Actions

Work Header

From Fire by Fire

Chapter Text

PART ONE

 

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

- T.S. Eliot

 

 (After)

I am twenty-nine.

By the time I find him, he’s an old man. ‘Old’ is relative, of course; he is only in his sixties, and they say that sixty is the new forty, but the years have been no kinder to him than he has been to the world. With his scarred face and cold gray eyes he was never a handsome figure; now, bloated by drink and hard drugs, deflated by his own soul-sapping perversion, lined and bent with self-inflicted misery, he appears a caricature of himself, bearing little resemblance to the man I remember.

He sits in a moth-eaten parlor in a Prague apartment, dressed in a ratty bathrobe, mangy carpet slippers on his feet. He faces the window as though contemplating the flat grey sky, but the way he raises his head when I enter, the way he asks in a quavering old-man voice, “Eliska, are you back?” tells me that my information is correct.

Maybe if those other girls could see him now – blind, desiccated, surrounded by the dusty evidence of indigence and privation – maybe they would be able to sleep a little more soundly.

“I told Eliska to take the rest of the day off,” I say in English, stepping further into the room. “Nice woman, although she hasn’t exactly been working her fingers to the bone, has she? This place is a dump.”

He is silent. His marred, sagging face betrays no emotion.

“She was a bit of a surprise,” I continue. “I didn’t think Eliska was really your type. From what I recall, you used to like them a lot younger.”

I count the time – seven measured heartbeats – before the Mad Russian’s stoicism cracks, tremulous lips curving into a bitter smile. “Who sent you?” he asks, slipping back into his native tongue.

“No one sent me,” I tell him in the same language, with the same deliberate tone. Through the window I see a flock of kestrels launch themselves into hasty flight, perhaps startled by a predator on the ground. They dip and wheel before spiraling out of sight.

The old man makes a coarse, barking sound; an attempt at laughter from one sorely out of practice. “So you are one of them, then. Have you come to bring me to justice?” He says the final word like an epithet, with something beyond scorn, beyond mockery.

“The law could do little to you that you haven’t done to yourself.” It would have been far more satisfying to find him hale and healthy, surrounded by every luxury, every indulgence. It would have soothed my soul to be able to take that away from him. “The Czechs haven’t executed anyone in almost four decades.”

The old man sniffs disdainfully. “Capital punishment. Barbaric.”

Thinking of Sasha, thinking of my own little girl, makes the decision easy. Easier than it should be.

I lift my arm, squeeze my fist. The two darts are small but keen; they penetrate the loose skin beneath his jaw with a nearly inaudible snap. The Mad Russian’s death is quick, quiet, bloodless… and disappointing.

I yearn for the splash of crimson across the dingy draperies and stained upholstery, for the sharp report of supersonic lead, for the stench and curl of gunpowder smoke. I want him to die as my parents died. I want to leave nothing behind but ash.

I don’t set a match to the corpse, however, partly because the building is home to at least sixteen other people, innocent people who don’t deserve to have their apartments burned to the ground, but also partly because fire spooks me. The power of it. The unflinching ferocity.

Instead I leave the body, as sightless and withered as it had been at my arrival, although slightly less alive.

 

(Before: 1993)

Summer in Bangalore puts Mary Charlotte Morgan in mind of Hell.

To most of the city’s nine million inhabitants Hell is Naraka, realm of Yama, the blue-skinned, rod-and-noose wielding god of Death.

Mary Charlotte has done her research. She knows that in early texts Naraka is simply a dark and bottomless pit. Later on, after Hinduism gained a little color and depth, it became a blanket term for twenty-eight distinct hells, each constructed for the punishment of twenty-eight types of sinners; the covetous, the heretical, the licentious and others are awaited by their own proscribed tortures. In Naraka there are beatings and blindings, crushings and stabbings, all wildly inventive and unequivocally grotesque.

In Bangalore there is only the heat.

Mary Charlotte walks through the largest of the slum districts, armed only with the modesty of her dress and the goodness of her past works. The few English-speakers call her “sister”; she smiles and promises to visit them in their little huts and hovels at a more opportune time. 

At the moment, she is on a mission.

Prakash’s message takes her into the heart of Lakshman Rau Nagar. The people here are absorbed in their own duties: the hanging of laundry, the painting of fences, the solicitation of tech and flash and flesh. A young man fixes a bicycle. A swarm of urchins kick a faded soccer ball from one narrow alley to the next. Broken bottles and plastic sheeting lay half-submerged in a muddy ditch where two young women in colorful shawls scoop water into buckets.

At the appointed intersection she spots Prakesh, leaning against a tumbledown building and pretending to read a newspaper. He is not wearing his policeman’s uniform, which would have unnerved the neighborhood and sent Mary Charlotte’s quarry, in particular, back into flight, but it is still obvious that he does not belong here.

He looks up as she approaches, folding his paper and giving her a shy smile. Mary Charlotte, slim and winsome and not yet twenty-seven, has suspected for some time that Prakesh is a bit infatuated with her, despite what he knows about her spiritual vocation. Or, at least, what he believes he knows. Mercifully he does not attempt to engage in small talk or uncomfortable compliments, merely nods across the street. “That’s her, then?”

The girl sits in the doorway of an abandoned building. An eviction notice is taped to a dirty window, but this was not the girl’s home. She is not a native of Lakshman in particular or Bangalore in general, only an orphaned waif, a runaway from a suburb seventy kilometers to the east.

She is thin and filthy, but underneath the patina of grime Mary Charlotte can still see evidence of the fire. Her black hair is short and snarled in places where the flames singed it, and her cheeks are smudged with soot stains. This child could be one of a million other foundlings, dirty and desolate, except that Mary Charlotte never forgets a face.

“Yes,” she says. “Well done. Have you spoken to her?”

“I tried,” says Prakesh wryly. His English is inflected but otherwise impeccable. “Asked for directions. Thought that would be innocent enough. She told me to… well, it’s not fit for your ears, Sister. I thought I’d frightened her away, but she just keeps sitting there, not even looking at me… not looking at anything, really. It’s like she’s waiting for something.”

She is, thinks Mary Charlotte. She’s identified you as one breed of pervert or another, and she’s waiting for you to make the first move. She’s decided that it is better to keep a dangerous man in plain sight, out in the open street, rather than retreat into the dubious safety of Lakshman’s shadowed veins and arteries. She may be only seven, untutored, illiterate, but she is extraordinary.

Mary Charlotte leaves Prakesh with a smile and a brief touch on his arm – let him make of both what he will – and approaches the girl. The urchin looks up, suspicious but not alarmed. No doubt she has pegged Mary Charlotte as a colleague – perhaps an employee – of the deviant with the newspaper, sent to cozen her, to tempt her, to draw her away into some dark space between leaning buildings where bodies are too often dragged out in vinyl bags by harried municipal workers.

“Hello, Devi,” says Mary Charlotte, slipping into Kannada, the dominant language of this southern state.

The girl’s suspicion grows, although she doesn’t respond to the name or even confirm its accuracy. She is canny. She is shrewd. There is a welt below her right eye, several days old, surrounded by a yellowish-green halo of a bruise.

“I’ve been looking for you for almost a week now,” Mary Charlotte continues, kneeling down in front of the girl’s stoop, ignoring the way the heels of her shoes squelch in the mud and refuse. “I had no idea you would make it so far on your own. I was afraid something terrible had happened to you. You haven’t been hurt, have you?”

Devi’s lips curl. “Why do you care? Why are you looking for me?”

“Because I saw what you did. I saw the fire.”

The girl’s face pales, the bruise becoming more livid, the smudges of soot and filth more pronounced. For a moment she trembles on the edge of tears, looking like the defenseless child that she is, and then some font of strength wells up inside her and she sets her delicate jaw. “Is that why he’s here?” she asks brashly, nodding at Prakesh without taking her eyes off Mary Charlotte. “To arrest me?”

Mary Charlotte suppresses a smile. “No, Devi. He’s my friend. He’s been helping me look for you.” In reality, Prakesh is only the last in a long line of spies and informants that managed to track the girl from Kolar. “My name is Mary Charlotte Morgan. I have a house in the city proper… a place where girls like you can be safe.”

“And you want to take me there?”

“I do.”

“Is it a brothel?”

Mary Charlotte is now compelled to smile at the girl’s boldness. “No, my dear. I have not been placed on this Earth to commit such atrocities, or to allow them to be committed in my name. My house is a place of scholarship. Learning. There are other girls there. Girls who have no one else.”

Devi hugs her knees to her chest, her eyes as dark as smoke. “What about them?” she asks after a moment of thoughtful silence, nodding as the traveling soccer game moves back down the main street, and Mary Charlotte realizes that many of the players are female. “Why don’t you want them, too?”

The girl does not want a lecture on the limited resources available to a lone woman, or the logistics involved in rounding up herds of children to be schooled whether they like it or not. She is commenting, really, on the fundamental unfairness of life, and Mary Charlotte has no answer for her. All she has is the truth. “I want you,” she tells Devi Namasri, “because I have been put on this Earth with a gift. I can tell when somebody is meant for great things. I can tell when they are special. And you, my dear… you are very special indeed.”

 

(Before: 2012)

Being an international jet-setter, Stark is ready to jump back on the jet and set off for New York City as soon as dinner is over – which is to say, after he’s sampled an obscene number of desserts and put away another half-bottle of wine.

Thor - who is responsible for the other half, as well as a stack of empty plates, a small pile of bent cutlery, and the head chef’s state of high dudgeon after being informed that one of his customers was requesting something called “Pop-Tarts” – seems open to this plan of action. Having traveled to Frankfurt under his own power (he’d still been in the American southwest with Jane Foster when Stark and the others left from New York) he’s looking forward to flying in the Gulfstream the same way an elderly train enthusiast might anticipate an afternoon spent touring a park on a miniature steam locomotive.

Rogers is the first to demur, saving both Clint and Natasha the trouble. “It’s late,” he says, rolling his broad shoulders as he glances at his watch. “By the time we get back to New York it’ll still be the middle of the night. Unless you’ve got somewhere to be in the next twelve hours, I think it makes more sense to head back in the morning.”

Stark grunts tacit acknowledgement and mutters something covetous about SHIELD’s speedy Quinjets, looking a little put-out, but when Banner compliments Rogers’ logic, and Thor muses aloud that it would be “gratifying” to visit his old Nordic stomping grounds while he’s in the neighborhood, Stark gives in with good grace, contenting himself with caustic comments regarding Oslo and its environs.

He makes a call, books some rooms for himself, Rogers and Banner at the Hotel Gravenbruch, and they plan to rendezvous at the airfield at noon, which is apparently the billionaire’s version of ‘getting an early start.’

Once again there are handshakes all around – they all politely decline another hug from Thor and are rewarded with a series of vigorous back-slaps instead – and then they depart through the front of the restaurant. The customers still lingering in the front room are oddly quiet and watchful as the six of them make their exit, but at least nobody whips out a camera phone.

*

Stark offers them a ride back to the apartment, Thor makes a comment about ‘nighttime revelry in the streets’ and Rogers, apparently forgetting everything he knows about the two of them in the interest of being a mother hen, warns against the possibility of ‘hooligans’ causing trouble so late at night.

In the end, however, Natasha and Clint walk back alone through Frankfurt’s lamp-lit avenues, encountering some revelers but very little in the way of hooliganism. Her right hand bumps once against his left, and then again, and when he curls his fingers around hers she makes no attempt to pull away. It’s a moment of weakness on his part, perhaps, or a moment of softness on hers, or maybe a bit of both.

*

The moment the door to the apartment closes, she pushes him against it. Not with enough force to hurt, really, just enough to rattle the door in its frame, just enough to make the puritanical middle-aged couple across the hall to shake their heads disapprovingly, just enough to send Clint’s hormone levels, which had previously been on a low simmer, into a stratospheric spike.

The door’s decorative molding digs hard into the small of his back and shoulder blades, but then Natasha steps in towards him, a wordless intensity in her eyes that heretofore he has seen reserved for men about to sustain serious injury, and suddenly he can’t tell if he’s leaning against a feather mattress or a bed of nails. Their lips meet with sudden urgency; her arms wind around his neck. Every sense is close to overload with the realness and warmth of her, with the cool silk blouse beneath his fingers, with the firm press of her breasts against his chest, with the soft scrape of teeth against his bottom lip.

His hands drift down, finding the slits in her knee-length skirt, slipping underneath and then up, circumnavigating her hips on a quest for the hem of her panties.

He finds only skin.

Her lips curve almost imperceptibly against his and a sound escapes his throat, a sound that is barely identifiable as human, long and low and wordless. It’s just as well. If he’d been able to talk he would have found himself saying something stupid, like you’re amazing (obvious), or I love you (because that went over like a lead balloon the first time) or even just why didn’t you tell me you weren’t wearing anything under that skirt? (when it’s obvious that, had she said something, dinner would have been a hell of a lot shorter.)

He’s thinking very seriously about pulling up that skirt and seeing how she likes being pushed up against the door, neighbors be damned, but she anticipates him. She steps back and he follows, with no greater thought than to remain in contact with those fantastic lips, realizing belatedly that one of her hands is still fisted in his shirt. She half-leads, half-drags him across the small foyer, into the living room; Clint thinks that she’s heading for the sofa, which has been the setting for many happy memories this past week, but instead she pushes him down into the red suede-upholstered club chair and climbs on top of him.

Well okay. This works too.

The seat of the chair is easily wide enough to accommodate the both of them like this, with her knees on either side of his hips, and the back is low enough that she can brace her arms behind his head as they kiss. And for a while kissing is all they do, although it’s a slow, deep, smoldering, thoroughly dirty kind of kissing that calls every square centimeter of their mouths into play, that leaves them both gasping and groaning with the desire for more.

And all the while, what small amount of Clint’s brain remains capable of higher functions keeps thinking. About the way she let him take her hand. About her distantness the night they learned of Fisher and Manesh’s escape. Despite all the complications in their lives – all the complications that are their lives – they’ve pretended to live in some charmed bubble for the past week, in a place where the world can’t hurt them and they can’t hurt each other.

They knew it was going to change eventually. They weren’t ever going to settle down in this city, get normal jobs and become normal people. Normal isn’t something that exists for people like them. But the thing about living in a bubble… well, it’s a little like those old cartoons, when the cat or the coyote or the huntsman strays unknowingly off a precipice but doesn’t actually fall until he realizes there’s no solid ground beneath his feet, as though physics is a function of perception. They’ve been suspended in midair, and they’ve only just looked down. They’re not falling, not yet, but gravity tugs on their limbs, anxious to assert itself.

It feels like everything is about to change forever, and it isn’t fair because everything already changed forever seven days ago.

He buries his hands in her hair, that freshly-red riot of curls, kisses her until he’s dizzy, until little spots begin to dance behind his closed eyelids.  She responds by moving in his lap, rolling her hips as her own hands leave the chair behind his head, drifting across his jaw, his collarbone, ghosting against his chest and stomach until they reach the fastenings of his slacks. Now he has no chance of breathing whatsoever, but fine, whatever, breathing seems pretty optional at this point.

Natasha straightens and pulls her blouse over her head. Her hands return to his fly as he fumbles with the closure on her bra, which is as complicated as a sailor’s most difficult knot, and then the straps are falling off her shoulders, shimmying down her arms, and the offending item goes the way of the blouse.

He reacquaints himself with every bit of exposed flesh, with his fingers, his lips, his tongue, his teeth, and her hands are busy as well, working beneath the flared fabric of her skirt and the pleats of his pants. He tries to turn each kiss, each caress, into a promise. Not a promise for forever, because he isn’t sure what forever means, but for tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that, and the next one too, as long as she wants it, as long as she’ll let him.

She shivers, either from the cool air on her skin or from some psychic sense of his heavy thoughts. “Now, Clint,” she gasps, her voice high and strained, and when the woman says now she means now because before he can even begin to suggest they take this to the bedroom – he is fully dressed, after all, save for in one particular area – she goes up on her knees, inches further up his body, and sinks down on him in one smooth motion.

Clint has a stroke. Something. Something happens. Promises are gone. Thoughts are gone. Words are replaced by sounds, and the sounds they make meld together in erotic harmony. Nothing exists except for the sight of her, the feel of her, her heat and her voice, the way she holds his eyes with her own the first time she comes, the way her lips shape soundless syllables that might as well, in that moment, be the three words she’s already warned him she may never say.

 

(1)

“See? You should have let me be involved with this from the beginning!”

“What, and deprive you of the chance to say ‘I told you so’? And why do you act like you’re the resident expert on these things? How many cross-dimensional Einstein-Rosen bridges have you opened?”

If Jane Foster was ever intimidated by Tony Stark – and Natasha imagines that she was at first, because most people are – she seems pretty much over it now.

“Opened?” snarls Stark over the comm line. “None. Actually been through? Oh yeah, that was me. Hey, next are you going to ask how many unholy alien swarms I’ve personally unleashed on the planet? Because I think you’ve got a leg up on me there, sweetheart.”

This has been going on for the last fifteen minutes, since before their arrival in what remains of Puente Antiguo, and Thor is suspiciously silent. Either the communications device he was given is no match for his mighty eardrum, or he’s decided not to get into the middle of an argument between his girlfriend and his teammate.

Teammate. Natasha shakes her head and banks the modified Quinjet back towards the center of the rift.

Puente Antiguo – what’s left of it – is spread out below her. Main Street is still in charred shambles; other buildings are merely dusty from disuse, although some homes and shops bear the tale-tell signs of looting.

Many residents of this sleepy New Mexican town had fled of their own volition right after the business with Thor and the Destroyer (thereby showing more common sense than the great majority of New Yorkers, in Natasha’s estimation, who seem content to live under the shadow of Stark Tower, a.k.a. Avengers Tower, a.k.a. A Giant Bad Guy Magnet). The rest were evacuated by SHIELD in the following weeks under the pretense that the lingering effects of the Destroyer – or Mjolnir, or the portal that had brought both of them to Earth – might be hazardous to the population’s health. The official explanation, of course, had been something about a natural gas leak.

In reality, Fury hadn’t wanted thousands of civilians so close to the shiny new research base he was building on the foundations of the Mjolnir site about 50 miles away. Yeah, he was thinking about the civilians’ security… but mostly about his own.

If Natasha were to gain altitude she would be able to look towards the west and see the rim of the crater, which is even less altered than the town below. After the bodies of Loki’s first victims were pulled from the rubble, after SHIELD’s hard copies of confidential files and most valuable tech were recovered – not necessarily in that order – the site had been largely abandoned. The area is fenced off now, and the fence is plastered with warning signs bearing the name and stern device of the EPA.

Whether these signs are just a ruse, or there really is an environmental impact study being done regarding the effects of low-level gamma radiation on the grey-banded kingsnake and the Pecos springsnail, even Natasha isn’t sure. The American government can be awfully strange.

*

The rift in the sky above Puente Antiguo is small, certainly not on the scale of the portal in New York City, simply a thin silvery scar against the brilliant reds and oranges of the desert sunset. It was innocuous enough at first to entirely escape the notice of Jane and Erik Selvig, who had come here to attempt to reopen a bridge between Asgard and Earth.

SHIELD had been kept in the dark about this gambit; Jane and Selvig claimed that was because they’d had little hope it would work. Darcy Lewis, when asked, had taken a slightly different view of the whole thing: “Are you kidding? Of course we didn’t tell them. They would have swooped in here and taken all of our stuff. Again.” (She said this while unconsciously clutching her iPod to her chest.) “Besides, that freaky Fury guy would have had kittens.”

Natasha thinks that she might enjoy seeing Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, have kittens.

Whatever Jane and Selvig claim now, their attempt had been successful. Their jury-rigged bridge was able to piggyback the old path of the Bifrost and, while Thor claims it isn’t as elegant or as comfortable as the original rainbow road, it has served its purpose. What no one was expecting was that the door they opened might remain cracked, that it would swing wider as time passed, and that something else might follow him through.

Each is the size of a small sedan; they are faintly translucent, a spectrum of reds and pinks and beiges in the light of the western sun, with black eyes as round and flat as buttons if buttons were as big as hubcaps. Their bulbous bodies, laced with blue veins, are gelatinous enough to send Bill Cosby into transports of delight, but their legs and slashing mouth-parts are covered in shiny white chitin which, according to Steve, “is pretty dang sharp.”

Steve has a talent for understatement. When they’d first arrived on the scene, he’d said, “Wow, those are ugly.”

The captain is on the ground, on a stretch of road that seems to have escaped both the Destroyer’s wrath and the looters’ avarice, trying to engage one of the things without being sliced to ribbons. Despite its mass and its stubby legs it can move fast, darting in at Steve, mandibles flashing with a snick-snick sound like scissoring blades.

A few blocks away, near the worst of the infestation, Bruce and Jane are hunkered down behind the van, hunched over tablets as they try to repurpose the equipment on the roof of a nearby bank – intended to analyze subatomic particles in the atmosphere – to tell them something useful about the creatures. Thor referred to them as “lice on the tree of Yggdrasil,” as though that’s supposed to mean something to your average Midgardian.

“So Thor, you know what these things are?” Stark asks now, since Foster is ignoring him in favor of Banner and the computers.

“Indeed,” says Thor warily. So, nothing wrong with his communications device.

The two men are on the opposite side of town, trying to confine the space lice to the ruins of Puente Antiguo; the city of Ashmore, New Mexico is about fifteen miles to the southeast (not big, as cities go, but too big to evacuate, so SHIELD had settled for threatening the population a lot) over a small rise of dusty, scrub-covered hills.

“You get them on Asgard?”

“Occasionally.”

“Do you know how to get rid of them?”

So far, nothing they’ve tried has worked. The creatures’ soft, vulnerable-looking bodies absorb anything thrown at them: directed energy, projectiles, even a downed telephone pole hurled like a javelin… all simply pass through their jelly-like physique with barely a ripple, exiting through the other side without any visible damage. The white chitin, on the other hard, appears diamond-hard, impervious to destruction.

“Well,” says Thor.

“Well? Don’t well me.”

“…we have servants for that,” Thor finishes lamely.

Stark curses with fluency and imagination under his breath – of course his headset picks up every word and broadcasts it to the rest of them as clearly as if he were standing over their shoulders – choosing to ignore the fact that he grew up as much a pampered prince as Thor and would be equally flummoxed if asked to remove a colony of boll weevils from a cotton field. “Think you could run back home and get one of them?”

“And risk opening the rift even wider?” This is Jane, her tone scathing.

“Hey! I’m trying to be helpful here!”

Try harder.”

Bruce interjects. “Barton, I need you to turn the largest satellite dish about… twenty degrees to the north.”

Natasha’s pulse stutters at the sound of his name and she swings the Quinjet around again, starting another pass over the bank. Clint is up there amid the nest of dishes and cables and emitters which, nearly a month ago, had located the end of the bridge (the fact that it had drifted in from the desert during the past year and a half is completely normal, Foster informed them, and to be expected, because… well, because science).

Clint is ostensibly there to cover Banner and Foster’s position at the van, despite the fact that his arrows do as little damage as Thor’s hammer and Stark’s rockets, but he’s already been called upon twice before to adjust the dish and once to read data off a monitor.

It makes Natasha nervous. He’s easy enough to miss while covering the street, camouflaged in the shadow of a blocky HVAC shed, but Jane’s equipment is out in the middle of the roof. The creatures, numbering about two dozen, have thus far remained down on the street, but there’s no reason to think those insectile legs aren’t capable of scaling a stucco façade.

What am I doing up here? she wonders. If we’re all ineffective, I might as well be ineffective with them.

But Steve had wanted eyes in the sky. And since she was the lone mere mortal whose specialties involved close-quarters combat, a tactic not specifically recommended for fighting giant protoplasmic space lice, she’d drawn the metaphoric short straw.

A slivery shimmer catches the corner of her eye and she looks up through the cockpit window, into the blood-red, bruise-purple sky. “Here comes another one.”

It trembles at the lip of the rift, grossly distended and horribly ripe, like a boil about to burst, squeezing through and simultaneously inflating itself until its translucent skin is stretched shiny-tight. It hovers there for a moment and then begins to drop towards the ground, controlling its descent as it alters its own volume, collapsing like a balloon with a slow leak until it’s no longer lighter than air, until it’s the size of a compact car instead of a Hummer. It gently touches asphalt in front of the Starbucks drive-through and skitters away between that building and an adjacent food truck.

Lighter than air…

Thor is still talking about the lice – parasites, feed off rare minerals in the crust, been known to hollow out small moons and asteroids – and Natasha doesn’t know if there are any analogous metals drawing the creatures to this place or if they’re just taking advantage of an open door, but she speaks over Thor. “Clint…”

“Yeah. I see it.”

“See what?” Steve is starting to sound winded. “This isn’t working, fellas.”

Before Natasha can answer, Stark unleashes a volley of rockets at a cluster of lice up the street from Foster’s van. Most hit their target without effect – except for the burping sound the projectiles make as they pass out the far side of each boneless mass – but one strikes a nearby sixteen-wheeler emblazoned with a familiar logo, exploding against the cab door in a blast of black smoke.

Steve sighs heavily. He’s talked to them all about minimizing property damage.

“Well I don’t think Wal-Mart’s coming back for it,” snaps Stark.

Natasha ignores both of them. She’s watching the four lice by the power line, and sure enough, the one nearest the truck seems spooked, finds its escape cut off by the bodies of its comrades, and begins to inflate its body. In two seconds its chitinous legs are barely touching the concrete; seven seconds after that it’s risen twelve feet into the sky and is clear of the smoldering trailer.

“Heads up,” says Clint.

Natasha’s too high up to see his release, or the path of his arrow, but she certainly sees its effect. One moment the creature is gently wafting over the roof of a 7-11 mini-mart, and the next there is only a brilliant blossom of fire and a fresh rain of debris in the street, most of it resembling half-melted plastic.

Nice,” says Stark approvingly.

“Hit ‘em while they’re in the air,” Clint continues, amusement in his voice. “They’re like little Hindenbergs.”

“I beg to differ on the ‘little’ part,” grunts Steve. “Okay, I’m in. How do we get them in the air in the first place?”

“Startle them,” says Natasha, wheeling above, counting targets. Twenty-three remain in sight, assuming more don’t join the party from the other side of the rift. “If it’s bad enough, flight will override fight.”

“Great. Any idea what scares flying space jellyfish?”

Natasha thinks. The things haven’t been impressed by what’s been thrown at them so far; Stark’s rocket was an accident – although she’d never get him to admit that – and even that only worked because the louse couldn’t get away fast enough on its feet. “Corner them,” she says. “Put something big and loud in their path, leave them no way to go but up.”

“Oh boy.” Bruce sighs resignedly. “I guess that’s me, then, isn’t it?”

 

(2)

Stark’s next words are obviously directed at Jane Foster: “Step away from the Hulk. You are too close to the Hulk.”

Foster doesn’t need to be told twice. She runs around the side of the van, jumps into the driver’s seat and peels away without a backwards look, almost broad-siding a slug-crab-thing as it scrabbles out from behind the ruins of a furniture store.

Clint hopes Banner doesn’t take it personally.

The guy is just standing there, looking small and pale and completely unenthusiastic, and then in the space of a couple of heartbeats the other guy is in his place, his appearance heralded by much ripping of clothing and stomping of feet and a long, animalistic howl that freezes Clint’s blood in his veins.

Thankfully it seems to have a similar effect on the nearest slug-crab, which had turned as though to pursue Foster’s van; instead, it freezes in place and begins to swell, lifting up and into the air much more quickly than its dead buddy by the mini-mart.

“I got this one,” says Stark; Clint, bow set to string, lets him have it. The explosion is bigger this time, but the results are the same.

“Twenty-two,” says Natasha.

*

The count is down to eleven (Clint: two, Stark: four, Thor: five, all with assists by the Hulk, and Stark claims that Thor cheated on the one by the Mexican restaurant but refuses to give specifics) and they’re almost starting to enjoy themselves when Clint hears Nat’s voice in his ear again. “Uh, guys? Cavalry’s coming in from the east.”

“SHEILD already?” whines Stark, like a kid being told he can’t have a puppy.

“No, they’re still three to five minutes out. Take a look.”

Clint, still on the bank rooftop, is too low to see anything. He hears it, though: police sirens, a whole chorus of them, drawing steadily nearer.

“Hey guys,” says Stark, probably broadcasting his voice through the patrol cars’ speakers. “Iron Man here. I think we got this under control here, thanks.”

“Mr. Stark,” comes the terse reply, “this is Sheriff Morales, and you’re welcome to… whatever those things are. But we got a tip that there’re still people living in some of these buildings. We’re here to get them out before you burn the other half of the town down.”

“Crap,” says Stark, and privately Clint agrees. If they’d known this place was still inhabited by anything besides tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes… well, they’re going to get the minimize property damage lecture from Cap again.

Speaking of Rogers, at least this new wrinkle gives him something to do besides stand around and lament his lack of explosives.

*

Natasha narrates the next few minutes as she circles above, monitoring the proceedings, and Clint listens with interest. About a dozen squatters emerge from a mostly-intact hotel at the south end of town and Rogers herds them towards the cops, trying to avoid the worst of the slug-crab fires and the wide swath of destruction the Hulk is causing as he frightens the last of the creatures into the sky.

The airspace and ground around the bank seem clear, so Clint rappels down off the faux-stucco siding and jogs across the street to the 7-11 parking lot. Here, the first thing he blew up is still smoldering quietly, giving off the stench of burning rubber, propane, and something that smells strangely like curry.

A series of thuds and grunts announces the Hulk’s presence in the street about a block away; Clint tenses, considering which arrow in his quiver of tricks might afford him the best distraction, but the other guy seems to be at least somewhat in his right mind. He lumbers up the street as Natasha’s voice in Clint’s ear announces, “That should be the last of… wait. Incoming.”

Clint automatically looks skyward; the Hulk, grunting in anticipation, follows his lead. The rift is more noticeable now, shimmering against the indigo-purple twilight, but it’s difficult to spot the blob squirming its way into their dimension. Still, he trusts Natasha’s eyes better than his own.

He reaches back for the proper arrow, fits it to the string, and waits for her to tell him that his target is in range.

Her warning almost comes too late.

A jet swoops overhead, so low it seems he could reach up and touch the fuselage. It’s not Nat’s; he can tell, even in the gathering darkness, because of the SHIELD symbol painted proudly on its flank.

The other cavalry is here.

The Quinjet rockets past them, the force of its wake bursting the one remaining intact window in Puente Antiguo. The Hulk makes an unhappy sound in the back of his throat and Clint concurs, watching the jet pull up hard, nose to the sky. Its pilot is risking a stall-out as trying to get a bead on the remaining creature, as though desperate to be able to assure Fury, no, boss, the Avengers didn’t take out the threat all on their own, we helped too, honest.

With the aircraft overhead, the hovering slug-crab – now perfectly visible, silhouetted against the Quinjet’s lights – abruptly deflates, dropping sharply away from this new, noisy threat. Squinting into the light, Clint brings the arrow back, the string just brushing his lips, before the voice of common sense (which sounds a lot like Natasha, strangely enough) points out that if he fires at a floating gasbag directly overhead it’s likely to fall on top of him.

Clint releases the string, turns to run, hopes the Hulk follows and then figures it’s okay if he doesn’t, but the pilot of the Quinjet, who doesn’t have Natasha’s voice in the back of his mind, fires. And the night lights up.