(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter ten can be read on AO3 here
Tony arrived just before the final curtain, when the villain lay dead and the hero stood waiting for the round of applause.
"A localised lightning storm," he said, as he landed next to them. "Way to be inconspicuous, Thor. On the plus side, it helped me find you; saved me from… flying around."
"The lightning felled the giant statue," Thor said earnestly. "Captain America is wise as well as strong."
Tony grunted; sought something dismissive to say, but couldn't quite find it.
"It was quite impressive." Captain Rogers smiled. Had Tony ever seen him smile before, he wondered - a real smile, not the strained smile of a man forced to make the best of things. "Blue sparks and lots of melting."
"I see." Tony examined the toppled remains, walking around its devastated head. "You used lightning to kill Benjamin Franklin. Sweet."
Rogers pushed a strand of hair from his brow. He seemed to have lost his hat. "Did you…?"
"Deal with my monstrous alter ego? Safe at the bottom of the river." Tony turned towards Thor. "Tempting as it is to stand here enjoying our victory, I might have found your brother."
"Then let us go to him," Thor said. "Let us put an end to this."
"Not so fast," a voice said.
It was the statues that alerted Natasha to the fact that she had found it. The statues flanked the entrance of a pristine house with its blinds still closed. Nothing about it was smashed or torn. The small square of grass remained untouched. The statues remained still, just lifeless bronze.
Out of all the statues in the city, why were these the only two that had not been forced into a semblance of life? She remembered the illusion field that Banner had reported. Clint and Banner had seen a perfect picture of an expanse of prairie, rather than the golem manufactory that was really there.
An illusion of a house might look like this, she thought, if it had been made before the statues came awake, by a careless magician who failed to update the illusion when reality changed.
The barrier was closer than she had expected. She felt nothing when she crossed it. With one breath, she saw a pristine house; with the next, she saw the same house with its blinds wide open and snipers in its windows. She saw blood on the churned-up grass, and bodies of the dead and the dying - people who had come fleeing to this house thinking to find a untouched island in the storm. Outside the illusion, she had thought herself in cover. Now she knew that she was entirely exposed.
And there above her, on the roof of the porch, was Clint, his bow drawn back and an arrow aimed at her heart.
Their mistake had been to concentrate on the statues, and forget what men alone were capable of. The statues were mindless, but it was the men who were capable of bringing Captain America to his knees.
"Don't move," Steve commanded softly.
"Wasn't thinking of it," Stark said.
Perhaps Steve had sent the girls to their deaths, after all. The men he had entrusted them to were nowhere to be seen. The girls had been rounded up, corralled beneath the crumbling portico of a building that seemed on the point of collapse. Four armed men were keeping them there. One held a weeping girl in front of him like a shield, the barrel of his gun pressed into her throat. Another had dragged out a dark-haired girl, the youngest by the look of her, and held a long-bladed knife against her heart. A third man stood further away, a rifle trained on Steve.
"Put down your weapons." It was the fourth one who spoke, a gunman in a dark tailored suit. Steve thought the gun he was using was called a revolver.
"Sorry. Can't," Stark said, "seeing how the weapons are part of the armour."
"Make one hostile move, and a girl dies." Several of the girls were sobbing. Some were beyond even that, white-faced with terror.
"Not doing anything," Stark said. "No hostile moves here."
"You, put down the hammer. You, put down the gun and the shield." The gunman's voice was quiet, almost too quiet to be heard. Although it seemed to Steve as if the whole world had narrowed to this one confrontation, the fighting continued elsewhere. He heard bells and sirens, gun shots and the roar of falling masonry.
He saw the terrified faces of innocents who needed his protection.
"I won't ask again," said the gunman. "I know you're quick. I know you could take us down, but are you quick enough to stop us taking some of the girls with us? Are you quick enough to stop us bringing the building down on top of them?" He pushed his coat aside, and pulled out a small round item. It looked something like a grenade from Steve's time. He had to assume that the effects were the same, or worse.
"Captain?" Thor spoke quietly, barely moving his lips.
Not all the girls were weeping. One glared at the nearest gunman with utter defiance. Another was trying to reach a knife at her belt, moving her hand by slow increments. It would not be enough, of course.
"I think," Steve said, "that we must do what they demand."
Would they shoot him dead the moment he put down his weapons? He thought they might. In his own mind, it was less than two weeks since he had fully expected to die. This was…
Instinct caused Natasha to bring her pistol up, to aim it his head. She stood there gripping the gun with both hands, seeing nothing but him.
"Clint," she whispered.
Was this for show? She knew what it was like to play a part, to have to hold it long after the point at which you wanted to let it drop. She knew that she was fully exposed, held in the sights of other gunmen at the windows upstairs. Loki would want Clint to be the one to kill her, that much she knew from the things Thor said about him, from reading between the lines. As long as he kept this pose, she was safe from the others.
She looked for signs of recognition in his eyes, for secret signals that she should join him in this charade. He was too high up, and the light was behind him. His face was a mask. She could barely see his eyes.
The tip of the arrow did not waver, not even by the slightest amount.
She tightened her finger on the trigger. Perhaps she could wing him, then dive for the doorway, press herself up against the house, out of sight of the windows. She could not back down. She could not let him kill her, for his sake, if not for hers.
"Clint," she tried again. He gave no sign of recognition. But then he was moving, the tensing of his muscles giving her only an instant's warning. He jumped from the porch; landed with bent knees at the bottom of the steps that led up to the open door. All the time, the arrow never wavered in its aim.
She could see his face now that he was lower than her. Just six steps ahead of her, close enough that she could grab him in seconds if she dared to move at all.
"Clint." She refused to kill him, but she would hurt him if she had to. She thought she saw a man standing inside the open door behind him, but she could not let herself look. Nothing was real but Clint's face and the arrow tip. His eyes pinned her. There was none of that desperate flickering that she had seen in the agent in the park.
Maybe he was afraid that she, too, had been turned. Maybe she should show her good faith by lowering her gun, and standing there utterly at his mercy, giving him her trust.
She kept her pistol steady. She had to remain the Natasha Romanoff that he expected to see. "Clint." She tried it one last time. But she seldom called him by that name; seldom spoke it with such a catch in her voice. "Barton," she said. "You left without saying goodbye."
She knew his face so well; knew it in ways she had never realised before know; knew its every nuance of expression. Today he was unreadable.
"Natasha," she heard him whisper, as he turned and let the arrow fly.
The revolver fell from the gunman's hand. His left hand slackened, the grenade almost slipping away from him, then he grasped it with a look of sudden terror.
Steve was halfway to the ground, his thoughts unformed. He had expected to die. He had… No. Not like this. Not now. Not yet.
"Please…" said the gunman, tottering backwards. The man with the knife let it fall and reeled away. The girl collapsed to her knees, sobbing. Another girl knelt beside her, wrapping her arm around her shoulder, glaring defiantly over her head.
"So this is… unexpected," Stark said.
"I didn't mean to…" the gunman said. "I didn't want to…" He scraped his hand across his face.
"I'm with SHIELD," the knifeman said. He closed his eyes for a moment, then moved as fast as an acrobat, pulling a gun from his belt, shooting the man who still held the weeping girl across his body, killing him instantly. The girl collapsed, screaming, the back of her dress speckled with blood. Then the knife man fell, too, shot in the shoulder by the rifleman.
Something was stirring inside the building - a statue, perhaps, drawn by the noise. "Run!" Steve shouted, as he grabbed his shield and hurled it at the rifleman, catching him long before he could reload. Thor snatched his hammer out of the air and leaped forward, and Stark was there, too, holding up the portico. Steve helped the girls to safety, then gave Thor and Stark the nod. The building held when they released it, but only just, the stonework visibly shifting.
"We had a plan, right?" Stark asked. "We had a plan when we did that whole laying down our weapons thing? Because I had a plan. Didn't have time to… get to it, but…"
No plan, Steve thought, but perhaps that was untrue. Perhaps he had been staking his life on the girls' own defiance, or on the fact that it would take more than a single bullet to end his life. Perhaps it had been because he had Stark and Thor at his side, both of whom were, in their way, more remarkable than he was.
Vermer had died instantly, Clint's arrow taking him in his throat. "Natasha," Clint said, but she was with him already, running up the steps, taking shelter beneath the porch. A bullet struck the ground where she had been standing.
"God, Clint," Natasha breathed, sounding how he had seldom heard her, ragged and desperate. Then she was Agent Romanoff again, doing what needed to be done. "What are we facing here?"
Vermer's blood was seeping into the doormat. He had been there throughout, close, so close. Clint tore his own bow from the man's slackening hand, and cast away the borrowed one. The moment he touched it, the last shadows lifted from his mind.
"It was him," he said. "He was the one… God, Natasha, I almost…"
"You didn't." She was there beside him, hand on his arm.
"It was an act," she said. "A part. You were undercover. You had to make it seem real."
But he couldn't lie, not to her. He could lie to Loki, he could lie to SHIELD, but never to her. "It was almost real," he confessed. "Sometimes there was no almost about it."
He wanted to kill Vermer a second time. He wanted to rake his fingers down his own face, to carve gouges in his forehead, to feel the pain, to be real.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "Clint, there's a job to be done."
A job. A mission. She understood everything, of course. "He was the key," he told her. "The other SHIELD agents should be back with us now." Vermer's chest lay on the far side of the entrance hall, full of the relics that he used to enslave good men. He wanted to destroy it, but couldn't be entirely sure what it would do to the agents whose possessions lay within.
"Clint?" she prompted.
Was this how it would be, he wondered - that they would just slot back into place and work alongside each other, without talking about this ever again? There were things he needed to talk about. There were things he could never talk about. There had been times when she had been the only thing he remembered. Sometimes he had deliberately driven her from his mind, in case Loki could rifle through his thoughts. He had never forgotten her, never. He had never entirely lost himself, but he had lost himself enough.
But he would take what she was offering him, because for this moment now, it was what he needed.
"The agents are back with us," he said, "but we weren't the entirety of Loki's army. There were plenty more who were following him willingly. We've still got a fight on our hands."
She touched him on the back of the hand, her fingers trembling slightly, even though her face was composed. "Is Loki here?"
For the last week, memories had been slipping away from him like water. "He… left," he said. "I think."
Natasha looked out through the door. "Then…"
"No," he told her. "There's something we need to do here first."
Two of the enemy served Loki willingly, it seemed, and both were dead. Two had been acting under compulsion, and for some reason that compulsion had been lifted in the very nick of time.
Thor had not come to Midgard to allow young maidens to die. He was not inclined to trust these men, but he knew well how clever and tricksy his brother could be. Even Thor had fallen for his brother's lies more than once. Even Odin had been open to manipulation.
"You must go," urged one of these uncertain allies. "You must stop the god."
"How can we trust you?" Thor demanded.
"You… can't," the man said. He pressed both hands against his brow, the heels driving into his eyes. "Even now, I'm not sure…" His voice was muffled. He dragged his hands down across his face, and further down, fingers scraping down his neck. "Please stop him. Please go."
Thor stood. "He is not a god," he said, "no matter what he told you. Once upon a time, your people called my people gods, but only because they did not understand. I will stop him in whatever way I can."
The man nodded. "The girls…?" he asked desperately, when Captain Rogers returned.
"I have found someone to take care of them," Rogers said, but he would say no more than that. The man closed his eyes again. Thor knew that he was looking at a broken man.
"We must find Loki," Thor said.
"As I said ten minutes ago?" Stark pointed out.
Rogers nodded. Together, they fought their way back to the broad expanse of grass, past the twitching wreckage of the first wave of statues. They emerged from the trees to find four pale statues on horseback, each one twice as tall as Thor.
"The four horsemen of the Apocalypse?" Stark said. "Seriously? Who makes statues of the four horsemen of the fucking Apocalypse? When this is over, him and me will have to… have… words. Not so fast, Big Guy," he said, grabbing Thor's arm. "They're marble, not metal. Lightning won't work. " He pronounced each word slowly, as if shouting over a storm. "Besides being kind of dangerous for the guy in the metal suit caught in the middle of it."
"We must fight them?" Thor wondered where the Hulk was. The Hulk would smash these marble horsemen as if they were chalk.
"Looks like it," Stark said. "You take War. I'll handle Pestilence. Or is it Famine? Hey, watch out, Cap! Death at ten o'clock."
She had to be Agent Romanoff. Clint was back with her, and that part of the day was done. She had seen the fear and the guilt smouldering behind his eyes. Too many soft words would allow them to come out and play. He needed her to be cold and firm, and so did she. Natasha, the girl inside her, felt a ridiculous urge to weep.
Later, maybe, in the dark of her solitary room, when this long day was past.
"Where are we going?" she asked him.
"Of course," she said. She could hear the sound of fighting on the floors above, and feet pounding on the stairs.
She followed him outside, both of them ready to shoot if any hostiles appeared at the windows. There was nobody there. She fought the urge to check the bodies in the yard, to see if any of them had been killed with an arrow. It had to be done, but not yet.
"Ready?" he said.
They had done this only once before. As she covered him, he drew out the wire from his belt and fitted it to the correct arrow. When the arrow was firmly anchored in the guttering far above them, she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding on tight, like a child riding piggyback. He set the belt mechanism moving, slowly coiling the wire back. It was a slow climb. The wire provided the lift, but he had to steady them against the wall with his feet and his spare hand, seeking extra purchase wherever he could.
She could feel his breathing against her body, his whole body heaving with exertion. She often forgot how strong he was. She knew it intellectually, of course - had based entire strategies around her knowledge of his skills - but it was not the same as feeling it. He smelled of sweat and machine oil, of dust and sharp familiarity. His quiver was pressing against her chest.
"The emitter's in the quiver," she said, probably too loud, her mouth near his ear.
He grunted his confirmation. They passed near an open window, two storeys up. People were fighting inside. She released her right arm and kept the gun ready, holding onto him only with her left.
The hardest part was when they reached the roof. Clambering over Clint, she shot the first man who made a hostile move, smashing his right hand, making him drop his gun. Then Clint was beside her, his arrow flying true.
The man Clint killed was not a soldier. "Some sort of scholar," Clint explained. "He's the one who makes the golems."
Natasha took out the third man, smashing his feet from underneath him, driving his head against the parapet until he lay still. "That's a SHIELD transmitter," she said, recognising the device that had been mounted on a platform at the centre of the roof.
Clint nodded. "I can't remember everything," he admitted. "They didn't… I wasn't in on this part of the operation, but I kept my ears open, when I… when I could, when I didn't… forget." He wasn't looking at her. "A golem is created with a word. See that jewel? It amplifies the effect of any device it's attached to."
"It transmits the word." The wax cylinder was turning and turning, endlessly sending out the same silent signal. "So anything within range, anything capable of becoming a golem…"
"Becomes alive," Clint said. He pulled out an explosive arrow from his quiver. "Shall we stop the signal?"
"No. Wait." She grabbed his arm. He stopped without question. He always did, she realised; had done so for years. "I know the legend. Golems are animated with a word." She gestured at the cylinder. "Erase one letter, and the word means 'death.' That's how to stop them in the stories."
"Let's do it, then," he said.
Tony struck his head as he landed, and for a moment was incapable of getting up again. The marble horse reared over him. He tried to roll out of the way, but nothing seemed to respond. His head was throbbing. He couldn't reach the controls to power the suit. Without the suit, he was nothing in a fight, just a man with a brain and a fortune… and damn good looks, if he did say so himself and…
Priorities? he reminded himself, and managed to avoid the crashing hooves, but only just. Movement blurred around him, fractured by… Dammit, there were scratches on the surface of his goggles, making it hard to see. He dodged the next blow, but failed to avoid the third. Famine and Pestilence were working together, which was cheating, but… typical, really, given history, not that he'd ever paid much attention to... Oh. Ow. His back impacted hard against something as he landed. A lump of stone pressed down on his chest. This time he knew there was no avoiding the falling hooves.
"A little help?" he called, but it was too late, of course; far too late. Thoughts flashed through his mind - not his whole life; God, who'd want to relive that? - but desperate scenarios of hope. Rogers doing heroic thing and saving him. His armour proving to be stronger than expected - because, well, really, made by Tony Stark? The statues suddenly realising that this whole magic thing was stupid and going back to sleep again…
He blinked upwards, frowning past the scratch in the glass. The skittering thoughts were slow to stop. He tried to rein them in, like a rider with a runaway horse. "Huh," he said.
Everything was surprisingly quiet. He didn't think he was dead, horsemen of the Apocalypse notwithstanding. Two horsemen of the Apocalypse. Half an Apocalypse? What was the plural of…?
"Huh," he said again, because it seemed better than letting his thoughts go galloping off again. Galloping. Horsemen. Yes, that was where the analogy came from. Synonym. Metaphor. Whatever. "Did…?" he began. Frozen in the middle of a rear, the marble horseman toppled over sideways, landing with a bone-shaking crash just inches from where Tony lay.
Tony sat up. "Is it just me, or have the statues just gone to sleep again?"
Thor was sitting astride War's horse, his arms wrapped around the lifeless marble statue of its rider. Battered and bruised, Rogers was extricating himself from underneath Death. "It appears so," he said.
Tony's head was still throbbing. He stood up painfully; breathed in and out until he could think clearly again.
"There is still Loki to contend with," Thor said.
"Yes," Tony said wearily. "Yes there is." Why had he signed up for this? What had he been thinking when he agreed to ferry this bunch of crazy people into a war zone, and then join in? Oh yes. He'd been hungover. He pointed in the direction indicated by the emitter. "I'll go see what Agent Romanoff is getting up to. See you there?"
It was easier when he flew, in some ways. Then it was just him and his technology, no other people getting in the way. But there was no time to gain any real altitude. The damage done to the city was impossible to ignore. He flew close enough to see people on rooftops, desperately hiding from the threats below.
I guess that's why, he thought. The reason why I signed up. One of the reasons. Maybe. No, that was the sort of reason a hero might have, or at least a good man.
He found Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton on a rooftop of their own, surrounded by bodies. Romanoff was crouching beside a man who had clearly tried to come up through the skylight, before being forcibly stopped. Barton was posing dramatically on the edge of the roof, having recently rained arrows down on gunmen in the yard below.
"Am I late for the party?" Tony said, landing between them. Barton lowered his bow and turned around. "Are you evil?" Tony asked him.
Agent Romanoff exuded ice at the question, but Barton just said, "I'm… myself."
Which wasn't answering the question, because, seriously, SHIELD assassin? Best not say it out loud, though, because… SHIELD assassin? "I thought you were waiting for back-up before going in?" he said to Romanoff. "Is this what waiting looks like? Am I defining the word wrong?" Two SHIELD assassins, he corrected himself. "Just… uh… saying," he added.
"I intended to wait," she said, looking entirely unrepentant. "I penetrated the illusion field unexpectedly."
"Illusion field?" Tony looked around, seeing nothing amiss.
"Gone now," Barton said. "Natasha killed the wizard."
Wizard! Hidden by his helmet, Tony rolled his eyes. "I was going to give you this," he said, his tone almost petulant. He gestured to the pack attached to the clip at his back. "It's a sonic weapon," he explained. "Incapacitates without killing. Incapacitates the bearer, too, which is why I added some… modifications. Why doesn't anyone want to use it? I was going to use it in the stand-off with the girls, but never got the chance then, either. The SHIELD agents suddenly turned good again."
"That was Clint," Romanoff said.
"And then the statues…" Tony began.
"That was Natasha," Barton said. He exchanged a look with Romanoff that Tony didn't catch. "Okay. Both of us." He left his position and clambered over to some sort of… No, not just some sort of, but the transmitter, one of the ones Tony had sold to SHIELD under an assumed name. As Tony watched, Barton pulled out a knife and proceeded to prize away some sort of… No, not some sort of…
"The jewel," Tony said. "The useless jewel I removed from the Doomsday Ma-- the simple sonic weapon, entirely safe unless you count a few minutes of drooling."
"It amplifies the effect of anything it's attached to," Barton said.
Oh, Tony thought. "Oh," he said. "Oh!" he gasped, because the possibilities…! Attached to a… No. Priorities. "Where's Loki?" he asked.
"Not here," Barton said.
Tony tried to catch Romanoff's eye to see if Barton could be trusted, but was hampered by being encased in a metal suit, and by the fact that Romanoff was looking at Barton, rather than at him, and would probably never willingly let him catch her eye, anyway. "So he could be anywhere in the city, then," he said. "Should be easy, then."
Romanoff looked at him at last. Maybe she didn't understand sarcasm. "I questioned one of Loki's men," she said. "One of the ones who followed him willingly."
Questioned, Tony thought. He almost said something, but kept his mouth shut.
"He was full of threats," Romanoff said. "How Loki would rule. How the old regime would topple. How--"
"He's gone to kill the president," Tony said, "or take him over." It made sense. Of course it made sense. A medieval-minded guy like Loki would think in terms of kings and rulers. "He's gone to the White House."
Romanoff gave a sharp nod. "I think so, too."
The big metal things had stopped moving. Hulk had nothing left to hit.
He felt the rage gathering inside him. He hit a giant made out of stone, and it toppled over and broke into pieces. Someone screamed. Pale people fled from him. He wanted to chase them and make them fly.
No. Can't. The other guy said it, but Hulk said it, too. The other guy didn't want Hulk to hit the pale creatures. When the other guy was cross with Hulk he kept him caged inside, raging behind bars.
Hulk had to find more metal things to smash. He had to find Thor. Thor showed him where enemies were. It was okay to hit Thor, because he didn't break and he smiled afterwards and called Hulk 'friend.'
Hulk had to find explosions. He had to go where the fighting was. If he didn't, he was…
end of chapter ten
Iron Man, c. 1878
On to chapter eleven