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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?”
Dugan and Monty looked at each other incredulously as the sentence “Babe, can you help me up?” came across the comline.
“The hell!” Monty asked.
“The fuck?” Dugan agreed.
Bucky’s mind was going a million miles an hour and then his ass hit the floor.
Bucky had been surprised when Stevens grabbed him. He was ready to give the man an offended ‘dude’ and see what he thought he was doing. When Stevens had whispered ‘Sorry’ Bucky’s insides clenched as he imagined what this guy would think he need to apologize for, a bullet, a syrigine of something nasty and dropping Bucky’s body in a dumpster, maybe. Bucky had the silly thought that at least he would be a well dressed corpse before Stevens leaned in and kissed him. Well Bucky thought is was a kiss, a kiss as performed by an alien who had just asked ‘show me more of this earth thing called kissing.’
Bucky waited for Stevens to pull back. And waited and waited. He moved his head in a circle hoping to get the man to detach. He didn’t. Bucky contemplated a quick jab to the man’s side. But if he cracked the man’s ribs that would lead to questions. So he settled for a less than friendly nip at Stevens’ lower lip.
Bucky had a split second to be relieved before Stevens leg smacked the inside of his knee making him fall back. Instead of catching his weight the door behind him gave and he sprawled out on a dusty floor.
Bucky stared up at Stevens and the very composed waiter next to him. What the Actual Fuck? Bucky had no idea what Stevens’ angle was. Had he mistaken Bucky for someone else? Probably not with the way that he had apologized before the kiss. Bucky would have been offended if he wasn’t sure Stevens had been apologizing for his own horrible mouth skills.
Was he trying to get Bucky to punch him and make a scene? Again why apologize? He flicked his eyes to the waiter hovering by Stevens. Did Stevens have something on him that he didn’t want to get caught with and he had slipped it to Bucky before anyone could see?
Whatever Stevens’ motivations Bucky wasn’t going to figure them out now. He needed to get off this floor and back to the party without making a scene. He would be cool, he would be calm and once he was inside the ballroom he would send Stevens off with a smack on the ass. Stevens damn well better be on board with this plan or Bucky would make him kiss the triceratops in the hallway.
“Babe, can you help me up?” That was okay. James Madison would absolutely call a one night stand babe.
Stevens looked gobsmacked and seemed to reach for Bucky’s hand on reflex not thought. Bucky smiled. It looked like the guy was going to play along.
Bucky let Stevens pull him to his feet and clumsily brush the dust off his suit. It didn’t show too much on Bucky’s gray suit. Bucky was sure to a leave streak of dust down Rogers black suit in petty revenge as he took his arm.
The entrance they made into the dining room wasn’t the one that Bucky was hoping for. Mr. Gray was just wrapping up a short welcome speech as they were ushered in. He could feel all the eyes in the room turn toward them including their host’s.
Bucky stood there wrong footed as Mr Gray finished with “Bon Appetite and Enjoy.” Every table he looked at was full. He could only see one open place at the far side of the room. He wondered if he could get away with letting Stevens fend for himself.
The waiter, who had ushered them in, whispered something to the head waiter, who whispered something to the butler who whispered something to Mr. Gray, who turned to look curiously at Bucky still standing with his arm tucked into Stevens’ side. Mr. Gray said something back to the butler and another place setting was added to the empty one Bucky now noticed at Mr. Gray’s table.
Bucky wished James Madison was the type for spontaneous dramatic sighs because really this was just getting worse. His objective at this party was to get pictures and not be noticed doing it. He was supposed to be polite, not too charming and completely forgettable. His chances of that went way down if he spent the entire dinner talking to his host.
His life flashed before his eyes when he saw the rest of the people seated at the center table. Mr. Mark was there chatting with Mrs. Southward as Mr. Gray smiled benevolently. He tightened his grip on Stevens’ arm wondering if he was being led into a trap by this man’s perfect jawline. Maybe he should have messed it up when he had the chance.
Two things stopped Bucky from shoving Stevens into the table and making a run for it. One, Stevens’ genuine look of concern for Bucky when Bucky was probably cutting off the circulation to his hand with how hard he was gripping his arm and Mrs. Southward’s look of complete disinterest at Stevens.
Bucky breathed carefully through his nose willing his heart rate to slow down. He wasn’t completely fucked. He was just still working out the level of fucked he was.
During the round of handshakes Bucky learned that the last person at their table was Mr. Gumm, Mrs Southward’s name was actually Ava Carmona, and that Stevens was the type to kiss the back of a ladies hand.
Once they were seated with Mr. Gray to Bucky’s right and Stevens to Bucky’s left the man himself leaned over to say “So, how did you two meet? How long have you been together?”
Bucky knew this was absolutely the time to lie. It really was go big or go home. He opened his mouth quickly running through things he could say. He could keep the details to a minimum that way Stevens had less of a chance of messing it up.
Stevens choked out “Trainwreck.”
Bucky gritted his teeth.
“Oh my. That must be a fascinating story.” Mr. Gray put his chin in his hands plainly expecting to hear it.
After a beat too long it was clear that the idiot wasn’t going to save himself. Bucky started talking and hoped Stevens the sense to back him up. “It wasn’t really a trainwreck.” Bucky leaned in with a grin. “Just a bit of a derailment. We were both in Peru a few months back on the same train to Cusco. I was in the aisle grabbing a book out of my bag and the then” He made a kir-kik-kir sound and waved his hands back and forth “And suddenly everything had tipped over, including me. Right into this guys lap.” He turned a broad smile on Stevens.
Stevens seemed to have caught on because he gave Bucky an adoring smile in return. “Love you,” Stevens paused. “Honey.”
Bucky leaned forward toward Mr. Mark “How about you? How did you meet your…” He trailed off.
“Benny and I have been friends for years.” Mrs. Southward said emphasizing the word friend. “Peru. Now that’s exciting. I’ve never been. How did you like it?”
Bucky was ready for that question. He answered with the right amount of detail and bounced the conversation over to Mr. Gumm asking about his recent trips. Even Stevens got with the program and told his own story about a yacht on the French Riviera. It was a stilted story but at least he seemed to be trying.
When the table came round to Mr Gray he gave a cheerful shrug. “I don’t travel. I feel as though I can see the whole world as it comes through New York.”
Bucky wondered if the reason the arms dealer introduction was taking place here was that the host was who Mr. Mark was being invited into illegal dealings with. Was Bucky unlucky enough to be seated with the three people he was trying to put in jail?
Stevens seemed surprised by Mr. Gray’s comment. “You have such a wonderful art collection, from what I saw.”
“Most of my dealings are over the phone.” he smiled. “Or the internet. I would like to see the louvre, but, “ He shook his head.
“Oh.” Stevens looked crestfallen. Bucky thought he was the only one to notice because Mr. Gumm launched into a story that was more about his near misses with art galleries and museums than actually visiting them.
Everytime the conversation stuttered out Mr. Gray would turn to Bucky and Stevens and ask them questions worthy of a great grandmother at a family dinner.
First it was about what they had done in Peru. Then it was how they kept in touch after that trip and did their frequent travels make it hard to find time to be together. Had they talked seriously about kids yet. Did they think they would get married or date long term.
Stevens had almost choked on his drink at that one. Bucky couldn’t blame him for that. But he completely blamed him for what he said next. “I want a spring wedding, always have, what about you, dear?”
Mr. Gray’s eyes lit up. “Will you be having it here in New York?”
“Probably not.” Bucky made an apologetic grimace.
“Absolutely.” Said Stevens.
Bucky jabbed Stevens in the thigh for putting him in this position. “We still have a lot to talk about.”
By the time dessert rolled around Mr. Gray had spent most of the meal talking to them. Mr. Mark seemed bored by it all and had started a conversation with Mr. Gumm about cricket. Mrs. Southward paid them polite attention while she ate her creme brulee in a indefineably menacing way.
Mr. Gray stood up, clinking his glass with a spoon to draw everyone’s attention.
“As those who have been gracious enough to attend my gatherings in the past know, I like to present a gift to one of my guests. This year I will be giving a gift to two of them.”
There was a hush then tittering from the guests.
“During dinner I’ve had the opportunity to learn all about the wonderful romance shared by James Madison and Roger Stevens.”
Bucky caught Stevens eye in a shared sideways glance of embarrassment.
“That romance has reminded me of a beautiful piece in my own collection, ‘The Lovers’ sculpted by Uwe Mckmine. And I think it’s fitting that two who are so clearly in love with each other have this sculpture.”
Bucky looked over concerned by the way Stevens seized up.
Mr. Gray raised a glass to them. “I hope your future together is long and lively.”
Bucky turned to thank Mr Gray then ended up waiting while Stevens profusely thanked Mr. Gray. Bucky started patting Stevens’ arm whenever he opened his mouth to distract him from thanking Mr. Gray yet again.
Mrs. Southward seemed to be silently laughing at Stevens and his thanks. Bucky couldn’t help wondering what kind of white elephant gift this sculpture was that the gifting amused her so much.
Sam sat back. “That went surprisingly well.”
“Yes, it did.” Natasha mused. “Do we have an ID on who his sweetie is?”
Coulson’s said over phone. “Not yet, I’ve reached out to several other agencies. So far no one will confirm or deny having a agent at the party. Natasha, how sure are you that this man isn’t freelancing?”
Natasha whistled through her teeth. “He’s too … young to be freelance. He values secrecy too much. And he’s acting like he has backup.”
Coulson hummed over the comline. “I’ll keep asking about Mr. Madison.”
Once the comline cut Sam turned to Natasha. “Are we going to tell Steve that James Madison is almost definitely a spy?”
“If he hasn’t figured that out yet, I’m not going to tell him.”
Steve thanked Mr. Gray again for the sculpture before the guests were ushered back into the ballroom where a small jazz band was setting up. He wondered if SHIELD would let him keep it when this was all over.
Steve caught James eye and nodded toward a quiet corner. James gave him an emphatic nod and they started over. Steve really wanted to thank him. He could have got Steve kicked out of the party but instead he had played along and even covered Steve’s fumbling at dinner. He was so good there were a few times Steve had thought James had somehow mistaken him for a man he was actually dating. Steve bit his lip. He would have to be more careful when he got out to explore the rest of the house. He didn’t want James to have to explain to Mr Gray that he had lied for Steve.
He just about had them to the quietest corner of the room when he heard a cough. He paused mid step wondering if he could ignore it. The cough repeated sounding like it was a put upon sigh dressed up in different clothes. Steve turned.
There was the butler in his three piece suit waiting for their attention. “Gentlemen.” He waited two beats to make sure he had their attention then continued. “Mr. Gray suggested that you would want to see the sculpture he gifted you with. If you would like to follow me I can show you to the Art Parlor.”
Steve laughed. He couldn’t believe his luck. All that time trying to get into the rest of the house and now he was being invited to walk around.
Natasha said over the comline. “Finally. Go with him, Rogers. Once you’re there I’ll help you figure out how to slip away.”
James tugged at his sleeve. “No, thanks.”
“What?” Steve gaped at James. “We have to go see it.” He remembered their ruse and tacked on “Dear.”
James set his jaw. “You promised me a dance, sweetheart.”
“It won’t take long to have a look at it, darling.” Steve said.
“Neither will a dance, angelface.” James told him.
Steve chewed his lip. “If we go see it now, we can dance the rest of the night, snookums.” Steve was sure he could sneak away, get check the basement and be back in plenty of time to dance with James.
James looked back at the dance floor and sighed. “Alright, but only fifteen minutes.” He pointed a finger in Steve’s face. “I know how you get about art.”
The butler gestured toward the grand hallway. “This way, gentlemen.”
As they walked to the end of the hallway, through the door and down another hallway, down a flight of stairs Steve adjusted the blueprints in his head to match what he was seeing. He got a strong sense that the copies Coulson had were doctored. Everything was off a few feet here or even a few inches there.
The room that the butler led them to was more utilitrain than Steve expected from something called an Art Parlor. It also didn’t contain any art. The door clanged shut behind them. Steve suppressed a groan.
The butler turned to face them. “Gentlemen.” He lost his deferential tone and replaced it with dangerous.
James very subtly rolled his eyes. “Is this some sort of Avant Garde piece? We’re supposed to see the sculpture in the lack of sculpture? The lovers are the sculptor and someone he’s spending time with instead of sculpting?”
Steve worked his jaw. He knew he had more important things going on but “Dearest, I will explain to you later why that is the most horrible thing you have ever said to my face.”
“Hey.” The butler said again twitching.
“Yes?” Asked James adjusting his cufflinks.
“You know why you’re here.”
Steve decided to play dumb. “To see the sculpture. Uwe Mckmine is a wonderful artist. And I would love to see more of Mr. Gray’s collection.”
“No.” The butler said shaking his head. He held up a hand when James looked like he was going to speak. “You’re here because my dear friend Ava told me that you’re spying on us.”
Damn it. Damn it. Steve told Natasha he was no good at this spy stuff.
“Why would anyone be spying on you?” James asked seeming confused.
The butler rolled his eyes. “Because you found out there was a sale going on tonight.”
“Wait, what?” Steve asked. That was worse than they thought. If HYDRA was selling off any products from the labs tonight they were bound to be nasty and could end up anywhere.
“An ar..art sale?” James asked gesturing around the empty room. “I think your boss is going to notice that you sold it all.”
“No.” The butler gritted his teeth.
Steve let his eyes go wide. “Oh, is the art illegal? I know a lot of Vireux art went ‘missing’ during the reconstruction of Europe.” He made sure to make the finger quotes.
“Vireux...was he the one with the three plaster ducks?” James asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Baby, no.” Steve said. He was going to force James into an art museum and not let him leave until he stopped saying such stupid things.
“Ehh.” The butler huffed out. “Fuck it.” He pulled a pistol out from him jacket and brandished it at them.
There was a moment of stillness then James stage whispered to Steve. “Is that a Vireux?”
Steve tried to shuffle James behind him. He felt a bit bad for thinking it but he liked how James was acting with a gun pointed at him more than he liked him at dinner.
The butler pointed with his gun. “You’re here because you know that Ava was bring Mr. Mark here to buy weapons. You. Are. A. Spy.”
“I really didn’t know that.” Steve told him because he really hadn’t.
The man pointed the pistol slightly to their left. “You’re going to tell me who you are working for.” and fired on the last word letting the bullet crack on the wall behind them.
Steve weighed his options. “Alright,”
A quiet “Don’t.” came through his ear piece.
He raised his hands in front of him. “I’m a spy.” He would get this guy to let James go and then, well he wasn’t sure what he would do, punching seemed like a decent plan.
James drew away from him and exclaimed “What?”
The butler lowered his gun and echoed “What?”
Steve repeated a bit less sure of himself. “I’m a spy.”
“No.” the butler shook his head. “No, no.”
James shook his head. “You’re a spy? Who would…? Is that why you kept trying to sneak out of the ballroom?”
The butler took a deep breath and seemed to regain his center. “No, “ He said to Steve. “You are not the spy.” He pointed a finger at Bucky. “He is.”
Steve stepped back in shock. “No, he’s not. He’s my boyfriend, James.”
The butler looked him dead in the eye. “What’s his middle name?”
“...Hubert.” Steve tried hoping James would back his play. Like he had been doing all night. It dawned on Steve that the gun toting butler might be right. His eyes snapped sideways to James.
James nodded. “Yep, James Hubert Madison.”
The butler looked ready to lay into James when there were two quick taps on the door. He gloward at them. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”
Steve stepped a few feet to the left while James stepped to the right. Good, it looked like James realized that they were between the butler and the only door. It would be hard for him to get passed them even with a gun.
The butler gave a nasty laugh and stepped away to crank a large lever in the wall.
Steve felt the floor drop from under his feet.
Static filled the van as Bucky’s comline cut out entirely.
“Do you think Bucko’s dead?”
“There wasn’t a gunshot.”
Bang, bang, bang.
Dugan dived for his gun at the sudden pounding on the back door of their van.
Bucky stared at the square of light two stories above him. Who the fuck had a trapdoor in their house? This was such a baffling question he decided to ask it out loud.
“Who the fuck has a trapdoor? Who thinks ‘you know what this room needs? A big old trap door’?”
Stevens, who had somehow landed on his feet, glanced down at him. “I should have noticed that when we got into the room.”
Bucky tried to make sense of that. “Because you’re a spy?”
Stevens nodded biting his lip.
“Who are you spying for?”
Bucky collapsed on his side as he laughed his ass off. There was no way that this man could be spying for SHIELD. He thought he had himself under control but then he peeked at Stevens’ pouting face again and he kept cracking up.
“Darling, don’t take this the wrong way, but SHIELD hires the best. Your Hardy Boys routine would get you bounced.”
“I can prove it, dearest.” He reached to his ear and tapped it.
Bucky sat up fully. If Stevens had an earpiece that meant he was working with someone at least. Bucky still didn’t believe it was SHIELD.
“Nat.” Stevens said with confidence.
“Natasha.” Stevens said with less confidence.
Bucky clucked his tongue and waited for either Dugan or Monty to respond. When they didn’t he whispered “Come on guys.”
He looked at Stevens. “We’re at least three stories underground. The comlines don’t work with that much stone and concrete in the way.”
“Well, that’s great.” Stevens said.
Bucky squinted at him. He sound like he meant that. “Is it?”
“Yes.” Stevens started looking at the room.
Bucky took another look at the square of light well above their heads. “Why?”
“That’s why I’m here. To get a look at the basement.”
“Oh, is there a Picasso down here that you wanted to see?” Bucky asked.
“No, baby.” Stevens paused to look a bit guilty. “There’s a HYDRA base, probably.”
“Pookey.” Bucky grated out the word. “I am not prepared for a HYDRA base. I’m not wearing the right suit. I didn’t realize the dress code for this evening was bespoke kevlar.”
Stevens smiled tightly. “It might be defunct.”
Bucky didn’t believe him. He joined Stevens searching the room though there wasn’t much to search. It was a fifteen by fifteen cell with a heavy door in one wall, and to stay on theme a heavy locked door. Bucky took his time examining the walls. They were mostly flat stone with a few here and there that stuck out unevenly. He tracked the irregularities up the wall. It would be tricky but he was pretty sure he could make it to the top. He planted his foot on a bump at knee height and hoisted himself up grabbing the handhold he had spotted a ten feet off the ground.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” Said Stevens from below him.
Bucky grunted focused on finding the next handhold. He stalled halfway up the wall searching for a place to grab to balance for the next leg up. He spotted one on the wall left of him. Carefully shifting his weight he stretched his torso until he could get his fingers around it. He gave it a tug to test it. When it seemed solid enough he grabbed it and let it take his weight. It didn’t. The stone came away in his hand. His right leg shot out to counter balance and he pirouetted there for a moment before the sole of his dress shoe gave up the pretense of friction and slid off the wall.
He flailed and tried to get his feet back under him before he hit the ground. He didn’t manage. Fortunately, Stevens was there to stop him from hitting the ground by catching him in a neat bridal carry.
After taking a deep breath to calm down he said. “It was worth a try.”
Steve glanced at the piece of stone that had come loose from the wall. “People who build trapdoor cells don’t usually leave obvious ways out.”
Bucky turned the stone over in his hands. On the side that had previously been in the wall there was “You Lose.” written in a tasteful serif font.
Stevens had the grimace of a person who was too good to outright laugh at the fool.
Bucky wiggled until Stevens set him on his feet. He was too grumpy to enjoy being held like this.
Bucky walked to the door. He squatted down to check the lock. “It’s old. I might be able to pick it.” If he could find something long and thin. He might be able to get a piece of wire out of his hair clip.
“Scoot over.” Stevens was smiling.
Bucky duck walked a few steps expecting Stevens to join him looking at the lock. Stevens gestured him further away from the door until he was halfway across the room. Stevens strode straight at the door raising his leg to kick. Bucky winced preemptively expecting Stevens to fall clutching his knee. Instead he heard a screech as the lock broke and a solid slam as the door flew open.
Stevens grinned. “I’ve been wanting to do that all night.” He held out his arm. “After you.”
Bucky walked forward into the dark.
Sam wasn’t at all surprised to be greeted with guns.
“Hey, I’m Sam. Nice to meet you. Can I come in? I think we have some mutual friends.”
The one with the bigger mustache asked “Do we?”
Sam smiled. “Well, we’ve lost touch with sweetie. Are you still hearing your darling?”
The men exchanged looks and lowered their guns.
Steve let James lead until they reached the first junction. James veered to the left and Steve grabbed his arm to lead him to the right.
“We should go this way.” Steve said.
James dug his heels in. “Why?”
Steve blew out a breath to collect his thoughts. “The Art Parlor was at the west end of the house. This hallway is running east-west. If we go to the left, to the west, we’re going to hit a dead end quick.” Steve pointed the way he was going. “This way is east and it will take us back under the house.”
James nodded. “Great, we can find stairs.” He squinted at the darkness around them. “I don’t think I would trust an elevator in this place.”
“Probably not.” Steve nodded. “But I’m not looking for stairs right now.”
“Really? Because we just heard that there’s an arms deal going down.” James waved his hand at the ceiling. “Up there somewhere.”
Steve shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s not what I’m here for.” He was sure that Natasha and Coulson would have that handled. They were probably going to use it as an excuse to have SHIELD swarm the building. Steve knew it was pride telling him that he needed to find the lab first but he was still going to find the lab before the rest of SHIELD.
“Right, you’re here for the HYDRA lab.”
Steve nodded. It was a matter of pride now. He was going to find it before everyone else even if only by fifteen minutes.
“Because your a spy.” The doubt in James tone was palpable.
“It’s not my day job.”
“What is your day job?” James asked aggravated.
“Finding HYDRA bases.” Steve admitted chagrined.
James side-eyed him hard.
“Come on. Let’s go this way. If we find a staircase you can go upstairs.” Steve couldn’t help but add. “And talk to those people who probably want to kill you.”
James shrugged as if to say ‘fair enough.’
They walked along the hallway another fifty feet or so before Steve saw something that made him smile. Where the ceiling met the wall there was a fist sized hole with wires coming out of it. The blue and gray strands were neatly bundled together and running along the wall in the direction they were walking.
“James.” Steve said. “James?” He looked around the hallway. “Pumpkin pie?”
“In here.” James said from the opposite wall.
Steve squinted and the pieces slotted into place. The wall wasn’t a wall but a switch back entrance.
An entrance that opened into an enormous room, easily the size of the ballroom above them. There were old brick and stone pillars coming up from a dirt floor supporting the ceiling and bare light bulbs casting warm light like the late afternoon sun.
James went to check the walls while Steve investigated the middle of the room. The dirt was packed down making the scuff marks on the surface stand out. And there were a lot of them. They also had pretty clear claw marks where whatever it was had dug its feet in. Steve traced his fingers up the columns supporting the roof. The claw marks were there too. Although most of them stopped at about waist level a few claw marks reached the top and were even etched across the ceiling.
Steve rocked back on his heels. HYDRA had been doing something with animals here. Probably trying to augment them then training them as attack animals. If they had gotten loose that might explain the screaming mentioned in the HYDRA files Natasha found.
Monty got off the phone call with headquarters about five hours before he expected to. He knew how long it usually took to get interagency cooperation approved when there was an immediate threat, too damn long.
But whatever call this agent visiting their van had made it must have gone up their chain of command like a shot and come back down to land square on his and Dugan’s heads.
“So, we’ve been told to give you any assistance you may need.”
The agent, call me Sam, smiled widely.
Monty held up a finger. “Provided that and I quote ‘That your menance of a director does not attempt to talk to, bully, badger, or bulwack any of the directors or assistant directors for the next month and SHIELD is responsible for any and all paperwork that results from what happens here.’”
The Red Headed agent nodded again like those were reasonable terms and said “Sure.”
Bucky trailed his fingers along the rough stone work as he walked around the room. It was so far removed from the elegance upstairs that they might be in another world. One with no sounds of traffic or light pollution. Bucky would like to have both of those back right now. He was stuck down here until he found a way out. He glanced over his shoulder at Stevens. Actually he was probably stuck down here until Stevens found the lab. He couldn’t let his honey bunch get killed down here. And if his honey bunch turned out to be a rotten apple he needed to know that too. Bucky pondered his choices that evening. Should he have slapped Stevens when he had the chance? No, he thought, playing along with the whole boyfriend routine had gotten him the third conspirator and the info that the deal was going down tonight rather than sometime in the future.
So the only question that was left was: was Stevens’ beautiful jawline and wonderful cheekbones enough to make up for missing all the fun upstairs.
He suspected, well he hoped, that Monty and Dugan were rallying the troops so as soon as Mr. Mark left the building with the guns he would be arrested.
Across from where he and Stevens had come into the room there was another blind hallway like the other.
Bucky poked his head out.
“Who? Intruder!” One man shouted.
“After them.” The other one yelled.
“Fuck.” Bucky ducked back into the big room. Sprinted across the middle grabbing Stevens by the elbow forcing him to jog backwards until he could unwind himself. He looked like he was about to ask why Bucky was running when there was a crack and the call “In here.”
They made it out the other side of the room just as Bucky heard the thump of boots on dirt. Bucky ducked left but Stevens caught his wrist and yanked him to go to the right the direction they hadn’t explored.
It was twenty feet before they slammed through a heavy metal door into what looked like a 1970s lab that had an evil veterinarians office dumped inside it.
Stevens whirled towards the door they came through and tried to jam it shut. Bucky searched the room for anything that could help, shoving a gurney Stevens way. Which gave him a great view of the other door the lab bursting open and people spilling in.
It wasn’t the butler this time. This time it was a chef with two waiters, flanking her, all armed and ready for a brawl.
“To recap.” Sam said. “You’re here because a couple arms dealers who are going to meet up and the FBI doesn’t want that to happen?”
“Oh, no, the FBI is very happy with them meeting. It tells us exactly who needs to be locked up.” Dugan cheerfully told him.
“We weren’t expecting the exchange to happen tonight.” Monty added. “And you were?”
“Investigating a HYDRA lab that may or may not be active and may or may not have some HYDRA experiment that results in screaming.”
Sam was pretty sure Natasha hadn’t warmed to them because she added “A lot of screaming.” with a quick nod.
Monty contemplated the side of the van beyond which was the Gray Gosling. “Backup. We need backup.”
Steve’s head snapped up at James’ shout. The group he saw entering the room didn’t look friendly. The chef was in the lead and she looked like she was even more ready to use her knife on Steve than when he had stumbled into the kitchen earlier.
Both the waiters behind her had guns drawn but pointed down. If he could break their formation those guns would be a lot less useful to anyone who cared about friendly fire. Steve shoved the gurney towards them with enough force that it skipped off the ground for a few feet and landed with an almighty crash as the group scattered to avoid it.
The chef barrelled toward him with her knife ready. Steve sidestepped at the last second and brought his elbow down on her bicep to get her to drop the knife. She reached across her body to grab Steve’s arm with her own letting her square up and take a swipe at his stomach. Steve hopped back taking the arm she was holding to drive her to her knees with an arm lock.
From the corner of his eye Steve could see one of the waiters circling around trying to get behind him. Steve pushed the chef letting go of her so that he could vault over the gurney, that was still standing, duck an impressive kick from the doorman and flip the gurney this time sending it flying top first at the chef and the waiter so that the bullets pinged off of it and both were slammed back against the wall.
Pivoting he spotted James laying a haymaker on the other waiter whose gun had slid up against the cages on the other side of the room.
The waiter went down with a last solid punch and James looked around breathing heavily. It was probably the wrong time to notice but flushed and panting was a very good look on James.
Dugan was jealous. He was self aware enough to know this. What he didn’t know was why SHIELD got all the fun toys.
The new in-ear comms they had been provided were crystal clear. The kevlar vests were practically weightless. And the non-lethal arsenal that Agent Romanoff pulled from her duffle bag, well Dugan knew what he would be dreaming about tonight.
If he made it through the night because Monty was raising some excellent points.
“We don’t know how many hostiles there are. We know there are one hundred odd civilians. We don’t know what kinds of weapons they intend to sell. We know they’re from a HYDRA base. And HYDRA is into some weird shit.”
“Yep.” ‘Call me Sam’ said. “We have some intel and we can’t get anymore without some recon.”
“Oh, yes.” Monty replied sourly. “We know we have at the very least three hostiles, who are armed, in a house where all we know is that it has a trap door somewhere.”
Agent Romanoff smiled. “Sounds fun.”
Bucky left Stevens in charge of the goons while he hunted down the duct tape. Stevens could clearly handle it if any of them decided to make a break for it.
He found the tape drawer and bypassed the nine rolls of standard grey tape to go for the one with baby ducks on it. He hoped one of these goons was the one who put the ‘You Lose.’ on the trick rock in the pit. Bucky was feeling petty and there was no dignity in being restrained with cartoon ducklings.
They got one of the waiters restrained without any problem. The waiter Bucky had punched out had started to come to and gave him and Stevens a bit of a fight. Because of course the one he punched didn’t stay punched Bucky thought a bit sourly. The guy wiggled and riggled so much that Stevens ended up pulling him into a bear hug so he could hold the waiters wrists together behind his back while Bucky wrapped them in tape.
When they finally got him tied up and down on the floor Bucky said “Listen…” He had meant to say that he really need to get upstairs but in the pause there was a shuffling sound. As one they turned their heads to look at the chef.
She was still out cold. But the ball of bright feathers and teeth tugging at her sleeve was definitely awake.
The creature looked up at them and let the sleeve drop from its mouth. Bucky wasn’t sure how but the scaly eyes managed to look contrite like it was trying to tell him that the creature thought Steve and Bucky weren’t planning on eating this one and this creature didn’t see any reason to waste handy protein but if Steve and Bucky were going to eat it she would absolutely back off. It was an impressive amount for the small face to convey.
Then Stevens screamed.
Then the creature screamed and reared back. It thrust with it’s powerful back legs and hopped back a couple feet using its feathered forelimbs to balance itself. It tried to anyway. One of them wasn’t right making the poor thing careen to the side.
Bucky yelped at the noise and the waiter they had just tied up moaned.
Bucky punched Stevens in the arm to get him to focus. “You get the chef. I’ll get the … thing.”
“Don’t touch it.” Stevens hissed.
Bucky gave him a look.
“It could be … poisonous.”
Bucky shook his head and looked at the animal now that they had all calmed down. The snout was long with bigger teeth than any lizard Bucky was familiar with. It had the front facing eyes of a predator and the hair of a glam rocker. The bubble gum pink feathers started at the crown of its head flowing back over the body in a mix of darker pinks and aggressive purples. The long whiplike tail sported a fan of feathers at the end and each foot was topped off by a set of wicked looking claws.
Bucky marvelled that he got a chance to say this. “Sweetlips, there is no evidence that velociraptors were poisonous, well venomous.”
“Yep.” Bucky squatted down and held out a hand toward the still nervous creature. “Who’s a pretty little theropod.”
The raptor waggled its way closer to Bucky. “That’s right, beautiful.” Bucky was rewarded with the raptor nudging at his palm and letting him scratch it’s head.
“If it’s a dinosaur why does it have feathers?” Stevens asked.
“Jurassic park lied to you.” Bucky said. Stevens’ looked blank. “Dinosaurs, these ones at least had feathers. They just don’t fossilize well.”
The raptor was now letting Bucky stroke it under its chin and along a lovely magenta patch of feathers.
Stevens crouched down beside Bucky holding his own hand out. The raptor sniffed at him then let him rub her head.
“Jane.” Bucky said trying out the name. “Betsy. Maria.”
Stevens snorted at the last one. “Flossie.”
Bucky wondered aloud. “Flossie?”
“Her feathers look like candy floss and I’m not calling a classy lady like this Candy.” Stevens said.
Bucky grinned. Stevens grinned back. Nowhere in his plans for the night had he imagined that he would be petting an honest to god dinosaur but here he was and it was worth it.
“She is classy.” Bucky said then paused. The dinosaur was friendly and she wasn’t scared of people at all. Bucky looked at cages that lined the far wall of the room. They were all empty. He looked back at Flossie with her obviously malformed forelimb.
“Cupcake, that room we were in before. The one with all the claw marks in the dirt. That seems like a pretty good training area for small dinosaurs.” Bucky nodded over at the cages. “How many velociraptors do you think that could hold?”
Stevens blinked and looked at the cages himself. “Four times five. So twenty or so.”
Bucky absently drew Flossie closer. “And there’s one here. So where are the rest of them?”
Bucky wrinkled his nose. “The butler said the arms deal was happening tonight. What would you bet that they’re selling these little guys?”
Stevens grabbed the guns that the waiters had. He offered one to Bucky like a gentleman. Bucky tucked it into this waistband, scooped Flossie up under one arm and got to his feet. Something told him leaving her here would only cause more problems.
Natasha was frustrated. When she had asked Coulson to let Steve take this mission she thought it would be a good training opportunity. Everything she had heard told her that HYDRA didn’t have an active presence here.
She just wanted Steve to get more practice as spycraft without the pressure of someone trying to kill him.
Now, broken leg or not, she was going to go and rescue him.
Steve wasn’t sure what to make of the creature James was cuddling. When he thought of dinosaurs it was massive skeletons and movies where the monsters were made of clay and forced perspective made them loom over screaming women.
This pink dog sized lizard was hard to slot into the same group as those. Just looking into her alert friendly eyes made him want to scratch her behind the ear. Though she didn’t seem to have ears and what she lacked in ears she more than made up for it teeth so Steve decided he should probably let James do the velociraptor wrangling.
Since they hadn’t seen anyone between the trapdoor cell and the lab Steve led them the way the waiters had come into the lab. The hallway was about the same as the others they had seen in the basement but had tiny signs it saw more traffic: less dust, more scuffs on the floor, and fresher air.
Halfway up the hall roughly opposite the raptor exercise room there was an open arch where he could hear unintelligible voices coming through. Steve paused before it, gesturing James to stay where he was and got a nod in return. Steve pushed away from the wall quickly whirled by the arch to get a look into the room and ended with his back to the wall on the opposite side of the arch.
From that glimpse he could tell there were five people still in their staff uniforms clustered near the middle of the room. The rest of it was littered with boxes and cages. Steve looked back at James. He was sure that they could take them down without too much trouble. Steve signed that he wanted Bucky to get the two on the right while Steve went left. James grimaced at him and Steve responded with a thumbs up and strode through the arch.
He heard shuffling behind him as James followed. He was about to launch himself at the group of HYDRA agents when he felt James grab his arm and pull hard enough to yank him over to one of the pile of boxes.
Steve went with it. James gave him an incredulous look and yanked at his collar until he joined James crouched behind the crates.
James threw his hands up in the way that Steve was pretty sure meant ‘What the hell?’
“We…” Steve started.
James violently and silently shushed him then gestured angrily toward where the goons were standing.
“You…” Steve tried again.
James smushed his finger to his lips.
Steve learned his lesson and shrugged back at James opening his palms in a silent ‘what?’
James made a lot of shapes and flicks with his hands ending with putting his pointer finger to his head and hanging his tongue out of his mouth.
It took Steve a minute but he worked out what that meant. James wasn’t sure that they could take on everyone at once and was worried that he might be killed.
Steve wasn’t sure how to give a silent pep talk so he settled his hands on James shoulders and squeezed. James shoved Flossie into Steve’s arms and pinched the bridge of his nose. Flossie looked up at him with wide eyes then nibbled at Steve’s lapel.
James gestured for Steve to stay down and listen.
Steve supposed they could do it that way. He slowly poked his head around only to snap it back at a ‘tsh’ from his right. He frowned at James. James frowned back. Steve poked his head out again and the sound repeated. Steve pulled his head back again to roll his eyes at James. The man had been so insistent they stay quiet. James gave him a furious look.
There was another ‘tsh’ and another and another until they all blended together and rose in pitch to make a scream.
Steve made the ‘oh, it was the dinosaur.’ gesture at the same time James did.
There were more screams now as the other raptors joined in. Flossie wiggled free of Bucky’s hold and jumped on top of the crate in front of them. Steve bounced up at the same time as James hoping to grab her back.
There was a very human shout of “Hey.” and Steve knew it was time to move.
He vaulted over the crates and jumped side to side between them making himself harder to hit.
He landed square in the center of the group sideswiping one of them with enough force to send him sliding into a crate. He grabbed the punch the doorman threw at him and used his grip to drag the man in front of him making the guard pull up his gun with a grimace. Steve got a grip under the doorman’s armpit and bodily threw him toward the other man.
The maid came at him with a massive wrench she grabbed off the table next to her. Steve ducked under the clumsy swing and jabbed her in the face giving her a bloody nose. He twisted the wrench out of her hand and brought it up in a smooth arc between the guards legs. The guard went down clutching himself. Steve advanced on the doorman who scuttled back against the crate and raised his hands in surrender.
He turned quickly to scan the room for the other guard. He saw James had him in a head lock and was doing his best to choke him out. Steve decided that James had that handled. Steve grabbed the gun off the guard and kicked the wrench away from the maid.
James lumbered over to them guiding the half insensate guard forward to join his colleagues on the floor.
His mouth dropped open. He swallowed loud in the silence. “Damn, doll, did you just take out four people in twenty five seconds?”
“That was amazing.” James said still wide eyed.
Steve wouldn’t admit to blushing. He shrugged again. “The spies I know can take out five men in fifteen seconds.”
“What the hell kind of spies do you know?”
“Good ones.” There was a beat before Steve’s brain caught up with his mouth. “Not that you’re not a good spy. I had no idea.”
“Angelface,” James ground out then seemed to get a hold of himself. “Good spies get in and out with no one knowing that they were spying. They don’t beat people up.”
Apparently Steve’s hindbrain hadn’t won the battle to make nice with the attractive man because the next thing out of his mouth was “Mrs. Carmona knew you’re a spy.”
James scrubbed his hand down his face. “And that’s really fucking embarrassing.”
Monty was getting the feeling that the woman ahead of him was a bombshell, like a battleaxe but with a blast radius.
He felt outclassed and much more positive about their chances for surviving tonight. But he still hoped that Bucky would pop up alive and well before they had to storm the castle.
He was still unclear on the plan for that anyway.
Bucky couldn’t believe that Stevens was embarrassing him in front of these HYDRA goons. He figured the cat was out of the bag on the spy stuff but did he really have to bring some kind of superspies into it. Bucky paused. If Stevens did work for SHIELD he might actually know some superspies.
Bucky took a long breath and decided that he was a damn good spy and he was going to prove it. Even if everyone seemed to know he was a spy. He rolled his shoulders to get his suit jacket square again and fixed his cuffs to hide the fact he was taking pictures of all of the goons with his cufflink camera.
He noticed that Stevens had his arms crossed and was frowning down at the goons and decided to try a little good cop, bad cop. “Now, I don’t know much about HYDRA.”
The maid interrupted him immediately. “We’re not HYDRA.”
Stevens set his jaw and started “Listen.”
Bucky waved at him to be quiet. “If you’re not HYDRA, who are you?” He asked subtly looking around at the illicit shipping facility they were in then back to her. Calmly offering her a chance to give them another explanation.
The doorman answered haughtily. “We’re entrepreneurs.”
Oh. Bucky thought. This was a job for James Madison. He let himself slide into character. He looked around the room nodding to himself. “What’s your business model?”
“We found the lab down here and figured out how to replicate the process HYDRA used to grow the dinosaurs.” The maid started.
The waiter hissed. “Don’t tell them that.”
The doorman looked incredulous and waved his arms back and forth gesturing around the room. “They already know.”
“Dinosaurs, that’s really cool.” Bucky said before the two could start fighting.
“Yeah,” The doorman agreed.
“They won’t stop screaming.” The waiter sulked.
Playing on his genuine interest Bucky asked “Why do they do that anyway?”
Both the doorman and the waiter looked at the maid. “It’s part of how they communicate.” Bucky nodded encouragingly. “They’re a little bit psychic but not really. They do a lot of sub vocalizations that we, humans, can’t hear. When they make that sound they’re trying to boost that vocalization. It’s not exactly screaming more like turning up the volume. Who’s ever loudest is sending the strongest message.”
“Interesting.” Bucky rocked back on his heels and looked back at the doorman. “So how do the fit into your business plan?”
“We’re going to sell them, obviously.” He said.
Stevens, who had done a good job of containing himself up to this point, said “Why didn’t you turn this whole thing over to SHIELD when you found it?”
The doorman laughed. “In this economy?”
Bucky Barnes and James Madison snorted together. “So, one an done? What’s your long term strategy?”
“Reg, the butler, said he knew someone who would pay enough that we could set up somewhere else. Stop working here and do the dinos full time.”
Bucky didn’t bring up that the man they were selling the velociraptors to was a arms dealer and general asshole. They could find that out later. “So, Reg arranged the sale and you’re just packing them all up? How do you manage to get them into the cages?”
“The headbands.” The maid said. She seemed to have picked up on the fact that Bucky was pumping them for information and was going along with it. “They convert human thoughts to the kind of sub-vocalizations the velociraptors understand.”
“Mind controlled dinosaurs.” Stevens said from behind him. Bucky couldn’t tell if he was elated, horrified or very over the idea, maybe all three.
Bucky, as James Madison, nodded approvingly at the group. “High risk, high reward. I can respect that. And tonight’s the night you see your ROI.”
The waiter nodded. “As soon as Andrew and Max find number 8, we’re golden.”
Bucky could see the realization as it crossed the faces in front of him and as one all their eyes slid over to Steve.
Bucky tried to resist. He really did. “They’re a bit tied up at the moment.” Stevens was the only one who laughed. “Number 8, pink,” Bucky hovered his hand at hip height “about so tall.”
“Yes,” The maid nodded. “She’s very intelligent.”
“Very good at escaping.” The waiter added sourly.
The maid side eyed him then pointedly told Bucky “She’s learned to use her teeth and feet more than the others because of her underdeveloped arm. She is very good with latches and levers.”
Bucky would believe it.
“Umm…” Stevens said from next to him. “How good?” Bucky followed his line of sight to the velociraptor cages. The very empty velociraptor cages.
Looking wildly around the room he saw a jewel blue raptor disappear through a door across the room.
Bucky blinked. “She gets this from you, you know. Never happy in the room she’s in.”
Stevens half shrugged as though he was accepting fault in the raising of their velociraptor baby.
Bucky looked back at the erstwhile entrepreneurs. “So, the dinosaurs have escaped.”
The waiters eyes rolled back as he sighed out “Oh Fuck.” with the weariness of a thousand mile journey.
Stevens was looking at the ceiling with great concentration.
“Where does that door go?” Bucky asked.
The doorman looked over his shoulder. “It’s a staircase.”
Stevens groaned. “We’re under the ballroom aren’t we?”
The three nodded.
“That staircase leads right up there.”
“Yes,” The doorman said. “But the door into the ballroom is locked and it’s been stuck for years anyway. It would take them hours to get through it.”
Bucky shared a look with Stevens and they both groaned. It was probably Bucky’s imagination but he thought he could hear screaming, the human kind.
“Ready?” Natasha asked as she led their makeshift SWAT team up the steps to the Gray Gosling. She was moving much slower than she would like but there was only so fast she could go with a cast and she wasn’t waiting for backup to rescue Steve.
“Perfect.” She pounded on the door with her fist. There was a pregnant pause as they waited for something to happen.
She pounded again. The music that could faintly be heard from outside the ballroom cut off abruptly. Then the screaming started.
“Well, guys.” She shrugged before shooting the lock.
“Sounds like probable cause to me.” Dugan agreed.
Natasha tranqed the waiter stationed inside the door and limped forward. The screams were louder now. Some of them were definitely human but others absolutely weren’t. She took a centering breath and pushed open the doors.
Steve heard screaming faintly echoing down the stairwell. He thought ruefully that in an evening that hadn’t gone as planned this really, really hadn’t been in the plan.
He turned to the staff turned dinosaur sellers. Now that he knew they weren’t HYDRA he was less worried about leaving them down here. “Stay here.” He said and ran toward the door. He could hear James say something to the maid before chasing after him.
He ran up the three flights in a flash, took the door marked one and found himself on the other side of the door he had broken earlier. He slowed taking in the chaos in the room.
The party-goers were pressed against the walls. Most of the them were gaping at the riot of color around the butler’s feet. In the light of the ballroom each raptors’ feathers shown. There was a vibrant red one, pale green, yellow almost gold, all the colors and even more teeth.
Natasha stood in the open doorway to the front hallway with two men Steve didn’t recognize flanking her with her widows bites at the ready. Mr. Gray was near the door to the ballroom looking as gobsmacked as any of his guests. Mrs. Carmona and Mr. Mark where standing near the butler, but not too near Steve noticed. Even they were giving the dinosaurs a wide berth.
Steve was just raising his hand to his ear seeing if his comline was active again so he could coordinate with Natasha when James popped into the hallway behind him at a dead run. Steve had time to half turn before James careened into his back making them both tumble into the ballroom.
As one every eye in the room focused on them. Clearly no one knew what to make of them.
James got his balance, looked at everyone looking at him and said. “Oops, I must have taken a left turn at Albuquerque.”
Steve fell a little bit in love.
A pink ‘raptor separated from the pack aiming for James and started shrieking only to stop short at a command from the butler.
“Hi Buck, nice to see you’re not dead.” called one of the guys behind Natasha.
Natasha who still had her hands raised and widows bites aimed at the four people in the middle of the room asked. “Is everyone calm?”
“No,” Mr. Gray said doing a good impression of puffing his feathers up. “I’m not.” He turned to the butler. “Reginald. What in the hell is going on?”
“None of your business, old man.” The butler shouted back.
“Anything that happens under my roof is my business and as your employer I demand an explanation.”
The butler gave him a vague snear and said “No.” as he turned his attention to Mr. Mark. He visibly pulled himself together. “As you can see Mr. Mark. All here and all in good condition.”
Mr. Mark gestured around the room with his glass. “This wasn’t the transaction I agreed to.”
“Where did you even get dinosaurs, Reginald?” Mr. Gray demanded taking a step forward.
“Not talking to you.” The butler shouted back. Steve guessed that keeping control over that many raptors was putting a lot of strain on him.
Mrs. Carmona rolled her shoulders like a cat rousing from a nap. “If you’re not happy with the merchandise, Benny, I’m sure I can find another buyer.”
James snorted next to Steve. “I think that ship has sailed.”
“Well,” Mr. Mark drawled. “I guess I could be persuaded. After all, everyone in the room already knows I was going to buy them.” He looked sourly at Mrs. Carmona. “Actually buying them can’t harm my reputation more than it already has.” He paused to take a drink. “I was told the merchandise would be under control, too.”
The butler gritted his teeth. “They are under control. And if you want them to stay that way you had better give me my money.”
As one all the ‘raptors turned their feathered heads toward Mr. Mark.
Steve looked over at Natasha and quietly said “Nat?”
“Rogers.” She sounded relieved. “This is a mess. Any ideas?”
“I will not be bullied like this.” Mr. Gray charged forward uncaring of the ‘raptors swirling around his feet to shake a finger in the butler’s face. “Explain yourself.”
The butler’s cheeks twitched like he was stopping himself from baring his teeth. “I quit. With what I found in the basement I can retire and be free of this damn rat trap.”
Mr. Gray reared back hand going to his chest.
Mr. Mark clinked his ring against the side of his glass still cool as anything drawing everyone’s attention back to him. “If you can prove they’re controllable.”
Ava wrapped her fingers around his arm like claws. “Benjamin, you agreed.”
Steve heard James beside him whisper into the air. “Guys, I need a distraction. No, no, fuck it.”
Then James said in a very un-James like voice. “Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll double it.”
There was a pause and one of the men by Natasha called out. “I’ll triple it. I could make a fortune with them.”
Steve could see the idea lighting up in every brain in the room. Everyone here had money. Some of them even had their own private islands.
“I’ll take ten.” “How much for a breeding pair?” “Are they house trained?” “I want the blue one.” “Do they come in black?”
Steve turned to grin at James and saw that he was slowly working himself around the edge of the room behind the butler’s back.
“Are they good with kids?” “Are these the newest model?” “I want fifty.”
“STOP!” shouted the butler and the people who had started to crowd in on him backed away as the ‘raptors opened their mouths to shriek. Steve surreptitiously glanced over to check James’ progress. He wasn’t close enough yet.
Mrs. Carmona scolded. “Reginald. I have brokered a deal with you and Benjamin. You can’t back out of it.”
The butler seemed to be getting his wits about him again and Steve didn’t want that.
Mr. Mark stood up straighter. He seemed to realize that if the butler had time to think about it he would realize that he had several better offers. “Of course, I’ll wire the money to your account now. If you’ll get them ready for transport.”
The butler seemed to remember that he had people who should be doing that at this very moment. He started to glance around the ballroom trying to find them in the room. James still wasn’t close enough to reach the man before he could sic the raptors on him. James needed another distraction.
If tonight had taught Steve anything it was that he leave the sneaking around ballrooms to other people. Lucky for him he was good at being distracting.
He stepped forward chest first to get the attention of everyone in the middle of the room. “You can’t sell these animals.”
The butler rolled his eyes pointedly at Steve. All the raptors’ heads swung in his direction. “Why not?”
“They’re endangered.” Steve said with a straight face.
“They’re extinct.” The butler said. Steve could tell he was fraying around the edges again.
Natasha got in on the plan. “These must be the last surviving members of the species.”
The butler whirled toward her. This time the raptors were slower to follow.
“The Endangered Species Act forbids the sale of those animals.” Steve added.
Steve took another step forward to keep attention on himself. “Listen, even if you get out of here, now that SHIELD knows you have these little guys,” he pointed to the ‘raptors “they’re going to keep looking for them. And for you.”
Steve had locked eyes with the butler. He could see Mr, Gray in his peripheral vision. “Mr. Stevens? Where’s... ” Mr Gray started looking at the crowd. He found who he was looking for right over the butler’s shoulder.
Natasha whispered quickly. “Go, go, go.” knowing that everyone’s comline would pick it up.
Bucky felt all the eyes in room the snap to him. He lunged forward the two steps he needed to get his hands on the butler before the man could turn around. He swung his hand up under his arm bringing them chest to back. Bucky tried to slide his hand up to the headband controlling the flock of ‘raptors. He knew he had misjudged the distance when his thumb jammed under the butlers jaw.
“Attack!” the butler yelled stretching the word to end in a shriek eerily similar to the sounds the ‘raptors made.
Bucky jolted as he felt fifty pounds of prehistoric turkey hit him leg first in the ass. Overbalanced as he was from grabbing the butler his knees buckled and he went down on his back. He dragged the butler down with him keeping them back to front. With the man on top of him the raptors didn’t had a lot of places to bite and Bucky would bet that they were getting mixed messages of ‘get him’ and ‘stay away from me’ from the butler. One of the ‘raptors jumped on top of them both and snarled with all its teeth. It stopped, looked befuddled and jerkily rolled off them. He must have called it off. Unfortunately for Bucky another three had noticed his unprotected head and were closing in. The mint green one snapped at him and managed to get its teeth into his hair.
Bucky rolled his neck to keep his head out of the way of teeth when he felt another ‘raptor land on top of him and the butler. He could feel it jump from knee to stomach to shoulder by the way it was knocking the breath out of him. A flash of pink and purple passed over him and Flossie landed by his head scattering the ones trying to eat his face. Bucky had one crystalized moment of embarrassment for looking up Flossie’s skirt like this then bumped his hand up the butlers face to get his fingers under the black electric headband and yank it off his head. Before he had followed Stevens up here he had asked the maid what would happen if no one was controlling the raptors. She had said they were pretty harmless.
The level of screaming in the room went from some to too fucking much. Bucky pushed the butler off him and wondered what the maid’s definition of ‘pretty harmless’ was. The guy curled into a ball clutching his head. Bucky rolled to a low crouch resisting the urge to cover his ears.
Mrs. Southward must have had a kevlar dress because the three tranq darts sticking out of her dress were dangling freely. The redhead, that Bucky really hoped was one of those good spies Stevens knew, tossed her tranq gun from hand to hand and then tossed it right at him. Bucky caught it, stood up and went after Mrs. Southward.
Mr. Mark had pulled out a short sword from somewhere and was going after Stevens with a wild overhand slice. Stevens had grabbed a serving tray and was using it to block.
Dum Dum and Monty where hustling people up on to tables and window sills anything that would put them out of reach of velociraptor claws and teeth. One of the three girls who had cornered him earlier in the evening was stretched out trying to pet the green velociraptor while her two friends held her back. Mr. Gumm had grabbed one of the wall hangings and hoisted himself up. Bucky didn’t think it was a long term solution because a couple of the raptors had become entranced by the wild movement of the tassels Mr. Gumm’s climb had caused.
With the butler down the ‘raptors had started to break formation and where scattering like excited puppies to explore the room. Very sharp puppies, all with the same question in their little reptilian brains: Can I eat it?
Bucky kept moving.
“Found the back entrance. Coming to your location.” Sam said over the comline.
“Don’t let them get out.” Natasha said in an aggravated tone.
“Them?” Sam asked.
Steve blocked with his makeshift shield as Mr. Mark made another sweeping strike. He wanted to get in close but the two velociraptors clinging to the hem of his jacket by their teeth had him off balance. The next time Mr. Mark came in for a strike Steve let go of the tray with a forward push and punched the middle driving it straight into Mr Mark’s midsection while his sword scraped off uselessly. Steve shucked his jacket and the two attached dinosaurs.
He assessed the situation. Bucky had gotten a tranq gun somewhere and shot Mrs. Carmona in the neck, it looked like she was the last of the three conspirators to go down. Most of the guests where perched along the edges of the room and Mr Gray seemed to be in a staring contest with a powder blue ‘raptor he was holding at arm's length in front of him. Now that everyone had stopped screaming the ‘raptors had stopped shrieking and started squeaking and chirping at each other.
There was a moment of calm as everyone caught their breath.
The door to the kitchen banged open. Steve tensed painfully aware that he and James had left five conspirators unrestrained in the basement.
Sam did a double take and said “Ow, come on. All I get to do is terrify the kitchen staff and you get dinosaurs. Not fair.”
Bucky was taking a couple minutes for himself. Moments after the standoff in the ballroom ended a swarm of SHIELD agents had arrived to, well Bucky wasn’t completely sure what they were doing but they were being very firm with the other guests that the velociraptors weren’t for sale or looking for a good home.
Bucky blinked at the ceiling. This night had been very strange and stressful in ways he hadn’t been prepared for.
Bucky wondered how he was going to put all of this in his report then stopped thinking about it before his brain could overheat.
He patted the pink feathered head in his lap. Apparently like puppies the velociraptors were high energy until they weren’t and needed a nap.
He tried to muster up some energy when Mr Gray came to stand next to him. “I feel I owe you an apology.”
Bucky blinked at him.
“I’m sorry that you were treated so shabbily by my staff.”
Bucky almost choked as he swallowed a giggle. “Thanks.”
“I had no idea there was anything in my basement.” Mr Gray continued.
Bucky squinted and wondered. “Did you know that you have a trapdoor?”
“Oh, yes, one original to the second house in the row and two more that were added by my father.”
Bucky didn’t ask about secret passages. He was just glad he hadn’t run into any of those. “Your father…”
Mr Gray scrunched his whole face up around his glasses. “I had no idea that he was involved with HYDRA. It’s quite a lot to take in.”
They lapsed into silence for a moment.
Mr Gray ran a gentle finger over Flossie’s head. “I supposed these little things will be well taken care of by SHIELD.”
“Of course, SHIELD has the facilities and personnel to make sure all the velociraptors thrive.”
Bucky jumped at the man who all but materialized next to Mr Gray. Bucky had tentatively pegged him as Stevens’ boss. He was certainly the senior agent on this op and since he hadn’t been usurped by any of the wave of agents he had to be pretty senior.
“Mr Gray, we would like you to help our agents sweep your home. We want to be sure that the dangerous experiments were limited to the basement.”
Mr Gray looked over his shoulder at the empty space to his left. Bucky saw a very wistful expression cross his face before he turned back to the senior agent with a honest smile. “How exciting. It’s like I’m in a spy novel.”
Bucky’s snorting laughter was enough to make Flossie raise a groggy head and slide off his lap before curling up again.
Bucky was calming down and getting up the energy to find Dugan and Monty when Stevens saw him and walked over.
“So,” Stevens paused as if looking for words. “Boo Bear.”
Bucky almost fell over sideways laughing. “Yes, gumdrop.”
The man very seriously extended his hand to Bucky. “Steve Rogers.”
“Sh...ooot.” Bucky managed to moderate his language as he realized were he had seen that jawline before.
Steve started to pull back. Bucky swooped in to grab his hand. “Bucky Barnes.”
“Nice to meet you, Bucky.” Steve said. He paused to rub his neck and then looked back at Bucky. “So tonight was not my best and I know I probably didn’t make a good impression on you with the whole grabbing you but would you..?” He trailed off looking rather helplessly at Bucky.
Bucky nodded to himself more sure of himself than he had been all evening. “Steve, for the record, I’m not remotely sorry.” He got his hands on Steve’s lapels and reeled him in for a long, wonderful kiss. It was marvelous and heated and something that Bucky wanted to repeat.
Then some asshole started clapping.
Bucky buried his head in Steve’s shoulder laughing. Steve bent to run his nose along Bucky’s ear and whisper “It’s a date.”