“Manning a covert outpost is a very important job,” Carter says.
“It’s just until you heal up,” Steve says.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Bucky says.
“All you have to do is answer the phone, pet,” Carter says.
“Which one? There are thirteen, two of which are disguised to look like lamps,” Bucky says, waving at the desk with his crutch. “This one is just labeled with a hazardous materials symbol.”
“The previous secretary left notes,” Carter says vaguely.
“Yeah, in code!”
“You’ll have help,” Carter says, hitching her thumb at the door. “All the girls in the office are ours, they’ll sort you out.”
“It’ll be great, Buck,” Steve says earnestly. “You’ll learn Italian.”
“I don’t want to learn Italian!”
“Well, if you’d really prefer to go back to the hospital in London,” Carter says pointedly, her limited reservoirs of sympathy visibly drying up.
“No,” Bucky says sullenly. It’s true that he’d be nothing but a liability in the field, what with how busted he is from head to toe. “I’ll be your damn secretary.”
“We’ll be back practically every other day,” Steve assures him. “You’ll get sick of us in no time.”
“I’ve been sick of you for decades,” Bucky says, but his heart isn’t in it.
“That’s the spirit,” Carter says, bending down to kiss the corner of his mouth.
“We’ll call,” Steve says, ruffling Bucky’s hair with one massive paw in the appallingly gentle way he’s been doing since Bucky woke up in the hospital. “When we can.”
“We’ve got to get to the train,” Carter says, checking her watch. “Have fun. If you break any more bones without us we’ll be very upset,” she says, Steve trying to give Bucky a stern look from beside her.
“Get out of here already, go,” Bucky complains, chivvying Steve with a crutch, and Steve laughs and kisses his cheek too and then they’re out the door, clattering down the back stairs and leaving just their laughter behind.
“Bring me back Hitler’s head in his own underpants or don’t come back at all!” Bucky yells down the stairwell, then slams the door, stumps back to his new secretarial chair and collapses into it with bad grace.
A second later there’s a knock on the other door, which obsoletes itself instantly by the near-simultaneous opening of the door. A pincurled head sticks in around the jamb, belonging to a very pretty girl whose expression can only be described as perky.
“Hi!” she says, cementing the adjective. “I’m Angie!”
“B...arnes,” Bucky says cautiously.
“English said you’d be joining us,” Angie says, coming all the way in and sticking her hand out to shake. “Nah, don’t stand, we’re not formal around here.”
“You’re - from New York?” Bucky says. The accent is full Brooklyn.
“Yup,” Angie says. “Bensonhurst. You?”
“Vinegar Hill,” Bucky admits.
“The comics say you’re from Park Slope,” Angie says conversationally. “‘Course, they also say you’re sixteen and wear these little red shorts into combat, so seems pretty likely they got more than that wrong.”
“...Yes,” Bucky decides on, because it seems safest. “Uh. So. What do you do here?
“Oh, I’m in charge,” Angie says. “We’ve got twelve girls here but I manage this station, officially.”
“Oh,” Bucky says. A banging starts somewhere beyond the wall, like someone inexpertly but enthusiastically hammering nails in. Bucky is reminded that this is technically a residential building in a residential street, so as not to arouse suspicion. “So… you’re an agent,” he says over the banging, a little desperately.
“Oh, no. I just happened to meet English back in Brooklyn,” Angie says. “I was a waitress. She brought me on and then over when she found out I speak Italian and have four brothers in the mob.”
“Oh,” Bucky says again. Then, feeling insufficient, he adds, “Wow.”
“It’s been lots of fun,” Angie says, as the banging next door gets steadily louder. “I’ll take you round to meet all the girls once they’re back from their lunch. Everyone’s great! You’ll love them!” She has to speak quite loudly now to be heard over the banging. “We’re gonna - excuse me just a second please.”
Angie yanks her shoe off, hops over to the wall and starts hammering right back with her heel. “Stai zitto, figlio di un maiale!”
“Che no che! Questo è il terzo giorno che non starai zitto!”
“MA VAFFANCULO, PORCA PUTTANA!" Angie screams, then turns back to Bucky. “Sorry about that,” she says brightly. “Neighbors, you know how it is. You want coffee?”
“Yes,” Bucky says faintly. At least the banging has stopped.
Angie brings him an extremely tiny coffee. “Let’s introduce you around,” she says before she even puts it down, motioning Bucky to stand up. “Come on, everyone’s dying to meet you.”
That sounds less than ideal, but Bucky collects his crutches and lurches out after her into the main room. “This is Ana, Cecile, Maria, Marion, Felice…” Angie rattles off the names of the rows of girls she swans past, who all flash Bucky a quick smile and a buon giorno or ça va with barely a break in typing. If they’re dying to meet him, Bucky is relieved to see, they must be doing so internally. Everyone seems very focused on their business. Several girls are poring over documents and maps and code books; four more are in the corner with headphones on, frowning into space as they listen and write things down.
“... and Dottie. Dottie’s on parole,” Angie says loudly, stopping by the desk of a dark-haired girl who doesn’t seem to be doing anything but leaning back and balancing her chair precariously on two legs. “And she’s not allowed to have weapons. What is Dottie not allowed to have?”
“Weapons,” comes the dutiful chorus from around the room.
“Which can include?”
“Letter openers, nail scissors, rolling pins, anything heavier than an espresso cup and anything sharper than a butterknife,” comes the slightly more disjointed chorus.
“She’s not allowed to have those either,” Angie says. “Not after last Tuesday.” Dottie, meeting Bucky’s gaze, rolls her eyes.
“You got that?” Angie says to Bucky.
“No weapons for Dottie,” Angie repeats patiently.
“No weapons,” Bucky parrots, probably looking a little wilder around the eyes than he’d like. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Dottie wink at him.
“Right,” Angie says. “You’ll get the hang of it. Now, here’s the bathroom…”
The grand tour culminates back in Bucky’s office, with the thirteen dreadful phones and the stacks of unreadable notebooks. "So!” Angie concludes. “Any questions? Ready to get started?”
“I - was supposed to have notes,” Bucky says, a little hopelessly. “From the previous secretary, I mean.”
“Oh, Rosie’s stuff,” Angie says. “Absolutely. Felice’ll get you the cypher, let me just go tell her,” and Bucky’s left in the sunny little office with a desk that probably individually qualifies as a nerve center and a chair that’s actually surprisingly comfortable.
If he can get all his casts situated right, at least. Bucky shifts his left arm. Steve’s drawn little doodles of planets and stars and spacemen on this one, but only on the inside of his forearm where nobody else can see. It does make Bucky smile reluctantly every time he looks at it, but unfortunately that does nothing for the itching.
Well, he’s lucky. Stark had personally flown in and paid three separate doctors, because, in his words, “Carter took me by the throat and told me to fix you and Cap looked ready to lay an egg.” Bucky hadn’t even woken up for two weeks, which Stark and his mad surgeons had taken as an excuse to stuff him full of tubes. It was all for his health, they’d protested, as if he’d be happy to know he was fed through the things. Steve had proven his worth once again by helping Bucky detach it all and hustle him away to recuperate in the spare bedroom of Carter’s mother’s cottage. Having to drink nothing but broth fed to him by Steve’s future mother-in-law wasn’t the time of Bucky’s life but was worlds better than being stuck full of ghastly experimental tubage.
And now he’s essentially on medical leave here.
Life as a secretary is, as promised, busy but not overly full of strain. Nobody lets Bucky carry anything heavier than a coffee cup and even those are usually plucked out of his hands. Felice shows him how to decode Rosie's notes and Angie explains which phones to pick up and which ones to never ever touch unless enemy agents are actively breaking down the door. None of them ring often, and it turns out Carter hadn't been having one of her characteristic moments of understatement when she said all he has to do is take the calls and write them down.
So Bucky reads reports, records what gets rattled off through the telephone, loses spectacularly to Bridget the fucking card shark and learns how to make espresso. In the evenings he sits in the sunshine on the roof, accessible through the tiny apartment that houses him just half a street away from the office.
He gets regular enough visits from Steve and Carter - and they always bring him something, even if it’s just a deformed turnip that Carter had straight-facedly said bore his uncanny resemblance - and fairly regular calls too. Sometimes he hears gunfire in the background, or Carter shouting. They sound like they’re enjoying themselves. Steve sounds happy as a clam over the line and if the British had an equivalent to yeehaw Bucky’s positive he’d regularly hear Carter yelling it.
Meanwhile Bucky gets embraced wholeheartedly by the girls as a secretary au naturale. He gets brought sandwiches and tea and miniscule cups of coffee, and he might think they’re flirting only he knows what they see is a gaunt, sallow half-soldier who falls asleep like an old man in the afternoons. Besides, they all use every available hook in his office to hang their washing and when they find out he has three sisters they stop pretending bodily functions don’t exist. He knows he’s officially off the bachelor roster then.
On the whole, it’s - actually quite nice. The damn Italian stairs might be narrow and tricky and he’s not even allowed any booze, but the girls are all practically comedians and he learns more than he’d ever dreamed about cyphers and logistics and terrain mapping. It’s useful work, too. Agents pass through sometimes, or one of the girls goes and collects messages from dead drops; they process a lot of intel and send it along to the right eyes. He’s not bored, even if sometimes it feels like all he does is hunt for new ways to scratch under his casts.
And then one Friday afternoon all that gets interrupted. They have an agent stopping by and he’s expected; Marion makes tea and coffee and offers it around while Angie chats with the agent and Ana gets his papers together. He’s not one Bucky’s seen before and judging by the glances of the girls they haven’t either, but that’s not unusual. If he’s up here in the offices that means he knew the passphrase and in any case he’ll be gone once Ana gives him the right documents.
Bucky only sees it because he trips. He’s hobbling over for some tea when his toe hits the edge of the desk. He hisses and overbalances, and as he clatters down awkwardly he sees the man jerk at the noise, his hand going for - a weapon. He has a pistol. It’s in an open holster high under his arm, and Bucky can see the silencer on the muzzle sticking out of the end. And all of that by itself wouldn’t be strange - the man’s a spy - but then Bucky sees the decision harden in the man’s eyes, yes, now, and instead of dropping away his grip closes purposefully on the gun.
“Angie,” Bucky manages, hitting the floor.
Angie looks around, meets his eyes, and without hesitation whirls and whips her teacup at the agent’s face.
He grunts, staggers back and claws his face with one hand. The other’s still inside his jacket, and Angie skitters smartly to the side. Bucky scrabbles to his knees and throws her a crutch.
Dottie leaps up out of nowhere, catches it midair like a thrown spear, and lands already swinging.
Now there’s a girl who went to the Carter school of fisticuffs, Bucky thinks weakly as the man howls and drops like a sack of rocks. His pistol skids across the floor; Angie darts in and snatches it up. “Don’t kill him,” she yells as Dottie continues to wield the crutch like Excalibur. “We need him for intel!”
By then the rest of the girls have gotten their pistols out, desks and shoes clattering as they all jump to their feet and aim. Dottie slows and stills, surrounded by a circle of guns; she sighs and steps back half a step, twirling the crutch once. “He isn’t dead, I wasn’t going to kill him,” she says sullenly.
“‘Course you weren’t,” Angie says, slightly out of breath. “Now let’s get him tied up so you can not kill him some more.”
The agent makes a grab for Dottie’s ankle. Felice yelps. Dottie, with a beatific expression, takes the nearby pot off the desk and dumps scalding coffee onto the agent’s face with the delicacy of a society woman pouring high tea.
The scream devolves into gurgling pretty quick. After a moment Angie waves at the girls to lower their weapons. “He came alone, right?”
“Let’s see,” Dottie says and stalks off down the hall, holding the crutch like a flaming sword.
“Right,” Angie says. “Maria, Bridget, after her.” The two girls take off, pistols in hand. “Where’s Delicia?”
“Post office run,” Ana says.
“When she comes back, tell her to put this guy in the cellar.” Bucky thinks that’s a wonderful idea. If Delicia were given one end of a pull-rope and a team of oxen were harnessed to the other, their little cow legs would be sent skidding all the way down the street. “Cecile, go get the doctor.”
That’s less of a wonderful idea. Cecile is a big believer in old-fashioned justice, especially for Axis agents. “Why?”
“Because we need him alive and I’d rather somebody else bandage him up than us having to do it.”
Cecile considers this. “Fair,” she says, and gets her purse.
Dottie stalks back in, unencumbered by prey. “Amelie didn’t see anyone come in,” she says. “He must have gotten into the building some other way.”
“Alone?” Angie asks.
“Alone,” Dottie agrees. “Or they ran. Probably alone, though.” She smiles. “Rarely are many men dispatched to take on a bunch of girls.”
“Uh huh,” Angie says. “We’ll ask our new pal about it when he quits gurgling and see what’s what.”
“I am very good at interrogation,” Dottie volunteers.
“We know,” Angie says. “Ana, call Charlie and Echo stations and tell them we got a visitor. We’ll make English talk to him and report it to the brass, she’s due back tomorrow anyway.” She puts her hands on her hips and blows out a sigh, surveying the room, ignoring the wheezing agent sprawled on the floor “Well! Let’s clean this up then.”
Bucky picks up a couple of strewn papers before getting gently but firmly herded back into his office. He can’t get worked up enough to protest, especially since Dottie hasn’t given his crutch back and right now he can’t deny he needs it. He slumps back at his desk and glares at his hands until they stop shaking.
The phone rings. He jumps. It’s the private line, the one to his office. Steve or Carter, then. He picks up.
It’s Steve. “Buck! Hey! We’ve found the antique -” collected the intel they were sent for - “and we’re heading to Lucerne.” Headed back here. Steve, god bless him, treats code phrases like a foreign language he can’t quite pronounce. “How’s it with you? All okay over there?”
Outside his office there’s a grunt as Delicia hoists the moaning agent off the floor and gets him over her shoulder. Dottie, sitting at a desk nearby, is idly sharpening the end of the crutch. She’s using what looks like a knife made out of scrap metal. Angie, Marion and Felice have the agent’s worldly possessions spread out across the side table and are picking at and cataloguing each thing, including his shirt, socks and trousers.
“Doing just fine,” Bucky says, finding he means every word.