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An Act of Faith Against the Night

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** Steve **

"Oh, so you do still own this phone."

Still dazed and more than half asleep, Steve pulled the phone away from his ear with a grimace. "What the... Stark - um, Tony?"

"I was starting to wonder when you went like six million years without picking up," he breezed on with barely a pause. "But lucky for you, I'm a patient man."

"Yeah. Can't believe my good fortune," Steve deadpanned, scrubbing at his face. "What time is it?"

"He asked as if it mattered," Tony came back at him, but a real current of pleasure ran through his manic, too-bright cheer, something guileless, genuine and unforced as very few pleasantries had been since the Helicarrier crash. "Focus, Cap -- you were the one who picked up the call at two a.m. and after all this time of stonewalling me and everyone in the world, that's a significant statistical anomaly. So what's up?"

"I..." a yawn cracked through Steve's words, and he had to start again. "I been busy. Lost my phone-"

"Lost like 'left it on the train' or lost like 'ditched it when you went on the run from HYDRA?" Tony asked, just the finest glimmer of an edge showing through his cheer.

"Something like that," Steve agreed without bothering to clarify. "Just got time to replace it now. And I wouldn't 'a picked up, only I thought you were Natasha."

A bark of laughter. "Well, I can honestly say that being mistaken for the most deadly woman alive has never happened to me before; the facial hair and lack of tits usually clues most people in. So, you gonna let me come up, or what?"

Steve sat up straighter, suddenly and fully awake. "What?"

"I mean it's not like hacking the security door down here would be difficult or anything, but Pepper's assured me that kind of thing is impolite, and I hear that politeness is supposed to be a Thing, sooo."

"You're at my apartment?" He lurched out of bed, grabbing for his pants.

"Well that'd be pretty stupid of me, given that the movers just cleared your apartment out this morning, wouldn't it?" Stark asked, sounding smugly proud of himself, and just a touch worried. "I'm outside your new condo. And I brought doughnuts."

"Aw Jeez, Tony, a little warning woulda been nice," Steve groused, trying to jam his feet into shoes while bolting for the door at top speed.

"Yeah, well you picking up your phone before you burned SHIELD down and went walkabout for six months woulda been nice too, but here we are," Tony shot back, just as if he had any room to talk after that fiasco with the Mandarin at Christmas. "Now buzz me in, will ya? I think your scary cyber-doorman's gonna try and kick my ass in a minute."

Steve froze for precisely one-tenth of a second. Then he hit the door so hard the handle stuck in the hallway sheetrock when it flew open. "Don't have a doorman," he gritted, bolting for the stairwell to jump down the center.

"Well maybe not a paid one," Tony replied, almost sounding unconcerned, "or he'd probably have a uniform that didn't look like he dug it out of a dumpster, but I recognize that 'You Shall Not Pass' attitude anywhere, and that guy looks like a biter, so uh... shit, he's fast. Maybe you better hurry it up, Cap."

Steve hurried, but there was still no sign of Bucky when he made it to the condo's entry lobby. Not a bootprint, not a shadow, not even a lingering smell of sweat and cordite in the air. Nothing but an empty room, fake plants, a few empty chairs, and buzzing, too-white lights that let no shadow bide. The urge to howl, curse, and put a fist through the wall in frustration was brief, but powerful, and Steve had to clench his teeth on it pretty hard before he could manage to enter his security code into the keypad and open the outside door.

"So. Not your doorman, huh?" Tony asked, a little cowed, and strangely unbothered when Steve stepped out into the night rather than ushering him into the building. "That your guy?"

"Bucky," Steve confirmed, not really surprised that Tony knew about his quest to locate his friend and bring him safely home. Given what the news programs had caught of the fights leading up to SHIELD's fall, it wasn't much of a logic jump for anybody, let alone a genius with legacy ties to the SSR, and presumably access to some of its oldest files. "Yeah. Damn it." Steve rubbed at his face with both hands, then sucked in a deep breath of humid Virginia night and blew it out hard. "Don't suppose you saw where he...?"

Tony grimaced, looking genuinely contrite. "Sorry. Left my infra red goggles in my other helmet. That I blew up last year." He craned a glance past Steve, peering through the security doors as if the small lobby might somehow be hiding a full grown man behind its potted fichus tree. "Dude's like a ninja. Or that Spiderman kid. Wait, he's not Spiderman, is he?"

And to that, Steve had to surrender a laugh. If HYDRA had managed to give Bucky the ability to fire sticky webs from his hands and cling to smooth vertical surfaces, their encounters would have gone very differently, right from the start. "Nah, I'm pretty sure that kid stays close to Queens." He shook his head, and forced himself to shrug off the last of his frustration. Tony Stark was here in DC, hundreds of miles from his workshop, his robots, his girlfriend and his publicists, standing in the parking lot of Steve's new condominium complex at two in the morning, when they hadn't seen each other, or even really spoken in more than two years. There had to be a good reason for that.

"So," he said at last, "You said something about doughnuts?"

"Oh yeah," Tony startled a little, then held up a white, slightly battered pastry box. "Bomboloni's; best doughnuts in Manhattan. But you sure you don't want to, uh..." He gestured vaguely at the empty lobby again, and Steve shook his head.

"I'm sure." He was as tired of chasing Bucky as he figured Bucky was of being chased, and it was pretty clear that the man knew where Steve was to be found if he wanted him. Of the two ways Steve could have taken that, he was simply too tired to do any more worrying, or fretful hoping tonight. Whatever Bucky wanted, Steve could figure it out later.

Steve took the pastry box out of Tony's hand, noticing where the tape had already been pried up from the sides. For some reason that small proof of Tony Stark's lack of impulse control made him feel like smiling. Maybe because with all that had happened -- to them, to SHIELD, to the world -- some things were still the same.

"You wanna get some coffee to go with these?" He offered. Tony's eyebrows went up immediately, and the corner of his mouth made a wicked little hook. Steve forcibly kept his face open and guileless, even as he groaned inwardly at having forgotten -- yet again -- what that invitation supposedly meant nowadays. "There's a 24 hour diner a few blocks down that way."

"Diner, huh?" Tony mused, peering. "You a regular?"

"Yeah. They do a good pie."

"Apple?"

"Cherry," Steve answered Tony's smirk with equal sass, and was rewarded with a bark of laughter.

"So I guess they like you okay there?" he asked then, casual as if they both couldn't hear the real question beneath it. 'Do they know who you are? Will it be safe to talk?'

"This hour of night, it should be just Max and Perry working," he answered both questions with a shrug. "Pretty sure they won't mind me bringing food in just this once, so long as they get a good tip out of it."

"Challenge accepted, Capcicle," Tony chuckled, clapping him on the shoulder and turning them both toward the parking lot. "I'll drive."

"Yeah, you will," Steve agreed, thinking wistfully of his lost bike -- another casualty of the fall of SHIELD, and one he was beginning to find he missed more and more now that he and Sam had finally dragged themselves back to DC. That Harley had been the first thing he'd bought for himself once he'd convinced Fury he was sane, competent, and not likely to run amok in Times Square again -- the first thing he'd seen of the new Century that had seemed familiar enough to be enticing. And now, like so many other half-familiar things Steve had tentatively collected into his life, it was in pieces somewhere at the bottom of the Potomac river.

"I gotta say, for someone who just found out he had an assassin lurking in his elevator lobby, you don't seem very troubled," Tony broke into Steve's reverie with just the right brash irreverence as the sleek little coupe pulled out onto the empty street. "You're not getting all deathwishy on us now, are you?"

Steve cut a glance at him, stiffly offended for all of half a second. Then the sliding flare of a street light gleamed across Tony's face, revealing genuine concern instead of the mockery he expected, and none of the bitten-back pity so many other faces took on when the subject of his fall from the Helicarrier loomed on the conversational horizon. "Nope," he said then, stretching his legs as far as he could. "M' no good to Bucky, or to anybody else if I'm dead, am I?"

"So it's fair to guess this isn't the first time he's done this creepy-ex, stalkery thing then." It wasn't a question. Steve appreciated that.

"First time here, but yeah, he's come around before. Broke into a couple of my hotel rooms, stole some things -- shoes, a razor, soap, socks -- things he'd probably have had to steal from someone else if he didn't take 'em from me. Once he stole some plane tickets to New York, but nobody ever showed up at the gate to use 'em. Another time he took apart Sam's computer and swiped the power cord. Mostly though, it seemed like he was just following Sam and me around the east coast while we were following him around the remnants of HYDRA’s salted earth retreat." Steve laughed, trying to keep the weary bitterness out of his voice. "That got old quick."

"He ever come at you again?" There was no give in the question; it was all titanium alloy without a speck of hot rod paint on it. The sliding streetlights couldn't find any trace of the California playboy in the driver's seat now -- this was all Iron Man.

Steve shook his head. "Nah. Not like you're thinkin'. Bucky took a swing or two when we got close and he felt cornered, but mostly it seemed like he was just... tryin' to remember, I think. Maybe tryin' to follow me to things that could tell him what he needed to do next. He hasn't gone back to HYDRA, so he doesn't have orders now, just the mission he didn't complete from before. Even without the conditioning they put him through, that kinda thing can throw a soldier hard." Steve nodded at the upcoming intersection as Tony slowed for a red light. "Diner's half a block up, by the way. Red sign. There's a parking lot in the back, see it?"

"Yeah," Tony agreed, fingers tapping out drumbeats on the steering wheel while they both watched the night in shades of orange and red. "So you think he'll ever try to complete that last mission?" he asked as the light changed to green.

"Not really, no," Steve said, surprising himself with a straight answer he hadn't intended to give. "I mean, he's hurting and he's scared, and he's lashed out a couple of times, but I could tell he was holding back." Steve absently rubbed at his belly, and the healed-up bullet wound that didn't have any reason to hurt anymore, but still sometimes did anyway. "I think he... he needed to fight someone, but didn't really want to hurt anybody in particular, just needed to fight. He knew I could take it, knew he wouldn't hurt me... not really."

"Not for lack of trying," Tony groused, pulling into a parking space and killing the engine. Eyes dark, jaw set; an angry face, but angry for him, not at him, and Steve found himself surprised to realize that he could tell the difference now.

"No," he said, and offered up a smile. "If Bucky'd really wanted to kill me after the helicarriers went down, he could have. He had dozens of chances in the last few months, just like he gave me a few chances to take him out, if that'd been what I was after. Heck, Tony, he coulda come after me in the hospital, or left me in the river if he'd wanted me dead."

"Actually, he couldn't," Tony said, brusque and brittle as he unclipped his shoulder belt.

"What?"

"The hospital," Tony said. "Barnes couldn't have got to you there without a making one hell of a mess. President Ellis posted Secret Service all over Walter Reid when they brought you there. Turns out Ellis was on that list of HYDRA targets you saved. About ten names down from me." A quick glance, warmer now, and crinkling with a hint of smile at the corner of Tony's eye. "Nobody who wasn't Sam Wilson was even allowed to send you flowers without a full security clearance, body cavity check, a healthy campaign contribution, and maybe a strategic blowjob pr two."

"Well, Sam was with the group who found me, so I guess I can see why... wait, a blowjob?" Steve blinked, then again as the important details made it through. "Wait a minute, you... Tony, did you try to visit me?" Steve was charmed on one hand, baffled and somewhat annoyed on the other. "Nobody even told me you'd come by."

"Oh, you know," Tony answered, waving a careless hand as he flashed his mountebank's grin. "Your location was all top secret, above my clearance, and something I wasn't actually supposed to know. And the blow job was the deal-breaker, it turns out. Pepper says world leaders are definitely off the list for allowable affairs. Too much press; Stark Industries stocks would take a pounding." And here he winked, "So to speak."

Steve chuckled and popped his door open. "I think that's more than I ever expected to know about your relationship with Pepper," he said, taking his donuts and climbing out.

"Mm," Tony answered, voice noncommittal, but eyes considering. "Anyway, it's not like I had a lot of time for social visits or bedside vigils at the time anyway," he breezed on ahead, shorter legs working hard to reach the door and open it for Steve. "Coordinating the work crews around rescue teams and the damned press down on the river was crazier than a barrel of lobbyists in election year."

"You were working the salvage operations?" Steve led the way to the long chrome bar and choose a tall vinyl-covered seat near the far end. "I thought Stark Industries wasn't into weaponry anymore."

"Engine tech was mine," Tony replied with a glance at Max, the night waitress, who had recognized Steve and was tucking her physics homework under the counter, but not yet listening to their conversation. "Bad enough that HYDRA nearly got their tentacles on the repulsor designs through official channels, I wasn't about to stand back and let the Fed hand them over to someone like Hammer or Oscorp." And yeah, Steve did have to allow the sense in that.

Max came over with a carafe in one hand and two white cups in the other, and gave the pastry box a mild stinkeye as she set them out.

"You cheating on us, Golds?" she demanded, hip shot and pouting dramatically at Steve as she filled his coffee cup. Six months ago, that pout, and the casual flirtation behind it would have rendered Steve blush-fumbling and foolish, but the Helicarrier crash, the way HYDRA had torn effortlessly through Steve's meagre life and left no useful shreds of it behind, that had put things like pretty girls and flirting into a very sharp sort of perspective for him. Turned out that flirting with a girl he knew he would never afford to have wasn't so hard to do at all.

"It's only a fling, Doll. It means nothing to me, really," Steve promised with a camera-ready grin as he flipped the box open and nudged it her way. "And does it really count as cheating if I give you first pick?"

"Given that I'm the one who brought the goods, I think technically that qualifies as threesome," Tony offered, leaning his elbows on the counter with a transparent leer at Max's well-fitted uniform, "Unless we're only allowed to watch, in which case that's a whole different kink."

Her brows rose at that, and she scraped Tony over with the hardened glare wielded by pretty waitresses everywhere. Steve's back tightened as he watched recognition spark in her eyes, suddenly worried that he might have burned his favorite diner by bringing Tony Stark and his celebrity reputation here. But then her lips quirked up wry, and she swiped two of the doughnuts from the box. "Well you would be the expert on exhibitionism, wouldn't you?" she said as she filled his cup and sashayed back to her homework just as if she didn't know damned good and well who Steve had brought in from the night, and had no idea what they might need to talk about alone in the wasted hours past midnight.

Steve breathed a silent thanks to whatever saint or angel looked out for fools and superheroes as he watched her go. Beside him, Tony gave a low, and very appreciative whistle. "Tell me you've hit that, Cap," he said without a trace of shame.

"That would hit back," Steve grumbled, pointedly jostling the man in the ribs with an elbow. "and you mind your manners, or I'll offer to do it for her. Now what was it you wanted to-"

"Hang on," Tony cut him off, already tapping away at his phone, one handed while the other cradled his white china cup. "Just let me get this up, and..." Steve helped himself to a doughnut -- dark chocolate glazed, with marmalade inside -- while he waited. After a few seconds, Tony pulled a second phone from his pocket, tapped the two together, then set one beside him, and slid the first along the counter so it stopped just past Steve's elbow. At once the subtle noise in the open room faded to a blunted sort of hush, echoless and muted as if a thick velvet caul had draped over every hard surface in the diner. Impressed, Steve glanced at the phone, and grinned to see the Iron Man mask with a finger pressed to its lips on the screen.

"I take it this jams listening devices too?" he asked. His own voice sounded perfectly normal, as did Tony's when he replied.

"And trackers. SHIELD had pretty good records on the kind of bugs they used in your old place. You're keeping that one, by the way. Has a five foot radius of its own when the signal isn't twinned, but I figure it's better than nothing, given the size of your fan club."

"Ears everywhere," Steve agreed, deciding just this once to accept Tony's largesse without argument. "This why you came down from the City?" he asked, knowing it couldn't possibly be the only reason.

"So I guess we should get this part out of the way," Tony ignored the leading question, casual and offhand as if discussing the weather or the Dodgers' chances in the playoffs, and therefore solidly and deadly earnest. "That was a real boneheaded maneuver you pulled, taking on HYDRA without cutting me in on the action, Cap. And yes," he put up a hand, as if to fend off the highly skeptical glance Steve turned his way, "I say that in full remembrance of where I was and what I was doing last Christmas, which, I have been informed, was stupid and boneheaded too, and thus precisely why I am fully qualified to pass judgment on this latest fiasco of yours." He took a sip of his coffee, and chose a pinkish doughnut from the box, cutting a sideways glare at Steve. "You should have called me."

Steve bought a few moments with his own pastry, chewing carefully as he carded through his options. Telling Tony the barefaced truth -- that he hadn't even thought of calling for help as an option -- didn't seem like a good way of going forward without a fight, but he didn't like his chances of coming up with a plausible lie either. So he shrugged and temporized. "You blew up all your suits, Tony. Told the papers it was 'Operation Clean Slate'. Sounded an awful lot like a resignation letter to me."

He expected annoyance at that, but not the flash of hurt Stark's eyes showed before he covered it. "Oh, so we're back to 'what is Tony Stark without the suit' again? Thought we got past that, but hey, fine." Italian leather slapped linoleum like a glove to the cheek as he burst to his feet. "We can roll like that if you want-"

"What? No!" Steve caught Tony's elbow, blurting in alarm to keep him from storming away. "Jesus, no, Tony, that's not what I meant at all!"

The arm was rigid in his grip, but Tony eased back against the barstool and waved an ungracious hand for Steve to proceed, mouth pursed in a bratty scowl, but eyes only a little guarded.

"You blew up your suits, sure, but the important part was that you said you were done!" Steve tried to explain, realizing only as the words formed on his tongue how true they actually were. "How was I supposed to read that as 'sure, Rogers, go ahead and draw fire down on me and my very public life when everyone in the world knows I don't have the Suit anymore?'" He scraped a hand through his hair, feeling again the ghostly impression of hostile, hungry eyes all around him.

"You know what Fury said to me just before they shot him down?" he asked. Tony's mouth quirked, telegraphing some quip that would probably make Steve want to pop him one, so Steve pushed on before he could deliver it. "He said not to trust anyone. Anyone."

Tony's brows drew down tight. "And you figured that included other Avengers?"

"Five hours after he said that, Natasha was lying to my face, Hawkeye was shooting at me in a public park, and Sitwell was sending strike teams at me with Live Fire orders!" Steve took another sip of his coffee, another moment to force down the emotion that still tried to rise, taut and hot into his throat at the memories. Tony was conspicuously silent beside him, and Steve got the impression it cost the man a lot to manage that. He glanced over and summoned up a smile for the effort. "It wasn't a matter of me not trusting you, Tony, but I sure as heck didn't trust the people around you. Not when agents I'd served with and trusted were trying to shoot me down. How could I draw fire to you, to Ms. Potts, knowing that you'd disarmed yourself?"

"Yeah, well," Tony replied, irony in his arched brow and grudging forgiveness in his eyes. "Turns out we were in the line of fire anyway which," he forestalled Steve's protest with a raised hand, "I concede you couldn't have known, even if you should have guessed it, because since when is Tony Stark not on everybody's 'naughty' list?"

Steve offered back a chuckle and took another doughnut. "I dunno. That Everhart gal from Vanity Fair seems to like you well enough." Then he patted Tony on the back until he finished choking on the last of his coffee.

"My point," Tony wheezed, ducking away from Steve's hand at last, "The point that I am making here, is that we should have worked together. Both times. Probably more than just those both times." He took a deep breath, looking unaccountably nervous, then turned to face Steve on his stool, and took both of his hands. "So. You wanna take out HYDRA with me, Cap?"

And Steve knew better, he really did, but there was something so childlike in that sober gaze and promise of impending mayhem, that Steve couldn't keep his grin hidden. Tony's eyes turned gleeful when he tried to school it away though. "I know it's kinda your bag and all," he went on, "but I'm totally willing to cut you a slice of the action. And don't even pretend you don't want in on the happy explosive funtimes, you old scofflaw, you."

"Hey, so if you're gonna propose to him," Max said, breaking into the bubble of silence with coffeepot in one hand and her cel phone in the other, "Let me set up the shot first. The backlighting's for shit over here."

"Excuse me, Miss," Tony shot back, all faked affront as she refilled both their cups. "I happen to be a happily-"

"Girlfriend," Steve managed to stop choking long enough to gasp it out. "He's got a girlfriend."

"Psssht," Max rolled her eyes, but put her phone away. "Like anybody who can read a tabloid thinks that matters."

It was on the tip of Steve's tongue to protest that, but then he realized that Tony hadn't so much as frowned at the implication. Instead, he just shot back a grin and a wink that would have been pure confirmation, if Steve hadn't met Miss Potts and seen for himself what a force of nature she could be. "And what does your girlfriend think of all this?" Steve murmured as Max sauntered away again. "She was part of the reason you disarmed, wasn't she?"

The smile Tony turned on him then was a deeply fond thing, warm and resonant with such adoration it practically pushed at him across the space between them. "Yeah, she was. Funny thing though, turns out Ms. Virginia Potts was on HYDRA's hit list too, all on her own merits. That kind of changed some angles on the whole Iron Man debate."

Steve put his coffee cup down carefully. "Yeah, I'd think it would. So your clean slate's got a new project on it?"

"Two, actually," Tony answered cheekily. "His and Hers. Pep said I wasn't allowed to have a suit again unless I built her one too. Hers is strictly medevac though; a rescue unit." He leaned in close, whispering too loud to escape anybody's notice, if there hadn't been a noise cancelling field around them. "She doesn't like violence."

"Ah," Steve said, but he was thinking of Sam and the EXO-7 Falcon. Of how it was to know you had someone quick, light, and strong to catch you if you were falling, or to dig you out if you went under. And what a comfort it was to be the one who was finally strong enough to rescue your rescuer, too. Steve would have been the worst kind of hypocrite to pretend he couldn't see Ms. Potts' point there.

"You can even bring your new bestie on board if you want," Tony offered, abrasion creeping into his cheer. "Flyboy, I mean." Steve schooled his expression to blank confusion. "Road trip rommate? Wingman with the killer assets?"

"You mean Sam?"

"Yeah, that guy." Tony grinned, ignoring the warning in Steve's tone. "He could play too, since he's obviously got the chops."

"Well I don't know if he'd be all that interested, given that we just got back into town three days ago and apparently has some family atonement for missed birthdays to do." Steve answered after a moment, taking the last doughnut and tearing it in half.

"I could make him some new wings?" Tony's answer was probably meant to sound more like an offer than a plea, but Steve wasn't going to point the difference out.

Instead, he just smiled and shrugged. "Well, I'll give you his number, but I think if you're gonna make him an offer, you should probably learn his name." He set the smaller half on the napkin beside Tony's cup, and ate the rest in two unabashedly smirking bites while Tony scowled at him.

"And here I thought you were supposed to be good for enlistment," Tony groused.

And Steve wished he could have laughed at that, taken it for the joke Tony meant it to be, but as the food turned to damp ash on his tongue, and his belly twitched with the ghost of anguish not-long-past, he could only shake his head. "Not right now, I ain't," he said once his throat cleared enough to let him speak. Tony made a noise of rude disbelief, but Steve shook his head before he could put it to words.

"I ain't, Tony. Doesn't matter what I wear, or how big I smile for the cameras." He sighed, searching for the words to explain. "To recruit people, you either have to be willing to lie to them, or you gotta believe. You gotta know in your heart that what you're pitching is really the best way forward, not just for you, but for everyone. I was never any good at the lying to begin with, and..." he shook his head, drained his cup, and winced the last, bitter draught down. "And after this summer, I'm not sure I got that kind of faith left in much of anything." He dragged up a smile as he turned to face Tony, wanting to lighten the gloom a bit, but had to let it fade when he found his friend staring at him, eyes wide and earnest in the too-bright cafe.

Steve hadn't ever seen a look like that on Tony Stark, hadn't even imagined anything so still and gravid on the mercurial inventor's face. Maybe that was why he didn't move when Tony captured Steve's right hand in both of his, then held Steve's gaze just as trapped as he leaned in close and pronounced, "Bullshit."

The vulgarity startled a laugh out of Steve, and Tony pressed on before Steve could school it away. "Okay first, I've seen you bluff two geniuses, a demi-god, and a woman who lies for a living, and take an entire jackpot of Oreos on a pair of goddamned threes," Tony said, not letting Steve's hand go, "And second, you damn well do believe that HYDRA has to be stopped, I know you do!"

"That's certainty, not belief," Steve corrected by way of weary agreement. "Doesn't take any leap of faith to know that they'll keep trying to take the whole world prisoner like they've been doing all along. Folks like them... Schmidt, Zola, Pierce, all the people they recruited ... they don't stop."

"At least while there are still heads to cut off," Tony nodded back. "And you're the best decapitator on this playground, Cap." Steve made a face. Tony took it as a challenge. "No, seriously, you're like the Samurai Sword, Execution axe, big-daddy Guillotine of the HYDRA-bashing game. We should totally get you some kind of cauterizing edge on that shield, so you could-"

"Cut my own hand in half first time I caught it on the rebound?" Steve managed, laughing until he remembered that chances were, he wouldn't ever get the shield back into his hand again. It was like missing a limb, not having the shield -- an ache of absent weight, an itch to turn to it and take it up before the sinking remembrance that it was gone, that he'd let it fall. Another faithful ally lost to Gravity and Steve's own weakness.

Thinking of Bucky had been like that, before the crash; a series of aborted twitches that had started life as a wondering laugh and a call to look at that, before the realization of his absence loomed up again. It wasn't much better, now Steve knew Bucky hadn't died. If anything, that phantom ache was worse.

He sighed and rolled his left shoulder, where the tension tended to gather these days no matter how much he tried to stretch it away. "I don't think I'll be much use to you anyway, Tony," he confessed. "I mean I spent two years literally surrounded by HYDRA's most vicious killers and I never once spotted them for what they were."

"And again I say; bullshit." Tony tapped his coffee cup against his forehead in a kind of snide salute. "Cap, you know their chops better than anybody else. Than EVERYbody else, if we're being literal about it. Sure, maybe not as individuals, but as an organization, as a structure that built its habits and traditions in a time and around people that nobody else alive really understands. You know HYDRA's roots, while the rest of us are just grasping after the branches, or knocked out when the fruit falls on our heads."

Steve gave him a skeptical look. "Lotta people keep telling me that things have changed since the 40's."

"I'm a businessman, Cap," Tony said, ignoring Steve's goad. "That means I'm a gambler by nature. I figure the odds against my resources, I jump, and I hope to come out on top, whether that's a stock trade, a corporate acquisition, a prototype flying suit, or a terrorist cell's weapons cache. Planning isn't a big part of my procedure, once you get past the data gathering part of things."

"I'm sure Ms. Potts loves that."

"She and the board of directors have mutual pity parties every quarter," Tony affirmed without a trace of remorse. "Thing is, HYDRA's not points on a stock ticker. They're not mechanical details, math and physics, and they're not lowlife scavengers picking over my tech for useful parts. They're HYDRA, and from what we're hearing, even broken and on the run they're more dangerous than most armies." A tic jumped beside Tony's eye, brief and brutally suppressed as he added, "Human armies, anyway."

"From what you're hearing," Steve prompted, interest caught despite himself.

Tony grinned, triumph in the set of his teeth. "SHIELD loyalists had to have somewhere to go after you kicked the game board over. Iron Man had basically privatized world peace before Loki showed up and raised the stakes, and most of Fury's True Believers remembered that when they needed a gravitational center. They'd rather have had you, of course, but with your star spangled road trip and all --"

"And this is where you're getting your data for this operation you're pitching?" Steve cut him off, letting his skepticism show on his face. "Ex SHIELD agents?"

Surprisingly, Tony didn't rise to it, nor did the victory fade out of his challenging stare. "A lot of them were in position to see who jumped which way while things were going down, Cap. And they all want a slice of their own back. We've got a vetting process in place, and we've weeded out more than a couple of sleepers already, but what we're doing now is pulling together a big picture out of a thousand points of unrelated data, and-"

"And that makes your battle plans vulnerable to HYDRA if the data they give you is corrupted," Steve nodded, weathering a growing certainty that he might be hooked after all.

"Which is why I want you," Tony poked Steve in the shoulder, and even though it was well clear of the long-healed knife wound, Steve still had to force himself not to flinch from it. Tony didn't seem to notice, at least. "Look, even if you're not ready to suit up and bash heads again yet, you still have the best eye for HYDRA's patterns of anybody alive today who isn't actually HYDRA. I want that on our side. Will you let me show you what we've got? Take a look at it and see if anything stands out to you?"

And it was tempting, that. The very nature of the Howling Commandos had meant that Colonel Phillips had quickly rolled Steve into the heart of his strategic meetings, and let him have his say on most of the long range planning of their missions. Fury, on the other hand, had given Steve only enough information to allow the success of his ops. Compartmentalization, memory supplied the word with some bitterness the perfect environment for a parasite like HYDRA to creep through unnoticed.

Steve's work with SHIELD had been nearly all tactics; immediate assessment, on the spot planning and execution, and if Steve was going to be honest with himself, he did miss being able to look at the whole campaign and see how all the pieces were moving across the board together.

He glanced at Max, who was headed back their way with the coffee. "Not here," he said under his breath as she approached. Silencing devices were one thing, but he wasn't about give the girl a glimpse of anything that could put her into real danger.

Tony's grin slid sideways and turned wicked as she neared. "Course not. I left all my etchings back at the hotel, gorgeous." He leaned close as Steve hid a smile in his water glass, all but fluttering his lashes, and waiting until Steve had a mouthful to leer, "You'll love it, my hotel; it's got a whirlpool tub en suite..."

Max stopped, cast a scathing eye over Steve's helpless, exhausted sputtering, and the possessive hand Tony had curled around Steve's elbow. Then she made a peevish face that only tickled Steve more. "Seriously?" she waved her free hand as if fanning the air between them. "I mean seriously?"

"Don't be jealous, of my etchings," Tony cheeked back, letting go of Steve and sliding a single, crisp bill across the counter. "Steve's a sucker for great etchings." He caught his phone up from the counter and slipped it into his pocket, and Steve had just enough presence of mind to do the same with the one beside him.

"Aw now, that is just not fair," Max complained, but she still snagged the hundred as she turned on her heel and headed back to the register. Even in the modern world that had to be a hell of a tip for two cups of coffee and half an hour of being ignored.

"I don't need any change," Tony called back to her, towing Steve behind him as he slid from his stool and headed for the door. ”I like things juuuust how they are."

"NOT FAIR!" was her only reply