Steve was only an hour into a three-day surveillance op, too early even for his fingers to stiffen around his binoculars or his feet to go numb from maintaining position on his windy rooftop perch, when his comm let out an unexpected beep.
Steve froze, every muscle in his body locking up. That was Bucky's voice, and that meant he was using the emergency phone, the one installed in the panic room hidden in their basement.
"I'm here," he said instantly. He stowed his gear on autopilot, the binoculars and heat imaging goggles going into their designated pockets in the SHIELD-issued glorified fanny pack he used when he was traveling light. "What's going on?"
"There's a team at the house." Bucky's voice was shaking a little, but his words were clear. They'd practiced this, Steve running drill after drill once he'd discovered that his badass sniper spy husband was in fact a badass food critic husband who therefore hadn't actually done self-defense and home invasion drills before. Steve had acted post haste to correct this critical gap in his education. Bucky was happy enough to let Steve roll him over his hip and pin him against training mats, but there was only so much a civilian could do against the kinds of teams Steve went up against professionally, especially a civilian who refused to get firearms training (even though based on Bucky’s laser tag scores he would pass a range test after fifteen minutes of practice).
The panic room in the basement had been a compromise, and Steve had run home invasion drills every weekend until Bucky had threatened to withhold his favorite lasagna dinners and switch to Sunday night liverwurst unless Steve eased up. The practice was paying off now, Bucky relaying the answers to Steve’s next questions before he even asked them.
"There's at least two of them, maybe three,” Bucky said. “They got through the perimeter without tripping the alarms. First sign I heard of them was when one of them knocked on the door."
Steve was already moving, his surveillance perch abandoned as he rappelled down the side of the half-built office park. "What did you do?"
"Headed downstairs, locked myself in the panic room, called you."
"Perfect, Bucky, that was exactly right. You stay put, okay?" Steve sprinted across the empty parking lot, heading towards the quinjet squatting in stealth mode in the darkest corner. "I'm coming."
Bucky wedged himself into the corner of the panic room furthest from the door and thought about how annoying it was that Steve’s rampant paranoia was apparently justified.
The phone he had clutched in a sweaty, white-knuckled grip was silent. The signal had cut off shortly after the intruders had realized the main part of the house was empty. Bucky had watched on the panic room’s security monitors as they discovered the still-steaming pan of romesco sauce in the kitchen, cursing himself for not thinking to hide it in the freezer instead of leaving a great big flashing clue that there was someone in the house. The intruders had a brief, hissed argument with a lot of hand waving and exasperated gestures, then found the hidden steps to the basement with laughable ease.
They weren’t wearing masks. In the movies, that always meant they didn’t intend to leave witnesses alive. Was that how it worked in reality?
Why hadn’t he ever asked Steve exactly which action movie conventions applied to real world spying? How had this never come up in the endless Espionage 101 classes Steve kept dragging Bucky through? The man had made flashcards so Bucky could recognize different types of grenades, but he’d never thought to cover which Bond cliches were based in reality? Talk about misplaced priorities.
"We're not gonna hurt you," the man standing outside the panic room with a giant knife in his belt said. The security monitor in the panic room gave Bucky a great view of the two intruders in the hallway just outside, one short and scary and frowning at the security camera, one tall and distracted and also kind of scary because he was in Bucky’s house. The tall guy was typing one-handed into a laptop braced on his opposite elbow. The short guy was leaning against the wall, and appeared to be keeping one eye on the panic room door and the other on the far end of the hall.
They didn't look like ruthless assassins. Tall guy was wearing a chunky cableknit sweater Bucky kind of wanted to steal for himself, and short guy looked like he had blow-dried his hair that morning. But appearances could be deceiving, and their nonthreatening style choices were trumped by the fact that they were loitering outside Bucky’s panic room.
"Yeah, you'll have to excuse me for not taking your word on that," Bucky said, holding down the intercom button. "Listen, I don't know who you work for, and I don't really care. My husband is on his way, and trust me, you do not want to still be standing here when he gets home."
"Don’t worry, this won't take long," tall guy said.
“That’s not nearly as reassuring as you seem to think it is,” Bucky shouted, but short guy just gestured tall guy forward. Tall guy popped the casing off the panic room’s alarm panel and started rewiring cables. “Seriously, my husband is a very dangerous man, and he doesn’t respond well to threats.”
“Nobody’s threatening anybody,” short guy growled.
“Uh, I hate to say it, but the man has a point,” tall guy said. “I mean, I’m hacking his panic room right now, that’s a pretty threatening action. If I were him I’d feel very threatened.”
“Thank you,” Bucky said triumphantly, before belatedly realizing exactly what the man had just said. “And stop hacking my panic room!”
“Mmm hmm, okay,” tall guy said agreeably, a second before the the panic room locks disengaged with a dull clunk. Bucky careened away from the door and grabbed the closest weapon at hand, which happened to be the ladle he’d been holding when he’d made his slapdash retreat from the kitchen. It still had some romesco on it.
Maybe he could fling a bit of spicy sauce into the intruders’ eyes before they murdered him. Sure, he’d still be dead, but at least they’d have to break out the eye drops. Vengeance would be his.
Short guy eased the door open a crack, then pushed it back further when he wasn’t met with a hail of bullets or taser prongs. Why didn’t they have a taser in the panic room? How, in Steve’s hundred and one paranoia drills, did they never think of putting a taser in the panic room? If Bucky survived this, he was going to make some major revisions to their emergency security plans, starting with tasers in every room, seriously, kitchen utensils are not an effective deterrent.
Short guy stepped into the panic room with his hands held up placatingly at chest height, tall guy peeking around the door behind him.
Bucky lunged forward and swung the ladle wildly. Short guy ducked. Tall guy caught the ensuing spray of sauce right across the chest.
Tall guy gave him a deeply unimpressed look. “Seriously?”
Bucky aimed for his face on his second wild swing. Short guy caught the ladle, wrenched it out of Bucky’s hands, and twirled it between his fingers. Bucky backed up until he hit the wall with a thump. In the hands of short guy, the ladle suddenly looked like an actual weapon.
“Calm down,” short guy ordered.
Bucky had been backing up again, but at that the sheer force of his indignation physically rooted him to the spot. “Has that ever worked? Has telling someone whose house you just invaded to calm down ever resulted in them actually getting calmer? Because I have to tell you, I’m feeling a lot of things right now and calm is at the very bottom of the list.”
“This is actually a pretty good panic room,” tall guy observed, looking around with interest. “Way above the ‘we summer in the Hamptons’ industry standard, for sure. Not what I’d expect from a food critic. What did you say your husband does?”
Bucky drew himself up and glared. If these two really didn’t know what Steve did, Bucky wasn’t going to be the one to compromise his cover. “He’s a leisure photographer. What's this all about?"
"Three years ago,” short guy said, “you reviewed a brewpub in Portland."
Bucky’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my God.”
“It was newly opened,” short guy continued doggedly, unaware of Bucky’s incipient melt-down. “The menu was experimental. It wasn’t perfected yet.”
“Oh my God.” Bucky could not believe that the pissed-off chefs had found them before the spies did. He’d fucking told Steve not to underestimate the kind of enemies a Michelin inspector made in an industry where butchering was a standard skill set. Also he’d totally been right about the hair. “You’re the chef?”
“Chef and proprieter.”
“Co-proprieter,” tall guy interjected, now prying off the other side of the panic room panel with a screwdriver.
“Co-proprieter,” short guy amended. “But the menu’s all mine.”
"Look," Bucky snapped, blitzed on enough adrenaline to make a corpse do jumping jacks, "I don't care what you threaten me with, I stand by that fucking review, okay? There was potential, but it was unpolished. The minestrone lacked zest! And the monte cristo was soggy in the middle! You can’t have a soggy monte cristo, it defeats the whole purpose of the dish!"
"I get that," short guy said, holding up a hand palm-out. "I do. It was a fair review. But I've made some changes since then that I think you'll like. If you don't, that's fine. I'm just looking for honest feedback."
"You broke into my house and hacked my panic room to cook me dinner?"
"Wasn't planning on breaking in," short guy growled. It was a little more embarrassed than his previous growls. "I did knock."
"Only after you bypassed the perimeter security!"
Short guy and tall guy exchanged a look, then both shrugged. "Force of habit."
Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose, sighed heavily, and held out a hand. “Okay, do-over. I’m Bucky Barnes, and you are?”
Short guy shook his hand. Now that Bucky wasn’t filtering him through assassin-tinted goggles, he didn’t look so scary, just intense in a way that Bucky was used to seeing on chefs. The knife scars Bucky could feel on his fingers were familiar, too, and reassuring because of it. “Call me Eliot.”
“Hardison, at your service,” tall guy said. “Speaking of security, you want me to punch up your panic room locks? The passcode encryption is very, well, I’m sure it was top of the line in 2014, bless its little binary heart.”
“You know what, why not. Knock yourself out.” Bucky stalked out of the panic room, yanking the ladle out of Eliot’s hands as he passed. “Eliot, let’s get cooking.”
Steve stalked towards the house on high alert. He’d parked the quinjet in an empty field far enough away that the engine noise wouldn’t carry, then slipped carefully through the backyard herb garden on foot, wincing a little as he trampled Bucky’s lovingly cultivated lemon basil. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
The front door was closed, with no signs of forced entry. The windows in the kitchen and dining room glowed a warm, steady yellow. Nothing looked obviously out of place.
“All your perimeter alarms are still registering as deactivated, with no reports of local police being dispatched,” Tony reported, his voice a little more echoey in Steve’s earpiece than he was used to, since Tony was tuned in from his living room instead of the SHIELD headquarters building. He’d called Tony from the quinjet and cut off Tony’s indignant tirade about work-life balance, Rogers, ever heard of it, some of us take a night off now and then to summarize the call he’d gotten from Bucky. Tony had hacked into Steve’s home security software thirty seconds later. “The security cameras are still looping old footage, but I’m getting current readings from the infrared monitors. I make three heat signatures in the kitchen.”
“Is one of them Bucky?”
“They could be E.T. and his two best friends for all I can tell, I’m working with blob figures here. Nobody’s lying on the floor bleeding out, I can tell you that much. The stove’s on. Looks like someone’s cooking.”
That definitely sounded like Bucky, although not the same Bucky who’d called him from the panic room. Steve circled the house until he was just outside the dining room’s french doors. There was soft music and the sound of something sizzling overlaying voices that were too quiet to make out. Steve crouched behind the grape arbor he’d planted there specifically to disrupt sight lines to the dinner table, listening intently, until his heart skipped a beat at Bucky’s familiar laugh.
Music, cooking, and laughing? It sounded more like a dinner party than a hostage situation, but Steve wasn’t going to take anything for granted. That was his husband in there. His civilian husband who packed him elaborate boxed lunches that made the rest of his team wildly jealous when he opened them in the SHIELD mess, who could debone a chicken in five minutes but absolutely refused to let Steve teach him knife fighting because it “wasn’t the same thing” and “knife fighting wasn’t a normal skill” and Steve should just “calm down.” And now his sweet civilian husband who didn’t even know how to stab people correctly had been at the mercy of God knew who for almost an hour.
The distinctive clang of La Creuset Signature cast iron skillet gave him a moment of covering background noise. Steve eased to his feet, yanked the french doors open fast, and slid inside with his gun held along his thigh. He didn’t know where anyone was in the room, and he wasn’t about to risk hitting Bucky.
His entrance provoked an immediate response. A stocky man wearing Bucky’s SAUCE BOSS apron spun around from his position by the stove and pulled the solid wood butcher’s block off the kitchen island, holding it in front of his neck and chest like a bulletproof vest. The dining room table had been colonized by a sprawl of electronics overseen by a man who ducked under the table the instant Steve slammed into the room. A moment later his hand reappeared, patted over a tangle of black cords and a candy dish full of jellybeans until it found the corner of the laptop, then pulled the laptop down too.
Bucky, who’d been leaning against the fridge eating a sandwich, straightened up and beamed at him. Steve did a quick scan: no bruises or disheveled clothing, relaxed posture, genuine smile. “Steve!”
“You okay, Buck?” Steve swiveled to put his back to the wall and his face towards both of the intruders, but didn’t make any aggressive moves. Bucky didn’t look hurt or even scared, which helped lower Steve’s tension levels from Imminent Stroke to Three Hours Into a Wait at the DMV.
The man in the kitchen gave Steve a swift, assessing glance, then lowered the butcher’s block and turned to Bucky. “Husband?”
“That’s him!” Bucky said cheerfully. He took a bite out of his sandwich, then extended it beckoningly, like he was trying to tempt a stray dog closer with a piece of ham. “Steve, come try this.”
Steve edged into the room without raising or holstering his weapon. He was too far away to check Bucky for needle marks or other signs that he’d been drugged, so until he could verify that Bucky’s acceptance of the strangers in his kitchen wasn’t chemically produced, he was going to play it safe. “Who’re your new friends, honey?”
“Eliot and Hardison. Eliot made fancy grilled cheese for dinner. Hardison’s the one hiding under the table.” There was a half-empty wine glass at Bucky’s left elbow, and a mostly full one next to the stove, but Steve didn’t see anything more chemically suspicious than an open bottle of cabernet--one of the nice bottles, he noted, the ones Bucky refused to waste on Steve, since an afternoon wine tasting in Milan had proven conclusively that Steve couldn’t tell the difference between a thousand-dollar vintage and two buck chuck. For all that Steve had learned about food under Bucky’s patient tutelage, he still had the alcohol palate of a frat boy seeking the cheapest way to get alcohol poisoning.
The man who had ducked under the table--Hardison--raised his head, gave Steve a cautious little wave, and looked at Eliot. Eliot gave a minute chin jerk. Hardison took that as a green light to emerge, unfolding long legs and dusting off his knees. “Hey, man, good to meet you. Sorry for gate crashing, that was kind of an accident.”
Steve’s comm crackled to life. “Wait, did he say Hardison?” Tony said. “The Hardison? Give him your earpiece.”
“I’d say nice to meet you too, but, well.” Steve circled the kitchen island, wondering if Eliot would let him move Bucky behind him, or if he’d get a spatula edge to the trachea as soon as he was in range.
“Stop ignoring me, this is serious,” Tony whined in his ear. “I need to talk to Hardison, c’mon Steve, give him your--”
Steve switched his comm off one-handed and put it in his pocket. Five seconds later, a cellphone sitting by Hardison’s laptop rang. Hardison did a double take, but answered it on the second ring.
“Yello?” Hardison’s expression went through a series of rapid changes as the phone emitted a stream of excited chatter that Steve didn’t even try to follow. “First off, allegedly. I may have allegedly been involved in some alleged hacking incidents--”
“Who’s that?” Eliot demanded.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bucky told Eliot, who was watching the whole exchange with narrowed eyes. “He’s one of Steve’s friends.”
“And who’re you? Oh, sure, okay. Uh huh, because Iron Man is totally one hundred percent an actual person and not some kind of hacker collective, and you’re him, and that’s why you’re calling me up at--oh.” Hardison stopped short and stared at his laptop, his eyes widening as new windows flickered open and started scrolling code. “Oh, sweet baby Jesus. Yeah, I see it. Lemme just--” Hardison wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder and switched to typing with both hands.
“Friend, huh?” Eliot gave Steve another level look. “Not a SHIELD agent?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Steve said evenly. “I’m a leisure photographer.”
“He’s a leisure photographer,” Bucky agreed. “A leisure photographer who promised to stop bringing guns into the house, Steven.”
Steve twitched guiltily, angling his body so the hand holding his weapon was out of Bucky’s sight. “That rule is suspended when there are hostile operatives in the kitchen, Buck.”
“Not hostile,” Eliot said.
“He’s not an operative,” Bucky said, “he’s a chef.”
“He’s an operative,” Steve said flatly.
“He’s a chef!”
Both of them turned to Eliot, who just crossed his excessively muscular arms and said, “A man can’t have a hobby?”
"Do I want a job?” Hardison was saying. “No, man, I have a job. Yeah, I'm satisfied with my compensation, that whole ‘crime doesn’t pay’ thing is bullshit if you’re doing it right. Of course I have benefits. No, I don't truck with HMOs, we've got full no-deductible coverage plus vision and dental. I negotiated those packages myself, okay? I'm good.”
“Bucky, would you please come over here?” Steve asked, giving up on subtlety.
“Are you going to put the gun away if I do?”
“As long as you’re standing behind me, sure.”
“So what's your deal?” Hardison said into the phone, clearly ignoring everything else happening in the room. It was reassuringly familiar to how Tony got when he had an interesting puzzle to solve, and Steve mentally marked him as out of play. “You're the Q to his Bond? No kidding. What kind of vacation plan do you get with that?"
“Well, fine, if it’ll make you feel better,” Bucky said grandly, and slid off the counter, starting for Steve before doubling back for his sandwich plate and wine glass, which was actually very comforting, in that it was in line with Bucky’s usual priorities.
Steve took his first deep breath in an hour as soon as Bucky was safely behind his back. He slid his gun back into his shoulder holster, irritated by how disinterested Eliot seemed in the whole process. Eliot had turned the stove burner back on and was sprinkling cheese over two sizzling pieces of bread.
"Matching retirement fund contributions up to one hundred percent,” Hardison was saying. “Yeah, seriously. You can set your own schedule when we're not working a case, but there is substantial overtime during busy weeks, night and weekend hours, you know how it is, most jobs don't run nine to five--hey!"
Steve jerked the phone out of Hardison’s reach, ignoring Tony’s matching indignant squawk echoing through the receiver. "Stop trying to recruit him," he told Hardison, then held the phone up to his own ear. "And you, stop encouraging him. If you defect and I’m the cause, Fury will have me shot. Fix the security system. See you on Monday." He hung up.
"Touchy, touchy," Hardison muttered, plucking his phone out of Steve’s hand and cradling it protectively against his chest. "Eliot, can we get this guy a sandwich, maybe dial back his hangry?"
"I don't want a sandwich."
"You sure?" Bucky said, through a mouth full of half-chewed food. "'S really good."
“Not too much gruyere?” Eliot said diffidently. He slid the finished sandwich out of the skillet and onto a plate, holding it up for Bucky’s inspection.
“No, it’s perfect. Steve, try it.”
Steve narrowed his eyes at Eliot, but he opened his mouth when Bucky held up the sandwich and took a large, resentful bite.
“It’s good, right?”
Steve jutted his chin out. “The ham could be sliced thicker.”
Eliot gave the sandwich an evaluating look. “That would throw off the ratio of meat to cheese.”
“Cut thicker slices and use fewer of them, that way you’ll get better structural integrity and less slippage when you bite into the sandwich, now will you please get out of my house.”
“Well,” Hardison said into the resounding silence. “We know where we’re not wanted.”
“Do you, though?” Bucky took two parchment paper bags out of a drawer and slid two sandwiches resting on a cooling rack into them, folding the tops over carefully to prevent grease from leaking. “Because that hasn’t been my experience with you guys so far. Just saying. Hey, you busy this weekend?”
“Really?” Steve said despairingly.
“We’re between jobs at the moment,” Hardison said, accepting the leftover sandwiches from Bucky and tucking them into his laptop bag. “Between outstanding warrants, too. You got something in mind?”
“Want to get dinner?”
“Really,” Steve repeated, but Bucky had slipped back into place behind him and wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist, and he was relaxing into Bucky’s hold despite himself.
“I know this great Vietnamese place,” Bucky said, resting his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “You should come to dinner with us on Saturday, both of you.”
“All three of you,” Steve corrected pointedly. A moment later, a blond ponytail followed shortly by a frowning face descended into view as the woman who’d been perched motionless on a ceiling rafter rappelled down, hanging comfortably upside-down in a professional climbing harness.
“How’d you know?” she asked.
“I have my ways.” And Hardison had tossed a few jellybeans towards the ceiling when he thought nobody was looking that had never come back down, but Steve saw no reason to mention that and ruin the mystique.
“Table for five,” Bucky said brightly.
The blond woman considered this. “I like Vietnamese food,” she said decisively, and flipped back upright just as the harness detached.
“It’s a date,” Hardison said. He’d gotten all his equipment stowed into a bag that he shoved carelessly at Eliot, who hefted it with only a minor grunt of complaint.
“Fine,” Steve said, one hand over his eyes. He dropped it and looked at the woman. “And who are you?” So he’d know who to run the background check on.
“Parker.” Parker slipped in between Hardison and Eliot and took each of them by the elbow, all of them looking completely comfortable with the contact. Definitely partners, of one kind or another. She gave Steve an assessing look. “You smell like basil.”
“Uh,” Steve said, heart sinking as Bucky stiffened behind him.
“Steven,” Bucky said dangerously. “What did you do to my herb garden?”
“Time to go,” Eliot said, and tugged the other two to the door. Parker waved goodbye without unlinking their arms.
“I’ll text you!” Hardison called out. A moment later, the front door swung shut with a decided thump, leaving Steve wincing as he turned to face Bucky.
“It was the most tactically sound approach to the kitchen?” he tried.
Bucky’s frown softened immediately. “You were worried.”
“I was terrified,” Steve admitted.
“You’re forgiven,” Bucky said, and spread his arms.
Steve stepped into the hug immediately, running his hands over Bucky’s back and sides in a surreptitious injury check. “You’re really okay?”
“Yeah, Steve, I’m totally fine. Except I feel way drunker than usual from half a glass of wine, is that normal?”
“After that kind of adrenaline rush, yeah, it’s pretty normal. You should have seen me after my first mission. I giggled the whole plane ride back. Natasha had to sit on me to keep me from getting up to tell the pilots knock-knock jokes.”
Bucky smiled and burrowed into his chest. “Thanks for coming home to get me.”
“Any time, Buck.” They stood quietly for a few minutes, just breathing each other in. “But I do think--”
“Here it comes,” Bucky groaned.
“I do think,” Steve continued doggedly. “That we should use this example to make some improvements to the emergency response plan--”
“And there it is. Wait.” Bucky looked up with an arrested expression. “Could Tony make me a ladle with a taser in it?”
Steve blinked. “Probably.”
“I want one,” Bucky said, very seriously.
“I want a whole set.”
“Let’s talk about this after you’ve slept.” He kissed the top of Bucky’s head. They’d have to go to bed soon before the post-adrenaline exhaustion set in for both of them, but for now he was right where he wanted to be.
“This,” Tony said, with great intensity, “is the best fucking sandwich I’ve ever eaten.”
“I know,” Steve said glumly. He took another bite of his monte cristo. It was just as delicious as the first three bites, the thicker ham slices easily contained within the gruyere melted onto each slice of perfectly buttery grilled sourdough.
“And to think, you didn’t want us to come.”
“Yes,” Steve said dryly. “How strange that I didn’t want my coworkers and my boss to come crash my anniversary food tour with my husband.”
Tony shrugged. “You say ‘food tour,’ Fury says ‘off the books meet-up with untraceable free agents mandating a SHIELD team presence’.”
“You’re just here for the food.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that outrageous accusation,” Tony said, which would have been more convincing if he hadn’t been shoveling steak fries into his mouth at the same time.
The brewpub was nice, Steve had to admit. It had a casual, homey vibe with exposed brick and understated decor, the servers seemed genuinely relaxed, and of course the food was perfect, which meant Bucky was going to want to come back. It would have been a great anniversary trip if only Steve been able to relax. As it was, he still didn’t know who these people were, even after six months of Bucky inviting them to dinner whenever their travel schedules overlapped. His background checks had come back with a series of incredibly thorough and completely boring covers, all of them so well-established that Steve would have actually believed they were real if he hadn’t already met Parker, Eliot, and Hardison in person. He wasn’t fooled. No accountant owned that many climbing harnesses.
Still, there hadn’t been the slightest sign that any of the three of them meant Bucky or Steve harm. It was just annoying that Steve still didn’t know anything more significant about them than their canape preferences. Hardison dropped oblique hints about their past jobs sometimes, but those stories had to be made up.
“Are they really untraceable,” Steve asked, “or do you and Hardison just have some kind of treaty about not hacking each other’s servers?”
“It’s more of an unspoken gentleman’s agreement. Allegedly.” Tony eyed the second half of Steve’s sandwich. “You going to eat that?”
Steve wordlessly surrendered his plate. He slipped out of the booth, wondering where Bucky had gotten off to. Natasha and the dark-haired woman who’d introduced herself as Sophie, the brewpub’s “PR manager,” were standing at the center of an admiring crowd in the middle of the dining room. They had swapped dresses, accents, and mannerisms at some point since the start of the party. Steve decided that his life would be easier if he never asked why.
In the darkest corner of the pub, Parker and Fury were leaning over a table together, talking quietly but intently, with a scruffy man in a suit jacket nursing a single scotch sitting between them. Steve stared for a moment, then turned around and resolved to never ask even harder.
He found Bucky in the kitchen, where he was showing Hardison a gleaming metal ladle while Eliot hovered behind them, watching the exchange closely.
“Very sleek,” Hardison said approvingly. “Trigger’s in the handle?”
“Yeah, you just twist before you swing and boom, taser activated.”
“What’s the amperage?”
“Four and a half milliamps.”
“Nice.” Hardison tried to twirl the ladle like a baton, fumbled it, and was only saved from self-inflicted flash-frying by Eliot batting it out of his hands.
“Dammit, Hardison, it’s not a toy.” Eliot passed the ladle over to Steve before Hardison could grab it back. "It's a tool. Whether you're using it to cook or defend yourself, what is it?"
Hardison sighed. "This is the lasers all over again, isn't it?"
Eliot intensified his eyebrow wrinkles. "What is it, Hardison?"
"A tool," Hardison echoed, followed much more quietly by, "like some people I could mention."
Eliot gave his shoulder a light shove. “Stop trying to play Bond.”
“I could be Bond,” Hardison protested. “I’d make an amazing Bond.”
“Does that mean you’ll let me teach you krav magra?”
“If I have enough sneaky hidden tasers, I won’t need krav magra.”
Eliot and Steve shared a look of silent commiseration. Civilians. “Bucky didn’t want to learn either,” Steve offered quietly. “We had better luck with judo.”
Eliot eyed Hardison critically and said sottoo voice, “Judo, huh?”
Steve was starting to think he had been too quick to dismiss a potential ally. “I could get you some more of those tasers, if you’d be willing to do me a favor.”
“Take another crack at our home security system.”
Eliot’s face went even more impassive than his default expression, which Steve suspected meant he was hiding a smile. “Made some upgrades?”
“A few,” Steve said blandly; he’d used two weeks of banked vacation time to redo everything from the ground up, then thrown his whole team at it and spent another month patching the gaps as a training exercise. But you could never have too many perspectives, and anything they found would be another vulnerability identified before a real enemy could exploit it.
And if they couldn't find any vulnerabilities at all, the bragging rights alone would sustain Steve for months. The secret to success was creating a situation where all paths led to victory.
Eliot thought for a moment. “Can your guy make the tasers small enough to look like USB sticks?”
Steve held out his hand solemnly, and Eliot shook it with a firm grip. “I’ll see what I can do.”