(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter four can be read on AO3 here
The future reeked of smoke and machine oil. The ground thrummed with the action of ever-present engines, and the voices that filtered through the walls were distorted into near inhumanity. There were no windows, just a great weight of metal and artificial stone pressing down from above. It was blasphemy to compare any place to Hell, of course, and Steve had no memory of the time he had spent buried under the ice, but…
He pushed open his door and headed towards the stairs. "I need…" he said to the sentry on duty there. To get out, he thought. To go home. "…to see Agent Coulson," he said. "Please."
The sentry saluted; even the style of a salute had changed since the yesterday that had become the long-ago past. Steve followed him up a wrought iron staircase, and waited while the sentry announced his name.
"Good morning, Captain Rogers." Coulson stood up from a desk covered with papers. "Did you sleep well?"
"Very well, thank you," Steve replied, the demands of politeness overruling the imperative to tell the truth. His room was spacious and well furnished, but it was full of devices and gadgets he had never seen before. He had spent the night in the harsh glare of artificial light, unable to work out how to turn the lamps off.
"Is there anything else you need to be comfortable?" Coulson asked, with every sign of real anxiety. "Anything I can bring you?" He removed a stack of files from an armchair. "Please have a seat."
"Thank you." Steve stayed where he was, standing at the door. "But I'm not staying. Am I… Am I permitted to go outside?"
"Of course, Captain," Coulson said. "You're a most honoured guest, not a prisoner." He looked closely at Steve's face. "You don't like being underground. How stupid of us not to expect this. Actually, most of our regular living quarters and recreation areas are top-side. It's less secure, but many people prefer it. I'll get you moved."
As he was speaking, his hand strayed to the topmost sheet of paper on his desk, touching it as if it was something precious. "Is that…?" Steve moved forward. "…me," he said.
He picked up the nearest pile, and began to leaf through it. There were old browning pamphlets marked with dates that Steve still thought of as being in the future. There were woodcuts and lithographs, all fading with age. One was signed with his own careful signature, in ink that had faded away to brown. But the paper that Coulson was touching was brutally new, marked with fresh ink, dark enough to hurt. Three pens lay beside it on a blotter, leaking red and blue and black.
Steve was gripping the oldest of the pamphlets, showing him in a pose he had never made, at a battle he had never fought at. He let it fall. "You're designing me a new uniform."
"Well, yes, er…" Coulson cleared his throat. "The old one won't work in the modern world. Not enough protection against our modern weapons, for one thing, and nobody wears pantaloons any more, not even to a society ball. We can't have the people you're trying to save run screaming from the sight of your calves."
Steve said nothing.
"It's just a draft." Coulson ran his hand almost reverently across the design. "I thought… If you like it, that is…" He cleared his throat. "I was going to run it over to the seamstresses and armourers and get them to make up a prototype. I, er, measured you when you were… that is to say, I estimated your size from a… distance, but if you would consent to fittings…?"
Steve looked at the fading pictures on the ageing sheets. "Why…?" He closed his eyes for a moment, and turned away blindly. When he opened his eyes again, he found that he was facing a wall hung with a large framed painting of himself at the head of armies. "Are you expecting me to fight your wars for you?"
"No," Coulson said. "That is… Yes. We…" He cleared his throat. "That is to say, we thought…"
"That I was created as a tool," Steve said, "and that I would continue to be the tool of whoever held me? The people I swore allegiance to are dead, Coulson. Why do you presume the right to my obedience?"
Coulson took a step towards him, and reached out, almost as if he was about to touch him, then drew his hand back. "Because we know the kind of man you were. We thought you would come to see our wars as your wars."
Were. Steve heard it, even if Coulson did not.
Steve blundered blindly towards the door; stopped and collected himself. "Agent Coulson," he said, nodding the correct farewell. He followed the corridor to another flight of stairs, then through a set of metal doors. A sentry saluted him, but the next door burst open as he approached it, and two men bustled through, so intent on their conversation that they ignored Steve completely, blanking his polite nod.
He had to ask three different people before he found the door that led to the surface. At ground level, the complex looked unexceptional, little more than a frontier fort from Steve's time, with barrack rooms and officers' quarters and public chambers. Even the great airships were stowed underground, in great warehouses called hangars that they lowered themselves into through enormous sliding hatches in the ground.
He had not intended to seek out Tony Stark, but there he was, hard at work in a corner of the yard beneath a corrugated iron shelter. "You really did a number on it," Tony Stark said, without appearing to look up. "Your ornithopter? Yes, you're right, it looks more like a crumpled heap of scrap than a flying machine. Personally I blame the former owner."
Steve remembered how it had felt to know beyond a shadow of doubt that he was about to die. He remembered how cold it had been, and how alone. "Are you trying to repair it?"
"You're kidding. It's over sixty years old. How can something that old be anything other than obsolete, past its sell-by date, useless, redundant--? What?" He looked up, shaking his head in exaggerated innocence. "Jesus, Cap, not everything's about you. You should learn to be less egotistical. Pass me that wrench. No, don't give it to me, put it down there. I don't like being handed things."
Steve did what he was told, then found a three-legged stool, and settled down upon it. "So why are you…" He struggled for the word. "…tinkering?"
"The ornithopter was the first example of powered flight," Tony Stark said. "It was a technological dead end. The dirigible began to supersede the ornithopter by the 1820s. The surviving ornithopters were melted down or allowed to go to rust, and none have survived."
"Which is a good thing," Steve reminded him, "given how obsolete, past their sell-by date, useless and redundant they were."
"Are you…?" Tony Stark looked at him, his eyes hidden by his goggles. "Right," he said. "But there might… just possibly be… something useful I can learn…" He brandished his wrench. "Here's the thing: dirigibles are big and expensive; can't be flown without a crew. You could fly an ornithopter with two, or even one. Crash it with one, as well."
Steve gave a very faint smile. Ridiculously, there was something almost… easing about sitting here listening to the flow of words.
"So…" Tony Stark reached blindly for a mug of coffee, and by some miracle managed to grasp it without knocking it over. "Coulson let you off the leash? I'm surprised. It's obscene, the way he worships you. When he's not unconscious and drooling into the carpet. Admit it, Cap, that was funny. "
Steve looked up at the sky, speckled with clouds. Birds soared against the blue, the same as they ever had. The walls of the old fort were crumbling, as if they were used only as a cover for the complex below, and not for living in. "Does everybody live underground in the future?" he found himself asking.
Tony Stark leant back against the work bench, the mug cupped in both hands. "Course they don't," he said, "in the present. This is SHIELD's high-tech super-secret base, underground, hush-hush, all the newest toys. Surprised they let me near it.... unless it's another decoy? No, it can't be that."
Steve focused on the sky, the only thing unchanged about this world. "Agent Coulson is of the opinion that you're the best there is when it comes to designing machines…"
"Fact," Tony Stark said. Steve looked at him questioningly. "Not opinion," he explained.
A bird was circling far above, looking down on the changed earth below. "When I was young, I read a poem about a man who built a… a... machine that could… travel in time." His mouth was dry. He moistened his lips. "Could you…?"
"Whoa!" Tony Stark held up his hand. "I'm the best, yes, but I don't trade in the impossible, and time machines fall firmly in the category of impossible. Why would an old-fashioned guy like you want to go into the future, anyway?"
Steve watched the bird as it flew away and out of sight. "Not the future," he said quietly. Impossible, he thought. Impossible.
He had not realised quite how fiercely he had been dreaming.
"Oh." Tony Stark had the grace to look a little contrite. Pushing his goggles to the top of his head, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
Steve blinked hard, his eyes stinging with the ever-present smoke of the future. Of the present, he thought. There would be no homecoming for him at the end of his war.
"Well," Tony Stark said, "it could be worse. Half the country's still in love with you. Appear on a few magazine covers and open a few galas, and you'll have the rest of them eating out of your hand. You won't even have to do any of the hero thing. Just sit around and smile at the camera and… eat grapes and drink… milk. Just like the old days, huh?"
"Why are you so quick to assume it was all a sham?" Steve shouted. "Is it because you're just a sham yourself? Is that what Iron Man is all about? Is it just a parade of glittering lies put on for the benefit of the journals and the balladeers, while you drink yourself into a stupor and mock and deride anyone who strives to be good and noble?"
"We don't have balladeers any more, Captain Rip Van Winkle," Tony Stark retorted. "And are you really telling me that all that Captain America crap was real - every single word of it, every picture, every song?"
Steve let out a breath. "You know that it wasn't. I was… manipulated at first. I let other people use me to promote…" He passed his hand across his face. "But it was necessary. We were at war. The people needed the flag, the anthem, the hero. And that was just the… veneer. The things that I did, the missions I went on… They were what mattered; they were what made a difference - the real things, not the lies."
"You keep telling yourself that, Cap, if it makes you feel good," Tony Stark said. "Truth is, image is the most important thing of all. I should know: I've spent my entire life learning how to play the press. Can one man win a war? Course he can't. Can the image of one man, carefully presented, unite a nation so that it believes it can win the war? The most important thing you did was stand there and look heroic while people made paintings of you. An illiterate actor could have done the job just as well."
Steve was on his feet, he realised, his hands clenched into tight fists at his side. "Howard Stark would be ashamed of you, to hear you speak like that."
"He would, huh?" Tony Stark looked down at his mug, took a sip, and put it down with a taut deliberateness. "Guess you knew him better than I did, then." Picking up his wrench, he hunched into his work, his hands flying over the crumpled metal.
Steve opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He began to walk away; paused after a dozen steps to look back, but Tony Stark was lost in his work, paying no attention to him.
Several times, Clint came close to asking them to maroon him somewhere in the wilderness alone. Either he was going crazy, or his mind was not entirely his own. He saw flashes of things that weren't really there. Something was dragging at his mind, summoning him elsewhere. Sometimes he found himself on the point of going there. Sometimes he found it desperately hard to wrench himself free, to keep doing what he had to do.
"How're you feeling?" Banner asked, on the second, or was it the third morning of the journey? "Head still bothering you?"
Maybe it really was just the head injury; Clint knew as well as any field agent the havoc that a head injury could play with your thinking. Maybe everything else, all the rest of it, had been nothing more than his imagination.
Or maybe it was real. Maybe his encounter with the metal giants had left him compromised somehow. Maybe an enemy had managed to plant a foothold inside his mind. This enemy whispered to him, calling to him. What if it could see through his eyes? What if it was rifling through his memories even now, plundering what he knew? What if an enemy was riding inside him, as he flew back to those few people to whom he had extended a measure of trust?
"I'm good," he said.
Nights were the worst. At night, it was hard to tell truth from dreaming. He saw metal giants, but maybe it was just memory distorted through the lens of nightmare. No, days were the worst. The surviving agents from Outpost 17 were grieving and vengeful. Clint guessed he'd saved their lives by summoning them to help him investigate what he had found, but that's not how it felt. If the base hadn't been missing its best fighters when the attack had come… If he'd paid more attention to the warnings whispering in his mind…
"Can I…?" Banner asked with his doctor face on, seeking permission to touch.
Clint sat there stiffly and let Banner examine the healing wound on his head. Hands probed his flesh gently. He closed his eyes and tried not to shiver.
"Healing nicely," was Banner's verdict, as he stepped away. He was tense, too, uncomfortable with spending so long within the confines of the dirigible with strangers. Clint knew this, but he didn't have the skills that would make the guy feel better about himself. He didn't dare try. He didn't know if his words were his own any more.
But he was 'healing nicely.' And he felt more like himself with every mile they travelled and every hour that passed. Maybe it really was just the effects of the head injury. Or maybe the enemy had a limit to its reach, and Clint had flown free from it.
By the time they were half a day out from the SHIELD base, he was sure of it. But he was careful not to look at any charts and landmarks, even so. As the dirigible made its approach to the underground hangar, he looked down at a page in a book, so that no enemy could see anything compromising through his eyes. For several minutes after they landed, he saw the patterns of ink branded against the back of his eyelids when he blinked. He still couldn't have repeated back a single word.
Their arrival was unscheduled, and the ground crew made no attempt to hide the fact that they were armed. "Agent Barton," they greeted him when he disembarked, showing no real surprise; he'd returned to base in far more unexpected ways in the past, and with stranger company. Messages were sent, of course, and soon there was Coulson, the same as he always was, welcoming one of his agents home.
Despite the news he brought, despite everything, Clint smiled for the first time in days.
"Agent Barton." Coulson smiled his own quick greeting, but he was one of the most astute men Clint knew. He knew that the news was bad.
"I've brought you a Hulk," Clint said quietly, because he knew that Banner was hanging back. He turned and gestured to the man, inviting him forward. "Dr Banner, Agent Coulson." He flipped his hand from side to side, indicating an exchange of introductions. It probably wasn't the correct way to do things, but it did the job.
Polite platitudes were exchanged, then faded away. Bad news could not be postponed, but had to be reported, dispassionate and flat. He told it as succinctly as he could: the illusion field, the metal giants, the attack on Outpost 17. "It took place four days ago," he said. "They took out the long-range transmitter and cut the telegraph wires, so I thought it best to report it in person."
Coulson nodded, but made no comment, only to ask, "Are you injured, Agent Barton?"
"I was," Clint admitted. "It was nothing. It's better now."
He'd reported everything, of course? Hell, no, of course he hadn't. Everything external. Everything seen and heard and verified. Nothing about the voice that had called to him. Nothing about the summons that he had run from. Nothing about the fears that still drove him.
"You'll have to report it in full to Director Fury," Coulson said. "You've had a long journey. Would you like to visit the mess hall, Doctor Banner, before we discuss the… terms of your visit?"
Clint walked a few steps behind them, and let them talk. The small talk was stilted and awkward. Banner was visibly shy, and Coulson… Well, Clint had known him for several years before he worked out that there was much more to him than showed on the façade. Coulson was troubled by something, but it showed in ways that only a very few people knew how to read.
The mess hall was almost empty, just one man drinking alone at the largest table. Even in profile, he was recognisable from a thousand illustrated magazines. "That's Tony Stark," Clint said. "Coulson, how did you get Stark to come here?"
Coulson smiled the vacant amiable smile that invariably meant he was at his most devious.
"Dammit." Clint rooted in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled five dollar bill.
"What?" Stark said, looking up from his drink. "You bet on me? You bet on me falling for that underhand little trick of yours? I feel violated." He glowered at Clint as if he was personally responsible.
"Don't look at me." Clint spread his hands in protest of innocence. "I bet on you being too clever to fall for it. I'm on your side, Stark."
"Apparently," Coulson said mildly, "the name over the gate was the clincher."
"Dammit," Clint swore again, pulling out another dollar. "I'm one of the good guys," he protested to a Stark who was showing every sign of sulking. "I said it was so unsubtle that only a child would fall for it. See, I had faith in your intelligence. Unlike some people."
But Stark was already distracted. "You're Bruce Banner, right?" Banner nodded warily. "I read your paper postulating the existence of… sub-atomic particles, you called them? I tried to talk to you about it, but they said you'd gone, just that, no explanation given. But now you're here. Sit down, eat, drink, talk to me."
Clint and Coulson left them there, and walked in silence downstairs to Coulson's office. "What didn't you tell me back there?" Coulson asked, as soon as the door was closed behind them. "Clint, what's wrong?"
Clint kept his back to the door, his hands pressed against the reinforced wood. "I've been compromised."
Sunlight fell slantwise through the barred windows, casting shadows on the table like a cage.
"Gentlemen," said Director Fury, leaning forward with both fists on the table, "we find ourselves under concerted attack from an unknown enemy."
Bruce twisted his hands in his lap, and wished he were somewhere else.
"Is it 'we' now?" In the flesh, Stark was even more brash than he appeared in print. "Because I seem to remember being told to go away, bye-bye, not welcome in your little games. And then you… let's see, lied to me, tricked me into becoming your unpaid tech slave because you had a doomsday machine for me to examine, which, by the way, is harmless, thanks, you're welcome."
Coulson cleared his throat.
"Sorry. Mostly harmless." Stark was radiating smugness. Without looking down, Fury pulled a ten dollar bill from his pocket and passed it to Coulson, who pocketed it with a bland smile. The smugness vanished. "Another one, Coulson. How many--?"
"Concerted attack," Fury interrupted. "Yesterday, Agent Barton and Doctor Banner returned with news of an attack on Outpost 17. This morning, Agent Romanoff was able to send us a coded telegram through the public telegraph network, reporting a similar attack on Outpost 23 that took place three days ago. Since then, we have sent messages to all SHIELD outposts. Five have failed to respond."
Nobody said anything. Bruce hunched down in his chair. Stark looked bored and resentful. Captain Rogers… And that was something incredible, to be in the same room as a hero from the pages of history. Maybe that was why they were silent. Maybe nothing seemed entirely real, when compared to the amazing reality of that.
How could Bruce have anything useful to say, when in the company of a living legend and a man such as Tony Stark?
"Agent Romanoff arrived in time to see the end of the attack on Outpost 23," Fury said, continuing to act as if they were all trusted team members who deserved to be there. "It is entirely compatible with Agent Barton's report."
"Where's Agent Barton now?" Bruce found himself speaking up, after all. His mouth was dry.
"He is busy elsewhere," Coulson said, instant and pat.
The light faded as a cloud passed over the sun. An engine started up outside, with a whistle of steam. But… Bruce thought, but didn't say it. Why was he here - not just here in this room, but here at all?
"Outpost 17 and Outpost 23 are nearly a thousand miles apart," Fury said, "and yet they were attacked within two days of each other. Either we are dealing with an enemy that can travel in ways we have yet to master, or with a split force, each working to the same end. Either way, we are at war."
"Has war been declared by the elected government, sir?" Captain Rogers spoke up from the far end of the table. "I have lived through war. It is not something I am quick to seek."
"But you're Captain Perfect, the super-soldier," Stark said with a dismissive shrug. "Come on, Cap, do what you were made for: stand to attention, salute, and shoot whatever they point you at."
The sunlight seeped back slowly, forming bars across the table. Rogers ignored Stark, his attention all on Fury. "I see a secret military armed base within the borders of our own nation. I hear of a network of military outposts, communicating covertly. If they are attacked--"
"We're not the bad guys here, Captain." Fury's voice was gentle, although his gaze was cold.
"Just tell me one thing," Stark said loudly, trying to draw everybody's attention back to him. "You're trusting us with this why? A self-righteous storybook hero who doesn't know how to switch a light on, a man who can turn into a gigantic rage monster at the drop of a hat - sorry, Doc, Coulson told me this morning; no hard feelings, but a little heads-up next time, please? - and… me, but…"
"Because we anticipate an attack on this facility," Fury said.
"Whoa, you what now?" Stark pushed his chair back. Bruce felt his heart speed up, thumping audibly in his chest. He concentrated on breathing. "Did someone follow Doctor Hulk and… what's his name… the Hawk guy?
"We have no reason to believe that," Coulson said, his voice bland. "But Agent Barton reported missing agents, and Agent Romonoff saw agents in the act of going over to the enemy. We have to assume that we have no longer have any real secrets left. An attack here is… probable."
"Going over to the enemy, huh?" Stark sat down again, chair scraping against the floor. "Guess you were on to something, after all, Cap. Welcome to SHIELD, where even their own agents can't wait to defect."
"They weren't acting under their own volition." Coulson straightened a pile of papers in front of him, jabbing it sharply against the table. "Agent Romanoff reports that they were moving strangely, as if they were fighting their own limbs."
"And we're talking mind control now?" Stark gave a sharp laugh. "Any more mumbo-jumbo you're going to throw at us?"
What would it be like, Bruce wondered, to be so comfortable with attention that you courted it at all times? What would it be like to be so comfortable with how you felt that you let it all show on your face: joy, contempt, anger, and the rest of it?
Unless he wasn't, Bruce thought suddenly. Coulson and Fury sat together, a united front at the head of the table, but the other three of them had chosen places that put them alone. Bruce was trying to hunch himself into invisibility, Rogers was sitting to attention, staring straight ahead, and Stark was all mercurial emotions, all look at me.
There was more than one way to wear a mask, of course.
"Mumbo-jumbo?" Coulson placed the papers down, folding his hands on top of them. "With a press of a button, you had me drooling into the carpet - your words, Mr Stark; did you forget that we have ears everywhere? You used an invisible force to control my behaviour from a distance. Mumbo-jumbo, Mr Stark?
Bruce clasped his hands tightly, knuckles white. "What do you want from me?" he blurted out. "I can't fight. I can't… risk… You won't even let me underground, I've noticed that. If it's the other guy you want, you can't… you don't know…"
Fury and Coulson exchanged a quick look. "If the attack happens, we will fight it however we can," Fury said. "Rest assured that this present conversation is but a small part of our preparations. What we need from you, Doctor Banner, Mr Stark, is something that will allow us to recover should we… fail to achieve a decisive victory. Can you create some sort of miniature wireless transmitter that would allow us to track a person's whereabouts?"
"A person?" Stark leant forward, elbows on the table. "It's theoretically possible, of course. But miniature? It wouldn't be small." He mimed with his hands, indicating a size a good six inches across, and looked at Bruce as if seeking confirmation. "You want to conceal it on someone so it won't be found…? Won't happen, unless they can carry it in a pack. If you want them to communicate a message in words, it would be even bigger, but if you just want an indication of where they are, a sort of warmer, colder sort of thing…?"
"Could it be something that could be… attached to an enemy's vehicles without them noticing," Fury asked, "or attached to to enemy themselves, when said enemy is a metal giant?"
"A metal giant?" Stark was on his feet again. "And you left it till now to mention this why? Metal giant as in Iron Man - which is copyright, by the way - or a mindless automaton, or an… intelligent… mechanical… Tell me we aren't under attack by intelligent mechanical giants. They don't have turbans, do they? Can they play chess?"
"Can you do it?" Fury asked, looking both at Stark and Bruce himself, including them both in this.
"Huh? Course we can." Stark turned to Bruce. "What're you waiting for, Doc? Let's get to work."
Bruce had no idea why he was here. He had no idea what would happen if the attack came and bullets started flying. He had a thousand questions, some of which only he could answer. But he nodded, and he followed Stark, and he found that he was smiling.
Steve kept on coming back. Doctor Banner and Tony Stark worked well together; even he could see that. He understood virtually nothing that they said to each other, and he had no idea what they were doing; he despised everything Tony Stark stood for, and he was afraid to talk too much to Doctor Banner in case he accidentally prompted him to change; but he kept on coming back.
"Will you fight?" he asked. "If this… attack happens, will you fight?"
"You're interested in my opinion now?" Tony Stark pushed his goggles up. "Don't believe everything I say, Cap. SHIELD are the good guys, although their methods are questionable and they exploit their consultants shockingly, and are you listening, Fury, I said you're the good guys, now send me coffee!"
"I can't fight," Banner said. Steve stiffened, and made his breathing slow and careful, as he would around a snarling dog. "I'd leave, now, except…"
"He can't tear himself away from my brilliance, Cap," Tony Stark said confidingly.
"Director Fury says they've got a cage." Banner grimaced. "It won't be strong enough."
"But you stay." Tony Stark clapped Banner on the shoulder. Steve sucked in a sharp breath. "We're making history here. Or science. History of science? Whatever. I've worked with aether in a practical sense for years, of course, but combine it with your theoretical work on the structure of the atom…"
"Not always theoretical." Banner gave a rueful smile. "There was one memorable exception."
"Point," Tony Stark conceded. "So how's it going over on the Babbage Engine?"
Steve left them there. Engineers were hard at work strengthening the great metal doors that separated the underground complex from the buildings above. Their foreman halted them as Steve passed, and they all touched their brows in a respectful salute.
Sometimes people were too preoccupied to notice him, but when they did, they were respectful to the point of reverence. It had been the same ever since he had been changed. He had become a symbol, not a person. Now that symbol was over sixty years adrift from the cause he had symbolised.
But what else could he do? He had been chosen not because of his brawn, but because of his willingness to serve. Obedience had been trained into him, and he had never been one to let down people who depended upon him. Coulson and Fury expected him to… They hoped that he would…
That our wars would become your wars.
How could they, when this was not his time? How could they, when every hour he spent in the future showed him yet more differences from the world he had lost?
But he would fight their wars, if their wars seemed just. He would wear their uniform, if that was what was needed. But this world was not his world, and he was no longer bound to be the same person he once had been.
He did not have to obey.
Thor had not named his third horse, in case he lost it the same way he had lost Rosie and Dobbin, handed over to common men at hiring stables. The iron horse had been even more unpleasant the second time round. But now they were entering the outer defences of the great citadel of SHIELD, where the Son of Coul, and Fury his chieftain, awaited them.
And there was the Son of Coul himself! Thor threw himself from his horse, and embraced him, smashing him heartily on the back, as one brother in arms to another.
"Agent Romanoff," Coulson said when Thor released him. His voice sounded a little strangled, and he pulled at his plain clothing, straightening it. It needed colour, Thor thought, perhaps a splash of red. "Your message said that you'd 'found god, stop.' I hadn't put you down as the hymn-singing type."
"Different sort of god," said the lady Natasha. "More quaffing, fewer harps."
"And this guy's a god now?" said another man, a man of the tricksy sort, the kind of that used words as barbs to hide his true intent. Besides, his beard was silly. "When are we getting the wizards and dragons?"
"I am Thor!" Thor introduced himself with the traditional handshake that he had observed was custom in this world. "I killed a dragon once, and my brother is a wizard of sorts. Your forefathers called my kind gods, it is true, but I do not come to rule you."
"Whoa!" squeaked the tricksy man. "Ouch! Ow! Blood supply?" He dragged his hand free, shaking it in an exaggerated fashion. "Oh, hi, Agent Romanoff. Fancy meeting you here."
"Stark," nodded Natasha the warrior lady.
Another man approached them, tall and dark. Thor bowed to him, recognising the demeanour of a chieftain. Odin the Allfather had given an eye in exchange for wisdom, and this man had clearly done the same. He was as bald as the wisest of sages, but still walked with a warrior's power. How could he be anything other than a warrior, with the gift-name of Fury?
"Come inside," said the chieftain Fury. "Report. You must know that we're anticipating an attack by these metal giants of yours." His single eye pinned Thor like a moth on a board. "Is Loki behind this?"
"I cannot believe it so," Thor said, because you must not bellow at a man who was chieftain and sage and warrior, even when they impugned the character of your own brother. "But I will help you fight this enemy, whosoever he be."
He heard the others talking as they entered the citadel. "Is Agent Barton back?" the lady Natasha asked Coulson, and Coulson gave a terse "yes," hiding something, Thor thought, but doubtless for some noble end. Another man was summoned, called Cap or Captain or Rogers or Captain America, like a true hero, possessing many names. A man called Banner hung back, and Thor thought to greet him. "Best not subject him to your… unique mode of introduction," said the one they called Stark. "It might startle him into turning into a giant monster and smashing everything that moves."
"I had not realised you humans could do such a thing!" Thor exclaimed. "What a wondrous gift to be blessed with." Then he saw how unhappy Banner looked about gift. Why ever…? Oh yes. The cups on the table were very delicate, and he remembered Jane sipping from something even smaller, and expressing concern that Thor might break them. "Although I see that it might be troublesome at times. Cups," he explained in a whisper to Stark.
"Gentlemen," said Fury the chieftain, presiding over them like a king. "Agent Romanoff. We need to talk."
"We need strategy!" Thor offered. "Strategy is good."
"Indeed it is," said Fury, but he did not smile.
Tony had never been one for sleeping. Midnight saw him nursing a glass of bourbon in the drawing room that they had been assigned.
"What am I doing here?" he asked out loud, not really expecting an answer. Banner had been there earlier, but Banner had gone, to walk outside alone, perhaps never to come back. Rogers had sat at the desk for a while, with a book open in front of him that he hadn't been reading.
"Sir?" said Jarvis. Of course he was there, silent as ever, easy to forget.
"Nothing," Tony said. He raked his hand across his face, and stared down at his reflection in the drink. "I'm not a soldier. I'm not like Captain America. I don't obey."
"You have fought, sir."
"Yes. Yes I have."
Tony stood up and walked over to the table, picking up the book to look at its title. It was a history of the United States, from 1815 to 1850. It was still open at the first page. "Poor guy," Tony murmured. Perhaps it was the bourbon speaking, or the lateness of the hour, or the fact that he was alone, just Jarvis there, who had known him from a child.
Jarvis said nothing.
"Best go to bed." Tony leafed through the pages, seeing names and dates that seemed so old to him. "We might be at war--"
The entire building shook with an enormous blow, then another, then another, then another. An alarm sounded, high and shrill.
Tomorrow he had been about to say. "Today," he said, and now that it had happened, there were no doubts at all. "Help me suit up. Let's get ready to rumble."
end of chapter four
Captain America, 1814
On to chapter five