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Between the Wars

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To vanish in America, one need only appear poor; Nick had taught her that years ago. To be recognised, one must first be seen, and the poor are seen only when they are seen as threats.

A middle-aged black man, if he was careful to seem unthreatening, could vanish in plain sight easier than most.

This was one of his best disguises: every airport in North America has shoe-shine stalls, and nobody notices the men and women who tend them. The world hurries past, looking away from the implied demand for money. Even those travellers who use their services rarely look at the attendant’s face; these days, they hardly look up from their phones.

Everyone flies through La Guardia sooner or later—criminals, terrorists, assassins, couriers, spies. Sometimes, all you needed to know was who'd come to town.

Natasha was wearing tall boots, laced, vintage. Scarred with years of wear, the leather a rich, deep brown from layer after layer of polish, hours of rubbing. It had hurt a little to deliberately scar one on the curb as she climbed out of the cab, but it was a sacrifice worth making.

There was a storm in Chicago; the arrivals board was six deep in people—some clutching flowers or balloons, others, resigned and weary, empty-handed. She stood in the crowd, found a flight an hour delayed. Sighed, and turned away, headed for the shoeshine stall; a busy woman at an unexpected loose end, needing somewhere to kill time until her man came back from a business trip.

***

Being the world's most flammable CEO was... a lot like being any CEO, except that Pepper had cut back her security detail considerably. Not entirely—a woman, a person, in her job was expected to have a bodyguard. It made a statement, conveyed a certain kind of power, protected her from the nuisances, from the men who saw her as a challenge, from all the situations where using Extremis would be overkill.

It took some getting used to, the idea that the world might need to be protected from her instead of the other way around.

She'd thought a lot about her options, while Tony had worked out how to stabilise Extremis—he had offered to try to take it out of her, make it all go away. She’d considered it. She’d thought about it long and hard, and then she’d refused.

She’d even thought about joining the Avengers herself, about letting Tony do the worrying for a change. Steve had made it clear she’d be welcome on the team, if that was what she wanted. That she’d be useful, valuable.

She and Natasha had had some long talks about it, and in the end she had realised that it just wasn't in her. She didn't have Steve's certainty about right and wrong, or Tony's drive to fix his mistakes, or Natasha's need to balance her ledger, or Thor's genuine joy in battle.

What she had was a company to run, and a talent for running it. Tony had tried to do both, and nearly pulled it off, for awhile, but the cost had been more than she ever wanted to pay. She didn’t fool herself that she’d do better. Stark Industries needed her undivided attention, and running it was who she was, what she wanted.

Still. Both she and Tony slept a little better these days, knowing that if anybody tried to use her against Tony again, to use her as a pawn, they’d never know what hit them.

***

Getting back in the game had been good for Sam, given him somewhere to put the relentless need for action that para-rescue had left him with. His world was always going to look like an emergency waiting to happen; that wasn’t going to go away, however well he learned to handle it, and he didn’t have it in him to be a bystander.

Flying regularly kept him steady; the focus and the effort and the deep blue stillness of it all. He still wondered sometimes if he was just putting off the crash, piling up trouble for himself, but so far it was working out okay. He’d expected things to get bad again, after the helicarrier, after Steve was out of hospital and gone, and there had been days. Weeks. He'd gotten a lot better at keeping his counselling appointments, for sure, but by and large, things were... good. He was sleeping again, and the dreams were... just dreams. Someone had said once, in group, that if you went into hell enough times at least you got to know the road home pretty well. The helicarriers, Riley, the war—he was always going to carry that load, but he had a pretty broad back.

He’d worried that he couldn't be an Avenger and still do his job at the VA, but they'd worked with him and they'd worked it out: he and Reg co-facilitated now, and to keep it fair he did the paperwork Reg hated in exchange for Reg taking over when he couldn't be there.

Flying regularly had also, unexpectedly, given him a new friendship—he'd nearly dropped his phone the first time Colonel James Rhodes, living goddamned legend, had called him up, casual as Hell, to ask him if he wanted to go flying, but apparently this was his life, now.

Colonel Rhodes—Rhodey, he still had to remind himself to call him Rhodey—was a hell of a flyer, in anything you'd care to name, and Sam was still working out how to use the wings—the new wings, Tony's improved version of the pair destroyed on the Helicarrier—offensively, how to take the fight to his opponents instead of coming in defensive, getting the wounded and getting out fast. Rhodey had a lot of good ideas, and a talent for getting ideas out of Sam, too, as they dove and spun and chased one another through the sky.

And he got it. There were things Sam couldn’t talk about ingroup, things he wasn’t sure he could find words for at all, that Rhodey just ... understood, without either of them having to speak. What it was like being out there with the Avengers, working with a whole new set of rules, a whole new set of limits. What it was like being the guy two steps behind the guy everyone was looking at.

***

Cambridge was beautiful, the buildings of the university seeming to his eyes to have some of the grace and power of the architecture of Asgard. The weather was another matter entirely. Thor climbed the stairs to Jane’s flat with his hair dripping cold water onto the steaming bag of food he held, most of his mind busy with his latest attempt to translate the knowledge of Asgard into the language of Midgardian physics.

The university had accepted his presence with remarkable calm. “We have had the odd bit of royalty here before, after all,” one of Jane’s colleagues had said, over sherry—a pleasing drink, he thought, not unlike mead, though the tiny glasses it came in nearly vanished in his grasp. He, in turn, had slipped comfortably into the rhythm of the days here, more comfortably in some ways than Jane; the ancient dining hall and its customs were more homelike to him than to her, though the fierce pride that had carried her through in Asgard supported her here, too.

He was used to people wanting things from him—it was the price of being who he was, prince and heir, and he had been raised to meet it graciously. Less used to being valued because he could offer not his goods nor his sword-arm, but his learning. He wished sometimes that he had been more attentive to his books as a boy. Oftener, much oftener, he wished that he could ask his mother, that he could share with Frigga—who had tried her best to share her love of learning with him but accepted without anger his preference for the arts of war—this late-blossoming love he had found within him for scholarship.

His mother would have loved Cambridge, he thought, and he would have loved seeing her there.

He missed her with a pain he hid as best he could, here in this world where it was the common lot, where to outlive one’s parents was cause for pain but rarely for outrage.

He knew that Jane thought he was so contented in Cambridge partly because Asgard was too painful for him now, without Frigga, and there was truth to that, but it was a partial truth. It was easier here, though never easy, but that alone would not keep him in this realm.

In Asgard, he could give his Jane wealth, and rank, and renown. He could give her jewels and silks and furs and the greatest scholars in the realm as her tutors, and the greatest artificers to create whatever tools she needed. He could command that Heimdall open the bridge whenever she asked it, to consult with any scholar in Midgard. He could give her his world, more literally than any other man in either realm could boast of doing.

But he couldn’t give her time. She was mortal, and short-lived as all her kind were, unlikely to survive even her first century, and there was no magic in all of Asgard to change that fact. Nor would she be able to forget it, there, however deferentially tactful his people might be. He had read the Midgard tales of mortals stolen away to Fairyland, of how they pined and faded away from their kind. He wanted no such fate for Jane. His realm, safe enough in his father’s care even now that he was alone, could do without him for the span of a mortal life. Would have to do without him, for he would not part with Jane one day sooner than he must.

She was at her computer when he opened the door to the flat, scowling at the screen. She looked up and smiled as he came through the door. Laughed, as he shook his head like a dog, scattering water everywhere. Rose from her chair, and stretched, and went to the kitchen for plates.

They sat on the couch to eat, hammering out the next section of the paper Jane was writing, drinking beer from the bottles, listening to the rain outside, and were happy.

***

“Hey, man, you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Bruce blinked. Smiled. Shook his head. “Just some unexpected news.”

“Not bad news, I hope.” The kid wasn’t trying to snoop, just being kind. Nelson, BC was a friendly sort of town, but it was the sort of friendliness you find in a hostel, or on a train: people talked about the weather, about skiing, about local events, about anything and everything, but not so much about personal stuff. A lot of people came to the Interior because they wanted a fresh start. Anyway, the locals took it for granted that wherever you’d come from, here was better, so why look back? He’d occasionally wondered how they’d react if he told them how much like New Yorkers they were, that way.

This month, though, things were a little different. A lot of people here had family in the US. Everyone had friends there. 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Battle of New York, the Tube bombings, aliens in London … and now the fall of SHIELD, and the aftermath—everyone knew what it could mean, now, when someone stood clutching a phone that way, blank-faced.

“Just... unexpected. Thanks.” He slipped his phone into his pocket and headed for the hostel.

He had a private room, of course. Even these days, he wasn’t going to risk bunking down with strangers. He was doubly glad of it today.

Ross was Hydra. Had been Hydra all along. He was on the run now, and Bruce was... free. No longer of pressing interest to the US Army, without Ross driving the hunt. SHIELD... there wasn’t enough of SHIELD left to bother with anything as low on the priority list as keeping tabs on Bruce Banner.

He could stop running now, or keep on moving. Take the job Tony had offered him, or go back to teaching, or... he was suddenly dizzy with choice, after so many years of fear and necessity.

Dizzy, and a little afraid. What do you want to be when you grow up, Dr Banner? He could afford to want things again.

He read the email again. Took a deep breath, and dialled a number.

“Betty? It’s Bruce. How are... How are you holding up?”