"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."
Chapter 2: Chapter two
A metal pellet struck the wall, shattering the stone. As Thor dodged the flying splinters, a second pellet flew more true, striking him solidly between the shoulders.
His new-found lady comrade whirled on him, a clear order in her eyes. He moved the way she commanded, letting her shoot past him with one of her tiny weapons. Someone squawked, then gasped, "She winged me!" There was a lot of shouting. Everywhere there was so much shouting.
"Are you…?" the lady asked.
Thor shook dust from his hair. "I was not impressed by these 'pistols' of yours when first I saw them, but they can indeed strike true. That blow stung like the bite of an angry ant." The lady raised her eyebrows sceptically. "As several angry ants," he conceded.
The lady pressed her lips together, then gestured with her chin, indicating the way they were to go. The path was a shadowed one, darkened by wooden buildings on either side. "Why are they so angry?" he asked. She nodded him into a doorway. He stood there while she sent out several more shots. "They yelp like a kennel of small hunting dogs. Or maybe cats."
The lady said nothing. He followed her along her shadowed path, heading towards the edge of this village of hers, towards the wilderness that was this poor corner of the realm.
"Was I not polite?" he asked her. It was good to be polite; Jane had told him so.
She shot the gun from an assailant's hand, causing the rascal to howl, grasping an anguished fist. "Why do you think your brother's here?"
A varlet leapt down from a roof, squeaking some sort of ill-advised war cry. Thor smashed him into an outhouse. "Heimdall saw… glimpses. With Bifrost gone, his eyes are bound, but he is not entirely blind. He came to Odin the Allfather and told him--"
The lady twisted like an acrobat, striking the weapon from the hand of a man who lurked behind a garbage pile.
"--that my brother Loki might be alive, and could be here, in Midgard. He fell into the void, but not even my father knows everything that lies beyond the void. There are ways hidden even from him."
"Doesn't explain the dead-end towns in the middle of nowhere." She shook her muscles loose, a fighter readying herself for the next bout.
"I wanted to come," he told her. She gestured with her gun, indicating that he was to follow her down another shadowed pathway, heading back into the village. "I begged my father. It was not easy for him to open the way."
Three men attacked them at once, with knives and guns and all sorts of interesting things. He took one, she took another, and they both removed the third one simultaneously, in entirely different and somewhat contradictory ways. "I saw them watching you in the saloon," she said, tossing back the hair that had fallen over her face. "They liked the look of your gold."
"They were attempting to steal it?" Thor looked down at the groaning pile of puny men. "It was not a good attempt. Their ancestors will not be proud."
"Your brother?" she prompted.
And then they were back at the stable. He remembered the stable, with its small horses and baffling men. "I know what it is like to be lost on Earth, alone and forsaken," he said. "I had Jane, but Loki has nobody. He has not always behaved well, but he is my brother. I cannot abandon him."
Stables smelled the same everywhere, of straw and feed and horses. "Hey, mister," said the stableboy, "weren't ya listening? I told ya you couldn't leave that thing here. It might spook the horses. 'sides, I can't lift it. None of us can."
"Fear not. I will leave it here no longer." Thor stretched out his hand, and Mjolnir rose up from the dirty straw and into his palm. It always felt like coming home, to feel his hammer in his hand. Without it, the universe was out of joint.
"Saddle me a horse," the lady commanded. "A good one. The big guy's paying."
Thor rummaged in his belt and brought out an amount of gold that caused the boy's mouth to gape open. The lady tilted her head, hearing something outside. Pressing herself against the wall next to the stable door, she readied her guns. Her face was like stone. She was a true-born warrior lady, but unlike Sif, there was no joy in her as she fought, none of fierce laughter that came from standing back to back with companions, surviving all odds.
"I… shouldn't kill them," she admitted. "Not these." And she stood there, taut with readiness, but no-one came.
At last the lady let out a breath. "You got a horse?" she asked.
Thor nodded, gesturing to the beast with his hammer. "It is a sadly disappointing creature. Your Midgard warhorses are not as they are in tales. It plods."
Her eyes rose from the ground, up and up and up. "It's… big. And it's a carthorse."
"I took the biggest I could find," Thor explained, suddenly deciding to be fond of the beast, after all. He would call her Rosie. He took up position on the other side of the door. There was still a ridiculous amount of shouting outside.
"Loki?" she asked again.
"I should be able to sense him," he said, "but there is just a blank where Loki should be. But that is not unexpected if he is lost and mortal, as I was. But he would have fallen to Earth from the sky, as I did. I asked a wise man with a book, and learned that there are places where there are… holes." He gestured a circle with his spare hand. "Craters, he called them. So I came to the largest of them and started to search. Even mortal, Loki would be remembered by those who saw him."
Outside, the shouting was slowly diminishing, replaced by the hushed whispering of men who wanted to go unheard. "They're preparing a full-frontal assault," the lady told him.
He grinned at her. "Nothing we two cannot deal with." She looked surprised, and he tried to explain. "You are clearly a mighty warrior…" He broke off, remembering politeness. "I do not know your name."
"Natasha," she told him. "Natasha Romanoff. I'm an agent for SHIELD."
"Ah, a comrade of the Son of Coul!" Thor raised his hammer in salute. "Natasha, Daughter of the Romans, let us leave this town together, you and I, and sweep through those who seek to hinder us like a scythe through chaff." Her eyes were steady on his. "But without killing them," he added. "Politely," he said, remembering Jane.
She looked at him a while, and smiled just a little, and nodded.
"Uh, sir… ma'am… the horses… they're, uh, ready?" squeaked the stable boy.
And the next few minutes were glorious, worthy of song.
Tony leant against the railing, slowly swirling the bourbon round and round in the glass. The sound of the engines seemed muted now, as it always did after a long flight, when the noise became like part of you, no more noticeable than the sound of your own breathing. Chess pieces scattered the deck behind him, testament to another failure. The night air prickled with the scent of lemons.
The world was laid out below him, just an endless sea of featureless black. There were no towns, not even the specks of light that marked the camps and villages of the older settlers of this vast land. He'd managed to leave all people behind.
He raised his glass to nobody, and drank.
It was late - he didn't really care how late. He drained the glass, swirled the dregs, and tried to drain them as well. The only light in all the world came from the navigational instruments and the portable lamps on the table behind him. Normally one for show, he'd had the crew turn off the blaze of lights that told the world that here he was, Tony Stark, passing by in a place that they could only aspire to reach.
There was nobody to see it here. There was no need for any display. There was just him and the darkness.
"And an empty glass," he complained. He groped for the decanter, but it seemed to have unaccountably turned empty. "Jarvis. Jarvis!" The butler appeared instantly, of course, as if he had been standing poised and ready behind his cabin door, just waiting for the call. Maybe he had no existence outside Tony's presence, and was summoned into being when Tony issued a command. Something to investigate, perhaps. "Another decanter," Tony commanded. He turned so that the railing was at his back, the cold night air behind him.
Jarvis was barely visible, but the man had always possessed eyes like a cat's. He stepped unerringly over the mechanical Turk, sniffing as he did so. "Why does it smell of lemons, sir?"
Tony shrugged. "An accident with the lemonade. Why did you bring me lemonade, Jarvis? I didn't want lemonade!"
"You could have rung for me to take it away, instead of subjecting it to death by mechanical Turk," Jarvis said. "Sir," he added. He disliked air travel, and always let his mask slip a little as a result. Leastways, that was the conclusion Tony had reached. He hadn't bothered to ask.
"Whatever." Tony thrust the glass in the general direction of butlerish outrage. "More bourbon."
"Certainly," Jarvis said. "Sir." He picked up a silver platter. It was markedly unoccupied by alcohol. "Please forgive my curiosity, but is it vital that the automaton is made in the form of a Turk? Is it impossible to create artificial intelligence in the body of a mechanical… Scotsman, perhaps, or an Italian gentleman?"
"Just tradition," Tony said. "About that drink…?"
"I see." Jarvis nodded in slow understanding. "I wondered if the turban was necessary to house the… what did you call it, sir? The anima?"
"The anima is intangible," Tony said. "Drink."
"Ah," Jarvis said. The platter was still empty. "I am myself very much in favour of tradition, although I was under the impression that you scorned it. Besides, I can see that a mechanical Scotsman might involve too much knee."
Hmm, Tony thought to himself. It was true that he scorned tradition. Why had he approached the creation of artificial intelligence in such a pedestrian fashion, by sticking with the Turkish paradigm? He'd make something different next time. To hell with chess! He'd make himself an intelligent mechanical butler, one that didn't criticise him beneath a veneer of politeness, one that "actually brings me drink!" he shouted.
"Very good," Jarvis said, "sir." It was said with a faint air of defeat, as if he'd decided to give up on whatever game he'd been playing, which was probably distract Tony Stark so much with inane questions that he forgets that he wants to me to do, like, actual work.
"It's about time," Tony said. He turned again, leaning out across the railing, facing into the night. He heard the sound of a decanter opening behind him… and something else, too, something easy to miss against the sound of the engines, that sound that became so normal, so natural that you forgot to notice it.
"D'you hear that? Listen!" He moved along the railing, getting as far away as he could from the engines. The noise was louder there, although still faint. "There's another ship out there." He shielded his eyes, peering into the darkness. There were no lights, but far away he thought he could see the faint glow of navigational instruments, and a small patch of darkness moving against the stars.
"Now who would be flying all the way out here," he wondered, "without showing any lights?"
"Someone up to no good." He answered his own question. "And you know what? I think Iron Man should pay them a visit."
"After bourbon, sir?" Jarvis said. "Is that wise?"
"But it'll be interesting," Tony said with a grin.
Clint slept only fitfully. He hadn't intended to sleep at all.
There were dreams. There were times when he could have sworn blind that he'd been lying there wide awake, watching the stars mark the passage of time, only to open his eyes and realise that he'd been dreaming.
He saw faces from the past. He was back in the circus. He was broken and betrayed… but of course having the crap beaten out of him often brought that particular memory back to play with him in the dark reaches of the night. He saw…
A bronze implacable face. A metal fist smashing him away as if he was nothing, nothing at all.
Someone moved slightly, a dark shape against the stars. Who…? Oh, yes. Banner. Clever guy, that one. Didn't bother him with stupid questions about how he was feeling - like a metal giant used me as punching bag, thank you very much - and knew not to touch him when he was restless and dreaming. He just sat there, silent and watchful, and made sure Clint knew he was there.
God, he hated head injuries!
The journey back to the bivouac had been harder than he had expected. Banner had walked alongside him, and had been slow, almost shy, when it came to offering physical assistance. Clint had waved him away, though - can walk by myself; always have done - and here they were. He had fumbled with the aetheric transmitter and stumbled over the encryption of the message. Banner had shown a token amount of doctorly concern, but mostly had been watching the device like a parched man shown a glass of water. "Just don't break it," Clint had said wearily, after the message was sent, but Banner had turned away from it and shown it no more interest, beyond sneak peeks.
Night had come quickly, all light leeching from the sky. The heater hummed steadily, a faint glow visible behind its metal slats. "Why build a shelter, then sleep under the stars?" Banner had asked as Clint had lowered himself painfully to the ground, hissing out between his clenched teeth. "Expensive tech," he'd explained, closing his eyes with a sigh. "Can't break another one. Coulson's still pissed about the last one. The last two."
Hours passed in thought and dreaming. Once he woke up with a gasp, sure that something terrible had flown over them in the night. He looked at Banner; breathed in and out, in and out, in and out again. "Hear anything?" he asked at last.
Banner shook his head. But it didn't have to mean anything. Banner was a man wrapped inwards, and a night like this would make him both blind and deaf.
The stars moved slowly on, a giant clock in the sky for those who knew how to read it. One o'clock came, then two…
There was somewhere he had to be, somewhere desperately important! He flexed his hand, but it was empty, his bow gone. He yearned for his bow. He had to go… No. Where? He saw a man with pale green eyes, smiling coldly. He wanted--
Banner cleared his throat quietly. Still here, the sound said. Clint blinked; scraped a hand across his face. "You're good at this," he said. Banner looked at him. Clint tried to marshal the words to explain what he meant, but it was easier not to. Still, he wondered if Banner had experience of watching over injured soldiers, with their hair-trigger reactions when they imagined they were under threat.
"I've had practice," Banner said at last, "in a way."
Clint tried to stay awake after that; watched the stars, and tried to calculate how long before they could expect company. As it was, the arrival of the dirigible startled him from another tangle of jagged dreaming.
He stood up, pushing on past the pain of stiffening bruises. His head throbbed, but it was better than it had been, better than it could have been. The signal whistle came from above. "Care to catch a rope?" he asked Banner. "No, stay back for now. They'll drop the stakes and mallet first." He counted the thuds, then ordered Banner forward. Banner was given a gently lowered rope, while Clint got a heavy end that crashed into the ground beside him, missing him only because some instinct caused him to dodge. "Gee, thanks, guys!" he called up, and received a soft chuckle in reply: "Knew you'd dodge it, Hawk. You always do."
Within a few minutes, the dirigible was safely tethered, and the team came sliding nimbly down the anchor ropes, just four of them, dressed for stealth. Clint greeted them with a nod. "Who's showing off now?"
"You okay, sir?" asked Sergeant Fowler, all business as usual.
It went against the grain to admit weakness, but it was a betrayal of team mates to keep such things hidden. "Been better," he said. "Not enough to compromise my effectiveness if things heat up."
"So what're we facing?" Fowler asked. "Your message indicated--"
"I'll brief you on the way," Clint told him. The night was passing, and he wanted it to still be fully dark when they reached their target. He wanted to get moving. He wanted to be upright and doing something, away from the dreams.
You've got to come back, come back to us.
Banner had retreated, withdrawing back into the night. "Your friend coming with us, Hawk?" one of SHIELD's soldiers asked.
"No." Banner's voice was quiet. "I'll stay here."
"Guard the tech." Clint nodded at him, but perhaps Banner couldn't see. "Don't break the toys while we're away."
He wondered if Banner would be there when he returned, but thought it best not to say anything out loud.
The cabin was a painted shell, enclosing emptiness. They had given him lanterns with candles in them, as another part of their lies. He knew that the cabins in the rest of the vessel were lit in quite another way.
Agent Coulson had asked him, quite hesitantly, what he remembered. But that was the problem: Steve remembered everything. It wasn't sixty-three years ago to him; it was yesterday.
They had been well-meaning, of course. They had tried to protect him from the truth at first, so they could break it to him… when? When they were safely down on the ground? When he couldn't "respond badly" - those were Coulson's words - and throw himself from the railing to the ground so far below?
Not that he would, of course. He was the super-soldier in more than just body, and what did soldiers do but endure?
The deception had survived mere minutes of his waking. Not even Coulson, who used words as weapons cloaked in a mild smile, could hide the roar of the machines that powered this flying vessel of theirs. They had painted the walls, but nothing was right, the fabric dyed a colour too bright to be natural. A string quartet had played Mozart from the cabin next door, but the sound had been crackly, and it had grown more and more flat until it faded into a whimper.
Coulson had told him the truth, but only when Steve had pressed him to. "The nation still needs you, Captain," he had said at the end of it.
"With advances like these?" There was so much that was marvellous - staggering inventions that these people treated as if they were nothing remarkable at all. It would have seemed like a world of wonder, had he not been lost in it.
"Because of advances like these," Coulson had said, but he had not explained it, and Steve had not asked.
Sixty-three years gone. Sixty-three years, and every person he had ever known…
He hurled the blankets away, swinging his legs out of the narrow bed. It was always cold on deck, as if he was still trapped in the ice that Coulson had told him about. They had stripped him of his clothes as he had lain sleeping, but had given him a thick coat that was too small for him, cut in a style that seemed outlandish to him.
He remembered Bucky talking one night - months ago, decades ago - about what the future might be like. 'And everyone will have a horseless carriage of their very own, a flying one, and they'll all wear suits of shiny silver, and the ladies will have gowns that show their ankles. Bring me more beer!'
"We never thought I'd be seeing it with my own eyes," Steve murmured to the Bucky of memory, now so many years dead.
Perhaps he should have disbelieved it, but he had seen too many amazing things already. But it didn't stop him from waking up throughout the night, sure that it the whole thing was a dream, desperate for it to be so.
Coat wrapped tight around his body, he went on deck, and made his way to the very front, where the wind lashed at its coldest, and the night was at its darkest. Leaning against the railing, he looked down at the darkness below, where changes unimaginable lay hidden by the night.
It would be a stealthy operation, Tony decided. He would fly over to the mystery ship, poke around for a while, and then come back, armed with answers. The Iron Man suit hummed and clanked, but so did the dirigible. There would only be a skeleton crew this late in the night, concentrated around the engines and the navigation station. If he landed at the end of the viewing deck…
He began to touch down. Someone gasped. "Whoa!" Tony's aborted his landing at the last possible moment, teetering on the railing, arms pinwheeling. He'd already disconnected the propulsors from the galvanic core in anticipation of the landing, and there was nothing to keep him from falling. With a desperate lurch, he managed to hurl himself forward to land in a heap on the deck. The landing was soft, at least. Then the soft landing started to move, and turned into a man.
Everything was tangled for a couple of minutes. The suit made Tony less dextrous than normal, it was difficult to extricate his limbs from the general pile. "Ow," he grunted, because apparently it hurt to be locked inside a heavy armoured suit of iron which had crashed on top of a regular man. "What the hell were you doing there?" Tony raged, when they had finally sorted themselves out into two separate men. He hurled his visor open. "You were in my way."
"I was looking at the view." The other man sounded righteously indignant, rather than furious. "I'm not the one whose behaviour was out of the ordinary. You landed on me."
Tony pushed himself upright, the pneumatic joints hissing as he did so. "Point," he conceded. He felt vaguely dizzy, but maybe it was the bourbon, rather than the heavy landing. Nothing felt broken.
"Are you…?" The man appeared to be studying him from head to toe and back again, although it was too dark for Tony to see his expression. "Forgive me for asking, sir--"
"'Forgive me for asking'" Tony echoed. "God, I've found me a second Jarvis."
The other man seemed to wince a little, as if he disliked something that Tony had said. "I was merely wondering," he said stiffly, "if flying armour such as yours is commonplace nowadays."
"Of course it isn't!" Tony was suitably outraged. "I'm Iron Man!" He got no response. "Remember? 'I am Iron Man, ' all that shit, crowd goes wild?" Still nothing. "God, have you been living under a rock for the whole of last year, or something?"
"Something like that," the man said, quite determined to infuriate him.
"Tony Stark?" Tony prompted. "Genius? Billionaire? Playboy? Philanthropist? No? Come on," he urged him, "you must have heard of me. Everyone's heard of me. Okay, there might be some nomad out in a desert somewhere who hasn't, but… Tony Stark!"
It occurred to him suddenly that he had intended this as a stealth mission. Oh, well.
"Stark?" the man said, and bingo, yes, he had him! "Are you any relation of…? No, of course you aren't. He'll be dead by now. I keep forgetting."
"No relation of anyone." Tony spread his arms proudly. "Just me."
The man seemed to have sunk himself in some sort of self-pitying wallow, leaning with both arms on the railing, staring out at the darkness. Tony clanked towards him, and the man turned his attention back to where it belonged. "I apologise for my bad manners," the man said. "I have failed to introduce myself properly."
Tony flapped his hand, as well as he could do so with stiff pneumatic joints and a body full of bourbon. "Don't worry about it. I wasn't caring."
The man executed an honest to goodness little bow, like an idiot actor on the stage. "Captain Steven Rogers at your service, Mr Stark."
"Whatever," Tony said. "So about this stealth dirigible of yours…?" Hold on a moment. What had the man just said? "Captain Rogers? Captain Steve Rogers? What d'you know? Captain America, in those crazy old broadsides and pamphlets? Steve Rogers, who my father wouldn't shut up about? Captain Fucking America. You're kidding me, right?"
"You're Howard Stark's son?" said the man who claimed to be Rogers. "Please don't swear."
"Of course I am," Tony said. "It's hardly a state secret."
"I can see the resemblance, now I come to look for it," said the so-called Rogers, as if it wasn't too dark to see anything clearly.
"You're kidding, right?" Tony fought the urge to pull down the visor of his helmet, to cover what little of his face the man was pretending to be able to see. "There aren't any photographs of my father until he's, like, at least sixty, and if you think I look like that…!" He gave a derisive laugh. "Unless you telling me you really are the great Captain America myself, who knew my father when he was younger than I am?"
The fake Rogers said nothing, but exuded honesty.
"So let's say you're Captain America." Tony decided to humour him. "It's pretty dark out here, but not so dark that I can't see that you're not ninety. So how, oh great Captain America, did you manage to stay so buff and young looking?"
"I've said too much already." The impostor's tone was dull. He was wallowing again, selfishly refusing to play.
"This is a SHIELD ship, isn't it?" Tony settled next to him at the railing, leaning towards him with the air of a co-conspirator. "Course it is, all dark like this. They told you some tale about it all being hush hush and classified? Don't worry about that. Me and SHIELD, we're this close." He held up two fingers, but the metal gauntlets refused to let him cross them to illustrate his point. "Fury and I, we're best buddies." Rogers gave no sign of recognition. "Or is it Coulson with you?" Rogers looked up, as easy to read as a toddler. "Best buddies, me and Coulson - he calls me Tony and I… call… him… Agent, and you don't think they'd let just anyone fly around in a baby like this?"
"I was… frozen," Rogers said. "As far as my memory goes, yesterday I was fighting for the future of the world in the year 1815, and today I'm here. They tell me I was under the ice."
"Frozen. Huh." It was not an entirely preposterous claim. It was possible to preserve turkeys by freezing them in ice, after all. Of course, the turkeys were dead throughout the process, but there'd been an article in Science a few months back that had postulated that one day it would be possible to preserve even human life at very low temperatures. Of course, the guinea pigs had died, but death didn't negate the theoretically possible. Not that he'd read the article to its conclusion, just skimmed it - most of it was the usual blah blah blah you expected from a journal like that.
"Let's pretend for the point of argument that I believe you," he conceded graciously. "So you're 'frozen' and you 'wake up' over sixty years in the 'future.'" The joints of his gauntlets wheezed as he did the air quotes. "But don't try the whole 'world's first superhero' thing, 'cause I aint buying it."
"It's true," Rogers said quietly.
Tony snorted with laughter. "Alchemy, seriously?" He'd devoured all the old Captain America pamphlets as a child, actually, until he'd grown up enough - like, reached the age of five - to realise that it was nonsense escapism, with no possible grounding in science. It had become one of the bones of contention between them, the fact that his father persisted in keeping up the charade. "You were an ordinary puny little man, until an alchemist finally managed to create the fabled philosopher's stone, allowing him to turn the base metal of common humanity - that's people like us - into the gold of human perfection, that's you?"
Rogers had his arms wrapped tight around his body, as if he was cold. "I have never claimed to be perfect."
"Whatever." Tony flapped his hand. "They claimed it for you, before - oh what do we have here? - the alchemist was killed and all his research was conveniently destroyed when the British burned Washington." He let out a breath. "Look, I get it. I understand the need to produce a hero in wartime. I know about creating an image for the press. I get it, just admit it for what it is: a lie. A show put on for the newspapers and the credulous public, but not real. "
And there he was, twenty years back in the past, arguing with his stubborn, cold, ridiculous father, who refused to admit the truth, who treated him like a child, who never seemed to credit him with… well, with anything much at all, and then had gone and died, so the emptiness between them had turned into an enormous endless void, never to be bridged ever again.
"You were the gold," he realised suddenly. "SHIELD said they'd found gold in Alaska. I knew they didn't mean it literally!"
Rogers looked up sharply. "I thought you were in on their councils."
"Not so much." Tony shrugged. Then, because there was no need to lie to a man who was one enormous walking lie himself, he tried to explain. "I knew they were up to something, so I might have just… invented a revolutionary new method of communication, and created a fake company to sell them exclusive rights, and… not told them about the insecurity of the system which meant that I could intercept their messages and find out everything they were talking about." It sounded good, put like that. He was quite proud of it, really.
Rogers was silent for a very long time, standing wrapped in his too-small coat. There were no heaters on the deck of the SHIELD dirigible, and the air this high was always cold. "Do you mean to tell me," he said at last, "that you created something that could benefit the whole of humanity, but instead of using it for the betterment of your fellow man, you sold it for profit to people who will keep it to themselves?"
"Uh-huh," Tony agreed.
"And, moreover, you made it deliberately flawed in order to deceive and spy upon a government agency that works tirelessly to keep the world safe?"
Tony chewed his lip. Put like that, it sounded… bad. "It's not completely flawed," he protested. "I know how to tweak it so the messages can't be intercepted. It's not hard." He grinned hopefully, spreading his hands. "Go me?"
Rogers was remorseless. "But despite knowing this, you refrained from putting these 'tweaks' into practice, preferring to score points by selling a deliberately flawed invention?"
"Hey, that's not fair!" Tony shouted. "It's not about scoring points."
"What is it about?" Rogers had his arms folded, like a stern and unforgiving teacher, with Tony a little boy again.
"They wouldn't let me play with them," he explained. "Not that I want to play with them, of course. I turned them down when they asked me. Then they changed their minds and wouldn't let me join their team." It suddenly occurred to him that he might be just a teensy bit drunk. "And they're keeping secrets," he said. "Secrets are bad, so that makes them the bad guys, right, and I still don't believe you've got any magic powers, so there."
"Not magic," Rogers said.
"Any powers at all," Tony corrected. Then he was struck with sudden inspiration. Captain America was supposed to have super-strength, wasn't he? "Hit me," he commanded, as he pressed the button that would charge his suit up, not to full power, because he didn't want to kill the man, but enough that any blow from the all-too-human fist of the fraud in front of him would bounce right off him, without Tony as much as swaying. "Go on, hit me. Don't hold back."
Rogers took him at his word. Pain exploded in Tony's jaw, and he had no idea what happened next, until he was blinking upwards from the shattered wreckage of a cabin door, his ears ringing and blood in his mouth.
"Not on the face!" Tony tried to shout, but his jaw didn't want to work. He appeared to have travelled half the length of the deck. He tried to sit up, but thought better of it. His head fell back, and he began to close his eyes.
"Good evening, Mr Stark," said a pair of polished shoes. He could see his face in the mirrored shine of those shoes. Did their owner know that they had Tony Stark's face on their feet?
Tony peered upwards. "Oh," he said. "Agent Coulson. Hi."
It seemed like a good idea to fall asleep right then.
They were entirely silent for the last mile. Clint checked the compass one last time, but it was hardly necessary. The moon had set, but the night was beginning to turn pale at the eastern horizon, allowing him to pick out the subtle landmarks he had marked on the almost featureless plain. They were close now.
He signalled his commands, confirming tactics agreed at the start of the mission. Two one way, two the other, and himself in the middle, alone. This was reconnaissance only, no matter how badly he might want to avenge defeat with guns blazing. Report back on the nature of the threat, and let Fury make the call on what it meant and what the hell they were going to do about it. He just followed orders.
Occasionally, he imagined Coulson adding. When you feel like it. And then there was someone else speaking in his head, not Coulson at all. Come to us, but not here. This isn't the right place any more. Walk away. Just walk away.
"Sir?" Fowler prompted, a whisper as quiet as the breeze in the long grass. Clint realised he had been standing still for a very long time - no, realised that he had actually begun to walk away from the others. He'd gone just three steps before stopping, but three steps were three steps too many.
"Let's go," he commanded, and then training took over, making him silent and invisible, unerring in the dark.
"You won't see anything on the approach," he had told them earlier. "There's some sort of… I don't know, illusion field? Makes you think you're looking at empty prairie and hides what's really there."
"Weird," Fowler had said.
"Plenty weird on its own, but weird turns into outright dangerous when you get inside. There's some sort of army base in there, machines, smoke, industry. And metal automatons guarding the borders. Giant metal automatons."
"Recommendations as to how we take them out, sir?" Fowler had been as unflappable as ever.
"Don't try." He hadn't liked to say it. "I couldn't even put a dent in them." He'd leavened it with a rueful smile. "Too bad they had no such problems when it came to putting a dent in me."
But only because I fought, he thought. I should have lain down my weapons and gone to him.
He pressed his fingertips to his brow, not sure where past finished and the present began. Just a reconnaissance; he had stressed that repeatedly, to agents who only needed to hear an order once. Quick in and out again, with the rest of the team as back-up in case things went wrong; with the rest of the team to go back and report in case he never got out himself.
Too late for that now. But one day, soon.
His head was throbbing. They passed the spot where he had hidden and watched Banner. Not far now. The approach wasn't ideal, with the coming dawn behind them and their target still lost in the dark, but he had no idea how big the illusion field was, and how far they would need to travel to approach it from the other side. Besides, he had completed missions in far worse circumstances. This was…
There were pale patches ahead of him, walls and buildings showing in the pre-dawn light. He crept forward, but he already knew what he would see; had expected it, really - and why, why, how had he known? He shook his head sharply to clear it, then had to stop completely as the headache screamed to a crescendo, then slowly faded again.
"Sir?" Fowler was at his side again. Clint hadn't even noticed him approach, so either Fowler was good, or he, Clint, was… No, don't go there.
God, he wished Natasha were there. She would understand without words; would know exactly the right thing to say, which was often nothing at all.
"They've cleared out," Clint told him wearily. "The illusion field, whatever it was, has gone. They've left the buildings behind, but they're empty."
They had to check, of course - had to creep through the entire complex in a state of constant readiness, just in case the enemy was waiting to attack - but by the time the sun was up, they had merely confirmed what Clint had already known.
It would have been better to have been proved wrong, he thought.
Bruce began a dozen times to leave. Barton was no longer his responsibility. The message had been safely delivered, and a team from SHIELD was on the case. There was nothing Bruce could do to make a difference, not any more. He was back to where he had started, a danger, a threat. That's why he hadn't gone with them, in case there was gunfire and violence, in case the other guy saw it and came out to play.
He gripped one of the anchor ropes, and looked up at the tethered dirigible. It was entirely silent when its great steam engines were stilled, and when he stood beneath it like this, it blocked out the sun.
'Guard the tech,' Barton had said, but it wasn't a real job, not something that would suffer if he cut and run. Barton had left the communication device unattended the previous day, after all; presumably it was too bulky and heavy to be compatible with that stealth thing he had going on.
Barton hadn't said anything to Bruce about leaving. He hadn't commanded him to stay. He hadn't left one of the soldiers to guard him. There hadn't even been a casual 'don't go anywhere, will you?' Instead he'd just walked away, leaving Bruce alone with a valuable device and with a dirigible that could take him anywhere he wanted to go.
When someone distrusted you, you could run away, no looking back. It was so much harder repay trust with betrayal.
The communication device was marvellous, though Bruce refrained from examining it too closely. What other marvels were out there in the world, developed since he had been away? It was cruel of Barton to leave him here, with this. It wasn't just a machine, it was a shining window to a world he had lost.
His fists clenched at his sides, he walked north, blindly, urgently, then stopped and came back more slowly. He was sitting in the sunshine, staring at blank pages in his pocketbook, when Barton and the others came back, not long before noon.
"What did you find?" he asked.
"Nothing." Barton's face was closed against the world. He looked neither to the right nor the left as he marched to the shelter. Wordlessly he knelt down and pulled the heavy communication device towards him.
"Quite a lot, actually," one of the soldiers said confidingly. "Empty buildings. Indications that a sizeable force was camped there, and that some sort of machines were being produced."
"You saw it?" Bruce asked.
The soldiers exchanged looks. "Yeah, we saw it," agreed the tallest one. "No trouble at all. Thing is, we were wondering…" He moved a little closer. Did he know who Bruce was? Bruce dug his nails into his palms, but was unable to resist the urge to back away slightly. "See, the Hawk's taken a blow to that thick skull of his," he whispered. "Wouldn't dare say it to his face, mind, but me and the guys, we were wondering if he'd, well… imagined the whole invisible illusiony thing."
"The Hawk also has very good hearing," whispered another, jerking his chin towards Barton, but Barton was concentrating on the communication device, and gave no sign of having heard.
"He didn't imagine it," Bruce said. "I was there. I saw him disappear into thin air, then saw him reappear a few minutes later. It happened, gentlemen, I assure you."
He looked over at Barton was he spoke, but Barton was still focused on the device, deftly turning dials with one hand, while the other hand cranked the handle. He had heard the whole exchange, of course, Bruce realised. Moreover, both soldiers had known that he would, and had spoken knowing that they'd be heard by the very person they were talking about.
Something close to pain twisted inside Bruce's chest. He took a step back. No-one seemed to notice.
Barton was frowning over the device. "I can't get an acknowledgement from the outpost," he said. "I've tried three times. I've sent out the metaphorical hand-shake, but there's nothing. I'm getting nothing back, no indication that I should proceed with the message, no… nothing. "
"Plenty of innocent reasons, sir," one of the soldiers said. "Operator dozing off. A bird nesting in the big receiver. An emergency involving paper clips."
But Barton was shaking his head. "Or it could be bad," he said. "It could be very bad," and his expression showed not fear, but knowledge.
end of chapter two
Chapter 3: Chapter three
"Ow!" Tony said accusingly, because it seemed like a good first step before he ascertained the scale of the problem. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry. Bourbon, he thought, diagnosing the cause of those particular malfunctions.
He opened his eyes, and there was problem number three, the harsh glare of sunlight. And problem number four was sitting there looking down at him.
"You hit me!" Tony protested, because, yeah, there it was, right on cue: problem number five, in the form of a throbbing jaw.
"You told me to!" Rogers sounded as righteously indignant as you'd expect from a hero, all who, sir, me, sir, but he deserved it, sir, blah blah blah. "I'm a soldier, remember? I obey orders."
Was he joking? Tony narrowed his eyes, but there was no sign of it on the man's sickeningly honest face.
"Yeah, well, yes, I did, but...." Tony shifted awkwardly, failing to find any possible way to get comfortable. "You didn't have to take me quite so liter-- Hey!" He diagnosed problem number six, in the form of stiff muscles, like, everywhere. "You left me lying where I was? You didn't carry me to a bed? You let me sleep in the Iron Man suit?"
"I brought you a blanket." Rogers raised a corner of it, like a puppy offering up a ball.
The shiny shoes of Coulson hoved into view. "Would you have preferred us to strip you naked while you… slept?" The tone was one of disinterested enquiry, but there was the slightest hesitation before the final word, imbuing it with an emphasis that Tony didn't much like.
"I'm always fully clothed under the suit," Tony snapped.
"Ah." Coulson nodded slowly, as if digesting this, then pulled out a notebook and scrawled a few words. "More than a few office bets that will be settled by this revelation." He closed the notebook and returned the pen to his waistcoat pocket.
Tony struggled awkwardly to his feet, pushing past the protests of muscles that had spent the night locked in the unnatural stiffness imposed by the armour. He'd designed the suit to be quick and easy to put on and take off again, even when he was alone. He pressed a button here, turned a wheel there, opened a buckle, unfastened several brass screws. It took barely ten minutes. Beneath the armour, his clothes were crumpled enough to send society hostesses into fits of the vapours, but nothing that Jarvis couldn't fix with starch and a smoothing iron.
"There," he said, when he was done. He felt almost human again. There were times when it felt like being a god, to be wrapped in his armour, but other times it made him feel faintly ridiculous.
Rogers had turned his back politely during the process, he noticed. Coulson was standing there impassively, his finger tapping barely perceptibly against the leather cover of his notebook.
Tony grimaced, sticking his tongue out several times in a disgusted God, I'm parched, bring me drink! sort of way. Coulson just stood there, too stupid to take the hint. "Coffee?" Tony prompted.
"It can be arranged." Coulson said, with a smile both obliging and inane. He looked past Tony and made a few quick gestures with his fingers. Tony twisted round in time to see a man at the far end of the deck nod obediently, then hurry off. There had been nothing about Coulson's gestures to indicate coffee. The man would probably come back with a commode, or something, and then Tony would laugh.
Rogers was still politely averting his eyes. "For God's sake, Cap," Tony told him, "you can turn round. All decent. Nothing to make a maiden blush. Oh, I'm sorry, you are a maiden, aren't you?"
In the unforgiving daylight - and seriously, sunlight, ow! - the so-called Rogers really did look remarkably like the man in Howard Stark's prized lithograph. The noble, stick-up-the-ass dignity was certainly the same. Tony tugged at Coulson's impeccable sleeve. "Where'd ya dig him up from?"
"Apt," Coulson said. We dug him up in Alaska. And he is, before you ask, entirely for real."
Tony laughed raucously. It was hard to maintain. His jaw really did hurt. He had powered the suit to forty percent, more than enough to withstand the right hook of any prize fighter.
"An old-fashioned hero," Coulson said, pressing his notebook to his chest, "come back to aid us in this troubled present of ours. In medieval times, they said that King Arthur was only sleeping and would return to save them all from war and pestilence. The English have their Captain Drake, asleep until the people have need of him."
"Get a room, Coulson." Tony shook his head derisively. It was a mistake. "Go make kissy eyes at him someplace else. It's not the second coming of Jesus Christ."
"That would be blasphemy," Rogers interjected, solemn and shiny and clean.
"Okay, I'll grant you that he may well come from 1815, or whenever the hell it was, because nobody like that could have survived to adulthood in the modern world, but I refuse to buy the alchemy thing. Alchemy," he stated, "is just another word for magic, and magic doesn't exist."
Coulson was nodding along obligingly. "Oh yes. I read your article in Science. Quaint."
"I've seen things in this world of yours that look like magic to me," Rogers said quietly. "Your iron suit, for one."
"That? Quaint," Tony said, returning blow with counter-blow. "That's science. That's technology. When ignorant people talk about magic, it's just science too advanced for them understand. Write it down," he said to Coulson. "Stark's Law."
Coulson did indeed write something down.
"But science will never find a way to turn lead into gold," Tony continued, emphasising each word, "because it can't be done, and don't tell me that Isaac Newton was into alchemy, because I know he was, but that was two hundred years ago, and just because a man's a genius in one field, it doesn't stop him from being an idiot in another."
Coulson looked up from his writing. "I am coming to that conclusion myself. Oh, here's the coffee."
It was indeed coffee, and not a commode. They moved inside the cabin, where the minion poured Tony a cup. It was a delicate cup of bone china, decorated with bluebirds and flowers. "Huh," Tony grunted. He had expected a secret government agency to have a dinner service that was more… stealthy? Utilitarian? Deadly? Not that anybody could kill someone with a coffee cup.
"Shall we turn to business?" Coulson suggested mildly.
Something about his tone caused Tony to pause between one sip and the next. He laid his cup very carefully down on the saucer. Coulson had never once expressed any surprise about his presence, he realised. There was none of the outraged how did you find us? and please, sir, this is highly classified, sir, that you normally got when you gatecrashed a SHIELD operation, not that he'd done such a thing often, of course, only twice. Three times. Okay, six.
"You…" Tony began. No. Of course not. I couldn't be. "You…"
Coulson was smiling at him, mild, encouraging.
"No," Tony said. "You… I can't… I'll be… No."
Coulson sat down on a high-backed chair, and took a sip of coffee. "Interesting fact," he said. "Secretive government agencies are not prone to buying untested tech from companies with no proven track record, no matter how persuasive the inventor."
"It had a proven track record!" Tony protested. "I wrote it myself!"
"Nor are they prone to installing said tech without running exhaustive tests, covering, amongst other things, whether their messages can be intercepted by hostile parties. They are, after all, a secret government agency, emphasis on secret."
"Ah," Tony said. "Uh…"
Coulson gave a cheerful smile, no guile in it at all. "It's actually proved to be a very useful device, quite a remarkable one, in fact, allowing us to communicate without wires, something our tame scientists had told us lay at least ten years in the future. It means we can receive communications from our agents in the field without them having to return to one of our outposts." He took another sip, replacing the cup soundlessly in the saucer. "Of course, we ensure that our real messages are sent in code."
"Code," Tony said. "Uh…"
"I don't really understand any of this," Rogers offered politely.
"SHIELD has a base in New York City, of course," Coulson said, "but of course it isn't the building where you planted your ingenious mechanical bugs. They were much admired, by the way. Tame scientists, ten years in the future, etcetera etcetera."
"It said 'SHIELD' over the gate!" Tony managed at last to produce words.
"Indeed." Coulson placed his the cup and saucer on the coffee table. "It was deemed probable that you would prove skilled at cryptography should you get your hands on our real messages, so we sought to keep you occupied with fake messages. Unfortunately, the agent on that particular detail was somewhat… lacking in imagination."
"Paper clips." It sounded slightly strangled.
"Precisely." Coulson looked pained. "SHIELD would be a wretched secret government agency indeed if it had failed to master the procurement of office supplies."
"What are paper clips?" Rogers asked.
Coulson pulled one out of a pocket, and tossed it at him without looking. Rogers caught it unerringly, of course. "I'm sorry, Mr Stark," Coulson said. He didn't look sorry, not one little bit. "You mustn't feel very stupid. The trouble with you genius types is that you tend to under-estimate the rest of us. Egotistical people are the easiest to deceive. You just allow them to feel as if they've outwitted you, and then they'll leave you alone and let you get on with the things that need doing."
Tony felt a very strong urge to hit something. He clenched his fist tight enough to hurt. "So what was the point of the whole charade?"
Coulson smiled. "It brought you here when we needed you, didn't it? I doubt you would have responded the same way to a polite request."
Tony stood up and walked away, out of the cabin, out into the sun. He wanted… God, he wanted… I want a drink! he thought, but it wasn't that. He felt… God! And Coulson would be sitting smugly in there, thinking he'd won, thinking Tony was sulking, and there would be Rogers with his shiny moral righteousness, and who needed Iron Man when Captain Fucking America was on the scene?
Scraping his hand across his face, he went back in. "So why did you manipulate me into coming here? To meet him?" He rubbed his throbbing jaw. "Guess that didn't go as planned, huh?"
"That was an interesting bonus," Coulson said. "But, no, we brought you here because of the tech. You see, Captain Rogers wasn't the only thing we found beneath the ice."
Natasha had lived her entire life in large countries. It was something she regretted at times. Despite all the advances in technology, a single girl alone could not travel halfway across a continent without putting herself in the power of strangers.
"Is this what they call an iron horse?" Thor was rattling in time with the clatter of the rails. "It lurches like an ill-tempered nag. Not like Rosie. Rosie was a fine beast."
"She plodded," Natasha reminded him.
"Indeed." Thor sighed, and turned towards the window. There was nothing outside but dust and emptiness.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Natasha stiffened, but the steps passed on by. Since the development of dirigibles, railroads had become the preserve of the poor, and just a few dollars could secure a private compartment, with a door that locked and blinds that pulled down, no questions asked.
Natasha let out a taut breath. She felt tense and unsettled, less at home in her own skin than she had felt the day before, when playing a part.
"How long before we reach our destination?" Thor asked.
"A few days," was all she would say out loud. Air travel was faster, but it was harder to hide among the chattering rich on a dirigible than here on the ground, with the poor and the desperate. But even here it was best to be cautious.
"And these men we go to meet, they will know where my brother is?" Thor's hair was clouded with the dust of the desert. It was easy to think of him as an overgrown child or even an exuberant dog, but he wasn't, of course. Yes, he was a child in his knowledge of the modern world, but he had seen things and done things that humans could only dream of.
She looked away, at the empty world beyond him. "They… should be able to help."
Or maybe they would decide not to, or decide to seek Loki for their own purposes. Either way, her duty would be complete. Her mission ended when she handed Thor over to SHIELD: job done; move on to something more suited to her own particular talents. She didn’t know why she'd been landed with this task. Barton was being similarly wasted, out keeping tabs on Banner. What had they done to anger Fury this time, to be stuck with missions like these? Or, more likely, what Barton had done, tarnishing her with guilt by association.
The footsteps returned, paused at their door, and moved on. Once again, she was slow to relax her grip on her gun.
Sometimes, she thought, things were so much better when you didn't… associate.
The smoke was visible from miles away. Bruce worried his hands together, and wondered what he was doing here. He was unused to the company of soldiers. He'd known nothing of war, until… until…
He was pacing the deck. Tense and impassive, the soldiers ignored him. Barton was pressed against the railing at the prow, as if he could drive the dirigible to go faster by sheer force of will. "Is it too late?" Bruce asked him.
Barton stiffened, as if Bruce had asked him something dreadful, then let out a tight breath. "You're asking me what I can see. No hostiles, if that's what you mean. None that I can… see."
"You sure, Hawk?" one of the soldiers asked, coming up behind.
Barton turned to look at him, any dread now hidden behind the mask of a man doing his job. "It's never safe to be sure. We'll proceed as if there's an active threat."
There was nothing for Bruce to do. The dirigible moved too slowly, fighting against the wind. They entered the smoke cloud long before they reached their destination. Barton and the others donned goggles and mechanical breathing filters. They found a spare set for Bruce, and he put them on, his fingers falling effortlessly into patterns learnt from years in the lab.
He'd neglected his breathing filter the day he had… changed. Not that it would have made the slightest bit of difference, of course, but that wasn't how regrets worked.
The smoke was thinner when they reached the outpost, the fires already burning out. "There's no boarding tower," Barton had warned him earlier, "just a ladder." Barton and the soldiers didn't need even that, but slithered down ropes before the dirigible was tethered. Two of them lingered long enough to fasten the ropes to the tethering posts, but the rest were already away, moving in response to Barton's sharp hand signals. Bruce lost sight of them within seconds.
Bruce found the lever that released the telescopic ladder, and turned the crank until it was fully extended, secure on the ground. He was slow to climb down, and even slower to move away from its base.
Why am I here? he thought. Barton had given him no particular orders; had barely seemed to remember he was there. This was a scene of violence. There was nothing he could do, nothing. He wasn't trained to fight. But if he witnessed violence; if he saw a man killing another, heart pounding with horror, fists clenching with dread…
He was edging backwards, off the landing platform, away, away…
And men lying wounded, in need of help…
He put one foot in front of the other, and then again and then again, until he was walking forward, heading for the heart of it. He stopped just short of the nearest shattered wall; raised his hand as if to speak, then lowered it again. He waited there for a very long time, knowing how stupid it would be to blunder in.
"They've gone," Barton said. Fine dust skittered down from above, but the man himself was invisible. "We were too late."
"I…" Bruce swallowed. "Is anybody hurt? Perhaps I can… help?"
"They're dead." Barton jumped down to land beside him. "But not enough of them."
Bruce waited, twisting his useless hands.
"There were ten agents based here at Outpost 17," Barton said. "Four came with me. We've found three bodies."
"Maybe they're…" Bruce looked at the wreckage, imagining the weight of stone.
"Maybe," Barton agreed, but his tone said 'no.'
"Was it…?" Bruce brought his hand up to the back of his head, running his fingers through his hair. "…an accident?"
"No." Barton's eyes were unreadable behind the goggles. "We've found… evidence. Tracks. There were enemy soldiers here, but this…?" He nodded at the devastation, buildings smashed apart as if by… the other guy, Bruce thought. "This wasn't done by people."
Bruce moistened his lips, dry behind their mark. "The automatons you saw? The metal giants?"
Barton nodded. "The… evidence suggests." Then he turned away, pressing his hand against the pillar of a ruined door. When he moved it, he left behind a smear of blood. "But they've gone now, and three of our own with them. Dead? Prisoners? Something…" Another smear, fainter this time. "…else?"
"Did you know?" Bruce found himself blurting out, remembering that certainty in Barton's eyes. "Did you know this had happened? Did you know we were already too late?"
Barton walked away without a word.
Tony Stark was a different man when he was working. Gone was the facetiousness and the harsh mockery that Steve so disliked. For once, he actually seemed to be taking something seriously. He had swept the workbench clear with single-minded determination, and was studying the sphere, his eyes alight with fascination.
The whole scene reminded Steve sharply of Howard Stark at work. It was really true, then. It was so easy to forget; so easy to be ambushed anew by a sight like this. This was Howard Stark's grown-up son. It was real. It had happened.
He stood to attention, fighting the urge to walk away. It was painful to look at Tony Stark right now, but he was just one of the endless reminders. The flying vessel itself, Coulson's mechanical pocket watch, the metal box that kept the milk cold… The land below them, marked with shining lines that were called railroads, and dotted with towns that spewed out steam…
It was impossible to hide from the truth, and neither was it acceptable to do so. Duty came first.
But the men he had sworn allegiance to were dead. And the cause…? He didn't know enough about this future world to know where the cause of righteousness lay.
"This part's useless, at least," Tony Stark said, jabbing his finger at the large jewel that was set in a casing at the top of the sphere, a good six inches across. "Just brash decoration. Why do people have to ruin their tech with brash decoration?"
"Says the man whose armour is covered with red and gold enamel," Steve said.
"Says the man who ran around with stars and stripes on his chest and a Goddamn mask on his face," Tony Stark retorted.
Agent Coulson was busy making notes. "You both make valid points," he said without looking up.
"Sometimes," Tony Stark said, "brash decoration serves to hide ugly workings." He prized the jewel carefully out of its setting, and looked at the space where it had been. "Guess that's not the case this time." He looked up, smiling. "I was right. See? No wires. Just decoration." He tossed the jewel aside, with a rich man's disdain for things that a poor man could only dream of.
It was impossible to think of him just as 'Stark.' 'Stark' was another man, just days in Steve's past. It was out of the question to call a new acquaintance by his Christian name, of course. He would think of him as 'Tony Stark,' and address him as little as he could get away with, within the bounds of the correct behaviour that the other man seemed to flout at every turn.
"But what does it do?" Tony Stark was musing. "It's over sixty years old? Before they understood the potential of aether, then. Galvanic science was in its infancy. Huh." He rooted around in his pocket, and came out with some sort of monocle with half a dozen attachments. He selected one, and slotted it in place in front of the lens, then turned his attention back to the orb.
"It's dangerous," Steve reminded him. He had already said the same thing a dozen times before. He had gone cold all over when he realised they had brought it with them from the ice. Not that! Not that! After everything he had gone through…
"I'm always careful," Tony Stark said at last, words trailing away as he saw something interesting through his lens.
"The man… the creature called Red Skull said it would devastate cities," Steve told him. Just days ago, for him. Just days. "That's why I had to stop him. I'd… seen things - villages full of dead people in Kamchatka, women and children, too. I saw him make a room full of soldiers fall to their knees screaming. It was tied in with the orb somehow. He said they'd perfected it since then. He said he would use it destroy us all."
Again Tony Stark was slow to answer. He was bent in closely, doing fine work with some sort of needle. "Kamchatka, huh? Never heard of it, but I'm betting it's a long way from the war you were supposed to be fighting."
"We discovered that the British weren't the real threat," Steve said. "The great powers of Europe were locked in war, and now we were involved, too. Red Skull used that as an opportunity to build up a power base in a place where nobody would think of looking. I was sent to investigate."
"The songs and pamphlets continued." Coulson looked up from his writing. "There was a four month gap between you leaving the war and disappearing for good. They pretended you were still there, of course, still fighting the good fight, hurrah for Uncle Sam and Captain America. I possess an original broadside describing the cavalry charge you supposedly led at the Battle of New Orleans. It's quite rare, actually."
"The Battle of New Orleans?" Steve asked.
"A good song," Coulson said. "Stirring woodcuts. I'll show it to you when we get back home. Maybe you could…" He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.
"Anyway," Tony Stark said pointedly, "antique tech that can kill us all?"
"I wiped out the rest of the operation," Steve explained. "Red Skull, he was… insane, I think. I was the only one left. I managed to grab hold of the underside of his ornithopter. We fought, and he fell into the Bering Strait. I tried to get home, but the ornithopter was too badly damaged, and I…"
"Tech?" Tony Stark prompted.
"Please," Steve begged him, because a soldier should have no pride, not when there was a job to be done. "Don't touch it. Be careful. Please."
Tony Stark picked up a screwdriver. "It's clearly not a bomb, else it would've exploded when you crashed the 'thopter. It's travelled happily with you these last few days without killing everyone. It-- Ah!" He looked up with a grin. "I've got it. You might want to… uh…" He turned his back and busied himself with something, hands at his ears. "There," he said, as he very carefully twisted the top half of the sphere, while holding the bottom half still.
There was the faintest of clicks, and then Steve's world imploded. He was on his knees, gasping. His eyes were streaming. His stomach heaved, and he tried to stand, tried to move, but dizziness seized him, and he couldn't hear, he couldn't hear… He clawed at the carpet. Got to… he thought. Got to…
And there was Tony Stark, sitting in the armchair with his legs casually crossed. "Back with us so soon, Cap?" He studied his mechanical pocket watch. "Two minutes. Must be that super-soldier thing you've got going. Coulson's gonna be out of it for a while yet."
"You…?" Steve managed.
"Ear plugs." Tony Stark opened his hand, showing them resting in his palm. "It's a simple sonic weapon - similar to something I was working on myself, before I gave up the weapons thing. See? It's nothing that can wipe out whole cities. Unless…" A flash of worry passed over his face. "No, engines still running and we aren't plummeting out of the sky, so the crew was unaffected. Very short range, and stopped by walls. Are you sure you're remembering things right?"
It was just a few days ago! Steve wanted to scream. Of course I can remember! But all he did was leave the cabin. If he staggered slightly at the door, it was only the after-effect of the weapon; just that.
Thor had not enjoyed the iron horse. He had not enjoyed being encased in a metal cage that went rattle-rattle-rattle along iron railings. Even the food was poor, brought by a little man with pimples on his face. The lady Natasha had refused to let him ask for boar. Even the ale was bad, flat and dead in tiny bottles.
"But I can fly to our destination on the wings of a storm!" he had told her, when the rattle-rattle became as irritating as a biting horsefly trapped beneath your greaves. "Would that not be quicker? And less--" A jolt had hurled him against the window. "--annoying?"
"I can't," she had replied.
"You can!" He had mimed holding her close to his breast, keeping her secure as he rode through the storm with his hammer aloft.
"I won't." Her voice had been firm, brooking no further argument.
Her masters, it seemed, would be more receptive to his pleas for aid if he approached them 'through the expected channels.' Thor sighed as he contemplated the decline of the world. Once upon a time, 'the expected channels' would have involved thunder and lightning as a matter of course, and perhaps a small earthquake if he was feeling bountiful. Now it involved the lord of storms and thunder being packaged up in a box like a sheep on its way to market.
But he had been mortal and in need upon this earth, and humans had helped him when they could have walked on by. Would his own people have done the same to one so lost?
He would endure, then, and humble himself willingly, and ask for aid. He would even tolerate the hats.
But now the iron horse had been left behind, and they were back on proper horses, riding through the wilds. The lady Natasha had done the choosing this time, hiring a creature that rode well, despite its unfortunate colouring. It was small in stature, but mighty in spirit.
"She needs a name." Thor tugged at the reins, easing his steed close to the lady Natasha's. "Tell me the name of a mighty war horse, famed in your people's stories and songs!"
She thought for a while, then, "Dobbin," she said.
"Dobbin. Dobbin! Dob Bin." He tested the name, saying it in command, then declaiming it like a skald telling a story. "Tell me the story of this Dobbin of yours!"
She frowned, and seemed to be struggling to find words. Was it a tragic tale? Was it a tale such as to make men weep? Was it--?
He stopped. There was a faint scent in the air; a whisper of sound on the fringes of his hearing; a shimmer of awareness in his hammer hand. "There is warfare ahead."
She nodded, her hand already going to her gun. "We're close," she said. "Outpost 23 is on the other side of those bluffs. They must be under attack. We need to--"
Seizing Mjolnir, he kicked Dobbin into a gallop, and charged forward, bellowing. The wind tore at his hair. His cloak burst free from the ridiculous bundling she had made him endure, flying out from below his short coat. The noise of battle grew closer. Bare trees lashed at him, and he ducked to ride beneath them, then rose up, laughing. He crested a rise, and there below him was a small building, no larger than a lord's mead hall, and it was under attack by giants.
Roaring his defiance, he rode them down. He leapt from Dobbin, landing lightly on his feet, and smashed upwards with his hammer. These were not frost giants, but fire giants, blazing fierce and red… No, they were metal giants, radiant in the light of the sunset, their shadows dark and vast.
His hammer stove in the chest of the nearest one, but it came on regardless. Bellowing, he crushed its arm, but still it advanced. "Do you feel no pain, giant?" he shouted. It smashed its fist at him, and he dodged, but its comrade came in from the other side. Its blow threw him backwards, where he rolled, and came up for another round.
The building had already been half devastated. With an almighty crash, the roof fell in. A few men crouched in the wreckage, valiantly firing puny guns. There were men amongst the attackers, too, shielding themselves like cowards inside a circle of metal giants. When the defenders' bullets struck the metal giants, they made dents, but did nothing to halt their advance.
"You will not," Thor shouted, laying about him with his hammer, "prevail--" He leapt up, and came down with all his strength, smashing Mjolnir two-handed into the head of the nearest giant. "--this day!"
And still it came on. Still it came on.
The attackers were withdrawing, step by cowardly step. One of the giants was carrying a great machine in its arms, and several of the men had bags and cases. Then one of the defenders stood up and walked out from the wreckage, weaving as he did so, as if he was fighting every step. His comrades called to him, and he turned, raised his gun, and stood there, stood there for the space of a dozen breaths - Thor swung his hammer, leaped, twisted, and drove a giant backwards, little more than a heap of walking scrap - then shot one of his comrades full in the chest.
"Why," Thor forced through gritted teeth, "do you refuse to surrender?"
Then even his giants were retreating. Another blast sounded behind him. Thor looked up, chest heaving with the harsh joy of battle, and when he turned back, the attackers had vanished,
"No!" Thor bellowed, reaching towards the crumpled ruin of the giant that had refused an honourable surrender, but it shambled backwards and vanished, too.
He would have followed it; would have hunted it to its lair without a thought, but something flickered on the fringes of his vision; something brushed against the edges of his mind. He stopped, all joy leaving him, all hatred, all the fierce Now! that was a battle. There was just…
"Loki?" he whispered. "Brother?"
But it was gone. It was gone as if it had never been. And it hadn't been, he told himself. It was just a picture of his hope; that was all.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
"--discuss strategy," the lady Natasha said, cool and calm, although when he opened his eyes to look at her, he could tell that she had been fighting, too.
Thor moistened his lips, tasting smoke and sweat and yearning. "I had a strategy," he told her. "Giants were attacking your friends, so I attacked the giants." She looked less than satisfied. He swallowed. "Is strategy like politeness? Is it something that must be remembered in this fragile world of yours?"
"Stealth would be another." She was still unsmiling.
"Stealth is for tricksters," he declared, but the ways of this world were different from his own. "I can try stealth," he said. "Next time I'll creep." He mimed it with his fingers, his head drawn furtively down into his shoulders.
She was still solemn. It had not been Loki, he told himself. If Loki had been here, he would have made himself known to his brother, surely he would.
"Are your comrades dead?" he asked her.
She shook her head, but not in negation. "I don't know," she said. "Some of them are. There is a lot of… clean-up to be done."
She turned to walk away, but he called her back. "These metal giants… Are they known enemies of your people?"
"No." She paused, a gun held in each hand. "They are now. And they have just declared war."
end of chapter three
Chapter 4: Chapter four
Huge thanks to all who've read, commented or left kudos so far. I'd convinced myself that absolutely nobody was going to read this (long, ensemble, gen AU by an author new to this fandom) so it really means a lot to me to see that people are reading it and liking it. Thanks! Now on with the show...
The future reeked of smoke and machine oil. The ground thrummed with the action of ever-present engines, and the voices that filtered through the walls were distorted into near inhumanity. There were no windows, just a great weight of metal and artificial stone pressing down from above. It was blasphemy to compare any place to Hell, of course, and Steve had no memory of the time he had spent buried under the ice, but…
He pushed open his door and headed towards the stairs. "I need…" he said to the sentry on duty there. To get out, he thought. To go home. "…to see Agent Coulson," he said. "Please."
The sentry saluted; even the style of a salute had changed since the yesterday that had become the long-ago past. Steve followed him up a wrought iron staircase, and waited while the sentry announced his name.
"Good morning, Captain Rogers." Coulson stood up from a desk covered with papers. "Did you sleep well?"
"Very well, thank you," Steve replied, the demands of politeness overruling the imperative to tell the truth. His room was spacious and well furnished, but it was full of devices and gadgets he had never seen before. He had spent the night in the harsh glare of artificial light, unable to work out how to turn the lamps off.
"Is there anything else you need to be comfortable?" Coulson asked, with every sign of real anxiety. "Anything I can bring you?" He removed a stack of files from an armchair. "Please have a seat."
"Thank you." Steve stayed where he was, standing at the door. "But I'm not staying. Am I… Am I permitted to go outside?"
"Of course, Captain," Coulson said. "You're a most honoured guest, not a prisoner." He looked closely at Steve's face. "You don't like being underground. How stupid of us not to expect this. Actually, most of our regular living quarters and recreation areas are top-side. It's less secure, but many people prefer it. I'll get you moved."
As he was speaking, his hand strayed to the topmost sheet of paper on his desk, touching it as if it was something precious. "Is that…?" Steve moved forward. "…me," he said.
He picked up the nearest pile, and began to leaf through it. There were old browning pamphlets marked with dates that Steve still thought of as being in the future. There were woodcuts and lithographs, all fading with age. One was signed with his own careful signature, in ink that had faded away to brown. But the paper that Coulson was touching was brutally new, marked with fresh ink, dark enough to hurt. Three pens lay beside it on a blotter, leaking red and blue and black.
Steve was gripping the oldest of the pamphlets, showing him in a pose he had never made, at a battle he had never fought at. He let it fall. "You're designing me a new uniform."
"Well, yes, er…" Coulson cleared his throat. "The old one won't work in the modern world. Not enough protection against our modern weapons, for one thing, and nobody wears pantaloons any more, not even to a society ball. We can't have the people you're trying to save run screaming from the sight of your calves."
Steve said nothing.
"It's just a draft." Coulson ran his hand almost reverently across the design. "I thought… If you like it, that is…" He cleared his throat. "I was going to run it over to the seamstresses and armourers and get them to make up a prototype. I, er, measured you when you were… that is to say, I estimated your size from a… distance, but if you would consent to fittings…?"
Steve looked at the fading pictures on the ageing sheets. "Why…?" He closed his eyes for a moment, and turned away blindly. When he opened his eyes again, he found that he was facing a wall hung with a large framed painting of himself at the head of armies. "Are you expecting me to fight your wars for you?"
"No," Coulson said. "That is… Yes. We…" He cleared his throat. "That is to say, we thought…"
"That I was created as a tool," Steve said, "and that I would continue to be the tool of whoever held me? The people I swore allegiance to are dead, Coulson. Why do you presume the right to my obedience?"
Coulson took a step towards him, and reached out, almost as if he was about to touch him, then drew his hand back. "Because we know the kind of man you were. We thought you would come to see our wars as your wars."
Were. Steve heard it, even if Coulson did not.
Steve blundered blindly towards the door; stopped and collected himself. "Agent Coulson," he said, nodding the correct farewell. He followed the corridor to another flight of stairs, then through a set of metal doors. A sentry saluted him, but the next door burst open as he approached it, and two men bustled through, so intent on their conversation that they ignored Steve completely, blanking his polite nod.
He had to ask three different people before he found the door that led to the surface. At ground level, the complex looked unexceptional, little more than a frontier fort from Steve's time, with barrack rooms and officers' quarters and public chambers. Even the great airships were stowed underground, in great warehouses called hangars that they lowered themselves into through enormous sliding hatches in the ground.
He had not intended to seek out Tony Stark, but there he was, hard at work in a corner of the yard beneath a corrugated iron shelter. "You really did a number on it," Tony Stark said, without appearing to look up. "Your ornithopter? Yes, you're right, it looks more like a crumpled heap of scrap than a flying machine. Personally I blame the former owner."
Steve remembered how it had felt to know beyond a shadow of doubt that he was about to die. He remembered how cold it had been, and how alone. "Are you trying to repair it?"
"You're kidding. It's over sixty years old. How can something that old be anything other than obsolete, past its sell-by date, useless, redundant--? What?" He looked up, shaking his head in exaggerated innocence. "Jesus, Cap, not everything's about you. You should learn to be less egotistical. Pass me that wrench. No, don't give it to me, put it down there. I don't like being handed things."
Steve did what he was told, then found a three-legged stool, and settled down upon it. "So why are you…" He struggled for the word. "…tinkering?"
"The ornithopter was the first example of powered flight," Tony Stark said. "It was a technological dead end. The dirigible began to supersede the ornithopter by the 1820s. The surviving ornithopters were melted down or allowed to go to rust, and none have survived."
"Which is a good thing," Steve reminded him, "given how obsolete, past their sell-by date, useless and redundant they were."
"Are you…?" Tony Stark looked at him, his eyes hidden by his goggles. "Right," he said. "But there might… just possibly be… something useful I can learn…" He brandished his wrench. "Here's the thing: dirigibles are big and expensive; can't be flown without a crew. You could fly an ornithopter with two, or even one. Crash it with one, as well."
Steve gave a very faint smile. Ridiculously, there was something almost… easing about sitting here listening to the flow of words.
"So…" Tony Stark reached blindly for a mug of coffee, and by some miracle managed to grasp it without knocking it over. "Coulson let you off the leash? I'm surprised. It's obscene, the way he worships you. When he's not unconscious and drooling into the carpet. Admit it, Cap, that was funny. "
Steve looked up at the sky, speckled with clouds. Birds soared against the blue, the same as they ever had. The walls of the old fort were crumbling, as if they were used only as a cover for the complex below, and not for living in. "Does everybody live underground in the future?" he found himself asking.
Tony Stark leant back against the work bench, the mug cupped in both hands. "Course they don't," he said, "in the present. This is SHIELD's high-tech super-secret base, underground, hush-hush, all the newest toys. Surprised they let me near it.... unless it's another decoy? No, it can't be that."
Steve focused on the sky, the only thing unchanged about this world. "Agent Coulson is of the opinion that you're the best there is when it comes to designing machines…"
"Fact," Tony Stark said. Steve looked at him questioningly. "Not opinion," he explained.
A bird was circling far above, looking down on the changed earth below. "When I was young, I read a poem about a man who built a… a... machine that could… travel in time." His mouth was dry. He moistened his lips. "Could you…?"
"Whoa!" Tony Stark held up his hand. "I'm the best, yes, but I don't trade in the impossible, and time machines fall firmly in the category of impossible. Why would an old-fashioned guy like you want to go into the future, anyway?"
Steve watched the bird as it flew away and out of sight. "Not the future," he said quietly. Impossible, he thought. Impossible.
He had not realised quite how fiercely he had been dreaming.
"Oh." Tony Stark had the grace to look a little contrite. Pushing his goggles to the top of his head, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
Steve blinked hard, his eyes stinging with the ever-present smoke of the future. Of the present, he thought. There would be no homecoming for him at the end of his war.
"Well," Tony Stark said, "it could be worse. Half the country's still in love with you. Appear on a few magazine covers and open a few galas, and you'll have the rest of them eating out of your hand. You won't even have to do any of the hero thing. Just sit around and smile at the camera and… eat grapes and drink… milk. Just like the old days, huh?"
"Why are you so quick to assume it was all a sham?" Steve shouted. "Is it because you're just a sham yourself? Is that what Iron Man is all about? Is it just a parade of glittering lies put on for the benefit of the journals and the balladeers, while you drink yourself into a stupor and mock and deride anyone who strives to be good and noble?"
"We don't have balladeers any more, Captain Rip Van Winkle," Tony Stark retorted. "And are you really telling me that all that Captain America crap was real - every single word of it, every picture, every song?"
Steve let out a breath. "You know that it wasn't. I was… manipulated at first. I let other people use me to promote…" He passed his hand across his face. "But it was necessary. We were at war. The people needed the flag, the anthem, the hero. And that was just the… veneer. The things that I did, the missions I went on… They were what mattered; they were what made a difference - the real things, not the lies."
"You keep telling yourself that, Cap, if it makes you feel good," Tony Stark said. "Truth is, image is the most important thing of all. I should know: I've spent my entire life learning how to play the press. Can one man win a war? Course he can't. Can the image of one man, carefully presented, unite a nation so that it believes it can win the war? The most important thing you did was stand there and look heroic while people made paintings of you. An illiterate actor could have done the job just as well."
Steve was on his feet, he realised, his hands clenched into tight fists at his side. "Howard Stark would be ashamed of you, to hear you speak like that."
"He would, huh?" Tony Stark looked down at his mug, took a sip, and put it down with a taut deliberateness. "Guess you knew him better than I did, then." Picking up his wrench, he hunched into his work, his hands flying over the crumpled metal.
Steve opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He began to walk away; paused after a dozen steps to look back, but Tony Stark was lost in his work, paying no attention to him.
Several times, Clint came close to asking them to maroon him somewhere in the wilderness alone. Either he was going crazy, or his mind was not entirely his own. He saw flashes of things that weren't really there. Something was dragging at his mind, summoning him elsewhere. Sometimes he found himself on the point of going there. Sometimes he found it desperately hard to wrench himself free, to keep doing what he had to do.
"How're you feeling?" Banner asked, on the second, or was it the third morning of the journey? "Head still bothering you?"
Maybe it really was just the head injury; Clint knew as well as any field agent the havoc that a head injury could play with your thinking. Maybe everything else, all the rest of it, had been nothing more than his imagination.
Or maybe it was real. Maybe his encounter with the metal giants had left him compromised somehow. Maybe an enemy had managed to plant a foothold inside his mind. This enemy whispered to him, calling to him. What if it could see through his eyes? What if it was rifling through his memories even now, plundering what he knew? What if an enemy was riding inside him, as he flew back to those few people to whom he had extended a measure of trust?
"I'm good," he said.
Nights were the worst. At night, it was hard to tell truth from dreaming. He saw metal giants, but maybe it was just memory distorted through the lens of nightmare. No, days were the worst. The surviving agents from Outpost 17 were grieving and vengeful. Clint guessed he'd saved their lives by summoning them to help him investigate what he had found, but that's not how it felt. If the base hadn't been missing its best fighters when the attack had come… If he'd paid more attention to the warnings whispering in his mind…
"Can I…?" Banner asked with his doctor face on, seeking permission to touch.
Clint sat there stiffly and let Banner examine the healing wound on his head. Hands probed his flesh gently. He closed his eyes and tried not to shiver.
"Healing nicely," was Banner's verdict, as he stepped away. He was tense, too, uncomfortable with spending so long within the confines of the dirigible with strangers. Clint knew this, but he didn't have the skills that would make the guy feel better about himself. He didn't dare try. He didn't know if his words were his own any more.
But he was 'healing nicely.' And he felt more like himself with every mile they travelled and every hour that passed. Maybe it really was just the effects of the head injury. Or maybe the enemy had a limit to its reach, and Clint had flown free from it.
By the time they were half a day out from the SHIELD base, he was sure of it. But he was careful not to look at any charts and landmarks, even so. As the dirigible made its approach to the underground hangar, he looked down at a page in a book, so that no enemy could see anything compromising through his eyes. For several minutes after they landed, he saw the patterns of ink branded against the back of his eyelids when he blinked. He still couldn't have repeated back a single word.
Their arrival was unscheduled, and the ground crew made no attempt to hide the fact that they were armed. "Agent Barton," they greeted him when he disembarked, showing no real surprise; he'd returned to base in far more unexpected ways in the past, and with stranger company. Messages were sent, of course, and soon there was Coulson, the same as he always was, welcoming one of his agents home.
Despite the news he brought, despite everything, Clint smiled for the first time in days.
"Agent Barton." Coulson smiled his own quick greeting, but he was one of the most astute men Clint knew. He knew that the news was bad.
"I've brought you a Hulk," Clint said quietly, because he knew that Banner was hanging back. He turned and gestured to the man, inviting him forward. "Dr Banner, Agent Coulson." He flipped his hand from side to side, indicating an exchange of introductions. It probably wasn't the correct way to do things, but it did the job.
Polite platitudes were exchanged, then faded away. Bad news could not be postponed, but had to be reported, dispassionate and flat. He told it as succinctly as he could: the illusion field, the metal giants, the attack on Outpost 17. "It took place four days ago," he said. "They took out the long-range transmitter and cut the telegraph wires, so I thought it best to report it in person."
Coulson nodded, but made no comment, only to ask, "Are you injured, Agent Barton?"
"I was," Clint admitted. "It was nothing. It's better now."
He'd reported everything, of course? Hell, no, of course he hadn't. Everything external. Everything seen and heard and verified. Nothing about the voice that had called to him. Nothing about the summons that he had run from. Nothing about the fears that still drove him.
"You'll have to report it in full to Director Fury," Coulson said. "You've had a long journey. Would you like to visit the mess hall, Doctor Banner, before we discuss the… terms of your visit?"
Clint walked a few steps behind them, and let them talk. The small talk was stilted and awkward. Banner was visibly shy, and Coulson… Well, Clint had known him for several years before he worked out that there was much more to him than showed on the façade. Coulson was troubled by something, but it showed in ways that only a very few people knew how to read.
The mess hall was almost empty, just one man drinking alone at the largest table. Even in profile, he was recognisable from a thousand illustrated magazines. "That's Tony Stark," Clint said. "Coulson, how did you get Stark to come here?"
Coulson smiled the vacant amiable smile that invariably meant he was at his most devious.
"Dammit." Clint rooted in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled five dollar bill.
"What?" Stark said, looking up from his drink. "You bet on me? You bet on me falling for that underhand little trick of yours? I feel violated." He glowered at Clint as if he was personally responsible.
"Don't look at me." Clint spread his hands in protest of innocence. "I bet on you being too clever to fall for it. I'm on your side, Stark."
"Apparently," Coulson said mildly, "the name over the gate was the clincher."
"Dammit," Clint swore again, pulling out another dollar. "I'm one of the good guys," he protested to a Stark who was showing every sign of sulking. "I said it was so unsubtle that only a child would fall for it. See, I had faith in your intelligence. Unlike some people."
But Stark was already distracted. "You're Bruce Banner, right?" Banner nodded warily. "I read your paper postulating the existence of… sub-atomic particles, you called them? I tried to talk to you about it, but they said you'd gone, just that, no explanation given. But now you're here. Sit down, eat, drink, talk to me."
Clint and Coulson left them there, and walked in silence downstairs to Coulson's office. "What didn't you tell me back there?" Coulson asked, as soon as the door was closed behind them. "Clint, what's wrong?"
Clint kept his back to the door, his hands pressed against the reinforced wood. "I've been compromised."
Sunlight fell slantwise through the barred windows, casting shadows on the table like a cage.
"Gentlemen," said Director Fury, leaning forward with both fists on the table, "we find ourselves under concerted attack from an unknown enemy."
Bruce twisted his hands in his lap, and wished he were somewhere else.
"Is it 'we' now?" In the flesh, Stark was even more brash than he appeared in print. "Because I seem to remember being told to go away, bye-bye, not welcome in your little games. And then you… let's see, lied to me, tricked me into becoming your unpaid tech slave because you had a doomsday machine for me to examine, which, by the way, is harmless, thanks, you're welcome."
Coulson cleared his throat.
"Sorry. Mostly harmless." Stark was radiating smugness. Without looking down, Fury pulled a ten dollar bill from his pocket and passed it to Coulson, who pocketed it with a bland smile. The smugness vanished. "Another one, Coulson. How many--?"
"Concerted attack," Fury interrupted. "Yesterday, Agent Barton and Doctor Banner returned with news of an attack on Outpost 17. This morning, Agent Romanoff was able to send us a coded telegram through the public telegraph network, reporting a similar attack on Outpost 23 that took place three days ago. Since then, we have sent messages to all SHIELD outposts. Five have failed to respond."
Nobody said anything. Bruce hunched down in his chair. Stark looked bored and resentful. Captain Rogers… And that was something incredible, to be in the same room as a hero from the pages of history. Maybe that was why they were silent. Maybe nothing seemed entirely real, when compared to the amazing reality of that.
How could Bruce have anything useful to say, when in the company of a living legend and a man such as Tony Stark?
"Agent Romanoff arrived in time to see the end of the attack on Outpost 23," Fury said, continuing to act as if they were all trusted team members who deserved to be there. "It is entirely compatible with Agent Barton's report."
"Where's Agent Barton now?" Bruce found himself speaking up, after all. His mouth was dry.
"He is busy elsewhere," Coulson said, instant and pat.
The light faded as a cloud passed over the sun. An engine started up outside, with a whistle of steam. But… Bruce thought, but didn't say it. Why was he here - not just here in this room, but here at all?
"Outpost 17 and Outpost 23 are nearly a thousand miles apart," Fury said, "and yet they were attacked within two days of each other. Either we are dealing with an enemy that can travel in ways we have yet to master, or with a split force, each working to the same end. Either way, we are at war."
"Has war been declared by the elected government, sir?" Captain Rogers spoke up from the far end of the table. "I have lived through war. It is not something I am quick to seek."
"But you're Captain Perfect, the super-soldier," Stark said with a dismissive shrug. "Come on, Cap, do what you were made for: stand to attention, salute, and shoot whatever they point you at."
The sunlight seeped back slowly, forming bars across the table. Rogers ignored Stark, his attention all on Fury. "I see a secret military armed base within the borders of our own nation. I hear of a network of military outposts, communicating covertly. If they are attacked--"
"We're not the bad guys here, Captain." Fury's voice was gentle, although his gaze was cold.
"Just tell me one thing," Stark said loudly, trying to draw everybody's attention back to him. "You're trusting us with this why? A self-righteous storybook hero who doesn't know how to switch a light on, a man who can turn into a gigantic rage monster at the drop of a hat - sorry, Doc, Coulson told me this morning; no hard feelings, but a little heads-up next time, please? - and… me, but…"
"Because we anticipate an attack on this facility," Fury said.
"Whoa, you what now?" Stark pushed his chair back. Bruce felt his heart speed up, thumping audibly in his chest. He concentrated on breathing. "Did someone follow Doctor Hulk and… what's his name… the Hawk guy?
"We have no reason to believe that," Coulson said, his voice bland. "But Agent Barton reported missing agents, and Agent Romonoff saw agents in the act of going over to the enemy. We have to assume that we have no longer have any real secrets left. An attack here is… probable."
"Going over to the enemy, huh?" Stark sat down again, chair scraping against the floor. "Guess you were on to something, after all, Cap. Welcome to SHIELD, where even their own agents can't wait to defect."
"They weren't acting under their own volition." Coulson straightened a pile of papers in front of him, jabbing it sharply against the table. "Agent Romanoff reports that they were moving strangely, as if they were fighting their own limbs."
"And we're talking mind control now?" Stark gave a sharp laugh. "Any more mumbo-jumbo you're going to throw at us?"
What would it be like, Bruce wondered, to be so comfortable with attention that you courted it at all times? What would it be like to be so comfortable with how you felt that you let it all show on your face: joy, contempt, anger, and the rest of it?
Unless he wasn't, Bruce thought suddenly. Coulson and Fury sat together, a united front at the head of the table, but the other three of them had chosen places that put them alone. Bruce was trying to hunch himself into invisibility, Rogers was sitting to attention, staring straight ahead, and Stark was all mercurial emotions, all look at me.
There was more than one way to wear a mask, of course.
"Mumbo-jumbo?" Coulson placed the papers down, folding his hands on top of them. "With a press of a button, you had me drooling into the carpet - your words, Mr Stark; did you forget that we have ears everywhere? You used an invisible force to control my behaviour from a distance. Mumbo-jumbo, Mr Stark?
Bruce clasped his hands tightly, knuckles white. "What do you want from me?" he blurted out. "I can't fight. I can't… risk… You won't even let me underground, I've noticed that. If it's the other guy you want, you can't… you don't know…"
Fury and Coulson exchanged a quick look. "If the attack happens, we will fight it however we can," Fury said. "Rest assured that this present conversation is but a small part of our preparations. What we need from you, Doctor Banner, Mr Stark, is something that will allow us to recover should we… fail to achieve a decisive victory. Can you create some sort of miniature wireless transmitter that would allow us to track a person's whereabouts?"
"A person?" Stark leant forward, elbows on the table. "It's theoretically possible, of course. But miniature? It wouldn't be small." He mimed with his hands, indicating a size a good six inches across, and looked at Bruce as if seeking confirmation. "You want to conceal it on someone so it won't be found…? Won't happen, unless they can carry it in a pack. If you want them to communicate a message in words, it would be even bigger, but if you just want an indication of where they are, a sort of warmer, colder sort of thing…?"
"Could it be something that could be… attached to an enemy's vehicles without them noticing," Fury asked, "or attached to to enemy themselves, when said enemy is a metal giant?"
"A metal giant?" Stark was on his feet again. "And you left it till now to mention this why? Metal giant as in Iron Man - which is copyright, by the way - or a mindless automaton, or an… intelligent… mechanical… Tell me we aren't under attack by intelligent mechanical giants. They don't have turbans, do they? Can they play chess?"
"Can you do it?" Fury asked, looking both at Stark and Bruce himself, including them both in this.
"Huh? Course we can." Stark turned to Bruce. "What're you waiting for, Doc? Let's get to work."
Bruce had no idea why he was here. He had no idea what would happen if the attack came and bullets started flying. He had a thousand questions, some of which only he could answer. But he nodded, and he followed Stark, and he found that he was smiling.
Steve kept on coming back. Doctor Banner and Tony Stark worked well together; even he could see that. He understood virtually nothing that they said to each other, and he had no idea what they were doing; he despised everything Tony Stark stood for, and he was afraid to talk too much to Doctor Banner in case he accidentally prompted him to change; but he kept on coming back.
"Will you fight?" he asked. "If this… attack happens, will you fight?"
"You're interested in my opinion now?" Tony Stark pushed his goggles up. "Don't believe everything I say, Cap. SHIELD are the good guys, although their methods are questionable and they exploit their consultants shockingly, and are you listening, Fury, I said you're the good guys, now send me coffee!"
"I can't fight," Banner said. Steve stiffened, and made his breathing slow and careful, as he would around a snarling dog. "I'd leave, now, except…"
"He can't tear himself away from my brilliance, Cap," Tony Stark said confidingly.
"Director Fury says they've got a cage." Banner grimaced. "It won't be strong enough."
"But you stay." Tony Stark clapped Banner on the shoulder. Steve sucked in a sharp breath. "We're making history here. Or science. History of science? Whatever. I've worked with aether in a practical sense for years, of course, but combine it with your theoretical work on the structure of the atom…"
"Not always theoretical." Banner gave a rueful smile. "There was one memorable exception."
"Point," Tony Stark conceded. "So how's it going over on the Babbage Engine?"
Steve left them there. Engineers were hard at work strengthening the great metal doors that separated the underground complex from the buildings above. Their foreman halted them as Steve passed, and they all touched their brows in a respectful salute.
Sometimes people were too preoccupied to notice him, but when they did, they were respectful to the point of reverence. It had been the same ever since he had been changed. He had become a symbol, not a person. Now that symbol was over sixty years adrift from the cause he had symbolised.
But what else could he do? He had been chosen not because of his brawn, but because of his willingness to serve. Obedience had been trained into him, and he had never been one to let down people who depended upon him. Coulson and Fury expected him to… They hoped that he would…
That our wars would become your wars.
How could they, when this was not his time? How could they, when every hour he spent in the future showed him yet more differences from the world he had lost?
But he would fight their wars, if their wars seemed just. He would wear their uniform, if that was what was needed. But this world was not his world, and he was no longer bound to be the same person he once had been.
He did not have to obey.
Thor had not named his third horse, in case he lost it the same way he had lost Rosie and Dobbin, handed over to common men at hiring stables. The iron horse had been even more unpleasant the second time round. But now they were entering the outer defences of the great citadel of SHIELD, where the Son of Coul, and Fury his chieftain, awaited them.
And there was the Son of Coul himself! Thor threw himself from his horse, and embraced him, smashing him heartily on the back, as one brother in arms to another.
"Agent Romanoff," Coulson said when Thor released him. His voice sounded a little strangled, and he pulled at his plain clothing, straightening it. It needed colour, Thor thought, perhaps a splash of red. "Your message said that you'd 'found god, stop.' I hadn't put you down as the hymn-singing type."
"Different sort of god," said the lady Natasha. "More quaffing, fewer harps."
"And this guy's a god now?" said another man, a man of the tricksy sort, the kind of that used words as barbs to hide his true intent. Besides, his beard was silly. "When are we getting the wizards and dragons?"
"I am Thor!" Thor introduced himself with the traditional handshake that he had observed was custom in this world. "I killed a dragon once, and my brother is a wizard of sorts. Your forefathers called my kind gods, it is true, but I do not come to rule you."
"Whoa!" squeaked the tricksy man. "Ouch! Ow! Blood supply?" He dragged his hand free, shaking it in an exaggerated fashion. "Oh, hi, Agent Romanoff. Fancy meeting you here."
"Stark," nodded Natasha the warrior lady.
Another man approached them, tall and dark. Thor bowed to him, recognising the demeanour of a chieftain. Odin the Allfather had given an eye in exchange for wisdom, and this man had clearly done the same. He was as bald as the wisest of sages, but still walked with a warrior's power. How could he be anything other than a warrior, with the gift-name of Fury?
"Come inside," said the chieftain Fury. "Report. You must know that we're anticipating an attack by these metal giants of yours." His single eye pinned Thor like a moth on a board. "Is Loki behind this?"
"I cannot believe it so," Thor said, because you must not bellow at a man who was chieftain and sage and warrior, even when they impugned the character of your own brother. "But I will help you fight this enemy, whosoever he be."
He heard the others talking as they entered the citadel. "Is Agent Barton back?" the lady Natasha asked Coulson, and Coulson gave a terse "yes," hiding something, Thor thought, but doubtless for some noble end. Another man was summoned, called Cap or Captain or Rogers or Captain America, like a true hero, possessing many names. A man called Banner hung back, and Thor thought to greet him. "Best not subject him to your… unique mode of introduction," said the one they called Stark. "It might startle him into turning into a giant monster and smashing everything that moves."
"I had not realised you humans could do such a thing!" Thor exclaimed. "What a wondrous gift to be blessed with." Then he saw how unhappy Banner looked about gift. Why ever…? Oh yes. The cups on the table were very delicate, and he remembered Jane sipping from something even smaller, and expressing concern that Thor might break them. "Although I see that it might be troublesome at times. Cups," he explained in a whisper to Stark.
"Gentlemen," said Fury the chieftain, presiding over them like a king. "Agent Romanoff. We need to talk."
"We need strategy!" Thor offered. "Strategy is good."
"Indeed it is," said Fury, but he did not smile.
Tony had never been one for sleeping. Midnight saw him nursing a glass of bourbon in the drawing room that they had been assigned.
"What am I doing here?" he asked out loud, not really expecting an answer. Banner had been there earlier, but Banner had gone, to walk outside alone, perhaps never to come back. Rogers had sat at the desk for a while, with a book open in front of him that he hadn't been reading.
"Sir?" said Jarvis. Of course he was there, silent as ever, easy to forget.
"Nothing," Tony said. He raked his hand across his face, and stared down at his reflection in the drink. "I'm not a soldier. I'm not like Captain America. I don't obey."
"You have fought, sir."
"Yes. Yes I have."
Tony stood up and walked over to the table, picking up the book to look at its title. It was a history of the United States, from 1815 to 1850. It was still open at the first page. "Poor guy," Tony murmured. Perhaps it was the bourbon speaking, or the lateness of the hour, or the fact that he was alone, just Jarvis there, who had known him from a child.
Jarvis said nothing.
"Best go to bed." Tony leafed through the pages, seeing names and dates that seemed so old to him. "We might be at war--"
The entire building shook with an enormous blow, then another, then another, then another. An alarm sounded, high and shrill.
Tomorrow he had been about to say. "Today," he said, and now that it had happened, there were no doubts at all. "Help me suit up. Let's get ready to rumble."
end of chapter four
Chapter 5: Chapter five
They came unseen through the shrouded night, and struck like a coward who stabs from behind.
War would be fiercest at the outer gate, so it was there that Thor had stationed himself. Fury the chieftain kept his most secret treasures in underground chambers, but the entrance to those chambers was housed inside a stone citadel, whose own gate was guarded and fortified. Thor stood outside it, patrolling beneath the stars. He would not let them penetrate below the ground.
He had thought to see the enemy before they struck. He had thought to kill them before they killed.
Fury had placed scouts further out, eyes in the night. Thor accepted the wisdom of this choice. Gone were those days when, young and foolish, he had believed himself capable of anything. Not for him the role of the scout. Not for him to stay hidden and watch an enemy pass, then slither back to report on what he had seen.
The scouts all fell before they could report a single word.
Thor had known that the enemy possessed the power of invisibility, because he had seen them vanish when retreating from the devastated outpost. He had thought it the last resort of a retreating, defeated enemy. He had not thought them so lost to honour to attack when unseen.
Thor saw nothing. Ten of Fury's liegemen fell alone in the dark, struck down by enemies too cowardly to show their face.
Afterwards, he pieced things together, following footsteps through the dirt. When the first few had fallen, he had been looking up at the unfamiliar patterns of the stars, and wondering if Jane, too, was gazing at them, remembering him. As the enemy had drawn nearer, and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth had died, he had turned to find the one they called Banner, sad and troubled, hunched in the dark.
"When battle is upon us," Thor had asked, "will you change your skin?" He had once known a skin-changer, a fierce white wolf, its muzzle steeped in blood as dark as old spoiled wine. It had ripped a warband apart, just bones for the ravens to feast upon. It had taken seven warriors with seven silver chains to bind him, and those warriors had been blood-brothers ever afterwards, bound by their deep-raked scars.
Banner had shaken his head. "I hope not."
Thor had looked at the hammer in his hand, so vast, so powerful, so much part of him that when it had refused to come to him, he had been as one forlorn, lost and tiny in the rain. "Fury wants you to. Why else has he allowed you stay?"
Maybe the seventh had died then. The eighth was not dead, just wounded nigh unto death. The ninth had dragged himself back, but too late, of course, too late.
"That's…" Banner had said. "Unwise," he had said. "If true." Then, quietly, his face turned away, he had said, "You probably shouldn't have told me that."
When the ninth fell, Thor was watching Banner walk away. The tenth…? The tenth one he had heard. "I'm down! I'm down! We're under attack! Alarm! Raise the alarm!" It was a shout, a scream, a rasping cry, an agonised murmur, but already Thor was joining his voice to that of the fallen hero, shouting a warning, shouting out his contempt at an enemy who could attack like this, unseen.
He swung his hammer, smashing it into the ground. Let them come, the shield-brothers of Fury the chieftain! Let them rise from their restless beds to strap on their armour and their weapons! Let Natasha the warrior maid come to fight at his side, and the Captain of the many names, and Banner, who could change his skin and fight as a mighty beast!
And let them come, too, the enemy, who struck from the darkness like cowards! Let them come! "Fight me!" he bellowed. "Show yourselves! Let us fight!"
A bullet smashed against his breastplate, and clattered to the ground. Another scraped his brow.
"Show yourself!" he roared, and the enemy did. By ones and twos, the metal giants stepped forward from the wall of invisibility that had hidden them, until a dozen stood before him, and began to unleash devastation.
Gripping his hammer in both hands, Thor set about stopping them.
When the alarm started wailing, Steve was still awake, lying on top of his bedclothes in the dark.
He sat up, and reached for the switch that controlled the lamp on the bedside table. The first thing he saw was his new uniform worn by a tailor's dummy, just a stuffed lump of fabric without a face. It bore little resemblance to the uniform he had last worn. Even the flag that inspired it was different, with over twice as many stars, reflecting a nation that had changed beyond recognition.
But still, at its heart, the same.
He paused with his hand on the fabric. How could he know that? He had seen so little of this world, and he had spent all that time as a guest of SHIELD, seeing only what they wanted him to see.
But Tony Stark did not march to the beat of their drum, he thought, and Tony Stark…
The building trembled. Somebody outside was shouting something, their voice shrill and wordless.
No time to question it, he thought, just time to act. And perhaps it made him as empty and faceless as the tailor's dummy, but he would wear this uniform and he would fight. Questions could come afterwards, and if he didn't like the answers…? He would face that when he had to.
He heard the unmistakeable sound of a man dying, a sound he had heard too many times before. Peeling off his nightshirt, he hastened to dress.
A soldier did not have the luxury of asking questions when the guns began to sound.
"Is it true?"
Bruce pushed against the flow of armed men rushing to their stations. He grabbed Fury by the arm, heedless of the guns that swung around to face him.
"Is it true?" he shouted. "You didn't send me away with all the others because you want me to change?"
"If you are anxious not to change," Fury said, as he signalled orders with his free hand, "I would suggest that you stand down."
"And go where?" A wall crumbled. The foundations were trembling, dust raining down from above. Bruce pressed both hands to his face. He could feel the bones there, the human shape of them beneath the skin. "It's too late for that now, isn't it?"
"Doctor Banner," Fury said. "There are places I need to be."
Bruce ran his hands down his face, then lower still, until his arms were wrapped around his body, his hands gripping the muscles of his upper arms, as if by such a futile gesture he could force them not to swell. "Thor said…"
"Thor tried to drink beer from a chamber pot."
"Which doesn't make him a liar," Bruce said. "Can the same be said of you?"
But Fury was already walking away. He didn't look back.
Thor was on the front line, where he belonged. The giants had to be kept at all costs from breaching the gate, but Thor was the only one who could damage them. The men of Fury's warband shot at the giants from the shelter of their barred windows, but their weapons had no effect. So Thor swung his hammer, and smashed it into metal limbs and bodies, and hindered the giants in any way that he could.
But for every one he slowed, another two got past him. Stonework crumbled beneath the impact of their fists. Men were screaming. The enemy's human army was taking pot shots from behind the line of attacking giants. "Shoot the men!" he heard someone shouting. "Ignore the giants. You can't hurt the giants!" Fighting made Thor whirl in a circle, and he saw a flash of the citadel, a flash of the enemy, a flash of red, white and blue.
"I can hurt the giants!" he told the unknown voice, and he went on to show them, smashing a fist, stoving in a chest. It was just as it had been at the outpost. He could injure them more than any being should be able to withstand, but still they came on. How could he fight a dozen of them when they would not die? They fought beyond all limits of sanity, when they were crumpled and broken and all hope had gone.
Once Thor would have thought it admirable. "But I have come to learn," he rasped, as he brought his hammer repeatedly down on a toppled giant, "that there is no shame… in crying mercy… when you are beaten." Its dead metal eyes stared back at him. Its metal fists still tried to fight.
"But of course," he roared, mindful of the men who crouched behind him, "I am Thor and I am with you, and we will not be beaten this night!"
"Damn straight," said a voice from above him. Thor looked up to see a metal man with blue fire jetting from his feet.
"So you fly now, metal ones?" Thor bellowed.
He launched himself up, swinging his hammer in a full arc. "Whoa!" gasped the metal man, lurching to one side so the hammer caught him only a glancing blow. Even so, it was enough to send him crashing to the ground. "Whoa there, Hercules," said the metal man, spreading his hands. "Your side, remember?"
There was something familiar about the voice, even distorted as it was by metal. Thor bent over him. "Stark?"
"Who else? Behind you!" Thor smashed backwards with his hammer, feeling it crunch into metal. Stark kept on talking throughout, his words just a babble while Thor fought. "--is it with you guys? First Cap, then you. Is it something I said? No, don't answer that." A blazing blast of light shot from his gauntlet, singed past Thor's cape, and struck something behind him. "You're welcome, by the way," Stark said.
Thor helped him to his feet. "I had not realised men could--"
"They can't, just me," Stark said. "And, hey, look at that! I guess I can hurt them too."
All battles were the same. Men died. Sometimes she was the one who killed them. Ready your weapons, crouch down, aim and fire. If you hit your target, continue to move and identify another one. Don't think, just know. Know the feel of your weapons, and the cover that surrounds you, and the enemies you face. Know what the partner at your side will do, and who he will shoot, and where he will move, and when he will say something incongruous, ridiculous, infuriating, just to see if you will react.
There was no partner at her side. That was how it used to be. She had operated alone for many years, starting from when she had been a girl, hair loose on her shoulders, skirts brushing the tops of her boots.
All battles were the same. Metal giants had smashed into the fort, ripping out window bars, smashing through masonry. But behind the giants came men, and men could be killed. She crouched behind a fallen table, and shot one man, then another. She ducked and rolled; threw a knife with one hand, then hastily reloaded her pistol.
She fought alone. She didn't know where Barton was. Nothing new in that, of course; SHIELD kept secrets even from its own agents, and she and Barton were the best agents SHIELD had, and the most likely to be sent on missions that couldn't be spoken aloud. She had operated alone for many years, and even since joining SHIELD, she had often fought by herself. Nothing new in this. Alone or with a partner, all battles were the same: just you and the person you faced down the barrel of a gun.
The person that she faced…
She knew this man. Agent Hendrickson, she thought his name was, skilled at covert operations, stationed somewhere out west. She lightened her touch on the trigger, and called him by name. His eyes shone as he looked at her, the lamplight reflecting in them as if he was on the point of weeping. His bullet missed her by inches, and only because she dodged.
Once she would have killed him without a thought.
Fighting raged around her. Glass smashed, and a lamp was knocked over at the far side of the room, burying it in darkness. "Hendrickson!" she hissed. He shot at her again, and she was out from her cover, rolling low, then up again, twisting his arm up, wrenching his gun from his hand, and hitting him with it again and again and again, until he went heavy in her grip. She let him fall, rolled away, and came up into a crouch, chest heaving.
All battles were different. You could practise a move a hundred times, but in every battle, you executed it differently. You had to read the terrain and act accordingly. You had to read your enemy's eyes.
"Hendrickson." She tried again. He was down and bleeding. She touched his throat and found a pulse, fingers trailing blood across his skin. Only a single lamp remained, and she pushed herself to her feet, and hurried away from it, into the darkness. A man was hiding there. He hesitated before he attacked her, and that fraction of a second was enough for her to take him down.
All battles were different. Men died, and sometimes she was the one who killed them. Once they had all seemed the same to her, just faceless targets, names on a list, but now…
Don't think. Don't think.
There was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to hide. His heart was pounding, and sweat was dripping into his eyes. Bruce had his arms wrapped tightly around his body, as if he could hold the other guy inside with sheer force.
Someone was crawling along the floor, moaning. A smeared trail of blood shone in the flickering light. "I can't," Bruce whispered, just his lips moving, no sound coming out.
The man rolled onto his back, brought his gun up, and shot at somebody Bruce couldn't see. Then his head fell back with a thud, and he screwed his eyes shut, his eyelashes wet with tears of pain.
But he had to, of course. He was here, and nothing could change that. For good or ill, choices had been made. It wouldn't keep the other guy away, to cower in a closet while men died all around him. It would just mean that the other guy had already won.
"Let me help," he said.
Let me be myself.
Tony had a metal automaton cornered, separated from the pack. Engaging his thrusters, he flew above its head, then aimed a blast of blazing aether at the back of its neck. He grabbed its shoulder, peering close. "Stay still."
It tried to shake him off. It gripped him with a powerful metal fist, and tried to smash him to the ground. "A little co-operation?" he rasped. "I come in peace, all that shit. Course, I'm trying to destroy you, but that can come afterwards. I just--"
The automaton managed to kick him away. Tony crashed backwards onto a pile of masonry, and ow! he really had to consider putting padding inside the armour, something soft, maybe velvet, or… silk… removeable, of course, because you'd need to wash it, and… "Ow!" he protested out loud, because the giant was pounding him on the belly. He blasted it away and came in for another foray as it struggled to recover its balance.
Engaging his thrusters at low power, he hovered a few feet off the ground, eye to eye with the metal creature. "Where are your controls?" he asked it. "Where are your gears? You don't click, you don't tick, you don't grind or whirr or… roar, but that was just an early prototype, before I gave up on the--"
The automaton smashed him in the side of the head. The automatic stabilisers kicked in, of course, but not before he had flailed in the air, his gauntlet striking the wall. He felt bruised all over, insult added to injury.
A flash of red swirled past him. A hammer came down again and again, blazing lightning. The automaton fell over, and the hammer flattered its shoulder, its chest, its face, its feet.
"I could have done that!" Tony protested.
"I thought you needed aid, comrade." Thor grinned at him as if this was the most exciting thing he could possibly imagine. He smashed his fist into the automaton's chest once again for good measure. The automaton still struggled to rise.
"I was trying," Tony told him, "to understand," he said with admirable patience, "how it worked. Now you've broken it."
"Then that is good!" Thor boomed. "Let us endeavour to break some more."
"No!" Tony began to say, but then an entire corner of the fort was falling, and he had to fly in and hold up the beams while - "oh, hi, Cap!" - people were helped to safety from underneath him, and, like, do the whole actual superhero thing, while automatons wreaked havoc all around him, and he didn't know how they worked!
It was just the same as it had always been. The weapons were different and the enemies were different, but war was just the same. There were people to protect, and there were people to kill, not because killing was good, but because it was the only way to stop them.
Steve had found Fury by the inner doors, those great metal gates that led to the chambers underground. "Reporting for duty, sir. What shall I…?"
"Use your judgement, Captain." Fury had been busy with something else, not even acknowledging Steve with a salute. "Keep those bastards from reaching this door."
"Where are your colours?" Steve had asked.
"Colours? Oh. Battle flag." Fury had looked at him with his one keen eye. "Maybe you're wearing it, Captain Rogers."
Steve did what he could. His new shield was made of some miraculous metal, and he could damage the metal giants. When a window was smashed in, he protected people from flying shards of glass. He helped them to safety when the corner of the fort collapsed. Tony Stark held up the main beam, and Steve took the cross beam, holding its weight on his back and one shoulder, while helping people to safety with his other hand, easing them around his body.
"So what now?" Tony Stark said, when the last person was free from the rubble. Steve's back was trembling with the weight of the floors above him. There was little sound of strain in Tony Stark's voice, but fine sparks were sizzling from the joints of his metal suit. "After three? One, two…"
They let go at the same moment. Steve felt himself grabbed, lifted in the air, then down again. He rolled. Stark was on top of him. Steve saw something falling, and brought his shield up, holding it above the two of them.
"Huh," said Stark. Steve was breathing heavily, inhaling dust. "Who saved whose life just then?"
Steve scraped his eyes clear from dirt. "Does it matter?"
"Though I'd start keeping score," Stark said, "just in case."
"In case of what?" Steve asked, but Stark was already pushing himself up and returning to the fight. Steve lost sight of him soon. Things narrowed to his own corner of the battle: a swing of his shield, a wounded soldier to help up from the floor, and - "Behind you, Cap!" - two men who sneaked up behind him with long knives in their hands. A blade slithered down his forearm, but failed to penetrate the fabric. He took out the second attacker with a single punch. The first fought for longer, and there were others when he had fallen.
There were always others.
Clint crouched with both palms pressed against the wall, feeling the vibrations through his fingers, tracking the progress of the battle above.
Voices were muffled and distorted. All he could see was the plain small square of this room. He closed his eyes and pressed his brow against the cold plaster.
He liked to perch up high and watch everything that happened below. Now he was underground and unable to see a thing. He hated to be blind. He hated to be trapped.
He had asked for it. "I can't… promise," he had told Coulson. "It's gone now, but if… the… enemy… If… whoever did this to me, whatever did this, if it was even real…
Coulson had found plenty to say, more than he often did, but Clint had ended the day here, locked in a barren room.
He did not like to be locked in.
He needed it.
He had no idea what was happening. The sounds told him part of the story, but only that. The plaster was cold against his brow, or maybe he was too hot. He paced: six steps from bed to door; four steps from wall to wall. He didn't know… and that was good. It was good. He kneaded the bridge of his nose, pressing fingers into the flesh. There was nothing in his mind that shouldn't be there. He could do this. He could do this.
The walls trembled. The metal door rattled against its frame. Six paces there and back. Four and four and four and four. He stopped and lowered himself carefully onto the bed, his feet on the floor, both hands curled around the metal frame beneath the mattress. He was fully clothed, even to his boots. The calluses on his fingertips were softening. It had been too long since he had used his bow.
When the door opened, he was ready for it. Coulson held out the replacement bow without a word.
Clint took the bow, testing the feel of it. He strapped the unfamiliar quiver onto his back, and rolled his shoulders to make the weight settle. He nocked an arrow and drew the bowstring back, marking how it pulled on his muscles. In appearance, it was an identical copy of the bow he had lost behind the illusion field, but no two weapons were the same to those who used them. He eased the string slowly back to its slackened position and removed the arrow. Another crash sounded from above, louder now the door was open.
Coulson watched him throughout. "Ready?" he asked, that single word containing so much more.
Of course he wasn't ready. He would never be ready. At any moment, he could be compelled to turn on his friends and comrades. At any moment, he could be made to kill… His mind supplied images of Natasha standing frozen in his sights; of the barrel of his gun pressed against her head.
"Ready," Clint said. It was a rasping thread of a sound; he had been too long without speaking out loud.
Coulson touched Clint's shoulder, then let his hand fall. Clint nodded once, and walked away..
"Captain!" Steve heard someone shouting, but it was so hard to see anything. Thin clouds had moved in across the moon, and only a few last lamps shone in the surviving shell of the fortress. At least there was no fire. "Captain! Stark is sore pressed, but he scorned my help when I gave it."
Steve turned where he was. A bullet smashed into his shield. "I can't see--"
"I will bring you light!"
Steve struggled towards the sound of the fiercest fighting. His skin tingled as if with a coming storm. But Stark was easy to find in the end, visible by the glow of his suit. It had made him a target, of course. A metal giant was crushing him in its embrace, squeezing him ever more tightly. Stark was beyond fighting, his right hand scrabbling ineffectually at the giant's throat.
Steve swung his shield, striking repeatedly at the giant's shoulder. "Let him go!" he shouted. Casting his shield away, he grabbed the giant's wrist and strained against the strength of his grip. Stark shifted, light flaring from his boots. "Can you…?" Steve gasped. His muscles were trembling. Slowly, slowly the giant's grip eased. Stark didn't move.
Lightning blazed, and for an instant Steve saw everything, like a frozen tableau in a drawing room party, but after it he was blind, unable to see anything at all. The thunder came well nigh simultaneously, as if the world itself was being torn apart. Stark was talking throughout. "--interfere," he said.
The giant stopped resisting, releasing Stark entirely. Steve groped for his fallen shield, finding it by its reflection in the light of Stark's suit, and struck the giant with all the strength he could muster. It fell backwards, and he struck it again, maiming its feet so it could no longer stand, crushing its right hand so it could no longer grip.
"And once again," Stark said, "I could have done that, had I wanted to. What should have been the clue? Hmm, let's see… That I wasn't trying?"
Steve was panting, great heaving breaths. There was another blaze of lightning, searing his eyes with white light. Rain began to fall, just a few scattered drops at first, but then a deluge.
"Can you guys stop breaking my toys?" Stark said. "I'm sorry, is that too much to ask?"
Steve looked at the fallen giant, shining with the reflected blue light of Stark's suit. Apart from the rain, everything was quieter than it had been for… minutes? Hours? Had it been hours? He wiped away rain and sweat. Was this the last of the giants? Were the others all disabled, or had they retreated? If any retreated, it was imperative that somebody followed them in order to attach the emitter device that Stark and Banner had been working on. Who had been assigned that task? Steve had not been trusted with all the details of the defence plan. It was only right. He was only a soldier, not a true captain by rights. A soldier did the job that was assigned to him, and never asked for more trust than that.
"Excuse me," Stark said, "but I'm not sensing any real remorse here."
"Doesn't count." Stark stood over the fallen giant. "Am I the only one who appreciates how incredible this is? They shouldn't work. I've worked on my Turk for months, and he's all machinery inside. I looked at the one that Thor rudely… pulped, and there's nothing, just solid metal. How can you have an automaton without visible parts? They appear to have intelligence." The fallen giant swung it shattered fist blindly, striking its own caved-in face. "Limited intelligence," Stark said. "Who made them? How did he manage to--"
Lightning flickered in dancing forks. A great roll of thunder surged to a crescendo, then was abruptly silent. "--when I can't," Stark said.
Rain poured down Steve's face, washing away sweat and dust and blood. "Is it over?" he asked. "Have we won?"
Stark looked up. Lightning flared, a great tearing fork, then another, then another, giving them searing light for the space of several breaths. "See, my friends!" Thor cried over the thunder. "I said I would bring you light!"
"No," Stark said, when it was dark again. "No, we haven't. Didn't you see it? We haven't won. It's only just begun."
end of chapter five
Chapter 6: Chapter six
Natasha never counted her dead.
She had done so at the beginning, long ago, counting the first one and the second and the third, seeing their faces as she sat crying behind dry eyes and a frozen face, while men commanded her to kill more. The next job produced an unknown number of targets, and she lost count. Then she stopped counting because she stopped caring, or so she told herself.
Now she never counted them because it was not… productive. Barton agreed, the one time they had talked about it, fuelled by vodka and cheap beer. "There are some things," he had said, "that are… unwise to do to yourself."
So she killed when she needed to, but only when she needed to. Whether there were one or a hundred, the deaths were necessary, and that was what mattered.
She rose slowly from concealment. Slowly, stiffly, she lowered her gun. The inner shell of the fort was still standing, but most of the outer walls were gone. Rain blew in from outside, falling on carpets and tables and the bodies of the dead.
Is it over? she thought.
Stark appeared above her, hovering where the ceiling once had been. "The enemy's underground," he said.
She turned her head. She had fought near the fortified doorway just minutes before, and it was still well defended and sealed shut.
"They got in through the hangars, while we were busy fighting them here. This was a feint," Stark said. "They must have--"
Don't think. "No time to ask questions," she said. "Go. Stop them."
The battle had moved on, and Bruce had survived. He had remained himself, tending to the wounded while the building crumbled around them. Every crash made him flinch. He focused on the work of his hands, and kept his breathing steady. The thunder made his heart hammer in his chest.
A man came weaving up to him, pink-tinged water dripping from his fingers. "What's happening?" Bruce forced his hands to remain still. The lamp stand was broken, but the lumiferous aether still emitted its flickering light. There had been no fires. Unlike here, the outpost must have been lit by gas and candles, he thought, to have burnt when attacked.
"Someone opened the hangar doors," the man said. He had the look of one entirely lost. "One of ours. Let them in. I don't know when. Underground," he said. "Hangars underground. They… connect."
"You need help," Bruce said.
"They've gone to fight." The man touched his brow, a gesture that seemed strangely familiar, though Bruce couldn't place it. "The others. To stop them. I lost my gun. I can't…" He raised his hand; studied its back and then the palm, curling his fingers as if seeking something to grip.
"I can't…" The man pressed his hand to his chest, then slid the hand down his body to his belt. He gripped something there. His face shone with wetness, gleaming in the light of the lantern.
Bruce moved forward to grab him. The knife slid into his belly without a sound.
"No," Bruce gasped. "No no no…"
The man stepped back. Bruce fell to the ground, and watched his hands changing, and felt the wound healing. "No," he whispered. "No!" he roared, and that was the last thing he knew before the other guy claimed him.
The floor of the hangar was forty feet below the ground level. "Cover me," Tony said.
Rogers was busy fighting. The enemy had a cluster of men around the machinery that controlled the huge doors in the ceiling, and automatons patrolled the edges. "What?" Rogers gasped, as he felled one man with his shield and another with his fist in a neat one, two, that, okay, Tony had to admit was impressive, although he'd never say it out loud. At least he fought quietly, unlike Thor - who was so not a god, despite his unfortunate dress sense - who fought like a bad actor in a melodrama, with a "have at thee, varlet!" and "foorsooth, my pantaloons are all in a twist" - okay, perhaps not the last one, and perhaps not the first one, either.
"What?" Thor bellowed.
"Just… do what you're doing," Tony said. "Keep them busy fighting you. Not me. Stop them fighting me."
"What…" Rogers said, as he smashed an automaton towards Thor, who thumped it with his hammer and sent it back again, and so on and so on, like a goddamn game of tennis. "…are you going to do?"
"Fifteen-love," Tony said, when the automaton finally fell over, "to Thor. Behind you! Don't break them all. Leave one for me." He powered up his thrusters. "Go down, of course. See what damage they're doing down there. Stop them."
And then he jumped.
Steve slipped on the wet ground. A giant landed a blow on his back, smashing him to the ground. He sprawled face down, his body screaming with the pain of it. The giant was standing on his back… and then suddenly the weight was gone. He took Thor's proferred hand, nodding his thanks.
Half way up, he froze. "What's that?"
He was already too late. As its load-bearing wall was smashed down, a whole new section of the fort crumbled, the noise louder than any thunder. "There are people in there," he gasped. "We have to…"
Fight the giants. Search for survivors. Rescue the wounded. Provide a distraction while Stark did whatever he was doing down below. Obey orders. But his orders were to use his judgement. There was too much in this world that he didn't understand. He didn't know…
The rubble shifted, and a beast rose up from it, roaring.
"What manner of a beast is this?" Thor struck at a giant, sending it sliding in the rain.
"It's Banner," Steve realised. "We have to stop him."
"But he is but one creature!" Thor declared. "The giants are many!"
Steve grabbed Thor's arm. "We have to stop him before he hurts anyone else," he said. "He'll never forgive himself if we don't."
Use your judgement, Fury had told him, and this was his call.
There was barely any light to see by, and that was good. Natasha moved silently along the underground corridors, navigating by touch and by subtle changes in the sound of the air pumps and water pipes.
Even in a SHIELD base, there were always secret ways - especially in a SHIELD base. Barton knew them all, of course, but Natasha knew enough to get around. When she had reached the right place, she climbed up to the ceiling, and prized open the hatch. It was warm in the air vents, like fighting against a desert breeze.
She crawled until she was above the fortified doorway that led from the hangars to the main underground complex. Her eyes were adapted to the darkness, but there was no need. The enemy was already there, and two of the six held lanterns. Of the agents who had been guarding the door, four were dead, and the others were gone. Compromised, she thought, remembering Hendricksson.
She had meant to crawl back and make her report, but a voice spoke up suddenly, calm, reasonable, almost pleasant. "There is a spider in the ceiling," it said. The men below her looked confused. Natasha drew back from the hatch, but she readied her gun. "A woman," the voice said, sounding peeved. "A sneaking little agent. Subdue her, and bring her to me, alive if you can, dead if you must."
Gunfire peppered the hatch. She edged back, but the ceiling was thin. A bullet smashed through, missing her by inches.
And then came the sound of shouting, and another fight nearby. She made her choice. Smashing the hatch open, she fired downwards with both guns, hitting one, then two, then drawing back. She waited for them to respond, then jumped down, landing on one man's shoulders, twisting his head sharply to the side, then leaping to the ground, lashing out with her leg to send another man crashing to the floor. Through the open door, she saw Stark fighting a group of men in the hangar.
"Agent Romanoff," he said. "Always popping up in unexpected places. Weren't you up top when I last saw you?"
"Point. I thought I'd… drop by."
She finished off the last of her men, and added her firepower to his, using the door as cover. A giant jumped down from above, landing with a crash that shook the walls.
"And now it's raining automatons," Stark said. "A little help?"
"I am helping." She killed another of his assailants. Several of them were familiar, agents gone over to the enemy. She believed it was against their will. She knew how… persuasive men could be when they wanted you to serve their cause; how they could eradicate all traces of the girl you had once been. She knew, but - don't think; don't think - she didn't have the luxury of sparing them, not when she was facing so many.
Someone spoke her name.
She turned in time to see an enemy fall to his knees behind her, red blood spreading like a flower on his chest. There was something shiny in the middle of the wound, like an arrow tip punched through from behind. "Barton?" she whispered. "Clint?" She looked up, but there was nobody there.
And then the battle around Stark claimed her attention again. When next she turned round, the enemy was dead, and there was nothing in his back but the clean hole of an entry wound. It could have been a bullet. It could have just been that.
The skinchanger was a mighty opponent. Like the metal giants, it continued to fight even after Thor had struck it the mightiest of blows. Unlike the metal giants, it showed no sign of injury.
Thor crashed into a pile of rubble, moaning at the sharp pain of it. Captain Rogers was motionless in the mud. Beyond him, the giants prowled around the great opening in the ground that was called a hangar door. Nobody moved in the wreckage. It seemed to Thor as if he was the only one left alive, just him and the skinchanger, locked in everlasting combat.
He pushed himself to his feet, bellowing. He hurled his hammer as a missile, striking the creature from its feet. But it surged up again. For one so large, it was swift. It launched itself at Thor, and they rolled together, Thor crushed by its weight, then grappling his way to riding on top of the beast, pounding its shoulders, its chest, its face.
The captain stirred, groaning.
Thor looked at him through the rain and the darkness. Never before had he doubted that he could win a battle of brawn.
He shouldn't have spoken Natasha's name. He shouldn't have saved her. No, of course he should have saved her. No, Natasha could take care of herself; always had done. He just wanted… What did he want? To leave her a word of farewell, in case this was the end? To show that in this, at least, he could act on his own volition?
The grip on his mind returned the moment he retrieved his arrow, as if the enemy - friend. master - had seen him and marked him and remembered him. He knew secret ways out, and now the enemy knew them.
Join us. Join us.
He had an explosive arrow nocked in his bow. He almost shot Stark, his hand trembling for the first time since he had picked up a bow. "No," he rasped. "No."
He climbed out through the workings of the door mechanism. The giants seemed to know that he was no longer their enemy. Know? How could they know, because it wasn't true, it wasn't true.
He wanted to flee back to Coulson, to say that he couldn't do this, to demand to be locked up again.
The fort had fallen. Good, thought the presence in his mind. A fight was taking place in front of the ruins. He recognised both combatants from reports of past operations. Banner, he thought, and remembered the man's quiet torment. It was Clint's fault that he was here. He would hate himself when the 'other guy' left him.
He clenched his fist. He knew what it was like to feel that.
The explosive arrow was still nocked to the string. Clint drew the bowstring back, and loosed. The Hulk's head snapped round, looking at the explosion. He began to move.
"Stop!" Clint shouted at Thor. "Stay where you are. Don't engage him!" He loosed another arrow, and - there! - he had him. Bellowing, the Hulk began to run towards the source of the noise, seeking fresh enemies to fight.
Clint ran after him, preparing another arrow as he went. He aimed this one high, letting it travel further. Roaring, the Hulk altered his path, aiming towards the newest noise.
And all Clint had to do was keep pace with him. All he had to do…
He had no idea if the plan was his, or if it came from his own 'other guy.'
He had no idea if he would ever come back.
And then suddenly nobody was trying to kill him. "Huh." Tony lowered his hands. He felt as if he had fought ten rounds with a metal automaton, and guess what? He had, or would have, if certain people hadn't kept interfering. "Have we won? I'd like for us to have won, because it's late and I'm…?" He examined the feeling. "Hungry."
Agent Romanoff was removing weapons from dead enemies. "They're withdrawing." She nodded upwards. There was just enough light for Tony to see that around a dozen men were climbing rope ladders, heading back to the surface.
Tony sighed. "And I guess you're wanting me to fly up there and knock them down again. Or cut the rope? I can cut the rope." He sighed again. "No rest for the… wicked. Not that I am. Don't believe everything you read in the papers."
Agent Romanoff was altogether too humourless. "Some of them got past us," she said. "I saw them, but couldn't stop them. Some came out again, but not all."
Tony craned his neck upwards. "Thor will take care of them. Or the Captain. Or…" He flapped his hand. "Someone." Agent Romanoff seemed to be expecting something from him. "Got past us. Right. You mean they got into the underground complex. Who stayed downstairs?"
"Coulson," Agent Romanoff said.
"Jarvis," said Tony.
"Agent Barton," she added, saying it quietly, perhaps not saying it at all.
Jarvis looked up when they burst into the room. "Good morning, sir. I have taken the liberty of preparing coffee."
Tony looked down at the pile of bodies on the rug. They were neatly stacked and ordered. He tried to utter words. All he produced was sounds.
Coulson put down the bloodstained coffee cup, and brushed some dirt from his cuff. "Why are you here, Mr Stark, Agent Romanoff?"
Tony tried to say something about a rescue.
"Yes," Coulson said. "We did consider it, but you and Agent Romanoff seemed to have things in hand. And there was coffee to make and reports to write."
"And they would keep on interrupting, sir," added Jarvis. His hair was ever so slightly disordered. He brushed it back into place.
"I take it the enemy's retreating," Coulson said. "And you are here why?"
"Uh," Tony said. "The emitter. Got it. Oops?" He came back, gripping the edge of the door. "I was entirely prepared to avenge you, Jarvis. It would have been quite… avengey."
"I'm sure it would have," Jarvis said. "Sir."
Steve pushed himself painfully to his feet. "They are retreating!" Thor exclaimed, clapping him on the back.
"Ow," Steve said. "Please don't."
A flare of light shot up from the hangar as Stark flew back to them. "The emitter," he gasped, hovering in front of Steve. "They're pulling out," he explained. "Got to attach the emitter to one of them. Care to do the honours, Cap, while I do the distracting? Or shall we do it the other way round?"
Steve shook his head, almost beyond understanding. Something exploded in the distance, perhaps as much as a mile away. "What was that?" Memory was vague. Everything had been happening at once, and he was so very weary.
"An archer enticed the monster away with pretty explosions," Thor explained.
"Of course he did," Stark said, "because there's nothing a monster likes more than pretty explodey things. But the emitter, Captain? Kind of the whole point of this adventure?"
Steve wiped mud and rain from his eyes. "You have it?"
"Attached to my back." Stark sounded smug. "Didn't notice it, did you? And it didn't fall off while I was having the crap beaten out of me, so I was right and Banner was… a giant green rage monster… but the point is, Captain Slow, we need to get it transferred from me to one of them, and we need to do it now, before they move on out."
"Yes," Steve said, straightening his shoulders, readying himself for yet another fight. "Of course."
Stark held up his hand. "But you'll give me a minute to study them first? Thirty seconds? Ten?" He gave a theatrical sigh. "Right. No studying. The sacrifices I make to the cause of being a superhero…"
"Stop talking," Steve said, because they were close, they were closing, and the giants were turning towards them and beginning to move.
"I've got that," Stark said. "Back to business. Heroic last endeavour. Then can we have coffee?"
The ragged survivors of the enemy force climbed over the lip of the precipice. Stark landed next to Thor, the captain following on foot close behind him. "That's it," Stark said. "We're done. Emitter safely attached."
"Then we are victorious!" Thor raised his hammer. "Let us--"
And then everything stopped. He let Mjolnir fall. The rain raked across his face. "Brother?"
Loki stood at the head of the ragged army, flanked by two giants. Thor walked towards him, one step, two steps… and then he was running. "Brother!"
Loki smiled a cold thin smile. "So here you are, brother mine." He sneered the word 'brother' as if it was poison.
Thor reached out to him. "I sought you, brother. I mourn what passed between us. Come home, brother. Come home."
"Brother?" Loki sneered. "So the Allfather keeps his secrets still."
"He told me." Thor shook his head, holding out his empty hands. "A brother is not made merely by blood, but by bonds of love. The Warriors Three are my brothers. But you… We grew up together, you and I. Come home with me."
"No," said his brother.
"I knew you were lost upon this earth," Thor said. "I thought you would be alone, afraid, as I was. If you have taken up with men like these…"
"It is not within me to be humble." Loki began to walk away. "You were lost. You were alone. You snivelled, but I have built an army. I am not like you, brother. When will you understand that I am greater than you?"
"You were responsible for this?" Thor gestured at the fallen citadel, at the dead and dying men, fallen defending their chieftain's hall. "Why?"
"Because I could," Loki said. "And because they held something that I need."
"What have you taken from them?" Thor shouted.
Loki smiled. "The thing that will allow me to rule."
And then he disappeared, and Thor was left as one bereft, weeping in the rain.
Natasha was searching the dead by lamplight. The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, but it was not yet dawn.
The aftermath of a battle was always the worst time. When you fought, your focus was narrow, as it had to be. You lived in the moment; made split-second decisions, because you would die if you didn't. Afterwards… Afterwards you woke up. You realised that you were hurting. You had time to think. You considered the consequences - not to yourself, because you were who you were, and it was too late to change that, but to the cause you served.
A man was lying face down. She rolled him over. He was nobody she knew.
Teams were already in place, shifting the wreckage. "We got off lightly," she heard Coulson say, "all things considered."
Lightly? she thought, but she did not count her dead.
Director Fury and his team had been safely underground when the fort had fallen. Many of the defenders were alive and accounted for, and many more were wounded. Twelve were missing. Whether they lay dead under the wreckage or had defected to the enemy, nobody knew.
Thirteen? she wondered, but she did not count her dead.
Once, after a battle like this - because every battle was the same, just as every battle was different - she and Barton had found their way to one of his perches and had sat there while the sun rose, neither of them saying a single word.
Other men turned to speech in the aftermath of a fight. Stark had taken his helmet off, and was crawling over a fallen giant. It had been pounded into little more than a heap of flattened metal, but it was still moving, still trying to fight. "No workings," Stark was saying. "No machinery. Pulped by Thor's hammer, and it still keeps trying to kill me. Full marks for persistence, but how does it work? If only I could… Wait, what's this?"
"What?" Rogers asked.
"A piece of paper," Stark said, "in its mouth. It-- Oh. Will you look at that? Looks like I found the off switch.
"A golem," Natasha said, remembering legends she had heard when living another life in Prague. "An inanimate servant, brought to life with a word."
"Magic!" Stark crumpled the paper in disgust.
Natasha moved on. "Nine deaths verified so far, sir," she heard Coulson say. "We've secured some of the hostiles - wounded ones, mostly. Some of them used to be ours."
"Secure them underground."
"Already done, sir."
Natasha did not count her dead, in that she kept no count of those that she had killed. What other meaning could the phrase have? She had been trained to act alone, no love, no friendship, no family. Nobody would care if she died, except as a useful asset lost. If others on the same side died in a fight, what did it matter to her?
But that was the past, long past, years ago now. After the sun had risen, Clint had revealed a bottle of vodka, and glasses for them both. I'm alive, she had thought, drinking the first silent toast. Then the second toast, slow and sharp and fiercely warming: You're alive.
She grabbed Coulson by the arm. "Where's Agent Barton?"
Coulson shook his head. "He…"
"He was there," Natasha said. "I know it."
Coulson pulled his arm free, and she let him. He busied himself with his cuffs. "Captain Rogers reports that a man armed with a bow lured the Hulk away using explosive arrows. The dirigibles have been recalled. As soon as--"
"Why wasn't he here yesterday?" Natasha demanded. "If he was here, why wasn't he--?"
"Agent Romanoff." Coulson turned to face her, mask in place. "Agent Barton admitted to me that he was compromised. He was confined at his own request."
"So he escaped?" Natasha grabbed him again. "The enemy released him?"
"It would appear so."
Once it would not have mattered to her.
Bruce woke to see the rising sun, and everywhere there was the sweet sharp scent of wet grass after rain.
He sat up stiffly. He touched his belly with an aching, sluggish hand, half expecting to find himself injured, but the skin was smooth and unmarred. He remembered…
Running. Explosions. Fighting Thor. Lost, lost in the dark, no more pretties to lead him on.
"No." He shook his head. Those were the other guy's memories. The other guy wasn't him. There was no reason why he should remember.
He had no idea where he was. He had failed to resist the change. He had failed.
He stood up, aching in every bone. Water dripped from the trees above him, and there were footprints in the mud, made by a monster's feet. He had no idea which way to go. He had no idea where he ought to go. Home was… nowhere. It was wrong to inflict himself on the SHIELD base again. No, it was wrong not to. He had to see if he could help. He had to find out what the other guy had done.
What he had done.
He began to walk, following back the trail of crushed grass. Stark caught up with him before he had gone a hundred yards, appearing above him in his Iron Man suit, then lowering himself to hover a few feet off the ground.
"So they were right about the naked thing," Stark said. He tossed Bruce a frock coat. Bruce caught it and put it on. "Hardly haute couture," Stark said. He raised his visor, showing a visage far more weary than his voice implied. "I'll introduce you to my tailor. Of course, the lack of a hat and pants and… well, everything else would scandalise any ladies, but I don't see any ladies out here; Agent Romanoff doesn't count."
"I…" Bruce's throat felt raw. He swallowed, meaning to try again, meaning to ask… what?
"I finally got the chance to examine one of the giants. Automatons. See what they've done to me? Agent Romanoff claims they're golems. Magic. Care to help prove her wrong?"
Bruce fumbled with the last of the buttons. His fingers felt frail and far too small. "What…?" he managed. He moistened his lips, tasting dirt.
"We got the emitter onto one of the... okay, you win, giants. I field tested the attachment myself, gave it the most rigorous of testing. It worked. Told you it would. We need to make the next one even smaller, capable of communicating over a longer range."
"Next one?" Bruce asked.
"Of course." Stark looked at Bruce as if the question was ridiculous. "It can be improved, right?"
Bruce stopped walking. "I thought…" He gripped one hand with the other. Both hands felt small. "Did he kill anyone, the other guy?" No. No. That was wrong. That was just another way of running away. "Did I kill anyone?"
Stark pressed a button and came down to earth, the machinery of his suit suddenly silent. "You can't…"
"I have to!" Bruce clenched his fists, one clasped inside the other.
Stark stood very still. The wind stirred the long grass. With every breath Bruce took, the sky grew lighter. "You might not know…" he said. "I was captured last year, by a group that thought the world had been tainted by machines, and that it was necessary to wipe it clean and start again, which they intended to do town by town. And they were using my weapons to do it - and, no, I don't know where the logic is in using the latest tech in order to destroy all tech, but unlike them, I'm not a crazy person."
"Fight the devil with his own weapons?" Bruce suggested.
"Are you implying…?" Stark feigned outrage, but seemed to lose the heart for it. "They used my newest weapons, the ones I'm never making again, and they killed people with them - women, children, old men. And that…" Stark stopped, and let out a breath. "I'm not one for speeches, for morality tales, but…"
They carried on in silence for a while. "You know," Bruce said at last, "that story… It really isn't the same thing at all."
"No?" Stark shrugged. "Told you I suck at this."
They travelled another hundred yards together.
"Want to come and do science?" Stark said. "Everything's all broken. It's like all our Christmases have come at once. Things to fix. Things to improve. You in?"
"Yes," Bruce said. "Yes. Of course I am."
"Why would he do these things?" Thor heaved up the end of a wooden beam, waited until the captain had secured the other end, and began to ease it backwards.
The captain shook his head. "I do not know."
A cloud of dust billowed up. The beam was free, no further resistance. They clambered carefully through the rubble, carrying it away. "I thought he was lost. I know what it is like to be lost."
The captain said nothing. He face was streaked with dust, channels marked through it by the rain.
"I still hope I can persuade him to turn from this course," Thor said. They lowered the beam. Thor straightened up. The night had entirely passed, and now it was morning. "But I will fight him," he swore. "I have looked upon his works this night, and they are not good. My hammer is pledged to your cause."
The captain gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. "It's not…" His voice trailed away.
"I wish you to know this," Thor said loudly, so everyone could hear it, all those weary rescuers, and those less wounded, still lying beneath their makeshift shelters. "Although he is my brother, for as long as he follows this course, he is my enemy."
The captain said nothing. Thor ought to have made this oath to Fury the chieftain, clasping hand to hand, in the manner of these people.
"I consider myself to blame," Thor said quietly.
"You aren't responsible for your brother's actions," the captain said.
Thor shook his head. "It is because of me that Loki turned his gaze towards this Earth of yours. I failed to stop him. I failed to keep him from falling into the void. Until he is stopped, I will oppose him. I will stand alone if I must. The cost has been high tonight, and your people are frail. If you wish to retire…"
"No," the captain said. He spoke as if it surprised him. "No," he said again, more firmly. And then, quietly, looking not at Thor but at someone else, one of the crowd around the wreckage. "My war, too."
The wreckage was clear and hid no more dead. The dirigibles had returned, and had been sent out to search… for signs of the enemy, obstensibly, but Natasha had made a request of her own.
Now she waited. Coulson was nearby. Was he waiting, too? There was a wall of distrust between them. He had kept secrets from her before, of course, but this was the first that felt almost like a betrayal. Once she had never expected anything other than betrayal from her masters, but she was changed; impossible not to admit that.
The first dirigible was already returning, just minutes away from landing. They were ready in force, of course, all those who were still able to bear arms, just in case the crew of the dirigible had been suborned.
"The receiver's working again," Stark said, as he walked the precarious path that led from the door that led underground. "It wasn't damaged, just jolted out of alignment by the explosions. And the emitter works. We can read it, communicating loud and clear. That's the good news. The best news. Scientific breakthrough, giant leap forward, fame and applause."
"The bad news?" Coulson said.
"Oh. The emitter's close. Getting closer. The giant we attached it to is coming back. Telling somebody seemed like the thing to do."
"They're coming back?" Natasha felt dazed, as if she had not slept for a week.
"Uh oh." Stark looked beyond her, squinting into the sun. "The signal's coming from… just… about… there."
Already the dirigible crew was signalling to them, showing the flags that denoted that all was well, that they were friends.
Could such an assurance ever be trusted again?
Natasha waited. It had not always been in her to wait. Then, at last, she was able to move forward, not caring what Coulson thought, not caring what the others would whisper about her afterwards, not caring that they had seen that she was capable worry. "Did you find him?"
The agent shook his head. "I'm sorry, ma'am. We found where he fired his last arrow, near where Stark found Doctor Banner."
"Could Banner…?" She swallowed; touched the cold metal of her gun. Could Banner have killed him? But they would have found the body.
"The ground was soft." The agent was afraid to meet her eyes. "He walked… See, I don't have eyes like the Hawk does, but he…"
"What?" She made it cold, as if this was an enemy she was interrogating, whose tale meant nothing to her; just a job.
"Wherever he went, he went alone, and he went on foot."
She walked away. She reached the others in time to see Stark take a muddy metal case from the hands of one of the crew. "So the enemy found the emitter," he said. "Removed it. Threw it away." He looked upwards; closed his eyes. "So it was all for nothing, then.
She left them there. She left them there, and like Barton, she went alone.
end of chapter six
Chapter 7: Chapter seven
They brought him in chains before his god.
"Who is this?" the god asked, wind stirring his hair.
A new follower, they told him. One who had come on foot, walking as if in a dream. One who had sought them after the battle, and had been intercepted by the scouts. One who claimed to serve the god, but you could never be too careful. Probably a servant. Perhaps a spy. So they had bound him and dragged him into the dirigible along with the rest.
"You are the archer?" the god asked.
Clint's lips moved. "I am," they said.
The god smiled. "I remember. Yes."
Clint said nothing, just stared straight ahead with blank eyes.
"Are you good?" the god asked. "Are you excellent?"
"Yes," said Clint's lips.
The god smiled. "It is better thus, is it not? No false modesty. No understatements in the name of politeness. Just a yes. I ask; you answer. You have skills; I can use them."
"Yes," Clint agreed.
"Does he speak the truth?" There was no audible change to the god's voice, but suddenly he was speaking everyone within earshot, not just to Clint.
Others spoke up then. This was Agent Barton, Clint Barton, sometimes called Hawkeye. The greatest marksman in the world. A great favourite of Director Fury… and Clint might have laughed at that, had he been able to. Assassin. Sharp-shooter. Sniper. Lone wolf. Killer.
Another man, a man Clint had never seen before, gave a long slow nod. He was kneeling on the deck, both hands inside a large open chest.
"So, a great prize indeed," the god said.
Clint stared straight ahead. "Yes." He almost said 'master'; wanted to say 'my lord.' "Sir," he said.
"Untie him," the god commanded.
Someone unfastened the cuffs. Clint wanted to rub his wrists, but didn't, just let his arms fall heavily to his sides. His shoulders protested at the sudden movement. His fingers were slack, cold air against his empty palms.
"This Earth of yours is a sorrowful place, Clint." The god moved behind the kneeling man, and placed his hand on his shoulder. "You have given away your souls to steam and machinery, and scorn old wisdom as magic and superstition. I found Mr Verner, here, performing cheap sideshow tricks in exchange for a pittance, making beggars dance against their will. He had potential, yes, but it had withered from lack of… nourishment. And what can be more nourishing than the touch of a god?"
"I remember you, Agent Barton," said the man called Verner. "I remembered you in the battle, and remembered… this." He brought his hands out of the chest, and showed Clint his bow, the one he had lost when he had first fought the metal giants. "If you want to control someone, you've got to be near them, see, or else hold something that's part of them: a hair, a rag stained with their blood…" He ran his hand along the wooden shaft. Clint pressed his nails into his palms, and stared ahead with blank eyes. "This is very much part of you, is it not? Not dead wood, but your own flesh and blood. The only thing you truly trust, more even than you trust yourself."
"Yes," Clint agreed, his voice dead, as secrets were stripped out and put in words.
"You resisted him," the god said. "You made him angry. You made me angry. Men are like sheep, so easy to control, so desperate to be controlled, but you went away. But you are back now. You will never resist again." His smile was cold. "Will you, Clint?"
"No," Clint said. My lord. My god. Master. My king. "Sir."
They gathered in a makeshift meeting room in the wreckage of the fort. Somebody had gone to considerable effort to bring civilisation to the ruin. Pictures hung on the walls, and a dried arrangement of flowers sat on the sideboard, encased in a glass dome. A silver tray had been placed in the middle of the polished table, holding a decanter and seven crystal glasses. A plate of exquisite cakes lay nearby, arranged in neat perfection.
"Is it foolish," Steve wondered aloud, "or brave?"
Stark was busy helping himself to one of the glasses. He looked up, grunting a question.
"This," Steve said, gesturing at the room. "This… veneer of polite society. I've seen it before. We were losing ten men a day, but the officers still wore the right clothes to dinner, and were careful to tie their cravats just so. Is it foolish to cling on to such things when you are staring into the face of death, or is that precisely when these things matter the most?"
Stark twirled his glass, making the crystal flare like jewels. "Jarvis," he said. "You asked if it was foolish or brave," he said, when Steve looked blank. "I say it was Jarvis."
"Gentlemen," Director Fury said firmly. "Agent Coulson?"
Coulson placed a bundle of paperwork on the table. "Lists," he said. "Inventories. All thoroughly checked."
"Good for you." Stark poured a second glass. "Nothing like a good inventory to make an evening complete."
"Actually," Coulson said mildly, "the inventory shows that nothing important went missing, which is interesting because--"
"My brother claimed that he took something," Thor said. "These tiny cakes are truly wondrous! Something that would help him rule. They are pink and… squishy."
Coulson leafed through his papers. "We sent most of our artefacts and technology away before the attack. The only ones we left behind were those we needed for defence and daily living, and those Mr Stark and Dr Banner needed for their work. These are all accounted for, except for the hand weapons and personal effects of the agents who… went missing."
Agent Romanoff was very careful not to react, Steve thought. Once again, Banner was sitting apart.
"He took something." Thor's voice was muted by cream.
"And then we get to the unimportant things," Coulson said. "The… pointless decoration. Flower arrangements. Decanters. Jewels." He looked at Stark as he said the last word.
Stark put his glass down. "It wasn't attached to any workings. There were no wires, no gears. It was just decoration." He let out a breath. "Loki took it."
Coulson nodded. "The only thing, as far as we can tell."
"So this is my fault, is it?" Stark gripped his glass. "It had no workings. It didn't do anything. I called it like I saw it. And now it's a magical mystical god-like… ruley… thing?"
"We don't know what it does," Fury said, "but Loki took it, which must mean that it has power."
"Or that he thinks it has power. He could be wrong." Stark turned to Thor. "You guys aren't the kind of gods that do infallibility, are you?" Thor's reply was prevented by cake. "Thought not. "So far, I'm thinking Norse god equals crazy."
Thor nodded happily, either absorbed with cake, or happy to take it as a compliment.
"We have to work on the assumption that this item has power," Fury said, "and that Loki is more powerful now that he possesses it. As to what he will do next…"
Steve watched them all, these people who were, for now, the only team that he had. Fury and Coulson liked to smother him in expectation, never doubting that his life was theirs to command. Agent Romanoff was distant, never smiling at anybody. Banner was wrapped in guilt, breaking free only when he was working with Stark. Thor took more delight in battle than Steve liked to see. Stark was… Stark was infuriating and self-centred and flippant, but they had fought well together, and by the time the battle was over, the name Stark made Steve think of the son, and not the father.
But every time he caught himself thinking that, he wanted to recoil. It meant that the past was fading, becoming truly past. It meant that he was burying Howard Stark and all the others, giving them up, moving on.
Was this his war? He had told Thor that it was, but he had been fresh from the battle then, surrounded by the wounded and the dead. But now…?
Sometimes he wanted to walk away, but where could he go? Home was not a place, but a time, long ago past, and people, all dead. Other times he found himself caring about this cause he had been dragged into, and mourning their ruined fortress and their dead. Sometimes that felt like the worst thing of all, as if it made him a traitor to those he had lost.
"…and if we're apportioning blame here," Stark was saying - Tony Stark, Steve told himself firmly, not just Stark - "has anyone thought to wonder how Loki and his automatons--"
"Golems," said Agent Romanoff coldly.
"Okay, right, so they all had a piece of paper in their mouths, saying 'alive' in… some language or other, and they stopped moving when we took it out, but that doesn't mean…" Stark - Tony Stark - gave a martyred sigh. "Okay, then. Golems. Whatever. So they came. Why aren't we wondering how they found us?"
Agent Romanoff pinned Stark with a hard glare, as if daring him to say anything else.
Stark ignored it, and turned to Coulson and Fury. "Is it guilt? Because you tell us afterwards that your precious Agent Barton was compromised. He came here, you kept that useful little fact secret, and a few days later his new friend Loki comes round to play."
Agent Romanoff put her hands flat on the table, fingertips pressing down into the wood, every muscle taut.
"Yes, Fury," Banner said, "we know you like your little secrets. "
Steve swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "Please…" he said, but he didn't know these people, he didn't know how their world worked. What could he say?
Banner raked his hand thought his hair. "I don't think it was Barton," he told Stark. "Maybe Loki came because of Thor. Maybe he can sense him somehow."
"I should be able to sense my brother." Thor was gripping the empty plate. "When I could not sense him, I thought it was because he was lost and mortal. It could be that he knows how to hide from me."
"Can he sense you?" Steve asked.
"I do not know." Thor shook his head. "Loki is clever."
"That's just great!" Stark exclaimed. "Why didn't we just send up a giant flare shouting, 'Here we are, come and kill us.'"
"Loki was focused," Fury said. "He wasn't interested in wiping us out. He launched a feint to keep us distracted, then went straight in and out and took what he wanted. He knew what he wanted. It could be that the jewel itself called to him somehow."
"Which Coulson brought here," Stark said.
"And you dismissed as useless," Coulson pointed out.
"And Captain America kindly brought to this continent in the first place."
Steve could feel his heart racing in his chest. "I told you not to touch it." He clenched his fist, his palm damp. "I told you it was dangerous. I told you to leave it alone. But you always think you know best. You always have to interfere. Everything's a game to you, isn't it?
Stark poured himself a drink, and smiled that arrogant empty smile of his. "I thought you liked games, Cap. After all, you've let people play you ever since they turned you into their pet soldier boy."
My war, Steve thought. His team. His cause. His masters. His comrades. This is what the future was offering him. This.
Bruce was looking in the mirror when the door opened. In the mirror, he saw Agent Romanoff enter the room. He saw the expression on her face, and saw how it changed when she realised that she was not, after all, alone.
"I apologise," she said, stiffly formal. "I hadn't realised…"
"No." He turned round, managing a smile. "I probably have no right to be here."
She looked at him sharply. "Yes you do."
He was conscious of the mirror at his back. "I'm not normally…" He gestured at the mirror. "Stark gave me some clothes. He's got a whole room of spare clothes on his private dirigible." He paused; gave a half smile. "He has a private dirigible."
"There's rich, and then there's Tony Stark." She stopped beside a chair, but didn't sit down.
"I'm not…" Bruce said. "I couldn't…" He plucked at the exquisite cuff. "Expensive doesn't even begin to describe this. He doesn't want them back. I don't know if he means them as a gift - a real gift, I mean - or whether he's so rich that things like these, they're immaterial to him, given away with no more thought than an old newspaper."
She ran her hand across the back of the chair. "Maybe a bit of both."
He had no idea of the etiquette of the situation. He was alone with an apparently unmarried woman. It would have been inconceivable back home. Before.
"It…" He clasped his hands together to stop them shaking. "I'd never have expected him to be like that. He seems genuinely pleased to get the chance to work with me. Tony Stark, pleased to work with me! That's not how you think about people like him. The rich and famous, I mean."
She walked to the sideboard and poured herself a glass of something clear from a decanter. "I have… encountered the rich and famous on several occasions. They're just the same anyone. They bleed the same as anyone."
"Yes." He ran his hand through his hair, then tried to smooth it down again. The room felt stiflingly hot. He was painfully aware of the fact that he was underground.
She sat down with her drink, face carefully composed. "You came here without a change of clothes?"
Should he sit himself? He turned away and saw dead things reflected in the mirror: hunting trophies on the wall, and a stuffed bird on the mantlepiece. "I hadn't intended to come. It was a spur of the moment thing."
She drank, a tiny sip barely touching her lips, then swirled the liquid round in the glass, looking down at it. "I didn't think Agent Barton could be that persuasive."
"He wasn't." He gave the ghost of a smile. "I think that's one of the reasons I came with him, really. He didn't try. He didn't… make demands."
"No." She raised the glass again, but lowered it without drinking.
Bruce's knuckles were white. "I shouldn't have…"
"No." She looked at him at last. "Don't do that to yourself."
He had to look away. The mirror showed him a reflection of a man he no longer knew. "You saw what the other guy did. How can you sit here with…? No, not the other guy. Me."
"Yes," she agreed. "You."
"Don't--!" He shouted it. It was torn out from him, but he forced it to stop. "Please," he said. "Don't."
"You," she said again, soft, remorseless. He watched her in the mirror, her image distorted by imperfections in the glass. "I knew someone once. A girl. It turned out that she was very good at killing, so she killed. Men told her who to kill, and she didn't ask questions. Then her life began to take a different path. She met someone who… But there is no need for you to hear that. Let's just say that she came to regret what she had done."
His own eyes stared back at him from a face that the glass made subtly inhuman. "So she never killed again?"
"She… considered that course. But it wouldn't change the past. And she possessed certain skills. She was good at what she did. What else was she good at? What other life could she live? So she accepted that she was what she was, an assassin, a killer, and made sure that in the future she only ever killed people who deserved it."
Bruce closed his eyes. "And she made her peace?"
She was silent.
Bruce had no idea what to say. He turned to face her, but she was looking away. "It… It isn't…"
"Isn't the same? Probably not." Her face was hidden from him. "But you fight it. You fight it so much. So when it comes, it comes out screaming."
"I have to fight it." His heart was racing. Shadows pulsed in the corners of the room.
"Perhaps," she said.
Bruce sat down, pressing both hands flat against his face, letting out a hot breath against his palms. He let his hands fall again with a sigh. "Agent Barton said much the same. He said I had to accept the monster, to let it out on a tight leash when I needed it." Her reaction was barely visible, but it was there, and he saw it. "You're worried about him," he realised. "Agent Barton. He's your…?"
"Partner," she said. "At times."
"I could tell something was wrong with him. I'm sorry I couldn't…"
"It's not your fault." She spoke abruptly, harshly.
He remembered the expression he had seen on her face when she had thought herself alone. "But he was fighting it," he said gently. "I was with him, remember. I didn't understand at the time, but now I know what was happening to him…" He let out a breath. "I know the signs. I see it every time I look in the mirror. He was fighting it."
"I know," she said quietly. "That is, I know him. I wouldn't expect anything else." She looked at him at last, her eyes shining in the lamplight. "And you were right. What you were going to say." He was unsure what she meant, but she spoke again before he could ask. "Thank you," she said.
For what? he wondered. For trying? For noticing?
Tony reached one-handed for the decanter, as he tightened a screw with the other hand. The clock struck midnight, its workings hoarse with dust. "And we're done," he said out loud, although there was nobody to hear him. "Go me." Putting the mechanical screwdriver down, he drank himself a toast. This was port, warm and dark and tasting of raisins. An after-dinner drink to enjoy with friends, but everyone else had wandered off after dinner, leaving him with the bottle alone.
The door opened. Tony turned round to see Captain Rogers frozen in the doorway. "Hey. Cap." He raised his glass. "Couldn't sleep?"
Rogers just stood there, not moving forward. "I thought… I didn't know…"
"Have a drink," Tony said. "Here, take a look at this." He pointed to the gun on his work bench. "It's something I was working on… before. You strap the aetheric power pack on your back, and run that cable down your sleeve, and the gun fires super-heated aether instead of bullets. Melts metal. Good against golems. Need a name for it, of course."
Rogers took one step forward, then stopped again.
"Go on, try it," Tony urged him. "On second thoughts, try it outside in the corridor. If anything gets broken, blame Loki."
Rogers touched the gun, but still didn't pick it up. Was he mentally deficient, or something? Tony's father had always implied, well, super everything, not just muscles and strength and square-jawed handsomeness.
"Don't worry, you won't prick your finger on it, Sleeping Beauty," Tony said. "I made it for you, on account of… " He took a long swig of the port. "I said I wouldn't make weapons again, in case people misused them. But you're Captain America, you couldn't misuse a toothpick, and come on, just pick it up already."
"I don't normally use…" Rogers slowly gripped the gun. "You made it for me? After… this afternoon?"
"We… exchanged words."
"Oh. That!" Tony laughed, flapping his hand dismissively. "That wasn't 'exchanging words,' except that we… exchanged words… literally… but it wasn't 'exchanging words' in the 'zounds, sirrah, thou hast offended me mortally!' way. If that was 'exchanging words,' then some of the things people have said to me over the years must have been fucking Armageddon."
Rogers put the gun down. "People often…?"
"Oh yes." Tony shrugged. "All the time. Screaming at me in public. You should read the papers one day, just the last twenty years, I'm not in them before that, so pretty much… boring."
"I thought…" Rogers sat down on the tall stool that Banner usually used. "I thought a man like you would be… would have…"
"A man like me?"
"…and all the rest." Tony sat down opposite him, and took a drink. "A man like me would be what?"
Rogers ran his finger along the barrel of the gun. "Unaccustomed to insults. Unaccustomed to being opposed. And you seem so…"
"So?" Tony prompted.
"By which you mean arrogant. Say it like you mean it, Cap. I can take it." Tony stood up and rummaged through the spare parts until he found the glass he had brought for Banner, in case Banner showed up for some impromptu late night tech. "Drink?"
Rogers made no move to take the glass. "I can't get drunk."
"Really? That sucks." Tony poured him a glass full. "Drink it, anyway. Getting drunk isn't the only reason to drink. So they try to tell me, anyway."
Rogers took a sip of the port, and stopped, his eyes going suddenly distant. He didn't have it easy, really, the poor guy. Stranded over sixty years away from everything he had ever known. All his friends long dead. And the minute he woke up, he was thrust into a war that was nothing to do with him, stuck here underground with a one-eyed autocrat, an agent who hid true deviousness behind a mild smile, a green rage monster, an excitable god, a truly scary female assassin and… well, him, which kind of made up for…
Which kind of probably maybe made things… worse.
And then there was the history book, the poor guy trying to catch up, trying to make sense of a world that had changed so much. The world Rogers came from had been ignorant of so many things, such as refrigerated beer, photography and chorus girls.
Huh. What do you know? he thought to himself, as he drained his glass. Here's me being sensitive. Go me.
Of course, the man had a giant stick up his ass and was humourless and squeaky clean and… and it was enough to make you feel tawdry and selfish, to be up against someone like that, and his father had talked about Rogers so much, his eyes positively shining, but whenever he'd looked at his own son, which wasn't very often, his eyes were…
"So Cap," Tony said. "Golden boy. What we doing next? What plans does the mighty Fury have for us?"
Rogers took another sip, holding the glass neatly and elegantly, like a grandmother at a wedding. "I don't know. This isn't… That is to say…" He drank again, then pressed his lips together to clean them.
"Expected to fight, but not trusted with their secrets." Tony poured himself another glass, and slammed the decanter down. He fought the urge to be as messy as possible and not fucking care. "Are you going to dance to their tune?"
"I… don't know." Rogers put the glass down, politely, of course. "What else do I have?"
Everything, Tony wanted to say, because according to Howard Stark, he was so fucking perfect so much so that nothing Tony had ever done, nothing he had ever designed or ever made could ever…
Nothing, Tony wanted to say, because he remembered the history book, quietly read by a man who was utterly lost.
"I can tell you one of their secrets," he said, his voice harsh. "You know that emitter we placed, the one that they threw away? It's not the only one out there."
"What?" Rogers asked.
There was nothing left in the decanter to pour. Tony shook it, getting only drips. "They've sent out messages to all their outposts, asking them to listen on the frequency I told them. Why would they do that if ours was the only one? Why would they lie about it, and not tell us there was another?"
Natasha had conducted the interrogations herself. Three defected agents had been captured from Loki's attacking force, and all three were questioned thoroughly.
At first they were desperate, wanting only to return to their lord. On the second day, they were confused, alternating between hatred for her, and bewilderment. On the third morning, they looked at her with lost eyes, and begged her to tell them that it was over, that their minds were their own again.
It was a comfort she could not give them. It was a comfort that was not hers.
She asked them what they knew. They knew little. The last days and weeks were hazy for them, like a dream in which the dreamer watches events unfold without the power to change them. They had no idea where Loki's base was. They had come here by dirigible, and had not looked down.
Loki aimed to rule; that much they knew. Loki had three men beside him - two street corner magicians and a crazy scholar. One helped him rule minds, one helped him go unseen, and one knew everything there was to be known about golems. Without Loki, these men were nothing. Without them, Loki was… less? Perhaps. They did not know.
Was it possible to be near Loki and fight free from the grip on your mind? No, no, they sobbed, three times no. But others served willingly, one of them told her: drifters, unemployed soldiers, people who needed a master to show them they way; people who wanted a piece of the action. Only the SHIELD agents were coerced.
"I think. I don't know. It wasn't me. You have to believe it wasn't me."
She wanted to say yes. In a few days' time, a week's time, a month's time, would this be Barton sitting here, begging for absolution?
She wanted to say no. She wanted to believe that these men were weak, to have been enslaved so thoroughly, but that Barton was strong, and would break free and come back to her.
Back to SHIELD. Once she would have added that correction. It was too late for that now.
She left the prison, locking the door behind her. Captain Rogers found her before she was ready, but she was practised at such things, and was able to show him the sort of face she needed him to see.
She had slipped with Banner the night before. She was not entirely sure she regretted it.
"Agent Romanoff," Rogers said. "Ma'am." He was awkward in her presence, as good men often were, embarrassed by her profession and her lack of traditional female modesty. The less good ones just wanted to fuck her. Both types were easy to manipulate.
But this was not the time, and Captain Rogers was not the man. "What is it?" she asked.
"I was told something last night, ma'am. Something the person who told me probably shouldn't know about, so you will understand if I refrain from naming him."
Stark, of course. She waited for him to continue.
"Since you are an agent of SHIELD, I wondered if you knew more," Rogers said. "It might be nothing, but Director Fury speaks as if we are in his confidence, as if he expects us to take the lead in fighting Loki. A commander has the right to keep secrets, of course, but…"
"But what?" she prompted.
"There was a second emitter. It's out there. They're searching for it."
She understood immediately. She saw the hand of Fury, of Coulson, maybe even of Barton himself. She wanted Fury. She found Coulson instead, as she threw open the door, as she drew her gun and aimed it at his head.
"You lied to me," she said. "You've planted an emitter on Agent Barton. You expected him to defect. You wanted him to."
"Yes," Coulson said.
"You lied to me." She spat out every word separately.
"Please lower the gun, Agent Romanoff." She had seen so many men this way, sighted down the barrel of a gun. Coulson was more calm than any of them. No, she realised, not calm at all. Nervous. Anxious. And not because of her.
"Why?" she asked, lowering the gun, but keeping it ready in her hand.
"It was his idea," Coulson said. "No, no it wasn't. It was my idea. Director Fury supported it. Agent Barton… agreed. It was his idea that we kept him locked away and that nobody was told. If he didn't see our preparations for the attack, then he couldn't reveal anything to Loki. If nobody else knew about the plan, then nobody else could reveal it, if they themselves were caught."
"So he wasn't compromised at all." She felt something intangible shift inside her chest. It was just a simple undercover operation, the same as they had done a dozen times before.
Coulson shook his head. "No," he said. "He was compromised. That much was real. But he had resisted it. He hopes… Because we asked him to, he will try…"
"To resist it again?" She remembered the men she had interrogated. Impossible to resist, they said. "To fool a god into thinking he's a mindless slave when all along he's…"
"Working for us. Yes."
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to shout. She wanted to…
She turned and blindly walked away.
The god was preparing for war.
Clint released the bowstring and sent the arrow into the makeshift target. His bow felt strange in his hands. Everything felt strange, as if he was wearing his skin like someone else's ill-fitting clothes.
He was afraid. He couldn't let himself be afraid.
"Again," the god said.
Clint pulled another arrow from the bulky quiver, unfamiliar on his back. Vermer sat nearby with his chest of plundered items, stroking them periodically like a musician playing a tune. Clint knew whenever his bow was touched - his proper bow, not this cold replica.
"Shoot at me," the god commanded.
Clint did so without hesitating, letting the arrow fly fast and true towards the god's face. Loki snatched it out of the air with a smile. "Again," he commanded. This time he turned and walked nonchalantly away. Clint nocked and loosed in the space of a single breath. Loki reached behind him without turning round, and stopped the arrow a hairsbreadth from his back.
Vermer's eyes were gleaming. Hidden in the chest, his fingers played their tune, and this time Clint was their instrument.
Clint felt his lips moving in a question. He forced the words to stop, and stood there, staring straight ahead. Had it been a test, he wondered, or a warning? If it was a warning, the message was clear. Against Loki, even the best marksman in the world was useless.
"Again," Loki said. "Vermer this time."
Vermer played his tune. Clint's hands did not move.
The god smiled.
Loki's army was preparing to move again. After Clint had joined them, they had travelled for a day and a night to a base in a deserted quarry. Now they were loading the dirigibles again. Only a few giants remained, and the human force was depleted, or so he had gathered from the chatter of those who served the god willingly.
"A small force for a god, is it not?" Loki's voice reflected his thoughts too closely. Clint made his mind blank, the way he did when focusing on a target, concentrating only on what he could see.
"But it is no matter," Loki said, smiling. "I have the jewel I was seeking. I sensed it from afar, far to the north, dormant beneath the ice. I caused it to awaken, and men came to its call, not knowing what they sought. I thought to snatch it from them and let them know my mastery, but the fools did not realise what they had found. They had cast it aside as worthless trash."
Clint wanted to ask more. He could not.
"It increases the effect of anything it is attached to," Loki said. "What need do I have of armies now, Agent Barton?"
Clint said nothing.
"Just a few soldiers such as you." Loki gathered up the arrows, and dropped them back into Clint's quiver. Clint stopped breathing; forced himself to start again. "A few soldiers such as you, to demonstrate my mastery, to kill the leaders and the heroes that they send against me. To kill those you once called friends." He touched Clint on the shoulder, the touch almost gentle. "Is that not so, my hawk?"
"Yes, my lord," he heard himself say.
end of chapter seven
Chapter 8: Chapter eight
Rain fell on the boneyard where the giants lay. Thor looked down at their blank faces, many of them crushed by his own hammer. The magic that had once animated them was gone. They were as useless now as a broken sword; as the shattered statue of a god whose name was no longer remembered by men.
I do not understand you, my brother, he thought.
He shook his head, raindrops showering from his hair. The Son of Coul was watching him from the shell of the citadel. Thor walked towards him, ducking to pass beneath the tilting lintel. Coulson stood on dry stone, sheltered by what remained of the roof.
"Why does he do it?" Thor asked him. Once he might have scorned the opinion of a mortal, but he had come to learn that humans could be wise indeed.
"Perhaps for no other reason than because he can," Coulson said.
Thor gathered his hair in his fist, squeezing out water. "We are not gods, although men have called us so. Does Loki forget that?
Coulson's eyes flicked to the side, as if he was trying to find a way to avoid answering. "Gods don't have a monopoly on evil," he said. "We humans have always found plenty of ways to kill each other. There have always been people who want to dominate others. Sometimes very small men, not even close to being gods."
"You are all small men," Thor said. "Small in stature and in your powers, but not in the ways that count. Lady Jane is great in goodness and wisdom, as are you, Son of Coul. Does Loki fail to see this?"
"I… really don't know."
"They called us gods." Thor gripped Mjolnir, feeling the power that ran through its handle. "A god should protect the weak, not demand that they make obeisance. He should wreak destruction on those who are wrought from chaos, not on fragile mortals."
"Speaking as fragile mortal," Coulson said, "I would like to agree."
"My father raised us as princes, my brother and I." Thor looked up at the sky, but saw only the grey pall of rain in the early dawn. "A king protects his subjects. He fights for them. He guards them." He closed his eyes, and imagined his father's face, remembered his father's voice. "Has Loki forgotten all that? There was so much hatred. What did I do? Did I fail him in some way?"
Coulson cleared his throat. "People make their own choices. Sometimes there's nothing anyone else can do to stop them."
Thor opened his eyes. "You are wise, Son of Coul." He pressed his hand to his chest. "But it is not always easy to heed words of wisdom here, in your heart. Do humans find it thus?"
"Oh yes," Coulson said. "Oh yes."
"But it is wrong to sit idle and disconsolate." Thor scraped rain from his face. "Loki's actions are beyond my understanding, but he does what he does. He is my brother, and so it falls upon me to stop him. He is my father's subject, and so it falls upon me, my father's heir, to take responsibility for his misdeeds. I will do everything in my power to stop Loki and all his works." He raised his hammer and shouted aloud to the weeping sky and the coming morning. "This I vow!"
"Er… that's good," Coulson said. He looked pained, as if his ears were hurting him.
Thor lowered Mjolnir, heavy in his grip. "Loki told me once that he had no desire to rule. Now he tells me that wishes it, after all."
"People lie," Coulson said. "I… don't know about gods, but I'm guessing…"
"He lies." It was the bleakest of his memories. "Loki told me that my father was dead. It was a lie." He looked at Coulson, remembering how he had once looked so beseechingly at the brother he had still thought was his staunchest friend. "It is not in my nature to lie."
Coulson looked away.
Morning found her less than rested.
Natasha was an assassin and a spy. She knew how to go for days without sleep when the mission demanded it. She knew, too, how to snatch odd moments of rest when they presented themselves, even when stranded in enemy territory, facing an uncertain future. She knew how to push worries away and do what was needed in order to remain functional and alert.
Last night had been spent in fitful sleep and restless wakefulness. She should have left while it was still dark.
Dawn saw her dressing, equipping herself not just with the weapons she always carried, but those that she carried only on missions.
SHIELD had lied to her. Nothing new there, of course. SHIELD was an organisation based on lies, while her own lies were stacked as high as skulls in an ossuary. SHIELD had lied to her about Barton. That was new. That was… different. Why different?
But what could she do but think?
She wanted to go after him, to bring him back, but she had no idea where to look. All she knew was that she had to stop him before he was compromised for real, before he committed an act that was impossible to go back from. Natasha might have been able to deal with it - she had done worse in the past, and learned to live with it - but Clint was a better person than she was. A killer, yes, but with a softer heart than he would ever admit, perhaps even to her. Not soft, of course, never that, but…
Human, she thought.
She wanted to go after him. She wanted…
No, she told herself. Caged here until they picked up a signal from his emitter. Caged here… until Loki attacked another outpost, and Clint sent an arrow through the throat of a fellow agent.
She shook her head. Clint would laugh to hear about her worries. What? You didn't think I was strong enough to resist? And then he'd tease her for months for being so weak as to worry about him. Coulson had more faith in me. Even Fury had more faith in me, and you know how hard he is to please.
God, she needed to be somewhere else. She opened the door; almost crashed into Thor, and that's how off her game she was, to let the god of thunder catch her off guard.
"Lady Natasha." Thor greeted her with none of his usual brightness. "I seek an answer to a question."
So do I.
Thor was as undaunted as ever, oblivious to dark moods and the need for solitude. "My brother told me that this thing he has taken, this jewel, will allow him to rule…" But maybe she was had misjudged him, for he broke off, looking at her with concern. "Lady Natasha, you look troubled."
It was not like her to let such things show. But what did it matter, really? Other things were more important than the need to keep herself locked away; it was just that she so seldom encountered them. "I am… concerned about Agent Barton," she said. "We've been partners on a lot of missions and he--"
"He is your battle companion," Thor finished for her. "I know what it is to fight with a sworn sword-brother at your side. It is a bond more close than blood. When they bleed, you bleed." He touched his chest, knuckles against the armour. "And then you avenge them."
Avenge them, she echoed, cold. Fitful sleep had given her dreams of coming too late and finding him dead. "What were you asking me?" she said almost sharply. "About Loki?"
"He said he intended to rule," Thor said. "Where would you go if you desired to rule this realm of yours? Where does your chieftain have his throne?"
Where…? she thought, and perhaps she almost smiled. She had a way to find him. She had a place to start.
Bruce stood with his eyes closed, his face turned towards the rain. He was standing in a space that had once been a dining room, until the other guy… until he had destroyed it.
Why did they let him stay? When he was with Stark, he could almost believe that it was because of his mind. You could say what you liked about Stark, and most of it was probably true, but he had a gift for accepting you just the way you were, without being blinkered by… the other things. But Stark was not SHIELD, and SHIELD was…
Bruce sighed, and headed slowly inside, picking his way around the piles of wreckage. He saw a broken clock, and an old armillary sphere, damaged beyond repair. He saw a bookcase reduced to nothing more than fire wood. He let out a breath, hands clasped tightly at his sides. There was little difference between anger and guilt, it seemed.
Agent Romanoff and Thor found him there… how much later? "You said I had the right to be here," he said. "Last night. In the room. With the mirror. There." It was dangerous to let words come out like that, without control. He breathed in; breathed out again. "What did you mean?"
"That you have the right to use that room," she said.
"Because…" Bruce tried to gather himself together, to wrap everything up inside him and keep it close. "Agent Fury won't admit it," he said, "but I'm afraid…" No. Calm. Calm. "I think he allowed me to stay here before the attack because he wanted the… other guy."
"Who would not?" Thor said, too loud. "He is a mighty warrior, this 'other guy' of yours. Had he fought the metal giants… Ah, that would have been a battle worthy of song!"
Bruce laughed, faint, brief, desperate. "Is that how it is? I've been beating myself up because I changed, because I did all this. Should I be beating myself up because I didn't change earlier, because I didn't let the other guy go up against the giants?"
"You shouldn't be beating yourself up," Agent Romanoff said with finality.
"No," said Thor, "because it is a foolish thing to do. Save your blows for your enemies."
"But then I wonder…" Bruce said. "What you said last night… What Agent Barton said… What if you're right? I try so hard to stop the other guy from coming out. Every minute, every second, I fight him. And all the time, I'm raging at the injustice of it, at how I have to live, at the things I've lost, the things I'll never do again. Maybe I should stop fighting. Maybe I should stop raging. Maybe…"
He stopped. Agent Romanoff was careful not to look at him.
"What if I can't do it?" he asked. "If I deliberately let the other guy out, it could be the end."
"Or the beginning." She looked at him then. "It is not good to rage all the time."
Bruce pressed two fingers to his brow. "Maybe I should leave. Since my accident, too many people have tried to own me. I don't like being manipulated. Even if Director Fury was right, he should have told me."
"Yes. Yes, he should." Agent Romanoff looked tired, Bruce realised. "SHIELD deals in lies as a banker deals in money, and manipulates people like a puppeteer at a children's show. But they are not…" She looked down, then up again. "They normally have good reason. I have… had dealings with organisations that lie and manipulate for malice and their own ends. SHIELD is different. Even if…" She stopped. "Different," she said.
"Lying is wrong," Thor declared, "but Fury the chieftain and the Soul of Coul fight for the good of humanity. Sometimes, in the cause of good, it is necessary for a warrior to use the weapons of his enemy."
"Or the enemy inside him." Bruce gave a soft laugh, more genuine this time. "Out of the mouths of gods…" He let out a breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. Bruce remembered the strain he had glimpsed in Agent Romanoff's face the night before. "I'm sorry," he said. "Straight in there with my own problems. Are you…?"
"We are going to the seat of Washington, your king of kings," Thor declared, "so Lady Natasha can win the one called Hawkeye back to her side, and I can bring my brother to justice."
"Want to come with us?" Agent Romanoff looked at him, no expectation in her face.
"Which one of me?" Bruce kept his voice casual. Something was fluttering inside his chest.
"Whichever one you want to offer," she said.
Bruce thought about it only for a second. "Then both," he said, "if I can."
Steve was sitting on his bed and contemplating his shield. He had donned his new uniform in the battle against the golems, but he had no idea if he would don it again. The weapon Stark had made for him lay untouched on the table. Made for him, Steve wondered, or for Captain America?
Was there a difference? Yes, yes of course there was. Sometimes it seemed as if Steve was the only person who saw it. And that had been then. Then. The past, because he must no longer think of those days as the present. The past had not been perfect, although it was easy to think of it as such, now he had been torn away from it. His best friend was dead. The girl he might have come to love had been far away, separated by the demands of duty. And even then, he had been trapped by expectation, seen as a symbol, not as a man.
Somebody knocked at his door. Another demand? A costume fitting?
He opened it to find Doctor Banner, with Agent Romanoff and Thor not far behind him. "Hi," Banner said. "Cap." He sounded nervous, almost as if he was trying to copy the way Stark talked to Steve. "So here's the thing… We have reason to believe that Loki plans to attack Washington. We were planning to stop him."
"You." Steve looked from one to the other. "Does Director Fury know?"
"No," Agent Romanoff said firmly, while Banner was still opening his mouth to reply.
It was his duty to report this insubordination. No, it was no duty at all, because he had sworn nothing to Fury and his organisation. He gripped the door frame. "Why are you telling me?"
"So you can come with us!" Thor said, looming brightly at Banner's shoulder.
Steve tightened his grip. "You want me to desert?"
"What did you enlist for?" Banner asked. "To serve a cause, or to serve specific men?"
It was impossible to think like that. If every soldier made his own judgements on what was right, there would be anarchy.
Steve took a deep breath; let it out again. He had once disobeyed orders himself, of course, and could never regret that. "I wanted to help the helpless," he said, "because I knew what it was like to be weak. But I was a soldier. I swore my oaths to my officers and my colours. But the war we were fighting, it wasn't a grand war of ideals. Later, though, when I went to Kamchatka…"
He trailed off. It was not something he had thought to speak of out loud.
"The men I swore to obey are dead," he said slowly, as he had said to Coulson once before. "The cause remains."
Banner nodded as if he understood.
"Why do you want me to come?" Steve asked.
"Because you are a great hero!" Thor declared. "Agent Coulson showed me papers with pictures of you upon them, and songs that tell of your deeds."
Banner winced. "A bit of that, of course, although I wouldn't have been so blunt. But also…" He pulled his spectacles out of his pocket and started to polish them idly on his cuff. "I've been self-absorbed, these last few days, but I'm not entirely blind. I know you feel the weight of expectation."
So you place more expectation upon me? Steve almost said, but he knew that would be unfair. Truth was, he realised, he had never signed up to be Captain America. He had signed up to become an enhanced soldier, just one of the many who would come after him, quietly getting on with doing what needed to be done. He had never aimed to be special, but afterwards, almost everybody had treated him as something remarkable.
But to be remarkable was to be alone.
"Yes," he said, and he smiled as he said it. "I'll come." He looked at the three of them standing there, conspiring together against SHIELD. "Is Stark coming with us?"
Banner put his spectacles on. "I wasn't sure you would want him to come."
Right from the start, Tony Stark had never treated Steve as something remarkable. He had been rude and mocking and objectionable, but he had always treated Steve as a human being with flaws, not as a symbol. Except for last night, Steve thought. The gun had been a gift to Captain America, he realised, because Captain America and couldn't misuse a toothpick. Then Stark had become bitter and angry and… jealous? he wondered. Perhaps that was Steve's own fault. The man had become 'Stark' to him, and Steve had deliberately tried to push him away, to make him 'Tony Stark,' a stranger from a different time.
And Tony Stark was in his own way remarkable. Steve had been slow to realise this, because all the technology of this future world seemed amazing to him. It was only now he had spent time in this world that he realised that the things that issued from Stark's hands and mind were the most amazing of all.
And to be remarkable, he thought, was to be alone.
But, "He has a private dirigible," was all he said.
"I have a private dirigible," Tony agreed. "Faster that anything SHIELD can offer you. So what're we waiting for?"
The others looked nonplussed by his reaction. Rogers was even doing that mouth-open thing, although he snapped his mouth shut as moment later, and went back to being square-jawed and heroic.
"What?" Tony led them towards the hangar.
"I guess we thought," Banner said, "you might need some… persuading."
"Oh." Tony clapped his hands, summoning crew. "Is that what you boys and girls have been doing all morning? Persuading each other? Working through issues. Coming to the big realisation, taking the big leap into the unknown, striking out on your own, having epiphanies, road to Damascus, that sort of shit?"
The dirigible captain put in an appearance. "Are we going somewhere, sir?"
"Somewhere." Tony shrugged. "Yeah."
"May I ask where?"
"Washington DC. To deal with Thor's sibling rivalry. To bring Agent Romanoff's boyfriend back. To let Dr Banner learn how to embrace his inner monster. To let Captain Rogers here become a real boy who thinks for himself." He narrowed his eyes at the man. "Have you been drinking? Have you been drinking my stuff? That's why there was nothing but port left last night. I don't pay you to drink my stuff."
"We didn't, sir," said the captain. "We played poker, a lot of poker. It'll be good to be in the air again."
"See what I have to put up with?" Tony told the others, when the man had gone again, off to do captainly things on the navigation deck. "As soon as I invent artificial intelligence, I'll replace them all with automatons. Automatons don't answer back." Belatedly he detected a certain frostiness in his companions. "I shouldn't have said all that?"
Truth was, his head was pounding. He must have drunk more than he thought the night before. Talking was one way to deal with such things. It always had been.
"Well then," he said. "Get on board. Not you, Thor. Go operate the machine that opens the hangar doors - normally done by two men, but I'm sure you'll manage, muscly guy like you. No, not that machine, that's the coffee machine - and Thor on coffee is a sight I never want to see. The big machine. Turn the red handle. Yes, that one. Good, good. That'll have them running to investigate. Best jump in fast, Big Guy."
The dirigible engines started up, loud in the echoing cavern of the hangar. The noise of the opening mechanism was almost as loud, as the steam engine caused the great wheels to turn, and the big wheels turned the smaller wheels, and… and, really, the whole thing could have been done so much more quietly and more efficiently, and who did they get their tech from? Hammer?
Soon they were airborne, and, ugh, rain! Tony pressed the button that activated the nearest canopy, and pointed them vaguely in the direction of the stairs that led below. "It'll take three days," he said. "Find yourself somewhere to bed down. Or ask Jarvis. Yeah, Jarvis'll sort it out. Did I remember to bring Jarvis?"
"I'm here, sir," Jarvis said, impeccable despite the rain. Butler magic again, one of his ineffable raft of skills.
"Sort… things. " Tony waved him away.
People were shouting down on the ground, trying to stop them, perhaps. Tony raised a second canopy, then another, then another, until most of the observation deck was covered, the floor only slightly speckled with rain.
He wondered why he had been so quick to come away with them. He wondered why he hadn't at least paused to think.
It was Rogers's voice. Why hadn't he gone below? Tony had been about to embark on a bout of self-examination, and that wasn't the sort of thing you did in front of witnesses, unless drink was involved.
Maybe he should answer the question. Rogers was pointing at…? Oh, the mechanical Turk. "It's a mechanical Turk," Tony explained. "An attempt to replicate the one that did the rounds at the end of last century. My father told me about it. It could play chess, and that implies a level of intelligence way beyond mere mechanical…" He broke off, frowning. "Unless it was a golem? No, Loki's golems weren't intelligent. Didn't give up even when their faces were crushed to pulp. No brains in that."
Rogers was looking confused. Had Tony used too many long words? He started again. "A machine that plays chess." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Not a very successful one yet, admittedly."
"Your father told me about the mechanical Turk," Rogers said. "Nobody could work out how it was done. Then they discovered it had been a hoax all along, and a chess Grand Master was hiding inside, controlling it all with levers."
Tony opened his mouth. He closed it again.
"A very small chess Grand Master," Rogers said earnestly, as if that would help Tony with the whole speechlessness issue.
"I don't believe you." Tony shook his head. But this was Captain America, Captain Fucking Perfect, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, probably not even capable of thinking a lie. He wasn't lying, then, but… he'd misunderstood. Made a mistake. Tony was going to create artificial intelligence. He'd already sacrificed so much in the attempt. He would… He couldn't…
"It's true," Rogers said, shiny and earnest and… not lying at all, not misunderstanding, and fuck Howard Stark, fuck him, because he…
Tony walked away; blundered to the railings, unprotected from the rain. "He never told me. He told me nobody knew how it was done. He said…" He wiped rain from his eyes. "He challenged me to be one to solve the problem. Why?" Already the rain had hidden the ground, and there was nothing out there but grey. "Why did he lie to me?"
"I expect it was because he had faith in you." Rogers joined him at the railing. "He challenged you, because he knew you were capable of rising to the challenge."
But what did Rogers know about it? Howard Stark had admired Rogers, and… God! Was this Tony's punishment for mocking them about their 'issues'? Tony Stark had issues, too. Of course he had issues. But no epiphanies for him, just a journey in the rain.
"I knew your father before you were born," Rogers said, "but I know that he was proud of you."
"How can you know that?" He hadn't meant for it to slip out.
"Because how could he have seen the things you do, and been anything else?"
Tony laughed harshly, and headed down below.
Sometimes he remembered a red-haired woman, beautiful and brave. He'd been… what? Hurt. Trapped. Pinned down by enemy fire. And she'd come back for him and had covered him and risked her life for him and stayed with him, afterwards, when…
No, he thought, or maybe it was the presence that thought it, the pressure in his mind. He saw long pale fingers on a bow. There were mountains below him, empty and bleak.
The red-haired woman, who seldom smiled, so each smile was intensely precious to him, although he'd never let her know.
No. He pushed her away; concentrated on the mountains. It was cold on the deck of the dirigible. He had no role to play as yet. He was a tiny piece on the chessboard that was the god's war. Others had their roles on this voyage, but he was left to sit, a puppet with its strings cut, leaning against the railing, staring out at… what?
His eyesight was exceptional, or so he'd always been told. He couldn't see any signs of human habitation down below. People didn't matter, the god said. They were all pawns to be sacrificed to prove a point. They were drones desperate to be given purpose by serving a god. It was right that they were invisible, dwarfed by the enormous reality of the god's true purpose.
He'd once been sent to kill the red-haired woman, but he hadn't. What a fool he was.
No, he thought again. He clenched his fists, nails digging into his palms.
He wouldn't think of her. He couldn't think of her.
He did not know her.
Steve spent most of his time on deck, despite the cold. He spent whole hours looking down at the countryside below him, fascinated by how different the world looked from on high. Once he saw a herd of horses, galloping free. He looked round to see if anybody else had seen them, too, but found himself alone.
Sometimes the cold drove him below. Were all dirigibles so luxurious, so well equipped with cabins and parlours and drawing rooms? Yet despite the large number of rooms, Stark had been travelling in it alone when he had intercepted the SHIELD vessel. The cabin Steve had been given was lavishly furnished, yet strangely hollow, lacking any personal touch.
Perhaps that was why he found himself heading for Stark's work room. "I thought you were up there to stay," Stark said without looking up. "Didn't think you'd like the cold."
Because of the ice, Steve supposed. Truth was, he remembered nothing of his time in the ice; still sometimes found it impossible to believe that it had even happened. He remembered crashing, and he remembered waking up. If he saw ice in his dreams, it was only his imagination filling in gaps.
"What are you making?" Steve asked, because sometimes it was better to ask questions than to think.
"Making? Oh. This." Stark shrugged. "Just playing with the receiver. Which works perfectly, thank you for asking.
"The receiver?" Steve struggled to remember which piece of modern technology was which.
"Aetheric oscillator's receiving device. Need a better name for it, now I can openly admit to inventing it." Stark looked up at last. "The thing that receives the signal from the emitter that our friends at SHIELD planted on Agent Barton? Do keep up, Cap."
Steve perched on a stool, one of the only places not strewn with pieces of equipment. "He's sent you a message?"
"Course not." Stark frowned as if in irritation. "You can't send a message to a moving target, or from one, for that matter. The method's all about precise calculation of co-ordinates. But this emitter, we made it different. Not a precise, targeted message, but a general wordless signal. Hotter, colder sort of thing? Jeez, Cap, you were there when I explained it."
"I was," Steve agreed, with a smile.
"So it's enough to tell us that our friend Agent Barton - or the emitter, anyway, which might not be the same thing - is within twenty, thirty miles of us - it's very faint and fades in and out - and since it isn't getting any further away…" He unrolled a map with one hand, but it rolled shut with a snap the minute he let it go. "Sounds like we're right in our guess. Which is just as well."
"Can we intercept them?" Steve asked.
"They're probably invisible," Stark said darkly. "However that works. And my dirigible isn't armed, and apart from me, none of you are suited for airship to airship combat… and they might be going by railroad, or using the emitter as a decoy, and even if they're not, are they north or south of us? No, best proceed the way we're going; get ahead of them and head 'em off at the pass. This beauty's the fastest there is"
Steve nodded. In the silence that followed, he wondered if he should bring up the subject of Howard Stark again. Should he say…?
Suddenly all other thoughts were driven from his mind. He stood up; gripped the edge of the desk. "You brought it with you."
"It?" Stark looked from left to right, frowning, then turned a full circle, struggling to identify what Steve was staring at. "Oh. The sonic weapon. They were moving it out before the attack, along with the rest of their 'non-essential' tech. I just… made sure it was… moved out in the direction of… me. After all, they owe me. They called me in to look at it. That makes it practically mine."
Steve remembered Red Skull, and the bodies lying dead in the snows on Kamchatka. "He said…" He gripped the desk tighter, knuckles white.
"Doomsday machine, destroyer of cities. I know. But all it did was make Coulson drool. You were there, Cap." He picked the device up. Steve's breath caught in his throat. Very deliberately, he forced himself to exhale again. "You see, there's Agent Barton to consider," he said, speaking more quietly than normal. "Agent Romanoff, too, because she seems to care, and seriously you don't want to get her pissed. I thought we might need a weapon that incapacitates without killing. Just in case. Just in case we go up against… someone… A friend. A friend who's been… turned."
It made sense. Steve could feel his heartbeat fluttering at the base of his throat. "It…" He tried to speak; cleared his throat and tried again. "It makes sense."
"Well, obviously," Stark said, and it was so like him that, despite everything, Steve found himself almost smiling.
The sunset was glorious, that final night.
Stark had brought out heaters from somewhere, "since you all will insist on moping around on deck." Bruce had no idea why the others preferred to stay outside. All he knew was that if he felt himself beginning to lose control, he could jump. The railing was low enough. He just had to lean forward far enough, and fall.
"Drink?" Stark offered. "Jarvis! Drink!"
Rogers accepted some brandy, just a small amount. Agent Romanoff declined. Thor looked deeply disappointed at the size of the glass he was given. Bruce considered the offer, then turned it down. Perhaps he was making progress, but it was best not to give the other guy any extra encouragement.
"So…" Stark said, nonchalant against the railing. "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!" Thor raised his glass in a toast, and drained it in one go.
Agent Romanoff was framed against the sunset, rendered featureless by its glare. "Can you still detect Agent Barton?"
Stark swirled brandy in his glass, the liquid shining like molten copper. "The signal comes and goes," he said. "We're at the limits of the range, and my receiver's state of the art tech, better than anything I let SHIELD get their hands on, don't tell them I said that. But, yes, the emitter, if it's still on him, is consistently within twenty, thirty miles of us."
"So we haven't outrun them yet?" Rogers said. The sunlight was full on his face, his shadow stretching out behind him.
"Guess not." Stark reached for the decanter, and topped up the glass of a grateful Thor. "Which shouldn't happen, by the way. This baby's fast. "
"So they could be ahead of us," Bruce said.
"They could be." Stark drained his own glass, topping it up immediately.
What would happen if they arrived in Washington DC to find it already burning? How would the other guy react if Bruce looked down to see iconic landmarks in ruins? He hadn't meant to say anything - his life for the past year had been about keeping things inside - but, "I don't know if I can control it," he found himself admitting.
"You have to believe that you can." It was still impossible to make out Agent Romanoff's expression.
Bruce walked to the railing. Such a little movement it would take, to fall. "I never wanted to be turned into a weapon."
"Sometimes weapons are needed," Stark said. "You all saw the newspapers when I came back from being… gone."
"I didn't," said Rogers. "Frozen, remember?"
"What are newspapers?" asked Thor. "What is this beverage? It is very fine. But tiny."
"I was in Paraguay," said Agent Romanoff.
"I saw them?" Bruce offered.
"Well…" Stark said firmly. "I did the whole swearing off weapons thing, very dramatic. Then I perfected Iron Man, which some people call the strongest weapon of all. Because sometimes there's things out there that have to be fought, and ordinary people, they're too weak or small or fragile to do the fighting, and you have to--"
"Use your strength and your prowess to defend the helpless," Thor declared. "Loki cheats. Loki uses magic against people who have none. Loki uses metal giants against people who cannot fight them. You have been blessed with the ability to unleash a mighty beast against my brother's creations." He raised his empty glass, holding it gingerly between two fingers. "Do not be afraid of the tiny drinking vessels you will break! Think of the good that can do!"
"I… agree," Rogers said quietly. "When I first started fighting, I sometimes feared that it was wrong for me to use my new abilities against enemies who were just ordinary men, conscripts likely as not. Then they sent me against Red Skull. That felt right. This… This feels right, too. When I first… woke up, I was reluctant to dance to SHIELD's tune, because I didn't know who their enemies were. But now…"
"So we're special. " Stark poured Thor another glass. "We're all agreed. Go us. Got yourself an enemy your regular soldiers can't deal with? Call in us, the…" He stopped, tilting his head to one side. "We need a name. Fury said something about the Avengers, but that's a stupid name. What're we avenging?"
"The macaroons, sir?" Jarvis said, appearing with another decanter.
"Funny." Stark frowned at the butler. "Did you know about the miniature chess Grand Master, Jarvis? Did everybody?"
"The one inside the mechanical Turk?" Bruce said, at the same time as Agent Romanoff said, "The famous hoax?"
Stark raised his glass to drink, his expression impossible to read.
Bruce turned round, leaning his back against the railing, looking away from the sun. All five of them cast shadows that were immensely long.
It was time. The god was ready, and his servants were in place. The transmitter was ready. The jewel was placed.
"And now," said Loki, "it begins."
It begins, Clint thought.
end of chapter eight
Chapter 9: Chapter nine
They arrived too late.
It was difficult to tell, at first. It was not long after dawn when they made their approach, and everywhere was shrouded in shades of grey. Bruce was at the railing, peering ahead. The street lamps were still lit, but one by one they started to go out.
"The emitter…?" Bruce asked.
"Is close," Stark replied. He was already wearing his Iron Man suit. "Like, very close."
"Where?" Agent Romanoff asked sharply.
"Within a mile. I can't tell you more than that."
Agent Romanoff appeared rigidly composed, but Bruce could tell how desperate she was to be on the ground. All he wanted to do was to drift on by, to sail far away. This was his test. Either it would work, or he would wake up at nightfall to face the ruins he had wrought.
"Should we land outside the city and plan a strategic approach?" Rogers asked.
"Strategy is good!" Thor declared.
"You're the captain." The helmet muffled Stark's voice, making it harder to detect its tone. Perhaps the Iron Man suit was just another mask, in a way.
"I… really am not," Rogers said quietly. "The title was for show, just like you said."
"Does it matter?" Stark said. "Things are what you make them. Captain or no, you've got more experience of war than any of us. Except Thor. And Agent Romanoff, maybe, because… super-scary fighting skills! And… Hulk, if smashing counts. More experience of war than… me, anyway. So…"
He trailed off. A fire started somewhere ahead of them. It was very faint, but Bruce thought he heard a woman scream.
"We aren't hidden." Rogers was gripping the railing, clearly desperate to help.
"No," Stark said, "but I don't think golems can shoot dirigibles out of the sky."
"Clint can," said Agent Romanoff.
"But Agent Barton's on… our… side…" Rogers began, the words gradually trailing away.
"Oh," Stark completed for him. "Precisely. Best land, then, before we get into his range. Just in case he's compromised for real. Which he isn't, of course, because he'll… resist… and…"
"You really aren't good at this, Stark," Bruce said. He was aware of every breath, every heartbeat. Talking helped. Listening helped.
"Can we land near that?" Rogers pointed at the obelisk that was the Washington Monument, rising out of the shadowed grass.
"Dirigibles aren't allowed on the National Mall," said Stark. "Of course we can."
Bruce waited. With every minute that passed, the sky became lighter. Stark issued orders. The dirigible slowed; went lower and lower. Several of the crewmen climbed down ropes and hauled the dirigible down. Thor leaped down to protect them in case they were attacked, jumping the distance with ease. The Hulk could jump it just as well. Bruce gripped the railing, and waited until the telescopic ladder was released.
It was time, he thought. It was time.
"Don't wait for us," Stark commanded his crew. "Take her to the normal place. We'll come to you. Or wait for a signal and come back here. The usual signal. You know."
The golems appeared before the dirigible was fully aloft.
Everybody was alone when they fought.
Sometimes the mission was all that mattered. Sometimes revenge. Sometimes she fought desperately to save a life. Sometimes she fought because there was no alternative, because words had come to nothing. Staying alive? There had been times when that hadn't mattered much, and other times when it had mattered more.
Today she had no mission from SHIELD. Today she would do anything, anything, to achieve her goal. Was her goal the same as Captain America's goal, as Stark's, as Banner's, as Thor's? Of course not. Their goals lay in parallel and had brought them to the same place, but in a battle, everyone ultimately fought alone and for their own reasons. She had the gift of unearthing those reasons in her enemies and using them against them.
What were her reasons? She doubted they were hidden. If she came face to face with Loki, he could play her as easily as she had played countless men.
It was not good. But God help her, she could not change it, not yet.
"You need to find that signal," she said to Stark. I need to find him before he reaches the point of no return. She knew what it was like to consider yourself damned.
"Isn't it kind of obvious that we've found the right place?" Stark said. He lined up alongside Rogers and Thor. "Golems at twelve o'clock?"
"They're different from last time," Rogers said. "Not so much… the same."
"Tautology, Cap?" said Stark.
"The same as each other, I mean."
Natasha drew her pistol, but she already knew that such weapons were useless. None of the attacking figures resembled the metal giants that had attacked the SHIELD base. Please… she thought, but she was too well trained, too much herself, to say it out loud. She took her place beside the others.
"Is that a horse?" Thor asked. "A mighty metal horse?"
Stark pointed to the left of the line. "That one's a… thing. "
"A triton," Banner said. His voice sounded strained. "Head of a man, tail of a fish, carries a trident. Benefits of a classical education."
"Knowing what to call the golem that's trying to kick your ass… Son of a bitch!" Stark exclaimed. "He's turned all the statues into golems. Which is, like, the work of a crazy mind. That triton flops. Feel like going up against a Roman god, Thor? I'm sure we can find you a nice Venus to… grapple?"
It isn't funny! she wanted to say, but everybody found their way of coping, when the time for killing came. Then she turned to see Banner frozen half a pace behind her, and knew that for him, more than any of them, this was the most serious thing of all.
Nothing would stand in the way of her goal? She lowered her pistol, and smoothed her face into the mask she had worn for so many years. After all, Natasha Romanoff was just another part. "You can do it," she told him, looking him steadily in the eye. Despite the gloom, his pupils were dilated, his eyes flickering from side to side. She looked at him until he was forced to look back.
"I… can." Clenching his fists, he closed his eyes, then opened them again, and walked forward.
He had changed before he had taken a third step. Charging forward, he engaged the golems. With a delighted cry, Thor rushed in to fight at his side. "Uh… not too close," Stark warned him, "just in case. Seriously," he said, turning back to Natasha, "Loki thinks he'll become king of everything by using animated metal dolphins?"
Everybody found their own way, she reminded herself. Beyond the expanse of grass, there were more fires, and people were screaming. "Agent Barton handed himself over to the enemy for the sake of that emitter," she said. "Make that worth something."
"Fine," Stark said, with a sigh. "I'll fly up to the receiver and find out what I can. For what it's worth, the last reading suggested - not that it gives a reliable indication of direction even this close - that it was somewhere thataway." He pointed vaguely north-east.
Without a word, Natasha turned and ran that way.
And then suddenly it stopped being funny any more. Powering his thrusters, Tony began to fly after the dirigible. An explosion stopped him. Not far away, a cloud of smoke rose billowing up beyond the trees. He flew towards it, clearing the treetops in time to see an entire building slowly crumple in on itself, its pillars smashed as if they were dry sticks.
God, how many statues were there in Washington DC? Founding fathers everywhere, each one bigger than the last, because compensating much? And… Oh. The museums… I take it back, he thought. Not compensating at all.
His dirigible wheeled above him, buffeted by the wind of the explosion. Something smashed against its undercarriage, thrown from somewhere below. "Cap." Tony returned to the ground. Captain America was down on one knee, preparing to throw his shield. "Don't let yourself get pinned here."
"People need us elsewhere," Rogers agreed, reliable as ever.
Clanging bells started to sound, the fire brigade lumbering to the rescue in their heavy carriages, churning out steam. Another missile struck the dirigible. Tony saw the face of one of the crew members peering down, and saw the flash of a gun. There were people behind the trees. Enemies. A bullet smashed into his breastplate, denting it. "Cap!" Tony urged, because in some ways, Captain America was the most vulnerable of them all, because, seriously, who went into battle wearing an embroidered coat, except perhaps the entire United States Army, but they had safety in numbers on their side, and there was only one Captain America, and…
And then Captain America, the one and only, the living symbol, jumped over Tony's head - like, whoa! an honest to goodness fucking leap - and came up with his shield in both hands. Tony heard the sound of something large striking the metal. Rogers of course was braced, as solid as a tree.
"What was that about?" Tony asked, because, seriously, leaping?
"I was shielding you." Rogers had gained a smudge on his cheek and his hat was slightly awry.
"Uh, armoured from head to toe?" Tony pointed out.
Rogers gave a sheepish shrug. "Habit."
"Well, go find a puppy or a little girl or a screaming nursemaid and do the… leaping thing at them."
The dirigible was trailing smoke, but it was still airborne. Thor and the Hulk were busy with the statues. Another explosion sounded, further away. There was an outbreak of gunfire to the west, in the direction Agent Romanoff had gone. "Don't get pinned here!" Rogers shouted. "Remember the last battle. This is the distraction." Thor nodded without looking up from his gleeful bashing of some sort of lion snake monster thing. Hulk was… Beyond understanding? God, he hoped not, because then they were in deep shit.
"Here's the thing…" Tony told Rogers as they began to move out, Tony hovering a few feet off the ground, Rogers running like a fucking textbook, arms like pistons. "There's the new Smithsonian Museum of Engineering and Technology. Big-ass statues in the forecourt. Giants of Engineering. A twenty-foot Benjamin Franklin. George Washington as some sort of mythical God of Steam, don't ask me why. And…"
Something smashed into his back. His thrusters stuttered. Rogers grabbed him by the wrist; kept him from tumbling away.
"…my father," Tony admitted. "Howard Stark in the flesh. Metal. I refuse to fight my father."
The passed through the tree line, out onto the avenue. It was a picture of devastation, a war zone in the pale light, metal giants striding through the wreckage. "It would be difficult for you. I understand." Rogers wasn't even out of breath. Sympathy was painted on his face. Did the guy ever even sweat?
"Difficult? Hell, no." Tony saw something metallic moving away to his left. He fired a blast of heated aether from the barrels at his wrist. "Fighting my own father? Imagine how it would look!"
Rogers did some more leaping, disappearing out of sight for a few seconds, doubtless saving an entire kindergarten and a family of kittens in the time it took Tony to catch his breath. "Uh… Steve?" he began, but then Rogers was back again. "And one more thing," Tony said. "One… tiny thing. I… might have just… endowed a rival museum myself - the Stark Museum of the Future - and commissioned a… twenty-four foot statue of…"
"Yourself," Rogers said, pointing. "Oh look! There you are."
"Oh, God!" Tony swore. "The press'll have a field day with this."
Natasha was under fire from the moment she started running. Nothing she hadn't experienced before, of course. There was metal in her corset, enough to protect her, but not so much as to keep her from moving. She kept to the trees, where the dawn light had yet to penetrate. She concentrated on dodging, on making sure that if anyone was taking aim at her, she wouldn't stay where they expected her to be.
Clint wouldn't fall for it, of course. If he was there. If he was there.
"Come on, Stark," she whispered under her breath, peering upwards. There was no sign of Iron Man flying above her. Stark's dirigible had been hit, smoke streaming from its engines. She looked for arrows embedded in its hull, but it was too far away.
This time she had to.
She felt as if her skills were blunted. She worked best when she had no personal stake in the outcome; just mission objectives in cold black and white. Then she was Black Widow, emotionless and detached. Today she was Natasha. But emotions got you killed.
Emotions could save you.
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye; dodged and rolled before the bullet struck the ground. She was slower to dodge the second bullet, and felt it across her ribs, striking the steel boning. It would bruise badly, she knew. It was not enough to stop her.
Men always underestimated her. She was on him before he managed his third shot. He was nobody she recognised, just a man with a blank expression and shadowed eyes. She smashed him to the ground, and pinned him there, gun to his throat. "Where is Clint Barton?" she demanded.
He shifted beneath her. She dug the pistol deeper. As he moved, something slid free from beneath her knee. It was a SHIELD issue compass-chronometer, still attached by its chain to his buttonhole.
"Where is Agent Barton?" There were ways to get answers, subtle ways, but she had no time for that. She tightened her finger on the trigger. "Answer me, Agent. Where is Agent Barton?"
"The Hawk?" his cracked lips said. His eyes were flickering from side to side, just as Banner's had been when he had been fighting with the beast inside. "He is with the god. He will kill you."
"Where?" She ground the barrel deep, pushing it against his Adam's apple, making him choke. He struggled to speak. She withdrew the pistol, just a little.
He was strong when he fought, stronger than she had expected. He bucked, and she failed to hold him. Because the pistol was a bluff, of course. How could she kill a fellow agent, someone who could have been Barton, had the dice fallen a little differently?
He still had his gun. His eyes told her when he was going to fire, and she avoided it, but only just, landing awkwardly on her back with her left arm beneath her. He stood above her, blocking out the light.
How could she kill him?
How could she not?
She was who she was. She did what she had to do. Springing to her feet, she felled him in three swift blows, stomach, shoulder, throat.
He was still breathing when she left him. She did not look back.
The first wave of living statues was on the brink of defeat. From the sounds of battle and destruction beyond the confines of this park, Thor could tell that many more waves remained.
He was no longer the foolish youth he had been not so long since. No more would he glory in battle just for the sake of it. These statues were Loki's work, and humans were being injured by them. It was Thor's duty to stop them and destroy them. It was Thor's duty to do whatever he could to protect those people who could not protect themselves.
And it is my duty to find you, brother, he swore, and reason with you and beseech you and stop you by force, if I must.
He had spent the voyage examining old memories, struggling to understand. If this was Thor's war, he would be found where the battle was thickest, leading from the front. Loki was more likely to be found at the back, whispering poison. He was no coward, but his weapons were not Thor's weapons.
Not far away, a dozen voices shouted for help. Thor swung his hammer, crushing the last of the strange metal sea creatures. Banner's beast was pounding a fallen bronze warrior with both fists.
Thor had fought alongside berserkers before. The trick was to make sure that they never lost sight of the enemy. Thor looked around. The statues were reduced to scrap, still trying to move, but incapable of going anywhere. He remembered how Agent Barton had used explosions to lure Banner's beast away.
The beast looked at him. Thor gripped Mjolnir in both hands, and prepared to raise it aloft. He would make himself into an enemy, so the beast would launch itself at him, and chase him all the way to the next wave of statues. He would…
He stopped. He was no longer the foolish youth who courted battle. He was the son of Odin, and there was wisdom in his bloodline, and humility, and faith.
Banner had changed his skin willingly. Although he was afraid, Banner had let himself become the beast because he hoped that he could control the monster who wore this flesh. Thor owed it to him to have faith in him.
"Banner?" he said quietly, letting the hammer slowly fall.
The beast looked at him over the field of fallen statues. Its eyes were almost Banner's eyes, but not quite. "Hulk," it corrected him.
"Hulk." Thor smiled in greeting, two warriors meeting in the heat of battle.
"Thor," said the beast.
Thor's smile broadened into a grin. "Come, let us fight the enemy together, my friend." And side by side, they ran towards the screaming.
He had to put a stop to all this ridiculousness before anyone took a photograph. Before anyone got hurt, he meant. It was just a giant statue of himself. If it killed anybody, it wouldn't be his fault. But it would look bad. Innocent people crushed by a gigantic manifestation of Tony Stark's monumental arrogance, twenty-four feet tall, a good four feet more than the statue of Howard Stark along the street, and…
Yes. Put a stop to it. It was a well-crafted statue, built to survive weather and wars and centuries. Captain America was battering its knees, but it needed more than that to stop a giant. If it was like the others, it was animated by a word written on a piece of paper stuck in its mouth, and when all this was over, there would be time to discover quite how that worked, because, seriously, magic? But it was one thing to show a healthy scepticism for such things, and another thing entirely to ignore the evidence of your own eyes, and Tony Stark was very far from being a fool.
He came in close to the ground. "Keep my attention on you," he said. "His, I mean. Its."
The statue stomped with an enormous metal foot. Rogers jumped athletically out of the way, although in appearance he was far from perfect now, all dusty and dirty and - yes! - all sweaty with exertion, just like regular mortals. "I thought you said," Rogers gasped, "I was the captain today."
"I'm fighting myself," Tony pointed out. "I think that gives me the right to have the casting vote."
"Good point." Rogers hurled his shield. It struck the statue a ringing blow in the groin - "Hey!" Tony protested, wincing in sympathy - before ricocheting back into Rogers's outstretched hand. "Keeping his attention?" Rogers said, in a leading sort of way.
"Yes. Right." Tony powered up the thrusters and blasted himself upwards. The helmet muffled the sound outside, but not enough. Everywhere there was the sound of falling masonry, of explosions, of screams, of clanging bells. He saw a fire carriage toppled on its side, water flowing out of its ruptured tanks. He saw a cluster of people in nightgowns, pinned behind a wall by a pacing giant. Hammer held aloft, Thor was racing towards it, preparing to fight. The Hulk was happily rampaging further away, smashing smaller statues away as if they were dolls.
Focus, he thought. It was so easy to focus when he was working; so hard to focus in a battle, when so much was happening, all of it important. He glanced down. Rogers was doing what he had been told, striking out with his shield, dodging, even firing the aetheric gun than Tony had made for him, gradually melting the statue's legs, but nowhere near fast enough.
Tony came up behind the back of the statue's head. It showed no sign of being aware of him. How did the golems sense their surroundings? It was something to… Think about later, he reminded himself firmly. He lashed out fast, wrapping his left arm around the statue's throat. With his other arm, he reached for its mouth. The statue shook its head, trying to dislodge him. It brought its fist up, its enormous arm smashing into Tony's back, leaving him gasping for breath, struggling to hold on, his vision blurring.
What happened next? Somebody was shouting. He saw a flash of red and blue. He felt crushed, pummelled as if by a hammer. He was slipping, the thrusters screaming. He let go with his left hand, and smacked the button that activated the claws in his gauntlet, causing them to spring out like a cat's. Stupid, he thought, a moment later, because, hello, metal against metal? The claws found no purchase, shrieking across the metal of the statue's throat. The statue showed no sign of pain.
But there was nothing like a stupid mistake to focus the mind. He hated making mistakes. It was enough for him to drag his mind clear from the pain of the giant's blow. It was fading, anyway, his breathing returning to normal. Normal in a battle, anyway. Rogers was still shouting down below, leaping around like a man with an expert choreographer. Tony reached out again, struggling to reach the statue's mouth.
He was working blind, positioned at the back of the statue's head. His gauntlets gave him limited sensitivity. He found the giant's nose; found its carved metal beard. Was that the mouth? He dug with the claws, but found no way in.
There's no avoiding it, he thought. I've got to do it. Please let there be no cameras nearby. He had to fly round to the front, and confront himself face to face. He could see the headlines already. Staring into the face of his own arrogance. In the midst of war, a man's worst enemy is himself. All that sort of shit.
The statue made another lunge at him. He let go of its neck, and turned the dial on his breastplate, powering the thrusters to full. He blasted upwards, turned, and came down again on the other side. He saw blank metal eyes, a nose, an arrogant mouth. God, he thought, I look so pleased with myself, but the mouth was solid metal, sealed shut, and he couldn't scratch it out, couldn't find any way in, couldn't see any scrap of paper, any magic word.
"Stark!" Rogers shouted. Tony reacted on impulse, tumbling clear, only just avoiding being crushed like a bug between the giant's two fists.
He came down to the ground, his chest heaving. "I can't… disable me. Him. It." His thoughts were racing. Rogers fired his new gun, blue aether crackling over Tony's head. He remembered what Agent Barton had done with the Hulk. "Maybe I can lure him away."
"I don't think…" Rogers shook his head. "Maybe I should…"
Dammit, there was no time for this crap! "You're not the only hero round here, Cap."
Rogers looked at him for a second, then nodded. "Be careful."
"Of course," Tony said. The giant's fists swung towards him again. Rogers stopped them with his shield, struggling visibly with the effort. Tony powered himself upwards again, until he was hovering at the giant's eyeline. "We're not going to finish this thing without some regrettable symbolism, are we?" he told it wearily. "So come on, me. Chase me."
And his statue did.
The worst thing in battle was being blind.
SHIELD was an organisation that hoarded information jealously. Agents were told just what they needed to know, but no more. Sometimes they were not told quite enough. Natasha and Clint had almost died once, because a vital piece of information had been withheld. That was the closest she had come to leaving SHIELD. Clint had caused her to change her mind, though not by overt persuasion, of course; he knew her too well to attempt that.
If Clint died because she had been kept in the dark enough this crazy plan, then nothing could keep her from leaving. If Clint ended up broken, unable to forgive himself…
She wanted to stop her own thoughts there. She wanted to be able to say, "He won't." But it was not in her nature to hide from contemplating the worst. An optimist could not survive in a job like hers. You had to envisage the worst outcomes, so you knew how to avoid them.
Or how to face the consequences when they came true.
She had long since left the trees behind, and was in a broad street of large houses. The buildings provided cover for her, and cover for her enemies. She was running low on ammunition. She had to kill a man - not a SHIELD agent, she thought - to claim his pistol and his ammunition belt. She strapped it over her own, then had to use the pistol immediately, to deal with the man's partner.
She left him alive, just. "Where's Agent Barton?" she demanded. "Where's Loki?"
"Who?" She thought it was genuine; she was familiar with all the many ways a man could lie when in the extremities of pain or pleasure. His pockets were bulging with gold, she noticed. Looters, she thought, and left them there for somebody else to deal with. Looters who knew nothing. Looters who weren't useful to her. Irrelevant, then.
She was still running blind. Where was Stark?
When he mastered artificial intelligence, Tony decided, he would be very careful to make all his constructs act in a way that was compatible with their appearance. Seriously, this whole giant thing was an insult. It looked like him, but it just lumbered along smashing at anything remotely enemy-like that appeared within its field of vision.
Or maybe, he thought, as he accidentally let it get too close; only just managed to evade the blow. Maybe he would build constructs that acted the complete opposite: ferocious metal guardians made in the shape of a young girl, or shambling monsters created to serve drinks.
Or maybe, he thought, as another blow almost took him out of the air, he should concentrate on the matter at hand, and stop planning future tech.
He was close now, almost at the river. Turning the control on his helmet, he activated the breathing mechanism. He moved his head inside the helmet until he found the mouthpiece of the breathing tube, and took it tightly between his lips. He had enough air in the tank on his back for four minutes, five at most? He hoped it would be enough.
The statue followed him, predictable, stupid. Water reached its knees. It moved slower when the water reached its thighs, but still it carried on.
Just as I thought, Tony congratulated himself. Not artificial intelligence at all - and, hey, the mechanical Turk was a fake, which means that I can be the first to do it, after all - but a mindless automaton programmed with the command to keep fighting at all costs.
It was even slower now, up to its chest, struggling against the current, sinking into the mud. The jets from Tony's thrusters were churning up the surface of the water. He led the statue even further out. A boat was drifting slowly down river, trailing its mooring rope. Could the statue wade back to shore? Best carry on. Best be sure.
When the statue was in up to its neck, Tony disengaged his primary thrusters and let himself drop into the water. The current dragged at him instantly. He engaged his underwater thrusters, but they were weaker than the primary ones. He had tested the suit in a placid lake, he remembered, not in a river. The statue was close to him, too close, churning up a vortex with its flailing arms.
Got to carry on, he thought. The bottled air tasted stale, and his thoughts felt muffled, whether because of the air or because it was so hard to see, and sound was attenuated by the water, turned into a distant muffled roar.
He fought the current, going deeper. He was slow to realise that the statue was no longer following him, but was mired in the mud, unable to fight the water.
Thank God, he thought. He struggled for the surface, but the weight of his suit tried to drag him down. He tried to move his arm, but the current dragged even at that, trying to tear his hand away from the controls. He thought he saw dark things moving in the water, and shapes at the bottom, the wreckage of lost ships. He was sucking in air through the tube, but too fast, too fast. He tried to slow his breathing, but how could he do that? It was dark down here. He wasn't in control.
Brightness shone somewhere above him. Not far, he thought. Not far. Almost close enough to touch. Fighting the current, he managed to reach the controls and power the secondary thrusters up to full. Even then it was slow, too slow. Blood was roaring in his ears by the time he broke the surface. The secondary thrusters stuttered and began to fail. It took him three attempts to find the controls that engaged the primary thrusters. His heart was pounding. He had drifted several hundred yards down river, and the sun had cleared the horizon, painting the surface of the water with gold.
"Got to…" he said out loud, because talking always helped. Go to get back to Captain America and help him save people. Keep an eye on the Hulk. Find Thor. Agent Romanoff. Fuck! Agent Romanoff and the emitter.
Oh! The breathing mechanism! He deactivated it, spitting out the breathing tube as it retracted back into its place. How long had he been under? Two minutes? Enough air for two minutes more, then. Not that he planned to do this again.
The emitter. Where was the dirigible? He found it by its smoke. By the time he landed on the deck, he had managed to wrap himself in control, to hide any fears behind the mask. "Are you breaking my dirigible?" he asked.
"They crew are rather busy, sir." Jarvis was as unflappable as ever, standing ready with breakfast on a tray. Tony grabbed a piece of toast, and clicked his visor open to take a bite.
"I need…" Tony said. The toast was hard to swallow, or maybe it was just that his mouth was dry. "I need a few minutes with the receiver. Ask them to circle round so I can triangulate."
"Very good, sir," said Jarvis, who would doubtless remain calm even as the world was ending.
Smashing things was good. Anger was a fire inside him. It made him want to break the whole world.
The other guy didn't like him smashing things. The other guy was weak. The other guy whimpered inside Hulk. It was easy not to listen to the other guy. When Hulk was mad, he didn't have to listen to anyone at all. When Hulk was mad, he was a god.
No, said the other guy, listen to me now.
Hulk crushed a stupid creature made from something hard and shiny. Small pale people were screaming. He picked up a rock and hurled it at a giant.
Listen, said the other guy. He'd been there all along this time. Hulk was a hound on a leash, never allowed to run free.
Listen. The message was always the same. Hulk was allowed to smash things, but they had to be the right things. Tall things of metal or stone. They were more fun to smash than puny people, anyway. They fought back. They didn't always break, not the first time. It was easier to stay mad when they fought back.
Yes, said the other guy. More fun for both of us. A mutually beneficial pact.
Hulk didn't know what that meant. It didn't matter. Maybe it wasn't a leash at all. This way nobody tried to stop him. It wasn't good when people tried to stop him. They threw stinging things at him and then he fought back and the other guy was sad and wouldn't let him come out to play.
Hulk liked coming out to play. He liked having people to play with. He liked Thor because he had a shiny hammer and didn't break when Hulk hit him. Where was Thor? Hulk had lost Thor. It didn't matter. Hulk would find him again soon.
But first Hulk would smash some more of the tall shiny things. Smashing things was good.
Steve had no idea how long Stark had been gone for. It went against the grain to let somebody else head off into danger, while he stayed behind. He had been created to be the hero, the best of all soldiers, the one who did those things that nobody else could do, who took the risks so others did not need to.
It had to mean something. It did mean something. It was not the glory and the reputation; of course it wasn't that. He would fight anonymously behind enemy lines, if that was what was needed to get the job done. But it meant that the risk had to be his. Bucky had died when Steve had let him…
He stopped that train of thought. He was here to fight. Bucky was long dead anyway, no matter what he had done.
And he was no longer one of a kind. All of his new companions were in their own way remarkable.
He was no longer one of a kind. He was no longer alone.
But it was hard to change habits. He wished that Stark would come back, alive and well. He had watched him only for a few moments before fresh need had distracted him, drawing him away to fight new battles. It was far from safe here, of course. He used the gun Stark had made for him, but it was barely enough to make the giants falter.
He found himself fighting back to back with Thor, Thor swinging his hammer, Steve striking out with his shield. "There are women," Thor said, gesturing with his chin towards the building at Steve's back.
"Keep the giant occupied," Steve said. "I'll take care of them." He dodged the giant's foot, and fought his way over to the women. They were girls, really, most of them no older than sixteen. They had been driven from elsewhere - a school, perhaps - seeking a safety that could not be found here. Steve did what he could. "Stay here," he told them, and ran until he found a pair of men in uniforms, desperately firing ineffectual bullets at a statue of George Washington. "You can't damage them that way," he told them. "Look to the civilians. Concentrate on keeping them safe."
"How?" one of the men asked. He had the desperate look of a man who had seen too much death in one day.
"Find cover," Steve said, "but avoid the buildings in case they fall. The statues are slow, which is your main advantage. As long as you can keep people from panicking, you should be able to lead them away from danger."
The men followed him back. "These men will take care of you." Steve looked from the girls to the men. "Now go. If you see anyone else, tell them what I told you."
He wondered if they would. He wondered if he had just sent them all to their deaths. He took his place at Thor's side, and between them they almost brought the giant down, but it fought back, sending Thor flying backwards into a wall.
Steve helped him up, offering him a hand. Thor had dropped his hammer, but he reached out his right hand and the weapon flew back into his grasp. It gave Steve an idea. "You can call down lightning?"
"Then do so," Steve said. "Do so now."
God, how she hated this!
Without information, Natasha was running without an objective. As she had done so many times before, she crouched in partial cover, scanning the windows and the rooftops for a familiar figure with a bow. Loki was clever, or so Thor said. Surely he wouldn't take a man like Clint and waste his talents.
Nothing. There was nobody there.
Correction: Clint wasn't there. A woman appeared at a top floor window, wrapped in a blanket. Natasha took down the man who was taking aim at her. One block further one, and she stopped to help a man extract his children from a half-ruined building, taking them one by one as he passed them to her through a window. "Please, ma'am," he said, when they were all clustered around her, the smallest one clinging to her skirts. "Please will you look after them? I need to fight."
She shook her head.
"Please," he begged her. His eyes had a look she had seen too many times before. "They need a woman's care."
"They need their father." She eased the child's fingers from her skirt. "There's somewhere I need to be."
She remained long enough to cover them as they made their escape. Where would they go? She couldn't stop to wonder. They were just one family out of many.
Just as Clint was one man out of many.
She had skills and she had training. She did what she could. She had to take another gun, another gun belt. She dragged an injured man into shelter, and made sure somebody would give him care. She looked for arrows in the bodies of the dead.
Perhaps she should remove her hat and let anyone watching from high places catch glimpses of her hair. She had used that tactic before, of course, feigning carelessness to lure a target into a trap. But she had usually done so with back-up, with Clint covering her from his perch up above. The first time they had met, he had tracked her down without her even being aware that she was watched. To this day, he had refused to tell her how he had done it. "Let me keep one mystery, Nat," she remembered him saying late one night, candlelight on his face, and an empty glass in his hand.
Stark possessed no such mysteries, of course. Alerted by the noise of his machinery, she looked up to see him circling above. She left cover long enough to show him where she was.
At last! she thought with fierce relief. She let none of show on her face.
"I can't be sure," he said, presenting her with a map, "but somewhere there. I've circled it on the map. So shall we go get him, Agent Romanoff?"
The map showed that she was close to Barton after all, just a few blocks away. She forced herself to stay where she was. "Loki's there, too," she said. "Or so I was told."
"Loki," Stark repeated, with a sigh. "You want me to get the others? I guess we'll need Thor, at least." She nodded. "You're… not going to wait, are you," Stark said. It was not a question. "I'll come back with the cavalry and find you…"
"Gone," she agreed. "Yes. I'll scout out the area; try to narrow it down; try to find the best way in." And still he stayed. "I'm a spy," she reminded him. "This is what I do. Go."
"So I'm just the messenger boy now, am I?" Stark said. "Oh well. Beats fighting myself."
Natasha waited until he was out of sight, then pocketed the map and started to advance. This was the end game now. One way or the other, it would come to a finish.
end of chapter nine
Chapter 10: Chapter ten
Tony arrived just before the final curtain, when the villain lay dead and the hero stood waiting for the round of applause.
"A localised lightning storm," he said, as he landed next to them. "Way to be inconspicuous, Thor. On the plus side, it helped me find you; saved me from… flying around."
"The lightning felled the giant statue," Thor said earnestly. "Captain America is wise as well as strong."
Tony grunted; sought something dismissive to say, but couldn't quite find it.
"It was quite impressive." Captain Rogers smiled. Had Tony ever seen him smile before, he wondered - a real smile, not the strained smile of a man forced to make the best of things. "Blue sparks and lots of melting."
"I see." Tony examined the toppled remains, walking around its devastated head. "You used lightning to kill Benjamin Franklin. Sweet."
Rogers pushed a strand of hair from his brow. He seemed to have lost his hat. "Did you…?"
"Deal with my monstrous alter ego? Safe at the bottom of the river." Tony turned towards Thor. "Tempting as it is to stand here enjoying our victory, I might have found your brother."
"Then let us go to him," Thor said. "Let us put an end to this."
"Not so fast," a voice said.
It was the statues that alerted Natasha to the fact that she had found it. The statues flanked the entrance of a pristine house with its blinds still closed. Nothing about it was smashed or torn. The small square of grass remained untouched. The statues remained still, just lifeless bronze.
Out of all the statues in the city, why were these the only two that had not been forced into a semblance of life? She remembered the illusion field that Banner had reported. Clint and Banner had seen a perfect picture of an expanse of prairie, rather than the golem manufactory that was really there.
An illusion of a house might look like this, she thought, if it had been made before the statues came awake, by a careless magician who failed to update the illusion when reality changed.
The barrier was closer than she had expected. She felt nothing when she crossed it. With one breath, she saw a pristine house; with the next, she saw the same house with its blinds wide open and snipers in its windows. She saw blood on the churned-up grass, and bodies of the dead and the dying - people who had come fleeing to this house thinking to find a untouched island in the storm. Outside the illusion, she had thought herself in cover. Now she knew that she was entirely exposed.
And there above her, on the roof of the porch, was Clint, his bow drawn back and an arrow aimed at her heart.
Their mistake had been to concentrate on the statues, and forget what men alone were capable of. The statues were mindless, but it was the men who were capable of bringing Captain America to his knees.
"Don't move," Steve commanded softly.
"Wasn't thinking of it," Stark said.
Perhaps Steve had sent the girls to their deaths, after all. The men he had entrusted them to were nowhere to be seen. The girls had been rounded up, corralled beneath the crumbling portico of a building that seemed on the point of collapse. Four armed men were keeping them there. One held a weeping girl in front of him like a shield, the barrel of his gun pressed into her throat. Another had dragged out a dark-haired girl, the youngest by the look of her, and held a long-bladed knife against her heart. A third man stood further away, a rifle trained on Steve.
"Put down your weapons." It was the fourth one who spoke, a gunman in a dark tailored suit. Steve thought the gun he was using was called a revolver.
"Sorry. Can't," Stark said, "seeing how the weapons are part of the armour."
"Make one hostile move, and a girl dies." Several of the girls were sobbing. Some were beyond even that, white-faced with terror.
"Not doing anything," Stark said. "No hostile moves here."
"You, put down the hammer. You, put down the gun and the shield." The gunman's voice was quiet, almost too quiet to be heard. Although it seemed to Steve as if the whole world had narrowed to this one confrontation, the fighting continued elsewhere. He heard bells and sirens, gun shots and the roar of falling masonry.
He saw the terrified faces of innocents who needed his protection.
"I won't ask again," said the gunman. "I know you're quick. I know you could take us down, but are you quick enough to stop us taking some of the girls with us? Are you quick enough to stop us bringing the building down on top of them?" He pushed his coat aside, and pulled out a small round item. It looked something like a grenade from Steve's time. He had to assume that the effects were the same, or worse.
"Captain?" Thor spoke quietly, barely moving his lips.
Not all the girls were weeping. One glared at the nearest gunman with utter defiance. Another was trying to reach a knife at her belt, moving her hand by slow increments. It would not be enough, of course.
"I think," Steve said, "that we must do what they demand."
Would they shoot him dead the moment he put down his weapons? He thought they might. In his own mind, it was less than two weeks since he had fully expected to die. This was…
Instinct caused Natasha to bring her pistol up, to aim it his head. She stood there gripping the gun with both hands, seeing nothing but him.
"Clint," she whispered.
Was this for show? She knew what it was like to play a part, to have to hold it long after the point at which you wanted to let it drop. She knew that she was fully exposed, held in the sights of other gunmen at the windows upstairs. Loki would want Clint to be the one to kill her, that much she knew from the things Thor said about him, from reading between the lines. As long as he kept this pose, she was safe from the others.
She looked for signs of recognition in his eyes, for secret signals that she should join him in this charade. He was too high up, and the light was behind him. His face was a mask. She could barely see his eyes.
The tip of the arrow did not waver, not even by the slightest amount.
She tightened her finger on the trigger. Perhaps she could wing him, then dive for the doorway, press herself up against the house, out of sight of the windows. She could not back down. She could not let him kill her, for his sake, if not for hers.
"Clint," she tried again. He gave no sign of recognition. But then he was moving, the tensing of his muscles giving her only an instant's warning. He jumped from the porch; landed with bent knees at the bottom of the steps that led up to the open door. All the time, the arrow never wavered in its aim.
She could see his face now that he was lower than her. Just six steps ahead of her, close enough that she could grab him in seconds if she dared to move at all.
"Clint." She refused to kill him, but she would hurt him if she had to. She thought she saw a man standing inside the open door behind him, but she could not let herself look. Nothing was real but Clint's face and the arrow tip. His eyes pinned her. There was none of that desperate flickering that she had seen in the agent in the park.
Maybe he was afraid that she, too, had been turned. Maybe she should show her good faith by lowering her gun, and standing there utterly at his mercy, giving him her trust.
She kept her pistol steady. She had to remain the Natasha Romanoff that he expected to see. "Clint." She tried it one last time. But she seldom called him by that name; seldom spoke it with such a catch in her voice. "Barton," she said. "You left without saying goodbye."
She knew his face so well; knew it in ways she had never realised before know; knew its every nuance of expression. Today he was unreadable.
"Natasha," she heard him whisper, as he turned and let the arrow fly.
The revolver fell from the gunman's hand. His left hand slackened, the grenade almost slipping away from him, then he grasped it with a look of sudden terror.
Steve was halfway to the ground, his thoughts unformed. He had expected to die. He had… No. Not like this. Not now. Not yet.
"Please…" said the gunman, tottering backwards. The man with the knife let it fall and reeled away. The girl collapsed to her knees, sobbing. Another girl knelt beside her, wrapping her arm around her shoulder, glaring defiantly over her head.
"So this is… unexpected," Stark said.
"I didn't mean to…" the gunman said. "I didn't want to…" He scraped his hand across his face.
"I'm with SHIELD," the knifeman said. He closed his eyes for a moment, then moved as fast as an acrobat, pulling a gun from his belt, shooting the man who still held the weeping girl across his body, killing him instantly. The girl collapsed, screaming, the back of her dress speckled with blood. Then the knife man fell, too, shot in the shoulder by the rifleman.
Something was stirring inside the building - a statue, perhaps, drawn by the noise. "Run!" Steve shouted, as he grabbed his shield and hurled it at the rifleman, catching him long before he could reload. Thor snatched his hammer out of the air and leaped forward, and Stark was there, too, holding up the portico. Steve helped the girls to safety, then gave Thor and Stark the nod. The building held when they released it, but only just, the stonework visibly shifting.
"We had a plan, right?" Stark asked. "We had a plan when we did that whole laying down our weapons thing? Because I had a plan. Didn't have time to… get to it, but…"
No plan, Steve thought, but perhaps that was untrue. Perhaps he had been staking his life on the girls' own defiance, or on the fact that it would take more than a single bullet to end his life. Perhaps it had been because he had Stark and Thor at his side, both of whom were, in their way, more remarkable than he was.
Vermer had died instantly, Clint's arrow taking him in his throat. "Natasha," Clint said, but she was with him already, running up the steps, taking shelter beneath the porch. A bullet struck the ground where she had been standing.
"God, Clint," Natasha breathed, sounding how he had seldom heard her, ragged and desperate. Then she was Agent Romanoff again, doing what needed to be done. "What are we facing here?"
Vermer's blood was seeping into the doormat. He had been there throughout, close, so close. Clint tore his own bow from the man's slackening hand, and cast away the borrowed one. The moment he touched it, the last shadows lifted from his mind.
"It was him," he said. "He was the one… God, Natasha, I almost…"
"You didn't." She was there beside him, hand on his arm.
"It was an act," she said. "A part. You were undercover. You had to make it seem real."
But he couldn't lie, not to her. He could lie to Loki, he could lie to SHIELD, but never to her. "It was almost real," he confessed. "Sometimes there was no almost about it."
He wanted to kill Vermer a second time. He wanted to rake his fingers down his own face, to carve gouges in his forehead, to feel the pain, to be real.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "Clint, there's a job to be done."
A job. A mission. She understood everything, of course. "He was the key," he told her. "The other SHIELD agents should be back with us now." Vermer's chest lay on the far side of the entrance hall, full of the relics that he used to enslave good men. He wanted to destroy it, but couldn't be entirely sure what it would do to the agents whose possessions lay within.
"Clint?" she prompted.
Was this how it would be, he wondered - that they would just slot back into place and work alongside each other, without talking about this ever again? There were things he needed to talk about. There were things he could never talk about. There had been times when she had been the only thing he remembered. Sometimes he had deliberately driven her from his mind, in case Loki could rifle through his thoughts. He had never forgotten her, never. He had never entirely lost himself, but he had lost himself enough.
But he would take what she was offering him, because for this moment now, it was what he needed.
"The agents are back with us," he said, "but we weren't the entirety of Loki's army. There were plenty more who were following him willingly. We've still got a fight on our hands."
She touched him on the back of the hand, her fingers trembling slightly, even though her face was composed. "Is Loki here?"
For the last week, memories had been slipping away from him like water. "He… left," he said. "I think."
Natasha looked out through the door. "Then…"
"No," he told her. "There's something we need to do here first."
Two of the enemy served Loki willingly, it seemed, and both were dead. Two had been acting under compulsion, and for some reason that compulsion had been lifted in the very nick of time.
Thor had not come to Midgard to allow young maidens to die. He was not inclined to trust these men, but he knew well how clever and tricksy his brother could be. Even Thor had fallen for his brother's lies more than once. Even Odin had been open to manipulation.
"You must go," urged one of these uncertain allies. "You must stop the god."
"How can we trust you?" Thor demanded.
"You… can't," the man said. He pressed both hands against his brow, the heels driving into his eyes. "Even now, I'm not sure…" His voice was muffled. He dragged his hands down across his face, and further down, fingers scraping down his neck. "Please stop him. Please go."
Thor stood. "He is not a god," he said, "no matter what he told you. Once upon a time, your people called my people gods, but only because they did not understand. I will stop him in whatever way I can."
The man nodded. "The girls…?" he asked desperately, when Captain Rogers returned.
"I have found someone to take care of them," Rogers said, but he would say no more than that. The man closed his eyes again. Thor knew that he was looking at a broken man.
"We must find Loki," Thor said.
"As I said ten minutes ago?" Stark pointed out.
Rogers nodded. Together, they fought their way back to the broad expanse of grass, past the twitching wreckage of the first wave of statues. They emerged from the trees to find four pale statues on horseback, each one twice as tall as Thor.
"The four horsemen of the Apocalypse?" Stark said. "Seriously? Who makes statues of the four horsemen of the fucking Apocalypse? When this is over, him and me will have to… have… words. Not so fast, Big Guy," he said, grabbing Thor's arm. "They're marble, not metal. Lightning won't work. " He pronounced each word slowly, as if shouting over a storm. "Besides being kind of dangerous for the guy in the metal suit caught in the middle of it."
"We must fight them?" Thor wondered where the Hulk was. The Hulk would smash these marble horsemen as if they were chalk.
"Looks like it," Stark said. "You take War. I'll handle Pestilence. Or is it Famine? Hey, watch out, Cap! Death at ten o'clock."
She had to be Agent Romanoff. Clint was back with her, and that part of the day was done. She had seen the fear and the guilt smouldering behind his eyes. Too many soft words would allow them to come out and play. He needed her to be cold and firm, and so did she. Natasha, the girl inside her, felt a ridiculous urge to weep.
Later, maybe, in the dark of her solitary room, when this long day was past.
"Where are we going?" she asked him.
"Of course," she said. She could hear the sound of fighting on the floors above, and feet pounding on the stairs.
She followed him outside, both of them ready to shoot if any hostiles appeared at the windows. There was nobody there. She fought the urge to check the bodies in the yard, to see if any of them had been killed with an arrow. It had to be done, but not yet.
"Ready?" he said.
They had done this only once before. As she covered him, he drew out the wire from his belt and fitted it to the correct arrow. When the arrow was firmly anchored in the guttering far above them, she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding on tight, like a child riding piggyback. He set the belt mechanism moving, slowly coiling the wire back. It was a slow climb. The wire provided the lift, but he had to steady them against the wall with his feet and his spare hand, seeking extra purchase wherever he could.
She could feel his breathing against her body, his whole body heaving with exertion. She often forgot how strong he was. She knew it intellectually, of course - had based entire strategies around her knowledge of his skills - but it was not the same as feeling it. He smelled of sweat and machine oil, of dust and sharp familiarity. His quiver was pressing against her chest.
"The emitter's in the quiver," she said, probably too loud, her mouth near his ear.
He grunted his confirmation. They passed near an open window, two storeys up. People were fighting inside. She released her right arm and kept the gun ready, holding onto him only with her left.
The hardest part was when they reached the roof. Clambering over Clint, she shot the first man who made a hostile move, smashing his right hand, making him drop his gun. Then Clint was beside her, his arrow flying true.
The man Clint killed was not a soldier. "Some sort of scholar," Clint explained. "He's the one who makes the golems."
Natasha took out the third man, smashing his feet from underneath him, driving his head against the parapet until he lay still. "That's a SHIELD transmitter," she said, recognising the device that had been mounted on a platform at the centre of the roof.
Clint nodded. "I can't remember everything," he admitted. "They didn't… I wasn't in on this part of the operation, but I kept my ears open, when I… when I could, when I didn't… forget." He wasn't looking at her. "A golem is created with a word. See that jewel? It amplifies the effect of any device it's attached to."
"It transmits the word." The wax cylinder was turning and turning, endlessly sending out the same silent signal. "So anything within range, anything capable of becoming a golem…"
"Becomes alive," Clint said. He pulled out an explosive arrow from his quiver. "Shall we stop the signal?"
"No. Wait." She grabbed his arm. He stopped without question. He always did, she realised; had done so for years. "I know the legend. Golems are animated with a word." She gestured at the cylinder. "Erase one letter, and the word means 'death.' That's how to stop them in the stories."
"Let's do it, then," he said.
Tony struck his head as he landed, and for a moment was incapable of getting up again. The marble horse reared over him. He tried to roll out of the way, but nothing seemed to respond. His head was throbbing. He couldn't reach the controls to power the suit. Without the suit, he was nothing in a fight, just a man with a brain and a fortune… and damn good looks, if he did say so himself and…
Priorities? he reminded himself, and managed to avoid the crashing hooves, but only just. Movement blurred around him, fractured by… Dammit, there were scratches on the surface of his goggles, making it hard to see. He dodged the next blow, but failed to avoid the third. Famine and Pestilence were working together, which was cheating, but… typical, really, given history, not that he'd ever paid much attention to... Oh. Ow. His back impacted hard against something as he landed. A lump of stone pressed down on his chest. This time he knew there was no avoiding the falling hooves.
"A little help?" he called, but it was too late, of course; far too late. Thoughts flashed through his mind - not his whole life; God, who'd want to relive that? - but desperate scenarios of hope. Rogers doing heroic thing and saving him. His armour proving to be stronger than expected - because, well, really, made by Tony Stark? The statues suddenly realising that this whole magic thing was stupid and going back to sleep again…
He blinked upwards, frowning past the scratch in the glass. The skittering thoughts were slow to stop. He tried to rein them in, like a rider with a runaway horse. "Huh," he said.
Everything was surprisingly quiet. He didn't think he was dead, horsemen of the Apocalypse notwithstanding. Two horsemen of the Apocalypse. Half an Apocalypse? What was the plural of…?
"Huh," he said again, because it seemed better than letting his thoughts go galloping off again. Galloping. Horsemen. Yes, that was where the analogy came from. Synonym. Metaphor. Whatever. "Did…?" he began. Frozen in the middle of a rear, the marble horseman toppled over sideways, landing with a bone-shaking crash just inches from where Tony lay.
Tony sat up. "Is it just me, or have the statues just gone to sleep again?"
Thor was sitting astride War's horse, his arms wrapped around the lifeless marble statue of its rider. Battered and bruised, Rogers was extricating himself from underneath Death. "It appears so," he said.
Tony's head was still throbbing. He stood up painfully; breathed in and out until he could think clearly again.
"There is still Loki to contend with," Thor said.
"Yes," Tony said wearily. "Yes there is." Why had he signed up for this? What had he been thinking when he agreed to ferry this bunch of crazy people into a war zone, and then join in? Oh yes. He'd been hungover. He pointed in the direction indicated by the emitter. "I'll go see what Agent Romanoff is getting up to. See you there?"
It was easier when he flew, in some ways. Then it was just him and his technology, no other people getting in the way. But there was no time to gain any real altitude. The damage done to the city was impossible to ignore. He flew close enough to see people on rooftops, desperately hiding from the threats below.
I guess that's why, he thought. The reason why I signed up. One of the reasons. Maybe. No, that was the sort of reason a hero might have, or at least a good man.
He found Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton on a rooftop of their own, surrounded by bodies. Romanoff was crouching beside a man who had clearly tried to come up through the skylight, before being forcibly stopped. Barton was posing dramatically on the edge of the roof, having recently rained arrows down on gunmen in the yard below.
"Am I late for the party?" Tony said, landing between them. Barton lowered his bow and turned around. "Are you evil?" Tony asked him.
Agent Romanoff exuded ice at the question, but Barton just said, "I'm… myself."
Which wasn't answering the question, because, seriously, SHIELD assassin? Best not say it out loud, though, because… SHIELD assassin? "I thought you were waiting for back-up before going in?" he said to Romanoff. "Is this what waiting looks like? Am I defining the word wrong?" Two SHIELD assassins, he corrected himself. "Just… uh… saying," he added.
"I intended to wait," she said, looking entirely unrepentant. "I penetrated the illusion field unexpectedly."
"Illusion field?" Tony looked around, seeing nothing amiss.
"Gone now," Barton said. "Natasha killed the wizard."
Wizard! Hidden by his helmet, Tony rolled his eyes. "I was going to give you this," he said, his tone almost petulant. He gestured to the pack attached to the clip at his back. "It's a sonic weapon," he explained. "Incapacitates without killing. Incapacitates the bearer, too, which is why I added some… modifications. Why doesn't anyone want to use it? I was going to use it in the stand-off with the girls, but never got the chance then, either. The SHIELD agents suddenly turned good again."
"That was Clint," Romanoff said.
"And then the statues…" Tony began.
"That was Natasha," Barton said. He exchanged a look with Romanoff that Tony didn't catch. "Okay. Both of us." He left his position and clambered over to some sort of… No, not just some sort of, but the transmitter, one of the ones Tony had sold to SHIELD under an assumed name. As Tony watched, Barton pulled out a knife and proceeded to prize away some sort of… No, not some sort of…
"The jewel," Tony said. "The useless jewel I removed from the Doomsday Ma-- the simple sonic weapon, entirely safe unless you count a few minutes of drooling."
"It amplifies the effect of anything it's attached to," Barton said.
Oh, Tony thought. "Oh," he said. "Oh!" he gasped, because the possibilities…! Attached to a… No. Priorities. "Where's Loki?" he asked.
"Not here," Barton said.
Tony tried to catch Romanoff's eye to see if Barton could be trusted, but was hampered by being encased in a metal suit, and by the fact that Romanoff was looking at Barton, rather than at him, and would probably never willingly let him catch her eye, anyway. "So he could be anywhere in the city, then," he said. "Should be easy, then."
Romanoff looked at him at last. Maybe she didn't understand sarcasm. "I questioned one of Loki's men," she said. "One of the ones who followed him willingly."
Questioned, Tony thought. He almost said something, but kept his mouth shut.
"He was full of threats," Romanoff said. "How Loki would rule. How the old regime would topple. How--"
"He's gone to kill the president," Tony said, "or take him over." It made sense. Of course it made sense. A medieval-minded guy like Loki would think in terms of kings and rulers. "He's gone to the White House."
Romanoff gave a sharp nod. "I think so, too."
The big metal things had stopped moving. Hulk had nothing left to hit.
He felt the rage gathering inside him. He hit a giant made out of stone, and it toppled over and broke into pieces. Someone screamed. Pale people fled from him. He wanted to chase them and make them fly.
No. Can't. The other guy said it, but Hulk said it, too. The other guy didn't want Hulk to hit the pale creatures. When the other guy was cross with Hulk he kept him caged inside, raging behind bars.
Hulk had to find more metal things to smash. He had to find Thor. Thor showed him where enemies were. It was okay to hit Thor, because he didn't break and he smiled afterwards and called Hulk 'friend.'
Hulk had to find explosions. He had to go where the fighting was. If he didn't, he was…
end of chapter ten
Chapter 11: Chapter eleven
"Is that him?" Tony whispered. They were hiding behind a row of trees, if people such as Thor and Captain America, with their shiny bright colours, could ever be said to be capable of hiding, and okay, yes, point taken, Tony, too, given the whole literally shiny thing.
"It is." Tony guessed that was probably Thor's version of a whisper.
"Why is he just standing there?" Rogers asked.
Loki was indeed 'just standing there', alone on the far side of the lawn. The White House had clearly been fighting its own internal war - lots of statues in the corridors, Tony remembered - and smoke issued from more than one window. "He can't get in," Tony said. "Look. Mechanical gates." Rogers looked blank. "State of the art security system," Tony explained. "An underground mechanism. That way you can look all free and open - anyone can wander in and have an audience with the president - but when you're under threat, you activate the mechanism, and up comes the barrier."
"And this is enough to stop him?" Rogers asked. He looked from Tony to Barton, as if hoping for answers there.
Barton was looking intently at the defences. "I… can't shoot him," he said. "Not 'can't,' Natasha. Not that. But he gave a demonstration. He made sure that I knew that my arrows couldn't touch him. His reactions are incredible."
"Which sucks," Tony said, because marksman at a distance and solitary god seemed like the ideal solution.
Rogers metaphorically girded himself for battle, or whatever hero types did. "Then we should--"
"No." Barton snapped the word sharply, for all that it was no louder than a breath. "He's not alone. He's got back-up. Men concealed between him and us. And golems."
"Well, that's okay, then," Tony said. "Golems go nitey-night, remember?"
Barton looked scary in his focus, a hunter intent on his prey. Remind me never to piss you off, Tony almost said, but kept it to himself, because, hey, it seemed as if he was growing, after all, learning wisdom and tact and when to keep his mouth shut and all that shit. "They did," Barton said. "I think… I can't see…"
"Well, we can deal with the men, anyway." Tony reached behind him to unfasten the pack, but his suit lacked adequate articulation, something that would be rectified in the next model. "A little help?" Romanoff was the first to understand, and helped him remove the pack. Rogers had that comical frozen look when he saw when lay within. "A sonic weapon," Tony explained to the others. "It'll incapacitate anyone out there between Loki and us; give us a good ten minutes of them being drooling and useless. I've added a short time delay, so you might want to… run away, though not so fast as to give the enemy the clue. You also might want to… cover your ears."
"Is this really…?" Rogers started to ask, predictable as ever.
"Of course," Tony said. He turned the dial he had added, setting it to a ten second delay, then activated the weapon and hurled it forward as far as he could. It was a perfect throw. The weapon landed in the middle of the lawn, bounced a little, then slowly rolled forward. Loki showed no sign of noticing.
Oh. Yes. Running away. Tony turned to flee. He was not fast enough.
Thor staggered, struck by an invisible wave of magic. His stomach lurched, and his knees almost buckled. His companions were worse hit. Captain Rogers had his head in his hands. The lady Natasha and her archer were down, but already struggling to rise. Inside his metal armour, Stark was reeling.
It had gone too far. Thor had allowed it to go too far. Clenching his fist, he dragged himself free from the after-effect of the magic, and charged forward. "Loki!" he shouted. "You must stop this madness at once!"
Loki turned slowly towards him. He was clad in the clothes of Earth, in the style of one of their chieftains. As Thor neared him, he started smiling, just his lips, not his eyes. "Must, brother?" he said, when Thor had at last closed the distance between them.
"Why do you do this?" There had been a time when Thor had known himself to be more mighty than his brother, but he had been young then, and too quick to believe that skill in battle was what gave a man worth. Now he was willing to beg. He would do so on his knees if he had to.
"Why?" said Loki. "You do not know? You always were devoid of imagination, Thor."
The devastation Loki had wrought made Thor want to weep. "Why hurt the world that I love?"
Thor had seen Loki's smile a thousand thousand times, but had never before realised how cold it could be. "Because you love it, of course."
Nothing existed but the two of them, alone on field of battle. Tears pricked at Thor's eyes. He felt as if the wave of magic was striking him again, dragging him down. "What ever did I do to earn your hatred?"
Loki disappeared, and when he spoke again, he was standing behind Thor. He was no longer smiling. "Received everything that I ever wanted."
Thor reached towards him with his left hand. "I would have shared it all with you."
"Would you?" Loki's eyes were gleaming.
Thor let out a breath. "No," he admitted. "Not then. I was young. I sought only glory. If our father had offered me the throne, I would have taken it."
Loki moved again. Thor turned. He saw something moving beyond the trees. "And now?" Loki's voice was as quiet as the wind on a still winter's day.
Thor had to shake his head. It was not in him to lie. "I have seen what you are capable of, brother. I can no longer trust you. Many people receive less than their due. They do not turn to slaughter because of it."
"So we are enemies?" Loki's voice was still quiet. For Thor it was the only sound in the world.
"Yes," Thor said, just his lips moving, barely any sound coming out. He felt no shame for his tears. "If your quarrel is with me, let us fight elsewhere. Do not let this world suffer because of your hatred for me."
Loki waved a dismissive hand. "Mortals have forever paid the price when gods are at their sport. They are of no account."
Thor gripped his hammer. "We are not gods, brother. In the things that matter, these 'mortals' - these people, these men and women, these children - are no different from us."
Loki turned away. In the way he moved, the way he spoke, the timbre of his voice, he was still Thor's brother. That was the worst thing of all. The creature in this body was Thor's enemy. Thor would have mourned him less had he died.
But it changed nothing. Thor's duty was clear. His desire was clear. Whatever came to pass, this was the end. This was the final breaking of all fondness between them. Raising his hammer, Thor rushed forward to engage his brother in the final battle that would decide all things. Loki disappeared, winking away to nothing.
"So predictable, brother," came Loki's voice from far away. Then he raised his voice, shouting a command in a language Thor did not know.
From behind the trees, the metal giants came striding.
There was no time for doubt, for fears, for guilt. There was only the job that needed to be done.
Clint felt as if someone had scraped out the inside of his skull. From the look of her, Natasha felt the same. "Harmless sonic weapon?" Her voice sounded muffled. Everything was muffled, but gradually coming back.
The enemies between Loki and their position were down and writhing, caught unawares by the full force of the sonic effect, falling out of their concealment. A line of golems was advancing across the lawn. "They're still alive!" Clint heard Stark say. "I thought you'd taken them out."
Clint cursed silently. He should have realised. He should have known. The transmitter had awakened all the statues in the city, but Loki had already possessed a small force of golems activated the old-fashioned way. Clint had travelled with them on the dirigible. He should have known.
Natasha shook her head slightly, as if she knew what he was thinking and was trying to tell him to stop. Was he so easy to read? He didn't think he had been, once.
No time for guilt, he reminded himself. What if he'd only forgotten the golems because Loki was inside his mind, controlling what he--? No. No fear. No guilt. Afterwards. That could come afterwards. It always did: sleepless nights; vodka at midnight; long talks in which they said hardly anything at all, but conveyed everything that mattered in the spaces between the words. Afterwards. Never during the mission. Never now.
He was out of pre-made explosive arrows. He drew out an ordinary arrow, and reached into his pouch, finding the necessary attachment and filling it with powder. He had very little powder left, enough perhaps for two small targeted explosions. It would not be enough.
The others had recovered from the effects of the sonic weapon. Captain America and Stark were engaging one of the golems, trading shouted exchanges as they did so, nothing that Clint could make out. Thor was further forward, fighting three golems at once. Clint's mouth went dry when he looked at him. Thor was Loki's brother. Loki was…
No. I can't. I can't look for him. I can't… But he felt compelled to seek Loki out, and he found him, standing as an oasis of stillness at the heart of mayhem. He was smiling. The smile was claws closing on Clint's throat.
Then Captain America went down, hurled backwards by a golem's blow. Another golem stood over him, raising its foot to crush his chest. No doubt, Clint thought. No fear. His bow was his own again. Holding it always calmed him. When he drew the string back, it was like coming home.
The explosive arrow struck the golem on the mouth, melting a crater, burning the paper within. The golem froze instantly. Clint surveyed the battle field, seeking his next target. Or should he wait until someone else was in desperate need? Maybe I should grab my chance now, before Loki…
"No." He said it out loud. Did he close his eyes for a moment? Between one breath and the next, Loki appeared in front of him, close enough for Clint to feel his breath on his skin, like a touch of ice.
"Did you think Vermer was the only one to have power over men's minds?" Loki's eyes were pools for men to drown in. "What a fool you are, Agent Barton, to think you could escape me."
Clint's hand was frozen on his bow. Where was Natasha? He wanted to turn his head, but couldn't bring himself to.
Loki disappeared, appearing again at Clint's side, his hand ghosting over Clint's shoulder. "You SHIELD agents are so easy to control. You spend your whole life following orders, killing the people your masters want dead. So easy," he said, and there he was on Clint's other side. Clint's head turned to follow him. "So easy to control."
"What…?" Clint's lips began to ask. He found himself fitting an arrow to his bow; felt himself drawing the string back. He caught a glimpse of Natasha, her hair bright in the sun.
Loki was everywhere, four images of the god all around him, five, six. Then they all drew back, leaving Clint alone at the centre of a circle of them. All six images spread their hands, as if to say, There. It is done.
Natasha was fighting a golem. The arrowhead found her.
Which illusion was real? Did it matter? Yes, he thought. Yes. There were tiny clues, just as there had been out on the prairie: the way the wind stirred Loki's hair; the way his shoes were moist in the dew; the soft sound of his breathing.
Whirling round, he released his arrow at the image to his left. The illusions vanished. Loki brought his hand to his shoulder. "You shot me!" He looked in that moment like a petulant child, outraged to discover that people could say no to him.
"Yes," Clint agreed. "You see," he said, "I never was that good at following orders."
Loki tugged the arrow free from his shoulder. The illusions were back, flickering at the fringes of Clint's vision. He felt something tugging at his mind. Natasha called his name, as desperate as he had ever heard her. His head turned. Thor was losing ground. Stark was down. Natasha was… Where was Natasha? Clint tried to move, but was powerless to do so, caught in the memory of being controlled.
"What a fool you are, Agent Barton," Loki said, as he reversed the arrow and drove it into Clint's flesh. "Do you really believe you can win?"
Clint's knees gave way. He fell heavily. All around him, he saw images of defeat.
Stark was down, pinned by a golem, his armour buckling as the golem pressed down. Steve struggled to get to him. A golem blocked him. There were just too many of them, and Steve and his companions had already fought almost beyond the point of endurance.
Stark said something, but Steve could not hear what it was. "Thor!" Steve shouted, trying to alert him to Stark's plight. He saw Agent Barton fall, and Loki step away from him, abandoning him as worthless. Loki was everywhere, all at once. How much time had passed since Stark had activated Red Skull's weapon? Loki's human force would be recovering soon.
Was the battle already lost?
"So, you're the man out of time," Loki said.
Steve blocked a golem's blow with his shield, twisted around, and fired Stark's gun at the golem's face, hoping to reach the paper on its mouth.
Loki was there behind him, but gone when Steve tried to land a blow. "I can send you back, you know," Loki said. His voice was quiet, but seemed in that moment to be the loudest thing on the entire field of battle.
Everything else stopped inside Steve's mind. His body continued to fight. His arms moved the way they had been created to move. But he saw it all as if through a veil. Only the voice was real.
"Back to your own time," Loki said. "Home."
A time machine was impossible, Stark had said. This was forever. There would be no going home.
"And the price?" Steve asked, as his body did what it had been made for.
"Why do you think there is a price?"
Sometimes he longed for his own time with an intensity that physically hurt. Sometimes he woke breathless from dreams, convinced that he was back again, and had to relive all over again the knowledge that he was lost. But sometimes it was less simple. In his own time, he had been alone. His closest friend was dead. His duties would never allow him to court the girl he wanted to court, or leave him in a position to support a wife. Here he had… Friends? he thought. Perhaps not that, not yet. But one day, maybe…
The golem fell at last, his right hand firing true. Another took its place.
"Because there is always a price," he said. He was not being asked to make an honest choice between staying in this time and going back. This was the devil on the shoulder, trying to damn him with a false choice. Because the offer came from Loki, it was no real offer at all.
"This is not your time, Captain Rogers," Loki said. "Your new-found companions are doomed to lose. Why stay here to die?"
"Because," Steve said, as he struck at the golem with all his heart and mind, "this is my battle, too."
He fought free at last, and made it to Stark's side a moment before Thor did. Together they made the golem retreat. Stark was still alive, his armour dented but still intact. "What kept you?" he gasped. "because… ow?"
Steve was not Stark, to have the perfect final word, the glib answer that would leave them smiling. "I'm here now," was all he said.
And not going anywhere.
Natasha's hands were stained with Clint's blood. "Natasha." He grasped her wrist. "I'm fine."
He wasn't fine, of course, but she understood what he meant to convey. They had both been injured on missions before, of course, and there were some injuries that you had to ignore. You had to leave your partner where they were, and carry on doing your job, trusting in their ability to stay alive.
"Fine," she echoed. It was perhaps a question; perhaps not.
He was still gripping his bow. The arrow had gone in between his ribs, but she thought the tip had struck a bone, deflecting slantwise rather than going deeply in. He was strong, she knew. Strong usually. She had no idea what privations he had endured during his time with Loki; what sleepless nights; what haunted dreams.
"Fine," he said firmly.
And she had to be Agent Romanoff, of course. He would expect no less of her. The woman he knew, the woman he trusted, would leave him and turn her attention to the task at hand.
She set her sights on Loki. Rolling and dodging, she avoided the blows of the golems, and fired useless bullets at their heads. She showed herself to be intent on that. When Loki appeared in front of her, she gasped, almost losing her grip on her gun.
"The warrior woman," Loki said. "Natasha Romanoff. I have heard all about you from your friends."
A lie. She had no friends. The word 'friend' did not encompass what lay between Clint and herself. She let him see that he had disturbed her.
"Agent Barton followed me willingly," Loki said, "for all that might tell you otherwise." He raised his arm, his palm held flat in a forbidding gesture aimed behind him. The golems obeyed him, granting him space.
"You're lying," Natasha gasped.
"Oh no." Loki shook his head, smiling. He was loving this, of course. He was a man who preferred to shred his enemies with his wit and his words, rather than beat them with brute force. She had known many like him before. Most were dead now. "Did he tell you my design? Or is he too busy bleeding for that?"
She raised her left hand, staring in horror at the blood that smeared it.
"I mean to rule," Loki said. "It is for the best. Think of this president of yours, this pitiful prince who cowers within this white house. Your people fool yourselves into thinking that you have a voice in your governance, but you build your ruler a palace. You pretend that you can have an audience with him at any time, but as soon as his people need him, up go the barricades. He has soldiers in there who fire on anyone who approaches the gates."
"Oh God," she gasped. "You're going to kill the president."
"It is for the best." He looked sorrowful at her evident fear. "I would take good care of those who kneel before me. Is it not better than what you have now?"
She turned her head away, bringing her hands up to as to hide her weeping. "But you've killed so many people. You've killed Agent Barton."
She saw him smile between the lattice of her fingers. "A legitimate casualty of war. Are your people blameless, Natasha? You align yourself with SHIELD, murderers to a man. You fight with Tony Stark, the peddler of death. You came here with a beast, a monster, capable of smashing through those gates and tearing your precious president to pieces."
"Yes," she agreed, lowering his hands. "Yes, we did."
She turned quite calmly, and went to tell the others.
She was too late.
Hulk had found them at last. The metal giants were here, and he smashed them, toppled them, pounded them when they were down.
People were shouting. A woman was saying something, but what was a woman's voice but a tiny thing against the roaring of his rage? He saw Thor. Hulk tried to say Thor's name, but his fists were already speaking. Hulk crushed a giant's arm and sent Thor skidding backwards across the grass and hurled himself bodily at another giant and rushed forward, ever forward.
Hulk saw a man. The other guy thought he was called Loki. Loki was an enemy, too. The giants were better. The giants were retreating. Roaring victory, Hulk chased them.
The woman was still shouting. Somebody called a name, but it wasn't Hulk's name, just the other guy's name. People were stupid. The other guy wasn't him.
There were barred gates behind the giants. Hulk didn't like gates or bars or locks. He didn't like it when the other guy locked him in. He hurled himself at the gates and ripped them apart at his third attempt.
Then people were shouting things ahead of him. There was a big white house in front of him. Men were standing in the windows firing pellets at him that stung. Hulk didn't like it when people did that.
It was such a flimsy building. The things men built always were. Hulk rushed towards it. "No!" someone shouted. "Stop!"
People always shouted at Hulk. The other guy was somewhere inside him, lost. Hulk had smashed through all bars.
"Doctor Banner!" they shouted. "Banner! Listen! Banner!" Names for the other guy. Hulk was himself. The men with guns wanted to kill him. Stupid men. Hulk would crush them all.
"Hulk." It was someone speaking his name.
Hulk stopped. It was Thor, panting, clothes torn, blood on his cheek. "They are not your enemy," Thor said. "Loki is."
Loki. The other guy had known who Loki was. The other guy was faint and far away. Other voices were a cacophony, feeding his rage. Loki planned at this, someone said; words, just words. The men in the windows were trying to bring Hulk to his knees. He had to smash his way in and stop them. They had a chieftain, he dimly remembered.
Thor again. Hulk battered him away. When Thor was gone, Hulk saw Loki smiling, his eyes as cold and lifeless as the metal statues Hulk had destroyed.
Not your enemy, Hulk remembered. Loki. Loki. Loki.
Hulk changed his direction and charged. He didn't stop until Loki was shattered and silent on the ground at his feet.
"Is that it?" Tony was struggling to stay on his feet. It was easier when he was moving, the mechanisms in his suit powering his motion. Now he was just a man trying to stand inside a shell of metal. An exhausted man. A man who felt as if he had been trampled by a herd of elephants.
Which, come to think of it, was kind of what had happened to Loki. "Is it over?" Tony asked. The urgency was fading, and it was hard to summon even the energy to produce sound. But the day Tony Stark stopped talking was the day he was truly lost. "Is that all it took? Loki, the great god Loki, can be squished by one Hulk?"
Loki was just lying there, moaning a little, apparently incapable of movement. The golems were all out of commission, broken or toppled by the Hulk's raging fists. Rogers and Agent Romanoff were going from golem to golem, removing the words from their mouth. Good thinking, Tony thought. All he wanted to do was find the nearest golem and sit down on it. It wouldn't even matter if it was still alive and twitching.
"He is not dead," Thor said, his voice strange, as if he wasn't sure whether he was disappointed or desperately relieved. "This will not kill him."
"But take him out long enough for us to…" He wanted to close his eyes. Maybe he did so. "Capture him. Do… whatever we came here to do."
"Take him back to Asgard for justice," Thor said. "The bridge has gone, but Heimdall will still see glimpses of my need. My father can reach deep into his power when need is upon him. It will be enough."
"Enough," Tony echoed. He wasn't quite sure what he was saying 'enough' about. Even thinking was difficult. He wasn't a soldier, but had just spent… He looked up, his neck protesting at the movement. The sun was rising high in the sky. Mid-morning, at least. Hours, then. Hours fighting. It felt like days. It felt like mere minutes.
Rogers walked over to him. His uniform was torn, stained with blood, and his movements were less graceful than they once had been. "Loki's followers," Tony said. He looked down, but the chronometer was no longer in its setting on his breastplate. The ten minutes was probably almost up. Or already up. Or long passed, and he'd missed the bit when the army had appeared to arrest the lot of them, because he'd been sleeping at the time…
He forced his eyelids to open again. Armed men were coming out of the White House, probably intent on arresting Loki's men. Hopefully they'd limit themselves to Loki's men. Where was the Hulk? Oh well. Tony could afford the bail. He'd bail out the lot of them. Just offer them a million to let him go to sleep.
No. He couldn't sleep now. Got to… What? Something. Walk. Stay on his feet. Say things.
Oh yes. There was the Hulk. He'd returned to Loki like a cat to a discarded mouse that had turned boring by dying. If Loki moved as much as a finger, it was clear that the Hulk would beat him down. Good, Tony thought, because less work for me to do.
The others gathered around him, which was also good, because of the whole no need for Tony to walk anywhere thing. Agent Barton was on his feet, though only just. "You look like crap," Tony told him.
"Still not evil, though," Barton said, in a way that made Tony realise that they had started some sort of thing here, and he would never be allowed to forget it.
"Oh. The sonic weapon," Tony said, remembering it again. It was sitting there in the middle of the lawn, kicked around a bit by golems, but miraculously unpulped. Agent Romanoff was nearest to it. "Secure the weapon?" he suggested to her.
She was helping Agent Barton stay upright. Her face showed a very definite no.
"You wish to stop people of evil intent from using this magic ball of yours?" Thor asked.
"Hell, no," Tony said. "That is to say, yes. Yes of course. More to the point, I want to stop anyone from using this magic ball of mine. Mine." He tried to look at Rogers in a vindicated sort of fashion, but it was easier not to bother moving his head. "I was this close to putting something like this into production before I… before things happened. I've got patents."
"And Red Skull had this built a dozen years before you were born," Rogers said in that infuriating 'I am always right' way he had, which was all the more infuriating because he never actually implied it at all, but usually was. Right, that is.
"A dozen years?" Tony protested. "You think I'm that old, Cap? Must be my air of wisdom."
Rogers smiled. "Or that I was never any good at math."
"Or because you have a wicked sense of humour hidden behind that goody-goody exterior of yours." Tony let out a martyred sigh. "Just because nobody else cares about securing this priceless artefact, this dangerous weapon that could make us all incapacitated and drooling if anyone bad got their hands on it…" He started to walk towards it. It was not as difficult as he had feared. The pistons worked at the joints of his limbs, driving him on, but even they sounded tired. "There," he said. And now he was stuck with holding the damn thing, the bag having long since disappeared.
He headed back to the others. "Uh…" His steps faltered. "Uh… Guys?" Something was tugging at his throat, twisting in his stomach. The sphere vibrated in his hands. "Guys."
Barton was moving at the same time, reaching into his jacket, pressing his hand against a hidden pocket there. "The jewel," he said. "It's getting warmer."
Tony clawed at the controls. The joints of his gauntlet were stiff, and the metal was battered, giving him no real grip. "Help?" he suggested, and Rogers was there in an instant, understanding what he needed, helping him with the clasps that held the gauntlet to the arm guard.
There was blood across the back of Tony's hand, and one nail was blackened and broken. Even without the gauntlet, his joints were stiff. He worked on the controls, but it was no good. The weapon was activating. And already he was feeling the beginning of the effect; seeing it on the faces of the others. "I can't…" he gasped. He did what he could, grabbing the timer and turning it on a full minute, the maximum there was. The effects lessened, but only just. Not enough.
"Loki!" Thor raged. Loki was lying there broken, a thin smile on his face.
It destroyed cities, Tony remembered. The jewel amplified the effects of anything it was attached to. "Give me the jewel!" Tony commanded, and Barton offered it to him, but Tony jerked backwards, suddenly terrified of touching it. "No," he said. "Throw it away. Throw it away as far as you can."
Barton did so. It was not enough.
Tony wanted to sink to his knees, dragged down by the pressure in his head. "He's set up some sort of resonance between them," he said. "I can't…"
There was nothing else to do. No time for farewells. No time for words. He powered his thrusters up for one last stuttering flight, and rose high into the air, the weapon gripped to his chest. How far did he need to go? He only had… what? Half a minute? Even that much? Head to the water, he thought. Into the river. The water would muffle the sound waves. If it was still linked to the jewel, would it be enough?
His suit was on the point of failing, already driven beyond endurance. The timer ticked. It was hard to think, hard to move. He saw water below him, silver and black. He was losing altitude. No time. He turned the dial that controlled the power, but suddenly there was no resistance at all, the wheels ceasing to engage.
He tumbled. This time nothing flashed through his mind at all. It all just… ended.
end of chapter eleven
Chapter 12: Chapter twelve
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"No!" Steve cried, reaching out, but it was too late. Stark was gone, and Steve had been created with many skills, but he would never be able to fly.
It was hard to think. Even movement was sluggish. Barton was down again, Agent Romanoff at his side, looking little better herself. Steve scraped his hands across his ears, but it made little difference. "Thor!" he shouted, but Thor's attention was all on Loki. Loki was lying broken in the churned-up grass, but he was laughing. "Thor!" Steve tried again. "Go after him! Go after Stark!"
Thor looked from his brother to the sky. Stark was a distant speck, but then he caught the sunlight, gleaming far brighter and far larger than he was. Steve saw him fall.
He started to run, faster, faster than he had ever run before. After half a dozen steps, he was rocked, almost driven from his feet, as if hooks had been inserted inside his body and were tearing him apart. He couldn't see, he couldn't hear…
He forced himself to run on. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand until he saw things around him as vague shapes, like ghosts. He was not deaf, because he could clearly hear the pounding of his own heart, and the way his breathing seemed to fill the world. He bumped into something, something hard, the pain flaring bright up his leg. He fell, hands scraping in the dirt, and pushed himself up again.
Slowly, slowly sound came back. He heard the sobbing first, and all around him the reverberation of bells.
He reached the river. Was it the right place? Thor was already there, his cape a flash of red, the only colour in the bleak grey world. Steve scraped at his eyes again, and ran to Thor's side.
"He fell," Thor said. "I came in time to see the waves flow in circles around a spot just there."
The river flowed with its accustomed current, but that was all. In every other way, it was still. There were no bubbles from below, no sign of someone struggling to the surface. Then he saw a fish floating dead on the surface of the water.
Steve unbuttoned his coat and jumped in. The water was cold. Ice, he thought, and maybe he did remember it after all, or maybe that was just dreams. It was dark under the water, and he blinked desperately, trying to see. His vision was as perfect as a mortal man's could be, but it was not enough. He called Stark's name, but it came out as bubbles, wasting him precious air.
He had to retreat to the surface soon, too soon. He gasped in air, and tried to still the pounding of his heart. "Thor!" he shouted, but there was no sign of him, just his hammer sinking into the silt on the bank.
Steve tried again. How much time had passed? The air in his own lungs had run out, and Stark had been underwater for twice as long, three times as long. He swam as deep as he could manage. Then he saw Stark's face, and something wild and fierce flared inside his chest. Tony! he thought, but the face was immobile and far too big. It was the statue, lifeless at the bottom of the river.
He had to swim to the surface again. Thor was there, scraping his hair back from his face. "My armour is too heavy," he said.
Yes. Heavy. And Stark was in his Iron Man suit. Steve wasn't looking for a man, but for someone clad all over in metal. The gun Stark had made for him was sheathed at his belt. Would it work under water? He had to try.
He went down deeper this time, as deep as he could. A flash of red showed him that Thor was doing the same. He tried the gun. The light it produced was small, just a tiny blaze of blue. He tried again, holding it at arms' length, sweeping it from side to side, as useless as a single candle in a vast and endless night.
But sometimes even a single candle could make the difference between life and death. His lungs were beginning to give out. He knew that he would have to make for the surface and count himself lucky if he made it on time. But then he saw it, the faintest hint of a reflection.
He had no idea how he found the strength for it. He pushed lower and grabbed Stark bodily, and then Thor was there, heaving at the other side. Spots were dancing in front of Steve's eyes. Thor gave a nod, as if to say, I've got him. Go. Steve didn't want to, but sometimes… sometimes you had to trust.
He was barely conscious when he reached the surface, swimming on instinct alone. Thor reached the bank before Steve did, dragging Stark out with him and laying him down on the shore.
"Stark," Steve said. He was dripping water on Stark's body. His fingers fumbled as he reached for the clasps that held the helmet in place. It took an inordinate amount of time to remove it. Water gushed out when it was finally free.
Stark's eyes were closed. There had been a tube in his mouth, Steve realised, one that protruded from the inside of the helmet. Steve touched his cheek and found it cold. He touched his lips to see if he could find breath. "Tony," he whispered. Water was streaming across his own face.
Even Thor's voice was quiet. All the world seemed quiet. "I have seen drowned men brought back to life by somebody pounding on their chest."
Stark's lips moved. "Drowned," they said. "Who's drowned? And no… pounding, thank you very much." His eyes flickered shut again. "And ow. "
Thor threw back his head and whooped with relief, but Steve withdrew his hand and bent his head, too overwhelmed to say anything at all.
Thank God for steam trucks left abandoned at the side of the road. Or thank Howard Stark, at any rate, given that he'd invented the things. And thank the city's fire brigade for leaving them there. And thank… well, anyone at all, if it meant that Tony could finally sit down.
Captain Rogers seemed to think that Tony was fragile. It suited Tony just fine. "Left hand up a bit," Tony said. "No, that left. Pull the blue lever. Turn that dial there." He closed his eyes and concentrated on looking like somebody who had almost drowned. Just as long as nobody was going to ask him to do anything inconvenient like opening his eyes or saving the world - again, and you're welcome, by the way - or thinking too much about anything.
Fury and Coulson had somehow appeared by the time Rogers finally blundered his way back to the White House lawn. "You're late," Tony said.
They seemed to be busy with other things. With much screaming of machinery, Rogers worked out how to stop the truck, and moved back to fuss over Tony. Tony opened his mouth to tell him just what he thought about being fussed over, then realised that he wasn't quite sure what he did think.
"You're welcome!" he shouted instead, pointedly.
Fury came over to him with the air of someone granting a irritating petitioner a scant two seconds of his time. "For saving the world," Tony reminded him. "Washington DC, anyway. And the president. That counts double, doesn't it?"
Fury walked away, off to do directorly things elsewhere. Coulson granted Tony a few more minutes of his time. "We were right behind you all the time."
"Behind us," Tony said. He had to see about lobbying for more comfortable seats in fire trucks, he decided - something you could properly languish on when at death's door. "Cheering us on. Go us."
"Following you," Coulson said. "We had a reading from the emitter just before you left so precipitously, and deduced that Loki was heading here. We intended to order you here all along."
"Intended." He was doing far too much of this echoing thing today, it seemed. He tried to get his brain to find original words. "And you didn't tell us why?"
"You left before we could," Coulson said. "Excuse me." He disappeared again. Was he related to Jarvis?
"So there we were, thinking we were being so rebellious," Tony said, "and all along…" He stopped. They'd probably done it deliberately, reasoning that people like Thor and Banner would be happier doing something if they thought they were doing it to spite SHIELD, rather than to obey them. Okay, he added, people like him. SHIELD had read them all perfectly, manipulated them just the way they wanted them.
It was probably best not to tell Steve. No, he thought, he would save it up and tell him later, just so he could see that endearing look of wounded outrage. Rogers was so predictable sometimes. Unlike Tony, of course.
"Well," he said, when he saw that Steve was looking at him questioningly, "if we're talking unpredictable, there's the whole thing about me being willing to die to save the world. City. President. Whoever."
"Yes," said Steve. "You--"
"Not that I was thinking clearly about it at the time, because sonic weapon? You can't paint it as a heroic sacrifice because I wasn't… I'm not…" Not a hero. Of course he wasn't. Not like Captain America. He was just a man doing what he had to do, and, anyway, it was kind of maybe sort of his fault all along, for bringing the weapon along, and… Oh! Steve hadn't started up with the 'told you so,' despite all that crap he'd been spouting about 'destroyer of cities,' and… "Not crap," Tony said. "And thanks."
"For what?" Steve asked.
"Not saying it," Tony said, "of course. Stupid."
He probably slept then.
"You'll live," the medic told him.
Clint nodded. Of course he would.
He had little fear of dying. Throughout the entire thing with Loki, he had never feared that he would die. He had been afraid that he would fail. He had been afraid that he would lose himself. He had been afraid - terrified - that he would be forced to hurt a friend, to hurt Natasha. He had been afraid that she would be forced to kill him to stop him from going too far.
No fears, he reminded himself. No guilt. No doubts.
But the mission was over, and now it was time for those things. SHIELD was in charge, dealing with the wash-up. It was time for the field agents to stand down. It was time to look at his actions in the mirror of the cold light of day.
"No," Natasha said, close beside him, as she had been throughout his treatment.
"What?" His eyelids felt heavy, as if he hadn't slept in a week. Everything hurt, not just the wound across his ribs.
"What you were thinking."
"How do you know what I'm thinking?"
"Because I know you," Natasha said, her fingers touching his wrist guard. "It isn't your fault. You did as well as anybody could have done. Better. No other agent managed to resist as much as you did."
"Because I make a damn bad agent." Clint remembered what Loki had said about obeying orders. His entire life was built on an act of disobedience. He had been sent to kill Natasha, but had brought her in alive.
"No," Coulson said; Clint hadn't realised that he was there. "A damn good one. You did well, Agent Barton. It was wrong of us to order you to do it."
Clint smiled ruefully. "I know you too well, Coulson. I can tell when you're lying." SHIELD was a harsh taskmaster. Sometimes its demands were more than an agent could take, but it would never stop demanding, and the agents would never stop responding to the call.
"But you did well, Clint," Coulson said. He listed things that Clint already knew; things that sometimes felt like just words to him. He had concealed the existence of the emitter. He had released the other agents just in time, and enabled the neutralisation of the statues. He had shot Loki, weakening him for the battle that followed.
"Written the report already?" Clint asked.
Coulson shook his head. "There's no need to." Somebody called his name. He turned towards them, then back to Clint. "I mean it, Agent Barton. You're a damn good agent. Both of you. And you know what makes you both so good?"
Clint smirked. "Our good looks?"
Natasha surveyed him critically. "Can't be that. Because we could kill a man with just a coffee spoon?"
"Oh come now," Coulson said. "Even I could do that." The call came again, more insistent. Coulson still made no move to leave. "Because you think for yourselves," he said. "Not all the time," he added hastily. "All the time is bad. But enough. When it counts."
When it counts. Clint thought. Without that act of disobedience so many years ago, he would possess nothing now. He would be dead ten times over.
"He's wrong, you know," Natasha said, as she touched him on his naked fingertips, feeling the calluses there. "That's not what makes us great."
"Of course it isn't," Clint agreed. He rested his head on her shoulder, and she let him stay there. He could hear the beating of her heart in time with his own, and he knew that they both were right.
There were many people homeless in the city. There were still jobs to be done. Instead, Steve found himself sliding down the side of the mechanical carriage, and sitting there with his legs outstretched on the ground.
He caught a glimpse of the Hulk, still guarding Loki. Watched by Thor, a team of agents fastened the fallen god in chains, gagging him so he was unable to use the magic of his words. Would that be enough to stop him? Steve knew he should watch closely, in case it was not.
He was still wet from the river, his hair clinging to his brow. Despite the sunshine, he was cold.
"I've been talking to the president." Steve saw Fury's feet first, and had to fight to raise his head enough to see his face. "He's accepted that Loki was the aggressor and that any damage done by… our side was done in the cause of defence."
Steve stayed silent. Nothing felt quite real.
"He wants to meet you," Fury said. "He wants to thank you."
"All of you."
"We aren't ready," Steve said. He felt as if the carriage was the only thing keeping him up. "We did our part. We fought, we bled, we almost died to get this far. It's your turn now."
Fury cleared his throat. "There might be medals."
"We didn't do it for the medals," Steve said. "Tell him that."
"Speak for yourself," he heard Stark say from the seat above him. Steve had thought him asleep. "It was medals all the way for me. Praise. Wild applause. Adoration."
A lie, of course. Or maybe not a lie, but a misdirection. He was beginning to understand Tony Stark quite well, he thought. He was someone who went to great lengths to keep people from seeing that he was a good man. Maybe… maybe he was even trying to fool himself.
"Another day," Steve said. "Not now. We've given everything that we have." He wanted Fury to see Stark, unable to sit upright on the carriage seat, and Barton in the medic's tent. There was Thor who had helped destroy his own brother, and Agent Romanoff, who had walked alone through Hell to save her partner. And then there was Banner. Who knew what Banner had lost by doing what he had done? "We aren't superheroes."
"Uh…" Stark began.
"We're people with special skills," Steve said, "but we're still people. We need a break." It was the first time he had willingly turned his back on duty, he realised. But it was the first time he had other remarkable people around him, like mirrors that showed him his own limits. Let him rest, he thought, urging Fury to take a good look at Stark. Let them all rest.
Fury's hand moved in something that was close to a salute. "Yes, Captain," he said.
Afternoon found Bruce alone, wrapped in a blanket beside a pool. The water showed him his own face. He touched it, his fingers distorting into ripples like the fingers of a ghost.
He was not alone for long. "You did it." Agent Romanoff was fractured in the water beside him, her face unreadable.
"No." Bruce shook his head.
She sat down beside him, and then Thor was there, too, crouching at Bruce's other side. The other guy liked Thor; Bruce knew that now. Before, the other guy had just been a wordless presence, a terrifying mass of rage. He was taking shape now.
Bruce didn't know if it was better this way.
"Yes, you did," Agent Romanoff said. "You took out nothing but enemies."
A breeze played across the water, fracturing his reflection into shards. "That wasn't me," he said. "I said I'd try to stay in control, but I didn't. He… listened to me. Sometimes he listened to me. But he made his own decisions."
"The right decisions," Agent Romanoff said.
Bruce let out a slow breath. "Yes."
But for how long? What would it be like next time? The other guy - Hulk, he thought; he likes to be called Hulk - had come so close to doing irreparable damage. Bruce had played no part in stopping him. Thor had stepped in and had seen what Bruce had been unable to see. Hulk could not be controlled, but he could perhaps be reasoned with. Hulk had no desire to be imprisoned, and he knew that Bruce had the power to imprison him - not forever, perhaps, because Hulk was too strong for that, but for weeks on end.
"We… came to an agreement," he said. Bruce would let Hulk out when he needed his strength, and Hulk would limit his attacks to the correct targets, because that was the price of his freedom. "But for how long?"
The water was still again. His own face looked back at him. "Sometimes it is best not to think about the future," Thor said, "but to take each day as it comes."
"Yes," said Bruce, because today, this day, at the very end, it had worked out.
It was not enough, but it was so much better than it could have been.
Sleep and a meal were enough to… Well, not to make you feel human - because hello, almost drowned today, not to mention the whole getting stomped? - but enough to mean that you could at least stand up and do what you needed to do.
Not that anybody else would think it was necessary, of course. Not that anybody else was going to get the chance to find out.
His father's statue seemed to be the only one in the entire city that had not been damaged in any way. It must have started walking the moment it was animated, and just… not stopped. Now it was frozen at an intersection on the edge of town, where it would probably stay forever more, getting in the way of traffic, forcing everyone else to shape their lives around it.
"Hi," Tony said, looking upwards. "Dad."
The statue said nothing, of course.
Necessary, thought Tony, but of course it wasn't. Stupid, stupid to feel that he needed this. Stupid to feel that he needed something else, something that he could never get. The statue stared ahead, cold and oblivious.
Tony turned and very slowly walked away.
It would soon be time to leave. Thor waited for the sign that his father was ready for him.
If it were just for his own sake, he thought he would stay. Princes often went out into the world, to learn wisdom and lessons from mortal comrades. Young warriors did their service in places far from home. These were good people here on Earth. They were not the companions he had left behind on Asgard, but in time, they could become something close. Moreover, Lady Jane was on Earth, and his heart longed to see her.
But there was Loki to consider. Fury was a mighty chieftain, but his men could not hold Loki for long. Loki possessed the powers of a wizard, and the lying tongue of a serpent. Even if they buried him in the deepest cavern below their Earth, he would find a way out and he would wreak a hard revenge.
Thor owed it to his father to deliver Loki back for justice. He owed it to the people of Earth to see that Loki was gone from them.
I am sorry, brother, he still wanted to say, when he looked upon Loki so broken and so heavily chained.
But there was no apology in Loki's eyes, and there never had been. And therefore Thor could not be truly sorry. Oh, he could mourn that these circumstances had come to pass, but he could not regret the choices he had made.
And for that, he was the most sorry of all.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
In ones and twos, they had all made their way to the lawns by the river. Natasha was leaning against an empty plinth that had once held a statue. Clint was beside her, drooping with pain and fatigue, but trying not to show it. It wasn't like him to hide weakness from her, she realised. He had been open with her for years, long before she had noticed it… long before she had given him the same gift of trust in return.
Then she realised that he wasn't trying to hide things from her, but from the others. Apart from Banner, he barely knew them yet. She hoped none of them were going to treat him with suspicion because of what he had almost done. She would do what she could to make sure that they did not. Only she and Coulson knew that Clint had almost turned for real. Only she knew that, at times, there had been no 'almost' about it.
But here she was with Clint, drinking to another hard mission that had come to an end with neither of them dead.
Nothing had changed.
He had rested his head on her shoulder. She had let him. There was no longer just the two of them. There were four others, and there was talk of them being a team. She had been willing to sacrifice almost anything to bring Clint home. He knew that, she thought. The gift of trust had been a long time coming, but he had it now. She had few secrets left from him.
Everything had changed. Nothing had changed.
Everything that mattered was still the same. Maybe she just saw it more clearly now.
Stark had brought along his butler, and they had food beside the river as the sun began to set. They talked about other things, mostly, not the things they had seen that day, but sometimes - too often - they found themselves talking about the battles they had fought.
"So you all had a one-to-one with Loki during the final showdown?" Stark was leaning against a tree, shadows dappling his face. "Now I feel left out."
"Don't," Agent Barton said.
"Says the man who shot a god," Stark said. "And don't you start, Agent Romanoff, who talks to Loki for, what, two minutes, and gets him to admit that he's waiting for the Hulk to kill the president. Of course," he added, "finding out a little earlier would have helped, but full marks for effort."
The question was going to come soon, Steve knew. He braced himself for it. What did Loki talk to you about? What could he say? He offered to send me home. But he wasn't sure how to say it. 'Home' was such a simple word that could mean so many things.
The question came, but it was not from Stark, as Steve had expected, but from Thor. It seemed simplest to tell the truth, after all. "He offered to send me back to the past, if I…" He shook his head. "He denied there was a price, but I expect he wanted me to fight on his side."
"Or just to remove you from the battle," Banner said. He had been the quietest of them all, and it was a surprise to hear him.
Thor frowned. "But such a thing is not within Loki's power."
Steve let out a slow breath. Of course it wasn't. Loki was a liar. He was a devil, trying to damn men with false temptation.
But had it been a real offer with no strings attached, what then?
It hadn't been a real offer. There was no need to torment himself with the choice. The past was home, but it was not perfect. The future was not his time, but it had… compensations. The past? he thought. The future? Where was his present?
No, it was useless to ask such a question. He was where he was. The choice had not been a real one, and he had done the only thing he could have done, and refused to answer it.
Everyone was silent, he realised, some openly watching him, some tactfully looking away. He wondered what his face was showing them.
"Just as well you didn't say yes, then," Tony said, "given that Loki couldn't actually do it, because that would suck."
"Yes," Steve agreed. He attempted a smile, and was surprised at how easy it was. He had not been forced to make a choice, but this world he had been left with… Oh yes, it had its compensations.
It was not his present yet, but perhaps, one day soon, it could become so.
Tony was almost falling asleep again, and he'd only had, what? Three drinks?
Thor raised his head, like a dog hearing his master's whistle. "My father…" He stood up. Was the party over already? "I must retrieve Loki from those who guard him, and then we will return to Asgard."
"Return," Tony echoed. Seriously, what was with this echoing thing today? "You're coming back."
"I hope to." Thor pressed his hand to his heart. "You have been truly fine companions and I wish to fight at your side again," he said, and, okay, his clothes were stupid and his way of speaking was worse, but it all added a bit of dignity to things, and Tony wasn't good at dignity, but sometimes… sometimes it worked.
"But with less actual fighting," Banner said.
"What's the chances of that happening?" Tony said. "We're, like, famous now. The president wants to give us medals, if a certain person will let us accept them. All the aspiring villains in the world - hey, why stop at the world; the universe - are going to be lining up to take us on."
"Then we must stand together," Thor said, "and stand firm."
"Damn straight," Tony said. "Jarvis, pour everyone another drink. Me first." When all the glasses were full, he raised his in a toast. "Here's to us, the Avengers." He drank, and watched the others drink, too. It was enough to give you a warm glow in your heart, unless you were a heartless bastard who didn't play well in a team. Hell, no, it was enough to give you a warm glow in your heart, period, because they'd won and they were all still alive and they'd managed to eat a picnic for two hours without anyone trying to kill each other or slapping Tony in the face.
He drained his glass, and decided not to ask for more. He didn't need it, he thought. "Has anybody worked out what we're avenging yet?"
They hadn't. Oh well. He guessed they had time to work it out.
Thanks so much to anyone who's stuck with this to the end. When I was writing this, I was convinced that I would be able to count readers on the fingers of one hand, since a long, gen, ensemble AU by a writer new to the fandom is never going to have a strong appeal. I'm therefore very pleased and grateful to see that I would need quite a few more hands to count the people who have been following these serial posting.
At times, this was very hard to write. At times, I was cursing the fact that I'd been stupid enough to go with six viewpoint characters, none of whom I had ever written before. Even when writing in fandoms I'm very familiar with, I've never normally used more than four viewpoint characters, so six felt very crowded, especially as they all needed some sort of character arc. Plus there was the all the world-building and steampunk tech to work out. But halfway through, the whole thing suddenly got a lot easier, and the final four chapters (which were originally going to be just two chapters, but just growed and growed) pretty much wrote themselves in six wild, crazy, obsessed days.
By the way, the mechanical Turk is entirely real.