Nine Years Ago
Tony knew that taking the bridge was a huge risk. Even at night, it was exposed, expected and incredibly vulnerable, and if they didn't let him into Manhattan he was pretty much screwed. However, going the long way around would lead him through miles of hostile territory, and it hurt too much to make that far, no matter how fast he rode. It wasn't like he could get the damn construct on a boat, even if he could steal one, nor could he leave the thing behind.
Next time, Tony decided, I'm making a unicorn that flies.
Since speed was about the only thing he had going for him, he urged the unicorn construct out from the cover of the trees, then dug his heels into its sides and booked. Every time its hooves hit the over-grown asphalt, the impact shot up through its legs up into his spine. From there it lit up every nerve in his back and around to all the old wounds.
The thing's gait felt so rough that Tony worried it might shake itself apart, but though the joints clicked and hissed as it accelerated into a gallop, it held together. Not bad for a first try built in a ruined warehouse, at sword point, while seriously injured.
Tony had crossed the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of times for Race Days, but it had never seemed this long before. Now the lights on steel gates at the far side looked impossibly far away, with too much open sky between him and that slight hope of safety. He leaned against the soft black hair of the unicorn's neck, and tried to imagine that that would somehow camouflage him. It didn't help much. He remembered how much work he'd put into making sure that all his constructs could see in the dark.
He knew exactly what Stane's gryphons could do to a man, too. Never imagining that they'd be set on him, he'd designed some of the more ruthless ones himself. Stane had told him they were purely for defence. Tony knew better now.
The wind threw the unicorn's mane into his face, blinding him, but sitting up hurt too much now. He ran his best go at velocity and distance through his head, then took a wild guess at time and reined in. Sparks flew up from under the unicorn's hooves as it skidded to a stop, rearing up and smacking its back into Tony's chest. He lost his hold and hit the pitted bridge deck in a heap.
"What the hell?"
Tony tilted his head back, hoping to make out something of whoever was above him, but his head was spinning too hard to see much more than the gates themselves. Good guess.
"Christ, he's just a kid."
"Whose unicorn is that?"
"How bad are you hurt?"
"Ungh," Tony said, trying to focus. There were at least two of them, and they had the black and white star of the Avengers stitched on their sleeves. Theoretically, he'd made it. So long as he could talk them into letting him stay. "Gryphons. Should get inside."
"Who are you?"
They were pulling him inside anyway, though, under the cover of the sharpened grille. The cool green glow of a bioluminescent lamp lit the guard post beyond, but only piecemeal, and half in shadows. Mostly, he could see the gleam of a lot of weapons on the walls.
Tony tried to pull his thoughts together enough to figure out the most important things to tell them. "My name is Tony Stark. The unicorn construct is mine; I made it. I'm sixteen, not a kid, and I want to join your territory."
The hands under his arms pulled away, and he heard bootsteps and harsh whispers. The guards had gotten too far away to hear properly, but he caught the gist of it from the tone. The phrases "Stane's pet iron monger," and "not to be trusted" probably came up.
God. My whole life. How could I have been that stupid? That was over now, at least, no matter what they decided. He wasn't going back. Not to that warehouse in Red Hook, and certainly not to Stane's fortress.
Suddenly, Tony felt like he was going to be sick. He tried to curl around himself, but that only made the lacerations in his chest burn like the talons were slashing him open all over again. He tried not to cry at the pain, but he must have made some sound, because the guards turned back to him.
The woman knelt next to him, putting a hand on his brow. "It doesn't matter," she told the man. "If we don't get him some help fast he's not going to make it." She didn't need to add that that would make the unicorn go feral, which in turn would probably kill them all very quickly.
"Don't move him, Jan. You could make it worse."
"I know, I know. I'm just trying to see how bad it is." She stroked the back of his neck, ruffling his hair. "Don't worry, honey; it's going to be okay. We've called for help, and a healer will be here soon." Taking Tony's hand in hers, she squeezed gently. She felt very warm. "I can't see Captain Rambeau turning back someone who can make unicorns."
"If that's what actually happened," the man corrected from above them. He looked bigger than he should be, but Tony's head hurt too much to figure out if that was real or just the angle. "As far as I know, it hasn't been done in almost fifty years. Didn't think we had the technology since the Fall."
"I did make it," Tony protested. "But I won't make more. I'm not making constructs again, not to kill." That wasn't the whole truth of it. Even if it was, it probably wasn't the right time to grow principles, but he wanted that clear. They could take it, or leave him for the gryphons. "I can make other things though," he added. He wouldn't beg, but he didn't want to die, either.
He didn't know if the man replied because he pretty much faded out then. He hoped he wouldn't wake up the way he had three months ago, to a face full of weapons and demands to make more.
Some of his senses hung on long enough to catch a glimpse of black and white dreadlocks, and feel new hands on his chest. Then the pain redoubled, and everything went black.
Five Years Ago
The little submarine barely fit Tony's group of Avengers. Actually, if two of those Avengers didn't have the ability to shrink to the size of ants, they flat out wouldn't have got more than three of them in. As it was, Tony had enough room to move the tiller and tend to his mechanics, and Jericho had enough room to gesture -- though not with his staff. This would make the first run with anyone besides Tony and Jericho in the craft, and since they hadn't broken open on the bottom of New York Harbour -- so far -- Tony was calling it a win.
Jan didn't seem nearly as impressed. "Are you aware," she asked from her perch on Tony's shoulder, "of exactly how long people have been looking for buried treasure on Liberty Island?"
Tony gave the tiller a crank to the left, tilting them all to starboard. Something grabbed his ear and pulled hard, and he almost swatted it off before he remembered Hank was on his other shoulder. It felt a bit like he was in one of those old cartoons with an angel and a devil whispering in each ear. Only here, he really couldn't tell one from the other. "Since before it was called Liberty Island, anyway," he replied, unconcerned.
Jan gave up her death grip on his collar and sat upright again. "Long before. Four hundred years, in fact. No one's found more than bones."
"I do actually know the history. Why do you think I named our fair vessel the Captain Kidd?" He patted the tiller proudly, although he knew even better than the others that that description stretched the reality of the situation quite a bit. Spit and good wishes, more than anything, kept their tiny submersible from flooding. It didn't help, in Tony's opinion, that in this case the good wishes were literally a requirement, magically speaking.
However, as much as he disliked magical thinking, or magic of any kind, he didn't have a lot of alternatives. In the absence of working internal combustion and reliable electricity, he could work with a mage, build a massive steam engine, or attempt to bioengineer a giant hollow fish to travel in. All in all, magic seemed easiest.
"I'm just saying..."
Tony had just opened his mouth to reply when the vat of the air replenisher hissed and sent out a blast of steam. The portholes fogged over immediately. Tony heard Jericho chanting softly to... his gods or whatever the hell he chanted to, so he left it alone. "Would you?" he asked Jan, holding up a cloth.
She plucked it out of his hand and grew just enough to flutter over and wipe the glass clean. When she finished, she turned to hover inches in front of his face, the wash from her translucent wings ruffling his bangs. "So what makes you think that you'll find it now?"
Tony shrugged, eliciting an annoyed yelp from Hank. "Well, mostly, it's because they didn't start looking for what we're looking for until forty years ago. That, and I'm pretty sure this is the first submarine to try since the Fall."
"It's not that we don't want to find your super secret cache of long-lost technology," Hank told him, which Tony had no trouble believing. "But Tony, you've got to admit that it's a weird time. Do you really need to do a full redesign right before Race Day?"
Explaining why he had to do this now would involve admitting that he was worried about far more than just the upcoming competition. So Tony just shut up and pretended that he needed to concentrate on steering.
It was probably a good choice in any case. He figured they had to be pretty near to the island, and even without the foggy windows, visibility wasn't that great. He only noticed the shadow in front of them – moving and a good three times their size -- in just enough time to yank the tiller over again. As they passed, he could make out the shape of an ancient tidal turbine, still lazily turning, despite the slack tide and encrusted sea life.
"There, see!" He couldn't help feeling a little smug at the sight. "I told you something was down here." The prop that had washed up below the Battery had been the first evidence he'd seen that this place existed in more than legend.
"Wow..." Trying to get a better look, Hank crawled so close to the edge of Tony's shoulder that Jan had to fly over and grab the back of his shirt. "For that to still be functioning after all these years, the design must be..." he trailed off into a blissful haze of speculation.
Tony, however, was on to other things. "What about the design of that?" he asked, cycling down the prop and slowing the Kidd to a drift.
"Oh... my..." Jan whispered.
A few rays of sunlight made it to this depth, catching in the green and brown seaweed that blanketed the side of the island. Even though the growth, Tony could discern the outline of a massive pair of bay doors. "Jericho?"
"I'm working on it." He shouldered Tony aside to get a better view out the front porthole.
"Hey," Tony protested weakly. He wasn't sure that he should be away from the only thing keeping them from ramming their goal. He also wasn't sure that he wanted the guy maintaining the air supply focusing on anything else. However, the only other option was functioning scuba gear, which no one had had in a very long time.
"There's an entrance spell, here," Jericho commented, apparently to himself. "Eastern European sorcery, old, I'm having trouble... yes, of course, I did. That was the first thing I tried!"
The rest of the team had long since chosen not to comment on the half arguments Jericho occasionally had with himself. It only interrupted his concentration, and he never gave them a straight answer anyway.
"Have you tried Mellon?" Okay, Tony and Jan knew better than to interrupt. Hank, not so much, it seemed.
Jericho ignored this, but a few moments later, the doors shuddered and split apart.
A cloud of sediment and displaced seaweed floated up around them, completely obscuring the interior of the submerged base. Reaching around Jericho's waist, Tony nudged the throttle on a notch.
"Is that..." Hank started to ask, but then seemed to decide better of it. Instead, he grew a little and yanked on the depth control, jettisoning water out of the ballast tanks. The Kidd rose enough to come flush with the entrance, and they slid into the darkness.
They were going slowly enough that they didn't hit the far wall too hard, and Jan caught Hank before he tumbled to the deck.
"We're there!" Tony announced.
The tiny ship shuddered again as the bay doors closed behind it, and a third time, settling as the water drained from around it. "I recognise these spells," Jericho said. "This is Doctor Erskine's work."
Only the cramped space kept Tony from jumping up and dancing like a lunatic. The scientist had pioneered both human biomanipulation and technological construct theory. More importantly to Tony, he had been the only other person in history to build a unicorn. "Let's go!"
Jan grabbed a jar of bioluminescence and was out like a shot as soon as Tony unscrewed the hatch. Tony couldn't say he blamed her; after close to an hour of machinations and spells, the cabin reeked of sweat, gear oil and charcoal.
They piled out after her. Even Jericho came close to knocking Hank off the top of the submarine as he flew out after Jan, and Tony almost turned his ankle when his foot came down on a piece of seaweed.
The whole floor was still partly awash with sea water and slime, the deeper puddles coming to the tops of Tony's boots. Hank avoided this by increasing in size, which, with Jericho and Jan hovering, left Tony the only one stuck in the freezing muck.
He pulled another pair of organic lanterns out of his pack and handed one to Hank. Of course, in addition to flying, Jericho seemed able to create as much light as he could want on his own, smug bastard. Which was good, because Tony was using way more than the lab's allotment of lamps for this trip. As it was, he'd be working in the dark for weeks.
"Help me with this," Jan called. Bracing her feet on the wall, she yanked on a hatchway seal. Time and salt water had corroded the mechanism, and it took grease and Hank at full size to get it unlocked. Even then it wouldn't open.
"It's a miracle we got through the outer doors," Tony said. He had ducked under Hank's arm to help pull. In terms of odour, it hadn't been a good decision.
Jericho smiled slightly. "Yes. Yes it is." He made himself intangible and slid through the door effortlessly. With him pushing from the opposite side, they had the thing fully open in another few minutes.
A long hallway stretched ahead of them, lined with doors on either side.
Tony held up his lamp, pushing back the shadows enough distinguish a final pair of doors a hundred feet back. "Great."
"I'm not sure we're going to have much luck here," Jan said after the fourth door, which at least hadn't gotten damp enough to stick like the outer one. "It's nothing but empty rooms."
"There has to be something here!" Tony snapped. He yanked open another door, casting his lamp around another interior -- probably someone's quarters once -- and found that empty too. "According to everything I've read, this is the lab of one of the greatest organic technologists who ever lived. The whole place should be full of anti-Skrull weapons and experimental technology. I don't expect a lot of it to work with the way things are now, but it can't just all be gone."
"Stark's right." Jericho raised his staff, letting the heads tumble around it, and held up his arms for a moment. "There's something living here. I can feel the power flowing through this place, though it's faint now, and fading."
"We'd better hurry," Jan said.
They went back to checking rooms, now in silent haste. They'd all seen the condition the turbine had been in. With at least one washed ashore, it was anyone's guess how much power the pumps had left.
"Maybe we're not the first ones here," Jan suggested a few minutes later.
"Or they stripped it when they abandoned this position." Tony tried not to sound as disappointed as he felt. He'd had so much riding on this, every possible pun intended.
Predictably, the lab turned out to be behind the very last door at the end of the hall.
It had been stripped too, benches and shelves bare save for the most basic equipment, and half of that lay on the floor in pieces. Tony stepped forward, raising his lantern to dispel the worst of the shadows, but it only showed him more of the same. Nothing of value here. Glass crunched under his boots as he took another step forward. The sound made him start a little, and he realised that no one had said anything since they'd opened the doors. If it weren't for their breath and the rustle of clothing, the place would be utterly silent. No sounds of dripping water or hum of electricity reached this deep.
Jan cleared her throat, loud and deliberate. "Well, I guess we'd better toss the place," she said, and the others nodded. Tony did the same, reluctant to break the silence.
Jan and Hank started high and worked their way around and down, and Tony and Jericho went bottom to top, planning to meet them in the middle. Considering the top secret base was buried under Liberty Island and accessible only by submarine, the hidden portion of the lab didn't turn out to be that difficult to find. Tony only had to open two panels in the floor to work out that the power grid in the main room was either hugely inefficient or had an extension past the wall to the right of the door.
The shelves folded neatly into each other when he found the right switch, and the lights even came on in the new room, creating a yellow glow that Tony hadn't seen in years.
"Oh, my," Jan gasped.
"Yeah." Tony stepped forwards, needing to get a better look.
The room held a single upright cylinder of glass, full of a clear liquid that seemed too viscous to be water. A man floated inside. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His military coveralls were scorched, torn and stained with blood, but he himself didn't seem injured. Tony moved towards him again, trying to tell for sure. As he crossed the threshold, the lights inside flickered.
"Careful," Hank warned. He was trying catch Tony's shoulder with his hand, but he didn't grow fast enough. "I'm worried about power, here."
"And booby traps," Jan added, coming over to hover by Tony's ear. "He looks like rider bait to me."
"Down here? Seriously?" Hank asked. "I don't see it."
"Of course you don't, honey, but look at Tony. This guy is exactly his type. He could be planted here, all sleeping beauty like, waiting for a kiss."
"I just don't think that Tony maintaining his virginity is our greatest problem right now."
Tony ignored them, and stepped right up to the glass. He pressed his hand against the cylinder, and was surprised to find that it was warm to the touch, body temperature. The man's blond hair floated unnaturally slowly in the liquid, making his strong-boned face seem even more solid. "Hey, there," Tony said softly.
The lights flickered again, dimmed, then went out all together. After the artificial glare, Tony's eyes needed a moment to readjust. He couldn't decide if the man looked better in yellow light or green. Probably daylight, he decided. He must look fantastic in the sunshine.
"Tony!" A sharp shock in his left ear brought him back to the moment.
He yelped and swatted at Jan. "You stung me!"
"We need to go," Jericho told them. "I can feel the sea pushing at this place."
Tony nodded. The power had likely been on its last gasp before they came in and started activating things, which meant... "We have to take him, or he'll die." The man was their only chance of finding out what might have happened here. He was Tony's only chance at the getting the answers he needed.
Jan flipped back to her natural size so that she could poke at the control panel, and Tony leaned over her shoulder, trying to decipher the displays. Whatever the tube did, it seemed to be immensely complicated.
"I don't think you'll need that," Hank said, voice high and startled. "His eyes just opened."
Tony's head snapped up. They had, and they turned out to be a clear blue, and wide with fear. He can't breathe, Tony realised. Something must have gone wrong, waking him too soon, before the liquid drained.
Hank grew and struck the glass, once, twice, three times before it shattered.
The man fell forward in a torrent of slime, right into Hank's arms. He coughed violently, and Hank patted his back uncertainly.
"Don't just…" Jan started at the same moment as Tony stepped forwards to help. "We..." Jericho tried to say.
The man twisted out of Hank's hold, rolled to his feet, punched Tony in the nose, and scrambled into a corner of the room.
"Easy, soldier," Jericho said, holding up his hands. The gesture might have looked less menacing if he hadn't still been holding his staff in one hand and a ball of light in the other. "We mean you no harm."
Tony tried to wipe away the tears of pain, but that only jostled his nose, so he gave up and just elbowed his way up to sitting.
"What have you done to Bucky? Where's Natalia?" The man snatched something up from a pile of debris in the corner and held it between them. It wasn't until he shook off the cloth covering that Tony figured out what it was. "Which faction are you? You don't look like Doom's people." His eyes fixed on Jan's wings and narrowed. "Are you Magneto's?"
"The war's over," Jan said. Tony noticed that she'd made herself a little smaller, more harmless. She stepped in front of Jericho, moving slowly. "It's been over for a long time now, Captain." She'd recognised it too, then, the shield and the colours of a dead nation.
Captain America faltered, taking in, for the first time perhaps, the state of the lab and their ragged, mismatched apparel. "Did we lose?" he asked. He held his tone steady, but Tony could see the slight tremble in his shield arm, the wideness of his eyes.
Jan paused, probably trying to think of a way to break the news gently.
Jericho didn't bother. "Everyone lost, Captain. Everyone." He seemed to consider that all that needed saying on the subject, and he turned and strode towards the door. "Now, anyone else who does not want to meet with a watery grave needs to leave immediately."
"Right." Captain America nodded curtly and started towards the door. "You can fill me in on the way." Legend had it that the man had fought through the first and second Skrull invasions, the rebellion and the last war before he and his partner disappeared just before the Fall. The man knew when to talk and when to focus on survival.
He reached down for Tony as he passed, yanking him to his feet. "Sorry I hit you," he said, still hanging onto Tony's arm.
Tony shrugged. "You'll make it up to me." He changed their grip so that they were holding hands. "I'm Tony, by the way, Tony Stark."
"Good to meet you, Steve."
With the electric lights gone, only the green glow of their lanterns and the fire in Jericho's hand lit the way, and the latter diminished rapidly as the mage flew ahead. The shadows jerked and skittered around them as they ran.
"So what's left?" Steve asked, not seeming the least disoriented. "Are you the last survivors?"
"What?" How long before the Fall had Steve been frozen? Tony wondered. He'd been born nearly twenty years after Doom, Magneto and their opposition had brought science and technology and magic as the world knew them to a calamitous end, but he'd heard stories from survivors. At the time, it had seemed like the entire world would come apart. "No, there's lots of people left, well, some, no one's really sure how many. I've heard one in five left from what we had before the first Skrull invasion, but it's not like--" He stumbled as his feet hit water where there hadn't been water before. Steve caught his arm and dragged him a few paces until he found his balance again. "Thanks."
"The passage is flooding," Jan yelled back at them.
"How fast?" Hank wasn't far behind her, but he couldn't add much height to lengthen his legs in here.
"I can't tell; it's too dark." Jan fired a set of stingers ahead of her, the sudden light burning spots into Tony's vision. "I think it's getting faster."
"How are we getting out of here?"
"Submarine," Tony assured Steve. "Jericho's gone ahead to prep it." And hopefully keep the water from flooding in through the hatch we left open. The water had risen to Tony's knees now, flowing against him. He reached out for Steve's arm again, trying to steady himself as he fought the current.
Steve wasn't there. He'd stepped ahead -- the light briefly highlighted the play of his ass and thighs through the sodden uniform fabric -- and swung the shield free of his back.
"What..." Tony started to ask, but Steve's bellowed, "Get down!" cut him off.
Hank hit the deck with a splash half a second before the shield left Steve's hands. The vibranium disc careened off two walls and caught between the door and the jamb just as the water started to push the hatch shut.
Jan flitted through the gap left behind, and Hank scrambled after her, shrinking as he turned sideways to slip through. She grabbed him and pulled from the other side to keep the water from sweeping him away.
The flood had risen to Tony's thighs now, and he was starting to lose sensation in his feet. He clung to the jamb as Steve levered the hatch wide enough for Tony to slide through. "Wait, what are you going to do?" He had to yell over the rush of water.
"You and that giant of yours can pull the hatch from the other side."
Tony reached through the gap to pass his lamp to Hank, who grabbed Tony's wrist and dragged him after it.
"Hurry," Steve yelled, the edges of panic sharpening his voice for the first time.
He's alone in the dark, Tony realised. Again. The water simultaneously shoved him into the gap and tried to yank him away from the hatch. He couldn't seem to get any footing or leverage to pull.
"Hang on." Hank's voice came close to deafening him. He'd grown again, so big his hand barely fit through the gap. Bracing against the wall with one arm, Hank wrapped his fingers around the edge of the hatch and heaved it open.
Tony grabbed the edge of the shield before it could sink, and drew it and Steve through to the docking bay. "I gotcha."
"Thanks," Steve said, breathing hard. "What now?"
"Now..." Tony took his lantern back and cast its light over the water. The flood now came up to his waist, and he could hear more gushing in from the vicinity of the bay doors. A faint glow flickered from behind the Captain Kidd's portholes, and Tony caught a movement of shadow -- or shadows? -- that told him that Jericho had made it. "Now we try to figure out how to fit all five of us in a submarine built for two people."
Jan shot over to the upper hatch. "Don't worry, Blondie, we'll all fit. We'll just know each other a lot better by the time we get back to Lower Manhattan."
Tony let Hank tow them both towards the Kidd. "That is in no way connected to why I built it that size."
"So you say," Hank commented, hoisting Tony, Steve and the shield into the air.
"It's a prototype." Tony scrabbled at the haul until his foot caught on the side of the ladder. "Now that I know it works, I'll build a bigger one."
"Great, then you can put your unicorn in it," Jan yelled up from her perch on Jericho's shoulder.
Steve froze in the midst of climbing down into the submarine. "Your what?"
Race Day. The phrase always made Monica Rambeau's gut churn with a mix of anticipation and dread, and that was when she wasn't hosting. Today, if she made it to lunch time without developing a bleeding ulcer, it would a minor miracle.
She buffered the stress somewhat by sticking Osborn at the end of the line or territorial marshals, with Cage between them. Even so, what she really wanted to do was take up her old role of prowling around the course giving everyone in the crowd the evil eye. She could see the sun glinting off Rogers' blond hair as he did just that, and felt a pang of envy. Sometimes, running the show really sucked.
Back in the day, she'd thought captaining the Avengers was about as much stress as she could manage; looking back on it, it seemed ridiculously simple. She'd spent the morning cutting deals to the other marshals, trying to work within the overreaching non-aggression treaty that they all lived by, and come out with her territory ahead. Or at least not too far behind.
And well, winning the race would be nice, too. There was nothing quite like it to show the seven territories who had the tech, knowhow and connections to smack the lot of them in the face. She drummed her fingers against her plastic armrest, and anticipated the look on Osborn's face when he figured out that all the resources he must have poured into this construct wouldn't be enough to save his technologist's -- or his territory's -- reputation from the dust of last year's Race Day.
Between the deals she'd cut with the other marshals and the look of Stark's schematics, this year was as close to in the bag as it could be.
Monica was still working on that micromanaging thing that Jan kept talking about.
The roar of the crowd announced the approaching riders long before they came around the bend to the track entrance. If nothing else, it was a good day for the constructs, dry but not too hot, and most of New York had managed to work its way to her territory for the event. Rogers had alternated between demanding she shift the track closer to the courthouse so that he could enforce the security better, and petitioning to move the whole works up to Washington Square, beyond her walls, so he wouldn't have worry about spies. Either one would turn out to be far more trouble than it was worth, as far as Monica could tell, so she let Rogers triple security on this track next to the border and fret. If he wanted her to put more time and resources into it than that, he and his mysterious sources were going to have to cough up something specific and threatening.
As the first pair of unicorn constructs came into view, the Avengers' herald produced a speaking tube and started calling names, a job he took rather more literally than Monica would have liked. "Entering first we have the divine construct Excelsior alongside the speediest of all machines, the Bugler!" He paused, affectedly, then added, "The fleshy parasites clinging to their backs are called Parker and Daken. Don't ask me to tell them apart. You all look the same to me."
Osborn leaned across Cage. "Have you considered doing something about your machine man?" he asked mildly. "He seems to be malfunctioning."
Monica shrugged. "I kind of like him this way." That and any and all attempts to reprogram the construct seemed to make him worse.
"If your man Stark isn't up to the repair, I'm sure I could lend you..."
"I said I liked him the way he is." There was no way Monica was letting Osborn's technologists anywhere near her territory.
"And it's a fine day for this exercise in pointless jingoism," the herald continued, completely ignoring Osborn, though Monica knew he'd probably picked out their conversation from the maelstrom of voices. "This pair's looking pretty evenly matched. Excelsior appears to have a new body for this race. No doubt his fleshy master is desperate to make up for last season's disgraceful mid-track explosion."
"I think I like him too," Cage decided, leaning back so he could rest his feet on the rail in front of them. His chair creaked dangerously under his four-hundred-pound bulk.
Monica did her best to suppress her grin. Technically, this whole thing was about not taking sides. They were supposed to be engaging in a bit of friendly competition in order to prove that they could all get along peacefully. Well, honestly, the whole thing was politics and back-room deals and they all knew it, but as this season's host, Monica felt that she really ought to be leading by example. Even so, she couldn't help liking Luke Cage a hell of a lot better than she liked Osborn.
The next two riders emerged, and the crowd roared again. To her left, Raven Darkhölme leaned forward, watching intently as the unicorn Destiny and her rider made their introductory circuit of the course. She seemed more confident than she should be, considering the quality of the construct, and Monica wondered if Darkhölme had cut a deal she didn't know about.
Or maybe it was just the effect of the race, the anticipation. She had to tell herself not to do the same when the final pair started its lap, and it was time for her unicorn and rider to make their entrance. The crowd didn't need to have her restraint, and rose as one, screaming. Every last soul in Lower Manhattan had come out, and they outnumbered any three groups of outsiders combined. The noise made Monica's ears ring, but she didn't care. She didn't even realise that she'd gotten to her feet until the other leaders joined her out of respect.
Tony Stark, of course, loved every minute of it. He sat astride Iron Heart and waved at his audience, resplendent in silver and black. Monica had no idea where Jan had found that fabric, and she didn't want to know what the price had been. It probably came into the same range as the light armour built into Iron Heart's roan and gold hide.
Monica caught a flash of red, white and blue as Rogers turned his back to her in order to watch Stark's entrance. He paused for a moment, seemingly transfixed, then turned away again, back to his examination of the crowd.
Stark bowed elaborately and winked at her as he passed under the leaders' platform. He rose up in his seat, the barest mould of a saddle built into the construct's back, and blew a kiss at Ororo. Receiving no response, he shrugged slightly and grinned over his shoulder at Monica.
By the time he finished his lap, the other riders had long since settled in their order behind the rope. The line stood about forty paces south of the platform, giving the leaders the best view of the start and finish. The other side of the course remained invisible, blocked by the sheer mass of people; they knew that was where the riders would shove and gouge for the best place in the turn. However, Monica had people to keep an eye on such things for her.
When all seven unicorns had settled into something like order, Monica took her cue. Pulling at her tunic to better display the black and white star across her chest, she stepped forward to the edge of the platform. It took a moment, but every voice along the half mile of track stilled. Four thousand pairs of eyes fixed on her.
She closed her eyes -- shutting out the unicorns and their riders, deliberately not watching who had the best position -- and raised her arm. A crisp white cloth dangled from her fingertips, the light breeze tugging at its edges. She waited for three slow breaths, then let it fall.
Monica opened her eyes just in time to see the rope drop and the unicorns launch forwards.
Tony saw Marshal Rambeau take one last deep breath, and dug his heels into Iron Heart's side half a second before she let go of the white cloth. The rope only just dropped before the construct's hooves. Clear, Tony smacked Iron Heart's flank sharply with his crop and tightened his knees though the acceleration.
He heard the clash of metal on metal behind him as Carter edged her unicorn into Rogue's, knocking both of them off their stride and out of the race. A few of the other riders knew the marshal well enough to jump the start at the same time, and Parker on the Bugler had the lead, almost a length ahead of Tony.
As they came up on the first turn, Tony tried to cut in tight to the wall, urging a sprint out of Iron Heart, but he had too much momentum to corner that fast. The constructs could move with the speed and power of a flesh and blood horse their size, but they also weighed a lot more, even stripped down for racing. Momentum could be a problem.
Tony reined Iron Heart in a little and hung behind the Bugler, waiting. He could hear the thunder of hooves as Daken came up behind him on the straight. That construct has more speed than it should, he decided. He edged out a little, into the centre, and blocked his overtaker. Now Daken would have to either risk trapping himself between the leading unicorns, take the extreme outside, or wait for another opening.
As they moved into the first turn again, the Bugler faltered. It let out a hiss of steam as it went into the corner -- close to the wall again, stopping both Tony and Daken from doing anything -- and its knees started to spark as Parker kicked into the straight.
That was all the warning they got. The unicorn screamed as fire spewed out of its joints. Parker only had a second to leap clear before it collapsed, folding into a sparking heap as its weight carried it forward.
Iron Heart had no room to move around the ruin, nor to move aside, not with Daken coming up close on Tony's right. Tony smacked his unicorn sharply with his crop, kicked its sides again and stretched himself along Iron Heart's neck. The pounding of hooves on the ground vanished, and they hung as though suspended, a moment of stillness in the centre of the sparks and flames. Then Iron Heart curled forwards, reaching the apex of its jump, and reached for the ground on the far side of the Bugler's corpse. Tony let the impact carry him back, shifting his centre of gravity towards its rump, and landed the jump cleanly.
Daken had pulled even with him while he was in the air, though still on the outside, and was urging Excelsior forward into the third and last lap.
Again, Tony held back. Iron Heart wouldn't last if they started sprinting for the finish now. He needed a few more strides, just a few before he could let the construct have its head and just go. He could only hope that he still had enough space to break free by then.
Another set of hooves came pounding up behind him. He didn't look, but the sound was enough to identify Rhodey's work. He only had a second to register that Del Toro's Hay You had its head down, before it ploughed straight into Daken's behind. Sharpened steel horn tore flesh and metal alike. Excelsior screamed and pawed at the air. It threw Daken clear off its back, right at Del Toro, who stayed astride somehow, even while dodging, and into the press of unicorns behind him. Tony couldn't spare the time to look, but he heard the crunch of flesh and bone as something batted it out of its path.
Clear again, and in the lead, Tony let Iron Heart run. Left on its own, the unicorn bounded forward, swinging wide on the last turn, and tore into the finish line half a length ahead of the riderless Excelsior.
Spectators started pouring over the barriers and onto track the moment Tony crossed the finish line. They converged on Iron Heart, chanting Tony's name over a mix of laughter and tears.
Steve had prepared for this. He made it to Iron Heart's side first, his team seconds behind him. They encircled the construct and rider, forming a human fence between Tony and his well wishers.
Tony wasn't about to let this dampen his mood, but he did catch Steve's glance and narrowed his eyes. Clearly, he should have made sure that certain parties never learned about the last time the Avengers had hosted Race Day. That had been Tony's first win as well; the first Avengers win ever, in fact. The jubilant crowd had pulled Tony off Iron Heart, stripped him naked, and carried him around on their shoulders for hours. Tony had not minded in the least, and had been half hoping for a repeat performance.
It seemed, however, that Steve had other ideas. Priggish bastard.
Iron Heart steamed quietly under him, joints settling back in place. With the press of bodies, Tony couldn't really do a victory lap, or move at all, so he just rose up in his saddle and waved at everyone as best he could. He saw Marshal Rambeau grinning like a fool and bowed. She blew him a kiss. He hoped that she wouldn't have to pay too dearly for whatever had bought that stunt from Del Toro. He knew she was already lending out Jericho's services to Fury in exchange for Carter's initial manoeuvres.
The other riders, ignored, faded back and away, picking their way towards the exit. Daken, it seemed, had healed enough to give him the evil eye, but Tony didn't especially care. It wasn't his fault that the kid had come in a humiliating second -- on his unicorn or off it, it didn't matter according to the rules of the race. He should have either built a faster construct or made better allies.
A pretty young woman with big dark eyes, a very low-cut blouse and a garland of real flowers tried to duck under and around Steve to loop the blossoms around Iron Heart's neck. Steve dropped his arm so fast he almost elbowed her in the nose. Tony lost whatever words were exchanged, but neither party sounded very apologetic.
Across the field, Jameson's people had started to remove the Bugler's remains from the track. Tony hoped that they had a backup host prepared and ready to accept the construct's irreplaceable life energy. He only knew of six of Doctor Erskine's original unicorn constructs still functioning in the entire world. Surely they're being careful with it, Tony told himself, they wouldn't dare risk letting it dissipate into nothing. As the Avengers had found out in the years before Tony's arrival, not having a unicorn meant not being much of anything compared to the other territories.
Still, it could be difficult to tell what Jameson would do sometimes. Tony's smile faltered, and he considered going over to help, even offering one of Iron Heart's spares -- a really, really old one maybe -- regardless of any deal Marshal Rambeau had or hadn't made. He was so close to prying apart the last few mysteries of how the unicorns worked. He felt sure that, with Steve's latest intelligence, he would get it soon. He could taste it. I won't lose another one, he thought. Not this near the end.
Then he saw Rhodey jump down from his chair behind Cage, stirring up a cloud of dust as his boots hit the track, and decided to let that settle as it would. Tony knew Rhodey would look after it, let Cage collect another favour.
Tony had a party to go to.
Rather, he was already in the middle of a massive, slow moving party. It flowed, with the speed of frozen engine oil, out of the racetrack and through the streets down towards the Avengers' headquarters. If Tony had had a way out, he would have let Iron Heart take the rest, rub it down and have Cassie give it something warm to drink while she oiled its joints.
However, the mass of people pulled Iron Heart, Tony, Steve and his entire team along with them, no matter what anyone did. Iron Heart would have to make do for now, as it had after every other race they'd won.
Iron Heart's joints creaked a little, like they always did after a race, and Tony knew he would have to find time to start on a new body for it. Not that Tony minded in the least. Getting up to his elbows in construct guts and grease was his second favourite thing in the entire world. Going to parties was a close third.
They were still chanting Tony's name, and he coaxed Iron Heart into a very slow passage, the construct's high steps matching the beat. He beamed down at Steve and tried to think of something witty that he could holler over the din.
If he hadn't known that Tony would never leave his unicorn to this rabble, Steve probably would have had Carol or one of the other fliers or teleporters yank him out. As it was, Steve did his best to look reproving, even though he couldn't seem to quite keep the edges of a smile hidden under the scowl. The grin kept slipping out and lighting up his face. He looked so earnest and genuinely glad that Tony leaned over and ruffled his hair. Steve laughed and ducked away from the touch, patting Tony's knee as he slid out of reach.
Tony leaned over even further, tightening his knees and clutching a fissure in Iron Heart's frame with one hand. "I'm still mad at you, you know," he said into Steve's ear.
"Is that so?" Steve asked.
"Yeah. You didn't give me a good luck kiss before the race." He'd asked nicely, too.
"The one you got from Marshal Rambeau seems to have done you pretty well." Steve didn't pause in scanning the crowd, no matter that his face was close enough for Tony's sweat-soaked hair to brush his cheek. "That and the one from Jan. And Clint. And Bobbi, who may not have forgiven you yet. And..."
"Maybe I wanted some of your luck." Tony pulled himself upright, letting Steve's response blend with the rest of the thousand voices surrounding them. He wasn't sure why he played that game with Steve, not matter how much he liked him; the man, allegedly, already had a lover. Besides, it wasn't like Tony could do anything about his attraction, to Steve or anyone else.
They crossed into Foley Square, an expanse of paving stones framed by a pair of trees, both of which were packed with people. The air blurred around the central fountain, the territory's main water supply. Steve had grumbled about drowning children and threat of poison enough that Jericho had erected a magical field around it for the duration of Race Day. Something similar covered the ground-level entrances to the courthouse. No need to let anyone into the Avengers' headquarters.
Marshal Rambeau had already flown over, and stood under the portico at the top of the steps. The words The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government stood out sharp and freshly cut between broad columns and weathered reliefs.
The rest of the marshals dropped in one by one, Munroe on her own, the other five ferried by their own fliers. Not that anyone else seemed to care. They pressed around Tony on all sides, trying to touch Iron Heart, or Tony himself, still calling his name.
"Tony!" someone yelled, and his head snapped around. It took a second to realise why he'd reacted, why he'd heard this voice over everyone else. His eyes scanned the crowd for an uneasy moment, but he couldn't see anything unexpected, nothing to call his attention.
"Tony!" It was the same voice, only closer now, and this time Tony saw him.
"My god," he whispered. It had been years, but he'd know that blond hair, those high, fine features anywhere, no matter how drawn and tired they looked now. "Tiberius Stone." He grinned, recovering himself. "Ty! What the hell?"
Ty shook his head, unable to hear anything over the clamour of the other spectators. Tony pointed at the steps and tried to convey, though a series of waves, that he'd see Ty later. Ty shook his head again. Tony shrugged, and had nearly ridden past when Ty dove forward, around Billy and almost under Iron Heart's hooves.
Steve made a swipe at the intruder, but Tony bent down and grabbed his shoulder sharply. "No."
It didn't seem to make much difference. Steve snagged Ty by the collar of his battered jacket anyway and pulled him up. Ty tried to twist free, but Steve wasn't budging.
"It's okay, Steve," Tony yelled. "He's a friend."
Relenting slightly, Steve loosened his hold enough for Ty to turn a bit and crane his neck to look up at Tony. "I need your help!"
"What? How?" Ty Stone had never asked Tony for anything. When they were teens, Ty would have walked ten miles over hot coals if it meant not owing Tony a favour.
"I need to get away from Osborn. Today. You have to let me stay."
Steve was already shaking his head. He looked at Tony and mouthed, "Rider bait."
Tony didn't care. "Steve," he snapped. "I'll do it myself if I have to."
Ty did his best to look wide-eyed and pathetic, which wasn't hard under all that dirt. "Please."
"Right, fine." Steve blew out an exasperated breath before tapping Billy's shoulder. "Take this guy to Rendezvous Four and sit on him until I tell you otherwise. Bring Cassie."
Billy swirled his shawl and started muttering to himself as the team encompassed him and Ty. Their bodies hid the flash of the teleportation spell from the crowd. Ty, Billy and Cassie were gone five seconds after Steve issued the order, not leaving Tony time to protest that a holding cell had not been what he meant.
"Let's get this done," Steve snapped. "We'll talk later."
At the same moment, the machine man extended his speaking tube and bellowed, "Make way! Make way for Iron Heart and its fleshy rider!" Marshal Rambeau, it seemed, had gotten tired of waiting.
The crowd in front of Tony forced itself apart, creating a narrow path to the steps.
"Right," Tony muttered to himself, and nudged Iron Heart into a faster trot.
To Steve's surprise, Tony sought him out after only two hours of celebration. "I've stayed long enough to leave without anyone thinking I'm ducking out early," he said. "I can always show up again later." He leaned against the white marble wall as though he'd had too much of that truly alarming vodka he and Hank distilled, and his breath smelled of it, but his eyes were sober. "I need to see Ty now."
"Okay." Steve led him through the back passages of the old courthouse, taking the route meant for smuggling high-profile prisoners in and out. From the cells below the building, someone had long ago carved a passage though to the adjacent federal building, and it was there that Steve had had his team stash Tony's "friend." He paused before they got there, standing in the poor light at the tunnel's exit. The room smelled of damp and stale air, but Steve needed to say this before they got in earshot of the cells. "We've given Stone food, water for washing and fresh clothes. Billy couldn't find anything suspicious on him, and he searched him pretty thoroughly. Last I heard, he was just resting on his bunk."
"And?" Tony asked. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, clearly wanting to go.
Steve folded his arms. "And I want to know what the story is before we put our necks on the block poaching one of Osborn's technologists." Besides that, it wouldn't be the first time one of the other territories had sent in some cute young thing to make a play at Tony's "virtue," as it were. The territories forbade assassination, but seduction was all part of the game surrounding Race Day. As far as Steve was concerned, this Tiberius Stone had "rider bait" written all over him, and letting him in the same room with Tony was definitely not Steve's favourite idea in the world.
"I told you, he's a friend." Tony squared his shoulders and glared. He almost matched Steve's height, making him the largest rider by far.
"Why haven't I heard of him before, then?" Steve demanded. "Why is he working for Osborn? Why is he only showing up now, when you're on a winning streak?" He softened his tone and reached out, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder. "I'm just trying to look out for you, Tony. Don't you see that?"
"It may come as a surprise to you, Rogers," Tony snapped, "but your job is 'Head of Avengers' Security,' not 'Protector of Tony Stark's Honour.' or 'Human Chastity Belt.' I'm quite capable of looking after myself."
That wasn't what Steve meant at all, and he was pretty sure Tony knew it, but he backed down anyway. This wasn't getting him anywhere. "Look, I'm sorry. I know you can; you've been doing this for a long time. I just don't like going into a situation blind. It makes me feel like I can't do my job. And that does include protecting you, like it or not." And there was something about Stone, something that he couldn't quite lay his finger on, that bothered Steve. Mentioning it to Tony wouldn't be very helpful, but Steve had long since learned to trust his instincts when it came to people.
Tony stepped back, out of Steve's space, and relaxed a little. "Okay, okay," he said. "I just..." He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on Steve's boots. "I left him behind. Ty and me, we'd been friends our whole lives, and then when I busted out and came here, I didn't even try to go back and get him. When I finally did go back, when we took down Stane the next year, he was just gone. I searched up and down, but I never found out what happened to him, not until now."
Steve could think of half a dozen sound reasons as to why none of that had been Tony's fault, but not a one that would convince him. Instead he grabbed Tony's shoulder and pulled him in until he could press their foreheads together. Tony's skin felt warm against his, and he let himself imagine what it might feel like to kiss him. It wasn't the first time, but he felt more like a hypocrite than usual, considering what he'd just been saying. "We'll figure it out," he promised. Tony nodded, and Steve let got and turned away, striding up the passage and into the green glow of the cell block lights.
After a couple of hours of guarding a doorway, Billy and Cassie looked thoroughly bored. However, they hadn't let themselves stand too deeply at ease, or fall into idle chatter, so Steve figured that at least some of his training was starting to stick. "Nothing new, Cap," Cassie told him. "I think he's sleeping."
Steve stepped up to the door, peering though the grated window. Stone was indeed curled on his side, arms wrapped around himself, apparently dead to the world. "That will be all," Steve said, not turning back to his team. "You can go to the party now if you like."
Billy let out a small whoop, and before Cassie could finish saying, "Thank you, Cap," they both vanished in a swirl of light and air.
"They'll be less grateful tomorrow," Tony commented. "When they're both nursing their heads and swearing that, next year, they'd gladly guard the sewers rather than ever drink again."
"They'll learn eventually," Steve said, not really believing it. He finished studying Stone, who had woken up in the intervening moments, but was still feigning sleep. "Let's talk to your friend."
His keys rattled as he unlocked the door, another reminder that the electronic security systems of his youth were no longer viable. Steve paused, unsure how to proceed, and Tony ducked under his arm, taking the decision away.
"Ty?" He knelt on the cement floor and tentatively reached out a hand for Stone's face. "Ty." His voice sounded a little more insistent now.
Stone affected fluttering his eyes open, his gaze imminently latching onto Tony. He smiled timorously, looking incredibly vulnerable with his newly scrubbed face and too-big clothes. "Tony?"
Tony nodded. Now he did touch Stone, stroking one cheek with the back of his finger. "I'm here, Ty. You're safe now. The Avengers will look after you."
That seemed to be going a little far to Steve. Maybe this Stone was a friend, but Marshal Rambeau wouldn't just up and offer full protection with no explanation attached. Steve didn't think a whole lot of Osborn, but for all Steve knew, Stone was an escaped convict. To take a criminal in would jeopardise the treaty. And if Stone was looking to use Tony, well then he certainly would need protection. However, any remark Steve could make would only make Tony feel like he had to choose, and Steve had seen how well Tony responded to anyone, friend or not, trapping him in a choice like that. Steve wasn't in the mood for any more explosions, so he contented himself with glaring at Stone suspiciously.
Inside the cell, the romance continued. "I knew you would help me." Stone was whispering now, sounding, Steve thought, like he had some kind of throat infection. "I was looking for you, but Stane was gone and I hadn't had news in so long, I didn't know I'd wandered into Osborn's territory until he'd already grabbed me."
Steve pursed his lips, considering the likelihood of anyone within two hundred miles not knowing about Osborn and his rapidly expanding territory.
"Where the hell were you?" Tony's knees had to be hurting, to say nothing of what he was doing to Jan's racing costume, but he wouldn't get up. He had his attention completely focused on Stone's face, almost unblinking. "I looked for you for years. I thought you were dead."
Stone propped himself up on an elbow, bringing his head level with Tony's, and reached out. Steve took a small step forward. Stone's eyes flicked up to Steve, but returned to Tony in an instant. "Would you believe, Chicago?" he asked.
"No," Steve said, unable to help himself.
This time both Stone and Tony looked up. "He's the bad cop, right?" Stone asked.
"Not usually." Tony's eyebrows drew together, and he narrowed his eyes. "Well, not usually when it doesn't involve me."
"Ah." That seemed to settle something for Stone. "Jealous boyfriend?" he asked Tony in a voice that he must have thought was too low for Steve to hear. His lips were next to Tony's ear, nose in his hair. The way Steve's had been not three hours ago.
Tony pulled away a little. "I'm a rider; I can't have boyfriends. You know how it goes: no pure virgin soul, no shiny techno-organic unicorns."
Stone grinned, reminding Steve for all the world of a cat. One that had just fed. "Since when has 'can't' ever stopped Tony Stark from doing anything?"
"It does this time." Tony didn't sound irritated, just very definite. Stone wasn't the first person he'd had this conversation with.
"So..." Steve didn't care how obvious he sounded. "You were telling us how you ended up in Chicago."
"Right." Stone re-evaluated and returned to his previous tack. "When you disappeared eight years ago, everyone thought you were dead. I was set to take over as Stane's chief technologist. No disrespect to your memory, but I was the best, after all, and someone needed to do it, didn't they? I could pretty much make Stane whatever he wanted, and he knew it." Swinging his legs off the bunk, he sat up completely. The rush of the narrative seemed to have overtaken his weakness. "For the first few weeks, it was a pretty sweet deal. Then I started hearing rumours about what had happened to you. Rumours that Stane had been the one behind it, because you weren't doing what he wanted. When Stane outright implied that I might be next, well..." Stone spread his hands. "It took a week, but I reprogrammed a gryphon to not eat a rider, and took off for the nearest patch of civilisation."
"You didn't look for Tony?" Steve demanded. He was all the way in the cell now, standing right behind Tony.
Stone shrugged, apparently not feeling the least regret. "I told you, everyone in Stane's territory thought he was dead."
"No one looked for me. I had to get myself out." Tony didn't sound like he was whining; it was just a statement of the way things were.
Tony had said so little about that time, that Steve rarely thought of what he must have felt, alone in the dark and so very young. He wanted to put his hand on Tony's shoulder and promise him that he would look for Tony, no matter who said he was dead. He wouldn't do it in front of Stone though. Neither of them needed any more "boyfriend" cracks. "So than you came back, got picked up by Osborn, and escaped here in the confusion of Race Day?"
"Got it in one. I was there for months before I could get out, doing canal maintenance, mostly."
"So now what?" Stone asked fixing his attention on Tony again. "Are you going to keep me locked up here, or do I get to be a contributing member of society?"
Steve liked the first choice, but Tony quickly said, "Of course we're not locking you up. We just have to be careful here. You know how it is."
"We'll have to talk to Marshal Rambeau," Steve hedged, "But I'm sure we'll find something for you to do." He could think of quite a few things, actually.
"I'm fantastically good at lab work."
"I'm sure you are."
One of the few perks that came with trying to run Avengers security was the assigned quarters. They were on the second story in a reclaimed tenement about a ten minute walk south of the Courthouse. They had heating, good natural light, and even a little hot water. Steve spent almost no time in them.
Instead, he usually ended up crashing on the cot in the back of his office. That was another advantage to the job: a set of judge's chambers in the courthouse itself, big enough to hold team meetings, and with an adjoining room to the back. He had all of his few personal possessions here, anyway, and was pretty close to telling Marshal Rambeau to give his actual rooms to someone who needed them more. His predecessor had had a family, so it had made sense for him, but for Steve it just felt silly.
Sliding his shield off his back as he stepped into the office, he rolled his shoulders. Every muscle pulled and twisted in a mass of knots. Christ, I hate Race Day, he thought. It wasn't precisely true, but it certainly felt like it right now.
"You look like you could use a back rub."
Steve started, and cursed softly. He really must be tired not to have noticed the woman in the shadows before she spoke. If she'd been an assassin in someone else's employ, he could well be dead right now. "Maybe later, Natalia," he said.
At least she had the courtesy not to point out his lapse. Instead, she leaned back further in the chair behind his massive oak desk, all lean muscles and black leather. Steve swallowed, not feeling at all tired anymore. "Did I miss a good party?" Her voice still carried the traces of a homeland she had not seen since the Fall, though Steve suspected the accent was an affection, and one that only manifested when she felt safe.
"Same as always." Steve set his shield against the wall, and started stripping off the outer layers of his body armour. He wanted to ask how she was, what had happened to her in those long weeks she'd been away, but he knew she wouldn't appreciate it. Someday, he hoped she would trust him enough to let him worry about her. "So what brings you back to our part of New York?" he asked. "I thought you said you'd need a couple more months to get anything else on Osborn."
Natalia sat motionless for a moment, silently watching him. "I will still need more time, I think, but I have been told it is good to check in." She flicked her hand to one side, as if dismissing both the theory and the person who had recommended it to her. "This seemed like a good time. Also there are... rumours." That last word sounded like a profanity, the curse of unsound intelligence. Steve had worked with the Black Widow on and off for almost fifty years. In that time, he'd learned to read anything she presented as a "rumour" as a highly reliable fact. In turn, anything she said was "fact" usually ended up being unassailable truth.
Stepping forward into the room, Steve planted both hands on his desk and leaned towards her. "What rumours?"
"Osborn is preparing for something. I haven't seen it with my own eyes, but the way his resources are directed, I think he's building war constructs, or at least arms. It has something to do with the schematics I gave you last time. Have your people been able to make anything of them?" She remained motionless, but something about the intensity of her expression made Steve feel like she was waving her arms and shouting.
"No, or nothing for sure." Tony and Jericho had spent an awful lot of time holed up with them, though. "At first they said it had something to do with the unicorn constructs, but then they changed their minds."
"This is not racing. This smells like the old days, like Reykjavik in '11. I suspect that he's building strength for an offensive."
Steve drew a mental map, and couldn't come up with any worthwhile areas of Brooklyn that Osborn didn't already control. "On what? On whom?"
Natalia's shoulder twitched up about half a millimetre. "I don't know," she admitted.
"Jameson." It wasn't really a question. They both knew that Osborn couldn't possibly be strong enough to attack a heavily fortified territory from across the East River. The smaller, weaker territory in central Queens would fall much more easily.
"The man's insane."
"We knew this about him already, no?"
"Yes, but--" Steve's shoulders slumped, and he sank into one of the guest chairs. "Consolidating older, fragmented communities is one thing, but a whole territory? What does he think is going to happen? Doesn't he remember what the other territories did to Stane when they found out he'd broken the treaty?" Steve hadn't been out of his test tube yet, but Sam and Clint had graphic stories about the consequences of building war constructs. One repetition of Fall had been more than enough.
"Again, I do not know. It almost seems as though..." she hesitated. "No, I will say nothing that I am not sure of. All I know is that he does not seem afraid of us."
Steve nodded. "Do you have any idea of the timing?"
"Before the next Race Day," she said definitely. "I will need time to find out more before I can give you a closer date than that." She rose in one smooth motion, and turned towards the window.
Steve stood with her, unsure if she was actually leaving or just stringing him along. "Hey, can you do something else while you're in there?"
"I will try."
"See if you can find something on a minor technologist named Tiberius Stone." He described Stone briefly before continuing, "He showed up on our doorstep this afternoon, said he was trying to escape from Osborn. Stark knows him, but he's setting off my alarms."
"You sound like a jealous boyfriend, Steve," Natalia noted. She turned around completely now, facing Steve with her hips canted and an arm braced against the door frame. "You are sure you don't want a back rub? I do not offer them to just anyone."
Steve played at wavering for a moment, before deciding, "Maybe just a quick one before you go."
Natalia smiled, showing no teeth, and stepped forwards. Looping her arms around Steve's neck, she whispered, "Darling Steve, I do not do quick ones."
"No, I suppose not." He leaned down to press his lips against hers. The old familiar smells of her, leather and ozone and something like flowers in her hair, filled his nose. "A long one then?"
Doctor Drumm had told Billy two things before he'd left for Fury's territory on Staten Island. The first was not to touch any of Doctor Drumm's projects. The second was, "Don't let Stark blow himself up while I'm gone."
Billy wasn't sure how he was supposed to do that. Everyone knew that Mister Stark did as he damn well pleased. Maybe Cap or the Marshal could talk him out of something, but Billy didn't imagine that he would have much luck. Such was the sad life of a lone sorcerer's apprentice.
At least he had an official excuse to hang out in the lab with Mister Stark. He didn't seem to mind an audience, as long as Billy didn't ask any questions he thought were idiotic. Or get in the way. Billy was supposed to be learning enough of the technologists' work to be able to entwine his spell work with it, after all. Once Doctor Drumm decided he was up to it, which would probably be sometime in the next fifty years, he was sure.
For now, he perched on the edge of a workbench and watched in silence. Mister Stark had just started on another body for Iron Heart, taking measurements and laying out the barest outlines of the framework from which he would eventually suspend the skeletal system. He'd stripped down to his undershirt and already had a streak of grease across his forehead, but he didn't seem to notice. Billy liked watching the way his hands glided over the metal. When he was with his machines, Mister Stark had a grace and economy of motion that almost matched Doctor Drumm's spell work.
Billy knew that as long as he didn't speak up, Mister Stark would work for the rest of the day without pause for rest or food. The project would just grow around him, like a garden of curved metal and fibre. He would work like this, for weeks, until the new body had taken form and he could start the transfer.
Billy had never seen what that was like. No one except Mister Stark and Doctor Drumm understood what moving the life energy of the unicorn from one body to another involved. The only lore that anyone really knew was that you needed a technologist, a mage and a virgin rider. The story went that Doctor Ershane had been all of those in one, but Billy had never heard of a techno-mage since Doom's reign right before the fall.
Further back in the lab, Iron Heart itself munched contentedly at a bin of mineral-enhanced carbon fibres. It didn't seem to mind being away from the sun, and Mister Stark looked more relaxed when he could keep an eye on it.
When Billy and Doctor Drumm had come in that morning, Stark had already been there, combing out Iron Heart's mane, a bottle of grease next to his knee. Granted, given the state of everyone's heads that morning -- Doctor Drumm's included, surprisingly enough -- they hadn't been in terribly early, but it still made Billy wonder if Mister Stark ever slept at all.
Now it was coming on eleven, and Billy decided that he really could use a break, maybe a nap, in a very dark, very, very quiet place. He sighed a little, and wondered how far Doctor Drumm's instructions could reasonably be extended. Maybe he could ask Cassie to spell him off. She wasn't exactly an apprentice technologist, but at least she knew enough about it that Mister Stark let her in the lab.
He'd just wiggled to the edge of the bench, hopping to slide off, when someone came through the door to the lab.
"You had a good time last night," Mister Stark said without looking up from the wires he was twisting.
Captain Rogers shrugged unapologetically. It didn't take a genius to figure that one out. Cap hid his post-coital glow about as well as Teddy had after his and Billy's first time. It looked good on him, but then, he was Cap, so everything looked good on him. Not that the younger team members ever commented on such things. Where Cap could hear, at least. "Good morning, Tony." He seemed to notice Billy a moment later and nodded to him as well.
"The entire territory has tied itself in knots over who their fair captain's secret lover is," Mister Stark continued, as though Cap hadn't greeted him at all. "Will today be the day that you finally break down and share with your best friend?"
Cap leaned against a support pillar, angling his body so he could see Mister Stark's face without seeming to loom over his work. "Firstly, who I do or do not choose to share my bed with is my business. Secondly, I'm not enabling your gambling habit, Tony. Don't think I don't know there's betting on this. And finally, Sam is my best friend."
"You know," Mister Stark mused, still ignoring Cap. "I've heard someone put chocolate in the pool. Help me win, and I'll share."
Billy abruptly regained his interest in the "Who's Cap's Mystery Lover?" pool that Master Barton was running. He'd told Tommy that it was childish -- granted, mostly because Kate had been there at the time -- but he'd never had chocolate. From the way Cap and some of the older people talked about it, he really wanted to try. Especially the body paint that Master Morse had mentioned once, when she'd thought Billy and Teddy were too far away to hear.
"I've talked to Marshal Rambeau about the rampant gambling that seems to be taking over the territory, but she said that there's no harm in it." Cap's tone indicated that he felt pretty sure that they would all end up going to hell in fairly short order, but he would follow the Marshal into fire if she asked, so what could he do?
Mister Stark twisted a few wires into place, securing the frame enough to leave it for a while, and stepped out of the pit. He moved right up into Cap's personal space, almost brushing chests. "No kisses, no chocolate. Steve, I'm beginning to think you might not love me."
Cap's ears turned pink and his eyes fell to the floor for a moment. "I wouldn't worry about that; everybody loves you, Tony." Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, "When they're not trying to kill you, anyway."
"About that..." Mister Stark snagged Cap by the arm and led him away, past Iron Heart to the corner full of parts bins. He kept his voice low, and strain as he might, Billy couldn't make out a word. He wasted a moment on wishing his boyfriend, with his Kree-Skrull hearing, were here, then remembered that he was actually a wizard, and could manage these things on his own. "Iwannaheariwannaheariwanna..." he muttered, taking care to concentrate only on Cap and Mister Stark. There had been that one time that he'd ended up listening to the whole territory at once.
He knew the moment the spell worked, from both the thrill of power running up his spine and the instant burst of sound. "...not shovelling out the sewers with a commemorative teaspoon," Cap was saying.
"Then what the hell is Ty doing?" Mister Stark had folded his arms and looked entirely unimpressed.
Cap remained unmoved. "Hauling bricks for one of Sam's building projects. Look, Tony, I know he's your friend, but he showed up out of nowhere less than twelve hours ago. There's no way Marshal Rambeau is going to give him access to the labs, no matter who he was."
"She gave me access."
"Well, you were special; you had a unicorn." Cap flicked his hand at Iron Heart, as if it wasn't one of the territory's most significant possessions. "I spent my first four months here hauling bricks, and it did me a world of good. I wouldn't have gotten to know the territory half so fast if it hadn't been for--"
Mister Stark was shaking his head "...You and Sam Wilson becoming heterosexual life partners, yes, so I've heard. This is not a new story, Steve."
Cap opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again. Frowning thoughtfully at Mister Stark, he let the argument slide, the tension between them abating like a sigh. Mister Stark unfolded his arms, let them fall to his side, then crossed them again, but he didn't interrupt the lull.
"Now who's the jealous boyfriend?" Cap asked at last, smile tugging at his lips.
"Of you and Sam?" Stark snorted. "Not likely."
Now that he'd caught the idea, Cap wasn't going to let it go. "Of me and anyone."
Something in his tone made Billy blush, and he became acutely aware that he really, really shouldn't be listening in on this. This wasn't teachers talking about a student, or his elders swapping war stories he wasn't supposed to hear. This was personal, and really none of his business. Except that there was no way he could stop listening now, not even when Mister Stark stepped behind the shelves, and Cap followed.
"Starting to buy into your own press a bit too much, Captain?" The challenge in his words didn't reach to his tone. It sounded like an old debate, one they'd been over ten too many times for either of them to care about, but now something like a tradition.
"Okay, of anyone and anyone." Cap wasn't going to allow Mister Stark to sidetrack him there. "I don't understand why you're still doing this."
A pause followed. "It's complicated, Steve," Stark said at last, voice soft.
"That's what you always say." Cap sounded more sympathetic than frustrated, though.
Mister Stark laughed. "Yeah, well... you should know. It's what you tell me whenever I ask why, after all these years, a straight-edged hero like yourself still makes a shameful secret out of his lover."
"Ever the charmer, huh, Tony?" Cap said affectionately.
"Well, you know me."
"Iwanttoendthespelliwanttoendthespelliwantto..." Billy muttered to himself. Cap and Mister Stark seemed like they were either going to come out and wonder what he was doing or start making out. Well, he wouldn't mind hearing that bit, but he did have some morals.
In any case, if there was making out, it was pretty short. They came back into view not long after, and talked about nothing at all interesting for the rest of Cap's visit.
Steve decided that he needed to check in with Sam again. Never mind that he'd seen him not so much as an hour ago. Never mind that it wasn't the Captain's job to monitor the construction and/or production crews when they weren't in immediate danger. That was why Marshal Rambeau had people like Jan, Hank and Sam.
I need the climb, he decided, turning his thoughts away from the twist in his gut that always followed arguing with Tony -- or talking to Tony at all, some times. The man had the ability to turn everything Steve thought he felt on its head.
It didn't take long to walk to the base of the building he wanted, and soon he was jogging up the stairs to one of the rooftop gardens. Sam had told Steve that he loved the whole city, but Steve knew what parts of the meta-city he visited most, and where to wait in order to catch him.
Twenty stories up, Steve could feel his legs burning, but he pushed upwards, not letting the fatigue slow his pace. He could have asked for a lift from Carol or one of the other fliers, or for Billy to teleport him straight from the lab, but they all spent enough time ferrying workers and materials up and down as it was. And Steve did need the climb. Too many days of patrolling the territory from street level and he'd lapse into softness.
He emerged onto the roof ten minutes later, not quite out of breath but close. Pausing, he listened to the thud of his heart until it slowed, then took a deep breath of moist garden air.
Sam Wilson had a knack for making farmers' fields out of barren asphalt, and for finding just the right people to make it work.
Four years ago, Steve had helped build this area, laying the brick beds and filling them with earth for the gardeners. He could probably point to every hidden drainage pipe and every connection to the irrigation lines coming in from the cistern roofs.
Weaving through the narrow paths between row upon row of string beans, Steve walked against the short shadows of summer until he found the south edge of the roof. He'd always thought that this was one of the best views of the city. It was how these marvellous buildings -- their highest reaches now windowless and inhabited by wild things -- were meant to be seen.
The first time he'd come up here, he'd squinted and peered through the blur of his lashes, trying to see the same city he'd grown up in sixty years ago. It wasn't there anymore, though, not in the tangle of interconnected gardens and cisterns that had taken over the rooftops of Manhattan. Too many buildings that had seemed indelible through his childhood hadn't even survived the first Skrull invasion, let alone the rebellions that followed. Or the Fall.
Steve walked over to the southeast corner of the building. He could overlook most of the territory from here. If he went as far as the north side, he would be able to see the Wall, and the ruins of Midtown and Harlem beyond.
Instead, he stayed where he was, closing his eyes and letting the sun warm his face. That, at least, didn't change. He heard a soft thud behind him but didn't respond until Sam got close enough to ask, "You slacking off again, Captain?"
"Yup," Steve replied, "That's me."
"Wine, women and song all night and day, I hear."
"You shouldn't listen to gossip," he muttered. He could feel his face heat, and resisted the urge to duck his head in embarrassment. "And who says it's a woman, anyway."
Sam bumped his shoulder against Steve's. "You did. That time with the wine and song."
"I don't get drunk," Steve protested, because it was mostly true.
"No, just very..." Sam hesitated for effect, "very friendly."
"Well, I trust you, don't I?" The alleged chocolate in Clint's betting pool flashed though Steve's mind. "But look, Sam, it could mean her life, so you can't tell--"
"Anyone, at all, ever. Yeah, I know." Sam rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms above him. "Anyway,, if I'd known you had all this free time, I would have held one of the crews until you came. You could have put in an honest day's work for a change."
Steve grinned. "As it happens, no one's expecting me anywhere for at least an hour."
"You really are slacking off, aren't you? Well let's make the most of it then." Sam moved behind Steve, wrapped his arms around Steve's chest, and stepped off the edge of the roof.
Steve barely felt the lurch of free fall before Sam's wings snapped open and they were sailing between the skyscrapers. Sam had always kept his mouth closed about where the wings had come from, but Steve gathered they were foreign, probably from one of the remaining advanced nations like Haiti or Wakanda. Tony couldn't seem to figure them out, let alone make more. Which was a shame, as a few dozen sets of self-propelling wings would save Carol and the others a lot of ferry duty.
"Where are we going?" Steve asked.
Sam banked west and dropped five floors. "You've got good timing. I was just going to look in on the seedlings. I've got some new plants I'm trying out."
"When did you get those?"
"Traded Marshal Munroe for the seeds last Race Day. I think she got them from the Interior somewhere. Here we are..."
Sam let go, and Steve fell three feet to the roof below. The sun flashed red though the translucent wings as Sam flared them, looping around the lightning rod to dump speed, before landing lightly next to Steve. His wings vanished into his back with a snap.
"Come and see." He led Steve through the gardens, full of young plants poking out of rich dark earth. Some beds had glass or cloth protecting them. "There." Sam gestured to a large patch of dirt that held nothing but five pairs of leaves, only just peering from the ground. "The pumpkins are up."
Steve grinned, delighted. "That's amazing, Sam. Please tell me there'll be enough for pie."
"We'll see, partner."
"So what else have you got, I haven't been up here in too long."
They wandered though the gardens for half an hour, Sam showing Steve his latest projects and telling him what Hank had been trying to bioengineer. Having made a full circuit of the nursery, they stood again at the edge of the roof, leaning on the brick windbreak.
Steve could see Liberty Island between the other buildings. Even after all these years, its shattered, empty base still made his heart clench every time he saw it. As a child, he'd been made to watch the day the Skrulls had destroyed the statue, the explosion burned into his vision for days. Somehow, when he was down in the streets and away from the water, he could still imagine that the statue was still there, welcoming inbound ships. "I'd like to rebuild that, someday," he said.
Following Steve's gaze, Sam snorted. Looking at him out of the corner of his eye, Steve could tell he wanted to ask something to the effect of, "You know we don't live in a democracy, right?" Which Steve did know, and Sam knew he knew, because Sam had been the first person to really explain to Steve how things worked in the seven territories. Instead he commented, "Good luck finding the resources."
"Yeah." Steve squinted out over the water for another moment before adding, "Especially with Marshal Cage's big project coming up."
"I've only heard rumours."
"So have I, but Marshal Rambeau thinks he wants to expand his territory from the Bronx across the river."
Sam turned towards him abruptly. "Into Harlem?" he asked. "That would take a bit of work." The northern areas of Manhattan hadn't been hit has hard as Midtown, but there still wasn't very much left.
"I know. The Marshal thinks that's why he's been collecting so many favours."
Below them, the bells of Trinity Church tolled one o'clock. Steve frowned.
"You have to go?"
"Yeah." Steve looked down at the streets beneath them. People were starting to stumble out onto the streets. With his enhanced vision, he could see them squinting up through their hangovers. Time for him to make his rounds to check the watchmen and patrols, but first, "I think I have enough time to look in on your latest recruit, though."
"I knew you weren't just here for my company." Sam clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Come on, I'll give you a ride over. I'm keeping him up north for now, away from all the food and water."
Given that all seven of the New York territories had more or less found themselves in the same boat, it always impressed Jericho how different they each felt. The Avengers in Lower Manhattan had an apparently chaotic and causal appearance -- no matter how much Rogers tried to organise them -- but despite that, the optimism of the place seemed to carry it through on most occasions. No one really knew how, but things just came together in the end. It was one of the reasons -- along with Rambeau's reputation -- that Jericho had chosen to settle there when he came up from the south. He knew how powerful belief could be.
Fury's Staten Island stronghold, on the other hand, seemed a lot more like the military complexes that Rogers talked about growing up around. Everyone moved with purpose, and the walls almost shone with cleanliness. At times, Jericho wondered why the Captain had yet to succumb to Fury's repeated attempts to poach him away from the Avengers. They were said to have known each other back in the day, after all, though perhaps that was why Rogers didn't want to come here. No one outside the territory really knew much about Fury, other than the rumour that he was a lot older than he looked.
"Are you just going to stand here entangled in your own thoughts?" Daniel asked shortly. The ghost of Jericho's brother hovered by the door of his quarters.
Jericho had claimed fatigue shortly after dinner, and was supposed to be sleeping. It had not been a total fabrication; between the feral kraken construct and a band of freebooters, it had taken six hours to make it the short distance across New York Harbour. He'd spent the intervening time untangling the spell work off of mechanisms that should never have been enchanted in the first place.
Fury's own mage wasn't untalented, but he couldn't touch more complicated work without it somehow going wrong in his hands. He had also left significant gaps in the magical defences around the Island. Lapses that Jericho fully intended to point out and correct. Tomorrow.
Now, Jericho focused on offering a few grains of sugar to a minor loa in exchange for protecting his body while he was away from it.
"I didn't sense anything dangerous here," Daniel commented.
Jericho didn't reply until he'd finished the ritual and wiped his hands clean. "I will not just wander off in my astral form and leave my body unguarded in a strange place." They had both seen that end badly too many times.
Daniel hovered in a tight circle inside Jericho's protections. "We've long since run out of rum, and that's close to the last of our sugar."
"Mmmm..." Jericho turned his thoughts to allowing his astral form to leave his body behind. When he was free, he slipped out of the circle and closed it behind him. "We will make do for now. It is a long journey back to Haiti for supplies."
"It shouldn't be." Daniel's shimmering blue form passed through the closed door and into the hall. Jericho followed. "If we got far enough away from the threads of corrupt magic that wrap themselves around this city, you could use great spells again, like teleportation."
Jericho tried not to let the idea of the ease of power he had had in Haiti pull at his heart too strongly. After all, he was here for a reason. The loa hadn't granted him the powers they had just so he could squander them like a low mage on the small troubles of his homeland. Helping this city stand again was a task for a true master of the mystic arts. No matter how undignified he found needing to fight sea monsters to get anywhere. "I miss those things, too, Daniel," he said, and his brother nodded solemnly. The admission seemed to satisfy him, and he let the topic of home drop, for the moment.
Now that he was closer in form to the barrier between worlds, Jericho could see the arcane all around him. A dozen different kinds of energy pulsed on every side. At first it felt like a blinding light, too much power all at once, but eventually he adjusted, as he always did. From there, he was able to separate different streams as though they were coloured ribbons tangled together. This one was a mutant, that one a water line, there a line of magic. From there, he sifted through to the one he was looking for.
"I would have thought it would be rainbow," Daniel commented, as they flowed towards the source of the energy.
"You know as well as I do that the colour is an imposition, a way for human minds to grasp what would otherwise be incomprehensible." Jericho was trying to concentrate and Daniel really wasn't helping matters.
"Well, you should have imposed a rainbow."
Having come up against a wall of magical power, Jericho ignored his brother and concentrated on a way through. He was going to owe the Loa more than sugar for helping him through this.
Daniel peered through his shoulder. "If you--"
There. He twisted sideways to yet another plane, one where the mesh didn't sit as tightly woven, and slipped through. Daniel followed.
They were inside the territory's main lab now, a place Fury wouldn't have voluntarily let a foreign mage within half a mile of. Jericho and Stark had convinced Rambeau that Fury was working on something that she would need to know about. This wasn't entirely inaccurate, but neither did it completely disclose what they wanted to know.
The truth was that they wanted a better look at Hermes, Fury's unicorn. Stark and Jericho had a good reason, but it wasn't one that they wanted to share, not until they were sure.
The construct stood in the middle of the lab, head drooping as it rested in low power mode. It had been well taken care of, despite having come in close to last on Race Day. Its black coat gleamed almost as brightly as the steel skeleton holding it together. Fury's technologists had sketched a new frame on one of the boards. They would probably be in early to continue their work. Or, if they were at all like Stark, they'd be back any moment so they could work through the night.
"Daniel?" He gestured at Hermes. "If you would."
His brother glided forward, pausing as he reached the unicorn's side. Moving slowly, he rested a translucent hand on its shoulder. It stirred slightly in its sleep, but otherwise didn't react. Daniel slide inside the construct, merging with it. Hermes shone blue for a moment, its jet horn seeming to hold the light even after the rest of the glow had faded.
For almost a minute, nothing happened. Jericho told himself not to worry. It wasn't like Jericho could exactly protect him, not unless he himself took up a much safer occupation, but he still felt responsible for his little brother. Daniel always seemed as if he were capable of taking care of himself, but then there was that one time he'd gotten himself killed. That, too, had been something like Jericho's fault.
If the possession had gone well, why wasn't Daniel moving the form about? He usually did, testing his hold on it. If it hadn't worked, if there was nothing to possess, surely he would have returned by now.
Jericho slid forwards, preparing himself to send his own energy inside the unicorn. If he could connect with Daniel, he could combine their strength to find a way through.
He wasn't sure that it would work, but it had to be better than just standing here, not knowing.
Before he could more farther, Hermes flashed blue again, and Daniel flew out like a missile. He collapsed in a heap, sliding partway through the floor.
"Are you hurt, Brother?" Jericho asked, moving to Daniel's side. The ghost's form looked even less solid than it usually did, and Daniel's energy felt weak.
Daniel shook his head, dismissing Jericho's help as he rose again. "It's nothing. I'll feel better when I get away from here."
Jericho nodded, and waited until they were back in his quarters to ask again. When he had thanked the loa for guarding his body, and dismissed the protections around it, he turned to Daniel and raised an eyebrow.
"I have never felt anything like it," Daniel said, shuddering. "It was... it was horrific."
"It is as we suspected, then?" Jericho slipped back into his own body. When he opened his flesh and blood eyes, his brother looked even paler. He knew that it was an effect of the barrier between worlds, but this time the distance troubled him more than it usually did.
"As you and I suspected, perhaps." Daniel's features were closed, calculating. "I believe Stark already knew."
"He really is taking it too far," Steve growled, glaring at the occupants of the table on the far side of the mess.
"Tony or Stone?" Sam asked, with far more amusement in his voice than Steve would have liked.
It was a good question, though. "Stone," Steve decided.
Sam poked at his fish for a moment before venturing, "He's a good worker. Been a great help with safely taking down the old tenement on Canal Street."
Steve had heard. "Well, yes." Across the room, Stone had slid along the bench until his hip was touching Tony's. They had their backs to Steve, but he could see that their heads leaned together in close conversation. This late in the breakfast rush, the room wasn't crowded, and pretty much everyone seemed to be keeping half an eye on their rider and the interloper. "But does he need to spend every free moment with Tony?"
"If he keeps up like this," Sam continued, "I'll probably recommend him to the engineering team. Once he's off probation, that is."
Tony laughed. It wasn't a sound Steve heard enough.
"You remember Danny Rand?" Steve asked.
Sam blinked. "Um... sure. He was Cage's rider, before Del Toro. He retired so he could get married, didn't he?"
"That's right. I don't know what the process is, but somewhere in there, when they transferred Hay You's energy into the new body, he passed off the bond." Despite the morning chill, the mess' heat hadn't kicked in. Steve knew that he should probably eat at least his seaweed protein pudding before it coagulated, but he just didn't have the stomach for it now. "I heard Marshal Munroe's rider did the same thing the year before I got here."
"You know I don't really follow racing," Sam said, shrugging. "It always seemed a little too much like bread and circuses for the plebs to me." He swiped Steve's broccoli without asking. "I assume this has something to do with Stone."
Steve nodded, pleased that he wasn't the only one who saw the connection. "I just don't understand why Tony doesn't just sleep with Stone."
"Not everyone's..." Sam broke off, chuckling. "Good god, I was about to say 'not everyone's interested in sex.'"
Laughing, Steve elbowed Sam in the arm. "Then you remembered you were talking about Tony Stark, right?"
Sam leaned towards Steve, and asked in a tone a little too loud to be honestly conspiratorial, "Do you know the man has a questionnaire, like a scientific survey? He uses Iron Heart to tell if someone's a virgin, I don't know how, some rider trick. Anyway, if they are, he sweet-talks details out of them, all about what exactly they've tried."
Tony hadn't tried to make Steve take it, but Steve had still got to hear all about it from his younger guards. "He wants to know what he can get away with. So why does he keep riding?"
"For the rush," Sam speculated. "Isn't that what everyone wants out of the race?"
"I don't think that's it. He says it's complicated."
Sam had cleaned his plate, and stacked it under Steve's largely untouched meal. "Well, then it probably is. I gotta say, Steve, for a man with a girlfriend, you're taking an unhealthy interest in another man's sex life." He stood to leave. "You should find yourself another hobby."
Steve frowned, still watching Tony and Stone. When three completely different people in a row accused you of jealousy, it was probably time to admit, at least to yourself, that they might have a point. It wasn't like he minded Tony having a lover, though. He just wanted him to pick a good one. If he was interested in one of the core Avengers, or someone from his lab, or maybe even another technologist like Rhodes, or basically anyone in the world that Steve trusted, it would be different. It was the constant flirting with the worst people, combined with a stubborn refusal to commit to any of them, that came close to driving Steve mad.
Tony had said that Steve's job did not, technically, include the role of personal bodyguard, but a lot of the time Steve felt like someone needed to do it. Tony lived almost as fast as he rode, and it was a tossup as to whether that lifestyle would kill Steve or Tony first.
"So Sam Wilson knows I'm a woman."
Steve very nearly jumped out of his skin. "Natalia! What the hell are you doing here?" He remembered at the last second not to shout, but even his whisper sounded painfully loud. He expected half the room to turn and look at them.
Not, he realised on getting a proper look at Natalia, that they would see anything out of the ordinary. He didn't know how she'd done it, but Natalia had transformed herself into something like a mousy lab technician, complete with cracked glasses. Everyone would probably assume she was in a department that wasn't theirs. "I have information too urgent to wait," she told him. Even her accent had disappeared. "That is Stark, there, yes?"
"Sure." It felt very strange to point out a friend he'd had for over four years to his lover. He had to remind himself that she had probably only seen him at a distance before, when he was riding. "Why do you need him?"
"I think we will need everyone." To anyone who didn't know her well, Natalia probably appeared relaxed, maybe slightly nervous to be talking to Cap. Steve, however, could see the lines of tense muscles under her loose-fitting disguise. She had gotten herself keyed up enough to fight anything. "I have the information you wanted two nights ago."
It was bad, then. Steve ran a mental picture of where the key players would be, and how fast he could track them down. "Jericho isn't back yet."
"Yes, he is." Natalia told him, shaking her head. "I saw his boat coming into the docks a few minutes ago."
"He's a day early." Definitely not good.
Monica hadn't actually expected the post-Race Day high to have lasted as long as it had. She hadn't expected it to come crashing down quite this hard either. "What, exactly," she asked, making her words as deliberate and unmistakable as possible, "do you mean when you say 'unicorns have human souls'?"
Stark shifted from one foot to the other and looked at his hands; Rogers moved like he was going to put a hand on his shoulder, then withdrew it. He looked as stunned as Monica felt. Beside him, the scruffy red-head, Rogers' spy -- and lover, from the way he moved around her; Monica had to commend the man for efficiency in secrets -- looked unmoved. The Marshal's office was richly furnished, but no one had sat down.
It was Jericho who actually explained. "We had always thought that the mystical energy that powered the constructs, that provided their life and their personalities, was simply a form of arcane power that we had not been able to replicate." He was leaning heavily on his staff, hair and clothes still soaked with seawater. However he had gotten back so quickly after filling his contract with Fury, it had not been an easy journey.
"And now, now I am certain that this is not the case, or at least that the basis for the energy, the irreplaceable spark, is a soul torn from a living human."
Rogers folded his arms across his chest so tightly that Monica thought he would crack a rib. "Is this true, Tony?"
"Yes." Stark kept his eyes on the floor.
"How long have you known?" Monica asked.
"Well, I made Iron Heart, didn't I?" Stark stepped away from Rogers, spreading his arms. "Obviously, I knew for sure about that one. I only suspected it was the case for the others as well."
Clearly, the shock was ebbing fast. Rogers looked thunderous. "You suspected that we were enslaving people's souls for years, and you didn't say a goddamn thing? Stark--"
"Enough!" Monica snapped. "We'll have time for this later. Right now I need to know the whole story." She turned to the spy, Romanova. "You're that golden source Steve has been hoarding away, aren't you? Nearly four years, and I've never seen your face. Why now?"
"I do not have time for games." Romanova pulled a stack of papers out of her bag, showing them to Monica. They looked like partial schematics of something, but Monica had no idea what. "Three weeks ago, I retrieved these from Osborn's territory. They are plans for something he's building in large numbers, but I could not tell what."
"So she gave them to me," Rogers continued, having set aside his anger for the sake of the mission. "And I passed them on to Tony and Jericho."
Jericho nodded. "They were what caused me to further investigate the nature of the unicorns' power. The language at the heart of these designs resembles unicorns, but with enough difference to make me think."
Stark spoke again, finally meeting Monica's eyes. Lines of stress etched his face, narrowing his eyes and pulling his mouth into a grimace. He looked a decade older than his twenty-four years. "They're not unicorns, though. They're gryphon constructs."
"They're what?" Jericho demanded. Stark, it seemed, hadn't quite broken himself of keeping important secrets. "How do you know that?"
"I built enough of them, back in the day."
"Then you should be pretty good at taking them apart by now." With a task in front of him, Rogers sounded serious, but confident. He hadn't looked at Stark since Monica had cautioned him.
From Stark and Jericho's expressions, Monica got the feeling that putting Osborn in his place would turn out to be a lot more of a challenge than defeating Stane seven years ago had been.
"Not these ones," Stark argued. "These are new. Think of all the things we value in the unicorns, then give them wings and claws. They'll be smarter, more adaptable; with the old gryphon constructs, you could trick their programming to bring them down, but that won't work here. They'll be bound to the riders instead. They'll require less rest, less energy to create, and they'll sustain tougher construct bodies." Stark's gaze hadn't left Monica's, but now he looked down again for a moment, and paused to gather his thoughts. When he looked up again, his face had stilled and lost its agitation. Only his widened eyes and tight lips gave away his fear. "This isn't going to be like last time. If Osborn follows through on the scale Romanova suspects, it will be a slaughter." He spoke with absolute conviction.
Monica believed him. "So we stop it from going ahead. How?" This did not produce the fountain of insight she'd hoped for. Rogers and Romanova exchanged glances, while Jericho looked off into the air at something no one else could see. Stark drummed his fingers on his knee, studying the floor again. "Stark?" she demanded. "Do you have something?"
"Maybe," he admitted. "It's going to need me, Drumm and the cute redhead in the middle of Osborn's territory before his devices power up."
"Then we do not have much time," Romanova said.
Rogers turned to face her. He hadn't said anything about what they were to each other, but Monica could tell. He never stood that close to anyone unless he had to, not unless they were Tony Stark, anyway. "How much is not much?"
"A few days, at most."
"That's not a great deal of warning." Jericho looked less happy by the minute. "Can we even find a way into the territory into that time?"
"I could get back in, certainly," Romanova said easily. "And probably with you, as well, with your powers. The others could be a problem."
Monica smiled, realising that Romanova knew as well as she did that there was no way that Rogers would let Stark go without him.
"I might have a plan for that too." Stark looked up at Rogers, meeting his eyes and trying to look confident about whatever he was about to say. "But I'm pretty sure you're not going to like it."
Fitting five adults and a seventeen-hand-high unicorn -- which no one but Stark could really touch without its getting antsy -- into a submarine turned out to be a bit of a trick.
Stark had to steer, of course, and he could lean against Iron Heart, so they wedged themselves as far forward as they could. Stark had spent most of the afternoon holed up in his lab, swapping out components. He'd added layers of armour to the lean racing construct, protecting its face, neck and chest, and replaced the golden framework with enamelled matte black. He had also tightly braided its mane and tail to keep them out of the way, and rubbed the roan coat down with soot. A warhorse now, it stood like a shadow at Tony's shoulder, feet braced wide for stability, and eyed the rest of the sub's occupants with great reservation.
Drumm hovered in the port-side midships, minding his oxygen equipment, and Steve leaned against the opposite bulkhead. All this left Natalia with a choice between sticking herself to the ceiling for the duration, or sliding right up against Steve. Sitting aft with Tiberius Stone, where one had to keep ducking to avoid the rudder, was not an option, for more than one reason.
Steve had said that he was fine with protecting her anonymity, repeatedly. However, now that everyone who mattered knew who she was, he seemed to want to make up for lost time. He wrapped his arms around Natalia's waist and pulled her snug against him. She let her head rest back on his shoulder -- not enough for anyone but Steve to notice, but he would feel it, and that's what mattered.
"A little cramped in here, huh," Stone piped up, obviously not knowing what was good for him.
Natalia felt rather than heard Steve growl low in his chest. He didn't say anything, though, probably due to marching orders from Marshal Rambeau.
"You should have seen the first one I built, Ty." Stark was pointedly ignoring Steve as much as Steve was doing the same to Stone. "It didn't have half the capacity that the Mary Read has."
Drumm made a face that indicated that he remembered it rather too well. Shaking his head, he muttered something either to himself or his gods, and the trays around him started to bubble.
Stark made a signal through a porthole, and the Kaplan kid opened the massive gates of the ways. He bent his head toward the controls, his shirt pulling tight across his back and shoulders. Natalia took a moment to admire the smooth lines of his lean muscles. He didn't have anything like Steve or Drumm's bulk, but he obviously possessed a good deal of power in his limbs. Rather like herself, Natalia supposed.
She didn't say anything as Stark prepared the submersible for launch, nor when they got under way. With her back pressed against Steve's chest, she could feel every twitch, every flexing muscle. In the hours between the planning meeting and their departure, Steve hadn't said a single unnecessary word to Stark. He'd listened to him, and offered suggestions and logistical support, but nothing that wasn't about the upcoming mission. Natalia would never have described Steve as chatty, but in the years she'd known him, he always seemed to find a moment to say the right thing at the right time. The silence bothered her. He was holding himself in, and she knew that soon, he would reach a point where the pressure would find its way free.
Indeed, once they were in the inner harbour, Stark started locking down his controls like he expected a physical storm. "Okay, go ahead," he said, only half turning to Steve. "You might as well get it out of your system before we hit Brooklyn." His hands still moved over the console in front of him, but they didn't touch on anything, either drawing reassurance or playing at being busy.
"This is not the time, or the place." Steve's eyes slid aft, narrowing slightly. "Or the company."
"Hey," Stone would have sounded more effectively indignant had the rudder not come within half an inch of braining him in the middle of the protest. "Look, Rogers, I know you don't like me, but--"
"We don't know you," Drumm interrupted. "And, clearly, you do not know us. The Avengers are not used to airing our disputes in front of strangers."
Stone put his hand on the deck like he wanted to push himself to his feet, then hesitated, took a deep breath, and relaxed back to the floor. "I understand why you're being so careful." His voice held no trace of his previous venom. Natalia felt the corner of her lips twitch down into a frown as she evaluated the mask Stone now wore. "I spent months in Brooklyn doing Osborn's equivalent of hauling bricks before he gave me the access I have, and even more time before he gave me enough room to escape and find Tony. I am willing to do it all again, gladly, if it means working with Tony again, but the feeling that some of you flat out don't like me, well." He shrugged slightly, focusing on Iron Heart's hooves in front of him. "A guy's got to wonder how long his probation is going to last."
Natalia felt Steve take a deep breath, but Stark cut off any speech he was about to make. "It will last the same as anyone else's does. Heck, if anything else, this mission will make it shorter." He turned away from his controls and looked Steve right in the eye. "We need everyone on this boat to make this plan work."
"This is not your best plan," Steve said, sounding just a little petulant.
Stark looked away. "Yeah, well, you would say that. Which brings me back to my original point: you've been pissed at me since you found out. I would prefer not to go into hostile territory knowing the man who's supposed to have my back wants to stab me himself."
Steve shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back, before saying, "I would never hurt you, Tony."
"We both know that's not true," Stark snapped. "Now cough up. Ty and I were thick as brothers growing up, he knows the worst of me. Yell if you want to; there's no one but fish and Avengers to hear it."
"I don't want to yell at you, Tony." Steve's made his voice flat and professional, but Natalia could hear the emotion behind it. She imagined that Stark could too. "But I need to understand."
"Understand what?" Stark asked, sounding about the same.
Natalia twisted out of Steve's grip and stepped to one side. The men could square off without catching her in the middle of it, so far as she cared. Steve filled her place by crossing his arms. "How you could do this, Tony? Those are people trapped, innocent souls enslaved, and you've known for years, haven't you?"
"Wha--" Stone began to say, but Natalia and Drumm glared him into silence.
"I told Marshal Rambeau: I suspected, but I didn't know for sure," Tony replied.
"Even if you only suspected, you let the races go on. You didn't ask for help stopping any of it. I would have fought with you. Marshal Rambeau would have fought with all of us. Have you ever known her to back down from something that's right?" Steve fired his words across the tiny cabin, making it feel that much smaller and bloodier.
Stark's expression froze, becoming smooth and polite. Even stuck in a tiny metal cylinder at the bottom of New York Harbour, he'd found a way to run away. Iron Heart seemed to sense its rider's unease and lowered its head to Tony's shoulder, nuzzling the side of his face. "I know more about unicorns than anyone alive," he said. Natalia could hear the edge of defensiveness in his voice, but it wasn't as strong as it could have been. "You're not the only one with spies, Steve. I've been searching for a way out of this for eight years, and if I had had the slightest clue how to fix any of it before now, I would have. It was only Osborn's discoveries that gave me enough information to go this far."
Natalia felt a little like she ought to be supporting her lover by watching the drama unfold, and she played at doing just that. Out of the corner of her eye, she fixed her real attention on Stone's face. He'd widened his eyes in surprise and maybe a little horror at what Tony had done. It seemed genuine enough, as did his flinch at Stark's mention of Osborn.
"What about Iron Heart?" Steve continued. It was the first time he'd truly raised his voice in this conversation, and the submarine echoed with it. Natalia had never heard him this angry, not even in battle. Stark really be something to Steve to make the lies cut this deeply. "What is it made out of? Who is it made out of? Did you sacrifice that mage who you've always said saved your life?"
"Steve, no." Stark held his hands up, either warding off the verbal assault or signalling Steve to shut up. He made to rise, spreading his arms, trying to look defenceless. Unfortunately, his knee bumped the tiller over, jerking the Read to port.
Stone ducked the rudder on the way over, and again as Stark corrected, dragging the tiller the other way. Natalia grabbed for a bar and hung on, hooking a leg across Steve's hips to keep him from falling forwards. Drumm continued to drift, apparently undisturbed. Shaking its head in confusion, Iron Heart swayed and stepped out to catch its balance. Stark's hand resting firmly on its shoulder seemed settle it a bit, though its eyes were white and rolling, bright in the dim cabin.
Stark cursed softly to himself as he set the machine to rights, guiding it back to its original course towards Red Hook, Brooklyn. When he finally managed to get them steady and back on course, he turned to the cabin again, this time speaking without any hesitation in his words. "I do owe Doctor Yinsen my life. The thugs that grabbed me all those years ago had a gryphon. Well, sort of, it wasn't exactly working well; it tore my chest up pretty bad before it brought me in." He rubbed the skin above his heart. "He used surgery and spells to put me back together as best he could, but it wouldn't have saved me in the end. My life was leaking through the sutures. I was dying."
Stark twitched his shoulder up, like that kind of hurt was nothing. He doesn't look old enough to be that cynical and worn, she thought, not even in this world. Beside her, Steve stood stock still, as though he were afraid to move for fear of interrupting the story. She didn't want to say anything either. It was probably the first time in eight years that Stark had told it.
Unprompted, he continued, "The people who grabbed me were bandits. They had the one half-working gryphon, a lot of old guns and not much in the way of brains between them. They said that they wanted to take over Stane's territory, and they needed me to build them the weapons to do it. I was sixteen, and I didn't want to die, so I said I would." He turned back to the porthole, focusing on the murky water in front of them. It would be full dark by the time they reached their destination; they were relying largely on dead reckoning and luck to get them where they wanted to go. Still, Stark gazed out, seeing nothing. "I built a construct, but not the one they wanted. I made a unicorn. Stane had one -- it's Osborn's now -- and I'd been studying it for years, trying to figure out how it ticked. I knew how to make the construct body, at least, and I knew that the spell work could transform a tremendous amount of energy. So..."
"By Legba," Drumm whispered. "You bound yourself to the construct." His voice wavered, and Natalia couldn't tell if it was from fear or anger, perhaps both.
Back stiffening, Stark hesitated before admitting, "Yes. I had no choice. Like I said, I was sixteen, and I didn't want to die. The connection held my body together long enough to get out of there, and no one really argues with over half a ton of rampaging unicorn. Doctor Yinsen... didn't get out with me. I couldn't go back to Stane, not with what I knew, so I ended up in Lower Manhattan. Rambeau was only Captain then, but she spoke for me."
"We thought you were dead," Stone said. "Stane said bandits had attacked your convoy and killed you. Why would he...?" he stopped, the reasoning Natalia had thought of from the start finally seeming to come to him. "It was all his idea, wasn't it?"
Stark nodded. "I didn't find that part out until a lot later, but yeah. Apparently he wasn't impressed with my efficiency, thought I could use a little encouragement."
For a long moment, no one said anything, letting the story sink in. Steve's right arm snuck around Natalia's waist, seeking comfort. She put her gloved hand over his and pressed them to her hip. "Why did you not undo what you did to yourself once you'd had time to heal?" she asked.
"It's not that simple," Drumm said before Stark could. "The unicorns aren't merely powered by human souls, they're souls twisted and transformed. It's like beating eggs into batter; you can't just take them back out and restore them to their shells undamaged."
"Especially not after you've already baked the cake," Stone added.
"So you're tied to that thing permanently?" Steve asked. The anger, at least, had faded, though Natalia could still hear the edges of it underneath his horrified compassion.
"Eight years on the wagon and counting." Stark didn't manage to sound as glib as was trying to come off. "I haven't actually tried it, but I'm pretty sure that if I ever tried to pass Iron Heart off to another rider, or if it died, my soul would rip in half. I don't understand the science of that, but I assume it would be bad. So, yeah, unless I figure this out, I'm stuck with it until I die."
"I think it is worse than that." Drumm drifted towards Stark until he was hovering above him. "May I?"
Stark checked over the controls, ensuring that they wouldn't drift. "Sure, whatever."
Drumm didn't move, but something was affecting Stark. He stiffened, and for a moment his eyes flashed blue. Natalia couldn't tell what happened next, but something about Stark's posture shifted, as though a completely different person sat in the chair. Then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, the effect faded. Stark's eyes returned to normal, and he relaxed back into his seat. He looked up at Drumm. "Well, that was different. It never ceases to amaze me how much I can still learn about a man even after I've known him for years."
"Are you sure?" Drumm asked. It seemed odd to Natalia, until she realised that he was not looking at Stark, but a patch of bulkhead above him. He nodded, then sighed. "There is a reason the spells you and this Doctor Yinsen used are forbidden. You and your creation are not just bound until your death. When your soul leaves your mortal body, it will not pass beyond as it should. Too much of it is tied to that machine, and tied it will stay until the end of days. You have damned yourself, Tony Stark."
Natalia shivered and leaned more deeply into Steve. He gripped her hip tightly. She could hear his teeth grinding as he clenched his jaw.
Again, Stark was the first break the silence. "Figures," was all he said, before turning back to the steering console.
Steve unfolded his arms and took half a step forwards, making a small, wounded noise in his throat. He tensed like he wanted to reach out, but ended up slumping back against the hull.
"Tony..." Stone started to say, then trailed off, seemingly unsure of what reassurance he could offer.
"Never mind," Natalia interrupted. "Where are we, Stark?"
"Just coming up on Gowanus Bay. Romanova, how sure are you on the guards?"
Natalia shrugged. "As much as I can be. The locks themselves are so heavily warded that physical security is light. They're mostly there in case of an open assault." She'd scoped Brooklyn's canal system almost as soon as she'd arrived, trying to secure her exits.
"Now's your moment, then, Stone," Steve told him.
"Okay then." Stone pulled himself up and skirted around under Drumm, keeping Iron Heart between himself and Steve, to look over Tony's shoulder. The unicorn's tail snapped back and forth in annoyance, but it didn't stamp or bite. "Right, just there. The bay narrows into the first of the canals, and gives us about a third of a mile before we hit the first lock. We'll need to get as close as we can."
Under Stark's guidance, the Read veered to port and slowed as it headed into shallower waters.
"How close is close?" Steve asked.
"When I was working the locks, about twenty yards would do it."
That sounded rather imprecise to Natalia. "And if Osborn's locked you out?"
"Well, then we're in trouble."
It took Monica nearly ten minutes to convince to guard on the Bronx side of the river that she really was the Marshal of the Lower Manhattan Territory. Granted, showing up with no bodyguard just as the sun was setting behind the territory's burned out skyscrapers didn't lend much to her case. Obviously the woman wasn't a fan of the races.
When she finally managed to get her point across, they had to walk into the heart of the Bronx territory to Cage's stronghold. The guard didn't fly, so they climbed the stairs to the second story of an old brick building. The builders had shoehorned it into one point of a five-way intersection, but now, with the central Bronx in ruins, the triangular building stood alone.
She found Cage already waiting in the outer room. "You're in the air late, Rambeau," he said, extending his hand to shake hers. "We were just finishing up dinner, but there's extra if you're hungry."
Monica took his hand, and was relieved that he didn't put even a fraction of his strength into the grip. She didn't either. "Thank you, no. I need to talk to you and your Doctor Strange as soon as you can get him here."
Folding his arms, Cage leaned against the wall. His muscles bunched and stretched his faded yellow shirt. "And here I thought you owed me a favour."
"I still do, but this is about the treaty."
Cage didn't even blink, he just turned to Monica's escort and snapped, "Call the council together."
"Mom?" Tommy yelled, then sped to the next corner. "Mom?" Another corner. "Mom?"
When he'd told Marshal Rambeau that he could totally find his mom no problem, it'll be easy, he had left out a few details. Like the part where he and Billy had never actually visited their mom's place in the Hudson River territory. Well, and the fundamentally odd relationship the two foundlings had with their absent mother, which he was pretty sure Marshal Rambeau knew anyway. Oh, and the bit where he wasn't really on Marshal Munroe's list of favourite people because of that time with the thing. Which he barely remembered, but Billy said Marshal Munroe probably would.
But Marshal Rambeau had said he should go, and Billy had been holed up with Doctor Drumm planning something, so he couldn't object, so here Tommy was.
Now if only he could find her. He was almost out of Sleepy Hollow, it had taken at least two minutes, and he hadn't found a thing. All sorts of people lived here, but none of them were Wanda Maximoff.
Frowning, Tommy stopped for ten seconds to consider his options. He couldn't think of any, not besides searching the whole damn valley.
"Mom?" he yelled out over the river.
And then she was there, appearing in a swirl of pink and scarlet. "Thomas!" She spread her arms wide, pulling Tommy into a soft embrace. She seemed pretty happy to see him. She always did. She hadn't asked him and Billy to move up here yet, though. "What are you doing out here? It's not safe to be out this late. Come back to the Mansion."
"Okay, Mom." He'd tell her about how Marshal Rambeau needed her hex magic later, when he'd finished hugging her.
"That's your plan?" Fury demanded.
Beside him, Druid tried to look equally sceptical, but he mostly ended up coming off as intimidated. He was, Carol decided, way too young to be out of his apprenticeship, let alone the master mage of a territory. No wonder Fury had brought Drumm in.
"It's what our best people could come up with in the time they had," Carol replied evenly. She had to resist the urge to rub her arms against the cold. They were way up on the walls Fury had had built around his stronghold. It overlooked the entrance to the upper bay, and nothing stood between Carol and the wind off the Atlantic.
"It depends on getting six mages to agree on something."
That hadn't been Carol's favourite part of the plan either. "They'll agree to this."
"Have you talked to the Mutants?" he asked, jerking his head south, away from the city.
"I'm headed there next."
Fury chewed on his wad of tobacco for a minute before spitting it over the wall, into the black water below. "Well, we're in, but good luck with Darkhölme and her pit-viper of a mage."
"We'll see. Do you know what you have to do?" she asked Druid. "We're counting on you magic types to save the day, not kill us all."
The kid swallowed. "Yeah, I'll try not to do that."
"This way," Natalia said. "It's not far from here."
Steve tugged at the black cloth covering his shield and followed, keeping as low as he could. Stone came after him, then Tony, leading Iron Heart, while Jericho watched their backs. The mage's white face paint should have stood out in the gloom, but somehow every time Steve tried to look at it, his eyes slid past. He could still smell traces of the canal, but fortunately none of them had managed to fall in it while disembarking.
Steve had lived in this area at one point before when he was a kid. The canals running through the heart of the territory hadn't been there, back then, and Steve never had figured out where they'd come from. Something either during the second Skrull invasion or of Magneto's doing had fissured the bedrock, creating paths of water through the heart of the city. Osborn's people hadn't built the locks, but they did have them up and running like they hadn't been in years, refined and massively warded. Only their recognition of Stone's aura had passed them through.
Back where they'd docked, the buildings had almost entirely fallen to ruin, but Steve was noticing an improvement now. Some of the old row-houses had four walls and a roof. The closer they got to Natalia's goal, the better shape they seemed to be in. Steve wasn't sure that was just damage from whatever had made the canals in the first place, or if this area received more maintenance and attention. He didn't see any signs of life, at least, nor of recent repairs.
Natalia held up her fist. "Wait here," she hissed. "I will scout ahead for guards."
As Steve pressed himself into an ally entrance, he felt Tony at his side and the hot breath of the unicorn down his neck.
Stone and Jericho found a similar space on the other side of the street, though they kept their distance from each other. Steve had considered leaving their tagalong in the boat, but decided he was better where Steve could keep an eye on him.
"Funny how things go," Tony murmured into Steve's ear.
"How's that?" Steve asked, though he could think of a few answers.
Tony let out a puff of breath that might have been a laugh, if it had had any humour at all in it. "This is pretty much where all this started, ten years ago. The guys who originally grabbed me off Stane kept me in a warehouse about ten blocks from here. I ended up building Iron Heart there."
Steve nodded, not really wanting to commit to an opinion right now. He had told himself that he was going to stow this... this betrayal until after the mission. The city, after all, still needed saving. Steve didn't have time to argue with Tony about supporting the enslavement of human souls, even if one was his own. He should have told them about the others. The idea made Steve feel sick. "It never has been my favourite part of the city," he eventually whispered back, trying his best to sound non-committal.
"Nor mine," Natalia grumbled, separating from the rest of the shadows on the wall. "But I do not like to complain.
Good timing, Steve thought. "We clear?"
Natalia nodded. "For the most part. Come."
They followed her around the corner and into a meadow that had probably once been a parking lot, back when cars still worked. A sprawling concrete building stood in the centre of the meadow. Steve remembered it being a recreation centre, once upon a time. It looked different now. The windows had iron grates across them, and the fence had gained ten feet in height.
Most of the building stood in darkness, with only a few gleams of green light under the doors and behind the blinds. Steve hoped that the darkness would hide their approach, and that no one was looking out the windows. If Natalia was right about the guards, their exposed position wouldn't matter. If she wasn't, Steve supposed they'd pretty much had it anyway, and could expect to be neck deep in Goblin warriors at any moment.
A few yards further along the base of the fence, Steve could make out dark outlines of bodies. Natalia's definition of "scouting" hadn't changed.
He looked at the barrier dubiously. He and Natalia could climb over, and probably boost Stone; Jericho obviously wasn't a problem, but what the hell were they going to do with Tony's unicorn? "Can you jump that?" he asked.
Tony snorted, "It's got to be sixteen feet high. So, no."
"I don't have the codes to this one," Stone said. "They never let me near the important labs."
"Jericho?" Steve mimed waving and floating.
"No, not if I wish to have sufficient strength for what will follow." Jericho considered the idea, laying a hand on the rails. "However..." He pushed and the rails bent apart as though they were made of tinfoil. "The wards are down as well. For now," he said. "I must go. I will be needed elsewhere soon."
"Take care." Steve clapped a hand on his shoulder, and Jericho smiled thinly, not showing any teeth.
"I doubt there will be any call for that." He looked at Tony appraisingly. "Be careful, Stark, and keep a hold on your construct. If I'm right, you will need to be close if you are to be saved."
"And if you're wrong?" Tony asked.
Jericho shrugged slightly. "Then either the distance won't matter, or you're damned in any account."
Tony slid close to Iron Heart's neck, pressing against the flesh and steel for comfort. "Right. Thanks." But Jericho had already disappeared into the night.
"Let's go," Natalia hissed. "I doubt we have as much as twenty minutes before they the notice the guards."
Steve nodded and let the others pass through the gap first. Natalia led them through a lower service entrance. She had put the guards down here too, but had to take a moment to pick the locks. Then they were in.
The old service halls gave off a strong odour of mould and damp cement. Strips of old paint hung off the walls and curled in corners, casting jagged shadows in the lamp light. It made the building feel organic and decaying, like the carcass of a giant.
Iron Heart laid its ears back and tossed its head, and Tony rested a steadying hand on its shoulder. He didn't say anything, but the construct calmed. Steve had always seen the bond between the two of them as the intrinsic tie between a man and the animal he spent sixteen hours a day with. Now Steve shivered.
Natalia had darted off into the shadows, and Steve heard a scuffle of feet on concrete, then a dull crack. When she came back, she had a thieves' lantern, most of the way closed, and a new knife on her belt. She only walked far enough into Steve's pool of light to catch his eye and jerk her head down the hall.
Steve felt an urge to put himself between Tony and Stone, but that would prevent him from watching Stone and their escape route. Instead, he gestured for Tony to go first, shifting to block Stone's way until there was a bit of space between them, before moving aside and taking up rearguard.
Tony had to keep closer to Iron Heart than he had before. The unicorn trembled and skittered, its rapid breathing causing its armour to creak. If Tony hadn't kept contact with it, Steve felt sure it would have bolted, probably right through the nearest wall.
Once they went deeper into the building, conditions improved somewhat. The floor had vinyl tiles glued onto it, and the paint mostly stuck to the wall. Iron Heart stepped too heavily on one of the tiles, and it broke under its hoof. The crack echoed down the hall, and they all started slightly, but Iron Heart most of all.
"This isn't working." Tony snapped, too worried to keep his voice down. "Something here has it too keyed up to behave properly."
"Yes," Natalia agreed. "You and Stone should go back, wait by the Anne Read."
That didn't sound right to Steve, and he sure as hell wasn't about to set Tony out in hostile territory with only Stone for backup. "We stay together."
"And you need me." Tony insisted. "That's why I came."
"So you said." It wasn't really an agreement, but it was the best Steve could get out of Natalia sometimes.
Keeping his fingers on Iron Heart's side, Tony stretched out to try the nearest door. The handle didn't give at all. "Locked."
"It is just an empty room," Natalia told him, but she picked the locks anyway, and pushed open the door to prove it.
Tony herded the unicorn into the barren remains of a small office. "It's just what I need." Iron Heart showed no interest in wanting to go, but acquiesced after Tony pressed his forehead against its brow. When he shut the door again, allowing the lock to click shut, he said, "We can collect it on the way out, if we still need to. And we have a Plan B."
Steve felt a twinge of unease at that comment -- one that went beyond Stone not asking what plan B was -- but pushed it away. "Right," he said. Natalia was too professional to hop from one foot to the other impatiently, but he could tell from the shift in her weight that she wanted to. "Let's get this over with."
Natalia flipped the shutters on the lamp shut and moved through the darkness by memory. Her feet made no sound as she glided over the tiles, and Steve mimicked her. He could hear the scuff of Tony's boots between them, but only faintly. He had gotten better at this stuff; between Clint, Bobbi and Steve, they'd beaten some concept of stealth into Tony. Stone made rather more noise, but not at atrocious levels. Still, Steve shifted Stone to the rear, and hoped that Natalia had taken care of all the guards behind them.
A green glimmer lit the hallway ahead of them: either another guard with a lamp, or the centre of the building. Steve put his hand on Tony's shoulder, pulling him to a halt and padding ahead to join Natalia. He unslung his shield as he moved up. He could only see the faintest glimmer of her eyes in the dark, but he knew her plan without exchanging a word.
They ran forward and around the corner and landed on top of the guards before they had a chance to cry out. Steve ploughed them both into the wall with his shield arm while Natalia came up and under. A moment later, both men lay in crumpled heaps on the floor, bound, unconscious and stripped of weapons. Steve knew that, when she was fighting alone, Natalia preferred knife work, but she held back for his sake.
The guards had been standing in front of set of swinging doors, and Steve pushed through cautiously. He had to blink against the light. Osborn had real electricity from somewhere, and, even more improbably, working light bulbs, something Steve hadn't seen since the day he'd woken up under Liberty Island. Jericho claimed that the spell work required to reset the laws of nature back to what they'd been before the Fall didn't create enough advantage to warrant the energy expended to do so. He'd had a whole metaphor involving fish. Steve had never asked for a reading lamp again.
Just as Natalia had said, all the technologists and their assistants had left the lab for the night, and only machines populated it now. The gryphons stood row on row, all across the old gym and inside the empty swimming pool, probably fifty in number. They had reached varying stages of completion: some only frames with no constructs in them, and most on some form of assembly. A few looked to Steve like they were complete and ready for animation, all scales and feathers and razor-sharp talons.
A tower perhaps twenty feet high stood in the centre of the old pool, itself a mix of metal and organics, the same as the constructs. Lines of blue light glowed faintly within it, though it didn't seem attached to anything. It had two bays on either side, one the size of a large construct. Steve had to stare at the other for a moment before he realised what felt wrong about the person-shaped bay. At first, he'd assumed it was the size of a grown person, and the scale of the gryphons made it seem small, but that wasn't right at all. It was the size of a child.
"I think I may vomit," Tony said behind them. "Now I know why Iron Heart didn't like it here."
"Wait until we're done," Steve snapped, though he had to pull his lips back into a grimace against his own queasiness. "Let's get to work. Natalia, how much time do we have?"
Steve didn't have to turn and look behind them. He knew from the tightness of Natalia's words exactly what he would see. He took a step backwards, sandwiching Tony between them, then slid sideways so that he and Natalia stood shoulder to shoulder with Tony behind them. This left Stone to Natalia's right, not quite out of her protection. Only when Steve had their positions as secure as he could did he look.
Two of Osborn's goblin soldiers stood up on the gym's mezzanine, with another two by each door. The foot soldiers had compound bows, and Steve heard the hiss of Daken's claws extending somewhere in the shadows above him. From the centre of the room, two of the gryphons stirred and stretched their wings. These looked more like the old mechanical kind, but Steve still wouldn't want to take them on hand to hand.
"That was fast," Tony said softly, and Steve nodded in agreement.
"They should not have arrived here so quickly." Natalia sounded indignant, like the plan going sour was a personal affront. Her eyes met Steve's, and he dipped his chin in a faint nod. She held his gaze for a millisecond more before switching her attention to the upper level.
Steve had finished considering their options and decided that he'd seen worse, but not much worse. He raised his hands as though in surrender, but kept his movements a little too slow, buying time. He could throw his shield at the tower, but he had no idea what part to aim for. He didn't like the odds for fighting their way out alive.
Captain Sofen stepped to one side and Daken stepped to the other, revealing Marshal Norman Osborn behind them. His expression reminded Steve of nothing so much as a cat with a bowl of cream, and his smile stopped just short of licking his lips. "You're trespassing on Goblin territory," he shouted down at them. "Raise your hands slowly, and we'll consider not telling my people to rend you limb from limb."
"Speaking of that," Steve said as loudly as he could. He flipped the covering off his shield. Every eye in the room fixed on him. Every eye, that was, save Natalia's.
Steve didn't give her away by looking, but he heard the slide of sharp steel into flesh. Stone made an aborted gagging sound, then his body hit the floor.
Now Steve looked. Natalia stepped away from the body, hands raised. She'd left her knife buried in Stone's brain, handle protruding from under his chin. Tony pressed one hand to his stomach and another to his mouth, looking pale and sweaty. Steve didn't have time to worry about him. "That was Avengers business," he announced, spreading his arms wide. "He betrayed us, and we killed him. There doesn't need to be any more to it than that."
"We'll see about that." Osborn spat the words, but he didn't order his people forward either. "I wonder what he was about to say."
Behind Steve, Tony tensed, shoes squeaking on the tile as he shifted into one of the fighting stances Steve had taught him.
"Tony. What..." Steve hissed.
"Plan B," Tony said, and Steve got it. If Tony made them kill him, the bond would sever, his soul would tear apart, and his unicorn would go berserk. That much armour, flesh and steel gone mad would take the entire lab apart, and possibly the building with it.
"No!" Steve and Natalia spoke as one, and Steve flicked his eyes over to meet hers, surprised. He immediately felt guilty. Of course she didn't want Tony to die.
"I said 'no.'" Steve didn't yell, but he didn't need to. He had decades of experience making orders perfectly clear without needing to raise his voice.
"We have surrendered.," Natalia said flatly. "Wait for another day."
Tony's shoulders slummed, and he lifted his arms half-heartedly. As the goblin soldiers completed their circle, he grumbled, "If this all goes to hell, I blame you."
"I think that will be enough talking for now," Osborn told them.
Captain Sofen floated down to the main level, taking charge of the soldiers. "Keep your hands where I can see them, and lie down on the floor."
"What, you're not executing us on the spot?" Steve asked, not moving.
"We'd love to," Osborn said. He folded his arms loosely, casually leaning against a support pillar. "However, I would like to talk to you a bit first."
Daken licked his lips with anticipation. "Especially you, Stark; I hear you know useful things."
Tony shivered, but he didn't let it creep into his voice. "You're not old enough to remember this, but you won't be the first to try getting useful things out of me. So let me fill you in." Steve could hear the smirk, humourless and used like a weapon. "It didn't go so well for the last bunch."
"The Marshal said enough with the talking!" Sofen snapped. "So you can stow it, and get on the floor like I told you, Stark, or I can have Mac bite your precious captain's head off."
Daken frowned at her, then stepped back and away. He had the reputation of a man who chose his battles. Steve had an uncomfortable feeling that the one Daken had chosen this time would involve taking out his frustrations on Tony's skin. In the dark, somewhere where no one could hear.
Given little other choice, Steve did as he was told, and the others followed, doing their best to avoid brushing against Stone's corpse.
It didn't take long for Daniel and Jericho to trace the lines of power back to the dwelling of Osborn's pet sorcerer. He'd stayed in one place long enough for his energy to run under city streets as decaying roots would, providing passage for maggots.
It took a lot longer to dissect the wards here. Their multiplicity of layers shifted constantly, and each time Jericho reached out for one, it didn't quite seem to be where he thought it would be. In the end, he let them lie. Taking up a position across the street from the old house, he and Daniel settled behind a ruined school bus to wait.
Tony hunched in the corner farthest from the door, but even that didn't offer much privacy from the watching guards.
"Well," Steve said, "At least they put us all in the same cell." That might not turn out to be a good thing, actually, with three people, one bunk, no amenities and a solid set of iron bars.
From Natalia's narrowed eyes, he could tell that his attempt to sound heartening and optimistic hadn't worked spectacularly well. She sat on the cot and wiggled her cuffed hands under her hips and feet until she had them in front of her. "It will not last. As soon as they are done checking their machinery, they will come with questions."
Steve swapped places with her. The hip wiggling thing was a lot easier for a slender woman like Natalia, but he had it after a minute, and the guards didn't seem to care. Goblin soldiers had always seemed a little punchy to Steve. He supposed they would have to be to work for a man like that. They didn't object when he and Natalia stepped in close to Tony, either. He dropped his voice and hoped they didn't have a magical listening device. "How much time do we have left? Before the show, I mean." Hopefully the stress hadn't interfered with Natalia's impeccable internal clock.
It hadn't. "Half an hour at most. We should have had the machine down by now. Doctor Drumm told us that the spell would not work correctly with it interfering."
"We should have fought." Tony folded as tightly around himself as he could with his arms still bound behind him, dropping his head.
"That doesn't sound like you," Steve said, a new worry tugging at the edges of his mind.
"I had a plan."
"We all would have died. Tony..." Steve wasn't quite sure how to say what he had to at all gently. Perhaps blunt would work best in the end. "Ty Stone betrayed us, you know that, don't you? He wasn't your friend."
"Do you think that I don't know that?" Tony asked. If they hadn't had to keep their voices down, he would have been shouting. "I figured it out the second Osborn walked through the door."
"Okay." Steve let out a small sigh of relief. He hadn't wanted to have that conversation, but it was all too convenient, and Jericho's life had been on the line. To say nothing of theirs. "I am sorry it had to be in front of you."
Tony ignored the apology, deliberately looking at every part of the cell that didn't have Steve in front of it. "So," he said, trying to sound sardonic, "how do you like my plan, so far?"
"It's better than the one where we all died," Natalia said.
"Well, we'll see if you still feel like that when that unicorn-riding lunatic is slicing into you." Tony's voice dropped, and lost its passion. "Osborn won't ransom us. He doesn't care about the treaty."
"Hey, easy." Steve looped an arm around Natalia's waist and rested his other hand on Tony's shoulder. As close as they were standing, the gesture pulled them into something like a three-way embrace. "I told you that I would never let that happen to you again."
Tony smiled a little. "You've never actually said that."
"Well, I meant to, and I do mean it."
From the way Natalia was looking at him, she knew exactly how empty that promise was.
So did Tony. "I'm going to die a virgin, aren't I?"
Natalia snorted. "That is what bothers you most?"
"Well, it is..." Tony broke off, eyes meeting Steve's. "Wait." He had the kind of smile that Steve usually associated with trouble pulling at his lips.
Steve did his best to keep his expression smooth, but he had never been able to follow Tony's special kind of crazy when it came to plans. "What exactly is on that sex list you keep?"
Natalia looked from Steve to Tony and back again. "The what list?"
"Time to go," Daniel pronounced.
Jericho snapped his pocketwatch shut and tucked it safely away. "Indeed, Brother."
Daniel floated across the road, keeping just ahead of Jericho's long stride. "I'm almost looking forward to this. We haven't had a proper mage battle since we got here."
"The treaty forbids them," Jericho said firmly. "Open technological and magical wars are what caused the Fall in the first place."
"And in order to keep it from ever happening again, all the territories agreed to yadda yadda and so on and so forth." Daniel turned and floated backwards, arms folded. "I have heard this before, Jericho."
"I wasn't sure if you were listening." Jericho stood on the curb and studied those damn slippery wards for a moment longer before he raised his staff. Back in Manhattan, he'd made an offering to a the petro loa, and now Jericho called on him. Congo Savanne sent small hungry things with viscous teeth. They gnawed at the energy of the wards, eating away at the edges and making gaps between them. More came, and more, and they poured up the house, hovering above it, and eating in.
Daniel's lips turned down in distaste, and Jericho couldn't blame him. They both preferred not to ask favours of hot-spirited petro loa; they tended to interpret accords in ways the caller neither expected nor enjoyed.
He could feel the mage inside the wards trying to shore them up, but Jericho knew it wouldn't take long before the mage realised that he would need the energy elsewhere. Indeed, a moment later, the power surrounding the house peeled away and sank into the ground. The creatures followed it down, still feeding.
Jericho let them go. He too would need the energy.
When the front door finally flew open, it did so in a blaze of light and power.
He had to throw his arm across his eyes to block it out, but underneath Jericho grinned. The dark mage Mordo seemed to think that just because Jericho had bartered with another to bring the wards down, he wouldn't have enough of his own power to back it up.
His eyes met Daniel's for a moment, and his brother nodded. Jericho's smile tightened into something small and hungry itself, and he twirled his staff and stepped forwards.
Steve's hands shook a little as he unbuttoned Tony's fly. The three of them still huddled in the corner, and he and Natalia were trying to hide Tony's body with their own, without making what they were doing too obvious.
"Won't this just kill him anyway?" Natalia asked, sliding her hands up under Tony's shirt and across his chest. Steve had told her he could handle this on his own. Once Tony stopped laughing at him, Natalia had told him that, first, he could probably use all the help he could get, and, secondly, she didn't really mind making out with attractive young men. "What about that thing with his soul."
"The chances of surviving this are immensely better than the ones if you just snap my neck, and the results--" Tony stopped talking when Steve's fingers found their way inside his pants.
"Are you sure this is okay?" Steve said again, though really, it was probably too late to still be asking. However, he'd just conspired to murder Tony's childhood friend and potential lover. It seemed best to make sure. "I mean, it doesn't count unless you want this, right?" He remembered how he'd intercepted a couple of heavy betters who'd been unclear on that concept. By the time he was done with them, they'd gotten it. "And well, threatening you with death isn't really... well."
Tony pushed his hips forward, rubbing his hardening dick against Steve's hand. "We'll have to see, won't we? But I do not have a problem with having sex with you." Natalia's knee brushed along the inside of his thigh. "Or you, either, really." Her fingers traced the bones of his hips. "Whatever you want, I swear."
"Me too," Steve said. He pulled Tony's dick out of his pants and squeezed it lightly. "Whatever you want."
Tony had grown fully erect, and his eyes grew dark and wide. Steve tried not to think about how much he liked Tony backed against the wall, hands bound behind him. He wanted to push forward and lay their bodies against each other. He wanted the soft press of Natalia's breasts along his back, or the hard lines of her muscled thighs around his waist.
Instead, he focused on keeping a firm grip on Tony's dick with one hand and stroking with the other. It wasn't working out to be easy with his hands still bound, but he found something of a rhythm to it. A squeeze and Tony's breath hitched in, a stroke from base to tip and Tony exhaled with a sob.
"The guards are still watching," Natalia hissed. She had a sideways view of the door. "They know, I can tell." Her cuffs caught on the inside of Tony's shirt, and she had to yank hard to get them free.
"They're not doing anything about it, though," Steve said. "I don't think they understand." His hands fell still as he thought about this.
"For God's sake, don't stop!" Tony pressed forwards again, thrusting into Steve's fist and letting his head fall back against the wall. "Please, just finish it."
Steve circled his thumb over the head of Tony's dick, and when he whined and bucked in response, Steve decided that he'd had enough. He leaned forwards, pressing their chests together, and kissed Tony lightly on the lips. When Tony's mouth opened, acquiescing, Steve kissed him again, more deeply this time.
The shift trapped Natalia's hands between them, and she leaned in too, nibbling at the corner of Steve's jaw, demanding attention. Steve turned his face and kissed her too, making it long and slow and familiar, letting her taste mingle with Tony's.
Tony came then, splattering into the handkerchief in Steve's hands. "Well," he gasped, "check that off the list." He relaxed into them, resting his head on Steve's shoulder.
Steve kissed Tony's neck and pressed his nose into his hair.
Natalia tried to nudge Tony back against the wall, off of both of them. She was more prepared than Steve when Tony's body spasmed back, arching his spine and slamming his hips into Steve's.
He keened, and the sound made Steve's hair stand on end. He grabbed Tony's shirt and clutched him to his chest, but by that time, Tony had fallen limp again, and didn't move. He didn't have a pulse, either; his heart had fallen still under Steve's hands, and his eyes stared, half-closed, into nothing.
Inside the abandoned office, Iron Heart felt something break. Separated from its only tie to sanity, its only connection to anything at all, the fragmented soul inside it went mad. Flattening its ears back behind the curve of the chanfron protecting its face, it tore at its prison.
It could feel something powerful -- maybe dangerous, maybe a challenge -- just ahead, only on the other side of the thing in front of it, not very far. It put its head down, aiming its razor-sharp horn at the wall, and charged.
"How much longer?" Steve asked as his lips left Tony's.
Natalia locked her elbows and started another round of compressions against Tony's heart. "I don't know. Not long, ten minutes, maybe fifteen."
The guards had shouted when Tony first collapsed, and one had fumbled with his keys, desperate to get in. Then a dull thud, the sound of an immense quantity of air suddenly displaced, sounded in the distance, and half a second later, the whole building shuddered. The guards had run, leaving Steve and Natalia alone with Tony's body.
Steve stroked Tony's damp curls off his forehead. Idiot, he thought. "Only Tony would get himself into this, no one else in the world, I swear." He bent down again. Tony's lips felt so different now, cold and unresponsive.
"You are in love with him?" Natalia asked. Her shoulders moved with a steady, practised rhythm -- fifteen compressions and a pause for Steve to breathe, another fifteen compressions.
"I guess I am." Steve studied Tony's still face rather than risk meeting her eyes. "It doesn't mean I love you any less."
"I know. How long?"
"I don't know." Steve admitted. "A long time, years. I always felt like a hypocrite, all that time I spent keeping people away from him." Two breaths. "He called me his 'human chastity belt' once. He's always on my case about..." Steve broke off, the immensity of Tony's still body under his hands hitting him again. "What would I do without him?"
Natalia said nothing. As far as Steve knew, she always told him the truth when it came to personal matters, things between just the two of them. She would keep her peace forever before she offered comfort wrapped in lies.
Blue light tore across the street as Jericho called on Sogbo and his lightening. The formless green thing slouching towards them shimmered out of existence as the bolt touched it. The wall behind exploded into a cloud of brick dust, and soon the wind blew even that away.
"Another illusion," Daniel noted. He hovered above Jericho, trying to track Mordo and his distractions.
"Thank you, Brother." Jericho considered adding something sarcastic, but decided that his tone conveyed what he thought of Daniel stating the painfully obvious in the middle of a battle.
"That one's real!" Daniel's warning barely gave Jericho enough time to summon a shield against the razor-clawed little flying thing. Its bones cracked as it struck the barrier feet-first. On the ground, the creature snapped and gasped until Jericho broke its neck under his boot.
Jericho scanned the ruined street, peering through the eddies of smoke and debris. So far Mordo had kept his distance, alternating sending summoned demons and illusions at Daniel and Jericho. "I don't have time for this," he snarled. At this rate, he'd spend the rest of his life paying back favours for the loa called on tonight, and still not have done what he came to. "Brother Daniel, mind my soul, will you?"
Spreading his arms to the wind, he called Agau, of thunder and trembling earth, to him. They knew each other well by now, but Jericho's heart still sang at the single true moment as the loa climbed onto/into him. For less than a blink of an eye, the world felt more real than reality ever could be. Jericho could trace every line of energy that had ever run here, that had ever run through the city.
Then Agau had him, and he stood apart from himself. Jericho felt himself say, no, shout, I am the gunner of god. When I roar, the earth trembles!. And, indeed, the buildings around them cracked and tumbled down as the earth shook, though Jericho didn't sense that that power came from Agau -- at least, not all of it. The winds gathered into whirling devils and tore away the rubble, sweeping the street clean of concealments.
Mordo stood in the centre of it, protected by a pink bubble of energy. "Do you expect me to cower in fear, Drumm?" He raised his hands, fingers curved like claws, and blasted a path through the chaos. "I am not some low mage that you and your savage gods can bully." He stepped through his shield and into the wind. It didn't do more than ruffle his hair as he bore down on Jericho, balls of red lightening crackling in his hands. "I am your master in power and in practice. Did you really imagine that you could defeat me in my own territory?"
Jericho met Daniel's eyes, and his brother nodded. It was time. Thanking Agau, he asked him to leave and slid back into his own body. "Yes," he said simply. "I did. More importantly, I expected to distract you." By the time he finished speaking, he had released every one of his active enchantments, sending even Daniel away.
"From..." Mordo started, but he knew, and by then, it was too late.
Billy really wished that Marshal Rambeau didn't feel like she had to keep an eye on him the whole time. She was turning out to be a difficult person to meditate around, and this was complicated enough as it was.
She kept pulling her watch out, looking at it, snapping it closed, then doing the same thing all over again. Billy supposed, logically, that she probably felt pretty much on edge about this too, though not as nervous as he did, obviously. She didn't have the whole city counting on her to get this exactly right.
"It's time," Marshal Rambeau said, closing her watch one last time.
Billy already knew that. He could hear the bells of Trinity Church starting to sound out midnight. Beyond that, he could feel the network of power between the city's mages light up like sunshine catching in a spiderweb. He could feel a different kind of power down each slender thread. Most of them seemed pretty weird, but he knew his mom, Strange, and that green kid of Fury's. Telling himself he could, he reached his mind out for the others.
It didn't seem so hard now that he could connect with them. Doctor Drumm had said that Billy just had to supply the power and Strange and the others who actually knew what they were doing would direct it.
Now. His mother's voice vibrated down the web, and the dam burst. Every mage of any power in six territories, tapping into the same mystic plane, at the same moment, channelled every scrap of power they had access to and released it.
It will be like a magical nuclear bomb, Mister Stark had said. Billy didn't know what that was -- beyond that it was some tech thing related to the Fall and subsequently forbidden under the treaty -- but he'd caught the gist of it from Doctor Drumm's expression.
Billy didn't realise that he'd fallen backwards until he woke up with his head in Marshal Rambeau's lap, which was not something he'd ever wanted to do.
"Did it work?" she asked, after she'd determined that he knew his name, her name, the date and what territory they were in.
Reaching out for the mystic planes felt like poking an open wound. "Yeah, it's gone. We totally fried the whole thing." Pushing himself upright, he frowned deeply and pulled his brows together in an approximation of what Doctor Drumm looked like when he was being Very Serious about something. "Soul binding is forbidden now, we have burnt the bridge and locked the doors."
Marshal Rambeau snorted. "That is the worst impression of Jericho I've ever heard." She stood, then pulled him to his feet as if he weighed nothing at all. "What about the unicorns? What happened to the people that were already trapped?"
He was the wrong person to ask about what had just happened, though also, unfortunately, the only one the marshal could ask right now. "I think they're free."
"To do what?"
Billy shrugged. "Whatever they want, I guess."
Tony felt pain in his chest and hands holding his head down, and flung his arms out. His shoulders wrenched as the manacles binding his hands snapped tight, and he flopped harmlessly against the cold floor. He tried head butting but caught only air. He wasn't going to let this happen to him this time. Osborn and his pet monsters wouldn't even know what hit them.
The hands left him just as he pushed his energy into sitting up, and he ended up flipping over sideways. He tried again, pushing against the floor under him, but a solid hand fell on his shoulder.
A voice said something, maybe his name, and he flinched away. It sounded like another language, but he couldn't tell for sure. When a the grip on his shoulder squeezed down like a vice, he lashed out again, and this time his forehead connected with bone. It wasn't hard, but the hand let go, giving Tony room to flip onto his side and work his way up to sitting against the bars of the cell.
"Tony?" the voice said again, and like a switch in his mind, where and when he was clicked into place.
"Steve," he whispered.
Steve's face moved into his field of vision. His skin was pale and sweaty, and he had a wide-eyed stare that Tony hadn't seen on him for a long time, not since the days he'd dreamed of the war five nights a week.
"Steve," Tony said again. "What's wrong with you?"
"I don't--" Steve's shoulders shook, and Tony couldn't tell if it was from laughing or crying. He still hadn't figured out which it was when Steve wrapped looped his arms over Tony and pulled him against his chest, his face in Tony's hair.
Tony rested his chin on Steve's shoulder and tried to figure out what was going on. He could see Natalia behind Steve, barely suppressing her own grin, and he realised what must have happened. "I told you it was a good plan!"
"Sure, Tony," Steve said, kissing the bare skin behind Tony's ear.
"No, really." Taking a moment to extract his elbow from Steve's side and return the embrace. "Bad guy go boom, the treaty protected, and I even got sort of laid. This was my best plan ever."
"It certainly had its moments," Natalia moved closer and rested a hand on Tony's hair, absently caressing Steve's cheek with her thumb. "I am also sorry about your friend."
"So am I." Tony couldn't tell if she had meant because Ty was dead at her hand, or because he'd betrayed Tony's trust so completely. Which was fine, because he didn't know what he was sorry for either. Maybe all of that and more. He'd figure it out later. He pushed away from Steve. "So can we get out of here now, or what?"
Steve didn't untangle himself, but let them separate enough to study Tony's face. "Think you can walk?" he asked.
"Sure, why not?"
"Five minutes ago, you did not have a pulse," Natalia pointed out.
"Well..." Tony took a moment to assess. "My chest hurts like hell, for which I blame you, but otherwise I'm as good as new. Better, actually." He thought he'd feel an absence now that the connection with Iron Heart was gone, but it felt more like there had never been a space to fill at all. "So let's go."
Steve pulled them both up while Natalia picked the locks, first on their manacles, then on the door. He looked like he wanted to ask Tony if he was sure he was sure.
"How long was I out?" Tony asked.
"I don't know, a long time." Steve rubbed his neck, working at a knotted muscle.
"A little more than half an hour." The door clicked open, and Natalia returned the picks to the sleeve of her shirt.
That explained Tony's chest. "Oh well, thanks for the CPR." He followed Natalia out of the cell and down the hall to the left. It wasn't the way they'd come in, but she seemed to know where she was going. "And um... and the hand job."
"Not a problem."
Tony couldn't tell if Natalia was being funny or if she just didn't care, but when Steve said, "Any time, Tony," he stopped abruptly enough that Steve just about ran into him.
Steve hesitated. "Um..."
"We will work something out," Natalia said briskly.
"Really?" This time both men spoke the word in unison.
"Yes. Really." She turned away, starting off again, and they ran after her. The lighting grew poorer as they went, the globes of bioluminescence mounted on the walls smaller and further apart. Tony couldn't help but feel that they were descending into the bowels of the dungeon. After the day they'd had, though, he was pretty sure he'd follow her anywhere, confident that she'd lead him out again at the end. "We can discuss it another time."
"Right," Steve said, apparently a lot better at compartmentalising life-changing sentences than Tony. "Jericho's probably already at the rendezvous point, wondering where we are. And we have to get the Mary Read out of the locks."
Tony finally managed to disentangle his brain from the rat's nest that the memory of warm hands on his skin and Natalia's words had made of it. "I'll figure something out," he promised. "Assuming water still flows downhill, it shouldn't be that difficult."
The night hadn't lifted enough to reveal any real details yet, and the soldiers set up a perimeter of lanterns around the disaster zone.
Marshal Osborn glared down at the crater that had, not five hours ago, been his most important lab, and tried to decide if killing anyone would help. Doctor Mordo was the best bet, but no one had seen him, or his house, since moments after the explosion that had destroyed the lab. That red-haired spy had taken care of Stone before he'd had that pleasure.
The rational part of his mind told him that nothing could come of slaughtering a scapegoat. The small voice that crept up around the edges didn't care.
The scream of a raptor jerked his attention to the sky. There wasn't enough light for normal birds to see yet, and besides, he knew that call. The bird belonged to one of Rambeau's underlings, the gardener.
The red-tailed hawk circled over Osborn once, then opened its talons and sped back in the direction it had come from. A tightly rolled sheet of paper fell neatly into his hand.
Osborn briefly considered burning the message unread, but the need to know his enemies got the better of that impulse.
The message itself was short, a single sentence written in Rambeau's neat printing: That is what happens when you break the treaty. A list of signatories -- every Marshal, mage and technologist in the other six territories -- filled the rest of it.
Nodding to himself, Osborn folded the paper four times and put it in his pocket.
The goblin, deprived of the means to spend its anger on its chosen target, would turn inward.
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