Avengers-Sousa Thompson

Agent Carter fic: Without Maps

No, I don't write that fast. :P I wrote this for [community profile] fan_flashworks and now I'm cross-posting to the usual places since the exclusive period is over.

Title: Without Maps
Fandom: Agent Carter
Word Count: 4800
Author's Notes: I started writing this for the fan-flashworks "Memory" challenge way back in February, in the middle of the season. And then I missed that deadline, but the season ender gave me a much better opening than I was originally going to use, and I finished it for the "Purgatory" challenge for Amnesty. Thank you to sheron for helpful plot feedback and talking over Jack's characterization with me!
Summary: Post-finale. The last thing Jack remembers is taking a bullet in a hotel room, but now he's back in the war. Except it isn't his war. It's Sousa's.
Cross-posted: http://archiveofourown.org/works/6719104




He had no time to react, to either the shooter or the gun. There was a sharp pinch of pressure and then the pain came, expanding to fill his entire world. He barely felt himself fall.

And then he was standing in mud.

"What the fuck?" Jack said out loud.

The cold was the first thing that hit him, a damply unpleasant chill. He was outside and there was a wind, cutting through his shirtsleeves and yet weirdly muted.

It should have been daytime, and the world should have been filled with dry, golden California sunshine. But instead, he was somewhere cold and damp and rural. A dull red setting sun, shrouded by heavy bars of clouds, winked in and out through the stark black branches of winter-bare trees. When he moved, half-frozen mud crackled under his feet, again with that oddly muted sensation, as if his feet were partly numb.

His stunned gaze dropped from the trees and the sky, where rags of sunset-tinted clouds tore in the chilly wind, to the landscape around him, and that was when the horror really began to sink in.

He was surrounded by corpses.

Dead men, dead men everywhere. Torn uniforms, stained with muck and blood, but recognizable in their style and color -- and the smell, a smell he still couldn't shake from his nightmares --

-- and then he was scrambling backwards, a desperate attempt to get out of the open and away from all of them, from this, from everything.

He ended up crouched under one of the trees at the edge of what must once have been a farmer's field before it was churned to bloody mud by fighting men. His fingers were clamped onto his upper arms hard enough to hurt, his head bent down. He was shaking so hard he couldn't breathe.

This couldn't be what there was after death. He hadn't lived the best life ... he'd made mistakes, but surely -- surely he hadn't earned ... this?

But ... he thought, as sanity slowly began to creep in around the edges of the panic, he'd never been here. He'd been in the Pacific war theatre -- and his mind shied away from that, away from all the memories he'd locked away ... but the point was, although the battlefield smells were something he'd never forget, something that still came back to haunt him when he didn't expect it -- for him it had happened in a tropical place.

This wasn't a memory. It was somewhere else. Some other battle.

Just as that had started to sink in, he noticed that he was kneeling half in and half out of the trunk of the tree.

Ah. Okay.

He leaned back a little, and waved his hand through the tree trunk. There was an odd dragging resistance, and a sensation perhaps slightly warmer than the surrounding air, but that was all.

Oh ... kay.

"Come on, Thompson," he murmured to himself. "Think this through. I'm dead ... I guess ..."

He remembered the shooter and the gun with sharp clarity. So ... what was this? A last hallucination of his dying brain? Or was he a ghost, haunting a battlefield for a battle he'd never fought in?

He looked around him more closely, trying not to look at faces, focusing on the dead men's uniforms. Those were American uniforms as far as he could tell, but America wasn't currently fighting anywhere. Not like this. Which meant this wasn't now; somehow, impossibly, this was then.

"Carter, I hope you can figure this out, because I sure can't."

A low thump, felt more than heard, shocked him quiet. He stayed very still. There was another, not so far away. Shelling, he thought. The fighting's started up again. Or maybe it's just moved on from here, wherever here is.

Whenever here is.

After the next few, he began to get used to it, or at least it started losing its ability to panic him every time. He remembered that, too; funny how the old reflexes came slipping back. He slowly straightened up from his panicked crouch. The fighting here must have happened hours ago; the dead men were freezing where they lay. Behind enemy lines ... or maybe in front of them -- no telling which way the line of battle had shifted. The fact that no one had showed up to gather in the dead American soldiers made him think he was on the wrong side of the front, but it was possible they were occupied elsewhere and hadn't gotten this far yet.

Not that he'd be taken for anything but a spy by either side, if they caught him out here looking like this. He glanced down at himself, standing in the mud in his good Italian leather shoes, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, looking like ... well, like he'd wandered out of a nice hotel room into a battlefield.

Was he ... here, here? Could people see him? Hear him?

Was it possible to get shot ... again?

He touched his chest cautiously. His shirt was unmarked, but his chest felt very odd in that area. He couldn't even put a name to the sensation. Numb, almost, but -- distant, like some part of him wasn't here at all. And for a fleeting instant, over the battlefield smells in the chill evening air, he thought he caught a whiff of something else ... a wisp of a familiar perfume.

"Peggy?" he said, but quietly, just in case any hostiles were still around to hear the crazy American standing in the middle of a battlefield talking to himself. "Carter? You know, I don't like to admit it, but I could use a little help here."

No answer, of course.

I could try to contact someone I know. His CO in the Navy, maybe. What year was it, anyway? If this was Europe during the war, then it must be somewhere between 1942 and 1945.

But really, what did it matter what year it was? He wasn't here. Even if he could talk to someone, he'd give them his real name and his contact information, and then they'd call the real Jack Thompson -- the contemporary one, anyway -- and decide he was a spy anyway.

Or a ghost.

He swiped a hand through the tree trunk again, getting an odd sense of reassurance from the lack of rough bark under his fingers. This couldn't be real. This was a hallucination or a dream. Hell, maybe the shooting was a dream too. He'd heard of guys after the war getting caught up in their memories of action until they couldn't tell the dream from the real world. Maybe he was going to wake up in bed and realize the whole day had been a dream, this part included.

It sure did seem real, though.

He flinched and looked up as movement caught his eye, instinctively starting to duck. It was only a black-winged carrion bird, coming in to settle on one of the bodies.

"Hey!" Jack yelled at it, suddenly angry. "Get out of here!"

The bird spread its wings and flapped heavily skyward, landing on a nearby fence post to croak reproachfully at him.

Huh, he thought. It could hear him, and possibly see him. Which had ominous implications for the first time he ran into any people. Especially armed people.

Shuddering, he picked his way around sticky puddles, skimmed around the edges with ice, and crouched beside the nearest corpse. The sun had set now and clouds shrouded the sky; the bloody light had dulled into a cold blue twilight. Jack steeled himself and reached for the dead man's gun, where the waxy, stiff fingers were still curled around it.

His hand went through, of course. He'd thought it probably wouldn't work ... but it was worth a try.

So he couldn't arm himself, but he couldn't touch anything either, which ought to mean bullets wouldn't affect him.

Probably.

He didn't want to find out if it was possible for ghosts to get shot.

Another muffled crump! of artillery made him look up. As it grew darker, there was a visible glow on the cloudy horizon. Fighting seemed to be happening over there. The question was whether to go toward it in the hopes of finding someone who could help him, or try to find somewhere to spend the night instead.

"Or just stay here," he said aloud. Doomed to haunt a battlefield in a part of the war he'd never even participated in.

It really seemed unfair.

"Come on," he said to the purpling sky. "I wasn't that bad, was I? I didn't always make the best decisions, but I tried."

You are so afraid of ruffling powerful feathers that you're doing what you always do: burying an ugly truth and hoping someone will pin a medal on you ...

Peggy's voice rang in his ears so clearly that he had to look over his shoulder to make sure she wasn't standing behind him. No Peggy. Only the scattered ranks of the dead, keeping him company in the deepening night.

The bitter wind rose as the light died, rattling the branches of the trees, fluttering loose items of clothing, ruffling the hair of the dead men. It almost seemed, in the dusk, that some of them moved.

Had they moved? It wasn't certain they were all dead. The one next to him clearly was. Still, he thought he'd heard --

Jack stepped over the body and crouched beside the next one, a dark tangled shape, soaked in blood and mud. The pale face, streaked with filth and blood, was turned slightly towards him, eyes closed. And, in the fading light, he recognized that face with a cold and startled shock.

Daniel Sousa.

Sousa, his face a mask of blood. Sousa, dead, in a charnel field.

Jack sat back on his heels and stared at him. Okay, so that decided things. This was a dream, or a hallucination, or something, probably brought on by not sleeping enough and by having spent the last couple of days in California. He knew Sousa wasn't dead. He'd just talked to the guy on the phone, for pete's sake. If his subconscious was trying to tell him something here, about his questionable choices over the past few weeks ...

"Very subtle," he said out loud, to the uncaring, blackening sky.

And Sousa flinched and turned his head slightly. His eyelashes fluttered before he stilled again. Jack's breath caught, and he felt it in his chest, something sharp and painful snagging under his sternum -- like a ghostly echo of being shot.

"Sousa?"

There was no reaction this time, but Jack took a long, shuddering breath. Sousa was alive, which meant ...

Which meant that what Jack was seeing here, the battlefield and the carrion birds and the winter-dead trees ... this was what had happened, what had set Sousa off down the twisting path to becoming Agent Daniel Sousa of the SSR. Jack still didn't know exactly when or where Sousa had been injured during his Europe tour; it wasn't something he'd ever been willing to talk about. If this was actually what had happened to him -- left for dead, freezing to death surrounded by dead men -- Jack could see why.

If this was one of Daniel's memories, somehow, through some weird twist of fate or time or Zero Matter or God alone knew what, he felt suddenly and horribly intrusive. He couldn't imagine anything worse than having someone else peeking into his life on Okinawa.

There was an even worse option, though ...

Sousa stirred again, made a slight sound low in his throat, a terrible pained noise.

Which is that I'm really here, and this is real, and I'm dead so I can't touch anything or do anything about it.

But it shouldn't matter, he told himself. Either way, there wasn't anything he could do -- if this was a hallucination of some kind, then none of it mattered, and if he was somehow reliving events that had already happened years ago, then he already knew how it had worked out. Sousa hadn't died. He'd lived, he'd made it through, he was currently running the West Coast bureau of the SSR for God's sake.

Even if he looked dead, lying in the half-frozen mud, his face a pale blur in the darkness and his legs a twisted bloody mess that Jack was trying not to look at too closely.

How did you survive this when it all happened the first time? Jack wondered, looking down at him. How COULD you survive this?

He reached out by instinct more than anything else, wanting to do something, but his hand went through -- again with that slight snagging feeling as if it was almost, but not quite, stopped by the drag of a physical object. He could feel the icy chill of Sousa's skin, hardly any warmer than the tree had been.

And Sousa woke with a jerk. His eyes snapped open and a faint, pained cry escaped him.

"Sousa," Jack said before he could stop himself.

It was almost full dark now, the battlefield lit eerily by the glow in the sky. He could see just enough to tell that Sousa's eyes were open, his face turned to the side. "What," Sousa whispered, his voice a faint rasp. "Is ... someone there?"

"Not quite," Jack said.

"If you're there," Sousa gasped. He tried to raise himself up on his elbow and, failing, fell back into the mud. "If you're there, please help me."

"I'm ... not. I'm sorry. I'm not actually here. I can't." The last word came out plaintive, small.

Story of his life really. He couldn't be the person anyone wanted him to be. Every time he thought he had it, then it slipped through his hands like dry grains of sand. He wasn't a war hero, or Vernon's golden boy; god knew he wasn't the person Peggy believed he was ...

And now he was -- what was he, anyway: a ghost tied to Sousa somehow, as if Daniel's pain had called to him across the years? One bullet wound to another.

I don't want this.

I just want to go home.

He'd gotten out of this, damn it. The war had been over. He'd survived it. No matter what wrong things he'd done, he didn't deserve to be back here.

But that last thought was unworthy enough that he had to choke it off with a surge of guilt, because here he was kneeling in the muck and surrounded by people who deserved what had happened to them a hell of a lot less than he probably deserved this.

Sousa seemed to have lapsed back into unconsciousness. "Hey," Jack said to him. "If you can hear me, wake up."

"Not real," Sousa whispered with his eyes closed.

"No, let's assume not, but for the sake of argument, how about you try getting up and getting somewhere you can get help before you freeze to death?"

"I can't." There was a flare of mild irritation in his tone, not anger exactly, but his particular kind of obstinate irritability. It was so Sousa that it hurt.

"Can't get up?"

"Can't move really. I think ... I'm dying," Sousa murmured, speaking with his eyes closed through chattering teeth. "Pretty sure."

"No, take it from an expert, you're not dead. In fact, I happen to have inside knowledge that you're going to live." Jack couldn't stop himself; the words spilled out. "You don't die here. You're going to make it. Going to get out of here, go back to the States and find a nice girl."

Sousa mumbled something incoherent.

Jack looked up again, helplessly, at the cold and empty sky. How was this happening? If this was real -- if he wasn't just seeing some kind of odd reflection of Sousa's experiences during the war, but if he was actually here, in some strange way he didn't understand ... then he was watching Sousa bleed to death in front of his eyes.

He thought he'd known hell in the war. He'd been wrong.

"Hey, Sousa," he said, and Daniel jerked a little. "I'm an idiot, damn -- you're bleeding, probably bleeding to death. You've got to stop it or something."

There was no answer.

"Hey!" Jack snapped, and swiped a hand through Sousa's face. There was that peculiar dragging sensation again, and in the faint reddish light of the ominous glow on the horizon he saw the dark, pain-glazed eyes flutter open. "Get a coat off one of these dead guys and at least get yourself out of the mud."

He had to prod and yell some more, but eventually Sousa dragged himself, shaking, a few feet through the mud and pried the coat off one of the corpses -- Jack goading him all the while, hounding him, swiping a fist through Sousa's shoulder when he tried to collapse -- and then huddled into it, the jacket wrapped over the top of his own. His leg dragged behind him, shattered to a bloody mess. At some point Sousa, or someone, had made a tourniquet of a belt in the middle of his thigh; now it was a crusted mess of blood and mud. You're going to lose that leg anyway, Jack thought, but didn't say. But it doesn't take you with it.

"Who are you?" Sousa whispered into the dark, huddled in the coat, shaking with shock and cold.

Jack didn't quite know how to answer that.

Someone who will work with you someday. Someone who'll pick fights with you for no reason I can figure out now; someone who will be dragged into grudging, ever so grudging, respect for you. Someone whose life you'll save, someone who'll save your life in return; someone who has come to realize you're probably one of the closest things he's got to a friend, or could have been, if he'd made different choices he'll never get a chance to unmake now.

"It doesn't matter," he said, because it didn't now; he was probably dead anyway, even if Sousa wasn't. His chest ached in a vague and distant way, like a memory of pain. "Just ... try not to die."

For a little while they were silent in the dark, Sousa half on his side, panting quietly with pain. Weakening audibly, his breathing growing slower and softer. And Jack would've given anything in that moment for -- God, for anything: the ability to touch him and actually do something, for a start.

"Hey, Sousa. Hey. Daniel."

Jack had to say the name several times and swipe his hand through the back of Daniel's head to rouse him, finally, from his stupor. "Oh for God's sake, what," Daniel whispered into the dark.

And Jack had nothing to say at this point, no purpose except an urge to keep him talking so he didn't fall asleep in the cold and never wake up. "Where'd you grow up?"

"Jersey," Daniel murmured.

And Jack knelt in the mud, cold but not freezing, and listened to Daniel Sousa ramble semi-incoherently about growing up in some godforsaken tenement in Jersey City. Mom died a long time ago, dad raised him, no brothers or sisters ... it was more than Jack had ever actually known about him, and again there was that uncomfortably intrusive feeling, but the alternative was watching Daniel slip away into the cold and the dark, and so, every time he started to, Jack prodded him awake as best he could.

Besides, if a guy was going to spill his guts, a dead man was probably the best listener he could hope for. Talk about discreet ...

And, at some point, he realized that Daniel's soft, broken murmur was a lifeline of sorts, a tenuous thread of connection to the world he seemed to be slipping away from. His chest ached, and breathing hurt, but in the same numb, distant way that he could feel the cold. It was there; it just didn't seem to affect him much.

Ghosts, both of us. The restless not-quite-dead.

Somewhere in the middle of a disjointed anecdote involving a boyish prank with a stolen delivery van, Daniel's voice faded out, drifting into incoherent mumbling. Jack couldn't rouse him, couldn't even tell if he was still breathing. A wave of shivering swept over him as he knelt in the dark, and his chest tightened anew with a feeling made up of equal parts fear and grief -- for which of them, he wasn't sure.

"Come on, I know you don't die. You're going to make it stateside, get shipped back home; how about that? You're going to have a pretty good life, all things considered."

The thought only now occurred to him, faced with an unresponsive and unconscious Daniel, that maybe he should have gone for help instead. As Daniel had demonstrated, it was possible for people to hear him, even if he still wasn't quite sure if Daniel could see him, or believed he was actually there. Even if they took him for a ghost, hell, it might help; he could tell them he'd come in from the battle here in ... wherever they were, and that someone was still alive out there, someone in need of help ...

Wait. Was that the sound of an engine?

He listened, head tilted to the side, and finally made it out: some kind of big transport truck, headlights off, jolting and wobbling slowly on a rutted road at the far edge of the field. The engine throbbed in the dark. The vehicle crunched into the edge of the field and ground to a slow halt.

Allies? Germans? God knew. Jack stayed where he was, and watched by the distant fireglow in the sky as two men stepped down from the truck. One of them crouched beside the nearest of the bodies and a thin flashlight beam, shield with a hand, flickered briefly.

Was that a red cross on the side of the truck, black as tar in the night?

"Hey, Sousa," Jack said, trying to smack him lightly but only succeeding in brushing a hand through his face. "I think that truck is one of ours. Maybe this is how you get out of here. Say something, so they know you're alive out here."

But there was no answer. Daniel had slipped beyond the point where he could respond to what goading Jack was still capable of -- dying slowly by inches, with his own blood freezing on his face.

"Fuck you then," Jack murmured, and he stood up and waved his arms. "Hey! You! Over here!"

They were picking their way through the corpses. Jack was pretty sure one of them turned his way.

The pain hit him unexpectedly, like being kicked in the chest. He fell, shocked and struggling to breathe -- if he could still even breathe, in the state he was in. He landed in the frozen mud beside Daniel, whose face was turned toward him, pale in the reflected glow from the bellies of the clouds. His eyes were closed; frost glittered on his hair.

And Jack felt the mud, felt the cold -- the dull muffling numbness that had been insulating him from the world had popped like a soap bubble, vanished with the powerful kick of pain in his chest. He felt everything, the bitter cold and the pain and the blood soaking through his shirt. He was here, really here, and when he raised a hand, reaching out and groping with bloody fingers, his hand closed on Daniel's shoulder and he felt the rough fabric of the coat and the lingering heat of Daniel's body underneath -- it hadn't all seeped out into the mud after all, or maybe it was only that Jack's hand was so much colder.

He was dead, after all ...

Daniel jerked and his eyes snapped open, dark in his pale face, looking into Jack's for a fleeting instant.

And then Jack started awake.

He lay still for a long, hazy time. He could barely breathe; his chest felt like a great hand was pressing down on it. Somewhere, there was pain, tamped down by cottony layers of what were probably heavy-duty narcotics.

And he was cold. Deep, bone-chilling cold.

The world was dim, but not dark. Antiseptic smells, blurry shadows on the walls. A soft, repetitive rustling sound. Slowly, very slowly, like pushing a great weight uphill, Jack got his head to turn to the side, seeking the source of that nearby sound ...

Daniel Sousa.

Daniel in lamplight, on a chair by his bed, with the crutch leaning against the wall beside him and his head bowed over a book. The rustle was the turn of a page; he turned another as Jack gazed at him, too dazed to quite reconcile the bloody, battered Daniel Sousa he'd just seen with the healthy, healed, very much alive version of him in an open-necked, tropical-patterned shirt. There was a gun prominently displayed on Daniel's hip, slightly incongruous in the hospital setting.

Because there had been a shooting. His shooting. Right.

Well, at least I didn't accidentally kill him back there. Don't think Carter would've let me off the hook for that one.

"Daniel," he croaked.

Daniel jerked and almost dropped his book. "Jack. Hey." He laid the book aside and leaned forward. "You're, uh -- awake this time? You hear me?"

"Don't I look like I'm awake?" His voice was terribly weak, a dry scratch that took unbelievable effort to push through his sore throat.

"You've been in and out for awhile. Docs said it was normal and you probably wouldn't remember much." Daniel grinned suddenly. He was unshaven, more of a mess than Jack was used to seeing him. "Peggy went to get something to eat and take a shower. She'll be back a little later. She's gonna be upset she missed being here when you woke up."

"Oh," he whispered. It was all he could really think to say, dopy with sleep and drugs -- and confused, massively confused. None of that had happened, it couldn't have, but everything still felt so real, the cold and the mud and the lingering battlefield stink. And the whole time, Peggy and Daniel had been ... doing what, sitting here, guarding him?

Some of it must have shown on his face, because Daniel cleared his throat and reached for his crutch. "I'm gonna get a nurse, all right?"

"Wait --"

He wasn't sure what he wanted, except that he didn't want Daniel to leave quite yet -- as if, left alone, he might be thrown back to that place; or maybe it was the tenuous sense of connection that he didn't want to let go of. He raised a hand, reaching out, the same way he'd reached out in the mud when he'd fallen. He didn't know why, any more than he'd known then. Reaching for an anchor, maybe, something to stabilize him in a shifting and uncertain world.

Daniel caught his groping hand and winced. "Jeez. Your fingers are like ice. You need a blanket or something?"

"Sure," Jack murmured.

He watched Daniel move through the lamplight shadows, opening a cabinet in the corner and shaking out a blanket. Daniel was steadier now on his feet than he had been just a year ago at the New York SSR; he didn't need the crutch to move around a room, navigating with light, steadying touches to the furniture instead. And a year or two before that --

-- cold, mud, blood --

-- but it wasn't real, it couldn't have been.

"Did we ever ..." he began.

Daniel looked up from pulling the blanket around Jack's shoulders. "What was that?"

He'd started to ask if they had ever met before the SSR. But that opened up a conversation he didn't want to have -- not now, not with drugs and his own weakness laying him bare to the world.

"Just hoping I didn't say anything embarrassing while I was, like you said, drifting in and out."

"Well, you did confess your undying love to Peggy. You promised to buy a nice little house for the two of you in Malibu, next door to Stark's Malibu estate."

Jack stared at him.

"Jack. I'm joking." Daniel laid a hesitant hand on his shoulder, stirring another faint, ghostly echo of the past. "No, you seemed to be off in your own world most of the time. It's ... good to have you back."

He sounded disconcertingly sincere.

"Don't get sappy on me, Sousa."

Daniel's hand on his shoulder tightened briefly. "I could drag you downtown and grill you about the shooting, if it'd make you feel better. Peggy can punch you in the face a couple of times. I think she wants to do that anyway, for scaring her."

"Weren't you going to get a nurse or something?"

"Right." Daniel hesitated, looked like he was on the verge of saying something else; then he shoved his hand through the arm-loop of his crutch and hastily walked out.

And Jack smiled to himself in the empty room, with no one around to see.


This entry is also posted at http://sholio.dreamwidth.org/1079686.html with comment count unavailable comments.
*talks ear off about Jack*
*gets thanked for "help"*
*loves her life*

:D

Edited at 2016-05-02 01:56 am (UTC)
I think you just broke me, oh my god, this is brilliant. Both these fics are brilliant. I'm just. Incoherent. Yes.
Thank you so much! ♥ Breaking readers in a good way: it's what authors strive for. XD