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15 November 2018 @ 03:59 pm
The Ice Demon and the Red Skull 3  
PART THREE



Steve was cutting sweet potatoes when the front door of the apartment opened. A few steps later, Lukas came into view. Steve had taken him to Doctor Samson’s office, but Lukas had sent him home once he was allowed in, that he didn’t want Steve to wait. So Steve had decided to go back to the apartment and make something warm and comforting for dinner, even while realizing Lukas’ idea of ‘comfort food’ was probably nothing like Steve’s. Something homemade had to still be welcome, he figured.

Lukas looked tired, but not as thrashed as he had the day before, so Steve took that to be a good sign.

He saw Steve in the small kitchen and found a weary smile. “Are you cooking? You don’t need to do that.”

“It’s my mother’s recipe. I saw the potatoes at the grocery and wanted to see if I remembered what she did. The answer is: sort of.” He waved to the mess on the counter. “How did it go with Doctor Samson?”

Lukas shrugged, and didn’t really answer. “His hair is a lovely shade of green. It seems there was an accident while he was with the Hulk, and Samson was exposed. He has super strength, too. We should have him over and join our club.”


Steve smacked his hand, which was sneaking in to steal a slice of the sweet potato. “Stop that. But that’s interesting he has powers. As I understand from Fury, the Hulk himself was created out of an attempt to replicate the serum, and it had, as he said, ‘unfortunate consequences’.” He shook his head. Professor Erskine had meant well, but chasing the serum had ended up so badly for so many people.

He responded to Lukas’ light jest, “But anyway, no, I think being social with your doctor isn’t a good idea.”

“He’s not your doctor,” Lukas protested.

“No, but he’s yours and you should keep that trust with him. I’m sure I’ll meet him eventually. Could you get the butter from the fridge?” After Lukas handed it to him, Steve waved him to the living area. “Go relax. I’ve got this. Dinner’ll be about an hour.”

Lukas grabbed a beer and plopped down on the couch in front of the TV. He didn’t change the channel from the history program that was on, though Steve doubted he was paying attention. Lukas had little interest in the history he’d missed, calling it more of the same.

Steve couldn’t manage the same attitude, though he’d tried. He felt that gap as a lack that he wanted to fill, even though he also felt like it was a futile thing to do. He’d missed so much he’d never ‘catch up’, but not catching up at all didn’t feel right either.

When Steve looked again, Lukas had his head back against the top of the couch, longish black hair spread across the beige cushion like a dark halo and his eyes were closed, though Steve doubted he was actually sleeping. But still it made Steve try to be quieter as he opened the oven and put the dish in.

But it didn’t matter much, because only fifteen minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Steve went to answer, checking through the peephole warily. They’d been back only a few days, and he was still concerned the media might have located them.

But it was Natasha standing there. Steve knew she had a key and could probably enter in less than thirty seconds without it, but she knew they were home, so she was polite. He opened the door. “Hey, good evening, Natasha. Come in.”

She sniffed. “Something smells good.”

“Half an hour, there’ll be plenty for all,” he offered and held the door for her.

She entered, shedding her short black jacket onto the coat rack before heading into the living area.

Lukas turned his head to smile at her. “Natalya. I wasn’t sure you would be coming over.”

Settling herself on the opposite chair, she curled up with her feet beneath her. “I wanted to see how it went with Doctor Samson.”

“Fine. I can see why Maria thought he would be acceptable to me.”

“And is he?” Natasha asked. “You’ll see him again?”

“I understand SHIELD already paid for three more sessions, so I might as well.”

She quirked a small smile, not buying his resignation. “Perhaps by then you’ll want to continue.”

“Well, perhaps by then Fury will begin paying me a salary,” Lukas returned. “Not that I don’t appreciate being kept in style,” he waved a hand around the apartment, “but if I am to be on call for him, I should be compensated, I think.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “We’ll talk to Coulson or Hill about that. I thought they were setting something up for both of you.”

“I think I shall get a channel on the YouTube and be less dependent on SHIELD’s generosity, as Laura suggested,” Lukas added, meditatively, fingers twirling the beer bottle on the surface of the end table. “I can tell stories of my time on this world centuries past and with the Howling Commandos. You should join me, Steven. We’ll be rich.” He lifted his hands as if to indicate a Broadway show marquee and announced, “Tales of the Real Ice Demon.”

Steve chuckled and shook his head. But before he could say anything, Natasha’s phone chirped.

She frowned as if the call was unexpected and slipped the phone out of her pants’ pocket. “Sharon,” she told the others, then answered, “Romanoff.”

Whatever Sharon told her on the other end was enough to make Natasha’s expression turn somber. After she hung up, she said briefly, “Sharon found something we need to look at.” Standing, she took the laptop off the dining room table, and while she had her back momentarily to Lukas, she glanced at Steve and flicked her eyes deliberately, back toward Lukas.

Steve got the message and moved closer. This was bad news.

“What is it?” Lukas asked.

She turned the screen to face him. “She was looking at files that Sitwell accessed, trying to find connections to Hydra, and she ran across someone we didn’t know existed. It turns out, Wolfgang Von Strucker had a son.”

Lukas thumped back in his seat, eyes blanking until he blinked himself through the slip into memory. He dug his fingers into his thigh and it was with apparent effort that his voice was level as he asked, “Alive, I presume.”

“Yes,” she answered with a nod. “He uses the alias of Alexander Braun, but his real name is Werner. Intercepts caught him entering Sokovia.”

Lukas stood up and headed straight for the balcony door, staring out at the little courtyard behind their walk-up apartment.

Natasha exchanged a glance with Steve, before adding, “He entered Sokovia, presumably because he heard his father died, but left again a few days later.” She read the material on the screen. “Ah, Alexander Braun passed through Nice, on his way back to Monaco where his yacht is docked. Looks like he mostly spends his family’s money, living a rich kid lifestyle of shopping, yachts, parties, and drugs.”

Lukas seemed not to have heard her when he demanded, “How did you not know Strucker had a son?”

“He didn’t mention it when I met him a few years ago. But the real question is how SHIELD didn’t know. Because I sure as hell don’t recall reading anything about a son in his file on the way to find you.” She read further, clicking through the report on the screen. “Oh, well done, Sharon,” she murmured and glanced at Steve. “Sharon found Sitwell accessed Strucker’s file last year and altered it, to remove the connection to Werner von Strucker. So Werner’s file was still in there, but it didn’t connect to his father anymore.”

“Last year?” Lukas questioned. “But that was before... “ He trailed off and shook his head. “So his cover up of Strucker’s activities began earlier than anything to do with me.”

“Right. I would guess altering the records came at Strucker’s request,” Natasha said and leaned back in her chair, tapping the desk with one finger. “SHIELD needs to investigate. If Strucker Junior is just a rich boy, we don’t care, but if he’s part of Hydra, we should find out, and trace his contacts. I’ll speak with Maria, probably Fury too, and get a mission put together.”

“I’ll go with you,” Lukas volunteered immediately, and folded his arms when both Natasha and Steve looked at him.

“Are you sure?” Steve asked. It sounded like a spectacularly bad idea, actually, and he didn’t think Lukas was ready.

“You don’t have to put yourself through seeing him,” Natasha added. “I can take care of him.”

“With me,” Steve interjected, firmly. “We can do this, Natasha. And you,” he told Lukas, “can stay here with the Maximoffs and Doctor Samson.”

“No,” Lukas insisted. “I want to do it. Yes, it’s a reminder of things I don’t want to remember, but I was denied the opportunity to strike at Hydra. I will not forego the chance this time.”

“All right,” she agreed, with some reluctance, “if you’re sure you’re okay with it.”

He met Natasha’s eyes. “Yes. I am more than okay.”

“If you start feeling not okay, tell us, all right?” Steve insisted. “Natasha and I can handle it and there’s no need to make yourself sick over this punk.” He pointed his chin at the photograph on the screen.

He gave a tight smile. “The only one who will feel ill will be him.”

Natasha gave an approving nod and turned back to the report. “Young Werner has bodyguards, but only two. We infiltrate his circle, take him, and interrogate him. It’s a good mission to get you guys up to speed on the more covert side of SHIELD.”

Steve grimaced. “I’m a soldier, not a spy.”

Natasha shrugged. “There’s not a lot of open warfare, Rogers, not these days. It’s all spywork in the dark.” She glanced at Loki. “I assume you have no objection?”

He leaned back against the wall, smirking, “To spying? Why, Natalya, it’s as if you don’t know my talents at all.”

“Well, not all of them,” she retorted archly and stood up. “I need to talk to HQ about this and get us assigned. I don’t want this to go to any assets we have over there.”

“All right, if you need me to throw my weight around, let me know,” Steve offered with a wry grin. He didn’t especially like having a reputation that got him awed attention, but he couldn’t deny its usefulness.

“Will do. And Lukas, get some rest,” she advised, before slipping out the door.

Lukas left his spot holding up the wall and returned to the couch. He flopped down, letting out a long breath.

“Are you really okay with this?” Steve asked quietly. “It’s been a rough few days.”

“I prefer doing something than doing nothing.”

“I get that.” Steve nodded. He didn’t want to prevent Lukas from going, even if he thought it was too soon. Lukas would want the Strucker kid dead, Steve was no fool about his need for vengeance, not after what had happened such a short time ago. But it wasn’t the kid’s fault, and while Steve wanted to know about Hydra, he didn’t want to punish the young man if he were truly innocent. Hopefully he could persuade both Lukas and Natasha to do the right thing.








They landed in Nice and from a SHIELD safehouse there, acquired a car and appropriate clothes and luggage.

She was back in Monaco as Natalie Rushman, assistant to Tony Stark, since too many people might recognize a name change and waving the Stark name around in Monaco, even if Tony had no idea she was doing it, got her the best service.

Loki settled quite easily into the role of the layabout rich young man and Steve his bodyguard. No one looked twice at the bodyguards or the personal assistanta, and Natasha could play this role in her sleep.

She didn’t sleep, of course, keeping an eye out. The town was still under tighter security after the events of the race and the attack on Stark which had happened right before Loki had shown up in Arendelle.

As she expected, Lukas slipped into the role of pampered aristocrat like a duck to water, climbing out of the car at the Monte Carlo portico with a pause for cameras to take his picture of the charcoal Gucci suit hugging his body. Then he offered her his arm, “Natalya.”

She gripped it. “Stop looking for danger,” she whispered, not moving her lips. “You are here on vacation and to rip off my clothes as soon as we’re in a room.”

He lost a step at that and shot her a look. She affected a smile and ran her fingers down the front of his shirt and said, “Later,” so obviously the most elementary lip reader knew what she promised.

He had to know she was playing for observers, but she noticed his eyes flickering as he wondered how far she was going to take it.

At reception, as they were offered champagne, she said, “Someone called ahead for us. Natalie Rushman, assistant to Mister Stark.” Of course, SHIELD had arranged it, not Tony, but they weren’t going to know that.

She leaned closer to the clerk and glanced at Lukas who had taken his champagne and wandered away with Steve to look for Strucker Junior. “Mister Rendell is a potential client. Mister Stark would appreciate your good care very much.”

“Of course, mademoiselle. If you have his passport, I would be pleased to fill out the card for you.” Her eyes went to Steve, standing near Lukas. “And the other gentleman?”

She followed after and let her lips curl upward. “Mister Rendell’s assistant.”

The clerk nodded. “Of course. If you should require another room, I would be happy to assist you in that, Mademoiselle.”

“The suite is fine.” It was really none of the clerk’s business how they would divide up the sleeping arrangements. Natasha knew Lukas wouldn’t sleep, claiming he didn’t need it, and Steve would take the couch since he was gallant that way. “But I do have a question.” Natasha handed over the Luke Rendell passport and some gratuity. “Mister Rendell heard an old friend from boarding school may be in town. Alexander Braun. Is he a guest here?”

“Oh, Mademoiselle, I cannot say. All guests are confidential,” the clerk protested aloud, while very clearly writing on a notecard.

“Of course,” Natasha said and watied as the clerk finished checking in, and then handed a hotel-emblazoned poker chip over to Natasha. “For Mister Rendell, in the hopes that he enjoys his stay.”

She glanced at it, finding a casino chit. It was generous enough, she smiled at the clerk, “I’ll be sure to mention to Mister Stark that the Royale’s hospitality is excellent as always.”

Heading back to the men, she set her champagne down, barely tasted, and called, waving the room key, “Mister Rendell, we’re ready. If you’ll follow me?”

They followed, and she kept up a careful stream of chit-chat in front of hotel employees, remaining to Lukas’ left, so that he and Steve were pushed close in the elevator, as the operator took them to the third floor. She’d dropped the insinuation that they were together, and now she wanted some gossip to confirm that. She’d told Steve he was the bodyguard/driver so he would be more comfortable, but lover would get less interest and preparation from Braun’s bodyguards if he learned of them.

Finally in their room, she shut the door and locked it. Both men were waiting anxiously in the foyer of the small suite. “Search it, first,” she told them. “Too many people want to know too many things in this hotel.”

“Search for what?” Steve asked.

“I presume Natalya worries for listening devices. She knows I can detect them,” Lukas said and moved to the middle of the foyer, raising both hands and briefly looking concerned, as he focused on what she couldn’t see. “Nothing in here. One moment.” He stalked through the suite slowly. “This is lovely, Natalya. It has been quite some time since I was here and it has improved remarkably.”

“You weren’t here with me, so,” Steve said and paused to state more carefully, “before that?”

“During my wild youthful travels,” Lukas agreed with a soft laugh. “Ah, see, they think they’re clever, putting it inside, but so easy to disrupt circuitry.” He waved a hand over the lamp. “There, that was the--” He cut himself off and filcked his eyes at the post of the bed. “Oh, now that is distasteful.” He reached up, his height letting him pluck a small round camera off the bed curtain rail, hidden from casual view by the curtains. “Someone either enjoys watching, or this is meant to blackmail the careless.” He displayed it in his palm before folding his fingers into a fist, and crushing it inside.

“A camera over the bed?” Steve asked in dismay. “That’s… tacky.”

“And the least of our worries now that you destroyed it,” Natasha intervened. “At least i think it is? Here.” She handed the chip to Lukas. “The casino gives you this. Alexander Braun plays the tables every night according to the desk clerk, though he doesn’t have a room here.”

“He stays on his yacht. We should check it out,” Steve suggested.

“You should do that,” Lukas nodded. He played with the chip between his fingers, making it dance across his knuckles without much attention. “I think I should go play.”

“No,” she disagreed. “Steve should go scout the casino and if he’s there, we go in.”

“And if he recognizes you?” Steve asked.

“Then we will know for certain he is Hydra, will we not?” Lukas returned. “He will run, we give chase, and ask him questions.” He toyed with the casino chip between his fingers. “And if he does not recognize us immediately…. This would make for excellent seed money. “

“No, down boy. We’re not here to gamble,” Natasha corrected.

“You may not be. But if Werner is here to gamble, then so am I.”

“If they catch you cheating, this is for nothing,” Natasha warned. “And they’re a lot more sophisticated than they were two hundred years ago.”

He stepped back, hand over his chest as if she’d wounded him. “So little faith in the Trickster God, Natalya. I am not caught unless I choose to be, I assure you. Trust me. Piece of pie.”

“Cake,” she corrected with a sigh. “Piece of cake.”

Steve turned around and pinned Lukas with his eyes. “I told you the right phrase. I know I did.”

Loki shrugged.“How do you expect me to remember the proper idiom when it makes no sense?” Lukas demanded, but she didn’t buy it for one second. He didn’t forget anything.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Funny. Now can we get to the plan?”


**

Steve wandered the casino, trying not to gawk at the ostentatious amount of money on display and knowing he had failed when sultry women kept coming onto him, as if he was a farmboy from Kansas. But good Lord, this place was ridiculous.

Holding his beer a little too tightly and reminding himself that he was an Army Captain and he’d fought in a war these children could barely comprehend, he moved table to table, checking the young men to see whether Werner Strucker was playing yet.

Steve had made a near complete circuit, when Werner and two young male friends entered, laughing and already having had some drink obviously. Steve checked that it was him, sure it was when one of the friends called him Sasha, and pulled out his phone to call Natasha’s phone.

“He just walked in,” he reported when she answered, and turned away from “Braun’s group. “TWo bodyguard I think. They don’t act like friends.”

Lukas’ voice came over the line, “Ah, excellent. Natalya and I will join you.”

A few minutes later, they strolled in, belonging in this crowd. Natasha had changed to a short clingy white sleeveless dress and high stilettos that she walked on with a ballerina’s grace, while Lukas wore the same suit as before, effortlessly stylish. They were both so beeuaitul, framed by the ornate wallpaper and columns that Steve wanted to take a photo to paint later.

Lukas’ gaze found Steve at once, and beckoned him to join them, while Natasha’s eyes seemed to pass over Braun, who was seated facing away from the entrance at the blackjack table, but he was pretty sure she recognized him.

“That dress looks amazing on you,” he murmured to Natasha, bending to kiss her cheek and lowered his voice to confirm, “Blackjack.”

“Did you want to play or go to the bar?” she asked Lukas. “I see blackjack, if you’d like a hand or two. I heard you like that.”

“I do, very much, Natalya. Show us the way.”

Steve planted himself a few steps back from Braun, while LUkas slid into the seat vacated at the end of Braun’s table. He flipped the hotel’s chip at the dealer, and got back a small stack to join. For a man who affected such a reckless mien, he played cautiously and as near as Steve could tell, he didn’t cheat, but through careful play, started to gather a bit of a profit.

The cocktail waitress brought him champagne on the house, which he accepted with outward gratitude and a bit of a smirk when she’d left. At first, Steve didn’t get it, but realized when Lukas deliberately left it untouched despite the fact that he’d get little impact from it, that he was playing the role.

Neither he nor Braun paid any attention to each other at first, but when one of the men between them lost his last chip and walked away, Braun looked aside and saw Lukas.

Steve tensed, ready to pursue if Braun recognized Lukas or Natasha standing there, not ten feet away, but apparently he’d never seen a photo of either of them, or at least out of context, he didn’t recognize them. His expression instead looked intereste at Natasha, who smiled politely back at him. Lukas didn’t even look at him until he raked his winnings and restacked them.

Despite how much Steve knew Lukas hated Strucker, there was none of it in his face as he gave a bright grin and a nod at Braun’s stack of chips. “I hope your luck rubs off on me.”

And just like that, Braun was hooked. He scooted to the vacated stool next to Lukas. “So nice to see more young people. Alexander Braun.” He held out his hand.

Lukas hesitated to take it, jaw muscle twitching, and Natasha manuevered her way into the gap, taking his hand. “Natalie Rushman. I’m surprised to see you still here, since I remember seeing your name during the race. I work for Stark Enterprises.”

Braun froze at that. “Stark? As in Tony Stark?” he asked, eyes flickering warily. “Iron Man?”

Natasha laughed. “Yes, yes, of course. He plays his little superhero game,” she waved her hand in light dismissal, “and we do the work. I am here to woo Mister Rendell to be a client of Stark Financial.”

“So you know Stark?” Braun asked.

“I was his assistant, until I moved to my own department,” she answered smoothly. “He appreciates women who don’t sleep with him.”

Braun chuckled, a bit strained. “Ah, then you must woo me, too. Financially, I mean,” he flirted. “I have some investments I recently came to possess, that I need someone to manage.”

“Well, then, I’d be happy to talk,” Natasha leaned toward him, supple and graceful, and Braun couldn’t look away.

Lukas flipped his card and announced, “21! I win!”

He’d put a bigger bet on that hand and as the dealer counted his winnings, he stretched. “Perhaps I should cash in before my luck turns.”

“Finished so soon?” Braun asked in disbelief. “I have only started. But perhaps you do not risk much?”

Lukas let out a laugh. “Not of my father’s money, friend. I have no money tree, alas.”

“What does he do?” Braun asked.

Lukas shrugged. “Oil. Paper mill. shipping. Random things, I don’t keep track. I have a brother for that.”

“Alexander.” Braun held out his hand and Lukas took it.

“Luke.”

“Luke, could I offer you both dinner and drinks at my yacht?” Braun asked eagerly. “I would like to hear about Stark financial, and I want to meet more younger people here. My friends are mostly gone for the season.”

“We’d love to,” Natasha answered.

And just like that, they had their invitation. After some exchanging of numbers and directions, Lukas took his chips, changed them, and they wakled out of the casino.

“Well, that was easy,” Steve murmured in the lobby.

“He’s going to try something,” Natasha said. “He didn’t recognize you or Lukas, but he definitely knew Iron Man was involved in his father’s death.”

“Good,” Lukas declared and smirked. “Let him try. I could use the amusement.”

Steve raised his eyebrows. “But not take him lightly. We know he’s connected.”

The smile fell from Lukas’ face and his eyes went cold, glancing back toward the casino. “I take nothing lightly, Steven. HYDRA least of all.”

part four