Peggy’s heels click along the corridor in sharp, short echoes.
She’s been caught in traffic, and if there’s one thing Peggy can’t stand, it’s lateness, in other people but particularly in herself. When she reaches the door of her office, she can already see the outline of Darcy through the swirls of glass, sitting at her desk near the door. It’s slightly ominous, to arrive at work and find Darcy already settled in their office and seemingly at work. Usually it takes Darcy a trip to grab them coffees and ten minutes of gossip about her neighbours before Darcy will sit down and really do her job.
As Peggy pushes the door open and walks in, Darcy looks up from her desk. “You’re late.”
“You can blame the road works for that one, not me.” Peggy strides over to her desk, drops her bag to the floor and picks up the newspaper before she sits down. “You must have been early,” she notes, spotting the coffee cup waiting for her.
“How come I never get to use that excuse?” Darcy asks.
Peggy looks at her. “Your apartment building is two roads away. You don’t drive here.”
Darcy rolls her eyes, lips quirking into a smile. “Okay, yeah, you got me there. But yeah, I actually was early today.” She sighs. “They raided my building again. Ass o’ clock, like they think they’re gonna catch these people while they’re asleep.” Darcy snorts. “The guys above me are on speed like, twenty-four seven. They sell at all hours. Like they even sleep at all.”
“Should I be concerned with how much you know about your drug dealer neighbours and their habits?” Peggy asks. She raises her eyebrows, but she’s smiling. Darcy tends to narrate the tales of her apartment building like it’s a soap opera. Peggy knows she likes knowing what’s going on. It’s what makes her such a good assistant a lot of the time.
“Please. I’m just wondering when they stopped being able to pay the cops off,” Darcy says. “They’re a pain in my ass, loud as hell. This comes as a relief.”
“Well, congratulations,” Peggy mutters as she sits down, turning her attention to the newspaper as she spreads it out on the desk in front of her. The headline makes her pause, hand outstretched towards her coffee cup. “Goodness.”
“Stark Industries is in the news again. New inventions, tension with the government.” Peggy sets down the paper in favour of finally getting to her coffee. “It’s a wonder they even bother to report it these days. Surely it’s not news anymore, I thought there’d always been rumours of tension there.”
Darcy snaps her fingers, sharp as a gunshot. “That’s what I was meant to say! You got a phone call earlier. I told them it was outside business hours and everything, but, like. It was Mr Stark?”
Peggy’s eyebrows shoot up. “Mr Stark called us?”
“Yeah.” Darcy nods. “Well, his assistant, actually, but apparently it’s actually Mr Stark who wants to talk to you.” She raises her eyebrows back at Peggy significantly. “You think this means there’s more going on than the papers are telling us?
Peggy looks back down at the front page. The bold print offers no clues, beginning to blur as her focus slips away from her. “Must be. You may as well call him back now, Darcy, set up a meeting as soon as possible. At least we know he’ll pay a damn sight more than our last few jobs.”
“Good money? Sure thing,” Darcy chirps, and Peggy smiles at her before sighing back down at her desk.
It’s going to be a long day.
Peggy works her way through the final paperwork left over from their last case while they wait for Stark to arrive at the office. It had been an easy enough job, a man searching for his missing girlfriend who turned out to in fact be a pimp hunting for his best earning prostitute; it explained the reluctance to turn to the police first, and Peggy had found the girl in a rat’s hole of an apartment with three friends and a pile of job applications on the broken coffee table. She’d deliberately messed up the case. Peggy does her work and she does it well, but through what she does she’s seen the very worst a city with a bad reputation and a worse reality has to offer.
She doesn’t always play by the rules.
Mr Stark and his assistant arrive in less time than she expects them to. The man is notoriously late to most things, from everything Peggy has read about him, but his assistant sweeps into the office with Mr Stark trailing after her, and from that moment it’s obvious who is really in charge. The assistant introduces herself with a firm handshake as Pepper Potts, and then introduces Mr Stark simply as Tony with a slightly irritated look in his direction.
Peggy decides that whatever the papers say about Tony, she at least likes Pepper Potts, who is efficient and smart and cuts across Tony’s rambling introduction about why they need Peggy’s help.
“The problem is,” Pepper says, “things are going missing, and we don’t know who we can trust.” She nods down at the paper still on Peggy’s desk. “As I’m sure you’ve heard, we’ve been involved in a lot of… conflict of interests with the government recently.”
“They just wanna fuckin’ nuke everything,” Tony mutters. He’s slumped in the chair in the corner of the room, usually reserved for a client’s relative or concerned friend. Pepper is running the show.
Pepper shoots him a sharp look and continues. “We’ve had problems with rival companies, underground businesses before – everyone wants to get their hands on a Stark design before it’s patented. They can bring in big power and money. But now that there’s the chance the government has sent someone in as well, something official…”
“You don’t know who you can trust,” Peggy finishes. Pepper nods briskly.
“Trust no one,” Tony intones from the corner. His voice is low and melodramatic, and Peggy makes the decision to follow Pepper’s lead and leave him to it. She glances at Darcy in anticipation of Darcy’s amusement, and Darcy manages to twist her laugh into something of a cough.
“Have you been to the police yet?”
“No. We will, it would be strange if we didn’t, would probably tip off whoever’s infiltrated us that we suspect more than usual might be going on. But if the government does have a hand in this, then, well...”
“They’ve got a hand in the police as well.”
Pepper nods as Tony makes a rude sound. “We’ve heard of your reputation, Miss Carter. You come to us highly recommended. Having links with the police and some of the… shadier businesses in town seemed ideal for getting the information we need.”
Peggy opens a drawer of her desk, shifts a few papers around and pulls out a notebook. She looks intently at Pepper, pen poised above the page. “You need to know who to cut out of your inner circles?”
Tony answers before Pepper can. His expression is a lot more intent and focused than Peggy ever sees it in blurry black and white tabloid shots. “And we need to know why..”
“Right. Well then.” Peggy uncaps the pen. “Tell me all you know.”
Bucky Barnes is relishing his first cigarette of the day, leaning out of the fire door of the ground floor. He gets it lit, hunched over against the wind, and has just taken his first drag when he hears footsteps approaching behind him. He sighs without turning around, a long stream of smoke snatched away in the wind.
“Emergency meeting, Barnes,” Sergeant Coulson says.
Bucky twists to face him, looking pained. “Five minutes,” he says, raising his cigarette.
“This door isn’t even supposed to be open, you know.” Coulson stares at him for a long moment and then sighs. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Bucky finishes his cigarette fast enough to make his throat burn, his enjoyment significantly cut down. He brushes flecks of ash from his uniform and steps back inside, closing the fire exit as gently as he can behind him. By the time he walks into the debriefing room, everyone else is already sitting around the table, watching him enter. Bucky heads over to Steve and drops down into the spare chair waiting for him, ignoring the pointed look Steve gives him.
“You smell now,” Steve whispers, wrinkling his nose in Bucky’s direction. Bucky just smiles.
“Gentlemen,” Coulson says with a glance in their direction. “Ladies,” he adds, nodding in the direction of Sergeant Hill. “Can we get down to business now?”
Bucky makes a show of settling back in his chair and then says, “Sure.” He does it mostly because of the way Steve’s mouth twitches, like Steve wants to smile but refuses to laugh so openly at authority. Bucky’s been drawing that twitch out of him ever since they were kids, back in the classroom, out on the training field.
Coulson ignores him. “We’ve got a new case, high priority, low profile. Corporate leaks over at Stark Industries.”
“Again?” Sergeant Hill asks, her eyebrows raised.
“This is worse than anything we’ve looked into before. According to the call from Stark’s assistant, weapon designs and plans have gone missing. Serious weapons.”
Steve sits up a little straighter in his chair, frowning. “What kind of serious?”
“The kind of serious we don’t want in the wrong hands,” Coulson says evasively. Bucky suspects he doesn’t know the specifics himself, although Coulson gives off the impression of knowing every detail of everything. “Rogers, Barnes. I’m sending you two over to Stark Industries to meet with Stark and find out as much as you can from the man himself. Everyone else, I want background checks on all Stark Industries staff employed in the last… six months. A year if nothing looks out of line at first. Look at everyone from the people who work directly beneath Stark to kitchen staff. Let’s see what we can uncover.”
“Why us, sir?” Steve asks politely as the sound of chairs scraping back across the floor fills the room. Bucky’s wondering the same thing. He and Steve have been stuck on desk duty since the incident at the movie theatre a month ago, where they’d managed to make the disturbance they’d been called out to deal with even worse, but Bucky had been planning on keeping his mouth shut about it, enjoying the opportunity to get out on the streets again.
“You’ve never met Stark before, have you?” Coulson asks. They both shake their heads, and he smiles wryly at them. It’s an expression that never looks quite at home on his face. “He’ll eat you both up. Off you go.”
Coulson, for once, turns out to only be half right. Stark takes one long look at Steve and drops the harassed tone in his voice, instead inviting them both to take a seat in his office, settling behind his desk, resting his hands in front of him and dragging his eyes away from Steve with a noticeable effort.
“Did you want anything to drink, officers? Pepper, can we sort the officers out with a drink? Some coffee – you guys like coffee, right, that’s a cop thing? Anything?”
Pepper is apparently Tony’s assistant, a redheaded woman who gives Tony a glare that Bucky feels right in his balls. “Tony.”
“It’s fine,” Steve interrupts. “We’re fine. Thank you, though.”
“Right. Okay. Sure, yeah. So you’re here to help me catch a thief, huh?”
Steve nods. “That’s what we’re hoping to do.” He fishes in his pocket for a notebook, and Bucky does the same even though Steve’s notes are always neater and more cohesive than his own. “If you could just tell us everything from the very beginning?”
Starting from the beginning appears to be something Tony Stark struggles with. He interrupts the flow of his own story in a way Bucky has never witnessed before, and it’s worth putting up with the significant looks Tony keeps sending in Steve’s direction for the way his inability to get right to the point is so obviously irritating Steve. They get the sum of it, at last, with help from Pepper: Tony has decided to take Stark Industries in a new, less destructive to the world at large direction, and the government, the Department of Defence in particular, is not happy with this, and now the designs to the last weapon he’d been designing, along with a couple of volatile prototypes, are missing.
“I mean,” Tony finishes, “it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, does it? One day they’re all like, but you really are an asset Mr Stark, please do reconsider, and then a few days later, boom, the stuff’s gone. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve had someone in the company the whole goddamn time, you know what they’re like, but this just really crosses a line. Either that or some other company has become surprisingly competent.” There’s a sceptical look on his face. “They’ve never managed before, though, so I’m not sure I’m buying it.”
“So you’re suggesting the government has a hand in this?” Bucky asks.
Tony shrugs. “The government, the CIA, the FBI, what do I know? Why, does that make it a problem for you?”
He meets Bucky’s eyes, and Bucky doesn’t blink away from the intensity of his stare. Bucky knows exactly what Tony is talking about. The police investigate petty crimes, gangs that cause trouble more often than they manage to be useful. They don’t go after the government when half the cops in town are on their payroll behind closed doors.
Tony’s lucky he got Coulson on the line when he called.
“Of course it’s not a problem,” Steve cuts in smoothly, and Bucky breaks off the staring contest with Tony to glance across at him. Steve’s jaw is a tight, tense line, and Bucky knows from just a glance that Steve’s going to be taking a personal interest in this case. Not because it has anything to do with him personally, and not in the same way Tony seems to have taken a particular interest in Steve, but because if there’s anything Steve wants more than to help people, it’s to take down the corrupt guys at the top while he does it. “This is great information, Mr Stark. We’ll be in touch as soon as we get any developments in the case, you’ve given us a good starting point to go from.”
“Anything I can do to help, officer,” Tony drawls, all charm again. As Bucky stands, he catches Pepper rolling her eyes in Tony’s direction. He shares a quick smile with her. He likes this woman, even if there’s something about Tony Stark himself that’s rubbing Bucky up the wrong way.
They almost get lost on their way out of the building, a maze of twisted corridors and identical-looking offices. As they get outside, a faint drizzle in the air, clouds looming, Bucky nudges Steve in the side. “Jesus,” he says, “you’re pretty in there with the rich billionaire, pal.”
Steve looks blank, blinking at him. Bucky’s clearly managed to startle him from his thoughts about the case already. “What?”
Bucky shakes his head. “I have no idea how you ever get laid,” he says, although he does, he knows all about it – Steve back in college, tipsy and halfway in love within a night. Bucky watched it happen. He’ll probably watch it all repeat itself someday. “He was tryin’ to get you into bed with his eyes.”
Steve laughs. “He was just worried about his company, Bucky. He must be going through a lot. We’re figures of safety and authority.”
Bucky shakes his head again. He’ll never understand how Steve can be so clueless when it comes to the effect he has on the people around him. Steve makes people trust him implicitly, and he never has any idea that it’s not a normal reaction to get. Bucky knows better than anyone. “Come on,” he says, fishing the car keys out of his pocket. “Let’s go find out what else Coulson knows.”
“Yeah,” Darcy is saying, “yeah, yeah, Tony Stark!” Peggy shoots her a glare across the office and Darcy shrugs, which is the Darcy equivalent of looking sheepish. “Anyway, I gotta go, but it’s pretty cool, right? Yeah. See you later, Jane.”
“Darcy,” Peggy says. She waits until Darcy has stashed her phone back in her pocket, out of sight behind her desk. “Do the words private investigations mean nothing to you?”
Darcy shrugs. “It’s only Jane. You know Jane. You’ve met Jane, she helped out with that thing with the student, helped us access the school files.”
Peggy has met Jane, and she’s reasonably certain that she’s nothing to worry about. The Stark case is a high profile one, though, and it’s not something she’s ready to be associated with quite yet. There’s no point in investigating when people know to expect you.
“So where are we starting?” Darcy asks brightly.
Peggy hesitates. She’s spent the last couple of hours drawing up and organising notes, shifting her other work around so she can make this her top priority. She makes no secret about it – money comes first, and Tony Stark is paying her more than most of her other clients combined. She’s had Darcy making calls all morning, rearranging meetings and deadlines. “I think,” she begins, “we’re best off talking to Steve. If Stark has gone to the police, we should know what they know.” She gathers up all her papers, shuffles them together into a neat pile. “No point in two people doing the same work twice.”
Darcy stands, as eager as she ever looks, already putting on her coat. “Seeing Steve. Okay!”
Peggy shakes her head, smiling. “Keep it professional, Lewis.”
Darcy pulls a brightly coloured knitted hat onto her head and salutes Peggy as Peggy stands and grabs her keys. “Yes, ma’am.”
Peggy can’t stride right into the police station without drawing unwanted attention. Instead, she has Darcy text Steve, and he and his partner meet them at a small, nondescript café a couple of blocks away. It’s mostly empty bar a few college students with laptops and headphones. Peggy takes stock of it automatically, evaluating the privacy level at the same time she’s scanning the menu. Darcy orders an obnoxiously expensive coffee because she knows Steve always pays, and Peggy rolls her eyes as Steve digs in his pocket for his wallet without giving it a second thought. Bucky watches with a slight smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“He’s a gent, this one, huh?” he says as they sit down, and Steve shrugs the comment off, the faintest hint of pink in his cheeks.
Peggy pushes forward, cutting through their song and dance. “Listen, Steve, what do you know about Tony Stark?”
She can tell by the way they glance at each other that she’s picked the right path, going to them first, and next to her, Darcy mutters, “Jackpot,” under her breath. Peggy waits for their silent conversation to be over, all raised eyebrows and tiny, tell-tale muscle tics. She sips at her coffee. It’s bitter, not quite sweet enough, and she leaves a bright lipstick print on the cheap white porcelain as she sets it back onto the table and raises her eyebrows expectantly.
“It’s funny you should ask,” Bucky says. “We got sent to interview him just yesterday.”
“Why do you ask?” Steve looks intently at Peggy. She’s known him for years now. She’s used to him, but there’s something about that stare coupled with the uniform that still takes her breath away for a moment. Peggy has her own opinions on the local police force, but Steve is quite something. He always has been. In another world, Peggy thinks, sometimes, another lifetime… “He didn’t—” Steve sighs. “He came to see you, didn’t he?”
She nods. “Before he went to you, actually. He said something about not quite trusting the legal system.”
Bucky snorts, and Steve’s lips tighten into a thin line for a moment. “Yeah, he said as much to us,” Steve admits.
“Duh,” Darcy mutters, rolling her eyes. Peggy ignores her, tries not to acknowledge the amused look on Bucky’s face.
“Do you think he’s right with his suspicions?”
“Do I think the government’s involved?” Peggy asks. She sighs. “Not a clue. It sounds likely, but then the most likely suspicion is rarely the one that proves to be right, is it? You boys know that as well as I do. Is that the road you’ll be taking?”
Steve shakes his head. “Doubtful. Coulson’s a decent guy, but he’s got to keep people happy, and no one’s ever too happy about being investigated. We’re looking into his recent employees at the moment, seeing if anyone looks out of place or suspect. Then business rivals, I think. The fact this happened before he got any patents going…”
“It’d be a smart move on their part,” Peggy says. “Okay. I just wanted to check, if it’s you two on the case I don’t want to end up doing the work twice when I know I can trust you.”
Steve smiles warmly at her. “Of course.”
The smile almost takes her off guard in the same way his piercing stare had done. Sometimes Peggy thinks it’s a miracle anyone ever took Steve away from his old duties trying to persuade the girls out there to stay off the streets – a smile and reassurance from Steve Rogers would often work out to be more persuasive than the threat of a pimp’s cajoling offers. Peggy saw it happen more than once, Steve helping another girl to safety while she was lurking in the shadows working another job.
“Well, officers,” she says, standing up. Darcy makes a noise of protest, gulping hastily at her coffee, but there’s work to be done. It’s a complicated case, well-organised and thought through, and the longer they spend talking, the fewer trails will be left open to them. Someone will be erasing them even now, disguising their tracks and covering up any leads. “It’s been a pleasure, as always. You will give me a call if anything else comes up, won’t you?”
“A pleasure,” Darcy echoes, reluctantly leaving the dregs of her coffee. The word sounds a lot different when she says it than when Peggy does, and as Peggy does up the belt on her trench coat, she can spot Darcy’s smirk out of the corner of her eye.
“We’re always happy to help,” Steve says, and Peggy knows that he means it, too. It’s a strange sentiment for a cop in a town like this. She doesn’t think she’ll ever tire of the earnest thread to his voice. From the look Bucky slides in his direction across the table, she doesn’t think she’s the only one, either, but that’s a matter she’s not about to touch.
Outside, the sky is overcast despite still being mid-afternoon, the dull light making the streets drearier than usual. The sidewalk is mostly empty, not too many people willing to brave the risk of rain. Peggy tucks the collar of her coat up against the wind and falls into step with Darcy, who says, “I still can’t believe you’ve never hit that.”
“Steve?” Peggy asks.
Darcy nods. “Yeah. I mean, what a waste. There’s chemistry there, you know.”
“Steve Rogers is a puppy,” Peggy says. She sticks her arm out in front her, snaps her fingers sharply and hails a cab for them. The sky is getting darker. She doesn’t want to risk getting caught in a downpour. “Back to base.”
The office is small, and so Peggy has turned the back wall of it into a noticeboard to keep as much space free for their two small desks and a couple of filing cabinets as possible. She shrugs off her coat, pins TONY STARK in the middle of the open space, and scribbles on a few more scraps of paper. She pins FBI and CIA off to the side.
Darcy is sitting on her desk, feet swinging in the air. She says, “So how do we even go about investigating the guys in charge? Isn’t it kind of their job to keep their secret identities and stuff, like, secret?”
It’s a good point. This is far beyond most of the other jobs Peggy has taken on, more complex than finding missing runaways or busting drug rings with sneaks who can’t keep a secret at the centre of them. It’s a far cry from sussing out a cheating spouse. Peggy is a good investigator because she’s organised and sharp and she has contacts, but even her phonebook doesn’t stretch as far as officials who will be willing to tell her state secrets.
“Nothing is ever a complete secret.” She steps back, surveying the wall through narrowed eyes. It tells her nothing new; no links immediately jump out at her. She needs more information before she can start chasing one specific direction. “Somewhere, someone will know something.”
Darcy grins. “Well I’m glad we’ve cleared that one up.” She hops off the desk, shoes squeaking on the floor. The office was unfurnished and uncarpeted when Peggy first started renting it, and she thinks at this point she’ll never get around to sorting that out. It’s hardly a priority. “So what is the plan then?”
Peggy heads back over to her desk. She rummages around in a drawer and pulls out a tattered address book, ignoring Darcy’s inevitable comment about how she should really put that stuff onto a computer and catch up with the real world one of these days. “Someone will know something,” she repeats.
“I’ll man this phone line then, shall I?” Darcy asks. She looks a little put out. Peggy thinks that sometimes Darcy forgets that the life of a private investigator is a lot of note-taking and questioning and not the action-packed lifestyle it seems when it’s played out on the big screen. The life of an assistant is even less glamorous, but Darcy’s only been working for her for a few months, and while Peggy thinks that the dream of excitement and intrigue is what attracted Darcy, she’s a good girl to work with anyway. She’s got a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour, both of which are things Peggy appreciates in the people she surrounds herself with.
“That’d be lovely,” Peggy says, pulling her phone out of her bag and keying in a number.
“Are you seriously – you know you’ve got a contacts list on that thing, right?” Darcy is looking at Peggy with her mouth hanging open, seeming genuinely a little shocked by what she’s witnessing.
Peggy adopts Darcy’s tone, voice lilting up at the end of the sentence. “You know phones can be stolen and searched through, right?” She presses the call button, tapping her red nails on the surface of the desk as she listens to the dialling tone. People tend to take a while to pick up when she calls. She tilts the phone away from her mouth. “And a cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss, if you don’t mind.”
Darcy attempts a fairly terrible approximation of Peggy’s accent. “A cup of tea, if you don’t mind.”
Peggy waves her off, turning away from her so she doesn’t laugh as someone finally picks up the phone. “Natasha,” she says quickly, “Peggy Carter here. Listen, you couldn’t do me a favour, could you?”
“This isn’t any better than goddamn desk duty,” Bucky says, shifting in his seat for what feels like the hundredth time that minute. His legs are cramping up and his back is getting stiff, and he thinks that whoever designed this car did a piss-poor job of making it suitable for sitting in for longer than an hour or so. “Jesus. What’ve we done to make Coulson hate us?”
Steve just smiles at Bucky. He seems perfectly comfortable, which Bucky can’t understand, because Steve is a damn sight bigger than him, not exactly designed for sitting in small cars for long stretches. “He doesn’t hate us.”
“You wanna bet? He could’ve sent anyone out here to do this. He could’ve set up a camera to do this.”
“Cameras don’t notice things like people do,” Steve says. “If there’s anyone acting suspicious, we’ll notice them.”
“If you’re stealing from your boss you’re not gonna be stupid enough to lurk around the place looking suspicious,” Bucky mumbles. “What, are they gonna be coming back in the middle of the night for more?”
He yawns widely. He’s in a bad mood, and he shouldn’t be taking it out on Steve, but Steve is used to weathering any mood or fit of surliness that might briefly settle down over Bucky by now. Normally it’s something about work getting to him, or a news story that hits him right in the soft space his childhood left somewhere inside of him, something he never managed to protect with the sharp sarcasm he falls back on in most situations. Tonight, he’s not sure what it is. They’ve landed a bad role in this investigation, down from interviews to covert surveillance in an unmarked car with the cold bite of night closing in around them, but no matter what he says, Bucky would still take this over paperwork any day. The job’s not a problem. It just feels like it is. There’s been something nagging and unsettled in the pit of his stomach ever since they left Stark’s offices.
He wriggles around some more, digs into his pocket for his cigarettes. Steve elbows him sharply. “What?”
“You can’t smoke in the car.” Steve doesn’t even look at him as he says it, and Bucky’s mouth quirks up even though he’s jonesing pretty bad for a smoke by now, hours gone and an itch under his skin that probably has as much to do with sitting still as it does with real craving. Steve’s got a sixth sense for when Bucky’s about to do something he disapproves of. To this day he’s the one person in the world who manages to make Bucky feel the first sparks of guilt.
“Alright, Rogers.” Bucky tips him a salute, lazy and a little mocking, and Steve’s still smiling as he shakes his head.
“So what’s up?”
“What do you mean?”
Steve gives Bucky a look that just a little too blue-eyed and earnest to be the intimidating stare he knows Steve wishes it was. “Something’s up, you’re all.” He waves a hand at Bucky. “You know, you.”
“Being me means something’s up?”
“Shut up.” Steve’s elbow digs into his side again, gentler this time. “Don’t be a jerk, come on, what’s up?”
Bucky huffs out a heavy sigh. “Nothin’.” He shrugs. “I don’t know, just one of those shitty moods, you know?”
“Trouble with the ladies?” Steve asks. There’s a note of sympathy in his voice, and Bucky is almost tempted to say yes just to listen to Steve try and really empathise. Steve never has trouble with the ladies. Ladies have trouble with Steve, sometimes, but it’s not the same.
Bucky flashes Steve a smirk. “You know I never have trouble with the ladies, pal. When have I had time recently to go and meet any, anyway?”
Steve nods. “So your trouble is a lack of the ladies?”
“Steve.” Bucky shakes his head, grinning. “Stop saying ladies. Nothing’s wrong, okay? I just got out the wrong side of the bed this morning or something. Stop worrying. You’re mothering again.”
Steve gives him a rueful smile. “I don’t mother.”
“You mother more than Coulson does, at least his is like, professional concern. It’s just one of your instincts.”
“I just wanna look out for you, Bucky.”
Bucky knows that – it’s one of those things he wouldn’t change for the world, his best friend, earnest to a fault. He claps Steve on the arm, squeezes lightly. “And that’s where your problem is, buddy.” He winks to show he’s kidding around. “That’s why you mother. Come on, can we get outta here yet? I’m starved, and I need a smoke.”
“It’s not mothering.” Steve checks the clock, of course, before he nods, even though Bucky knows he must be just as eager to get home as he is and it’s getting too dark now to see much anyway. “Yeah, we’re not getting anything done here. I guess we’re done for the day.”
“We are,” he says decisively. “Even you can’t patrol the streets forever.”
“Alright, alright.” Steve straightens up and turns the keys in the ignition. After so many hours of sitting in the quiet of a stationary car, the noise of the engine seems unusually loud, and Bucky zones out as they pull away, thinking about what food they might have left in the fridge back home. He suspects it’s going to be another take-out night, which is more than fine by him. He barely notices the drive back, almost surprised when they pull up.
Steve stifles a yawn as he kills the engine, jaw tightening tellingly, and Bucky sees a trace of the boy he knew years back, skinny and short and refusing to admit when he was getting tired more easily than anyone else.
“C’mon, kid,” Bucky says as they head into their apartment building, taking the stairs because the elevator is broken again, “let’s get you home.”
She walks through the gloomy streets with her hands deep in her pockets, head down. The dagger she keeps strapped to her ankle is a comforting weight against her leg, shifting a little with each step she takes. You can never be too careful on this side of town when the sun dips below the horizon and the streetlamps flicker, spilling down more shadow than light.
Peggy’s never had to use it yet, but there’s always a first time for everything. She hopes it won’t be tonight. She quickens her pace, and it’s not quite relief, but she’s pleased as the bar looms into view and she spots a familiar figure standing outside of the doorway, the cherry-red glow of a cigarette lighting her face with a quick orange flare. Peggy nods as she approaches and spots the tell-tale signs of recognition, black-clad tense lines and angles relaxing as Peggy gets close enough to the lights of the bar.
“Natasha,” Peggy says quietly in greeting. She shouldn’t be in this part of town and talking to this woman, and a couple of men are standing together a few feet away, talking in low murmurs. “Thanks for meeting me.”
Natasha nods. “Peggy Carter.” She looks Peggy up and down and raises an eyebrow at her behind a thin stream of smoke. “Will I ever see you when you don’t need one of your favours?”
Peggy smiles tightly, avoiding the urge to look across to the men to check for any signs of recognition at her name. No use drawing more attention to her if it does mean something to them. “Only time will tell.”
Natasha drops the filter of her cigarette to the ground, crushing it with a twist of the heel of her boot. “Come on. Barton’s inside, he’ll buy us a round if we ask nicely.”
Peggy has yet to see Natasha ask anyone nicely for anything, but she supposes informing Barton that it’s his round with a dangerous smile is nice for Natasha, at any rate. She doesn’t quite know how things work between the two of them anyway. Barton gives her the same look he always does when they run into each other like this, a mild mixture of suspicion and curiosity, but he gets up and heads over to the bar as Peggy takes the seat opposite Natasha.
The bar is a dive, sticky floor and dull lighting, but it’s busy and the buzz of talk and music means there’s little risk of being overheard.
Barton comes back with vodka, sharp on the tongue and burning on the way down. Peggy sticks to small sips, watching with admiration as Natasha takes a gulp like she’s drinking water and then fixes Peggy with an expectant look.
Peggy decides there’s no reason to beat around the bush. It’s clear that she’s here for a reason, after all. “Have you heard anything about Stark Industries lately?”
Barton shares a look with Natasha and shoots Peggy a lazy grin. “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that, I’m afraid. There’s a lot of buzz about Stark Industries round these parts. There always is.” He gestures back to the bar with a jerk of his head. “Half the people in here are probably employed by Stark Industries. Or hope they still will be by the morning. Stark’s break away from the weapon’s industry has caused a lot of worry, you know.”
It’s gossip, mostly, but Peggy makes a mental note of it all the same. It’s unlikely something of this scale could have been organised by a disgruntled former employee, but still it’s worth being aware of what else is going on.
“Has there been a lot of talk about Stark moving away from producing weapons?”
Natasha raises her eyebrows. “From who?”
Peggy shrugs, an elegant roll of her shoulders that leaves her feeling a little out of place. No matter where she is, she can never bring herself to shake the good posture drummed into her when she was younger, and in places like this it makes her stand out a little too much for comfort. “Rival businesses, perhaps? Any…” She pauses. She’s never quite sure how to phrase these questions. She’s reluctant to say anything that might cause offense, although she knows only too well by now that Natasha and Barton would be the first to admit they deal with dubious people of dubious morals. “Gangs that might be in search of a new edge?” She looks from Natasha to Barton. “Your, ah, contacts?” It’s a badly kept secret between those in the know that Barton is cosy with someone high up, tied in with the government liaison agencies.
“Me. I’m asking.” Peggy takes another demure sip, swallowing quickly to hold back the instinctive wince. “I’m asking on behalf of a client with a vested interest.”
“Is it Stark?” Barton asks, and Peggy can’t keep her eyebrows from shooting up towards her hairline in surprise. Barton looks at Natasha. “He did say to me he wouldn’t be surprised if Stark had gone to someone else.”
Peggy suspects this is picking up on the thread of a conversation she wasn’t present for, won’t be privy to. “What makes you say that?” she asks. It’s as good as an admission around people as sharp as these two, but it means Peggy has a plausible deniability it if it ever comes back to haunt her.
Barton smirks. “Contacts,” he says. “There’s a lot of ill feeling toward Stark on all sides, I’m not sure how much help you’re hoping we can be.”
Peggy spreads her hands out across the table top. “Any help. No expectations here, just a bit of hope you might be able to help me narrow down a decent starting point.”
“We’re talking about his missing designs, aren’t we?” Natasha cuts in bluntly.
“Designs.” Peggy nods. “Prototype parts.”
“Rule out any street gangs,” Natasha says. “Too high tech for them, they’ve got guns that work well enough for everything they want to do.”
“I thought as much, unless it was political. Unless they have any links with Stark’s rivals? I did wonder if that was anything you might know about.”
Natasha smiles, a faint wisp of an expression that makes Peggy think that maybe she’s managed to impress her with that line of thought. “Not unless they’re acting as hired muscle. We’ve not heard rumour to suggest it’s anything other than a purely corporate matter.”
“Or the government,” Peggy says. “Stark thinks there’s a high chance they’re behind the whole thing, considering it went missing around the same time he decided he didn’t want to be their weapons boy anymore.”
Natasha looks doubtful, and Barton shakes his head. “They wouldn’t be this subtle with it. They’ve got all their, you know, acts, defence and secrecy, they’d storm right in and seize something if they wanted it that badly.”
Peggy nods slowly, thinking this over. It’s valid reasoning and the most likely line of action anyone truly official would take, but there’s something niggling at her not to dismiss the idea entirely. Stark Industries is one of the biggest companies in the country – in the world, in fact – and she suspects it wouldn’t be quite so easy for even the secret services to swoop in and take what they wanted right from under his nose. Barton makes a good point, but he hasn’t considered the diplomacy aspect of it all.
“Anyway,” Barton continues, standing up, his chair legs scraping loudly across the floor. “Duty calls.” He winks at Natasha, who doesn’t bat an eyelid in return. Peggy wonders what kind of duty it is that’s calling Barton away with the night growing so late, and she decides she’s probably better off not knowing. It’s not a decision she settles on often in her line of work, but there’s something in his expression that tells her it’s probably not relevant, and she almost certainly does not want to pry. There are some things even she’ll steer clear of. She watches out of the corner of her eye until the door swings shut behind him.
Natasha eyes her expectantly. “Another drink?”
Peggy smiles, looking down. Her glass is still half full, but there’s a hint of a challenge lurking in the brightness of Natasha’s eyes, and Peggy is never one to back down. Natasha knows this about her only too well. Peggy is perfectly aware it’s information that might be used to Natasha’s advantage; it just so happens that she’s also perfectly okay with that fact. She knocks back a large gulp of her vodka, most of what’s left in one go, and it makes her blink a few times against suddenly watering eyes, but she keeps her voice smooth and calm as she says, “You’ve twisted my arm, Miss Romanoff.”
Natasha’s grin puts Peggy in mind of a shark. It sends a low curl of excitement through her stomach; it’s been too long since she got to spend any time with Natasha that wasn’t all business. “Cheers.”
Bucky has a bad habit of waking up late. He has a temperamental alarm clock that he still hasn’t gotten around to replacing and a job that keeps him working late into the night. It’s an inevitable conclusion, and he should be more used to it than he is, waking up with a start to the sound of Steve shouting his name from outside his door, Steve’s fist hammering at the wood.
“What,” he croaks uselessly. He pushes himself up into a sitting position, rubbing at his eyes as a huge yawn wracks through him. “Jesus. Shit.”
“Get up, Barnes!”
“I’m up, Rogers,” Bucky calls, sighing to himself as his brain shifts into gear and he realises that it’s true in more ways than one. He’s already running too goddamn late to deal with morning wood in any of the good ways, and he shuffles out toward the bathroom with his shoulders hunched over to hide it, even though Steve’s in the kitchen, head in the fridge, no doubt about to prepare his healthy start to the day in the form of a nutritious breakfast. Bucky shakes his head to himself as he flicks the lock shut behind him. If he didn’t live with him, he probably wouldn’t believe Steve was for real. It’s not the first time this thought has occurred to him.
He squints at his reflection in the mirror as he takes a piss. His stubble is a dark shadow across his jaw and above his lip, but there’s no time to shave either, and he feels scruffy and dishevelled even with his uniform on and neatly buttoned up, especially standing next to Steve.
Steve bumps Bucky’s side with his hip. “I made you coffee.”
Bucky can smell it; it’s what led him into the kitchen with such purpose. “You’re a fucking rock star, pal,” he says as Steve hands him the mug, steaming hot and perfect. He drops his forehead to Steve’s shoulder for a moment. “This job is gonna kill me, you know.”
Steve grins. “Don’t pretend you don’t love it,” he says, and Bucky’s got no retort for that one, because he does love it. Not because of the job itself most days, and not even because he’s like Steve and has an innate yearning in him to help as many people as he can. He loves it because he gets to work with Steve and watch as everyone else sees the very best of him, and because it gives him a weapon, and the way the uniform makes a great charm tactic when he’s out trying to talk to the ladies doesn’t hurt.
Bucky inhales the scent of his coffee and drinks deeply, ignoring the slight burn at the tip of his tongue.
He’s expecting for Coulson to throw them back out on the streets for more surveillance when they arrive at the precinct half an hour later. It’s really not worth it; the most suspicious thing they spotted on their last shift was what looked like a lover’s tiff between a couple of members of staff. They’d narrated it in the car, Bucky playing the woman and pitching his voice up high, Steve’s shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter.
It comes as a surprise when Coulson points in the direction of his meeting room as soon as they walk through the door and says, “Rogers. Barnes. I need you two in there, now.” Bucky knows it’s stupid, but for some reason the short, no-nonsense tone of Coulson’s voice takes him right back to being at school every single time, being sent out of the classroom while Steve blinked his big blue eyes and got away with being just as involved as Bucky in whatever scheme was getting them into trouble.
Just like at school, he sits by Steve’s side in the meeting room. Bucky wonders about it sometimes, the way they’ve managed to stay so close for all this time, in ways no one else he knows has, but they had a different kind of childhood to most of the kids they knew. It makes sense. They have each other instead of family. That’s how it is.
He’s clearly not getting enough sleep lately. It’s not just making him risk showing up late; it’s turning him sentimental as shit. He pulls himself back to the present just as Coulson drops a couple of files at the head of the table.
“We’ve got leads on the Stark case,” he says, and Bucky feels it as the whole room seems to sit up a little straighter. Coulson smiles wryly. “And ironically, we flagged up a couple of people in his security area.”
Bucky raises his eyebrows and lets out a low whistle. “That’s one poor recruitment team he’s got.”
Coulson ignores him and begins to pass the files around the table for everyone to get a good look at. “As you can see, these two joined Stark Industries at the same time, just a couple of weeks before Stark came to us to report the theft.”
“Long enough for them to integrate themselves into the company, gain some trust,” Sergeant Hill mutters, scanning over the files.
“That’s right. They initially fell within our pool of suspicious workers simply because of when they started working for the company, but it was Rogers and Barnes who really flagged them up for us.” Bucky looks up at Coulson in surprise at this statement. Coulson nods in his direction. “A couple seen acting unusually a few times around the Stark building fitting this description – they’re fairly distinctive.”
Bucky takes the files as they reach him and flicks through them, more interested in the photos than any of the notes at this point. It’s the same couple he and Steve had narrated. He guesses it was Steve who must have reported them as acting suspicious; Bucky had written it off as a workplace affair going badly. He looks at the names. “Thor? Sif? Where they from with names like that?”
“They live together,” Coulson continues, flat-out ignoring him. “We’ve looked over some CCTV, and we have evidence that they’ve spent time at a lot of the haunts of some of the less savoury businessmen of our city. I think we need to bring them in, see what we can find out. It could be nothing, but it could be exactly what we’ve been looking for. Barnes, Rogers, you meet them as they finish work. Take the unmarked car. I don’t want a fuss, head over there and set up surveillance again to make sure they don’t slip out early. Now, the rest of you…”
“Seems a bit of a long shot,” Bucky mutters to Steve as they stand and file out of the room, “don’t you think? Didn’t look that suspect to me. Looked like they were having a fight about the family coming to visit or something.”
Steve shrugs. “It’s still worth looking into. We don’t have anything else to go on yet though, do we? And they were somewhere they shouldn’t have been.”
“Yeah, but more surveillance, Jesus,” Bucky sighs, and Steve laughs.
Steve is more laid back this time, now that they know who it is they’re looking out for. He doesn’t say anything when Bucky kicks off his boots and rests his feet up on the dashboard, and he pulls out a sketchbook to pass the time with. Bucky likes watching Steve draw. It’s interesting, like catching a glimpse of a whole other world he’ll never really witness. Steve is somewhere else, pencil delicate in his fingers like it’s an extension of him. He doesn’t realise how much time is ticking away until Steve glances up and gives Bucky a look that’s unsettlingly close to the expression Steve wears when he’s drank the last of the coffee, regardless of the fact that Bucky does it nine times out of ten.
“Sorry, I guess this is kinda dull,” he says.
It jolts Bucky out of his own daze, coming back to himself to find he’s already looking at Steve. “Well it still beats paperwork. What are you drawing?” he asks, like he hasn’t spent the last hour or so watching Steve sketch out the skyline as it stretches up in front of them through the windshield.
Steve shrugs. “Nothing much. Nothing great.”
Bucky scoffs. “It’s you, Steve, of course it’s gonna be great. You know I’m still waiting for the day where they drag you away to do ID sketches. You know you’re too modest.”
“I wouldn’t want that job anyway, shut up,” Steve says, a reluctant smile struggling onto his face, cheeks flushed. Bucky wonders how Steve would react to a real compliment, someone laying it out for him, everything he somehow manages not to acknowledge.
“You shut up.”
Bucky laughs. “Does make the day drag on a bit though, this.” He arches his back in his seat to stretch his legs out as best he can, awkward and twisted. He looks back at Steve just as Steve glances back down at his sketchbook. “Hey, I’ve got an idea.”
Steve looks wary. “What kind of idea? We are on duty, remember.”
“It’s a totally legal idea,” Bucky says, sending a pout in Steve’s direction. “I’m hurt, Rogers, that you would even think to insinuate--”
“Come on then, what’s the big idea?” Steve interrupts.
Bucky nods down at the sketchpad, resting loosely in Steve’s big hands. “Pictionary.”
They pass it back and forth between them, mocking each other’s drawing attempts in quiet, content companionship as the sun begins to dip down behind the horizon, the sky bleeding orange in through the windows.
“Good morning,” Natasha says, and Peggy stretches languidly, ignoring the squeaking protest of the mattress in favour of taking in the sight. Between the sheets and the black shirt she’s wearing, the top several buttons left undone to show the curves of her breasts, the black lace of her bra, the underwear that leaves her legs stretching out for miles across the bed, Natasha’s skin glows pale in the watery, early morning sunlight. She looks softer than Peggy is used to seeing her, more vulnerable on the surface somehow than she had ever seemed naked and underneath Peggy the night before.
On the surface, of course, because Natasha’s eyes are as sharp as ever, even first thing in the morning.
“Good morning,” Peggy agrees, and pushes herself up on her elbows to meet Natasha halfway as Natasha leans down over her. Natasha’s hair tickles Peggy’s cheeks and her lips are soft, her breath cool with traces of mint. “What time is it?” She wants to slide her hand up into Natasha’s curls and tug her back down to bed, but Natasha looks as though she’s halfway through getting dressed, and Peggy knows from previous experience with Natasha that she’s not the only one with an increasingly busy schedule.
“Early.” Natasha kisses her again, lingering a little longer, and then sits back up. “But you know how it is.”
Peggy nods. “I do indeed. Duty calls.”
Natasha flashes her a crooked grin. “Something a bit like that, yeah.”
It’s with a soft moan of reluctance that Peggy pushes herself up into a sitting position and gets out of bed. She has no problem with mornings, her body set in its ways, locked in her routine, but it’s harder to get up, somehow, when it’s not her bed and when there’s the warmth of someone else’s body still caught between the sheets. She feels her hair and winces at the tangles her fingers catch on. Her style doesn’t take too easily to one night stands. She pulls a face at herself in the bathroom mirror as she brushes her teeth and splashes her face with water before heading back into Natasha’s room.
Natasha stands behind her as Peggy faces her reflection in Natasha’s full-length mirror and hands her bag over. “Thanks,” Peggy says, eyes on their reflections, taking in the way they look together. She likes it. She always has done. She twists around for one last kiss before she fixes her lipstick. Ten minutes later, she’s as presentable as she can ever be while she’s still in the same clothes from the night before, make up neat and precise, hair tamed and sprayed into place. There’s definitely something to be said for always being prepared.
Darcy is going to take one look at her when she gets into the office and tease her mercilessly for the rest of the day, but that’s a price Peggy is more than okay with.
Peggy’s body aches with a dull, pleasant throb as she leaves Natasha’s apartment and hails a cab. She feels relaxed, refreshed even though, all things taken into account, she’s considerably under rested, and she can feel a smile wrestling its way onto her face as she walks into the office, heels clicking in the same rhythm and cadence as before, a tell-tale signal that she hasn’t changed them.
Darcy isn’t in yet, but even with Peggy sitting behind her desk and reading the paper, perfectly composed, she greets Peggy with a grin and, “Good night last night, was it?”
“That’s neither here nor there,” Peggy retorts. She pauses. “But yes, it was, thank you for asking.”
“You need a purse big enough to keep at least a change of shirt rolled up in,” Darcy tells her. “Little trick I learnt in college. Makes the walk of shame a lot less easy to recognise, you know.”
Peggy smirks at the wink Darcy sends in her direction. “Lovely advice, thanks. I’ll bear that in mind. Now, let’s get to work, shall we?”
“All work and no play.” Darcy rolls her eyes, but she settles down behind her desk with no further argument, sliding her glasses onto her face and disappearing behind her laptop screen. Peggy sets her paper aside and picks up the file of all the notes she’s made so far on the Stark case, ready to read over them yet again, see whether a new day can make a new pattern emerge. She’s just opened the file when the shrill sound of the phone ringing slices through the peaceful air.
“Carter Investigations,” Darcy says, answering promptly for once, and Peggy looks across the room at her, wondering whose name showed up on the caller ID to stop her clicking around on her laptop for another few rings before picking up. Darcy says she does it to give the impression that they’re constantly busy with work; Peggy suspects Darcy just gets a little too involved in her emails some days, but they’ve never received any complaints. “Steve!” Darcy grins brightly. Peggy rolls her eyes. “Sure, totally.” She holds the mouthpiece of the phone against her shoulder announces unnecessarily, “Steve Rogers for you.”
Peggy looks up from her notes. “What does he want?”
“You’re my assistant, Darcy, you need to – you assist, this is your job. Find out, sort something out with him if it’s to do with the case.”
Darcy rolls her eyes, but she’s still smiling as she goes back to talking on the phone. Darcy is as susceptible to Steve’s charm as the rest of the world – perhaps a little more so, because Darcy makes no secret of having a high level of appreciation for the way Steve looks in the slightly too tight dress shirt of his cop uniform. Peggy watches Darcy’s expression closely as she makes a surprised noise and her eyes widen. Perhaps she should have taken the call herself after all.
“They’ve got a couple of people in for questioning about Stark’s designs,” Darcy tells Peggy as she puts the phone down. “The theft, I mean. Not like, the details.”
Peggy stands abruptly and walks over to grab the phone. “Steve?”
“You’re welcome,” Darcy mutters, but Peggy tunes her out.
“Security guards.” Steve sounds rushed, and Peggy wonders who it is he doesn’t want to be overheard by. “Two security guards who were working for Stark, we’ve brought them in for questioning.”
“You think security guards did this?”
“We think security guards could be a good cover for whoever did this,” Steve says. “They only started working for Stark recently, the timing makes sense. We saw them acting strange around the building a few times while we were staking the place out. They have access to almost everywhere in the buildings, and Stark’s got them on CCTV talking together in places they shouldn’t be around the time the theft happened. Whether they did it or not, they might know something. Coulson’s talking to them now.”
Peggy frowns. “And what’s the motive?”
“Well.” Steve sounds a little uncertain, hedging. “We’re working on that one.”
“I don’t know,” Peggy says. “Are you sure it’s not a coincidence? Surely Stark puts his security staff through rigorous screening, you’ve heard about how paranoid he can be.”
Steve sighs. “It’s all we’ve got.”
Peggy narrows her eyes, looks back across at her wall of connections. “I’m not sure I buy it.”
They’re all sitting in the meeting room, swapping and going over their notes for the case just to kill time while they wait for Coulson to get back to them. As soon as Coulson walks through the door, Bucky knows it’s not going to be great news from the tight, thin line of his mouth, but it’s still gutting to hear that they’re right back to square one.
“So that’s our only lead so far gone?” Sergeant Hill asks. She’s frowning, eyes already back on the notes in front of her, searching out their next clue.
Coulson nods. “They have an alibi for the actual time of the theft. They were with Odinson’s brother. They say he’s the reason they were sneaking away from work and caught talking together – family problems, apparently, and from everything we have, it seems to work out.”
“Family problems,” Bucky repeats. “Family problems?”
“Apparently Thor’s brother is quite the black sheep of the family,” Coulson says.
Steve lets out a long, heavy sigh. “Back to nothing, then.”
He takes it hard, he always does, and Bucky’s stomach sinks as Coulson adds, “So I’m gonna need you two to talk to Stark again,” with a nod at him and Steve because it can only make things worse. Steve will always do it if duty calls, but he hates delivering any kind of bad news. This is nothing compared to some of the burdens they’ve had to bear in the past, but Bucky remembers the way Tony Stark had looked at them before. He remembers the judgement tucked away in his gaze.
It’s not going to go well, and Stark keeps them waiting most of the day before he finally shows up at the station to hear the latest developments. There’s a frown creasing over Steve’s forehead before they even sit down with him. It’s just Stark today, no assistant, and normally it’s easier to deal with people one-on-one, but Stark isn’t exactly a normal person, and Bucky had liked Pepper Potts.
Stark sits down opposite them in one of the spare meeting rooms and stares. He looks relaxed, slouched down in the chair, legs apart, arm resting on the back of it, but his eyes are hard, only lingering on Steve’s well-fitting uniform shirt for a few moments longer than necessary this time. “So you caught someone,” Stark begins, “and then you let them go. Bravo, gentlemen.”
Bucky takes a deep breath, but Steve gets in there first, which is probably a good thing. “We didn’t claim to have caught anyone, Mr Stark. We brought two people in for questioning, and we questioned them.”
“And you let them go.”
Bucky cuts in. “That’s basically what we have to do, if it turns out someone has nothing to do with what we’re really investigating. Kinda the law.” There’s something about Stark and his inherent arrogance that’s rubbing Bucky the wrong way still, even now that Stark seems to have dropped the embarrassing puppy-eyes around Steve.
“That’s funny.” Tony smiles thinly. “Didn’t think you guys went much by the law these days.”
Bucky feels it, the exact moment Steve goes tense next to him, spotting the tight line of his jaw out the corner of Bucky’s eye. “Mr Stark,” Bucky says, “we’re doing what we can. We had our suspicions, and our suspicions were appeased. That’s how we work.”
“And you’re sure they didn’t just pay you.” Tony looks between them, a faintly amused expression still on his face that doesn’t match up with his eyes at all. “Because, let me tell you guys now, I can pay more than pretty much anyone else, if that’s how it works.”
“That’s not how it works.” Steve still looks calm, but there’s an edge to his words Bucky doesn’t hear all that often. It’s a sore spot Tony’s hitting on here. They’re one of the few guys his words have no relevance to. “We’re officers of the law, Mr Stark, and we operate within its limits.”
Tony nods. “Sure, sure, absolutely. When it suits you.”
“Look, Stark,” Bucky begins, and Stark looks faintly pleased that he’s getting a rise out of him. Steve rests a hand on Bucky’s arm, and Bucky forces himself to relax back into his seat, not sure when it was that he leaned so far forward in an attempt to get into Stark’s space.
“If you have no other questions,” Steve says, “I think we’re done here.”
His tone doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for questions, and for once Stark seems to know that it’s best to keep his mouth shut. He stands up with a curt, “Well I expect you to keep me informed,” and sweeps out of the room. He has a lot of presence, Bucky reflects in his absence, for such a little guy.
Bucky swears under his breath in Stark’s wake, and Steve doesn’t even reprimand him. “He’s not so big on keeping us informed though, is he? Doesn’t think we know he’s got your girl Peggy on the case too.”
“And even with her we’re still no closer to getting anywhere,” Steve mutters, and Bucky says nothing, because there’s not a whole lot he can say.
Steve is quiet for the rest of the day, brooding the whole way home with his fingers curled tight around the steering wheel. Bucky keeps quiet with him, letting the radio fill the space between them with bursts of static and cheesy music, and he waits until they’re up in their apartment with the coffee machine flicked on before he tries saying anything. It’s his turn to snap Steve out of a funk now. He’s never quite as good at it as Steve is with him.
“Steve,” Bucky begins, but Steve cuts him off before he can get any further at all, palms flat on the kitchen table, arms braced and holding his weight.
“I don’t even know what’s the point is sometimes.” It’s not a Steve thing to say, not at all, and it sends something twisted and uncomfortable churning through the pit of Bucky’s stomach. It isn’t right. “Every time we think we’re getting somewhere we’re just gonna get knocked back like this. Stark made it pretty clear, we can’t get past the reputation we’ve got, and it’s not even a reputation, is it? It’s true for half of the guys on the force and it’s only gonna get worse. It does with every job, why do we even--”
“Steve,” Bucky repeats sharply, taking a few swift steps into Steve’s space. Steve is looking at the floor, the table, his hands – anywhere but Bucky, and Bucky presses close until Steve doesn’t have any other kind of choice. “You don’t think that. I know you don’t.”
“You’ve seen what it’s like, Buck, I don’t know what else…”
“You can’t think that.” Bucky swallows. Out of nowhere, his heart is beating too fast, out of kilter with his mind, which is still in a rational place and set on trying to calm his best friend down – the rest of him is already shaking in anticipation, waiting until he catches up to speed. “Steve.” Steve finally looks at him, eyes wide and blue and sending a shock right through Bucky even though he sees those eyes every single day of his life, the feeling pooling somewhere low in his gut. “You’re the only good guy left.”
That brings Steve up short. He falters. “What?”
Bucky’s breath is coming fast now, hands curling into tight fists at his side, nails biting into his palm. The sharp sting grounds him. “You stand for everything, Steve, can’t you see it? You stand up. Out of everyone, all this goddamn shit, you’re still fighting the good fight and sticking up for the little guys and it’s – you’re the only thing that makes this fucking job worthwhile in the face of all that shit, okay? You’re the only reason I can do it. The only reason I want to do it. You make me – you make everyone want to be a better person, Steve, how the hell do you still not see this?”
Steve’s cheeks are a bright shade of pink and growing redder, the blush creeping steadily down his throat as he stares at Bucky. “Bucky—”
“You’ll do it,” Bucky says quickly. He’s determined to get it all out, to throw everything that’s suddenly welling up out into the open between them, even if it’s just so he doesn’t have it clogging him up anymore, nestled in the insidious corners of his mind where he’s not even been aware of half of it until now. “You’ll work your ass off on this case, and then you’ll work your ass off on the next one, and you’ll make everyone around you work their asses off too because that’s what happens when people are around you. You inspire people, Rogers, and you don’t even know it, and you do it all because.” He stops, draws in a shuddering breath, wondering when he got quite this close. “You’re the good guy,” Bucky finishes, voice a little weak, and he’s kissing Steve without being aware of ever making it a formal decision.
Steve’s lips are warm, full and soft, and Bucky presses forward, eyes drifting shut. He feels like the kitchen has them both trapped in some kind of spell, unable to move, winding its way through his muscles and making Bucky sway in closer.
“I promise,” Bucky adds, speaking in a soft buzz, barely breaking the kiss off to get the words out, and Steve lets out a rough noise that almost sounds like Bucky’s name and straightens up, slides a hand around the back of Bucky’s neck and pulls him back into another kiss. Bucky’s hands come up, smooth up Steve’s arms, fingers brushing at his throat before Bucky cups Steve’s warm face in his palms.
“Bucky,” Steve murmurs, breath a burst of shaky air between them, “what?”
It feels totally inappropriate, but Bucky can’t help the laugh that bursts out of him, rubbing the pad of his thumb over Steve’s jaw as he grins. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I sorta feel like I’m about to piss my goddamn pants, if you wanna know the truth.”
Steve’s arms wrap tightly around him, holding him so close that Bucky’s resting half his weight against Steve’s broad chest. No one in the world can give a hug like Steve can, and Bucky wonders if this maybe should have registered earlier for him.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Steve whispers. The words hit the air like a confession, like Steve is talking about more than just this, the two of them wrapped up in each other in their apartment like the outside world has stopped existing. Like Steve is talking about the case, about work, about the whole world in general. “Jesus, Bucky, I don’t know.”
Bucky tucks his face into Steve’s neck, nosing against the steady thud of his pulse. He still hasn’t shaved, not for a few days now; his stubble rasps against Steve’s soft skin, and Bucky wonders with a hot shiver whether there’ll be a trace of pink there, a trail to mark out where he’s been. “You’ll figure it out, big guy. Trust me.”
Steve laughs weakly. Bucky can feel the vibrations in his throat, he’s so close to Steve. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”
“And has it ever steered you wrong?” Bucky asks, voice muffled.
“I’m not gonna answer that,” Steve says, but his arms tighten their grip around Bucky, and Bucky curls his fingers into Steve’s shirt and holds on.
When she gets back, Darcy says, “Dude, you missed everything!” in an excited voice.
Peggy frowns, looking around. Their surroundings look very much the same as ever. “What?”
“Okay,” Darcy relents, “not everything. Big things though. Or at least there was a big phone call. Sit down!”
“Slow down.” Peggy does as Darcy says, though, sitting at her desk and propping her chin up on her hand, watching Darcy with an expectant quirk of her eyebrows, the tea and coffee still in the bag at her feet. “Start at the beginning.”
“Okay.” Darcy takes a deep breath. “So you know my friend Jane – you know when she called and you were all, oh Darcy, this is a private investigation, you can’t just go telling your friends all about our customers…”
“Speed it up a little.”
“Well.” Darcy shoots Peggy a triumphant grin. It’s more than likely the sign of a good thing, but the sight still feels Peggy with a vague sense of trepidation. Darcy is very persistent in her gloating. “Jane just called, and she was saying she’d had this weird inquiry about whether she knew where to get this – thing from. Iridium, iradium or something, I don’t know exactly, but the call made her suspicious, so she thought, you know, oh, I’ll call my awesome investigator friend Darcy--”
“Darcy,” Peggy warns.
“—and long story short, iridium sounded weirdly familiar to me, so I went back over the notes, and it’s a whole big thing for Stark’s designs. Like, how those prototypes might be powered kind of big.”
“Darcy,” Peggy says, slowly this time. “Darcy.”
“I know, right?” Darcy beams. “So I told her she should find out everything she can about this dude who’s asking about it and then give us a call back.”
“Not the police?”
“Well here’s the weird thing – weirder, anyway. Jane’s been seeing this new guy, and it turns out this new guy is called Thor, and the police held him and his friend for like, twenty-four hours for no reason because—”
“Because they’re security guards for Stark and got flagged up,” Peggy finishes.
“Plus, you know.” Darcy pulls a face. “The cops around here, can you blame her for not wanting to get involved?”
“I think we need to get on campus and talk to her face to face.” Peggy stands up, grabs her purse and begins to search around in it for her phone. “And I think we should tell Steve at least, although I agree on not going to the police in general. There’s nothing we can do here, but if whoever is behind this turns out to be dangerous…”
“This mystery person who’s stolen this huge-ass weapon,” Darcy says. She nods, mock-serious. “Yeah, yeah, if they’re dangerous.”
“If they’re dangerous and they outnumber us, I’d rather have someone else we can call in so we’re not the ones who have to deal with the potential mess.”
“Okay, yeah, good thinking. I can’t even clean up my own mess.”
They head out soon after, Darcy locking up behind them and hailing down a cab as Peggy dials Steve’s cell. It goes to voicemail twice before he picks up, and she’s frowning as he answers. Steve always picks up his phone, even when he’s not working; she’s not sure of the shifts he does these days, but it seems like another odd piece of the puzzle not quite fitting in like it should. Perhaps she’s reading too much into it. He sounds breathless when he greets her. Perhaps he’s been exercising. Peggy isn’t blind to the way Steve looks, even after all this time; it must take a lot of working out.
She tells him about Jane’s new information as they drive downtown, keeping her voice low and her eyes on the cab driver. He doesn’t look as though he’s paying attention to them, but Peggy is of the very readily-backed up opinion that you can never be too careful with these things. She’s in the business of eavesdropping herself, after all. “We’re going over to see her now,” she finishes. “Are you busy?”
“You want us to come too?” Steve asks. There’s the low rumble of another voice that Peggy can’t make it, and Steve saying, more softly, “Wait, Bucky,” with the smile in his voice carrying through the phone lines. Peggy raises her eyebrows. The breathlessness suddenly takes on a whole different meaning. “We were working late yesterday, we don’t start until later if you need us around.”
“No need,” Peggy tells him. “Just wanted to know where to call if anything goes badly, I don’t feel like trying to wrestle with your boss on the phone.”
“He’s not so bad, Peggy.”
It’s typical Steve, always trying to be fair, and Peggy smiles. “No, but the guys he works for are. Anyway, we’re nearly there, I’ll catch up with you later okay? You boys have fun now.”
“Huh, what?” Steve says, sounding thrown, and Peggy hears Bucky’s snort of laughter somewhere close to the mouthpiece just before she hangs up.
The cab drops them off right outside the Science block thanks to Darcy’s rambling directions, and the building seems suspiciously empty to her until Darcy points out the relatively early hour of the morning. They climb four flights of stairs before Darcy finally turns off down a corridor and comes to a halt outside one of the labs.
Peggy has met Jane Foster once before, and she’s as pretty and petite as she remembers her being, even with pencils stuck haphazardly in her hair. “One second,” she calls as Darcy opens the door and then belatedly knocks, and then turns and smiles when she sees who it is. “Darcy! Peggy, come in, you two, you’re a nice change from students wanting extensions on their projects. The excuses get worse every year.”
“Hey, Jane. Hey, maybe you should start a bad excuse blog.” Darcy sits herself on one of the lab stools, Peggy standing by her side. “Whatcha got for us?”
“Hi,” Peggy adds while there’s a moment of quiet. “Thanks for helping us out, Jane.”
Jane waves a hand in their direction while she moves around some papers on her desk. “No worries, I’d much rather speak to you guys, and – well, it might be nothing, but it just seemed weird to me. Where can he get iridium, what’s the market around here like for buying and selling – people don’t ask about that stuff unless there’s something behind it, you know?”
“Science black market?” Darcy asks. She sounds impressed. “No way.”
Jane nods. “You know what things are like around here, and you can get your hands on a lot if you know the right scientist.”
“Wow.” Darcy flashes Peggy a grin. “Jane’s more badass than my drug dealer neighbours.”
Peggy makes a valiant effort to get them back to business. “So do you have any information, Jane?”
“Right!” Jane spins around to face them triumphantly, a crumpled piece of paper in her hand. “I wrote it down. Okay, so. This guy. His name is Loki.”
Peggy Carter is walking calmly into the station with a satisfied smile on her face and a guy trailing behind her, sandwiched between her and her assistant, and there’s only one reason she’d be bringing someone in to them. Bucky doesn’t even mind that it seems like they didn’t get the jump on this one, mostly just because it’s worth it just to see the look on the faces of the other officers as they realise they’ve had their most high profile case in months snatched out from under their feet. Bucky takes issue with most of them. It’s good to see them knocked down a peg or two.
Steve is looking at Peggy like she’s the most amazing thing he’s ever seen, and for once it doesn’t make something hot and uncomfortable constrict in Bucky’s stomach. There’s a deep ache running right through him, amplified by the tiredness stemming from his recent lack of sleep, and the itchiness of his eyes and insistent yawning is more than a fair price to pay as a reminder of why the way Steve looks at anybody else doesn’t matter. Bucky is hardly aware of the smug expression wrestling its way onto his face until Peggy shoots him a knowing smirk as she passes. He grins right back at her. Of course Peggy’s figured it out. She’s a smart girl; she probably had an inkling before he ever did.
Steve doesn’t notice it, not even when Peggy’s assistant winks at them.
Sergeant Hill sends him and Steve in to question the guy with a jerk of her thumb as she strides off to drag Coulson from his latest meeting. His name is Loki, and Bucky recognises it immediately, familiar from their questioning of Thor. Loki is the brother.
Bucky hopes that being entrusted with interacting with and questioning a suspect like this means they’ve finally been forgiven for any and all past incidents. This is what the job is really about, and he sits down opposite Loki and fixes him with a firm look. Bucky finds he can tell a lot, generally, about someone just from the way they sit in these uncomfortable interview room chairs, but Loki is staring back at him like a blank slate.
There’s always something a little unsettling about sitting down face to face with a potential criminal, but with Loki, Bucky can feel it even more. It’s something about the way he’s staring at them – somehow, it makes Bucky feel as though Loki doesn’t think he’s been caught out at all, despite the arrest. He doesn’t look the part of a criminal either. With his long, smooth hair and haughty gaze, he looks as though he should be going to the opera or taking high tea in the city somewhere, things Bucky only ever heard talk of when he was growing up back in New York.
Loki doesn’t answer any of their questions. He doesn’t utter a single word until Steve tries getting at him from a new angle and asks, “Why give your brother an alibi? It put your name on our radar kind of needlessly, don’t you think?”
To Bucky’s surprise, Loki smirks. “Oh, no, no. My brother gave me an alibi. He really can’t help himself, the fool, even when he doesn’t know what it is he’s getting into.”
“Seems kinda harsh to me,” Bucky says, “to call him a fool when he tried helping you out.” He frowns. “You’re not even trying to go along with that, are you?” It’s something about the smooth, measured tone of Loki’s voice. “You think you’re above using your brother as an alibi?”
“We’ve got a lot of solid proof around you, Loki,” Steve adds. “Without an alibi, you’re just making it stronger.”
“I did not ask my brother to help me.” Loki is back to looking blank now. It’s still unsettling, the switch from derisiveness to pure boredom. “Like I say, he can’t help himself. He thinks he helps. He knows no better, but I am not scared of Tony Stark finding out that I got through his supposedly impenetrable security measures. What can you do to me for the theft of ideas?” His mouth curls into another smile. There’s nothing warm about it. His teeth are bared. “The Carter woman didn’t seem to know the answer to that one either.”
He goes back to his silent staring after that, but it’s a break through. It’s still something.
“Seems to me like he did this whole thing just to show off and prove a point,” Steve tells Coulson when they break for coffee, leaving Loki sitting on his own. Coulson has the distracted look in his eyes that he only ever gets after these meetings of his, the lines around them more pronounced than usual. Bucky can tell he’s not impressed about being called out of it early, but Coulson smiles grimly at the news that they’ve got anything out of the guy at all.
“I can kind of get it.” Bucky shrugs and sips at his coffee, wincing as it burns the tip of his tongue. He’s too impatient, every single time. He sticks his tongue out into the cool air and then gives Steve a slow smile when he notices the way Steve is looking. He licks his lips, slow and deliberate and probably not entirely appropriate while they’re standing in front of their boss. “I only met Stark twice and I got the urge to prove him wrong somehow. He’s got one of those faces. Those attitudes.”
Steve’s cheeks are faintly pink, but his voice is as steady and professional as ever. “Still, that’s not the point. So what do we do now?”
“Keep him talking.” Coulson is looking between them, from Steve’s blush to Bucky’s smirk with a frown deepening on his face. “See what else we can get out of him first. We need to get a confession, because it’s not just ideas, no matter what he says – we know those prototypes went missing at the same time. We can get him on that. We’ve got guys searching his apartment for anything now. We can get him for breaking and entering, too, if we’re lucky. If he slips up. I believe him when he says his brother is clueless, I don’t believe he had any help getting in there” Coulson pauses, surveying them with narrowed eyes. “You two…”
Bucky attempts an innocent sort of smile. Steve’s flush deepens.
“Just keep it professional,” Coulson says. Like Peggy, he seems completely unsurprised, and Bucky is beginning to suspect that the people around him know more about him than he does himself. “I mean you, Barnes.”
Bucky opens his mouth to protest, but Steve is ducking his head, smiling, and he looks so pleased that Bucky loses track of his words.
There’ll be paperwork later, but Peggy isn’t thinking about that yet. It would be logical to get it started before the next case comes along, but she decides to allow herself a day or two. She has, she thinks, more than earned it with this one.
She sits down behind her desk, crossing her feet neatly at the ankles, and surveys her blank wall. It’s a refreshing sight – crisp and clear and already prepared for whatever comes next.
It’s been a long time since she allowed herself a day off. She wonders what to do with the time. Peggy is used to the job keeping her busy enough that free time has become something of a foreign concept to her lately.
After a while, she reaches down for her bag and pulls her phone out. The number is on speed dial now; it’s ringing within seconds. “Natasha.”
“Hello.” There’s just an edge of suspicion to Natasha’s voice. It’s understandable. Normally if Peggy’s calling her, there’s something bad going down somewhere, and Peggy is calling in for some help. Peggy is fairly certain that Natasha has it worse than her, that a social call for Natasha is something of the distance past.
“The Stark case is over and done with,” Peggy tells her. “Just thought you might be interested to know.”
“I know.” Natasha sounds amused now. Peggy can picture the curve of her smile. “Barton told me, he had a meeting earlier today with his guy, he heard all about it. We’re still ahead of the curveball.”
“I was the one who brought the guy in,” Peggy points out. She’s showing off. She can’t quite help it, just this one small moment to gloat and congratulate herself and hopefully impress Natasha in the process. “But I did want to thank you for your help, you saved me a lot of time I might have spent chasing up dead ends.”
“Glad I could be of service.”
“So thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Peggy Carter.” Natasha’s voice dips down lower, a hint of a purr about it. “It was my pleasure.”
Peggy bites her lip, smiling to herself. “And mine.”
“So what’s going on?” Natasha asks. “Did you need another favour?”
“Actually.” Peggy pauses and grins, despite the fact no one is around to see her, looking down at the open, blank diary on her desk. “I think what I really need is a drink, but I was hoping you still might be able to help me out.”
“Yeah,” Natasha says. “Yeah, I think I can help you there.”