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Baiting the Water

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Stick to your part, Johnny, he reminded himself.

The gallery around him was full of smooth and snazzy people. He'd put a considerable sum—by his own standards—into the pinstriped suit he was wearing, and it did prevent him from sticking out like a sore thumb. Still, it was a far cry from the fancy foreign fabrics, silks and whatnot, worn by the host and many of the guests.

The host, Ed Stern, was standing by the magnificent pastel-colored Monet. With his carefully styled dark hair, trimmed mustache and perfectly fitted suit, he would’ve been stunning if he hadn't been so drunk. Johnny could almost smell him from across the room. Stern was talking animatedly to Fisk. Johnny tried to pretend he was appreciating the contemporary piece in front of his face while stealing glances at the inventor-art collector and the bald, broad-shouldered mob boss.

Anyone in their right mind would be terrified of stepping into the Kingpin's personal space, but not Stern, and it wasn't just foolish bravado born from alcohol. Johnny had to give it to him: as hateful as he was, the man certainly had guts.

Stern. This was the day when Johnny would finally get back at him. He'd been waiting for it long enough. It was risky, but he'd made his plan. He only needed to wait for the right moment.

As it happened, that moment was offered to him on a silver platter.

The conversation between the two men was getting more agitated, and the volume rising until it was loud enough that Johnny could hear it.

“No, no, I'm telling you, Wilson—Willy, I'm just going to call you Willy,” Stern was saying, waggling a finger at Fisk, his wine glass tilting precariously. “The times are changing, Willy. A bunch of goons just doesn't cut it anymore, you need better security.”

And there, that final wave of the hand holding the glass went over the critical threshold, and the wine splashed onto Fisk's immaculate white shirt, leaving a large burgundy stain, almost as if he'd been shot.

If Fisk didn’t kill Stern on the spot, this could be exactly what Johnny needed.

Fisk's face was still otherwise blank, but the look in his eyes was pure murder. Everyone in the room had fallen silent, turning to see what’d happen next, the tense anticipation so heavy you could cut it with a knife.

Fisk grabbed Stern by the collar, easily lifting him off his feet. Stern was by no means a small man, but Fisk's strength was almost super-human.

“Thank your lucky stars I'm a gentleman and there are dames present, Stern. It's the only reason you’ll live to see another day,” Fisk said, his voice barely controlled. He slammed Stern carelessly into the nearest wall—Johnny couldn't help wincing in sympathy—and walked away without looking back, his henchmen separating from the crowd to follow him.

Stern was staggering back to his feet, assisted by a bookish-looking fellow in a tweed suit.

This was Johnny's cue. He headed for the door, and slipped out right after Fisk and his men. Before they'd reached their car, he shouted after them. “Mr. Fisk? May I have a word with you?”

He'd barely had time to close his mouth when one of Fisk's goons had grabbed hold of his skinny shoulder, crushing it so hard it hurt.

“I'm having a very, very bad day, kid,” Fisk said menacingly. “You better not make it worse. You have one minute. If I'm not convinced, I'm going to use that baby face of yours as a punching bag.”

Johnny swallowed, struggling to keep his cool. This was far more dangerous than his usual fare. “You're having a bad day because of Stern, right? I've had a pretty rotten couple of years thanks to him. I want revenge. But he's a smart guy, and rich. I can't do it alone.”

“Do I look like a gun for hire to you?” Fisk asked, eyes narrowing dangerously.

“No! No, that’s not what I’m talking about, nothing like that!” Johnny said quickly. “I don't want him dead. I want him broke. You've seen his art collection. That's got to be worth hundreds of thousands, if not more.”

Fisk's expression relented somewhat. “All right, you've piqued my interest. Get in the car.”

They settled in Fisk's black Bentley, one of his flunkeys driving, the other joining Johnny in the back, with Fisk on the passenger seat in front.

“Go on, then, kid. What's your name, anyway?” Fisk asked, without turning to look at Johnny.

“Ralston. Johnny Ralston.”

“And you hold a grudge against Stern. Why's that?”

“Well, I'm an artist,” Johnny began, feeling a little wistful just saying that. “Or rather, I used to be. Nowadays I'm more of a grifter. And it's all his fault. We were friends, see? For a time, I was his protégé. But when it really would've mattered, he didn’t come through for me. I was going through a rough spot, and buying just one of my works for his collection would've given me more than just money—people would've finally heard about me. It could’ve changed everything. But he just, he told me it wasn't good enough. Not good enough, that’s baloney! He's had worse pieces than mine, and paid a lot more for those than what I was asking for.” Johnny realized he was starting to rant, and cut it off.

Fisk remained silent for a while. “I, too, appreciate art, but I happen to appreciate loyalty even more. I think that was a low move, though no worse than what I would expect from Stern. People say I'm evil, but that man is rotten to the core, I tell you. So, how do you plan to get back at him?”

“His collection. I want to steal it. All of it,” Johnny spilled the beans. No need to dance around it. “But it's not going to be easy. His security systems are like something out of a science fiction magazine.”

“I bet half of it is just tall tales he’s told himself, but you’re right, he’s no fool. I assume you have a plan for getting around them already?” Fisk said sardonically.

“I don't. But Stern's going to tell me all about them.”

“You said you're not friends anymore.”

“No, but we’re going to be. I said I'm a grifter, didn't I? I’m not half bad at it. As much as I hate him, I’ve no problem posing as his best buddy. I can get him to give me all his secrets.”

“And where exactly do I figure into this?”

“Well, obviously,” Johnny began, slowly—this was the catch, the part where it could all go south—”It won't be easy, no matter what. I'll need resources and men, especially when show time finally comes. To begin with, the easiest way to convince him that I've forgiven him and that this isn't a ploy to get at his money would be to buy something from him.”

“So, you're asking for money,” Fisk said, sounding almost disappointed.

“Yes. Two grand. But it won’t go to waste—you'll get a very nice painting for it. Besides, it’s a small sum compared to what you'll gain when we pull this off, and I can promise you it’s the first and last big investment I'm going to ask for.”

The silence was much longer this time, long enough to make Johnny worry he'd gone too far. Sure, with his criminal empire, Fisk could easily afford such a sum, but it was still a lot to ask after mere minutes of conversation, and with Fisk having a bad day, too. The man could snap Johnny’s neck with one hand and not break a sweat. This was possibly the riskiest gamble he’d taken in his entire life.

“You know, Johnny Ralston,” Fisk finally said, turning his head to peer at the backseat for the first time during the entire exchange. “It's your lucky day. I do think it’d be worth two grand to see that hotshot's face when he realizes he's lost everything. I'll help you get your revenge.”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Fisk, you're not going to regret this!” Johnny replied, trying not to gush, but not quite succeeding.

“Winslow, stop the car,” Fisk said to his driver. “This is where you get off, Ralston. Tomorrow at noon, you're going to be at Klein’s Pharmacy, right there,” he points at the store through the window. “And someone will pick you up, so we can discuss this in more detail. Now, I need some peace and quiet.”

The car came to a halt, and the thug next to Johnny all but pushed him out into the street.

Johnny got out of the car, took a couple of steps, heard the sound of the motor grow fainter, looked over his shoulder to make sure the car was gone—

—and Steve Rogers broke out in a triumphant grin.

He was a few miles away from the gallery now, so he headed back at a brisk jog. Unable to be absolutely certain he wasn't being tailed, Steve slipped off the main streets when he got closer, and used the back entrance to the gallery, which really was just an office they'd repurposed for the occasion.

The rest of the team was already busy taking down the set, which they’d rebuild when needed. Pretty much everyone was there, some still wearing their costumes, like Pepper in her dazzling green dress and Bruce in his slightly ruffled tweed, others already changed into their regular clothes. Jarvis had just grabbed hold of Mondrian’s brightly colored, geometric piece to lift it off the wall. Of course, it was actually Steve’s handiwork, like every other painting in the room. Barely worth a nickel, but he was still quite fond of them.

“Careful with them,” he called out at Jarvis. “One of those beauties is going to gain us two grand.”

“I’m always careful, especially when it comes to your art!” the grey-haired man replied peevishly. “Glad to see you made it back in one piece, Mr. Rogers.”

“Thanks, Jarvis! And good work, everyone,” Steve said, raising his voice to address the whole group of people. “You did great, Fisk was totally convinced!”

There was only one person missing from the room, and he was the one Steve really wanted to see. “Anyone know where the big shot is hiding?”

“Check the kitchenette,” Pepper said helpfully. “He’s been all antsy, waiting for your return.”

Steve ran into Tony in the hall before he got to the kitchenette. The man was still dressed in Stern's expensive-looking suit and red and gold tie.

“Johnny!” Tony greeted with a roguish grin. “How tedious to see your ugly mug again!”

“Likewise, Mr. Stern. You and that smirk of yours really grate on my nerves,” Steve replied, and went straight for a kiss, pressing Tony against the nearest wall and his tongue into Tony's mouth. All the tension of the last few hours melted away, as did the last dregs of the role Steve had been so carefully holding on to.

“Jesus, you stink like a liquor store,” Steve noted when they pulled apart.

“Well, blame yourself, you're the one who suggested I spray myself with booze for added effect,” Tony said, his hands still on Steve's arms. “It went well, I take it?”

“Oh, yeah! Fisk bought it, hook, line and sinker,” Steve replied. His fingers strayed to the bruise on Tony's cheek, no doubt a result of Fisk roughing him up. “He hurt you! Are you okay?”

“It's nothing you can't kiss better, honey,” Tony said huskily. “First, though, I want the low-down. Did you settle on any details with him yet?”

“Nah. We’re going to meet tomorrow to get started on that. But he did sort of promise to cough up for a painting,” Steve summarized.

“And after you've gained his trust, you can sniff out all the details of his operations, so we’ll know to hit him where it hurts.”

“You’ve got it. And I’ll milk him as much as I can while I'm at it. I might need to spend some more money to convince you of my good intentions, after all, and I’ll have to buy all sorts of specialized gadgets to crack those famed security systems of yours.”

“I'm pretty sure you've demolished my security systems already,” Tony said, with a wink.

Steve moved closer to Tony again, pinning him against the wall, standing on tiptoes to press his thigh purposefully against Tony's crotch. “Ah, is that so? That means I can move on to the next stage and start digging up all your deepest, dirtiest secrets, Mr. Stern,” Steve murmured to Tony’s ear.

“Oh, I’m looking forward to that, Mr. Ralston,” Tony purred.