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New Beginnings

Chapter Text

It was the morning of the Choosing, and the Spire was quiet. Far above, a winged shaped drifted, gliding in lazy circles on the rising thermals.

Green wings spread wide, Coulson surveyed his territory. The rising sun was warm on his scales, baking out the chill of the night. Between his neckridges, his rider sat, bolt upright.

Fury was the Leader of the Spire, and was green Coulsons rider. Together, they surveyed their domain. No words were necessary, they flew in silence. They have been together for so long now that it was instinct. This would be the only silence they would likely get this day.

Beneath them, at the base of the Spire, from the dark mouth of the Hatching Cavern, a bellow came.

Sounds like Thor is awake Coulson noted, adjusting his glide into a downward spiral.

“Greeting the day again. Will his rider train that out of him?” Fury asked.

The draconic rtumble that passed for laughter vibrated through Coulson’s frame, and his amusement trickled through the bond-link.

“He’ll be doing the training, not the rider” and Fury permitted himself a slight smile.

And they’ll all be trained by us. Will we make it work, Bonded?

Fury rested a dark hand against the scales, reassuringly. “We’ll make it work, Coulson, we’ll make it work.”

This far above the Spire, Rider and Dragon could let themselves feel the worries about this planned course. This far from prying and watchful eyes, they could let slip the mask of the Leaders, let slip the need to always know everything.

Usually, they did know everything, but the Choosing was always a wildcard event.

 

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This was a joyous day. In the barracks for the candidates, anticipation was high. They were clustered in groups and huddles, debating their chances.

Steve Rogers, Clint Barton and Bruce Banner had formed their own group. Steve was the oldest and had served three years as a side-rider on a blue. He wasn’t shy about sharing his knowledge. Bruce had been taking note of every word, and had compiled a pile of papers. Clint was quiet, but observant. He had been the one to quell the rash of pranks that some of the other candidates had decided to carry out.

“When will they call us out?” Bruce wondered aloud, running one hand through his hair, while his other leafed through the pages of notes.

“Anytime today,” Steve replied.

“Rider Sitwell said after the noon meal,” Clint chimed in, and smiled faintly. “I was eavesdropping yesterday.”

“So what do we do till then?” Bruce asked.

“We wait,” Steve said patiently.

It wasn’t easy to wait, but there was no choice. Finally though, after a lunch which barely any of them touched, Rider Sitwell entered the barracks, hands on his leather clad hips.

“Rise and shine, children, Maria wants you front and centre,” he announced. “Good luck, and be yourself. The dragons will know.”

Obediently, the candidates formed up in two neat lines, before exiting in lockstep. After the darkness of the barracks, the light outside blinded them. When the fireworks in their eyes subsided, they took in the view.

The Spire was honeycombed with caves and with ledges. Every ledge housed at least two dragons today, jewel like eyes gleaming, all looking down at the sandy floor. In front of the gaping maw that was the Hatching Cavern, green Coulson sat like a statue. Leader Fury stood beside him, and even the noisiest of the candidates fell silent when his harsh, one-eyed gaze passed over them. Rider Sitwell had vanished into the cavern.

The candidates had spent plenty of time outside on the sandy floor, listening and learning. They had felt the eyes of the dragonets on them from in the darkness, and had speculated at night about their chances.

The open, sandy space was surrounded by the Spirefolk, Riders and workers alike. Visitors from the surrounding city were there, and the Mayor had a special stand for himself and his aides. All eyes were on the candidates.

Steve nodded to the Riders that he knew, and Bruce trailed behind him like a duckling, mouthing a reminder of his notes. Clint kept his eyes focused ahead, trying to pierce the darkness, but the observant would have noticed his lips twitching as he repeated Bruce’s notes.

White Maria emerged suddenly, aloof and regal, snaking out of the darkness. She cast a withering look over the standing candidates, and hissed disdainfully. The forked ends of her tail whipped in agitation, but a look from Coulson stilled their motion.

Silence fell.

With a happy roar, a gold dragon emerged into the sunlight. Already he was huge for his young age, only slightly smaller than green Coulson. The gold bounced from foot to foot as if unable to keep still, his spiked tail lashing back and forward. Behind him slunk a shadow, black scales gleaming a sickly green where the sunlight touched.

I am Thor! the gold proclaimed, voice echoing loudly through the minds of everyone present. I am here to claim my rider. Where is he?

More silence.

“I thought they knew who their riders were?” Bruce whispered to Steve.

The golds bright head had been drooping as no-one had stepped forward. That was until Bruce spoke, the only one to break the silence. With great bouncing steps, the gold crossed the sand to Bruce, and flopped down beside him.

You are my rider Thor proclaimed again, this time directly into Bruce’s mind. Lightning crashed and the wind howled in the distance as the connection was made. But Bruce and Thor stood together in the centre of the maelstrom, unable to tell where the human ended, and the dragon began.

Outside their minds, in reality, Bruce half knelt, half fell with the impact of a sentient mind twining into his own. He laid a shaking hand on the blazing scales, accepting.

Clint had stopped paying attention to Bruce’s Choosing as soon as the gold had flopped down beside him. He was pleased for his friend, but he wasn’t going to be distracted. His eyes had danced over a few of the other background Choices, but had not settled for long.

A warm, rich voice chuckled in the back of his mind, coiling round his thoughts like spider silk. She was red, his Tasha, a red so dark as to be nearly black, Lithe and sinewy, she slithered out of the Hatching Cavern. At the sight of her forked tail, the sign of a female, a roar went up from the crowd. His Tasha ignored the shouts, and made her way straight to his side. The twin tendrils of her tail snared his ankles, her wings flared to block out the world, and all he could see were her gleaming eyes.

Mine

“She’s perfect for the project,” Fury commented silently to Coulson, who didn’t twitch, but broadcast his feelings of agreement.

Maria rumbled sternly, and a blue head peeked out of the Cavern.

Can I finish...? the blue started.

No Maria said firmly.

The blue grumbled, and gave a last look at the cave, before turning towards the candidates and pulling himself fully into the light.

Steve had cheered for Bruce, and applauded for Clint. He didn’t mind not being Chosen. He had a good position as side-rider on blue Howard, and Rider Erskine had assured him he would be welcomed back with open arms.

There was a metal tang at the back of his throat, and he coughed, to try and rid himself of the feeling. The sand at his feet was an iron red, swirling into abstract shapes, along with the more familiar triangles, polygons and ovals.

You ride for my sire? a voice whispered. Not any more. I think I’ll choose you. Call me Tony.

With that, as Steve sank to his knees as the bond sunk into his heart and mind, the blue returned to the Cavern.

Black wings flared out indignantly as the last remaining dragon sat back on his hind legs and looked up at Coulson.

Are these all there are to choose from? he asked.

Yes Coulson said simply.

Not good enough. the black said with a sidelong glance at Thor. I am not content to settle for just any Rider. Mine must be perfect.

Loki Coulson warned, with a snap of his tail tip to betray his irritation.

Thor huffed and nudged Bruce with his nose. Bruce fell over.

Choose, Loki Maria chimed in.

No! I’ll find a Rider, a better Rider of my own! You’ll be proud of me for waiting! and sand raised in a blinding cloud as Loki took off, wings beating heavily.

It wasn’t unknown for a dragon not to Choose, but Fury and Coulson shared the same thought.

More trouble

Chapter Text

Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve

The voice echoed through Steve’s sleepy fogged mind, drawing him out of dreams and into a metal net.

Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve

It was not the oily tendrils of Howard, calling him to duty, but someone else, whispering his name in his mind. Half asleep, it took Steve a moment to remember.

“Tony?” he asked silently.

Do you think we’ll have an isentropic flow when we fly?

Steve didn’t reply, but broadcast a feeling of confusion. He received innocence back.

What about using the Tresca criterion on our riding straps?

“Sleep, Tony.”

But I wanted you to help me differentiate the inverted...

Steve moaned into his blankets as his dragon continued on. The flow of technical words were accompanied by a mental series of confusing images. Steve had taken the usual classes in mathematics and physics, but what Tony was sending to him was way beyond him.

The minute that thought crossed his mind, there was a snigger from the link.

“Sleep, Tony,” Steve repeated mentally. “You’re far brighter than your sire.”

Steve fell back into the land of dreams accompanied by a radiating, pleased warmth.

 

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Bruce was burning the midnight oil. He sat between Thor’s forefeet, holding up his notes so that the dragon could look at them.

“See, you’re the largest of the dragons. You don’t just have me as a Rider, we’ll have to find other crew for you. Where Steve just has to find two side-riders, we need four. My friend Elizabeth Ross said that if I was Chosen, she’d come and ride with me.”

I would meet with her. If she is your friend, then she must be worthy.

“She is, but her father wouldn’t let her stand at the Choosing. He was a Rider too, you know. Thunderbolt, they called his Orange.”

You speak of her as if she is no longer here?

“Died while clutching,” Bruce said sadly, and Thor dropped his head to whuffle comfortingly at Bruce’s hair.

Then we will find others worthy to ride with Thunderbolt’s RiderDaughter. Thor declared. And let none stand in our way!

Bruce felt the sudden resolution of his dragon sweep through him, and bit down on the urge to go right there and then to find Betty. There was time yet. And even Ross wouldn’t argue with a gold.

 

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Clint had a headache.

At the feast to celebrate the Choosing, he had been swarmed with new friends, all dying to talk to him, to flirt with him, and to tell him how wonderful it was to have another female dragon in the Spire.

Without his Tasha providing commentary in the back of his mind, it was likely that he would have done something that would see him up in front of Fury in the morning. Instead, it was a struggle to keep a straight face.

Do you think he knows his trousers are undone? she said of the Mayor.

It was a comment made by one of the other Riders, whose name Clint never found out.

“Can’t wait to see what eggs she produces,” he had said, with a lecherous wink.

Clint had turned and walked out, his hands balled into fists, nails cutting into his palms. His anger was not all his own though, at the comment, his Tasha had let out a hiss like a teakettle, and was slinking her way into the main hall.

I am not some brood mare! she had declared, loudly, to the rest of the Spire. And any /male/ that tells me so will lose his ability to reproduce!

Alone, in the darkness, with no-one to see them, the pair curled into each other. Clint let his pride wash over the bond, let his love simmer between them. Natasha licked at her red scales, still seething a little.

We were made to fight together, mine. she said. No-one will stop us from doing that. We will be great together.

“We will,” Clint said. “And no-one could make you do anything you didn’t want to do, could they?”

No. Natasha said smugly.

Clint sighed. “Only for you, my Tasha. For you I’ll brave the records room tomorrow, and find precedent for female dragons to fight and not breed. That way, we have the law on our side.”

Doing things by the rules, mine? and mentally Natasha quirked an non-existant eyebrow.

“You’re a bad influence on me,” Clint chuckled.

 

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High above the Spire, another conversation was taking place. Wrapped in his long coat, Fury rubbed at the empty socket of his eye, trying to ease the ache there. The long diplomatic dance had wearied him, and the tiredness was making his old injuries ache.

You should be resting Coulson gently chided him, but did not stop his slow circling.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead.” Fury retorted.

Sooner, rather than later if you keep up this pace. Coulson replied honestly.

“Digging my grave already for me, dragon?”

Coulson rumbled with laughter. One big enough for me as well, sir, since I’m as deeply in as you.

“Opinions, then?” and Fury changed the subject.

Two potentials, one yes, and the rest are just the usual for the other wings.

“Two potentials?”

Tony, and Thor.

“You think we can make something out of Howards hatchling?”

We can try.

Chapter Text

If the candidates had thought their training before the Choosing was hard, it was even harder afterwards. They had been woken early that first morning by a projected mental shout from their new teacher. Thor had not even had time to greet the dawn in his usual fashion.

Their trainer was a old, gruff brown dragon. His hide was battle-scarred, seamed by darker and lighter stripes of old injures, long past healed. His Rider was a quiet man, content to sit and watch, poised to answer any questions that his dragon raised.

The first time that one of the new riders called brown Logan, ‘Teacher’, the dragon had walked off. Teacher Xavier had explained that Logan didn’t see himself as a teacher, that he was a warrior at heart. One of the new riders thought that this would be a brilliant way to get out of class, but changed his mind when the second time it happened, Logan wrapped him in his tail, spines an inch away from being angled inwards.

“Logan has many different reactions,” Teacher Xavier had said in that quiet way of his. “I don’t believe he’s ever tried to eat a pupil though.”

No one wanted to take that chance.

There was little to no time for socialisation. The dragonets were rapidly growing now, their skin needing to be constantly tended to make sure that the scales were growing in properly, and there were no imperfections. They were also eating more, and their riders had to clean out the barracks more frequently. As Bruce remarked in passing, who knew that dragons made so much manure!

The lessons consumed the day. Not only were there exercises to strengthen the physical muscles of the riders and their dragons, but also the mental ones. The bonds grew stronger, and deeper with their tending. Well, most of them.

As they aged and matured, the dragons were developing more and more personality. Blue Tony was more content to sit and scratch out diagrams than listen to Logan. Where Steve listened intently to the war stories, Tony barely paid them any heed.

It was difficult for them all.

Clint had had enough.

 

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“Tasha mine, would you be willing to create a distraction for me?”

Why? Natasha asked bluntly.

“Look and see,” and Clint grinned from his hiding place.

You know if Fury catches you, he’ll have you upside down, hanging from the tip of the Spire, don’t you?

“Worth it though.”

Yes. Be ready.

Clint was already mostly ready. In his explorations as a candidate, he had found a small, dusty tunnel that lead from the meeting rooms to the Leader’s quarters. It wasn’t big enough for someone to walk down, but for someone who didn’t mind crawling, it was ideal. And when Clint wanted something badly, there wasn’t much that he would not do.

He had, as he had promised Natasha, been spending odd moments in the record room, looking for the information that he needed. So far, he hadn’t turned up anything of use, but the record room was close to the meeting room, and so there was nothing suspicious about him being there.

He peered towards the end of the tunnel, eyes narrowing as he focused. He already knew that Fury wasn’t there, but green Coulson was. At least until there was a loud bellow from outside.

“Did you just pick a fight with someone?” he thought to Natasha.

Johnny had a mark on the wrong side of my ledger. It’s moved now.. Natasha thought back smugly. Clint would have responded, but the beating of wings close to him drew his attention back to what he was doing.

 

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About two kilometres from the Spire was the ocean. The dark waters lapped against the sandy shore, phosphorane glittering on top of the waves.

Bruce clung precariously to Thors neckridges as the gold made his way down to the beach.

“Anyone else here yet?” he asked as he tried to adjust his balance. Without the usual harness, it was hard not to slide about.

We are the first. Thor replied. As is proper

Bruce laughed as Thor skidded to a halt on the soft sand.

“You’re going to drag me out of my shell,” he said half teasingly, while working out the logistics of how to get down from this height. Thor obligingly lowered his body closer to the ground, and lifted his foreleg to create a platform.

You are the worthiest of men, Bruce. and Thor was as serious as the thunderstorm that echoed in their minds. You are more worthy than you let yourself believe.

Bruce slid down to the sand, unable to refute his dragons assertions. When someone who was linked mind to mind with you said something like that, they couldn’t be wrong. Biased, yes. Wrong, no.

“Do you want to play in the sea while we’re here?” Bruce sank into the still warm sand, pushing it around to make a comfortable seat.

Will you tell me more of your notes instead? Thor asked. If we are to be first, then there is more I need to learn.

Mine would be most disappointed to find you talking about work, this evening, after all the trouble we went to the spider silk tones of Natasha wrapped suddenly into their minds. He wants to relax, not think about training.

“Were you eavesdropping, Natasha?” Bruce thought hard at the red.

Yes was the unrepentant reply.

Out of the darkness she came, slithering down the sand dunes, looking cool and composed. Bruce couldn’t help but notice the differences. She was much smaller than Thor, longer and more svelte. Her forked tail tips left their own tracks, thin spines already growing at the ends. She was perfectly proportioned, while Thor was still slightly gangly.

“Are you ogling my dragon, Brucie?” Clint yelled as he carefully slid down to the beach, cradling something tight in his arms.

“Yes,” Bruce called back.

Natasha made herself comfortable in Thor’s personal space, snuggling up to the side of the gold.

Comfortable, sister? Thor asked.

You are a good pillow, as I remembered. Natasha replied, before looking back up towards the Spire.

You see, if you take the opposite side of the triangle, and the internal angle, it’s not hard to work out the hypotenuse. And when you understand how the angles fit together, you can work out the optimum distance for the right trajectory. It’s easy mathematics came the declaration before the dragon came in sight. Blue Tony was walking backwards, wings extended for balance, gesturing to Steve with a foreclaw. Steve was only looking slightly confused.

“I really don’t know what to make of that pair,” Clint said in an undertone to Bruce. “No matter how much I watch, I can’t work out what’s going on there.”

“Me either,” Bruce admitted. “Thor just says its something they have to work out.”

“Tasha mine just sighs and changes the subject. Anyway, alcohol!” and Clint did his own subject changing.

Tony slithered backwards down the dune, and Steve followed. Tony took up a position on the other side of Natasha, keeping one wing extended to tent over her, and to reach over Thor’s back as well.

Steve dropped onto the sand with a weary sigh, only to have Clint push a mug into his hand.

“I thought, after all the training that we’ve been doing, it was about time we spent some time socialising with each other. So, enjoy!” and Clint unwrapped his package to reveal two old, dusty bottles. Their labels were faded with age, but as Clint opened one, the familiar scent of malt rose upwards.

“Two bottles of Spire 24, the vintage stuff,” he said, pouring generous helpings into the mugs.

Steve eyed his suspiciously for a moment, before shrugging and taking a mouthful. Bruce held the mug out, frowning.

“Whose is it?” he asked.

Clint looked innocent.

It belonged to Leader Fury Natasha dropped him in it. We liberated it. Mine said that it was too good to stay dusty.

A mighty quest! Thor declared cheerfully. Drink, Bruce, and celebrate the victory.

“It goes against all of my principles,” Bruce said sternly, but then flashed a grin. “It would be a shame to waste it. Cheers!” and he drank.

It was potent stuff, the alcohol, and it didn’t take many mugs for their tongues to be loosened. Any awkwardness since the Choosing, and because of all the training was soon gone.

Steve was lying full length on the sand, staring up at the stars. Bruce was sitting on Thor’s nose, and Clint was lying between Natasha’s front paws.

“I never thought I would be Chosen,” Bruce said abruptly. “Never felt worthy enough.”

“Same here,” Clint said. “I always thought that I’d be happy enough, travelling around and trading. Seeing the world that way. Didn’t expect to be jumped on by an orange dragon the minute I set foot on Spire lands.”

“Bucky wanted me to stand,” Steve said. “Howard wasn’t keen on it. He’s protective of his side riders, especially since me and Bucky made a good team. But Rider Erskine talked him into it, and that was that.”

Bruce swirled the liquid around in his mug, and Clint obligingly topped it up. “I never actually thought I’d have friends that I’d miss spending time with, apart from Betty. But we need to do this more often, get together, I mean.”

“Who’s Betty?” and Clint looked interested.

A lady worthy of being a side-rider Thor interjected.

“So no jokes about her then, got it,” Clint acknowledged.

Verily Thor would have nodded his head, but then Bruce would have fallen off his nose. The gold dragon thought that this would be a bad thing, considering the rather happy state that the man was in.

Do you think Steve would like it if I asked for this Bucky to be my side rider? Tony asked silently to the other two dragons.

Perhaps. Thor replied. Would it not discomfort blue Howard to lose both his side riders though?

Like I give a damn if he’s discomforted and there was a sharp metal edge to the mindvoice.

You seem to have some issues there, blue? Natasha purred. Care to tell?

Apparently Howard is disappointed in what he managed to sire Tony said, rust dripped from every word. He told Erskine that it would have been better if I hadn’t hatched.

Thor roared, and all three riders looked shocked, and deafened in Bruce’s case.

How dare he! Thor thundered, a lightning storm raging in his mind-voice, pounding into the ground. How dare he speak so!

Don’t worry about it, Thor and Tony sounded dismissive, but there was a thread of what might be warmth lurking, twined so deep it was nearly invisible. My sire doesn’t matter to me

“Do we want to know what you are talking about?” Bruce asked, closing his eyes to better concentrate on the feelings and thoughts coming through the bond. Steve was looking more concerned, as Tony’s feelings fed through to him.

Howard does not deserve to be called a sire! Thor said indignantly. While we were raised in the creche with Maria, my own sire took the time to speak words of comfort to me, telling me of the joys to be found outside of the Hatching Cavern.

When you are bigger, Thor, you may sit on him. For now, can we try not to shout and alert the Spire to the fact we’re not where they think we are? Natasha said dryly. Her own sire and dam were off in some far distant country, and their absence didn’t bother her. She had her Clint now, and that was all that mattered.

While Bruce tried to calm Thor down a little, Steve sat up and looked at Tony, the blue looking a little more downcast.

“Is that the reason that you Chose me?” Steve asked silently, willing his mind not to betray his hurt. “To spite your sire?”

Tony remained mulishly silent. Steve focused on keeping a firm mental presence. Finally, Tony sighed.

Yes, and no. You were right for me. It was just a bonus that I annoyed my sire.

“You’re better than he is, Tony,” and Steve spoke aloud this time. “I don’t understand you most of the time, but I do know this. Read me if you don’t believe me.”

I think Howard may have just earned himself a spot on my ledger Natasha remarked to Clint.

The alcohol induced confessions signaled the end of the party. Tony, dropping the cool and capable facade, carried Steve off down the beach, both rider and dragon locked in a mental discussion that would probably last until the sun was up. Bruce had fallen asleep there on the sand, and Thor had curled around him, the huge golden body protective. Jewel tones glittered out from just beneath closed lids, as Thor pretended sleep, but kept watch.

“So, that went well,” Clint whispered, as he and Natasha made their way back towards the Spire. Clint walked beside his bonded. She had refused to carry him while she still had to walk on the ground. Her Clint deserved to fly.

It did but it wasn’t Natasha who spoke this time. Where there was just sand, and dusty green grass, there was now an uncoiling green dragon. Natasha hissed, baring her fangs as Coulson shook himself, letting the sand drift off his scales and tightly folded wings.

Do you made a habit of spying? Natasha spat venom tipped words straight into the heart of Coulson’s mind.

For the good of the Spire, I do he replied blandly. Year 1869, Month 6. You should find what you’re looking for.

And why do you care? Natasha was less venomous now, while Clint stayed quiet beside her, his silent presence bolstering her.

Coulson remained quiet, and enigmatic. He did not reply, and seemed to be miles away again.

After five minutes of poking, Natasha and Clint carefully skirted him. When they were well back on their way to the Spire, they exchanged looks. To the Records Room.

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The Spire slept. Or most of them did. Far above, his single eye watched the pair winding their way to the Records Room. The red guarded the rear, always alert, while the human scouted ahead. If nothing else, this proved they were perfect for his idea. Barely bonded, and still they moved in synchronicity that he envied.

Natasha was too large to fit inside the room, so huffily stood outside. She insisted on sharing Clint’s eyes though. The cave was narrow at the entrance, broadening out into a high, wide cave. The walls were lined with fabric to absorb the damp. Shelves and free standing bookcases filled most of the rest of the space.

Clint, not for the first time, blessed the orderly system. He went straight to the right section, feeling Natasha twitching with impatience behind his eyes. The record he needed, despite its age, looked fairly new. Archivers spent their time transcribing the older records, so that history wouldn’t be lost. Carefully Clint eased open the tome, and turned to the sixth month.

Archivist Renaldo reports

A Most astonishing day for our Spire. As has been recorded previously, a blue female was hatched, much to the delight of the Leader. As soon as the female was old enough, she was to be bred as was proper.

On the fifth day of the sixth month, the female was to move to the breeding area of the Spire. The female and her rider refused to comply with tradition, and the Spire Leader rebuked them. At this same time, brown Ranath sounded the alarm as the Mind-Mute attacked,

The blue and her rider defied the order to take shelter, and instead rose to right.

The blue spat some form of energy from her throat, and the Mind-Mute fell from the sky.

The blue could not explain how she performed this feat, and could not instruct others how to do the same. However, she was able to replicate it.

As we cannot be sure that this trait would breed true, the Leader has decreed that in this time of increased troubles, her abilities are better used in fighting.

There was another note tucked in at the bottom of the page, Fury’s dark scrawl covering it.

We don’t think it was a fluke

I will learn this Natasha said fiercely. I will learn this, and we will fight together as we were meant to!

The mental blaze of her determination burned away any of Clint’s doubts or fears, her black web cocooning him in confidence.

From his lurking position, Fury felt the wave of determination, and smiled grimly.

Chapter Text

Today, we fly! Thor declared.

Bruce was running every inch of the harness through his hands. Teacher Xavier has supervised the making of the harnesses, but Bruce wanted to be sure. Thor was still growing, and would need to be refitted, but there was something soothing about making the straps. The leather was soft and supple, padded with wool on the reverse to prevent chafing on the still sensitive growing scales. The metal buckles were polished to a high sheen.

Satisfied that the harness was in perfect shape, Bruce looked at it, and then looked at the looming gold.

“I can see why we need side riders,” he said mildly, toeing the heaped pile of straps.

Am I that big? Thor asked, moving his head to try and stare at himself.

“Yes,” Bruce replied, hefting the main loop of the harness. “Stick your head through here, would you?”

Thor obliged, and wriggled to send the leather down his neck. It caught midway on a spine, and Bruce moved to adjust it, only to find someone else there.

She was a tall, dark haired girl, and her hands were sure as she freed the strap. She was very careful not to touch Thor’s scales directly as she slid the strap round to rest at the base of Thor’s neck.

Sensing his riders confusion, Thor twisted to look.

“Thank you,” Bruce said. “You don’t realise just how big he is until you have to start fitting things.”

“I’m sure he will be the largest of the golds,” the girl said solemnly. “It would be an honour to fly with him.”

You are bold Thor said approvingly. You wish to be a side rider?

“Yes,” the girl replied simply. Bruce leaned back against the comforting warmth of his dragon, and studied her. Before he had been Chosen by Thor, Bruce would not have considered talking to her. There was a strength to her face that spoke of a forceful personality, and she carried herself with purpose. Now, with Thor to think about, Bruce found himself approving of her boldness.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sif,” she replied. “I speak for my friends as well.”

Are they not bold enough to approach?

She grinned briefly, the expression startling on her face. “They lost the toss.”

 

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Steve was already waiting at the teaching place, Tony’s harness coiled in orderly loops around him. His eyes were distance as he kept a track of his dragon, and he barely listened to what was going on around him.

Ever since that night on the beach, Steve could swear that he had felt their bond growing. Tony was less inclined to be sharp with him, and was spending more time teasing him than chiding him.

Steve, for his part, was finding himself drawing less and less comparisons between Tony and Howard. Howard was his past now, and Tony was his future. Steve had never thought of himself as an introspective man, but he was spending more and more time analysing things now, thinking things through rather than just acting. It was something he was coming to enjoy.

He felt Tony’s excitement before the blue came into sight. His wings were outspread in his excitement, flapping gently, raising dust devils at their tips. Steve felt a tinge of smugness that was all his own. Blue’s were notorious for their large wingspans, and Tony looked like he was going to eclipse all currently flying blues.

Look what I found! Tony declared happily when he came level with Steve, raising one wing to reveal a dusty looking man. A side rider! Steve, meet Rhodey. Rhodey, meet Steve.

“It’s a pleasure, Rider Steve,” Rhodey extended a hand for Steve to shake.

“You found a side rider?” Steve asked silently while he shook Rhodey’s offered hand.

Yep! Rhodey is in the engineering class that I eavesdrop on sometimes. He’s brainy, and Natasha says that she saw him practising with the spears. We’ve got to have him before someone else snaps him up!

Steve laughed.

“Welcome to the team, Rhodey,” he said. “Once Tony gets an idea in his head, that’s that. Hope you don’t mind playing wingman.”

“Not at all,” Rhodey replied.

“Good, in that case, give me a hand with this harness. Tony, you wiggle out of it like last time and I’ll have Thor sit on you.”

You’re not fun Tony grumped, but obligingly stayed still.

 

-----------------

 

From a ledge, Natasha glowered, her talons tapping with her agitation, the only outward sign that she would allow herself. Inside though, her mind was a maelstrom, fury and rage mixing together, drowning out the resignation. As he carefully fastened buckles, Clint had to keep shaking his head to dislodge the emotions from his own psyche.

“You do know that we are going to fly, no matter what Logan said, Tasha-mine?”

The gall of that brown! she snarled. I could outfly him, the old coot!

“Nat, he thinks that you’re just a female to be bred. You can’t blame one for the attitude of the many.”

And why are you so calm!

“Rein it in, Tash, I don’t want to be up there with a migraine, thank you very much,” and Clint smoothed down the strap that dipped around her neck. “I’m calm because I’m not listening to them. You’re going to fly, whether they say you can or not. Why worry?”

Reluctantly, Natasha clamped down on her broadcasting, but Clint could feel the boiling, seething cauldron still underneath the veneer of calmness. Why does Leader Fury not step in?

“Because he’s a manipulative bastard? He wants something from us, Natasha, you know as well as I do how much he’s been watching us.”

Why does he not just ask, then?

“Fucked if I know, Tash-love.”

 

--------------

 

The wind was perfect, just a slight breeze to the south. The heat of the day was building, and the thermals were shimmering in the air. Strapped firmly atop Thor, Bruce rested his hands on his thighs, and took three deep, calming breaths. He could feel Thor vibrating with excitement beneath him. To his left, Steve sat atop Tony, stroking the blues scales, his eyes distant as he talked with his dragon. Bruce approved.

Natasha is watching us Thor thought quietly, and projected the image of the red, higher up the Spire, all kitted out, with Clint secured between her neckridges. She plans to fly.

“Good,” Bruce said after a moment's contemplation.

At the head of the group, brown Logan crouched low to the ground, his hind legs compressing. With a mighty leap, he was aloft, and his great wings took their first important downstroke. With rhythmic beats, he clawed higher and higher into the sky, before locking the joints and settling into a simple glide.

One by one, the other dragons took to the air. When it was their turn, Bruce took a firm grip on the spine in front of him, and reminded himself to keep breathing.

I will not let you fall Thor said, even as he threw himself into the air, his huge frame powering upwards. To either side, his gold wings extended and beat hard. Bruce felt the straps strain with the pressure, but he didn’t care. Thor was warm beneath him, the wind was cool on his face, and now there was no-where that they couldn’t go.

Beneath them, the ground pulled away as Thor rose higher and higher, higher than any of his classmates. Brown Logan still circled beneath them as Thor stopped ascending, and began drifting in lazy circles.

You are not too heavy for me Thor answered Bruce’s unasked question. This is where we are meant to be.

“Yes.” Bruce said simply.

Steve knew what to expect in the air. He had flown on Howard many times. It was different though, when it was your own dragon. Tony yearned to fly, but was at the same time frightened. Steve showed him the memories of flight on Howard, showed him the beauty of the world from above, showed him the freedom that awaited. If he added a little mental comment about Howard watching this first flight, well, he could be excused triggering Tony’s competitive instinct. In a blink, they were aloft, and Steve’s head snapped backwards with the force of their ascent.

Whooooo! Tony broadcast as he rocketed upwards, pulling his legs in close to his body, finally putting into practise all the aerodynamics that he had studied. He turned as he climbed, and the sky spun about Steve. Then huge blue wings extended out to their full length, and Tony came to a halt, finding the rising thermal that he had sought.

“Good job!” Steve broadcast mentally, physically still trying to catch his breath, and wondering if he had left one of his lungs back on the ground.

Watch this! and Tony was off again, speeding through the sky with those enormous wing strokes, barrelling around and around in a show of acrobatics, almost dancing through the air. Steve could do nothing but hold on as his face froze into a broad smile. But his mind was laughing and cheering Tony on. They were flying.

She was quick in the air, lithe and darting, in one place and then in another. She could turn on a sixpence, maneuverable and light. She had listened to enough lectures to know exactly what others looked for in a fighting dragon, and she was determined to show that she could be one to.

Clint was so proud of his bond, that it was all that he could do not to scream his exultation on the broadest mind band that he could. The flak that they would take from Coulson and Logan, from Fury and from Xavier meant nothing to him, as long as Tasha was happy.

Chapter Text

The Spire Leaders quarters were supposed to be the most opulent of the Spire. Fury did not believe in extravagance though. From Coulson's ledge, Fury walked into the Spire, his booted feet leaving prints in the sand that Coulson used to burnish his scales. Coulson was sprawled on the rock shelf that was his bed. The rock was worn smooth by the generations of dragons that had used it before him.

“We've got visitors coming,” Fury noted in passing, and Coulson twitched his tail tip in response.

Through another arch, and Fury entered the meeting room. The walls had been sheathed in white marble by a previous leader, and glowed in the lamp light. A circular mahogany table sat at the centre of the room. Beyond the table, a black curtain covered the entrance to Fury's personal quarters.

Fury felt Coulson adjusting, raising himself up, ready to present his front to the world. This was almost a game they played.

Fury settled himself at the table, flaring his black coat out either side. He adjusted his eye-patch, suppressing a wince as it knocked against a particularly painful scar.

Do we need to take a trip for more painkillers? Coulson asked.

“Possibly,” Fury admitted.

The deep waters of Coulson's mindvoice stirred, a silver shimmer rising from the depths, before sinking again, taking a tinge of disapproval with it.

Blue Howard and Rider Erskine are coming in for a landing.

Fury heard the drumming of the wings then, and schooled his face to impassive lines.

“Make sure Howard hears everything,” he thought to Coulson.

Through Coulson's eyes, Fury watched as Howard landed neatly, furling his wings even as Erskine slid down to the ground. Coulson rumbled a vocal greeting to the other dragon, who dipped his head in response. Fury pulled his mind back to himself as Erskine stepped in.

“Thank you for coming, Rider Erskine, take a seat.”

Fury ran his words through his head as Erskine sat. Through Coulson, it was clear that the blue pair were intensely curious.

“Let's talk about the hatchling, Tony.”

 

-------

 

Rain was just starting to fall when Howard and Erskine left, flying till they were obscured by the falling droplets. Coulson turned his jewel like eyes to Fury, the colours dimmed from their usual vibrant shade.

Is this really the right thing to be doing? Coulson asked, the silver shimmer of doubt and disapproval returning to seep through the dark.

“What other choice do we have? We need this, we need them,” Fury said, leaning wearily against the wall. “You and I, we've stood for so long now. If this doesn't work, you know the Spire won't last.”

I don't like the manipulations, sir.

“Neither do I, but we do what we must. For the Spire.”

Fury shook his head, and moved to the peg which held Coulson's harness.

“Time to go and pay a visit to Thaddeus Ross.”

Chapter Text

After the heavy showers and stormy weather of the last two days, Bruce was pleased to note that the sun was shining.

“Good morning, Thor,” he greeted the gold, who simply bugled a response, eliciting grumbles from the nearby dragons.

“Hey, Bruce?” and Clint's sudden appearance made Bruce jump, but only a little. He was getting used to his friend's sudden appearances. “Natasha was complaining last night about her scales itching. I was going to go and get a couple of buckets of oil from the infirmary. Steve's coming for Tony, do you want to join us?”

That sounds most pleasant. I will summon Sif and her friends to attend, so I may judge if they are worthy to be side riders.

“Thor's in,” Bruce laughed. “Lead the way, Clint.”

 

The three dragons lay outside in the sun, and if any of the riders noticed anything strange about their layout, none commented. One of Natasha's tail tips was coiled around Tony's hind foot, and Tony's right wing was laxly folded and pressing against Thor's body.

Sif and her three friends, Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg were working away at Thor, while Rhodey worked on Tony. After the first bucket of oil, Thor had declared the four most suitable. The riders worked on their own dragons, and on the others. Thor was nearly bigger than Tony and Natasha combined, and needed a lot more oil.

 

Bruce was absorbed in making sure he oiled between every neckridge, and Thor was encouraging him with mental directions and pleased noises. He wasn't concentrating on his surroundings, and only realised someone was behind him when he was grabbed in a tight hug. He flailed in surprise, and tried to catch his balance. Thor did his best to adjust to his teetering rider, and Bruce managed to drop to his knees, accompanied by a very familiar giggle.

“Betty?” he asked, or rather mumbled through having his face pressed to freshly oiled scales.

“Surprise!”

The hug eased enough for Bruce to turn around, to be confronted with the dark hair and bright eyes of his childhood friend. He couldn't help the smile that crept over his face, or the warm emotions that ran through him. He hugged her back.

Clint clearing his throat (and how did the man manage to sound like he was flirting by doing that), got Bruce's attention.

“Still up for side riding?” Bruce whispered into Betty's hair.

“Absolutely,” she replied.

Thor was triumphant as Bruce disentangled himself and stood up.

“Everyone, I'd like you to meet Betty Ross, my oldest and dearest friend, and new side rider.”

Sif took Betty in with a measuring top to toe glance, which Betty returned evenly. Bruce wondered briefly if he should intervene, but then Sif cracked.

“Welcome to the family, Betty,” she said. “Come, join us in oiling this lump.”

Golden lump, if you please. and Thor sent a mental buffet that echoed like a childish raspberry.

 

Oiling complete, the three dragons lay lazy and gleaming in the sun. Bruce, Clint and Steve had taken the lack of drills to pull out the acres of harness for checks and repairs. Sif was shadowing Betty, and Thor privately informed Bruce that Sif was surprised at how knowledgeable Betty was.

Since they had all flown, they had been organised into a flight for drilling purposes. Logan and a one eyed red named Cyclops were in charge of the drills, and were hard taskmasters. They insisted on every manoeuvre being performed to perfection, and if even a single dragon was out of line, the drill had to be restarted.

After the flying incident, Natasha has been firmly rebuked and was banned from even watching the drilling, in case it gave her ideas. That didn't stop her watching through Clint's eyes, or having Thor and Tony broadcast to her. Clint still kept her harness maintained, as a little 'fuck you' to authority.

All was quiet and pleasant, until the silence was broken by an irritated shout.

“Elizabeth!”

Betty rolled her eyes and ignored the voice, focusing instead on the placement of her needle.

“We're leaving, Elizabeth!” and the man approached.

“I already told him I was staying,” Betty grumped.

Thaddeus Ross was an imposing man, with a bristling moustache that he used almost like a battering ram. Normally, Bruce had done his best to avoid interacting with the man, but times changed. He changed.

He stood up, and drew Ross's eye.

“I told you to stay away from that man,” Ross growled at his daughter, who ignored him with the ease of long practise.

“Mr Ross,” Bruce said politely, but firmly.

Directly addressed, Ross could no longer pretend that Bruce didn't exist as a sentient being.

“I told you to stay away from my daughter, Banner!” he snapped.

“That's Rider Banner, Mr Ross. And Miss Ross has accepted a position as a side rider,” Bruce kept his tone clinically calm, while deep inside, bracketed by lightning, something stirred.

Clint looked ready to join in, but a silent word from Natasha had him subsiding. Tony was wondering what she had said when his attention was diverted by another blue feathering in for a landing.

Howard cast a critical eye over the form of his hatchling, and mentally sniffed.

Runt was the single word he spoke, but the mental overlay that accompanied it tore into Tony's heart like shards of metal. Reeling from his bonds pain, Steve looked to Erskine to rebuke Howard, to apologise, but found the older riders eyes dismissive and uncaring.

At the same time, Thaddeus Ross stepped forward, fist swinging for Bruce's jaw. Calm Thor, playful Thor snarled, lips curling back from his teeth as the mental thunder roared in everyone's minds.

His face set in unnaturally calm lines, Bruce blocked the blow with a simple raise of his arm.

It was a moment that could have been cut with a knife.

Until a white dragon came tearing over the side of the spire, mind voice shouting over and over again.

To flight! To flight! Attack! Attack!

 

Coulson vaulted into the air before the echoes of the mind shout were fading, spiralling up to his ledge where Fury waited, harness already in his hands.

Hatchlings to me! Logan shouted, and Bruce broke his standoff with Ross, turning his back on the blustering general.

“Sif, Betty, help me harness Thor. Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg, get the weapons.” he instructed, still seeming unnaturally calm.

Ross looked for a moment as if he would protest, but Thor grumbled low and long, and he retreated.

Rhodey, weapons Tony said, even as he ducked his head so Steve could start the harnessing.

Get that female inside! a mindvoice shouted at Clint. Slowly, Clint gathered up his leather strapping, and slunk off with Natasha.

Adrenaline made the fingers fly, and both Bruce and Steve blessed the lessons that had ingrained the actions in their muscle memory.

Sif and Betty were moving like a well oiled team as they rigged the netting over Thor. Sif had a spare carabiner, and Betty was already safely clipped on Thor's straps. Thor was shifting from foot to foot, vibrating with urgency.

Bruce stepped closer, into Thor's line of sight.

“Be calm, Thor,” he said gently. “We'll fight.”

I feel your rage, Bruce. Thor replied. I feel how it burns you though you strive to hide it. We will take to the skies and unleash that rage on those that challenge us?

Bruce smiled, and it was a sharp edged feral expression, so different from his usual mild look.

“Yes. Yes, we will.”

He used Thor's foreleg to boost himself up, catching hold of the leather webbing that now covered the gold hide.

Bruce himself sat just in front of the spot where Thor's neck joined his powerful shoulders. Sif and Betty were positioned just slightly behind where Thor's wings started.

Fandral was first to return, pike in hand, and a bushel of javelins under his arm. He used Thor's back leg to boost himself to his post at the base of Thor's tail, making sure that the javelins would not come adrift before they needed.

Hogun and Volstagg were hot on his heels, Hogun passing wicker baskets to the two girls as he took his place just to the rear of the golden wings.

With a roar of defiance, Thor shot into the air, defying Logan and flying straight for the fray.

 

Tony kept up a constant stream of chatter in the back of Steve's mind, as Steve slid, fastened and adjusted. He tuned it out as best he could, letting the words like 'velocity', 'dynamics', 'repulse', and 'boom!' wash over him.

Rhodey came rushing back just as Steve mounted. The side riders right arm was wrapped in a collection of metal wires and oddly gleaming blue gems. Tucked under his left was a stack of javelins, which he passed up to Steve, before taking his own place between Tony's wings.

We invented it. Tony said proudly, in answer to Steve's curiosity. Rhodey can chuck a javelin, but they aren't that good, are they? So, this!

“We're going into our first fight with a new side rider, and an untested weapon?” Steve asked, even as Tony crouched for the initial spring.

There was a mental hesitation as muscles bunched.

Yes? Tony said, worry tanging through the copper tones.

“Do we even know what it does?” Steve asked, as the blue launched himself skyward.

Well, it's meant to fire energy like this really awesome blue Natasha told me about. But we couldn't exactly test it, and Reed was getting nasty enough, so Rhodey and I were going to ask you if we could test it at the beach, but then this happened.

Steve powered his love and admiration through the bond, blue sparkles of love dancing over the iron stream of consciousness. For a second, Steve felt Tony falter in his glide, a single shiver rippling the blue hide, before the blue covered it by banking into formation at Logan's side.

Until Thor burst up from the ground, thundering towards the approaching specks of the Mind Mute.

“Shall we show them who the best blue pair in the Spire is now?” Steve remembered the look in his former mentor's eyes.

Hell yeah!

In one mind, the pair shot forward, Tony cupping his wings to just the right angle to get the best speed. Steve unfastened one javelin and held it ready in his hand. His blue eyes met Rhodey's, and the two men nodded in perfect understanding.

 

Thor was like a juggernaut. He clawed through the air with mighty beats of his wings, driving straight for the heart of the invading pack. The Mind-Mute were tiny compared to Thors bulk, barely the size of a full grown cow, but they made up for it by sheer force of numbers.

As the wind whipped stinging tears from Bruce’s eyes, he leaned as far forward as his straps would allow, feeling the pressure of a ridge against his chest. Linked in mind with his dragon, he pulsed with a rage that was twofold, amplified and magnified.

How dare he/they defy us/me! How dare he/they attack us/me! We/I are the best, the biggest, the strongest! We/I will defend the Spire!

There were no tactics, Thor charged straight in, jaws gaping and talons poise. The pack of two hundred Mind-Mute scattered before his assault. One fell shrieking from the sky as Fandrals javelin pierced it’s wing. Fire bloomed along the flank of a second that tried to claw at Thors wing, as Betty calmly threw a firebottle from her basket.

Sif easily unhooked herself from the netting, and made her way forward hand-over-hand to Bruce’s position to pass a javelin to him. Still locked mind to mind with Thor, Bruce barely felt the cool metal against his fingers.

I/I am Thor/Bruce!

A tri-coloured Mind-Mute, scales blotched in eye watering fashion, swarmed up from beneath, rolling in the air to claw at Thor’s left eye. The javelin flew true, powered by rage, the need to protect and the two minds locked together. The Mind-Mute fell, fire feet clutching at the javelin embedded in its chest.

Thor roared with joy, and Bruce felt his bones rattle with the sound. The roar changed to outrage as another Mind-Mute drove straight for his head. It cartwheeled away as a blue ball of light tore away it’s wing.

Rhodey cheered as Tony swept by overhead, gliding effortlessly. He tilted and banked to bring him back into the swarm.

We’re here! Tony declared obviously to Thor. Rhodey fired again, rocking back on his straps with the recoil, and another Mind-Mute fell away from the swarm.

Greetings, my brother! Thor called. A fine day for a fight!

If you say so, Tony replied, casually barrel-rolling away from an ambitious upward strike. His wings were wide enough to bear him where the air was thinner, but the Mind-Mute could barely manage it.

Tony levelled out again, and Steve threw his first javelin. The trajectory was a little off and it tore a deep gash down the side of the Mind-Mute. The second flew truer, and the Mind-Mute plunged earthwards in a gout of ichor.

Behind the pair of dragons as their continued their aerial fight, the Spire rose in elegant lines. It was a beautiful sight, all gleaming colours and organisation. Gold, blue, brown, red, white, green, black and orange, all rose in defense of their home.

They flee! Thor broadcast loudly as the Mind-Mute broke off the attack and fled, scattering in all direction. They have been routed this day!

Oh, yeah! and Tony flicked his wings and looped in the air. Upside down, looking back towards the mass of Spire dragons, Tony swore loudly and sulfurously. With the blood rushing to his head and blurring his vision, Steve still saw what Tony saw.

A host of small, dark wings rising up behind the Spire dragons.

Chapter Text

The first pack had only been a decoy, a feint to draw out the Spire dragons and leave them vulnerable to a surprise attack from the rear.

The fight began in earnest then as the Spire dragons turned to meet this new threat.

Shall we return to fly tamely beside the rest of my brothers and sisters? Thor asked, although deep underneath, it wasn’t really a question.

We fight side by side Tony interjected seriously. Steve thinks we work better as a team. Let the Spire see how good we are.

“Agreed,” Bruce though, and was surprised to hear that agreement echoed from the side-riders as well. Through Thor he touched their minds and felt their resolve and determination. There was fear beneath, but above all was the need to defend the Spire.

On gold and blue wings they turned and headed towards the fray, ignoring shouts from Logan to fall into line. An appeal to Coulson only received silence as Thor and Tony blasted through their own ranks and into the fight again. Once more Thor ploughed into the heart of things, side riders accounting for as many as Thor himself, while Bruce directed. Tony flew high again, but not as high as the rest of the blues. He would not go near Howard.

Time passed. It could have been minutes, or hours. Thor struck and struck again, wheeling and turning on practically the same spot. Tony glided back and forth overhead in regular patterns, Steve scanning for targets below. The Spire was still in a ragged formation as they tore into the Mind-Mute.

It was only a moment's inattention. Tony was at the outside of his pattern, and the high cover of the other blues was away from him. Alone in his part of the sky, he didn’t see the Mind-Mute descending.

It came out of the sun, diving down, jaws wide and talons reaching, not for Tony, but Steve.

Tony, get down! Natasha’s voice called in his mind, authoritative and stern, dripping with venom and worry.

In normal circumstances, Tony would have defied authority, but he trusted Natasha. He tucked his wings in close to his body and dove vertically. Rhodey shouted in surprise, clinging tight to the harness, and Steve flattered himself as best he could against the blue neck.

Behind the Mind-Mute, scales blazing bright in the sunlight, came Natasha. But brighter than her scales were the flames that spat from her mouth. They burst red-gold and blue hearted in the air, expanding in a shimmering cloud, engulfing the Mind-Mute.

Tony felt the heat lick at his tail, even as he levelled out in his plunge, passing through floating ashes which drifted on the air currents.

Everything seemed to hold still in that moment, every dragon focused on the lone female in the sky, sparks drifting around her muzzle. Clint looked near to be exploding with pride, even as he slotted another quarrel into his crossbow. Even the Mind-Mute seemed hesitant, wary.

It was Logan who broke the silence.

Nice job, Red. he said simply. Although tell your Rider to watch his six.

The Spire fought on, but at the heart of it were the three. Thor, Tony and Natasha, along with their riders, were the soul of the fight, the heart of the fight. Tony flew as though he was born in the air, pulling maneuvers even the oldest of dragons wouldn’t dare, as Steve and Rhodey fought from his back. Thor was big, bigger than even the largest other gold. He was the backbone, the workhorse, and the rage of his rider kept him fueled. Natasha was not the meek female she was supposed to be. She coursed the sky with vigor, and her flames cleared her a path, while Clint guarded her rear.

Fury and Coulson still led the Spire, there was no mistake about that, but the individual flights were taking examples from the three. Tony had ascended higher into the sky, and now flew in formation with the other blues, leading them in their patterns, setting the standard for them to reach. The younger blues followed his lead, while the older blues hung back.

The smaller dragons, the oranges and the blacks, swarmed around Thor and the other golds. Thor protected them with his bulk, while they picked off the Mind-Mute that tried to get in close to him.

Natasha flew alone, and proud. She was wherever she was needed, announced by a crossbow bolt through the eye of the nearest Mind-Mute.

The unnumbered horde of attacking Mind-Mute were greatly reduced when the their instinct for self preservation kicked in, and they broke to flee.

Hold! Coulson called in a great voice that echoed through the minds of every single dragon. Let them go.

The Spire dragons held their positions then, and watched as their foes fled.

We hold the day! Thor declared to the cheers of his side-riders, and to the chorus of bugles from his flanking orange and black companions.

We rock! Tony added.

Slowly, the flights began to descend. Down went the smaller dragons, spiralling off to their ledges or to seek medical attention. Down came the larger dragons, some heading for the sea to wash the ichor off their talons. Down came the blues from their lofty altitude.

My greatest creation a voice whispered softly in Tony’s mind, disgusting and disguising oil all but gone. It was so sudden, that Tony wondered if he had imagined it, imagined that thread of pride and pleasure overlaid like gold on the words. Imagined or real though, it didn’t matter any more.

The side-riders, Betty, Sif, Hogun, Volstagg, Fandral and Rhodey, sensing they were unneeded now, hitched a ride on other dragons, down out of the sky.

Only the four were left in the sky now. Tony, Thor and Natasha, ranged against Coulson. They could not make out the expression on Fury’s face, nor could they gain any sense from the dark expanse that was Coulson’s mind. Only Natasha matched him for calmness, her own mental spiderwebs calming above the darkness. The wind rustled in Thor’s mind, defiance and pride overlaying the anger that was slowly retreating back into the depths. And Tony was brass and bronze, brazen and gleaming.

We are proud of you Coulson opened, but it wasn’t just his voice there. He spoke in both his own mindvoice, and in that of Furys.

That was not the comment that they had been expecting, but apart from a muffled Huh? from Tony, there was no other response from the three.

We admit it, we pushed you. From the moment you broke shell, Natasha, we knew you were special. You were an egg received in trade from a distant Spire, but you are and we, so much more than just another red. The moment you Chose Clint, we knew. We hoped you could do what only one has done before, and you managed it. We are proud of you.

Sparks blossomed on the breeze between them as Natasha chuffed, the only physical reaction that she would allow herself. Her mental tones stayed quiet and subdued. Clint however, beamed from ear to ear, both for the praise being lavished on his bond, and his own feelings of pride in his part in everything.

Thor, you were so big, so curious. We needed to know if there was more there, and the key to it was your Rider. We knew his history, we saw his records, and we knew what we were doing was wrong, but it was for the good of the Spire. We needed to know that you were more than just another gold. We needed to know if your Rider could make you more. And he did. And you both surpassed our hopes for you.

There would be time for shouting later, there would be time for recriminations and calls of betrayal at another time. For the moment, Thor hung in the air, Bruce exhausted on his neck. They simply listened, and did not judge. Not yet.

Tony. You were just another feckless hatchling, the latest failure from amongst Howards get. You lacked everything we thought a good dragon needed. And then you chose Steve out of what seemed nothing but selfish jealousy. But we weren’t sure. We needed, wanted to give you a chance. And you didn’t let us down. We were wrong about you.

Damn straight Tony grumbled.

We don’t know if you can forgive us for using you, testing you, pushing you. But the Spire needed it, and the Spire needs you. For the Spire, we will do anything, in order that it may survive. The Mind-Mute grow bold as today shows, where before they wouldn’t have dared to attack us, now they come in greater and greater numbers. Spire is set against Spire to the south of us, dragon fighting dragon. Armies march against each other in the name of progress. We need to change, and you three are our hopes of that change. Will you stay, and be what we will make you?

Coulson/Fury sighed, and finally let their weariness seep through. The infallible leader no longer hovered there, the indefatigable dragon. Instead, a man and his bond, weary and desperate, appeal over with, waited for the answer.

Images flashed between the three dragons, quicker than words, quicker than thought. Evidence gathered, analysed and discarded, or filed for future consideration. Their heads full, the riders simply waited patiently.

This must be something done together, or not at all Thor said.

They meant every word Natasha added. There were no lies in his mind as he spoke.

You went snooping, Nat? Tony asked with interested. And he didn’t notice you?

Smug. I’m just that good.

Anyway, Steve wants to stay and be part of this. He’s all about ‘for the good of the Spire’, even though I’ve been trying to train that out of him. Tony said.

And what of you, brother? Thor asked?

Mental shrug. It’s nice to be needed, and it’s one in the eye of my unlamented sire, isn’t it? I reserve the right to bugger off later if it gets boring though.

Natasha? Thor pressed.

Me and mine are in she replied simply.

And done! Thor projected, and Coulson stirred. But do not think, green, that we will forget what you and your Rider have done to us. There may come a time of reckoning for that.

We understand. Coulson said gravely. We expect nothing less.

Well, now that we’ve finished with the serious business, shouldn’t we be celebrating defending the Spire? Because I still need another side rider, and that red headed Archivist know what an equilateral triangle is. She could teach Steve. Tony said.

“Tony!”