"But it's not natural," Steve said in protest as he handed Peggy up into their train compartment.
"It's traditional," Peggy said. "A 'London particular'. You just don't know how to appreciate culture."
Steve doffed his hat, took his seat and cast a dubious look out of the window. The muddy yellow fog that coiled slowly past seemed anything but cultured to him; it condensed in greasy drops on the glass and obscured most of the train station from view. It was particularly something, all right. Discomfort itched its way down Steve's spine at the lack of clear sight lines, the possibility of ambush. Old habits died hard.
Peggy didn't seem bothered by the fog, though. As the whistle sounded and the train crept its way out of the station, she took off her own hat and slid over so that Steve had no choice but to put his arm around her. "Much better," she said with a contented sigh, leaning her head against his shoulder.
"Now who needs a lesson in culture?" Steve teased. "The conductor sees us, there'll be talk."
"We have the perfect excuse," Peggy said. From this angle, Steve could just about see the curve of her most mischievous smile. "Newlyweds get carried away all the time. We do beg your pardon, don't know what came over us, sir, it must be all the excitement."
Steve, amused, said, "We've been married four years, Peg. Don't know that that'll fly."
"Really?" Peggy said, turning in his arms, and just like always Steve didn't know how he'd gotten so lucky, that she'd smile at him like that. "How will he ever be able to tell the difference?"
With slowly increasing speed, the train left the fog behind, and chugged its way through the London suburbs. Defying the warning notice attached to one of the compartment walls, Peggy put her feet up on the seat opposite them, dug a paperback out of her bag, and began to read. Steve contented himself with watching the landscape slip by. In a strange way, he found it soothing: the quiet dullness of a damp February morning, the houses so like Brooklyn's and yet so foreign, the gaps in the rows of brick and stone that were being slowly filled by new construction. They'd been so busy these past few years trying to piece the world back together that Steve didn't often get a chance to sit and watch a more mundane kind of rebuilding work: brick being placed four-square on brick. Somewhere past a place called Hemel Hempstead, he dozed off, and woke only when Peggy jammed a shockingly bony elbow into his ribs.
"We're here," she said, and Steve pulled himself upright in his seat to see that the train was slowing to a halt in a station in the middle of something close to a monsoon rain. They were so focused on opening their umbrellas as they clambered out of the carriage, on making sure that the guard retrieved the right cases from the baggage car, on finding their ride, and on staying as dry as possible the whole time, that Steve barely had a chance to feel self-conscious before he and Peg slid into the back seat of low-slung black Jaguar.
"I'm just saying, we could've just arranged for a cab ourselves," Steve said, eyeing the back of the chauffeur's head. He was pretty sure their apartment cost less than this car did.
"Hrm," was all Peggy said by way of response as she shook out her skirts. Her mood seemed about as good as it ever was when they were greeted as Major and Mrs Rogers. This meant that Steve held her hand as the car purred smoothly away, but rather than trying for any eye contact, contented himself with keeping track of the route they were taking out of a little market town and onwards through the sodden countryside. After all, he'd been an eyewitness to what had happened the last time they were in D.C. trying to scrounge up some funding from an increasingly indifferent Congress. Peggy had introduced herself to a senator's aide as Captain Rogers' wife, Margaret Carter, he'd replied That sounds a bit un-American, sweetheart, and then things had been… very loud.
It was almost ten miles, Steve reckoned, before they rain lessened and they turned in through a set of tall stone gates. He picked his hat up off the seat, expecting they would be stopping at any moment, yet the road rolled on: narrower now, and gravel, but they passed through another two miles of beech woods, clearly the growth of generations, before rounding a bend that gave them their first real view of the house. He couldn't stop the low whistle that escaped him. There was a difference between knowing that a place was going to be fancy, and seeing it for certain.
"Manners," Peggy said out of the side of her mouth.
Steve raised an eyebrow at her, and she rolled her eyes in silent, vexed concession that he had a point. They'd been sent here to be Major and Mrs Rogers, a last-minute, last-gasp, two-person charm offensive and walking lesson in friendly Anglo-American relations for the earl and his buddies. No one who knew Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter had any expectation they'd be subtle about it.
The car pulled up in the middle of a great sweep of gravel that was the same shade of pale grey as the house itself. Steve climbed out of the car and looked up at the building, then back along the length of the driveway. He wondered how many pairs of gardeners' hands it took to keep it all so free of weeds and the gravel so neatly raked. The stiff-backed butler who greeted them probably knew, but Steve didn't think he'd take well to being asked. He ushered them into the house, up two flights of stairs, told them that Collins would bring their bags to their rooms, that his lordship had been unavoidably but briefly detained, and that afternoon tea would be served in the green sitting room in an hour.
The door closed behind him with a soft click, and Steve and Peggy were left standing in the middle of the bedroom that would be theirs for the rest of the weekend. Steve stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "You think he realises we have no clue where the green sitting room is?"
"He did not," Peggy said absently as she checked her lipstick in the mirror, "seem like a man whose first priority was our satisfaction."
"I thought English butlers were supposed to be a bit more, you know…"
"Well, that's what comes from relying on Monty Falsworth's tall tales as accurate reporting about life in the shires," Peggy said, unpinning her hat and shaking out her loose curls. "His father was a country vicar with aspirations whose main claim to social prominence was that he once persuaded Queen Mary to open the village fête. He wouldn't exactly be moving in circles like this at the best of times."
"You know," Steve said, taking a turn around the room. Decent views through two large sash windows; the wardrobe could probably be dragged over to block the door out to the hallway if needed. "If that was supposed to be reassuring or helpful…"
Peggy shot him a look. "The queen made off with half of Mrs Falsworth's best silver tea service in her handbag. It took a rather awkward letter to Marlborough House and a two month wait to get it all back, which is typical, I must say."
"You turning fellow traveller?" Steve asked, amused. "Better not let that Wisconsin senator hear you."
"Or perhaps, I'm pointing out that these people are people and that it won't do to regard them with too much awe. Though of course," she continued, walking over and going up on tip toes so she could press a kiss to his cheek, "knowing you, you'd have just marched right into a royal residence and demand the bloody things back."
"I mean, I'd ask first," Steve said, then leaned in so he could kiss Peggy again: properly this time.
"You wretch," Peggy said afterwards. "Now I'll have to do my lipstick again, and you shall have to wash your face."
"Worth it," Steve said with a grin.
"Hrm," Peggy said, though her tone was bright. She retrieved her lipstick from her bag. "Well, if nothing else we'll have your charm to fall back on this weekend. Just tell them you're from Brooklyn. They'll have no idea where on earth that is, but they'll find it very exotic and alluring."
"It's a small town in the middle of the Great Plains," Steve said solemnly, putting on the best version of a Texas accent that he could manage. "Pa owned a ranch growing baseballs on trees and sold 'em three for a nickel but we lost it all in the Depression."
"Perfect," Peggy said, and Steve couldn't help himself: he stooped to kiss the dimple on her cheek.
The seventeenth earl of Carchester was clearly a guy who believed in truth in advertising. Carpets and heavy brocades and silk cushions: pretty much everything in the green sitting room really was green, broken up only by the wood of heavy, old-fashioned furniture and the occasional gilded ornament. On the walls hung a series of paintings—the earl's ancestors, Steve supposed, given the long chin that was a constant through a couple of centuries' worth of changing fashions. It was like being in a museum, if museums smelled faintly of potpourri and gin.
A little voice in Steve's head that sounded an awful lot like Bucky wondered how a room got to look like this. You think they did it on purpose?
Steve bit back on his laughter and went over to join Peggy where she was standing in the curve of a large bay window, looking out. The view was almost as green as the room they were standing in, only a bit less lurid: acres of lawn stretching glossy and manicured down to distant woodlands, budding leaves on the trees, the sky a pale and uniform grey. It probably took a small army to keep the grounds in this kind of good order—and a not-so-small fortune. Steve didn't think there were many of the big old houses left in England that could afford to put on a show like this. Carchester must have pretty deep pockets.
As Steve and Peggy stood there, maybe six or seven tweed-clad people on horseback were ambling their way back towards the house. It seemed like the butler had a different definition of "unavoidably detained" than Steve had.
He cocked an eyebrow at Peggy. "You sure we want to play it so I'm carrot and you're stick? Because we—"
"Pre-arranged roles are likely best," Peggy said. "Lord Carchester has certain notions about how the world works. I don't think upsetting those would help our cause."
"It's pretty clear how he think it works right now," Steve said, nodding out to where the earl and his group had only made it halfway across the lawn. "We're here on sufferance, to shut up some folks back in Whitehall."
"Oh, obviously," Peggy said. "But don't worry, I have a lot of experience with that."
By the time that Lord Carchester finally entered the room, the butler had long since seated Steve and Peggy in front of the fire and produced something that he called "a light tea" but which could probably have fed the Howlies comfortably. Steve swiped surreptitiously at the corners of his mouth to make sure that no stray crumbs or flecks of jam lingered there as he stood to shake the man's hand.
"Major Rogers! The lovely Mrs Rogers! Wonderful to see you both, marvellous you could make it. Dashed poor weather we've been having, but good company makes all the difference, you know. We'll be a very cosy little set, just family and friends, hrm?" Lord Carchester was clearly the kind of man who thought the strength of his handshake said something about his manhood. Ten years ago, his grip might well have broken a bone in Steve's hand; now, Steve smiled politely and didn't let his face show even a trace of discomfort. "Have a good trip up? Sorry to leave you waiting around like that, only you know how the horses get if you don't take 'em for a good canter—would be a damned waste of horse flesh, especially with Cyrene, her sire almost won the Triple Crown, hrm?"
Steve's sole close encounter with a horse had been with eating one when they'd been snowed in near Metz back in early '45. He looked over at Peggy, who had an oddly tense look on her face that said she was holding back laughter.
"Quite," Peggy said as they sat back down. "And thank you for finding room for us at such short notice, your lordship. I know that this was something of a last-minute arrangement."
The earl waved a hand and reached out to take a sandwich. "Oh, the staff don't mind," he said between bites. "More the merrier. Gives 'em something to do, you know. They stand around idle for too long, things go to pot. Larking around. Wasn't like this before the war, I'll tell you. Sense of duty, knew their place. None of this agitating."
Steve felt a muscle twitch in his jaw. This was the guy they needed to have on their side in the British cabinet? He looked back at Peggy, who shook her head ever so slightly. Steve sat back in his seat and kept silent.
"Duty is terribly important, isn't it?" Peggy replied. "And tradition—there really is something to be said for the power of tradition, so many have said that. More tea, Steven?" Her manner was bright and personable and chatty, and very clearly something she was putting on. Steve had seen her do it before; had seen her have to do it more and more, lately. SHIELD was increasing in size and scope, and Steve thought they were on the cusp of being able to do some genuine good with it. He just wasn't so keen on the way Peg seemed to have to make herself smaller, the more SHIELD grew.
Steve forced a smile on his face and tried to take some of Lord Carchester's attention back from Peggy. That was marriage, right: sharing the heavy loads?
"Sure thing, honey," he said, letting a little more of Brooklyn bleed into his vowels than he had in years. If Howard and the others thought that him playing the naive and over-awed Yankee would help them get ahead, well, Steve did have almost twenty movies under his belt. "This is a swell place you've got here, Earl. We sure don't have anything like this back in the good ole U.S. of A."
Peggy made a quiet, strangled sound and bowed her head over the teapot. Her shoulders were shaking ever so slightly.
The earl didn't seem to pick up on anything. Instead he launched into a long history of the house: who had built the original structure, back in the time of Queen Anne; which ancestor had bought that pile, and razed it, and put the present building in its place; where the marble for the fireplace had come from and which great-grand-uncle had planted what grove of trees and which young "colonial" had brought with her the dowry that had given her a title and the house a new roof. Steve had always found architecture kind of interesting, but round about minute five he found his eyes starting to glaze over no matter how keenly he tried to pretend interest.
By the time the rest of the earl's guests walked in—all changed into fresh clothes and with freshly combed hair—Steve thought he'd rarely been so glad to see a group of people stare at him like he was a fresh escapee from a museum exhibit. He shook hands with them, and was introduced, and every last one of them seemed to have half a dozen names as well as a different kind of title. Steve knew there was no way he was going to be able to remember the difference between a marquess and a baron's daughter and a member of parliament for a shire he'd never heard of before, let alone how he was supposed to address an MP's wife or someone who was introduced solely as "Cousin Robert." He decided to keep on making ignorance a virtue.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, your grace," he told the MP, holding out his hand. If he was underestimated as a result, well, Steve had made that work for him before.
"Who do you think will be easiest to sway?" Steve asked when they were getting dressed for dinner.
"I don't think we start with the easiest," Peggy said, scrutinising her powder application in the mirror. She gave a nod of evident satisfaction and reached for her perfume bottle. "We could get Newham on side without much difficulty, he's idealistic and his grandmother was American, but the man's a drunkard and he's holding onto his place on the cabinet by the skin of his teeth. He doesn't have the ear of anyone worth the trouble. Besides, look where plain idealism's got us in the past. I think we start with the most strategic: Diana Wintercombe."
"The baron's daughter?" She was a tall blonde, tweed-clad and windswept with a sly curve of a smile. She hadn't said much to Steve all afternoon, but then again she hadn't said much to anyone. Her tea cup and the racing section of the newspaper had seemed more interesting to her than conversation. "There wasn't much about her in the briefing papers."
"Well of course there wouldn't be," Peggy said, standing. "Because I wasn't the one who compiled them. Zip me up, darling?"
Steve obliged, though he couldn't stop himself from first running two fingertips along the bare, warm stretch of Peggy's back. His war might have shaken his faith in incense and catechism, but it had given him the firmest conviction in the strength of his wife's backbone. They had quiet moments so rarely; why not renew his faith when he could? Peggy shivered a little beneath his touch, and Steve smiled, and he pressed a kiss against the nape of her neck before he covered it over with deep red cloth.
"Wretch," Peggy said warmly. "I've quite forgotten my train of thought now."
"Diana Wintercombe," Steve said. "And you're welcome."
"Yes," Peggy said, padding over the wardrobe to slip on her shoes. "Well, what the briefing papers didn't make note of is that she's having an affair with the Prime Minister."
Steve stared. "Peg, he's—"
"We'll take everything you're about to say as a given, shall we?" Peggy said, sliding her smallest pistol into her garter and then smoothing down her skirts. "She went to school with his twin daughters, no less. But we're trying to game the British aristocracy into thinking our goals are their best interests, and expecting them to behave according to the conventions of bourgeois morality is like thinking Howard would refrain from making a double entendre at the queen."
"'M not bourgeois," Steve mumbled, turning to look at himself in the wardrobe mirror so he could get his tie knotted properly. Bucky's dad had been a Wobblie; Steve's knuckles had once carried the scars of more than a few protest scraps. On several occasions, he'd had to drag himself into the confessional and listen to Fr Kavanagh sigh heavily and assign him several rounds of the Sorrowful Mysteries because Steve had very much not been behaving according to the conventions of bourgeois morality. Of course, he thought to himself wryly, he was puffing himself up about that while dressing for dinner in the bedroom he was sharing with his wife in the country residence of the wealthy English lord whom he was supposed to schmooze as part of his work for the U.S. Government.
If Buck were here, he'd laugh himself sick.
"So what," Steve said, finally satisfied that his tie was as good as it was going to get, "you think we should charm her, get her to put a good word in for us? She's got that much influence?"
"Pillow talk's not to be underestimated," Peggy said, "and in the case of Diana Wintercombe, we get double the bang for our prospective buck."
Steve frowned in confusion at her.
"The Honourable Miss Wintercombe is also having an affair with the wife of the leader of the opposition," Peggy said with exaggerated patience. "Which means we've got two viable means of catching her attention tonight, depending on which of us she takes a fancy to. Don't gape, Steven, you'll catch flies."
The butler was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs, and ushered them into a different sitting room, which was a near mirror image of this afternoon's sitting room except decorated almost entirely in robin's egg blue. "What, do they buy 'em prefabricated?" Steve asked Peggy under his breath, though judging by the glare he caught, the butler had overheard him.
Jacques had introduced the other Howlies to the concept of an aperitif, and the gins and tonic that were being handed around were pretty good, but Steve couldn't say he ever thought much of the idea of deliberately delaying a meal. Partly it was how much fuel his body needed to run on any given day; partly it was the memory of being eleven, twelve, thirteen, his gut clenching around air while he insisted to his ma that he wasn't so hungry, she could have that last slice of bread. Everyone else seemed perfectly happy to sit and sip and chat and admire the way the setting sun, framed just so by some distant, towering beech trees, lit up the room.
"The eighth earl had 'em planted, you know," said Lord Carchester from his seat in a wingback chair next to the fireplace. He'd had two drinks already, and they hadn't been small measures or heavy on the tonic water. Between that and the flush that was spreading across his cheeks, Steve was pretty sure his lordship spent most evenings getting pretty pleasantly toasted. He was less and less sure why this was the guy they needed on their side if they wanted to get much done in Europe, but the last time he'd asked Peggy that flat out she'd just looked unhappy and said something about Old Etonians. "Hired Capability Brown in to design it and I can't say I understand much of that sort of thing, really, plants and whatnot, but it looks the part, don't it? Excellent for climbing; many's the time my brother and I hid there from the governess as chaps."
"My brothers and I did the same thing!" crowed Geoffrey Blair, the man who was MP of the part of England that Steve still couldn't place on a map. "But I shouldn't say there's much surprise there—was there ever a governess alive who wasn't an old battle axe?"
"Oh darling, I do wish you wouldn't say such things about poor old Morris," said his wife. Mary Blair was a petite woman with a widow's peak as pronounced as her Scottish accent. "She was devoted to the both of you; you were her cause."
Steve was casting around for something to say to that when the earl let out a noise like a little sigh and slumped gently backwards in his chair. For a brief moment, Steve just thought that the gin had caught up with him, but then he realised that a neat hole had bloomed right in the middle of Carchester's forehead. A trickle of blood ran down the bridge of the man's nose, and though his eyes were open and there was still a smile on his face he was absolutely, undeniably dead. It was so out of place, so unexpected, that for the space of a heartbeat, two, Steve just sat there and stared, clutching his drink. But then Miss Wintercombe screamed, shrill and terrible, and noise flooded back into the room as the windows exploded inwards in a hail of bullets.
Steve kicked back, toppling over the sofa and rolling with it so that he was behind what little protection the base could provide. Peggy landed next to him, a jumble of upended skirts and dishevelled curls. She said something very rude, and tugged her pistol from her garter. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
"Fine," Steve said. His fingers itched to hold his shield; he had to settle for a quick glance over the top of the sofa. The western window was almost entirely shot out, and the sunlight flaring late and golden through it made it impossible for Steve to see where exactly the shooter might be. Carchester still sat, dead and composed; Geoffrey Blair lay on the ground, clutching his side and moaning. From this angle, it was hard to see what had happened to the other guests, but Steve had the impression of limp limbs. Was that Mrs Blair's arm? A bullet thudded into the sofa and the wooden frame cracked; Steve dropped back to the ground. "You?"
"This is entirely too reminiscent of our honeymoon," Peggy said, which Steve took to mean she was pretty angry but hadn't been wounded.
"Distance, angle, conditions," Steve said, eyeing the door. It wasn't so far away, but covering the few feet of carpet between it and the sofa would leave him exposed. He was also worried about the fact that no one had come looking to see what the matter was. The butler had seemed sour, but not neglectful. "Definitely a professional."
"And targeting the earl, at least for starters," Peggy agreed. "How do you want to play this?"
Steve reached over and caught her free hand in his, bringing it to his mouth so he could press a kiss to the back of her hand, because he'd long since promised himself that if things looked like they might go badly, he wouldn't leave her in any doubt. The bullets had stopped, but Steve was pretty sure it was just a pause: trying to flush them out. Whoever this was wanted them all dead, not just Carchester. "Make like a tortoise, get to the door, see what's on the other side. Better than being sitting ducks."
He grabbed hold of one end of the sofa and started pushing it towards the door. The weight of it would have been no big deal if Steve had been able to stand, but it was slow going when he was crouched low to the ground and could only use one arm at an awkward angle. The shooter noticed the movement and started firing again. Bullets embedded themselves in horsehair and springs and sent photos and china ornaments flying from end tables to shatter on the floor. Steve flinched, trying to move faster.
"Quick as you like," Peggy said, "three more feet and we're there."
"Room for another one?" Steve whipped his head around to see that someone had crawled around the back of the sofa: Diana Wintercombe. Her face was very white and her arms, scratched and bloodied, were trembling so hard she was barely holding herself upright. "Only I'd rather not stay here, if that's all right with you."
"One last push and we're there," Steve told her, "but you need to keep up. You understand?"
Miss Wintercombe nodded frantically, and Steve took a deep breath and heaved. He felt something grind, protesting, in his shoulder and he gritted his teeth and got them over next to the door. Just in time, too: the sofa was starting to give way and one bullet ricocheted off a gilt bit of frame and burrowed into the wall not two inches over Steve's head. More bullets followed, chunks of blue-painted plaster raining down on them. Peggy flung herself forward and got the door open. She went out first in a low crouch, pistol in hand, and Steve and Miss Wintercombe followed her, Steve kicking the door closed behind them.
It was oddly still and quiet out in the hallway. Steve gave himself a moment to sit and shake and breathe as the pain in his shoulder ebbed and the sweat cooled on the nape of his neck. He pressed the palm of one hand flat against the floor and let the welcome chill of the marble ground him before he hauled himself upright. Peggy had already kicked off her heels and padded over to where a telephone sat on a low side table. "The line's been cut," she said, putting the receiver back down.
"Everyone's dead," Miss Wintercombe said in a quiet voice. She was sitting on the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut, her bloodied hands curled limp in her lap. "I'll have to tell Robert's mother. Oh, goodness. I can't tell Robert's mother if there's no telephone." She moaned faintly, jaw slack.
"Hey." Steve crouched back down in front of her. He made sure to keep his hands loose and open in front of him, moving slowly; it wouldn't help if he scared her any further. "Hey, Miss Wintercombe. Diana." When her gaze finally focused on him, he said, "I need you to work with us for a little while so we can get out of here. I need you to help us by doing everything that Peggy says. If you do what Peggy says, we'll get out of here okay. Do you think you can do that?"
"You are not nearly as American as I thought you were," she replied, before she blinked rapidly and seemed to come back to herself. "Oh. I can—I can do that. I can help."
Steve helped her to stand, mindful of her poor cut arms, and looked to see how Peggy was doing. She had her pistol out, and her head cocked as if listening for something. "What is it?" Steve asked.
"I heard a clock chime," Peggy said. "It's just gone seven. Even if the servants didn't hear any of this because they were down in the kitchens, someone should have brought us through to the dining room by now."
Either Carchester had been sold out by his own employees or the kitchens looked much the same as the drawing room by now—it was unsettling however you looked at it. And no matter what, the fact no one had appeared meant that it was even less likely that the shooter was working alone. Steve's shield was sitting back in the bedroom they'd been assigned in the U.S. Embassy in Westminster, and even if he'd had his suit with him, putting it on would have felt somehow even sillier than he did right now: trying to come up with a strategy while wearing evening dress that was scuffed at the knees. They had Peggy's gun, and his fists, and a terrified young woman who knew the house better than either of them. Not a lot to work with, but they'd have to make it count.
"They might have messed with the cars, but we should try for one anyway, see if we can get it to start," Steve said. It was starting to get dark outside, and he didn't fancy their chances at getting Miss Wintercombe safely through the woods at a forced march at nighttime, even if they were somehow able to find the right road to lead them back to town. Whoever was doing this wanted them isolated, which also told Steve there was safety in numbers.
Peggy hitched one shoulder. "Remember who taught you to hotwire a car."
"Point," Steve said.
"Miss Wintercombe," Peggy with one of those abrupt shifts she was capable of, from brisk focus to careful warmth, "can you tell us the quickest way to get to the garage from here? It would be a terrific help."
The force of will it took for the girl to steady herself and respond with something like calm was palpable. "There aren't really any direct ways from the main level of the house—you just wait for the car to be driven around for you normally, you know. But I, I think if we go down that hallway and keep on past the study, there's the door that leads to the servants' quarters. Go through that, turn to the right, and you can get outside to the stables and the garage." She startled. "Oh lord, the horses."
"We'll get to them later," Peggy said soothingly, "don't worry about that for now. We'll just go and get some help first."
Peggy took the lead, pistol at the ready. Steve was right behind her, one hand just at Miss Wintercombe's elbow in case she stumbled. The thick carpet in the hallways swallowed up the noise of their footsteps; the only sounds came from their breathing and from the rustling of the women's skirts. And then from overhead, low but distinct: the creak of an old floorboard beneath someone's deliberate tread. Peggy looked back over her shoulder at Steve, eyes wide.
"Go," Steve said. If he were alone, he would have gone to investigate, but they couldn't afford to split up just now.
Peggy hurried forward along the hallway, quickly checking the rooms right and left as she went in case of ambush. Nothing, and she beckoned them to follow her when she reached the green baize door that divided the earl's home from all of the unseen people who kept it running smoothly. She cocked her pistol and pressed an ear to the door, listening carefully for a moment, then stepped back and nodded. "After you, Steven."
Steve kicked the door in. A short flight of stairs led down into a flagstoned hallway. Where the main part of the house was dim, here every overhead light blazed. The air smelled of vegetables and laundry, both boiled in equal measure, and the sensation of being back in the old walk-up in Brooklyn was so strong that it rocked Steve back on his feet. He shook it off and walked down into the hallway, braced for attack, but everything was quiet. He listened, straining at the limits of his hearing: silence. He looked back up at Peggy and Miss Wintercombe. "Kitchens to the left?"
"Wait here for a moment," Steve said. He wasn't going to leave anyone behind if there was a chance any of the staff was still here. "Peg, if I'm not back in two minutes, you get going, all right?"
Peggy nodded and Steve took off past storerooms and a stillroom and a scullery where great pots stood waiting to be scoured. It was orderly enough that Colonel Phillips would surely have approved. Only when Steve rounded the corner into the kitchen proper did he see something out of place: a roast on the table waiting to be carved, two pots of vegetables boiling dry on the stove and a great smear of blood that arced across one of the countertops. There were no bodies, but no signs of hope either. There were handprints in the blood.
Steve turned back toward Peggy and Miss Wintercombe, and the lights went out. The sudden absence of light was disorienting and Steve was still blinking, trying to get his eyes to adjust, when he felt a blow against the back of his head. It was powerful enough to make him stagger forward, grabbing for where he thought the edge of the kitchen table must be as he tried to keep himself upright. A punch to the side of his head, then, his neck aching from the strain of it. He steadied himself and kicked out but was hit again, a blow across his lower back like he was being hit with an iron bar. Steve grunted and hit back, driving his elbow into the gut of his attacker, twisting to grab his head and yank it down, driving it as hard as he could into the table in turn. The attacker hissed and Steve did it again, then backed up a step or two, trying to get some breathing space while he assessed the situation. There wasn't much light to go by; what few windows there were were small and high up, and the sun set quickly at this time of year. Steve could only get a sense of broad shoulders, longish hair, and the smell of—
"Peg, run," Steve roared at the same time the attacker struck a match, the little orange flame startling in the darkness.
The flames raced along the floor and up the sides of the cupboards, catching on curtains and licking at curtains. This place had stood for centuries, and there was more than enough seasoned wood inside it burn for days. Within moments the one door to the outside had been all but cut off, and the flames were climbing high and hot. The attacker, a dark figure standing in the middle of the room, didn't seem too worried about any of it. Steve wasn't inclined to agree. The only way out was back in the direction he'd come from, and Steve lunged backwards, ignoring the shrieking pain in his head as he reached out and grabbed a dresser that stood next to the kitchen entrance and toppled it. Pots and pans and drawers tumbled to the floor in a clatter, bouncing off the flagstones. That might buy him a valuable couple of seconds as he tried to get out of there.
"Down!" That was all the warning Peggy gave him before she jumped up onto the back of the dresser and opened fire. Steve ducked instinctively and then swivelled to watch as Peggy emptied her pistol at the attacker—as she hit him, at least two bullets landing clean right in the centre of mass. The guy rocked back on his heels, looked down at his chest, but didn't go down right away. Some kind of body armour, maybe, but Steve didn't have time to worry about it—he grabbed Peggy's hand and the two of them barrelled back down the hallway. They met a wide-eyed Miss Wintercombe where Peggy had left her, and Steve herded her ahead of them and towards the door.
"Out," Steve said, "out, now!" He could hear the fire growing behind them, rumbling just at the lower limits of his hearing, building faster than he'd thought possible. The whole place must have been primed to burn—explosives planted, maybe. Miss Wintercombe scrabbled with the door handle and then they were outside, the chilly breeze a welcome relief. The women picked their way carefully across the yard's damp cobblestones—Peggy in her stocking feet, Miss Wintercombe in her heels—while Steve pulled a heavy water barrel across in front of the door and then looked around for where the earl's cars were kept. The night was overcast, and it was difficult to spot where the doors set into the various outbuildings were. His head ached.
"The horses," Miss Wintercombe was saying, voice pitching steadily higher. "We need to let the horses out, they'll smell the smoke, they'll panic—"
"We need to find transport out of here first," Peggy replied. "Then I promise, we'll make sure no harm comes to them. Do you recall—"
A burning pain exploded in Steve's lower back and brought him to his knees. He gasped with it, swore; when he touched the heart of the pain, his shaking hand came away wet and warm with blood. Shot, he thought vaguely, and looked up to see a dark shape leaping down from the roof of the kitchen wing and marching towards him. Steve tried to stand but he couldn't seem to make his left leg work. How had he forgotten how much it hurt to be shot? Peggy stepped in to intercept the attacker, hauling off with a right hook hard enough that Miss Wintercombe yelped and Steve felt proud.
The attacker responded with an open-handed blow that caught Peggy across one cheekbone. She staggered, recovered her balance, and smashed her bare heel down on his instep before driving her knee right up into his gut. The man grunted and tried to come after her still, but stopped dead in his tracks when Peggy gave a short scream and covered her mouth.
"Good God," she said, sounding as shaken as Steve had ever heard her. "Sergeant Barnes?"
"What?" Steve said, baffled, and then in the light of the flames that were steadily building behind them, Steve saw the face of a dead man: a face he'd known since childhood and seen in his nightmares for years now. His hair was different, his clothes were different, but there was no mistaking his eyes or the line of his jaw. For a long moment, Steve felt as if he were back in his real body, struggling for breath and feeling his heart racing. "Bucky? Bucky, what…"
Steve fought his way upright, swaying, his left leg wavering between sharp bursts of agony and a numbness that was even more worrying. "Buck, what's going on? Where've you—"
Bucky's face was familiar, but the expression on it was anything but. It was blank and cold as he took a gun from a holster strapped to his thigh and aimed it at Steve. Steve couldn't move, he couldn't understand, and then Miss Wintercombe picked up a loose cobble and slung it with admirable accuracy right at Bucky's wrist, hard enough to hit with a crack and make Bucky drop the gun. "Stop it, you stop it right now, you… you beast!"
That made Bucky turn to look at her, and then at Peggy and Steve in turn. Something flickered across his face, too fast for Steve to follow, and his forehead creased. Bucky spat something that Steve couldn't understand—was that Russian?—and then turned and ran off across the courtyard and out of sight.
"Bucky! Buck!" Steve roared and, forgetting, tried to follow. His leg failed him and he toppled over, his face pressed wet against the cold, hard ground.
In the end, Miss Wintercombe's driving skills were what got them safely to the cottage hospital. She had a lead foot as heavy as Jim Morita's on the accelerator, but the reflexes and the local knowledge to steer them pell-mell along narrow lanes and around sharp bends in the dark and the driving rain without any sign of hesitation. On one of the few stretches of straight road, she pulled up onto the grass verge and came to an abrupt halt. A few seconds later, a fire engine shot past them, bell clanging, and Miss Wintercombe ("Diana, please") took off again.
"They must have seen the flames from the village," Diana called over her shoulder. "At least we won't have to worry about rousing anyone, they'll all be up."
Steve, half lying across the back seat and wincing at every pot hole they rattled over, couldn't really make himself care about that too much. Still, he couldn't say he wasn't grateful that every light was blazing in the cottage hospital when Diana screeched to a halt in front of it and Peggy carefully helped him out. The bleeding had slowed, and Steve could feel his flesh trying to knit itself back together. Normally that would be a good thing, but the bullet was still inside of him. None of that was easy to explain to the doctor on duty—wearing pyjamas and slippers underneath his white coat—and it was even less fun for Steve to lie on his stomach and gasp his way through the extraction.
A severe-looking nurse with her hair in curlers and slippers on her feet had taken Diana and Peggy into another room in order to fix up their wounds—Diana's arms needed attention, and Peggy's cheek was already turning a pretty gory shade of purple. Peggy was back before long, though, an ice pack pressed to her cheek. Her pretty evening dress was spattered with mud and blood, the hem torn, and even Steve could tell that her stockings were a complete loss. "I pled the privilege of the worried wife."
Steve said nothing. He reached out and took hold of her free hand, and let the solid warmth of Peggy's grip ground him as he lay there and gritted his teeth through the itching, crawling sensation of a wound healing for the second time that night. From outside in the hallway, he could hear footsteps passing back and forth, and then new voices at the building's main entrance. Police, most likely. Forget whether he should tell them the truth about what had happened this evening, or if they'd believe him, could he do it? I'm with you to the end of the line, pal, that's what they'd always said to one another. Had he reached it? He squeezed his eyes shut against the memory of Bucky holding a gun on him and the sudden, hot sting of tears.
"If it's any consolation," Peggy said after a while, "I'm all in favour of this being a brisk conversation about why the revenant of your childhood best friend just assassinated some key members of the British government and tried to do us in for good measure. But we will have to talk about it, Steve."
"I saw him fall," Steve said thickly. He'd sat in the Barnes' front room and drunk terrible coffee and promised Mrs Barnes that it had been quick: that her darling boy hadn't felt a thing.
"And yet," Peggy said, sweeping her thumb over the back of his hand.
In another few minutes, the ice in Peggy's pack had melted completely and Steve felt wobbly but able to sit up. The nurse came in with a tray laden down with tea things and a fresh ice pack for Peggy. The woman said something in an accent that Steve couldn't begin to follow and was only vaguely certain was English of some kind, but judging by the brittle smile on Peggy's face, she'd understood just fine.
"Thank you, how kind of you to let us know," Peggy said, in that tone she used when she wanted to be rude but wanted to be able to deny any accusation of bad manners.
"Hmpfh," said the nurse.
When the door closed behind her, Peggy said, "The police are interviewing Diana Wintercombe right now, but they'll be in to see us next. Looks like Carchester Hall will be a complete loss, and the entire village has already chalked us all up for wastrels and ne'er-do-wells. The locals in the pub have already come up with a tale of a bacchanal gone wrong. The newspapers will have a field day."
Steve braced his hands against the edge of the examination table and took a deep breath in preparation for standing up. "We're doing wonders for Anglo-American relations, huh?" he asked as he levered himself upright and reached for the remains of his shirt and jacket. They were tattered and filthy, but it was either that or be interviewed by the police while bare chested, and they'd already sparked enough gossip around here.
"Let's not worry about that for right now," Peggy said, standing in turn and heading for the door. "We just need to make sure that none of the evening editions have headlines that scream 'Former Captain America Arrested in MP Slaughter.'"
Steve grimaced as he pulled on his tattered shirt. It was one thing for SHIELD to suffer a set-back in getting that all-access pass they'd been looking for; it was another for the entire project to go under. Steve wasn't sure that anywhere else would have them, at least not anywhere he'd want to be. Truman could probably get him a cushy office job somewhere, but with McCarthy rabble-rousing about pinkos in Congress, it sure wasn't going to be anything really useful. Steve wanted to be useful. "Sure they won't collar you as the mastermind?"
"Oh please," Peggy said with a flutter of her eyelashes, "as far as the local bobbies are concerned, I'm just the harmless Mrs Rogers." She turned and hesitated for a moment, hand on the door knob. "What he said to Diana, it was in Russian. He said, "I'm not a beast, I'm a soldier.""
The door closed behind her, and Steve sat down heavily on the edge of the table.
In the first months after Steve had crawled out of the wreckage of Schmidt's plane, and into the sudden and jarring absence of the war, he'd found quiet unsettling. He'd grown used to gunfire and explosions and the Howlies' snores echoing around cramped tents; the silence of the hotel room he'd sat in while waiting for a flight south from Halifax had seemed unnatural. Now he was able to stand on the back step of the cottage hospital and appreciate the stillness of the countryside as the sun came up. It still didn't seem quite right—especially not to someone who'd grown up surrounded by Brooklyn's bustle, not by green fields—but at least it let him think.
Or at least let his mind go round in circles in relative peace. Bucky was alive, and he didn't seem to know who he was or who any of them were and… well, it wasn't like Steve knew much more than that. He didn't know what any of this meant, beyond the fact that he had a chance at getting his best friend back—but a friend who'd shot him in the back. His head ached with the dull echo of Bucky's blow and a renewed, muddled sense of grief. Shortly after the bells of the village church told him it was just past seven, the door opened and Peggy joined him. She handed over a mug of coffee, which appropriately smelled and tasted about as bad as the stuff they'd had during the war.
After his first mouthful, Steve leaned against the door jamb and settled for letting the mug warm his hands. Peggy's tea seemed to be better brewed, judging by the grateful look on her face as she sipped at it. She'd clearly taken the time to wash her face and hands and pull her hair back with a bit of ribbon while Steve was talking with the police; she would have looked younger than Steve had ever known her, if not for the dark circles under her eyes and the awful bruising that mottled one side of her face.
"Didn't get arrested at least," Steve said after a while.
"Small mercies," Peggy murmured. She blinked and visibly stirred herself. "Miss Wintercombe is fast asleep in one of the wards. Nurse Davis has gone across to the village shop to see if she can scare up a change of clothes for us. I'm afraid whatever she gets might be a little short in the shin for you, but it's better than what we've got on right now. And I rang down to London, they're going to send up a car for us. It should be here by noon."
"I'm not leaving," Steve shot back, "not without—"
"Yes, yes," Peggy said, leaning into his side. "I'm perfectly aware of that. I had a word with Sergeant Graham. He was very taken with your comic books during the war, you know. He'll bring us back up to Carchester Hall after breakfast."
"Good," Steve said, wrapping an arm around Peg and closing his eyes. He felt suddenly, overwhelmingly exhausted: weary and wanting to stop but knowing he couldn't, shouldn't. "You remember our first dance?"
Peggy shifted against him. "I do. But you've since discovered the concept of keeping to time, so my feet and I have forgiven you."
"Ha," Steve said flatly. It hadn't been the Stork Club, but it had been just what he wanted: the two of them alone, soft music coming from a borrowed record player, flowers in Peggy's hair and a look on her face that Steve had done nothing to deserve. "Do you think we could still…" He paused, considered; wished for better words. "That's all I would ever want with you."
"Oh my darling," Peggy sighed, and pressed closer to him, and here was one of the things Steve loved about Peggy Carter: she knew the words he couldn't figure out how to say.
"It's just that there was a phone call, you see," said Sergeant Graham, turning his helmet round and round by the brim. He was all Adam's apple and Brylcreem, and his panic at trying to block the real live Captain America from leaving the building was palpable. It was all Steve could do not to roll his eyes. "From the Foreign Office, sir. They made a point of it, sir. No one is to go up to the house until some of their chaps have had a chance to look it over."
"The Foreign Office?" Peggy asked sharply. "Not the Home Office—you're certain about that?"
Sergeant Graham nodded, Adam's apple bobbing. "Yes, ma'am. The Foreign Office, ma'am, and they knew my name and all. Said I was absolutely not to take you back up there, begging your pardon, ma'am."
Steve didn't care so much who was trying to keep them away from the ruins of the house, not when there might be some evidence up there that would give them a clue about Bucky's whereabouts. He stepped closer to the door and to the police officer, trying his best to loom although he was painfully aware that his new pants ended about three inches shy of his ankles. At least the dress Peggy'd been given fit her, even if Steve didn't think the pink and yellow gingham would have been her first choice ordinarily.
"Son," he said, "just don't."
The vague but definite dread of the spectre of the Foreign Office meant that Sergeant Graham steadfastly refused to drive them back to Carchester House. The very immediate dread of an irritated Peggy Carter, however, meant that he handed over the keys his car and told them to go past the parish church and take the first left. "Only if anyone asks, ma'am, I must have mislaid my keys."
Steve drove them up there while Peggy poured over a map of the area that the sergeant had also handed over. She gave him directions while tracing the extent of the late earl's holdings. "The estate is well over a thousand acres," she said, raising her voice a little so she could be heard. The patrol car's engine wasn't familiar with the kind of speed that Steve was asking of it and was protesting loudly. "Woodland, streams, some fairly open uplands. Most of it isn't accessible by car."
You could hide a lot in a thousand acres, Steve thought.
The narrow road through the beech woods hadn't changed since yesterday, but the first view of Carchester House had altered dramatically. Part of one wing stood to its full height, windows glinting in the early morning sunshine; everything else was gone. For a moment, Steve could have sworn that he heard air-raid sirens and that he was back in London at the height of the Blitz. He could taste the bite of smoke at the back of his throat. He shook it off and drove on until they reached the house, parking at what seemed like a safe distance. The remains of the house were still smouldering despite last night's rain, and when they got out of the car Steve could feel the heat rising from the rubble.
"I'm not sure we're going to find much here," Peggy said, prodding at a bit of fallen, charred rafter with the tip of her shoe.
"Probably not," Steve agreed around a lump in his throat. It had all burned: the bedroom where they'd changed for dinner, and the green sitting room, and the polished wooden floor strewn with bodies, and the bloodied kitchen. All that was left looked like a different kind of tragedy.
They found the spot where they'd been when Bucky had opened fire; some of the crumbled walls still showed patches of blue paint. With the sun on the other side of the house, Steve could work out more easily where Bucky must have shot from: a small stand of trees on a low rise of ground, the kind of place that offered some shelter and a place for a sniper to steady his weapon as he worked. It was what Bucky would have done during the war, at least.
"But it's all open ground between there and here," Peggy said, a distracted tone in her voice like she was mostly talking to herself. "Not the kind of place you could scout easily without being seen. Russians wouldn't blend in easily around here. An inside job, maybe? But then if it's the Foreign Office…"
Round the back of the building, they found that the horses had been let out of the stables to run in a paddock—that would please Miss Wintercombe, at least—although it looked like the fire fighters had managed to get the blaze under control before it could damage any of the outbuildings. Probably because this was the side of the building they'd been working from, having driven the engine around here so they could easily draw water from a well that stood in one of the yards.
"It's amazing they could save anything at all," Peggy said. "I've not seen anything burn that quickly without an incendiary bomb being involved."
"It's strange," Steve agreed, and then he saw it—in the far corner of the yard, a doorway leading into what he presumed was the basement level of Carchester Hall. The door itself was small and weatherbeaten, not something Steve would have paid much attention to, if not for the fact that a semicircle in front of it had been scraped clean of ash and debris. Someone had opened that door since the fire.
Steve caught Peggy's eye and then jerked his head in the direction of the door. She realised what it meant straight away, and used the vocabulary of hand signs and gestures they'd created over the past few years to silently agree that Steve would go first and that neither of them were feeling the need to be subtle.
Steve kicked the door in. It took a little effort, even for him, because the door had blistered and warped in the fire's heat and scraped heavily against the lintel. Beyond, the air smelled of wet stone and earth, and a flight of steps plunged steeply down between walls that looked as if they'd been hacked roughly out of the bedrock. The earl had said that a castle had originally stood here in the Middle Ages—maybe this was what remained of it? Steve looked back at Peggy, who shrugged, and so Steve led the way down. It was dim enough that Steve had to be mindful of his footing, but there was a light switch at the bottom of the steps.
He took a deep breath, preparing for the light to reveal something—to find the missing servants, or Bucky, all holed up in some grim medieval dungeon—but there was nothing more startling down here than a mostly empty cellar with a beaten earth floor. Along one wall were rows of shelves lined with bottles of wine draped with dust thick enough to have clearly shown any recent fingerprints. There wasn't a mark on them. Next to the shelves were some barrels—more liquor, Steve presumed. He wondered if maybe the shelves hid some sort of doorway, but it was the barrels that got Peggy's notice.
"The top shouldn't be loose like this," she said, tapping at it. It looked to have been tacked on haphazardly and not quite level. "Give me a hand?"
Steve obliged, prying the barrel lid off, and then blinked. "Not the vintage I was expecting."
"No," Peggy agreed. The barrel didn't contain liquor; instead, stacked neatly inside it, were at least a dozen semi-automatic machine guns and sniper rifles. "Check the others."
Steve ripped the lids off the rest of them, and found more weapons, a large cache of bullets, even some hand grenades. It was a lucky thing the fire's heat didn't seem to have made it through the cellar's thick walls. Steve shuddered to think what would have happened if one of these had gone off while the firefighters had been battling the blaze. Not that keeping this kind of ammo in a civilian building was safe at any time. "What was Carchester doing, planning a coup or something? I know he liked to hunt but—"
"I think you're right," Peggy said, sounding faintly stunned. "I think there's going to be a coup." She reached into the nearest barrel and pulled out a rifle, turning it so that Steve could see what was emblazoned on the stock: a leering death's head sprouting six curling tentacles.
"No," Steve said. He could barely hear himself over the roaring sound in his ears. "No, we got them all. We ended it, Peg."
"Evidently not," Peggy said. She was pulling other guns out at random. All of them bore the same stamp. "Good God, Steve, we hadn't a hint of warning about this, not a blessed clue. We were trying to—and Carchester was in the Cabinet. If we'd invited him to work with SHIELD, if we'd…"
"He couldn't have been working alone," Steve said. Maybe the earl had had a secret flair for acting, but he hadn't come across to Steve as the kind of guy capable of organising something like this all by himself. There had to be enough weapons for a hundred or a hundred fifty here. "You think other people in the British government are in on it? Because if they are, they have to know Carchester's dead by now. Could scare them off, could push them to act sooner." He picked up one of the guns and some of the ammo. They'd need some proof for their claims when they got back to London and the embassy, and in between a little extra protection couldn't hurt.
Peggy retrieved her gun from her thigh holster and reloaded it with bullets from one of the barrels, filling her pockets with more. Underneath the swelling and the bruising, every line of her face was pale and tense. "We can't assume anything right now, but it's likely. Why was it the Foreign Office who called, Steve? Diana forgot to mention to the police that Sergeant Barnes spoke Russian, and I didn't volunteer the information. Even if she had, the wheels of bureaucracy tend to grind slowly. It should have taken them several hours longer to realise that this wasn't just a matter for the Home Office." She tucked a stray curl behind her ear. "Someone knows more than we've been told."
A search of the rest of the cellar turned up nothing, and looking at his watch told Steve that they should head back to the village shortly if they wanted to meet with whoever the embassy had sent to fetch them. Of course, Steve thought as they climbed back up the steps, if one of Hydra's heads had regrown in the British parliament, there was no telling where else it might be lurking. Should they go back to the embassy? Could they trust whoever had been sent? What about the senators who'd arranged this whole trip for them in the first place? Too much to consider and too little to go on. Steve scrubbed his free hand through his hair as they emerged into the mid-morning sunshine. "You think that cop would mind if we borrowed his car a little longer? I've got some cash, if we headed for the nearest big town—"
He stopped short when he saw someone standing in the middle of the courtyard, gun trained on them. It took him a moment to place her: the hair, once neatly combed back from her widow's peak, was now dishevelled; her blouse was soot-stained and torn. "Mrs Blair," Steve said carefully, not wanting to spook her, "are you hurt?"
"Enough of that," she snapped, her Scottish accent far more muddied than it had been the day before. Her eyes were clear and cold. Not a case of shock, then; not an accident that she'd made it out of the burning building. "I want to know what Carchester told you."
"My, my," Peggy said, stepping out from behind Steve with her own pistol raised. "Dissension in the Hydra ranks? Such a shame when one head doesn't know what the other is doing."
Blair didn't take the bait. She cocked her gun with a steady hand and said, "The cause demands expendability. Carchester understood that much, even if he clearly didn't understand loyalty. What did he tell you about the serum?"
"Nothing," Steve said. He tried to look as calm as possible, but his heart was pounding. The serum: why did it always seem to come back to that?
"Really?" Blair sneered. "Next you'll tell me it was just a coincidence that you showed up here on the same day the Russkis send their prize asset after us? The same day they kill my husband? I'm many things, Captain, but I'm not—"
Whatever Mary Blair thought of herself, they never got to hear it.
She toppled over to lie face down and motionless on the cobblestones; blood bloomed dark against the pale silk of her blouse. A shot clean through the upper spine, and Bucky standing in the entry to the courtyard with a faintly puzzled look on his face, the way someone might look at a long-ago school pal while trying to remember their name.
The way Bucky was looking at Steve right now.
Steve took a deep breath. "Bucky, you can put the gun down. We just want to talk, okay? Whatever's happened—"
Bucky said something in rapid-fire Russian; not a trace of Brooklyn in his vowels, so far as Steve could tell.
"He says that we're not supposed to be here, we're not on the target list, and wants to know who we are," Peggy said. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see how stiffly she was holding herself.
"He—" The shock of it was like ice water down his back. Steve had been doing his goddamned best not to think the word traitor, but this was something else entirely. "You know us, Buck. I'm Stevie—Steve Rogers. We grew up together. This is Peggy Carter. You worked with her—with us—during the war. You know us, pal."
Bucky stared blankly at him.
Peggy's Russian was slower and more halting than Bucky's as she translated Steve's words, but Bucky seemed to understand just fine. He responded; Peggy replied; and Bucky answered with a single word that even Steve knew: nyet.
"Oh for god's sake," Peggy muttered to herself, "why don't I know the Russian for 'pig-headed'?"
"What are you telling him?" Steve asked.
Bucky's English was hoarse and hesitant, like listening to someone trying to remember the words of a half-forgotten poem. "They gave me the list of names of people who would be in the house and told me they were marked for termination. You weren't on it but you're here and I know you. How do I know you?"
Steve had been making questionable choices for thirty years now, so he set his gun down on the ground and took a careful step forward, palms held up. "Because I'm Steve Rogers and I grew up two doors down from you in Brooklyn. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. The two of us drove the nuns crazy in school but they always forgave you because you had real nice penmanship and good manners when you felt like it. You know me."
Bucky frowned. "You stuffed your shoes with newspaper. I am called the Zimnij Soldát."
"What?" Steve said.
Bucky sat down heavily on the ground and put his head in his hands.
"Oh my giddy aunt," Peggy said, sounding gut-punched. "Winter—you're the Winter Soldier?"
"Who?" Steve said. "Peg—"
"My head hurts," Bucky mumbled. He'd gone so pale that his complexion had taken on an unhealthy grey cast; his forehead was damp with sweat. "I require recalibration."
"We've got to get him out of here," Steve told Peggy. "Get him back to the embassy. He needs medical help, he—"
Peggy shook her head. "We can't bring him there, Steve."
"The Winter Soldier is the code name of the Soviets' most feared assassin," she snapped. "Half of the intelligence community thinks he's a myth, but you know what will happen if they see him like this. Not even you have enough influence to stop it."
They shoot traitors, Steve thought, and then very firmly quashed that idea. "So we go somewhere else. We keep him safe, we find out what the hell is going on."
"Somebody will be arriving in town to pick us up in—" Peggy checked her wristwatch. "About an hour or so. If we're not there, a search party will be sent after us, and Hammond and his men aren't stupid, Steve. They'll investigate, and you know what kind of picture they'll make of this all. We've got no papers, barely any money. We could try to make it to Monty's place in Derbyshire but—"
"Not enough gas," Steve finished grimly.
"Well, I could always float you a loan," came a voice from across the yard. "I know you're good for it."
Steve spun around to see Howard Stark standing in one of the side doors into the yard. He was dressed like the second coming of Charles Lindbergh in a sheepskin aviator's jacket, goggles pushed onto the top of his head. Peering over his shoulder was a young woman in a blue polka dot dress, chewing gum and looking a dozen different kinds of curious.
"Is there a reunion scheduled that no one told us about?" Peggy sounded waspish, one hand planted firmly on her hip.
"Nice to see you too, Peg. That dress makes you look like you've got jaundice," Howard said, nodding at her. "Steve. Long dead hero of the Republic."
"What's going on, Howard?" Steve asked, though he wasn't even sure he wanted to hear the answer.
"Oh, you know, the usual," Howard said vaguely. He was staring at Bucky with a considering look on his face. "Infiltration in the heart of government, attempted overthrow of truth, justice, and the American way, conspiracies spanning continents, yadda yadda. Say, have you two met Angie?"
"Angie Martinelli, pleased to meet ya," Angie said, with an accent strong enough to give Steve a sudden pang of homesickness. "I was in the middle of making Howard here some coffee when the diner went on fire, so he asked me along for the ride."
"As one does," Peggy said, voice as dry as the end of oceans. "Did you know there are enough guns in the cellar here to get the next war off to a good start? I'm starting to think that there are flaws in our intelligence-gathering networks."
"Something like that," Howard said. "Some days it's enough to make a guy feel cynical."
"I got some Alka-Seltzers if your friend needs one," Angie said, waggling a large purse in Bucky's direction. "He's looking awful green around the gills."
In fact, Bucky looked like he was barely conscious, his head lolling on his neck. "We need to get him out of here," Steve said firmly. "The rest of it can wait. Can we hitch a ride?"
"Follow me," Howard said, nodding his head back in the direction he'd come from.
Peggy gathered the weaponry, and Steve went to scoop up an unprotesting Bucky in a fireman's carry. Close to, Bucky smelled of leather and stale sweat and overheated skin—Steve was worried that it was a sign of a building fever. He didn't know what to make of the fact that Bucky seemed to be wearing body armour under his clothing, but only on one side. Making sure a sniper had full range of movement, Steve supposed.
They rounded the house to find a plane sitting on the lawn. Steve blinked. Despite Howard's outfit, he'd been expecting a car, not a sleek silver aircraft that looked like it could fit all of them easily.
"How on earth did you land this without us hearing?" Peggy asked, eyes wide.
"I've been tinkering a bit," Howard said with a shrug. "A guy needs a hobby. You want to load Sleeping Beauty here on board, Cap? Then I think it's time we get the hell out of Dodge."
The outside of the plane may have been streamlined, but the inside looked like a cathouse had thrown up in it—red velvet everywhere. "And the man has the nerve to criticise my dress," Peggy said as she climbed onboard after Angie and Howard.
Bucky mumbled something in Russian as Steve set him down into a seat and strapped him in, but otherwise didn't move. How many times had Bucky looked after him when he'd had a fever, Steve wondered—had he ever felt this helpless?
"You'll want to make sure you're strapped in," Howard said, pulling his goggles on as he flicked several switches and fired up the engines. "She's got a little kick to her."
"Ain't that the truth—I left my digestive tract somewhere over the Atlantic," Angie confirmed as she buckled herself into her seat.
"Okay kiddos, off we go," Howard said as the plane shuddered and lurched forward. "I hear the south of France is nice this time of year."
The plane really did have a frightening kick of speed as they rattled across the earl's lawn—Steve was forced back against his own seat as surely as if a great hand had been planted in the middle of his chest. Peggy gasped, and Steve reached out to take her hand, but she wasn't scared—her attention had been caught by something outside of the window.
"Good God, three dozen at least," she said, craning her neck as the plane lifted off, skimming across the tops of the beech woods before climbing at a steeper angle. "If that's what the Foreign Office sent our way, I think I'm glad we didn't stick around."
As the plane banked, Steve could see what she meant: men with guns scrambling out of what looked like two police vans, painted black. They were heading for the smoking remains of Carchester Hall, but not one of them so much as glanced upwards at the plane passing overhead.
"So much for that charm offensive of ours," Steve said wryly. As bad as today's newspaper headlines were likely to be, tomorrow's could only be worse. Keeping Bucky from being immediately condemned as a traitor probably meant Steve was going to be labelled one instead. SHIELD would disown them—but hell, if some of Steve's suspicions were right, not if he got around to doing it first.
"Indeed," Peggy said, giving his hand a quick squeeze, "but look at it this way. You've been promising me a honeymoon for almost four years and now you're taking me on the lam. That's almost the same thing, very romantic." There were dark circles under her eyes, the bruises on her face had darkened into something shocking, but she was smiling at him and Steve had been depending on that warmth for years now.
He let out a shaky breath and looked over his shoulder at Bucky, who now seemed to be asleep, eyes moving rapidly beneath their lids. "I don't know how we did it, but we messed up somehow, Peg."
"Maybe," Peggy said, gripping his hand tighter, "but we'll figure it out. We always do", as Howard pointed them south and east and away.