(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter twelve can be read on AO3 here
"No!" Steve cried, reaching out, but it was too late. Stark was gone, and Steve had been created with many skills, but he would never be able to fly.
It was hard to think. Even movement was sluggish. Barton was down again, Agent Romanoff at his side, looking little better herself. Steve scraped his hands across his ears, but it made little difference. "Thor!" he shouted, but Thor's attention was all on Loki. Loki was lying broken in the churned-up grass, but he was laughing. "Thor!" Steve tried again. "Go after him! Go after Stark!"
Thor looked from his brother to the sky. Stark was a distant speck, but then he caught the sunlight, gleaming far brighter and far larger than he was. Steve saw him fall.
He started to run, faster, faster than he had ever run before. After half a dozen steps, he was rocked, almost driven from his feet, as if hooks had been inserted inside his body and were tearing him apart. He couldn't see, he couldn't hear…
He forced himself to run on. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand until he saw things around him as vague shapes, like ghosts. He was not deaf, because he could clearly hear the pounding of his own heart, and the way his breathing seemed to fill the world. He bumped into something, something hard, the pain flaring bright up his leg. He fell, hands scraping in the dirt, and pushed himself up again.
Slowly, slowly sound came back. He heard the sobbing first, and all around him the reverberation of bells.
He reached the river. Was it the right place? Thor was already there, his cape a flash of red, the only colour in the bleak grey world. Steve scraped at his eyes again, and ran to Thor's side.
"He fell," Thor said. "I came in time to see the waves flow in circles around a spot just there."
The river flowed with its accustomed current, but that was all. In every other way, it was still. There were no bubbles from below, no sign of someone struggling to the surface. Then he saw a fish floating dead on the surface of the water.
Steve unbuttoned his coat and jumped in. The water was cold. Ice, he thought, and maybe he did remember it after all, or maybe that was just dreams. It was dark under the water, and he blinked desperately, trying to see. His vision was as perfect as a mortal man's could be, but it was not enough. He called Stark's name, but it came out as bubbles, wasting him precious air.
He had to retreat to the surface soon, too soon. He gasped in air, and tried to still the pounding of his heart. "Thor!" he shouted, but there was no sign of him, just his hammer sinking into the silt on the bank.
Steve tried again. How much time had passed? The air in his own lungs had run out, and Stark had been underwater for twice as long, three times as long. He swam as deep as he could manage. Then he saw Stark's face, and something wild and fierce flared inside his chest. Tony! he thought, but the face was immobile and far too big. It was the statue, lifeless at the bottom of the river.
He had to swim to the surface again. Thor was there, scraping his hair back from his face. "My armour is too heavy," he said.
Yes. Heavy. And Stark was in his Iron Man suit. Steve wasn't looking for a man, but for someone clad all over in metal. The gun Stark had made for him was sheathed at his belt. Would it work under water? He had to try.
He went down deeper this time, as deep as he could. A flash of red showed him that Thor was doing the same. He tried the gun. The light it produced was small, just a tiny blaze of blue. He tried again, holding it at arms' length, sweeping it from side to side, as useless as a single candle in a vast and endless night.
But sometimes even a single candle could make the difference between life and death. His lungs were beginning to give out. He knew that he would have to make for the surface and count himself lucky if he made it on time. But then he saw it, the faintest hint of a reflection.
He had no idea how he found the strength for it. He pushed lower and grabbed Stark bodily, and then Thor was there, heaving at the other side. Spots were dancing in front of Steve's eyes. Thor gave a nod, as if to say, I've got him. Go. Steve didn't want to, but sometimes… sometimes you had to trust.
He was barely conscious when he reached the surface, swimming on instinct alone. Thor reached the bank before Steve did, dragging Stark out with him and laying him down on the shore.
"Stark," Steve said. He was dripping water on Stark's body. His fingers fumbled as he reached for the clasps that held the helmet in place. It took an inordinate amount of time to remove it. Water gushed out when it was finally free.
Stark's eyes were closed. There had been a tube in his mouth, Steve realised, one that protruded from the inside of the helmet. Steve touched his cheek and found it cold. He touched his lips to see if he could find breath. "Tony," he whispered. Water was streaming across his own face.
Even Thor's voice was quiet. All the world seemed quiet. "I have seen drowned men brought back to life by somebody pounding on their chest."
Stark's lips moved. "Drowned," they said. "Who's drowned? And no… pounding, thank you very much." His eyes flickered shut again. "And ow. "
Thor threw back his head and whooped with relief, but Steve withdrew his hand and bent his head, too overwhelmed to say anything at all.
Thank God for steam trucks left abandoned at the side of the road. Or thank Howard Stark, at any rate, given that he'd invented the things. And thank the city's fire brigade for leaving them there. And thank… well, anyone at all, if it meant that Tony could finally sit down.
Captain Rogers seemed to think that Tony was fragile. It suited Tony just fine. "Left hand up a bit," Tony said. "No, that left. Pull the blue lever. Turn that dial there." He closed his eyes and concentrated on looking like somebody who had almost drowned. Just as long as nobody was going to ask him to do anything inconvenient like opening his eyes or saving the world - again, and you're welcome, by the way - or thinking too much about anything.
Fury and Coulson had somehow appeared by the time Rogers finally blundered his way back to the White House lawn. "You're late," Tony said.
They seemed to be busy with other things. With much screaming of machinery, Rogers worked out how to stop the truck, and moved back to fuss over Tony. Tony opened his mouth to tell him just what he thought about being fussed over, then realised that he wasn't quite sure what he did think.
"You're welcome!" he shouted instead, pointedly.
Fury came over to him with the air of someone granting a irritating petitioner a scant two seconds of his time. "For saving the world," Tony reminded him. "Washington DC, anyway. And the president. That counts double, doesn't it?"
Fury walked away, off to do directorly things elsewhere. Coulson granted Tony a few more minutes of his time. "We were right behind you all the time."
"Behind us," Tony said. He had to see about lobbying for more comfortable seats in fire trucks, he decided - something you could properly languish on when at death's door. "Cheering us on. Go us."
"Following you," Coulson said. "We had a reading from the emitter just before you left so precipitously, and deduced that Loki was heading here. We intended to order you here all along."
"Intended." He was doing far too much of this echoing thing today, it seemed. He tried to get his brain to find original words. "And you didn't tell us why?"
"You left before we could," Coulson said. "Excuse me." He disappeared again. Was he related to Jarvis?
"So there we were, thinking we were being so rebellious," Tony said, "and all along…" He stopped. They'd probably done it deliberately, reasoning that people like Thor and Banner would be happier doing something if they thought they were doing it to spite SHIELD, rather than to obey them. Okay, he added, people like him. SHIELD had read them all perfectly, manipulated them just the way they wanted them.
It was probably best not to tell Steve. No, he thought, he would save it up and tell him later, just so he could see that endearing look of wounded outrage. Rogers was so predictable sometimes. Unlike Tony, of course.
"Well," he said, when he saw that Steve was looking at him questioningly, "if we're talking unpredictable, there's the whole thing about me being willing to die to save the world. City. President. Whoever."
"Yes," said Steve. "You--"
"Not that I was thinking clearly about it at the time, because sonic weapon? You can't paint it as a heroic sacrifice because I wasn't… I'm not…" Not a hero. Of course he wasn't. Not like Captain America. He was just a man doing what he had to do, and, anyway, it was kind of maybe sort of his fault all along, for bringing the weapon along, and… Oh! Steve hadn't started up with the 'told you so,' despite all that crap he'd been spouting about 'destroyer of cities,' and… "Not crap," Tony said. "And thanks."
"For what?" Steve asked.
"Not saying it," Tony said, "of course. Stupid."
He probably slept then.
"You'll live," the medic told him.
Clint nodded. Of course he would.
He had little fear of dying. Throughout the entire thing with Loki, he had never feared that he would die. He had been afraid that he would fail. He had been afraid that he would lose himself. He had been afraid - terrified - that he would be forced to hurt a friend, to hurt Natasha. He had been afraid that she would be forced to kill him to stop him from going too far.
No fears, he reminded himself. No guilt. No doubts.
But the mission was over, and now it was time for those things. SHIELD was in charge, dealing with the wash-up. It was time for the field agents to stand down. It was time to look at his actions in the mirror of the cold light of day.
"No," Natasha said, close beside him, as she had been throughout his treatment.
"What?" His eyelids felt heavy, as if he hadn't slept in a week. Everything hurt, not just the wound across his ribs.
"What you were thinking."
"How do you know what I'm thinking?"
"Because I know you," Natasha said, her fingers touching his wrist guard. "It isn't your fault. You did as well as anybody could have done. Better. No other agent managed to resist as much as you did."
"Because I make a damn bad agent." Clint remembered what Loki had said about obeying orders. His entire life was built on an act of disobedience. He had been sent to kill Natasha, but had brought her in alive.
"No," Coulson said; Clint hadn't realised that he was there. "A damn good one. You did well, Agent Barton. It was wrong of us to order you to do it."
Clint smiled ruefully. "I know you too well, Coulson. I can tell when you're lying." SHIELD was a harsh taskmaster. Sometimes its demands were more than an agent could take, but it would never stop demanding, and the agents would never stop responding to the call.
"But you did well, Clint," Coulson said. He listed things that Clint already knew; things that sometimes felt like just words to him. He had concealed the existence of the emitter. He had released the other agents just in time, and enabled the neutralisation of the statues. He had shot Loki, weakening him for the battle that followed.
"Written the report already?" Clint asked.
Coulson shook his head. "There's no need to." Somebody called his name. He turned towards them, then back to Clint. "I mean it, Agent Barton. You're a damn good agent. Both of you. And you know what makes you both so good?"
Clint smirked. "Our good looks?"
Natasha surveyed him critically. "Can't be that. Because we could kill a man with just a coffee spoon?"
"Oh come now," Coulson said. "Even I could do that." The call came again, more insistent. Coulson still made no move to leave. "Because you think for yourselves," he said. "Not all the time," he added hastily. "All the time is bad. But enough. When it counts."
When it counts. Clint thought. Without that act of disobedience so many years ago, he would possess nothing now. He would be dead ten times over.
"He's wrong, you know," Natasha said, as she touched him on his naked fingertips, feeling the calluses there. "That's not what makes us great."
"Of course it isn't," Clint agreed. He rested his head on her shoulder, and she let him stay there. He could hear the beating of her heart in time with his own, and he knew that they both were right.
There were many people homeless in the city. There were still jobs to be done. Instead, Steve found himself sliding down the side of the mechanical carriage, and sitting there with his legs outstretched on the ground.
He caught a glimpse of the Hulk, still guarding Loki. Watched by Thor, a team of agents fastened the fallen god in chains, gagging him so he was unable to use the magic of his words. Would that be enough to stop him? Steve knew he should watch closely, in case it was not.
He was still wet from the river, his hair clinging to his brow. Despite the sunshine, he was cold.
"I've been talking to the president." Steve saw Fury's feet first, and had to fight to raise his head enough to see his face. "He's accepted that Loki was the aggressor and that any damage done by… our side was done in the cause of defence."
Steve stayed silent. Nothing felt quite real.
"He wants to meet you," Fury said. "He wants to thank you."
"All of you."
"We aren't ready," Steve said. He felt as if the carriage was the only thing keeping him up. "We did our part. We fought, we bled, we almost died to get this far. It's your turn now."
Fury cleared his throat. "There might be medals."
"We didn't do it for the medals," Steve said. "Tell him that."
"Speak for yourself," he heard Stark say from the seat above him. Steve had thought him asleep. "It was medals all the way for me. Praise. Wild applause. Adoration."
A lie, of course. Or maybe not a lie, but a misdirection. He was beginning to understand Tony Stark quite well, he thought. He was someone who went to great lengths to keep people from seeing that he was a good man. Maybe… maybe he was even trying to fool himself.
"Another day," Steve said. "Not now. We've given everything that we have." He wanted Fury to see Stark, unable to sit upright on the carriage seat, and Barton in the medic's tent. There was Thor who had helped destroy his own brother, and Agent Romanoff, who had walked alone through Hell to save her partner. And then there was Banner. Who knew what Banner had lost by doing what he had done? "We aren't superheroes."
"Uh…" Stark began.
"We're people with special skills," Steve said, "but we're still people. We need a break." It was the first time he had willingly turned his back on duty, he realised. But it was the first time he had other remarkable people around him, like mirrors that showed him his own limits. Let him rest, he thought, urging Fury to take a good look at Stark. Let them all rest.
Fury's hand moved in something that was close to a salute. "Yes, Captain," he said.
Afternoon found Bruce alone, wrapped in a blanket beside a pool. The water showed him his own face. He touched it, his fingers distorting into ripples like the fingers of a ghost.
He was not alone for long. "You did it." Agent Romanoff was fractured in the water beside him, her face unreadable.
"No." Bruce shook his head.
She sat down beside him, and then Thor was there, too, crouching at Bruce's other side. The other guy liked Thor; Bruce knew that now. Before, the other guy had just been a wordless presence, a terrifying mass of rage. He was taking shape now.
Bruce didn't know if it was better this way.
"Yes, you did," Agent Romanoff said. "You took out nothing but enemies."
A breeze played across the water, fracturing his reflection into shards. "That wasn't me," he said. "I said I'd try to stay in control, but I didn't. He… listened to me. Sometimes he listened to me. But he made his own decisions."
"The right decisions," Agent Romanoff said.
Bruce let out a slow breath. "Yes."
But for how long? What would it be like next time? The other guy - Hulk, he thought; he likes to be called Hulk - had come so close to doing irreparable damage. Bruce had played no part in stopping him. Thor had stepped in and had seen what Bruce had been unable to see. Hulk could not be controlled, but he could perhaps be reasoned with. Hulk had no desire to be imprisoned, and he knew that Bruce had the power to imprison him - not forever, perhaps, because Hulk was too strong for that, but for weeks on end.
"We… came to an agreement," he said. Bruce would let Hulk out when he needed his strength, and Hulk would limit his attacks to the correct targets, because that was the price of his freedom. "But for how long?"
The water was still again. His own face looked back at him. "Sometimes it is best not to think about the future," Thor said, "but to take each day as it comes."
"Yes," said Bruce, because today, this day, at the very end, it had worked out.
It was not enough, but it was so much better than it could have been.
Sleep and a meal were enough to… Well, not to make you feel human - because hello, almost drowned today, not to mention the whole getting stomped? - but enough to mean that you could at least stand up and do what you needed to do.
Not that anybody else would think it was necessary, of course. Not that anybody else was going to get the chance to find out.
His father's statue seemed to be the only one in the entire city that had not been damaged in any way. It must have started walking the moment it was animated, and just… not stopped. Now it was frozen at an intersection on the edge of town, where it would probably stay forever more, getting in the way of traffic, forcing everyone else to shape their lives around it.
"Hi," Tony said, looking upwards. "Dad."
The statue said nothing, of course.
Necessary, thought Tony, but of course it wasn't. Stupid, stupid to feel that he needed this. Stupid to feel that he needed something else, something that he could never get. The statue stared ahead, cold and oblivious.
Tony turned and very slowly walked away.
It would soon be time to leave. Thor waited for the sign that his father was ready for him.
If it were just for his own sake, he thought he would stay. Princes often went out into the world, to learn wisdom and lessons from mortal comrades. Young warriors did their service in places far from home. These were good people here on Earth. They were not the companions he had left behind on Asgard, but in time, they could become something close. Moreover, Lady Jane was on Earth, and his heart longed to see her.
But there was Loki to consider. Fury was a mighty chieftain, but his men could not hold Loki for long. Loki possessed the powers of a wizard, and the lying tongue of a serpent. Even if they buried him in the deepest cavern below their Earth, he would find a way out and he would wreak a hard revenge.
Thor owed it to his father to deliver Loki back for justice. He owed it to the people of Earth to see that Loki was gone from them.
I am sorry, brother, he still wanted to say, when he looked upon Loki so broken and so heavily chained.
But there was no apology in Loki's eyes, and there never had been. And therefore Thor could not be truly sorry. Oh, he could mourn that these circumstances had come to pass, but he could not regret the choices he had made.
And for that, he was the most sorry of all.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
In ones and twos, they had all made their way to the lawns by the river. Natasha was leaning against an empty plinth that had once held a statue. Clint was beside her, drooping with pain and fatigue, but trying not to show it. It wasn't like him to hide weakness from her, she realised. He had been open with her for years, long before she had noticed it… long before she had given him the same gift of trust in return.
Then she realised that he wasn't trying to hide things from her, but from the others. Apart from Banner, he barely knew them yet. She hoped none of them were going to treat him with suspicion because of what he had almost done. She would do what she could to make sure that they did not. Only she and Coulson knew that Clint had almost turned for real. Only she knew that, at times, there had been no 'almost' about it.
But here she was with Clint, drinking to another hard mission that had come to an end with neither of them dead.
Nothing had changed.
He had rested his head on her shoulder. She had let him. There was no longer just the two of them. There were four others, and there was talk of them being a team. She had been willing to sacrifice almost anything to bring Clint home. He knew that, she thought. The gift of trust had been a long time coming, but he had it now. She had few secrets left from him.
Everything had changed. Nothing had changed.
Everything that mattered was still the same. Maybe she just saw it more clearly now.
Stark had brought along his butler, and they had food beside the river as the sun began to set. They talked about other things, mostly, not the things they had seen that day, but sometimes - too often - they found themselves talking about the battles they had fought.
"So you all had a one-to-one with Loki during the final showdown?" Stark was leaning against a tree, shadows dappling his face. "Now I feel left out."
"Don't," Agent Barton said.
"Says the man who shot a god," Stark said. "And don't you start, Agent Romanoff, who talks to Loki for, what, two minutes, and gets him to admit that he's waiting for the Hulk to kill the president. Of course," he added, "finding out a little earlier would have helped, but full marks for effort."
The question was going to come soon, Steve knew. He braced himself for it. What did Loki talk to you about? What could he say? He offered to send me home. But he wasn't sure how to say it. 'Home' was such a simple word that could mean so many things.
The question came, but it was not from Stark, as Steve had expected, but from Thor. It seemed simplest to tell the truth, after all. "He offered to send me back to the past, if I…" He shook his head. "He denied there was a price, but I expect he wanted me to fight on his side."
"Or just to remove you from the battle," Banner said. He had been the quietest of them all, and it was a surprise to hear him.
Thor frowned. "But such a thing is not within Loki's power."
Steve let out a slow breath. Of course it wasn't. Loki was a liar. He was a devil, trying to damn men with false temptation.
But had it been a real offer with no strings attached, what then?
It hadn't been a real offer. There was no need to torment himself with the choice. The past was home, but it was not perfect. The future was not his time, but it had… compensations. The past? he thought. The future? Where was his present?
No, it was useless to ask such a question. He was where he was. The choice had not been a real one, and he had done the only thing he could have done, and refused to answer it.
Everyone was silent, he realised, some openly watching him, some tactfully looking away. He wondered what his face was showing them.
"Just as well you didn't say yes, then," Tony said, "given that Loki couldn't actually do it, because that would suck."
"Yes," Steve agreed. He attempted a smile, and was surprised at how easy it was. He had not been forced to make a choice, but this world he had been left with… Oh yes, it had its compensations.
It was not his present yet, but perhaps, one day soon, it could become so.
Tony was almost falling asleep again, and he'd only had, what? Three drinks?
Thor raised his head, like a dog hearing his master's whistle. "My father…" He stood up. Was the party over already? "I must retrieve Loki from those who guard him, and then we will return to Asgard."
"Return," Tony echoed. Seriously, what was with this echoing thing today? "You're coming back."
"I hope to." Thor pressed his hand to his heart. "You have been truly fine companions and I wish to fight at your side again," he said, and, okay, his clothes were stupid and his way of speaking was worse, but it all added a bit of dignity to things, and Tony wasn't good at dignity, but sometimes… sometimes it worked.
"But with less actual fighting," Banner said.
"What's the chances of that happening?" Tony said. "We're, like, famous now. The president wants to give us medals, if a certain person will let us accept them. All the aspiring villains in the world - hey, why stop at the world; the universe - are going to be lining up to take us on."
"Then we must stand together," Thor said, "and stand firm."
"Damn straight," Tony said. "Jarvis, pour everyone another drink. Me first." When all the glasses were full, he raised his in a toast. "Here's to us, the Avengers." He drank, and watched the others drink, too. It was enough to give you a warm glow in your heart, unless you were a heartless bastard who didn't play well in a team. Hell, no, it was enough to give you a warm glow in your heart, period, because they'd won and they were all still alive and they'd managed to eat a picnic for two hours without anyone trying to kill each other or slapping Tony in the face.
He drained his glass, and decided not to ask for more. He didn't need it, he thought. "Has anybody worked out what we're avenging yet?"
They hadn't. Oh well. He guessed they had time to work it out.
Thanks so much to anyone who's stuck with this to the end. When I was writing this, I was convinced that I would be able to count readers on the fingers of one hand, since a long, gen, ensemble AU by a writer new to the fandom is never going to have a strong appeal. I'm therefore very pleased and grateful to see that I would need quite a few more hands to count the people who have been following these serial posting.
At times, this was very hard to write. At times, I was cursing the fact that I'd been stupid enough to go with six viewpoint characters, none of whom I had ever written before. Even when writing in fandoms I'm very familiar with, I've never normally used more than four viewpoint characters, so six felt very crowded, especially as they all needed some sort of character arc. Plus there was the all the world-building and steampunk tech to work out. But halfway through, the whole thing suddenly got a lot easier, and the final four chapters (which were originally going to be just two chapters, but just growed and growed) pretty much wrote themselves in six wild, crazy, obsessed days.
By the way, the mechanical Turk is entirely real.