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Paragon of Virtue

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By the time the third automatic door slams in his face Steve is pissed, really pissed. He’s followed Tony from the landing pad to his workshop.

He wasn’t lecturing, why did everybody think he lectured? It was more, trying to get Tony to see why everybody had been so worried, why Steve hadn’t had any sleep in the forty-eight hours since Tony had decided to jet off solo and cut communication with the whole team.

“You don’t just get to disappear Tony!” Steve said in a shout-whispered for the sake of those who were sleeping instead of keeping an all-night vigil on the scanners. “Nobody knew where you were.”

“What? Didn’t you see me? I was all over the news.” Tony glanced back over his shoulder, smirking and throwing his hands wide, “Were you not entertained, Steven?” Whatever bit Tony was doing, it was lost on him.

They’d seen him alright; CNN had been playing it on a seemingly endless loop for the last two hours - ‘Iron Man Destroys Massive Weapons Cache Over The Pacific’

“We nearly sent out a search party.” Steve said, still hot on his heels, “We were ready to scramble the quinjets!”

“You should have. We could have flown in formation. Had a sort of ‘welcome home party’.” Tony all but skipped down the short flight of stairs to his workshop.

“Tony.” Steve warned.

“Steve.” Tony replied as the door slammed shut between them; locking Steve out. Leaving him standing with his face inches from the metal, he balled a fist and pulled back an elbow with half a mind to slam it straight into the door peeling it open like the lid of a sardine can. It’s the thought that he might get shot with one of Tony’s repulsors that stopped him short; he knows how jumpy he’d been since New York, and it’s not like Steve even knew what he would say to him.

He paces, restless by the door a while longer, listening for the tell-tale whur of electrics starting up; before he gives up heading to his room. Tony was home, Tony was safe. He could at least get some sleep.

Or not.

Three hours ago, he had been on the verge of collapsing over the monitors from exhaustion, now, lying in bed sleep was proving to be elusive, his mind racing a mile a minute as it struggles to comprehend the sudden drop in his anxiety levels; closing his eyes only results in dancing colors filling his vision, so he stares up at the ceiling, up at nothing, refocusing his breathing and listening to the sounds of the newly rebuilt tower as it settles.

He succumbes to sleep at some point and wakes up to light streaming in through the half-open drapes. Scowling at the clock like it was lying because he’s slept through what would have been his morning run.

His stomach growls in protest when he foregoes breakfast and heads straight for the gym to take out the leftover frustration on Tony’s ‘Super Soldier Resistant Punching Bag’ and if he destroys the damn thing in the process, so be it.

He loses track of time to the metronomic thwak of his fists against the synthetic leather.

“I thought I heard you in here, really going for it huh?” Natasha nods to him from the doorway, smoothing down the folds of her outfit and snapping her purse shut.

“You look nice,” Steve says stopping the bag swinging, “off out?” He points to her all-black dress that flutters elegantly around her knees.

“An old friend’s visiting,” Her face warms, then drops a little, “Paying her last respects to Coulson.” She says bowing her head at the somber note.

A silence pervades the space between them, broken when Steve clears his throat. “I’m sorry to hear that.” It’s not the right thing to say, Coulson was still in everybody’s mind and Steve had often wondered who else might have been missing him.

“Some people lost more than others that day.” She says letting it sink in, letting the silence creep back over them, watching Steve get truly uncomfortable and pull at the straps on his hands.

“So,” She finally sighs, “what’s the deal with you, Stark got under your skin?” She asks with a sly knowing smile creeping on her lips. “If you want, yesterdays’ paper is in the trash. I could tear his picture out and stick it on there for you?” She gestures to the bag.

“Yes… No…” He pauses. Furrowing his brow as he processes what she’s said. “Do people really do that?”

“It’s very therapeutic. I have one on the dartboard in my room.” She says matter of factly, “Pegged him right between the eyes, twice.

Steve isn’t sure whether to laugh or be terrified, he’s saved by his stomach letting out a monstrous growl, reminding him that he still hadn’t eaten that morning. “Sheesh Steve, go get something to eat, you sound like The Hulk after Bruce has eaten a bad curry.” She gives him a half wave as she leaves.

“Will do Nat.” He says returning the gesturing. He throws one more punch, just to see if the damn bag will split. It swings wild at the impact before wobbling to a stop. It doesn’t split, but his frustration has waned, possibly because he can feel his pulse in his knuckles, possibly because of his chat with Natasha, but he calls it for today.

***

It's close to 2 am when Steve is jolted awake by his subconscious; he’d been in that godforsaken valley, up to his knees in snow mixed with a mud slick, the more he struggled against it the further it pulled him down, soaking his uniform making it too heavy to move, making it feel like he was wading through setting tar. He could see Bucky lying motionless twenty yards away, he shouted until his voice was hoarse, taking step after arduous step that got him nowhere until the sharp ingress of icy wind in his lungs had him sitting up too fast, a mess of clammy skin against recirculated cool air and tangled in bedsheets.

He perches on the edge of his bed letting the last remnants of sleep ebb away, feeling the soft, plush carpet between his toes instead of the frozen soles of his boots.

Sighing, he relents to being awake and hauls himself out of bed, he’s wandered the tower at night a thousand times before.

He’d found Clint snoring on the sofa in the common room once, had a conversation with Thor and discovered he struggled with the time difference between Midgard and Asgard. He’d even caught Natasha on the phone, deep in a hushed conversation that she had abruptly ended upon his intrusion and excused herself.

The tower was no stranger to night time wanderers. So, it wasn’t surprising when Steve saw the faint glow of the kitchen light on from underneath the door.

There was a peaceful stillness that night, almost like the residence within and the building itself had all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Tony had returned safely the night before; not that he had been seen much since then, opting to stay locked in his workshop which gave Steve a nasty case of guilt having hounded him as soon as he got back. It’s amazing what a few hours of bad sleep and reflection can throw into perspective. Tony was part of the team and his own person, with his own business, like they all were. It didn’t stop Steve feeling a little hurt that Tony hadn’t come to him for help, he thought after New York…. Well, he’s not sure what he thought.

Steve trod careful, needlessly light footstep to the kitchen, he could hear whoever it was rattling around in the fridge, humming off-key to themselves until they startled at the automatic ‘swoosh’ of the door.

“Steve!”

“Hey, Tony.” Tony was halfway through a comically large slice of leftover pizza. “How’ve you been?” Steve says crossing the kitchen and shooting him a tired sideward glance. The stone tiles cool and smooth beneath his bare feet are his focus, not the sudden rush of excitement mixed with trepidation that soaks his spine and settles into a tingling warmth at the base.

Tony shrugs his shoulders and rocks his head from side to side in a non-committal gesture working his jaw and swallowing his mammoth sized bite. “This wasn’t yours was it?” He says frowning and holding up what was left of the crust of the pizza, hip-checking the fridge door shut before wandering over to join Steve who’s picked a spot on the far side of the kitchen counter to lean.

Steve shakes his head. “Can’t sleep?” He asks choosing to look down at the magnolia neutrality of the floor tiles instead of at Tony, because that rush, it will come again, the urge to hit him and kiss him all at the same time when he pulls one of his stupid stunts and leaves everybody who cares in the dark until his triumphant return.

“Something like that…” Tony lets it hang in the air between them. “You?”

“You don’t have the monopoly on bad dreams Tony.” It comes out all sniping and sharp edges, not how Steve intended it at all.

“Jeez. See I knew you were still pissed at me.” Tony throws his hands high and rolls his eyes, making a point of checking his watch. “Right, it’s ten minutes past two, in the morning,” he steps directly in front of Steve, rolls his shoulder and braces like he’s about to catch a pass from a quarterback. “Okay. I’m ready, give me the lecture.” His lips quirk up at the ends, and Steve rubs the bridge of his nose.

"Why does everybody say I lecture?” He says screwing his eyes shut. “I’m not pissed at you-“

“Why do I sense there is a ‘but’,” Tony says leaning back against the counter, close enough that their legs are touching from knee to thigh. He crosses his arms and cocks his head, indulging Steve.

“Tony, you disappeared. Nick Fury nearly cast a kitten! You turned off comms, sensors, you didn’t tell Pepper where you were going, she nearly bit her nails back to the knuckles for crying out loud! I was left holding the bag when we couldn’t find you! Jeez, JARVIS wouldn’t even tell us where you were..” Steve rakes a hand through his hair. Pent-up anger mixed with a dozen other emotions he’s too drained to place boils just underneath his skin, He hadn’t meant to raise his voice. Tony looks back at him bewildered and blank. Steve meets his eyes for the first time. Softening his tone to reluctant exasperation. “We’re a team Tony, the first thing we heard was on CNN. What’s going on that you can’t tell us?”

Tony’s shoulders stiffen under Steve’s gaze and he folds his arms, glancing once at the exit towards the direction of his workshop, a glance Steve doesn’t miss.

“No, you don’t.” Steve grabs Tony’s wrist. “Talk to me. If not me, talk to somebody.” He feels Tony twist his arm and test his grip before he sighs.

“Stuff, Steve, it was stuff I had to take care of that’s all. Just stuff.”

“The kind of ‘stuff’ that wipes out the entire weapons supply of a suspected terrorist group over the Pacific?” Steve’s jaw is set, he’s wearing his best ‘Captain America is going to get some answers face’ and Tony shifts uncomfortably underneath it, testing the grip around his wrist once more before he sighs and goes limp.

“Fine. I’m still following up on all the people who Obadiah supplied Stark weaponry to when everybody thought I was dead in the desert. Okay? And we’re not talking one or two pieces here and there… He’s was equipping people for war.” He looks down like he’s ashamed. “It’s not… It’s not anybody else’s fight. The team has enough to worry about if we’re going to be invaded by aliens every five minutes, and enabling terrorists isn’t how I want Stark Industries thought of.”

He pauses then starts to breathe heavily, a vacant expression starts to creep across his face, “that’s, that’s not… That’s not going to be my legacy.” His voice rises a pitch and comes out breathless.

Steve can feel the tremors in his arm, sensitive ears can hear the frantic fluttering of his heartbeat. “That’s not what I do anymore,” His eyes glaze over and Steve isn’t sure Tony can see him. “I’m… I’m trying to be better.” He almost pleads as the words start to crowd together taking his spare hand to grip Steve. “I don’t know how many more are out there, the data… the data, it was scrambled, encrypted… fuck….” He wheezes, and the words tumble out of his mouth unchecked by his brain with his skin going clammy and knees giving out beneath him, Steve goes down with him and they crumple on the cold kitchen floor.

The panic attack becomes absolute. Tony draws in breath after agonizing breath which Steve is forced to hear rattle and catch in his chest like his body can’t remember how to exhale. “Tony, look at me. Look at me.” Steve pleads and catches either side of Tony’s face in his hands, stops him from pulling his hair out of his scalp. “You are better, just… just look at the Iron Man. I’m here Tony, just breathe with me.” Steve grabs for anything that’ll placate him, Tony is so much better and a pang of guilt shoots through Steve because he realizes he has no idea just how much Tony Stark does making up for his past.

Tears stream down Tony’s cheeks and he shakes and shakes with his breathing all wrong, Steve feels like crying, the wild desperate look doesn’t belong on Tony’s face. He never meant for this, seeing him like this, there’s a niggling voice at the back of his head that says: ‘you’ve caused this.’

Steve counts aloud even breaths in and out, coaxing Tony to stay with him, look at him, he’s safe here.

The words seem to bounce off him at first, like they aren’t going in, but slowly, slowly; Tony starts to breathe a little easier, the shaking starts to subside, he stops clawing at his chest and brings his hands up to circle Steve’s wrist, keeping a loose hold.

His eyes gradually look up from under clumpy dark lashes and relief washes over Steve because they’re no longer blown wide with panic. “Thanks, Winghead.” He croaks sounding weak and small.

“… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t…” Steve trails off, suddenly all too aware of the intimate position they were in. Tony almost sat on his lap with Steve brushing his fingertips through the downy hair on his temples whilst Tony stroked his thumbs across the delicate skin on the inside of his wrists. He goes to pull away and Tony instinctively grips.

“Don’t…” Tony’s voice is a broken whisper. “Can I… Can we… just stay here… Like this? Just for a minute.” Steve has to strain to hear, that’s how quiet Tony’s speaking. He nods and shifts accommodating him when he leans closer.

The minute turns into ten and they sit long enough for the motion sensors to time out and leave them in darkness; Tony’s warm against his side and Steve still subconsciously keeps track of his breathing in time with the repetitious ticking of the wall clock set to the background hum of the refrigerator motor.

“We should move Tony.” He says, measured and careful.

“Yeah… “ Tony’s voice sounds more like his own again.

Steve stands and the lights flicker back to life as he blinks down. Tony holds his hand up. “Help me up? My ass has gone numb.” Steve thinks he almost sees a smile as he hauls him to his feet.

Tony takes his own unsteady weight, looking like Bambi on ice as he tries to coax life back into his numb lower half. He staggers once, falters a step on legs that won’t obey and ends up fetching up against Steve and shoving him back against the counter, digging it into the small of his back.

It’s surprise more than anything that stops them from springing apart, they both stand there pressed together from crotch the chest, Tony leaning his full weight against Steve.

The moment protracts, the clock keeps ticking and the fridge keeps humming but neither make a move.

It’s Steve who breaks it, “I should…” He says gesturing to the door around Tony whose hands still rest on his chest, warm through the thin faded cotton of his t-shirt.

“Yeah… Absolutely,” Tony pushes away. His eyes dart around the kitchen, looking at anything but Steve, “I should - early meeting.” He fidgets picking at the hem of his t-shirt like he can’t keep still.

“Thank you, for-“ he waves a hand in the space between himself and Steve. “There’s no need for everybody else to hear about this. I mean… Right?” Tony looks up, fixed with an expression like a rabbit caught in high beams.

“Right, and err… Don’t mention it.” Steve sighs still bracing against the counter watching Tony shuffle off towards his workshop muttering to himself.

He doesn’t exhale until the door shuts about the same time he lets his elbows give way, sliding down with his back against the counter until he’s sitting in the same spot on the cold tiles he’d sat with Tony.

With one thought circling around in his head: What the hell was that?

Chapter Text

Rain had threatened that day, it had made the air sit heavy and close against her skin. Natasha pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders and hunched down into the collar.

The gate to the cemetery creaked on old hinges when she pushed it open; eyeing the suspicious shadows flickering unnaturally under the arcing willow that’s tendril-like branches brushed the manicured turf.

“You jump at enough shadows,” she shouted feeling the air around her shift and grow heavier.

“You’re bound to see a few ghosts.” Came the reply from under the tree in the all too familiar intonation, hollow and distant like it came from all directions.

“I’m alone.” She said squinting at the shifting shapes.

“I can see that.” She sounded normal and close as she took a cautious step out from the shadows of the willow. Face obscured deep in the folds of an enormous hood attached to a loose-fitting jumper. “Been a while Nat.” She said her wild eyes flashing a phosphorous green from the depths of the fabric.

Natasha watched her stuff her hands into the kangaroo pocket and scuff worn shoes on the grass. “You look…” She sighed taking in the twitching and eyes that darted around restlessly, the shoulders that drew up around her ears, the slight stoop in her posture in an effort to make herself smaller. Standing at least five foot eight she’d always had an inch or two on Natasha. “How’ve you been?” She eventually settled on.

She shrugged, rocking her head and pursing her lips. “Surviving.” She said snorting dirty laughter. “When I ran from SHIELD life wasn’t about living anymore. It was about surviving.” She kicked at the grass again and peeked out at her. “I saw all the fancy new helicarriers get shot out the sky on CNN… Then, I get a phone call from you out of the blue. I call coincidence on that.” She fixed Natasha with her enquiring eyes. “You didn’t call me out here to show me where Coulson’s buried.” Natasha watched her push the hood back slightly the familiar swathe of short brunette hair falling around her face in an ebony curtain. “Spill it, what d’you want? And no Widow tactics,” she said pointing a finger, “I’ve known you too long for that, I see through it.”

“There’s no getting one around you.” She said shaking her head like a disapproving mother and stepping close enough to slip an arm through her companion’s joining them at the elbow, “come on, it’s this way, we’ll walk and talk.” Natasha felt the initial resistance of the person on her arm give as she fell into step next to her. “I might need a favor.”

“I knew it,” she huffed but Natasha could see she was smiling. Cocking her head sideways and rolling her tongue in her mouth like she might be considering it, she squinted her eyes accusingly, “If it’s something you can’t do then it’s gotta be difficult.”

“I need a file,” She said her tone kept flat and lowering her voice in case the dead had ears. “The Winter Soldier file.” She felt her companions step falter, saw the flinch of her hand out the corner of her eye as it shot up to paw at her neck subconsciously.

They kept walking, the distant rumble of the imminent rain audible above the rustle of the trees in the wind. “Nat, that’s a tall order.”

“There’s something in there for you too. Your file’s in the same archive facility.”

“How d’you know that?” They catch each other's eye briefly.

“You’re not my only contact.”

“Ah, I see.” She drawled deliberately, “One person feeds you the information and I do the dirty work.”

Natasha paused and stepped around to face her gripping her on both shoulders. Squeezing her until she looked up, a storm brewing in her wild eyes, “you wanted answers years ago. Get them, before they go public; SHIELD can’t protect them anymore.”

Natasha watched her turn away shrugging off her grip to rub at the back of her neck, her hand disappearing inside the hood. “Is that because SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore? I think there’s irony in there somewhere. I escaped HYDRA just for them to pull me back in as SHIELD…” She squinted up at the sky. The faintest spots of rain starting to fall, small inoffensive splotches that settled onto her clothes before soaking in. “I dunno Nat, maybe there are things I don’t want to find out; like you said, it was years ago. I am what I am, knowing won't change that, and what’s this with The Winter Soldier?” Nat heard her exhale a long-measured breath, her hand touching her neck again. “Maybe there are things you don’t want to find out.” She watched her shuffle a few steps and stop in front of a newly positioned headstone of polished black marble and gold inlay.

“Maybe there are things that it’s time you found out, that we all found out.” She said as she joined her at the grave site looking down in a solemn silence.

It protracted as they both read and re-read the golden text. Natasha growing impatient for an answer as her heels started to sink in the ground.

Her companion cleared her throat abruptly. “If I do this,” She hesitated, only slightly, but Natasha picked it up and looked around to find herself under her scrutiny. “You’ll owe me.” the intensity of her glare making her eyes look like they burnt brighter than spectral fires.

“I’ll owe you.” She nodded. “I’ll have red on my ledger for you.”

“My God Nat, you make us sound boring, like accountants.” Her companion rolled her eyes and shook her head, “I knew you didn’t call me here just to look at an empty grave.” Natasha could hear the resignation of laughter in her voice as she pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose.

“So, it’s a yes? You’ll do it?”

“I’ll do it, Nat, for you.”

“It’s so I can do right by somebody else.” She ventured as they both stood staring at the headstone in silence. “How did you know it was empty?”

“Death has a weird frequency. I can feel it in this place, but it’s not coming from here.” She pointed down at the settling earth, “S’just dirt.” Natasha caught her arm as she turned away with a sigh, “I miss our team, you all went off to be fancy pants Avengers.” She said as they started away from the cemetery. “How’s Clint?”

“Got possessed and I had to hit him over the head.” Natasha laughed.

“What I would have given to have seen that.”

***

Steve overhears the phone call by accident. Oversensitive hearing meant you couldn’t exactly stick your fingers in your ears and go ‘la la la…’ to avoid listening to something.

It took him months to get used to after the serum, he’d spent his entire life up until that point being half-deaf and suddenly it was like somebody had switched the volume up too loud, permanently. It meant that he tuned into most sounds background or otherwise without realizing; it also meant that Steve could recognize the people he spent a lot of time with by their footfall or certain noises they made out of habit.

Bruce was easy, when he wasn’t big, mean and green he seemed to suffer from every allergy under the sun and had a habit of sniveling. Natasha was difficult, she had light footsteps to the point where she had managed to make Steve jump on occasions. Then there was Tony, and Steve hated to admit it, but Tony’s sure stride always made his nerves jump and his stomach bottom out, Steve knew that Tony had a habit of whistling or muttering to himself depending on his mood and he had a guilty habit of his own listening for him a little more often than the others.

He could hear Tony whistling all the way up from his workshop, it had been a couple of days since the kitchen, which meant a couple of days of Steve stealing glances at him when he wasn’t looking, hanging back after meetings hoping that they might talk and Tony inevitably making any excuse to avoid him. Steve waits in an alcove of a doorframe practicing his impression of nonchalance so that they can pass each other without incident when the whistling is cut off by the high pitch ring of a cell phone.

His ears prick on instinct. “Hi Pep. I’m on my way t-“ Tony’s overly-chirpy-everything’s-fine-act is cut off by Pepper on the other end. He hears Tony stutter to get a word in. “Yeah, Bu-“

Then everything goes eerily quiet, the back of Steve’s neck prickles and he hears Tony draw in a long steady breath. “Do they know who it was?” There’s a pause when Pepper answers. “Was anybody hurt? No? That’s something.” There’s an even longer pause when nobody’s speaking; Steve holds his breath. “What did they take?” Tony asks in a low, brittle whisper. “Right, yes. I’ll… I’ll review the footage. I don’t know… It was just an old dusty warehouse; low risk but it still had cameras.” Steve hears the call end and guiltily steps into view.

Tony’s staring down at the phone and gripping it in a white-knuckled fist, he looks up at Steve with the same wild expression he had in the kitchen. “Everything all right Tony?” He asks cautiously approaching with one hand out like he is taming a wild animal.

“Somebody broke into one of Da-Howard’s storage warehouses last night.” Tony blinks at him. “The one upstate. They took down all the security staff, granted there’s not many in the facility – it was for storage I’ve never cataloged what was in there. Hell, I forgot it existed.” Tony’s waffling, he’s not even looking at Steve anymore. “They didn’t hurt anybody though, I’ve gotta get down there.” He turns and disappears before Steve can stop him.

***

Tony’s not home by the time Steve decides to call it a night; the remainder of the day had been spent overlooking the witness reports from the security staff that Pepper had sent over. All the reports were consistent but vague, everybody interviewed gave the same story, they had seen something out the corner of their eye, but couldn’t be sure, then nothing-they had woken up a few hours later with a bad headache and a ringing in the ears. Natasha had sat with him for a bit to frown over the reports but was oddly unhelpful and dismissal of Steve’s theories.

It leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and it’s enough to make Steve restless, falling into a bad sleep that’s plagued with flashing images mixed up with memories; he can hear Bucky again, screaming this time, but he’s in a labyrinth of corridors made from filing cabinets the locks warped and broken like the ones in Howard’s warehouse. He skids around corners on his bare feet shouting: “Hold on Buck! I’m coming for you!” Only to have it lost in his throat. It has him waking up at 2 am, like clockwork, downing the water that’s on his sideboard and wondering what it all meant. The whole Bucky/Winter Soldier situation was still raw, and he really wasn’t ready to talk about it with the team.

Once again, he resigns himself to being awake and he’s hardly surprised to find the light on in the kitchen, even less surprised at who he finds in there.

Tony’s perched on a bar stool at the counter, deep tired lines on his face where he’s frowning at something playing on his tablet. He glances up raising his eyebrows at Steve when he trudges miserably into the kitchen.

“Hey, Tony-“

“I’m fine,” Tony says abruptly dropping his tablet with a thwack. He looks down once then fixes Steve with an ice-cold glare.

Steve blinks belatedly at him, “What?”

“I said, I’m fine. You were going to ask me how I am and I’m answering, I’m fine.” Tony folds his arms and stares off to the side rocking his jaw likes he’s chewing on his anger.

Steve puts his hands up in a sign of defense. “OK,” then he sees it; the empty tumbler, a few brown dregs settled at the bottom and the empty bottle of scotch in the trash. He makes it to the sink and keeps his back to Tony whilst he fills a glass from the tap.

When he turns Tony’s looking at him, Steve keeps his movements slow and fluid, his bare feet sticking on the tiles. “Are you really fine Tony?” He says looking down at the glass in his hands, rolling it in his palms.

“I wanna know how they did it.” Tony blurts slamming his flat hands down onto the counter, “I wanna know what they took and why they took it.” He gestures at his tablet with a clumsy hand that nearly knocks the tumbler flying. “This footage? Useless, all fuzzy black edges and a few useless security guards going down.” He flips the device up in his hands holding it closer than needed to Steve’s face, it shows a still, a dull black outline of a person, soft and blurred like when a camera catches movement. “Somebody is fucking with me Steve.”

The whole scene depicted is unsettling, something about it creeps at the back of Steve’s neck and makes the hairs stand on end. A few downed security staff that look stone dead on the floor in-between an endless sea of filing cabinets. They weren’t dead, oddly nobody had been badly hurt. There were so many variables that didn’t quite add up enough to make sense, and the whole situation had put Steve and Tony back on the same insomnia cycle.

He gently pushes the tablet down, setting the water next to Tony on the counter who eye’s it warily. “When was the last time you got any decent sleep?” He says too exasperated to dance around the subject.

Tony looks genuinely thoughtful for a moment before he scowls. “What was it you said? You don’t have the monopoly on bad dreams.” Tony would almost look smug if his eyelids didn’t droop when he looks up at Steve waiting for his reaction.

“OK, I deserve that.” He says hands on hips, “drink your water Tony.” Steve watches as Tony’s hand carefully takes the glass and brings it to his mouth.

He sets it back down, his lips shining under the bright fluorescents. “You wanna go to bed willingly, or should I drag you kicking and screaming?” Steve says, folding his arms and watching Tony’s huff like a petulant child.

“You’re never happy, are you? You wanted me to talk… I’m talking. Somebody managed to outsmart Stark Tech security systems and I’m worried. I’ve had enough enemies crawl out the woodwork. And now you’re sending me to bed?” He points accusingly at Steve, “You’re worried. Why else would you be awake?”

“I’m worried about you,” Steve says a little louder than he means to and raking a hand through his hair. “I’m happy that you’re talking, but this.” He waves from the tablet to the tumbler then to Tony, “This isn’t going to help the situation.” He pauses long enough to give Tony a pained expression. “Look there’s a team investigating, we won’t know anything until morning, and drinking is not going to help. Jesus Tony, I sat with you whilst you had a panic attack last week. You need to stop with the self-destruct act.”

Tony goes quiet, dropping his shoulders and leaning on an upturned palm. He draws a pattern on the worktop from the condensation of his glass muttering, “Because you’re so perfect,” and pulling a face.

“I heard that.” Steve pauses. “It’ll be kicking and screaming in a minute, I don’t care if I wake the whole tower, you’re going to get some sleep.” He steps closer to Tony around the counter.

“Alright, alright…” Tony says hastily and gets up. “I’m going OK.” Steve watches him hold his hands up like he’s walking towards armed police.

Then it all happens before Steve can make sense of it.

Tony catches his foot and stumbles with a muffled, “Shit...” The bar stool rocks but doesn’t fall and Steve finds himself pinned back against the counter again holding Tony up at the shoulders.

He counts a full sixty seconds of the wall clock ticking whilst they stand there, “You alright?” He says, breathless where Tony landed on him but not loosening his grip.

“Yeah, I, caught my foot… I guess.” It’s like last week, only Tony’s more pliant and leaning on him like a soft weight, the scotch has made his whole-body loose.

“Tony,” Steve clears his throat all too aware of the heat that was coming off the body plastered against his, “You should…” The ‘move’ is on the tip of his tongue when Tony shifts his weight clumsily from one leg to the other pressing himself closer. Steve sucks in air through his teeth.

“I shouldn’t…” Tony says not budging an inch, his voice thick and low. Steve feels the vibration of him speaking through his chest. His fingertips resting lightly on the fabric of Steve’s worn t-shirt tickling as much as it thrills and stirring up some dormant animal part of him.

They’re pressed together so close he can’t exactly hide what’s quivering in his pants. He tries to tell himself it’s a perfectly natural reaction to touch… for a teenager…

“Tony,” he gasps, it barely comes out as a whisper over the hum of the refrigerator motor when Tony smirks and tentatively bucks his hips. Pressing Steve further back into the counter driving the hard edge into the small of his back. Steve squeezes his eyes shut because this should not be happening.

His hands that hold Tony by the shoulders slide down the hard lines of his ribs, slowly, like he shouldn’t be touching. His whole body is lean muscle wrapped in a flimsy t-shirt and sweats, and he flinches, a soft moan escaping his parted lips. Steve’s hands wander lower to his hips and he uses them like handles, pushing and pulling in time with Tony’s careful measured movements.

Tony gets a little bolder, leans further into the inches of space between them, “Tell me to stop,” he whispers testing the air before he’s close enough to catch his teeth on the skin behind Steve’s ear.

What Steve means to say is: ‘Tony, stop. This isn’t what you need right now.’ He can hear it in his head, he can also hear Tony panting in his ear, spliced with the pop and suck every time he draws back from his skin. So, what comes out is some guttural grunt as his head lolls to the side offering more.

Steve should be pushing him away, it would be easy, hands to the shoulders, push, done, over-finished-nothing getting out of hand. But Tony smells of scotch-he’s making a bad decision, Steve knows he’s no better for letting him do it; his blood rushes South and his hands won’t let go of Tony’s hips because he started something, and now his dick is straining in his pants and Tony’s giving him that rough, sweet fiction with each upward push.

“Tell me to stop,” Tony says again, it’s like a dare, his voice shakily breathless, like he’s not in control anymore as he shoves a hand underneath the waistband of Steve’s shorts; and he knows anything Tony finds in there is going to tell him the opposite.

All Steve can manage is a whimper when Tony squeezes his hand around his cock. The angle’s awkward but Tony’s dextrous wrist pivots, twists and strokes all the way down to the base.

Steve keeps his eyes clamped shut, gripping Tony’s hips in white knuckles, the fabric of his sweats bunched up in his fists. He could rip them off, a part of him wants to. Casually tear them at the seams and kick them away, just to see the look on Tony’s face. ‘Sorry, Tony. Were those designer? Well, they had to go…’Subconsciously he must have pulled at them because there’s shuffling and movement, the hand disappears, Steve instinctively follows it lurching forward off the counter.

“Stay,” Tony says almost as breathless as he is, pushing him back with the flat of his palm, fumbling with his pants like he can’t remember how an elastic waistband works, Steve can’t stand it, can’t control himself and paws at the fabric until they end up pooled at Tony’s feet.

He braces on the counter when Tony slots back against him, straddling his thigh, resting something hard and hot just above his right knee. He watches Tony shut his eyes, flinch and grunt like the pressure is too much as he settles himself. It makes his stomach jump with nervous anticipation, he’s still torn; half wanting to push Tony away and send him on his way to his own bed and never mention this again, half wanting to drag him back to his room and show him that the virtuous Captain America wasn’t the morally righteous boy scout they all thought he was.

Steve feels himself blush, from his ears right the way to his toes. It doesn’t go unnoticed and Tony groans. “My God Steve, you’re killing me.” He bites his lip as he says it, suddenly the cool kitchen feels too hot as fingers seek out Steve’s cock underneath the light fabric of his shorts.

Tony sets a rhythm that’s rough and frantic, pushing Steve further back into the counter resting his head and gasping into Steve’s chest as he bucks his hips working up friction of his own against his solid thigh.

Tony’s wrist moves in sharp twists, dragging his hand along the taught velvet skin. He pushes his thumb against the tip and feels it give, Steve curls in on himself gulping in air as his hand slips where it was gripping the counter and has a ‘fuck it’ moment, grabs a hand full of the meat on Tony’s ass, “Christ,” He hears him say through grit teeth as he starts to fall out of rhythm.

Steve can feel it, the pressure building, the sudden loss of any higher brain power as his balls jump up closer to his body, he doesn’t need to know how to breathe, or talk, because he’s gonna come, all over Tony’s hand probably, in the middle of the communal kitchen. He curls his toes against the smooth tiles on the kitchen floor.

The fridge motor that’s been humming the whole time unexpectedly cuts out. Steve hadn’t even realized he had tuned into it but suddenly the only sound in the kitchen is the breathy gasping of unadulterated pleasure scattered with Tony’s casual blasphemy and swearing.

“Steve, dammit. I think I’m gonna-“ Tony’s cut off by the shrill piercing ring of a cell phone.

Steve freezes.

Tony freezes, looking up at him, his mouth open and his eyes wide in an expression of pure pain.

“It’s my cell phone,” he squeaks.

“What?” Is all Steve manages to answer, his brain mush because it was expecting an orgasm and instead it’s like being doused with ice water. They stand frozen whilst the cell builds volume, “Tony shut it off," he gasps in a rush, "it’s gonna wake everybody up.” Tony’s hand disappears, all Steve can think is ‘no’ as he watches him rummage in the pocket of his discarded pants, he looks sweaty and flustered with a wet spot on the front of his boxers where he was about to go off like a champagne cork.

“S’Pepper.” He says looking up guiltily. He holds the phone in his hands like he can’t work the damn thing.

“Answer it Tony,” Steve says wiping a hand over his face, drawing in breath after ragged breath, trying to ignore his cock that's harder than it had ever been and throbbing where it's trapped against his stomach by the waistband of his shorts.

“Pepper….” Tony chirps, eyes darting to Steve as they trade awkward glances. “Me? I was… working out, couldn’t sleep, thought it would help.” Tony’s bringing his breathing under control as he shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. He goes quiet and Steve can hear Pepper on the other end.

He watches as Tony’s brow furrows and he starts to pace. Steve has no idea how he’s walking around, he’s still there dumbstruck and dazed against the kitchen counter because it’s the only thing holding him up. “Some files? Do we know what was in them? Right. Yeah, of course, it’s late. No. We’ll deal with it tomorrow.” He hangs up the phone without a goodbye.

“Everything alright Tony?” Steve asks, and it manages to come out halfway normal.

“They took two highly classified SHIELD files and rifled through half a dozen others,” Tony says ringing his sweats he still held in his hand and staring down at the phone.

“Classified files?” Steve says sensing the shift in mood that signaled the end of whatever they were trying to achieve here, “What are SHIELD files doing in a warehouse belonging to Howard?” He looks over at Tony whose expression is waxy and pale.

“Howard was a founder, and he had a lot of storage warehouses. I guess, these were too high security to be kept at headquarters.” He pauses haphazardly stuffing his pants back on. “I suppose if they were kept there, they would have been destroyed like everything else. As it happens-they weren’t… Now some unidentifiable scumbag’s got their hands on them.” Steve catches the sarcastic grin on his face. “If I knew… I mean… They could be anything- weapons schematics, dear old Dad was fond of designing war machines,” Tony’s face drops, and he looks to Steve in a panic, “what if... What if that’s where he kept the really dangerous stuff?”

“They might be nothing, Tony.” Steve does the only thing he can do, accepts that their tryst was over and tries to be a tether that’s going to keep Tony grounded. “Look, there is nothing we can do right now.” He rakes a hand in his hair and it comes away sweaty, glancing around for something that going to appease him; spotting the tablet that was abandoned, “I’ll watch the footage with you. Once,” he stresses, “then we call it a night. Got it?” Steve does his best to ignore his body screaming at him to finish what he started, he half wishes he’d suggested a cold shower before there’s any more detective work.

“OK, could use an extra pair of eyes, you might see something I missed,” Tony says quietly and lets himself be steered out of the kitchen and into the large TV room adjacent.

***

Natasha cautiously peers around the kitchen door. It was close to five in the morning and the light that’s coming from under the door was unwelcome. She hadn’t factored anybody else into the equation.

She breathes a sigh of relief on finding it empty but still tiptoes through, her skin alive to any shift in the air that could mean she wasn’t alone. She pauses when passing the TV room. Somebody was snoring, it was Steve stretched out from the corner of the couch, with one hand resting across his chest and the other wrapped protectively around Tony who was curled into his side scrunching his face up in his sleep and clinging to him. “I could have told you that was going to happen.” She murmurs quietly letting herself out onto the fire escape.

The day hasn’t quite broken over New York and it casts the street far below in an eerie orange glow. The small flip phone she has flashes as it proudly displays that it has found a signal. “She’s going to hate me for calling this early.” Natasha bites her lip as she dials.

It rings for a good thirty seconds before a groggy voice answers. “Naaat,” It whines, reverberating down the speaker, “It’s early.”

“And I haven’t heard from you in over twenty-four hours, comms weren’t dark on this one, you were supposed to call yesterday.”

“OK, my bad,” There's a shuffling, what sounds like a rifling of papers followed by a clearing of the throat. “I got waylaid-“ the response was cut off by a sleepy yawn, “But it’s all here, what you wanted, as promised.”

“Thank you, I was getting worried… Did you find what you wanted?” The line goes deadly silent and Natasha wonders if the other person has hung up. Until she hears the faint intake of breath.

“Yeah, yeah… It was there…” There’s a silence.

“But?” Natasha prompts.

A sigh comes from the other end. “But, there’s more redactions in it than something out of Area 51. Half of it doesn’t make sense.” There’s more shuffling, more papers get moved. “I did get a chance to have a mooch around some other stuff whilst I was there. Did you know Steve Rogers’ middle name is Grant?”

“What has that got to do with anything?” Natasha says and finds herself smiling.

“I dunno, just made me feel a little better about my crappy middle name, that’s all.” Natasha hears her snigger and she rolls her eyes.

“Whatever works for you. I’ll call you tomorrow, we’ll arrange the transfer,” She pauses before adding, “one more thing-your little stunt getting caught on the cameras has sent Tony Stark into a meltdown.”

“Yesss,” She can almost hear the fist bump that comes from the other end. “How many points is that worth?”

“None! It cruel, he’s a friend.”

“He never used to be,” She laughs, “You used to call him- ‘a hyperactive man-child you had to babysit.’ You’ve changed Nat.”

“I’m hanging up now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You were the one that woke me up, I should have hung up on you ten minutes ago.” Natasha ends the call with a smile on her face and silently makes her way back to her room.

Chapter Text

The moment the door closes behind her Natasha knew she was screwed, the intended stealth mission back to her room went out the window and smashed on the street below when she snuck back in from the fire escape and came face to face with Steve, and shield or no shield the guy cut an intimidating figure when he stretched up to his full height and puffed his chest out so he was as wide as he was tall.

She instinctively shrinks back wondering if he was going to fall for her beguiling, feigning innocents she clutches the phone to her chest and smiles, “Morning Steve, up early?”

“A little breezy to be taking telephone calls out on the fire escape Nat,” he points with his eyes, the rest of his face immovable and screwed up like scrap metal.

How much did you hear?

“What’s going on Nat?” He says taking a step forward invading her space, backing her further into the corner. “You know something,” He points an accusing finger to the phone, “Tony’s nearly had an aneurysm over this.” Everything about him screeches ‘coiled spring’. From the way he flares his nostrils to the way he’s subconsciously balling his hands into fists at his side.

Natasha rolls her eyes and let her shoulders relax, “Come on Steve, stop pulling the raging bull impression.” She glances around before continuing, “Look, I had to call in a favor to get you your precious file.” Her voice drops to a harsh whisper, her eyes continually darting down the empty corridor and then back to Steve because she was acutely aware that Tony had been, and probably still was, curled on the sofa a few doors down.

“Bucky’s file?” Steve deflates like he’s been punched in the gut, “That’s what was taken?” Natasha nods when he looks up eyes wide in disbelief, “Why couldn’t you just have asked Tony for it?”

“If you remember Steve, SHIELD fell along with those Helicarriers, everything pertaining to SHIELD was seized, including, but not limited to-“ Natasha paused for effect “-everything that was in that warehouse. It may have been Tony’s property, but they were under Government control awaiting an emergency sort and destroy.” Steve’s face goes grey. “So, no, Steve. I couldn’t just have asked Tony for them.”

“That’s not you in the video.” He says for want of anything better.

“No.”

“Who is it?” He asks quietly, not looking up from where he’s fixed his eyes to his feet. Natasha has no doubt he’s processing his Tony guilt at being the latest cause of his distress.

“A friend. Somebody I trust with my life.” She looks for a reaction. “I’m going to get the file tomorrow.” Steve nods.

“I’ll come with you-“

“No. You won’t.” Steve looks up, hurt and anger twitches in the muscles of his clenched jaw. Natasha plants her hands on her hips with an air of finality.

I’m not budging on this.

“I can’t just leave this alone Nat. It’s… It’s Bucky…”

“That’s exactly why you have to leave this alone. There’s too much emotion there. I think the whole tower has heard you not sleeping.” Steve glances away with a blush coloring his cheeks, confirming her suspicions that something was going on between him and Tony in the wee hours. She chooses her next words carefully, “You don’t have to say anything to him you know, technically- you’re not involved in this.”

Steve sighs, “I’ve never been much of a liar,” he goes to put his hands in his pockets and suddenly remember he’s standing in his shorts, “I really should…” He trails off.

Natasha entertains the silence for a while watching Steve shift his weight from foot to foot and ring his hands, “Right, well I’ll catch up with you later.” She makes her move to leave, Steve’s fidgeting creating a gap large enough for her to slip past.

“Nat, take Sam with you?” He stops her with a firm grip on her arm.

“Steve, I can’t-“

“Please,”

***

Steve stands alone in the corridor reeling from the wake of his conversation with Natasha. Clenching his hands to fists out of nervous-frustrated habit, because it came back to Bucky. It always came back to Bucky and now there was someone else involved.

A shadowy-friend-of-Natasha’s someone else who’d managed to gouge and claw their way into several highly classified storage cabinets, leaving behind nothing but broken locks and blur on a CCTV camera.

And now Steve knew. And Tony didn’t.

He made his way back to the TV room relieved to see that Tony was still curled on the sofa where he had left him, only he’s nestled further into the warm spot that Steve had left behind with his hands tucked under his cheek, he shifts and groans in his sleep. And it shouldn’t, oh god it shouldn’t. But that noise the rough-gravelly sound pitches straight to the recesses of Steve's brain that was still churning over the event in the kitchen and throws it back into sharp focus, when Tony’s rough fingertips had been pressing against the vein that ran along the underside of his cock and he’d been rubbing himself off against Steve’s thigh.

Steve can’t stop the unexpected rush of air that escapes his lungs and the sudden urge that shoots down his body making him double over and dash to his room.

He ends up gasping in the shower.

He’s so keyed up that all it takes is three firm strokes and he’s coming, shuddering and gritting his teeth under the spray, curling his toes against the unyielding floor and throwing a hand out against the wall to steady himself as guilt, confusion and pleasure slip down the tiles in great splotches of white.

He stays there until his skin is flushed pink from the heat and his fingertips have started to crease. The sun is well and truly up by the time he’s regained some semblance of control and ventured out into the common areas. Natasha’s long gone and he’s relieved, guilty and a little bit empty to find that Tony is nowhere to be seen.

***

The yellow cab pulls off Hunts Point Avenue and heads East along Garrison. “Anywhere along here is fine,” Natasha says smiling at an apprehensive Sam as she addresses the cab driver. He nods and pulls the vehicle to a stop on the corner of Falite Street.

The driver flashes a thumbs up out the window as he departs leaving Natasha and Sam standing outside a garish Mexican grocery store. They’re close enough to the railway tracks that when a loaded freight train rattles past it shakes the ground under their feet.

“So, this is the place?” Sam looks up skyward to the dull apartment block sat atop the store in fifty shades of brown.

Natasha follows Sam’s gaze. The whole place is oppressive, looming over them and cutting a solid block out of the horizon. Unnecessarily complicated and messy electrical cables span the whole length of the street hanging overhead like mesh wire that’s going to fall down on top of them. Natasha sees him shudder and stuff his hands into his pockets. “This is the place.”

She leads him to a back entrance through a set of peeling black metal gates and past an enormous mound of trash. She’s not surprised to find the back fire escape door hanging off its hinges at an angle.

“No lift,” Sam observes as they both politely play the ‘let’s ignore the smell of piss in the stairwell’ game whilst they ascend.

“What did you expect?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. I had Steve telling me you needed a partner to go pick up something from somebody… OK, that was a lie. Steve said ‘chaperone.’” Natasha rolls her eyes, “Then I find myself in the Bronx with you trying not to breathe the air in a stairwell that smells like cat pee, or worse.” He huffs. “This is not how I saw my day panning out. I mean, I’m not sure I can hold my breath all the way to the top floor.” Natasha looks behind her, Sam was smiling his gap-toothed grin and shaking his head. “You know Cap didn’t tell me what we were going to get… I mean it doesn’t matter, I’m up for heavy lifting and all that. I just don’t know why you need me here?”

“I don’t,” She hears Sam pause behind her.

“Ouch,”

“Steve needs you here, he gave me the puppy dog eyes,” She throws him a glance over her shoulder, “Steve can’t leave well enough alone where Bucky is concerned, that’s why you’re here. Trust me, I would much rather have done this alone.”

“Wait… Did you say ‘Bucky’?” Sam freezes behind her, “Not that dude, I’m all for heavy lifting, but no way,” he says shaking his head and waving his arms in front of him, “I’m out, done…” He turns, about to bolt down the stairs.

“Relax, it’s not him. Something to do with him, yes. But not him, come on, we’re meeting an old friend.” She gives Sam a ‘hurry up’ gesture and he glances once back at the stairwell below then back up at her.

He catches up with her a flight or two later, albeit reluctantly, “So, this ‘old friend’,” he says making air quotes, “Are we talking KGB old friend, or..” He trails off hopefully.

“A SHIELD old friend,” she says thinking of the best way to give the least information about her ex-colleague, “There is, something you need to know.” Natasha pauses in the middle of a flight of stairs four floors to go before the top. “She’s not… that’s to say… She’s,” Natasha always struggled with the right words on how to describe Ilona, “She’s not like you and me. If anything, weird happens, just go with it… OK?”

Sam looks up at her quizzically and laughs, “OK.”

Apart from the occasional snort of laughter from Sam at the juvenile graffiti that covers the walls, they walk the rest of the stairwell in silence. When they arrive, the top floor’s no better than the rest, no windows, a singular fluorescent strip light hanging awkwardly off the ceiling and insistently blinking on and off. It wouldn’t have provided enough light for the whole corridor even if it had been functional.

“Did your friend say which number it was?” Sam hovers behind her looking from one end of the corridor to the other.

There are three front doors lined up like ignition coils to choose from each one looking about as derelict as the next, “That part she left out…” Natasha reaches for the flip phone in her pocket. Her hand freezes and Sam’s eyes go wide when the air shifts and goes heavy, vibrations rumble through the floor beneath their feet, like a distant engine firing up and a voice echoes around seemingly coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

“You’re late, and you’re not alone,” it says, “Do we trust?” Natasha presses her hand to her chest where the sound reverberates through her ribcage.

“We trust,” her response is met by silence, but the tremors beneath her feet tell she’s been heard.

There a sigh, a rumble of bass notes like ripples through the air. “Well, any friend of yours is a friend of mine. You had best come in then…” The furthest door opens cautiously and the vibrations abruptly cut off. Sam looks like he’s ready to sprint back down the stairs and keep it up all the way back to Manhattan. He’d been training with Steve, Natasha wouldn’t put it passed him.

He hisses in her ear, “I’m guessing the ‘weird’ thing about your friend isn’t that she’s British?”

She flashes him the ‘just roll with it’ look beckoning him to keep close as they step over the threshold.

They enter a hallway-come-foyer, it’s clean enough. A few ominous stains mark the cream threadbare carpet and the wallpaper is peeling in places. There’s a welcome rush of fresh air that comes in through the open door at the end of the hall where Ilona stands peering at them.

It’s the first time in a long time that Natasha has seen her in anything other than loose clothes, she stands in shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt the pale skin on her long limbs making her look almost wraithlike. “Hi Nat,” she makes a show of draping her arms across herself looking around Natasha to address Sam, “Hello,”

She waves for them to both come into the room she’s in. It’s light and airy with the same carpet as the hall and the same peeling wallpaper, but the large windows are all thrown open on their hinges and at this height, the air is clear from the pollution of the streets.

She saunters over to a desk positioned in front of one of the windows. Natasha glances over at Sam whose busy giving one of the largest dog beds that she has ever seen a cautious appraisal.

“This is what you wanted,” Ilona says dropping a weathered manilla file onto the desk, a few stray photos spread out and slide along the worn leather surface of the desk.

Natasha leans over to look.

“So," Ilona asks expectantly, "what do you think of the place?” she gestures wide with arms and splays her hands.

“It’s… Something,” Sam responds; Natasha sees him out the corner of her eye giving the dog bed and Ilona a wide berth. Natasha was used to it, Ilona’s presence always had a way of making people uneasy, like the air fidgeted around her, even more so when her emotions were heightened.

Bringing Sam may have been a bad idea.

“You have a dog?” Natasha asks glancing nervously at Ilona as she picks up a black and white print from the table. It was a diffusion tactic, distraction.

It works, the air crackles like disbursing static before it settles, “No. Skippy’s not a dog,” she sounds almost offended. “He’s an Apocryphal Metatheria I busted out of a Foundation facility when I took the….” Natasha looks at her and she trails off, smiling sheepishly. “You know what? It’s not important. You came for this anyway.” She gestures to the file that Natasha has spread out on the desk.

“What do you make of this?” Natasha passes a print to Sam, it’s high quality taken within the last ten years at least, “there are chains on the floor,” she says. The picture, the one currently making Natasha’s stomach knot, is of the cells at the Hydra facility documented when the base was found empty and destroyed.

Sam twists it this way and that, scratches his head, looks at the lettering on the manilla file and asks, “How did you get this?”

“I was part of a covert mission to obtain certain sensitive goods before they could be made available to the public,” Ilona smirks in Natasha’s direction, the lilt of her accent almost made theft sound honorable.

“You stole it?”

“On Nat’s orders,” she holds up three fingers like a scout salute, “once a Shadow Agent, always a Shadow Agent,” she says to the ceiling before looking back at Sam and shrugging, “besides, if we all existed within the realms of legality, it would be a very dull existence indeed.”

Sam flashes Natasha an: ‘I can’t believe this’ look, raising his eyebrows and going back to study the photo in his hands, “they kept him in chains… That’s barbaric”

“Not all the time,” they both turn to look back at Ilona. She makes a ‘gimmie’ gesture for the photograph, “That’s not where they kept him, he was here,” she points to the cell disappearing out of shot. “This one-” she says tapping where the chains meet the floor, Natasha already knew what she was going to say, “-This one was mine.”

***

“What do you think Skip?” Ilona turns to the enormous creature that walks up next to her and noses his armored head under her free hand. She scratches the smooth leather-like plates of skin with her fingertips and he shivers and arches his back.

“He’s out there again…. The one I told you about, shall we find him before they do?” Ilona watches Natasha and Sam disappear into a yellow cab, then crouches to be at eye level with her creature. He rumbles and she reaches for the pendant she keeps around her neck, pulling it out from where it rested in the dip of her chest warmed by her skin. It’s a titanium surgical pin, about two inches in length and tapered to a blunt point, its surface polished and machine perfect as it reflects the light coming in from the open window.

“Besides, I have something that belongs to him,” she strikes the pin on the edge of the desk closing one eye and tilting her head to the side to catch the frequency it resonates at. Skippy twitches his large elongated ears and does the same.

“He always did make a very unique sound,”

***

Tony was lost in his thoughts over-tightening a screw on the chest plate of the mark 46, his heart’s not really in it. He wasn’t sure what was more embarrassing, what he was coming to refer to as ‘the kitchen incident’ or waking up alone in the TV room with a stinking hangover having been ditched after said incident. His memory of it was, a little hazy and this horrible niggling thought kept creeping back in his head.

Steve had kind of been into it…

“Stop thinking like that,” he says, chastising himself aloud, jumping when Pepper responds.

“Like what?” She clicks across the workshop floor in a pair of dangerous looking heels giving him a quizzical look, “You’re not answering your phone, I thought I would bring you the good news. Firstly you never removed my override access to your workshop door, secondly,” she waves a manilla file back and forth before dropping it onto the desk in front of him, “We’ve found out what was taken.” She flips the file open.

Tony looks on dumbstruck still clutching the screwdriver in his hand as she continues, “An old SHIELD case file for ‘The Winter Soldier’ aka James Barnes,” she hesitates before continuing, not meeting Tony’s eyes, “and an old SHIELD personnel file belonging to one ‘Miss Ilona Warner’,”

“The Winter Soldier? James Barnes… The one Cap’s looking for?”

Pepper looks at him little uncertain, “I think so-“

“No weapon blue-prints missing, no trade secrets snatched?”

“No, Howard’s filing system was a little antiquated and manual compared to what I’m used to, but everything else was accounted for-“

“You think it might be Hydra?”

“What? Tony, listen there’s something important I need to tell you. The team that was cataloging the files found something… something important… Are you listening to me?” Tony startles at the hand Pepper waves in front of his glazed eyes. Snapping to attention.

“Pepper, what would I do without you?” He says, jumping up from his desk and kissing her on the cheek as he skids out the workshop. “I have to find Steve.”

***

Tony’s out of breath by the time he hammers on Steve bedroom door, half exerted half nervously-excited.

“Steve,” he wheezes growing impatient for an answer he rattles the handle not really thinking it through, the door unexpectedly gives and he stumbles into Steve room.

“Jeez Tony, give me a chance to answer the door,” Steve says hastily tidying papers that were strewn all over his desk, “What’s the big emergency?” he says flustered his cheeks steadily filling up to pink, Tony suddenly realising that this was the first time since ‘the kitchen incident’ they had been in the same room longer than ten seconds.

“It was Hydra,” he blurts, “the break-in I mean. Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anything,” he rubs at the back of his neck suddenly all too aware of how he must look, he catches Steve’s eye then abruptly drops his gaze to his feet realizing he ran here in his socks. “They err… Well, they took The Winter Soldier file,”

Tony sees Steve flinch at the mention, his hands momentarily balling to fists before they relax at his sides again. He grunts by way of response.

They stand in awkward silence, the atmosphere building to something thick with all the things that are going unsaid. Steve looks furious, every muscle in his jaw pulled taut as he glares down at his desk.

“Umm, everything alright Cap?” Tony asks because he thinks he should. His chest starts to go tight when Steve doesn’t answer. It’s to do with ‘the kitchen incident’ he knows it.

“Listen, Steve. I should thank you, for the other night…. Wait, I mean, sorry, I should apologize,” it was coming out all wrong, but Steve was looking at him now, something close to sadness and hurt in his eyes, “It, err… Well, it went too far-“

“It wasn’t Hydra,” Steve blurts, throwing Tony for a loop.

“Excuse me?”

Steve rakes a hand through his hair rifling through the papers he had hurriedly stashed in his desk, “This is all wrong, it wasn’t Hydra,” He tries to push something into Tony direction who puts his hands up and takes a step back.

“What’s going on here Steve? I don’t… Look, just put it on the desk,” Steve obliges and steps back dropping his head as he does so. Tony shoots him a glance confused by the sudden change as he steps forward and it’s Steve’s turn to look at his feet. He shifts uncomfortably out the corner of Tony’s eye, who can't quite believe what’s strewn open on the desk.

“Is this… Some kind of a joke?” Tony pushes the words out, resisting the urge to claw at his chest as the realization of what’s going on grips him, “What the hell is this?” He smacks a hand down onto the file, “Are you trying to tell me you took it? Steve, what the hell is this? I thought… I thought you were helping me, what the hell was all that the other night?” He feels his blood start to heat up as his voice raises a decibel or two.

What the hell kind of game is Steve playing…

“I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean for this to happen… I asked Natasha to help me find him after the helicarriers and he disappeared, I didn’t know what she was going to do.” Steve pleads barely able to look at him.

Anger mixed with betrayal churns in Tony’s stomach and rushes into the space between them, “You should have come talked to me, instead of… arranging to steal it,” he spits.

“Tony, the building was on lockdown, nothing was leaving that facility. It was the only way-“

“Not the only way Steve, I could have worked something out.” Tony folds his arms in front of his chest squaring up to Steve, making the considerably taller man shrink back.

“I’m sorry Tony, I would have come to you first if I had of known where the files were being kept-”

“Do you have any idea what I have been going through the last few days?” Tony pauses, not long enough for Steve to respond, “I’ll answer for you shall I? I’ve gone through hell Steven, thinking it was another terrorist group, picturing the fallout.” Tony taps a finger vigorously to his temple, “Jesus Christ, I came here to apologize to you.” Tony turns away from him sharply and jerks violently away from the hand Steve tries to put on his shoulder, “No, you don’t,” he hisses and keeps his hands up until Steve’s got the message.

“I don’t believe you, what was it you said: ‘we’re a team’, some fucking team Cap. Some fucking team.” He stalks out the room without looking back.

He ends up back in his workshop, seething and gulping scotch neat from the bottle, it stung that Steve would go to such an extream, he’d watched the recording one more time, just as a sadistic punishment for himself, it definitely wasn’t Steve or Natasha that slinked through the cabinets like smoke.

And that horribly-nice-niggly thought of:‘Steve had kind of been into it…’ From earlier, which made him feel warm inside was now replaced with the crushing realization that:

Steve will bend every moral he has for the sake of James Barnes…

If that wasn’t an excuse for another hit of scotch, then Tony didn’t know what was.