The first time Steve Rogers tangles with Carmen Sandiego, he ends up tied to a chair with ridiculously strong nylon ropes wearing only his navy blue boxer briefs. Whatever else there is to say about Sandiego, he has to admit she's good at her job. He's not entirely sure what she drugged him with that knocked him out so thoroughly, or how she knew to get industrial-grade rope that would be strong enough to hold him.
He's also not sure how she knew that stripping him and tying him up would turn him on so much. The look in her eyes when she smiles at him over her shoulder before sauntering out of the room (with a sway in her hips that's too pronounced to be accidental) tells him that she's playing him like a fiddle. He hasn't been so impressed by a woman since meeting Natasha.
It's Natasha who finds him, of course, still tied to the chair in his underwear, but at least it's been long enough since Sandiego left that his body's reaction has cooled. Natasha looks him over, and Steve's cheeks burn at the way her eyes linger. "Huh," she says, "looks like you're having fun. Are you sure you want to be rescued?"
He clenches his jaw and says, "Just get me the hell out of here."
It's Captain America's mission to bring in Carmen Sandiego, but if Steve were being honest with himself he'd admit that he's been playing it a little sloppy because he's not really sure he wants to have another run-in with her. Sam and Nat are still ribbing him about his kidnapping every time Sandiego's name comes up, and it inevitably devolves into some kind of humiliating commentary about Steve's muscles being a national treasure.
On the other hand, Sandiego provides a challenge for the times when Bucky's trail goes cold. There haven't been any spottings of the Winter Soldier or any other clues to Bucky's activities for about three months when word comes in that Sandiego has been spotted en route to India, so Steve packs his bag. Natasha laughs when he asks her to go with him ("What, need a chaperone so you don't get into trouble?") but agrees.
They get to Agra just hours after Sandiego leaves. Steve's never been to India before, so Natasha convinces him to play tourist while they try to figure out what she stole and where she's headed next. It's a nice break to take his mind off of Bucky, in any case.
Reykjavik is an unqualified disaster. Jakarta is almost as bad. Paris is just-- embarrassing. Even Natasha is starting be impressed by the way Sandiego keeps slipping just out of their grasp.
"She's playing with you, Steve," Natasha says as she tosses the perfumed letter at him in their hotel room. "This is all a game to her."
"Yeah, and she's winning," Steve grumbles.
"You could fold. She's got skills, I'll give her that, but she's still just a thief. There are a lot more dangerous people out there we could be stopping." Natasha sits on the edge of her bed and kicks off her shoes. "I don't think you're going to find her until she wants to be found, and even when you do, you won't catch her unless she wants to be caught."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because she reminds me of me."
She wants to be found in Prague. That's what her letter had hinted at, and that's what happens. She's sitting at a table in an outdoor cafe, wearing that same wide-brimmed hat and trenchcoat she'd had on the first time they met, sipping wine the same shade of red as her clothes. It's as recognizable as if he'd been walking down the street in his Captain America uniform, and he has to admire her for having the balls to be out in public like that when he name is on the most wanted list in 57 different countries. (The Czech Republic is, surprisingly, not one of those 57, which he supposes is why she's picked this as the place for him to find her.)
Steve slides into the seat across from her and pretends he's not watching the way her lips curve just at the corner when she looks him up and down. "It's about time you caught up to me. I was beginning to think you never would."
"I should have you arrested right now," he replies coolly.
"You can't. I'm out of your jurisdiction and I haven't done anything to warrant the policii's interest." Yet, Steve thinks, because obviously she wouldn't have let him find her if she thought he would be able to bring her in.
"Now that I've found you, we'll have eyes on you 24/7," he replies instead. Natasha had predicted that Sandiego would be able to lose any tail they set on her, but Steve prefers to be optimistic.
"I know." Sandiego sips the last of her wine, licking a red droplet off her lower lip. She starts to stand and Steve finds himself automatically moving to pull out her chair for her like they're on some kind of twisted date. "That's part of the fun," she adds, brushing his hand with her own.
Steve tells himself he's only watching her walk away to make sure that the tail picks her up, not because he likes the way her clothes hug her curves.
Sandiego loses her tail four days later, in a crowded train station. Steve doesn't have time to think about it, though, because someone saw a man with a metal arm in Mexico City.
It's twelve weeks later when Steve checks into a hotel in Cairo. Bucky's trail has gone cold but Steve feels sure that if he digs around some more, he'll be able to pick up a lead on where Bucky is headed next. He's just picking up his key card from the front desk when he sees her -- shorter hair, no signature hat and coat, but it's definitely Carmen Sandiego walking through the lobby. Steve's gotten so used to seeing Natasha in an infinite variety of hairstyles and disguises he's started to be a lot more conscious of identifying characteristics. She doesn't seem to notice him, so he just thanks the clerk and takes his card as the elevator doors close on her.
He could call in backup. He could call in Interpol and five different intelligence agencies and have her locked away for good, but any sign of that would scare Bucky off if he's within a thousand miles of here, and this chase is the closest he's gotten to finding Bucky in the past year.
Steve sighs and heads up to his room. He's alone this time; Sam is checking out a lead in Alexandria and Natasha is up in Tel Aviv. He thinks about calling one of them to tell them about Sandiego, but decides it's safer to keep it to himself.
He's made peace with the decision by the next morning, so when she steps into his elevator, he keeps his cool and says, "Ms. Sandiego, what a pleasant surprise."
"Is it?" Her voice is tense, perhaps still expecting him to attack.
"I didn't come here for you, if that's what you're asking."
"And I didn't come here for you." Steve wonders, for a moment, if that means she might have come specifically for him on another occasion after the first time. "I'm actually on vacation."
"What, not planning to steal the pyramids while you're here?" he quips. She doesn't reply, just holds her silence to make him uncomfortable. The fact is that he's uncomfortable anyway, from the way his body reacts to her. She's wearing light fabrics for the summer heat, but is covered up for protection from the sun and to blend in with the modesty standards of the region. Still, he can see the shape of her body from the way the cloth drapes over her, and can't help thinking what if--
"Your friend isn't here, you know."
Steve draws in a sharp breath, startled out of his thoughts. He knew Sandiego had been keeping an eye on his movements so she could stay out of reach, but how could she know what -- who -- he's been looking for? "I don't know what you're talking about," he replies.
"He left town three days ago. I'd suggest checking the manifests for flights to South Africa. It's a good place to lose yourself." The elevator doors open on the lobby and she walks away, leaving him staring after her, a thoughtful crease between his brows.
Steve spends the day following up on leads and gathering passenger and cargo lists for all the flights to South Africa. He doesn't really expect to find anything, but then there it is: a discrepancy between the recorded weight of the cargo and the sum total of the weights of the individual pieces, off by 115kg. Just about the weight of a muscular man with a too-heavy metal arm.
He's tempted to book the next flight out, but because Steve's not that stupid, he calls Natasha first. "You need a plan, Steve," she tells him. "You need papers. Without SHIELD running the way it used to it might take us a few days to dig up someone who can make some that are good enough to pass a close inspection."
"I think I might be able to help with that." Steve grins into the phone, the pieces starting to come together.
"Oh? You got a forger in your back pocket I don't know about?"
"Something like that."
Natasha laughs. "Tell Carmen we could use her on our side. Defectors welcome." Steve is about to hang up the phone when she adds, "Don't forget to use protection!"
Steve is still thinking about making a plan over dinner that night. If he finds Bucky -- and that's a big if -- what could he even possibly say to make Bucky come with him? He's been thinking about this on and off for months, been over a thousand scenarios in his head, but never really comes up with a good answer. If he finds him, will Bucky remember who he is? Or is he still the human weapon he was when Steve fought him?
He's still thinking about it when he realizes Carmen Sandiego is standing right next to his table. "Captain Rogers, you're still here." She sounds surprised.
"So are you, Miss Sandiego."
"I'm on vacation," she reminds him, taking the seat he offers her. Her eyes linger on his face and Steve considers why she was looking into Bucky's movements in the first place, and how he can convince her to help him forge travel papers.
"On other people's dime, no doubt."
"It's the only way to travel."
"Not the only way."
"The only way that's any fun." He chuckles because it sounds like exactly the kind of thing Natasha would say. Or, if he's being honest with himself, the kind of thing Bucky would say, even though he wouldn't mean it.
"I checked your intel," he tells her as she orders a cup of tea.
"I thought you might."
Steve decides direct is the best approach, and he reaches across the table to pin her wrist, just to remind her that without an elaborate scheme of drugs and ropes there's no way she'd be a match for him. "Why are you tracking him? This is out of your usual purview." She twitches and he tightens his grip. (If maybe he likes feeling her struggle against his grasp, well, that's his business.)
"No one ever appreciates the ways that the art world and the espionage world intersect, Captain. Not even you. You know I deal in art and relics and the best forgeries money can supply. You have first-hand experience with my acquisition of priceless artifacts." She's ribbing him about the kidnapping, and he can't help reacting just a little. "But I also deal in secrets. Your friend is a little of all of those, though after your joint stunt in DC, he's far less of a secret than he used to be."
"Bucky is no one's property," he says, squeezing her wrist a little tighter. So far Sandiego's thievery hasn't extended to deadly weapons, but she's certainly capable of it. And whatever else Bucky is, he's definitely a deadly weapon.
"Does he know that?" she asks flatly.
Steve remembers Alexander Pierce and the files he and Natasha dug up after the incident, the training records of Pierce reprogramming Bucky's brain, and he's suddenly angry enough to lose control of his strength for a moment before a twist of her wrist makes him realize he's about to crush her bones. He lets go with a start. "Sorry."
"Not to worry, Captain. A little pain never bothered me." He lifts his eyes to meet hers and finds her smiling, a slow, easy curve of her lips. "I find, sometimes, I quite like it." Her tone of voice is heated and unmistakeable, and Steve swallows against a sudden spark of desire. Natasha may have just been teasing him on the phone, earlier, but maybe there's room for mixing business and pleasure after all.
Later, buried deep inside her, his teeth on Carmen's neck and one hand holding both her wrists above her head, Steve wonders if she's been manipulating him to get him here all these past months.
He finds he doesn't really care.