Since the events caused by Ultron, things had been very different for the Avengers team. We'd moved to a new facility in Upstate New York, that we were working hard to get running full speed. Bruce was still off somewhere, location unknown, trying to once again deal with the reality of the creature that lived inside of him. Thor was similarly out of touch, though in his case he feared for larger universal danger, and had gone off in investigation of that. He checked in occasionally, but pressed us to allow him this time as what he was doing was of grave importance.
Clint had gone back to stay with his sister, Laura, at the Barton family farm, finish making his repairs on the place, and make sure Laura was safe and cared for leading up to the birth of his next nephew and immediately after. I was confident though, because Natasha was confident, that he'd come back to the team in a few more weeks time to help us train the new team members and rejoin the team himself. He liked to think he was retired, but I was certain he was just on leave.
Tony, however, was retired. And I couldn't see that changing anytime soon. By the end of everything, we'd managed to bury some of the hard feelings between us, but Tony had created a monster that had damn near destroyed the world. Sure, part of the blame could be placed on the rest of us for not realizing and preventing it, but Tony bore the brunt of the blame. Which meant that he had a lot to deal with emotionally, and I was grateful he had Pepper to help him through that. But it also meant that he was dealing with the largest piece of the public fallout.
As a team, the Avengers were being questioned in the public eye now more than ever. True to the type of man becoming Iron Man had turned him into, Tony was sacrificing himself for the good of the team. Though he liked to joke about it not even being the worst scandal he'd put his company through, I knew this time was different. The level of guilt he felt was only compounded each day by reporters and the public screaming at him for the things he'd done. In time, he would be okay again, but it would take time. If we needed him, I knew he had at least one suit available to come help out, but otherwise he had sent Rhodey to us.
With Tony's help, Rhodey had been able to ditch the US government gig he had, and transition back from being Iron Patriot to being War Machine once more. It was nice to still have someone in the sky with heavy firepower, and who was connected to the base's AI through more than just an earpiece. And he was a nice guy that I enjoyed getting to know. He'd always complained that his few Iron Patriot stories didn't measure up to the Avengers stories and, well, it seemed he was going to be getting some Avengers stories of his own.
Our AI, of course, was no longer JARVIS now that JARVIS was the basis of Vision. We had tried still using JARVIS at the base at first, and it was just too much. Instead, Tony had given us what he called his most advanced system- one he swore wasn't sentient any more than JARVIS had been. She was the same AI that Tony had used in our final battle, and her name was FRIDAY. I'd been a little uncomfortable with integrating her after everything that had happened with Ultron, but Natasha, Rhodey, and Maria Hill had convinced me to install it as we didn't have the manpower to make the facility secure without it.
Maria Hill had, surprisingly, stuck with Stark Industries for the time being. Though she, and I felt sure Pepper, were feeding us support staff as quickly as I'm sure they thought they could without drawing unwanted attention. Sharon Carter had shown up one day, offering to join on and leave her post at the CIA, but I'd been too uncomfortable with the idea of having someone who'd so easily lied to me on base. Thankfully, Natasha had handled that for me so delicately that Carter remained a valuable resource for us within the CIA.
Sam had dropped by when the base first opened to make sure that we were okay for the time being. In particular, he and I had sat down and had several long conversations that straddled the line between being conversations between friends and being counseling sessions. There were things Ultron had said to me, about being unable to live without a war that mixed in with the thoughts Wanda had put in my head and had tangled me up emotionally and mentally to unhealthy levels. Over the course of the weekend that Sam had visited, he'd helped me begin to understand and feel comfortable in my own skin again. I had a ways to go, but it was a start.
Although Sam was clearly willing to stay and help me cope, I could tell he was itching to get on the road again and investigate our "missing person" case. He wouldn't say anything about it, but I could tell it was because he didn't want to get my hopes up. So I'd put on a good front and reassured him that I was fine and he could go. My efforts were rewarded just two weeks later when Sam walked in the front door of the base knowing exactly where Bucky was. Together with a friend, we were able to get Bucky back.
At the time, Bucky had insisted on being called James. He remembered some of our childhood and growing up before the War, some of the War itself, and, unfortunately, almost all of his time under HYDRA's control as "The Asset". When I told him of the moniker SHIELD and others had used for him, The Winter Soldier, he actually smiled and said he liked it and once he was right in the head, that would be his field name.
Wanda, Pietro, and Vision had largely kept to themselves when we first arrived. Vision was worried that we would be unable to trust him or want him around because of his association with Ultron. The twins, Wanda and Pietro, used quite the same excuse once both were recovered from their first fight with the Avengers. In the end each of us who remained had to have numerous conversations with them in which we reassured them that they had our trust because they had helped us in the long run. The spots on the team were theirs if they were willing.
The turning point had really been when I'd taken a leap of faith and allowed Wanda to use her powers for good on Bucky. She'd come to me, nervous, just two days after his arrival and told me that she could help. She even had Dr. Cho on the phone as a reference. When I'd quickly dismissed Dr. Cho's presence, I could see Wanda deflate. As she gathered herself to leave, I'd stopped her and told her, once again, that I trusted her. If she thought she could help Bucky, then by all means, she should try. The next day, he'd called me "Punk" and asked us all to call him Bucky. It was the first truly good day I'd had in a very long time.
After that, our team training sessions and had become even more lively. Something in that moment had made us all closer, and we were beginning to act as a team once more. Bucky, true to form, had even found himself a gal- Natasha. I was wary at first, but it seemed that they fit together frighteningly well. Both had a sense of debt to be paid to society, or "red in the ledger" as Natasha referred to it, that drove them in their mission as Avengers. To me it seemed that both had been wronged and didn't owe anything to the world, but if they wanted to fight, I was happy to have them on my team. Especially because the rest of the team wasn't ready yet for the more subtle cases.
Even before all of SHIELD's data was dumped on the internet by Natasha and I, I didn't get a lot of undercover missions. Once people realized in the aftermath of the Battle of New York that I, Steve Rogers, was alive rather than someone who was just taking up the name "Captain America", people went a little crazy. It was hard to go anywhere without getting recognized, let alone going undercover.
Undercover was pretty much out of the question.
Still, desperate times called for desperate measures. Bucky was good in the field, solid, but he had a metal arm, so he was difficult to hide in plain sight. And Natasha had a few videos of her go viral during the fight with Ultron. We all did, but I wore a cowl over my face, and Natasha was just out there as herself for the world to see. That meant that Natasha's face was still very fresh in everyone's mind, and there was really no way she'd be able to go unrecognized.
With Natasha in charge of disguises for this mission, my hair had been temporarily (or so she assured me) dyed brown and I was wearing a large pair of glasses. She insisted that it was enough of a disguise that I wouldn't be recognized. Add together the facts that I was in a club, which people didn't expect of Captain America, and I was in Trenton, NJ, where I'd never been before, and I should have been golden.
For the first hour, with me moving around constantly, the cover had held. Then I'd started to feel eyes on me, and began to discreetly scan the room trying to figure out what had caused someone to discover my identity and who that person was. Finally, I saw her. A beautiful woman across the way wearing a slinky black dress and heels. As I started to walk toward her, I realized that she didn't actually recognize me, she was just watching me. She was interested in me.
"Hey, Steve, that's a hell of a dame making eyes at you," Bucky spoke through my earpiece.
"Too bad we don't have time for you to cut loose a little," Natasha added. "She looks nice."
I was unable to keep myself from moving toward the woman until I was just a few steps away from her- then I finally paused. As beautiful as she was, if she really didn't recognize me, then I needed to get back to the mission and move on. So I stopped and turned back around, intending to do just that. Yet, I couldn't stop myself from just one more look in her direction, and as soon as her eyes met mine, well, that was the moment she recognized me.
"Oh no," I muttered.
It was hilariously obvious, really. Her eyes went comically wide, her mouth opened in a little 'o' and and she started looking around as though she was trying to find the threat that would have brought Captain America to this club. Cursing under my breath at my own inability to leave her alone which caused the issue, I moved forward. Fast. She opened her mouth to say something, and probably blow my cover, so I did the only thing I could think to do in that moment, I covered her mouth with mine.
After a couple seconds of shock, she seemed to decide to just go with it, melting into the kiss and opening her mouth again under mine. My tongue took advantage of the opportunity, even as I could hear teasing and chatter among my only backup for the night, Natasha and Bucky. The kiss dragged on, and in the back of my mind, I registered the teasing turning into chastising by Natasha who was telling me not to get distracted by a pretty face.
Reluctantly, I pulled back, knowing I needed to get back to the business at hand. Still there was something in me that couldn't resist pulling her more firmly into my body as I trailed my mouth sideways so it would look like I was just continuing the kiss over to her ear.
Once my mouth was pressed up against her ear, I whispered to her urgently, "we need to talk."
I tried to prepare for almost any reaction she had, but I wasn't exactly prepared for her to drag me onto the dance floor, then slide a leg between mine and pull me closer into her. She nodded shakily a few seconds later and said, "so talk."
Using the music for cover, I held her close and whispered in her ear, "I'm in the middle of a mission, and I need you to not announce who I am."
She put her mouth against my ear this time to make sure she wasn't overheard, and it made a shiver run through my body as she responded. "Do you always kiss random women to keep your cover?"
I managed to school my reaction, but I heard Natasha chuckling over my earpiece, and I knew if I didn't say it, Natasha would, somehow, someday bring it up. "Well, I did kiss my partner once to keep people from recognizing us, but that was pretty awful. Also, truth be told, I'm almost never undercover."
She smiled at me, laughter in her eyes, and stretched back up to say, "my name is Steph. I don't know what you're doing, but I'm a part-time bounty hunter, part-time security expert. I'm armed, I know how to fight, and I'll help you in any way I can. I run distractions, or play bait, for my team all the time, so if you need to get someone outside without causing a scene, I can help. If you need backup, I will help."
In my ear, Natasha said, "you gotta take her up on that, Cap. We'll keep her safe."
Before I could say anything else, Steph said, "or if you need me to get out of your way, name's Stephanie Plum. If you're ever interested in saying hi when you're not on a mission, come to Rangeman Trenton, and you'll find me."
I sighed, "we could use your help if you're sure you're willing. There's a man we need to talk to. His name is Gus Chianni-"
"Cop. I vaguely know him." That gave me a moment of pause, and Steph continued, rolling her eyes, "did you not hear me say I'm a bounty hunter? I know all the cops. Plus he was a drinking buddy of my ex. He didn't do anything other than tell me to 'be careful' when a gang banger he was arresting on my tip threatened me. I never thought he was dirty, but after that, I never really liked him either. He finds me… amusing. You need to talk to him, I can get him out the door with me, alone. Just give me five minutes."
"I knew one day, your saint act would come back to help us ten fold, Steve," Natasha said. "I think this woman's an angel."
"If you know him, why help us?" I couldn't help but asking Steph.
"Yes, I know him, but we're not friends." She replied. Then she looked me steadily in the eyes and asked, "do you have a good reason for needing to talk to him?"
"Are you going to steamroll him without cause?"
"We already have plenty of cause, but no, I'm not."
"Okay, then. I trust you."
Pulling Steph into me again, I gave her a thorough kiss, and said, "I need you to be careful. He may be a cop, but he is not a good guy."
"I will. My car is parked around the block, on Quinn St. It's the biggest heap of junk on the street, assuming no one has stolen it. I'm going to tell him you've been hassling me, and get him to walk me out to the car."
I paused to allow Natasha and Bucky each to confirm that the plan worked for them, then said, "that is perfect, thanks."
"Okay, now. I'm assuming you can take a hit, so apologies in advance, but I'm going to need you to lay one on me and grab my ass or something while you do."
I blinked at her for a few seconds then did as she asked. When my hands wandered, as she'd instructed, she struggled away then hauled off and smacked me. She rushed away, and I could hear both Natasha and Bucky hooting with laughter in my earpiece. Shaking it off, I made myself look suitably rebuked then made a beeline for the restroom. Along the way, I made eye contact with Bucky, who was hidden among the shadows on the perimeter of the club. He gave me a nod to say he had Steph's back.
Instead of going into the restroom, I continued straight out the back door. I was utterly unsurprised to find Natasha there waiting for me already. She took in the red mark on my cheek and said, "she's got decent delivery for a civilian." I grunted in agreement, and Natasha just laughed some before saying, "don't worry, I doubt she'd do it again or in any other circumstance."
"Well, we're on a mission, Natasha," I replied. "So I doubt she'll ever get the chance again."
"She's pretty, and she's interested, Steve. Just because you met on a mission doesn't mean you can't get her number and give her a call sometime."
I made a noncommittal noise, then assessed the cars on the street to pick out the one that looked the worst. If I was correct, the woman wasn't kidding. There was one car on the street that stood out among the rest for all the wrong reasons. It was a Jeep that looked like it had seen better days. The doors were not all painted the same color, nor did they match the body of the car. On closer inspection, there were actual bullet holes along the back panel.
Together we walked back a few cars and waited. Five minutes on the nose after she'd stormed away from me, if my internal clock was correct, I could hear Steph's voice thanking Chianni for walking her out. He stopped just past us and said, "okay, Steph. There's your car. No creepy stalker, are you happy now? Can I get back to having a good time instead of playing escort to idiots who don't know to dress appropriately if they don't want the attention? I mean, honestly, it's no wonder Morelli left you."
There was a frown on my face as I slid out from the shadows with Natasha. Seeing Bucky coming up behind us as well, I started to slide over to Chianni's side as Steph stopped, crossed her arms across her chest, and leveled Chianni with a hard glare. When he finally looked at her again and caught her expression, he blinked in shock. "What did you do?" Steph asked angrily.
Chianni took a step back and bumped into Bucky. With a start, he started to turn, but stopped halfway through the motion when he caught sight of me. I was using my most intimidating stance and what I thought of as my Captain America face. He gulped and looked back at Steph who hadn't moved an inch. "You bitch! There's no warrant for my arrest, I would know. And I sure as hell haven't skipped bail. You have no right!"
"All I did was ask you to accompany me outside, and I have every right to do favors for anyone I want. Especially people who save the world." She nodded in my direction even as she added, "I don't think he likes that nickname for me, or some of the things you said before that by the way. Might be something you want to keep in mind."
"I'm not a fan either," Natasha said to Chianni from his other side, making the man realize he was boxed in.
Apparently, he figured then that his best bet for freedom was to go through Steph because he tried to run. Before I could move to help her, she shifted to the side, slid under his arm, and used his momentum to execute an impressive hip throw. He looked more than a little dazed as he blinked up at us.
"Alright, Steve," Bucky addressed me, even as he slid forward and injected Chianni with the sedative we'd prepared to quickly knock him out. "If that's the way he's going to be, let's take him in."
I nodded my head, but had the most difficult time leaving the woman standing in front of me. Noticing her shivering a little, I took my jacket off and slid it over her shoulders, buttoning it up a little ways from the bottom so it would stay on her smaller frame. She brought her hands up inside of it without putting them through the sleeves and grabbed onto the collar. "I'm just going home, I'll be fine. You don't have to-"
I cut her off saying, "don't worry about it. It looks better on you, and if I decide I need it back, I know where to find you."
She went a little bug eyed as she nodded her head, and I could feel Natasha and Bucky move away with Chianni to give me a couple minutes of privacy. Reaching up, I tucked one of her curls behind her ear that had come loose when she'd tackled Chianni. She licked her lips and said, "that'd be nice. Uh, if you need any more information on anyone else in Trenton, let me know. I'm happy to help."
I nodded my head, then indicated toward the bullet holes in her car, "you alright?"
"Oh, yeah. My last car blew up, so I just got this one. Paid two hundred bucks for it, and those bullet holes came with it. Truth be told, it's got kind of a musty smell, so I like to think of them as constant ventilation."
I wasn't really sure what to say to that, so I just nodded my head. Indicating behind me in the way Bucky and Natasha had gone, I said, "well, I guess I'd better go."
Steph smiled at me and said, "probably. Good luck with, whatever," gesturing vaguely in that same direction.
I started to walk away then turned back and called out to her before she climbed in her car, unsure of where she'd pulled her keys from, "hey, Steph? This is kind of ugly business. Just… be careful for a few days, okay?"
"Sure thing, Captain."
"Steve," I said with a smile. She nodded almost shyly at me then climbed into her car. I listened as she took a few tries to get it started, then waited, hands on my hips, as she pulled out of her spot, waving at me in the mirror.
"Hey, Lover Boy," Natasha called out over the ear piece. "I promise to find her phone number for you if you get your ass over here so we can head back to headquarters. We still have a bit of a drive ahead of us."
I took a minute longer just to stare at where Steph had been, then turned around and jogged the couple of blocks to where we'd left our SUV.
"I like her," Bucky said when I climbed into the back seat next to our prisoner.
"I just don't understand why she would help us like that," I replied.
"Well, sounds to me like she's not much of a fan of our visitor here," Natasha said calmly. "And I can't say I blame her for that even with just the brief interaction we witnessed before she put him on his ass. Then, you know, there's the fact that you're Captain America, you look trustworthy, oh yeah, and she seemed to think you're a good kisser, and there you go."
"Told you I didn't need any practice," I said to Natasha with a laugh.
As Bucky drove us out of Trenton, I was already trying to think of ways that I could get back in touch with Ms Stephanie Plum once again.