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Still Right Here

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For a while there it had been hard enough to accept that this loud city full of electric lights and blaring car horns was his New York, his home, barely recognizable and foreign, but the only home he'd ever known. In light of that it was strange that fighting an alien army didn't even make him think twice about it. Combat was something he knew. War was something that seemed more familiar than quite a few other things he'd seen since S.H.I.E.L.D. had found him.

He'd felt estranged, out of step, like this wasn't really his world anymore, but suddenly it all fell back into place. Protecting his home, protecting civilians, containing the damage done to Manhattan as far as that was possible, and fighting side by side with a group of people with special skills. All of them had proven that they were good at what they were doing. All of them were used to working alone, but the moment the crisis threatened to overwhelm them they simply acted, did what was necessary, did more than could be expected. And worked as a team.

He looked over at Stark, who he'd been glad to note had been standing proudly while they'd put Loki away. For a very long, dragged out moment there he'd been sure that Stark had not only chosen the sacrifice play there, but had only returned from what could have been a one way trip through the portal for them to bury him.

But Stark was as fine as anybody could possibly be after what they'd just gone through. That didn't mean he looked good.

For some reason Hulk hadn't given way to Doctor Banner yet, but was sticking close to Stark, who was chatting at him constantly as if this was just an everyday occurrence for him. Steve could admit to himself that he didn't actually know enough of Stark's life outside of what had ended up in his S.H.I.E.L.D. files (and him being the self-sacrificing sort certainly hadn't made it into those) to completely dismiss the possibility that for him this sort of crazy was normal. And who was he to judge, when he was feeling more at home fighting a battle against actual aliens from outer space than going down to any sort of coffee shop ordering one of these ridiculously named and overpriced things that seemed to have taken the place of a simple cup of coffee?

Stark was turning his helmet in his hands, inspecting the way the faceplate, that Thor had ripped from it when they'd been worried about him, dangled from it. His expression was pained, as if the condition of that one piece of armor was in fact the worst thing that had happened to him today. “That's not easily fixable,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “I'll have to get started on a new one, I think. Might as well.”

Hulk made a growling noise and reached out. Stark didn't even flinch, the helmet just a little piece of red and gold tinted metal in the big green hands of their monstrous ally. The metal groaned, screeched, and the Hulk handed the now dented helmet back to Iron Man. Steve winced a little at the faceplate now pressed into place, but rendering the dented helmet completely unusable. Stark took it with a slightly dumbfounded expression, staring at it as if he needed to process what had just happened, then – as tired as he was – suddenly beamed up at the Hulk and said: “Thanks! You're pretty nice for a rage monster. After this nobody will buy into your PR schtick.”

The monster in question gave Stark a tolerant look and huffed.

It should have been surreal, but somehow it seemed exactly right, perfectly in line with the unbelievable things that had happened today. Steve's own lips raised into a half-smile of his own, when his eyes met Stark's.

“We need someone to lift that, so S.H.I.E.L.D. transport can come through,” Natasha said, pointing ahead. Her tone was level and she was holding her head high, but Steve could see she was just as tired as the rest of them. Rubble was blocking most streets around them, firefighters and relief units had arrived and were already doing their fair share of work. Stark made a step forward as if he was volunteering, but even in the armor it looked terribly unsteady. The Hulk simply jumped forward, going into action without any questions asked – and with Thor keeping an eye on Loki back at home for the moment, he was their only real powerhouse present anyway.

Stark blinked at the spot where he'd just been standing, not exactly dumbfounded, but maybe wondering. Steve was beginning to worry that perhaps he had taken a hit to the head and really needed to see a doctor. Armor or no armor, he'd fallen from the sky and who knew what kind of hits he'd taken even before that during the fight.

“You should sit down,” Steve told him, his own voice slightly rougher than usual with exhaustion and the pain of the wounds he'd sustained. “You've done enough for one day.”

It looked like the man was about to protest, but when Steve stepped up and indicated a block of concrete sticking out of the street, he just nodded, terribly quiet for someone who always had some smart-ass comeback for everything.

He sat down heavily, the joints of the armor making a tired sound. Dark red blood was on his face and Steve couldn't see where exactly it was coming from. They were all dirty and lathered in cuts, but Iron Man had been wearing his armor through most of it. And now sitting there, exhausted blood on his face, face ashen, he looked bad, like he was really about to fall down any minute. Fear shot through Steve at the thought.

He looked around, could hear Hulk smashing things with a roar down the street, wished Doctor Banner was here now to talk to Stark, saw Natasha standing close to them, also watching the man with an unreadable expression.

He'd only really known these people for the duration of this whole mess, but the thought of losing one of them now that the battle was over and done with was unbearable. It was the first time he'd truly felt a connection with anyone since he'd woken up – and he felt that counted for more than anything else.

Stark was contemplating his helmet again and sighed, then tried to stand.

Steve finally got over whatever it was that had been holding him back and stepped forward to push him back down with one hand on the armored shoulder. Stark looked up at him surprised. “Are you sure you don't need a medic?” Steve asked.

“Armor is monitoring everything anyway,” Stark said with a tired wave of the hand. “I'm fine.”

“How do you know what it's finding without helmet?”

The man looked down on the banged up piece of metal in his hands and smiled crookedly. “Made the check before,” he said, and Steve thought he might be lying, but decided to let that slide. Stark seemed like a man who'd take this as a matter of pride.

So, realizing he still had his hand on the other man's armored shoulder, he patted it once, as he would once have Bucky's, affectionately and relieved that the fighting was over and all of them were alive, and stepped back to give Stark some room.

“I wasn't joking about shawarma. No idea what it is, but now that I'm still here, I really want to try it. I'm also pretty hungry. So right about now would be nice.” Stark didn't look at him, but off at something in the distance, his brows knitted as if he was thinking about something.

Steve smiled at the flood of words. He could emphasize with the general thought. At this point he couldn't even remember when he'd last eaten. And, damn, he was thirsty. “Let's do that then,” he conceded.

Natasha was still watching them. When their eyes met she walked over to them slowly, holding herself very straight. “I'm really hungry anyway. Let's do it right now,” she said.

“So shawarma then? If they're still in business,” Hawkeye added, walking toward them from the opposite side of the street. “Where's that place you saw?”

Stark pointed into the direction down the street and made a wavy hand-gesture. “It was around there, somewhere. I was a little distracted fighting aliens at the time when I saw it, but I'll know it when I see it.”

“You had time to ponder food while fighting aliens?” Barton asked. “You're really something.”

“Just good at multitasking,” Stark said. It was good to see him talk again, much better than the quiet exhaustion of a few minutes ago. “We should probably invite Thor and wait until Banner will fit in a seat again,” Stark pointed out after a moment.

Steve laughed, relieved, actually liking the idea of ending this day by sharing a meal with the people he'd just been fighting alongside of. For people who weren't a team they were suddenly getting along pretty well - and eating together after a battle, that was something he was familiar with. He'd been so used to the Howling Commandos that it would be strange to just go back to his solitary life after all this. A shared meal seemed natural.

Natasha wasn't focusing on them anymore though, but apparently was listening for something in the distance. “Sounds very quiet,” she said, over the loud noises of the clean-up work around them, clearly contradicting her words. Steve listened closely for whatever it was Natasha wasn't hearing and realized what it was, just as Stark said: “No Hulk? Someone want to gather up Dr. Banner so we can leave?”

“How are we getting you out of the tin can?” Steve asked Stark, not sure how damaged the suit really was, just as Natasha started off down the street towards the spot where they'd last seen the Hulk.

Stark smiled at Steve with an amused expression. “Easy there, Cap, we haven't known each other that long.”

Natasha huffed and rolled her eyes at him as she passed them, then met Steve's eyes expectantly as if she was waiting for how he would take Stark's annoying brand of humor now.

“Story of my life though. People just want my money or get me out of whatever I'm wearing,” Stark added.

“I'm sure some want you for that big brain of yours, too,” Steve said with a straight face. It earned him another amused smile from Stark and an appreciative nod from Natasha. Apparently the way to go with Stark, was not to let yourself be wound up, while not underestimating him along the way.

That would have been useful information to have before this all started.

“Let's go eat then,” Barton said and started walking, too.

“Who'll get Thor?” Stark asked, trying to lift himself up into a standing position.

Steve just smiled to himself. He was dirty and exhausted, his back hurt from crashing into cars and buildings, his stomach hurt from taking the blast of an alien weapon and even his shield arm was tired enough for him to want to put his shield down, but for the first time since arriving here he felt at home in the present.

He had lost all he knew, but he could make new friends here, find a new band of brothers, a little family – and it seemed he could also find a purpose.

* * *

He looked down at the cover of TIME magazine that showed him and Stark sharing a moment in the middle of the rubble. “Avengers – The heroes of New York” the title read.

He hadn't bothered to read the article, didn't really care about the speculation, or even the description of what had happened that day. Stark had given a press conference after with Thor and him tagging along for the most part and some S.H.I.E.L.D. and government officials had given out statements, but most of the details of that day were only known to the people who had actually been involved in it.

Now the Avengers had gone their separate ways after the crisis, but Steve still felt he shared a truer connection with them than he did with anyone else. And they were all staying in touch in their own messed up ways. All but Thor that was, because nobody had heard from Thor since he'd taken Loki to Asgard. But Stark and even Banner, who wasn't outright saying that he'd taken Stark up on his offer to take refuge in whatever lab or hiding place the billionaire had offered him, were staying in touch with the rest of them without prompting. That was as much as Steve could ask for under the circumstances.

Working for S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed like the thing to do, giving him the chance to do something worthwhile and play on the same team as Widow and Hawkeye. It was obvious that the world still needed protection from whatever new threat would be next, after Asgardian gods and alien armies. He'd fought hard to get into a place to serve his country during World War II, to make a difference, so now S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed the place for him to be. Fury didn't say much about it, but it was obvious that he knew exactly what Steve was looking for and he offered it readily, no questions asked, no real demands made.

Steve knew to be suspicious. He wasn't a naif. The whole Tesseract incident had taught him that working for S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't always be easy. Of course, the army hadn't always made things easy for him either, with people trying to use him in their own games of power. He wasn't afraid to butt heads again to get to the place where he really wanted to be, if it came down to it. But for the moment this was okay. At the very least it would be working as part of something again, and that was exactly what he needed right now to get his bearings and carve out a place for himself in this brave new world and this new life.

Moving to Washington felt like leaving New York to go to war all over again. “The war will be different, though. You know that,” Hawkeye pointed out, when he voiced the thought.

“Is that supposed to be a good or a bad thing?” Steve asked back, looking down at the envelope Hawkeye had shoved at him.

“Who knows. War is war. None of that is ever really good news by any standards.” He shrugged and waited for Steve to look at the contents of the envelope.

“What is this?”

“From Stark. Early Christmas present, he said. Gave it to me last week when I got my new arrows from him.”

“He made you arrows? I thought he didn't like working for S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Steve asked, pondering the envelope some more and deliberately not opening it. Barton had been dealing in secrets for so long that he probably didn't even remember how to not be nosy.

“He's not working for S.H.I.E.L.D.. But he made some enhancements to their design just for me. I had to promise not to let our people look at it though. Matter of pride, or something. It was actually pretty fun working with him. He and Banner work on all kinds of weird stuff. Apparently they are having a geeky love affair nobody is supposed to know about.”

“Banner still there?” With a pang he realized that maybe both Banner and Stark had been there when he'd left New York and that maybe it would have been okay to drop by Stark Tower and visit, say good-bye.

“Nat says she isn't sure, but at the very least it seems Stark knows where Banner is.”

“Good,” Steve said and smiled. “We never know when we might need both of them again.”

“Yeah, with Thor gone for the time being it's good to know where the rest of the team is hiding out. Think he'll be back?”

Steve shrugged. “I'm sure he's busy at home, but he'll come around for a visit when he has the time. At least I hope so. No idea how far away Asgard actually is.”

He put the envelope aside and only opened it when he was alone in his new, clean and very silent apartment. A phone and key card fell out. There was a post-it sticking to the Stark phone reading: “Don't call me from the S.H.I.E.L.D. junk they gave you. It's an insult.” He smirked, because he was at least halfway sure this actually meant that Tony didn't trust S.H.I.E.L.D. to not bug his phone or something. After spending so much time with agents he was beginning to see his point, but he still had to chuckle. He found only one number in the phone's memory and the contact read “Iron Man” with a shiny picture of a flying armor assigned to it.

He tucked the phone away and looked at the key card, another note stuck to it, reading: “If you ever miss New York, you have your own floor. Tony.”

It took him a moment to make sense of that, but then he smiled, warmed by the gesture. It seemed if he wanted to he could drop by that ugly tall building any time he wanted now. He wouldn't take Stark up on it right away or any time soon, but it was nice to know he had friends out there who trusted him enough to give them their futuristic door keys.

Maybe he should drop by for a visit.

Two days later Stark was announced dead on national television. Steve sat alone on his sofa watching as Stark's home in Malibu was destroyed and fell to the sea with the man himself trapped inside it.

He was feeling numb enough to not feel devastated. How could someone who survived an alien army be killed like this? In the public eye and on life television? By human terrorists?

For the next hour he kept watching the news, looking at all the footage, listening to all of it hoping for more information – waiting for one of his two phones to ring. But S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't call him in – and the phone Stark had given him remained predictably silent.

He spent a sleepless night.

Of course, Stark's death made the front page of every paper in the country. For once Steve didn't go for his morning run, but made his way directly to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base.

“We have to do something about this,” Steve said, trying to make Fury look at him.

“We're not getting involved at this point.”

“Why?”

Fury huffed. “We've been ordered to stand down.”

“Since when are we doing anything, but what we think is right?” he said, putting as much heat into his tone as he deemed appropriate. The people who could order them to stand down were also the people who'd ordered a nuclear strike against New York that Fury himself had tried to prevent against orders.

“We are,” Fury said, studying Steve calmly. “The order came from the presidential office. And secret agency or not, we can't just go in guns blazing, just because Iron Man was killed and we have a personal interest. We're not in this for private vendettas.”

Steve didn't back down or look away when Fury stared him right in the eye. “This isn't about Stark being an Avenger. This is about the Mandarin being a terrorist.”

Fury smirked. “Is he? We never got a real lock on him to be honest.”

“Something about all of this is...”

“Not right,” Fury concluded. “I agree. So Stark is our best bet.”

“Stark?” Steve asked, incredulously. The first sliver of hope was trying to form into some real emotion, but he tried not to get his hopes up, before someone right out said it out loud.

“It seems it takes quite a bit more to kill Iron Man. Our satellite data gives us reason to believe he got away.” Fury smiled at him smugly.

Natasha and Clint were sitting outside of Fury's office when Steve stepped out and he had to ask himself if someone had alerted them to his presence on base today or if they had come for the same reason he had. It was so rare that all of them were in the same country and at a time like this it seemed like an awfully convenient coincidence.

Maybe people realized that Captain America was a good strategist and knew when following orders was important, but also that sometimes you had to make up your own mind.

It didn't matter.

Tony Stark was alive.

* * *

When all was over and Pepper and Tony had just finished another press conference that had been broadcasted live on most news stations, Steve took out his phone and texted: “Glad you're still breathing.”

“Did you mourn me?” Tony texted back, a second later.

* * *

S.H.I.E.L.D. kept him busy. There was always a crisis or secret op that needed the extra power. He got along with most agents, could deal with the hero worship, could even deal with the stares and whispers. But he missed having friends, a team that had his back.

So far the only time he'd felt like that since waking from the ice had been fighting alongside the other Avengers in New York. But they were all living their own lives. He only rarely saw Black Widow and Hawkeye when they were sent on the same missions, which didn't happen often. None of them stayed at the base for any length of time.

At least this time he was on mission with Clint.

“Is this really the Captain America?” a young agent asked. He was standing beside Clint on board of their transport flight. He pretended not to hear, but Clint rolled his eyes.

“How many Captain Americas are there?” the female agent who'd been asked hissed back.

“I don't know? Two now?”

“One,” the woman hissed back. “Everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. knows that.”

Steve tried not to look at them, but some days all of this made him feel more alone than anything. “So what is this all about then?” he asked Clint, not sure why he had been chosen to go on this particular op.

“There is this Latverian guy who tries to get his hands on all kinds of old Hydra junk. I suppose we are trying to keep it out of his hands, just in case there are more things hidden there that could cause Tesseract-magnitude incidents.” Clint was shrugging and then went back to testing his bow.

“New bow?” he asked, because he hadn't seen this one before.

“Hmm.”

“Stark?” he asked, whispering.

“Yeah. Haven't seen him for months though. Seems to be pretty busy with something or other. He sent this to me. Still don't know how he knew where to find me. Things like that tend to make me a little uneasy.”

Steve nodded along. He hadn't seen much of anyone really, but recently he'd thought about taking Tony up on his offer and just drop by Stark Tower one day, just to make sure it was still okay to. He still had the key card and had never even tried it. And he still had only S.H.I.E.L.D.'s assurances that Stark had lived through the Mandarin incident without suffering any lasting injuries.

But this wasn't the time and place to ponder this. He needed to focus on the job. After that he could think about what to do next.

“Latverian guy, huh?” he asked. “What do you need me for then?”

“Well, it's Hydra stuff and you are the only one here with first-hand experience of infiltrating operational Hydra bases. Apparently, the last time the Latverian guy left some robots behind for our agents to punch, too. Robots sophisticated enough to even impress Stark.”

“Does the Latverian guy have a name?” he asked.

“Victor von Doom.”

“You're kidding? If that doesn't bode well.”

“What it says on the tin, I guess.” Clint laughed and went back to making sure his equipment was in good working order. Steve watched him, understanding the need to do it. His shield was very important to him, too. All professionals took care of the tools that they had to depend on in a fight. But the younger agents were still watching him and he really didn't feel like facing all of it today. So instead he sat down beside Clint and waited for them to arrive. Hopefully, there would be robots. Punching something sounded like a good plan.

Agent Dent, one of the older agents, came out of the cockpit to talk to his team. Steve listened attentively as the younger agents received their orders, although he wasn't included in their little strategy meeting. Hawkeye finally leaned back, eyes hidden behind dark glasses and watched the proceedings with him.

The agent came to stand in front of them next. He nodded to Barton, then smiled at Steve and said: “It's an honor to finally meet you, sir,” he said.

Steve nodded at him. “I'm still not quite sure what I'll be doing here today.”

“Oh, we requested some back-up. There was an incident with some triggered security systems last time.”

“Robots,” Hawkeye said with a smirk.

“Shouldn't we have called in Stark then?” Steve asked.

“He's not working for S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Agent Dent said gravely, as if bringing up that name was an insult or at least a nuisance. “I hear he does us some favors once in a while on the technological side of things, but outside of the Avengers Initiative Iron Man has no ties with S.H.I.E.L.D. Our own scientists aren't amateurs either. They know what to expect down there. We don't need to call in Iron Man for this one,”

“I see,” Steve said and smiled when Barton chuckled beside him. At least he knew that Steve hadn't been suggesting to get Stark here for a technical consultation, but had joked about having someone who knew his way around punching robots on the team.

Agent Dent looked at both of them then, questioning. He was a big man, looking quite impressive in his black special ops gear and with his close cropped brown hair and clean shaven face. He looked like someone who knew and didn't fear combat. “Really an honor, Captain,” he repeated and saluted Steve in a casual way, before making his way back to the front, quietly exchanging word with his second in command. The slightly younger man nodded. When he looked at him and Barton, Steve caught him staring. The cold, taxing gaze made him take note.

“What's his problem?” Barton asked. The little byplay had obviously registered with him too.

“How would I know what's going on with today's youngsters?”

Hawkeye muffled a startled laugh. “It's good to know you have a sense of humor, Cap. Natasha always tells me I'm annoying when I try to be funny on the job.”

Steve kept his face straight as he said: “We haven't touched down yet, soldier.”

“We're going to any minute now,” the young agent beside Agent Dent said loudly. When Steve looked up the piercing eyes were still glued to him. He frowned. The man wasn't showing him any outright animosity, but with how things were, Steve was honestly a little surprised he didn't get some openly shown wariness more often. Even among the troops there had always been those who didn't trust him on principle. Not everyone dealt well with someone with enhanced skills in their midst, even if Steve had never asked for special treatment – he'd just not been afraid to butt heads to get his way when it was in everybody's best interest. That was enough to offend some people.

Clint just huffed and leaned back again. “Overeager pub,” he mumbled.

Steve was inclined to agree, but held his tongue. He knew what it was like to not be taken seriously and had hated enough to try and not treat others like it when he didn't have reason to.

The plane touched down in the Carpathian Mountains. They had to make a short track up to the abandoned Hydra base. Steve enjoyed the clear air and the possibility to stretch his muscles, before going into any kind of combat situation. They had a team consisting of three relatively young S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists with them who weren't enjoying the short trip at all.

Steve was walking beside Agent Dent when the base came into view, most of it completely hidden inside the rock. “Can I ask what kind of security we're expecting, sir?” he asked, aware of Hawkeye only a few feet away, trying to get a better view of the base, and always on the lookout.

The agent shrugged. “We hope there won't be anything. But with Hydra who knows what kind of systems they would have implemented? And if someone already scavenged this base...”

“I see,” Steve said, feeling like he was beginning to sound like a broken record. His mouth set into a thin line. This was the first time that he was so directly confronted with things from his own past, or very recent life, and the thought of even remnants of Hydra made his skin crawl. He'd seen too much of their crazy schemes and inhuman experiments. Part of him wished that whoever had decided to send him on this mission would have found something else for him to do instead.

But bitter thoughts were not something he allowed himself to dwell on, not when he had a job to do, so he swallowed them down and focused on the mission at hand. “Why did they send you, Clint?” he asked instead. “You'd think they'd have enough hot spots to deal with.”

“Don't know,” Clint answered. “Got the assignment last minute. Probably because I had a look at the robots last time. Fury assigned me.” He was still wearing the sun glasses, so it was hard to really read him, his face a blank mask for the moment.

Dent nodded, and a thoughtful look passed through his eyes. “The more the merrier,” he said, gruffly.

His second in command, Agent Desmond, as Steve had learned minutes ago, spoke up: “We don't know what's waiting for us, gentlemen. Better be prepared than sorry.”

Steve felt his own lips quirk into a smile at that and was glad to see Clint smirk back at him. It wasn't like either of them were new at this game. It was hard to tell how much actual combat Desmond had seen though.

It became apparent very quickly when they reached the base that there weren't any booby traps waiting for them. Of course, that was a good thing, but somewhere deep down he could admit to himself that part of him was yearning for something to fight. But the base had been abandoned a long time ago. Still seeing the insignia scattered around the offices and labs, the big Hydra symbols on the doors, was enough to make a chill run down his spine. For everyone else Hydra was a ghost from the past, but he had been fighting them tooth and nail with Bucky, Peggy and the Commandos not so long ago in his own memory. It seemed so far away sometimes with all that had happened, all the things he'd had to adjust to, but it hadn't been that long at all since waking up.

The labs were old and had been gathering dust for years. Barton vanished nearly the moment it was clear that they wouldn't have any trouble accessing the labs. Steve didn't question him. Hawkeye was a professional and he would be doing whatever he had been told to do when sent here.

He followed a team of two scientists, Agent Desmond and two other agents into the main lab. It was stuffed with a strange tech collection. He recognized some of the technology, could see how this lab had been on the verge of unleashing some nasty surprises to win the war.

Stopped in time, it seemed.

While the younger, female scientist made herself busy on what looked like a control panel, her older male colleague made himself busy in another corner, inspecting one of the big machines there. Steve took a look around the room. It was obvious that he wasn't needed here, but he was still glad that he was in full gear, albeit not wearing his cowl yet, and carrying his shield. There was a big metal platform on one side of the room, and in the back there was a heap of electronic bits and pieces, like someone had just thrown any parts they hadn't any use for into one big pile. Maybe this was simply all that was left now after the base had been evacuated or abandoned.

He stepped closer and looked at it. Dust was gathering on the shelves and all the discarded junk before it. But as he walked closer he noticed some shiny metal pieces peaking out of the pile. Behind him the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were discussing something and he couldn't hear any sound coming from the other two teams exploring the compound. Nobody was paying attention to him, as he crouched down to inspect the pieces before him. Something wasn't right here. He carefully set some pieces aside until he uncovered what looked like the torso of a human shaped robot built to scale. The metal hadn't gathered dust and the dirt and dust on some of the other pieces had been disturbed too. Somebody had been here.

But the robot was disassembled, inactive.

If the genius creator of fighting robots Hawkeye had been talking about had been the one to enter the base before them, why would he hide robot parts from view instead of booby-trapping the place? Was someone else here and watching them?

He stood again. The older S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist was nodding excitedly at the woman, and left accompanied by another agent. Steve's hand twitched and he balled it into a fist to keep himself from voicing his suspicions here and now. Silently he stepped around the other side of the pile of metal scraps and robot parts. He stopped in front of the rectangular metal platform.

No dust there either. And as he took a better look at the floor he realized there were scratches on the floor that looked very recent.

“Is something wrong, Captain?” Desmond asked.

“Not sure,” he said.

The woman looked up from her work and stared at him with interest.

“Do you know what this is for?” he asked her.

She looked from him to Desmond and back, nervously. “The platform?”

“Yes, the platform.”

“Why?” Desmond frowned.

“I think it was moved here recently.”

Desmond blanched and he turned back to the scientist. “What is it?” he asked, strained. He'd probably realized immediately what this could mean, that maybe they weren't the only ones exploring the base.

Steve hadn't yet found any signs to actually conclusively confirm this, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was going on.

“I don't know,” the woman stuttered. “I haven't even had time to look at it yet, sir.”

She was talking to Desmond's back as he was walking over to where Steve was standing. Steve watched him as he bent down to inspect scratches on the floor and then stood up to take a good look at the platform. “Do you think someone was trying to hide something here?” He nodded at the metal construction.

“In the wall? The floor?” Steve asked back and frowned, thinking about the possibilities. “What's on the other side of this wall? Do we have a blueprint?”

“No blueprints. But I didn't see any doors on that side of the corridor. Could it be a hidden door?”

Steve considered how much effort it would take to move the whole thing just on a hunch. He hopped up the stairs to take a better look at where the platform faced the wall. There was nothing there. He considered the stone wall for a moment, trying to make up his mind about what to do next.

“We need to know what they needed this for,” he said. Obviously this wasn't part of the security measures. He looked up to the ceiling trying to figure out how this thing related to the rest of the room.

A sudden humming sound started up. Steve tried to move, but felt dizzy.

“Gates!” Agent Desmond shouted. “What is this?”

“I don't know! I can't stop it!”

His body wasn't responding, the world was slowing down and he was seeing things as if in trance, as if everything was happening in slow motion. His ears were ringing.

“Steve!” someone shouted. Clint. Where had he come from?

He couldn't see him. All he could see was agent Desmond turning around to look at him with a sinister smile.

The ringing in his ears got louder, painful. Then the world fell away.