Rose was in the habit of winking at him when he showed up for work, calling him sweetie and slipping him a cookie or three whenever she made too big a batch. Steve didn't mind it so much. There was never any pity in her eyes the way there was with some of the other telephone operators. Besides, Steve had spent the war surviving on some pretty dubious rations, and Rose's cookies were too good to let go to waste.
"She feeding you up, Grant?" Krzeminski asked one morning as he passed Steve's desk. Steve was trying to make the latest batch of cookies fit into the top of his lunch pail without crushing them; no point to let them sit out and get stale. "That's gonna be one hell of a wedding. Jack Sprat and his wife, just make sure she don't roll over in the middle of the night, huh?"
"That's not exactly a nice way to talk about a lady, you know," Steve said, trying to keep his breathing even as he opened a desk drawer and deposited his lunch pail inside. It wasn't like keeping a lid on his anger had gotten any easier with time, but if he brought on another asthmatic fit so soon after the last one, his doc might just finish him off.
"Yeah," Krzeminski said, "which is why in this case it ain't—"
"Ray," Sousa called from the other end of the room, "you got someone on the phone for you. Says it's urgent."
Krzeminski moved on with a mutter, and Steve glanced up in time to catch Sousa give him a sympathetic look.
Steve nodded in acknowledgement, and then forced his attention back to the job at hand. There was a report to be typed up—there were always reports to be typed up—but at least this one was based on Thompson's field notes. The guy was a jerk but he took that side of his job seriously and his handwriting was a step above the usual illegible scrawl. Steve fed two sheets of paper into his typewriter and set the margins, eyeballing the stack of field notes to estimate how long it would take him to get it done. No more than a couple of hours, he thought, and then he could take a break before moving onto filing the records from the Petrova case, now that Yauch had finally finished with them.
When the serum had ebbed out of his system, it had taken Steve's strength with it, the length of his stride and the sharpness of his hearing and the ease of his breath, but for no reason Howard had ever been able to figure out, it hadn't taken his hand-eye co-ordination. Put Steve up against any secretarial pool in the world and he could take on all-comers for accuracy and words per minute. He could still pitch a wadded-up ball of waste paper from his desk to the trash can with unerring aim, or juggle a whole array of office supplies. Maybe it wasn't as glamorous as punching out Hitler more than two hundred times, but it still put a roof over his head and food on the table. Small mercies.
Of course, any semblance of co-ordination went out of the window around eleven, when the doors flew open and Peggy—Agent Carter, Steve reminded himself firmly, they were at work—marched in. Steve startled and spilled some of his coffee. It only flecked his shirt but it splashed onto his desk and the top of the Petrova file. Steve swore under his breath and pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, dabbing futilely at the pages and hoping that it hadn't ruined them. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Agen—oh, the hell with it, as Peggy strode past towards the chief's office. She looked magnificently angry.
There weren't many things Steve missed about the war, but getting to see that expression more often—even if sometimes he was the one who'd put it there—was one of them.
The pages didn't look so bad once he'd blotted them—the ink hadn't run, and the cheap paper was coarse enough to stand up to a bit of a battering—so Steve decided to just file the report. If that decision was helped along by the fact that the filing cabinet was in a spot to give him a direct sightline on Dooley's office, well, Steve wasn't going to admit that out loud.
He couldn't hear what Dooley and Peggy were saying, but it didn't take really keen senses to work out that they were arguing. Peggy's hands were braced on her hips, Dooley was red in the face, and all of that would have been situation normal if Peggy hadn't turned her head just so. There was no mistaking the bruise that purpled one cheekbone, even though she'd layered powder over it. "Aww, hell," Steve muttered.
"Five'll get you ten this is what he'll finally sack her for."
Steve looked up to see Thompson standing next to him, his gaze also fixed on the office and not even trying to be subtle about it. "What do you mean?"
"Where do you think she got that shiner?" Thompson shrugged. "Chief told her to back off, she went sticking her nose into that business with Stark anyway, and now this. Doesn't exactly make us look good, does it?"
"Howard Stark, the rich guy?" Steve asked, because Steven Grant had never been to war, or left New York, or done anything much to speak of. He definitely didn't hobnob with the rich and famous.
"No, the one who lives on the moon," Thompson said. "Jesus, with that keen insight, it's a mystery why they haven't bumped you up to agent yet."
"All right, you listen," Steve said hotly, and he was just about to forget himself—or remember himself, maybe—when the argument in Dooley's office reached a crescendo and then stopped suddenly. The door flew open, and every single agent in the office managed to look suddenly, thoroughly, busy. Miller was talking on the phone, brow furrowed, and apparently completely unaware of the fact that he was holding the receiver upside down.
The chief emerged, tugging on his jacket and reaching for his hat. "Krzeminski, Miller, Yauch, you're with me. Thompson, get the other office on the horn, tell them we're going to need back-up at the docks in Hoboken as soon as possible. Sousa, you rouse the tech people, arrange for transport to follow us out there, we're going to need something for containment. Come on, move it, hustle, what the hell am I paying you for?"
The room was all noisy chaos for a few minutes—agents snapping quick fire orders over the phone, grabbing for guns and keys—before emptying out. In their absence, the room was absolutely still in a way that Steve had hardly ever seen it.
Peggy was standing in the doorway of Dooley's office, watching him. "Well, what?"
"Aren't you going to follow them?"
Steve hitched a shoulder, then turned to finally put away the file. "I don't count, Peg. You know that." Skinny little Steven Grant was a desk clerk, not a field agent; he'd never thrown a punch in his life, let alone pulled a gun. He closed the filing cabinet with maybe more force than he needed to.
"I'm rarely delighted by the prospect of having to deliver a pep talk more than once."
Steve looked over at her with a frown.
"You were meant for more than this," Peggy said.
"Past tense," Steve said. He'd woken up from his coma to find his strength leached away, the war over, Bucky still gone where Steve couldn't follow and Peggy looking at him with more pity in her eyes than he could bear. He'd had a purpose, but he'd lost it. Steve headed back to his desk in the hope that she'd leave it at that, but no one ever accused Peggy Carter of giving in easy. She stalked after him, the tap of her heels on the tile loud in the unnaturally quiet office.
"Spare me the melodramatics," she spat. "I am heartily sick of it. Yes, things are different now—"
"—but Erskine chose you because you weren't a blank slate, you silly ass. Steven Grant is a fiction to stop anyone from tracking you down and cutting you up for parts, not a shield to hide behind. Things have changed and we can't go back and I don't understand why you are so set on not just getting on with it." By the time she'd finished, Peggy's cheeks were flushed enough to do bright battle with her bruises; her hands were clenched in fists at her sides.
Steve felt very tired all of a sudden. He looked down at the stack of paperwork on his desk, waiting for him. If you'd told him ten years ago that he'd end up with a job like this, he'd have thought he was in for some good luck for a change. "There's a statue of him, you know. Back in a park in the old neighbourhood: Captain America. I went to see it last week, stood right in front of it and three different people who knew me and Buck when we were kids walked past and didn't even recognise me. I'm not the same anymore."
"Good grief," Peggy said. "I'd taken you for a lot of things, Steve Rogers, but a cliché wasn't one of them."
"And I've had quite enough of having to take on all-comers while watching you mope over paperwork as if it's personally offended you. We used to be part of a team, you and me, and you can't just stop—" Peggy's mouth clamped suddenly shut, as if she'd said more than she intended. "You've spent the past six months acting as if everyone's abandoned you, but you're the one who walked away from us."
"I'm not him anymore, why would you want—"
"You're yourself, just as you always have been, and for god's sake man, if you'd stop and think for a moment you'd realise I just sent every other agent on a fool's errand to New Jersey to give us a head start."
Steve blinked at her. "Howard didn't stash the stuff in Hoboken—you weren't in Jersey."
Peggy flung her arms out to the side and shot him an exasperated look.
Steve thought it all through as quickly as he could, piecing together the bits he'd overheard the past few weeks, the scraps of information he'd gleaned from the reports he'd typed up. "He's been trying to make the SSR think it needed to keep an eye on the docks, but he's not trying to smuggle it out of the States, is he? And you know where it is, but you… wait, where'd you get the black eye from?" Maybe it was makeup—the USO girls sure had known how to work wonders with Pan-Cake—but it sure looked realistic to Steve.
Peggy shrugged. "I got the waitress at the automat down the street to punch me."
"You what? Peg, that's—"
"My people," Peggy said, "have an ancient proverb about a pot and a kettle, and lest you forget, I am intimately familiar with what you and the Commandos got up to in Milan."
Steve reconsidered what he'd been about to say, very quickly, and then thought, just as fast, about what Peggy was saying. "You really want me to go with you?"
"Organising this entire charade would have been rather pointless if I didn't," Peggy said tartly.
"Oh," Steve said, brushing his hair out of his eyes. "I mean, I guess if you think I can help, the filing can wait."
"I thought I'd knock them down and you'd kick them in the ribs," Peggy said. "Play to our respective strengths, and all that."
Peggy had a car parked in an alleyway just down the block—a sleek, low-slung thing that made Steve whistle when he saw it. No SSR agent could afford a car like this one, not on their salaries. "Where'd you get this?" he asked as he scrambled into the passenger seat.
"No illegal methods were employed," Peggy said airily as she started the engine and eased out onto the street, heading east. "But it is on loan, so I'll thank you not to get muddy footprints anywhere."
From Stark, then, though Steve still wasn't clear on why a guy who'd been giving the SSR the run-around for months would be handing over the keys to a very expensive automobile to one of its agents. "Why would I mess up a car like this when you're doing your best to treat it nice? I think this is the first time I've seen you drive something that you didn't hot-wire first."
"Oh, good," Peggy said, as they pulled up at a traffic light.
"What?" Steve asked, confused.
"You do still have a sense of humour. I was rather starting to think you'd left it in Nazi Germany."
There were at least five different answers Steve wanted to make to that, but only a few of them were wise—and anyway, out of the corner of his eye Steve could see that Peggy's mouth was turned upwards in wry amusement. He'd thought that was something she'd left behind in Europe, too.
"Brooklyn," Steve said flatly as Peggy steered them over the Brooklyn Bridge and south into Red Hook. "You're telling me he hid this thing in Brooklyn."
"In the interests of full disclosure," Peggy said, keeping her eyes very carefully on the street ahead of her, "it is not technically in Howard's possession right now."
Steve stared at her. "You're kidding."
"You seem to be in a state of perpetual disbelief today," Peggy said. "I can't think why."
"You want the list in alphabetical order?" In his lap, Steve's hands curled into fists, and not for the first time since he'd come out of the coma, he wished for the familiar, comforting weight of his shield. "Look, I'm not going to tell you you shouldn't go behind the chief's back on this one because—"
"Because pot, kettle?"
"Because," Steve pressed on, "I trust that you know what the hell you're doing, but you still haven't told me what this thing is, exactly, or how Howard's involved—come on, Peg, I've picked up enough to know whatever it is is dangerous! The chief's been smoking like a chimney, Thompson's even crabbier than normal, and you're going around asking perfectly nice waitresses to punch you in the face. What gives?"
This part of Red Hook was pretty much nothing but warehouses, most of them bustling, but the block Peggy turned down was quiet, the buildings more ramshackle. She slowed right down so they were barely creeping along, the car's engine the merest purr, peering out through the windshield as she counted off buildings. After the ninth, she pulled into a narrow street between two of the warehouses, tucked the car in out of sight behind a dumpster, and killed the engine. Into the sudden quiet, she said, "We didn't know who we could trust."
That stung, more than Steve had thought something could.
"Don't look at me like that—in your case, it was more that we couldn't be sure you wouldn't run off on your own and do something idiotic."
"Gee willikers," Steve said, "thanks."
"But more to the point, Howard thinks that the SSR has been infiltrated," Peggy said, twisting to retrieve her purse from the back seat before sitting back down. She opened it, produced a neat little pistol, and started loading it. "And I am inclined to agree with him."
Steve started. "Who? How?"
"Well, if we knew that, we wouldn't have to be resorting to so much cloak and dagger stuff, would we?" Peggy hiked up her hem a little, revealing a garter holster and a length of pale thigh. Steve looked away out the window as quickly as he could, swallowing hard and pretending to be absorbed in the brick wall of the building next to them. He'd come back from the war maybe knowing a thing or two more than he had when he'd first left home, but that didn't mean his mother hadn't raised him right. He could feel his cheeks heat. "Possible ties back to Europe, but the Soviets don't seem to have a hand in it, which is curious. Here."
Steve looked over to see that Peggy's skirt was back in place and that she was holding out a gun to him. "A little less elegant than the shield, I know."
He nodded, and made sure the safety was on before slipping the gun into his coat pocket. "If it works, that's good enough for me."
The day was warm, but there was a strengthening breeze that kicked up dust and grit from the sidewalk and made Steve cough a little when they got out of the car. "How do you want to play this?"
"Well," Peggy said, with one of those abrupt and total shifts of accent that was always startling to him, "you and me, Mr Boland, we're down from Hartford sourcing a new paper supplier for our company, and if anyone asks, I could have sworn that this was the right address. Didn't I just swear this was the right address?"
"Cross your heart," Steve said solemnly, and offered her his arm as they walked back towards the main street and turned left.
For once, luck seemed to be with them. There were no guards set on the perimeter of the warehouse; no one visible at the doors or to be glimpsed through the high-set, grimy windows. Steve kept one hand in his pocket, curled around the grip of his gun, while Peggy made short work of picking the large lock that secured a small door on the back wall of the building.
"Amateurish," Peggy said as the lock gave way with a soft click and she pushed the door open. "Why these people always go for the biggest, cheapest, showiest ones I can never understand. Not worth a continental."
"Huh," Steve said as their eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior. "Maybe they spent all their money in here."
The outside had looked a little run-down—a building lying dormant but not abandoned, the kind of place that wouldn't attract much attention from passers-by. Inside was like no warehouse near the docks that Steve had ever seen. It was spotlessly clean, and everything—floors, walls, ceiling—had been uniformly plastered and painted a sterile white. Steve felt like they'd somehow walked into an artist's preliminary sketch of a building, everything bare and waiting for detail and life. Even in his better set of work clothes, he felt rumpled and out of place, too disorderly for all these sleek lines.
It didn't seem to bother Peggy, though. She strode on, and Steve let himself have a second of admiring the figure she cut—dark hair and blue dress—silhouetted against the pale interior before he followed her in.
The main space in the warehouse was entirely empty, though Steve couldn't tell if that was intentional, if everything had recently been cleared out or if it was set up to receive a future shipment of something. There were no clues here to whoever was running this show that Steve could see. "Whoever it is has deep pockets, though," he said. "Getting all of this done, paying people off so no one gossips about it?"
"Yes," Peggy said. She walked over to a spot on the floor and tapped the toe of her shoe against it. "Scuff marks, deep. They've been moving something in and out of here, at least."
The huge, main doors to the outside were set into the north wall, also painted that same blinding white; so was the door through which they'd entered the building. There was, however, another small door in the east wall that had been left plain, varnished wood. It would have been nondescript anywhere else, but stood out like a sore thumb here. Peggy nodded towards it. "You think there's something behind that?"
"It's could well be a trap," Peggy said.
"With our luck? Probably," Steve replied.
They looked at one another for a moment, shrugged, and then headed for the door. Steve could feel adrenaline start to thrum through his body. This was the first time since he'd woken up that he'd done anything more dangerous than take the last of the coffee in the morning before Thompson could get to it. He took a deep breath. It was an odd feeling—it wasn't like he and Buck hadn't spent most of their lives before the war getting into scrapes, but now his limbs didn't quite feel equal to it, and he had the nagging sensation that he was looking at the world from the wrong height.
This door wasn't locked; it opened into a gloomy, narrow warren of passages and offices, none of which had received the same treatment as the main warehouse. The rooms were cluttered with filing cabinets, desks, and chairs, all of cheap and battered wood. Steve poked his head into a few of the offices, but there was no one in any of them and the cabinets contained nothing but invoices and letters, all dating back to before the war, about wholesale orders of shoes and clothes.
"Nothing?" Peggy asked him when he stepped back into the hallway.
Steve shook his head. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear no one had set foot here in ten years. This doesn't make much sense, though. Why go to all that trouble out there and then leave this part untouched? Can't be that they just ran out of money all of a sudden."
"No—which makes me rather wonder if back there is just a staging area and here…" She trailed off as she peered around a corner. "Well, a girl does like to be proved right but this seems rather troublesome."
Steve hurried to join her. This hallway was almost identical to the one in which they were standing—doors ranged at regular intervals along the wall, grimy tile on the floor, the walls painted nicotine brown—but there was one big difference. One section of the wall had been destroyed, as if it blown outwards by a grenade. Bits of lath and plaster crunched underneath their shoes as they got close to it.
Behind the hole in the wall was a staircase that led down into the dark. Next to the top of the steps was a light switch. Steve flicked it on and for a wonder it worked, showing that the stairs led down to what looked like another of those blank, white spaces. Everything below seemed silent and still; expectant, Steve thought uneasily.
"If we were to follow procedure," Peggy said with a straight face, "we would call for backup right now."
Steve couldn't help it: he laughed. "Is this one of those times where I say 'ladies first'?"
"Goodness," Peggy said, "your sense of humour returns in leaps and bounds."
Still, she went first, her gun retrieved from its holster and the safety off. Steve followed her, trying to keep his breathing slow and even.
The basement was easily as large—if not larger—than the warehouse above them. It just wasn't empty. There were desks stacked with papers, the remains of a long-abandoned, dried-up meal on a table, but what stood out even more was the enormous electronic computer that took up one long wall of the room. It was covered with hundreds of what looked like red buttons to Steve, which stood out starkly in the otherwise white space. He had no idea what the hell it was for, or how it worked. One end of the machine, very slowly, was producing a thin stream of paper tape, now long enough to coil in great loops on the floor, but Steve couldn't read it—instead of being printed with words, the paper had a series of holes punched in it.
He frowned. "This doesn't look the kind of thing someone could just up and steal from Howard."
"No," Peggy said slowly. "I think we have walked into something we weren't expecting. Look." She pointed to the far side of the room, where there were four things that looked like… well, at first glance Steve thought they were coffins, but then he blinked and he saw that they were more like the machine he'd been strapped into to receive the serum.
"They don't exactly look like a stolen energy source," Steve said. His stomach turned over, remembering the pain of being inside the machine—the way his bones had cracked and lengthened and reshaped themselves, the cramping and tearing of his muscles. The one consolation of the serum wearing off was that he'd been unconscious for most of it, as his body had relearned its old shape.
"But they do look like something that one could connect to a stolen energy source," Peggy said.
The machines were almost entirely made out of what looked like dull bronze, but each one had a small window set into it near the top. Even standing on tiptoe, Steve wasn't tall enough to reach them, so he dragged over a chair from a nearby desk and clambered up. He had to brace a hand against the metal casing of the machine. It was faintly warm to the touch, but when Steve peered in through the glass, it was frosted over on the inside. "I don't think these are the same as Erskine's machine." He rubbed the glass, trying to make it easier to see in, but it didn't work.
"They're not," Peggy said. Her voice sounded faintly strangled. Steve looked over to see that she had also climbed up to peer into the machine to Steve's right. "Good god, Steve, there's a girl in here."
She gave up her place to Steve so that he could see for himself. It was eerie—a girl, a young woman really, her mouth set in a serious line and her lips tinged blue. He and Peggy checked the other two machines and found there were bodies in them as well—a plain man with a freckled face, another young girl with a long braid of red hair that fell over her shoulder. Steve had seen plenty of corpses on the battlefield, but this was a new and quiet kind of horror.
"Who keeps frozen bodies in a warehouse basement?" Steve asked, hopping down from the chair. "None of this makes sense."
"I don't think they're dead," Peggy said. "I just think they've… stopped, for now."
From a pocket in her jacket, Peggy produced the smallest camera Steve had ever seen—courtesy of Howard Stark—and snapped as many pictures as she could of the room and its inhabitants, of the technical and coded paperwork on the desks. Then they went back up the stairs and out of the building, resecuring the lock behind them. It wouldn't fool whoever had done this for long, but at least it would keep out curious kids. From personal experience, Steve knew this part of Brooklyn was full of them.
They got back in the car. Peggy put the key in the ignition but then sat there without starting the engine, staring through the windscreen. "Whatever's going on, we'll have to do something."
"Yeah," Steve said. He rubbed at his forehead, where he could feel a headache building. The only comfort he could see in this whole mess was this wasn't something he could have fixed any easier if he'd still had his strength. Sure, he could have forced open those machines but who knew what that would do to the people sleeping inside them. He could have carried the machines outside, but where could they go and what could they do with them? "But this is going to take more than just the two of us, Peg. We can't go back to the SSR if there is a mole there."
"Can't go back at all," Peggy said. "I'm quite sure that I've been fired by now, and you will be as soon as Dooley gets back to the office and finds you missing."
"Besides," Steve continued. "Howard's got money and pull but he's not going to be able to help us much with the legwork on this."
"The fourth one," Peggy said abruptly. "The empty one—whoever was in there, they must have been the one to break through that wall, mustn't they?"
"Looks like it," Steve said. It was troubling no matter what way you looked at it. People kept suspended forever in one particular moment, trapped inside a machine that was worryingly like the one that Erskine had designed; people who could escape from that and still have the energy to kick their way through a solid wall? He pushed aside thoughts of the Red Skull. "More questions than answers."
"We're still at the fun stage, I suppose."
They drove north towards Steve's apartment, figuring that they still had some time before the chief sent men to toss it. He could use a change of clothes or two, not to mention the cash and papers he had hidden underneath a loose floorboard in the kitchen. The papers were in several different names; not his idea, but Howard had given them to him at the same time that Steven Grant had been born. "Think of them like an extra insurance policy," Howard had said, waving a hand. "You never know the next time you'll be canoodling with a showgirl, her jealous mobster husband comes home early, and you need to do a bunk to Brazil for a while until the scene cools down."
There were even a couple of sets for Peggy, which she flicked through with practiced ease before stashing them in her purse. "These will do, I suppose, though the next time I see Howard Stark I shall have words with him for thinking I could ever pass for an Ermentrude."
"I'm Steve in all of mine," Steve said glumly, flicking through the papers of Steven Autry, Steve Oakley, Stephen Earp. "He has a lousy sense of humour."
In a few minutes, Steve had packed a small bag, his one precious photo of his parents on their wedding day wrapped in a clean shirt and tucked into a side pocket. Then he and Peggy slipped back down the stairs; he didn't bother to even lock the door behind him, not seeing the point. There was a drug store on the corner and Peggy went in to use its phone and leave a message with one of Howard's contacts. Steve dawdled outside in the hot afternoon sun, which made it all the nicer when Peggy reappeared with a smile on her face and two sweating glass bottles of soda in her hands.
They sipped at their drinks as they ambled down the sidewalk back towards the car—at just the right speed to look like a couple of sweethearts who were still shy about courting one another, chatting idly and working up to holding hands. It was the kind of act that made for good cover, but Steve didn't have to work too hard at his acting. He kept stealing glances at Peggy out of the corner of his eye. Her curls were still immaculate, but in the heat she'd taken off her jacket and slung it over one arm, and the colour was high in her cheeks. It was too damned easy to pretend that her eyes were bright because Peggy was his girl, and she was there to be with him, rather than because Agent Margaret Carter liked a good chase. Fantasies like this had kept him company on some long, cold slogs through the Alps—even if then he'd let himself progress to handholding, and maybe even a bit beyond.
Steve drove this time while Peggy finished her soda, taking them east in aimless loops for several blocks, making sure they weren't being tailed before finding a spot to ditch the car in a disused lot behind a church. It was without a doubt the nicest thing he'd ever driven, Steve thought regretfully as he retrieved his bag from the back seat, but the paint job alone made it stand out too much—better that they leave it here and take the subway back to Manhattan.
It was only when Steve looked around to get his bearings and figure out where the nearest stop was that he realised what he'd done. Muscle memory, maybe, or some kind of inbuilt homing beacon. Bucky would have laughed to hear Steve compare himself to a mangy pigeon; laughed even more to see that Steve had unconsciously driven back to the old neighbourhood.
"This is where we grew up," he blurted out as they rounded a corner onto the main stretch. He hadn't meant to. The sharp look Peggy shot him made him really wish that he could take it all back, but there was something that was compelling him to speak anyhow. Maybe because he hadn't had the chance to remember any of this with someone in a very long time. The streets were drowsy at this time of day—school not quite done yet, most people still in work, but there still some little kids out playing on stoops, mothers hurrying home with shopping baskets slung over one arm. It made Steve's chest ache for a past that was barely even past. "Me and Buck, this area I mean. Three streets over, that was where we lived, but school was two blocks that way. That apartment building over there, that's where Mrs Clancy lived, she taught me cursive in third grade and sighed over how my handwriting was never as neat as Bucky's."
"I'm sure Sergeant Barnes never held that over you," Peggy said wryly.
"Not his style," Steve said with mock solemnity. "Too busy pulling the other guy off me every time I got in a fight, anyway."
He was distracted enough by memories that he forgot that this block ended in that little park until they'd reached it, and then it was impossible to avoid—the subway stop lay on the far side of it, and besides, Peggy had already spotted the statue. It was hard to miss.
"Good lord," she said, wide-eyed, as they crossed the street and headed into the park. "Well. The enamel is a bold choice."
Steve winced. For obvious reasons, it wasn't like Steven Grant could have had anything to do with approving what the statue to Cpt. Steven G. Rogers (1918-1945), Brooklyn's Bravest Son. Erected by the Grateful Public Through Voluntary Subscription looked like. He hated it, though—it was twenty feet tall and coated in technicolour enamel so that his hair was blindingly yellow, his skin an odd shade of off-white, his lips pale pink. For some reason, they'd based the uniform on what he'd worn during the USO tour so that the cowl in the statue's hand had tiny wings on it. His uniform was striped with the brightest blue, the most vivid red.
"This is delightful," Peggy said, grinning. "I can't think why you haven't brought me here before. Which is the better memorial to Captain America—the shorts or those boots? You look like a colour-blind pirate."
He was trying his best to think of a comeback when he noticed that they weren't alone. There was a man standing close to the statue, head craned back to look up at it. His dark hair was unusually long, curling against his shirt collar, and despite the heat of the day he was shivering. Steve frowned, not sure what it was about the man that had drawn his attention in particular when the man turned his head; Steve saw his profile.
Steve couldn't speak. It was all he could do to lock his knees so he didn't sit down, there and then, on the pavement; his bag did drop from suddenly nerveless fingers. He'd been prepared to see a funhouse mirror version of himself, but not literally to see ghosts. Not here, he thought to himself, why now? It wasn't like he'd had much sleep the past few days, but he hadn't slept much since the war. If this was the moment when he finally lost it, why was it happening now in the sunshine, with Peggy in need of his help, when he'd woken up so many times in the dead of night, chest heaving and sheets soaked with cold sweat?
He thought he was hallucinating, but then Peggy said, "Sergeant Barnes?", her voice like all the breath had just been punched out of her.
Steve shook his head, but the man turned all the way around and there was no denying it: it was Bucky.
The shock of it was slowly starting to give way to joy. Steve's faith had always been a background certainty, rather than something that got too concerned with Fr Kelly's theological niceties, but he knew a miracle when he saw one. This was something he'd never even thought to pray for, and wasn't that what the priests meant by grace? But there was something wrong, because this was Bucky but his expression was all wrong—flat and distant and cold—and he was still shivering, shaking, in the summer heat although he was fully dressed and wearing gloves.
"Bucky?" Steve finally found his voice and took a step closer. "What are—"
"You're not my target, but I know you." Bucky's expression didn't change from that terrible blankness, though he cocked his head as if he were sizing Steve up. "You used to be taller. I can’t find my target."
"Don't you—where have you been? It's been years, we thought you were dead, why didn't you come find me? Were y—" Every thought that had twisted Steve's gut in the small hours of the morning came flooding back to him. "Are you angry at me? Is that why you didn't come back? Buck, I'm sorry, I tried, but there wasn't time to go back and we didn't think…" His voice broke; he couldn't speak. Peggy reached out and clutched at one of his trembling hands, squeezing tightly; the gesture mortified and comforted him in equal measure.
"You are not my target," Bucky said, and turned on his heel to stride away towards the far gate of the park.
"No," Steve muttered, "no," and hurried after him. He'd barely rounded the statue, though, when he found that Bucky had come to a stop. Bucky was standing and staring at a blonde woman who carried herself, straight-backed, like a general. She was speaking in what sounded like rapid-fire Russian.
"Steve," Peggy said beside him. "You'll correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we see that angry young woman a few hours ago? When she was frozen in a box."
"Well, shit," Steve said, because he was starting to piece some things together and none of this seemed good. "Bucky! Look, just come back with us—we can talk, okay, we can—"
Bucky turned to look at him, and for a split second Steve thought he saw some sort of recognition his eyes, even though he looked much worse than he had even five minutes ago—his eyes were huge and dark in a too-pale face, the shaking was impossible to ignore now, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. And then the blonde woman punched him.
She decked Bucky, and when he fell to the ground she grabbed him by the collar and started hauling him bodily away.
"You put him down!" Peggy yelled, and rushed her. The blonde woman seemed to underestimate her, and Steve could have told her that was a bad idea. Peg had always relied on force, not finesse, and now she punched the blonde woman in the throat, stamped on her instep, threw her to the ground in the space of few of Steve's shaky breaths. The blonde woman didn't stay down for long though, twisting herself around so that she caught Peggy at the ankles and sent her staggering.
Steve wished he could dive in, help out, but even he could recognise where he'd be more hindrance than help. He settled for hurrying over to help Bucky stand, staggering a little under Bucky's weight as they moved out of immediate harm's way, back beneath the shadow of the statue.
The fight was vicious, with neither side giving any quarter. Peggy got in some good shots—even, once, managed to grab the blonde woman by the hair and slam her head into the ground, making Steve wince—but it was clear that the blonde woman had the edge when it came to sheer strength and endurance. In fact, she had the kind of stamina that reminded Steve of himself, as he had once been. That realisation led to one hunch, and another, and Steve thought of finding Bucky strapped to a table in a Hydra lab. Bucky sagged limply against him now, and bile rose in Steve's throat.
"Peggy!" he yelled. "She got the serum, be careful, she—"
"Aww, is your boyfriend worried about you?" the blonde woman interrupted him. She spoke English now, no trace of a Russian accent to mar the suggestion of flat Midwestern cornfields in her vowels. "That's sweet. Don't worry, honey, some guys like to watch but this time I'll make it quick." She lashed out with one foot, almost quicker than Steve's eyes could follow, and caught Peggy across the jaw, splitting her lip and spattering blood across her blouse.
From the gate of the park came the sound of shouting, a cry that someone needed to call the police, and Steve realised they'd been noticed. Honestly it was surprising that it had taken this long. Peggy had clearly heard it too, and decided to bring things to an end. She hiked up her skirt again, tugged her gun from its holster, and aimed it at the blonde woman, quick as a flash. "I'll only say it nicely once," she said. "Bugger off."
"Please," the blonde woman said, "I'm going to take the soldier b—"
Peggy shot her, clean through the shoulder, and then smiled, sweet as sugar. "I won't say it again."
The woman hissed at her, but hearing approaching sirens and the hubbub of a gawking crowd forming at the park gates, turned and fled. She hopped the park fence and vanished from sight.
"We have to get out of here," Steve told Peggy urgently.
"Bloody hell, what a Monday," Peggy said, reholstering her gun. She hurried around the far side of the statue and retrieved Steve's bag—he swore under his breath, he'd almost forgot it—and then came back, slinging one of Bucky's arms over her shoulder to take some of the weight.
"Come on," she said, "subway, quick as you like, and then we play it just like we did in Paris, all right?"
They split when they got to the subway. Peggy took the first train to come along, taking with her Steve's bag and some of his cash. With her jacket back on, hiding her blood-spattered blouse, and her head bowed, she could pass for a tired office worker on her way home after a long day. Steve and Bucky took the second train, sagging down in a seat at the back of the last car.
Several people shot them odd looks, and Steve couldn't blame them. It wasn't like you never saw bums on the subway, but respectable people never wanted to get too close to them—especially when one of them looked like he might be carrying something. Bucky had stopped shaking so much, but that almost made Steve more worried. His eyes were heavy-lidded and he was sweating and fever-hot where he was pressed against Steve's side. Steve wanted to strip Bucky of his gloves and coat—surely too heavy in weather like this—but he was wary of attracting even more disapproving looks from the elderly man who was sitting five seats down.
They changed trains three times. Steve hadn't caught sight of a tail, but if the SSR did canvass commuters later, this should throw them off for at least a little while. Bucky seemed more worn out with each passing minute. Once, after they got onto the third train, he stirred and said "Steve?" with something approaching his old manner. Then he slumped back into something near sleep.
When they got to their destination, Steve had to stagger up the steps of the subway station with him. Just their luck, they met a whole group of nuns who were coming down the stairs at the same time. The women looked appalled, and Steve winced. Somewhere up above, his ma was yelling at him.
"We were wetting the baby's head, sisters," he said to them, "and my brother got a bit carried away, that's all. First time dad."
The mother superior's lips pressed together in a thin line before she said, "We'll pray for the child," and swept on, the ends of her veil fluttering behind her.
"Gee," Steve said to an unheeding Bucky, "hauling your stubborn ass out of trouble while nuns think we're putting our immortal souls in danger. Guess we're doing a proper trip back to the old neighbourhood."
By the time they made it up to the street, the sun was setting and they were working against the flood of the commuters leaving Manhattan. It took a few tries before any of the taxis Steve hailed stopped for them; luckily, the driver seemed a lot less interested in Bucky than the nuns had been. He dropped them off at the address Peggy had given them: a hotel in Little Italy that was one step up from a flophouse. It at least had an elevator that took Steve and Bucky up to the top floor.
Peggy was waiting there for them in the door of one of the rooms. She'd pulled her hair back and scrubbed off her makeup, showing how the older black eye was having to war with the fresh bruises that were beginning to mottle her face. "Play it like Paris, I said, not dawdle," she said, but despite the mock exasperation in her voice she was careful as she supported a swaying Bucky and helped Steve lay him out on one of the two narrow beds crammed into the room. The thin mattress sagged beneath Bucky's weight. He looked to be properly sleeping now, though Steve wasn't sure if it was just that his fever was worse.
"How did you find this place?" he asked Peggy as he unlaced Bucky's boots and tugged them off. Might as well get him as comfortable as possible.
"Angie, the waitress from that diner, she owes me a few favours—her cousin's the owner here."
"This is her owing you?" Steve wrinkled his nose, but forgot what he was about to add to that when he pulled off Bucky's gloves.
"What on earth is wrong with his hand?"
"I don't know," Steve said. He reached out and prodded at it carefully with the tip of his finger. It was warm, but it was unmistakably metal. "I don't understand any of this, Peg."
They stepped out of the little room and went to sit on the top step of the rickety stairs. With the door left open, Steve could keep an eye on Bucky, but hopefully they would be less likely to disturb him.
"Someone's been hurting him," Steve said, resting his elbows on his knees and looking down at the toes of his now very-scuffed boots. "I know you're thinking maybe he stayed away on purpose, but he'd never defect, Buck's not—"
"Hush." Peggy reached out and put a hand on his forearm. "Whatever happened to him, we'll figure it out and we'll get help for him. I knew him too, remember."
Past tense, but not any more. Bucky was alive, sleeping, not twenty feet from them and Steve's life had upended itself yet again. He laughed, sharp and short. It made his ribs hurt. "You regretting asking me to help you, yet?"
Peggy said nothing more than that, for long enough that Steve made himself look up at her. She was studying him, her expression calm. "My life has not been without its regrets," she continued, "but I do try to make it my practice that there are as few of them as possible."
She leaned in then, telegraphing her intent as clear as day, but Steve could still hardly believe it—could hardly breathe, not until Peggy pressed her lips to his. It was—hell, it was like getting the serum all over again, but the best parts of it, the feeling that his body was made for whole new sensations now. He kissed her back, pouring everything into it that he could: all of the admiration he'd felt for her since the first time he'd seen her haul off and punch a guy, all of his love for her. Very carefully, he touched her cheek, mindful of her bruises, the hot blood underneath thin skin. His other hand, he buried in the thick glory of her hair, loving the feel of it on his fingers and the way that made her hum into his mouth.
Steve had no idea how long it lasted, just that by the time he finally pulled back from her, his lips felt swollen and Peggy was smirking like the cat who'd gotten the cream.
"Still?" he blurted out, because she had kissed him before, once, but then he'd fallen into the ice and slept for a while and when he'd woken up—well, no one had ever wanted him when he'd looked like this first time around.
"Darling," Peggy said fondly, "you are a beautiful idiot sometimes."
"Maybe," Steve was forced to agree, thinking of two years wasted. He closed his eyes, elation fighting with a sudden sense of exhaustion. "This is going to be difficult," he said, thinking of the SSR surely on their trail by now, the mole, the people lying frozen below the Brooklyn streets. They had little money and few resources, Howard to clear and Bucky to help. They could sleep here tonight, rest up, but tomorrow would be a long day—and so would many more days after that.
"It's always been difficult," Peggy said, grasping his hand, "but we've not found anything impossible yet."