It was a quiet, peaceful night. The moon was bright and nearly full, though its true brilliance was lost amid the smog and bright city lights. A tall stone fence surrounded the manor grounds, keeping away most of the city's noise as it bustled and teemed with life despite the hour. The grounds were meticulously-groomed, though simple in design, with a few large trees that cast tall shadows over a lawn of thick, short-cut grass that ended in a large terrace of stone tiles.
In the centre of the grounds stood a sprawling manor, like a fortress in the dark. It was made of stone, a tribute to the post-war era. The driveway was long, but not too long (this was New York and not the countryside, after all) with a large, stone fountain featuring Venus and a retinue of barely-clad nymphs lounging with their giant urns of perpetually circulating water.
Despite the open spaces, the dark and shadows should've made it menacing – and almost did – but there was an air of something that seemed to keep any dread from forming. As though the manor's inhabitants had left a permanent mark upon the grounds, their will and courage giving it a feeling of safety that couldn't be erased with the simple setting of the sun.
A light came on within the manor and then another. One by one, lights throughout the house flicked on, only to shut off moments later.
And then the stillness of the night was broken with a furious gust of wind and a pillar of light so intense the ground seemed to shake beneath it. It disappeared as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving a large patch of partially-scorched grass and five figures. The oldest, a regal woman with a kind face and wearing a long, heavy gown, walked immediately away from the others, who quickly scanned the area with sharp eyes. The darkness didn't seem to be a hindrance to them, but they froze and turned as one at the sound of a slamming door.
A figure ran towards them from the manor. He wore a white tuxedo shirt and black pants, his tie partially undone. He was neither old nor young and his short dark hair was sticking up in patches, as though he'd been pulling at it. His eyes were wide and worried – just short of frightened.
“Are you here to get him?” he called without preamble. “Do you know where they are?”
“Alas, friend Anthony, we ourselves have come to find our friend,” the first man replied, his face grim though he looked like one prone to easy laughter.
“He disappeared from Heimdall's gaze several hours ago,” the second woman of the company added. Unlike the first, she was dressed in armour and had the fierce, steady gaze of a warrior.
Friend Anthony's eyes widened even further, fear finally showing fully within their depths. “What? I thought that was impossible! Isn't Heimdall supposed to see everything, like everywhere?”
“Indeed, he can,” a heavy-set man answered him. “And yet he cannot see Thor.”
“And that's really, really bad?”
“Aye, 'tis bad tidings indeed,” said the warrior-woman solemnly.
The man from the manor took a deep breath. “Does that mean he's dead?”
The warriors – all of them were dressed in armour, so undoubtedly that is what they were – exchanged glances.
“We do not know,” the first man replied. “Whatever has happened, Heimdall cannot find even a body to confirm the Prince's fate. Nor that of his Midgardian shieldmates.”
A soft breeze blew across the manor grounds and then the regal woman spoke for the first time, her voice soft, yet firm:
“He is not dead.”
Anthony spun towards her. “You're sure about that?” he demanded, the hope in his voice painful to the others' ears. “Absolutely sure? How can you know?”
“I am his mother,” she replied, her gaze set on the object sticking out of the ground in front of her. “I would know if my son was dead. Wherever he is, I am certain it is not within death's clutches, yet he may still be out of our reach.”
“And you're absolutely, one hundred percent sure about that?”
The moment's hesitation was enough for the last shred of hope within his eyes to die. She finally turned to him, tears she was too proud to let fall glimmering in the corners of her eyes. “No, I am not.”
He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, as though needing to absorb the information before he could believe it.
“But Mjolnir refuses to leave.”
He opened his eyes and looked to the object at her feet. Sure enough, though somehow looking duller than usual, the familiar hammer rested in the grass as though simply waiting for its owner to come claim it. The woman reached down to pick it up, but it refused to budge. She let go and straightened.
“I know not what it means, but it gives me hope.”
“No offence, but right now we need a lot more than hope,” said a new voice, smooth, yet crisp and commanding attention.
They turned to the newcomer, a bland, unassuming-looking man in a generic black suit that fit well without accentuating any assets he may or may not have had. Those with a trained eye would have noticed the slight bulge of a side-arm at his left side and a relatively expensive-looking fountain pen next to the small notebook in his breast pocket.
“Agent Coulson,” Anthony greeted.
“Mister Stark,” the agent returned with a polite nod. “I'm afraid we don't have time for pleasantries. A man calling himself the Mandarin just single-handedly broke into the White House, decimated their security and killed the President and his family. He's currently broadcasting a list of demands from there, including the complete and unconditional surrender of the United States Military.”
Anthony gaped. “Seriously? And he actually thinks they'll say 'yes'?!”
Agent Coulson shrugged. “We're rather more concerned with what he thinks he has to back up those demands.”
Running a hand through his already messy hair, Anthony let out a bitter, slightly hysterical laugh. “Well, unfortunately the only showing we've got for the Avengers is piles of dirty laundry and my brand new, not-so-shiny lawn ornament.” The breath caught in his throat for a moment. “I-I've looked everywhere, Coulson. They're not here... apparently not even Heimdall can find them. They're gone.”
Anthony's eyes snapped to the SHIELD agent and narrowed. “What do you mean– ”
“Jarvis notified us almost immediately.”
Pain, regret, flashed through Anthony's eyes. “I was at the gala,” he whispered. “Left my phone in my jacket pocket and then took it off. I–” He took a deep breath. “I didn't see the message until half an hour ago.”
Agent Coulson nodded. “The footage isn't helpful. Something interfered with the signal and when it came back less than five minutes later, they were all gone.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Iron Man wasn't with them.”
Anthony took a shaky breath. “Yeah, okay, I'll call him and tell him to go to Washington.”
“You and I both know that won't be necessary.”
Anthony's eyes snapped up again, glaring at the agent. Then he huffed. “Of course you know,” he said. “Damn you! Did the others...?”
“No. So long as it wasn't interfering with the team's performance, we respected your decision to keep your identity secret. Though I'm not guaranteeing that Natasha hadn't figured it out for herself.”
Anthony snorted. “No, of course not.” He looked over to the warriors. “You guys sticking around or heading back?”
The regal woman smiled slightly. “I shall return to Asgard so I may inform my husband of my findings,” she said before looking to the other four. “You may do as you like.”
The other woman bowed her head to her. “Thank you, Lady Frigga,” she said. She straightened proudly and placed a hand on the hilt of her sword. “Then we shall stay and fight in our Prince's stead.”
The same bright pillar of light carried the Queen of Asgard away just moments later, leaving behind the smell of ozone and smouldering grass. Anthony stared at the design singed into his back lawn and shook his head.
“Alright, gang, we might not be the Avengers, but I'd say we've got some avenging to do anyway,” he said and then turned to head back to the manor.
He took a single step and froze, his eyes widening slightly before his posture changed. Within the span of a moment, his other armour came on – the one that shined in front camera lenses and socialites.
“Hey there, I know we haven't actually met, but Steve's said so much about you that I feel like I sort of know you,” he said with false humour. “But, you know, Steve's not here. He's... gone.”
The man stepped out of the shadows, long, stringy dark hair surrounding his face and clouding it with sinister shadows. Dull, emotionless eyes stared at Anthony while light from the manor reflected off his metal arm.
“Five hours ago, a man entered the house,” said a hoarse voice after a pause. An object was thrown at Anthony's feet.
Anthony looked down, paling when he realized he was staring at a severed limb, the blood still fresh around the edges. And then he saw the tattoo: a circle made of ten rings. Beside him, he heard a small intake of breath from Agent Coulson.
“That's the symbol of the Mandarin,” said the agent.
They looked up at the Winter Soldier and Anthony resisted the urge to step back and cower at the anger that had flared up in his eyes, transforming them into pits of molten fury.
“Steve is gone. I will avenge him.”
“Right, you can, uh, definitely tag along.” Anthony swallowed.
“Fury's gathering everyone he can convince to help with this one,” said Coulson. “It won't be the same, but hopefully it'll be enough.”
“We'll have to make sure it is.”
And so Anthony led the others into the manor, trying to avoid thinking about how quiet and deserted it seemed. As he put on his other suit of armour, the one that shone with metal and polish, he vowed he would figure out what happened to his friends, his comrades. His family.
He was clever, everyone had always said so. It had earned him many beatings as a child, because adults only liked clever children when they silently did what they were told without questioning adult authority. But now he was older. Now he was not only clever, but also wise. He knew when to watch, when to listen and how to use his cleverness so that it didn't earn him a beating – or earned someone else that beating instead. He'd learned to gild his tongue with silver and pay attention to detail.
He'd always known the world was wrong. Felt it in his bones that somewhere, something foul and corrupt had woven its way throughout reality. He never understood why no one else could see it. Then he realized how truly stupid humans were. Worse than cattle, because at least cattle held no aspirations to greatness, thought themselves no better than the sheep in the field next to them, or the mice that scurried at their feet.
As he taught himself to pay attention, taught himself to listen, he found himself hearing. It was there, within the stories the elders told, the ones that hadn't changed in centuries. Truly, in a world where religion was nearly dead, the way the stories were told word for word as they had since the first telling, was almost religious. It was as though someone had made sure these stories would survive, would continue to be told.
So he listened, and then sneaked into the vaults deep beneath the city to read them for himself. Only once had he been caught and punished so severely that he'd bled upon his sheets afterwards, when he'd finally been allowed to go home where Mei found him and tended to his wounds.
It had made him more cautious, but it hadn't stopped him.
Now, no longer a child, he stood before his destiny. Because he'd found it; deep within those stories, there had been a message – he doubted even the story-tellers knew it was there – the clues of a puzzle left for someone clever enough to solve it.
His hands shook as he raised the ancient key and pushed it into the lock. Despite its age, it turned easily. He pushed open the large wooden doors and caught his first whiff of air that was unpleasantly musty and stale. He looked in and found a narrow stairwell made of stone that seemed to lead impossibly far down into the depths of the mountain.
Using a pocket-light to light his way, he headed towards the treasure waiting within.
The reinforced steel gate protested loudly as Pepper pushed it open, cringing at the hideous noise and incredibly glad she'd spent those extra hours at the gym. She really would've hated to have had to call someone to help her open a door – it was bad enough that half the office thought she was sleeping with the boss.
Slipping through the wretched thing, she got her first look at the manor and blanched.
There'd been no pictures accompanying the deed to this estate. There had been nothing but an address and statement of ownership printed in black on a yellowing sheet of paper – yes, paper, actual paper. She remembered the look on Tony's face, glaring at the innocent item as though he somehow found it offensive him that he, a Stark, could own something so incredibly antiquated. But the house sounded large enough for their purposes and, best of all, since Tony already owned it, moving into it wouldn't be considered expanding and thus it would be exempt from the United World Council's Business Expansion Laws.
The entire situation with Obadiah Stane still left Pepper with a foul taste in her mouth. To think he'd had the nerve to take advantage of Tony's father by having him sign away part ownership of Stark Industries to him while he was drunk. She was glad Tony had finally put his foot down and decided to cut ties with his godfather even if it meant putting himself into the United World Council's line of fire.
Losing some of his workshops on the west coast was going to hurt Tony and if he wanted to expand, he had to sign off to agree to their oversight. But utilizing already existing infrastructure? That wasn't expansion, that was a redistribution of resources.
Gingerly, she took her first step into the overgrown sprawl of tall grass and weeds, wishing she'd brought her rocket-boots for this. It was just that they looked so unprofessional... not to mention garishly hideous (Tony owned ten pairs in colours that ranged from 'obnoxious' to 'couldn't miss them if you were blind'). She only owned a pair herself for factory inspections because she needed to be able to keep up with Tony, and they at least counted as protective footwear.
To her right, she suddenly noticed a hint of marble peeking out from a mass of particularly verdant greenery. Curious, she slid up her sleeve and tapped the blue gem on one of the bracelets around her wrist. A holoscreen popped out and she turned it to face the overgrown marble. A quick tap on the screen scanned the area and created a 3-D image. She minimized the original holoscreen and tapped on the image, happy to see Tony had managed to eliminate the lag time on the pop-up screens. With a few taps of her fingers, the greenery disappeared, revealing a fountain with half-naked women holding urns.
She rolled her eyes. “This place was definitely built by a Stark,” she mumbled as she dismissed the image and then continued to make her way towards the front door.
By the time she reached it, her perfectly-tailored powder blue skirt was a mess, full of green and black marks she really hoped could be washed out, her shoes had gained ten pounds of dirt and mud, and her Eversilk pantyhose had ripped – which was disappointing, because they were the newest thing on the market and supposed to stand up to any abuse.
Nevertheless, she'd come this far and at this point, she just wanted to get the whole thing over with so that she could call in a gardener – possibly a platoon of gardeners. Reaching into her purse, she took out the key Tony's lawyer, Mister Trent, had given her. Tony had thought it was adorable that the house actually used a physical key. She wondered what it must've been like to live in a time when you had to carry around keys to get into everything instead of just using DNA-identifiers and access codes. It was such a small thing: too easy to copy or steal, or just simply lose.
But then it was a different time, she supposed.
Now she needed to find a keyhole for it. Her father loved late twentieth and early twenty-first century cinema, so she'd seen this done hundreds of time on-screen and it looked easy enough. The doorknob was obvious (such an odd shape for gripping and turning; why wouldn't they have used a lever system?) and right above it, jutting out in a round metal platform, was the keyhole. She pushed the narrow part of the key in and then turned. Or attempted to. The mechanism was rusted, so she had to grit her teeth and put all her strength into it, but after a few moments of resistance, the key did turn and she heard the bolt inside sliding out.
Feeling accomplished, she turned the doorknob and pulled the door open. The metal hinges creaked loudly, but the door opened easily enough. She stepped inside.
And sneezed as centuries of dust attacked her sinuses.
Once she finally finished sneezing, Pepper got her first proper look of the interior. Even in the half-light, the foyer looked impressive. At the far end, a wide staircase headed to the second floor landing, with the a narrow hallway leading on past it, most likely towards the kitchens. The carpet at her feet was caked with dust and looked like it had become the victim of several dozen moths and rodents, but nevertheless it looked so thick it must have once felt like walking on a cloud. There was wood panelling along the walls, which were lined with artwork: paintings, statues (most of them half-naked women, naturally) and large vases standing on pedestals. The right-hand wall also featured a large mirror right next to the doorway, its golden frame blackened with age and neglect.
Above everything hung a spectacular crystal chandelier that must have looked absolutely dazzling when not dirty and covered in spider webbing.
On either side of the hallway was a single mahogany door. The painting on the wall by the left-hand door caught her eye. Unwilling to believe what she was seeing, she quickly made her way over, holding a hand in front of her nose to protect herself at least somewhat from the dust her steps were whirling up. The bright colours on the canvas were muted with dust and one corner of the frame was mildewed, but the style was unmistakable. She checked the signature and gingerly touched the canvas to make sure it wasn't a print. It wasn't.
Before she was aware of what she was doing, Pepper was opening the door and stepping through. It was a dining room. The two chandeliers above the table had a much more European flair to them than the one in the foyer and the walls were painted a light grey. She pulled away part of the large tarp covering the table to reveal a smooth cherry wood top. The matching chairs were cushioned with red and gold upholstery, the tops delicately carved. Running a hand over the carving, she could immediately tell it had been done by hand instead of by laser the way modern wood carving was done.
The room across the hall turned out to be a ballroom. Pepper gasped at the size and scope of the room. The ceiling here was even taller than the hallway foyer and widows running along the length of the far wall let in plenty of light that reflected off giant mirrors hanging on the walls. Like the one in the foyer, they were in blackened gold frames. Between the frames hung a multitude of artwork.
One piece in particular caught her attention and she gasped, a hand flying to her lips even as her feet slowly took her towards it. Like a magnet, it was pulling her in.
Which was when her slim communications bracelet began to buzz. Absently, she ran a thumb over the SI logo and then glanced down quickly to check the tiny holoscreen that popped up for the name of the caller. It read Tony Stark, so she tapped it and it grew into a larger screen with Tony's grinning face.
“Pepper!” he exclaimed. “So, how's it going?”
“I hate all Starks ever,” she said.
Tony grimaced. “The house is that bad, is it?”
“Oh no, the house is beautiful – or at least it will be once we've set an army of gardeners, cleaners and repairmen on it. And it's huge, so it'll probably work perfectly for what you want it for. I've also counted at least ten statues of half-naked women.”
Tony burst into laughter. “Ah, good ol' Stark decorating! I do come by it honestly.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Well, the rest of the artwork in this place is nothing short of amazing. Incidentally, if you ever invent a time machine, I call dibs on going back in time to meet Anthony Stark so I can give him a piece of my mind!” She could see Tony's eyebrows rising in surprise. She let her irritation rise to the surface. “There's a Picasso out in the foyer with mildew on it and I'll give up my entire shoe collection if I'm not staring at one of the lost Rembrandts! Art historians have been trying to figure out what happened to this piece for centuries and here it is, sitting forgotten in an abandoned house, collecting dust. A Rembrandt, Tony! What sort of person leaves a Rembrandt behind?!”
“Woah, jeez, Pepper, Pep, I can see this really means a lot to you... You know what, you take it.”
Pepper froze and stared at her boss incredulously. “What? No, Tony, this piece is priceless; I can't just take it.”
“Consider it an early Christmas present.”
“...A very early Christmas present. Look, you just said yourself that it was sitting in an abandoned house collecting dust. I didn't even know I owned it until just now, so it's not like I'm going to miss it.”
“Tony...” She shook her head. “My house doesn't have nearly the security necessary for something like this, but I'll think about it. First I need to worry about getting this house into something resembling order for you. I know you need to start renovating the Tower soon, but there's no way you can live here in the state it's in now.”
The sound of footsteps echoed on the wooden floor behind her and Pepper froze.
“Pepper?” she heard Tony say.
She turned around abruptly. There was no one there. The only set of footprints in the dust that lined the ballroom floor were her own. She shook her head.
“Sorry, Tony, I thought I heard something. Probably just the old wood making noises.”
Pepper ended the call with Tony and didn't stay much longer inside the house herself. She had at least an idea of where to start with the house and who she needed to contact to get things moving. She'd always prided herself on being sensible and realistic, and she refused to allow her imagination to run away with her now inside this decrepit, empty old house.
But no matter what she told herself, she just couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched.