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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Avengers fic: With Your Shield (1/3)

December 24th, 2014 (06:15 am)
nostalgic

feeling: nostalgic

Title: With Your Shield

Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers or the larger MCU.

A/N: This is for lena7142. This was supposed to be better than it is, but I’m out of time to make it better :) No beta as of yet!

Summary: Because Steve knows now what it’s like, to be the one left behind. He knows what it’s like to wait for the one who may never come back. He knows what it’s like to regret the words he never said, the dances he never danced. Next time, he’d take that chance.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



-o-

The first time he sees her, she saves his life. It’s a messy battle with some would-be world dictator, and the Avengers are spread pretty thin. Steve’s been working the front lines, and he’s not sure when he lost track of Natasha or Clint, but when he finds himself outnumbered by minions ten to one, he thinks he may have a problem.

She burns down from the sky, the blast of energy enough to dispel at least half of his attackers. When the air clears, she’s standing in full armor with her spear in one hand and her shield in another.

Without hesitating, she lashes out, grunting as she impales two remaining attackers with one blow. She pivots, using her shield to knock another out before slamming another back with a vicious kick of her boot. As he tries to get up, she pulls her spear free, stabbing him cleanly.

When the last attacker comes at her from behind, she doesn’t have to turn back. Instead, she thrusts her shield back in one clean motion, felling the man in his tracks.

She looks at Steve.

Steve looks at her.

“Nice shield,” he says.

She tilts her head. “I could say the same to you.”

Steve looks down at his own bloodstained weapon of choice. “It’s seen better days,” he admits.

She smirks. “Haven’t we all.”

-o-

Her name is Sif, and she doesn’t stay for long. She has come on business from Asgard, and after helping the Avengers defeat their enemies, she talks to Thor and hastily leaves without a goodbye.

Curiously, Steve approaches Thor. “Who was that anyway?”

“The Lady Sif,” Thor says, smiling. “One of my most trusted friends and one of the most fiercest warriors on all of Asgard.”

Steve nods, trying to seem nonchalant. He has to be nonchalant, after all. He has no reason for anything more than idle curiosity concerning her. “Funny time for a visit,” he observes.

Thor nods gravely. “This attack was no coincidence,” he says. “Sif has evidence that links the rise of fanaticism on Earth to restless elements throughout the galaxy. She came to verify her sources and warn me of impending dangers.”

Steve nods again, finding himself without anything constructive to say. He should talk about the threats Thor is mentioning. He should talk about a goodwill arrangement of sharing information with Asgard on a more official basis. He should suggest that Sif stay longer and discuss the matter with him and the rest of the Avengers or even SHIELD.

That would be the smart thing to do.

And it has nothing to do with how good she looks in armor or the way she knows how to work a shield.

Instead, Steve clears his throat awkwardly. “Sif, huh?”

Thor gives him a funny look. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve says quickly. “She just had good timing today, that’s all.”

Thor inclines his head in agreement. “She is good in many things, this much is certain.”

As Thor walks away, Steve imagines that he’s right about that.

-o-

The second time he sees her, he saves her life.

She’s been on Earth for a few days this time, conferring with Thor and spending time in some high level meetings with SHIELD. She’s been around, according to reports, but Steve’s seemingly never been in the right place at the right time.

That is, until someone decides to launch an attack on a SHIELD station in New York City.

The Avengers are the first to respond, naturally, and Steve takes point because that’s what he does. The building is a loss, but SHIELD operatives are trained and trained well, so there’s already a gun fight on the ground. This has all the tell tale markings of Hyrda.

When Steve gets close enough to the focal point of the blast, he finally sees her.

She’s more beautiful than he remembers, strong and poised in the battlefield, fending off a swarm of attackers. Her movements are graceful and quick. Thor’s a natural fighter, and he’s effective, but Steve’s never taken the time to appreciate the skills of the Aesir in battle until now.

Sif doesn’t look like she’s fighting.

She looks like she’s dancing.

An intricate move of steps, her face rigid in concentration. She uses her shield like an anchor, the prop that ties her movements together and makes the routine complete.

For a moment, he’s transfixed. After another moment, he realizes that he’s lucky he’s not dead, given that he’s staring helplessly after a girl in the middle of a firefight.

It’s not luck, though.

No, they’re not firing at him.

Hell, no one has seemed to notice him.

They’re all going after her.

She’s the reason for this attack.

And if Steve doesn’t do something, she will be overwhelmed. Because Steve’s fought with Thor long enough to know he’s not actually immortal. He bleeds, and he can fall.

The first blow catches her in the back, and she stumbles. The next behind the knees and she takes a blow across the face.

Steve doesn’t like bullies.

Doesn’t matter who they are.

Or who they’re bullying.

Teeth grinding together, he charges forward. Sif’s not immortal, and the Hydra agents trying to take her down certainly aren’t. Fortunately, they’re so focused on their prize that they don’t see him coming until it’s too late.

Then, all they see is a flash of red, white and blue before everything goes dark.

Steve downs at least half a dozen, giving her the chance to regain her footing. She takes on the last ten or so with him.

When they’re done, they’re standing together, back to back.

He glances over his shoulders.

She looks back. “Thank you,” she says, breathing heavily. “Your assistance was well timed.”

“Anytime,” he says. He turns around, moving his shield from one hand to the other before extended his free hand. “My name’s Steve Rogers.”

She looks at him, and she looks at his hand. Then, she moves her shield to the other hand as well, reaching out to take his hand. “Sif.”

Despite himself, Steve grins. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

Sif tilts her head, not quite smiling. “In the midst of battle?”

“When one of us is about to die,” he clarifies.

“Ah,” she says. “I was not in any real peril.”

“You sure about that?” he asks.

Sif shrugs, almost appearing vaguely sheepish. “I’ve been through worse.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, putting his shield on right again. “So have I.”

-o-

SHIELD regroups quickly, and Steve is more than happy to let them handle the more tedious clean up. Not that Steve isn’t willing to serve -- to be sure, he is -- but he saw the way Hydra converged on Sif. If she’s a target, then he knows they have to get her out of here.

Fortunately, Thor agrees.

Sif protests but heeds the advice, and soon the Avengers, Sif and Coulson are convened together in a makeshift base Steve doesn’t care to ask about.

“Hydra’s getting pretty bold,” Natasha notes. “An attack in public, in plain sight?”

“I guess PR isn’t high on their list of concerns,” Clint quips.

“No, but she’s right,” Tony says. “It doesn’t fit their MO. None of this does. Hydra’s not in the shadows anymore, and they’ve always been brazen, but this -- I don’t know. It seems stupid to stage this kind of attack when they know they can’t win it.”

“It depends on what they were trying to win,” Steve says.

The room gets quiet, and they look at him. It’s still a little strange to him, to be honest. To have people turn to him as an authority figure. As if he knows what he’s actually talking about. Sometimes he still feels like a kid from the Bronx, picking fights because someone has to.

Maybe that’s what it is, in some ways, but the stakes are higher.

He looks at his teammates; he looks at Sif.

A lot higher.

“This wasn’t an offensive they could win,” Steve says. “They were going to take heavy casualties and still come out on the losing side.”

“It does seem a bit irrational,” Bruce agrees, still looking haggard with a half buttoned shirt after transforming down from the Hulk after battle.

“More than that, it’s a bad allocation of resources,” Natasha says.

“So what’s their game plan?” Tony asks.

“The strike had a target,” Steve says. He looks to Sif, who is standing at attention next to Thor. “A very non-human target.”

Thor straightens. It’s not the first time his place as an alien has been pointed out on this time, and Steve knows it probably won’t be the last. “I know of no threats against my life,” he says. “And Hydra has shown no interest in me during my tenure on your planet.”

“But you’re not the only Aesir here,” Steve says.

His eyes land on Sif.

She narrows her gaze in return. “The attacks are the reason I came to this planet,” she says.

“Yeah, Hydra’s been throwing hissy fits since before she came along,” Clint agrees.

“But the stupidity factor,” Tony says, thoughtfully. “They really didn’t go after anything else, did they?”

“All data, weapons and personnel are accounted for,” Coulson says.

“That’s because they focused their force on her,” Steve says. “I saw it. They were trying to take her down.”

Thor shakes her head. “But how could they know her location?” he asks. “Or even that she had arrived at all?”

“Because,” Sif says. “I came with a message, not about your Hyrda, but about a greater force working against this planet.”

“A greater force that could be using Hydra,” Natasha says.

“A greater force that doesn’t want Sif to tell us everything she knows,” Steve says.

Coulson nods. “Lady Sif,” he says. “You said you came to warn us.”

“I have told you the things you needed to know,” Sif says.

“But not everything you know,” Coulson presumes.

“I have orders that are intended to protect you,” Sif says.

“She speaks truth,” Thor says. “As allies, Asgard will offer its protection, but we must acknowledge that there are some things we cannot share, for your own safety.”

“Our safety is not exactly what I’m worried about right now,” Coulson says. “If this attack was targeted at Sif, then it’s her safety we need to worry about.”

“Then the solution is simple,” Thor says. “Sif should return to Asgard.”

Sif balked, turning toward him even as she tried to hide her dismay. “I do not run from conflict--”

“But this conflict is not one that we need to have,” Thor says. “We endanger innocent people--”

“If I leave now, I endanger more people,” Sif insists. “I can help SHIELD train its sensors and look for the signs to predict future attacks. It is not hard work, but it will take time.”

“No offense, but we do know how to take care of ourselves,” Tony says.

Sif does not look impressed. “These are forces far beyond your imagination.”

“She speaks truth,” Thor says. “The Avengers fight nobly, and SHIELD does work to protect this planet, but there are other forces that would do you harm.”

“Imminent harm,” Sif says. “My task was not only to inform you of these dangers, but to prepare you to deflect them. That task, I’m afraid, will take time.”

“And you can bet Hydra will be right there every step of the way, trying to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Natasha says.

“It’s too risky,” Tony says. “I mean, by keeping her around, it’s a nonstop moving target. Not that I mind your company or anything--”

“There’s a bigger picture,” Coulson says. “We’ve been a nonstop moving target since SHIELD fell in the first place.”

“All the more reason to consolidate our assets and minimize our risks,” Natasha says.

Sif seems to bristle at that. “If you wish me to leave--”

Tony shrug, deflecting. “This isn’t personal--”

“But it will be,” Sif says. “Your planet is in danger. Your people are at risk. I come here to help you.”

“Sif is a capable warrior,” Thor says. “She is not as defenseless as you seem to think.”

“Great,” Tony says. “So more destruction instead.”

“And the alternative?” Coulson asks.

There’s a silence, and they look at one another. Tony is still clearly uncomfortable about the situation, but Steve suspects it’s because it wasn’t his idea. Natasha is guarded; Clint looks exasperated; Bruce appears cautious. Thor and Sif stand tall in the midst of it, eyes on Coulson.

It’s something, really. Steve doesn’t think of Thor as a god, but he has a healthy respect for the man’s integrity and his strength. And Sif…

Well, it’s clear she’s here on orders. And she probably is here for the greater good.

But the way she stands next to Thor. The way she seems to mirror his stance without even realizing. That’s not just the sign of warrior following her commander. It’s not even an indication of two good friends.

She’s here for him. Because it matters to him that Earth is protected.

Steve knows a little about what that’s like. About what it is to show up in a place that’s close to home, but not quite. About what it’s like to give to others because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s your thing to do. It’d be easier for her to go home. But she wants to do the right thing by Thor.

By all of them.

Steve’s always been a sucker for a good cause.

“Well, what if we spread out the risk,” Steve ventures finally.

Everyone looks at him.

Steve gestures. “She has information, but that doesn’t mean she needs to give it to us in a SHIELD facility. With a good encrypted computer system, she could do it remotely from anywhere. Couldn’t she?”

Coulson considers this. “It would be feasible--”

“I mean, I’ve seen the stuff at Stark Towers,” Steve says. “The video conferencing there is almost like the real thing.”

“You’re suggesting we put her up in an alternate site,” Coulson says.

“Getting her away from SHIELD would make her more vulnerable,” Natasha says.

“But it would also make her harder to find,” Steve says. “We know Hydra has ways to find our bases, so we can’t keep putting her in our bases.” He turns to Sif. “How long do you need?”

She shrugs. “Several days,” she says. “No more than three, assuming your technology is not completely useless.”

Tony looks ready to object.

Steve doesn’t let him. “Three days,” he says. “We hide her for three days.”

“And if there’s an attack?” Coulson asks.

“The Avengers will be on alert, spread out at key locations,” he says. “The team can already be halfway across the world in hours. So across the state? Shouldn’t be so hard.”

“It is still a risk,” Thor says. “She should not be alone.”

“I am more than capable of dispatching these enemies,” Sif says, sounding somewhat indignant.

“Even back on Asgard,” Thor says. “We never took pursuit of a conflict on our own. There is power in teamwork.”

“And, in this case, risk,” Sif says. “The Avengers cannot be gathered together at any given point. The risk would be too great.”

“Not to mention obvious,” Clint says.

“So we don’t have them all in one place,” Steve says. “We put one person there. With two people, there’s always someone on alert, and it still minimizes the risks.”

Coulson nods. “Tony, can you get a place equipped?”

“If you’ve got the location,” Tony says. “But I have to say, I’m still not thrilled about this idea.”

“You can work the back end,” Coulson suggests. “Help us dissemination the information Sif gives us. Clint, Natasha, you two can be our eyes and ears. Thor and Bruce, you two can be our public face. If we look like life is going on as normal, we may be able to keep Hyrda from realizing just how much we know.”

Steve steps forward. “But what about me?”

Coulson looks at him, almost surprised. “And here I thought you volunteered already.”

“For what?” Steve asks.

“Sif’s personal protection detail,” Coulson says, not quite smirking. “It was your idea, after all.”

Steve blinks. He looks to Sif. “If it’s okay with you,” he says, a little dumbly.

She gives him a cool look, shrugging one shoulder. “I still say I do not need a bodyguard.”

“No,” Steve says, smiling. “But maybe you wouldn’t mind a little company.”

Sif doesn’t look thrilled.

But she also doesn’t look appalled.

If Steve’s learned anything, it’s that he has to take what he can get.

-o-

It was Steve’s plan, but most of what happens next is really out of his control. He’s not sure what Coulson orders, or what Tony sets up, or where the rest of the Avengers are, but by the end of the day, he’s in his plain clothes again with an unmarked car and address.

Standing not far away, Sif is wearing human clothes with some obvious discomfort. She purses her lips. “We should assume that we are under surveillance,” she says. “I do not see how this plan will work.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Well. Decoys.”

Sif raises her eyebrows.

“Besides, I’m pretty good at this stuff,” Steve says, hoping to sound nonchalant.

“This stuff?” Sif asks, clearly skeptical.

“Just put your stuff in the trunk,” he says. “I’ll get us there in one piece.”

Sif still looks less than thrilled about this, and she seems more than a little reluctant to pack her stuff, which is to say, her spear and her shield.

“Traveling light?” he jokes.

She eyes him. “I had more important things to worry about.”

He shrugs disarmingly. “You had other priorities, I get it.”

“I still think this is a foolish plan,” she says.

“Hey, I don’t like walking away from a fight any more than you do,” he says.

“Then why are we?” she asks pointedly.

“Because you didn’t come here to fight,” he says. “You came here to give us information. This is the best way to make sure you can transmit this information.”

“I’m more than an errand girl,” she says, somewhat bitterly. “I should have known better--”

“And I’m way more than a bodyguard,” he says. “But hey. We can make do, right?”

She lets out a low laugh. “That does not seem so unusual for me.”

There’s something in her voice. Something of regret, something of loss. Something of things unrealized.

But it’s not his place to ask.

No, it’s his place to make sure she gets her job done.

That’s all this is.

That’s all.

He holds his hand out to the car. “After you.”

She gives him one last look before walking grudgingly to the side door. “I am one of Asgard’s more decorated warriors,” she says, as if to prove a point.

He opens the driver’s door. “And I fought the Nazis.”

She looks at him quizzically.

“I’m just saying you don’t have to try so hard,” he says.

“Try to do what?” she asks.

“To impress me,” he clarifies. He shrugs, climbing inside. “For the record, I’m already impressed.”

She hesitates, and he’s aware that she’s watching him as he buckles his seatbelt. He’s even more aware of the small smile that shows on her lips as she climbs in next to him.

“Very well, Steve Rogers,” she says. “My life is in your hands.”

He starts the car up. “I’ll do my best to honor that,” he says, putting the car in gear as he flashes her a grin. “You have my word on that.”

-o-

It’s sort of an awkward drive, given that they’re relative strangers. The fact that she’s an alien and he’s a super soldier who essentially hibernated for 90 years only makes things a little weirder.

And somehow, a little easier.

Steve gives her a sideways look. After all, it’s not like he has anything to lose by making small talk.

“So,” he says, guiding the car through the side roads that have been marked on his itinerary. They’ve already made one car swap and are schedule to make another before arriving at their destination. “Asgard, huh?”

It’s not exactly the best conversation starter, but Steve’s not exactly a mastermind at social interactions. He spent most of his youth as the runt everyone picked on. He held to ideals of peace and freedom, but the honest fact of the matter was that he’d spent more time starting fights than making friends.

Besides, most of his best friends were ones he’d met under duress of war. It was funny how conflict made it easy to bond with people. It was easy to be a brother in arms, but it was a little more difficult to strike up a friendship with a random person down the street. Beyond Bucky, he’d never been that good with relationships.

All he has to do to remind himself of that fact is visit Peggy, still clinging to life and fleeting memories.

Sif looks at him. “Asgard,” she says, matter of fact. “What of it?”

“Oh,” he says. “I hear it’s pretty impressive.”

That’s true, more or less. Thor has described Asgard quite fondly, but Steve’s too much of an idealist to believe in utopias.

Especially when he’s met Thor’s brother.

Still, he does not imagine Thor is much for exaggeration. No, with Thor, the truth is usually impressive enough to not need embellishment.

“In what manner?” she asks.

That’s not the answer Steve was counting on. Really, he’d sort of been hoping she might take the comment and run with it. Unfortunately, Sif is an alien, and Steve’s just not that lucky.

“Well,” Steve says, hoping he doesn’t sound as completely pathetic as he feels. “I hear the...architecture is nice.”

Architecture. In all of Thor’s stories, the architecture has never been the main talking point.

Even so. He shrugs. “An ancient city with technology we can only dream of,” he continues. “All perched on the edge of a waterfall. Although I have to admit, I’m not sure what to make of the rainbow bridge.”

“The rainbow coloring is part of the composition of the bridge itself,” Sif explains. “It took our scientists some years to perfect the balance, and it was another decade before our best artisans could delineate the design in such a manner--”

Steve looks at her.

She falls silent. “It is one of Asgard’s more....impressive features,” she concludes finally.

“And that whole Bifrost thing,” Steve says. “That must be nice.”

“It is...convenient,” she agrees.

“And a city of gold,” Steve says, eyes on the road again. He shakes his head. “Thor says that’s not really that impressive, but I have to say, it sounds pretty nice. But I guess Thor only lived in the castle or whatever. Right?”

He glances at her, but her face is drawn blankly again, eyes stubbornly turned outward. She took a breath, letting it out. “How much longer is our journey?” she asks.

Steve gives her a long, curious look. It’s possible that she’s just bored of his small talk. Thor is always amicable, but that might just be Thor and not a trait inherent to everyone from Asgard. Maybe Steve has offended her in some way, or maybe she’s just tired.

Or maybe she just doesn’t want to talk about Thor.

Whatever the case may be, Steve can take a hint.

And he can abide by one, too.

“Another two hours,” he says, adjusting his grip on the wheel. “Not much longer.”

“Good,” she says, settling herself back. “Very good.”

Steve does his best not to look at her.

He does even more to pretend like he agrees.

-o-

They arrive as planned, and everything seems to be exactly as it is supposed to be. He uses his secure phone to check in, and even though there’s no report of trouble, he inspects the property anyway.

It’s a good choice for a safe house, though he’s a bit surprised by how modest it is considering that it’s technically Stark’s property. The area is wooded but it’s not quite remote. The street winds through the hills, and each home is set back, giving the area a strong sense of seclusion. Yet, it’s all still on main roads, making it easily accessible if something should go wrong.

Steve is somewhat concerned about the proximity of other civilian homes, but there’s not much he can do about that. There’s a balance between protecting assets and protecting civilian populations, and Steve knows that something always has to give.

Besides, it’s only going to be for a few days. The whole point of being in a safe house is that no one is supposed to find you. This place is off SHIELD’s normal radar, which means it’s off Hydra’s, too. If anyone has high quality security checks in place, it’s going to be Tony Stark.

“You’re concerned,” Sif observes, as he inspects the windows in each room.

He glances toward her. “What?”

“Your disposition,” she notes. “You are concerned.”

“Well, I know Hydra,” he says, running his fingers along the latches and noticing the wireless security system that belies the modest finishes. “They’re not exactly known for giving up easily.”

“I thought that was our purpose in picking such a...rustic location,” she says, giving the room a skeptical look.

Steve chuckles, taking in the decor for the first time. It’s antiquated, to be sure. The furniture looks as old as the original structure, and there’s floral wallpaper to boot. He finds it strangely comforting -- something that feels almost as old as he does. He wonders if Tony keeps a place like this for situations just like now, or if maybe this was a family property. Maybe his father lived here.

Although that’s not much easier to reconcile. He knows Stark’s father. Well, he knew him. But if Stark senior did come here, it’s possible that other early SHIELD agents had, too.

Maybe Peggy sat right there on the faded armchair, drinking tea and discussing international security threats.

He lingers at the chair, swallowing back his emotions.

“It does have a certain charm,” he comments finally.

“I have been to many dark corners of the galaxy,” Sif says. “And nothing has been quite like this.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Steve says, running his hand along the edge of the dated and sagging couch. “Early 20th century Earth. Some people say they were simpler times, but I prefer to think of it is more satisfied. People didn’t need the distractions.”

“Distractions can save lives,” Sif points out. “Though on Asgard, we do not let our technology dictate our lifestyle. Instead we form our technology to complement our culture.”

“Sounds pretty smart,” Steve says.

“Well, we are an ancient race,” Sif says. “Our people live longer than your entire civilization. We can be somewhat….stuck in our ways.”

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with honoring a tradition that matters,” Steve tells her.

“Or abandoning one that does not,” Sif counters.

Steve grins. “You know, I think maybe this won’t be so bad.”

Sif raises her brows, and Steve doesn’t know her well, but she looks mischievously obtuse. “You think the security will be satisfactory then?” she asks, voice edged with the hint of a quip.

“Yeah,” Steve says, even if they both know that’s not what he meant. He does his best to keep his smile in check. “I think the security will be fine.”

-o-

With the house secure, Steve turns his attention to the task at hand. Which is, getting Sif set up to communicate her information to SHIELD on a secure line.

When he’d come up with this plan, it’d sounded simple enough.

Standing in front of the computer equipment, he’s beginning to second guess that decision.

“So,” Steve says, approaching the workstation slowly. It’s clear that this part of the home has been hastily added. Furniture has been moved out of the way, and the equipment seems pieced together. Honestly, Steve’s just impressed that SHIELD got someone out here so fast to set this all up on such short notice. The fact that he’s expected to know how to use it is something that would seem to be a given. “We’ll just have to power it up here.”

Sif looks expectant.

Steve reaches out and presses a button. When nothing happen, he laughs awkwardly. “I’m afraid I’m still not the best with computers.”

“And you thought you were the best person for this job?” she asks.

“Well, I’m not bad with computers,” Steve tries to amend, pushing another button. Because he’s not bad with technology, he never has been. But he’s also making up for decades of innovation in several short years, and between saving the world and putting bad guys away, he doesn’t have a lot of time to check out every possible brand of technology currently on the market. “But this thing….it looks a little jury rigged, to be honest.”

Sif nods in agreement. “The craftsmanship is crude,” she says. “Though to be honest, it does not look particularly more primitive than the devices back at your SHIELD.”

Steve gives her a look. “Those are the most advanced technologies on our planet?”

Sif is not impressed. “It is technology we used centuries ago,” she reports. She steps over, pushing a different button that allows the display to come to life. “It is also technology we consequently abandoned for being too limited.”

“Ah,” Steve says, watching as the displays came to life. “Well, then I suppose if you don’t need anything.”

She sits down, pushing buttons and opening files.

“Okay, then,” he says, already retreating. “I’ll just be over there.”

-o-

Steve had never minded the less attractive parts of service. He’d been ready to fight even when no one wanted him on their side. He had never cared about the conditions or the risks, just that it was always the right thing to do.

A lot has changed for him, but that much is still the same. As long as someone still needs to stand up for what is right, Steve’s going to be the one to do that, no matter what.

As he checks the perimeter of Stark’s safe house, he tells himself that again.

No matter what.

Most people think that applies to danger and intrigue, but sometimes it has everything to do with tedium.

Like checking the same security checkpoints ten times in an hour. It’s not so much that he’s scared of a risk -- he knows there are enough safeguards in place to protect them on the one hand and then warn them on the other -- it’s just that he doesn’t have anything else to do.

Sif, true to her word, knows how to work the technology with no help whatsoever. She appears deep in conversation every time Steve checks, which is, for the record, often. He tells himself that’s his job -- it’s why he’s here -- but it’s fascinating to watch her and the way she carries herself. She has Thor’s confidence and something else. It’s not just that she’s beautiful -- because that’s not relevant -- it’s that she’s so assuredly self possessed that he can’t help but be a little bit in awe.

Then again, Steve has a thing for strong women, it seems.

To distract himself in the interim, Steve explores the house. It’s all part of a natural security detail, that much is sure, but he does find it more intriguing the more he examines it. Whatever purpose the house has served in the past, it’s clear that it doesn’t mean much to Stark now. There are layers of dust over everything, and the surprising amount of personal mementos suggests that Tony has more than a few daddy issues to work out.

Because this is part of Stark’s legacy. The family photographs and old books, some with familiar scrawl in the margins. It even smells like it used to.

There doesn’t seem to be anything of worth, which isn’t surprising. The dishes are old and chipped, and the keepsakes are more sentimental than anything. The books are technical but outdated, and although Steve finds plenty that’s familiar, it’s nothing that would mean anything to anyone else.

But Steve knows it better than he should. It’s like walking into the past and living it all over again. He imagines Howard Stark might have used this house as a refuge of his own, retreating here for his latest ideas and theories. Maybe he had other scientists over; maybe he had government agents to discuss his developments.

Maybe Peggy had sat in that chair. It wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility, given how closely Howard and Peggy had worked to establish SHIELD. It’s a part of history that Steve never lived, but one that he’s always been intimately connected to.

Now he feels so close he can almost touch it.

Literally.

“Steve Rogers?”

Steve turns sharply, cheeks reddening. Sif is standing in the doorway, looking at him curiously. “Sorry,” he says, trying to look busy again. “Just, um. Checking the security.”

Whether she believes this or not, she shows no indication. “It has been suggested that we break for the evening and continue our work in the morning.”

“Right,” Steve says. “You must be hungry. You know, I didn’t even think to ask earlier--”

“I am fine,” she says.

“No, dinner’s a good idea,” Steve says, making his way toward the kitchen. “Stark stocked the fridge for us when he sent out tech support.”

Sif follows him at a decided distance. “Truly, I do not require food at this time.”

“You sure?” Steve asks. “Because I’ve seen Thor eat.”

She almost smiles. “The ability to eat does not equate to need,” she quips.

“Well, maybe you’ve just never tried Earth food,” he says, opening the fridge and rummaging around.

“It is adequate,” she says.

“Ah,” he says. “Well, maybe you’ve just never tried the right food.”

“There is really no need--”

He straightens, turning toward her fully, holding a head of broccoli in his hand. “I’m not just being polite,” he says. “We eat when we can. Skipping meals can lead to problems later.”

She inclines her head. “Spoken like a true warrior.”

Steve smiles. “A lot can vary between cultures,” he says. “But a soldier is always a soldier.”

To this, she does smile faintly. “Very well, Steve Rogers,” she says. “Let us share a meal together.”

Steve’s own smile widens, fingers tapping on the broccoli. “I’ll see what I can do.”

-o-

The selection of food is a bit uneven -- there’s at least five pounds of chicken in the freezer and more vegetables than anyone could eat in a week. But the pantry is thin on spices and condiments, so Steve can only hope that enough salt is a cure for all ills.

The good news is that he’s a pretty good cook, and he’s been known to make do with far less. It’s a hearty meal, even if not a very diverse one, and he serves it to Sif with a smile.

She regards it cautiously, and she noticeably waits for him to sit across from her. She’s watching him, and it occurs to him that she’s probably waiting for him to start eating in order to adapt to his social cues.

That’s smart, and that’s thoughtful. Steve knows something of being a fish out of water, so he obliges without comment, sitting down and picking up his fork.

“It’s not the most exciting meal,” Steve says, using a knife to cut a piece of chicken. “Thor has told me about some of the feasts on Asgard. They sound like something else.”

They sound decadent and wasteful is what they really sound like, and it’s hard for Steve to imagine. But when you live in a society with almost no hunger, poverty or crime, it’s probably not that big of deal.

Sif mimics his actions, cutting a piece of her own chicken. “The feasts are only in celebration,” she says. “Most of the time we eat more modestly.”

Steve swallows a bite. “Can’t be too modest,” he says. “Thor’s appetite is pretty voracious.”

She puts a piece of chicken in her mouth, chewing it carefully. “Thor is not always a good representation of typical Asgardian culture,” she says. “He is a prince.”

It’s not something Steve has thought about often, to tell the truth. Thor has certain mannerisms that set him apart from the rest of the Avengers, but he’s been a team player since Steve met him several years ago. There’s little about him that demands entitlement, though he does carry the pride of a man who believes in his own worth.

Sif takes another bite. “You cook well,” she says, sounding eager to change the topic.

Steve brightens. “Thanks,” he says. “It’s a bit thrown together--”

“It is not exactly what I was expecting,” she says, trying one of the roasted vegetables. “But the meat is not dry. And the vegetables are actually succulent.”

Chuckling, Steve takes another bite of his own. “You sound surprised.”

“Well…,” Sif says, the sentence dangling awkwardly.

“Wait,” Steve says, pausing for a moment. “You are surprised.”

“Your people are not as developed as other societies across the realms,” Sif explains.

“Developed?” Steve asks, a touch of incredulity in his voice now.

“Your planet is young,” Sif continues, as if that somehow makes it better.

“So, what, that means we don’t know how to cook?” Steve asks jokingly.

Her cheeks flush red, just slightly.

Steve scoffs. “What do you people actually think of us?”

Sif presses her lips together, looking back at her plate. “It is no matter--”

“No, really,” Steve says. “What do people say about Earth -- or Midgard, or whatever -- back on Asgard.”

Sif sighs. “I do not see the value--”

“Come on,” Steve cajoles.

“Please, I do not--”

“You can tell me,” Steve says.

“I do not wish--”

“You won’t, I promise,” Steve says. “I just want to know--”

Sif looks up, face terse. “Goats,” she blurts. “They call you goats.”

Steve stops, blinking a few times. He’s been playing this for laughs, but that one catches him off guard. There have been times that Thor has smiled in good humor at humans, like a big brother watching fondly after a younger one. He’s made a few comments about how quaint Earth’s customs are.

But goats.

That’s the kind of language an oppressor uses against its victims. The kind of language that leads to enslavement, poverty and war.

Sif sighs. “It is not what it sounds like.”

“I suppose it’s better than sheep,” Steve comments finally.

“The judgment is entirely benign,” Sif says. “It is understood that such a new planet could not hope to interact on the same level--”

Steve makes a face.

Sif’s shoulders fall, just slightly. “It is a rude and unbecoming statement,” she admits finally. “Asgard may have streets lined with gold, but it is no paradise, nor are its people perfect. I have found my time here more surprising than expected.”

“Like the food,” Steve comments. “You probably thought we’d graze on grass.”

She cocks her head. “Humanity is more vibrant than I would have thought,” she says. “But do not presuppose that you are without your own faults. There is much you could learn from us.”

“Your shining accomplishments, I’ll bet,” Steve says.

“Or our faults,” she says. She cuts another bite of chicken. “I was not just being polite. The food is very food.”

It’s something of an olive branch, and though Steve’s a little offended, he’s not without heart. After all, Sif’s not entirely wrong. Even with all the decades Steve spent asleep, humanity hasn’t advanced nearly as far as it likes to think it has. Sure, the technology is more advanced, but people are more distant than ever. The real problems -- problems of hatred, discrimination, hunger, greed -- they are just as pervasive now as they were when Steve went to war all those years ago. It says something about humanity -- something less than good -- that they keep going to war over the same things, as if killing each other will someday provide a solution.

He doesn’t think the term goat is very nice.

But it’s not entirely unwarranted, either.

Besides, she’s trying.

Steve respects that. “Well, thank you,” he says before looking for a topic change of his own. He scans the room absently, eyes settling on Sif’s things. She didn’t bring much, her armor, her spear and her shield. “You know, I was looking at your shield.”

Her eyes narrow.

“Just looking,” he assures her. “No touching.”

She shifts stiffly in her chair, eating another vegetable.

“What I mean,” Steve tries to clarify. “Is that it’s a nice shield. I mean, most modern soldiers don’t go for handheld defense anymore.”

“Asgard also has broad defensive measures,” Sif says. “But I often find that you cannot trust others to protect you. It is a burden you must entrust to yourself.”

“It shows in your case,” Steve says. “I saw you with it, back at SHIELD. Most people barely know how to hold it correctly, much less use it as a weapon. That kind of skill, it’s not common. At least not on Earth.”

“It is not common on Asgard, either,” she says. “Most trainees pick spears or swords or axes, things that are sharp and heavy.”

“But not you?” Steve presumes.

The wry smile on Sif’s face hints at pride. “I was an uncommon student,” she says. “As one of the only females in my training class, I gravitated toward battle techniques that were less common, as you say.”

He can’t help but grin at that. “It takes a special kind of person to do what no one expects of them.”

“Are women still sidelined in your world.” Sif asks.

“In theory, no,” Steve says. “But there are still large gaps in equality, and women are badly under represented in many public sectors. But we have strong women, just like you, who aren’t afraid to break out of the mold people expect of them.”

Sif nods. “I have heard many exploits of your Black Widow,” she says. “And I am also told that your SHIELD organization was founded by a woman.”

The humor drains from Steve’s face, no matter how hard he tries not to let it show. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to know some of the best women on our planet.”

She seems to sense the change in his disposition, and it is to her credit that she promptly changes the subject. “As for shields,” she continues. “I saw yours as well. You are also quite proficient.”

It’s hard to tell if this time she is just being polite. Asgardians are warriors by culture. Thor doesn’t talk about it a lot, but it’s also pretty easy to see. “Well,” he says, because making conversation is easier than making excuses. “I’ve never believed in fighting to beat someone else. I believe in fighting to protect what matters.”

Sif inclines her head, reaching for her glass. “Asgard also has a strong sense of being the protector of others,” she says. “We feel it is our duty to guard over the nine realms.”

“And weapons are important for that, sure,” Steve says. “But a spear or a sword or a gun -- those can’t protect you when things get tough. We have a saying on Earth. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.”

Sif considers this thoughtfully. “It is a weapon that requires a great deal of skill,” she says.

“Because most people don’t think of it as a weapon at all,” Steve says.

Smirking, Sif puts her glass down. “To their own detriment.”

“After seeing you in battle, I don’t doubt it.”

Sif smiles, her posturing easing.

“You know,” Steve continues. “Some ancient cultures on Earth consider the shield to be a symbol of honor.”

Sif raises her eyebrows.

“It was said that young men were sent off to war being told to come home with their shield or on it,” Steve continues, remembering the tales of ancient Sparta from his childhood.

“If they came home without their shield, then they left it in battle,” Sif says.

Steve nods. “The thought being that they’d only leave their shield behind to run away from the front lines,” he explains.

“Putting their own safety ahead of the cause,” Sif says.

“Exactly,” Steve says. “So the shield wasn’t just a symbol of personal safety, but of a commitment to the cause.”

“But why would they come home on their shield?” Sif asks.

Steve sobers a little, shrugging. “If they fell in battle, it was said to be customary to bring home the fallen on their shields.”

Understanding dawns on her face. “They would be carried home by the cause they gave their lives for.”

“Ancient Sparta was a pretty messed up place, but they knew something about honor,” he says.

“Is that why your organization holds such a name?” she asks. “For the sake of honor.”

“Honor, maybe,” Steve says. “But I like to think SHIELD is about a higher order or protection. Sure, there are weapons and espionage, but it was started to protect people. All people.”

“And you, Steve Rogers,” she says. “That is a shield you will hold until the end?”

“Until they bring my body home,” he says. “Either way.”

Sif takes another sip, putting her glass down. “You speak as if they are equal.”

“I don’t have a death wish,” Steve says. “But I know some sacrifices have to be made.”

She wets her lips. “I, too, used to believe there was no higher calling than honor,” she says.

“And now?” Steve asks.

“Now,” she says. “I have begun to realize that some forms of sacrifices are nothing more than avenues of escape. For sometimes it is easier to die a warrior’s death than to lead a normal life.”

Steve holds steady, watching her chew for a moment. It’s not so much the revelation, it’s just that she’s sitting across from him, saying it.

Saying the same thing he’s felt since waking up in a world that wasn’t quite his. Since knowing that his life went on without him. Since knowing that everyone he cared about lived while he slept. Since knowing that he’d watched Bucky fall without realizing just how deep the bottom was.

People wondered why he didn’t walk away. No one would blame him. After all he’s served, all he’s given.

He never tells them the truth. Not that he doesn’t want to walk away, but that he doesn’t know how.

Finally, he spears another piece of broccoli. “If you ever figure that one out….”

She smiles faintly and far too knowingly. “I will have to let you know.”