Unlikely Singularities – Chapter 7

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Hold Me Closer, Kevin Bacon: Another Round

October 13, 2016

Natasha stopped at an older model coup a block away from the County building and popped the trunk. She handed him a fresh t-shirt, baseball hat, and sunglasses then waited with her hand out. She looked bored. Steve sighed, glanced around to make sure no one was nearby, and whipped his own shirt off. He didn’t realize until the new one was on how weird his old clothes smelled. An unpleasant mix of antiseptic and meat locker. The shirt was plain white. He put on the sunglasses and held the bill of the hat between his teeth as he tucked it in and adjusted his belt. He felt like he had lost a few pounds, despite the hamburgers.

I’ve been trying to find of few of our old friends,” Natasha began. Her voice was eerie. Hers, but lighter and younger than usual. It never ceased to amaze him how easily and fully she slipped into character. Anyone listening, even random pedestrians, would think she was just a college girl. “They have been super hard to get in touch with, but I think I found a couple of them that are touring around Asia.”

Asia,” Steve said flatly. He doubted they were under surveillance, but Natasha would know. He wasn’t sure what his role was supposed to be. He looked a little too old for college and Natasha wasn’t giving him any hints. And Asia is a pretty damn big place.

She rolled her eyes and started walking. “Yeah. I mean, most people hit up the usual – China, Thailand – Japan is too expensive and you have to be brain dead to try North Korea.”

Unstable,” Steve commented. Natasha squinted at him and he shrugged. He had seen dictators before, but the kid in Korea was an entirely different breed of crazy. Steve hated oppression, but Natasha claimed that it was a situation better left to other players. If he had less on his plate, he might challenge her opinion, but as things stood he didn’t have the time to dig into the economic and geopolitical repercussions of overthrowing a corrupt government. He had his own government to deal with. Hell, maybe getting involved in other countries is what sent the US down their current path.

Natasha dragged him along on three different stops, burrowing further into Rancho Dominguez. She flirted in Mandarin, threatened in Spanish, and slid a bribe under a table with an observation in English about the weather. Steve did not actually carry anything. All of the packages went into Nat’s backpack. During their walk, she told a story about the dregs of HYDRA and where they had gone to ground. It was all couched in terms of college rivals and friends who had lost touch.

I get it. You are the queen of subterfuge. Is all this really necessary?” Steve broke in with a heavy sigh. He had gotten better at hiding in plain sight – a necessity – but he would never be a spy.

Not really,” Nat shrugged, then grinned at his open-mouthed disbelief. “Just checking to see how long you could go with it.” She glanced at her phone. Nothing wrong with a watch, he groused to himself. “Thirty-eight minutes. Not bad. Myanmar,” she abruptly changed topics. “I am catching a lot of chatter about some unusual shipments there, a few known HYDRA agents, more than one suspected SHIELD traitor. I’d like to take a closer look, but I need to poach some backup.”

Steve flipped through his memories, and the stacks of textbooks and millions of articles he had read since waking up. “British Burma,” he said quietly. “Top five in opium production. Pledged to UN to reduce human trafficking by 10% over the next five years.”

Nice to know you’ve kept up on current events,” Natasha dryly noted. “They’ll probably make that figure, but the big players will remain in business through government contacts and wealth. It makes the country a nice place for HYDRA to hide. Loose borders, widespread bribery, high poverty, and a fluid military. I’ll need a few weeks to establish cover, and then two – maybe three more to dig out what I want.”

Steve was already running through his contingency plans. “I’d rather not lose Clint until we are in a safe location again. Our nearest place is outside of Zihuantanejo, but it hasn’t been scouted yet. If Pym gives Bucky the okay, we could leave tomorrow and Clint could be back here by Thursday or Friday.”

You can keep Clint,” the corner of her mouth quirked up in a little smile. “He fits right in with you and the other fossil. I’ll take Wanda.”

Steve frowned, ignoring the dig out of long habit. “She hasn’t operated independently since-”

Then it’s time. No more coddling, Steve. Baby bird needs to fly.”

Steve was poignantly aware that Natasha had never received coddling. Or kindness. Or even a fair shake during her training and the years she worked for the Red Room.“Not everybody should be pushed out of the nest, Natasha.”

I am going to teach her to fly, not smash her egg on the sidewalk, douse her with cream, and call the cats. Ease up, big brother.”

I-” Steve abruptly snapped his mouth shut, not certain what to say, but sure that whatever stupid apology he tried would only shove his foot further down his throat. And he was still worried about Wanda. She had been doing better, but he felt uncomfortable letting her work without him. Shit, maybe Sam is right. He nodded sharply to let Nat know he wouldn’t disagree further.

I assume you’re hungry?” Natasha gave him an out, although her expression said she didn’t think he deserved it. He nodded again. “How do you like spicy?”

Well enough,” he replied cautiously.

Hmm, well. After we eat, we’ll order take out for the others. It should be ready by the time you’re done with the heavy lifting.” She gestured to a small storefront up the block. The stucco was a garish pink, the lone umbrella over the sidewalk tables was faded blue and yellow stripes. Hand painted across the building was the name Cocina de la Madre. The lettering was elaborately shaded in greens and yellows. Two fat pigs peaked over the words.

Bucky loves pork,” he said absently, then he caught up with what Natasha had been saying. “Heavy lifting? I thought you just brought me along for the company.”

I am buying you lunch, Rogers. The way you eat, you owe me a couple of hours work, at least.” Natasha had no doubt been assessing the street since they arrived – probably had never had to start because she never stopped being wary and calculating. Steve took an opportunity to step up his general situational awareness to catalog more details.

There were two men arguing in front of the restaurant; the younger man looked cowed. The car behind him was shiny, older, and expensive – probably the cause for the argument. He counted nine other civilians on the street, and a dozen more that he could see in the surrounding storefronts. There was a large, ugly apartment building across from them. Most of the windows were open – no air conditioning, but at least it was cool outside. In the distance, he could hear a basketball game, children laughing, and someone grilling outdoors.

What exactly is the job?” With Natasha, one never knew.

Be large and intimidating. There are some undesirables that have set up shop in this little slice of heaven, and I’d like to know why. You throw your weight around some, and then when they run home to tattle, I’ll get to introduce myself to their boss.”

Are you telling me you don’t already know why?”

She smirked. “Rogers, you may be trainable after all.”

Steve reached for the door handle, good manners too ingrained to let Natasha open it. That and he knew she found it both quaint and irritating. It probably wasn’t healthy, but he liked irritating Natasha. He gave her his most innocent smile, the one that said butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. It had gotten him out of more than one scrape. His hand missed as the door opened inward.

-fertility! I’ll be too scared to have good sex!”

Despite what Tony believed, loudly and fervently, and the ribbing from Sam and Clint, Steve wasn’t a complete prude. He never was – couldn’t have been, growing up in the neighborhood he did and basically looking after himself while his mother worked long shifts at the hospital. He had been, however, surprised by the complete lack of subtlety and propriety in the new century. He had grown used to hearing it, even if he still did his best to mind his own manners. The language wasn’t what surprised him into standing still, like an idiot. It was the darkly amused laughter, wide smile, and pale skin that grabbed his attention and shook him like an alley dog. That is a helluva dame.

The collision with five foot nothing of warm soft curves only reinforced his thoughts. She let out a sharp breath, and he was enveloped in the scent of vanilla and floral shampoo, something like talc, and exotic spices. She stumbled back, her arms full of food, and nearly dropped her drinks. He snapped into action, saving two sodas and supporting her by the elbow. If that also kept her from getting any further away from him, that was completely unintentional. Yeah, right. Tell me another one.

Sorry, ma’am,” he said reflexively. He tried for an easy smile, something that would be reassuring and hopefully attractive. Steve wasn’t even sure why he bothered. He was supposed to be incognito. He had never been good with the ladies – even after he had a body they seemed to like. Hell, his one attempt in the 21st century had gone down in a disappointingly slow fade of encrypted phone messages and increasingly awkward meet ups. Even if he wasn’t literally scheduled for a fight with bad guys in a few minutes, he was probably in the worst place for dating he had ever been. And that was really saying something. Saying something pathetic.

She glanced up with a smile curving her full lips. Dark curls had escaped her knit hat. Eyes an indeterminate shade between blue and green laughed behind thick-framed glasses. There were two tiny freckles high on her left cheekbone. Steve’s mouth watered. He tried to tell himself it was for the food.

Those eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “Holy shit, I should buy a lotto ticket.”

She recognized him. Goddammit. He couldn’t even flirt with a beautiful woman anymore. Not that he ever could. That realization was depressing and killed his own smile. He made certain she was steady and then stepped back, putting a perfectly respectable thirty inches between them. Goddammit.

Make certain you don’t use up all your luck,” Natasha said. Her voice was neutral, but the threat was there. Steve wondered if she was upset that her op might be compromised. Or maybe she had really wanted lunch. With Nat, it was difficult to tell. The woman glanced around him at the spy, and her eyes widened further. He was not comforted that she recognized the Black Widow as well. That was just one more reason they should probably go back to the temporary base and get ready to move as soon as Bucky would be able.

The woman who had run into him waved her bag of food, “Dude, I do not have time for a police report right now. Or, like, ever. These enchiladas aren’t going to eat themselves. And I have to get the car back before Tony comes looking for it.” Tony, surely she can’t mean…? But how many Tonys in Los Angeles lend beautiful women sports cars? Probably more than he wanted to know about. She gestured to the expensive automobile with her chin. “That would be a real scene – you know?”

Ma’am,” Steve started, and then stopped. He wanted to ask if her Tony was Tony Stark. He wanted to apologize for running into her. He wanted to believe she wouldn’t turn him in. He wanted to ask for her phone number. He wanted to eat whatever the hell smelled so good – the enchiladas or her. Maybe both. A blush was burning just under his skin and would erupt at any moment, he was painfully aware. I need to get out more. Or at all. Just as soon as Steve quickly withdrew his hand from her elbow, only then realizing he was still touching her.

Whoa, no worries. Go on about your business. Try the pork chili, it’s-” A explosion shattered the quiet afternoon and Steve’s instincts had him shoving her against the wall of the restaurant. He cupped the back of her head with one hand, to keep her from hitting the stucco too hard, and shielded her body while he looked for the threat. His hand made an automatic move for his back, only aborting when he realized his shield was not there. “What the fuck?”

He agreed with the sentiment. “Stay down,” he gave her a firm press to keep her in place and then turned away. The building across the street, the one with the Widow’s ‘heavy lifting’ had smoke streaming out the fourth floor windows. Civilians were crowding up on the sidewalks, phones out and pointing. Natasha had pulled the older man from the patio table down for cover, and had her weapon out. She didn’t look surprised, but her eyes were narrowed. Half a block to the north two young men were jogging toward the scene. Their long-sleeved shirts bulged noticeably with guns. Even over the noise, Steve could hear a car around the corner gunning its engine. Whatever had happened in that building, the situation was about to get much worse.

Fuck that,” the woman growled. Steve raised his arms to motion her back but she pushed her takeout at him. He dropped it, but not fast enough to get a hold on her before she cleared the bumper of the sports car. A shot rang out, and Steve cursed under his breath as he dove into action. The woman was still running; the best he could do was give her some cover. He drew back his arm and flung the two sodas fifteen yards at the men jogging down the street. He clipped the one with his gun out, but the other managed to dodge the improvised projectile. Tires squealed as a vehicle rounded the block. A man with a bandanna wrapped around the lower half of his face leaned out of the rear window and lifted a gun. There were civilians milling around, distracted and easily startled and the vehicle wasn’t slowing down.

I’ve got the car.” Steve didn’t have to give her orders, Natasha was already running toward the armed gunmen. She slid across the hood of a parked vehicle and raced toward the surprised two; one of them was covered in sticky soda spray. Steve stepped into the street. “Stop!” He shouted.

It didn’t do any good, not that it ever did. The car revved the engine and an automatic rifle swung around to train on him, ignoring the woman dashing toward the apartments. Steve jumped at the last possible second, landing feet flat on the roof of the car. The metal groaned and dented under his weight and the gunman swore, eyes wide. He fired, but the distraction Steve provided worked. The lowest bullet hit one painted pig and chipped Madre, but the rest few into empty air. He reached down for the arm still hanging out the car window and continued to roll with his momentum, jerking the man out of the vehicle and onto the pavement.

Shots rang out behind him, along with the rapid-fire slap of flesh hitting flesh. Natasha would do her utmost to keep stray bullets to a minimum, but they needed to end the altercation as quickly as possible. A pickup truck, sparkly blue with a woman painted on the hood, fishtailed around the corner to join the fray. Steve did not have time for any more combatants. He tempered his strength and knocked the gunman’s head against the pavement, then picked up his weapon and flung the criminal toward the sidewalk.

Keep him down,” he snapped at the man still taking cover under the patio table. Steve didn’t wait to see if he would be obeyed. He yanked the magazine from the rifle and tossed it aside. The driver of the first car was grinding the gears, trying to get out of neutral and get away. Steve grabbed the bumper with one hand. With the other he pressed the barrel of the gun against the concrete and stepped on it. A hard tug snapped the plastic and metal at the slipring. Burning rubber filled his nostrils and smoke was clouding around his feet as the driver hit the gas. If he managed to take off at that speed, there was no doubt someone would be injured. Steve lifted the vehicle high enough to reach for the rear axle. It was spinning uselessly.

Steve seized it with his free hand and grimaced at the burn of heat and friction on his palm. He held the weight of the car there and let go of the bumper to get both arms under the car. The flesh on his hands was burning, and he bit off an expletive and pulled. Hard. It didn’t break, but the axle did bend. Sparks flew and the engine gave a hard grinding gasp before something inside snapped and it let off a billow of smoke. Steve flipped the car onto its side and turned to face the truck.

It had come to a halt in the center of the street, engine idling. The driver’s mouth was hanging open, his shock visible through the windshield. Steve tried not to use his strength and size to intimidate, but there were exceptions to every rule. He marched toward the truck, shoulders back and frown fully in place. Two steps in and another man popped up from the bed of the truck, bracing a gun on the roof of the cab and aiming right at Steve. The driver still hadn’t moved.

Steve charged. A second man stood beside the first and began shooting. With a twist and a leap that Natasha would have been proud of, Steve jumped over the sports car and used it for cover. He had drawn fire away from the civilians, who all looked to be hiding inside. These were people who were familiar with violence and how to survive it. It made Steve angry, that anyone had to live that way – teaching their children how to duck and cover.

Captain!” Apparently, his disguise was just as bad as Steve had thought. The harsh whisper came from the restaurant. The front window was cracked; it shattered as another spray of bullets hit it. Low to the ground, the man from the patio table peeked around the corner of the destroyed door. “Will this help?” A heavy, scratched red rectangle came sliding out across the sidewalk. Steve stopped it with one foot. In the center was a worn silver handle; the back had two inches of solid insulation. He was pretty sure it was the lid to a Coca-Cola icebox.

Steve grinned. He wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled himself into a crouch, waiting for a break in fire. A small explosion sent more smoke and dust into the street and was just the distraction he needed. Steve ran down the block in a crouch, using parked vehicles for cover until he was even with the truck. The two shooters were still looking for him, trying to get a bead through the destroyed paint on the once fancy car. Hope her Tony is more forgiving than mine, he thought with a grimace at what was probably thousands of dollars of repairs. He pushed that aside and focused on the truck in front of him. The driver was talking, yelling and pleading to the shooters in what Steve guessed was Spanish. He didn’t seem to want to stay in the fight. Steve didn’t blame him.

He braced one hand on the hood of a rusted coup and swung his legs up and out. The truck was close enough that Steve still had his knees bent when the soles of his boots hit the box. There was a groan of metal and the side panel dented; the pickup rocked with the force of his kick. Steve didn’t pause, but held his improvised shield over his head and braced against the little car. Whatever it was made out of wasn’t metal, and it cracked under the pressure, but held as he redirected the momentum of his kick, aiming higher has his legs recoiled. He pushed off with his palm, the cracked burned skin protesting almost as much as the vehicle, and propelled himself up and over the side of the box. He landed on his feet and drove one fist into the knee of the first shooter.

The joint crunched. The man screamed in pain. The second shooter spun around, gun in hands, and Steve met him with the shield. Two shots hit it point blank. Then the shooter’s face followed. Steve lowered his improvised weapon and crouched over the two, one holding his leg and crying, the other falling unconscious as blood sprayed from his nose. The rear window of the cab was open, and the driver turned, slowly. Steve picked up one rifle, holding it under his shield arm and using his free hand to bend the barrel. The driver’s eyes, already wide, opened so far white showed all around the iris.

Dios mio,” he whispered.

Steve did the same thing to the other gun, still ignoring the sobbing man at his feet. He dropped it into the bed of the pickup and made sure the driver understood, “Don’t. Come. Back.”

A flurry of Spanish followed him as he jumped over the side and headed toward the burning building. Rather than drive away, the man in the cab propelled himself out, leaving his door open and his friends behind as he ran down the street. The situation on the ground was nearly under control. Several civilians had come out to take over guarding the two men Natasha had incapacitated. She stood over another at the mouth of the alley, looking up. Steve followed her gaze. A figure, five stories up and blurred by smoke, crossed the distance on a rope, swinging down onto the fire escape on the opposite building and disappearing inside. Natasha caught his eye, tipped her head to the side, and then was off, breaking through the locked side door and into the same building.

Steve jogged over to her last opponent and hauled him to his feet. He couldn’t leave a potential combatant unguarded, but he was still itching to find the woman with the wide smile. Semi-conscious and stumbling, the skinny young man barely slowed him down as Steve approached the front door of the apartment building. As he entered the lobby, another explosion, louder and more violent, shook the ground. Glass shattered somewhere overhead. A groan, a crash, and a heavy cloud of dust forced him to backtrack outside. The man from the restaurant patio was there, along with two women who looked mad enough to spit nails.

We will take him, Captain,” the man said. “There were people still inside, some escaped through the back, but there are children that can’t be found.” Steve nodded sharply. Maybe that was why the woman had charged so fearlessly, so stupidly, through a gun fight into a burning building. If she had a kid inside, he doubted she gave a thought to the danger.

Thank you, sir. Tie him up, if you can.” Steve dropped the shield and ran back into the apartment building, and up the stairs. He only made it as far as the first landing before he had to stop. A little girl was crouched there, trying to reach across the crumbling remains of several steps and into a pile of debris. Steve picked her up, moving her away from the dangerously unstable area.

No!” she screamed. “Xavier! Where are you!”

Is someone in there?” He set her down gently, crouching so they would be at eye level. Her face was blotchy with tears and grime. Her fingers were bloody and dirty.

My brother. He was right behind me. Then the stairs shook, and the ceiling fell. He was right there!”

I’ll get him,” Steve promised. “Wait outside. I’ll get him.” She stumbled, looking back over her shoulder as she limped down the stairs. Goddammit. No matter how long he lived, how many times he saw it, Steve never got used to that look of pain and desperation on a child’s face. He wondered if he ever would. He prayed not.

The debris was mostly drywall and splintered joists. Steve considered it carefully before he moved, trying to see where it was stable or not and what could be moved without causing a bigger disaster. It cut the hell out of his burned hands, but Steve had no problem lifting things out of the way. As soon as the girl’s sobs retreated, he could make out a faint coughing. Crying. “Hey,” he called out, “I’m gonna get you out of there. Just a few more things to move.” He tried to sound calm, reassuring. He wasn’t sure he managed it. Sam was great at distracting civilians during a rescue. Steve did his best.

How’d you get in here, anyway?” He could see a hand, caught between a crumpled railing and rotted lumber. The fingers twitched. So small. “Shouldn’t you be at school?” He heaved one more large piece of drywall away and the whole pile groaned, but held. Grey with dust, except for a trickle of blood at his hairline, was a boy of maybe four or five. A beam had held the weight of the collapse off of him, but his hand was stuck, keeping him from digging his way out. It had been a good thing. Steve shuddered to think what would have happened if the kid had moved the wrong object and brought it all crashing down on himself.

I’m not old enough. And ‘sts Saturday.” He sniffled. Then sneezed when more dust went up his nose.

No way,” Steve said with a forced smile. He slid one foot in next to the boy’s hip, bracing himself against the largest beam wedged in the stairwell. “You must be, what? Ten? Eleven?” He worked his fingers carefully around the kid’s wrist. It was misshapen, definitely broken. Steve figured there was nerve damage or the boy would have been screaming from the pain.

The boy laughed. It was a small sound, with tears lodged at the back of his throat, but it was something. “I’m five. I go to preschool.”

Preschool, huh?” Steve kept his own large hand wrapped around the limb as he pulled it out. If the kid saw the injury that was making Steve’s skin wet with blood, he would not be so calm. “I never went. What do you learn in a preschool?” He tucked his free arm behind the boy, lifting him against his chest. He slung his good arm around Steve’s neck.

The alphabet and stuff. I can write my whole name,” he boasted. Steve chuckled and bent his knees, preparing to jump. “Most of it,” the boy admitted. “But I am the only one in my class with an X.” Steve pushed off, keeping his head low and the boy tucked against him. He cleared most of the stairs and skipped down the last few. A cloud of dust followed him as the blocked stairway collapsed behind them. He glanced over his shoulder. No one would be going up that way.

Outside, the man from the restaurant reached out for the boy, who was chattering excitedly about how ‘awesome’ their escape had been. The older sister lunged at his legs as soon as he cleared the doorway. Steve warned in a low voice about the boy’s wrist, and brushed off thanks as he looked for Natasha. She stood at the entrance to the alley, head cocked and expression stern. Steve quickly joined her. On their knees at her feet were three men.

Local law enforcement is four minutes out,” she said without preamble as soon as he was close enough. “Terrible response time. Looks like what happened on the street was gangs, but I’m more interested in these three. They were inside the building when it blew.” She nudged one man with her boot, and he scowled, his complaints muffled by a gag made out of his own shirt. Steve took in the captives quickly. They were all Asian and dark skinned, wearing tactical pants and boots. Wiry, but muscular. Nat had a red blotch on her chin, dark enough that it would be a bruise in a few hours. Whomever they were, they had serious training to have gotten in a hit on the Black Widow – even three on one.

There are still people in the building. And the stairs are no longer an option. Four minutes isn’t soon enough.”

You sure about this? Of course you’re sure,” Natasha answered her own question with the quirk of an eyebrow. She dug into the pocket of her jeans. “What is your cover and freedom against the lives of a few innocents?” Steve didn’t feel the need to respond, although her sarcasm – if it even was that – stung more than it should have. She held out a comm, and he took it. There was also no point in asking why she carried Stark-issued earbuds with her to pick up take out. She tapped her own ear.

Sherwood, I need a pickup, and interference.” There was a pause while Steve forced his stiff fingers, skin cracking a bleeding a little, to form around the tiny communications device. “You know who I’m with. Expect the National Guard.”

Steve finally got it in his ear and tapped to activate the line. He heard Clint mid-laugh, “-take him anywhere. It’s like he has a beacon for hornets’ nests.”

We can talk about my poor luck later,” Steve interrupted. “I have civilians trapped in a burning building, LEOs incoming, and three unfriendlies that Red wants to invite home for a chat. How soon-”

STEVEN GRANT ROGERS!”

The scream was high-pitched, ferocious, and eerily reminiscent of the one time Steve had been caught peering into the window of the girls’ locker room at school. Steve had ended up wheezing, red-faced, hiding behind the cafeteria trash bins with a new appreciation for anatomy. It had all been Buck’s fault, of course. Steve’s head swiveled of its own volition, and Natasha let out a sharp exhale as her gun followed. Some part of him had been expecting to see thirteen year old Gertrude Akheimer, hair wet and eyes blazing. Angry even after ninety years that he had seen her unmentionables.

It was both relief and worry that flooded him when he caught sight of the smiling woman. Five stories up, he could still make out her dark curls under a heavy layer of dust. She had lost her hat, but otherwise seemed unharmed as she waved to grab his attention. There were three kids with her, and she pointed to a narrow metal ladder that descended to a fire escape. Steve was moving before the first kid even took a step. Just like the cast iron contraptions from his youth, this one had a telescoping ladder that would descend from the lowest landing to the ground. It pulled down easily, but when Steve started to climb, the ladder shook under his weight and a brick where the escape was bolted to the wall crumbled. He jumped down. Steve was heavy, but if it wouldn’t hold his weight, he couldn’t risk the woman and those kids on it at the same time.

He yelled a warning, and she must have understood because she held the second kid back until he was helping the first one off the ladder. Steve ignored the chatter on his comm between Natasha and Clint. They couldn’t delay the police without also rerouting the fire department and the building couldn’t wait that long before it would be a threat to the whole neighborhood. Clint was offering extraction options, but Steve could only glance between the boy scrambling down the narrow stairs and the woman at the top. The boy was fast, but Steve worried it might not be fast enough. He had one foot on the ladder, the woman and kid still on the roof were shouting at each other, but Steve couldn’t make out their words over the dull crackle of fire inside and the distant sound of sirens.

He felt it before he heard it. The tremble of another explosion. It was smaller than the previous one, sending up smoke and dust and busting a few more windows. He had the feeling it wouldn’t be the last. Time was running out. Steve reached up and grabbed the boy, waving even as he set him down for the woman to get the next kid moving. The girl was gesturing wildly, and his eyes met the woman’s. He was too far away to see it, but he pictured the blue-green sparkle behind her glasses. The last kid started down, and Steve managed a deep breath. He hadn’t realized he had been holding it. The woman gripped the roof ledge and tracked the kid’s progress to the second floor – then the building shook.

Fire burst out of the windows and shot into the sky from the roof. Roiling black smoke blotted out the sun for a moment, and Steve couldn’t see either of them. The kid screamed, and Steve focused. The escape was pulling away from the brick moorings, the metal closest to the building starting to warp under the intense heat. One knee over the railing, the kid was holding on for dear life as the structure swayed and strained. Metal shrieked as pressure increased – gravity taking a toll on the compromised steel. Steve held out his arms.

I’ll catch you,” he shouted. “Just let go!” She hesitated for a moment, looking up, but Steve kept his eyes on her. She eased one foot, then the other over the edge, holding on for all she was worth. The metal had to be hot, but she still waited a long second before she dropped.

Steve barely noticed her weight; she clung to him like a spider monkey. He ran back to Natasha, praying that the woman had already started down. Hurry, hurry, he chanted in his own head. Nat had rendered her captives unconscious and was doing her best to comfort the other children. Flashing lights lit up the storefronts outside the alley, and one of the nail -spitting women was directing an officer to the incapacitated gang members in the pickup.

Help Darcy!” The girl in his arms ordered even as he set her down and turned to go back. The woman was holding onto the roof ladder, both feet on the top landing. She hadn’t gotten far enough.

Hurry!” He shouted, wishing there was something more he could do. Metal twisted with a grating scream and brick exploded in bursts of dust as the bolts popped out of the wall. Steve ran forward, and barely stopped himself from being crushed by the falling structure. Half of a dumpster and the garbage piled around it were flattened. Behind him, the children screamed. Steve ignored it, his stomach twisting in a way it hadn’t since his first battle. She was hanging on. Five stories up, the woman – Darcy – scrambled up the ladder faster than he would have thought possible. She nearly threw herself over the ledge of the roof, disappearing from sight for a moment.

Steve touched his comm without letting his gaze waver. “Sherwood, extract Red. I’ll be right behind you.” A mess of brown curls rose up, and Steve let out a harsh breath. He held open both palms, trying to let her know to wait and he would find a way to get to her. The fire was too loud to shout over. Sam’s voice came over the line.

We’re seeing the news footage, holy shit – television helicopter in your area. We can be on site in ten.”

No time,” Steve bit out. He glanced at the other building on the alley. It had a fire escape as well, which looked to be in slightly better condition. More sirens were coming to a stop in the street. “Get Red. Better if only one gets snapped up in this.” He reached up to test the ladder. The metal was locked shut with rust, but it felt sturdy. He would have about a twenty foot jump from one building to the next, but the ropes Nat’s captives had used were still in place. He figured if the woman could hold on to him, he could carry her across – hand-over-hand. He’d done it in the Alps with a full pack and his shield. She couldn’t possibly weigh much more. He moved back to the center of the alley to give himself a short running start to jump up onto the intact fire escape. Steve glanced up one more time to make sure she was still okay. She had moved down the ledge, crawling on her hands and knees. He wondered if the roof was unstable. That would change things. Steve spoke into his comm,

Virginia, can you see the roof?” He held up his hand to let her know he was working on it.

News copter is swinging around now,” Sam replied. “Just a -”

Something hard hit his outstretched palm and Steve’s head jerked up. The woman was crouched, feet flat on the edge and knees bent, grinning from ear to ear. Steve had only a moment of confused fear before her lips moved, Headache, and then she jumped. He had to leap into place to catch her, falling to one knee and feeling the jar of hitting concrete all the way up his thigh and into his hip. She was shaking, shivering, pressing herself into his chest and gripping his shoulder with small fingers that felt like dull needles through the thin cotton of his shirt. Her hair was covering her face, and he couldn’t tell if she was conscious, so he huffed out a breath as he lifted her, blowing the curls back. Her eyes opened, the whites pink from smoke. There was blood smeared on the back of her neck, and up close he could see the sleeve of her jacket was torn and wet with more blood.

You’re-” she coughed. He couldn’t help but glancing down at her as he walked, willing her to stay awake. Natasha was holding the last kid back as she tried to get to the woman – Darcy. “You’re much better looking in person.” Her voice was raspy, and it took him a moment to comprehend what she said. It brought him to a full stop at the mouth of the alley. Natasha had let go of the kid, and was talking to the man from the restaurant. In the back of his mind, Steve noted that the spy remained hidden in the shadows. The men she had captured had mysteriously disappeared. The kid was tugging on his jeans and talking a mile a minute. He glanced down at blue-green eyes and full lips. A smear of ash ran from her nose down her cheek to her jaw. Who is this woman?

You need to get cleaned up.”

Her large eyes widened further, dark lashes spiky with makeup, sweat, and probably tears. He winced internally. That…could have used more work. Steve almost flinched at Natasha’s pointed look. She didn’t have to say anything, he knew what she was thinking. Smooth, Rogers.

I’ll take her, Captain.” The man from the restaurant was there, holding out his arms.

Hey-o, Manny. What’s, ah, what’s cookin’?” She coughed as Steve reluctantly handed her over. Manny was shorter, but stocky and built with muscle. Steve did his best to avoid her gaze. She was a brave, selfless, beautiful person who risked her life for others. He was a wanted fugitive. And an idiot with two left feet firmly crammed into his gob. “See what I did there?”

Very funny carina.” Manny looked to Steve. “Do not worry, Captain. This neighborhood has some experience with avoidance. No one will ever admit you were here.”

Thank you, sir.” He nodded his head. As if his hand had a mind of its own, he watched himself reach out once more and tuck a brown curl behind an ear. “She needs medical attention.”

She will get it. Thank you, for your service, and your help. Ve con Dios.” Manny nodded at Natasha, who returned the gesture and then disappeared into a service entrance of the neighboring building. Steve looked back only once, to see Manny striding toward a paramedic.

Steve followed a silent Natasha through two buildings, a narrow courtyard, and down a street until they met up with Clint driving a decades old brown van. Scott sat in the front seat, drinking a smoothie. He promptly offered another to Natasha. Steve threw himself on the floor across from three trussed up and still unconscious captives – then immediately regretted it when he was enveloped in his own smell of soot and sweat and something distinctly unnatural wafting from the carpet. Nat slammed the door shut and accepted her smoothie with a graceful nod.

So,” Clint began after a few blocks had passed in silence. “You get a number?” Steve squinted, jaw hard. The archer said it with a straight face, eyes on the road, so Steve couldn’t quite decide if he was joking or not.

Hey,” Scott looked up from his phone, “I really want to hear about that. It sounded just – just fraught with tension. But Barnes wants to know if you got tacos?”

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