Chapter 1: Changes
In which Steven Rogers, retired soldier, has an interest in the intelligence agent Sharon Carter, and acts upon it.
Cedar Park, Philadelphia
Wednesday - Afternoon
It was good luck that Steve's visit coincided with one of Gabe's good days, when he felt revitalized and up to taking a walk around the neighborhood.
Outside St. Francis de Sales's church, he stood looking up at its sunlit dome with fond admiration, extolling the beauty of its architecture. Steve nodded though he didn't listen, as his mind was on the fact that it was a year tomorrow from the day he woke up in fake recovery room after getting pulled out of the ice by SHIELD. It was a pleasant enough first five months, and then came the media shitstorm that ensued when it was revealed he was alive again, which saw him face allegations of being a fraud, and incessant and needless questions of where he stood on everything from the 'war on terror' and immigration rights to the now LA Dodgers and miniskirts. After that came the world breaking near-calamity of Loki's attack and the activation the Avengers Initiative.
After that, though, things got better. He came to enjoy some facets of living in the second decade of the twentieth century, like DVD boxsets, shawarma, and indeed, miniskirts. He also met quite a few interesting men and women, some going on to be very good friends, and some going on to be a subject of some interest, particularly in -
"…Really, it's fit to have been where the Fuhrer and Eva Braun could've got hitched. Shame that it wasn't meant to be."
It took a little too long before Steve's attention turned back to Gabe, and he sounded,
Gabe smirked, and Steve felt ashamed for his inattention. He might've found new friends, but he couldn't have survived long enough to do so without his old friend's help. Gabe was the only one he could open up to in the beginning, the only thing familiar, even though he become a University Professor, social activist, writer and SHIELD founder, got married twice –widowed both times- and aged seventy years while Steve wasn't looking. He was still, at heart, the college boy infantry soldier he once knew.
He made a point of visiting him two or three times a month, and SHIELD's aviation wing was very accommodating in transporting him between New York and Philadelphia. It wasn't often that Gabe felt well enough for these walks around the nightborhood, and Steve figured his attention was the least he owed.
"Sorry." Steve said sheepishly
"Ehh, it's alright." Gabe said as he stepped less than completely steadily to the nearby bench and sat down.
"Is something bugging you?" Gabe asked as Steve sat down next to him.
"No. Nothing like that. It's the opposite, really. Well, actually, it is a little bit. It's a mixed bag, really."
"Spill it, Cap."
Steve bit the inside of his lip as he thoughtfully rubbed his chin. He actually wanted to tell him, but it didn't mean it was any easier than it was.
"There's this girl…"
Gabe chuckled, and then jubilantly, with a theatrical sort of gesture from his arm toward the sky, bellowed,
"Well, hallelujah! Good to know you decided to get in the dating game. You're late, as it happens. Who is she?"
The identity of the girl in question was what had been bugging Steve. His tongue was tied by apprehension, as he didn't know what he would think of it. He wasn't even sure when he thought of it.
"I told about Sharon Carter, Peggy's grand-niece, didn't I?"
Gabe thought about it for a moment before the details came back. Shortly before Steve was reintroduced to the public, he'd gone on a cross country trip without SHIELD's consent. Sharon Carter was the agent tasked with bringing him back, though he didn't meet her at the time or yet.
"Yeah. I met her partner, Agent Hawk?"
"Yeah, I liked him. He's going places, you should watch out for him."
"I do, but we're not talking about Sam right now."
"Sorry. So you’re dating her?"
"Not yet." Steve said, then faced with a questioning look, followed with, "I don't know if I should."
"Why shouldn't you?"
"Propriety. It's just that…"
Steve lowered his head and sighed.
"She looks just like Peggy."
"I'd suppose she would, them being family and all."
"No. She could pass for Peggy. She's a little slimmer, and a redhead, but she looks like her in every other way."
"I see." Said Gabe, scratching his chin in contemplation.
"It's weird, right?" Steve asked
"Well, a psychiatrist would probably say you're not over the past, and you're using her as surrogate for Peggy, as a way to find familiarity as a coping mechanism, and that is all around unhealthy." Gabe said, then paused for effect before following with, "But I'm a History professor, and I say Peggy Carter was an amazing woman and quite easy on the eye, so anyone like her is worth going after."
"Really? What about the psychiatrist thing."
"Headshrinkers are… Don't get me wrong, it's a respectable field and all, but you needn't take it too seriously. A psychiatrist once analyzed Dugan, he said he wasn't completely fit run SHIELD, could you believe that? Anyway, what's she like?"
"I don't exactly know that much. She moved here a year ago, she's British, smart and classy. Did I mention she's a redhead?"
"Yeah. Is she tall?"
"I used to love tall redheaded girls. And if they were French, then Oh My!"
Steve smiled as Gabe chuckled.
"Look, find out." Gabe said, "You don't have to marry her, you just ask her out, spend some time with her. If she acts un-Peggy-like in whatever way, and she's bound to do that, then you'll know what to do. If it throws you off or bothers you, you break it off. If you're fine with it, you know you made the right call."
Steve thought about it for a moment. He was glad he'd been forthcoming with Gabe and that his friend didn't judge. He was relieved by his advice, and couldn't wait to act on it.
"Anytime, Cap. Of course, you've got that other problem."
"You're a lost cause with girls, Steve." Gabe said flatly, "You're gonna need some serious help."
Fort Lehigh – S.H.I.E.L.D. Training Academy
Latham , New York
Friday - Afternoon
Sam Wilson had been in the Navy for three years, then in SHIELD for ten, the last six of which as a member of its Special Activities branch. For the past month, he'd been attached to what amounted to the Academy's version of Military Police, an assignment he was glad had come to an end. He'd packed his bags before heading the on-base bar, called The Dead Drop, for a late afternoon lunch where he was joined with Clint Barton and Steve Rogers, Avengers and war veterans, who were dressed in their Army and Marine Corps' Service uniforms as they'd been at the graduation ceremony earlier in the day to deliver the keynote address.
Sam had met Clint when both served in the same Marine Corps unit in Kosovo, Clint as a scout sniper and Sam as the Platoon Corpsman. They'd went on to foster a friendship through their service that continued when they joined SHIELD together. He met Steve under more complicated circumstances, and had since fostered a strong friendship with the man.
They sat in a corner booth, devouring the bar's specialty burgers, exchanging banter, curses and crude jokes between bites.
"…Yeah. All we need is an Airman and we're set."
"I'm not drinking with an Airman, Cap." Said Sam, "Soldiers and Marines are bad enough."
"This is a good burger." Steve said, raising the half eaten meal to admire it properly, "This is a GREAT burger!"
"Yeah. It's the best I've had."
"Please." Clint interjected, "It's pretty good, but there's better."
"Yeah. That place, um, what's it called? Salem's in the lobby of the Hopper Meridian, they got a bacon cheeseburger that will turn your eyes into mush."
"Salem's at Hoppers?" Sam asked, eyebrows furrowed, "Doesn't that place charge like a Hundred and Thirty bucks a burger?"
"Well, for a hundred and thirty dollars I'm getting myself a steak. And I want a beautiful woman to rub my back while I'm eating it. A burger is the honest, humble man's comfort. It's not supposed to set me back a hundred and thirty dollars. Jesus."
"Mmmh." Clint sounded, "Burger's a burger, and no one makes 'em like Salem's."
"Man, you've been hanging around with Tony Stark for too long."
Steve chuckled, and remarked, "One-Thirty dollars is steep for a burger."
"Says you," Clint chuckled, "You used to get shot at for thee-hundred dollars a month." Clint said.
"No, no." Sam said, adopting a joking air of indignation, "Back in the Academy we were kickin' it Ramen's. You were cool, man, you were real. Now you're eating rich guy burgers."
"What are these burgers made out of, Sgt. Barton, huh? Are these burgers made out of enchanted Asgardian cows? I the milk that they made into the cheese was milked by Russian supermodels? Is that why your wonder burger costs a hundred and thirty dollars?"
"Sam, I will give you a hundred and thirty dollars just to leave me in peace."
"Hey, no need to throw money around, Mr. Avenger-Big-Spender. I was just saying. Anyway, forget about the burgers, something better's come up. "
"What's that?" Steve asked.
"Four-Thirty. Couple of graduate Agents checking us our."
"They're not checking you out." Clint said, "Are they hot?"
"An eight and a nine. They're both nines, actually, with reasonable rounding."
"Eh, your nine is like a seven."
"Whatever. You're dating Romanoff, what's it to you? Cap and me are… Steve!"
It was too late, Steve had already turned in the direction of Four-Thirty to see two attractive blond girls of their early twenties, talking quietly and looking back at him.
"Steve, you looked at the girls." Sam said exasperatedly as he rubbed his forehead, "You're not supposed to do that!"
"Sorry." Said Steve, "They look very nice."
"We're not." Clit mumbled, placing his burger on his platter.
"You and who are not what?"
"'Tasha and I broke up."
"Oh. Jesus." Sam said, "When was this?"
"A week ago."
"And you didn't tell me, because…? Steve, did you-"
"No, I'm hearing of this right now."
"I don't want to get into it, guys. Just…" Clint sighed, "Let's drop it."
Clint looked down morosely, and Clint and Sam exchanged a look that didn't entirely lack in smugness. Clint and Natasha's on-again-off-again-on-as-the-world-is-about-destroyed-off-again-on-when-they-get-bored relationship was the stuff of soap operas. It had stopped making an impact when they went from one state of affair to the next, and it seemed only Clint was surprised when it happened.
Clint raised his head again, putting on an upbeat expression.
"So, about these girls, when you say a couple, do you actually mean there's only two of them?"
"Yeah. Shit." Sam mumbled, "How do we settle this?"
"Well, we're not a bunch of freshmen college kids." Clint said, interlocking his fingers with his elbows on the table, "We're grown military men, we can think about this rationally, and find a solution that ensures mission success and troop welfare."
"You should bow down, Sam."
"Fuck you." Clint shot flatly, "Why?"
"Cap and I are Avengers, we just delivered the keynote address. We're kind of hot shit." Clint elucidated, "You're the guy that's been keeping them well behaved the last few months, and that's not a good look."
"Okay, I see your point." Sam said as he nodded his head, "But I saw them first, so you bow down."
"You know what, guys?" Steve said as he took a bite, and with full mouth, said, "I'm sitting this one out."
"Well, Sam did see them first, Clint. And you, you need to get back on the horse, as it were. Besides, they're not my type."
Sam and Clint exchanged a look, similar to the one Steve and Sam exchanged moments ago, except with an added tinge of intrigue.
"What was that?" Steve asked, "The look. What's with it?"
"What is your type, Steve? In what kind of do a couple of …"
Clint looked over his shoulder at the girl in the direction of Four-Thirty.
"Huh. They are nines. Good eye, Sam."
"Whatever happened to not looking directly at girls before you make your move?" Sam asked in annoyance, "Do they take your game away when you join the Avengers?"
"You were saying?" Steve asked.
"I way saying; In what way are a couple of nine not your type? What would turn them into your type? Dye job? Breast implants? A certain surgery?"
Steve thought about what Clint was asking for a moment before replying, "I don't get it. Don't breast implants require surgery? I don't understand what you're talking about."
"He's thinking of the snip-snip kind of surgery." Sam clarified as he shook his head.
"Wait, they're girls." Clint said, "How would them getting that surgery be 'snip-snip'?"
"Fair point." Sam conceded, "You're kind of a dick for bringing this up, by the way."
"Um… I don’t…" Steve stammered, "What are you trying to ask me?"
Sam looked away and said, "It's all you, Hawkeye."
Clint cleared his throat, and asked, "Cap, you gay?"
Steve stared for a moment, before he quietly responded with, "No."
"Oh. That's settled, then."
"Settled?" Steve asked with confusion, "You thought I might be gay?"
"Not really, but people do talk."
"People with nothing better to do."
"Why do they think I'm gay?"
"There's a myriad of reasons."
Sam and Clint exchanged a careful look.
"It's mostly that you've never been seen with a lady." Sam said.
"It's also partly your haircut." Clint said.
"Granted, you've never been seen with a guy, either…."
"And you're an artist."
"…But people like to focus on the 'never with a lady' part."
"And your manners. You're a goddamned gentleman, Steve."
"But like I said, most just wonder. It isn't like there's rumors…"
"You're also very good looking."
"Except for that one thing.".
"Well," Steve said as he took a bite, "I'm not. "
"You don't have to tell me. I give no fucks either way."
"So, about the nines?" Clint asked, "Come on, seriously, why not?"
"I really don't think I should."
"Steve, they're nines!" Clint exclaimed, "They're graduates, so we know they're marginally sane, not diseased, and for the moment, sober. They're also white! They're not Fury's daughters! They meet all the criteria, so why not-"
"Clint, you said it yourself. They're graduates, among the ones we just delivered the keynote address. We should be an example to inspire. Besides that, they're too young."
Clint stared at him for a moment.
"No, that's not it. Steve, you're seeing someone, aren't you?"
"Not exactly. I mean, I want to ask her out."
"But you haven't yet?"
"You're passing out on couple of nines who seem to be ready, willing and able, because you like a girl who you haven't asked out?"
"I'm not really sure what 'nines' mean, but yes."
There was a brief silence.
"You know you really do come from a different era, don't you?" Sam said, "So who is she?"
Steve smirked to mask his apprehension.
"Sharon who?" Clint asked, "Wait. Sharon Carter? Sam's partner Sharon?"
"Red?" Sam asked, eyebrows raised.
"Is she seeing anyone?"
Sam lowered his eyebrows, thought for a moment, then nodded to the negative.
"Not as far as I know. I gotta say, Steve, I didn't see that coming. It looked like you mostly tried to avoid her. Though come to think of it, you couldn't keep your eyes off her the first time you met her."
"Oh, you noticed that?" Steve asked embarrassedly, "Did she notice too?"
"Yes she did."
"Does she, uh, ever talk about me? Do you think she likes me?"
Clint turned his head to better conceal his desire to burst out laughing, which took a herculean effort. Rogers was commanding, in-charge and ice-cool most of the time, but every now and then he'd act like a complete dork. Sam smirked, thought he also wanted to laugh.
"We're not in junior high, Steve. Partners don't tell their friends that their partners like them."
"Oh, so she does like me?" Steve asked hopefully.
"Nice try, Steve. Nut up and ask her out."
"Yeah, yeah. I think I will. Soon as we're back in New York. Are you coming with us?"
"Sure. When's the chopper leave?"
"Whenever we want, but best if its not latter than eight."
"Plenty enough time." said Clint, "Meanwhile, you can watch how we pick up girls in the twenty-first century."
"Once more unto the breach, Clint?" Sam asked, wiping his hands and mouth with his napkin.
"Yeah, let's breach those graduates."
"That's disgusting." Steve said, annoyed, "You shouldn't talk about women that way!"
"Yeah, yeah." Clint chuckled as he stood up, "I'm deeply ashamed. I'll be sure and…."
When Clint looked back at Steve and met his glare, he promptly dropped the smirk, and said in an almost apologetic tone,
"… Knock it off. Yeah, okay. My bad. Won't happen again."
Steve nodded and his expression softened.
"Alright. Good luck. Can I have your fries?"
Lower East Side, Manhattan
Friday After Next – Afternoon
Steve was calm, he'd spent an hour that morning stripping firearms while blindfolded at headquarters and was now walking up to Sharon who had noticed him as she exited her neighborhood grocery store, holding a paper bag. She wore jeans, tennis shoes and a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves and had her red hair tied in a ponytail.
She had just got back from her trip to England, having left shortly before Steve, Sam and Clint got back to New York. While slightly disappointed, he was also relieved, and decided he could stand to wait a couple of weeks to figure out his move. They were a quiet few weeks, for which he was thankful. Stark was staying at his place I Dubai, Banner was upstate trying to sort out things with his girlfriend, and Thor was back in Asgard. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary raising any flags at SHIELD, and when lost he saw the man, Colonel Fury looked miserable, pacing his office like a caged lion, a noxious cloud if Cuban cigar smoke in his wake, desperate to find something to lay waste to.
He'd spent those couple of weeks thinking about what he'd say, and though he didn't really try or mean to, he'd planned it down to the last detail, even accounting for the weather.
"Miss Carter!" he said, somewhat over-cheerfully, "Fancy meeting you here."
"Captain Rogers." She said, "Fancy that. You look well."
"So do you. Do you live around here?"
"Indeed I do. What brings you here?"
"Oh I was just... " he started, and realized he didn't actually have an excuse to be there, "Taking a very long walk. How was vacation? Did you have a good time?"
"It was alright. I mostly spent it at my cousin's house in Birmingham. Didn't manage to visit my usual haunts in London like I'd wanted."
"What haunts?" he asked with a little too much intensity, then noting her expression, added, "I've been wanting to take a trip to London. It's probably different than I remember it, though. Is the Stork Club still there?"
"The… 'Stork Club'?" she asked hesitantly.
"The one on Old Compton street?" Steve clarified, "A lot of the officers used to have lunch there. Is it still open?"
"Well it is…" she said, "There's not a lot of officers in it anymore, though. Unless they happen to be lesbian officers. It… It's a lesbian bar, now."
There was a brief awkward pause, before Sharon said, "Well I don't know what you did last time around, and this is mostly touristy stuff, but everyone needs to visit the Royal Court, Kentish Town Forum, Hyde Park of course, and uh, oh! The Webley Arms. It used to be called the King's Whistle"
"The Whistle? I used to go there all the time with your Uncle James and the boys. We practically lived there. But It got hit late in the war."
"Well, it was rebuilt. Supposedly it's much the same, except for the name, and the LED-TV screens I suppose."
"That's great. Thanks for the heads up."
"My pleasure." She said with a bright smile, "Listen I was just wondering, how would you like to have dinner sometime?"
Steve's expression remained unchanged for a moment, as he struggled to decide whether he misheard or misunderstood her.
"Um, I'm sorry, what?"
"How would you like to have dinner with me sometime?"
"The two of us?"
"Yes. That's the way it's done, normally."
"You mean like on a date?"
Sharon's eyes widened slightly. The good Captain was acting peculiar.
"Yes. On a date." She said, slowly, annunciating every syllable.
"I… Don't think that's a good idea."
"Yes…. I'm not really dating right now. I… I'm Sorry."
"Well," she said, putting on a cheeky smile, "Alright. Can't blame a girl for trying."
"I'll see you around." He said awkwardly, trying to look away.
"Bye." She said with a smile as she walked on toward her building and he shuffled forward, feeling monumentally confused.
It took him a minute or so, walking away, bumping into passersby twice and being oblivious to their curses, until he regained his sense and realized what had transpired.
"I am such an idiot."
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Saturday – Early Morning
The hours SHIELD agents kept meant they could afford to booze on a weekday, and so Steve, Sam and Clint often did exactly that, but on Friday night they frequented McBride's, a watering hole located across the street from the Leaman building where Steve resided.
It was last call, and Steve had just blurted out the details about his encounter with Sharon hours before. After exchanging glances with Sam, Clint put down his beer mug audibly and said, "So lets me get this straight-"
"You wanted to ask her out," Sam interrupted, "She asked you out first, and you said 'no'?"
"Petty much." Steve answered sheepishly, looking down into his empty mug.
"Cap, I respect and admire you as a person and a fellow former serviceman..." Clint said.
"We both do." Sam said, "And we value your sacrifices and achievements in service to this country, but right now, I think I speak for both Clint and I when I say that I want to slap you. Real hard. Right in the face."
"Seriously, what the hell?"
Clint sighed, Sam grumbled.
"You know I heard about this stuff happening, but I didn't really think it'd happen to me!"
"Dude, a chick asked you out. You didn't get a disease!" Clint said.
"Okay, maybe I see why you reacted the way you did." Sam said, "I guess that hardly happened in your time?"
"It never happened! A girl might've shown you that she was interested, given you a signal, but you still had to make the first move!"
"I never got any signals. Sam, did you sense signals?"
"Well, not signals exactly. She just told me stuff."
"What kind of stuff?"
"That you seemed like a nice guy, er, kind of good looking. She also said she thought you were sweet."
"And you didn't bring us up before?" asked Clint.
"She's my partner, that's a sacred bond. I couldn't disseminate that intel until she'd acted on it."
This time Steve grumbled.
"So did you loose interest?"
"No… I'd still like to take her out. I mean, if she asked me out again-"
"Don't push your luck, Steve."
"I can't ask her out now, can I?"
"Sure you can." Clint said, "You're just going to look really stupid."
"So I can't fix this?" Steve asked with creeping disappointment.
"Well, no need to throw it in the towel. It's possible. You just need to wait." Clint said, "Give it two or three weeks."
"Then you find her again." Sam said, "Act all vulnerable and hopeful and stuff. Tell her you've been thinking about her, and that you've decided its time to move on, embrace this bold new age with all its wonder. And British girls."
"I don't like lying to people I like, Sam."
"It's the name of the game, Cap." Clint said, "Welcome to postmodern dating."
Korova Coffee Bar, Stark Tower
Financial District, Manhattan
Saturday - Afternoon
Sharon and Natasha's was an odd friendship, but then any friendship that involved Natasha Romanoff was bound for oddness. Ever since Sharon moved to the states a little over a year ago, she and Natasha just seemed to click. They were both raised somewhere else, shared many of the same interests, and Sharon was an adequate sparring partner for Natasha's needs.
They sat by the windowed wall, overlooking a section of the city being rebuilt after having been decimated by Loki's forces months ago. They'd already talked about politics, the economy, and had finally moved to the subject of men.
"You asked him out?" Natasha asked. A shadow of a smile fluttered on the corner of her mouth as she somehow reclined in what was a decidedly uncomfortable chair of the type only coffee bars seemed to have, "Really?"
"Yes." Sharon answered, annoyed at Natasha's impending smugness.
"You know he grew up in the forties, right? From his perspective, it was the forties last year."
"Carter, women didn't ask men out in the forties."
"I know that. I just thought he'd be the open-minded, progressive sort. He had Asian and African-American members in his unit, after all."
"They were men, though. Race, religion, that stuff only matters later in life which is why it's easier to ignore. Gender roles are more ingrained."
"Stick to breaking people's necks with your thighs, darling. Leave psychology to me."
"You know I'm right."
Loath as she was to admit it, Sharon did know Natasha was right.
"You know, he's probably really not dating yet." Natasha said before taking a bite of her croissant.
"That's not it." Sharon said.
"Of course it isn't, doesn't mean it isn't true. I work with him, he doesn't flirt or anything. He's the Anti-Stark. Do you know Kate Neville?"
"Tall Italian girl, red hair. She was the Agent that Colonel Fury got involved in the plan to have Cap think it was still 1945. She tried her luck, but he didn't give her the time of day. He too busy brooding."
"God," Sharon said empathically, "He must be feeling terrible."
"Oh no. He's mostly alright. He hangs out with Clint, Sam and their friends. He's pretty good company, actually. Just…. Not very good with girls. And come to think of it, I'm not sure he likes girls."
"You are joking." Sharon said with a chuckle.
"I'm not sure. You know how there was a rumor that he dated a girl in the SSR during the war, who ended up becoming a huge movie star in the fifties?"
"Yeah, Lorraine Palmer."
"Well, you were at Clint's movie night a couple months ago, right? Rogers denied he was ever involved with her."
"Well, that doesn't mean he's gay!"
"Well when someone asked him why he didn't date Lorraine Palmer, it sounded like he was hiding something…. I'm probably wrong."
"I also think you're wrong." Sharon said and took a sip of her coffee, "Would be interesting, though."
"It would, wouldn't it?"
"It'd explain why there's always someone dressed as him at gay pride parades, too. But I've got to ask, did you ever…?"
"Hm?" sounded Natasha before she caught on, "Oh. He's not my type."
"He's good looking, I can't deny that, but he's not my type. I like my men considerably damaged."
"Barton isn't damaged."
"Clint's brain damaged."
S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters, Jacob Kirby Building
Two Weeks Later
Per Sam and Clint's advice, Steve waited. It wasn't too hard, as three days after the night at McBride's he was dispatched to SHIELD's India desk to assist on an operation and foster relations. At first they made their displeasure knows, as they'd hopes to get Thor or Iron Man instead, but after the operation was a success, all was well. And so, two weeks later, he was back in New York City.
This time he didn't plan any coincidences. He went from LaGuardia Airport to SHIELD HQ, still totting his bag with him. He found Sharon at a corner of the commissary, helping herself to a bowl of noodles.
He approached her nervously, clearing his throat as he neared her.
"Captain Rogers." She greeted him, "How was India?"
"It was good." He answered, unintentionally short-toned, "Is this seat taken?"
"No, help yourself."
He sat down, setting his bag on the floor, and looked at her quietly for perhaps a few seconds too long.
"How's it going?" he finally asked.
"Alright. I was a bit swamped with work. You've come back at a very good time; Sam's been driving me crazy."
"Is he around?"
"He's left already. You can give him a call, he hadn't enough time to get home."
"No, it's alright. I'll call him tomorrow. Erm, listen… Would you like to go out with me?"
"Uh, like on a date?"
"I thought you weren't dating?"
"I thought I'd start."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be sure?"
"Just wondering." She said with a shrug, "Sure. What did you have on mind?"
"Um, I didn't really have anything in mind. Probably dinner?"
"Well, dinner sounds appealing."
"Great. How about Sunday night, around eight?"
"It sounds good." She said with a smile, "I look forward to it."
"Great." He said with some awkward giddiness.
Smiling, he got up, bidding her a good night as he left the commissary. It was only when he was in a cab driving him back to Brooklyn Heights did he remember that he'd left his bags on by Sharon's table.
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
Sunday - 11:41 PM
Sam was beyond exhausted. He'd just come off a thirty-six hour shift that saw him reach the culmination of a month long covert investigation into the Roxxon Energy corporation. It was passed up the ladder, now, into Coulson's able hands. As always, there was no celebration, just the anticipation of the next assignment. At most, he'd have liked a beer and a little company, but Clint was on assignment in god-knew-where, while Steve was on his date was Sharon, so he decided on burgers at a greasy spoon sort of all-night place down the street from his apartment.
His coke was warm, his fries were soggy, the burger was a tasteless excuse of a meat patty and questionable cheese pressed between two pieces of stale bread; it was an achievement in culinary wanting, eating it was an odd sort of masochistic, macho pleasure.
As he was masticating on his paltry meal, the last thing he expected to see was Steve Rogers. Nevertheless, the man grabbed his attention by knocking on the glass from the street outside before proceeding to the door.
He was wearing a black suit jacket and pants and a blue shirt, which was more unbuttoned than usual, not to mention crumpled. His hair was mussed, and there were various subtle signs that Steve had been in a physical altercation.
Steve slumped down into the seat across the table from Sam. He didn't say a word.
"That bad, huh?" Sam asked before he spat out a tiny shard of bone.
"Yeah." Steve said with a sigh.
Chapter 2: Quicksand
In which Steven Rogers, budding romancer-of-women, recounts his turmoilous courtship of Sharon Carter, and prepares to face the consequences of.
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
Sam called for the waitress. While it was a terrible place to get a burger, it was capable of providing an excellent cup of coffee. Learning of Captain America's romantic woes, Sam had decided to put off his much deserved rest. A couple of minutes later, two cups of joe were on the table. Sam gulped some of his own down as Steve simply nursed his own mug.
"I think I was overdressed." Steve mumbled, noticing a tear in his jacket.
"Did you button up your jacket?"
Steve nodded his head to the affirmative.
"Yeah, that is overdressed. So, you showed up in a buttoned-up two-piece. Is that what ruined your evening?"
Steve looked down into his mug and ran the tip of his finger on the edge.
"Alright, talk me through it."
"Well, I took her to this place called Apollonia's. You know it?"
"Yeah. Didn't think it was your scene."
"It's alright. I had dinner there with a reporter from Vanity Fair a few months ago."
"Right. So what happened?"
Steve wasn't as nervous as he thought he would be; which was to say he wasn't gnawing on his finger nails at the moment. He'd picked Sharon up at her place. She wore jeans and a black sweater over a maroon shirt. She looked casual, yet classy, and he suddenly felt overly stuffy in the suit and tie he wore.
Now at Appollonia's, a trendy Italian place, he thought that it was going pretty well so far.
The day after he'd asked Sharon out, he went to Philadelphia on one of his regular visits to Gabe Jones. Gabe and his live-in nurse Noreen were kindly enough to put their knowledge of the past and the present together to think of quite a few pointers on social faux-pas to avoid, stuff like not ordering his date's meal on her behalf, as what little he knew about dating probably belonged to the forties. He'd managed to avoid them all. Now all he had to fill the time until the food arrived and not make an ass out of himself.
He just hoped Sharon was the talkative type, as it would take plenty of pressure off of him if she was.
"So how did you end up joining SHIELD?" he asked. That's always a conversation start, and he was actually curious.
"I sort of fell into it, I suppose." She began, "I went to university with a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, so I studied literature, but that lasted a mere semester. I ended up with a degree in psychology. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, so after a period of loitering, I decided to join the police service.
"I did fairly well at training. A few weeks before graduating I was introduced by my supervisor to the head of the Britain station of SHIELD, Commander Hart. His people liked my profile so he offered me a job, and I accepted. I put in the leg work and moved here around a year ago."
"I know, not much of a story, is it?" she laughed, "Good thing I didn't end up being a writer."
"No, it's amazing." He said with sincerity, "Are you saying you were almost a cop?"
"Almost. I decided that the prospect of traveling the world more exciting than pounding a beat around Fenchurch. Of course I didn't know I would start out with assignments to places like Madripoor."
"Well, it's not what I expected."
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know. I thought you were a legacy."
"Yeah. I thought your folks might've worked at SHIELD. Lots of soldiers and secret agent types get in that way, or at least they did in my day."
"Well," Steve said, considering, "My dad was a soldier, but… No. I guess I didn't. I meant no offense."
"None taken." Sharon said, "I've got family who'd served in the military or intelligence, but none in SHIELD. No, my parents were barristers."
"What do they think about what you do?" Steve asked, and for a second was proud at how well he thought he was doing. If Bucky and the boys could see him now.
"Not much. They died when I was four…. Airplane crash."
"Oh, god. I'm so sorry."
"What happened then?" Steve asked cautiously.
"I went to live with my father's cousin Jackie. She and her partner practically raised me from then on."
And so, with the mention of Jacqueline Falsworth, it all started to get rocky. He never met the woman, nor did he even know what she looked like, and he only knew what he'd learned through Gabe; she's Peggy and Jim Falsworth's daughter, their eldest of two. Her mention caused much of the doubts he had about his fledgling love life to resurface.
Not only was he dating Peggy's near-identical lookalike, he was dating the one that'd been raised her own daughter. It all seemed so terribly Grecian. Such thoughts that he was trying to find a surrogate for Peggy had occurred to him before, and Gabe, who's judgment he trusted, had said it was just anxiety. On his calmer states, Steve himself realized that he didn't long for the courtship with Peggy that could've been; Peggy had a long, full life with Falsworth. Steve was happy for them both, and his interests at present were geared toward Sharon herself.
But that wasn't the real problem, it was whether he should tell her of the feelings he once had for Peggy, and how soon. The immediate problem, of course, was that as he was having these thoughts, the conversation had stalled and the awkward silence had got to Sharon.
"But enough about me." Sharon said, "Tell me something about yourself."
"Huh?" Steve sounded, taken off-guard, "Like what?"
"Well, what did you joined the Army?"
"Yeah… Pretty much. After high school, I had a string of jobs, nothing interesting or permanent."
"This and that."
"Didn't you paint?" she asked, somewhat exasperatedly.
"No. I remember the money was better, but the fumes were too much for my health."
"What? No. I didn't mean… I meant paint artistically."
"Oh. Oh! Yeah, I did that…. Yeah."
And then he didn't elaborate any further about his artistic pursuits. Perplexed, Sharon went on to ask if what sort of recognition he got for his work. His answers were as short and unsatisfying as before
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
"Oh, okay." Sam said as he got finished up his cup, "I see where it went wrong."
"Sure I do. You couldn't make conversation anymore, and you ended up suffering through periods of awkward silence mixed with forced idle chit-chat?"
"…Okay, maybe you do."
"It happens to the best of us, big guy. You need to work on it, though. Women like a talker."
"Yeah, well, that was the start of it, but it wasn't really it."
"Oh. So what was it?"
Finally, mercifully, the food arrived.
"Oh, I. Am. Famished!" Sharon said as their waiter placed the paste on the table. Steve knew it was less hunger and more the desire to be rid of the awkwardness.
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
"Oh, I see!" Sam said, "I've seen Sharon eat when she's really hungry. She looks like a seal having a seizure."
"I wouldn't know. We didn't actually get to eat."
"Well, I'll tell you."
Just then, there was an explosion out in the street. The explosion was large enough for the tables and glassware and windows to vibrate and for panic to arise. Steve was quick to get to his feet and rush for the door before the crowd.
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
"Wait, a seal having a seizure? Really?" Steve asked.
"I was exaggerating for effect, Steve! There was an explosion? And I'm only hearing this now?"
"Oh, It wasn't that serious."
"Compared to what?!"
"It wasn't a terrorist attack, if that's what you're thinking. Just an armed robbery. It all turned out okay."
"You're still as erudite a conversationalist as you was with Sharon. What the fuck happened?"
"Some heist crew wanted to rob a Stark Industries subsidiary of some brand new tech. They got what they wanted but it didn't go smoothly from there. They were in a police chase and crashed in the street outside Appollonia's. One tried an RPG on a squad car while they were trying to make their getaway. Luckily, they didn't get a kill."
"And then what happened?"
"We stopped them. I mean… Well, we helped. The credit really belong to the NYPD on this."
"Sure. 'We', being?"
"Me and Sharon. It's a good thing she remembered to bring her gun. I didn't have my shield, but I managed. So anyway, we got the tech back and apprehended the crew. So, getting back to me and Sharon…"
"Sure." Sam said exasperatedly, "That clearly is the more interesting thing. Alright, so you ended up intervening in a police chase. I can understand how that would've been what killed your night."
"No. Actually, it took the edge off."
"Credit where it is due, Steve," said Sharon as he she returned from talking to the police Captain on the scene, "You know how to show a girl an interesting time."
"What's the situation?" Steve asked, having come back from talking to reporters at the NYPD's request.
"The police are ready to cooperate and acknowledge our jurisdiction. Tony Stark's flying in as we speak and Hill's put me in charge here, said the case might be mine and Sam's by tomorrow."
"Do we know who the perpetrators were?"
"They're an international crew of some renown, but this is past their usual ambitions. I'd wager they're working for someone big. We'll know once they've been interrogated by Coulson."
"You did good, there." Steve said, "You're so much like Peggy."
It was a slip of the tongue, one he regretted immediately. It might've been brought on by the thrill of the fight and the knowledge that it had ended as best as could've been hoped for, that had let him put his guard down.
"Oh, you mean my great aunt. You knew her, didn't you?" Sharon asked with a smile, "Right. You worked together before she married your lieutenant. I only met her once before she died, when I was too little to remember, but she sounded like an extraordinary woman from everything I hear. I'm flattered."
Steve was looking into her eyes, and she'd been looking into his. Within seconds, there'd be a very specific glint in them and she would notice.
"Actually, Jackie's often told me I look a lot like her. Is it… true?"
And just like that, she put two and two together.
"Oh god." She mumbled, not quite mortified, but not really pleased either.
That was it, he thought. That was as far as it would go.
"I'll take off." He said as he turned around and began to walk away, shame and guilt creeping on him, "Good luck on your case."
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
Sam stared at his friend with wide-eyed disbelief. Steve fidgeted uncomfortably.
"You… And her great aunt?" he asked, a timber in his voice indicating he was somewhat upset, as he lowered his mug.
"You were in love?"
"I think so. I was."
"And you never paused to think what a dick move this is? Jesus, Cap!"
"I know." Steve said with a pained expression as he stared at his mug.
"I mean when were you going to tell her? When you were in bed? Is that when you would've told her you'd also nailed her identical great-aunt?"
"I was going to tell her, alright? Probably tonight, if it didn't slip out first."
Sam grunted in distaste as he leaned back in the booth, arms crossed and looking out at the neon signs of a tattoo shop across the street outside.
"For what it's worth, that isn't something that would've been an issue."
"It isn't worth much." Sam said before turned back to Steve and asked, "Wait, what is?"
"I never slept with Peggy."
"Well, you dated her. Didn't you?"
"Well, not exactly… No."
Sam gave a look of confusion and raised an eyebrow.
"To be completely precise, I did kiss her once." Steve said, "Well… Technically, she kissed me and I reciprocated, but I was on my way to get myself killed, so-"
"You didn't go for lunch together?" Sam asked.
"Sometimes. Just, there were always a bunch of other people with us. Bucky or Howard usually."
"You never went dancing, or met her mom and dad, none of that?"
"Well then your date got shot in the ass for nothing."
"What are you talking about?"
Sam sighed as he leaned forward.
"I'm sure this Peggy Carter was a great girl, and if she's anything like Red, she must've been. If you'd made it to see the war end, the two of you might've got married and been happy together. We'll never know. But I'm sorry to say this, but what you two had … It isn't worth ruining this with Sharon, if you really were interested in her."
"So you're saying…" Steve began hopefully, "It isn't ruined?"
"Oh no. It is ruined. I'm saying you went about it completely the wrong way. You shoulda told her you used to have a thing for her great-aunt from that beginning. Actually, you shoulda told her months ago. Chances are, she would've been cool with it."
Steve picked up his mug of now tepid coffee and drank it all at once.
"When you see her for work tomorrow, will you tell her I'm sorry?"
"No, Steve. You're gonna have to tell her yourself."
"I am, aren't I?"
"Never gonna hear the end of it otherwise. You better do it fast, too."
"Women talk." Sam said, "About everything. If you want to avoid a lot of funny looks, you'll have to talk this through with her soon."
"Isn't that one of those 'stereotypes'?"
"Believe me, she might've told her gal-pal Natasha by now. Hell, she might tell Chief Hill, and she doesn't even like her."
"I don't think a lot of people do like Maria Hill."
"I know. I don't. I mean, what the hell is her problem?"
"It's twelve, gentlemen." The manager said as he walked up to them, "I'm closing up."
Sam and Steve got up, paid, and walked out of the diner. Outside, as Sam zipped up his jacket, he cracked a smile as he and Steve began walking toward his apartment building, and said,
"You probably didn't think it was me you'd be walking home tonight, did you?"
"Sam, how forgiving do you think Sharon is going to be?"
"She'll be forgiving, don't worry." Sam said, giving Steve a reassuring pat on his arm, "But forgiving enough to want to go on a second date?"
"I know." Steve said, burying his hands in his pockets, "Might as well expect the sun not to come up."
"Well…. I don't know. Maybe, who the hell knows? First you need to straighten it out with her."
"Sam, you said it yourself, I went about it completely wrong."
"I know, and I'm saying you never know how the dating game ends. You gotta get out there, put yourself out on the line. That's the only way you won't end up alone. I don't want to give you false hope, but, theoretically, I'd say yes, it is possible that you and Sharon might still work… Somehow."
"I don't know."
"I said that I, Samuel Thomas Wilson, don't know. That isn't saying there isn't someone else might."
"Yeah, like who?"
Sam became silent as he thought about it. Steve took it as a sign that he'd been just trying to give him a ray of hope and resigned himself to that it was indeed over before it began with Sharon. And then Sam smirked.
"I know exactly who."
"The smoothest, player-est motherfucker we know. Someone who in his time had bent the will of beautiful women around the world with nothing but words, charm and confidence. Someone who-"
"Yeah," grumbled Steve, "I know who you're talking about. I didn't really want to go to Tony Stark with this."
"I'm not talking about Tony Stark."
Steve raised an interested eyebrow.
"Ha! Good one. I'm talking about Phil Coulson."
Steve glanced sideways at Sam before he frowned, and said,
"You bastard. You had my hopes up for a second."
"I'm serious! You wouldn't know it looking at him, but Coulson's a stone-cold ladykiller."
"Coulson is married."
"Okay, so he's a retired stone-cold ladykiller, but he's still got game. Milicent Collins."
"That's Mrs. Coulson's name. M-I-L-I-C-E-N-T. Google it. Then you think about whether or not Coulson's stone-cold or not."
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
An hour later, back at his apartment on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Steve followed Sam's advice which still didn't believe. With his nightcap in hand, he turned on his laptop and wait for it to boot, then turned on his browser and typed the words.
Millicent Coulson, maiden name Collins, wasn't what he expected. She was a statuesque, wide green-eyed blonde who was obviously twenty years or so younger than her significant other, and just when Steve thought Sam had pranked him into Googling a random socialite with no connection to Coulson, he found a picture of the happy couple at the governor's ball.
"Oh, Coulson," Steve mumbled, "You dog."
Jacob Kirby Building , S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters
Monday - Morning
Steve quite liked Phil Coulson. While many SHIELD agents chose to affect a cold, supposedly intimidating demeanor, Coulson was quite genial, he was also quiet, unshakable and highly competent. Nevertheless, Steve felt more than a little uneasy about approaching him for dating advice over morning coffee and doughnuts in the SHIELD commissary.
"How's the wife?" Steve asked, and hoped he didn't carry an I-saw-pictures-of-your-wife-on-the-internet-and-she-is-a-knockout-so-congratulations facial expression at present.
"Millie's great. She just got back from Brussels."
Steve put on a smile and nodded.
"What's the status on Stark Industries attempted robbery?"
"Agents Carter and Wilson have been assigned to it. They're among our best agents, as I'm sure you know. I had hoped you'd speak with Mr. Stark and convince him to stop trying to hack SHIELD's mainframe and let our agents do their jobs. It's quite unseemly."
"I'll see what I can do."
"So I hear you wanted to talk about something of a personal nature."
"Sam told you?"
"Us sailor boys like to talk."
Steve remembered that Coulson, like Sam, had been in the Navy before joining SHIELD. Except that while Sam was a Corpsman, Coulson was a Chief Petty Officer in the SEALs. That was probably why he didn't act intimidating; he didn't have anything to prove to anyone.
"How much do sailors like talk?"
"Quite a bit, I'm afraid."
Embarrassed, Steve curled his nose and smirked.
"Though to be honest," Coulson continued, "I already knew about the full extent of your and Mrs. Falsworth's association."
"Of course you did."
"When you moved out of headquarters, Director Fury told me. He wanted to see if an encounter between you and Agent Carter could be avoided."
"Is that right?"
"I'm sure he had your best interests at heart."
"Phil, do you think it's weird?"
"Not at all. Well…." Coulson paused, "A little weird. It's not abnormal, but I agree with Wilson that you should've been forthcoming to begin with."
"I also agree that you need to fix this soon. Today, infact."
"Well, there was another thing…"
"You don't want to just clear the air, you want a second date."
"Yeah. Can it be done?"
"Yes. It's not going to be easy, but it isn't impossible either." Coulson said, dipping a powdered donut into his coffee, "You're going to get the timing right, you can't get off your game for a nanosecond, and you're going to need to be prepared to scald yourself with some coffee. Here is how you do it…"
Walking into the observation section of Interview Room 4, Steve had expected to see Sharon by herself while Sam questioned one of those apprehended last night on the other side of the glass. He'd hesitated to do so, but remembered his talks with Sam and the advice he got from Coulson –speaking of which, could he ever look at him the same way again?-, so he gritted his teeth and waltzed in.
Instead, he found Sharon and seven other agents.
All eyes turned to him, and when they realized who had entered, they stood at attention, some adopting wide eyed panicked looks. Steve was momentarily distracted from his quarry as he inspected the small group, it was made of three men and four women, and all but one seemed rather young, having possibly come fresh from the Academy, with the exception of Jimmy Woo, an occasional drinking buddy of Clint Barton's.
"Captain Rogers, good morning." Sharon said. She sounded and acted crisp and professional, it was hard to read her.
"'Morning." He replied, "Bit crowded here, isn't it?"
"Fresh meat, come to see out very own Gene Hunt in action."
On the other side of the glass, at the interview table sat a man of mid-thirties, with the shaven head, build and tattooed arms of a wayward soldier turned career criminal. He'd been the crew's wheelman. He had a couple a bandage on his forehead resultant from getting pistol-whipped by Sharon last night. Sam wasn't there yet.
"Oh." Steve said, then addressing the group said, "Welcome aboard."
Just then Sam walked through the door on the other side of the glass and sauntered to his seat, hardly giving the man in the chair a glance as he looked at a dossier.
"Yeah." Jaymes said nervously. From what accent he could detect in one word, Steve thought the man was an Englishman, though he needed to hear more to detect from which region. An agent stepped out of the way so Steve could stand closer to Sharon.
"I know; it's in your file. But 'Jaymes'? " Sam asked with disdain, " With a 'Y'? What are you, a pornstar?
"No, of course not. You're an armed robber. Ex-Soldier in the 6th Loamshire Regimen, you were a jeep driver in Afghanistan. So how'd you get in on the job?"
Steve looked out the corner of his eye at Sharon. She was looking intently at Sam and Jaymes.
"Keeping quiet, huh? That's not good. "
"I want my phonecall."
Steve opened his mouth to say something when Sharon first said,
"I had a good time last night."
"Wow, didn't see that coming!
"You don't actually have the 'right' to a phone call, you know, its actually entirely up to me."
"Oh. You did?" Steve asked, hoping he didn't sound too surprised.
"Who did you want to call anyway?"
"Yes. Yes I did." Sharon said, and gave a small smile.
"Yeah, no you didn't."
Steve didn't know how she could be smiling after last night. Coulson's very complicated, very gloriously imaginative advice had been rendered irrelevant, not to mention unworkable, as it relied on Sharon being peeved.
Someone giggled and shared a whispered comment before Woo silenced them with a look.
"Your crew hospitalized three police officers and tried to rip off a man with robotic armor and some very powerful friends. A happy conclusion for in this story begins with spilling your guts."
"You know what, mate? I think I'll do well without saying a thing."
"I'll see you after." Sharon said, "I should be getting in there."
"Yeah, I'll see you later." Steve said with relief as Sharon brushed past him.
"Uh-huh. Don't get your hopes up, pal."
An hour later, Sharon walked into the break room where Steve was reading a paper. Steve didn't understand women, but he knew enough about body language to recognize enough to suspect that his earlier relief was premature, and his suspicions were proven when she shut the door behind her and turned the latch.
"You knew Peggy Carter very well, didn't you?" she asked, pressing her hands to the door without turning around.
Oh, this isn't going good. He thought.
"Uh… Yeah." He managed to get the words out. He put the paper on the seat next to him.
She turned around, and he saw the disbelieving look in her eyes.
"Yeah. Wait, I... What do you mean by 'very well'?"
"You didn't know here simply as someone that James Falsworth ended up marrying, you were… You were…"
She was upset, and Steve guiltily lowered his head and sighed.
He expected yelling, a slap, or something. Instead, she left the room, only to return a moment later.
"Sharon, I just want to say-"
"Stop." She interrupted with her hand raised. He said nothing, as she seemed to struggle to keep the words from pouring out. She shook her head and took a deep breath.
"I can't believe you were going to hide that."
"I wasn't, I was going to tell you."
"You should've told me. That's something I'd want to know. I didn't enjoy…"
It pained him to hear her say it, and he couldn't bring himself to say the words.
"Look, I know…" she paused. She wasn't as angry or upset, she spoke with a softness that spoke of empathy, "You're a good person; I know that. A lot of people look up to you ad they should. To save face for both of us, I'm not going to tell anyone about this and I hope you don't either, but I hope you take this advice to heart; get help. You're clearly not done sorting yourself out, yet."
"I'm sorry." He said in a near-whisper.
She sighed, turned around, and opened the door.
"Have a good day, sir."
And she was gone.
Steve slumped back into his seat. He was used to being rejected, but for the first time in many years, he felt small.
His rank, his legacy, his service record and his medals, not one of them kept him from feeling like a bastard.
Funny, he thought. He couldn't remember Coulson's advice.
Chapter 3: Without You
In which Steven Rogers and Sharon Carter go about their lives, learning of the return of old flames, and meeting interesting new people.
Kenyan Airspace, Near the Wakandan Border
Tuesday - Night
Steve enjoyed helicopter rides, and wished they'd been viable military technology during the war, imagining the kinds of hell the Howling Commandos could've if they had one. He didn't enjoy this particular one, though, due to the silence interrupted by occasional instances of shop-talk pertaining to the mission.
Aside from the pilot, it was Steve, Clint and Natasha. Their mission was to rescue a SHIELD operative who was discovered while undercover in one of the Roxxon Corporation's sites in Kenya, a hundred miles away from the Wakandan border. They were meant to do it quickly and quietly, all shock and no awe, which meant no shields, bows or costumes, but full black tactical gear and M4 carbines.
Natasha and Clint had broken up a month ago, but during the time Steve had known them, they'd broken up at least three times, and by their frigidness they showed each other, Steve thought they might've broken up again in the past few days.
Despite himself, Steve tried to console himself that such drama is something he'd dodged with Sharon. Instantly, he felt terrible again, as he'd been feeling since their encounter in the break room less than forty-eight hours ago. He didn't really dodge anything. He expects she will be toward around him next time they meet, that is if she doesn't actively shun him.
Steve looked out the window at rural Kenyan night and thought about the first time he went on a mission to rescue a prisoner. This time, there definitely won't be a beautiful lady back at base to welcome him back with banter over how late he was. He shook his head and then closed his eyes, determined to push every woman who wasn't a Russian defector out of mind, and go over the plan to rescue Agent Quatermain in his head, trying to predict every possible bad-case scenario should it arise. He thought about how many pieces the M4 contained, how much ammo and what small arms the other two carried. He avoided any topic that could conceivably make him think of Sharon.
Ninety minutes later, he and Natasha were perched on top of a crane overlooking the cabin where Quatermain was being interrogated, while Clint was in position to provide long-range cover through sniper fire. In quick succession, they each fired their zipline-utility-launchers attached to their M4s, slapped on the pulleys and attached them to their harnesses before leaping off the crane.
As he was being propelled by gravity, feeling the cool air on what few centimeters of his face the visor didn't conceal, he thought of the first time the commandos tried to zipline into a building, but they missed the window frame and hit the window itself, announcing their presence. More than near-catastrophic, it was embarrassing. They got better at it later, but whoever manned the line-launcher that day really screwed the dog. He couldn't remember who it was. Was it Morita? No, it was Dugan. He'd never been a particularly good shot at long range, but under Falsworth's tutelage, he learned enough to be able to use the launcher correctly.
Good Old Jim Monty Falsworth. Falsworth. Falsworth. Mrs. Falsworth. Peggy. Sharon. Shit. He thought as he let go of the pulley and went crashing through the window with Natasha a few feet behind him.
Wednesay - Night
Sharon was no stranger to being pestered by odd, interested men, but she wasn't sure if that was the case in her present situation; nursing a beer, sitting at the bar at an establishment located within a stone’s throw from headquarters and frequented by off-duty agents, with her admirer being a quite tall, very burly man sporting long red hair and an impressive beard. He wore flip-flops, Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that bore his large, swarthy arms.
“Volstagg The Valiant Would Be Remiss Not To Admit He Finds You An Amazing Creature Possessed Of Radiant Beauty And Grace!” the man said before taking a swig from a battle of expensive Whiskey, “You Do Midgardian Women Proud!”
Sharon smiled politely, nodded and said,
“As A Matter Of Fact, You Remind Me Of Hildegund In Years Past!”
“Hildegund Would Be Thy Amazing Wife! You Share Quite A Likeness!”
“Ah.” Sharon nodded, “I get that a bit. “
“Of Course, She Is Also Possessed Of More Robust Endowments!”
“Oh. Is she?”
“Oh, To Roam Those Hillsides!” Volstagg mused gleefully, “What Sweet, Sweet Joy!”
Sharon took a sip of her beer as Volstagg began to lovingly speak at length about his wife's physical attributes. She preferred the more mundane aspects of working at SHIELD, like gunfights with industrial armed robbers and tracking down escaped super-soldiers, but seeing as her she and partner were good friends with half the Avengers, it was perhaps only a matter of time before they eventually got swept up in their insanity. She wasn't sure how or why, but four of Odinson's friends, styling themselves The Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, had shown up at the bar, apparently at Clint Barton's recommendation.
The Lady Sif sat at a table with Sam, listening to him as he talked about why Marines weren't actually soldiers. She wore jeans, boots and a plaid shirt with rolled over sleeves over a t-shirt, a look copied by Hogun, who was doing well at darts against some agents from Admin, and Fandrall, who was chatting a foursome of captivated civilian girls gathered around a juke box playing Brown Eyed Girl.
They were trying to be inconspicuous, but their debatable fashion sense was as successful as their attempts got, as they talked with the verve, language and volume of actors performing Richard III. The again, it was New York City, and Broadway was awfully near.
Minutes passed, and Volstagg left Sharon to go try his hand at darts. Not a few second later, Sam and Sif joined her.
“Another round, Greg.” Sam said to the barman before turning to Sif.
“My lady,” Sam said, clearing his throat, “This is my friend and partner, Special Agent Sharon Carter. Red, meet Sif Friar-Daughter.”
“Freyerdotter.” Sif corrected as she offered Sharon an odd sort of nod, like a mounted knight to a squire. Not knowing how to respond, Sharon returned the gesture, hoping she wasn't committing a an Asgardian faux-pas. Luckily, Sif did not react negatively.
“We've already met, but it is a pleasure.”
“Right.” Sam said, “The head is over there.”
Sharon smirked as Sif departed without a word to the ladies room.
“Sam,” Sharon began amusedly, “Are you on a date with trans-dimensional royalty?”
“I'm on a date with trans-dimensional nobility.” Sam clarified, “What about you and Volstagg? Do I hear the pitter-patter of Londoner-Alien Viking feet?”
“He's married. “ Sharon said with mock sadnes, “Alas, all the good ones are.”
“That, or they'd dated your great aunt before chilling in the arctic for sixty-eight years?”
“I don't want to talk about it, Sam. I’d rather think about tomorrow’s meeting.”
Sam was quiet until his and Sif's drinks arrived.
“You know, Sif has a black brother.” he said, “Not a 'brotha'. An actual flesh and blood brother.”
“How peculiar.” Sharon deadpanned.
“You'd think one or both are adopted, or he's her half-brother, but no. They have the same mom and dad, except her brother also has eight other moms, and god knows how that works, but … Yeah. She has a black brother. She was very upfront about it, and as a matter of fact was among the first things she mentioned.”
“That's also peculiar.”
“I actually said ‘Hi’, ‘What's you name’, ‘Wanna have a drink’ and she told me her brother was also black. Point is; it's cool. I don't think she has issues or is crazy, just because both her brother and me are black. She's just not from around here.”
“That's very subtle, Sam.”
Sam sat down at the stool next to her as she took another sip.
“Look, I know you're the one who went to college and studied psychology but I know a thing or two about people. And I think you're making a big deal about this lover's triangle between you, Rogers and your aunt.”
“You don't think it’s a big deal?” she asked, annoyed.
“I honestly don't.”
“Well, Steve thinks it’s a big deal. He tried to hide it from me.”
“You think he's trying to replace her with you, right? You think he isn't right upstairs?”
“I work for SHIELD, everyone I know is not right in the head. I'm not right I the head. Steve is… I don't think I'd be good for him.”
“Well, consider this; when you asked him out, didn't he shoot you down?”
“I wouldn't say he shot me down.” She said, her ego a little bruised, “He turned me down, perhaps?”
“Before that, since he met you around seven months ago. Did he follow you around, or make any gestures?”
“And now, months later, when he's doing better, when he's got friends, when he's a national hero again, when he's on top of his game and has the whole bright world in front of him; that's when he decides to make his move? Does that sound like someone trying to rekindle an old flame by proxy?”
Sharon took a moment to consider Sam's argument.
“A little bit, yeah.” She said, “Confronted with all these life changes and accomplishments, he's all the more desperate to cling to, or even create, something vaguely familiar. Textbook, really.”
Sam stared at her as she finished her beer, trying not to look dumbfounded, before rolling his eyes and getting off his seat as Sif exited the ladies room.
“I can't believe you call her ‘my lady’!.”
“Well, at least I might get some.” Sam mumbled, getting off his stool.
“See if you can find out how that 'nine mothers' business works. It sounds fascinating!”
Jacob Kirby Building , S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters
Thursday – Morning
“So am I to understand you are unwilling to share any information?” Pepper Potts asked, casting a glare toward Agent Wilson.
He wasn’t as bad as Tony described him, but she figured he must be grating after a while. His partner, Agent Carter, was taciturn. She knew of both agents through her partner, Tony Stark, who’d been graced by the two’s visit last Fall, when Steve Roger paid Tony a visit during an unauthorized trek across the country in search of the family of a soldier he once commanded. It was an unpleasant afternoon for all; words were exchanged, certain threats were made, and had made Stark grateful, more or less, for Phil Coulson.
To Tony’s chagrin, the two had been assigned to the case, and SHIELD had deemed the affair to be outside the Avengers’ remit, effectively shutting him out. Thus the meeting came to take place between the three, with Happy Hogan and Jasper Sitwell also in attendance. Steve Rogers was also supposed to have been there as well to keep the peace, had he not been pulled away from the meeting for reasons that had gone unexplained.
“The investigation is ongoing.” Sam offered as he spread his fingers out of their previously interlocked position.
“That’s not saying much.”
“Not much is more than nothing, which is precisely the amount of information I’m obliged to share.”
“It was our property that was stolen.” Hogan offered.
“That is true, but three NYPD police officers were hospitalized in the attack, one of whom will be off the street for good. This goes beyond simple tech-theft; this was an assault on the people of New York City.”
“Agent Wilson, both I and Mr. Stark are aware of the nature of the crime, and we resent the implication that we’re only concerned with what’s ours. But that nature does not explain why you’re being unforthcoming about what progress you’ve made.”
“Ma’am, I don’t like to be blunt, but the reason is that we don’t have to. And doing so is far more likely to be harmful than beneficial.”
“I tell you anything and Mr. Stark is liable to armor-up and compromise our entire investigation.”
“Mr. Stark has no intention of intruding in on this investigation.”
Sam gave her a faint smirk and a cock of his head that reeked of are-you-kidding-me?
“There was a time when Mr. Wilson made sweet, sweet unprotected love to Mrs. Wilson, and it wasn’t nine months and a day ago.”
Pepper lowered her eyebrows, wondering how unprofessional such talk was. Looking at Agent Sitwell, she senses this might be not out of the norm.
“The only reason we’re having this meeting is that Mr. Stark couldn’t hack our system to get the information he wanted. He isn’t going to get it until the investigation has run its course.”
As Sam and Pepper jostled, Sharon had allowed her attention to waver, thinking among other things about the information they were reluctant to share. The crew, who included two men who’d were heavily believed to be linked to a similar heist in Germany and another in Mumbai, were keeping mum, but Jaymes, the British Army veteran, who’d never worked with them before, had divulged a name; Fixer. There were a few other leads, but until the other members were convinced to speak, Fixer was the strongest one they had.
It wasn’t the only information on her mind, though, nor was it what was really preoccupying her. Right before the meeting she’d learned something, quite by accident, as it wasn’t anything she’s meant to be privy to, about someone she tried not to think about for months.
She was torn out of her thoughts by Sitwell’s voice. The SHIELD Chief Special Agent looked coolly at her from behind chrome-rimmed oval glasses, and asked, “You’re being awfully quiet. What are your thoughts?”
“I agree with Agent Wilson’s assessment.” Sharon said.
There was a pause, as it seemed everyone was awaiting further elaboration, before realizing that was all she had to say.
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
Sam had suspected something was wrong when he and Sharon left their car outside the high rise, and knew it was so as he walked through the corridors with his weapon drawn, a team of SHIELD Rapid Action operatives in his wake. There was always something wrong when one went to pay a visit to Russian mobsters, but this was different, it was all too quiet.
Arriving at their quarry and seeing the front door in jagged shards strewn about inside the suit, while a dozen tattooed Slavs littered the floor, his suspicions were proven right. The sound of police sirens in the distance was growing, and Sam knew just the type of night he could look forward to.
After a cursory check of the rooms with two of the men and Sharon, he spoke into the comms receiver hooked to his Kevlar vest.
“Bill. I’ve got a bag of wet. The Blues are coming here, aren’t they?”
“Looks like it, boss. I’ll talk to them. Do you want me to hold them back until you’re done?”
“No, send whoever’s calling the shots over.”
Sam dismissed the Rapid Action operatives and shouldered his weapon.
“Red, is your head on right?”
“What?” asked Sharon as she learned over the body of a burly, middle-aged Russian in a blue silk shirt.
“You went into that room with no one to cover you, if someone was there, you’d’ve been hit. Your head’s been out of the game all day.”
“Your side investigation into Roxxon was about reestablishing contact with Clay Quatermain.” Sharon said without pause and without looking up, “He was extracted out of Kenya by Clint, Natasha and Steve a days ago. Why didn’t you tell me Clay was coming back?”
“Who told you?”
“It’s not important.” Sharon said as she straightened up and looked toward the entrance, “Whoever did this used controlled explosives on the door. Took out the one by the bookshelf, which was a nice surprise, the rest were stunned and startled, which is what the assailant waned. Then they got in and went to work; two three-round bursts each to center mass, from a, what, seven-six-two?”
Sam stared at her for a moment. She didn’t want to talk any further about the elephant in the room, and neither did he, but it was still uncomfortable. Briefly thinking on how odd it would be to find a discussion of intimate affairs less preferable to talking about nearly a dozen dead bodies, Sam nodded to the affirmative.
“Probably an AK.” Sam said, crouching by another body, “With .45 double-taps on a couple who were still hanging on after everyone was down.”
“Very thorough job of annihilating a Russian mafia crew.” Sharon commented, “Whoever did this probably had Military training. Lots of these Gunsels are ex-Spetsnaz, aren’t they?”
“Vietnam-era Marine Force Recon is my guess.” Sam said as he straightened up.
“I’ve seen this before. It’s the Punisher.”
“The Punisher? The Punisher?” Sharon asked suspiciously, “Isn’t he dead?”
“Supposedly disappeared four years ago, some say he moved shop to Los Angeles.”
“So this is a dead end, then?”
“Maybe not.” Sam said as he indicated one of the bodies on the ground, it was of a man of forty, who did not share the same fashion sense as the others, nor did he look Slavic. While the others had tattoos on their arms and knuckles of stars and ominous symbols, he had a tattoo of a bird of prey between his neck and shoulder, peeking over his collar, and none anywhere else.
“See something familiar?”
“He’s a Merc, worked for Harrier.”
“You had some run-ins with them back in Madripoor, right?”
“Yes, I did.” Sharon said, taking a picture of murdered mercenary with her phone as the sound of Police Officers approaching grew near.
“I’m Captain Stacy.” Said a man of his fifties with brown hair and a stony expression, “Mind if I ask how you Strategic Homeland boys are here?”
“Special Agent Wilson.” Said Sam as he shook the Police Captain’s hand, “These jokers supplied equipment for the crew that pulled the Stark Industries heist last week.”
“Is that so?” Captain Stacy asked with interest.
“And now they’re dead. Don’t suppose you’ll want to take these bodies off my hands, will you?”
“Sorry, no. We’ve got our CSU coming in to go through the place. After that, their findings and everything else will be all yours.”
One Hour Later
Sharon heard Sam calling out to her as she opened the trunk of the Midnight Blue SHIELD sedan and secured her weapon to the lid. She’d left the building ahead of him, and he’d hurried out to catch up with her.
“Worried I’d leave without you?” she asked humorlessly.
“A little bit.” Sam said as he caught up, placing his weapon next to hers with slightly less care before he lowered the lid.
“I’m not going to say that I was going to tell you Quatermain was back, because I was never going to if I didn’t have to.”
“I thought as much.” Sharon said, her expression unchanging.
“Are you going to see him now?”
“I haven’t quite decided yet. Did you see him?”
“Yeah.” Sam said as he looked away.
“How’d he look like?” she asked, and Sam wasn’t sure what she was thinking.
“He’s been banged up a little, but the same.” Sam said as he went to the driver’s door and opened it, taking a couple of moments before he got in right after Sharon did.
“My advice, Sharon; don’t.”
Sharon didn’t say a thing, and only turned on the stereo as Sam started the car and drove them away.
Tony Stark’s Penthouse, Stark Tower
Financial District, Manhattan
Friday - Night
As soon as Tony Stark saw Steve Rogers standing at the archway entrance, looking around, he couldn't stop his feet from moving toward him, disregarding the very distinguished gentleman that Pepper had introduced him to as he spoke at length about something worthwhile with nothing but a brief apology. Saint Pepper would handle it, he was sure. He waded through the tuxedo and evening gown crowd at his fund raiser.
As he approached, Rogers noticed him, and gave him a slight, uncouth nod.
“What the fuck are you wearing?”
Rogers looked down, as if to check if he was still wearing jeans and a leather jacket.
“Clean laundry, and a good evening to you too, Tony.”
“This is a fundraiser, do you understand that? It's for the mayor? Couldn't you have shown up in a suit, or Dress Blues?”
“Well, I'm not a Marine, so that's a no.”
Tony glared at him.
“I assume you’re aware of Pepper’s meeting with SHIELD yesterday?”
“Yeah. Sounds like it went your way.”
“The hell it did. They’ve shut me out completely.”
“They’re probably worried you’d involve yourself with the investigation.”
“Fuck Yes I was going to involve myself with their investigation! You have no idea the type of people who want that specific tech, Cap. I’m not going to wait around for them to try again while SHIELD’s shuffling paperwork.”
“They’re putting Clint and Natasha in charge as soon as they’ve cleared their own assignments, aren’t they?”
“I called Clint this afternoon. He sounded drunk.”
“Clint was drunk?” Steve asked with a smirk, “Scandalous!”
“He isn’t on an assignment. SHIELD’s jerking me around!”
“Tony, why don’t you just let Wilson and Carter work?”
“Sorry, which one was Carter?” Stark asked with distaste, “Was it the one that threatened to fabricate a multitude of paternity suits to tie me up in court for years?”
“No… That sounds more like Sam. Look, Tony, some problems can’t be solved with repulsor rays and high explosive wrist mounted missiles.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Tony, Sam Wilson is a very good friend of mine and a very good Agent-”
“Right. And you’re dating the other one, Carter, right?”
“What? Uh, no.”
“That sounded like a yes. Is that why you’re on SHIELD’s side on this? You want your girlfriend to feel important.”
“There’s no ‘SHIELD’s side’ and ‘Avengers’ side’, Tony. Besides, we went out just once.”
“Really?” Tony asked with interest.
“Just the once?”
“ Are you sure?”
“I never went to MIT, but I did learn to count.”
“And you’re not going out with her again?”
Pepper had waded through the well-dressed crowd of partygoers to reach them. She was wearing a black evening dress of a fabric that may or may have not matched that of Tony’s tux.
“Boys,” she began, firm yet pleasant, “Remember where you are.”
“What?” Tony asked as he curled an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him, “What did we do?”
“You were, as ever, about to make a scene.”
“Ms. Potts,” Steve said politely, “That's just how we talk.”
“Yeah, it's, uh, a guy thing.”
“Fine. Just stow it, both of you.” Pepper commanded, then turning to Steve, said, “Steve, for the love of god, it's Pepper.”
“Oh!” Tony said as he remembered, “Steve isn’t dating anyone, just like I told you.”
“Oh, okay, we’ll see what we can do about that.” Pepper said with a smile, “Captain, there is someone who’d like to meet you.”
As if ushered forth by an unseen signal, one of Tony’s guests approached, and Steve couldn’t help but have his eyes grow wider. Tony’s guest was a woman, and while she wasn’t alone in that regard, nor was she alone in being beautiful, she stood out above the others, and as she moved toward Tony and Pepper, she was noticed by everyone within sensory range.
She was statuesque, and the black cocktail dress emblazoned with a tan lace design that reminded Steve of a thunderbolt did nothing to hide the fact that she was also well-toned. Her blonde hair cascaded down her strong shoulders, and standing atop black strappy high-heels, her blue eyes were at the same level as Steve’s. She smiled and said, while extending her hand for a handshake,
“Uh, hi.” Steve said, a little awkwardly, as he shook her hand.
“Steve, this is Major Carol Danvers,” said Pepper, “Newly released from the United States Air Force.”
“Ma'am.” Steve said more steadily, stopping short of standing at attention. The fact that she was military reassured him somehow. Beautiful women were a pickle, but he was more or less capable of talking to servicewomen, no matter how pretty they were, unless they grabbed him by his tie.
“Carol this is the one and only Captain America.” Tony said, as he moved himself and Pepper away, “See if you can get him to ditch the dorky haircut.”
“It’s an honor to meet you.” The retired Airman said when the two hosts were out of earshot.
“Oh. Thank you. So…”
“How do I know Tony Stark? People have been asking me that all night.” Carol said with a laugh, “I served with Colonel Rhodes.”
“Oh. Oh!” Steve said with realization as he recalled a conversation with Rhodey a month or so ago when he spoke of an S2 who looked like a supermodel.
“Yes, of course. Yeah, you flew an A-10 Warthog, right? Rhodey told me about you.”
Carol curled her nose with a smile as she looked down in mild embarrassment.
“If he told you I flew a Warthog, he must’ve called me ‘Cheeseburger’, didn’t he?”
“He did, but with love. I’m sorry, did I hear that you’ve left the Air Force?”
“Yes I did.”
“How come? It wasn’t that you were tired of being called Cheeseburger, was it?”
“No, I just wanted a change.”
“I see. So what are you going to do now?”
“I haven’t really decided yet, but back in college I majored in English. Maybe something in Publishing. Sorry, but I’ve been trying to get a drink all night and keep getting blocked. Do you mind?”
“Not at all.” Steve said as he went with her to the pen bar.
Chapter 4: You've Got a Habit of Leaving
In which Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers have separate conversations with Clay Quartermain, and then one with each other.
Apologies to Clay Quartermain fans. He'll probably come across as dickish, that wasn't the direction I intended but the one the story demanded. Or something.
Jacob Kirby Building - S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters
Friday - Morning
“…Yes, sir. I understand. No, sir, I am aware of that. Now kindly listen to what I have to say. You can not intimidate us, and it isn’t that you’re not intimidating, but because we are who we are. We don’t get intimidated. We’ve had this conversation with a dozen men before you, and we’ll have it with even more after you’re gone and forgotten. We’ve been threatened, put upon and belittled since day one, and at the end of each day, it’s never stopped us. We know where all the bodies are buried, and we’re willing to either bring them to light or increase their numbers. We know, for instance, about Kuwait City, we know about Genosha…. Yes, thank you, Mr. Secretary. I’m glad you feel that way. Have a good day, Sir.”
Coulson put down the receiver and leaned back in his chair with a deep breath, and noticed the silhouette of a figure on the other side of his opaque glass door.
“Come in.” he said before whoever it was had the chance to knock.
The door was pushed open, and Agent Carter walked in.
“Agent Carter, how are you this morning?” said Coulson with a smile as he indicated a chair.
“I’m fine.” Sharon said as she sat down, “How are things on your end, Chief?”
“Business as usual. What can I do for you?”
“Your association with Stark as it is, I thought you’d appreciate an update on my and Wilson’s case.”
“I do appreciate an update, though I would think you should make your report first to Sitwell, and since he’s been gracious enough to keep me apprised of the progress on the Stark heist investigation, I don’t think you have.”
“That’s true, I’m afraid. I’ll have it ready before my flight. It’s just one thing I thought you might find interesting. Last night we found the R.O.C. crew that was of interest wiped out, among them, however, was someone who in all likelihood worked for Harrier.”
“Private Military Contractor based in Madripoor. ”
Coulson nodded in understanding.
“They’ve been deployed in Uganda, Iraq, Transia,” Sharon continued, “They’ve made a disreputable name for themselves everywhere they’ve gone. In Afghanistan, Obadiah Stane hired a team of them to wipe out the faction of the Ten Rings that had originally abducted Mr. Stark, to retrieve Iron Man Mark I.”
Coulson’s eyebrows lowered in interest.
“Do you think this is somehow connected?”
“It’s certainly worth pursuing. During my time in Madripoor I had my brushes with them and still have a couple contacts.”
“That’s very good, you should make that a priority.”
“Well, certainly, though my contact might be a bit too low on the totem pole. Really, whoever attacked those Russians did us no favors.”
“That’s the game. You never know when a low-down rival criminal’s going to throw a spanner in the works.”
“Indeed. Though… Well, it might not be a rival criminal.”
Sharon started knew full well she was putting her foot in it right then and that she had to tread carefully.
“Agent Wilson noted that the entire execution of the hit is more akin to a precisely planned military op than a gangland hit. Not to mention that the police wires are buzzing with wonder over no one knowing who’s done it. It could be something else… A vigilante, perhaps.”
Coulson’s eyebrows rose. It wasn’t that Carter was entertaining thoughts of it being the acts of a vigilante, but that she was bringing it to his attention, with just the amount of coyness to let him know what her real intent was.
“I’m just saying,” Sharon said, pressing on as she noted the most subtle change in Coulson’s demeanor, “A precisely planned hit like that probably entailed a certain degree of surveillance. Whoever the perpetrators were, chances are they got an eyeful of our Mercenary."
Coulson curled his lower lip slightly and nodded his head in a display of consideration.
“Of course, it isn’t like this vigilante, if it is a vigilante and not a random criminal as you said, is likely to reach out to us, and we’ve certainly got no means of reaching out to him, do we?”
There was a brief pause, before Sharon added, almost as an afterthought, “Would be cool, though. Wouldn’t it?”
And then came the awkward silence. It was supremely uncomfortable for Sharon, but she’d been prepared for it.
Frank Castle, the Marine Corps Captain and Vietnam veteran who’d waged a war on crime since the mid-seventies under the much-dreaded sobriquet of the Punisher was someone that polite agent of SHIELD didn’t talk about, and the reasons why were subject to speculation.
Some said that Castle and Colonel Fury had been friends, or close enough, in Vietnam, and that SHIELD had been why the authorities never could catch the vigilante who was now in his sixties. Some even went as far as to say that Castle was actually an Agent who’d been in deep cover for the past four decades.
But in the carnival of oddities that was SHIELD, there’d been plenty of stories floating around about everything. The stories of SHIELD’s association with the Punisher were taken with as much seriousness as the ones about Sam being able to converse with birds. However, a select few in the Special Activities and Operations Branch had learned through privilege or accident that there was at least a modicum of truth to that particular story.
Coulson was in Fury’s inner circle, and as Sam informed her, he was the one to go to with any requests for help. Requests, he said, that had to be made had to be made subtly, in a demonstration of knowing such information would be a grand gift and that it was a crapshoot, perhaps as likely to get one reassigned to a basement unit in Arkansas as it was to yield results.
“Well, Agent Carter,” Coulson finally said, his smile as genial, his true feelings unreadable, “You know what they say at Fort Hereford, don’t you?”
“Who dares wins.”
“Hope for the best, expect the worst and act accordingly. You should never count on getting lucky, and resolve to venture out and create your own luck. Your Harrier lead in Madripoor sounds promising; you should definitely look into that. You should also get to work on that report for Chief Special Agent Sitwell.”
“Will do, Sir.” Sharon said as she got up.
“Wilson’s theories aren’t notable enough to include in the report.”
“Yes, sir.” Sharon said, feeling relieved as she left Coulson’s office.
The apartments on the residential floors –the 45th to the 47th- were left unused most of the time, unless a mid-to-high ranking agent needed to stay as close to work at all times, or the odd special case like a recently thawed super-soldier had to be kept under observation. They were spacious, well furnished, and a few offered a fantastic view of Midtown Manhattan, but as he lay on the couch, staring up at the ceiling he knew to contain surveillance optics recording his every move, Clay Quartermain thought about how much he couldn’t wait to get out of there.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like it the place, it was much better than his own place in the Bronx that he was subletting to some lady Private Investigator, and it certainly beat that damp shack at Roxxon where he was locked up for days. He just didn’t feel like being cooped up for the six days that SHIELD regs mandated, particularly after the talk he had with Sam the day before.
He heard a knock on the door, which was odd as what few callers he got could just waltz in, and he hadn’t ordered any room service. He got up to his feet, pulled on a white tee, walked to the door and opened it.
Sharon Carter stood waiting outside, resting one hand on the door frame.
It was awkward, but for a short while, neither thought to say a word. All they could do was take each other in. Somehow, neither was as the other remembered, even when most of the details were the same.
His chest and shoulders were broad and strong, as befitting a soldier’s build. The deliberate dishevelment of his dirty blond hair, the upward curve at the corner of his lips, and his bright blue eyes, though unusually sunken and tired, betrayed his roguish charm.
Her silky red hair that had caught his attention her first day in the city was slightly longer, but the defiant look in her eyes that attracted him then was as fierce, and the earthy, utilitarian mode of dress still looked good on her figure he used to hold in his arms.
“You look great.” Clay said, his voice softer than he expected.
“You look like you’ve been held and interrogated by a notorious and corrupt energy corporation.”
“That look is in this season. I read it in GQ.”
He looked for the faintest hint of a smile, and did not find any, so he smiled himself as he opened the door wider.
“You want to come in?”
She walked past him. He closed the door and went into the open kitchen, leaning against island as he watched her look around, even when she knew what the inside of these apartments looked like.
“I only heard you were back yesterday.” She said, without turning around.
“Yeah, I wasn’t done polishing up the E-Vites for the homecoming party.”
Clay smirked, then dropped the expression since Sharon wasn’t looking to see it.
“Has Sam been here, yet?”
“Yeah, he came right away. He would know first, though, seeing as its ‘cause of him the brass knew to send in the cavalry. And what a cavalry it was; Half the Avengers, including Steve Goddamn Rogers. I had no idea I was so loved.”
She turned around, crossed her arms across her chest as she leaned against the couch and nodded wordlessly.
He couldn’t read her. The awkwardness he felt the moment he saw her clenched at his heart, so he looked down and tried to summon the will to move past the idle chit-chat.
“I’m sorry, alright.” Clay said after a moment as he looked down, “I was an asshole.”
“I didn’t come here for an apology.” Sharon said emotionlessly, “I want an explanation.”
“That is the explanation. I did what was easy.”
The apartment was silent for a moment again, and cold. Sharon put her arms down, straightened up, and before she headed for the door, simply said, “Alright.”
Clay watched her, reluctant to act at first, before he moved to follow her, saying,
“Don’t call me ‘Babe’.”
She’d stopped, and the unmistakable tint of anger in her otherwise composed voice caused Clay to falter.
“Can’t we talk some more?” she asked after she’d turned around to face him.
“You left me without any inkling as to why, because it was easier that way. What else is there to talk about?”
“I know I was wrong. While I was over at Kenya, I thought about it a lot, I though about you a lot. Look, I don’t know why I did what I did, I just know I was wrong, and that if I could do it all over again, I would’ve done right by you.
“But I can’t turn back time, best I can do is make it up to you.”
“Make it up to me?”
“What if we could start again?”
Sharon stared at him incredulously.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’ve changed, Sharon, I promise.”
“You’ve been slapped by an interrogator one too many times is what you have.”
“Have you been seeing anyone?”
“No, I’ve been sitting at home this past year, waiting for you to come back.”
“Right. Stupid question. Are you, uh, seeing someone?”
There was a pause before she answered,
“No, I’m not.”
He smiled and inched closer to her, and put a hand to her cheek.
“Remember that stakeout one time? That arms-dealer? And then that weekend at Shelter Island?”
“I remember.” She said, her voice betraying emotions she wanted to remain buried. His eyelids were dropping, his lips were growing nearer.
“I have a flight to get to.” She said, backing away, “Sam’s waiting for me outside.”
“Right.” Clay said as he looked away.
“Sharon,” Clay called, “While you’re gone, think about what I said, okay? Think about us.”
She said nothing offering only the merest of nods as she walked out the door.
Sam leaned with his back against the driver’s door of the SHIELD car assigned to him, watching as Sharon exited headquarters in a bit of a hurry, fastening her coat around her body.
“The report was on Sitwell’s desk thirty minutes ago.” Sam said pointedly, “Accounting for everything else you might’ve done inside, that still-”
“Yes, I went to see Clay.” Sharon said without as much of a sideway glance or a hint of embarrassment as she turned around to the other side of the car while Sam looked on in disappointed annoyance.
“Dumbass.” Sam harrumphed.
“Git.” Sharon retorted as she got into the car.
Sunday – Evening
“It’s kind of like a vacation, but not exactly.” Said Clint with a grin as he leaned back in his boot, spreading his arms out across the top of the seat, “I go about my business, ignore Tony, and pretend to be on an assignment. I tell ya, I almost wish Sam and Sharon’s case turns into a whodunit.”
“You should probably pretend to be on as assignment away from a bar, though.” Steve said, taking a sip of his Rum and Coke.
“Nah.” Clint shrugged, “The bigger the lie, the more they believe, as Nixon said.”
“Hitler said that, about the more they believe.”
“Well, I suppose you would know.”
Looking across the early Sunday night crowd that had formed, Steve’s eyes eventually went to the slightly unwashed window, though which he caught sight of what had to be Natasha’s red tresses as she talked to a tall blond man.
“Hey, speaking of Sharon. What happened with you two?”
Steve turned his attention back to Clint, at whom he stared for a moment before shrugging and saying,
“We went out once. I don’t think we will again.”
“It just wasn’t going to work out.” Steve said and smiled, then as he sensed Clint was about to press the issue, followed by gesturing toward the entrance and saying,
Clint looked to see Natasha walk, already taking off her leather jacket.
“Well, the more the merrier.”
Natasha joined them at their booth, with only a nod of her head in a manner of greeting, which wasn’t the least bit unusual of her.
“Are you two dating again?” Steve asked.
“No.” Natasha was a little quick to answer.
“What made you ask us that?”
“’Tasha, you hear about Cap and Sharon Carter?” Clint asked.
“Oh yes. Yes I have.” Natasha said, and something in her voice made Steve feel uneasy.
“Oh, I know all Steve’s dirty secrets.”
Steve put down the Rum and Coke he was about to imbibe and looked into Natasha’s eyes to see a look that was mischievous and a cruel.
Sam was right, women DO talk! Steve thought. He hadn’t spent much time with Natasha since the mission to Kenya, during which she had been taciturn because she and Clint had their quickest relationship relapse and breakup yet. It was only then that Steve realized Natasha had been frigid toward him as well.
“What dirty secret?” Clint asked.
It was a tense couple of moments of Steve feeling helpless, wondering what Natasha was going to say, the thought of diverting the conversation not occurring to him.
“He’s been seeing Carol Danvers.”
Natasha’s eyes then had a look of smugness. Steve unclenched, though he was still feeling uneasy.
“Who’s Carol Danvers?”
“She served with Colonel Rhodes.” Steve said as he took a sip of his drink, keeping his eyes on Natasha as he did so.
“Ew, she’s an Airman?” Clint said with a scrunched expression of distaste, “Wait till Sam hears of this, he’ll be appalled!”
There was a bit of a commotion then. Scattered gasps and utterances of astonished recognition, and then Jim the bartender called out,
“Clay Quartermain walks again!”
Steve looked over his shoulder to see Clay walk up to the bar, dressed in jeans, an untucked black shirt and a suit jacket, gamely receiving pats to that arm from fellow agents who’d thought they’d seen the last of him months ago. He exchanged a fond greeting with Jim over the bar. The proprietor then proceeded to pour him a glass of top-shelf Scotch, and someone pushed the buttons on the jukebox until David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes filled the bar.
“Better watch out, babe.” Clint said with a smirk, “You might catch his eye, and you won’t be able to say no.”
“The hell I will.” Natasha grumbled.
“Aa-aa! It’s a Steranko tradition, and you’re an Agent of SHIELD.”
“It’s one dumb tradition.”
“What tradition?” Steve asked.
“Whenever an Agent’s been gone for a while, or sometimes when they’d nearly gotten killed, they get a glass of the bar’s best Scotch…”
“It’s urine.” Natasha grumbled.
“…The Thin White Duke’s song played in their honor…”
“It’s a song about a junkie! What’s it got to with anything?”
“… And the right to have a drink and a dance with one person in the bar of their choosing.”
“Wow,” Steve said, “That’s elaborate.”
“It’s nothing. The one for promoted Senior Special Agents is a sight to behold. There are belly dancers.” Clint said as he stood up, “I’m hitting the can. Wish me luck.”
Steve alternated his eyes from Clint as he headed for the restroom and Natasha as she looked back at him. As soon as Clint was behind doors, despite not being able to see him after he’d gotten up from her position, Natasha said,
“Yes, Sharon told me.”
“I understand.” Steve said in embarrassment, scratching the back of his neck.
“You should’ve told her well in advance. She’d probably been cool with it.”
“So I’ve been told.” Steve said, looking over his shoulder toward Quartermain, who’d gathered a small crowd. He looked back to Natasha and saw her looking toward the same man with one of her stony looks.
“You don’t like him.”
“If you only applied that perceptiveness to your dating life, you wouldn’t have made an ass out of yourself.”
“Yeah, thanks. What’s with you and Quartermain?”
She was quiet for a moment, before her mischievous smirk returned. She took Steve’s Rum and Coke and gave it a gulp. She had her little games with everyone, and this was one she had with Steve. It used to make him uncomfortable, before he learned getting uncomfortable was exactly what she wanted.
“Clay Quartermain used to be Sam’s partner.” Natasha said, “When Sharon moved here fourteen or so months ago, they hooked up. Sharon and I weren’t too close back then, but apparently it got pretty hot and heavy. A few months into it, he was called up to go undercover at Roxxon.
“That’s the job. Choosing to refuse the assignment isn’t something you do, but there’s no nothing anywhere about just up and leaving to go undercover. That was precisely what he did, he just left without telling Sam or Sharon.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed in disbelief.
“Sharon was hurt, but she pulled herself together when she was assigned as Sam’s new partner. And now Clay’s back, and he’d been asking about her.”
Steve looked back at Clay, feeling a sense of discomforted distaste brewing.
As the minutes went by, the song ended and patrons, both SHIELD agents and civilians, came and went. Clay Quatermain put off upholding his right as a returning SHIELD agent for a dance and a drink, until he set out toward Steve and Natasha’s table.
“We can pretend to be together, if that’ll stop him.” Steve offered.
“I can take care of myself.” Natasha said, unappreciative. Clay arrived, and with a smile, said,
“Hey, Avengers. Where’s Barton?”
“He left.” Natasha answered, not making an effort to mask her distaste.
“Oh, that’s a shame. Well, I’d like to buy you a drink.” Clay said, then just as Natasha was about to harshly rebuke him, he added, “Both of you.”
Natasha was surprised, but Steve was even more so.
“Actually I was just about to leave.” Natasha said as she got up.
“Come on. I figure I owe you, and since Barton’s already left-”
Natasha leaned down toward Steve’s ear, and whispered,
“Try not to put out on the first date.”
“Die in a fire.” Steve whispered back.
Steve watched her as she made her way through the crowd and left. Looking back to Clay, he saw him smirk.
“You checking out the Black Widow, Captain America?”
Steve furrowed his eyebrows in annoyance.
“If you say so.” Said Clay with a smirk as he waved for refills.
Steve brushed off the accusation.
“Natasha, she doesn’t like me much.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“Oh, It is. Still, I owe her, and I owe you.” Said Clay as their drinks arrived and took his, and then raising it, said, “So thank you. Cheers.”
“You don’t have to thank me.” Steve said as he clinked his glass to Clay’s.
Steve kept his eye on Clay as they drank. Even disregarding what Natasha had told him, he wasn’t sure if he was go.
“You come here a lot?” Clay asked.
“Sometimes, sure.” Steve said, “I usually stick to a watering hole in Brooklyn called McBride’s.”
“I just came in to look for someone. Maybe you know her; Sharon Carter?”
Steve curled his lower lip in a show of contemplation.
“You know, I think I do know her. Pretty redhead, kind of tall?”
“That’s her. The two of us had a thing going for a while.”
Clay took a sip of his drink.
“We left things at a bad place before I left.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah… I’m hoping we can patch things up.”
“Hmm. Sounds like you really care about this woman.”
“I’m crazy about her.” Said Clay and took another sip.
“You know how it is with women. The ones you can’t get out your head, even if you wanted to. You’re walking down the street, catch the scent of someone’s perfume, or hell, a bagel, and then you remember them, you’re dizzy and feel like you can’t walk straight. Like the two of you are the only ones that deserve each other. You know what’s that like, don’t you?”
“Huh.” Clay sounded after a pause, taken aback by the Captain’s blunt response.
“You said Hooah. I take it you were in the Army?”
“10th Mountain Division.” Clay said with a nod.
Steve felt compelled to nod in appreciation. He’d realized something about Sharon just then, and gulped his drink down to wash down the taste the realization brought up.
“I take it… Agent Carter’s not pleased with you.”
“Yeah, that’s woman for you.”
Steve resisted the urge to glare at the man as he set the glass down, and said,
“I’m afraid I’m at my limit. Think I’ll head on home.”
“Sure. I’ll, see you around.”
Steve got out of the booth and zipped up his jacket. He wanted to leave, but perhaps out of kinship toward a fellow former soldier or some other reason he didn’t understand, he couldn’t help but turn back and ask,
“You want my advice?”
Clay looked up at Steve with slight puzzlement.
“I once left a girlfriend on really bad terms, and … Well, the advice I got from this other lady friend that a woman needs to feel special, and appreciated. You know, show them you care. Er, Make some kind of gesture. With a gift. Or something.”
Clay nodded, but he was looking at Steve blankly. Steve wasn’t sure if he understood what he was talking about. Then again he wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
“Anyway, good luck.”
Steve left Clay at the table, paid up at the counter and stepped out into the streets outside.
Tuesday – Late Afternoon
“So me and Sif are in bed, and…” Sam began, “We were both performing maaagnificently!”
Sharon nodded from where she sat next to him, watching the red traffic light outside.
“Well, we were going at it like a couple of libidinous bastards. It’s business as usual.”
“Then suddenly, I look away for a second, then back to Sif, and she’s got an eye-patch on.”
“Her eye, pervert. Where else?”
“But, you know, it’s no big thing.” Sam said with a shrug, pressing the gas pedal as the light turned green, “I was kinda embarrassed I didn’t notice it before. So after a while she was, uh, facing away from me, and I looked away and back again. And can you guess what happened?”
“Nope. She became Black.”
“Isn’t she part Black?” Sharon asked with a yawn, resting her head against the cold glass of the passenger side window, “Or whatever Asgard has in lieu of Black people?”
“I’m not sure, I don’t really understand that part of her life. Well, I said myself; ‘Fantastic’. We keep going at it, and after a little while, I notice she might be taller, and a while after that, I noticed she got bald. Do you see where I am going with this?”
Sharon had her eyes closed in tiredness, and was too sleepy not to try to picture was a black, taller, one-eyed, bald Sif looked like, and she figured it out, all sleepiness evaporated from her.
“Jesus! You had a sex dream about Sif and in it she turned into Colonel Fury?”
“That’s a Hooyah.”
“It ended there, didn’t it?”
“Eh. When I… stopped,” Sam said, grimacing in mild discomfort, “Colonel SiFury looked over his-her shoulder at me and said, uh… What was it? ‘Drums beating, cold English’... Um….”
“‘Cold Enlighs blood runs hot, Lady of the house wondering where it's gonna stop’?”
“Yeah. That was it.”
“Hmmm. That’s the lyrics from Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.”
“Right.” Sam said scanning the side of the road for a parking spot, “At that point, I got up and left.”
“That’s certainly a strange dream.”
“You don’t say. Think it means anything?”
“Well, you’re obviously gay for Colonel Fury.” Sharon deadpanned.
“Well, obviously.” Sam said, taking her remark completely in stride, “But what’s the alternative hypothesis?”
“It’s just a dream, Sam. Trippy sex dreams about your boss and … Whatever you’ve got going on with Sif is what happens when you eat Airline stake. But at a guess, I would say…. Relationship anxiety?”
There was not a parking spot to be found before their car passed the entrance to Steranko’s bar, which was when Sharon caught glimpse of Steve standing in the doorway out of the rain, leaning against the frame. Sam noticed him too, and Sharon fidgeted slightly.
There was a moment of awkward silence before Sam asked,
“You want to take the car and pick me up later?”
His tone of voice was his patented you’re-being-a-punk-but-you’re-my-partner-so-I’ve-got-your-back tone.
“No, I’m fine.” She said with resignation.
Sam parked at an empty space five cars ahead and then he and Sharon stepped out into the rain, taking quick steps toward the bar. As he crept up on Steve, was looking expectantly up the road the way Sam had come, he hollered,
Steve turned to look at him and straightened up.
“Sam, you’re back. How was Tokyo?”
Steve couldn’t help shift his feet as he took notice of who was with Sam. He resisted the urge to look down at his feet, while Sharon wrestled with her own awkwardness.
“Captain Rogers. Hello.” She said, trying for reserved yet friendly, but coming off mostly prim.
“Special Agent Carter.” Steve replied with a strong nod.
Sam looked between the two of them and grunted in disapproval before he asked Steve,
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Erm, I’m waiting on a ride.”
“Okay. Wanna do something tomorrow night?”
“…I don’t know.”
Sam stared at Steve for a moment, then back at Sharon, to see she’d been staring awkwardly at Steve.
Sam shook his head, pushed the door open and muttered as he stepped in, “Children.”
Left alone with Sharon, Steve was beginning to panic. He wondered why she didn’t follow Sam in, and feared the worst.
“I just wanted to apologize.”
And with that, it was too much to bear. Steve looked down at his shoes. They were brown boots. Both of them.
“The way I talked to you before…” Sharon said and looked down herself, “I was cruel. I should’ve been more, I don’t know…”
Steve looked back up at her. She had bags under her eyes and droplets of rainwater upon her cheek, and he noticed something else. From beneath the wide woolen hat-thing – Steve wasn’t very up on modern women’s headgear – a few strands of blond hair curled out.
Sharon furrowed her eyebrows.
“Er,Yes, I suppose I am.”
“I’m… Sure you look, uh, fine as a blond. Not that you looked bad as a red-head. You’d make a good brunette, too, I bet.”
Steve winced at himself. He’d just suggested, however unintentionally, could look more like Peggy was typically idiotic of him.
“Um, Thank you.” She said, her eyes shifting to one side briefly in awkwardness, “Did you get a haircut?”
“It suits you.”
“Thank you very much. Um, you didn’t need to apologize. I should’ve told you before.”
“You live and learn.”
“I guess so.”
“I’m really, sorry. I just don’t want there to be any bitterness. We should be friends.”
“You know, at least for Sam’s sake.”
“And I didn’t want this to put you off dating.”
“You should date!” Sharon pronounced, “I mean I’m sure you’ve noticed but you’ve got women lining up to have a drink with you.”
“Sure they are.”
“No, really. You should hear some of the talk around the locker room.”
“You know, I could probably fix you up with someone.”
“Uh, no thanks.”
“It’s just important to move on, you know? Not get so caught up in the past. Each day is a gift, life starts right now, yada… Yada. Look, are you sure you don’t want me to fix you up with someone?”
Sharon heard the low hum of an engine, tires screeching, and a car horn being sounded. She turned around to see a midnight-blue high-performance sport car pulled up by the row of parked cars, a stunning blond woman sitting behind the wheel wearing a black jacket and a bright red scarf.
The blond peeked her head out the window, smiling as she called out,
“Sorry I’m late, Steve. But we have to hurry if we want to make it to that thing.”
“Sure, just once second.”
Sharon scrunched her face in a forced smile.
“That’s quite a ‘ride’.”
“Yeah. She’s one of Stark’s.” Steve said as he turned back to face Sharon, “Can you tell Sam I’ll meet him tomorrow for lunch, if he has the time?”
“He does, and of course.”
“Thanks. And Agent Quartermain has been looking for you.”
Sharon froze. That was one aspect of her private life she didn’t want to be public knowledge, certainly not Steve, for some reason.
“He’s not in there right now, though.”
“Thanks.” She said sheepishly.
“Bye.” Sharon said and watched as Steve turn around the front of the car to get into the passenger’s seat. The driver said something inaudible and laughed before the car darted forward with a roar.
“Well done, you.” Sharon mumbled, sighing at how foolish she sounded prattling on about moving on when Steve had done just that and with such vengeance.
She shuffled her feet into the bar, and finding Sam at their usual booth, she slumped down dejectedly in the booth opposite him.
“I already ordered us food.” He said, “How’d it go?”
She stared aside for a moment, before she said,
“Sam, I need you to call me an idiot.”
“An Idiot?” Sam asked, eyebrows raised, “You’re a dumb fuck, is what you are!”
Chapter 5: Boys Keep Swinging
In which Steve Rogers would have been better off not saying anything at all.
Cedar Park, Philadelphia
Friday - Evening
“…So, I told her that her boyfriend’s been looking for her, and then I came here.” Steve concluded and then took a sip of the hot chocolate milk that Noreen had made him as he sat by the old piano in Gabe’s study.
Gabe’s live-in-nurse Noreen had decreed that there would no spirits for Gabe for the time being, and as such no one else would be allow any either while inside the house. She leaned to the couch’s arm rest, while her employer was in his favorite chair, between the standing lamp and the record player, the bottom half of his body covered with a thick winter blanket. He asked,
“And that was it?”
“Pretty much.” Steve answered with a nod.
“Do you know if she went to meet him?” Noreen asked.
“No. She probably did, though.”
“Well, he seems like a real piece of work. I’m sure she’s going to turn him down.”
“I don’t know. I think she still has feelings for him. Besides, he just got back from captivity.”
“I… Don’t understand.”
“Well, um…” Steve said and cleared his throat, “Women are crazy for men who’d been recently in harsh conditions, aren’t they?”
Gabe didn’t know whether to laugh or wince as he averted his eyes from Steve and Noreen and drank his tepid Green tea. Noreen’s eyes narrowed as she tried to get her head around what she thought was a foolish notion expressed by someone she liked and admired, trying to figure out if there was any way she could have misunderstood him.
“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?”
“Well, uh,” Steve mumbled, realizing he was about to say something typical of himself, “I agree that it’s a bit generalizing, but I’ve seen it happen. I mean, um, when we got back from Italy, the Howlers had girls throwing themselves at them like there was no tomorrow. Even Gabe. Especially Gabe! Didn’t you, Gabe?”
Gabe raised a protesting hand and said,
“Don’t drag me into this, Cap.”
Noreen exhaled as she shook her head and set down her now empty coffee mug.
“No, Steve. Just… No.”
“I meant no offense.”
“I know you didn’t. But you need to realize there’s lame-brained women with the emotional sense of teenagers and then there’s most women.”
“Sorry.” Steve said sheepishly and drank the rest of his chocolate.
“You are forgiven.” Noreen said as she got up and approached him, “More cocoa?”
“Yes, please.” Steve said as he handed Noreen his empty mug. She left the study, leaving the door open, and disappeared down the hall toward the kitchen. Now by themselves, Gabe turned toward his old friend, and asked, without preamble,
“Are you alright?”
It was somewhat ironic that while most people of the day looked at Steve and saw a simply, uncomplicated man, Gabe knew better, and as such was able to see through him better than anyone else. When he posited that most simple of questions, Gabe could notice Steve tense in the shoulders momentarily before smiling and shrugging. The silence that followed was a few seconds too long enough to be revealing. And then Steve said,
“It’s not like I wanted to get married or anything.”
His words, while Gabe knew to be categorically true, betrayed something he didn’t know the Captain to feel very often; the bitter sting of disappointment.
“Well,” Gabe said, “Chances are neither does she. You never know what tomorrow brings, there might still be hope.”
“I don’t think so.” Steve said as he shifted uncomfortable in his seat, “She’s got her own soldier back. I was just filling in. I’m going to leave it where it is and move on, I think that’s for the best.”
“Alright.” Gabe said, intending to return to the subject at some point, “But remember how jealous you used to get over Peggy and Howard?”
Steve smirked. Memories of liberty in London coming back to him, and Howard in his loose suits and suspenders making suggestions that sounded sleazy merely by virtue that Howard Stark was the one saying them.
“I’m still not convinced he wasn’t after her, at least a little.”
“Oh, he was.” Gabe said and chuckled as he saw the astonished look on Steve’s face. Suspecting was one thing, but having it confirmed was another.
“She just never gave him the time of day. At her wedding, he got drunk and tried to sock the groom, but missed by a mile and hit his head on the drinks table.”
Steve shook his head in amused bewilderment.
“That’s just… I never want to hear about it again.”
“Okay. Can I ask you something?”
“Remember my advice? That you should look for something about your young lady that was different from Peggy?”
“Yeah.” Steve nodded, “That was pretty smart, actually. Of course, I didn’t get far enough to find out. She’s tough, British and tends to get mad at me; a Carter girl through and through. Pointing that out was what started this mess.” Steve said, and peeked into the hallway to see Noreen approach with a tray, “Let’s change the subject.”
SHIELD Headquarters, Jacob Kirby Building
Sam leaned with his back against the mirrored end of the elevator as it descended down to the lobby carrying him, Sharon and Jimmy Woo.
“Did you hear about the callsigns for all employees in the grade of Special Agent and above?” Agent Woo asked with a yawn.
“Numbers is what I heard.” Sharon said.
“Numbers?” Woo repeated, “Like you’d be called Agent 99?”
“Or something like that. Can’t see it happening, myself.”
“True.” Woo concurred, “Agent 69 would be a walking joke. No one would want to be Agent 13, either, or maybe everyone would.”
“I’d like to be Agent 33.” Sam mused as he rubbed his chin.
Woo nodded in understanding.
“Pat Ewing?” Woo inquired, and Sam nodded once in confirmation, “You’re a scholar and a gentleman, Sam Wilson.”
At the lobby, the three got out and headed for the glass front doors together, making idle conversation. Outside, the pavement was still slick from when it rained earlier, but the cloud had parted to provide something approximating a marginally sunny day. Woo bade the other two a farewell as he took a walk down 46th Street, before Sam stopped to face Sharon. Speaking in a hushed tone, he said,
“Coulson came though.”
“We’ve got the surveillance?”
“Yeah. We can’t take it up to the office, so I’m going to go over it at my place. ‘You coming?”
“I’ve got plans, actually. It won’t take too long, but I’ll be by later.”
“Plans?” said Sam, trying his hardest not to glare, knowing full well what plans must have meant. The past couple days since returning from Tokyo were hectic, spent with long hours at headquarters and hardly getting home. They’d spent the first night sleeping at the office, leaving no time for her to sort things out with Clay, which was all for the better as far as Sam was concerned.
“Yes. Plans. Say, didn’t you meet up with Sif last night?” Sharon asked pointedly, “How’d that go?”
This time, Sam did briefly glare before raising his chin defiantly and saying,
“She’s going back to Asgard. She said that she, and I quote, is just no that into me.”
“Oh.” Sharon said, a little guiltily, “Sorry about that.”
“Hnh. Summer vacation is over. Fun while it lasted.”
“I’ll get started without you, just remember we’ve got plenty of shit to do tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“And don’t be an idiot.”
She gave him a little wave as she walked away, heading up 46th Street in the direction of Steranko’s bar. Sam started in another direction, to a nearby carpark. He hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps before he felt the phone in his jacket pocket vibrate. Producing it with little thought, he was slightly surprised to see an unregistered number with a Philadelphia suffix. He pressed answer, and put the phone to his ear.
“Agent Wilson?” came a gravely voice on the other end.
“This is he. Who’s speaking?”
“Gabriel Jones. Remember me?”
Sam stopped in his tracks. He’d met the Professor, a founding member of SHIELD, once before, but getting a call from him surprised him as much as a call from Patrick Ewing would have.
“Of course.” Sam answered eventually and began walking again, before following somewhat belatedly with a respectful, “…Sir.”
“How’s it going, son?”
“Oh… You know.”
“I don’t, obviously.”
“Well, I’m on my way home. How’d you get this number?”
“I had my nurse look it up on Captain Rogers’ phone while he wasn’t looking.”
“Oh, I just thought we could talk.”
“You’re a quick one, aren’t you?”
“Does he need anything?” Sam asked with concern, “You want to put him on?”
“He’s fine. He’s already on his bike, heading your way.”
“The reason I’m calling you is that I understand things haven’t gone well with him and your partner, the object of his interest.”
“Well, it’s complicated,” Sam said as he stood by a traffic light, waiting for the crosswalk sign to switch on,
“And frankly, their business and their business alone.”
“Wilson, for shame…” Jones said and chuckled, sounding like marbles rolling in a tin can, “You’re a secret agent. There’s no such thing as not-your-business.”
“Maybe.” Sam conceded as he crossed the street with a crowd of fellow Manhattan pedestrians just getting off of work, “But there’s nothing to talk about, really. It ended before it began. It wasn’t meant to be.”
“Nothing’s meant to be unless we mean it to be.”
“Well, that’s fine, sage wisdom, Professor.”
“Perhaps there’s some way we can coax them back together.”
“You serious?” Sam asked, turning a corner on the other side of the street that took him into the car park.
“Do you think I would have called otherwise?”
“Well, then, maybe we can-”
“Sorry. That was an actual no. As in ‘No, there isn’t a way to “coax” them together’. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have liked to see those two chuckleheads get together, but that earth has been well and truly salted.”
“Sharon’s pulled out,” Sam said definitively, “And Steve has made his piece with it. End of.”
“Sharon isn’t about to find a better man than Steve.”
Sam sounded something between a grunt and exhalation as he walked up to his car and patted his pockets for the keys.
“Steve is a prince. We both know it, and so does Sharon. But it isn’t like being a good guy entitles him to her.”
“She was interested in him, wasn’t she?”
“Was indeed. Before she learned about her great-aunt once being Steve’s squeeze. Sharon thinks that’s a big deal, for some reason.”
“Peggy and Steve was a longtime ago. It was full of promise, but it never got as much as a chance to get off the ground.”
“Well, Sharon thinks that’s the whole reason he asked her out.”
“Maybe she is wrong. She’s definitely stubborn about her being right.”
“Is she?” Jones asked, the faint hint of a smile in his voice, “I suppose it must run in the family.”
Sam got into his car and turned the key into the ignition. The engine came to life with a rumble.
“I hear your partner is somewhat involved with a man with less than chivalrous tendencies.”
“She used to date my ex-partner, if that’s what you’re referring to me. Yes, he’s a little bit of a tool, but not a complete asshole, and he’s a friend of mine… More or less.”
“Do you approve of them dating?”
“It’s not up to me to approve of it. Sharon’s a big girl, she can date whoever she wants.”
There was a pause on the line, before Jones spoke.
“Agent Wilson…” he started, his tone hard as if his patience was running thin, before following with a softer, kinder, “Sam… I think it’s admirable how much you respect Ms. Carter as your partner and as a capable woman, but for once, as a favor to me, would you grow a pair and tell me what you actually think?”
Sam was stunned silent for a moment. It wasn’t everyday that a Nonagenarian war hero and spymaster told him to grow a pair.
“I don’t like it.” Sam admitted as he turned on his headlights, “And I do wish she’d give Steve another chance.”
“But still, I’m keeping my distance. Forgetting about Sharon, what about Steve?”
“What about Steve? Our boy is smitten.”
“Which is sweet and all, but shouldn’t we… You, be helping him getting his act together instead of playing cupid?”
“Cap needs our help.”
“Our help, yes. Not our meddling. It isn’t like he doesn’t know a thing about-”
“It is exactly like that.”
“Come on. He might be old fashioned now, but back then, he must’ve-”
“Cap is a virgin.”
Sam paused, his lips opened and closed, before he said, rather than asked,
“Cap has never so much as touched a woman for more than a kiss, which was rare.” Jones explained, “Only naked woman he’s ever seen was in a life drawing class.”
Sam was quiet again for a moment, and then shifted the gearshift into drive, lowered the emergency brakes and put his foot lightly to the gas pedal.
“You know, that actually explains a lot.”
“We’re the only people who know… Unless Noreen just overhead me.”
“Yeah yeah…. We’ll keep it that way.”
“Where’s Sharon now?”
“She’s on a date.”
“That’s not very good.”
“It isn’t. I’m meeting her later tonight.”
“Call me tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah,” Sam said as he steered his way toward an exit, “Sure.”
The end-of-the-week crowd was made out of four SHIELD employees to every one civilian as opposed to the usual three-to-two. Warm yellow light filled the place, and as always, there was that distinctive Steranko odor of sawdust, beer and –for reasons that had ever eluded Sharon and everyone she asked- honey and rust.
Jim, the proprietor, was behind the bar minding the tap, wearing his thick-and-black-rimmed glasses while Clint Barton chugged beer from a glass pitcher, flicking darts to his side at the board in quick succession without looking, landing all in the bull circle, before landing the thirteenth dead-center, at which point the surrounding crowd issued a collection guttural sound of impressed disbelief before each grudgingly handed him a collection of small denomination bills.
It was then that Sharon noticed Nell Tapper sitting at the bar, sipping a daiquiri. The petite brunette noticed her in turn and spun in her stool to wave cheerfully.
“Hi.” Sharon replied, surprised but smiling, as she crossed the short distance while Nell got on the floor. They shared a brief embrace before parting, still holding each other by the elbow.
“… Months. A year? How time flies. God, where have you gone?”
“Yeah, I know.” Nell grinned, sitting back at her stool with Sharon following her example, “Plenty of pay, but not the chance to spend it. What about you?”
“I’m at still in Acts and Ops, partnered with Sam Wilson.”
“Holy shit, you’re blonde!” Nell exclaimed, and laughed at the tangent she’d taken, “Sorry, I just noticed.”
Sharon smiled. Right then, the Jukebox came to life, playing a smooth swing tune. There was something oddly familiar about the bar at that moment, and it wasn’t because Sharon had been there on no less than four times every week for the past year. There was something else, with the sudden appearance of Nell Tapper and the song being played.
Sharon gave Nell a questioning look. Nell smiled as she looked back at her and nodded in the direction of the far end of the bar. Sharon turned to look and saw Clay by the Jukebox, from which Frank Sinatra’s voice emanated crooning the lyrics to Witchcraft, resting one hand on the railing by his booth, waving the other hand holding a glass of Scotch at her. He wore boots, jeans, an untucked plain buttoned down shirt and a dark gray sports jacket. His dirty blond hair was slicked back, and he sported a deliberate amount of stubble.
“He called me out of the blue,” Nell explained, “He said things with you two went bad, and I don’t know why, but he sounded sorry to me."
“That’s why you came here, then?” Sharon asked, her tone playfully accusing.
“Well, yeah. He said he wanted to have tonight be as much like the night you first met as possible. But it’s real good to see you, Sharon. I’d really like to hang out sometime when we’re both free.”
“Yeah. That sounds lovely.” Said Sharon as she got off the stool and took a contact card out of a pocket, “This is my new number.”
“Thanks.” Said Nell as she took the card, “Now go talk to him! And I love your hair!”
Sharon approached the man at the back, debating how fast she should be doing so. As she grew near, he grinned, and took her all in with his eyes.
“Wow, look at you.” He said, “Sharon Carter, a blond. Gotta say I have a hard time thinking of you any other way than as a redhead.”
“Really?” she asked, running some fingers through them, “I felt like a change.”
Clay made a gesture for them to sit. Without a word, she obliged, and he followed her in, sitting at the opposite side.
“Do you know this song?” he asked.
“It’s Witchcraft.” She answered factually without giving an indication of whether she was aware or concerned with its significance.
“I still remember the first night I saw you.” Clay said as he grinned anew, “Sam and me were sitting right here, celebrating our latest professional conquest, and I looked up and saw Agent Tapper walk in with perfect ten of a redhead.
“And I turned to Sam and I said, ‘I’m not leaving this bar until I’ve talked to that girl and got her to go out with me’. But I must’ve just watched you for thirty minutes while you and Tapper talked and drank at the bar, and then I got to the jukebox, put on Witchcraft and you turned to look at me and smiled, and I said, ‘A girl who likes Sinatra is something special’.”
“Did you?” Sharon asked with a faint, indeterminate smile as she placed her elbows on the table.
“I certainly did.” Said Clay and then took a sip of his scotch, “So how was your trip?”
“Busy.” Sharon answered. Her tone was brief, thought not really clipped.
“Sam doesn’t like Tokyo.”
“He didn’t seem to be in too much agony.”
“How is Sam?”
“Well, you’ve talked, haven’t you?”
“Talked isn’t the right way to put it.”
“Well, Sam’s fine. He almost got fobbed to the Antarctic detail once, before, well…”
“The Steve Rogers Detail?” Clay asked, with eyebrows raised. The Antarctic detail was a SHIELD operation that had gone on for decades, tasked with finding the remains of Captain America, and was staffed by Agents who’d deserved a particular brand of punishment, “What’d he do?”
“Drugged a Symkarian diplomat without goig through the proper channels.”
“Classic Wilson. Is he still seeing that civilian girl Leia?”
“I don’t really know who that is. He just had a bit of a fling with the Lady Sif.”
“She’s one of the Asgardian people.”
“Asgardian people, Jesus.” Clay said as he finished off the rest of his Scotch, “The times really are a’changing.”
“Yes, I suppose they are.”
He smiled at her, and eyed her hand placed on the table.
“I was here with Captain America the other day, of all people. He said he knew you.”
“Yes.” Sharon nodded, “He’s friends with Sam.”
“Oh, yeah? He was looking pretty chummy with Romanoff.”
“Oh? Did he?” Sharon asked, feigning surprise.
“Yeah, there’s definitely something going on there.”
“Interesting. What about you? How was Kenya, before all that discovery-and-imprisonment stuff?”
“Eh, you know. Being undercover as an information broker isn’t as fun as you might think.”
“Was there…” Sharon began carefully and cleared her throat, “…Anyone…?”
“No. Not at all.” Clay said softly as he placed his hand over Sharon’s, “What about you? How’s life been treating you?”
“I’ve been doing fine.” She said. Beneath his hand, her knuckles rose, but she didn’t withdraw.
“I know you said you’d dated, but I was just wondering…”
“Nothing serious, really. Well, there was someone a little special, a little while ago, but… It didn’t work out.”
“I’m sorry,” Clay said with a grin as he clasped Sharon’s hand, “But no way am I going to pretend I’m sorry to hear that.”
It was then that Sharon finally pulled her hand away, leaned back and let her gaze drop.
“I’m sorry, too.”
“I thought we were having a pretty good time, babe.”
“Don’t call me babe.” Sharon groaned, “Look, I know I said I was going to think about us while I was away. And I did, and I’m going to be honest; I thought about for almost all of the drive to the airport. I pretty much decided to just sting you along, keep you thinking we could work things out, while having no intention to do so. Out of pure spite…”
“Jesus.” Clay muttered, astounded.
“…But now, it feels just bloody stupid.” Sharon continued, and then sighed, looking down at the worn wood of their table, “I’m sorry, but it’s over between us.”
“What?” Clay asked, no longer smiling, “We’re not even going to talk about it?”
She glared at him for a moment, drawing out the words in her mind.
“You left me without as much as a word. So that’s a no.”
“I already apologized for that.”
“Well, apology accepted. ”
“We were great together.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I want any more part of whatever it is we used to be great at.”
“No… Look, I... Over there you were all I could think about. I hardly looked at any wo-”
“Gail Simpkins.” Sharon stated simply.
Clay was taken aback. The name wasn’t one he’d expected to hear again, least of all from Sharon. He stammered,
“You were seeing her.” Sharon stated coolly, “She’s how Sam figured out how to get you out.”
“She meant nothing to me.”
Sharon looked at him blankly for a moment before she got out of the booth.
“I never said it before, but I actually think Sinatra is overrated.”
Clay was quiet, and merely stared at her wide-eyed as she turned to walk away.
“Have a good life, Clay.”
Bowling Green Park
Financial District, Manhattan
Saturday – Morning
“You insulted his musical inclinations?” Natasha asked as she walked alongside Sharon, kicking a pebble toward a small flock of pigeons, causing them to fly off the gray-cobblestones ground as they cooed.
“That’s stone cold. And you’re right,” Natasha continued, “Sinatra is overrated. Though I think your original lead-him-on-for-as-long-as-possible plan had plenty of promise. How are you feeling?”
Sharon shrugged, her gate twisting for a moment that brought her dangerously close to Natasha’s flank.
“Eh.” Sharon said and pursed her lips slightly, “I just want to get back to work.”
“That’s smart.” Said Natasha, “The job, when it’s good, - and believe-you-me that it is good for both of us - is all you need. Speaking of which…”
“Yeah, just hold on for a second.”
Sharon took her phone out of her pocket, and with a couple of swipes and taps, switched on an application before slipping her phone back into her pocket. Electric currents coursed through integrated circuitry, generating signals at frequencies that would scramble The application was not one available for download to the masses, and interfaced with integrated circuitry generating a signal that would scramble any recording or listening devices that could be directed at the area within a six-foot radius of them.
“You know how Sam and I are supposed to be on the Stark Robbery assignment until you’re free to take over?”
“Sure,” Natasha said smugly, “I’m investigating a series of beauty parlors, art galleries and cocktail bars for their connection to the Ten Rings. It could honestly go either way.”
“Right. I think it’d help if that assignment took a hiatus. Sam and I could use you.”
Natasha nodded, her expression growing dead serious.
“Fill me in.”
“The blaggers were after a set of Stark’s repulsor tech being moved to the Baxter Building. They’re not exactly the same used in his suit, it’s more scaled toward more scientific application. Though someone committed and resourceful enough could still weaponize them.”
“Who were the crew?”
“Six men; a Frenchman, two Brits, three Canadians. One of each nationality with a less than stellar military history. The point-man, Georges Batroc, is suspected to be involved in a similar heist of Rand Corporation prototype micro-processors in Mumbai last year, and another with one in Hamburg around the same time, they got away with bleeding edge optical wavelength micro-generators. Hard Light technology in layman’s terms, like on Red Dwarf.”
“Did you get any of the crew to roll?”
“Mostly, they’re keeping completely mum. They’re not responding to promises of leniency or threat of extremely uncomfortable jailtime.”
“Are they that well-paid?”
“I think they’re more intimidated by whoever they worked for.”
“You said mostly.”
“I did indeed. Christian Jaymes, the getaway driver, is new to the game. He was a British Army Corporal, served in Afghanistan as a jeep driver for visiting VIPs. There some citations for bravery in his record, but even more infractions. Early last year he got a dishonorable discharge after a six month stint at Colchester Garrison.”
“How’d he get in on the job?”
“Well, he’d applied to work for the Harrier PMC through an army friend, Tom Sloane. He didn’t get in, but they kept in touch, and Sloane floated him some money every now and then, until recently when Sloane recruited him for this job after the prior driver was arrested in Montreal on a possession charge.”
“The original driver?”
“Stabbed in custody, and before you ask. Sloane has disappeared.”
“I get the feeling that that’s not Harrier’s only involvement.”
“The two other ex-military blaggers, Batroc included, have a similarly spotty record as Jaymes, and are known to have made multiple trips to Madripoor in the last four years, where Harrier is headquartered. Moreover, the blaggers’ transport, ordinance, comms and other equipment were provided by the Russian mob.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Leon Rastovich’s crew. He got stamped-out before we got to him.”
“My sorrow knows very well-defined bounds.” Natasha spewed with contempt.
“The go-between was Andrei Semyanovitch Rostov; ex-Lieutenant in the Russian Airborne Troops and Harrier employee since Ninety-Eight. He was killed along with Rastovich’s crew.”
Natasha bowed her heard in consideration.
“This doesn’t seem like Harrier’s usual game.”
“It isn’t, they must be working for someone else, but they’re definitely running these jobs. I have an informant who confirmed it. He’s also heard rumblings of some sort of auction. But there’s also something else Jaymes divulged; the sobriquet Fixer. Jaymes’d overheard Batroc mention the name on the phone once, presumably to Rostov. He’s the bankroller.”
“Well what do you have on Fixer?”
“Just about everything, actually.” Sharon said with a smirk, “His real name’s Paul Norbert Ebersol. Double-PhD in electrical engineering and chemistry from M.I.T., worked for Stark, Hammer and Advanced Idea Mechanics at separate points. He currently occupies a position as a consultant for Fujikawa Limited. He travels a lot between Tokyo, Bern, Los Angeles and other places. We can put him in Manhattan three weeks ago, at a possible time to meet Rostov.”
“So what’s exactly the game?”
“Based on the scattered chatter, our surveillance of Ebersol in Tokyo, and a consultation with Sid Levine, it seems Ebersol is gathering tech and weaponizing into next-gen ordinance, for sale to the highest bidder.”
“That’s kind of disappointing.” Natasha said and pursed her lips, “I might be spoiled by the god-of-mischief-alien-invasion racket, but this sounds absolutely hackneyed.”
“Well, it’s a scary new world. There’s one-man nuclear deterrents flying around, and all.”
“So where do I come in?”
“We need to get into that auction, which is taking place very soon.”
“You’ll need a strong cover.”
“Well, I have a solid cover cultivated starting with an op two-and-a-half years ago, as Irma Kruhl, German-Welsh shady commodities broker. I just need a way in.”
“You need me as Laura Mathers.” Natasha surmised, nodding in understanding.
“Can you manage?”
“I’m happy to. I am going to need a window, though. How much time do I have?”
“At least a week, no more than eighteen days.”
“Seven days aren’t going to be a problem.”
Sharon smiled, placing a hand on Natasha’s arm above the elbow.
“I’ll owe you big.”
“And I won’t forget about it.” Natasha said and smirked, “Where are we going now?”
“Stark Tower.” Sharon said cheerfully, “Sam and I have got brunch with Pepper Potts, figure you tagging along would help smooth things along.”
“Stark must really not like you and Sam if I’m going to be of any help.”
“Ha! How are you, Natasha?”
“Good.” Sharon said, somewhat excitedly, “And the others?”
“You know, um, the Avengers.”
“We’re all fine.”
Natasha looked at Sharon with bemusement, and met with Sharon’s own awkwardly expectant expression, went on to shake her head and sigh in exasperation.
“What?” Sharon asked.
“You’re so pathetically obvious, Carter.”
“If you want to ask about Steve, just ask about Steve!”
“What?? No, it’s nothing like that. You guys saved the word that one time, didn’t you? Why wouldn’t I ask about alright I did want to ask about Steve.”
Sharon ignored Natasha muttering something in Russian that sounded clipped and unkind, and asked,
“I saw a tall, blond woman pick him up outside the bar when I got back from Tokyo. Do you know who that is?”
“It sounds like Carol Danvers. Wait, you talked to Steve?”
“A little. As it turned out, he’s been talking to Clay.”
“Yeah, they hung around at the bar one night.”
Sharon winced, and shutting her eyes, muttered,
“Oh good lord. Do you know what they talked about?”
“No idea, we haven’t been hanging out a lot, recently. How did it go?”
“It was awful and it was awkward.” Sharon said, “I acted like a condescending idiot and then this supermodel person swooped in and whisked him away in a sportscar worth more than what SHIELD would be willing to part with for my ransom.”
“She’s not a supermodel.” Natasha corrected, “She’s ex-Air Force.”
“What else do you know about her?”
“She used to be stationed at Edwards A.F.B.” Natasha began to enumerate with perfect flow and clarity, “She served under Colonel Jim Rhodes, flying an A-10 Thunderbolt-2. She was honorably discharged with the rank of Major three months ago. Before the service she graduated from Dartmouth with a BA in English. Her background is spotless, except for a charge for drunk and disorderly on her twenty-first birthday, but that was dropped…”
The amount of detail had rendered Sharon speechless, and she stared at Natasha with her eyebrows slightly raised as she finished.
“…She voted for Kucinich last time around. Make of that what you will.”
It was a few seconds before Natasha registered that Sharon wasn’t responding. Turning to face her, she was met by Sharon’s bewildered gaze.
“You had her vetted?”
“Yes.” Natasha answered coolly. Sharon’s expression did not change, except for the tight closing of her mouth and slight rise in her eyebrows.
“Have you met Steve?” Natasha asked in annoyance, “The boy needs looking after!”
“Okay.” Sharon replied amusedly.
“You still have feelings for him, don’t you?” Natasha grumbled.
“Yes.” Sharon answered in resignation.
“I don’t know. I just saw him with the Danvers person and I felt like a jealous idiot, and when I found out he’d been talking with Clay, I felt… I don’t know, exposed? Like I’d been caught cheating, which is ridiculous.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to have these feelings, but it’s not like here’s a way I can just chuck them.”
“You could sleep with him.” Natasha suggested. Her face devoid of any hint of sarcasm or jest, which with her held no significance.
“I hate you.”
“Seriously, just sleep with him. Make it as sweaty, scratchy and pornographic as you can, that’ll take care of those middling feelings.”
“…Or you could ignore those feelings and get on with the job.” Natasha scolded, “You’re an agent of SHIELD, for god’s sake. Forget about Steve.”
Sharon nodded, and pushed a lock of hair behind hear air as she took Natasha’s word to heart.
“You’re right.” She muttered, “God, where’s my bloody head at?”
“And forget about Clay, too.”
“Oh, I am certainly forgetting about Clay!”
“And forget about…” was all Natasha could say before she lost her composure and began to snigger, “… forget about… Volstagg!”
Sharon stopped in her tracks, she shut her eyes and clenched her arms about her body with great annoyance, before she opened her eyes again to glare at a chuckling Natasha who promptly threw an arm around her shoulders.
“Sorry,” Natasha said as she tried to reign in her laughter, “I just wanted to bring that up for the longest time.”
Cabe, Stark Tower
Sam chuckled, making a show of throwing his back against his chair and slapping his own knee. Across the table Steve shook his head and smiled, halfway between embarrassed and amused, while next to him, Carol Danvers sat relaxed and looking smug, and took a bite out of her chicken crepe. The former Airman had masterfully replied to the former Sailor’s barb with one of her own, and Sam took a few moments to consider his rebuttal.
“What, you couldn’t requisition a la-z-boy?” Sam asked.
“Tried to, but all the cash went to the Navy’s new digital-terminal-protective-coating system.”
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“Manicure.” Sam snorted, “That’s unseemly, even for the Chair Force.”
Sam took away his attention from the two fellow former servicemen and directed toward the front of the restaurant behind them, where he saw Sharon approach by herself. He raised a hand and waved her over.
“Hello.” Sharon said when she’d arrived, looking trying not to stare at Sam’s unexpected company.
“Carol, this is Sharon.” Steve said by way of introduction, “Sharon, this is Carol Danvers. She was in the Air Force, but we’re trying not to hold it against her.”
“Hello.” Sharon said crisply, receiving a friendly nod in return, and turning to Steve, said, “Captain.”
Steve nodded back with a smile and said,
“Where’s other Red?” Sam asked.
“She ran into someone downstairs, she’ll be right over.” Sharon explained, trying not to give away any details in the presence of a civilian, “What about Ms. Potts?”
“Running a little late.” Sam said and gave a shrug, “Probably just jerking us around, but what are you going to do?”
Sharon nodded, standing at Sam’s side awkwardly as she glanced at Steve and Carol, about the last two people she expected to see.
“We saw Sam and thought we’d keep him company.” Steve said, noticing Sharon’s questioning look, “Carol has a job interview a couple of floors up.”
“A job interview?” Sharon asked, “What kind of job?”
“Editorial work.” Carol answered, “At The Pulse. Speaking of which, I should actually get up there.”
Carol got up, smiling down at Steve as he smiled back at her and said,
“Break a leg.”
“See you later, Steve.”
Carol turned to Sharon and gave a friendly smile as she picked up her purse, before turning to Sam and adopting a fake sneer.
“Corpsman.” She hissed.
“Major.” Sam replied in much the same tone.
Carol smiled again, and with a little wave she departed. Sharon silently watched her walk away through the tables and dissolve in the crowd, feeling a rare kind of tightness in her heart. Once she was gone, the awkwardness was felt strongly among the three, and Sam shifted his eyes between Sam and Sharon before clearing his throat and getting to his feet.
“You know, I suddenly remember I have an important call to make.” Sam said as he left the table and walked away, “I’ll be right back.”
And so there were the two of them once again, and Sharon had little reason to believe it would be any less awkward than any of the times before.
Ms. Potts wouldn’t just jerk you around,” Steve was the first to speak, “I’m sure she’ll be here as soon as she can.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I don’t mind waiting.”
“Please…” Steve said, gesturing at the chair that had been occupied by Sam moments ago. Sharon sat and crossed her legs beneath the table, tapping her foot nervously.
“How’s work going?”
“Just fine.” She said, wishing she was at liberty to reveal more, “We’re nearing a breakthrough.”
“That’s good to hear. I’ve one to play with seeing as Sam’s so busy.”
Sharon laughed softly.
“Carol seems nice.”
“She is. She’s a great girl.”
It was a forced smile that Sharon adopted, and she tried to remember Natasha’s words from earlier.
“What about you and Agent Quartermain?”
“We’re not going to see each other anymore.” She said, a little too quickly, as if she couldn’t wait to inform of the fact that she was still single, for all the good it would do.
“Oh?” Steve said with interest.
“Yeah, it wasn’t going to work out. It was over for quite sometime. I’d moved on.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes. What he did was wrong, no reason to just let it go. Though I must say I’m rather surprised.”
“Yes. I mean he sounded like he was very much into you. And I thought you reciprocated as well.”
Sharon snorted as she asked,
“What makes you think that?”
“Well, you and I….” Steve said before he paused, seeming to hesitate.
“No, tell me. It’s fine.”
“Sorry. It’s not something I should bring up.”
“Please.” Sharon said, smiling soothingly as she crossed her arms upon her chest, “I can take it.”
Steve nodded, seriously considering his words.
“Well,” he began, “I though that the way things went down between us… Maybe it wasn’t so clear cut. Maybe it was partially, um, projection? Is that the word?”
“Projection?” Sharon asked in confusion. She leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table and asked,
“What do you mean?”
“Well. Maybe it wasn’t me that was trying to replace someone, or maybe it wasn’t just me.”
There was a pause in the conversation, before Sharon asked, quite flatly without a hint of emotion,
“I’m saying that maybe the reason you were interested in me was because of Clay.”
There was another pause, a longer one, during which Steve grew restless, wishing he hadn’t said anything and Sharon tried and failed more than once to say anything.
“Sorry. That was… IS… Completely absurd.” Sharon eventually managed, her tone growing more annoyed with every syllable, “You think I wanted to date you because I was in love with Clay?”
Sharon was speechless, and merely stared at Steve, her mouth agape.
“I understand you were hurt when he left you.”
“I was but… Fuck!” Sharon cursed, briefly drawing the attention of the nearby table, “That had nothing to do with us!”
“Well we do sort of look like each, don’t we?”
“Vaguely. You’re two thirtiesh, white, blond, blue-eyed…” Sharon listed, before she stopped, realizing she was doing nothing to refute his point.
“We both also used to be in the Army, and have similar build and height.”
“You’re not identical!”
Steve exhaled, biting the inside of his lip, feeling displeased.
“I knew I should’ve kept my mouth set.”
“Your mouth’s fine, it’s your head that you’ve got to get out of your arse!”
Steve stared at Sharon incredulously, not noticing or caring the other patrons nearby trying to pretend they weren’t looking.
“I cared about you.” Sharon said with a smolder in her voice, “When they sent Sam and me to after you when you’d went looking for Richard Roark’s family, I felt for you. And then when we found you, and you were on your own, and… You said something about keeping to your word, even when –especially when– you had nothing else, and I thought to myself… There’s a man you don’t meet everyday…”
Steve stared at Sharon, taken aback, feeling guilty and ashamed beneath her harsh bitter glare.
“…And I suppose you’re not. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone else that acted like you.”
There wasn’t anything in Steve’s expression that betrayed how he felt at that precise moment. He just stared for a couple of moments longer before he looked down at the table, cleared his throat and stood up. He took a few bills out of the money clip he carried in lieu of a wallet, dropped them on the table and walked away without uttering a word, turning back to look at Sharon for a second when he knew she could not see him.
When he was gone, Sharon exhaled hard and dropped her head into her hands. Sam would be there, soon, and so would Natasha. She had all of a few moments to get her mind straight again.
Chapter 6: Aladdin Sane
In which men called Jones are interested in the Captain's woes.
Cedar Park, Philadelphia
Monday – Noon
Gabe had been enjoying a book of French poetry, memories wafting to the forefront of his mind of warm afternoons at the Sorbonne and young Mademoiselles more interested with what he did in the war than what he had to say about Rousseau, when Noreen walked into the study, holding the phone with one hand and pressing the other’s palm to the mouth receiver.
She told him that it was Mr. Wilson and he wanted to talk to him. Gabe nodded in acknowledgement and put his hand forward to be handed the phone, and spoke ‘hello’ as Noreen took a few steps back, looking for a sign that he wanted her still, before leaving the room when there were none.
“Professor Jones?” Sam’s voice came on the other side of the connection, “This Sam Wilson.”
“Agent Wilson. Yes. I was surprised not to hear from you sooner.” Gabe said, his tone similar to that of a teacher gently scolding a tardy student.
“I got your nurse’s texts. I’ve just been busy.”
“I can imagine.” Jones said and then coughed dryly.
“Are you alright, man?”
“Absolutely fine. How are things on your end? Tell me, what has transpired between Ms. Carter and your former partner?”
“Well, they’re definitely not getting back together, that’s the good news.”
“Good.” Gabe lilted, grinning briefly in satisfaction, “Wait, ‘good news’? Is there bad news?”
“Yeah… The day after, Steve and Sharon got to talking to each other. And…”
“What?” Gabe asked after Sam took a deliberate pause.
“When you said that Steve didn’t know a thing about women, you weren’t jerking my chain at all, were you?”
“What exactly happened?”
“Well, I wasn’t there, but apparently they started talking about Clay and how Sharon didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. Steve supported her decision, though it apparently surprised him. Why did it surprise him? I will tell you, it’s actually a pretty funny story…”
Gabe squirmed. He could sense that whatever Sam was going to recount wasn’t going to be funny at all and certainly wouldn’t assuage his concern for Steve.
“…Our boy Steve pointed out that both he and Clay Quartermain shared certain similarities; they were both in the Army, they’re both six-foot tall, two-hundred and forty pound white boys around their thirties.… And they both have this all-consuming, seething mad-on for the New York Yankees. That last one isn’t something that Sharon mentioned, just something I noticed by myself.”
“Stick to the topic, boy!” Gabe growled impatiently.
“Sorry. Anyway, Steve had this completely shit-brained theory that Sharon only wanted to date him since she still wasn’t over Clay, and that when she found out about him and Peggy, she was actually projecting her own issues on Steve.”
Gabe flinched. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and swept a hand across his long-dwindling hairline and sighed.
“Mother of god.” he muttered, “Somehow, he’s actually gotten worse.”
“Well, I can’t imagine this is him getting better.”
“I’m afraid to ask how it went from there.”
“I’m not exactly sure.” Sam said in earnest, “Sharon won’t tell me, but by the time I got there, Steve was already gone and Sharon was pouty. I will tell you, Professor, it took all the enjoyment out of brunch.”
“Alright.” Gabe huffed, “We need to figure out our next move. We need to get them civil to each other again, before we can-”
“That’s not gonna happen.”
“Son, that attitude won’t take you far in life. Not as a man, certainly not as an intel-”
“Sharon left the country on assignment.” Sam interrupted, “Steve volunteered for some kind of SHIELD job with the Army. He already left. I literally can’t do shit, and I don’t want to, neither. There comes a point when you’ve got to stop manipulating your friends into dating each other, and it looks like the universe itself is set on keeping those apart.”
“Call me when either gets back.” Gabe ordered, his tone hard and resolute.
Sam sighed in return, fully realizing the Professor was adamant on seeing his once commanding officer going-steady with someone he hadn’t actually met, ignoring what someone ‘on the ground’ had to say.
“Professor… This is getting weird. Is this some kind of bored retiree thing? You need something that’ll occupy your time. Have you ever heard of Tumblr?”
“I’m waiting for you to call, Agent Wilson.” Gabe said as he hung up the phone, turning his attention back to his book with a diminished mood.
Latham, New York
When Rick Jones enlisted in the Army a little over two years ago, he had a simple plan; finish his minimum four years quietly, save every cent he could, and then get out and move on to bigger and better things. No part of the plan ever involved sitting in the woods of upstate New York with a bona fide legend.
1st Battalion of the 107th was undertaking a training exercise simulating a combat jump carried out in hazardous weather conditions. The battalion’s strength were jumbled up and loaded onto random transport planes which took to the air and dropped them over the designated exercise sector. Once safely on the ground, they were to hold still and wait until 7 PM, when it was going to rain.
Every pariticpant would then have to try to rejoin their Company or fall in with whatever unit they could get to before proceeding to their objective; a large facility heavily fortified and defended by the opposing force, which usually served as the main building of the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy. It was all simple enough, until word got out that Captain America was joining 1st Battalion on the exercise.
After the initial skepticism tinged with hopeful expectation, bets began to be made on every conceivable event; which Company was he going to fall in with and was he was going to be in his old glory fatigues? Was anyone in the Op-For going to have the brass testis to take a shot at him? Was he bringing along that little red-haired hotty in the black leather jumpsuit? Was he banging her?
And now, there he was. A three-time Distinguished Service Cross awardee, veteran of Overlord and of the Bulge, savior of the Lazarus battalion, Captain America, was sitting in the dirt in his ACUs, leaning against a tree-trunk with an M4 carbine in his hands, looking the other direction in tranquility.
Rick knew the directives were to keep chatter to a minimum, and he also knew that those directives did not include provision for chatter with living legends. Given that the man was an officer, not following directives was probably a bad idea, but no body had ever accused Rick of being overly cautious.
“Sir,” Rick had said, his voice coming a little higher than he’d have liked. The Captain turned to look at him with a blank expression.
Rick panicked momentarily, wondering what he had wanted to say, wondering if he simply forgot or if he’d opened his mouth without an idea of what words were going to come out of it.
“Did you, um,” the young enlisted man started nervously, “Did you really punch Hitler?”
“No, not really.” the officer replied after a brief pause.
“Oh, who did you punch, then?” Rich asked, and winced immediately with regret.
“… Lots of people… Otto Skorzeny, once.”
Rick nodded, making a mental note to look up Otto Skorzeny next time he was around a computer. Whoever he was, he had an impressively evil Nazi name. He should’ve stopped right there, he’d have walked away with his very own Captain America story to tell to Marlo the next time the two of them got together.
“Did you catch the Nets game the other night?”
“Nets? Sorry. I don’t follow basketball. It is basketball, right?”
“Yes, Sir.” Rick said and nodded, “I guess you’re more into baseball, right?”
The Captain nodded.
“You must be a Yankees fan, huh?” Rick asked with a grin.
The Captain glared at him at him in return, his eyes full of icy condemnation and his jaw in a fierce scowl.
“I- I- I meant…” Rick stammered, filling with unexpected panic and intimidation, “Um, M- Mets fan?”
The Captain’s eyes softened, and he leaned his head back.
“Only when they’re playing against the Yankees.”
Rick laughed nervously at the way the Captain practically spat out that last word, before averting his gaze. That was probably enough conversation with the ninety year old man with over three-hundred confirmed kills to his name. Shutting up seemed wise.
“Are you from Brooklyn?”
Rick looked back up. The Captain’s posture seemed a bit more relaxed, and there was a faint, friendly smile on his lips, as if to make up for his earlier crazy-eyes. Rick nodded to the affirmative, and said,
The Captain nodded in acknowledgement, and poking himself with his thumb in the chest right above his rank insignia, said,
“Nice.” Rick said, finding no other way to reply, “Uh, my band played in a club there once. For free. It wasn’t much of a club. But… Say, uh, can I ask you something?”
“I’d say you’ve already proven that you can.” The Captain answered wryly.
“Uh, right, I meant-”
“I’m just pulling your leg, kid. Ask.”
Rick scratched his chin thoughtfully. There was no shortage of questions to ask, only none of them were particularly profound and quite a few of them were juvenile and rude, some even related to portions of the Captain’s anatomy.
“Have you ever been shot?” he decided to ask, as it seemed like something a veteran and a greenhorn could talk about.
“Wow.” Rick said as he crossed his arms and stretched his legs out, “Was it like, a Nazi super-commando that shot you?”
“No, just two random German riflemen.”
“Oh. Wow. What did it feel like?”
“Well, it felt like a hot metal slug tearing through flesh and grinding against bone.”
“Huh. So bullets can hurt you?”
“Okay,” said Rich, and paused to ponder his next question. It came quickly to him, and it seemed obvious, one he could kick himself not to ask, but one he might get into trouble over.
“What do you think about the war?”
“The war?” repeated the Captain, narrowing his eyes.
“Yeah. You know we’re at war in Afghanistan, right?”
“Well… What do you think?”
The Captain spent a good few moment pensively looking in Rick’s general direction, before looking up to meet his gaze and said calmly,
“I support it.”
To say that Rich had expected something different would be incorrect, but to hear it like that was something else.
“Really?” asked Rich, beging final confirmation.
“No, of course not.” Said the Captain, still calm but incredulous, “How could one support a war? Any war?”
Rick stared at the Captain blankly, his expression eventually becoming annoyed,
“Um…Captain… Sir… Are you trolling me?”
“So which one is it?”
“Why are you even asking?”
“I just wanna know.”
“Do you want to know where I stand on the war or whether or not the war is justified?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference between that I can’t tell you and that I couldn’t tell you.”
“You do have on opinion on the war, though, don’t you?” Rick grumbled.
“Of course I do. It’s something very important and every American should give it due attention and deliberation.”
“So why won’t you tell me?”
“Because either way, my answer shouldn’t matter.” Said the Captain, suddenly sounding tired, “Look, the first couple of months after the country learned I was back, I got hit with every question you could think of, including the war. At the time, I’d barely cracked the end of the cold war on my history catch-up, so I didn’t answer then because I didn’t really know. Only after a while did I come to realize how much it really mattered to people what other people in the newspapers, magazines and the movie posters thought. Movie stars endorsing the president, boorish so-called journalists spouting sensationalist malarkey… Why does what they think mean so much?”
“It doesn’t.” Rick replied, “I’m not asking what, er, Patsy Walker thinks, I’m asking what Captain America thinks.”
“Son, I’m not really the embodiment of the American ideal.” He said with a smirk, “Sorry. Only words of wisdom I can impart are make up your own mind, not about what’s best, or what’s safe, but what’s right… And prepare to stand by it.”
Rick parted his lips, prepared to press the matter, but relented. It wasn’t the profound insight he’d hope for, but he supposed it was as good an answer as he was likely to get. Hearing either of the Captain’s conflicting answers hadn’t pleased him, anyway.
“Okay.” Rick muttered with a sigh, “But if Marlo was here, she wouldn’t have left you alone till you gave a straight answer.”
“Girlfriend.” Rick clarified, his face lighting up as he grinned.
The Captain nodded.
“Have you two been together for long?”
“About three years. We met in college during the thirty minutes I was there.”
“Thanks. What about you, Cap? What’s your story?”
“Well, what brought you on this exercise?”
“Just felt like getting out of the city for a while.”
Rick nodded knowingly.
Steve flinched. Throughout the conversation, he’d been aloof, though indulgent, but then he stared at Rick for a moment that was telling, and Rick chuckled.
“Is it that obvious?” Steve asked, realizing he couldn’t convincingly brush it off.
“You do have that look about you. What happened?”
Steve shook his head dismissively.
“It’s nothing, but it made you feel like moving three-hundred kliks so you can jump out of an airplane?”
Steve gave a small chuckle. He had precious few that he ever cared to talk about matters of such a degree of intimacy, and those weren’t around much the past few days, or were under the impression that he’d moved on and that things didn’t bother him as much.
And there was Private Jones, whose character was still an unknown quantity, lacked a first name, hadn’t met before and likely wouldn’t again after the exercise was done, asking questions that could be categorized in uncharitable words as none-of-his-damn-business, and yet Steve felt no desire to rebuke him.
“What’s your first name, Private?”
“Rick.” The private answered eagerly, “Well, Richard…”
“Well, Rick. There’s this girl-”
“It’s black-leather-redhead-babe! Right? Riiight?”
“Wh? No.” Steve said, frowning in annoyance.
“Oh. Okay. Carry on.”
“Well, there’s this woman.” Steve began anew, “She’s great. One of these girls, you know? I thought we could have had something. We went on a date, but it didn’t go the way a date should. We drifted apart… It was my fault, really.”
“What did you do?” asked Rick, his eye wide in captivation.
“There was something that I should have told her about, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that I needed to, and before I got the chance to figure it out, she found out for herself and took it pretty bad.”
“Oh.” Said Rick softly.
“Yeah.” Steve sighed.
“That sounds pretty complicated. What was it exactly that you didn’t tell her?”
“I don’t really feel like saying.”
“Was it serious?”
“Well, everyone who knows about it say that she would have been fine with it if I told her right from the start. It’s the accidentally hiding it that bothered her.”
“Okay. What happened then?”
“Well, after a while I thought we might have moved past it. We weren’t going to date again, but there wasn’t any bitterness left. But then I said something that she took the wrong way, not that I meant it like that. It’s just…”
“Oh, man.” Rick muttered, “What did you say?”
“It’s complicated. Kind of long, too.”
“Okay. Well. You don’t have to say what it was if you don’t want to, though it would probably help. After you said what you said, whatever it was, what else did you do? Did you try to explain yourself?”
“Sure, I tried.” Said Steve, smiling bitterly, “Just dug myself deeper. I haven’t seen her since.”
Rick took a moment to consider Steve, who’d fallen silent and was looking through the clearing in the woods toward five men holding a hundred meters away.
“You’re trolling me again, right?” Rick finally asked, breaking the silence. Steve looked back to him, and furrowed his eyebrows like he often did when people were using words he didn’t really understand.
“I don’t actually know what ‘trolling’ is. I’m not making anything up.”
“I think you have a problem with communicating.” Rich opined after a beat.
“You don’t say.” Steve said after a beat.
“I mean, it’s a common issue. Especially with us of the ‘dude’ persuasion. You gotta make yourself be heard, you know? And listen? No, really. I mean, Marlo and me were together for a year before I enlisted, then for the past two we’ve been mostly apart, but we’ve made it this far by making the most of what contact we can get. That stuff really matters.”
“Kid, I understand. I do. It’s just that that’s easier said than done.”
“The hell it is. You’re Captain America!”
“So, you jump out of airplanes and thwack bad guys up the head with a big hunk of metal.”
“I don’t think hitting her on the head would help.” Said Steve as he hung his head, “Women aren’t like war. They’re not an airfield you can overrun, and they’re not an armored column you can outflank. You fire mortars at the enemy, you have a pretty good idea of what’ll happen. You don’t get that luxury with women.”
“Well, at least you’re not bitter…”
In spite of himself, Steve laughed, though it died down quickly.
“…And I bet you’re making a big deal about it.” Rick continued.
“It kind of is. It was tough in my time, but now it’s a whole new ball game.”
“Really?” asked Rick, “I’d have thought it got easier.”
“Hell no.” Steve snorted, “What make you think it got easier?”
“I dunno.” Said Rick with a shrug, “I guess everyone is more laid back? Doesn’t that help?”
“You don’t think so?”
“Everything is less formal, can’t deny that. But some other stuff, not so much.”
“What was that?”
“Psychology.” Said Steve as he paused to scratch his head, “We had a headshrinker back in SSR, Captain Samson. He was a good man, and he helped some guys who got messed up with what they saw, and a lot of guys respected him for that. But outside of that, a lot thought he was in some kind of racket. I mean that many clever people can’t be wrong, can they? But it used to be that if you had a problem, if you were feeling down or something, all you needed was your friends, and maybe a drink or a dozen.”
“But now, anyone can talk to you about, um, psychological bias… And coping mechanism and all that stuff. They take it very seriously, too.”
“Okay. What else?”
Steve grunted with a shrug.
“Everything else. I don’t understand women. I can’t talk to them as women.”
“Right.” Said Rick as he raised his knees to his chest and cleared his throat, “You won’t be the first, and the others don’t have the excuse of being from the forties. But, and I understand how tough it can be, ‘cause we’ve all been there when we were kids, but the thing is; this isn’t some kind of disability. The only guys who aren’t actually disabled and are incapable of understanding women are douchebags, which you aren’t.
“And I’ll tell you one of those obvious seemingly useless wisdoms; you’ll never understand all women because not all women are alike. There isn’t even a main type of women that you can practice understanding. And, I don’t know, maybe the trick isn’t understand women, maybe its making them understand you.”
“And how do I do that?” said Steve, the tone of his voice less than patient and even vaguely challenging. The tone wasn’t lost on Rick, who smiled as he hugged his knees.
“Well, Captain Rogers,” said Rich without a hint of his earlier trepidation, “You just use your words.”
Steve kept his gaze on him for a moment, before he said, without any unpleasantness to his voice,
“Well that is obvious and seemingly useless… And not unwise, I suppose.”
And then he smiled.
They spent the next minute in silence. Rick checked the time and rested his head against the tree trunk, enjoying the quiet and the cool air. He was out of questions, and his initial expectations to the contrary, he didn’t think his encounter would make for a good story to tell the boys later, or Marlo when next he saw her. Not that he’d give it up.
“I got chewed out couple months ago by a female cadet at West Point.”
Rick looked back Steve, who had an amused smirk, and followed with,
“Apparently it’s sexist to have just one female Avenger.”
Rick chuckled, and said,
“My friend Lemar wonders why there aren’t any black Avengers.”
“Well we asked this one guy in Wakanda, but he turned us down.”