Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Avengers fanfic: Immortal Engines, chapter 6 of 12

Immortal Engines (chapter 6 of 12)
(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)

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

Chapter six can be read on AO3 here



Chapter six

Natasha never counted her dead.

She had done so at the beginning, long ago, counting the first one and the second and the third, seeing their faces as she sat crying behind dry eyes and a frozen face, while men commanded her to kill more. The next job produced an unknown number of targets, and she lost count. Then she stopped counting because she stopped caring, or so she told herself.

Now she never counted them because it was not… productive. Barton agreed, the one time they had talked about it, fuelled by vodka and cheap beer. "There are some things," he had said, "that are… unwise to do to yourself."

So she killed when she needed to, but only when she needed to. Whether there were one or a hundred, the deaths were necessary, and that was what mattered.

She rose slowly from concealment. Slowly, stiffly, she lowered her gun. The inner shell of the fort was still standing, but most of the outer walls were gone. Rain blew in from outside, falling on carpets and tables and the bodies of the dead.

Is it over? she thought.

Stark appeared above her, hovering where the ceiling once had been. "The enemy's underground," he said.

She turned her head. She had fought near the fortified doorway just minutes before, and it was still well defended and sealed shut.

"They got in through the hangars, while we were busy fighting them here. This was a feint," Stark said. "They must have--"

Don't think. "No time to ask questions," she said. "Go. Stop them."

******

The battle had moved on, and Bruce had survived. He had remained himself, tending to the wounded while the building crumbled around them. Every crash made him flinch. He focused on the work of his hands, and kept his breathing steady. The thunder made his heart hammer in his chest.

A man came weaving up to him, pink-tinged water dripping from his fingers. "What's happening?" Bruce forced his hands to remain still. The lamp stand was broken, but the lumiferous aether still emitted its flickering light. There had been no fires. Unlike here, the outpost must have been lit by gas and candles, he thought, to have burnt when attacked.

"Someone opened the hangar doors," the man said. He had the look of one entirely lost. "One of ours. Let them in. I don't know when. Underground," he said. "Hangars underground. They… connect."

"You need help," Bruce said.

"They've gone to fight." The man touched his brow, a gesture that seemed strangely familiar, though Bruce couldn't place it. "The others. To stop them. I lost my gun. I can't…" He raised his hand; studied its back and then the palm, curling his fingers as if seeking something to grip.

"Let me…"

"I can't…" The man pressed his hand to his chest, then slid the hand down his body to his belt. He gripped something there. His face shone with wetness, gleaming in the light of the lantern.

Bruce moved forward to grab him. The knife slid into his belly without a sound.

"No," Bruce gasped. "No no no…"

The man stepped back. Bruce fell to the ground, and watched his hands changing, and felt the wound healing. "No," he whispered. "No!" he roared, and that was the last thing he knew before the other guy claimed him.

******

The floor of the hangar was forty feet below the ground level. "Cover me," Tony said.

Rogers was busy fighting. The enemy had a cluster of men around the machinery that controlled the huge doors in the ceiling, and automatons patrolled the edges. "What?" Rogers gasped, as he felled one man with his shield and another with his fist in a neat one, two, that, okay, Tony had to admit was impressive, although he'd never say it out loud. At least he fought quietly, unlike Thor - who was so not a god, despite his unfortunate dress sense - who fought like a bad actor in a melodrama, with a "have at thee, varlet!" and "foorsooth, my pantaloons are all in a twist" - okay, perhaps not the last one, and perhaps not the first one, either.

"What?" Thor bellowed.

"Just… do what you're doing," Tony said. "Keep them busy fighting you. Not me. Stop them fighting me."

"What…" Rogers said, as he smashed an automaton towards Thor, who thumped it with his hammer and sent it back again, and so on and so on, like a goddamn game of tennis. "…are you going to do?"

"Fifteen-love," Tony said, when the automaton finally fell over, "to Thor. Behind you! Don't break them all. Leave one for me." He powered up his thrusters. "Go down, of course. See what damage they're doing down there. Stop them."

And then he jumped.

******

Steve slipped on the wet ground. A giant landed a blow on his back, smashing him to the ground. He sprawled face down, his body screaming with the pain of it. The giant was standing on his back… and then suddenly the weight was gone. He took Thor's proferred hand, nodding his thanks.

Half way up, he froze. "What's that?"

He was already too late. As its load-bearing wall was smashed down, a whole new section of the fort crumbled, the noise louder than any thunder. "There are people in there," he gasped. "We have to…"

Fight the giants. Search for survivors. Rescue the wounded. Provide a distraction while Stark did whatever he was doing down below. Obey orders. But his orders were to use his judgement. There was too much in this world that he didn't understand. He didn't know…

The rubble shifted, and a beast rose up from it, roaring.

"What manner of a beast is this?" Thor struck at a giant, sending it sliding in the rain.

"It's Banner," Steve realised. "We have to stop him."

"But he is but one creature!" Thor declared. "The giants are many!"

Steve grabbed Thor's arm. "We have to stop him before he hurts anyone else," he said. "He'll never forgive himself if we don't."

Use your judgement, Fury had told him, and this was his call.

******

There was barely any light to see by, and that was good. Natasha moved silently along the underground corridors, navigating by touch and by subtle changes in the sound of the air pumps and water pipes.

Even in a SHIELD base, there were always secret ways - especially in a SHIELD base. Barton knew them all, of course, but Natasha knew enough to get around. When she had reached the right place, she climbed up to the ceiling, and prized open the hatch. It was warm in the air vents, like fighting against a desert breeze.

She crawled until she was above the fortified doorway that led from the hangars to the main underground complex. Her eyes were adapted to the darkness, but there was no need. The enemy was already there, and two of the six held lanterns. Of the agents who had been guarding the door, four were dead, and the others were gone. Compromised, she thought, remembering Hendricksson.

She had meant to crawl back and make her report, but a voice spoke up suddenly, calm, reasonable, almost pleasant. "There is a spider in the ceiling," it said. The men below her looked confused. Natasha drew back from the hatch, but she readied her gun. "A woman," the voice said, sounding peeved. "A sneaking little agent. Subdue her, and bring her to me, alive if you can, dead if you must."

Gunfire peppered the hatch. She edged back, but the ceiling was thin. A bullet smashed through, missing her by inches.

And then came the sound of shouting, and another fight nearby. She made her choice. Smashing the hatch open, she fired downwards with both guns, hitting one, then two, then drawing back. She waited for them to respond, then jumped down, landing on one man's shoulders, twisting his head sharply to the side, then leaping to the ground, lashing out with her leg to send another man crashing to the floor. Through the open door, she saw Stark fighting a group of men in the hangar.

"Agent Romanoff," he said. "Always popping up in unexpected places. Weren't you up top when I last saw you?"

"Weren't you?"

"Point. I thought I'd… drop by."

She finished off the last of her men, and added her firepower to his, using the door as cover. A giant jumped down from above, landing with a crash that shook the walls.

"And now it's raining automatons," Stark said. "A little help?"

"I am helping." She killed another of his assailants. Several of them were familiar, agents gone over to the enemy. She believed it was against their will. She knew how… persuasive men could be when they wanted you to serve their cause; how they could eradicate all traces of the girl you had once been. She knew, but - don't think; don't think - she didn't have the luxury of sparing them, not when she was facing so many.

Someone spoke her name.

She turned in time to see an enemy fall to his knees behind her, red blood spreading like a flower on his chest. There was something shiny in the middle of the wound, like an arrow tip punched through from behind. "Barton?" she whispered. "Clint?" She looked up, but there was nobody there.

And then the battle around Stark claimed her attention again. When next she turned round, the enemy was dead, and there was nothing in his back but the clean hole of an entry wound. It could have been a bullet. It could have just been that.

******

The skinchanger was a mighty opponent. Like the metal giants, it continued to fight even after Thor had struck it the mightiest of blows. Unlike the metal giants, it showed no sign of injury.

Thor crashed into a pile of rubble, moaning at the sharp pain of it. Captain Rogers was motionless in the mud. Beyond him, the giants prowled around the great opening in the ground that was called a hangar door. Nobody moved in the wreckage. It seemed to Thor as if he was the only one left alive, just him and the skinchanger, locked in everlasting combat.

He pushed himself to his feet, bellowing. He hurled his hammer as a missile, striking the creature from its feet. But it surged up again. For one so large, it was swift. It launched itself at Thor, and they rolled together, Thor crushed by its weight, then grappling his way to riding on top of the beast, pounding its shoulders, its chest, its face.

The captain stirred, groaning.

Thor looked at him through the rain and the darkness. Never before had he doubted that he could win a battle of brawn.

******

He shouldn't have spoken Natasha's name. He shouldn't have saved her. No, of course he should have saved her. No, Natasha could take care of herself; always had done. He just wanted… What did he want? To leave her a word of farewell, in case this was the end? To show that in this, at least, he could act on his own volition?

The grip on his mind returned the moment he retrieved his arrow, as if the enemy - friend. master - had seen him and marked him and remembered him. He knew secret ways out, and now the enemy knew them.

Join us. Join us.

He had an explosive arrow nocked in his bow. He almost shot Stark, his hand trembling for the first time since he had picked up a bow. "No," he rasped. "No."

He climbed out through the workings of the door mechanism. The giants seemed to know that he was no longer their enemy. Know? How could they know, because it wasn't true, it wasn't true.

He wanted to flee back to Coulson, to say that he couldn't do this, to demand to be locked up again.

The fort had fallen. Good, thought the presence in his mind. A fight was taking place in front of the ruins. He recognised both combatants from reports of past operations. Banner, he thought, and remembered the man's quiet torment. It was Clint's fault that he was here. He would hate himself when the 'other guy' left him.

He clenched his fist. He knew what it was like to feel that.

The explosive arrow was still nocked to the string. Clint drew the bowstring back, and loosed. The Hulk's head snapped round, looking at the explosion. He began to move.

"Stop!" Clint shouted at Thor. "Stay where you are. Don't engage him!" He loosed another arrow, and - there! - he had him. Bellowing, the Hulk began to run towards the source of the noise, seeking fresh enemies to fight.

Clint ran after him, preparing another arrow as he went. He aimed this one high, letting it travel further. Roaring, the Hulk altered his path, aiming towards the newest noise.

And all Clint had to do was keep pace with him. All he had to do…

He had no idea if the plan was his, or if it came from his own 'other guy.'

He had no idea if he would ever come back.

******

And then suddenly nobody was trying to kill him. "Huh." Tony lowered his hands. He felt as if he had fought ten rounds with a metal automaton, and guess what? He had, or would have, if certain people hadn't kept interfering. "Have we won? I'd like for us to have won, because it's late and I'm…?" He examined the feeling. "Hungry."

Agent Romanoff was removing weapons from dead enemies. "They're withdrawing." She nodded upwards. There was just enough light for Tony to see that around a dozen men were climbing rope ladders, heading back to the surface.

Tony sighed. "And I guess you're wanting me to fly up there and knock them down again. Or cut the rope? I can cut the rope." He sighed again. "No rest for the… wicked. Not that I am. Don't believe everything you read in the papers."

Agent Romanoff was altogether too humourless. "Some of them got past us," she said. "I saw them, but couldn't stop them. Some came out again, but not all."

Tony craned his neck upwards. "Thor will take care of them. Or the Captain. Or…" He flapped his hand. "Someone." Agent Romanoff seemed to be expecting something from him. "Got past us. Right. You mean they got into the underground complex. Who stayed downstairs?"

"Coulson," Agent Romanoff said.

"Jarvis," said Tony.

"Agent Barton," she added, saying it quietly, perhaps not saying it at all.

Jarvis looked up when they burst into the room. "Good morning, sir. I have taken the liberty of preparing coffee."

Tony looked down at the pile of bodies on the rug. They were neatly stacked and ordered. He tried to utter words. All he produced was sounds.

Coulson put down the bloodstained coffee cup, and brushed some dirt from his cuff. "Why are you here, Mr Stark, Agent Romanoff?"

Tony tried to say something about a rescue.

"Yes," Coulson said. "We did consider it, but you and Agent Romanoff seemed to have things in hand. And there was coffee to make and reports to write."

"And they would keep on interrupting, sir," added Jarvis. His hair was ever so slightly disordered. He brushed it back into place.

"I take it the enemy's retreating," Coulson said. "And you are here why?"

"Uh," Tony said. "The emitter. Got it. Oops?" He came back, gripping the edge of the door. "I was entirely prepared to avenge you, Jarvis. It would have been quite… avengey."

"I'm sure it would have," Jarvis said. "Sir."

******

Steve pushed himself painfully to his feet. "They are retreating!" Thor exclaimed, clapping him on the back.

"Ow," Steve said. "Please don't."

A flare of light shot up from the hangar as Stark flew back to them. "The emitter," he gasped, hovering in front of Steve. "They're pulling out," he explained. "Got to attach the emitter to one of them. Care to do the honours, Cap, while I do the distracting? Or shall we do it the other way round?"

Steve shook his head, almost beyond understanding. Something exploded in the distance, perhaps as much as a mile away. "What was that?" Memory was vague. Everything had been happening at once, and he was so very weary.

"An archer enticed the monster away with pretty explosions," Thor explained.

"Of course he did," Stark said, "because there's nothing a monster likes more than pretty explodey things. But the emitter, Captain? Kind of the whole point of this adventure?"

Steve wiped mud and rain from his eyes. "You have it?"

"Attached to my back." Stark sounded smug. "Didn't notice it, did you? And it didn't fall off while I was having the crap beaten out of me, so I was right and Banner was… a giant green rage monster… but the point is, Captain Slow, we need to get it transferred from me to one of them, and we need to do it now, before they move on out."

"Yes," Steve said, straightening his shoulders, readying himself for yet another fight. "Of course."

Stark held up his hand. "But you'll give me a minute to study them first? Thirty seconds? Ten?" He gave a theatrical sigh. "Right. No studying. The sacrifices I make to the cause of being a superhero…"

"Stop talking," Steve said, because they were close, they were closing, and the giants were turning towards them and beginning to move.

"I've got that," Stark said. "Back to business. Heroic last endeavour. Then can we have coffee?"

******

The ragged survivors of the enemy force climbed over the lip of the precipice. Stark landed next to Thor, the captain following on foot close behind him. "That's it," Stark said. "We're done. Emitter safely attached."

"Then we are victorious!" Thor raised his hammer. "Let us--"

And then everything stopped. He let Mjolnir fall. The rain raked across his face. "Brother?"

Loki stood at the head of the ragged army, flanked by two giants. Thor walked towards him, one step, two steps… and then he was running. "Brother!"

Loki smiled a cold thin smile. "So here you are, brother mine." He sneered the word 'brother' as if it was poison.

Thor reached out to him. "I sought you, brother. I mourn what passed between us. Come home, brother. Come home."

"Brother?" Loki sneered. "So the Allfather keeps his secrets still."

"He told me." Thor shook his head, holding out his empty hands. "A brother is not made merely by blood, but by bonds of love. The Warriors Three are my brothers. But you… We grew up together, you and I. Come home with me."

"No," said his brother.

"I knew you were lost upon this earth," Thor said. "I thought you would be alone, afraid, as I was. If you have taken up with men like these…"

"It is not within me to be humble." Loki began to walk away. "You were lost. You were alone. You snivelled, but I have built an army. I am not like you, brother. When will you understand that I am greater than you?"

"You were responsible for this?" Thor gestured at the fallen citadel, at the dead and dying men, fallen defending their chieftain's hall. "Why?"

"Because I could," Loki said. "And because they held something that I need."

"What have you taken from them?" Thor shouted.

Loki smiled. "The thing that will allow me to rule."

And then he disappeared, and Thor was left as one bereft, weeping in the rain.

******

Natasha was searching the dead by lamplight. The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, but it was not yet dawn.

The aftermath of a battle was always the worst time. When you fought, your focus was narrow, as it had to be. You lived in the moment; made split-second decisions, because you would die if you didn't. Afterwards… Afterwards you woke up. You realised that you were hurting. You had time to think. You considered the consequences - not to yourself, because you were who you were, and it was too late to change that, but to the cause you served.

A man was lying face down. She rolled him over. He was nobody she knew.

Teams were already in place, shifting the wreckage. "We got off lightly," she heard Coulson say, "all things considered."

Lightly? she thought, but she did not count her dead.

Director Fury and his team had been safely underground when the fort had fallen. Many of the defenders were alive and accounted for, and many more were wounded. Twelve were missing. Whether they lay dead under the wreckage or had defected to the enemy, nobody knew.

Thirteen? she wondered, but she did not count her dead.

Once, after a battle like this - because every battle was the same, just as every battle was different - she and Barton had found their way to one of his perches and had sat there while the sun rose, neither of them saying a single word.

Other men turned to speech in the aftermath of a fight. Stark had taken his helmet off, and was crawling over a fallen giant. It had been pounded into little more than a heap of flattened metal, but it was still moving, still trying to fight. "No workings," Stark was saying. "No machinery. Pulped by Thor's hammer, and it still keeps trying to kill me. Full marks for persistence, but how does it work? If only I could… Wait, what's this?"

"What?" Rogers asked.

"A piece of paper," Stark said, "in its mouth. It-- Oh. Will you look at that? Looks like I found the off switch.

"A golem," Natasha said, remembering legends she had heard when living another life in Prague. "An inanimate servant, brought to life with a word."

"Magic!" Stark crumpled the paper in disgust.

Natasha moved on. "Nine deaths verified so far, sir," she heard Coulson say. "We've secured some of the hostiles - wounded ones, mostly. Some of them used to be ours."

"Secure them underground."

"Already done, sir."

Natasha did not count her dead, in that she kept no count of those that she had killed. What other meaning could the phrase have? She had been trained to act alone, no love, no friendship, no family. Nobody would care if she died, except as a useful asset lost. If others on the same side died in a fight, what did it matter to her?

But that was the past, long past, years ago now. After the sun had risen, Clint had revealed a bottle of vodka, and glasses for them both. I'm alive, she had thought, drinking the first silent toast. Then the second toast, slow and sharp and fiercely warming: You're alive.

She grabbed Coulson by the arm. "Where's Agent Barton?"

Coulson shook his head. "He…"

"He was there," Natasha said. "I know it."

Coulson pulled his arm free, and she let him. He busied himself with his cuffs. "Captain Rogers reports that a man armed with a bow lured the Hulk away using explosive arrows. The dirigibles have been recalled. As soon as--"

"Why wasn't he here yesterday?" Natasha demanded. "If he was here, why wasn't he--?"

"Agent Romanoff." Coulson turned to face her, mask in place. "Agent Barton admitted to me that he was compromised. He was confined at his own request."

"So he escaped?" Natasha grabbed him again. "The enemy released him?"

"It would appear so."

Once it would not have mattered to her.

Once.

******

Bruce woke to see the rising sun, and everywhere there was the sweet sharp scent of wet grass after rain.

He sat up stiffly. He touched his belly with an aching, sluggish hand, half expecting to find himself injured, but the skin was smooth and unmarred. He remembered…

Running. Explosions. Fighting Thor. Lost, lost in the dark, no more pretties to lead him on.

"No." He shook his head. Those were the other guy's memories. The other guy wasn't him. There was no reason why he should remember.

He had no idea where he was. He had failed to resist the change. He had failed.

He stood up, aching in every bone. Water dripped from the trees above him, and there were footprints in the mud, made by a monster's feet. He had no idea which way to go. He had no idea where he ought to go. Home was… nowhere. It was wrong to inflict himself on the SHIELD base again. No, it was wrong not to. He had to see if he could help. He had to find out what the other guy had done.

What he had done.

He began to walk, following back the trail of crushed grass. Stark caught up with him before he had gone a hundred yards, appearing above him in his Iron Man suit, then lowering himself to hover a few feet off the ground.

"So they were right about the naked thing," Stark said. He tossed Bruce a frock coat. Bruce caught it and put it on. "Hardly haute couture," Stark said. He raised his visor, showing a visage far more weary than his voice implied. "I'll introduce you to my tailor. Of course, the lack of a hat and pants and… well, everything else would scandalise any ladies, but I don't see any ladies out here; Agent Romanoff doesn't count."

"I…" Bruce's throat felt raw. He swallowed, meaning to try again, meaning to ask… what?

"I finally got the chance to examine one of the giants. Automatons. See what they've done to me? Agent Romanoff claims they're golems. Magic. Care to help prove her wrong?"

Bruce fumbled with the last of the buttons. His fingers felt frail and far too small. "What…?" he managed. He moistened his lips, tasting dirt.

"We got the emitter onto one of the... okay, you win, giants. I field tested the attachment myself, gave it the most rigorous of testing. It worked. Told you it would. We need to make the next one even smaller, capable of communicating over a longer range."

"Next one?" Bruce asked.

"Of course." Stark looked at Bruce as if the question was ridiculous. "It can be improved, right?"

Bruce stopped walking. "I thought…" He gripped one hand with the other. Both hands felt small. "Did he kill anyone, the other guy?" No. No. That was wrong. That was just another way of running away. "Did I kill anyone?"

Stark pressed a button and came down to earth, the machinery of his suit suddenly silent. "You can't…"

"I have to!" Bruce clenched his fists, one clasped inside the other.

Stark stood very still. The wind stirred the long grass. With every breath Bruce took, the sky grew lighter. "You might not know…" he said. "I was captured last year, by a group that thought the world had been tainted by machines, and that it was necessary to wipe it clean and start again, which they intended to do town by town. And they were using my weapons to do it - and, no, I don't know where the logic is in using the latest tech in order to destroy all tech, but unlike them, I'm not a crazy person."

"Fight the devil with his own weapons?" Bruce suggested.

"Are you implying…?" Stark feigned outrage, but seemed to lose the heart for it. "They used my newest weapons, the ones I'm never making again, and they killed people with them - women, children, old men. And that…" Stark stopped, and let out a breath. "I'm not one for speeches, for morality tales, but…"

They carried on in silence for a while. "You know," Bruce said at last, "that story… It really isn't the same thing at all."

"No?" Stark shrugged. "Told you I suck at this."

They travelled another hundred yards together.

"Want to come and do science?" Stark said. "Everything's all broken. It's like all our Christmases have come at once. Things to fix. Things to improve. You in?"

"Yes," Bruce said. "Yes. Of course I am."

******

"Why would he do these things?" Thor heaved up the end of a wooden beam, waited until the captain had secured the other end, and began to ease it backwards.

The captain shook his head. "I do not know."

A cloud of dust billowed up. The beam was free, no further resistance. They clambered carefully through the rubble, carrying it away. "I thought he was lost. I know what it is like to be lost."

The captain said nothing. He face was streaked with dust, channels marked through it by the rain.

"I still hope I can persuade him to turn from this course," Thor said. They lowered the beam. Thor straightened up. The night had entirely passed, and now it was morning. "But I will fight him," he swore. "I have looked upon his works this night, and they are not good. My hammer is pledged to your cause."

The captain gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. "It's not…" His voice trailed away.

"I wish you to know this," Thor said loudly, so everyone could hear it, all those weary rescuers, and those less wounded, still lying beneath their makeshift shelters. "Although he is my brother, for as long as he follows this course, he is my enemy."

The captain said nothing. Thor ought to have made this oath to Fury the chieftain, clasping hand to hand, in the manner of these people.

"I consider myself to blame," Thor said quietly.

"You aren't responsible for your brother's actions," the captain said.

Thor shook his head. "It is because of me that Loki turned his gaze towards this Earth of yours. I failed to stop him. I failed to keep him from falling into the void. Until he is stopped, I will oppose him. I will stand alone if I must. The cost has been high tonight, and your people are frail. If you wish to retire…"

"No," the captain said. He spoke as if it surprised him. "No," he said again, more firmly. And then, quietly, looking not at Thor but at someone else, one of the crowd around the wreckage. "My war, too."

******

The wreckage was clear and hid no more dead. The dirigibles had returned, and had been sent out to search… for signs of the enemy, obstensibly, but Natasha had made a request of her own.

Now she waited. Coulson was nearby. Was he waiting, too? There was a wall of distrust between them. He had kept secrets from her before, of course, but this was the first that felt almost like a betrayal. Once she had never expected anything other than betrayal from her masters, but she was changed; impossible not to admit that.

The first dirigible was already returning, just minutes away from landing. They were ready in force, of course, all those who were still able to bear arms, just in case the crew of the dirigible had been suborned.

"The receiver's working again," Stark said, as he walked the precarious path that led from the door that led underground. "It wasn't damaged, just jolted out of alignment by the explosions. And the emitter works. We can read it, communicating loud and clear. That's the good news. The best news. Scientific breakthrough, giant leap forward, fame and applause."

"The bad news?" Coulson said.

"Oh. The emitter's close. Getting closer. The giant we attached it to is coming back. Telling somebody seemed like the thing to do."

"They're coming back?" Natasha felt dazed, as if she had not slept for a week.

"Uh oh." Stark looked beyond her, squinting into the sun. "The signal's coming from… just… about… there."

Already the dirigible crew was signalling to them, showing the flags that denoted that all was well, that they were friends.

Could such an assurance ever be trusted again?

Natasha waited. It had not always been in her to wait. Then, at last, she was able to move forward, not caring what Coulson thought, not caring what the others would whisper about her afterwards, not caring that they had seen that she was capable worry. "Did you find him?"

The agent shook his head. "I'm sorry, ma'am. We found where he fired his last arrow, near where Stark found Doctor Banner."

"Could Banner…?" She swallowed; touched the cold metal of her gun. Could Banner have killed him? But they would have found the body.

"The ground was soft." The agent was afraid to meet her eyes. "He walked… See, I don't have eyes like the Hawk does, but he…"

"What?" She made it cold, as if this was an enemy she was interrogating, whose tale meant nothing to her; just a job.

"Wherever he went, he went alone, and he went on foot."

She walked away. She reached the others in time to see Stark take a muddy metal case from the hands of one of the crew. "So the enemy found the emitter," he said. "Removed it. Threw it away." He looked upwards; closed his eyes. "So it was all for nothing, then.

She left them there. She left them there, and like Barton, she went alone.

******

end of chapter six

******

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On to chapter seven
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