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Steve was padding through his kitchen with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon when he heard his front door open. He shrugged and put the loaded spoon in his mouth then went to check who it was. His life would be simpler if he had friends who knocked or embraced the difference between doors and windows. It would be easier to know if he should expect a firefight or a friend who decided Steve really needed to watch some movie immediately.
"Hi Steve." Natasha greeted him from behind a garment bag in the middle of his living room.
He took the spoon out of his mouth. "Hi Nat. Nice to see you."
She pushed the garment bag into his arms. "Get dressed. You're going to a party."
"I had plans." Steve said. It came out weak. His plans had been him and his peanut butter enjoying the beauty of 'Up' for the seventh time.
"It's a mission." She told him. Cocking her head and widening her eyes in a dangerous way.
Steve gestured at his sweatpants. “It’s my day off.” He tried to look at her through his lashes to see how that was flying. She rolled her chin in a tiny circle that was just enough to make him meet her eyes.
More like a snake than a spider she moved just enough to keep him locked in their emerging staring contest. Some how her stare coaxed him into thinking about it. It made him think that whatever this mission was it must be important. If she was willing to stand here in front of him. Stand up for whatever this mission was. He found himself thinking he should at least consider it. Just from the way her eyelid twitched he could tell she have raised a corner of her mouth in a half smile, a smile that invited and expected the answer ‘yes’.
Steve shoved his spoon of peanut butter back into his mouth and said around it “Fine.” He grabbed the garment bag from her and stomped off to his bedroom to get changed.
She was far too amused for his liking as she called after him. “Take a shower. This is a high class party.”
Steve did as he was told and emerged clean and dressed in less than twenty minutes. Apparently twenty minutes was enough time for Agent Coulson and Sam to join Natasha in the living room and completely cover his coffee table in paper files and laptops.
“So, what’s the plan?” Steve asked. He had been to a few fancy dress parties in the name of his SHIELD work. Usually he was there to frown and make someone think twice about their villainous ways. Occasionally he was asked to be as distracting as possible and it wasn’t as if he had a shortage of people he wanted to pick a fight with.
“You’re going undercover to investigate a probably defunct HYDRA lab. Maybe” Coulson told him with a straight face.
"I thought we agreed I'm not good at undercover stuff." Steve definitely didn't whine as he sat down. The one time that someone at SHIELD thought that it was a good idea to send Steve undercover, well the target hadn’t escaped and he had been pretty chummy with Steve after he had been cuffed, explaining exactly what Steve had done wrong. Which, Steve had been annoyed to learn, had been breathing wrong before he had even come into the targets sightline.
He asked Natasha “Why aren’t you doing this one? You’re great at these kinds of missions?”
Natasha laughed and pointed to her leg. Steve realized that she was wearing a cast from ankle to knee. He jerked back to look at where she had been standing earlier. He must have overlooked it before. He hadn’t noticed anything different in her posture. Again he wondered how she could always show someone exactly what she wanted them to see.
Agent Coulson handed him a thick file folder. Steve dropped into his armchair and opened it.
Inside were pictures of a block of row houses that had been converted into a decent sized mansion. Some of the pictures were new but several were older.
“This building is affectionately call the Gray Gosling. Thaddeus Gray purchased the entire block in 1952 with money he made during the reconstruction of Europe following WWII. Gray is known to have contact with HYDRA loyalists while he was in France and Switzerland. His company was also involved in demolishing the burned out remains of three prominent HYDRA bases.” Agent Coulson paused here as they all smiled. In the past year they had made a hobby of burning out HYDRA bases with SHIELD’s backing. Steve got a little misty eyed remembering Denier’s gleeful application of explosives to HYDRA bases during the war.
“Directly after buying the row of houses he began the project of connecting them into a single home.” Steve held up a copy of a newspaper clipping looking at the photo of a crane lifting something into the building.
Steve admired the faux columns that covered where the old houses connected for a moment then looked up to point out. “That sounds like a lot of nothing. ”
Agent Coulson nodded. “Which is why no one’s looked into it. This place wasn’t even on SHIELD’s radar until a few weeks ago.” He nodded over toward Natasha.
“I was in Northern Italy. There’s a lovely resort there in the mountains. Great view. Unfortunate neighbors. A HYDRA outpost, that’s still surprisingly well guarded. Certainly more than I expected.” She carried on.
Steve looked her over again wondering if the broken leg was all she was hiding. She shook her head. “No,” She gestured to her cast. “this is from a DIY project of Clint’s. Anyway, I was able to retrieve several boxes of HYDRA’s ‘eyes only’ files.”
"And the Gray Gosling is mentioned a lot in those files. We know now there is or was a HYDRA lab under the house. What we don’t know is if the current owner, Xander Gray, is aware of it or when the lab was last active.” Agent Coulson nodded. “The files Agent Romanov found were from the late 70s and had been heavily redacted." Coulson frowned. "And ended rather abruptly with mentions of screaming."
"Has anyone considered asking Mr. Gray if we can poke around in his basement?" Steve asked. Because sometimes SHIELD agents overlooked obvious solutions in favor of cloak and dagger plans.
Sam shook his head. “You want to ring the doorbell and ask, ‘hey, we heard you might be part of an evil fascist organization. Can we poke around in your basement?’ Not it, man, not it.”
“I think you’d get an answer pretty quick.” Steve said. Sam mimed shooting him to show what kind of answer the asker would get.
Agent Coulson nodded and continued. "We've had agents pose as employees of the power company, the water company, the local stonemasons union and enthusiastic architecture appreciators.” He smiled his half appreciative, half annoyed smile. “The Girl Scouts got further into the house then any of our people."
"What about the staff?" Steve asked even though they had probably considered that already. “Could someone go in as a driver or a cleaner?” Steve knew there was a clique of SHIELD agents who prided themselves on coming up through the ranks of the service and hospitality industry. They did this kind of stuff all the time.
"Mr. Gray only hires from North Star Staffing agency which has a certain reputation."
Steve lifted an eyebrow at him.
Sam said "A reputation for having no SHIELD agents or any other undercover operatives. As much as we would all like to see you in a maid outfit, it wouldn't work."
“So, you’re going in as a guest to his party this evening.” Agent Coulson said handing him another file.
“And this can’t wait until Nat’s back on her feet.” Steve asked. Flashing back to a kindly old face asking him. ‘You’re not much of a spy, are you, kid?’
Sam gaped at him exaggeratedly. “And let a HYDRA lab exist for another two months.” Steve chewed his lip. Sam went on. “Nah, this party only happens once a year. Come on, Steve, it won’t be that bad. Go in, say hello, slip off and check out the basement.” Sam said obviously trying to encourage him.
Steve grimaced. “Sam, I can’t express how bad I am at this kind of thing.”
He dropped his hands in his lap then a thought struck him and he perked up. "Coulson, you would be great at this kind of operation."
"You made him blush." Natasha said with a eye crinkling smile.
"Thank you, Captain.” Agent Coulson responded with some definite pink in his cheeks. “But I lack some of the skills that might be required tonight."
Steve looked at him honestly baffled. Agent Coulson was one of the best agents SHIELD had. He was legendary among the junior agents. They fought to bring him coffee.
"He means punching rogue HYDRA experiments in the face until they stay down." Sam stage whispered after the pause stretched too long.
His next thought must have been written across his face because Natasha said “This isn’t the kind of party you can show up to ‘loaded for bear’.”
"You don’t have any idea what they were experimenting with?" Steve asked. For all it was an evil empire bent on world domination HYDRA seemed equally committed to documenting it's dealing in triplicate.
"Well the files mention a monster, or maybe monsters." Agent Coulson paused. "And screaming."
Natasha asked "Do they say who or what was doing the screaming?"
Coulson picked up one of the folders and flipped to a page. It was a memo on HYDRA letterhead with all the text blacked out. "No.”
Steve sighed resigning himself to going in. "What exactly am I looking for anyway? A big HYDRA flag on the wall? A door marked 'Secret Lab'?" Steve asked.
"Well, if you find either of those it would help." Coulson said.
Natasha nodded and passed him a stack of paper. "Here are the blueprints, what we know about the owner, and the guest list."
Steve looked over the blueprints long enough to memorize them. Then started on the other papers. Steve got to the end of the guest list and the last name on it caught Steve’s eye. "Really, this guy's named Roger Stevens?"
Sam's grin grew enormous.
"That's you." Natasha told him.
Steve rolled his eyes. “And the best you could come up with was ‘Roger Stevens’?”
Sam gave him a blinding smile. “I suggested Wayne Bruce.”
Monty decided that the millennial generation must have finally stormed the gates of FBI Headquarters and usted the old guard. There was no other reason that he was using his commercial drivers license to park a delivery truck down the street from the house that he would be surveilling tonight. The van even had the logo of a popular florist on the side. Only a group of people who adopted irony as a way of life could have decided that the most cliche cover imaginable was the one they would go with.
He parked then made a show of walking up the street with a bouquet of Snapdragons. He checked that the coast was clear before doubling back and rolling up the back gate of the van enough to slip inside.
He presented the bouquet with a flourish to the man already tuning and tweaking their surveillance equipment.
Dugan pulled one of the bulky headphones away from his ears. “Com’on. The party’s getting started.”
Monty dropped into the second chair and started checking his screens.
“Who picked the alias James Madison, again? Because I feel the need to plaster their cubicle with pictures of pygmy goats.”
“That’s Harrison.” There was a pause and Bucky imagined his friends sharing a look. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, which makes it so last season. You know when Buck was Henry Harrison visiting Hamburg.”
Monty asked “How many is it now?”
Bucky rolled his neck against the headrest of the car. “As if you don’t have a chart and bingo cards for everytime my undercover identity is named after a president.”
“I think the guys who make them are trying to teach you American History one president at a time.” Dugan reminded him.
“Just because I asked who Aaron Burr was on one date.” Bucky groaned. That guy had been cute but way to into Hamilton and a glaring reminder to Bucky that he shouldn’t hook up with people he worked with.
The car rolled up to drop him off in front of the Gray Gosling. “Showtime, guys.”
Bucky gave the door man his invitation and watched how the man reacted to him. The man wasn't ill-trained enough to show anything on his face but his elbow conveyed how he thought his employers standards had fallen if he was inviting the kind of hippy Bucky was posing as to his parties. Even though James Madison's only nod to his nouveau riche roots was shoulder length hair neatly pulled back with an expensive gold hair clip. He was posing as a man who’s free spirit had led him to backpack through South America and Europe and somehow parlayed that into an energy bar empire. Bucky was ready with his most bro smile.
The doorman smiled back. "Good evening, sir. If you would care to go in, Mr. Gray is greeting each guest personally in the grand hallway, then there are drinks in the ballroom before dinner." and waved him past the two larger men bracketing the door in suits that were well tailored enough not to give away where their guns were.
Stepping into the elegantly furnished house Bucky let his eyes drift over the people lined up in the grand hallway before letting himself get distracted by the suit of medieval armor on display. If Bucky had to pick a word to describe the decor he would choose ‘choice’. Mr. Gray had made some definite ‘choices’ when he decorated it. Each thing was spectacular but the frighteningly sharp modern sculpture standing in the last alcove clashed with the intricate pattern of the Persian tapestry behind it and when Bucky’s eyes skittered away in self defense they landed on the half scale model of the triceratops with a last girl at the dance expression.
Looking away Bucky scanned the line of guests waiting to be greeted by Mr Gray before going into the ballroom. They were the reason he was here after all. He didn’t let his eyes linger on Archibald Stout or Maddy Ann Khan but he noticed the raised eyebrows and quirk of lips between them behind their dates’ backs. They were some of the many who had already been investigated and he could mostly ignore. They weren’t even on the list of potential associates of Mr. Mark but they were definitely up to something. Maybe they were having an affair.
“Hey, Buck.” Bucky turned his head so he was face to gauze clad rump with a painting of Venus on her halfshell. Dugan waited the agreed upon three seconds before continuing. “Another guy just showed up, Roger Stevens. He’s on the guest list but there’s something fishy going on. He’s just walking into the house now if you want to get a look, tall, blond.
Bucky turned to the woman standing behind him quickly glancing over her shoulder at the new comer then he focused on her and said with a smile just shy of cheeky. “Beautiful brush work, don’t you think?”
The woman, who he recognized from the list of cleared guests, pursed her lips at him then broke into a braying laugh.
Bucky turned back towards the head of the line and shuffled forward after the people in front of him. The man he had seen at the back of the line was tall, broad, with classic good looks and knew how to rock a bowtie. Stevens carried himself like a dancer and Bucky had a passing thought that he should recognize the guy from somewhere. He thought a bit hard and remembered that face on a TV screen and the smell of popcorn. Stevens was probably a D-list actor and Bucky had seen him in ‘Were-lizard Attacks’ or ‘Engorging 3’. Bucky took another quick glance back. If he had run into this guy in another time and place he would definitely get the guys number.
But this was work and he had to focus on figuring out who Benjamin Mark was meeting. It was Bucky’s job to find out who the contact was and who he was being introduced to. The man was an arms dealing big fish looking for a bigger pond to play in. Someone at this party had agreed to introduce him to people that would make that happen.
He shuffled Stevens to the back of his mind as Mr. Gray greeted the next three guest quickly with a promise to speak with them more once dinner was over which put Bucky in front of his host. Bucky put on his best slightly enthusiastic slightly goofy smile and stepped up to shake the man’s hand.
Mr. Gray looked like his photo, a spry old man with close cut grey hair and a prominent bald spot. Dancing eyes looked at Bucky through thin perfectly circular glasses. The eyes Bucky was getting from the butler at Mr. Gray’s shoulder were a lot less friendly.
“Hello, Mr...” the man left a delicate pause in the air.
“Madison, James Madison.” Bucky said ignoring the snort from Dugan and the muttered ‘lord’ from Monty. If he was going to be saddled with the name he was going to have fun with it. Bucky also pulled Mr. Gray in for a bro hug because that’s how James Madison was.
“Ah, yes, the man with the plums.” Mr Gray said with a satisfied smile.
Bucky opened his mouth with confidence but had no idea what should come out. Before he could start bluffing about fruits of all kinds Mr. Gray chuckled at him and said “Your bars, my boy.”
“Right,” Bucky let his face light up. “We just launched the new prune energy bar. It’s been a big hit in Canada. Now we just need to switch up the marketing for the US. You know prunes and plums are the next superfood.” He spread his arms wide. “You should see what else we have in the works. There are so many things we can pair them with strawberries, oats, almonds. Though those can get a bit nutty.” Bucky smiled wide knowing that James Madison thought that was an awesome joke.
Mr. Gray gave a delighted laugh at the bad pun. “I can see you’ll be great company. I have more guests to greet but I’m sure we’ll have time later to talk all about your fruits and nuts.”
Bucky slid away and into the ballroom satisfied that he had made the right impression on his host.
Sam let the duffle thump down on the floor of the room Natasha unlocked for them. Sam wasn’t sure if there had been a key involved but the room was definitely unlocked now. One wall was entirely windows and gave them a sliver of a view of the Gray Gosling and nothing else.
“Nice place.” Sam noted looking around. “Really takes the minimalist aesthetic to a whole new level.”
She gave him one of her secret smiles. “Wilson, there are a lot of times when nothing is better than something.”
“Is this the part where you hit a secret switch and the wall flips around with all the cool spy stuff.” Sam asked half joking.
“No, but it also doesn’t have a mangy badger or a gassy junior agent.”
Sam made a show of poking the floor with his boot. “No sand either.”
As he settled back in the seat of the town car that was whisking off to the party Natasha started talking through his well disguised earpiece.
“Ok, Stevens, here’s who you are for the next six hours. You’re a middle aged stock market millionaire. Your wildly successful by most people’s standards and you know it. You’re enough of a dick that you like lording it over your upper middle class family when you see them on holidays. When people are being nice they call you reserved. Behind your back they call you a smug bastard.”
“I don’t think I like myself.” Steve muttered.
“Don’t turn your head when you talk into the mic.”
“How?” Steve asked.
“The background noise and reverberation of your voice changed. And of course you like yourself. Roger Stevens thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Steve rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything. “The good thing about Stevens is that you don’t have to do or say much. Just smile a bit condescendingly at anyone who talks to you. Like you think it’s cute that they’re satisfied with 100 million and a yacht big enough for 50 people.”
“Am I going to like anyone at this party?” Steve sighed.
He could imagine her tilting her head to the side giving the question some thought before answering him. “Steve Rogers will like a solid fourth of them. Roger Stevens only respects the ones that have made more money than him.”
“Why is Stevens at this party anyway? It seems a little bohemian for him.”
This time Steve could hear the smile in her voice as she replied. “Good question. Roger Stevens isn’t quite rich enough to get into the most elite parties. This party isn’t elite but it is exclusive enough that he can name drop it to his friends on the golf course.”
“Remember all you have to do is nod and smile like you’re better than everyone else. Now let’s go over your background.”
Natasha wrapped up her instructions as he climbed out of the car and started up the steps to the Gray Gosling. “Show time, Rogers. From now until you leave the party don’t acknowledge I’m speaking to you. Just like when you were giving Tony the silent treatment.”
Steve nearly nodded to acknowledge her comment but realized what he was doing. He over corrected jerking his head up and getting a good view of the sky. A woman in a gold lamé gown next to him glanced up to see what he was looking at and shook her head when she saw nothing. As he smiled he repeated to himself “smug. smile.” The woman brushed past him with a sniff.
He kept the smug smile on his face as he stepped up to the podium the doorman was using to check invitations. “Hello,” he extended the elegantly calligraphed invitation to the man. “Lovely night for a party.” The doorman looked at him dubiously.
The voice in his ear said “Rogers, don’t make small talk with the help. You wouldn’t ask your washing machine about its day. That’s how Roger Stevens sees the staff.”
Steve strangled down a noise of outrage so all that came out was a squeak. That was no way to treat people The doorman very visibly made sure to check the invitation Steve had handed him against the papers on his podium, twice.
“Mr. Stevens, if you would like to go Mr. Gray is greeting guests in the grand hallway.”
Steve glanced at each of the two guards that bracketed the door like gargoyles and stepped through the door.
The comm-line in his ear cut back in. “So, Sam just explained to me about Mr. Spinny. Roger Stevens treats the staff like appliances you haven’t named and drawn a face on with dry erase marker.” Steve was a little embarrassed that Natasha knew about Mr. Spinny. It was silly but Steve thought the face made the machine friendlier.
When he was through the door the first thing Steve noticed about the grand hallway were the exits. His time as a soldier had drilled that into him. The part of him that had spent time in art school firmly told soldier Steve to sit down and shut up. Because this place was amazing. What didn’t glitter gleamed. The first piece to catch his eye was at the far end of the hall. The window on the staircase landing looked like someone had taken the best work of Alphonse Mucha and made it glow from the inside out. Along the near wall the paintings looked like flipping through an art history book starting with the renaissance style and Steve cocked his head was that a Picasso near the head of the line?
A cough came from over his left shoulder. Steve had the best intentions of turning toward the cougher but he made the mistake of looking up and he had to stare at the single propeller plane that was suspended from the ceiling. How had they gotten that up there?
The cough was so pointed this time that Steve thought it might want to stab him in the ribs. He turned again reminding his cheeks ‘smug, smug.’ Behind him were two men and a woman in impeccable evening wear and the doorman behind them with a tight smile.
“Oh,” Steve jerked as he realized he was blocking the entrance. He bit down on his reflexive “Sorry.” and stepped out of their way and gestured for them to proceed him in the receiving line. Dutifully he joined the line behind them and shuffled forward whenever they did.
After that He let himself get lost looking at all the different styles and eras represented.
“Are you alright, Rogers? You’re breathing heavily.” Natasha asked.
Steve shook himself out of his art lust not sure how to explain that he would like to spend a few hours looking at that triptych, maybe take it to dinner. He realized that he was near the head of the line and took several deep breaths trying to ignore the walls around him. He made it to the head of the line and had the attention of his host and his butler. Mr. Gray smiled mildly at him and said “Good Evening, Mr…”
“Stevens.” Natasha said immediately into his ear and Steve echoed without thinking “Stevens.”
“Ah, Mr. Stevens, I was delighted to find out you could make it.”
Steve affected what he hoped was an faux nonchalant pose and said “I didn’t know that my business in Hong Kong would wrap up so quickly, or favorably.”
Mr. Gray nodded amiably extending his hand. “I’m glad you were able to make it.”
Steve shook his hand in the way that he would have shaken many Senator’s which he had been told was technically competent but lacked heart.
“I see you’ve been admiring my art collection.” Mr. Gray said after a moment of awkward eye contact.
“Yes, the Vireux is very lovely.” Steve nodded to the painting behind the man’s shoulder.
Mr. Gray turned to admire the painting with him. “It is a wonderful example of his work during the Second World War.”
“I remember seeing it in France.” Steve replied.
Mr. Gray laughed a bit to himself. “You are quite the jetsetter. But no you wouldn’t have seen this one before.”
“I saw it.” Steve gestured to the dappling of blue and yellow that sprawled along the lower half of the canvas. “I remember seeing these brush strokes and thinking how the thickness of the yellow paint would cast shadows and make the blues darker in natural light.”
“You must be thinking of one of his other pieces. There were several on display in Milan a few years ago.”
“I’m sure it was this one.” Steve said. Seeing this painting had been one of the bright spots of winter 1943 for him.
“Don’t contradict him.” Natasha muttered over the comline.
Mr. Gray’s eyes positively twinkled at him through his glasses. “My boy, that painting has been hanging here longer than you’ve been alive. My father brought that back with him from his own European travels.”
“No, I …” Steve started to wave his hand toward the painting then froze in mid air as he realized his blunder. He felt the blush climb up his neck as he realized he was being an ungracious guest and not exactly keeping his cover.
Natasha continued. “Ok, brush it off as a silly mistake and change the subject.”
“I must be thinking of another painting from Vireux’s Exile period.” Steve said as he try and failed to wave dismissively at such a beautiful painting.
Mr. Gray looked far too knowing for Steve’s comfort and the butler standing behind him looked like he was straining something trying not to roll his eyes.
“You have a lovely collection. The sculpture of the duck is particularly ...unique.” Steve offered. At least Steve thought it was a duck.
Mr. Gray raised his eyebrow at him then gestured toward the ballroom. “There is a Mikinal hanging in the ballroom. Why don’t you see if you can find it?”
“Go.” Natasha ordered.
Steve keeping his spine straight even though he could feel Mr. Gray’s eyes on him and a burst of laughter as he joined the throng. He was pretty sure his host thought he was an idiot. It was probably petty to wish the man was HYDRA just to even the score.
Dugan muted the mic so that they won’t disturb Bucky. “Let’s find out who this Stevens guy is.”
Monty cracked his knuckles and dropped his hands to the keyboard.
Bucky snagged a glass off a passing waiters tray as he sauntered into the ballroom. It felt like stepping into a fairy tale or maybe the glitz and glamour of old hollywood. There was wood panelling halfway up the wall, a swirling red and gold wallpaper and a vaulted ceiling with a lot of chandeliers. As if the decorator had blown passed too many and other the other side. Bucky blinked spots out of his eyes and decided he should avoid looking up for the rest of the evening.
Getting his bearings he set off toward the buffet. Bucky had realized on his second undercover assignment that there is nothing that makes a man look less intimidating than trying to juggle a glass and a plate of appetizers at the same time. And if all else failed he could spill either on other guests without looking like a complete asshole.
He cruised the beautifully laid out hor d'oeuvres, half deciding what an energy bar baron would pick from the feast before him and half examining the reflection in the windows to see if he could see Mr. Mark among the guests. Probably something with a lot of protein he mused and an amount of fat that would scandalize most people. The deviled eggs would be perfect. His eyes caught on a silhouette in the window. Glancing over his shoulder he saw that yes, there was Mr. Mark in his long tailed suit. He turned with his glass and loaded plate to set out to mingle in a way that would put him in a slow orbit of Mr. Mark.
Bucky was sure that Mr. Mark hadn’t met his contact nor his contact’s supplier yet. Something about his posture told Bucky Mr. Mark still had his business pants on for the evening. It was Bucky’s job to get pictures of him and the people he talked to. Felix hadn’t been able to get a read on the security system here so they had assumed the worst. Felix had claimed he was giving Bucky a family heirloom when he presented him with the cufflink that contained a tiny camera that used honest to god film. He had been told with terrifying solemnity that the roll only had twenty photos so he needed to make the shots count.
He ambled over to the woman who had laughed with him in the hallway and was promptly introduced to her husband, and her best friend and other dear friend who made a sour face at not being called the best friend. And they were very friendly. Bucky pretended to see someone on the other side of the room that he needed to talk to before the little group could coyly invite him to an after party orgy. James Madison, in Bucky’s opinion was friendly but in the end a one person kind of guy.
In the next twenty minutes he watched Mr. Mark introduce himself to every lady half his age that stood still long enough. As Mr. Mark approached a trio of blondes a older dark haired woman swooped down on him her iridescent purple shawl fanning out behind her like wings.
At first Bucky took her for a mama bear warding this man off her children and almost dismissed this interaction but something about the way Mr. Mark straightened made Bucky believe that he respected her with a capital R. Bucky wasn’t in a spot where he could move into hearing range without mowing five people over. And whatever James Madison might have you believe spontaneous football games weren’t always welcome. Carefully he spiralled around them close enough that he could still get a good look.
The woman’s hair was bobbed at chin length and might have been a very expensive wig. She was too thin to be considered jowly but her skin was definitely starting a journey southward.
Bucky juggled his plate and glass in his hands triggering his cufflink camera three times. Mr. Mark and Mrs. Southward exchanged a few short sentences that Bucky could lip read the word ‘help’ in several times before Mrs. Southward turned away pushing her glass into the hand of one of the waiters. She smirked over her shoulder at Mr. Mark and Bucky could lip read ‘Good help is hard to find.’
Bucky watched Mr. Mark not follow her. Bucky watched him not do anything. She must have told him who her supplier was and how to make contact. If Mr. Mark was smart he wouldn’t track down the supplier right away. Which was good because it gave Bucky time to report back to the guys in the van through his earwig.
Sam let his palm scrub down his face. The first inkling that it might not have been a good idea to send Steve in without backup was starting to hit him.
Natasha patted his leg in reassurance then continued talking to Steve.
Steve heard Natasha let out the ghost of a sigh before she said “Alright Rogers, head up, chest out and walk the opposite direction of the bar.” There wasn’t a bar that he could see just waiters flitting around with drinks on trays.
Steve turned confidently away from the tables loaded with appetizers by the front windows and almost collided with one of the waiters. He managed to grab the rim of the tray in one hand and a glass in the other getting more then half the drink on his sleeve.
He bit down on his reflexive “Excuse me.” and turned it into a waxy smile. The waiter hopped back a pace glasses and all.
“Ok, Steve, you’re going to want to make a slow loop around the room. Greet people but don’t get pulled into conversations.”
Steve saluted anyone watching with his champagne flute and worked his way along the back wall of the room, nodding at anyone who looked up to see him.
“Ok, next step find a wall.”
Steve resisted the urge to point and declare. ‘There’s one.’
“Stand by it and sip your drink.”
Steve did as he was told memorizing as many of the faces in the crowd as he could as he made his way over
“I’m at the wall.” He said trying not to move his lips.
“Good,” Natasha said “now describe what you see.”
This time Steve couldn’t help himself. “Well the wallpaper is in good condition. Don’t tell Tony I said this but red and gold work well together here.”
There was a snort from Natasha and a chuckle from Sam, then “Turn around and describe the room.”
Steve leaned back against the wall with his Champagne glass dangling from his fingers. “The room isn’t the same as the blueprints. There are five doors. The one to the hallway. Another looks like it’s to the dining room. A smaller one in the corner on that wall then two more on the wall opposite the hallway. And this room is at least 5 feet smaller on the east side than what’s on the plans.”
“Excellent, Sam will get started on how that might change the layout of the house. Do you see anything suspicious? Out of place?”
Steve swapped his empty glass for a full one from a passing waiter and said “No. I don’t see anything unusual.”
“See if you can figure out where the other doors go.”
Steve took another quick look and decided that the door in the corner by the dining room was his best bet. The crowd was noticeably thinner over there. He worked his way through the rest of the party goers until he could get close. When he judged the fewest people were looking his way he grabbed the knob and back through the door. He sighed in relief finding himself alone in a short utilitarian hallway. Jogging toward the end he was already planning the best way to get to the basement when he opened the far door. HIs next thoughts were bright, white, and someone holding a knife.
Steve gulped. “Err…”
All the motion in the kitchen had ground to a halt when he had banged open the door.
There was a long pause as the head chef stared him down over the onions she had been chopping. One of her assistants looked back and forth between them and said “If you would like to return to the ballroom, Sir, dinner will be served shortly.” Clearly trying to placate her boss.
Steve glanced from unimpressed face to unimpressed face and spotted another door on the other side of the room. If he could get through it he would be homefree.
“I was ...er… looking for the restroom.” He gestured toward the exit.
The chef’s grip on her knife shifted and her assistant put a placating hand on her sleeve. “There are restrooms along the west wall of the ballroom.” She nodded back in the direction Steve had come from. Her lips made a number of shapes before she added. “We wouldn’t want anyone inconvenienced by having to walk through the kitchen.” Steve looked at the chef who was making it clear with her nostrils that she would happily inconvenience anyone who thought about traipsing through her kitchen with fresh from the bathroom hands.
Steve backed into the hallway making sure to grab the knob and pull the door shut between himself and the kitchen staff.
So much for door number one.
Monty clicked determinedly until all the image were on the screen at once. “Ok, we have three possibilities for the lady Bucko described talking to Mr. Mark.”
Bucky was on his third loop of the room when he noticed Mr. Stevens acting strangely. Bucky’s focus was mostly on Mr. Mark but he was keeping an eye out. Stevens kept his back to the wall as he sidelled towards one of the doors. He stopped every five feet or so to glance around the room before moving again. Bucky glanced around the room too. Was there a full film crew recording this that Bucky had somehow missed? Stevens looked like he was expected his own theme music to start playing.
Bucky watched him disappear through the door and kept an eye out for anyone following the man. Idle curiosity made Bucky wonder who that show had been for. He decided that Stevens was probably sneaking out for a rendezvous with another party-goer. When Bucky was a naive new spy he had been surprised by how often people snuck out of these kinds of parties only to sneak back in again a hour later and a bit less put together.
Less than a minute later Stevens was back in the ballroom looking like he had been scolded by the principal. Bucky laughed. So much for Stevens’ tryst.
Bucky’s laughter died when he noticed that Stevens was an a trajectory that would take him right to Mr. Mark and Mrs. Southward who had met up again.
Bucky quickly found a wall to hold up and watched the interaction. Stevens nearly bumped into the two, apologized and walked away. Mrs. Southward gave him a definite look as he did so. Mr. Mark noticed Mrs. Southward looking then looked at Stevens himself. Mrs. Southward noticed Mr. Mark looking and soon it was a whole mess of them looking at each other and looking at Stevens. Bucky looked at Stevens backside too. He could understand the appeal.
When Mr. Mark and Mrs. Southward had gone their separate ways again Bucky ducked behind a curtain to report and ask Monty and Dugan what they had dug up on this Roger Stevens.
Sam frowned at the screen. An alert had popped up on the laptop. “This is weird.”
He turned toward Natasha and tapped his finger on the screen. “This is weird, right?”
She hummed as she looked.”Maybe. It could be an automated program sweeping up new data and analyzing it or…”
“Someone is looking into Steve’s cover identity.”
Steve slipped back into the ballroom again blushing and feeling eyes on the back of his neck.
“Do I need to tell you to go to the bathroom?” Natasha asked.
It took a second for Steve to catch on. “No.”
He beelined to the other side of the room to where he had seen guests slipping in and out. Halfway there he bumped into a older woman as she stopped to talk to a non-descript man in a long tailed suit. The look the woman gave him made him think she wanted to eat him. He apologized and went about his business.
He emerged with thoroughly washed hands and decided to pretend to check out the appetizers and actually check out the door that was kiddy corner to the tables. The door that had people standing right in front of it. Three were young nearly identical blonde women all in gauzy toga inspired dresses who seemed to have cornered a very handsome man in a light gray suit. Steve sighed. How was this party so hard to break out of?
Steve dawdled along the tables of appetizers hoping that the four would follow the thinning crowd through the open doors to the dining room.
Steve shuffled to the right a bit, looked at a picked over plate of pastry filled with some sort of paste, and glanced at the group again. They were still there with one of the girls holding up a finger to make a point and the other two giggling at her shoulder. Another couple of steps and Steve glanced over and saw the man shove a whole deviled egg in his mouth. HIs cheeks bulged and Steve may have found it slightly adorable. The girls did not. Perfectly synchronized all the ladies noses tried to retreat up their faces in disgust. The man smiled and offered them the remaining deviled eggs on his plate.
Another few shuffling steps took Steve passed a spread of fruit. He looked again and was relieved to see that the group had started moving toward the dining room.
Steve glanced around then took three quick steps to the door.
He grabbed the brass knob and grimaced as it rattled, stuck. He flicked his wrist and there was a crunch as the lock broke under his superhuman grip.
Glancing around again he swore under his breath as he saw the reflection of the wait staff doing a sweep of the room to hurry on the guests lingering in the ballroom.
The door must have been warped in its frame because it took a solid thrust with the hand he had wrapped around the knob to force it open.
Another glance in the mirror told him that the waiter had noticed Steve in the corner and was coming his way. Steve knew he needed to come up with a distraction before the waiter noticed and he was made to leave through the front door. He could try to play it off as an honest mistake but the waiter was sure to notice the knob with impressions of Steves fingers and the broken lock.
Steve flicked his eyes around looking for anything that he could use as an excuse. The man who had been talking to the girls had doubled back and was heading towards the buffet.
In the half step of time it took for the man to get into grabbing distance, Steve made up his mind. His free arm shot out and grabbed the man whirling him around so he had his back planted against the door.
Steve whispered “Sorry” before going in for a kiss.
The man’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open which made Steve’s closed mouthed attack of lips more awkward than it should have been. Still it gave Steve cover to try to yank the door back into the frame.
The man’s hands slid up between them to grab Steve’s lapels in a death grip, not pushing him away and not pulling Steve in either.
Steve heard a polite throat clearing behind him but he wasn’t going to look up until he had the door closed.
He adjusted his grip on the man’s jaw to cover up another yank on the door. It caught and seemed to stick in the frame.
There was another cough from behind him. One of the other man’s hands slipped away from his lapel so the fingers could dance over Steve’s ribs looking for vulnerable spots.
Steve gave the tiniest push on the knob to make sure it wouldn’t fall off the door when he let go and was pulling back when the man bit him. Steve reared back letting the man go from there clinche. Steve must have swept him off his feet when he was fiddling with the door because the man fell back and the door slammed open with an emphatic crash.
The man himself sprawled backwards on the ground catching himself on his elbows. For a breath the man stared up at Steve all parted pink lips and wide blue eyes.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, all the guests are moving to the dining room for dinner.” The waiter said calmly at Steve’s elbow.
“What the hell is going on, Rogers?” Natasha asked through his earwig.
The door knob plunked to the bottom of the dusty room the man had fallen into.
The man’s mouth started working silently.
Steve’s brain caught up with himself and quickly wondered if it was too late to pretend to fall and hit his head. Because he had absolutely no way to explain what he just did. He had hoped the waiter would see them kissing and go away. Natasha told him that displays of affection made people nervous. Steve peaked at the waiter. He seemed to be the only one unbothered by what Steve had just done. Nevermind what he had done, what was he going to do? Could he claim he had mistaken this man he didn’t know from Adam for someone else, someone he knew? What was the guy on the floor going to do?
Yelling and screaming was likely. A punch was understandable. Insisting that Steve be thrown out of the party perfectly reasonable. Would he insist the cops were called? Steve was thinking maybe he should just leave now and save himself the embarrassment. If he tried he could be out the front door in under fifteen seconds. He had the inane thought that Roger Stevens wouldn’t understand this kind of embarrassment if it bit him in the ass.
His unfortunate kissee seemed to pull himself together. He looked Steve dead in the eye extended his hand and said “Babe, can you help me up?”