With a bagel in one hand and coffee in the other, Skye watched her laptop boot up. The bagel had a little too much cream cheese and her tongue was poking out of her mouth in an attempt to catch it all as she savored a bite. The coffee was black, for lack of sugar or creamer, but she was used to making do with whatever she managed to scrounge up. The Rising Tide had learned quite a bit about that from her.
As a group of random citizens united in the cause of protecting society from their imperial overlords, Rising Tide had been cobbled together as new members joined them but it was still made up of rough edges and far too many mistakes. They learned as they went, hard as that was to stomach with real lives in the balance, and did the best they could. Skye tried to believe that as long as there were more successes than there were fuck-ups, the world was in good hands.
Bagel and coffee hands.
Her screen flashed from black to bright blue in a blink and she set her coffee down to start typing one-handed.
Mr. Green had been off-radar for weeks, and in his - or hers, or their...she hadn’t been able to track down their real identity yet - absence, she and the Rising Tide had been forced to make some hard calls. Mr. Green was a member of the Advanced Sciences Division that Hydra had set up after the War, and he specialized in Gamma Radiation. Skye had tried to pin him on the scientists she had on file, but nothing really stuck to him. His IP address never matched up with any of them and when she tried to tap into satellite surveillance for facial recognition, it always locked her out. She was one of the smartest hackers she knew, but whoever made that system was a little smarter. It annoyed her to no end.
Today, her message box was flooded and she spent a good hour or so rifling through them for anything pertinent. Sometimes, the members of the Tide tried to get friendly, as if they were buddies at work or something. Skye was a lot of things, but she wasn’t anyone’s friend.
Well, except for Mike.
Towards the back of the modified prisoner transport bus she called home, laid out on a pile of blankets, Mike Peterson was catching up on some much needed rest. He and Skye had been nonstop since Mr. Green went dark and Mike had been doing overtime. She looked back at him over her shoulder, taking in the perpetual frown on his forehead, and wished she was doing more.
Her laptop pinged and she opened the newest message.
Got a new batch headed your way from Rollins’ Pick-Up. Twenty, twenty-five heads. Here’s the ID list. Go get ‘em!
Attached was a list of twenty-five people, all between the ages of ten and thirty, cataloged by usefulness. The transfer sheet said they were headed for Zola’s. Skye sighed, shoved the rest of the bagel in her mouth, and sent off a quick message that they’d intercept in thirty. She sipped enough coffee to wash down the bagel then headed to the back of the bus.
“Mike, we’ve got a batch,” She shook him by his boot, having been on the business end of his fist when she loomed over him once. He came to fast, eyes bleary as they searched out hers, and then he was up.
“What’s up?” he asked, accepting the coffee she placed in his hand. He gulped it like it wasn’t fresh and hot - how is that even possible? - and stretched his neck from side to side.
“Koenig messaged, says we’ve got some.”
Skye swallowed, looking away. Mike took a deep breath, crumpled the empty coffee cup in his hand and tossed it to the trash bin by the front. His mechanical leg whirred as he made his way to where they kept his gear. She watched him suit up for a second, trying to decide what to say. Usually she had the answer for everything, but this one eluded her. It eluded Mike, too. Skye ran her index finger over the small tattoo on her right wrist, the playing card inked into her skin to never let her forget. She always told herself maybe next time, maybe someone else in the Tide would do what they hadn’t been able to...but so far the result had been the same.
Zola’s facilities were no joke, and most people never made it back out. People were used for extremely dangerous work, the kind that took apart everything you were and replaced it with something new. Skye remembered it like it was yesterday. It was something she could never forget. But she grew up, got lucky, crawled her way back to the world from under the weight of every person she left behind to survive. The Tide had been a fledgling thing when she found it, housed in basements and bunkers, locked up behind a thousand firewalls out of fear. They did good work, but it took them ages to mobilize and not all of them knew the system like she did. She landed on them like a meteor and shook their entire game plan up. Within a year or two of her joining, they had saved three hundred people.
It never made up for the ones she had abandoned, never washed away the memory of them, but it made it a little easier to sleep at night. Ace was the reminder that her work wasn’t finished and she couldn’t give up. Everybody out there had an Ace of their own, somebody they lost to the machine their secret emperor Schmidt had created. Bit by bit, person by person, she was giving them back. She had to.
“How we doing this?” Mike asked, pulling her right back to the moment. He was decked out in black, his chest protected by fancy armor Mr. Green had managed get his own network to cough up. It stopped almost every type of bullet and could withstand almost any normal attack, there were gaps but it had kept Mike alive this far. Skye hurried back to her station and pulled up the bus route.
“Looks pretty standard. The route takes them under at least three of our tunnels. We should have this done by noon.”
“Don’t get cocky.”
“That’s anatomically impossible, besides I’ve got you and you’ve got me. Hydra don’t stand a chance,” Mike let a small smile curl his lips and Skye counted that as victory.
She started up the bus from her station and set it on auto, digging through the ID list and tagging anyone who stood out. Most were average citizens, probably caught for minor offenses or for crimes against the Empire they didn’t even realize existed. Those crimes could range from helping yourself to a five finger discount to attempted murder to just being too damn smart, but the punishment was pretty much the same. There were options in the facilities to serve a ‘work sentence’ and be returned to society, but that was usually reserved for people deemed too important to waste away. Only one person on the ID list qualified for the latter. She marked them and sent their info off to another member of the Tide. Whichever underground drop-off had the honor of dispersing this batch would handle that person.
Out of the twenty-five, one was a special case and one was a nobody.
Skye, having done as much as she could for the special case, turned her attention to the nobody.
The nobody was a John Doe. She skimmed his small file, looking for any clue as to who he might be. White male, 6’2”, black hair, green eyes, tagged as a delusional. She looked at the prisoner photo they had attached and used her own facial recognition software to find him. As it ran through databases for a hit, she read the Rollins Rounders report on him.
Suspect was found breaking into the Manhattan offices of Stark Industries; claimed to be a king and assaulted the agent who attempted to apprehend him. Possessed superhuman strength, but easily subdued by the team sent to investigate. Matches no known record; recommended for Zola.
Well, definitely delusional. Then again, if he had superhuman strength, he might be off-the-rocker for reasons he couldn’t control. Attempts at recreating the super soldier serum had done nothing but make monsters. Schmidt’s puppet soldiers, the Kommandos, had a monster of their own that they aptly named Abomination. Still, their leader, the Red Captain, was kinda hot...in a deadly assassin kind of way.
Get your head in the game, Skye rolled her eyes at herself and decided she couldn’t make a decision about the nobody on her own. Her second opinion was checking his guns over and getting that serious face that meant he was about to destroy anything that got in his way. Skye didn’t know what she would do without him.
“Hey, Mike, can you come take a look at this prisoner? He’s...well, I’m not sure what he is.”
“He’s not like your president soup guy, is he? ‘Cause you know my opinion about that kind of guy,” Mike smiled at her and stepped behind her station to look over her shoulder. A frown gradually took over his brow. “You think it’s Centipede?”
“I’m not willing to cross them off the list yet, but...” she looked at the picture of the strange man and just felt like she had to get involved. It wouldn’t be the first time she had made a gut decision about someone. She would alone in this van if she had ignored it. When it wasn’t complaining about the junk food she was eating, her gut was always right.
Sighing, Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. “You want to keep him?”
“I didn’t say that,” Skye said hurriedly before biting her lip. “But...I mean, I helped you out...and I thought...”
“You thought he might be another stray you could rehabilitate?” Mike chuckled and shrugged. “I’m not going to stop you if that’s what you really want, but I’m warning you now...he’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth.”
“So were you, at first,” Skye grabbed Mike’s hand before he could get out of range. “But now you’re family. Besides, we might need more muscle if we have to take on Hydra to find Ace.”
“As long as your head’s still in the mission, Skye,” Mike squeezed her hand before letting go. “Then I’m with you.”
Normal bus rescues usually went down one of two ways.
Either they caught the buses in one of their special tunnels, which they had set traps in ahead of time, or they - meaning Mike - would launch off their bus and onto the target one and incapacitate the driver and guards. Skye did the tech work and human relations, which was in her wheelhouse anyway, while Mike did the fighting. She was many things, but a martial artist she was not. She could introduce her knee to people’s groins or her fist to people’s jaws, but she wasn’t an expert. She had pepper spray and a taser for that. What normally followed was a series of relieved or confused people thanking them and filing into the bus. She would set the bus to auto and see the newly free people off to their new futures.
Again...normal bus rescues went that way. It had almost been a textbook one, too, until they got everyone inside their bus. Her guts’ chosen redemption case was anything but normal. She was three seconds away from knocking his teeth in.
“I’m going to need you to practice inside voice, dude,” Skye grit out, handing out business cards to each person. Their respective drop-off and reintroduction agents would sort them by them.
“Do not presume to order me about, you wretch,” The guy was really, really, close to a bullet instead of a fist.
“Let me guess, you’re some king from some place that doesn’t exist and we’re all beneath you,” Skye sighed and forced a kind smile for the kid that was watching them. One of these days, that kid would be Ace and she would have fulfilled her promise. “Newsflash, high-and-mighty, no one believes you. Shouting it isn’t going to make us change our minds.”
The man opened his mouth and inhaled, his eyes narrowing, and Mike discreetly stepped into view. Snapping his mouth shut, the man crossed his arms. He didn’t seem to like the shiny gun on Mike’s hip. His flickering gaze reminded Skye of a frightened deer and she wanted to knock her own teeth out. There’s got to be a point where you put a band-aid on your bleeding heart.
“Look,” Skye began, crossing the bus until she could crouch in front of the guy. She reached out slowly for his hands and nodded in understanding when the man yanked them back. “We aren’t here to hurt you, but you’re going to get everybody else hurt if you don’t behave. If you don’t want to be chill for yourself, do it for the rest of us. Please,” she pleaded with him and he stared at her.
“If I had my powers, I could dispatch of all of you in a heartbeat,” he whispered to her and she didn’t doubt he believed that. Though, what powers he was talking about, she didn’t know.
“But you don’t have your powers, do you?” she stood and nodded to the boxes of donuts she always had at the ready when they had a new batch. “Eat a donut, drink some coffee. Calm down.”
She didn’t give him a card.
Seeing as the man with the bow and arrow was his first real encounter in this still unknown version of Earth, he was reluctant to start a fight. Of course, that was one of the many thoughts that filtered through his head as he blocked the next arrow with his enchanted shield, threw the shield at the man’s hands and leapt up to the metal fire escape, climbing it with his arms alone. He caught his shield and jumped from one level to another. The man whistled as Steve threw his legs over the bars on the level where the man was and squared up. He hadn’t done close quarters like this with someone his own size in ages, but he was mindful of the fact that this man was human. He would have to go easy.
“I do not want to fight you,” he said slowly, his shield in between them.
“Okay,” the man said just as slowly. “Enhanced?”
Blinking, Steve frowned. “What?”
“I’ve seen some parkour, I’ve even done a bit myself, but that...that was something else.” The man raised his bow and arrow, aiming for Steve’s head. “I’m impressed, and still waiting on an ID.”
“Are you police?”
“In this particular patch of Brooklyn? Yeah,” The man smiled a little bit. “I’m Robin Hood without the damn tights. Who are you?”
Habit made Steve hesitate, reluctant to reveal his name for fear of losing it. He had to remind himself that Earth didn’t have that kind of magic. At least, it didn’t when he was still a bonafide citizen. Everything could change in fifty years. He bit back the immediate desire to lie and decided he wouldn’t restart his reputation that way either.
“A name for a name,” he said, rising from his fighting stance, though he kept his shield high.
“Okay,” the man relaxed the tension on his bowstring and tilted his aim towards the wall a little. “You first.”
“Stig...” He sighed and shook his head. “Steve...Steve Rogers.”
Frowning in amused disbelief, the man chuckled. “Your mom a fan of Captain America?”
She was a fan of me, he thought but instead, he let a grin curl his mouth. “Something like that.”
Shaking his head, the man shrugged. “I’m Clint, Clint Barton. And before you ask, I don’t know who my parents were a fan of.”
There was probably a reference there, but Steve didn’t know it. “Well, Clint, mind if I come inside?”
He would throw this Clint off the roof if he had to, but for now he would play nice.
“You giving me a choice, Steve?” Just as Frigga had when he had given a fake name, this man didn’t believe him. He grinned even more.
“Of course. I’m not always rude, only when I need to be.”
“Huh,” Clint breathed out, his mouth working as he seemed to be weighing his options. “See, usually, I wouldn’t invite you in. Strange guy with a hood, an invisible weapon and renaissance faire attire is not my thing, but I’m curious...and cold.”
Clint stepped toward one of the apartments and Steve fought a laugh. “If you’d been where I was the past...few years, you’d be thanking every god you know for rain and not snow.”
“Yeah, and where was that exactly? Antarctica?”
Following Clint into the apartment through the window, he let himself laugh. It was either that or cry. “Something like that.”
If he’d been on the Valkyrie and Schmidt had been transported, he might have had to crash the plane in the Arctic. Would Loki have still destroyed Jötunheim?
“You know - Lucky don’t lick him! He’s dangerous - keeping details to yourself doesn't really help with the trust issue here.” Clint weaved through the mess of an apartment he lived in and his dog curiously licked at Steve’s hand. There was a slice of pizza on top of a precariously piled stack of papers.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” Steve didn’t attempt to find a place to sit. It wasn’t worth the effort or the avalanche.
“How do you know?”
“If I didn’t live it, I wouldn’t believe it either,” Steve sighed and slid his shield on his cross harness. He had to appear non-threatening even if Clint couldn’t actually see his shield. “What year is it?”
He could have leaned over and figured it out from one of the newspapers lying about, but he didn’t want to run the risk of the papers being ancient. The dust on them didn’t reassure him.
“ Okay ,” Clint pulled the pot from what smelled like a coffee maker - which smelled heavenly after mostly mead - and gulped down some before he turned to Steve. Lucky had decided he wasn’t a threat and curled up on the couch. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
When Steve only maintained his gaze on Clint’s, the archer blew out a gust of air and guzzled some more coffee. “For the love of coffee and sanity, please be human, at least.”
“You get a lot of aliens?” Steve’s shoulders stiffened and he frowned. Maybe his mission would be easier than he thought.
“First, there was that incident in New Mexico four years ago that my retired ass knows just a smidgen of. Then, there was an incident on my front porch a few months after that and fuck if I know what happened here either.”
Thor and Loki. Steve let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Tell me everything you know.”
“Hold your horses there, Captain,” Steve had to clamp down on the surge of emotions that rose up at the absurd wholeness of hearing that title now that he was back on Earth. Clint noticed, but said nothing. “I still doubt you’re human.”
“I’m human. Just...a little more than.”
Steve wished he was wearing his full get-up from before just so he didn’t have to explain. “It’s a long story.”
Clint started another pot and took a seat, tossing his jacket on the nearest available surface. “I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“If I tell you the truth, will you tell me everything you know about Tho...about New Mexico and here?”
“Depends on what the truth is.”
“Well, it starts about...” he paused. “What year is it?”
Clint laughed but when Steve only waited patiently for him to get it out of his system, he blinked. “You’re serious.”
Steve tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. Clint sat forward and wiped his mouth, looking into the middle distance. He whispered under his breath to himself before shrugging. “It’s 2004.”
“So,” Steve sighed. “About sixty years ago, I was on a plane...”
The guy was built like a slightly - and by slightly he meant it was splitting hairs - smaller version of the Red Captain and if he weren’t a grown ass man, he might have been intimidated. Of course, with the whatever the hell it was the guy was throwing around, there was a bit of uncertainty and wariness.
Lucky liked the guy. Steve Rogers, he had said as if it wasn’t a bold-faced alias wrapped up in nostalgia. So the guy was a brick shithouse with a haircut that Clint was just a tad envious of and proportions that should probably be illegal...that didn’t mean he wasn’t completely insane. Actually it made more sense for him to be crazy. No one sane could look that damn good.
He needed to hit the gym again. He might also need to call Natasha.
“So, let me get this straight,” Clint was halfway through a biodegradable container of pad thai and was almost sad that he had to stop eating to talk. Steve, the black hole, had already devoured everything set in front of him as if it was going to either vanish or come to life. “You’re an eighty-year-old super soldier from the forties who just came back from Asgard, literal Asgard, where you were living after your other world, Yogurt-time, was destroyed by one of the two Asgardians that were banished here and that you’ve been sent to find?”
“In a nutshell,” Steve grinned as if the horse he’d bet on had just broken its leg. “Yes.”
“Well,” Clint passed a beer over to Steve and the man had the nerve to toss it back like water. “You did say I wouldn’t believe you.”
“I did, but it’s true.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that like I’m gonna suddenly change my mind.”
“I don’t need to change your mind. I need to know about the two incidents. New Mexico was Thor and New York City was Loki. I’m here, so tell me about them.”
Clint definitely needed to call Natasha. Damn it, he was retired! Why were strange things landing on his porch? Was he some alien beacon? Grunting at the thought, he stood up and pushed past his dirty clothes basket to get to where his cell-phone was charging. It was only at seventy percent and it had been on for four hours.
“Fucking tracksuits,” he muttered under his breath and pressed Natasha’s number. Ivan Banionis had put an illegal flow-inhibitor on the self-sustaining battery in the building and had been raising rates to force Clint and the rest to pay more or do without. As soon as his severance pay cleared, he was gonna buy the whole damn building.
"Romanoff," Her voice met his ears and he immediately wanted to throw Steve through the phone. She was so much more prepared for stuff like this.
“Nat, I’m gonna need to call you in. There’s...uh...something the Director might not want to even know exists sitting on my couch.”
“Director?” Steve asked, but Clint waved his hand. He wasn't going to even pretend to answer that. Who knew what kind of reaction he would get.
“Clint, who’s with you?” she said it as if he was just going to repeat over the phone all the bullshit he’d just listened to.
“I’m not in danger,” he said instead then paused and glanced back to Steve who shook his head. “Yeah, I’m safe-ish. Just put a little pep in your step, huh?”
“This better be something serious,” she grit out and he smiled.
“You bet it is. Red, white, and bullshit serious.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
“How am I supposed to entertain him for ten minutes?”
“You’ll think of something.” And she hung up.
Letting his frustration out through internal screaming, Clint set his phone back down. It had lost four percent already. When he turned to Steve, the man was standing about three feet away. Clint jumped.
“Fuck! Make some noise, asshole,” he shivered at the incredibly dark and immovable glare in Steve’s eyes. He should have told Nat to be here in five. “What?”
“Tell me about the princes, now.” Steve’s voice was iron and steel and every other hard metal he could think of. Suddenly, he came to the realization that Steve would crush him in no time flat if he felt inclined. Honestly, Lucky was a damn traitor.
“I just called in someone who knows more than I do, or do you not understand the word retired?”
“I’ve never retired,” Steve was freakily still, as if he didn’t need to shift his weight or anything. “Who did you call?”
“A friend,” Trying to reclaim his domain, Clint puffed up his chest a bit and sidled around Steve so he could sit back down. “They’ll be here in ten minutes.”
“I heard. Who are tracksuits?”
“You heard...” Clint leaned far away from Steve and pulled the most disgusted face his muscles would allow. “What are you?”
“Right now? Annoyed. Tell me what you know,” Steve moved back to his spot across from Clint and resumed glaring. Clint knew it was a fucking tell as much as shouting it to the open air, but he shifted uncomfortably in his seat anyway. This guy...
“You realize my friend is going to rehash all of this when they get here?”
“When she gets here. Nat, you said. Is that short for something?”
“Okay, rule one of being allowed to sit in my house, don’t eavesdrop. That’s like...kindergarten level of trust requirements.”
“It’s both too quiet and too loud here in a way it wasn’t on Jötunheim or Asgard. Never-ending blizzards change your standards of sound. But I apologize, it was unintentional,” Steve offered a softer smile that Clint would have believed in if the man’s hands weren’t balled into fists. “Now, please, tell me what you know.”
Raising his hands to the air as if tossing control into the ether, Clint began. “About four years ago, as I said, there was an incident in New Mexico. Not sure what the incident was, hence me calling for back-up - I mean, a more knowledgeable person. Then it happened here and all I know is there were strange markings burned on a street a few blocks from here and the government quarantined the whole area for months. I don’t know what exactly went down. Again, retired.”
“Why did you retire?”
Blinking, Clint sat forward. “I didn’t agree with my superior officers. It was either retire or end up in Zola’s playhouse.”
“Zola?!” Steve shot to his feet and knocked quite a few things to the ground. Clint lamented the inevitable clean-up he was going to have to do. “He’s here? He’s alive?”
“Well, yeah,” Clint said, frowning up at his guest. He knew his Cap history like any other red-blooded American and the reaction wasn’t too far off the mark. Except, this guy was obviously an enthusiast. Right? “Unless I missed a news broadcast about his demise.”
“This is normal for you?” Steve seemed both confused and angry. His brows kept twitching from tight in the middle to raised and he pulled away as Clint had a bit ago. “He’s not...he’s the enemy.”
“For a lot of people, yeah,” Clint checked the time. He had about three minutes. “He’s got his playhouses littered all over the world. You break the law, you become his property. It’s kept the prisons quiet and the streets quieter. President Stern swears up and down it’s the best solution. He’s full of shit, but...he’s president.”
Steve rocked where he stood and looked about two seconds from either screaming or barfing. Clint slid one of the rain buckets closer with his toe and put his hands just below his ears. He watched Steve pace until Natasha knocked on his door. Steve didn’t stop pacing and Clint hurried over to let her in.
“Nat, this is way over my head,” Clint moved out of the way as she stepped inside. Her hair was cut short now and she lingered beside him, her eyes checking him for injury. “I’m fine.”
Natasha raised a brow, but patted his arm. She took in his filthy apartment, Lucky fast asleep on the couch, and then the pacing renaissance man. She stilled and looked him up and down. Flicking her gaze back to Clint, she clicked her tongue.
“You’ve really outdid yourself, Clint. How’d you find him?”
“He found me. He swears his name is Steve Rogers and he’s been on Asgard for the past sixty years.” Clint twitched a little when Steve stopped pacing and focused his gaze on them both like a wolf catching a scent.
“Jötunheim for a little over fifty, Asgard for the rest,” Steve marched towards them and Clint raised his hands once more in surrender, moving back to his seat.
The friend that Clint had called was a woman with fiery red hair that Volstagg would have been proud of and a bearing that Sif would have complimented. Wearing dark colors and cuffs that looked like a little more than jewelry, the woman, Nat, looked him up and down. He stopped just short of her and nodded.
“I’m Steve,” he didn’t offer his hand, but neither did she.
“I’m Natasha,” she didn’t seem in the least bit afraid of him and Steve admired her for it.
“Clint says you can tell me about the incidents in New Mexico and New York.”
“Thor and Loki, respectively,” Clint interjected from where he was resting against his seat.
“The Norse gods?” Natasha asked and Steve bobbled his head from side to side.
“Norse, perhaps, not gods. They might have above average strength and talk like crazy people, like me,” Steve watched Natasha as she considered him.
“Clint,” she said, not looking towards the other man. “You do realize this means you have to come in.”
“Nuh-uh, I’m retired.”
“You lost that privilege when you let him in. Now, get up. You know the protocol.”
“Oh, come on, Nat,” Clint whined a little, pushing himself to his feet. “I did all the hard work, I listened to the soundtrack to insanity here, I called you in. I did my civic duty.”
“Deputy Director Fury is going to want to debrief you.”
Groaning, Clint punched Steve in the back and met his shield. Grinning at Clint’s gasp of pain, Steve looked over his shoulder. “Don’t touch me without permission.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” Clint rubbed his knuckles and looked to Natasha. “He’s made of stone and ice.”
Steve watched as Clint put his jacket back on. “Where are we going?” he asked.
Clint looked up from checking his pockets to give Steve a take-a-guess look. “We’re taking you to our leaders, obviously. That’s standard protocol for aliens.”
“I’m not an alien.”
“And we can verify that,” Natasha said quietly, stepping closer to Steve. “If you’ll come with us.”
Laughing, Steve looked down at Natasha and though he admired her, he wouldn’t hesitate to take her down if he needed to. “You think I’ll just follow you?”
“Personally,” Clint said, pulling his keys out of his pants pocket with a triumph fist pump. “I think you’re batshit crazy and not worth the walk, but if Natasha wants to go through the whole process with Simmons, she can be my guest. I’m gonna get debriefed and hightail myself back home. It’s not my fault that you popped up on my doorstep.”
Clint slipped out the open doorway and Steve listened to his footsteps retreating. Or, at least, pretending to retreat. He could still hear the archer breathing. Sighing, Steve eyed Natasha.
“All I want to know is what happened in New Mexico and New York. That’s all.”
Natasha smiled without teeth. “We have the files on all of that, but you have to follow us.”
“Why?” Steve didn’t move, didn’t posture, but he did cross his arms. He tucked his hands where he could reach his knives.
“Because you aren’t the first Steve Rogers and you probably won’t be the last. Our Director has a strict policy of how to deal with Steve Rogers. If you want to know about New Mexico and New York, if you want people to believe you...you have to come with me.”
Rocking a little, his hands lowering, Steve frowned. “I’m not...people are pretending to be me?”
“Or you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. Either way, the only choice you have is to follow us,” Natasha smiled at him with one side of her mouth. “And just a fair warning, if you try to run: there are worse ways to bring you in. I’m...the soft touch.”
Steve wondered if she was being modest, but she didn’t seem the type. He thought of Sif and of how Asgard had treated him until they were sure he wasn’t about to murder them all. Arms length was a safety measure that he understood. Especially if he wasn’t the first Steve Rogers to show up in their lives. He sighed and let his arms fall to his sides.
“If this is trap, know that I won’t be soft in any way.”
Natasha looked him up and down again. “Ice and stone, right?”
“You have no idea,” Steve walked ahead of Natasha and they caught Clint before he’d finished descending the stairs. The archer looked up curiously.
“Did you lock the door?”
The drop-off point was a warehouse that had been abandoned when Schmidt had announced through President Stern his plan to make it a test site. Strangely, telling the populace you had brainwashed that you were going to murder them if they stayed made them want to move. How funny. Skye had already told all of their passengers what to expect when they went inside the building and repeated ad nauseum the importance of forward movement.
“If we spend more than fifteen minutes here, you’ll be rounded right back up. So keep your head down, find the symbol on your card and go there. Follow the person who greets you and stay quiet. You’ll be safe and sound in no time.”
“But what about our records?” an older woman asked and Skye patiently repeated that she had already wiped them. The agents they met would give them a new one and they should be able to return home.
“Any more questions?” she asked, the whole ordeal had worn her down. It always did. These people didn’t ask for this, at least most of them didn’t, and they were being tossed from one unknown to another. They were being asked to walk on faith in a faithless world. Skye just hoped there was enough left to keep them going. Loki, the dark-haired John Doe, made a noise and she turned to him. “Don’t be shy.”
“You haven’t given me a card,” he didn’t sound eager for one, but he must have noticed he’d been singled out from the word ‘move’.
“You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying with us,” Skye realized just how horrible that sounded when it hit her own ears and she shook her head. “It’s not an order. You can go with the others if you want.”
“Then why do I not have a card?”
“Do you have a life to get back to?” Again, it sounded cruel, but she didn’t correct herself.
“I’m a king,” Loki asserted for the hundredth time and the others groaned or laughed. Loki raised his hand but nothing happened. He looked at his own palm in fear. When he looked back at the others who mocked him, there was even more fear. Skye watched him throw his anger up like a shield. She stepped in his field of view before he could explode on them all.
“Loki,” she caught his attention and he looked up at her in desperation. “I’m offering more than a fake name and a fake life. Everyone else here has a family and homes to get back to. If you don’t, or you can’t, then I’m offering a place with me and Mike. We could use another pair of eyes.”
“An expendable pair, you mean.”
Skye knelt in front of Loki and took his hand. This time, he didn’t pull away. “No one is expendable, you understand? Every life matters.”
“Not every life.” Loki’s lips thinned and he started to turn away.
“Your life matters, Loki. You matter,” Skye squeezed his hand. “I’m offering you a chance to prove it. Stay with me and Mike, help us free people like we freed you today. Isn’t that what being a king is? Serving his people?”
“These are not my people,” Loki gazed at the people in the bus like she would at gum on the sole of her shoe. “These pathetic Midgardians...”
“You’re one of us, dude. Whether you want it or not,” She let his hand go and glanced to the nav-dock of the bus. They were less than two minutes from the drop-off spot and she needed to start lining everybody up. “Make your choice.”
Skye let Loki slip out of her mind as she let the motions take her through unloading her cargo to the next phase of their freedom. Mike stood just outside the bus, looking out for threats. Her surveillance system should alert them of incoming hostiles, but it wasn’t foolproof. Even with all her connections in the Rising Tide, she didn’t have access to all the best tech. What she did have, she scavenged from the places they raided. It had been a couple years since she’d managed to find a loophole in the Stark Industries net and exploit it for her nav-dock, the autopilot device and a sustainable battery. So long as they maintained the bus, they could do this until they died or got caught.
Mike patted the side of the bus three times to let her know all the people were in the warehouse. She turned back to make sure no one had left anything and her eyes met Loki’s. She stifled her smile a little, walking to her laptop rig and setting in another destination.
“What do you want your new name to be?” she asked him without turning around and she saw him shift in the dark parts of her screen. She pulled up a fresh file.
“My new name?” he seemed reluctant to rise from his seat and she sighed, glancing over her shoulder.
“Me and Mike will call you Loki, but during missions or on the public file, you have to have a name. It’s to keep us legit if we get caught,” When he hesitated, she shrugged. “I’ve always liked the name Loren.” She typed it in and tapped the first last name she could think of. “Loren Olsen. Loki Odinson.”
Finally standing, Loki was tensed from head to foot. “I am no son of Odin.”
Leaning against the wall of the bus closest to her, Skye took in his posture and the fear still burning in his eyes. She understood it probably too well. Someone else's words came to mind. “Keep your lies closest to the truth to remember them.”
He blinked at her for a moment before some tension leaked out of him. “Loren Olsen.”
Skye smiled to lighten the mood. “Want some pizza? I’m starving.”
“I sure do,” Mike grunted, coming back aboard the bus. The doors closed behind him and the bus started moving. Loki slowly sat back down and proceeded to engage in a staring match with his palms.