Fandom: Captain America (movie canon)
Characters: Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers, cast. Peggy/Steve UST.
Spoilers: For the film.
Notes: So over on my Tumblr, I did a giveaway where I offered to write stories (or meta, but everyone requested stories) for three winners. This is the first, for sakuratsukikage. Sakura requested a story about Peggy and Steve going on a mission with lots of UST and unresolved emotions, and this was the result. I hope she, and the rest of you, enjoy it.
Also on AO3
The map was the first thing Peggy saw every time she walked into the room.
Admittedly, it was difficult to miss: the map was huge, overhanging the edges of the conference table, and you moved about at your peril for fear of catching a corner and knocking it askew. Still, even had the map been the size of a postage stamp, it would have filled her vision and taken primacy in her thoughts. This map, once dotted with dozens of miniature flags and wooden tokens, now nearly empty, was the key to winning the war. But one of the locks was still missing; how were they to open the last door if they could not find it?
"Agent Carter? You planning to join us?" Peggy started and looked up, across the table at Colonel Phillips; he glared at her, leaning forward with his hands on the table. Lost in thought, she had somehow managed to miss the room filling up with people: not just Phillips, but Howard Stark, lounging up against the wall, half-a-dozen SSR agents, and next to Phillips, Captain Steven Rogers, his friend James Barnes a few steps behind him.
Steve Rogers. He half-caught her eye with a shy smile; she wanted to smile back, but instead she forced her attention to Phillips, straightening up and locking her hands behind her back. "My apologies, sir. I was just thinking."
"You can think later," Phillips barked. "Right now we're debriefing the last mission, and I need you to pay attention. Rogers?"
Steve acknowledged the request with a precise nod. "Yes, sir. I'm pleased to report that yesterday's effort to take down the Hydra encampment in eastern France was a qualified success. A success, in that we destroyed the factory and all the weapons there, including several tanks that were outfitted with Hydra's energy guns." He glanced down, brow furrowing with self-reproach, and Peggy had to suppress a smile. She'd seen the before and after pictures; only Steve Rogers would consider a leveled encampment to be a qualified success. He looked up and straightened his jacket as he continued. "Unfortunately, we were unable to capture Schmidt or any of his high-level henchmen."
"The closer we get, the further away they seem to be." Peggy tapped her fingers against the table. "Was there any indication of where their central base might be?"
"No, ma'am," Steve replied. He glanced back over his shoulder at Barnes, who shook his head. "No intelligence regarding the secret base Bucky-- er, Major Barnes heard them talking about, back in Italy. By the time we got into their offices, most everything was either taken or destroyed."
"And that concerns me." Peggy looked at Phillips. "If Hydra is sending so many resources to this secret base, all this will be for nothing if we don't find out what's there and neutralize it."
"You're probably right." Phillips glared at the map, then around the room. "Any ideas?"
Peggy walked slowly around to the northern edge of the map. "The last of the sites on the map Captain Rogers saw is here, yes? This one in northern Poland."
"Perhaps we need to take a more subtle approach to attacking it." She tapped the tiny Hydra flag with her index finger, then picked up the wooden house token that represented a base. "If one or two agents could infiltrate before we began the full-scale assault, we could find the information we need before Hydra is on alert to destroy it."
"Huh." Phillips crossed his arms. "Not the worst idea. But who goes in? They'd have to be able to sneak past a lot of Hydra people, talk their way out of trouble, and understand the intelligence that they find. Rogers, any of your team speak German well enough to pull that off?"
"Only Jones, sir," Steve said. "And I trust his skills, but--" He paused, as if trying to find a way to put it delicately. "I don't think he can pass as a Hydra agent."
"But I can." Peggy set down the token and looked straight at Phillips. "I'm fluent in German, and with the right uniform I can blend right in."
Phillips tipped his head sideways, thoughtfully; Steve's eyebrows lifted in alarm. "As a soldier?"
Peggy shook her head. "As a secretary," she said, mouth twisting slightly at the thought. "No one notices a secretary. And it'll certainly be much easier for me to pose as one than any of you lot."
A strange expression crossed Steve's face; Peggy suspected his protective instincts were at war with his common sense, and she lifted an eyebrow in his direction. "We could also create a distraction at the front to help you in and out," he said, slowly. "If you're sure about this."
"I wouldn't have suggested it if I weren't sure." Peggy leaned back against a stool and crossed her arms. "You aren't doubting my infiltrations skills, are you, Captain?"
"No, no." Steve shook his head as if to emphasize the point, and Peggy relaxed. "I was just… confirming."
"Sounds like a plan." Phillips nodded at Peggy. "Get together with our intel folks and learn as much about this base as you can. Floor plans, guard rosters, passcodes, whatever you need to make it work. Rogers, you and your commandos come up with a plan for the distraction. Big, loud, and as far away from the secretary pool as you can get. But don't just make it for show -- we want to take out the base as well as provide cover for Agent Carter. Understood?" He didn't wait for a response before he continued. "Dismissed."
"Let's recap the plan." Steve leaned back from the table and pointed at the photographs, hot off the press from Stark's reconnaissance flight over the last Hydra base. "We go after the tanks, causing enough commotion at the base that Agent Carter can get inside. Once she has what she needs and gives us the signal, we move on the base and take it out, giving her cover to escape. Got it?"
Morita raised his hand, and Steve acknowledged him with a nod. "So we're all with you? Or is anyone backing up Agent Carter?"
Steve pulled his hands back, clenching them into fists beneath the table. "Just Agent Carter. None of us can pass for Hydra, so she'll be safer on her own." Or so she said. It made sense. He'd been repeating those same words under his breath like a prayer every day for a week, since she'd first suggested the plan. Eventually he would convince himself to believe. Bucky glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, but Steve avoided catching his eye. "Okay, let's go. Get some rest; we leave at sundown." The others left, chatting quietly amongst themselves, and Steve busied himself cleaning up the photos and other papers, taking long enough that Bucky gave up waiting for him.
Finally alone, he gathered the papers into a neat stack and let out the breath he had been holding. "Stop being so stupid," he muttered to himself. "Everything will be fine. Just fine." He stood up, and then the door opened to admit Peggy into the room. With a gulp, he shoved the papers and photos into the mission folder. "Peggy-- Agent Carter. What brings you here?"
"Looking for the mission files. Ah, there they are. Thank you." She held out her hand, and he put the folder into her slim fingers, nails tipped with red. Red like her lips, like that dress… he swallowed and stepped back, to a safer distance. "Are you ready for tomorrow?" she asked.
"Are you?" Steve lowered his eyes, then lifted them again, studying her face for any sign of nerves. "It's a risky job you've volunteered for."
Peggy's eyebrows arched, just a hair. "If you've any doubts about my fitness for this role, Captain, you should have voiced them earlier."
"No, never. No doubts." He believed that much, at least. "You're the best wom-- best person for the job. There's no one else I'd trust to do better. I just…" He looked down at his shoes. "Just, be safe, okay?" All the other words he wanted to say piled up in his throat and choked him, but how could he tell her? How could he say that he believed in her but didn't know what he would do in a world without her? Not here, not yet, not when they both had to put themselves into danger every single day.
"I appreciate your concern," she said, softly; he heard a smile in her voice, and glancing up, he saw there was one on her face, as well. "But I'll be fine. I promise."
"And I'll do everything I can to make sure you are." He lifted a hand to his chest and tapped it. "That's my promise to you."
"So it's a deal then." Peggy closed the file folder and slipped it under her arm. "Thank you, Captain. I'll see you in a few hours."
The flight to Poland had been taken under cover of darkness, Peggy and Steve and the rest of the strike team all bundled up together on Stark's plane. Mostly they had slept, or tried to sleep; Peggy had not expected to find the trip restful, but Howard had given her a pair of headphones to block out the noise. After she put them on and laid down in her bunk, she had relaxed almost immediately, the dim hum of the engines lulling her to sleep. Only once did she awaken, surprised by a bit of choppy air; she rolled over and opened her eyes and saw Steve, apparently asleep even though he was sitting up, eyes closed, head leaned back against the fuselage, face relaxed and boyish in the dim light that spilled backward from the cockpit. She watched him for a moment, and then she closed her eyes, drifting back off with a smile on her face.
They landed on a secret airstrip some miles from the Hydra base, then met to refresh the plan in their minds over breakfast; Peggy gratefully accepted a cup of coffee from Dernier and sat down at the camp table, letting Steve take charge. He had changed into his uniform, white star emblazoned on his broad chest, but he hadn't yet put on his cap, so she could see his brow furrow as he laid out maps and photographs, marked with pins and flags. "Okay," he said. "We all know what we have to do, but let's just go over it one last time. Peggy, you'll go in the main entrance, here." He pointed at the front door, then moved his finger around to the north side of the building. "When it's time to go, use this exit in the back. Do you have the tracker?"
Peggy pulled out the small black box Howard had given her, similar to the one she had given to Steve in Italy, and held it up. She planned to take better care of this one. "Once I've found the intel we need, I activate the signal. If it's too dangerous for you to come to me, I'll turn it on for ten seconds, then off for ten, then back on."
"Right." Steve indicated a stand of trees outside the base. "Wait here, if you can get out. If not, stay inside and leave the tracker on; we'll use the signal to find you."
"Understood." Peggy glanced around the room. "And you?"
Steve glanced at his boots, then back at her, apologetically. "Best for you not to know. Just in case. Just know we'll get to you as soon as you send the signal."
"Of course." Peggy took a long drink of her coffee, closing her eyes to savor the smell. "All right. I'd best get moving if I'm to be in place by the time you begin your attack. Captain Rogers, which way?"
Steve reached into a pocket and pulled out his compass; he flipped the top up, so that only the back was visible, but Peggy knew what else was there: a photo of her. Her eyes were drawn to the engraved lid, and she couldn't look away. She felt a flush creeping up her cheeks, remembering the sidelong glance Phillips had given her when they'd caught that image on the newsreel. Why would he do that? Where had he even gotten the photograph?
Steve flicked his eyes up at her forehead, then back down to the compass, which he snapped shut before looking at her again. "Northeast. That way." He pointed through the trees. "So… you have everything?"
Peggy patted her satchel. "Identity papers, recording device, camera, everything a lady needs to infiltrate a secret base." Plus her favorite pistol, tucked discreetly in a hidden pocket. Intel suggested that Hydra functionaries were not normally armed, but she had no interest in going into that place without a weapon.
"Good luck, Agent Carter." Steve stood straight and snapped off a salute, which Peggy returned. "See you in a few hours."
"Thank you, Captain." And Peggy left, not looking back, even though she felt Steve's eyes on the back of her head until long after she should have been out of his sight.
He couldn't help it; he watched her go, walk out of the tent and down the road, picking her way past puddles until she disappeared into the trees. Not until Peggy was out of sight could Steve move again, letting out a careful breath. The compass weighed heavily in his hand, but he didn't feel like putting it away; instead, he kept it in his palm as he looked back at the map. "Okay," he said. He glanced up again and realized that the men were watching him, most with carefully blank expressions, and he felt warmth creeping up his neck to his ears. Bucky raised an eyebrow; Steve covered his embarrassment with a stern look. "Okay," he said again, drawing himself straight up in the chair. "Now for our side of things. The warehouse where the tanks are kept is here, about two miles west of the factory base. Once we get there, we work on dismantling it, but not too fast -- remember, we're also providing a distraction for Agent Carter. So we'll need to take our time."
"How long?" Dugan asked.
Steve shook his head. "There's no way to know. We'll just have to stay flexible."
"All right." Dugan leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. "When do we move out?"
"We estimate it should take Agent Carter about an hour to reach the base on foot. We have a little further to go, but we have the trucks, so it shouldn't take us more than a few minutes. So--" he checked his watch. "Be ready to leave at oh-eight-fifty. Until then?" He stood up straight and dropped the compass back in his pocket. "At ease." If he could take any ease right now. Waiting was the worst part of any mission, and this wasn't going to be any exception. Once again, Bucky tried to catch his eye; this time Steve looked away, busying himself with the mission map until Bucky left. The last thing he wanted to do right now was talk to anyone. Better to go over the plans, just one more time…
The forest was almost eerily quiet -- the only sounds Peggy could hear, beyond her own footsteps, were the occasional bird call and the patter of last night's rain dripping off the trees. She walked briskly along the muddy road, staying close to its edge to keep her feet out of the worst of the muck. Half an hour along the way, and she had yet to see another living soul -- not on foot, not in a car. Should there have been more activity this close to the factory?
Then, from the distance, a muffled shout. Peggy stopped and stepped behind a tree, waiting, holding still -- had she been seen? She closed her eyes to better listen to the voices, talking in rapid-fire German. No, she decided, they hadn't spotted her; they were having routine conversation about an upcoming shift change: who was arriving, who was leaving, duty rosters and plans for lunch. But that did mean a checkpoint ahead. She risked leaning around the tree to peer down the road. Two jeeps were there, Hydra's sigil painted on their hoods, and a few men milled about. But it looked like a small checkpoint -- no barracks, no fence, just vehicles and three soldiers. Peggy leaned back against the damp tree and considered her options. Should she bluff her way through or go around? Around, she decided; since this road was so little used, it seemed unlikely that she could come up with a good explanation for her presence: alone, on foot, so far from the factory and the town that surrounded it. If she kept her distance and stuck to the trees, it should be easy enough to stay out of their way. Yesterday's rain would work to her advantage now -- fewer dry twigs to step on, no whispering leaves to betray her presence.
She took a deep breath and stepped off the road into the forest, walking as rapidly as she could while still keeping trees and ground cover between herself and the checkpoint. How far off the road would she need to go? How much time would she lose, going around? She glanced back at the checkpoint and wondered if she'd be better off pushing straight through. Then she shook her head, hard. She'd made a decision, and she would carry it through. Indecision was a distraction she couldn't afford. So she forged again and picked her way through the trees and kept one eye on the ground and another on the checkpoint, keen for anything that might make noise underfoot, or trip her up if she stepped wrong.
"Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine…"
"Hey, Steve-- Steve?"
Startled, Steve loosened his grip around the bar, and the sweat on his fingers had him sliding off; he almost stumbled when he hit the ground. When he straightened and turned around, Bucky was looking at him, tent flap propped up on his right hand, eyebrow raised. "Come on in."
Bucky stepped inside and let the canvas fall closed behind him. "What are you doing?"
"Pull-ups," Steve said, gesturing toward the bar, then wiping his hands on his pants.
"Well, I can see that." Bucky shook his head, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "And before that it was pushups, and before that you were jogging around camp. Everything okay?"
Steve forced himself to breathe normally and make his answering nod casual, even as his mind raced through every worst case scenario it could imagine -- Peggy, wandering lost in in the woods; Peggy, saying the wrong thing at a checkpoint and getting captured by agents; Peggy, blindfolded with a gun pointing at her head. Images that the calisthenics had been keeping at bay, until now. "Sure. Just blowing off steam while we wait."
"Yeah, because you're always this nervous before we take out a Hydra plant." Bucky's smile turned from skeptical to knowing. "Well, far be it from me to distract you from your distraction. Want to take another turn around the perimeter? I had a question, but I can ask while we run."
Steve took a deep breath, tightened his hands into fists, then let all the tension go with a sigh. He could fool a lot of people. Sometimes even himself. But he couldn't fool Bucky. "Sure. Thanks."
It was slow going through the forest, tedious and nerve-wracking. Peggy felt like she was pushing through molasses as she calculated the risk inherent in every single step. Every noise was magnified: her shoes hitting the ground, wind whispering in the treetops, the soldiers' distant conversation, the sound of her own breathing.
She risked a look over her shoulder and through the tree trunks -- the checkpoint was a few feet behind her. And then she felt it: a soft impact against her right foot, followed by a rustle and then a loud plunk. Had she kicked a pebble? Holding her breath, she hurried forward, still with silent steps, to get behind a tree that would block her from view of the checkpoint in case the sound had carried.
Once there, she peeked around the tree trunk to check on the soldiers again. But they gave no sign of having heard -- two looked forward down the road, and the other leaned back on the hood of a jeep, cleaning his fingernails. She took a moment to breathe, resting her hand against the tree, pressing it into the wet bark and willing her pounding heart to slow.
When she was ready, she took a step forward, another and another, assured that she hadn't given herself away. But probably best to keep off the road. At least for now.
After a few more laps around the camp, Steve was finally able to settle down with a cup of coffee and pull out all the mission briefing memos he'd been avoiding. When the canvas flap opened up to admit Dugan, Steve checked his watch and was surprised to see the time. "Five minute warning?"
Dugan nodded. "The rest of camp's broken down. You ready for us to relocate the command center to the truck?"
"Sure thing." Steve stacked up all the papers and put them in the lockbox, which he handed to Dugan. Finally, time to move. Even if that knowledge did immediately bring to mind the image of Peggy, hiding in an alleyway and waiting for the base guards to clear so she could get inside.
He shook his head sharply. "Stop that," he muttered. This was just another weapons depot, like the dozen he'd destroyed before it. He could do this, and so could she. Steve pulled on his cap and hooked his shield over his arm, then raised his voice. "Let's go."
Peggy leaned against a wall, ducking out of sight of a small patrol, and checked her watch: two minutes until the assault on the storage facility. Getting past the checkpoint on the road had not, on reflection, been so difficult. Much harder now, to try and stay hidden in plain sight when the town around this base was so small, and not well-populated. Intelligence had warned them that Hydra support staff rarely left the base, so getting inside would be the hardest part. She glanced at her watch one more time, then forced her arm behind her back. Any second, it would be starting, but she couldn't go by the clock. Once the guard was pulled off the front, that was her cue.
No activity yet. So she focused back on the guards, one standing on either side of the front door. Just a minute or two, she promised herself, and then she could go. Steve would be in place on time, she was certain of it.
The munitions stockpile would have been a tempting target even if going after it hadn't been the main point of this operation. The team gathered on the edge of the forest, waiting for Dernier's whistle; it came, followed by an explosion. The gates were down. "Move, move!" Steve shouted, and they did, pulling out guns and plowing into the small team of Hydra forces that raced out the gates. Steve bashed one in the face, then another, but he deliberately avoided the one with the hand-held radio. This time, he wanted the distress call to go out. Slowing his advance, holding his ground, he hoped it would be enough.
The warning bell blasted through the town, followed by an announcement in German: "All available hands to the storage facility." Taking that as her signal, Peggy tucked her hair beneath her hat, then stepped out of the shadows with a glance at her watch: nine hundred hours, right on the dot. She allowed herself a brief smile, then walked up to the gate, head up, eyes forward, passing through the group of Hydra soldiers jogging out the door and toward the jeeps. No one even glanced at her, not even the guard, who was busy plotting with the departing soldiers. Once on the grounds, she continued facing forward, stepping around the tanks in the yard as she made her way to the factory door. No one challenged her as she stepped inside, but not until she turned a corner and found a window looking over the factory floor did she pause to evaluate the situation.
The gamble had paid off: some of the soldiers were leaving, but the grunts were not, heads down over their assembly lines, working frantically toward some deadline that only Hydra's top brass knew. Peggy's fingers itched to pull the gun out of her bag and take out the overseers, to give the workers a chance to escape, evacuate before the roof fell down on their heads, but she didn't dare -- the intelligence she had been sent to gather was more important than freeing prisoners of war. So she put her head back down and moved on, making her way through the maze of hallways she had memorized and heading toward the administrative offices. The halls were filled with people, mostly men but a few other women, scurrying in and out of doorways, holding hushed conversations. Tempting as it was to pause and listen in, see what information she could glean from their gossip, she hurried on. If she didn't find out the location of that base, this exercise was all for nothing.
She turned away from the windows ringing the factory floor, up the metal stairs, then right down a long hallway. There were fewer people here, so she moved quickly, more cautious now that she couldn't hide inside in a crowd. If the maps were correct, the office she sought would be behind the fourth door on her left. Boots clicking on the metal floor, she found the door and turned the handle, only to discover it was locked. Frowning, she glanced around, but saw no one watching, and no security cameras; she pressed her ear to the door and heard nothing. She stepped away and went to the next door. This one opened onto a busy office, three women and one man scurrying about and stuffing papers into boxes. One of the women looked up at her. "Where did you come from?" she asked.
"I came last night from Berlin," Peggy replied. "Replacement typist." That was the cover story on her papers, anyway, one that would hopefully hold up to scrutiny. Fortunately, the woman just shrugged and pointed her toward the file cabinets.
"Not for long. We clear out today. Just got the orders. Captain America was spotted at the offsite storehouse, so we should assume an attack here is imminent. Our top priority is rescuing Dr. Zola's notes before it happens. Clear?"
"Clear." Peggy nodded. She turned to the files and joined the others, pulling them out and putting them in boxes. She longed to open up the folders and glance through the notes -- how much valuable intelligence was passing through her hands right now, unseen? But none of the others were looking at the documents, just putting them into the boxes without much heed to sense or order, and she didn't dare stand out. It was mind-numbing work, but she couldn't allow herself to lose concentration, so she forced herself to pay attention to what little she could see: words written on the outside of file folders, the title cards on the drawers and separators, names and codes, and filed them away in her brain, clues for later examination.
And then, halfway through the second drawer, she picked up a file, and it was labeled with a name she could not resist: Valkyrie. A name out of ancient Norse legend? Surely this had to be something important to Schmidt. So she let the folder slip out of her hands, the papers spilling all over the floor. Under her breath, she cursed her own clumsiness, then got down on her knees and started gathering up the mess, briskly but also scanning as much of the information as she could: schematics for small planes and bombs powered by the same mysterious fuel as Hydra's weapons, and references to a large assembly hangar -- somewhere. But there were no maps, no place names, nothing specific to hang any of this information on, at least not in the quick glance she allowed herself in the few seconds it took to pick the papers up and stack them back in the folder. She shoved the folder in the box and moved on to the rest of the drawer, not breaking in her stride, although she made a point of fumbling the next folder and pausing before putting it away.
Glancing around, she seemed not to have attracted too much attention, although the leader shot her a dirty look. "Speed it up," she said, and Peggy nodded, then returned to her work, mind racing. Could this hangar be the secret base Barnes had mentioned? If only there was more to go on about its location.
Peggy pulled the last folder from the drawer, and it filled the box; she closed it up, and looked around for the next, but the others were finishing, stacking the boxes on a trolley. She followed suit, then stepped back as if awaiting orders.
"That's the last of them," the man said. "What now?"
"Load them up with the last of the parts. Then you come back to defend the plant while we evacuate. Herr Schmidt will be most displeased if the plant is taken with survivors." The woman tilted her head toward the hallway. "Now go."
"Yes ma'am." The man leaned against the trolley and pushed it out the door. Peggy was quick to follow, falling into the middle of the pack, hurrying down the empty hallway to the elevator; then she stopped.
"My bag," she said -- the bag she had purposefully dropped behind the file cabinets, then left behind. "I'll catch up."
The woman nodded, and Peggy went back, walking briskly in the other direction. It was not hard to look concerned; she had found something, but nothing near what she was hoping for. She thought of the transmitter in her bag and wondered if it was time to call for her pickup.
Returning to the file room, she picked up her bag and took a moment to look around. There was a note on the teletype that she could swear hadn't been there before, and she took a closer look. It was an order to clear the rails from here to Austria, readying a train to transport Doctor Zola to some unspecified destination. Peggy pulled out her camera and took a quick snapshot of the note. "Doctor Zola," she murmured to herself. "Maybe it's time to go right to the source." She put the camera away and pulled out the transmitter. Not exactly what she was looking for, but the best she was going to find, with all the files still in boxes. She flipped the switch, then put the device back in her bag. Time to find her way out of here.
Of all the contingencies Steve had planned for on this mission, this was not one of them. "What do you mean, the transmitter is signaling?"
"Just what I said," Jones shouted over the din of the battle going on all around them. "It went off about two minutes ago."
"So early?" Steve stared at Jones, then ducked, bringing up his shield to cover them both from a barrage of bullets coming from the right. He grabbed Jones by the arm and signaled him to move behind a stand of scrap metal that had been a tank a few minutes ago. "Start again from the beginning."
Jones shrugged and held up the box in his right hand, its red light flashing steadily. "This is all I know, Captain. Agent Carter must have found what she was looking for more quickly than we expected."
Steve picked up the receiver and stuck it in his pouch. "All right. Thanks for letting me know." He looked around for Bucky and found him, holed up in a different scrap heap, providing cover for the men grappling with the reinforcements on the field. Fighting his way through to Bucky's side, he leaned over and shouted in his ear. "We got Peggy's signal."
"Already?" Bucky ducked behind his cover, then turned to look at him.
"Yeah, guess things went better than expected." Steve rocked back on his heels. "I hate to leave you before things are finished here…"
Bucky waved off his concern. "If she's signaling this early, whatever intel she found has to be more important than taking out one weapons depot. Go get her, I'll mop up here."
Steve clapped Bucky on the shoulder. "Thanks. I'll see you at the rendezvous."
"You got it. Now go; I'll cover you." Bucky popped up and peppered the ground with clearing fire, and Steve took the opportunity to race out, hoping his departure wouldn't draw too much attention.
After a glance down the long hall to ensure that no one was following her, Peggy opened the door to a broom closet and slipped inside, shoving the mop bucket out of the way to make room. It was pitch black, only a sliver of dim light coming beneath the heavy door, but it also helped blot out the incessant jangling of the alarm bell. Peggy settled back against the wall and closed her eyes to think.
Would the leader of the secretarial group notice that she had not returned to them? Nobody notices a secretary -- except another secretary. Peggy wished she could have slipped away from the group without having made an excuse. That excuse might be remembered. But what would the other woman do, if Peggy did not return? Surely she was not worth a full-scale search mission, not when they were so busy evacuating the plant.
Out of habit, Peggy checked her watch, even though it was too dark here to make out the numbers. She knew she had signaled too soon, that Steve's team would not be ready to extract her yet. Probably her safest course of action would be to make her way to the back door, get out of the blast zone, and find somewhere to hole up until Steve arrived. But she itched to keep exploring the facility. The information about Zola had been an excellent find, good enough to justify the mission, but how much more valuable intel could be found here?
One pass around the floor, she told herself. She should have enough time for that. After listening at the door to make sure there were no footsteps or voices in the hall, she pushed the door open and emerged from the closet.
"There you are!" Peggy turned toward the shout to see the woman from the file room, coming down the hall at a near-run. "I was concerned that you'd gotten lost."
"I did get turned around," Peggy admitted, mind racing through several possible excuses and latching on the one she'd been given. "This base is different from the others."
"Well, get moving," the woman snapped. "We only have a few minutes before the whole thing comes down; don't you know what the alarm bell means?" She whipped around and hurried down the hall, and Peggy had no choice but to follow her to the stairwell. For now, this would be fine, but she could not get onto those evacuation trucks. She had to stay in the vicinity of the base. As the door to the stairs closed behind them, Peggy reached into her bag and pulled out her pistol; after considering her possible courses of action, instead of shooting she lashed out with the butt of the weapon, cracking it against the base of the woman's skull. With little more than a grunt, she fell forward, tumbling over the landing and down the steps. Peggy barely paused as she continued down to the basement with a pang of disappointment at the lost opportunity. So much for extra reconnaissance. Now she really did have to hurry.
In the chaos of battle, it had been easy enough for Steve to liberate a jeep from the weapons depot lot and drive it over to the factory, taking bumpy back roads to avoid detection. By the time he pulled into the rendezvous point -- a stand of trees near the factory exit -- he had been hearing the buzzing of alarm bells for several minutes. That, he thought, was a matter for concern, if Hydra was already on alert. Had they recognized the attack on the weapons depot for the distraction it was? It would explain why resistance had been so light there. He parked the jeep behind the trees and jumped out to look around the empty clearing. "Peggy?" he called out, as loudly as he dared. There was no answer, and he sighed. "Of course," he muttered. "Why would it be that easy?"
Steve checked his watch and frowned. Fifteen minutes had passed since Jones had told him about receiving Peggy's signal. Had the factory's auto-destruction sequence been triggered? If so, how long did they have? Past factories had gone down anywhere between ten and thirty minutes after his arrival. So the explosion could be imminent, or she might have some time. Should he wait here, give Peggy a little more time to get out of the factory? Or was it best to try and get inside?
He leaned around one of the trees. From here, he had a view of the factory's loading dock as well as the exit they had identified as Peggy's best escape. No one was by the small door, but the dock was a flurry of activity, Hydra soldiers and agents piling equipment on trucks, not yet hurrying away from the blast zone. Still emptying the place out, then. Maybe they had some time.
Probably he should wait. But the idea of hiding in the clearing, not knowing how Peggy was doing inside, was unthinkable. Steve glanced back at the vehicle and wondered if it was worth trying to get into some sort of disguise, then rejected the idea -- he'd have to leave his shield behind, and he had no interest in wading into a possible battle without it. But maybe he could do something with that pile of jackets in the back seat. He sorted through them, shaking them out to gauge their size, and when he found the largest one, he pulled it on, draping the left lapel over his shield arm. A little awkward, but better than being recognized and shot on sight.
With a quick deep breath, Steve squared his shoulders and sprinted across the open ground to the factory wall. Once there, he pressed his back against the wall and looked around, but he heard no shouts of alarm, no tromp of heavy boots. The door was locked; he smashed at the knob with his shield and it came off, enabling him to reach in and undo the bolt by hand. Then he slipped inside. The door opened onto a hallway, stairs going up and down to his left. Steve pulled out the tracking device and checked the light. This was a crude locator device -- it would flash more quickly as Peggy's transmitter got closer, but that was all the information it could give him, nothing more specific on her positioning. He wished for the more sophisticated radar back at camp.
"Well, we'll do our best with what we've got," he said, under his breath. "Just like always, right?" He made a guess and started down the stairs -- and almost tripped over the body of an unconscious woman, sprawled over the steps, a nasty bruise at the base of her neck. Steve shook his head with a smile. Even without the locator, it seemed he was on the right track to finding Peggy. But there was only one way to find out for sure.
The basement was quiet in comparison to the other floors -- the alarm bell muted, no other people in sight -- but Peggy knew better than to lower her guard. Within minutes, the generators that had been rigged to explode would do so, bringing the factory floor down on her head. So she hurried down the dark hallway, dim lights flickering overhead. She had memorized the map of this floor just as she had the others, but it seemed the floor plans they'd gotten were incomplete -- twice now she'd passed turns that should have led to stairwells, but none had presented itself. Had she been turned around? But then she should have gone past the stairs she'd taken down here. If only she could have brought a compass, but they'd already learned that Hydra's equipment tended to wreak havoc with them.
Then she heard the muffled bang of a door. She stopped short, pushing herself flat against the wall, and held her breath. There should be no one down here -- all hands were evacuating weapons parts or guarding the front door. But there they were, the unmistakable sound of footfalls, coming -- down the stairs? Which stairs? Had she come full circle, or was she to be stopped just short of the exit? Without a sound, she drew her pistol and held it up to her chest, and then she waited, eyes on the corner at the end of the hall.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Steve stopped and checked the tracker, confirming that the light flashed faster now than it had on the ground floor. He put the device away to free up a hand for his shield, then tossed a mental coin and decided to turn right. The hallway was empty, and the lights overhead dim, possibly about to flicker out at any moment. The alarm was softer down here, a welcome respite from the jangling in his ears. He found a corner, then peeked around to see a dark figure flattened against the wall, a woman in a Hydra uniform looking straight at him… and she darted forward, the hat falling off her head to reveal Peggy's brown curls.
"Steve!" she hissed, eyes flashing with surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"Getting you out," he said, also hushed, letting his shield arm fall, then shrugging off the jacket. "When you weren't in the clearing that long after sending the signal, I worried."
Peggy raised an eyebrow at him, then nodded. "All right," she said. "You wouldn't have come in here if you could've been followed. Now, how to we get out? This place is a maze."
"There's a stairwell, right over--" Steve started to gesture behind him, but his next words were drowned out by the sound of an explosion right over their heads. Seconds later it was followed by another, and the sound and force of it was enough to rattle the walls and knock Peggy nearly off her feet. Steve reached out to steady her, and then a third explosion tore through the ceiling, plunging the corridor into darkness and bringing a rain of concrete dust and pebbles down on their heads.
"Here!" Steve shouted; he grabbed Peggy's arm and pulled her into a corner, and then he knelt down, pulling them both to the floor, putting Peggy between himself and the walls as he flung the shield up over their heads. They huddled together, Peggy curled into a ball at his feet. Debris pelted the shield, weighing him down more every second; he grit his teeth and held steady, ignoring the pain as chunks of concrete and metal missed the shield and pounded his back instead. Dear God, please just leave us an air pocket. I can take care of the rest.
Peggy crouched on the floor, head tucked between her knees, hands laced behind her neck, making herself as small as she could while Steve protected her with his shield and his own body, making a safe pocket for her in this rain of chaos. The air filled with dust and smoke, making it hard to breathe, but she forced herself -- the worst thing she could do now was pass out. She shifted just enough to cover her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. The shower of debris seemed to last forever, but eventually it stopped, to be replaced by an awful silence -- no explosions, no alarm bell, no voices. Nothing. They could have been the last people alive, buried in this pile of rubble. She started to twist around to take stock of the situation, but Steve stopped her with a whispered word.
"Wait." She could feel his breathing, loud in her ears: hard, labored; she wondered whether he'd been injured, and how much weight he was bearing on that shield. "Just-- wait," he repeated, still whispering. "Let them… think nobody is... here."
She shook her head. "You can't keep this up forever."
"Sure I can," he replied, and she couldn't help a smile. "But I don't need… forever. Just… a few more minutes."
"All right." Peggy settled, let her eyes adjust to the near-total darkness, and added a torch to the list of things she wished she'd been able to hide in her bag. How long could they safely wait? The stack of debris seemed stable, though how much of that was due to Steve's efforts was hard to say. And if she knew Steve, he would never complain, even with his endurance pushed to the breaking point. So exasperating… so endearing. Then she shook her head, a silent personal rebuke. Not now, this is no time to be distracted, even if he is impossible to ignore, being right there like that, warm, strong, smelling like gunpowder…
Good thing it was too dark in here for him to see her blush. Peggy took a deep breath -- and caught a faint whiff of smoke. "Steve?" she whispered. "Do you smell that?"
"Yeah." He adjusted position, settling on the flats of his feet. "Some of the equipment must have caught fire."
"We can't stay here much longer." She could see a bit now, a dim outline of concrete chunks blocking the way forward. "How stable is this? Could you break your way out through the top?"
Steve was silent for a moment. "It's risky," he finally said. "Some of the chunks are braced against each other, but the shield is taking a lot of weight. It might all come down if I shift too much."
She tapped at one of the larger pieces of rubble in front of her, and it moved forward. Just loose enough to remove. "Perhaps I can dig out a path to the side, tunnel my way out."
"Better that than suffocating." She made it an order -- his title notwithstanding, by some interpretations of the chain of command, she still outranked him. "Keep still, and I'll clear as much as I can."
"Yes ma'am," he replied, a smile even in his strained voice. Peggy let herself pat his calf, for reassurance, then began to shift position, balancing on her knees and wrapping her hands around the chunk of debris. She pulled it toward her as quickly as she dared, the concrete scraping against the pieces above and below. With careful tugging, it soon came free, and she set it aside, then reached for the next. And so she went, with agonizing slowness, testing each piece before she pulled it out of place, inching forward into the space she was creating. With each step, she pulled further from Steve and the safety of his shield, his presence, and she tried not to think about it, about what might happen if she misjudged a bit of debris or moved too fast. But the smoke was getting stronger; she couldn't take too much time, either.
How long had it been? She resisted the urge to check her watch; probably too dim to read it anyway. She glanced back over her shoulder -- she was almost completely inside the tunnel now, a small pile of rubble growing at Steve's feet. She could see his face now, his head bowed beneath the shield, his eyes closed, his arms braced against the rubble overhead and trembling with the strain. Turning around with a surge of energy, she began to work more rapidly, yanking pieces out and setting them beneath her. Was the light getting brighter? Could she see smoke now, curling through the cracks in the walls of her tunnel? She inhaled and got a mouthful of smoke and dust, choking her, and she lowered her head to cough.
"Peggy?" Steve's rasping call was one of alarm. "Peggy!"
"I'm--" but another coughing fit took her before she could say she was all right; she covered her mouth in an attempt to filter out the particles that scraped her throat. She had to regain control, she had to keep going, she had to…
"Agent Carter?" It was a new voice, almost right over her head -- Peggy had never before been so glad to recognize the voice of Sergeant Barnes. "Agent Carter? Steve? Is that you?"
Peggy cleared her throat, then called back. "We're in here!"
"Hold on!" His next call was muffled, probably behind them, and Peggy curled back into her most protected position, listening to the frantic sounds of activity overhead as the team cleared a path to her. Soon a beam of sunlight was falling on her face, and she squinted up at Barnes, who held a hand out to her. She took it and scrambled quickly up the side of the pile and out. Barnes tried to wrap a blanket around her, but she shook him off.
"The captain… he's behind me…" She shuddered and almost lost her footing. "I don't know how much longer he--"
"We're on it, ma'am." Barnes nodded to her and then passed her off to one of the others before he started digging again, clearing the way for Steve.
"Ma'am, are you okay?" The soldier -- it was Jones, Peggy realized, as she turned to face him. "Can we do anything for you?"
"Just--" she coughed again, wiping her mouth. "Some water, if you please."
"Okay, come with me, and--"
"No thank you." Peggy peered down the short tunnel, trying to get a glimpse of Steve through the heads of the diggers. "I'll wait here."
Jones placed a canteen in her hand and she gulped from it, washing the taste of concrete dust from her mouth; then she resumed watching. It seemed like forever, but it was less than a minute before Steve broke out of his cement prison with a crash, a cascade of debris flying backwards as he emerged and put arm around Barnes; it took all her self control not to run to him.
"Steve!" She could not look away as he walked stiffly toward her. "Are you all right?"
"Just bumps and bruises," he said, wincing as he stretched and freed himself from Barnes. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't cure. You're okay?"
He peered down at her with an anxious expression, which she waved off. "I'm fine," she replied. "Thanks to you." Relief flooded his blue eyes, and she had to look away, unwilling to see such raw emotion on his face, or to betray her own similar reaction. She took a deep breath and straightened. "I have news, important news about the location of Doctor Zola, but we need to move fast. Shall we discuss it on the way back to the airfield?"
"Yes ma'am." He smiled, then winced again. "But maybe a ride there would be nice."
"We have a truck," Jones said, gesturing toward a Hydra vehicle with a flatbed. "Set it up with the tracker, which is how we knew you were both here."
Steve nodded, then held out a hand. "After you," he said, and Peggy climbed up the back and settled into a folding seat before turning to look over the piles of rubble that used to be a factory, that had come much too close to being her tomb, hers and Steve's together, and she shuddered. Still, that debris meant one more marker cleared off the map, and perhaps now they had enough clues to find the final piece of the puzzle. If so, it was worth the risk they had taken. Yes, she thought, leaning back against the canvas and closing her eyes. It was more than worth it.
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