The way Steve woke was the same way he remembered what had happened: in fits and starts. There had been gunfire, an explosion loud enough that Steve had felt his skull ringing like a struck bell, the roar of truck engines. Something had been falling out of the sky, something that looked like rain but stank like nothing natural. Then it was day, now it was dark. Steve blinked, and blinked again, but couldn't even see his hand when he held it up in front of his face. The air smelled damp, and the wall at his back was rough to the touch but even. Dressed stone, he thought.
Steve remembered Morita yelling at him, more shots, more explosions. A larger Hydra base than they'd expected, another whole mountain hollowed out by Schmidt and filled back up with his followers. After that it got hazy, but Steve had a dim memory of more of that strange rain and how dizzy it had made him, of something seizing him, of a long fall.
He pulled himself to his feet with a groan. The serum could do wonders, but Steve hadn't slept in the three days it had taken them to push up into the northern Tirol. He felt like one giant bruise, and the temptation to lie back down and go to sleep was pretty strong. Steve forced himself to take inventory instead, as best he could in the dark. The shield was still strapped to his back, but his helmet's chinstrap had broken and a long, flaking streak of blood on the side of his face told him that he'd hit his head as he fell. Nothing seemed to be missing from his belt. One of his pockets held one of the small batches of Explosive 808 that Dernier had worked up for each of them. That should easily take down the door of wherever he was, and as long as he was crouching behind the shield when it went off, Steve should be safe from the worst of the blast.
He just had to make sure that Buck never found out about it.
Steve swept one hand out along the wall, creeping sideways a step at a time, hoping not to encounter any sudden drops as he felt for the telltale seam of a door's edge. It didn't take him long, however, to realise that there wasn't one. The wall was even and perfectly flat and curved—he was going in a circle. When he stretched his arms out he could brace them easily against both sides of whatever he was in—a tunnel? When he stretched one arm over his head, he encountered nothing more than empty space. "Well, fuck."
He let himself have one brief, blank moment of panic—he was in the dark, and he was alone, and there was no way out—and then forced the fear down, swallowed it. Fear wouldn't get him out of here. Steve set his back to the wall, stretched out one leg and braced it against the wall opposite him, testing to see what kind of traction he could get. The distance was just doable. If he went carefully, he should be able to walk his way up by slow inches.
But just as he decided that, from far overhead came a grinding, scraping noise. Steve looked up, blinking against a sudden shower of dirt and small pebbles and a bright burst of sunshine. He squinted, eyes watering as they struggled to readjust to light, and saw someone outlined against a circle of clear blue sky.
"A well?" Bucky yelled down at him. "You fat-head."
Steve was all set to yell back, but Bucky vanished, to be replaced by Peggy and Jones.
"What a fine pickle you're in," Peggy called out.
"It's not like I did it on purpose," Steve said, standing up. Then, in one of those fits of honesty that always overcame him at the worst times, he said, "I'm pretty sure." He still couldn't remember much about how he'd ended up down here.
"Could be worse," Jones said. "They could have dumped you in a well that wasn't bone dry."
"For this small mercy, when the man's a good eighty feet down at the bottom of a well, let us give much thanks," Peggy said crisply. Her arms were braced against the well's wall, her tousled curls falling around her face as she leaned in.
"I'd be saying thanks for sure if you guys had a ladder," Steve said.
"Ah, yes," Peggy replied, "that ladder I just happened to pack in my kit for a three-day-long march through an Alpine pass while on a covert mission."
Steve winced. Peggy's tone was definitely waspish, and Peg only got waspish like that when she was really angry with you, or really afraid for you, or both. Either way, she probably wasn't far off pulling a gun.
"Peg—" he started, but she was gone before he could say anything else. Probably off to commiserate with Bucky, who after all was founder, president, and fully paid-up member of the Steve Rogers Is A Fat-Head Society.
"Took us four hours to find you," Jones called down.
"Aww jeez," Steve said. He could just imagine how that had gone—Buck and Peg could both be mean when they wanted to be. "Next round's on me?"
"Next two," Jones said firmly. "Dum Dum, Falsworth, and Morita are gone to look for a ladder. There're some supply sheds over the far end of the valley, where Hydra kept their trucks. If there's one anywhere, I figure it's there."
Steve leaned back against the wall, tilted his head up to look at the sky. He could hear Jones' voice, but beyond that nothing but distant bird song—no more explosions, no shouts or screams, and Jones didn't look like a man in a particular hurry. "We took the base?"
"Well," Jones said, "if by take it, you mean 'is it on fire?', then yeah, we got it. Jacques tried out his new explosive formula, and whatever was in those barrels Hydra was shipping out burns like crazy. Set off one hell of a chain reaction. I think the whole inside of the mountain must be on fire by now."
"Ouais !" Steve didn't think he'd heard Dernier sound that happy since the time in Milan when he'd eaten an entire jar of homemade strawberry jam by himself, sticky-faced and sated. His face, when it appeared over the rim of the well, was wreathed in a beatific grin. "J'ai fait mon miel de ces barils et maintenant, regardez-moi cet incendie. Magnifique ! C'est un travail bien fait, hein."
"Yeah, you say it's a job well done," Jones replied, "but one of these days you're going to find something that's beyond even your powers to blow up."
Dernier laughed, and then it was him and Jones bickering for the rest of the time it took for the others to get back.
"Bad news, Hydra doesn't believe in ladders," Morita called down.
"But can we interest you in some rope?" Falsworth added.
Steve wasn't exactly small anymore. The length of rope looked like it could support him, just about, but the well was deep and there were apparently no trees near enough for the others to belay the rope around. He set his hands on his hips. "How're we going to do this, exactly?"
"We're going to use Dum Dum for an anchor, because if you gotta haul one stubborn-ass Irish punk out of a well you probably need another stubborn-ass Irish guy on the other end," Bucky said, feeding one end of the rope down to Steve. "When I tell you when, we'll all heave on this end and you climb. Got it?"
"Got it," Steve said. It wasn't exactly a difficult plan to understand—it just required him to trust in the strength of the rope, and the steadiness of his team's hands.
For at least two solid minutes, the sound of intense squabbling drifted down from overhead—the Commandos, it seemed, had strong but differing opinions about what order they should stand in at the rope. It took Peggy yelling "For pity's sake!" at a volume that would have impressed Colonel Phillips for the bickering to finally stop.
There was another long moment's pause, and then Bucky yelled, "Go!"
Steve felt the slack in the line vanish and, taking a breath, he pushed off against the side of the well with his right foot.
When he got to the top, Steve was met with a ragged chorus of cheers, Bucky impatiently pulling him over the well's low retaining wall by his collar, and the sight of a valley that looked pretty different than what Steve remembered from just a few hours ago. A broad swath of trees had been felled, running up to the entrance to the Hydra base, and there were several places where the ground had been churned up by vehicles and what had probably been several of Dernier's homemade hand grenades. Steve could see smoke billowing in slow waves out of the base entrance; between there and where he stood were several Hydra trucks and tanks, all still smouldering. If any of Hydra's soldiers had survived the Commandos' assault, they must have fled. The valley was utterly still.
There was a round of back slaps and hand shakes from the Commandos, and then Buck hauled him into a fierce hug. "Jerk," Bucky said. "You have any idea what it was like, realising you fell that far?"
"I'm fine," Steve said. "Couple scrapes, but you know I got worse at Coney Island that one time."
Peggy arched an eyebrow at him and said, "Next time, do try not to let one of Hydra's over-sized science experiments run off with you. You're rather difficult to replace." From her, that was as good as a hug.
The sun was starting to set behind the mountains and they were all exhausted; Steve vetoed the idea of trying to make it back to the south end of the valley and over the pass that led to the nearest village before nightfall. There was no immediate hurry anyway, not since they hadn't succeeded in getting any new intel to bring back with them. "We'll bivouac here, get some rest, head out at dawn."
They set up a makeshift camp about a half hour's walk away, near the shelter of one of the surviving stands of trees, where an almost-dry stream cut a narrow, deep path through the rocky soil. It was summer, but nights at this altitude were cold regardless. Some of the Commandos prepped the bedrolls, while Steve helped others retrieve branches from the felled trees to use as firewood. By the time it was truly getting dark, they had a merry little fire going and Falsworth was cooking up a pot of something-or-other over the flames. Steve had learned by now that it was best not to ask what they were getting, or even to look too closely at the bowl that was served up to him, but it smelled all right and it was hot and it filled him up. It wasn't like he could have said the same thing about most of what he got to eat before the war.
Steve sat against a fallen tree as he ate. On the other side of their little circle, Bucky was keeping watch, rifle at the ready and his eyes on the trees. Next to Steve, Peggy sat on the tree trunk, makeup still impeccable and her appetite as hearty as any of the other Commandos. And in between them were his team: Dernier, already stretched out on top of his bed roll, hands laced together on his belly and snoring softly; Dum Dum and Jones, bickering softly about who remembered the plot of some pulp novel better; Falsworth and Morita, scraping their bowls clean and tormenting one another with stories of favourite foods they hadn't eaten in months.
"Vanilla milkshakes from that diner over on Olive Avenue. Rice the way my mom makes it. A proper bacon sandwich," Morita said with a heavy sigh. "What I wouldn't give for a bacon sandwich."
"Nonsense," Falsworth said with a sniff. "You've never actually had a bacon sandwich—I've seen that travesty you Yanks call bacon."
"Bacon should be crispy!" Morita said, pointing at Falsworth with his spoon. "That's the whole point of bacon."
"Limey, are you bad-mouthing proper bacon?" Dum Dum asked. "Because you know I'll go to toe with you on this and you'll lose."
"The 107th's elite combat unit," Peggy murmured under her breath, just loud enough for Steve to hear her. "Hand-selected by Captain America himself to be Europe's last, best bastion against fascism."
Steve almost choked on his last mouthful of food.
When he was done eating, Steve scrubbed out his mess tin and spoon, packed them away, and went to relieve Bucky so that he could eat. With the Hydra agents gone, Steve didn't have the sense that there was anyone else in the valley with them. There had been a small village marked on the maps of the area, named for a little-known and long-dead saint, but its people had had the good sense to get out when Hydra arrived, or maybe the firefight had finally scared them off. As Steve walked to the edge of the tree line and along the stream bank, the only lights that he could see in the valley in either direction were far overhead—the full moon and the pale blaze of the Milky Way, a sight that was still a little shocking to a guy born and raised in Brooklyn and the sodium-bright wash of a city. Before the war, the most exotic place Steve'd ever known was New Jersey, and that was because it was the only place outside New York he'd ever been. He'd never been anywhere like this. Sure, stand on Fifth Avenue and you could goggle up at the Empire State Building, awed at how big it was, but it took the night sky—the real night sky—to let you see just how small you really were.
"Contemplating the heavens?" Peggy was standing nearby, her wash kit in one hand and a small towel slung over her shoulder.
"Something like that," Steve said. From the other side of the little stand of trees, he could hear Bucky and Jones singing—two pleasant tenor voices unfolding the story of Lili Marleen—but here by the stream, it was just him and Peggy.
They stood there for a moment, just looking at one another. Steve wished desperately for a moment that the serum had left him double-jointed so that he could kick his own damn ass. Any other guy would know what to do with a moment like this—in the star-lit quiet at the end of a long day, the dame he was sweet on right there in front of him with an expectant, assessing kind of look on her face. Steve couldn't think of one smooth, plausible thing to say. He settled for swinging his shield up onto his back.
"I just wanted to—" he burst out, at the same time that Peggy said, "Did you—"
They both broke off. Steve, face hot with embarrassment, looked down at his boots. That seemed easier. "Thanks for getting me out of there."
"You would have done the same for any one of those men."
Steve looked up sharply at that. "And for you."
"Yes," Peggy said, and Steve never really knew what to do when her voice was soft like that. "I'm aware of that."
"Just… I know that looking for me put you all in danger and put the mission in danger," Steve continued, because it was important that Peggy really did get that he appreciated her. "So thank you."
"Yes, well," Peggy said, "it rather made sense that you'd be in the one impossible place in this whole valley." She went to brush her hair back from her cheek with her free hand and flinched—almost imperceptibly, but Steve caught it.
"Are you all right?" he asked, taking an involuntary step forward.
Peggy shrugged. "A little rope burn, that's all."
Even in the moonlight, Steve could see that it was more than just a little burn when he took Peggy's hand in his—the skin was rubbed raw and broken, right along her life line, and Steve was amazed she'd been able to keep it hidden while they were setting up camp. "This needs cleaning."
Peggy hefted the wash kit in her other hand. "That's rather what I intended to do."
"Oh," Steve said. He figured that was probably his cue to step back and away, to let go of Peggy's hand. If he were smart, he would. Behind them, the men had moved onto another song—Falsworth was crooning about the chance of seeing bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover in a surprisingly baritone voice. Steve could head back over in their direction, pretending that he was giving Peggy some privacy, or that he needed to talk to Buck about something, or hell, even that he wanted to join in the singing though not even his own mother would have said that Steve could stay in the right key.
But Peggy's hand was cool and dry in his, Peggy's hand was hurt because of him, and Bucky was the founding member of the Steve Rogers Is A Fat-Head Society for a reason.
Very slowly and carefully, Steve raised Peggy's hand to his mouth; just as slowly, just as carefully, and with every bit of care that he could muster, he pressed his lips to the edge of the raw skin. Peggy's dark gaze was fixed on his the whole time, her own lips slightly parted. She didn't make the least move to get away; through his fingertips, curled around her wrist, Steve could feel the quick, light beat of her pulse. Every inch of Steve felt lit up, sensitive, the way he had in the first few minutes after he'd stepped out of Stark's machine—like he was going to have to get used to seeing the world in a whole new way.
Steve felt Peggy's palm twitch a little beneath his lips, but just as he'd finally worked up the nerve to say something—to ask—there was a loud burst of laughter from the other side of the trees.
"Okay, fellas," Dum Dum roared, "join in if you know this one," and then all of the Commandos were singing together, a chorus that with great enthusiasm asked just how many testicles Adolf Hitler really had.
Steve pulled away, squeezing his eyes shut as he winced. It got so you could ignore plenty of things about living in close quarters with a bunch of other guys, but this wasn't one of them.
"I should… I should go wash up," Peggy said, turning away. She sounded faintly regretful, and Steve didn't know if that should make him keep hoping or not. But then she paused and looked back over her shoulder and said, "You should work on that balance of yours, you know—I do intend to hold you to that promise of a dance one day, and I don't want you falling into anything else before I get you on the dance floor."
"Yes, ma'am," Steve said.
Peggy vanished into the darkness and Steve tilted his head back, grinning up at the night sky. The stars overhead still flared bright. Steve thought about what it would be like to see them from the bottom of that well, all that distant glory telescoped down to what could fit into one small circle. He shivered, short and sharp, imagining himself back down there where the world could pass by without him—but in the distance, the Commandos were still singing, and Steve thought of all those hands, reaching down to help him up.