- Alternate Universe
- Science Fiction
“How are things at SHIELD?” Steve asked Maria.
They were staying in, ostensibly to watch a movie and further Steve’s education on the 20th century, but it was like he was reading her mind, because as soon as she’d walked in, he’d sensed her mood and shelved those plans. So, instead of a movie, JARVIS had put on some music and Steve had made coffee.
“Things are… unsettled,” she said, sighing. “Fury being MIA isn’t helping things, but there’s something else going on. It’s like the whole place is on tenterhooks, waiting for… something.”
“Like what?” Steve asked.
“I have no idea,” Maria said. “Phil’s in the dark, too. And of all of us, he’s always been the closest to Fury.”
“I get the feeling his relationship with Fury was damaged by his kidnapping,” Steve said. “He might not have been responsible, but it was still his duty to guard the dead. He failed, and now Coulson has been altered without his permission.”
“Fury isn’t responsible for his sister’s bad acts,” Maria said. “But the fact that he didn’t even know it had happened until after the fact has made us all question just what Fury’s been up to. I mean, we’re all human in this form, but we still retain our connection to Olympus. We can’t not be who and what we are, but it almost seems like Fury’s forgotten who he really is.”
“Like he’s embraced being human, you mean,” Steve said. “I can see that. He recused himself from engaging Pierce, and I don’t think it’s all because Ares is his sister’s son.”
“He’s caught between two worlds,” Maria said quietly. “And his loyalties are tearing him apart.”
“And you?” Steve asked. “Where do your loyalties lie?”
Maria looked at him. “With the others. With Olympus. With you. This human form is transitory. There will come a day when I will leave this world and return to my only home.”
“And where does that leave us?” Steve asked.
She could see the hesitation in him. They’d become close over the last eight months, since his return from Olympus. He still floundered from time to time, even after a year in the 20th century, though not as much as he had in the beginning. But he was highly adaptable, willing to roll with the punches no matter what came at him. It was, perhaps, the thing she admired most about him. Still, she knew that the hardest thing he’d ever face in this life was having to let people go. Because he would outlive everyone he knew, and it would be like going into the ice again, coming out the other side in a world with holes in the shape of those he knew and loved.
Still, she could reassure him, in this at least.
“You are of Olympus, Steve,” she said. “From what Clint said, she embraced you when you visited last year. If you wish it, when your life is over on this world, you could join me in Olympus. She would allow it, if I asked.”
“I’m not sure I want to spend eternity with those people,” Steve said, chuckling. “But spending eternity with you has its appeal. Are you sure?”
“It’s a rare thing for me to say that I desire someone’s company,” she said. She’d walked alone for millennia, so she’d even surprised herself when she’d realized that having Steve by her side was something she wanted. “My people—the Athenians—always believed me a virgin because I walked alone. It’s truer to say that I chose to walk alone because there was never anyone—man or woman—who could be my equal.”
“I might be a demi-god, but I’m not your equal,” Steve said. “Though I’m sure I’m closer to that while you wear the Cloak.”
“You’re my equal in the ways that matter,” Maria said. She reached out and took his hand. “You’re brave and loyal, wise and compassionate, gentle and kind.” She paused, tilting her head. “Did you know that I’m considered the patron of heroes?”
“I seem to remember that from my classical literature course in school,” Steve said. “The story goes that you aided Perseus in his quest to kill the Medusa.”
“Hermes and I, but yes,” Maria said. “I gifted him with a shield, and Hermes gave him the knife he used to cut her head off.”
“A shield, huh?” Steve said, somewhat bemused. “Did you help Howard create my shield, too?”
Maria raised an eyebrow. “And if I did?”
“I hate to interrupt what looks like an interesting conversation, but I’m about to start a more interesting conversation in the command center, if you’d be interested in joining.”
“Stark,” Maria said, groaning. “Don’t you know how to knock?”
Tony grinned. “It’s my house. Besides, I’m not sure our virginal hero there could take much more teasing from you.”
“His head would probably explode if he heard about some of the things I got up to on the USO tour,” Steve said to Maria.
“Sounds like fun,” she said. “Promise I can watch and I’ll bring the popcorn.”
“You two only think you’re funny,” Tony said. “Ten minutes.”
The screen went blank. Steve sighed. “We should probably go see what he’s got. If we don’t, he’s likely to bring the whole thing down here and camp out in my living room.”
“Right,” Maria said.
She started to get up, but Steve held on to her hand. He pulled her to him and pressed a sweet kiss to her lips.
“If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you some of the stories later,” he whispered into her lips.
“It’s a date,” she said as she pulled back.
“Alright, Stark, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Agent Coulson settled in the middle of the command center, hands in his pockets, looking every inch the non-threatening human he no longer was. Natasha stood to one side, leaning against one of the secondary consoles, Clint Barton at her elbow, sitting on the console despite the frown Tony had thrown his way, legs swinging like he didn’t have a care in the world. Still, Steve hadn’t missed how both of them placed themselves close enough to guard Coulson from threats, but still giving him space. Banner stood to one side, separate from the rest but still part of the group. Pepper had settled on a stool just behind Coulson, one high heel dangling from her foot as she waited for the briefing to start.
Steve had taken up a spot near the back of the room, the better to observe the rest as Tony talked about what he’d found. Maria, by some unspoken agreement, had simply stepped into the room and stopped at his side. He couldn’t have stopped the burst of pride in his chest if he’d wanted to, for the simple fact that he felt less alone.
“So, you want the good news, the bad news or the worse news first?”
“How about let’s start with the good news and go from there?” Coulson said.
“You’re an optimist,” Tony said, pointing at the other man. “I like it, even though I don’t understand it. Me, I assume the worst. I’m rarely disappointed that way.”
“Tony,” Pepper muttered.
“Right, the good news,” Tony said, clapping his hands. He laced his fingers together and pushed them out, stretching and cracking the digits. He wiggled his fingers, then typed a few commands into the central console. “So, the good news, such as it is, is that I now have full access to the SHIELD database, thanks to an anonymous source.”
“Can this source of yours be trusted?” Coulson asked.
Tony glanced over his shoulder at Maria, who barely nodded. Tony shrugged. “Insofar as I believe this source doesn’t want to kill or maim us, yes, I trust them.”
“Alright,” Coulson said. “What have you found?”
“This is where we get into the bad news portion of today’s presentation,” Tony said. “JARVIS, if you would, please?”
“Certainly, sir,” JARVIS said. Every screen in the room sprang to life, all showing presentations and lists and reports; the entire history of SHIELD, digitized and cataloged. Steve was honestly shocked at the sheer amount of data Tony had harvested.
“What are we looking at, Stark?” Clint asked.
“Every bad idea SHIELD has ever had,” Tony said, sweeping his hand to encompass the data on the screens. “Some of this was officially sanctioned; some of it appears to have been funded through black holes in the budget.”
Banner wandered over to a set of screens, arms crossed as he looked over the documents JARVIS had pulled up. “They’re doing human experimentation. At least three different programs by the looks of it, including more work on the Super Soldier serum.”
“To be honest, that’s not even the worst of it,” Tony said. “I’ve got evidence of SHIELD seizing technology and instead of destroying it—as mandated by SHIELD regulations—instead taking it to one of their off-the-books bases for further development.”
“Off-the-books bases?” Coulson asked. “How many are we talking about here?”
“JARVIS?” The screens cleared and more documents appeared. “There are twenty-three bases on this list. None of them are in the main SHIELD database.”
Clint whistled. “How the fuck does something like this happen?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say someone in accounting is getting creative with the books,” Tony said. “Fortunately, I don’t have to guess, because I know. JARVIS, one more time.”
The screens cleared again, and a list began forming on the main screen in the room. Name after name was added to the list, with a photograph—a badge photo—appearing with each name.
“Who are these people?” Steve asked.
“SHIELD employees,” Maria said, speaking for the first time. “Corwin. Harter. Garrett. They’re all agents. Some of them have been with SHIELD longer than I have.”
“Sitwell?” Natasha asked. “Jasper Sitwell? Stark, what is this list?”
“This,” Tony said, “is a Fifth Column within SHIELD.”
“A what?” several of them said at once.
“The Spanish Civil War,” Steve said, moving closer to the screens. “Spanish General Emilio Mola is reported to have said that there was a ‘Fifth Column’ of people in Madrid that would help the Army defeat the occupying force.”
“So, what you’re saying is that this list represents a… what? A secret club within SHIELD?” Clint asked. “For what purpose?”
“How many of these people were hired by Pierce?” Pepper asked.
Coulson turned and looked at her. “What are you thinking?”
“That loyalty is a powerful force,” she said. “And that as Director of SHIELD, he’d have been in a position to hire people that would be willing to follow him anywhere.”
“Yeah, but Pierce hasn’t been Director of SHIELD for at least ten years,” Clint said. “It’s been Fury since before I joined.”
“And how many of the people Fury recruited were suggested by Pierce?” Banner asked.
“Garret’s a tool,” Clint said. “I can see him being part of some Assholes-R-Us club. But Sitwell? He’s a good guy. Hell, I was at his wedding. Coulson was the Best Man, for fuck’s sake. No way he’s part of any fifth column inside SHIELD.”
“How did you come up with this list, Stark?” Maria asked.
“I looked at the list of secret bases and pulled the names of everyone who’d ever visited or been assigned,” JARVIS said. “I then cross-referenced that with the access and assignments lists for all the other SHIELD bases. The only agents who ever visited the secret bases are the ones on this list.”
“Is that uncommon?” Steve asked. He’d visited several Army bases in Europe during the war, but his service had been unusual in more than one way, so he knew that wasn’t any kind of litmus test.
“In SHIELD? Very,” Maria said. “Advancement depends on gaining a wide variety of experience. The best way to get that experience is to rotate among the different departments and bases.”
“Unlike most other Federal agencies, we encourage our agents to keep moving,” Coulson said.
“You don’t make Level 6 unless you’ve made the rounds,” Clint said. “That’s when you start on the command track—if that’s your goal—so they want you to know as much as possible about all areas of SHIELD operations.”
Natasha snorted. “Yeah, right. Like anyone’s going to put you in charge of anything.”
“Hey!” Clint said, kicking out at Natasha, who casually dodged his foot.
“So, what are we saying here?” Steve said, trying to get the conversation back on track. “Are we saying that Pierce has created his own army within SHIELD?”
“That’s what it looks like,” Tony said. “That’s the worse news, by the way.”
Everyone turned to look at Banner, who shrugged.
“The question is, what’s next?” Maria asked. “If this really is Pierce’s doing, what’s he planning, and how do we stop it?”
“That is a very good question,” Tony said. “JARVIS?”
Once again, the screens changed. This time, there were three locations projected on the screens.
“That looks like the old Lexington Savings and Loan in Arlington,” Clint said, pointing at one of the screens. “Why does SHIELD own a defunct bank?”
“SHIELD has purchased a lot of different buildings over the years,” Maria said. “Usually when we were looking at expanding our footprint. This one isn’t anywhere near any of our bases, though, which explains why you were interested.”
“That and the power consumption curve is way off,” Banner said. “For a defunct bank, it’s drawing a fuckton of power off the grid.”
“And that’s the Lemurian Star,” Coulson said. “It’s a satellite launch platform, but it’s not a black site. Why is it on your list?”
“A lot of the people on that list of suspicious people have visited that ship,” Tony said. “Enough that it makes me wonder what else is going on out there, besides launching satellites.”
“Sounds like something we’d want to check out,” Banner said. “What’s this other one?”
“That looks like Camp Lehigh, in New Jersey,” Steve said. “It’s where I trained before Rebirth.”
“Isn’t that place decommissioned?” Maria asked.
Pepper got up off her stool and stepped in front of the monitors, her eyes scanning the information JARVIS had provided. “Then why is someone paying to keep the lights on?”
“What are you proposing here, Stark?” Coulson asked.
“JARVIS’ analysis kicked these three locations out as suspicious,” Tony said. “I think maybe we should pay them a visit.”
“What are you hoping to find?” Steve asked.
Tony shrugged. “Don’t know. What I do know is that two of these locations were buried so deep it took JARVIS three days to find them, even after we got our hands on the encryption key. Seems to me that if someone went to such great lengths to hide these bases—or hide what’s going on there—maybe we should be wondering why.”
“He has a point,” Clint said.
“Yes, he does,” Coulson said. “Alright. Maria, let’s do a deep-dive on these three locations. Find out all you can, and then look at what it would take to visit each one. As quietly as possible.”
“You got it,” Maria said.
Steve took a deep breath. He didn’t like the implications of this, but it made him glad he’d let Tony talk him out of signing on with SHIELD. They’d offered him a spot after he and Clint returned from Olympus, but Tony had made the argument that there was still too much he didn’t understand about the modern world. It wouldn’t serve him or SHIELD if he just threw himself into a war zone again without trying to get his head around this new world first.
Looked like all that time he’d spent studying the 21st century was about to pay off.
The summons from Pierce had come as a huge surprise to all of them, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Tony was pretty sure Pierce was going to make one last effort to recruit Captain America.
Steve hated the idea that Pierce might not even see Steve as the Captain, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the SHIELD briefing materials on the rest of the Avengers that Fury had given him painted Iron Man and Tony Stark as two different people.
Steve knew for a fact that that was the farthest thing from the truth. Tony had changed a lot in the six years between the creation of the Iron Man armor and the battle with the Chitauri. He was still the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist he’d always claimed to be. Only now he used his money, power and influence for the good of humanity.
Still, he understood Pierce’s goal; there was no better way to assess your enemy than to sit across the table from him. Steve was actually quite curious about Pierce. He’d never met the man, so this would be his first opportunity to size him up.
Tony had insisted on Steve taking his jet—and a bodyguard—and had wanted to put him in a custom-tailored suit, but Steve had put his foot down. No one was going to believe that Steve Rogers was anything other than exactly what he was: an all-American guy. Tony had practically choked when Steve had pulled out khakis and a plaid shirt, but Steve wasn’t going to present himself to Pierce as anything other than what he was.
Interestingly enough, it had been Clint that had volunteered to join him. Of all the Avengers, he and Clint had become the closest. His friendship with Clint was unexpected, and while it couldn’t replace what he’d had with Bucky, it was still good to have someone to turn to; someone who understood the weirdness of his life.
“You ready?” Clint asked, breaking into his thoughts.
Tony had arranged a car service to pick them up and deliver them to the Triskelion. Steve hadn’t been to the complex since before the Chitauri invasion. He’d found the building too large and overly complex—pretentious in the extreme, as if SHIELD were trying to look like the best agency in the Federal pantheon, instead of actually being the best agency.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” Steve said.
Clint opened the door and got out of the car. Instead of sliding across the seat, Steve opted to open the door on his side and step out. He rolled his shoulders, settling his bomber-style jacket around him as he passed behind the car and joined Clint on the curb.
“Shall we?” Clint asked.
Steve nodded. “Let’s go.”
They headed for the building entrance, walking past Security with just a wave from Clint. Steve was honestly surprised they hadn’t even stopped him to check ID. Then again, if Pierce wanted him to feel at home in SHIELD, this was one way to do it. Remind Steve that he was well-known within the agency and already accepted as a member.
They stepped into an elevator and rocketed up to the top floor. Steve wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to how fast the elevators moved in tall buildings like this one. At least the elevators in the Tower didn’t make you feel like you’d left your stomach in the basement.
When they’d reached the top floor, the doors slid open, revealing a large suite to one side, and what looked like a command center on the other. Clint led the way to the office suite, pushing the door open, allowing Steve to enter first.
“Captain,” Pierce said, standing up behind the large glass desk that dominated the room.
“Mr. Pierce,” Steve said. Pierce reached across the desk, holding out his hand to shake. Steve took it in a firm grasp, pumping it once before letting go.
Pierce darted his eyes to Clint. “Agent Barton. I didn’t realize I’d have the pleasure of your company today.”
Clint dropped into one of the chairs in front of the desk. “You know me, I hate to miss a party.”
“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable outside?” Pierce asked.
“Nah,” Clint said, settling in. “But thanks.”
Pierce gave him one more long, hard look before refocusing on Steve. Pierce waved to a chair. “Please, have a seat. I appreciate your willingness to come see me.”
“I was surprised to get your message,” Steve said as he sat down.
“Well, Fury said you’d turned him down,” Pierce said as he retook his seat, “so I thought I’d see if I could change your mind.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, sir, but I’m happy where I am,” Steve said.
“I’m not sure how you could be, Captain,” Pierce said. “You were made specifically for the kind of work we do here. There’s no such thing as a superhero, despite what Stark would have you believe. Your skills and talents will be wasted wiling away the hours in his ivory tower.”
“Jesus,” Clint said. “You don’t pull any punches.”
“You weren’t invited to this conversation, Agent Barton, so I would ask you to please stay quiet,” Pierce said, his tone barely-concealed hostility. Pierce turned back to Steve. “As I was saying, it’s important that we show the world that we are serious about keeping the peace. Having Captain America lead the charge would go a long way to reassuring the people of just that.”
“I’m not just Captain America, Mr. Pierce,” Steve said, “and I resent the implication that the only value I have to you or anyone is tied to a costume and the shield.”
“Of course you’re not just Captain America,” Pierce said. “I apologize if that was the impression I left you with. We would, of course, use you in a variety of ways. I’m sure there’s a great deal a man like you can offer our organization.”
“Not likely,” Clint muttered. Pierce glared at him, which Steve found almost amusing.
“I’m entirely too famous to be used in any undercover or infiltration operations,” Steve said.
“Same would go for black ops,” Clint said. “No way a guy in a red, white and blue costume isn’t going to turn heads wherever he goes.”
“There are ways to conceal your identity while still maintaining your connection to the idea of Captain America,” Pierce said.
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Captain America is more than an idea. I’m a man who is loyal to my country. You can change the costume, but that won’t change who I am.”
“Captain, I think you’re missing the point,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter what the color of your uniform is. What matters is that you’re making a difference. SHIELD is the best place to make that difference.”
“I beg to differ, sir,” Steve said. He stood up, and Clint rose to join him. “The color of my uniform is symbolic, true. But that symbol means something to people. It’s freedom and justice and loyalty. What would Captain America be without America?”
“You know, that ‘America’ you’re so fond of,” Pierce said, pushing to his feet, “we paid for that uniform you love so much. And the body you put into it every time you go into battle.”
“Last time I checked, we don’t have slavery in this country anymore,” Clint said. He turned to Steve. “I checked before we left. Seemed like the thing to do.”
“I don’t blame you,” Steve said. He turned back to Pierce. “You don’t own me, and you never did. I am, whether you like it or not, free to do as I choose. And I choose to fight for the people of this country—for the people of this world—as I see fit. I’d like to say I’m sorry for that, but I can’t. I’ll never regret following my conscience, Mr. Pierce. An honest man can do no better.”
“You’ll come to regret this, Captain,” Pierce said.
“Perhaps,” Steve said, shrugging. “But if I do, I’ll have to live with that guilt. I’m willing to take that risk.”
Steve didn’t wait for Pierce’s reply, just turned and walked away, Clint right behind him. They waited quietly for the elevator to arrive. When the doors slid open, they entered the empty car and Clint pressed the button for the lobby.
When they stepped out on the main floor, they headed straight for the exit. No one stopped them, or even questioned the fact that they were leaving barely thirty minutes after they’d arrived. They waited until they were in the car and on the way back to the airport to let their guard down.
“Fuck,” Steve muttered, rubbing his hands over his face. “Did he really just do that?”
“You meant the part where he intimated that SHIELD owns your body because the SSR helped develop the serum that made you what you are today?” Clint asked. “Yeah, he kinda did.”
“Wow,” Steve said.
“Yeah, who knew he had the stones to threaten Captain America,” Clint said. He slouched down in his seat. “It’s gonna make the company Christmas party really awkward, you know?”
Steve couldn’t help himself; he laughed. “Thanks for that. I’m not sure I’d be able to see the humor if it weren’t for you.”
“Not sure there’s anything humorous about a moustache-twirling villain bent on world domination, but okay.”
“Do you think he was trying to sideline me?” Steve asked. “I mean, if he could get me on his side, that’d be one less threat he’d have to account for.”
“We’ll have to ask Banner if SHIELD tried to recruit him,” Clint said. “Because I don’t think you’re far off, and if that’s the case then Pierce is either getting desperate, or he’s getting ready to make a move.”
“So, how are you doing, really?” Sam asked over lunch the next day.
Steve reached for his glass of water, taking a long sip as he thought about the confrontation with Pierce. “I’m okay. Life’s been moving at a breakneck pace for what seems like years. It probably hasn’t been that long, but it feels like it some days.”
“I hear ya, man,” Sam said. He took a bite of the pizza and chewed thoughtfully before swallowing. “But you’re a lot closer to your enlistment than most of the guys I talk to, so I just want to make sure you’re not… struggling.”
“I’m not struggling,” Steve said with a lopsided smile. “At least, no more than usual. I was always pretty good at compartmentalizing, so it isn’t the memory of battles that I tend to struggle with.”
“It’s losing the familiar, right?” Sam asked. “That’s gotta suck.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Steve said. He leaned back in his chair, tossing his napkin on his plate. He’d taken Sam to Nonna’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, one of the few places that was exactly the same today as it had been in the 40’s. That had been a welcome surprise, but unfortunately, those types of surprises were few and far between. “New York is still loud and bright, but it’s different in ways I didn’t expect. And the people I knew are mostly gone.”
“Except for Nonna,” Sam said.
Steve chuckled. The Nonna he’d known had passed away not long after the war. Her daughter had taken over the restaurant, and now everyone called her Nonna. Steve remembered her from his younger days, but she was just like most everyone he remembered from back then: older, greyer, and with a lifetime of memories that the ice had robbed him of.
“I remember her mother,” Steve said. “The original Nonna. She was this tiny spitfire of a woman.”
“Taller than you?”
“Ha, ha,” Steve said. “Nonna did have a couple of inches on me. She was always trying to mother me, especially after my own mother died. I always appreciated that someone besides Bucky was looking out for me.”
“People like her make the big city feel like a small town,” Sam said. “I know a couple of people like that back in DC.”
“Plus, being friends with Tony Stark means there’s no time to feel sorry for myself,” Steve said. “After the battle, he threw all of us into the recovery effort. We worked at some of the shelters in the area, and helped remove some of the largest debris. And of course, Tony threw some pretty amazing fundraisers. That man could talk a turtle out of its shell.”
Sam threw back his head and laughed. “I get that vibe from the YouTube videos I’ve seen.”
“He’s a good man,” Steve said. “I knew his father. They’re a lot alike, not that I’d tell Tony that. He’s worked hard all his life to distinguish himself from Howard Stark. It hasn’t been easy for him, but I respect that he’s working at being his own man.”
“How’s he doing after the battle?” Sam asked.
“He has a project he’s working on,” Steve said, skirting the issue of exactly what that project was. “It keeps him pretty busy. And with the recovery, it’s almost like having another job. I don’t know how he does it, but he makes it look easy.”
“Not into shrinks, is he?” Sam said, a knowing glint in his eye.
“Tony doesn’t like talking about personal things,” Steve said. “I think he talks to Pepper—Ms. Potts, his girlfriend—and maybe Dr. Banner, but I know he hasn’t talked to me. I’m not sure I’d know what to say to him if he did, honestly.”
“The same thing I’d say to him, or you, or anybody,” Sam said. He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on the table, looking Steve in the eye. “That it’s okay to not be okay. That it’s okay to have good days and bad days, as long as you’re moving forward. That the best way to beat feeling isolated and alone is to get out there with people, to join the real world instead of retreating from it. Find a hobby, maybe a girl. Live.”
“Just like that, huh?” Steve asked with some bemusement.
“Oh, fuck no,” Sam said, chuckling. “Not even close. But the important part is to live your life. See a movie, go to a concert, hang out with friends. Make new memories to replace the ones that keep you up at night. Eventually, you’ll be able to let go of all the bad stuff, so you’re only left with the good. It’s a process, but frankly, so is living.”
“So I’ve learned,” Steve said. He shook his head. “I guess when I went into the ice, I expected that to be it. Waking up was a hell of a shock. It just seems like every time I turn a corner, I’m smacked in the face with what I’ve lost. I even went to see Peggy. Did I tell you that?”
“No, you didn’t,” Sam said, frowning. “How was she?”
Steve sighed. “Frankly, not good. She has something called Alzheimer’s disease. She barely remembered me. It was… heartbreaking to see her like that. She had these lucid moments where she remembered me and everything about our time in the war. Then she’d close her eyes, and when she opened them… it was like finding out I’d lived all over again.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Sam said. “They call it ‘The Long Goodbye’. Not hard to figure why, with stories like yours.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. He sighed. “You about done?”
“Please,” Sam said. “Any more and I’m not gonna fit in my clothes when I get home.”
Steve waved Nonna over, who fussed and fawned over the both of them for the few minutes it took to convince Steve that their meal was on the house.
“You saved us all, Captain,” she said with a smile, patting his arm. “Besides, Mama always loved you, so you’re never going to pay for your meals here as long as I’m around.”
“Thanks, but that’s really not necessary,” Steve said. “I—”
“What he means is, thank you,” Sam said. He tapped Steve on the arm with the back of his hand. “The pizza was fantastic, by the way. Next time I’m in New York, I’m bringing my friends.”
“Any friend of Steve Rogers is welcome here,” Nonna said. “And veterans eat for free on Tuesdays, so bring all your friends. It’d be our pleasure to serve them.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” Sam said. He turned to Steve. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Steve said. “Thanks.”
They waved at Nonna on the way out. Steve sighed as they walked down the street toward the train. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to people doing things like that. I don’t want special treatment. I did what I had to—in World War II and during the Chitauri invasion—to save people’s lives. I’m not expecting payback.”
“I know, but the thing you have to understand about people in this country is that there’s a little bit of atonement going on here,” Sam said. “After Vietnam, the soldiers coming home weren’t treated well. That all changed in the 90’s after Desert Storm. Our returning soldiers were celebrated as heroes, and some of that still goes on today. People know to blame our political leaders for policies they don’t like, not the soldiers on the ground. It took a long time to get there, but for most of us, it’s worth a lot when someone simply says ‘thank you’.”
“I’m glad things have changed,” Steve said. “I would have broken my heart if I’d seen anyone treated poorly just for doing their jobs.”
They turned down an alley—an old shortcut to the subway station nearest Nonna’s—when Steve noticed they were being followed. Sam glanced at him, raising one eyebrow. Steve’s eyes darted over his shoulder briefly, but it was enough to let Sam know there was something amiss.
The deeper into the alley they got, the more men gathered behind them. Soon enough, there were a half dozen behind them, and several more waiting near the mouth to the alley. They were all dressed in black tactical gear, though none of them had their faces covered. Steve didn’t like the implications of that.
Steve slowed down, Sam following suit. They stopped and looked around; Steve thought he recognized several of the men they were facing. He’d wondered what Pierce’s next move would be. Looked like he was about to find out.
“I’m going to apologize now for whatever happens next,” Steve said to Sam.
Before Sam could formulate a reply, two of the men in the group broke off and came at them. Steve dodged the fist aimed at his face and flipped the man over his shoulder, turning just in time to take on the next attacker. He glanced at Sam, but the man was holding his own against two attackers. Steve was impressed, but he didn’t have time to think about it because another attacker was coming at him.
Steve laid out two more attackers, one with a fist to the solar plexus and another with a kick to his midsection. Then a third man came at him with a knife drawn. Steve grabbed the lid off a nearby trash can and used it as both a shield and bludgeon, hitting the man with an uppercut under his chin. He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
By the time Steve had knocked out the last man, he was winded, scraped and bloodied. He glanced around, finding Sam still on his feet, looking bruised and battered but still alive. Around them, their attackers were either still unconscious or groaning in pain.
“You okay?” Steve asked as he wiped the blood off his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Let’s have lunch, he says,” Sam said, shaking his head. “If I’d known hanging with you was this dangerous, I’d have brought my gun.”
“Didn’t look like you needed one,” Steve said.
“PJs train for all conditions, including active resistance by the enemy,” Sam said by way of explanation. “Who are these guys?”
“SHIELD, I think,” Steve said.
“I thought they were supposed to be the good guys,” Sam said, surprise in his tone.
Steve shrugged. “Theoretically, but their boss isn’t a very nice guy.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Sam said. “We should probably go before these guys recover enough to get organized.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Come on. I’ll take you to the Tower. Tony needs to hear about this.”
“What does—” Sam started to ask, then held up a hand. “You know what? I probably don’t want to know.”
“No, you probably don’t,” Steve agreed as he headed for the other end of the alley and the subway station.