Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Avengers fanfic: Immortal Engines, chapter 2 of 12

Immortal Engines (chapter 2 of 12)
(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)

See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)

Chapter two can be read on AO3 here




Chapter two
__

A metal pellet struck the wall, shattering the stone. As Thor dodged the flying splinters, a second pellet flew more true, striking him solidly between the shoulders.

His new-found lady comrade whirled on him, a clear order in her eyes. He moved the way she commanded, letting her shoot past him with one of her tiny weapons. Someone squawked, then gasped, "She winged me!" There was a lot of shouting. Everywhere there was so much shouting.

"Are you…?" the lady asked.

Thor shook dust from his hair. "I was not impressed by these 'pistols' of yours when first I saw them, but they can indeed strike true. That blow stung like the bite of an angry ant." The lady raised her eyebrows sceptically. "As several angry ants," he conceded.

The lady pressed her lips together, then gestured with her chin, indicating the way they were to go. The path was a shadowed one, darkened by wooden buildings on either side. "Why are they so angry?" he asked. She nodded him into a doorway. He stood there while she sent out several more shots. "They yelp like a kennel of small hunting dogs. Or maybe cats."

The lady said nothing. He followed her along her shadowed path, heading towards the edge of this village of hers, towards the wilderness that was this poor corner of the realm.

"Was I not polite?" he asked her. It was good to be polite; Jane had told him so.

She shot the gun from an assailant's hand, causing the rascal to howl, grasping an anguished fist. "Why do you think your brother's here?"

A varlet leapt down from a roof, squeaking some sort of ill-advised war cry. Thor smashed him into an outhouse. "Heimdall saw… glimpses. With Bifrost gone, his eyes are bound, but he is not entirely blind. He came to Odin the Allfather and told him--"

The lady twisted like an acrobat, striking the weapon from the hand of a man who lurked behind a garbage pile.

"--that my brother Loki might be alive, and could be here, in Midgard. He fell into the void, but not even my father knows everything that lies beyond the void. There are ways hidden even from him."

"Doesn't explain the dead-end towns in the middle of nowhere." She shook her muscles loose, a fighter readying herself for the next bout.

"I wanted to come," he told her. She gestured with her gun, indicating that he was to follow her down another shadowed pathway, heading back into the village. "I begged my father. It was not easy for him to open the way."

Three men attacked them at once, with knives and guns and all sorts of interesting things. He took one, she took another, and they both removed the third one simultaneously, in entirely different and somewhat contradictory ways. "I saw them watching you in the saloon," she said, tossing back the hair that had fallen over her face. "They liked the look of your gold."

"They were attempting to steal it?" Thor looked down at the groaning pile of puny men. "It was not a good attempt. Their ancestors will not be proud."

"Your brother?" she prompted.

And then they were back at the stable. He remembered the stable, with its small horses and baffling men. "I know what it is like to be lost on Earth, alone and forsaken," he said. "I had Jane, but Loki has nobody. He has not always behaved well, but he is my brother. I cannot abandon him."

Stables smelled the same everywhere, of straw and feed and horses. "Hey, mister," said the stableboy, "weren't ya listening? I told ya you couldn't leave that thing here. It might spook the horses. 'sides, I can't lift it. None of us can."

"Fear not. I will leave it here no longer." Thor stretched out his hand, and Mjolnir rose up from the dirty straw and into his palm. It always felt like coming home, to feel his hammer in his hand. Without it, the universe was out of joint.

"Saddle me a horse," the lady commanded. "A good one. The big guy's paying."

Thor rummaged in his belt and brought out an amount of gold that caused the boy's mouth to gape open. The lady tilted her head, hearing something outside. Pressing herself against the wall next to the stable door, she readied her guns. Her face was like stone. She was a true-born warrior lady, but unlike Sif, there was no joy in her as she fought, none of fierce laughter that came from standing back to back with companions, surviving all odds.

"I… shouldn't kill them," she admitted. "Not these." And she stood there, taut with readiness, but no-one came.

At last the lady let out a breath. "You got a horse?" she asked.

Thor nodded, gesturing to the beast with his hammer. "It is a sadly disappointing creature. Your Midgard warhorses are not as they are in tales. It plods."

Her eyes rose from the ground, up and up and up. "It's… big. And it's a carthorse."

"I took the biggest I could find," Thor explained, suddenly deciding to be fond of the beast, after all. He would call her Rosie. He took up position on the other side of the door. There was still a ridiculous amount of shouting outside.

"Loki?" she asked again.

"I should be able to sense him," he said, "but there is just a blank where Loki should be. But that is not unexpected if he is lost and mortal, as I was. But he would have fallen to Earth from the sky, as I did. I asked a wise man with a book, and learned that there are places where there are… holes." He gestured a circle with his spare hand. "Craters, he called them. So I came to the largest of them and started to search. Even mortal, Loki would be remembered by those who saw him."

Outside, the shouting was slowly diminishing, replaced by the hushed whispering of men who wanted to go unheard. "They're preparing a full-frontal assault," the lady told him.

He grinned at her. "Nothing we two cannot deal with." She looked surprised, and he tried to explain. "You are clearly a mighty warrior…" He broke off, remembering politeness. "I do not know your name."

"Natasha," she told him. "Natasha Romanoff. I'm an agent for SHIELD."

"Ah, a comrade of the Son of Coul!" Thor raised his hammer in salute. "Natasha, Daughter of the Romans, let us leave this town together, you and I, and sweep through those who seek to hinder us like a scythe through chaff." Her eyes were steady on his. "But without killing them," he added. "Politely," he said, remembering Jane.

She looked at him a while, and smiled just a little, and nodded.

"Uh, sir… ma'am… the horses… they're, uh, ready?" squeaked the stable boy.

And the next few minutes were glorious, worthy of song.

******

Tony leant against the railing, slowly swirling the bourbon round and round in the glass. The sound of the engines seemed muted now, as it always did after a long flight, when the noise became like part of you, no more noticeable than the sound of your own breathing. Chess pieces scattered the deck behind him, testament to another failure. The night air prickled with the scent of lemons.

The world was laid out below him, just an endless sea of featureless black. There were no towns, not even the specks of light that marked the camps and villages of the older settlers of this vast land. He'd managed to leave all people behind.

He raised his glass to nobody, and drank.

It was late - he didn't really care how late. He drained the glass, swirled the dregs, and tried to drain them as well. The only light in all the world came from the navigational instruments and the portable lamps on the table behind him. Normally one for show, he'd had the crew turn off the blaze of lights that told the world that here he was, Tony Stark, passing by in a place that they could only aspire to reach.

There was nobody to see it here. There was no need for any display. There was just him and the darkness.

"And an empty glass," he complained. He groped for the decanter, but it seemed to have unaccountably turned empty. "Jarvis. Jarvis!" The butler appeared instantly, of course, as if he had been standing poised and ready behind his cabin door, just waiting for the call. Maybe he had no existence outside Tony's presence, and was summoned into being when Tony issued a command. Something to investigate, perhaps. "Another decanter," Tony commanded. He turned so that the railing was at his back, the cold night air behind him.

Jarvis was barely visible, but the man had always possessed eyes like a cat's. He stepped unerringly over the mechanical Turk, sniffing as he did so. "Why does it smell of lemons, sir?"

Tony shrugged. "An accident with the lemonade. Why did you bring me lemonade, Jarvis? I didn't want lemonade!"

"You could have rung for me to take it away, instead of subjecting it to death by mechanical Turk," Jarvis said. "Sir," he added. He disliked air travel, and always let his mask slip a little as a result. Leastways, that was the conclusion Tony had reached. He hadn't bothered to ask.

"Whatever." Tony thrust the glass in the general direction of butlerish outrage. "More bourbon."

"Certainly," Jarvis said. "Sir." He picked up a silver platter. It was markedly unoccupied by alcohol. "Please forgive my curiosity, but is it vital that the automaton is made in the form of a Turk? Is it impossible to create artificial intelligence in the body of a mechanical… Scotsman, perhaps, or an Italian gentleman?"

"Just tradition," Tony said. "About that drink…?"

"I see." Jarvis nodded in slow understanding. "I wondered if the turban was necessary to house the… what did you call it, sir? The anima?"

"The anima is intangible," Tony said. "Drink."

"Ah," Jarvis said. The platter was still empty. "I am myself very much in favour of tradition, although I was under the impression that you scorned it. Besides, I can see that a mechanical Scotsman might involve too much knee."

Hmm, Tony thought to himself. It was true that he scorned tradition. Why had he approached the creation of artificial intelligence in such a pedestrian fashion, by sticking with the Turkish paradigm? He'd make something different next time. To hell with chess! He'd make himself an intelligent mechanical butler, one that didn't criticise him beneath a veneer of politeness, one that "actually brings me drink!" he shouted.

"Very good," Jarvis said, "sir." It was said with a faint air of defeat, as if he'd decided to give up on whatever game he'd been playing, which was probably distract Tony Stark so much with inane questions that he forgets that he wants to me to do, like, actual work.

"It's about time," Tony said. He turned again, leaning out across the railing, facing into the night. He heard the sound of a decanter opening behind him… and something else, too, something easy to miss against the sound of the engines, that sound that became so normal, so natural that you forgot to notice it.

"D'you hear that? Listen!" He moved along the railing, getting as far away as he could from the engines. The noise was louder there, although still faint. "There's another ship out there." He shielded his eyes, peering into the darkness. There were no lights, but far away he thought he could see the faint glow of navigational instruments, and a small patch of darkness moving against the stars.

"Now who would be flying all the way out here," he wondered, "without showing any lights?"

"You, sir."

"Someone up to no good." He answered his own question. "And you know what? I think Iron Man should pay them a visit."

"After bourbon, sir?" Jarvis said. "Is that wise?"

"But it'll be interesting," Tony said with a grin.

******

Clint slept only fitfully. He hadn't intended to sleep at all.

There were dreams. There were times when he could have sworn blind that he'd been lying there wide awake, watching the stars mark the passage of time, only to open his eyes and realise that he'd been dreaming.

He saw faces from the past. He was back in the circus. He was broken and betrayed… but of course having the crap beaten out of him often brought that particular memory back to play with him in the dark reaches of the night. He saw…

A bronze implacable face. A metal fist smashing him away as if he was nothing, nothing at all.

Someone moved slightly, a dark shape against the stars. Who…? Oh, yes. Banner. Clever guy, that one. Didn't bother him with stupid questions about how he was feeling - like a metal giant used me as punching bag, thank you very much - and knew not to touch him when he was restless and dreaming. He just sat there, silent and watchful, and made sure Clint knew he was there.

God, he hated head injuries!

The journey back to the bivouac had been harder than he had expected. Banner had walked alongside him, and had been slow, almost shy, when it came to offering physical assistance. Clint had waved him away, though - can walk by myself; always have done - and here they were. He had fumbled with the aetheric transmitter and stumbled over the encryption of the message. Banner had shown a token amount of doctorly concern, but mostly had been watching the device like a parched man shown a glass of water. "Just don't break it," Clint had said wearily, after the message was sent, but Banner had turned away from it and shown it no more interest, beyond sneak peeks.

Night had come quickly, all light leeching from the sky. The heater hummed steadily, a faint glow visible behind its metal slats. "Why build a shelter, then sleep under the stars?" Banner had asked as Clint had lowered himself painfully to the ground, hissing out between his clenched teeth. "Expensive tech," he'd explained, closing his eyes with a sigh. "Can't break another one. Coulson's still pissed about the last one. The last two."

Hours passed in thought and dreaming. Once he woke up with a gasp, sure that something terrible had flown over them in the night. He looked at Banner; breathed in and out, in and out, in and out again. "Hear anything?" he asked at last.

Banner shook his head. But it didn't have to mean anything. Banner was a man wrapped inwards, and a night like this would make him both blind and deaf.

The stars moved slowly on, a giant clock in the sky for those who knew how to read it. One o'clock came, then two…

There was somewhere he had to be, somewhere desperately important! He flexed his hand, but it was empty, his bow gone. He yearned for his bow. He had to go… No. Where? He saw a man with pale green eyes, smiling coldly. He wanted--

Banner cleared his throat quietly. Still here, the sound said. Clint blinked; scraped a hand across his face. "You're good at this," he said. Banner looked at him. Clint tried to marshal the words to explain what he meant, but it was easier not to. Still, he wondered if Banner had experience of watching over injured soldiers, with their hair-trigger reactions when they imagined they were under threat.

"I've had practice," Banner said at last, "in a way."

Clint tried to stay awake after that; watched the stars, and tried to calculate how long before they could expect company. As it was, the arrival of the dirigible startled him from another tangle of jagged dreaming.

He stood up, pushing on past the pain of stiffening bruises. His head throbbed, but it was better than it had been, better than it could have been. The signal whistle came from above. "Care to catch a rope?" he asked Banner. "No, stay back for now. They'll drop the stakes and mallet first." He counted the thuds, then ordered Banner forward. Banner was given a gently lowered rope, while Clint got a heavy end that crashed into the ground beside him, missing him only because some instinct caused him to dodge. "Gee, thanks, guys!" he called up, and received a soft chuckle in reply: "Knew you'd dodge it, Hawk. You always do."

Within a few minutes, the dirigible was safely tethered, and the team came sliding nimbly down the anchor ropes, just four of them, dressed for stealth. Clint greeted them with a nod. "Who's showing off now?"

"You okay, sir?" asked Sergeant Fowler, all business as usual.

It went against the grain to admit weakness, but it was a betrayal of team mates to keep such things hidden. "Been better," he said. "Not enough to compromise my effectiveness if things heat up."

"So what're we facing?" Fowler asked. "Your message indicated--"

"I'll brief you on the way," Clint told him. The night was passing, and he wanted it to still be fully dark when they reached their target. He wanted to get moving. He wanted to be upright and doing something, away from the dreams.

You've got to come back, come back to us.

Banner had retreated, withdrawing back into the night. "Your friend coming with us, Hawk?" one of SHIELD's soldiers asked.

"No." Banner's voice was quiet. "I'll stay here."

"Guard the tech." Clint nodded at him, but perhaps Banner couldn't see. "Don't break the toys while we're away."

He wondered if Banner would be there when he returned, but thought it best not to say anything out loud.

******

The cabin was a painted shell, enclosing emptiness. They had given him lanterns with candles in them, as another part of their lies. He knew that the cabins in the rest of the vessel were lit in quite another way.

Agent Coulson had asked him, quite hesitantly, what he remembered. But that was the problem: Steve remembered everything. It wasn't sixty-three years ago to him; it was yesterday.

They had been well-meaning, of course. They had tried to protect him from the truth at first, so they could break it to him… when? When they were safely down on the ground? When he couldn't "respond badly" - those were Coulson's words - and throw himself from the railing to the ground so far below?

Not that he would, of course. He was the super-soldier in more than just body, and what did soldiers do but endure?

The deception had survived mere minutes of his waking. Not even Coulson, who used words as weapons cloaked in a mild smile, could hide the roar of the machines that powered this flying vessel of theirs. They had painted the walls, but nothing was right, the fabric dyed a colour too bright to be natural. A string quartet had played Mozart from the cabin next door, but the sound had been crackly, and it had grown more and more flat until it faded into a whimper.

Coulson had told him the truth, but only when Steve had pressed him to. "The nation still needs you, Captain," he had said at the end of it.

"With advances like these?" There was so much that was marvellous - staggering inventions that these people treated as if they were nothing remarkable at all. It would have seemed like a world of wonder, had he not been lost in it.

"Because of advances like these," Coulson had said, but he had not explained it, and Steve had not asked.

Sixty-three years gone. Sixty-three years, and every person he had ever known…

He hurled the blankets away, swinging his legs out of the narrow bed. It was always cold on deck, as if he was still trapped in the ice that Coulson had told him about. They had stripped him of his clothes as he had lain sleeping, but had given him a thick coat that was too small for him, cut in a style that seemed outlandish to him.

He remembered Bucky talking one night - months ago, decades ago - about what the future might be like. 'And everyone will have a horseless carriage of their very own, a flying one, and they'll all wear suits of shiny silver, and the ladies will have gowns that show their ankles. Bring me more beer!'

"We never thought I'd be seeing it with my own eyes," Steve murmured to the Bucky of memory, now so many years dead.

Perhaps he should have disbelieved it, but he had seen too many amazing things already. But it didn't stop him from waking up throughout the night, sure that it the whole thing was a dream, desperate for it to be so.

Coat wrapped tight around his body, he went on deck, and made his way to the very front, where the wind lashed at its coldest, and the night was at its darkest. Leaning against the railing, he looked down at the darkness below, where changes unimaginable lay hidden by the night.

******

It would be a stealthy operation, Tony decided. He would fly over to the mystery ship, poke around for a while, and then come back, armed with answers. The Iron Man suit hummed and clanked, but so did the dirigible. There would only be a skeleton crew this late in the night, concentrated around the engines and the navigation station. If he landed at the end of the viewing deck…

He began to touch down. Someone gasped. "Whoa!" Tony's aborted his landing at the last possible moment, teetering on the railing, arms pinwheeling. He'd already disconnected the propulsors from the galvanic core in anticipation of the landing, and there was nothing to keep him from falling. With a desperate lurch, he managed to hurl himself forward to land in a heap on the deck. The landing was soft, at least. Then the soft landing started to move, and turned into a man.

Everything was tangled for a couple of minutes. The suit made Tony less dextrous than normal, it was difficult to extricate his limbs from the general pile. "Ow," he grunted, because apparently it hurt to be locked inside a heavy armoured suit of iron which had crashed on top of a regular man. "What the hell were you doing there?" Tony raged, when they had finally sorted themselves out into two separate men. He hurled his visor open. "You were in my way."

"I was looking at the view." The other man sounded righteously indignant, rather than furious. "I'm not the one whose behaviour was out of the ordinary. You landed on me."

Tony pushed himself upright, the pneumatic joints hissing as he did so. "Point," he conceded. He felt vaguely dizzy, but maybe it was the bourbon, rather than the heavy landing. Nothing felt broken.

"Are you…?" The man appeared to be studying him from head to toe and back again, although it was too dark for Tony to see his expression. "Forgive me for asking, sir--"

"'Forgive me for asking'" Tony echoed. "God, I've found me a second Jarvis."

The other man seemed to wince a little, as if he disliked something that Tony had said. "I was merely wondering," he said stiffly, "if flying armour such as yours is commonplace nowadays."

"Of course it isn't!" Tony was suitably outraged. "I'm Iron Man!" He got no response. "Remember? 'I am Iron Man, ' all that shit, crowd goes wild?" Still nothing. "God, have you been living under a rock for the whole of last year, or something?"

"Something like that," the man said, quite determined to infuriate him.

"Tony Stark?" Tony prompted. "Genius? Billionaire? Playboy? Philanthropist? No? Come on," he urged him, "you must have heard of me. Everyone's heard of me. Okay, there might be some nomad out in a desert somewhere who hasn't, but… Tony Stark!"

It occurred to him suddenly that he had intended this as a stealth mission. Oh, well.

"Stark?" the man said, and bingo, yes, he had him! "Are you any relation of…? No, of course you aren't. He'll be dead by now. I keep forgetting."

"No relation of anyone." Tony spread his arms proudly. "Just me."

The man seemed to have sunk himself in some sort of self-pitying wallow, leaning with both arms on the railing, staring out at the darkness. Tony clanked towards him, and the man turned his attention back to where it belonged. "I apologise for my bad manners," the man said. "I have failed to introduce myself properly."

Tony flapped his hand, as well as he could do so with stiff pneumatic joints and a body full of bourbon. "Don't worry about it. I wasn't caring."

The man executed an honest to goodness little bow, like an idiot actor on the stage. "Captain Steven Rogers at your service, Mr Stark."

"Whatever," Tony said. "So about this stealth dirigible of yours…?" Hold on a moment. What had the man just said? "Captain Rogers? Captain Steve Rogers? What d'you know? Captain America, in those crazy old broadsides and pamphlets? Steve Rogers, who my father wouldn't shut up about? Captain Fucking America. You're kidding me, right?"

"You're Howard Stark's son?" said the man who claimed to be Rogers. "Please don't swear."

"Of course I am," Tony said. "It's hardly a state secret."

"I can see the resemblance, now I come to look for it," said the so-called Rogers, as if it wasn't too dark to see anything clearly.

"You're kidding, right?" Tony fought the urge to pull down the visor of his helmet, to cover what little of his face the man was pretending to be able to see. "There aren't any photographs of my father until he's, like, at least sixty, and if you think I look like that…!" He gave a derisive laugh. "Unless you telling me you really are the great Captain America myself, who knew my father when he was younger than I am?"

The fake Rogers said nothing, but exuded honesty.

"So let's say you're Captain America." Tony decided to humour him. "It's pretty dark out here, but not so dark that I can't see that you're not ninety. So how, oh great Captain America, did you manage to stay so buff and young looking?"

"I've said too much already." The impostor's tone was dull. He was wallowing again, selfishly refusing to play.

"This is a SHIELD ship, isn't it?" Tony settled next to him at the railing, leaning towards him with the air of a co-conspirator. "Course it is, all dark like this. They told you some tale about it all being hush hush and classified? Don't worry about that. Me and SHIELD, we're this close." He held up two fingers, but the metal gauntlets refused to let him cross them to illustrate his point. "Fury and I, we're best buddies." Rogers gave no sign of recognition. "Or is it Coulson with you?" Rogers looked up, as easy to read as a toddler. "Best buddies, me and Coulson - he calls me Tony and I… call… him… Agent, and you don't think they'd let just anyone fly around in a baby like this?"

"I was… frozen," Rogers said. "As far as my memory goes, yesterday I was fighting for the future of the world in the year 1815, and today I'm here. They tell me I was under the ice."

"Frozen. Huh." It was not an entirely preposterous claim. It was possible to preserve turkeys by freezing them in ice, after all. Of course, the turkeys were dead throughout the process, but there'd been an article in Science a few months back that had postulated that one day it would be possible to preserve even human life at very low temperatures. Of course, the guinea pigs had died, but death didn't negate the theoretically possible. Not that he'd read the article to its conclusion, just skimmed it - most of it was the usual blah blah blah you expected from a journal like that.

"Let's pretend for the point of argument that I believe you," he conceded graciously. "So you're 'frozen' and you 'wake up' over sixty years in the 'future.'" The joints of his gauntlets wheezed as he did the air quotes. "But don't try the whole 'world's first superhero' thing, 'cause I aint buying it."

"It's true," Rogers said quietly.

Tony snorted with laughter. "Alchemy, seriously?" He'd devoured all the old Captain America pamphlets as a child, actually, until he'd grown up enough - like, reached the age of five - to realise that it was nonsense escapism, with no possible grounding in science. It had become one of the bones of contention between them, the fact that his father persisted in keeping up the charade. "You were an ordinary puny little man, until an alchemist finally managed to create the fabled philosopher's stone, allowing him to turn the base metal of common humanity - that's people like us - into the gold of human perfection, that's you?"

Rogers had his arms wrapped tight around his body, as if he was cold. "I have never claimed to be perfect."

"Whatever." Tony flapped his hand. "They claimed it for you, before - oh what do we have here? - the alchemist was killed and all his research was conveniently destroyed when the British burned Washington." He let out a breath. "Look, I get it. I understand the need to produce a hero in wartime. I know about creating an image for the press. I get it, just admit it for what it is: a lie. A show put on for the newspapers and the credulous public, but not real. "

And there he was, twenty years back in the past, arguing with his stubborn, cold, ridiculous father, who refused to admit the truth, who treated him like a child, who never seemed to credit him with… well, with anything much at all, and then had gone and died, so the emptiness between them had turned into an enormous endless void, never to be bridged ever again.

"You were the gold," he realised suddenly. "SHIELD said they'd found gold in Alaska. I knew they didn't mean it literally!"

Rogers looked up sharply. "I thought you were in on their councils."

"Not so much." Tony shrugged. Then, because there was no need to lie to a man who was one enormous walking lie himself, he tried to explain. "I knew they were up to something, so I might have just… invented a revolutionary new method of communication, and created a fake company to sell them exclusive rights, and… not told them about the insecurity of the system which meant that I could intercept their messages and find out everything they were talking about." It sounded good, put like that. He was quite proud of it, really.

Rogers was silent for a very long time, standing wrapped in his too-small coat. There were no heaters on the deck of the SHIELD dirigible, and the air this high was always cold. "Do you mean to tell me," he said at last, "that you created something that could benefit the whole of humanity, but instead of using it for the betterment of your fellow man, you sold it for profit to people who will keep it to themselves?"

"Uh-huh," Tony agreed.

"And, moreover, you made it deliberately flawed in order to deceive and spy upon a government agency that works tirelessly to keep the world safe?"

Tony chewed his lip. Put like that, it sounded… bad. "It's not completely flawed," he protested. "I know how to tweak it so the messages can't be intercepted. It's not hard." He grinned hopefully, spreading his hands. "Go me?"

Rogers was remorseless. "But despite knowing this, you refrained from putting these 'tweaks' into practice, preferring to score points by selling a deliberately flawed invention?"

"Hey, that's not fair!" Tony shouted. "It's not about scoring points."

"What is it about?" Rogers had his arms folded, like a stern and unforgiving teacher, with Tony a little boy again.

"They wouldn't let me play with them," he explained. "Not that I want to play with them, of course. I turned them down when they asked me. Then they changed their minds and wouldn't let me join their team." It suddenly occurred to him that he might be just a teensy bit drunk. "And they're keeping secrets," he said. "Secrets are bad, so that makes them the bad guys, right, and I still don't believe you've got any magic powers, so there."

"Not magic," Rogers said.

"Any powers at all," Tony corrected. Then he was struck with sudden inspiration. Captain America was supposed to have super-strength, wasn't he? "Hit me," he commanded, as he pressed the button that would charge his suit up, not to full power, because he didn't want to kill the man, but enough that any blow from the all-too-human fist of the fraud in front of him would bounce right off him, without Tony as much as swaying. "Go on, hit me. Don't hold back."

Rogers took him at his word. Pain exploded in Tony's jaw, and he had no idea what happened next, until he was blinking upwards from the shattered wreckage of a cabin door, his ears ringing and blood in his mouth.

"Not on the face!" Tony tried to shout, but his jaw didn't want to work. He appeared to have travelled half the length of the deck. He tried to sit up, but thought better of it. His head fell back, and he began to close his eyes.

"Good evening, Mr Stark," said a pair of polished shoes. He could see his face in the mirrored shine of those shoes. Did their owner know that they had Tony Stark's face on their feet?

Tony peered upwards. "Oh," he said. "Agent Coulson. Hi."

It seemed like a good idea to fall asleep right then.

******

They were entirely silent for the last mile. Clint checked the compass one last time, but it was hardly necessary. The moon had set, but the night was beginning to turn pale at the eastern horizon, allowing him to pick out the subtle landmarks he had marked on the almost featureless plain. They were close now.

He signalled his commands, confirming tactics agreed at the start of the mission. Two one way, two the other, and himself in the middle, alone. This was reconnaissance only, no matter how badly he might want to avenge defeat with guns blazing. Report back on the nature of the threat, and let Fury make the call on what it meant and what the hell they were going to do about it. He just followed orders.

Occasionally, he imagined Coulson adding. When you feel like it. And then there was someone else speaking in his head, not Coulson at all. Come to us, but not here. This isn't the right place any more. Walk away. Just walk away.

"Sir?" Fowler prompted, a whisper as quiet as the breeze in the long grass. Clint realised he had been standing still for a very long time - no, realised that he had actually begun to walk away from the others. He'd gone just three steps before stopping, but three steps were three steps too many.

"Let's go," he commanded, and then training took over, making him silent and invisible, unerring in the dark.

"You won't see anything on the approach," he had told them earlier. "There's some sort of… I don't know, illusion field? Makes you think you're looking at empty prairie and hides what's really there."

"Weird," Fowler had said.

"Plenty weird on its own, but weird turns into outright dangerous when you get inside. There's some sort of army base in there, machines, smoke, industry. And metal automatons guarding the borders. Giant metal automatons."

"Recommendations as to how we take them out, sir?" Fowler had been as unflappable as ever.

"Don't try." He hadn't liked to say it. "I couldn't even put a dent in them." He'd leavened it with a rueful smile. "Too bad they had no such problems when it came to putting a dent in me."

But only because I fought, he thought. I should have lain down my weapons and gone to him.

He pressed his fingertips to his brow, not sure where past finished and the present began. Just a reconnaissance; he had stressed that repeatedly, to agents who only needed to hear an order once. Quick in and out again, with the rest of the team as back-up in case things went wrong; with the rest of the team to go back and report in case he never got out himself.

Too late for that now. But one day, soon.

His head was throbbing. They passed the spot where he had hidden and watched Banner. Not far now. The approach wasn't ideal, with the coming dawn behind them and their target still lost in the dark, but he had no idea how big the illusion field was, and how far they would need to travel to approach it from the other side. Besides, he had completed missions in far worse circumstances. This was…

There were pale patches ahead of him, walls and buildings showing in the pre-dawn light. He crept forward, but he already knew what he would see; had expected it, really - and why, why, how had he known? He shook his head sharply to clear it, then had to stop completely as the headache screamed to a crescendo, then slowly faded again.

"Sir?" Fowler was at his side again. Clint hadn't even noticed him approach, so either Fowler was good, or he, Clint, was… No, don't go there.

God, he wished Natasha were there. She would understand without words; would know exactly the right thing to say, which was often nothing at all.

"They've cleared out," Clint told him wearily. "The illusion field, whatever it was, has gone. They've left the buildings behind, but they're empty."

They had to check, of course - had to creep through the entire complex in a state of constant readiness, just in case the enemy was waiting to attack - but by the time the sun was up, they had merely confirmed what Clint had already known.

It would have been better to have been proved wrong, he thought.

******

Bruce began a dozen times to leave. Barton was no longer his responsibility. The message had been safely delivered, and a team from SHIELD was on the case. There was nothing Bruce could do to make a difference, not any more. He was back to where he had started, a danger, a threat. That's why he hadn't gone with them, in case there was gunfire and violence, in case the other guy saw it and came out to play.

He gripped one of the anchor ropes, and looked up at the tethered dirigible. It was entirely silent when its great steam engines were stilled, and when he stood beneath it like this, it blocked out the sun.

'Guard the tech,' Barton had said, but it wasn't a real job, not something that would suffer if he cut and run. Barton had left the communication device unattended the previous day, after all; presumably it was too bulky and heavy to be compatible with that stealth thing he had going on.

Barton hadn't said anything to Bruce about leaving. He hadn't commanded him to stay. He hadn't left one of the soldiers to guard him. There hadn't even been a casual 'don't go anywhere, will you?' Instead he'd just walked away, leaving Bruce alone with a valuable device and with a dirigible that could take him anywhere he wanted to go.

When someone distrusted you, you could run away, no looking back. It was so much harder repay trust with betrayal.

The communication device was marvellous, though Bruce refrained from examining it too closely. What other marvels were out there in the world, developed since he had been away? It was cruel of Barton to leave him here, with this. It wasn't just a machine, it was a shining window to a world he had lost.

His fists clenched at his sides, he walked north, blindly, urgently, then stopped and came back more slowly. He was sitting in the sunshine, staring at blank pages in his pocketbook, when Barton and the others came back, not long before noon.

"What did you find?" he asked.

"Nothing." Barton's face was closed against the world. He looked neither to the right nor the left as he marched to the shelter. Wordlessly he knelt down and pulled the heavy communication device towards him.

"Quite a lot, actually," one of the soldiers said confidingly. "Empty buildings. Indications that a sizeable force was camped there, and that some sort of machines were being produced."

"You saw it?" Bruce asked.

The soldiers exchanged looks. "Yeah, we saw it," agreed the tallest one. "No trouble at all. Thing is, we were wondering…" He moved a little closer. Did he know who Bruce was? Bruce dug his nails into his palms, but was unable to resist the urge to back away slightly. "See, the Hawk's taken a blow to that thick skull of his," he whispered. "Wouldn't dare say it to his face, mind, but me and the guys, we were wondering if he'd, well… imagined the whole invisible illusiony thing."

"The Hawk also has very good hearing," whispered another, jerking his chin towards Barton, but Barton was concentrating on the communication device, and gave no sign of having heard.

"He didn't imagine it," Bruce said. "I was there. I saw him disappear into thin air, then saw him reappear a few minutes later. It happened, gentlemen, I assure you."

He looked over at Barton was he spoke, but Barton was still focused on the device, deftly turning dials with one hand, while the other hand cranked the handle. He had heard the whole exchange, of course, Bruce realised. Moreover, both soldiers had known that he would, and had spoken knowing that they'd be heard by the very person they were talking about.

Something close to pain twisted inside Bruce's chest. He took a step back. No-one seemed to notice.

Barton was frowning over the device. "I can't get an acknowledgement from the outpost," he said. "I've tried three times. I've sent out the metaphorical hand-shake, but there's nothing. I'm getting nothing back, no indication that I should proceed with the message, no… nothing. "

"Plenty of innocent reasons, sir," one of the soldiers said. "Operator dozing off. A bird nesting in the big receiver. An emergency involving paper clips."

But Barton was shaking his head. "Or it could be bad," he said. "It could be very bad," and his expression showed not fear, but knowledge.

******

end of chapter two

******

Photobucket


On to chapter three
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