(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter nine can be read on AO3 here
They arrived too late.
It was difficult to tell, at first. It was not long after dawn when they made their approach, and everywhere was shrouded in shades of grey. Bruce was at the railing, peering ahead. The street lamps were still lit, but one by one they started to go out.
"The emitter…?" Bruce asked.
"Is close," Stark replied. He was already wearing his Iron Man suit. "Like, very close."
"Where?" Agent Romanoff asked sharply.
"Within a mile. I can't tell you more than that."
Agent Romanoff appeared rigidly composed, but Bruce could tell how desperate she was to be on the ground. All he wanted to do was to drift on by, to sail far away. This was his test. Either it would work, or he would wake up at nightfall to face the ruins he had wrought.
"Should we land outside the city and plan a strategic approach?" Rogers asked.
"Strategy is good!" Thor declared.
"You're the captain." The helmet muffled Stark's voice, making it harder to detect its tone. Perhaps the Iron Man suit was just another mask, in a way.
"I… really am not," Rogers said quietly. "The title was for show, just like you said."
"Does it matter?" Stark said. "Things are what you make them. Captain or no, you've got more experience of war than any of us. Except Thor. And Agent Romanoff, maybe, because… super-scary fighting skills! And… Hulk, if smashing counts. More experience of war than… me, anyway. So…"
He trailed off. A fire started somewhere ahead of them. It was very faint, but Bruce thought he heard a woman scream.
"We aren't hidden." Rogers was gripping the railing, clearly desperate to help.
"No," Stark said, "but I don't think golems can shoot dirigibles out of the sky."
"Clint can," said Agent Romanoff.
"But Agent Barton's on… our… side…" Rogers began, the words gradually trailing away.
"Oh," Stark completed for him. "Precisely. Best land, then, before we get into his range. Just in case he's compromised for real. Which he isn't, of course, because he'll… resist… and…"
"You really aren't good at this, Stark," Bruce said. He was aware of every breath, every heartbeat. Talking helped. Listening helped.
"Can we land near that?" Rogers pointed at the obelisk that was the Washington Monument, rising out of the shadowed grass.
"Dirigibles aren't allowed on the National Mall," said Stark. "Of course we can."
Bruce waited. With every minute that passed, the sky became lighter. Stark issued orders. The dirigible slowed; went lower and lower. Several of the crewmen climbed down ropes and hauled the dirigible down. Thor leaped down to protect them in case they were attacked, jumping the distance with ease. The Hulk could jump it just as well. Bruce gripped the railing, and waited until the telescopic ladder was released.
It was time, he thought. It was time.
"Don't wait for us," Stark commanded his crew. "Take her to the normal place. We'll come to you. Or wait for a signal and come back here. The usual signal. You know."
The golems appeared before the dirigible was fully aloft.
Everybody was alone when they fought.
Sometimes the mission was all that mattered. Sometimes revenge. Sometimes she fought desperately to save a life. Sometimes she fought because there was no alternative, because words had come to nothing. Staying alive? There had been times when that hadn't mattered much, and other times when it had mattered more.
Today she had no mission from SHIELD. Today she would do anything, anything, to achieve her goal. Was her goal the same as Captain America's goal, as Stark's, as Banner's, as Thor's? Of course not. Their goals lay in parallel and had brought them to the same place, but in a battle, everyone ultimately fought alone and for their own reasons. She had the gift of unearthing those reasons in her enemies and using them against them.
What were her reasons? She doubted they were hidden. If she came face to face with Loki, he could play her as easily as she had played countless men.
It was not good. But God help her, she could not change it, not yet.
"You need to find that signal," she said to Stark. I need to find him before he reaches the point of no return. She knew what it was like to consider yourself damned.
"Isn't it kind of obvious that we've found the right place?" Stark said. He lined up alongside Rogers and Thor. "Golems at twelve o'clock?"
"They're different from last time," Rogers said. "Not so much… the same."
"Tautology, Cap?" said Stark.
"The same as each other, I mean."
Natasha drew her pistol, but she already knew that such weapons were useless. None of the attacking figures resembled the metal giants that had attacked the SHIELD base. Please… she thought, but she was too well trained, too much herself, to say it out loud. She took her place beside the others.
"Is that a horse?" Thor asked. "A mighty metal horse?"
Stark pointed to the left of the line. "That one's a… thing. "
"A triton," Banner said. His voice sounded strained. "Head of a man, tail of a fish, carries a trident. Benefits of a classical education."
"Knowing what to call the golem that's trying to kick your ass… Son of a bitch!" Stark exclaimed. "He's turned all the statues into golems. Which is, like, the work of a crazy mind. That triton flops. Feel like going up against a Roman god, Thor? I'm sure we can find you a nice Venus to… grapple?"
It isn't funny! she wanted to say, but everybody found their way of coping, when the time for killing came. Then she turned to see Banner frozen half a pace behind her, and knew that for him, more than any of them, this was the most serious thing of all.
Nothing would stand in the way of her goal? She lowered her pistol, and smoothed her face into the mask she had worn for so many years. After all, Natasha Romanoff was just another part. "You can do it," she told him, looking him steadily in the eye. Despite the gloom, his pupils were dilated, his eyes flickering from side to side. She looked at him until he was forced to look back.
"I… can." Clenching his fists, he closed his eyes, then opened them again, and walked forward.
He had changed before he had taken a third step. Charging forward, he engaged the golems. With a delighted cry, Thor rushed in to fight at his side. "Uh… not too close," Stark warned him, "just in case. Seriously," he said, turning back to Natasha, "Loki thinks he'll become king of everything by using animated metal dolphins?"
Everybody found their own way, she reminded herself. Beyond the expanse of grass, there were more fires, and people were screaming. "Agent Barton handed himself over to the enemy for the sake of that emitter," she said. "Make that worth something."
"Fine," Stark said, with a sigh. "I'll fly up to the receiver and find out what I can. For what it's worth, the last reading suggested - not that it gives a reliable indication of direction even this close - that it was somewhere thataway." He pointed vaguely north-east.
Without a word, Natasha turned and ran that way.
And then suddenly it stopped being funny any more. Powering his thrusters, Tony began to fly after the dirigible. An explosion stopped him. Not far away, a cloud of smoke rose billowing up beyond the trees. He flew towards it, clearing the treetops in time to see an entire building slowly crumple in on itself, its pillars smashed as if they were dry sticks.
God, how many statues were there in Washington DC? Founding fathers everywhere, each one bigger than the last, because compensating much? And… Oh. The museums… I take it back, he thought. Not compensating at all.
His dirigible wheeled above him, buffeted by the wind of the explosion. Something smashed against its undercarriage, thrown from somewhere below. "Cap." Tony returned to the ground. Captain America was down on one knee, preparing to throw his shield. "Don't let yourself get pinned here."
"People need us elsewhere," Rogers agreed, reliable as ever.
Clanging bells started to sound, the fire brigade lumbering to the rescue in their heavy carriages, churning out steam. Another missile struck the dirigible. Tony saw the face of one of the crew members peering down, and saw the flash of a gun. There were people behind the trees. Enemies. A bullet smashed into his breastplate, denting it. "Cap!" Tony urged, because in some ways, Captain America was the most vulnerable of them all, because, seriously, who went into battle wearing an embroidered coat, except perhaps the entire United States Army, but they had safety in numbers on their side, and there was only one Captain America, and…
And then Captain America, the one and only, the living symbol, jumped over Tony's head - like, whoa! an honest to goodness fucking leap - and came up with his shield in both hands. Tony heard the sound of something large striking the metal. Rogers of course was braced, as solid as a tree.
"What was that about?" Tony asked, because, seriously, leaping?
"I was shielding you." Rogers had gained a smudge on his cheek and his hat was slightly awry.
"Uh, armoured from head to toe?" Tony pointed out.
Rogers gave a sheepish shrug. "Habit."
"Well, go find a puppy or a little girl or a screaming nursemaid and do the… leaping thing at them."
The dirigible was trailing smoke, but it was still airborne. Thor and the Hulk were busy with the statues. Another explosion sounded, further away. There was an outbreak of gunfire to the west, in the direction Agent Romanoff had gone. "Don't get pinned here!" Rogers shouted. "Remember the last battle. This is the distraction." Thor nodded without looking up from his gleeful bashing of some sort of lion snake monster thing. Hulk was… Beyond understanding? God, he hoped not, because then they were in deep shit.
"Here's the thing…" Tony told Rogers as they began to move out, Tony hovering a few feet off the ground, Rogers running like a fucking textbook, arms like pistons. "There's the new Smithsonian Museum of Engineering and Technology. Big-ass statues in the forecourt. Giants of Engineering. A twenty-foot Benjamin Franklin. George Washington as some sort of mythical God of Steam, don't ask me why. And…"
Something smashed into his back. His thrusters stuttered. Rogers grabbed him by the wrist; kept him from tumbling away.
"…my father," Tony admitted. "Howard Stark in the flesh. Metal. I refuse to fight my father."
The passed through the tree line, out onto the avenue. It was a picture of devastation, a war zone in the pale light, metal giants striding through the wreckage. "It would be difficult for you. I understand." Rogers wasn't even out of breath. Sympathy was painted on his face. Did the guy ever even sweat?
"Difficult? Hell, no." Tony saw something metallic moving away to his left. He fired a blast of heated aether from the barrels at his wrist. "Fighting my own father? Imagine how it would look!"
Rogers did some more leaping, disappearing out of sight for a few seconds, doubtless saving an entire kindergarten and a family of kittens in the time it took Tony to catch his breath. "Uh… Steve?" he began, but then Rogers was back again. "And one more thing," Tony said. "One… tiny thing. I… might have just… endowed a rival museum myself - the Stark Museum of the Future - and commissioned a… twenty-four foot statue of…"
"Yourself," Rogers said, pointing. "Oh look! There you are."
"Oh, God!" Tony swore. "The press'll have a field day with this."
Natasha was under fire from the moment she started running. Nothing she hadn't experienced before, of course. There was metal in her corset, enough to protect her, but not so much as to keep her from moving. She kept to the trees, where the dawn light had yet to penetrate. She concentrated on dodging, on making sure that if anyone was taking aim at her, she wouldn't stay where they expected her to be.
Clint wouldn't fall for it, of course. If he was there. If he was there.
"Come on, Stark," she whispered under her breath, peering upwards. There was no sign of Iron Man flying above her. Stark's dirigible had been hit, smoke streaming from its engines. She looked for arrows embedded in its hull, but it was too far away.
This time she had to.
She felt as if her skills were blunted. She worked best when she had no personal stake in the outcome; just mission objectives in cold black and white. Then she was Black Widow, emotionless and detached. Today she was Natasha. But emotions got you killed.
Emotions could save you.
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye; dodged and rolled before the bullet struck the ground. She was slower to dodge the second bullet, and felt it across her ribs, striking the steel boning. It would bruise badly, she knew. It was not enough to stop her.
Men always underestimated her. She was on him before he managed his third shot. He was nobody she recognised, just a man with a blank expression and shadowed eyes. She smashed him to the ground, and pinned him there, gun to his throat. "Where is Clint Barton?" she demanded.
He shifted beneath her. She dug the pistol deeper. As he moved, something slid free from beneath her knee. It was a SHIELD issue compass-chronometer, still attached by its chain to his buttonhole.
"Where is Agent Barton?" There were ways to get answers, subtle ways, but she had no time for that. She tightened her finger on the trigger. "Answer me, Agent. Where is Agent Barton?"
"The Hawk?" his cracked lips said. His eyes were flickering from side to side, just as Banner's had been when he had been fighting with the beast inside. "He is with the god. He will kill you."
"Where?" She ground the barrel deep, pushing it against his Adam's apple, making him choke. He struggled to speak. She withdrew the pistol, just a little.
He was strong when he fought, stronger than she had expected. He bucked, and she failed to hold him. Because the pistol was a bluff, of course. How could she kill a fellow agent, someone who could have been Barton, had the dice fallen a little differently?
He still had his gun. His eyes told her when he was going to fire, and she avoided it, but only just, landing awkwardly on her back with her left arm beneath her. He stood above her, blocking out the light.
How could she kill him?
How could she not?
She was who she was. She did what she had to do. Springing to her feet, she felled him in three swift blows, stomach, shoulder, throat.
He was still breathing when she left him. She did not look back.
The first wave of living statues was on the brink of defeat. From the sounds of battle and destruction beyond the confines of this park, Thor could tell that many more waves remained.
He was no longer the foolish youth he had been not so long since. No more would he glory in battle just for the sake of it. These statues were Loki's work, and humans were being injured by them. It was Thor's duty to stop them and destroy them. It was Thor's duty to do whatever he could to protect those people who could not protect themselves.
And it is my duty to find you, brother, he swore, and reason with you and beseech you and stop you by force, if I must.
He had spent the voyage examining old memories, struggling to understand. If this was Thor's war, he would be found where the battle was thickest, leading from the front. Loki was more likely to be found at the back, whispering poison. He was no coward, but his weapons were not Thor's weapons.
Not far away, a dozen voices shouted for help. Thor swung his hammer, crushing the last of the strange metal sea creatures. Banner's beast was pounding a fallen bronze warrior with both fists.
Thor had fought alongside berserkers before. The trick was to make sure that they never lost sight of the enemy. Thor looked around. The statues were reduced to scrap, still trying to move, but incapable of going anywhere. He remembered how Agent Barton had used explosions to lure Banner's beast away.
The beast looked at him. Thor gripped Mjolnir in both hands, and prepared to raise it aloft. He would make himself into an enemy, so the beast would launch itself at him, and chase him all the way to the next wave of statues. He would…
He stopped. He was no longer the foolish youth who courted battle. He was the son of Odin, and there was wisdom in his bloodline, and humility, and faith.
Banner had changed his skin willingly. Although he was afraid, Banner had let himself become the beast because he hoped that he could control the monster who wore this flesh. Thor owed it to him to have faith in him.
"Banner?" he said quietly, letting the hammer slowly fall.
The beast looked at him over the field of fallen statues. Its eyes were almost Banner's eyes, but not quite. "Hulk," it corrected him.
"Hulk." Thor smiled in greeting, two warriors meeting in the heat of battle.
"Thor," said the beast.
Thor's smile broadened into a grin. "Come, let us fight the enemy together, my friend." And side by side, they ran towards the screaming.
He had to put a stop to all this ridiculousness before anyone took a photograph. Before anyone got hurt, he meant. It was just a giant statue of himself. If it killed anybody, it wouldn't be his fault. But it would look bad. Innocent people crushed by a gigantic manifestation of Tony Stark's monumental arrogance, twenty-four feet tall, a good four feet more than the statue of Howard Stark along the street, and…
Yes. Put a stop to it. It was a well-crafted statue, built to survive weather and wars and centuries. Captain America was battering its knees, but it needed more than that to stop a giant. If it was like the others, it was animated by a word written on a piece of paper stuck in its mouth, and when all this was over, there would be time to discover quite how that worked, because, seriously, magic? But it was one thing to show a healthy scepticism for such things, and another thing entirely to ignore the evidence of your own eyes, and Tony Stark was very far from being a fool.
He came in close to the ground. "Keep my attention on you," he said. "His, I mean. Its."
The statue stomped with an enormous metal foot. Rogers jumped athletically out of the way, although in appearance he was far from perfect now, all dusty and dirty and - yes! - all sweaty with exertion, just like regular mortals. "I thought you said," Rogers gasped, "I was the captain today."
"I'm fighting myself," Tony pointed out. "I think that gives me the right to have the casting vote."
"Good point." Rogers hurled his shield. It struck the statue a ringing blow in the groin - "Hey!" Tony protested, wincing in sympathy - before ricocheting back into Rogers's outstretched hand. "Keeping his attention?" Rogers said, in a leading sort of way.
"Yes. Right." Tony powered up the thrusters and blasted himself upwards. The helmet muffled the sound outside, but not enough. Everywhere there was the sound of falling masonry, of explosions, of screams, of clanging bells. He saw a fire carriage toppled on its side, water flowing out of its ruptured tanks. He saw a cluster of people in nightgowns, pinned behind a wall by a pacing giant. Hammer held aloft, Thor was racing towards it, preparing to fight. The Hulk was happily rampaging further away, smashing smaller statues away as if they were dolls.
Focus, he thought. It was so easy to focus when he was working; so hard to focus in a battle, when so much was happening, all of it important. He glanced down. Rogers was doing what he had been told, striking out with his shield, dodging, even firing the aetheric gun than Tony had made for him, gradually melting the statue's legs, but nowhere near fast enough.
Tony came up behind the back of the statue's head. It showed no sign of being aware of him. How did the golems sense their surroundings? It was something to… Think about later, he reminded himself firmly. He lashed out fast, wrapping his left arm around the statue's throat. With his other arm, he reached for its mouth. The statue shook its head, trying to dislodge him. It brought its fist up, its enormous arm smashing into Tony's back, leaving him gasping for breath, struggling to hold on, his vision blurring.
What happened next? Somebody was shouting. He saw a flash of red and blue. He felt crushed, pummelled as if by a hammer. He was slipping, the thrusters screaming. He let go with his left hand, and smacked the button that activated the claws in his gauntlet, causing them to spring out like a cat's. Stupid, he thought, a moment later, because, hello, metal against metal? The claws found no purchase, shrieking across the metal of the statue's throat. The statue showed no sign of pain.
But there was nothing like a stupid mistake to focus the mind. He hated making mistakes. It was enough for him to drag his mind clear from the pain of the giant's blow. It was fading, anyway, his breathing returning to normal. Normal in a battle, anyway. Rogers was still shouting down below, leaping around like a man with an expert choreographer. Tony reached out again, struggling to reach the statue's mouth.
He was working blind, positioned at the back of the statue's head. His gauntlets gave him limited sensitivity. He found the giant's nose; found its carved metal beard. Was that the mouth? He dug with the claws, but found no way in.
There's no avoiding it, he thought. I've got to do it. Please let there be no cameras nearby. He had to fly round to the front, and confront himself face to face. He could see the headlines already. Staring into the face of his own arrogance. In the midst of war, a man's worst enemy is himself. All that sort of shit.
The statue made another lunge at him. He let go of its neck, and turned the dial on his breastplate, powering the thrusters to full. He blasted upwards, turned, and came down again on the other side. He saw blank metal eyes, a nose, an arrogant mouth. God, he thought, I look so pleased with myself, but the mouth was solid metal, sealed shut, and he couldn't scratch it out, couldn't find any way in, couldn't see any scrap of paper, any magic word.
"Stark!" Rogers shouted. Tony reacted on impulse, tumbling clear, only just avoiding being crushed like a bug between the giant's two fists.
He came down to the ground, his chest heaving. "I can't… disable me. Him. It." His thoughts were racing. Rogers fired his new gun, blue aether crackling over Tony's head. He remembered what Agent Barton had done with the Hulk. "Maybe I can lure him away."
"I don't think…" Rogers shook his head. "Maybe I should…"
Dammit, there was no time for this crap! "You're not the only hero round here, Cap."
Rogers looked at him for a second, then nodded. "Be careful."
"Of course," Tony said. The giant's fists swung towards him again. Rogers stopped them with his shield, struggling visibly with the effort. Tony powered himself upwards again, until he was hovering at the giant's eyeline. "We're not going to finish this thing without some regrettable symbolism, are we?" he told it wearily. "So come on, me. Chase me."
And his statue did.
The worst thing in battle was being blind.
SHIELD was an organisation that hoarded information jealously. Agents were told just what they needed to know, but no more. Sometimes they were not told quite enough. Natasha and Clint had almost died once, because a vital piece of information had been withheld. That was the closest she had come to leaving SHIELD. Clint had caused her to change her mind, though not by overt persuasion, of course; he knew her too well to attempt that.
If Clint died because she had been kept in the dark enough this crazy plan, then nothing could keep her from leaving. If Clint ended up broken, unable to forgive himself…
She wanted to stop her own thoughts there. She wanted to be able to say, "He won't." But it was not in her nature to hide from contemplating the worst. An optimist could not survive in a job like hers. You had to envisage the worst outcomes, so you knew how to avoid them.
Or how to face the consequences when they came true.
She had long since left the trees behind, and was in a broad street of large houses. The buildings provided cover for her, and cover for her enemies. She was running low on ammunition. She had to kill a man - not a SHIELD agent, she thought - to claim his pistol and his ammunition belt. She strapped it over her own, then had to use the pistol immediately, to deal with the man's partner.
She left him alive, just. "Where's Agent Barton?" she demanded. "Where's Loki?"
"Who?" She thought it was genuine; she was familiar with all the many ways a man could lie when in the extremities of pain or pleasure. His pockets were bulging with gold, she noticed. Looters, she thought, and left them there for somebody else to deal with. Looters who knew nothing. Looters who weren't useful to her. Irrelevant, then.
She was still running blind. Where was Stark?
When he mastered artificial intelligence, Tony decided, he would be very careful to make all his constructs act in a way that was compatible with their appearance. Seriously, this whole giant thing was an insult. It looked like him, but it just lumbered along smashing at anything remotely enemy-like that appeared within its field of vision.
Or maybe, he thought, as he accidentally let it get too close; only just managed to evade the blow. Maybe he would build constructs that acted the complete opposite: ferocious metal guardians made in the shape of a young girl, or shambling monsters created to serve drinks.
Or maybe, he thought, as another blow almost took him out of the air, he should concentrate on the matter at hand, and stop planning future tech.
He was close now, almost at the river. Turning the control on his helmet, he activated the breathing mechanism. He moved his head inside the helmet until he found the mouthpiece of the breathing tube, and took it tightly between his lips. He had enough air in the tank on his back for four minutes, five at most? He hoped it would be enough.
The statue followed him, predictable, stupid. Water reached its knees. It moved slower when the water reached its thighs, but still it carried on.
Just as I thought, Tony congratulated himself. Not artificial intelligence at all - and, hey, the mechanical Turk was a fake, which means that I can be the first to do it, after all - but a mindless automaton programmed with the command to keep fighting at all costs.
It was even slower now, up to its chest, struggling against the current, sinking into the mud. The jets from Tony's thrusters were churning up the surface of the water. He led the statue even further out. A boat was drifting slowly down river, trailing its mooring rope. Could the statue wade back to shore? Best carry on. Best be sure.
When the statue was in up to its neck, Tony disengaged his primary thrusters and let himself drop into the water. The current dragged at him instantly. He engaged his underwater thrusters, but they were weaker than the primary ones. He had tested the suit in a placid lake, he remembered, not in a river. The statue was close to him, too close, churning up a vortex with its flailing arms.
Got to carry on, he thought. The bottled air tasted stale, and his thoughts felt muffled, whether because of the air or because it was so hard to see, and sound was attenuated by the water, turned into a distant muffled roar.
He fought the current, going deeper. He was slow to realise that the statue was no longer following him, but was mired in the mud, unable to fight the water.
Thank God, he thought. He struggled for the surface, but the weight of his suit tried to drag him down. He tried to move his arm, but the current dragged even at that, trying to tear his hand away from the controls. He thought he saw dark things moving in the water, and shapes at the bottom, the wreckage of lost ships. He was sucking in air through the tube, but too fast, too fast. He tried to slow his breathing, but how could he do that? It was dark down here. He wasn't in control.
Brightness shone somewhere above him. Not far, he thought. Not far. Almost close enough to touch. Fighting the current, he managed to reach the controls and power the secondary thrusters up to full. Even then it was slow, too slow. Blood was roaring in his ears by the time he broke the surface. The secondary thrusters stuttered and began to fail. It took him three attempts to find the controls that engaged the primary thrusters. His heart was pounding. He had drifted several hundred yards down river, and the sun had cleared the horizon, painting the surface of the water with gold.
"Got to…" he said out loud, because talking always helped. Go to get back to Captain America and help him save people. Keep an eye on the Hulk. Find Thor. Agent Romanoff. Fuck! Agent Romanoff and the emitter.
Oh! The breathing mechanism! He deactivated it, spitting out the breathing tube as it retracted back into its place. How long had he been under? Two minutes? Enough air for two minutes more, then. Not that he planned to do this again.
The emitter. Where was the dirigible? He found it by its smoke. By the time he landed on the deck, he had managed to wrap himself in control, to hide any fears behind the mask. "Are you breaking my dirigible?" he asked.
"They crew are rather busy, sir." Jarvis was as unflappable as ever, standing ready with breakfast on a tray. Tony grabbed a piece of toast, and clicked his visor open to take a bite.
"I need…" Tony said. The toast was hard to swallow, or maybe it was just that his mouth was dry. "I need a few minutes with the receiver. Ask them to circle round so I can triangulate."
"Very good, sir," said Jarvis, who would doubtless remain calm even as the world was ending.
Smashing things was good. Anger was a fire inside him. It made him want to break the whole world.
The other guy didn't like him smashing things. The other guy was weak. The other guy whimpered inside Hulk. It was easy not to listen to the other guy. When Hulk was mad, he didn't have to listen to anyone at all. When Hulk was mad, he was a god.
No, said the other guy, listen to me now.
Hulk crushed a stupid creature made from something hard and shiny. Small pale people were screaming. He picked up a rock and hurled it at a giant.
Listen, said the other guy. He'd been there all along this time. Hulk was a hound on a leash, never allowed to run free.
Listen. The message was always the same. Hulk was allowed to smash things, but they had to be the right things. Tall things of metal or stone. They were more fun to smash than puny people, anyway. They fought back. They didn't always break, not the first time. It was easier to stay mad when they fought back.
Yes, said the other guy. More fun for both of us. A mutually beneficial pact.
Hulk didn't know what that meant. It didn't matter. Maybe it wasn't a leash at all. This way nobody tried to stop him. It wasn't good when people tried to stop him. They threw stinging things at him and then he fought back and the other guy was sad and wouldn't let him come out to play.
Hulk liked coming out to play. He liked having people to play with. He liked Thor because he had a shiny hammer and didn't break when Hulk hit him. Where was Thor? Hulk had lost Thor. It didn't matter. Hulk would find him again soon.
But first Hulk would smash some more of the tall shiny things. Smashing things was good.
Steve had no idea how long Stark had been gone for. It went against the grain to let somebody else head off into danger, while he stayed behind. He had been created to be the hero, the best of all soldiers, the one who did those things that nobody else could do, who took the risks so others did not need to.
It had to mean something. It did mean something. It was not the glory and the reputation; of course it wasn't that. He would fight anonymously behind enemy lines, if that was what was needed to get the job done. But it meant that the risk had to be his. Bucky had died when Steve had let him…
He stopped that train of thought. He was here to fight. Bucky was long dead anyway, no matter what he had done.
And he was no longer one of a kind. All of his new companions were in their own way remarkable.
He was no longer one of a kind. He was no longer alone.
But it was hard to change habits. He wished that Stark would come back, alive and well. He had watched him only for a few moments before fresh need had distracted him, drawing him away to fight new battles. It was far from safe here, of course. He used the gun Stark had made for him, but it was barely enough to make the giants falter.
He found himself fighting back to back with Thor, Thor swinging his hammer, Steve striking out with his shield. "There are women," Thor said, gesturing with his chin towards the building at Steve's back.
"Keep the giant occupied," Steve said. "I'll take care of them." He dodged the giant's foot, and fought his way over to the women. They were girls, really, most of them no older than sixteen. They had been driven from elsewhere - a school, perhaps - seeking a safety that could not be found here. Steve did what he could. "Stay here," he told them, and ran until he found a pair of men in uniforms, desperately firing ineffectual bullets at a statue of George Washington. "You can't damage them that way," he told them. "Look to the civilians. Concentrate on keeping them safe."
"How?" one of the men asked. He had the desperate look of a man who had seen too much death in one day.
"Find cover," Steve said, "but avoid the buildings in case they fall. The statues are slow, which is your main advantage. As long as you can keep people from panicking, you should be able to lead them away from danger."
The men followed him back. "These men will take care of you." Steve looked from the girls to the men. "Now go. If you see anyone else, tell them what I told you."
He wondered if they would. He wondered if he had just sent them all to their deaths. He took his place at Thor's side, and between them they almost brought the giant down, but it fought back, sending Thor flying backwards into a wall.
Steve helped him up, offering him a hand. Thor had dropped his hammer, but he reached out his right hand and the weapon flew back into his grasp. It gave Steve an idea. "You can call down lightning?"
"Then do so," Steve said. "Do so now."
God, how she hated this!
Without information, Natasha was running without an objective. As she had done so many times before, she crouched in partial cover, scanning the windows and the rooftops for a familiar figure with a bow. Loki was clever, or so Thor said. Surely he wouldn't take a man like Clint and waste his talents.
Nothing. There was nobody there.
Correction: Clint wasn't there. A woman appeared at a top floor window, wrapped in a blanket. Natasha took down the man who was taking aim at her. One block further one, and she stopped to help a man extract his children from a half-ruined building, taking them one by one as he passed them to her through a window. "Please, ma'am," he said, when they were all clustered around her, the smallest one clinging to her skirts. "Please will you look after them? I need to fight."
She shook her head.
"Please," he begged her. His eyes had a look she had seen too many times before. "They need a woman's care."
"They need their father." She eased the child's fingers from her skirt. "There's somewhere I need to be."
She remained long enough to cover them as they made their escape. Where would they go? She couldn't stop to wonder. They were just one family out of many.
Just as Clint was one man out of many.
She had skills and she had training. She did what she could. She had to take another gun, another gun belt. She dragged an injured man into shelter, and made sure somebody would give him care. She looked for arrows in the bodies of the dead.
Perhaps she should remove her hat and let anyone watching from high places catch glimpses of her hair. She had used that tactic before, of course, feigning carelessness to lure a target into a trap. But she had usually done so with back-up, with Clint covering her from his perch up above. The first time they had met, he had tracked her down without her even being aware that she was watched. To this day, he had refused to tell her how he had done it. "Let me keep one mystery, Nat," she remembered him saying late one night, candlelight on his face, and an empty glass in his hand.
Stark possessed no such mysteries, of course. Alerted by the noise of his machinery, she looked up to see him circling above. She left cover long enough to show him where she was.
At last! she thought with fierce relief. She let none of show on her face.
"I can't be sure," he said, presenting her with a map, "but somewhere there. I've circled it on the map. So shall we go get him, Agent Romanoff?"
The map showed that she was close to Barton after all, just a few blocks away. She forced herself to stay where she was. "Loki's there, too," she said. "Or so I was told."
"Loki," Stark repeated, with a sigh. "You want me to get the others? I guess we'll need Thor, at least." She nodded. "You're… not going to wait, are you," Stark said. It was not a question. "I'll come back with the cavalry and find you…"
"Gone," she agreed. "Yes. I'll scout out the area; try to narrow it down; try to find the best way in." And still he stayed. "I'm a spy," she reminded him. "This is what I do. Go."
"So I'm just the messenger boy now, am I?" Stark said. "Oh well. Beats fighting myself."
Natasha waited until he was out of sight, then pocketed the map and started to advance. This was the end game now. One way or the other, it would come to a finish.
end of chapter nine
On to chapter ten