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The Joke

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Steve leaned back against the conference table, casually crossing his arms as he watched the hum of activity before him on the Helicarrier’s bridge. It was always interesting to observe the crew’s efficient work outside of moments of crisis, even if he didn’t yet understand most of what the technicians were doing at the various screens and stations.

Director Fury had asked him to meet him here while he was on the Helicarrier. He hadn’t specified why, exactly, but Steve had gathered that the purpose was more bureaucratic than crisis in nature—papers to sign, details to confirm, something along those lines.

As the door behind him hissed open, he turned slightly, starting to rise, only to relax again with a friendly nod of greeting when he saw it was simply a crewmember on her way to one of the bridge stations. He smiled as she sidestepped to avoid the sign that was sitting in the middle of the walkway, looking oddly out of place in this otherwise well-ordered area.

It was one of the big yellow ones so common in stores these days, warning of wet and potentially hazardous floors. Only instead of depicting an incautious stick figure slipping and falling, someone had altered this particular sign to show Mjolnir’s distinctive outline, and the words “Caution: Unattended Hammer”. And, as Steve had noted on first entering, Thor’s hammer was indeed sitting on the floor underneath the sign.

He grinned again now, looking at it. Somehow the joke struck him as particularly funny here, in this sleek, no-nonsense place. It was both incongruous and surprising.

He knew well the benefit that a bit of practical joking and the occasional refusal to take to take dignity and tradition too seriously could bring to morale and teamwork, particularly within the confines of highly-structured military organizations. He hadn’t, however, particularly expected Fury to take that view of things. The Avengers (collectively and in their own special individual ways) tried his patience enough that Steve had often thought, with a mildly guilty twinge, that Fury probably cracked down all the harder on the other personnel under his command in consequence, just to maintain some air of order and discipline around here.

But apparently he didn’t come down on it too hard, if they could relax enough to carry on the jokes about Mjolnir here of all places. So heavy even the Hulk couldn’t lift it, indeed. He’d had occasion to shift it out of his way once or twice, and it was solidly built, yes, but it was an efficient, well-balanced weapon and wasn’t actually all that heavy. But at some point along the way everyone had gotten into the habit of talking about it as if Thor was the only one who could so much as budge the thing, like it was Excalibur or something, and it had by now turned into a sort of running joke. No one would so much as lift a finger to get it out of the way, no matter what inconvenient location Thor might leave it in.

The door hissed open again, and this time it was Director Fury who entered. Steve straightened, but Fury didn’t notice immediately. Instead, his attention was drawn to the bright yellow hammer-caution sign. It was kind of hard to miss.

Steve tensed, bracing for an explosion and prepared to step in and attempt to smooth things over if necessary. Or at least draw a bit of the heat down on himself rather than the Helicarrier’s crew. After all, it was mostly the Avengers themselves who were responsible for perpetuating the whole Mjolnir… thing.

To his surprise, however, Fury simply sighed and shook his head before letting the matter go.

“Captain.” Fury gave him a brief, formal nod.

“Sir,” he returned. “I was told you wanted to see me while we were here?”

“I did.” Fury moved to deposit the papers he held on the table before continuing. “Normally, when there is a situation that requires the Avengers’ attention it results in enough video recording and media coverage that it’s fairly easy for us to piece together exactly what happened and why, even independent of detailed mission reports. Obviously, given that nearly the entire thing went down in the Antarctic, that is not the case with the incident that took place two days ago. And as it happens, every one of the team’s reports becomes a bit vague at a certain point. However, between the details that are there, the details that conspicuously are not, the evidence at the scene, and certain… rumors, it does not take as much imagination as you might think to put together a picture of just what, exactly, those reports are being vague about.”

“Ah.” Steve cleared his throat, but refrained from elaborating.

“I suppose you’re wondering why you’re here, rather than Stark.”

Yes, he was wondering that. Very much, actually. Because much as he valued team solidarity, there were times when he would very gladly throw Tony Stark under the metaphorical bus rather than be left attempting to rationalize some of his possibly-effective-but-still-insane ideas. But he wasn’t about to say that. Instead, he found himself pulling into a posture just slightly less formal than parade rest, and putting on his best Captain Responsible, I’m-Here-To-Serve expression.

“I may not be formally in command of the Avengers, but I realize that I am expected to act as something of a stabilizing influence, and rein in any… ill-considered actions.”

“Relax, Captain. I’m not cruel enough to hold you responsible for controlling Tony Stark’s behavior. It’s hard enough getting him to take any responsibility for it himself. No, overall I believe that the Avengers did an excellent job of handling some rather exceptional circumstances.”

Releasing a subtle breath of relief, Steve quirked a smile. “Unusual situations do sometimes call for unusual solutions.”

Fury snorted. “Indeed. However, if I’m going to deal with these rumors before the media decides to take them and run, I need a few straightforward answers, and I have neither the time nor the patience to play twenty questions with Stark today. If you could just clarify a few of the details…”

“I’ll do my best, sir. What do you need?”

Turning the stack of papers so that Steve could more easily read, Fury gestured wearily at the topmost page on the table before them. “Did Stark really—”

Steve winced as his eyes, skimming the page, caught on several key phrases highlighted in yellow.

“Threaten to destroy the Gentoo penguin nesting grounds?”

“Among other things,” Fury agreed dryly.

“Er, yes. Yes, he did.”

He wasn’t sure how, but somehow without actually changing expression Fury managed to look even less pleased.

“In his defense,” Steve offered, “we were running rather low on options at the time. And it did work.”

“You are aware that in recent years there has been a great deal of environmentalist concern regarding the fate of penguin species in general, and that the Gentoo penguins are considered near threatened.”

“I don’t think that he would have actually gone through with it, even if none of us had been prepared to intervene if things didn’t work out. It was mostly just for effect.”

“Mostly,” Fury echoed, flatly.

“It is kind of hard to tell, sometimes, even when you get to know him.”

“True,” Fury conceded. “At any rate, I’m told that the penguins are all unharmed, and don’t appear to be any more disturbed than they would have been already, given… well. Everything else.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” And he really was relieved by the news. He’d always had a bit of a soft spot for animals, and the whole experience had to have been rather traumatic for them, even if he’d been assuaging his conscience with the knowledge that it would’ve gotten a whole lot more traumatic if they hadn’t been able to stop that maniac.

Fury sighed, flipping through the papers. “I’d be sorely tempted to let Stark handle the environmentalists and media on this himself, if I didn’t think he’d find some way to make it even more of a PR headache for SHIELD than it already has the potential to be.”

Steve grimaced sympathetically. Tony loved the media, and could handle them surprisingly deftly when he was in a mood to. But this wasn’t the best time to be seen taking environmental issues less than seriously, and SHIELD had been getting more than their usual share of bad press on other issues lately as it was.

After a moment’s silence, during which Fury regarded the papers in his hands as if they were solely responsible for his current position, Steve cleared his throat.

“If you don’t need me for anything else…?”

“No, thank you, Captain.” Fury’s terse reply and distracted hand wave indicated his thoughts were still elsewhere. “I think that’s all for the time being.”

His timely-yet-not-obviously-hasty retreat was halted just as he reached the door when Fury called his name. He turned, raising his eyebrows in question.

“If you happen to see Thor… Kindly request that he come up and remove his hammer from the middle of my bridge. Preferably before someone trips over it.”

Why Fury didn’t just tell one of the crew members to get it out of the way was a mystery, but he could see clearly enough that this was one of those moments where discretion was the greater part of valor. Instead of questioning, he simply nodded.

“I will, sir.”

-0-0-0-0-0-0-

Steve had to admit, he infinitely preferred heat over cold these days. Still, there were limits . Battling flame-wielding robots in the middle of the desert for hours on quite possibly the hottest day of the decade was enough to have even him toying with the idea of locking himself in a walk-in freezer. Not that he actually would, even if he could find one around here, but still, the thought was there.

He was exhausted, he was dirty, he was bruised, he was sweaty, and he was hot.

The constant presence of air conditioning on hot days was one of the modern advancements he’d wholeheartedly welcomed. However, on entering Stark Tower this time he’d been met with an atmosphere that was positively stifling.

It was only then that he remembered something Tony had been going on about a couple of weeks earlier—something about minor changes, generating some positive press, automated routines when no one was in residence, conserving energy and, according to him, “keeping the hippies happy.” What it all boiled down to was that, when no one was planning to be around for some time, the residential (i.e. Reserved For Avengers Use) floors of Stark Tower went into a minimal-energy-use mode.

Of course, Tony had set things up before they’d left so that the systems would automatically get everything up and running and properly cooled down again by the time they got back. Unfortunately—well, fortunately overall, really, but unpleasantly at least at the moment—they’d returned several days ahead of their original schedule. Ergo: no air conditioning.

There was a way to override the systems and get everything quickly cooled off, Steve knew that much. But just looking at the touchscreen that controlled the thermostat was enough to give him a headache, never mind actually trying to get it to cooperate. Tony would do it without so much as a thought, of course, but he wasn’t here yet.

After the battle, and a perfunctory group debriefing with Director Fury (In essence: “Found rampaging giant robots. Assessed giant rampaging robots. Attacked giant rampaging robots. Eventually, with great difficulty and heroism, destroyed giant rampaging robots. Everybody lives, minimal damage to private property, yay team. Can we go home now? I don’t know about anyone else, but the funk—excuse me, I should say odiferous afterglow of heroic battle—in here is seriously getting to me.” Much as he might have frowned at the phrasing of the summary, Steve privately had to agree with the gist of Tony’s sentiments. And given how little argument Fury had put up, he suspected that the “heroic funk” was even getting to him.), the team had briefly separated, with the idea of meeting up again at Stark Tower once they’d finished what was left of their individual business there.

He was surprised to find that he was only the second to arrive. Thor was there already, and had greeted him briefly before heading off to find something to eat. Even though he knew that by all rights he ought to be starving too, in his current overheated state just the thought of food was enough to make Steve’s stomach churn.

So: cooling off first, then food, then shower, then bed. He should probably just go take a shower now (because he did at least know how to make the water temperature cooler), but honestly he wasn’t sure he could handle staying upright that long just yet. He needed to crash, just for a few minutes (though a more experienced voice at the back of his mind warned against believing that optimistic thought), and the couch in the common area was looking more alluring than any piece of furniture had a right to. If he could just get a bit of air….

He eyed the row of windows all along the outside wall speculatively for a moment before giving up on that thought. He’d discovered early on that very few of the windows this high up on the tower were designed to open so much as a crack. Safety regulations, or something along those lines. Normally the temperature and humidity inside the building were precisely controlled for comfort, and getting a good cross-breeze going was pretty much a non-issue.

But—of course, the doors to the balcony were a different story.

He strode over to wave a hand over the sensor on the wall and the double doors obediently hissed open, allowing a gentle breeze to make its way inside. Shoulders slumping in relief, he turned toward the couch.

And the doors slid shut again.

He sighed. Again, there must be some button to stop them from doing that, but he’d never had reason to figure it out before and certainly didn’t have the energy to do so now.

He turned back to glare wearily at the doors, reminding himself that it was completely irrational to feel like Tony’s building was mocking him, much less suspect it of being actively malevolent. He was still coherent enough to recognize that his current feeling of utter defeat was just exhaustion and the normal crash after a fight. His problem-solving skills were not exactly at their best right now.

Then he noticed Mjolnir, sitting on the floor just inside the doors. Thor must’ve flown in to this balcony and set it down there on his way inside.

Waving his hand over the door controls once more, he waited for them to open fully before nudging the hammer with his foot, pushing it forward a few inches. A second or two later the doors started to ease their way shut, then, sensing the obstacle in the way, opened fully again. And stayed that way.

A nice, low-tech solution to a high-tech problem. Nodding in satisfaction, he staggered over to collapse in triumph on the couch. It was quite possibly the most comfortable couch that had ever been made. He wondered absently whether it was possible that that was due to some incredible modern advancement or other. Maybe Tony had assigned a team of his people to invent the perfect couch. Or maybe Tony had built it himself. Or maybe he was just tired. Whatever the case, it was wonderful. Raising one leaden arm, he allowed it to flop limply over his eyes, blocking out the sunlight. Perfect.

The next thing he knew he was startling awake to the sound of Tony’s arrival on the balcony outside. Judging by the changed shadows, he guessed that at least an hour had gone by.

He huffed in self-directed amusement. Yeah, so much for “just a few minutes.” Still, he did feel a bit more clear-headed, at least, even if he was still bone-achingly tired.

Predictably, despite the exhausted state he must be in as well, Tony was talking the moment the helmet came off.

“Anybody home?” he called out.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Steve swung his legs down over the side of the couch, easing himself up into a somewhat slumped sitting position.

“Oh, hey Steve.” Tony blinked a couple of times before breaking into a ridiculous grin.

“What?”

“Your hair’s just a bit…” Tony waved vaguely in the direction of his head.

“Oh.” Steve self-consciously ran a hand over his hair—sweat-dampened earlier, now dried into odd spikes and tufts—and attempted to brush it into some kind of order. Then he quirked an eyebrow at Tony. “You do realize you’ve got a pretty good case of helmet hair going yourself?”

Tony laughed, rubbing a hand over his own head briskly and only succeeding in inspiring his hair into yet wilder gravity-defying spikiness.

“Hey, do you know if—” Tony broke off with a yelp as, stepping over the threshold, his toe caught on Mjolnir.

It was a good thing he was still wearing the suit, or he’d have a few more bruises to add to his day’s no doubt already impressive collection. As it was he stumbled, just barely managing to catch his balance against the doorframe before loosing an impressive volley of curses, not all of which were even in English. (Or… well, maybe they were. Steve was still catching up on certain areas of modern slang.)

Recovering himself and back to good humor a moment later, Tony nudged at Mjolnir with his foot, not quite hard enough to move it.

“Well, I guess that answers the question of whether Thor’s arrived yet.”

Steve winced a bit inwardly, realizing that it hadn’t even occurred to him that the hammer might pose a hazard there. Not that it had been any more out of the way where Thor had left it himself, but even so. He should’ve really moved it out of the walkway altogether. Still, there was no harm done and Tony wasn’t even particularly upset, so he didn’t see a reason to admit to being the one responsible for its current location.

Leaving the hammer where it sat, Tony wandered into the room, shedding his gauntlets as he went.

“Hey, Thor buddy, want to reclaim your abandoned property here?” he yelled.

Steve wasn’t sure, sometimes, what prompted the perpetual insistence that Thor and Thor alone be called to deal with it whenever Mjolnir’s location became a problem.

Part of it was, obviously, The Joke. (Though how even Tony had the energy and stubborn willpower not to just let it go and shift the thing himself some days he didn’t know. Then again, Tony’s ability to tell when a joke had run its course or was not appropriate for the moment was not exactly finely tuned.)

Another aspect, he suspected, was the question of just what Thor might do to anyone he caught messing with the hammer without his permission. The guy could be a bit, well, touchy about it sometimes. Still, it wasn’t like Steve couldn’t sympathize. All of them could. Their individual gear was so vital to both their sense of who they were and to their very survival that all of them could get a little particular at times about who was allowed to handle it. More than that, Steve had heard about what had happened to Thor recently in New Mexico—the temporary loss of his power, SHIELD taking possession of his weapon… hardly a wonder he’d feel especially possessive just now. So no, not surprising that no one would be eager to test his temper too far.

Still, Steve’s personal theory was that it was mostly just a forlorn hope that if they called him back to personally move it enough times, Thor just might pay a little more attention to where he set it in the first place and stop leaving it where people were going to trip over it.

In any case, so long as Thor continued to come and claim the hammer when asked rather than telling them to just move it themselves already, Steve supposed they’d all just continue the habit of leaving the job to him. As running jokes went it might be a bit silly and worn thin at times, but, well. When it came down to it jokes like that were more about group spirit than originality anyway.

Tony left the room, still talking—whether to himself, or just anyone who was listening Steve wasn’t sure and didn’t have the ambition to find out. Steve sat with his head in his hands, searching for the energy to get back up. Thor was probably asleep. He should just move the hammer himself and then go hit the shower. If only he could get his body to respond to his brain’s commands.

Except Thor wasn’t asleep, because a moment later he made an appearance. He paused on noting Mjolnir’s location, a frown creasing his brow. Trying, Steve guessed, to recall whether he’d actually left it blocking the doorway like that. Steve braced himself for a confrontation he really didn’t have the energy for, fully prepared to take the wind out of the argument by apologizing immediately and admitting that, yes, it was inappropriate to appropriate a teammate’s weaponry for use as an impromptu doorstop. But then Thor apparently shrugged off the question, bending to pick Mjolnir up.

Turning away, he caught sight of Steve for the first time.

“You have not yet retired to your quarters?” he asked, surprised.

Steve chuckled wryly. “I meant to, but the couch ambushed me on the way and I haven’t managed to escape.”

Thor laughed, as booming and unselfconscious in amusement as he was in anger. “Then allow me to lend you a hand, my friend. Perhaps together we may conquer this enemy, as we have so many others.”

-0-0-0-0-0-0-

At least Tony wasn’t sulking.

There had been words, yes, about the fact that SHIELD had been working on an advanced robotics project like this without asking for his input, especially considering the things were intended primarily for Avengers use to begin with. He had pronounced himself deeply hurt and offended, and even thrown in a few lines about seeing if he’d share his toys with them next time they wanted to play, but at least he was showing an interest and hadn’t dismissed the design out of hand. He’d made a few dubious noises here and there, but overall he seemed to be going the surprisingly mature route of reserving final judgment until after seeing their demonstration.

The attitude of the scientists who’d come to show off the work they’d had a hand in may have had something to do with that. It seemed to be half defiant “See? We don’t need you. We can do this all by ourselves.” and half almost puppyish eagerness to impress the great Tony Stark, genius inventor extraordinaire. Steve had to wonder if some or all of them might have once harbored ambitions of working for Stark Industries, rather than a government agency—even one as interesting and challenging as SHIELD.

As the lead scientist, Dr. Charleston, had eagerly explained earlier, they had had a team working for some time to adapt what had once been intended to become battle drones with sophisticated AI into the ideal sparring partners.

It would be safer than a living opponent, the scientists said, because they wouldn’t have to worry about going all-out and accidentally injuring their opponent, and there were plenty of failsafes in place to prevent the robots from injuring them. They were also programmed to mimic a variety of fighting styles with adjustable skill levels, so you could focus on specific techniques and get exactly the sort of workout that you wanted.

In short—according to them—the perfect training tool. Eventually they hoped to make use of them in training agents and military personnel, but they wanted the Avengers to be the ones to “beta test” them so they could see if there were any kinks that needed to be worked out. If the robots could stand up to the pounding that the Avengers gave to their workout equipment, they could handle pretty much anything.

Privately, Steve was dubious as to the advantages an automated system could hold over an actual, living opponent. But then again, as he was reminded multiple times on a daily basis, this was the twenty-first century, and plenty of things were automated now that he never would’ve dreamed could work without direct human guidance. So for the time being he was following Tony’s example (and wasn’t that a bizarre thought) and refraining from forming a final opinion until he could see the things in action.

Natasha and Clint had been elected to be the first to go toe-to-toe with the robots. (It seemed the scientists, while confident in their design, were not quite ready to see their babies go up against, say, Asgardian enthusiasm.) The two were currently warming up and stretching out in preparation, while the rest of the team, along with Coulson, three scientists, and a couple of other SHIELD personnel whose exact titles and roles Steve wasn’t sure of, examined the two robots that waited silently inside the large sparring ring in the center of the workout room.

This… could get interesting, he thought. He hadn’t missed the wicked glint in Clint and Natasha’s eyes, nor the glances and almost-smiles they kept darting at each other. The scientists might’ve thought they were starting out slow with the closest equivalents to normal human beings that the team had, but Steve doubted that they’d ever actually seen either Hawkeye or Black Widow in action.

None of the Avengers did sparring by halves. Partly because they went up against some pretty crazy stuff on a regular basis, and out in the field no one’s going to be taking it easy on you or making allowances for your limitations. Better to have a friend who cares push you to the limits and force you to do your best than to have your weaknesses highlighted by someone who really is out for your blood.

But, while that was the more professional-sounding reason for their sometimes-extreme bouts it wasn’t the only reason, and some days it wasn’t even the main reason. Because for all they cared about each other, they also knew each other, and knew exactly how to push each others’ buttons, and sometimes a bit of friendly needling and egging each other on… escalated. He would’ve liked to claim to be the voice of reason, the one who stopped things before they went too far (and honestly, he did try), but although Tony and Clint were by far the worst offenders none of them could truly claim innocence. It was childish, yes, but on the bright side squabbling like siblings was actually a huge improvement over being at each others’ throats for real, as they had been at the start. Given the unique personalities and skill sets involved, though… when things got out of hand, they tended to really get out of hand.

Steve had to wonder whether the most recent incident, and arguably the most spectacular, might’ve been the catalyst behind the decision to introduce them to the sparring drones now. He hadn’t actually been present for that one, but he had seen the workout room in the aftermath. It was… impressive, even for them.

As Clint and Natasha stepped into the ring the rest of them gathered closer. Dr. Charleston pressed a button on the controller he held, bringing the robots to life. Glowing panels lit up in turn, and they straightened fully with a surprisingly quiet hum of machinery.

Natasha and Clint settled into relaxed stances in front of their chosen opponents, rolling their shoulders and shifting to loosen up. Glowing camera “eyes” locked on, following their movements.

“Ready?” Charleston asked.

Natasha smiled. “Any time now.”

The robots were well designed, and surprisingly good at mimicking human movements—for machines. The fighting would have looked impressive, to anyone who hadn’t seen the assassins when they were performing at the top of their game. As it was, it was mostly interesting for the novelty factor in fighting against androids that weren’t actively trying to be lethal.

Far from being tired out by the workout, Natasha and Clint were looking increasingly relaxed as they got a feel for the robots’ tendencies and were able to predict more accurately what they would try next.

Interesting as it was as a demonstration of how far robotics had come in recent years, Steve wasn’t seeing anything to convince him that they would revolutionize the art of sparring. Glancing around, he could see he wasn’t alone in that thought.

Thor had wandered around to the opposite side of the ring for a different vantage point, while Bruce stood with his arms crossed casually, maintaining a politely interested expression. Tony wasn’t even bothering to disguise his yawn. Coulson was…well, he was Coulson, and Steve was pretty sure he’d continue to look bland and composed if the sky was actively falling around them.

“Hey, take this for me for a minute, will you?”

Steve’s attention was drawn back to the ring as Natasha, in response to Clint’s request, moved to draw both the robots’ attention to herself. Slipping smoothly out of the way, Clint turned to face the scientists.

“That all you’ve got? No offense, they’re nice toys, but honestly I could do this in my sleep.”

“I think Natasha’s going to fall asleep,” Tony remarked.

Not quite true—she was pretty engaged at the moment, fighting both the robots and preventing the one that had locked onto Clint from hitting him over the head while his back was turned—but still.

Dr. Charleston smiled. “Oh, there’s more. I just thought we’d take things slow to begin with.”

Clint nodded. “Right. Done with that now—let’s see what these things can do.”

Both robots froze as Charleston adjusted settings on the controller. When he finished and looked up again, giving an encouraging nod, Clint turned and poked the still-stationary robot nearest him with his foot.

“Hey, you ready to play?” he asked, grinning.

…and then only just dodged in time to avoid being hit as a small bolt of blue electricity shot out from the robot’s hand.

“What the—” he yelped, caught off guard.

“Totally harmless,” one of the scientists hastened to assure them. “Just a mildly painful jolt. I’ve been hit by a few myself.”

Natasha’s opponent sprang to life as well, and as the assessing dance began again it was clear there was a difference this time around. Beyond the electricity-shooting, that was. Their tactics had changed—less direct and aggressive, more calculating and deliberate.

“They’re capable of some quite complex threat assessment in this mode,” another of the scientists informed them happily. “Though of course it’s most apparent when they’re faced with multiple potential adversaries. Deciding which is the most immediate danger, what level of force is required…”

Clint and Natasha were dodging back and forth, trying to avoid the shots from the robots in between darting in for their own attacks. One bolt slid past Clint to hit the robot that Natasha was fighting square in the chest.

And then… things went south. It all happened so fast, it was hard to even tell exactly what had happened. The best he could figure was that the robot suddenly reassigned its counterpart as the primary threat to be dealt with.

Whatever the reason, it fired back with a much more powerful bolt than any they’d loosed so far. The sparking ball of electricity struck home, not appearing to do any serious damage, but the robot actually stumbled back a step from the force of it.

The ring exploded into chaos. Natasha and Clint scrambled to get out of the way as the robots went at it in earnest. They were moving fast, using anything to hand—not just their energy bolts, but pulling up the poles that supported the ropes around the ring, grabbing up weights from the set just outside the sparring area, flinging them with far greater than human strength and absolutely no attention to who or what they might be damaging beyond each other.

A stray blast hit the panel next to the door and alarms began to sound as the room went into lockdown to contain the threat. Was it even supposed to do that with their own people still inside? No time to stop and wonder. There were too many civilians here, and none of the Avengers were properly equipped to take on 7-foot-tall rampaging robots, not in such an enclosed space, and not when too much structural damage ran the risk of bringing the building above down on their heads.

Steve caught sight of the controller, abandoned on the floor nearby, half crushed under a dumbbell and sparking. No help to be hoped for there.

But Mjolnir was there, right next to him, and he didn’t stop to reconsider before snatching it up, putting his full strength into the throw.

He’d judged the angle well. The hammer arced through the air, taking the head off the nearest robot before embedding itself in the chest of the one behind, crushing the metal shell and the electronics inside. Both robots sagged to the floor, letting off a few stray sparks before settling into inert heaps.

Silence settled over the room, almost disorienting in its contrast. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a matter of seconds, though it seemed much longer.

“Everyone alright?” he asked, looking around.

It was only then he realized that, rather than staring at the robots, they were all looking at him with rather shell-shocked expressions.

He blinked, bewildered. Even Coulson was practically gaping at him. Had he missed something?

It occurred to him that he’d just destroyed probably several million dollars’ worth of government equipment, and even allowing for the inflated prices these days (and boy, had that taken some mind-boggling adjustment) that was a pretty significant chunk of money. Not that he’d had much choice, but still, some sort of acknowledgement of that fact was probably in order.

He gave Charleston an apologetic look. “Sorry for destroying them so…”—he waved a hand at the wreckage—“thoroughly. I’m not sure you’ll be able to salvage much.”

Tony barked out a laugh. “That is so not the point, buddy.”

Stepping up into the ring, Thor tugged Mjolnir free from the remains of the robot. He hefted it, examining it thoughtfully before stepping down on the near side of the ring, giving Steve a considering look.

“Never before has Mjolnir been wielded by another, nor even lifted save only by my father, since the day it first came into my possession.”

Steve cringed inwardly, but refrained from showing it, meeting Thor’s eye squarely. In the middle of a fight no one could afford to get too touchy or possessive over who used which means to get the job done. But even as integrated into the team as Thor had become, their knowledge of Asgardian customs and culture was hardly comprehensive. He might well have just stumbled into a much more serious taboo than he’d had reason to suspect.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to offend. I just didn’t see a better way to get them stopped.”

“And still not the point.” Tony ‘s face was twisted up in an odd expression, somewhere between amusement and disbelief.

“It is no offense that you should choose to make use of it in a moment of need,” Thor assured him. “Merely surprising you should have the ability to do so.”

Steve frowned slightly. Thor knew how strong the Serum had made him, relative to other humans. Why would it surprise him that he could manage a throw like that? But before he could ask Natasha broke in, looking nearly as confused as he felt.

“How did it occur to you to try using it now?”

Thor’s lips twitched as he studied Steve’s expression. “This is not the first time you have lifted Mjolnir,” he surmised. “You have tested its weight before, and knew that you were capable of wielding it.”

“Well—yes,” Steve agreed.

“You knew? ” Natasha narrowed her eyes. “You knew that you could use Mjolnir, and you kept it a secret?”

“I didn’t keep it a secret.” Steve shook his head, realizing that actually… now that he thought about it he couldn’t recall a time when he’d moved Mjolnir when anyone else was present. “Not intentionally. It never occurred to me…”

Clint sputtered. “It didn’t occur to you? All this time we’ve been walking around talking about how Mjolnir’s magical and no one except Thor can even pick it up, and you didn’t even once think to say ‘Oh, hey, by the way guys, I can actually use the super special exclusive hammer too.’”

“I thought you were joking!”

Tony groaned loudly, burying his face in one hand. There was a beat of awkward silence as they all processed this new information. Then Coulson cleared his throat. He, at least, seemed to have recovered his calm.

“I assure you, it was no joke,” Coulson informed him. “The hammer’s properties are quite real. When Mjolnir, well, arrived in New Mexico it caused quite a local sensation. People came for miles around to try their hand at picking up the hammer. Some even attempted to pull it out using pickup trucks. No one succeeded in shifting it at all. After SHIELD took control of the scene we brought in heavy machinery, and tried every trick we know, with just as little success. Until just now, to the best of our knowledge no one could move it except Thor. I’m… not sure how this is possible.”

The room’s focus shifted to Thor, questioning.

“I had not fully considered the matter myself, it seems” he said thoughtfully. “But in truth, it has not been said that none but myself may wield it—but rather that only the one who is worthy may command the power of Mjolnir.” Nodding decisively, he clapped Steve on the shoulder. “I would not have thought it to be possible for one who is not born of Asgard, but if Mjolnir deems it to be so, then surely it must be.”

And now Coulson was staring at him with something a bit beyond his usual not-quite-subtle hero worship. Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling vaguely mortified.

The awkward moment was, predictably, broken first by Tony.

“See, how is that fair? Any normal person would be positively gleeful about being able to use that thing, but him? Nooo, he’s just embarrassed.” Tony threw up his hands.

“That might be part of the reason why he’s the one who’s considered worthy,” Bruce pointed out mildly.

“There is no justice in this life. None. Honestly, how exactly is he that much more worthy than I am?”

“Do you seriously want anyone to answer that?” Clint grinned.

Tony pouted at him. “Hey, I’m a great guy. Don’t look at me like that, I am. Okay, I have my faults—most of them highly publicized and well documented—but I do lots of good stuff too. I donate to charities. Well, mostly the company does, Pepper does, but considering I basically am Stark Industries…. Anyway, all that aside, there’s still the whole superhero, putting my life on the line for the greater good and all that, thing. That’s gotta count for something, doesn’t it?”

Clint shrugged. “Sure, I guess. But if that were all it takes, the same could technically be true of all of us.”

“Well. Yeah.” Tony blinked. “So why—”

Steve lost track of the back-and-forth debate momentarily as he reexamined what he thought he’d known, reinterpreting events in light of this new revelation.

To be honest, he was half tempted to think that this—this insistence that Mjolnir really was that exclusive—was the joke, that this was some idiotic prank on their part and any minute now they’d burst out laughing at his expense. It was Coulson, mostly, who convinced him that this was for real. The man had a wicked and subtle sense of humor sometimes, yes, but he wasn’t cruel. And if he was going to participate in something that juvenile, Steve was pretty sure he’d play it with more deadpan calm. There was no way that the strange, almost… awestruck look still lingering in his eyes was faked.

So yes: not a prank, and he really had been just that clueless all this time. Considering it in this new light, some things did make a bit more sense now, and he felt painfully embarrassed that he hadn’t caught on earlier. He really wasn’t that slow on the uptake. Usually.

Something of his thoughts must’ve shown on his face, because Clint finally broke off from the “debate” with Tony—which had by that point devolved into his expounding some theory about worthiness equating to some quota of “bad guys killed,” or possibly how many years you were on Santa’s Naughty vs. Nice list growing up, and mostly Tony was just talking because his brain never really stopped racing along and his scientific mindset rebelled against anything that depended too much on abstracts instead of quantifiable hard data.

“Hey, no need to look so depressed, Cap,” Clint urged. “This is a good thing.”

Steve darted a dubious glance in Thor’s direction, not so sure he would fully share that opinion. To his surprise, Thor nodded, looking thoroughly approving in that too-serious-to-quite-be-called-beaming way that he had sometimes.

“Indeed, it does seem fitting that the leader of the Avengers should be deemed worthy of this honor.”

“Guess there’s a reason we actually let you be the one giving the orders,” Tony allowed magnanimously.

Steve laughed, despite himself.

“Hey, some of us aren’t exactly used to jumping to attention just because someone’s got a rank in front of their name, you know,” Tony informed him, as if that was news. “I, for one, have years of practice ignoring both orders and suggestions from the military.”

“You ignore orders and suggestions from me too,” Steve pointed out.

“True. But in all fairness I do pay attention some of the time. Besides, someone’s gotta keep all that power from going to your head. I suppose you’ll need it even more now that you know just how awesomely powerful you are.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “And I’m sure you’ll be more than up to the task.”

Tony squeezed his shoulder, giving him a look of mock gravity. “Just know that I am motivated only by my sincere wishes for your own wellbeing, and not in any way by insane and uncontrollable jealousy. Because if it were me? I would totally be nabbing the thing for experiments—or, you know, just trying it out—every chance I got.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing I have a little more restraint than you do.” He smiled. Then, as the thought struck him, he turned to Thor to assure him, “I do understand that the ability to wield the hammer is a serious responsibility, and I don’t take that lightly, nor do I have any intention of taking advantage.”

Thor simply nodded, accepting the statement as earnestly as it was meant.

Bruce was aiming a Significant Look at Tony, who scowled, muttering, “Okay, yeah, I get it, maybe that is why he’s the one who’s ‘worthy’.” He refrained from actually making air quotes with his fingers, but they were audible enough as it was.

“It’s good to know, just in case we run into some situation where Thor is incapacitated, but ultimately this doesn’t really change anything,” Natasha said, her tone thoughtful. “We already knew you were a good man, Captain. A little extra proof isn’t going to change the way we see you.”

Steve gave her a grateful smile. He hadn’t realized just how much he’d needed that that reassurance. Today had given him enough to absorb without the team getting… weird about it all.

“What she said.” Clint grinned mischievously. “Although that doesn’t exclude the possibility that you may have to get used to being called ‘Captain Oblivious’ for a while.”

Tony raised a hand, smirking. “I second that motion.”

Steve sighed. On second thought, maybe just a bit of added respect and authority wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.