“Stark is just going to let us in?” Natasha asked. “That seems too easy, particularly after what he went through… or at least what we know of it.”
“He doesn’t know me, but he’ll know my credentials. Nathan Rushman, from the legal department.” Rogers walked out from behind the dressing screen, now an inoffensive office worker instead of a deadly spy. From having done plenty of camouflage dressing in her day, she realized his clothes were just slightly oversized, tailored just a little bit wrong, enough to disguise his muscled physique. Put a guileless expression on his face and you could believe he’d never hurt a fly. With practiced motions, Rogers swallowed some pills from a tiny box and gave himself two injections before rolling his sleeves over his muscled arms.
“I’ve maintained an identity at Stark Industries for a while,” he explained.
“You maintain a lot,” Natasha countered. SHIELD would have had to, particularly if Stark hadn’t known about the spy organization. Having Howard Stark’s son running around with no one keeping tabs on him would have been a recipe for disaster. Though Natasha was certain their coverage had increased exponentially since Tony’s capture and escape. “I think I could play your assistant if you needed me out of uniform. Stark’s son might know of me, but probably doesn’t know my face. There weren’t supposed to be any shots of me with my cowl off and I know a lot of Dr. Erskine’s files were destroyed – the ones about the test group anyway. If I don’t give him my real name…”
Rogers stared at her, honestly surprised. “I’m sorry, what? Did you just offer to be spy buddies?”
“They wouldn’t let me fight, Agent Rogers. I learned how to pass for a secretary to keep up on the news between dancing around in the chorus line,” she said matter-of-factly, the old pain from that well-hidden.
Rogers’ expression darkened. “That’s criminal.”
“That’s how it worked. Colonel Phillips came around after I went after the 107th, and Howard wasn’t afraid of admitting I could be useful, but to everyone else I was an expensive embarrassment, and they made me pay for it.”
“I’m really, really glad those guys aren’t around anymore,” he said, his fingers clenching, like he’d rather have them wrapped around a throat.
Natasha sighed. “One upshot to losing my time, I guess. Do you want me along?”
“Hey,” Steve said softly. “Stark is about the only one left that knew anything about you; there’s no way I’d leave you out. No, come as you are – you do whatever you need to do. It’ll keep the focus off of me if I need to try anything. If Stark’s half as fond of bragging as he seems to be-.”
Natasha smiled outright. “Howard was only too happy to tell you how he was leading contender for the world’s greatest everything.”
“Then you get anything out of him that he’ll talk about while I poke around. Something happened to Stark when he was captured in the desert; he came out different. Like… you different.”
“I read about how he stopped making weapons…”
“Because he doesn’t need them now. He is a weapon, him and that hammer of his. Then he went and built that powered armor for his guest, who SHIELD has no files on at all.” And that rankled, that was clear from the look on Rogers’ face. It was an expression Natasha knew very well.
“Agent Carter hated not having information either.”
“I don’t want to dictate what you want to talk about to Stark, but if he lets you know something, anything…”
“I’ll do what I can… Rogers, he might not even want to see me. He might not even know about me. I know Howard was supposed to keep me top secret, and he died when Tony was so young…” Natasha trailed off, seeing the article about Howard’s death in the packet they’d given her, and successfully repressed a hard lump of emotion. She’d already cried for him.
“Everyone likes you,” Rogers said, startling her out of her melancholy. He plucked a pair of glasses from a case on the table and settled them on his nose, subsuming himself further into his “Nathan Rushman” role. “You’re the kind of person people trust on sight. Even me, and I’m known as one of SHIELD’s most suspicious agents.”
Natasha suspected some of that was flattery, but there was a definite hint of sincerity in Rogers’ voice. With Director Hill being such a big fan, some of that must have rubbed off on her agents.
“I hope so. I want to meet Tony, but we all saw Barton and Banner’s video. We need Tony and his friend. Even if he doesn’t need us.” Even if he doesn’t want to talk to me, she added silently.
Rogers picked up a briefcase and spent some time arranging files in it. “You’re more cynical than I thought you would be.”
“I might have made the world more equal after I… went down, but I didn’t reap many benefits in my own time,” Natasha reminded him, her voice a little flat with old anger.
“Ah.” A wealth of understanding colored his tone.
“I’ll tell Tony the truth about me. Maybe that will give him an opening to talk about what happened to him.”
Rogers smiled. He might be a spy, a master of lies, but here was someone who knew how truth could be used just as effectively.
There were some things Tony had rediscovered since Mjölnir and Thor had come into his life. Some Earth (or Asgard)-shattering, some simple pleasures. Like answering his own door. It wasn’t like he could be easily hurt now, and he did have cameras outside and guards at the grounds entrance to keep paparazzi and crazed fans away. If anyone was truly bent on hurting him, they probably wouldn’t be using the front door anyway. Besides, it let Pepper off the hook for doing something so mundane and let her spend more time kicking ass and taking names at headquarters.
Which made it a fun surprise to find a beautiful redhead and an equally attractive blond on his doorstep. The blond silently screamed “accountant!” while the redhead was wearing an army uniform that was a short step from being painted on, it was so well-tailored. Even if they just stood there for the rest of the afternoon, Tony would have considered it a worthy interruption of his time.”
“Mr. Stark? Nathan Rushman from Legal. Ah, we had something, or rather, someone rather unusual turn up in conjunction with some of your father’s patents, and we needed your signature on a couple of forms, sir.”
Tony waved them inside, briefly enjoying the view from behind (Rushman might have been trying to hide it, but there was definitely something excellent under his ill-cut clothes. Tony resolved to sic his tailor on him later).
“Which patents?” he asked, stalling for time as the redhead looked around the modern décor with brief, intense interest before focusing on him. Or rather, on his biceps. Which Tony was totally not exactly hiding with the tank top he was sporting. What? He’d been forging, he could legitimately be without sleeves when he was forging!
“The ones associated with the army in the 1940s.” Nathan opened up his briefcase to pull out some files.
Tony’s eyes snapped to the redhead. No way. There was only one possible thing that could mean. He’d heard Dad’s description of Captain America countless times, and since no picture of her in uniform remained, it took imagination to see her real face as a warrior in the few USO tour photos that had survived. The fixed smile she wore there was nothing like the small, genuine smile she wore now. Not tentative, but guarded. A little cynical. America’s biggest hero, celebrated through gritted teeth. They hadn’t even used her real name, for crying out loud. They’d called her “Nancy Roberts” when they’d referred to her at all. They’d like to have pretended she was just a figurehead to rally the troops around, instead of the hard-fighting example always out in front.
Tony understood why she’d done that a lot better now. He grinned right back at her, unshadowed and open.
“Captain Romanov!” A lot of the cynical expression melted away. And speaking of… “How did you…?”
“I froze. I thawed,” she said shortly.
“Okay, I refuse to let you leave me hanging like that. Come here.” Tony held out his hand and Romanov clasped it. She was strong, very strong, muscles showing themselves unexpectedly in her arm as she quietly tested his mettle, eyes widening as he traded her grip for grip.
“You look so much like Howard,” Romanov said. “Minus the muscle, I think.” She grimaced slightly as Tony’s clasp reached past what she could endure, and he let go, very impressed she could take as much as she had.
“Yeah, so they say,” Tony said, looking her over with wonder. “Come on, get in here.” He waved them both into the living room, collapsing on a sofa so he could stare at her. “How?” he said, pointing a finger at her.
“Ah, Mr. Stark, I’ll just finish prepping the paperwork,” Rushman said nervously, and Tony waved in dismissal. Legal vanished back into the foyer and Tony promptly forgot about him as he turned his attention back to Romanov.
“You first,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“I asked you first,” Tony said stubbornly. They had come to his door, so he was invoking host’s privilege.
Natasha looked past his shoulder as she spoke, her voice going soft. “When the plane went down, the serum didn’t let me die. I was frozen instead. Suspended animation, or that’s what the scientists tell me. Some explorers found the wreck in Greenland. Pulled me out.” Her skin pebbled, and Tony didn’t think it was from the AC. “I was still alive. The army caught wind of it and had their people take over. When I finally came to… I was seventy years out of my time.”
She looked like she was repressing a shiver, and Tony nodded over at his bar. “Can I get you anything?”
“Doesn’t work on me. Sorry,” she said sadly. “I’ll take anything else you have without ice, though.”
Tony grabbed her a Coke, staring down at her pensively as she drank, keeping her eyes locked on him.
“I know you,” he said. “Sort of. Dad talked about you all the time. The political types destroyed all your pictures, but people still figured it out. After you went down, Dad, Phillips, Peggy Carter, all the Howling Commandos, they made damn sure you wouldn’t be forgotten.”
“I owe them all flowers,” she said evenly, and Tony sat down next to her on the couch a respectful distance away, feeling sort of like an ass. “What happened to you? From everything I read in the newspapers they gave me, I nearly lost you before I woke up. How did you…?” she gestured at his physique.
Tony hesitated a long time. She had been Dad’s friend, and though she’d been pretty calm so far, there had to be one or fifty things in his background that had the potential for this to get awkward very quickly even before he started talking. “I was kinda thinking you might be mad at me.”
“For not building weapons anymore?” Natasha snorted and stood up. “Why would I be mad at you? Why would I be mad that you replaced risking thousands of soldiers’ lives with just risking your own?”
Tony chuffed out a laugh at her ironic look. “When you put it that way…”
“She understands us, my friend.”
Tony jumped a mile as Thor spoke up from behind him. Dear God (or gods) he needed to get that man a bell.
“Thor Odinsson, Natasha Romanov, and would you say something next time? You nearly gave me a damn heart attack!”
Thor seemed unconcerned for Tony’s level of cardiac health. “Jarvis told me who had arrived. This is the one your own father spoke of, the champion of your nation?”
Natasha smiled at that, and crossed over to clasp Thor’s hand. Despite no longer being Asgardian, Thor had muscle power to spare, and he was the first one to wince at Natasha’s grip. But that only seemed to delight him.
“You are indeed she,” he said, bowing. “And you do understand us. This world has begun to have enemies far stronger than what can be defeated with armies. Ruthless criminals walk free, cloaking their hatred in a hundred different justifications, and they bear no love for the conventions of war. Indeed, why let a thousand men perish in useless battle when two-,” he nodded at her, “or three champions may set the matter straight?”
“You’re the one with the armor.”
“I helped sculpt its form, and Tony breathed life into it. The armor gives me the strength to take on the kinds of foes I know how to fight. And you are the one who took the alchemist’s potion to make you a paragon?”
Natasha nodded, looking back and forth rapidly between Thor and Tony, probably picking up the similarities in their physique. And if she had even a rudimentary background in folklore and mythology, things were going to fall into place real fast.
Screw it. He’d been dying to tell someone anyway.
Tony stood decisively and reached out his hand, calling Mjölnir.
Steve activated a scrambler the moment he was alone, knowing Stark’s AI was entirely too clever for its own good, and if he didn’t want it alerting Stark every time he bypassed a door, he had to make himself electronically invisible. Leaving the papers on the table for cover, Steve slipped out of the foyer and down the stairs as Stark and Romanov talked. At strategic intervals he pressed tiny recording devices into inconspicuous crannies. No, it was not polite, but Steve hadn’t joined SHIELD with the intention of being polite. When people with the kind of damage potential that Tony Stark and his houseguest had began going off the reservation, they really had to expect that someone was going to try to keep an eye on them.
If Romanov wasn’t successful in getting Stark to talk, if he wouldn’t come into SHIELD, then they needed that eye and needed it yesterday. Together those two were an army all on their own.
Steve slipped inside an alcove when the tall, blond, muscle-bound Thor strode past him from the direction of the workshop, avoiding his gaze before pressing onward, and paused again when he saw that damned hammer sitting just outside of the workshop door. Feeling a little bit foolish, but unable to deny the impulse, Steve wrapped his hand around the handle and pulled.
It might as well have been a load-bearing wall for all he was able to move it.
Maybe the rumors some of the other analysts had been floating were true; those semi-crazy ones about the hammer being from another world.
Right then the hammer moved on its own, flying up the stairs.
Heart pounding, Steve ran up the stairs and halted himself in the doorway of the living room, deactivating his scrambler, doing his very best impression of a scared guy from Legal who’d just seen something incomprehensible.
It was by far the easiest acting job he’d ever done.
Natasha’s eyes were wide as Tony held the impossible hammer in one hand, talking in terms that would have made the semi-crazy analysts high-five each other in self-congratulatory glee.
“Another world?” Natasha was saying, reaching out tentatively to touch the hammer. Steve held back words of caution with an iron will.
“Asgard. My world. Mjölnir found Tony worthy of his own merit, and he has been aiding me in regaining my honor here on Midgard.”
“You would have done just fine without me,” Tony said. “Believe me.”
“But I would not have had such fine armor if I had!” Thor said, his smile broad and full of light. “Aye, we now aid each other in combating cruelty.”
Natasha closed her hand around the hammer’s handle and looked up at the two men, eyes flicking back and forth like she was evaluating them for lies.
“That’s what happened,” Tony said, his hands bracketing Natasha’s on Mjölnir’s handle. “I made my choice in that cave.”
“And mine when I saw him with Mjölnir.”
“And mine when everyone told me no,” Natasha said, releasing the hammer.
Steve smiled with a bitter twist to his lips. He understood her reasoning all too well.
“Did you come to join us?” Thor asked curiously.
“Other way around. There’s someone… someone out there who’s either going to need our help, or something else. Someone only we could handle. And I don’t think it would be wise for me to go alone.” She paused, and Tony put the hammer down, spreading his hands and gesturing for her to bring it on. Then held up one hand.
“Hey Legal!” he called. Steve popped his head in the room and gave Stark rigid composure over terror. “Leave those forms on the table and take the rest of the day off. If Pepper complains, have her call me. Ciao!”
Steve turned and left, tapping his earbud to listen in on the conversation.
“His name’s Clint Barton, and he had this lab accident…”
Privately, Steve smiled. Things were finally starting to come together.
One Month Later
Steve’s gaze never wavered from the small, secluded house at the edge of the woods, and he kept himself carefully still. He knew from experience that Banner had exceptionally keen eyesight for a man who occasionally wore glasses, and did not relish having to track him and Barton down, again, if he did the slightest thing to make either of them nervous before he knocked on their door.
“Steve?” Natasha’s voice sounded over his earbud.
“We’re five-by-five. We’re not going to get a better chance than today,” he responded very softly.
“Tony and Thor are going to be upset when they figure out we were lying all this time.”
“Tony and Thor are too intimidating and you’re too associated with the army for them to believe you at first. Let me try the soft sell before you get here.”
“Steve… be careful. We’ll be watching. If he gets angry… at least we might be able to stop him before he hurts anyone.”
He tapped twice on the earbud in acknowledgement. And then started his descent into the valley openly. It was time to bring the team together.