Steve stepped out onto the Commando Bridge, peering inside the foyer. The lobby was still vacant. The upper hallways, best to his line of visibility, were empty as well.
Which meant no one had watched him and Tony sneak into the storage room. Perfect.
Every inch of him was bursting with life—even the floor under his feet felt new. For everything good in the world, his mood couldn’t be better. Quickly, he made his way through the Triskelion’s hallways while working on the buttons of his uniform. He felt like he had just completed a marathon and that thought alone was enough to bring a light flush to his cheeks. His morning marathons around Washington certainly never made him feel like he wouldn’t be able to stop grinning within the next couple of hours.
This was definitely the better kind of workout, he decided. Barely a minute had passed since he left Tony’s side, and yet his skin tingled as though still brushing intimately against him. His nostrils were flooded with Tony’s scent. He was all around him. Inescapable. And even with so little space separating them, he already felt the burden of detachment.
Another two weeks without seeing each other. Christ, he’d really started to hate this long-distance relationship thing. He’d known it wouldn’t be easy, of course—being away from Tony rarely was—but he hadn’t thought he would feel this bad about it.
All that hastiness and goodbyes. The constant not-knowing. And the want.
God, so much want.
Quickies were good and well, but after three months of living in different cities, and only a handful nights when they’d been able to actually sleep in the same bed, Steve craved the times when they had hours—days—to explore each other’s bodies as long and as thoroughly as they both wanted.
It would be easy to blame everything on SHIELD and Stark Industries. After all, it was the combination of their time-consuming jobs that had them both make the decision to live in different cities for a couple of months. In the end, though, it had been he who’d said yes to Fury and sometimes… and it was probably weak to feel like it… he regretted that decision.
All in all, living here wasn’t such a hardship. Aside from training the new STRIKE team, and spending most of his free time with Natasha and Clint, he’d met all sorts of interesting new people. Coulson’s team, Peggy’s niece Sharon, Sam. Sam, in particular, was a great guy. They usually did their morning runs together—sometimes jogging side by side, sometimes with each of them doing their own thing and going for breakfast afterwards.
Hastily, Steve pulled up the shield and sat it down on the holder on his back. The elevator soared higher to the Triskelion’s top level. He leaned back against the glass wall, smiling peaceably and letting his mind drift back for a minute, unable do to anything but.
A low ping announced his arrival. Steve drew a deep breath and willed himself closer to the landing pad. The agents surrounding the Quinjet cast him a few odd looks, but otherwise ignored his still-a-little-disheveled look. Tony had probably known what he was doing when he’d pulled at Steve’s hair as hard as he had, but Steve couldn’t find it in him to care.
“Sorry,” he told his team as he jogged up the rear hatch. “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. I got held up.”
Natasha’s and Clint’s faces both broke out into sly smiles as they looked him up and down. They didn’t say anything, though. At least they were kind enough to wait until the rest of STRIKE had taken their seats in the back of the Quinjet.
A shadow of a smirk crossed Rumlow’s face before he turned around to the other agents. He’d never said anything about Steve being married to a guy, but Steve had heard a few things here and there and sometimes he got a feeling Rumlow was talking behind his back. Up to this point, he hadn’t felt the need to confront him about it, but if it started to undermine his authority, he would definitely need to reconsider.
“So…” Natasha began with a little amused huff and raised both hands to Steve’s head to smooth down his hair. “I hope he made it good.”
Steve cast her a lazy smile. “As good as it can get in ten something minutes.”
Clint groaned at them, turning around to the monitors. “Rhetorical question. Look it up, would you?”
“Sorry. Might’ve lost a few brain cells back there,” Steve drawled, deadpan. He refused to feel bashful about this. The moments of intimacy with Tony were far too rare for that.
Clint held up a hand, as if he needed a moment of quiet or else. Then he pinched his nose and shook his head. “Is this how it’s gonna be now? Give you two an enclosed area, and you’re going at it like bunnies?”
“We barely see each other twice a month. I figured we were going the same way so…” Steve shrugged, rubbing his forehead.
“Rhetorical, Steve. Should I get a fucking dictionary for you?”
“Give him a break,” Natasha told Clint, eyes twinkling with mirth. “He’s happy ‘cause he got laid. Let him bask while he can.”
“I hate to think how long it’s been if he’s this happy.”
“Guys…” Steve started in warning, then trailed off when a robotic voice suddenly resounded in his ear piece.
You know what’s funny? Tony asked. It had taken Steve a while to get used to the way he sounded when talking via Extremis. There was a metallic tone to his voice, not unlike JARVIS; only his intonations were still somewhat the same. I was five minutes into the meeting with Fury when I noticed that there’s spunk on my pants. What do you have to say for yourself?
Steve almost choked and could barely contain it. He felt his cheeks heat and glanced sideways, but no reaction came from Nat and Clint. At least Tony had the decency to use a private channel. That wasn’t always the case.
Steve cleared his throat, putting a hand on his earpiece to show he was talking on the com line. Better choose his words wisely.
“If I recall correctly… wrap-up was your job,” he murmured, while leaning sideways as much as he could.
You on the Quinjet?
Nat and Clint next to you?
A low hum, then, How are your feeling?
“Good?” he ventured.
A noise, which Steve could easily identify as the Extremis-version of Tony’s laugh by now. If that’s all you’re feeling, I haven’t done a very good job.
A smile crossed Steve’s lips. “Very happy.”
Tony hummed. Me too. Shame we had to hurry like that.
He chuckled, shifting slightly. “Yeah. Believe me, I didn’t want to leave that room ever again.”
Next to him, Clint huffed with a long-suffering expression. Natasha only chuckled softly and boxed him into the side.
Second that notion. Though I am feeling kind of sticky now.
Steve hummed noncommittally, firmly fighting down the heat rising to his cheeks. “Are you still in the meeting?”
“So you’re talking with Fury while telling me about the…” He paused and shifted awkwardly. “…crinkles on your pants?”
Crinkles? came the highly amused reply. At least the tone of Tony’s teasing sounded the same via Extremis. Nice catch. But I was actually talking about the stickiness in my ass, Steven.
Steve bit down on his lower lip so hard he nearly drew blood. “Tony…”
That’s my name, yes.
Steve sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Tell you what: You get a reward for paying attention to your meeting now, okay?”
What kind of reward?
“The good kind,” Steve offered, and the light intake of breath from Tony’s side told him immediately that he got his meaning.
You have a dirty mind, Rogers.
Steve was entirely unable to hide his smile. “Me? I’m the one with the…” He cleared his throat, “punctuality issue?”
A snicker. Sure thing. You sully my virtue.
“Excuse me,” Steve said, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t exactly alone. “Mr. Let’s-Try-Something-I-Have-Never-Heard-About. We both knew—” He glanced sideways, stopping in mid-sentence when he took in Natasha’s devious grin.
Mmm, Tony hummed. All right. I’ll be quiet and pay attention. But Fury’s extra boring today, so I’ll expect you to make it good for me.
A smile flickered across Steve’s face. “Will do.”
There was a sound that was probably meant to be a sigh, though it didn’t even come close to a human one. All right. Back to the boring stuff. Love you, stay safe, and as always—
Steve pinched his nose, but intoned anyway, “Don’t step in front of Clint if he’s doing something stupid.”
“Hey,” Clint called, momentarily leaning closer to Steve’s ear. “Fuck you very much, Tony.”
Good boy, Tony told Steve softly. Talk to you later.
And with that, the line went dead, leaving Steve to Nat’s and Clint’s bemused stares.
* * *
“All right,” Steve called out, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “Hawkeye and I are gonna sweep the deck and find Batroc. Widow, you’ll kill the engines and wait for instructions. Rumlow, you and your team sweep aft, find Sitwell and the hostages in the galley. Get them to life pods. Let’s get them out.”
Rumlow nodded and turned around to the other men. “STRIKE, you heard the Captain. Gear up! Secure channel seven.”
“Coming up by the drop zone, Cap.”
He put on his helmet, and with a timely gust of wind, the rear hatch blew open. Natasha slowly edged closer to him. He was close to the Quinjet’s opening now, where the noise was at its loudest.
“I have a secondary mission,” Natasha told him without premonition.
Steve blinked, turning around and looking at her, and then at Clint. He wasn’t paying them any attention. Instead he was sorting through his arrows, quietly talking to Rumlow. “Our mission is to rescue hostages.”
“Yours and Clint’s, yes. Fury ordered me to secure data from the ship’s server.”
There was so much about that sentiment that did not sit well with him.
“Data,” Steve echoed, furrowing his brows. “You mean SHIELD Intel.”
Natasha offered a small, respectful nod. “Yes.”
“We were briefed about this mission. Together.”
Natasha’s gaze averted to her hands. “We were. Fury called me up to his office beforehand. He left it to me to tell you.”
Steve straightened, his hands clenching into fists. Of course Fury would think that the Avengers—especially Natasha and Clint—were still under his jurisdiction first and foremost, despite the fact that they hadn’t been his employees for over a year by now. The Avengers were self-funded and only working for SHIELD on a contractual basis. And with Steve as the team’s leader, Fury had agreed to run every single command through him.
Truthfully, this sort of assignment was usually done without the Avengers’ help. It was all very basic. Charge in, free the hostages, leave. Something Fury only sent them on to allot a breath of fresh air. Maybe Steve should’ve questioned their being here a bit more. If he’d given it more thought, he’d realized there had to be more to it than just a hostage situation.
“How long have you known about this?” he asked slowly. Careful. Tempering his pace as to not over-exert himself just to make a point.
Natasha shrugged. The blankness in her eyes was beginning to unnerve him. She hadn’t put up that mask around him in a while now. “About two days.”
A sigh rang through the air, and it wasn’t pleasant. Steve rolled his head back, closing his eyes for a moment. There would be plenty of time to sit down and discuss Natasha’s commitment towards SHIELD once the more important stakes were met. Right now, his only concern rested with the hostages, and he wasn’t about to go wasting more time. “Fine. Just kill the engine first. We’ll handle the rest without you.”
Natasha nodded her agreement, grabbing for the parachute with a quick movement. Steve had never doubted the probability of Natasha and Clint doing a few side missions for SHIELD while they were helping out in DC. He wouldn’t have minded, he had worked for Fury himself, after all, and he knew about the duo’s obligations.
It was the fact that she hadn’t deemed it necessary to tell him first.
“Right,” Steve said, not quite able to keep the bitter undertone out of it. “I’m off.” And with that, he made his way to the rear opening, gripping for one of the handles next to it.
We had a talk about jumping off of things, Tony’s voice intoned again. And yes, before you ask, my meeting’s over.
“How did you…” Steve huffed, cold wind sweeping against his face as he pressed a hand against his earpiece. “Never mind. You promised to remove that tracker.”
Shucks. Seems like I forgot.
“JARVIS did a scan on me before I left. He cleared me.”
Well, that’s what you get for ganging up on me with my AI. News flash: J isn’t smarter than me, honey. You really should know better by now.
Steve groaned, irritated. “Seriously, you need to stop tracking my every step.”
If you want me to actually feel guilty about this, how about you stop doing things that always justify my means, Captain McFly. I was only half kidding about putting some red white and blue wings onto that uniform.
“The height is fine and you know it. Quit monitoring me,” Steve said and took two strides forward before he was airborne.
A pause, then, I wish I could at least be there to fly with you, Tony said quietly, and there was no angry undertone, only simple regret.
“Me too. Next time I’m in New York, we’ll fly somewhere. Just you and me.”
Sounds perfect. All right, I’ll leave you to your pirate situation. Gotta catch my flight back to New York or Pepper will flay me alive. Be careful.
“Always am,” Steve promised, before he changed position so he’d land feet-first into the ocean. He pulled both hands to his chest and closed his eyes. A second later, he was crashing into the ice-cold water.
* * *
They found the Lemurian Star virtually crowded when they arrived that night, and it was no wonder why. Batroc seemed to have gathered all kinds of mercenaries around him.
Entering the ship via the Helicopter landing pad was easy enough. He had the distinct feeling that his presence rang on the side of unwelcome, but that had never kept him from going in head-first into such situations. He looked around the premise for a moment. The lower level of the Lemurian Star stretched for a good half mile and there was no way to look around without blowing his cover.
All the mercs were wearing at least two guns, and while some looked like they could be trained in hand-to-hand combat, it was more than obvious that they’d be no challenge for him. Then again, they were mercenary soldiers. Mercenary soldiers rarely held any real danger for him.
He moved carefully around the corners, sliding through the shadows at first, his enhanced senses extended as far as they would go. Nothing moved except the wind from the ocean and the odd cloud scutting across the moon.
It wouldn’t stay that way.
As he approached the main hall, Steve changed his long stride into a more stealthy walk, completely quiet as to pull of the sneak attack he was going for. He found a window and, climbing easily to perch just outside the ledge, prepared to attack the first group of mercs. He could hear them speaking with each other, their words coated with incredulity and sending vibes down the corridor. One of the men’s back was turned to him at present. Steve paused very briefly, planning his entrance, before he moved swiftly around the corner.
They stood no chance. No chance at all. He elbowed one hard before choking him, then punched another with his shield. He blocked the swing of the third merc, kneeing him so hard in the gut, he fell down and didn’t get up again, before throwing number four into the railing. The metal links clamored loudly with the impact. He made a feeble try to stand up again, but Steve only took a step back, and watched as one of Clint’s arrows embedded itself into the man’s thigh, sending him to the ground.
“Thanks,” Steve called into the comm, as he ran into the underbridge that’d lead him to the next deck—and the galley.
“My pleasure,” Clint said, and gave him a little salute from where he was perched on the upper-deck landing pad.
“Heading towards second deck,” Steve said. “Widow, what’s your status?”
He heard her let out a short breath, whether in acknowledgment or exasperation he couldn’t tell. “Hang on,” she finally answered.
Decision making from that point was fast paced. Steve spared himself little room for thinking about anything beyond fighting his way across the Lemurian. He rushed up to the top deck, swinging his shield and simultaneously bringing three men down. The place crawled with all sorts of personnel, most of them were Batroc’s men, but a few were obviously just in it for the money. There wasn’t enough time to make ample selection, though, and Steve figured, in the grand scheme of things, they all deserved at least some headache in the morning. They all, while not fully behind Batroc’s cause, were loyal to the innate chaos the Lemurian Star represented.
Disarming the last mercs on his way was simple, since Clint had taken out most of them by the time Steve even got there.
“Targets acquired. STRIKE in position.”
Steve nodded to himself, as he made the last jump for the top level. “Widow, what’s your status?”
“Engine room is secure.”
“Batroc is on the move. Hawkeye, circle back to Rumlow and protect the hostages.”
“Copy,” Clint intoned.
The overall arrival in the galley was anticlimactic, but he had to admit, Batroc was a bit of a surprise. He came out of nowhere, flinging his whole weight against the shield and instantly knocking Steve off his feet. He blocked his first blows, then delivered a punch to his gut and a hopping front snap kick to his jaw. Steve stepped back, amused.
“You are strong.” He landed a solid backhand on him. Batroc went flying. “I’m stronger.”
His technique was almost as good as Steve’s, and that was something that he refused to take lightly. He sat his shield back on his back and flung the helmet on the ground—eternally grateful that Tony was already on his private jet right now, because it was pretty safe to say he wouldn’t approve.
“On va voir.”
They traded a flurry of blows and high punches and Batroc got him right in the stomach, knocking him down some steps. Steve fell and bruised his upper arm on the railing. Batroc flung up his hands against the next blows instinctively, then realized that it was only a deceit. But in his moment of distraction, Steve was able to slam his elbow into Batroc’s neck and knock him out.
After that, it was mostly routine work. They were able to free Sitwell and the rest of the hostages without any casualties; Natasha retrieved whatever data Fury had told her to retrieve and they vacated the premise without any difficulties.
It had been an easy mission, just like Fury had told him it would be.
Easy, but definitely not without consequences.
* * *
Steve’s boots clicked against the white marble as he walked up to the elevator. It was still dark outside, and only artificial lights illuminated Washington’s night sky. The air was completely still; the street noises so very far away in that moment, like they belonged to another place and a different time—like the noises of everyday had no business here. Steve watched the night sky around him, hand cradling his shield, brows furrowed in deep thought.
The sun had yet to rise on the horizon, but frankly, the next day couldn’t start soon enough. It had been a hell of a night, and now all he wanted to do—all he craved for—was call Tony and then get a few hours of sleep. But these things were too few and far between, even on a normal day. Any planning he did was second only to what Fury would say in regard to all this. He did not like to doubt his good intentions, but Fury was a spy first and foremost.
Just like Natasha.
And it wasn’t just one thing that bothered Steve. It was the sum-up of a thousand things. He had lost count of the number of times he had arranged a meeting with Fury to discuss SHIELD’s information policy with the Avengers only to feel very tired and decidedly not wiser afterwards.
And now Fury was messing with his team.
Steve sighed and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall of the elevator. The irony of it all was that he had known this would happen. They were living in a veiled world and just like the rest, Steve did nothing to break free. Working for SHIELD meant that a need-to-know basis had to be enough, and somewhere along the way, this force had manifested within him—and he’d become nothing but a shell of the man who’d come to Washington three months ago.
Times like these, being Captain America caught up with him. Dwelling on the issues with SHIELD brought back a dull throb behind his eyes. He wasn’t sure why he was so surprised. This was what Fury did, right? Keep information close to the heart. This was what all of SHIELD did… what they had always done, even when Steve had been too ignorant to know it. An intelligence organization that fears intelligence, he remembered Tony saying, a lifetime ago.
Yet, after everything that had happened in New York, after Fury had sent Coulson to help them with Aldrich Killian, no questions asked, he’d thought—foolishly, maybe—that things had changed. The Avengers weren’t part of SHIELD anymore, hadn’t been, for a long time. There was no imperative to share information, and yet, Steve had been convinced that they were at least being straightforward with each other whenever they were working together.
Well. It seemed Tony didn’t call him a hopeless optimist for nothing.
A rush of irritation overtook him, the same sense of betrayal that had dogged his thoughts since Fury had tried to play him by putting him into a fake hospital with a fake baseball game welcoming him back to reality.
Leaning against the handrail, Steve watched the dark river below. The night was silent, and for a moment, the whole world seemed completely at peace. And Steve was so tired, tired of this place, tired of being lied to. He let his mind wander back over the last few months. After Aldrich Killian had been defeated, he had almost instantly switched to soldier mode. He had charged ahead when Fury had asked him to help out with training the new STRIKE teams in Washington. Tony hadn’t questioned his decision. He was busy, too. Busy with getting a handle on Extremis, and busy with his newest SI projects. And while both of them hated being apart that often, they’d known it was only temporary, and that they were doing good in the process. They’d both thought it’d be worth it.
He wasn’t so sure anymore.
Steve looked down at the USB-stick in his hand with some trepidation. He didn’t know what kind of SHIELD Intel was on it, but the fact that Fury had tried to leave him in the dark about it, and only trusted his best spy to do the job, was a telling sign if he’d ever seen one.
Natasha had been quiet the whole way home. They were both wrapped up in their own thoughts, neither one of them willing to share at the moment. Steve had a feeling he knew what was going through her head—it wasn’t the first time she’d had to decide between her loyalty to the Avengers and SHIELD—but he hadn’t really wanted to revive the discussion anywhere but inside the safety of their home in New York.
The elevator door slid open. There was a dim light at the foot of the stairs, and he could hear voices coming from Fury’s office. When he reached the foyer, he saw Natasha and Fury standing near the sofa. They were speaking in a hushed whisper. Fury’s lips were drawn together in a thin line, lines of fatigue and temper bracketing his mouth.
Steve drew a deep breath and willed himself closer to the office door. The reaction from those he passed was noteworthy, but otherwise ignored. He knew he probably didn’t look all that happy.
Inside the office, Fury diplomatically offered to show Steve what the Intel was related to. Steve nodded his compliance and made to follow. There were no words. No exchanges. Talking with Fury these days always left Steve with a sour taste in his mouth he couldn’t fully comprehend. And his gut feeling hadn’t lied to him. Steve pursed his lips as he looked up at the new generation Helicarriers and their new weapon system.
“These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles in minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.”
The thought, the mere suggestion, made Steve’s stomach churn. His jaw tightened. “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.”
Fury’s gaze darkened, but he didn’t seem surprised. He knew Steve’s views on punishment without a proper prosecution and what he would or wouldn’t agree on. “We can’t afford to wait that long.”
A part of him had known Fury would take this route, of course. He’d seen it in his face after New York as well as anyone. Whatever time, whatever place, faced with uncontrollable forces, humanity always tried to surround themselves with things they could control.
Fury wasn’t any better. Truth, at times, was easy to overlook in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Rules were changed when circumstances changed.
“After New York, I convinced the World Security Council that we need a quantum surge on threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.”
“By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection?” Steve countered, and with that, the battle over semantics fell to a draw. It was easier to speak with Fury in absolutes. Easier to ignore the doubt in his mind—the very real fear that he was playing to the desire of people rather than doing it for the right cause.
“You know, I read those SSR files,” Fury said. “‘Greatest generation?’ You guys did some nasty stuff.”
“Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so that people could be free.” A sigh rolled off his shoulders; he knew he was surprising Fury with the finality of his opposition, though he couldn’t fully understand why. From the beginning, Fury had been tuned into his opinion on these kind of matters. Even before Loki, they’d had these sort of disputes, and Steve had never budged on his beliefs.
“This isn’t freedom,” Steve said, willing Fury to understand. “This is fear.”
The silence that settled thereafter was thick and more than a little disconcerting. Fury’s mouth formed a solemn line and he nodded tightly to himself. Manifest conviction clouded every strain on his face, before he glanced away to the Helicarriers. “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. It’s getting damn near past time for you get with the program, Cap.”
“Right,” Steve said with a huff, flexing his shoulders. At least Fury was blunt and honest about it. And still. Things had gone far enough, and he was through with waiting at the sidelines, ducking his head when things weren’t sitting right with him. “I’m going back to New York. I will talk to Agent Rumlow myself. Have him take over Strike Delta.”
Fury blinked, not attempting to conceal his astonishment. “Come again?”
“The Avengers are not part of SHIELD. This is not my area of responsibility,” Steve continued and shot Fury a meaningful glare. “And this goes both ways, Nick. Next time you send one of my team members on a mission without telling me first, I will not let it slide that easily.”
Fury blinked. That he had not been expecting. “Was that a threat, Rogers?”
Steve shook his head, slowly. “You know… when the WSC fired that nuke on New York, you did something they told you not to do, simply because it was the right thing, and I respect you for that.” He paused and drew in a deep breath. “I’d hoped it would also make you reconsider taking the line of least resistance.”
He turned the USB stick around between his fingers one more time, before handing Fury the device.
“Just like that?” Fury asked slowly, his eye narrowing.
“Well, forgive me my delusions. Understand that it has been a very long week.”
Fury huffed. “You got that right.” There was a meek edge to his voice and Steve felt his anger deflate somewhat.
“It’s not helping… my being here. I’m just the rain on the parade.” He paused, his hand on the railing as he glanced up at the Helicarriers. For weeks, Tony had been elbow-deep into constructing the new repulsor engines. He hadn’t known about the weapons, though. Steve was sure of that. Tony wouldn’t keep something like that from him. “I won’t agree on this. You don’t need me.”
With that, Steve headed for the elevators and was not surprised when his move did not inspire an objection. The distance between them at that moment seemed too magnanimous for any further discussions.
* * *
He’d known Natasha would wait for him. She leaned casually against his motorcycle, giving him one of the blank smiles he hated seeing on her—especially after he’d already seen her bursting out into giggly little laughing fits numerous times. Nobody said a word until Steve had secured his saddlebag to the bike’s bag mount.
“You don’t seem too bothered,” Natasha offered.
Can’t be bothered when I’m not surprised.
That wasn’t entirely true, but it changed nothing. “I’m going home,” he told her quietly, then looked up. “You and Clint coming with me?”
There was an appropriately lengthened pause. The conclusion was all the same, he guessed. It was merely a matter of getting there. “Yes,” Natasha answered eventually. “We’ll stay for another mission, though. Phil asked for our help. We’ll be back in two weeks.”
Steve sighed, but nodded. He knew he could be overprotective when it came to his team, but this wasn’t the time. “What’s another mission, right?”
Natasha smiled that quiet smile of hers. It didn’t seem to be quite as false this time around. “You’d be surprised.”
“Something tells me I wouldn’t.” Steve shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck to worry out the kinks. Perhaps he’d been able to fool himself for a while—not anymore. “I just can’t do this anymore. Serving without asking. I don’t know how you do it—”
“I don’t,” Natasha told him with a hard face. “I told you about my mission, didn’t I?”
“When I couldn’t have made a different call anymore, yes.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Natasha retorted, something like frustration flashing within her green eyes. “I don’t know what you want to hear, or what I can say that you haven’t heard already.”
“I can’t trust Fury,” Steve remarked. “Not like this.”
“I’m not asking you to trust him blindly, Steve. I’m asking you to cut him a little slack.”
“Why should I?”
There was silence at that.
Natasha crossed her arms and jutted her chin at him, eyes dark and serious. “Look, SHIELD’s modus operandi might have changed since we stepped out, but they’re still playing on our side. Fury is on our side. He’s a good man.”
A sigh rolled off his shoulders. “He’s still wrong about this. He’s been wrong about this since I met him.”
Her eyes softened. “Steve—”
“I have seen people being put in camps because they were named potential threat to national security. Fury is trying to stop something before it even started. Based on what? He makes compromises because he is afraid of losing control. And this is the exact behavior that wills war into existence.” The tone of his own voice startled him with its conviction, his heart straining to be heard. That was a lesson learned the hard way. A lesson he would never allow himself to forget. “This is why I need to know where your loyalties are. I need to be able to trust that you’re not keeping information from me.”
Natasha held his gaze for a few seconds before breaking eye contact. A small silence fell between them, and it felt different. It felt like an acknowledgement that everything was about to change. “There’s always gonna be a part of me I can’t share with you.”
“I know we’ve talked about this, but it just… you don’t understand.”
“I only expect honesty from you, is that really too much to ask?”
She held his gaze a beat longer, then sighed her resignation and glanced back to the pavement. “Sometimes.” She shrugged. “It’s just the way I am.”
“And to keep trying is the way I am.”
Natasha smiled at him with a soft expression. “I think I’ll never fully understand you, Rogers.”
The look in her eyes gave him pause. There was so much conviction. A firm belief that, when it came to honesty, they’d never be on the same page. And he had to force himself to ignore the voice that commanded him to pull her in a hug, because her words haunted him with truth.
* * *
The second the sun rose over the horizon, Steve drove his motorcycle onto the curb in front of the Triskelion, shoving a hand into his leather jacket where Tony’s favorite screwdriver waited for him to fiddle with it’s handle.
So, he’d agreed to leave it be. Let SHIELD handle whatever it was they were hiding. It wasn’t what he wanted, but he understood the wisdom behind caution. The last thing he wanted was to jeopardize their alliance with SHIELD because he didn’t trust Fury. So he agreed to let Fury research and come to the necessary conclusions himself. And he agreed to wait because it made everyone breathe easier to think he wouldn’t fly off the handle.
He’d agreed because it was the smart thing to do, even if his heart didn’t agree.
It had been a long day. Completely surreal, too. He kept expecting to blink and find himself back in his and Tony’s penthouse, but the harsh reality remained—the world wasn’t going to change. He’d only been back on solid ground for four hours, and it already seemed years had passed since he’d held Tony in his arms that morning. He hadn’t even had a chance to take him aside or ask how he felt—ask any of the burning questions regarding SHIELD that had been lodged in his throat for weeks now.
God, he missed him so much.
He missed talking to Tony, hearing his thoughts, and his worries. He missed their arguments that drove him out of his mind most of the time, but always made him realize an aspect he hadn’t considered before. He hadn’t fully realized how accustomed he’d become to hearing Tony’s perspective, but that’s how it was. They often had different opinions, and sharing them with each other usually wasn’t pleasant business, but that’s what you got when you were honest with each other. And Steve preferred being yelled at from time to time, when it meant they weren’t keeping the important stuff from one another.
He knew Tony’s flaws. He’d made a study of them when Tony’d been his mission subject, and now, in love with him as he was, Steve knew his quirks intimately. And he loved him for them. They made Tony real—made him human, despite the fact that with Extremis, he was so much more now, too. The way he—genius brain notwithstanding—still acted on emotion rather than thought, even if he refused to admit it. The way his nose scrunched up when he realized a mistake. The way his eyes were slightly pinched when he felt a bit too almighty. Tony was brilliant, clever, and so full of flaws that it made Steve realize why loving someone had never truly been real before him.
Tony wasn’t an ideal. And that’s why he was perfect.
Steve sighed, steering the motorcycle on the next drive-up, heading for Langston instead of home. It was an unusually quiet morning in Washington, and he was thankful for that. There were breaking points, and then there were Breaking Points. This clearly was the latter and he supposed, taking one thing at a time was likely the easiest way to get through the next days. He’d need to wrap up a few things at SHIELD before going back to New York. He’d have to talk to Rumlow, Coulson and Clint. Make them understand why he needed to leave for the time being.
And he needed to say goodbye to someone else, which meant atop everything else, the day would be another trial on his mind.
* * *
Since living in Washington, he’d sat next to this bed too many nights to count. There was a heap of clean laundry piled on the floor, the closet door hung slightly ajar, a few purses hanging loosely around the doorknob. The photographs on the nightstand told the story of a life well lived, and there was a pair of pumps resting beside the nightstand, with impressive heels for a ninety-year-old woman. But then again, this was Peggy . This room wasn’t dead, not by a long shot; its owner was just missing occasionally.
Familiar pinpricks stung his eyes at the thought. With a heavy sigh, he turned to look down at her sleeping form once more. The gentle cadence of her soft breaths reverberated through the walls with a soft air of peace he envied.
What he missed most was her unimpressed face, though, complete with crossed arms and suspicious eyes. Her cute ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ attitude that had made him fall a little harder for her every time. It was no use. When she’d wake up, she wouldn’t be there.
“I could really use some advice, Pegs.”
Unexpectedly, Peggy stirred at the sound of his voice. Slowly, she opened her still beautiful blue eyes and reached for his hand. She didn’t make a sound, and Steve watched as her mouth fell open, mimicking the shape of the words he spoke.
“Sorry,” Steve said, smiling. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Now that you did, you might as well make use of it,” she said, sliding her tongue over her dry lips. Steve smiled at her words and handed her the glass of water, watching her drink. She remembered him. Today was a good day, then.
“I’m being dramatic again,” Steve told her softly.
“Oh no,” Peggy said in mock-drama and with a light chuckle. “That’s usually followed by you doing something drastic like… crashing a plane into the Atlantic.”
Steve snorted with surprise, before barking out a real laugh. “You’re exaggerating, that was one time.”
Peggy rolled her eyes at that, and ran a hand through her white hair. “Oh I almost forgot,” she said, and Steve could swear she’d been winking at him—before she reached for a small, aged photograph on the coffee table. She pulled it close to her chest so Steve wouldn’t be able to look at it. “My grandson found this in the library. I think I once stole it from Howard.”
Steve’s brows perked. “Stealing things from a Stark? I’m impressed.”
Peggy wiggled a bit at that, her cheeks flushing. “I didn’t steal it so much as I… took it without letting him know. It’s one of your boy’s.”
Steve huffed at that, crossing his arms. “You know he’s fifteen years older than me, don’t you?”
Peggy smirked, and it made her look so young for a moment it hurt. “Sorry, Steve,” she replied, “you got about a century on him. Besides,” she leaned back and held the photograph up, looking at it with a soft expression. “Once you change someone’s diapers, he’ll always be the little one for you.”
She handed him the faded photograph, and Steve couldn’t stop the amused little sound leaving his mouth as he looked down on baby Tony giggling, drooling and biting on some plush toy that looked a lot like a wrench.
He’d never gotten his hands on a private picture of Tony as a baby. There were only the professional photo-shoots Maria and Howard had made him go through in the early years, and then, everything the paparazzi had caught him doing. Tony’s life wasn’t anything but well documented, but this… this was something rare, something special.
“Thank you,” he said. “It’s so crazy that you watched him grow up. I forget that, sometimes.”
“And you’ll be there for the rest of it,” she mused with a soft sigh. Peggy met his eyes again and they shared a small, private smile. “I’m so happy for you.”
She’d told him that several times by now and it never got old. He felt warmth spread through him.
“You have no idea how much that means to me,” he told her earnestly, squeezing her hand.
“You have to bring him with you sometime. I’d love to talk to him. It’s been far too long.”
Steve cringed, and bowed his head so he wouldn’t let it show too much. Tony had visited Peggy a couple of times in the last months. Almost every time, Peggy asked about their wedding—and Tony, amazingly, told her about it with the same amount of enthusiasm. There was never any sign of annoyance on his face, and he never made her doubt that he didn’t have the time of his life telling her about the ceremony, the dancing, the honeymoon. His excitement never seemed anything but genuine, and Steve fell a little bit more in love with him every time.
“He’ll love to,” Steve assured her and squeezed her hand. “The photo, can I—”
“Of course,” Peggy said. “Not much use with me, has it?”
Steve furrowed his brows, looking down on their entwined hands. “Don’t say that.”
“Oh Steve,” Peggy whispered and slowly raised her right hand to cup Steve’s cheek. “It’s not your job to save everyone, you know? It’s not your job to—to…”
Steve looked up at that, staring down in her unfocused blue eyes. He could pinpoint the exact moment when he lost her again. One moment she was here, and then she was gone.
“Stay with me,” he whispered, foolishly, he knew. It wasn’t fair to ask this of her. It wasn’t her fault.
He hadn’t even managed to tell her he’d leave the city tomorrow.
Her eyes met his after a moment, almost apologetic. As though she could tell what he was trying to accomplish… and perhaps she could. There was a sad wisdom in her eyes. The face of a woman who had tried everything in her power to remember… once upon a time.
“Steve?” Peggy asked, and her hands started to tremble.
Steve exhaled deeply, gaze finding her blank one, heart breaking at the flecks of confusion and shock clouding her blue eyes as she looked him up and down. He smiled bravely. “Yes, Peggy. I’m back.”
A long stillness settled between them—Peggy’s eyes now darting from his face to the photograph in his hands. She worried her lower lip between her teeth and made a humming sound.
“I think I once stole that from Howard.”
Steve smiled softly and kissed her cheek. “That you did, Pegs.”