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Choices We're Given

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"Have you seen this place?" Steve asks, looking up at the house before him.

The building is two stories tall, all the walls on the main floor made out of glass, big enough to house a family of at least ten despite the fact that the owner, Markus Parrish, lives alone. He can see straight through the living room into the backyard, where a pool sparkles in the dark, lit up from the inside, built to look like it drops off the edge of the cliff. The property spans out wide on either side of it, no one else around for miles.

"I'm seeing it right now," Natasha says in his ear, her voice surprisingly clear, almost as if she's standing right beside him, "through each of his security cameras. Your fly is down, by the way."

Steve grits his teeth and forces out a, "Ha, ha," absolutely refusing to check.

"I'm serious," Natasha says. "Aren't you at least going to look?"

"I'm not falling for that," Steve says, continuing his walk of the perimeter.

Technically this is what he's been hired to do— or so Markus Parrish believes. In reality, Parrish is currently holding onto a large amount of very important information in the form of a small, innocuous external hard drive. Until they find out what he plans to do with it, Steve is stuck posing as his security guard.

This isn't the type of thing Steve thought he was signing up for, when this all started, but it's just part of the job— even if this is his least favorite part. Steve wants to protect people. That's all he's ever wanted. Sometimes that means physically throwing himself in front of a bullet for another person; other times it means keeping an eye on information that could threaten lives, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Honestly, Steve would rather the bullet right now. The sneaking around, secret identities, it's just not Steve. S.H.I.E.L.D. had attempted to give this job straight to Natasha, forgoing Steve completely, but Parrish—shockingly, for a man with so much wealth and power— happens to have misogynistic tendencies. When he'd met Natasha he'd damn near laughed in her face as she applied for the security job. Steve got it instead. Apparently he looks more the part but, then again, Parrish has never witnessed Natasha knocking a man unconscious with a crowbar.

He still doesn't see why it couldn't've gone to someone else, but Fury had been pretty adamant that the fewer agents who know about this, the better. And while Steve knows that Fury doesn't trust him, either, he does trust Steve slightly more than he trusts most people.

Usually that's a good thing. Right now he isn't so sure; at least he has Natasha to keep things from getting to monotonous.

"Steve," she says seriously.

Steve rolls his eyes. "I'm rolling my eyes, I hope you can see that," he tells her. "I know my fly's not down, and I'm not gonna check."

"One of the cameras has gone out," Natasha says urgently, and Steve pauses, missing a step. "I have no visual on the front gate."

"What? The front gates should be guard—"

There's something about the sound of gunshots that sticks with you, once you've heard them up close and personal. The nightly silence is shattered by the crack of a gun going off once, twice, so loud that once the sound dies out everything feels almost eerily quiet. There's no way that sound could be anything else. He wants to tell himself it was a car backfiring, someone setting off fireworks nearby, but he knows that's not what it was. Not even close.

Steve closes his eyes and holds his breath as two faces flash in his mind: Robert Goodman, barely thirty, two kids and an ex-wife. Jeremy Dunn, ex-policeman, owns two rottweilers. Bella and Simon. He keeps pictures of them in his wallet. He'd shown Steve them the first day he started working here, like a proud father showing off his kids.

Damn it. Steve runs for the gate, pulling out his gun as he goes. He knows the entire estate off the back of his hand already, knows exactly how long it'll take him to get to the front gate, and he's not surprised to find two bodies on the ground and the shooter nowhere in sight by the time that he has. He might've caught them, if he hadn't hesitated.

"I need an ambulance," Steve says to Natasha, bending down to check Jeremy's pulse. "They're both alive. Unconscious. One's been shot in the thigh and the shoulder. Shooter nowhere in sight."

"Sending backup," Natasha informs him. "Two minutes. You need to—"

"On it," Steve says, leaving the bodies behind, sprinting for the house.

"No kill-shots," she warns unnecessarily. "We need to know who wants that storage device."

If his lungs weren't so busy burning from the run, Steve would scoff. He doesn't eliminate, he apprehends. They both know this.

And that's probably why he's been put on this mission, he realizes. It's not just about keeping Parrish's intel away from the wrong people. They need to know exactly who those wrong people are, and they can't do that if a stray agent puts a bullet in the head of anyone who tries to go after it. Steve won't do that. Steve has a reputation for getting his job done with as little blood spilled as necessary, and now he has no doubt that that's why he's here right now.

"Understood," he says.

No matter how many times he does things like this, it never feels routine. The pounding of his heart feels new all over again. The way everything narrows down feels unfamiliar. The hesitation in each step, pausing to listen for someone coming up behind him, never gets any easier. Steve is good at his job, even he can admit that, but sometimes he wonders what kind of person that makes him.

The day it does get easy is the day Steve quits. The day he doesn't hesitate before shooting his gun is the day he puts that gun away for good, he promises himself.

Inside Parrish's house, he can't hear a thing. There's nothing but the soft, muffled sound of his heavy boots on plush carpet, the muted huffs of his breath, and, in the distance, some kind of fan blowing cold air into the building. His skin prickles with goosebumps, the hair on the back of his neck standing up, but one quick, sweeping look of the main floor tells him he's alone.

He heads for the stairs.

Despite how it looks from the outside, the entire house is not as transparent as it seems. The moment Steve reaches the top floor it becomes obvious how easily someone could be hiding in the shadows. None of the lights are on and it's too dark to see much, but Steve is used to relying on his other senses just as often as his eyesight. If someone comes up behind him, he should hear it.

They don't. Instead, the third gunshot of the night echoes through the air and Steve makes a run for the third door on the left.

When Steve had first taken this job he'd requested a tour of the house, in case something happened and he needed to know his way around. Parrish hadn't done it himself, but his assistant had been more than friendly as she showed Steve where each of the seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, and two offices were located. Steve made a mental note of each, and, when he was done, drew a rough sketch of the layout for future reference.

The last time he'd gotten a glance into Parrish's room the only thing that had really caught his attention was was a third door in the room, not leading to a bathroom or closet. Office, Steve had guessed, but he never got a chance to check it out. The ridiculously large bed, the pristine white comforter, the rest of the dark-wood furniture, it had all faded into the background, unimportant.

This time it's the blood that captivates him.

For a second, just a split second, Steve lets himself stop and take in the scene around him. Markus Parrish's face is nearly unrecognizable with the hole in his skull and the blood coating everything else. The once elegant-looking bed spread looks like the scene of a horror movie, the red of the blood so fucking stark compared to the sea of white it stains.

That's all he allows himself. He can't afford to be caught standing here gaping, and Parrish is already dead. Steve's not helping anyone by standing around staring at his body.

That third door that had caught his eyes days ago is now standing wide open. Steve lifts his gun, his hands steady as he creeps towards it, no idea what he's going to find inside. Natasha hadn't gotten a glimpse at who came in through the gates. There could be one, there could be a dozen. Steve could be grievously outnumbered and he has no way of knowing.

Surprisingly, that doesn't scare him as much as it should.

He was right about the room being an office, he finds when he steps through the door. It's small, discreet, no access to the outside except for through Parrish's bedroom. There's a desk on the far side of the room, the top littered with a messy assortment of papers, pens, a computer screen and not a single picture frame in sight. The only piece of decoration in the room is the painting lying on the floor near Steve's feet, no doubt carelessly tossed away from where it had probably hung behind the desk, used to cover the now-exposed safe.

The man standing in front of the safe doesn't even turn when Steve steps into the room, lowering his gun so it's aimed at the man's leg, not the back of his neck. If he hears Steve at all, he doesn't show it. He's too busy reaching up, fiddling with the dial on the lock for a moment before, with the loud groan of twisting metal, he yanks the front of the safe clean off and sends it flying through the air at Steve.

Steve moves on instinct. He ducks, barely sparing the front of the safe a glance as it lodge itself in the doorframe, and manages to get a single shot off. The sound of it in the small room makes his ears ring, but he doesn't even get a chance to check if it hit its mark before the gun is being yanked forcefully out of his hand as something tight, cold and metal wraps around his wrist.

"Should've taken the shot while my back was turned," a gruff voice says, too close to comfort.

"Not really my style," Steve says, knowing, without a doubt, that he can't break the hold on him. Any attempts to will result in a broken wrist, and he's not willing to risk that.

Without warning, Steve's back hits the ground hard enough that all the breath is stolen from his lungs.

"Maybe it should be."

His head swims from the impact, vision taken a moment to focus. When it does, he finds himself looking up into steely blue eyes nearly obscured by the long, lanky strands of brown hair falling over the man's face. His lips are pressed into a firm line, looking almost pale compared to the dark stubble shadowing his jaw. He seems taller from this vantage point, but Steve guesses somewhere near 5'10, give or take. Well built. Wide shouldered, strong thighs smothered in tight black fabric and— a metal hand? That's what it looks like, from here. Like a glove of metal wrapped around each finger and up to his wrist, disappearing beneath more black fabric.

Steve shakes his head and moves, kicking out at the guy's legs, jumping to his feet when he misses. This guy's fast, as fast as Steve, maybe even faster. In the time it takes Steve to get to his feet he's already moved across the room, retrieving the drive from the open safe and slipping it into his pocket. Steve rushes him. It's the only thing he can think to do.

The man swings his arm back, elbow cracking into Steve's jaw, but it doesn't feel like flesh and bone. It feels harder, more solid. Steve doesn't let the pain register, is too busy swinging a blow for the man's left arm, hitting him closer to the shoulder.

The metal doesn't stop at his wrist, Steve realizes. It goes all the way up his arm.

He pays for his curiosity. This time those cold, unyielding fingers wrap around his throat, picking him up off the ground like he weighs nothing. He struggles, clawing at everything he can reach, kicking out, but he's tossed at the nearest wall before he can do any damage, head cracking a hole in the plaster.

The man gives Steve a single look as he gasps for breath and snorts, striding easily across the room, heading for the door. Steve can't let him leave, though. He has strict orders not to kill, sure, but he also has unspoken orders not to let him leave, especially with that hard drive in his pocket.

Throwing knives is not Steve's specialty. With that in mind, he tugs the blade from his holster anyway and it feels like his heart stops beating as it soars through the air and lodges itself in the man's thigh, the angle too off to have hit anything fatal. The sound the man lets out is more bloodthirsty than pained, and he yanks the knife out of his thigh as he whirls around, eyes sharp and focused on Steve.

"Can't let you leave with that," Steve says, struggling to stand steadily as the man comes at him, blade poised easily in his hand.

"I was trying," the man bellows as he stomps forward, "to let you live!"

Steve refuses to be caught off guard again. He meets the man halfway, ducking as the blade in his hand swings for Steve's throat, landing a blow to the man's stomach that has him stumbling back, wheezing, but coming right back for Steve in seconds like that blow, one that would've taken out most men, hardly fazed him.

The knife catches Steve on the arm in the next swing, but Steve manages to get a kick to the back of the man's thigh, right over the knife wound. He groans, leg giving out, and Steve takes advantage of his stumble to snap a kick to his wrist, adrenaline pumping through him as the knife clatters to the ground too far away for either of them to grab it.

If he thinks it's that easy, that all he has to do is disarm this guy and he's got the upper hand, Steve is mistaken. Even without the knife the guy grits his teeth as he stands on his wounded leg, and he manages to get a punch to Steve's ribs, a kick to his hip, another blow to his jaw. It takes Steve seconds, maybe, to register that the blows coming from the metal limb hurt a hell of a lot more than the ones coming from the rest, and in that time he already makes an unconscious decision to avoid being hit by it at all costs, even if that means stepping into a blow from the man's right hand.

He fights well, Steve notes. The style almost, absurdly, reminds him of Natasha in the way it's dirty, no holding back, but that's a good thing. If there's one person Steve has experience fighting, it's Nat. And while he doesn't always win, while sometimes he walks away from the mat bloody and bruised and rolling his eyes at her smug grin, he knows how to predict the kind of moves she makes and, subsequently, the kind of moves this guy is making.

Steve doesn't let himself forget about the room just outside of this one, the blood splattered mess, the dead body. The man he's fighting is a killer; Steve has to remember that. Steve himself might not be fighting to kill but there's nothing stopping this guy from crushing Steve's skull with that metal fist, and he seems pretty determined to do it.

They're almost evenly matched. It boils down to advantages, and Steve's not sure who has the better one. His adversary has the strength of his arm, but Steve wounded him badly when his knife stuck into the back of his thigh. Just as his opponent uses every opportunity to strike Steve with his left hand, Steve dives at every chance to land a blow on the wound until they're both gasping, bloody, groaning and weakening.

And then, with a shockingly easy grin, the guy steps back and pulls the drive from his pocket. "This what you want?" he asks.

Steve lifts his chin, smearing his hand through the bloody mess of his nose and mouth, finding his nasal passages clogged when he tries to breathe through his nose.

"Take it, then," the guy spits, tossing the thing in Steve's direction.

Steve doesn't think; he reaches out, snatching the drive out of the air, and when he looks back he finds himself alone in the room amongst the wreckage that used to be the desk, the painting, the safe. Shit. He bolts from the room, slipping the drive into his pocket as he moves, and makes it into Parrish's bedroom only to find the window open, letting in a cool breeze, and no one alive in sight.

That window hadn't been open when Steve came in here. He sticks his head out it, looking around, but if the guy he was fighting is out there, Steve can't see him. He's become just another shadow in the night, and Steve knows, deep in his gut, that he won't be able to find him even if he goes on pursuit.

"Damn it," Steve says to himself, just as he hears a chorus of footsteps coming up the stairs, no doubt his back-up sent a little too late.




"You weren't supposed to let him leave," Natasha says, without a hint of disappointment in her tone. She keeps looking at him sideways when she thinks he won't notice, attempting to catalogue any possible wounds he has that he hasn't let any of the medics look over yet.

"I'm aware of that," Steve says.

"Did you at least get a name?"

"You know, between stabbing him and him elbowing me in the face, it never really came up."

Natasha snorts a laugh, smothering it quickly. "Can you—?"

"Give me a sketchbook and half an hour."

"He did a number on you," Natasha comments, sounding more casual than the look in her eyes suggests.

"And Parrish," Steve says hollowly, unable to get the image of Parrish's bed out of his mind. Steve has a white comforter, too. He's going to have to change that as soon as they clear him to leave and go home. "Didn't manage to get this, though," he says, holding the drive out to her.

Natasha's eyes widen. She quickly takes it out of Steve's hand, somehow concealing it on her person despite the fact that the outfit she's wearing doesn't look like the type to have pockets, and even if it did, it's tight enough that he should be able to see the bulge of it somewhere. Somehow, he can't.

"Someone finally going to tell me what's on that thing?" Steve asks as they walk.

"Not here."

Before Steve can ask her where, then, he's shoved unceremoniously through a door to his left, Natasha hurrying in behind him, door locking and lights coming on automatically. Steve looks around, not as startled as he would've been years ago when he'd first met Natasha, and frowns at the small bed and the lack of any other furniture in the room, aside from a nightstand.

"Is this your room?" he asks as Natasha heads for the closet set into the wall, pulling it open and tugging out a t-shirt, a sweater, and a pair of jeans.

"At the moment," she says. Steve turns around, giving her privacy. "There should be something to draw with in the bottom drawer. I'm taking the drive to Fury. I'll be back."

Unlike Natasha, Steve has never spent extended periods of time at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. He has his own apartment, his own life outside of this, and he needs that. If he didn't have that, he's not sure who he' be anymore. This job has a way of becoming everything, and Steve can't handle that.

Just as promised, Steve finds a notepad and a dull pencil in the bottom drawer. He feels wrong going through Natasha's things but he needs to get this done while everything's still fresh in his mind, before he forgets important details and they have no way of figuring out who the hell it was that kicked Steve's ass back there.

Because he did, Steve can admit to himself. His ass feels thoroughly kicked. He might've gotten out of there with the drive, but if the fight had continued, if the other guy hadn't given up, Steve's not sure if he would've been the one coming out on top. He can't remember the last time he fought someone who actually had a chance to beat him, and he feels shaken from it and more than a little caught off guard.

Drawing is like fighting, for Steve. It comes easily, almost automatic. He doesn't have to think when he does it, he just… does it. Cold eyes, heavy brows, dark stubble, lanky hair, soft mouth pressed into a hard line. Steve loses himself in it, so caught up in dragging the pencil across the paper that he almost doesn't notice Natasha's return until she clears her throat.

"The two guards are alive," she tells him. "They're both being taken care of. Either the shooter missed, or it wasn't his intention to kill them."

"It was intentional," Steve says without looking up. "He let them live. When we were fighting he said he was trying to do the same for me. Until I stabbed him, that is."

"That does tend to piss people off, doesn't it?"

Steve sighs and lowers the pencil. "He gave me the drive back. He just— he threw it at me."

Natasha frowns, sinking down next to him on the tiny bed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she says, "That doesn't make sense. Why would he give you it back, unless—?"

"Unless he didn't come for the drive at all," Steve says, looking down at his drawing. "He came for Parrish. The drive was an afterthought. It wasn't the priority." He smudges his thumb against the man's jaw, lightening the dark of the stubble a bit. "What was on that drive?"

"We don't know."

Steve looks up sharply. "What?"

"We let the drive fall into Parrish's hands," Natasha admits. "Everything on it's in code. We can access everything on it but no one can decipher what any of it means. Even our technology can't crack it without the cipher key. We were hoping that whoever was trying to get it would be able to give us the answers. Only problem is, we still don't know who they are."

"What if they knew that?"

Natasha tilts her head to the side. "I'm not following."

"Whoever that drive originally belonged to," Steve says. "What if they knew that we were trying to figure out how to unlock it, and that's why they killed Parrish? They don't care if we have the drive because they know we can't access the information inside, but Parrish might've been able to tell us who could."

"So they put him down before he had a chance to slip up."


"Or," Natasha muses, "whoever they sent to get the drive wasn't very good at their job. Either way, the only lead we have is—" Natasha leans over, chin digging into Steve's shoulder as she looks at the sketch. She pulls back almost instantly, taking the notebook with her. "Is this him?"

"Well, it's not actually finished yet," Steve says, attempting to take it back, but Natasha stands up, moving away from him, back turned and head ducked as she looks closer at it. "Natasha?"

"Profile," Natasha orders, back still turned.

Steve sighs. "5'10, maybe. Somewhere around there. Blue eyes. Brown hair. And his left arm was…"

"It was what, Steve?"

"Metal, I think? I'm not— I'm not sure, but that's what it looked like. What it felt like."

Natasha finally turns back to him, holding out the notepad. "That confirms the theory that he was there for Parrish, not the drive," she says. "You don't send people like him to retrieve things. You send them to kill."

"You know who he is?"

Scratching absently at her stomach through her sweater, Natasha lifts a shoulder and says, "He's works for Hydra."

All of Steve's breath seems to come out at once. He leans back on the bed, hands splayed across the soft brown comforter, and lets that sink in.

What they know about Hydra is limited. Even with S.H.I.E.L.D. having the kind of technology and power it does, Hydra's managed to elude them for years. What they do know, however, is more than enough: Hydra breeds assassins. The number of deaths in the last ten years alone credited to one of their members is so high they're considered an international threat. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been trying to take them down for as long as it's been around, but it's just not possible. Take out one agent and another one crops up. Somehow none of them stay alive long enough to question.

Their agents are like shadows. They come out of the dark when they're needed, and they retreat back into it when they're finished. When you have someone you need killing, you don't contact them; they contact you, and anyone who's worked with them refuses to open their mouths. They know that even S.H.I.E.L.D. might not be able to protect them from the repercussions of talking out against Hydra.

"Aren't they supposed to be ruthless?" Steve asks, eyebrows drawing together. "Why leave me alive?"

"Maybe he didn't think he could beat you," Natasha says kindly, but they both know that's not it. "I don't know, Steve. All I do know is that drive just became a lot more important than we thought."

"And we're still not any closer to figuring out what's on it."

"Always the voice of optimism," she snorts, lips tugging up. "Don't you have a few days off?"

"Yeah," Steve admits, standing up with a groan. He tries to stretch out the aches in his body but they're not from stiffness. He has a feeling that once he gets home and showered, he's going to find a masterpiece of bruises covering his body like paint on a canvas. "What about you? You know you promised Sam we'd do another movie night. He hasn't forgotten about that."

"I'll make you a deal," Nat offers. "I'll come if you promise to stop by the infirmary first."

"I'm not asking you to do it for me, I'm asking for Sam," Steve says, as his vision starts to blur a bit, the room spinning when he takes too long between blinks. "But I think that might be a good idea."

There's a fondness to the way she rolls her eyes, just like there is with most people in his life. His mom used to say he has a way of making people worry about him. He doesn't mean to, but she definitely had a point. He thinks Natasha would agree, too, but he doubts she'd say so out loud.

"Take care of yourself," he says as he leaves.

"Take your own advice for once, Rogers."

Steve laughs, waiting until the door is shut to let the sound die out. He leans against the wall beside her door, closing his eyes, and hopes the walls are thick enough that she doesn't hear the way he groans in pain at the aching in his ribs.

He definitely needs to be looked over before he leaves.