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Battle Royale

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Now Cinderella, don't you go to sleep

It's such a bitter form of refuge

Don't you know the kingdom's under siege

And everybody needs you?

-- A Dustland Fairytale // The Killers

 


 

Rogers isn't home. It's late (and not raining, incidentally) when she gets to New York, so it could be that he's just sleeping and that's why he doesn't answer when she knocks, but she doubts it.

 

She knocks twice-protocol says she should knock three times, but she's tired and is fairly confident that he's not going to answer anyway-before pulling out the gadget SHIELD gave her. Leila knows how to pick a lock, but the tool they gave her is quicker.

 

Nothing. Leila knows how to listen for signs of life. Footsteps. Movements. Breathing. People are never silent, not really. They think they are, though, and if you listen closely, you can get a bead on what they're doing before they know that you know that they're there. And that extra second of reaction time can be crucial. It's saved her life more than once.

 

That's another thing she'd already learned on her own before SHIELD picked her up, long before. Years and years. Probably she was doing that analysis longer than she remembers; she's just better at it now.

 

She doesn't bother to turn the lights on, so she doesn't see much of the apartment-just that it's small and threadbare. The latter is understandable, given that its sole inhabitant has had only nine days to decorate. Leila's neighbors take longer than that to take their decorations down after Christmas, and to Leila's knowledge they don't have the excuse of having been unconscious for the better part of a century.

 

(The former is less justifiable. If SHIELD is loaded enough to buy and maintain the helicarrier, surely they could at least afford to set their namesake up somewhere with a view.)

 

Leila leaves, re-locking the door behind her. The file Fury gave her mentioned a second address, just two blocks away, some gym that Rogers frequents, so she heads there next.

 

Gleason’s Gym is old and run-down, with a World War II aesthetic, which is fitting, she supposes. The sign says closed, but there’s at least one light on inside. The door is locked, but she figures that if she were a gym owner, and Captain America asked her for a personal key, she might be inclined to say yes. Either way she uses the same tool as before and is inside in seconds.  

 

The floor is huge and Captain Rogers is in the middle of it, pummelling the hell out of a white punching bag. A dozen or so matching bags are lying on the floor next to him. The corners of the room are dim; she can make out a few benches here and there, and a boxing ring in the corner. Rogers is standing directly under the light, in the brightest spot, like some kind of Messianic figure, but the lightbulbs are fluorescent, dim and flickering, and they seem to desaturate the entire room.

 

The whole thing makes Captain America look sort of like an old movie, or maybe an oil painting come to life. Unreal. Maybe that’s appropriate.

 

Maybe that’s how the rest of the world looks to him.

 

Leila watches him for a long moment from the shadows, and then Rogers punches a hole through the canvas of the bag. Sand spills out, the chain breaks, the bag goes flying, and Rogers picks up one of the other bags and starts to hang it up.

 

Leila decides to make her introduction now, and pushes herself off the beam she’s been leaning against. Her heels click on the old tile floor. “Oh Captain, my Captain.”

 

He looks over at her, breathing hard from exertion, and reaches up to finish hanging the bag before sitting down on the bench. “The door was locked,” he says, unwrapping his hands. It’s not an accusation so much as a question.

 

“Oh, honey, you’ll have to do a lot better than that to keep me away.” She smirks. “I’m agent Leila Whittaker. I’m with Shield. The people who pulled you out of the ice?”

 

“Right. Shield.” He studies her for a moment, sizing her up. “You here with a mission, ma’am?”

 

Leila can’t decide how she feels about being called “ma’am”-part of her bristles, part of her finds it inexplicably endearing-but either way, now’s not the time to catch Rogers up on popular lexicon, so she ignores it. “You catch on quick,” she says, and hands him the manila file folder. A different one than the one they gave her, because it’s need to know and he doesn’t need to know as much as she does.

 

She pulls up a chair that was leaning against the wall and sits across from him as he starts to flip through it. “Trying to get me back into the world?” he asks, glancing up at her.

 

My guy, I could literally not care less how well-adjusted you are or are not. That’s not how to make friends and influence people, though, so she smiles charmingly. “Nope. That’s just icing.” She leans forward, propping her head on her hands, with her elbows on her knees. “I’m not here because you need a babysitter, Captain. I’m here because we need a super-soldier.”

 

Rogers shoots another appraising glance at her, but says nothing before turning back to the file. She can see a photo of the tesseract pinned to the page he’s on. “Hydra’s secret weapon,” he mutters, more to himself than to her.

 

She answers anyway. “After your crash, your buddy Howard Stark went looking for you. He found that instead.” She reaches over and taps the picture once. “Shield’s been poking at it ever since. Trying to unlock clean energy, which is one of the sexier capital-i Issues at the moment.”

 

She doesn’t choose that phrasing specifically to throw him off, but she is surprised when it doesn’t. He is from the 1940s-but then again, he’s also a military man. He’s heard worse.

 

Rogers looks up, finally. “What happened to it?”

 

“Guy named Loki took it. Weird guy. If you’re in, I can tell you more about it. If not, I won’t waste either of our time.” For a moment, she thinks of Clint-where he is, if he’s okay, what he was thinking before he-

 

She pushes the thought away. “It’s kind of time sensitive.”

 

Steve glances back at the file once, and then stands up. She notices then the way he moves-heavily, like there’s some physical burden on him. As if he’s carrying the heavens on his shoulders like Atlas of old. Maybe he thinks he is.

 

It’s annoying.

 

He goes over to pick up the broken punching bag, hefts it onto his shoulder effortlessly. The heavens can’t be too heavy for him, then. “When do we start?”

 

She smiles. “Our ride’s going to pick us up on the corner in ten minutes. That’s how long you have to pack a go-bag.” She stands up to leave. “By the way, can I ask?”

 

He turns to her, raising a brow.

 

“How many other innocent punching bags have died at your hand? Assuming that’s not the first one,” she says, gesturing to the one he’s holding.

 

“Seventeen.”

 

“You monster.” She smirks, pausing at the door. “I’ll be waiting.”

 

And maybe it’s the light, but she could swear he’s smiling when she leaves.

 


 

 

“You’re late.” This is what she tells Coulson by way of greeting when he finally picks them up. He’s seven minutes late and she’s never been more annoyed with him. She considers writing in an official complaint. Please instruct Agent Coulson to not leave me alone with historical figures for longer periods of time than I was led to expect.

 

Steve is a nice enough guy; apparently she looked cold, because he offered to give her his jacket, which she would have a lot more mixed feelings about if he were not as old as he is. It’s a nice gesture, okay, but he’s obviously got a lot going on in his head when he meets her at the corner. He’s giving off Vibes and she knows she’s supposed to ask if he’s okay but honestly, she wouldn’t touch that question with a ten foot pole. If Steve Rogers can carry a punching bag one-handed, he can carry his own baggage without her help.

 

(If she asked, he would probably say that he is fine, thanks for asking, but it’s still not a dice she wants to roll. Besides, he might say “I’m fine” and then ask if she’s okay, which is almost worse.)

 

And that is how Leila spent seven minutes in silence with Captain America, making awkward small talk at two minute increments.

 

Honestly, Steve seems as relieved as she is when the car pulls up.

 

Leila immediately goes for the backseat. “You can sit up front,” Steve offers, but Leila shakes her head. “I like the back seat. I get more space to myself.”

 

Steve shrugs, and puts his bag in the trunk while Leila slips into the car, and then shoots her best serial killer stare at the rearview window, and hisses “ You’re late .”

 

Coulson is unruffled, which would be normal for him, if Steve Rogers were not climbing into his car now. Leila makes a bet with herself over how long it will take him to crack.

 

“I was dropping Pepper Potts at the airport,” Coulson explains.

 

“So you talked to Stark, then?”

 

Steve’s head perks up at the name Stark-probably reflexively-before looking down again, and Leila feels kind of bad for him.

 

“He’s going over the files I gave him. He’ll be joining us tomorrow.”

 

“Great.” Leila has never met Tony Stark. She knows from his file that he’s narcissistic, egotistic, and doesn’t play well with others. He knows from Natasha that he’s a пизда, which is a Russian insult that Natasha never felt the need to teach Leila until it came to describing Tony Stark. And she knows from the media that he’s a bon vivant with very precise facial hair. That’s about it.

 

“That reminds me,” Coulson adds. “We have to catch Rogers up to speed.” He doesn’t look at Steve while he speaks, but she can see him glance at him just slightly. “There’s a tablet in the pocket behind my seat.”

 

She pulls it out, turns it on, and hands it to Steve, who looks does not look confused so much as curious, and determined. He studies it for a second.

 

“You hit the-”

 

He figures it out himself. She raises an eyebrow, impressed. “There you go.”

 


 

 

Leila hates planes. She always has. She can handle it-she has to, in order to function in her job-but there is not a moment that she spends in the air that she is not thinking, on some level, about how much she cannot wait until they land.

 

Steve is still using the tablet to catch up on the Weekly Weird News, as Clint likes to call it. She watches him so she has something else to focus on.

 

Steve doesn’t notice until Coulson hisses at her to stop staring, and then he looks up inquisitively.

 

“Sorry,” she says. “You just. You’re good with the technology. You don’t act like what...a lot of people thought someone from the ‘40s would act like.”

 

“Well, maybe a lot of people don’t know the ‘40s like they think they do.” He’s not just glancing at her now; his attention is on her. He’s smiling-sort of sullen, but genuinely, like the way you smile when you joke at a funeral.

 

“And how well do you know the 2010s? Not counting that,” she waves a hand at the tablet.

 

“Hey, I’ve been here for two weeks. How long have you had to open a textbook?”

 

He’s still teasing her, but his words make something freeze inside her all the same, because the question he thinks he’s asking is not the question he’s asking, and she knows if she says Well, my parents thought women who could read were witches, so I’m a little behind, it’ll make things weird AND give Rogers leverage against her, should things go south.

 

Things go south a lot for Leila, so she keeps the words to herself, and digs her nails into her thighs instead, looking away.

 

“You win,” she mutters.

 

She can feel Steve staring at her, probably wondering why she suddenly turned to stone, but he doesn’t ask about it, and a second later she can hear another video starting on the screen.

 

“We’re about forty minutes out from base, sir,” she hears the pilot say, and her fingers relax a little.

 

“So,” Steve says, and it takes her a moment to realize he’s talking to Coulson, not her. “This Doctor Banner was trying to replicate the serum that was used on me?”

 

Coulson takes the three steps from his seat to Steve’s. “A lot of people were. You were the world’s first superhero. Banner thought gamma radiation might hold the key to unlocking Erskine’s original formula.”

 

The hulk in the video roars.

 

“...Didn’t really go his way, did it?”

 

Leila’s lip twitch in a smile. Now that she’s starting to relax, she feels a little bad for shutting down on Rogers earlier, if only because she was enjoying the conversation. She sits up again, facing forward. She’s not participating, but at least she’s not actively ignoring anyone now.

 

“Not so much,” Coulson tells him. “When he’s not that thing though, the guys like a Stephen Hawking.”

 

Steve looks up, bewildered.

 

“He’s like a genius,” Leila says tentatively. Steve glances at her, and sort of nods. He’s not sure where he stands with her now, she realizes.

 

Well. Maybe that’s for the best.

 

“I gotta say, it’s an honor to meet you, officially.”

 

Steve smiles. Maybe Coulson will keep it together.

 

“I sort of met you. I mean, I watched you while you were sleeping.”

 

Steve is not smiling. Coulson did not keep it together. Leila checks her watch.  As per her earlier self-wager, she now owes herself twelve gummy bears. Nice.

 

She leans her head back against the cold hull of the jet. Almost there.

 

Coulson tries to double back. “I mean, I was present while you were unconscious from the ice. You know, it’s really, it’s just a, just a huge honor to have you on board.”

 

“I just hope I’m the man for the job,” Steve says, sounding sincere. Leila frowns.

 

“Oh, you are. Absolutely.” Leila would not call Coulson unbiased in this assessment, but he’s probably still right incidentally. “Uh...we’ve made some modifications to the uniform. I had a little design input-”

 

“The uniform?” Steve asks, and by his tone, she can imagine his brow furrowing in surprise. “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?”

 

“So are you, but we kept you around,” Leila quips. She doesn’t look up, but she glances over out of the corner of an eye. Steve looks like he’s trying not to smile. Coulson looks like he’s trying not to kill her.

 

She closes her eyes just as Coulson finally stops glaring daggers at her long enough to answer Steve’s question.

 

“With everything that’s happening,” he says, “the things that are about to come to light...people might just need a old-fashioned.”

 

Leila bites the inside of her cheek. The words make something twist in her gut. The things that are about to come to light. And she hopes like Hell that she’s not one of those things, that she can stay wrapped in her shadows. She's not sure if she knows how to survive outside of them anymore.

Chapter Text

As much as she hates planes, Leila makes a point of getting off the plane after Coulson and Steve. Getting off the plane first probably wouldn’t inherently read as a fear of planes, but she likes to be cautious.

 

Natasha is waiting for them on the runway. Leila feels vaguely relieved at seeing her-she’s sure if Nat had been “compromised” she’d have heard about it by now, but it’s good to see her in the flesh anyway, to know that she’s here and solid, hasn’t slipped away into the realm of vague spy terms and classified files that Clint has.

 

She doesn’t say any of that, though. Just nods at Nat, smiling a little, who nods back. Truth be told, Leila’s not used to being so attached to people, to caring whether someone else lives or dies on a personal level. Before Strike Team Delta, she hadn’t felt that way in years. It’s unsettling.

 

Coulson introduces her to Steve, who also nods. “Ma’am.”

 

“Hi.” Natasha smiles, and then turns to Coulson. “They need you at the bridge,” she says. “Face time.”

 

“See you there,” Coulson replies, and heads off.

 

“I’m gonna go too,” Leila says. “I owe myself some gummy bears.”

 

“Coulson?” Natasha asks, glancing pointedly at Steve.

 

“Yeah.” They exchange smirks. Steve looks vaguely perplexed, glancing between them, before apparently deciding not to ask. Instead, he extends a hand to Leila. She takes it.

 

“It was nice meeting you,” he says genuinely.

 

“My pleasure, Captain,” she says, a playful half-smile tugging at her lips. She glances at Natasha. “Take good care of him,” she says, tongue-in-cheek as always, and then turns on her heel to leave.

 

“No promises,” Natasha replies after her.




 

 

Leila wasn’t trying to break the vending machine. She just wanted her gummy bears.

 

She’s already payed for them, the machine starts to turn, but then it stops and the candy is still hanging there, unattainable. The cartoon bear smiles up at her from within the brightly lit machine, like it’s mocking her.

 

She’s not trying to break it when she kicks it. She just wants to jostle it, to make it give her the candy that she has-again- already paid for . And it works, kind of; she hears them hit the bottom of the take-out port just as the light in the machine flickers off.

 

Leila glances around-no one else is there, thankfully-and then reaches through the slot to check. Her gummy bears are there, so there’s that. She grabs them, and then straightens up, and presses a few buttons on the machine to see if it’s working. Maybe it’s just the light that’s broken.

 

Nope. Totally unresponsive.

 

Leila shrugs, tears the bag open, and walks away. She’s popping a gummy bear into her mouth when she wanders onto the bridge, where Fury is talking to someone Leila recognizes as Bruce Banner.

 

“Thank you for coming,” Fury tells him.

 

“Thank you for asking nicely.”

 

“Yeah, that’s why we sent Romanoff. Our only other available agent with the necessary clearance is Whittaker-”

 

Leila perks up at the sound of her name-

 

”and she can be...prickly,” Fury finishes.

 

Leila’s already stepping forward. “I have no idea what he’s talking about, never in my life have I been anything other than a delight.” She extends her free hand. “Doctor Banner.”

 

He takes her hand. “Nice to meet you,” he says. He hardly sounds genuine, but she decides not to hold it against him. He’s obviously focused on more important things. His body language is squirrelly, hunching over just slightly, like he’s trying to make himself smaller than he is. Which is understandable, under the circumstances.

“You too,” she says, and turns to Fury. “By the way, the vending machine in the hallway is broken.” Vending machines are probably below Fury’s pay-grade, but she feels like she should tell someone .

 

Fury shoots her an unamused look. In response, she holds out the bag of candy to both men. “Gummy bear?”

 

Fury doesn’t respond, just gives her that same look.

 

Banner, on the other hand, shakes his head. “Uh, no-no thank you,” he says, and turns back to Fury. “So how long am I staying?”

 

“Once we get our hands on the tesseract, you’re in the clear.”

 

“Where are you with that?”

 

Fury calls on Coulson to explain, and Leila backs away from the conversation before it can devolve into boring science shit. She’s tried learning, but even the rapid learning can’t make up for her tiny attention span, and frankly, it’s not interesting enough to make the exhaustion she experiences after using that particular ability worth it.

 

She’s leaning against the conference table on the bridge when she glances over and sees Nat peering over some techie’s shoulder, at a picture of Clint on a screen. She feels the urge to ask if there’s any word on Clint, but that would imply that she cares-and anyway, Natasha’s body language reads as a resounding “no.”

 

Leila’s not good at comforting, but she likes Natasha and she feels compelled to put at least minimal effort into doing so, so when Natasha straightens up and steps back, Leila steps forward, taking the spot by her side.

 

She holds out the bag, for the second time that day. “Gummy bear?”

 

Nat glances at her and then, to Leila’s surprise, takes a gummy bear from the bag and pops it into her mouth.

 

“So, what’d Coulson do?” Nat asks, words slightly muffled around the candy she’s chewing.

 

“He actually kept it together longer than I thought. We were almost here when he dropped ‘I watched you when you were sleeping.’”

 

Natasha snorts. Before she can respond, however, Fury calls her.

 

“Agent Romanoff, would you show Doctor Banner to his laboratory please?”

 

Natasha nods, grabbing an extra handful of candy as she leaves. “You’re gonna love it, Doc. It’s got all the toys.”

 


 

 

Leila’s in the on-call room of the helicarrier, drifting in and out of sleep-she hasn’t slept in almost a day, and while she’s used to that, she figures if she’s going to go up against an alien-slash-god she should probably rest while she can-when Natasha wakes her up.

 

She knocks once as a warning, but immediately comes in anyway. “Time to suit up,” she says, but Leila figured that was the case. People know better than to wake her up for something trivial. Not that Natasha, personally, is afraid to wake her up-but then, if it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t have sent Nat anyway.

 

So she sits up, dragging a hand through her hair.

 

“Fury wants to talk to you before we take off,” Natasha adds. “I’d hurry.”

 

Leila glares at her.

 

Ten minutes later, Leila’s more or less ready, tugging her gloves on as she reaches the bridge. Fury’s got his back to her, overseeing the command center.

 

“Romanoff said you wanted to see me?” she says by way of greeting.

 

“That’s right.” Fury, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat-doesn’t hesitate, isn’t surprised. He turns to face her. “Nat will be running comms from the jet. I want you on the ground with Rogers.”

 

“I assumed as much, Director.”

 

“That’s nice,” Fury says, his words laden with sarcasm. He turns halfway back to the command center, and when he speaks, his voice is softer, and he’s barely moving his mouth. “I want you to make a point of taking Loki’s powers. Or copying them, at least. I wanna know what this guy’s capable of. That’s your priority. We clear?”

 

“Clear as Cristal, Director.”

 

“Good. Head to hangar 3.”

 

She does.



There’s a very sudden increase in sound when she enters the hangar, with the open air whipping around her, brushing stray strands of her into and out of her face. (She’s used to that; there is no rubber band on earth that can keep all of her hair in one place at a time. There’s too much of it. She’s made her peace with that.)

 

Under that, though, she can still hear the steady hum of the quinjet’s engine. The jet is all ready to go, except that the back door is open, and she could swear there’s a note of disapproval in the sound it’s making, as if the machine itself is judging her for her lateness.

 

Maybe it’s mad because of the whole vending machine thing, she thinks as she hops in. She doesn’t notice that Steve is holding out a hand to help her until she’s already in. It’s a bummer, because it would’ve gone with her whole image perfectly. Princesses always have footmen to help them into carriages. Instead, she’s forced to offer an awkward “thanks” as he drops his hand.

 

“Anytime,” he says, sounding just as awkward, and sits back down. Leila sits across from him.

 

“Nice of you to join us,” Natasha says from the cockpit, taking the brief opportunity left by the back door sliding back up into place to turn to face her teammate.

 

Leila shrugs and gestures to herself. “This doesn’t just happen.”

 

Natasha rolls her eyes and turns back to the controls, and the jet takes off moments later. It’s quieter now without the open air, just the sound of the machinery, which doesn’t seem nearly so judgmental as it did before. Apparently the machines have forgiven her for now.

 

“So what’d Fury want with you?” Natasha asks.

 

“He just wanted to make sure his very favorite agent stayed safe and hydrated while in the field.”

 

“That’s sweet, but he could’ve told me directly.”

 

Leila takes off one of her gloves and throws it at the back of Nat’s chair in response. Nat doesn’t say anything back, but Leila is pretty sure she’s smiling anyway. Steve is; he has his head ducked, smirking, the way you do when you’re trying not to laugh.

 

He seems to shake it off though, reaching for the glove before Leila can-although he’s still smiling when he hands it back.

 

She smirks back and takes it. “Thanks.”

 

He nods in response, and she pulls the glove back on. It’s silent until she snaps it closed around her wrist.

 

“Hey,” Steve says, and Leila looks up. “I just wanted to say sorry. If I offended you earlier, on the way here.”

 

Leila’s not sure anyone’s ever apologized to her for putting her on edge. At least, no one who wasn’t afraid of her, anyway.

 

She smiles. “No worries. I don’t know if you’ve heard this about me, but I can be prickly.”

 

His lips turn up into that amused smile again. “Good to know.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 It doesn’t take long to get to Stuttgart, and the flight is spent mostly in silence, the hum of the engines serving as white noise. Steve toys with the idea of striking up a conversation, but decides against it. This decision is made in part because if he says something, he’s not sure which version of Leila is going to answer him-if he’s going to get the funny, enigmatic woman he met at the gym, or the unsettlingly cold one from the jet. Steve is adaptable, but as it is, he’s got a tenuous grasp on interacting with people in general. Leila seems to working with a different set of rules, and he hasn’t learned them yet.

 

(He hopes that Leila was telling the truth, that she’s just “prickly.” That it’s just a quirk of hers, and not a 21st century thing.)

 

Ultimately it’s a moot point, because Leila’s the one who ends up addressing him first, although an argument can be made for Romanoff starting it; she’s the one who calls “We’re four minutes out. You gonna fill him in, Princess?” from the front seat. That’s when Leila shifts to face him. He raises an eyebrow, his curiosity piqued.

 

“So you saw my file, right? On the way to the helicarrier?”

 

“Right,” he replies. Leila can duplicate the other people’s superpowers. Because other people have superpowers, apparently--enough of them that Leila has run into them enough times to establish such a pattern. The prevalence of superpowered people was news to him, but, again--he’s adaptable.

 

“Okay. Good,” she says, and the corners of her lips turn up in a faint smirk. “Then don’t freak out.”

 

She closes her eyes. When she opens them, the whites of her eyes have overtaken everything else, her iris and pupil disappeared. It lasts a split second, and then her eyes fade back to normal.

 

He takes that split second to take on a more neutral expression, trying not to look as surprised as he is. He’s gotten good at covering up surprise over the past few weeks. Or 84 years. Or whatever. Most times it doesn’t even show, he’s pretty sure. He hopes.

 

He’s not sure if it works; he doesn’t know if the white had impaired her vision or not. If she saw that moment of open astonishment, she doesn’t address it. Just studies him. Maybe waiting for the reaction he’s so carefully tried to suppress.

 

Finally, he says “So...that’s one of your powers? Glowing eyes?”

 

She laughs. “No. That’s what happens when I let go of dead weight. Too many abilities I’m not using can slow me down in the field. Make it hard to focus”

 

“Wait, you’re on the ground? With me?”

 

She raises a brow. “Yes? Where else would I be.”

 

“I thought you were on comms with Romanoff.” He pauses, realizing how he sounds. “I mean-I didn’t think-just because you recruited me, not because you’re…”

 

Leila glances around in mock suspicion, and then leans forward. “A woman?” she whispers conspiratorially. She smirks and sits up. “At ease, soldier. It’s a fair assumption to have made. But no. I’m on the ground with you.”

 

He relaxes. “Good. Didn’t wanna make you mad at me twice in one day.”

 

She almost grins. “Oh, yeah. I was lenient the first time, but cross me again, Rogers…” She takes on a faux-menacing tone.

 

He nods, ducking his head to hide his grin. “Anything else?”

 

“Yes, actually. You seem like the martyr type, so look: if you see me get hurt, no matter how bad, don’t worry. Don’t do anything. I can’t die. Or get hurt.”

 

He ignores the martyr comment for now. “Yeah, a lotta guys think that.”

 

“Sorry, was that skepticism, Soldier Boy?” She smirks again, and pulls out one of what he is assuming is multiple knives she has on her, this one strapped to her thigh. Before he can stop her, she slices her own palm open, and then holds it out for him to see.

 

His instinct is to reach out for it and inspect the wound, but before he can, he sees it start to heal on it’s own. It’s like watching a laceration in reverse-the blood that’s still within the cut recedes, the skin knits itself back together, leaving only the blood that had spilled out onto her palm. She wipes it clean on her leg.

 

He just stares at her. “Helpful,” he says finally.

 

She smirks.

 

Romanoff’s voice feels very sudden when she calls out “We’re here. You’re up, guys.”

 


 

Leila’s feeling confident as she stands-not that she isn’t always, but you know. Moreso than usual. More than she thought she’d be, going into the field with a semi-stranger.

 

As much as she prefers to stay distant in her personal life, having a rapport with someone when you’re in the field is helpful. It’s easier to trust someone--inasmuch as Leila trusts anyone--to watch your back. Too much doubt, too much suspicion is a distraction. If you can’t take your eyes off your partner lest they stab you in the back, you end up getting stabbed in the front by someone else.

 

(Of course, getting too comfortable has it’s downsides, too. It’s a hard line to walk. As of yet, Steve is likeable, but not too intimate--a good person to work with.)

 

And knowing someone lets you communicate more easily, somehow. Sometimes with Natasha and Clint, all it takes is a glance to tell them what she’s about to do, a nod in return to let her know they understand. The more you talk to someone, the more things can go unsaid. Even now, she and Steve stand in unison, a rhythm already established. Not too close. Not too far.

 

(Besides which, talking about her powers always puts her in a lighter mood. She doesn’t talk about them much-for some reason, it doesn’t come up much in casual conversation-but she likes demonstrating them. It might be one of the few things she likes about herself. There’s other things she’s proud of, but “escaped a cult” and “single-handedly took over a crime ring” aren’t really things you brag about.)

 

The quinjet’s ramp begins its descent. Leila tucks her knife back into its pocket.

 

What happens next happens very fast. Leila starts to turn, and glances down at the street just in time to see what Steve’s seeing: Loki, standing amidst a crowd on their knees, pointing a scepter at an elderly man, who among the kneeling crowd is very literally the only one standing up to Loki. It’s the same scepter from the fight at the research facility, if she’s remembering right, and she probably is; she went through those pictures, looking for any clue as to Clint’s well-being or lack thereof, more times than she’d like to admit.

 

She feels an arm around her waist at the same time she hears Steve say “Need a lift?” And she doesn’t, not really, but it’s easier to adapt, so she leans into him anyway as he pulls her towards him and then out of the quinjet, his shield lowered to cover their faces.


They land, and the fact that Steve is intentionally trying to take the brunt of the impact does not escape her notice. And she doesn’t know if it’s instinct that makes him do what he does, or if he’s just still not sold on the idea that she requires no special handling. Either way, the effect is the same: the rhythm between them breaks.

Chapter Text

As soon as her boots hit the ground, Leila hears something ping off Steve’s shield--presumably the energy blast from Loki’s scepter. Before Steve can straighten up and reveal her presence, she falls into a back roll, deftly landing among the civilians--the movements made easier by the dais she just rolled off. Thanks for the drama factor, old man , she thinks, and softly shushes the people around her.

 

She shoots a glance at the old man in question, the one who refused to kneel. Steve is standing now, and she uses that to her advantage, letting Loki focus his attention on Steve while she moves through the crowd.

 

Frankly, it would have been easier for she and Steve to jump separately if they wanted to get on either side of Loki. That said, it’s hardly Steve’s fault, however reluctantly she admits it to herself. They would’ve had to take two jets for that, or else timed their respective jumps down to the millisecond, and it’s not like they knew what the scene at Stuttgart would look like before they got there.

 

Steve begins to approach Loki, who is getting to his feet--she assumes the energy blast must have backfired on him in the literal sense as well as figurative.

 

“You know,” Steve says, “the last time I was in Germany, and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.”

 

This feels a little long for a one-liner, in her opinion, but the premise of it is solid.

 

“The soldier,” Loki says, sounding amused. “The man out of time.”

 

“I’m not the one who’s out of time,” Steve replies. Much better, in terms of comebacks.

 

She hears Natasha’s voice, slightly altered by the speaker from the jet: “Loki, stand down.”

 

Loki pauses, making a show of actually considering it, before shooting another energy blast at the jet. The jet pivots sharply to avoid being hit, and the crowd around Loki scatters in fear. It’s almost perfect timing, because she’s almost directly across from Steve now, with Loki in the middle--exactly where she wants to be.

 

Steve throws his shield, which bounces off Loki’s armor; he catches it like a boomerang and moves in closer. Meanwhile, Leila pulls out her throwing knives and directs them at Loki--one going for the chest, one for the neck. They’re sharp, but not sharp enough to break through skull. Spine, though...maybe. Definitely if he were human, but she can’t be sure. Of all the things they taught her at SHIELD’s illustrious Academy of Operations, Alien God Physiology 101 was not one of them.

 

Frankly, hitting him at this range is a longshot, because despite watching and rewatching footage of his attacks on Earth, putting her rapid learning ability into overdrive, she doesn’t have a tight enough grasp on his fighting style to predict where he’ll be by the time the knives even reach him. He’s too inconsistent, too erratic.

 

Long shot or not, though, Steve’s surprised glance at her from over Loki’s shoulder--apparently he didn’t know where she was?--reduces that 10% chance to 0%, and it does not endear him to her.

 

Loki follows Steve’s eyeline, knocks him back several feet when he gets close, then pivots and knocks Leila’s knives aside in one fluid motion. He doesn’t look remotely surprised to see her, just annoyed, so she can assume he knew that she was here, just wasn’t expecting her to join the fight. Maybe he thought she was working a civilian perimeter. If he did, he has either vastly underestimated the extent to which SHIELD wants the tesseract back, or vastly overestimated the extent to which she cares about preventing civilian casualties.

 

Leila can feel the wheels in the back of her mind spinning wildly, filing Loki’s every move away as a reference to what he might do next; she did that before the rapid learning, but sometimes the abilities take on a life of their own, and feel like separate entities. It’s like having a machine in her mind.

 

“The atoner,” he says. “The criminal who calls herself royalty.”

 

She smirks. “Well, I guess we have something in common.”

 

She gets the desired response, or at least as close to it as can be expected. Loki doesn’t respond verbally, but the smile slips off his face, and she can see him tense up with anger. She pulls out her ring daggers (bad for throwing because of the uneven weight, great for close combat due to being so easy to hang on to) and runs at him.

 

One hand goes for the neck, the other goes for the gut. Loki dodges the former by leaning back, and blocks the latter with his scepter--but then, instead of pulling back, he locks, and Leila pulls her other dagger back up to cross with the first, pushing back against the scepter. She’s grateful, not for the first time, for SHIELD’s enhanced weaponry; the scepter is strong, and the man (or god, or whatever) inching it towards her forehead is even stronger.

 

“Kneel,” he hisses.

 

“Only if you buy me dinner first,” she replies, and kicks him in the shin.

 

It doesn’t have the same effect it would on a human, but it does break up his rhythm as he shifts his weight to his unkicked leg.

 

She takes this brief moment of distraction to glance, without moving her head, over his shoulder, and sees that Steve is about to throw his shield. A good move for the moment--hit him while he’s off-center--but Loki could easily duck it and let it hit her instead.

 

She hits the ground before that can happen, and propels herself forward using the butt of her daggers as oars. The impact between the knives and the ground throws faint sparks into the air as she slides between Loki’s legs like a swing dancer, but self-propelled and with significantly less jazz music.

 

She actually sees the underside of Steve’s shield as it flies towards Loki; she waits until she hears an impact (another clink; he must have knocked it aside) before getting up. Steve abandons his shield and runs at Loki, and she joins him as she gets up.

 

Steve throws a punch; Loki dodges. Leila lets the boys have at it and half-circles them until she’s behind Loki, and then piggybacks him. She crosses her daggers in front of the scepter and uses it to try to wrestle it out of Loki’s hands, or at least direct it away from Steve.

 

She’s effective at the second objective, at least. There’s a split-second where she realizes her mistake, thinks that she’s never seen anything so blue, and then she takes the energy blast straight to the forehead.

 

She’s stunned enough that she doesn’t actually feel herself flying through the air, or hitting the concrete, or cracking her head open. She doesn’t even really see it, either. Leila doesn’t feel pain the way most people do, but this time she doesn’t feel it at all--it’s like her mind is somewhere separate from her body. It’s not her usual dissociation. This feels...otherworldly. Cosmic.

 

And then, all at once, with an almost physical vacuuming sensation, she’s pulled back into her body, and looks up.

 

It can’t have been as long as it felt since Loki hit her, because Steve is still staring at her in horror, and although she wouldn’t put past him--were he left to his own devices--to just stand there in stunned silence for an hour, she knows that Loki wouldn’t let him do so.

 

Sure enough, Loki takes advantage of Steve’s distraction to land a punch to his gut, before knocking Steve to his knees with the scepter.

 

“Kneel,” Loki says.

 

“Not today,” Steve replies, and it’s the first time Leila’s heard him sound genuinely angry.

Leila has to assume that Loki knows she’s going to get back up. He might be an asshole, but he’s not an idiot; getting Clint to tell Loki all of SHIELD’s dirty secrets is probably the first thing he did once they were safe. He called her “the atoner,” so he knows at least as much as Clint does about her past. When Loki asked Clint about her, there’s no way he didn’t lead with the whole “can’t die” thing. Strengths and weaknesses are the first thing Loki would’ve wanted to know about a prospective enemy.

 

This being the case, Leila doesn’t bother with the element of surprise that she does not have. She struggles to her feet--she’s survived worse injuries than cracking her head open, and she’s always moved past it faster than this. Something about his scepter either adds to the injury or weakens her abilities, because she feels like she’s just had the wind knocked out of her, like there’s a physical weight on her chest. It’s a sensation she hasn’t felt since acquiring her healing.

 

She’s still in the process of standing up when Steve lands in a heap next to her, knocked back by Loki’s scepter. He jumps to his feet instantly and holds out a hand to Leila, who is on her knees now. The aching from the impact is mostly gone now; it’s more the shock that’s keeping her down. She steadfastly ignores his hand and gets to her feet on her own, and suddenly the sound of AC/DC is surrounding her.

 

For a split second, she thinks she might be hallucinating, but no; Loki and Steve are both looking in the same direction she is, so she has to assume that they are also seeing the same thing she is: Iron Man.

 

He lands several yards in front of Steve and Leila, and aims his blasters or whatever at Loki, knocking him back several feet. Tony doesn’t lower his weapons.

 

“Make your move, Reindeer Games.” Stark’s voice sounds slightly scrambled, no doubt because he’s speaking through machinery.

 

Loki raises his hand in surrender, his helmet disappearing. Leila heads over to stand next to Stark, and Steve follows, standing on his other side.

 

Stark’s weapons slide back into the various parts of his suit they were hiding in. “Good move.”

 

“Mr. Stark,” Steve greets.

 

“Cap’n. Princess.” The faceplate of Stark’s suit slides open. “Thought you could use a hand.”

 

“We appreciate it,” Steve says, nodding stiffly. Then he turns to Leila, and it kills her a little, the way his eyes soften. “You okay?”

 

And she almost feels bad about walking away without a word.