Chapter 1: Prologue
“T minus 30 seconds to your window, Captain.”
The line whispered through the air like a thin, noiseless bird, a cord of steel rope flying over Hong Kong’s dusky skyline. It found purchase seconds later on the roof of a shorter building, the thick metal claws of the grappling hook digging securely into the concrete. The cable pulled taut and jolted the grappling gun in Steve’s hands, but he’d braced for it and held his ground.
Steve stood on the corner of the roof, one foot on the ledge, and looked down to where the other end of the line was secured on the roof of a skyscraper some fifteen storeys below him. “Line set is up and ready. How’re things on your end?”
“Satellites are giving us the all-clear, Cap,” replied the voice in his ear. “Any eyes in the sky are diverted, ready on your signal.”
With an efficiency that spoke of practice and impressive discipline, Steve quickly disassembled the grappling gun into a solid metal cylinder, which dug itself to the concrete he stood on, securing his end of the line. He opened one of the pouches on his belt, unfolded a black steel bar capped on both ends with rough grip surfaces, and latched its central, near-circular hook onto the cable.
He pressed a finger to the comm on his ear. “Ready on your mark.”
“That’s a sheer sixty metre drop, Steve,” said Jan, quiet concern audible even through the comm. “You sure you don’t want to use a security harness?”
“No real names on mission, Wasp. Besides,” Steve added with a small grin, “how else would I get my fun?”
A sigh came through from the other end of the comm. “Field agents,” and from the way she said it, Steve was pretty certain she rolled her eyes. “On my count, then: three, two—mark.”
At her signal, Steve launched himself over the ledge of the roof, gripping the handles tightly as he flew down the line. His stomach lurched dizzyingly as he plummeted down the near-vertical slope of the cable, the ground giving way to nothing but wind rushing past him. Far, far below him, the city was a sea of multicolored lights, loud and bright and oblivious.
He squeezed the braking mechanism on the handle and came to a stop just at the very edge of the concrete crenellations. He swung forward and somersaulted over the remaining drop, just about twice his height, and stuck a clean landing on the gravel-covered roof.
Steve stood up, brushed the dust from the front of his dark blue uniform, and glanced over his shoulder. “Clear.”
Behind him, there was a small spark on the other roof as Jan activated the self-destruct on the anchor. The cable fell slack, and Steve went to where the line was embedded amidst the gravel. He pressed a button on the side on the hook, which reeled in the zip-line until the whole mechanism was compact enough to put in one of his belt pouches.
Steve darted across the span of the roof and dropped into a crouch when he came across the ventilation grate. “Moving down the building now. Do you have any plans for Saturday?”
There was nervous laughter on the other end of the comm. “...Saturday? I, um, have plans that I set up with Betty a while ago, there’s really no way I can—”
“Wasp, I’m not trying to get us back together,” said Steve exasperatedly, as he carefully unscrewed the fastenings of the protective panel. “And even if I was, I wouldn’t do it while on the job. I need access to records on the Barbuda case. Director’s asking why we haven’t made any progress on the latest AIM operation.”
“Oh, okay,” said Jan, sounding obviously relieved, “but Saturday, Cap? Really?”
“What about it?”
“It’s the weekend!”
Steve smirked, even though Jan couldn’t see it, but he hoped it came through his voice anyway. “Five seconds ago you were desperately trying to get out of what you thought was me asking you out on a date.”
A snort. “Oh come on, would you date you?” she said teasingly. “We were the worst idea ever, but that doesn’t mean Betty and I wouldn’t be happy to bring you along for our girl’s night out.”
“I’ll pass,” said Steve.
“Suit yourself, Captain Workaholic.”
Steve shook his head, small laughter under his breath. “Sometimes, Wasp, I’m surprised we didn’t work out, and then other times…”
“Eyes on the prize, Captain Grumpypants.”
He hefted himself over the edge of the displaced panel and dropped down the narrow ventilation shaft, free-falling for several seconds before pushing against the walls to come to a stop. He manoeuvred himself toward an opening, a small tunnel branching off the main shaft, and crawled forward on his knees and elbows, following the floorplan he’d memorised from the pre-mission briefing.
Steve moved through the tunnel as quickly as his bulk allowed. It was nearly pitch black, with only thin slivers of after-hours lighting pushing through cracks and grates, but the map he carried in his head was as clear and precise as any computer and he had little issue navigating the maze of aluminum duct work. After a time (exactly 17 minutes and 33 seconds, by his internal clock), he arrived at his goal: a ventilation grille that opened to the floor below. Steve kicked it aside and slowly, silently, lowered himself to the floor below.
His boots hit the marble flooring with a nearly inaudible thud, a small noise that nevertheless echoed around the room. The hackles on the back of his neck rose as he suddenly went on alert.
“Jan, what did intel say this floor was supposed to be?”
“Preliminary recon said it’s supposed to be the management headquarters of South Pacific Financial. What’s wro—oh wow.”
“There’s nothing here,” Steve muttered, quietly, all the light-heartedness gone from his voice.
The camera hooked over his left ear made a quiet swiveling sound as it zoomed in. “Yep, I can see that.”
The whole office floor was empty, completely devoid of any furniture: no desks or cubicles, no chairs, no fake houseplants. Steve stalked forward, quickly taking stock of his surroundings. The city lights washed in from the tinted glass walls onto the gray marble of the floor, but nothing else.
Steve stopped in front of the elevator and knelt down on one knee, splaying his hand over where the marble gave way to dull, heavy-duty carpeting. “The carpeting here is brand new. The company didn’t just downsize or close shop—this floor was never used.”
“Sensors are scanning the floors below you and they’re coming up similarly empty. Actually, all forty-four of the floors beneath you are empty,” Jan reported. He could almost hear her perfectly sculpted eyebrows pulling down into a vee of confusion. “Who rents half a skyscraper in the heart of the Hong Kong financial district and just leaves it empty?”
“Someone who wants to look legitimate and doesn’t care about the cost,” Steve answered grimly. “Can you get a hold of any building permits? Records on the current lease owners?”
“Way ahead of you, Cap.” In the background, he could hear the fast click of fingers on a keyboard. “I can trace various contract holders to some thirty different companies in East and Southeast Asia, but a group called Mandarin International owns the lease on most of the floors.”
“Do we have any idea who they are?”
Behind him, the elevator dinged.
In a flurry of movement, Steve drew a handgun from the holster low on his back and aimed at the elevator just as the doors swung open. There was no furniture he could hide behind and take cover, so his only chance was to catch whoever it was by surprise and incapacitate them as fast as possible.
The elevator was empty.
Steve’s heart beat loud in his ears for a few endless seconds. “Jan,” he said into his comm. “What exactly am I looking at?”
“Checking now, stay alert.” The doors of the elevator stayed open, completely empty, but he wasn’t about to let down his guard.
Steve kept his gun trained on the elevator and slowly stepped towards its open doors. A quick look around confirmed the elevator was empty, and entirely unremarkable except for an unfamiliar emblem etched onto the floor, an elegant symbol that was at odds with the grey industrial carpeting that bordered it.
The crest was about five feet in diameter and took up most of the floor. It was a brushed gold-bronze color, depicting a snarling tiger with a clawed paw curled around a series of concentric rings, converging on a Chinese character at the very center. The dull copper-green of the tiger’s eyes gleamed briefly as the muted cityscape lighting flickered across it.
“There was nothing about this in the briefing.”
“Nothing recognizable is coming up our databases—hold on,” said Jan, her voice suddenly urgent, confirming the sinking feeling in his gut. “Multiple unidentified bogeys on your four o’clock, Cap, and coming in fast—”
A shriek of shattering glass cut off Jan’s warning, followed by the sound of whirring engines and a rush of high altitude wind that left him momentarily breathless. Four round flying drones surrounded Steve, all gleaming metal and sleek, sharp gun barrels. They hovered in the air around him just long enough that Steve could feel the adrenaline kick in, feel his combat focus snap in around him like he’d just stepped off another roof.
He had less than a fraction of a second of warning—the well-oiled sound of servos winding up—before the drones began to fire, and slid under one of them as a hail of bullet fire gouged holes in the marble flooring where he’d just been. Chips of marble flew everywhere, most ripping harmlessly through his loose outerwear, but one lucky shard nicked the camera perched on his ear. It shattered in a burst of sparks and a brief, high-pitched pop that left his left ear ringing painfully.
Steve grit his teeth, brought up his arm, and pressed a button on his gauntlet to activate his hard-light shield. He ducked behind it just as the drones trained their weapons back towards his head. The bullets deflected harmlessly off it with a loud, vibrating ping.
Through the shield, Steve could see the drones repositioning, trying to flank him. He didn’t hesitate, just sprang forward, and cleaved one of the drones in two with the sharp edge of the shield. It fell heavy and sparking to the floor, just in time for Steve to step into his forward momentum and bash the shield onto other drone flying up behind it.
A sharp pain shot up his leg as a bullet grazed the outside of his thigh. He held the shield across the back of his shoulders, enough to protect his torso and head, and darted for cover behind a pillar. Pursuing fire forced him to zigzag to the side just as he reached the pillar, and another well-aimed spray of bullets stopped him in his tracks. Steve pressed his back against the wall and brought up his gun, aiming unerringly towards the nearest pursuing drone. In the space of three heartbeats, he emptied the entire clip into the center of one drone, before he swung his hips forward into a discus form and threw his shield in a graceful arc that went cleanly through the final drone.
The drones crashed to the floor, the shield crunched into the wall, and Steve leaned back against the wall and let himself slide to the floor with a rough exhale. Blood trickled steadily down his thigh and onto the floor—non-fatal, but he’d need stitches. He could feel other small cuts across his exposed skin, nicks from the marble shards and grazes from bullets that ought to have hit. The drones, scattered in a rough semicircle around him, were still smoking, but the shattered window sucked most of it out into the night before it could foul up the air inside.
Steve pressed a button on his gauntlet, and the light shield flew back from where it was embedded in the wall, hovering in the air for just a moment before gently gliding home. He put the gun back in its holster and waited for his heart rate and breathing to level out. Enhanced adrenal responses had saved him more than once in the past few years, but they made it harder for him to calm back down once a threat had been neutralized.
“Cap, I want a sitrep right now!” Jan yelled into his comm. She was too professional to be hysterical, but her voice was terse and breathless. “I have no visual, and your stat sensors are offline. Repeat—”
He pressed a finger to the headset in his ear, still ringing from the ricochet of bullets on marble. “Hostiles neutralised, Wasp. Four drones, all UAVs.”'
When she answered, Jan sounded more under control, but not much calmer. Steve had a brief pang of pity for the next surveillance team agent to cross her path. “What sort of drones? Is there enough left for us to ID? Are you hurt?”
Steve didn’t answer immediately, only ran a hand over a gash on his forehead that he couldn’t recall getting. It was bleeding quite a lot, but head wounds always looked worse than they actually were.
He wiped the blood away from his eyes, before he stood and marched over to the nearest drone. He stared down at it, silent, for a long moment.
“Tell Director Chang they knew we were coming.”
At his feet, the drone gave a weak sputter, sparking in the midst of its death throes, but even amidst the broken debris, Steve could easily see the logo emblazoned on its side: Stark Industries.
Chapter 2: I gave him the limp.
Steve stepped out into the hallway, locked his quarters, and turned south down the corridor, out of the agent quarters block. The hallways of Triskelion Tower were a honeycomb of wide corridors and hard, industrial flooring, but the view from the floor-to-ceiling bullet-proof windows on the residential floors more than made up for the harshness of the interior. Steve could navigate most levels on instinct, long years of familiarity having made the impersonal maze of SHIELD HQ the closest thing he had to a home since returning from Iraq.
He'd been back from Hong Kong for just under 72 hours, only recently released from post-op debriefing and medical, and was going faintly stir-crazy with lack of exercise. SOP required agents to have at least one week of inactivity after high-risk missions—which Hong Kong had been hastily reclassified as—but Steve had never fared well cooped up, not when he’d been a sickly asthmatic mess of a kid, and certainly not as a member of SHIELD's black ops unit.
He suspected that was why the Director had called him down to the interrogation levels. Monica handled her agents as expertly as any chess-master, and Steve had no doubt that the request for his presence had more to do with preventing more ruined gym equipment than it did with actually needing his help. Though he normally disliked being moved about like a pawn—come, Steve; sit, Steve; don't punch holes in the walls, Steve—nearly five years under Monica's leadership helped him to tamp down on his resentment and appreciate the distraction.
The express elevator was located on the far south side of the building, and accessible only to a dozen SHIELD agents. Steve scanned in his biometrics—prints, retinas, and voice lock—and was unsurprised to see Monica already waiting in the elevator car for him.
He stepped in and the doors chimed closed behind him.
"Did you look over that second briefing I sent you?" Monica asked without looking up from her tablet.
Steve mulled over the situation for a moment, watching the floor numbers on the elevator console tick lower and lower. "We don't have enough intelligence on any part of this. No matter what we do, we're going into that room blind."
Monica frowned deeply and drummed her fingers on the barrel of her sidearm. "You're right, of course, but damn it if I wasn't hoping for something a little more optimistic." She scowled forcefully at the elevator doors, her dark eyes narrowed. "Literally the last thing I want to deal with—up to and including the return of Nick Fury—is high-end Stark weaponry in the hands of terrorists, and yet here we are with SI drones attacking American operatives—my operatives."
Steve took a subtle step sideways, away from Monica. She looked and sounded perfectly calm, but Steve had known her long enough to tell when she was extraordinarily angry. "What do we have on Stark?"
Monica rolled her eyes. “Our analysts’ initial evaluation is, to put it lightly, unflattering. Think ‘drunken socialite’ and add ‘born into money’ with a healthy heaping of ‘too smart for anyone’s good’. We haven’t even begun formal questioning yet, but the sooner we get everything useful out of him the better. I don’t want him in my building any longer than necessary.”
As the elevator doors opened, Monica swiped a folder on her tablet over to Steve’s and started walking down the empty hallway. Steve pulled out his tablet and followed automatically. "That's everything we have so far on him. There's not much that isn't already public information, though. Except for a few wild parties, he's suspiciously clean for a filthy rich defense contractor."
Steve started flipping through the files as Monica continued. "He's got a twin brother, or so we're told—the brother isn't seen in public much, and intelligence suggests he doesn't have much to do with running the company either." Most of the documents were news articles, some from respectable publications and some from tabloids, with the usual SHIELD stat sheet at the front.
He glanced down at the sparse "Family" section on Stark's dossier—Father, Howard (deceased); Mother, Maria née Cerrera (deceased); Brother, Gregory—and then at the much longer "Jobs and Duties" paragraph. "So Antonio Stark runs the company, heads SI’s R&D, plays nice for the press, hosts—" Steve flipped quickly past a collection of wildly inappropriate candid photos of Stark, "—parties, and still has time to come talk to SHIELD?"
Monica gave him a tight-lipped smile. "I'd like to tell you that we were persuasive, but he was quite happy to come in. Something about a life-long appreciation for secret government agencies with a penchant for skin-tight uniforms."
"That's..." Steve wracked his brain for an adjective that wasn't 'bizarre' as they finally stopped in front of Interrogation Room 5. He settled on, "Suspicious."
"You're telling me," Monica replied, crossing her arms. "We don't have anything to suggest that he's behind—or even knows about—the rogue StarkTech, but I'm not about to take that on faith."
Steve closed down his tablet and tucked it under his arm. He could finish looking it over later, if needed. "What do you need me to do?"
"Sit there and look menacing, mostly. If we get a lead off of this, I'll have you looking into it, so it just saves everyone time if you're in during the interrogation."
Monica keyed in the entry code to the holding room and marched inside, leaving Steve to follow in her wake. The entrance focused attention on her, and gave Steve time to assess their surroundings. The interrogation quarters were much the same as they always were—cold, barren, and bugged to the gills—as were the guards who flanked the doorway, so it was the room's occupant that pulled hard at Steve's attention.
Stark lounged impudently in the hard metal chair that had been provided for him, one long leg crossed over the other with a casualness that had to be artifice. SHIELD had obviously picked him up on his way to or from an event, as he wore a bespoke tuxedo, tie loosened and shirt unbuttoned just enough to show his prominent collarbones. He looked perfectly content and comfortable, and smiled brilliantly at Monica and Steve as they entered. Stark's teeth were very white against his dark, neatly trimmed facial hair.
Privately, Steve thought that the Van Dyke made him look...disreputable, but he also didn't doubt for a second that a man as smart as Stark wouldn't know that. Stark's file had mentioned that he'd been in the public eye from a young age, and Steve was willing to bet that Stark was just as happy to put on a show for SHIELD as he so often did for the tabloids.
"Director Chang!" Stark began, leaning forward on the table as Monica sat down. Even from several feet away, Steve could smell the booze on him. Whiskey, he guessed. "How lovely to see you again!"
Monica clasped her hands on the table, exuding icy personal space so forcefully that even Steve hesitated for a split second before sitting down to her left. Stark didn't even flinch.
"Would that I could say the same of you, Mr. Stark—"
"It's Tony, please—"
"Mr. Stark. Thank you for coming in on such short notice." She didn't sound thankful in the least. "I just have a few questions for you."
"Questions that required dumping me in a cell 60 feet under the Hudson?" Stark asked, sly.
"Those are the only sorts of questions SHIELD deals with, Mr. Stark."
Stark stared at Monica for a moment longer, his eyes narrowed. Finally, he slouched back in his chair, though he didn't break eye contact with Monica. "Well, I suppose I could afford to chat for a while...if," Stark smirked, sliding his gaze over to Steve. He looked entirely too pleased with himself. "...you would be so kind as to introduce me to your associate, here."
Steve tensed up, annoyed with the way Stark was staring at him, but Monica smoothly took back control of the conversation. "My associate is Agent Rogers, he's here to keep me from throttling you, and that's all the introduction you need. I will authorize detention for you if I have to."
Oddly enough, Stark just laughed, rich and unconcerned. "Fine, fine, I'll play nice. What exactly do you need from a simple businessman like me?"
"Does SI still produce UAVs?"
"In this climate of xenophobia? Of course we do—it’s a booming market for killing bad guys without actually getting one's hands dirty. It’s the new American way." Stark's voice was light and amused, but his smirk was sharp and ugly. The dissonance made Steve's hackles rise.
Monica continued steadily onward, ignoring Stark's implications. "And where do you manufacture these drones?"
Stark brushed some nonexistent lint off his trousers. "Insider knowledge of the production, facilities, or shipping manifestos of weapons and military technology currently or recently under the contract of the United States Government is highly classified information, Director. I'd be happy to spill all my secrets should you acquire an order from someone with the authority to declassify, but otherwise you'll need a subpoena or a great deal of whiskey to get any further along this line of questioning."
None of Monica’s frustration showed on her face, and Steve did his best to emulate her. They could get a declassification order of course, but someone as slippery as Stark would insist on it being reciprocal by mandate, and letting him know that much about the botched Hong Kong operation wasn't just risky—it was stupid. Stark was still a major suspect.
"This is a matter of national security, Mr. Stark," Steve found himself demanding. Monica and Stark both shot him looks (annoyed and amused, respectively), but he kept his expression as even as he could. "Your cooperation could save lives."
"Oh, you're cute, Agent. You must do wonders for the recruiting department." Stark laughed again, turning his attention back to Monica. "I have to say, though, he's a bit old for the starry-eyed young patriot routine, don't you think?"
“Agent Rogers can maim you in irreparable ways on my say so,” said Monica, smiling sweetly. “Try not to antagonize him too much.”
Stark smiled right back, tight and cold. "You should know I don’t respond well to threats, implied or otherwise, Director. But in the interest of national security," Stark said, bending his fingers in visible scare quotes, "I'll make you a deal, Director: I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
Monica leveled Stark with a flat glare and somehow resisted punching him in the face. Steve was having a difficult time tamping down on that same urge. "Excuse me, Mr. Stark?" Her voice was cold enough to dim even Stark's bright grin.
"Not literally—unless of course you'd like to, in which case I'd be happy to oblige. I mean, I'll tell you what you need to know about my factories if you tell me why you need it. It's not a bad deal, considering this is my company we're talking about exposing."
Steve cut a look over at Monica and was slightly surprised to find her staring back, clearly weighing her options. Personally, he favored a more aggressive approach to Stark, but Monica was the expert here.
"Fine," Monica snapped, flat and hard. "Agent Rogers, I am giving you verbal permission to selectively share classified details of your last mission." She swung her glare back to Stark. "Mr. Stark, in return I expect you to cooperate fully. You have my assurance that anything you tell us will be disclosed only with your approval and only on a need-to-know basis, and that if you decide to share anything you hear from Agent Rogers, I will be officially required to bring you to court for compromising national security. Unofficially, I will send Agent Barton to hunt you down like a dog."
Stark smiled and waved his hand around vaguely. "Sounds good to me, consider this my verbal consent."
Monica closed her eyes for a second, before turning to Steve. "Agent Rogers?"
"Yes, ma'am." Steve met Stark's smug, curious expression with a blank stare of his own. He understood why Stark's cooperation was necessary, but everything about the man—from the slicked-back hair, to his disheveled tux, his utter disregard for SHIELD's authority, and the sleazy, appraising way he stared back—set Steve on edge. He wanted to mess Stark up, wipe that damn smirk off of his face.
"I was on a mission, basic reconnaissance, minimal threat level. Intelligence suggested I would only have non-lethal security hazards to deal with, but intelligence was ... mistaken." Steve swiped on his tablet until he came up with a picture of the SI drone, though he didn't show it to Stark just yet. "I walked into a trap—the location was deserted, isolated, and just as I was about to call for backup, four of these entered the premises." He turned the tablet around so Stark could clearly see the remains of the drone, and the logo on the side.
Instantly, the smirk slid off of Stark's face. He went white as a sheet, then flushed quickly with rage. Steve wished he could feel some satisfaction at the way the image shocked Stark, but mostly he just felt taken aback.
"Is that my drone?" Stark asked, carefully and clearly rhetorical. "Where was this mission? Who were you operating against?"
Steve could feel Monica staring at them both. "That information is still classified—"
"Where," Stark interrupted, the lines of his shoulders held carefully taught, "was this mission, and who were you operating against? I can't give you any useful information with just a goddamn picture."
"You'll give us information or we'll haul you in for compromising American interests abroad," Steve growled, matching Stark's icy glare with his own. "You're here voluntarily, as a courtesy, because if you had refused we would’ve taken that as probable cause to arrest you as a primary suspect. Lack of cooperation on your part is unacceptable and damning.”
To Steve’s surprise, Stark’s expression only became fiercer, his hands curling tightly into fists. “What is unacceptable is my weapons in the hands of terrorists. If you want anything useful from me, I need to know more.”
“You’re not in any sort of position to be making demands, Stark.”
Stark rolled his eyes. “If I was in the arms trafficking game, you think I’d be stupid enough to leave my name on my toys? If I was behind this operation, why would I voluntarily come into SHIELD after attacking one of their operatives? I could lawyer up so hard it would take you years to get to me, and you know it. I didn’t come to this place to turn myself in, Agent.”
"Hong Kong," Monica finally answered, and gave an exasperated sigh. "I cannot tell you who we were operating against, Stark, that is not an option."
Stark was silent for a long moment. Any trace of his earlier joviality was long gone, and he watched Steve and Monica with reptilian consideration. Steve forced himself to remember that he was dealing with one of the richest, most brilliant men on the planet, and that such a huge shift in personality shouldn't be shocking. Stark made a living out of exploiting weak points.
"I need a secure internet connection and a legally-binding agreement that you won't use the information I'm about to give you for anything except exposing and terminating whoever leaked my tech."
"Agreed." Monica pushed a button on the comms device in her ear. "Danvers, I need Walters to send a nondisclosure agreement down to Interrogation 5. Also, contact intelligence and let them know to whitelist the next device attempting to connect from this room, and that all traffic on the Beta-1 connection for the next—" she paused and flicked a glare at Stark; he held up 3 fingers, "—30 minutes is to be blacked-out and marked for my eyes only. And put the rest of our servers on lockdown until I give you the all clear."
Stark winked conspiratorially at Steve, though it lacked the playfulness he'd exuded earlier. "Smart woman, your Director."
"Smarter than you know," Steve replied, terse.
"You have 2 minutes to connect, Stark. The network is lima-delta-kilo-eight-echo-oscar-zero-zero-nine." She rattled off the password, which Stark eagerly punched into his phone.
"I need all the photographs you have of those drones, as well as the serials, if they survived." Stark shot another look at Steve, as though Steve had turned his stolen drones to scrap on a whim instead of out of necessity.
After a confirming nod from Monica, Steve tapped through his tablet and brought up what specs they'd been able to recover from the drones. He held the tablet out towards Stark, but didn't let it go. He wasn't sure how much he trusted the man not to go snooping around the rest of the device.
Stark rolled his eyes at both of them, but continued tapping animatedly on his phone, eyes flicking between it and the tablet. Eventually, he stood up from the table to make a call, pacing along the back wall, and speaking in low, furious tones in various languages—English mostly, but also Japanese, Mandarin and, during one especially loud conversation, something that Steve thought might be Malay. To his consternation, Stark spoke fast and hushed, even as he switched between languages, and Steve couldn't pick up much of anything. He clearly needed to brush up on his non-European languages.
"No, you listen to me, you miserable bastard—" Stark suddenly yelled, switching to English for...effect? Steve couldn't be sure. "Your resignation will be on my metaphorical desk in the next 15 minutes, or I will drag your sorry ass back to the US and let you take your chances with Uncle Sam. Do not contact SI again." He pushed the 'end' button on his screen harder than necessary and sat back down at the interrogation table, hands crossed one over the other on top of the left armrest. If Steve hadn't seen him just pacing and shouting into his phone, he would have thought Stark perfectly calm.
As it was, he could already read the thin lines of well-restrained anger in Stark's rigid spine, his perfect posture, and the exquisitely careful blankness of his face. "My apologies for that, and for the drones, Director Chang, Agent Rogers." He nodded at Steve, oddly serious. "While I'm professionally annoyed that four of my drones were taken down by one man, I am personally glad that the damage they caused wasn't as bad as it could have been."
"...Apology accepted," Monica started tentatively. She seemed just as off-guard as Steve, though of course she hid it better. "I would apologize for listening in, but in this instance it’s actually my job. I must admit I’m surprised, Stark.”
“I‘m good with my tongue, Director. Also, we do a lot of business in the region,” Stark replied offhandedly.
“So what did you find out?”
"I’ve been informed that there has been a....lapse in oversight in one of our Malaysian plants. One enterprising shift manager with a poorly-applied gift for mechanics and an easily-bribed superintendent took at least four drones slated to be scrapped for not passing quality inspection, repaired them, and then sold them. I'm not yet sure to whom, though I can assure you that as soon as the authorities find this ex-employee of mine, we will hopefully have more information for you." Stark scowled, an ugly, twisted downturn of his mouth. "Frankly, SI would have noticed the leak eventually—we're very eco-friendly, scrapped projects are repurposed and used for future production—but 'eventually' clearly isn't quick enough."
"Which plant? And what was this manager's name?"
"I'll send you the details as soon as I can confirm them myself—for the time being, this is just hearsay, albeit very well-documented hearsay."
Monica drummed her fingers on the table, rapid and irritated. She didn't seem happy with Stark's reluctance to share. "And the documents in question?"
"Shipping manifestos, inspection results, serial numbers, production steps, the usual, all very hush-hush."
"Right, well—" Monica cut herself off to listen to her earpiece, then stood and went to the door. She came back with a slim packet of papers and a pen, which she slid in front of Stark. "Your nondisclosure agreement. Basic SHIELD protocol, with stipulations added to cover the gap between corporate and governmental privacy interests." Stark started flipping through it with apparent interest, though Steve was getting a headache just looking at the dense text. "We'll also need any documents or information you have in relation to the leak, including those that might normally be considered trade secrets or classified military information. We'll get a declass order processed in a week or two."
Stark's head snapped up, surprised and a bit annoyed, from what Steve could tell. "That was not part of our agreement, Director."
"It falls under the purview of our original deal—this is information we need to address what could be a major national security leak," Monica insisted, eyes narrowing.
"First of all, I never agreed to provide you with that sort of detailed information. Secondly, this is highly classified and highly sensitive information, both to the US Military and to Stark Industries. I am legally unable to release it to you without due process or extenuating circumstances that indicate an immediate danger to American interests or personnel."
"These became extenuating circumstances, Stark, when one of our agents was nearly gunned down by your drones."
"Those are not extenuating enough to satisfy my board of directors, let me assure you. I'm a CEO, not a dictator—unless I can personally and physically control the exposure and use of released information, someone on the board will pitch an industrial-sized shit-fit," Stark pointed out, calm and reasonable. It made Steve want to hit something. "If it were up to me, you'd have those manifests already, but I can't make these sorts of decisions without thinking about the future of my company as a whole. I will cooperate as best I’m able, but if it will take a week or two to get those declass orders through, then that's how long it will take for you to get the information you want."
Monica looked directly at Stark, a slight clench to her jaw the only external expression of anger she allowed herself. "You know damn well that in two weeks our chances of plugging up this leak—from your side or ours—will be nonexistent. I need that information now, Stark. Legal can work the details out later."
"Your legal team might be happy to shunt due process off onto the back burner, but I can assure that mine is not. Give me a declass order or proof of extraordinary, extenuating circumstances, or my hands are tied."
Stark and Monica stared at each other for a long, tense minute, and Steve was an inch away from calling for legal back up when Monica spoke up again.
"What do you want, Stark?"
Steve shot a surprised glance at Monica—Stark obviously just wanted enough legal protection to protect his sorry hide, maybe a bit of ego-stoking, right? But when he looked back at Stark, he was grinning wide and sharp, mouth full of teeth.
"Well, I do honestly want to keep my board of directors from staging a mutiny, which I assure you they'd do if I gave it up so easy to the first clandestine government organization in tight uniforms that walked on by," Stark began, stretching out in his chair, arms crossed behind his head. The motion pulled his shirt tails out of his trousers and made him look that much more disheveled. "But I admit, I had a brilliant idea a few moments ago and was trying to see how long it would take for you to ask me what it was."
"We're working at cross-purposes here, when we ought to be working together. I can't legally just give you the information you need in time to get your job done, same as you can't legally give me all the information I think I need to plug up this leak internally, but I think we can both agree that working parallel to one another would just be awful—two enormously resourceful organizations tracking the same thing but with only half the story each? It's a laugh-track waiting to happen."
"Would you just get to it, Stark?" Steve snapped. Monica glared at him, but he didn't regret the interruption. Stark was being evasive and smug, playing them both like a cat with a ball of yarn. Steve didn’t appreciate the feeling.
Stark, however, just smiled at the outburst, gleeful and private, like it was meant just for Steve. "I'm so very glad you asked, Agent Rogers. I'd like to play secret agent for a while." He held up a hand when Monica opened her mouth to snap back, and to Steve's utter shock, she stayed quiet.
"Please, Director, hear me out—we're both trying to find out what sort of villain would steal StarkTech and what sort of nefarious purposes they might use it for. I think we can help each other more intimately than a simple exchange of paperwork would allow. I would obviously benefit from your intelligence and operative resources, while you would have the expert in StarkTech on call and very willing to help identify, contain, or neutralize any threats that might originate from my tech."
Monica crossed her arms over her chest. "This isn't some spy flick, Stark—even if I could just let untrained, uncleared civilians come on board my operations whenever they felt like it, you're about a million years away from actual field work."
"So let me help out with intelligence and supplies," Stark replied with a shrug, undeterred by Monica's objections. "You can't deny that I'm overqualified to work as a quartermaster—a quartermaster supplying his own supplies, I might add—and as I said earlier, you're not getting more information from me without a declass order or a subpoena. If I'm working directly with your intelligence department, however, I have more control over what information is disclosed and how it’s used, which would satisfy my board and get you what you need, when you need it."
Monica didn’t respond immediately, and fixed Stark with a flat, assessing glare. Steve had been on the receiving end of that once or twice—mostly after botched missions that ended in structural damage—and he could grudgingly admit some amount respect for how Stark just tilted his chin up, defiant, and stared back without flinching.
"You're saying you'd be willing to furnish our agents with StarkTech?"
"Free of charge," Stark assured her. "Some of it is in the final stages of beta, but a field test is a field test."
"You'd need to sign several miles worth of gag orders."
"As would you."
They stared at one another for another few seconds, though Steve could tell that Monica had already made up her mind—for some incomprehensible reason, she was going to take Stark up on his offer. Steve trusted her leadership, of course, but all he could see when he looked at Stark was a rich boy wanting to play toy soldiers, a security nightmare waiting to happen.
"Fine," Monica conceded, breaking the tension. Stark did a small, victorious fist pump. "But until this matter is resolved, you will be under SHIELD's supervision at all times, and at my very express beck and call."
Stark just grinned, winsome and unconcerned. "I could use a vacation."
"Agent Rogers," Monica addressed him without actually looking away from Stark. "Please go find Walters and her team and send them down here ASAP. Let Danvers and Van Dyne know about our...arrangement as well, if you can track them down."
"Yes, ma'am." What Monica meant, of course, was for him to raise the alert—Stark was a temporary ally and not to be trusted in the long term. Carol was deputy director and Jan headed up agent operations; they'd be best placed to make the necessary preparations while Monica and Jen kept Stark occupied with legal nitpicking.
As he stood to leave the room, Monica showed Stark something on her tablet. "Have you ever seen this symbol?"
Steve risked a glance backwards and saw Stark looking intently at the screen, his finely groomed eyebrows drawn downward in consideration and mild surprise. The frank curiosity in his gaze made him look oddly young, like a child picking apart an interesting puzzle he couldn't yet solve.
"No, Director, I'm afraid I haven't."
Steve closed the door behind him.
"Walters," Steve said into his comm, "the Director needs you and your team down in Interrogation 5. We're bringing Stark on board as a....consultant."
On the other end of the line, Jen laughed, quiet and dry. "I'll bring the SWAT team too?"
"Not a bad idea," he conceded. "Page her when you're on your way."
He hung up and hooked a right down the corridor, towards the main elevators. They still required a key card to access, of course, but Steve wasn't heading back to the agent quarters. He stepped inside, pressed the button for level 3, and watched the numbers tick upwards.
Stark was a wrench in everyone's plans, and Steve couldn't help but feel that that was exactly what Stark had wanted. Everything about the man seemed deliberate, artificial, down to the crumpled lines of his tux shirt and the smudge of lipstick on his collar. Steve knew Monica didn't trust Stark any farther than she could throw him, but he couldn't shake the feeling that she'd let Stark maneuver her into a corner, even if that corner was perhaps just undeniable curiosity as to what Stark would actually do.
But worse than Stark's stubbornness was the way he'd kept looking at Steve, as though he was another pawn or playmate, a machine Stark had yet to figure out. He was the perfect celebrity, roguish and attractive and charming, but there'd been very little warmth behind his blue eyes: only cold, calculating intelligence. He wasn't looking forward to dealing with Stark for any longer than he absolutely had to.
The elevator opened with a soft ding that was immediately covered by the dull roar of the cafeteria. Steve glanced briefly down at his watch—he hadn't realized the time, but it was convenient enough. He could get lunch and track down Jan and Carol, assuming they'd pulled themselves out of their offices. Carol rarely missed meals, but Jan had a tendency to get focused in on something and not come up for air for hours, sometimes days. A lot like Steve, actually.
(Steve wasn't presumptive enough to suggest that either of their work habits had ended his and Jan’s relationship, but they certainly hadn't helped.)
He filed into the line of agents waiting for a go at the food bar and scanned the room. Field agents and high-ranking officials all wore dark uniforms, which made picking out Carol's familiar hair—blonde, styled high and aggressively elegant—easy. He waved her over when she caught his eye.
"Hey there, Rogers," she said, sidling into line alongside Steve. Several agents behind them grumbled, but Carol ignored them in favor of swiping an apple from a nearby basket. "Word around town is you got to spend all morning down in I-5 with the Director and a mysterious guest."
"If all you've got is 'mysterious guest', I think you're losing your touch." Carol rolled her eyes as he continued. "We're bringing Stark on as a consultant for this SI leak operation. Director wants things locked down tight before he gets access."
"I'll bet she does." Carol bit aggressively into her apple, good mood withering. Steve felt faintly guilty. "I guess you'll be the main field agent?"
"I'll rush your assignation papers ASAP, then." She chewed sullenly for a few steps, long enough that Steve managed to snag a pair of sandwiches from the deli. "I'll have to pull Hawkeye back in from Chechnya, which means he'll bitch at me for days—he hates handing off ops, even when they're boring surveillance gigs." Carol had been a very active field agent herself before accepting a promotion to deputy director, and Steve knew she still missed the action.
"Stark agreed to pay his way in StarkTech," Steve offered.
That lifted Carol's mood instantly. "As in, I'll finally get my hands on some SI body armor?"
"You'll have to ask the Director for specifics, but Stark seemed happy enough to have the chance to field test some of his new toys—I imagine he'll give you whatever you want, so long as he gets some data from it."
Carol looked like she wanted to rub her hands together in glee, but was far too professional to do that where low-level agents could see her. "Free StarkTech is worth any amount of bitching, even from Barton."
Steve felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, but kept his expression even. "I'll let the Director know you're on board with things, then?"
"Absolutely. Do you have any idea how much that stuff costs out of pocket? Millions, Steve. Not even Colonel-Uncle Sam is willing to shill out for new StarkTech, it's that expensive. We've been using Hammer and decade-old SI stuff, which gets the job done, but I don't like settling for second best, and I don't like making my agents settle either."
"Hm," Steve grunted. He was glad that Carol's day had improved, but no amount of fancy new armor was going to make working with Stark any easier—and if he kept as tight hold a on his intelligence as he'd promised, Steve had no doubt that they'd end up working together at least once. He wasn't looking forward to it.
He grabbed a bowl of mac & cheese and a fresh-looking salad, and balanced the two on his undersized tray. "Is Jan down here?"
"No." Carol crunched into the apple core, made a face, and then chucked the remains into a nearby trashcan. "She's still up in her office. I guess you'll need to fill her in, too."
"Yeah. Might as well bring her something to eat as well." He was just being friendly, he reminded himself—nothing 'clingy' about bringing lunch to an overworked friend.
Carol still gave him a the stink-eye, like she knew how he was rationalizing his behavior, but didn't comment. "Alright, I'll let Sue know we've got some new gear coming in and start shuffling things around. Let me know when you've got a bead on the next mission, ok? Chang likes official channels too much for my taste."
"Malaysia, I think."
"Thanks." Carol gave him a wicked smile and headed back into the lunch crowd.
Steve kept walking, circling around the room and back to the elevators. He managed to snag one for himself, by virtue of either his black-ops uniform or his overburdened tray, and headed up to the management levels.
The hallways up this far up lacked the tasteful business chic of the lower floors, but the midday cityscape of New York was breathtaking enough to make up for the loss. Traffic on the upper levels was sparse, as usual, but Steve still nodded to a dozen or so agents who he recognized from ops he'd worked in the past. After a few years in the field, most field agents took the first chance they got to work a nice, safe operations job, and Steve certainly didn't begrudge them that, though he had passed up several nice promotions—including those that would have landed him Carol or Jan's jobs—just to stay where the action was. He understood that field work wasn't for everyone (and in the long run, for anyone), but Steve knew he'd go crazy within a week if he ever got pulled off of active duty, and so he stayed, a senior black ops agent long past when he should have been safely running ops himself.
Jan's office was at the end of the hall, which afforded her two walls of windows and one of the best views of Manhattan outside of a helicopter. Her office was also distinctive in that the door had been painted to resemble an actual wood door, all muted yellows and browns and greens. It always made Steve smile—a little slice of Jan's personality letting itself known to everyone who passed by.
He knocked on the door with his toe, and wasn't particularly surprised when it swung open just from that gentle nudge. Jan must have been in since very early.
"Jan? You alive in there?" The room was brightly lit and brightly colored, but cluttered in Jan's habitually organized way, and Jan was not a very big woman—she could easily be working behind something large enough to conceal her.
"Steve? Is that you?" Jan popped her head around the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that bisected the room. Though she'd almost certainly been hard at work for hours now, she looked as picture perfect as if she'd just stepped off of a runway, not a single stand of her pixie cut out of place. "Ooo, and you brought food! Is it lunch already?"
Steve let her dart out and snag the salad and, after a moment's consideration, the pasta, then set the rest of the tray down on a nearby table. Jan was already happily settling into her break corner and working on the salad. "So," she asked, biting down into a baby tomato, "I'm assuming you've got a business-type reason for coming up here? Not that I don't appreciate the visit," she added gently, cutting off Steve's assurances of friendship and goodwill.
Things had been....awkward for a long time after their very volatile break-up, but Steve was just glad that they'd settled back into some kind of friendship. Even if they hadn't worked out as a couple, Jan's companionship was something he was happy to have.
"We brought Stark in this morning. He's still down in I-5, I think."
"Good, I was waiting for Monica to get a hold of him—business types are so slippery, especially the ones who grew up in high society."
"Slippery is an understatement," Steve complained, taking a seat opposite Jan. He started unwrapping his sandwich, perhaps with more force than needed. Jan raised a faintly judgmental eyebrow. "But the condensed version is that he threatened to lawyer up for a few weeks unless we let him in on the StarkTech op, so we've got a new...consultant."
Jan didn't even try to hide her smile, which was fine by Steve—she had a very nice smile, even when she was teasing him. "Oh, I bet you and Monica had so much fun working out the details of that arrangement." She just smiled wider at Steve's scowl. "It's not a bad plan, though—we could use an insider source of intel on this, and I imagine he's very eager to plug the leak sooner rather than later."
"I don't like him," Steve complained around his sandwich.
"Of course you don't. He's smarmy and charming and attractive and a bit of an asshole—don't look so surprised, I met him once, you know." She waved her hand as if clearing the air. "He was a fan of my father’s work, invited me and Hank to one of his black-tie events. It was very respectable, except for the incident with the hot tub."
Steve could tell she was distracting them both with the bit about the hot tub, trying to keep them from lingering on thoughts of her ex-husband, who Steve had personally punched in the face several times, and he was quite happy to follow along. "We're going to need to lock everything down, though."
"I figured as much—I'll let Betty know once I get a minute."
"So you're ok with this? Some upstart civilian compromising our operations?" Steve started on his second sandwich and tried not to think about Stark in a sharp suit. He would probably look even more smug than usual in it.
Jan shrugged, unconcerned, and started picking at her pasta. "I was an upstart civilian once—you know as well as I do that civilians can be very useful."
"You're the head of black-ops personnel now, I wouldn't call you a civilian any more," Steve pointed out, serious, but Jan just giggled.
"Everyone has to start somewhere, and really, we could do worse. I say let's just let the guy play James Bond for a little while—he gets to plug his leak and pretend to be a secret agent, we get the info we need without having to go through boring legal channels. Win-win."
Steve had to concede she had a very reasonable point, but he just couldn’t shake his irritation. Stark got under his skin in the worst way, and they'd barely spoken more than five words to one another. "I don’t trust him," he grunted.
They ate in silence for a while longer, until Steve was finished with his lunch and couldn't really think of a reason to continue taking up Jan's time. "I'll guess I'll go back downstairs and make sure Stark is still alive."
Jan smiled, not unkindly—she knew a retreat when she saw one, but seemed content to let him fall back with some dignity. "If you see Betty, send her my way, would you? I'll call her within the hour if you don't."
"Sure thing." Steve stood and tucked the tray under his arm. "You still going to be around Saturday to get me access to the Barbuda case?"
"I'll tell Betty as soon as she gets up here," Jan promised. She flashed him a brief smile and waved him out. "Now shoo, I've got to Stark-proof the Triskelion."
Chapter 3: if you're Q, does that make him R?
Morning came slowly the next day, weak autumn sunlight filtering through the tall glass walls of the Triskelion’s overground levels like viscous honey. Steve had been awake since five, and not just because of his early-rising sleep habits. He hadn’t slept well at all, and the cafeteria coffee barely managed to nudge him awake. He made his way to the control room, disgruntlement, dread, and an oncoming caffeine spike warring in his stomach.
It was the sort of day that not only started out terribly, but promised earnestly that it was only going to get worse as the day went on. The briefing he’d poured over late into last night didn’t give Steve any reason to doubt his intuition.
He rounded the corner and walked into a dark-haired agent going the opposite way he was, their shoulders bumping together. His bulk kept him mostly in place while the other man was pushed back slightly, and Steve turned to apologise for his absent-mindedness, but the notion was derailed when he realised who he exactly it was that he'd run into.
Speak of the devil, and all.
"Agent Rogers!" Stark said. Instead of looking affronted, or apologising (which was probably the only reaction that wouldn't have made Steve grit his teeth), Stark simply looked surprised, before it turned to a leer that shouldn't have been as familiar as it already was. "Fancy running into you again. You are a wonderful sight for sore eyes."
"Stark," said Steve, the apology that had been poised on his tongue now completely gone. He looked Stark over, his brow furrowing in confusion. "What are you wearing?"
"Tony, please. Like what you see?" he asked, raising his eyebrows suggestively as he spread his arms wide and inviting. Steve scowled. The uniform had been why Steve didn't immediately recognise him, dressed as he was in SHIELD regulation uniform, black bodysuit with the white accents of the gloves, belt and holster. There was a badge pinned on his lapel, the word 'consultant' printed in bold, obnoxious letters, and Stark must've noticed Steve's attention on it, because he tapped the laminated plastic and spoke. "I tried to convinced them to let me hold a martini glass in the headshot as it’s a far more accurate visual representation of me, but—"
Steve didn’t wait for him to finish talking, and continued on his way to the mission room, eyes straight in front of him as he tried his hardest to exude an aura of hostility. Stark, predictably, was undeterred, and went on talking as he matched his stride and walked alongside him.
"I’m quite a fan of the uniform, have to ask the Director if I could keep it when all’s said and done,” said Stark, clearly unconcerned with Steve’s lack of engagement. “A souvenir, maybe. I do notice that your outfit is quite different than mine.”
He slipped his hands into his pockets, showing off all the sharp lines and dedicated nonchalance which had annoyed Steve the day before. Jan had told him Stark had been on-site briefing SHIELD intel long after Steve stormed away from interrogation, but nothing about him now looked coerced or unwilling. Stark had the air of someone who was entirely certain he was calling the shots, and that any affectation to the contrary was just his indulging them.
Steve directed a sideways glance at Stark. “And?”
“That’s what’s called a conversational cue, dear,” he replied easily, nodding at the dark navy bodysuit Steve wore, white stripes converging on the white star on his chest. The brown leather holster over his shoulders matched his belt and wrist guards. “Very dashing, in my wholly unprofessional opinion,” he added, much to Steve’s consternation. ”Is that where your call sign comes from?”
“I know you’ve read the briefing, Stark. Iron Man’s hardly better.”
Stark quirked his mouth and conceded with a shrug. “I can see the logic behind it—dashing gentleman, arms manufacturer—rather self-explanatory really. But isn’t yours a little jingoistic for a supposedly neutral peacekeeping organisation like SHIELD?”
“The folks down at Logistics like to joke,” deadpanned Steve.
“Well, it’s a relief to know that someone around here still has their sense of humor, darling.”
“Stop calling me darling.”
“I’ll stop calling you darling if you’ll call me Tony,” he shot back, grinning unapologetically at Steve, his eyes twinkling. “The Director did mention that we’ll be working together quite closely for the foreseeable future—”
“Wonderful,” he muttered under his breath.
“—And you strike me as a practical man, Agent Rogers. It would behoove us to establish some goodwill and start getting to know each other better, wouldn’t you say?”
“You weren’t brought onboard as an HR consultant.”
“And yet I am all about positive workplace synergy,” Stark replied gleefully. “So what do you say, Agent?”
Steve would wager that the words ‘positive workplace synergy’ had never been spoken with as much lewdness before this moment. “What’s it to you?” he asked, barely restraining himself from pinching the bridge of his nose.
Stark shrugged. “Call it professional interest if you want. I just wouldn’t mind getting to know the man who took down four of my very advanced, very expensive drones, very single-handedly.”
“Why? So you could build better drones for next time, Tony?” Steve said. The words were meant to be in mild jest, but they came out harsh and strained. If Stark hadn’t been aware of Steve’s lingering professional suspicions, well, hardly a chance he missed that clue.
His inadvertently honest animosity must’ve caught Stark off guard—he smiled, cold and vaguely predatory. “That was almost barbed, Captain. Maybe having a decent conversation with you isn't so impossible after all.”
They walked the rest of the way to the control room in palpably hostile silence—or hostile on Steve’s part, at least. Stark looked about as unperturbed as before, and either he was exactly as unperturbed as he appeared, or Steve hadn’t yet figured out how to tell the difference. For now, there was none of the alarmed urgency, none of the concern he showed the day previous when they told him of his stolen drones.
Which parts of Stark was just for show? How much of Stark was artifice?
It was in that tense silence that they arrived at their mutual destination, where the doors parted to let them through to the control center. The main control console and screen lined the entire far end of the room, along the semicircle of the wall, while agents congregated in the empty space in the center. Colored in whites and somber greys, the control room gleamed, neat and efficient, matching the character of their organisation.
Despite the uniform, Stark still stood out, in sharp contrast with the mostly serious-faced agents standing expectantly about the room, Steve included. He crossed his arms over his chest as Stark continued to stand entirely too close next to him, but tamped down on the urge to address that grievance through violent means. Monica always said he was too quick to resort to physical solutions.
"Alright, listen up," Carol said, standing in front of the console, waving a tablet over her head to catch everyone’s attention. "You’ve all received the details of the mission on your personal server. As many of you know, we’re being joined by Mr. Stark on this op—” she paused to nod at Stark’s direction, “—who has courteously agreed to take on quartermaster duties under my direct supervision. So best put on your game face, Mr. Stark. ” she said, smirking slightly to match Stark's all too carefree grin. “I don’t take kindly to rookies.”
“Cap. Iron Man to Cap.” The voice on the comm paused. “Oh captain, my captain,” he sing-songed.
“What?” Rogers snapped, capitulating, the words broken by just the faintest crackle of static.
“So how are you feeling?”
“Don’t waste my time, Stark.”
“No real names on the line, mon Capitan.”
The only response from the other end of line was a dismissive “hmmph.” Tony smirked to himself, satisfied for the moment. Needling the good Captain wasn’t part of the job, but no one said he wasn’t allowed to have fun.
Rogers had set off for Malaysian airspace in one of SHIELD’s quinjets several hours ago, and had just now made the drop in Selangor, in the outskirts of the Shah Alam industrial zone. The factory complex he was meant to investigate was the primary assembly plant for Starktech’s newest line of AI drones, and was therefore ruthlessly secured with Starktech security systems.
On the screen, he saw the scene on the ground from Agent Rogers’ viewpoint, the microcam mounted on his headset steadily transmitting his point of view. Rogers moved quick but precise, his steps light and level, which kept the camera from bobbing around too much, but Tony wasn’t about to be shown up. He pressed the comm button to respond.
“Just kidding. I could tell you my social security number for fun, cause this line was secured by yours truly. My encryption algorithms would make the NSA cry with envy, so feel free to tell me your darkest, sexiest secrets.” Behind him, Tony heard Danvers sigh, sounding equal parts exasperated and amused.
“Stark,” she said warningly.
“I also wanted to tell you to keep on point and I’ll signal when you reach the first primary access lock.”
There wasn’t much he could get away with under the sharp eye of Danvers and van Dyne, who was there as Rogers’ handler. If he were honest, their presence added the finest hint of uncertainty in the motion of his hands over the controls, but he was rarely honest, and also a very gifted faker. Anyway, if his inexperience showed any, it wasn’t obvious enough for either agent to point it out.
“Wasp, please tell Iron Man to stop misusing the comm lines.”
To the right of him, handling the other half of the console, van Dyne smiled. “Stop teasing Cap. He’s very shy.”
“What can I say? Gorgeous blonde bombshells are a weakness of mine,” Tony said, accompanying his words with a small wink in Danvers’ direction, “and SHIELD’s just so considerate to accommodate me.”
“This would be my cue to tell you off about unnecessary chatter during missions,” Danvers said, her tone more bored than harsh despite the fact that she was technically berating him, “but it’s probably autopilot with you, the way you don’t shut up.”
Danvers stood over his shoulder, her body language and facial expression all saying ‘you’re going to have to work harder than that to impress me.’ She crossed her arms over her chest, nearly six feet tall of blonde, intimidating cool, but Tony wasn’t exactly the type of person with the sense to be intimidated.
“Oh, I can be convinced to shut up, given the proper incentive, Deputy Director Danvers. Great title by the way, love the alliteration.” The banter came easy, almost familiar. She and van Dyne were a lot more no-nonsense than the crowd he normally had to turn his charm on, but as Danvers said so herself, flirting was simple as breathing.
“Society breeding, Carol,” added van Dyne. “Small conversation is an automated function, and Mr. Stark here strikes me as the type who’ll probably chat up the door if left alone in a room.”
“Ah, so I was right?” Tony said. Janet’s father must be Vernon van Dyne, the esteemed scientist with a specialty in enhanced biotech. Tony remembered briefly meeting his wife Shaoyu at a function, a high-end fashion designer and socialite juggernaut who liked her martinis extra dry. “I recognised the name, but I didn’t want to assume. I know how family can be.”
She nodded, and her short hair bobbed with the motion. Janet had a uniquely kind face, and it was a little more difficult to be on guard around her. He had to remind herself of the dossier he’d read on her, that she was a former field agent like Rogers and probably knew at least a dozen ways to hurt him without leaving evidence.
“My father’s company worked indirectly with SI’s R&D back in the 80’s, so it was before you and your brother took the helm. How did you get the short end of this stick to deal with all this anyway?”
Tony waved a hand dismissively. “Ms. van Dyne—may I call you Janet?—my dear dull brother thinks company politics is beneath him, and left me to deal with the mess of our father’s legacy.”
Janet opened her mouth to respond, but Danvers interrupted with a snap of her fingers. “People! As fascinating as your rich people lives are, let’s focus a little here on making sure Rogers doesn’t get killed.”
Tony’s hands moved over the controls as Rogers approached the first gate. “True, true. The mission should be pretty straightforward, but my security isn’t something to thumb your nose at. After all, that’s the reason I’m here enjoying your good company, aren’t I?” he said, saying the last bit with the comm on mute, directed as it was to Danvers.
“You’re here because you have a security issue,” replied Danvers flatly. “Right now, they think you dealt with it, but don’t suspect much more. The question is, was it just the one disaffected employee, or are there entire sectors of your company double-dealing military grade drones behind your back?”
“Are you trying to tell me you’re doing me a favor?” Tony asked with a raise of his eyebrow.
“I’m telling you that we have to act before they destroy any evidence of who’s really behind this, or otherwise we would have just hung you up by the ankle until the keys to this place fell out.”
She was right, of course. It was the reason he couldn’t supposedly just waltz in himself under the guise of quality inspection. If there really was a mole somewhere down the command line, someone higher up the chain working in tandem with his former employee, their utmost priority would be to make sure they didn’t know they knew. Oh, tautologies.
“That sounds like a good bit of fun, but we’re on mission, Director,” he said in his best oblivious voice, shaking his head in affected disapproval. Danvers grinned and rolled her eyes. “Can’t afford to get distracted.”
The tall looming concrete wall of the compound came into view on the screen, with solid iron gates at the center. The comm came back to life as Rogers spoke. “I’m reading cameras on my 9 and 3. Since I’m not being swarmed by an army of drones, I presume I’m out of range.”
“Wonderful to hear your voice again, Cap. There are also hidden trip sensors a hundred metres out from the wall all around the perimeter of the compound. I can remotely disable them, but only temporarily, so I need you to make that distance to the gatelock in under fifteen seconds.”
A pause on the other end, the video moving up and down as Rogers scaled the wall. “I can do that.”
“On my mark, Cap,” Janet said, her face now entirely serious, completely devoid of all the earlier levity. “Mark.”
The camera zoomed across the dirt path leading to the gate, everything becoming a blur as Rogers sprinted across the open ground ridiculously fast. As though to match the motion, Tony’s hands flew over the console, his brow furrowing in concentration as he sent the long-range jamming signal, acutely aware of their limited window.
Rogers, perhaps in testament to his offensively gorgeous physique, made the run in ten seconds flat.
Tony let out an impressed whistle. “So you’re not all for show, are you Captain? Not that the show isn’t—”
“Shut up,” said Rogers matter-of-factly. He took out a small device from his belt, a small computer solid that he attached to the gate’s lockbox, as per Tony’s instructions when he presented it to him during the pre-mission briefing. “What’s next?”
“Well, this would be around the time you’d enter proper biometric identification proving you’re a Stark employee.” The sensor screen shimmered, before it started blinking red. “And since you can’t provide it, that’s the alarm system kicking into gear.”
“Iron Man—“ Rogers sputtered angrily, but was cut off as the scanner suddenly stopped beeping, the screen going dark, before finally blinking green.
“And that,” Tony started saying as the automated gate locks sprang open with a hydraulic hush, “would be my clearance overrides letting you in. Much less gauche that alerting my security and having you punch your way in, isn’t it?”
Instead of going through the newly opened gates, Rogers stayed in place. “Is that going to leave a trace?”
“Darling, I’m inexperienced, not incompetent,” Tony responded with a drawl, sounding appropriately bored. “If you prefer, I could explain how private command classes work, or I could give you your next instructions.”
Tony could almost hear Steve grit his teeth against his retort. “Fine.”
“As we discussed in the briefing,” Janet replied, her voice calm and level, “all relevant records, shipment manifestos, production archives, should be located in the office on the south-west wing. Automated drones on bi-hourly shifts, so it should be piece of cake to avoid them. Turn left at the upcoming turn.”
“The main challenge here are the cameras.” Tony leaned forward in his seat as the screen showed the view of the drab entrance hallway, perfunctory more than decorative in its appearance. “Use the scrambler I gave you to disable cameras as you encounter them.”
Rogers grunted to show he’d heard, and pulled out the pocket scrambler. It was an impressive piece of last-minute work, if Tony did say so himself—and he did.
The speed with which Rogers managed to suss out and disable the cameras was quite impressive too, and Tony watched with poorly concealed interest as Rogers moved almost effortlessly through the security measures. It was like watching a video game, improbable physics included, especially once the drones came into the (literal) picture.
Tony recognized them as last year’s models, but that certainly didn’t make them any less deadly. “Drones scouting on your 10, Cap. They’ve got a small blind spot somewhere around their 7.” Small meaning microscopic, but he didn’t doubt that Rogers would be able to figure something out.
He wasn’t wrong. The angle on the camera made it difficult to tell precisely, but it looked as though Rogers managed to wedge himself between the wall and a support pillar, holding himself up off the ground—and out of the way of the drone’s scanners—with just his legs and back.
They all held perfectly still as the drones swept by. Rogers hardly seemed to be breathing, or was doing so quietly enough that even the microphone inches from his mouth couldn’t pick anything up. It was likely the drones would remain similarly unaware, or so Tony hoped. He didn’t think he’d designed the drones with that level of audio sensitivity, but all it would take was one suspicious noise for them to register a threat and turn on the thermal sensors, which, all jokes about his appearance aside, Rogers was far too hot to avoid.
The drones passed by without the slightest commotion, and Tony couldn’t help but let out a deep sigh of relief. Jan scowled briefly at him for the noise.
“Clear?” Rogers asked, barely louder than a breath.
“You’re clear, Cap,” Jan replied, watching the drones carefully on her monitors. “Might want to wait another few seconds just to be safe.”
Tony tried very hard not to laugh—Roger, Rogers indeed—but superspies apparently traded in their sense of humor for super-hearing. He earned twin glares from the ladies and a very quiet, exasperated sigh from Rogers himself.
“As if you haven’t thought it before,” he said. Rogers continued to ignore him and dropped down from his braced perch, already making a sneaky beeline for the office complex at the back of the building. “Anyway, there won’t be another patrol in that area for about 15 minutes, so you ought to be in the clear.”
“Camera on your 2, Cap,” Jan noted.
With the drones successfully bypassed, the rest of Rogers’ trek was a simple matter of avoiding cameras and plain old walking. Tony wasn’t quite paranoid enough to put the same level of security in such a nonessential, interior part of the plant, but he might have to reconsider that after the drone mess had been cleaned up—if one superspy could sneak in so easily, there was no reason someone else couldn’t.
Rogers eventually reached the personnel block, which was guarded by a simple keycard scanner. Tony overrode it as easily as he had the biometric entry point earlier on, and Rogers slipped quietly into the dark interior hallways of the factory. By accident or design—Tony didn’t usually have much to say on the architecture of his buildings—the office block was had no exterior windows looking onto the hallway, so they didn’t even have the benefit of starlight to navigate.
Luckily, night vision tech was all the rage amongst superspies, and Tony happily switched the camera view to the low-light setting.
“Everything nice and green, Rogers?”
“Wasp, where to?” Rogers asked, pointedly ignoring Tony.
“Most of the offices on this end are for paper-pushers, There should be a supervisor’s office about 40 feet ahead, on the right.”
“Any security concerns?”
“Just another keycard scanner,” Tony interjected. “I’ll take care of it.”
Rogers continued to ignore him and walked—would’ve stomped, maybe, if he wasn’t so professional—down the corridor. By the time he reached the supervisor’s office, though, most of his irritation seemed to have faded, and he opened the door with every impression of seriousness and caution. Tony was somewhat disappointed at the lack of ominous creaking, but then he’d probably have been more annoyed had any of his employees let their workspace deteriorate that much.
“Alright, Iron Man, what am I looking for?”
“Anything you can find, honestly. There’s a cabinet in the back corner there where they ought to keep less sensitive information, but I sincerely doubt that my wayward employee would be stupid enough to put proof of their transgressions on a computer network that I control, so against all reason the hardcopies are your best bet.”
Danvers leaned over Tony’s shoulder to speak into the mic. “Our best bets are shipping records, defect reports, or general bookkeeping. Just find something that looks useful and scan it over to Jan—she won’t have a problem finding discrepancies.” Tony wasn’t sure how comfortable he was with SHIELD getting first look at his documents, but Carol was close enough to his throat that he thought it best to keep that particular complaint to himself.
Back on screen, Rogers was already rifling efficiently through the cabinet, stacking likely files and folders on the large desk next to him. His night vision gear had a small, extremely short-range light built into it that allowed him to read very close-up documents without spoiling his darkvision, though he’d likely have to turn on a real light to let Jan get a proper look at things.
“This is going to take a while to sift through,” Jan commented, morose. “Why do you even have so many paper files? I thought SI had gone green.”
“We have, nominally, but it’s difficult even for me to micromanage all the way down the line.”
Rogers made a quiet sound that could have been a snort, but might also have been a cough—Tony couldn’t tell, though he certainly hoped for the friendlier option.
“All right, I think that should be enough,” Rogers started. He picked up a binder from the stacked files, hands an eery white-green through the night vision, and stopped abruptly. “What—”
“You find something, Cap?” Jan asked, switching back to the live feed.
“I have no idea. Iron Man, what do these desks look like?” Rogers asked, his voice clipped.
Tony looked between the feed and Carol, who seemed as confused as he was. “Like...desks? I don’t have any control over interior design in these factories, you realize.”
The feed showed Rogers looking down at the surface of an innocent-looking desk, the top of which was covered by office litter and the stacks of documents he had set aside. He started moving the files off the desk and onto the floor. “There’s something here. It feels like it’s been carved into the top of the desk.”
Tony’s hands moved across the console expertly, surreptitiously, pressing in commands as if he’d been working this job his whole life, his dexterous fingers betraying none of the nervousness he felt. Well, he’d been practicing this, after all. The overhead feed zoomed in on Rogers’ line of sight, where both Jan and Danvers’ attentions have been glued onto.
Rogers swept his arm across and cleared the table entirely, pens falling to the floor with a clatter. As soon as the lights on his goggles snapped on, Tony heard his sharp intake of breath, surprised and staticky through the microphone, but no one needed to ask why. Carved into the top of the desk with crude tools and taking up most of its surface was the symbol Monica had showed him during the interrogation: a large crest of a tiger curled around a series of concentric rings with the character 虎 at its center, complete with a green copper eye. There were still wood shavings around its edges, and Tony had a brief moment of regret for the very nice rosewood desk that had been sacrificed.
On the video feed, Rogers switched off the white light and growled into his mic, audibly less composed than before. “That’s a fresh mark—someone was here recently, and they knew we were coming.”
There was a definite note of accusation in his voice, to which Tony glared, rather ineffectually considering the recipient wouldn’t be able to see. “What are you saying? That I’m infiltrating my own company and proceeded to give them a heads up, for what? Shits and giggles?” he said acidly.
“There’s no other explanation,” said Rogers, as he moved urgently across the room, pressing himself up against the side of the doorway to look out into the now ominously empty hall. “The mission is compromised. Wasp, I need an extraction route ASAP!”
“Now just wait a minute here—”
A hand came down on his shoulder, fingernails digging painfully into his collarbone. Tony turned around to see Danvers with a deadly calm expression on her face, her eyes fixing him with a glare. “Stark, I swear to god if you walked us into a trap—“
The scanner on Jan’s console suddenly started blinking madly, and so Danvers didn’t manage to get into all the details of how she’d disembowel him before everything decided to go to shit.
The mission, despite his determined pessimism, had been progressing rather smoothly up to that point. They'd infiltrated the compound following the plan to the letter, with none of the nasty surprises he thought should have been inevitable in working with Stark. So when he'd found the mark, when the soft, panicked beeping of Janet's equipment came through his headset, the sense of dread that settled low in his gut was laced with a hint of vicious vindictiveness that he’d never admit to anyone.
Janet’s voice came back online, tense with the hard and brittle tone she acquired whenever things took a turn for the worst. “An unknown signal just came in and gave the command for remote activation. You need to get out of there, Cap—there’s more than forty-two AI signatures coming online and counting—”
As if on cue, two drones broke through the glass of the office window overlooking the assembly floor.
“Yeah, I think I found them.”
They were identical to the ones he encountered in Hong Kong, deadly looking spheres that flew several feet off the ground, with the long-barreled gun turrets mounted on top swivelling pointedly in his direction. He activated the holoshield with a quick press to his right gauntlet, just in time to stop a hail of bullets from going through his head. Steve backed up to the corner of the room as quickly as he could and crouched down, trying to keep covered and make himself into as small a target as possible. The drones, for whatever reason, were more concerned with spewing bullets than aiming, and he secured a position with only a few minor grazes on his arm and shoulder.
At the first pause in the barrage, Steve dislodged the light-shield from his arm and threw it at the wall, where it ricocheted twice, flew across the room, and knocked the turrets off of both drones. He ran forward and grabbed one of the newly disarmed drones with both hands, before rotating in place and smashing it like a throwing hammer into the other drone.
The drones were little more than smoking wreckage against the wall—smoking wreckage that was absolutely going to set off the fire alarms—and Steve didn’t bother to confirm threat neutralization before he jumped over the desk and retrieved his shield. He mounted it back on his arm, jumped out the shattered window, and headed back down to the ground floor.
In the gloom ahead of him, the entire production line had come to life. He could feel the strange, intangible pressure of a football-field's worth of electronics switched on, hear whirring servos echoing ominously off of the concrete walls, and saw a thousand red lights staring back at him, bright specks of color in the dark. Steve watched with detached horror as dozens of drones, all perfectly lethal, lifted off of the assembly lines with a near-simultaneous hum of localized anti-grav kicking in. The sound vibrated briefly through his skull and sent a rare shiver of fear down his spine.
“Cap,” Jan whispered in his ear, her voice tight and breathy, “get the hell out of there, now!”
“You said in the briefing that operations was on lockdown, Iron Man!” Steve ducked down a hallway, only for a drone to block his path at the end of it. He charged at it, shield held in front of him, and threw himself down at the last second to slide underneath where the drone hovered, bullets missing his head by inches. He shot upright, turned back and brought down the holoshield on the drone from behind, sparks of electricity flying at his face as he hacked the drone into scrap.
The fury boiling in his blood—a side effect of his enhanced adrenal responses, they'd said—demanded more, wanted him to smash the drone until it was so much fine powder, but he'd had years of training to learn to ignore that instinct, to ride the wave of self-righteous fight response and keep moving forward. Steve yanked his arm back, shield still attached, and spun around when the now familiar sound of moving parts and slick-sharp smell of oil battered through his bloodlust like an alarm. Two more drones shot towards him from the end of the hallway he’d just entered, cutting off his only path back to the production floor. He spun on his heel and ran again, the holoshield strapped to his back. Bullets pinged loudly against the disc, ricocheting off into the walls all around him in a thousand tiny starbursts of plaster and dust, and he was hardly able to hear Stark shouting at him through the ringing in his ears.
“Those drones aren’t supposed to have been activated yet!” Stark screamed into the comm. He sounded as angry as Steve felt, furious and stymied, with none of his earlier cool. “It literally should have been impossible for those drones to be functional already, let alone pre-programmed with instructions to kill you. The entire compound is compromised!"
"I fucking noticed!" Steve dodged abruptly to the right, hyper-aware of the drones bearing down on him, and ran a few feet up the flimsy wall. The treads on his boots held him in place for the millisecond he needed for the drones to catch up, and he kicked backwards off the wall, shield first, smashing the two drones into each other and through the opposite wall. He—and the now scrapped drones—spilled back onto the production floor, which was both his only known escape route and still densely packed with drones. Almost as one, they all turned towards him, guns raising in unison.
Steve flipped himself back onto his feet, ducked back into the hallway, and started running in the general direction of out. Stark and Janet were still shouting in his ear, a panicked background buzzing.
"—thermal sensors, Rogers, you can't just break line of sight—"
On cue, the wall just behind him and to his left exploded inward under a battering ram of gunfire that kept pace with him as he ran.
"There's a concrete support pillar 50 meters ahead on your right, Cap. Iron Man says it'll hold as cover for at least a minute." Janet's voice was still soothing, even when stressed.
"Copy th—" A bullet grazed the back of his calf, wide but shallow, but it felt as though his nerve endings were on fire. He grunted, nearly stumbled, and managed to heave himself forward another few dozen meters and into the temporary cover of the support pillar. Blood soaked uncomfortably into his uniform around the cut, and he wasn't looking forward to having bloodsoaked socks in his watertight boots.
"Status report, Cap!" Carol's voice, sharp and commanding, was barely audible underneath the roar of gunfire chipping away at the pillar just behind his head.
"Minor injuries, pinned behind cover, pursued by two or three dozen drones with thermal sensors."
"Good, look, Cap, you need to—" Stark, again. Steve tuned him out.
"Wasp, what are my escape routes? Do I need to worry about local authorities?" A chip of concrete flew over his shoulder and embedded itself in the opposite wall.
"No, I'm keeping an ear out, no chatter so far. Escape routes are—"
"—almost nonexistent because I designed it that way," Stark interrupted, considerably more worked up than Jan or Carol. Civilians. "There's almost no means of egress that aren't already closed off, so you'll have to—"
"Wasp or Marvel, please take Iron Man off the line. I don't need an untrained civilian having a panic attack in my ear—"
“Rogers, will you fucking listen to me!” Stark roared. “I made the mistake of assuming we wouldn't have to worry about outside transmissions, I fucked up, but I've figured out how you can unfuck up my mistake!”
Steve snarled, low and completely on purpose, and tried to focus on how satisfying it would be to get out of the factory alive so he could smash Stark's smug, useless face into pulp. "You've got 30 seconds, Iron Man. Don't fuck this up too."
"Okay, okay. Remember the scrambler?" Stark's voice was shaky but focused, which was an improvement over the shouting. "You can overload it to emit an EMP kill-switch that'll knock out all the drones, but it has a limited radius, so—"
"So I'll have to round up 30 flying death turrets into a small enough space that I can disable them while also not getting shot, got it." Not the worst plan he'd had to deal with, but he was still going to make Stark's life a living hell when he got back. “You didn’t care to mention that function earlier?”
“Well, I’ve told you now, haven’t I?”
"Iron Man, off the goddamn comms," Carol cut in. "Cap, can you pull this off? I don't like it, but Iron Man's right—your escape routes are shit and you can't hide forever."
"I don't really have much of a choice. There's no way I can take them all down at once, and even one on one they're bound to get lucky eventually."
“Their AIs have a learning function and they’ve been cataloguing your moves, so it's only gonna get harder the longer you fight them,” Stark added helpfully.
“More good news.” Steve grumbled.
"Copy that. Cap, you're clear to try this batshit plan. Godspeed and please don't die, I hate doing eulogies." Carol's off-beat attempt at humor was welcome, but Steve could hear the real concern in her voice.
"Roger. Radio silence, emergencies only."
The sound of bullets pinging off concrete sounded louder with each passing second, which Steve knew meant his cover was close to failing. He crouched down and heard the gunfire shift with him, but it bought him a few extra seconds to think. The drones were plentiful, accurate, and nearly as fast as him—a direct assault wouldn't work. Plus, he'd almost certainly get shot in the back before he could get to the center of the mass of drones. Approach from below would work, but he had neither the time nor resources to burrow through the several feet of industrial concrete beneath his feet.
That left only an airborne approach. It wasn't optimal, but he'd seen the exposed beams on the walls and ceiling of the production floor. It could work.
Ten meters away, the wall to his left was the last barrier between him and the main floor. It was plaster and cheap wood, child's play to smash through, and from there he had to hope he could find more cover, quickly. Too long left exposed in such an open area would become very deadly, very fast.
Steve switched his shield to his left arm, took a deep breath, and charged the wall, gunfire in close pursuit. He broke through with his right shoulder, and the wall was thin enough that he just kept running, no need to roll. The drones honed back in on him almost immediately, but he had already ducked back behind another support pillar. The outside-facing wall was plastered up to a height of about 5 meters; the rest was exposed support beams, as was most of the ceiling. He wondered how long it would take for the drones to figure out that they could flank him around the pillar, and decided it was really for the best that he not find out.
He backed up against the pillar, uninjured leg bent at the knee and braced flat-footed against the concrete behind him. Five meters was easy; he'd climbed higher back in bootcamp. Steve slid his shield back onto his back, flexed his fingers, and pushed off, hard as he could.
He stepped up on the wall with one foot and jumped up, long arm stretching for an edge at the top of his arc. Steve grabbed at the rim of the plaster, which started crumbling under his fingers almost immediately, and kicked his free foot straight through the wall, toe-first, making a rudimentary step. It started crumbling too, but slower, giving him just enough time to make another step with his other foot and push/pull upwards with all three limbs. It was like dragging himself through quicksand, but it worked—he grabbed onto an L-beam with his free hand and hauled himself up again until he had both hands on metal.
Below him, the ever-present gunfire was quieter, as if some of the drones had stopped firing. Steve didn't know why, but he didn't see a need to figure it out just yet. Climbing up the rest of the wall took only seconds, and he was finally able to flip up onto a low ceiling beam.
Steve stayed crouched out of habit and, arms out for balance, started walking slowly towards where the beam met the pillar he'd been hiding behind only seconds earlier. The sound of gunfire was completely gone now, and its absence made the ringing echo in his ears sound almost as loud as the bullets had been. Up here, the support pillars were intersected on all four faces by perpendicular beams, and by diagonal struts a little further up. Standing would be nearly impossible once he got too close to the pillar, but that was also the easiest way to make a 90-degree jump with no equipment.
He stood up as best he could, one arm wrapped around the diagonal strut above him. The next beam was close enough to step on, but only just, and he wouldn't be able to recover if he didn't land the first time. The angle would be awkward, but he'd have to jump it and hope the drones didn't zero back in on him too fast.
Steve wiped his fingertips dry as he could manage on the material of his uniform, dropped back into a crouch, and launched himself towards the perpendicular beam. He caught, found purchase, and pulled up, staying crouched and low to present as small a target as he could manage. Below him, nearer to the center of the production floor, the drones watched him with dozens of burning red lights, but didn't fire. They couldn't, Steve realized. He was at too severe an angle for their turrets to reach. Stark had designed the drones for ground use, not aerial defense.
The drones kept watching him as he jumped to the next beam on the pillar and started walking towards them. They were clumped up, waiting for him to drop back down to where they could fire, and Steve could feel a sharp grin spreading across his face at the sight. Too easy. All that was left was to figure out how to make Stark's device kill them all.
Steve stopped in the relative shelter of another support pillar and pulled the scrambler out of one of his side pouches. The device Stark had cobbled together for him was a strange combination of Star Trek and garage junk, streamlined but mismatched. It looked to his inexpert eye like a glorified laser pointer, shooting out a beam of red light and a very small short-range EMP every time he pushed its obnoxiously large button, but once he flipped open the back panel Steve could see a hell of a lot more wires wound inside than a laser pointer could ever need. Obviously, Stark had meant to add a few more features.
Even if he couldn't figure out how everything inside it worked, overloading was easy. All he had to do was cause a feedback loop with the EMP components, hold the button down, and somehow release it in the center of the drone pile below him.
Steve opened his comm line back up.
"Wasp, I'm removing my comm equipment. I don't want to risk it getting fried by the EMP."
"Alright. ETA for resumption of communications?"
"Copy that. You're clear to go dark."
He removed his headset, wrapped it neatly in his spare gloves, and dropped it as gently as he could to the floor below. The drones kept their eyes on him.
Steve used his pocket knife to splice a few wires together, hopefully the right ones. It was a messy job, but that would probably work in his favor—he needed as much excessive discharge as possible. Finished, he replaced the backplate and held down the button until he could feel the EMP field in his teeth. Good enough. With a few quick, efficient movements, Steve had his shield back in his right hand, the device in his left, and was braced to drop. The charged burst would only last a split second, but that would be more than he needed.
"Alright, you bastards," Steve said, and jumped off the beam.
He fell, shield and shoulder first, already prepared for exactly how much the impact onto the floor or an unlucky drone was going to hurt. The drones watched with alien interest as Steve plummeted towards them and for a brief, terrifying millisecond, he was close enough to hear the servos in their turrets whirring back into motion.
Then he took his finger off the overload button and felt a split second of raw satisfaction as some 40-odd drones dropped dead in one uniform thud all around him, just before he hit the floor with enough force to crack the concrete. His shoulder took most of the impact, as he'd planned, but it still knocked the wind out of him for several seconds. Steve stumbled to his feet as soon as he could manage, just in time to see four drones who'd been out of range bearing down on him.
He hurled his shield at one without thinking. His aim was off, arm numbed from the collision, and the shield flew wild. It grazed the top of one drone, sending it spinning into its neighbor. The two crashed together, temporarily down but definitely not out.
The other two rotated in place, taking aim at his chest, and Steve dodged and rolled as best he could, but he still felt the unmistakably searing pain as something connected with his torso. He threw himself behind a dead drone, confirmed that he wasn't in immediate danger of dying, and picked the drone up. Steve charged towards the gunfire, makeshift shield held in front of him, and barreled into at least one of the drones still firing at him. It crashed against the floor with a spectacular screech of metal, sparks flying everywhere. He spun and dropped, both hands braced on the floor, and kicked up with both legs hard enough to dent the second drone's outer shell. It slammed into a support pillar and shattered, delicate electronics spilled everywhere like entrails.
Steve called his shield back with a press to his gauntlet and righted himself just in time to block an incoming volley of gunfire from drones 3 and 4. This, at least, was quickly becoming familiar. He charged again, slammed his shield right into the turret of drone 3. It buckled and jammed backwards, pushing through the drone with a scream of metal grinding through moving parts before the whole machine shut down, unable to function.
The last drone was just out of reach, but that wasn't much of a problem. Steve spun into a discus throw, adjusted for his weaker shoulder, and hurled the shield straight into the drone's center of mass. It went down messy, some moving parts still twitching and trying to interpret commands from its shattered core, but it went down. Steve stalked over to it, yanked his shield out, and smashed it back down into the drone until it was an unrecognizable pile of slag.
With the last drone finally dead, Steve let himself exhale a small sigh. He then limped over to where his headset lay on the floor, picked it up, and leaned against the wall, head starting to spin from adrenaline withdrawal and blood loss. The last hit had been a through-and-through on his side, and his uniform was soaked through. His mouth tasting of plaster dust and the copper tang of his cut lip, Steve cleared his throat, brought up a finger to his ear, and said, “Stark, when I get back there, I’m going to kill you.”
“So let me summarise what we have so far.” Director Chang reclined back on her chair, her fingers steepled, her expression completely unreadable. “An unknown signal overrides the drones, all pointing to the probability that not only were the drones already compromised prior to us getting there, but that they knew we were coming. Did I get everything?“
“Yes, ma'am.” Rogers, despite coming into the meeting straight from medical, had too much discipline to fidget where he stood at attention in front of Chang’s desk, but Tony had no such qualms.
“Stark, care to corroborate this information?”
Tony looked away and nodded tightly.
“Gentlemen, congratulations,” Chang said, a strained smile on her face. “You have officially presented me the biggest headache of my career since Nick Fury left the Triskelion.”
“If I could make a suggestion, Director,” Rogers said, without any inflection in his voice. “I’d like to formally request Mr. Stark’s removal from this operation.”
“Mr. Stark’s inexperience and distinct lack of professionalism nearly cost us the entire mission,” Rogers continued as though Tony hadn’t spoken, not even turning to acknowledge him. “I can write up a list of formal grievances, at the top of which I will cite how he willfully omitted information crucial to the mission at his own discretion, only choosing to divulge said information at the last minute.”
“You’re calling me unprofessional?” Tony replied, making no effort to hide his contempt. He got the impression that Rogers was refusing to look at him.
“Furthermore, I think the veracity of Mr. Stark’s claims should now be called into question—”
“I was your quartermaster, and you second-guessed every call I made, up to and including the tech that eventually saved your life!”
“You’re a civilian consultant,” said Steve, his voice rising in volume to match Tony’s, “and you’d already proven that you can’t be trusted with the limited responsibilities you were given—”
“You had zero trust in my judgement!”
“Both of you shut up,” said Chang, cutting the both of them off. She turned to Tony and fixed him in place with a hard glare. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t let Rogers crush your skull using only his biceps.”
Tony curled his hands into fists, before he responded. “If what you’re accusing me of is true and this was sabotage on my part, what would have this mission achieved if it was successful besides the death of one measly agent?”
“You realise,” Chang responded after a tense pause, “why I want so badly for you to be lying.”
Tony nodded. “Either I’m lying, or it’s not just SI that has a security leak.”
“And you realise that in the face of that possibility…”
To his right, Rogers stiffened. “We need to lock down on the internal proliferation of information regarding the op. Meaning only agents who have been privy to the information can work on this operation,” he said.
Monica nodded. “Despite appearances to the contrary, this mission was only mostly a complete and utter failure. We’ve learned several important things. Primary among those is that if the leak really came from from our end, this is larger than corporate sabotage and the Mandarin is now a threat to national security. Stark is just a convenient tool of whoever the real enemy is, a means to an end instead of an end itself.”
“We have to assume the entire production line of SI’s Asian branch is compromised,” Tony said. “Since whatever chance we had of stealth and keeping this from the Mandarin is blown out of the water anyway, I’ve suspended all production on any and all Stark proprietary technology that’s based in Asia.”
Chang tapped a finger thoughtfully on her lips. “How many plants are we talking?”
“Five in total, not counting the cellphone production plant in the Philippines.”
“Which is where our second bit of good news comes in. I can pull you off recon duty, Rogers.”
“Madame Director wants me to trace the signal override on those drones,” Tony explained, “and find what factory is getting hit next.”
“Can you do it?” Chang said. “Find out how the Mandarin compromised your tech?”
“I was going to even without your orders, Director,” he said sincerely.
She stood up, and splayed her hands flat on her desk in front of her. “It’s settled then. Find me what plants the Mandarin has taken over, and I’ll send in Rogers to disable those sites. We need to prevent more of your drones from entering the black market, so this is a temporary measure to cut them off at the source. Briefing at 1600 tomorrow for full details. Are we clear?”
“Crystal, ma’am,” said Tony.
“I trust that, between the two of you, there should be enough professionalism to account for at least one agent. Resolve your differences, and that’s an order.” She pinched the bridge of her nose as she finished her statement, and waved her other hand towards the direction of the door. “Both of you are dismissed. Send Danvers in on your way out.”
“Director—” Rogers started to protest.
Chang had already sat back down on her chair, perusing through the papers on her desk. “I said you’re dismissed,” she repeated, in a voice that clearly booked no room for argument.
They left the office, sending Danvers in after them. Rogers was quietly seething next to him, walking in long strides down the same hallways they walked just that morning before the disastrous op. As much distance as he must’ve wanted to put between him and Tony, it didn’t change the fact that their quarters were in the same direction.
Although, that didn’t stop Rogers from shooting him dark looks, as though his room assignment was also Tony’s fault, instead of SHIELD’s.
“What?” Tony said defensively at the latest glare Rogers sent his way. “I’m not following you because I want to.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about the scrambler’s kill function?” Rogers asked without any preamble.
That wasn’t the question Tony was expecting, but he answered anyway. “You would’ve used it too early.”
“When would’ve been too early? When I had only been grazed once?"
“How could you expect me to trust your judgement when you didn’t trust me back?” Tony spat.
Steve turned away from him, and made off down the hallway leading to his quarters. “If you were a decent person, you’d excuse yourself from the op and just give us the information we want.”
“I’m saying you’re not qualified to be quartermaster,” he replied bluntly, not even trying to soften the blow.
God, what was it about this guy that ticked him off so much? “You get right to the point, don’t you? Madame Director is keeping me on because I’m the only one qualified to consult on this operation.”
It was probably the earnestness that got under his skin, the way Rogers meant each and every one of his boy scout concerns. Tony was used to people hating him—would be more surprised to find people who genuinely liked him, as a matter of fact, so it wasn’t really because the guy hated his guts. As much as Rogers wanted to punch him in the face for being an annoying prick (never let it be said that Tony Stark wasn’t eminently self-aware of how punchable his face was), he was sincerely worried about the integrity of the mission.
Rogers wanted Tony off the mission not because he hated him, but because he thought Tony was an idiot. It rankled.
“Director Chang isn’t fallible.”
“Ooh, careful Captain. That’s either insubordination or independent thought, and we wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” he replied as snidely as he could.
“Service in SHIELD is about sacrifice, Stark,” said Rogers through gritted teeth. “How could you understand that when you only care about your company?”
“I care about my company because I built it from the ground up after dear old dad flushed it down the economic shitter in the 80s, not because I'm an amoral, money-obsessed villain like you're so eager to believe.”
Rogers punched the wall besides Tony’s head. The metal buckled under his fist. “You think you can just keep stepping over boundaries because you’re a spoiled brat who's so used to getting what you want, Stark.”
Tony sidled up against Rogers, their faces inches apart, his hand splayed over the white star on Rogers’ chest. It was very much like baiting an incredibly agitated lion, but he was too angry to have the sense to be afraid of Steve’s raw strength.
“Oh trust me, captain," Tony said, lashes fluttering in a way that he knew was ridiculous. He dug his fingernails into Rogers’ chest, as if to scratch off that ridiculous emblem. "Your silly little band of toy soldiers don't have anything I want. Well, maybe just the one, but I'll give you a hint: your brains aren’t your main appeal."
Rogers slammed him back against the wall, gripping Tony by his shoulders and pinning him flat. The force of the impact briefly knocked the air out of his lungs, left him feeling winded. Before Tony could fully register what was going on, Rogers—or probably Steve now, he really has to be Steve now if this was actually happening—Steve snarled, frustrated and pissed, and captured his mouth in a kiss, rough and full of teeth. His face was still covered with grime, stained by the soot and dust of the drones he'd destroyed with vicious, impressive strength. Tony opened his mouth without thinking, lips parting on instinct, and Steve took the invitation with enthusiasm, tongue invading his mouth. The barely healed cut on Steve's lip reopened against Tony’s mouth, a bloom of copper tinging the kiss.
Tony moaned, thick and muffled around Steve's tongue, eyes closing involuntarily as Steve pressed closer. At some point, he remembered he had hands, and that they could be doing something much more interesting than hanging uselessly at his sides. He wrapped them around Steve's neck, pressing hard at the cords of straining muscle with his fingertips. He ran his fingers further down, past his collarbone, until finally they gripped the leather straps of the holster. Tony used his newfound purchase to pull Steve even closer, in case Steve suddenly found his temporarily misplaced capacity for remorse with their current course of action.
He let go of the holster and continued to slide down Steve's chest, running down his torso. Steve broke the kiss, hissing as Tony’s roaming hands caught on the neatly bandaged wound on his side, still fever hot even through his uniform and the bandaging over it. With a smug grin, Tony pressed his fingertips into the sore skin around the wound at the same time he sucked hard on Steve's tongue.
Steve’s groan was a mix of pain and reluctant pleasure. He pulled back and glared at Tony, his pupils dilated so that the black almost swallowed his irises entirely, just a barely visible ring of blue—and maybe it had been a bad idea to escalate his current situation, but his malformed sense of preservation was hardly enough to make him regret the action. There was just something so very appealing about walking that razor's edge of rough and deadly. Steve grabbed Tony's hands and pulled them up, gripped his wrists tight enough that he’d definitely leave a ring of bruises, and pinned them to the wall beside his head.
Tony felt hot, so hot he could barely breathe, and what the fuck were they doing? He hadn’t meant for it to go this far, he didn’t think that pushing Rogers this hard was going to get him this, a kiss when he’d been braced for a punch on the jaw. But it was difficult to feel too bad about it, because Steve was kissing him again, his mouth warm, his tongue pliant as it tangled with his, and Tony was hardly known for his restraint anyway. Steve let go of one of his wrists, using his now free hand to unbuckle Tony's belt from around his waist and pull the zipper of his pants down. Then he brought his thigh up between Tony’s legs, pressing against his dick, right there in the hallway where anyone could walk in on them and see. Tony was unashamed to admit that the possibility of getting caught made him shiver with another wave of arousal.
Steve just wasn’t playing fair, though, and Tony didn't want to let him have the upper hand for too much longer. It was...difficult, though, to keep that in mind when Steve was rocking against him so perfectly. His free hand shot forward, nails digging into the back of Steve’s neck, before he tangled his fingers in his hair, gripping tightly. The motion of Steve’s thigh against his cock was maddening, an unrelentless barrage of sensation so intense that he could barely think, which a part of him supplied was partially (or entirely) the point.
Steve broke the kiss to speak, his words punctuated by harsh, ragged breathing. “Is this a language you understand now, Stark?”
Tony was speechless for all of two seconds, before he smiled, baring his teeth. “What, can I interpret this as anything else besides you trying to fuck me into submission?”
“Fuck you, Stark.”
He replied with a huff of laughter and his best pair of bedroom eyes. ”I'm not complaining, please, give it your best shot, Cap.”
"Shut up," Steve growled. “Don’t talk.”
"This what you wanted? All that anger, all that tension—was it all just an excuse for you—" Tony cut off with a gasp as Steve pulled at his hips, rocking him forward and establishing a steady, ruthless rhythm. Tony pulled on his hair, frustrated and way too turned on to help how the rest of his words pushed through his teeth as a moan.
"I said shut up.”
Steve ran his teeth along the line of Tony’s jaw and moved down his neck, sucking on his Adam’s apple. He caught the zipper on the collar of Tony’s SHIELD uniform between his teeth and pulled it down to bare more skin at the base of Tony’s throat. Steve sucked on the newly exposed skin, pulling bruises to the surface of the skin on his throat and the hollows of his collarbones.
Agent Rogers might be pulling out all the stops, might think he had Tony pliant and bested, but Tony was resourceful. He knew how to follow play by the rules when it suited him. Tony used his teeth to tear his glove off with a rough jerk of his head, let it fall to the floor, and pushed Steve’s pants and underwear down just enough to pull out his half-erect cock. He stroked once, noted the dry tug and the way Steve tensed up against him, then spat into his hand, and tried again. Steve rose up on his toes at the first slick pull, pushing greedily into Tony's hand, and Tony responded by pressing the flat of his palm over the head. He rubbed his thumb underneath the head, pulled back the foreskin, and tried not to grin too madly as he felt Steve swell and harden in his hand.
Steve groaned again, a deep reverberation through his chest, before he growled and pinned Tony's free hand back against the wall.
“You’re such a—” Steve said, panting heavily, “—you’re just so infuriating—”
He should find it objectionable, terrifying, the way he could barely move under Steve's raw physicality, pinned and vulnerable and entirely fucking helpless. Instead, he rutted back against Steve and let himself moan as loud as he wanted, indecent noises that clearly got under Steve's skin in the best possible way. After all, he didn't particularly care that someone might hear them—all he wanted was for Steve to keep that terrifying focus all on him. If Rogers thought he could win just by fucking him stupid, Tony was going to try his damnedest to prove him wrong.
“Fuck, yes, Rogers—”
“Shut up Stark—”
Steve kissed him, swallowing the obscenities into his mouth, and pinned both of Tony’s wrists up over his head with one large hand. He pressed the fingers of his right hand to Tony’s lips. Tony took the thumb into his mouth, licking around the digit, teeth grazing the knuckle, and pulled the rest of it in with a slick curl of his tongue. Steve groaned again—and god, Tony was getting very attached to those moans, low and reluctant and possibly the sexiest thing he'd ever heard—and pressed in two more fingers, which Tony happily accommodated.
Steve stared at Tony's mouth with blatant fascination, and Tony tried to take his fingers deeper, just to see what would happen. It got a full-body shudder and a roll of hips out of Steve, all the hotter for how obviously involuntary both actions were. Steve’s cock was leaking satisfyingly against Tony's thigh and hip, and Tony would have given just about anything in that moment to fall to his knees and put his mouth to better use.
It was very much still Steve's show, though, and he had different ideas. He pulled his fingers out of Tony's mouth and gripped his jaw, fingers wet, thumb pressing down against Tony's tongue. Tony didn't resist, just let Steve pull his jaw open, well aware of how his mouth had to look, slick and swollen and probably still smeared with a bit of blood from the cut on Steve's lip.
"If you say anything else, I'll stop, you understand?" Steve’s usually firm command tone wavered as Tony sucked on his knuckle, and he didn't wait for a response (which would have been a very enthusiastic yes), just reached down, lined their cocks up in his wide grip, and started stroking them both with brisk, efficient motions.
It was almost too dry, the saliva on Steve's hand and precum from the both their cocks not quite enough lubrication to be comfortable, but Tony wasn't here for comfortable. He wanted a rough fuck, something to vent of the anger Steve so obviously wanted to act on, and this—this was perfect, tight quick strokes that had him squirming for purchase with his feet, anything to help him thrust up into the perfect heat of Steve's hand. At the top of every stroke, Steve's thumb swept across their cockheads and dragged slick precome down the shafts, and Tony's nerves were quickly edging towards frayed, every drag of Steve's thumb making him shiver and gasp and bite down another moan.
"S—" Through the haze Tony had just enough sense to remember not to talk, not if he wanted to get off. He turned the sound into another groan and buried his face in Steve's neck, biting and sucking at whatever skin he could reach.
Steve, surprisingly, arched his neck into the perfect angle, shuddering softly as Tony scraped his teeth over a sensitive patch of skin, and took the hint to pick up the pace. Tony shivered, hard, almost shaking with the way his nerves sparked and sang. He could feel orgasm building low in his gut, hot and all-consuming, and had just enough warning to bite down on the thick cords of Steve's neck as the wave of pleasure crashed through him, and he spilled in harsh spurts all over Steve's hand and cock.
Steve grunted as Tony’s teeth bit down hard on his neck, but kept up his brutal pace through the aftershocks, chasing his own finish with little regard for how Tony was so sensitive it almost hurt, though the added slickness from his come made the strokes easier. He could hear Steve panting harsh next to his ear, and seconds or lifetimes later he felt Steve swell and twitch against his cock, coming hard with a few tight groans, like he'd been punched in the gut.
They stood there, both spent and sticky, still leaning close enough together that Tony was held upright almost exclusively by Steve's thigh and hands. Without the frustrated frenzy of arousal or the mindless bliss of orgasm to distract them, the tension was suddenly unbearable, in a way it couldn’t be while they were fighting or fucking, and Tony shivered as his body registered the artificial cold of the AC once again. He could practically feel the discomfort radiating off of Steve in waves.
Steve closed his eyes.
“I wouldn’t have minded a regular invitation to dinner,” Tony said.
Steve scoffed and pulled away. He tried to make himself as decent as he could, pulled up his underwear and pants where they’d been tugged down around his thighs, though there was nothing to be done about the stains and no place to wipe the spunk off his hand that wouldn't just make more wet spots. “This wasn’t that, Stark. This was—”
“—just sex,” finished Tony, almost bored, and very much wishing the post-coital haze had lasted a little longer. He felt used, and slightly dirty, but judging by the wonderfully prominent shade of red Rogers’ face had turned, the sentiment was entirely mutual, probably even worse. It wasn’t as if the feeling was unfamiliar to Tony, anyway. “Darling, I know of the concept.”
Steve looked as though he wanted to say something in response, but instead, he just looked at Tony, flat and faintly disgusted—at himself or Tony, he couldn't tell—and left.
The retort Tony had ready on his tongue died. He wasn’t expecting Rogers to just leave. His sudden departure drained all the contrarian belligerence out of Tony, and he leaned back against the wall, suddenly very tired and not quite trusting himself to be capable of standing under his own power just yet. There were a million and one thoughts in his brain vying for the brunt of his attention, but the was first among them was the realisation that the come on his uniform was starting to dry and it felt extremely unpleasant.
Tony started laughing, and even to his own ears he sounded vaguely hysterical. He was in way over his head, and there was nowhere to go but forward.