A moan wrenched from my throat as
I waded from the all encompassing black surroundings of unconsciousness. The
sound tore my throat and rang loudly in my ears, causing a throb through my
head. The throb beckoned forth a groan that detached my dry tongue from the
toof of my mouth. I tuned my head, eyes still closed, intending to roll over
and cover my head to get a few hourse of actual sleep in. I had to stop,
however, when a wave of dizziness washes over me. You’d know it’s been a big
night when you can feel the room spinning before you’ve even opened your eyes.
I hadn’t felt this bad since I came down with pneumonia two years ago.
“I am never drinking again,” Tank’s rumbling voice floated to me from nearby.
I cringed at the volume. “Shhh,” I hushed him. “Too loud.” It was all I could manage, because my own voice was also too loud and I had to stop before my head exploded.
“Whose making all the racket?” another voice demanded, shocking me into opening my eyes, which I immediately had to squinch shut again as the darkness I’d been barely comfortable with was suddenly replaced by what must have been a direct view of the sun.
“Lester?” I gasped, my voice croaky as I threw an arm over my face to block out the residual light now shining through my closed eyelids. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” he retorted, sounding closer – I wasn’t game enough to open my eyes again and find out. “What are the two of you doing here? This is my apartment.”
“Owww,” I groaned in protest of his voice, grating at every nerve I still possessed.
“Keep it down,” Tank agreed, though he sounded less mournful than when he last spoke. “What are we doing at Lester’s Steph?”
“Stop. Noises,” I insisted on a whisper.
Just then, the mattress – or what I’d thought was a mattress – dipped as someone sank down beside my hip. I could tell with reasonable accuracy, from a blind sweep of my hand across his arm and shoulder, that it was Lester. He was shorter and leaner than Tank. Slowly and cautiously, I cracked my eyes open, grateful that someone had dimmed the lights significantly. We were, indeed, in Lester’s apartment. At least it was as good a guess that I could make, since I’d never actually been in his apartment before.
“How did we end up here?” I asked, attempting to sit up.
“Beats me,” Lester shrugged. He was looking unbelievably normal for a man who’d drunk much more than me last night. “Last think I remember is...” His face screwed up, trying to recall specific events in what must have been a hazy memory. Eventually he shrugged, his face slackening. “I called for shots a few times, but,” he shook his head. “At some point it all turns into a blur.”
I didn’t even bother trying to make my own recollections. I knew it would be painful. “Tank?” I asked, seeking him out with my eyes now that I could see again. “What do you remember?”
“There were four of us left...” he said, sounding like he was speaking through the coffee table. I pushed myself up a little further and finally noticed his large form sprawled on the floor between the solid wood coffee table and the wall where the flat screen TV was mounted. “Us and...” a frown creased his face before I collapsed back down on the sofa. I didn’t need him to finish, to bring up the memory of who was with us at the end of the night. I already knew. In his moment of thought, I’d been subjected to rapid fire stills of the night before. And it ended with images of Ranger’s face getting closer and closer...
“What have I done?” I asked no one in particular, staring hard at the ceiling. “Oh, God.”
“What?” Lester asked, taking one of my hands in his and stroking his thumb gently across the back of it. “What do you remember?”
“I think I kissed Ranger...” I whispered.
“That’s a bad thing?” Tank asked from the floor.
“He thinks I’m Kit Danger,” I reminded them both.
“Oh. Right,” they uttered in unison.
“Complicated,” Tank added.
“We should have breakfast and then put together a plan for moving forward,” Lester suggested, standing and offering me his hand for help up. “Maybe you can just casually slip your identity into pillow talk.”
“Pillow talk?” I wanted to scream, but refrained, knowing it would only cause more pain to my head, and between it and my chest, I was already dealing with enough to last a lifetime this morning.
“If it progresses naturally to that point, of course.” He shrugged. I stared at him in disbelief before he cracked a grin. “Just kidding. I still think you should forget about him and kiss me instead.”
I groaned, but allowed him to pull me up and into his embrace. We hugged for a moment until he started probing my head with his fingertips.
“What are this metal things in your hair?” he asked, sounding confused.
Confused myself, I reached up to touch the spot he’d been running his fingers over. “Bobby pins,” I said slowly, remembering the process I’d gone through in Tank’s bathroom of pulling sections of hair back and pinning them in place the night before.
“Bobby’s what’s?” Lester asked.
Before I could explain, Tank let out a bark of laughter, finally hauling his large self into an upright position, revealing the carpet imprint on the side of his face. “You’ve never heard of bobby pins?” he asked incredulously. “You were married! Surely Susan would have left them all over the house! My sister had piles of them on nearly every flat surface when we were young. Drove me mad.”
“I was only married a year,” Lester muttered. “And I never paid that much attention.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t true love?” I teased.
“You’re too hungover to be cracking funnies,” Lester informed me. “Wait until after breakfast. And coffee.” With that, he started tugging me toward the door.
I looked down at myself, still dressed in the jeans and fancy blouse I’d put on before heading out last night. And my feet were bare. Lester was in basketball shorts and a loose t-shirt. Tank was in his black jeans and charcoal t-shirt from the night before. Both their feet were bear as well.
“Where are we going?” I asked as he undid the chain on the door. “Don’t we need shoes?”
“Common area down the hall,” Tank explained, coming up behind us. “Too hungover to cook edible food. Ella will have provided something in the frigdge.”
I nodded, but my gaze was drawn down to my top. “I’m over dressed,” I pointed out.
Five minutes later I was sat at a small, round table wearing one of Lester’s t-shirts. It was white, which was surprising, but the image emblazoned on the front confused me. Across my chest, with it’s wings reaching beyond the circle that encompassed it was a stylised bird of prey. On the bird’s body was what looked like a shield with the letters SSR printed on it in bold. When I asked what it stood for, he’d replied with, “Strategic Scientific Reserve,” but hadn’t bothered to expand on it. So I assumed it was some secret government thing I probably wasn’t meant to know about. If that was so, though, why was it put on a shirt and left in Lester’s possession?
While Lester rummaged through the fridge I looked to Tank, sat beside me. “What’s Strategic Scientific Reserve?” I asked him, pulling the baggy shirt taught so he could examine the image.
Tank just smirked and glanced over at Lester before explaining. “They were in charge of a secret super soldier experiment a few years back.”
“Super soldiers?” I said. “Is that why you’re all so perfect?”
Lester and Tank exchanged amused expressions. “Yes,” Lester said, nodding his head firmly. “That’s exactly the reason.”
“Don’t let my cousin fool you,” came a very familiar voice from behind me, sending a shiver down my spine. I didn’t dare turn around. “The shirt you’re wearing is Captain America merchandise. He’s a closet comic book nerd.”
“I am not,” Lester countered, hands crossed over his chest as he straightened from his rummaging.
“Then what’s that you’re wearing?” Ranger said, his presence moving closer, though he stayed directly behind me so that if I wanted to see him I’d have to turn my entire body around.
I eyed Lester’s black t-shirt more closely. I’d assumed it was just a Rangeman uniform shirt, but now that I scrutinised it, I noticed that instead of the black embroidered name on the left breast, there was another stylised bird in a circle, this one looking more like a stencil than the one I wore. Around the circle were words that I couldn’t quite read from this distance.
“Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division,” Ranger recited behind me. “S.H.I.E.L.D. Isn’t that the secret government sector in the Marvel Comics?”
“If Lester’s the comic book nerd, how come you know so much about it?” I asked, staring across the space to Lester, despite the fact that I was addressing the man behind me.
“You forget, I grew up with him.”
“How could I forget something I never knew?” I enquired innocently, suddenly recalling that I was supposed to be Kit Danger. Now I definitely couldn’t turn around, because I’d left my coloured contacts and fake spectacles in Lester’s apartment. Not to mention the fact that I’d washed off all the eye liner that had smudged around my eyes through the night before leaving the apartment. If I turned around, he’d see me for who I really was for sure and probably go ape shit at Tank and Lester for not informing him, since they clearly knew.
Ranger placed his hands on my shoulders lightly, causing my entire body to tense. “Could I speak with you privately?” he asked, though it felt more like an instruction than a request.
I swallowed hard, staring straight ahead. “I’ll meet you in your office in a few minutes?” I suggested.
“Take your time,” he agreed. “You had a big night last night, you probably need to soak up the residual alcohol in your system with one of those egg sandwiches Ella left for the men.” And with that he removed his hands and left.
When the tingling in my neck had ceased, I let out the breath I’d been holding, lowering my face to my hands. “He’s gonna figure it out today,” I moaned. “I don’t have any eyeliner. That stuff is like my mask. Without it he’ll see right through me.”
“I thought you wanted to come clean to him?” Lester said, sitting down across from me. “Isn’t that why you were so desperate to see him last Friday after talking to Morelli? To let him know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“Morelli?” Tank said. “What does Morelli have to do with anything?”
“It’s a long story,” Lester informed him. “Steph will tell you about if and when she’s ready. Right now, I believe she needs to go put on as much of her disguise as she can and head up to Ranger’s office. For better or worse, she needs to speak to him.” He eye me a moment. “Maybe it won’t be so bad as you think. He loves you, so it’s not like he’s gonna strangle you the moment you take off your disguise. Put your contacts in and wear your glasses, but assess the situation once you’re in there. It’s time he knew.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” I said. “What about you? Isn’t it obvious that you knew who I was the whole time?”
“We’ll be fine,” Tank assured me. “The company can’t run without us, he wouldn’t dare do anything too outrageous to us.”
Feeling sick to my stomach now, I stood from the table and declined Lester’s offer to bring me a sandwich once it had been reheated. The mere thought of eating caused my stomach to revolt. If I made it through the morning without blowing chunks it would be a miracle. I made my way back to Lester’s apartment and took my time inserting my contacts. I dug through the clutch purse I’d used the night before in case I’d thought to slip any kind of makeup into it. The only item of use was a pale pink lip gloss. I couldn’t see it helping, but it was the best I had at the moment, and at the very least the shimmer on my lips could distract him from the lack of swooping black lines around my eyes. It was worth a shot.
The office door was open as I approached, but I didn’t dare take a single step inside without being invited. Kit Danger may have made out with the man last night, but she still was not familiar enough with him to waltz into his sacred space. I knocked on the door frame, peering into the well lit room uncertainly. He sat at his desk, like every other time I’d come to his office, only this time he wasn’t staring down at a file. Today, of all days, he’d elected to gaze at the door while he waited.
“Come in and take a seat,” he requested, gesturing to the seat across from him. I did so, trying to avoid his gaze. I didn’t want to see the moment he made the realisation. Once I was seated he spoke again. “I take it you don’t remember much from last night?” he asked.
I shook my head slightly. “Just that I threw myself at you and kissed you,” I said in a voice so quiet I wasn’t sure I was speaking aloud until he replied.
“That you did,” he agreed. “It’s the only thing you remember?”
I nodded, this time staying silent.
“You don’t remember Tank’s outburst?”
“What outburst?” I asked, jerking my eyes up to stare at him.
“You never could hold your liquor,” he said, sounding amused as he shook his head. “Babe, take off the glasses, I know it’s you.”