(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter five can be read on AO3 here
They came unseen through the shrouded night, and struck like a coward who stabs from behind.
War would be fiercest at the outer gate, so it was there that Thor had stationed himself. Fury the chieftain kept his most secret treasures in underground chambers, but the entrance to those chambers was housed inside a stone citadel, whose own gate was guarded and fortified. Thor stood outside it, patrolling beneath the stars. He would not let them penetrate below the ground.
He had thought to see the enemy before they struck. He had thought to kill them before they killed.
Fury had placed scouts further out, eyes in the night. Thor accepted the wisdom of this choice. Gone were those days when, young and foolish, he had believed himself capable of anything. Not for him the role of the scout. Not for him to stay hidden and watch an enemy pass, then slither back to report on what he had seen.
The scouts all fell before they could report a single word.
Thor had known that the enemy possessed the power of invisibility, because he had seen them vanish when retreating from the devastated outpost. He had thought it the last resort of a retreating, defeated enemy. He had not thought them so lost to honour to attack when unseen.
Thor saw nothing. Ten of Fury's liegemen fell alone in the dark, struck down by enemies too cowardly to show their face.
Afterwards, he pieced things together, following footsteps through the dirt. When the first few had fallen, he had been looking up at the unfamiliar patterns of the stars, and wondering if Jane, too, was gazing at them, remembering him. As the enemy had drawn nearer, and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth had died, he had turned to find the one they called Banner, sad and troubled, hunched in the dark.
"When battle is upon us," Thor had asked, "will you change your skin?" He had once known a skin-changer, a fierce white wolf, its muzzle steeped in blood as dark as old spoiled wine. It had ripped a warband apart, just bones for the ravens to feast upon. It had taken seven warriors with seven silver chains to bind him, and those warriors had been blood-brothers ever afterwards, bound by their deep-raked scars.
Banner had shaken his head. "I hope not."
Thor had looked at the hammer in his hand, so vast, so powerful, so much part of him that when it had refused to come to him, he had been as one forlorn, lost and tiny in the rain. "Fury wants you to. Why else has he allowed you stay?"
Maybe the seventh had died then. The eighth was not dead, just wounded nigh unto death. The ninth had dragged himself back, but too late, of course, too late.
"That's…" Banner had said. "Unwise," he had said. "If true." Then, quietly, his face turned away, he had said, "You probably shouldn't have told me that."
When the ninth fell, Thor was watching Banner walk away. The tenth…? The tenth one he had heard. "I'm down! I'm down! We're under attack! Alarm! Raise the alarm!" It was a shout, a scream, a rasping cry, an agonised murmur, but already Thor was joining his voice to that of the fallen hero, shouting a warning, shouting out his contempt at an enemy who could attack like this, unseen.
He swung his hammer, smashing it into the ground. Let them come, the shield-brothers of Fury the chieftain! Let them rise from their restless beds to strap on their armour and their weapons! Let Natasha the warrior maid come to fight at his side, and the Captain of the many names, and Banner, who could change his skin and fight as a mighty beast!
And let them come, too, the enemy, who struck from the darkness like cowards! Let them come! "Fight me!" he bellowed. "Show yourselves! Let us fight!"
A bullet smashed against his breastplate, and clattered to the ground. Another scraped his brow.
"Show yourself!" he roared, and the enemy did. By ones and twos, the metal giants stepped forward from the wall of invisibility that had hidden them, until a dozen stood before him, and began to unleash devastation.
Gripping his hammer in both hands, Thor set about stopping them.
When the alarm started wailing, Steve was still awake, lying on top of his bedclothes in the dark.
He sat up, and reached for the switch that controlled the lamp on the bedside table. The first thing he saw was his new uniform worn by a tailor's dummy, just a stuffed lump of fabric without a face. It bore little resemblance to the uniform he had last worn. Even the flag that inspired it was different, with over twice as many stars, reflecting a nation that had changed beyond recognition.
But still, at its heart, the same.
He paused with his hand on the fabric. How could he know that? He had seen so little of this world, and he had spent all that time as a guest of SHIELD, seeing only what they wanted him to see.
But Tony Stark did not march to the beat of their drum, he thought, and Tony Stark…
The building trembled. Somebody outside was shouting something, their voice shrill and wordless.
No time to question it, he thought, just time to act. And perhaps it made him as empty and faceless as the tailor's dummy, but he would wear this uniform and he would fight. Questions could come afterwards, and if he didn't like the answers…? He would face that when he had to.
He heard the unmistakeable sound of a man dying, a sound he had heard too many times before. Peeling off his nightshirt, he hastened to dress.
A soldier did not have the luxury of asking questions when the guns began to sound.
"Is it true?"
Bruce pushed against the flow of armed men rushing to their stations. He grabbed Fury by the arm, heedless of the guns that swung around to face him.
"Is it true?" he shouted. "You didn't send me away with all the others because you want me to change?"
"If you are anxious not to change," Fury said, as he signalled orders with his free hand, "I would suggest that you stand down."
"And go where?" A wall crumbled. The foundations were trembling, dust raining down from above. Bruce pressed both hands to his face. He could feel the bones there, the human shape of them beneath the skin. "It's too late for that now, isn't it?"
"Doctor Banner," Fury said. "There are places I need to be."
Bruce ran his hands down his face, then lower still, until his arms were wrapped around his body, his hands gripping the muscles of his upper arms, as if by such a futile gesture he could force them not to swell. "Thor said…"
"Thor tried to drink beer from a chamber pot."
"Which doesn't make him a liar," Bruce said. "Can the same be said of you?"
But Fury was already walking away. He didn't look back.
Thor was on the front line, where he belonged. The giants had to be kept at all costs from breaching the gate, but Thor was the only one who could damage them. The men of Fury's warband shot at the giants from the shelter of their barred windows, but their weapons had no effect. So Thor swung his hammer, and smashed it into metal limbs and bodies, and hindered the giants in any way that he could.
But for every one he slowed, another two got past him. Stonework crumbled beneath the impact of their fists. Men were screaming. The enemy's human army was taking pot shots from behind the line of attacking giants. "Shoot the men!" he heard someone shouting. "Ignore the giants. You can't hurt the giants!" Fighting made Thor whirl in a circle, and he saw a flash of the citadel, a flash of the enemy, a flash of red, white and blue.
"I can hurt the giants!" he told the unknown voice, and he went on to show them, smashing a fist, stoving in a chest. It was just as it had been at the outpost. He could injure them more than any being should be able to withstand, but still they came on. How could he fight a dozen of them when they would not die? They fought beyond all limits of sanity, when they were crumpled and broken and all hope had gone.
Once Thor would have thought it admirable. "But I have come to learn," he rasped, as he brought his hammer repeatedly down on a toppled giant, "that there is no shame… in crying mercy… when you are beaten." Its dead metal eyes stared back at him. Its metal fists still tried to fight.
"But of course," he roared, mindful of the men who crouched behind him, "I am Thor and I am with you, and we will not be beaten this night!"
"Damn straight," said a voice from above him. Thor looked up to see a metal man with blue fire jetting from his feet.
"So you fly now, metal ones?" Thor bellowed.
He launched himself up, swinging his hammer in a full arc. "Whoa!" gasped the metal man, lurching to one side so the hammer caught him only a glancing blow. Even so, it was enough to send him crashing to the ground. "Whoa there, Hercules," said the metal man, spreading his hands. "Your side, remember?"
There was something familiar about the voice, even distorted as it was by metal. Thor bent over him. "Stark?"
"Who else? Behind you!" Thor smashed backwards with his hammer, feeling it crunch into metal. Stark kept on talking throughout, his words just a babble while Thor fought. "--is it with you guys? First Cap, then you. Is it something I said? No, don't answer that." A blazing blast of light shot from his gauntlet, singed past Thor's cape, and struck something behind him. "You're welcome, by the way," Stark said.
Thor helped him to his feet. "I had not realised men could--"
"They can't, just me," Stark said. "And, hey, look at that! I guess I can hurt them too."
All battles were the same. Men died. Sometimes she was the one who killed them. Ready your weapons, crouch down, aim and fire. If you hit your target, continue to move and identify another one. Don't think, just know. Know the feel of your weapons, and the cover that surrounds you, and the enemies you face. Know what the partner at your side will do, and who he will shoot, and where he will move, and when he will say something incongruous, ridiculous, infuriating, just to see if you will react.
There was no partner at her side. That was how it used to be. She had operated alone for many years, starting from when she had been a girl, hair loose on her shoulders, skirts brushing the tops of her boots.
All battles were the same. Metal giants had smashed into the fort, ripping out window bars, smashing through masonry. But behind the giants came men, and men could be killed. She crouched behind a fallen table, and shot one man, then another. She ducked and rolled; threw a knife with one hand, then hastily reloaded her pistol.
She fought alone. She didn't know where Barton was. Nothing new in that, of course; SHIELD kept secrets even from its own agents, and she and Barton were the best agents SHIELD had, and the most likely to be sent on missions that couldn't be spoken aloud. She had operated alone for many years, and even since joining SHIELD, she had often fought by herself. Nothing new in this. Alone or with a partner, all battles were the same: just you and the person you faced down the barrel of a gun.
The person that she faced…
She knew this man. Agent Hendrickson, she thought his name was, skilled at covert operations, stationed somewhere out west. She lightened her touch on the trigger, and called him by name. His eyes shone as he looked at her, the lamplight reflecting in them as if he was on the point of weeping. His bullet missed her by inches, and only because she dodged.
Once she would have killed him without a thought.
Fighting raged around her. Glass smashed, and a lamp was knocked over at the far side of the room, burying it in darkness. "Hendrickson!" she hissed. He shot at her again, and she was out from her cover, rolling low, then up again, twisting his arm up, wrenching his gun from his hand, and hitting him with it again and again and again, until he went heavy in her grip. She let him fall, rolled away, and came up into a crouch, chest heaving.
All battles were different. You could practise a move a hundred times, but in every battle, you executed it differently. You had to read the terrain and act accordingly. You had to read your enemy's eyes.
"Hendrickson." She tried again. He was down and bleeding. She touched his throat and found a pulse, fingers trailing blood across his skin. Only a single lamp remained, and she pushed herself to her feet, and hurried away from it, into the darkness. A man was hiding there. He hesitated before he attacked her, and that fraction of a second was enough for her to take him down.
All battles were different. Men died, and sometimes she was the one who killed them. Once they had all seemed the same to her, just faceless targets, names on a list, but now…
Don't think. Don't think.
There was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to hide. His heart was pounding, and sweat was dripping into his eyes. Bruce had his arms wrapped tightly around his body, as if he could hold the other guy inside with sheer force.
Someone was crawling along the floor, moaning. A smeared trail of blood shone in the flickering light. "I can't," Bruce whispered, just his lips moving, no sound coming out.
The man rolled onto his back, brought his gun up, and shot at somebody Bruce couldn't see. Then his head fell back with a thud, and he screwed his eyes shut, his eyelashes wet with tears of pain.
But he had to, of course. He was here, and nothing could change that. For good or ill, choices had been made. It wouldn't keep the other guy away, to cower in a closet while men died all around him. It would just mean that the other guy had already won.
"Let me help," he said.
Let me be myself.
Tony had a metal automaton cornered, separated from the pack. Engaging his thrusters, he flew above its head, then aimed a blast of blazing aether at the back of its neck. He grabbed its shoulder, peering close. "Stay still."
It tried to shake him off. It gripped him with a powerful metal fist, and tried to smash him to the ground. "A little co-operation?" he rasped. "I come in peace, all that shit. Course, I'm trying to destroy you, but that can come afterwards. I just--"
The automaton managed to kick him away. Tony crashed backwards onto a pile of masonry, and ow! he really had to consider putting padding inside the armour, something soft, maybe velvet, or… silk… removeable, of course, because you'd need to wash it, and… "Ow!" he protested out loud, because the giant was pounding him on the belly. He blasted it away and came in for another foray as it struggled to recover its balance.
Engaging his thrusters at low power, he hovered a few feet off the ground, eye to eye with the metal creature. "Where are your controls?" he asked it. "Where are your gears? You don't click, you don't tick, you don't grind or whirr or… roar, but that was just an early prototype, before I gave up on the--"
The automaton smashed him in the side of the head. The automatic stabilisers kicked in, of course, but not before he had flailed in the air, his gauntlet striking the wall. He felt bruised all over, insult added to injury.
A flash of red swirled past him. A hammer came down again and again, blazing lightning. The automaton fell over, and the hammer flattered its shoulder, its chest, its face, its feet.
"I could have done that!" Tony protested.
"I thought you needed aid, comrade." Thor grinned at him as if this was the most exciting thing he could possibly imagine. He smashed his fist into the automaton's chest once again for good measure. The automaton still struggled to rise.
"I was trying," Tony told him, "to understand," he said with admirable patience, "how it worked. Now you've broken it."
"Then that is good!" Thor boomed. "Let us endeavour to break some more."
"No!" Tony began to say, but then an entire corner of the fort was falling, and he had to fly in and hold up the beams while - "oh, hi, Cap!" - people were helped to safety from underneath him, and, like, do the whole actual superhero thing, while automatons wreaked havoc all around him, and he didn't know how they worked!
It was just the same as it had always been. The weapons were different and the enemies were different, but war was just the same. There were people to protect, and there were people to kill, not because killing was good, but because it was the only way to stop them.
Steve had found Fury by the inner doors, those great metal gates that led to the chambers underground. "Reporting for duty, sir. What shall I…?"
"Use your judgement, Captain." Fury had been busy with something else, not even acknowledging Steve with a salute. "Keep those bastards from reaching this door."
"Where are your colours?" Steve had asked.
"Colours? Oh. Battle flag." Fury had looked at him with his one keen eye. "Maybe you're wearing it, Captain Rogers."
Steve did what he could. His new shield was made of some miraculous metal, and he could damage the metal giants. When a window was smashed in, he protected people from flying shards of glass. He helped them to safety when the corner of the fort collapsed. Tony Stark held up the main beam, and Steve took the cross beam, holding its weight on his back and one shoulder, while helping people to safety with his other hand, easing them around his body.
"So what now?" Tony Stark said, when the last person was free from the rubble. Steve's back was trembling with the weight of the floors above him. There was little sound of strain in Tony Stark's voice, but fine sparks were sizzling from the joints of his metal suit. "After three? One, two…"
They let go at the same moment. Steve felt himself grabbed, lifted in the air, then down again. He rolled. Stark was on top of him. Steve saw something falling, and brought his shield up, holding it above the two of them.
"Huh," said Stark. Steve was breathing heavily, inhaling dust. "Who saved whose life just then?"
Steve scraped his eyes clear from dirt. "Does it matter?"
"Though I'd start keeping score," Stark said, "just in case."
"In case of what?" Steve asked, but Stark was already pushing himself up and returning to the fight. Steve lost sight of him soon. Things narrowed to his own corner of the battle: a swing of his shield, a wounded soldier to help up from the floor, and - "Behind you, Cap!" - two men who sneaked up behind him with long knives in their hands. A blade slithered down his forearm, but failed to penetrate the fabric. He took out the second attacker with a single punch. The first fought for longer, and there were others when he had fallen.
There were always others.
Clint crouched with both palms pressed against the wall, feeling the vibrations through his fingers, tracking the progress of the battle above.
Voices were muffled and distorted. All he could see was the plain small square of this room. He closed his eyes and pressed his brow against the cold plaster.
He liked to perch up high and watch everything that happened below. Now he was underground and unable to see a thing. He hated to be blind. He hated to be trapped.
He had asked for it. "I can't… promise," he had told Coulson. "It's gone now, but if… the… enemy… If… whoever did this to me, whatever did this, if it was even real…
Coulson had found plenty to say, more than he often did, but Clint had ended the day here, locked in a barren room.
He did not like to be locked in.
He needed it.
He had no idea what was happening. The sounds told him part of the story, but only that. The plaster was cold against his brow, or maybe he was too hot. He paced: six steps from bed to door; four steps from wall to wall. He didn't know… and that was good. It was good. He kneaded the bridge of his nose, pressing fingers into the flesh. There was nothing in his mind that shouldn't be there. He could do this. He could do this.
The walls trembled. The metal door rattled against its frame. Six paces there and back. Four and four and four and four. He stopped and lowered himself carefully onto the bed, his feet on the floor, both hands curled around the metal frame beneath the mattress. He was fully clothed, even to his boots. The calluses on his fingertips were softening. It had been too long since he had used his bow.
When the door opened, he was ready for it. Coulson held out the replacement bow without a word.
Clint took the bow, testing the feel of it. He strapped the unfamiliar quiver onto his back, and rolled his shoulders to make the weight settle. He nocked an arrow and drew the bowstring back, marking how it pulled on his muscles. In appearance, it was an identical copy of the bow he had lost behind the illusion field, but no two weapons were the same to those who used them. He eased the string slowly back to its slackened position and removed the arrow. Another crash sounded from above, louder now the door was open.
Coulson watched him throughout. "Ready?" he asked, that single word containing so much more.
Of course he wasn't ready. He would never be ready. At any moment, he could be compelled to turn on his friends and comrades. At any moment, he could be made to kill… His mind supplied images of Natasha standing frozen in his sights; of the barrel of his gun pressed against her head.
"Ready," Clint said. It was a rasping thread of a sound; he had been too long without speaking out loud.
Coulson touched Clint's shoulder, then let his hand fall. Clint nodded once, and walked away..
"Captain!" Steve heard someone shouting, but it was so hard to see anything. Thin clouds had moved in across the moon, and only a few last lamps shone in the surviving shell of the fortress. At least there was no fire. "Captain! Stark is sore pressed, but he scorned my help when I gave it."
Steve turned where he was. A bullet smashed into his shield. "I can't see--"
"I will bring you light!"
Steve struggled towards the sound of the fiercest fighting. His skin tingled as if with a coming storm. But Stark was easy to find in the end, visible by the glow of his suit. It had made him a target, of course. A metal giant was crushing him in its embrace, squeezing him ever more tightly. Stark was beyond fighting, his right hand scrabbling ineffectually at the giant's throat.
Steve swung his shield, striking repeatedly at the giant's shoulder. "Let him go!" he shouted. Casting his shield away, he grabbed the giant's wrist and strained against the strength of his grip. Stark shifted, light flaring from his boots. "Can you…?" Steve gasped. His muscles were trembling. Slowly, slowly the giant's grip eased. Stark didn't move.
Lightning blazed, and for an instant Steve saw everything, like a frozen tableau in a drawing room party, but after it he was blind, unable to see anything at all. The thunder came well nigh simultaneously, as if the world itself was being torn apart. Stark was talking throughout. "--interfere," he said.
The giant stopped resisting, releasing Stark entirely. Steve groped for his fallen shield, finding it by its reflection in the light of Stark's suit, and struck the giant with all the strength he could muster. It fell backwards, and he struck it again, maiming its feet so it could no longer stand, crushing its right hand so it could no longer grip.
"And once again," Stark said, "I could have done that, had I wanted to. What should have been the clue? Hmm, let's see… That I wasn't trying?"
Steve was panting, great heaving breaths. There was another blaze of lightning, searing his eyes with white light. Rain began to fall, just a few scattered drops at first, but then a deluge.
"Can you guys stop breaking my toys?" Stark said. "I'm sorry, is that too much to ask?"
Steve looked at the fallen giant, shining with the reflected blue light of Stark's suit. Apart from the rain, everything was quieter than it had been for… minutes? Hours? Had it been hours? He wiped away rain and sweat. Was this the last of the giants? Were the others all disabled, or had they retreated? If any retreated, it was imperative that somebody followed them in order to attach the emitter device that Stark and Banner had been working on. Who had been assigned that task? Steve had not been trusted with all the details of the defence plan. It was only right. He was only a soldier, not a true captain by rights. A soldier did the job that was assigned to him, and never asked for more trust than that.
"Excuse me," Stark said, "but I'm not sensing any real remorse here."
"Doesn't count." Stark stood over the fallen giant. "Am I the only one who appreciates how incredible this is? They shouldn't work. I've worked on my Turk for months, and he's all machinery inside. I looked at the one that Thor rudely… pulped, and there's nothing, just solid metal. How can you have an automaton without visible parts? They appear to have intelligence." The fallen giant swung it shattered fist blindly, striking its own caved-in face. "Limited intelligence," Stark said. "Who made them? How did he manage to--"
Lightning flickered in dancing forks. A great roll of thunder surged to a crescendo, then was abruptly silent. "--when I can't," Stark said.
Rain poured down Steve's face, washing away sweat and dust and blood. "Is it over?" he asked. "Have we won?"
Stark looked up. Lightning flared, a great tearing fork, then another, then another, giving them searing light for the space of several breaths. "See, my friends!" Thor cried over the thunder. "I said I would bring you light!"
"No," Stark said, when it was dark again. "No, we haven't. Didn't you see it? We haven't won. It's only just begun."
end of chapter five
On to chapter six