Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Avengers fanfic: Immortal Engines, chapter 3 of 12

Immortal Engines (chapter 3 of 12)
(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)

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

Chapter three can be read on AO3 here



Chapter three

"Ow!" Tony said accusingly, because it seemed like a good first step before he ascertained the scale of the problem. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry. Bourbon, he thought, diagnosing the cause of those particular malfunctions.

He opened his eyes, and there was problem number three, the harsh glare of sunlight. And problem number four was sitting there looking down at him.

"You hit me!" Tony protested, because, yeah, there it was, right on cue: problem number five, in the form of a throbbing jaw.

"You told me to!" Rogers sounded as righteously indignant as you'd expect from a hero, all who, sir, me, sir, but he deserved it, sir, blah blah blah. "I'm a soldier, remember? I obey orders."

Was he joking? Tony narrowed his eyes, but there was no sign of it on the man's sickeningly honest face.

"Yeah, well, yes, I did, but...." Tony shifted awkwardly, failing to find any possible way to get comfortable. "You didn't have to take me quite so liter-- Hey!" He diagnosed problem number six, in the form of stiff muscles, like, everywhere. "You left me lying where I was? You didn't carry me to a bed? You let me sleep in the Iron Man suit?"

"I brought you a blanket." Rogers raised a corner of it, like a puppy offering up a ball.

The shiny shoes of Coulson hoved into view. "Would you have preferred us to strip you naked while you… slept?" The tone was one of disinterested enquiry, but there was the slightest hesitation before the final word, imbuing it with an emphasis that Tony didn't much like.

"I'm always fully clothed under the suit," Tony snapped.

"Ah." Coulson nodded slowly, as if digesting this, then pulled out a notebook and scrawled a few words. "More than a few office bets that will be settled by this revelation." He closed the notebook and returned the pen to his waistcoat pocket.

Tony struggled awkwardly to his feet, pushing past the protests of muscles that had spent the night locked in the unnatural stiffness imposed by the armour. He'd designed the suit to be quick and easy to put on and take off again, even when he was alone. He pressed a button here, turned a wheel there, opened a buckle, unfastened several brass screws. It took barely ten minutes. Beneath the armour, his clothes were crumpled enough to send society hostesses into fits of the vapours, but nothing that Jarvis couldn't fix with starch and a smoothing iron.

"There," he said, when he was done. He felt almost human again. There were times when it felt like being a god, to be wrapped in his armour, but other times it made him feel faintly ridiculous.

Rogers had turned his back politely during the process, he noticed. Coulson was standing there impassively, his finger tapping barely perceptibly against the leather cover of his notebook.

Tony grimaced, sticking his tongue out several times in a disgusted God, I'm parched, bring me drink! sort of way. Coulson just stood there, too stupid to take the hint. "Coffee?" Tony prompted.

"It can be arranged." Coulson said, with a smile both obliging and inane. He looked past Tony and made a few quick gestures with his fingers. Tony twisted round in time to see a man at the far end of the deck nod obediently, then hurry off. There had been nothing about Coulson's gestures to indicate coffee. The man would probably come back with a commode, or something, and then Tony would laugh.

Rogers was still politely averting his eyes. "For God's sake, Cap," Tony told him, "you can turn round. All decent. Nothing to make a maiden blush. Oh, I'm sorry, you are a maiden, aren't you?"

In the unforgiving daylight - and seriously, sunlight, ow! - the so-called Rogers really did look remarkably like the man in Howard Stark's prized lithograph. The noble, stick-up-the-ass dignity was certainly the same. Tony tugged at Coulson's impeccable sleeve. "Where'd ya dig him up from?"

"Apt," Coulson said. We dug him up in Alaska. And he is, before you ask, entirely for real."

Tony laughed raucously. It was hard to maintain. His jaw really did hurt. He had powered the suit to forty percent, more than enough to withstand the right hook of any prize fighter.

"An old-fashioned hero," Coulson said, pressing his notebook to his chest, "come back to aid us in this troubled present of ours. In medieval times, they said that King Arthur was only sleeping and would return to save them all from war and pestilence. The English have their Captain Drake, asleep until the people have need of him."

"Get a room, Coulson." Tony shook his head derisively. It was a mistake. "Go make kissy eyes at him someplace else. It's not the second coming of Jesus Christ."

"That would be blasphemy," Rogers interjected, solemn and shiny and clean.

"Okay, I'll grant you that he may well come from 1815, or whenever the hell it was, because nobody like that could have survived to adulthood in the modern world, but I refuse to buy the alchemy thing. Alchemy," he stated, "is just another word for magic, and magic doesn't exist."

Coulson was nodding along obligingly. "Oh yes. I read your article in Science. Quaint."

"I've seen things in this world of yours that look like magic to me," Rogers said quietly. "Your iron suit, for one."

"That? Quaint," Tony said, returning blow with counter-blow. "That's science. That's technology. When ignorant people talk about magic, it's just science too advanced for them understand. Write it down," he said to Coulson. "Stark's Law."

Coulson did indeed write something down.

"But science will never find a way to turn lead into gold," Tony continued, emphasising each word, "because it can't be done, and don't tell me that Isaac Newton was into alchemy, because I know he was, but that was two hundred years ago, and just because a man's a genius in one field, it doesn't stop him from being an idiot in another."

Coulson looked up from his writing. "I am coming to that conclusion myself. Oh, here's the coffee."

It was indeed coffee, and not a commode. They moved inside the cabin, where the minion poured Tony a cup. It was a delicate cup of bone china, decorated with bluebirds and flowers. "Huh," Tony grunted. He had expected a secret government agency to have a dinner service that was more… stealthy? Utilitarian? Deadly? Not that anybody could kill someone with a coffee cup.

"Shall we turn to business?" Coulson suggested mildly.

Something about his tone caused Tony to pause between one sip and the next. He laid his cup very carefully down on the saucer. Coulson had never once expressed any surprise about his presence, he realised. There was none of the outraged how did you find us? and please, sir, this is highly classified, sir, that you normally got when you gatecrashed a SHIELD operation, not that he'd done such a thing often, of course, only twice. Three times. Okay, six.

"You…" Tony began. No. Of course not. I couldn't be. "You…"

Coulson was smiling at him, mild, encouraging.

"No," Tony said. "You… I can't… I'll be… No."

Coulson sat down on a high-backed chair, and took a sip of coffee. "Interesting fact," he said. "Secretive government agencies are not prone to buying untested tech from companies with no proven track record, no matter how persuasive the inventor."

"It had a proven track record!" Tony protested. "I wrote it myself!"

"Nor are they prone to installing said tech without running exhaustive tests, covering, amongst other things, whether their messages can be intercepted by hostile parties. They are, after all, a secret government agency, emphasis on secret."

"Ah," Tony said. "Uh…"

Coulson gave a cheerful smile, no guile in it at all. "It's actually proved to be a very useful device, quite a remarkable one, in fact, allowing us to communicate without wires, something our tame scientists had told us lay at least ten years in the future. It means we can receive communications from our agents in the field without them having to return to one of our outposts." He took another sip, replacing the cup soundlessly in the saucer. "Of course, we ensure that our real messages are sent in code."

"Code," Tony said. "Uh…"

"I don't really understand any of this," Rogers offered politely.

"SHIELD has a base in New York City, of course," Coulson said, "but of course it isn't the building where you planted your ingenious mechanical bugs. They were much admired, by the way. Tame scientists, ten years in the future, etcetera etcetera."

"It said 'SHIELD' over the gate!" Tony managed at last to produce words.

"Indeed." Coulson placed his the cup and saucer on the coffee table. "It was deemed probable that you would prove skilled at cryptography should you get your hands on our real messages, so we sought to keep you occupied with fake messages. Unfortunately, the agent on that particular detail was somewhat… lacking in imagination."

"Paper clips." It sounded slightly strangled.

"Precisely." Coulson looked pained. "SHIELD would be a wretched secret government agency indeed if it had failed to master the procurement of office supplies."

"What are paper clips?" Rogers asked.

Coulson pulled one out of a pocket, and tossed it at him without looking. Rogers caught it unerringly, of course. "I'm sorry, Mr Stark," Coulson said. He didn't look sorry, not one little bit. "You mustn't feel very stupid. The trouble with you genius types is that you tend to under-estimate the rest of us. Egotistical people are the easiest to deceive. You just allow them to feel as if they've outwitted you, and then they'll leave you alone and let you get on with the things that need doing."

Tony felt a very strong urge to hit something. He clenched his fist tight enough to hurt. "So what was the point of the whole charade?"

Coulson smiled. "It brought you here when we needed you, didn't it? I doubt you would have responded the same way to a polite request."

Tony stood up and walked away, out of the cabin, out into the sun. He wanted… God, he wanted… I want a drink! he thought, but it wasn't that. He felt… God! And Coulson would be sitting smugly in there, thinking he'd won, thinking Tony was sulking, and there would be Rogers with his shiny moral righteousness, and who needed Iron Man when Captain Fucking America was on the scene?

Scraping his hand across his face, he went back in. "So why did you manipulate me into coming here? To meet him?" He rubbed his throbbing jaw. "Guess that didn't go as planned, huh?"

"That was an interesting bonus," Coulson said. "But, no, we brought you here because of the tech. You see, Captain Rogers wasn't the only thing we found beneath the ice."

******

Natasha had lived her entire life in large countries. It was something she regretted at times. Despite all the advances in technology, a single girl alone could not travel halfway across a continent without putting herself in the power of strangers.

"Is this what they call an iron horse?" Thor was rattling in time with the clatter of the rails. "It lurches like an ill-tempered nag. Not like Rosie. Rosie was a fine beast."

"She plodded," Natasha reminded him.

"Indeed." Thor sighed, and turned towards the window. There was nothing outside but dust and emptiness.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Natasha stiffened, but the steps passed on by. Since the development of dirigibles, railroads had become the preserve of the poor, and just a few dollars could secure a private compartment, with a door that locked and blinds that pulled down, no questions asked.

Natasha let out a taut breath. She felt tense and unsettled, less at home in her own skin than she had felt the day before, when playing a part.

"How long before we reach our destination?" Thor asked.

"A few days," was all she would say out loud. Air travel was faster, but it was harder to hide among the chattering rich on a dirigible than here on the ground, with the poor and the desperate. But even here it was best to be cautious.

"And these men we go to meet, they will know where my brother is?" Thor's hair was clouded with the dust of the desert. It was easy to think of him as an overgrown child or even an exuberant dog, but he wasn't, of course. Yes, he was a child in his knowledge of the modern world, but he had seen things and done things that humans could only dream of.

She looked away, at the empty world beyond him. "They… should be able to help."

Or maybe they would decide not to, or decide to seek Loki for their own purposes. Either way, her duty would be complete. Her mission ended when she handed Thor over to SHIELD: job done; move on to something more suited to her own particular talents. She didn’t know why she'd been landed with this task. Barton was being similarly wasted, out keeping tabs on Banner. What had they done to anger Fury this time, to be stuck with missions like these? Or, more likely, what Barton had done, tarnishing her with guilt by association.

The footsteps returned, paused at their door, and moved on. Once again, she was slow to relax her grip on her gun.

Sometimes, she thought, things were so much better when you didn't… associate.

Sometimes.

******

The smoke was visible from miles away. Bruce worried his hands together, and wondered what he was doing here. He was unused to the company of soldiers. He'd known nothing of war, until… until…

He was pacing the deck. Tense and impassive, the soldiers ignored him. Barton was pressed against the railing at the prow, as if he could drive the dirigible to go faster by sheer force of will. "Is it too late?" Bruce asked him.

Barton stiffened, as if Bruce had asked him something dreadful, then let out a tight breath. "You're asking me what I can see. No hostiles, if that's what you mean. None that I can… see."

"You sure, Hawk?" one of the soldiers asked, coming up behind.

Barton turned to look at him, any dread now hidden behind the mask of a man doing his job. "It's never safe to be sure. We'll proceed as if there's an active threat."

There was nothing for Bruce to do. The dirigible moved too slowly, fighting against the wind. They entered the smoke cloud long before they reached their destination. Barton and the others donned goggles and mechanical breathing filters. They found a spare set for Bruce, and he put them on, his fingers falling effortlessly into patterns learnt from years in the lab.

He'd neglected his breathing filter the day he had… changed. Not that it would have made the slightest bit of difference, of course, but that wasn't how regrets worked.

The smoke was thinner when they reached the outpost, the fires already burning out. "There's no boarding tower," Barton had warned him earlier, "just a ladder." Barton and the soldiers didn't need even that, but slithered down ropes before the dirigible was tethered. Two of them lingered long enough to fasten the ropes to the tethering posts, but the rest were already away, moving in response to Barton's sharp hand signals. Bruce lost sight of them within seconds.

Bruce found the lever that released the telescopic ladder, and turned the crank until it was fully extended, secure on the ground. He was slow to climb down, and even slower to move away from its base.

Why am I here? he thought. Barton had given him no particular orders; had barely seemed to remember he was there. This was a scene of violence. There was nothing he could do, nothing. He wasn't trained to fight. But if he witnessed violence; if he saw a man killing another, heart pounding with horror, fists clenching with dread…

He was edging backwards, off the landing platform, away, away…

And men lying wounded, in need of help…

He put one foot in front of the other, and then again and then again, until he was walking forward, heading for the heart of it. He stopped just short of the nearest shattered wall; raised his hand as if to speak, then lowered it again. He waited there for a very long time, knowing how stupid it would be to blunder in.

"They've gone," Barton said. Fine dust skittered down from above, but the man himself was invisible. "We were too late."

"I…" Bruce swallowed. "Is anybody hurt? Perhaps I can… help?"

"They're dead." Barton jumped down to land beside him. "But not enough of them."

Bruce waited, twisting his useless hands.

"There were ten agents based here at Outpost 17," Barton said. "Four came with me. We've found three bodies."

"Maybe they're…" Bruce looked at the wreckage, imagining the weight of stone.

"Maybe," Barton agreed, but his tone said 'no.'

"Was it…?" Bruce brought his hand up to the back of his head, running his fingers through his hair. "…an accident?"

"No." Barton's eyes were unreadable behind the goggles. "We've found… evidence. Tracks. There were enemy soldiers here, but this…?" He nodded at the devastation, buildings smashed apart as if by… the other guy, Bruce thought. "This wasn't done by people."

Bruce moistened his lips, dry behind their mark. "The automatons you saw? The metal giants?"

Barton nodded. "The… evidence suggests." Then he turned away, pressing his hand against the pillar of a ruined door. When he moved it, he left behind a smear of blood. "But they've gone now, and three of our own with them. Dead? Prisoners? Something…" Another smear, fainter this time. "…else?"

"Did you know?" Bruce found himself blurting out, remembering that certainty in Barton's eyes. "Did you know this had happened? Did you know we were already too late?"

Barton walked away without a word.

******

Tony Stark was a different man when he was working. Gone was the facetiousness and the harsh mockery that Steve so disliked. For once, he actually seemed to be taking something seriously. He had swept the workbench clear with single-minded determination, and was studying the sphere, his eyes alight with fascination.

The whole scene reminded Steve sharply of Howard Stark at work. It was really true, then. It was so easy to forget; so easy to be ambushed anew by a sight like this. This was Howard Stark's grown-up son. It was real. It had happened.

He stood to attention, fighting the urge to walk away. It was painful to look at Tony Stark right now, but he was just one of the endless reminders. The flying vessel itself, Coulson's mechanical pocket watch, the metal box that kept the milk cold… The land below them, marked with shining lines that were called railroads, and dotted with towns that spewed out steam…

It was impossible to hide from the truth, and neither was it acceptable to do so. Duty came first.

But the men he had sworn allegiance to were dead. And the cause…? He didn't know enough about this future world to know where the cause of righteousness lay.

"This part's useless, at least," Tony Stark said, jabbing his finger at the large jewel that was set in a casing at the top of the sphere, a good six inches across. "Just brash decoration. Why do people have to ruin their tech with brash decoration?"

"Says the man whose armour is covered with red and gold enamel," Steve said.

"Says the man who ran around with stars and stripes on his chest and a Goddamn mask on his face," Tony Stark retorted.

Agent Coulson was busy making notes. "You both make valid points," he said without looking up.

"Sometimes," Tony Stark said, "brash decoration serves to hide ugly workings." He prized the jewel carefully out of its setting, and looked at the space where it had been. "Guess that's not the case this time." He looked up, smiling. "I was right. See? No wires. Just decoration." He tossed the jewel aside, with a rich man's disdain for things that a poor man could only dream of.

It was impossible to think of him just as 'Stark.' 'Stark' was another man, just days in Steve's past. It was out of the question to call a new acquaintance by his Christian name, of course. He would think of him as 'Tony Stark,' and address him as little as he could get away with, within the bounds of the correct behaviour that the other man seemed to flout at every turn.

"But what does it do?" Tony Stark was musing. "It's over sixty years old? Before they understood the potential of aether, then. Galvanic science was in its infancy. Huh." He rooted around in his pocket, and came out with some sort of monocle with half a dozen attachments. He selected one, and slotted it in place in front of the lens, then turned his attention back to the orb.

"It's dangerous," Steve reminded him. He had already said the same thing a dozen times before. He had gone cold all over when he realised they had brought it with them from the ice. Not that! Not that! After everything he had gone through…

"I'm always careful," Tony Stark said at last, words trailing away as he saw something interesting through his lens.

"The man… the creature called Red Skull said it would devastate cities," Steve told him. Just days ago, for him. Just days. "That's why I had to stop him. I'd… seen things - villages full of dead people in Kamchatka, women and children, too. I saw him make a room full of soldiers fall to their knees screaming. It was tied in with the orb somehow. He said they'd perfected it since then. He said he would use it destroy us all."

Again Tony Stark was slow to answer. He was bent in closely, doing fine work with some sort of needle. "Kamchatka, huh? Never heard of it, but I'm betting it's a long way from the war you were supposed to be fighting."

"We discovered that the British weren't the real threat," Steve said. "The great powers of Europe were locked in war, and now we were involved, too. Red Skull used that as an opportunity to build up a power base in a place where nobody would think of looking. I was sent to investigate."

"The songs and pamphlets continued." Coulson looked up from his writing. "There was a four month gap between you leaving the war and disappearing for good. They pretended you were still there, of course, still fighting the good fight, hurrah for Uncle Sam and Captain America. I possess an original broadside describing the cavalry charge you supposedly led at the Battle of New Orleans. It's quite rare, actually."

"The Battle of New Orleans?" Steve asked.

"A good song," Coulson said. "Stirring woodcuts. I'll show it to you when we get back home. Maybe you could…" He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.

"Anyway," Tony Stark said pointedly, "antique tech that can kill us all?"

"I wiped out the rest of the operation," Steve explained. "Red Skull, he was… insane, I think. I was the only one left. I managed to grab hold of the underside of his ornithopter. We fought, and he fell into the Bering Strait. I tried to get home, but the ornithopter was too badly damaged, and I…"

"Tech?" Tony Stark prompted.

"Please," Steve begged him, because a soldier should have no pride, not when there was a job to be done. "Don't touch it. Be careful. Please."

Tony Stark picked up a screwdriver. "It's clearly not a bomb, else it would've exploded when you crashed the 'thopter. It's travelled happily with you these last few days without killing everyone. It-- Ah!" He looked up with a grin. "I've got it. You might want to… uh…" He turned his back and busied himself with something, hands at his ears. "There," he said, as he very carefully twisted the top half of the sphere, while holding the bottom half still.

There was the faintest of clicks, and then Steve's world imploded. He was on his knees, gasping. His eyes were streaming. His stomach heaved, and he tried to stand, tried to move, but dizziness seized him, and he couldn't hear, he couldn't hear… He clawed at the carpet. Got to… he thought. Got to…

And there was Tony Stark, sitting in the armchair with his legs casually crossed. "Back with us so soon, Cap?" He studied his mechanical pocket watch. "Two minutes. Must be that super-soldier thing you've got going. Coulson's gonna be out of it for a while yet."

"You…?" Steve managed.

"Ear plugs." Tony Stark opened his hand, showing them resting in his palm. "It's a simple sonic weapon - similar to something I was working on myself, before I gave up the weapons thing. See? It's nothing that can wipe out whole cities. Unless…" A flash of worry passed over his face. "No, engines still running and we aren't plummeting out of the sky, so the crew was unaffected. Very short range, and stopped by walls. Are you sure you're remembering things right?"

It was just a few days ago! Steve wanted to scream. Of course I can remember! But all he did was leave the cabin. If he staggered slightly at the door, it was only the after-effect of the weapon; just that.

******

Thor had not enjoyed the iron horse. He had not enjoyed being encased in a metal cage that went rattle-rattle-rattle along iron railings. Even the food was poor, brought by a little man with pimples on his face. The lady Natasha had refused to let him ask for boar. Even the ale was bad, flat and dead in tiny bottles.

"But I can fly to our destination on the wings of a storm!" he had told her, when the rattle-rattle became as irritating as a biting horsefly trapped beneath your greaves. "Would that not be quicker? And less--" A jolt had hurled him against the window. "--annoying?"

"I can't," she had replied.

"You can!" He had mimed holding her close to his breast, keeping her secure as he rode through the storm with his hammer aloft.

"I won't." Her voice had been firm, brooking no further argument.

Her masters, it seemed, would be more receptive to his pleas for aid if he approached them 'through the expected channels.' Thor sighed as he contemplated the decline of the world. Once upon a time, 'the expected channels' would have involved thunder and lightning as a matter of course, and perhaps a small earthquake if he was feeling bountiful. Now it involved the lord of storms and thunder being packaged up in a box like a sheep on its way to market.

But he had been mortal and in need upon this earth, and humans had helped him when they could have walked on by. Would his own people have done the same to one so lost?

He would endure, then, and humble himself willingly, and ask for aid. He would even tolerate the hats.

But now the iron horse had been left behind, and they were back on proper horses, riding through the wilds. The lady Natasha had done the choosing this time, hiring a creature that rode well, despite its unfortunate colouring. It was small in stature, but mighty in spirit.

"She needs a name." Thor tugged at the reins, easing his steed close to the lady Natasha's. "Tell me the name of a mighty war horse, famed in your people's stories and songs!"

She thought for a while, then, "Dobbin," she said.

"Dobbin. Dobbin! Dob Bin." He tested the name, saying it in command, then declaiming it like a skald telling a story. "Tell me the story of this Dobbin of yours!"

She frowned, and seemed to be struggling to find words. Was it a tragic tale? Was it a tale such as to make men weep? Was it--?

He stopped. There was a faint scent in the air; a whisper of sound on the fringes of his hearing; a shimmer of awareness in his hammer hand. "There is warfare ahead."

She nodded, her hand already going to her gun. "We're close," she said. "Outpost 23 is on the other side of those bluffs. They must be under attack. We need to--"

Seizing Mjolnir, he kicked Dobbin into a gallop, and charged forward, bellowing. The wind tore at his hair. His cloak burst free from the ridiculous bundling she had made him endure, flying out from below his short coat. The noise of battle grew closer. Bare trees lashed at him, and he ducked to ride beneath them, then rose up, laughing. He crested a rise, and there below him was a small building, no larger than a lord's mead hall, and it was under attack by giants.

Roaring his defiance, he rode them down. He leapt from Dobbin, landing lightly on his feet, and smashed upwards with his hammer. These were not frost giants, but fire giants, blazing fierce and red… No, they were metal giants, radiant in the light of the sunset, their shadows dark and vast.

His hammer stove in the chest of the nearest one, but it came on regardless. Bellowing, he crushed its arm, but still it advanced. "Do you feel no pain, giant?" he shouted. It smashed its fist at him, and he dodged, but its comrade came in from the other side. Its blow threw him backwards, where he rolled, and came up for another round.

The building had already been half devastated. With an almighty crash, the roof fell in. A few men crouched in the wreckage, valiantly firing puny guns. There were men amongst the attackers, too, shielding themselves like cowards inside a circle of metal giants. When the defenders' bullets struck the metal giants, they made dents, but did nothing to halt their advance.

"You will not," Thor shouted, laying about him with his hammer, "prevail--" He leapt up, and came down with all his strength, smashing Mjolnir two-handed into the head of the nearest giant. "--this day!"

And still it came on. Still it came on.

The attackers were withdrawing, step by cowardly step. One of the giants was carrying a great machine in its arms, and several of the men had bags and cases. Then one of the defenders stood up and walked out from the wreckage, weaving as he did so, as if he was fighting every step. His comrades called to him, and he turned, raised his gun, and stood there, stood there for the space of a dozen breaths - Thor swung his hammer, leaped, twisted, and drove a giant backwards, little more than a heap of walking scrap - then shot one of his comrades full in the chest.

"Why," Thor forced through gritted teeth, "do you refuse to surrender?"

Then even his giants were retreating. Another blast sounded behind him. Thor looked up, chest heaving with the harsh joy of battle, and when he turned back, the attackers had vanished,

"No!" Thor bellowed, reaching towards the crumpled ruin of the giant that had refused an honourable surrender, but it shambled backwards and vanished, too.

He would have followed it; would have hunted it to its lair without a thought, but something flickered on the fringes of his vision; something brushed against the edges of his mind. He stopped, all joy leaving him, all hatred, all the fierce Now! that was a battle. There was just…

"Loki?" he whispered. "Brother?"

But it was gone. It was gone as if it had never been. And it hadn't been, he told himself. It was just a picture of his hope; that was all.

He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

"--discuss strategy," the lady Natasha said, cool and calm, although when he opened his eyes to look at her, he could tell that she had been fighting, too.

Thor moistened his lips, tasting smoke and sweat and yearning. "I had a strategy," he told her. "Giants were attacking your friends, so I attacked the giants." She looked less than satisfied. He swallowed. "Is strategy like politeness? Is it something that must be remembered in this fragile world of yours?"

"Stealth would be another." She was still unsmiling.

"Stealth is for tricksters," he declared, but the ways of this world were different from his own. "I can try stealth," he said. "Next time I'll creep." He mimed it with his fingers, his head drawn furtively down into his shoulders.

She was still solemn. It had not been Loki, he told himself. If Loki had been here, he would have made himself known to his brother, surely he would.

"Are your comrades dead?" he asked her.

She shook her head, but not in negation. "I don't know," she said. "Some of them are. There is a lot of… clean-up to be done."

She turned to walk away, but he called her back. "These metal giants… Are they known enemies of your people?"

"No." She paused, a gun held in each hand. "They are now. And they have just declared war."

******

end of chapter three

******

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