Steve sagged against Sam as they waited in line at a small coffee shop near the FBI offices. It was crowded for the early hour and the coffee was terrible, but it was close and it was cheap. They could either go to it or go ten minutes out of the way. Or, worse, drink the coffee in the employee lounge at FBI HQ, which was more like dark vinegar than anything to ever come from a coffee bean. It just wasn't worth it.
Dawn was much, much too early, especially when it was the second dawn in a row without sleep, and they needed caffeine now. It was looking to be one of those dreary late-spring days where there was more drizzle than sunlight. Damp cold had a way of biting through layers down to the bone, and Steve was too tired to ignore it as he usually did.
Their usually pristine suits were worn and wrinkled, and Steve's lapel had a stain that was either ketchup or blood. After the chase they'd been on only three hours before, it could have been either. Definitely Officer Roden had cut her hand, but he was pretty sure they'd gone rolling in someone's abandoned hamburger, too.
"So close," Sam muttered, shuffling forward as the line moved. The man in front of them ordered something complex, with three different flavor shots and enough espresso to drown a small animal. "We were so close."
"No we weren't." Rubbing his eyes, Steve forced himself to stand up straight. He was a professional, but fifty hours without sleep was too much. "We never would have gotten as close as we did if there'd been any chance of catching him."
All Steve could do was shake his head. It didn't make any sense. Iron Man occasionally stole art, so the tip off for the Metropolitan hadn't been a surprise, but the merry chase he'd led them on was new. There'd been the run through the museum and out into the streets, then the car, and then he'd actually been caught on camera. Not his face, but his top had a distinctive white streak on the back where he'd slipped and rolled in some trash. It had been just enough to keep them bouncing around the city, trying to corner him.
And then he'd vanished, between one video camera and the next, with no clue as to where he'd gone. It was like the man was a ghost.
Every instinct Steve had said they'd been made fools of, but he couldn't imagine why. What purpose could there possibly be to running the FBI around New York for two days? Even the piece he'd stolen hadn't been valuable—it had only been a reproduction. He could have bought it for twenty dollars at the gift shop.
In front of them, the next customer finished his order and turned to wait at the other end of the counter. His shoulder bumped Steve. Automatically, both of them stepped apart, Steve's hand falling to his the wallet in his hip pocket. Pickpockets were notorious for the old bump-and-grab trick.
"Sorry," the man said, smile bright in the shadow of a steel gray fedora. "You know how it is. Need the first cup of the day or I'm a hot mess." His blue eyes slid down to Steve's toes, then back up. "But I'm guessing you know all about being hot." With a wink, he tipped his hat before stepping back and away, grabbing his coffee from the counter with a flourish. The bell on the door jingled brightly in his wake.
Steve couldn't quite keep from watching as the man left. When he looked back up, Sam had a pointed non-expression on. "What?" he asked defensively.
All he got was a pat on the shoulder as Sam stepped up to the register. "I didn't say anything."
"I didn't do anything," Steve insisted, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets, fiddling with the silky inner lining.
After he finished ordering, Sam looked back over his shoulder as the cashier ran his card. "You looked," he said. "It's more than you've done in six months. Good to see you getting back on the horse."
All Steve could do was make a face. Three years later and the loss Gail and Bucky to each other still hurt. He was pretty sure it was one of those heartbreaks that would never go away entirely. "I let go of them. I moved on. You know that."
"Yeah, and what you moved on to was the Jan thing." The cashier handed Sam his card and receipt, and he slid to the side to make room for Steve. "Not exactly promising."
The Jan Thing, as Sam called it, had been a disaster. They were still friends, amazingly, but the escalating arguments that had led to their breakup had come close to ruining even that. He should have known better than to hook up with Jan. They were both rebounding, and all their relationship had managed to do was make them rebound into each other.
But it had been a disaster, not a third World War. "I moved on."
The pretty brunette behind the counter made a sympathetic face at Steve, but didn't comment on his love life as she took his order for a tall Americano, and Sam seemed willing to let it drop as he nibbled his banana nut muffin. The companionable silence as they waited for their drinks to be made was almost pleasant, though not as good as it would have been at their usual coffee joint. Sam was usually good company, but exhaustion made them both snippy.
Coffee. Coffee could solve everything.
Sam's iced caramel something-or-other with a double shot of espresso and three different flavor shots came first. Steve eyed it suspiciously, with his usual deep distrust of any sort of coffee drink that required a recipe. Their eyes locked as Sam took a long sip, silently daring Steve to comment.
Fortunately, Steve's Americano wasn't far behind. He grabbed it up and locked both hands around it to take a long, gloriously caffeinated drink. The heat soaked through his throat and into his stomach, warming him from the inside out the way mere external heat never could. The two of them made their way back to the office, meandering as slowly as they dared. They had at least another two or three hours before they'd be able to finally go home and collapse. Paperwork and reports waited for no man. They barely waited for coffee.
"Are you really going to Jan's mixer this Saturday?" Sam said, in the sort of voice that sounded like he was talking mostly so he didn't fall asleep while walking. Steve knew that voice; he'd had it on a time or two himself, though he'd learned a thing or two about staying awake in the army. "It seems like a bad idea."
"It's been six months," Steve answered automatically, parting from Sam's side for an elderly lady in the middle of the sidewalk. New York sidewalks were usually busier than that, forcing them to scrunch in or lose each other, but Steve wasn't going to complain about a slow day. "She invited me. I'm not going to be the one to make it look like I'm still holding a grudge."
The look Sam shot him painted a picture. Most of that picture was resigned understanding. "That you even have to say that..."
Damn Sam and his ability to know what Steve was thinking. Granted, it was the mutual effect of four years as partners, and it had saved both their lives more than once, but just then it was damned inconvenient. "I'm not canceling just because I'm a little uncomfortable. We can be adults about this."
Sam muttered something that sounded dangerously close to, Jan can, at least, the words muffled behind his coffee.
Pink flushed Steve's cheeks, hopefully light enough that it could be mistaken for the brisk breeze. He shoved his free hand deep into his jacket pocket, shoulders hunched. "Don't worry about me so much. I'm a grown man. I can—" Steve paused. His left hand fished around in the pocket, probing for a familiar brick of plastic and too few buttons. It wasn't there. There wasn't even a hole it could have slipped through.
Desperate, he paused walking and started to pat himself down thoroughly—left pocket, right pocket, inner pocket, and then on to his pants. He'd had it on the walk to the coffee shop; he'd been calling Betty to let her know where they were, since everyone was always up in arms after a night like they'd had. Then he'd put it in his pocket, like he always did, and...
A pair of cheerful blue eyes and smile that could make just about anyone weak in the knees flashed through his memory.
"What is it?" Sam had realized Steve wasn't keeping up after a hundred feet and turned back around.
"That bastard stole my cell phone." That had to be it. He'd been so busy protecting his wallet that he'd completely forgotten that the phone was the better target. Probably it was already sitting in a pawn shop somewhere, or tossed in with a load of others waiting to be data mined. "I'm going to have to report it stolen." Which meant that even if Steve did get it back, it was going to be wiped clean. Not that the chances of getting it back were good. It was still frustrating. Sometimes he hated security protocols.
Sam wrinkled his nose and patted his own pocket, where his phone created a little bulge in the otherwise clean lines of his suit. "At least it wasn't destroyed this time? Stolen is new for you."
Steve frowned and shook his head. That wasn't the point, but it also wasn't worth arguing. "Let's just get back to HQ so I can get Bruce to brick it."
Maybe this time he could get something sturdier and less valuable. Did an FBI agent really need a smartphone?
He leaned back in his chair the Pretty Pussycat, using his thumb to flip through the phone's security features while his other hand played with his martini. On stage, lovely men and women in various states of undress writhed to the throbbing music, creatively low lighting doing a remarkable job of keeping them unrealistically perfect. It was the top feature of the place, but only a bonus to the excellent internet access.
Almost everywhere had free Wi-Fi these days, but there was something to be said about combining business with pleasure.
The clean slate programming on the phone had already been disabled and transferred to a second phone before he'd even gotten a block away from the coffee shop. By two blocks, the passwords had been cracked and the whole phone was laid out for his amusement. Not that there was much to find. Detective Rogers wasn't a Luddite, but he didn't get attached to his tech either; he hadn't even downloaded any games, his contacts were minimal, and his internet history was limited to a few boring uses of Google. If the point had been to steal FBI secrets, he would have been incredibly disappointed.
Luckily, that wasn't the point. He did wish he could see the look on Rogers' face when he realized he'd been pickpocketed. That would have made the two day cat and mouse game they'd just gone through entirely worth the trouble. The man had no sense of humor, but it was fun to try. He probably wouldn't appreciate being led to one of the finest, if lesser known, strip clubs in town.
Well, that was his own problem. If Rogers couldn't find the silver lining, no one could be expected to turn it to gold.
His phone, a quiet, unassuming thing registered to a name that had a full paper trail while still managing to be entirely imaginary, buzzed. A yellow smiley face flashed over the screen. Smiling, he touched his Bluetooth to answer. "H, so good to hear from you. Everything is well, I hope."
"Just like you planned, Boss. They bricked the dummy, and I sent back the req code like you said." No names, no recognizable pseudonyms on these calls; that was the rule, and one of the few he'd ever actually bothered to follow. It was never safe to assume they weren't being recorded, not even when protected by all the safety his own creations could give them. Genius wasn't unassailable, after all. "Are you sure this is a good idea? This isn't like the trick with the stocks last year."
"Not at all," he admitted cheerfully, thumb tapping out a password pattern sequence. The FBI databases lay stretched out before him, a field of roses wide open for the picking. "But you know that I can't let this go. We've been planning this one for too long."
"Right." If he closed his eyes, he could picture his old friend's expression, that delightful mix of frustration, exasperation and fond resignation that years of work had perfected. "I got everything set up for you, reservations made and the packages in place."
A smile crept over his mouth. A couple of clicks and a familiar set of files popped up; it was always nice to know what the enemy thought of you. "Wonderful. I'll signal you when I'm ready to move. Keep on your toes."
"I've got to keep up with you, don't I?"
The call clicked to a close while he was still laughing.
"Rogers! What the hell is this?" The overhead fluorescents flicked on, flooding the room with light. "Did you lose your damned phone again and forget to report it?"
Steve looked up from his desk, wincing at the bright light Director Danvers' arrival had brought. The day before, he'd managed to stumble home around noon for a good sixteen hours of sleep so deep it might have been a coma, but it hadn't been enough to keep the morning after caffeine-overdose headache at bay. He'd been trying to combat it by using his desk lamp instead of the overheads.
"My phone?" He glanced over at the little black thing sitting on the corner of his desk. The contacts were still blank; he hadn't had time to fix them since having the new one issued. "It's right here, ma'am. What's going on?"
Danvers' face did a complicated dance between thwarted rage and confusion. Neither were expressions she usually directed at Steve. "You told Bruce to take care of the other one, didn't you?" She didn't even wait for Steve to nod before turning away. "What am I saying—of course you did. You'd better come see this."
Grabbing his phone, just in case he was asked to present it again, Steve followed the director out into the shared center space on their floor. No one in the cubical-divided maze was actually working; everyone's attention was on the large flat screen at the front of the room. One of the interns, Miles, had frozen in the middle of the walkway, eyes huge at the crime unfolding in front of him. On it, pages of data were being flicked through at an alarming rate. The only thing that stayed constant was the watermark at the top left corner—Homeland Security, with an odd eagle rampant logo for the sub-division that Steve didn't think he'd ever seen before.
"This is what your phone's IP address and your login information is doing." Danvers crossed her arms under her breasts and stared at the screen. "Got any ideas?"
"It's not me, ma'am," Steve said automatically, just to cover his bases. "I'm right here." He ducked around one of the interns, Miles, who'd frozen in the middle of the walkway to watch the screen. Steve couldn't really blame the kid; he knew damned well how hard those servers were to get into. It was like watching a magician play out his latest trick up close and personal.
"I noticed that." Moving her head only a little, Danvers glanced at Steve. Her black suit made her look like she was on her way to a funeral. By her expression, preferably the funeral of whoever was using Steve's phone. "We've got the wonder twins trying to lock it out, but so far it hasn't been any good. I don't know how they got around the security wipe on that thing. Those programs cost us a million dollars just to think up. You might want to do some hardcopy for a while, though. I don't think we're going to be able to free up your access again for at least a week."
"Yes, ma'am." That was no skin off Steve's nose. He preferred hardcopy for his paper work. Electronic files got lost in the shuffle too easily, "accidentally" deleted or elsewise misplaced. An actual piece of paper on someone's desk was harder to ignore, and harder to steal. "What does it look like they're after?"
Pietro Maximoff appeared at Danvers' elbow, so fast that it almost seemed like he'd popped out of thin air. "So far it's gotten access to ten different highly secure reports, twenty identities and three bank accounts," he answered for Danvers, passing over a handful of printouts that she snatched up eagerly. "It's passed them all up without so much as a click of curiosity. Right now, it looks like it's focusing in on engineering contracts. I've got a trace running, and Wanda is working to block it."
The stack of papers passed from Danvers to Steve after she shuffled through them. He flipped through them, frowning at the list of cracked and bypassed information, all organized by timestamps that were milliseconds apart. Intelligence, retina scan databases, Ontario contacts...
He got as far as Access point variables before it hit him. "It's Iron Man," he said, shoving the papers back at Maximoff and stepping closer to the screen. The click-throughs were still lightning fast, but his eyes were starting to adjust enough to read the heading of each access point before it moved on. "And he wants us to know that it's him. He didn't even try to scramble it."
"You sure about that?" Danvers asked behind him, her voice accompanied by the rustle of paper. "Could be a pretender."
"You know anyone else who can outrun the wonder twins in real time, ma'am? I'd like to meet them if you do."
There was a pause, then Danvers cursed, loudly and creatively, which was enough to tell Steve that his point had hit its mark. "Maximoff, I want that signal traced! Search for the GPS on Rogers' phone! Every resource, you understand? And Parker! Get me a cup of coffee!"
Interns and desk jockeys bustled back to work as Danvers stalked off. No amount of entertainment was worth getting on Danvers' bad side.
Steve looked back at the screen. It was hovering over some sort of specs, probably so whoever was behind the computer—Iron Man, it couldn't be anyone else—could read it. The file was thick with medical jargon, and the sort of three-page equations Steve usually identified as some sort of physics. Whatever it was, it had Iron Man's attention. His eyes flicked to the bottom of the page for a watermark or file name. All it had was a serial code and "Dr. Stark".
He left while the show was still going on. If someone did manage to trace Iron Man, they'd let him know. They wouldn't though. Whoever he was, Iron Man was too good to be caught by something that obvious.
Then again, Steve would have thought Iron Man wouldn't be stupid enough to leave such obvious proof. A gut feeling wasn't admissible in court, but juries would eat up secret codes and signals. Assuming it ever went to a jury.
Sam was still safely tucked away in his office, far away from the excitement of the main room. He looked up curiously as Steve slipped in and closed the door behind him, blocking out the sounds of terrified industry.
"I need you to look up Dr. Stark," Steve said, cutting to the chase. "No idea of the first name, but it'll be in Homeland Security."
"Why don't you do it yourself?" Sam glanced away from his work to give Steve the hairy eye. Almost immediately he turned back to his monitor. "It'll be good for you."
"My access is currently being abused by our usual suspect." Dropping down in the visitor's chair, Steve crossed his ankle over his knee. "He's tapping into the Homeland Security systems, and I think Dr. Stark has something to do with it. He spent a lot of time on that file."
"Iron Man? Homeland Security?" That caught Sam's attention. He actually looked away from his work, focus tight on Steve. A pen balanced on his fingertips, twirling slowly. "Not really his sort of trick. Are you sure?"
"As sure as we can ever be when it comes to him. I want to know why he's getting into government business instead of harassing dead artists." Iron Man usually stuck to art or antiques. Occasionally he went for banks and the occasional bit of fraud, but he was a man who liked getting his hands dirty; fooling electronics didn't do it for him as an end game. Steve had pegged him as an adrenalin junkie a month after his file had landed on Steve's desk. There were too many risks, a Rube-Goldberg-esque style to his plans that didn't make sense unless there was an element of thrill seeking involved. If a painting could be stolen while in transit between museums, Iron Man would do it while it was on a plane thirty thousand feet in the air, and he'd take the plane with it—they never did find that jet.
Frowning, Sam turned back to his computer, fingers flying over the keys. Every now and then he paused to let the computer catch up, grumbling to himself. Like most of the machines they had available, it was less than top of the line. The good stuff was saved for bigger, more important people than them.
Finally, Sam shook his head. "This is all we got; I emailed you a copy for when you get your access back. DHS is locked tight, but you can probably get more from the data warehouse." He flipped the screen around. On it was a picture of a blond, blue-eyed man in a lab coat. Something about his face was familiar, but Steve couldn't pin it down. It was the sort of familiarity that came from passing someone on the subway two days in a row—there was something about his eyes and the shape of his face, but when he tried to put it into focus, it slipped between his fingers.
Steve leaned forward, moving on to the details of the man's life. It wasn't much to go by: Dr. Gregory Stark, with enough letters after his name to fill an alphabet. Specialized in genetic engineering. Parents deceased, only surviving relative an estranged brother who'd spent the past five years battling brain cancer. Other than that, it was one giant blank.
"No friends, no lovers, not even any financial records," Steve said aloud, cementing the thought in his head. "Now, I can see how a man with seven PhDs could skip the social life, but everyone's got a financial past, especially if they went to school. And the Starks were a wealthy family. There was bound to be some sort of inheritance."
"There's a little more on his brother, but the man's been laid up in a private care facility, and they don't even talk. I doubt we'd get anything." Sam shrugged and flipped the screen back around. A printer in the corner of his office started to buzz. "Someone did a good job of wiping his record."
"Think he's an art collector?" Even as Steve said it, he shook his head. No, with that kind of money any interest in art would have landed in the news by now. Trump can't sneeze in a museum without reporters noticing."
"But he might inherit it," Sam pointed out. "Like you said, the Starks were a wealthy family."
It still didn't sit well with him, but Steve nodded. It was really the only idea that worked. Why was anyone's guess. There was obviously a setup happening, and Steve couldn't do anything but fall into the trap.
He hated that.
Quiet, unassuming, she slipped through the hallways, keeping her head down. It wasn't easy. She'd never been the kind of woman to be unobtrusive, but it was necessary to get the job done.
And if there was one thing she was good at, it was getting the job done.
No one looked at her twice as she swiped her card and entered the tiny alley-like room marked Security, giving the guard behind the desk a little wave and a smile. The Department of Homeland Security was big, and only getting bigger by the year. Once upon a time, the kind of tasks it took up would have been handed over to the DoD. No more. The military was bloated with money and still oversold on its commitments; things that used to be DoD funded got auctioned off to private contractors, who were always eager to cut corners and save a buck, even if it left giant holes in their network. Convenience, it seemed, always trumped security after a certain point.
The banks of desktop computers that lined both walls glowed cheerfully as she ran her fingers over the tops of their monitors. Most of them were locked and showing a login prompt, but one in the back was asleep. She stopped by the one in the far back that had a hand-written note on it reading "open".
Bending over rather than sitting down, she typed in her user name, skimming through the usual procedures with practiced proficiency. If anyone asked, she'd been sent down to clear up an anomaly in her account—for some reason, every time she had to update her password on the standard rota, it wouldn't accept it until it was keyed in directly from a security interface. It was an annoyance that hit her every seventy two days, but IT hadn't figured out the problem yet, and no one wanted to go through the trouble of deleting and recreating her account, with all the data destruction that would require.
As she went through the process of giving herself a password override, the ID card that dangled around her neck caught on the edge of the table. One yank was all it took to pull it off and send it skittering behind the tower unit.
Letting out a surprised noise, she made a show of bending over the table and reaching behind, stretching up on her tip-toes to do so. She plucked out a pinkie-nail sized flash from one of the spare ports before grabbing her card and standing back up.
Five minutes later, password enabled and dignity only slightly tarnished, she was back in the hall, flash drive safely hidden in the lining of her jacket.
Three days after the Iron Man incident, Steve and Sam found themselves in a meeting room, sitting across from an elegant redhead wearing a sleek black suit and a visitor's tag. Behind her, a shorter woman with mousy brown hair and freckles was seated in a corner, tablet poised to take notes. Neither of them looked like the sort of person who was on the FBI's payroll; that suit was bespoke if Steve ever saw one. Even the secretary's necklace looked expensive—Steve would be willing to bet that those gems were real.
Steve folded his hands and leaned forward. "What can we do for you, Ms.—" His eyes dropped down to her ID card. "Ms. Roseman?"
A small smile curved her lips. "Agent Roseman, thank you," she corrected. Her voice was absolutely accentless, the perfect generic American that managed to be so bland Steve couldn't even pin a region to it. "And this is my personal assistant, Vicki. I think you know what you can do for me. Or, rather, for the DHS."
Everything about her said she was completely and utterly comfortable; her posture was just relaxed enough, her expression easy and welcoming. And she was right to feel that way. She'd showed up at the front door, and five minutes later her appointment had magically appeared on the books. It put Steve on edge. He didn't like having someone come in from another agency and to throw their weight around. The whole thing reeked of politics.
Next to him, Sam must have been feeling it too. His knee jiggled under the table, brushing against Steve's. "After the security breach a few days ago, I'm not sure I do. There's a lot of balls in the air. It could be almost anything."
"Luckily, the DHS is good at juggling." The smile she flashed at Sam was pure smug bastard, which was par for the course when it came to DHS agents. "But you and I all know which one's ticking. Our security personnel were able to verify FBI suspicions that the perpetrator of the attack was the art thief you've been calling Iron Man." She snapped her fingers, and Vicki stood, sliding her tablet onto the meeting table.
On it was the exact same access pattern Steve had noted. He snorted and sat back, crossing his arms. His suit pulled across his shoulders; he didn't earn the kind of money he would need to have them tailored. Next to the smooth perfection of Agent Roseman and her PA, it was just another small reminder of their place in things. "A kindergartner could have spotted that pattern. Try again."
"What about these?" Roseman gestured against, and Vicki tapped the screen. More files slipped across the surface—engineering schematics, personnel records, security overrides. "These were discovered yesterday in a routine post-hack sweep. We don't have any record of when they might have been accessed, or what else might have been touched but didn't alter. We're flying blind, gentlemen, and we don't like it."
Steve frowned down at the tablet. It looked completely normal, other than a small watermark in the bottom corner—the periodic symbol for iron.
Sam snatched up the tablet, leaning into Steve's space so they could flip through it together. There was no rhyme or reason to the files, just an endless list of watermarked papers. An incomplete list, too—Steve didn't miss the way some of the page numbers jumped. It didn't surprise him. If he were DHS, he wouldn't have wanted to show a lowly FBI agent anything important, either.
When they reached the last page, Steve met Sam's eyes and jerked his head toward Roseman with a pointed look. Raising his eyebrows, Sam sat back in his chair, nudging the tablet in front of Steve.
Fine. It looked like it was going to be his show. "Pardon me, Agent, but I'm not sure I see why you're consulting us. The last time I checked, the DHS had formally requested that the FBI mind its own business." In less polite terms. Danvers had been a thundercloud for weeks after the DHS rep had paid her a visit.
He didn't need to look at his partner to know Sam was wincing. Served him right. If he wanted Steve to handle things, he could deal with the fallout.
Roseman's mouth twitched down. It was so subtle that Steve suspected it was deliberate. She didn't seem like the kind of woman who had tells. "We did. But you've been on this guy's tail for three years now, while he's managed to fly under our radar. We're in desperate need of information sharing."
"There's official channels," Sam butted in; apparently he wasn't going to force Steve to play the crowd all by himself. "Go through those. Iron Man's not the only thing on our case load, you know."
"Let me clarify." Lacing her fingers, perfect french-tipped manicure gleaming, Roseman leaned forward. "Information sharing without the tangle of red tape. If this man's a threat to national security, we need to know it now, not a year from now."
Another glance. Should we do this? Steve's eyebrows asked silently.
Sam's mouth pulled to the side. Do we want DHS on our asses? And Danvers?
Damn it, he hated when Sam was right. "Iron Man's toying with you," Steve told them, hitting the command to close their little slide show. "Whatever he's marked isn't anything he's going to care that you know about. It's just a distraction to keep you from looking at the rest of the database. You won't know what he actually wants until he's in the middle of taking it."
Roseman frowned, the first honest expression Steve had seen on her. Behind her, Vicki fiddled with her stylus nervously. "If he's able to keep under our radar so easily," the agent said slowly, "then why leave us a breadcrumb trail at all? Why not just dip in and dip out?"
"Because he can't do it perfectly," Steve explained, crossing his fingers under the table and adding a silent we hope. They didn't have evidence that Iron Man could ghost that well, which was the heart of the problem, really. "There's always an electronic trail. This way, he's muddied the waters. The evidence will be there, but no one's going to see the fingerprints when he's been spray painting the walls."
If anything, Roseman's grimace turned sharper. "So you're telling me that we should sit and wait for him to strike? I'm starting to see why this guy's been free for three years with you two fine agents on his tail."
Steve's jaw clenched, but Sam's heel on his foot kept him in his chair. "Not at all, ma'am," Sam said, smiling smoothly. "Just that getting anything out of your electronic evidence is going to be a needle in a haystack. We're not out of options."
"Then lay them out for me." White, sharp teeth flashed behind shiny glossed lips. It was the one of those smiles that was kept behind bars in the New York Zoo, the kind that said if it weren't for this cage, you'd be invited to dinner.
He liked her less and less. "Iron Man isn't a terrorist—he's a thief. He's never shown any interest in politics, international or otherwise." Steve tapped the now-dark tablet. "Everything on here was the usual for an expected FBI infiltration. What he'll be after won't be up your typical alley. Art, jewelry, even money. Not data on test ranges and weapons storage facilities."
She pursed her lips in thought, finger drumming on the arm of her chair. After a moment, Roseman shook her head, the chin-length bob of her hair bouncing around her face. "We don't deal in art, Agent Rogers, and the DHS has its accounts well-guarded on separate systems."
Fake leather squeaked as Sam leaned forward in his chair. "What about history?" he asked, voice low and intent. "Antiques, memorabilia, records? Iron Man's shown a general preference for anything with enough historical value, but he especially seems to like World War Two artifacts of all kinds."
Roseman's expression didn't give anything away, but Vicki's breath caught in a little gasp. She tried to catch herself, expression schooling into professional blankness, but the damage was done. When Steve and Sam looked at her questioningly, she hunched in on herself, lowering her eyes.
The DHS Agent made a face and twisted in her chair, almost slumping. "You may as well, since you already started it."
Vicki flinched, looking suitably chastised.
"Ma'am?" Steve urged gently. "You know something?" He wasn't sure what Vicki's actual job was. In his experience, agents didn't have personal assistants. Whatever she did, though, she was clearly under pressure. The woman hadn't relaxed for a single second since the meeting began.
"Dr. Stark," she said reluctantly, and Steve's eyes widened. Her hands twisted together in a show of nerves. "He was recently transferred to... a local division. His father worked on the Manhattan project. They say he's got— records, and posters, scale models, all sorts of things."
"Would any of that be in DHS files, though?" Glancing over, Steve saw the same doubt he felt on Sam's face. Something still wasn't adding up. "If he needed to know anything about Dr. Stark, he could have found it out through other means. Right?" As soon as he said it, he remembered what Sam had found on the doctor. "Or maybe not."
"Or maybe not," Roseman agreed, then let out a loud sigh, the sound of someone giving in to defeat. Steve trusted it about as much as he trusted a ticking briefcase abandoned on the subway. "Gregory Stark's been under complete DHS supervision for the past two years, working on a top clearance project for us. He barely exists on most paper anymore. If your guy wants him, he'll almost have to go through DHS. The man doesn't even have an apartment."
It only took a minute of silent communication before Sam nodded and Steve felt free to say, "I think we're going to need to meet with Dr. Stark."
A brisk wind blew off the ocean, carrying with it the smell of sea, garbage and ice. Steve leaned against the rail and stared at the approaching island—and that was really the only word for it, island. Its running lights were only visible when he squinted at it just right. Against the gray sky and darker water, it could have been just another rock. At least, for anyone who didn't know that New York didn't have a rock of that size in the middle of the bay.
The DHS workshop-cum-laboratory that was currently Dr. Gregory Stark's home was only based in New York City based on the technicality that it was in the harbor. Steve wasn't sure what US agency owned the giant mechanical island that Vicki—whose last name turned out to be Peters—called the Triskelion. It might have been the DHS, but if so, someone desperately needed to look into how they were wasting tax dollars. There was no way that sort of thing could be justified, to Steve's cynical eye.
On the other hand, if it ever came to putting lanterns in the window to warn for the British again, they'd have the harbor more than adequately protected.
Next to him, Sam whistled. "Damn, and here I thought we're in a recession."
All Steve could do was shake his head. The personnel on the ship mostly ignored them, though he suspected one or two were unofficial security detail. They paid much more attention to the two FBI agents than to the tablets in their hands.
The ship docked easily, with only a slight bump and the clank of some sort of lock sliding into place. Then a gangplank lowered and the various government agents started to file out. Steve and Sam brought up the rear, trailed by their shadows.
In the loading bay of the Triskelion, Vicki waited with her tablet, huddled in a coat that made her look three times smaller than she actually was. "Agent Wilson, Agent Rogers," she said with a teeth-chattering smile. Her nose was bright red. "Good of you to make it. Follow me, please."
She turned on one of her four-inch stiletto heels and led them across the deck. Their shadows broke off, but Steve didn't miss the cameras placed everywhere. They were being watched. Which, he knew, was only par for the course on a military base.
Once outside the loading area, the Triskelion looked almost like an aircraft carrier, albeit one that was a mile across and housed enough people to fill a small midwestern town. Buildings rose up from its center, most of them low to the deck and featuring more windows than Steve thought were really appropriate for the craft. At what he estimated to be the center of the base was really the only tall structure visible: a command tower that had to be no less than ten stories high. Even as he watched, a helicopter rose up from its roof and headed for the mainland.
The Department of Homeland Security definitely got the better end of the Federal Budget Stick.
Vicki led them to a small structure that was barely big enough to escape the description "outhouse". She keyed in a code, then pressed her palm and eye to scanners to be read. "Please leave your coats here, gentlemen," she said, as the door slid open. Her heels clicked as she stepped in. "It'll be plenty warm where we're going."
"That doesn't sound ominous at all," Sam muttered, but he started stripping off his jacket.
Steve followed his lead; after the incident with his phone, he'd stopped keeping anything important in his outerwear anyway. Even his new phone, which counted only technically as important in his view, was tucked safely in his hip pocket.
The shack was as tiny on the inside as it was on the outside, something which Steve was almost disappointed to see. There was a small desk, a coat rack and a filing cabinet. Over in the corner, someone had installed a coffee pot next to the sorriest excuse for a sink he'd seen in a decade. There were no personal touches to be seen, not even a photograph or a touch of paint.
No heat, either. His suit jacket was at least an extra layer, but it wasn't much against the late cold snap New York was experiencing. Shivering, Steve rubbed his arms and waited.
It shouldn't have surprised him when Vicki went to one of the walls and pressed what seemed to be nowhere in particular. The wall panel slid aside to reveal another scanner, which she put to use.
"Worried about security?" Steve asked, trying to memorize the spot, whether it would do him any good or not. "This seems a little ridiculous."
"We all do what we feel necessary," Vicki answered calmly. Something in the floor rumbled. What had appeared to be a plain piece of concrete dropped down and away, revealing a spiral staircase down. "Follow me, please."
Their trip downward went farther than Steve could have dreamed. He hadn't given much thought to the Triskelion's underpinnings, but it quickly became obvious that there was a lot to it. The staircase went down what he estimated to be a good three or four levels before it finally turned into a horizontal tunnel lined with metal walls. Luckily, that only ran about a hundred strides. It came to a stop at a well-lit door, framed by two security guards and a very obvious camera. Steve didn't doubt that there was a less obvious camera too, but he didn't spare the effort to look for it.
The guards eyed Steve and Sam warily as Vicki went through the whole retina and palm print routine again. At that point, Steve was almost surprised nothing had asked for DNA recognition. Repeating the same three steps over and over again seemed ridiculously redundant, even for government work.
After going through what was starting to seem like ritual, Vicki stood back and waited. Steve counted to five before the door opened with a wash of antiseptic-scented air.
Inside could only be described as a work room. It was large—easily the size of a gymnasium, though the roof was low by comparison. There were the more obvious signs of engineering—a welding bench here, a table of scattered parts there—but the computers drew the eye more. Large, theatrical diagrams of DNA spiraled gently on their screens while data scrolled across the bottom at unreadable speed.
At the center of it all, a blond man was bent over one of the consoles, wearing a perfect white lab coat. He didn't look up when they entered.
"Ah, Ms. Peters. And Agents Rogers and Wilson, I presume." The man's fingers flew across the keyboard for a moment, fast enough that the clacks blurred into a single noise. Then he turned, expression firmly unamused behind his fastidiously trimmed goatee. "I trust this will not take long."
Vicki smiled, one of those professional expressions that could hide almost anything behind it. "Not long at all. Agents, this is Dr. Gregory Stark."
"They know who I am." Stark kept his back ramrod straight, not even a hint of slump in his shoulders, as if he'd been raised in a jacket sewn with a steel rod. "You gentlemen are here to inquire as to my father's collection?"
"Yes, sir," Steve answered, keeping his voice as flat as possible. He was pretty sure that he already disliked the man, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd seen him somewhere before. It was the same as when he'd looked at Stark's photo on Sam's computer, but meeting him in person only made it stronger. "You were informed of what's happening?"
Thin lips pressed together in a frown. Going by the lines around his mouth, it was an expression he used often. "No. I only know what I could glean from Agent Roseman's filed reports. Which, Ms. Peters, you may wish to inform the General, are terribly unprotected. I hope my own work is safer."
"You are accessing it from within a secured network, Doctor," Vicki answered, sighing. "But I'll pass it on."
Stark nodded, a single, sharp gesture. "See that you do."
Sam seemed to have more patience than Steve. He didn't even sigh as he took out his notepad and pen, flashing a smile that actually looked honest. Steve made a point of wandering around the room, giving it a glance-over. It was amazing what some people would leave out in the open in places they thought were private. "First, some basic questions, for the sake of our reports. You're Dr. Gregory Stark, correct?"
If Sam had hoped friendliness would draw Stark out of his shell, it was fruitless. The man may as well have been a statue. "I am."
"Our records say you went to Harvard?"
"Medical, yes, for some time. MIT as well." Clean, well-trimmed fingernails drummed on Stark's knee impatiently. He was already starting to twitch. Steve stayed back out of Sam's way and watched. From the way Stark's eyes kept darting to the computer, he might have just wanted to get back to work. Maybe. "Time is ticking, Agents. I'm a busy man."
Resilient as ever, Sam pressed on. "What can you tell us of your family?"
That got a reaction. Tapping fingers stilled, and Stark's blond brows drew together. "Dead, dead and dying, as I'm sure you know."
Tender subject. Steve caught Sam's eye meaningfully as he pretended to be interested in a scale model of a brain cell. "Just for the record, Dr. Stark," Steve cut in, ignoring the way Sam's eyes rolled. "When was the last time you spoke to your brother?"
Stark didn't jump. That was odd—usually people forgot Steve was there when Sam took the lead. "Five months and three weeks ago. Please don't disturb that. It's worth more than you."
Sam's pen scratched across his notepad. "That's pretty specific," he said, without glancing at Steve at all. "Anything significant happen on that day, that you remember it so well?"
"It was our mother's birthday, so I would say so."
Steve pulled his hands away from the model as Sam shot him a dirty look. "What did you talk about?" Sam asked, obviously unamused with Steve's attempt at questioning.
One elegant shoulder rose in a shrug. "A legal dispute with our father's company. I directed him to my lawyer, and that was that." Pointedly, Stark reached over to jiggle the mouse on his computer console. The screen flashed as it woke up before a pulsing clock took over the monitor. "Can we move it along? My brother is not involved in my life."
"Of course, doctor. I apologize." Going by the way Sam's pen scratched extra heavily when crossing a T, he was losing patience. Which was nearly a miracle; Steve had seen Sam talk birds out of the trees, and no one who had falconry as a hobby could afford to lose their temper easily. "What can you tell us about your father's collection? Is there anything of particular historical or monetary value?"
"I really couldn't say." Fingers laced across his knee as Stark leaned back, somehow managing to seem still and upright even while nominally relaxed. His eyes locked on the pen in Sam's hands with an expression of distaste. "When I inherited it, I had most of it stored without investigating the specific inventory. My brother was always the historian of us two."
"Then why did you get the memorabilia?" Steve asked, coming around to Sam's shoulder and pulling out his own pad, not because he needed to take notes, but just to see if Stark winced.
The hoped-for wince occurred almost before Steve had finished flipping to a clean page. Stark watched the notepads like they were offensive. "Antonio got the business, after all. I suppose father thought he was making up for the loss."
"And that business is...?"
Even Sam gave him a look of disbelief, though Sam's was kinder than the doctor's. "Stark Industries," he explained coolly. "You may have heard of it."
"One of the biggest US tech companies still hanging around." A sharp elbow dug into Steve's ribs as Sam rolled his eyes Steve's way. "Even you should know that."
"I don't care who makes what, just as long as it works." The words fell from Steve's lips in a comfortable, easy roll. He'd said them so many times, they didn't even need thinking about anymore. "Would you be able to provide us with an inventory of your father's collection, Doctor? As well as any details on its location?"
Shiny patent leather shoes tapped the concrete floor impatiently. "I suppose I can inform my lawyer to provide you with the inventory. It was part of the will, I believe, and shouldn't have changed since."
"And the location?" Sam's pen paused as he looked up.
Tap tap tap when the shoes, and for the first time, Steve had the feeling that Stark was enjoying himself. "That, I'm afraid, I can't do."
Stark's smile belonged on a shark. "Because I don't know where it is."
Weak sunshine streamed down as he walked down the busy New York Street. As he walked, his fingers dipped into the hidden cranny of the brick wall without so much as a pause in his stride. A half a heartbeat later he was moving on without any sign that anything had happened at all. The crowd of morning commuters swallowed him.
Three blocks away, after the purchase of a truly terrible cup of coffee and a newspaper, he unfolded the package. It was tiny—a sheet of college rule paper wrapped around a modified micro-SD and tied with a pretty piece of lacy red ribbon. The paper didn't have any words, just a rough sketch of what looked like either a Dalek or a condiment shaker in copper-red ink.
Six streets away, he sent a text message with a date and time, chucking the phone into a dumpster as soon as it was sent. Then he dropped an envelope with return to sender scrawled on it in the mailbox of a small pottery store and raised the flag to indicate outgoing mail. On the back were the initials F.E. Mann.
The phone was ringing. It rang precisely three times before giving way to blessed silence. Then, thirty seconds later, it started up again.
Steve groaned and tried to smother himself with his pillow. It had been All Hands for the last week, ever since the hacking incident, and he desperately needed sleep. Four hours a night was only sustainable for so long. He almost suspected Director Danvers of secretly trying to murder them all with exhaustion, but that wasn't the woman's style. She was much more likely to just poison their coffee, so whoever took the most coffee breaks would go first.
After five repeats, Steve finally flung out an arm and grabbed the wireless receiver. "What?"
"Cheerful, aren't you?" Jan said, far, far too chirpy for half past two in the morning. "Hands off the cock and on with the socks, Rogers. We've got a situation."
"What sort of situation?" But he'd sat up and was already reaching for his pants where he'd left them folded. Everyone in the office knew about him and Jan, which meant they only would have resorted to using her if it was an absolute necessity.
"The kind of situation that involves the FBI, that kind of situation."
Cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder, Steve hitched up his pants. They were the same ones he'd worn the day before, but they would have to do. He hadn't had time to pick up his dry cleaning in days. "Ha ha. Tell me something useful."
"The Easter Bunny doesn't lay his own eggs. I bet you're heartbroken."
Steve almost dropped his shirt. Phone lines insecure, can't give details. That was a bad sign. "And I suppose the Tooth Fairy doesn't actually take teeth, does she?"
"Now you're just being ridiculous." Jan's voice was still bright, but he could hear the strain underneath it. "Of course she takes the teeth. But the quarters are all counterfeit. Agent Frost's all over that."
Sam's on the way, be ready to move. "Ruin all my dreams. Have I got time to get coffee and breakfast?"
"Of course, but lay off the eggs. They make you grumpy."
"Yes, dear." Ten minutes. Great. Just what he needed on a Friday night. "I'll see you when I get in."
Jan hung up without saying goodbye. Steve didn't bother taking offense. If things were bad enough that she was using the Easter Bunny code, there wasn't time for goodbyes.
In seven minutes, Steve was waiting by a streetlamp when Sam's suburban pulled up to the curb. He slid in and buckled the seatbelt, waiting until they were moving before asking, "What's going on?"
"Hacked again," Sam said shortly. "DHS's systems are down, ours are unreliable, and Danvers gave the orders and then went AWOL."
All hands on deck again. Steve rubbed his eyes tiredly, wishing he actually had taken time for a cup of coffee. "Iron Man?"
"Who else?" In the flashing lights of the street lamps, Sam's grin looked ghastly, like something out of a horror movie. "He's using your phone again, and they've got a GPS lock. We're going straight to the source."
"That's not right!" Steve protested immediately. Plastic creaked under his fingers as he gripped the oh-shit handle on a tight turn. "Why would Iron Man be stupid enough to use my phone? He doesn't need my phone." And to leave the GPS tracker on and enabled? They knew he could take those out, he'd done it before and sent them chasing a cat around L.A. while he jacked a Pollock from a bank vault in San Francisco. "This stinks like three day old fish."
Another turn, this one way too fast. Sam was usually a better driver; the set-up must have been getting to him, too. "I know, buddy, but it's all we got. And if Danvers wants us to spend the night surrounding what looks like an abandoned warehouse, then at least we're not getting shot at."
"We hope," Sam agreed.
And that was always the risk. Iron Man had never been violent before, had never even been seen holding more than an x-acto knife. But that didn't mean things wouldn't ever change, or that they weren't dealing with a copycat who had a twitchy trigger finger.
The warehouse was nowhere Steve had been before, and he'd been a lot of places. It was already surrounded by people in S.W.A.T. gear, though the logo was nothing Steve had seen before: an eagle rampant on their shoulders, with no other obvious insignia. Of everyone in sight, the two of them were the only suits visible.
Agent Roseman, dressed in the same tactical uniform as everyone else, met them at the barricade. She was almost unidentifiable in her helmet, but the stationed guards straightened up as if she'd been wearing a general's stars. "They're with me," she told the guard, waving them across the line. No one had even requested to see their I.D.s.
"What's going on?" Steve asked as they ducked under the tape between barricades. "Has anyone seen Iron Man? How many people are in the building?"
"That's not what you're here for," Roseman said sharply. "We've got it covered. You two are here because you know Iron Man better than any of us, and we need that knowledge."
"Fat lot of good it'll do you if we don't know the situation and you don't know what questions to ask," Steve snorted, eyeballing the units around him. There was something off there. He'd worked with a lot of S.W.A.T. teams before, and they didn't act like S.W.A.T. There was too much silence, and too many hands off their weapons. There also weren't nearly as many lights as he would have expected; what was the point of even being there if the agents were blinded by the dark? There was some residual light bouncing off the smog, but not enough to see by at three AM.
Roseman made a high-pitched, annoyed sound as they crossed behind a thick plate of bulletproof material. There was a whole command center set up there, with monitors blinking and agents working the communications lines. "Fine. As far as we know, there's at least ten people in there, including the suspect. No idea if they're working with him or if they're hostages. We've seen people in the windows, but we can't identify Iron Man."
"He'll be the one at the computer." Sam shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, staring up at the warehouse. From behind the protective shielding, all they could see was the very top level and the helicopter hovering over it. "He won't leave it. It's where he's best."
Steve nodded. "Why here? There's thousands of places with internet access. Why pick this one?" It wasn't a good question, but the one he wanted to ask wouldn't help. Why do this? Nothing was adding up. "You know this is a setup, right?"
"We have our suspicions," Roseman said, "but they're classified."
"Of course it is." Steve really, really wanted some coffee. Interdepartmental politics was like a bucket of crabs.
They were outfitted in bulletproof vests and helmets, even though neither of them were going to be going anywhere. The insignia on their borrowed tactical gear was worn in odd places, with a piece of electrical tape over the shoulder decals. When Steve peeked, it proved to be hiding an old S.W.A.T. logo.
Borrowed, when clearly they had their own supplies. As if the whole operation could get any weirder. Pretty soon, he was going to need a checklist for all the things that didn't add up.
Roseman listened while Steve and Sam rattled off what they knew about Iron Man, his tactics, and how he might react when backed into a corner. There wasn't much on that last one. Iron Man was skilled at avoiding being cornered.
Sam was in the middle of a recitation of all the times Iron Man didn't pull a weapon after Roseman had openly scoffed at the idea, when a frenzy of activity in the command center brought the discussion to a stop.
"Bl— Agent Roseman," the closest man on the comms said. "Word from the Triskelion is that the hacking has stopped."
"He got what he wanted? Your people locked him out?" Steve asked, weathering a glare from nearby DHS officers. "Well?"
"N—noooo." The comms guy dragged the word out uncertainly. His eyes flicked between Roseman and Steve, clearly not happy about passing on anything in front of the FBI. "He just— it stopped. Lines are still open, but no activity."
"Something's happening." Her eyes flicked up and to the west, then back to the warehouse. When Steve followed her line of sight, he saw the faintest shadow of a figure up there. There didn't seem to be a sniper rifle in sight, but that didn't mean anything. "Signal Hawkeye to move in. We want Iron Man alive and uninjured. He'll know what to do."
The next few minutes were a haze of nerves and little else. There may have been fifty uniformed agents present, but they might as well have been cardboard cutouts for all the action they saw. Glass broke somewhere in the distance, and there came the calls of agents on the move who'd forgotten they had live mikes. Roseman nearly vibrated beside them, pacing, like she'd rather be on the working team than playing babysitter. Steve had to give her points for not saying it aloud.
After eight minutes by the clock, the command comm went life. "Have we got a surprise for you," a male voice said. "You're not going to believe this, Widow."
Roseman's eyebrows went up, either at the nickname or at the statement. She grabbed up the mike and pressed the send button. "What is it I won't believe?"
"We've got someone we presume is Iron Man," the man continued, completely ignoring the question. "He was unconscious by the guilty laptop when we found him. Looks like his buddies cut and run."
A complicated expression crossed Roseman's face, somewhere between suspicion and deep satisfaction. "Bring him in," she ordered. "Take him to the Triskelion and I'll meet you there."
"We'll meet you there," Steve and Sam chorused in unison. It probably said something that she only rolled her eyes and corrected herself.
Interdepartmental diplomats, that's what they were. Shame it didn't come with a pay raise.
Alarms sounded as the prisoner's vessel docked, warning everyone aboard of a threat's arrival. Even if it was a contained threat, no one pulled punches or took chances where they could be easily avoided. The DHS and its subdivision, SHIELD, were rather known for avoiding both.
But there were cracks in the layers. There were always cracks. In the excitement of Iron Man having been brought in, some parts of the Triskelion were practically abandoned. Most notably, the security closets where video feeds were monitored. The General would raise hell if he ever found out, but there just weren't enough people to handle a major tactical operation, a downed system and to do the least rewarding and most useless job on the island. After all, they could just check the files later.
Their mistake, her good luck. Or good planning; nothing really ever happened by luck anymore.
She slipped into the closet between one camera rotation and the next, flash drive already hidden in her palm. It took less than sixty seconds to place it and get back out into the hallway, just in time to catch the next rotation with a show of checking her hose before she kept walking again.
For safety's sake, she waited until she was on deck, standing by a railing just above the choppy ocean waves before reaching into her pocket and pressing send on her cell phone. A flick of her wrist sent the evidence spinning down to vanish under the water.
It was all up to them, now.
Clear glass shone in that odd way that came from being a two-way mirror. Steve stood stock still, surrounded by DHS agents who he was starting to suspect were more than just DHS. On the other side of the mirror, handcuffed to a hospital bed, Iron Man still hadn't woken.
Or, as it was starting to appear, Dr. Gregory Stark hadn't awoken.
No one on the Triskelion said the name, but Steve had seen that face before, and there was really no denying it. The resemblance was amazing—as far as Steve could see, the only difference was dark hair and that might well be dyed. They took fingerprints to be certain, but they wouldn't even begin to be able to start on them until after the hack job was cleaned up and security cleared everything. A search of the Triskelion had turned up no signs of the doctor, which should have put the nail in the coffin.
Steve wasn't sure what to believe.
He'd been chasing Iron Man for years. Mostly, he couldn't help but think, the same years that Stark had been a ghost in hiding with the DHS. But it was hard to consider the complications of someone leading a double life as a high-end thief when his every move was shadowed by the government. But there was no way to crosscheck—he couldn't compare Stark's movements with Iron Man's, because there were no records of Stark's.
Footsteps sounded beside him, and a steaming cup of coffee was shoved into his hand. "Not as bad as what we drank in Denver, but pretty bad," Sam said quietly. "Any movement?"
"Nothing," Steve whispered back, and tried to ignore the way the nearby agents craned their heads to listen. Most of them were spending more time watching him and Sam than they were the man in containment. Only one of them actually had his eyes where they should be. Some spies. His old army sergeant would have had their heads on poles for that sort of bull. "They just had another doc in to see him while you were out. No change. They think he'd been out for an hour or more before we even got to the warehouse. Something about his pupils."
Sam ran his hand over his short-cropped hair, nails scratching at stiff curls. Then he dragged his hand over his face. "If he was out for that long, you know that means we've got the wrong man?"
On the table, Iron Man's nose twitched. None of the DHS agents seem to have noticed. "I don't want to count out anything yet. Think they'll give me five minutes?" The chances that Iron Man would actually talk were next to nothing, but he'd be more relaxed if there were less people taking notes. And if he relaxed, he just might let something slip.
"Won't like it. They'll want to leave a guard."
Glancing around, Steve's eyes settled on the one man who was actually doing his job, instead of rubbernecking. At some point, his nose had been broken and never set, and the knuckles of his hands were scarred. He was, in Steve's estimate, a man who was used to handling messy jobs. "I can work with that."
Agent Roseman was at a table in the room outside the dark box, working on something with a handful of other agents. All of them were dressed in the same nondescript black bodysuit. There were no visible weapons, but Steve didn't believe for a second that any of them were unarmed.
Altogether, there were less people around than Steve remembered when he'd first arrived. Probably they had other things to do, or were bored by the prospect of watching someone sleep for an unknown amount of time. Regardless, that meant that there were fewer people to argue with, which was all to the better. He could work with what he knew, but a curveball might be too much to handle just then.
As soon as he paused by the table, Roseman looked up, red eyebrows arched. Under the fluorescent lights, he could see the bags under her eyes. It made him wonder if she'd been getting any more sleep than him or Sam. "Yes, Rogers? What do you need?" For a moment, her bland accent blurred and roughened, the R sounds taking a sharp edge.
"I need five minutes alone with the suspect."
"Not a chance."
"The way I see it, you don't have much choice." Steve crossed his arms, the muscles in his biceps flexing against the admittedly cheap fabric of his suit. "I know Iron Man. Give me five minutes, and we'll know if this is really him or a decoy."
Crossing her arms to match him, Roseman cocked her hip against the table. "There's nothing you can find out alone that you can't while we watch you."
"The more people, the more on guard he'll be," Steve insisted. "I'm not asking for much, just five minutes."
She made a face and glanced around, at what Steve couldn't be sure. It looked like a broken monitor to him, the power button flashing green. Then she shook her head and muttered something under her breath. "Fine. Five minutes, but I want someone watching. One of my people. And no funny business, we'll have it all on record."
When Sam was right, he was right. "That'll do."
Every interrogation room Steve had ever been in had been cold. Not just chilly, but outright cold. In deference to the fact that the prisoner was an invalid, someone had thrown a thin blue hospital blanket over him. It probably wasn't enough, but at least someone had shown some idea of humanity.
Steve waited until everyone had shuffled out of the dark room before hitting the light and letting himself in. His chosen guard, the man who had actually been guarding, stayed low and out of sight from Iron Man's angle. It wasn't ideal, but it was technically accurate.
On the table, Iron Man didn't move. There wasn't even a tale-tell twitch like he'd seen before. Steve gave him a second, but they didn't have very many. "You're not fooling anyone, you know."
"Oh, I think I'm fooling plenty of people," Iron Man answered, eyes popping open, darting immediately toward the empty room visible behind the glass before looking back at Steve. They were the same striking shade of pale-blue as Gregory Stark's. "Just not you. But you never were easy to fool, were you?"
Grabbing a chair, Steve twisted it around to straddle, close to Iron Man's head so they could look at each other. Up close, the resemblance to Stark faded a little. Where Stark had frown lines, Iron Man's were all smiles, and there were subtle differences in the way their skin was weathered. There was some sort of gunk in his hair that matted it into stiff spikes, like he'd spent too much time with a mirror and some gel. Even his goatee was cut precisely like Stark's, but as dark as Stark's was blond. It was a picture of how Stark might have looked, had he been a different man. "You led me around by the nose a few times."
"But you were never fooled," Iron Man insisted, as if that was somehow important. He rolled his shoulders, adjusting how he was lying on the bed without making the mistake of trying to sit up. Other men would have been tugging at their cuffs.
"No, I was never fooled. Just like I'm not fooled now." Steve leaned forward, lowering his voice. "You're not Gregory Stark. Maybe you're his brother, or maybe you just have a doctor who's damned good with a scalpel, but you're not him. And you didn't get arrested because someone betrayed you."
Long, thick black lashes fluttered coquettishly. "You can't prove that," Iron Man whispered, a tricky smile curling around his lips.
"We've got your fingerprints."
"Do you?" He arched his back, head tipping a little to bare his throat, blue eyes sharp as broken glass. "You know, this seems like a bit of a waste, doesn't it? You, me, a bed, all these restraints..."
"A live feed on the monitors."
"Reminds me of Buffalo."
Iron Man snorted. A shift of his body brought his hip in contact with Steve's elbow. "No, this is much kinkier than Buffalo. I thought the snare was a bit passé, to tell you the truth. Do you still have those boxers with the stars and stripes?"
Steve laughed. Buffalo had been a run for their money. They'd even managed to recover the statue before it was gone for good. "It's been a year. I bought new ones."
"I thought about stealing those, too, you know, but stealing the American flag seemed to be in poor taste, even if the gods of fashion would have thanked me for it." Those blue eyes rolled at him, disconcertingly calm even in the face of everything. "Have you confirmed my identity yet, or should I wax poetic about the time you got me in cuffs? How it felt to have you pinning me down? Never came so close to wanting to turn king's evidence."
Down low where Iron Man couldn't see them, Steve's hands clenched into fists. He shouldn't be flirting with the suspect. No doubt Roseman was watching and rolling her eyes, or would be as soon as she got a minute to look at the recording. "America doesn't have a king," he said, just for something to say, for words to fill the silence.
"In the land of the blind..." Iron Man's hip bumped Steve again. "You only bought us a few minutes. Might want to hurry up, before that pretty brunette comes back to scowl at us."
When forced to actually think about it, Steve's mind went blank. Everything about Iron Man threw him off balance. It was as if he were the one chained down to a bed, and not the other way around. "Why are you doing this? Is it the money?"
"Money?" That won Steve a bark of laughter, the bed creaking as Iron Man's muscles clenched with it. The laughter didn't reach his eyes; they glittered with something dark and angry. "I'm rich and dying. What do I need with money?"
"Dying?" Steve's voice choked on the word. "How—"
"Not everyone's blessed with your miraculous physique, Rogers. Most of us have faulty systems of one sort of another. Mine's just catching up on me sooner than most." Iron Man shook his head and relaxed back onto the thin, crinkly mattress, eyes sliding closed. "I think I'm going to take a nap. Come and wake me up when the alarm sounds, will you? I'll have a surprise for you."
Alarm? Steve frowned down at Iron Man, but the man had gone back to pretending unconsciousness. And it was pretending—Steve didn't believe for a moment that anyone with any lick of sense would be taking an actual nap while handcuffed in an interrogation room.
He waited out the rest of his five minutes before giving up and leaving, turning off the light behind the glass as soon as he was through the door. The guard, a big, burly blond man who strained his uniform as much as Steve did his suit, scrambled to his feet.
"Did you get all that?" Steve demanded, looking down at the monitors. All they showed was Iron Man from ten different angles, and all of them flattering.
"Yes, sir," the man said with a Brooklyn accent that was thick as mud. His arm twitched like he was holding back a salute. "Every word of it."
An inexplicable curl of disappointment twisted through Steve's chest. He shrugged it off; he'd take his licks for what was said, if anyone complained. They shouldn't—it had gotten the job done. "Good. Where's Agent Wilson?"
"With Agent Roseman, sir. He said something about going over the evidence in her office. Alone." The guard didn't bat an eyelash, or even slip a hint of innuendo into his tone. Which meant either that there hadn't been anything suspicious about Roseman and Sam finding private time, or he deserved an Oscar.
Steve hoped it was the former. Roseman didn't seem like the kind of woman he'd be happy to hand his partner over to on weekends. "Thanks. Watch Iron Man. Let someone know as soon as he's awake again."
Turning, Steve strode out into the now-empty room beyond, wondering where the hell he was going to find Roseman's office.
Tony kept his eyes closed. If he listened very hard, he could almost make out the sound of a discussion taking place behind the two-way mirror. It wasn't loud enough for him to actually hear anything specific—more's the pity—but he could make out general tones. Especially when one of those tones was Royally Pissed, and someone on the other side of the glass was making a good effort to invent Imperially Pissed.
The door slam, when it came, was hard enough to rattle the walls. Tsk tsk, someone needs to learn to control their temper. Then again, whoever it was had probably just discovered part of the mess his last foray through their network had left. Almost anyone would be upset at finding a tenth of their files turned into pictures of cats.
When the rattle from the slamming subsided, there was only silence. He hated silence. And boredom. And not being able to work with his hands. Unfortunately, all three states were unavoidable. It did give him time to think, though, which was always a benefit. There was always Agent Rogers, who was more than handsome enough to warrant a passing daydream or two. The things Tony could do to him with a nice bed and a set of handcuffs. He even managed to make cheap suits look good, though no doubt they couldn't compare to how he'd look out of said suits.
He allowed himself a few minutes of fancy before, sighing, he put away his libido and focused on other things. There wasn't time for distractions, and an untimely erection would definitely be that. Instead, he turned his thoughts to more technical things. Plans trapezed through his mind, elaborate layouts of engineering marvels mixed in with an admittedly half-baked scheme to horrify, humiliate and overall expose certain persons of his choice in Washington. In the end, he gave it up only because politics was an eternal hive of corruption, and the government needed some people to work.
Or so he'd been told.
After roughly thirty minutes by his internal clock, what he'd been waiting for came: a very soft chime from the piece implanted in his ear canal. A second later, a triple tap sounded against the glass.
Flicking his wrist, Tony worked a long, thin piece of hard plastic from where it had been carefully stored in the hem of his shirtsleeve. It had been something of a risk, hoping they wouldn't take time to undress him, but that was what backup plans were for. The agents had cuffed him fairly well, but they'd only used standard cuffs, which meant there was some wiggle room to be found. By dent of much care and work, he got the plastic fork into the locking mechanism and started to twist.
Two minutes later, he was free.
Lying back once more, Tony made sure his wrists were covered once more in case any unfortunate visitors happened to look in. Then he closed his eyes.
It was time for the fun to begin.
Sam wasn't in Roseman's office.
As far as Steve had been able to ascertain, Roseman wasn't in her own office, and possibly had never done more than eat lunch there a few times. And maybe not even that; the trash can was completely empty, and had a new look that, in Steve's experience, trash cans lost fast.
His emotions wobbled somewhere between relieved and annoyed. One of them should have the sense not to get involved in relationships that were bound to end badly, and Steve had already proved that it wasn't going to be him.
But someone had to report back to HQ. He wanted to do a check up on Stark's brother, Antonio, see if he was actually in the nursing home like all the paperwork said. Steve wouldn't have bet a clipped penny that he was. Having Iron Man in custody was good, but they needed an identity to attach to the man before they could start connecting the pieces.
And for that, he needed Sam.
Steve circled Roseman's office, looking for anything that might be useful. It was ridiculously, spotlessly clean, with the exception of some nesting dolls on a set of metal shelves and a stack of file folders on the desk. It wasn't even locked. The laminate floor was unscuffed, and the walls bare of anything but plain floral prints that could have come from anywhere.
Growling in frustration, Steve let himself out. An agent stationed down the hall glanced at him, but didn't seem to think anything was strange about a suited man exiting Roseman's office. Which, really, raised about a dozen new questions all on its own.
It was as good a place to start as any.
"Excuse me," he called, taking long steps to make up the distance between himself and what was almost definitely a guard. The man barely had time to blink as Steve rounded on him. "I'm looking for FBI Agent Samuel Wilson," he said without preamble. "Black man, about my height with cropped hair. He was supposed to be with Agent Roseman."
"I haven't seen either of them, sir," Agent Stanley—by his name tag—stammered. "I've been on duty for three hours. It's just been you." He was one of those nondescript people who managed to blend in anywhere. Not too tall, not too short, no striking features. If Steve had been forced to characterize him, it would have been "young". It shouldn't have been that easy to cow a DHS officer.
Assuming, that was, that the Triskelion had anything to do with the DHS. Steve was starting to have his doubts.
"Alright." He patted the kid on the shoulder. "If you see them, tell Agent Wilson that his partner was looking."
He didn't stick around for a reply.
After questioning every guard and agent he found that was willing to talk to FBI, Steve finally went back to the interrogation room. It was the one place he could think of that Sam was bound to find his way back to eventually.
Not that there was any good news when he got back. The guard he'd left behind had abandoned his post, leaving a completely empty dark room and unwatched monitors behind. Steve paced for a few minutes, damning Homeland Security to the lowest pit of Hell he could think of.
If this is what's protecting our country, we're hip-deep in shit and digging.
When it finally became obvious that the guard wasn't coming back, he settled into the man's abandoned chair and propped up his feet. Through the glass, Iron Man hadn't moved much, and he looked honestly asleep. If he was faking, it was a good job. Even his breathing was just right, and that was usually what tripped people up.
Fifteen minutes into his wait, the lights flickered. Steve's feet hit the floor with a loud thump as the monitors all went black, and then flashed a command line. Shouts of alarm went up outside the room as, he assumed, similar occurrences were repeated around the Triskelion. The light flashed once more, and then everything went dark.
It took a second for the emergency lights to come back on. By the time they had, Steve had already opened the door to the interrogation cell and was nearly to the bed.
Iron Man didn't appear to have moved, or even woken up from the noise. Frowning, Steve pushed back the blanket and checked his pulse; still strong, but slow. It was the same for his breath. Suspicion started to wiggle its way to the front of his mind. He moved to push some of Iron Man's hair from his forehead, and then paused.
His hair was damp. Rubbing his fingers together, Steve leaned down for a better look in the bad lighting. At the jawline edge of Iron Man's goatee, there was a faint smudge of dark color. When he ran his finger over it, it was sticky and came away black.
Realization made him curse.
Steve stormed out into the hall. There were a small handful of agents visible, running around like ants whose mound had been kicked over. "Iron Man's gone!" he snapped. "He's been replaced by a double. Who the hell was supposed to be watching him?"
Immediately, the pack of confused, black-clad agents froze. One of them, a slight young woman shockingly green hair for someone who worked in the government, raised her hand. "That was Agent Hodsone," she offered in a tentative voice.
"And where is he?" A low simmer of anger started to curl in his stomach. The sheer level of incompetence should have been impossible. "When he stepped out, why didn't anyone replace him?"
"I don't—" The green-haired woman was cut off by someone behind her.
"I saw Hodsone escorting Dr. Stark to his labs," the man piped in. "Five minutes ago."
For a blazing moment, Steve's fists clenched. "Dr. Stark is AWOL," he growled, wondering how the hell that had not been passed around to everyone on board. "I can't believe you people. Who the hell is in charge of this mess?"
That got him a load of silence and a lot of guilty looks. Cursing, Steve swung around to seat himself at one of the monitors. The command line blinked at him innocently, as if it were ever normal for a high-level government system to just go dark like that. His fingers flew over the keyboard, tapping in commands as he navigated through the depressingly simple security. After a second, the screen flickered, and a stylized eagle rampant appeared, white on a plain black background. System status reports popped up on the screen as fast as he could run them.
Every major security system on the island was down: cameras, locks, passcodes, the works. There wasn't anything that had been left untouched. Manual locks would still be in place, but Steve couldn't honestly recall seeing any. Technology. Get used to depending on it, and one day you find yourself wishing you hadn't, he thought, chalking it up to one more reason to avoid relying on it as he punched in the command to reboot the camera systems. It wasn't easy; Iron Man had locked everything down hard and fast, with shifting codes that were a pain to work around. But there wasn't any intelligence behind it, no person to work around; it was all pre-programmed. Steve could work with that.
"Hey, you can't—" Someone grabbed his shoulder; Steve ignored it, tapping in the last few commands that brought the cameras online again. The person gripping him boggled—it was the green-haired woman again. "How'd you do that?"
"Practice." He flipped through the cameras as fast as they'd let him. "Hodsone was escorting Stark to his lab—where did you see them?" he asked, twisting to glance at the agent who'd offered the information. The crowd had cleared out
"Sector four, near the bathrooms, headed north," the man said, leaning against the row of computers. Nodding, Steve tabbed through until he reached the right view. Then he followed the map, tracing out what he hoped would be Iron Man's route. If he was after Stark's memorabilia, then he must have found where it was stored, and he'd know he was on a time limit. He'd head straight there.
It took three long minutes before he finally found what he was looking for—a man who a man who looked like nothing other than Gregory Stark hurrying down an empty hallway at a trot, passing through camera frames almost as fast as Steve could switch them. The corner of the frame read Sector 7.
"You lot stay here," he ordered, pushing off from the station and heading for the door. "Get the island on lockdown, no one in or out. Tell whoever that Iron Man is loose in Sector 7." He didn't give them a chance to reply before he took off at a run.
He had a thief to catch.
HMS-131-76, Tony reminded himself, peering at one of the doors before shaking his head and moving on.
He had to admire the level of subterfuge and paranoia in evidence on the Triskelion. It was a warren of buildings, both topside and inside. Most of it had never been recorded on any sort of map or blueprint; apparently even the original plans had been summarily destroyed as soon as the work was done. Somewhere, someone had to have some sort of plan, even if it was only ever used for repair work, but he hadn't been able to get his hands on it.
Everything would have been so much easier if he had. It had taken his team years to establish clean new identities and get jobs working on the thing. And it was a one-shot chance; the holes they'd used or made would be closed up as soon as they were discovered.
All of it meant that Tony was, essentially, flying blind. He'd gotten all the information he could, but other than the general location of the items he was after, there hadn't been much to find out. Sector 7 was essentially nothing but high security storage units, all on its own generator and mostly closed security systems that he hadn't quite been able to scramble. Hidden in one of them would be his father's things. All he had to do was sniff them out.
Plain metal walls blended in well with the cement floor. Doors marked with ambiguously coded plaques were the only distinguishing feature in sight. The lack of landmarks made it damned hard to know where he was going, but Tony supposed that was the point. People who knew where they were going would be fine, and those who didn't shouldn't have been down there in the first place.
He rather wished he'd brought a ball of string.
Three hallways and seven ID-checks later, Tony finally came face to face with what he was looking for: a door labeled HMS-131-76. Under the larger text was a smaller notice with a familiar set of symbols.
Biohazard. Radiation. Enter with caution.
Tony's eyebrows rose. That wasn't in dear old Dad's notes. Still, he broke out the scrambler and its wires and plugged them in. With his health, what could a little radiation poisoning do?
It only took a few seconds for the scrambling software to find an acceptable key. The light flashed green, and the door clicked as the lock popped. Carefully, Tony nudged it open with his shoulder and peered around.
The storage room was a good thousand square feet, poorly lit, and piled high with Howard Stark's mementos. There were dressmaker's dummies wearing authentic world war two uniforms from various countries and services, boxes and boxes of carefully labeled items and, in the back, even what looked to be parts of a plane, though most of the machine itself was noticeably absent.
Bit by bit he picked through the items, the clock in his head counting down. He might have bought himself time playing switcheroo with Gregory, but he wasn't going to bank on it.
He gave the labeled items just enough of a cursory glance to be sure that they were what they claimed to be before moving on. Most of it was scrupulously organized. Paperwork went with paperwork, art with art and so on. There were no personal items to be found—Tony had tracked down and stolen those ages ago—making the room nothing more than a WWII history buff's wet dream. Tony's fingers itched to just pick it all up and cart it off. It killed him that he had to pick his battle, that Greg got to keep all the good stuff. Life, love and Last Wills really were the height of unfairness.
Finally, in the middle of a pile of bins that mostly contained military training books, Tony found what he was looking for. It was a plain cardboard box marked simply Mementos. Reverentially, Tony pried open the flaps. Inside were stacks of folders, books, notes, and—here his heart picked up—rolls of blueprints.
Howard Stark had never been one to play by the rules. The rules said that he should have turned all of his work in after the Manhattan Project had been finished, but his work was his baby. Tony had known that there was no way he wouldn't have at least made copies, if not outright smuggled some things out. It was a delicious sort of irony that they'd ended up back in government hands anyway.
He was just reaching in when a footstep sounded on the cement, loud enough that it was clearly meant to be heard. Tony froze.
"Hands up, and I'll thank you to step away from that."
Slowly, Tony raised his hands and took a step back. Then he turned around. The bright lights in the hall made a silhouette of the woman who'd accosted him, but he'd know that body anywhere. He'd spent more than a few nights wrapped around it, after all. "Tasha, Darling, isn't this a surprise?"
Natasha Romanoff, his one-time fiancée and attempted murderer, smiled behind her pistol. "No," she said, "it's not."
Entry to Sector 7 turned out to be both more and less trouble than Steve had expected. The door was thick metal, and covered with the usual kind of signs. In addition to a stenciled SECTOR 7 across the top, there was the usual warning about authorized personnel only. The keypad lock still worked, where all the others he'd seen were dead paperweights, but it flashed green while a smiley face scrolled across the display.
Clearly, he wasn't the first person to need access.
Steve kept his hand on his gun as he slipped in. Almost immediately the hall turned to stairs, headed down. Fortunately, unlike Stark's lab, it didn't go down very far—maybe fifteen feet at the most. The halls were well-lit, lined metal walls that felt like they probably had some heavy duty reinforcements in them. Steve wouldn't have put it past the place to have poured concrete between them. Thick metal doors broke the monotony of plain gray-on-gray at odd intervals. At the first one, Steve stopped to try and make sense of the code, but the schema they'd used wasn't immediately obvious. There was a pattern, though, and he memorized that in case it came in handy.
He suspected the designer of having seen one too many bad action movies; it seemed everything interesting on the Triskelion was underground.
Using the door labels as his bread crumb trail, Steve searched through the sector as methodically as he could search a place that was laid out like jackstraws. Every door he came across was in the same condition as the first: obviously tampered with.
It didn't take long before he heard the voices. He couldn't quite make out what they were saying. One of them—a man—had the low, relaxed tones of someone drinking at a favorite bar. The female voice was more intense, sharp, barking out what had to be orders. Iron Man was almost definitely the male, Steve would have been willing to place money on it, but there was no telling who the second one could be. Maybe an agent, maybe an accomplice. Only one way to be sure.
Pulling his gun, Steve checked the magazine and safety, and then followed the sounds of conversation. There were a few wrong turns on the way; luckily he caught them before they'd gone very far. The voices echoed oddly, bouncing through ventilation ducts and around corners, muddying at certain intersections in a way that only patience could sort out.
Patience paid off. There was one door that was open, sucking in the light from the hall like a black hole. Moving as lightly as he could in leather loafers, Steve padded closer. The voices became clear as he neared the door.
"Natasha, you really don't want to do this."
"Don't I, Tony?" Paper rustled, loud and heavy in the silence. "You know, we could have been very beautiful together. Why ever did we break up?"
"You tried to kill me. You did kill—"
"I would have made a lovely widow. I'd even practiced how to cry at your funeral." Something heavy shifted against the floor, and there was a sound like metal on metal. "Shame you had to catch on too soon."
"I rather think my timing was too late, rather than too soon."
Steve paused, back to the wall. He should, he thought, call for backup. But who? Sam was missing—and given everything that had been going on, Steve was more than a little worried about what sort of missing he might be. That left DHS and whoever they cared to spare. Assuming, of course, that any of them could or would come quickly enough. That wasn't an assumption Steve was willing to make after the general incompetence he'd witnessed earlier.
He took a slow breath and flicked the safety off. Then he stood, gun up and ready. "Don't move. Put down the box, l— Roseman?"
Roseman, still in her DHS blacks, looked up at him with a smile. She was crouched down next to a plastic storage bin, picking through it with one hand while the other held a gun on what could only be Iron Man. "Ah, Agent Rogers. Good to see you, but it looks like we won't need FBI assistance after all."
The box's contents were spread out in little piles, and a stack of blueprints peeked from a bag slung over her shoulder. Roseman didn't seem to have any problem dividing her attention between her captive and whatever she was looking for.
The captive in question Steve could have sworn was Gregory Stark had he not known better. His hair was the exact same cut, the same white-blond, and he was even in a lab coat that he'd acquired from God knew where. Other than having his hands locked behind his head, he might have been in his own home. No one should have been that relaxed while someone was pointing a weapon at them.
Steve shook his head. "Just put down your weapon, Roseman. We can get this all sorted out topside."
Delicate eyebrows arched. "Are you arresting me? After I caught Iron Man? Rogers, I thought you were above this sort of petty—"
"You realize he heard us talking, don't you?" Iron Man interrupted. She shot him a deadly glare, and he just shrugged. "What? You don't actually think that you're going to be able to sweet talk your way out of this, do you?"
"Do you, Tony?" But she set her weapon aside and stood, hands up. "Rogers, whatever you heard, it's not what it sounds like. We've been after Iron Man for a long time, too. He steals a lot more than art. You can ask Director Fury, I was undercover—"
"I might steal more than art, but at least I don't sell it to the highest bidder," Iron Man snapped. "And I don't kill people."
"Not for want of effort!"
A growing headache pulsed in Steve's left temple. He hoped that when he and Jan had broken up, they hadn't been that bad. "Both of you be quiet. I have a call to make." Reaching into his coat pocket, Steve fumbled for his phone. They probably weren't far enough underground to block reception. He definitely wasn't interested in trying restrain and lead both of them by himself.
Though he hadn't meant to, his eyes slipped away from the pair as he tried to dial with his thumb. As soon as it happened, Roseman launched herself forward. He fired a shot. It clipped her in the thigh, but didn't stop her forward momentum. Roseman's knee landed in Steve's stomach, her elbow landing a hard blow to his temple that sent him reeling. She took advantage of his moment of disorientation to bring her elbow down on his hand. The gun bounced off the floor and skittered.
Steve staggered, swinging to catch her a blow on her cheek. They struggled, Steve's head still singing with pain. Roseman was fast and slippery; every time he thought he had a grip, she'd already twisted out of it and was making another move on him. Steve managed to get her face-down on the floor, arm pinned up behind her. Somehow, she'd gotten his tie turned around, blocking his airways just enough to be trouble. More and more, it was looking to be a question of who got loose first.
The sound of a bullet bouncing off metal walls brought them both to a stop.
Iron Man cleared his throat. He had the gun on them, though mostly it followed Roseman. "Let go of him, Tasha," he said firmly. "This doesn't have to end badly."
"You think he'll let either of us go, Tony?" But her hand loosened on Steve's tie. Air rushed back into Steve's lungs. "You've always been sentimental."
"I'm an old softy." Iron Man jerked his chin. The gun didn't waver off of Roseman; apparently Steve wasn't as much of a threat as she was. "Okay, Rogers, your turn. Slowly, please."
He wasn't sure of the wisdom of actually letting Roseman up, but Steve knew better than to argue with a man holding a gun. Violence not evident in criminal history was not the same thing as nonviolent. It was never easier to remember than just then.
As asked for, Steve slowly let go of Roseman and started to rise. Wisely, she stayed on the floor, palms pressed to the concrete. Her eyes glittered in the light that slanted through the wide-open door.
She waited until Steve was rising to his feet before kicking out. Her heel barely missed taking out the knee joint, but it came close enough. Crying out, he staggered to the side, going down on his freshly injured knee with a painful crack. Roseman took the chance; she rolled to her feet and sprinted out the door, favoring her injured leg. Tony fired, but the bullets didn't so much as graze her.
Steve struggled to his feet and took off after Roseman. By the time he made it to the door, she was already out of sight.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his phone and hit the speed dial, leaning against the doorway with leg cocked to keep the weight off his injury. He didn't wait for Danvers to finish saying what is it, Rogers before starting to speak. "Agent Roseman is a traitor. She just escaped Sector Seven with unknown stolen goods. You need to get ahold of whoever's in charge down here now."
"Roseman?" Danvers asked. "Are you— of course you're sure. Hold on." There was a sound like someone setting a phone down, and then the familiar noises of Danvers yelling at someone.
Behind him, Iron Man cursed loud and long. Steve twisted to see him pawing through the crate that both he and Roseman had both been so interested in. The man wasn't even bothering to hold a gun on Steve anymore, wholly absorbed in his search.
Something scraped across the receiver on the other end of the line, and someone else's voice came on the like—male, with an accent Steve couldn't place. "This is Director Fury of SHIELD, subdivision of Homeland Security. The Triskelion's locked tight; no one's getting in or out. What about Iron Man?"
"Iron Man is—" Something cracked into his temple. Steve cursed, knees buckling. His phone skittered away, coming to a stop against a shiny black shoe.
"Iron Man is still at large, thank you, Director Fury." The man in question grinned and nudged the phone with his toe. A small handgun sat in his hand, gripped by the barrel. "Sorry about this."
Before Steve could duck, the gun connected with his temple again. Pain flared, and then world went dark.
"Well, aren't you a trooper?"
Steve groaned as the voice rattled around in his head. Somewhere directly overhead was a light bright enough that it seeped in through his closed eyelids. His mattress was thin and crinkled at every little movement, and he could hear the muffled sounds of rubber-soled shoes squeaking on linoleum. The noise was accompanied by a chorus of beeps, murmurs and the crackle of an outdated intercom system.
It had been a long time since he'd last woken up in a hospital. Not long enough, though.
Rubbing at his eyes, he tried to push up in bed. Almost immediately, a pair of hands caught his shoulders and pushed him back down. "Easy," someone said—Fury, he thought, recognizing the voice from the phone. "Settle down, soldier. You'll pull out your needle and then we'll both be up shit creek."
He stopped fighting to sit up, peering around the room. Definitely a hospital—it smelled like one, too, all sharp antiseptics that made his nose hurt. Blinking seemed to help clear the blurriness from his eyes. It only made the fuzz in his head more obvious, though. He felt like his brain had been wrapped up in a straitjacket. "How long was I out?" Iron Man had cold cocked him, but he shouldn't have been unconscious that long. "Where am I? Where's Sam?"
"Not very long, and the infirmary unit on the Triskelion." It was hard to be sure with his eyesight as hazy as it was, but Steve thought he saw the man shift his weight uncomfortably. Against the soft green walls of the room, it reminded Steve oddly of seaweed. "We found Wilson tied up and unconscious in a storage unit. Romanoff got him. He's not too badly injured."
"Romanoff?" Steve asked, rolling the name around. "Who?"
"You knew her as Agent Roseman." The man patted Steve's arm, almost fatherly. He was a black man, shaved bald with a patch over one eye. Memory strained; he could have been the DHS rep that had pissed off Danvers six months before, but Steve hadn't seen the man up close. Still, eye patches weren't very common.
"And you?" The longer Steve was awake, the more he realized that someone must have slipped him something; probably a painkiller, going by the way his knee didn't throb as much as it should have. Everything was soft at the edges in a way that refocusing his eyes didn't even begin to help. It didn't feel like morphine—there was usually a specific sort of lassitude that came with opiates that he didn't really feel—but he wasn't sure what else it could be. Drugs generally didn't work well on him; it had caused complications before. "You're Director Fury?"
"Got it in one." Another pat, and really, Steve was going to say something career-ending if that kept happening. "Danvers asked me to look in on you. I figured I owe her one."
Or a dozen, Steve manfully didn't say. "My status?" he asked instead. "Head injury, I know. What else?"
"Concussion," Fury corrected, as if Steve couldn't have figured that out for himself. "No real information yet. So far they're estimating scrapes and bruises, mostly, but that left knee of yours is going to be a pain in the ass to get over. Docs are hoping you didn't bust up your cartilage."
Closing his eyes, Steve cursed silently. He'd spent his childhood with a bad right knee; it had taken too many years and surgeries to get it functional for him to take any injury to it easily. "Hoping?"
"Hoping." Fury's one good eye watched him like he might leap up and run down the hall. "You'll recover, though. Nothing looks too broken."
And at least that was a sort of relief. Temporary injury he could deal with. "Good. Good. And Iron Man?"
Fury's hesitation spoke for him, but it still felt like a shock to the system when he said, "Missing."
"Missing." Steve tried to put a question into his tone, but it didn't come out quite right. "How is he missing?"
"The usual way, I expect." Nudging Steve's good leg over, Fury perched himself on the edge of the hospital bed. It was about the same time that Steve noticed they'd cut the leg off his pants in order to get at his knee. The numb feeling from the drugs had made him miss that. At least he wasn't in one of those ass-less hospital gowns. "He and Romanoff can't have left the base yet, but we can't find any sign of them. I've got the whole place under lock and key and agents turning it upside down, but there isn't a computer system on board that hasn't been tampered with. We might find them, but I'm not counting on it until we've got them both behind bars."
Steve closed his eyes, and then had to fight to get them back open again. Maybe it was morphine. Would they give morphine to a concussion patient? He couldn't think clearly enough to remember if that was recommended or avoided. For a second time, he struggled to sit up. "I need to talk to Sam and whoever you have running security. Iron Man had to have inside help. He'll—"
"He'll be dealt with when he's caught." One hand was all Fury needed to keep Steve in place. He didn't even have to put any weight on it. "You're officially on medical leave until the docs have you cleared. Danvers' orders."
"I can't. Iron Man—"
"This isn't up for discussion." Fury fixed him with a look Steve recognized from his army days. "You did better than an island full of some of the best the US government has to offer. That's an earned break if anything is."
"I don't need a break," Steve insisted weakly. Lost causes were something he'd never learned to accept, but with his head floating three feet above and six feet to the left, it was hard to really work up any vehemence. "I need to catch Iron Man. And God knows what Romanoff made off with. At least tell me you're contacting Stark's lawyer to get a manifesto."
Immediately, Fury scowled, which was at least a familiar expression. "What kind of idiot do you think I am?"
Steve shook his head, ignoring the way it made his stomach turn. He really hated being drugged. "Don't know, Director. We only just met."
There was a moment of silence. Steve's eyes started to slip closed before Fury laughed and said, "Fair point."
It wasn't his best, but Steve glared a little. "Yeah, it is."
Fury patted his chest and stood. His boots rang on the linoleum as he crossed to the door—they sounded like they were steel toed, with actual nails in the soles that made them tap crisply on the floor. Steve focused on the sound, as something to keep himself at least a little alert. "Get some rest, Rogers. If we catch either of the bogeys, you'll be at the front of the line to know."
It wasn't what he wanted, but it would have to do. "And Sam. He's been in this as deep as I am."
He got a nod that was fuzzed around the edges with sleep and meds. "And Sam."
The Triskelion was locked down for twelve hours; according to Fury, it was the most they were allowed for fear of setting the media off on one of their witch-hunts. In the end, it didn't make a difference, anyway. Romanoff and Iron Man were long gone.
Sam perched on the end of Steve's hospital bed, legs folded to create a blank space between them. Romanoff had done a number on his nose, but most of the other wounds were superficial. SHIELD had provided them each with a set of scrubs; Steve tried to be grateful for the little things, since it was pretty obvious they weren't going to get any other favors. Like, for example, a quick ticket back to active duty.
"No video." Sam tossed an index card onto the space between them, each one labeled with their notes. There weren't nearly as many as Steve would have liked. "No audio. No witnesses to the switch. And all prints registered to Dr. Gregory Stark."
"No evidence that the man we arrested was ever anyone but the same," Steve added, watching the final card fall. Laid out, it was painfully obvious that they had nothing that could go to court. They barely had anything to prove a crime even happened. "He looked just like him, but I know the man I spoke to wasn't Gregory Stark. Or at least, the man who committed the crime wasn't."
"I know." Sam's fingers feathered over their index cards. "But there's only your word for it, and I don't think Director Fury's going to be happy to let word get out that his agency got duped so thoroughly."
"His agency that doesn't technically exist," Steve reminded him.
All he got in answer was a shrug. "Someone's got to take the fall for it, so it's bad press either way."
Bad press. Politics. Steve had never been good at that part of things. It was one of the many reasons he never aspired to move too high up the ladder. Keep him in the field, doing his work and chasing down suspects. Other people could make nice over cocktails and committee meetings.
Neither one of them said what next. They both technically knew what was supposed to come next: bed rest, and lots of it. Eventually, Fury would have to release them from the Triskelion's medbay, and they'd be expected to go home and twiddle their thumbs. That had been made more than clear by Director Fury. They weren't going back to work until Steve's knee was healed. If that happened to be after this mess quieted down, it would be all for the better.
But in the meantime, Iron Man was on the loose. Worse, so was Romanoff. Without knowing what she'd stolen, it was hard to be sure, but Steve's instincts told him that she was the bigger quarry. No one was going to get that deep undercover right under the government's nose without having one hell of a reason.
There were other agents who would take over, but they weren't people who had been chasing Stark for years. They wouldn't know where to start, wouldn't know the leads or which questions to ask—not like he and Sam did. But they were going to be forced on leave.
An idea tickled the back of Steve's mind as he stared down at their web of notes. Reaching out, he tapped the central card: Dr. Gregory Stark. "He's got a brother, doesn't he? Anyone ever follow up on that?"
So quick Steve nearly missed it, the corner of Sam's mouth quirked up. "Giacalone did, I think," he said, keeping his eyes on the cards. "Guy's laid up in in a nursing home waiting to die. Man with cancer, no one wants to go bother him too much. That'd be cruel."
"But maybe he wouldn't mind some visitors. Since we'll have free time anyway. Bring some flowers, brighten up his day, that sort of thing."
There was no hiding Sam's grin, though he tried. "Sounds like a plan."
It was one of those spring days that made it seem like summer was just around the bend. Grass had started to dust the carefully designed rolling landscape with a faint tint of green, and the trees had developed tiny buds on their branches. A set of gardeners were doing something esoteric with mulch to some bushes around the sign out front. To Steve's eye, it looked peaceful. It also looked expensive. Sunvale was the kind of place that laughed in the face of Medicaid. If any of its residents brought in less than seven figures annually, it was probably for the sake of publicity.
Steve took the place in as he pulled himself from the taxi, left leg held at an awkward angle. The crutches he had to use while his knee healed cracked against his shins; he hadn't gotten the hang of maneuvering them yet. It had been years since he'd needed help walking, and back then he'd used a cane.
Sam met him at the sidewalk out front, looking oddly comfortable in his jeans, button-down shirt and running shoes. Next to him, Steve felt overdressed in his slacks and sweater, while simultaneously fighting the feeling that he should have been in a tie and jacket. He'd been wearing them to work in so long they practically felt like a uniform.
Face creased with a worried smile, Sam rocked back on his heels and shoved his hands in his back pockets as he waited for Steve to make his way up. The wound at his temple where Romanoff had cracked him over the head was nearly invisible. "You're looking good. How's the knee healing?"
"Not fast enough."
They took the long, winding ramp up to the main building, keeping to one side for wheelchairs. A few passed, propelled by people in matching scrubs who had somehow avoided the cotton-candy perkiness that Steve usually associated with care facilities. Apparently Sunvale didn't try to be coy about the fact that it was primarily a place for people to finish dying.
About halfway up, Sam stretched his legs enough to catch up to Steve. "Did you call ahead?" he asked, sounding as if he'd just thought of it.
Steve snorted. "And warn them? You know better."
The angle was bad, but Steve was able to twist enough to catch the edge of Sam's grin. "One day, you'll make a mistake, and that pizza from Jenny's will be mine."
Cool air washed over them as the sliding glass doors slid open. "Not today, it won't."
Inside the reception area, it was just as blandly cheerful as Steve could have expected. The walls were a gentle, mossy green, and the carpet had a gold and green pattern that would probably make it easy to hide most stains. Pictures of smiling residents—or actors—and their families adorned the walls in actual wood picture frames. Only the lighting was out of place, made up of the sort of harsh fluorescents that were part of every health institution ever.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" A tall Asian woman—early thirties, by Steve's estimate, but maybe even a young-looking forty—looked up from behind the main desk with a professional smile. She had on a plain gray suit that seemed designed to be exactly as unremarkable as the rest of the room. There were even pearl earrings involved. Steve hadn't seen a woman in pearls since his mother passed away. The nameplate on her desk said her name was Miki.
"We're here to see a Mr. Stark," Steve said, and immediately the woman's face closed down.
She didn't even make a show of checking the computer in front of her. "I'm sorry, he's not accepting visitors."
At Steve's shoulder, Sam tensed, but Steve contrived to keep smiling. "Are you sure? A friend of his asked us to stop by." Miki's expression didn't change, and Steve raised his eyebrows hopefully. Hail Mary play. "Tony? Maybe you've met him."
Quickly, her eyes darted to something at the corner of the desk, then back. For a moment, her lips pursed, and Steve thought they might have to pull their badges. Then, all at once, the tension dropped from her shoulders. "I suppose you're happy, then?"
Call sign, or something else? No way to know, so Steve nodded and hoped he was right. "Yeah."
Miki nodded to herself and rummaged around in the desk, eventually coming up with two visitors badges. She slid them across the desk with the air of someone doing a job she wasn't really sure she liked. "Room 142. I didn't see you, you weren't here."
If Steve hadn't already suspected something was up, that would have clenched it. He'd have thought that whoever was behind it all would pay better actors, but maybe it was tough buying off a whole nursing home.
Sam retrieved the badges for them, clipping Steve's on his collar and his one to his breast pocket. They nodded at Miki, who ignored them thoroughly, and let themselves out through the only non-outdoors exit.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the place mirrors the front room. Residents gathered in the halls and little-rooms, where televisions and card tables had been set up for them. For all the pretty portraits and soft colors, it smelled like antiseptic and unwashed bedpans. Wheels squeaked over the wheelchair-friendly carpet. Residents were trailed by IV tubes as orderlies helped them through the halls. Sunvale supposedly housed gardens, a lake and other features, but mostly it looked like every other end-of-life facility Steve knew of.
Which had been his first hint that something was amiss with the younger Mr. Stark. Places like Sunvale weren't nursing homes; they didn't have long term residents, and Stark had supposedly been there for years.
Room 142 was in a quiet corner of the main building. Judging by the look of the rooms around it, it had the entire hall to itself, practically. A nurse watched them from the desk as they approached, but didn't ask any questions and didn't try to stop them as they let themselves in.
It looked more like a high-end hotel suite than a hospital room. The bed was done up with an abundance of pillows and matching quilts. Tastefully plush furniture that matched the decor formed a sitting area arranged around the bed. A flat screen hung on the wall, set to be visible from nearly anywhere in the room. There was even a small microwave. If it weren't for the medical equipment, IV stand and rails on the bed, it might have been the perfect illusion.
The dark-haired man in the bed had the same look about him. His pajamas had a Dolce and Gabbana logo, and Steve was pretty sure there was at least three carats of diamond in the watch on his left wrist. But he was pale, thin and tired-looking, with the worn look that sometimes came with long-term illness. When he muted the television and set the remote aside, his hand trembled.
"Can I help you, gentlemen?" Red-shot brown eyes peered at them myopically.
Steve lowered himself to the well-padded arm of a sofa, keeping his crutches in one hand. "My name's Steve. This is Sam. We thought you could use some company. You're Antonio Stark?"
"Yes, I am. Who are you? Who sent you?" Deep lines formed in the man's face as he frowned. The bed groaned as he pressed the button to sit up straighter. "They're not supposed to allow strangers through."
Sam took the spot next to Steve, sitting on the sofa itself. "We're not strangers then, are we?"
"That remains to be seen." Long, thin fingers laced together as Antonio watched them for a second. Steve was reminded of the way his father used to watch him, when he'd thought Steve was lying about something but didn't have any evidence. Antonio looked close to what his father's age would have been, other than his silver-free hair; the records said he and Steve should have been the same age. "You boys aren't here for a casual visit."
"No, sir, we're not." Pain started to grow in Steve's knee, a gentle ache that promised to turn into something much worse. Carefully, he eased his leg out to take a little pressure off the joint. There really wasn't a good way to sit anymore, and wouldn't be until it had healed a little. "I'm sorry to have to bring up a sensitive subject, but when was the last time you spoke to your brother?"
Antonio watched Steve adjust his position with a look of pained recognition. Then his eyes rose to meet Steve's with a polite, "My brother?"
"Gregory Stark?" Steve raised his eyebrows expectantly. "When did you speak to him last?"
There was a moment of hesitation, a tension in the air. Then Antonio shrugged. "We're not close, as you likely know. I couldn't say when we last spoke, it's been so long."
"No birthdays, holidays, weddings?"
"No." Antonio blinked and squinted at them for a moment, the lines at his mouth drawing tight. "I'm tired, and it's almost time for my midday treatment. I think you boys should come back with your badges next time, for honesty's sake."
The moment froze in an awkward pause. Steve and Sam glanced at each other, wearing identical expression of chagrin.
With a soft sound of amusement, Antonio smiled. It crinkled the lines in his face more than his supposed thirty-something years could account for, but his health probably made up the difference. He reached for the remote control, flipping off the mute. The voice of a baseball announcer cracked through the previously silent room, too loud and brash. "You can see yourselves out, officers."
They did exactly that. There wasn't much else they could do. Without a warrant, there was no way to force the man to give them answers, and Steve doubted Danvers would be interested in pulling a warrant on a man dying of cancer.
Neither of them said anything until they were back in the bright sunlight outside. Steve leaned against a rail to take some extra weight off his knee. "Could be fraternal twins."
Traffic noises had picked up in the distance as the day got along, but it was still the far distance. Sunvale must have paid a fortune to have that much space so close to the Big Apple. Even the outskirts were expensive.
"Could be," Sam agreed after a while, taking the spot next to Steve. The overhang kept them in just enough shadow that the sun wasn't in their eyes. "Illness changes a man, too. Some medications can even change eye color. Weight loss, hair loss..." He shrugged. "You know how it is."
"So you think he's not Antonio Stark, too."
Relief curled through Steve when Sam flashed a grin at him. "I wouldn't bet a hot dime on it. Not sure what we can do about it, though. We're on leave."
"Gives us a place to start. Better than nothing." It was good not to be chasing a crackpot theory alone. If Sam thought it was worth looking into, then it couldn't be all that harebrained.
The question was: why would Antonio Stark, a billionaire in his own right, be off playing art thief while another man was his body double in a nursing unit?
No, that was wrong: there were a lot more questions than that. Why take on such a risky heist as stealing his own brother's things from the depths of a high security location? How did he know Romanoff—and how did Romanoff slip DHS's defenses so thoroughly? What had he been after? What had she been after?
And maybe, most importantly, what came next?
Tony's fingers danced over the keyboard, tapping their way through servers the way an artist drew his brush across the canvas. Crowds jammed the concrete sidewalk as they scuttled by, just beyond the reach of the short fence that separated them from the cafe's patrons. It was a lovely day, warm everywhere the sunshine touched, and people were out enjoying it. Which, of course, made it the perfect day to accomplish a few errands. One thing Tony had learned in his thus far successful career was to never turn down anonymous Wi-Fi.
Of course, he wasn't the only person who'd learned that lesson. His phone buzzed, unknown name, unknown number flashing across the screen like an indictment. Eyebrows rising, he tapped answer. "Yes?"
Ah, it was going to be one of those sorts of days. Tony smiled to himself and stirred his latte, cradling the phone to his ear as he twisted, eyes scanning the crowd. "Tasha, darling, it's so nice to hear from you again. How's business? Does Pavlya still make those delightful snicker doodles?"
Around him, other coffee lovers went about their business, providing easy cover as he hijacked their Wi-Fi to finish covering a few messy tracks. And, hopefully, to track down one very annoying loose end. Or maybe she was a stiletto in his side. He'd never think of Natasha as anything so prosaic as a thorn.
Since no one was obviously watching, so Tony turned back to his laptop, tapping in the protocols to trace the call. He strained to listen, but there weren't any actually identifiable background noise or voices. That would have been a beginner's mistake, anyway, but it never hurt to check all bases.
"How did you know what I was there for?" Natasha snapped from the other end of her masked connection. She sounded about three seconds from outright growling.
That was the frustrated voice Tony craved. "You sound riled up, sweetheart," he purred. "Don't tell me that I've finally gotten under your skin after all these years."
Though there was no real way to be certain, he liked to imagine her teeth were grinding. When she spoke, though, Natasha's voice was syrupy sweet. "You used to like it when I got under your skin."
"Attempted murder tends to take the shine off some things."
"Or maybe it adds spice." She snorted, and he took comfort in the fact that she at least seemed to recognize how obvious her own bullshit was. "I just want to know how you knew what I was there for. If there's a leak..."
As if he would hand her a leak, even if he did have some sort of inside information. Regardless of what certain proverbs intimated, Tony liked to pretend he had a veneer of honor at least. "If you must know, I guessed. There's not much that a woman of your... caliber could be after in a place like that." Keeping on hand at the keyboard, he reached into his case to extract a cord to connect to his phone. It took a bit of juggling to make the link without alerting Natasha, but he managed it. "You don't play the roulette wheel, darling. One of these days, you're going to lose more than your shirt."
"You know nothing of what I stand to lose."
"I have my resources."
Natasha took a short, sharp breath between her teeth. "What do you want for it?"
"For what?" The code on the screen scrolled through, cross-referencing the incoming signal. It had narrowed her location down to the USA. Bravo, he thought. The search wasn't nearly fast enough, but there was only so much a public connection could offer.
"Don't play games, Tony. You know what."
"What do you think I want?" he asked, tapping his fingers impatiently as the section narrowed down to the west coast. The tension in his shoulders eased a little, but only a little. Just because Natasha wasn't in New York didn't mean he was safe. "I'm not precisely a man who finds himself with any great lacking. I suppose the greater question is, what do you have to offer?"
On the other end of the connection, something made a hollow cracking sound—much like cheap drywall when something heavy was thrown at it. "You know there is much more I can do than ask politely. Don't push me on this, Tony."
Northern California. "You'll have to give me time to think. I didn't expect you to ask," Tony reminded her, mostly truthfully. "Your usual modus operandi would be to march in and steal it."
"Believe me, that is still an option." Natasha made an annoyed noise, somewhere between a sigh and a growl. "You have three days. Then we will do this the hard way."
The line clicked to a close, and the search program beeped its error. Frowning, Tony tapped his finger against the back of his phone. Northern California was better than it could have been, but remarkably useless, even with Tony's network. And no doubt Natasha would be on the move. She wouldn't leave something as apparently important as the other half of the blueprints to hired help.
Tony might have preferred the hired help. At least those could usually be bribed if all else failed. Which was no doubt precisely why she would take care of things on her own. Natasha was nothing if not capable.
"Well, old friend," he told his laptop, "it looks like we have some work to do."
There was a cell phone in Steve's mailbox.
It was one of the cheap pay-as-you-go, no-contract ones that could be picked up in any major retailer and a good portion of gas stations around the country. They were the FBI's bane in a lot of ways, since they made it a hundred times more difficult to track people.
Steve did a quick check to be sure it wasn't rigged to explode—a surprisingly easy trick with cell phone batteries—before pocketing it along with his mail. He tried to forget the weight of it in his pocket as he limped his way back to his apartment. It bounced against his hip, heavy for such a little thing, taunting. Once home, he set everything down on the breakfast counter and pulled out a can of split pea soup. The process of heating it and making a grilled cheese sandwich to go with it gave him space to think. Or, more accurately, to not think. If he thought too hard, conspiracy theories would start to pop up. He needed to assess.
He should probably call Sam before doing anything else. They were partners, and had been in the field together for so long that they barely needed to speak sometimes. More importantly, they were friends. Sam wouldn't appreciate being left out of the loop, especially after Romanoff had walloped him on the Triskelion.
But that was the part Steve couldn't forget—the bruise on Sam's face, the way he'd looked shaken and tired in the medbay, how he held himself so he wouldn't put pressure on his injuries. They'd both been hurt before—it was in the job description, along with a ridiculously high insurance premium—but for a while there Steve had worried that Sam was worse than injured. Whatever he could do to put off having to face that down wouldn't do anything for their partnership, but it would do a hell of a lot for Steve's peace of mind.
The sandwich came out a little burned, and the soup was saltier than he really liked. Steve made a face at them as he sat down on a stool at the counter to stare at the seemingly innocuous cell phone. He thought, briefly, about checking it for prints. It would have been the proper thing to do. The officially condoned procedure. Knowing that, he still reached out to press the power button. Bright, cheery music sounded, accompanied by the service provider's logo flashing across the screen.
As could only be expected with a cheap piece of junk, it took forever to finish loading, and then even longer to connect to the network. It was surprisingly clean: no voice mail, no text message, not even a free game loaded. The contacts held only one number, under the name Anon E. Mouse.
Steve rolled his eyes, swirling his spoon in his soup so it sloshed up around the edges. "Subtle," he told the phone. He supposed there was no reason to be subtle anymore, though. Iron Man—or Antonio Stark, as he was increasingly certain of—didn't have any reason to play coy these days.
Not that it had ever stopped him before.
He made himself eat half the sandwich and some of the soup before finally giving in and punching dial. The number that went across the screen was obviously fake, but he noted it anyway.
A gentle, pushy sort of guilt nagged at him as the call rang through. He should tell Sam, he knew. And he would. After. It was just a phone call. What harm could it do?
The phone picked up after the third ring. "Agent Rogers," Iron Man—he wouldn't think of him as Antonio, wouldn't risk slipping up and tipping his hand yet—said cheerfully, sounding for all the world as if Steve were an old friend he was happy to catch up with. "Such a pleasure to hear from you, of course. How's dear Agent Wilson? Recovering, I hope."
Steve tapped his spoon against the edge of his bowl, making the ceramic ring. "He's fine. What do you want?"
There was a soft sound of hurt. "Not one for pleasantries, I take it?"
"Cut the crap," Steve growled into the receiver, hoping he sounded intimidating. He'd always done much better with body language than words, but it was worth a shot. "You went through an awful lot of trouble to get in contact with me, so you'd better make me figure out why I shouldn't just call the department and have someone come by with an evidence bag."
"Because it would be a waste of your time, and you know it." The playful tone dropped from Iron Man's voice. That was good. It felt less like talking to some hotshot playboy with more money than sense. Steve had never really gotten along with those types. "I don't leave easy tracks to follow. You work with me, and maybe I'll slip up, but you'll never get anywhere playing catch-up."
He was right. Steve cursed silently, glaring down at the softly congealing cheese that had leaked from his sandwich. "Then we get back to my first question. What do you want from me?"
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Somewhere in the background, Steve thought he heard someone clear their voice pointedly, but it was far enough away that he could have been mistaken. As with many things involving Iron Man, Steve wasn't willing to make a bet on it.
"Well?" he pushed, when the silence looked like it was going to stretch on. His toes tapped against the rungs of the stool, beating out the melody of a song that had been playing in the back of his head for a few days. It was one of those pop songs that went around, catchy enough that everyone knew the chorus and annoying enough that it became an earworm. "I don't have all day."
Iron Man sighed loudly into the receiver. "I'm in trouble," he said dramatically.
Steve laughed, just because he could, and because it would push Iron Man's buttons. "You're definitely in trouble if I catch up to you. Be more specific." He took a bite out of his cooled sandwich.
It was a shame the man was a thief. Talking to him was almost fun. Steve could have pictured them being friends, in another life. He had a feeling Iron Man would have been a good agent. Or at least, he could have done good things as an agent, which wasn't always the same thing.
"Ruin my fun," Iron Man grumbled, clearly annoyed at the way Steve wouldn't play his games. "Fine. Romanoff contacted me."
This time, the silence was on Steve's part. He finished chewing and carefully swallowed, then pushed the rest of his meal away. The bruising on Sam's face flashed to the front of his mind, in livid, painful detail. "What does she want?"
"Apparently the blueprints she took from that vault were incomplete. She wants the other half, but she'll probably settle for my balls in a vise."
"And you have the prints?"
"She seems to think so. I didn't think it wise to correct her."
If Steve had the whole department behind him, it would have been easy. Or as easy as a bait and switch operation ever was. Which meant that there had to be a catch. "And what do you want me to do?" he asked, stretching his knee out before it got too stiff. It tugged and clicked with that special sort of pain that came from a healing injury.
"Arrest her, jail her, whatever it is you people do to internationally wanted fugitives." The words themselves were flippant, but there was a tightness to Iron Man's voice that gave him away. He was afraid. Which, considering how little he'd seemed to care for his own safety on the Triskelion, was saying something. "You help me with this and she's all yours, along with the blueprints and whatever else she picked up from that vault. You'll be a hero, and maybe next time the budget gets cut the FBI will have some leverage."
"Out of the goodness of your heart?" Steve snorted. "Try again."
"I think it's obvious why I need her put away," Iron Man said, still affecting that lightness that was so obviously a lie it was almost pathetic. "All I'm asking is that you let me help you do your job."
It still sounded too good. There was something nagging at him. The whole situation scraped his nerves. Nothing about it set well with his instincts, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Plea bargains were practically part of the gospel of the justice system. What Iron Man was offering was just a less official version of the same.
Maybe that was the problem. "You realize she's just going to turn evidence on you, don't you?" he asked. "She knows who you are. She'll try and turn evidence."
"Let's burn that bridge when we cross it, shall we?" He swallowed, the noise surprisingly loud over the questionable connection. "Look, Rog— Steve. I know I'm a pretty big fish in the FBI's pond, but she's not a fish. She's a shark, and whatever she's up to is going to have serious consequences for someone if we don't stop it. Definitely for me and my operation once she realizes I don't have what she wants. Help me."
Steve stared at the far wall, turning the matter over in his head. It reeked of bad ideas, but... "How much time do we have?"
Shit. The FBI had a lot of advantages, but in the end it was a slave to red tape just like any other government agency. Three days might have been enough to set up a sting, but it wasn't enough time for a double-cross. Take it or leave it. The big fish he'd spent the last few years of his life chasing, or...
"Alright," Steve said. His fingers dug into the phone hard enough that the cheap plastic creaked threateningly. "Let me make some calls, I'll see what I can—"
"I can't do that."
Iron Man let loose a sharp grunt of frustration. "Romanoff infiltrated SHIELD, an agency so classified it doesn't technically exist," he snapped, voice getting clipped and harsh, the usually rounded consonants growing edges. "Do you really think she doesn't have connections in the FBI?"
"Then how do you know you can trust me?"
He paused, breathing heavier than before, and then said, "Call it a hunch."
Bad deal, dangerous, stupid. "Fine. But we do this by my rules, and the second I think you're screwing around it's off."
Steve could hear the smile in Iron Man's voice as he said, "Deal."
Sam was going to kill him for this.
"This is a terrible idea."
Tony rolled his eyes at Pepper as she helped him shrug on the Kevlar vest. It wasn't the best in the world—headshots were a thing of concern, unfortunately—but for what it was it would do the job. He hoped. "I know."
"No, I really don't think you do." Steady hands closed the clasps, adjusted the fit, made sure everything was smooth and would stay hidden. Pepper's hair was redder than usual, still showing traces of brown where they hadn't quite been able to get the dye out. Vicki Peters was going to leave a mark, one way or another. "He's going to arrest you when this is over. There's nothing stopping him. And then once you're gone, what are we supposed to do?"
One of her tugs was a little too hard to be honest. Tony turned and caught her shoulders with a little shake. "You're supposed to trust me. I won't get arrested. I'm too pretty to rot in jail."
She made a face and shook her head, but a smile tugged the corner of her mouth. "You'd better not. I'd hate to land in prison for bungling a breakout."
"Orange is a terrible color on you."
"Tell me about it."
Tony gave her shoulders one more awkward pat. He didn't know what he'd do without her. Didn't, in fact, know how he'd managed while she was away for the months it took to set up the Triskelion heist. The seat of his pants and a hell of a lot of kisses from Lady Luck, he suspected. "It won't come to that. Now come on, Happy should be done picking out my toys for the evening."
Happy had, in fact, finished selecting Tony's equipment. It wasn't much, and none of it was lethal, which was for the best. Natasha was a hundred times better with any weapon she could get her hands on than he was with his favorite handgun, and Tony wasn't ashamed to admit it. Anything he brought along might as well be wrapped in a bow and given to her upfront for all the good it would do. No, he was best left playing to his talents.
And since one of his talents was getting in over his head in a dramatic fashion, he had called for help.
Happy and Pepper dropped him off on an empty street in a part of town best described from a distance. The sun had just started to set behind a thin cover of clouds, casting everything in orange and red, puddles from the rain earlier that day looking like little pools of gold.
"We'll be listening," Pepper reminded him for the fifth time as Happy pulled the car pulled to a stop. "Say the word and we'll have you out of there, one way or another."
"I know, Pep." Tony patted her knee before popping the door. "I'll sing out if I need you."
For the first time since they'd gotten in the car, Happy spoke. "No you won't."
"Maybe I'll surprise you," Tony grinned, then finished slipping out before they could keep nattering at him. Half employees, half partners, all friends. He really didn't know what he'd done to deserve them most days.
The car drove off to find a quiet parking spot nearby, where Tony hoped against all probability they'd wait out the night in boredom. He shouldered his bag and flipped up the hood on his sweater, fingers running down the wiring installed in the seam. Nothing seemed to be poking out. "Ms. Copper, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, Iron," came Pepper's answer from the piece hidden in his ear.
Stuffing his hands in the front pocket, he ducked his head and started to walk. The meeting place was about five blocks off, far enough that it was unlikely anyone would have seen him be dropped off. Not that he didn't trust Rogers, but the man was a Fed. "Good signal. Radio silence until I say."
"Roger that. Copper and Gold out."
No one bothered him as he trudged down the street. Tony kept his eyes peeled for signs of surveillance, but there didn't seem to be any. No suspiciously parked cars, or suspiciously clean vans. That didn't mean there wasn't someone set up in an apartment window, or a conveniently placed camera, but it was something. There was only so much even the FBI could do without leaving visible clues.
By the time he arrived in the designated meeting spot, the sun was mostly set. Gold had turned into shadows, and comforting shade to darkness. The alley was one of those winding things that occurred in old, northeastern cities, all narrow angles and no obvious exit. Decades of construction and demolition combined with the casual messiness of humanity to make it a cross between a maze and a death trap. Which made it perfect for clandestine affairs, really. Almost cliche-ly so. His footsteps even echoed; the acoustics were worthy of an amphitheater.
Tony paused about halfway down, looking around for Rogers or, barring that, a hiding place to wait in. There were an unfortunate number of the latter.
It turned out to be moot. His agent melted out of a pool of shadows between a fire escape and an odd out thrust of brick. Tony chided himself for having missed him. A dark turtleneck and jacket had helped him hide, but his face and hair should have stood out like beacons. "You're late."
"No, you're just early," Tony said, smiling slightly. "How's the knee, Agent Rogers?"
"Recovering, Mr. Stark." He waited a beat for the words to sink in, clearly expecting some sort of shock.
Tony snorted, but couldn't keep from grinning. "Nice try. I can neither confirm nor deny my identity while you're almost definitely wired, and you knew I wouldn't so I'm not even sure why you bothered."
Deliciously broad shoulders rolled in a shrug. "Can't blame a man for trying. Can I call you Antonio anyway?" Rogers asked, shoving his hands in his pockets. There was a wide-eyed innocence to his expression that Tony wasn't buying for a minute, but it looked cute. "It rolls off the tongue easier than Iron Man. Less pretentious."
"You know, I still don't know how the press got their hands on that bit of code," he mused aloud, watching amusement and annoyance do battle for control of Rogers' face. It was a damned handsome face, which only added value to the show. "Sell outs everywhere, I suppose. You may as well call me Tony, if we're worried about how things feel on the tongue. You might have to scream it tonight, after all."
Amusement came out the winner by way of a smile. Rogers, Tony decided, should definitely do more of that. "If you say so. Now, do you want to let me in on the plan, or are we just going to fly by the seat of our pants on this?"
"A little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. But first..." He pressed easily into Rogers' personal bubble, palms sliding down his stomach and hips. Predictably, Rogers shied back.
Grinning, Tony slipped his hand into Rogers' pockets. Denim hugged his body tight enough that it took some wiggling to get Tony's hands in there. "I know you're wired, Rogers," he murmured, nose brushing up under a jaw that could have been used to cut ancient proclamations onto stone tablets. "You didn't think I wouldn't search you, did you?"
Rogers swallowed, the sensation a faint roll of muscle where Tony's cheek touched his neck. "I hoped you would trust me."
In the back left pocket, Tony's fingers closed around something the size and shape of a penny. When he pulled it up, it turned out to be an old fashioned tracking device. He dropped it into a puddle, then stepped on it for good measure. "Trust is for law abiding citizens, children and pets. Not me or you."
He didn't get a response, but Tony wasn't really expecting one. Rogers didn't fight as he finished a quick pat down, though he did made a noise of annoyance when Tony found the recording device hidden to the front of his pants. It was only about the size of credit card, and had been taped to the skin of his lower abdomen well under where underwear would normally start had there been any. Which meant the rest of it was all Rogers.
"Are we done here?" Rogers finally demanded, shoving his sweater down to once again cover the body armor that had been hiding under it. "I could just leave you to do this yourself, you know."
"No you couldn't." Tony slid down to the ground, running his fingers over Roger's ankles, then lifting his feet to make sure his sneakers didn't have any more tracking devices embedded.
Satisfied with his findings, Tony rose up and hooked his arm through Rogers' to tug him into a walk. The brief exposure necessitated by the search left his fingers chilled from the breeze that played down the alley. Then again, he got cold easily these days. "We're meeting our contact at Steeling's Warehouse. Hypothetically, I'll give her false blueprints and we'll go from there."
"And you think that's the way it'll go down?" Disbelief gave Rogers' voice weight, as if he needed the help. He already had one of those voices that made the militarily inclined stand up and salute on instinct. Adding more to it was just overkill.
It was probably amazing to hear in bed, though. A small part of Tony mourned that he'd probably never get a chance to hear it there.
"Not a chance," Tony admitted breezily. "Realistically, she'll shoot first and pillage my body. We just have to make sure she doesn't shoot anything vital." Gently, he nudged Rogers' side, where his elbow kept brushing up against the Kevlar. "Which I do believe you've prepared for."
"It won't block a headshot," Rogers said grimly, echoing Tony's own thoughts from before.
Tony patted the arm in his and tried to enjoy the moment; Rogers was a block of heat against his side, and it wasn't often he got to walk arm in arm with such a delicious specimen of humanity. Besides, a man never knew when a moment would never come again. "We'll just have to not get shot then, won't we?"
Not the most comforting thing he could have said, but often times the truth wasn't.
"I'm going to kill you for this."
Steve ignored Sam's grumbling in his ear. The two-way insert did double duty for sending/receiving, and had probably been "borrowed" from the office. There'd be hell to pay, but it was tiny enough that Tony's little TSA impersonation had missed it, which was the important thing. If a skilled thief didn't notice it when he was up close and personal with Steve, then someone farther away didn't stand a chance. It did, however, give Sam free rein to let five years of built-up annoyance free. Apparently there was a lot of it. It had gotten considerably less amusing when Tony had gotten handsy. Laughter had been the kindest part.
He was starting to regret bringing Sam into the whole thing.
Not really, though. There was simply no way he could have done this without backup of some sort. Tony had a point about the FBI almost certainly having been infiltrated, or at least under watch, but Sam was Sam. Steve would rather go in without his right arm than without his partner.
Even if he was never going to hear the end of this.
Steeling's was one of the few places in that part of town that had survived the recession. It did big business in electronics, especially the sort that were used by the military. It was a typical warehouse—big enough to get lost in, and full enough of things to hide behind. If someone could get in after hours, it was pretty much the perfect place for just about anything nefarious, from an illegal poker game all the way up to murder.
They approached it from the back, keeping their heads low and their bodies tucked as close to the shadows as they could. A dumpster offered reasonable cover as they scoped out the place. Steve tried to ignore the way his knee ached from so much stealthy movement, combined with the cold. He'd put a brace on it, but he hadn't dared risk anything for the pain. His head needed to be clear for whatever trouble he got into.
And there was bound to be trouble.
Four armed guards patrolled the perimeter that they could see. Steve was willing to bet that none of them were actually legally employed by warehouse; places like Steeling's tended to prefer off-duty cops to loaded down mercenary types. The guards stayed close to the area lit up by floodlights, not making the mistake of venturing out into the shadows. On one hand, that was good—their night vision was going to be terrible, and Steve could work with that. On the other hand, it meant that there wouldn't be any chance to pick them off.
Sam had gone quiet. Steve wondered if he'd hit the mute button so that his complaints wouldn't distract Steve at a crucial moment, or if he'd just run out of things to say. There was really no telling.
At Steve's side, Tony was unnaturally still, staring at the ground to preserve his vision. Leaning into Steve's space, he asked, "You wouldn't let me die a brutal and vicious death at the hands of my ex, would you?" His voice was a soft murmur, almost lost in the noises of the city around them. "You're supposed to be a good guy."
Steve's lips pressed together. In his ear, he heard Sam's breath catch. "What are you thinking of?"
"Keeping an appointment." Tony's hand settled on Steve's thigh, giving it a squeeze. "Watch my back." In a blink, Tony had scuttled off, slipping around the metal hulk of the dumpster and vanishing into the night.
"He's not coming back." Tension vibrated in Sam's voice. "Abort mission."
"Not yet. Give me five minutes," Steve hissed, as quietly as he could, settling back to stretch out his aching leg. Tony was a thief, but he wasn't stupid. He would have known damn well exactly how dangerous it was going to be, and if he'd decided to go in it was because the odds were better facing it down than running. Jumping ship halfway through could only combine the downsides of both with absolutely no upside. Tony would have to know that, right?
Sam made a frustrated noise, but he didn't argue. That was probably more of a testament to Steve's stubbornness than any faith Sam had in Tony's plan.
Three minutes into the clock, there was a commotion on the other side of the building, the sounds of a scuffle and voices rising in alarm. The guards looked at each other nervously. Unfortunately for Steve, they were too well-trained to abandon their posts.
"I'll be damned. Iron Man's approached from the front," Sam reported briskly. "There was a minor altercation, and now he's being searched. I can't see any details from my location, but he looks unharmed."
Steve cursed silently. So much for Tony not being stupid.
"Now he's being escorted inside the building. I've lost visual."
One of the guards reached for the radio attached to his belt. There was a brief discussion, then two of them peeled off from their posts to head inside. Steve weighed the benefits of taking down the remaining two, and then shook his head. The odds of taking them both out without alerting anyone was just too low.
Creeping back, Steve edged away from the back entrance. He'd just have to find another way in.
Predictably, the front and back entrances were guarded, and the few windows that existed were high-up and barred. Steve circled the building once to be certain of his lack of options, well aware that there was a clock ticking on Tony's life. "Sam, you got any ideas?"
There was a worrying, ten second silence before Sam replied, "There's a man stationed on the roof."
Guards at the entrances. If there was one on the roof... He could manage one man, especially if that man was on the most boring sort of duty imaginable and unsuspecting. They'd be slow, relaxed as anyone could be. It was a chance. "Can't hurt to try."
"Yes it will."
Steve didn't bother dignifying that with a response.
He found a side of the building with no entrances and therefore nothing to be protected. The warehouse was made of old, pitted concrete blocks held together with mortar so soft that it was probably some sort of building code violation. Even so, it didn't offer much by way of handholds until about two feet over his head, where a small window provided a ledge that could, in theory, be clung to.
His knee twinged just thinking about it.
There was room enough to get a few feet of run-up, and then it was nothing but mad scrambling to keep his momentum going. The window ledge led to a slightly deeper than usual gap in the mortar, which in turn ended with Steve hanging from the edge of the roof by his fingertips and a toe-hold. Fire arched through his injured leg, making it impossible to do anything but let it dangle. The concrete edge of the roof cut into his hand while the cold numbed his scraped fingers. There wasn't anything to do for either problem, though, other than hold on.
Footsteps approached from above.
"Guard's approaching your position," Sam reported. "Three feet from the edge. Doesn't seem to have spotted you."
Steve counted his breaths, forcing them to stay slow and easy. The footsteps paused, and there was a shuffling scrape accompanied by a curse. Then they picked up again in the same easy stride as before.
"She's just at your position. Now passing... Go!"
As soon as Steve heard the word, he pushed off the wall and up. The roof was flat, lined with a short wall that he had to push himself over before he could roll to his feet. By the time he was up, the guard was only just starting to turn to check the noise. Steve didn't give her a chance to realize what was happening before he barreled into her, one hand going over her mouth while his other forearm pressed against her neck.
He'd been right—her reactions were slow.
Twisting around, he risked his bad leg to sweep her feet out from under her, sending them down. She fought back, scrabbling for her weapon, and when that didn't work trying to wrestle him off her by bucking and twisting. With the weight and surprise advantage, Steve just focused on keeping her trapped, with enough pressure on her throat to block her airway.
Her struggle got weaker, and weaker, and then stopped entirely after a few minutes. Cautiously, Steve removed the pressure and checked her pulse. Fast from panic, but steady, and she'd started breathing again on her own.
He stripped off her jacket and top, ripping up the second into handy strips of cloth for restraints and a gag. Then he manhandled her jacket back on and zipped it up to her chin. By the time he'd finished trussing her up, she was already drifting back to consciousness, making muffled noises of protest as he checked her ties. It wouldn't hold her forever, but hopefully it would buy some time before she was able to draw attention. Tony had already been inside for fifteen minutes, so Steve probably wouldn't need much.
The promised door was really just a hatch in the roof; it probably existed purely for fire hazard reasons. The hinges were too tight, and there was a solid line of dirt that had only barely been disturbed. It opened up to a short ladder that led down to a maze of catwalks suspended twenty feet above ground level. Steve slipped in, trying to keep his weight mostly on his good leg as he slid down.
Voices echoed, one of them clearly Romanoff's by the tone, the other lower and male. Neither were raised, but that didn't mean much for someone as skilled as Romanoff. She didn't strike him as one of those people who killed in a rage. Not at her level.
No one waited on the other side of the hatch, or on any of the catwalks, which was a vast oversight Steve hoped none of his teams would have made. Below more guards paced the rows of boxed and stacked merchandise. They were spread a lot thinner than they had been outside, leaving blind spots everywhere. The majority of them patrolled alone; the few who walked in pairs didn't move like friends, or even like coworkers. It was a ragtag bunch, probably pulled in from a dozen different places.
Most importantly, none of them looked up.
Steve took the first ladder down that he could find, slipping into the shadows provided by a tower of boxed electronics. He kept his head down and his footsteps light as he dodged in and out of hiding, weaving through the rows. There was one spot in the warehouse that looked more brightly lit than the rest; it seemed the best place to start.
He'd been close. Tony wasn't in the light. Rather, he was in the office just beyond it, behind a barrier of four guards and some nasty looking assault rifles. It was barely an office, just four walls and door, but the guards more than made up for the lack of a ceiling.
"Sam," he murmured, "I think we need to call in Plan B."
"I told you so."
"I don't know why you do this to yourself, darling." Natasha sat on the edge of the desk, legs spread so her knees straddled Tony's in a way that was very familiar. It was the only real attempt at seduction she'd made.
Then again, he'd met her when she'd been masquerading as a security consultant. Natasha knew damned well how much he was a sucker for dangerous people. It had been what caught him the first time. Her work clothes were sturdy denim jeans and a support vest, without cleavage or spare skin in sight. There were two guns and three knives visible. All work and no play made Natasha a very exciting girl.
God, he hoped Rogers had hung around. This was going to be Hell if he had to get himself out of it on his own.
"Why I do what? Avoid having my head bitten off?" Tony smiled and leaned forward until his handcuffs pulled against the chair they were hooked to. He kept his eyes on hers, rather than on the bag she'd tossed onto the desk behind her. She hadn't even looked at it. "Survive? You'll have to do better than that."
"Fight me." The side of her sturdy military-issue boot rubbed against his calf. "We could be so good together. And you know you can't run forever. Do you really want to finish your life in prison?"
He shrugged. "Better than finishing my life as a murderer."
Natasha's smile could have sold a thousand cars. "Is it?" She leaned forward, wrapping her ankles around the legs of the chair to jerk him closer. Hot breath washed across his neck. "How's the tumor doing, Tony?"
Ice settled in his chest. "I didn't think you cared anymore, sugarlips," he managed to say without sounding too stilted. "What with trying to kill me and all."
"I made mistakes. We all do." She didn't try to touch him, which Tony was grateful for, but she came as close as humanly possible. "So? How is it? Growing yet? How long have you got?"
Any time now, Rogers. Tony closed his eyes and tried not to let his rolling stomach get the better of him. There'd been too many long nights wrapped up in her arms to forget completely, but any warmth those memories brought had been thoroughly ruined by the remembered sound of a gunshot. "Long enough."
"Is it ever long enough?" Natasha planted a damp kiss against his cheek before finally pulling away. One of her legs kicked over his head as she slipped off the desk and around to the other side. "I could get you longer. A few extra years, at least."
That made his eyebrows lift, and his heart skip. "You think I haven't tried everything?"
Her shoulders flexed in a graceful shrug as she sat down. Green eyes watched him from behind eyelashes that had been carefully enhanced with mascara. "Not everything. I know people. It's not, strictly speaking, legal. But you've never concerned yourself with legalities before, have you?"
Illegal medical usually meant unethical. She had to know he knew that. Maybe she just thought he was desperate to eke out a few years.
Maybe I am, Tony thought, and then immediately hated himself for it. "And you'll make connections for me out of the goodness of your heart?" Pointedly, he flexed his arms, making the handcuffs jingle. They were good quality cuffs, much better than the ones SHIELD used. His thumbnail wouldn't be enough to get him out. "Don't make me laugh."
Natasha's laugh was as pretty as it had ever been. "I never said it would be for free," she said. "I want the other page of the blueprints. I want your father's plans for the bioweapon."
That answered the question of what she'd been after. Tony hadn't even known his father planned a bioweapon. The patriarch of the Stark family had always been more of a man for boom than for plagues. Then again, the second World War had been a harrowing time; it shouldn't have been a surprise that there'd been more going on than just the Manhattan Project. "I brought you—"
One hand came down sharply on the canvas messenger bag. "I'm not stupid, Tony, and do not play like I am," she hissed. "You wouldn't walk in here with the prints in hand. I want the real ones."
There went that brilliant scheme. "And you'll connect me with your doctor friends in exchange, rather than just, you know, kill me?"
"I'm a sentimentalist."
Tony licked his lips. "I—"
"Black Widow?" One of the guards stuck his head in. "We've caught another intruder."
"Bring him in." She glanced at Tony sideways, one perfect eyebrow arched. "Backup plans? Really?"
He shrugged, keeping his expression professionally blank. Before he'd dipped into theft, he'd played in the world of business—that is, legal theft. It was a help. "You know me, darling. Always with a trick up my sleeve."
"And magic fingers."
"You never had any complaints."
Farther conversation fell by the wayside as one of the guards hauled in their catch: a muscle-bound blond man in a familiar black turtleneck sweater. He was dragged in by his booted ankle, face down and unresponsive. The guard dropped him in the middle of the floor and retreated to a corner, keeping his head down so his cap shadowed his eyes.
Natasha rose to circle the prone man, toeing him here and there like he might roll over and start spouting secrets. Tony twisted in his chair to watch the tableau as it played out, fingers rubbing across the chain on his handcuffs absently. Using just a foot, she flipped the body over, giving a quick glance at the battered, swelling bruises on the man's face.
"Cute," she mused. "You're just good at finding new friends, aren't you? Got any more surprises for me?"
Metal rolled between his fingers. "I don't," Tony admitted freely, then jerked his chin at the lingering guard. "He might."
"What—" Natasha turned just in time to get the butt of a rifle in her ribs. True to form, she rolled with the blow, landing up against a wall and using it for support. A knife flashed in her hand, blade bright with promise. Rogers—who was no longer making an effort not to be big, blond and muscularly obvious—followed her. There was something wrong with his leg, it wouldn't bend right or hold his weight and Tony wished to God he'd double-checked the man's medical before contacting him. But he was handy with his fists, quickly getting Natasha backed into a corner.
It didn't last long; she ducked out under one of Rogers' arms, landing a knee in his kidney on the way by. Rogers turned, but his weak leg buckled, giving her a shot at his thankfully not-glass jaw.
Tony pushed his chair out of the way, working on the weak link he'd found in his cuffs. It took a lot of scooting; the office was too small to have anywhere actually be safe. He twisted the link, pulling and flexing until it gave just enough of a gap. The link pulled free, just in time for him to scramble out of the way as Rogers flipped Natasha into exactly where Tony had been sitting.
He grabbed the gun out of her shoulder holster and quickly separated ammo from unit, scattering them in different directions. Before he could grab the other one, she seized his wrist, flipping him up and over. His back cracked into the desktop, keys from the now-broken keyboard scattering everywhere.
A knife followed him down. Tony kept rolling until he was under the safety of the desk. Then he flipped up his hood. "Copper and Gold, you there? We could use some back up!"
"The Feds are already there," Pepper reported, voice too loud for any real discretion. "You've got to get out; they've got the place surrounded. Gold's waiting with a ride up top, you just have to get there."
That explained why Rogers hadn't been riddled with bullets yet. Under the desk, he could see Natasha and Rogers' feet going back and forth. "Nice to know. Stay on the—"
A gunshot cut through the noise. Rogers made a choked-off noise, and his feet shuffled out of view.
"Shit," Tony cursed, leaping out of his hiding spot and sliding over the table. Natasha had her second gun held on Steve, who was lying on the ground, curled in on himself and oh God, breathing in deep, wet-sounding gasps. There was blood on the floor, but it was hard to see where it had come from.
Central mass, please have gone for the central mass, Tony prayed to whatever God watched over thieves and conmen. "You don't have to do this," he said gently. "The Feebs are outside, we can vanish. If you kill a cop, they won't let us run. You know that, right?"
She flashed him a smile that was pink with blood from her busted lip. Her eyes were too bright, glazed with the bloodlust that once upon a time Tony had mistaken for the real thing. "Oh, I'm not going to kill him."
Something heavy settled on Tony's chest. "You're—"
Keeping the gun steady in one hand, Natasha waved the other at him, wiggling her fingers playfully. "You're not the only one who can use fake prints, darling. Guess you're going to die a murderer after all."
Her eyes turned back to Steve. Tony didn't even think before leaping. There was no coordination or grace in it, he just threw himself at Natasha, throwing them both to the ground. The gun went off, hitting one of the hanging lights with a shower of sparks and glass. He slammed her hand into the floor until her grip loosened and the gun went skittering a few feet away.
She cursed and curled in on herself, boots catching him right in the sternum. A hard shove sent him staggering backward. Immediately she flipped over and scrambled to grab the handgun. Before Tony could jump on her again, one shot rang out. Natasha jerked and collapsed, blood and gray matter splattered across the floor in front of her.
Tony looked up, finding the sniper hidden in the catwalk. The man was already swinging down, muted black and purple clothes not quite blending into the shadows above the main light source. Then Rogers groaned behind him, and Tony's priorities shifted sharply to the right.
Not knowing what sort of damage he was looking for, Tony shifted Rogers over onto his back. There was a hole right in the center of his sweater, and a bullet half-embedded in the Kevlar Tony would never, consider half-assed again. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Rogers blinked at him, eyes pain-blurred and face smeared with blood from what was probably going to be a nasty broken nose. He clutched his ribs, which were probably bruised at best—Kevlar protected from the bullet, but it couldn't do anything about that much force delivered to a pin-point area. "I think you're under arrest."
Shoes shuffled against concrete, and Tony looked up to see Agent Wilson blocking the door. He had his gun out, but the weapon was thoughtfully pointed down and his eyes were turned away. "Yeah, well, you've been wrong before." Leaning down, Tony caught a quick kiss before Rogers could do something stupid, like ask Wilson for cuffs. "Catch me later, big guy."
Then he was up and running, one foot hitting the desk as a springboard for the top of the wall, and from there all he had to do was catch the line Pepper was so thoughtfully holding ready. The Feds that were just starting to storm the building shouted as he finished swinging himself up onto the catwalk.
"You couldn't have just run?" Pepper demanded breathlessly as they ran, metal clattering under their feet. "Had to stay for a kiss?"
"You know me, I have a weakness for leggy blonds!" Tony shot back, scrambling up the ladder and onto the roof, where a zip line was waiting to take them to the car. And then it would be a rush to get out of the state, and then country before the Feebs caught on, assuming they didn't end up in a car chase on the way out.
God, he loved his life.
The coffee shop nearest Steve's apartment was one of those niche places that sprang up occasionally in defiance of the Starbucks regime. There were bright prints on the wall and furniture that was more stuffing than frame, all of it done in Modern Fashion that looked as ridiculous as a grown man on a pogostick. It did a decent Americano and an amazing danish, though, and it was an excuse to get outside in the fresh air, which Steve needed. There were only so many books a man could read or television shows to catch up on before he started climbing the walls.
Two months suspension with pay had been the price for the whole Romanoff debacle. She'd been wanted in a dozen countries on charges ranging from espionage to money laundering and assassination. Steve suspected that if Romanoff hadn't been brought down he would have lost his job entirely.
But she had been, and he didn't. Two months enforced leave was probably for the best; his knee would recover, but according to the docs it was a near thing. Doctors were always doom and gloom, though, so Steve tried to take it with a grain of salt.
Director Danvers had done her best to soften the blow, but he'd been on medical absence at the time, so she hadn't even been able to claim he'd been operating under her orders. It still grated; he wanted to at least be at his desk. As it was, he couldn't even pick up a pen in the FBI without a half dozen people glaring at him.
Losing Iron Man hadn't helped, but he was a small fish compared to Romanoff. He hadn't even been surprised when the evidence of Iron Man's identity vanished the next day. There was Steve and Sam's statements, but somehow it all ended up bogged down in the system. Steve would have been impressed, if it hadn't been damned annoying.
"Steve!" the tall, blocky male barista called out, shoving his order across the bar— a danish and a tall coffee, in a carry-sack to make it easier to maneuver with crutches. He made his way over to the bar and collected it up, juggling it around until he could move without spilling everything.
The bag jingled.
Steve froze, then set it carefully back down on the counter. Inside was his order, along with his wallet, keys and a battered cell phone. His cell phone, the one he'd lost after the museum incident. It was blinking, green light flashing to indicate a text.
Quickly Steve looked up, but there was no sign of the big barista. A tiny girl with bright blue hair was working the register, while someone else steamed milk. "Excuse me, miss?" The blue-haired girl looked up from writing a name on a cup. "Do you know what happened to the man who took my order?"
"Harry? He's..." She twisted, frowning at the suddenly Harry-free shop. "He's around here somewhere. Probably went for a smoke. Did he get something wrong?"
"No, I..." Steve shook his head. "Never mind."
"He's a temp," she offered with a worried frown, as if that made any difference. "Not a regular. If there's something wrong, I can—"
"It's fine, thanks," Steve promised, picking up the bag again and limping back toward the door. "If you see him, tell him I'd like to talk to him? I'll be outside."
She gave him a confused look, but nodded and waved. "If you say so..."
Outside, there was a small collection of patio furniture on offer. Steve dropped down into the nearest chair, letting his crutches clatter to the ground at his feet. The bag was devoid of any obvious evidence—no notes or anything that might provide a handwriting sample, and the baristas had all been wearing gloves. His wallet and keys looked unmolested after their adventure away from his pockets, but Steve still made a mental note to see about getting his locks changed. It didn't take more than a second to get an imprint of a key.
That left the phone.
It had obviously been through some trouble since Steve had last had it. He wasn't easy on his phones, but there were new scratches on the screen and he could see tool marks where it had been pried open. One spot even looked like it might have been melted. When he pressed the button to turn the display on, all the pass codes were the same, and his files were mostly the untouched, other than that someone had downloaded and beat Plants Versus Zombies in his name.
The text message originated from 000-000-0000 and was to the point:
Tag: you're it - IM