• • •
“They actually collected Tesseract residue.” He touched another screen and kept pacing. “Fury I understand.” He waved his hand in front of his face. “That myopic vision of his. But, Selvig? You’d think the whole Evil Mind Meld experience would have opened his eyes.”
“Anyone can get strong-armed.” Bruce Banner sat folded over in a chair, staring at the floor.
Stark’s jaw muscles worked. “Coercion. Blackmail. Bribery. Fury’s goody bag overflows like a Gestapo Santa Claus.”
“In all fairness,” Thor said, “Erik was enthusiastic about the research. Yes, he had to be persuaded at first, but he believes the project has merit.”
“Hmm.” Stark checked another screen, swiped it, swiped it again. “Didn’t he say the same thing about the Tesseract? And that turned out so well.”
“Yeah, from what Steve said, Selvig’s been… like… seduced by the Tesseract energy.” Banner leaned back in his chair and gave Thor an apologetic look. “I don’t think we can trust his judgement on this.”
“So, let’s recap.” Stark paced. “Fury’s playing with the most dangerous energy in the known universe. And since he knows we won’t help him, he brought in Selvig, who’s in love, and Hank Pym…”
“Who’s a shit,” Banner finished.
“And as an added bonus,” Tony grinned without humor, “the femme fatale of Park Avenue, the Mata Hari of the scientific community, my good friend and yours…” He stretched out both arms to Bruce. “… Janet Van Dyne.”
He shivered dramatically, then turned and clapped Steve on the arm. “Sorry, Cap—and I think I can speak for Bruce as well when I say this—Yodenheim will make Club Med before those two join our little cadre.” He fingered the material of Steve’s jacket. “Nice threads, by the way.”
“I think there’s a lot more to it than whether we bring them in or not,” Steve said. “Fury knew Amy and I were suspicious of his motives. He had to know she would find out the military pressured Pym into blaming Bruce for his accident, and how you and Van Dyne tried to ruin each other. Fury knew we’d have this conversation.”
“So, what’s the point?” Banner gestured jerkily from his chair. “What’s he really after?”
“He didn’t know Thor would be back.” Stark pointed at the Asgardian. “Or that he’d go to New Mexico. And you said Fury wasn’t there today?”
Thor shook his head. “Erik said Fury left soon after Steven and Miss Coulson returned to New York.”
“But, Pym and Van Dyne were still there,” Steve clarified.
“Yes, I spoke with them both.” Thor pushed off from the wall. “Neither seemed particularly interested in joining us. Dr. Pym appeared repentant of his actions toward you, Banner. If nothing else, he yearned for an opportunity to make amends.”
Bruce blew a raspberry.
“Miss Van Dyne described herself to me as ruthless and vindictive.”
“True and true,” Stark said.
Thor smiled. “She said she wielded her money and prestige much as I use Mjölnir—as a powerful extension of her will. But, when she and Pym were transformed, it changed more than her stature. She said it opened her eyes to an unhappy legacy of destruction, including her dealings with you, Stark.”
“Touching. Really.” Tony eyed him. “Janet may have dazzled you—she is a gorgeous woman—but don’t mistake beauty for integrity. Of all of us, she’s the most dangerous.”
“So, Thor and Amy’s intel gives us what?” Steve asked.
“It makes Hank and Janet more sympathetic,” Bruce said reluctantly.
“Which does what?” Steve pressed. “Moves us closer to a meeting with them?”
Stark stopped pacing and stared at the floor.
“So, was Fury pushing us together or not?” Frustration iced Banner’s voice.
Steve looked from Banner to Thor to Stark—his team. He felt Tasha standing at his back and heard Barton’s arrows whistling past his head. He felt Amy’s hands smoothing his jacket and saw Fury’s single, determined eye.
“Forget about Fury,” he said, his thoughts leaping. “What do we want? Could we use their expertise? Would it be worth it?”
Tony looked up. “No.”
He headed for the door. “Nice catching up with you guys. Let’s do it again soon.”
“Stark…” Thor started.
“I have to be in Houston. We’re initializing the Potts Tower tonight.”
He paused next to Steve, willing himself to be still. “Fury played you, Cap,” Stark told him. “He knew you’d feel duty-bound to come to us. He knew it would stir us up. I don’t know what his end-game is yet, but we’ll figure it out.”
He looked at Banner, then Thor. They all nodded, united.
Steve turned his bike down Flatbush Avenue, and felt the world shuffle like a deck of cards. His Flatbush, and the twenty-first century’s Flatbush, and all the changes in between fluttered over each other in a blur. Since coming back to New York, he couldn’t get away from this weird vertigo. The sound of jackhammers in the street, the smell of fresh bagels wafting out of a bakery, even a Jersey accent started the deck shuffling. It was making him punch drunk.
He drove by Prospect Park to try to clear his head. Trees and walking paths divided the playgrounds that edged the west side. Playgrounds made him feel a little easier. The equipment might be fancier—all space-age plastic and neon colors—but kids yelled and squealed in a universal language time couldn’t touch.
He hated feeling so off his game. He fumbled the meeting with Stark and Banner—at least he thought he did. He and Thor failed to make a dent in the scientists’ grudges against Pym and Van Dyne, and yet when Steve left it didn’t feel like a failure. It didn’t make any sense. Nothing much did. Except for Amy.
When he pulled up outside the brownstone, she sat on the front steps, waiting for him.
“So?” Amy crossed the sidewalk to him. “You didn’t call. What happened?”
She’d changed out of her gray suit into her usual ratty jeans and stained sweatshirt. For a librarian, she was sort of a slob. And Steve had never seen anything so beautiful. He hit the kickstand and took his time dismounting. Confusion burned in his gut. A tight coil inside him suddenly sprang.
“You know what? To hell with Nick Fury! And Pym! And Van Dyne!”
Amy’s eyes got big.
“I don’t care if Fury wants them on the team. The team doesn’t want them. And it’s the team I have to watch out for, right? Damn right!” He stomped around her in a circle, too steamed to censor what came out of his mouth. “Nobody decides for the team except the team!”
Steve shot a glance at Amy as he stormed. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and followed him with her wide eyes.
“Don’t look so damned surprised,” he snapped. “You told me as much in the elevator, only I was too pig-headed to listen. God, I’m an idiot! A patsy! A mook! A goody-two-shoes!” He laughed harshly. “Cripes! I still believe the good guys tell the truth! How stupid is that?”
He kept circling. “Fury wound me up like a jack-in-the-box, and I popped out right on cue. I’m a liability to the team, not an asset.”
“Okay. Maybe now you’re an idiot.” Amy grabbed hold of his arm as he paced. “Who you are, what you are, is the heart of the team.” She yanked on his arm. “And if you ever call yourself a liability again, I’ll kick your ass.”
The image of Amy’s five-foot-nothing trying to kick his ass slowed him down. Finally, he stopped. She was serious, and her fingers dug through his leather jacket with respectable strength.
“Nick Fury is a puppeteer,” Amy continued, “a Master of the Big Picture. It won’t be the last time we get played.”
He ran his hand over the back of his hot neck. “Maybe this is what he wanted?”
She shrugged. “Make yourself crazy trying to figure it out if you want to. Or treat it like a game.”
“Sure. He may have scored some points off you…”
“But I still have the ball.”
“Okay.” He felt the anger draining out of him. “Okay.”
“I could kick your ass, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“All right, then.” She started toward the house. “So, the team is good?”
He grunted. “Better than good.”
“Let’s throw that party—keep the momentum going.”
“I don’t know,” Steve muttered, following her up the steps. “Amy?”
She turned to him as they reached the door, but words deserted him. There were things that needed to be said, but all he could do was chew air. Finally, he took hold of her hand.
Amy’s kick-ass expression softened. “Let’s eat,” she said. “Everything’s easier with Mom’s meatloaf.”
She led him through the front room, squeezed tight with stacks of boxes—the last of Phil Coulson’s belongings from Primrose. A savory aroma drifted from the kitchen with some fruity sweetness underneath—a pie, maybe, or, God-help-him, Cathy Coulson’s cherry cobbler. His stomach was all too happy to forget about the Avengers for awhile—and that other business with Amy he kept circling.
When they pushed through the swinging door, Amy’s mother looked up from her cutting board.
“Hello, chick-lets,” she said brightly, but her eyes paused on Steve’s long face.
He tried to smile at her.
“Rick said he needs your help in the basement, “ she told him. “Would you mind?”
He shook his head and crossed to the basement door. He hoped Amy’s brother needed something pulverized.
Creaky wooden steps ran down the stone foundation to a cracked cement floor. A bare light bulb burned at the landing. Steve ducked under the low-hanging support beams.
Rick Coulson turned from the wall he was studying. He looked like Amy—dark hair, athletic—and struck Steve as someone comfortable in his own skin.
“You don’t know anything about foundations, do you?” Rick asked.
The wall in front of them bulged inward. Steve whistled between his teeth.
“Phil and I planned to jack up this sagging corner.” Rick gestured at the drooping structure. “Now I’m afraid there’s too much damage.”
Steve ran his hand over the buckling wall. “Maybe not.” He saw a length of steel beam on the floor next to thick slabs of wood. “Everything’s measured?”
“You’ve got the jack?”
Steve smiled back. “Let’s do it.”
By the time Amy called down for dinner, they had the beam up and leveled. Steve had muscled the wall back in place, but they both knew it wouldn’t hold.
“We’ll need to dig down from the outside to relieve the pressure,” Steve said, following Rick up the steps.
“And put up at least one more support before repairing the wall.” Rick soaped his hands and arms at the kitchen sink.
Steve joined him. “We should find out why that corner sank in the first place. Water seepage?”
“Maybe. And talk to the neighbors on both sides in case there’s more damage than we can see.”
Amy squeezed past them with the mashed potatoes and gravy. “You guys actually sound like you know what you’re doing. Grab the salad on your way out.”
“Hey,” Rick called after her. “Can you find the ground surveys for this block?”
“Of course.” She backed through the door.
“Some kind of tiling,” he muttered, trailing after her.
Steve tucked the big salad bowl under his arm and brought up the rear. Mrs. Coulson eyed them as she poured water into mismatched glasses.
“Don’t you boys think you should call a contractor?”
“I know a couple of guys,” Steve said, sitting in his usual place.
He grinned at Amy. She frowned, not catching his intent.
“Forward momentum,” he said. “Maybe we can skip that party after all.”
She plopped into the chair across from him. “Brilliant,” she laughed, shaking out her napkin. “Mom, get ready to be the next Stark Industries project!”
After dinner, they sorted. Steve slid into the routine like an old sweater. No matter what disasters unfolded during the day or how confused he felt, there was a place set for him at the supper table, followed by an evening of stories inspired by Phil Coulson’s belongings. The twenty-first century’s fast pace slowed down. The constant noise quieted. He never realized how alert and on guard he was until it started to let go of him. Like a fist unclenching, he felt lighter, easier, even after two huge helpings of cherry cobbler.
“I had this one.” Steve passed his hand over a picture of Kay Kyser in the plastic case. “Here’s Benny Goodman. And Ellington.” He shuffled a handful of CDs. “Woody Hermann. Bing Crosby…”
“They’re yours.” Amy set another box full of CDs on the floor and squatted next to him. “You should take the whole collection. Really.” She looked up at Rick. “Think how happy that would have made him.”
“And the stereo.” Rick pointed at the Krell speakers and amp. “Those speakers weigh about 250 pounds apiece, so you’re probably the only person who could take them.”
“Load my car tonight and …” Cathy let out a breathy laugh. She pulled a small picture frame out of the box she was digging through.
“Do you remember this?” she asked, handing it to Amy.
“Oh,” Amy breathed. “I can’t believe he saved it.”
She showed the frame to Steve. A scrap of rough cloth had been mounted carefully inside it. Across the cloth, cross-stitched in red thread, it said, AMY + UNƆLE FIL.
“You made that?”
“When I was four. I told Uncle Phil since he wouldn’t marry Mom, he had to marry me.”
Steve smiled. “What did he say?”
“He got quiet.” Her fingertips traced the stitched letters. “He always got quiet before he told us something important. But, I don’t remember what he said.”
Rick took the frame from her. “He said we were family, so he was already yours… ” He looked at his sister. “…and not to ever worry about him going away.”
“Big dope,” she said quietly, taking back the frame.
“He asked me, you know,” Cathy said. “To marry him. Several times.”
Amy flopped down on the floor. “Mom!”
Rick chuckled. “I’d be disappointed if he hadn’t.”
“It would have been the simplest thing in the world to marry him.” Cathy wrote on a box with Magic Marker and shoved it aside. “But he would have done it out of duty. We both deserved more than that.”
“I just can’t imagine it!” Amy laughed. “He was such a hopeless mess with women—so awkward.”
“Oh, man!” Rick laughed, remembering. “He could never just date somebody. He always fell crazy in love, and then got all spastic.”
“Wiggly—like a puppy,” Amy agreed. “Oh, it was painful to watch!”
“Remember that one Thanksgiving?” Rick groaned. “He brought… what was her name?”
“Francesca!” Amy and Cathy said in unison, pushing up the ends of their noses with their fingers.
Steve laughed and leaned back against a box.
“Sam and I thought Phil must have used his secret agent powers on her,” Rick said to Steve. “We didn’t know how else our dweeby uncle could get such a gorgeous babe.”
“He was so jumpy, he couldn’t sit through dinner,” Amy said.
“Up and down,” Cathy laughed. “In and out of the kitchen.”
“He always tried too hard.” Love filled Amy’s face. “Until Audrey. I had dinner with them after one of her concerts, did I tell you that, Mom? Uncle Phil was completely different with her. No wiggling. It was like he took up more space, owned more of it. And Audrey adored him. I’m glad he got to feel that—what it’s like when two people are right.”
“If you belong together, it should be easy.” Cathy looked at her daughter. “You shouldn’t have to prove yourself or be something you’re not. You should feel like you’ve come home.” Her eyes fell on Steve. “Easy.”
Cards shuffled faster than Steve could register them. A whole deck of memories about music flicked by—Ellington at the Hurricane Club, a blind date with Doris Lieberman that ended with an asthma attack on the dance floor, the USO shows. In between, he heard the racket playing in Stark’s lab and an older Frank Sinatra singing jazz that made his teeth hurt. Then, Cathy Coulson and his mother slid over each other, both of them giving him the squint that meant they saw into his secrets. And now he was looking at Amy, with her dark hair and eyes, and seeing Peggy. Amy’s hand on his lapel. Peggy’s mouth crushing his.
He stood up. “I gotta get some air.”
On the front stoop, he filled his lungs and tried to empty his head.
You think too much, Stevie, Bucky had told him once. Life’s pretty easy if you leave it alone.
Easy. He sat down and watched the street lights warm up with a neon buzz. They glowed into life. Easy.
The door opened behind him, then Amy sat on his step. She didn’t say anything, just sat next to him, a firm presence against his side. They watched the evening creep up on them, listened to the traffic on the avenue. The autumn chill came on fast as the sun went down.
Steve pulled in another deep breath of city air. The crazy dealer in his head finally quit shuffling cards. He knew when he was.
He had kissed only one girl in his life. Technically, Peggy had kissed him. She caught him so by surprise he didn’t have time to think. He didn’t let himself think this time either.
Steve took Amy’s face between his hands and captured her mouth. The sweet pliancy of her lips surprised him. They yielded to him and answered at the same time. Encouraged, his fingers reached into the softness of her hair. He felt her cheek against his, inhaled her clean scent. Their mouths moved together, opening, and a different kind of heat kindled inside him. A good kiss was a lot more complicated than he ever imagined.
When he finally pulled back—and he didn’t want to—his arms were around her. He held her close, her body warm against his chest. Her eyes glowed in the lamplit twilight. He could see his reflection there.
“Mom said it should be easy,” she whispered.
“Like us,” Steve whispered back. And kissed her again.
• • •
Click to read the final segment of Cap and Amy’s story, Risky Business.