The “house” was a dingy place near the ports where Steve was instructed to meet with the boss. It was indeed a little house, with a large shed in the back. The paint was falling off and it was a dim grey color that made it virtually invisible to the rest of the world. It blended in seamlessly to the others on the same street, a not so great town that felt ready to drop off the map at any moment. The house was fronted by an older woman, one that reminded Steve of his own grandma who smoked too much and yelled at local children in her native Italian.
The shed out back didn’t look like much, just a gardening shed. It was the latch on the floor that led to the basement, a cold and even greyer place. The walls had taken some water damage, and it seemed void of almost any heat. There were only a few lights that lit up the small hallway, and across from him, a man stared at him with a waiting expression, sizing him up with every look.
A large pile of papers dropped onto the desk in front of Steve with a loud thump as Tony took his seat. The sector was unusually busy today, but from inside Tony’s small office, the only sound was the space heater humming in the corner. Holidays were usually a busy time for them, and with Christmas just under a month away, they were in for a long winter. The floor was decorated to bring a little holiday cheer, with Christmas lights twinkling on the walls, and a smell of peppermint always drifting from the breakroom. Despite the bustling of holiday excitement, they still had work to get done, and that was all Tony seemed to focus on. Sure, the guy would give the annual speech about a job well done, but there was always something else to do.
“What’s this?” Clint asked from Steve’s side, reaching for the stack of papers. His work ties had already shifted from their normal solid colors to ones with little sleighs or Santa’s on them. No one in the office seemed to have as much excitement for the holiday season as Clint, who regularly sang holiday tunes and actively set up secret Santa every year.
“Your assignment.” Tony scoffed like it was obvious.
“Field work?” Sam chimed in, grabbing the stack from Clint enough to hold it between them. The drop in Clint’s mood was almost instant.
“Sorry guys, you know I wouldn’t normally send you out this close to the holidays for a job, but this one can’t wait. You remember the Howling Commandos, a little group set up in the Bronx. We’ve been keeping an eye on them for a while, and previously thought them to be relatively harmless save a few drug rings. Recently, a shipment came in down by Port Morris containing thousands of weapons, and we think it’s linked to them. I don’t want to stick any of you in harm’s way, but I need someone on the inside. Nothing bad, just a scoping job. We just need some info on the gang’s activities, and then we pull you out in time for the holidays.” The four of them exchanged a look, and Steve already knew where this was headed.
Clint was great with the technical stuff. He could work up all the hardware for a mission and had no problem staying near by in shitty hotel rooms or vans listening to audio footage for hours. He was great for staying quiet and catching what they needed on tape or camera. Sam was the guy with a plan, always staying hidden but feeding you what you needed when you needed it. He was a good man to save your ass when you got into a situation you couldn’t bullshit your way out of. Steve on the other hand, he was great at field work. He had a talent, as Maria would call it, for blending into his environment when he needed to. That’s why Steve gave a long groan when they all looked at him to accept the assignment.
“I wish I had another choice,” Tony sighed, “but I promise you won’t be gone for long. You’ll even be back on time to participate in Clint’s gift giving thing.”
“It’s the Orna-mates and you know it,” Clint sighed. “Honestly will anyone ever respect the work I do?”
“You were a party planner in another life,” Sam reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “I think we’re just a little bummed to be finding out that we’re spending most of the holiday season away from the family.” Tony nodded understandingly. He’d just had a daughter of his own, Morgan, who he would have hated to leave behind for any period of time. They all knew what the job meant though, and they all knew what needed to be done to make the city better for everyone this time of year.
“When do we move in?” Steve asked, a lump settling in his throat. His plan was to spend the holidays with his mom, something he wished he did more now that she was a little older. It would be awful to have to cancel on her for a job.
“Two days,” Tony sighed, “Maria will brief you on your cover.” Steve nodded, taking the stack of papers from Clint and Sam as he stood up.
The man in front of him hadn’t said a word since he got here. It had just been the same hard, challenging look. He wasn’t surprised; usually new recruits weren’t treated the warmest, but he hadn’t been bagged or blindfolded in their effort to get him here, so Sam had done his work on getting him to fit seamlessly into the group. They thought he was just another new face in the operation, maybe a kid who needed some money or got caught up in a dept he couldn’t pay off. He was a large man, but his ma always said he had kind eyes, making him easy to trust.
The clock on the wall in the next room could be heard from the quiet hallway, it’s ticking ringing out over the blanket of silence. Every single tick that went by reminded Steve of just how long he’d been sitting here. He’d started counting the moment they sat down and hadn’t stopped since. 784. Roughly 13 minutes of waiting in the dark hallway that tried so desperately to get a shiver to run down his spine. He bit the inside of his lip to suppress the urge.
Maria Hill was a good woman. She was reliable and Steve would probably have trusted her with his life if it came down to it, and that was a rare statement. She was kind and took care of them the best she could without getting emotionally attached. She was even funny when they got a few drinks into her, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t’ scare the crap out of the whole team when they needed it. It took her only three minutes of her briefing to make Steve realize this wasn’t going to be an easy stake out.
“The head of the plan, as far as we can tell is smart. It took us a long time to even get a hit on where he might be, and that’s why we’re sending you guys in on this one. He’s known to be ruthless, violent, and does whatever it takes to get his way. He’s well respected and no one he works with would give up any information. They’re loyal to him. That’s why we’re sending you on the inside for this one; he won’t tell shit to anyone he doesn’t trust, and we need him to trust you.” From next to Steve, Sam set down the folder he was flipping through and raised his hand like he was in school. Clint’s told him before to just ask a question when he had one, but Sam insisted that he’d rather stay in Maria’s good graces.
“I thought this was supposed to be a fast one.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to make it that,” Maria nodded. “This means that you all need to be on your best behavior. One set off and the mission is done for. Or even worse, your lives could be put at stake. If we take the time, we should be able to get all we need, fake your death, and get the hell out of there before anyone knows what’s going on. We’ll bring their whole system down and you’ll be home in time for Orna-mates.”
“Thank you!” Clint cheered, earning a small high five from Maria before she switched back to work mode.
At 17 minutes a young woman walked into the room. Her long hair was tied back, and she looked tired. The man across from Steve looked up at her and she gave a small nod. Steve stopped counting. The man motioned with his hand for Steve to stand up and wordlessly walked him to the end of the grey hallway. There were two doors, one to the left and one to the right, both a dull brown. Steve followed the man to the right door, and watched as he knocked three times, two fast and one a moment later. From within, a voice told them to enter, and the man pushed open the door.
This room was smaller than the previous, and a desk took up most of it. There were two filing cabinets in the back of the room behind the desk that all locked with a key, and a chair for Steve to sit in. It was an old ugly looking thing, once bright green now faded to almost grey, matching the walls in this room as well. On one wall, a large map with pins in it took up space, breaking up the awful dullness and easing Steve’s anxiety just a little. Whenever he got too overwhelmed it was easiest to picture a map of New York in his mind and imagine himself as a bright white dot on it. Steve took a breath.
The man in the chair before him was a familiar face not because Steve had met him before, but because Steve had seen the man in photographs not a week before. He was younger in person, his gelled hair falling into small strands in his face, and Steve was certain if he didn’t look so tired, he would look youthful. The tiredness aged him. His eyes were a striking blue, one that photographs didn’t do justice, even if they could capture the harshness of them. He was smaller than Steve himself, but the way he leaned back in his chair, a cigarette poking out of his mouth while he looked up and took a long drag displayed confidence. This was the man he’d heard so much about, the mastermind and ringleader of the whole operation.
The cigarette moved from his lips as the man exhaled and stopped it out on an ashtray before him. He looked up, locking eyes with Steve and let a small smirk fall onto his face as he leaned back in his chair once more. The smoke lingered in front of him, no window for it to escape through. Steve wasn’t a religious man, but the boy in front of him resembled depictions of the devil himself.
“You must be Steve,” he recognized the Brooklyn accent almost immediate and was reminded he wasn’t home. “Allow me to introduce myself. The name is James. You on the other hand can call me Bucky. Take a seat.”