(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter eight can be read on AO3 here
Rain fell on the boneyard where the giants lay. Thor looked down at their blank faces, many of them crushed by his own hammer. The magic that had once animated them was gone. They were as useless now as a broken sword; as the shattered statue of a god whose name was no longer remembered by men.
I do not understand you, my brother, he thought.
He shook his head, raindrops showering from his hair. The Son of Coul was watching him from the shell of the citadel. Thor walked towards him, ducking to pass beneath the tilting lintel. Coulson stood on dry stone, sheltered by what remained of the roof.
"Why does he do it?" Thor asked him. Once he might have scorned the opinion of a mortal, but he had come to learn that humans could be wise indeed.
"Perhaps for no other reason than because he can," Coulson said.
Thor gathered his hair in his fist, squeezing out water. "We are not gods, although men have called us so. Does Loki forget that?
Coulson's eyes flicked to the side, as if he was trying to find a way to avoid answering. "Gods don't have a monopoly on evil," he said. "We humans have always found plenty of ways to kill each other. There have always been people who want to dominate others. Sometimes very small men, not even close to being gods."
"You are all small men," Thor said. "Small in stature and in your powers, but not in the ways that count. Lady Jane is great in goodness and wisdom, as are you, Son of Coul. Does Loki fail to see this?"
"I… really don't know."
"They called us gods." Thor gripped Mjolnir, feeling the power that ran through its handle. "A god should protect the weak, not demand that they make obeisance. He should wreak destruction on those who are wrought from chaos, not on fragile mortals."
"Speaking as fragile mortal," Coulson said, "I would like to agree."
"My father raised us as princes, my brother and I." Thor looked up at the sky, but saw only the grey pall of rain in the early dawn. "A king protects his subjects. He fights for them. He guards them." He closed his eyes, and imagined his father's face, remembered his father's voice. "Has Loki forgotten all that? There was so much hatred. What did I do? Did I fail him in some way?"
Coulson cleared his throat. "People make their own choices. Sometimes there's nothing anyone else can do to stop them."
Thor opened his eyes. "You are wise, Son of Coul." He pressed his hand to his chest. "But it is not always easy to heed words of wisdom here, in your heart. Do humans find it thus?"
"Oh yes," Coulson said. "Oh yes."
"But it is wrong to sit idle and disconsolate." Thor scraped rain from his face. "Loki's actions are beyond my understanding, but he does what he does. He is my brother, and so it falls upon me to stop him. He is my father's subject, and so it falls upon me, my father's heir, to take responsibility for his misdeeds. I will do everything in my power to stop Loki and all his works." He raised his hammer and shouted aloud to the weeping sky and the coming morning. "This I vow!"
"Er… that's good," Coulson said. He looked pained, as if his ears were hurting him.
Thor lowered Mjolnir, heavy in his grip. "Loki told me once that he had no desire to rule. Now he tells me that wishes it, after all."
"People lie," Coulson said. "I… don't know about gods, but I'm guessing…"
"He lies." It was the bleakest of his memories. "Loki told me that my father was dead. It was a lie." He looked at Coulson, remembering how he had once looked so beseechingly at the brother he had still thought was his staunchest friend. "It is not in my nature to lie."
Coulson looked away.
Morning found her less than rested.
Natasha was an assassin and a spy. She knew how to go for days without sleep when the mission demanded it. She knew, too, how to snatch odd moments of rest when they presented themselves, even when stranded in enemy territory, facing an uncertain future. She knew how to push worries away and do what was needed in order to remain functional and alert.
Last night had been spent in fitful sleep and restless wakefulness. She should have left while it was still dark.
Dawn saw her dressing, equipping herself not just with the weapons she always carried, but those that she carried only on missions.
SHIELD had lied to her. Nothing new there, of course. SHIELD was an organisation based on lies, while her own lies were stacked as high as skulls in an ossuary. SHIELD had lied to her about Barton. That was new. That was… different. Why different?
But what could she do but think?
She wanted to go after him, to bring him back, but she had no idea where to look. All she knew was that she had to stop him before he was compromised for real, before he committed an act that was impossible to go back from. Natasha might have been able to deal with it - she had done worse in the past, and learned to live with it - but Clint was a better person than she was. A killer, yes, but with a softer heart than he would ever admit, perhaps even to her. Not soft, of course, never that, but…
Human, she thought.
She wanted to go after him. She wanted…
No, she told herself. Caged here until they picked up a signal from his emitter. Caged here… until Loki attacked another outpost, and Clint sent an arrow through the throat of a fellow agent.
She shook her head. Clint would laugh to hear about her worries. What? You didn't think I was strong enough to resist? And then he'd tease her for months for being so weak as to worry about him. Coulson had more faith in me. Even Fury had more faith in me, and you know how hard he is to please.
God, she needed to be somewhere else. She opened the door; almost crashed into Thor, and that's how off her game she was, to let the god of thunder catch her off guard.
"Lady Natasha." Thor greeted her with none of his usual brightness. "I seek an answer to a question."
So do I.
Thor was as undaunted as ever, oblivious to dark moods and the need for solitude. "My brother told me that this thing he has taken, this jewel, will allow him to rule…" But maybe she was had misjudged him, for he broke off, looking at her with concern. "Lady Natasha, you look troubled."
It was not like her to let such things show. But what did it matter, really? Other things were more important than the need to keep herself locked away; it was just that she so seldom encountered them. "I am… concerned about Agent Barton," she said. "We've been partners on a lot of missions and he--"
"He is your battle companion," Thor finished for her. "I know what it is to fight with a sworn sword-brother at your side. It is a bond more close than blood. When they bleed, you bleed." He touched his chest, knuckles against the armour. "And then you avenge them."
Avenge them, she echoed, cold. Fitful sleep had given her dreams of coming too late and finding him dead. "What were you asking me?" she said almost sharply. "About Loki?"
"He said he intended to rule," Thor said. "Where would you go if you desired to rule this realm of yours? Where does your chieftain have his throne?"
Where…? she thought, and perhaps she almost smiled. She had a way to find him. She had a place to start.
Bruce stood with his eyes closed, his face turned towards the rain. He was standing in a space that had once been a dining room, until the other guy… until he had destroyed it.
Why did they let him stay? When he was with Stark, he could almost believe that it was because of his mind. You could say what you liked about Stark, and most of it was probably true, but he had a gift for accepting you just the way you were, without being blinkered by… the other things. But Stark was not SHIELD, and SHIELD was…
Bruce sighed, and headed slowly inside, picking his way around the piles of wreckage. He saw a broken clock, and an old armillary sphere, damaged beyond repair. He saw a bookcase reduced to nothing more than fire wood. He let out a breath, hands clasped tightly at his sides. There was little difference between anger and guilt, it seemed.
Agent Romanoff and Thor found him there… how much later? "You said I had the right to be here," he said. "Last night. In the room. With the mirror. There." It was dangerous to let words come out like that, without control. He breathed in; breathed out again. "What did you mean?"
"That you have the right to use that room," she said.
"Because…" Bruce tried to gather himself together, to wrap everything up inside him and keep it close. "Agent Fury won't admit it," he said, "but I'm afraid…" No. Calm. Calm. "I think he allowed me to stay here before the attack because he wanted the… other guy."
"Who would not?" Thor said, too loud. "He is a mighty warrior, this 'other guy' of yours. Had he fought the metal giants… Ah, that would have been a battle worthy of song!"
Bruce laughed, faint, brief, desperate. "Is that how it is? I've been beating myself up because I changed, because I did all this. Should I be beating myself up because I didn't change earlier, because I didn't let the other guy go up against the giants?"
"You shouldn't be beating yourself up," Agent Romanoff said with finality.
"No," said Thor, "because it is a foolish thing to do. Save your blows for your enemies."
"But then I wonder…" Bruce said. "What you said last night… What Agent Barton said… What if you're right? I try so hard to stop the other guy from coming out. Every minute, every second, I fight him. And all the time, I'm raging at the injustice of it, at how I have to live, at the things I've lost, the things I'll never do again. Maybe I should stop fighting. Maybe I should stop raging. Maybe…"
He stopped. Agent Romanoff was careful not to look at him.
"What if I can't do it?" he asked. "If I deliberately let the other guy out, it could be the end."
"Or the beginning." She looked at him then. "It is not good to rage all the time."
Bruce pressed two fingers to his brow. "Maybe I should leave. Since my accident, too many people have tried to own me. I don't like being manipulated. Even if Director Fury was right, he should have told me."
"Yes. Yes, he should." Agent Romanoff looked tired, Bruce realised. "SHIELD deals in lies as a banker deals in money, and manipulates people like a puppeteer at a children's show. But they are not…" She looked down, then up again. "They normally have good reason. I have… had dealings with organisations that lie and manipulate for malice and their own ends. SHIELD is different. Even if…" She stopped. "Different," she said.
"Lying is wrong," Thor declared, "but Fury the chieftain and the Soul of Coul fight for the good of humanity. Sometimes, in the cause of good, it is necessary for a warrior to use the weapons of his enemy."
"Or the enemy inside him." Bruce gave a soft laugh, more genuine this time. "Out of the mouths of gods…" He let out a breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. Bruce remembered the strain he had glimpsed in Agent Romanoff's face the night before. "I'm sorry," he said. "Straight in there with my own problems. Are you…?"
"We are going to the seat of Washington, your king of kings," Thor declared, "so Lady Natasha can win the one called Hawkeye back to her side, and I can bring my brother to justice."
"Want to come with us?" Agent Romanoff looked at him, no expectation in her face.
"Which one of me?" Bruce kept his voice casual. Something was fluttering inside his chest.
"Whichever one you want to offer," she said.
Bruce thought about it only for a second. "Then both," he said, "if I can."
Steve was sitting on his bed and contemplating his shield. He had donned his new uniform in the battle against the golems, but he had no idea if he would don it again. The weapon Stark had made for him lay untouched on the table. Made for him, Steve wondered, or for Captain America?
Was there a difference? Yes, yes of course there was. Sometimes it seemed as if Steve was the only person who saw it. And that had been then. Then. The past, because he must no longer think of those days as the present. The past had not been perfect, although it was easy to think of it as such, now he had been torn away from it. His best friend was dead. The girl he might have come to love had been far away, separated by the demands of duty. And even then, he had been trapped by expectation, seen as a symbol, not as a man.
Somebody knocked at his door. Another demand? A costume fitting?
He opened it to find Doctor Banner, with Agent Romanoff and Thor not far behind him. "Hi," Banner said. "Cap." He sounded nervous, almost as if he was trying to copy the way Stark talked to Steve. "So here's the thing… We have reason to believe that Loki plans to attack Washington. We were planning to stop him."
"You." Steve looked from one to the other. "Does Director Fury know?"
"No," Agent Romanoff said firmly, while Banner was still opening his mouth to reply.
It was his duty to report this insubordination. No, it was no duty at all, because he had sworn nothing to Fury and his organisation. He gripped the door frame. "Why are you telling me?"
"So you can come with us!" Thor said, looming brightly at Banner's shoulder.
Steve tightened his grip. "You want me to desert?"
"What did you enlist for?" Banner asked. "To serve a cause, or to serve specific men?"
It was impossible to think like that. If every soldier made his own judgements on what was right, there would be anarchy.
Steve took a deep breath; let it out again. He had once disobeyed orders himself, of course, and could never regret that. "I wanted to help the helpless," he said, "because I knew what it was like to be weak. But I was a soldier. I swore my oaths to my officers and my colours. But the war we were fighting, it wasn't a grand war of ideals. Later, though, when I went to Kamchatka…"
He trailed off. It was not something he had thought to speak of out loud.
"The men I swore to obey are dead," he said slowly, as he had said to Coulson once before. "The cause remains."
Banner nodded as if he understood.
"Why do you want me to come?" Steve asked.
"Because you are a great hero!" Thor declared. "Agent Coulson showed me papers with pictures of you upon them, and songs that tell of your deeds."
Banner winced. "A bit of that, of course, although I wouldn't have been so blunt. But also…" He pulled his spectacles out of his pocket and started to polish them idly on his cuff. "I've been self-absorbed, these last few days, but I'm not entirely blind. I know you feel the weight of expectation."
So you place more expectation upon me? Steve almost said, but he knew that would be unfair. Truth was, he realised, he had never signed up to be Captain America. He had signed up to become an enhanced soldier, just one of the many who would come after him, quietly getting on with doing what needed to be done. He had never aimed to be special, but afterwards, almost everybody had treated him as something remarkable.
But to be remarkable was to be alone.
"Yes," he said, and he smiled as he said it. "I'll come." He looked at the three of them standing there, conspiring together against SHIELD. "Is Stark coming with us?"
Banner put his spectacles on. "I wasn't sure you would want him to come."
Right from the start, Tony Stark had never treated Steve as something remarkable. He had been rude and mocking and objectionable, but he had always treated Steve as a human being with flaws, not as a symbol. Except for last night, Steve thought. The gun had been a gift to Captain America, he realised, because Captain America and couldn't misuse a toothpick. Then Stark had become bitter and angry and… jealous? he wondered. Perhaps that was Steve's own fault. The man had become 'Stark' to him, and Steve had deliberately tried to push him away, to make him 'Tony Stark,' a stranger from a different time.
And Tony Stark was in his own way remarkable. Steve had been slow to realise this, because all the technology of this future world seemed amazing to him. It was only now he had spent time in this world that he realised that the things that issued from Stark's hands and mind were the most amazing of all.
And to be remarkable, he thought, was to be alone.
But, "He has a private dirigible," was all he said.
"I have a private dirigible," Tony agreed. "Faster that anything SHIELD can offer you. So what're we waiting for?"
The others looked nonplussed by his reaction. Rogers was even doing that mouth-open thing, although he snapped his mouth shut as moment later, and went back to being square-jawed and heroic.
"What?" Tony led them towards the hangar.
"I guess we thought," Banner said, "you might need some… persuading."
"Oh." Tony clapped his hands, summoning crew. "Is that what you boys and girls have been doing all morning? Persuading each other? Working through issues. Coming to the big realisation, taking the big leap into the unknown, striking out on your own, having epiphanies, road to Damascus, that sort of shit?"
The dirigible captain put in an appearance. "Are we going somewhere, sir?"
"Somewhere." Tony shrugged. "Yeah."
"May I ask where?"
"Washington DC. To deal with Thor's sibling rivalry. To bring Agent Romanoff's boyfriend back. To let Dr Banner learn how to embrace his inner monster. To let Captain Rogers here become a real boy who thinks for himself." He narrowed his eyes at the man. "Have you been drinking? Have you been drinking my stuff? That's why there was nothing but port left last night. I don't pay you to drink my stuff."
"We didn't, sir," said the captain. "We played poker, a lot of poker. It'll be good to be in the air again."
"See what I have to put up with?" Tony told the others, when the man had gone again, off to do captainly things on the navigation deck. "As soon as I invent artificial intelligence, I'll replace them all with automatons. Automatons don't answer back." Belatedly he detected a certain frostiness in his companions. "I shouldn't have said all that?"
Truth was, his head was pounding. He must have drunk more than he thought the night before. Talking was one way to deal with such things. It always had been.
"Well then," he said. "Get on board. Not you, Thor. Go operate the machine that opens the hangar doors - normally done by two men, but I'm sure you'll manage, muscly guy like you. No, not that machine, that's the coffee machine - and Thor on coffee is a sight I never want to see. The big machine. Turn the red handle. Yes, that one. Good, good. That'll have them running to investigate. Best jump in fast, Big Guy."
The dirigible engines started up, loud in the echoing cavern of the hangar. The noise of the opening mechanism was almost as loud, as the steam engine caused the great wheels to turn, and the big wheels turned the smaller wheels, and… and, really, the whole thing could have been done so much more quietly and more efficiently, and who did they get their tech from? Hammer?
Soon they were airborne, and, ugh, rain! Tony pressed the button that activated the nearest canopy, and pointed them vaguely in the direction of the stairs that led below. "It'll take three days," he said. "Find yourself somewhere to bed down. Or ask Jarvis. Yeah, Jarvis'll sort it out. Did I remember to bring Jarvis?"
"I'm here, sir," Jarvis said, impeccable despite the rain. Butler magic again, one of his ineffable raft of skills.
"Sort… things. " Tony waved him away.
People were shouting down on the ground, trying to stop them, perhaps. Tony raised a second canopy, then another, then another, until most of the observation deck was covered, the floor only slightly speckled with rain.
He wondered why he had been so quick to come away with them. He wondered why he hadn't at least paused to think.
It was Rogers's voice. Why hadn't he gone below? Tony had been about to embark on a bout of self-examination, and that wasn't the sort of thing you did in front of witnesses, unless drink was involved.
Maybe he should answer the question. Rogers was pointing at…? Oh, the mechanical Turk. "It's a mechanical Turk," Tony explained. "An attempt to replicate the one that did the rounds at the end of last century. My father told me about it. It could play chess, and that implies a level of intelligence way beyond mere mechanical…" He broke off, frowning. "Unless it was a golem? No, Loki's golems weren't intelligent. Didn't give up even when their faces were crushed to pulp. No brains in that."
Rogers was looking confused. Had Tony used too many long words? He started again. "A machine that plays chess." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Not a very successful one yet, admittedly."
"Your father told me about the mechanical Turk," Rogers said. "Nobody could work out how it was done. Then they discovered it had been a hoax all along, and a chess Grand Master was hiding inside, controlling it all with levers."
Tony opened his mouth. He closed it again.
"A very small chess Grand Master," Rogers said earnestly, as if that would help Tony with the whole speechlessness issue.
"I don't believe you." Tony shook his head. But this was Captain America, Captain Fucking Perfect, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, probably not even capable of thinking a lie. He wasn't lying, then, but… he'd misunderstood. Made a mistake. Tony was going to create artificial intelligence. He'd already sacrificed so much in the attempt. He would… He couldn't…
"It's true," Rogers said, shiny and earnest and… not lying at all, not misunderstanding, and fuck Howard Stark, fuck him, because he…
Tony walked away; blundered to the railings, unprotected from the rain. "He never told me. He told me nobody knew how it was done. He said…" He wiped rain from his eyes. "He challenged me to be one to solve the problem. Why?" Already the rain had hidden the ground, and there was nothing out there but grey. "Why did he lie to me?"
"I expect it was because he had faith in you." Rogers joined him at the railing. "He challenged you, because he knew you were capable of rising to the challenge."
But what did Rogers know about it? Howard Stark had admired Rogers, and… God! Was this Tony's punishment for mocking them about their 'issues'? Tony Stark had issues, too. Of course he had issues. But no epiphanies for him, just a journey in the rain.
"I knew your father before you were born," Rogers said, "but I know that he was proud of you."
"How can you know that?" He hadn't meant for it to slip out.
"Because how could he have seen the things you do, and been anything else?"
Tony laughed harshly, and headed down below.
Sometimes he remembered a red-haired woman, beautiful and brave. He'd been… what? Hurt. Trapped. Pinned down by enemy fire. And she'd come back for him and had covered him and risked her life for him and stayed with him, afterwards, when…
No, he thought, or maybe it was the presence that thought it, the pressure in his mind. He saw long pale fingers on a bow. There were mountains below him, empty and bleak.
The red-haired woman, who seldom smiled, so each smile was intensely precious to him, although he'd never let her know.
No. He pushed her away; concentrated on the mountains. It was cold on the deck of the dirigible. He had no role to play as yet. He was a tiny piece on the chessboard that was the god's war. Others had their roles on this voyage, but he was left to sit, a puppet with its strings cut, leaning against the railing, staring out at… what?
His eyesight was exceptional, or so he'd always been told. He couldn't see any signs of human habitation down below. People didn't matter, the god said. They were all pawns to be sacrificed to prove a point. They were drones desperate to be given purpose by serving a god. It was right that they were invisible, dwarfed by the enormous reality of the god's true purpose.
He'd once been sent to kill the red-haired woman, but he hadn't. What a fool he was.
No, he thought again. He clenched his fists, nails digging into his palms.
He wouldn't think of her. He couldn't think of her.
He did not know her.
Steve spent most of his time on deck, despite the cold. He spent whole hours looking down at the countryside below him, fascinated by how different the world looked from on high. Once he saw a herd of horses, galloping free. He looked round to see if anybody else had seen them, too, but found himself alone.
Sometimes the cold drove him below. Were all dirigibles so luxurious, so well equipped with cabins and parlours and drawing rooms? Yet despite the large number of rooms, Stark had been travelling in it alone when he had intercepted the SHIELD vessel. The cabin Steve had been given was lavishly furnished, yet strangely hollow, lacking any personal touch.
Perhaps that was why he found himself heading for Stark's work room. "I thought you were up there to stay," Stark said without looking up. "Didn't think you'd like the cold."
Because of the ice, Steve supposed. Truth was, he remembered nothing of his time in the ice; still sometimes found it impossible to believe that it had even happened. He remembered crashing, and he remembered waking up. If he saw ice in his dreams, it was only his imagination filling in gaps.
"What are you making?" Steve asked, because sometimes it was better to ask questions than to think.
"Making? Oh. This." Stark shrugged. "Just playing with the receiver. Which works perfectly, thank you for asking.
"The receiver?" Steve struggled to remember which piece of modern technology was which.
"Aetheric oscillator's receiving device. Need a better name for it, now I can openly admit to inventing it." Stark looked up at last. "The thing that receives the signal from the emitter that our friends at SHIELD planted on Agent Barton? Do keep up, Cap."
Steve perched on a stool, one of the only places not strewn with pieces of equipment. "He's sent you a message?"
"Course not." Stark frowned as if in irritation. "You can't send a message to a moving target, or from one, for that matter. The method's all about precise calculation of co-ordinates. But this emitter, we made it different. Not a precise, targeted message, but a general wordless signal. Hotter, colder sort of thing? Jeez, Cap, you were there when I explained it."
"I was," Steve agreed, with a smile.
"So it's enough to tell us that our friend Agent Barton - or the emitter, anyway, which might not be the same thing - is within twenty, thirty miles of us - it's very faint and fades in and out - and since it isn't getting any further away…" He unrolled a map with one hand, but it rolled shut with a snap the minute he let it go. "Sounds like we're right in our guess. Which is just as well."
"Can we intercept them?" Steve asked.
"They're probably invisible," Stark said darkly. "However that works. And my dirigible isn't armed, and apart from me, none of you are suited for airship to airship combat… and they might be going by railroad, or using the emitter as a decoy, and even if they're not, are they north or south of us? No, best proceed the way we're going; get ahead of them and head 'em off at the pass. This beauty's the fastest there is"
Steve nodded. In the silence that followed, he wondered if he should bring up the subject of Howard Stark again. Should he say…?
Suddenly all other thoughts were driven from his mind. He stood up; gripped the edge of the desk. "You brought it with you."
"It?" Stark looked from left to right, frowning, then turned a full circle, struggling to identify what Steve was staring at. "Oh. The sonic weapon. They were moving it out before the attack, along with the rest of their 'non-essential' tech. I just… made sure it was… moved out in the direction of… me. After all, they owe me. They called me in to look at it. That makes it practically mine."
Steve remembered Red Skull, and the bodies lying dead in the snows on Kamchatka. "He said…" He gripped the desk tighter, knuckles white.
"Doomsday machine, destroyer of cities. I know. But all it did was make Coulson drool. You were there, Cap." He picked the device up. Steve's breath caught in his throat. Very deliberately, he forced himself to exhale again. "You see, there's Agent Barton to consider," he said, speaking more quietly than normal. "Agent Romanoff, too, because she seems to care, and seriously you don't want to get her pissed. I thought we might need a weapon that incapacitates without killing. Just in case. Just in case we go up against… someone… A friend. A friend who's been… turned."
It made sense. Steve could feel his heartbeat fluttering at the base of his throat. "It…" He tried to speak; cleared his throat and tried again. "It makes sense."
"Well, obviously," Stark said, and it was so like him that, despite everything, Steve found himself almost smiling.
The sunset was glorious, that final night.
Stark had brought out heaters from somewhere, "since you all will insist on moping around on deck." Bruce had no idea why the others preferred to stay outside. All he knew was that if he felt himself beginning to lose control, he could jump. The railing was low enough. He just had to lean forward far enough, and fall.
"Drink?" Stark offered. "Jarvis! Drink!"
Rogers accepted some brandy, just a small amount. Agent Romanoff declined. Thor looked deeply disappointed at the size of the glass he was given. Bruce considered the offer, then turned it down. Perhaps he was making progress, but it was best not to give the other guy any extra encouragement.
"So…" Stark said, nonchalant against the railing. "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!" Thor raised his glass in a toast, and drained it in one go.
Agent Romanoff was framed against the sunset, rendered featureless by its glare. "Can you still detect Agent Barton?"
Stark swirled brandy in his glass, the liquid shining like molten copper. "The signal comes and goes," he said. "We're at the limits of the range, and my receiver's state of the art tech, better than anything I let SHIELD get their hands on, don't tell them I said that. But, yes, the emitter, if it's still on him, is consistently within twenty, thirty miles of us."
"So we haven't outrun them yet?" Rogers said. The sunlight was full on his face, his shadow stretching out behind him.
"Guess not." Stark reached for the decanter, and topped up the glass of a grateful Thor. "Which shouldn't happen, by the way. This baby's fast. "
"So they could be ahead of us," Bruce said.
"They could be." Stark drained his own glass, topping it up immediately.
What would happen if they arrived in Washington DC to find it already burning? How would the other guy react if Bruce looked down to see iconic landmarks in ruins? He hadn't meant to say anything - his life for the past year had been about keeping things inside - but, "I don't know if I can control it," he found himself admitting.
"You have to believe that you can." It was still impossible to make out Agent Romanoff's expression.
Bruce walked to the railing. Such a little movement it would take, to fall. "I never wanted to be turned into a weapon."
"Sometimes weapons are needed," Stark said. "You all saw the newspapers when I came back from being… gone."
"I didn't," said Rogers. "Frozen, remember?"
"What are newspapers?" asked Thor. "What is this beverage? It is very fine. But tiny."
"I was in Paraguay," said Agent Romanoff.
"I saw them?" Bruce offered.
"Well…" Stark said firmly. "I did the whole swearing off weapons thing, very dramatic. Then I perfected Iron Man, which some people call the strongest weapon of all. Because sometimes there's things out there that have to be fought, and ordinary people, they're too weak or small or fragile to do the fighting, and you have to--"
"Use your strength and your prowess to defend the helpless," Thor declared. "Loki cheats. Loki uses magic against people who have none. Loki uses metal giants against people who cannot fight them. You have been blessed with the ability to unleash a mighty beast against my brother's creations." He raised his empty glass, holding it gingerly between two fingers. "Do not be afraid of the tiny drinking vessels you will break! Think of the good that can do!"
"I… agree," Rogers said quietly. "When I first started fighting, I sometimes feared that it was wrong for me to use my new abilities against enemies who were just ordinary men, conscripts likely as not. Then they sent me against Red Skull. That felt right. This… This feels right, too. When I first… woke up, I was reluctant to dance to SHIELD's tune, because I didn't know who their enemies were. But now…"
"So we're special. " Stark poured Thor another glass. "We're all agreed. Go us. Got yourself an enemy your regular soldiers can't deal with? Call in us, the…" He stopped, tilting his head to one side. "We need a name. Fury said something about the Avengers, but that's a stupid name. What're we avenging?"
"The macaroons, sir?" Jarvis said, appearing with another decanter.
"Funny." Stark frowned at the butler. "Did you know about the miniature chess Grand Master, Jarvis? Did everybody?"
"The one inside the mechanical Turk?" Bruce said, at the same time as Agent Romanoff said, "The famous hoax?"
Stark raised his glass to drink, his expression impossible to read.
Bruce turned round, leaning his back against the railing, looking away from the sun. All five of them cast shadows that were immensely long.
It was time. The god was ready, and his servants were in place. The transmitter was ready. The jewel was placed.
"And now," said Loki, "it begins."
It begins, Clint thought.
end of chapter eight
On to chapter nine