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The Ransom of Tony Stark

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"Captain," Coulson's calm voice came clear as crystal through the comm set Steve had been about to remove, now that he had finished with his training run. He'd been working with Clint and Natasha not five minutes prior, and both agents had only just disappeared into the locker rooms nearby to clean up. Refocusing his attention, Steve waited for Coulson to finish, "please report to conference room two-A for a briefing in ten minutes, or as soon as possible."

He carefully pressed the tiny button on his comm that allowed him to respond, still a little uncomfortable with the technology. It was Tony's design, rather than SHIELD's, still brand new and not yet battle tested. Trying it out had been one of the tasks for today's training run. "Agent Coulson. What's the situation?"

"I have a mission assignment for the available members of your team," was the concise reply.

Now, what that meant exactly, Steve didn't bother trying to pry out of their handler over the comm link. Knowing Coulson, he wouldn't be persuaded to share details over a potentially unsecured line, even while in headquarters. They had yet to find any weaknesses in the new comm links, but that didn't mean there were none. "I'll be there in five."

For a moment, he debated shucking the heaviest of his gear and cleaning up. Deciding it was not really worth the effort when Coulson had seen him in worse shape and would take more than the five minutes he'd allotted himself, he just kept his gear on and left everything else where it was. Anyone who messed with his things would be found out soon enough, and it wasn't like he had anything highly valuable in his gym bag. No one would be likely to bother with some dirty laundry and a bar of soap. He did take off his helmet, though, taking the time for a quick rub down of his head and the inside of the helmet with a borrowed hand towel. That would do for now, in place of a proper shower. The others would cope.

The conference room wasn't far, just up a single flight of stairs and a short distance down a well-lit corridor. The room itself was small, only barely big enough for eight people, and slightly cramped when there were actually eight people present. Right now, though, the tally consisted of Coulson, Natasha, and Clint.

"Cap," Clint grinned, looking up from where he was fidgeting with the laces of his boots, his feet propped up on the conference room table, "fancy seeing you here."

Coulson was too professional to actually roll his eyes, but a slightly long-suffering expression appeared on his face for a moment. "Captain Rogers, agents. There is a developing situation in the northern reaches of the territory of Alberta, Canada. Energy signatures with a striking similarity to the Chitauri weapons SHIELD collected in the wake of the Invasion have been detected by one of our satellites."

Clint sobered at that. "So what are we doing about it, sir?"

"Right now, nothing. You three are being sent in strictly for reconnaissance. Under no circumstances should you engage unless absolutely necessary. And that includes all variations of your explosive and trick arrows, Barton."

"Aww, I never get to have any fun."

Coulson's expression didn't change, but his tone took on a hint of steel. "Need I remind you, Agent Barton, that the only reason we are being allowed to take an active part in this investigation and violate Canada's sovereignty is the energy signature we've detected."

Steve decided he needed to head that lecture off at the pass. "Agent Coulson," he interjected as Clint sat back with a huff, "do we have any information on the location itself or who is behind this?"

The line of Coulson's shoulders relaxed fractionally. "Nothing confirmed, though there are reports of several possible missing persons potentially sighted in the area. There might be some trafficking operation based nearby, as well. The suspected location of the compound is based on the location of the detected energy flare: approximately 23 miles northeast of Fort McMurray, coordinates 56°59'12" N, 110°51'28" W."

Steve nodded, storing away the information. "And will the rest of the team be joining us on site?"

Coulson shook his head. "Mr. Stark is unavailable, at Ms. Potts' request; he has some public appearances to make in the next 48 hours that he can't duck out of for a recon mission. Thor is... away, and Dr. Banner has declined to take part, citing his lack of subtlety. He and Mr. Stark will be called on later for any scientific analyses, if they're deemed necessary."

With that, the briefing was over. Clint and Natasha disappeared to gather their gear, and Steve double-checked his before following their lead. He was wearing most of it already, but if they were going to be venturing that close to the arctic circle in March, he was damn well going to use his cold-weather gear, and stash away some emergency supplies where he could. He knew the drill; working with the Howling Commandoes, he'd often been in similar situations.

The flight from New York to their assigned landing zone was a trial in more ways than one. The first two hours were utterly uneventful. Steve spent them staring out his window.

He was fairly sure this would be a straightforward mission, albeit probably a long one.

They hadn't been assigned any reconnaissance missions together yet, however, so this would be a learning experience for all three of them. And Coulson had apparently either sensed as much or gotten a hold of his ancient army dossier somehow. Reconnaissance missions had almost always meant he was stuck coordinating rather than out in the field when he'd run them with the Howling Commandoes. Only a few had ever required him to do more than keep watch.

The problem was that he was instantly recognisable, all the more so in uniform than out of it, and far more comfortable running a frontal assault, to boot, which made him less than ideally suited to this kind of more subtle work. No, all in all, he was better suited to playing backup, in the event of any sudden firefights. Not that knowing that made the waiting any easier.

It also meant that their roles on this mission had been carefully chosen by their handler.

Clint had been assigned to locating a sniping perch near the site and providing Natasha with support and covering fire if they were discovered. Meantime, Natasha would be spending her time actually physically scouting out the area and the compound itself. Steve would be waiting with the Quinjet, a mile or so farther out than Clint so as not to blow their cover with his brightly colored target of a uniform, close enough to the action that he could reach them in under three minutes. He didn't like it; three minutes could well be the difference between the success or failure of the mission.

"Hey, Cap," Clint called from the cockpit, breaking into his thoughts, "when you finally gonna tell Stark you're interested?"

"What?" Steve had to force the word out, distracted as he was by trying not to give in to the blush he could feel rising under his skin. His attention to the mission dropped to zero. Had he been that obvious? "What are you talking about?"

Steve didn't have to turn to look to know Natasha was smirking at him, amused.

"Oh, come on. What the hell are you waiting for," Clint needled him a little further, sensing he'd hit a nerve, "You know he wouldn't turn you down."

Not quite sure how to respond to that, Steve paused, knowing with a sinking feeling even as he did that it was a mistake. That he was giving away too much.

"I don't often agree with Clint as fully," Natasha added, her tone level and calm as always, "but the unnecessary tension is getting annoying."

"What tension?" Steve tried.

"The ridiculous sexual tension every time he walks into a room you're in!" Clint burst out. "The fucking constant flirting. The-- the-- fuck! Just pin him to a wall and put us all out of our misery, will you?"

The blush was back and deeper, this time. Steve coughed, feeling a bit awkward in his own skin.

Natasha said nothing, content with the outcome of the conversation for the moment, and the silence drew out. Steve didn't reopen the topic. He'd lost this round, and pretty thoroughly.

The trip would take them another three hours, though, and Steve knew he'd spend every minute of it worrying at the idea. Maybe he should just take their advice...

And that was when he realized he was screwed. Well. Metaphorically, anyway. That he was spending more time worrying about how to ask Tony out than about the mission he was currently on.

Granted, that was in large part a result of the conversation. But that wasn't the point. He needed to refocus. He could worry about talking to Tony later.

Steve stretched his shoulders, loosening the tension that had accumulated in his muscles during the flight, and stood, setting his feet shoulder width apart and grabbing a hold of the wrist strap bolted to the ceiling as he watched Clint smoothly bring the Quinjet in for a landing in a convenient clearing.

"Your captain thanks you for flying SHIELD airlines," Clint quipped, setting the craft down as lightly as a falling feather and readying his bow, "please remember to take your belongings and prepare to kick ass."

Natasha quirked an eyebrow at him in subtle criticism, only to have it ignored. Under a minute later, they climbed out into the rapidly cooling evening air. The Quinjet was secured and camouflaged as best they could with only a low-tech netting nearly as quickly. They'd decided against using the 'jet's active defenses; there was a chance those could give them away to the group they were investigating if anyone with the correct kind of scanning technology was keeping watch.

It wouldn't fool anyone who walked up to it, but the 'jet ought to be safe enough from all but the most avid eyes in the sky. Steve nodded. "Right. Positions," he unhooked his shield from its harness and slotted it into place on his arm, doing his best to mentally prepare himself to keep watch. "We'll reconvene as planned for a meal in six hours or whenever your scouting run is finished. Comms silence once you leave this clearing unless you have something to report."

Natasha nodded, and quietly faded into the trees without a word. Clint gave him a somewhat mocking half salute and a wave as he did the same.

The next six hours or so would be tedious, but he knew better than to let his mind wander.

A glance around the clearing revealed nothing but a ring of intermixed evergreen and maple trees. A few birds chirped sleepily, bedding down for the evening.

Every so often the trees would creak in the light wind, and the light was dying slowly, now. It had been just under an hour since the two agents had left the clearing.

"Widow is in," Clint's voice murmured over the comm line before going silent again.

"Copy." Steve wished he could see what was going on. What had they found? Hell, had they found anything?

The sun went down entirely and the already chill air cooled significantly while he waited for another check-in and periodically reminded himself that no news was good news. That Clint would let him know if something went seriously wrong.

"Initial report," Clint spoke softly two and a half hours later, "affiliation and motives unclear. Widow is extracting herself. Rendezvous in an hour."

The pair of SHIELD agents appeared silently out of the trees fifty minutes later, preceded only by a flicker in Steve's peripheral vision. Rather than risk laying a campfire to cook over, they retreated into the 'jet and set to heating up three of the MREs it had come stocked with.

They'd arrived something like five hours ago and the flight itself had been another five. It had made for a very long tiring day, all in all, for all that it felt like they hadn't done much. Eventually, his food in his hands and seated on the floor of the 'jet facing the two assassins, Steve broke the comfortable silence. "What did you find?"

Natasha's expression didn't change, but Steve got the impression of a disgusted grimace. "Not much. The compound is mostly underground, but that seems to be primarily for the purposes of keeping their heating bill down. The place is small, not very well hidden, underequipped, and what equipment they do have is low quality. It looks like it was an abandoned nuclear bunker at one point, but whoever took it over didn't bother to clean it up. Everything in there is rundown, dates back to the 1970s, or broken. There are only two labs, and those have minimal protection. The scientists are as low-rent as the men pretending to be standing guard. The projects they're working on are all either mundane or derivative, and only barely deserve to be called 'research'. One weapons development project that is based on pre-existing technology and so new it might as well not have started yet. Two projects that appear designed to reverse engineer other types of weaponry: a Stark guidance system and a Hammer rocket. No sign of whatever it is they're working on that caused the flare of energy SHIELD detected. It's possible that whatever it was has already been moved. And the rumors of trafficking seem to be unfounded."

"They didn't notice Widow's appearance in their base," Clint added, "despite being essentially a skeleton crew, so they're either totally oblivious or they just don't give a shit. She wasn't even being overly sneaky. Just subtle. And they don't seem to have any sort of perimeter guard, either. I didn't find any signs of a guard rotation or even just IR cameras."

Natasha shrugged. "It's possible that they had some kind of silent alarm system, but the few non-scientists inside didn't react at all."

Steve considered the information. Something about the situation felt off, beyond the obvious lack of reaction to their presence. "We'll rest here tonight and see whether anything changes come morning. We'll keep watch on the 'jet and the base in shifts until daybreak, unless they show signs of wanting to take some kind of action. Clint, you get first watch. I'll take second."

Clint and Natasha nodded, slightly out of sync with one another, then exchanged a glance.

"Bets that we make it through the night undisturbed?" Clint asked her.

"I don't take rigged bets," was her reply.

Steve swallowed back a sigh. The depressing thing about it was that they were probably right.

Thankfully, he didn't need a lot of sleep to keep alert.