Chapter 1: The Impossible Dame
Hands in his pockets, collar turned up against the wind, Steve walked at a brisk pace to get home as soon as possible while trying not to set off his asthma. After being deemed unfit to join the army, for the… what? Fourth time? Fifth? He wasn't counting anymore, and his fake identities became more and more ludicrous every time. Heck, he'd even said he was from New-Jersey tonight, and that particular lie had made his skin crawl worse than the time Bucky had put a worm in his shoe.
Oh God… Bucky was going to kill him if he heard about New-Jersey. He supposed he would have killed him anyway if he had been approved. Bucky might be his best friend, his brother in all but blood, but he couldn't understand, he didn't know what it felt like to be dismissed when all he wanted was to help and do his part like everyone else.
Steve felt so… useless. Like an old shoe beyond repair that no one knew what to do with. Useless but you didn't just throw a shoe out, so you left it to rot in a corner.
But he could fight. No one believed him, but he could. He'd taken on bullies twice his size. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't impotent. Steve kicked a stone, followed it with his eyes as it hit a trash can, then the next in a musical combo. Okay so maybe he didn't win those fights, not really, but neither did the bullies in the end since he refused to let them, refused to stand down and cower. Steve was looking for another stone to take his anger out on when he heard a harsh laugh. It wasn't a happy one, but mocking and cruel. He'd heard it often enough directed at him. Worried, he searched for the source, walking back a couple of yards to the dark parking lot nestled between the back of barber's shop and the grocer's. Both closed at this hour, of course, so it was deserted and dark, or it should be but he heard a deep voice from the entrance.
“...walking around dressed like that. Just askin’ for trouble is what I say.”
That voice belonged to the laugh that had made his hackles rise, no doubt about it.
“Piss off! I can dress how I ruddy well like, you neanderthal.”
“Think not, doll. C'mere and I'll show you a good time.”
The woman's shout ended in a squeak. Steve had heard enough. To be honest, he had waited too long already to intervene, but he had been taken by surprise at hearing a dame stand up for herself like that. However, this was not a lovers’ quarrel. He doubted she even knew the man, and he sounded well into his drinks, too.
“Hey!” he shouted as loud as he could and stepped further into the darkened lot until he could see them. He had cornered the dame in the far end, leaving her no chance to escape, the beast. “Leave her alone!”
The man laughed when he saw him, but Steve jutted his chin out, fists clenched, ready to strike. He wasn't intimidated. What worried him was the woman who was struggling to keep her weight on her toes while the drunkard crushed her right arm in his meaty hand. A huge hand as large as her head. She was holding a stick as if she'd tried to attack him with it. She was brave, he's give her that, but she finally let it go with a whimper when he yanked her arm forward to face his new adversary.
Steve saw red. That was no way to treat a dame. Before he knew it, he was throwing himself at the bulky man, who swatted him back like a fly before he could even land a punch. Steve fell on his arse, tasting blood on his lips. The brute was wearing heavy rings to top it off. Damnit. Steve shook his head, trying to get rid of the dizziness from the blow when the other man yelled suddenly, dropping the lady as he held his hand. He cursed, then kicked her in the stomach and called her a couple of words Steve had never even heard before, although he could guess at the meaning. Finally, the drunkard left, snarling at him as he walked past. All in all, not such a bad outcome. It could have been a lot worse. For him at least, because he still had to check on the woman who had just been assaulted. Steve picked himself up and approached her cautiously so as not to scare her further. She was curled on herself on the floor, groaning.
He was surprised when she carefully uncurled and looked directly at him, without any fear, even if she still looked to be in pain.
“Hey,” she replied with a soft voice and a bloody smile. “My knight in shining armour.”
A blush crept up his face. He knew she wasn't serious, but he couldn't help his heart from swelling with pride at those words.
“Thank you,” she added, and she really did sound sincere. His blush intensified and he looked away.
“I couldn't just walk away. Are you badly hurt?”
“My pride, mostly,” she replied, but her wince as she moved to a sitting position told him otherwise.
The lines around her mouth, the way she cradled her arm against her body and how she held herself, hunched over… He knew the signs of someone in pain and trying to hide it.
“May I help you up?”
She bit her lip and picked up her stick, which looked more like a drumstick now that he got a better look at it, all smooth and polished and straight. She tucked it into her large coat, almost a cape, before she nodded and gave him her uninjured arm. Steve put it around his shoulders to help her stand up, glad she was light enough he didn't make a fool of himself and drop her, or the both of them, back on the ground. Surprisingly, once she was up on her own two legs, she left her arm slung around his shoulders, unconcerned about propriety and seeming perfectly at ease with their proximity. They were of a height too, which was a welcome change, so it wasn't as uncomfortable or difficult to hold her up as he'd feared. Maybe she was still too wobbly on her legs. Shock alone could do that, but she'd been pretty roughed up too.
“Where do you live? I'll walk you back just in case that brute is still around.”
The woman looked around, then at him, biting her lip again.
“You know… I'm really not sure. Where is this exactly?”
“Brooklyn.” He frowned. “Did you hit your head?”
“New-york?” she asked instead.
Was there another Brooklyn around these parts? Steve nodded at her question. With her strong accent, she didn't sound like she was from around here, but there had been a lot of immigrants fleeing the war these last few years so it wasn't out of the ordinary either.
“That's impossible,” she said in a whisper, more to herself than to him.
She paled considerably, enough that he could see it in the near darkness, then slumped, putting more of her weight on him. He squared his shoulders, refusing to be weak when someone needed him.
“Where do you live?” he asked again, more softly.
His eyebrows shot up.
“Bit far to walk,” he said, not knowing how to deal with someone who seemed to suffer a bout of amnesia.
She chuckled and he felt like he was doing something right if he managed to cheer her up. He could do more though. He couldn't very well leave her there to fend for herself. The next person who offered their help might not have such noble intentions.
“I live just up the street if you want. It's not much, but you can rest there until you feel more like yourself.”
He half expected her to refuse, but she just looked straight at him and there was so much going on behind those deep brown eyes. She was nothing like the vapid girls Bucky took him to dates with.
“If you don't mind. Just for a bit. Until I figure things out.”
Steve smiled. He was useful after all.
His worry about her mental state grew when the woman froze upon stepping onto the lighted street. She just stood there, and, as inelegant as it sounded speaking about a dame, she gaped. At the cars, at the people, at the buildings and the signs… It was as if she had never seen a city before, but surely London couldn't be all that different. It was a big city too, right?
“Alright?” Steve asked.
“Yes… yes, sorry. Lead on.”
She was quiet the rest of the way, but seemed relieved when they arrived and he had closed the door behind him. He felt a bit awkward. He had never had a guest before, except Bucky, and he didn't really count. Bucky had always been there… until he wasn't. Punk better come visit before he left.
“Water?” he asked as she sat on his chair.
He scurried off to the sink and filled a glass, then got out his first aid kit, hoping she wasn't hurt too badly. He knew how to deal with scrapes, but anything more… He shook off his doubts. No use imagining the worse. He kicked himself into action and returned to his unexpected guest, having a good look at her for the first time, as well as her clothes!
“Are you- Are those pants?” he blurted out, pointing at her legs before hastily withdrawing his finger.
She looked down at herself with a frown, then back up at him with a gleam of amusement dancing in her eyes.
“Trousers? Yeah. Jeans, actually. I take it they're not very fashionable around here.”
For men working on the docks, maybe… and they looked nothing like those she was wearing. Steve shook his head vehemently and she seemed amused. Her jumper was fine though, if a bit childish. At least it didn't cling to her curves like her bottom half. And her long coat really did look like an old timey cape. It even had a large hood. It was just… weird. Foreigners, go figure. His Ma would probably have had a lot to say about her being English to explain her strange ways.
“Do you have a bloody lip?” he asked. Might as well start small.
She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips and he followed it like a hawk.
“You've got… blood, there.”
He motionned around her mouth and she grimaced, grabbing the cup of water as she stood to walk over to the sink with careful steps.
“Not mine,” she muttered over her shoulder.
Not hers? Oh! That explained the drunkard’s howl of pain and hasty retreat. She must have bitten him hard enough to draw blood. He smiled. Good on her. Even if it was a bit gross. He heard her spitting in his sink. She was so unlady-like, it was almost comical. When the gurgling from his kitchen area had stopped, she sat back and went through his medical kit, lining up materials. She seemed to know what she was doing so he watched, out of her way, but there if she needed help. She shrugged off her coat, then her jumper, hissing every time she had to slide a sleeve past her injured arm.
And Steve was blushing, again. She was just undressing. And he was right there . Should he turn around? Close his eyes? Bucky wouldn't. He'd ask if she needed a hand, but that hardly seemed appropriate right now. Besides, she wasn't shedding any more layers. She was in a simple white tee-shirt now, and he had one very much like it. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised she was wearing yet another male item of clothing, although it suited her rather well. It was very… form-fitting. Like her jeans. At this rate, he was just going to blush non-stop. But then he saw the bruises, the distinctive shape of large fingers on her forearm, and her wrist… it was not only bruised but swollen too. He wished he had a least punched that bastard in return. Steve didn't want to imagine what he would have done to her if he hadn't stepped in.
“It's only a sprain,” she said, looking up at him, holding his gaze for a moment. “I don't want to risk making it worse, though. Do you have anything I can use to make a splint?”
“I have pencils,” he offered, not sure that would work, but it was one thing he had enough of. Unfortunately, he lacked everything else. He took a couple pencils from the table where he usually drew and watched again as she set her wrist, then wrapped it with the makeshift splint with precise movements.
“Are you a nurse?”
She tied the ends of her bandage with a chuckle.
“No. But I do have an accident-prone friend so I read a lot on basic healing in case we couldn't use- uh… see a doctor.”
That didn't sound quite right, but Steve didn't want to pry if she didn't want to say anymore. Her expression turned from merry to chastised in an instant.
“Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't even introduce myself, did I? After everything you've done for me, too.”
“That's quite alright. A bit of a shock, I imagine. I'm Steve Rogers,” he said and offered his hand before recalling her right hand was injured.
He let his hand drop. Why did he always have to make a fool of himself? Before he could beat himself up too much about it, her left hand sought his out: soft and warm and small, even compared to his own. It felt so good, this human contact: warm, earnest and friendly. Like Bucky. He chuckled to himself. His friend was never going to believe this story.
“I'm Hermione. Hermione Granger. I'm really grateful for your help tonight, Steve. You have no idea how much.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“More than getting beaten up by a giant in the street, you mean?”
“And being so far away from home too.”
She bit her bottom lip, dragging her teeth over it before letting it go. She sighed.
“So much trouble,” she admitted and slumped back in her chair.
Her tee-shirt rode up, revealing her midriff, but she didn't seem to notice, or care. And this position made her breast perk up… Steve wanted to bang his head on the table. If this is the sort of thought bringing a dame back home put in his brain, maybe it was for the best he remain a hermit.
“I was in London, and then I was in that parking lot,” she snapped her fingers. “Just like that.”
Steve dragged the second chair from the table and sat facing her.
“Without meaning to? Yes, quite. But that's not even the worse part.”
The incredulity in his voice was as evident as the time Bucky had told him about the ginger triplets he'd picked up one night in a bar.
“What year is it?”
“1943,” he said with a frown. Just how hard did she hit her head? Maybe he should check her skull for a bump.
“You see, I was in London in 1999.”
Steve stared blankly at her.
“I knew you wouldn't believe me. I'm sorry. I'm having a hard time processing it too, and I just needed to say it out loud.”
“And that makes it better?”
“No. Not really. I don't know… I thought it would make it seem more real. I can't figure out what happened. Why it happened. It doesn't make any sense.”
The last word ended on a high pitch note and she apologized again. Steve didn't know what to make of her. She seemed so earnest, and she was nice, polite. He'd like to believe her, really, but it was so farfetched. Hermione sighed and busied her hands, cleaning up the mess she'd made, then she pulled her chair closer to his, holding up a damp cloth.
“Your lip,” she explained.
“Let me? It's my fault, after all.”
He nodded. She was so close, he was having trouble thinking, let alone talk. Without her outer layers, he could smell her perfume, sweet and fresh like the spring flowers he drew in the parc. She dabbed his lip gently, her eyes focused downward allowed him to look his fill. Her skin seemed soft, almost flawless and she had a few freckles smattered across her nose, long dark lashes and her eyes were a whisky brown colour. Her hair up in a tight knot seemed to have a wave to them and he wondered what it would look like undone.
When she glanced up, probably feeling his eyes on her, she caught him staring, but didn't berate him for it. In fact, he could have sworn her cheeks had coloured pink, but she was half turned away from him, going through the pockets of her coat and dumpling various things on his table.
“Aha!” The triumphant exclamation was followed by her holding out a little vial of orange liquid. “Dittany. I always carry some on me. I'll have your lip fixed in no time.”
Steve had never heard of dittany, but if it involved her being close again, he didn't mind. God, Bucky was such a bad influence on him. She dabbed some of the liquid on the cloth and dabbed his lip again. It tingled for a bit, then the pain was gone. Completely gone. She let go of the cloth and her finger trailed over his lip, checking her work.
“There you go. All healed.”
It took all of his will to remain cool as a cucumber, which he definitely was not.
“I- I need to go. To sleep. If you want to stay, you're welcome to have my-”
“I'll take the sofa. Thank you again, Steve. Sweet dreams.”
Steve was too out of it to protest, or wish her the same. He walked over to his bed in the next room with stiff movements and fell face first, groaning into his pillow. He was such an idiot for reacting this way. She was way out of his league, and injured, just been molested in fact, and she was a bit nutters. It didn't keep his thoughts from straying back to her, however.
The next morning, he woke early. He always did, but even more so today because he had to check he hadn't dreamed up last night. He threw on yesterday's clothes and was very careful not to make his door squeak as he opened it to peek into the other room. There was someone sleeping on his sofa, tucked into the pillow and blanket Bucky stashed next to it for when he stayed over. He tiptoed over to the table, still littered with the contents of Hermione’s pockets. She must had dropped right off to sleep like he had if she hadn't bothered putting away her belongings. There were even a few coins, but they looked unfamiliar. Curious, he lifted the closest up to his nose and squinted at the markings, almost dropping it when the date jumped out at him: 1987. He checked every coin, most British and a few others he couldn't identify and had no apparent dates. But all of the other coins were dated between 1972 for the oldest… the oldest! Which was thirty years in the future. The coin dated further into the future was a penny dated 1998… Hermione had said she came from 1999.
Steve dropped in the chair she had occupied last night. It couldn't be a prank. Why would anyone bother pulling something this elaborate on him?
Feeling only slightly guilty, Steve perused the other items: a paper ticket in garrish orange and green stamped with the date 12th April 1999, an old fashioned quill, round foil wrappers which he assumed contained sweets, a mixed bunch of keys, old fashioned and modern both, gloves made of a strange material he'd never seen, almost like scales, plus a few odds and ends he couldn't identify, not even what they were made off.
Could she really be from the future? It sounded so insane and yet, it would explain a lot. Her clothes, her manners, even her speech, accent aside, she had a strange turn of phrase… A yawn from the sofa made him snap back to the present, sitting ramrod straight in his chair as if he had been caught red-handed.
“Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you.”
“It's fine,” she said as she pushed the blanket off then stood. “I guess I should start-”
“Jesus! You're not- You're- Pants!”
He dropped his head in his hands. She was going to kill him. And this just proved his point about her being out of time. He was pretty sure normal dames didn't walk around in just a tee-shirt and what looked like men's boxers, even less so in mixed company, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Right. The forties,” she muttered. “Hold on. Okay. I'm… well, more or less presentable.”
Steve peeked up. Okay. No more skin showing. He was equal parts relieved and disappointed. He hadn't noticed her hair undone either, what with all the legs distracting him, but it cascaded down her shoulders, brushing past her elbows in a beautiful tangle of caramel curls. He had an urge to draw her, just like that, still sleep tousled, with the morning light shining like a halo around her. He should probably pick his jaw off the floor first.
“Were you looking through my pockets?” Hermione asked, breaking the spell.
“Not on purpose. You left it there after last night and I saw the coins and the date and then… you were telling the truth?”
“Yes! Why didn't I think of that? You believe me?”
“Hard not to. What are you going to do? To get back? It's possible, right? I mean, if you can go one way-”
Her stricken expression told him that wasn't so. Strange to think time travel only worked backwards.
“I thought about it all night. I could go to people who know about this, but I don't know them, and they certainly don't know me. I don't even know who to trust. Time travel is strictly controlled and those who abuse it are severely punished. They might...no, they will lock me up somewhere so I don't mess up the time continuum. The Americans will. Maybe if I can get back to England… find Professor Dumbledore… Yes, I think he would help me.”
“Okay. Sounds like a plan. But… erm… you do know what's going on in the world, right? I mean, if you're from the future, you know… Oh! You know! The war! Do we win?”
Hermione was well read despite not having had a muggle education so she knew how and when the war ended. She even knew a lot more than that given there was a magical side to this war too.
“See, this is why time-travel is forbidden,” she deadpanned. “I'm sorry.”
Steve couldn't hide his disappointment. To think he could know, that the information was right at the tips of his fingers, that he could know if Bucky would have to be sent to the front after boot camp or if he would be safe… And suddenly he understood what she was saying, why her being here, her knowledge, was so dangerous. If the wrong people got her hands on her… they would get the information they wanted whether she wanted to give it or not, and it might change everything .
“But-” she began and his head snapped up. “You'll notice I don't speak German. Not one word of it, in fact.”
Steve laughed. He didn't remember laughing this hard since his mother passed away. He was so happy, so relieved… So, of course, he had to ruin the moment and have an asthma attack.
Chapter 2: Be my Guest
Steve tried to relax, breathe through the attack, but his chest felt so tight, it hurt, and then the wheezing began. The whistling accompanying every exhale, and a few inhales too, the worse his airways constricted. It was so embarrassing. He had just been laughing , for God's sake. He was happy . It was so stupid. Hermione probably saw him as the weakling he was now instead of her knight in shining armour. He wanted to dig a hole and go hide in it, but he couldn't even do that if he had a shovel, lacking the basic muscle strength to do such work.
But he saw her then, kneeling on the floor in front of him.
“Breathe in through your nose Steve,” she showed him, not caring that she looked a bit silly sprawled on the floor as she breathed in loudly, with exaggerated care, so he followed her example. If she didn't feel ridiculous, he probably shouldn't either. He knew what to do, but it was always easier to follow orders when he was in this state. “Out through your mouth. Again. Slowly.”
She pushed his shoulders back gently until he wasn't hunched over so much, forcing him to sit straight and open his airways. It got a bit easier, and he focused on her breathing and her hands holding his own.
“Do you have an inhaler somewhere?” she asked softly.
He had no idea what she was talking about and shook his head minutely. He almost wanted to laugh again, because he'd bet it was something that hadn't been invented yet. She coached him through to the end, until he was breathing alright on his own once more, then picked herself off the floorboards to prepare some coffee. He didn't really feel like coffee but took the cup so as not to be impolite.
“Hot coffee helps open your airways,” she said with a knowing smile which told him she was reading him like an open book.
Not difficult when it felt like you were dying a little inside from lack of air and too much shame. So he inhaled and drank the coffee, unconvinced at first, but he felt more like himself already. And through it all, she hadn't lost her cool, hovering nearby, like Bucky always did. He chuckled and began telling her about his best friend. How they grew up in the same neighborhood, then how they became close when Bucky self-appointed himself his protector after finding him bloodied a few times too many and finding out why.
“He's always there for me, whether I want him to be or not. I don't understand why he bothers, honestly, he'd be better off without me holding him back all the time. I know I'm just a nuisance…”
Hermione scoffed. And yeah, that was so much like Bucky. No words needed, just flinging raw emotion right in his face to get his point across. He hoped those two met. They'd hit it right off.
“But I can always count on him. Except now he's getting his stupid ass shipped off. Sorry,” he added, realising he shouldn't speak so in front of a dame.
“He sounds like a good friend.”
He waited for her to bring up his asthma attack, but she merely gazed back at him with a smile playing at the corner of her lips, apparently content to wait him out. She might have to wait a long time since he had no desire to bring up how much of a weakling he really was. He was a wreck and he had no way to fix it, especially not by talking about it. A loud rumble echoed in the empty space between them and she flung her hands up to her mouth, mumbling something that might have been an apology.
“You're hungry?” Steve asked and stood, carefully testing his limits and deciding he would be alright for now, as long as he didn't do something too strenuous like running or… laughing, apparently. Maybe he was getting worse. Shaking off that particular fear, he walked over to his pantry next to the sink, already knowing he didn't have much except cans of beans. And more beans. He slammed the door shut.
“It's okay,” she said, too close by half. “I've already been such an imposition. I should go.”
“Where?” he asked incredulously.
“I'll find something.”
“Just walking out wearing those slacks,” and he still wasn't convinced they were because of how tight they appeared, of how they showed off every curve, especially her rump. “Will get you in trouble. Might even get you arrested. And that's only if you don't run into another brute like last night.”
Hermione glanced out the window, her left hand idly rubbing her right, just below her sprain.
“What else am I supposed to do? I can't stay locked up here forever and be a burden on you.”
Steve had to admit she had a point, but an idea came to him and he smiled.
“I'll be right back.”
He forced himself to walk more slowly than usual despite his excitement at the prospect. He wanted to help Hermione as much as he could. He owed her that much for not judging him where so many others had, for trusting him, and just being plain nice. He wasn't used to such companionship, save Bucky's, and admitted to himself he might be a bit drunk on it. Arriving at the flat downstairs, he tapped on the door lightly, smoothing down his clothes to make sure he looked proper. Maybe he should have checked his hair before leaving. He probably had bed-hair, but it was too late to do anything about that because the door cracked open, revealing his neighbour's surprised face.
“Steve? Is something wrong?”
“It's awfully early,” Maggie explained with a laugh as she opened the door wider. “You're lucky I have an early shift or I wouldn't have opened with such good grace.”
Steve blushed. It wasn't the first time he ran headfirst with an idea in mind. Bucky said he was like a wild boar, nevermind that he had never seen a real one for himself before.
“I have a favour to ask,” Steve admitted sheepishly, ducking his head.
Maggie nodded and beckoned him in. They'd been neighbours since forever, and she had been friends with his mom, had helped him take care of her when she was too sick to even move. Steve suspected Maggie still kept an eye on him, because he'd sometimes find baked goods waiting at his door when he'd hit a lean week. She always knew somehow.
“Those dresses Eliza outgrew…”
Maggie chuckled, cutting him off.
“She does look much more at ease in your mother's dresses. I still can't believe she's so tall. I don't know who she got it from. But what could you possibly want with girl's frills, Steven?”
“It's for a friend who just turned up. She lost everything… in a fire.”
That was common enough, more so in the cramped wooden tenements they lived in. Maggie nodded in understanding.
“I kept a few of them that weren't too threadbare. Always someone who can use the material sooner or later.”
She fetched him a small bundle and made him promise to introduce her to this mysterious friend of his. The way she said it… she either had the wrong idea, or was just very hopeful he had found someone. She was going to be quite disappointed in the near future, but Steve thanked her profusely for her help, even more so when she added a couple of biscuits on top of the pile of clothes for breakfast.
Hermione had cleaned herself up when he returned, her face pink from scrubbing and a couple of wet curls dangling around her face.
“Here, try these. They're from a neighbour's daughter.”
She looked delighted, as if he'd just offered her diamonds instead of old, second-hand clothes. She really wasn't like other dames he had met.
“Thank you, Steve. I'm starting to wonder how I could have survived the Forties without you.”
She left for the privacy of his bedroom to change, returning a mere five minutes later.
“I feel stupid,” she said as she pulled on the hem of a pretty blue dress with tiny white flowers around the collar and sleeves.
Steve knew Maggie had embroidered them herself for her daughter so she would have at least one dress that wasn't too plain-looking compared to the ones her better-off friends wore. Eliza had looked good in that dress; Hermione looked better despite the bruises on her arm.
“You don't look stupid,” Steve said, then kicked himself because that hardly sounded like a compliment. “I mean you look very, uhm, pretty.”
Steve struggled to recall what Bucky had taught him to say to dames. Had he said pretty was too childish? Or was it lovely? He couldn't remember. He hadn't really paid attention because one dismissive look from the “date” Bucky had brought along for him and he knew it wasn't even worth the effort. Now, he wished he had listened.
“You're just saying that so I don't cause a riot outside in my trousers. It's upside-down-land around here.”
“Dames don't wear dresses in the future?”
Steve couldn't wrap his mind around it, but he supposed it was probably far from the most important change so far in the future.
“I only wear them for special occasions. Some like wearing dresses and do everyday, but honestly, they're so much less practical. And drafty. And you're much more likely to get harassed wearing a skirt that trousers where I'm from.”
She still looked uneasy in her new attire, although he couldn't fathom why, so he offered her a biscuit to divert whatever thought was bothering her and calm her rumbling stomach.
“What are you plans today?” she asked when she'd finished.
“Work. I have a few assignment to finish with the TA. I should probably leave soon… Will you be alright on your own?”
He hated to leave her, but if he wrapped up all his pending work today, he'd have enough cash to feed the both of them for a week.
“Yeah, sure. I'll figure something out.”
Steve rummaged in the drawer of the table and found his spare key. Bucky had returned it before leaving for boot camp. Without hesitation, he pressed it into her hand. She opened it, eyes wide at the sight.
“You come back if you need, alright? I don't mind having you here… I like it, actually. I don't get much company nowadays.”
He walked to the door, grabbing his coat from the hook and shrugging it on, glad for an excuse to hide his flushed face at what he'd just admitted outright.
He turned around slowly. Hermione shuffled where she stood, wringing her hands, her eyes suspiciously wet. She huffed, then charged him, almost bowling him over as he stepped back against the door. Then her hands came around him. She was hugging him tightly, like a teddy bear.
“Thank you,” she said against his neck, raising goosebumps where he could feel her breath.
Steve belatedly hugged her back, his heart beating much too fast. He wondered if a hug could cause heart failure.
Steve worried for Hermione all day while he was at work. He wondered what she was doing, hoping she was alright and taking it easy. She was still injured after all, even if she had seemed not to be in too much pain today. He was relieved when he finally washed his brushes and returned them to the supply cabinet at the end of the day. He didn't bother trying to get the paint off his hands. In his eagerness to finish all his projects today, he had gotten more paint on himself that usual. Instead, he went straight to the accounting office to get his pay. He'd stop on his way back for groceries so he could be a proper host and offer his guest something to eat. He had a nagging thought at the back of his mind that Hermione might not be there, might not ever return, that the possibility he would never seen her again was actually quite high, but he chose not to dwell on it.
When he finally made it back, his breathing was a bit short from the exertion of carrying more weight than usual with the grocery bags. He gave himself a minute to catch his breath in front of his own door and hesitated. Here, the illusion that he was not alone, that someone was waiting for him at home was still strong, but as soon as he opened that door, it could come crashing down around him. He couldn't hear anything inside, but standing there like a numbnut wasn't going to give him answers, so he took one deep breath and turned the doorknob, finding it unlocked, his heart skipped a beat as he pushed it open.
“Steve!” Hermione greeted him. “How was your day?”
He smiled at the welcome. She was like a ray of sunshine. He could get used to this.
“Fine. Got food so we don't have to eat those old beans.”
She laughed and took the bags from him, setting them on the table.
“Don't diss the beans, Steve. They're alright in a bind.”
True enough. He wondered if she'd ever been hungry enough to eat the dratted things. It made him worry about the future knowing that people would still go hungry, but maybe some things would never change: there were those who were rich and had never known the pangs of hunger, and those who were poor and lived with them daily.
“How did you fare today?” he asked instead.
“Good! I got hired,” she said and his eyebrows shot up. That was fast. “And then I got fired. I'm a terrible waitress. I never realized it was such a difficult job.”
“Well, apparently men can slap my arse without anyone batting an eye, but I'm not allowed to slap them back for being pigs.”
Steve was equal parts horrified and amused.
“Sorry you had to go through that.”
“I've known worse. Anyway, after I got kicked to the kerb, I applied to other places but seems word gets around pretty fast. Then I found this library, but they wouldn't hire a woman if you can believe that. It's not like men are all being shipped off to fight a bloody war. Besides, an orangutan could do the work they were hiring for, so I left, but bowled over a man on my way out and spilled his notes everywhere.”
“I’m still waiting for the good part of your story,” Steve noted as he unpacked the grocery bags. So far, her day sounded horrendous.
“Getting there,” she said with a bright smile. “I apologized of course, and helped the bloke gather his notes, but I noticed a mistake in his translation just begging for me to correct it, so I pointed it out to him.”
“Translation? From what?”
“Norse. You know, runes. I studied it at school.”
“Is that a common subject in England?”
She shook her head.
“Not at all. And the man didn't even believe me at first. He dragged me into the library to check it out and had to admit I was right. And then he hired me.”
“Just like that?” Steve asked incredulously. “What about references?”
“Well… I gave him your name and address. I hope that's alright?” Steve nodded. “I told him I had freshly arrived in New York with just the clothes on my back so I didn't have my credentials, which is actually the truth, and he gave me this weird look so I'm not sure what he thinks my background is, but he didn't pry anymore. I guess he was just relieved he had found an expert in Runes. It looked like he had been struggling, poor guy. Took him twenty minutes to verify that one rune, if you can believe it.”
“So you're some sort of expert in Runes?”
“Amongst other things. Only problem is that he gave me this sheet to translate to convince his boss of my skills, but I can't write correctly with my left hand and my right is still too sore.”
He watched the paper she had scribbled on, trying to read what he supposed should be english. He'd seen three years old with better penmanship and had to bite back a smile.
“I knew I could count on my knight to come to the rescue once more.”
Steve did his best not to show how pleased he was and rolled up his sleeves.
“At your command,” he said as he sat in her still warm chair, pen at the ready.
Steve expected to write a few words now and then as she deciphered the runes. It looked like a code of small geometric shapes to him, but he found himself writing non stop as if she was merely a filter from one language to the next.
“Whoa, you're fluent. It's impressive. They’d be idiots not to take you on. Do you know how much work they have for you?”
“No. That's one point on which the bloke was rather cagey. But he seemed interested in the other languages I'm proficient at for future projects, so hopefully, I've secured my means of survival for as long as I'm here.”
He wondered if she meant here, in this time, or here, in his flat, with him, but he was too much of a coward to ask outright. So he latched on to his next point of curiosity.
“Latin, ancient Egyptian, Greek, French and a smattering of Bulgarian, but I think it's the hieroglyphs they're most interested in. I wonder if the History books were right…”
She trailed off, deep in thought, while Steve was, ironically, struck speechless. He didn't know why. He had known from the start she was brighter than most people he knew, but he had not imagined she was so educated. Not many women were, and none that he knew.
“So you're really, really smart,” he concluded, feeling inadequate on a whole other level.
“I've been told that, but then I go and do something incredibly stupid like getting lost in the Forties.”
After folding the translation and slipping it in her coat for the next day, they prepared dinner together, talking easily about their day. Hermione wanted to know what he did exactly after teasing him about all the colourful splatters of paint on his hands and once he'd told her, she nagged him to show her his sketchbooks. He had no doubt she always got what she wanted, but he liked watching her flip through his old drawings. He was struck with a feeling his life had suddenly turned perfect, too perfect, and he truly feared what would happen when the penny dropped.
He felt bad letting her sleep on the old couch again, but she'd assured him she had slept on much worse. He had to wonder once more how the future was. Hearing her, it sometimes sounded as bleak at it was today.
“Legs! Clothes!” Steve squeaked the next morning when he found Hermione walking around half naked again with a cup of coffee in hand.
“Guess I should go shopping for some clothes. I need more knickers, too.”
He slapped his hands on his ears.
“Too much information! Hermione, Jesus!”
She smirked and handed him a cup of coffee, so he was forced to relinquish his ears to whatever scandalous topic would next cross her lips. She hadn't strayed far however.
“What do women wear for bed here, anyway?”
“Nightgowns? I'm really not the best person to ask. Bucky would know.”
“Ah, yes. The lady's man. But I think he skips the nightclothes entirely and just takes them to bed naked, right?”
“And my friends think I'm the prude one.”
“Morals must have really loosened up in the future,” he muttered.
“Yeah, guess you could say that.”
Steve noticed her mood suddenly plummet.
“Do you have someone? From where you're from? If you disappeared so suddenly, they're going to be worried sick.”
“Well… since I travelled back in time, I still have a chance of getting back to the same exact date I disappeared from, and no one would notice, except if I stay here too long and visibly age in which case it might be awkward to suddenly be so much older than my peers. So I guess it's lucky I don't have anyone who's really going to miss me.”
She ticked off on her fingers.
“No boyfriend, no family, my friends are all married are popping out babies like they're going out of fashion so they're busy enough as it is, and my cat just died, the very night I disappeared…” She shook her head at the memory of poor Crooks all stiff in her arms, and forced a smile back on her face. “I guess my superior at work might notice my files piling up on my desk in a few more days.”
Steve opened his mouth, raking his brain for something to say, but came up short. He hadn't expected to find someone even more lonely than he was.
“Don't bother,” she said as if she'd read her mind. “I did that to myself, pushing people away. I-” she sighed. “There was a war and it took my parents away first. Then too many friends, and those that made it through were changed. I wasn't the same either. I couldn't look at the empty spaces where people should be without feeling guilty that I hadn't done more, tried harder-”
“The future doesn't sound any better than the present.”
“It is, in some aspects, but humankind is cursed to repeat their errors, I guess. Come on, enough maudlin talk for now. Wish me luck for today?”
Chapter 3: Life Changer
So I'm not saying I'll always post this fast, but I want to get the story moving to have your opinion on it and feedback has been amazing so far :)
Steve got home first that day. He worried the darker it got out. Maybe he should have offered to pick her up, but he didn't want to seem too clingy. Besides, it could simply mean her job interview had gone well. Why not? She was obviously very smart and capable. Still, he was relieved when she finally opened the door, looking happy and sheepish as she held a large brown parcel in her hands.
“Let me guess,” he said before she could speak. “You got hired, had your nose in dusty parchments all day, and brought the largest nightgown you could find to celebrate.”
She laughed and swatted him playfully, then walked passed him to drop her parcel on the table. It made a soft sound so he was sure he was right about it being clothes.
“I did get hired, I did not see a single rune or hieroglyph today, and if that's a nightgown, it's got to be the most uncomfortable one in existence. Care to guess again? One out of three isn't so bad.”
“No. I'll get dinner started and you tell me all about it.”
She did get the job as it turned out, but spent all day there, not to start her work on translations, but to be vetted by her employer, which was none other than the US army. Apparently, they had done a background check on him too, since she lived with him, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Hermione for her part wasn't sure how to feel about the job offer.
“I'm not supposed to be here. What if I muck everything up? Change history? Maybe change it so badly, I erase myself or create a paradox?”
“But what if this is exactly the place you're supposed to be? You said so yourself, you had nothing holding you back in your time and you have no idea how you came here. Maybe it's… I don't know… fate? A divine intervention? Sending you where you need to be?”
“I don't know… it's giving me a headache, to be honest. I've only been here a couple days and your government already wants me to sign all these confidentiality papers and wear their ridiculous uniform-”
“What?” Steve asked and glanced at the package.
First Bucky was drafted, and now Hermione was hired, but they still refused to accept him despite his many attempts to volunteer? It seemed so unfair, but he forced a smile on his lips for her.
“Is that what's in the package, then?”
“Yes. It's mostly for show though, so I can access- Wait. I don't think I can even tell you where I'll be working. Or what I'll be doing. I'm really not sure I should accept this job.”
“If you can do some good, I think that you should,” he said and meant it.
Her shoulders sagged.
“I suppose you're right. Who knows how long I'll be here, after all? I sent off a letter to my old Professor in Scotland, but I guess it'll be a while before he receives it, and then just as long to get a reply, if he even believes me. It feels like a very long shot, but I'm not sure what else to do.”
“You should stop worrying for a start. You're starting to have a permanent groove right here,” he said, poking the furrow on her brow.
“You're one to talk,” she said and returned the gesture. “Guess I have an early day tomorrow. I hate to ask, but where the hell is your bathroom?”
“You're sitting in it.”
She looked around.
“I'm pretty sure I'm not.”
“It's a kitchen, living room, bedroom. What makes you think it's not a bathroom too?”
He revealed the small tub masquerading as the kitchen counter, amused how she look both shocked and awed.
“That's actually quite ingenious. Funny I never knew these sort of details. You don't mind if I bath? I'd rather start with a good impression and I'm starting to smell ripe.”
“No. Sure. I'll just- Do you need help setting it up?”
She nodded and he explained how to unhook the counter and add a hose to the kitchen tap to fill it up, then showed her where the soap and towels were.
“I'll be in my room. Call if you need anything.”
He got ready for bed, trying hard not to listen to the sound of water sloshing in the next room because it invariably led to him thinking there was a very naked dame bathing just on the other side. He sat on the edge of his bed, then let himself fall back and groaned in frustration. He was glad to have met Hermione, truly, even happier she was staying with him, but he certainly hadn't thought it through. He had never had to deal with so many hard ons before. It was just plain ridiculous, and a bit creepy. But he was just a man, and Hermione a sweet girl. Pretty too. Which didn't help matters. Really, he could not be blamed for the state he was in.
“I feel like I should salute or something,” Steve said the next morning when he found her already dressed in her uniform, with breakfast laid out for them both.
“Don't be silly. I don't even have military training.”
“Yes, but you've earned it with your brains. You should embrace it.”
Her expression lightened.
“You always know what to say. I really wish I'd met you sooner.”
“Can't get much sooner that 56 years in the past, Hermione. What's you rank?”
She turned her arm to show off the three chevrons.
“Sergeant. It's the lowest they could make me to have easy access without rousing too many questions. Can you believe they asked me if I could speak “normally”?”
“I like your accent. I hope you told them to… how do you say it… bugger off?”
“No. Didn't want to get fired so soon. Speaking of, Steve. Now that I have a job.” Steve felt a knot form in his stomach. This was it then. She didn't need him anymore. “I'd like to pay rent, if I can still stay here, that is. I know you gave me a key, and your offer was rather open ended, but I really don't-”
“Yes!” he said with relief and his cheeks spontaneously burned brighter than the sun.
“Yes I can pay rent?”
“You're going to have to make up your mind, Steve.”
“Yes, I'd like it if you stayed. No, I don't need you to pay rent.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“If you don't let me pay rent, I'll find someplace else where they'll be happy to take my money.”
“Good. I see we understand each other. See you tonight, Steve,” she said and kissed his cheek before sauntering out.
Steve stayed where he sat, his coffee turning cold as he stared at the door. His fingers lingered over the spot where she had left a kiss, as if it was no big deal. Maybe it wasn't for her. Women from the future were strange and complicated and utterly fascinating.
They had a routine set in place after she started working for the army: she'd prepare breakfast, he'd help her braid her hair while her wrist was still too weak to wrestle her curls, she would kiss his cheek and wish him good day. Meanwhile, he would find work here and there, barely enough to make ends meet before, but with Hermione's added income, they even went out now and then so he could show her around the city, treat themselves to diners and go to the cinema. It felt suspiciously like dates, and they would even hold hands sometimes on their way back. It had started one night so they wouldn't get separated in a crowded street, but he had kept his fingers linked with hers long after, and any excuse was good enough to hold her hand again after that day. He still couldn't quite believe his life had turned around this much.
Steve introduced Hermione to Maggie, as promised, and they got along great. Too much sometimes, because he'd catch them looking at him and giggling. He'd bet Maggie was telling her embarrassing childhood stories about him, and she had them in spades.
All was well until Hermione received a letter. Steve recognized her own, barely legible handwriting from when her wrist was badly injured. The letter had been returned to the sender with words scribbled over the front: no such address, no such name.
“It's impossible,” she said, tears coming to her eyes.
“Maybe you got it wrong?”
“I've lived there for years. Everyone knows Dumbledore. It just had to get to Hogsmeade and the letter would find him. I don't understand. I- I have to go out,” she said suddenly and grabbed her odd cloak.
“I'm coming with you.”
“You don't have to.”
“I'm coming. You know it's not safe at this hour.”
She nodded and grabbed his hand, pulling him through the streets until he was too winded to follow her frantic pace.
“Hermione, please. Not so fast.”
“I'm sorry,” she said with tears in her eyes. She was biting her bottom lip, which she hadn't done in a long while, so she had to be very upset.
“It's alright. We'll get there, Hermione, all in good time.”
They continued at a more sedate pace, but he could swear he felt the tension thick around her, as if she was generating a giant ball of static electricity. It was a very strange feeling which made the hairs on his neck stand on end.
She stopped in front of the Woolworth building and paced in front of it, peeked inside, walked around it.
“It's not here. It should be. I'm sure I read this is where it should be.”
After ten minutes, he stopped her in her tracks, putting both hands on her arms.
“Hermione, what are you looking for?”
She glanced around, as it afraid someone would overhear, then pulled him into a dark corner.
“The entrance to New York's wizarding district,” she whispered.
Steve blinked at her, certain he had not misheard but unable to understand what she meant.
“You don't believe me,” she said, her face falling.
“It's not that. I just don't understand.”
She pulled him into a dark corner.
“I'm a witch,” she said.
“I have magic.”
“Don't freak out, okay. I didn't use it before because I was afraid they'd come arrest me, but now, I need to know they're here.”
She took out her stick, the smooth polished one she tried to hit the drunkard with that night he'd met her for the first time. She waved it around, then said some foreign words and the most magnificent thing he had ever seen sprang out of the end of her stick, an animal made of pure light gallivanting around them. Those few people in the street came to investigate the bright ball of bouncing light and froze in shock, staring at them, but Steve didn't care. The little magical creature made his heart lighter and happier than it had ever been before. Hermione waited, tense, and when nothing happened, she spoke to her creature.
“Go find someone, anyone from the MACUSA and lead them back here.”
The creature jumped around but returned to her, tilting its head.
“Go to any witch or wizard, tell them I need help.”
“Again, the creature just looked confused.”
Again, nothing, and the creature faded then disappeared. Hermione broke down, sobbing right there on the pavement while more people crowded around them.
“We have to leave,” he whispered urgently. “Right now.”
She seemed to realize how much attention she'd drawn and pulled her cloak tighter around her uniform, then waved her wand again, but in a different pattern and with different words. The people suddenly began leaving every which way as if nothing extraordinary had just happened.
“So… a witch,” he concluded.
“We'd better talk about this at home,” she said and they walked back in silence.
Just when he thought she couldn't turn his world upside down any more that she already had, she went and scrambled it again. He didn't know what was worse: that he wasn't afraid of her when she admitted to being a witch, or that he was stupidly happy she had just called his cramped little tenement home. He was, however, disappointed and quite a bit angry she had kept this secret from him for so long.
Once the door was closed, she divested herself of her cloak and vest before loosening her tie and falling apathetically on her couch. She patted the seat next to her and he joined her, sitting close as was their habit.
“I'm sorry I didn't tell you,” she said right off the bat.
His anger deflated like a balloon meeting a nail. He heaved a heavy sigh.
“I thought if I used magic, they would come and arrest me for illegal tampering of time, and then I got used to not using magic and didn't see the point of telling you.”
“You could have. I would have kept your secret.”
“I know you would but it's impossible. In the future… or where I'm from, they obliviate muggles who learn about magic. It means they erase the minds of people who don't have magic but learned about it. That's how my society protects itself, and it has been doing so for centuries.”
“But if they erased magic from my mind… you…”
She shook her head.
“You wouldn't remember me. I didn't want you to forget about me. I know that's selfish, but you're all I have, Steve. Even when I landed here and had nothing, I still had you.”
Steve's eyes went wide. Her words echoed with him on such a deep level. He'd said very similar words once to Bucky, who'd then punched him in the shoulder and called him a ninny, but he'd had that same look she now had, and that he probably had too. He opened his mouth, but once more, he couldn't find the right words. This was too much to process all at once. He closed his mouth. And she had said he always knew what to say.
“I- You'll always have me, Hermione. I promise.”
She inched closer. Her eyes were so large, like doe eyes. Soft brown, with long lashes. And she smelled so good, like his soap, only it somehow smelled better on her. He wanted to kiss her, to finally claim those lips after weeks of pining, but this was probably not the right time and he had no idea what he was supposed to do… He needn't worry though, because she leaned closer and claimed his. He's never imagined a kiss to feel like this: soft, yes, but like electricity was running through him too.
He followed her lead while his hands got adventurous and lay on her thighs before going up over her hips and resting at her waist. However, his head started spinning and he jerked back.
“I'm sorry,” Hermione said breathlessly. “I thought-”
“No, stop. You thought correctly. It's just me. I think I forgot to breathe.”
She relaxed and the way her shoulders shook, she had to be laughing. He smiled even if she was laughing at him, because only he got into these sort of situations.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don't have much experience.”
“With dames in general,” he admitted. “I'm not exactly what women look for in a partner.”
She frowned as she observed him.
“You mean a sweet, talented guy with a heart as large as Mount Rushmore, a sense of humour, who is always there for me and braids my hair in the morning so I don't look like a wild jungle beast going to work?”
Fire in his cheeks, he determinedly kept his eyes locked on hers.
“I mean a penniless guy with a weak constitution who doesn't have much to offer and isn't much of a looker.”
“Only your heart matters to me, Steve. I really mean that.”
She did, too. Somehow, she had looked beyond his exterior and really liked him. She had kissed him. And then he had ruined it. You get better with practice, Bucky had said, so, without second guessing himself for once in his life, Steve leaned towards her and kissed her once, twice, caught her bottom lip and let it go and he had that familiar want for more, so he pressed his lips more firmly against hers, feeling her respond with enthusiasm. He had to keep reminding himself to breathe because it was so easy to forget with the onslaught of sensations. Steve thought he would burst when he felt her tongue brush against his and it took him a while to get used to it, to find what he liked, what she seemed to like when she hummed and pressed herself closer. He felt dizzy when they broke the kiss, but in a good way this time.
“You're a fast learner,” she said breathlessly.
“You're a good teacher,” he replied with a lazy smile.
They sank deeper into the couch, leaning against one another, holding hands, just enjoying the moment.
He had a million questions to ask her, but knew this wasn't the right time. She had to process what she had learned tonight before she could talk about it. He would wait and be there when she did.
Of course they fell asleep in the most uncomfortable place possible. He knew this couch was murder. It was a wonder Hermione had slept in it for so long, never once complaining. Maybe he could convince her to share his bed… but the idea was dismissed just as soon. There was no way he was going to treat Hermione like some harlot. However, he'd rather she took his bed all the same, even without him in it.
So he would enjoy the time he had with his girl sleeping on his chest with his arm around her. It was such a heady feeling, and she felt so small and fragile there that it made him feel strong and protective in comparison… and with a raging erection. Quite manly all in all. But he hoped to dear God she did not notice, or that she slept until it was gone.
But she moaned soon after, wiggled against him, then opened her eyes and rubbed the sleep out of them.
“Uhmm. Unplanned sleepover?” she asked.
He chuckled and kissed her forehead.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
She sat up, pushing away the blankets he'd managed to pull over them during the night, and, despite still being dressed, his state of arousal was quite obvious.
He pulled the blanket back to cover himself.
“Don't worry. I've shared a tent with two boys for a year. Morning wood is not going to shock me anytime soon.”
He stared at her in confusion and flushed in embarrassment.
“I guess I should tell you my life story one of these days.”
“Yeah, I really think you should.”
Loose morals… Jeez. Just talking about morning erections like it's nothing.
“Just so I know how deep out of water I am here, would you mind telling me how many boyfriends you've had?”
He wondered if she really was a female Bucky sometimes.
“Not as many as you seem to think. Two, I guess, and I didn't even sleep with Viktor.”
“Alright, just the one. And honestly, I'd erase the experience if I could. Well, I technically could, but it's a bit dangerous pointing your own wand at your head.”
Right. A witch. He'd almost forgotten. How was that possible!? It was probably one of the most insane things he'd ever witnessed and he'd forgotten… He wished they had time to talk about it but Hermione was already running late.
“I think you're going to need to iron your uniform,” he pointed out.
“I can't believe I slept in the thing. Seems you get that point for guessing it was a nightgown after all. I really don't have time to iron it though.”
Steve was about to offer to do it when she withdrew her magic wand out.
“Want to see a magic trick?” she asked and he nodded eagerly.
Her uniform ironed itself out impeccably, her hair braided itself to perfection, food and mugs began to float through the air as magic prepared breakfast, then his own clothes ironed themselves out and his hair combed itself. It took all of three minutes where it would have taken at least twenty without magic.
“Isn't it just? It's also why wizards and witches are usually some of the laziest people you will ever meet.”
She seemed to catch herself, remembering she was the only witch around here, and became quiet and pensive while she picked at her breakfast. But that day, before she left, she kissed him on the lips instead of the cheek.
Chapter 4: Deep Breath
Over the next few days, Hermione told him everything about herself and her life read like a book. He could feel she had softened some parts and glossed over others completely, but he was so grateful she would trust him to even share this much. And his girl wasn't just sweet and smart and beautiful, she was also a bad-ass who had kicked nazi-wizards arse during her magical war. But at such a young age… It made him angry.
“War touches everyone, whether you fight in it or not. I just happened to be right in the eye of the storm and had to give it my all if I wanted to live through it. I paid for it, in blood and nightmares… it changed me. But if I had to do it all over again, I would,” she finished with a nod, putting down the “sock-juice” as she had called the only tea she could find at the grocers. “Maybe that's why I'm here.”
She dropped her head into his lap, her unbound hair hiding the sketchbook on which he had been trying to capture her likeness.
“Because you're a blood-thirsty, vengeful little soldier who can't get enough of fighting nazis?”
“Maybe,” she said with a smile. “And maybe you should kiss me with that smart mouth of yours.”
He didn't need any more encouragement. He dropped his pencil and buried his fingers in her wild curls. Bucky had been right: practice makes perfect. He wondered if that applied to the bedroom too, but they weren't there quite yet, not with Hermione still processing being in what she called “an alternate dimension”. A carbon copy of her own Earth but with one major difference: the absence of magic, or rather of magical society since her own magic worked just fine.
She had seemed to be grieving for a couple of days, before snapping out of it somehow and resuming her life just like before that damned letter had returned, using little magic except in case of emergency, which to be honest, could be anything from a mislaid hairbrush to the stove breaking down. Not to mention she could fill her bath in record time and heat the water much more efficiently that using the tip, much hotter too, and less expensive. It was difficult not to love magic. And then she said she could enlarge the tub to fit for two and he had done an about face and fled to his bedroom. He wasn't much to look at with his clothes on, without his clothes, he just looked sad. Bony and pasty white… his only saving grace was that she didn't have many points of comparison to other male specimens, but he doubted she'd like what she saw.
He sketched in his bedroom while she bathed, listening to the water splashing about and the way she hummed upbeat tunes he had never heard before, when she suddenly screeched and something crashed against the wall. Steve was up like a shot and he yanked the door to the main room open, only to find Bucky standing there with a stupid grin on his face.
Steve threw his arms around him, getting the same in return.
“Hey, Stevey! You've got a naked dame in your bath.”
Steve grinned despite knowing Hermione was probably one second away from hexing them both out of the room.
“Yeah, I do. And what did you bring?”
A wet washcloth hit him square in the head and he laughed, putting his hands up in surrender.
“Alright, alright, we're leaving!” Steve said as he pushed Bucky out.
They sat on the steps leading up to his flat, Bucky looking out of place in his crisp uniform while Steve only wore one of his old shirts and baggy slacks.
“So, things have changed during my absence. Did the dames start flocking to you when the better looking of us left?”
“No. They still avoid me like the plague. Your flock of bird is still out there somewhere, ripe for the taking.”
“Except the doll up there. She's pretty.”
“She's much more than that.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow, his smile growing wide as he clapped him on the shoulder.
“Look at you all grown up! Smitten and all. Thought I'd never see the day.”
“Neither did I, to be honest. I still can't believe it.”
Steve told him how they'd met and how it started, but then had to omit the parts about the magic because it was not his secret to tell, but at the same time, he felt a twist of guilt at doing so, because he'd never lied to Bucky before and keeping this from him felt wrong. They'd always shared everything before. And Bucky looked so genuinely happy for him, it made his guilt grow. So he changed the subject and asked his friend about boot camp and how he'd fared over there. Quite well judging by his sergeant stripes. Just like Hermione. Those two always seemed to collide on some level or other. Maybe alternate dimension Hermione really was Bucky.
“Boys! Dinner’s on the table,” Hermione called from above,
Steve hadn't realized they'd been talking for so long.
“You better apologize for walking in on her bathing, Buck.”
“But I'm not sorry. Thoroughly enjoyed the view in fact.”
Steve scowled darkly. He hadn't seen Hermione naked. The Universe was being unnecessarily cruel to give that privilege to Bucky when he could just look at any woman to make her panties drop.
“Be careful or she'll make you sorry.”
“I seriously doubt that pal, just because you're whipped doesn't -”
Bucky trailed off as he caught sight of Hermione, thankfully dressed, in her uniform. He glanced at him with a scandalized look on his face he had never seen before, then stared back at her.
“Sergeant,” she said.
Steve could see the aforementioned whip now, only it wasn't directed at him.
“Sergeant,” Bucky replied smoothly, but seemed to be standing at attention.
A beat passed during which they could have heard a fly buzz. Bucky coughed, clearing his throat.
“I apologize for earlier. I should have knocked.”
Hermione relaxed and smiled now that was out of the way.
“Bucky, right? Steve told me so much about you.”
Bucky relaxed too.
“All good I hope.”
“Depends on your definition of good, I suppose.”
As Steve had suspected, once the bath incident was forgiven, the two hit it right off the bat, talking mostly about him at first, then about the army and the war. Observing the two of them over his slice of the pie Maggie had brought up earlier, he couldn't help but think they'd make a far better couple, well matched in everything including looks. A familiar warm hand on his own brought him out of his musings.
“You look exhausted,” Hermione said.
“Yeah, I should probably rest. Guess I'm still not a hundred percent over that cold. You around here for a bit, Buck?”
Bucky looked tense, as he always did when he learned he had been sick and he hadn't been there to help. He nodded.
“I'll just crash on the couch, if you don't mind.”
Steve exchanged a look with Hermione whose cheeks turned a lovely shade of pink. Bucky looked between them with a puzzled expression.
“Unless you do?”
“That's where Hermione sleeps,” Steve said, words tumbling out of him.
“But aren't you two, you know…”
Steve's cheeks burned with the fires of a thousand hell pits.
Words. Failing him as always when he most needed them.
“It's fine,” Hermione continued. “I… We can…”
Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose, and he was either sighing heavily or laughing his arse off.
“I can't believe it, Stevey. You manage to snag yourself a lovely dame and you give up one step away from the bedroom? Do I have to show you kids how it's done?”
“Bucky!” Steve exclaimed. “You can't just say things like that!”
Hermione ruined his outrage by succumbing to a fit of giggles. Bucky elbowed him to catch his attention.
“I like her,” he said in a stage whisper. “I fully expected her to throw me out: problem solved.”
Steve smiled at him, the devious punk.
“Stay. It's fine. Hermione?”
He offered her his hand and she took it, wiping away her tears of mirth with her other hand.
“Good night, Bucky,” she said as she walked past him.
He'd barely closed the door when Bucky hollered back at them.
“If you need pointers, I'll be right here! Pretending I'm not listening!”
Hermione laughed again.
“He's just like you described him,” she said. “And here I thought you were exaggerating.”
“Never,” Steve said, shaking his head.
He looked at the bed. He didn't mind sleeping with Hermione. They had shared the couch and he had loved it, even with the embarrassment of the next morning, but he had had the excuse of accidentally falling asleep to stay dressed. Here in the privacy of his bedroom, it was impossible to justify.
“It's alright, Steve,” Hermione said as she squeezed his hand. “We don't have to do anything.”
Steve pursed his lips. He certainly didn't deserve Hermione's patience with his issues. Just getting naked was a challenge for him, not to mention all the other stuff. Why couldn't he be more like Bucky?
“What if I want to?” he said defiantly, jutting his chin out in a show of courage he didn't truly feel.
She shifted so she could face him and catch his eye.
“Really? You're not just saying that because Bucky was teasing us?”
Maybe a little. Everything was so easy for him.
“Alright. I… I'll start,” she said and shed her tie, throwing it on the chair next to the bed.
She unbuttoned the top button of her blouse next, then another two, revealing a slither of pale skin and the hint of her cleavage, causing his breathing to hitch. He took a deep, slow breath. He had to stay in control. Or even take control. He raised tentative fingers, ignoring the way they seemed to shake. Hermione didn't comment on it in any case, and she let her own hands drop. It was easier to breathe now that he had a focus, one button, then another. He tucked her shirt out of her skirt and undid the last two buttons. The shirt opened of its own volition, no longer held together by its fastenings, and it slipped off her left shoulder, revealing more white skin which seemed to glow in the dim of the room. She was breathing hard too now, her breast heaving up and down behind the constraints of her simple white bra. He pushed the right side of her shirt off her right shoulder, like unveiling a work of art. She really was beautiful, all curves and softness. The rest of her shirt slipped off, sliding down her arms and falling on the floor with barely a rustle as he looked back up at her.
She smiled and looked flushed, her eyes shining as they reflected the light behind the curtains. She guided his hand to her waist where he found the button to her skirt, the zipper. Once undone, the skirt fell off and she was standing in just her underwear, far more revealing than the strange clothes she had slept in on her first few days living with him. As his eyes travelled back up from the new territory unveiled, his eye caught on the raised flesh peeking out from under her bra, reflecting with a silver sheen. He trailed his fingers over it, a light touch, barely there in case the old scar hurt, wondering when she had gotten it.
“Can I?” she asked with a breathy voice that stirred him from deep within.
Her hands rested on his chest, her desire to reciprocate and undress him evident. Unable to speak just yet, he nodded. How could he refuse her when she offered herself so willingly to him? She unbuttoned his shirt, her eyes intent on her task. She would see him. He knew she wouldn't care about his sickly appearance, but his logic was being beaten to a pulp by his fear like a skinny boy in an alleyway pummeled by a bully. His chest tightened painfully under the onslaught of emotions by the time she undid the last button and what little control he had over his breathing snapped like a rubber band. He coughed, then wheezed and he hated himself so much.
“Steve!” Hermione exclaimed. “Oh Merlin, I'm sorry! Here, sit down. Breathe!”
But the note of fear in her voice alarmed him, caused him to tense up even more.
“Steve, no! Relax, please!”
She tried to uncurl him, free his lungs but it hurt so much.
And now Bucky, but he couldn't be here right now.
“Oh, fuck! Hold on, bud.”
Bucky was efficient, forceful when necessary. He had done this dozens of times before and gave Hermione directions with a military edge to his voice he had never heard before. In no time, which felt like an eternity, his breathing eased.
“Sorry,” he managed to say.
To her. To him. For being who he was.
“Shush, Steve. You just focus on getting air in those pesky lungs.”
So he did, and, exhausted, he closed his eyes but felt Hermione settle next to him, holding his hand while Bucky sat at the head of his bed on his other side, a strong hand on his shoulder so he would know he was there too. Steve was surprised they all managed to fit in the bed but he supposed he and Hermione were rather on the small side.
“Happen often?” Bucky asked, thinking no doubt he was asleep already, although he didn't have the strength to let him know otherwise.
“No, just the once, but it wasn't this bad. We'd just been laughing and I didn't know at the time he had asthma. I dealt better with it back then, but tonight- I didn't expect him to-”
“Was pretty bad, yeah.”
Silence fell for a while, his slight wheezing the only sound in the room.
“You know you're still naked, right?” Bucky asked.
Steve tried to move, to tell him off, but he couldn't so much as look his way.
“I'm not naked,” she hissed back like an angry cat. “Just don't look at me.”
“I'm having a hard time being in bed with a naked dame and not looking at her.”
Steve huffed but it got lost in the noise Hermione made as she left his side. He was going to kill Bucky if he managed to drive her away where he hadn't. But she returned soon after and let her fingers play in his hair.
“You wearing Steve's shirt is oddly appealing.”
“And I think Steve was being overly polite when he called you a lady's man.”
“Really? And what would you call me, darling?”
“Is that some Brit expression?”
Try a futuristic one, Steve thought wryly. Hermione hummed, then explained herself.
“Harsh. Funny. I see why Steve likes you,” Bucky slumped lower in the bed. They'd shared a bed often enough since they were kids. Because he was sick, or scared, or because it was the only way to keep warm during the harshest winters. “I won't worry so much when I'm shipped off, knowing he'll have someone to take care of him.”
“We take care of each other,” Hermione corrected.
“Must be nice.”
There was a willful tone to his voice. It was silly. Bucky wasn't the sort to settle down. He liked to play the field. Maybe it was knowing he was being shipped off, with no ties back home save his sickly friend? He made a mental note to talk about it to Bucky on the morrow and fell asleep to the comforting tones of the two people who mattered most to him.
Steve woke up alone in bed the next morning and wondered if he'd dreamed the whole night. He hoped he had. How the heck was he going to look either of them in the eye today?
An argument sounded next door and he decided he'd better get over himself and keep the peace between them before one strangled the other. Still, he didn't expect them to be arm wrestling over the table.
He didn't have time to ask anymore. Hermione slammed Bucky's hand against the table, declaring herself the winner.
“I got distracted! It's not fair. I demand a rematch!”
“No way, you sissy boy. I won fair and square. You better hold your end of the bargain, or I'll tell everyone you lost against a girl half your size.”
“Steve!” Bucky whined. “Your girl is evil.”
“Why? Did you just bet your soul?”
Hermione snorted and poured him his coffee, pushing it his way with a wink. Given her size and utter lack of muscles, it was a safe bet to assume she had used her magic to pull one over on Bucky. Steve sat between his friends, waiting to hear what trouble Bucky had managed to get himself into.
“A dame! She'll never get over the disappointment.”
“You don't need two girls on your arm, Barns. You can't sully your uniform in such a way.”
“Two?” Steve asked, eyebrows shooting up. That was a bit crass, even by his standards.
“Hey! One of them was for you, bud. I didn't know you'd already gotten yourself a beauty of your own.”
Hermione rolled her eyes.
“And this cad here said he was going to bring both.”
“I'm gonna have to side with Hermione on this one, Buck. Just one thing though, where are we going exactly?”
Bucky reached into his vest, depositing four tickets to the Stark Expo in flushing Meadows that night. Steve grinned. He'd wanted to take Hermione, but by the time he'd gotten around to buying tickets, they were already sold out.
“Wait a minute,” Hermione said, eyeing the tickets. “Were you going to make those poor girls fight for one of those tickets?”
“No… But I like how you think!”
Hermione shook her head and finished her cup. Standing, she smoothed out her uniform and pecked him on the lips, just as she always did, as if last night had never happened. He knew this wasn't the time to have that discussion when she had to leave for work, so he wished her a good day.
“Hermione! Don't I get a kiss too?” Bucky shouted before she could close the door.
“You've got cooties!” she shot back.
“Damn. I think I'm jealous,” Bucky told him.
“Well, that's a first.” His laugh died on his lips as he recalled the previous night. “About last night…”
“Hey, think nothing of it. Hermione understands. You know I do. I feel like I should be the one apologizing though. I didn't realize pushing you two together would trigger an attack.”
Steve looked at the table, the cracks and stains in the old wood.
“So you two never…”
He shook his head.
“I panicked. Not because of… that, because I want to. I really want to. But just the thought she would see what's under…”
Steve gestured at his bony shoulders, sunken chest, meaning everything.
“I'm sure she wouldn't think any less of you. In fact, I think she loves you for who you really are. That's a rare gift, Steve.”
“I know, I know. I think I love her too. I never told her. I'm an idiot. I should tell her.”
“Don't wait too long. Time is a precious thing nowadays.”
Chapter 5: A Fork in the Road
Steve and Bucky spent most of the morning talking their ears off, catching up, then spent the afternoon wandering around Brooklyn because Bucky wanted to soak in his neighbourhood before being shipped off to parts unknown. Hermione was due to finish late because of a last minute meeting, and she seemed on edge when she returned, meeting them at the expositions entrance, her smile brittle. She kissed him, then leaned to the side to look behind Bucky.
“Well, where's your date?”
Steve and Bucky exchanged a glance, trying their best not to laugh.
“I forgot. Wait, don't chew me out yet. I didn't mean to! But they've gotta be long gone now, I was due to meet them an hour ago.”
“I don't have words for how terrible you are, Barns.”
“Honest mistake. You should blame Steve. He's the one who distracted me all day.” A rise in volume coming from the exposition caught their attention. “Come on! I don't want to miss Stark's presentation.”
He hurried ahead, as eager as kid on Christmas morning, which was just as well because his exuberance and sharp elbows were creating them a path through the packed crowd, parting people like Moses did the red sea. They lost track of him at some point when he got too far ahead, but he reappeared out of nowhere when some jerk jostled Hermione. Bucky gave the guy such a dressing down he disappeared with his tail between his legs before Steve could lean into him himself.
“May I?” Bucky asked, offering her his arm.
“Erm,” Hermione glanced at him, and Steve rolled his eyes. Might as well let Bucky have his moment of saving the damselle. At least, she would be safer tucked in between them. “Sure.”
They made it close to the scene in time to see the barely clad dames dancing in front of the car before Howard Stark himself arrived and kissed one of them full on the mouth, which earned him a few catcalls. Next, he revealed his flying car and Hermione's grip on him tightened. Blood was draining from her face, and added to her drawn back behaviour since meeting up, Steve was starting to worry.
“Are you feeling unwell?”
“This never happened in my timeline,” she whispered urgently. “It's a major deviation. The technology involved to accomplish such a thing this early in time. He must be a genius. From now on, I'm blind to the future. What I know of it might be completely wrong.”
Steve nodded in understanding, including what she wasn't saying. That this was probably the reason why there was no magic in this world.
“What's going on?” Bucky asked after the car had crash landed on the scene.
“Nothing,” Hermione said. “I'm just really excited by this flying car. I never imagined such a thing possible.”
“In that case, wait till you see the sideshow. There's all his latest inventions exposed and-”
Steve stopped listening. Modern inventions and machines had always fascinated Bucky. He'd always loved disassembling things and putting them back together. He'd even repaired his father's watch once. Steve lagged behind while Bucky pulled Hermione by the hand, pointing at this and that. She actually seemed interested and was laughing along. Steve was struck by the image of them: his two sergeants in their uniforms, holding hands, and looking like they actually belonged together. He caught sight of a recruiting office and wandered over to it, like a moth to a flame. He wanted so bad to fit in and do his part. He was about to try his luck once more when Hermione and Bucky caught up to him.
“Don't tell me you're at it again?”
“At… what?” Hermione asked.
He hadn't tried since meeting her, but seeing them together tonight had rekindled his need to do more.
“This punk has tried enlisting at least half a dozen times.” Hermione's eyes grew wide. She looked scared where Bucky only showed anger. “You've got Hermione now. Are you really just going to abandon her.”
He had a point. Hermione was important and she did need him, out of time as she was. She literally had no one else. But Hermione paled further at those words.
“You can't, Steve,” she pleaded. “Promise me you won't, even if I have to.”
“What do you mean if you have to?”
“The meeting today. They need to fly me overseas as soon as possible. Some urgent business in Norway.”
“What?” Bucky snapped while Steve was struck dumb. “Can't they find someone else? You're a-”
“I swear if you say woman, Barns, you can kiss your nuts goodbye. As it turns out, I'm the leading authority in this matter, so I don't have a choice.”
“You're both leaving? Tomorrow?”
“I'm sorry, Steve. I wanted to tell you tonight when we got home.”
It would hardly feel like home anymore without either of them there.
“And you, both of you, you just expect me to wait here, twiddling my thumbs?”
“There's plenty other jobs for the war effort right here,” Bucky argued.
“I'm not sitting in a factory while there are men out there, and women, laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. Or you. This isn't about me, it's bigger, and you both know it, you're both a part of it.”
Steve glared at them, daring them to say he was wrong. When they didn't, he turned on his heels and stormed to the bar of the enrollment office.
He paused, but kept his back to them. She sounded so desperate that he might just give up 1 and promise her anything, but she was leaving too. He had nothing to hold him back anymore.
“Just give me some space. I'll see you back home later.”
“Let him blow off some steam, Hermione.”
He didn't need to turn around to know Bucky would walk her home and that they would both be waiting there for him.
Steve thought Dr Erskine was pulling his leg at first, and he would be arrest anytime now. It wasn't until the doctor had stamped his file ACCEPTED that he knew this was the real deal. Steve was happy and excited and scared all at once.
Once home, he opened the door slowly, wincing when it squeaked anyway. His flat was so dark and quiet, he thought that maybe they had fallen asleep while waiting for him. An armful of curls corrected him of that notion when Hermione ran into his arms to hug him tightly.
“Oh thank, Merlin! I was so afraid you wouldn't come back, that I wouldn't see you before leaving.”
Steve pushed her back to see her face. Her eyes were red and puffy as if she'd spent all this time crying. Glancing at Bucky who had been inordinately quiet, he found him lounging on the couch, his uniform spotting a wet, rumpled patch beneath his shoulder.
“You're a jerk,” Bucky said and looked away. “I hope you got it out of your system this time.”
“Sort of,” Steve admitted as he closed the door shut behind him with his foot since Hermione was still clinging to him.
“What do you mean ‘sort of’? Either you did or you didn't!”
Steve swallowed against the lump in his throat and licked his lips.
“I was accepted. I'm leaving tomorrow too, for New Jersey.”
“No,” Hermione said as she took a step back.
“You're kidding? Right?” Bucky asked.
Steve resented that tone.
“No. Someone there obviously thinks I could be of use.”
Silence stretched between them. This isn't how he wanted to spend the last night he had with his best friend and his sweetheart. It felt too much like his mother's wake. Sad, lonely and a bit awkward.
“So, all three of us leave tomorrow,” Bucky finally said. “The brains, the brawn and the runt. Guess we might meet up over there one of these days and have a good laugh about tonight.”
Steve smiled at him, glad he understood, then looked at Hermione.
“Someone once told me that if you can do some good, then you should,” she finally said, making his smile grow wider.
“Sound like a wise person.”
“I have it on good authority he's a runt,” she deadpanned.
Steve chuckled. His heart felt about to burst with how much he loved these two, and simultaneously broke at the thought this might be the last they saw of each other.
“Come here,” Steve said with open arms. “The both of you. I want a hug.”
“Only because Hermione here doesn't make it awkward,” Bucky muttered and he put his arms around both him and Hermione.
“You're the one making it weird, Bucky,” Hermione mumbled, her voice muffled against his chest.
“Guys?” Steve looked back at Bucky. If he didn't know better, he'd say he looked embarrassed. “Are you two going to get busy tonight?”
“I… don't think so. We won't bother you, Buck, I promise.”
Hermione's face was red and she buried herself deeper into the hug.
“It's not that,” Bucky said. “I just don't want to be alone tonight. Can we share the bed like last night? I know I'm asking a lot but… I never wanted this, I never wanted to leave and…”
He trailed off. He looked scared and Steve only remembered seeing that look on him a couple of times since he'd known him. One of those was when he had been drafted.
“Yeah, Buck, sure. If Hermione doesn't mind.”
“It's fine. He doesn't snore.”
Bucky chuckled and squeezed them tighter for a second before letting go. He joined them in the bedroom when they were all in their nightclothes, Steve studying the bed with Hermione like it was a map and they were planning an invasion.
“You two know you're supposed to sleep in the bed, right?” Bucky asked.
“He should go in the middle as punishment,” Hermione decided.
“But that means I don't get to cuddle with you. I might even cuddle Bucky by mistake,” Steve argued.
“Alright, so you take the middle again,” Bucky said with a huff.
“I did my duty. I'll pass this round.”
They both rounded on Hermione.
“What? No. No way.”
“The majority has decided, doll.”
“When did we become a democracy?”
“It's America. I know you Brits like your crowns, but we're all about fairness in the land of the free.”
“Steve,” she pleaded.
“Don't look at me, Hermione. I'm American too. And so are you, by the way.”
“You think they'd just let a Brit wear the U.S. army uniform?” Bucky snarked. “You've been Americanised, darling, retroactively too I bet.”
“They can't just-”
“Did you read the small prints?”
Hermione bit her lip.
“They made me sign papers. All. Day. Long. They could have sneaked one in at the end and I wouldn't even have noticed,” she admitted.
“There you go.”
“I can't believe I'm American ,” Hermione muttered as she hiked up her era-appropriate nightgown and climbed into bed.
“That's what's troubles you?” Steve chuckled. “Aren't you taking a plane tomorrow.”
“Oh God. I'd forgotten,” she said, digging her nails in his arm as he settled next to her. “Why did you have to remind me?”
“I wanted to get your mind off you being American.”
“You two were really made for each other,” Bucky said from the other side of the bed. “You're so sickeningly sweet, I feel like I need to brush my teeth again.”
“You're an idiot, Buck.”
“Takes one to know one.”
Hermione tittered softly next to him, already half asleep, but contrary to them, she'd had a very long day at work and then spent the rest of it crying, so he wasn't really surprised.
“Hey guys?” Bucky said, just above a whisper. “Thanks.”
Steve woke up first. He was surprised he'd managed to sleep at all. Today was a day where all their lives were changing. Hermione was curled up against him. Her hair had come undone during the night again and was attempting to smother Bucky who was spooning her from behind. Yeah, sure, he didn't cuddle. He regretted not having the means to take a picture then and there. His two favourite people in the world, together right here and now with him, but about to be catapulted in different places in the world.
But times were what they were and they had to do what was necessary. With a sigh, he escaped Hermione's hands and began packing, not having prepared anything the night before. He'd just put water to boil when Bucky emerged.
“Sleep well?” Steve asked.
“Like the dead. I think your girl tried to strangle me with her crazy hair during the night.”
“You were cute. I couldn't even see your face under all her curls.”
Bucky sat and rubbed the last traces of sleep from his eyes.
“Funny how I always imagined you'd be overprotective when you got yourself a girl.”
“What do you mean? I'm plenty protective.”
“You let a handsome rugged man like me sleep in her bed, pal.”
“Our bed. I was there, remember? And I trust you, Buck. I know you wouldn't do anything her.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Stevey. I did plenty.”
“Yeah, Sergeant Cuddles,” Steve chuckled.
“But more seriously, you know Norway's been occupied by the Nazis for almost three years, right? I don't know what the hell she does, been pretty evasive about her work when I asked, but I doubt it involves paperwork. I think she might be a spy or a specialist, you know, like in those comics.”
He mimed shooting and Steve paled. He had not known that specifically, no, too wrapped up in his own situation. And now, he couldn't very well ask her not to go behind enemy lines after the speech he had given them yesterday. He wasn't that hypocritical. He doubted she'd outed herself as a witch to the army either, so the specialist idea was out too.
“I'm sure she knows what she's doing,” Steve replied, gritting his teeth. He knew it was no use asking Hermione. She took her confidentiality clause very seriously.
Speaking of the witch, she strode in, alert and wrapped in her uniform, so crisp she must have magicked it clean that morning, as well as her hair.
“Morning, Steve,” she said, her kiss and hug lingering longer than usual. “Bedrooms free if you want to get dressed now, Buck. We really can't be late.”
Bucky saluted and left. As soon as he was gone, Hermione kissed him again, more deeply.
“I'm going to miss this. I'm going to miss you,” she said.
“I know. I feel the same. Promise you'll be careful out there?”
“Of course I will. You're the one I'm worried about. Don't do anything… rash, okay?”
“You say that like I do it everyday.” He ignored her raised eyebrow. “Where are you leaving from?”
“La Guardia. Bucky is dropping me off, then heading to the docks.”
“I'll come too. I leave around noon.”
Bags under their arms, Steve looked at their home one last time, committing the details to memory. He dropped off their keys at Maggie's who cried as she hugged all three of them, mumbling what they supposed were encouragements. They made their way through the streets, taking this last opportunity to be together, talking about nothing and everything as if they weren't going to war. At the airport, Steve even had the crazy urge to throw her over his shoulder and run. But Hermione hugged Bucky tight, telling him to watch out for himself. He kissed the top of her head and told her to go kick nazi ass, which made her laugh. Steve was glad to see her happy this one last time before he held her in a tight embrace, only letting go to kiss her goodbye, knowing it might be forever. He wasn't an idiot. Remembering Bucky's advice, and because he was elbowing him rather viciously, Steve whispered the three words he had never said before in the hollow of her ear. She shivered and blushed and her own answer was three words long too. A soldier walked up to them, saluted then picked up her bag and that was it… she was gone.
He bit his lip, refusing to break down. If she had found him from another time, another place, a whole other dimension or universe, it's not a war that was going to come in between them. He took in a heavy breath, letting that sudden certainty sink in. They would come together again.
“You okay, bud?” Bucky asked, clasping a hand on his shoulder in support.
“Yeah. We'll be okay. All three of us.”
Because Bucky had always been there for him, and he'd find a way to bend reality itself if he had to to make it happen.
Chapter 6: A New Man
After the fake grenade incident, Steve was chosen out of all the rest of the candidates. He knew it was Dr Erskine behind that decision, but Colonel Phillips couldn't argued against it anymore, and Agent Carter supported it too. He was one step closer to his goal.
Yet, when Dr Erskine visited him that night, Steve had to ask why him of all the candidates. He had been braver, and smarter, true enough, but they might well have chosen someone like Bucky in that case, or even Hermione or Agent Carter.
But it was his weakness that was his greatest ally in the end. Oh, the irony. So he promised Dr Erskine to remain a good man. It wasn't a difficult promise to make. Hermione wouldn't have him any other way and Bucky would slap some sense into him if he wasn't.
The next day, they brought him right back to Brooklyn. So close to his home, he started to babble so he wouldn't dwell on what he'd left behind.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. Know it like the back of my hand. I got beat up in that alley. And that parking lot. And behind that diner there.”
“Did you have something against running away?” Agent Carter asked, sounding more amused than repelled by his behaviour.
“You start running they’ll never let you stop. So you stand up, push back. Can’t say no forever, right?”
“I know a little of what that’s like. To have every door shut in your face.”
Steve nodded in understanding. He knew through Hermione just how infuriating it could be as a woman in what she called “this backwards era” on her worse days.
“It will get better, Agent Carter, in time, with the example you and all the women helping in the war effort are setting, it will never return to the way things were before.”
He said it with the conviction of knowing what the future would hold, and Agent Carter stared at him as if he was a purple unicorn. He glanced out the window, only to see the parking lot where he had met Hermione as they rolled by.
“Let me guess: you got beat up in that parking lot too?”
Steve chuckled and looked away. It seemed like a lifetime ago when in reality it had only been three months.
“As a matter of fact, I did. Rescued a dame from this drunken brute one night, and she somehow became my sweetheart some time later.”
Agent Carter frowned.
“I didn't know you were involved. Does she know what you're attempting? It's quite dangerous, as you know.”
“Hermione actually left for the front the same day I joined the program. She's no doubt in much more danger than I am at the moment.”
Agent Carter's eyebrows rose. She opened her mouth but, guessing what her next question was, Steve talked over her.
“Don't ask me more than that. She's very strict about confidentiality. I have no clue why she was whisked away so suddenly, or what she is even doing over there.”
“Maybe I could find out if she's alright for you?” she offered.
Steve nodded eagerly.
“Please. If it doesn't get you in any trouble.”
He gave Agent Carter, Peggy she insisted he call her, Hermione's name, rank as well as her destination. Soon, they arrived… at an antique store. The way to the lab was much more secret than anything he had ever expected, but he was glad to see Dr Erskine already there. Even if that was tempered by Colonel Phillips’ gruff acknowledgement and Mr Stark's presence. Bucky could gush over the man all he wanted, and Hermione might have dubbed him a genius, but Steve had seen his “flying” car crash and burn, so he wasn't all that reassured by his presence. “Mad scientist” came to mind as he buzzed around the room like a bee on a sugar-high. However, Steve had made it this far, he wasn't about to give up now.
It didn't seem too bad at first, even if the small enclosed space of the capsule made it hard to breathe. It was like being in a coffin. Then Stark flipped a switch and Steve had to grit his teeth, but the pain just grew and grew, even when he thought it couldn't possibly get any worse. His bones felt like they were breaking, his muscles tearing, all of them, all at once. It was unbearable. He couldn't keep the pain in anymore, so he screamed to release it, but it didn't help and the scream grew and grew as much as the pain, tearing his throat apart. The image of him waking between Hermione and Bucky flashed before his mind's eye, a small comfort he latched onto, just long enough to hear people screaming for Stark to stop the experiment.
“No!” Steve hoped they would hear him. He wasn't sure if his voice even worked any more. “Don't stop! I can do this!”
He couldn't give up now. He owed it to his friends. He had to do this for them, for himself, for Dr Erskine and everyone else. If this procedure failed because of him, they might abandon the project, and he'd never forgive himself. Clenching his fists, Steve bit down on another scream, but it still crawled out of him nonetheless. And then the pain stopped, very suddenly, without warning. Steve fell against the door. The capsule, if possible, felt even smaller, pressing all around him, but it opened and he fell forward. Hands grabbed for him, unbelievably small hands, and called his name. Everyone was so small.
Steve chuckled. The experiment had worked then.
“I did it.”
Peggy was there too. Tiny Peggy.
“How do you feel?” she asked, looking up at him for the first time.
“Taller,” was all that crossed his mind at that moment, but he felt stronger too, healthy, like he could do anything. For the first time in his life, he had no limits. He could run a marathon, laugh his heart out or-
An explosion in the observation booth up above drew their attention and Dr Erskine shouted for someone to be stopped. Steve was still a bit confused from his trip in the coffin, but the gunshot was like being doused in ice cold water. His eyes were still on Dr Erskine when he fell. Steve rushed to his side, but it was bad. Erskine only had the strength to point at his heart, reminding him of his promise to stay a good man.
“I will,” Steve promised again, but the doctor was already gone.
Righteous fury flooded him, the ice turning to fire. He had to stop the culprit. His body was running before the thought had even fully formed in his mind and he had a hard time making his muscles work the way he wanted, so he crashed into walls, cars and even through a window shop as he tried to turn or slow down. He got out of the whole pursuit without a scratch, without even being winded, and he easily caught up with Erskine's murderer.
“Don't!” Steve cried out, but the brute threw the little boy in the water below anyway.
Steve didn't hesitate for a second between rescuing the kid and going after the Nazi spy. But, as it turned out, the boy knew how to swim and told him to “go get'im!”, so he did. Steve caught up to the spy just as he was fleeing aboard what looked like a mini-submarine and he had to use all his newfound strength to tear the metal apart and drag his prisoner back to land. He still had some fight left in him though, and the vial he had stolen, the last of Doctor Erskine's life work, broke, the super-serum vanishing into the concrete. Then the spy swallowed a capsule of poison and died within seconds. It was all over. He had failed.
Steve waited on the scene for reinforcements to show up. It wouldn't be hard to follow the trail of destruction along the way, as well as the curious onlookers gathered around.
It wasn't until a reporter snapped his picture, badgering him with questions, that Steve realized none of this had ever happened in Hermione's world. If she had been shocked by Stark's flying car, she would at least have seen a passing mention of a supersoldier barreling through Brooklyn to stop a Nazi spy. He wondered what had happened to that world's Steve Rogers. Had he worked in a factory? Waited out the end of the war from the comfort of home? All alone, without Hermione or Bucky.
Finally, the military whisked him away in the back of a Jeep and they returned to the SSR compound where he was poked at and measured and drained of blood samples for days on end.
Peggy made an appearance, looking happier than the last few days where they were all adjusting to having lost Dr Erskine, and during which she was also mad at him for having made her miss her shot, but he maintained it wasn't worth getting ran over for.
“I got some good news,” she said with a mischievous air about her.
“I was starting to think those had gone out of fashion. Are you going to give it to me, or make me guess? Because it could take a while.”
She smiled and shook her head.
“It's not much mind, but I managed to get some news concerning your sweetheart.”
“Hermione? How is she?”
“I only know she made it safely to Norway and left for an expedition inland with a troop of about twenty men.”
Steve was torn between relief and worry. What the heck was she up to? Only twenty men to foray into occupied territory. Maybe Bucky was right about the whole spy thing.
“You really have no idea what she does, do you?”
Steve shook his head, trying to dispel the frown that was broadcasting how anxious he was.
“Not a clue.”
Peggy glanced around them, making sure no one was eavesdropping.
“She's part of a secret program much like ours. It's another subdivision of the S.S.R. actually, although I couldn't learn much more than that, you were right about them being strict about confidentiality. However, I did hear that on past operations, they snatched a couple of important artefacts before Hydra could get to them.”
“You think that's what she's doing in Norway?”
Peggy nodded and Steve paled. Did she even know how dangerous Hydra was? Or had they just sent her there to read some runes with only twenty soldiers to protect her, hoping for the best?
She has her magic .
He had to keep that in mind. She had been through war before, had battled and won. He had to trust she would manage to get herself through this one too. Peggy promised to check on her status regularly and keep him updated, but as it turned out, their paths parted soon after. Peggy was leaving with Colonel Phillips and Stark for the European front, while he was being used as a dancing monkey.
The cowl of his costume was an unexpected blessing since it afforded him some measure of anonymity. Captain America… what a joke. If his sergeants could see him now in his flashy tights, they'd be laughing their heads off. He was raking in money for the war effort, and sure, that was good, or rather, necessary, but it wasn't what Dr Erskine had wanted, nor him.
So when he got the news he was being shipped off to Europe, he had been over the moon, even if he was only going there to punch fake-Hitler in the face for what felt like the thousandth time. But his crowd was… different. Exhausted soldiers, wounded for some, caked in mud and just plain miserable. Rude too, but he couldn't hold it against them. He wouldn't want to see his stupid show either in their place, so he sent the girls back out and sat backstage to doodle in his sketchbook, wondering what the hell he was doing here.
He jerked around at the familiar voice, snapping his pencil clear in two.
“Peggy! I didn't know you were around here or I would've gone to see you.”
“Officially, I'm not here,” she said with a brittle smile. “I, uh, have news for you. Had for a while but there was no way to pass it on to you safely.”
Steve drew a blank at first. He wasn't a part of their program anymore so he didn't know what sort of news she could give him except…
He could barely whisper the name. He hadn't heard from her in all this time and tried not to think about it lest he drive himself mad with worry. And unlike the last time, Peggy had says news. Not good news.
His heart ached like it hadn't since the serum, the world around him seemed to dim, he couldn't even hear the girls’ singing anymore or the soldiers jeers, he couldn't feel the biting cold in the air. Peggy bit her bottom lip and put her arms around him.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “MIA with her troop since she left off for her mission. Norway's resistance sent back a couple of dogtags from two of our boys who were accompanying her, but there has been no news since.”
He shrugged Peggy off, her concern made it worse, more real and he couldn't accept that. Looking out in the distance at the skeleton of the trees surrounding the camp, Steve tried to make sense of it all. MIA. Not dead. She could still be out there somewhere. She could still come back to him. He had to have faith in her the way she always had faith in him.
“She's not dead.”
“Steve…” Peggy trailed off and sat next to him in silent support.
Like a wake. He tried to shrug off the feeling when the honk of an ambulance dragged him back to the present: the rain, the frozen mud, the despair on some faces, pain or bandages on others, but also a will to keep going, determination etched deep into the lines of their faces.
“There's still hope,” he said. “There's always hope, or we wouldn't keep on fighting despite everything we've already lost and suffered through. Look at those guys. They look like they've been through hell and back,” he said pointing at the crowd cheering the USO girls on. “But they still have hope.”
“These men suffered more than most,” Peggy said as she scanned the faces in the crowd. She sighed. “Two hundred of them went up against Schmidt in Azzano and less than fifty returned. These soldiers are all that's left of the one-oh-seventh. The rest were killed or captured.”
At the news, the heart Steve had tried to put back together with blind hope and faith began to crack. Not Bucky too… No. He held a hand over his heart. It was pounding too hard and shattered, the pieces slipping through his numb fingers onto the cold, dirty ground, and he had to struggle to keep the world from dimming again.
“The one-oh-seventh? You sure?”
At Peggy's nod, Steve looked at the faces in the crowd but couldn't find Bucky's. He ran to the Colonel's tent, not waiting to see if Peggy had followed. Of course the gruff man had to be a smart mouth and mock him, but Steve didn't care. In the end, in between insults, he got what he wanted: information. Bucky was missing in action too, not dead, but this time, Steve knew exactly where to find him. As soon as he was dismissed from the Colonel's ire, he ran to his tent and changed into normal gear, borrowed a shield and helmet and was almost out of camp when Peggy caught up to him.
“What are you doing? Do you plan to walk all the way there?”
“If I have to. I can't leave him behind. I can't lose the both of them.”
She had a pained expression.
“You heard the Colonel,” Steve insisted. “He can't do anything, I get it. But I can. You know I'm meant for more than that,” he added and waved towards the scene. “Dr Erskine had faith in me, won't you have faith in me too?”
She nodded, but far from letting him sneak out, she dragged him back to Stark's plane, who, and it turned out, was as mad a pilot as he was a scientist.
After they took off, Steve watched the two of them dance around each other as they planned to “fondue” after dropping him off, whatever that meant. He wished them luck. It would be nice to see some love bloom in the middle of the war.
Stark laughed maniacally as he avoided one shell after another aimed at them. Peggy had not been exaggerating when she'd told him he was their best pilot despite being a civilian. The plane swerved to the side again and shuddered when another explosion lit up the sky. This was becoming too dangerous. Steve yanked the door open.
“Wait! I can take you all the way in!” Stark shouted back at him, sounding far too jovial, as if they were taking a leisurely stroll through the park.
“Too risky! As soon as I'm free, you turn around and get the hell outta here!”
“You can't give me orders!” Peggy tried to argue, stalling for time, more like.
“Sure I can, I'm a Captain!”
Like he’d told Hermione when she'd been made Sergeant, he might as well own his Captain rank since they'd so kindly stuck it on him. Steve waved the transponder at them in good bye, and jumped. He had a moment of weightlessness that made his stomach belly flop, then another of awe at the lethal light show blooming all around him in the night sky. He followed the plane's retreat for as long as he could, wishing them safe return, but then had his own mission to deal with: saving Bucky.
Steve ran through the dark woods, still marvelling at the way his body moved with such ease, without tiring, almost instinctually. The woods thinned, revealing a road that had to lead straight to the Hydra compound. He jogged along it for a few minutes when he heard the roar if a motor behind him. Hiding in the ditch, Steve waited for it to pass before jumping back on the road and swinging himself into the back of the truck. Half a dozen soldiers stared at him, too shocked to even point their weapons his way. He socked the first right in the face, kicked the second in the chest, used the third to throw on the last three and knocked them all unconscious while they tried to untangle themselves. Looking down at his handiwork, he made a mental note not to hit the face so hard. That was messy, and frankly, quite gross. He threw them out onto the road one after another, then sat back, waiting for the next stop.
The Hydra base was gigantic, much bigger than anything he'd expected, and looked to be a modern factory churning out bizarre looking weapons. Steve snuck in, but with no idea of where Bucky could be held, he followed the sound of voices, rare and indistinct at first, but he soon heard English and hurried along, heart beating. There were cages upon cages filled with men like dogs in a kennel. It was horrifying. As he counted the guards and observed their rounds, he noted they were being treated worse than cattle for the slaughter too.
Without hesitation, Steve pounced on the next guard to pass below him, literally flattening him to the ground under the weight of his anger. He ripped the keys dangling at his side and opened the closest cage.
“Who are you supposed to be?”
Steve was used to the mockery by now.
“Captain America. I'm looking for Sergeant James Barns of the one-oh-seventh, anyone seen him?”
The question was passed along until a tall guy in a dapper bowler hat pushed forward.
“Isn't he the guy they took away after he tried defending that chick?”
The Asian guy behind him nodded.
“There's an isolation ward somewhere that way. He might be there but those that are taken to that place never come back.”
Steve's jaw clenched and he nodded, giving them direction towards the exit and asking for a little distraction on their way out. They seemed more than happy to oblige, not that he blamed them.
Soon enough, he heard shouts and explosions behind him as he ran in the direction he'd been pointed to, then an alarm blared just as he arrived to a section of the facility that looked more like a lab compound than a factory. He began kicking doors in, his heart sinking with every new room he found empty, until suddenly he found him. Steve blinked incredulously for a second, then rushed to his side.
Bucky looked sick and he was mumbling his rank, name and service number over and over. Steve tore off his bindings and whatever device they'd strapped to his head.
“Bucky,” he urged, slapping him carefully to get him out of his daze. “Buck, come on, buddy.”
“Yeah, it's me, Buck. Come on. We gotta get out of here.”
Steve pulled Bucky off the chair and put his arm over his shoulder to help him along. He seemed a lot weaker than the other prisoners he had freed.
“Did I shrink?”
“No, Buck. Come on.”
They'd only made it to the end of the corridor and Bucky still seemed delirious. Steve dreaded to think what they'd done to him.
“What happened to you?” Bucky asked a few minutes later.
“I volunteered, remember?”
“Yeah… Dumbass,” he sounded more like himself in that instant, but then stopped dead in his tracks. “Wait! Hermione! Steve, Hermione is here. I saw her.”
His heart skipped a beat. He didn't dare hope, maybe Bucky was still delirious.
“Are you sure?”
Bucky nodded and Steve recalled the other soldiers saying Buck had tried defending a woman. It made sense. Steve bit his lip, gathering his thoughts. He couldn't leave Bucky behind to search for Hermione. He couldn't possibly choose one over the other.
“Do you know where?”
“Not here, I don't think… I haven't heard her or anyone around here for a while.”
Steve nodded. If they knew what she could do, they would keep a close eye on her. Explosions started shaking the building however and he was pretty sure the prisoners were long gone. All he and Buck could do was run, and keep their eyes peeled as they searched for Hermione or an exit, preferably both, which is how they ran straight into Schmidt and a pudgy little guy, as well as an unconscious body slumped over Schmidt's shoulder with curls he would recognize anywhere. Bucky had too judging by how his breath caught.
“Let her go,” Steve snarled.
“I think not, Captain,” Schmidt said as he dropped his girl onto the dumpy man at his side. “I have plans for her.”
Chapter 7: Big Change
Schmidt claimed to be Erskine's greatest achievement, even after showing off his deformity: his red, fleshless skull was a sight for nightmares. They were, however, evenly matched in strength and speed. They threw punches at each other in the narrow space, all but destroying the metal walkway with each blow, until Schmidt took the coward's way out and fled when the walkway retreated, leaving him on the other side with Bucky.
“Go get her!” Bucky snapped when he glanced back at him, reluctant to leave him alone.
Steve nodded, then ran and lunged for the other side, catching up with them just when the pudgy man was about to lower Hermione into a small plane on Schmidt’s lap. Steve grabbed the small man's collar and pulled him back with such force, he flew through the air, but Hermione tumbled away from the plane too. Safe. Another louder explosion made the tower they were in shake on its foundations and Schmidt's plane suddenly took off, a coward through and through.
Steve hurried over to Hermione, ignoring the small man who scrambled to his feet and ran off with his tail between his legs. He only had time to check she was still breathing before he ran back to Bucky who cheered at the sight of Hermione in his arms. Steve actioned the lever to the bridgeway, but it got stuck halfway due to the damage. He crossed it as far as he dared but there was still a large gap to the other side.
“I'm going to throw her to you. Ready?”
“No!” Bucky shouted. “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind?”
They didn't have time for this. Bucky would serve as a cushion if nothing else. He lobbed her over and she seemed to hover gracefully in the air for an instant, her curls golden as they fanned out around her and reflected the flames from below. Bucky had his arms up, his mouth a perfect O of dismay, but he caught her and fell back, curled protectively around her.
We protect one another .
If she only knew how right she was. Steve leaped over the gap, then hefted Hermione up in one arm while giving Bucky a hand up. He had them. Both of them.
“Let's go meet up with the others,” he said.
Steve hoped they had waited for him. They were still about thirty miles behind enemy lines and it would be an easier trek back if they had a whole platoon with them.
“So… Bucky said when they had found their way out of the Hydra factory and en route to the meeting point. “Are we gonna talk about how you turned into a giant or are we just gonna ignore that little detail?”
“If I ask you to ignore it, will you?”
“Fucking hell, no, Stevey. What the fuck happened to you?”
“Science experiment. Turned out okay.”
“Is it permanent?”
“As far as I know.”
“Hermione doesn't know?”
Steve looked down at his girl in his arms. She looked so tiny, it was ridiculous. He couldn't wrap his mind around the fact he had been about her size and even lighter weight than she was. She seemed so fragile and he worried yet again about what she had gone through. He shook his head at Bucky's question.
“Ha! Please let me be there when you tell her.”
Ten minutes down the road, they found the other men, weighed down with Hydra's strange weapons. They had even hijacked a couple of tanks. Phillips and Stark were going to be over the moon with all those new toys. Steve took out the transponder, but it had been smashed at some point. He couldn't quite figure out when, but he'd bet it was when he had sparred with Schmidt because the indent left in the metal box looked suspiciously like a fist. He put it back in his pocket in case Stark wanted it back, even in its sorry state, and waved at the guys waiting for them. They would just have to get back on foot.
Applause and cheers greeted them, and Steve ducked his head at all the attention. He should be used to it with his shows as Captain America, but those never felt this sincere and heart-warming. They were polite applause for a dancing monkey pulling off a clever trick. This was acknowledgement. He was one of theirs, a brother in arms. He received grins, pats on his back and words of gratitude, more than he thought he deserved since they had fought their own way out. He'd just given them a key.
“Want me to help you with that?” the large man with the bowler hat asked, nodding down at Hermione.
Steve tightened his grip on her, reluctant to be parted, but they were in enemy territory and she would be far safer on one of the tanks.
“Help me get her up there?” he asked, jutting his chin at the first tank.
A head popped out from the top.
“Par ici,” the man it belonged to said.
French. Damnit. Steve's French was spotty at best, but he understood his intent well enough with his hand gestures and they managed to settle Hermione in a nest of blankets up top with a couple of other wounded soldiers. The Frenchman mimed he would keep an eye on her.
Steve took the lead at the front of the column with Bucky. He'd rather Buck rested too after what he had gone through, but he was adamant to stay at his side, needling him for details of what he'd done since they had parted ways in New York, and predictably laughing at him for being the dancing Captain America he'd seen on posters around camp before he left for the raid on Azzano. Captain Tightpants was apparently what the boys called him. Great. He was never wearing them again.
They encountered little resistance on the way back, and none of them Hydra. “Regular” Nazis, in other words. A lot easier to deal with, especially when they didn't expect to be attacked by a large ally force coming from their rear. They had opened up wide this whole territory and only had ten more miles to go. The Colonel would probably move camp soon after they returned, especially since they had destroyed the nearby Hydra base.
Steve looked up at the tank. The Frenchman, Dernier, was waving frantically at him and the tank stopped. Alarmed, Steve jumped up.
“Quelque chose ne va pas,” Dernier babbled, pointing at Hermione.
Steve approached and could feel what he meant. There was a pressure building around her, invisible but strong and increasing, like a miniature storm. He'd never seen her do that before, unconscious or not, but he suspected it to be her magic, because what else could it be?
“Get everyone down!” he ordered and the men scampered off the tank, helping those who were injured.
“Hermione!” he called. “Hermione, you're safe now. Wake up please, love.”
She didn't and the pressure grew to the point she was starting to levitate and his hand couldn't even touch her, as if she had an invisible shield around her. A trickle of fear ran down his spine.
“Steve!” Bucky called from the side of the tank.
He was going to yell at Buck to stay back when Steve was suddenly flung off the tank with such force, he flew across the road and into a tree which cracked under the strain. He bounced right back on his feet though, and ran towards the tank again.
“What the hell is going on?” Bucky asked. “Is Hermione alright?”
“That was Hermione.”
Steve glanced at the other men, but they were waiting further away in a large circle.
“Hermione threw you off the tank? Is it because of your face?”
“What’s wrong with my face?” Steve asked as he peeked over the edge of the tank.
His face was the part of him that had undergone the least change, even if he had to admit it had filled out and taken on a healthy tint that had never been there before.
“You have a stupid face and you know it,” Bucky said, peeking over the edge next to him. “All clear?”
“Looks like it.”
Steve heaved himself to the top and gave Bucky a hand up. Hermione sat there in a tangle of blankets, blinking up at them as if she'd just woken up from a nap.
“Hi, babe,” Bucky said with a grin.
Her eyes slid over to him, then to Bucky, and back at him again. Her eyes widened.
Steve smiled, relieved she had recognised him. For a moment there, he feared she wouldn't.
“What the bloody hell happened to you? You look… you're…” she waved her hands in the air.
“Oh yeah, I'm glad I stayed for this,” Bucky chortled next to him.
“Gigantic!” she finished.
Deciding there was no more danger of her exploding, they kneeled at her side. Steve couldn't stop grinning. Hermione couldn't stop staring.
“This is too weird, even for me,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“Look at the bright side, doll. No more asthma attack.”
“Bucky!” she admonished, her cheeks turning a bright red as she looked away. “Where are we?”
Steve hesitated. They couldn't stop their march forward for too long, so he glanced at Bucky who nodded.
“I'll tell the guys to get moving. We'll leave you this tank for a bit of privacy.”
Bucky waggled his eyebrows and jumped off the side. Soon, they were moving again and Steve caught her up to speed. They touched each other tentatively, but their hands did not fit like they once had. If it was strange for him, it had to be even worse for her. He hadn't thought this through, what his transformation might change between them. He was about to ask her about how she had ended up in Hydra's compound when a few shots rang out.
“Stay here,” he told her.
“Like hell I will.” She patted her vest down and cursed. “Give me a gun.”
Steve gave her a sheepish look she knew only too well.
“You attacked a Hydra base without a gun?”
“Didn't need one.”
He wasn't about to admit to her he hadn't even thought of bringing one along, and he jumped down before she could scold him further.
“Stay there!” he repeated and ran towards the ambush on the road ahead.
Their tanks were out of ammo, unfortunately, so they had to do with what little ammunition they had left. Bucky was an amazing sniper and was taking them out patiently, one after another. It would have been easy if they hadn't been attacked on their flank too. A couple of men went down before they realized what was happening, then Dum Dum struck them down with the butt if his empty rifle. Steve was coming to his help when he saw another nazi aiming his gun right in Dum Dum’s face… and then suddenly shooting up into the sky like a rocket, with a high-pitched scream and flailing limbs. Everyone froze, not comprehending what had happened, and after a few seconds, the nazy fell back down with a terrified cry, face first into the dirt. Then several more nazis attacking their flank also flew up into the air before being released and falling to their probable death or mortal wounds.
Steve knew. He glanced around to find Hermione still atop the tank with her arms raised up in the air. Dum Dum followed his gaze and tipped his bowler hat off at her, which made her giggle.
Bucky's shots up ahead had come to a stop and he raised an all clear signal. It took them a while to gather weapons off the dead nazis before the convoy continued onwards, the men chatting excitedly about what had happened.
“They think the army is breeding all sorts of super human weapons,” Bucky told him.
Steve grimaced. He didn't like being called a weapon, although he could understand what they meant. At least they weren't afraid of Hermione.
“Is she still angry?”Steve asked, knowing Bucky had been catching up with her too.
“That you chose to be a lab rat, didn't bring a gun to attack a Hydra base on your lonesome, or left her on a tank during a battle like a princess in her tower?”
“It was for her own safety,” he muttered mullishly, having already had this discussion with her.
“She'll come around,” Bucky said with certainty, clapping hvmim on the shoulder.
“Come around to what?” Hermione chirped from behind them.
“How did you get down?” Steve asked, but glimpsed Jones and Dernier slink off out of view, giving him a pretty good idea.
“I'm a sergeant. I pulled rank. You're the one who told me to own it. Although I guess that does mean you get to give me orders now, Captain .”
Bucky snickered and Steve blushed, making Hermione roll her eyes.
“Get your minds out if the gutter, boys. Is this it?”
She pointed ahead at the thinning trees and the guard towers barely visible from there. Steve relaxed. He'd been afraid of another ambush after the last. They could count on their fingers the amount of ammo they had left.
The camp started to come alive at their approach, everyone gathering around to greet them. The rest of the one-oh-seventh mingling with their friends and welcoming them back as heroes. It was beautiful.
But… he guessed he'd better report to Colonel Philips for disciplinary sanctions.
“Why?” Bucky and Hermione asked in unison.
“You didn't think my one-man mission was sanctioned, did you? I'd better go report to him before he finds me. Might soften the blow.”
Steve looked down at Hermione. She huffed and pulled down on the front of his coat until they were at eye level and kissed him. A few men catcalled and laughed, but it was with a much lighter heart that he walked to the command tent. He caught Colonel Phillips just as he was exiting with Peggy on his heels.
“I’d like to surrender myself for disciplinary action, sir,” he said in all seriousness.
Phillips looked as annoyed and gruff as ever, so Steve didn't know what to expect.
“That won’t be necessary. Go get some rest and report back later.”
Steve grinned and Peggy gave him a thumbs up while the Colonel had his back turned. Phillips muttered something at her before leaving with purpose towards the new arrivals, leaving them alone.
“You're late,” she said, raising a brow.
Steve pulled out the broken transponder from his pocket.
“It doesn't work. Not sure why.”
Peggy looked at it and chuckled.
“I'll get it back to Howard. Maybe he can find a way to make them more resistant against… did you use it to break a rock or something?”
“So… did you find him? Your friend?” she asked carefully.
“Yeah, I found him.” He grinned even wider. “I found Hermione, too.”
“What? How? I thought she was in Norway?”
“I don't have the full story yet. Schmidt wanted her for something. But come and meet her. I'm sure she's getting sick and tired of all the male company.”
“I can understand that,” she agreed and followed him back to the gathered crowd.
They found her sitting at a table, looking tiny between Bucky and Dum Dum who both kept pushing food and drink her way. She laughed at something Morita said, then noticed him arriving, and her whole face lit up. She wiggled out of her seat to join him
“Hermione, I'd like you to meet Agent Peggy Carter. Peggy, this is Hermione.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you,” Peggy said as they shook hands. “I'm so glad Steve found you. He was worried sick.”
“Likewise. Steve can't shake off the habit of saving me, it seems.”
Peggy's eyebrows shot up.
“Erm, sort of. I think the U.S Army made me American when I wasn't paying attention.”
“Bloody Yankees. They would too, stealing all the brains they can.”
“Oh! I don't suppose you have some real tea around? I haven't had any in forever.”
“I have a secret stash in my tent. Care to join me?”
Steve watched them go arm in arm, wondering if it had been a good idea to introduce them to one another.
“Got your girl stolen away already?” Dum Dum teased.
“Peggy has tea. I can't compete against that.”
“Is tea like catnip for ladies?” Jones asked.
“British women, maybe,” Steve conceded.
The conversation rapidly devolved to what treat women from other countries prefered while they ate whatever grub the cooks had managed to put together for over two hundred starving last minute guests. That done, he excused himself to get his report to Phillips over and done with, because super-serum aside, he couldn't wait to go crash in his bunk.
The Colonel looked over the map where Steve had placed all the Hydra bases he had glimpsed in an empty room while searching for Bucky. He was glad for the photographic memory as it was serving him real well.
“And Bucky- I mean Sergeant Barnes told me all the weapons had been shipped off to another base that's not on this map.”
“Their main base of operation, then? Carter, get in contact with MI6. I want every eye in Europe looking for this place. Any large troop movements, shipments, convoys...”
“And you, Rogers. This is your map, how do you feel about wiping it clean of the Hydra stains?”
“I know a few guys up for cleaning duty, sir. And a gal.”
Steve couldn't leave Hermione behind if she was at risk of being sent on another suicide mission, he'd rather she joined his suicide mission. At least he'd be there to protect her. The Colonel had Peggy as a second, so he wouldn't refuse just because she was a woman, but she was still an unknown to the suspicious man. Phillips stared at him with a grimace.
“I heard rumours about her. Are they true?”
“That would depend on the rumours, sir.” Steve replied cautiously.
“Did she really toss nazis in the air with her will alone?”
With her will? Well… He had to admit it sounded a lot more believable than magic. Steve nodded.
“Yes. She has certain… talents.”
“I've known her for a while.”
“So those rumours are true as well. Listen…”
Ah, here it came. The speech about why you can't bring a dame to war.
“You're an icon. It would be best if you kept your dalliances under wraps. Don't want bad press for Captain America, right?”
Steve frowned. Not what he had been expecting, but okay. And how was it bad press that he loved his girl? Because they weren't married?
“They're selling your image, boy. The righteous and perfect soldier, a role model for men, eye candy for women. You bringing your girlfriend to war is not a selling point. On the other hand… Yeah. Using her as role a model for women and eye candy for men… Well, let's just say you'll have more or less free rein if you keep your nose clean. Your unit will be untouchable from the politics back home.”
“So… We can't be seen together?”
Phillips smiled like a shark and nodded. Message received. They would just have to use discretion, which, honestly, wouldn't be that hard with the war raging around them. Knowing Hermione, she would agree. Before, when he had been sickly, their displays of affection had always been in private and not evolved much past hand holding and light kisses. Cuddling at most. His asthma had put a stop at any attempt to… sex. He felt his cheeks burn and excused himself.
Hermione and Bucky accosted him right outside the tent.
“Were you eavesdropping?” he hissed, walking briskly ahead.
“Of course,” they replied in unison, for the second time that day.
“Stop doing that. It's creeping me out.”
Bucky chuckled, but Hermione hurried ahead to stand in his way, forcing him to a stop.
“Are you dumping me?”
“No, of course not.”
“That's not what we heard, buddy.”
“We can't be seen together, there's a very important nuance there.”
“So you're just hiding me?”
“In a way, I guess. I know it's not ideal, but if you want to join the team, it's the best deal we get.”
She sighed, but nodded, and they continued walking.
“I'd rather we stay together,” she agreed. “All three of us. That way, I can keep you two out of trouble.”
“You’ve literally been in more trouble than either of us, Hermione,” Steve said.
Hermione made a surprised noise in the back of her throat.
“Huh… that's actually true.”
“Not to mention Schmidt will try to nab you again the first chance he gets, and he he has people everywhere. One of his Hydra agent was at my procedure-”
“Aww. Is that what we're calling it. I wanted to call it your growth spurt.”
Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky, but Hermione laughed.
“And it sounds like you're using Hermione as bait,” Bucky added.
“I don't mind,” Hermione cut in before Steve could deny it. “Schmidt took something of mine and I need to get it back.”
Steve narrowed his eyes at her.
“What? You haven't been very forthcoming about what happened to you.”
“We didn't really get time to chat, and it's not something I want everyone to hear. I'll sneak into your tent tonight, alright? I'm supposed to share Peggy's, but she won't rat me out.”
“And you'll tell me everything?”
“Everything I remember,” she muttered, bringing down a heavy silence over them.
“Can I come too?” Bucky asked.
“It's your call, Hermione. It's your secret,” Steve said and glanced at Bucky, hoping he'd understand why he hadn't told him before.
“Sure. it's more or less out in the open now, anyway.”
“Well, not as such, no. Seems everyone thinks you use your will to send things flying up in the air.”
“Oh. I suppose that makes more sense in this world. Everyone I met is much more logic driven.”
“Wait, wait, wait…” Bucky said with a frown, grabbing Hermione's arm to make her stop walking and face him. “What do you mean by that?”
Hermione glanced around for eavesdroppers, then leaned into him to whisper in his ear.
Bucky glanced at him so he nodded to confirm.
“And the other part, about this world being more logic?” Bucky asked, but he had lowered his voice this time. “What do you mean by this world?”
“I'm from… elsewhere. Same Earth, but different, like the reflection in the mirror.”
Bucky opened his mouth a couple of times before giving up and scowling. He let go of her arm, but stared her straight in the eye.
“I want that full story tonight, too.”
“Gonna be a long night then,” Steve announced.
“Why? What're we doing?”
“Recruiting the rest of the guys.”
Chapter 8: Nightmares
Dum Dum, Morita, Falsworth, Dernier and Jones. They had all accepted his offer to team up to go against Hydra, and all it had cost them was an open tab at the local bar, and a dance with Hermione, which she happily agreed to, saying she hadn't gone dancing since she was seventeen.
By the time they made it back to camp, they were all too exhausted for any kind of talk and they crashed in their respective tents, except for Bucky who left the one-oh-seventh cramped lodgings for Steve's roomier tent. He was glad too, because Bucky woke him up with a wail that soon turned into a scream. Steve scrambled out of bed and reached for Bucky, trying to rouse him from his nightmare.
Bucky’s voice sounded so small, so unlike him.
“Shhhh. Yes. It's alright. Try to go back to sleep now, Buck. I'll watch over you. You have nothing to fear.”
Bucky mumbled and turned over on his side to grasp his arm then seemed to calm down, but as Steve leaned closer to check his temperature, he heard his friend still mumbling under his breath.
“Sergeant James Barnes, 32557038…”
Steve ran a finger over his cheekbone where a bruise had dug deep just below. He had no idea what Hydra had been doing to him but it had obviously left deeper marks than what he could see on the surface. When Bucky relaxed his grip on him, Steve pulled his cot next to Bucky's and spent the rest if the night close by so he would know immediately if something was wrong. By the time he woke up again though, Bucky was already gone.
When he went out to find him and check he was alright, Peggy accosted him with the news Hermione had had nightmares too.
“Hydra did something to them. When I found him, Bucky was strapped into a chair with a… thing… a machine on his head. I still don't know what they did to Hermione. She's been reluctant to confide in me. She's been… more distant than she used to be back home.”
Peggy looked him over.
“You're sure that doesn't have to do with how much you changed? If she's always known you the way you were before, you've got to give her a little time to adjust. In the meanwhile, we'll just have to keep an eye on them, see if the nightmares are a regular occurrence or just them processing their narrow escape. A lot of people have nightmares around camp, so don't worry yourself too much over it, okay?”
She didn't seem all that convinced by her own advice but there was little more they could do for now. During the day, he had the impression hus sergeants were both avoiding him, and it hurt in a way physical blows didn't.
At night, Bucky didn't move his cot away though, so neither did he. They didn't comment on the new sleeping arrangement, just took off their boots and jackets and lay down.
“You okay, Buck?”
Bucky mumbled a vague assent.
“Only you've been quiet today, so I was worried.”
He chuckled humorlessly.
“That's just it, you see? That's how it's going to be now. I used to be the one looking out for you, Steve, and now…”
“So it's my turn. Only seems fair after all those years of you keeping me out of trouble, making sure I didn't need for anything.”
Bucky was too quiet. Maybe Hermione wasn't the only one who needed time adjusting to the new him. It seemed unfair, because he was still exactly the same person inside. Somehow, whether too weak or too strong, he was still not being treated just for who he was. Did it really bother Bucky so much that he was his equal now?
“I don't think any less of you, Buck,” he added, wondering if that was what was bothering him the most.
He couldn't figure this out if no one talked to him. He didn't want the three of them to become strangers. They'd gotten to be so close in New York in such a short time, and now… well, he supposed war did change people. Himself more than most, apparently.
Bucky didn't say anymore, but he wasn't sleeping either, then he almost bolted off his cot when the tent flap opened.
“It's me,” came Hermione's whisper. “Can I come in?”
“Of course,” Steve said, reaching a hand out. “Come here.”
She struggled with her boots, cursing laces and mud and numb fingers until she managed to kick them off. She draped her coat over a pole and crawled between them, but Steve occupied all the space on his cot and she fell back towards Bucky's side, causing her to apologize profusely.
“I asked for an extra blanket, but this is much better,” Bucky said as he wrapped an arm around her and nuzzled his face into her half unbound hair.
“I didn't know you were cold, Buck,” Steve admonished. “You could have taken mine.”
“I'd rather keep Hermione.”
“Boys, I'm not a hot water bottle to be passed around. Steve, unless you want me to sleep on you, I think this is the best we can manage. I'm not going to ask if you mind, Bucky, because you obviously don't.”
“It's not like we haven’t slept together before,” Bucky teased.
“I hope no one is overhearing this. They're going to get the wrong idea entirely,” Steve muttered as their banter conjured images to his mind that had nothing to do with sleeping arrangements and were making his uniform uncomfortable.
“Should be fine. It's quiet tonight,” Hermione said. “And I promised you two a story, right?”
She first told Bucky of the pieces he was missing of her time with Steve, how she was from an alternate reality, another time and space.
“Can you prove it?” Bucky asked.
Hermione shifted to dig into her pocket. One of her coins dated from 1997. Bucky lit his lighter and nodded.
“Guess you had other proof?” he asked him, looking over Hermione's profile.
“Plenty. Of the magic too. Can you show him the animal made of light?”
He had always wanted to see it again but hadn't wanted to ask Hermione before as she had been so distraught the last time she had summoned it. Hermione bit her lip and he knew he wouldn't like whatever she said next.
“I can't. That takes us to the second part of this story.”
She took his hand and he gave it a gentle squeeze of encouragement while Bucky tightened his arm around her.
Ten weeks ago...
Hermione squinted around the snowy slopes. She didn't know if Norvegian winters were always this extreme or if this was a particularly bad one, but they were making little progress towards the small church she was certain hosted an artefact Hydra was after. Even her compass seemed to be affected by the cold and they'd had to backtrack a couple of times already. The only silver lining in this situation was that they hadn't encountered a single German patrol. They were probably snowed in somewhere, enjoying a hot cup of cocoa. Standing in the snow and freezing gales, trying to figure out the direction to take, Hermione had never hated nazis more than she did right now.
“Sergeant! One of the scouts thinks he found the village.”
“Well, we can't read the name for shit, but it looks close enough and there is a very old stone church like you described.”
“Stone? He's sure about that?”
Most of the smaller, older churches like the one she was searching for were made of wood, and with everything covered in snow, it was hard to tell one thing from the next. But this was a better lead than they'd had in the last three days, so she nodded for them to go on.
“Show the way, then.”
She turned her raquettes around and ploughed her way through the powder like snow. Good thing she'd learned a thing or two spending winters in Scotland. When they got there, she only had to glance at the church to know this was it. Or what was left of it. All this time and effort for nought. They'd come too late. Hydra already had the mythical cube of power, the Tesseract. Now, she dearly hoped it was only a myth because if it was half as powerful as legends reported it to be, then they were all fucked.
Events like these made her realise how much more different this world was, and how much she was invested in it at present. Already in New York, when she had realized this was not her reality, she had decided she was here to stay. Maybe even before that, because there was Steve… She had never met someone like him before: so caring, with a sense of justice more ingrained than she had seen in any Gryffindor, brave and strong on the inside, but so weak on the outside it broke her heart. She had wanted to protect him at first, the way he had protected her when they met, despite the odds stacked against him.
But then she had grown attached to him, and then fallen in love with such ease, she couldn't have fought her feelings if she had tried. So she was here to stay. She wouldn't return to the world that had birthed her even if she was given that choice. Meeting Bucky had been a strange experience. He and Steve fit like two pieces of a puzzle, but out of two different boxes, in a way Harry and Ron never had. She feared she would become an outsider when he showed up, the way she had always been, even amongst friends, but Bucky accepted her with open arms. Sometimes literally if she took into account the last night they'd spent sleeping together. It should have been weird, but it wasn't. The three of them created their own little bubble of peace and understanding.
“Ma'am?” her second in command asked.
Pembrook sometimes fell back on treating her like a civilian and a woman rather than his team leader on this mission, not that she blamed him. He was far more experienced and higher ranking than she was, so she let him do his work, only pointing in which direction she wanted to go. They were both happy with the tacit agreement, and so were the other men, she was sure. They were nice enough, but it obviously bothered them to be following a woman, and one who didn't even sound American despite her uniform.
“Any locals around?” she asked.
“No. No bodies either. They might have fled, or been taken prisoners.”
With Hydra, either of those were an option. Those thugs didn't bother wearing gloves when they wanted something. The way the centuries old church, a historical and architectural treasure in its own right, had been gutted open like a Christmas turkey, was a testament to that.
“Still no sign of enemy troops?”
“Alright, we'll set up camp for the night in the church if that's alright with you. It'll give me time to figure out what was taken, if anything. The tower should be good enough for a lookout?”
He nodded and barked out orders. Hermione smiled at the efficiency Pembrook displayed. With the knowledge she was in good hands and didn't have to keep an eye out, she set about to investigate the ruins with a peaceful mind. It was slow going with all the snow that had blown in through the open doorway but there was a tomb, the heavy stone lid of which had been thrown off with such force, it had landed three feet away and broken in several pieces like a shattered mirror. Hermione inspected the lid first, the runes were half erased by time but she could piece together the story of the warrior entrusted with the cosmic cube from the All-Father, which would have been great news if only she had gotten to it first… Peeking into the tomb, the poor skeleton warrior had had his arms ripped off. Definitely Hydra's work. No respect for anyone or anything, living or dead. She found the bones nearby and froze, stunned, because all around, lay what she'd first thought was ice, but, upon closer inspection, turned out to be glass. Making sure her escort were all busy, she palmed her wand and cast a reparo on the broken object which reformed into a perfect glass cube with a dull discoloration in its center.
A fake. It was only a solid block of glass. Not a container for something, and without any spark of energy to it. Ancient, but ultimately worthless. Hydra must have crushed it in anger. Typical. So did they leave empty handed? She kept the spark of hope and relief in check, and paced around the tomb in widening circles, drawn more and more towards the carved wall of Yggdrasil until she was called over by Pembrook standing near the fallen wooden doors of the church. He pointed to the floor which had been covered in snow, revealing a dark stain beneath. Hermione pursed her lips, not particularly surprised Hydra had commited murder in a sacred place.
“Good job on sealing the entrance, Captain,” she said, nodding towards the tarp they'd pulled over the collapsed doors and wall.
It cut off the wind and stopped more snow from blowing in, cutting the chill drastically although the night would be difficult to sleep through.
“Rest up. We'll leave at first light.”
Pembrook saluted, seemed to catch himself, and smiled sheepishly before gathering his men like a flock of lost lambs for the night. Taking advantage they were all busy, Hermione cast a warming ward all around the large room. Not too warm, they weren't idiots, but enough that they'd attribute the change in temperature to their own hard work and get a good night's sleep for a change. She returned immediately to the Yggdrasil carving after that. She'd never seen such a representation before. Asgard was represented floating above all, of course, and it drew the eye away from the rest. However, she could feel some lingering energy and followed her instinct, tracing a finger down the tree, through the others realms and to its roots. The bottom was still layered in snow and ice however, so she cast a warming charm on her leather gloves to wipe it away until she found a small square hiding nook that had obviously been pillaged already. The traces of energy were alien. Not quite like electricity, not quite like magic. It was something else, something new, yet old like the world.
She had no doubt now that Hydra had found the Tesseract before them. With a sinking heart she joined the men around a small firecamp.
“Bad news, Sarge?” one of them asked.
“They found the artefact.”
The men's face fell. They didn't know what it was, per say, nor who they were up against exactly. They didn't need to know as they weren't a part of Project Robin, but they knew enough to understand they had failed and come all the way out here for nothing.
“At least we know. We can prepare ourselves,” she tried to comfort them.
She wished someone could comfort her. Schmidt having the Tesseract was like… Voldemort with the mastery of the deathly hallows, only much much worse, she suspected. The information she had on Schmidt was vague and mostly hearsay, but she had seen how fast he found the artefacts and the aftermath of his pillaging. The man was cunning, ruthless and power-hungry. It was with an uneasy mind she drifted off to sleep.
Pembrook shook her awake none too gently some time later. He usually slept next to her in order to keep an eye on the boys, as if she couldn't defend herself.
“Look-out signaled movement. At least four. Circling around.”
Hermione nodded. Adrenaline thrumming through her veins, she was as alert as she could hope to be. She crawled out of her blanket, having kept her boots on and cocked her gun. Using a gun did not come naturally, but using a wand for most of her life had given her pretty good aim and reflexes. She would still rather have her wand out, and was ready to use it at any moment if the battle turned sour. She stared at the tarp for any sign of their visitors like the rest of her troop. It may not be Germans, but only locals checking out what was going on with their church again.
But the tarp wasn't pulled aside and she heard a metallic sound, like a chime, then another and a small ball came rolling out from under the tarp.
“Grenade!” Pembrook shouted and threw himself over her just before it detonated with a small hiss.
“Gas!” he corrected. “Fuck.”
Because gas masks were not standard equipment.
“Cowards!” he shouted towards the entrance.
They huddled towards the back of the church where the air was still clear but another grenade came crashing through a window behind them. Hermione tried to keep her breathing under control the way she coached Steve to do during his asthma attack, then used her wand to create a bubble charm around them. It was the largest bubble charm she had ever cast but it worked. The greyish gas molding against it. The men muttered amongst them and one of the soldiers was going to poke it with his finger, the bloody idiot.
“Don't,” she grumbled.
It was hard enough keeping the thing stable. If she'd had time, she would have cast a bubble charm on each of their heads and they could have fought their way out. But she didn't have time for such a task and couldn't choose who would get a fighting chance and who would be left to choke, so she'd neatly boxed herself into a corner, too busy keeping up the giant bubble to do anything else to save them all.
“What- How-” Pembrook sputtered before pinching the bridge of his nose. “Okay, now I get it. We can't just wait here, though. We're sitting ducks.”
“Will the gas disperse?” she asked through gritted teeth.
She could swear the gas was poking at the bubble charm, looking for a way in.
“No breeze. Might take a while. They're probably waiting outside just for that.”
“How long can you hold your breath?”
“How long do you need?”
Hermione calculated how fast she could cast a strong wind charm: dropping the bubble charm, wand movement, incantation and effect.
“Forty seconds at most.”
The men nodded around her.
“Then get ready to run and attack.”
Her wind spell worked like a charm and the gas was expulsed out through the doorway before she could inhale any while speaking the incantation. They charged and Hermione cast a shielding charm at the front line. If her magic was out of the closet, so to speak, she might as well go all out and keep them safe. It was an all out battle in front of the church. The gas had hit a few Germans as it was expelled, but they were still outnumbered and eventually overwhelmed. Still a better outcome than being gassed like insects. They fought with all they had, they fought for their life, for freedom, for a chance to see their home and loved ones again.
It was his face she saw when the barrel of the gun stopped inches from her own. This was it then. Death had finally come for her.
Hermione glared at the man towering over her, jutting out her chin mulishly.
“Surrender, or say bye bye to your Freude.”
He tossed his head to the left and she caught a glimpse of Pembrook and a few other men being aligned in the snow with their hands up. It looked too much like an execution lineup and Pembrook shook his head at her. She was about to call the nazy out for being a liar when she was hit from the back.
A liar and a coward.
When she woke up, she was a prisoner, unsurprisingly. It had been a dangerous mission, so far out behind enemy lines, but that's usually how Robin missions went. Success rate was poor and Death rate high. She might even have refused if she hadn't identified this artefact as something as bad as a nuclear bomb.
At least she was travelling comfortably for a prisoner, she'd give them that, but Hydra, because these were Hydra soldiers according to their octopus pins, never did anything without a reason, so she stayed on her guards. Maybe they wanted to soften her up, gain sympathy, a little stockholm syndrome on the side maybe? Ha! Fat chance. She knew evil when she saw it.
“Where are my men?” she demanded.
One of the soldiers, probably the higher up given the way he strutted over to her like a peacock, with a smile which didn't reach his eyes.
“Prisoners of war, of course. They stay in the snow, but our leader wishes to meet you personally, Fraulein Granger.”
He said her name all wrong, but it chilled her that he seemed to know exactly who she was. Concerning Pembrook and his troop, she had no way of knowing if their supposed fate was true or not.
As for meeting with Schmidt, she couldn't think of anything else she'd rather not do.
Chapter 9: The Shift
It took days jumping from one plane to the next, making detours and finally riding a car to get to what looked like a factory with its high chimneys puffing out smoke like a sailor’s pipe. She estimated she was somewhere in the middle of Europe, but she could be off by several hundred miles. What she did know was that she was in deep trouble, but then again, she'd been ever since she set foot in Europe.
She was brought up to an office decorated in typical villain lavishness which actually reminded her of Malfoy Manor and she couldn't help but step off the lush carpet. It wasn't the same color as the one she had been tortured on by Bellatrix, but it certainly bore a similarity in its patterns and thickness.
“Ah, Fraulein Granger. So glad you could join me,” his host said with what actually looked like a sincere smile.
“It's not like I had a choice. You're Johann Schmidt, aren't you?”
“Indeed. I'm honoured you recognize me.”
“Know thy enemy.”
“And know thyself,” Schmidt smirked. “Which I most certainly do.”
He motioned for her to sit down in the upholstered wingback chair which could have sat Hagrid with its ridiculous size. She hesitated so the guard behind her nudged her forward.
“None of that now, Hans. You may leave,” Schmidt chided.
Her guard snapped his heels and walked out the door. She sat and stared at the man in front of her. One on one. Schmidt really did not think her a threat, and she supposed that without her wand, she really wasn't much of one.
She snorted inelegantly.
“Something stronger, I reckon.”
Schmidt served them whisky in twin crystal tumblers, then toasted his own glass in the air.
“To order,” he said.
Not quite what she had been expecting.
“To your demise,” she toasted back.
Schmidt chuckled and drank to it anyway, then tossed pictures her way.
“That is you, yes?” he asked as her eyes widened in surprise, because there she was in front of the Woolsworth building with her patronus in plain sight, lighting her features clearly in the dark.
She was perfectly recognizable. There was no denying it was her, but she checked every one of them to make sure Steve wasn't identifiable. Relieved he was safe, she considered whether to say it was only a trick of the light, but dismissed the idea because Schmidt's men would no doubt have told him about her other feats of magic during the battle in Norway.
“How did you get these?”
“We have eyes everywhere, Fraulein, although I'll admit this was more likely a stroke of luck. I would, however, like to hear your story. You are truly a mystery ”
She tossed the pictures back on the opulent desk and downed her whisky. Liquid courage. She feared she would need it very soon.
“All the whisky in the world wouldn't loosen my tongue.”
Nor would torture. If Bellatrix had failed using the cruciatus and a cursed blade, she doubted this Hitler flunky would succeed with muggle means.
“Interesting. You do not fear. Now, I want your story even more, and I always get what I want.”
From then on, for days on end they isolated her, then tried sleep deprivation, lack of food, water, beatings, electric shocks… then something that truly frightened her when a so-called doctor managed to mess with her mind using a machine. It was painful. Half her face felt like it had taken a hit from a troll's club, like the one she had barely evaded in her first year, while her whole brain was pressed through a grinder. If she hadn't had some basic knowledge of occlumency, she might have broken then.
Failing to break her, they had managed to crack the surface though, and now she was to meet with Schmidt and she feared he might find the crack in her mind and pry her open. She was so out of it when they dragged her from what she dubbed the lab wing to the villain's lair that she thought she heard her name echo around her, as if someone was calling for her. If she was starting to have auditory hallucinations, she might be worse off than she had estimated.
“Fraulein!” came Schmidt's loud greeting, his voice grating after the quiet of the lab. “I am sorry for not meeting sooner, but I was… otherwise occupied. I see you were treated well, however.”
Hermione made the effort to glare at him, but was shocked to see her wand in his hands. She knew he had it, of course, but had not expect to see it so close at hand. So close… She lunged forward, but dear old Hans caught her by the hair and she fell back on her arse. Hans hauled her up by the back of her uniform, tearing several seams, while Schmidt tutted at her.
“You see, I thought this was your source of power, and you do crave it I see, but it is merely wood,” he said and rapped the wand against his desk, eliciting a hollow tap tap of wood on wood.
She winced because her wand was unique and irreplaceable in this reality, but only of use to her.
“So, the power I am seeking,” Schmidt continued as he rounded his desk to tower over her. “Must come from here.”
He pressed the tip of her wand to her chest, hard enough to cause pain, but she fought against Hans’ grip anyway. If only she could grasp her wand, she would be able to disapparate and leave this nightmare of a place, but Hans was unyielding. Schmidt looked down at her, his gaze evaluating, while she stood with her eyes cast down, shoulders slumped, her curtain of hair hiding her features. She didn't want him to think she needed to be broken any more before whatever came next. She needed what little will and strength she had left.
“Follow,” he ordered, and Hans frog marched her to the next room.
She had imagined a place as disgustingly opulent as his office, a library maybe, but it looked more like a workshop crossed with a meeting room, all of it permeated in an unnatural blue light. The so-called doctor was there too, and she felt her hair stand on end at the sight of him.
“Doctor, if you will,” Schmidt said.
Hermione kept her eyes on the pudgy man. He reminded her of Wormtail. The way he scuttered about on his small legs, eager to please his Master… she imagined it was too much to hope he strangled himself to death with his own hand. However, all thought of causing him severe bodily harm flew out the window when he used long metal pincers to retrieve the source of light from his machine. As soon as it was out, the air turned as thick as molasses. The blue cube was otherworldly and she knew without a doubt what it was.
“The Tesseract,” she gasped, her breath coming short from her proximity to the source of pure energy.
It was too much. Too much raw power, unbridled, dangerous, not evil but not good either, and her whole magic recoiled at being so close to it. She instinctively knew the cube needed to be contained, hidden and forgotten by all. No mortal could control such a thing. Might as well try to hold a star.
“Precisely,” Schmidt said. “You fear this. You have feared nothing until now. Why this?”
“It's… too much power.”
“There is no such thing as too much power, Fraulein, only those too weak to take it, and you are not weak. Doctor.”
He motioned for his minion to proceed and she stepped back, walking on Hans’ foot, pressed flush against him, but she would climb the son of a bitch if it meant getting away from the Tesseract. His grip on her tightened though, holding both her arms behind her back and keeping her on her toes as if offering her in sacrifice to the glowing cube.
When it came close enough that the light hurt her very eyeballs, a tendril of energy coiled away from the cube towards her. Energy seeking energy. But they were not meant to meet, never should have since she was from another reality. When it brushed against her magic, she was drained like a battery and fell like a puppet with its strings cut, only held up by her guard's hold on her, then new energy filled her whole being with such force she thought she would implode from the shock of it and turn to dust, but she was merely flung back against the back wall instead, swatted away like a bothersome fly, as if judged unworthy and tossed aside. She was saved from more bruising by using Hans as a cushion. Served him right. But when the dark haze of unconsciousness started to fall over her, she had to wonder just how sentient the Tesseract was.
“And then I woke up on top of a tank, outside for the first time in weeks, and there was good ol’Bucky and a mountain of muscles wearing my boyfriend’s face.”
Silence fell over them, the dump of information needing some time to be processed. Steve wasn't naive, he knew she had glossed over several parts. Even Bucky seemed to know more about it, the way he had tensed and held her closer. Hell, he probably did. They had both been subjected to that same horrid “doctor”. Anger roiled around his stomach and Steve wanted to lash out, but not here, not now. Not when Hermione was shaking just froma telling her story.
Hydra had tortured her, had taken her wand and done something to her magic with the artefact she had been seeking. No wonder she had been distant. Going through all that… He couldn't imagine. Steve looked at her longingly from his cot. He wanted to pull her close against him and use his new body to shield her from all the evils of the world, but it was this same oversized body that kept him from sharing his cot with her. Bucky was doing a fair job of it anyway, spooned around her like protective armor, sharing comfort and warmth. He felt he should be jealous of their proximity, but this wasn't their first time sharing a bed and he loved them both with such fierceness, it felt natural they would fit together, all three of them. Seeing the ease with which Hermione and Bucky embraced each other, he thought they might feel the same way too.
Steve brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.
“We'll find them and make them pay,” he promised, his voice rough, still coloured with anger. “We will get your wand back.”
He knew it was important to her. She could still do magic, obviously, but he had never seen her do so before without it. It might be more difficult or taxing for her, he wasn't sure and didn't want to ask now, although he would need to very soon, before their team left off.
On the bright side, there were no nightmares that night, none that woke him at least. In fact, Hermione and Bucky were still sleeping peacefully when he checked on them the next morning, wrapped in each other's arms, but he reluctantly got up when he heard a commotion outside. It could be nothing, but he wasn't going to wait for trouble to find him.
Trouble, as it turned out, was Stark and his ostentatious car. Very shiny and red and no doubt costing more than he’ll ever earn. Stark was chatting Peggy up while soldiers were admiring his ride. It looked entirely unpractical for these parts. A jeep would be a much better choice in his opinion, but people often chose beauty over practicality.
“Hey, Captain! My man! Just the person I was looking for!”
Steve’s eyebrows shot up. He had no idea why Stark would seek him out, of all people, but he had to admit he owed the man big for giving him a plane lift into a dangerous zone.
“How can I help you?”
“Hop in!” Stark said with a nod at his car.
“Go on,” Peggy agreed. “I'll tell Hermione where you've gone off to.” She lowered her voice. “Is she…”
He nodded, then smiled secretively.
Peggy returned the smile and sent him off, warning him to not let Howard walk all over him. True enough, the engineer’s personality was loud and overwhelming, but he meant well. He was surprised to find Stark didn't need a favour at all, but had a gift for him: a shiny round shield which seemed as light as a feather.
“Howard. Come on, buddy. We've laughed in the face of Death together, and worse: Colonel Phillips! Maaaan can that guy hold a grudge! Good thing he likes my toys, which made me think of yours. I heard you're going out soon. Come on, test it out.”
Howard pointed at a dummy at the far end of the cluttered warehouse where he was currently tinkering with one of the tanks they'd brought back from Hydra’s base in Azzano. Steve held the silver shield up, testing it's balance and weight. Howard rapped on it with a metal rod and it rung harmoniously. It was perfect and took him little effort to throw towards the dummy, decapitating it in the process.
“Ow!” Howard exclaimed with a laugh while Steve winced.
Better yet, the shield bounced off the wall behind the headless dummy and came back to him in a perfect straight line. Steve caught it easily and gave its creator an impressed look.
“That's definitely going to come in handy.”
“Bulletproof too. Want to try it out?”
“Sure?” Steve replied uncertainly.
If it didn't work, they were going to have a hard time explaining to the Colonel why his chief engineer had been shooting at his supersoldier.
“Ready?” Howard asked stepping back ten paces and taking aim.
“I feel like I should be saying no.”
Howard chuckled and emptied his clip. Looking down at the front of his shield, he found it as good as new. Not a single scratch to be found on the gleaming surface.
“Wow. Think it'll work against those Hydra guns too?”
“I haven't been able to test it, but in theory, it will deflect the beam of energy like a mirror so be careful where you angle it.”
Steve nodded. He could use that against them. He had flattened Howard's bullets but he supposed that if he caught the shots just right, he could theoretically also deflect them towards the enemy.
“Thank you for this. I don't know how to repay you.”
“Just win the war for us, Captain.”
“I'll do my best.”
He left his shield with Howard who wanted to paint it. Something to do with P.R. apparently. Steve hoped they weren't going to make him go into battle in tightpants again. His men would be laughing themselves silly all the way to Berlin. Hermione would too, he was sure.
The rest of the day was spent planning their route and training together. Hermione could fling anything in any direction, the force of it depending on the weight of the object or person in question. Her feats of magic drew a crowd, and he was glad to note people were in awe of her power rather than afraid, but he supposed this crowd, in particular, had seen some shit at the hands of Hydra and were just glad they had secret weapons just as powerful on their side. Steve's training with a normal shield seemed a bit pointless, so he just went through standard physical with Dum Dum before they sparred together. He couldn't go full out, lest he send him to the hospital, but it became quite challenging when Morita and Falsworth eventually joined in the fight against him. Bucky had gone off shooting for game with several soldiers of the one-oh-seventh who were sick and tired of eating the same old spam. And Jones and Dernier… well, those two were just terrifying as they devised tactics and specific weapons to use against Hydra. Steve finally sent the duo off to see Howard to get them equipped with the certainty the genius would find a way to improve upon their designs.
He had worried about Dernier at first because of the language barrier, but he understood English well enough, the basics at least, and was just terrible at speaking it. His attempts came out a garbled mess of sounds he couldn't make head nor tail off. Jones and Hermione spoke French anyway, so he wasn't too isolated, and Steve was slowly picking it up as well. As a resistant fighter for the last three years, Dernier would be invaluable in connecting them to the various other resistance networks who were distrustful of strangers by necessity.
All in all, his ragtag team was meshing well and he felt they could actually take down Hydra with such a formidable group.
Bucky returned with a couple of deers that evening, and everyone was content and full when they turned in for the night.
“What do you suppose the Colonel wants with us tomorrow?” Bucky asked him as he undressed. He sniffed himself and wrinkled his nose. “I need a shower.”
“You own fault for skipping off all day.”
“I put food in that belly, you little punk,” Bucky said as he jabbed him in the stomach before shaking his hand in the air. “Ouch. Are you actually made of stone now?”
“Who knows? I'm just the lab rat, remember?”
Bucky huffed, then looked at the cots with a furrowed brow.
“Think Hermione will come around tonight?” he asked.
“I don't know. She needed to talk yesterday… She didn't say anything about tonight.”
Bucky nodded and climbed into bed.
“You don't mind… that I'm here? If you need some privacy, I could-”
“No,” Steve assured him. “We take care of each other, remember? Besides, we sort of made it a habit whenever we're all three together. I think we sleep better this way.”
Bucky gave him a puzzled look, so Steve elaborated.
“Peggy told me Hermione had nightmares, but she didn't last night.”
“Oh,” Bucky said and looked away. They both knew he had, too, except for last night, but neither mentioned it. “I really like her,” he admitted quietly.
“I know, Buck.”
“I don't get you,” he muttered, turning his gaze towards the canvas overhead.
Steve shrugged, making his cot squeak loudly under the strain of his bulk, so he didn't hear at first when Hermione sneaked into their tent. He didn't know if she had heard any of their conversation either. Hopefully not. He didn't want her to think he didn't care about her, but he didn't want her to think he considered her his possession either. Without a word, she took off her boots, shed her coat and climbed into bed between them, falling back into Bucky's waiting arms as she reached for his hand. Suddenly, the cot sank and Hermione rolled on top of him while Bucky fell against his side, with surprised, muffled exclamations all around.
“What the hell?”
“Everyone all right?”
“I'm sorry,” Hermione mumbled against his chest, sounding miserable.
“Did you just… fuse our cots together?” Bucky asked, rolling back to his side to even out their weight on the structure.
“I didn't mean to,” Hermione mumbled as she stayed sprawled over him.
Her arms wound around him, hugging him, and he returned it with fervour, burying his face in her curls. She always smelled so sweet, even after spending days in a muddy camp with little to no hot water.
“I just wanted to be closer and my magic… I'm having a hard time keeping it under control,” she admitted and let go, falling back beside him with a huff.
“You're not going to turn us into toads while we sleep, doll, right?”
Hermione smiled against him.
“You call me doll again, Buck, and I just might.”
Chapter 10: Something Green
Steve woke up in a tangle of limbs after Hermione had tried to extricate herself, in vain, from the oversized cot so she could return to Peggy's tent before the whole camp came alive. Apparently, last morning had been a narrow miss and none of them wanted to anger Colonel Phillips enough that he would pull her from the team.
“Morning,” he told her. “Bucky giving your trouble?”
“He's like a very warm octopus,” she agreed, trying to
pry his left arm from her middle.
“Just five more minutes,” Bucky mumbled from her back. “This is the best part of the day. Why are two not enjoying it like normal people?”
“I don't think I qualify as normal, I'm a super soldier.”
“And I'm a witch, so...”
Bucky groaned but let her go and turned on his other side, pulling the blanket over his head.
“Meet you two at 0800,” Hermione reminded them, then kissed Steve on the lips, the way she used to back in New-York when he was weak and small.
Progress! They were back to what they used to be, or so he hoped. He wanted to pull her back for more, but she really did need to get going, so he let her go, his eyes following her all the way out.
“You're an idiot,” Bucky said from his blanket fort.
“You're one to talk, squid-man.”
They had duties, priorities… Steve had no doubt he would be sacrificing his personal desires more often than not.
At 0800, The Colonel's tent was filled with his handpicked team. Hermione kept her distance from him to let their superior know the message had been received loud and clear, and that they would be on their best behaviour.
“Stark dropped these off for you sorry lot last night,” he said gesturing at his desk.
Steve grinned when he saw his shield, painted in red and blue, a star in its center. He liked it. And Howard had included straps and magnets so he could carry it on his back and retrieve it without too much bother. It was perfect. He owed him again.
Jones and Dernier were gushing over metal contraptions with wires that didn't look like anything he'd ever seen before. They might be toasters for all he knew.
“And the P.R. people got you poor bastards outfitted so you don't look like a bunch of bums wandered on the battlefield. We want you to make us proud.”
“And crush Hydra,” Bucky added somberly.
“That goes without saying, Barnes. Get ready, you're leaving today.”
“Today?” Steve asked in surprise.
They were supposed to have a couple more days to rest up and train.
“Hydra troops are on the move. We don't want our intel to go stale so you need to hit these bases before they've moved all the valuables.”
Steve nodded. His team appeared either determined or enthusiastic about the news. Maybe they had been getting a little restless staying in camp. He knew he had, but he recuperated much faster too.
“What the bloody hell is this?” Hermione asked as she held up something colored a sickly green.
“I thought you were the smart one. Figure it out,” Philips snapped.
She unfolded the material, revealing more folds of the same gaudy cloth. She looked at the Colonel, then back at her bundle of clothes, then at the corner where Peggy was trying not to laugh as she mimed something, one hand up in the air while the other held a clipboard at her side.
“You've gotta be kidding me, sir.”
Hermione sounded outraged while everyone else, himself included, were pretty keen about their own unique uniforms, even if his own was a bit over the top with patriotism. Bucky looked positively smitten with his blue coat that matched his eyes, but he did spare Hermione a worried glance at the sight of the green uniform she held. The Colonel wasn't having any of it though. He snapped his fingers then pointed at him and Hermione.
“You two will be the figureheads of this operation: Captain America and Lady Liberty.” Several of the others snickered at Phillips’ deadpan announcement of her new codename. “You got a problem with it, you take it to the P.R. department, because I certainly wasn't consulted. I'm just a glorified mailbox, apparently.”
“I hope they like warts,” Hermione muttered.
“That's just it, Lady, ” the Colonel barked, pointing a thick finger right in her nose. “Personally, I don't give a Damn how you pull off your little tricks, but we can't have the good people of the Free World thinking an unholy witch is fighting for them, now, can we? That would make us the villains. The personification of Freedom herself, however, she's good for morale back home and for our boys on the front.”
“Merlin save me from politics.”
“I'm sure you meant God . Now, if no one else has any fashion issues, I'll let you be on your way. Dismissed.”
They saluted and filed out. Hermione was getting teased mercilessly by the others, but giving as good as she got. He loved how feisty she was, but to think she'd never been very lady-like, from that first day she'd bitten a man to the bone, then rinsed her mouth out by spitting in his sink like a sailor and walking around half-naked the next day… to now be saddled with the name Lady was kind of ironic. At least he got to be Captain, and it seemed a bit sexist now that he thought about it, but he could also understand the Colonel's concerns over her magic. No one wanted to see her burned at the stake by her own side. So Lady Liberty it was… he liked it, had a nice ring to it.
They all got changed, but when Hermione came back, her new uniform, or costume depending on how you looked at it, drew the eye of every man in the vicinity, which was quite a lot. It was cut much like the clothes she had worn when he had first met her. Very… snug, and not as sickly green as it had seemed in the tent. More like a forest green that blended nicely with the woods surrounding the camp. Both changes undoubtedly more practical than what the bigwigs had thought out from the comfort of their desks, he had to give her that. It was quite impressive she had managed to do that without her wand, but on the other hand, he suspected her magic had probably just acted out on its own out of sheer frustration, like the previous night with their two cots melding into one. The Colonel scowled at her but evidently thought better than to say anything, probably wary she would give him the warts she had been muttering about earlier.
“Alright, gather around,” Peggy called out, holding a camera. “And no rude gestures. This one's for posterity.”
Steve was center with Hermione and Bucky on either side, Morita and Dernier apparently fighting to be next to Hermione before Dum Dum pushed them away with ease.
“Haven't got all day,” Peggy warned. “Morita, really? Alright, one, two-”
Steve blinked the flash out of his eyes but he was up for round two because Peggy also wanted individual pictures for their personal files.
Then they were led to the entrance of the camp to find Howard had thought of everything. He had a couple of motorcycles and two Jeeps ready for them, full of supplies and ready to go.
Time to go win that war.
“That’s a fucking huge factory to blow up on our own,” Morita muttered from their cover under the treeline.
“Not up to the task, my friend?” Falsworth asked with a mocking smile. “You can stay here and watch how the professionals do it.”
“There's nothing wrong with staying here,” Bucky muttered, still looking for a tree he could climb to cover them.
“Not for a sniper, no, but have you seen Morita shoot?” Dum Dum chuckled.
“Hey, I'm getting better. Up close and personal with my grease gun, you know.”
“It's not a competition,” Hermione said with a roll of her eyes before following Bucky further down in case he found a tree she could levitate him into.
“Right,” Steve said, getting their attention back. “Me, Lady and Dum Dum will go center and draw their attention when they realize something's off. Jones and Dernier, you sneak in from the East when they do and cause a maximum of damage to the structure. Morita and Falsworth, you sneak in from the West and grab every map and file that seems of interest. You two should be clear to snoop around, between the attacks and explosions, we should be drawing every guard away. Our intel says there are no prisoners here, but keep an eye out, just in case. All good?”
“Sounds good,” Falsworth agreed with a twitch of his moustache. “I'll keep things quiet if other-James can keep his gob shut for a little while.”
“Why am I other-James?” Morita complained. “How did we end up with three Jameses on such a small team anyway?”
“See what I mean, Captain? Permission to gag him?” Falsworth asked in all seriousness.
Or maybe not. It was hard to tell with Brits sometimes and he was dating one. Steve actually considered the request because Morita really was that mouthy, but he decided it would set a bad precedent in the end.
The half-Japanese mimed locking his mouth and throwing away the key, but Steve expected that to last all of five minutes. Hermione returned with a thumbs up. Bucky was settled, they were ready to go.
His small group got closer than they thought was possible before the alarm sounded. It was the snow crunching under their boots and an overzealous guard that got them spotted. That one was the first to meet the business end of his shield and Steve was relieved when he avoided decapitating him like the training dummy. Steve deflected a salve of bullets afterwards, Dum Dum returning in kind with his shotgun while Hermione swept off their feet a few of those lodged up in the guard tower, who fell with sickening crunches at their feet. They wrecked havoc as they advanced and he had no doubt no one had noticed the two other duos skirting around the skirmish.
“Lady! Give me a boost!” Dum Dum demanded from behind him.
Steve was faster than any of them, but they had their tricks to make up for it, and soon Dum Dum joined him with a howl of utter joy and insanity as he was levitated through the air and pushed forward, his shotgun going off left and right. Hermione hadn’t managed to boost herself yet. It was too unstable, but she trained on it every day and was getting better, despite her fear of heights.
A Hydra soldier he hadn't spotted dropped from the wall above him, a bullet to the head. Steve turned and saluted towards the woods, then started bashing the doors in. Dum Dum leaned into it too and the wood creaked ominously until it suddenly gave out. They waited a couple of minutes for Hermione to catch up, panting, her cheeks red.
“I need to do more cardio,” she muttered.
Steve knew future-talk when he heard it and shrugged off her comment, but Dum Dum looked confused.
“Want me to give you a piggyback ride?” Dum Dum offered.
“Yeah because that's going to strike fear into our enemy's heart,” Hermione snorted. “I’m fine. Let's keep going. I saw Gabe and Jacques blow their way in. I don't think those understand the concept of discretion.”
Steve rolled his eyes. That'll teach him to choose a bunch of hot heads as teammates. But in the end, even if they were loud and not at all disciplined, all their objectives were met and they left a pile of smoking rubble behind them.
“Meh, it wasn't that big,” Morita concluded around the campfire that night. “What have you got lined up next, Cap?”
Steve looked up from the maps he and Falsworth had brought back. He still couldn't pinpoint where all the weapons were being sent, just a general direction up North. Maybe if they found two more similar maps, he could triangulate a smaller region.
“More of the same. Sorry.”
The men groaned in mock consternation, but he could tell they were proud of their victory today and looking forward to more. Every single one of them had very good reason to hate Hydra with a passion. Even him. He would keep his promise to Erskine and remain a good man, but that didn't mean he wouldn't avenge him for his murder. He was brought out of his thoughts by a chorus of laughs.
“Le vin! More superior! French, bien sur,” Dernier claimed with a thick accent as he dug a dark wine bottle from his bag.
“Whiskey,” Dum Dum argued as he produced a bottle of said liquor from his own breast pocket. “That's what real men drink.”
“Is that how you grew your moustache?” Morita snickered.
“At least, we can grow one,” Falsworth replied to general laughter.
Only Hermione and Morita had smooth faces by now, and his girl patted Morita’s back to comfort him.
“I only found this,” Jones said and placed a bottle of clear liquid next to the other two. “It stinks. I think it's Vodka. Or maybe paint remover, what do I know? The label is written in gibberish.”
“Wait,” Steve said as he stared at the three bottles. “Were you guys looting ?”
“You said we couldn't compete by tally, so we had to improvise and bet who would find the best bottle,” Dum Dum replied.
“Which is unfair since I can't even play,” Bucky muttered.
Steve glanced at Hermione and she turned pink as she retrieved a small bottle of rum from the green folds of her coat.
“I hoped to find some Sherry, but this just proves they're inconsiderate barbarians. Did you find any?” she asked her British comparse.
“Unfortunately not, my dear. But I did find this .”
“Absinth?” she asked as they all stared at the green bottle. “Okay. I think you win on alcohol concentration alone, but I am not drinking that.”
“It's really that strong?” Steve asked curiously.
The vibrant green colour of the liquid had him intrigued, but as far as he knew, alcohol had no effect on him because of the super-serum.
“It's been banned in several countries,” Hermione warned. “It's also known as the green fairy and is said to cause hallucinations. Drink at your own peril.”
Far from deterring the others, her warning only spurned them on.
“Don't come complaining tomorrow when we have to set out and you feel like death warmed over,” Steve cautioned, but just like Hermione, his warning fell on deaf ears and they opened the bottle to pass it around.
Hermione stood after the first round and tapped him lightly on the back as she walked passed him. Looking at his team, he knew there was no point in trying to make them see sense, not even Bucky. They'd learn the hard way tomorrow morning. Nice and early. Steve got to his feet and went after Hermione, finding her sitting on the hood of one of the jeeps, looking up at the stars.
“We can finally get some alone time,” she said when he approached. “I feel like we haven't had that since… well, since before.”
“Oh. Before my ‘growth spurt’?”
“Bucky will be pleased you're going with that instead of ‘'procedure’.”
She reached for his hands, pulling him forward to stand between her legs. She hugged his middle, her head resting just below his chest and he had to dip his head quite a bit just to be able to smell her curls. Still that spring flower scent he remembered from back home, even way out here after a day filled with blood and smoke.
“We used to fit so easily,” she said a bit wistfully.
“And I'd end up wheezing for every little thing,” he reminded her.
“True. That was selfish of me. I think I need to… learn you again? Find the other ways in which we fit. It's a bit strange starting from scratch with the same person,” she stopped babbling and looked up at him, biting her lip uncertainly. “If you want to, of course. This isn't sounding nearly as smooth as I'd planned.”
“Maybe because you're overthinking? I swear I'm still the same guy inside, despite the new packaging. I love you, Hermione. That hasn't changed. ”
He took advantage of her surprise to lean down and capture her lips. How he had missed her soft lips and clever tongue. If her moan was any indication, so had she. But he had to admit their height difference wasn't all that comfortable in the long run, so he scooped her off the jeep's hood, holding her up easily with one hand under each thigh, his fingers just grazing her shapely behind in her tight pants. She giggled and her face was hot against his, but they didn't break their kiss. It went from languid to frantic, and he wanted more. He wanted her naked skin under his. He wanted her as unclothed as she had been that night before his asthma attack had ruined everything. Maybe even more. Maybe tonight.
Hermione's breathing became erratic and he wondered if she was having an asthma attack of her own
“Alright?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said breathless. “I want- I need- more.”
“Tent?” he asked, and she nodded.
They had four tents of two for when they were out on the road with no shelter to be found, like tonight, and they had easily paired off, even if Bucky joined them more often than not. No one had commented on it so far, but they did get speculative looks thrown their way every now and then.
Steve walked to their tent, still carrying her up against him and keeping to the shadows to stay out of sight of their companions. Imbibed as they no doubt were by now, Steve knew wouldn't hold back on the lewd comments tonight.
As much as he would have liked to ravish Hermione on the spot, Steve had to let his girl go so she could magic their two cots into one. He couldn't even fondle her as she did so since she needed to focus and even then it could take some time. Maybe he should have ravished her right there on the car’s hood. The thought did make his cock twitch in interest, but for their first time, a little intimacy and comfort wouldn't go amiss. In any case, Hermione’s small cry of victory told him she had succeeded and she climbed on it with a surprised gasp.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“Try it out and you'll see. I think my magic overdid it.”
Steve lay beside her and was surprised by the feel of a real bed, more comfortable than any he had ever slept on.
“This is what I imagine sleeping on a cloud would feel like,” he said with a wide smile.
Hermione rolled over and straddled him, making his breath catch when she rubbed against his erection. She frantically began undoing his buttons and buckles, pulling his uniform off with both impatience and reverence. Steve helped as much as she'd let him, just as impatient as she seemed to be. When his top half was naked, she faltered for a moment and he wished it wasn't so dark so he could see her expression, but the campfire was too far off, casting more shadows than light in their tent. He knew he had no reason to be nervous however, the super-serum had done a perfect job, but he recalled that night he had panicked, thinking she would see his weak body with all too much clarity. He didn't know what to expect but her diving headfirst to tease his nipple with her mouth was not it, and yet… he groaned at the sensation. It certainly was new, and he seemed to be hypersensitive in that area, but then she trailed kisses up his neck, nibbled his ear before continuing down his chest, over his stomach and hell, he was just sensitive all over. The sensations were maddening, too much and too little all at once.
“Can I?” he asked trapping her hands in his before she could go any lower.
At this rate he would be naked and quite done while she would still be fully clothed. She nodded and got rid of her coat herself while he started working on her many, many buttons. The P.R. people had overdone it a bit and he would have had a terse word with them about it if he could have justified why it irked him so.
He finally uncovered her warm, soft skin, smooth save for that scar he remembered peeking from the upper right side of her bra. He studied said contraption for a moment, letting his hands wander over it, but for the life of him couldn't figure out how to undo it. Thanks for nothing, Bucky. Or did his friend just have to look at one with his patented smoulder and it popped right off? In the end, he was saved the embarrassment of asking when Hermione's arm disappeared behind her back and it fell away. He bit his lip as he cupped one breast, brushed against her nipple, and he had thought the rest of her was soft before. He flipped them over with ease, making her squeak in surprise, and leaned over her to tease her the way she had just teased him with his tongue and mouth, satisfied at the way she panted and squirmed beneath him.
Oh, and the way she said her name with such need. That was definitely a new experience. His cock responded too, thrusting forward at the sound, wanting to please and be pleased. It was all he could do not to rip the rest of her uniform right off, but he did get her undressed in just a matter of seconds.
“Steve,” she breathed out, almost a whine, as she tried to get his own clothes past his hips.
He shimmied out of them, his cock jutting out from the confines, hard and heavy and hot. The need to simply drive into her was overwhelming, but he knew -thanks Bucky- that wasn't done, so he took a deep breath, regaining some semblance of control, then losing it almost immediately when he felt her fingers on his erection.
“Wait,” he begged.
Her hand froze, then retreated.
“Sorry,” he said. “It's… a lot. I need…”
She seemed to understand, or he thought so before she sat up and muttered to herself while she reached for her clothes.
He was utterly confused now. Had he made some major faux pas?
“Condom! Merlin! I got so carried away, I almost forgot!”
Steve chuckled in relief, even if the scare had made his erection wane a little. Maybe not a bad setback, all things considered. They'd both gotten a bit carried away.
“Hold on to that thought,” he told her as he settled back between her legs.
Just having her spread like that for him with such trust made his desire surge like wildfire caught in a strong wind, but first, make sure she's ready too. With some of the wild tales from Bucky's trysts in mind, most of which he was not at all ready for, Steve leaned over her, kissed her breasts, caressed her sides… God, she was so soft, smelled so nice, so warm… she responded to his touch, pushing into his hands, small moans escaping her even as he could hear her trying to bite them off. He kissed her, her lips swollen while his finger trailed down to her center and he found her ready, eager even. As hot as he felt and her slickness making it so easy to caress her folds without fear of hurting her. He had worried a bit, he had to admit, as she seemed so small now compared to him.
“Steve, I swear if you don't fuck me right now-”
A startled laugh escaped him and he tsked at her language.
“Yes, love,” he murmured.
Her fingers sought out his cock, sliding down his length, then a second time but with the rubbery feel of the condom enveloping him, the sensation strange but he eventually forgot all about it as he realized he could take Hermione, although he was still a bit weary of hurting her.
“Would you rather-” Hermione started when he hadn't moved yet. “I think I should ride you,” she said, taking the decision out of his hands and he was glad, not to mention aroused at the thought.
She pushed him back and he could see her more clearly now that she faced the tent flap, a sliver of golden light landing right over her pale figure and halo of curls. His breath caught at her beauty, at the way she straddled him, but he lost himself to the sensation of her sinking down onto his cock. He thought he would burst. She was so tight and warm, pressed all around him. It was unlike anything he knew. Amazing. And then she started moving over him and it was driving him completely insane with lust. He wanted to be good to her in return, but honestly, it was all he could do not to give in too soon while she rode him, there was no other word for it. He held her hips as they twisted and lifted only to take him in again, and he moved with her, again and again, the need for more spurning him on, faster, harder as he inched ever closer to a precipice that he would gladly fall into.
They'd been so careful to be quiet but a deep, guttural groan escaped him. He couldn't articulate a single word if he tried, he was sure. Hermione moaned just as loudly soon after, his name on her lips, and she clenched around him, making him lose his grip on his control. He came hard, a sweet, delicious agony, and yes, definitely glad Hermione was on top or he might have crushed her from losing himself to his release.
As it was, she laid over his chest, breathing heavily and they stayed that way for a bit, just catching their breath.
“That was…” she said, but never finished her sentence.
“Yeah,” he agreed with a chuckle. “That really was.”
Chapter 11: Together Apart
Steve feared the next morning might be a bit awkward because they hadn't managed to be as discreet as they'd hoped, but he hadn't realized just how awkward it would be until he felt himself being sandwiched between a naked Hermione in his arms and a clothed Bucky behind him, spooning against his own naked back. Bucky must have been really drunk to sneak in with them despite their state of undress, but it was probably not worth the effort of trying to rouse him now. A sleeping Bucky was like a hibernating bear. Hermione, on the other hand, would no doubt prefer to get dressed before Bucky got an eyeful. She was very tolerant of their friend, but Steve thought this might be crossing a line. She had said that morals were looser in the future, but he'd rather be safe than sorry.
“Hermione,” he whispered and kissed her temple.
She half-hummed, half-moaned and turned in his embrace to face him, her breasts and thighs and everything in between brushing against his skin and… yep, his cock was awake, had been for some time in fact, and was ready for round two. He groaned as she pushed herself even closer to his body, his erection poking insistently against her soft belly.
“Hermione,” he growled. “Wake up, love. You're killing me here.”
Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled when she met his own.
“Morning love. Sorry to wake you, but we're not alone.”
Her eyebrows shot up and she pushed herself up to peek over his arm, giggling when she let herself fall back.
“Looks like someone enjoys your pretty ass as much as I do.”
“Hermione!” he hissed.
Just when he thought she couldn't scandalise him anymore.
“What? You don't expect me not to tease you two about it, do you? Besides, I can share with the friendly octopus now that there’s so much of you. He does give the best cuddles.”
“The future must be a really strange place,” he muttered. “Anyway, I thought you'd want to get dressed before he woke up.”
“With what they were drinking last night, I doubt he's going to wake anytime soon. We could probably have sex right now and he would never know.”
Steve ran a hand over his face, not believing what he was hearing.
“You know, you're worse than all the guys put together, and that's saying a lot with the filthy mouths they got on them.”
Hermione giggled and pecked his lips before sitting up, her bare chest even more beautiful in the daylight than the gloom of the night, except… he caught her left arm, turning it around before she could stand.
“What's that?” he asked, his thumb tracing over a series of red marks slashed across her upper arm.
Hermione froze and covered her arm with her other hand.
“It's nothing. Just old scars. I'm surprised you didn't notice before.”
Steve scowled, thinking back on the one time he might have had the chance to see her arms completely exposed, but blushing at the realization he would have been too focused on her breasts to spare a glance at her arms. He let her go. He wasn't going to push the issue if she was uncomfortable with it. Steve didn't mind, but he could understand what it was to despise your own body, and having someone trying to force you to accept or like it had always irritated him.
“I love you,” he said instead, infusing the words with sincerity and she smiled, her shoulders relaxing.
“I love you, Steve. Are you getting dressed too, or are you staying here for Bucky to have something to grope?”
Steve rolled away from his sleeping friend and sat up.
“Think I'll get up and give the guys the headache they deserve. Honestly, if we got attacked right now, there would only be the two of us to defend the camp.”
“I'm sure we could handle it,” Hermione said with a sniff.
“We might, at that. How many do you think we could take on at once?”
Hermione babbled on about some complicated maths that went way over his head, but she looked so happy and radiant in the rising sun, even as she dressed, that he let her, and went off to prepare a huge batch of fresh coffee for everyone when he was clothed, debating whether they should even bother moving on today or just stay here. They might find real shelter if they moved on however, so he settled on that plan and honked the jeep a couple of times when coffee was ready.
The most sorry bunch crawled out of their tents, all disheveled, bleary eyed and looking a bit sick. Or a lot in the case of Jones who ran off to the side to empty his stomach.
“Never drinking again,” he vowed when he returned, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
Bucky arrived last, looking suspiciously normal. Just his usual grumpy morning face in fact. Steve glanced at Hermione who looked just as surprised. Had he not been drinking all night with the others? But if he hadn't, then why the hell had he joined them in bed? It was one thing to seek the comfort of friends, but quite another to join them while they were naked and reeking of sex. Bucky seemed overly nonchalant and was very careful not to meet his gaze or Hermione's. In fact, he appeared particularly fascinated by the tip of his boots this morning. Not that he blamed him if it was caused by Hermione's bluntness upon finding him there, but did that mean he'd been awake the whole time? Steve scowled as he tried to make sense of it, not noticing immediately when Hermione leaned against the jeep next to him.
“Bucky's acting weird,” she said, confirming his thoughts. “He usually chews you out a few times about having to wake up so early, and you were particularly vicious this morning.”
“Yeah, that too.”
Hermione hummed in question.
“He's very carefully not looking at us.”
“Huh… You're right. What do you think is going on in that funny little brain of his?”
“I've known him for years and I haven't a clue. Guess we'll know tonight. If he doesn't show up, we probably managed to scare him off.”
“That'd be a first.”
Steve nodded. He'd never known Bucky to flee any situation.
Bucky did not flee. Not that night when they found shelter in an old farm, nor the next in a house that had been vacated rather violently if the dark stains and bullet holes on the walls were any indication. He didn't say anything either. Simply joined them sometime during the night and spooned behind Hermione. Steve wished he would cuddle with him too, but realized that was probably a strange thought to have, even if they had done so as kids.
With a sigh, he put the whole situation out of his mind and observed their new target. Perched at it was on a cliff, it seemed both the most risky way to take it by storm, but also the one giving them the strongest element of surprise. He had no doubt in his mind they knew his team had attacked and raised their sister-factory to the ground so there would be more guards and patrols on high alert. The element of surprise was vital, but of his team, only Falsworth, Dum Dum and Dernier thought themselves capable of scaling the cliffside. Hermione and Morita admitted they were scared of heights, while Bucky and Jones didn't think they had either the technique or arm strength necessary.
“We split up,” Falsworth said as if it was obvious.
“Except we'll be coming from opposite sides, unable to lend support to the other group if need be,” Steve countered.
“But we're split evenly with you and Dernier on one side, and Lady and Jones on the other. I think it's nicely balanced to hit hard and blow everything up.”
Steve reluctantly nodded. Falsworth was right. He was a more experienced strategist after all, but he still worried about having all the muscle on one side.
“It's decided then,” he announced. “We should be up by the time you trek all the way around. Attack timed at…” He glanced at his watch. “1800. Dusk should just be falling by then.”
They turned to gear up before leaving, but Steve caught Hermione's arm and pulled her to him.
“Be careful?” he asked.
“You're one to talk. Watch your back. I'll have Bucky to watch mine.”
“You betcha, doll!” Bucky called out from nearby.
Steve rolled his eyes. At least he was acting normal again. He kissed her quickly, ducking his head when Dernier made loud smooching sounds at them.
“We'd better go,” she chuckled.
The climb was easier than it seemed from down below, the incline not as steep and they made good time to the top, arriving before the agreed upon time to attack. They settled with their backs to the wall, the window they would be breaking in through just above their heads. He hoped the others had made it up alright. There was always the chance of discovery along the way and his mind conjured up all sorts of nightmare scenarios until it was time. Steve held his shield high and hit the window, jumping in before anyone could start shooting. This place was great for ricochets, he noted with glee, before flinging his shield as hard as he could. He grimaced upon retrieval though, because it was going to need heavy duty cleaning tonight. His group tore through the factory like a hot knife through butter. They had obviously not thought this side was worth guarding too heavily, which made him worry all the more for the other group attacking from the front. They pressed on but had to stop when they found a group of prisoners in cages, just like most of his team had been what seemed like ages ago. They were a mixed bunch too, including civilians, but only about thirty all together.
“Are there more around?” Steve asked them when they had been let out, thinking of Bucky and Hermione who had been kept apart from the other prisoners.
“Some are working down below, about as much as we are. They make us work in shifts.”
“Dum Dum, Dernier, you go free them and blow up the production units before leaving. Not the whole place, mind. It's cold outside. We'll take these out front just in case.”
They pushed on, some of the freed soldiers finding weapons of fortune or taking them from the fallen Hydra agents. Soon they heard what Steve recognized as the screams of men falling from very high. The following meaty thud and crunch of breaking bones confirmed his suspicion and he grinned in relief. Hermione appeared in all her green glory and he could sort of see what she was supposed to symbolise even if she looked much more thunderous than the placid Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, the prisoners with him aimed their few weapons at her before he could warn them they were friendlies.
“I see you made new friends,” Hermione said, keeping her hands in the air and sure enough, a couple of Hydra agents were squirming several feet up in the air.
“It's okay,” Steve said over his shoulder. “They're with us.”
“But how is she-”
“It's a long story.”
The guns eventually lowered, so did Hermione's hands, and two unfortunate Hydra men would not be getting back up, their necks snapped at awkward angles. Even Hermione made a face at the sound they made crashing down, but there was no helping that. They found out very soon that people who worked for Hydra were not redeemable, and after talking about it with Hermione, she was already quite experienced about the reality of war. She did not enjoy killing, of course, but understood the necessity of it. Soon, an explosion made the building shudder briefly.
“Jacques?” Hermione asked, head tilted towards where the detonation had come from.
“He should be back with Dum Dum and about thirty more prisoners soon. Gabe, can you radio the Colonel to arrange pick up for everyone? Where are Bucky and Morita?” he asked, peering around with a frown.
“We got a bit overwhelmed out front so I flew Bucky up a perch. He was fine the last I saw of him, but I should probably help him down. Morita got hit,” she bit her lip, but hurried to add. “He'll be okay, I think, but his leg was injured and he wouldn't slow down, so I flew him up a tree. I should get him down now as well. He doesn't like heights.”
Hermione seemed really frazzled, so he walked with her as she exited. Falsworth and Dum Dum were returning anyway. They could oversee the freed prisoners.
“It's not your fault Morita was hit,” Steve tried.
It was his best bet on what was bothering her, but it was true nonetheless.
“I know. I still feel bad about it, made me realize... I'm not like you. I'm not a natural leader. I've always been supporting my friends. Harry was a natural leader too, and Ron a good strategist. I was just there to give them a helping hand with my books. But here…” she sighed. “My first mission in Norway was a disaster. I lost everyone. I don't even know where they are, if they're still alive… Peggy couldn't find out anything. And here I lead a second team and Morita went down and I… I lost control over my magic for a moment when I saw him fall. It could have gone awfully wrong.”
Steve reached for her hand to give it a squeeze. They were far enough from strangers’ eyes.
“What happened with your magic?” he asked.
“About time!” Morita bellowed from above, cutting off her answer. “Get me down, woman!”
Morita screwed his eyes shut while she carefully levitated him down.
“How's you leg?” Steve asked.
“I told her it was fine. I swear she's worse than my mother, and I wouldn't have thought that possible.”
Steve looked at where his uniform was torn but there was very little blood.
“Well, try not to trip on your own feet next time,” he chuckled and patted him on the back. “You gave her a fright.”
“Yeah, you shoulda seen how she avenged my fall, Cap. She sent a whole platoon shooting up like rockets, it was beautiful and then it started raining men.”
Morita laughed and Steve looked over his head at Hermione who was biting her lip, seemingly lost in thought. So that's what she had meant by losing control over her magic? It had… flared up because of her emotions? He could understand why she didn't want that to get around since it could get used against her.
Next up was Bucky. He looked for all the world like he was taking a nap on top of some kind of metal tower.
“Hey, Buck! Stop lazing about!” Steve called out.
“Lazing about? We did all the work, you little punk. Hey, Lady! Catch me?”
Before anyone could protest, Bucky jumped over the railing. Steve stepped forward, arms spread out and ready to catch him, but his fall slowed suddenly, then stopped just out of reach.
“That was incredibly stupid, Buck,” Hermione said angrily.
“I knew you'd catch me.”
“Really? Well, now I'm tempted to just leave you floating there like the idiot that you are.”
“Oh, c'mon darlin’. Don't be like that.”
Hermione huffed, but lowered him a couple more feet before letting him drop on his arse.
“Oops,” she mocked, turning on her heels.
She walked away with Morita dogging her steps, trying to convince her to do it to Dum Dum next, and he must have been particularly annoying because he yelped and was now the one being towed behind her like a balloon, squawking in protest. Steve shook his head and glanced at Bucky, still sprawled on the ground as he looked at Hermione stride away, her whole posture radiating annoyance.
“You shouldn't provoke her like that. You know she's got a temper.”
“Yeah, she's a real firecracker,” Bucky said with a grin before he took his hand to help him up. “That's why it's so much fun to rile her up. Don't tell me you never do it?”
“Not on purpose, no,” Steve said with a frown. “Why would I?”
“Well, you know what they say about angry sex? It's almost as good as make-up sex.”
His face burned. After all this time, after hearing about Bucky's exploits, and even now that he actually knew what all the fuss was about, still, he blushed at hearing it talked about so crudely.
“I really don't think that's going to be an issue,” he muttered.
Because making love to Hermione had been wonderful, and he seriously doubted having her angry would make it any better. How did you even get to a point where you had sex with someone who was angry at you? It didn't make any sense.
“I'm happy for you, you know?” Bucky said as he clapped a hand over his shoulder.
“Yeah?” Steve asked, looking sideways at him, because he'd been acting a bit strange lately.
“My two favourite people in the world are happy together. Why wouldn't I be?”
He sounded sincere and Bucky wouldn't lie about it anyway, but his smile was lopsided, a bit sad.
“We'll always be there for you, Buck. Just because we're together, we don't want you to feel left out.”
“Can't say you are, no. I know you don't mind me, but you know any other dame than Hermione would have tossed me out in the cold, or dropped you for not defending her honor or some tripe. I hope you realize that, bud.”
“Well, she is from-” Steve glanced around but they were still a ways off from the group gathered up ahead who looked like they were passing the floating Morita around like a beach ball. “The future. Apparently, people there are overall less…”
“Guess that's one way of putting it. She told me people can live together and have kids without being married, and it's not the least bit scandalous. That mixed-race couples are common enough they don't get fingers pointed at them. That two men or two women can get married legally, and even adopt kids. Can you imagine? It sounds a bit crazy from where we're at. Of course, she did say there are still bigots who can't leave well enough alone, but it sounds so much better than all the prejudice we get today.”
“Yeah, pal. But she's also from another reality or dimension or something. There's no guarantee the future she knows will be like the one we get.”
Steve hummed thoughtfully. Bucky was right. It might not be the future they would have, but it was one he was hoping for, one with more tolerance and freedom. Chances they would see that future were pretty slim however, since they had a whole war to get through and then how many more decades?
“Maybe, but at least you know why she's so accepting. Don't worry so much, Buck. If she really minded you being so close, she'd probably turn you into a balloon like poor Morita. I'd better go save him. He looks a bit green around the gills.”
Steve trotted off and caught the poor man's hand, pulling him down and preventing him from floating up again until the spell broke.
“That'll teach you not to nag,” he told Morita who nodded emphatically and walked off on unsteady legs.
However, Hermione had overdone it a bit. He could understand, between her magic acting up, feeling like she couldn't be a proper leader, and the men acting like overgrown kids… but he still needed to have a word with her about it. Duty first though, he needed to see if anyone had found a map of the Hydra shipments to decide on their next target, and if not, go around the factory to look for it. Maybe he would find Hermione on his way, because she didn't seem to be out front with the rest.
Chapter 12: I Spy with my Little Eye
Steve froze in his study of the map Falsworth had found for him when he heard a gunshot. Just the one? No, there came another. He dropped what he was doing and ran out front. The freed prisoners loitering outside seemed not to have a clue as to what was going on, but he spotted Dum Dum looking out towards the western treeline and headed for him.
“Any idea what's going on?”
“Was hoping you did, Cap.”
Falsworth, Dernier and Jones joined them. Morita, he knew, was resting inside on a couch that was more comfortable than anything they'd slept on lately.
“Where are Bucky and Hermione?”
The team shook their head in unison, and he cursed himself for a fool. Why had he put off looking for Hermione when he knew she was upset? The damn map could have waited.
“Where did you last see them?”
“Bucky was cleaning his rifle on the steps about… fifteen minutes ago?” Jones said.
“Dix,” Dernier added with a nod.
Ten minutes then.
“What about Hermione? Anyone?”
“Last I saw, she was with you,” Dum Dum said.
Except that had been at least half an hour ago. No one had a better answer to offer however. She had led Morita to the entrance of the factory where everyone was gathered and she must have been around for at least ten minutes after that while he and Bucky talked, closer to fifteen until her levitation spell broke, so she had still been around by then because she needed to be close by for it to work. In sum, in the last fifteen minutes, she had disappeared off somewhere. Same for Bucky but five minutes later, and with his rifle…
Steve made a strangled sound as he put the pieces together. Hermione was still a target for Schmidt. Maybe he'd sent men after his team to capture her, maybe a strike team had been lying in wait here. In the forest? No, or someone would have seen them approach. But maybe…
“Jones, Falsworth. I want a headcount on the prisoners. See if any have disappeared in the last fifteen minutes. Dum Dum, Dernier, with me.”
He headed in the direction Dum Dum had been staring, glad he'd had the forethought to bring his shield with him. They had just made it a few feet into the woods when another shot rang, but this time they heard the strange woosh sound of a Hydra gun retaliating, followed by another gunshot.
“Cap! What's going on?” Dum Dum asked as he jogged next to him.
“I think Hydra captured Hermione and for some reason, Bucky went after them alone.”
“I hope I'm wrong.”
“Ha! Jamais!” Dernier said.
Never? Oh, he'd been wrong before. Otherwise, this situation would not have happened. How could he just let Hermione wander around on her own when he knew from the horse's mouth that Schmidt had plans for her? Her magic didn't make her unbeatable, for God's sake. Hydra had even managed to capture her when she'd had her wand and a squad of men at her side. Now that she was without either, it must have been a piece of cake to subdue her. No new detonations of any sort sounded in the last few minutes and Steve didn't know what to make of it. They had to slow down, tread lightly and keep their eyes peeled.
“Là,” Dernier whispered, pointing North and sure enough, Steve glimpsed the glow of a Hydra gun through the dark, gnarly trees.
Next to it, they found a man dressed like one of the prisoners, in a worn US army uniform. Whether he really was or not, they couldn't know for certain. Not yet at least, but he'd get to the bottom of this. The neat hole in the middle of his forehead was pure Bucky however. They followed that direction for a few minutes before Steve spotted another dead prisoner further down with a similar wound, his own weapon having tumbled downhill, and there, between the bushes and tree trunks, a very familiar blue coat.
“Bucky!” he called and ran downhill towards him.
Bucky's head swivelled around at his name. He was alright! Alive. Worried, too, because there in his arms was a very pale Hermione.
“What happened?” Steve asked, looking from one to the other.
He itched to cradle Hermione in his own arms but she looked comfortable where she lay and Steve was afraid he might hurt her if she had any injuries. For that matter, he wanted to hug Bucky too. For a moment there, he'd thought he'd lost them both again and it had been agony to even consider it.
“She fell,” Bucky said in a bit of a daze as he waved towards the top of the hill. “Hit her head I think. And they must have given her something before that because she wasn't even defending herself.”
“Ed?” Dernier asked as he pointed at Hermione's head.
Steve nodded and moved aside for the Frenchman to look her over. As a resistant, he was a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades and knew how to check for such things, even if they had to look for a real doc after his diagnosis when necessary to get the actual treatment. His fingers disappeared in her curls and Steve held his breath.
“No cut,” Dernier said in his thick accent. “Just a leettle bump. And là,” he pointed at a large needle mark on her neck which had swollen red. “Drugged. Know more when she up, but okay, yes?”
Steve nodded. Her being unconscious could as well be because of the drug as her fall, maybe even both combined. For now, it was better to head back to the factory and regroup. Stay together and be weary of the other prisoners too, just in case there were more Hydra spied hiding amongst them, especially since Phillips wouldn't arrive until the next morning to take them off their hands. Good thing they hadn't blown up the place so they had enough food, water and shelter to go around for the night.
“Bucky?” Steve asked, arms outstretched.
Bucky sighed, but shifted Hermione from his arms into his own before they headed back. Dum Dum and Bucky detoured only long enough to haul back the two dead Hydra prisoner-impersonators back to the base for the Colonel to I.D. when he got here. They wouldn't be moving until Hermione was up for it anyway.
When they returned, they kept a weary distance from the other released prisoners, not knowing who they could trust or not. Steve was glad he wouldn't be dealing with that particular mess. Spies were always going to be a part of any war, but Steve despised the underhandedness of it all, especially if it meant wearing your enemy's uniform and attacking a lone woman.
Having scoured the building in search of the map, Steve knew of a spacious bedroom with a large bed in the upper levels. Well out of the way too, and no doubt belonging to the person who had been in charge here. He settled Hermione on the deep red coverlet, grimacing when it made her appear even paler and as if she was lying in a pool of blood.
“They really have terrible taste, eh?” Bucky remarked as he stared down at her with a frown of his own. “I'll go help the guys disarm the prisoners and come back later with something to eat, alright?”
Steve nodded and forced a smile.
“Sounds good. Thanks Bucky,” then he caught his arm before he could leave and pulled him in a hug. “And I'm glad you're alright. Had me scared for a moment there. Why the heck did you hare off on your own?”
Bucky mumbled something unintelligible against his shoulder, so Steve eased off on the hug.
“Fucking hell! Those muscles aren't just for show, are they? And to answer your question, I didn't think those two jerks were Hydra. I thought they were just off to bother a dame and I was gonna teach ‘em a lesson, you know, like in the good ol’ days. Course I would have called for backup if I'd known. I'm not an idiot.”
Steve nodded and felt properly chastised for having doubted Bucky. He probably would have come to the same erroneous conclusion as Bucky if he'd seen two of their prisoners in allied uniforms stalking a woman, especially because she was the only one around.
“We need to keep a better eye on her,” Steve said.
“Four eyes are better than two,” Bucky agreed.
It was only then, looking down into his friend's steely blue eyes that he realized he was still half-hugging him. Bucky had always been very tactile, so he really shouldn't be surprised that he didn't shrug him off.
“You gonna hang on to me all night, buddy? Because dinner isn't going to bring itself and I'm pretty hungry,” he said with his usual cheek.
Steve gave him one last squeeze, tight enough to make him yelp before he let him go with a laugh.
“Go on, then, you big baby.”
“Jerk. I'll make sure to find you some beans for dinner.”
Steve grimaced but he was hungry enough that he would eat a couple cans of the damn things if Bucky made good on his threat. In the meanwhile, he checked on Hermione, and since she only appeared to be sleeping off the drugs she'd been given, he walked into the adjacent bathroom. It was the biggest, most luxurious he'd ever seen and, when he realized he could keep an eye on Hermione from the shower, decided now was the perfect time to wash off the last couple of days of travel and battle.
A moan escaped him when the hot water hit his back. This was without a doubt much better than the basin of cold water he'd made do with in the last house they'd stayed at, and he felt like a new man when he reluctantly stepped out. He really didn't feel like putting his dirty uniform back on however so he neatly tied the large white towel he'd found around his hips and started shaving. They should think about using the Hydra bathrooms more often before blowing everything up in the future, but that wouldn't scare those nazi-zealots half as much.
There , he thought as he inspected his clean-shaven face once more, he looked more like his old safe. To think he couldn't even grow a moustache before and he was now fighting a losing battle against a full beard. He'd look like a bear soon enough though.
Finally, Steve returned to the bed and lay next to Hermione, only now realizing how exhausted he was. Might account for why she hadn't woken up yet either. They had just waged battle before she was kidnapped.
“Made yourself pretty for the lady?” Bucky asked from the doorway.
Steve would have hurled a pillow at him if his friend didn't have his hands full with the promised dinner, so Steve got up instead and helped him put everything down on the desk.
“What?” Steve asked defensively when he noticed Bucky's stare.
“I still can't wrap my head around the fact that you look like that now. You were so…” Bucky trailed off, gesturing with his hands how small and skinny he'd been.
“Yeah, well, I was lucky,” he replied with a shrug. “I mean, you've seen Schmidt.”
Steve gestured at his face. The Red Skull had really been something awful to uncover and it regularly made an appearance in his nightmares.
“Sure you don't have one of those under your face?”
“You can try pulling it off if you don't believe me.”
Bucky took him at his word and pinched his cheek hard with a shit eating grin. Steve deflected his next attack and it soon turned into semi-serious sparring right up until they were interrupted by delighted giggles.
“Don't let me stop you,” Hermione said with a fond smile as she waved towards them, but before she could say more, they were crowding her to ask how she felt.
“Like a flobberworm.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows at him, but Steve could only shrug. It was hard to tell if that was a good or a bad thing, because it didn't make any sense and she still had a strange, dopey smile on her face. Bucky narrowed his eyes and peered more closely at her, tilting her chin up so he could see her eyes.
“She's still high. Whatever they gave her must have been good stuff. Ain't that right, doll?”
“You speak funny, Buck,” she replied and giggled before pushing herself upright and off the bed despite their protests. “But you saved me from those… those…” she frowned as if she'd lost her train of thought, then threw her arms around Bucky to hug him. “Thank you, Bucky.”
“See what I mean?” Bucky asked him, doing his best not to laugh as he held up her limp form. “Did she fall asleep again?”
Steve walked over to his side and she did have her eyes closed.
“I'm not sure. I've never seen anyone fall asleep standing before...”
Her eyes snapped open suddenly and he almost staggered back in surprise.
“Steeeeve,” she crooned, letting go of Bucky to throw herself at him, doing a fair imitation of Bucky's friendly octopus. “Hmmm. You smell good,” she said against his skin, then started rubbing her face against him.
Bucky was sniggering, but if Hermione didn't stop soon, he and his towel were going to have a disagreement about keeping parts of his anatomy covered. Fortunately, her face rub didn't last because something new caught her attention.
“Ooooh! A shower! I'm going to smell good too!”
“Is she just going to… ah, never mind. She is,” Bucky muttered as Hermione undressed on her way to the bathroom, dropping her clothes on the floor as she went. He turned around. “So… this is weird.”
“I guess we now know the real reason she doesn't get drunk,” Steve agreed. “I better make sure she doesn't fall in the shower and hit her head again.”
“You're just using that as an excuse to join her in the shower.”
Steve's cheeks flamed. That really hadn't been his intention, but now that Bucky had put the idea in his head… No. Hermione was obviously not in her right state of mind and he would not take advantage of her like that.
“I'll just keep an eye on her from here. How about that dinner? Found any beans?”
Thankfully, he had not, and Hydra's larder was nothing to sneer at. The rest of the team were having a feast of their own downstairs and Steve was glad to have Bucky to himself because they chatted over dinner like they had done a thousand times before the war. Steve glanced now and then at his girl showering just a few feet away. He caught Bucky glancing at her too, but honestly, he couldn't blame him. She was right there, it was hard not to look, and Bucky was Bucky, might as well ask a fish not to swim. But at the same time, Steve knew he wouldn't tolerate such behaviour from one of the other guys. He was about to bite the bullet and ask Bucky about the “special” relationship the three of them had formed, even since the beginning, but he was interrupted just then by Jones’ musical knock on the door.
“There's a situation, Cap. Not sure you can help, but we're at a bit of a loss.”
Steve glanced at Bucky, then at the steam rolling out of the bathroom in waves.
“Take care of Hermione for me?” he asked and left before Bucky could object.
Maybe if he could give them a nudge towards each other, the tension he could feel running between their tight knit group would finally resolve itself.
Chapter 13: What is Normal Anyway?
When Steve returned, Hermione was sleeping again, wrapped in a fluffy towel like he had been before duty came knocking and he had to put his uniform back on. Bucky was clearing up the empty dishes with a puzzled frown, shooting glances at his girl now and then.
“Everything alright?” Steve asked.
Bucky dropped the plates and cringed as he checked he hadn't woken up Hermione, before scowling at him.
“Did they make you half-cat, too? Jeez, don't startle me like that.”
“Sorry. Didn't mean to.”
He had exceptional balance on top of everything else, and had to make an effort to be heard when he walked around.
“Hermione’s fine. She ate and fell asleep a few minutes ago.”
Bucky nodded and looked away.
“I know that look. What did she do?” Steve needled, trying not to grin while he took his boots off again to join Hermione in bed.
“You don't want to know.”
“‘course I do. Has to be funny when she's in that state.”
Bucky gave him a dubious look, mouth twisted before he gave in.
“She said she loved me.”
Steve waited for something akin to jealousy to hit him, but he was comforted in what he had been thinking all along: the three of them belonged together.
“You don't seem happy about it," Steve said, because he'd been so sure of Buck's feeling for her, at least, and hopefully for him too.
Bucky narrowed his eyes at him.
“You don't seem angry about it,” he shot back. “Anyway, she said it like you say you love ice cream, or a dog, y'know? She even patted my head.”
“Oh? That's all? I expected more of a reaction, or are you two… you two didn't break up or something, right?”
Steve shook his head and patted the bed next to him so Bucky would stop pacing all over the place. He huffed, but sat down.
“No, we're fine. More than fine. But you know we love you too, right?”
“Yeah, but that's different.”
Bucky seemed sure of himself, as if it could never be any other way. Steve hesitated once more, but in for a penny...
“Does it have to be? Can't we just love you the same way we love each other?”
“But that's not… normal?”
Steve sighed. Maybe he would have thought the same, once upon a time. But along came Hermione, the super-serum and all the changes that came with it, and the war, the blood, the death, the violence... It was destroying what he had been, putting things into perspective, changing what he thought he'd once known of the world... especially when he thought he had lost his two sergeants. But not for the worse, he didn't think. These past months were shaping him into someone who lived and loved more fiercely than ever before.
“There's nothing normal about any of this, Buck. I'm a lab experiment, Hermione's not even from this world, we're fighting nazis with space guns in a world wide war... What could possibly be so wrong about loving someone?”
Bucky had no counter argument. Or at least, he opened his mouth as if to speak a couple of times, then thought better of it, and shook his head.
“Just kiss already,” Hermione mumbled from behind Steve. “Or do I have to show you kids how it’s done?”
Steve laughed at hearing Hermione fling Bucky's teasing words right back in his face. He too chuckled once he got passed the surprise.
“Okay, I deserved that,” Bucky said. “But I don't know… Can I think about it?”
Hermione mumbled something indistinct from under her hair while Steve nodded. Bucky hadn't brushed him off, or been angry at what he was suggesting, which had been his biggest fear. He knew Buck wouldn't rat him out to the authorities. They had been friends for years. They even knew of a real queer in their neighbourhood because he'd made a pass at Steve once, and even if Bucky had threatened to punch his teeth in, he'd never talked about denouncing him to the police. Coming from his own childhood friend though, Bucky could have been disgusted or kept his distance from then on out, but no, he'd simply asked to think on it... so he was actually considering it. Steve's heart skipped a beat at the thought. His attention returned to the two people who meant so much to him. Bucky had dug Hermione’s face from under her wild curls, asking if she was feeling better.
“Food helped,” she muttered. “Head still... you know,” she finished with her index finger twirling right in front of Bucky's nose, making him go cross-eyed. “I'll make them pay for that.”
Steve smiled fondly at them.
“Sleep will help too. We have the last shifts on watch duty, Buck, so we'd better catch some shuteye now. You're exempt, Hermione. So is Morita, since we'll be back on the road again tomorrow and need you two on your feet.”
Bucky groaned and Hermione’s hand stopped twirling drunkenly to pat his dark hair head. Buck then looked at him with a see-what-I-mean expression that made him chuckle.
Sleep sneaked up on them without another word. Yet, Steve woke up a few minutes before it was time for him to relieve whoever was on watch. On top of everything else, his body had acquired an in-built Swiss-clock more precise than any watch he'd ever owned. He reluctantly pushed Hermione away from him to slip out of bed, but by the time he'd put his boots on, she had turned around and latched onto Bucky. They looked so peaceful, his heart mellowed into a puddle of goo at the sight of them. He knew he would do just about anything for them. Forcing himself to look away, he exited the large bedroom without a sound, and found Falsworth patrolling.
The Brit gave a sharp nod.
“I was surprised there was a second group of Hydra spies amongst the prisoners, but I doubt there will be a third.”
“Can't be too careful.," Steve replied. "What's Jacques always saying? Jamay de sand twa?”
“Indeed. And your French is just as horrendous as his English. How is our Lady faring?”
“The drug she was injected was pretty strong, but I think she'll be back on her feet by the time the Colonel gets here.”
“He'll know Hydra is after her.”
Steve glanced at Falsworth, but his blank expression gave nothing away. The man was too smart by half which is why Steve consulted with him for most of the strategy. Yet, he wondered if Falsworth thought Hermione was making their group too much of a target. Steve only nodded at the other man's conclusion, hoping his own face was not giving anything away.
Falsworth broke into a smile, his mustache twitching, before he spoke again.
“Or we could omit who they were after specifically .”
“So... just after any one of us to sabotage our team?”
“Sounds believable. Phillips will not pull the whole team out...”
But he would have no qualms about pulling out the only woman on the team, for her own safety and that of the team, of course. It was not said, but heavily implied and something Steve had worried about ever since she had been kidnapped. There were too many witnesses and dead bodies to hide the evidence from the Colonel, but a little misdirection was possible.
“It's risky,” Steve warned. “If he finds out we willfully lied to him…”
“He won't. The others agree and Hermione is much too useful to be locked away somewhere.”
“I'd like to see them try.”
“I pity the fool who does.”
Steve knew the Colonel did not get to where he was by being an idiot, not whilst still being alive, but with his whole team serving him the same story that Hydra spies were targeting any and all of them, not one in particular, he couldn’t very well call them out on it. That was the Colonel’s problem with having such a tight knit group under his command. On the other hand, that was his only problem with them. As Falsworth predicted, Phillips let them go with a mere admonishment to always stay in pairs to avoid another such incident. A measure they had already put in place, but Steve nodded and saluted, ready to leave off at the soonest before the man changed his mind.
He found Hermione chatting with Peggy while the agent was piling parcels into her arms. He was glad Hermione had made herself a lady friend. He sometimes worried about having dragged her into a group composed exclusively of men, having only them for company for days on end, sometimes weeks, but she'd sworn she was quite used to it.
“Need a hand?” he asked, offering his arms to take the parcels.
“It's fine. It isn't heavy,” Hermione assured him.
“It's lady things,” Peggy added in a stage whisper.
Steve blushed and dropped his arms.
“You're right. He is cute when he blushes,” Peggy said with a wicked smile. “But I do have mail and toiletries as well as a spare uniform for everyone if you don't mind delivering them for me.
“Sure, I'll stash them on the jeep and we'll sort through them tonight. Gabe just caught a Hydra movement on the radio so we'll be leaving as soon as we've resupplied.”
“Sounds a bit… coincidental,” Peggy said.
Hermione was frowning too at the news. Steve nodded.
“The Colonel thinks so too, but it's too good to pass up on the off chance it is a trap. Worse case scenario, we cut down their numbers. I think they're still underestimating us, despite getting the upper hand every single time over them.”
“Typical villains,” Hermione agreed.
They walked to the back of the jeeps in silence until Hermione apologized out of the blue.
“I don't remember everything, but I know I did, and said, a lot of stupid things last night. I did the one and only time I got drunk off my rocker anyway. Or so I'm told.”
“No. It was cute, really. And it was just me and Bucky there so you have nothing to worry about. Actually…” He gave Hermione a searching look. He was pretty sure he was right, but he really should have talked about it more in detail with Hermione since they had only hinted before at Bucky being more than a friend. “I might have done something stupid and I didn't have the excuse of being under the influence.”
“I told Bucky we love him.”
“Well, yeah, we do.”
“I also asked him if he wanted to be… uhm… well… more?”
Hermione's eyes widened. Had he been wrong after all?
“That's really forward thinking of you. How did Bucky take it?”
“Wait, you are alright with it, right? We should have talked about it before, but you told Bucky you loved him and then we were talking and I-”
Her finger came to rest on his lips, cutting him off. He was babbling. He always did when he was nervous.
“It's fine. I thought this might happen, but... further down the line. Is Bucky alright? He's not acting weird again, is he?”
Steve chuckled in relief and kissed her finger, before glancing around in alarm. He'd almost forgotten the Colonel was around.
“He said he'd think about it.”
“That's good, then. Maybe we'll finally get him to sleep in the middle for a change. Bloke needs more hugs, he's been quite moody for a while. I think there's something he's not telling us.”
Sleeve nodded. It was difficult not to notice Buck wasn't the happy-go-lucky guy who had left New York, but that was war in a nutshell. None of the boys who had left would return the same.
“You haven't told us everything either. No, no, I'm not saying you should, but you can understand better what he's going through. Maybe you can help where I can't.”
Hermione promised to try and that was all he could really ask.
Once they approached the small Hydra convoy, they all had widely different ideas about how to deal with it. A rarity, because they didn't usually argue plans, although he was always open to advice. This time was different, however. If it was an ambush, their aim was to make a grab for Hermione, for sure, so it stood to reason she should sit this one out on the sidelines, and not take unnecessary risks, or make them take unnecessary risks to protect her.
“So you're saying I'm a burden?”
“No!” he exclaimed, because she always pulled her own weight, and that wasn't easy being the only woman on the team.
“You kinda did, pal,” Bucky said and several others nodded.
“He's right though,” Dum Dum argued. “We walk into their ambush or ambush them, and they will go straight for you, Lady, at any cost. We've seen how fanatic they are. Suicide missions are a given.”
“What if you leave me behind and they expect it and nab me while you're busy with their fake ambush, hu?”
“Yes, well, we won't leave you behind on your own, obviously.”
“Oh. So you want to attack them with only half our numbers while the other half is babysitting ?”
Dum Dum huffed and threw his hands in the air in aggravation.
“Maybe you should have stayed with Colonel Phillips after all.”
Hermione gave him a hurt look.
“And the next time too? And the next? What if they target the Captain, next? Will you leave him behind too?”
An uneasy silence settled over the team. They all knew they wouldn't do that , but none of them was brave enough to admit it, nor the reason why.
“Alright then, it's settled," she decided. "And I happen to have the perfect idea so I'm not a target. It will give us an element of surprise over them, too. Morita, this is your moment to shine!”
Hermione pulled the poor guy towards the back of the jeep with no idea of what was going on, but they soon heard him protest quite emphatically. Then rapid fire arguments came from Hermione, no doubt confusing the hell out of Morita. Ten minutes later, Hermione returned dressed as Morita, only cleaner. His spare uniform, Steve realized with dawning comprehension, and sure enough Morita appeared right behind her wearing her uniform.
“They'll be surprised sure enough,” Bucky chuckled.
“Hey, don't you get handsy,” Morita warned, pointing a finger at Buck. “Nor you,” he added turning his glare and finger towards him.
“It honestly wouldn't have crossed my mind,” Steve said. “I'm not sure they're going to fall for this.”
“Yeah, you make for one ugly woman, Jimmy!”
The team ribbed him good-naturally and it wasn't until Hermione had pulled the hood over Morita that he thought this might actually work. Hermione, on the other hand, was oddly appealing in the other man's uniform. Her preference had always leaned towards practical clothes, and Morita's cap helped hide her own features and hair. Yep, this might just work. Her subterfuge was going to throw those Hydra idiots in for a loop.
The last communication Gabe intercepted were so clear, they had to be nearby their target. They decided to continue on foot so their vehicles wouldn't give away their position. If only they could get the drop on them, it would be perfect. Steve preferred storming a base by far. It might be bigger, have more defenses, and men, but at least it waited there for them, like a plump fruit waiting to be picked. Not knowing who was going to attack first, or when, was making him antsy.
Steve froze and raised a fist, stopping the team at his back before they all went belly down on the ground. It had been brief, but he had seen movement. He pointed at his eyes then at roughly ten o'clock through a crop of trees in the nearby woods. Bucky nodded and checked through the scope of his rifle, his fingers calling the number and position of their targets. About a dozen that he could see, but there were no doubt more lying in wait. Hydra was treacherous by nature, but for an ambush, they were poorly hidden and surprisingly disorganized. Had they been wrong all along? Had they overestimated Hydra? Given their current position, they could simply take them out from afar using Bucky's sharpshooter skills and Hermione's magic. The rest of them could then pick off those who made it too close. It almost seemed… too easy. Everyone agreed with the plan though. They crept deeper into the woods for added cover and Bucky chose a tree Hermione helped him up in. They all hid around his position while he started picking them off, one by one, each shot signing the end to one more Hydra fanatic. Three, four, then shouts began to echo around the woods and gunfire was returned in kind. They all leaned in then, gun and shield and magic. If they hadn't been Hydra, Steve would pity them, the way they were being steamrolled by his team like ants beneath a boot, right up until the point where the ant bit back.
Steve grunted as he fell against the tree giving him cover. He clamped a hand over the shoulder that had been hit… from behind. Damnit. Where had these guys come from?
“Dum Dum! Jacques! Gabe! Behind you!”
They held their fire only long enough to turn around. Hell was being unleashed on all sides after that. Soldiers surrounded them on all sides. Those in view had only been bait and they'd walked right into the ambush after all, and now, the net was closing in around them. How could he have been so stupid?
Sensing opposition was stronger on their left flank now that Jacques had created quite a bloodbath at their back with his grenades, Steve directed Hermione's powers over there.
“It's not working!” Hermione called back.
“What do you mean?”
“I don't know. I can't lift them. I think they tethered themselves.”
Well… dang it! They were getting smarter. And at the rate they were advancing, his team would get swarmed in a few minutes. Bucky was already too busy judging by the rate he was shooting at. Where the heck were they coming from?
Steve threw his shield, gritting his teeth through the pain of the bullet lodged in his shoulder. The vibranium sang as it sliced through the cold wind and knocked out two more soldiers before ricocheting back his way. But it wasn't enough. One nazi went down and two took his place, until they were fighting in close quarters and they made a grab for Morita. He in turn used his trusty greaser gun to put them down, which they had obviously not expected from Lady Liberty. Dum Dum then took care of the next wave with his two shotguns. Hermione was largely ignored dressed as Morita, but she finally drew attention on her when she had to levitate grenades thrown her way back at the enemy. German shouts rang throughout the woods and Hydra soldiers were now focusing on her.
“Hide!” he ordered her as he tried to fight his way towards her.
Thank God she had kept training her self-levitating. It was a bit wobbly, and slow, but she flew up and disappeared in the pine branches. Relieved he didn't have to worry about her being taken again, he focused on the fight, crushing one soldier after another. Falsworth was hit next, but it couldn't have been too bad because he managed to take cover before collapsing. One down, one in hiding and one out of ammo if he could believe Bucky's silent rifle. Steve hoped that was all it was, but it was still a big blow when they were so largely outnumbered. Jacques threw himself down next to him with the others in tow.
“Un ange passe,” he said with a grin.
Steve puzzled over what angels had to do with anything when grenades started falling around them. Blasts detonated close enough to cover them in dirt and make their ears ring, but far enough they were safe from harm. The detonations continued to shake the ground in an ever growing circle, until the woods were as silent as a graveyard. Hermione then dropped in their midst, holding the Frenchman’s empty bag. Jacques’s face dropped at the sight of it.
“You owe me, mademoiselle,” he scolded her.
“I'll ask Stark to send you new toys, Jacques.” Steve picked himself off the ground, dusting off his uniform. We should do a perimeter check.”
“ You should get yourself sorted out,” Bucky said, glancing pointedly at his bloody sleeve. “Jacques, can you tend to Falsworth? I'll take care of this big lump. Those of you who aren't injured, do what Cap said.”
Dum Dum saluted mockingly, but everyone went their own way. Even Hermione, despite her looking a bit green around the gills and like she'd rather take care of him herself.
“Sit,” Bucky ordered.
Steve obeyed, feeling like the times he'd come back home from an alley brawl, only to find word had already reached Bucky. He would be waiting for him with his first aid kit and a scowl on his face. Steve shouldn't have enjoyed those moments. The rubbing alcohol always stung worse than the cuts, and Bucky’s lectures stung worse that the rubbing alcohol, but Steve knew it meant he cared enough to bother. Just like now.
Steve winced when he moved his shoulder to unzip the top of his uniform, so Bucky swatted his hand away.
“Let me do it,” he muttered, reaching for the zipper.
He slowly pulled it down, then peeled the right side off his arm, exposing where he had been hit. Bucky walked around him and whistled low.
“How can you even move your arm?”
“It hurts,” Steve said with a shrug, regretting the motion immediately.
“You haven't changed one bit, have you? You're one stubborn son of a gun.”
“Hey! That's my Ma you're talking about.”
“Just proving my point, buddy. Okay, take a deep breath, this is gonna hurt worse for a bit before it gets better.”
Steve did, but in all honesty, nothing would ever be as painful as what he had experienced during his transformation in the coffin. Once Bucky had removed the bullet though, he immediately felt better. The little bugger must have lodged itself in just the wrong place. The rubbing alcohol still stung, and Bucky still knew how to scold him good for not watching his six, but Steve basked in the moment, in the bitter-sweet taste of home.
“Done. You can get dressed now… unless you need my help?”
Steve froze, because he knew that tone of voice. His eyes too. Bucky was giving him the smoulder, and he could see why so many ladies fell for it. And yet, Steve didn't know whether he was ribbing him, or if he had seriously considered becoming a part of their couple.
Steve was the one who had started all this, but he had no clue how to go about it, so he made a note to himself to ask Hermione if this “arrangement” was something common in the future.
“Maybe some other time, Buck.” He squeezed his hand that had lingered over his shoulder. “We're still in the middle of a Hydra trap, remember? Even if our girl did blow most of it up.”
The smile Bucky gave him was so much more like his old self, Steve thought everything might turn out okay in the end.
Chapter 14: Malgrés Nous
A wild update appears! (Sorry, very busy life!)
“I guess they're not as stupid as they look,” Dum Dum said as he held up one of the trap doors leading down into an underground bunker.
Even the trapdoors had been camouflaged with leaves, dirt, ferns, and even whole shrubs for crying out loud. No wonder they'd walked right passed their goddamn trap without a clue and Steve would call himself impressed if he didn't hate the fuckers so much. They could have lost everything here if they weren't so used to working together. Steve was furious with himself. Here he'd thought Hydra were underestimating them, when really, he had been the one underestimating them. The whole thing would be a good reminder not to let their victories go to his head. The underground bunker, at least six of them that they had found, were nothing more than small hidden places hastily dug into the hard earth of the forest. Rocks and long, gnarly tree roots poking out of the uneven walls.
“Sure went to a lot of trouble to surprise us,” Bucky said when he climbed back out of one.
“Know how to make a lady feel special, right?” Morita quipped.
“Not sure if you're serious or just making a terrible pun,” Hermione replied. “But if you really like my clothes that much, you're welcome to them.”
“You're still wearing them is all I'm saying.”
“Lady has a point, Jimmy,” Dum Dum waggled his eyebrows at him. “But if you want to feel real special…”
“Oh, go fuck yourself, Dummy. Can someone please switch tents with me? I'm not going to get any shut eye tonight with that horny bastard breathing down my neck.”
Steve rolled his eyes at all the drama. He got that they needed to blow off steam after the battle, but they weren't out of the woods yet, neither literally nor figuratively.
“If we're lucky, we'll find a place to stay. See if you guys can scavenge grenades for Jacques before we leave.”
No doubt in good spirit because of his bulging bag of exploding devices, Jacques found them an in with a mixed group of local Belgian and French resistants close to the frontier a couple of days later. It was a welcome reprieve from the barren lands they'd just come through. However, it seemed their reputation had preceded them because they were welcomed with open arms and sometimes by name. There were even a couple of small kids there who apparently wanted to piggyback ride him as if he was the living embodiment of the Cyclone ride on Coney Island. Steve could hardly refuse when he learned they were orphaned by the war, and he made extra sure they had as much fun as possible. He loved hearing them giggle and snort like little piggies, but he had to pretend they had tired him out when the smaller one, Claude, got the hiccups from laughing too much. Hermione who had been lounging against Bucky, both laughing at his predicament, came to his rescue by making the little girl's doll float in the air instead, which kept them distracted enough as they tried to catch it. Meanwhile the resistance shared their information on German troop movements in the area. One of them in particular knew both the SS and Wehrmacht upcoming missions in suspicious detail.
“Complicated,” Jacques said when Steve asked him about how they got their intel. “No angry, okay? Marcel here was one of them a few days ago.”
Several of his men shot up to their feet, reaching for their weapons. Steve urged Jacques on, but pressuring him like that always made him go full French.
“Ce n'est pas sa faute. Il est Alsacien et a été forcé de rejoindre l'armée Allemande…”
“It's not his fault,” Hermione began translating while Jacques gesticulated angrily as he spoke in rapid fire French. “He's Alsatian, forced to incorporate the German Army so they wouldn't deport his family, but he just learned they were sent to a working camp anyway, so he defected to find and liberate them. Wait up, Jacques. You're speaking too fast,” she huffed. “Marcel gathered all the information he could before joining the resistance, at great personal risk. Many people around here will shoot a… Oh.”
“What?” Steve urged.
“A Malgrés-nous. It means against our will.” She lowered her voice, turning her back on Jacques so only he could hear. “He's legit, I read about them in history books. It doesn't end well for most of them, even after the war.”
“So we can trust him?”
Hermione hesitated, glancing at the man in question. Steve had to admit he did look miserable to a point that would be hard to fake, but nazis were sneaky bastards who would stoop to any low.
“Well, a minority of men from Alsace-Lorraine did volunteer of their own free will, but unless we find this man's family in a forced-labour camp, it's going to be difficult to prove which category Marcel belongs to and if his intel can be trusted.”
Of course nothing could ever be simple or clear cut, but the resistance had taken the man in and they were a suspicious lot if he ever met one. They even let him near the kids, so they had to be trusting him for some reason.
“Can anyone here vouch for him?” he turned to ask Jacques.
He in turn asked one of the French resistants who nodded and ran off, returning a few minutes later with a woman he'd seen on look-out duties on their way in, her rifle still stung over her back. She scowled at him, but looked at the defector with such loathing, Steve thought for sure she couldn't possibly be here to vouch for him. She began speaking, but Hermione wasn't translating, just stared at the other woman with wide eyes, so he gently nudged her.
“Sorry.” She blushed, a rare feat in itself. “I don't think I can translate that. It's… uhm… insults, mostly.”
“Sum of it: Marcel married her sister and she blames him for getting her and her kids deported, but she very reluctantly vouches for him because he's too much of a… erm… coward and… idiot… to be a spy.”
Steve nodded. That was good enough for him. They would pass on most of that intel to the Colonel since it wasn't strictly Hydra-related, but the movement of large crates in big numbers, on the other hand, might be what they had been looking for. With Marcel's help, they were able to find the point of origin and the direction the convoy was taking, giving them a much better idea of where Schmidt’s secret base must be located.
They were not in the right region however and it was going to take days, maybe weeks to get to the general area, unless they parachuted. He could double up with Hermione, and someone might have to double with Morita too. But if they chose that method, they would have minimal gear and be cut off from supply… Running a hand through his hair, Steve put off making a decision. He would have to run it by Phillips anyway.
Dinner was good given it was made with so little, and Steve felt bad about taking their food, especially with the two skinny kids devouring their own bowl in record time. He didn't want to be rude either so he said nothing and decided they would conveniently leave one of their own boxes of cans behind when they left. They had been very useful after all, it was the least they could do.
Not a fan of their sleeping quarters though: a large room with bunk beds stuffed against each wall.
“Feels like boot camp all over again,” Morita muttered and claimed a bottom bed for himself. “Anyone tries to sleep on top will get himself a brand new arsehole. Except you, Lady. You're okay.”
“I think I'll pass, thanks.” Unsurprisingly, she took the bottom bed next to his. “Jim? Turn around. I'd much rather smell your morning breath than your feet.”
While they got settled, Steve dismissed her top bunk since he doubted it would hold his weight, leaving it to Bucky and choosing the next bottom one over. The last bottom bunk going to Dum Dum for the same reason.
“Well, this is cosy,” Falsworth said with his usual deadpan sarcasm. “No wonder your General de Gaulle is staying with us in good old England.”
A pillow flew through the air, hitting its mark judging by the posh grunt of surprise.
“Yes, but your beer iz hot piss and your food iz merdique.”
“Shite,” Hermione and Gabe said in unison. “He's not wrong,” the latter continued. “But nothing beats a burger. I'd kill for a burger.”
“I'd kill for an apple pie.”
“And fresh coffee.”
The list got more and more bizarre, especially when Falsworth mentioned something called “crumpets”, but Steve couldn't help but notice he, Bucky and Hermione were the only ones silent in the matter. He didn't really need anything, Hermione probably just wanted her wand more than anything else in the world, and Bucky… well, that was a mystery. He got these quiet moments when he looked so serious and brooding no one dared interrupt him. Hermione still hadn't managed to get through to him, even though she was the only one who knew what it was to be in the hands of that demented doctor.
The next morning, everyone woke up to Morita's shrill scream.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Bucky growled in his face.
“Me? What about you? I expected to wake up seeing a beautiful lady, not your ugly mug.”
Sure enough, Buck had made his way into Hermione's bed sometime during the night, which explained the lack of nightmares he'd been expecting from them, even if it made the situation a bit awkward this morning.
“I was cold,” Hermione said flatly, despite it being well into spring now and them having slept through much cooler temperatures before.
Bucky was stone faced and the others shrugged before getting their things together, ready to start on another day of Hydra hurting. But Steve's gaze lingered, noting Bucky’s relief and the way he hugged Hermione in gratitude. Nightmares it was, then. With a sigh, he sat up and walked over to them.
“You should have woken me up.”
“You were sleeping like a baby,” Bucky muttered.
“An adorable baby. You were drooling too,” Hermione added before hugging his middle. Steve hastily wiped his face with one hand, but was pretty sure they were having him on. Bucky brushed off his concern, as usual, which still stung a little but he'd give it time if that was all he could do.
And they had time aplenty while they headed East on the Colonel’s orders. No matter how hard they stomped down on Hydra, the cockroach that it was always popped out somewhere else, as if there was some truth to their stupid motto of cutting one head off for two more to take its place. It was a game of cat and mouse where he wasn't always sure who was chasing who, or who was even winning, if any. He wasn't the only one to feel the tedium of it, which made them careless and eventually wounded.
“According to your last reports, half your team is down,” Phillips shouted over their com. It wasn't as bad as he made it sound, it was only a few grazes and the sniffles from the very rainy spring. They'd known worse. “You're no closer to finding Schmidt's base of operations and you have no more leads. We're pulling you guys out. You'll take a damn break even if it kills you.”
The news was received with mixed feelings. The sentiment of failure battling with overall exhaustion, but orders were orders, so they all boarded a cargo plane, belted in against the vibrating fuselage with the roar of the engines in there ears, and yet, they all slept like logs all the way back to London.
“Wakey, wakey.” The clapping of hands is what really woke them up though, but it was worth it to see Peggy standing there with a welcoming smile. “Aren't you a sorry lot. Come on, I want all of you in the infirmary for check up!”
A chorus of groggy protests rose over the din of the heavy rain whipping the plane and tarmac.
“So it's true, it's always raining in England,” Dum Dum said while Gabe sneezed loudly.
“Bless you,” Peggy said and handed him her umbrella. “The sooner you do it, the sooner you'll be out. Building 2A, straight ahead. Don't worry about the rain, you'll hit the showers as soon as you enter. Hermione, you're with me.”
Steve nodded at Peggy gratefully and walked out with Bucky while Hermione was cursing the buckles she had somehow managed to get her curls tangled into. Knowing Peggy, she was probably going to cut right through the belts to set her free. Steve trusted her to take care of his girl while he kept an eye on Bucky. He'd seemed happy to go to London, but completely shut down at the mention of the infirmary, so he thought it might be because of what the Hydra doctor had done to him. In any case, he wasn't letting him out of his sight.
As he'd feared, communal showers. He wasn't surprised, there was no such thing as privacy in the army, but he still hated them, even looking like he did now. Very useful to keep an eye on Buck though, even if it was difficult not to get an eyeful. Bucky himself wasn't being so coy and was staring, but he supposed he would too in his stead after how much he'd changed. Steve knew he was blushing, but he raised his eyebrows in challenge and Bucky smirked. He knew full well what he was doing, the little punk. Fortunately, everyone filed out to the next room, so it didn't look like he was fleeing. That was not the impression he wanted to give at all.
“Here,” Bucky said, handing him one of the towels. “You're making all of us feel inadequate.”
“Speak for yourself, Barns. I've never had any complaints,” Dum Dum said.
“Why do we have to go through this?” Morita whined. “It's fucking freezing. I just wanted a nice, warm bed getting here. Was that too much to ask?”
“We've been crawling through Hydra's secret bases for months,” Falsworth replied placidly. “You really think they're just going to release us amongst civilian population without checking we haven't been contaminated by one of their bizarre lab experiments.”
“I think I'd know if I had smallpox or something.” Morita looked at the others and Gabe sneezed again. “Right?”
“Thanks, Falsworth,” Bucky snarled. “We're all feeling a whole lot better now.”
Steve slung an arm over his shoulder because tense as he was right now, he wouldn't have been surprised if Bucky resorted to fists to settle the matter
“Don't listen to him, Buck. It's just procedure, and it's a good thing too, because we've been patching each other up these last months and Gabe obviously needs some medication for his cold.”
“Do nob,” Gabe muttered, his nose dripping.
“Gotta admit I'm not feeling so hot,” Morita said and he did look kind of pale, but Steve thought that had just been from having a good scrub with actual soap and hot water. Morita glared at Gabe. “I blame you.”
“Be? Jacques wab coubhing well bebore be.”
“What? I can't hear you through all the snot.”
“Wait,” Steve said. “Is there anyone here who isn't feeling sick?”
Only Dum Dum and Bucky raised a hand. They all looked at Falsworth in surprise.
“I thought you were a robot,” Morita told him, earning himself an eye-roll from the British man.
“Just because I don't whine about it…”
A nurse walked in and beckoned them to follow while Steve wondered if they would actually be able to enjoy the city. How had he not noticed all of them getting sick? Had he been so obsessed chasing after Schmidt that he hadn’t paid enough attention to his men? Had he pushed them too hard? And what about Hermione?
He caught a passing nurse to ask her, but she very pointedly told him she couldn't disclose personal information outside of family.
“She has no family,” he snapped. “She only has us.”
The nurse shrugged.
“Just following protocol. The doctor will see you now.”
In the end, only he and Buck were cleared to go. Dum Dum, as it turned out, was running a fever, even if he said he felt fine, but he said the same when he got grazed by a bullet so he should have known better.
Hermione was out for the count as well and was already asleep in one of the infirmary’s beds by the time they were allowed to visit.
“Did I ask too much of you guys? Should I have asked for leave sooner?” Steve asked Bucky.
“Hey, no pal. It's not like that. If we'd wanted a break, don't you think we would have asked for one? We all wanted to keep going before winter set in.”
Bucky stepped closer, put a hand on his arm.
“She'll be fine. The others too. You heard the doc, it's just a bad cold and they're only keeping them so it doesn't get worse. You remember what it's like.”
Steve did. It was so easy to get a chill and end up near death with a bad case of pneumonia. He didn't want that to happen to any of his friends. Just because he couldn't get sick anymore… Jeez, he was a terrible leader.
“Come on, Stevie. Cheer up. The others will give us flack if they learn we just moped about their sick beds instead of enjoying the city.”
“I know, I know. I just don't really feel like it.”
Bucky leaned closer, his head resting against his bicep.
“I think I have an idea that'll cheer everyone up,” he said and pulled him away by the arm from Hermione's bed.
Steve had no idea what he was on about, but he had his old smile back, the one that always melted his heart and made him promise anything, even not to fight bullies in back alleys, not that he could always help it, but he tried at least. So he followed Buck around London, a bit confused at first, until he realized he was buying every single item the guys had been talking about missing that night in the resistance hidey hole, even the crumpets, which, it turned out, was some sort of small pancake full of holes.
“What should we get Hermione? She never asks for anything.”
“Tea,” Steve said instantly, not even having to give it a second thought.
She never asked and had stopped looking for any a long time ago, but she did bemoan the fact with Falsworth on many a cold night. When they left the shop, they probably brought enough that she'd be able to bath in it if she wanted to, but it was nice to splurge for once, both on their girl and their friends. God knew they all deserved it.
When they returned to Hermione’s room, his heart skipped a beat at finding her bed empty, because in his experience, that was never good news. He stopped a nurse strolling by who told them with a sour look that she was slumming it in the men's room, implying she was some sort of harlot or something. For a moment there, Steve thought Bucky was going to slug the woman, but he seemed content to see her flinch back when he snarled at her. Steve gave her his most disappointed look and ran after Bucky who had stalked down the hall towards the men's ward, the packages stacked high in his arms wobbling dangerously. He kicked the doors open since his hands were busy and everyone froze.
“Cap? Buck? That you hiding behind those packages?”
“Ho, ho, ho. No, you dimwits. It's Santa fucking Claus,” Bucky muttered.
“Sorry to break it to ya, Barns, but it’s not even close to Christmas.”
“Yeah and we missed the fat man last time around, so merry fucking Christmas to you all.”
Steve chuckled at Bucky's grumpy Father Christmas impression and dropped everything on the closest bed. Leave it to Bucky to sound like he had been dragged into this when he'd been the one to organize it all. He'd always been too generous by half. Everyone seemed to cheer up instantly, and Hermione jumped in Bucky's arms when he handed her the tea.
“Catnip,” Morita laughed.
In this case, it probably applied to Bucky as much as the tea.
It took three days for most everyone to be cleared, except for Gabe and Hermione who had it worse than the others. Steve and Bucky stayed with them during all that time, running errands, distracting them or just wiping their foreheads when the fever hit too hard. Bucky tried to hide how worried he got when Hermione slept too long, face flushed and sweating like she'd been running, but Steve knew that expression too well from the times he'd taken care of him. Guy was a real mother hen when be wanted to be and all his newfound grumpiness could not convince the team otherwise now. Steve was glad everyone saw past it. Even after everything, even after Bucky had lost his easy smile and outgoing personality, people still gravitated around him like moths to a flame. It made him hope everything would be alright for him in the future, that whatever Hydra had done to him, they hadn't managed to destroy the core of him.