The day of January 19th, or more precisely, the early hours of January 19th, were unremarked by the majority of the D.C. neighborhoods. However, one person in the small minority awake during those hours was tapping away, fingers flying over the keyboard as they had for most of the day before. The darkness had rolled in, settled, but apart from a long phone call and a few texts, there was no breaking that calm quiet that had enveloped her. Holly was concentrating hard, staring at the open document intensely as she worked. As the seconds ticked by, eventually her fingers slowed, paused, and she let out a long breath. Frozen at the board, she used the track pad on her laptop to save the document, all the while she kept her gaze locked on the screen. Slowly, carefully, she removed her hands and let her face relax. Disbelief flitted over her features, and turned into a hesitant happiness.
"It's done," she breathed, leaning back in her seat. Raking her hand through her hair, she absently noted it was getting to be time for another haircut as she felt the delicious slide of joy travel through her. The better half of three years, writing and rewriting, so much editing and rearranging, all of that spent on her story, and now, now her manuscript was done (not a romance, as she had joked to Tony Stark, but more of a suspenseful adventure story).
"I take it your novel has reached completion, ma'am?" JARVIS asked pleasantly, penetrating her cocoon. She nodded, feeling the tears gather in her eyes but not letting them fall.
"Yes," Holly exhaled, a giant grin spreading across her lips. "Holy crap, yes."
"Congratulations, ma'am," the AI responded. "And as it well past midnight, happy birthday as well, ma'am."
Slightly startled, she glanced at the computer clock, noting the date underneath it. Had it really transitioned to her birthday already? Damn. For a moment, she tipped her head back, closing her eyes in tired relief.
"Thank you, JARVIS." Twenty-seven years old, and the first draft of her first book was finished. The click of her heating coming on echoed through the apartment, and her gaze drifted unconsciously towards her bedroom, wishing that the one person she really wanted to share the news with was there. Sighing, she gathered up her phone, tapping out a quick text message that she knew would not be answered for a while.
"You're welcome. Shall I locate the publishing house addresses and phone numbers for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bielke?"
Yes, yes, the publishers, the ones she'd met at the New Year's party, she had to get in touch with them, let them know she would contributing something much sooner than she had anticipated.
"Yeah, yeah..." Her mind began to race, and she sat up, phone abandoned and her hands on the keyboard again. "Send those to my email, I've gotta get a cover letter going, and write up a summary. And find folders."
Then she'd need envelopes for her printed-off first chapters, and she'd have to get to the post office...where was her copy of Writer's Market? She needed to look up literary agents, too. Her mind raced again at the possibilities this event could provide. The first year and a half she'd spent working on her book, she had stalled, lost her inspiration, just settled into her life and would pick away at it once in a while. But over the last nine and a half months, she'd found the joy in writing again, found her way out of writer's block and back with her characters, more invigorated than before. She'd worked hard, and had done so gladly. Her life had given her novel life again, and she was so pleased with that. Two things to celebrate today, she thought, sniffing and pressing her palms over her eyes, her exhausted grin not wavering.
Holly just hoped Steve would get her message and celebrate with her, even if he had to do so from far away.
After getting a few hours of sleep, her letter printed and the copies of the first chapter along with the summary churning out while she rested, Holly packaged everything up and headed out to the post office, the cold biting into her as she jogged to and from her vehicle. Her mind churned up a lame joke at her birthday falling during winter, stirring her discontent, but she rolled her eyes to herself and just shrugged harder into her wool coat. The day had dawned bright, and freezing, and she took a bracing breath in, marking the beginning of her twenty-seventh year of life. As she drove, she mentally ran down her day's itinerary in her head. No work, as she had requested the day off, run to the post office, scheduled hair appointment, lunch out with Sarah (who insisted on celebrating again, even after they had pre-birthday drinks on the previous Saturday), and calling Steve around mid-afternoon before movies and delivery for the evening. Simple, easy, she was good with the plan. Pulling her wool cap down and keeping her sunglasses on, she bustled into the post office, excitement heating her cheeks as much as the flush of going back into the heat. Everything was weighed, measured and mailed in record time, and she had turned to leave, unhindered by anyone else. In the entryway, she paused and shot off emails to the publishers to cover her bases when a tapping on her shoulder surprised her. Jumping a little at the contact, she instinctively backed up a pace or two, examining the person who touched her.
It was an older man, bundled in a long black overcoat and black trousers, his hands returned to his sides and burying themselves in his pockets as his pale face began to tint pink. A tartan scarf was tucked around his neck He was a little taller than her, his thinning brown hair not covered by a cap and his eyes were shaded by dark aviator sunglasses. The sunlight through the glass door burst through some clouds, casting an unearthly glow around him for a moment or two.
"Miss Martin," he greeted her, dipping his chin once. Pushing her own sunglasses up onto her head, she squinted at him while her eyes adjusted.
"Can I help you?" she asked warily, hovering as close to the door as she dared. In the vestibule of the post office, she was in the line of the security camera, but she had a straight shot out if had to run. She didn't like being suspicious of people, but in the past few months, she had grown weary of the ones looking for secrets, looking for insight into Captain America's private life and her own doings. And not only them; she'd been taunted and had epithets thrown her way as well (some from jealous women, some from impotent men, but mostly on the Internet message boards). Consequentially, anyone who approached her in public made her put her on guard, no matter their intentions. This fellow, his appearance out of the blue, struck a chord with her.
"Miss, I need you to come with me," he murmured, the calm measure of his voice unconsciously easing something within her. Still, she didn't let her guard down. Maybe it really was time to look into getting a bodyguard, as much as the idea put her off.
"Why?" she wondered, phone gripped tight in her hand, the other dropping into her pocket and curling around the can of pepper spray on her keyring. Going right for the Taser in her purse would not be the right move at that moment. The man gestured to the door, making sure not to touch her again or alarm her in any way.
"It's a matter of minor urgency. My...colleague wants to speak to you, in regards to your recent affiliations."
"Okay..." Holly's brow furrowed, and the fellow sighed. This wasn't going easily at all, and people in the post office were beginning to stare at them.
"I don't mean you any harm," he said, attempting to keep his tone low and even. Taking a half step towards her, he saw her take a half step back out of instinct.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because if those were my intentions, it would have happened already," he told her bluntly. She blinked, taken aback by his candor. In her experience, mysterious types who approached her out of nowhere usually reined in the honesty. "I'm with SHIELD."
Holly's expression hardened, her head shaking automatically. "SHIELD doesn't exist anymore."
"Good, that's exactly what the world needs to think," the man said, taking off his sunglasses and revealing his sardonic brown eyes. Before she could stammer a denial, a reproach, or otherwise verbalize her disbelief, he cut her off. "I promise, it won't take long."
There was a long moment where their gazes were locked, light and dark brown eyes staring one another down. If he were polite only to destroy her later, he was playing a long con, one that wasn't paying off as quickly as it should have. Something in Holly's gut told her that this man wasn't here to hurt her. Carefully, she inclined her head. The guy pushed open the door, ushering her out without another word. Taking slow steps, Holly swiped through her apps on her phone, trying to be discreet, subtly alerting Steve and Sarah about stepping out of the post office and heading across town, should they need to get in touch with her.
"Whenever you're done texting your friends of your whereabouts, we'll go," the mystery man called out, causing her to jerk her head up and her eyes to go wide. How did he...
"You're good," she commented quietly, hitting the send button and walking behind him. The corner of his mouth barely lifted, but she got the sense that he was amused. As he pushed his sunglasses back on, he lifted a shoulder.
"I've learned from the best." Leading the way, he brought her to a nondescript black sedan with tinted windows. He'd gotten a few feet ahead of her, and she had to jog to catch up. The dog tags, thrown on after she'd put on her coat earlier, bounced around as she moved, the sun glinting off them and grabbing the guy's attention. Opening the passenger door for her, he waited until Holly had buckled in, nodding to the chain.
"Nice tags," he complimented her. Taking a closer look, his eyes went slightly wide behind the sunglasses. "Are they the captain's originals?"
Covering the tags with her hand, she nodded, a little uncomfortable. "Yes."
Saying no more, the fellow got into the driver's side, pulling seamlessly into traffic. The drive took them twenty minutes out to the edge of the city. They parked in front of a tan office building with a "for rent" sign plastered up in the ground floor window. Getting out and following him up to the locked door, Holly watched as the key lock panel slid back, revealing a scanner. The guy pressed his thumb to it, and another panel in the door clicked open. Bending towards it, he closed one eye while a scanner projected over the other. Clearance accessed, the locks unbolted and the door swung in, the glass tinting as they padded indoors. Being taken through a twisting maze of hallways, she tried to keep track of where she was going, but eventually she was guided up a back staircase and deposited into the first room to the left of the landing. At that point, the mystery man shut the door behind her and disappeared, leaving her alone.
The window was shaded, the overhead lights and the heating turned on (so they found a way to either pay the bill or break into the utilities without the power company knowing). The walls were devoid of any paraphernalia, the furniture consisting of a desk and two chairs taking up the majority of the space. However, what looked like one of Tony Stark's high definition wall displays had its projection frame bordering the back wall. Taking a seat in a chair, she glanced at the desk sitting in front of her, bare save for a single file folder bearing her last name and first initial. Curiosity sparked through her, but she attempted to keep it quelled as she took off her hat and coat, dropped her purse on the floor, swiped through her phone, took stock of the digital display that was blank. Slowly, after checking over her shoulder and hearing no movement in the hall, she scooted her chair forward, getting close enough to lean her elbows on the flat surface. Crossing her arms, she kept her eye on the folder, fingers tapping against her sweatered arms for a second or two. Uncrossing her arms, she brought her hands up to rest her chin in them, counting down time until it felt safe to drop them back onto the desk, the folder within reach.
"If you're gonna make a move, it's too late now."
Automatically Holly jerked her hands back, putting them in her lap as she looked over her shoulder at the new arrival. Another older man, African American with his head shaved and an eye patch secured over the left eye, watched her shrewdly. In keep with the black motif of his associate as far clothing went, he looked less like an accountant and more like an authority figure. Recognizing him from the media pictures as well as from Steve's personal verifications, her jaw dropped. After all, Nick Fury was supposed to be dead.
As he went around to the other side of the desk, Holly managed to find her tongue again, stammering, "I-I was just...resting my hands on the desk."
He smirked at her. "At first. I'm Nick Fury."
Nodding, she stifled her first response, instead extending her hand out. "Holly Martin."
"I know," he said, unknowingly throwing her unspoken response at her. Shaking her hand, he shifted in his chair, back ramrod straight and gaze formidable.
Swallowing (and still trying to process that she was speaking to yet another man from Steve's life who wasn't as deceased as everyone thought; seriously, did no one ever die now?), she wondered, "How much do you know?"
He tapped a finger on the file folder, smirk turning wry. "A lot more than you'd think."
"I suppose so," she responded, unable to stem the remark before it came out. "You used to be the director of a spy organization."
"It was more complicated than that."
"Sorry," she returned, shrugging her shoulders sheepishly. "I'm an average civilian; that explanation works best for me."
Glancing away, she missed the significant look Fury had cast at her. Gathering up the folder, he opened it with a practiced air, thumbing through the sheaf of papers therein.
"This is a compiled assessment of you. Due to your involvement with a particular captain, romantic and otherwise, it appears that 'average' is not the best describer for you lately," he said, flipping pages over and settling them on the desk as he went through it all. Reading upside, she could see her school records, bank records, and other reports with her name on them. If she could have, she would've sunk straight into the floor. "In the last nine months you've been pretty busy: found and rescued a federal operative/national hero, assisted in the manhunt for a rogue assassin—"
Holly coughed, "Uh, not to split hairs, but I didn't do much other than house-sit and drive to and from the airport during that."
"And in turn apprehended said assassin for a short time. Just over two hours, but nobody's perfect."
"Steve really was the one who..." she trailed off. That particular information regarding Bucky was not even in any private database; Steve didn't want that out for anyone to find. Nick Fury found out, though. "Wait, how did...?"
He didn't even let her words register, and kept talking. "Let's see, what else? Rushed through carrying permits for a handgun and a Taser despite living in the D.C. metropolitan area, even if you only employ one of those. Integrated yourself into a covert mission without authorization...well, to be fair, none of the parties had authorization to do so, but if the government and all world councils were willing to let it slide, then I can't say anything about it. And you've also continued contact with members of the foremost specialized task force in the world, and granted access to private bases for those members. This doesn't even touch the social media speculation and fire."
'Geez, you know when I'm sleeping and when I'm awake, too?' Holly listened to the speech, her actions over the last months laid out before her, and for some reason, she couldn't quite take it in. There was an implication in Fury's words, she could hear it in his tone, but what it was eluded her. And she didn't know if she was there to answer for her actions, or to explain, or what have you. None of those things were anything she set out to do. They just...happened, and she'd acted one way or another.
Her brow was furrowed, her mouth pulled down in a frown. "I do not understand what this is about, or why I'm here."
Fury shrugged, faux affability in his form. "Observing from afar doesn't quite cut it, and I doubt you would accept a call from a ghost on the telephone."
Holly snorted. "You'd be surprised. I'd think you would have built quite a profile without ever needing to meet me."
Fury leaned forward, the air around him seemingly going colder, his expression sobering.
"I don't work that way, not in cases like keeping long-term tabs on a civilian. I have been keeping track of you, Miss Martin. Note that I said I, not we," Nick responded, stressing the words. "As far as the outer world is concerned, you've managed to break into the world of the Avengers, but you're definitely not as significant as they are, so there's no point in looking below the surface."
"And you don't subscribe to that theory?"
He smirked again, the mirth sparse in the expression. "I'm not the outer world; according to them, I'm dead. No, when a stranger comes on the radar as far as this team is concerned, I pay attention. I watch out for my own."
"And they help you out with that. Or at least Natasha does," Holy amended, recalling her first encounters with the ex-agent. Although, to be fair, there were others at the Tower with ties to this man, and at least one of them would have the same mind set as Nat.
"She's a free agent now, though she does pass things along if I ask her to," he pointed out, bringing her back to the present.
'Thus being indirectly told I was being watched back in June,' Holly thought. Aloud, she murmured, choosing her words with care, "If you've brought me here to threaten me that might not work out, considering...everything. And if you're going to warn me off the danger, I've been aware of that for a while, too. What do you get out of this?"
"To know if you're an ally. Because when things really hit the fan—and trust me, they will—I want to make sure that the people whom the world count on, can count on the people around them," Fury enunciated, jabbing a finger downward on the pile of papers in front of him. "If they can...if he can, then there are possibilities."
"Awfully altruistic of you," she replied, immediately wincing at her flyby comment. Deciding to ignore her own words, she continued, "Possibilities for what?"
"Oh, you know. They could be endless." Fury cracked a smile then, and Holly could barely manage a grim one.
"Limit them for my sake, then."
He let silence settle briefly before answering, "I'm covering bases, getting all hands on deck when I'll, and more importantly the Avengers, need them."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Are you...recruiting me?"
Right away, the ex-director shook his head, denying the idea altogether. "I wouldn't call it that; you're not exactly agent material, kid. But you are useful. And loyal. If the world turns on its head like it did three years ago, your allegiance to Rogers will count for more than you think."
"You think," she retorted, not at all confident in that profession.
"I know. Other people knew, too," he shot back, selecting a page from the middle of the stack and sliding them over to her. Waiting until she had picked them up, he pressed on. "That was obtained from the Project: Insight files. I'm not sure if the captain explained this, but those helicarriers were designed to employ a program that would hack into the private and public records of every person on the planet to determine threats."
Thinking hard, she dipped her chin in recollection. "He mentioned that to me, awhile back; Steve said that he was told that they could examine a person's past to predict their future actions."
"Killing anyone HYDRA deemed a problem, or a potential problem down the road, without lifting a finger," Nick explained further, crossing his arms. She froze then, her gaze fixated on the paper before her.
"Are...are you implying...?"
"Fourth from the bottom," Fury said, laying his hands flat on the desk and pushing out of the chair. Coming around to the front, he rested against the front edge, watching her widening eyes stare at the paper in her fingers. "Recovered from the salvaged targeting blades after the crashes, as hard a job as that was. It was quite a ways down the list in regards to who would be scratched off first, but there it is: your name, your address, your stats."
After a few moments, her voice came out as a whisper. "Does he know? Does Steve know about this?"
She knew there were things that Steve couldn't tell her about. And she could accept that, to a point. If he had known about this, and never told her...
"That HYDRA certainly thought you were capable of doing more than the typical nine to five and suffering writer's block?" Fury shook his head. "No, he doesn't."
She mimicked his movement, raking a hand through her hair. Looking at it again (and possibly catching Sarah's name further up the list than hers), she breathed, "This is...bizarre. Very hard to believe."
"I've seen some hard-to-believe things. This is a three on the scale, maybe," the ex-director contradicted her, without venom. "So I'm asking you: can you be counted on to step up when you're needed?"
Locking eyes, Holly couldn't force herself to back down from the posed question. Being with Steve wasn't all sunshine and roses, but the worst they'd ever faced together was her running interference the one time and the odd tiff or two. But this was not a new question that Fury had asked; it was something she had thought about long and hard before they'd gotten involved. It was something she still thought about from time to time. In her heart, the answer was always the same. Her chin dipped once, and that was enough. Nick Fury would have to take it, or leave it if he so chose. His eyes flicked from her to the page in her hand, and when he took it from her he said nothing more.
A question pushed from the forefront of her mind to her tongue then. "And your personal assessment? Does it go with the profile?"
Inhaling deeply, he glanced up at the ceiling and pondered his reply for the scantest of moments. "I'll reserve my full judgment for now, but I will tell you this: who you were ten months ago is different from the person sitting in front of me. On paper and in reality."
"And I'll have changed some more in another ten months," she retorted, lifting an open palm to the air. "Only constant in life is change."
"That, and taxes," Fury said, a corner of his mouth lifting as she chuckled at the truth in his words. Pulling a card from his pocket, he slid it across the desk to her. It was blank save for a single telephone number printed on the front. "This is a secure number. Put it in your phone. If and when the worst comes, we'll need to get in touch with you."
She exhaled sharply. "Your worst and my worst might differ a little."
"Not by much, I promise you."
"Okay, Mr. Fury." She stopped then, looking as though a sour taste entered her mouth. "Sorry, for some reason that doesn't sound quite right."
"Damn right, it doesn't. But for the moment, it's the only title I can claim," he admitted in good humor. "Well, that and colonel."
"Yes, sir." She gave him a mock salute before thoughtfulness took over. "Can Steve know? About this meeting, I mean. I'm not a terribly good liar."
"You two share common ground, then. You're not under my command, do what you like. However, don't use my name," he instructed. "If people overhear you, they might have some questions how you were able to converse with a dead man."
Holly nodded once more, rising from her chair at the unspoken cue to leave in his tone. "Fair point. Good-bye, sir."
As she pivoted, laid her hand on the door knob, she was preempted by Fury's voice one last time.
"Oh, one more thing. Happy birthday."
His face had gone stony, but that didn't deter the sentiment of the well-wishing. Relaxing a little, Holly gave him a watery grin.
On that note, she exited the room, resting her back against the shut door behind her and blowing out a deep breath. The whole exchange had been surreal, but she couldn't remain in the hallway to dwell on it. The mystery gentleman from before had returned, wrapping his scarf around his neck as he approached and prompting her to assemble her outerwear as well. Back through the maze of stairs and corridors they went, to the car which bore a light dusting of snow in the parking lot. They did not speak for the majority of the ride, but as he pulled up before the post office again, the gentleman turned in his seat, offering his hand to shake.
"We'll be in touch."
"Okay, Agent...I assume you're an agent?" she queried, shaking his hand and giving him a quizzical expression. The corner of his mouth inclined a fraction.
"Director, actually. It's best that you not mention me at all if you do speak of this to the captain," he told her, adjusting the sunglasses on his face. "SHIELD isn't supposed to exist anymore, and therefore I don't, either."
"Must be exhausting, all this nonexistence and hiding in the shadows," she tried to kid, but all she got in response was a hardened face and a wistful tone in his voice when he spoke for her efforts.
"It wouldn't have worked out otherwise," he nearly whispered, looking out the windshield. She tilted her head to the side, curious about what that meant.
"What wouldn't have?"
"Good-bye, Miss Martin." The door locks clicked open, more dismissive than his words had been. "I'm sure we'll cross paths in the future. Good luck."
She nodded, at a loss for something to say for a moment. As she climbed out, she gestured to the car, thinking that would do.
Now the fellow smirked, though it was a sad and bitter one. "It's not Lola, but it will do."
Not wishing to push further, Holly let the door shut and watched him speed back into traffic, disappearing in the flow swiftly. Scrubbing her hands over her face, she felt slight exhaustion seep in. With so much to think about, she trod back to her car, switching the radio on silent as she went to salvage the rest of her morning.
Returning from her planned escapades a little later than she'd expected, Holly parked herself in her living room, turning over a couple packages that had been airmailed from home. Ripping into them, she discovered a care package filled with treats from her parents. Her brother and niece's box was heavy, a pot made by Jodie (encased in bubble wrap) and a new book from Hank. Heather and Jake had shipped a joke t-shirt they'd mailed directly from their trip to Florida. Swiftly, she texted her thanks to all of them before being interrupted by an incoming call. Finally her phone chimed with the number she'd been waiting to see onscreen all afternoon. Burrowing into a corner of the couch, Holly slid her thumb across the screen to answer it, her grin growing.
"Hello, birthday girl," Steve responded, his baritone voice rising a little as he continued. "And congratulations, too. You've really finished it?"
Holly nodded to thin air, despite knowing he couldn't see it. "Yeah, the novel's done, for now. I put copies for the publisher in the mail and everything this morning. Four years, and I finally...oh, man..."
"I'm so proud of you." The admiration and pride in his tone were unmistakable, warming her heart. He knew all about how long she'd been working on the draft, preparing to put it out in the world. It made him happy to see her meet her goal, and she was grateful to have him be there for her when she did so. She didn't want to tell anybody else just yet, for fear of jinxing it, but she couldn't withhold from him. Soaking in it for a moment, pleased to have his support in her work, she forged ahead through the chit chat of the day for a minute or two, discussing the possibility of peaking the interest of at least one literary agent or publisher. Soon enough, she brought the conversation around to a particular point.
"Met an old friend of yours today."
She could practically see him raising an eyebrow skeptically. "Is that so?"
"Yep, survived the encounter," she noted, forcing a chuckle out to soften the truth. "Came out basically unscathed."
"Uh-huh. Does this old friend have a name?" he wondered.
"Um, yeah," she said, struggling to find an apt descriptor for him without being insulting. Thinking back, she blurted quickly, "It was...the colonel. The furious one."
It was a fair description, one that any eavesdropper (if they could have broken through JARVIS's barriers) wouldn't question. Nobody would wonder at Captain America having a friendly relationship with some random army colonel. She just hoped her giving the game away wasn't as ridiculous as it sounded. If she had to allude to him in another way, she didn't know what she could say. A short pause followed her words, and she waited. A sharp breath was blown over the receiver on his end, bouncing into her ear.
"I wasn't aware he was stateside again," Steve replied, words pitched low for a moment. "What did he want with you?"
"Wanted to meet me, make sure I was up for it," she summarized.
"Up for what?"
She shrugged to herself, smirking smartly. "Oh, just the insanity that comes with being part of your life."
Visualizing him rolling his eyes, she could still hear the bland thread of sarcasm in his tone when Steve responded, "Nice. That was all, though?"
"More or less; no explicit details came out, but he was concerned on what role I was willing to play," Holly confessed. Out of habit, she glanced over her shoulder, taking stock of her apartment as though she expected a spy to leap from the shadows just then. "Look, I just wanted you to be aware of it. This is something we really shouldn't talk about over the phone."
"Agreed. We'll go over it later," he said, the steeliness a promise that he would certainly follow through with that. Snorting, she closed her eyes and tipped her head back into the cushions behind her.
"I gotta say, there is never a want for conversation so long as your friends keep popping up," she pronounced, pinching the bridge of her nose and snickering.
"And your friends are innocent angels in comparison," Steve retorted, the tenor turning playful.
"Of course. None of my pals broke a borough by themselves."
"Which Bruce still feels bad about, by the way," he returned, light pity lacing the words. Remembering the doctor's somewhat embarrassed look when he'd told her about the events in Harlem, she pouted in sympathy on her end.
"I'm sure he does. Poor guy."
The conversation went from there, mostly maneuvering around the odd pockets of static and weak connection on Steve's end. He'd told her he was traveling, and inwardly she quaked, knowing that this could indicate a major mission being in play. Since New Year's, the Avengers had been doing some end runs around the shady people of the world. With HYDRA gone to ground, they concentrated on the bad guys they could get to; they'd just busted a major arms dealer the past week. She wished him luck with his travels, expressing concern for his safety, and he had responded lightly, a knowing tone in his voice that nagged at her. When the parting I-love-yous were said, she tossed the device away, pulling the blanket down from the back of the couch, huddling in it. She felt cold, afraid, the same as always when Steve went out to do his job. Eventually, with the weight of her day coming down on her, she fell into a fitful doze. Dreams were scattered, skittering away as quickly as they had approached, and she would remember none of them upon waking.
Pounding at the front door echoed through her haze, pulled her out of sleep. Blinking, she groaned under her breath and rolled onto her side.
"I don't know if I'm up for more surprise encounters today," she muttered sleepily. Wiping her face, she pulled her phone off the coffee table, tapping at an app. "JARVIS, pull up the door camera, please."
"Yes, ma'am," the AI acquiesced. Thank goodness for Tony Stark and his security measures, she thought. Otherwise I'd be so screwed now.
"Thanks," she said aloud. When the camera opened onscreen, she nearly did a double-take at the visitor. He was tall, his hair covered by a gray beanie, a small travel bag over one shoulder and a cloth grocery bag in the other swathed in plastic baggies and a wrapped parcel within. She sucked in a breath; no way...her doubt was erased and her good humor returned when the cheeky bugger glanced up into the pinhole camera, blue eyes bright and saluting it with two fingers with a twist of the lips. Jumping up and jogging down to the door, she whipped it open, immediately wrapping her arms around his shoulders and avoiding the shield strapped to his back as best she could. He dropped the grocery bag, strong arms tightening around her and his lips capturing hers.
Breaking off the kiss and drawing away, she swatted Steve's shoulder. "And here I thought you were traveling for work. Getting me all worried..."
His half grin came then, one hand coming up to cup her chin. "Sorry. The enemy couldn't be bothered to oblige today. And I couldn't miss my girl's day, anyway, could I?"
She tapped a finger against his coat, too happy to see him to be even remotely irritated. "You are an exemplary man, Steve Rogers. Even if you do neglect to use your spare key."
"If you say so, doll," he replied, giving her a peck on the cheek. Shifting back, his eyes scanned over her, settling on the change in her appearance. Her hair fell just below chin length now, a departure from the previous trims she'd gotten in the past. The style fell around her face, brought attention to the bare line of her neck and curve of her jaw. His fingers moved up, touching a few strands. "Your hair looks really great."
"A compliment right out the gate," she said, smiling. Noticing the abandoned grocery bag on the floor, she picked it up for him, inhaling deeply as the smell of takeout wafted around her. "And you brought food, too. You, sir, are my hero."
Steve snickered, falling in step with her as she led the way back into the apartment. "That easy, huh?"
She pointed at him, detouring towards the kitchen. "Don't act like my low standards are a surprise."
With him padding off to the bedroom, she began to remove plates from the cupboards. Humming to herself, she was more than pleased with this turn of events. Soon enough she heard his approach, felt him move into her space, his hands slipping around her waist and pulling her back against him. She reveled in the feel of his body along hers (sans winter gear), the pads of his fingers brushing over her stomach.
"You've got this hero for..." he paused, holding out his wrist to peer at the watch perched there, "about fourteen hours, barring any emergencies. Whatever you want, I'll do."
She didn't even hesitate with her next action. She shifted out of his grip, breaking the contact and leaving him there to trip down the front hall again. The sound of locks clicking into place greeted his ears, and he shot her a wry look as she came back into the kitchen and into his embrace.
"So, whatever I want..." she trailed off, biting her lip and thinking about it. The clever gleam in her eye intrigued him, kept his attention. Arriving at a decision, she smiled. "I want a dance, after dinner."
Bending his head, he pulled her closer to whisper in her ear, "Which kind?"
Her low chuckle made a tingle shoot down his spine, causing his grip to tighten a fraction.
"Every kind," she murmured back, mouth hovering over his again. Closing his eyes in anticipation of a kiss, he was a little taken aback when her lips merely brushed his when she spoke again. "You know how to do the Charleston?"
Grumbling, Steve drew back. "Oh, good lord."
Holly laughed then, going over to the counter and giving him a saucy grin. "Come on, let's dish up. We've got a few things to talk about before we get to that."
Plates filled and seats chosen on the couch, Holly flicked on the television. The DVD player kicked on as well, playing her choice for the evening. Steve, upon seeing the menu screen for Star Wars: A New Hope, grunted his approval through a mouth full of noodles; the best backdrop for the evening in this girl. Picking up where their conversation had left off, Holly found her hand had laced with his, his gentle grasp solid and unyielding. It had been like that even on that first day, when he unconsciously reached out for someone, and she obliged. She wouldn't go anywhere, she'd promised, and thus far, she'd been able to keep that promise.
'It won't always be like this,' Holly thought, feeling the truth deep in her heart. As she gazed at the man sitting next to her, she knew that any future with him had a price. Steve, however, was worth the cost. 'I can live with that. At the end of the day, so long as he's there, I can live with it.'
A/N: And that, my friends, is that. So ends At Day's End. This has been the longest story I've ever written, and I'm so pleased with how it turned out, considering that I honestly had a very sparse outline from the beginning. This may have remained a one-shot, or a very short story, if it weren't for the encouragement and help from all you guys. To my signed-in reviewers: it was a joy and a pleasure to garner feedback and elicit your help as needed, and to get to know you in little ways via PM. To my anonymous reviewers: I greatly appreciate all your generous words and reviews, and I only wish I was able to tell you one-on-one. So many of you have been with me since Day 1, and some of you will favorite this right after the last chapter is posted, but I am so indebted to each and every one of you. Thank you all so much. I cannot express my gratitude more eloquently, I'm afraid, but I hope this will do.
That being said...there is a sequel. Come on, I can't build up to Age of Ultron and not write about it, right? It is entitled The Eleventh Hour and the first chapter is up. You can find the link to it under my stories tab on my profile.
Any references to the MCU, Writers Market, Star Wars, other things that sound like I don't own them: I don't own them. And introducing the hardest character to write: Nick Fury! I was less intimidated to write for Natasha, I swear…I think because Fury is so prolific, I feel inadequate to write him. But still, he made it back in for the last run.
And can anyone say…Coulson…? Muahaha…;)
Again, thank you all so much for your time, your patience, and your encouragement. Please leave a review, PM me if you have any questions, and hop right to The Eleventh Hour.
See you there!