The Broken Door

October 31, 2017:

Michael Carter makes a stop by Alias Investigations, kicking down the door when he thinks Jessica Jones is in danger. Things take a wholly unexpected turn for the both of them from there.

Alias Investigations, Hell's Kitchen, NYC

Keeping door and window contractors in business.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Peggy Carter, Tony Stark, Bucky Barnes, Silk, Elinor Ravensdale

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The sole proprietor of Alias Investigations rarely takes a night off.

But tonight is flippin' Halloween. And Jessica Jones never even tries to do her job on Halloween. There are a zillion people running around in masks, getting drunk. The hopes of doing anything useful are slim to none. So she'd told Michael, "Sure, yeah, I'll be home. I'll make you some British lemonaid or something. I found a recipe on Google."

When he arrives, the sounds of fighting can be heard from within. It's dark inside the apartment, with only a little light leaking out, casting shadows in the shape of the lettering on her door out on the hall. A brand new touchpad lock is on the door; she's taking her security seriously suddenly, but…

Maybe it didn't help?

*

Michael Carter has never experienced Halloween before. He's either been somewhere that didn't celebrate, or in stasis (or both) on October 31st and the days leading up to it. So the spy is a little disoriented on his way to Jessica's place. People in masks are unsettling to a man used to looking at faces and assessing threats. His sophisticated HUD with facial recognition that can alert him to people who are threats does no good through heavy makeup, around hoods and with…pointed nose prosthetics. New York is noisier than it is on any usual Tuesday night. Some idiots are setting off firecrackers. People are screaming along the lyrics to 'Thriller.' It's just a little bit more chaotic than he was expecting.

That, and Michael finds himself at loose ends. All his reports have been filed, in triplicate, with the requisite details. No new mission has been forthcoming. For the first time in memory, he does not have an immediate mission. Not having an objective, a target, a purpose has made him edgy and twitchy.

That's why he's more keyed up than normal when he approaches Jessica Jones' office, and not as observant as he should be. He draws his weapon from its concealed place under his jacket. He flicks off the safety and listens intently. When he hears what sounds like a woman and the sound of crashing, he springs into action. He walks powerfully towards the door and slams his foot against it, shocking it inwards, bending it off its hinges. He enters, weapon held up and at the ready, prepared to shoot or fight.

*

And finds Jessica Jones curled up on her brand new couch with a bowl of popcorn, looking rather comfy in plaid shorts, bare feet, and an oversized shirt, looking up at him without even flinching…

As an action heroine punches her way out of a slew of gunmen on the projector screen she's pulled down over the far wall, the better to allow her phone to play whatever she's got going on there on Netflix. Her eyes trend to the bent hinges, courtesy of the shock and awe Michael just pulled on her door.

"Aw man. Dude, I just had that door repaired."

She lifts her eyebrows, holds out the bowl. "Popcorn?"

She's apparently not really that fussed about it, apparently just kind of taking it in stride. Then again, given her chosen friends, she'd almost have to.

*

Michael is several steps in the door before he takes in the full scene and lowers his gun. He looks down at the door, then up at Jessica. Is he…blushing. "Oh. Shit." He doesn't curse much, which makes it all the more impactful. "Bollocks. I'm sorry." He sighs and holsters his weapon. He's actually dressed fairly casually for him, which even means a pair of jeans, though he's still wearing a blazer over the neat t-shirt, along with his wool coat.

*

Jess just shakes her head, laughing it off. She notices the curse, and brown eyes dance with a hint of mirth.

"It's okay. Come on in."

She reaches over to hit the pause button, then wanders to her fridge. She withdraws a thermos with a piece of masking tape on it. She's written the words 'Michael's Lemonaid' on it. This, she presents to him.

And then she flops back on the couch. "Really, I've had two situations this month where that kind of response would have come in handy? So no. If you think I'm in trouble, don't spare the door. Next time I might be."

Nobody knows better than Jessica Jones that the ability to lift a car over one's head does not, in fact, render one invincible, invulnerable, or too badass to wind up in over one's head and in vastly deep shit. Having friends who give enough of a damn to look out for her has been one of the best parts of her new life, as far as she's concerned.

*

Michael bends over and with far more ease than he should, picks up the door. The frosted glass is not actually destroyed this time, but just about everything else about the door is. He shifts it around, then sort of…props it in place, as if that would help at all with the shattered frame and chunks of splintered wood. It's rather like a bull placing a broken teacup on a shelf after it's already charged the china shop. As he steps back, the thing starts to fall. He reaches out to catch it.

"I…um…" he looks back to Jessica. "I have a contact who can fix it. They specialize in cleaning up after…agents." Ahem. "Although I'm not sure I want to write out a report about what just happened."

*

"I'll just call the door guy," Jessica says, watching this bull in a China shop moment.

Truthfully, it's a little endearing. That's…usually her. Bull in a China shop, breaking things. "Look, seriously Michael, it's okay. I did the same thing to my neighbor Elinor once. I thought she was knee deep in a domestic dispute, ran into rescue her. Turns out she's some sort of ghost-whisperer, and she was dealing with a poltergiest that she had under complete control. It's part of the job, I think. We get shot at a lot, so I mean you know. I should have warned you about the action flicks."

She hasn't lost a taste for those, as long as they wind up in some sort of Happily Ever Action Hero(ine) at the end.

*

It doesn't matter how much she reassures him - Michael is still going to be deeply, Britishly embarrassed about what just happened. "I was…distracted. Halloween, you know. It's not an English thing. Except I've been told it's rather catching on. Sort of how ugly Christmas jumpers are catching on here." He snorts softly. "Not our greatest cultural exchange, I admit.

*

"Ugly Christmas jumpers were a British thing? Good to know. And yeah, it's not really my favorite holiday either. Surveillance, forget it, shadowing, forget it, any meaningful work…forget it."

There's a thump, a beer can hits her window, and beer slooooowly slides down.

"Assholes in the alley, though," she says dryly, letting the comment pretty much speak for itself.

"Come on, forget about it. I want to know what you think of the lemonaid." Because no matter how Britishly embarrassed he is, she's just going to keep right on reassuring him. Because she really. Really. Has been there.

*

"Oh, yes. I can't exactly tell you where or how the tradition originated. But it's even spread to MI-6. I walked back in from a mission in Cairo once to find the receptionist wearing one with a tree that lit up and jingled as she walked." Michael smiles a little. "For an uptight people, we do like to embarrass ourselves sometimes." As evidenced by what just happened, perhaps?

He shrugs off his coat, then lifts a brow. "And what's so special about this lemonade, then? Is it actually palatable instead of sickly-sweet?" There's the dry Agent back again.

*

"The receptionist? Who cares about the receptionist? I wanna know if you ever wore one with a big Rudolph face on it."

But she'll relent on this matter of Christmas sweaters. She expects the answer is 'not just no but Hell, no.' Then again?

She's willing to be proven wrong.

In the meantime, there's Michael's Lemonaid. "Yes, I typed 'British lemonaid' into Google and some blogger from the UK said this is what her Mom made her, so I assume it is as tongue-searingly bitter as you could ever wish for." Jess matches dryness with dryness, smirking just a little bit. "And I wanna see how I did."

*

"Ah, well, you see, I was rarely awake at Christmas. And besides," Michael dips his chin, "The wearing of jumpers tended to be a family affair." And his family thought he was dead.

He looks around and finds a place to drape his coat out of the way. He chuckles at her description. "Well, that's very kind of you, thank you."

*

There is, as it happens, a coat rack. Jessica's leather jacket is hanging there, in fact. A coat rack, a punching bag, a desk, a couple of photos and one little strange vase thing that just sort of wandered to a shelf, along with the couch and the projector screen, are about the sum total of what's in here. It manages some sort of comfortable, lived in quality despite the Spartan nature of the place; but then, a great deal goes on here, and a great many people are in and out of the place.

Jessica tucks that factoid about the jumpers away. It's his own fault if that gets used later.

"Well, you wandered into Wakanda, helped save my friend, helped me get two whole merit badges. Least I can do is squeeze some lemons."

She has not forgotten that he said he went for her, as well as Peggy. That is, in fact, the kind of thing she won't ever forget.

*

Michael is the kind of person to straighten his sleeves after he hangs up his coat. He then turns and looks not quite sure of himself, which is not a common thing for him. "I'm…sorry," he's apologizing a lot. "I'm afraid I'm rather shit at socializing. I'm not even sure what to talk about that doesn't involve a mission or intelligence or the like." And he doesn't want to talk about her thanks, because thanks make him uncomfortable too.

*

"Yeah, I'm the same way," Jessica says with a shrug of her shoulders.

"So are you back to being bored like you were before Wakanda? Left at loose ends once more?"

Because she's more than happy to transition into business, and if he's bored, well.

She has a case she has zero leads on and no time, right now, to work that she can drop in his lap. Maybe a super spy will have more luck than she will. But she waits to see what he has to say, immenently laid-back about the fact that he's shit at socializing. There was a reason she ran out of steam at that party quick. She kept opening her mouth to say things, only to realize they were all work related.

*

And for similar reasons, Michael excused himself at the earliest possible moment. That, and it was a party for Bucky's friends. He may be something to Barnes, but friend is not the right word for it. He does perk up a little at the mention of a case. "Oh yes?" And a nod. "Yes, my handlers, in their infinite wisdom, have placed me into a holding pattern. I'm not to return to England, but I'm not to leave New York either."

*

"Cool. Help me solve a murder."

She turns off the movie entirely, gets into her phone, and pulls out a thick case file.

"This is related to the Project Mirror thing, but I am out of leads."

She pulls photos out of the file. It's of a brutal beheading, one that was old enough for maggots, but Jess knows Michael can take it and so doesn't even warn him. And she has obsessed over this for so long that they've lost their impact on her.

"Her name was Cassandra Marx, you may have even caught it in the briefing. But since her death was probably not caused by 'the direct threat' I think solving her murder is going to slip through the cracks if I don't do it. And now, maybe, you."

More photos. "The place was ransacked, and the killer was after Anders' research at the time. Which he missed, hidden in a secret panic room as it was. But notice all the laser marks, all over the place? And the clean cuts on the body and head?"

*

"Yes, that's very strange," says Michael as he examines the pictures. There's no evidence that the disgusting images disturb him, so Jessica called that correctly. "There are so many more efficient ways to kill someone than to lop their head off. Unless of course, you possess unusual strength and the lopping is just a side effect."
He pauses to smile at Jessica. "Well, let's have some of your lemonade then. I'm curious to see how much of my saliva it sucks out of my cheeks." Something about a brutal murder has just put him in a better mood. Ahh, the life of an international spy and assassin.

*

It's like Sherlock. Bored. BORED! Oh, a murder, it's Christmas.

Jessica slides the thermos over absently and pulls out more pictures. These are actually printed out video stills.

"My working theory is that it's this guy. We called him Fat Iron Man for awhile, but Tony's settled on calling him the Iron Monger. Here he is in a fight with the hero known as Silk. I also found, while combing Tony's databases for any more mention of the guy, that JARVIS recorded that he had some sort of altercation with Tony over a kid's hospital. But since then? Nada. Zippo. No sightings, no leads, no more stolen Stark tech, nothing to indicate who this guy might be."

She taps at it. "My working theory was he was an opportunist. Stark tech was disappearing anyway, courtesy of Holmes and his mind control and manipulations; why not skim a little more off the top while the skimming is good?"

*

"Yes, Stark technology would allow one to easily step into overkill territory," drawls Michael. He allows himself a grin at the nickname. "I rather like Fat Iron Man. It conjures up a delightful mental image, and would likely irritate the perpetrator." Because what one wants to do is piss off a man in a metal suit who decapitates people. "It does sound like the trail's gone cold, but I might be able to kick over a few stones that you haven't." He sets the file aside for a moment, then opens the thermos. He sniffs at the lemonade before taking a sip.

*

Jessica grins back at him. "Right?"

That's on the matter of 'Fat Iron Man.'

But she sobers. "I'd appreciate it. I thought perhaps it had to be someone at Stark Towers; both local, and an employee. I expanded out to satellite offices within adjoining states after that came up cold. Everyone at Stark Towers is, as of the last time I looked two months ago, pretty much clean as a whistle. If one of them is doing something it's not showing up in any place I can get to, and…that's with full access to everything in there. And trust me, I scoured a lot of employee files."

She sobers, she can appreciate the thrill of the chase, and their mutual need to find something to do, but…

"Any help you can give is appreciated, Michael. This woman might have lived if I hadn't screwed up."

It occurs to her that she'd better add, "Peggy worked this crime scene with me, during that period where we were partnering up over the case. But it was still my screw-up, cause she got sent to some other country mid-investigation, and it was my job to decide how it went from there."

*

Michael pours himself a measure of the lemonade into the cup-cap of the thermos. He sniffs it again and gives it a taste. He smacks his lips and then smiles. "You did rather well, Jones. I'd even go a little lighter on the sugar, but that's personal preference." He sips again. "Did you try it yourself?"

He looks over the files again and listens to what she's saying. "I will say…I am not an investigator. As you saw in Wakanda. I'm more of a…bloodhound. Analysts did the gruntwork, and then they pointed me at an objective. That being said, perhaps a bloodhound approach might bear fruit here, and you've worked the analyst angles already."

*

"Yeah, I thought it tasted like Warheads," Jessica says, smirking faintly. "But I mean, I wasn't sure what 'good' was? So I had no idea if I got there or not. I'm glad you like it."

Switching gears from cold cases to cold lemonaid, but…well. She's also beaten herself up about it just about as much as she can, too. It wasn't a malicious mistake, and it was a mistake she's become somewhat convinced any investigator could have made. Mostly, she's mad a sweet old woman died screaming in terror, leaving a brutalized corpse behind her.

"Some kind of different approach just might, for sure. And you can keep the file. I have digitized copies. I've read over it so many times I've got it memorized. I've got some news alerts set up on my phone in case this guy pokes his head out ever again, but he's not like most criminals. He's smart. He comes out when he's got a reason to and not before, there haven't been enough appearances of the guy to set up a pattern. And I mean. He might not be the one? But we know this one wasn't Holmes, and the place wasn't lousy with Agency energy. He's the only connection that's left."

*

Hearing about it doesn't seem to affect Michael the way it does her. People die in his line of work. People die because of his line of work. People dying, in fact, is why his line of work exists. "There's only so much you can predict, Jones. Only so much you can control. That is the nature of the beast." He's sipping the lemonade enough that he's clearly not just being polite. No one drinks something that tart just to be polite.

He sets the file aside for a moment. "Have you ever tracked a serial killer?"

*

Jessica Jones chuffs a laugh.

"Michael, in ten days it will be my 1-year anniversary of dealing with weird. Before this? It was cheaters, insurance fraud, process service, the occasional missing persons case. I'd never been within sniffing distance of a murder and didn't have any thoughts on it."

She leans back on the couch, giving a rueful smile.

"This year? Stopping evil cultists, shutting down killers from alternate dimensions, going to alternate dimensions, tangling with flipping Hydra, solving crimes the police would probably be pissed I'm getting anywhere near. I've been dogpaddling just to keep up, but…"

And now her rueful grin grows. "I love this shit. I really, really love this shit. Even the crazy, scary bits. So…no serial killers, but…If one ever landed in my lap? I think I could pull it off, finding him. I don't think it's too arrogant to say that. Being a detective, that's…pretty much my one thing, you know?"

*

Michael smiles. He's been smiling a lot this visit. It's not that he's an overly serious person. In fact, his easy charm is part of why he's good at what he does. But smiling easily means he's relaxed, and that's not something he is very often. Perhaps he ran off some of his adrenaline while kicking down her door. "It's good you've found something you love. And you are in fact, damned good at it, I will say. But, will you let an old man give you a piece of advice?" He leans forward.

*

"You've given good advice in the past," Jessica says, tilting her head at him.

With Bucky, it's easy to forget he's an old man. Not so much with Michael, whose very British stuffiness sometimes gives him that particular air. She watches him, unable to predict where this is all going, but willing to hear him out, at least.

As for him being relaxed? She's pretending hard not to notice it. Noticing it might spook him or something, chase it all away, and it's good to see him unwinding.

*

"Don't let your work become your life. Because if you do, you might forget how to do anything else. It's important to be fulfilled, but try and make yourself hang it up every now and again." Michael looks around the space, then back to her. "You've done well lately, yes? With your clients? Why not get yourself a separate apartment? So you can actually leave your job at the end of the day."

Because he is so old, he always sounds rather like he's speaking from experience. But now, it's especially acute. He barely knows how to have friendships, let alone anything else.

*

Don't become me, Ebeneezer Scrooge, said Marley.

She has done well, and she looks around at her apartment. It's something she has considered in the past, if only because she isn't sure she wants to continue sleeping in a place that gets broken into so often. On the other hand, Alias is home, a site of a lot of good memories, not all work related. She looks up; there's an unlikely footprint on the ceiling. Over at a splintered part of her table, where a pair of rowdy kids battled it out. At a few other signs and symbols of life well lived in here.

On the other hand she could like. Sleep in a bed, too.

"I'll give that some thought," is what she says at last. "Maybe what I need is to get myself a separate office." It's easier to consider moving her desk than it is to consider moving herself.

She nibbles thoughtfully on some popcorn and says at last, "Maybe I'll just start going to my Wednesday night hobby thing again. I stopped after Bucky got arrested. Just um. Some lessons that I take. Took. But wouldn't mind taking again."

*

"Good. Hobbies are good," says Michael. He tilts his head, catching a stray bit of memory. "I used to paint models. But that's not a very portable hobby, so I stopped once I became a soldier. And then the war broke out." He lifts a shoulder. "You very much do not want to end up like me, Jones. Although I shouldn't be too worried." He chuckles, but it's dry,
"You have a lot more freedom than I ever had. Or have, come to think of it."

He squints at her, then, "…if that hobby is learning how to fight, though, it's not exactly an escape, is it?"

*

"Well, I mean. You're stuck in New York for the forseeable future. You're theoretically staying somewhere. There are hobby shops all over town. You probably have time to paint some models," Jessica points out, because turnabout is fair play. What did this have to do with serial killers? Well, she supposes it doesn't matter, exactly. "If you get ordered to the ass-end of nowhere for a full year or something you could give them to Peggy to hold on to for you."

She colors a little, though, when he starts probing into the nature of what that hobby actually is. "Uh. No. Um. It's— " Well wait, why should she be embarrassed? The man who taught her this is one of the most deadly super soldiers on the planet, and he's sure not embarrassed. So she shrugs and says, "Dancing. We went to this swing club on a case, and we had to blend, so I got a chance to experience this thing I never would have tried otherwise. I gotta say…dancing from your time is so much better than the sweaty grindy bullcrap that goes on now. I liked it. So I…took a few lessons."

*

"I don't remember how. Do you know how long ago that was? I was quite a bit younger than you are now. Christ," Michael thinks about it. "I think I was seventeen the last time I picked up a paintbrush." Which is a long damned time ago for a man who is 112 years old.

"Ah, yes, serial killers. Tangental. My point with that question was, serial killers can go on sprees, and then they disappear without a trace between sprees. They rarely resurface between, and they rarely churn up new evidence. Sometimes you have to wait them out. And sometimes what you think is a murderer," he nods to the file, "…is just a serial killer who hasn't had a second victim."

But he switches back to looking quite pleased after she admits her hobby. He actually claps once. "Brilliant. Perfect. Dance is a great way to relieve stress. And you'll meet new people." People who won't look at a headless, maggoty body like it was just another piece of paperwork.

*

The thing is, most of the people who are going to stay in Jessica Jones' life for any period of time need to have some resilience to what she does and who she is now, and that includes all the crazy. Most of the people who she's close with can also look at the severed heads thing without flinching. Some quite a bit better than her; she still occasionally sicks up at crime scenes.

But the point is still well taken.

She nods about the serial killer, but says, "Michael. You can disarm a bomb. You can slip into most cities in the world and blend. You can probably field strip your gun and put it back together while balancing a quarter on your nose, and do it all in less than ten seconds."

She holds her thumb and her forefinger apart.

"I think. Perhaps. There is a teensy weensie little chance you can figure out how to navigate a paintbrush."

*

"Two quarters," says Michael, but that might be a joke. Her point is also well-taken. "By that logic, I likely still remember how to Lindy Hop. I used to be quite good. At least, I remember never having trouble finding a partner." He sips his lemonade again, "Not that that helps with my part of advice to disengage with people whose lives are their work for a better work/life balance."

*

Jessica grins at him. It's either a joke or pretty freakin' impressive, worth a grin either way. As is this…

"Nope. Can't back out. You're in it, now, Michael. You, me, dancing. You backed yourself right into that corner and now you can't back yourself out again. And you're supposed to dance with anyone who asks to be on your dance card, I know, cause I read the rules."

Of course, back in the day it was mostly that women were supposed to dance with whatever men asked, but Jessica is more than happy to modernize that one all to Hell and back.

*

"It's quite true." The etiquette, that is. And it still is true, both for men and women. "And well, at least you don't have to worry about dislocating my shoulder at the end of a swing out, hmm?" Michael is still smiling easily. "You'd be quite surprised at how dancing comes in handy in spycraft." And he probably doesn't mean by being light on your feet.

*

"It's true, and dislocation is a concern," Jessica says with a laugh. Also, a partner she can trust. As low-key as the vibe is with the Lindy Hop, it is still sometimes difficult for Jessica to relax with some of the men she gets paired with. But no need to dive into those waters in the least.

She pulls over a fresh sheet of paper…oh, no, wait, that's a diagram she drew of the murder scene.

She gets up to go get a post-it note, and scrawls the address of the dance hall down. "Friday nights are not-lesson nights," she says. "Aaand they start at 6."

*

Michael looks at the note and blinks. Something clicks in place that didn't earlier. "Ah, I thought I would give you someone to practice with, not…" go out and be social in a place where he's not working the room for contacts. That just feels…odd to imagine. He clears his throat and looks down, then up. "I fear I'm…too old to follow my own advice."

*

"Age is but a number," Jessica says dryly.

But okay. She's going to try to get him to follow his old advice. "So forget Friday night."

She reaches over to put some swing music on her phone. "Practice with me now. I haven't gotten to go in four months, and I'm afraid if I let you go you'll get spooked before you make it into a hobby shop. C'mon, you can't go leading men and women into tasks you aren't willing to do yourself, can you?"

She holds out a hand to him, eyes twinkling, a smirk playing on her features. She suspects this will be awkward as Hell, and her PJs sure won't swirl in satisfying fashion like her skirt would have, but she's just…in the mood to live a little, and he still backed himself right into it.

*

"Says the woman who isn't over a hundred years old," says Michael dryly. When she puts on the music, he goes to stands up, pretending like his back is giving out on him. It's an exaggerated mime. "You know, I was witness to the de-evolution of dance? When I was growing up, we all learned how to dance properly. Ballroom and the like. Swing was a revolution, but it still had structure and skill. Then, things slowly started to drop off. But everything definitely went downhill with disco."

He straightens and offers a hand. "Right. So. What have you learned? Had you gotten to swing outs or lindy circles? Or did you learn East Coast? You know…" And he rocks side to side, then steps back.

*

She laughs out loud at his old man impression, but she doesn't relent. A rare sound, but something happened with Jessica in Wakanda, something changed her for the better, in spite of her grief over the Wakandans who died in that adventure, and that something, perhaps in comparison with a few words from a friend who wrapped some issues neatly in a bow and put them away for her, allows her to laugh more easily.

And to do this, which she honestly never, ever would have dared to do with anyone two months ago.

She tilts her head, though at the description of his de-evolution of dance. "Yikes, that is terrifying," she agrees.

But his hand is taken, and she says, "I've only learned the basics steps, not swing outs or circles or the East Coast, so…I'm happy to learn any of them. I only really got to go twice before the shit hit the fan. I did my hair— sort of— and everything."

*

"Ah, East Coast is a simpler version. Something that beginners often start with. It has the advantage of being quick to pick up, but there's much less versatility in the dance later on. You've only got six beats to work with rather than eight. The six count is also sometimes called a jive, which is not…exactly the same." It seems Michael remembers more than he thought he did. Either that, or he kept up with it and he's not admitting to it.

He sets a hand on her waist and holds her other arm lightly. "Now, all my leading is going to come from here," he presses on her hip a little. "Not here. See how I'm holding it very lightly? This arm is just to guide. It should be loose, never stiff. If it's stiff, you're…" he stops himself. "…well, you might not hurt yourself, but you might break your partner's wrist accidentally."

*

Jessica listens carefully, because she honestly can't even remember all of what she learned in those two lessons, which seem like they took place some distant lifetime ago. "Loose arm," she repeats, making hers even looser. He says she won't break him, but deep down Jessica is always afraid she will break everyone. There is a reason she only really has ever managed to bring herself to spar, say, with Bucky Barnes. And even then, he had to drive certain lessons home before she could go all out. The idea that she might break someone while dancing is a new one.

It's sheer luck she didn't before. Nobody at the dance hall really knew about or thought about her super strength, and Jess didn't realize it was a risk. She nods at the press to her hip, too, thoughtfully. "I can see why it matters," she says, thoughtfully. "Where you lead from. And how someone could get tangled up if they tried to follow the other arm."

*

"Now, the most important thing for you to remember," says Michael as he looks Jessica right in the eye, "Is the line. You are a freight train. You are an object in motion that stays in motion until you are caught or redirected." There's a natural rhythm that he's falling into with regard to instruction that it's easy to imagine he's done this before. Not…with dancing, mind. Likely with the aforementioned field stripping of firearms. But the principle is the same.

"The beautiful thing about swing is that it's an elastic dance that keeps the energy up and flowing back and forth. Now, listen to the music. Don't worry about your footwork for now. Just, if I pull you in a direction, keep moving there. And always have your hands available to catch, just sort of loosely held at your waist. All right?" And then he starts to count. When he does, he rock-steps backward and gives her a tug forward.

*

"A freight train. I do believe I've heard that comparison made of me before," Jessica quips, eyes twinkling,but she does nod. It's a good way to put it.

Don't worry about her feet, and she promptly stops watching them. Which she had been, somewhat, glancing down at them several times. More worried about breaking his toes, in her bare feet, than she is about him catching hers. He knows what he's doing though; he clearly does, so she leaves it be.

He tugs her forward, and she lets him draw her forward, being the freight train. One thing that lets her learn things quickly is she follows instructions pretty well, and he's built up enough trust with her that she's not worried about being dropped or anything.

Holding her hands loosely at her waist comes a bit less naturally, but she keeps them more or less where they should be.

*

Michael moves in such a way that he redirects her motion around in a circle via the hand at her waist. If she follows his instructions and keeps the momentum going, he'll pivot like the handle on a turnstyle. Whether she does or not, he corrects enough to press her gently into his other arm, then spools her outward. Again, if she follows the instruction, she'll spin like a maple key until she feels him catch her hand. "See? It's all about momentum and elasticity."

He becomes particularly focused when he's teaching, which might be a little odd. It's almost as if his mask of aimiable Britishness slips a bit to reveal a more serious man beneath. It's not something that would ever happen in mixed company, but it seems he's returning her favour of showing a little bit of his underbelly.

*

"I do see," Jessica says, appreciating his patient instruction. For the most part? She does follow his directions, but sometimes she gets a little messed up, and he does have to guide her again. She smiles brightly when she manages to spin and get caught the way she should though: she is, indeed, relaxing, enjoying herself, having a grand time. The whole case file is utterly forgotten. This kind of dance is magical to her, even when they're taking it slow.

"The key to dancing seems to be to let go of my tendency to do everything myself. You're doing all the work!" She doesn't mind a bit though, not really, able to avoid the take-the-bull-by-the-horns, pull-her-own-weight thing during this exercise, at least. And it's probably well he's doing all the work, because of the aforementioned dislocations and breakages. She has perfect control of her strength; whenever he takes her hand the touch is feather light, but it's important all the same.

*

"The biggest problem with a new follow is that she doesn't carry her momentum. Or, his," Michael wobbles his head. "As I understand it, the modern revival of swing has taken up the attitude that leading and following are simply positions, like first and second base, rather than roles based on gender. Which I rather like. It keeps the dance from feeling archaic and it can become something living." He attempts to send her off in one direction while he follows after, but doesn't move to catch, like he's testing to see whether she'll continue off or stop on her own. He smiles at her as he does.

"In fact, you may find you prefer leading to following. Following does require a lot of trust and to give up control of leading the shape the dance takes. You interpret within a structure rather than define it." He does all this while following after, giving no indication of when he's going to catch her.

*

She isn't too worried about hurting herself, at worst? She'll bang a leg on the coffee table. So she allows herself to spin with uncharacteristic abandon; he told her to freight train and she's going to freight train. When Jessica Jones sets out to learn a thing it is much like setting out to do anything she does. All in, both feet, full commitment. It could be fighting, it could be dancing, it could be a dozen little novice tricks she's picked up from her friends, but she does it whole hog once she's decided she wants to do it.

"That is what my instructor said," she agrees. "And the giving up control part isn't always my strong suit, but."

She probably vexed no small few of her partners by trying to switch roles while in the middle of a follow because of that, but she hadn't disarmed a bomb or been thrown into a few hours of prison with any of them.

*

Michael deftly catches Jessica after a moment or two and spins them both in a circle, stepping to the beat and bending his knees low. He redirects the energy outwards, but this time follows with her before stopping and pulling her back in. He flattens his hands against hers, steps to the beat and pushes back. Then he does a simple tuck-turn.

"Very good, Jessica," Jessica there, not Jones, which he more often calls her. "I'm impressed. Most people can't quite commit to the momentum without overthinking it or trying to predict what the lead is going to do."

*

She notes the difference. He really is relaxing if he's gone to Jessica. A flash of a grin. "Most people aren't as durable as me. I don't know how much credit I can take for that one." But she'll take some, that's for sure.

She follows him; the tuck-turn sort of stumbled through but managed; this time mostly because she hadn't figured out which way the freight train was supposed to be going in time. And because her feet got a little mixed up. But she doesn't seem to care, laughing her way through that as well.

There's a reason why this is the thing she chose to do when she's not being Detective Jones.

"You're a good teacher," she notes, with real warmth.

*

"Well, I do remember getting terribly frustrated with stalling follows back in the day. I'd rather you carry the momentum and then learn the footwork, but it's likely your instructors would disagree with that approach. Because now," Michael squeezes her hand and then releases it, "…you've got to learn to stay on the beat of the music and to get your footwork down. Otherwise it's not so much dancing as me flinging you about the room. Not that that isn't jolly fun." He chuckles softly.

*

She steps back as he lets her go. "Funny, I think I've heard that one before, too." That it's jolly fun to be flung about the room, that is. Only probably less Britishly, and more in the sort of 'so-and-so-wants-her-dead' sort of way. Still, thoughts of people trying to kill her are rather far away.

"Thank you for that," she adds, not pressing for him to get her down with her footwork tonight. They have managed to relax for a bit. Jessica has even managed to put the gruesome photos spread out all over the coffee table out of her mind.

*

"You do know…that you don't have to worry about hurting me?" Michael may not have properly confessed his abilities, but he's assumed that either Peggy filled her in, or she used her considerable powers of deduction to sort it out. "Even if you grabbed me and flung me about, it's unlikely you'd do more than bruise my pride." He smiles, then, "Which would come in quite handy if I ever teach you aerials."

*

"I mean I knew you were probably like Bucky or Steve, but I sort of hit Steve in the mouth once and did in fact hurt him," Jessica confesses, with a wince. That was not one of her prouder moments. "We were sparring. I didn't expect to land the blow," she explains. If she had, she probably would not have gone for his face. She hasn't deduced all of them, nor has she pried them out of Peggy.

She deduces by nature; secrets fall into her lap by nature, but she at least tries to give her friends the space to tell her things at her own pace, so she hadn't dug for details.

She eyes her ceiling though, and laughs. "Maybe aerials in a place with more space."

*

Michael chuckles and smiles. "Mhmm, yes. This place doesn't really need a Jones-shaped skylight." He looks down again at her. "Oh, if we were sparring, yes, we could hurt each other if we weren't careful. But dancing isn't a purposeful attempt to hurt one another. I just mean…" He reaches out to put her hand on his wrist. And if she cooperates, he twists his wrist in her grip. His arm doesn't even quite feel like an arm when he tightens his muscles.

"I…" the breath he takes suggests he's about to confess something. "…have a dermal mesh fused to my skin. It's like being coated in body armor. When I flex or when my skin experiences an impact, the molecules of the mesh close in to protect me." He wobbles his head. "Or at least that's what the scientists at MI-6 tells me happens. I'm not totally clear on the science of it all."

*

Jess allows the contact without any particular hesitation. Her eyes widen a little bit as she thinks through that, toys with the implications.

"Does it hurt?"

That's her first question, because 'dermal mesh being fused to my skin' sounds like something that ought to be agonizing.

But she also looks up at him rather steadily, and for the moment keeps her hand where it is. She hears that note of confession, that decision to open up a little bit. It's something fragile in a way that he is not; something she thinks could break if she breaks the contact.

*

"It did," says Michael, simply. "But its predecessors hurt more. And nothing hurts quite like having no protection at all." He looks down, then up. "You see, I received an imperfect version of the serum that made Captain America. I was the victim of my government's impatience and desparation. The Americans, they thought, could wait for Erskine to perfect the formula because Hitler wasn't on their doorsteps. The Crown saw it another way. So I volunteered. And there were…side effects."

He relaxes his arm and turns it over. "If you've ever been burned, you understand a little of what it feels like. Every nerve ending on every inch of exposed skin was on fire."

*

"I know what that feels like," Jessica says quietly. "Was in a burning car when I was 15, roasted me pretty much from head to toe."

Its predecessors, holy friggin' crap. How many meshes did they try? But she keeps her questions a little bit more sedate than that. "Did they tell you? That it could be that bad? Or did you all sort of find out together, and have to figure it out after the fact?"

Her brow furrows, just a little bit. It took this man some kind of incredible courage to go walking into that experiment to begin with, and then they cocked it all up. Then again, every single version of the serum since Steve sounds like it's been cocked up in one form or fashion.

And nobody ever stops trying to make the stuff.

*

"A little of both. I was aware of the risks. I read Erskine's reports. I do admit I expected it to kill me if something went wrong rather than what it actually did. The form the side effects took were a surprise to all of us." Michael lifts a shoulder. "All of this was a very long time ago. The mesh comes close to doing what the serum was meant to do for my durability. And actually, a bit more. I'm not entirely bulletproof, but I come close."

Then, "Yes of course, your childhood. Then you're quite aware." His voice has gone a bit quiet and a bit distant.

*

Quiet and distant, Jessica takes as him thinking through things more than anything else. "So it fixed the side effects entirely? The mesh?"

She just speaks as quietly as he. Carefully. She feels like this man never talks, never gets anything out of his system. And now he is talking, to her. Without the benefit of a truth serum, even. She's afraid to move, even, lest she shut him down again, just encouraging him to talk about whatever he wants to talk about.

Being locked up inside kind of sucks, after all.

She's quite aware of that, too.

*

Michael flexes his fingers and relaxes his arm. He's…never actually talked about this before. That seems apparent. Either people already knew, or they didn't. There's never really been an element of confession before. He's going through the motions rather awkwardly. "Not entirely."

He looks down, then, "I suppose I'm a…cyborg," It pains him to say that word. It conjures up images that don't quite fit with hsi proper British spy exterior. "I suppose you noticed that I translated some of the languages in Wakanda rather quickly even though I said I didn't speak them."

*

"I did," Jessica says. He flexes and relaxes, she takes that as her cue to remove her hand from his wrist. She leaves that there, just an invitation for him to continue. Her brown eyes are steady. If she thinks there's anything wrong with being a cyborg, it sure doesn't show.

She doesn't move, save to allow her fingers to slide away from him, just patiently holds the space between them exactly as it was when he began. He's got her total focus, now. Any thoughts she has about anything he's got to say, in fact, remain carefully concealed, mostly because she's not letting herself analyze or think about it at all. She's just trying to listen without developing an opinion, even a silent one.

With a spy, a silent opinion can be as good as a shout anyway.

*

If someone was filming this scene, this would be the point where the music cut out in a rather conspicuous way, in a way that lends weight to the words and the silence that comes before the words. "I have an ocular implant that gives me dossiers on people, and feeds me real-time translation of known languages. There were places in Wakanda where the connection did not work. It is…classified technology. I shouldn't be telling you." He purses his lips. He's not someone who is often shy about eye contact, but he looks down and away now, partially because he is speaking about a device implanted in his eye.

"I also have a…chip in my neck." He touches a spot. "It steadies my emotional state. Without it, I am…" he pauses, struggling to find the words, "…passive and emotionally raw to the point of uselessness."

*

"I've a reputation for keeping secrets at this point," Jessica assures him, in that same quiet tone. She's not sure if it's reached the level of a reputation yet, but she's certainly holding on to a fair number of other people's identities, abilities, and whatnot. Usually not because they just up and told her, but she has become quite good at keeping her mouth shut.

The research library in his eye could be useful or bothersome or both. But it's the chip that draws her attention. "Does it do that on a passive process? Reading your hormone levels and making subtle adjustments on its own? Or does someone have a direct wire into that thing?"

Michael did say he bore some similarities with the Winter Soldier, even as he insisted he did it all to himself.

*

Michael lets his hand fall from the chip. "I don't know." He doesn't comment on whether this is a bad thing (clearly it is) or if it would bother him. He says it with an odd sort of acceptance. It is what it is. "I don't know what it corrects or how it corrects it. It used to be fixed with drugs, but the dosage was…" he pulls in a breath, "…unpredictable. My emotional state has been far more stable since the invention of the microchip." He says that with a certain drawl of self-awareness. He knows how absurd that sounds.

*

It doesn't sound that absurd, really.

But she does pick up on the fact that it bothers the Hell out of him. She pieces this together with what he said in their Wakandan gangland cell and says, "The chip, this need for emotional regulation…it's why you struggle with what is and isn't your responsibility?"

It's a crazy complex situation that he's in. It's little wonder it might leave him tied up in knots. He's not in a situation where there are a lot of absolutes. Mind control versus agency, duty and heroism versus what those things called on him to do.

She doesn't have a lot of answers for it…

But the first art of her particular craft is really the art of the question, not so much the art of having the answers.

*

There's also a lot to be inferred from what the side effects of the serum were for Michael. When, as the story goes, Doctor Erskine said that the serum magnifies everything about a person.

He inhales a bit, smiles a bit. It isn't quite a laugh, but it's part of the way to becoming one. "Responsibility? I suppose. I try not to think too much on it. I try to follow orders, and to complete my mission." Because dealing with the morality, and the reality of his situation is a little hard to process. That way lies madness, or perhaps crippling doubt.

*

Jessica does file it away, yes. She has trouble imagining him as passive and emotionally raw, but once he must have been a person who felt very deeply indeed, before the interference of the serum.

"And now," she murmurs, "You have no orders. Nobody to tell you what to do. No mission. It's not just workaholism. You're in a situation now, where, for the first time ever, you're being asked to make your own choices. And you're scared you're going to make the wrong ones."

Usually she doesn't like assuming where people's emotions are going, but in this case…in this case she thinks she's probably hit on it. He can always correct her if that's not the case, anyway. She does ask it with a slightly questioning tone, just enough to acknowledge that she's not inside his head and doesn't know for sure.

*

"Oh, I make my own choices," says Michael. It's not defensiveness, simply clarification. "But I've always done so within the confines of a mission. I was trained to be autonomous, to complete my objective even without contact with my handlers." He clenches his jaw a bit, tilts his chin up. "It's the lack of a mission, the lack of a clear objective I could focus my energies towards. That…lack of clarity is…" He struggles to find the word.

Instead, he lets that trail off and changes track. "When I first signed on, the objective was clear: stop Hitler. Then, it was to stop the rise of the Russians and their nuclear ambitions. From there, the world started developing fractures. Fissures. Things grew ever more complicated, ever more morally gray. But I comforted myself with the fact that I trusted in the people who directed me. That they would cut through the moral complications and gray areas and point me towards problems that had a clear solution. Stop this person. Destroy this piece of data. Intercept this courier. That sort of thing. But now." He looks at her now, more fully. "I honestly couldn't do what you do. You can never really know if your client is being truthful or is in the right. I cannot function well without clarity of purpose. And I fear I've reached my limit of being able to adapt to this new world. And thus, perhaps, the limit of my usefulness to my government."

*

Jessica Jones smiles a little. "I can't, but I can verify as best I can," she tells him. "And then I take a chance. And I realize I'm going to fuck up sometimes, trust the wrong person, make a shitty decision, and when I do, I'm going to have to make amends or deal with the fallout. And you can. Because you have."

She steps towards him, tentatively. Giving him a chance to avoid the hands she tries to bring gently down on his shoulders if he should want to. She's so conscious of that, touch, whether people want to have it or not, even now that she's starting to lay some of her own demons to rest.

"You didn't know for sure I wasn't a psycho. Or just wrongheaded. I mean. You knew your sister liked me, and maybe that served as endorsement enough, but in the end you had to make an evaluation. Some crazy nobody PI, asking you to fly halfway around the world for some dude you don't even like. And you went. And we couldn't have done it without you. And while I get the objective was clear, there, too, to an extent, you had no way of really knowing if you were on the right side until you saw it through."

Her tone is very gentle, a quality most don't associate with her, because she usually doesn't like letting people see it. But she says, "Most of us just muddle through and do the best we can. I look at you and I see a very conscientious individual. Honorable. Trustworthy. And kind. Someone who cares about right and wrong, even if you aren't always going to get what's right, right, cause nobody does. If the UK decides to ditch you here because they feel like being douchebags," well, this is Jess, the cursing was inevitable eventually, "I think you'll still make decisions that are more or less better than most."

*

"Imagine…imagine that before you took every client, you had a team of people with resources that are in-depth enough to be a little creepy, frankly. People who vetted the client and made certain their story was true. Then imagine you also had analysts producing reports that would carefully weigh risk versus reward and how each outcome might affect other parties. So you knew within quite a reasonable degree of certainty that your client's case was just and what they were telling you was correct. Then operate that way for decades. Then, suddenly feel yourself without it. That's a little what I'm facing."

He doesn't flinch away from the contact, but he doesn't openly encourage it either. It's a passivity that isn't very common with him. He tends to telegraph things quite well. "I fear I cannot change, Jessica. That I cannot operate on my own with this…uncertainty. And it's difficult for a man who ages as slowly as I do to retire." That was another one of his not-really-a-joke-joke.

"However, it's also entirely possible that I'll get a text at any moment with a code that corresponds to a dossier. And then I'm gone halfway round the world with no notice and no word. And you may never see me again, or you may see me again only days later. I find myself living in limbo between loose ends and sudden deployment."

*

She leaves her hands where they are. Listening. She can imagine it; she has a good imagination. Change is hard. The loss of certainty is hard. It's all pretty damned hard.

She tries to imagine feeling set in her ways.

Of it all, it's that final uncertainty that would drive her the craziest. Raging control freak that she is. Then again, she's taken oaths.

She could be called to Wakanda at any time herself, and this time, alone. It wouldn't upset her, but it is a fact that sits at the back of her mind. Or sucked into another dimension again, there's always that.

At last, she says, "I think, given the parameters you've outlined for the challenges you're facing that your best defense is to live in the moment. Deal with what's in front of you here and now. Can't do shit about the past, can't control the future. Don't know what's coming, live a dangerous lifestyle. Maybe, Michael, you just take it one day at a time. Take it one step at a time. Worry about what you're going to do right now, right here, and just keep doing that."

Her lips quirk. "Or, so my therapist says about my own raging anxieties. But…I've found it works."

In Wakanda, the past was distant to her, almost unreal. The future? Didn't bear thinking about or worrying about. All she could do was focus on the clue, lead, piece of intel or bomb right in front of her, and she just kept doing that over and over again.

"Right this second's all you got, really. A sniper could be setting up two miles from here and blow both our heads off in the next thirty seconds. Though fortunately I think the line of sight into my apartment is crap for that."

*

"This is going to sound horribly nihilistic," says Michael, "But I almost always assume there is a sniper aimed at my head. And it could all end with the flex of a stranger's finger." Like he's ended other strangers with a flex of his own finger. He sounds almost eerily okay with the thought of being suddenly hit by a sniper's bullet. "But after the life I've lived, any moment past now is borrowed time. By rights, I should have been dead long before now."

He then starts to pull some of his mask back on. Bit by bit. It starts with a wry grin. "Shouldn't the old man be the one giving the young woman advice? I believe I should be saying 'back in my day' a lot and grousing about the state of popular music. Oh wait," he whuffs a soft laugh. "I suppose I've already done the second part."

*

Jessica smirks a little bit, only for her smile to turn absolutely wicked instead. Brown eyes dance, sassy and warm. "Maybe, but I mean. I'm so damn smart, how could you help but listen to my fantastic advice?" For once, she doesn't feel inclined to poke fun at her own long litany of decisions, ranging from the actually helpful (this year) to the self-destructive to the downright weird.

He pulls his mask back on, and she lets him go, stepping back from him, taking her cue, once more, from that.

"Besides, I'm not really that young. In a few hours I'll be 31. I think they start putting us ladies out to pasture or something at 29 or some shit? So I'm already practically decrepit." There's real laughter in her tone now too, because of course, she gives no fucks about what anyone thinks about her age or anything else.

*

"You are quite smart, Jessica Jones," Michael says that like he means it, and with a little dance of amusement in his eyes to meet her own. "And you have the wisdom of someone who has had to learn from her mistakes. Most of us have to do a lot more living to figure things out."

"It's your birthday." He snaps. "And I really have no excuse for not knowing or remembering that considering I have a computerized display in my eyeball that shows bloody dossiers." He points to his eye. "I should've waited until after tomorrow to tell you my secret. Now I'll never have an excuse for not remembering a date again."

*

She'll take that compliment, by her grin it warms her. Both of them. Her cheeks color a little bit, but she is not about to admit to that.

She starts to make some crack about how theoretically the dossier doesn't pop up every time he looks at her, but decides she has no idea if it does, and that's a can of worms.

Instead, she demurrs a little. "I don't make a big deal out of it one way or the other. Even so, here I am, having a very nice evening with you. A pretty good early birthday present, I think. It's not everyone who can inspire me to relax, Michael Carter. Or to think this relaxing thing might have some merits. I mean. Who knew? What's up with that?"

*

It really is a can of worms. Which is why Michael tends not to tell people about it. It's not only classified - it's also awkward. And not just because he might be reading something and not actually paying attention during a conversation.

Michael smiles and looks back towards the door, then over to Jessica. "Is it a metaphor for your life that a nice evening started with me busting your door back on its hinges?"

*

"Yes," Jessica says, with mock solemnity. "Yes it is. It is the perfect metaphor for my life. But. I like my life now. With all its colorful freakin' chaos. If I have to sacrifice a few doors and windows to that…"

She spreads her hands in a shrug. "Small price to pay. A really, really small price to pay."

For her part? She feels the opposite of awkward, really. She wasn't kidding about being relaxed. Having fun, a word that she hasn't even had in her vocabulary up until now, really.

"One of these days I solemnly swear I will Kool-Aid Woman right through one of yours."

*

"You'll…what?" Michael is pretty good on the major pop culture milestones, but it seems he missed the whole anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar drink smashing through walls part. "You doing something to my door," whatever that was, "…would assume you know where I live. Which I don't believe you do, unless you followed me home at some point." Which is not out of the realm of possibility, but knowing when he's picked up a tail is a pretty fundamental spycraft skill.

"Well, if this is me helping you celebrate your birthday a little early, what would you like to do? Or should I leave you to relax and get back to your film?"

*

"I do not in fact know where you live, you can relax. It remains your closely guarded secret."

She would never even try to figure it out. Not without being invited there. She'll just let him ask Google about the Kool-Aid thing later.

"We've kind of been doing it," she points out. "I mean, ignoring the fact that I brought out the gruesome file, we've had a long talk and you danced with me and everything. I mean. I don't want to keep you past your wanting to stay, I'm sure you didn't anticipate entertaining me for hours when you first stopped by. I mean I like having you here, this isn't me trying to run you off, you can certainly stay."

A bit of awkward fluster, now. "I don't think the kids will be home tonight, so I mean, as late as you want, even."

She chuffs a laugh. "Jesus, any minute now and I'm going to dissolve into talking about the rashers again. Sorry. Um. Me. Peopling. That's not really a word but…"

*

"It's not a closely guarded secret at all. I must point out that you've never asked," says Michael with his characteristic dry not-quite-wit. He smiles quite genuinely and brightly as she reminds him of the bacon/rashers incident. "I suppose this…" he motions around, then back halfway to the door, "…is not that unusual for a friendship that started with a flustered conversation about breakfast meats." He reaches out to return the contact from earlier, but he goes to take her hands. "You 'people,'" it clearly pains him to use the word that way. "Quite beautifully." He wobbles his head. "Most of the time."

*

"I mostly assumed until tonight you wouldn't want to tell me." She readily lets him take her hands. "The weird thing about being a Detective is you have to work extra hard to give people their privacy. I figure things out without meaning to sometimes, and it's put a strain on things before. With people I care about. Where do you live?"

It's maybe an inane question, but now that he's hinted he might tell her she certainly does want to know.

But his pained use of the slang makes her eyes dance once more, as does his compliment. And his qualifier. "I'll take it," she says. "Even though I still feel a little shaky on some of the finer points. Interpeting signals, for example. Sending signals, man, that's the worst. Eventually I just come right out and say stuff and boy does that get awkward sometimes."

*

"I live in Chelsea," says Michael simply. "Though 'live' is not exactly what I do there. You saw my hotel room in Wakanda, yes?" No sign of sprawl. Bags either perpetually packed or ready to be packed. Very few personal touches. "I admit I don't quite know how to 'live' somewhere. Stay, yes."

He takes both her hands and holds them in a way that manages to feel old fashioned. His overtop of hers, thumbs folded under. "Oh, my device that both sends and retrieves signals is covered in a few decades of cobwebs." He smiles and lifts a shoulder. "Though that wasn't always the case. Back in the day, I did my share of honeypot jobs." His eyes dance with amusement.

*

"Chelsea's a nice neighborhood," Jess says, glancing down with a smile. She just sort of nods to the state of the apartment, showcasing how Spartan her own is. Granted, that's because of her cheater app, but it wasn't that full of personal details before.

Then: "People don't really spill state secrets into their pillows, do they?"

It starts with a quip, because of course it does. But as for the way he decides to hold her hands? This is a woman who has found her bliss in Swing dance. She doesn't mind the old fashioned handhold. A little less flustered— okay, she's not reading all kinds of signals all kinds of incorrectly, which means she's not going to make an ass of herself, probably. She has misread before. She has made an ass of herself before. And it wasn't fun, because by the time she's ready to start worrying about any of it she's already got feelings all wrapped up in it.

It's funny, because when he'd kicked down that door this was the last thing on her mind. They'd been friends, and that was that. Something shifted. Now she's looking at him with some new eyes.

And she's not just hallucinating it; this connection that seems to have sprung up out of nowhere.

"I've never really had the chance to do it the way people do when they're trying to do it the right way." Her head tilts back and forth in an acknowledgement that what she's going to say isn't the best thing to say. It's not the putting her best foot forward thing to say. But it's real, and real is where Jess tries to live. "I've never tried to do it sober. My dance expertise is better than my signal expertise. And now you know what a sorry state of affairs that is."

*

"They don't spill state secrets, generally. But they will let their guard down. And depending on how you work an asset, you can get that guard down. Either through being present, but underestimated, or through good old fashioned seduction." Michael says that last word in a tone she hasn't heard much from him before. It sounds almost playful.

"Of course, maybe I was utter rubbish at it, which is why they stopped giving me those assignments." That, or there were better uses of his particular brand of skills than cozying up to some diplomats. That also usually involved a long game, and his state was too unstable for that for many years.

His thumbs move over the backs of her hand. He looks at them, and then swallows a breath. It's the emotional manifestation of mentally pumping the breaks. His adam's apple bobs. "Your dancing is quite intuitive."

He looks up, finding the courage to look her in the eye. "I admire you a great deal, Jessica. You have tremendous courage and a good heart. You're a bloody hero, whether you think of yourself that way or not." He can't help but sound like an Austen character right there, somehow. And not just because of his accent.

*

She inhales a bit at that little stroke of his thumb. "You are definitely not rubbish at seduction." But there's break pumping. She looks into his eyes as well. All the things he's saying produce more color in her cheeks.

"Thank you," she says softly. She tries to decide if he's working his way up to a 'but.'

She does not have tremendous courage in matters of the heart, at least, not really. She opens her mouth as if to ask that very question. She is not a woman who often looks uncertain, but she looks uncertain now. He let his walls down tonight, and so did she. Without those walls, without her swagger and her snapping, her cursing and her joking, she's someone who feels deeply and so is a lot more tentative. She wasn't kidding about not being entirely sure how to conduct herself without a belly full of booze giving her all the armor she needs to just not give a damn.

Finally, she decides to be the freight train, letting him lead this dance. Lets herself whirl about emotionally like a maple key, waiting to see if he'll catch her or let her bang her leg on the figurative coffee table.

*

There was a time when he would be navigating this situation differently. In his early days as a soldier, or once he found a mental even keel sometime in the 70s, he could be quite the charmer. But a lot of things have atrophied in the long decades since. His handlers actively discouraged personal ties. That was one of the reasons Peggy never knew he was alive.

So he's certainly not navigating this moment of connection like a man of over a hundred years. In fact, he's moving through it like a man the age he appears to be.

He removes one hand and gently tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. He lets his hand drift down the edge to rest high on her shoulder, close to the curve of her neck. "I am desperately arguing with myself whether it would be fair of me to kiss you."

*

He catches her, and she exhales and smiles.

Jessica scoots forward rests her hands on his shoulders again, some of her uncertainty fading, offering a dry. "I've only been waiting for you to do just that for half this conversation. Also, screw fair. If you're weighing deployments and uncertainty and whatever else. Those are bridges to cross when we come to them. And I'd tell you all the reasons why I think this could be fantastic, and I have thought of quite a few."

Given just this little bit of encouragement, of certainty, she can plow forward with something like ease. "But there's this kissing thing I want to do, and then there's this going to your apartment thing I want to do, so we can do things it seems like we might both want to do. Things which are best done with a working door."

She leans in. "Guess we'll have to save that part for the pillow, super-spy."

*

Michael can't help it. He smiles quite brightly when she finds her bravado again. For all he seems uptight sometimes, it's clearly a personal choice and not something he expects or even wants to see in other people. On the contrary, it's the least uptight people he seems to gravitate towards.

"I knew breaking down that blasted door would have repercussions I didn't imagine." That's the line he chooses to move in on, closing the distance between them and cupping the back of her head. He presses his lips firmly against hers. As expected of a man who has confessed that it's been…a very long time, it takes him a moment to find his rhythm. But thankfully, he's a quick study.

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