Chapter 4—Nobody’s Grandpa
• • •
“Thanks for doing this.” He looked at Thor, who studied his own set of gloves. “I really don’t have anybody to spar with, so I feel like I’m losing my edge.”
“It is my pleasure, indeed.” The Asgardian bounced from one foot to the other in borrowed sweats. “Stark might pose a tactical challenge, and Banner…” He laughed. “One learns how to take punishment with Banner. But, men must stand face to face in true contest.”
“I’m surprised you came back so soon.” Steve took some practice swings, loosening his shoulders.
Thor beat his gloves together. “The Bifrost is repaired.”
“Imprisoned.” His face clouded. “To the end of his days.”
“We have a lot to talk about,” Steve said, assuming a defensive stance. “After.”
Thor mirrored his pose and nodded. “After.”
The match was glorious. Thor fought with his whole body—feet, elbows, knees, as well as his fists. But, Steve was lighter on his feet and more agile. They surprised each other, called out taunts and insults, and dug in. After an hour, they lay panting in the churned up sod—bloodied, and bruised, and deeply satisfied.
Steve told him about New Mexico; about the residual Tesseract energy; about Selvig, Pym and Van Dyne.
“Fury wants me to grease the way with Stark and Banner, but I won’t without more information.” Steve pulled the laces of his glove with his teeth. One molar seemed a little loose. “Amy’s getting that for me.”
“Perhaps, I should meet this Pym myself.” Thor pulled off his gloves. “And the Lady Janet. You did not have the opportunity to hear their views, only Fury’s. We can base nothing on Fury’s deception.”
“And Erik will confide in me.” He handed the gloves to Steve and wiped at blood oozing from his lip. A devious grin lit his face. “I shall also present myself to Jane Foster, bloodied from battle. Thank you, my friend.”
“There’s something else. Amy wants to see you.” Steve hesitated. “She wants to know how her uncle died.”
Thor looked out over the ruined meadow. “It is not a tale to be told. Least of all to her.”
“That’s exactly what I think.”
“You care for her.”
The simple statement surprised Steve. He needed to see Amy everyday, like a touch stone. She was part of his life now, but he had never thought beyond that.
“Yeah,” he said. “I care about her a lot.”
“Then, what would you have me do?”
“Not tell her. But, she won’t let it go.”
“Propose to her a meeting upon my return from New Mexico, and we shall determine the correct course.”
Steve nodded and held out his hand. “Thanks.”
Thor gripped his forearm. “Farewell, for now.”
He picked up Mjölnir, and his ripped sweatshirt transformed into full Asgardian battle armor. Steve backed off as the hammer whirled, then shot Thor into the morning sky.
“Well,” Steve muttered, watching him disappear, “at least I have my Harley.”
“The Director called me personally, Agent Coulson. This is the office he specifically assigned to you.” The head of SHIELD’s Human Services gave Amy an unimpressed once-over, obviously tallying up the names of those who actually deserved private space with a view of Stark Tower.
“Uh… okay.” She had expected a locker and a shared workspace with other researchers, not her own couch. Or a door. Her heart skittered like a squirrel.
The HS director picked up the phone from the smoked-glass desktop. “Come in for a moment,” she said crisply.
A thin, young man hurried in. He smiled nervously at Amy.
“This is Frederick. He’s Agent McCaffey’s assistant. And yours, now.”
Amy blinked at him.
The woman waved him away. “Well.” She folded her hands in front of her. “My number is, of course, in the directory. Welcome to the New York office, agent.”
After she left, Amy stared at the beautiful Klimt print on the wall above the couch. Her couch. Then, she closed her door and went to work.
Agent McCaffey looked like a circus clown. Amy felt sorry for him with his bulbous nose, close-set eyes and frizz of red hair. Hard to take a guy seriously when you expect him to squirt you with seltzer water. But, when he stood to greet her, all thoughts of clowns disappeared. Built like a linebacker with the voice of a Shakespearian actor, he swooped around his desk and clasped her hand in his huge paws.
“Sorry not to introduce myself sooner,” he crooned. “Busy day, I’m afraid.”
“I won’t keep you.” Amy pulled her hand out of his cavernous grip. “I need to contact Agents Barton and Romanov. Is it possible to get a message to their handlers?”
McCaffey’s bushy eyebrows jumped. “Certainly. One moment.” He returned to his desk where he brought up the information. “Your uncle handled them personally, along with several other agents.” His voice became even more mellow. “He will be impossible to replace, I’m afraid. We all miss him a great deal.”
Amy nodded. She had been hearing this same sentiment all morning—from the security guard stationed at the lobby door to the tech who installed her computer. They all looked at her with a combination of embarrassment and pity, waiting for her to prove she was “bearing up” like a true SHIELD agent. Each condolence buffeted her, like getting hit in the face with a rolled-up sock, until she’d gone numb from the constant barrage.
“Right,” McCaffey said with a final key stroke. “That does it. Handler information is in your mailbox. Anything else I can do for you, Agent Coulson.”
She gritted her teeth and flicked him a stiff smile. “No, thanks. I appreciate your help.”
She started back to her office, then paused by the assistant’s desk. The young man watched her.
“Frederick,” she said. “Fred? Freddy?”
He grimaced and leaned toward her. “Actually,” he said quietly, “my name is Trevor.”
“Wha—? Oh, for heaven’s sake! You’d think an intelligence agency could get the names right!”
The absurdity of it—the snotty, dehumanizing arrogance of it—snapped some of the numbness out of her. She had too much work to do to fall into the hole her uncle had left at SHIELD. Or let other people’s respect for him keep her there.
“Listen, Trev, I need to talk to Maria Hill. Can you get me through to her?”
“Right away, Agent Coulson.”
“No,” she said sharply. “My uncle was Agent Coulson. I’m Amy.”
“I found a lot of rag about Van Dyne’s affair with Tony Stark,” Amy told him. “The way she went after him in the press, I’m thinking there must be more to that feud.”
“Ask Tasha,” Barton said. “She’ll know.”
“Okay.” Amy checked her notes. “Pym and Banner worked at the same lab for awhile. They co-authored a couple of papers. But, there’s bad blood between them now?”
“All I know is Pym went public after Banner’s accident—blamed Banner for the whole mess.”
“Well, if I was the Big Guy, that would piss me off.”
“Word was that’s how Pym got Van Dyne to fund his lab.”
“By wrecking Dr. Banner’s reputation? So, Van Dyne’s got a grievance against him, too?” Amy scribbled on her note pad. “How many rocket scientists did this woman sleep with?”
“Careful,” Barton warned. “You’re jumping.”
“Right.” Amy recognized the “Phil-ism.” Jumping meant jumping to conclusions. She reeled in her instant assumptions about the perfect Janet Van Dyne hopping from lab to lab. “Anything else about Pym?”
“He struck me as a typical squint asshole. The only thing that mattered more than his precious project was getting credit for it.” Barton paused, then added, “He can handle himself in a fight. That surprised me.”
Amy scribbled madly. “So, would you be okay working with him again?”
“Me? Sure. Nothing much gets under my skin.”
“True.” She smiled. “Thanks, Clint, this helps.”
“I’ll be done here in a couple of days.” Another long pause. “Will you let me buy you a drink when I get back?”
She heard his voice edge toward condolence and braced herself. “Sure.”
“Good. Gotta go.”
Barton cut the connection without another word. Amy sighed with relief, then pressed the blinking light on her phone.
“Maria? Thanks for waiting.” She flipped to a new page in her note pad. “Tell me everything you know about the World Security Council.”
As the elevator opened on her floor, Amy wanted to clap her hands like a little kid. What luck to find Bo and Radi in the research pit! She never heard where the New Mexico staff ended up—scattered across the world, she assumed. But her two favorite geeks landed in the bowels of her building, already buried in empty Jolt cans and red licorice. The guys were eager as ever to slip through a few firewalls for a good cause. And the only thing more appealing to them than getting dope on the World Security Council was doing it on the sly for their former cubicle mate. This was turning out to be a good day.
When she rounded the corner, Trevor jumped up from his desk. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. It just didn’t seem right to make him wait out here.”
Amy stopped. “Slow down, Trev. What happened?”
“Captain Rogers… I… I let him wait in your office.” The kid looked sick.
“We’re never to allow anyone unescorted to an agent’s office. Security…”
Amy smiled. “Well, Captain Rogers isn’t exactly anyone, is he?”
Trevor shook his head.
“You’ve got good instincts, Trevor.”
The young man continued to watch her.
“But you have protocol to maintain. Your job probably depends on that.” She squinted at him. “So… does my keycard unlock that back stairway?”
“Yes, it does.”
“And you don’t monitor who comes in that way?”
His lips tipped in a cautious smile. “I’ve never been told to.”
“Okay, then.” She smiled brightly at him. “Carry on.”
She found Steve surveying her view and reminded herself to take him shopping. He wasn’t exactly an Armani kind of guy, but he was Captain America and as such required something more fitting than grandpa clothes.
“You gave my assistant a stroke,” she told him.
He turned from the window. “This is your office?”
“Until someone catches the mistake… Ooo!”
She grimace at his split lip and swollen eye. “Do you want some ice for that?”
“Nah,” he said sheepishly, “it’ll go down in a couple of hours.”
He looked more relaxed than she’d ever seen him—grinning like a big dope with his face beat to hell. She couldn’t help but smile back. He had that effect on people. Everybody liked Cap. An idea started to percolate.
“You need a birthday party,” she told him.
“Sure… get everyone together in one place, relaxed, chatty, lots of Champaign…”
“But, it’s not my birthday.”
“Maybe even the Security Council…”
“My birthday’s in May.”
“Clint and Tasha will be home soon. Thor’s here…”
“Thor left for New Mexico this morning to check out Pym and Van Dyne.”
“Oh,” Amy looked through him, seeing connections and possibilities. “Maybe they’d like to come, too.”
Steve smiled crookedly at her. “Can’t find anything that will help me with Stark and Banner?”
“I’m still working on it, but it never hurts to have a back-up plan.”
“You can fill me in at Jimmy’s. C’mon, I’m starving.”
“Okay.” She picked up the phone. “But, I’m not sharing my onion rings.”
“Fine. Then, keep your mitts off my chili fries.”
“Only if you go with me to Bloomingdales afterward.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “Okay… I guess.”
Radi’s voice came through the phone. “Research.”
“Hey,” she said. “Can you guys make a copy of my keycard?”
“No problemo, Spygirl.”
Amy smiled. Yes, this was turning out to be a very good day.
Tight-lipped, Steve pushed open the Stark Tower penthouse doors. The curved wall of windows looked out on a breath-taking view of the city. A bar in teak and ebony flowed around one end of the room, a massive fireplace and modular seating the other end. Amy smelled the tang of cut wood and new plaster. Repairs were still going on somewhere, but not in this room. She felt Steve’s hand at her elbow.
“I’ll find him,” he said, giving her one last disapproving look before going back into the hall.
Amy sighed, almost sorry now that they had come. Steve had been such a good sport about Bloomingdales. She led him through the department store, reviewing the weirder developments in men’s fashion since World War Two—Nehru jackets, leisure suits, gold chain necklaces. As she had hoped, it snuck under his hurt pride and got him laughing. Brave man that he was, he tried on everything she suggested, though Amy was careful not to push him too far into the twenty-first century. Nothing metro-sexual for the Captain.
When he stepped out of the dressing room in a Tom Ford jacket and David Chu pants, she squeaked. She couldn’t help it. The fit left no doubt as to his physical assets, but also hinted at subtler powers, like the intellectual savvy behind his baby blues.
“Steven,” Amy had said solemnly, “no one will ever mistake you for anyone’s grandpa again.”
“Shut up,” he laughed self-consciously.
But, Amy could tell he was pleased. He’s so easy, she had thought.
Then, Thor had called Steve’s cell, and everything changed.
Stepping down into the penthouse’s sunken room, her shoes clicked against the obsidian tiles. She wiped moist palms against her skirt and tried to breathe normally. I wanted this, she reminded herself, but a part of her just wanted to go back to Bloomingdales. Male voices, muffled by the sound-proof doors, rumbled in the hall. She turned and braced herself.
Thor looked surprisingly ordinary. He pushed open the door in a costume that gave him easy access in the City—jeans, T-shirt and a nondescript blazer. He could have been a bouncer for a high-end club, or a pro-football player ready to be interviewed by ESPN.
He crossed to her at once and took her hand. “Miss Coulson. Forgive my absence at your uncle’s remembrance. Believe me when I say I wanted to be there.” His clear blue eyes bore into hers. “He was my friend.”
Amy shook her head, suddenly so moved she couldn’t speak. She had never met the Asgardian, just recorded data about his hammer when it stuck, Excaliber-like, in the desert rock. Amy had expected him to be imposing. She never guessed he would be kind.
When she failed to reply a frown flickered across his face. He glanced at Steve, who stood nearby.
“Captain Rogers told me of your desire,” he tried again, “to know the circumstances of Philip’s death. I would not be the agent of more grief to you.”
Amy looked at Steve, square-jawed and so stiff he nearly stood at attention. She knew he’d planted that last comment in Thor’s head, knew he’d rather throw himself on a live grenade than let her hear Thor’s story.
She wanted to reach out and press her hand against his back the way she’d done in Primrose. She knew it would center her, blow the emotional fuzz from her brain. Nothing gave her clarity like his physical presence. But, Steve wasn’t just opposed to this meeting—he was so angry she could hear his teeth grinding together.
They had been in Bloomies’ parking ramp when Thor called to say he was back from New Mexico.
“Don’t do this,” Steve had said as they walked to his bike. “I’ve seen a lot of men die, and I’d never want their families to hear the details. No one should have to live with that knowledge.”
“But, I have to,” she countered. “You know I do.”
He caught her arm, his face flushed with conviction. “I won’t let you do it.”
“You won’t let me?” Anger flared as she yanked her arm free. “I don’t need your permission, or your approval, or your bike. I’ll walk to Stark Tower.”
But, of course he came with her, if only to take one more shot at changing her mind. And now she was flustered, and nervy, and not at all sure she was right. But, she wasn’t about to let any of that stop her.
“You would be doing me a kindness,” she told Thor. “I can’t stop imagining those last moments of his life. The truth can’t be worse than what I see in my mind.”
The Asgardian’s eyes shifted from Steve back to her, his allegiance torn. Then, he studied her a moment longer. She waited patiently under that steel blue scrutiny.
“Very well.” He nodded, making a decision. “Let us take our ease, then.”
He led Amy to the seats by the cold fireplace. Steve remained standing. It took very little time for the Asgardian to detail those last fateful moments—Loki’s trickery in caging Thor, Coulson’s arrival with an untested weapon, the thrust of Loki’s scepter. He chose his words carefully—accurate, but not graphic.
“Loki speared him from behind,” Amy clarified.
Thor’s jaws bunched. “Yes.”
“Coward,” she stated dispassionately.
“Yes.” The sorrow in that one word choked him. “There seemed no end to his treachery. He was no longer the brother I knew.”
“What happened then?”
“Loki released the cage. As it began to fall, I heard Philip call out. He said, ‘I’m sorry.’” Thor’s face worked. “He lay dying, and yet he anguished over not saving me.”
“Of course he did,” Amy said. “He thought you were a remarkable man. Not because of your strength, but because you took responsibility for your exile. Uncle Phil told me he watched you change from a boy to a king.”
“He said those words?” Thor turned his face away.
“He was proud to be your friend.”
When Thor looked at her, Amy understood her uncle’s conviction. She saw nobility fighting against pride, and weariness from carrying the burden. It scared her a little, the largeness of his existence compared to her small life. But, she pushed that aside in exchange for peace. Peace for herself, and for him. For all of them.
Thor regained his composure and lifted her hand to his lips. “I shall do all in my power to be worthy of his friendship, and yours.”
“That’s exactly what he would have said,” she told him.
She took her hand back and stood up. Thor stood with her.
“Thank you for telling me the truth.” She turned to Steve and said more gently, “Thank you for letting him.”
A wave of emotion washed over his stoney face, smoothing out the harshness. He uncrossed his arms as she reached for him, hugged him quickly, then stepped back before he could respond. But his face, that guileless, unguarded face, told her everything. Amy understood a little better now. The way he watched out for her, the way she felt settled by him—there was a reason they were so easy together. Maybe a big reason.
“Very well.” He gripped Steve’s hand, but observed them both with amusement. Amy looked away from his knowing smile. “Stark and Banner are expecting us. And curious.”
It wasn’t until they started down in the elevator that Steve spoke to her.
“You did a nice thing for him,” he said, studying his shoes. “You’re a good person, Amy.”
“I have my moments,” she murmured, watching her own shoes. “So, what did Thor say about Pym and Van Dyne?”
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about that.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “This whole thing could blow up in my face.”
“You know what?” She stationed herself in the doorway as the elevator opened. “It’s not that important. Whether or not you get all of them talking to each other again, whether or not Pym and Van Dyne join the team, the Avengers will be strong regardless.”
Steve shook his head. “It’s a test. If I can’t make this happen, I don’t deserve to be the team leader.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Amy reached up and smoothed the lapel of his new jacket. It didn’t need to be smoothed. “Meatloaf at Mom’s tonight.”
He caught her hand and held it to his chest. “I’ll be there.”
She stepped back into the lobby and let the doors slide shut. Amy stared at her distorted reflection in the chrome, her stomach in her throat.
Oh dear, she breathed.
• • •
Click to read Part Five of Cap and Amy’s story, Easy.