"Sir." And there was Jarvis, materialising right on cue, before the crashing had even ended. "Your mechanical Turk appears to have destroyed the macaroons." He gave the faintest suggestion of a frown. "Again."
"And the chocolate pot," Tony pointed out, because, hey, interests of accuracy? The mechanical chocolate pot gave a tortured groan of agreement, then fell silent in a nest of broken clockwork.
It probably hadn't been a good idea to draw Jarvis's attention to the chocolate pot: discretion, valour, all that sort of shit. Not that anyone had ever accused Tony of discretion. Or valour, come to that.
"I'm teaching him to play chess," Tony explained.
Jarvis's eyelids dipped slightly. A handkerchief emerged from his top pocket. "Of course you are, sir."
Tony shook out an oil-stained rag and rubbed chocolate from a bishop. "Of course I'm not. I'm teaching him to win at chess. Creating an automaton that can pick up chess pieces and put them down on the board in a pre-programmed pattern is easy." He broke off. Something solid squelched under his right foot. "Easy when you're me, which you… aren't, but that's not the--"
The redolent silence registered. It did that sometimes, which kind of proved that everyone was wrong when they said that Tony was self-absorbed and inconsiderate of others and unable or maybe just plain unwilling to deal with people in ways that took their evident feelings into consideration, but that was just Miss Potts when she was angry with him, which was far too often, given the whole him paying her to work for him thing, and… Oh yes. Redolent silence.
He looked up. "You are standing," Jarvis pointed out, "on the queen."
Tony raised his right foot. The queen slowly rose up from the chocolate-soaked rug, like Venus from the waves, or some poetic shit like that. Tony paced to the armchair. "--point," he said. "To win at chess against an unpredictable opponent, you need intelligence. The vital spark. Anima. Without that, an automaton is just… mindless, a, a--"
"An automaton, sir?" Jarvis had gone into polite battle with the wreckage of the macaroons. "May I suggest that in future it might be it be advisable to postpone the creation of life until after the tea tray has been removed?"
God, he was surrounded by idiots! "I'm not creating life, Jarvis, I'm creating artificial intelligence."
Jarvis looked up from the closing salvos of his battle. "And how is that going for you, sir?"
Tony narrowed his eyes, but Jarvis's expression was still polite, his tone respectful. "Not so well," he admitted.
Jarvis looked down at the toppled automaton as if he had never seen it before. "Ah," he said. There was sarcasm in his right eyebrow, Tony was sure of it, but it vanished when he looked for it, as if daring him to ever accuse it of being there.
"The problem is…" No, he didn't owe Jarvis an explanation. "Just go… tidy all the things." He avoided a few pawns. The clock prepared itself for striking, whirring away happily to itself.
The original mechanical chess-playing Turk had been the sensation of the civilised world at the turn of the century, defeating all comers. Even Howard Stark had lost to it, and had told Tony about it on one of the rare occasions when they had… actually… talked … but the machine had gone missing decades ago, and to this day nobody knew how it worked or had been able to replicate it. "…and I said… I told myself I'd be the one to finally do it, so I could show him…"
He stopped abruptly. Jarvis was apparently devoting his entire attention to the chocolate pot. The clock struck four, the sound resonating through the brass case. The vibrations set the turban-wearing automaton twitching pathetically, empty hands grasping at nothing.
Tony picked up an abandoned prototype for… something or other. Something tapped at the window. He ignored it. And then there was the whole Iron Man affair, of course. They'd thought it a mere automaton, and he'd intended to let them go on thinking that, but, really, an automaton, and he'd kept the secret for three days, credit where credit's due, but an automaton! so he'd told them that, actually, no, it was far more complex than an automaton, only, like, aetherically powered armour that allowed him to fly, for God's sake, but even then they weren't satisfied, "and the New York Times said wasn't much of an achievement at all - that it was like cheating, to have a man 'hiding' inside, their words not mine - and that it had been more impressive when it seemed to be an intelligent autonomous machine. So of course I've got to--"
He stopped talking. The tapping grew louder. "What's that?" Tony asked.
Jarvis peered behind the drapes. "Some sort of… bug trying to get in, sir. Shall I--?"
"Of course not," Tony snapped. "No bugs allowed."
"Are you sure, sir?" A faint ghost of disagreement might possibly have haunted Jarvis's eyebrow, but the butler gave Tony nothing overt to work with.
Seriously, how did butlers do that? He would add it to his research list, somewhere behind replicating life and proving the press wrong and in the process showing SHIELD that he was indispensable - 'not a team player' indeed! - so they would come begging him to join their stupid Avengers initiative, whatever that was, actually grovelling, so he could tell them just where they could put their ridiculous offer, and… Where was he? Oh yes. He would… No. He put his pen down after writing the word 'eyebrow.' Jarvis had mastered the art of hinting at disapproval while exuding a 'who sir, me sir?' sense of innocence. Tony scorned hints and flouted innocence. Why should he care?
"Just…" Tony flapped his hand insistently at the door. "Run along. Fetch me some…? Some more hot chocolate!"
"That was the last of the mechanical chocolate pots, sir."
"Then use a boring one."
Jarvis stood his ground. "Cook will be reluctant to let another ceramic item enter your orbit, sir."
"Then overrule Cook; that's what I pay you for."
Jarvis left, taking his eyebrow with him. His white gloves were still spotless. Seriously, how did he do it?
Tony sat down heavily in the nearest chair, and surveyed the spacious work room, strewn with the viscera of failed automatons. The heavy drapes kept the late winter sun at bay. The lamps of luminiferous aether cast deep shadows behind the hulks of gleaming brass. The tapping grew louder, fireflies in the dusk. The room felt strangely empty, for all its littering of interesting tech. His hand rose to his chest, fingers ghosting over the metal plate that shielded the galvanic coil. Over a year, now. Over a year since he had emerged from the darkness of--
The window exploded.
Jarvis was there before the last shard finished falling, his fists in a fighting pose. "How do you do that?" Tony gasped as he crawled out from beneath the toppled chair. "Is it magic? Is it some secret butler magic that allows you to be instantly summoned by any hint of domestic mayhem?"
"There is no such thing as magic," Jarvis stated firmly, brushing glass aside with his handkerchief. "A wise man once proved it incontrovertibly to be the case. In the first issue of Science, I believe. In a twelve page article. With seventeen diagrams and three lithographs."
"Funny." Tony's eyes narrowed. It helped slow the pounding of his heart; helped stop his hands from shaking; helped ease the phantom pain of shrapnel edging towards his heart. "But I was right. All that magic and alchemy crap they used to talk about before the Age of Steam… Turning base metal to gold…?" He spread his hands in utter dismissal. "But, seriously… How do you do it?"
"I refrain from letting myself get wrapped up in my own little world, sir," Jarvis said, without even bothering to muster the eyebrows. Tugging at his gloves to gird himself for battle, he bent to examine the object that had come crashing through the window.
"So, who's trying to kill me this time?" The heartbeat was almost under control.
"One of your own creations, sir?" Jarvis rose with his hands full of chirruping brass.
"Again?" Tony picked up a magnification glass and a screwdriver. "Put it on the bench, then; let's find out more."
Jarvis scrupulously lowered the mechanical bug onto the gleaming mahogany. Tony turned his attention towards unscrewing its carapace. "You know, Jarvis," he observed as he worked, "when you said there was a bug at the window, I could have used some more context."
"You told me not to let it in." Jarvis sounded politely wounded. "I did attempt to convey my… concern about the wisdom of your order."
"Ha! The eyebrow thing! I knew it! You--" The antennae twitched, and Tony turned his attention to things far more interesting than human behaviour. "Now, what have we here…?"
He lost himself for a little while, tweaking and fine-tuning and easing out components. Jarvis cleared his throat. "It is not my place to ask questions, but is it a la--?
"It's a mechanical bug," Tony explained. "The carapace protects the miniature Babbage Difference Engine. The wings keep it aloft, and the antennae… Well, here's the thing. SHIELD have recently acquired a revolutionary new communications device - transmits messages over a great distance through oscillations in the aether - the technology of the future, that sort of shit. Bought from a brand new company, headed by a brilliant young inventor. You should meet him, no, wait, you already have. Remember those actors I auditioned? Anyway, long story short. Turns out it's not the technology of the future, after all."
Something clocked inside carapace. Tony groped with his free hand until he found his monocle, clicked in the magnification lens, and leant in for some close work.
"Easy to intercept messages," he explained, as he worked. "Fatally insecure. Of course, you can't get everything, not with a single bug. Direction matters. It's all about knowing co-ordinates. Unless the bug's positioned between the incoming message and the receiver, you get nothing. Fortunately, I know the location of SHIELD's New York base. Plant some bugs nearby and let them wander around a bit, and you end up with almost everything… well, at least, some - direction, remember? When the flight path intercepts… Ah, yes! Here we are! Gently, gently…" He eased the carapace off and set it down. "I know what you're thinking," he said, as he let himself preen a little. "Genius, huh?"
"I doubt you know what I'm thinking, sir." There was a certain coldness to Jarvis' voice.
"Hey, you did ask," Tony protested.
"I was only enquiring," Jarvis said, "if it was meant to be a ladybug or a firefly. The paint job is somewhat… amorphous."
Tony decided to ignore him from now on and not say anything else out loud. "So what we have here," he said, extracting the small wax cylinder, "is a copy of every-- of some of the aetheric communications the SHIELD base has received from its agents in the last--" He glanced at the calendar, but the gears had wound down, leaving it stranded on November 10th, and he remembered Christmas happening, several months ago, probably; watching snow from his mansion all alone, surrounded by the detritus of hollow parties. "--several weeks," he said. "I set it to return to me when the cylinder was full. This could be gold!"
Carefully he removed the cylinder and carried it to the lamp. The mechanical arm had done its work well, etching the words into the wax. He started to read; let out a breath, and read some more; closed his eyes for a moment, and read yet again.
"Sir?" Jarvis said into the silence.
"How is it possible," Tony said quite carefully, "for one secret government department to run quite so repeatedly out of paper clips?"
"Failure to employ the right kind of butler, sir?"
"Paper clips," Tony muttered. "Paper clips." There was one message still to read. The light fell across it harshly, causing the wax to soften. "Aha!" Tony declared, grinning with triumph. "We've hit pay dirt!"
Jarvis refrained from answering. He was looking at the shards of glass buried in the chocolate-stained carpet as if he could remove them with the sheer force of his eyebrow.
"I said it would be gold!" Tony told him. "There's gold in them thar hills!"
Jarvis clasped his hands behind his back. "The message says so?"
"Not in so many words." Tony pushed himself away from the desk and started to bustle.
"Hasn't there already been gold in them thar hills?" Jarvis asked. "'49, I believe it was."
"Different hills." Tony flapped his hands. "Co-ordinates, remember. I need my dirigible and warm weather clothing. Miss Potts will handle business while I'm away; tell her, won't you? And the mechanical Turk! I'll take the Turk. Got to have something to occupy the journey. And minions to fly the damn thing, of course."
"I believe they respond better when you refer to them as 'crew,'" Jarvis offered politely, "or better still, address them by name?"
"Whatever." Tony dismissed the world with another flap. "What are you still standing there for, Jarvis? I'm going to find me some gold."
"Haven't you already got rather more of it than anyone else in the world, sir?"
"Yes, yes." How could one man be so slow? Too much energy spent on unnecessary things like politeness, probably. "This is SHIELD gold, quote marks positively dripping from the cylinder. So what is it really, Jarvis? What is it really?"
"I expect you'll find out, sir," Jarvis said, with the air of a man walking to his doom.
Her name was Katie, and she was new in town, hardened by experience, but still young and pretty enough for men to ask questions. She told them little, of course, just enough for them to think they knew her. Three years on the passenger air lines, flying from east to west and back again, serving at dinner and maybe singing a little, dancing, too. But then she had been falsely accused of stealing from a passenger's cabin, and had been set down in some deadbeat town out west - easier than a trial; got to keep the company's good name out of the press, of course, no matter who you threw to the wolves as you did so.
Stranded in a third-rate air town in the desert, what's a pretty girl to do? She did what she had to, of course - a year or two in a whorehouse, perhaps, but maybe a season spent flying with the sky pirates, keeping them warm at night. "Look at that body!" a farm hand whispered, tracing the shape of it in the air with both hands, exaggerating, of course. "Bet she knows what to do with it!" But an old-timer shook his head. "She'll eat you alive, that one, boy. Hard as nails, she is. I know the type." He slapped his hand on the table, giving a crow of laughter. "Got the scars on me back to prove it!"
The woman heard it all, of course, and blushed a little with hurt that could not be concealed. She had been young and sweet once; perhaps could be so again. And so the men kept on with their questions. The unscrupulous ones wanted to use her, but some, not many, saw that hidden sweetness and wanted to save her.
It could almost have been cute, really.
She had questions of her own, too - subtle ones, nothing overt. None of them brought answers. Perhaps she should leave; go elsewhere.
The batwing doors crashed open, straining at their hinges. A plate fell from a dresser, shattering on the sawdust floor. Hands reached for guns. The more observant men in the saloon knew that Katie had a gun of her own, ill-concealed beneath her skirts. Her right hand went elsewhere. "Don't worry," whispered the boy beside her - the latest drone, buzz buzz buzz around the honey pot. "It's just some hotshot looking for a fight. Our guys'll take care of him. You won't get hurt. It happens most every--"
"Howdy, fellow drovers of cattle!" declared the newcomer. "I come seeking tidings!"
"--day," finished the boy, the only word in the reeling silence.
The newcomer was tall, muscled and cheerful. He walked towards the bar, spurs jingling. Several guns were readied, and hands reached for knives. The woman called Katie kept her hand where it was, and watched. "What's your game, buddy?" sneered a man in black, resident gunslinger and bully boy.
"Game?" echoed the newcomer. "I play no games this day. I seek…" He stopped; surveyed the saloon; saw the suspicious looks and the pistols and the shattered plate. "But I have failed in my courtesy!" he cried. "A drink! We must pledge our fellowship with a drink. Landlord, a drink for all these fine gentlemen! I have gold!"
He did indeed, in a bulging pouch that clearly contained far more coins than the newcomer took from it. Katie saw looks exchanged between furtive men in shadowed corners, and knew that they had reached the same conclusion. Plans were being made, involving dark places far from help.
It took a while for drinks to be poured for all the men who suddenly found the need to crowd around the bar. Conversation surged, most of it whispered and urgent, and the rest of it concerning good liquor, 'the most expensive we can get away with.' The newcomer was visible throughout, taller than everyone around him. He was still beaming.
"What is the favoured beverage in this hostelry? Is it this whis-key of yours? Landlord, bring me whis-key, a good hearty pint of it." The bartender appeared to have some trouble with fulfilling the order, because the newcomer leant over the bar helpfully. "Not that tiny thing made of glass; that flagon. Yes, that one. That one. Fill it up. Up! Up! Up! Yes, that is good!"
The crowd gradually fell silent again, sound fading away like a retreating wave on shingle.
"--mad house?" said the boy.
The newcomer was too busy drinking to notice. His head tilted back, he drained the flagon of whiskey. Mouths fell open. A soft sigh whispered through the saloon. Then the newcomer finished, made as if to hurl the flagon over his shoulder, then checked himself with a visible start. Instead, he slammed it down on the bar hard enough to crack it, and swept the back of his hand expansively across his mouth. "A fine drink indeed!" he declared.
Mouths slowly closed again. Looks were exchanged. "--whole bottle?" gasped the boy. The newcomer was still upright, still evidently delighted. The fringes on his buckskin jacket shivered, but the man did not as much as sway. "No, son," a man hissed in an angry whisper, "you can't have what he's having."
The newcomer turned expansively to the room. "Now that we have shared drink together, shall we…?" He trailed off, apparently noticing for the first time that he stood alone in the midst of a sea of stunned expressions. "What is it? Have I committed some social faux pas?" He said it carefully, as if he was quoting someone else. "Is it the hat?"
Someone a little less stunned than the others shook their head. There was indeed nothing wrong with the hat. The bandana was fastened backwards, but was otherwise unexceptional. Its colour clashed only slightly with the colour of the cape.
"Then let us talk!" the newcomer declared. His jacket opened as he spread his arms, showing brief flashes of the armour beneath it. "I seek tidings of my brother. Some say that he had been seen on Ear-- That is to say, in… in these here parts, and I wondered…" He ran his hand across his face. He seemed smaller all of a sudden, and ridiculous, an oversized child dressed up in his parents' cast-off clothes. "He is leaner than I am, shorter, and dark of hair. He is clever, and for the last few turns of your moon, I have thought him dead."
Then he drew himself up again, and once again was tall enough to fill the room, an eccentric, an individual, one of a kind, but not ridiculous, no, never ridiculous. "We have had our differences, but I would very much like to speak with him," he said, and it was simple, dignified, open… almost vulnerable.
The woman called Katie had to look away.
Words were slow to come. "Is he dressed like you, this brother of yours?" drawled a gambler at last. The newcomer shook his head. More questions came in the wake of the first. No, said the newcomer, his brother was this tall, taller than the bartender but not as tall as the trail hand by the door. His hair was the colour of that boy's over there, no, perhaps a little bit darker. His eyes were like the doc's, his face… no, not like anyone here. The deputy brought over the Wanted posters from the jail. The newcomer bristled angrily at first, then let out a resigned breath, and made no objection to the suggestion that his brother might be a criminal. But he shook his head over every picture, his shoulders sinking a little lower with each one.
Three of the shadowed men slithered out through the back door when the Wanted posters appeared. Katie noticed this. No-one else did.
"Then I shall depart," the newcomer declared, when all questions had died. "I thank you all for your aid."
Everyone watched him prepare to leave. The questions had taken him to the heart of the saloon, to a table beneath the shaded lamps. Poker games had stilled all around him. The pianist sat with her fingers poised on the keys. She had been like that ever since he had entered the saloon, Katie realised, like in some third-rate dime novel. Everyone was as taut as a bowstring at full stretch, when the slightest movement of one finger can unleash mayhem.
The cape brushed the edge of the gamblers' table. "My apologies!" cried the newcomer. He turned his attention to the green-coated gambler who first asked him about his brother. "You appear to have dropped a card; I observed it while I was busy conversing. Shall I retrieve it for you?"
No, said the gambler, no, thank you, it was quite all right.
The newcomer ignored him, bending to pick it up. The gambler made no move to take it. The newcomer's smile turned into a puzzled frown. "You do not want it?" The frown deepened as he studied the card, turning it this way and that. "There are only two hearts on it. Is this not a good card? Is this why you wish to rid yourself of it?"
The ending of the affair was predictable, if the scale of it was not. The gambler produced a derringer. The word 'cheat' was bandied around by an ever growing number of voices. A table was overturned. Someone fired a Stark Peacemaker, but as ever it failed to live up to its name. Fists flew. Bullets tore into walls. The pianist fled. Glasses were smashed. "Gentlemen!" shouted the barkeeper, "gentlemen!" but when did such men ever listen?
Only three of the drones remembered Katie long enough to try to save her. She shed herself of all three of them, one, two, three. She ignored the obvious gun hidden with such endearing ineptness below her flimsy skirts. Instead she grabbed the other two, but didn't use them, not yet. She ducked and swerved, smashing away hands that came too close. These were small people, she reminded herself, just ordinary men. Only once did she strike to wound, when she saw a lecher with over-familiar hands; even Katie with her tarnished sweetness had disliked him. Then she stepped over his body, dusted down her skirts, and walked towards the door, shedding the skin of yet another dead persona as she did so.
"Brothers!" she heard ringing out behind her. "Is this not glorious? I was not aware - Ugh! - that your people were accustomed to rounding off - Ha! - a good bout of carousing with such mighty brawling!"
Pistols in hand, she made her way across the street and waited in the shadows. Shouts and gun shots continued to sound from the saloon across the way. She fought the urge to go back, to join in. She would kill too many. No, she would kill, period, and any death on her account would be too many today. There were times when killing was necessary. There were times when killing was… - and she had learnt to admit it, to the one person who could understand - …when killing was… not fun, but the only thing that made you feel alive. But these were petty nobodies in a deadbeat town in Nowhere, Arizona Territory. They could lose their lives this afternoon, but not to her.
And so she waited. The wooden walls of the saloon quivered. A hole was blasted in the roof, and, "how did that happen?" she murmured out loud, intrigued despite herself. People started fleeing, some of them only to continue their brawling out in the street. A father dragged home his squirming son, whose fists still pounded at nothing. A horse raced down the street, chased by its furious rider.
Then a bellow sounded, louder than all the other varied sounds of battle. The newcomer came smashing through the wall of the saloon, crashed to the ground, rolled and kept on rolling, and came to rest at her feet. She looked down at him; looked up again, at the devastation he had left in his wake.
"Thor, I presume?" she said.
He looked up at her from the ground. His hands were empty, his knuckles dark with blood. His borrowed clothes were torn and half ripped from his body, revealing the armour beneath.
"You didn't bring your hammer," she said, reduced for once to pointing out the obvious.
The god at her feet looked a little chastened. "I wished to remain inconspicuous."
Katie might have laughed. Natasha just looked at the wrecked saloon, then at the ragtag figure before her, and pressed her lips together in what a few people, perhaps only one person, would have recognised as a smile.
"I think you should come with me," she said.
The medicine pouch was full. Bruce sat with his back to the cottonwood tree, and… enjoyed the solitude? Perhaps not that. Appreciated the solitude? Solitude was necessary nowadays. Sometimes it was easier to live with than it was at others. But today… today, when the prairie grass shivered in the slight breeze, and rare water reflected back the blue sky of approaching spring…
Thoughts trailed away, because after today came tomorrow, and after tomorrow came another tomorrow, and another and another and another, each marked off as lines in his pocket book. He lived near people now, and at night they were separated from him only by stretched-out animal skin and ten paces of earth beneath the stars. Even that was a risk, but the shaman assured him that…
He stopped again. Safe, he thought. He pressed his hand to the medicine pouch, bark and buds all mixed up together, not very scientific. Something moved - the breeze in the bare branches, perhaps, or maybe a bird. Shadows drifted on the water.
He could never go back.
The movement came again. He closed his eyes; opened them again. He saw a glimpse of soft pale leather; the tip of a bow. "Why did you follow me?" he asked wearily. He pressed two fingertips to his brow.
But the man who chose to show himself was paler of skin than anyone Bruce had seen for many months. A trapper, perhaps? No, something didn't quite ring true there. A hunter? Yes, definitely that, but what was his prey?
"You should leave," Bruce warned him.
The man appeared to consider it for a few moments, then shrugged. "I'd rather not."
Bruce unclenched his fist, and placed his hand quite carefully on the ground, fingers flat against the earth. "Please don't provoke me. You don't know what I'm like when I'm angry."
"Actually," the man said, with a smile that was almost apologetic, "I do know, Doctor Banner."
"Ah." Careful, careful, oh so careful. He breathed in, breathed out, breathed in again. The man held his bow with a grip that was almost negligent, but Bruce had spent the winter with skilled hunters, and knew deception when he saw it. "How did you find me after all this time?" he asked carefully.
The man rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, apologetic again, or else feigning it. "How did I find you after all this time?" The hand lowered, moving to the pouch at his belt. Without a word, he pulled something out and tossed it at Bruce. The throw was nonchalant, but the aim was perfect. The object landed barely half an inch from Bruce's hand, and lay there face up, unmistakeable.
Bruce let it lie there. He had lost that pocket watch at the end of summer, a thousand miles away. His knuckles turned white, fingertips digging into the ground. "Any more loot in that pouch of yours?"
The man shook his head, flashing a brief smile. "Makes the point, though, doesn't it." It was not a question. "But if you want more proof, I can tell you what you wore, who you talked to--"
"Stop!" The word tore itself free before Bruce could stop it. He let out a slow, slow breath. "Stop," he whispered.
The man stopped, but Bruce was no longer looking at him. He turned his face to the sky, head pressed back against the cottonwood tree. Vast, blue, endless. Think of the sky. Think of eternity.
"I'm sorry," the man said, but he didn't look sorry, not really, not when Bruce was finally able to look at him. He was crouching down, bow placed carefully on the ground beside him. "How quickly we forget our east coast manners. I have put you at a disadvantage, sir." It was an exaggerated parody of the most affected sort of society gentlemen, but it ended with a smirk. "Name's Barton."
Bruce took the proffered hand, feeling the strength there, and the calluses. Was that the point of this charade, then: a warning? "Captain Barton?" he asked. "Sergeant? Major?"
Barton shrugged. The apologetic look was back again. "Agent Barton, actually. From SHIELD."
"Ah." Bruce pressed his hand into the ground again, still feeling the cold of the other man's touch. "You do realise," he said, watching shadows on the water, "that you can't kill me. The other guy won't let you. Loose one of those arrows at me, and…" Shadows and light. Shadows and light. "He'll kill you," he said. "The other guy."
"Nah," said Barton, before there was too much silence. "Think I'd get away."
"Why did they send you?" Bruce's heart was pounding. "Why send a killer to hunt down a man who can't be killed? And you're a killer, I can tell. I know the signs." He scraped his hand through his hair, fingers gouging runnels through the thick strands. He wouldn't have known those signs a year ago.
I want to go back, he thought. I want to go back.
But science broke barriers every single day, but nobody could turn back time.
Bruce pressed his hand to his chest, feeling the pounding of the caged beast. "Please go."
"Maybe you could come, too." Barton was further away now, standing up again, not even looking at the man he had pinned like an insect on a board. "You aren't the only person I know who's scared to death of the monster inside. Hiding from it never ends well. Sometimes you have to… to accept that the monster's part of you, to control it, to… to let it out on a tight leash when having it there becomes… necessary."
"It isn't like that," Bruce said, fingers white as bone. "Don't you people understand? I am not a weapon that can be controlled or a specimen that can be studied. I'll kill you all, every last man of you. It'll happen eventually, inevitably, and then I'll… and then…"
Barton shrugged. "We can take--"
"Take care of yourselves?" Bruce's voice was weary, now; it had to be. "What a fool you are. You don't understand anything, anything at all."
"Huh. Harsh." Barton flashed a rueful grin. "And here's me thinking they chose me for my brains."
"Why did you come, Agent Barton?" Bruce asked with a sigh, the words carefully marshalled. "You could have kept yourself hidden, like you did all those other times. Why let me see you? Why talk to me? Why do all this?" Why put me through this? The bark was harsh against the back of his head. The air was cold, cold against the burning of his skin. "Not to kill me. To persuade me to join you?"
Barton said nothing, just looked up at the sky, shading his eyes against the fading sun.
"No," Bruce said, "it isn't that. Why send a hunter, a tracker, a killer to win a man over with words?"
Barton was frowning up the sky. "You're right again. I'm the wrong man for the mission. Why Coulson sent me, I don't know. We'll have to have words." He sounded supremely unconcerned, still focused on the sky.
Bruce twisted to see what Barton was looking at. High against the blue, a lone dirigible was heading west. "Strange," Bruce mused. "We aren't under any of the regular flight paths." It was one of the reasons he had chosen to come here, of course.
"It's Tony Stark." It was said with utter confidence.
"How can you know that?" The dirigible was nothing more than a distant shape against the sky.
Banner shrugged. "Stark doesn't do subtle. Name emblazoned all over things." He mimed with his free hand, a name written in lights.
"But you can't possibly…!" Bruce stopped himself; shook his head. His knuckles were not as white as they had been. "You must have very good eyesight," he said carefully.
"Really?" Barton mouth tightened in a hint of a smile. "I hadn't noticed."
Bruce traced patterns with his finger in the dirt. "It is unwise," he said, "to employ sarcasm against a man who can…" But then he found that he couldn't finish it, after all.
They were silent for a little while, while the breeze whispered through the endless grass. "No?" Barton said quietly. He gave a quick nod, almost a salute, and turned to walk away. "Of course," he said, "it's not just about the other guy. SHIELD always needs scientists. It's not good for Stark to be the unrivalled Genius Number One in the western world. Not good for the rest of us, anyway."
Bruce watched him walk away; watched him disappear. Technology changed so rapidly nowadays, and the frontiers of knowledge were constantly being expanded. Nine months away, and so much could have changed! "Just tell me one thing," he called after him. "Have they managed to split the atom yet?"
"Don't ask me," came the reply from no discernable direction. "I'm not one of you scientist types. I just use the machines. Don't have to understand them."
Long minutes passed. Bruce stood up slowly. His body was aching, as if he had run for miles. He took one step forward, froze, then drew the foot back again. He counted to a hundred silently in his head. Then he started another hundred, but stopped it with a sigh. What was the point? If Barton was watching him, then he was watching him. He probably already knew where Bruce was living and who he was living with.
Less silently than Barton, and with his fists clenched at his sides, Bruce began to walk… Home? No, not home, just the place where he was staying for a while, where there were people who helped him try to find peace.
Barton had not gone very far, after all. He stood on the edge of the prairie, his body taut and watchful, his hand tight on his bow.
Bruce knew not to approach a man who looked like that. Step away, he thought. Edge backwards. Go in another direction, far, far away. His feet refused to move. He cleared his throat, alerting the other man to his presence, although Barton probably already knew.
"Something's wrong," Barton said. "Do you see it?"
"Wrong?" Bruce frowned, not sure where to look.
"Over there." Barton twisted his wrist to gesture with the tip of his bow, just a tiny movement. No other part of him moved.
Bruce shook his head. "Just grass."
"Just grass," Barton echoed. "The same grass." It made no sense. "See that bird? It's flown that same path three times since I started watching. The same path. Do you understand?"
"I really don't," Bruce said.
"Something's wrong," Barton said again, and started to walk forward. He readied an arrow as he did so, nocking it to the string, but did not draw the bowstring back.
Bruce edged forward, stopped, edged forward again. Space opened up between them, a line of crushed grass. A hundred yards. Two hundred. Three hundred…
And then Barton disappeared, just vanished entirely, leaving nothing but an endless sea of prairie grass disappearing into the blue.
Bruce started forward; stopped again. Why could he do? It was his chance to run. No-one would track him now. Back to the camp, to say his farewells, and then away, far away, where nobody could…
He gave a wry laugh, the only sound on the empty plain. People didn't just disappear! He should investigate, take notes. He fished in his pouch for his pocket book, leafing through those pages marked only with lines. The early pages were full of equations, the ink already fading. He had no ink for his pen. He almost let the book fall into the grass, but instead stowed it back in his pouch. Then he plucked a handful of long grass, twisting it into a ragged rod. Edging forward slowly, carefully, he followed the trail of crushed grass, that was already beginning to spring up again, erasing any sign that Barton had ever been there.
He stopped a few feet short of the end of the trail, and reached out gingerly, edging the grass rod forward. He was not yet at full stretch when the end of the rod shimmered and disappeared. Beyond it, the prairie continued, wide and low. A dark bird flew on its solitary path.
Should I take the next step? he thought. Just one more step. Sometimes at night he dreamed of disappearing, of fading to nothing, all trouble gone.
Something heavy crashed to the ground a hundred yards to his right. Bruce let the grass fall. It was Barton, he thought - yes, Barton, lying face down and still.
Bruce ran to him, and went down to his knees. Barton was unconscious, and had lost his bow. Bruce ran his hands across his body, remembering old skills, using new ones. Bruises, yes, and contusions from some heavy blows. No bones broken, he thought, but an impressive lump at the back of the head. Nothing life-threatening, probably, although you could never tell when head injuries were involved.
He looked up repeatedly as he examined the man, but all he saw was endless prairie, and behind him, the cluster of cottonwood trees. The bird passed again. Nothing else stirred.
Just run, he thought. There were good healers in the camp. If Bruce told them where Barton was, they'd keep an eye on him and intervene if he needed help. It wasn't as if he would be abandoning a wounded man to die alone in the wilds.
He looked up again. Nothing. Just grass. Just grass.
Barton began to stir, his eyes fluttering open. He made no sound.
"You'll be okay." Bruce said it almost like an accusation. He wanted to stand up. His heart was pounding again. The long grass was coarse against his knees, the stems pressing against bone.
Barton struggled into a sitting position. Bruce supported him as he did so. Barton's facial muscles were taut, and his skin was pale.
"You can find your own way home." Bruce's voice rose at the end, as if he was asking a question.
Still only grass. Still nothing but grass.
"Of course I can," murmured Barton, and it was crazy, it was ridiculous, because it was the worst answer he could have given.
He wouldn't be committing himself to anything, Bruce reminded himself. He could go just far enough for questions to be answered. He could stay just long enough to know that Barton would be fine.
"What happened?" he found himself asking. "You just… disappeared. It's not possible."
"Disappeared, huh?" Barton grimaced. "I wondered. Wasn't like that for me. Things… appeared."
Still only grass. "Appeared?" Bruce asked. "What sort of things?"
"Another world," Barton said, "and a metal army."
"Oh," Bruce said, and it was quite easy, really, when it came to it. "Then I guess we'd best go tell your bosses all about it."