Chapter 3—In the Desert
• • •
Amy ran to the edge of the smoking crater. The Tesseract had reduced the Dark Energy Complex to rubble. Fire and rescue units screamed around her. Floodlights and emergency beacons blasted the night with surreal light. SHIELD survivors staggered in a daze or hauled rock with search teams. An occasional wisp of blue gossamer floated from the wreckage, coalesced, broke apart.
Uncle Phil rushed past her, his hand to his ear. Amy could hear the Director’s tinny voice shouting from the link. Get to Detention!
Coulson leaped over the buckled concrete and disappeared into the hole.
“No!” Amy shouted, scrambling over the edge. “Wait!”
Far ahead of her, he darted into a crevice of rock.
“Uncle Phil!” she cried, stumbling and falling after him. Her heart hammered; panic squeezed her throat.
Klaxons blared as the crater tipped. Warning. Engine failure. Evacuate Base. She clawed her way to the crevice and tumbled into darkness. Ahead of her, she saw a flicker of gray as her uncle ducked through a corridor.
“Wait!” Amy yelled, running after him. “Uncle Phil!”
She rounded a corner in time to see the huge pulse rifle in his arms as he rushed through the open Detention doors. An explosion slapped her eardrums, rocked her to the floor. And a spray of blood and gore flew back into the corridor.
“No!” she screamed, struggling up.
The word barely escaped her mouth—a whisper, a breath—as Amy bolted upright in bed. She saw the splatter, the little goblets of flesh that hit, then dropped off the corridor wall. She saw the scrap of neck tie on the floor—textured, charcoal gray—a tie she’d given him for Father’s Day.
“It’s not what happened,” she muttered as the shakes started. “He was in one piece. He was in one piece…”
But, she really didn’t know what happened. No one did. He got a Phase Two weapon out of the Armory. He shot one of Loki’s hypnotized flunkies inside the detention cell doors. Then, Loki killed him.
Amy threw off the covers and dug through the clothes on the floor. “Thor knows,” she told herself. “When he gets back…” She yanked on some shorts, tied up her running shoes.
The nightmares had driven her into the streets, first in Brooklyn, then here. Running gave the terror something to do. It burned through the rage and galloped over the pain.
Amy checked the window as she bound her hair. Still dark. Her eyes grazed the black shadow in the yard—quiet, peaceful, sleeping. She stopped in the kitchen long enough to fill her water flask. Then, she was out the door and down the street.
Steve woke, immediately alert. Staring into the dark, he strained to hear. An early bird peeped. A door shut. He crawled out of the tent and listened again, then pulled on his pants and jumped over the deck railing. The sliding door was unlocked. He paused at the door to the upper half-story, listening, opened the door and listened again.
“Amy?” he called.
At the top of the steps, he paused, flipped on the bathroom light. “Amy?”
The rest of the half-story stretched out into a long bedroom. The bathroom light fell over soft carpet and puddles of clothes. The bed was a jumble—and empty. Steve checked the clock on the night stand, then ran down the stairs and out the front door. No one in the dark street. Not a sound.
Five miles into the desert, Amy slowed, then bent over her knees. Sweat dripped off her nose as the stitch in her side eased. Panting, she straightened, walked it out. She watched the pre-dawn gather strength over the mesa as she unhooked her flask and wet her mouth.
Her cell phone chirped. Startled, she pulled it from her belt and puzzled over the caller.
“Amy, where are you?” her mother asked.
“I… I’m in Primrose—you know that.”
“But, where, honey. Where are you right now?”
“I’m west of town—in the Preserve. I’m running.” She glanced around at the shadowy rock and scrub. “It’s the middle of the night there—what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, sweetheart, we’re just worried about you.” After a pause, she added, “Steve just called me.”
Amy closed her eyes. “I’m sorry he woke you up. He shouldn’t have done that.”
She watched the gray sky turn pink, breathing hard, then sat down in the dust. “I don’t think I can do this, Mom.”
A frustrated noise came through the phone. “I never should have let you go back by yourself.”
“It was better yesterday after Steve showed up. Out of the blue. We got a lot done. And ate tacos.” She watched her tears make tiny craters in the dust. “But I had the nightmare again last night, and I just…”
“Come home,” Cathy Coulson ordered. “Hire a moving company to pack up Phil’s house.”
“We’ll sort through everything here. Sam’s gone back to Darfur, but you and Rick and I will do it together.”
Amy didn’t trust herself to speak. She had never felt so defeated. Why couldn’t she do this one thing—this one last thing for Uncle Phil? She didn’t want strangers touching his CDs or his old books. She wanted to do it, but couldn’t. And now everyone was worried about her, which made her even more pathetic.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time Phil saw you?” Cathy Coulson’s voice changed from Fierce Mother to Storyteller.
Amy squeezed her eyes shut, knowing the story. It was part of their family chronicle—like the one about Sammy collecting pennies in his wagon for the animal shelter, or Rick crying in their arms when he got out of rehab. Part history, part parable, her mom’s stories bound them together with the best of who they were. Amy knew the story her mother was about to tell, and shrank away from it.
“While we planned our escape from your father,” Cathy started, “Phil would call me at Dorothy’s. To keep me calm, he’d talk about his plans for you kids. He thought he knew what little boys needed, but had no idea what to do for you. He worried about that.
“When the day came, he met us at LaGuardia. He sat with the boys, talking to them in that quiet way he had. I could tell he’d rehearsed a little speech—just a few words to help them feel safe. Then, he came over and took you out of my arms. You two looked at each other, and Phil said, “Hello, Amy.” You patted his face with your little hand and let loose one of those squeals of baby delight.”
“Mom…” A sob broke through. “I can’t…”
“Yes, you can.” Her mother’s voice quavered. “He taught you how to do this. He taught you how to reach past pain for the strength underneath. He taught you how to ask for help when the job was too big or too heavy. He taught you how to ignore the non-essentials and concentrate on the crucial. I know it doesn’t seem possible to live without him, but he taught you how.”
“Listen to me,” she sniffed, getting her own tears under control. “When we finish, I want you to call Steve—I’ll give you his number. Why don’t you have it?”
Amy didn’t answer.
“You let him come get you and take you to that diner outside of town for some eggs.”
Amy smiled a little. “Okay.”
“Call a moving company and get back here.”
She took a shuddering breath in and let it out. “Okay. Yeah, okay.” She stirred the red dust beside her shoe. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart. And so did Phil.”
Amy pressed “End” and wiped her nose. Where did all the tears come from? Just when she thought she couldn’t possibly have any fluid left in her body, another flood squirted out. She sipped from her flask.
“When a job’s too big or too heavy,” she whispered to herself, keying the new number.
“Hello?” Steve’s voice jumped from the phone.
“You’re kind of a buttinsky,” she said, “calling my mother in the middle of the night.”
“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” he said. “Did it help?”
“Yeah, it helped.” She stood up and slapped the dust off her legs. “Can you come get me? I’ve got a craving for The Sidewinder’s eggs and hash browns.”
“Another greasy spoon.”
“Okay.” She could hear him smiling. “Where are you?”
“Turn west at Pinky’s and follow the road into the desert.”
“Be right there.”
Amy replaced her phone with a sigh. Sunrise had come and gone. She started walking back toward town. A gentle breeze blew the red dust she kicked up.
Maybe that’s it, she thought. One step, then another, not thinking about it much.
In the far distance, she could hear the distinct rumble of a Harley, and lifted her head to watch for it.
Steve tried not to fidget on the seat of his bike. He was very aware of Amy sitting behind him. Straddling him. In short shorts. He’d barely kept his eyes in his head when he picked her up—those shorts and a strap T-shirt over some kind of underwear. They chased out any other thought about her safety or state of mind. Basically, he stopped thinking altogether. Giving her his jacket had helped—until she climbed on behind him.
Amy patted his shoulder, then pointed past his head at a truck stop on the highway. He nodded and turned that way. She leaned into the turn with him, a lot easier on the bike than he was at the moment.
He pulled into the gravel parking lot and steadied the bike as she hopped off.
“I had no idea your hearing was so good,” she said as he dismounted. “I never thought you’d hear me leave the house.”
“All my senses are a little sharper, but part of it is training, I guess.”
“Hyper-vigilance. Common in soldiers, especially post-battle.”
“What? You’re a shrink now?” He held the diner door open for her.
“I know lots of useless stuff.” She smiled up at him as she passed. “I’m a librarian.”
“An Information and Research Specialist,” Steve corrected, smiling at her reaction. “I know a few things, too.”
Five in the morning and the place was packed. Truckers swilled coffee and pounded down runny eggs. They also eyed Amy appreciatively, which just about snapped Steve’s cap.
“Here,” she said, sliding onto a stool at the counter.
Steve took the stool next to her and grabbed a plastic menu from behind the napkin holder. He studied it, unseeing, trying to pull himself together. He had to quit acting like a doofus every time she showed some leg.
You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. So, snap to.
Amy watched him. “Are you mad at me?”
“What? No… heck no!” He could feel his ears heating up.
“I’m sorry I worried you.”
Steve shrugged. “I’ve been told I’m over protective.”
He counted on his fingers. “Natasha. Miss Potts. Maria Hill. My landlady. The cashier at the market.”
“Well, chivalry’s gone out of fashion. Some women take offense.”
Steve folded up the menu. “What about you? Does it offend you?”
“I think it’s sweet,” she answered quietly. “But let me ask you something. Just how offended were you this morning? You threw your jacket over me pretty fast.”
“Not offended,” he finally managed.
“So, we’re okay? Still friends?” She stuck out her hand.
Steve shook it solemnly. “Still friends.”
Amy’s phone chirped. “What now?” she muttered, digging under the jacket. She stared at her phone, then looked at Steve with big eyes as she answered. “Good morning, Director.” She stood up and motioned Steve to follow her.
“No, sir,” she said, pushing out the door. “It’s been more difficult than I expected.”
She stopped abruptly. “That’s very kind of you, sir. Thank you.”
Her face shifted from concentration to surprise and back again. “Now? I’m really not…” She looked up at Steve a little desperately. “Captain Rogers is with me… oh… yes… okay.”
She thumbed the phone off and pondered it.
“So?” Steve prodded.
“He’s sending people to pack the house.” She attached the phone to her waistband. “And he wants to see me.”
“He didn’t say, but he said you could come, too.”
Steve started for his bike. “I’m assuming he meant now.”
Amy nodded. “So much for hash browns.”
Twenty miles farther into the desert, Steve heard the first rumblings of construction equipment. Cranes spiked into the early morning sky. Dump trucks growled like tanks. They topped a shallow rise, and Steve’s reflexes slowed the bike to a crawl. The full scope of the devastation stretched out over three acres with a four-story crater in the center.
“Tasha said eighty people died here,” Steve said over his shoulder.
“Seventy-three,” Amy replied. He felt her hand on his back. “There’s a new perimeter fence.”
“I see the gate,” he said, angling the bike toward it.
As they approached, two guards stepped onto the dirt path. Steve noted their Air Force insignia. And their sidearms. Before he could identify himself, the lead guard touched his earpiece.
“Captain Rogers and Miss Coulson are here, sir.”
The gate rolled open.
“Keep to the left, sir,” the guard told him. His hard eyes assessed Amy. “Section C.”
Steve nodded brusquely and rumbled through the check point. They passed tents housing row after row of debris spread out on tarps, and swung around one of the huge cranes lifting a Buick-sized chunk of twisted metal. Workers crawled over the wreckage on the far side of the hole, some in white protective gear. Near them, threads of blue light wavered up from the broken concrete like smoke. He maneuvered the bike around a string of dump trucks headed toward a mountain of rubble. Almost two weeks since the Tesseract overloaded—Steve wondered if SHIELD would ever get the place sorted out.
Rounding the curve of the crater’s edge, he saw a larger, plastic-sided structure with its own guard detail. The plastic vibrated in the steady breeze. A placard stuck in the ground said “Section C.”
Amy concentrated on slowing her breathing as she swung off the Harley. Memories of that night had swamped her when they topped the ridge—Uncle Phil’s calm order to evacuate; standing in the middle of the highway with her team, watching the night sky turn Tesseract blue; racing back to fire, and destruction, and death. Memories and her nightmare scrambled together, and she felt herself hyperventilating. So, Amy pressed her hand flat against Steve’s back, feeling the muscles move as he steered the bike, grounding herself with his mass. Not a memory, not a dream, he was real. He was here. By the time they stopped outside the Command Center, she had pulled on her SHIELD face—stony, non-committal, just like Uncle Phil’s.
She didn’t have the slightest idea why Fury would want to talk to her. He had reassigned her to the New York office out of kindness, she thought, after her uncle died. But, maybe it wasn’t kindness. Maybe he had other reasons.
The Director’s offer to pack up the house came less than an hour after her mother told her to hire a van. And he wasn’t the least surprised to learn that Steve was with her. So, how long had he been monitoring her phone? What was this all about?
A guard escorted them through the temporary structure—a smaller version of the one they had built around Thor’s hammer last year. Amy noted the labs on either side of the narrow walk way. And more guards.
“Amy.” A bank of touch screens went dark as the Director turned to them. “Captain.”
Steve gave the Director a sharp nod. He had assumed the full Captain America persona—stiff back, squared shoulders, steely-eyed attention. She felt relieved in a weird way. He was on alert too, which meant she wasn’t completely paranoid.
Fury came close. Without his black leather duster, he seemed less imposing, which, Amy guessed, was deliberate.
“I know this has been a difficult time for you, Amy.” His one good eye gazed at her steadily. “I hate to rush you, but I need you back in New York.”
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “In Archives?”
“No.” Fury’s face gave her nothing. “Have a seat. Both of you.”
He gestured at the end of a small conference table. Steve glanced at her as they moved toward it, his face stern. Then, he pulled out a chair for her. She felt a giggle bubble up—his unfailing good manners always caught her off guard—but she squelched it. She needed to “stay frosty,” as Uncle Phil would say.
“As you may have noticed,” Fury started, pulling a chair up to hers, “I’m not much of a people person. I tend to piss people off or make them suspicious—like you two are suspicious right now.”
His mouth tucked in what might have been a smile. “If your uncle were here, he’d erase all that tension. You’d agree to whatever I asked, because it would seem right. That’s what Phil Coulson did for me.
“I’m in a tight spot, Amy. The Council doesn’t trust me. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner sure as hell don’t trust me. Thor doesn’t bother with me at all.” He looked at Steve. “And I know you’d rather answer to career military instead of a slippery SOB like me.”
Fury leaned back in his chair, his eye on her again. “I’ve got my response team, but they don’t want anything to do with me, or with SHIELD. I’ve made mistakes that I might not be able to fix. If ever I needed your uncle to clean up my mess, it’s now.”
He paused, studying her. “But, I do have the next best thing.”
A watery helplessness shivered through Amy. She didn’t like where this was headed. But all she could do was stare into that black eye, like a mouse hypnotized by a snake.
“I’ve seen you with people. You’re good, like Phil was. Your section was one of three that evacuated without any casualties. Because your people trusted you. Because they followed you.”
Amy’s dry throat clicked as she tried to swallow.
“I need you to be my liaison with the response team.” Fury pulled a badge wallet out of his back pocket and pushed it across the table at her. “I need you to take a promotion.”
With numb fingers, she dragged the case toward her and opened it. Inside was a SHIELD agent’s badge. Her badge.
Steve thought Amy might faint or puke. She was green enough around the gills for either. But, she tucked her chin and just stared at the badge in her hand. He hated Fury for playing her this way—making like he was helpless without Phil Coulson. Nick Fury was the least helpless man Steve had ever met.
“You recruited Uncle Phil right out of high school,” Amy finally said, her voice almost normal. “He supervised every major SHIELD operation. Nobody knew more than he did, except you.”
She looked up at Fury. “He did a lot more than babysit the Avengers, so don’t insult him like that. And as for your people skills, sir? Your social graces might be a little rusty, but I’d give you a solid ‘B’ in manipulation.”
Holy Cow, Steve thought. She nailed him!
He watched her with new appreciation. If Amy could see through Fury’s smoke now, what was she like with all cylinders firing?
“Only a ‘B’?” the Director asked. “I must be slipping.”
“My guess?” Amy pushed the badge back across the table. “You want someone on the inside.”
Fury crossed his arms and relaxed into his chair as if getting ready for a bedtime story. “Go on.”
“Romanov and Barton are shut out of the inner circle. The others will never let their guard down completely with them. But, I have no training, no ops experience. I don’t even know how to shoot a gun. So, making me an agent would be an obvious sham to everyone.”
“Not all agents are operatives,” Fury countered. “And you’re not factoring in the emotional connection.”
Amy’s eyes narrowed. Steve knew that look. It worried him in all kinds of ways.
“Yes, everyone on the team feels kindly toward me,” she said. “But that’s just guilt.”
“Which could be an entry point, if you used it right.”
Steve refused to let his shock show. Aside from the moral implications, they were both right. Everyone on the team felt responsible in some way for Coulson’s death and would jump at a chance to help Amy if she asked. It would be easy for her to gain their trust. He didn’t know whether to be outraged or impressed.
Amy became very still. Only her eyes moved—from the badge to Fury. Then, she turned her head and gave Steve a look that sent chills down his back. He felt her reaching for a deeper truth and could almost grasp it himself. The fingertips of his mind brushed it—Fury, the team, Amy, trust…
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, a delicate, smoky beauty in a tailored suit.
Steve stood up automatically.
Fury unfolded from his chair. “Is he ready?”
“Yes.” Her eyes darted over them all.
“You’ll be interested in this,” Fury said to Steve. “You, too, Agent Coulson.”
He took his time crossing to the door with the woman. Steve started to follow, then turned back to Amy, still seated at the table.
“We might as well see this through,” he told her.
“I almost had it,” she muttered, shoving back her chair and jogging to catch up to him. “Too many distractions.”
Steve left that comment alone.
They found Fury in the next room, gazing through a transparent barrier into the laboratory beyond. The petite woman sat at a control panel and spoke quietly into a headset. Steve saw Dr. Selvig through the glass, fiddling with equipment straight out of an issue of Astounding Stories. On the table in front of the scientist, a transparent bread box held wavering wisps of Tesseract energy.
“Residue from the explosion,” Fury said. “We wondered if it could be used safely, apart from the Tesseract. Dr. Selvig and Dr. Pym have been working on that.”
“Dr. Pym…” Steve turned to the woman at the console.
Fury pointed into the lab. “Dr. Pym.”
Amy gasped and moved closer to the glass. “Inside the chamber.”
Steve looked again. On the bottom of the big bread box, surrounded by swirls of blue, a tiny figure moved back and forth.
“That’s a man? He can’t be more than two inches tall!”
“That’s about right,” Fury said mildly. “Dr. Pym has the ability to shrink in size, as does Miss Van Dyne.” He nodded at the woman feeding data into the headset.
“Jeepers.” Steve watched, transfixed, as the tiny figure raised an instrument into the nearest energy thread.
“Let’s hear them, Janet,” Fury said.
Speakers in the room suddenly snapped on.
“… no cohesive quality,” a man’s voice said. The voice grunted as an errant strand pushed the little man off-balance. “The outflow is almost phasic…” He paused, breathing hard. “Where’s it phasing to, Erik?”
Selvig hurried to a computer screen. “The signal is incomplete.”
“Could they be reaching for the other dimension—uhh!” Dr. Pym fell as a string slapped him.
Selvig ran his fingers over telltales on the container. “Sample Wave Five. That one is the most stable.”
Pym struggled up. “Next time you get inside the sentient power source and piss it off, okay?” He staggered to the other end of the container. “I’ll sit out there and call the play-by-play.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, Hank,” Selvig said. “The Tesseract was a shy mistress. She had to be coaxed.”
“That’s enough, Janet,” Fury said.
The speakers shut off. In the silence, the Director continued.
“Dr. Pym’s microtech is important to this research, but so is his expertise in gamma radiation.”
“Gamma,” Steve said. “That’s Dr. Banner’s beat, isn’t it?”
“Dr. Banner isn’t the only game in town,” Fury said quietly.
Steve took that in. He watched the two scientists, Janet Van Dyne’s voice low in the background.
“So, are these two new recruits for the team?” he asked under his breath.
“No,” Fury said.
All Steve could see of Fury’s face was the eye patch, the spider web of black scars fanning out from it, and a tense knot of cheek.
“Knowing who was already on the team, Dr. Pym and Miss Van Dyne declined.”
Great, Steve thought. More Prima Donas.
“They should be on the team,” he whispered.
“I think Stark and Banner would disagree.”
“Do you know what the beef is?”
Fury shook his head. “Just that there’s more than one.”
If Amy was right, and he was considered the Avengers’ leader, then he needed to look out for the team. The six of them had been able to put aside their egos and history to work together once. Maybe they could do it again with the right nudge.
“I’ll talk to Tony and Bruce,” he said. “I’ll find out what happened. Maybe I can get something started.”
Fury turned to him. “Don’t get your hopes up, Captain.”
His gaze shifted to over Steve’s shoulder. His brow clenched for a moment—almost too fast for Steve to notice at all. But, he did notice and turned to see what Fury was frowning at. Amy stood behind him, squinting knowingly at the Director.
“I guess we’ll be going now,” she said. “We have a few things to do before flying back to New York.”
Fury actually smiled. “You’ll need this.” He held out the wallet with her agent’s badge.
“I guess I will.” She tucked it into the leather jacket.
Thoughtfully, Steve followed her into the corridor and out into the hot morning. The early breeze had picked up, blowing dust and grit across the crater in a sheet. He grimaced against it.
“Fury wasn’t playing you at all, was he? He was playing me.”
“He knew I’d never let you tackle this alone. He played us both.”
Steve threw his leg over the bike. “Cripes, he’s good.”
“Just wait.” Amy shook her head in appreciation. “By the time we get back to the house, it will be empty—just a packed suitcase for me and your duffel with two plane tickets to LaGuardia on top.”
“What about my bike?”
“Someone will be there to take care of it, someone who will give us a ride to the Roswell airport.”
Amy grinned at him.
“And you’re not mad?”
“He came at me sideways, but I regrouped. You have to remember, the Number Two spy in the world taught me how to tie my shoes. I may not know how to be an agent, but I know how to play their game.”
Steve couldn’t help but grin back at her. “I think I’m pretty damn lucky to have you as my Gal Friday.”
Amy climbed on behind him. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
“Al Jolson,” Steve laughed, kicking the engine to life. “I get that reference!”
• • •
Click to read Part Four—Nobody’s Grandpa.