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Then Again It's A Long Walk Home

Chapter Text

“Director Fury, the council has made a decision.”

“I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid ass decision, I've elected to ignore it.”

“Director, you're closer than any of our subs, you scramble that jet-“

“That is the island of Manhattan, Councilman. Until I'm certain my team can't hold it, I will not order a nuclear strike against a civilian population.”

"If we don't hold them in the air, we lose everything.”

“I send that bird out-“

“We already have.”

“Pierce?“

“We are not unanimous and if we’re talking about nuking American soil, we sure as hell better be. You have one hour, Nick. Make it count.”

“Understood.”

-o-

Chitauri gliders and chariots shrieked back and forth across the dark sky. Metal glinted now and then, but a moonless night and a thick layer of smoke made them difficult to track.

Latest reports said only a few thousand were left, about half their number from when the portal closed. Trouble was, only a few thousand Chitauri left was still a few thousand Chitauri left. Conditions being what they were and the power grid down, the defending forces weren’t making any big dents.

Steve crouched behind a burned-out Sedan, a small piece of the barricade bordering Stark Tower. The windshield had been punched out; the seats were shredded. There was a kid’s booster on the back seat.

He looked away, back towards the fireteam he’d been assigned. A glance told him they were still waiting on gear.

Some large-scale night-fighting equipment had made its way in; Stark Industries was emptying its mothballed armory and even Hammer Industries had raided its frozen assets.

Heavy guns peppered the sky; tracer rounds streamed like fireworks. They weren’t much more than an easily avoided distraction for the Chitauri gliders, but occasionally one lit up like a match flaring and spiraled into the side of a skyscraper.

Efforts to keep the damage within two or three blocks of Stark Tower hadn’t ended up much more than a pious hope, but they’d managed to contain most of the destruction to Manhattan.

With a little help: there were crazy accounts coming out from the bridges and tunnels about spider webs and glowing hands, and some floating guy with a cape.

Almost twelve hours in, Manhattan had been evacuated. The early casualty reports were high, sickeningly high, but they could have been much worse.

Steve realized he was staring at the booster seat again.

“It’s like London,” he said quietly, when he heard the familiar sound of the Iron Man armor whirring up behind him. “Like London was,” he amended, when Stark stopped at his side.

The idea that New York, any part of America, might have to fight a ground war on its own turf had been a big fear back then. Or ‘a couple weeks ago’ as Steve called it in the privacy of his own mind, and definitely nowhere near any of SHIELD’s roaming pack of headshrinkers.

“They sent up barrage balloons to make things interesting for low-flying aircraft.” He looked at Stark. “Guess we can’t play it that way?”

The suit’s faceplate was up; Stark stared straight ahead, unblinking and completely oblivious to the question. “I have a theory,” he said instead.

Steve considered the sudden gleam in Stark’s otherwise exhausted gaze with some trepidation. “Do I want to hear your theory?”

“Yeah, you do.” Stark blinked rapidly then grinned widely. Maybe a little too widely. “First, because the alternative is wallowing in flashbacks – barrage balloons? Really?” He shook his head, but the grin lost its manic edge. “Actually, no, if we had time to manufacture, that’s a great idea, but. Where was I?”

“Second,” Steve said helpfully.

“Second! If I’m right, which I am, we can put these guys down a hell of a lot quicker than going block to block.”

Twenty feet away, the four marines double-checked their weapons and packs. They were the sixth team Steve would be taking out; none of the others had made it back without at least one casualty headed straight for the field hospital. “Go on.”

“It’s pretty clear these things are working on some kind of hive mind.”

Steve remembered the coordination of the attacks, the synchronicity. Then he remembered the outright panic he’d seen in the body language of the alien - monster? Drone? Soldier, he decided. The panic of the alien soldier who’d scrambled to retrieve the bomb. “Some kind,” he agreed. “But not full control.”

“Where there’s a hive, there’s a queen. Somewhere up there,” Stark pointed, “there’s an alien space queen eating royal jello.”

“A command center,” Steve translated. “Sending a signal.”

“So we block that signal. Best-case scenario, the drones fall over, we’re done. Frankly, we’re not that lucky, so we’ll just go ahead and aim for not playing Space Invaders anymore.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Steve said, mostly out of habit. “How?”

“I voted to open the portal back up and send a tasteful basket of nukes, compliments Uncle Sam. The council vetoed. I guess they were okay with turning Manhattan to radioactive goo, but nuking horrors from space would be impolite.

“So, Plan B: an old-fashioned squelching party.”

Steve took a moment to process the relevant information from Stark’s rambling diatribe. “And you can do that?”

“Sure. Me. Banner. Hey, who cares? Nobel prizes for everyone.”

“Banner’s…“ Steve considered a few words, settled on a diplomatic, “back?”

“Yeah, Romanoff lured jolly green in with canned corn and pants. They’re helping distribute the goods – eh, let’s go with ‘mediocres’ - from Hammer. Rhodey’s flying around looking disturbingly patriotic. Fury’s still benched, so he’s passing the time assuring world leaders that ET isn’t hiding in their basement.

“Barton’s sitting on a rooftop with a pile of arrows and an outstanding number of issues,” Stark went on before Steve could ask. “And I’m pretty sure the God of Thunder’s started a room-to-room search of New York, which should only take him… eh, a decade or so.”

So Loki had escaped. “Goddamnit.”

Stark snickered tiredly under his breath. “Don’t let your fan boys hear that potty mouth. You know how … how.”

They fell into awkward silence.

Steve cleared his throat after a few seconds and pitched for a lighter tone. “Find Banner, go save the day.”

Stark stood, mustered a salute that wasn’t quite as mocking as it could have been and headed back towards the hastily constructed canvas command surrounding Stark Tower.

Steve stood and turned to find the unit he’d been waiting on had drawn closer. “Lopez, Donnelly, Jacobs and Rashidi, right?”

They straightened with something like excitement; he more or less managed to turn a wince into a smile. “Let’s move out.”

-o-

Large swathes of Manhattan were dark, but fire constantly bloomed and faded, and the Hudson glimmered with the light from the explosions.

The Chitauri had ended their assault on the Helicarrier hours ago. It made sense: they knew there’d be no reinforcements, they were choosing to concentrate their remaining firepower on the most high-value target.

A pyrrhic victory at its most literal.

“We should be down there,” Maria said, not bothering to hide her frustration. She’d been helplessly watching video feeds for ten hours because of egos in DC. ‘Frustrated’ barely scraped the surface of her feelings on the matter.

“We’re exactly where we should be,” Fury said, mildly in comparison. “Where we have been ordered to hold. The council believes their ground troops are more than capable of restoring order.”

She looked at him, speechless.

“However,” he went on, the hard lines of expression and the thunderously angry crease between his eyebrows at definite odds with his tone, “I seem to recall medical told you to stand down until they cleared you for active duty.”

“My primary care physician is on the ground. I understand she’s near Rogers’ position.”

“Then you have your orders, Agent.”

“Thank you, sir.” Maria straightened. “And for your commitment to the health and wellbeing of the agents under your command.”

She hadn’t gone more than a few steps before, “Hill.”

“Sir?”

“We still haven’t heard anything from 59th.”

Where Adams and his team had been assigned just after the portal opened. As far as reports had indicated, no Chitauri had made it over the river, but it was worrying there had been no communication. “Doctor Pak could be anywhere,” she said. “It may take a while to find her.”

-o-

About twenty minutes after the portal opened, the 59th Street Bridge had sprouted some serious looking people in serious looking uniforms, carrying really serious looking weapons. They’d given Peter pause as he’d swung up Queens’ side; someone expected the fight to hit Roosevelt Island. Go further, maybe.

That was considerate, he thought through a sudden swell of panic. Usually he had way more of a commute to fight evil.

Call Aunt May, not call Aunt May. Call Aunt May, not… call MJ.

He flipped his cell. No service; the decision had been made for him. They’d be watching the news, he told himself. MJ and Gwen would have themselves and his aunt out of the house, city, state and possibly country before anything even thought of coming their way.

Crouched on a fire escape he watched as, directed by the heavily armed government sprouts, pedestrians crammed into the cover of the apartments and shops that lined the waterfront. Everything looked under control and he figured he could still make it over – he’d crossed the bridge under fire before.

So many more times than he was comfortable with.

In, like, the last month alone.

From behind the cover of the Manhattan-side buildings, a multi-pitched droning rose above the sound of distant explosions, became a jumble of slick-edged whines. The din sent a shiver down his spine that had nothing to do with spider-sense, which had been sending a shiver down his everything since breakfast.

The cacophony peaked to become a dense wave of gliders, which swooped over and between the buildings, then crashed towards the bridge. Windows shattered and concrete tore from the ground; below him, people screamed.

Fifty feet from the bridge, the flying what-the-fudges were met with a wall of bullets and, wait, were those laser cannons? Okay, he was forced to admit through a haze of terror - that was pretty cool.

Massive holes were punched into the onslaught, gliders spun out of the sky and crashed in flames. Peter relaxed a degree: the sprouts were in for a fight, but it looked like they had it covered.

He gathered himself to leap for the bridge and then froze, excitement and relief turning to horror as the first crowds of running, screaming people swarmed out of the burning Manhattan-side buildings, towards the bridge.

The what-the-fudges were already regrouping and reinforcing, and the sprouts couldn’t fire back without hitting the civilians they were trying to protect. Offense turned quickly to defense, and packed as tight as they were, that really wasn’t working for them.

Peter sprang from the side of the apartment block and shot a web high on the first tower. His swing took him well along the bridge, to land on top of a truck whose driver had already fled.

Closer, he could see that the bad guys were, yeah, there was no other way to say it – the bad guys were mutant cyber-lizards. No, wait, mutant cyber-lizards on gliders, because ‘flying’ was totally the adjective you wanted to add to ‘mutant cyber-lizard’ and, swear to God, if this was Oscorp again, he was going in there with a flamethrower and a smile.

“Focus, Spidey,” he muttered. “Focus.”

At the far end of the bridge the lizards had broken through the sprouts and were firing into the escaping crowd: fish in a barrel.

But within the crowd people were falling under each other’s feet as they either tried to cross a bridge covered with abandoned vehicles or squeeze down the pedestrian route, all while terrified and under fire: bottleneck.

Some uniforms – a few cars worth of cops, a truck’s worth of firemen - were linking arms and trying to channel the flow, but they were only so many and only so strong, and even as Peter watched an entire section almost fell.

Two problems, one Spider-man. No problem. Nooooo problem.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” he sing-songed under his breath as he swung the length of the bridge, firing a few strands of webbing to pick up the slack in the man-made barrier as he passed.

Okay. Flying things and webs: two great tastes…

He swung back and forth, weaving web after industrial-strength web to create what cover he could. Now and then he shot a line directly across the bridge at roughly – say - flying mutant cyber-lizard chest height; other nasties were kind enough to fly into his webbing themselves.

It was pretty inevitable he’d be noticed, although he could have done without the confused few seconds where the flying cyber-lizards and the sprouts and a couple cops were firing at him.

“’Scuse me, coming through, superhero on deck – hey!” He glared down at a sprout with an MP40, who at least looked faintly apologetic about their near miss before they ran towards their next target.

Cover as complete as he could make it without actually cocooning the bridge, Peter turned his attention to the bottleneck situation. Several trucks were blocking the lanes, a couple of buses - a few pileups. A fire truck, but he decided to let that one slide, given the whole ‘living barrier’ thing its crew had been trying to pull off.

The cars went over the side of the bridge easily. They were light enough he could use them as improvised projectiles, and did a couple times, before the cyber-lizards got wise to the risks of catching a Buick with their face.

Something in his back spasmed as, shoulder to front bumper, he pushed an empty tour bus to the side of the bridge. He’d leave it there to give a little more protection, he told himself, and certainly not because getting it over the side would be a pain in the ass.

He made a quick pass to check his webbing was holding, the uniforms were on their feet and the crowds were moving, and then dropped onto the cabin roof of an enormous long hauler. How the sprouts were doing on the far side, he had no idea, but he could still hear the rattle of their automatics.

“How did you even get on here?” he asked the truck, once he’d caught his breath. It didn’t answer – rude – and moving it out of the way was going to be a bad, bad word, but it was the last major obstacle, and crowds trying to make it over the bridge hadn’t shown any sign of slowing down.

“Spider-man! Spidey!”

A cop waved from the hood of a sedan.

Which was really only slightly better than flying mutant cyber-lizards, given how many times New York’s finest had taken a shot at him. In the last five minutes, even. Peter looked down at the bright red and blue of his suit, then up at the thick canopy of webbing. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he shouted back.

The cop, with a bloody scrape on her chin, half the buttons in her shirt missing and an expression that suggested she was done with literally everything, ignored him. “They’ve been shooting out the struts, it’s gonna go down. You gotta stop anyone else getting on!”

Spider-senses flared and, on cue, the bridge shuddered. Instinctively, Peter jumped to the side of the closest tower; the truck began to skid towards the side of the bridge.

“We’re sending boats,” the cop yelled above the sound of buckling metal. “You just gotta keep them things busy until we get there.”

“That’s all, huh?”

The bridge bucked again; Peter leapt up into the girders of the towers, swinging as fast as he could for the Manhattan side. His spider-sense was a buzz saw that had him twist and flip around energy beams, bound from metal to glider to web and back again as he fought his way upstream.

And they said video games didn’t teach you anything.

A glance at the Manhattan side told him that the sprouts were still in the game – they were probably the only reason he’d had the time to cover the bridge. It also told him it wasn’t just the waterfront crowds who were trying to make it across to Queens; people were streaming from within the city itself.

They were not going to be his biggest fans.

So nothing new there.

Before he could think about the consequences if the cop had been wrong, he webbed the entrance to the bridge and promptly added the projectiles of angry civilians to his list of things to avoid.

“The bridge is going down,” he shouted as loudly as he could, but couldn’t make himself heard above the outraged crowd. JJJ was going to have a field day with this. He tried again. “Boats are coming!”

Spider-sense sent a sharp warning and he ducked, but couldn’t avoid being clipped by a crashing glider. The breath left his lungs in a rush as the force slammed him down to the ground.

The ground, a boot to the mid-section immediately reminded him, was a place he did not want to be.

“Why are you helping them?” a woman screamed in his face as he scrambled back to his feet. Ow. Ow-ow-ow. He pressed a hand to his ribs. The kick hadn’t cracked them – the glider did that – but it kinda hadn’t helped, and that made him less than charitable as he yelled back, nose an inch from hers. “Bridge falling. Boats coming.”

The woman reared away and then processed his words; he saw the light of understanding hit, but would never know if she would have believed him: proof was abruptly delivered as the bridge gave an ear splitting crack and began, piece by deafening piece, to slide into the river.

The bridge fell in clouds of dust, waves of water and chunks of concrete that Peter web-balled out of the air before they hit. And noise. Overwhelming noise.

Even the mutant cyber-lizards paused.

Peter had no idea how many people had still been on the bridge, but not these ones, he told himself around the vise squeezing his chest. Not these ones. A quick estimate told him there were maybe five-hundred people on the ground. A lot of them looked pretty old - some of them were in hospital gowns. People holding kids who were young enough that ‘infant’ was probably a better word: the ones who hadn’t been able to make a quick escape.

Maybe one day he’d get to rescue heavily armed, well-trained people with no loved ones or dependents and firm beliefs in reincarnation.

Speaking of. He looked back to the sprouts’ last position. Some had cleared the destruction, he saw. Not many, but some.

He took advantage of the momentary lull to swing out of the mob and up to the broken edge of the base tower. “Bridge fell. Boats coming,” he yelled one more time.

The spell broke; the crowd made a break for the water as the mutant cyber-lizards re-formed for their next attack.

Peter jumped away from the side of the remaining tower and landed in a crouch between the civilians and the mutant cyber-lizards.

They were looking at him the way he usually associated with rabid newspaper magnates and deranged cephalopods. Or MJ, that time.

“Give up! I’ve got you surrounded!“

-o-

Maria looked up at what was left of the 59th Street Bridge: the shards of metal and concrete breaking out of the water, the rubble on the bank. She could make out the shapes of a few capsized boats, bobbing in dark water.

A defensive position had been set up in a diner; the windows were long gone, but the walls were largely intact. She made a fast head count of the agents she could see inside. Some sat around the tables, some lay on the counters. Some lay tightly packed against the walls; they’d earned their star on the Academy wall.

There was no perimeter guard, but that could be excused: the Chitauri were concentrating their forces inside Manhattan now.

Adams, ragged and pale, limped out of the diner. “We lost communications,” he greeted her. “And a lot of our people. Berger took the ones who could walk into the city to try and contact command.”

“Specialist Berger hasn’t checked in.” Adam’s expression flickered and Maria had no particular words of assurance to give him – none that a career operative would believe. “I’ll find Berger and her team,” she compromised. “And send down a pick-up for the rest of you.”

She took another look around; this time she concentrated on details for the after-battle report that Fury would be waiting for. Chitauri littered the torn up ground, piled here and there, but mostly left where they’d fallen.

Or not fallen – several were somehow stuck on the sides of buildings.

There were far fewer civilian bodies than she’d feared: eighteen laid in a neat row, arms respectfully crossed and, yes, eyes carefully closed. SHIELD left such things for the cleanup crews. She raised an eyebrow askance.

Adams nodded towards the remains of the bridge. “I told him the authorities would take care of it,” he said, when she followed his gaze. “Maybe he didn’t like looking at them?”

Maria frowned, confused, until her eyes adjusted to shadow on shadow, and she saw a shape that didn’t belong to the outline of the wreckage.

She couldn’t make sense of it until she realized it was person, knees drawn up to their nose and arms wrapped tight around them. Perfectly normal, if whoever it was weren’t roughly fifteen feet up a completely smooth and entirely vertical support.

The webbing had been almost invisible in the darkness, but now she was looking, she could see strands hanging from practically every surface.

Spider-man.

The agents had a perimeter guard after all.

He hadn’t been active long, as far as she could remember from a sparsely detailed report that had crossed her desk a few months ago. Suspected to possess above average strength and agility, he stuck to walls and mostly restricted himself to taking out muggers and the occasional bank robber: nothing that would ping SHIELD’s radar.

“Hey,” she said quietly to the shape. “I’m Agent Hill. You okay?”

Spider-man’s head lifted, the eyes of the mask fixed on her. “Peachy,” he said.

She hadn’t heard his voice before. It was hoarse, but definitely no older than late teens and, she thought, probably younger.

“I was going to head into the city,” he went on after a beat. “But Adams is such a good host I figured I’d hang out until you guys showed up.”

Translation: he didn’t want to leave the wounded unprotected - another tick in the good guy column.

His red and blue suit hid the blood well, but it was torn and webbing didn’t make a great sewing kit: she could see long gashes and dark burns. Mentioning them was probably not the way to go, he’d take it as criticism, not concern. Nor would it be a good plan to ask about the bodies. Giving them a little dignity was probably the only way he could ease the guilt - however unearned - of failing to save them.

She was becoming intimately familiar with the type.

“Actually,” she said instead, “we’d like you to head down to Williamsburg.”

His head tilted, but the kid said nothing.

“It’s mostly over in central Manhattan,” she lied. “But we don’t have the manpower to take out the stragglers on the outskirts – we’re spread pretty thin. We really need you there.”

The blankness of the mask’s eyes was disconcerting, and he was silent for so long that hairs began to rise on the back of her neck. She tensed and felt Adams, beside her, do the same.

Spider-man laughed, quietly sardonic. “Wow.”

Maria blinked. “What?”

“I mean, I know everyone says you can’t trust the government, but. Wow. Lying right to my mask. Got anything to say about JFK?”

Okay, she’d tried. “Fine, smartass. You show up in the middle of a fight and half the people on the ground won’t know whether to shoot the Chitauri or you. We don’t need that kind of distraction.”

“Chitauri?” The prickliness in the kid’s voice disappeared, replaced with curiosity. “The flying mutant cyber-lizards?”

“Flying mutant cyber-lizards from space,” she corrected, and didn’t miss his grudging huff of a laugh. She softened her tone. “You did a hell of a job. You saved a lot of lives. Now go home, we can take it from here.”

It occurred to her that he might not be able to go home at the same moment as he glanced back at the expanse of river. She opened her mouth to suggest – what, she didn’t know - but he leapt into the darkness. A blink and he was gone.

She tapped the communicator in her ear. “Queensboro Bridge is down. Civilian casualties are minimal. Pick up needed for the wounded. The Chitauri did not, repeat, did not, cross out of Manhattan at this point.

“Personal note: we need to update the file on Spider-man. Apparently, he hasn’t been applying himself.”

Teenagers.

-o-

It was dawn before Maria and her team made it to Stark Tower, following in the footsteps of Berger’s team, the remains of which had arrived only a half hour before. Their search for comms had been delayed by pitched battles almost block-by-block. Eight had set out and three had made it in. Berger hadn’t been amongst them.

She spoke shortly to the remaining three as she passed, assuring them Adams' position had been evacuated, and then entered the lobby, which was pulling double duty as command center and field hospital.

Doctor Pak was nowhere to be seen and, now Maria thought about it, it was possible Michelle had mentioned a holiday in Australia. Her bad.

Stark, Banner, Rogers and Rhodes were clustered around a nest of laptops and cable, a weld-patched satellite dish in the center like the world’s ugliest bird. Beyond them, leaning against the somehow intact reception desk, Natasha and Barton stood with their heads bowed, talking quietly. At the edge of the medical station, Thor stood protectively next to a rumpled-looking older man, who was slumped in a plastic chair. Selvig, she realized.

None of them looked like they’d slept in the last 72 hours, which was probably because, like her, they hadn’t. Twelve hours since the portal opened, she realized. Eleven since closed. Ten since the bridge fell. Nine since-

“Agent Hill,” Rogers greeted her, mustering a tired smile. “Fury planning to join us?”

She fell into parade rest, long past resisting. “We’ve been ordered to maintain a position outside the main theatre of operations. I’m here looking for my doctor and in no official capacity.”

Stark kept connecting the laptops. “Fury’s in the naughty corner. The World Council’s still pissed they didn’t get to drop a nuke on Manhattan.”

“How-“ She looked at Stark. “Get out of our communications.”

“What communications? Half your network’s down – which I’ll do something about when I’ve finished saving the city.” He paused and looked up, expression quizzical. “Wait, I’m sorry, did the shadowy intelligence agency just ask me not to spy on them? That’s so adorable I might actually agree.”

He resumed work before she could respond and she bit back her reply, instead making her way to Thor. “No trace of Loki?”

“None,” he said grimly. “I have doubts that my brother remains within this realm. His magics are strong, even without the aid of the scepter, but I don’t believe he could have hidden for so long. He is …”

“Not subtle,” Maria finished for him.

Thor nodded with a smile that landed somewhere between rueful and pained. “Nor patient. I think he’s returned to the space between realms of Yggdrasill. The World Tree,” he added, as if that would clarify.

Maria stayed on point; Norse mythology wasn’t her strongest subject. “What will you do now?”

“Take the Tesseract to my father.”

While she doubted Fury would raise any objection, the World Council probably would. Given the iron in Thor’s tone, Maria suspected they would be disappointed. “And then?”

“Return, if this world will have me.” He looked away. “I would help rebuild what my brother has destroyed.”

“It’s not my call, but thank you.” She looked down to the glaze-eyed man sitting next to him. There were no outward signs of injury, beyond a few scrapes and bruises. “Doctor Selvig-”

“Yes, I am most pleased to say.”

“You’ll understand that we must ask you to stay until you can be debriefed.”

“Interrogated-“

Debriefed. As Agent Barton will be,” she added as Barton joined them.

“Oh, good,” Barton said. “I’d hate to think the Agency I’ve been loyal to for years would give me the benefit of the doubt.”

She grinned toothily. “I wouldn’t give you the benefit of the doubt if you told me grass was green, Clint.”

“That’s only because you know me, Maria.”

There was a loud popping sound from the nest, closely followed by the smell of burning and then the hiss of a fire extinguisher as Rhodes put out the fire with the kind of practiced efficiency that Maria imagined most people who were close to Tony Stark would develop.

“That should –“ Tony glanced at Banner, who nodded with a frown. “Yeah, that definitely should have worked.”

Rhodes cupped his hand around his ear, but the theatrics weren’t necessary – the gliders outside were still clearly audible. “Pretty sure that didn’t work.”

“Maybe it will just take a little time,” Rogers suggested. “The signals being relayed can’t be instantaneous from that far away, right?”

“I’m impressed.” Stark smirked and pulled the burnt-out laptops from the heap, throwing them behind him. “I’d ask if you’re reading physics one-oh-one in your downtime, except I know you-“

“I can read,” Steve said, without any particular rancor.

“Have no downtime,” Tony finished smoothly. “But, no. The space where the portal was … the scepter closed the door, but it opened a window. Nothing physical can come through, but queen bee’s commands would make it fine. We should have seen an immediate effect when we scrambled them.”

Maria looked between them. “What does that mean?”

Stark and Banner exchanged a glance; Stark shook his head. “We go wide-band.”

“Stark!” Maria raised a hand to stop him, but he twisted past her, aiming for a rat’s nest of parts that had probably been hastily pulled from across half the building’s research labs.

“It’s going to take a lot of power,” Banner warned as he followed him.

“If only someone had invented some kind of massive, clean, energy source.” Tony glanced around as he tugged at an enormous cable. “Oh, wait, we’re standing in it.”

“You’ll cripple the tower,” Banner persisted. “If this doesn’t work and we’re overrun, what kind of damage could they do with what they find here? How many lives will be on our hands?”

Stark froze, only his eyes moving as he calculated the risk. His mouth thinned and he shook his head.  “I know what the arc reactor can do better than anyone alive,” he said, voice low and intent. “I promise you, it can do this.”

A heartbeat. Two. Banner nodded and stepped back.

Stark turned to the watching Thor, then pointed at the floor directly in front of the reception desk. “It’s hammer time. But not too hard - we’re aiming for a power box about five feet down, not the bedrock.”

Thor studied the area Stark indicated. He looked up, looked down. Hefted the weight of the hammer thoughtfully and then swung. The floor tiles and the concrete under them shattered under the blow, splintering outwards like the shards of a broken mirror.

The concussive shock staggered them all, but Rogers threw it off quickly and started clearing the chunks of concrete out with his bare hands. “I guess if godhood doesn’t work out, you’ve got a future in infrastructure.”

Thor nodded modestly and stood back as Stark dragged the cable to the hole. “Okay,” Stark breathed. “Here’s where we find out if I’m as good as I think I am.”

He forced the end of the cable into place; it seated with a dull click. A hum rose from the reconnected satellite dish. Through the soles of her boots, Maria could feel the floor begin to vibrate.

And, more importantly, she could hear her new favorite sound: Chitauri gliders falling out of the sky. She ran to the door to confirm, but ragged cheering was already coming from the troops on the perimeter.

The first Chitauri she saw was unmoving, lying half out of its overturned and burning chariot. The one beyond it didn’t twitch, even when she took the still dully glowing staff weapon from its unresisting claws.

She left the troops to their burgeoning celebration and jogged back to the lobby. “It worked,” she said, when she’d caught Stark’s attention. “Now, catch us up on what worked.”

“We tried to close the window, but it turns out that the queen bee wasn’t using it. So we’ve created an umbrella instead, but that doesn’t mean the rain isn’t still out there. Or the honey.” He looked at Banner, then to Rogers. “Should have gone with honey, right? ”

Maria frowned, trying to work her way through Stark’s jumble of metaphors. She was almost certain he wasn’t even doing it on purpose this time.

“Banner and I will -”

“Take a shower,” she said. “Eat. Sleep. Barton, Romanoff, you’re with me.” She turned. “And if you’d be kind enough to join us tomorrow, Doctors Selvig and Banner?”

“I will accompany Erik,” Thor interjected as Banner nodded.

“Of course. Captain Rogers?”

“I’ll make a run around the perimeter, then catch the next bird going your way.”

“Yeah, if you think I’m running back to Fury for my orders, you really haven’t been paying attention,” Stark said when she turned his way again.

“Whatever you feel is the best use of your time, Mr. Stark,” Maria agreed, injecting as much saccharine into her tone as possible. “As a consultant, you’re in no way obligated to take part in any further action and I’m sure Doctor Banner will be able to make a full report.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Hill,” Stark grumbled, caught neatly between amusement and belligerence.

That was the thing with reverse psychology, though: recognizing it didn’t always help. Maria smiled and widened her eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mr. Stark.”

Stark growled and stalked towards the stairs, muttering something. “So I should tell Director Fury you’ll be there?” she called after him.

Chapter Text

The Chitauri ship was built along sleek curves and seamless lines, and where he touched the hull it thrummed warmly under his fingertips. Beautiful. It struck Loki as odd that such a vessel could belong to a race so crude.

But of course, he realized, it did not.

“From what world was this stolen?” he asked when The Other joined him at the view port. “I’ve never seen its like.”

“You are fortunate we were able to rescue you,” The Other said, ignoring the question.

The Other had never given him the respect he deserved. Then again, Loki had to concede, no one had ever given him the respect he deserved. Again and again he had shown his strength, proven his worth, and again and again he had been cast away.

Until he had all but forgotten why the regard even mattered, only that its lack chewed on him; only that, after everything he had been forced to do in its name, matter it must.

“The failure of your army was not mine,” he snapped. “Retrieval was the very least you could offer. I assume the defenses of Midgard were not so meager as you supposed?”

“You lost the scepter. You lost the Tesseract. I cannot fathom why he allowed you to live.”

“Allowed-“

Allowed!” The Other roared. “Never has he shown such mercy!”

The Chitauri navigators, claws dancing nimbly over a panoply of brightly colored switches, twitched nervously.

“Perhaps, then, this is not mercy,” Loki murmured. It was something he had been mulling over since being plucked from the tower.

Pride put aside in the interests of survival – and his own survival was something he was greatly interested in – he had no idea why he had been pulled back to the shriveled bosom of Sanctuary, let alone why he breathed still.

The agreement they had struck, and the consequences of failure, had been made abundantly clear.

But while he might pretend to bow his head to the supremacy of the master, he felt no compunction to do so to the servant.

“What he sees that you do not, worm, is that without the distraction of your cursed Tesseract - without the burden of your mindless, death-fixated army – I would have won the field.

“Every part of mine was born to happy fruition and you would do well to remember to whom you speak.”

“Of course.” The Other smirked. “My Lord Laufeyson.”

Loki smiled thinly and enjoyed the pique in The Other’s expression as he failed to fall into the intended rage. “We are still on course?”

“They have months by their calendar,” The Other almost purred. “Only months.”

“And this time the Chitauri are mine to command?”

“They are. However, he will oversee your victory. He wishes to witness your triumph. This is a great honor.”

“Indeed it is,” Loki agreed.

Both smiled; neither clarified for whom.

-o-

Lines of orbital telemetry data twisted like snakes and Jane jerked back, bringing up a defensive hand. She’d fallen asleep in front of the monitors, she realized as her heartbeat calmed. She paused the feed. Wait. It was light. And …Tuesday?

She rubbed at her forehead and then stared blankly down at an old, almost full cup of coffee on the desk in front of her. For a long moment, she seriously considered drinking it despite the oily-looking film. Caffeine was caffeine, right?

“Nope!” Darcy’s left hand whisked the old cup away; her right replaced it with a fresh one as Jane bit back a whimper.

“What time is it?” she croaked instead.

“Breakfast time. Wednesday. Up we get, walking dead girl.” Darcy tugged at her elbow, pulled her to her feet and steered them both towards the kitchenette’s tiny blue table.

“Coffee?” She may have whimpered that time, looking plaintively back to where it still sat on her desk.

Darcy leaned away. When she leaned back the cup appeared before Jane again like a highly caffeinated carrot.

She was allowed to catch it once she’d taken a seat; she drank half in one gulp.  

“You can’t keep pulling these hours,” Darcy said. “It’s been two months; you need down time. When Thor gets back from Viking Land, I’m making him take you somewhere with coconuts and tiny umbrellas.”
 
Jane stared into her empty mug. “Did you ever see Independence Day?”

“No, I am the only person in the entire North American astrophysics program who’s never seen Independence Day.” Darcy poured flakes into a bowl and added a splash of milk. “Two spoons of sugar, right?

“Remember the signal? The countdown?”

“I remember Will Smith. You want toast?”

“I think that’s us. I think we’re on a countdown.” Jane pushed the bowl away and looked up, nauseous. “The origin point of the signal Stark blocked is getting closer at constant and predictable rate. I’ve spent the last three days trying to disprove the data and I can’t.”

Darcy paused then resolutely went to pull a couple slices of bread from the bag. “When does the ball drop?”

“Ten months.” Jane looked up and swallowed thickly, the lingering taste of coffee bitter with bile. “Three hundred and twelve days, fourteen hours and a few minutes either way. Darcy, I have to-“

“You have to eat your breakfast, drink your coffee and take a shower, while I – while I decide whether I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.” Darcy closed her eyes and breathed in. Breathed out. “Okay,” she said, opening her eyes again. “I am a well of calm and spring of serenity. Have you told anyone else?”

“Not yet.” Jane shoveled a mouthful of cereal into her mouth and chewed mechanically, still desperately trying to think of any other way she could interpret the data.

“Stark and Banner are working on something, though, right?” Darcy waved a hand. “I mean, no way those two aren’t working on something right now. Tony Stark makes deterrents for fun.”

Jane sat back thoughtfully.

“I don’t like that look,” Darcy said, suspicious. “Last time you had that look, Norse gods happened and then the government stole my iPod.”

“Call Stark and Banner,” Jane said. “Call Fury. Wait, no, don’t call Fury. Not yet. Call Stark and Banner and tell them we need to talk. Today. I’m going to take a shower.”

“You’re going to eat your cereal and finish your coffee, then you’re going to take a shower and then you can go save the world.”

-o-

Ten months and a handful of days.

For twenty-four sleepless, desperate hours, Pepper had listened to Tony, Bruce and Jane as they debated every decimal point, and it was still unreal. Still felt so impossible.

Which was ridiculous. Rubble was still piled across half of Manhattan - they knew exactly what was coming, and exactly what would happen when it did.

Fury had believed the evidence; now for the rest.

After several phone calls and one minor kidnapping, they’d been given a room to wait in while the relevant parties were gathered in conference. Jane had left an hour ago, muttering furiously about data redaction. Banner hadn’t arrived at all; Pepper assumed that was part of the plan.

Rhodey had shown up twenty minutes ago with a scowl and several large, red folders. With a harried smile for Pepper and a silencing hand for Tony, he’d dropped onto one of the ridiculously expensive couches and started reading.

As possibly the only member of the military who didn’t want Tony arrested for something, somehow, Pepper thought it was a touching show of solidarity. Tony must have thought so too - he’d managed to resist commenting.

Their waiting room was tastefully furnished, with decorative flourishes that were more private sector than government. Standing at the tinted window, looking over the city, Pepper wondered how much had been spent on potted plants, abstracts and expensive couches. What funds could have been diverted to refitting a hospital wing, or rebuilding a shelter.

The resilience and bravery of the people of New York was breathtaking. Unfortunately, so were the egos and casual corruption of its politicians.

An arm slid around her waist as Tony joined her at the window. “What’s the going rate for your thoughts now?”

“If you have to ask, you can’t afford them.” She tried to smile and settled for an anxious grimace. “I feel like I’ve forgotten something. Have I forgotten something? They’re going to want to hear solutions as soon as the presentation finishes and-”

“Are you kidding me? You’ve never forgotten anything in your life. Pop quiz: what was I doing New Year’s Eve, thirteen years ago?”

“Partying like it was nineteen ninety-nine,” she said flatly.

“Yeah, you’re right, not a challenge.” He leaned closer, lips brushing her hair, the curve of her ear. “How about last night?”

Pepper tried not to blush, she really did. She was Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries and for God’s sake, you know what, Tony did not need the validation. “Tony,” she warned, but couldn’t quite keep the amusement out of her tone. Dammit.

“You’re right,” he backed away with an unrepentant grin. “Not in front of the children.”

Rhodey flipped another page and snorted. “I’m not the one who kept his childhood Captain America shield.”

Pepper turned and Tony turned with her, keeping his arm loosely around her waist. “True,” he admitted. “But in my defense, that was a prototype of the actual shield.”

“Which you didn’t know.”

“Point, Rhodes. And if anyone ever tells Rogers, I will be forced to have them killed in the most Rube Goldbergian fashion imaginable.”

“With marbles?” Pepper hazarded.

“And a lot of string. No jury in the land would convict me, unless Rhodey testifies against me. Again.”

“I did not testify against you!” Rhodey glared up, letting the folder fall closed. “And the proceedings went your way! And you know what? I am done apologizing. You’re not going to make me feel bad for serving my country.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Killian!” Pepper flipped her Stark Pad quickly; she’d forgotten Killian.

“As insults go, it’s creative – I like it.”

“Aldrich Killian. He’s tried to contact me several times. His company may have something we can-” She trailed away and made a note.

“Pep-“

“They’re going to want to hear that we can play well with others.”

“Pepper, honey.” Tony’s hand covered hers. “We don’t have to organize everything today.”

She didn’t look up, already noting another company she should approach. “No, you don’t have to, because your job is to be incredible. My job is to give you whatever you’re going to need and, if I can, convince other people to do the same. People whose pigtails you’ve been pulling your entire career.”

When she glanced back up, he was staring with surprise and a trace of guilt. “You have no idea what I have to do today, or tomorrow, or the day after that,” she finished, as gently as she could.

“Hey, you’re right.” He stepped back with a subdued smile. “When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right. Your job is your job and my job is my job, and my job is not to tell you how to do your job.”

Pepper narrowed her eyes. “I love you and I love that you care. Please don’t buy me anything.”

“I wasn’t going to buy you anything,” Tony denied unconvincingly.

“Pepper Potts,” Rhodey broke in. “Sustainer of armies.” His tone was fond, but it hardened when he when he turned his attention to Tony. “Which reminds me…”

“I haven’t forgotten.” Tony held up a hand. “It’s on my to-do list: ‘Wings.’ Lower than ‘panic’ but way above ‘laundry.’

“When this hits the fan, command won’t make them a priority,” Rhodey persisted, amusement draining away. “And they’ll be wrong, but by then it will be way too late.”

“Pararescue will get their wings, Rhodey,” Pepper promised.

“Although why you don’t want them in full armor-” Tony started.

“Have you tried giving emergency aid in that armor?”

“Point, Rhodes. Again. You’re getting boring. Mix it up a little.”

There was a rap at the door and a face peered around. “They’re ready for you, Mr. Stark.”

Tony’s smile faded. “Bet you a dollar?”

-o-

At the door to the conference room, Pepper delivered Tony into Jane’s capable hands while Rhodey veered towards the far side of the enormous u-shaped, open centered table, where the military contingent had been seated.

She continued past the chairs assigned to the industrial representatives, ignoring the hopeful expression of Hammer Industries’ new CEO, but smiling to Killian. It was never too soon to begin re-building a few of those burning, melting, occasionally exploding bridges.

By the time she made it to the small SHIELD contingent, well to the back and furthest from the presentation area, the lights were already beginning to dim.

“Welcome to the u-bend, Ms. Potts,” Banner murmured as she took one of the large number of empty seats beside him.

“Thank you, Bruce. And it’s Pepper, please.” She leaned forward to peek beyond him. Nick, of course. Maria. Natasha. And. She covered her mouth quickly, as if smothering a cough rather than a laugh. And Steve Rogers, in a nondescript SHIELD security uniform and cap, head down.

If the committee wasn’t convinced by science, she assumed Fury’s plan was to have Captain America make an appeal to their better natures. History, repeating itself - although he wouldn’t be asking them to buy war bonds this time.

He met her eyes with a deeply uncomfortable expression and she was so, so glad that Tony was thirty feet away arguing with Jane, and not anywhere close enough to start humming ‘Star Spangled Man.’

She shot him a sympathetic look, then settled back to smile at Bruce again. “Shouldn’t you be up there with Tony and Jane?”

Bruce shook his head. “I’d just be a distraction right now. Besides, Tony thought a little song and dance might put them in the right frame of mind and Tony… is a better dancer.”

As the bass thump of a particularly patriotic-sounding instrumental came from the speakers, the lights dimmed and the big screen rose, Pepper couldn’t disagree.

At least he’d left the backup dancers at home this time.

On the screen, a peacefully rotating Earth spun into view.

And then exploded.
-o-

“One hell of a show,” Pierce said, sitting behind his desk. He tugged at his tie with one hand and gestured to the second chair with the other. “And bringing Captain Rogers was a nice touch,” he added, dryly amused. “That thing he did with the shield when Ross and Stark were yelling at each other? Certainly has a way of focusing the mind.”

He toyed with the fabric of his tie for a moment, the only evidence of unease. “This is happening. Stark, Foster – they aren’t just trying to pull a little funding their way?”

“It’s happening,” Nick confirmed as he took the offered seat. “We saw what the Chitauri are capable of. We know their technology is vastly superior to our own - more than advanced enough for interstellar travel. I’ve had people on it since New York.”

“Coulson’s team?” Pierce smirked. “Don’t look at me like that, I’ve got the clearance.”

“Sure.” Nick nodded fractionally, smoothing his expression. “I just didn’t realize you had the interest.”

“I think we’re past plausible deniability now, don’t you? If Foster’s right and we’ve got less than a year before the next wave hits us, we all have to put our cards on the table.”

Nick paused as something in Pierce’s expression - something right there in the glint of his eye - rang the same bell as any number of fanatics that had crossed SHIELDs path over the years.

But this was Pierce, he rationalized. Pierce, who had walked that jagged path between God and country right along with him.

And didn’t that damn bell just keep ringing.

Nick folded his hands and made sure his tone was even. “Got any cards you’d like to tell me about, Mister Secretary?”

Pierce half-smiled. “I’ve channeled significant funds into research on Loki’s scepter, as well as the more promising technology your people were bringing into the Fridge. We’ve made remarkable strides in several key areas.”
 
“The scepter,” Nick said flatly. He had been assured, repeatedly, that it was safely within the Fridge’s deepest, darkest vault, beyond the reach of god, demi-god and man.

He didn’t even want to think how Pierce had managed to get it.

“It’s our most secure research station, in the hands of our most talented project leaders. That’s why I couldn’t agree to Stark’s request to study it himself,” Pierce continued reasonably, as if that changed a damn thing. “I’m simply not in a position to judge which project has the greater chance of success.”

“Stark plans to armor the entire planet,” Nick pointed out. “What do your people have?”

Pierce was silent for a long moment and Nick wondered exactly how far above his pay grade this was going.

“Miracles,” Pierce said at last. “They have miracles, Nick. And when it’s time, I’ll be happy to reveal them.”

They each stared at it for a long moment before Nick slowly nodded; it was time to win the battles he could. Then make a damn fast retreat to find out what the hell Pierce was up to. “Looking forward to it. What about Doctor Foster’s request to be read in on what else Apollo Eleven left on the moon?”

“It’s above her clearance?”

“Far enough I get a nosebleed even thinking about it.”

“Well, it’s the end of the world. I think we can make an exception under these circumstances.” Pierce shrugged. “Besides, given her affiliations, I imagine there isn’t a great deal we could do to stop her.”

“And what will they be told?” Nick asked after another pause

Pierce stood and crossed to the window, not pretending to misunderstand. “Officially, the council will be discussing it next week.”

“But you already know exactly which way they’ll go.”

“They’ll vote no,” Pierce said quietly. “The only way the general population will find out about this invasion is if we fail, and then it will be far too late to point fingers.”

“It’s not about pointing fingers, Alex.” Fury stood and paced to the window. “People will die.”

“And you think there’ll be no casualties if this goes public? You’re not that naïve, Nick. There’ll be panic in the streets, the economy will tank and every nation on Earth will declare each to their own. When the Chitauri arrive they won’t have to lift a finger, we’ll have beaten ourselves.”

Nick stared at him as the bells began to ring. “You really believe that?”

“You could say I’ve made something of a study.” Pierce smiled tightly. “Just get it done, Director. Whatever it takes, get it done.”

-o-

Tick. Tock. Tick … Tock.

Peter watched the wall clock suspiciously, not a hundred percent sure it wasn’t running backwards.

Mr. Parker!

Panicked, he scanned the board. “Forty-three point two!”

Mrs. Hampton turned and ran an eye over the unfinished calculation. “Very good. It’s a pity you weren’t here yesterday. And in grade twelve.”

Three rows back, Flash snickered and Kong choked on a belly laugh. Beside him, Gwen shook her head and MJ dropped her face directly into her palm.

“What I asked, Mr. Parker, was whether you had your permission slip.”

“Oh. Uhm.” As he couldn’t remember what he’d even needed permission for, he thought it was pretty unlikely. Great - another afternoon of unpaid labor in the library.

“Here, Pete. Your Aunt asked me to give you this.” Gwen held the slip towards him, eyes wide with the most hilariously overdone attempt at innocence he’d ever seen. And he’d fought Deadpool. Kinda fought. (Honestly, mostly attempted to pry off. Grabby.)

“She did?” He looked at the teacher. “Yes. I’m sure she totally. Did. That.” And that Gwen Stacey, police chief’s daughter and current guest of the Parker household, had in no way just forged his aunt’s signature.

He dutifully handed the slip over and sent a short but heartfelt prayer to whatever deity might be listening that the ink didn’t smudge.

When Mrs. Hampton turned away, he scribbled a quick note and passed it across the aisle.

Thanks. I think?

Gwen smiled widely and mimed blowing a kiss. MJ rolled her eyes and Flash coughed a ‘dork.’

“Settle down,” Mrs. Hampton went on, ignoring them. “We’ll be separating into groups of three or four. Under absolutely no circumstances should you touch anything you suspect to be of alien origin, simply mark the location on the grid maps provided and move on.

Right, now he remembered: The Great New York Treasure Hunt. Except for ‘Treasure’ read ‘Potentially Face-melting Alien Device’ and for ‘Great’ read ‘Horrifying’.

He’d already been doing his part as Spider-man: making a note whenever he saw something shiny stuck in a bit of brick or piping, dutifully resisting the urge to poke it and leaving a list with the boys in blue at the end of the night.

They’d mostly stopped shooting at him after the fifth, sixth time. He really felt they were bonding.

He guessed it was time for Peter Parker to do his bit too.

-o-

“This is what I get for being an accomplice to forgery,” he muttered to himself three hours later as he clung to a gargoyle eight stories up, regretting Gwen’s turn to petty crime. “I could be in the library, right now, alphabetizing something.”

In retrospect, ducking away from Gwen and MJ when he’d spotted something just a little high to be sure of had probably been a bad idea. Heading a few blocks over, where bank robbers with delightfully retro stockings over their heads had been going about their business? Had definitely been a bad idea.

And now he thought about it, a little on the nose. Like, Coyote trying to trap Road Runner levels of unsubtle, and he’d swung right into it.

“Couldn’t have been bitten by a radioactive hammock, oh no.”

A sprout – okay, they probably weren’t called that – passed below, talking into his wrist. There were at least two more on the roof above. Maybe if he stayed exactly where he was and didn’t move-

“I see him!”

“That’s great, Timmy!” he called encouragingly as he darted out of cover. “Now you hide and I’ll seek!” He twisted to avoid what looked a lot like a dart and then webbed a line to the building across the road.

“Spider-!” Maria started to call, then growled under her breath and then shook her head. “Okay, come in guys. And here’s an idea for the next time: don’t let the target know you’ve seen them until after you tranq him.”

-o-

From outside of the lab, through the thick glass of the blast door, Natasha watched Banner and Stark argue.

She couldn’t hear them, but in the months since they’d been given the green light to begin work on the Iron Legion, their ‘process’ had become a familiar sight.

Jane had asked to move to her own labs after the first day, and now no one was entirely sure what she was doing. Only that Thor travelled the Rainbow Bridge almost weekly, Erik had grown a beard and Darcy had wandered around for an entire week looking faintly betrayed.

Natasha suspected it would be prudent to undertake some light surveillance, but hasn’t had the time to make the recommendation.

The subjects currently under her observation had turned away; she couldn’t read their lips, but their body language was still clear. Banner stood with his head low and arms tightly crossed: defensive, but stubborn. Stark paced, hands waving as if he were conducting and determined in his own unique way: dazzlingly, dangerously.

Neither was winning, neither was accepting defeat and this, she judged, would be an excellent time to provide a face-saving distraction for both.

She touched the door sensor; they froze as she entered.

“No, please go on,” she said. “Popcorn’s on its way.”

“I think we were done.” Banner’s mouth curled, any anger that might have been building instantly gone. Personally, she doubted there’d been any – or rather that Stark’s best efforts to provoke were drops in the ocean.

“We’re done, but don’t worry. I have an Act Two.” Stark shook off his aggravation as he warmed to his theme. “It’s going to be magnificent. There will be one thousand elephants. Get me one thousand elephants, JARVIS.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, JARVIS? Do not get me a thousand elephants.”

“Shipment of pachyderms cancelled, sir.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “You’re aware he’s going to refuse to open an airlock for you one day, right?”

“JARVIS loves me.” Stark glanced in the general direction of the lab’s bank of servers. “You love me, don’t you, JARVIS?”

“I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. Sir.”

Banner choked back a laugh; Stark opened his mouth and then shut it again.

“What were you arguing about this time?” They’d never told her before and she didn’t really expect them to start now, but their lies were usually entertaining.

“Ethics,” Stark said promptly. “Principles that guide a person’s behavior,” he explained when she didn’t reply.

“From the man who single-handedly revived the American war machine, lessons in morality mean a great deal.” She smiled sharply. “Thank you.”

“We have a number of findings we’ll be presenting to the group soon,” Banner said. “We’re just debating the finer points of proportional response. Not to mention basic human rights.”

“Which don’t mean jack to anyone who isn’t human! We can’t-” Stark caught himself. “That’s Act Two, Banner. Stop fishing for spoilers. Wait for the elephants.”

“Do you have enough material to complete the project?” Even peripherally, she knew that had become an issue. Fury had everyone - kids, pensioners, volunteers and work gangs, out on the streets looking for even the slightest trace of alien tech. Half of SHIELD had joined them.

Thankfully, her assignment was far less tedious.

“We’re pretty sure New York’s out of parts at this point – most of what’s coming in now is scrap. Or aluminum cans.” Stark paused, thoughtfully. “We may actually qualify as a recycling center. Fury said he has a team pursuing … alternate options. Which doesn’t sound at all ominous.”

“Fury will come through,” Natasha said, sure of nothing if not that. He’d had her faith from the first time he’d walked into her interrogation room and never once broken it.

There were very, very few who could say the same.

“Bruce,” she said, and hid a smile when he jumped. “Lunch.”

“Oh, yes.” He glanced at the clock and seemed surprised by the time. “Well, really there’s-“

Lunch,” she repeated, and added an extra watt to her smile.

“Yeah, I’d surrender before you wake up in Olive Garden with a bag over your head,“ Tony said, and then disappeared behind the server bank, screwdriver poised to strike.

-o-
 
“So that looked intense,” Natasha opened, after the hostess had seated them both. “In the lab, I mean.”

Banner shifted awkwardly in his chair. “None of our models are panning out – we can’t make the network responsive enough. Tony is investigating avenues that give me … concern. Necessity is the mother invention, but …”

“There’s a question of paternity?” Natasha suggested.

“Something like that,” he muttered, looking blankly at his menu. He caught himself and looked up again, expression brightening. “But it’s good to be out. Thank you, it’s… kind of you?”

She smiled, unoffended. “You don’t sound sure.”

“I think it’s kind,” he said frankly. “I’m not sure you do.”

“Kindness isn’t in my skillset,” Natasha pointed out. “But reinforcing the Lullaby conditioning while acclimatizing you to public spaces is an efficient use of both our time.”

Technically true, but only technically, and the first thing any graduate of the Red Room learned was never to lie to herself.

Fury had given her an objective: to gain a measure of control over Banner’s alter ego. He hadn’t told her how to accomplish it, and while it was obvious that the Hulk was less aggressive and more trusting towards people Banner had affection for, she had been curious whether reciprocated affection played a part.

Of course, it was one thing to fake falling in love with a corrupt bureaucrat or warlord, another to foster something with one of the only genuinely decent men she knew.

Someone, in another life, she might have wanted to be kind for.

Dangerous, and she had no idea for whom.

“Perhaps we’re both trying to expand our … skillset,” Banner offered, with a hint of a smile.

She wondered what he’d seen in her expression. “Elizabeth Ross,” she said quickly, to distract him.

The smile wavered. “Are we playing Jeopardy now? Heart-break for three-hundred?”

“She’s been trying to contact you. Are you concerned about meeting her?”

“Something like that,” he said again.

“You think you’re protecting her,” she guessed. It was an easy conclusion to make, considering the man Banner was.

“I used to,” he admitted. “Now I think I’m protecting myself.”

Chapter Text

The lab door hissed open; Tony peered out from behind the main monitor. “So… how was the date?”

 Bruce paused, half out of his jacket. “It wasn’t a date. Tasha and I have been working on various techniques that-”

“So it was a training exercise, is what you’re saying?”

“Exactly.” Bruce dropped the jacket over the back of his chair and looked around for his lab coat.

“A training exercise with three courses, ending with some kind of delicious chocolate dessert.” Tony gestured to the smudge on Bruce’s tie with his screwdriver. “Which I’ll go ahead and bet you shared.”

“We didn’t want a whole - wait. You think that was a date?” With a look of dawning shock, delight and – if Tony was any judge – just a touch of horror, Bruce slowly brought a hand over his mouth. “That was a date,” he managed from behind his fingers.

“If it helps, Pepper called it three months ago. Have fun?”

“Yeah – I. Yeah.” Bruce smiled. The smile died as he registered the new readouts appear on the repaired screen half a second before Tony could pull the plug. “What is this?”

“Ah. Act Two?”

“Tony-”

“They’re coming, Bruce.” Tony let the screwdriver clatter onto the workstation and paced closer. “Right now. We can’t put out a “No vacancy” sign. We can’t pretend to be out. All we can do is waste time building thousands of suits of armor that the Chitauri will go through like tissue paper, because JARVIS isn’t fast enough to respond on a global level.

It’s propaganda and you know it. It’s a scrap drive.”

Bruce crossed his arms mulishly and Tony resisted the childish urge to ring the bell for round two. Hundred. “We’re close with the upgrades,” he tried quietly, but from his expression he  didn’t believe it any more than Tony did.

“No. We aren’t. And we never will be.” Tony could see himself in the monitor’s black mirror. A tired man with shadows under his eyes and a one hundred percent certainty of what the future held. “It’s out of our reach. Another decade, maybe we’d have made it. Here and now we need the Tesseract, but I’ll take the scepter.”

Bruce’s shoulders unhunched; he shook his head. "You don’t know it would help.”

“Of course I do! Can you imagine the sheer processing power it must have?” He scrubbed at his face. “Hey, look at it another way: we take the network to a new level and what’s the worst thing that happens? If I’m wrong, we have a defensive screen we never use. If you’re wrong…

“And,” he held up a forestalling hand, “I don’t care what Fury will say. If SHIELD won’t give us the scepter, I’ll take it.”

Bruce stared, unsure whether Tony was joking. He risked a smile. “Because we don’t have enough problems without declaring war on our own government?”

“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers aren’t warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

“You can water the tree of liberty when you open source your armor, JARVIS and everything you buried in basement five.”

“That wouldn’t be responsible,” Tony snapped.

“Yeah, that would be my point.” Bruce rubbed at his forehead this time, expression pained. “I’ll talk to Tasha, maybe she can find out which research team has the scepter. Or get Steve involved.”

Tony snorted. The council had no problem dealing with SHIELD, but it definitely had a harder time saying no to a living legend.

“Then we’ll ask nicely if we can borrow it,” Bruce continued, ignoring him.

Tony grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Yes! Go team! Unborn generations thank you. But who cares? They’re unborn! Born generations, Banner – they’re thanking you right now!”

“They’re … welcome.” Bruce moved himself out of range, but couldn’t quite hide a faint smile. “Don’t you have a thing in the armory? With Rhodey?”

“No, I – yes. Yes, I absolutely do.” Tony jogged for the exit, then spun at the door. “Thank you. Seriously.”

Banner waved him away.

-o-

“Tony, meet Staff Sergeant Wilson.” Rhodey said, pointedly, as Tony sauntered in five minutes late, and as if he hadn’t taken the last couple of corridors at a flat run.

“Sir,” Wilson nodded, expression impassive.

Tony stared blankly. “I feel like this is the answer to a question I don’t remember asking.”

Rhodey crossed his arms, probably to avoid strangling anyone. “Pararescue. You know, the guys who pull your ass out of the fire? What are you even doing here if –?“

“’That others may live’, right?” Tony turned to Wilson and shook his hand, ignoring Rhodey’s huff. “Sorry, I can’t help it - he’s so cute when he makes that face, and pseudo-paternal disappointment makes me tingle.

“Staff Sergeant Samuel Thomas Wilson, man of many medals and a truly inspirational disregard for both gravity and his own safety, do I have some toys for you.”

“Cool.”

“Cool?” Tony drew back, mock affronted. “Seriously? That’s all I get? Not even a ‘wow?’”

Wilson shrugged with an easy grin and a challenging glint in his eye. “You haven’t shown me anything yet, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh, that’s how it’s going to be?”

“That’s how it’s going to be,” Wilson agreed with a nod.

Tony grinned; challenge accepted.

-o-

“Got it!” Jemma triumphantly held up the lump of metal she’d pried out of the concrete. Not in very good shape, she had to admit, but they said it all helped. She dropped it in the box with the others and wiped the back of her hand against her forehead. “Fitz?”

“I heard you, I heard you. I’m just- yeah. We’re up to weight.” He eyed the box and made a note on his work pad. “I’ll get this lot shipped off, then.”

Jemma cleared her throat meaningfully.

“Fine,” he grumbled, and grudgingly pushed the cracked tea mug they’d declared their trophy towards her. “You’re champion scrapper today, but tomorrow I get the laser.”

She patted the “Keep Calm and Kill ET” mug with proprietary joy. “Whatever makes you happy. Oh - hello, sir!”

Jemma smiled welcomingly when she spotted Coulson by the door, and tried to sound cheerful, even if she was under a layer of sweat and grease. And standing in a lab that looked like the set of Scrapheap Challenge. Chin up and all that. “One more for the Iron Beefeaters,” she said proudly.

“She wants to salvage enough Chitauri bits for the Iron Legion to protect London,” Fitz explained when Coulson looked askance. “I was going to adopt Glasgow,” he added. “But it’s already got Glaswegians.”

Coulson expression of polite incomprehension didn’t change. “And that’s a problem?”

“Nah, just makes it a bit redundant, really.”

Jemma nodded her sincere agreement. “We thought it would be a bit of overkill, to be honest.”

After due consideration, Coulson made the executive decision not to ask. “May and Ward have retrieved several staff weapons from Quinn.” He smiled brightly. “I understand he was very cooperative.”

Fitz nodded. “Before or after they broke his legs?”

“You know, I didn’t ask,” Coulson said blandly. “Skye’s still looking for our next target, but in the meantime -”

“Skye has found our next target.” Skye swept in with a laptop and a bright smile. “And you’re going to like it.”

Fitz helped her clear a space on the workbench for the laptop as she went on. “Okay, so, problem: sadly, we’re running out of Chitauri, which has probably never been said by anyone, ever.

“Solution: I’ve been digging through the SHIELD archives to see if there’s anything at the bottom of the Fridge everyone’s forgotten about. Not so much - it turns out SHIELD is really thorough when it comes to cataloguing any objects of wide-scale death and destruction it collects.”

Coulson nodded. “We tried the honor system, didn’t really work out.”

“Here’s the thing, though: the SSR wasn’t so careful. Or, rather, they didn’t have a Fridge. A lot of what they found was stored in warehouses and then transferred into the Vaults later.

“But, before that, when they had no alternative, they used to just bury whatever they found. One time? Under a mountain. I’m not saying we’ll find alien technology,” she concluded, “But the guys they were fighting did.”

“You’re talking about Hydra,” Coulson realized, and frowned. Touchy ground.

“They were the ones who found the Tesseract; who knows what else they had squirrelled away for a rainy day?”

Fitz peered over Skye’s shoulder, scanning the open windows with interest. “Is that an octopus? Why an octopus? You’d think a hydra, wouldn’t you?”

“I know, right?” Skye shrugged. “Maybe it’s a super evil octopus?”

“An octopus’ tentacles regrow,” Jemma said, expression dubious. “And have minds of their own, after a fashion, I suppose.”

“And they really exist,” Coulson pointed out. ”Where are we headed?”

Skye grinned again. “This is the bit you’re really going to like: I don’t know.”

“Is this some new definition of ‘like’ all the kids are into now?”

“But, we know someone who does. Someone who was there.”

“Captain Rogers wasn’t -“

Skye made a buzzing sound. “I’m sorry, your answer must be in the form of a question. And also right, I guess?”

Jemma waved her hand with excitement. “Oh! Is it Director Carter?”

“Gold star for Simmons! And you can put your hand down,” Skye added, kindly.

“Most of what they buried would have been transferred at a later date,” Coulson said, testing the idea. “Director Carter was exceptionally organized.”

“She also wasn’t always in charge.” Skye shrugged and closed her laptop. “I’m not saying it isn’t a long shot, but it’s got to be worth talking to her.”

“That may be problematic. Director Carter hasn’t been with us for some time.”

“No!” Jemma covered her mouth on a gasp. “I’m sure I would have read-“

Coulson looked away. “She’s not dead."

-o-

“Good Lord, it’s an invasion,” Carter said, smiling slyly as they filed in one after the other, murmuring their greetings. The private nursing home in a leafy suburb of upstate New York had spacious rooms, but all six of them was pushing it a little.

“Sorry,” Phil apologized as they arranged themselves in front of her chaise, and tried to avoid knocking over any of the photo frames that clustered across every surface. “Apparently it was vital to national security for every single member of my team to be here today.”

And, honestly, after Director Carter had agreed, he hadn’t had the heart to turn any of them down. He got it.

“Don’t worry – it’s not my first. And I rather have the feeling it won’t be my last.” The eyes that met his were piercingly sharp and, if Peggy Carter was indeed losing her mind, Phil pitied anyone who’d crossed her when she was in full command of her faculties.

He was quite relieved when that stare moved away.

“Hello, Melinda.” Carter smiled broadly. “It’s been such a long time. Do remember me to your mother, won’t you?”

“Peggy.” May smiled, ignoring the looks from the rest of the team, ranging from surprise through betrayal. “It’s lovely to see you again.”

“And what can I do for you, Agents?” Carter’s gaze lit on Skye for a moment, curious in a way that Phil was almost certain had nothing to do with her question.

He stayed on topic; the question of Skye was something they could cover later. Much later. “We were hoping you might be able to think of any sites where alien technology may have been buried, rather than retrieved, by the SSR.”

“Straight to the point,” she said approvingly. “So I’ll return the favor. There’s a collection of maps on the shelf there; fetch them over for me, will you?”

-o-

All in all, Phil was feeling quite optimistic as they left, which lasted roughly until they found Captain America waiting beside the van.

He’d made it as a SHIELD vehicle, Phil realized dimly. Probably decided to hang around and make a few pointed comments about peaceful retirement communities.

Now they both stared at each other from a distance of perhaps three feet, while Phil’s team shifted restlessly behind him and absolutely no reasonable explanation for his continued existence came to mind.

“Surprise?” he tried.

Rogers’ eyes narrowed. “I know who you look like, who are you really?”

Phil felt May and Ward tense beside him; this was not going to end well.

“Stand down,” he ordered, then held up a hand and spoke quickly. “Captain Rogers. I appreciate this is probably a shock, but before anything escalates, I’d like to take a moment to thank you for your continued service. I’ve been following you with a great deal of admiration.”

That could probably have sounded better.

“Your career, I mean. From a distance.”

He never had this problem with aliens or terror threats.

“Not – not to suggest that unsanctioned surveillance was involved.”

“Or sanctioned - although, technically it was. It’s my job?” he added plaintively as Rogers continued to stare unblinkingly.

“Holy crap!” Skye laughed, delighted. “You’re a fan boy!”   

Phil shook his head, refusing to look at her and knowing exactly which expression she’d be wearing. “We will never speak of this again.”

Rogers seemed to reach a decision. He smiled warily. “Good to see you again, Phil. You’re … looking much better.”

“Director Fury felt that the news of my recovery should be kept on a need to know basis.”

“Are you going to ask me to keep this to myself?”

“No.” Phil smiled crookedly. “And if you feel the need to demand an explanation from someone with a higher clearance level than mine… I would be very interested to hear what it is.”

Rogers nodded and then shifted almost awkwardly, looking up at the care home. “You were here to see Peggy?”

“Director Fury tasked us with finding and repurposing as much alien technology as possible.” Phil followed his gaze. “Our leads have run dry, we had hoped that Director Carter might be able to give us a few locations. You’re here to see her too?”

“I come every few days,” Rogers dissembled, looking away. “How is she?”

Simmons cleared her throat and stepped forward, star-struck expression fading as they touched on her area of expertise. “Physically, Director Carter is doing well, all things considered. Obviously patient confidentiality precludes me going into any further detail.”

She swallowed and chose her next words carefully, treading a thin line between profession and sympathy. “But you should know, while patients with middle stage Alzheimer’s typically have difficulty forming short term memories and might be prone to – to getting a little stuck in events, their long term memories are often still quite intact.”

Rogers nodded, expressionless. He opened his mouth to ask a question, hesitated, and then clearly decided to go with another. “She was still able to help you?”

“Very much so,” Phil nodded firmly.

“That’s Peggy.” Roger’s smile was bittersweet. “What did she give you?”

“The location of few ex-Hydra bases in Austria. Sokovia.”

“Sokovia?” Roger’s attention sharpened, the soft edge of nostalgia evaporating instantly. "We need to talk.”

-o-

“Secret meetings in anonymous hotel rooms, Rogers? I didn’t think you had it in you.” Tony filed in behind Bruce, then spotted Fury next to the window, arms crossed and scowling. Barton and Romanoff were leaning against the wall on the other side of the window. “Aaaand you don’t,” he concluded.

“We need to ask Director Fury some questions.” Rogers’ expression was wintery as he closed the door behind them. “And it’s a lot more convenient if he’s here to answer them.”

“Wait.” Tony stopped short. “Did you kidnap the director of SHIELD? You’re allowed to foment revolution and I’m not?”

Roger blinked, bemused. “I’m not fomenting anything, Stark. I’m done with the council’s half-answers and maybes and Fury is too. Cool down.”

“Cool down? I-” Tony turned and caught sight of the figure holding a plain manila folder, sitting almost primly on the room’s single couch. The rest of his protest died in his throat. “Agent?”

Coulson smiled and stood, holding out his hand. “Stark.”

Tony ignored the hand and ran through every possible explanation, narrowing and discounting, narrowing and discounting, before he rounded on Fury. “What did you do?” he asked, very, very quietly. “Because he was dead, I saw the reports. What did you do?”

Fury’s jaw flexed, but he said nothing; Tony turned to Barton and Romanoff. They shook their heads in unnerving unison. “We didn’t know,” said Romanoff, in a tone so completely devoid of inflection Tony knew she was as angry as he was. Barton shrugged minimally. “News to us too.”

“I’ll find out,” Tony promised, tone still level - almost gentle. “And you know I won’t stop until I do.”

“You will not do-“ Fury started.

“I appreciate that,” Coulson interrupted as he sat back down. His gaze flicked to Fury with a look Tony couldn’t quite unpack. “Very much, actually. But we have a more pressing reason to be here tonight:

“You maintain that Iron Legion won’t be capable of repelling the Chitauri fleet without using the technology inside Loki’s scepter.Secretary Pierce transferred the scepter to a black site, which according to Director Carter was previously a Hydra stronghold in Sokovia. A stronghold that was allegedly empty when found, and completely demolished in nineteen fifty-two. And is now a small, family-run dairy farm.”

He drew the satellite photos from the folder and held them out; the farm was helpfully ringed, zero secret installations were immediately obvious.

Rogers studied the photo before he picked up the thread. “I’d like to add that Pierce tried to block us on this – Natasha and I were able to persuade Councilwoman Hawley instead. And she was only able to locate it through shipping documents. That’s why it’s taken this long.”

“This long?” Tony blinked. “Wait, how long have you been looking into this? More importantly, how long have you known Agent was alive?”

Banner’s hand touched his shoulder. “I don’t love keeping secrets from each other either.” A slight tightening of his fingers reminded Tony of his own moral low ground: they hadn’t exactly been transparent. “But what would you have done, except demand answers from people who are a hell of a lot less likely to give them to you than Steve? These aren’t your tyrants, Tony.”

“He might be.” Tony gave Fury one last glare, but subsided. He could be the bigger man. Figuratively speaking. For now.

“Why would Pierce be running something off book in a base that doesn’t even belong to SHIELD?” Barton asked, completely ignoring the atmosphere of the room.

“We have a choice,” Rogers said. “Either we confront Pierce and risk an internal conflict that leaves us fighting on two or more fronts, or we steal the scepter without Pierce knowing we were involved and deal with him when the Chitauri have been repelled.” He looked around. “If anyone has a third option, I’d love to hear it.”

“The Asgardians,” Bruce suggested. “Thor is still trying to reason with them, and if they help us, we won’t even need the Iron Legion.”

“If,” Fury said, succinctly.

Rogers nodded. “If they were planning to help, Thor would have been able to convince them by now. Apparently, they’re having problems of their own.”

“I know it’s a radical idea, boys, but we could ask.” When she had their attention, Natasha continued. “Officially. Even Pierce can’t deny a council vote. We have less than a month left and he’s delivered nothing. They’re scared - they’ll vote our way.

“Failing that, we tell them the Asgardians have demanded it back. I’m sure Thor would be happy to make a pick up.”

“We do that and fail, he’s going to know who stole it when we go to Plan B,” Rogers warned.

Natasha snorted delicately. “Are you kidding me? In what world wouldn’t he know it was us anyway?”

-o-

Alex stood outside the council chambers with his hands in his pockets, waiting for the last councilman to leave and for Fury to arrive; he certainly would. Nick was nothing if not predictable and the last word was something they both enjoyed the taste of.

‘Asgardian relations’ his ass; the scepter would be on its way to Stark and there was nothing Alex could do to stop it. Not without revealing everything.

By now, Hydra should have been long-since risen: wrapping the world in a new era of peace and order. Under the threat of invasion, the decision had been made to remain hidden. If the battle were won, the defenders would be exhausted and easily overcome. If it was lost, well. Hydra was nothing if not patient.

The elevator opened, Fury stepping out as the council crowded in.

Alex smiled easily. “I’m surprised at you, Nick. I thought you’d fight this.”

“We need to stay on the Asgardians' good side; denying them the scepter isn’t the way to do it.” Fury didn’t return the smile, not willing to play the game. “What? You weren’t done performing miracles?”

“I’m not the one who raised a man from the dead,” Alex murmured as Fury strode away. He raised his cell. “Prep the twins,” he said. “And wake him.”

Chapter Text

--- Seven days ---

Gold-tinged daylight crept through the delicate drapes and cast shadows across the faded floral rug; the sounds of traffic outside the residence were muted. It was calm. Peaceful. Two words that Steve had never actually associated with Peggy Carter, but here they were, just the same.

“The Council voted wrong,” he said, staring down at his hands and finally admitting what he’d known for months. “People deserved to be told. We, I, should have got the word out. Somehow.”

As hard as it was to see Peggy frail and bed-bound, it was harder to meet her eyes. See the disgust he knew had to be there. He focused on the polished walnut side-tables lining the walls, covered with photographs of achingly familiar people he’d never met: Peggy’s children. Grandchildren.

Peggy squeezed his hand. It might have been more comforting if her tone weren’t so acerbic. “Of course you should have,” she said shortly, but without heat. “It’s bloody Coventry all over again.”

Coventry was her fault, she’d told him in something approaching a drunken confession, somewhere in France a few months after they’d met. After Coventry had been bombed for - it turned out - the last time. Except it wasn’t her fault, she’d amended, hiccoughing, because she wasn’t the Luftwaffe. But it was definitely the Government’s fault, because Special Operations had told Churchill it was coming and then done nothing, and they could say it was strategic, and they could say the needs of the many, but there was no justifying those means.

Steve nodded now, as he’d nodded then. “He really did know?”

“Not according to various historians, but it doesn’t matter - Churchill would have let them burn either way. Greatest Briton my … posterior.”

Five months and seventy-some years later, she was still furious. That made him smile, but briefly. “You think I should tell them.”

She shifting awkwardly onto an elbow and leaned forward; bright eyes searched his face pensively. “Where are you, Steven Rogers?”

“Right here, Peg.” he assured her, wondering if this was the start of another episode.

Whatever she was looking for, she didn’t find it. She shook her head and settled back. “It’s far too late,” she said crisply. “Tell them now and it will do more harm than good. They won’t trust you. Just be on the streets when it comes. Direct them. Protect them. God help us all.”

“You’re disappointed in me.” He was; she had to be. It stung, but only faintly: an echo of itself like everything else. He pushed it into the space between duty and memory where it belonged.

“Never,” Peggy denied softly. “And never think that. I’m disappointed in SHIELD, but I’m scared for you. You’re not yourself.”

“I’m still me, Peggy.” He aimed for a smile and was pretty sure he missed by a mile. “It’s everyone else who changed.”

“No, listen to me,” she said, suddenly intent. “You’re not yourself, because you’re trying so hard to be what they say they need. You always did, but it was simpler then. What they, we, thought we needed and what we actually needed was much closer.” She subsided, shrinking back into herself. Frail. “But now…it’s all. It’s all rather complicated.”

“I try. I’m on mission.” He took her hand, absently turning tracing the line of her plain gold wedding band. “But it’s like I’m back on stage and everyone’s really waiting for the girls in the chorus line.”

“Then get off the damn stage and back in the alleys. That’s the Steve Rogers we need. Always needed.” She gently withdrew her hand to cast about for her water. “Do you remember those signs we saw on some of the bombed out churches in Europe?”

“Like it was yesterday,” he deadpanned as he gave her the glass.

She looked stricken, then annoyed and then rolled her eyes in amusement.

He loved her and he had no right, not anymore. Five months and seventy-some years later, not even historians cared.

“Latin,” he said. “’I will rise,’ right?’”

“Resurgam,” she confirmed. “First one church, then another and another. They carved it in shards of wood and nailed it to what was left of the walls. Perhaps this time it will be on schools, or libraries. Hospitals. I don’t know, but look for it, Steve. The world has changed, but people haven’t. Not really. And they need you now, as much as they ever - as much - oh.”

He took the glass away before it fell, then leaned forward to touch her shoulder as she glared at him, first warily and then with frustrated awareness “Hey… it’s okay. It’s fine. Look, Stark has arranged to have you flown to -”

“Howard?” Her fretful expression lit up with a delighted smile. “Oh, how is he? Of all the times to take it into his head to do the honorable thing. Honestly, he’s just not father material and if he’d just, if he’d listen.”

“He’s fine.” Steve smiled, and made damn sure he hit the mark this time. “He’s sending you on holiday.”

“No, I’m far too… I - Steve? How?” Trembling fingers reached for his cheek. “It’s been so - I - I missed you so much. So very-”

“I couldn’t leave my best girl,” he said, because if nothing else, he always knew his lines. “Not when she owes me a dance.”

 

--- Twenty-four hours ---

The early warning alarms rang shrilly on every floor of the Stark Tower, then cut abruptly. No one needed the extra reminder - the few top-level researchers left had been watching the telemetry data with sick fascination for days. Hundreds of vessels had reached Mars.

If they maintained current speed, they’d be visible from the ground in a matter of hours, not days. To the naked eye, anyway. They’d be visible to anyone with a telescope in their backyard long before then.

Jane knew exactly what she and the remaining personnel were supposed to do now: there was a fleet of cars waiting downstairs, which would take them to fleet of planes, which would fly them to SHIELD bases so secret and so hidden that she hadn’t even been told which country the one she’d been assigned to was in.

And in that base, for her, it would become a waiting game: days full of obsessive recalculation and nights full of insomnia and nightmares.

Well, she refused to play.

Her lab assistants were long gone; she’d been working alone for weeks. Keeping a secret so ridiculously huge and horrifying from her staff had been the hardest thing she'd ever done. The council had said going public might lose more lives than it saved; they'd called it global security.

Marcy Racine, engineering technician, avid Mets fan and doting new grandmother would call it mass murder. And she’d be right

There was no one left to see her duck under her desk and retrieve the backpack crammed with the survival gear she’d calculated she’d need. She pulled the strap over her shoulder, but the prickling sensation of being watched made her pause.

There was a click and the tug of a breeze as a window behind her slid open.

“Jane.”

She turned, shoulders hunching guiltily despite herself. She’d expected to be escorted to the car by the driver, or maybe SHIELD agents. Basically, not Thor, God of Thunder.  

Really should have locked the damn windows.

It put a crimp in her plans, but didn’t stop her legs from treacherously hurrying towards him. Warm arms wrapped tight around her and the long cloak fell around them both.

“I thought you were still in Asgard,” she whispered, and hated when her voice cracked, because she’d had a plan, but no part of it had included saying goodbye.

“I would never leave you on such a day,” he murmured into her hair.

That was sweet, except ... wait. She drew back with a frown. “You didn’t trust me to get on the plane,” she said flatly.

Thor looked meaningfully at her bag and righteous indignation turned out to be difficult when, okay, yes, technically you were absolutely not to be trusted. Jane wondered if this was how Stark felt all the time.

“I know you,” he countered with a smile. “And I know you would never willingly abandon your people.”

Honestly, Jane had thought that they were advanced enough in their ‘it’s complicated’ that a smile wouldn’t weaken her resolve - or anything else, for the matter. Apparently she’d been optimistic, but she still shook her head as she tried to smile back. “I can’t hide,” she said firmly. “I won’t. And there’s nothing I can do from some bunker in Siberia.”

“If Darcy were here, telling you she intended to stay, what would you say to her?”

It was a good effort, but her mind was made up. Jane stepped back and settled the bag more comfortably. “I’d say I was terrified for her. I’d beg her to change her mind. And when she didn’t, I’d understand.”

There was a cough behind her, from the doorway into the lab. “Cool.”

Jane spun, took in the figure standing awkwardly in the lab doorway and pointed a horrified finger. “What are you - go back to the plane!”

“Are you kidding?” Darcy dropped her backpack with a heavy, oddly metallic clatter. “What happened to understanding?”

“I lied.” Jane rounded on Thor again, finger still armed. “I can’t believe you did this.”

“I am truly sorry,” he said, and raised his hands.

She had to admit he did look contrite. Or at least slightly guilty. And a little nervous. Good.

“I knew I couldn’t convince you,” he explained hurriedly, hands still raised. “However Darcy is an extremely persuasive woman.”

Jane refused to turn around; she already knew Darcy would be wearing ‘smug #3.’ “This was her idea, wasn’t it?”

Extremely persuasive,” Thor said again with a mildly hunted expression, then slowly lowered his hands.

“Erik better not be here,” Jane grumbled.

“He’s asleep on the plane,” Darcy said as she crossed the room to join them. “He’ll wake up in sunny redacted feeling refreshed and maybe smidge betrayed.”

“You drugged him?”

“’Drugged’ is a really strong word,” Darcy pointed out and then went on brightly. “Here’s the deal: either we’re both go to the airbase right now like you pinkie-swore, or I hope you have enough gear for two, because my packing was, like, eighty-percent hatchets.”

Jane didn’t resist as Darcy arranged them both arm-in-arm and, thwarted plans aside, couldn’t deny that the thought of facing whatever was coming together was more comforting than she’d imagined it could be.

“There is another option,” Thor ventured. “Return with me to Asgard. Both of you.”

“That’s- I’d love to, you know that.” And Jane honestly couldn’t think of anything she’d love more. Given another time, another place and another reason - the culmination of her life’s work alone. Tempting. More than tempting. But. “How would that be better than hiding on some base in the middle of nowhere?”

“The Allfather will not be moved.” Thor’s mouth twisted against something; not disapproval, exactly, but disappointment, Jane thought. Maybe even shame. “He believes the safety of our, of his, people to be paramount and Asgard faces dire threats of its own.

“But were my mother to meet you, I believe she would be swayed to take our part. And even if she were not, you can be assured it will be far easier to monitor your safeguards.”

Asgardian aid would be incredible in any form, but the ability to ensure that the installation she’d spent the last ten months completing would operate as planned. That was irresistible. And damn him, Thor knew it.

“And you think we’ll be safer there,” she added, because he didn’t get it all his own way.

“Safer than all of Midgard can offer,” he admitted, nakedly entreating.

“Okay,” Jane said. “Okay. I’ll call Pepper.”

Darcy slumped in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

 

--- Twelve hours ---

“Iteration four-nine-two-one-one-UT variation eight-five-five-three-zero-nine … status pending … failure.

“Iteration four-nine-two-one-one-UT variation eight -five-five-three-one-zero … status pending … failure.

“Iteration four-nine-two-one-one-UT variation eight -five-five-three-one-one … status pending … failure.”

JARVIS’ drone was a background murmur while Tony worked and a whisper in his ear on the few occasions he actually slept. It had been a constant for so long he couldn’t remember what the world had sounded like before. Or looked like, without an amphetamine sheen.

Anyway, figured he’d be the one to invent the speaking Doomsday Clock.

“JARVIS!” He scrubbed at his eyes and then adjusted his volume, because yelling at a computer wasn’t how he wanted to spend his final hours. “Silent running, buddy. Notify on success only.”

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS agreed. “Additionally, I thought you would want to know that Miss Potts’ flight departed without incident. She and Doctor Selvig are currently flying over-”

“Just Selvig?” Tony frowned, but kept swiping his tablet through reading after reading. Left. Left. Left. Interesting - right. Left. Left. “Where’s Foster?”

“Doctor Foster and Ms Lewis have made alternate arrangements. Doctor Foster preferred not to interrupt you, but left instructions you were to be informed you owe her ten dollars, should you enquire after her.”

“Guess Goldilocks made his pitch. I - wait. She did it?” Tony blinked and lowered the tablet, turning to the full holographic display above the main console. “Show me.”

The display flickered from streaming orange data to a blue planet and gray moon, red lines arcing in a lattice between the two. Jane’s project couldn’t save them, but if it worked, it would cost the invaders dearly and that meant something.

That meant something.

He downed a tepid cup of coffee and took a deep breath.

Okay. Discontinue four-nine-two-one series,” he ordered briskly. “Move to two-two. And, hey, let’s live a little - parallel two-three through two-eight.”

There was a long hiss as the lab door slid open, Tony glanced up to see Brice - he assumed it was Banner, little hard to tell - enter with a huge cardboard box disintegrating around a massive collection of dust-covered rolls of paper.

“I want to know and yet I’m not sure I want to ask.” Tony considered for a moment. “No, I’m going to ask. What and - also - why?”

“Blueprints,” Bruce rasped, then coughed to clear the dust. “There’s a plan in place to begin evacuations and people will be directed to the shelters and subway, but Tasha reminded me there are a lot of places in this city that didn’t make it onto official records: government buildings everyone has probably forgotten about.”

“Places my father would almost certainly have consulted on,” Tony concluded. “I get it. But I need you here, not crawling through the archives. We have people for that.”

“Actually, we don’t. We’re the only ones left in the building. I asked Tasha to have someone come pick this up and then … I’m going to get out there.” Bruce shook his head. “I’m sorry, Tony. I am. I thought this was our best shot, but we’re wasting our time. And if you’d-”

“You think we won’t be wasting our time out there?” Tony snapped. “Because I promise you, however many people you think you can save with lost subway number eight, integrating the staff will save more.”

“Come with me,” Bruce said evenly, not pleading, not backing down.

Tony had exactly one fight to worry about winning right now, and this wasn’t it. He picked the tablet back up and swiped left. Left. Left. “Make sure you crazy kids are back before curfew, though. You know how anxious Fury gets - you don’t want to get grounded before the big day.”

Tony.”

“Get out of here,” Tony snapped, then softened his tone as he felt Bruce hesitate. “Say hi to Romanoff for me.”

 

--- Six hours ---

“Photos are appearing on Twitter,” Hill said, just before dawn. “We can’t squash it.”

Nick knew they could; they could take down whatever social networks they wanted in seconds. They could take down the internet itself in a matter of minutes. Either would probably be significantly more effective, and far easier, than enforcing the gag orders on the print and television media.

Hill’s comment was ethical, not factual. And the council’s damned directive could go to hell.

“Agreed,” he said. “Activate teams three through eight, brief the commissioners, begin transport redirection. Roll Rogers’ reel across the networks and start the emergency radio broadcasts.”

Hill held a finger to her earpiece. “Understood.” She glanced up. “Henderson reports that Stark is still working.”

“Stark hasn’t slept in five days and he’s been mainlining modafinil since last Wednesday,” Nick pointed out. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe that Stark had been right. They might not agree on much, but they’d agreed on that: if they were going to save themselves, it would be with the staff.

But Pierce’s delay tactics had cost them badly and Nick hoped that, wherever the man was now, whatever hole he’d found, he’d survive long enough for Nick to hunt him down and put a bullet in his head.

“I think he switched to benzedrine a few days ago,” Hill said, neutrally, breaking the train of thought. “All protocols have been initiated. Orders?”

“Get Coulson in-”

His office door slid open. “Sir,” Coulson said, stepping through..

Nick blinked. “How long have you been out there, Phil?”

Coulson checked his watch.

“Never mind. Are your people embedded?”

“Yes, sir.” Coulson hesitated, then went on. “All of them.”

Nick ignored Hill’s faint frown of confusion. “Good. Make sure Stark and the staff get on the plane to Site Theta and then find your people. See you on the other side.”

 

--- One hour ---

“Peter! Peter, you do not leave this house!”

One hand on the door handle and the other hastily dragging his backpack over his shoulder, Peter wavered. “Aunt May, I have to go to -“

“No, you don’t,” she rejected, voice thin and just shy of shrill. “Not this time!”

Until that moment she’d been calm - amazingly, incredibly, actually kind of eerily calm - and that had been what had prompted him to tentatively attempt some lame excuse for leaving (turns out there weren’t that many things you could classify as ‘urgent’ when an alien fleet was blotting out the sun, and library returns should definitely be taken off that list) but the veneer had cracked and he could see the terror in her too-wide eyes. Not for herself, he realized. For him.

“I’ll stay,” he said quickly, then shot a glance at Gwen, hovering behind his aunt with an expression somewhere between fear and belligerence. “I’ll stay right here.”

May pulled him into a hug with one arm, pulled Gwen in with the other. “It’s going to be okay,” she said. “I threw you out of the basement for a reason.”

Peter had almost forgotten being unceremoniously turfed into the attic. Workmen had come and gone for a week, he hadn’t been paying much attention - there’d been Doc and The Lizard, and the Goblin, to worry about and, honestly, home renovations hadn’t made much of an impact.

“The Watsons will be joining us,” May went on as she opened the suspiciously heavy-duty-looking door.

“Wait.” Gwen blinked. “Aunt May, did you build a bunker?”

“Did you build a bunker and not tell us?” Peter clarified.

“I didn’t want to worry you kids, but Anna shared my concerns and between us we found a little money and – and if I lose you, it will not be because I did not do everything within my power to keep you safe.”

Ditto, Peter thought. But he couldn’t hide in the basement waiting to be saved. That wasn’t how it worked. When you could do something, you had to do something.

“Aunt May,” he started. Stopped. Looked at Gwen helplessly over the top of his Aunt’s head, with no idea how to go on.

“You’ll do what you think is right,” May said, barely above a whisper. “I knew that from the start, with Ben and your father and their damn fool ideas about - about - well.” May mumbled into his shirt. “But when you’re here, you’ll be as safe as I can make you.”

Peter opened his mouth. Peter shut his mouth. “Okay,” he finally managed.

 

--- And a few minutes either way ---

It was so tiny a world, The Other mused. A tiny, inconsequential world, filled with tiny, inconsequential creatures. It amused and enraged him by turns that his master’s newest toy considered them a prize – considered them worth even the smallest amount of his master’s attention.

They were trifles, and not even passingly diverting ones.

None of the Chitauri’s devotion, none of the Kree’s fire. None of the Elder God’s reach. They had barely set foot on their own moon, yet poisoned the ground they walked on, the air the breathed and the water they drank.

A stupid, greedy species, for a stupid, greedy princeling.

Loki ignored the glances of The Other; he was well aware of the contempt the creature held for him. This day, it meant less than nothing. His attention was absorbed by the blue gem of a planet, set, spinning in its own darkness. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

“It is fitting,” The Other said. “For your glory and the glory of our Master.”

A holographic display slid up, the world before them slowly turning. When The Other raised a gloved hand it stopped, flickering over a vaguely familiar landmass. The one, Loki thought, where an old man had refused to kneel before his betters.

Well.

He would kneel now.