“What kind of info have we got on her?”
“Not much,” Natasha replied, the tiniest wrinkle hinting at her irritation. “If she’s as dirty as we think she is, she’s been careful to keep her name out of it. The only returns we have on her real name are all squeaky clean.”
Natasha hummed and didn’t answer. Steve leaned back and traded a glance with Tony. “What do you think?”
“If she’s operating through subtlety, we can’t exactly barge in. It’s Madripoor, for one thing. Everything goes. And we have no hard evidence.”
Steve frowned a little. He knew that look. “What are you planning?”
“I have an idea. Or two.”
“We need information, right? And if she was part of the Winter Soldier program, if her scientific knowledge contributed…”
At the monitor, Natasha nodded again. “It can’t be me. No one in the underground trusts me anymore, if they ever did.”
Steve squeezed her shoulder and glanced away.
“I’m going,” Tony said, snapping the gum in his mouth and standing.
“Going where? Where are we going?”
Tony didn’t answer. He waved his hand and strode away and Steve’s stomach turned over. Natasha and Tony were talking on a wavelength that he didn’t operate on and it made him nervous as hell.
“Pack up, Cap,” Natasha said, spinning in her chair. “You’re going to be the muscle. Let’s get you fitted with an electronic skin. And your good suit. The tailored one that makes your legs look even longer than they already are.”
Steve found himself being hauled to his room, still feeling in the dark, but Natasha wouldn’t hear a single question from him. She packed his case while he stood awkwardly on the side, her hands quick and efficient. “No smiling. No drinking. Look as surly as you can. Follow Tony’s lead. He knows this world better than you do. Try not to be…you. You’re going to see a lot of things you don’t approve of, but like Tony said, in Madripoor anything goes, and the more money you have, the bigger ‘anything’ is.”
Within fifteen minutes, he was crammed into a limo with Tony, staring awkwardly at his shoes as they slipped through Manhattan traffic. “You really don’t have to be doing any of this, Tony. I could just go on my own.”
“Wilson talks about it. He says your great-American-road-trip part 2 was more of a great American-mope-trip. We made the Avengers for a reason, and that reason is to help each other out when we can’t handle a mission alone.”
Steve didn’t say that no one had helped Tony when he’d needed them. Not one of them had lifted a finger. Instead, he shifted awkwardly and looked out the window. “I don’t know if finding the scientists will help. What good is knowing if…if…”
“It’ll help Bruce. He and Cho, they’ve been studying what we’ve found, but Helen says it’s not nearly enough and Bruce says neurology’s not exactly his strong suit. I could hire an expert, but you said—“
Tony nodded and whipped out his razor thin tablet, fingers scrabbling over the surface. “Besides, Hydra’s still out there and we all know it. Even if she didn’t work on the Winter Soldier project, I agree with Nat. You can’t have a name like Kashmir Vennema and not be working with the baddies.”
Steve snorted and kept his eyes trained on Manhattan as it passed them by. It was all moving so fast, ever since Tony had gotten involved. He hadn’t known the kind of manic energy Tony could bring to a project, the kind of laser focus that lay beneath the bravado. He always felt three steps behind and it made him uneasy.
By the time they boarded the plane, Steve was fading out. He did that sometimes, now, caught in thought loops that took him on journeys for hours. Sam called it a “rumination loop” and he was supposed to try and snap himself out of it, but on a jet with no way to distract himself, it got the best of him. Part of him was aware of Tony’s eyes on him, but even that felt secondary to the endless turn of Bucky and Hydra and “what do I do?”
At some point, Tony touched his shoulder. “Landing in thirty. Time to put your face on.”
Steve stood and headed into the bedroom suite of the private jet, where Tony had hung up the suits. Not the armor. Tony’s other kind of armor. Tailored Armani and three thousand dollar sunglasses, shoes that cost nearly the same price as a low-end car and a meticulously groomed beard.
They changed in silence, and Steve fidgeted in his fitted suit. It wasn’t exactly the kind of clothing he wore often. Just at galas and Senate hearings. And funerals. Lastly, he fitted the electronic skin. Natasha had shown him now, and it felt feather light on his face—no different than a dusting of makeup. Once the mesh was seated, Tony programmed it for him, fiddling at the tiny node on his throat and the computer program that set it from afar.
This close, he could see the toll Avenging was taking. Tony wore makeup regularly, but at this distance, not even concealer and powder could hide the lines etching themselves ever deeper, the sleepless circles and the unhealthy sheen in his eyes.
“When was the last time you slept?”
“When was the last time you slept?” Tony returned and stepped away, giving Steve a once over. “Be wooden. Military. Pretend Phillips is dressing you down. Keep your face as dead as you can and if anyone tries to touch me, you step between us. Be that kind of asshole security and I think it’ll work. Probably.”
Steve nodded and glanced in the mirror. Black hair. Heavy jaw and a broad nose. Skin darkened until he could be Indian or Filipino or Latino and not one rich bastard in Madripoor would know the difference. He slipped on sunglasses and leather gloves to hide the skin tone of his hands and turned away, feeling more and more like he wasn’t cut out for this job. “Do I walk behind you, or in front?”
“In front until we get in the casino, then behind. Keep close, but not too close. You’re scenery.”
Steve almost said “same as always” but bit it back at the last. Tony didn’t need that. Not on a mission. Not ever.
The jet landed smoothly, perfectly, and Tony deplaned like he was the Queen of England. There were paparazzi, and how they always knew was beyond Steve. Flight manifestos, maybe. But there were flashing cameras waiting, so Steve put himself in front of Tony and cleared a path with wide shoulders and a sharp scowl. They managed the thirty feet from the plane to the limo and Steve got Tony ducked in, safe and sound. As safe as an Avenger could ever be, anyway.
The moment he was tucked in the other side, the limo took off, but Steve didn’t scenery watch this time. He focused on his character, on non-reaction. He’d never been good at hiding much of anything—they should’ve sent Clint to be the muscle—but he knew Natasha was trying to give Steve something to do. Some way to feel useful in this world of spies and intrigue and everything he didn’t understand and wasn’t trained for.
“Ready, slugger?” Steve looked up and realized they were at the casino, it’s big facade bright and shining and as fake as Tony’s press conference smile. The camera’s were already flashing, sure that any limo as shiny as Tony’s had to be the ride of some hot shot. They weren’t wrong.
Steve nodded stiffly and got out of the car, holding the door for Tony and then turning to shove his way through the press on the carpet. They parted before him, content just to get a shot of Tony’s sharp teeth and shining sunglasses
The inside of the casino was overwhelming to Steve, and not nearly as glamorous as it was pretending to be. The air reeked of smoke and booze, and the businessmen gathered around the gambling tables were for the most part squat and ratty—closer to Zola than Tony. The women hanging on the edges set Steve’s teeth on edge, knowing that they were there not to be power players but to please the sleaze bags eyeing them like a cut of fresh meat. The entire veneer of gilt and glitter felt fake and thin, just waiting to peel away and reveal the moldering particle board and plaster beneath.
Tony swept past him like a jungle cat on the prowl and Steve followed in his wake, watching the security watching him. Men dressed just like him, carrying themselves like they were armed, little radio wires bungeed to their ears.
They headed straight for the craps table and Tony slipped in between two fat men talking in Russian. All it took was a smile and a greased palm and they welcomed him like a long-lost brother, waving for champagne and tiny caviar crackers. Tony played the table for a while, lost 500,000 and then made it back plus an extra 200. The numbers made Steve’s head spin, and he could feel his expression souring even more.
After that, Tony moved on to black jack, settling and smirking at what Steve suddenly realized was their target. She was Southeast Asian, her silky hair piled fetchingly on her head and her back completely bare. Tony gave her a very obvious once over and then said, “Can I buy you a drink?”
Vennema looked at him from under her lashes and something in Steve turned sickeningly. “That depends, Mr. Stark.”
Tony raised his eyebrows behind his sunglasses and then removed them, slicking back his hair with one hand.
“What is it you want from me?”
“Just the pleasure of your company.”
“Is that all?”
“Well, a man can hope.”
She laughed under her breath, a soft breezy thing like a femme fatale straight from the movies. “You may buy me a drink. And you may play a game with me,” she said, sweeping her hand to the dealer, who was watching and waiting with perfect aplomb. On that cue, she shuffled the cards and dealt out the deck, and the game was on.
Vennema flirted with Tony the way Natasha threw knives—all subtlety and precision. Each word was applied like a scalpel, carefully peeling away skin and fat and muscle until it was just bare white bone. Tony met her subtlety with all of his bombastic energy, throwing out one liners that were overtly cheesy, but slathered with so much confidence and charm that they somehow turned slick.
Steve watched the whole thing with the taste of bile in the back his throat. He was so disgusted by this side of Tony, this character he wore in public—Tony was better than this. The pressure the world put on him to be less, to be…some object for their entertainment, it made Steve want to punch things. Which was good, because it meant that when another woman suddenly reached toward Tony, Steve was there catching her wrist and bending it away. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes, but he could feel the strength in her arm, the way she was maneuvering for leverage.
Tony twisted on his seat and looked her over. “Sorry, honey. No touching the goods without explicit invitation.”
“Oh but Mr. Stark,” she simpered, and Steve could recognize it somehow—the turn of her mouth, the flick of her eyelash. He’d seen it before. “I was hoping since you’re so keen on dear Kash you’d be keen on me, too.”
That phrasing, like something from Steve’s childhood. Whoever this woman was, Steve was betting that she was dangerous.
“Well, ‘keen’ as I am, I was actually hoping ‘dear Kash’ might be open to a different kind of transaction. Not that I’m not a fan of the flesh, but I was actually hoping for a little more.”
“Oh?” Vennema was leaning in on the table now, studying Tony the way a scientist might study a specimen on the dissection table. “Well, I’m all ears. Yelena, dear, take the nice security guard for a turn on the dance floor.”
Steve’s spine went hot then cold. Behind his sunglasses, he looked to Tony, whose eyes were hard, even though his mouth was caught in an easy, sloppy grin. He shook his head ever so slightly, and Steve took a decisive step closer to Tony. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said, the electronic skin disguising his voice with a rough undertone. “I’m on the clock.”
It was only as he took in the wider picture that he realized there were more security guards ringing them, slowly closing in.
“Now, now. Wouldn’t want to make a scene,” Yelena hissed, and Steve felt the prick of a blade under his arm where she pressed close.
“Come with me, Mr. Stark, and we can talk business in private. You’re lap dog’s welcome to come, too.”
Tony rose with aplomb and trailed after Vennema, Steve and Yelena behind them, and the other guards filing out last. Bottleneck in the hallway. Good fighting chance. But Tony was calling the shots, and he glanced back, eyes calm. Steve didn’t try to break from Yelena’s knife.
The private room was lush and…suggestive, to say the least. Steve looked away from the huge bed and watched as Vennema gestured Tony to a small table where white wine cooled in an ice bucket.
“What business could the Avengers have with me? I’m just a scientist, after all, and I don’t think my field of expertise could be much help to your particular brand of heroism. I sincerely doubt that my electronics expertise is anywhere near as great as your own, and I don’t see why you’d need my biomedical applications.”
“Well, we were hoping more for usage of biomedical-electrical engineering as it applies to brain washing.”
Vennema batted her eyes prettily and Steve felt the knife point dig in closer, hovering just over his axillary artery. “Brainwashing? I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong scientist, Mr. Stark.”
“Are you sure, dear? One time offer.” But Steve was watching Tony’s fingers, which were quietly typing out a Morse message. In three. One. Two.
Steve jumped up and flipped over Yelena, dragging her wrist with him. He was surprised when she followed the flip with one of her own and wrapped her thighs around his neck, squeezing tight. He knew he’d seen those moves before. It was like sparring with Nat. Exactly like. With a twist of his shoulders, he bucked her clear and threw her, but she spun in the air and landed perfectly, kicking away her shoes. She was careful, never getting close enough that his strength could pin her, but landing tiny flicks of her blade on his skin. In Steve’s peripheral, he could see security guards pouring in, but Tony wasn’t exactly helpless. He’d packed his own surprises for this little excursion and he was using them to the fullest. Widow’s Bites from Natasha’s arsenal felled goon after goon, and the bottleneck at the door was working to their advantage.
“Yelena, dear,” Vennema called over the chaos. “Let’s leave these Neanderthals to it.” Just like that, she was off him, leaping back and away. Steve moved to chase, but three thugs jumped him and dragged him to the floor. By them time he’d broken one’s nose and thrown off the other two, the women were gone. Steve turned on the thugs closing in on him and joined Tony in the fray. The blood boiled in his veins and he went through them all like a battering ram. The last one fell before him, and he punched until he felt an arm on his elbow.
He turned with intent to incapacitate, but found Tony there, hands up and eyes worried. “Woah there, Steve. Just me. Just me.”
For a moment Steve hovered, still caught in the battle haze. Then he staggered to his feet and moved toward the door. “We’ve gotta…they’re…”
“Nat’s got ‘em. She’s tracking them now.”
“I planted a tracker on Vennema. Nat and Clint are waiting for them. They’ve got this. You need to get yourself under control.” Tony’s eyes were on the felled security, and Steve looked back at the bloody ruin of his face.
“Did I…Oh god, did I…”
“He’s breathing,” Tony said, hands still up in the air.
Steve felt his breath shortening, his mind fuzzing. He’d killed before. He’d killed a lot of men. But never…never quite like this. Never out of anger. He staggered away from the downed guard and leapt when he felt hands on his arms.
“Look at me, Cap. Stay with me. You can’t lose it here. We still need to get out, because I have a feeling the casino’s not exactly going to be pleased with this mess.”
His mind was blanking. “Rumination loop.” He let Tony lead him to the table, let him peel off the gloves and clean the blood off his knuckles. The cuts and bruises beneath the leather were already knitting together, disappearing like he hadn’t just ruined a man’s face. And then he let Tony lead him out a back entrance for the kitchen chefs and down an alley to where the limo waited. Steve blinked when he realized Clint was in the driver’s seat.
“We got Vennema. Belova got away and Nat is in a mood about it, so don’t say anything.”
Steve heard it all through a distant buzz. Tony and Clint were talking, but his mind was still back with the split skin and the broken bones and the purpling bruises. He blinked and when next he looked, they were on Tony’s jet, somewhere above the Pacific.
“Tony,” he said, staring down at his hands. “Tony, I…”
He didn’t get any farther than that, didn’t know what to say, how to explain the way the slow simmering rage that always rested in his guts these days had exploded like a volcano and spilled out through his fingers. Tony didn’t say anything, though. Instead, he took Steve by the hand and pulled him back into the jet’s bedroom.
Steve stood woodenly as Tony removed his rumpled jacket and the white shirt beneath, now flecked with blood. “What are you doing?” he said, as Tony knelt.
“Getting you out of your dirty clothes.” And that made sense, even through the buzzing in Steve’s ears, the shame and the rage. So he stepped out of his shoes when Tony made him, and didn’t blink when Tony slipped his belt from its loops.
“Lay down,” he said, and waited for Steve to crawl onto the bed, tucking the blankets up around his neck.
The moment he was covered, Steve whispered, “I almost killed him.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I would have. If you hadn’t stopped me, I would have.”
“Guess it’s a good thing I stopped you then.”
“I need help.”
Steve turned his head until he could see Tony, still dressed, though his hair was in disarray and he’d dropped his razor blade mask now that they weren’t in public. He looked tired, and someone had gotten him on the cheek. It was swelling and purpling.
“You should put ice on that.”
“Yeah,” Tony said again, but after a moment he kicked off his shoes and climbed onto the bed, dropping on top of the comforter and turning to the TV mounted on the wall across the way.
“I don’t think that’s…it’s…” Steve couldn’t even find the words. He felt numb and burning hot all at the same time.
The TV clicked onto a Japanese game, and the sharp percussive tones of an unknown language washed over Steve. He watched as a guy hit a double, trying to force himself out of his own head. “What are you doing?” he said finally, twisting so he could see Tony’s profile.
“Trying to help. I’m not very good at it.” But Tony twisted until his arm was over Steve’s shoulders and he settled in closer. “I’m not very good at getting out of my own head, so I don’t know how to get you out of yours. But I can try.”
This close, Steve could smell Tony’s cologne. It was piney and sharp, not too heavy, but it smelled to him like forests in Germany. Like times when he’d known how to trust people.
“This,” he said finally, turning back to the ball game, “this is helping.”