In retrospect, Bruce thought, he should have seen this coming. He should be above it, even. He knew that Tony wasn’t to blame, but there he was, and he was too easy a target to resist. In the heat of the moment, Bruce was so angry that he was shocked he wasn’t green yet. They were all furious, and Tony just stood there and took it.
“Guys, relax. It was just a party! You all had fun. No one got hurt. Minimal property damage, even. Apart from the hangovers, where’s the harm?”
“It’s about lack of respect,” Steve said. “I thought I couldn’t get drunk.”
“Were you born without an off button?” Clint demanded.
“If those photos aren’t off the internet by the end of the day, you won’t even see me coming,” Natasha promised.
“What if I hurt someone?” Bruce asked.
Tony looked genuinely confused, and maybe a little hurt, but he took it like he never expected anything different. But he muttered his apologies, and slunk off to his workshop to leave the rest of them nursing their epic hangovers.
“I thought you and he were all buddy-buddy, anyway,” Clint muttered.
Bruce tried to remember that technique he learned in Nepal to avoid throwing up all over the breakfast bar. “He just… I know the Hulk doesn’t scare him, but he shouldn’t have risked it. I could have hurt someone.”
Natasha looked up from her orange juice. “I haven’t been drunk since 2005.”
“I’ll see that and raise you 1941,” Steve countered, his gaze dark and murderous.
Clint groaned and buried his head in his arms. “Can we just stop talking until the Advil kicks in? I wish Stark had never been fucking born.”
Steve spent most of his day after trying to piece the night before back together. His memory was patchy, spotted with black outs and alarming periods of whirling colour and sound.
He really hadn’t expected Tony to take his challenge seriously. When he’d met Steve’s “I can’t get drunk” with “that just means you’ve never really tried”, the last thing Steve had wanted was this horrible feeling of nausea, pain and creeping dread that, apparently, was tequila’s parting gift. So maybe he had met Tony’s eyes with a defiant look and said, “Give it your best shot.” That hadn’t meant that Tony should listen.
Steve and Natasha lounged on the daybeds beside the Tower’s pool, the floor to ceiling windows tinted thanks to JARVIS. Natasha had made them some kind of traditional Russian hangover cure, and Steve punctuated wallowing in misery with tentative sips.
“I’m going to kill him,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact.
“No you’re not.”
“No, I’m not. But only because it would make Pepper cry,” Natasha replied. “What Clint said was harsh, but sometimes I think my job would be so much easer if he had never been born.”
Steve chuckled, despite the twinge that thought gave him. “I might actually be the one in charge.”
“Bruce would stop eyeing chopsticks with suspicion.”
“Clint would come in off the roof.”
“Fury would stop glaring.”
“Hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here,” Steve said, and she smiled. It was moments like this, moments of quiet downtime with one or more of his team, that Steve felt like he was finally home.
A memory flashed through his aching brain and he winced. “Did we… did I do something called a motorboat to you last night?” he asked.
Natasha smiled again, and this time it was terrifying. “Let’s just pretend you still can’t remember, shall we?”
Steve’s hangover slunk off in defeat somewhere around early afternoon, and he left Natasha to spend the rest of the day taking out his rage on one of the reinforced punching bags in the Tower’s gym. By dinner, he felt almost normal, although the dark expressions of his team-mates told him he was the only one. Tony was missing, sequestered in his lab until everyone decided that he was welcome again.
Despite feeling better than everyone else, Steve still cast a dark thought or two Tony’s way before he fell asleep. Maybe the world would be better off without Tony Stark.
And somewhere, something smiled, a glint in its eye, and power unfurled.
As you wish.
Steve’s first thought was that his alarm hadn’t gone off. The sun was streaming through his untinted window and Steve felt muggy and strange. “JARVIS, you didn’t wake me. Why not?”
Silence. Steve scrubbed a hand through his hair and sat up.
And then flew to his feet.
This was not his room in the Tower. The window had flowy curtains shifting in the breeze, and the door was in the wrong place, and there was no gramophone resting on his bureau, a ‘Happy Defrosting-versary’ gift from Tony.
Steve grabbed his shield, still at its usual place by his bed, thank God, and started to creep towards the door, ears straining for any noise out of place.
Something started chirping shrilly, and he nearly smashed it before he recognised a cell phone vibrating its way along a bedside table. It wasn’t his Starkphone, so it took him a moment to figure out how to answer.
“Steve! Uhh, I mean, Captain Rogers, this is… uhh, this may seem strange, but…”
“Bruce, what is it?” Steve snapped, trying to calm down but the tension in Bruce’s voice was just racketing up his own.
“You remember me?” Bruce blurted.
“What? Of course I do. What’s going on?”
There was silence on the other end of the line before Bruce sighed heavily. “I think something really, really bad is happening.”
“Where are you?” Steve asked, stalking out of the bedroom into the rest of the tiny apartment, looking for some paper and pen.
“I think… I think I’m back in India,” Bruce replied, and Steve paused.
“Yeah. I’m on a payphone in Kolkata, okay, this is really fucking weird, and I don’t know what the hell is going on.”
Bruce swearing was about as rare as Steve, and Steve felt his combat instincts kick into gear. “Okay, okay, relax, you have this number, and I’ll come get you as soon as I can.” He didn’t know when that would be, but even if he had to hijack the Helicarrier itself he wouldn’t leave a team-member stranded and scared.
“Yeah, I… yeah, okay, Cap. I just have this really bad feeling. I tried to call Tony but I got a not-in-service message. Not even JARVIS.”
Steve had that feeling, too. They needed more information. “Do you have a number I can contact you on?”
Bruce laughed, a brittle sound. “I’m in the slums in India, Cap, but one thing they do have is phones. I’ll get one and contact you with it ASAP, okay?”
“Okay. Just… keep your head down and stay calm. I’m going to try and contact the rest of the team. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“Yeah. I’m… I’m glad you remember me, Cap.”
Steve sighed. “You, too, Bruce.”
The apartment Steve woke in was pathetically sparse. There was the bedroom, with its tallboy of drawers, a bed and bedsides, and nothing else, and an open plan kitchen/living room, with a table, a couch and a desk. Even for a man used to living out of a pack during war time, this place struck Steve as depressing. It wasn’t a home, that was for sure.
Steve started by tearing it apart for a clue, a hint, a lead, anything. He figured out early into his day that he was in Brooklyn, and the apartment that was apparently his, thanks to the mail on his kitchen table. If the guns in the couch – his couch, seriously, that couldn’t be safe – were any indication, he hadn’t become a civilian overnight.
His StarkTablet, like his StarkPhone, wasn’t anywhere in the apartment, and the laptop on the desk in his living room presented a problem: he couldn’t remember his password. He didn’t usually need one; JARVIS responded to his voice and his phone scanned his thumbprint.
He found an address book, an honest to God paper address book, the kind that would send Tony into fits of hysterical laughter if he were to see Steve with it, but he didn’t recognise a single name. His phone was hard to navigate, all buttons and clumsy screens, none of the sleek touch navigation and voice control that his StarkPhone had.
He finally managed to find the contacts list, and frowned as he scrolled. There were fewer than ten numbers listed, and none of them were familiar, same as the address book.
He didn’t have many options at this point, so with a mental shrug, he dialled the first one.
Steve’s stomach dropped. “Agent Coulson?”
“You’re on stand-down status, Captain, is there anything you need?”
Steve couldn’t quite piece together his thoughts, not with a dead man talking down the phone. “No, no, I… I hit the wrong button.”
“Fine. Call if you need anything.” And just like that, Coulson hung up on him.
Steve couldn’t stop his hand shaking for ten minutes, and it took him another ten to dial the next number on the list.
“Steve? Is that you?”
Relief swamped him and he unclenched his jaw. “Clint, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, but something weird is going on.”
Steve laughed hoarsely. “Yeah, I got that. Where are you?”
Clint hummed, and there was the sound of traffic in the background. “Somewhere in Brooklyn, I think. I woke up in this tiny fucking room, man, and it’s some kind of SHIELD facility, but I mentioned the helicarrier and all I got were blank looks.”
“I’m in Brooklyn, too, think you can get out and find me?”
Clint scoffed. “Captain, I am insulted. Where are you?”
Steve gave him the address from the envelopes. “Be careful, Hawkeye. Until we know what the situation is, treat everyone with suspicion.”
“That actually hurt to say, didn’t it?”
“I mean it, Clint.”
“Yeah, I get it. I’ll be there in forty.”
Steve spent the time waiting for Clint trying not to fret and failing. He had food in his fridge so he ate, tasting nothing and imagining all his team-mates in various dire situations while he had grilled cheese.
Clint’s first words when Steve opened the door were: “Heard from the Widow?”
Steve shook his head. “No. I tried all the numbers in my phone, they all lead to SHIELD, except yours.”
Clint nodded. “Mine, too. I nearly shat myself looking at the outdated tech in the SHIELD building. Tony would have kittens.”
“I know, check that thing out,” Steve said, waving a hand at his laptop. “I’ve been in this century for less than two years and even I know that’s outdated.”
Clint froze. “You think we’ve gone back in time?”
Steve managed not to roll his eyes. “No, check the date on your phone. It’s just… things are wrong. Lots of things.”
Clint nodded, and his face went dark. “So what do we do, Cap?”
Steve’s jaw tightened. “Assemble the team.”
Bruce was in India, Widow was MIA, but Tony should have been fairly easy to locate. When Clint found a post-it with Steve’s password behind the desk, he managed to get into his computer.
It was different. Of course it was, but Steve found himself staring helplessly at the screen and its strange little symbols. “Clint?”
Clint wandered over, sandwich in hand. “What’s up, Cap?”
“I don’t know how to get to the internet.”
Clint blinked. “You’re running Windows Vista? Jesus. Tony would actually kill you.”
“Just help me, please.”
“Fine, fine. Click that little fox there.”
Google, luckily, was the same. Steve knew Google. Steve had relied on it to the extent that it was almost like finding an old friend alive and well.
He typed in ‘Tony Stark’.
The results it spat back at him were enough to send a chill through his blood.
Links to Stane Industries. Some other person’s LinkedIn profile.
“Shit,” Clint breathed, hand tightening on Steve’s shoulder.
Steve couldn’t agree more. Trying to ignore the fact that his hand was shaking, he clicked on a news article.
‘Anthony Edward Stark, born March 3rd 1970, died today, October 26th 1989, just over two years after the deaths of his parents. President of Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane, released this statement:
‘“Today, we’ve lost not only one of the greatest minds our time has seen, but a boy on the brink of becoming a man. Most people didn’t understand Tony, but he died doing what was right, trying to make a difference, and I know that’s all he ever really wanted. Those of us who knew him will never forget him, and for those of you who didn’t, I am truly sorry. We’re all the lesser for his loss.”
‘Stark was shot in an alley in Manhattan in the early hours of this morning. Witnesses say he was attempting to stop an assault in progress, when the attacker turned his gun on Stark and fired three close-range shots to the chest. The suspect is still at large and police welcome any information.
‘Paramedics responded around 4:30 am, but Stark was pronounced dead at the scene.’
Steve felt like the air had been sucked out of the room. The computer screen before him swam, and he realised his eyes had begun to tear up.
“What the fuck is going on?” Clint whispered, and all Steve could do was shake his head and try not to cry.
The silence was broken by Steve’s horrible shrill ringtone, and he tried to wipe his eyes discreetly on his way to answer it.
“Natasha, oh thank God you’re okay—”
“Hey, is that Nat? Lemme talk to her!” Clint launched himself across the room and Steve fended him off with one hand, trying to hear Natasha on the other end of the line.
“Is that Clint?” she asked.
“Yeah, he’s with me, we’re in Brooklyn. Status?” he asked, giving Clint a glare that backed him off.
“I’m in Russia,” she said, and Steve swore. “Agreed.”
Steve tried to think of how to delicately broach the subject. “Are you… Is SHIELD running your op?”
She laughed. “Yes, Cap, I’m still one of you. I’m waiting to get debriefed; apparently my op ended yesterday.”
“That’s good. Good. Hopefully they’ll bring you back here.”
“You’ve seen that Tony’s dead?” she asked, blunt as always.
“Yeah,” Steve managed to reply, voice choked. “Bruce checked in, he’s okay. He’s in India, I don’t know where.”
It was her turn to swear. “I know exactly where. Okay, Cap, I’ll get Banner and we’ll come to you. Anything else?”
“No, I don’t think so. Let me know if you get any intel.”
He could almost see her smirk. “Roger, Rogers.”
“Be safe, Nat,” he said, passing the phone to Clint and walking out of the apartment to give them space.
His apartment was part of a large block, his front door onto a long hall of identical doors and cracked, yellowing lino. If Tony was dead, then there was no Avengers Tower to live in, so that part finally made sense, at least. It was a little sobering to get a taste of the life he almost had, waking up in a future with no Tony to take him in, kicking and screaming though it had been.
Clint poked his head out of Steve’s apartment. “Steve, you better check this out.”
Clint had pulled up a news website on Steve’s computer, and his attention was immediately on the photographs scrolling across the top of the page. Bloody, screaming faces, explosions, rubble and dust. ‘Hostilities in Afghanistan escalate further; Coalition forces suffer heavy losses in mountain campaign.’
“What is this?” Steve whispered.
Clint clicked through link after link, and they all showed the same thing. Violent mayhem. The death toll that the articles cited was obscene, in the tens of thousands of US soldiers alone, thousands in this campaign alone. The weaponry that the guerrillas were using was advanced, apparently, and the DoD were trying to tamp down on rampant intelligence leaks and compromised networks.
“I think it’s because Tony isn’t here,” Clint said.
Steve jerked out of his horrified trance. “What do you mean?”
Clint shrugged, opening yet another article about a massacred village. “You know how he got taken in Afganistan, before you woke up?” Steve nodded. “Then his company stopped making weapons. He started hunting down the weapons Stane sold under the table to the other guys. Yeah, most of those weapons Tony designed, but not all of them. So there’s no Tony here, which means Stane never stops selling.”
“And he doesn’t even have to try and be subtle about it, because no Tony to trick,” Steve finished. “He’s double-dealing and getting richer and richer, and more people keep dying. Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Clint muttered and clicked into another tab. “And check out who’s running things over at Stane Industries.”
Justin Hammer. He’d read the reports about Vanko, about Hammer and his weapons, and for once he’d agreed whole-heartedly with Tony: the guy was an asshole. Steve swore, something that he was getting far too comfortable with in this weird, Tony-less reality.
“What about Pepper?” he asked.
Clint shrugged. “She wouldn’t have known Tony before he died.” Clint paused. “That feels so weird to say. Anyway, she only started working for him when he was over thirty.”
“No, I mean, is she okay? He’d… Tony would want us to make sure.”
Clint gave him a weird look, but a few keystrokes later another photo popped up: Pepper, smiling a very fake smile at the camera.
“Virginia Potts, Executive Assistant to the Managing Director,” Clint read. “That means Hammer. Man, poor Pepper.”
“But she’s okay. Alive, I mean,” Steve said. He felt like he was underwater, trying to figure out which way was up so he could swim to the surface and breathe.
“Do you think she remembers?”
Steve paused. “I think it’s just us. The Avengers, except Thor. I spoke to… I spoke to someone from SHIELD who had close contact with Tony and he didn’t remember anything.”
Clint’s face screwed up in thought. “Hey, why are we here?”
“I think we’ve established that we don’t know,” Steve tried not to snap.
Clint gave him a withering look. “No, I mean… in New York. Why isn’t it all blown up? I mean, Tony piggybacked the nuke through the wormhole, so without him we’re either Chernobyl-ed or Loki-d, right? Not that I’m complaining, of course.”
Steve frowned. “You’re right. Hey, google Loki.”
They spent the next hour piecing together a picture of the past few years: what was the same, what was different. No Thor, and no Loki, apparently.
“Hey, it’s you!”
Steve’s head shot up from examining the mysteries of his coffee pot. “What?”
“Captain America. Turns out you’re still, you know, protecting your fellow man, you’re just doing it solo.”
Steve took a moment to turn that thought around in his head. No team. No Avengers. Just Steve.
It sounded horrible.
Clint himself was absolutely nowhere online, something that smacked of SHIELD. “I guess I’m still lone-wolfing,” he said, trying for flippant, but Steve knew him well enough to know that he felt the same as Steve about that. “Explains the digs I woke up in. SHIELD barracks, I’d recognise them anywhere.”
Steve tried to change the subject. “How about Natasha?”
She was just as much of an online ghost, and they turned to Bruce.
“They blamed him for Harlem?” Clint yelled, pointing at the screen. “What part of the Abomination did they miss, for crying out loud?”
Steve agreed, flipping through pages of printed out intel. “No wonder he’s still in India. When Natasha checks in, we should let her know. I don’t want him to come back here only to get picked up by the army.”
Clint hummed an agreement. “So what’s the plan, Cap? When we assemble, I mean?”
Steve ducked his head, trying to swallow away the bitter tang of panic that welled up at the question. “First things first, Hawkeye. Gather intelligence. I want to know how we got here. You know how that goes: who gains, who loses from us being here.”
Clint fixed him with an odd look. “Cap, I don’t think anyone gains from this. Except Stane. And Hammer. And they’re both dead in our reality, so how could they send us here?”
Steve ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know, okay? This is… I don’t know what’s happening. This is almost worse than when I woke up. At least then I had people telling me what happened, giving me briefing packets and updates and files and I didn’t have to guess.”
Clint flinched, and before Steve could stop him he sat on the couch beside Steve. “I’m sorry, Cap. I guess I’m just used to having someone tell me what to do.”
Steve scoffed. “Because you always listen, right?”
Clint grinned. “Well, no one’s perfect.”
Steve felt the words welling up before he could swallow them down. “Coulson’s alive. Here. In this reality.”
Clint froze, his face suddenly, terrifyingly neutral. “What?”
Steve could have kicked himself, but all the same, Clint deserved to know. “He answered my phone call, before I called you. I think he’s at SHIELD, wherever that is now.”
Clint sprang to his feet, his hands suddenly in motion, flicking and tapping. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Steve shrugged. “I just did.”
Clint grabbed his coat and one of Steve’s guns, laid out on the kitchen table like fine china, before storming to the front door. “I’ll be back. I just… I need to see him.”
Steve nodded. “I get it, Clint. Say hi from me.” He didn’t mention that the Coulson on the phone sounded like the last person to exchange casual ‘hello’s with Captain America. He didn’t want to wonder what else Clint would find had changed.
Natasha checked in that evening, as Steve trawled the internet for mentions of himself. It was even more depressing and unsettling than usual, pictures of lone Captain America saving the day. To Steve’s eye he looked lost, adrift, and he didn’t think it was him projecting onto … well, himself.
“I’m about to board a flight to Kolkata. Anything new?” Natasha’s voice was crisp and capable as always, and Steve wished that he could just ask her to tell him what to do, how to lead, how to get them back where they came from. But that wasn’t what she needed from him, and damn it if Steve was going to let another of them down.
“Banner’s blamed for Harlem here. Bringing him back might be problematic.”
She paused, and he could almost hear the gears in her head turning. “I’ll see if my contacts in India are still applicable. I can get him papers, it’s just a matter of how long it’ll take.”
Steve always knew she and Hawkeye operated in the grey areas of the law sometimes, but still, her casual mention of forging illegal documents made him squirm. “Just… be careful. Take as long as you need. I don’t want General Ross getting his hands on Bruce here anymore than back home.” Clint’s and his research had proved that certain truths were universal. General Ross being a jerk was among them.
“I will. Is that it?”
Steve bit his lip. “No. Coulson’s alive here. Clint’s gone to see him.”
This pause was longer, and her tone had chilled several degrees when she finally asked, “Are you certain that’s a good idea, Captain?”
He laughed bitterly. “No, I’m not. I didn’t stop him, though. He deserves… well, the least he deserves is a goodbye, if he can get one.”
“Phil won’t be the same, I can almost guarantee it,” she argued.
“And you think that matters to Hawkeye right now? I’m not saying I think they’ll be the same, I’m saying that if I had the chance, if Peggy were here right now, I’d want to see her. No matter what she was like.”
Natasha huffed out a breath, but she didn’t argue. “Fine. I’ll check in at 0800 New York time tomorrow.”
“Alright. Be safe, Nat.”
Her voice had warmed when she replied, “You, too, Steve.”
Around ten the next morning, Steve looked up from his spot on the floor at the sound of his lock rattling, surrounded by the piles of paper he was trying to organise, desperate to find a rhyme or reason to their being there. Clint finally burst in, and Steve could tell he was drunk off his ass by the glare Clint sent the door for daring to bar his way.
“Hawkeye,” he greeted, trying very hard not to sound too judgemental. It wasn’t every day you woke up in an alternate reality to find your dead lover alive.
Clint raised a hand and stumbled to the couch. He fell onto it face first, and Steve sighed. It wasn’t that he’d been expecting the worst, exactly, more that he’d had more than his fair share of strangeness happen to him and, in his experience, it rarely ended in best-case scenarios.
“He’s married,” Clint said, his voice muffled by the cushion. “He’s married, and it’s not to me.”
Steve winced. “I’m sorry.” He was. He’d read Peggy’s file, and while he was happy that she hadn’t pined her life away for him, he still had an urge to punch something whenever he thought about it.
Clint lifted his head from the couch, a weave pattern indented into his cheek. “I think this is harder,” he rasped, and his face was painfully open, the hurt lay bare for Steve to see. “At home, he’s dead, but I know he loved me. When I – last night, he looked at me like I was an inconvenience. I never knew something could hurt that bad.” His eyes started to well up, and Steve tried to tamp down his panic. He’d never been good with crying people, even when he was a scrawny asthmatic kid comforting Bucky’s sisters over skinned knees.
But Clint looked so lost, and Steve couldn’t blame him, and here they were stranded in a world even stranger than the one he’d woken up in. So Steve stood and walked to the sofa, and let Clint cuddle up against him while he cried his eyes out, secure in the knowledge that only one of them was sober enough to remember this.
Natasha had checked in that morning as promised, but it wasn’t until her call at 2 PM that they got any kind of news. She had found Bruce, and the two of them were working on returning stateside.
“But like you said, Cap, the army’s after me. I think I speak for everyone when I say that them getting a hold of me would be bad.”
Steve managed not to growl into the phone. His protective side was raging, thanks to the cried-out unconscious Clint on his couch and the idea of Bruce, meek, kind, unassuming Bruce, locked in a hole somewhere. “It’s not an option, Bruce, don’t worry about it. If anyone can get you past them, it’s Black Widow.”
Steve didn’t hear Bruce’s reply, because suddenly his phone is shrieking, a red light on its screen flashing in time. Clint bolted upright, hand going for the gun Steve relieved him of that morning, and pure terror passed over his face before he focused on Steve.
“I’ve got to go. Check in at 20:00, Banner, Widow.”
“Sure thing, Cap,” Natasha said.
Clint’s hangover must have hit him at that moment, because all of a sudden Steve’s phone was being flung at his forehead and swearing lit the air blue.
“Will you fucking answer that and put me out of my misery?”
Steve rolled his eyes and accepted the call. “Rogers.”
“Captain, there’s a situation brewing in Flushing Meadows,” said Coulson. “You’re required onsite ASAP.”
Steve watched Clint warily as he started fiddling with Steve’s coffee maker. “Wilco, sir. Quinjet enroute?”
There was a pause. “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about, Captain, but this is hardly the time for jokes. You and your motorcycle had better make excellent time.”
Coulson hung up on his without a word, leaving Steve kicking himself.
“What’s the situation?” Clint asked, staring morosely at the carafe as coffee dripped slowly into it.
Steve sighed, feeling bone-tired and angry and frustrated all at once. “I don’t know. I’ve got to go, though. You’ll be okay here?”
Clint shot him a brittle smile. “Right as rain, Cap.”
Steve ignored just how fake that smile and that sentiment was as he changed into his suit and grabbed his shield.
Now to find the motorcycle Coulson had told him about.
The Harley, at least, was the same. Steve recognised it the instant he laid eyes on it, locked up in the alley behind his apartment block. There really was no feeling quite like weaving through New York traffic, at speeds a normal man would call reckless but felt almost leisurely to Steve’s enhanced senses. He managed to make the excellent time Coulson had demanded, and by the time he pulled in to a large derelict site in Flushing Meadows he felt more himself than he had since the hangover of two days ago.
“This the Stark Expo site?” Steve said to Coulson the moment he pulled up.
Coulson gave him a sharp look, and Steve backtracked. “I visited it, back in ’41.”
Coulson paused, but let it go. “Quite a memory you have there, Captain. This is, indeed, where the Stark Expo was held until the eighties, when Stane discontinued the practice.”
Steve shifted on his feet, trying to pretend that the idea of Stane owning Tony’s company didn’t make him desperately uncomfortable. He’d seen the footage, the man bending over Tony’s pale, shaking body and whispering slick untruths as he tore out Tony’s heart.
“So what’s the situation?” Steve asked, hiding behind his mission face.
“We have reason to believe that an inter-dimensional portal is going to open up here in the next hour,” Coulson said, voice flat.
Steve frowned. “Oh, hey, do you mean the Bifrost?” he asked, dots connecting in his brain.
Coulson blinked, his face as close to shocked as Steve had ever seen him. “That’s… how do you know about that?”
Steve swore internally, casting about for a believable lie. “Uhh, the Red Skull. Before he died. He said something about journeying between realms, I made a lucky guess.”
Coulson looked like he knew something was up, but professionalism won. Of course. “Very lucky, Captain. It is, in fact, the Bifrost that we believe will open here.”
“How do you know?”
“Dr Foster has worked diligently on predicting Bifrost movements,” Coulson said, gesturing for Steve to walk towards a command tent that had been set up. “A couple of years ago, she was witness to the arrival of a… visitor, for lack of a better word, through the Bifrost.”
Steve had realised that he should play dumb, so he pasted on a blank expression as Coulson pushed his way through scurrying agents into the tent. “A visitor?”
Coulson winced, like just the remembrance of Thor was painful. “An alien, Captain. More powerful than any of us. More powerful than you.”
Steve agreed, but he affected a stern look. “Well, we’ll see about that.”
Coulson smiled, a tiny thing, but it made Steve’s gut kick with grief for a dead man, who had been so much less formal than the one in front of him. He couldn’t imagine how Clint felt, but it was still hard, to see this impersonal Coulson and remember the one who had stumbled over himself in Steve’s presence.
The tent was full of equipment Steve vaguely recognised as technological, monitors and machines and wires crawling everywhere. It all seemed chunky and ugly to Steve, none of the cool blue lights of Tony’s holograms, all grey plastic boxes and white displays. Technicians in lab coats and tactical gear alike stared at the screens, watching feeds spike and shiver with a vibrating tension that Steve remembered from the SSR tents during the war.
“So what’s the plan?” Steve asked Coulson, trying to stand somewhere out of the way and just succeeding in bumping into people. Coulson grabbed a briefing packet and shoved it at Steve to read.
“You’re our best bet at containing him, to be honest,” said Coulson, gesturing at Steve’s shield. “That’s vibranium, and we don’t have a single thing that might be able to withstand him except that.”
The packet had nothing Steve didn’t already know about Thor, but he flipped through it dutifully, his mind racing. If Thor didn’t remember him, he probably wouldn’t attack straight out, but he would be only a few ill-chosen words away from it. If he did remember, Steve would have to get him to shut up as quickly as possible. No questions as to which was more difficult.
Thunder rolled suddenly, and the tent sprung into even more furious motion as alarms sounded and monitors flashed.
“You’re up, Captain!” Coulson yelled over the noise, and in seconds Steve was in the back of a jeep being driven through sheeting rain towards the centre of the Expo site.
The concrete had cracked over the years, and grass and mud kicked up behind them. Steve tried to keep an eye on the thickly roiling cloud from where Thor was soon to emerge, but the rain stung his eyes and he resorted to huddling miserably under his shield.
Finally the jeep stopped and Coulson waved him out, handing him a comm. “Try to keep him contained,” he said.
“For what? You can’t capture him,” Steve replied, and he really didn’t like Coulson’s look at that.
“We can try,” was all Coulson said before the jeep was careening through the rain back to the command tent.
Not for the first time Steve wondered just what the hell kind of world he’d woken up in.
He had barely any time for moping as the flashing whirlwind of the Bifrost opened at his back, knocking him onto his face in the mud.
“Steven!” a very familiar voice boomed at his back, and soon Thor had grabbed him by his uniform and set him on his feet. “This weather is most inclement. I assure you, it is by no design of mine,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “But I am surprised to find you alone to greet me. Where are our team mates, our brothers by the bonds formed in battle?”
Steve winced, his mind racing. What he wouldn’t give for Tony at that moment, to send him in to bat for Thor against Coulson and Fury and the Council and the whole goddamn world.
“Something’s going on, Thor, something bad. Can you trust me? To follow my orders now until I can explain?” Steve asked, trying to will Thor to believe him.
Thor’s wide smile faded instantly. “You are a worthy leader, Captain, and I will follow you, as I have sworn.”
Steve’s knees wobbled in relief even as he lifted his shield to use as an umbrella over them both. “Okay. First, pretend we’ve never met. Second, be as nice and as non-threatening as you can possibly be. Third, if I tell you to, use Mjolnir and get the hell away as fast as you can.”
Thor nodded, expression grave and weighted with something dark. Steve remembered suddenly that Thor was thousands of years old, and had seen more battles than Steve ever would. “I will do these things. You will explain to me later why they are necessary.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Steve nodded anyway, his hand bringing the comm online. “Sir, Thor is here, and he is non-hostile. Repeat, no threat.”
Coulson’s voice crackled down the line. “Roger that, Captain. Transport inbound.”
Thor’s eyes widened at the familiar voice, but Steve just shook his head at him. “Yes, sir.”
The jeep that fetched them had two guards standing in the back with huge, unfamiliar guns, and Thor eyed them warily before he took his seat. Steve squeezed in beside him, no easy feat, but he couldn’t imagine taking even the smallest risk that he could be separated from Thor, one of only four other people who remembered the way the world was supposed to work.
Coulson’s face was flat and expressionless when the jeep pulled up. The rain had eased but Steve couldn’t remember feeling this soaked since a memorable occasion near the Seine.
“Son of Coul,” Thor ventured tentatively, with a glance in Steve’s direction.
“Mr Blake,” Coulson replied. “Welcome back.”
Thor inclined his head, even dripping managing to look regal. “I bring greetings from Asgard and Odin Allfather. We have repaired the Bifrost with the aid of the Te—” Steve coughed violently and Thor covered with a smoothness that Steve had never imagined him capable of, “—teams of Aesir eager that we might once more extend to the Nine Worlds our protection against those who would rend peace asunder.”
Coulson shifted. “Well that’s… very kind. I’ll leave that for Director Fury to discuss with you. If you’ll come with me?” He gestured to a black town car, waiting with several agents beside it.
Steve was trying to figure out how to object when Thor flicked his cape, sending droplets flying. “Certainly, Son of Coul. This worthy warrior, the Captain of America, shall accompany us and regale me with tales of his might!” He said it with such finality that when he strolled towards the town car Coulson just rolled his eyes and nodded to Steve.
“Whatever keeps the alien god happy,” Coulson muttered, and Thor pretended not to hear, just throwing himself into the car with his usual gusto
“A fine steed!” he declared when Steve and Coulson slid in beside him. “Not an equal to Sleipnir, but then he is first among all horses to be found under the boughs of Yggdrasil, and my kin besides. Surely you know the tale of the nine-night ride of Hermodr to ransom for Baldr’s return from death?”
Steve knew a diversion when he saw one, so he ignored Coulson’s icy gaze and said, guileless, “Why, no, I don’t believe I’ve heard that one, Thor.”
Thor would then, of course, not be silent until he had.
It wasn’t a short tale, and Thor was still somewhere in the midst of Sleipnir and Hermodr’s battles on the road to Hel when they pulled up in front of a non-descript office block in Brooklyn.
“Captain Rogers, we’ll take it from here,” Coulson said, tone flat, but Thor just tugged Steve out of the car behind him and placed a heavy arm about Steve’s shoulders.
“Nonsense! I have not finished my tale, and the Captain is a Midgardian warrior of renown, is he not?”
Coulson narrowed his eyes but nodded.
“Then I would have him be present for our negotiations, as a gesture of good faith,” Thor said, and with that started strolling into the building. Steve let himself be pulled along, wheels in his mind turning.
“Thor,” he muttered, and Thor’s arm tightened around him, “I should get back to Clint, but I’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll explain then. If I’m not here by midday, bust out.”
Thor paused but he let Steve go. “I will do this,” he said earnestly, and clasped Steve’s arm in a warrior’s handshake. “Give my regards to Barton,” he murmured, too quiet for anyone but Steve and his enhanced ears to hear.
Steve nodded, and Thor let him go, striding further into the lobby and proclaiming wonder at the chandelier.
Coulson eyed Steve when he reached the town car again. “You made friends quickly.”
“We’re warriors, sir. We understand each other. I convinced him I’m no good at political stuff, but I’ll come see him tomorrow morning, if that’s okay. We want to keep him happy, right?”
Steve shifted uneasily. Coulson looked like he knew far too much, so Steve pasted on his very best ‘aw shucks’ expression, as Tony called it. “Okay then. Anything else, sir? I’m really wet, and leather chafes something awful,”
Coulson raised an eyebrow. “Debriefing can wait till after your play date tomorrow, I suppose.”
Steve turned on his very best USO grin. “Thanks, sir.”
His Harley stood waiting on the kerb when the SHIELD town car dropped him at his apartment, and Steve dithered locking it up. Clint probably didn’t remember the cuddling that they’d done the night before, Clint sobbing into Steve’s neck until he wore himself out and fell asleep. But Steve did. Seventy years had done nothing to change the fact that awkward seemed to be his default setting in interpersonal relationships. He’d face an army alone, with nothing but his shield at his back, but facing another man after a crying jag over his dead lover… it terrified him.
He gave himself a mental kick-in-the-pants. “Come on, Rogers,” he muttered, striding for the stairs, “Your team needs you. Stop being such a yellow-belly.”
The apartment smelled amazing when he opened the door, and Clint’s head appeared from behind the kitchen counter, hair stuck at all angles. “Oh! I thought you’d be longer.”
Steve shook his head. “Debriefing tomorrow, I’m too soaked to sit through it right now.”
Clint winced. “Wet leather, that sucks, man.”
Steve deposited his shield by the coffee table. “Ain’t that the truth. What are you doing, anyway? What is that smell?”
Clint hopped back and forth on his feet, looking anywhere but at Steve. “Ratatouille and rack of lamb,” he said, opening the fridge and rummaging noisily. “It’ll be ready in an hour.”
Steve knew there was something more to his answer, but the leather really was starting to chafe. “Sounds great. I’m gonna shower.”
Steve shook his head and made for his bedroom and the tiny ensuite. Clint must have used it while he was out, the mirror still slightly steamy. Steve started the water and peeled his uniform off. It was noticeably less comfortable than the one he was used to, that their Coulson had helped design. Case in point: it seemed determined not to detach from his inner thighs without taking off a layer of skin, and Steve grit his teeth and yanked.
He really hated wet leather.
The hot water beat down on his back and started to ease out some of the tension that he was carrying like a weight around his neck. Two days and they were no closer to knowing where they were, why they were here, how to get home.
Steve knew he was no good at this. He was a tactician, a soldier. He could look at a battle, at a field of engagement and know within seconds how to approach it, how to win. They were in a battle now, but Steve had no idea how to attack this problem. This was Tony’s thing, this kind of reality-twisting thinking. He’d have had some kind of impossible solution half-done by this point, Steve just knew it.
Their resident genius was out of commission –not dead, he refused to think that, he would not think that in present tense– and their other scientist was occupied trying to get back without getting captured like a rabid animal. Who knew how Clint was coping, if he was compromised. Widow was her competent and terrifying self, but on the other side of the world. Thor was holed up in SHIELD with not-Coulson and Fury and whoever else. Steve’s team was fractured, and he had no idea how to heal the breach.
He thought back to the last time they’d all been together as a team. That morning in the Tower’s kitchen, all of them hungover and embarrassed and yelling. Tony had stood there, looking confused but unsurprised while they yelled. Guilt welled up in Steve’s chest. Tony hadn’t made Steve down those shots, certainly hadn’t made Natasha get up on stage to sing that terrible song, or made Bruce declare his love for the bartender, or made Clint swap clothes with Natasha and walk around in that lacy bustier. They were grown ups. They were superheroes, for god’s sake, and they’d turned on Tony like vengeful children.
Steve had never felt more ashamed. He had actually speculated with Natasha what life would be like if Tony—
Steve’s head snapped upright so fast his neck cracked.
He ran through that last day: Clint’s throwaway remark, Bruce’s dark muttering, his and Natasha’s conversation by the pool…
He was out of the shower and in the living room before he even registered moving.
“Whoa, Cap!” Clint shrieked, throwing up his hands. “Warn a guy! Or get a towel, Jesus.”
Steve looked down and blushed furiously, but this was more important than modesty. “I know why we’re here. It’s our fault. We did it, we changed things, I don’t know how but we did this, and we have to fix it.”
Clint peeked at Steve through his fingers. “What? How did we do this?”
“We wished for no more Tony, right?” Steve asked bitterly. “We got it. And I don’t know how we’re going to get him back.”
Clint dropped his hands, fixing Steve with a sceptical look. “Okay, Steve, obviously this is a revelation you’ve had, since you didn’t even stop for a towel, but can this wait? You know, until you’re clothed?”
“You don’t understand, Clint, we did this! We wanted it enough that we somehow made a world where Tony was gone. What kind of people do that? What kind of team are we? He’s dead here, Clint! I… just for a second I thought the world would be better off without him and now he’s dead. I may as well have killed him!”
Steve was yelling by the end but he couldn’t stop. His voice felt hoarse and there was something huge and bitter in his throat, choking him with shame and regret, pain stabbing him with every swallow. He’d said those things, felt those horrible, terrible things and for a second, one tiny instant he’d meant them, and now Tony was dead and he’d lost his world for the second time and it was all his fault…
“Hey, hey, Cap, c’mon, breathe for me, you gotta breathe, man.” Clint’s voice broke through to Steve’s brain and he realised he was on his knees on the floor of the apartment –not his, never his, his was the 87th floor of Avenger’s Tower, with a south-facing studio and a gym with super soldier-proof punching bags– and Clint’s hand was rubbing circles on Steve’s back as Steve struggled to breathe through the guilt.
The world looked smudged; he lifted a hand to his face, and it was wet. Clint seemed to notice that Steve was back to himself and coughed awkwardly. “Welcome back.”
Steve shifted, suddenly desperately conscious that he was naked and wet and had just had a breakdown in front of one of his team. “Uh, sorry. I just—”
“It’s cool, Cap.”
“No, I shouldn’t have – I mean, it just reminded me – I didn’t mean to –”
“Hey, no, I get it, it’d get to anyone.”
Steve swallowed. “Oh. Well. Thanks. I’d better – I’ll go get dressed.”
“Sure, I’ll just finish dinner.”
As he dried himself and dressed, Steve supposed that this made them even now, in a strange kind of way.
Dinner was stilted and awkward, something that Clint rarely managed to accomplish, but the both of them were too in their heads to bother with conversation. Steve ran over that last day obsessively, his mind torturing him with slow motion close ups of Tony’s face as they all turned on him. Denial, annoyance, but also resignation and what Steve thought was worst: absolutely no surprise.
Natasha called in a 20:00, with the news that she had obtained false documentation for Bruce, and hair dye for both of them.
“You’re coming in under your SHIELD identity?” Steve asked, incredulous. Clint, sprawled on the sofa and flipping through more pages of intel, rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything.
“If you think that’s my only working alias, I really worry about you leading this team, Steve,” she said, her tone dripping sarcasm even over the tinny speakerphone and Clint chuckled.
Steve blushed, glad she couldn’t see him. Sometimes her complete and utter competency made him feel like a toddler bumbling about playing at superheroes. Other times, it made his grief for Peggy so sharp it ached. “Right. When are you due in?”
“We’re in transit for twenty six hours, so we’ll be at JFK the day after tomorrow, in the afternoon.”
Steve nodded, running his hand through his hair distractedly. “Good. I – Nat, I think I know why we’re here.”
“About that, we think we figured it out, too.”
Steve frowned. “What?”
“We wished for it, right?” she asked, but went on before he could reply. “Bruce and I have been talking about it. Bruce said something about quarks and temporal rifts, don’t ask me to repeat it, but we think somehow we changed reality.”
“I – yeah, that’s what I think, too.”
“So we can reverse it somehow,” she said, but her tone wasn’t as sure as her words.
“Where’s a genie and a lamp when you need one?” Clint asked.
Steve agreed, but kept his voice firm as he caught her up to speed on Thor and SHIELD. By the time they’d signed off, Steve felt no better, but there was a kernel of relief in the knowledge that in two short days all his remaining team would be gathered in one place.
Together, where he could keep them safe, protect them until they could get Tony back.
The next morning, Steve went for a run to settle himself. He found himself weaving through neighbourhoods he remembered from his childhood, streets he’d been on with Bucky, and ran across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to escape.
He should have known that would be a mistake.
Everywhere he ran the absence of Tony haunted him. A donut shop that Tony had dragged him to one morning after an all-night battle, swearing up and down that their bear claws were ‘to die for, Cap, no really, if there was some kind of catastrophe and I had to choose between the life of an innocent or those bear claws, I would be torn, okay?’
The glaring hole in the skyline where Tony’s big ugly building should be, jutting up in all its ridiculous phallic glory: ‘what can I say, Cap, I’m compensating, Pepper’ll tell you, inferiority complex like whoa. I’m a drivelling heap of sexual insecurity. Why are you laughing?’
The little hole-in-the-wall Italian place that they would escape to, when life in the Tower became too fraught or Steve was lost in memories of a world seventy years dead. They’d found it one evening just wandering, and after gorging themselves Tony had offered Steve’s hand in marriage to the chef, ‘because I’m taken and it’s legal here now, right? Just think of the service you’ll be doing the marriage equality movement, Cap, you and Gianni here and your carbohydrate-fuelled love. You’re made for each other, an Italian chef and a man with the appetite of five sumo wrestlers.’
The dive bar that Steve had dragged Tony out of too many times to count after Pepper left him, drunk and messy and one time actually kicking and screaming, because ‘who the hell do you are, Steve, Captain fucking Perfect, couldn’t fuck up a relationship if he tried, right?’
And the alley a few blocks away, where Tony had finally stopped fighting him and slumped against him instead, not crying but very near to it, slurring into Steve’s chest, ‘I don’t blame her, you know, I’d leave me, too. ‘S not like I didn’t expect it. She deserves so much better ‘n me, Cap. ‘M jussa good brain, really. She needs more than a brain, she needs a whole person.’ Steve had tried to comfort him, but he really was worse than useless with distressed people, and all he’d managed was some awkward mumbling and a hug.
By the time he was back in front of the apartment building, Steve had run for over an hour and felt more keyed up than when he’d started.
Clint hadn’t come in yet, having returned to SHIELD the previous night, ‘before they think I’ve defected or whatever’. Steve sped through his shower and within another half hour was on his Harley, weaving through rush-hour traffic.
The SHIELD building was nondescript, outside and within, in a way that suggested to Steve that it had been on purpose. Beige and grey and shades in between were the only colours he could see, none of the in-your-face modern of the Helicarrier.
He realised with a start, waiting in a briefing room for Coulson and Thor, that Tony had designed that, too.
“Steven! It pleases me to greet you once more!” Thor declared, slamming open the door with an ominous crack. He strode forward and clasped Steve’s forearm in a warrior’s grip, his grin wide and apparently genuine, if not for the brief flicker of his eyes to Coulson. “I have been engaged in negotiations with the Fury and Son of Coul, and I would have your counsel.”
Coulson coughed. “Captain Rogers is a field agent, Mr Odinson, not—”
“But this is why I seek his wisdom,” countered Thor. “We are, both of us, warriors at the core of our being, and it is from this shared foundation that we may understand each other. Surely the Captain of America has nothing but his people’s best interests in his bosom?”
“Of course,” Coulson said, eyes narrowing.
Thor grinned. “Then he will treat justly. This is my bargain, Son of Coul. Will you accept it?”
Coulson looked like someone had shoved a lemon in his mouth. “Only the World Security Council can authorise Captain Rogers to act on our behalf.”
Thor nodded magnanimously. “This is acceptable to me. While we wait for you to arrange it so, a morning repast! The fruits of Midgardian soil have long been missed by our people, and I would be pleased to relearn their sweetness.”
Steve had never seen Coulson speechless. Silent, yes, circumspect, always, but never at a loss for a reply. Finally he just nodded tightly and spun on his heel, marching out the door.
“Well, that sure was something,” Steve said.
Thor turned to Steve with a triumphant smile. “You all forget, I think, that I grew up with the Liesmith himself, Loki Silvertongue.”
Steve pulled out a chair and slumped, his nervous energy draining and leaving him wrung out. “I try not to think of Loki if I can help it, to be honest.”
He regretted it the instant the words were out of his mouth. Thor’s face fell and he took a seat beside Steve at the conference table.
“Yes. He has wronged you all sorely. I cannot fault you for your anger, but neither can I share it.”
“Of course not, Thor. He’s your brother. None of us could be angry at you for loving him,” Steve said.
Thor grimaced, but a contingent of junior agents showed up laden with food and coffee. Thor waited for them to leave before he sent Steve a serious look.
“I think the one you call the Hawk may. And he is justified in it. Loki wronged him more grievously than any of us.”
“Yeah, well, ‘the Hawk’ is kind of a dick, you know.”
Steve’s head jerked up to see Clint leaning in the doorway, arms crossed and a tolerant smile on his face.
“Are you two actually stupid enough that you’d talk about this in a SHIELD briefing room?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
Steve flushed. “Oh. I guess I am.”
Thor’s fist clenched. “I, too, was unwary and foolish.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Well, lucky for you guys this isn’t my first freakshow rodeo. I scrambled the video feed, so we’re good for now.”
“Thanks, Clint,” Steve said, and he meant for more than the surveillance. They hadn’t talked about their respective meltdowns, but Steve couldn’t leave it like that.
Clint just gave him a small smile and shut the door behind him. “Don’t mention it. Ever. Now, we gonna get the big guy up to speed?”
Steve nodded, and briefed Thor as fast as he could, Clint interjecting in between gorging himself on pastries and coffee. Thor met each bit of information with a serious expression that somehow both suited him and was incredibly strange to see on his face.
“So it is by magic that we were brought to this place,” he stated finally, when Steve had run out of things to tell him.
Clint nodded. “Yeah, but we don’t know how we brought you. You weren’t part of the ‘We Hate Stark’ club.”
Steve winced. “Clint.”
“I think I know how that came to be,” Thor said. “Nothing has changed in Asgard as a result of this magic. Loki remains in exile; the Tesseract still rests in its place in the treasure vault of Odin. These things would not be so were Tony not to have battled with us, I think. It follows that this curse is limited to Midgard, and to those not involved in enacting it.”
Steve turned this over and nodded. “That makes sense.”
“So how do we fix it, oh godly one?” Clint asked around a mouthful of – Steve’s heart clenched – bear claw.
Thor shook his head. “I am no sage. I regret that in my youth I was blind to the value of learning and magic, and I am no better than the meanest pupil in these arts.”
“You’re still more of an expert than anyone else we have,” Steve insisted.
Thor regarded him with a grave expression. “I know not how such a curse is to be broken. We would do best to consult a master of magic and curses with such a question.”
Steve’s stomach sank even as he asked, “And who might that master be?”
Thor’s smile was infinitely sad. “My brother, of course.”
Clint was off his chair in a second. “Oh, fuck no. Look, Thor, no offence, buddy, I get that you can’t hate your brother, trust me, fucked up fraternal bonds and me are way too familiar for me to get on a high horse about that, but are you fucking crazy? You’re talking about the guy who tried to take over the planet with his alien minions on flying jetskis and crazy armoured battle eels a year ago! We can trust anyone more than him.”
Thor met Clint’s furious glare. “He has offered regret, and I believe would welcome an opportunity to make some amends, no matter how small.”
Clint scoffed. “Oh, and the Liesmith couldn’t possibly be yanking your chain, right? Perish the fucking thought!”
Steve agreed. “It’s pretty suspicious, Thor.”
Thor nodded his head sadly. “Very well. There are others in Asgard, sages and worthy teachers who may hold answers to our question.”
Clint growled under his breath but didn’t say anything to that. Steve sighed and rubbed his forehead. A month ago he would have laughed at the idea of getting a stress headache. Now he was sure one was building just behind his eyes.
“There’s nothing we can do until Bruce and Natasha arrive, anyway. Let’s just… think about this. Clint, can you poke around SHIELD without getting caught?”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Cap. You’re killing me here.”
“Is that a yes?”
“It’s a hell yes, sir.”
“Good. Look around for anything relevant. Check in twice daily, epsilon identification protocol.”
“Wilco, Cap,” Clint said, snapping a salute and leaving the room.
“Thor, you and I will stall Coulson. Any ideas for—”
“I will tell the tale of how I won Mjolnir! It is a very long tale, told properly.” Thor beamed.
“Perfect,” Steve said. “He can’t tell you to stop without risking offending you.”
Thor chuckled. “You are a more devious man than others give you credit for, Captain.”
Steve smiled. “Hey, I’m a tactician. Sometimes, you gotta fight dirty.”