Chapter 6—Risky Business
• • •
As the back hoe finished ripping up the hydrangeas along Cathy Coulson’s back door, workers jumped into the trench and shored it up. In the alley, a flatbed’s reverse warning beeped as it crept daintily over rose bushes and garbage cans. Out front, a cement truck parked in the cordoned street. The growl of the mixer rolled over the tops of the row-house roofs. An engineer from Stark Industries, Brooklyn’s Housing Commissioner and a specialist from Water and Soil huddled around a make-shift table of plywood and sawhorses. Tony Stark stood with them, shuffling through blue prints and surveys, a dictator among his minions.
Out of the way, Steve, Thor and Bruce watched the organized chaos.
“Ever feel completely useless?” Banner mused.
“Everyday,” Steve told him.
On the other side of the yard, Amy squeezed through the hedge from the neighbor’s yard. She jumped as the jackhammers started up, and tugged on Stark’s jacket sleeve. He leaned in to hear her, checked his watch, yelled something back.
She’s wearing her Worried-With-A-Plan face, Steve thought as she scanned the yard. But when she spotted the three malingering Avengers the pinch in her forehead evened out. She covered her eyes, then her ears, then her mouth.
“I think your girlfriend’s calling us monkeys,” Banner yelled, grinning.
Steve’s face burned. Girlfriend.
“Monkeys,” Thor repeated. “Is this another reference to the Oz Sorcerer?”
“I’ll explain later,” Banner offered.
Steve stepped forward as Amy wove through the hardhats. “What’s wrong?” he yelled, reaching for her. He seemed to be doing that a lot now—reaching for her.
“The neighbors are freaking out.”
The jackhammers stopped, and they blinked at each other in the deafening silence. Then, the hydraulic lifts under the house whined into life.
“I thought Rick cleared it with the neighbors,” Steve shouted.
“He did. They changed their minds.”
“Too late,” Banner noted.
She looked at Bruce and Thor. “Can you guys do some quick PR?”
“Pee-Are.” Thor scowled.
“Public Relations,” Steve told him. “Smile. Shake hands. Act noble.”
“Ah!” The Asgardian grinned. “Appeasement!”
“You guys go ahead,” Banner yelled. “My photo ops don’t appease anybody.”
“But…” Amy’s voice gave out from shouting. She swallowed and tried again. “You’re the one they want to meet.”
“Ahhh, shit.” Banner braced his hands on his hips. “Kids?”
“Lots of kids.”
“I’m lousy with kids.”
“We’ll go with you.” Steve slapped his back. “I’ll handle the kids. Thor can charm the ladies.”
The demi-god laughed and struck a kingly pose in his cut-off tee shirt and work pants. “Jane Foster has schooled me on charm! I am keen to practice these new skills. Lead on, Amy Coulson!”
Pinching her lips together, she pointed at the hedge.
Thor gripped Banner’s shoulder and propelled him forward. “Once again into battle, my friend.”
“Geez, man,” Bruce groused. “Do you ever have a bad day?”
That’s when Amy looked up at Steve and his stomach flopped like a hooked fish. She just looked at him—with those big brown eyes and that mouth. Oh, that mouth. He still held her arm—couldn’t quite let it go. And there she was—her big eyes looking, her sweet mouth getting sweeter.
He swooped in like a B-52 and right on target. He would never get used to this—kissing her, touching her, feeling his head lift off his neck and the fire down below. He marveled that any guy could get used to it.
Amy slid her hands between them and gently pushed him back. A pretty flush colored her cheeks. I did that, Steve thought happily. They grinned at each other, self-conscious and a little shy about this new development.
“Go on.” She nudged him toward the yard. “Save my day.”
He couldn’t stop grinning. Even when Stark waggled his eyebrows at him. Even when he saw Cathy Coulson at the hedge. He did duck his head when she squinted at him, but he couldn’t make himself feel guilty or worried. He finally got the music he’d listened to all his life. He was walking on air. He was under a spell. Steve burst through the hedge ready to break into song, but he just grinned instead.
Amy hummed a quiet tune as she watched Steve disappear into the Rosettis’ yard. Her mother turned from the hedge and gave her a look. Amy blinked, incredulous.
Really? The Stink Eye? About Steve?
She raised her own eyebrow in defiance and marched past the flatbed, indignation burning off the sweet buzz from Steve’s kiss.
Which one of us isn’t good enough, she fumed, him or me?
She stomped up the alley, glancing into the neighbor’s yard as she passed. Bruce looked miserable surrounded by the extended Rosetti family—brothers, uncles, cousins. But, Thor held the females of the family rapt, gesturing with grand sweeps of his mammoth arms, his blond hair gleaming—every bit a Norse god, even in a ratty Mets tee shirt. And there was Steve, bent over with his hands on his knees, speaking to the youngest Rosettis with an earnestness that pulled at something deep in Amy. One pre-school boy stretched out his hand. Steve took it solemnly between his thumb and fingers—a handshake between heroes.
I’ve been training to be with him ever since Uncle Phil pulled me out of Mom’s arms, she realized. And he waited seventy years for me. If two people were ever meant to be together, it’s us.
Still, her mother’s unexpected reaction nagged at her. Continuing up the alley, she let the hard slap of her Timberland boots on the broken blacktop shake her priorities back into order. Never mind her mother’s opinion of her love life, or the mess that used to be her house. And never mind that weird feeling of destiny in her gut. Forward Momentum topped the priority list—using the house project to pull the team together. That’s what Steve wanted, and Amy planned to get it for him. But, appeasement of the neighbors and Tony’s sway over city officials wasn’t doing the job.
She came out of the alley in time to see a black SUV dodge around the orange cones blocking the street. Tinted windows. Microwave antenna. The car pulled up in front of her.
Amy summoned her game face as Nick Fury got out of the driver’s side. Maybe…
“What brings you to Brooklyn, Director?” she asked.
“I heard about the house.” He nodded at the brownstone. “And the unique construction crew. Thought I’d lend a hand, if I could.”
Black work pants. Black tee shirt. Black denim jacket. The casual Nick Fury.
Amy couldn’t keep the whole smile off her face. “That’s very kind, Director. But don’t you have a government to overthrow?”
Fury’s mouth curled. “Not today.”
Her mind worked quickly as she led him into the alley. “I expected to hear from you sooner, sir. I’m not exactly sure what my duties are.”
“You’re doing just fine, Agent.”
She caught Bruce Banner’s attention as they passed the Rosettis’ garage. The scientist’s pained expression flattened. By the time she threaded Fury through piles of gravel and PVC pipe, the boys had closed ranks with Stark.
Fury scanned the commotion in the yard. He had to see them, huddled together like a street gang ready to defend their territory, but he focused on Amy’s mother, still at her post by the hedge, still squinting in faint disapproval. Fury excused himself and headed toward her. At the same time, Steve broke away from the group and moved to intercept. Amy watched with growing anticipation, like waiting for the opening pitch of the World Series.
Natasha Romanov pulled a pair of work gloves out of the tightest coveralls Amy had ever seen. Leave it to Tasha to make Fleet and Farm sexy.
“What’s with the circus?” she added.
“Tony’s got the whole city working on this one little row house.”
“They don’t have enough to do Uptown?” Tasha’s eyebrow arched. “And the Boss is here? Really?” She planted her hands on her hips. “What the hell, Amy?”
“I know. I think it’s like dogs pissing on trees.”
“All that business about Pym and Van Dyne?” Tasha peered at her agitated team. “I hope Dr. Banner can keep a lid on or more than your mom’s house will get remodeled. I’d better get in there.”
“Where’s Clint?” Amy called after her.
Amy jumped. As always, Barton appeared out of thin air, silent as one of his arrows. His mouth curled at Amy’s startled yelp.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
“Well, go on,” she snapped, aware of her very un-Agent-like reaction. “It wouldn’t be a pissing contest without you.”
Barton’s steady gaze remained unchanged. “Sorry,” he said again.
Amy cringed inside, feeling petty and stupid. She had to quit thinking she was inferior to everyone else who wore a SHIELD badge. She might never be a field agent, but she wasn’t completely useless. She watched Tasha step up beside Fury and command her own place in the discussion, something she needed to learn to do.
“When did you guys get back?” she asked, back-peddling to someplace more civil.
She could tell Barton was still watching her. It made her squint.
“Look,” he said, “Tasha can piss enough for both of us. Let’s find some coffee.”
Amy glanced from the team to him and back. “I really need to stay.”
“Way I see it…” He nodded at the animated knot of spies and superheroes. “… you really don’t. From what I hear, you’ve done your job. We can take it from here.”
She heard Stark and Banner out-shouting each other. Fury stood between them, deflecting the assault with a smug smile. Thor glowered. Steve fretted. Tasha wove between them all, picking up threads. Meanwhile the construction crew nonchalantly destroyed the foundation under her mother’s house, and Cathy Coulson watched everything from the hedge.
A tight little smile jumped across Barton’s mouth. She remembered that flicker from the Primrose Facility.
“Agent Barton,” she said quietly, “are you handling me?”
“A little.” He jutted his chin at Steve. “The A-team is occupied.”
Of course he knew. By now, everyone knew. That queasy feeling of Destiny rolled over her again, but she kept her expression Agent-blank.
“C’mon. You said you’d let me buy you a drink. Coffee works.” Barton turned toward the alley. “So, what’s this about a party? I have to wear a tuxedo?”
“Yeah, sorry.” Amy fell into step beside him and smiled. “Just doing my job.”
The Stark Tower ballroom glittered like New Year’s Eve at the Stork Club. Waiters in black tails and cigarette girls in short tulle-puffed skirts scurried between white linen tables. A jazz orchestra warmed up on the stage, filling the hall with trumpet toodles and trombone blats. Caterers fussed over the huge buffet spread, spritzing the eagle ice sculpture and fluffing flower bouquets. Opposite the buffet, a phalanx of bartenders readied the bar like troops preparing for a siege.
“I thought you girls might need help.” He shrugged at the party planner generals snapping orders.
“Once Amy and I told the company what we wanted, there was nothing for us to do. I’m just hanging around in case they have questions. What you have to do is put on that tux and get ready to greet your guests.”
Steve made a face. “I’d rather haul booze.”
Pepper’s smile widened. “Amy explained why you’re hosting this party. I think it’s the most heroic thing you’ve done yet.”
He chuckled self-consciously. “It just feels too much like my trained monkey days. The Star Spangled Man with a Plan, and all that hooey. I hated it.”
“I know you did.” Pepper’s smile softened. “Amy knows it, too. She’ll be right beside you, doing most of the heavy lifting this time.”
“Yeah.” Steve tried to tone down the dopey grin that wanted to split his face.
“Go.” Pepper pushed him toward the door.
A young woman hesitated out in the hallway. She tugged the strap of her midnight blue gown, took a step, stopped.
“Are you lost, Dr. Foster?” Steve asked.
“Oh, hi,” she giggled, self-conscious. “The labs aren’t on this floor, are they?”
Steve shook his head and punched the elevator call. “Five through seven.”
“And the rooms we’re staying in…”
He held the doors open for her. “One floor above this on twenty-seven.”
“Okay.” She passed a pale hand over her dark hair. “I’ll forget that immediately.”
Steve smiled and waited.
“I’m supposed to remind Erik to get dressed. You don’t know where…”
Steve pushed a button. “Last I heard, he and Bruce were in radiology. Let’s try there first.”
“Thanks.” She fiddled with her hair.
“You look great, Dr. Foster.”
“Yeah?” She smoothed the silky fabric. “Miss Potts got this for me. I’m more of a tee shirt and hiking boots person.”
“You remind me of pictures I saw once of Olivia de Havilland.”
He shook his head. “It’s a compliment. Believe me.”
“Okay.” She giggled again. “Thanks, I guess.”
The doors opened onto a hospital-bright hall. Steve ushered her out.
“Where’s Thor? It’s not like him to let you wander around lost.”
“Agent Romanov needed him for something.” She stumbled a little over the long skirt. Steve caught her elbow. “She’s beautiful… Agent Romanov.”
Her eyes darted to his face and away. Steve thought he saw worry there.
“Oh!” He blurted with sudden understanding. “No! I mean, yeah, Tasha’s a looker, but none of us on the team look. I mean, of course, we look… but Thor would never… I mean, he’s with you… and… and that’s it for him…”
Foster giggled again. “Okay.”
Steve could see why Thor had walked around in a daze since she and Selvig arrived. In the lab, she was as brainy and focused as the other docs, but put her in high heels and she was helpless. The combination was deadlier than anything Tasha could manage. All that and she was still insecure. Steve couldn’t figure it, but then dating a god might mess with a girl’s head.
Or dating Captain America.
He opened another door to find Banner and Selvig huddled at a computer like camping buddies around a fire. When Foster and Selvig first got there, the reception had been much cooler. The four doctors circled and verbally jabbed at each other like junkyard dogs fighting over a Tesseract bone. The jury was still out on Stark, but Banner seemed satisfied to share.
“Erik!” Foster called. “Come on!”
The older scientist glanced up. “Ah, Jane. Take a look…”
“I know what that means. We’ll be here awhile.” She smiled up at Steve. “I’ll get them to the party eventually.” Her expression shifted as she really took him in. “You’re not dressed either. You’d better get going!”
Steve backed out the door. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” he muttered.
Amy put the finishing touches to her make-up and stood back from the mirror. She couldn’t wait for Steve to see her dress—a knock-off of Rita Hayworth’s gown from Gilda. The black satin sheath cut straight across the bodice, leaving her shoulders bare. Matched with long, over-the-elbow black gloves and her full, wavy hair-do, Amy thought she pulled off 1944 pretty well. That was the party theme she and Pepper had decided on—1944. The year Steve disappeared. The last year he’d had a birthday. She puckered her blood-red lips and shimmied a little, then spritzed Chanel No. 5 into the air.
“The scent of a woman,” she quoted from her research, and walked through the mist.
“Hey!” A fist pounded on her door. “I can’t get this tie.”
Amy struck a Photoplay pose. “Come on in.”
“This monkey suit’s worse than any uniform I’ve ever…” Steve grumbled as he came through the door. Then, he looked up. The reaction was very satisfying.
She turned slowly, giving him the full effect—long slit in the skirt, stiletto heels, and a satin-hugged booty. Or as they said back in his day—derrière. She sidled up to him and plucked the bow tie out of his fingers. His ears had turned maroon.
“I think it goes like this.” She tucked the tie under his collar and worked the knot.
He finally closed his mouth. “Amy?”
“Hmm.” She fluffed the bow and folded the pointy collar down.
His hands found their way to her waist. “You know how I feel about you, right?”
His tone made her pause. She met his impossibly-blue eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She could see him back-peddling. “I just don’t want you to wonder.”
She tilted her head, studying him. “You’d have to work on your poker face for me to wonder. What’s this all about?”
“Nothing. Forget it. I guess I’m just nervous about the party.” He took a step back. “What is it you want me to do again? Stand at the entrance and shake hands?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” she said in a smokey voice. “Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
He laughed, just as Amy had hoped, loosening the tightness that had clenched his jaw. Whatever was on his mind, she thought, it could wait.
Practice and determination kept Tasha’s martini from slopping on a number of dignitaries as she snaked through the party. Politicos, military brass, anonymous and covert types like herself—they were all lit up and sparkling in the guise of honoring Cap. She knew better.
“What’s the latest count?” she asked.
Maria Hill nodded toward the entrance. “T’Challa just got here.”
Pepper frowned. “The king of Wakanda?”
“The Black Panther,” Tasha corrected as she sipped. “Who else?”
“The Maximoffs,” Hill eyed the buffet line.
Tasha spotted Pietro Maximoff’s white buzz-cut bobbing in animated discussion with Director Fury. His sister, Wanda, scowled next to them.
“Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch,” she muttered. “Any more?”
“Hey,” Jane Foster squeezed through the crowd to them. She sipped her own martini. “What’s going on?”
Tasha liked Dr. Foster the moment they met. Around her, Thor transformed into an entirely different demi-god—thoughtful, attentive, almost humble. Tasha admired that kind of raw power. It made her wonder what other talents Jane had besides her giant brain.
“We’re counting up all the mutants and operatives in the room,” she told her.
The doctor’s dark eyes widened.
“Uh oh,” Pepper whispered. “They’re here.
Tasha turned with the rest of them to see Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne at the entrance with Cap and Amy.
“Finally,” Tasha said. “Now this party can get started.”
Someone grabbed Amy’s arm—hard. She turned to find the Director’s cold eye on her.
“You invited Councilman Wei?”
“Excuse me a moment, won’t you,” she said to Janet Van Dyne.
The petite woman’s eyes darted from Fury to Amy to Steve to Dr. Pym. “Certainly.”
She exchanged a “here it comes” look with Steve, then led Fury to a private spot by the kitchen door.
“They’re all here,” she told him. “The whole World Security Council.”
Fury sucked back his anger and peered around the ballroom. “Are you out of your mind?” he hissed.
“Think of it as an opportunity, sir,” Amy said. “You have a lot of fences to mend with the Council—you said so yourself. This is your chance.”
He glared at her. “It’s too late for that.”
She squinted at him. “Not if you want this Initiative to succeed. It’s time to pull out your rusty people skills and play nice.” She snagged a drink off a waiter’s passing tray and shoved it into his hand. “It’s a party. Go mingle—meaningfully”
“You can be charming if you have to. And if you need help, grab Thor—he’s got it down.”
As she walked back to the front entrance, she saw Thor’s blond head above the others, moving with purpose toward the Director. He steered Fury toward a small circle of partiers. Councilwoman Wallace smiled shyly as the Asgardian bowed to her and made room for both of them in her circle. Amy smiled in appreciation, then saw Tony Stark bearing down on her.
Two down, she thought, one to go.
“No way,” Maria said flatly.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pepper countered. “Have you seen him light up when he hears her name?”
“Uh uh,” Maria shook her head. “He’s a Boy Scout—from 1944. No way.”
Jane’s eyes got even bigger. “Please say you don’t talk about me like this.”
Tasha considered her. “Hmm. Omnipotence versus chivalry.” She looked at the other women. “My money’s on omnipotence.”
“Are we taking bets now?” Maria asked.
“Come on,” Jane pleaded. “You guys!”
“Wait,” Maria ordered. “What’s this?”
Amy pushed through the crowd towards them.
Tasha stood on tiptoe to see the entrance. “Are you nuts, Coulson? You left Cap alone to deal with Stark and Pym!”
“Tactics, girls,” she said, relieving Tasha of her martini and chugging it. “Keep watching. I’ve got a birthday present to deliver.”
The band was finishing up an Andrew Sisters medley by the time Amy made her way to the stage. The bandleader, an older gent with flowing white hair and a terminal suntan, spotted her as she came around to the side. He winked at her and stood up from the grand piano.
She licked her lips as the trio filed by. The alto nudged her.
“Knock ‘em dead, sis,” she said.
Uncle Phil had called her Sis. Amy closed her eyes and saw him perfectly, bent over her shoulder as they worked on the broken step by the back door.
“You can do it, Sis,” he said, loosening her grip on the hammer. “Pound that nail straight in.”
Okay, Uncle Phil. Straight in.
As the band started a long intro, she swirled onto the stage, working every inch of her black gown.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said into the old-fashioned microphone.
The party noise started to quiet.
“As you know, tonight we’re saying happy birthday to a man who’s a little behind in blowing out his candles.”
Polite laughter rippled through the room.
“You’ve all given him your good wishes—now it’s my turn. Tony? Hank? Could you help Steve to the front?”
So risky. She had to time it just right. But, there they came—Pym in his Bogey-like white dinner jacket and Stark impersonating Ronald Coleman, both grinning at Steve’s bewilderment and powering him through the party to the lip of the stage. Stark looked up at her, his dark eyes challenging. Then, he dipped his head a little—one genius acknowledging another.
“What are you doing?” Steve stage-whispered. “You hate speaking in public.”
The guests around him laughed.
“Gershwin,” Amy told him, and started to sing.
There’s a saying old, says that love is blind
Still we’re often told, “seek and ye shall find”
So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind.
Jane Foster’s mouth sagged open. As did Maria Hill’s. And Pepper Pott’s. Tasha just muttered in Russian. “All bets are off,” she told them.
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that he
turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me
“Look.” Maria nudged the others.
The whole party watched transfixed. Amy’s strong voice drew them in, but it was Steve’s unabashed adoration that held them.
“It’s like a car accident,” Tasha muttered. “They can’t turn away.”
“No, it’s sweet,” Jane whispered, “like an old movie.”
“And it’s working,” Pepper smiled.
They watched Tony and Pym exchange a look behind Cap’s back. Not far away, Bruce and Janet Van Dyne watched side-by-side.
Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead
oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me
Someone to watch over me.
Amy held the last note as the band swirled to a close. She felt nervous sweat trickling down her back, but she knew she nailed it.
Pounded that sucker, Uncle Phil.
Then, Steve leaped onto the stage, laughing. His face was flushed and full of delight.
I did that, she thought happily as he kissed her.
The crowd roared.
“She’ll never trust you the way Phil did,” Cathy said.
“No,” Nick answered. “But, she trusts him, and that’s more important. And he trusts her, which is even better.”
“You let Frank get through security at the cemetery, didn’t you?”
“They all needed to see your family in action. To see what Phil had done. And to see Amy.” Fury watched Steve throw back his head and laugh at something Amy said. “Especially the Captain.”
“You don’t care who you use, as long as it advances your Long Game.”
“Oh, I care.” Fury looked at her. “I’ve always cared. How’s your chess game, by the way?”
“Don’t change the subject.” Cathy sipped her drink.
“They’re the core of this team,” he told her. “The stable center. Look.”
They watched Amy weave through the crowd, pulling Agent Romanov out to join Pietro Maximoff and Dr. Selvig. Steve coaxed T’Challa from the buffet table to meet Dr. Banner, who then brought him into a discussion with Councilman Wei and Maria Hill. Thor and Wanda Maximoff gravitated to Steve from different parts of the room. Hank Pym button-holed Amy, but was interrupted by Jane Foster and Agent Barton.
“You must be pretty proud of yourself,” Cathy said, swirling the ice in her glass. “But, they’re awfully young. What if it doesn’t last?”
Fury’s voice rose. “Captain America and your daughter? Hell will freeze over first.”
“Not like a scared housewife and a terrified government operative.”
“No,” Fury said quietly. “Not like them.”
“I’ll help all I can.”
“I know you will.” His hand found hers. “Cathy…”
“My chess game is fine, by the way. It’s just harder to play solo.” Cathy slipped her hand from his. “Be careful, Nick.”
He watched her glide back into the party, dark wisps of hair trailing down her slender neck, a deliberate sway in her hips. He still felt the shape of her hand in his.
Fury forced himself to look around the room. Banner and Pym were together at the bar. Janet Van Dyne and Stark stood side-by-side, leaning against the wall like awkward teenagers. That was fine. Fury wasn’t concerned about whether Pym and Van Dyne joined the team right now or not. What concerned him was the team’s process in making that decision. Because there were others. And sooner or later, the Initiative would need them all.
The band launched into an Ellington jump, and couples paired up to dance. Laughing and graceless, Steve and Amy floundered among the others. Neither could dance a step, but Nick knew they would learn.
• • • End • • •