch'.” He even made air quotes, the dork. “Besides, I have fond memories of you being pissed. The make-up sex was epic.”

Jess snorted. “Horndog,” she said affectionately.

Clay's only response was a “what can you do?” gesture, and the two of them settled in into a much more comfortable silence for a couple of seconds. Then he prompted, “So, your case?”

Jessica raised an eyebrow. “Why don't you tell me? Seeing as you apparently already know all about my case.”

“All might be a bit exaggerated. I only know the bare bones. Something about the Avengers?”

Jessica snorted again at his innocent expression. Yeah, right. Like that was all he knew. She indulged him anyway. “My client's daughters were saved by Captain America – and seriously? Captain freakin' America, Clay? – and now they want to meet him. You see,” she said, leaning forward. Clay came closer on instinct. She lowered her voice. “It's the younger one; she has such a crush on the captain now.” Clay was a romantic at heart. No sense in not using that to her advantage. “My client says that she's got it bad. Hardly sleeps anymore, barely eats, doodling hearts and carving their initials in tree trunks, that kind of shit. Stuck to the TV whenever anything about the Avengers is on, glued to her laptop when not. The father's obviously concerned, but thinks that if she gets the chance to meet her crush it will go away. Or possibly that Captain America will fall in love with her, whatever. The client is kind of a self-important jerk,” she couldn't help but add because, damn. The sooner she didn't have to deal with the asshole anymore, the better.

She looked at Clay expectantly. He seemed rapt at the story, until the amusement bled into his eyes. With a huff she leaned back, daring Clay to make fun of her.

Clay just chuckled, mirth dancing in his eyes. “Okay, I lied. I know more than just the bare bones. Still, that was a great tale, Jess. You really sold it with the disdain about the hearts. Have you ever thought of going into theater?” He ducked the crunched up napkin she lobbed at his head, flashing her a grin that showed off his white teeth.

“Asshole,” she muttered without heat. "Seriously though, there's a lot of money in it for me. The guy's loaded.”

“Bishop sure is,” Clay agreed easily. “Old money, New York's elite, all that jazz. But Jess, I can't,” he said, shaking his head. “I'm sorry, I can't tell you the identity of Captain America.”

“How about a meet 'n' greet, then?” she asked quickly. Truth be told, she never expected Clay to give up Captain America. Bishop wouldn't be happy, but if he merely wanted to thank the hero for saving his daughters’ lives that would do just as well. And after all, that was all Bishop wanted to do, according to him.

Not that Jess believed that for a second.

It didn't matter, though. Clay already had that look in his eyes, like when he used to tell Jessica that there was some kind of SHIELD emergency back when they were still together. She hated that look.

“Jessica, no. I'm really sorry, I can't.”

Damn. There went her chance of making heaps of money.

She sighed. “It's all right. Not like it's your fault, huh?” It had been a bit of a long shot.

“Really sorry. But hey, let me make it up to you?” Clay grinned. “I still have an hour and a half until I need to get back to work, so what say we catch up a bit? SHIELD's paying,” he said with a wink.

“Abusing our power, are we?"

“Not at all. Expenses will never know, and if they do start asking questions, we can always tell them to take it up with Fury. The director likes you.”

It was nice just talking with Clay again. She told him stories about some of the more out-there clients she had had, and he laughed in all the appropriate places. In return, he made fun of the rookie agents and recounted some of the more amusing happenings on the helicarrier. She could tell at times that the stories were carefully edited, but felt too comfortable to make an issue out of it.

It was a pleasant afternoon, and Jessica realized that she had missed this, missed Clay. It hurt a bit to think that they could have worked out if her head had been screwed on straight.

True to his word, Clay picked up the bill at the end.

“Don't let it be another nineteen months, Jess,” Clay said as he held her tight.

Jessica hugged him back, careful not to squeeze too hard. “You could call as well, you know?” she said as she pulled back far enough to look him in the eye. His hands settled lightly at her waist.

“You mean you won't hang up on me in retaliation for not selling out Captain America?”

Jessica rolled her eyes and hit him in the shoulder, gently. “Very funny, asshole. Give me some credit. Be glad you're pretty, otherwise I would have called Coulson just so I wouldn't have to put up with your bullshit.”

Clay stilled. It wasn't anything overt; his muscles didn't lock, he didn't shift, not even his breathing rhythm stuttered as far as Jessica could tell. But Jess wasn't in the PI business because she didn't fit into her tights anymore, and she knew the look in people's eyes when they were hiding something.

“Clay?” A heavy knot formed in her stomach. The old and familiar feeling of dread fell over her, and she felt fucking cold all of a sudden.

“Jess, no,” Clay sighed, but he avoided her gaze. “I can't tell you.”

It tasted sour in her mouth, the knowledge that something was going on, something was wrong and it had to do with Coulson, and that there wasn't anything she could do. Clay hadn't told her about the classified SHIELD stuff when they had been together; there was no reason for him to tell her now.

She forced her tone to be light. “You know, given how secretive you lot are, I'm shocked you even came to talk to me today.”

Clay gave her a small imitation of his usual smile. “There's no better place to talk about secrets than in plain sight, Jess. You'd be surprised what people fail to hear when you say it right next to them.”

Jess shrugged. It was her job to listen no matter what, but if SHIELD thought it was safe talking in public, far be it from her to disagree. They had probably statistics and shit about when bystanders were most likely to eavesdrop.

“See you again soon?” Clay asked as they moved apart, walking a few steps backward towards the door and the dank New York afternoon.

“Yeah,” Jess replied. “I'd like that.”

* * *

The problem was that she was totally screwed now, Jess thought. SHIELD had been her best bet to get a hold of Captain America. She'd tried to get to Stark but hadn't even made it past the reception desk of his stupid monstrosity of a tower, and calling was just a waste of time. Not that she hadn't tried repeatedly. Sometimes, making a nuisance out of herself was all that it took. It didn't work quite as well with answering machines, though.

Jessica picked at her Chinese take-away, her feet on the last few inches of free space on her desk. She stared at the screen in contemplation, waiting for TomCat78 to finish typing. Bishop wasn't known to be a guy that took 'no' well, and, to be brutally honest, if Bishop felt like it he could squash her and her little agency under his boot like an exceptionally squishy bug.

'I want to fuck you so bad, I need to, now!' TomCat78 wrote.

Jess snorted. Get in line, loser, she thought. One-handed, she typed back, 'Yes, please, put your thick angry cock inside me. You'll fuck me so hard, won't you? Until I scream, make me scream!', marveling at her skills at shoveling down food while simultaneously stroking some guy's e-peen. Then she thought about what TomCat78 was most likely doing right now.

Great. She threw her chopsticks back into the box. She just grossed herself out.

'I'm pounding into you so hard you can feel it in your throat, baby. So hard the whole table is shaking!'

'I'm coming!'


Maybe she should try stalking Stark. According to Jess' research, the late Stark was involved with the whole super soldier shebang; stands to reason Stark Jr. took up where daddy left off, right? At least the guy was narcissistic enough to think that his input would be wanted. Plus, the whole Avengers thing.

'You can't come. I'm gripping squeezing your dick so hard that you cant come till I allow it'

Fuck. Maybe she should change her name and hope Bishop wouldn't care enough to come after her.

'Please let me come, I beg you! I need to come so bad, you're pounding into me so hard!' Jess stared at the blinking cursor. Maybe that was too literate for a guy supposedly at the edge of orgasm.

Whatever. She hit 'send'.

She leaned back in her chair. She didn't give a damn about Bishop, but the money was the problem. She really needed the cash Bishop was throwing at her to find Captain America. She couldn't afford to lose the case. Damn it. Why did this shit always happen to her?

'Oh yeah beg me baby beg me I wont let you—' Jess didn't bother reading the rest of the message, glancing up when a knock sounded at the door. She typed back a quick 'God, please!' in response and got up to throw the worst crap on her desk into the bin.

“Just a second!” she yelled, shoving everything else into a drawer. She gave up on closing the stupid thing after a second. “Come in!” she said more calmly as she sat down again.

The door opened to reveal two men. First was a tall, muscular blond man with baby-blue eyes and a khaki pants/plaid shirt combo straight out of her grandfather's closet. He gave her a small smile, teeth white and dimples flashing. He looked like a poster boy for the good old times when men were still gentlemen and women barefoot in the kitchen.

Jess had the urge to introduce him to her mother.

The other guy was smaller, but like his companion obviously fit. The cut of the jacket did a good job of hiding the wide shoulders and muscular chest, but Jessica had sharp eyes. The man's features weren't as striking as his friend's; his face was more lined. Still, Jessica thought that he would have been handsome were it not for the dark bags and blood-shot eyes. His hair was disgustingly greasy, and his skin had a sickly pallor to it that spoke of a lack of sleep and sunlight. The guy looked dead on his feet.

“Ms. Jones?” Blondie asked, and even his voice was handsome.

She threw her hair back. “That's me. Come on in.” She gestured to the chair in front of her desk before realizing there was only one. “Uh, just a second,” she said, looking around for the other. It was in the far corner, for some reason. “Let me...” She started to get up, but the blond man, following her gaze, held up a hand.

“Please, allow me, ma'am,” he said, quickly backtracking to get the second chair. His friend sunk down in the chair opposite Jess. Jess could feel his gaze on her like pinpricks on her skin. Blondie picked up the chair one handed, easily carrying it to the desk. “There we go,” he said with a flash of that white smile, waiting until she sat down again before taking a seat.

“Right. That's me,” she repeated. Her computer flashed a couple of new messages from TomCat at her, and Jess closed the chat window with a jerky movement of her hand. She cleared her throat to cover the heat rising in her cheeks. “Jessica Jones. And who might you be?”

“Excuse me. My name is Steven Carter and this is my cousin, Andrew,” the blond guy – and apparently the spokesperson of the duo – said easily. Jess nodded. Blondie couldn't lie for shit.

Zombie guy didn't react to the fake names. Jess wanted to stare right back at him, but his flat gaze and piercing blue eyes unsettled her in a way a guy who looked half-dead had no right to. She turned her attention back to Blondie and let the lie slide.

“And what can I do for you, gentlemen?”

“We're looking for someone.” Tall and gorgeous shifted forward, gaze open and earnest. “A friend. You were recommended to us by a colleague who said that if anyone could help us, it would be you.”

“Is your friend missing?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Jess lifted an eyebrow. “You'll have to be more specific than that.”

Blondie shifted, eyes cutting to his friend. Zombie-guy slouched in his chair, still staring at her with those shuttered eyes.

Jess had a very bad feeling about this.

“We can't be more specific,” 'Andrew' said, voice low and almost a growl.

“Then how am I supposed to find your friend?”

“The specifics aren't important. We have a couple of leads but can't follow them up on our own; that's why we're here.”

“Right. You expect me to look for your friend who is missing 'in a manner of speaking' – do I get a name for your friend?” A second passed; Zombie-guy said nothing. “Great. You don't give me a name, you don't give me vital information, and you expect me to take whatever leads you give me at face value and blindly follow up on them. Well, gentlemen,” she said, getting up. “I'd like to say it was a pleasure talking to you but I would be lying. We're finished here. Good luck finding some other loser to screw over. Don't let the door hit you on your way out.”

“Miss Jones,” blond-guy protested. “Please, hear us out. I know it's a lot to ask, but please believe me when I say that we have good reasons why we can't give you any more information. Coming here and talking to you is already skirting the line; we can't tell you anything else. But we really do need your help.” And damn him and his baby blues, but for one insane moment his earnest expression actually made her consider rethinking the whole thing.

Then zombie-guy spoke up, said, “There's a lot of money in it for you,” and that made her waver even more, especially with the Bishop case falling through.

She stared at them as she thought about it. Then her stomach flopped as she thought about all the ways she could get screwed with this deal, and no.

She wasn't that desperate.

“No.”

“Miss Jones, please! Isn't there anything we can do to make you reconsider?”

“You can get out before I throw you out,” she growled. Literally, she added mentally and hoped it showed in her expression.

“Please—”

“Quartermain.”

The blond guy broke off, stared at his companion. Jessica went very, very still.

The familiar feeling of dread settled like rocks. No, she thought. Clay wouldn't.

“What?”

Zombie-guy leaned forward, piercing gaze focused solely on her. “Agent Quartermain. Our colleague who said you'd help us.”

SHIELD.

They were SHIELD.

And Clay had—No, Clay wouldn't—But he had, he'd sat there and smiled at her, held her when he'd—He'd—

She slammed her fists on her desks. The wood splintered beneath her knuckles. “Get out.” Clay had— “Get out right now.”

“I don't under—”

“GET OUT!”

She couldn't believe this. She couldn't fucking believe this, couldn't believe Clay would betray her like that. That fucking—That fucker—

The agents (fucking SHIELD agents) left, but Jessica barely noticed. Didn't hear the door falling closed behind them, didn't notice the wood groaning beneath her fists, didn't hear her teeth grinding together nor feel the ache in her jaw.

The next thing Jessica knew, she sat slumped in her chair, the room tinged a bloody red from the setting sun. Her knuckles were pink, her eyes dry and itchy.

Fucking SHIELD.

Fucking Clay.

She needed a drink.

* * *

“You're drunk.”

“You're an ass.”

“That a way to talk to the guy who's takin' you in at 2 AM looking like a DARE scare reject?”

“Luke—”

“Whatever. Get in; you know where the couch is. I'll get you some water if you don't puke.”

“The couch? Come on, man,...” she cajoled.

The world didn't stop spinning and suddenly Jess found herself lying face-down on Luke's ratty couch, the stale cigarette smoke clinging to her hair making her sick. She groaned, tried to turn.

“Woah, careful, girl. You got a thick head, but that table corner's sharp. And if you break it, you buy me a new one, got me?” She was still on her stomach, though now there was something too-warm thrown over her.

“Luke,” she slurred, trying to grab him and failing. “Luke, I don't need the couch. I need you,” she said and tried to look less drunk than she was.

It was hard to hear through the pounding in her head, but Jess thought that Luke snorted. “Sorry girl, Eau de Liquor Store ain't a turn on.” His voice was too loud. Jessica moaned, buried her head in the cushion to block him out. “Stay here and don't embarrass yourself. You're gonna hate yourself tomorrow enough as is.”

“Hate you,” she mumbled. A thought struck her, but she couldn't grasp more than its tail as it drifted away into the drunken haze that was her mind. “Hate Clay. Fuckers.”

A hand patted her head, like she was some fucking kid or pet or something. “Sleep. There's a glass of water on the table, if you need it. Don't smash it. Yell if you're choking on your own puke.”

Suddenly the room was dark and Jess was all alone. Jess shivered, pulled the cover closer to herself. She curled into herself, her knees drawn up to her chest, and yet she still felt cold. The alcohol in her blood made the room spin and the shadows twist and contort into strange shapes, until everything was a blurry and broken mess.

Jessica blinked into the darkness until the burn subsided and she could close her eyes, didn't have to see the darkness anymore.

“Fuckers.”

* * *

Jessica!

She grit her teeth, the anger that had mostly faded during the day rearing its ugly head again.

Jess, I know that you're pissed, but let me explain—”

“Why?” she broke in, the word exploding from deep within. “How could you, you asshole!”

“Jess—”

Jessica was on a roll now that the lump in her throat was loosened, even if her voice still shook. She spoke right over him. “Fuck, I can't believe this. You promised that my file was sealed and that fucking SHIELD wouldn't bother me, and then you go around and fucking sell me to some—” The plastic of the receiver creaked between her fingers.

“Jessica! Christ, just listen to me!”

“Why the hell should I, you bastard!”

“Captain America!”

Jess stopped. “What?”

“Jesus, Jess. I wouldn't give just anyone your name, who do you think I am? I couldn't give you his name so I sent him to you! Do you have any idea against how many regulations I went against? Come on!”

Jess blindly groped for the edge of her desk to lean against. Her heart was doing somersaults in her chest. She wet her lips. “Captain America?”

There was a huff on the other end of the line. Jessica didn't need to close her eyes to see Clay run a hand through his hair in frustration, the lines around his eyes that always pinched tight when he was annoyed. “Captain America. Look, it's not completely out of the goodness of my heart. I'd really appreciate it if you could take their case. Let's put it this way: If Captain America is one thing and one thing only he's polite and willing to help. I'm sure that if you do take their case then something can be arranged so the Bishop case won't fall through.”

The cheap plastic in her hand creaked again under the pressure of her fingers. Clay was helping her. Jess took a couple of breaths to try and regain her sense of equilibrium. “Captain America,” she repeated.

Expectant silence met her, and a flurry of panic settled in. She felt drained and jittery at once, a confusing jumble of emotions and she was so bad at this, so unused to kindness and people helping her without ulterior motives. There was a part of her that acknowledged how fucked up that was, that realized how screwed up her life was, how screwed up she was, but— She couldn't think about that, not now.

She was fine. Everyone had a screw or two loose, right? She was fine.

"Jess? I didn't tell them anything besides your name, I swear. And if anyone asks they'll only need to know that we used to date.”

She should thank Clay. She should apologize. But her throat seized around the words and instead she said, “I can't do this. I can't talk to you right now,” and threw the handset in a corner before Clay had any chance to reply.

Her heart still beat fast as she buried her face in her hands. She felt sick again. She felt like crying.

In the end she did neither, and when she looked up hours later the blood red evening sun painted dark, grotesque shadows on the wall that reminded her of the day the sky had split over New York.

The creatures she had known how to handle, how to defend herself.

The aliens had been the kind of monsters she knew how to beat.

* * *

He came back four days later, after Jessica had fielded two calls from Bishop demanding results and a night demolishing everything remotely alcoholic she could find.

When he knocked at eleven AM sharp, Jess had the kind of raging hangover that made you wish for a bat to bash your head in, the kind of hangover she hadn't had to suffer through since breaking up with Clay.

Chances were that it was some kind of cosmic karma punishment bullshit, but the pounding in her head made introspection helpfully futile.

There was some take-out Thai stinking up the place, though it wasn't completely out of the park that it was just her stomach giving her the finger. Jessica glared balefully at the cardboard box mocking her from its precarious perch on top of an overflowing drawer of her desk. She needed to throw that shit out, or at least move it far, far away from her, but fuck if she could be bothered to move. The scratched surface of the desk was blessedly cool against the clammy side of her face. And if she breathed shallow breaths, the stench wasn't even all that revolting.

She'd found an arrangement that caused the least amount of agony: her head against the wood and her nose tucked close to her shoulder. That way she only smelled herself which, while still gross, was less stomach-churning than stale take-out. And then, because obviously the universe hadn't pissed on her enough yet, there was a knock on the door.

Jessica glared at the door. Or tried to, anyway. She had the horrible suspicion that it came out more of a bleary-eyed squint.

“What?” she called.

There was a short pause. “Ms. Jones, is that you?”

No, it was the fucking tooth fairy.

“It's, uh, Steven Carter.”

For a moment the name meant nothing to her. She squinted at the door, mind completely blank as her brain remained in idle. Then a synapse gave a last defiant sizzle and made the connection. Jessica shot up, mindless of the pounding in her head and every muscle in her neck and back screaming in protest.

“Fuck,” she swore into the clatter as she swept empty beer cans and take-out boxes off the desk.

“Ms. Jones?” came the alarmed response.

“Just a sec!” Too late to do anything about...well, anything, but she had breath mints somewhere on the desk, and— there! She popped two in for good measure and grimaced as the mint mingled with the sour taste in her mouth.

“Come in!” she called awkwardly through the two mints.

'Steven' came in, a slightly concerned frown on his face. It had to be Captain America. Jess had thought about this since Clay's phone call, and it had to be the blond guy. She'd seen what little footage of the fight there was, and *no way* was Zombie-guy tall enough to be Captain America. Unless Captain America wore heels, of course, and just last night Jess had spent a good half hour in alcohol-induced giggles at the image.

“Sit down,” she said, and hoped she looked less hung over than she felt.

Steven did so with a grateful smile. “I'm glad you decided to consider helping us after all.”

Jess waved him on, wondering what Clay had told him. Told Captain America. The thought alone made her giddy. Shit, she was sitting across from a real superhero.

“I talked to Agent Quartermain,” he threw her a quick look, as if to gauge if she would blow up again. Something like betrayal still twisted painfully inside her, but muted now. She could do this. Clay had sent her Captain America.

“He said that you're aware of, well, the...” he trailed off, searching for a euphemism that wouldn't be too revealing in case she didn't know.

“SHIELD's Avengers Initiative,” she supplied helpfully. The Avengers were known now, but that they were under SHIELD's command wasn't public knowledge. SHIELD itself wasn't well known outside of government agencies and conspiracy nuts.

Steven relaxed a fraction. “Yes, the Avengers Initiative.” He glanced at her. “Do you know who I am?” he asked softly.

Jess swallowed. “Well, you're not 'Steven Carter'. My little brother lied better than you,” she explained when he gave her a startled look. “You're Captain America,” she stated with more confidence than she actually felt. But then, military icon in heels. Probably not what people in the forties considered to be the epitome of American patriotism and heroism.

Steven looked impressed. Even a touch relieved, if Jess thought about it. “Agent Quartermain said that you would already have figured it out. If you don't mind, how did you know?”

Jess shrugged. “Saw the footage of the fight, wasn't too hard.” Hey, if Captain America wanted to believe that she was good enough to figure his identity out just by looking at some grainy footage, well, why not? No skin off her nose.

“That's incredible.” Jess preened. “I guess Agent Quartermain is right to think that you can help us. Now,” he said, becoming serious. He pulled an USB drive from his pants pocket. “Tony – Tony Stark, that is – gave me this. As you probably already figured out, he's the one who found all the information we have at this moment.” He noticed her staring. “You probably know first-hand what people can find out with computers these days.”

Jessica didn't, actually. Mostly because her brain hadn't moved past “holy shit, Captain America!” to “holy shit, Iron Man!” yet, but also because her hacking skills were limited to guessing email account passwords and checking porn sites for their online monikers. But it was cute how the super soldier kept overestimating her.

“What's on there?”

“Mostly financial information, as far as I know. Weird money movement, I guess. SHIELD bought a couple of houses,” he added.

Jessica gave him a skeptic look. “Houses? What, does the SHIELD honor code forbid investments in real estate?”

Steven shifted in his seat. “I don't think so, but they also ordered a lot of medical equipment that doesn't seem to have ended up in any SHIELD bases.”

“Medical equipment, huh?” Jess murmured, reaching out for the USB drive. She fingered its edges. “Is your guy ill?”

“Injured, most likely,” Steven replied softly, a pained look in his eye. Jess didn't want to press further, but if she was going to take the case she needed to.

“Injured?”

“Stabbed. In the attack.” It was impressive, but also intimidating how his posture changed all of a sudden. If possible he became even bigger, even broader in the shoulders as he straightened in his seat, his demeanor growing hard.

The plastic of Jessica's chair creaked as she leaned back, dropped her eyes down to the stick in her hand. “Sorry,” she muttered.

Captain America blinked, as though he hadn't realized that just now he'd been a, been a... a soldier. A hero. A superhero. The man that had taken charge and saved the world from an alien invasion with a group of six people.

“No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it up; it must have brought back painful memories for you, too.”

Jess shrugged. She hadn't been in Manhattan, the hotbed of the attack, at the time. She'd been in Queens with Luke, and while it had been bad it had been tolerable because she had had something to focus on, a goal. They had helped where they could, freeing people from the rubble or shielding them from falling debris. Every now and then one of the aliens would fly by, and while Jessica wasn't the Hulk she still threw a heck of a punch. While it had lasted and the adrenaline levels were still high, it had almost been cathartic. The confusion and sense of desperation hadn't kicked in until the aliens had been killed and the dust settled; only then had the scope of the destruction around them really registered.

Jessica changed the topic. “So I stake out the houses, see who they hire all the hot nurses for, and then what? How do I know it's your guy?”

Steven's eyes widened, like a deer caught in the headlights. “I don't think we thought that far,” he admitted. Jess gave him The Eyebrow, trademarked by her mom when she had found out that Jessica was going to start a PI business. (Closely followed by The Disappointed Face, but Jess usually choose to run like a coward before she had to deal with that.)

“In our defense, we didn't think you knew about SHIELD. Most people don't. And Stark can be pretty spiteful when it comes to SHIELD, but there's some rules he won't break, and personal information about a friend is where he draws the line.”

“Huh. I always thought Tony Stark would be the kind of person who thinks rules don't apply to him.”

Steven chuckled. “He is, but he also thinks that they apply to people that are not him.”

Jessica grimaced. “Sounds like a terrible combination.”

“The jury's still out on that one.”

“Let me know what the verdict is.”

“I will,” Steven promised with a wry smile that made Jessica's heart miss a beat. She regarded the USB stick with a smile on her face.

“So,” Jessica said after a while. “Sounds like a piece of cake.” She glanced at him through the curtain of her hair. “Is there a reason why you can't check the places yourself?”

This was the make or break for her. She didn't think they were hiring her for something shady (for one, Clay, for another, Captain America), yet she couldn't see the reason why they needed to hire her. “Why can't you ask Fury about what happened to your guy?”

He looked startled. “You know— Never mind,” he said. “It's complicated. Fury's risking a lot for us, but at the same time, if what we think happened is true, then he did something unforgivable...” He trailed off, looking lost in his thoughts with a troubled frown on his face. “I just want to be sure before we accuse him, you know?”

Jessica wasn't any wiser than before, but as she thought back to the few times she met Fury, she could see it. Being helpful and an asshole about it at the same time seemed to be Fury's shtick. Still, her damn curiosity was piqued now. “Someone's threatening Fury?” Saying it out loud didn't make it sound any less ridiculous.

“I'd rather not talk about it, if it's all the same,” Steven replied, distinctly uncomfortable.

Jess swallowed her disappointment. “Sure,” she said with bad grace.

There was a moment of awkward silence as they both struggled to come up with something else; then, in true comedic fashion, Jessica said “About the payment—” at the same time as he started with “I'll talk to the others—”. They broke off, stared at each other, and laughed weakly.

“I'm sorry,” he said, “you go first.”

“Oh no, client's first and all that,” she replied.

“I was merely saying that I'll talk to the others. Now that we know that your knowledge of SHIELD is already rather impressive, I think it's best if we give you all the information we have, but I wouldn't want to go behind the others' backs...”

“It's okay,” Jess quickly reassured him. “I understand. I wouldn't want to go behind the Hulk's back, either,” she joked. Her laugh quickly tapered off when he didn't join. Wow. Foot, meet mouth.

There was another very uncomfortable moment while Jess tried to figure out how bad she pissed Captain America off when he let out a gust of breath.

“The Hulk is much more restrained than people give him credit for, really. I guess it gets tiresome to always see him treated like some kind of monster.”

Don't make a rage monster joke, don't make a rage monster joke. Something must have shown on her face, but instead of getting angry the captain gave a small self-deprecating laugh.

“I guess he is a monster, but not in the way most people assume. It's just not nice to see one of your teammates demonized, you know?”

Jessica had no clue, but she wasn't about to shove her other foot down her throat as well, so she nodded and hoped for a change of subject. The captain obliged her.

“What were you saying?”

It took her a second to understand what he was referring to, and then felt like a heel. Because she had been to suggest that Steven agree to meet with Bishop in return for paying less, but the mere thought of making that offer felt slimy to her.

But he was looking at her all expectantly, so she thought fast. “Who is going to handle my fees? I can't exactly call Fury up and demand he pay me for spying on SHIELD behind his back.”

“That could get awkward,” Steven agreed with a wry grin. “Tony Stark will be paying for everything.”

“Great!” Payment was secure then, more than she could say about some of her clients. She opened the top left drawer of her desk – possibly the only organized one in the whole of her office and home combined. She pulled out a contract. “If he could sign this then, and send it back to me. I like to be hired by the guy that pays me,” she said with a sharp smile. Trouble had, and lesson learned. Besides, Stark probably wouldn't even look at the terms of the contract and her fees. No reason not to up the price a bit when your client had more money than God.

Steven gave the contract a cursory glance before folding it and putting it away. People. They were all the same. It was good to know that real heroes weren't any different.

“That's it, then? You'll take the case?”

And Jessica was about to say 'yes', but the tiny part of her brain that cared more about the rent than about 'holy shit, Captain America!' reared its ugly head, and with a sigh she said, “Actually, if you wouldn't mind, I do have a request.” She met his eyes, and he didn't look judging yet, just open and faintly resigned. His gaze slipped to the pen and paper at her desk, and after a second Jess realized that he expected her to ask for an autograph.

She wondered how many times he's been asked that since the attack. What did he even do in his spare time? Lounge around the helicarrier in his blues and stripes?

“Yes, you see, I have this case.” Now he looked confused. “Well, there's this rich guy – Derek Bishop – whose daughter you saved during the attack. He's hired me to find you.” When he didn't say she added, “And well, here you are!”

“Does Agent Quartermain know about this?” he finally asked after a long moment of silence.

“Yes?” she said, hoping that was what he wanted to hear. He didn't look particularly thrilled.

“I'm not really comfortable with the idea,” he admitted.

Jess snorted. “Well, I'm not really comfortable taking a bogus case like this, and look where we are.” And immediately, the guy looked contrite. Jess felt like she'd kicked a puppy.

“You're right. I'll do it. I suppose it can't be that bad if Agent Quartermain approves of this.”

Jessica had no idea if Clay approved per se, but she wasn't going to fight the point. She'd successfully close the Bishop case, and then she wouldn't be at the whim and mercy of some rich asshole anymore. Except for Stark, of course, but the wave of relief swept that worry away together with the last tendrils of her hangover. She'd have to circle the day red in her calendar. Today was a good day.

* * *

Such a good day, in fact, that when TomCat78 signed on two hours and a shower later and asked to meet 'him' she said yes and arranged a meeting for an hour and a half later at the Rum House - hey, the wife was buying.

On her way there she called Bishop's secretary to let her know that Bishop should call her as soon as possible (she wasn't going to talk to his freaking secretary; if the guy wanted something from her he could damn well talk to her himself) and life was so freaking good right now that when she met TomCat78 (real name Barry Arnold, whose wife suspected that he was having an affair because he didn't want to have sex with her anymore, and had hired Jessica to find proof) instead of confronting the guy, she just let him know of his wife’s suspicions and told him to tell her the truth about the side-effects of his anti-depressants. And to cut it out with the cyber-sex before his wife got another wrong idea.

Without anything to do and without anything to worry about, she made her way over to Luke's. Luke looked on in amusement as she walked in, all whistles and smiles, and the two of them spent the rest of the evening lounging around in his flat, relaxed and happy.

And when things moved to the bedroom later that night and she strained against his arms as he held her and kissed her throat, Jessica spared one fleeting moment to think that yes, today had been a damn good day.

* * *

Two days later Jessica was walking up to Stark Tower, feeling important and daunted at once. When she gave her name to the woman at reception – whose lipstick looked more expensive than Jessica's entire wardrobe – she was immediately led to an elevator in the back.

The receptionist pressed one of the two buttons to the side. Nothing happened for a moment, then the same button glowed blue. “Ms. Jones,” she said into what was apparently an intercom to the side of the doors, and the doors opened a moment later with barely any noise at all.

Jessica stepped in, wide-eyed.

The elevator ride was as smooth as floating on water. Working for Tony Stark must be really, really nice, she thought with not a small amount of envy. She wondered if the guy could use a PI on his work staff. Though the guy probably had had a small army of his personal private eyes check her out before they approached her about the case, so he probably didn't need another one.

The elevator came to a stop with a quiet 'ding' that somehow managed to sound indecently luxurious.

“Welcome, Ms. Jones,” a smooth British voice said. Jessica jumped, looking around.

There was no one there.

“Forgive me,” the same voice said, sounding apologetic and coming from fucking nowhere. “I did not mean to startle you. If you could walk down the hall to your right, Captain America is waiting for you in the second room on the left.”

Jess stood rooted to the spot, still trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Her heart was beating in her throat. God, she hated shit like this.

“Ms. Jones?”

Her eyes darted around. “Where are you?” she finally called.

“Ah,” the voice said. “Forgive me. My name is JARVIS; I'm Master Stark's home computing system.”

“Computing sys— You're a robot?”

“I prefer the term Artificial Intelligence; though not entirely accurate either, it is indeed much more flattering.”

“Oh,” Jess said, thoroughly weirded out. “Sorry, then.”

“No need to apologize,” JARVIS allowed. “Now, if you could please join the captain? I'll have refreshments brought to you in a minute.”

“Right,” Jessica said. She turned right, keeping an eye on the walls and ceiling. She felt the prickly sensation of being watched on her back and shuddered. Big Brother is watching you indeed.

“The second door on the left,” JARVIS pointed out when Jess nearly walked past it. The doors slid neatly open when she stood directly in front of them, causing a cold shiver to crawl down her spine. This shit was creepy.

Captain America was indeed waiting for her inside. Even though Jessica had already known that 'Steven Carter' was the Super Soldier, her breath still caught at seeing him in his full uniform. His mask was still down, and he smiled at her when he saw her, the same smile that made his eyes crinkle.

“Ms. Jones,” he greeted. “How are you?”

“Uh,” she replied intelligently. “Fine?” she more asked than answered. She hadn't exactly dressed up, but she'd still thrown on some of her better clothes. The black cotton pants from the sole suit she owned and a nice deep-red shirt that accentuated her curves. She'd even shined her goddamn shoes, yet she felt severely under-dressed in the face of a guy in blue spandex.

If the captain noticed her discomfort, he didn't show it. “You look great,” he said instead. Jessica bit down on a snort. Since the two times he'd seen her before she had been wearing a jeans and tee combo she'd worn for four days straight or recovering from a drinking binge that had left her smelling like a gym sock doused with spirits, looking great in comparison wasn't really all that much of an accomplishment.

She still felt flattered.

“You too, you look very, uh,” patriotic, but there was no way Jess would be able to say that without some measure of scorn. But the uniform was so very blue and red and white and stripe-y. She spied his shield leaning against the wall behind him. “Heroic,” she finally settled on.

He smiled ruefully at her. “The uniform is a bit old-fashioned, I admit. The man who designed it thought that the world could use a bit of old-fashioned.” He had that look in his eyes again, the same he had had in her office.

“Your friend?” Jessica guessed.

She didn't get an answer, as the smooth voice of JARVIS interrupted. “Forgive me, ma'am, Captain, but the Bishops are on their way up. Also, your refreshments.” The door slid open and in rolled a robot arm carrying a tray with two glasses and four colored pitchers.

Jessica stared gobsmacked as the captain met the robot halfway to relieve it of the tray. “Thank you, You,” he said, and the robot arm bobbed once before wheeling out again. “And thank you, JARVIS.” Then he frowned at the tray. “JARVIS, there are only two glasses on the tray?”

“Indeed, captain. I'm afraid Master Stark is not overly fond of Mr. Bishop and has explicitly forbidden me from providing any kind of services for him.” The voice sounded peeved.

“Oh,” the captain said, as though that explained anything. He put the tray on the sideboard along one wall. “What would you like to drink, Ms. Jones?”

“Uh...”

“I have prepared water, lemonade, apple juice, and Coke,” JARVIS added helpfully. “I'm afraid I didn't know which you would prefer, Ms. Jones.” There was a note of apology in the smooth voice.

“That's fine,” she said, overwhelmed. “Uh, just water, please. And call me Jessica. This whole Ms. Jones business is making me feel old.”

“The blue pitcher,” JARVIS instructed.

The captain dutifully picked up the blue pitcher to pour her a glass. “Jessica,” he replied, and the way he said it send a spike of heat through her belly. “Then please, call me Steve.”

Jessica looked at him in surprise. Steve Rog—?

“It's my real name. Steve Rogers,” he explained, misunderstanding.

“You're Captain America!”

Steve - Captain America - stared at her, then down at himself. “The uniform didn't give it away?”

“What? No, I—” and great, now she was blushing and stuttering like an idiot. Of course he was Captain America, but... “You're the real Captain America. The old one— I mean the, the original one. From World War II.” God, someone please just shoot her now.

Steve looked confused, but not angry. Small mercies. “Who did you think I was?”

And really, he had kind of a point. “I don't know. Like a successor, or something? Maybe the title’s handed down? Or shit, it's SHIELD. They *would* stick a guy in tights and call him Captain America to boost morale during an alien invasion. You don't look like seventy,” she babbled in a panicky attempt to salvage the situation. The thought stopped her because holy shit, the guy was over seventy!

Steve still looked puzzled, but also really uncomfortable. “I was frozen,” he explained, reluctance written all over his face. Jessica felt guilty all of a sudden. “I only woke up recently.”

That must have sucked, Jessica realized. She knew what happened to Captain America – what American child didn't learn everything there was to know about him in school? - but to experience it must have been terrible. Jessica tried to envision it, saving the world in 1942 only to wake up in 2012. She shuddered. It would be enough to drive a person insane.

But Captain America wasn't just some regular person. He was the superhero, the world's very first. Jessica snuck a peek at him, studied him.

He looked startlingly young if you looked at him, sad eyes and all. With a jolt, she remembered that he was younger than her.

She wasn't sure how that made her feel, other than even older than before. To cover her discomfort she took her glass, and told it, “You didn't have to tell me that. Steven Carter would have been fine.”

“I know. That's why I wanted to tell you.”

She was saved from having to answer by the soft slide of the door opening. In came Derek Bishop, all self-important bluster and smugness. Two girls trailed in after them, one with the ingrained arrogance Jess associated with rich kids, and the other with a sharp glint in her eyes.

Huh. She'd have to keep an eye on that one; Jessica had a feeling that the younger one was too smart for her own good.

Bishop suddenly stopped mid-stride, stared at Steve. Somewhere between her turning around and Bishop walking in Steve had pulled on his mask. Bishop's mouth moved like a fish out of water, and Jess laughed inwardly. Served the arrogant bastard right.

The two girls (Bishop's daughters? The guy had two, and the older one got engaged only recently, if Jessica wasn't mistaken. She'd read about it in the society pages of the Bugle) seemed equally awestruck, though the younger one was already narrowing her eyes in thought.

Bishop cleared his throat, got himself under control. “How do I know he's the real Captain America?” he demanded with barely a glance in Jessica's direction. She bristled, but Steve was faster than her.

“Sir, with all due respect, that is no way to talk to a dame,” he said reprovingly, all six foot something of him, and maybe Jessica was a little bit awestruck as well.

The younger girl let out a breath. “It's him,” she said with certainty. “It's Captain America.”

“Are you sure?” the older one asked, half-standing behind her and staring at the captain over the younger's shoulder.

The latter nodded. “I recognize his voice.”

“Wow.”

Steve gave them a bright smile. Bishop immediately started talking.

“Sir, it's an honor,” he said, moving to shake Steve's hand. Steve gave it a good shake but let go instantly. “I've always dreamt of meeting you,” he continued, oozing fake charm. The younger girl, Jess noted with interest, made a face. “My name is Derek Bishop.”

Bishop waited, but Steve filled the pause where was supposed to give his own name by smiling at the girls again. Then the moment threatened to turn awkward, and Bishop coughed to cover it up.

“Right, allow me to introduce my daughters to you: Susan and Katherine—”

“Kate,” the younger one interrupted her father. She stepped around him and offered the captain her hand. It shook slightly, likely from the excitement if her bright eyes and the flush in her cheeks where any indication. “It's an honor to meet you, sir,” she said, the sincerity in her words mocking her father's.

The handshake between them was a much more respectful affair than what Steve had allowed Bishop.

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Kate. And you, Miss Bishop,” he added to the older sister, who returned his greeting politely. He turned back to Kate. “I'm sorry, you seem familiar...?” Bishop pounced on the open question.

“Yes,” he said with way to much enthusiasm. “You saved her during the Battle of Manhattan. We wanted to thank you,” he added belatedly. Nice of him to remember the alleged reason for this meeting. “A reward is in order, I think.”

“That won't be necessary,” Steve started to insist; Bishop steamrolled right over him.

“Oh, it is. Kate insisted!” He took his daughter by the shoulders to underscore the point. She mostly looked annoyed and embarrassed.

Steve smiled at her, and her annoyance melted away like snow in the sun. “That's really not necessary,” he repeated. “Besides,” he went on, “If I remember correctly, you saved yourself.”

Now the girl was definitely embarrassed; her cheeks practically flooded with blood. But the way she held her head high and met the captain's eyes spoke of a certain pride. Jess approved, even as her own curiosity was piqued.

“Kate?” The older sister asked in surprise. That little tidbit seemed to be news to her family.

“I saw you. I was thrown into a car, and you were standing there when one of the Chitauri came up behind you. You had a,” he frowned, struggling to remember. “A baseball bat? And you swung it at its head until it was knocked out.... You took its staff, didn't you?”

Kate's eyes gleamed. “It was just a bar of steel from a destroyed fence, or something. I took the staff hoping to figure out how to shoot those energy beams, but it made a good staff weapon as well.”

“Kate!” Susan cried, horrified. “Oh my god, what were you thinking?”

“What? You knew I was caught in the attack!”

“You said Captain America saved you,” Bishop said, face ashen and voice faint. Jess felt a twinge of sympathy. The guy was a slimy asshole, but finding out that your baby girl fought her way through the attack instead of waiting for rescue must be tough on any father. “Kate, you could have died!”

“There were two kids,” Kate argued. “What was I supposed to do, leave them to fend for themselves?”

Bishop wanted to say 'yes'. Jess could see it in the way his lips tightened to a white line, and so could his daughter by the way her expression became heated with anger. “You could have died,” he repeated instead.

Kate turned away, looked beseechingly towards Captain America.

He cleared his throat. “The important thing is that nothing happened. And that was a very brave thing you did, protecting these children.”

A pleased blush stole over Kate's face again, even though she shrugged as though it wasn't a big deal. “I couldn't just leave them,” she said, like it explained anything.

And maybe it did. Even with the mask Jessica could see Steve's face softening, and his voice was warm when he said, “No, I guess you couldn't. And those moves looked practiced. Have you had some kind of formal training?”

“I take a couple of self-defense classes,” she admitted. “And I fence.”

“You do? Since when?”

For only a tenth of a second, Kate froze. A dead look entered her eyes, something that Jessica was intimately familiar with. Something she still saw staring back at her from the mirror after a bad night. But instead of the old panic and self-loathing she only felt a profound sadness. Kate Bishop was too young to look like this.

“You said I shouldn't spend all my time in soup kitchens,” she pointed out to her sister, the nonchalance in her voice sounding forced if you knew how to listen.

“That's not what I meant! I wanted you to have fun, Kate, to enjoy life!”

“I enjoy helping people, and I like learning martial arts and fencing. Even if the instructor is an ass,” she added under her breath. And Jess' lips twitched.

“You're not making me stop, right, Dad?” she asked her father, with big pleading eyes. Jessica smirked. Smart girl; it wasn't like he could forbid her now, when Captain America had praised her fighting skills only moments before.

Bishop knew it too, by the way his gaze darted to Steve before settling on his daughter. “Of course not, darling,” he said with bad grace.

“A good decision, Mr. Bishop,” Steve added, rubbing salt into the wound. Jessica's eyebrows jumped north; she hadn't thought that he would have had it in him. “A talent such as Kate's would be a shame to waste. And it's never wrong for a girl her age to know how to defend herself.”

That wasn't the best line of argument in this case. Jess bit down on a wince. Kate took it like a champ, though, not reacting beyond a tightening around her eyes. She even smiled, if a bit grimly. Her 'thank you' was perfectly even.

* * *

“Well, that was something,” Steve said dryly after the Bishops had left. Jessica looked at him, only now noticing how weary he sounded. He noticed her looking.

“I can't say I appreciated Mr. Bishop's attitude towards you.”

Jess shrugged. She'd been ignored for the most part, left to listen as Steve and Kate discussed different self-defense moves and to Bishop not getting that Steve was impressed by neither his name nor his fortune. Why Bishop thought money would impress Captain America when they were standing right here in Stark Tower, home to one of the richest – if not even the richest – guy on Earth, Jess didn't know. An inflated sense of ego, no doubt.

There had been a couple of digs towards her during the course of the meeting, though. Little insinuations that Bishop hadn't expected someone like her to arrange a meeting with Captain America. What an upstanding American soldier like Captain America thought about the amoral society of today, complete with a half-hidden sneer in her direction.

The only thing that had kept Jessica calm was that Bishop had yet to pay her. And the knowledge that, despite everything, Bishop could make her life a living hell. It wasn't fair, but Jess had long since accepted that her life sucked.

Steve, on the other hand, had been the perfect knight in shining spandex: defending her honor, frowning, and getting increasingly short with Bishop. And he had kept calling her 'Jessica'.

It wasn't so much the fact that he used her first name (although holy shit, she was on a first name basis with Captain America!) but more how he said it that sent something sharp and hot through her.

“Jessica?” Steve said with the kind of tilt to it of someone repeating himself.

She blushed. “Sorry, lost in thought. What did you say?”

Steve leaned back against the sideboard, his mask down again and his shield next to him. He had let Kate Bishop hold it, give it a few experimental swings. He'd been impressed by how fast she had grasped how to hold and swing it as a weapon as well as protection.

“I was just saying, about our friend...”

Jessica's attention snapped back to him. Right, the case. Work now, daydream later.

“... I talked to the others, and you were right. It was rather ridiculous of us not to give you his name, especially after Agent Quartermain vouched for you and you proved how much you already know about SHIELD. I guess we were a bit paranoid.”

Jess waved dismissively. “I'm just happy you guys decided to trust me,” she replied magnanimously. She of all people shouldn't make a big deal out of this, and she certainly wouldn't with Steve looking all earnest like that. The guy really knew how to work those baby-blues.

Steve gave her a grateful smile. “Of course we do. Now, as you probably guessed, our friend is a SHIELD agent. His name is Phil Coulson, and—-”

Phil Coulson.

Coulson.

Whatever Steve said after that, it didn't penetrate the sudden ringing in Jessica's ears. She remembered suddenly and with absolute clarity the dread she had felt when Clay had avoided her gaze. Now she felt sick because she knew that Steve's friend had been stabbed, that Coulson had been stabbed, and was in bad enough condition that he was in need of professional medical equipment.

Jessica squeezed her eyes shut as the room started spinning around her. She needed to breathe, she knew she needed to breathe, could feel the panic seizing her throat and it couldn't be, it fucking couldn't be because Coulson—-

Coulson—-

“Jessica? Jessica, breathe,” Steve's urgent voice penetrated the fog, the endless loop of it can't be and Coulson and no that kept replaying in her head. She gasped for breath, tasted spandex and hint of cologne on her tongue and clean, clean skin. She gulped for more air, more of the taste until at last she shuddered and came to with strong arms wrapped securely around her. Her fingers clawed at the smooth material beneath them for hold.

“Jessica?” Steve asked gently when the shivers stopped and she lay limply and exhausted in his embrace.

And what did you say after making a fool of yourself? How did you go on after showing Captain America just how fucked up you are? Jessica didn't know, so she said nothing, hoping against hope... She didn't even know what she hoped. Her emotions were a tangled mess that not even she could make sense of.

At least there were no tears. Jessica hated crying.

She became aware of the calming rubbing motions Steve was making on her back. She… she liked that. Hoping he wouldn't stop she burrowed further into his broad chest, wanting to draw out the feeling of being safe.

“Did you know Coulson?”

Coulson used to make her feel safe, too. Not like this, but knowing he was out there was the only thing that made Jessica brave the world outside of her apartment some days.

She nodded into Steve's shoulder.

He audibly hesitated, though the motions of his hand didn't stop. “Were you close?” he settled on finally.

Close? No, because aside from Clay, she hadn't wanted anything to do with SHIELD once she had left. She had only met Coulson a handful of times, like when she had told Fury that she wanted nothing to do with the Avengers Initiative, or the one time before when he. When he.

When he had put the monster away. He'd told her himself that she was safe now.

A cold shiver ran crawled down her spine and she shivered. Steve tightened his embrace. “I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about this.”

There was a twinge of guilt at leaving him with the wrong impression, but Jessica wouldn't, couldn't talk about this. Couldn't put into words what Coulson meant to her, the man she had built up inside her mind.

The monster-slayer, even if the monster wasn't dead.

“I understand if you don't want to do this anymore,” Steve said.

Jessica's brow furrowed at the non sequitur.

“The case. Coulson. We'll find someone else to look for him—”

What— “No!”

He started at her outburst.

No. She couldn't let anyone take the case from her, she thought wildly. Steve thought Coulson was still alive. Clay thought he was still alive, otherwise he wouldn't have sent them to her. Coulson was still alive and Jessica had to find him, to see for herself.

“No,” she said again, this time more calmly. She untangled herself from Steve and looked him in the eye. Her heart was still beating loudly in her ears, yet she needed to get herself together for this.

For Coulson.

“Tell me everything you know about what happened.”

Her jaw clenched in response to his searching look, refusing to show any weakness. She would find Coulson, and she would repay the debt she owed him.

Whatever Steve was looking for, he must have found it. So he told her everything, on the floor of the still half-destroyed Stark Tower, because Tony Stark only allowed the meeting in a room without any seats as to make Bishop as uncomfortable as possible. He told her about how Coulson died trying to stop the perpetrator of the Battle of Manhattan, how Coulson had asked him to sign his vintage Captain America cards, and how Fury had thrown those same cards, dyed red with Coulson's blood, before Steve and Stark.

How it had been his death that ultimately allowed Captain America and Iron Man to put their differences aside and band together.

* * *

And behind door number three we have another bust! Jessica thought as she peeked through the window of the apartment in East Tremont that SHIELD had acquired two months ago. Like the first one on her list, this one was empty. The apartment complex in Belmont had, except for two units that stood empty, been completely rented out. None of the tenants Jessica had spoken with had had a word of complaint, nor noticed any large shipments or anything else out of sorts. Nor had any of them looked like secret agents hiding a stabbed person somewhere in their apartment, so Jessica had crossed it off her list.

Her last stop for now would be in Fordham, but Jessica didn't expect much. There were, all in all, fourteen properties, strewn all over the greater New York City area. If Fordham was a bust, she'd check the two in Manhattan, though one of them Jessica already knew to be a destroyed office complex. Shortly after the Battle of Manhattan Jessica had been hired to find a runaway son, and had finally managed to track him down to a destroyed building on the Lower East Side where the kid was squatting. Everything in the area had been in shambles; they said the Hulk had been thrown through it, but that might just have been a desperate attempt to give the mindless destruction some kind of purpose. Jessica's address was right next to where she'd found the kid; not even SHIELD could have cleared the wreckage and built a new house in such a short time.

Jessica stopped in front of her last address for today and groaned. A fucking daycare. God, someone above hated her.

As she got out of the car and walked up to the small building, she looked around. The street was clean, the buildings surrounding the daycare mostly undamaged. No graffiti and no signs of vandalism, which would be a plus if Jessica were a secret agent forced to nurse an invalid.

The daycare was closed on Sundays, so Jessica looked through the windows. Colorful carpets, shelves lining the walls filled with toys, miniature furniture and childish drawings on the walls. This looked painfully like a real daycare.

She walked around the building, estimated the lengths of the rooms with windows and couldn't find an obvious discrepancy. There was a chance that there was some kind of cellar, but damn. Who keeps a sick person in a cellar? Who would keep Coulson in a cellar? Not even Fury was asshole enough for that.

Nevertheless, Jessica decided to ask around. On the other side of the street was a 7-Eleven. She crossed the street. Inside she grabbed a pack of Skittles and walked to the counter.

“Hi.” She smiled at the boy behind the counter. The guy couldn't have started college yet, judging by his baby face.

“Hey,” he replied dully, forcing a whiff of an answering smile to his face. He rang her Skittles up. “$1.49.”

“Say,” Jessica started as she dug out a fiver. “You know anything about the daycare?” She jerked her heads towards the window.

“Why?” he asked as he gave her back her change.

Jessica tucked her hair behind her ear. “I just moved here for a job and I have a kid. Back home my parents took care of her, but now I gotta find an alternative, you know?”

“Oh.” The kid thought for a second. “Can't say I ever paid that much attention, but I never heard anything bad about them. It's a daycare, you know? There've never been any kind of scandals, if that helps.”

“No weird deliveries or anything? Strange men coming and going at odd hours?”

He stared at her. “It's a daycare, dude. It's just moms and the odd househusband.”

“No one after closing time?”

“Old Jenkins takes care of the garden. But he's always gone by seven, 'cause he plays chess with some old veteran buddies of his in the park.”

“Right.” Total bust then. “Thanks for these. Have a nice day.”

In her rental, she pulled out her list to cross out the Fordham address. Ten more to go, though Jessica honestly didn't expect this to lead her anywhere. Wasn't Fury some kind of uber-super spy employing other, lesser super-spies? Would SHIELD really be so obvious?

Jessica frowned. This wasn't getting her anywhere.

Time to do this investigation her own way.

Back in the office, Jess pulled out a piece of paper. She doodled on the paper as she thought about what she knew about Coulson: the guy was insanely capable, to the point where even people like Nick Fury respected him, and Clay held nothing but the highest regards for the man. That alone was rare enough to stick out. Coulson had backed the Avengers Initiative, even back when Jessica had been their only candidate. The guy was a Captain America nerd to the point of asking Steve to sign his vintage cards. Vintage cards that were now completely ruined, from Steve's description. Coulson really must have loved those cards to carry them with him...

She frowned. That didn't make sense. Coulson had a dangerous job on any given day; would he really carry a cherished possession with him in that case? One that could be destroyed so easily? Would Coulson, of all people? That didn't seem right.

If Fury faked Coulson's death to give the Avengers the drive needed to band together, then who was to say that Fury didn't use the cards to manipulate their anger?

If Coulson wasn't dead (and he wasn't, he couldn't be) and Fury had ruined the man's cards, then Fury would be in deep shit. For a lot of other things, but also the cards.

If Fury needed to make amends, the cards would be a good start.

Jessica stopped doodling as an idea formed, and she grinned as she bent to boot her computer up. Stark's fortune was the limit, and oh yeah, this was going to be way better than stakeouts.

Her phone rang as she opened eBay (it never hurt to exhaust the obvious first). Absently, she picked it up. “Alias Investigations?” she greeted absently.

* * *

Jessica stared at the couple sitting across from her. They held themselves stiffly, keeping their eyes straight as though her office offended them. Hell, it probably did.

The Hillmans were old money, one of these families for whom work meant shoveling more money in a day than Jessica made in a decade. Bishop was big, but the Hillmans were bigger.

And they wanted to hire her.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” she asked out of sheer confusion.

Mrs. Hillman honest-to-god sniffed. Fuck, she had to tell Luke about this. “No thank you, Ms. Jones. We're quite alright.”

Jessica doubted that, given recent affairs, but who was she to point that out? She was just part of the working class, after all. “Then how can I help you?”

Mr. Hillman spoke up. “Derek – Mr. Bishop, that is – spoke highly of you.” His expression said that he doubted that claim. “This is a very private matter; I trust that you can be discreet?”

“Of course,” she said, forgoing being insulted in favor of the money the case promised to bring in. She was so giving them the contract with the higher rates.

He nodded. “I assume you are aware of the scandal surrounding my son.” It wasn't a question.

'Scandal' wasn't quite the right word.. Perry Hillman had been an aspiring state attorney, rising quickly through to the top. Some said that his way was paved with his father's money, but whether or not that was true, no one could deny that he'd won a handful of very high-profile cases. The guy'd had a bright future ahead of him; the only thing missing from the perfect picture had been a smiling trophy wife, a dog and 2.07 kids.

Then, about a month ago, he had taken an M60 to the law firm where he had interned during law school and shot the place to hell. A police sniper had to take him out when it became clear that he wasn't about to take hostages. Last Jessica had heard, the police still didn't know why he did it, nor where the gun had came from.

“I read about it,” she answered neutrally. It seemed the safest thing to say.

Hillman nodded. “Then you also know that the police has been unable to figure out why he did what he did.”

It was obvious where this was going. “You want me to figure out the why?”

“I want you to find out who forced Perry to do this, and what they used to blackmail him.” Her brows shot up. Hillman scowled at her. “It makes no sense, no matter how you look at it. Perry had a bright future, a secure job, and many friends. There is no way Perry would have decided to commit this—this atrocity on his own!” His voice rose at the end, just shy of yelling.

“Clive,” his wife muttered. Then she turned to Jessica, an imploring expression on her face. “Please, Ms. Jones. Try to see this from our point of view. Should we truly accept that our beloved son has suddenly gone mad and done something so terrible?” Her voice trembled ever so slightly. “Shouldn't we exhaust all other venues first? Mr. Bishop spoke highly of you; please, you have to help us!”

Jessica bit her lip. “I might not find anything,” she pointed out. “Or if I do, it might not be what you want to hear. And I already have a case at the moment.”

“We realize that. But at least then we will know for sure. This...Ms. Jones, we can't go on like this. However long it takes you, we need to know.”

It was true; if she looked closely she could see the cracks in the facade, the way the wife's nails were thin and broken, how brittle the skin of her hands looked. The red lines in the husband's eyes, how his eyes shied away from the glow of her lamp.

Jess made her decision. “All right. I'll take the case.” Some of the strain that had held them stiff and straight in their seats visibly left them.

“You'll have to tell me everything and answer all of my questions honestly, though, even if they make you uncomfortable,” she warned.

Mrs. Hillman smiled. “That won't be a problem. Where do you want to start?”

* * *

It had been her own fault.

The eBay auctions were still running, her usual collector contacts hadn't turned anything up yet, and the Hillmans had promised her a list with their son's usual hang-outs, but hadn't sent it to her yet. Without anything better to do, Jessica had went back to working down her list of places recently acquired by SHIELD. After six unexciting properties she'd grown lenient, more concerned with getting it over quickly than actually paying attention. By the time she had snuck into the perimeter of number seven and peered into the lit windows it was already too late; she had panicked when she had spied the guns strewn about the place.

She shouldn't have flown. She'd panicked at seeing the guns, at the thought of what she'd stumbled into, and her only thought had been to get away so she'd taken to the air, but it was already too late. Someone had seen her.

And then more than one someone had opened fire on her.

The panic had seized her then, her whole mind and body. It was impossible to breathe, to cry out, to do anything but fly, fly away, to run.

The bullets chased her, grazed her, hit her. She felt them, felt them force their way into her body, burn inside of her. Still she flew higher, faster, desperately trying to outrun the pain, the memories.

She slammed into something, a wall of solid red and gold.

Woah, there! What the— Aren't you—?

Hands grabbed her, tried to force her and she fought, fought until her fist connected and she heard a grunt of pain, felt metal groan beneath her knuckles. Underneath her skin the bullets burned.

The hands released her, but before she could flee a bright light flashed in her eyes.

The impact felt like a semi hitting her face, and she tumbled in the air. Fell, fell until the pain made the world go dark.

* * *

When she had first discovered her powers, Jessica had wondered how far her durability went. She could bleed, after all, if she worked hard enough for it. But she had always wondered, even as she shuddered at the thought of actually finding out, whether or not she was bulletproof.

She wasn't.

Oh, she was more durable than normal people. But that only meant that instead of piercing through her, bullets 'only' pierced her skin. They drew blood, though not a lot. Unless there were a lot of bullets; then there was also a lot of blood. Jessica had to learn that the hard way.

Jessica woke up to an unfamiliar ceiling and a world of pain. She hissed, tried to move but couldn't for the pain racing up and down her body. Her heartbeat quickened as she desperately tried to remember what happened, who had done this to her, why—

“Jessica! Jessica, it's alright, you're safe,” an urgent voice spoke in her ear. Arms engulfed her, held her. She fought the embrace, fought to get free, but the arms held strong. Held her tight against a firm chest, a broad shoulder until a familiar mix of musk and cologne penetrated through the haze.

Familiar and soothing, and she remembered this. Remembered feeling warm and secure.

“Steve?”

His embrace tightened. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded against his shoulder, made no move to leave.

He didn't let her go.

He didn't say anything , and neither did she. She still hurt; it felt like her body was both burning and throbbing at once, in counter-beat to her pulse. Her head hurt and her eye felt swollen. She couldn't breath properly through her nose, either.

She swallowed. Asked, her voice small, “What happened to me?”

Steve shifted her in his arms, until he could look down at her. She averted her face.

“You have been shot. Multiple times.” There was a sort of awe swinging with in his words. Jessica tried to curl into herself. “You flew into Iron Man and attacked him. Jessica,” Steve said, voice urgent and excited, “You damaged the suit. You flew and your punch damaged the Iron Man suit.”

Jessica flinched. “How bad is it? The damage.”

Steve squeezed her around the middle in reassurance. “Just a dent. Tony already repaired it. If he says anything about it, just ignore him; he's sulking because his suit isn't as indestructible as he likes to pretend it is.”

That only made her feel marginally better. With a sigh she untangled herself from him and lowered herself back to the bed. He helped her, ever the concerned gentleman. She smiled helplessly at him despite the pain.

“We called Agent Quartermain after Tony brought you here. He said you hated hospitals, so we kept you here. Agent Quartermain sent a specialist by to remove the bullets and clean the wounds, though, so you should be all right."

Jessica's brain felt like it was filled with cotton as she processed the information. “Where is 'here'?”

“Stark Tower. You're in one of my guest rooms,” Steve answered with a crooked smile. “Tony gave all of us a floor for our own use.” He fussed with the blankets around her. “Do you remember what happened?”

She probably could, if she tried. She felt the memories lurking at the back of her mind, but she felt so tired and pleasantly blank that she didn't want to remember. So she shook her head.

The silence stretched out again as they looked at each other. Then Steve reached out to trace a finger around her eye, and she hissed at the unnatural heat it left behind. He snatched his hand back, contrite.

“I'm sorry. It's just, it already looks so much better than yesterday.”

Yesterday? Jessica wondered for how she'd been out. And how she must have looked, that this was already an improvement.

“I'm a fast healer,” she said simply.

Steve hesitated. “Where do your powers come from?”

The squeal of the tires, her mother's scream— “Accident,” she said shortly, staring at the bedspread.

Steve noted her obvious discomfort. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry.”

Jess shrugged.

“Have you... Have you ever thought of using them? To help? I'm sure Director Fury wouldn't mind one more on the team.”

Steve didn't know. Clay hadn't told him, Jess realized with a stab of fondness. Clay had kept his promise. The thought warmed her from the inside.

“I don't think he'd want me anymore,” she told him honestly. Then faked a yawn before he could pry further. By the time Steve had left she really did feel a bone-weary tiredness, and she sunk into a dreamless sleep with hardly a thought.

The next time she woke was to shining white teeth set in a blinding grin. Clay looked down at her and gently pulled a strand of hair back from her face.

“Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.”

She blinked up at him, rubbing sleep from her eyes. His smile softened.

“How are you?”

“Better,” she said after some consideration. She still hurt all over, but not as bad as before. She must have slept a long time. “What time is it?”

“Just after 4 PM. You wanna sit up?”

“Yeah.” She grimaced as Clay helped her up. She swallowed. “What happened to me?”

He didn't pretend not to know what she meant. Instead he took a seat on the edge of the bed and took her hand into both of his. “Illegal weapons bust. We needed to catch them in the act so we set up a deal at a house we bought just for that purpose. You showed up right as the bust was going down. I'm so sorry; I didn't know that they were going to send you there of all places to search for Coulson.”

She remembered now. The way she had panicked and had blindly fled into the sky. And had ran into Iron Man. God. She groaned and tried to hide her face behind her hands, but Clay still held one of them and gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back.

“I'm in so much shit.”

A warm laugh filled the room. “Nah. I told you, Fury likes you. When he found out what happened he ripped the agents that shot at you a new one. Then he rounded in on Stark.” Jessica felt her eyes grow wide. Clay rubbed her knuckles reassuringly. “Who spun a bullshit tale about hiring you to investigate things I'm not supposed to tell you about. You're not supposed to investigate anymore, but other than that you're not in trouble.”

Jessica found that hard to believe, especially with the hesitation in Clay's eyes. “What is it?” she asked.

He grimaced. “The Avengers know about your superhero gig.” He tightened his hold on her hand when she froze. “You attacked Iron Man in mid-air; you can't blame the guy for being curious. The director told them what he needed to tell to get them off your back. He gave them a very abridged file about you. Just basic information: your alias, your powers, and a couple of photographs of you in the Jewel outfit.”

She swallowed heavily around the lump in her throat. “What about why I quit?” she forced past dry lips.

“You had a run in with some trigger-happy goons and you hadn't been safe in a metal tin like some other people the director could name. The conversation derailed pretty soon after that.”

Jess nodded. That wasn't… that wasn't too bad, she thought, willing herself to calm down. “And Steve?”

“Steve, huh?” Clay said with a too-knowing grin. “Do I have to get jealous?” She glared at him, harder when he held his hands up in a gesture of innocence. “Captain America,” he emphasized, “was very contemplative when he heard that you declined a spot on the Avengers Initiative.”

“He knows?”

He softened. “They all know. Agent Romanov told them.”

The name rung a bell, but Jessica couldn't put a face to it.

“The Black Widow. You know, pretty, red-haired, absolutely deadly.”

Pretty and red-haired? Jessica remembered someone like that.

The agent that had talked to her after she had woken up from the coma had had red hair. Red hair and too-knowing eyes. She hadn't wanted to talk about what had happened, what Jessica remembered, but told Jessica how to live on. Jessica still remembered her on the bad days.

“She's an Avenger?”

“By accident, but yeah. And she's a damn good one,” Clay added as though he could read her mind. It just seemed too strange; the woman Jessica remembered had been slim and petite. That someone like that should fight alongside the Hulk sounded incongruous.

She was saved from answering by the door opening to admit Steve. He stopped in the doorway, clearly surprised to see Clay. Then his gaze flitted from Clay to her to her hand still clasped between Clay's, and his shoulders dropped slightly.

Jess stared at Steve, heart beating furiously as something like guilt settled in her gut. Ridiculous, of course. She hadn't done anything wrong. (Aside from punching Iron Man, ruining a SHIELD bust, and lying about her past.) She still pulled her hand out of Clay's grasp and lowered her eyes to the bedspread. She could feel the tips of her ears burn.

A huff made her look up at Clay. He met her eyes, amusement clear in his gaze. “I'd better be going then. I'm sure that I can leave you in Steve's very capable hands.” He very deliberately leaned down to kiss her forehead, even as she turned her head to avoid him. Then, with undue cheer, he got up and walked towards the door, giving the captain a cordial nod as he came closer, forcing Steve to either enter the room or step back to let Clay pass.

Steve took a step inside.

The door shut behind Clay with barely a sound, leaving Steve and Jessica alone in the room.

They didn't look at each other.

“You and Agent Quartermain?” Steve asked finally, still staring at the wall beside her. “I didn't know you were a pair.”

Jessica felt her cheeks grow even hotter. She cleared her throat. “We're not. We used to, but, uh. We broke up ages ago.”

"Oh."

"Yeah."

An uncomfortable silence settled between them as Steve stood awkwardly at the foot of her bed while she played with the edges of the bedspread. She wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come to here, so she let the awkwardness grow between them until she couldn't take it any longer.

"So you know?" she blurted. "About me having been..." she waved around with her hand, grimacing.

"A hero?" Steve supplied.

"An idiot," she corrected immediately. "You should have seen me, I looked ridiculous," she continued even though she didn't want Steve to see, didn't even want to talk about this at all. Yet she still continued, like those lab mice that were too fucking stupid to stop pushing the 'pain' button.

"I saw," Steve said quietly. Jess looked quickly up at him. "Natasha showed us a picture of you in the Jewel costume. You looked very pretty."

Jess made a face. She had looked like an idiot with the pink wig and those awful white tights. God only knew what had possessed to make her think that white tights were ever a good idea.

"Why did you refuse a spot on the Avengers?"

Jessica shrugged, as if it wasn't a big deal even though she could still feel the hollow ache in her chest that had followed the realization. " Wasn't cut out for it. For any of it," she added. "I guess I just don't have what it takes to be a hero," she said, staring straight ahead, ignoring the heat that rose to her face at the admission. To have to admit this to Steve of all the people in the world was even more humiliating than telling Fury and Clay that they had been wrong about her, that she wasn't what they had been looking for at all, just a stupid kid playing pretend.

Steve said, "Fury thinks that you have what it takes. Otherwise he wouldn't have offered you a place with the Avengers."

"Yeah, well. Even Fury makes mistakes."

"But not when it comes to people," Steve replied, and he sounded so earnest that Jessica met his gaze without thinking. She flinched at what she saw; the concern and the worry and the need to fix her.

Jessica felt her throat close up. She didn't need to be fixed, there was nothing wrong with her.

She was fine, she thought mutinously, clenching the sheets between her fists.

"I don't want to talk about this," she said tightly.

Steve started, looking guilty. “Of course. I'm sorry. I guess I'm just glad to know that there was someone else with superhuman abilities around...” he trailed off at the incredulous look she gave him. “What?”

Jessica laughed, the coil of tension that held her sitting straight up in the bed leaving her. “Steve, you work with the Hulk. And I'm pretty sure that there was some guy with some kind of lightning powers involved in the Battle of New York. You work with people with superhuman abilities. I'm just the obsolescent model,” she shrugged.

“What? No!” Steve protested, finally sitting down on the chair by her bed. “That's not true. Don't think that, Jessica. It's different, with Thor or the Hulk. To borrow a term from Natasha, we don't have the same skill-set. Knowing that there is someone out there who has the same or at least similar powers as I do...." He laughed in self-deprecation. "Sometimes it hits me, you know? Everyone that I knew or, or loved," he said, voice growing tight on the last word, "they're all gone. I'm the only one left. Knowing that there is someone out there who at least shares my powers makes it less lonely.”

Jessica swallowed around the lump in her throat. "I'm sorry," she said, feeling horribly inadequate.

She could imagine what it would be like. Jess wasn't a social butterfly by nature, but the thought of being unable to even just pick up the phone to call her parents because they were dead - they, too, a treacherous part of her mind whispered, maybe it's your fault - made her shudder.

Jess knew what it was like to be the sole survivor, after all. Before she could fall too deep into the swirl of self-loathing, Steve placed a hand over hers and the warmth of it called her back into the here and now like a siren song.

He gazed at her in concern. "I'm sorry," he said, as though he had anything to apologize for. "Are you all right?" He squeezed her hand.

Jess might have sniffed a bit. "Yeah," she said, returning his grip. She stared at their joined hands, both in wonder and in an effort to avoid his gaze until she had herself under control again.

Steve had big hands. Big, but gentle. With a deep breath Jessica made her decision.

"My family was going on vacation - my biological parents, my brother and me - and we were just driving in the car when a military convoy with radioactive material pulled past us...." She recounted the day of the accident that killed her biological family for him, how the accident had left her in a coma for months. She even told him about the orphanage and her adoptive parents and the alienation she had felt when she had returned to her old school where nothing had changed and everything stayed forever the same even though her whole world had collapsed around her.

And when she was too exhausted to tell him more about the time she had nearly drowned because she had flown over open water, back when she was still testing her powers and had next to no control, he took over and told her about growing up in the twenties, about his ill health and Bucky, about the war and preparing to die in 1943 only to wake up in 2011.

* * *

Jessica woke to a pleasantly dark room, but with no idea what time it was. She blinked into the darkness, trying to recall if she had seen something like a light switch near the bed. She blindly groped around her to at least find the edges of the bed when the room gradually grew lighter. As she watched the window front to her right turned from opaque to clear, revealing more and more of the bright sky outside.

“Good morning, Ms. Jones,” the AI's voice said in low volume. “ It is 10:36 a.m. I hope you slept well.”

“Uh...” Jessica sat up, pulling the cover up to her shoulders protectively when it threatened to slip off.
“Captain Rogers has been called to SHIELD, but he wants you to know that you are welcome to make yourself at home. If you are hungry or thirsty I'd be happy to direct you to the kitchen.”

Jessica shivered. “Did you watch me while I was asleep?”

“I am monitoring your vital signs and healing rate to the best of my abilities,” the AI replied. “I'm afraid that this kind of data assimilation and processing is an automated subroutine of my programming,” it explained with a note of apology in its voice. “If it makes you more comfortable I can refrain from speaking unless you ask me a direct question.”

Jess swallowed. “Yeah, no. That won't be necessary.” The thought of being watched in silence was even more creepy. “Uh.” She didn't want to leave the bed. She didn't want to be here, and the feeling of safety from last night was like a distant dream. Now she felt watched and judged, and it made her hackles rise.

But then her stomach rumbled loudly and for the first time she noticed how hungry she was. She hadn't eaten in god-knows how long, she realized with a start. She couldn't even remember when the last time was.

It was that fact that finally forced her out of bed and under JARVIS' guidance she made her way to the kitchen.

“I'm afraid that Captain Rogers uses the kitchen on the communal floor for the most part. His personal kitchen should be fully stocked, however, and I list a number of delivery services in my phone directory.”

Jessica wasn't really listening, distracted by her reflection in the stainless steel doors of the refrigerator. She touched a hand to her face, to the side of her nose that had just yesterday been swollen and tender. It still twinged when she touched it and there was still a slight discoloration, but for the most part it seemed to be fully healed already, thank god.

Footsteps behind her made her whirl around. Her eyes widened as she saw Tony fucking Stark walking towards her, a huge shit-eating grin on his face and a dirty wife beater stretching across his chest, a circle glowing blue from behind the cotton. It took Jessica a second to rip her eyes away.

“Jessy!” Stark called jovially.

Jessica pulled a face before she could stop herself; she hated that nickname.

"JARVIS told me you're awake. I thought the two of us should talk, from employer to employee. How are you? How's your hand? Is it swollen? Broken? Anything?" he asked, staring intently at her right arm.

Jessica glanced down at it before she could help it, resisting the urge to cradle it to her chest. "It's fine," she said. "Why?"

Stark looked disappointed. "No pain or injuries? A sprain? At least a bruise? No?" He frowned like a petulant child when she shook her head. "Do you make a habit of punching titanium alloy, or are you really that dense?"

Jessica stared, unsure if she had just been insulted. "What?"

"If I may, Master Stark is referring to the fact that you managed to damage the Iron Man suit, Ms. Jones," JARVIS explained.

Stark waved an impatient hand. "Yes, yes, thank you, JARVIS, no need to get too excited. She didn't damage the suit. It was a dent. Not even a scratch. I spend more time cleaning the suit than I spent on repairing the 'damage'," he said, using air quotes.

"The cleaning and maintenance of the suit is an automated process, sir. You do not spend any time cleaning it."

"Exactly," Stark said, as if his point had been proven. "Dummy could have taken care of the dent. It was nothing special or noteworthy. So don't get any ideas," he said to Jessica, who started at suddenly being included in the conversation again.

"I didn't," Jessica replied when it became clear that Stark expected some kind of answer. A blush rose in her cheeks.

"Good."

They stood facing each other, and Jessica waited for Stark to say anything. But he didn't, instead he just regarded her like she was some kind of exotic exhibit at the zoo. Jess shifted from foot to foot, hung her head so that she could hide behind the curtain of her hair, growing more and more uncomfortable by the second.

She broke the silence first. "I'm sorry, did you need something?"

Stark started, like he had been lost in thought. "Uh, yes. How's the search for Coulson going?" he asked, and the way he suddenly turned serious wrong-footed her. 'Serious' wasn't a word she would have associated with Tony Stark. But then, the man had not only fought against the invading aliens but had also flown a bomb into the portal over Manhattan, putting his own life on the line.

"I'm following a couple of leads," Jessica answered finally. "It might get a bit expensive, though," she added after a moment. Who would have thought that trading cards could be that expensive?

Stark waved the concern away. "Money isn't an issue. As long as you don't buy some small country in Africa or wherever I don't care. Just as long as you find him," he added in a more subdued voice.

Jessica swallowed, a dull stab of grief robbing her of her breath for a second. Then she pushed it aside; Coulson wasn't dead, she would prove it.

"I will."

Then the mood suddenly shifted again as Stark switched tracks, "Good! I'm sure Barton will be happy to hear it," he added blithely, shoving past her to stuck his head into the fridge. "Let's see what Cap has to eat in this place."

Jessica stared at the back of his head. If Stark didn't want to talk about his feelings, well, fine by her, but those mood swings were enough to give her whiplash.

"JARVIS, why is there no tuna in here?" Stark asked, still rifling through the contents of the fridge.

"The kitchens on the private floors are by default only stocked with the essentials, sir. Captain Rogers has made no requests to change that."

"Tuna is an essential!"

"I'm afraid that Ms. Potts disagrees."

"Ms. Potts didn't program you," Stark grumbled. He picked something up, unwrapped the paper around it and held it up to his face to smell it. From the angle Jessica couldn't see what it was until Stark held it out to her.

"What do you think about Gorgonzola?"

Jessica stared at the cheese in dismay. "It's mold. And not an essential."

Stark chuckled. "Barton said the exact same thing." That name again. You're both wrong, of course, but at least you're not alone in your wrongness."

"Who's Barton?" Jess asked, curious by nature. It came with the job.

Stark's eyebrows rose as he popped a piece of cheese into his mouth. "Agent Barton?" he said while chewing. "You know, sandy hair, killer biceps, eyes like a hawk, only smiles when he's about to bury an arrow in your balls? Otherwise known as Legolas or Robin Hood. Seriously," he added when he saw her uncomprehending look. "Nothing? Are my references not up to date? Should I have said Katniss? No? The guy that went with Cap that first fateful afternoon when you kicked them out of the office?"

"Zombie guy?" Jessica blurted without thinking.

Stark stared at her for a full second before he threw his head back laughed. "Oh god, you're right," he said amidst chuckles. "He does look like a zombie. I don't think the guy even sleeps these days. I shouldn't laugh, it's not funny," he said, but chortled anyway.

"JARVIS," he called as he tossed the Gorgonzola heedlessly onto the kitchen counter. "Call a Thai place, order something for me and Jessy. Do you like Thai?" he asked as he threw an arm across her shoulder and steered her towards what looked like the living room. "Forget Thai, let's get pizza. Everybody likes pizza. JARVIS, order us some of everything. We'll just give Steve whatever we don't want. The guy is like some kind of freakishly efficient garbage disposal. And I say that as someone who designs freakishly efficient garbage disposals!"

* * *

Eating pizza with Tony Stark might just have been one of the most surreal experiences of Jessica's life. The man didn't so much talk with her as at her, blathering on and on about things that Jess had no clue how to follow. At some point a Dr. Banner — "Just call him Bruce," Stark had said, not even looking at them but focusing on a freaking holoscreen he had called up from the coffee table - had joined them, treating Stark like a kid on a sugar high and explaining to Jess that Stark hadn't slept in two days and been living on coffee and sugar for instead. It did explain a lot.

Then Steve had come back. His surprise at seeing Stark and Banner had neatly melted away into a look of pleasure as he saw her up and about, causing the blood in her face to burn. It was awkward but also weirdly pleasant to observe Steve in his 'natural habitat', so to speak. Even when talking with Stark and Banner Steve had made sure that Jessica was included in the conversation, and he never let her feel like an outsider looking-in even once. She was comfortable, she realized after an hour or so. Comfortable in this place, with the company, in her skin. It wasn't a feeling that Jessica was used to anymore.

It was enough to nearly make her consider taking Steve up on his offer to stay at the tower for another night when she had dropped hints about making her way home sometime late afternoon. It wasn't that she hadn't wanted to stay with Steve for a bit longer, but—

Jessica felt good; being with Steve, being at the receiving end of his small boyish smiles, it filled her with the kind of warm glow in her chest that Jessica hadn't felt in a long time. It was a feeling she wanted to carry with herself for as long as possible, but experience had taught her that good things didn't last. At least not for her.

So when Steve looked at her with his baby-blues and implored her to stay Jessica smiled and said her goodbyes anyway, because she would not screw this up.

* * *

The Hillmans had faxed her their list while she'd been at the tower. They'd been meticulous; they'd listed where their son usually went after work, his gym, his favorite cocktail bar, associates, friends he lunched with, old girlfriends, and even his mechanic, all ranked by how close their son had been to them. There were explanations for the little symbols in the margins.

She scanned the list, absently working a kink out of her neck when stumbling over a name on Hillman's colleagues. Desiree Neuburg. Why did that name ring a bell?

Attorney kills husband and kids before taking own life was the very first result that came up on Google. Jessica frowned uneasily as she read the article depicting how Neuburg had killed her family and herself just three weeks ago. Police hadn't been able to find a motive; Neuburg had been a successful attorney; her husband worked half-time at a bank. The boy and the girl had both been in middle school and received good grades. By all accounts, the perfect family life, until Neuburg butchered her family in the night with a kitchen knife.

Jessica leaned back in her chair.

* * *

In for a penny, in for a pound, Jess thought, and instead of doing the smart thing and trying to get in the front door, she threw her hands up and used the momentum to propel herself upwards until she was level with the building's roof.

The lock on the fire door was helpfully rusty and gave way with nothing more than a sharp tug. Piece of cake, and way easier than trying to get by the bouncers. Jess knew that her shabby sweater/dirty jeans combo wasn't exactly clubbing gear, but she wasn't going to go and make herself pretty when this was so much easier. And cheaper. No ten-dollar entry fee. She was on a budget here, people.

The moment she entered the building, she could feel the beat from downstairs. It carried all the way up to the top of the stairwell, and acted as the perfect breeding ground for the mother of all headaches. Jess shook her head and wished she was at home in her quiet, lonely flat.

By the time she was on the same level as the club she regretted having dinner. Stupid cheeseburger felt like lead in her stomach, and the pulsing didn't help make her feel any better about this little fieldtrip. This close she could feel the beat of whatever passed for music in this hellhole in her goddamn toes, the fire door separating her and the club's main room vibrating in time with the bass.

Inside it was even worse, people pushing and shoving and the bass pulsing through everything and everyone. Masses of people writhed on the dance floor, grinding and sliding and acting like harassment suits waiting to happen.

She pushed her way through to the back and gave the bar a mournful glance. She needed a drink as badly as she needed breathing room right now, but alas, neither were to be hers tonight. There was a reason she hated jobs like this.

At the far back of the club, half-hidden in the shadows of the stairwell to the upper level overseeing the dance floor, was the door leading to the back room. The back room was reserved for “VIPs,” which was shorthand for “whoever pays the most.” Jess had been in there once before when she had investigated a client's daughter's boyfriend whose definition of relationship apparently included fucking prostitutes and shooting crack in a shady nightclub. At least the mountain of a man guarding the door wasn't the same guy as last time. Back then, Jessica had lied her way in by way of a glittery tank top that hadn't hidden anything and jeans two sizes too small, making cow-eyes at every man who had stood in her way. Just thinking about it made her shudder.

“Hey,” she said as soon as she was close enough to be heard. The guy stared at her, sizing her up and obviously finding her wanting. He sneered.

Her lips curled in answer. “Mind letting me in?”

The guy snorted. “Sorry, private party.”

“Maybe I'm invited?”

“Don't think so.”

Jess flashed her teeth at him, grasped his elbow and leaned in closer. “Come on, man. Don't be like this.”

The guard dog glared at her, but before he could utter a sound his eyes widened, then narrowed in pain. If he made a sound it was swallowed by the beat of the music.

“Let me in?” Jess asked sweetly. His arm jerked in her grasp, a futile attempt to dislodge her hand. She tightened her grip.

His knees buckled at the pressure, evident in the way he suddenly slumped until it was only her holding him up. His gasp of pain was audible this time, but his frantic nod came only a second later, before she could do any real damage.

She gave him a sunny smile as she let go. His whole body jerked away from her as she walked past him, and Jess felt a tiny sliver of guilt as he cradled his arm close to his body. Then she remembered the sleazy eyes and wandering hands of the bouncer from last time, and her guilt vanished like so much dust in the wind.

The back room was about the size of her apartment and furnished with cozy love seats and armchairs. There wasn't an extra bar, but the table in the middle of the seating arrangement was littered with bottles of various hard liquors in different stages of emptiness.

Roses was known for all the drugs that flowed freely in the club. If you were in the know (or knew someone that was in the know), it was also known for the prostitutes that were there for not-so-free for whoever had enough money left at the end of the night.

If the club was a haven for lonely frat boys and sorority sisters looking for an extra kick, then the back room was a paradise for all the bored and stupid rich kids of the city. And sometimes their daddies, Jessica thought as she stood in the shadow of the entrance and observed the spectacle before her.

Erwin Austin was an aspiring state attorney, a good friend and associate of the late Perry Hillman, and, if you dug deep enough, a disgusting piece of shit who clung so desperately to his youth that he wasn't above throwing his money around in places like this to get young girls who didn't know any better to do his biding. Everyone turned a blind eye when he bought them coke or E or whatever the drug du jour was today. preferring to laud the upstanding member of society Austin played at being during the day instead.

He had two girls who looked young enough to be his daughters glued to his side when Jessica finally walked in. Another girl who was mixing herself a new drink was the first to notice her.

“Who are you?” she asked with narrowed eyes from where she sat kneeling on the floor, and Jesus, she even sounded young.

“Someone who needs to talk to Ewwie,” Jessica replied with a sickly sweet smile.

Austin looked up in annoyance. Judging by the high blotches of color in his cheeks the guy was drunk, if not high. Maybe both.

“Who are you? Get out. This is a private party.”

Jessica clenched her fists. This guy was setting her teeth on edge. “Sorry, Ewwie, no can do. I need to talk to you about your friend Perry.”

“Perry?” Austin asked, irritation plain in his voice. “What do you want with Perry?” He suddenly went white and he sat up, to the complains of the two now dislodged girls. “Are you a cop?” His voice rose several octaves.

At the girls' horrified shrieks Jessica entertained the thought of pretending to be one for a few seconds. But the scumbag was a state attorney; forcing her way into the back room of a sleazy bar – one the asshole probably wouldn't want his colleagues to know he frequented – was one thing, impersonating a police officer another.

“No,” she admitted. Relieved, Austin sank back into the couch. The girls reattached themselves to him almost immediately. “But I know his parents. They asked me if I could help them find out what happened to their son.” Telling people that you were a private eye usually didn't go over all that well. “You were the last person who spoke to him before he snapped, right?”

Austin gesticulated in her direction, like he was trying to swat at a fly. “Go away. I don't want to talk about Perry.”

“Just answer my questions. That's the fastest way to get rid of me.”

“No, just go away! You shouldn't even be here, where's that guy, the guy on the door, what's he called?” He gesticulated even more wildly, nearly hitting one of the girls as he snapped his fingers twice in her face.

Jess' nails bit so hard into the skin of her palms that she drew blood.

“The bouncer!” the girl on the floor helpfully provided.

“The bouncer isn't going to get rid of me. Answer my damn questions,” Jessica snapped.

The asshole huffed, but something in her tone must have penetrated through the drug haze. He didn't tell her to leave again.

Deep breaths, Jessica thought. “Did you notice anything strange about Perry the day leading up to the shooting?”

“No,” Austin said sullenly. “I already told the police that.”

“Then tell me again. There must have been something!”

He shrugged as if she was boring him. Jess could hear her teeth grind.

“What about Desiree Neuburg? Does that name mean anything to you?”

Austin frowned. “Neuburg? What's she to do with Perry?”

“That's what I'm asking you. Did they know each other well?”

“I don't know. They liked the same bar. The one on 5th Avenue, what's its name? The Copa something-or-other.”

“The Copa Libertad,” the girl at his feet helped out again. But as she said it she attempted to get up, and in doing so upended her full glass on Austin's lap.

“Fuck!” he screamed. “You stupid bitch, look what you did! Go and get towels or what. Go go go!” he yelled, spittle flying and snapping his fingers with every 'go'.

Jessica lost it.

* * *

Surprise,” Jessica said, tired and exhausted as Luke opened the door.

“Oh, girl,” he said. He stepped aside to let her in, but caught her around the waist before she moved past him. He leant back on the closed door. “What happened to you?”

She let her head fall on his shoulder, mindless of the blood she was smearing there. “Had a run in with a wall,” she mumbled into his tee. She soaked in his warmth, his arms secure and strong around her. “I don't think I'm welcome in the Roses anymore,” she added after a few seconds.

“The Roses? No great loss, then.”

“They needed to redecorate, anyway.”

“You did them a favor.”

“Yeah.” Silence descended on them like a blanket, thick and comforting. In the back of her mind Jessica noticed that she slumped on Luke more and more, trusting him to hold her. She buried herself deeper into his embrace at the thought.

“I hate guys that snap their fingers,” she said into the silence.

Luke's arms tightened.

“I know, baby. I know.”

* * *

The sunlight woke her, boring into her eyes until she couldn't pretend to sleep any longer. When she opened her eyes she was alone in Luke's bed, the sheets tangled around her. Luke's side was cold.

She yawned, scratched the back of her head. Peeked beneath the sheets; she was in her underwear. The memories of last night rushed back when she touched her forehead and felt the band-aid.

“Fuck,” she said, shuddering as she remembered—

“Word.”

Jess jumped. She hadn't noticed Luke coming back. He smiled at her from the door, a glass of water and ibuprofen in his hand.

“Here. I thought you might need them after the night you had.”

She took the glass and downed it, and shook her head at the pills. She had a headache, yes, but the last thing she needed right now was to feel numb. Her skin crawled at the thought.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like shit,” Jess answered honestly. The bed dipped as Luke sat down on the mattress. He leant back on the headboard, lit himself a cigarette. She took one as well when he offered, and he lit it for her. “How bad is it?” she asked, touching the band-aid again.

“Not that bad, just a cut. You're lucky you've got a hard head.”

Jess chuckled, though she didn't feel amused at all. “Yeah, real lucky.”

“Don't be like that,” Luke admonished gently. He reached over to give her knee a squeeze, and she looked at him, grateful.

They sat next to each other for a while, just smoking. “Want to talk about it?” Luke asked finally.

Jess considered it, then shook her head. “No.” She didn't look at him.

“You know you can tell me anything.”

She did, she really did, but the words died in her throat. “I don't wanna talk about it.”

“Okay.” He took another drag, then stubbed it out. He swung his legs the side of his bed, sat with his back to her.

She thought about reaching out to him, but didn't. The silence between them grew uncomfortable.

She was finished with her own cigarette when he asked, “Wanna talk about something else?”

“Yeah.” Jessica scrambled to come up with something, then blurted the first thing that came to her mind: “I met Captain America.”

He gave her a surprised look over his shoulder. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Jessica smiled faintly at him.

“What's he like?” Luke asked, and settled back beside her.

Jessica considered her answer. “Heroic,” she finally settled on. “Kind of like you imagine him to be, but more.” Her smile widened as she thought about him, about his baby blues and how stupidly nice he was, ever polite and considerate.

Luke scoffed. “Don't tell me you got a hero crush on the guy.”

Jess bristled. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come on, don't get all defensive on me. It's not like you're gonna meet the guy again. You sure a doomed crush is what you need right now?” He leveled a pointed look at her forehead.

Jess couldn't believe her ears. “What the hell? Fuck you, asshole. You don't know 'what I need right now,'” she mocked. “And, for your information, I actually will meet him again. Set a date and everything.” For the case, but fuck her if she was telling Luke about that now.

“Really?” And Luke was pissed now, too. “Well, that's great for you. Then good luck, god knows you need it. Hey, who knows, maybe Captain fucking America will screw your head on straight. Maybe he's the one guy you won't piss on when he tries to help you.”

He got up and stalked from the bedroom while Jess yelled after him. “I don't fucking need your help!”

“Yeah? Then why do you keep turning up at my doorstep at three in the goddamn morning and drunk out of your mind? For shits and giggles? Are you so screwed up you don't even get it anymore?”

“Fuck you,” she spat. She vaulted herself from the bed, ignoring the way the wood of the floor gave way beneath her. She gathered her clothes, slipped into her jeans with jerky movements. “I don't fucking need you and your fucking need to play hero. I'm outta here.”

She pushed past him to the door, and slammed it behind her when he called after her, “Till next time you're drunk off your ass then, baby!”

* * *

She was still seething by the time she made it back to the office, but in enough control to not slam the door too hard. Instead she threw herself into the chair behind her desk and booted the computer up with an impatient flick of her wrist.

Who the hell did Luke think he was, anyway? That's what you got for trusting a guy, she thought viciously, taking a dark pleasure from the way her insides twisted at the thought. You open up to a guy and he thinks he fucking owns you, like he has any right to tell you how to live your life.

Whatever. She didn't need Luke—

Jessica sat up as a particular email caught her attention. She had several (fake) auctions for Captain America cards running, under different monikers. One of them had closed that night, and as she scanned over the shipping details she stumbled over the delivery address. With one hand she grabbed the folder for Agent Coulson's case, pulling out the information for one of her past auctions.

It was the same shipping address in Edison, New Jersey.

Both auctions had been for card #3, with the last auction probably serving as a replacement for the card Jess’ other sock account had failed to provide.

Jess leaned back in her chair as she contemplated that information. It could still be a fluke. Or the first real lead she had.

Jessica picked up her phone and dialed Eileen’s number from memory. Eileen Carty was her go-to for all things that could be collected ever since Eileen had hired Jessica to check out her then maybe-boyfriend. Eileen hadn’t taken it personally when Jessica had found that the guy was a massive dickhead who was more interested in her money than her, obviously expecting it. When you collected priceless hand-carved chess pieces from hundreds of years ago, you apparently had to be careful who you dated.

But on the bright side Jessica gained a contact in the collector’s scene who not only knew how the scene worked but who also had the reputation and clout to get everything and anything Jessica could ever need, be it information or actual collector’s items. And in return Jessica checked out possible boyfriends for free. It was a system that worked out well for both of them.

Eileen picked up after the fourth ring. “Carty?”

“Eileen? It’s me, Jessica Jones.”

A pause. “Hello, Jessica.” There was an ever-so-slight hesitation in Eileen’s voice. Jessica narrowed her eyes, but stayed silent.

How can I help you? ” Eileen asked after a moment, a slight strain audible.

“I’m calling about the cards.”

“What cards?”

Jessica sat up. She'd asked Eileen to collect a set of Captain America cards in mint condition in the hopes of attracting SHIELD's attention. Jessica's heartbeat picked up as the first flutter of excitement coursed through her. “Eileen?"

Eileen hesitated again. “Okay, Jessica, don’t kill me. I got the cards you wanted, full set, mint condition. But,” Eileen continued in a rush. “I received another offer for the cards. A better offer.”

“What?”

Look, I don't know how the guy knew, but he called me out of the blue and told me that he heard that I had a full set of vintage Captain America cards in top condition and made the kind of offer you can't just refuse. Or I can't refuse. He’s even come by the apartment already to confirm the condition of the cards. Look, I already know where I can get most of the cards, I can get you a different set. You said that it's no hurry, right?

Jessica grinned. “How much?”

Huh?”

“How much more is that guy willing to pay?” Jessica actually had to buy the cards if she wanted Eileen to collect them, of course, but it was Stark's money and it wasn't like the guy wasn't rolling in it.

Jessica...

"Eileen, I'm not angry, I promise. Just tell me."

Over the line Jessica could hear Eileen exhale. “They more than doubled your offer,” she said finally.

That was...Jessica stopped short. That was a lot of money. It wasn't like Jessica had been stingy with Stark's money.

Someone had to be a really big fan to pay so much for a couple of cards.

Or be in the doghouse for ruining a similar set cards.

Jessica? Are you still there?” Eileen called, but Jess barely heard her. She was too busy resisting the urge to punch the air in victory

“Eileen, do you have a description of the guy?”

The one who outbid you? Why?

Jessica frowned in annoyance. “Because you planned to go behind my back and sell it to the guy even though we had an agreement,” she snapped.

Okay, jeez,” Eileen said. “Let me check his contact info and I'll have a name for you.”

“Just tell me what he looked like,” Jessica said, pulling a sheet of paper towards her and grabbing a pencil. If it was SHIELD then the name would most likely be a fake, anyway.

Eileen thought about it for a second. “I don't really remember, to be honest. He looked kind of boring, you know? Wore a suit and glasses, I think, but don't make me swear it on a stack of bibles.

“Bland?” Jessica asked, the flutter in her belly morphing into an excited swarm of butterflies. “Like some kind of office drone?”

Yeah, kind of like that. Seriously, if the guy ran past me in the streets I wouldn't recognize him,” Eileen said, sounding spooked by the prospect. The sound of rustling paper could be heard.

Jessica grinned. If that description didn't sound like SHIELD she didn't know what did. “Did you already sell the cards to him? I won't be angry if you have,” she hastened to reassure when Eileen's end became suspiciously quiet.

Not yet, I wanted to tell you first. I'm not that much of an asshole,” Eileen said, and Jessica could have kissed her. “Ha! Knew it was here somewhere. His name is Clint Stevens. Does that mean anything to you?

Stevens? Like in Steve? Was that a coincidence or SHIELD’s idea of a joke?

“Not yet. Listen, I need you to sell the cards to the guy as soon as you can. But hold one of the cards back and let him give you an address to send it to,” she added as an idea struck her. She’d see where that would lead her, just in case following the agent wouldn’t work out.

I don’t know…” Eileen sounded hesitant again. “That doesn’t sound exactly kosher…

“But selling my cards when we had an agreement is?” Jessica countered.

Don’t bite my head off, that’s just supply and demand.”

Jessica exhaled, trying not to let through how frustrated she was getting. She had a hunch that this could be it, why did Eileen have to be difficult now of all times? “I’m not doing this for shits and giggles, either. Look,” she went on, “I promise the guy won’t even notice I’m there. It’s not like I’m planning to accost him on the street and accuse him of stealing my cards or anything. Come on!”

Eileen stayed quiet on the other end of the line for a moment longer, then she sighed. “All right, fine,” she said finally. Jess grinned in relief. “So when do you want to make the transaction?

“Soon as you can,” Jessica repeated. “The sooner the better. Hell, make it tomorrow if it works for you. Just tell me when.”

All right, all right. I’ll call you when I have a date? And do you still need a set or not?

There was still the eBay auction, Jessica remembered with a start. She’d nearly forgotten. “No, don't bother with another set. Is there any significance to card #3?”

#3? Yeah, they're hell to get. It was a limited run because the company's printing machine blew up during production, and they just stopped printing the cards. I think I could get you one, though it won't be mint condition.

“No, that’s okay. I was just wondering.”

They exchanged the usual pleasantries before hanging up. Jess leaned back in her chair, contemplating the situation. Over the years she had learned to trust her instincts, and she had a really good feeling about this. Which only left the question of how to trail a SHIELD agent. Clay had never been able to fully shrug off his training, eyes still seeking out exits and cataloguing threats even when he had been out with her. (Jessica refused to think about whether or not she had rated as a threat or not. She had, before, but that way lay bad nights and a bone-deep need for liquid oblivion.)

Jess worried her bottom lip. Most people didn’t look up to see if they were followed, she supposed. But she couldn’t fly too high up if she wanted to keep track of a guy in a suit in the middle of New York City.

Fuck, she thought. She closed her eyes against the world and tried to get her thoughts in order. She had to fly high enough to not be noticed by either the agent or some passer-by or someone taking a coffee break in any of the skyscrapers that made up the heart of the city, yet still needed to keep track of one man.

What did she have that could be of use? She had a pair of binoculars. They’d do the job in a pinch, but Jessica still frowned. If she lost track of the guy in the crowd she’d never be able to find him again. She needed something more high-tech…

Well.

She had Stark, right?

Rifling through the file in front of her for the contact information Steve had left her on his second visit she picked up the phone, dialing one handed once she found the right sheet. The phone was picked up after the second ring.

Stark residence,,” a cultivated voice with a British accent answered.

Jessica hesitated. “Uh, JARVIS?” she asked with a sinking feeling.

Indeed, Ms. Jones. How may I be of service?

“How—ah, how did you know that it’s me?”

“Your number is on file. Also, I was able to match your voice to audio records made during your previous stay in the tower,” the AI answered politely, sending a shiver of unease down Jessica’s spine.

Fucking creepy AI.

She cleared her throat to cover up her discomfort. “I need to talk to Steve. Captain Rogers.”

I’m afraid Captain Rogers is not in at the moment.” The AI actually sounded regretful, fucking hell. “However, I would be delighted to offer my assistance if applicable. Or I can put you through to any of the other Avengers currently at home.

“Is Stark there?”

Master Stark is currently working and prefers not to be disturbed. Dr. Banner has just taken a break from his work, though, and might be able to help you?

“No, that, that won’t be necessary. Uh, JARVIS,” she said, and tried not to feel freaked out. “Maybe you can help me…” she trailed off. Was it weird to ask an AI for tech? Was it rude?

Fuck, was there some kind of etiquette?

“Does the name Clint Stevens ring any bells?” she stalled. “I mean, uh, do you have the name on file? A SHIELD agent, maybe?” Fuck, she mouthed. Real smooth there, Jessica.

I am not aware of any person by that name, neither within SHIELD nor outside of it,” JARVIS replied. “May I ask why you wish to know?

“It’s just, I think it’s a fake name, and I thought, you know, Stevens like Steve Rogers, Captain America. Like it’s shitty SHIELD humor?” And it sounded pretty stupid and far-stretched, saying it like that.

I see,” JARVIS said. “In that case it might also be an allusion to Agent Barton, whose first name is Clint.

Jessica sat up at the new information. “Barton, that’s Zombie guy, right?”

Indeed, it was Agent Barton who approached you together with Captain Rogers that first time.

No way that that was a coincidence. Jessica grinned, she was this close to solving the case, she could feel it.

“JARVIS,” she called, unease temporarily forgotten in the face of her excitement. “I need something like binoculars, something to keep track of a person from high above. Does Stark have any kind of tech like that?”

Would that person be an agent of SHIELD?

“Yeah.”

Then you will find, Ms. Jones, that Master Stark has an unending supply of tracking devices,” JARVIS replied, sounding amused.

* * *

With JARVIS assuring her that the tech she needed would be delivered to her office by noon tomorrow at the latest, and Eileen calling to tell Jess that she’d agreed with the buyer to meet in three days time at Eileen’s apartment, Jessica basically went through the day floating on a wave of satisfaction of a job well done and the giddiness of being able to close a case that didn’t end in a shouting match and a divorce. She didn’t have enough of those, Jessica thought, as she turned the page of the newspaper she had bought as cover when she settled on a bench on 5th Avenue, catty-corner to the Copa Libertad.

After an hour of observing the people that went into the bar (mostly rich types with three piece suits and leather briefcases) Jessica went in herself and bought a drink, just casing the place. Half an hour later she had learned that the bartender’s name was Todd and that her colleague, Altman, served the after-hours crowd and would therefore know more about the lot. There was a third bartender who usually came in to help in the evenings but apparently the guy had broken his arm during his vacation, which meant that Todd had to work double shifts. Both Todd and Altman were smokers and spent their breaks smoking in the alley behind the bar. Also, the place had featured in some kind of travel brochure which had increased business by nearly half (Todd, as well as the patrons Jessica had talked to at that time, seemed to think that was a bad thing) and that, while the gin tonic was fantastic, the place was perversely overpriced. Seriously, Jessica thought as she ordered another, it was a good thing that the Hillmans’ were paying.

Another interesting thing was that apparently, no one was bothered by the fact that two of the regular costumers of the bar had ran amok not too long ago. Todd had just shrugged and told Jess that she wouldn’t know, seeing as her usual shift ended before office hours were over, and sure, all those people snapping was terrible, but there were still ruined buildings lining the streets of New York from the alien invasion and sometimes you just got tired of being distraught about things that couldn’t be changed anymore.

And with that disturbing thought, Jessica stepped out for a smoke herself, lighting one up while she checked her phone for messages. One missed call, her phone told her, and Jessica scowled at the caller ID when she saw Luke’s name flash up. Abruptly she remembered the argument they had only that morning (fuck, had it really only been one day?) and the last traces of her good mood vanished.

Fuck you, she thought viciously as she stabbed at her phone. Fuck you, you fucking asshole.

She looked up just in time to see a figure sidle into the alley that led to the Copa’s backdoor, and Jessica checked her watch with a frown. Ten minutes till Altman’s shift began, and Jessica followed the person into the alley.

Slim, black hair, piercing in his nose; the guy fit Todd’s description of her co-worker to a T. And the thing was, usually Jessica would get back inside, take a seat at the bar and wait until Altman served her before she started asking questions. Right now, however, she was pissed as hell at Luke and Jessica didn’t always make the best decisions when angry.

So she shoved the guy face-first against the wall and twisted his arm behind his back. Altman stopped struggling immediately.

“My wallet’s in my pocket,” he said. “Take the money, just please don't hurt me.”

“I'm not interested in your money,” Jess said, disgusted. “I want answers. So you're gonna talk to me, right?” She pulled his arm up a fraction more.

“Yes! Yes! I'll talk, I'll tell you everything you want to know, just please—-!”

“You know Perry Hillman and Desiree Neuburg.”

“I— I don't know?”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “The guy that shot up the law firm.”

“Oh! Yes, yes, he came by the bar pretty regularly—”

“I know,” Jess said simply, cutting him off. She changed her grip so she could fish a picture of Neuburg out of her pocket. She held it so that the bartender could see it. “Desiree Neuburg,” she prompted.

The guy squinted at the photograph. “Ye-Yeah, I remember her. She never came to the bar, sat at the back. I can't tell you anything about her, though.”

“Do you know if the two knew each other?”

Altman thought about it. “Maybe? I don't know. They knew the same guy, though.”

“What guy?”

“The one in the trench coat and deer cap. He always walks past here at six o'clock. He never comes in, but sometimes people who know him meet up with him outside.”

“How do you know that they know him?”

Altman shrugged as well as he was able to. “They always walk with him, even if they usually go in the other direction. I don't know, our customers are usually high society. I guess he's one of those people everyone above a certain pay grade just has to kiss up to. The guy wears a deer cap, for Christ sake. The guy’s gotta be loaded to walk around like that, right?”

“Right,” Jessica murmured absently. She let go of his arm but still pinned him to the wall. “And you say he always walks past at six p.m.?”

“Always,” Altman confirmed.

Jess looked at her watch. 4:43 p.m. Fine. She had a newspaper to pass the time.

* * *

Altman's description had been spot on. At six p.m. on the dot, a man in a beige trench coat, deer cap, and black slacks had walked by the bar, though no one had stepped out to join him. Jess had shadowed him for the past few minutes.

She still hadn't gotten a good look at the guy yet, and was contemplating whether or not to approach him when her cell vibrated in her pocket. The call was from a withheld number, and Jessica was leery when she answered.

“Jess!” came Clay's urgent voice. “Jess, where are you?”

“Clay? What's up?”

“Jessica. Where. Are. You?”

A bad feeling settled in her gut.

“On West 33rd, why?”

“Jess, you have to come in immediately.”

The guy she trailed stopped suddenly, and Jessica stopped with him.

“Jess, he escaped.”

The man turned around, smiled at her.

Purple skin.

“The Purple Man has escaped from the Raft!”


* * *

“This is bullshit!” Stark said, throwing his tablet on the desk. He leveled an annoyed look at Fury. “We know it's bullshit, you know it's bullshit, everyone knows this is bullshit! Who even comes up with this crap?”

Fury stared down at him. “I realize that this proposal is an inconvenience to all of you, but there are certain parties that are...uncomfortable with the line-up of the Avengers as it stands, and would prefer reassurance that—”

“Yeah, no. Let's call the bastard by its name. They-who-must-not-be-named aren't going to jump out of the shadows; we are not seventeen-year-old wizards with questionable fashion sense. The WSC is pissing their pants because we're not on their leash. There,” Tony said, spreading his hands. “I said it. Can we now stop talking around the elephant in the room that everybody hates anyway?”

Steve agreed with the sentiment, even if not with how Stark approached the topic. They all knew that the WSC was wary of them, and that the latest regulation was just another attempt to give the WSC more control over them.

“You shouldn't be aware of the opinions of the World Security Council,” Fury stated flatly.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Oh, please. You have a genius, two super spies, and me on this team. And Cap,” he added with a wave towards Steve, “but this is a bit above his awe-inspiring powers of patriotism and looking good in star-spangled spandex.”

“Agent Romanov, Agent Barton?”

Clint shrugged. “Hey, you put us on the team. It's not our fault if you regret it now.”

“I put you on the team because you put yourselves on the team when you were filmed fighting alongside these clowns during the attack on Manhattan.” Fury took a deep breath. “Look—”

The door to the debriefing room slid open. Agent Quartermain burst in, eyes wild.

“What the—?”

“Sir!” Quartermain interrupted. “We just received news that Killgrave has escaped from prison.”

“Killgrave?” Fury prompted, eye narrowing.

“The Purple Man,” Natasha put in. She had half-risen from her chair.

Steve was on alert. He didn't know what was going on, but from the way Fury's face clouded over he could guess that it wasn't anything good.

“How? When?”

“Probably four months ago—”

“Four months! Are you kidding me? How did we not know about this—”

“Sir, he put the guards on monitor duty under his control. We only realized because of an unscheduled check-up we conducted today.”

“Four months ago. Isn't that when Johnson escaped?” Clint asked.

Steve shared a look with Bruce and Tony. They, at least, didn't know more than him. Steve had vague memories of being told that there was a high security prison on Ryker's Island, but the names they were throwing around meant nothing to him.

“Johnson didn't escape,” Quartermain said grimly. “He was in Killgrave's cell. The bastard put him in his cell, probably to fool the sensors...”

“...and with the guards on monitor under his control, no one would realize the switch,” Fury finished. “I want the compromised agents brought in and examined immediately. And get a team to the Raft to find out how this could have happened!”

“A team is already on its way, and the guards are under quarantine at the Raft for the moment; they'll be brought back once the team arrives on the island. We're already shifting through surveillance material to find Killgrave. But sir,” Quartermain's voice wavered as he added, “I was just on the phone with Jessica Jones.”

Fury stopped on his way past the agent. A cold shiver crawled down along Steve's spine, and he got up without realizing what he did. Jessica, he thought.

“Jessica has been compromised. She's under his control.”

“What!”

“What does that mean?” Steve asked. “What's going on? What happened to Jessica?”

Fury paid him no attention. “I want them found immediately! Avengers, suit up. You're on standby. Agent Romanov!” Natasha straightened. “You will fill the rest of the team in. Tell them what you think they need to know. Be ready to fly out at a moment's notice.” With that he stalked out, Quartermain right behind him.

Steve turned beseechingly to Natasha. “What's going on?” He could feel dread settle like lead low in his stomach.

She looked at him. “Killgrave, AKA the Purple Man. Because of some kind of freak accident, he exudes a kind of pheromone that allows him to brainwash people.”

“Seriously?” Tony asked with no small amount of incredulity.

“He admitted to making a twelve year old girl slaughter her parents in her sleep with a kitchen knife,” Natasha replied flatly. “He raped teenaged girls and ordered their boyfriends to rape them afterwards. Yes, seriously.”

Steve swallowed the nausea and terror her words conjured. “And that man has Jessica?”

Natasha hesitated, shared a long look with Clint.

“Guys?”

“Jessica Jones is the reason why they brought Killgrave in,” Natasha said finally.

“How?” Steve asked, though the way she said it and the steel in her gaze made him feel nauseous.

“He had her under his control and ordered her to kill a visiting congressman. She broke free of the control before she could execute the command, but by then she had already been classified as a threat. SHIELD was tasked with the protection of her target, and the agents opened fire on her as she was fleeing. Flying. Like when you ran into her,” she added with a glance at Tony.

“Is that how she became known to SHIELD?” Bruce asked.

Natasha nodded. “She was shot down and brought into custody afterwards. We didn't know that she had been brainwashed; we didn't find that out until we interrogated her after she woke up from her coma. That's how we found out about the Purple Man.”

“Coulson brought Killgrave in only a couple of days later,” Clint added. “I was his back-up. That's how she knows Coulson and why Quartermain knew that she'd help us. Jones has some kind of hero-worshipping going on for Coulson.”

“Hell,” Tony muttered. “And that guy has her again?”

“How long did he have her?” Steve broke in quietly. “Before he gave her that order?”

Natasha hesitated, and that, right there, told him all he needed to know. He felt sick.

“Eight months.”

Eight months.

The words felt like a punch. Eight months at the complete mercy of that monster.

Oh God.

“Did he...?” He forced past numb lips. “Did he...?” He couldn't look Natasha in the eye. He heard her words again He raped teenaged girls and ordered their boyfriends to rape them as well, and couldn't help the images they conjured up before his mind's eye. The thought alone made the bile rise in his throat, and he thought about Jessica, how small and vulnerable she had looked when Tony had brought her to the Tower. The thought that Killgrave—

His head snapped up when Natasha scoffed. “He held her for eight months, Captain. She wasn't some cheap amusement like those other girls. He wanted to break her, to destroy her." She held his gaze. What he saw there made ice-cold dread crawl down his spine. "There are more ways to destroy a person than rape.”

He licked his lips. “What do you—”

Her lips twisted into a sardonic, vicious mockery of a smile that hurt to look at. “You don't want to know,” she said simply, and he completely and utterly believed her.

Her words left a painful, fragile silence behind. Even Tony stared at some point over Natasha's head, as though looking at her directly was physically painful.

“Let's suit up,” Clint murmured softly with a soft touch to Natasha's shoulder.

The order to move out came three hours later, hours that Steve spent worrying and stewing in his own thoughts. He thought about Natasha's words, thought of all the ways a person could be broken and only stopped that train of thought when he felt he couldn't keep the bile down anymore. He had seen terrible, twisted things during World War II, had seen what the Nazis had done to their prisoners, what Hydra had done, and now he couldn't help seeing Jessica, bleeding and broken, victim to all the atrocities that humankind was able inflict.

Fury's voice came on over the comm links. “Agent Barton, Stark, to the hangar. You're moving out. The rest of you, debriefing room B-4 on deck two.”

“Did you find him?” Steve demanded.

“Deck two, Captain. You will be briefed there.”

* * *

“I should be out there.”

“You can't be out there,” Fury disagreed. “Killgrave's pheromones are too dangerous. Now sit your ass down, Captain. You're not gonna be of any use pacing around.”

Relax, Steve," Tony said. “Barton and I've got this. Right Barton?

Yeah,” Clint agreed, but he didn't sound nearly as reassuring as Tony.

Steve understood why he couldn’t be with them, but that didn't mean that he didn't want to be part of the mission himself. Sitting here and doing nothing while Jessica was in danger didn't sit right with him. Sending in Tony and Clint when Jessica was with that monster didn't sit right with him. He thought of Natasha's words, and his fists curled. His knuckles cracked, as if in anticipation.

He should be out there.

We've got visual,” Tony said as he peered into the a factory window. The cam followed his gaze; the factory seemed deserted save for two lone figures standing in the middle. That wasn't right. At this time of the day, the factory should be bustling with workers. Had they fallen prey to Killgrave's mind control, or had Killgrave already disposed of them?

JARVIS found some unknown chemical in the air.”

“Sir,” one of the techs said, “data from the Iron Man suit confirmed as chemical KG-P001.”

“Killgrave's mindwhack pheromone,” Quartermain explained, voice tight.

Great, not so unknown, then.

“Stark, does the suit protect you from it?” Fury interrupted.

Puh-leeze, no need to get insulting. The suit protects me from Cap's gym socks, a few pheromones aren't going to be a problem.

“Then you're clear to engage.”

You say the nicest things.”

They watched on the monitors as Iron Man burst through the glass of the factory, descending among a shower of shards.

Clint's voice came back. “I'm in position.

“Wait for signal, Agent Barton. Let's see how the hostile reacts to Stark, first.”

“Keep out of sight,” Natasha added. “Sickos like Killgrave get off on an audience.”

Roger.”

The video feed from the Iron Man suit was clear and sharp, picking out and transmitting every tiny detail. Killgrave looked amused as he watched Iron Man come to a stop mid-air. Jessica stood listlessly next to him, and Steve wasn't sure if it was his imagination or whether or not Tony's tech really was that good, but he thought that her eyes looked dead.

"Iron Man!" Killgrave greeted him like an old friend. His voice alone was enough to put Steve's teeth on edge. Bruce put a restraining hand on his shoulder and squeezed once in a gesture of comfort.

Steve barely refrained from shrugging it off.

What a lovely surprise. I didn't think we would meet this soon The first clash between the hero and the villain, to give the audience a taste of the grand battle to come. And what an audience we have,” he murmured with a sly look.

What the hell? " Clint murmured.

“Do we have a report on his state of mind?” Bruce asked, brows knit together.

Agent Quartermain snorted, mouth curling in disgust. “The fuckhead makes children slaughter their parents and friends for shits and giggles. The crazy part was taken for granted, Dr. Banner.”

And yet spot on," Tony added. “All right, let's get this done and over with. JARVIS, put me on speaker.

Certainly, sir.”

All right, asswipe,” Tony called. His voice had a strange echoing effect as they heard him speaking both through the comm link and the microphones on the outside of his suit. “Why don't you unhand the lady and I won't stomp you to the ground? Because I have a date tonight, and frankly, you're not half as pretty as she is.”

Killgrave laughed. Steve ground his teeth. “Yes, the lovely Ms. Potts. A fitting love interest. Beautiful and smart, but not smarter than the hero. And with no ambitions to rise above her station like this one,” he added with a snide nod towards Jessica.

Unhand Ms. Jones,” Tony ordered, a sharp edge to his voice.

You don't want that one, Mr. Stark. You don't know her like I do, and believe me, you don't want a whore like her.

Steve's fists clenched as he seethed, forced to do nothing but watch and listen as that monster spoke about Jessica like that while she had to stand by like a lifeless statue. Listening to both Quartermain and Natasha hadn't prepared him for this—for this sense of violation he felt for Jessica's sake.

A bang behind him startled him, and he whirled around ready to attack. But it was only Quartermain, the same impotent rage Steve felt burning through him in his eyes, evident in the way his fist still flexed even against the steel of the wall, as though punching it wasn't enough to satisfy his thirst for violence.

“That fucking—”

“Agent Quartermain!” Fury warned. Quartermain broke off, glaring silently at the monitor.

Steve had missed Tony's reply; Killgrave's voice filled the room again.

Oh, but I do. Who knows a hero better than his nemesis? Though granted, Jessica isn't much of a hero.” Killgrave turned to her, stared at her like he was evaluating her. “Doesn't it bother you?” he asked, turning back to Tony. “Here you are, the great Tony Stark. A real hero, the one who kicked the whole franchise off. And then, when you did all the work of making it popular, turned it into a superhero craze until there isn't a summer when there's no new superhero movie and then, BAMM!” He snapped his fingers, right in front of Jessica's face. She didn't even blink. “This upstart comes, retcons her way in until she's the first one Fury offered a spot on this year's superhero blockbuster, worming her way up to the love interest of the very first Avenger like the slut that she is. Doesn't that make you sick?

Sir, just give me the word,” Clint said the moment Killgrave stopped talking. Steve was too furious to even speak. God, how he wanted to be down there, give the monster what he deserved for daring to speak about Jessica like that—

“Not yet, Barton,” Fury said, making Steve's control snap like a dry twig.

“Why the hell not?” he exploded, shrugging Bruce off to lunge at Fury, grabbing him by his coat. “Give the damn order! Jessica is...” He trailed off as Natasha put a warning hand on his arm. It was different from Bruce, because even if she didn't grip him and her hand was so much smaller, Natasha had a presence that made you hesitate, made you take notice.

Fury said, “I understand your feelings, Captain, and believe me, this isn't fun for me either. But we can't just move in. We don't know what tricks the Purple Man still has up his sleeves, nor do we know if he made Barton yet. What if I give the order to shoot and Killgrave shoves Jessica into the line of fire? Or orders her to protect him? Do you really want me to take that kind of chance with her safety?”

A wave of helplessness crashed through Steve at his words. He let him go, defeated. “Then what is the point of this?” he asked, wishing he could just go down there and protect Jessica from this nightmare.

“The point is to gauge the Purple Man's powers and delusions. We now know that the Iron Man suit can't be compromised by the pheromone, and we confirmed that he really has Jessica Jones as his hostage,” the director replied, not unkindly. “And now we know the nature of his delusions, and that they center on Ms. Jones.”

“How does that help Jess?” Quartermain asked, the words tumbling out as though unbidden.

“It's important information that might help us when we do stage our rescue mission, as you well know, Agent Quartermain,” Fury said, a note of reprimand in his voice.

When no one spoke for a moment, Tony's voice came over surveillance link. He must have listened to their side of the conversation while they argued. “Yeah, I already knew that you're bonkers but wow, you're really pushing up to eleven, huh? Newsflash, Freakazoid, this isn't a movie. And not to hurt your feelings or anything, but as a villain? You really don't cut it. You might wanna try handing in the 100% cotton turtleneck sweater for a cape. Trust me, the cape makes the villain. Just ask the megalomaniac whose ass we kicked last month. He had daddy issues. What's your excuse?

But it is a movie. Take this very moment!” The camera zoomed in on his face, as if in anticipation. Killgrave's face filled the screen. “A close up of the villain as he explains his motivations. The light in his eyes is manic, clearly visible on the screen.

“What the—?” Natasha said.

Bruce recoiled from the screen as Killgrave looked right at them. Fury swore.

It appears as though the villain is speaking directly to the audience, and the audience recoils from his mindless thirst for destruction.

“Okay, this is freaky,” Bruce said, looking anywhere but at the screen, where Killgrave stared back at them. “This isn't just freaking me out, right?”

A dramatic pause, to give the hero and the audience time to digest the true extent of the villain's evilness.

Jarvis?” Tony demanded, voice tight.

An unlucky coincidence, sir,” the cool voice replied. “While you have outfitted me with quite a number of extraordinary features psychic powers are regrettably not among them.

Killgrave's expression turned discerning. “The camera work leaves something to be desired. It's not going to win Best Camera, that's for sure. At least it's not 3D. Now that's what I call a cheap gimmick.

Tony snorted. “Great, he's not just insane, he's one of them.” To Killgrave he said, “Hey, a movie's only as good as its villain. This flick's bound to bomb, but if you insist, why don't we do the final battle right now? You, me, and your face smashed into the ground. I'm sure it'll go over well with the critics.

“Stark! Just keep him talking!” Fury barked.

We've done enough talking,” Tony replied as the Purple Man laughed.

Do you really think you will win, Iron Man?

And finally, finally Tony took action, firing a repulsor blast into Killgrave's smirking face. Steve swallowed a cry of dark satisfaction as he watched the bright flare on the screen, right at the bastard. And then—

“No!” Steve yelled as Jessica, who hadn't moved at all since Tony had burst into the factory, placed herself between her tormentor and the blast. Tony's startled curse was drowned out by sick laughter.

Look at that! She's good for something, after all. And here was I, thinking all she was good for was whoring herself out for the camera and riding on the coattails of the real stars!

“Stark! Kill that guy!” Steve yelled, struggling as both Natasha and Bruce tried to hold him back. He didn't know what he was going to do, but he couldn't stay here anymore, in this room, listen to that monster talk about Jessica that way.

Would love to, but she's in my line of fire!” Tony gritted out, flew around to get another angle but Jessica moved with him.

Fury yelled, “Dammit, Stark. This is why I told you to hold your fire!”

That's really helping right now!

“Hawkeye!” Fury bellowed. Silence met him. “Agent Barton, do you still have a shot?”

It took a moment until he was answered. “Sir, I think we should fall back.

“What?”

“Clint?” Natasha asked, a hint of urgency in her voice.

I'm not compromised,” came the reassurance. “Stark, on your ten.

Shit,” Tony said, and a moment later the camera view shifted and they saw why.

A man stood to the side of the warehouse, his expression as blank as Jessica's and a belt wrapped around his middle.

“Is that a bomb?” Steve asked.

Yep. Sir?

Fury glowered at the screen, but the picture didn't change. And Steve realized, with a sick feeling of impotence that crashed over him like a wave, what Fury's next order would be. Because without knowing what kind of explosives they were dealing with, they couldn't take the risk of prolonging the battle.

“Retreat,” Fury ordered. “Return to the helicarrier.”

Dammit,” Tony swore, and as he turned in mid-air to fly to Clint's position, the Purple Man's voice followed him, amused and confident: “I told you, the hero always loses the first fight!

* * *

Steve sat at the conference table, as tense as a taut wire string. His fists lay clenched on his tights, and he glared at the tabletop like he was trying to set it on fire. Natasha and Bruce wisely kept their distance, sending him dark (Natasha) and wary (Bruce) looks every now and then.

That was the scene Tony and Clint found when they walked into the debriefing room.

Tony walked in first, still suited up but with his faceplate up. “Shit, Cap, I'm sorry,” he said, sounding exhausted and genuinely apologetic.

Steve ground his teeth, but gave him a sharp nod. It wasn't Tony's fault, he recognized that much, though that didn't give the vengeful energy thrumming through him the much-needed outlet he craved.

Clint gave him a short pat on the shoulder as he walked past Steve to stand beside Natasha. The two shared a long look that Steve didn't try to decipher.

“So what's the plan now?” Tony asked, throwing himself into one of the seats around the table.

“Now we wait,” answered Natasha, to which Tony answered with a grimace. Natasha took no note. She was staring at Steve instead.

Steve, for his part, was doing his damndest to be a good soldier and wait for further orders. He wanted to be out there, wanted to punch Killgrave in the face and into the ground. The bastard was going to pay—

The door hissed open, and they all looked up as Hill stormed in, her face white.

“Avengers, suit up,” she said, already turning around again to hurry back to the bridge. They shared a confused look and went up to follow her.

“What's going on? Did you find him already?” Clint asked.

Tension was evident in every line of Hill's body. “He wanted to be found," she answered shortly. "He's in the middle of Times Square.”

Dread doused the burn of his rage as the implications of what Killgrave could do in a place as populated as Times Square sank in.

“What's he doing?” Steve stopped Hill at the junction that would take them to the jet hangar.

Hill gave them a grim look. “Causing a massacre. Surveillance showed him at the foot of the Duffy statue. Hawkeye, you and Iron Man are the only ones cleared to enter Duffy Square. Hawkeye, your position is atop the Edison Hotel. We still haven't determined how far-reaching the effects of the pheromone are, but you should be high enough that it shouldn't affect you. Do not leave your position. The jet's equipped with gas masks; use them. We don't know how effective they are, so Agent Romanov, you and the Captain are to go to 46th and help keep the people away from the Square and do damage control. Dr. Banner, we're aware that your medical degree is unfinished, but we'll need every helping hand we can get.”

“Ma'am, I'd prefer to join Iron Man and Hawkeye,” Steve protested as the others moved past him. Only Natasha hung back to wait for him.

“No,” Hill said. “We don't know if the gas masks are sufficient protection, and we're not going to risk Killgrave turning you as well. I understand your feelings, Captain, but your orders are final.”

“But—”

“Understood,” Natasha said, taking him by the elbow and leading him away. Hill gave her a nod and hurried back towards the bridge.

“Natasha—” Steve started angrily. She cut him off.

“No,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument. “This isn't about you, Steve, and you wanting to play hero doesn't help Jessica. This is about her.” She shook his arm when he stared at her, uncomprehending. “This is all about her. He wants to destroy her, humiliate her. Don't you get it? He knows that you two are more than friends—” Steve blushed, despite everything. “— he'll use that. He'll have to use that against her.”

“What?”

“Relationships, emotional connections to others – these things can save people from the darkness, from themselves,” she explained, with that glint in her eyes that promised pain if he dug deeper. “He wants to destroy her completely, and you are a part of his plan. Don't give him the ammunition he needs by barging in there like an idiot.”

Steve swallowed against the rising tide of helplessness that threatened to drown him again. He was— he was completely out of his depth right now, a feeling that had plagued him since he first woke up in the 21st century, but he thought he'd moved past it. Until it all came crashing down again.

Natasha squeezed his arm, and he looked up to meet her eyes. “We'll get him,” she promised.

“You sure?” he asked, and he hated how unsure he sounded, how small his voice was, like it had been before the serum.

Natasha gave him a hard, sharp-edged smile. “People like Killgrave are all the same; they bluster and they talk themselves big, but in the end they are all losers.”

* * *

Steve took measured and even breaths, focused on putting Killgrave's words out of his mind and preparing himself for the upcoming battle when he heard Clint say, “Do it.”

A horrible snap echoed through the jet, and Steve turned around to see Clint hiss in pain. His foot was in Natasha's lap, her hands gentle as she slowly eased his ankle back into a natural position. Steve and Bruce stared.

“Did you just break his ankle?” Bruce asked, voice jumping in disbelief at the end.

Natasha looked up at him from beneath her lashes, her head still bowed over Clint's leg. “Ruptured his ligament,” she corrected. “Mind control is stimuli. The brain focuses on the strongest stimuli; if it's the one telling you to bark like a dog you'll bark like a dog, but if your nerves are busy screaming at you that you’re in pain then that's what your brain goes with.”

“The gas mask limits my sight too much. And I need my hands,” Clint added now that the color had returned to his face. “It's not the first time that I’ll have to shoot with an injured foot. Don't worry,” he added reassuringly, “my aim won't suffer.”

Steve stared at them. “That's really not what I'm worried about,” he said finally.

Wait,” Tony said over the comm. He was flying alongside the jet, waiting until they were above the square when he would pick up Clint and fly him to his position. “Does that mean we just gotta cause the people under Killgrave's mindwammy some pain? I'm 97% sure that I can calibrate my repulsor blast so that nobody gets killed if I shoot into the crowd. JARVIS can make the necessary calculations.

“It's not that easy,” Natasha said. “Once the mind control has taken hold it overrides everything else, even pain signals.”

“So we can't actually fight it?” Bruce asked.

“Not while they're in the vicinity of the source of the pheromone. Outside its direct influence it should be possible to free them.” Natasha grinned. “Ever heard of the saying 'knocking sense into someone's head?' The fancy term is cognitive recalibration through blunt force. Basically, if it knocks the guy out, it also knocks the mind control out.”

“Is that what you did...” Steve trailed off, looking between Natasha and Clint and thinking about the attack on the helicarrier before the Chitauri invaded.

She patted Clint's calf, sharing a brief glance with him. “Yes.”

And that works?

“Like a charm,” she replied.

So what, you and Cap have fun knocking obnoxious New Yorkers on their heads – and get some for me as well, you lucky assholes – while Hawkeye and I do what exactly? Stand there and look pretty?

“Speak for yourself, Stark,” Clint snorted. “I'll be busy shooting.” He pulled one of his bows out of his quiver, and Steve could see that there was some kind of liquid inside the arrowhead.

“Tranquilizers?” he guessed.

Bruce's brows knit together in thought. “No, too dangerous. Assuming that Killgrave only gave the order to kill without specifying who, anyone knocked out by a tranquilizer would be in immediate danger. And I know you're good, Clint, but even you can't shoot fast enough to knock out a whole mob.”

Clint grinned. “Don't worry, doc, I know how good I am. It's nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. The plan is to overstimulate them until their brains shut down in self-preservation. Or, alternatively, overpower the pheromone in the air, whatever works. We'll see how it goes.”

“Entering airspace over the city!” their pilot called back, and only a moment later the hatch opened to let Iron Man in. Natasha helped Clint hop towards the opening, and then Iron Man grabbed him and the two were off.

“Sir, where do you want to be let off?”

“The square's mostly cleared,” Bruce remarked, peering out the windshield.

“Police set up a perimeter down to 45th street. Apparently they tried to get to 47th but couldn't due to the mass panic.”

“So if the police are on 45th and the people have run in a panic, who's still down there?”

“The people under Killgrave's control,” Natasha answered simply.

Guys, Hawkeye is in position. And yes, the purple freak is down there. I don't see Jessica, but I'll keep looking. It's absolute pandemonium down there, though.

Steve's breath hitched at the mention of Jessica, but he pushed through it. No time to get distracted now. He glanced at Natasha. “What do you think Killgrave ordered them to do?”

“Most likely? Just to kill. The point wasn't to rack up a body count. The point was to get us here.”

“So we know this and yet here we are. We're playing right into his hands,” Bruce said with an unhappy twist of his lips.

“We don't have a choice,” said Steve. “Not when he's holding all these people hostage.” And Jessica, he thought with a twinge.

“We'll disembark on 47th,” he decided. “Bruce, immediately heed towards the perimeter, see if you can find the paramedics. Natasha and I will make our way towards the square. Someone needs to tell the police we're coming and explain the situation. I don't want them to get trigger-happy.”

“Already taken care of, Captain,” the pilot called as he initiated their descent. “Police know you're coming and that the civilians are under mind control.”

“They believe that?” Bruce asked in surprise.

“You'd be surprised what people are willing to believe since the Battle of Manhattan, Dr. Banner.”

Something touched Steve's arm. He half-turned to see Natasha hold a gas mask out to him. He made a face.

Maybe Clint had the right idea.

Natasha read his mind and quirked a brow. “A twisted ankle isn't going to cut it. You really want to fight with a ruptured ligament?”

Point taken. He took the mask with bad grace and pulled it on.

Bruce huffed, the noise muffled by his own mask. “At least we look equally ridiculous.”

“Touching down, sir!”

They braced themselves as the jet landed, and with a nod of thanks piled out of the opened hatch door. Natasha was the first to orient herself.

“45th is that way,” she said and Bruce set off at a jog. They had given him a stun gun just in case, but they had all decided that it was best that he get away from the center of the battle as soon as possible. The Hulk was the last thing they needed right now.

A yell behind them made both of them turn, and they set off at the same time when they saw two men struggling up ahead.

Both men lunged at each other, one with some kind of rod and the other with nothing but his bare hands.

Natasha used her momentum to jump over the bare-handed one, grabbing his jacket to pull him with her. The other turned, expression twisted with rage. When he saw Steve he lashed out, swinging his weapon over his head to strike.

Steve caught the blow easily with his shield. Before the clang of metal on metal could fade he jerked his arm up and drove his shield to the side of the man's head.

The man sagged down like ragdoll.

“This isn't good,” Natasha said. Her guy lay at her feet, already unconscious. She was looking at Steve as she said it. Steve followed her gaze to his shield; saw the red streak left by his assailant's weapon.

The white star was slashed in two by blood.

He looked away. And saw more people struggling up ahead.

“Let's go.”

The funny thing about battle was that time flowed differently depending on where you were. On the outside, battles always seemed to go too fast, leaving not enough time to plan, to regroup. But when you were fighting in the heart of the battle, time stretched on forever. Steve couldn't say how long it took Tony to report in that he was under fire and Clint to say that the laugh gas was only moderately effective.

During that time, he and Natasha kept knocking civilians out, advancing towards Duffy Square. They sent the few uncompromised civilians they found that could still walk towards the nearest police perimeter; among the bodies strewn across the square they found two still breathing – beaten and bloody, but alive even if they were unconscious. Hill assured them via comm that extraction teams were on their way.
They didn't yet have visuals of the statue, hindered by the countless bodies, the pools of blood a silent testimony to the senseless violence when Natasha called out, “Cap! Above you!” Steve's head jerked up just in time to see a white and pink blur charge at him from the sky. He brought his shield up on instinct.

The impact nearly made his knees buckle. He felt the effort it took to keep the shield up all the way up his arm to his shoulder, and he grit his teeth as he put his weight into holding his ground.

When the pressure let off he lowered his shield enough to see what had attacked him.

Jessica's blank eyes stared back at him. That was the first thing he noticed, and his heart ached in response. Then he took in the rest of her appearance, and he stared, wide-eyed.

Jessica's hair was pink and she wore a white, skin-tight costume that hid even less than Natasha's cat suit. A great pink gem sat on her hip, glittering in the sunlight.

“Jewel?”

There was no time to marvel, as Jessica had already lifted her arm for another blow. Steve dodged and rolled to the side. Jessica followed him.

“Jessica, please." He retreated as she came closer. "Don't do this!” He had to deflect another punch with his shield. Once more he could feel the impact jarring through him, but he grit his teeth and forced her back with a shove of his arm.

Jessica barely hesitated, instantly advancing to attack again. This time Steve wasn't fast enough. Though he still ducked to the side to avoid the blow, her fist caught the damn gas mask and his head was whipped around with the force of it.

He stumbled, narrowly dodged a kick to the rips as he fought for purchase. The sting of the straps of the mask biting into his skin registered at the same time as the fresh air hitting his nose, and he ripped the broken mask off and hurled it at Jessica, used her moment of distraction to vault to his feet and away from her.

“She's under Killgrave's control!” Natasha yelled, her voice carrying from where she was engaged in a fight with three compromised civilians and echoing over the comm. “You have to do it, Cap.”

“I can't!” Steve called back he dodged another blow. “I can't just hit her!”

“You have to!” Natasha grunted, but Steve couldn't spare her a moment's glance as Jessica tried to tackle him. He took a dive to the left to avoid going down.

Jessica went down hard on the sidewalk, dust and rubble flying up when the cement gave way beneath her.

When she didn't move for a horrifying moment he called, “Jessica!” fearing that she wouldn't answer.

She didn't. Instead she vaulted up and launched herself at him again in a single bound, and Steve had barely enough time to bring up his shield.

“Jessica, please! I don't want to hurt you!”

“Steve!” Natasha bit out, voice only coming through the comm now that Jessica had driven him too far away from his teammate.

Steve took the next blow with his shield and stared Jessica in the eye, hoping to see a spark of something in there. She stared back, eyes dead and face blank as she continued to attack him.

His stomach twisted with impotent rage. He had to help her, but he couldn't...

“Steve,” Natasha said imploringly. “If I could do it for you I would, but she has powers and I don't. I'm sorry, but we don't have a choice!”

She was right, he knew she was right. And even if his skin crawled with the thought of hurting her, what choice did he have?

Would Steve really make her suffer under the mind control for one second longer just because of his own sense of honor? Could he?

No.

He couldn't.

Steve took a deep breath and pushed Jessica back with enough force enough to send her flying.

“I'm sorry,” he said. So goddamn sorry. When she launched herself at him again, he grabbed her and drew his fist back. She struggled in his grasp, clawed at his arm and kicked him, but he held her fast.

But before he could follow through, something slammed into him. He hit the side of a building, and then nothing made sense until he found himself face-to-face with a large black man, glaring at him in anger.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?” the man demanded from him.

Steve shook his head to get rid of the ringing, then remembered Jessica. His head snapped up. The man had tackled them a few feet away from where he had stood, from where Jessica was now engaged with Natasha.

Strength-wise Natasha was no match for Jessica, but she kept dancing out of her reach, and Jessica blindly followed.

“You're Captain America! The hell do you think you're doing?”

Steve's attention snapped back. “I'm sorry, sir, but that woman is under mind-control, and we need to free her from it—”

“What? Fuck!” The man started back and Steve's hand shot out to hold him back.

“You can't go back there! She has super-strength!”

“No shit, Sherlock. I just tackled you through a building.” While Steve still processed that the man yelled, “You! Snap your fingers!”

“What?” Natasha called back in confusion, avoiding a punch that would have broken bone.

“Snap your fingers! It's a kind of mental trigger, Jess trained herself to react. She'll snap out of it— Just do it!”

Steve stared at the man. “How do you know her name? Who are you?” he demanded. The guy gave him an unimpressed look.

Then, without warning, Jessica shot up straight into the air.

And then she crashed.

* * *

Jess woke up to a gruff voice saying, “I gotta say, I ain't impressed. You're not half as great as she made you out to be.”

Jess stirred.

“Hey, easy, girl. You'll want to be careful with that head of yours.”

“Luke?” Her voice sounded far away to her ears.

“Here. So's Captain Asshole.”

Jess frowned, tried to make sense of the words.

“Jessica? Are you alright?”

She knew that voice. That was... Steve. Yes. Captain America. Captain Asshole. Ha ha.

“Funny,” she said, trying to give the word the right sarcastic tilt but her tongue wouldn't move properly. She tried to sit up; sitting up would help, right?

“Easy,” Luke said again as he helped her. She was half in his arms and half in his lap. Jess blinked in an effort to bring the world into focus.

“You hit your head pretty hard,” Steve added, sounding worried. Jessica smiled. Steve had that effect on her.

“What happened?” she asked. She looked up when she didn't get an answer, into Steve's troubled eyes, and she knew that look, had seen it only moments before when she—-

The memories hit her like fist to the solar plexus, leaving her winded and heaving for breath. Oh God, she remembered. Remembered Clay's call, remembered Killgrave turning around, smiling at her. “Hello Jessica,” he'd said, and then she hadn't been able to move anymore.

Bile scorched the back of her throat as Killgrave's words to Iron Man at the factory rushed back to her, and then she remembered him giving her the order to attack Steve and anyone else who tried to stop her and she couldn't, she just couldn't keep it in.

She fell limply to the side as she threw up. The bile tasted sour in her mouth and her head felt like it was about to explode, but worse were the tears she could feel running down her cheeks, burning their paths from her eyes. Never, not even before, had she felt this violated and humiliated.

She had thought that maybe, just maybe she and Steve had something that went, or could go, beyond friendship. But now she had—- and he had seen—-

She coughed. Fought for breath.

Luke's hand on her back was warm. She didn't pay the soothing nonsense he muttered any mind, just basket that he was still there for her even after everything.

Then a hand that was too small to be Luke's pulled her hair from her face and held it at the nape of her neck.

“It's okay, it's fine,” Steve said, and Jessica had to look at him to see if it really was.

When she met his gaze there was only relief and affection in it, and Jessica thought that maybe, maybe all wasn't lost. Maybe Killgrave hadn't cost her everything, again.

The thought sent a white-hot pulse of hatred course through her.

“Killgrave,” she croaked. Steve's eyes immediately clouded over. “Where is he?”

“That doesn't matter, we'll get you to safety—-”

“No. Where. Is. He?”

Steve looked unsure. He and Luke exchanged a quick glance over her head, but she wouldn't let them dissuade her, no matter what. She wouldn't run from him, not anymore.

Now she wanted revenge for every night she'd lain awake, too scared of the dark to sleep. For the mornings when she couldn't look at herself in the mirror out of self-loathing, or the evenings she could only get through by seeking solace from a bottle.

She’d had enough.

“Where?”

“By the Duffy statue,” Steve said reluctantly.

Jessica nodded. Then she became aware of Agent Romanov standing a few feet away from them. Saw the gun on one thigh swallow the light and the knife strapped to the other—-

Yes.

* * *

“Sir, a flying object is approaching from the south.”

“An unidentified flying object, JARVIS? Please tell me it's an UFO. I need something to cheer me the fuck up.”

“I'm afraid I can't, sir. It appears to be Ms. Jones, flying towards us. Her flight path will lead her to collide with us; I recommend we move.”

A graph of her flight path appeared before Tony's eye, and he cursed but moved out of the way. “What? I thought she's free of the mind-whammy? Fuck, is that girl looking for trouble or what?”

“I don't think so, sir,” JARVIS replied. “It appears as though Ms. Jones has taken necessary precautions.”

The graph changed to one of the video feeds tracking Jessica, JARVIS helpfully adding a red circle for visuals.

Tony grinned. “Oh, that is one smart cookie. JARVIS, memo to myself: if Cap ever does wrong by her, put itching powder in his tighty-whities. Also, replace all his music files with hardcore metal.
Now access every surveillance camera you can find around the square and get this on film. This is gonna be beautiful.”

* * *

The setting is like this:

The villain stands by the Father Duffy statue, a complacent smile on his face as he observes the chaos that surrounds him. Around him, extras tear viciously at each other, trying to kill one another.

The hero hovers above the square. After having knocked out the villain's mind-puppets that had attacked him, he stands majestically in the air, his gold and red armor gleaming as the sun lights him from behind.

Then from the distance a blur appears in the sky, growing ever taller as it approaches from behind the Iron Man. Pink hair flows in the wind as Jewel, her once white costume now dirty and torn, a symbolic representation of the innocence that was so cruelly taken from her, tears past the hero, straight towards the villain.

The villain smiles when he sees her, laughs as she passes by the hero. He mistakes Iron Man's evasion maneuver for a hit, believes Jessica Jones to be still under his control, the mindless puppet returning to its master.

He sees not the knife in her thigh, staining the material around it red. He sees not the hatred distort her features.

Too late does he realize that she has broken free of his control. She draws her fist back, and only then does he notice anything amiss. The last thing he sees is the look in her eyes, the certainty that she has won, that she has, for once and for all, beaten her tormentor.

Then the fist crashes forward, an unstoppable force that breaks skin and bones and sends the villain flying backwards.

This is the pivotal scene:

Jessica Jones, bleeding but not broken, standing victorious over the monster that has haunted her nightmares for half her life.

This is not a superhero movie. This is the story of a girl who lost her life when she was still innocent, and the woman she became.

This is the story of Jessica Jones. In her story, she is the main character.

And the main character always wins.

* * *

"1178 Prospect Avenue, Edison, New Jersey."

Stark snorted. "What, no 'hello'? No 'how are you doing'? No 'thank you, Tony, for graciously offering to let us stay at any one of your various properties around the world'? Is that what the world has come to?"

"1178 Prospect Avenue, Edison," she repeated, to a long-suffering sigh from Stark.

"All right, I'll bite. What's at whatever-Prospect Avenue, Edison?"

"Coulson," Jessica said with feeling, and she could hear Stark stop doing whatever it was he was doing on a late Thursday afternoon.

"You found him?"

Jess grinned. Even though she had missed the meeting - Jessica had spent a week after the battle in the medical wing of SHIELD HQ - Eileen had still done as Jess had asked and had withheld one of the Captain America cards, and offered to have it delivered to her client's home.

The shipping address she had received matched the one on Jessica's eBay auctions.

Yesterday Jessica had made her way to Edison, armed with Stark's binoculars and enough snacks to feed Steve, but as it turned out she hadn't even needed any of that as two neighbors had been able to positively ID Coulson from a picture Jess had shown them. The neighbors noticing a large black man with an eye patch visiting every now and then hardly mattered at that point. It was nice to know that Fury wasn't completely heartless, though.

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," she answered. She didn't mention the shock of relief she had felt when the neighbors had ID'ed Coulson, the way the news had made her weak at the knees.

On the other end of the line Stark swore, and she could hear him yell, "JARVIS, get Barton and everyone else ready! We're going on a field trip!" To her she said, "You and Steve?"

"I'm just locking up and then we'll be on our way," she assured him. "See you there."

She didn't let it bother her that Stark hung up without saying good-bye. Instead she swept her gaze over her office one last time to see if she had forgotten something. Seeing nothing she stepped out, letting the keys in her hand jingle. Jessica turned the lock on her office right as the old lady from two stories up walked past.

“Closing up for the day, Ms. Jones?” she asked.

Jessica smiled at her. The old lady was pretty nice; Jessica never remembered her name, but whenever they ran into each other the old woman would stop to chat with her for a bit. Unlike some of the other tenants of the building, the old woman found it frightfully exciting to have a PI among them.

“I'm taking a vacation,” Jess told her, tucking her hair back self-consciously. The thought still felt weird. Or maybe it was the fact that she wouldn't spend the vacation alone that made her belly flutter.

“Oh, really! That's wonderful. Where to, if you don't mind me asking?”

“We don't really know yet,” Jessica replied.

The old lady smiled knowingly at the pronoun. “Well, good for you. Enjoy your vacation. God knows you earned it, coming back from your last case with those crutches,” she tutted.

Jessica hummed in agreement and waved as she started to walk away. The crutches had been a pain in the ass, but thanks to SHIELD's excellent health plan – something Jessica was apparently privy to on accounts of punching out Killgrave, and damn her if that thought didn't still give her warm, tingly feelings – she had been able to ditch them a couple of days ago. Her slightly elevated healing did the rest.

Then she stepped outside, and the warm, tingly feeling suddenly changed in nature as she saw who waited for her by the road.

Jessica grinned. “Nice,” she said, approaching the bike. Their packs were already secured on the back. “Can I hitch a ride?”

“I don't know. I don't pick up strangers.”

“Hey now,” she said as she swung herself behind Steve. “I'm the only reason you have a job right now. Who was it that Fury created the Avengers Initiative for, hmm?”

Steve laughed instead of replying. He had a very nice laugh. And it looked good on him, even from the back, she thought as she put her hands around his waist.

“Edison?” he asked.

“Edison,” she replied, and they shared a smile over Steve's shoulder.

"And then?"

Jessica gave it a moment's thought. She thought about the chaotic blur the last few months had been, and grinned.

“Off into the sunset!”




~~~


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hunterwithcause

November 2012

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