Chapter I - Steve
Steve wakes with a strangled sob, the icy wind still biting at his cheeks even as mountains and snow melt back into his bland but safe SHIELD issued apartment, Bucky’s terrified shout morphing into the shrill sound of Steve’s ringing phone.
Rubbing a trembling hand through his sweat-soaked hair, Steve closes his eyes again and allows himself a moment to slowly count back from ten, steadying his breathing and calming his rapidly beating heart before he answers the call.
“It’s him again,” Natasha says without preamble, “be ready for pick-up in five.”
The line goes dead and Steve, after a quick glance at the blinking numbers on his alarm clock and the realisation that it has been less than three hours since he’d finally managed to fall asleep, groans but throws back the covers.
He’s suited up, shield strapped securely to his back, and scrolling through the Intel Natasha has sent to his tablet when the quinjet touches down on the roof next to him, engines roaring loudly. Jogging toward the opening hangar bay, Steve makes a mental note to buy a nice bouquet of apology flowers for his landlady. Again.
Clint mumbles a sleepy greeting as Steve sits down and buckles up opposite him, then goes back to checking his equipment and grumbling to himself about his interrupted beauty sleep and military people with their unnatural ability to be instantly awake and alert.
“You’ve been an agent for how long?” Steve asks, mouth twitching up into a teasing smile at the sight of his grumpy friend. “Shouldn’t you be used to this by now?”
Clint yawns and glares half-heartedly.
“I’d wager he isn’t the only one having trouble sleeping lately,” Natasha observes, materialising seemingly out of nowhere and arching a pointed eyebrow at Steve, who stares back at her faux placidly, refusing to let on just how much her sudden appearing act still startles him every time, even after months of working together. “You doing okay there, Captain?”
Steve squares his shoulders. “I’m fine,” he insists, stubbornly lifting his chin. “So, Iron Man. A lab facility in New Jersey this time?”
It’s a rather pathetic attempt at deflection, but after another long, intense squint in Steve’s direction, Natasha pulls up the jet’s holo display and several pictures of a still smoking building. “His usual modus operandi,” she starts, pointing at a group of scientists and guards, tied up a little distance away from the ruin but looking mostly unharmed. “The people were evacuated prior to the attack, no casualties, as far as we can tell. The complex has been burned to the ground, but one of the engineers claims Iron Man took part of their research with him.”
“Meaning we should probably expect another highly incriminating information dump soon,” Steve finishes through a sigh.
Natasha nods. “Precisely. The owner seems to know it, too. He’s at the scene trying to prevent our first responders from entering the premises.”
“Hammer’s an asshole,” Clint snorts and stretches, scratching at his stomach. “He’s been on SHIELD’s radar for ages, never could link him to any illegal activities, though. Maybe Iron Man’s had more luck than us.”
“Wait, Hammer? Justin Hammer?” Steve wants to know, pursing his lips when Natasha answers in the affirmative. “He’s one of the most outspoken Iron Man opposers, and Hammer Industries holds most of the current military contracts. Could this be Iron Man attempting to shut down Stark Industries’ main competitor?”
The idea of Iron Man straying, changing his ways to fight a private vendetta for his off-the-records-employer, sits uncomfortably with Steve. Officially speaking, Iron Man is on the villain index and to be brought into custody, with all the force necessary, but Steve and his team are reluctant to follow that standing order, even though they’re the ones most frequently facing the flashy vigilante.
And whenever they do cross paths, Steve has a hard time remembering that Iron Man is supposed to be one of the bad guys. Sure, Steve isn’t a fan of Iron Man’s methods and he doesn’t like the property damage he leaves behind, but that doesn’t change anything about the fact that Iron Man is helping, that he’s doing a lot of good.
Iron Man doesn’t kill and he doesn’t appear to have any other goal besides exposing people who are breaking the law and getting away with it. Steve can’t help but find that admirable.
The only difference between Iron Man and the many superheroes running around New York these days, hell, the only difference between Iron Man and Steve is the SHIELD sanctioning and support.
Which is, Steve suspects, exactly why SHIELD wants Iron Man captured; at the moment, he’s a loose cannon, but he has potential and Fury knows it. It’s less about getting Iron Man out of the way and more about gaining insight and control.
Yes, maybe Steve does have a slight authority problem, and yes, maybe he is naive to trust a man behind a mask he’s known for less than half a year, but Steve knows the government and the military, he knows how they operate, and if someone decides to donate their time to protecting the general public without wanting to expose themselves and be dragged into the politics and chaos going on behind the scenes? Well, Steve isn’t about to stop them. Not unless they become a real threat.
“It’s unlikely,” Natasha shakes Steve out of his musings, just as the pilot calls back, “Approaching destination, touchdown in two!”
“All right,” Steve says, automatically slipping into Captain mode and pulling down his cowl in the hope that it will hide the relief he knows must be written across his face, clear as day. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
What they have turns out to be one severely ticked off CEO of Hammer Industries, whose gaze immediately zeroes in on Steve as he steps out of the jet, voice raised to be heard over the running motors.
“Captain Rogers!” Hammer calls as he sprints toward them, flapping his arms in the general direction of where the SHIELD agents are busy systematically combing through the remains of his lab complex. “This is outrageous, your people have forcefully entered my property without permission, this is-“
A camera flashes somewhere behind them and Hammer’s demeanour instantly changes, the sneer falling right off his face to be replaced by a falsely polite smile as he reaches for Steve’s hand with both of his, shaking it vigorously.
Lips pursed, Steve extricates his hand and crosses his arms over his chest, just to make sure. “Mister Hammer,” he acknowledges coolly, “what seems to be the issue?”
“The issue?” Hammer shrieks, making Steve wince. “The issue is that I have unauthorised personnel snooping through my high security facility without so much as a warrant or even an explanation!”
Clint coughs out something that sounds suspiciously like, “Why so nervous?” and then yelps, probably due to the elbow Steve is relatively sure Natasha has just jabbed into his side in warning.
“SHIELD is here to investigate the possible involvement of a known villain and possible superhuman in tonight’s break-in and destruction of your facility,” Steve explains calmly. “Our first priority is to gather information about our target.”
As if on cue, Steve’s phone and those of everyone else in the close vicinity start beeping with incoming messages. The link in the text leads to a website and seeing the tiny, dancing and somehow, despite his mask, smug-looking Iron Man in the top left corner is enough for Steve to know that whatever the downloadable files contain, it can’t be good for Hammer.
A second text arrives a moment later, this one only intended for Steve, if the fact that he’s, apparently, the only one receiving it is anything to go by.
‘Too slow, hot stuff. Hope you like my present! XOXO’
Steve only realises he’s smiling down at his phone when Natasha clears her throat, and quickly stuffs it back into his pocket, blinking at her with all the innocence he can muster through the blush he can feel creeping up his neck.
Natasha merely rolls her eyes in response. “If you’re done flirting, we still have a job to do.”
There’s more than enough evidence in the published documents to arrest Hammer as well as several of his board members and lead scientists.
The team debriefs with Fury, and Steve, once again, hands over his cell phone to SHIELD’s IT department, the specialist taking it from him already looking resigned to not finding anything that could be traced back to Iron Man.
No matter what SHIELD comes up with, Iron Man is always at least one step ahead.
The sky is just beginning to turn pink when Natasha drops Steve off in front of his apartment building. Steve already has the door open, one foot outside on the sidewalk, when he turns back to her to clarify, “I wasn’t flirting.”
Natasha tilts her head but doesn’t say anything, waiting for Steve to get uncomfortable and step out of the car. He’s pushing open the front door when he hears her call, “Keep telling yourself that, hot stuff!” before speeding off.
“I have terrible taste in friends,” Steve informs his neighbour’s cat, giving her head a scratch as walks by her on his way upstairs.
Princess flicks her tail at him, utterly unimpressed.