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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2015-04-09 08:08 pm
Entry tags:

Desert Knights (Avengers AU)

Title: Desert Knights
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Steve is sent to Puente Antiguo on a leadership training exercise, Tony isn't feeling too well, and aliens might be invading.
Warnings: None.
Notes: Thanks to Knottahooker on Tumblr for beta-reading!

This is a sequel to "Toy Soldiers", in which Steve Rogers is a modern-day SHIELD agents without the Serum, and a lot of other things have changed as well. Toy Soldiers will be helpful reading before you hit this up!

Also available at AO3.


Steve was packing to return to New York, listening to Tony kick ass on a conference call with the rest of the SI board, when JARVIS flashed him a notice on one of the bedroom smartpanes that Coulson was on his way. Steve acknowledged it with a wave, got Tony's attention and pointed to the living room, and shut the door quietly behind him so Tony could finish his call.

"Coulson," he said with a grin, heading to the kitchen bar as his boss walked in. "Can I pour you a coffee? Possibly vodka shots?"

"Tempting, after this week," Coulson agreed. "Coffee's fine. How's Stark?"

"Honestly? I think he's enjoying being back in the saddle," Steve said, pouring two cups of coffee and setting out the sugar. "He's turned on his stock tracker again. SI's stock is rising now that he's bullying the board around. He's re-hired everyone Stane laid off after the shutdown, and he's got people spinning the Stane treason story his way, so." He shrugged. "I know it's not what SHIELD wanted, but -- "

"Stark's not a SHIELD agent," Coulson said. Steve nodded. "Yet."

Steve choked on his coffee, setting it down carefully. "Excuse me?"

"We have a lot to discuss," Coulson said.

"Apparently so. If you think SHIELD can or should recruit Tony Stark..." Steve paused. "No, we don't want him -- we want his tech, right? The Iron Man?"

"Not exactly," Coulson said. "This is complicated. Not made easier by the fact that his close friend is an Air Force colonel and he's dating one of SHIELD's top agents."

"Don't butter me up," Steve said drily.

"The military is going to want Stark's tech, especially since every other avenue to his genius is closed to them," Coulson said. "The last Stark defense contract runs out in two years, and most were expecting renewal this fall. If they can't have his bombs, they want his armor. Rhodes has been asked to do a feasibility study, as the first step towards acquiring the armor. By eminent domain, if necessary."

"Tony won't stand for it. He'll destroy the plans and the armor first," Steve said. "Or he'll relocate outside of the government's reach."

"If he threatened to go to China with the armor, the government would back off, but not all the way, and not forever," Coulson said. "Fury's interested in the armor too, but not so much in the man inside it. He doesn't think Stark's reliable, doesn't think he'd work well in a team situation."

"I see he and Tony have met," Steve remarked. Coulson flashed him a brief smile. "You cannot do a psych workup on him right now, Coulson, he's -- there's a revolution going on inside Tony, and even I don't get to see all of it. You can't base Tony's future on his past. He nuked his past from space two months ago. The rest of us are just holding on, watching him go."

"Fury is working on an offer to take Stark into the SHIELD hierarchy as a consultant," Coulson said. "It's not finalized yet, and there's a lot of wrestling and budget hearings before it will be. But we have an eventual goal of attaching the Iron Man to SHIELD for Stark's own good."

"Don't pretend SHIELD won't benefit too."

"Nobody's pretending that, Nomad. I'm telling you this so that neither of you are blindsided. SHIELD will be watching him and making plans, whether he eventually chooses to accept the offer or not. In the meantime, I have this for you," he said, and handed Steve a flash drive. "It's a full report on the proposal SHIELD is building: the Avengers Initiative."

"Catchy name," Steve said.

"I'd like your thoughts when you've read it. When are you back in New York?"

"Tomorrow night. I'll check in with HQ on Monday."

"You ready to start taking missions again?"

"Yeah. I'd like to talk about restructuring some of my criteria, but that can wait."

Coulson gave him a tolerant look. "Fewer overseas missions?"

"Something like that."

"Finally prove yourself to yourself, or just willing to stop trying so hard?" Coulson asked. Steve ducked his head. "Don't mistake me. I'm pleased. Your self-destructive streak is endearing at twenty-four. Approaching thirty, it's more worrying. At any rate, after Afghanistan and the battle with Stane, you've been a little higher profile."

"Is that why," Steve said drily.

"I'm not talking about the public eye. Heads have raised at SHIELD," Coulson said. "You're being considered for leadership now in a way you weren't previously. Don't be surprised if you're given subcommand in the future."

"My own team?" Steve asked, surprised. "Under you. Like Peggy?"

"On the same track as her, yes."

"What about Natasha and Clint? They both have more -- "

"Experience, yes, but this isn't a reward for seniority. It's a response to aptitude," he said. "Clint has no interest in or skill for leading a team. Natasha was offered a leadership track and declined."

"Is that an option for me?"

"Do you want to decline?" Coulson replied.

"Just -- curious about the timing of this." Steve gave him a troubled look. "Curious about whether SHIELD wanting Tony is part of this offer."

"No. This came up when you took the team to Afghanistan, before Stark was recovered. And you don't have to decide immediately," Coulson said. "This isn't a win or die situation -- you can accept it on a trial basis, or decline and request a revisit later. There's no penalty if you decide leadership isn't for you."

"You think it is?"

"I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't."

"I'll think about it," Steve said.

"I hope you will," Coulson told him. "And I have some work to do before I catch my cold, cramped commercial flight back to New York."

"Angling for a seat in the Stark jet?" Steve asked with a grin.

"No, just some sympathy. I'm here for another few days minimum. You'll beat me home."

"I haven't been in New York for months. I shudder to think the state my fridge is in," Steve said.

"You want my advice, make him buy you a new one," Coulson said, nodding at the bedroom, where Tony was emerging. "Mr. Stark."

"Agent," Tony said warily. He'd been wary of Coulson since the press conference and the index cards, and Steve sensed it wasn't all an act.

"I'll leave you two to your packing. Monday, Nomad."

"Yes, sir," Steve said, standing as Coulson left. When he was gone, Tony wrapped his arms around Steve from behind and stood there quietly. Steve knocked his head back gently, bumping the nape of his neck against the top of the arc reactor.

"SHIELD wants to make you an offer on the armor," he said.

"I imagine they do," Tony replied.

"And they want me to start taking a leadership role."

"I can't think why," Tony drawled. Steve smiled. "What's our play?"

"Nothing for now. I don't think Coulson expects me to react, just to prepare." Steve rubbed his cheek against Tony's shoulder. "Lemme go, I have to finish packing and find where you put all my favorite shirts."

"Those belonged to your behemoth best friend, and I burned them," Tony said. "I'm debating between dragging you to my tailor in New York and just keeping you a naked prisoner in the penthouse."

"Creepy yet endearing," Steve informed him, breaking away to head back to the bedroom. "Aren't you taking anything?"

"The bots are already shipped out, JARVIS is everywhere at once, and I have clothes in New York," Tony said, flopping on the bed next to the suitcase Steve had scrounged from a storage closet in the basement. "Take a break, let me work off my frustrations with the board."

Steve raised an eyebrow. "And how are you planning on doing that?"

Tony rolled over onto his belly and inched forward, nuzzling Steve's stomach just above his belt. Steve laughed and cupped the back of his head.

"I suppose I can pack a little later," he said.


There was an entire welcoming party waiting for them at the airport -- Sam, Bucky, Natasha, Clint, Rhodey and Peggy, plus Happy with the limo.

"Oh God, your honor guard," Tony said when he saw them crowded at the baggage claim. Steve elbowed him gently and set his bags down to accept hugs and shoulder-punches. He glanced over and saw Tony startled to be accepting a hug and a kiss on the cheek from Peggy, then saw him fend off a kiss on the cheek from Sam as well.

The team apparently had an agenda for the evening; Happy and Clint loaded their bags into the trunk as everyone else piled with them into the limo, shoving each other to make room.

"We have several gifts for you," Peggy said to Steve, handing him a folder full of photographs. He opened it and cracked up laughing; the first photo was of his fridge, thoroughly cleaned and stocked with a bottle of milk and tupperware containers of food. The second he handed to Tony; it was Bucky leaning on Dummy, so that it looked like Dummy was attached to his wounded shoulder, a giant prosthetic arm. The third was Peggy with the other two bots, all of them adorned in cheap plastic flower garlands, Rhodey grinning in the background.

"JARVIS let you in, didn't he?" Tony asked, still looking a little bewildered by all the attention. Which was strange, Steve thought; it wasn't like Tony wasn't used to being center stage and loving it.

"Rhodey vouched for us," Natasha said.

"Probably a mistake," Clint added.

"We know all your secrets," Natasha finished.

"Do they do that a lot?" Tony asked Steve.

"They practice," Steve replied. "Be nice, guys, Tony's had a long month."

"It's cool," Rhodey said, patting Tony on the shoulder. "We have pizza and beer on the way."

"You're very cozy with all the spies," Tony said.

"They're good people," Rhodey replied easily. "Anyway, you're dating one of them."

At the Tower the food was already laid out and there was a press to get the best slice, sort out beers for everyone, and welcome Pepper, arriving late from supervising the opening and airing-out of Tony's east-coast office. It took two or three rounds before the individual conversations died down, but finally Tony stood up, tapping two empty bottles together for attention. Steve sat back, tipsy and indulgent, and watched Tony fondly.

"I never had the chance to properly thank you all for your work in Afghanistan," he said, and there were low murmurs of acknowledgement from the others. "I know this is the job you do, but I appreciate that normally you do it on behalf of national security, not one neurotic billionaire, even if he is the best thing to ever happen to one of your own."

"Watch it," Bucky called, but he was grinning, and Steve laughed.

"So I toast you," Tony said, holding up a half-full bottle of beer. "And I thank you. You rose to an occasion you didn't have to, and I won't forget that. If you're smart," he added, with a sidelong grin, "you won't forget Stark Industries owes you one, either."

"Does that mean I'm getting a suit?" Rhodey asked.

"Don't push your luck, Cinnabon," Tony replied.

"Just following your lead," Rhodey said, as Tony sat down again, throwing his arm across Steve's shoulders. "As former liaison to Stark Industries, I do have to ask..."

Tony groaned, hand going to his face.

"...what's next for SI?" Rhodey finished with a knowing look. Peggy seemed interested too, Steve noticed, and Natasha was carefully disinterested.

"Green energy," Tony said, letting his hand fall. "Communications technology. Solutions for social good."

"Doesn't Maria Stark Foundation cover that?" Peggy asked.

"Not in the way I'm envisioning," Tony said, glancing at Pepper.

"Stark Industries is spinning off a new research division, Stark Solutions," Pepper said. "The goal is to explore technological solutions to social problems."

"I expect it to run at a loss for at least ten years," Tony added. "Turns out, fixing the world is unprofitable. Meanwhile, I'm going to be spending a lot of time in our chemical engineering division."

"Not tech?" Rhodey asked.

"Not yet. Batteries are the It Trend, four years down the line," Tony said. "JARVIS ran the numbers."

"Once the novelty of smartphones wears off, long-life batteries will be the next demand," JARVIS put in. "Sixty-eight percent probability."

"That's not profitable either," Sam said.

"It's a short-term profit with a long-term tail," Tony said. "Buy a Stark Battery, buy a phone to wrap around it now. Buy your next phone Stark brand because it wraps around the same battery."

"It's diabolical," Natasha remarked to Clint.

"Business," Tony said with a shrug. One of his hands was gently kneading Steve's bicep; Steve, sleepy and at peace, let the conversation roll on without him. "But it's going to take a lot of intensive study on the molecular chemistry end. Trying to find the right power sources, the right chemical reactions, the right elemental catalysts..."

He rubbed his chest where the reactor sat, the blue light shining through his shirt for a moment. "Energy is the future. Chemistry is how we're going to get there. It's how we're going to have one at all."

There were a few seconds of silence, and then Bucky burst out laughing.

"That got dark fast," he said, tipping his beer at Tony.

"Peril of being a futurist," Tony said. "The numbers get grim sometimes. But," he added, "we have hot food and cold beer, and nobody's trying to kill me anymore, so we're doing okay."

"We should leave you to get settled in," Peggy said, finishing her beer and standing. "Steve, brunch on Sunday?"

"Yeah, 'course," Steve agreed, as the others gathered their things and piled their plates and bottles on the coffee table. "Buck, you and me should -- "

"I got movie tickets tomorrow afternoon, the new action flick," Bucky said. "Two o'clock, don't stand me up."

"Promise," Steve agreed. Rhodey followed the others out, offering a few of them a lift home; he hadn't been drinking, but Steve thought Clint hadn't either, so probably nobody was gonna have to take a cab. Pepper gathered up the shoes she'd slipped out of earlier.

"Anything else, Mr. Stark?" she asked warmly.

"That will be all, Ms. Potts," Tony replied, and then caught her hand as she passed, kissing the knuckles. "Take the day tomorrow."

She tousled his hair. "Don't have to twist my arm. Steve, make sure he gets some rest."

Steve nodded. "Come to brunch if you're free -- I'll send you the address."

"Am I invited to brunch?" Tony asked, nosing against Steve's temple as Pepper left.

"No, you're a scary pre-dystopian capitalist and you'll spoil everyone's appetite," Steve said, and then because Tony sometimes didn't have a good filter on when people were joking about his personality, "Yes, of course you're invited. You've been invited, you just never came."

"Bucky hates me."

"Bucky still thinks I'm an asthmatic nine year old with a heart murmur who can't fight back when he gets picked on," Steve said. "He doesn't hate you. He just has a hard time when I'm unhappy, and traditionally relationships have not been that happy for me. You're the exception, not the rule -- well, you and Peggy, and you've beaten her record now, so he'll come around. It would help if you came to brunch."

"Then I'll come," Tony said, curling his arm until Steve took the hint and swung around, straddling his lap. He pressed their foreheads together, one hand rising to rest against the arc reactor --

Tony flinched and hissed, and Steve pulled his hand back, concerned.

"Tender," Tony said, catching Steve's questioning look. "All the pressure changes from the flight today, probably."

"You should rest, Pepper's right," Steve said, leaning back and sliding off him. He offered his hands to pull Tony to his feet, then led him backwards through the living room. Tony went, looking amused at his coaxing, and caught him around the waist in the doorway.

"You're not going home yet, are you?" he asked in Steve's ear.

"No, but we're both going to bed," Steve answered.

"That's the idea."

"To sleep, Tony. It's been a long day," Steve said, gently herding him towards the giant penthouse closet. Tony looked faintly annoyed, but by the time they were both in pajamas and the lights were out, he also looked exhausted. He was back up to the weight he'd been before Afghanistan, maybe even a little heavier and definitely all muscle, but his sleeping was still erratic, interrupted occasionally by nightmares or by the creative urge.

When it was nightmares, Steve would lie awake with him, mumbling half-conscious reassurances; when Tony got up in the middle of the night, Steve would roll over, make a garbled request to JARVIS to wake him in two hours, and then get another dose of sleep before getting up to make sure Tony hadn't set himself or anything else on fire. Tony had told him he didn't have to do either, brusquely reminding Steve that he was boyfriend, not paid nurse, but Steve liked looking after him, liked having someone to look after in general.

Tony was out cold within two minutes of getting horizontal, and that was factoring in the thirty seconds of lazy attempts to get Steve to make out with him. Steve smiled and curled up against him, hungry as always for the shared body heat, and read SHIELD intel updates on his phone until he drifted off as well.


New York took some readjustment. Steve realized that he and Tony had never really lived "normal" -- first they'd been dating in New York while Steve lied about his job, and then they'd been cohabitating, essentially sequestered together, in Malibu while Tony recovered from the abduction. Moving back into his own apartment was strange, and while he liked the solitude and the chance to work on his art, not to mention the proximity to most of his friends, Steve found himself spending more nights in Manhattan, in Tony's penthouse, than he was at home.

It was strange, too, to take missions for SHIELD now that Tony knew what he did for a living. Every so often, he'd get the call from Coulson or Peggy and either haul ass to HQ or get picked up off the Stark Tower helipad; he'd return tired, sometimes injured, and either go to his place to find Tony asleep in his ridiculous cheap IKEA bed or arrive at Stark Tower to be scanned by JARVIS and fussed over in Tony's palatial bathroom.

Once in a while he was given mission command, a subtle nudge that Coulson was still waiting to hear from him. Peggy would cede leadership of the mission to him, or he'd go out without her with a team assigned to follow his orders. He was so used to Natasha's implacable calm brutality and Clint's wisecracking that working with other teams was hard, but it gave him a better sense of the personality of SHIELD -- and word started to get around, in a way it hadn't previously, that little Agent Rogers was not the nerdy, weedy analyst everyone assumed him to be.

And then came the subpoena.

He'd been having such a good time at the Stark Expo. Tony was excited about opening it, and Steve had the best all-access pass ever. He got VIP backstage treatment, went to the front of every line, ate free belgian waffles at the belgian waffle huts. He'd arranged for a bunch of disadvantaged families the Maria Stark Foundation picked out to get similar passes, so he'd spent most of the afternoon running around with a bunch of cool -- well, a bunch of cool mini-hims, poor kids and sick kids and kids whose parents were just barely hanging in there, and that was really satisfying too.

He'd seen Tony make his big entrance and his big speech from backstage, and they'd almost made it to the car to head to a nice hotel for the night (Steve had plans) when a US Marshal had shown up and given Tony a subpoena.

"Hey, you're on here too," Tony said, examining it as he sat in the car.

"Really?" Steve asked, accepting the subpoena from him. "I've never been called to testify before a Senate committee before."

"You've just made his night," Tony said to the Marshal. "Can we drop you anywhere before we head out?"

She gave them a sunny smile, apparently pleased that neither of them blamed her for it. "No, I'm going to the Expo. You two have fun."

"This is very exciting," Steve said. "It's like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

"How far is DC from here?" Tony asked him.

"I don't know, about 200 miles? Want me to pull some strings at SHIELD, see if I can get us a chopper?" Steve asked.

"How do you feel about driving with the top down?" Tony replied.

"I feel pretty good about it, but I'm gonna need a suit and a haircut when we get there."

"Call Pepper," Tony said, pulling away from the valet stand. "Let her know what's going on, and set up some Getting Fancy For The Senate services in DC. Also tell her to get whoever we've got on Stark Legal in DC to meet us at the hotel for a prefunc."

"I'll call in a minute," Steve said, enjoying the rush of air when they left the parking lot behind and hit the empty road. "I gotta google if we're allowed to filibuster committee hearings."

"Your passion for civic duty is adorable," Tony told him. "But why don't you let me do the yelling, huh? I'm used to it."

"We'll see," Steve said, texting Bucky excitedly to ask him to Tivo C-SPAN.



SEN. STERN: Now we've heard from Colonel Rhodes, the committee requests the testimony of Mr. Steve Rogers -- thank you, Mr. Rogers, we recognize you there next to Mr. Stark.

AGENT ROGERS: Agent Rogers, please, Senator.

SEN. STERN: Beg pardon?

AGENT ROGERS: My correct address is Agent Rogers, sir.

SEN. STERN: "Agent" Rogers, my apologies. You are a close personal friend of Mr. Stark's?




SEN. STERN: How would you characterize your relationship with Mr. Stark?

AGENT ROGERS: I am Mr. Stark's boyfriend, Senator.

SEN. STERN: Very well. As an Agent of SHIELD --

AGENT ROGERS: Excuse me, Senator, I'd like to request some clarification.

SEN. STERN: On what? We haven't begun yet.

AGENT ROGERS: I'd like to know if I am testifying today as an agent of the federal government in close contact with the Iron Man prosthesis or as a private citizen in close contact with Mr. Stark.

SEN. STERN: Will that change your answers?

AGENT ROGERS: If I am testifying as an agent of the Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, with high level security clearance, I believe I have the right to SHIELD counsel regarding what I'm permitted to disclose.

SEN. STERN: Is that really necessary?

AGENT ROGERS: It's a matter of my job, Senator; I have to observe the formalities. If you had notified me more than twelve hours in advance, I could have had counsel present today, but if you wish me to testify as a federal agent, we will need to recess until I can contact my office and arrange for counsel to be present.

SEN. STERN: Let's just have Mr. Rogers the civilian testify, then.

AGENT ROGERS: Still addressed as agent, Senator.

SEN. STERN: Regardless of address, "Agent" Rogers, you will answer the questions put to you here clearly and without further obstruction.

AGENT ROGERS: As soon as I receive a question, I'll answer it.


SEN. STERN: Order, please. "Agent" Rogers, what is your opinion of the Iron Man armor?

AGENT ROGERS: I think the Iron Man is beautifully sculpted, a perfect aesthetic marriage of form and function. The color serves a dual purpose of high visibility during emergency and --

SEN. STERN: The capabilities of the armor, "Agent" Rogers.

AGENT ROGERS: Senator, the man who built the armor is sitting next to me. Surely this question --

SEN. STERN: The committee wishes to hear your opinion of the armor.

AGENT ROGERS: Of the capabilities of the armor.


AGENT ROGERS: Well, it's very useful for changing lightbulbs on high ceilings. And it's fun to take through the Drive-thru.


SEN. STERN: The combat capabilities of the armor.


SEN. STERN: That's what we're trying to determine, "Agent" Rogers.

AGENT ROGERS: You'd like to know top speed, energy usage, armaments, gun calibers, PSI on grips for hand-to-hand combat? Technical specs?

SEN. STERN: Precisely, Agent Rogers. To the best of your knowledge.

AGENT ROGERS: Unfortunately I am legally enjoined from revealing the specifications of proprietary Stark technology in the public, Senator Stern. Any attempt to compel me to discuss Stark Industries technology or Mr. Stark's personal research and development will result in your liability to lawsuit by Stark Industries as well as my own. I have a copy of my nondisclosure agreement here, I'd like to enter it into evidence now.

SEN. STERN: The committee does not recognize privately arranged and no doubt hastily assembled nondisclosure agreements --

AGENT ROGERS: I see. Sir, are you currently attempting to claim access to Stark Industries technology under Eminent Domain? I assume you have the appropriate documentation, if so, which I'd like to have counsel examine. In this case Mr. Stark's counsel will be sufficient --

SEN. STERN: Agent Rogers, you will be held in contempt if you refuse to answer the committee's questions.

AGENT ROGERS: It's up to you, Senator; I believe Mr. Stark's counsel have the injunction against further questioning and the lawsuit against you, personally, prepared -- yes, here it is, thank you, Ms. Walters --

SEN. STERN: Agent Rogers, you will answer the questions the committee puts to you or you will be subject to detention.

AGENT ROGERS: If the officer of the court will now serve this injunction to Senator Stern --

SEN. STERN: This staged demonstration of your disdain for the government which employs you, Agent Rogers --

AGENT ROGERS: I have every love for my government both as my employer and as my representative but it is the duty of every citizen to defend the rights of the individual against corrupt acts by those in power.

SEN. STERN: Corrupt acts --

AGENT ROGERS: The imprecise, biased nature of your questions and your attempt to coerce me into illegal disclosure

SEN. STERN: Agent Rogers, you are in contempt!

AGENT ROGERS CONT'D: has made it quite clear, Senator, that you are acting against the best interest both of your constituency and of the American

SEN. STERN: Agent Rogers, you are ordered by the committee to be silent!

AGENT ROGERS CONT'D: people. I'm afraid, sir, that as an agent of the Federal government,

SEN. STERN: You are not here as an agent of the government, sir.

AGENT ROGERS CONT'D: -- I am an agent of the government at all times, Senator -- if you attempt any further questioning I will be forced to charge

SEN. STERN: You wouldn't dare.

AGENT ROGERS CONT'D: you with criminal abuse of power and initiate a formal request for impeachment. Oh thank you, Senator Abayos --

MR. STARK: Please let the record reflect that Senator Abayos has turned off Senator Stern's microphone.

SEN. ABAYOS: Agent Rogers, I believe your point has been made.

AGENT ROGERS: With all due respect, Senator Abayos, I have a closing statement.

SEN. ABAYOS: Can I stop you?

AGENT ROGERS: Well, ma'am, you could try, but I wouldn't give you great odds.


SEN. ABAYOS: You have two minutes, Agent Rogers.

AGENT ROGERS: Thank you, Senator. I would like the record to reflect that I am here because someone thought Mr. Stark could be made more amenable to questioning if he was threatened with the prospect of having his boyfriend questioned before the Senate. I believe that someone on this committee thought I would be fearful of being questioned about my partner or being charged with contempt and imprisoned. I am not afraid of Senator Stern and I will not be coerced by my own government. If the Senate continues to attempt to infringe on my or Mr. Stark's rights, I will initiate SHIELD investigations into each and every single one of your offices on suspicion of abuse of power. I have nothing to hide, Senators. If you can say the same, feel free to proceed.


SEN. ABAYOS: Are you finished, Agent Rogers?

AGENT ROGERS: That's up to you, Senator.

SEN. ABAYOS: Let's recess for the day.

MR. STARK: Are we done here? I think we're done here. Come on, Mr. Smith, I'll buy you a hot dog.

AGENT ROGERS: Thank you for your time, Senators. If you have any further inquiries to make, you may address them through SHIELD official legal channels or through Stark Industries' legal department.



Steve didn't think it was particularly heroic, what he'd done, or even that interesting to anyone who wasn't him. But C-SPAN had been carrying the hearings live and had caught his performance, and apparently people other than Bucky did still watch C-SPAN.

And put clips of C-SPAN on YouTube.

And put animated image files of YouTube clips on Facebook and Tumblr.

"Well, the good news is, you'll never again end up doing those undercover jobs you used to hate," Peggy said comfortingly, a few days after the hearings ended. The reporters had stopped camping out on his doorstep, but he still came up in late-night talk show monologues on a nightly basis. Sam and Bucky thought it was all hilarious, and Tony got amorous every time Steve brought up what he'd done, so it had fallen to Peggy to be a sympathetic would-be therapist.

"If you didn't want to be famous, darling, you shouldn't have threatened to black the eye of the entire US government because they were bothering your boyfriend," she added.

"I didn't do it because they were threatening Tony," Steve said crankily. "I did it because they were doing it unethically."

Peggy sighed. "Sometimes I'm very glad we broke up," she said, "but your principles may have ruined me for ordinary men."

Steve shot her a sidelong look. "You seem to be doing all right with Operation: Rhodey."

"Well, he's not ordinary, is he? Bit of a snag, though. Angie thinks he wouldn't go for a threesome."

"That'd be a shame if it was true."

"I think he might. I suppose we'll find out, sooner or later."

"Well, she gets to gloat or she gets a threesome, so I suppose her bases are covered either way," Steve said. "I couldn't share Tony at all."


"I'm a one-at-a-time kind of guy, you know that. And he's the insecure type, he wouldn't take the idea well."

"Tony Stark, insecure?"

"In love? The stories I could tell. Anyway, I've got my hands full with him. Did you see Stern's little internal homophobic panic when I said the word boyfriend, by the way?"

"It was glorious. I love seeing powerful people made uncomfortable."

"I thought he'd bite his tongue in half," Steve said, and Peggy grinned at him. "Just imagine how he'd handle foreign polyamorous bisexual spymaster Peggy Carter."

"He'd probably try to subpoena SHIELD on some kind of morality charge. McCarthy all over again," Peggy said, ruffling Steve's hair. "I do miss working with you, now that you're all grown up in the leadership program."

"You need to get promoted and take over when Coulson retires."

"As though Phil Coulson would retire," she said. "That reminds me, though, he wants to see you tomorrow. Leadership exercise, he said."

"Wonder where he's got me going this time," Steve said, flopping back on the couch.

"Somewhere exciting, I'm sure. I must be away home; you're all right here?" she asked, standing.

"Sure, I'm fine. Working on some sketches, in between jobs."

"Nice to see you sketching again. You need a nude of Tony to match that one of me."

"I've asked. He's been squeamish about getting naked lately." Steve shrugged. "Drive safe, Peggy. Hi to Angie."

"Don't stay up too late. You're probably shipping out in the morning," she said. "Maybe Vienna!"

"Fingers crossed," Steve called as she left.


It wasn't Vienna.

"So agility's your gig, right?" Rumlow, one of his new test-agents, asked on the flight to Alberta.

"How do you mean?" Steve asked, checking his rifle. Whatever was murdering campers in rural Canada was probably too fast to be picked off by a sniper, not that Steve was especially good at distance shooting anyway, but it never hurt to be prepared. Clint had picked these out before telling him to enjoy his field trip.

Steve was going to be god damned annoyed if all this mission prep was for some kind of freakishly violent bear.

"Move so fast nobody can catch you?" Rumlow said. "Agent Dorchester said she saw you take down three guys my size without a scratch, on your last mission."

"I think I've still got the scar from that not-a-scratch," Steve said.

"But you took out three guys?"

"I guess agility's part of it," Steve said, with a small nod. "Most of these guys, you step from in front of them to their left side and it takes them a good two-three seconds to work out what you're doing. Hired muscle doesn't tend to be that bright, which helps."

"Why you think that is?"

"If they were as smart as us they'd be SHIELD agents too," Steve said, and Rumlow grinned. He was inclined to like Rumlow; he was a little coarse around the edges and a little cocky, but most SHIELD agents were at least one of those, and Rumlow seemed to have a healthy respect for, if not him, then at least the chain of command.

And he appreciated the fact that Rumlow hadn't made any sly remarks about the Senate hearing, or about his boyfriend.

"So, say whoever it is jumps us and you dodge, what you want me to do?" Rumlow asked. "I'm not gonna be able to move like you can."

Steve sized him up thoughtfully. He was big, all chest and thigh, and it was true he didn't look nimble.

"I want you to be my wrecking ball," Steve said. "You see something big coming at me, give me a chance to set him up, and when you see an opportunity to go right through him, you take it. You guys," he added to the other two, who hadn't spoken or even really looked at him since the briefing, "I want you on rear point. Keep your distance. Use your guns but only if you can confirm intent to harm, you get me?"

They nodded. One of them glanced at the other and rolled his eyes when he thought Steve was turning away. Steve considered throwing a knife just to get their undivided attention, but he decided against it. Lately he'd found that it was a lot more fun just to get dirty in the field and watch everyone else react in disbelief.

He stepped to the back of the transport plane, away from the others, and tapped his headset to call out to Tony.

"How's beautiful São Paolo?" Tony answered.

"You assume I go to much prettier places than I do," Steve replied. "I told you I'm chasing murderers in Canada."

"I like to keep some mystery in the relationship. And I like picturing you in a speedo."

"Well, keep that in mind, this could be a few days."

"The fuck are you on serial killer duty, anyway? So some crazy's living in the woods killing people, that's not a SHIELD interest."

"Figure there's more to it," Steve said. "I guess we'll find out. Might be a rogue agent SHIELD doesn't want to admit exists, might be some other person within our sphere. Anyway, we're going into pretty intense wilderness. I probably won't have phone service except in emergencies, so I thought I'd check in before I go radio silent. All quiet back home?"

"Yep, just tinkering with some new compounds," Tony said. He'd really thrown himself into the chemical engineering work, and Steve had caught him more than once falling asleep over an advanced molecular physics text on his tablet.

"I'll keep the lights on for you," Tony continued. "Don't wrestle any moose."

"I'll do my best. Love you."

"Back atcha," Tony said, distractedly. "Stuff's on fire, gotta go. Stay safe."

"You too," Steve said, tapping his comm again to drop back onto the radio channel. "Okay guys, nearly there. Let's do a radio check..."


The serial killer turned out to be Bigfoot.

"Did you think," Rumlow asked, frantically reloading in a snowbank behind a tree, "when we took this job, that Yetis were even on offer?"

"I think technically it's a Wendigo," Steve replied.

"You're pretty current on your imaginary monster taxonomy."

"Wendigos are Canadian, Yetis are Nepalese."

"Either way, that thing's fucking bizarre."

Steve nodded, shedding his rifle. "Stay there, I'm going to go up the tree."

"Ho -- oww," Rumlow managed, as Steve stood on his shoulder to reach the first branch, then propelled himself upward using the top of his head. "Son of a bitch, Rogers!"

"Keep quiet," Steve ordered, climbing fast. They'd been tracking the -- thing -- for a day and a half, and they'd seen it visit the remains of a human victim. When it went after a campsite full of tourists, they'd managed to drive it back into the woods, but the woods were what it knew, and he and Rumlow had become prey very quickly. One of the other agents had gone for backup, and one was evacuating campers, both very necessary tasks -- but that still meant it was the two of them on their own.

There it was, he could see it looking for them now. Big and blue-grey, with fangs hanging over its lower lip and a thick mane of coarse hair around its remarkably human face. It was easily eight feet tall. At the moment it was investigating a boulder in the landscape, but if it was like any other predator ever, it'd scent them soon enough.

On the other hand, it was basically shaped like a person, and like a person, it had a neck with a windpipe in it.

"Rumlow," Steve hissed.


"Get ready to wrecking-ball if necessary," Steve said. He inched his way out onto a reasonably sturdy branch, lying on his stomach, and watched as the Wendigo sniffed the air, pivoting towards them. It took a few lumbering steps, then a few more, approaching with the caution of a creature that was used to the offensive but had encountered men with guns before.

Steve held his breath, waiting, and then when it was about to discover Rumlow's blind, he slid and dropped without a sound, light as a snowflake.

Directly onto the creature's shoulders, arms around its neck.

It bellowed in surprise and lifted its clawed arms to try and pull him off, but Steve hung low against its back, and it was more interested in getting at him then getting him to release his chokehold on its throat. It was a wild few seconds as it tried to shake him off, and Steve felt himself repeatedly slammed against the thing's bony back, face buried in stinking fur.

He'd been hoping to compress the carotid arteries, or go relatively brute-force and choke off the trachea, but the thing got wise to him too fast; he saw it lifting its claws to rake his arms off its throat, and he acted on instinct -- popped a blade out of his sleeve, pressed it deep into the muscles of the neck, and let himself drop, gravity pulling the blade across and slitting its throat. He regretted it, even knowing it was a killer, but there was no other option. The Wendigo staggered forward, seemingly about to fall, and then straightened and gurgled and went over backwards, forcing Steve to throw himself to one side in slushy mud.

Rumlow was there as soon as he pushed himself up, offering a hand. "I thought you were gonna give me a high sign," he said.

"Sorry, thought I could get him unconscious," Steve said. "Great job playing bait, though."

"Sure, just what every guy wants to be," Rumlow said. "Jesus. It's bigger on the ground, I swear to God. You think eight, nine feet tall? Hey, go over there, pose with it, I'll take your picture."

"No," Steve said, glancing at the still corpse nearby. "I don't think that would be appropriate, do you?"

Rumlow sighed. "Guess not. You want me to send up the flare?"

"Yeah." Steve brushed ineffectually at the mud caking half his suit. "I want a hot shower and something to eat that isn't a nutrition bar."

Rumlow grinned at him. "You live up to the hype, Rogers."

"Thanks, I do my best."


The recovery team arrived reasonably fast and loaded both them and the Wendigo into the back of a transport copter, but by the time they actually reached the Helicarrier, which was lurking somewhere in the Pacific, the thing had begun to smell. Steve trooped grimly off the transport, past a wave of gagging hangar crew, and made it almost all the way to the nearest shower before Coulson fell into step beside him. Coulson, bless him, didn't even wrinkle his nose.

"Please tell me that thing we recovered is a naturally occurring cryptid and not some kind of horrifying secret Canadian science experiment," Steve said.

"From the photos you sent back, we can't be sure, but I would imagine if it's someone's lab rat, it'll be tagged somehow," Coulson replied. "Otherwise, congratulations, you found a Yeti."


"Ah yes, so the initial report said," Coulson replied, reading from a tablet. "And I quote, a giant fucking Wendigo or other Bigfoot-type creature that stinks like a four day old shit."

"I might have still been running on adrenaline when I wrote that," Steve admitted.

"I think a little profanity is understandable, given the circumstances."

"Were you expecting us to find that? What we found?" Steve asked, stopping in the doorway of the locker room. Coulson gestured him inside, following him past banks of lockers towards the wall that divided off the shower.

"We were expecting something unusual. The Canadian government had sent us intel that suggested a SHIELD strike team was the most appropriate response," Coulson said. Steve heard him turn and lock the door.

"What's going on, Coulson?" Steve asked, but he kept undressing. If this was some weird attempt on his life he could kill Coulson as easily naked as he could clothed, and he'd left his weapons back in the transport anyway.

"I have an eyes-only briefing," Coulson replied, and Steve relaxed, turning on the water. Nothing as creepy as he'd imagined, then, just some required privacy during a briefing. "Do you remember what Erskine used to say about miracles?"

"Sure," Steve said, scrubbing himself with the rough, cheap SHIELD soap. "There's nothing more terrifying than a miracle in an age unused to them."

"He also thought there might come a moment when we entered an age of miracles. He called it the heroic age."

"Coulson, I loved Erskine and I know you did too, but he also believed that Norse mythology was based in fact. You don't get genius without a little crazy." He raked his fingers through his hair, grimacing at the renewed stink that wafted off him. A lemon was flipped over the wall, and he caught it, breaking it open with his fingernails and scrubbing the juice into his hair. "Thanks."

"Not a problem. My point is, SHIELD has become the de-facto agency to deal with the unusual."

"Like the wendigo."

"Like the wendigo, and like this," Coulson said, leaning around the wall to hold up his tablet. Steve turned to look at it, wiping suds off his face.

"It's a hammer," he said, looking up at Coulson.

"It is, indeed, a hammer," Coulson agreed. He tapped the advance key on the tablet, and video began to play. Steve, lemon forgotten in one hand, watched as a series of rough-looking men in jeans and predominantly plaid shirts stepped up to the hammer, tried to lift it, and walked away defeated. The last part of the clip was of a truck trying the same thing and getting ripped in half. "It fell out of the sky yesterday in a small town in New Mexico. Nobody's been able to move it, and it's putting out a significant level of electromagnetic activity."

"Well, if they can't lift it, I don't think I'm your guy," Steve said drily.

"I've just returned from Puente Antiguo to collect you; the nearest SHIELD office is sending agents and supplies for a fully secured compound around the object. You're going to be my second at the base. Head of security for the entire operation -- thirty or forty agents and support staff."

"I haven't even dried off yet," Steve said, giving himself one last scrub with the lemon before ducking under the water to rinse himself clean. "I haven't seen Tony in almost a week, I'm beat to hell from the Canadian cryptid monster. Has something happened to Peggy?" he asked, worry filling him.

"Peggy's fine, she's on another mission. I know this isn't convenient, but I need you with me at the site. There shouldn't be a lot of action," Coulson said. "This is administrative, primarily. Give you a chance to rest. New Mexico's nice this time of year."

"Keeps me off the radar," Steve said darkly. "Am I still viral on Facebook?"

"More or less. That's actually dying down, though. We genuinely need you on the ground in New Mexico, Nomad. Fly Stark out if you like, he can afford it and he might be able to help us figure out what the hell it is."

"No, he's busy with SI," Steve said, feeling troubled in a way he couldn't identify. "Do I have time to put some clean pants on and call him before you whisk me away to the desert?"

"Pants," Coulson said, handing him a pair of uniform pants a size too big. "There's a go-bag packed for you, and you can call Stark on the way."

There wasn't just a go-bag waiting for him at the minijet; to his surprise, Sam and Bucky were there too. Sam had his flight rig slung over one shoulder, and Bucky had a rifle case at his feet.

"What the -- " Steve turned to Coulson, confused.

"Agent Carter has convinced Mr. Wilson to join us in a freelance capacity," Coulson said, as Steve greeted Bucky and then Sam with hugs, slapping them on the back. "We also believe Mr. Barnes may be of use for this particular project."

"This particular project?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow, looking back and forth between them as Coulson gently urged them all onto the plane.

"Truth is, SHIELD's been after me for months," Bucky said, looking uncomfortable. "After Clint saw my shooting in Afghanistan, they came knockin'."

"What?" Steve asked. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I did say somethin', I said no, to them," Bucky told him. "And then I sorta said...maybe, and then I said not unless it was working in your unit."

"Mr. Wilson and Mr. Barnes are officially under your command," Coulson said. "They're considered consultants. If and when you're confirmed as a team leader, you may invite them to join SHIELD."

"Which I don't actually want," Sam added. "I like the consulting rates and I already got healthcare through the VA."

"Duly noted," Steve said, feeling a little bowled over. "Have you been, uh, been briefed?"

"Waiting on you," Sam said.

"Give him a minute, then we'll get started," Coulson said, as the minijet lifted off. Steve sat down near the back and checked his phone while the others stowed their luggage. He'd emailed Tony on the flight in, and it looked like Tony had dictated his reply to JARVIS about half an hour ago. There was a certain endearingly run-on quality to his dictated emails, unlike his typed ones, which were formal in the way of a man who sends a lot of business email.

"Good afternoon, Agent Rogers," JARVIS said, when he called Tony's number. "I trust you've been decontaminated by now?"

"That I have," Steve said. "But I've got some bad news. Tony working on something delicate?"

"Sir is feeling unwell," JARVIS said. "He is currently sleeping."

"Well, at least he's getting rest," Steve said. "If I ask you for his sleep stats the last week or so, is that being an invasive boyfriend?"

"Average of nine hours a night," JARVIS replied.

That couldn't be right. Tony barely slept six on a good night. It used to worry him, but apparently Tony was just one of those people who thrived on the verge of sleep deprivation.

"Is it the flu?" Steve asked.

"Sir has not consulted a doctor. He does display some flu-like symptoms."

"Man, everything happens at once," Steve sighed. "Listen, Coulson has me on a really important assignment coming off the last one, I'm on my way to some small town in New Mexico. If it lasts longer than a week I'm going to ask for a furlough but in the meantime, keep him hydrated and keep his calories up for me, wouldja?"

"Colonel Rhodes is present and supervising Sir's health," JARVIS said.

"That's a genuine relief, tell him I say hi. Put me through to voicemail and let me leave a message, please?"

"Of course," JARVIS said, and there was a gentle beep.

"Hey, sweetheart," Steve said. "Sorry to bail on you when you're sick, but I've been called out to New Mexico to deal with something very weird there. Feel better and let Rhodey look after you, okay? If you need me to come home, tell me and I'll figure something out. Give me a call when you're up, I miss your voice. Love you."

He looked over at the others as he hung up the phone and found Coulson watching him, an odd look on his face -- not quite sympathy, not quite concern. It was gone so fast he wondered if he'd imagined it, and pretty soon he was distracted anyway by the more thorough briefing Coulson was giving him. Staff numbers, dossiers, and operations codes filled his head, and it wasn't until he was well on his way to sleep that night, in a trailer he and Clint were sharing inside the compound, that he remembered Tony hadn't called him back.


"Dare you," Bucky said the next morning, devouring a breakfast sandwich from the hastily-erected compound kitchen. Steve, watching the SHIELD brain trust lay out sensors around the hammer, crossed his arms.

"Not until the sensors are live," Steve said. "And I want the guys from the local office to try first."

"Be funny if I could pick it up," Bucky said.

"Why would that be funny?"

"I dunno. The one handed hammer man," Bucky mused. "Something, you know, folkloric about that."

"You know what's folkloric about this," Steve said, crouching to get eye-to-handle with the hammer, "is the magical whatnot that appears from nowhere. Which generally isn't actually a good thing for the guy who picks it up."

"I don't know, the swineherd-turned-prince by the power of the magical whatnot usually ends up okay," Sam said from the level above them. "Coulson said to tell you they've got the sensors live and to get your skinny butt out of the way because you're screwing up their baseline readings."

Steve smiled and backed off, hoisting himself onto the scaffold and going up hand-over-hand until he'd reached the second level.

"Punk," Bucky called, stepping back into the structure on the lower level.

"Go on, Buck, give it a try," Steve said, as the sensors all lit up green. Bucky leaned out and looked up, eyes narrowed, but he edged his way towards the hammer and gripped it with his right hand, adjusting his fingers a few times before tugging. The hammer might as well have been welded into a base under the dirt.

A handful of field agents spilled out of the main doorway into the enclosure, elbowing each other, taking turns trying their luck on the hammer. Sam slid down the scaffold to give it a shot, and Steve leaned on the rail and heckled with the rest of them until everyone had tried.

"Okay, Mr. Supervisory Field Agent Sir," Bucky called up. "Put your money where your mouth is."

"Fine, I don't know what you expect," Steve said, jumping down, landing lightly and giving a little bow when the other agents mock-ooohed at him over the jump. "But I guess little guys do know more about levera-ehh!"

He'd grabbed the handle in the middle of the sentence and tugged, expecting no result at all; instead, just as he said leverage, the handle jerked towards him. For a second, it went with the movement of his arm, and then it fell back again, tugging him off-balance, forcing the air out of his chest. He stumbled, let go of the handle, and pivoted, staring wide-eyed at it.

"Did that just...move?" Sam asked. Steve looked up and around. Half of the sensors were flashing red.

"No way," one of the agents said.

"Do it again," Bucky urged. "Go on, Steve, give it another try."

Steve inhaled, squared his shoulders, and gripped the handle again. This time, when he tugged, nothing happened.

"Trick of the light," someone said, and everyone began filing back inside. He knew it must have moved -- he could still feel soreness in his arm, the shock in his lungs -- but maybe it wasn't related, maybe the hammer had just shifted on its own.

"Hey Coulson," he said into his earpiece. "Did you catch that?"

"Cameras glitched," Coulson said. "We have two frames. It definitely moved. Get up here, the scientists are going to come mob you if you don't."

"On my way," Steve replied, heading for the exit.


That afternoon, a few thousand miles away, Nick Fury carried two printouts of video stills into a small room on the helicarrier.

"Thought you might like to see these," he said, laying them flat on a scanner. "They're related to your Black Swan that came down in New Mexico."

The scanner lit up, and two monitors each showed one of the images; after a second, they combined, one overlaying the other. It was clear Steve Rogers had managed to shift the hammer, even if only for a second.

A tinny voice said, "Hmm. Are we sure he did it?"

"Pretty fucking sure," Fury replied.

"Must you?" the voice sighed.

"Pretty gosh-darned sure," Fury corrected with a grin. "Scientists ran a whole truckload of tests on him; everything came back normal, or at least baseline for Rogers."

"Well. I can't see any variables I'd care to introduce, though I'll have a look through the tests when they're available. How is Mr. Stark?"

"Circling the drain."

"All heart, Nicholas."

"Hey, you have any ideas, I'm open. Obviously Stark's out of them."

"Don't discount Anthony so quickly. I remember his father had -- hmm," the voice said again. "Where did we store Howard's old reels and notes?"

"The warehouse in Jersey. You think it's time?"

"Don't you?"

Fury considered the monitors thoughtfully. "I don't think he's desperate enough yet."

"This is a man's life, Nicholas."

"Yeah, but -- hit him at the wrong psychological moment and he won't take our help. He'll die anyway," Fury said.

"Well, I defer to you. Do as you wish, but don't hold off too long. I do hate to see Steven upset."

"See, this is why you have me," Fury said with a smile, gathering up the printouts and dropping them into a smokeless incinerator box nearby. "To ignore your bleeding heart and do the job before us."

"Better a bleeding heart than bloody hands." There was a sigh. "Although that is too late for both of us, I suppose. How is the search in Greenland going?"

"Nothing yet. Few promising leads. We'll get there."

"Howard Stark did not get there in forty years of looking."

"Howard Stark didn't have GPS," Fury said. "I'll have them send the keyhole data from Puente Antiguo over to you in twelve hour updates. Yell if you find anything."

"Good luck, Nicholas."


"Hey, finally," Steve said that afternoon, when Tony answered his second call. "How's that flu, Tony?"

"The flu?" Tony asked, sounding confused. "Oh -- oh! Sorry yeah. Um. Still clearly not that great," he said. "Sorry I didn't call sooner."

"No big deal, I'd rather you catch up on sleep. JARVIS said Rhodey was looking after you."

"Well, yeah, I guess..." Tony sounded distant, and a little agitated. "So you haven't been watching TV or anything?"

"No, we're on an external media lockdown -- I'm in the secure phone room just to make this call, by the way, so consider yourself tape-recorded. Why? Something happen?"

"N-no, nothing to worry about. A little Iron Man business."

"You okay?"

"Sure. Barely bruised. How's the desert?"

"I might move here. My lungs love the dry air. Good for the sinuses."

"You can't move to the ass of New Mexico."

"It's pretty here," Steve teased. "Nice quiet life. Build a little shack, solar power, get off-grid like a survivalist."

"This is my hell," Tony groaned.

"You'd get used to the total disconnection from the rest of humanity," Steve said.

"Ugh, you're terrible. Hey, I hear Sam and Bucky are there."

"Yeah," Steve said, grinning. "SHIELD recruited them."

"Am I next?"

"Nope, you're my personal property, they can't have you."

"I am no man's toy, Steven," Tony said. Steve laughed.

"Good to hear from you," he said. "I miss you like crazy, baby."

"I miss you too," Tony said, sounding genuinely sad, not his usual let's avoid all emotion by cracking wise. He must really be miserably sick. "Hey, I have a weird creepy question."

"I'm not dressing up in costume."

"Ha. Just you wait. No, um, am I in your will?"

Steve blinked. "My will?"

"Yeah. Is this -- this is a weird question to ask, I knew it -- "

"No, it's not that weird, uh...yeah, when we came back to New York I revised my will on file at SHIELD. Peggy's my executor but you get most of my art, cept for some stuff Bucky'd want. I mean, it's not like you're going to need my 401K or my furniture, and that's basically all I got, other than the art. Why do you ask?"

"I was just, uh, I was thinking I should put you in mine."

"Tony, that's -- actually really great," Steve said.

"It is?"

"Well, I mean in terms of, you and relationships are rarely on good terms, this is a nice...step for you, I guess? Maybe?" Steve ventured. "You don't have to, you know."

"But is there stuff you'd like? Like, you love the Ferrari, right?"

"I do love the Ferrari," Steve admitted. "But I don't want you to kick over just to get your car."

"You're on the death trust, you know, with Pepper. If I did die you'd never have to work again."

"I like my work, and this is getting kind of dark," Steve said. "I don't want to think about you dying, can we -- let's talk this over when I'm back in New York?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course. Hey, you love the Demuth, right? I'm putting the Demuth in there."

"Okay, that's fine, but I like you not dying more. Listen, this op might turn long-term but if I can I'm gonna get leave and come out there next week at the latest. If you get any sicker, I want you to message me, I'll get it and I'll come home. SHIELD can't keep me here if my partner has a medical emergency."

"How much sicker?"

"Do you need me to come home?"

"No," Tony said. He still sounded sad.

"Tony, if you get sicker, call me, I will come home," Steve said firmly. "I will always come find you, remember?"

"Love you."

"Love you too," Steve said. "If I don't hear from you tomorrow morning I'll call you around lunchtime. Eat some soup."


"Bye, Tony."

"Bye, Duckling," Tony said, and Steve smiled as he hung up the phone.

It was a weird conversation to have, but just hearing from him made Steve feel better; he bounded up to the control room with a light heart.

"How's baby doing?" he asked Sitwell, leaning over a scientist's shoulder to check the video feed on the hammer.

"Cranky," Sitwell said. "Throwing out all kinds of interference. And we're having security issues. Do you know how many airplanes fly over Puente Antiguo? We have a guy doing nothing but rerouting commercial jets."

"Better him than me. Hey, is it just that it's metal, is that the reason it's warmer than what's around it?" Steve asked the scientist.

"Not sure," the man said. "Could be it's holding residual heat from the day, could be it's just...warmer. We'll know more now the temperature's dropping."

Steve glanced through one clear plastic window in the sheeting. "Wow."

"Storms brew up fast in the desert," Coulson said, joining them at the monitor bank.

"I hope those trailers you've got us in are waterproof. Can't stand a leaky roof," Steve remarked. He picked up a tablet lying nearby and logged in, checking the duty rosters as he watched the shift change on the monitors. "Buck's off-duty, Clint's on call, Sam's coming on -- I might run down to the mess and get some dinner before I hand off to Sam."

"Hang on," Coulson said, and Steve stopped, following his gaze to the monitors. "What is that?"

There was a bit of fence at the perimeter, bent upwards.

"Guess I'm on for a little longer," Steve said grimly, as all hell broke loose.


Technically, Steve wasn't supposed to be in the field. He was supposed to be up with Coulson, giving the orders. But he watched the blond man who'd broken into the compound rip through some of SHIELD's best agents like they were amateurs, and he couldn't just sit in the control room and push buttons. He felt a peculiar ownership of the hammer in a way he couldn't quite identify, and he wasn't going to let this guy try for it without a fight.

So, once Sam was in the air and Clint was on the crane, ensuring that the hammer was protected from above, Steve shimmied down a couple of support posts, ran through the curving access corridor of the compound, and came face-to-face with the man just as he threw Agent Moheo aside.

The man stopped, looking him up and down as Steve fell into a fighting stance. Then he chuckled. Steve knew that chuckle; it was the smug laugh of every asshole who had ever believed he had the upper hand against Steve and was enjoying it.

"Really?" the big guy asked, spreading his arms. "A boy is the last line of def -- "

He broke off with a strangled choke as Steve put all hundred and ten of his pounds into a single point, a sharp, targeted punch to the top of the sternum. The man staggered, but Steve didn't have time to gloat; he danced back, out of the way of a sudden bear-hug, and then brought his knee up into the man's nose when he stumbled forward.

It started pretty well, but after that it went downhill fast. Steve was used to bigger opponents being slow, used to relying on agility to get his job done, but this guy for all his size was nearly as fast and just as light on his feet. Steve got in a few more jabs on a few key pressure points, but then the guy just gave him a roar and a bum rush, not stopping for a second when Steve brought his hands down on the back of his head, and they went flying backwards through the plastic wall of the enclosure, into the mud outside.

Steve landed on his back, wind knocked out of him, and kicked his knee up on instinct, hitting him in the thigh; Blondie rolled off, groaning, but before Steve could get his breath back Blondie had flopped forward again with his elbow over Steve's chest, pinning him. Steve curled his knees, caught him in the head with one kneecap, yelped in pain at the collision, and stuck his fingers in the guy's nose.

It might have worked, but this guy was clearly no stranger to fighting dirty; he jerked backwards just enough to free himself and caught Steve a painful blow against his hip with one thick thigh as he climbed to his feet. Steve scrambled in the mud as Blondie rose, but he didn't manage to get upright or close enough to grab him before he was sliding down the muddy hill, returning to the enclosure, heading for the hammer.

Steve swore and followed, stumbling and limping, left leg on fire, and he was still angry rather when relieved when Coulson said, "Don't engage, Rogers," into his comm.

"But he's," he tried, then coughed to clear his throat.

"Clint's up top with his bow and Sam's got eyes on him. He won't get far. Maintain your position, wait for medical aid."

Steve stumbled into the brightly lit corridor, now full of ripped plastic and unconscious agents, and caught himself on a wall near the entryway to the inner square where the hammer lay. From here he could see the dim outline of Clint in his crane, the more visible shadow of Coulson watching from the upper level, and Blondie, standing in front of the hammer.

Steve, one arm wrapped around his aching chest, watched as the man gripped the hammer, tugged --

And nothing happened.

He looked genuinely shocked; he tried again, and then a third time. When it became obvious the hammer wasn't going to move, he raised his head and let out a bellow, the kind of sound a wounded animal might make. It was one of the most awful things Steve had heard in a long time.

"You think it's his?" he asked, as the man slumped to his knees.

"Don't know," Coulson said. "If it is, he's got some explaining to do."

"You want me to interrogate him?"

"I want you to wash yourself off and get to medical," Coulson said.

"Nothing's broken," Steve replied dismissively, though it certainly felt like his ribs were going to argue that point. He watched as a pair of agents approached Blondie carefully, but the big guy didn't even move as they cuffed his wrists behind his back. It took both of them pulling on his arms to get him to his feet, and he was docile and quiet as they led him past Steve.

"Good try," Steve said, before he thought about it. Blondie didn't respond.

Steve stepped out into the inner enclosure, felt the rain on his face washing away the itchy, drying mud, and touched the handle with two fingers. He was certain it felt warmer than it had. He grasped it and pulled; it shifted a little, enough to knock a few crumbs of mud out from under it, then settled and wouldn't budge.

"Medical, Rogers, now," Coulson said, and Steve nodded and staggered towards the medical office, leaving a splattered trail of mud and water in his wake.


"Well, you look beat to shit," Clint said, when Steve returned to the trailer that night.

After Medical gave him an ice pack and some painkillers for his knee, he'd rinsed off and gone up to Control to make sure the place was locked down tight; eventually Coulson had ordered him off, so he'd trooped back to their trailer to find Bucky, Sam, and Clint had pushed the two beds in the trailer together, endcapped them with the cheap prefab sofa, put a low table on top of the beds, and set up the space heater as a sort of central idol on the table. They were sitting around the heater on the bed-sofa monstrosity, wrapped in blankets, playing cards.

"I feel beat to shit," Steve admitted, climbing onto the bed and accepting a blanket from Bucky. "Any intel on who the guy is yet?"

"Above our pay grade," Clint said. "If Coulson even knows. I hear the prisoner's basically catatonic."

"Sure seemed like he knew where he was going, what he was doing," Steve said. "How ya think he was gonna get out?"

"Swinging the hammer and yelling," Sam suggested. Bucky snorted. Clint won the hand, and everyone pushed some of their pennies over to Steve as Sam dealt him in.

"He seemed like he -- " Steve screwed his face up, trying to work out how to say it. "What if it belongs to him?"

"He couldn't pick it up," Sam pointed out.

"Steve could," Bucky said, giving him a nudge.

"No I couldn't," Steve said. "It was an optical illusion or something."

"You moved it, anyway," Clint said. "We all saw it. You've done it twice now."

Steve studied his cards, not really seeing them, and mumbled, "What does that mean?"

Nobody answered; Sam looked like he was about to, but then Coulson came over the comms.

"Rogers, one of the scientists is here to spring the prisoner," he said.

"What?" Steve asked.

"Foster's pal Selvig," Coulson said, in measured tones. "He's here to get our viking."

"Does he...know our guy? How does that work?" Steve asked.

"I couldn't tell you. He's got a made-up story about the guy being a physicist and a fake ID with his photo on it. I'm going to allow it, unless you can think of a compelling reason not to."

"Buck," Steve said immediately. Bucky glanced at him. "You're up. Coulson's letting the prisoner fly."

"On it," Bucky said, rolling off the bed and pulling his boots on. "Three minutes."

"Barnes will follow, stall him for two minutes," Steve said. Bucky took a second from tying his boots one-handed to throw him the bird. "Have a car and backup ready."

"Copy. How's your face?"

"Fine. How's yours?"

Coulson sounded amused. "Older by the day."

"Aren't we all," Steve agreed, as Bucky beat it out the door. "Barnes is on his way."

"I'll keep you updated," Coulson said, and Steve tapped his comm off.

"I could've gone," Clint complained.

"Bucky needs the practice," Steve said calmly, pulling Bucky's pennies over to his pile. He didn't feel calm; he felt oddly agitated, sending Bucky out to follow the prisoner. Ridiculous -- Bucky had gone on missions for him all the time when they were looking for Tony, and he'd been deployed in active combat before that. But Steve hadn't been there to witness the active combat, and during the manhunt he'd been preoccupied.

"He'll be fine," Sam said, giving him a brief, knowing look. "Buck's good at stealth and he likes it. Besides, the guy doesn't seem violent."

Steve pointed to his bruises.

"Well, I mean, in a general sense," Sam corrected.


Bucky got back to the compound around dawn; he woke Steve the way he had when they were kids, by poking him insistently in the face (it was the one sure way to wake Steve without a potentially violent reaction) and then slid partway under the blankets, sitting up against the wall of the trailer. Steve instinctively shoved his head under Bucky's arm and lay with one ear against his chest. They didn't do this often anymore, grown men and combat veterans and both with boyfriends, but it was still comforting to lie half-upright -- the way he'd had to when he'd had chest colds as a kid -- and listen to Bucky's heart while they talked.

"I gave a verbal report to Sitwell," Bucky said, speaking softly so as not to wake Clint, who was balled up under the blankets in the next bed. "He said no action needed, he's sent two guys out to keep an eye on the scientists."

"What happened?"

"Not a whole lot," Bucky admitted. "I tailed them to a bar. They drank boilermakers."

"Why?" Steve asked, horrified.

"I think Selvig started it. Big guy's name is Thor. He talked some about his dad. Selvig mostly waxed philosophic."

Bucky's definition of "philosophy" set the bar pretty low sometimes; he wasn't really much on the intangibles.

"How so?" Steve asked.

"You know. How everyone hates their dad at some point. Problems kids and parents have. Him being friends with Foster's dad. Then Thor decided to take him home and he tried to punch him."

"How'd that go?"

"Thor just picked him up and hauled him the rest of the way. Eventually he started singing. Thor put Selvig in the RV where Jane Foster lives, then they talked, him and Foster, on the roof of her lab. I couldn't get close enough to hear. I fucking hate stealth in the desert," Bucky concluded.

"You did great, though," Steve said. Bucky was quiet for a while. "I'll take you off shift until this afternoon, so you can get some sleep."

"Are you worried about Tony?" Bucky asked abruptly.

"Why, because he's sick? He's got Rhodey there, and Pepper, and Happy. And honestly, Tony's kind of an asshole when he's sick."

"Do you get a bad feeling about him being sick?"

"Not really. People get sick, it happens. Why, do you?"

"Dunno," Bucky said thoughtfully. "Don't know why I'm worrying anyway, it's not like I care if he lives or dies except you'd be sad."

"Yes, I would," Steve said, grinning against Bucky's shirt. Bucky still liked to threaten Tony's life occasionally, but he never did it where Tony could hear, and at this point it seemed to be more for the show of the thing.

"You get the feeling something's about to happen?" Steve asked. "Like the storm breaking earlier."

"Weather sats say no new storms for a day or two."

"Wasn't what I meant."

Bucky was silent for a while. "In Afghanistan -- not when we went, when I went, before -- you get paranoid. It's hard to listen to your instincts 'cause your instincts are always telling you something's wrong, even when nothing is. You gotta learn to read the landscape, read the signs, and the signs are different everywhere you go."

"You think we can't read the signs out here yet."

Bucky sighed. "I don't know if I've been any good at reading anything since I came home. Here, New York...I dunno, kid."

"You feeling okay?" Steve asked quietly.

"Best I've felt since coming home, honest," Bucky said. "Just..."

"Still not all the way back?"

"Something like that."

Steve inhaled against Bucky's shirt, smelling mainly dust and sweat. "If you hit a bad patch, Buck -- "

"I know, Steve," Bucky said, warm but firm.

"Well, just so you do. Now scram, go bother Sam some," Steve told him, rolling off and pulling the blankets with him. Bucky laughed and slid off the bed, leaving with barely a click as the door closed behind him.

"You two are so weird," Clint said.


"For what it's worth, I feel like something's coming too. More than feel."

"What do we do?"

"You're the one fucking the futurist. Ask him when we get home."

Steve thought of home, of Tony and his math and his gadgets.

"I might," he said, and fell back to sleep with a smile on his face.


Coulson got a message from Fury, midmorning that day, and it took him exactly twenty minutes to pack and scram for the nearest airport. He didn't say why, and Steve didn't ask.

"You're in charge. Don't set anything on fire," Coulson said, as Steve walked him down to the makeshift parking lot on the edge of the base. "If you're faced with a significant decision, be conservative. We can defend; offense is a little more dubious. Sitwell will handle the deep administrative stuff."

"If our viking comes back -- "

"I don't think he will, but if he does, hear him out before you jump him. See if he has anything interesting to say. If someone else makes a grab for the hammer, let them try. Let's do catch and release, like with the viking."

"What if someone gets it?"

"Then you will have bigger problems than my absence," Coulson said, loading a bag into the car and stopping, leaning on the door. "You're qualified for this. You'll be fine."

"If I need SHIELD directive, do I contact you or Fury?"

Coulson smiled a little. "Call Hill. She'll make that decision."

"Fair enough. Travel safe."

"Can't be worse than the trip out," Coulson said, and he was gone. Steve watched until the car vanished over the horizon, and then went back to the base, where Clint was on Hammer Watch, perched up the tallest scaffold level.

"You think it's gonna do tricks?" Steve called up to him.

"I dunno. Give it another tug and see if it reacts," Clint called down.

"Was that a masturbation joke?"

"Nothing is beneath me," Clint assured him. "I'm thinking deep thoughts up here, leave me alone."

"Hope you come up with more than I have," Steve said under his breath, carefully skirting the hammer and the puddles of mud slowly drying around it.


Natasha met Coulson at the airport in New York; she was driving a hatchback.

"Toss your bag on the backseat, trunk's full," she said, as he leaned over to peer inside.

"Not exactly SHIELD standard transport," he said.

"I'm keeping a low profile. We have enough sensitive data riding in the back of this thing to start a new cold war at least."

"Could be fun," he said, tossing his bag behind his seat and sliding in. It was a joke only someone who'd lived through the last one could make with Natasha, and she still gave him an eyebrow. "How's Stark?"

"Not well," she said, her voice turning serious. "Fury brief you?"

"He said Stark picked some kind of fight with Rhodes."

"The US Air Force now has possession of an Iron Man suit," she said. "Rhodes is protecting Stark's data integrity for now -- he took the arc reactor out of the suit and he's blocking Hammer from accessing the code."

"He told you this?"

"I have my sources," she said. "Rhodes knows Stark, though, and this isn't like him. Rhodes is worried."

Coulson pensively watched traffic crawl past. "Stark hasn't told him? Keeping it from Steve, I understand, but Rhodes is a little more even-tempered..."

"I think Stark's given him clues. But he's preoccupied -- he's torn between Stark and his job, and -- "

" -- Anthony Stark knows exactly how to drive someone off if he wants to," Coulson finished.

"I'm honestly surprised he hasn't started in on Steve," she said. "Not that I think Steve would let it happen, but he hasn't even tried. Maybe he just can't make himself do it."

"Maybe he's waiting until New Mexico is over."

"How's that going, by the way?"

"Slow and mysterious." He glanced at her and tapped his fingers on the dashboard, one eyebrow raised.

"It's why I rented it," she said. "No bugs in this thing, and I have a jammer going."

"Report on your Hydra infiltration."

"Nobody's taking the bait yet. Clint's with you guys in New Mexico and I've been your operative too long. Seduction is a slow process," she added, and he realized he probably looked annoyed that for once, his reputation for running a clean ship was working against him. "I'm playing the disillusioned ingenue, someone's going to bite sooner or later. Be helpful if we knew who should be biting."

"I did what research I could. I can't help that I've been stuck in the desert. This hammer thing is of genuine importance, and so is project Stark."

"Keeping Steve away from him right now, you think that's wise? Keeping him in the dark? Steve won't thank you."

"Unlike you, I am not Steve Rogers' friend. I'm his boss. I'm also Fury's subordinate. If Steve wants to kick someone around when all this is done, he can kick Fury," Coulson said. "Stark needs the right push at the right moment, and Steve would protect him from that."

"I'd like to know what SHIELD's interest in Stark's chemistry experiments is," she said. "Aside from saving his life, obviously."

"That's above your clearance level."

"Which is why I said I'd like to know rather than asking," she pointed out.

"Touche. I don't know what specific game Fury is playing. I just know he wants Stark healthy and onboard for the Initiative. That may mean making Stark feel like he owes us."

"Tony doesn't owe people. It's not in his nature," Natasha said. "Especially in business. If he does manage to make any sense of his father's files, SHIELD may not enjoy what happens next."

"I have a feeling SHIELD isn't going to enjoy what happens next regardless," Coulson sighed. "Let's just get to the Tower and dump this data on Stark. Is Pepper around?"

"More or less. Hammer's presenting at the Stark Expo tonight, I'm riding shotgun with her."

"SHIELD is expending an awful lot of energy on Tony Stark," Coulson observed.

"Let's hope it's worth it," Natasha replied.


Steve called Tony that morning after Coulson left, but got no answer; JARVIS said he was feeling better, but was doing research in the workshop. Steve told JARVIS not to bother him, and left a cheerful message.

As he was leaving the phone room, Sitwell caught up with him and steered him carefully towards command. Steve went, not bothering to ask what was going on until they reached the monitor bank.

"Massive energy readings out of nowhere," Sitwell said, as one of the scientists brought up some readings that looked an awful lot like a funnel cloud, bending to the earth briefly before dissolving.

"What the hell is it?" Steve asked.

"No idea."


"Fifteen miles northwest," one of the scientists said. "Directly between us and town."

"I'm gonna go check it out," Steve said. "Send that to my GPS? And call Wilson, Barnes, and Barton, tell them to meet me at the transport. I want a backup team riding behind us, too. If it's another hammer, I want to be able to set up an immediate perimeter."

"You think it's another hammer?" Sitwell asked, trotting next to him as Steve loped through the halls.

"Well, maybe we'll get lucky this time and it'll be a magic sword," Steve said, as Clint ran up, rifle on his back, bow case over his shoulder, quiver at his hip. "Falcon!"

"Coming," Sam yelled, hauling his wings along, shirt half-on; Bucky ran past him, following when Steve pointed to the backseat.

"You and Bucky are with me. Hawkeye, ride with Strike, keep 'em in line. Saddle up quick, something new crashed down between us and town."

"Dibs if it's a magic sword," Clint called from the strike van.

"Already called it," Steve replied with a grin.

"Dammit, Nomad!"

"Button it, Hawkeye," Steve said. "Sitwell, hold the fort?"

"You got it, boss," Sitwell answered, and Steve hit the ignition, pulling the car out towards the road. The strike van pulled up behind him and matched speed. In the back seat, Bucky tucked his rifle up against his chest.

They were almost to the new crash site when the agents assigned to keep an eye on Thor the Viking radioed in.

"Base, this is Team Three, we've got Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood..."

Sam, at Steve's nod, tapped his comm. "Team Three, this is Falcon, can you repeat?"

"We have four individuals in...armor, heading for the scientists."

"What like, medieval knight armor?" Sam asked.

"They look kinda like vikings," Team Three admitted.

Steve tapped his own comm. "Team Three, this is Nomad. Stay with Viking. Do not engage unless civilians are in danger."

"Copy, Nomad. If they start pillaging, can we open fire?"

Steve chuckled. "The town is our primary concern, Team Three. If they get violent, get everyone to cover. Then open fire."

"Copy, Team Three out."

"You think that's likely?" Sam asked, as Steve consulted the GPS and pulled off the road, bumping over the unpaved hardpan.

"No. They're probably after the hammer. Or whatever just came down."

"Steve," Bucky said.

"What?" Steve asked, distracted.

"What if they're what just came down?"

Steve chewed on his lip, uncertain how to answer. He was saved by the beep of the GPS; they were nearly on top of the crash site, but there was no crater, nothing to indicate --

He hit the brakes hard as a shadow flickered in the dust in front of them. The strike van stopped just short of his bumper, and he heard Clint yell something obscene. He climbed out of the car and just...stared.

It was beautiful, objectively; a large, intricately woven circle of knots and flourishes stamped in the desert, easily fifteen feet across. When he bent to touch it, it was hard, as though it had been baked into the ground. Dust blew across it, but none blew up from it.

"Hey," he said to Sam. "Who do we know who might know what the heck this is?"

"No folklore experts at SHIELD?" Sam asked, scuffing his foot against one edge. "Buck?"

"Don't look at me, I dropped out of college," Bucky said, circling it. "This better not be giving me radiation poisoning."

Steve was about to reply, but Clint tapped his arm, then pointed up. Steve raised his face to what had been a sunny sky a second before -- now it was grey, swirling with clouds, a deep black spot in their center.

He ducked back behind the car as the wind started to whip up, gesturing for the strike team to take cover as well. Clint and Sam crouched on either side of him, Sam already strapping on his wings. Bucky was at the back of the car, rifle raised.

"If this is a sand storm, it's gonna fuck up the rig," Sam said, as Clint hauled a pair of goggles out of his quiver and pulled them on.

"I don't think it's -- " Steve began, but he was cut off by sound like a whip cracking, magnified by a million. Dust and debris burst up from the imprint on the far side of the car, and when it cleared...

"That's not Tony, is it?" Sam asked. "Like a new suit or something?"

Steve stared at the gleaming silver monstrosity in front of him. Twenty feet high, made entirely of shifting steel plates, and...looking at them.

"I don't think so, no," he said, straightening, circling the car to get a better look. Sam took a hardcore vertical leap and hit the air, and he could hear Clint tensioning his bow behind him. He tapped his comm. "Strike team, don't engage without my signal."

"And if it eats you?" Clint asked.

"Then you can engage," Steve said. He held up both hands as he walked towards the creature. It started walking towards him, which might or might not be a good sign. It ignored Sam, who was circling to get behind it.

"My name is Steve Rogers," he said loudly, as the thing clanked forward. "I'm an agent of SHIELD, a representative of the US Government. Please identify yourself."

It stopped.

"I need you to identify yourself," Steve said. "Do you speak English?"

"Jesus Christ," he heard Bucky mutter over the comms.

Its face started to retract -- creepy -- and Steve was hoping someone would be inside it, at least, but all he saw was empty space for a split second.

Then it lit from the inside, glowing red-orange-yellow-white, and Steve yelled incoming! and dove for cover just as it shot a bolt of fire straight at him.

"I don't think it's friendly!" Sam yelled. The thing lifted its head and fired again; Steve heard Sam swear.

"Falcon, bug out," he said, as he crawled into the car, which was now missing a door. Bucky was throwing himself into the back of the strike van, which was already moving, but the thing walked right past their own car, and it didn't take a genius to know where it was headed.

"Strike team, head for town," Steve said. "That's where it's going. Beat it there. We'll be right behind you."

Clint rolled into the car as Steve jerked it into reverse and slammed the gas. They shot backwards as Clint popped the sun roof and got half of himself and his bow out of it.

"I don't think that's gonna do any good!" Steve yelled, as Clint loosed an arrow that hit it in the chest. There was an explosion, but it kept coming.

"Just warn me before you pull a turn," Clint yelled back, firing again. He could hear gunfire; Sam must be harassing the thing from behind, but if so it was simply ignoring him. Its march was inexorable.

"Turning!" Steve yelled, and gave Clint a chance to grab the edge of the sunroof before he hit the brakes, spun the wheel madly to turn the car around, popped into drive, and took off for the freeway into town.

"This is Team Three," a voice said in his ear. "What the hell's going on out there?"

"Team Three, this is Nomad," Steve said. "I need you to evacuate Puente Antiguo."

"Repeat, Nomad?"

"Evacuate the town! Get everyone into a car and get them out of the city!" Steve yelled. "We have incoming and it's going to be very, very ugly!"

"Copy, Nomad, we'll signal when it's clear," Team Three replied, and Steve saw the strike van pull off the road at the edge of town. The entire team piled out and began laying spikes and spreading fencing. As a barricade it wouldn't do much, but maybe it would slow the thing down. Steve pulled off to the other side and Clint leapt out through the roof, joining the others along the fence, just as Team Three gave them the all-clear.

"Retreat through town as necessary -- Buck, come with me," Steve told them, running for the center of town, where he could see Thor the Viking assembled with a cadre of other huge, mean-looking people in armor. Bucky fell into step, unquestioningly, rifle still at the ready.

"Hey!" Steve yelled, and Thor looked down as he skidded to a stop in front of them, even if the others didn't. "Hey, vikings, is this your pal?" he asked, pointing to the spark of silver on the horizon.

"Who is this child?" one of them asked, a blond man with a fiddly goatee, and Steve snarled angrily. The man flinched back, startled.

"First we get a hammer falling out of the sky and then you show up and then your friends show up, so I'm gonna ask you one time," Steve said. "That thing that just landed in the desert, did you do that?"

"No," Thor said. "But I know what it is."

"You know how to stop it?"

"It's the Destroyer. It was forged by my father. It's made of Uru, a living metal. You cannot stop it."

"If it can be made, it can be broken," Steve said.

"Not by mortal hands," Thor replied. He glanced at the others. "But we will try."

"Who exactly is we?" Steve asked. He could hear gunfire and explosions as the team made their stand. Bucky turned and put his back to Steve, keeping watch.

"Lady Sif," the woman said, smiling at him like she'd like to eat him. "And these are the warriors three -- Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg."

"You are gonna explain a lot of this to me when we're done here," Steve said to Thor.

"If we survive, I will answer all your questions, smallest of warriors," Thor replied.

"Nomad, we're not holding this line," Clint said in his ear.

"Hawkeye, call a retreat. Falcon, you still in the air?" Steve asked.

"Yep," Sam said. "It's ignoring me completely."

"Sweep for anyone left in town and then check in. Hawkeye, send the team back to base, I have a feeling it's headed there next."

"Am I staying?" Clint asked.

"Up to you."

"Think I'm probably best heading for base. I'll set some traps on the way," Clint said.

"Sounds good. Buck?" Steve asked.

"This I gotta see," Bucky said.

"Okay, find a roof and lay some fire."

"You got it," Bucky said, heading for the now-empty diner.

When the Destroyer reached them, everything seemed to happen at once. Thor's viking friends attacked, and it was clear that whatever they were, they weren't fully human -- if they were human at all. Steve wanted to jump into the fray but this wasn't his kind of fight, raw and bruising, and anyway he couldn't find an opening. He spent most of his time dodging debris and taking reports from his team -- Bucky still firing pointlessly from the roof until the Destroyer took out half the building and Sam had to swoop for him, Clint on his way back to base with the strike team.

At one point the Destroyer had shaken off all four of the vikings, and he could see them regrouping, but they couldn't get a split second to get their heads on straight the way it was blowing the whole town up. This, at least, he could help with, and he darted into the open, firing one of his sidearms with one hand, throwing a knife with the other.

"Hey! Hey, Destroyer!" he yelled, and it turned, apparently perplexed by the knife in its arm. It pulled it out and threw it away and Steve came to a stop, still firing. His last bullet pinged off its forehead. "Hey big and ugly, come and get me!"

"Little warrior, no!" he heard, from behind him, and he was getting ready to dart aside as the Destroyer's death ray warmed up, when suddenly a hand grabbed him and thrust him backwards. Thor stepped up in front of him, hands upraised.

"He is small, but he is correct," Thor said, as Steve staggered for his balance. "Brother -- "

"That's his brother?" Steve heard Bucky ask.

"Who you callin' small?" Steve demanded.

" -- whatever I have done to you," Thor continued, ignoring them. "Whatever I have done to lead you to do this, I am truly sorry. But these people are innocent. Taking their lives will gain you nothing."

"I think it is a suit," Sam said. "I'm getting some weird feedback on my instruments. I think it's a remote-control suit."

"Badass," Bucky breathed.

"Take my life instead," Thor said. "End this, Loki."

Steve was about to run forward, to knock both him and Thor to the ground, but the Destroyer seemed to consider the offer, and then the light inside it slowly died.

"So, what I'm hearing," Clint said in Steve's earpiece, "is that this is...sibling rivalry?"

"He's gonna kill him," Steve said. "He's gonna kill him and take the hammer. I want every single person on base armed and on the walls, Hawkeye."

"You got it, boss."

"Call Hill and report in once you're ready. All else fails we're going to have to sic the Helicarrier on wherever this thing ends up."

In front of his eyes, the Destroyer turned, twisting as if it was about to go away -- and then snapped back and executed the most brutal, powerful backhand Steve had ever seen.

Thor went flying; Steve drew his second gun and held it up, standing alone in the street. He could hear, behind him, Jane Foster speaking quietly to Thor.

The Destroyer turned, and began to walk away.

"Falcon, we need a medic," Steve said, and he saw Sam circle and land. "See what you can do for Thor. Where'd you drop Bucky?"

"I'm at the edge of town. I can see him coming, you want me to engage?" Bucky asked.

"No, it won't do anything. Did it leave any of our transport functional?"

"Well, most of it's flat, so no."

"Buck, I hate to ask -- "

"Already hotwiring something," Bucky said. "And you said our delinquent youth wouldn't ever come in handy. You'll have a ride in five."

Steve was opening his mouth to tell Buck to be careful when he heard a crack of thunder, and then there was a contrail rising out of the direction they'd come from, the direction of the base. For a second he thought it was a jet, possibly with nukes, but nothing could have scrambled that fast. Then he thought maybe it was some kind of earth-to-air missile Sitwell and Coulson had been hiding, since it was coming straight towards them --

He dodged aside as the hammer, gleaming and soaring through the air, zoomed past. As he turned he saw Sam duck out of the way, just in time for Thor to raise his hand. At the edge of his vision, the Destroyer turned.

"Nomad, you aren't gonna believe what just happened," Clint said.

"It's okay, Hawkeye, I've still got eyes on the hammer," Steve said, dumbfounded. Thor was standing, rising off the ground in a hurricane of clear air, clothes shifting and transforming as the hammer dragged him upward.

"Guess it was his after all," Bucky said.


When Loki froze Heimdall, it took him by surprise, and it froze his gaze in place -- but there was nothing that could restrain his Sight, at least nothing that could do so for long.

Pinned in place by the ice, raging against it to no effect, he watched as Loki unleashed the Destroyer on Midgard, and then on the Prince; of course, he saw the Midgardians standing with his people, saw them take cover as Thor regained Mjolnir and handily defeated the Destroyer, but until he saw them at the Bifrost gate on Midgard and heard Thor roaring for his help, he took little note of them.

Loki had let the Jotuns into Asgard by then, but only two of them were guarding Heimdall. Thor's bellowing woke the last ounce of strength he needed -- Thor who he had held on his lap as a child, Thor who he had helped raise to manhood as much as anyone had, and more when Odin slept. The boy needed him, and his realm needed him too.

But when he broke free and opened the gate and brought Thor and Sif and the Warriors Three home, he brought three extra warriors as well.

"What are they doing here?" he demanded weakly, even as he collapsed into Volstagg's grip.

"The littlest one insisted," Thor said. "The others would not let him come alone. What has Loki done to you, Heimdall?"

"He's brought Jotuns," Heimdall managed, taking the measure of the Midgardians as he tried to stand. "Laufey goes to your father's chamber -- "

"Take him to the healing room," Thor said. As the Warriors fussed around him, dragging him towards shelter, Heimdall heard him say, "Buck the One Armed and Falcon the Winged, you should remain to guard the gate. Littlest Warrior, will you come to help me?"

"My name is Steve," the little one replied, and Heimdall smiled as he passed out. Thor always did have excellent taste in friends.


"I am in need of someone more clever than strong and more stubborn than clever," Thor said, after what had to be the wildest ride of Steve's life -- when Steve had agreed to go with him, Thor had simply grabbed him and hauled him along as they flew over dark, stormy waters into the biggest castle he'd ever seen. He was still reeling as Thor led him towards a huge pair of carved doors.

"How can I help?" Steve asked, running to keep up.

"Leave the Jotuns to me. Distract my brother, if you can."


"Large, blue, very cold," Thor said, and Steve didn't have time to do more than repeat blue? before Thor threw the door open.

There was no battle raging on the other side, though, and no blue people either, except for a body in the corner that burst into a shower of sparks even as they watched. The blast that destroyed it came from a tall, thin man with a gold scepter in one hand and a ridiculous helmet on his head. By the time they were inside the room, he was comforting an older woman, assuring her someone -- Steve guessed the Jotuns -- would pay.

"Loki," Thor said.

"Thor," the woman said, running to him.

"You," Loki said, looking at Steve. He turned to Thor. "You brought a Midgardian to Asgard? What, as a pet?"

"Why don't you tell her what you've done, Loki?" Thor said, releasing the woman, descending into the room. "Tell her how you sent the Destroyer to kill me, Loki -- to kill my friends, to kill Midgardian innocents? Try your lies now."

"It's awfully good to see you again, brother," Loki said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to destroy Jotunheim."

He fired again with the scepter in his hand, faster than vision, faster than thought. Thor went flying through the wall, and when the dust cleared, Loki was gone too. Steve ran to the hole Thor had left in the wall and looked out, down across a glittering city, towards the gate they'd come from.

"Is he okay?" he asked the woman.

"Thor? He's certainly seen worse. You had best hope he is," the woman said. "The palace guard could never pace Loki at his quickest. Thor is our best hope, now."

"I got two guys at the gate," Steve said, turning back to her. He tapped his comm, not really hoping it would work. "Hey Buck, Falcon?"

"We're here," Sam said. The reception actually sounded clearer, here, which made no sense -- there couldn't be any satellite reception this far out.

"There's a guy in green with a big ugly helmet headed your way, name of Loki. He's gonna start some trouble," Steve said. He looked to the woman.

"They must defend the world tree," she said. Steve blinked at her. "Don't let him get Heimdall's sword. A universe is at stake."

"Our universe?" Steve asked.

"Does that matter?" she said.

"Point. Falcon, Buck, your primary objective is to defend the sword," Steve said. "Secondary objective is to prevent him from entering the gate room."

"I've got the sword," Sam said. "I'm hitting sky."

"These people can fly, probably," Steve told him. "Don't get cocky, Falcon. Buck, you keep Loki out of the gate room as long as you can, get me?"

"He a hitter?" Bucky asked.


"You send me the nicest presents," Bucky replied.

"If you ever wanted to be a hero, Buck, now's the time," Steve said, throat thick.

"Don't worry, kid. See you in this realm or the next," Bucky said. "I've got eyes on big green. Hey Falcon, look after Nomad for me."

"Don't you fuckin' make last requests, you asshole," Sam replied, but there was no reply from the comm. Steve turned to the woman again.

"How fast can I get there?" he asked, pointing at the gate.

"You're a Midgardian. You can't hope to defeat him," she said.

"Ma'am, I don't care if I'm a capuchin monkey. I got friends at that gate, and owe that man a beating. Tell me how I can get there."

"Well," she said. "Can you ride a horse?"


Bucky had spent a considerable amount of time in combat, and he'd trained as a sniper before he'd lost the arm. He still, in his heart, felt a considerable amount of rage about that; not so much the loss itself as the way the army thought you couldn't shoot a gun without two good arms. There were a lot of things you couldn't do with only one arm, sniper-wise, but pulling a trigger only took a finger.

And he hated to admit it, but he loved a job well done. He hadn't enjoyed soldiering, exactly, but he'd been good at it. He'd found it satisfying. Now, as he crouched in the doorway of the gate room and set his rifle across his thigh to aim it, his heart lifted and his blood sang.

He could see the man Steve had identified, heading towards him at a full gallop on a pretty sizeable horse. It was a shame to put a creature like that down, so he aimed his first shot at Loki's head.

The bullet pinged off his helmet. He didn't even slow down.

"I am gettin' fucking sick of these bulletproof jerks," he muttered to himself. He'd reloaded before being shot into space, so he had ten rounds in the Dragunov; nine, now.

He aimed for soft tissue next, but the motion of the horse made things difficult; he aimed for the horse, but the bullets didn't seem to find their mark their, either. He was fairly sure he'd hit Loki at least once, but when Loki dismounted ten feet from his position and began calmly walking forward, he wasn't bleeding. Bucky fired the last three rounds straight into his chest, saw two bounce off and one -- one was just waved off, like magic --

"I am sick to death of Midgardians," Loki snarled, and Bucky ducked just in time to avoid a bolt of fire from the staff he carried. He came up well inside Loki's swing radius and brought the butt of his rifle into the man's stomach; he doubled over and huffed, but then grabbed the rifle with snakelike speed and twisted, snapping it in half. Bucky tried to pull the barrel away and stab it up, into his chest, but a hand caught his wrist and held it there with tendon-crushing strength.

"You would give your life to stop something you don't comprehend," Loki said, eyes flaring green as Bucky struggled not to cry out. "Why?"

"Got my orders," Bucky replied, bringing his knee up, trying for a groin hit. Loki blocked it calmly with his other hand.

"Ah, are you the faithful sidekick?" Loki asked, grinning ferally into his face. "The little one's lapdog? I know a thing or two about being the second son, myself."

"You don't know bullshit," Bucky replied, twisting, and to his shock -- and Loki's evident surprise -- threw the man over his shoulder, straight into the wall.

On the one hand, Loki was definitely now in the gatehouse; on the other, Bucky hadn't thought he could do that.


"A lucky shot. I'll give you that one," Loki said, rising. "Now, tell me where the sword is and I might let you live. Wasn't there a boy with wings around here somewhere -- ah," he said, as Bucky moved to block the exit. "I can shoot him out of the sky as easily as I can shoot you where you stand. Better at least one of you survive, eh?"

Bucky snarled. Loki smiled, waved a hand --

And the ceiling of the gate room retracted.


"Sam, watch out!" Bucky yelled, as Loki raised his staff. Sam dodged the first and second shots, spiralling through the air, but the third clipped his wing and he started to fall. The sword fell too, and Bucky lunged for the edge of the platform, catching Sam's wing as he half-fell, half-glided past. He groaned and rolled, throwing every ounce of leverage he had against the weight, and then jerked back onto the floor as Sam got a grip on the ledge and pulled himself up.

"Loki, don't do it," someone said, and Bucky pulled Sam into the huddle of his body, rolling them both. Steve was standing between Loki and the gate's central pillar, fists balled.

Loki swung the sword around, casually. "Has he even told you what I'm doing?" he asked.

"You did," Steve said. "You said you were going to destroy Jotunheim."

"Do you know what that is?"

"I can guess," Steve said. "It's genocide, Loki, and I won't stand for it."

"Why do you care? It's no business of Midgard's."

"You brought it to my house, you made it my business. And I won't condone the death of an entire race, I don't care who they are."

"This fight is older and more brutal than your mind can conceive of."

Bucky saw Steve grin. "Yeah, but I notice you ain't took a swing at me yet."

"Hardly seems worth my time."

"I don't think you want to hurt me. I don't think you want to destroy wherever it is. I think you just want some attention," Steve said. He flexed his hands. "You want a spanking, Loki? I'm happy to oblige."

Sam was slowly unstrapping himself from the rig, and now Bucky helped him lift it silently aside. Sam pointed to Bucky, then himself, then Loki, and pointed at the ground. You hit him high, I hit him low.

Bucky nodded, getting his feet under him. Steve, if he saw them, paid no mind.

"I know what it's like to be overlooked," Steve said, and all of them saw Loki stiffen. "I know what it's like to be underestimated, but you can't really think this is the way to go about changing that."

"You know nothing of my life."

"No, but I've met Thor, so I can make a picture," Steve said. Loki actually chuckled. Sam crouched and held up a hand for Bucky to wait. "Come on, Loki. This isn't the way you want to go out, murdering a guy half your size and destroying a whole universe."

"Who said anything about going out?"

"You really have the stones to kill your brother and your mom and dad for a crown nobody's gonna let you keep?" Steve asked. "That's your endgame, right? Rule? You think anyone else is going to see what you're worth if you murder the only people who see it now? Come on. You put the sword down now, you know he'll forgive you."

"He has no reason to," Loki said, uncertain now.

"You're his brother. He's got every reason to."

"I've come too far -- "

"Towards what? I thought you were a smart guy, here. You've gone the wrong direction. You keep going that way, you know it won't work. You start back now, you've got a climb ahead of you, but at least you won't be there alone."

The sword lowered. Loki bowed his head.

Steve's eyes flickered to Sam, and Sam closed his hand; Bucky leapt with a roar, going for the throat, and Sam went for his legs. All three of them went down in a heap, Loki stiff and struggling in surprise; Bucky ended up on his back, arm around Loki's neck from behind and knees clinging to his ribcage, with Sam on top of Loki's legs, holding onto his thighs for dear life. Steve was sitting on his chest, the sword in his hands now, blade just above Bucky's arm, pressed against Loki's throat.

"You're under arrest for assault, vandalism, trespass, attempted murder, unlawful use of a weapon of mass destruction, resisting arrest, and threatening an agent of the federal government," Steve said, and Bucky heard himself crack up laughing. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say -- "


That voice was familiar too, as Thor, in full regalia with hammer in hand, charged into the gate room. He stopped, skidding on the polished floor in surprise, when he took in the scene. Loki turned his head; Steve didn't.

"Oh," Thor said.

"Apparently I am under arrest," Loki replied. "The one-armed man is a maniac, brother."

"Yes, so I understand," Thor said. He came forward and set the hammer lightly on Loki's chest; Bucky squirmed backwards as Steve climbed off, letting Sam help him to his feet. Loki lay there, pinned.

"This was unexpected," Thor said.

"Indeed," Loki replied.

"Midgardians defeated you?"

"Well, this one has a silver tongue," Loki said, pointing at Steve. Bucky let out a highly inappropriate snort, then clapped his hand to his mouth when Steve glared at him.


Half an hour found them in front of a gigantic man with an eyepatch, who was sitting on a throne as if it were the only thing holding him up. Bucky had a really killer black eye, and Sam was dragging his burnt-out flight rig along, strap hanging over his uninjured shoulder -- the other was already swelling.

Steve had a split lip and was covered in cuts from the earlier explosions, and it took him until that moment to realize he'd never let go of the giant sword he'd wrestled out of Loki's grasp. Someone should probably come get that from him, he thought, but nobody seemed to want to try.

Loki had been put in chains and led out of the throne room. Thor was standing behind them. Occasionally Steve thought he could hear the hammer humming in Thor's grasp.

"So you are the band of warriors who defended the Bifrost gate," the man on the throne said. "I am Odin the Allfather, the all-seeing, the son of Bor. Loki is -- I suspect both of us regret this, at the moment -- my son. As is Thor, whom I understand you met in exile on Midgard."

Sam and Bucky both looked to Steve.

"Uh," Steve said, and then recovered. "Steve Rogers, sir. Agent Steve Rogers of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division of the United States. My call sign is Nomad. This is Sam Wilson, the Falcon, and James Barnes. We call him Bucky."

Odin seemed unimpressed.

"I think this is yours?" Steve added, holding up the sword, blade down. Nobody came forward to take it, so he set it carefully on the step below the throne.

"They breed men of valor on Midgard," Odin said finally. "One of many reasons I felt my son might learn something there. I see that lesson has been...absorbed."

"Yes, Father," Thor murmured.

"Bucky, the one-armed, step forward," Odin said. Sam caught Bucky's arm, briefly, and gave him a warning look before letting him go. "You stood alone against a trained warrior of Asgard."

"Yeah, he broke my rifle," Bucky said, chin lifted proudly.

"You will be repaid for your loss." Odin said. "Falcon, thief of swords."

Sam stepped up next to Bucky. Steve saw Bucky's hand find his and grip it tight.

"He broke your wings, also, I see," Odin said.

"I can fix 'em," Sam replied.

"No need. This, too, is my amends to make." Odin said. He gestured, a wave of one hand, and two extremely small men even by Steve's standards came forward, hustling Bucky and Sam towards an exit.

"Hey, wait -- " Steve started forward, but Thor stopped him. "Where are you taking them?"

"Don't worry, they won't be harmed," Thor said.

"Bucky!" Steve yelled.

"It's okay, Steve, I got this!" Bucky called, still being prodded out. "Stay there, do diplomacy!"

"I will vouch for his safety," Thor said.

"Yeah, 'cause you're so trustworthy lately," Steve retorted.

"Diplomacy!" Sam echoed back to him, and Steve grunted and stopped trying to walk through Thor, which was never going to happen anyway.

"Steve Rogers, the Nomad," Odin said. "A silver tongue and a head as hard as my son's, I see. You have the gratitude of Asgard for your services."

"It's literally my job," Steve said. "I mean, maybe not..." he gestured around him. "This isn't a normal day for me. But the defending part, it's pretty much what I do."

"What does one offer such a warrior?" Odin asked. Steve couldn't tell if he was being mocked; he thought not, but it was difficult to know.

This was the king of an alien realm, one of unimaginable power and technological wonder. Steve's very first thought was of what Tony would want from a place like this, what he could do with even a scrap of its technology. His second, more guilty thought, was that he should strike some kind of trade agreement, try to open a dialogue between America and Asgard.

Then he thought of Senator Stern, and of what the Destroyer and the hammer had done.

"You don't belong on -- Midgard," he said, stumbling over the unfamiliar word. "Your technology, the strength of your people -- it doesn't belong there. We aren't ready for it."

"This, I knew," Odin said. "It is not our intention to invade your home."

"Good. Keep it that way," Steve said.

"Hardly a gift," Odin drawled. "And we will guarantee your safe passage home. So what can the king of Asgard present as his thanks?"

Steve chewed his lip, considering. He almost asked if Odin could owe him one, but he suspected that wouldn't go over well. He thought longingly of home, of getting to leave New Mexico and find Tony and curl up with him, tell him all about this adventure.

This was why Tony moaned whenever a gift-giving holiday came up. Steve knew he was hard to shop for.

"I'd like to see Loki," he said finally. There was a murmur throughout the room.

"Why?" Odin asked.

"Well, I gave him the beating I owed him, and I think maybe he learned his lesson," Steve said. "I wouldn't mind making sure he knows where he and I stand."

Odin studied him, then nodded. "Take him to the prisoner. To his friends, after. Bring food. When you are ready, tell the guards; they will ensure you are sent home."

Steve gave him a nod. "Pleasure to meet you, sir."

"Not our last meeting, I suspect," Odin replied, as Steve was escorted out of the throne room.

They took him to a lower level of the palace, all dark stone and dimly-lit passages, but the cells themselves seemed nice; white, brightly lit, and in Loki's case, well-furnished. They brought him a chair, and he sat in front of Loki on the other side of a sparking pink force-field. Loki was quiet, head in his hands.

"I have a boyfriend on Earth," Steve said. Loki didn't look up. "He's a real science whiz. He'd bite through his tongue to get five minutes down here, and it isn't even that impressive, compared to the rest."

"This is a very odd method of mockery," Loki replied.

"I'm not here to mock you," Steve said gently. "I mean, you're not even wearing the ugly helmet anymore."

It didn't get the laugh he'd hoped for. Maybe Loki was sensitive about the helmet.

"I meant what I said in the gate room," he continued. "I know you probably think I was just distracting you, and it's not like I'm not good at that. But I meant it, about knowing how you feel. It's the worst feeling in the world, being...overlooked. Ignored. I was lucky I had Buck, growing up. Always had someone to see me for who I was. Guess Thor didn't always do that for you."

Loki didn't answer.

"Look, I saw you kill guy. But I guess he was trying to kill your dad, so I get it. Other than that, and a whole lot of property damage, I haven't seen you do anything you can't come back from," Steve said. "Thor sees good in you. He was sorry for what he'd done to make you so angry with him. And I think your dad -- well, he's only got the one eye, so maybe he doesn't look as hard as he oughta -- "

That did get a laugh, albeit a bitter one; Loki lifted his head, a brittle smile on his lips.

"But he raised you, and you don't spend a person's whole life looking out for them without knowing what they could be. Not your fault he's a little scared of it." Steve shrugged. "The vandalism and the Destroying and stuff, that's your fault, and you should take your punishment for it. World's not out to get you specifically any more than it's out to get me. But I'm glad you put the sword down. And I hope you can learn what I did, about not getting underestimated."

"And what would that be?" Loki asked.

"There's two ways to make sure you get seen -- be so bad they can't stop you, or so good they can't ignore you," Steve said.

"Is that what you are, Steve Rogers?" Loki asked. "So good they can't ignore you?"

"Working on it. Maybe I'm just so stubborn they can't keep me down. Not sure yet."

"And that's fun for you, is it?"

"Well, beating you wasn't the worst time I've had," Steve said, grinning as he stood. "Be good, Loki. Wicked doesn't suit you as well as you think. Look me up if you're on Midgard again. I could probably get you a job. Or at least get the outstanding warrants waived."

"I'll take that under advisement," Loki said. "You're dismissed."

"Yeah, you'd love to believe that," Steve said. "Seeya round."

The guards met him at the end of the corridor and led him back up, out at ground level in a small courtyard. It made him deeply uncomfortable not to know his exit routes, not to know where Bucky and Sam were, not to know when they'd be sent home. He wondered if time moved the same here as it did on Earth, and how long exactly they'd been gone. Not more than an hour, at least not yet, but --

Across the courtyard was a huge room with a vaulted ceiling, and Steve knew immediately what it was. A workshop was a workshop, regardless of universe or civilization. There were bits and pieces strewn everywhere, strange machines, and long, broad workbenches. Sam was sitting at one, watching someone repair his rig. Bucky was on a stool next to Sam, slumped over, head on Sam's shoulder, asleep.

Steve stifled the little pang of jealousy over that. It wasn't that he wanted Bucky, and Sam shared more of him than Steve had any right to ask, anyway. It was just that Bucky used to sleep on his shoulder that way, back when they were kids.

Then Sam looked up and beamed a greeting at him and the shard of jealousy melted away. Steve caught the stool he kicked out and hoisted himself up onto it, leaning against Sam's other shoulder.

"How'd your visit with little brother go?" Sam asked.

"Better than I thought it would. Maybe a little cathartic. How's it been here?"

"Oh, cool," Sam told him. "Everyone calls me Falcon Sword-Thief. You ever play D&D as a kid? Because man, if I'd thought of the name Falcon Sword-Thief when I was thirteen..."

Steve grinned. "You're such a geek, Sam."

"Takes one to know one, Nomad."

"Falcon Sword-Thief," the man working on the rig said, and Sam turned his attention back across the table. "May I make one or two small adjustments to this mechanism? It will lighten the pack considerably, and require less fuel."

"Ah, sure, thanks," Sam said.

"And your beloved's gift is nearly complete."

"My what now?" Sam asked.

"The gift for Bucky, the one-armed, Soldier against the Winter," the man said, as if it should be obvious. "He who stood against Loki. It's a very fine gift; an antique. We had to adjust it a little for such a slight frame, that's all."

"What exactly is the gift for Bucky, the one-armed, the Winter Soldier or whatever?" Sam asked.

The man turned and whistled sharply at a companion, working on something at the far end of the long hall. Bucky jerked awake at the noise, shaking his hair out of his eyes.

"Hey, Steve's here," he said to Sam.

"You're a swift one," Sam told him. Bucky sat up, stretching and yawning.

"I want a hot bath and a hot meal and a one-way ticket home," he said. "Gettin' my ass kicked by a mythological god really blows, guys."

"A hot meal we can provide," the man across from them said. "But first, you should be fitted."

His companion tossed her braided hair over her shoulder as she picked something up -- it was bundled in a soft, thin cloth, and when she set it down in front of them it clanked slightly. Bucky eyed it, then eyed her, and Steve saw him turn on his most charming smile. Sam rolled his eyes.

"This was first made for Tyr, when he sacrificed his own to Fenrir," she said, unfolding the cloth. "He has since had another, but this is fine workmanship, commissioned by Odin himself."

The last of the fabric fell away, and Steve sucked in a breath. Lying on the cloth was an arm made of interlocking plates of polished metal, molded into thick sinews of muscle. Bucky's eyes went wide.

"We had to turn it round -- it was meant for a right arm," she said. "May I fit you, Bucky, One-Armed, Winter Soldier?"

Bucky blinked at it, then at her, then back at the arm. Sam rested a hand on the back of his neck.

"Deep breaths," Sam murmured.

"I'm not having a panic attack," Bucky retorted.

"You look like you're having an erection," Steve said, and Bucky laughed, a sharp bark of noise.

"Man, I didn't even know you could say that word out loud," Sam said, turning to him.

"Yeah, well, Buck always brings out the best in me," Steve said.

Bucky grasped the hem of his shirt and pulled it up over his shoulders and off. The round ball of his shoulder shifted, muscles clenching, the faint raised scars standing out white against his skin. The woman smiled and lifted the arm, smoothing her palm through the indentation at the shoulder of it, then holding it up to his shoulder. She pressed it against the flesh.

"There may be some pain," she warned, and Bucky clenched Sam's hand tightly. She pressed a small panel at the top of the arm, and silver tendrils shot out across Bucky's shoulder.

The scream was a rising thing, suppressed and then held behind his teeth and finally bellowed out loud; Steve knocked his stool over, getting off it, and would have jumped the woman hurting Bucky if the man who'd been working on Sam's rig hadn't grabbed him around the waist. It was probably good he did; a second later it was all over and Bucky was leaning against the table, panting harshly --

Gripping the edge of the table with a new, shining, silver left hand.

"Whoa," Sam said.

Bucky leaned back, getting control of his breathing, and held the hand up in front of him, turning it around. He touched the back of his other hand, traced Sam's fingers twined in his.

"It feels," he said. "I can feel -- it's like wearing a glove but -- I can feel your skin," he said, looking up at Sam. "Is it -- is that too cold?"

Sam grinned. "No, Buck. It's fine."

"Hey Stevie, c'mere," Bucky said, and Steve hoped that Bucky was going to hug him, a two-armed hug, so he came forward totally unsuspecting and yelped in outrage when Bucky caught him around the neck with his right arm and gave him a solid noogie across his head with his left hand.

"That's for gettin' us hauled halfway across the universe," Bucky said, letting go of him when Steve pushed at his chest. "Hey, gimme five -- too slow!" he added, jerking his hand away.

"You are such a child," Steve told him. "You're embarrassing Earthlings everywhere in front of really important magic aliens."

"Hey, but, you're not gonna graft those wings to my body, are you?" Sam asked, turning to the man who'd been working on his wings. "Because I'd like to request us not doing that, if that's okay..."


Phil Coulson returned to Puente Antiguo to find Sitwell, harassed, guarding an empty courtyard where a hammer used to be, the town in ruins, a refugee camp growing up around Jane Foster's lab, and his field commander plus two consulting contractors missing.

He ran his hand over his face and asked, "Where's Clint?"

"At the secondary site, supervising the installation of security measures there," Sitwell answered.

"Which would be why half our fencing is gone?"

"We didn't bring a lot of spare fencing," Sitwell agreed.

"Okay. Are you good here? You're good here," Coulson said, and went back to his car. "Send the secondary site location to my GPS, I'll sort it out."

Clint was at the secondary site, and in a sense he was supervising. Coulson was sure that he knew everything that was going on around him, but he wasn't giving orders or even watching very closely. He was sitting on the roof of a pickup truck, legs crossed, bow across his lap, regarding a large circle etched into the sand as if at any moment it might come to life. He had the rare-blinking, intent stare he often got when he was on a long-term surveillance assignment, or when he was waiting for the go-sign to shoot a target.

"How long have they been gone?" Coulson asked, leaning against the driver's-side door.

"About three hours," Clint said. "There was a storm when they went up. Lasted another twenty minutes or so, then cleared."

"Nothing since?"

"Just us," Clint said with a shrug.

"You all right?"

"Nomad goes off-radio all the time," Clint said. "I don't start worrying until eight to twelve hours in."

"Is that what he is," Coulson said. "Off-radio?"

"Among other things. Anyway, he's got Bucky and Falcon with him. Bucky'll stop him doing anything too stupid and Falcon will stop them both when Nomad talks Bucky into doing something stupid."

"My elite squad of agents," Coulson sighed.

"How long before we let Stark know his boyfriend's missing?"

"We don't."

Clint didn't turn to look at him, but Coulson felt some of his attention shift. "Oh?"

"Stark's in a fragile place right now. Natasha's there, she'll keep him in line, but as long as we can, we keep this from him." Coulson crossed his arms. "Out of curiosity..."


"Sitwell says when the big rainbow space ray came down and took everyone, Thor was yelling for someone's help," Coulson said.

"I did indeed try yelling at the empty sky for them to come back," Clint replied, before he could ask. "No response. You wanna try?"

Coulson looked contemplatively at the circle. It took him a while to decide, but then he raised his face to the evening sky and yelled, "HEY! TWO MORE HOURS AND YOU'RE AWOL, NOMAD. DERELICTION OF DUTY IS A TERMINABLE OFFENSE!"

A few of the agents nearby laughed; even Clint snorted. Coulson was about to return to his car, so that he could radio back to Sitwell and ask about some sensors for the secondary site, when there was a crack of thunder. Rain began to fall.

Clint looked up, mouth falling open. A spiral cloud began to circle their location.

"If I ever doubt you again, sir, remind me of this," he said, as an aperture opened in the middle of the cloud. There was a burst of light and a blast of hot, wet air, and when the dust cleared, two men were standing in the center of the circle.

He picked out Wilson first, carrying his rig on his back, wearing a bright red brocade coat that fell to his knees. The second man he registered as Barnes almost immediately, but he had to squint to be sure. The man didn't have the slightly tilted shoulders Bucky Barnes usually had, the hunch around his left side -- the man had an arm where an empty space used to be.

He kept wisely silent as they stepped out of the ring, waiting for them to come to him.

"Falcon, Bucky," he said, keeping his voice steady. "You leave Nomad in Never-Never Land?"

"He's alive, he's fine," Wilson said, and Coulson relaxed a fraction. "He uh. He had somewhere else to be."

"Where else, exactly?" Coulson asked. He took in the glint of metal under the black coat Barnes was wearing. "Nice...arm."

"Gift from the gods," Barnes said, with a sardonic grin. "Our travel agent said Steve had to get to New York. Something about people keeping secrets from him."

His arm shot out, faster than reaction, faster than thought, and Coulson found himself jerked gently forward, a steel hand twisted in the front of his shirt.

"You know anything about this, Coulson?" Barnes asked. Wilson put a hand on his shoulder.

"Buck," he said quietly.

"Yeah, I'll let him go in a second," Barnes said. "You know anything about lying to Steve about Tony Stark?"

"Yes," Coulson said, keeping his voice even. "You should ask Stark about lying to Steve about Tony Stark."

The grip relaxed, and then the steel fingers smoothed down his shirt gently.

"Don't think he's not next on my list," Barnes said. "In your expert opinion, Agent Coulson, sir, you think Stark and Steve need us in New York?"

"No," Coulson said. "And if you think you're getting away without a debrief on that arm, you're mistaken."

Bucky stared at him, hard, and then grinned. "You got more balls than I pegged you for, Coulson. I see now why Steve likes you. Well, liked you," he added, and Coulson sighed as his wayward agents began to load up for the trip back to base.


When Sam and Bucky were gone, back to New Mexico to report in, Steve stepped up to the gate room platform, awaiting his turn. Enough had happened in the last few hours that he didn't care if his duty was in New Mexico; he hadn't even bothered arguing the point with Heimdall, or appealing to Thor to force Heimdall to send him back with the others. If the transdimensional aliens had other plans for him, well, clearly they knew something he didn't. And it wasn't like there was a hammer or a Destroyer or a couple of aliens running around Midgard at this point, anyway.

Also Thor had given him a really nice blue coat. It was long and fitted and very warm, so Steve was inclined to be lenient in his assessment of Thor's personality.

"So, New York," he said to Heimdall, who loomed up before him. "Is it Tony?"

Heimdall regarded him with eerie, beautiful gold eyes.

"In a sense," he said. "You'll understand what needs to be done when you arrive."

"So what're we waiting for?" Steve asked.

"The right psychological moment. It is soon to come. In the meantime, I would have a few words with you."

"Oh?" Steve asked.

"I see everything in all the realms," Heimdall told him. "It's a certain gift. Not unlike the way your archer sees -- from a distance. Ordinarily, I am duty-bound not to...meddle, if you like. Not to reveal what I have seen."

"Like confidentiality."

"Yes, you could say," Heimdall said. He sounded amused. "But I would tell you this, littlest warrior."

"Oh my God, seriously -- "

"Remember, when you are offered power -- and you will be offered power, very potent, very dangerous power -- that you have never needed more than what you could find inside yourself," Heimdall said. "Accept it or don't, but do not let the offer fool you."

"Thank you," Steve said. "I'll bear that in mind."

"I hope you will. Now. To the gate..."


"Ladies and gentlemen," Justin Hammer said from his platform stage at the Stark Expo, and Pepper was already internally rolling her eyes, wishing she didn't have to sit still and well-behaved as the newly-minted CEO of Stark Industries should. "For far too long, this country has had to place its brave men and women in harm's way. But then the Iron Man arrived, and we thought the days of losing lives were behind us."

"Windbag," she heard Natasha mutter.

"Sadly that technology was kept out of reach. That's not fair, that's not right, and it's just too bad."

"Oh, lord," Pepper managed, without moving her lips too much. Natasha elbowed her gently in the side. At least, if she had to sit through this, she had Natasha with her.

She had a terrible premonition that when she did her obligatory five minute backstage post-show congratulation session with Hammer later, he was going to make a pass at her. Having Natasha there to witness it might actually make the indignity worth it.

"Ladies and gentlemen, today I present to you the new face of the United States military," Hammer said, as the Army's theme song began to play. It was a shame, Pepper thought, that a man so attracted to pageantry was so very, very terrible at it. Tony would have made this presentation so much sexier and more interesting. It was, cheap and cheesy, playing the theme songs for the various branches of the military as drones that didn't look like they could do much more than salute rose out of the stage pits.

"But as revolutionary as this technology is, there will always be a need for man to be present in the theater of war," Hammer continued, as the music died away, and Pepper began to feel the hairs on the back of her neck rise in alarm.

"He didn't," Natasha whispered.

"Today I am proud to present to you the very first prototype in the Variable Threat Response Battle Suit," Hammer said, "and its pilot, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes."

Pepper couldn't help herself. "What?" she demanded.

Even before the suit was visible, though, the air had begun to crackle with energy, oddly thick and pressurized even in the air-conditioned arena. Natasha could feel it too; she was halfway out of her seat, looking around, worried.

"For America and its allies, Hammer Industries is reporting for -- " Hammer began, but he was drowned out by a roar of wind and a blast of warm, moist air. A column of light descended from the ceiling of the arena with such speed that it slammed into the stage right behind Hammer, knocking him sideways, and obliterated any view anyone might have had of Rhodey in what was surely a stolen Iron Man suit.

People screamed, but mostly in excitement; clearly they thought this was part of the show.

When the light faded, there was a steaming circle of scorched metal in the middle of the stage, and standing in the middle of the circle was Steve Rogers.

He looked as surprised as anyone.

"Steve?" Rhodey asked, voice tinny through the suit's speakers. Steve whirled. Pepper couldn't hear if he said anything, though, because the crowd was going bananas -- Steve Rogers, the viral hero of the Senate hearings, the tiny, beautiful, vicious-minded boyfriend of Tony Stark, was up on stage with Justin Hammer after having vanished for nearly two weeks, and nobody knew why.

"This is really bad," Natasha said over the roar of the crowd. "He's supposed to be in New Mexico."

Then, through the giant hole in the roof that the column of light had just made, Iron Man descended like all of Pepper's PR nightmares at once.

And then the shooting started.


Steve and Natasha, when they were little cocky baby agents together -- Steve admittedly even less experienced than Natasha, but much cockier -- used to make bets before going into a fight. Bet you I can take out more guys than you. Bet you my guys will be bigger than your guys. Bet I can use less ammo than you use. It was all in fun, but it was reassuring, too; it implied they were both going to get out of it alive and well enough to collect on the bet.

Rhodey was under Vanko's control, and so Tony and Rhodey were playing cat-and-mouse over the Stark Expo and the areas surrounding it. Steve was freaked out about that and exhausted from interdimensional space travel ("You get all the fun jobs." "Natasha, I will trade you any day.") but they had a job to do. They had to get to the Hammer facility nearby and shut down Vanko, while Pepper dealt with Hammer onsite.

Steve didn't have much in the way of a uniform or weapons -- his sidearms were tapped out -- but Natasha usually had enough for both of them, and she'd provided him with a couple of billy clubs, a spare knife or three, and an ammo clip. The coat Thor had given him wasn't bulletproof, but it was thick and he figured it'd really confuse anyone who didn't see him coming.

And as they'd mounted the steps to the facility, Natasha had said, "Bet I can take down two guys with one garotte, and I take out more guys than you."

Steve smiled, ramping himself up for the fight. "You're on. And I bet I still have all my knives at the end of it."

"They're my knives, so you'd better," she'd said, and Steve felt it was to his credit that by the time they reached the control room, he did in fact have all of his (her) knives still in his possession, though admittedly not as clean as they'd been going in.

Steve cleared the room while Natasha went straight for the bank of computers in one corner. It was obvious fairly quickly that Vanko was already gone, which couldn't mean anything good.

"He's not here," he announced, as she worked the keyboard with almost manic speed. "What're you doing?"

"He had control of Rhodey's suit from here," she said, as a pair of video windows appeared on one screen -- Tony's face on one, Rhodey's on another. After a second a third video appeared -- Pepper, at the Expo backstage.

"Hey, Floof, you still haven't told me how you got here," Tony said, something deeply unnerving in his voice. He had his lying for your own good expression on.

"It's an unbearably long story," Steve said. "What's going on, Tony?"

"Rhodey, I'm cracking your suit now," Natasha said. "Hang in there."

"Not much else I can do," Rhodey replied. "Work fast, please."

"Well, Ivan Vanko keeps trying to jump me and Justin Hammer's a giant flaming dick," Tony said. Rhodey's screen shorted out for a second, then flashed green.

"Reboot complete," Natasha said, as relief washed over Rhodey's face. "Got your best friend back, Stark."

"You're beautiful and I owe you one," Rhodey said.

"Thank you, Agent Romanoff," Tony added.

"Nicely done with the new chest piece, too," she continued. "Vitals look promising."

"Yes, for the moment, I'm not dying," Tony said, and then seemed to realize he'd made a mistake.

"Dying?" Pepper and Steve chorused in unison.

"Shit -- "

"What do you mean, you're not dying?" Pepper yelled. "Did you just say you're dying?"

"No, no, I'm not dying," Tony replied. He looked frantic. "Can you see me right now, Steve?"

"Yes, Tony," Steve said, crossing his arms. "I can hear you, too. When were you dying, exactly?"

"Look, the point is, I'm not anymore -- "

"Tony -- "

"I was gonna tell you, I was gonna make you an omelette -- "

"Do not eat his traitorous omelettes!" Pepper said. Steve heard Natasha fighting a laugh.

"Did you know he was dying?" he asked her, and the amusement dropped sharply off her face.

"Stark, you have incoming," she said, busying herself at the keyboard again.

"I promise I will make this up to you later," Tony said, "when I am not fending of a Hammeroid attack."

"He went there," Steve heard Rhodey say. "Jesus, you went there, what is wrong with you?"

"NOTHING IS WRONG WITH ME," Tony announced. "Steve, don't go home until I've had a chance to clean up."

"What could you possibly -- " Steve rubbed his forehead. "Fine, this is a fight for later. What can we do for you from here, Tony?"

"Keep trying to crack into the code, stop these things from trying to kill me, that'd be helpful, thank you," Tony said, and abruptly cut the video feed.

"You and I are gonna discuss this later in a way you won't enjoy," Steve told Natasha.

"I had it under control," she said.

"I don't care if you had him hypnotized to do your bidding -- " Steve began, and then stopped himself. "Later. You have work to do. I'm going to find some internet and find out what the hell's been going on while I've been sequestered in New Mexico."


When the battle was over -- when Stark Expo was pretty thoroughly blown up, but Ivan Vanko was defeated -- Steve went up to the roof of the Hammer facility and waited. It didn't take long for two bright spots of gold to appear in the sky.

Rhodey, in his impressively tricked-out silver armor, descended to the parking lot, where Natasha was dealing with police who'd shown up to answer an intruder alert and instead found a government agency involved. Tony did his usual dramatic three-point landing in front of Steve. He didn't have a helmet on.

"Okay, before you say anything," Tony said, "I had big plans to tell you, I swear, I was going to talk this all out with you -- "

"Hey Steve," Steve said. "Am I in your will? Should I put you in mine? You want my Ferrari?"

"Okay, I deserve that -- "

"How about the Demuth, you want that?" Steve continued.

"Look, being fair, we were both stressed out -- "

"Yeah, you know why I was stressed?" Steve asked. "Because my boyfriend was sick, and I was worried about him, and I explicitly told him if he was feeling worse he should tell me so I could come home to be with him -- "

"Look, I've had a long day and I'm sure you've -- "

"You've had a long day?" Steve yelled. "I was literally in another dimension this afternoon! I had to talk a genocidal alien god off the ledge and that was after I fought a giant robot called The Destroyer because he was trying to level a town and I get sent home to see you and you're -- "

He felt his chest seize up, a feeling not unlike the asthma attacks he'd had as a child, and he stumbled forward blindly, into the armor, clutching at the cold metal. He buried his face in the joint between chest and shoulder plate and tried not to sob.

"Gauntlets," he heard Tony say quietly, and a second later there were two loud clangs and a hand came up to rest on the back of his head.

"Tell me you're fine," Steve said.

"I'm fine," Tony said. "I am a wreck of a human being, but I'm fine."

"You're not dying."


"Where's your helmet?"

"It, uh, it almost set my hair on fire, so I ditched it," Tony said.

The armor smelled reassuringly of oil and metal and dust, the greasy kind that only machines ever attracted. Steve breathed it in, feeling the adrenaline crash. There were times he reveled in it -- the shakes, the anxiety, the shuddering breaths. It was familiar, and meant he was alive. This time, Tony did that for him instead.

"Would it be weird to have welcome-home-and-I'm-not-dying sex here?" Tony asked, and Steve tried not to flinch. "I mean, on the one hand, obviously yes, but on the other, victory sex on the roof of your biggest rival's factory, that's kind of -- "

"Please shut up and just let me figure out what to do," Steve said, and Tony was, for once, quiet. Steve started to become aware of everywhere he hurt, which was mostly everywhere. "I might -- I might need a medic," he said. "I've been in at least three fights since breakfast."

"You want Iron Man airlines, or something a little less high impact?" Tony asked.

"Half your suit's shorted out, you're not flying anywhere," Steve said, leaning back with what felt like all the effort he had left. He looked up at Tony, who looked absolutely terrified, like the world was ending. His face was pale, and his big dark eyes were wide, watchful. "I need you to get me some medical attention and then we need to go -- how far is home?"

"About two hours, by car."

"Okay, then -- somewhere quiet and dark, with a bed," Steve said.

"Alone?" Tony asked carefully.

Steve lifted his hands to his face, rubbing his eyes. "No," he said. "Not alone. I want you to stay with me but I am very tired right now and I need you to be the one who has it together emotionally for the next, maybe, maybe a day. Please, Tony."

"Yeah, okay. One day of emotional maturity, I can probably manage that," Tony muttered. Steve leaned up, stretching as much as he could, and managed to pull Tony down for a kiss. There was something weird about it, and he leaned back, licking his teeth curiously.

"You taste like coconut," he said, confused, and Tony laughed.


Steve had never really had much money, and he had always sort of disdained wealth until he met Tony -- he liked his salary with SHIELD and the nice apartment and art supplies it could buy, but he hadn't aspired to millions or anything.

Still, he had to admit, when you were tired and in pain and upset, money smoothed the way.

The medics had told him that his ribs seemed to have graduated from bruised to cracked, but otherwise he was fine, and by the time they were done with him Tony had shed the armor and found them a car and a place to sleep for the night. Steve barely registered checking into the hotel or following Tony to a palatial suite in it; he just dropped his clothes, wiped off the worst of the filth with a washcloth, and collapsed face down in the bed. He felt Tony hesitantly curl up around him, warm like a furnace like always, and he drifted off buried in the smell of hot metal, clean sheets, and coconut.

When he woke, the sun was well up in the sky; the bedside clock told him at least ten hours had passed. His first attempt to get out of the bed left him hissing in pain, but eventually his cramped muscles and sore joints relaxed enough for him to walk steadily, if not entirely painlessly.

Tony's armor was in a heap in the corner and someone had left a box of stuff just inside the door, probably on Tony's request -- a pair of cellphones (his was still in New Mexico, for God's sake), a box of protein bars, a bottle of Tony's favorite cologne, and a little pot of lubricant, which was endearingly optimistic and highly embarrassing.

He found orange juice in the fridge of the suite and cracked that open, switching on one of the phones and running quickly through the setup. Once it had synced to his account, he called Bucky.

"Mrrrnn," Bucky answered.

"Did I wake you?" Steve asked.

"Hey, Stevie," Bucky managed.

"Hey, Buck. How's New Mexico? Still standing?"

"Yeah. I should be asking you that, huh? The external communication block's been lifted. Sam was watching video of Tony's little adventure."

"Did you know why the communication block was in place?" Steve asked. Coulson's betrayal he could almost understand; Natasha's, perhaps. But if Bucky had lied to him --

"Well, yeah, SOP on 184s like that, I thought," Bucky said, and Steve exhaled in relief. "I mean, they kept it in place until I was debriefed over the new arm, too."

"Uh huh. You and me need to have an off-the-books talk when you get back here," Steve said.

"You got it, pal, anytime," Bucky replied. "I got a hint about how that's gonna go. How's Tony?"

"Still asleep. He's had it rough. I'm probably not gonna make it a lot easier on him."

"Well, remember, he sees you jumpin' into danger all the time. I know how the guy feels. Not fair not to let him have some of the fun."

"It's a little more complicated than that, Buck, but it's a good point," Steve sighed, sipping his orange juice. "I think we're going to try to get back to Manhattan today, if we can. Are you guys breaking camp down there?"

"Yeah. Coulson's leaving a few agents at the secondary site but Sam and I are supposed to be on a flight back tonight. Clint's already gone."

"How'd you like your first outing with SHIELD?"

Bucky hummed. "Coulson offered me a full contract position. Sam too. You'd be team leader."

"You gonna take it?"

"Sam wants to stay a consultant. I'm thinkin' about it. You want me to?"

Steve pondered how much he wanted to discuss over an open phone line. "Don't sign any papers till I look them over, okay?"

"You're the boss. Look after yourself, huh? Your fella's a trouble magnet."

"Yeah," Steve agreed, turning to look at Tony, laid out on the bed, reactor glowing dimly through the blanket thrown over his bare chest. "We're about evenly matched, that way."

"I'll see you tomorrow, how's that?"

"Sounds good. Come to Stark Tower. Bring Sam. Meantime let Coulson know I'm taking some family leave, okay?"

"Sure thing. Take care, Steve."

"Thanks, Bucky," Steve said, and hung up. Tony opened one eye, watching him.

"They're breaking camp in New Mexico," Steve said, hobbling back to the bed. Tony rolled over onto his side and Steve insinuated himself under the blankets, up against his chest. "I won't have to go back. I've told Coulson I'm on family leave."

"I'm not dying," Tony said.

"Anymore," Steve replied. "But I think you and I need to discuss this whole dying business."

"I was working on a cure. I didn't see a need to tell you."

"You didn't think I deserved to know? Or that maybe I could help? I almost get it, you not wanting someone else being upset about your health, Tony, but SHIELD -- "

"You know Stark Industries is ahead of SHIELD technologically. If I thought you could have helped I would have told you sooner."

"Would you?" Steve asked skeptically. Tony didn't answer. "You know you should have told me. If nothing else, you should have told me before SHIELD decided to isolate me so you couldn't tell me. I'm pretty sure the restrictions at the New Mexico base were specifically to keep me in the dark."

"I didn't ask them to do that."

"And you won't be getting the piece of my mind I'm saving for them because they chose to do it. But you should have told me, Tony."

"I know."

"Because now I feel like I really am your toy."

Tony tensed. "You know you're not."

"I know I'm not, but your actions don't reassure me much. When I'm hurt I come to you, and that's not easy for me. Do me the same courtesy in the future. We both lead dangerous lives -- we should be able to depend on each other at least."

"I'm not used to depending on other people that way."

"Not with Pepper or Rhodey?"

"Pepper didn't know. Rhodey only suspected."

"I'm not jealous," Steve said, though he was surprised. Tony hadn't told anyone -- which meant that he'd been even more frightened than Steve thought. "I just think you have more people in your corner than you think, if you'd trust them." He pressed his face to Tony's chest, nose warmed by the hum of the reactor. "I thought we were done with lying to each other. I need to know we are now."

"I can't promise. I'm not that dependable."

"That's crap, but I'll let it slide," Steve said, and that earned at least a brief rumble of a laugh. "You want to sleep some more?"

"No, I feel good," Tony said, pushing himself up on an elbow. "Better than I have in weeks. Feel like I can breathe again."

"Good, because I barely can," Steve said, hand coming up to rest on his strapped-up ribs. "You get to pack us up and get us home."

Tony dropped a kiss on the crown of his head. "Steve Rogers, letting someone else handle anything? I'll mark the calendar."


They made it back to the tower in pretty good time, but Tony was still visibly exhausted, and Steve didn't have too much trouble convincing him to get some more sleep, by the simple expedient of putting him in the bed, saying he'd be right back, and taking a ten-minute shower. By the time he got out, Tony was curled around a pillow, face mashed into it, snoring.

Steve, wanting to let him sleep but filled with post-mission jitters, wandered out into the suite, and then down to the workshop.

Which was trashed.

"Anything I shouldn't touch, JARVIS?" he asked, as he passed through the open door.

"No, Agent Rogers," JARVIS replied.

"Is the place still...structurally sound?" Steve continued, studying what looked like a laser-slice in one wall.

"The damage is primarily cosmetic. A side effect of Sir's recent chemistry experiments."

"Don't suppose you can explain to me just why he was dying and what he did to fix it?"

"I am not yet authorized to discuss it."

"Sure," Steve said, picking his way through the mess.

"We could use your assistance, however," JARVIS continued.

"Oh yeah? With what?"

"In the northwest corner, Sir has a projection camera arranged. The film should be removed and placed in the digital scanner Sir has procured, for processing into video files."

"Sure, I can do that. Be nice to do a little productive work with my hands," Steve said, crossing carefully to where the camera and the stacks of film canisters were set up. "What was he doing, anyway?"

"I believe the phrase is, watching home movies," JARVIS said. Steve, curious, flicked the projector on. A man in a conservatively-cut suit and a Walt Disney moustache appeared.

"That's Howard, isn't it?" he asked. "Tony's dad."


"Is Tony on any of these?" Steve asked, intrigued.

"If you wind the film backwards thirty-seven seconds you will see Sir, aged approximately four."

"I gotta see that," Steve said, winding the film back.

"There," JARVIS said, and Steve flicked the forward-reel switch.

Tony wasn't in focus, and he was at the far end of the camera's view, but Steve still grinned when he saw the dark little head pop up, and small hands immediately reach out for some piece of the big Stark Expo model. Always curious, rarely still; that was Tony.

"Tony, what're you doing back there?" Howard said, startling Steve. The anger in his voice was disproportionate, unsettling. "What is that? Put that back. Put it back where you got it from!"

He couldn't see Tony's expression clearly, but the little boy put the model down carefully, body language neutral.

"Where's your mother? Maria?" Howard demanded, and a young man appeared to pick Tony up and carry him off. "Come on, go, go, go."

Steve should have switched the film off, but he was rooted to the spot, shocked by the casual cruelty on film. Not just that Howard would treat his young son that way; Steve knew Tony and Howard hadn't gotten on and had assumed there was good reason. But that he would do it in front of cameras and camera crews, that nobody had reacted as if this were unusual...

"Tony," he heard Howard say, and his attention returned to the film footage. Howard was leaning on the model now, speaking directly to the camera. "You're too young to understand this right now, so I thought I would put it on film for you. I built this for you."

"Here we go," Steve murmured, anger replacing surprise. The child had been right there --

"Someday you'll realize that it represents a whole lot more than just peoples' inventions," Howard continued. "It represents my life's work. This is the key to the future. I'm limited by the technology of my time, but one day you'll figure this out. And when you do, you will change the world. What is and always will be my greatest you."

Steve shut off the projector, careful not to let his anger damage the machinery, and wound the reel back to the start, lifting it off the mounts.

"JARVIS, where did you want this?" he asked.

"The machine to your left. Please place it in the slot designated, with the film spooling clockwise," JARVIS said, and Steve loaded the film as requested.

"What do you think of Howard Stark?" Steve asked, piling the rest of the film carefully nearby.

"From what I have observed of his archival data?"


"Agent Rogers, I am designed, for lack of a better word, to prefer Sir to all other individuals. I understand his flaws, but I was built to be his aide and companion. Without his father, whatever his father's flaws and indiscretions may have been, Sir would not be who he is. Would you wish Sir were different?"

Steve sighed, resting a hand on the nearest console as if he could touch JARVIS through it. "No. I just wish -- I wish he'd been happier than he was. He was right there, he was a little boy and Howard went through him like a knife. He was only interested in the man he was going to be. And I love the man he turned out to be, but -- "

"You wish you could protect the child."

"Hell, JARVIS, I wish he'd let me protect him now."

"Sir allows you more access to his life than some people he has known since childhood," JARVIS said. "You have earned in months a position many would take years to reach. Sir doesn't require your protection. But I believe he very much desires"

Steve nodded. "Well, that's not so hard to provide. Didn't used to be, anyway."

"I am sorry he asked me to lie to you for him, Agent Rogers."

Steve headed for the door, nodding. "It's okay, JARVIS. I'd rather you lie for him than to him."

Back upstairs, he climbed into the bed where Tony was still sleeping. He sat up against the headboard and took a tablet off the bedside table, logging in. Once he had access, he scooted around under the blankets, replacing the pillow Tony had been holding onto with his leg.

Tony pressed his face against Steve's thigh, breath warm and even across his skin. Steve rested a hand on his head, using the other one to flip through his entire digital life, put on hold while he'd been in New Mexico. Social media, news sites, email, all skimmed past his eyes as he focused on Tony's breathing.

Steve closed his eyes and consciously let go -- of the anger at Howard Stark, of the residual anger he'd been suppressing at Tony himself, of the hurt at being kept in the dark. He held onto one small sliver, because he couldn't forgive SHIELD for this as easily as he forgave Tony, but he let all the rest of it rise up, off his skin, off his shoulders, and drift away over Manhattan.

Tony stirred, half-awake, and his blunt, strong fingers tightened on Steve's knee. "S'allright?" he mumbled.

"Everything's fine," Steve said, rubbing Tony's temple with his thumb. "Go back to sleep. I'll keep watch."

"Nkay," Tony agreed, and slept again.


Two thousand miles away, in a faceless shelf of ice and snow in Greenland, something shifted. The wind, whipped up faster and harder than usual -- by climate change, by an unusually warm summer, by the vagaries of fate -- undercut a drift and snow began to slide downwards. Beneath it, something creaked. Inside it, something cracked.

A survey team, halfway across the landmass, wouldn't arrive for a few months, but the wind was already scouring the drift as if preparing for their arrival. It swept across the surface endlessly, slowly wiping powder and fragments of ice off a smooth sheet of steel, embellished by a skull with six tentacles. Inside, the ice filling the unlit cavern of the structure began to creak and split, revealing tantalizing glimpses of a bright white star in the dark.