Buffy led Steve down into the sewers and wove her way through the confusing tunnels. They'd made a stop at a random gym and torn out the trackers in their suits before going down into the sewers. He was really confused as to why they'd gone down and even more so why Buffy was so familiar with the sewer system.
"Where are we going?" Steve finally asked.
"In my seventeen years as the Slayer, I've come to learn that it's always a good idea to have a plan B." Buffy said, lifting a brick up out of the floor and pulling a key out. She replaced the brick and kept walking. "A plan B that only one person knows about." She turned into another tunnel and found the large air vent she was looking for. "Here we go." She reached in between two of the slats near the bottom with the key and a popping sound came from the vent. "Welcome to plan B." She pulled with all her strength in her one good arm and the vent turned into a hidden door. She opened it just far enough for both of them to fit. There was a narrow hallway behind the door that went pitch black when she shut it. Letting her eyes adjust, she took Steve's hand and led them down the hallway and into an open room. She flicked on the lights to reveal a medium sized room with a desk, a full sized fold-away bed, and a dresser with a mirror attached to it. "This place used to belong to a demon friend of mine named Clem. He got married a year and a half ago and moved to Boca with his husband. I kind of took it over as a just in case kind of thing."
"A just in case we get double crossed by the agency that hired us and we need to go underground thing?" Steve asked, obviously impressed with her thinking.
"Yes. And I'm going to finally apologize for all those missing clothes of yours. The dryer didn't eat them…." Buffy opened one of the drawers of the dresser. "I was stockpiling."
Steve laughed slightly. "I wondered what really happened to them." He turned to her. "This is really good thinking, Buffy."
"Thank you." She sat down heavily on the bed and sucked in a deep breath, gripping her shoulder and closing her eyes.
Steve was instantly there, smoothing her hair back out of her face. "Are you ok?"
"The anesthetic wore off…. And the adrenaline." She undid the breastplate from her suit and unzipped the front of it, pulling her good arm out of its sleeve. "Sorry about your modesty."
"Don't…." He shook his head. "I'm more worried about your shoulder than my modesty." Gently, he helped her peel the suit away from her wounded shoulder and down her arm. She had on a black tank top underneath. After he got her boots and the rest of her suit off her, Steve looked at her shoulder. The bandages on both sides were soaked in blood. "You've definitely opened it up. Did you happen to stockpile a first aid kit?" Buffy pointed to the desk and Steve found it in one of the bottom drawers. She struggled to get the strap off her shoulder, but it was really starting to hurt. She reached down to check her belt, but she only had the one anesthetic injection left. The other two she'd grabbed were gone. She wasn't going to use it until she really needed it.
Steve took his uniform off, leaving himself in his tight gray Under Armor shirt and his black boxer briefs, and settled down behind her. He put her between his legs and pulled the tank top off her, revealing her black strapless bra. She was glad she was facing away from him because her face was flushed red. As he worked to clean the wound and use the butterfly bandages to try to patch where the stitches had broken, Buffy took deep breaths and tried to ignore the pain.
"We need to get back to the hospital and get that thumb drive." She said.
"Well, we've got access to civilian clothes thanks to you, so it shouldn't be too hard to slip in unnoticed. Turn." He helped her to turn sideways and brought her legs up over one of his so she was cradled into his chest and her back braced on his other leg. It was a little difficult to work on the wound, but luckily the entry wound was cleaner than the exit. When he was done, he tossed the soiled bandages into the trash and wrapped his arms around her, leaning back against the wall. "Maybe you should stay here and rest. I can…."
"No. I'll be ok. Besides, I've never been a sit at home kinda girl."
"Well, let's rest for at least half an hour before we head back out. Give your body a break." He turned them to lay long-ways on the bed, his head resting on the pillow.
"That I can do." She laid her head on Steve's shoulder and closed her eyes.
Buffy and Steve walked into the hospital corridor where they'd left the thumb drive in the vending machine. They were wearing inconspicuous clothing with hoodies to cover their heads and hide their faces. Steve kept his arm around Buffy's waist, holding her close to him. He knew she was a fast healer, but she was still pale from losing blood in the fight. And, if he was being 100% honest, he liked having her close.
"Where…." Buffy was looking in the vending machine where the bubble gum row was empty.
Natasha appeared in the reflection standing behind them and blowing a bubble gum bubble. Despite Steve's hold on her, Buffy broke free and grabbed Natasha's arm, hauling her into the nearest empty room. "Where is it?"
"Safe." Natasha said.
"I think you can do better than that."
"Where did you get it?""Why would we tell you?" Steve demanded.
"Fury gave it to you. Why?"
"What's on it?" Buffy asked.
"I don't know."
"Stop lying!" Steve hissed.
"I only act like I know everything, Rogers."
"I'm going to lay money down that you knew Fury hired the pirates to hijack that ship." Buffy said.
"Well, it makes sense. The ship was dirty. Fury needed a way in, so do you two."
"Nat, don't piss me off. You know I'm not afraid to hit a girl."
"I know who killed Fury. Most of the intelligence community doesn't believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He's credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last 50 years."
"So he's a ghost story." Steve said.
"Five years ago I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. Somebody shot out my tires near Odessa. We lost control, went straight over a cliff. I pulled us out. But the Winter Soldier was there. I was covering my engineer so he shot him straight through me." Natasha raised up her shirt to show a nasty scar on her abdomen. "Soviet slug. No rifling. Bye-bye, bikinis."
"You don't seem like much of a beach goer anyway." Buffy said.
Natasha smiled and flicked a strand of Buffy's blonde hair. "I'll leave that to you, California Girl." She got serious again. "Going after him is a dead end. I know. I've tried." She held up the thumb drive. "Like you said, he's a ghost story."
Buffy took it and slipped it into her pocket. "Let's find out what the ghost wants."
Steve and Buffy followed Natasha through the mall. He had his arm around her waist again, keeping her close. Natasha glanced over at them with a smirk. She'd made them change into clothing that was more appropriate for hipsters than they were comfortable with. Both of them had complained that they were too old for clothing like that. Natasha had convinced them that they would blend in better like young hipsters than looking like they were in their early 30s.
"If my pants get any tighter, I might as well be wearing nothing." Buffy had complained while they were in the dressing room.
"I'm sure Steve wouldn't mind." Natasha had said.
Now, judging by how extra protective Steve was towards Buffy and how handsy he was being with her, Natasha was positive that she had been right. "First rule of going on the run is don't run, walk." She said, trying to slow them down.
"This isn't my first time going on the run from a government agency." Buffy shot back.
"Besides, if I run in these shoes, they're gonna fall off." Steve complained.
"I'll trade you. Who the hell decided that sneakers needed to have wedges? I'd like ten minutes alone in a room with them."
"You're used to running and doing most of your fighting in heels." Natasha said.
"Yeah, normal heels. Wedged sneakers need not apply. These things are…. Unnatural."
"Here," Natasha led them into a computer store. They went over to an available laptop and she started to boot it up. "The drive has a level six homing program, so as soon as we boot up S.H.I.E.L.D. will know exactly where we are."
"How much time will we have?" Steve asked, looking nervously around.
"About nine minutes from," She slipped the thumb drive in the USB port. "Now." The information loaded and Natasha flipped through it. "Fury was right about that ship. Somebody's trying to hide something. This drive is protected by some sort of AI. It keeps rewriting itself to counter my commands."
"Can you override it?" Buffy asked."The person that developed this is slightly smarter than me. We could use your friend Willow if we wanted to crack this completely."
"I don't want to involve her."
"Ok. Then, I'm going to try running a tracer. This is a program that S.H.I.E.L.D. developed to track hostile malware, so if we can't read the file, maybe we can find out where it came from."
One of the store attendants walked up to them. "Can I help you guys with anything?"
Natasha smiled brightly. "Oh no. I'm just being an awesome sister and maid of honor to the bride here," She hugged Buffy's free arm. "And looking up some honeymoon destinations for this beautiful couple."
"Yeah." Steve said, a little taken aback at Natasha's cover story, but he quickly got over it. "We're getting married." He kissed Buffy's head and squeezed her enthusiastically.
"Congratulations!" The attendant said. "Where is she thinking about sending you?"
"Well, we're hoping for Ireland or France, but it's looking like…." Buffy glanced at the screen. "New Jersey."
"Oh." The attendant looked at Buffy apologetically. His attention diverted to Steve and he looked like he might recognize him. Instead he said. "I have those exact same glasses!""Wow, you two are practically twins." Natasha said.
"Yeah, I wish." The attendant waved over Steve's impressive form. "Specimen. If you guys need anything, I've been Aaron."
"Thank you." Steve said.
Aaron walked away and Buffy turned to Natasha. "Remind me to pick a better Maid of Honor. I'm not remotely interested in honeymooning in New Jersey." Natasha just laughed slightly and kept typing away on the laptop.
Steve looked down at his watch. "You said nine minutes. Come on!"
"Shh!" Natasha admonished. "Relax. Got it." Steve moved closer to the screen when the address was brought up.
"You know it?" Buffy asked him.
"I used to." Steve grabbed the thumb drive. "Let's go." They walked out and spotted the S.T.R.I.K.E. team moving through the mall. "Standard Tac team. Two behind, two across, and two coming straight at us. If they make us, I'll engage, you two hit the south escalator to the metro."
Buffy rolled her eyes and snuggled closer to Steve. She began to laugh and Natasha caught on. Steve started laughing not long after them. The two team members walked right past them. Natasha looked at Steve and Buffy. "You guys go to Jersey. See what you can find." She handed Buffy her mobile unit. "Use this. I'll catch up with you."
"Where are you going?"
"Three of us is way too obvious." Before Steve or Buffy could protest, Natasha melted into the crowd.
Buffy sighed as they headed for the escalator. She stepped on first and felt Steve close behind her. Half way down the opposite escalator, Rumlow was looking around for them. Buffy turned and looked up at Steve. She didn't have time to really think about another form of diversion, so she reached up and grabbed the back of his neck, pulling him down into a kiss. He was startled at first, but didn't argue. She felt his hands go to her waist and pull her just a little closer. People started to complain that they were blocking the escalator, so they broke apart and hurried out of the mall.
Buffy sat in the passenger's seat of the stolen truck and stole glances at Steve driving. They hadn't said much since leaving DC and now they were almost in New Jersey. She felt bad for the way they'd shared their first kiss. It was so not how either of them had planned it. But on the other hand, it had been nice. More than nice. Firework-y seemed to be the only appropriate word she could come up with.
Instead of saying that, she ended up asking, "So, uh…. Where did you learn to steal a car?"
"Nazi Germany." Steve said. "And we're borrowing." He paused, clearly wanting to say something else, but settling for, "How's your shoulder?"
"It's throbbing a little, but nothing too painful." They fell back into a silence, both of them stealing glances at the other. Finally, Buffy couldn't take it anymore. "Ok, I just…. I'm really sorry."
"For that kiss back there. It's not…. Well, that was probably your first kiss since 1945 and I know we said we were going to take it slow and it was probably a huge disappointment. It wasn't the way that I'd hoped and I know that if it wasn't what I'd hoped for, then it's definitely not what you'd hoped for."
"Buffy, I wasn't disappointed."
Buffy blinked at him. "You weren't?"
"No. Why? Was it that bad?"
"No! God no!"
"Are you sure?"
"Is that why you haven't said anything? You thought that I thought it was bad?"
"You didn't say much afterwards and I didn't know how to bring it up. I wasn't sure I wanted to bring it up if you thought it was bad."
Buffy smiled. "I didn't think it was bad. I thought you were disappointed in it."
"No! I wasn't disappointed at all. It was…. Well, nice falls short of being the right word."
"I've been using firework-y in my head."
"Firework-y?" Steve nodded his head slowly. "Yeah. That sounds about right." He reached over and took her hand, bringing her knuckles to his lips. She smiled at him. "I wouldn't mind doing it again."
"Yeah, me either."
"And it wasn't exactly my first kiss since 1945."
Buffy kept her voice calm. She reminded herself that he had had a few months to himself before she came into his life. And then a full year of friendship and a work partnership before they even started having romantic feelings for each other. "Oh?"
Steve smiled slightly. "Do you remember when Tony decided that you needed to start getting out and dating and set you up on all those bad dates?" Buffy nodded. That had been towards the beginning of their second year together as partners. "Well, he sent me on a few, too."
"I didn't know that."
"They were really embarrassing. I was mortified. I didn't want to talk about them. The first girl spent the whole date trying to get her hands and feet in places I wasn't comfortable with. Another girl jumped on me like a monkey and kissed me. It felt more like she was trying to lick me."
Buffy laughed. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was embarrassed. I was starting to feel like I wanted to ask you on a date. I didn't want to talk about dating other women with you when I wanted to date you."
She smiled. "Now I feel bad for telling you about those awful dates Tony sent me on."
"At least it sounded like you didn't have as bad a time as I did."
"Oh, they were horrible. There was one…. Well, I sent him to the hospital with a broken nose and sprained wrist. He's lucky that's all he got."
"He grabbed my backside, so I twisted his arm and slammed his face in the glass door of the restaurant."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"No, I wouldn't mind if it was you doing the grabbing." Buffy's eyes widened when she realized what she'd said. Steve's cheeks were pink, but he was smiling. "Sorry."
"It's ok." He chuckled. "I am a male, Buffy. It's not like I haven't thought about it."
She smiled slightly, blushing herself now. "Oh. Well…. good." They both laughed and he squeezed her hand.
The rest of the ride was much smoother. They talked and laughed and Steve stole kisses on Buffy's hand that he rarely let go of. The truck finally came to a stop outside an old army base called Camp Lehigh. It was obvious the place hadn't been in use for a very long time.
Buffy pulled out the mobile unit that Natasha had given her to double check the information. "The file came from these coordinates." Buffy said, glancing at Steve pulling his shield out of the backseat of the truck.
"So did I." He said. She looked up at him and slid her hand into his. He gave it a squeeze before tugging on it and pulling her into him. She smiled into his mouth as he surprised her with a kiss that was a lot more intimate than the one they'd shared at the mall in DC. "How was that?"
"Oh…. I think you could use more practice."
Steve smiled and kissed her again. "We'll have to work on it a little more. Right now, we need to figure out what's hiding here."
Buffy reached out and broke the lock on the chain holding the gate together. They gave each other's hands one last squeeze and walked into the camp. They moved around stealthily but soon realized there was no one there. Buffy figured out how to work the mobile unit to scan for heat signatures, but there was nothing. The place had layers upon layers of dust.
"So, this is where you became Captain America?" Buffy asked.
"No. That was in Brooklyn. This camp is where I was brought for training."
"Has it changed much since you last saw it?"
Buffy put the mobile unit down and sighed. "Well, this may be a dead end. There's no heat signatures or waves of any kind. Maybe the person that wrote the file used a router or something to throw people off." She noticed Steve looking past her. "What's wrong?"
Steve bounded up beside her and then hopped over the railing. Buffy followed him as he explained, "Army regulations forbid storing munitions within 500 yards of the barracks. This building is in the wrong place."
There was a padlock on the door and Buffy gestured that Steve could break this one. They made their way down a metal staircase into a dark room. Buffy found her way over to a light switch and flipped it. Fluorescent lights flickered to life around the room, revealing old desks. On the far wall was the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo.
"This is S.H.I.E.L.D." Buffy said.
"Maybe where it started." Steve suggested. They made their way through the dusty room to a door marked office. Inside were pictures of Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and Colonel Chester Philips.
"Howard." Steve gave a lingering look at Peggy Carter's picture and Buffy placed her hand on Steve's bicep. He smiled down at her and took her hand. They walked over to some of the empty bookshelves where a spider web was gently blowing in a light breeze. "If you're already working in a secret office," Steve gripped the edge of the bookshelf and pulled. When he moved it far enough, he braced himself and pushed it all the way open to reveal a hidden elevator. "Why do you need to hide the elevator?"
Buffy held up the mobile unit and searched for the app she needed. Finally finding it, she held it up to the keypad next to the elevator and waited. It brought up a series of numbers that created the code to open the elevator. She typed in 8, 5, 3, and 9 and the elevator dinged to life. They glanced at each other and stepped on. The doors shut behind them and they began their descent.
"You take me to the craziest places." Buffy said.
"It keeps the romance alive." Steve quipped.
"Maybe I should've brought my scythe along."
"You think there'll be something on the other side of those doors to fight?"
"No. I just feel better when I have it. Like you and your shield." The doors opened onto another vast, dark room. They walked in and when the doors of the elevator shut, the lights of the room turned on. Buffy realized what they were looking at. "This can't be where the data on the thumb drive came from. This technology is old. Almost older than you." She spotted a piece of technology that wasn't old. It was a USB hub. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulled out the thumb drive and inserted it into one of the ports. All around them, the computer banks whirred to life.
The large monitor on the main console blinked to life and the computer asked, "Initiate system?"
Buffy stepped up to the keyboard and typed in YES. More of the computer banks whirred to life and green lines started to dance across the monitors. She stepped back to stand with Steve and said, "I'm almost wishing for Willow right now."
A face appeared in the green lines of the monitor. "Rogers, Steven, born 1918." A camera swiveled around to look at Buffy. "Summers, Buffy, born 1981."
Buffy looked up at Steve. "A recording?"
"I am not a recording, Freulien. I may not be the man I was when the Captain took me prisoner in 1945. But I am." One of the smaller monitors showed a short man in glasses.
"Steve, you know the computer?"
"Arnim Zola was a German scientist who worked for the Red Skull." Steve said, walking behind the console. "He's been dead for years."
"First correction: I am Swiss. Second: Look around you. I have never been more alive. In 1972, I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body. My mind, however, that was worth saving, on 200,000 feet of databanks. You are standing in my brain."
Steve made his way back to Buffy's side. "How did you get here?"
Buffy looked at the mobile unit and brought up Arnim Zola's name. "He was part of something called 'Operation Paperclip' according to this." She showed Steve. "It says that S.H.I.E.L.D. recruited German scientists with 'strategic value'."
"They thought I could help their cause. I also helped my own."
"HYDRA died with the Red Skull." Steve said.
"Cut off one head, two more shall take its place."
More of the monitors on the console came to life. "Accessing archive." Pictures and videos flashed across all the screens from World War II all the way up until this year. "HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you try to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew. A beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D. For 70 years, HYRDA has been secretly feeding crisis, reaping war, and when history did not cooperate, history was changed."
"No. S.H.I.E.L.D. would have noticed something that big. They would've stopped you." Buffy said.
"Accidents will happen." The monitors showed pictures and news clippings on Howard Stark's and Nick Fury's deaths. "HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once a purification process is complete, HYDRA's new world order will arise. We won, Captain. Your death amounts to the same as our life. A zero sum." Steve lashed out suddenly and punched the large monitor, rendering it useless. The green line face appeared on a smaller monitor. "As I was saying…."
"What's on this drive?" Steve demanded.
"Project Insight requires insight. So, I wrote an algorithm."
"What does it do?" Buffy asked.
"The answer to your question is fascinating. Unfortunately, you shall be too dead to hear it."
The doors to the elevator were suddenly blocked by larger, solid metal doors. Steve threw his shield to try and stop it, but it just bounced off and ricocheted back to him. Buffy's mobile unit started beeping. "Uh…. Steve, we've got a problem. It says we've got an incoming missile. We've got 30 seconds."
"Who fired it?" Steve asked.
"According to this, S.H.I.E.L.D. did."
"I am afraid I have been stalling, Captain." The Arnim computer said. Buffy reached over and grabbed the thumb drive. "Admit it. It's better this way. We are, both of us, out of time."
Buffy ran over to Steve and slid past him to the grate he was standing in front of. She grabbed it and threw it away. They barely had any time to dive into the hole before the missile hit and everything around them exploded. Steve held Buffy tightly to him and covered their heads with his shield. The building around them began to collapse on their heads. It felt like an eternity before the debris finally settled.
Buffy felt a panic start to rise in her as soon as it did and her heart started pounding as she realized she was buried alive. The last time that had happened, she had woken up in her own grave. She'd had nightmares about it almost every night for over a year. They had eventually tapered off and had only become an every now and again occurrence, but she'd developed a real fear of being buried alive. Acting completely out of instinct, she pushed away from Steve and started frantically digging. He used his shield and helped her, confused by her sudden outburst. As soon as there was a hole big enough for her to climb out of, she scrambled up and out as fast as she could.
When Steve finally dug his way out, he found her sitting on a large slab of concrete curled in on herself with her knees drawn up to her chest. She was rocking herself back and forth and looking around with wide, panicked eyes. "Hey," Steve rushed over to her and wrapped his arms around her. "Shh…. It's ok." She shook her head and couldn't help but burst into tears. The sound of planes flying in could be heard. "We've got to go. Look at me, sweetheart." He gently turned her face to his. "We've got to go now." She nodded blindly and he helped her to stand before they took off running.