(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)
See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)
Chapter eleven can be read on AO3 here
"Is that him?" Tony whispered. They were hiding behind a row of trees, if people such as Thor and Captain America, with their shiny bright colours, could ever be said to be capable of hiding, and okay, yes, point taken, Tony, too, given the whole literally shiny thing.
"It is." Tony guessed that was probably Thor's version of a whisper.
"Why is he just standing there?" Rogers asked.
Loki was indeed 'just standing there', alone on the far side of the lawn. The White House had clearly been fighting its own internal war - lots of statues in the corridors, Tony remembered - and smoke issued from more than one window. "He can't get in," Tony said. "Look. Mechanical gates." Rogers looked blank. "State of the art security system," Tony explained. "An underground mechanism. That way you can look all free and open - anyone can wander in and have an audience with the president - but when you're under threat, you activate the mechanism, and up comes the barrier."
"And this is enough to stop him?" Rogers asked. He looked from Tony to Barton, as if hoping for answers there.
Barton was looking intently at the defences. "I… can't shoot him," he said. "Not 'can't,' Natasha. Not that. But he gave a demonstration. He made sure that I knew that my arrows couldn't touch him. His reactions are incredible."
"Which sucks," Tony said, because marksman at a distance and solitary god seemed like the ideal solution.
Rogers metaphorically girded himself for battle, or whatever hero types did. "Then we should--"
"No." Barton snapped the word sharply, for all that it was no louder than a breath. "He's not alone. He's got back-up. Men concealed between him and us. And golems."
"Well, that's okay, then," Tony said. "Golems go nitey-night, remember?"
Barton looked scary in his focus, a hunter intent on his prey. Remind me never to piss you off, Tony almost said, but kept it to himself, because, hey, it seemed as if he was growing, after all, learning wisdom and tact and when to keep his mouth shut and all that shit. "They did," Barton said. "I think… I can't see…"
"Well, we can deal with the men, anyway." Tony reached behind him to unfasten the pack, but his suit lacked adequate articulation, something that would be rectified in the next model. "A little help?" Romanoff was the first to understand, and helped him remove the pack. Rogers had that comical frozen look when he saw when lay within. "A sonic weapon," Tony explained to the others. "It'll incapacitate anyone out there between Loki and us; give us a good ten minutes of them being drooling and useless. I've added a short time delay, so you might want to… run away, though not so fast as to give the enemy the clue. You also might want to… cover your ears."
"Is this really…?" Rogers started to ask, predictable as ever.
"Of course," Tony said. He turned the dial he had added, setting it to a ten second delay, then activated the weapon and hurled it forward as far as he could. It was a perfect throw. The weapon landed in the middle of the lawn, bounced a little, then slowly rolled forward. Loki showed no sign of noticing.
Oh. Yes. Running away. Tony turned to flee. He was not fast enough.
Thor staggered, struck by an invisible wave of magic. His stomach lurched, and his knees almost buckled. His companions were worse hit. Captain Rogers had his head in his hands. The lady Natasha and her archer were down, but already struggling to rise. Inside his metal armour, Stark was reeling.
It had gone too far. Thor had allowed it to go too far. Clenching his fist, he dragged himself free from the after-effect of the magic, and charged forward. "Loki!" he shouted. "You must stop this madness at once!"
Loki turned slowly towards him. He was clad in the clothes of Earth, in the style of one of their chieftains. As Thor neared him, he started smiling, just his lips, not his eyes. "Must, brother?" he said, when Thor had at last closed the distance between them.
"Why do you do this?" There had been a time when Thor had known himself to be more mighty than his brother, but he had been young then, and too quick to believe that skill in battle was what gave a man worth. Now he was willing to beg. He would do so on his knees if he had to.
"Why?" said Loki. "You do not know? You always were devoid of imagination, Thor."
The devastation Loki had wrought made Thor want to weep. "Why hurt the world that I love?"
Thor had seen Loki's smile a thousand thousand times, but had never before realised how cold it could be. "Because you love it, of course."
Nothing existed but the two of them, alone on field of battle. Tears pricked at Thor's eyes. He felt as if the wave of magic was striking him again, dragging him down. "What ever did I do to earn your hatred?"
Loki disappeared, and when he spoke again, he was standing behind Thor. He was no longer smiling. "Received everything that I ever wanted."
Thor reached towards him with his left hand. "I would have shared it all with you."
"Would you?" Loki's eyes were gleaming.
Thor let out a breath. "No," he admitted. "Not then. I was young. I sought only glory. If our father had offered me the throne, I would have taken it."
Loki moved again. Thor turned. He saw something moving beyond the trees. "And now?" Loki's voice was as quiet as the wind on a still winter's day.
Thor had to shake his head. It was not in him to lie. "I have seen what you are capable of, brother. I can no longer trust you. Many people receive less than their due. They do not turn to slaughter because of it."
"So we are enemies?" Loki's voice was still quiet. For Thor it was the only sound in the world.
"Yes," Thor said, just his lips moving, barely any sound coming out. He felt no shame for his tears. "If your quarrel is with me, let us fight elsewhere. Do not let this world suffer because of your hatred for me."
Loki waved a dismissive hand. "Mortals have forever paid the price when gods are at their sport. They are of no account."
Thor gripped his hammer. "We are not gods, brother. In the things that matter, these 'mortals' - these people, these men and women, these children - are no different from us."
Loki turned away. In the way he moved, the way he spoke, the timbre of his voice, he was still Thor's brother. That was the worst thing of all. The creature in this body was Thor's enemy. Thor would have mourned him less had he died.
But it changed nothing. Thor's duty was clear. His desire was clear. Whatever came to pass, this was the end. This was the final breaking of all fondness between them. Raising his hammer, Thor rushed forward to engage his brother in the final battle that would decide all things. Loki disappeared, winking away to nothing.
"So predictable, brother," came Loki's voice from far away. Then he raised his voice, shouting a command in a language Thor did not know.
From behind the trees, the metal giants came striding.
There was no time for doubt, for fears, for guilt. There was only the job that needed to be done.
Clint felt as if someone had scraped out the inside of his skull. From the look of her, Natasha felt the same. "Harmless sonic weapon?" Her voice sounded muffled. Everything was muffled, but gradually coming back.
The enemies between Loki and their position were down and writhing, caught unawares by the full force of the sonic effect, falling out of their concealment. A line of golems was advancing across the lawn. "They're still alive!" Clint heard Stark say. "I thought you'd taken them out."
Clint cursed silently. He should have realised. He should have known. The transmitter had awakened all the statues in the city, but Loki had already possessed a small force of golems activated the old-fashioned way. Clint had travelled with them on the dirigible. He should have known.
Natasha shook her head slightly, as if she knew what he was thinking and was trying to tell him to stop. Was he so easy to read? He didn't think he had been, once.
No time for guilt, he reminded himself. What if he'd only forgotten the golems because Loki was inside his mind, controlling what he--? No. No fear. No guilt. Afterwards. That could come afterwards. It always did: sleepless nights; vodka at midnight; long talks in which they said hardly anything at all, but conveyed everything that mattered in the spaces between the words. Afterwards. Never during the mission. Never now.
He was out of pre-made explosive arrows. He drew out an ordinary arrow, and reached into his pouch, finding the necessary attachment and filling it with powder. He had very little powder left, enough perhaps for two small targeted explosions. It would not be enough.
The others had recovered from the effects of the sonic weapon. Captain America and Stark were engaging one of the golems, trading shouted exchanges as they did so, nothing that Clint could make out. Thor was further forward, fighting three golems at once. Clint's mouth went dry when he looked at him. Thor was Loki's brother. Loki was…
No. I can't. I can't look for him. I can't… But he felt compelled to seek Loki out, and he found him, standing as an oasis of stillness at the heart of mayhem. He was smiling. The smile was claws closing on Clint's throat.
Then Captain America went down, hurled backwards by a golem's blow. Another golem stood over him, raising its foot to crush his chest. No doubt, Clint thought. No fear. His bow was his own again. Holding it always calmed him. When he drew the string back, it was like coming home.
The explosive arrow struck the golem on the mouth, melting a crater, burning the paper within. The golem froze instantly. Clint surveyed the battle field, seeking his next target. Or should he wait until someone else was in desperate need? Maybe I should grab my chance now, before Loki…
"No." He said it out loud. Did he close his eyes for a moment? Between one breath and the next, Loki appeared in front of him, close enough for Clint to feel his breath on his skin, like a touch of ice.
"Did you think Vermer was the only one to have power over men's minds?" Loki's eyes were pools for men to drown in. "What a fool you are, Agent Barton, to think you could escape me."
Clint's hand was frozen on his bow. Where was Natasha? He wanted to turn his head, but couldn't bring himself to.
Loki disappeared, appearing again at Clint's side, his hand ghosting over Clint's shoulder. "You SHIELD agents are so easy to control. You spend your whole life following orders, killing the people your masters want dead. So easy," he said, and there he was on Clint's other side. Clint's head turned to follow him. "So easy to control."
"What…?" Clint's lips began to ask. He found himself fitting an arrow to his bow; felt himself drawing the string back. He caught a glimpse of Natasha, her hair bright in the sun.
Loki was everywhere, four images of the god all around him, five, six. Then they all drew back, leaving Clint alone at the centre of a circle of them. All six images spread their hands, as if to say, There. It is done.
Natasha was fighting a golem. The arrowhead found her.
Which illusion was real? Did it matter? Yes, he thought. Yes. There were tiny clues, just as there had been out on the prairie: the way the wind stirred Loki's hair; the way his shoes were moist in the dew; the soft sound of his breathing.
Whirling round, he released his arrow at the image to his left. The illusions vanished. Loki brought his hand to his shoulder. "You shot me!" He looked in that moment like a petulant child, outraged to discover that people could say no to him.
"Yes," Clint agreed. "You see," he said, "I never was that good at following orders."
Loki tugged the arrow free from his shoulder. The illusions were back, flickering at the fringes of Clint's vision. He felt something tugging at his mind. Natasha called his name, as desperate as he had ever heard her. His head turned. Thor was losing ground. Stark was down. Natasha was… Where was Natasha? Clint tried to move, but was powerless to do so, caught in the memory of being controlled.
"What a fool you are, Agent Barton," Loki said, as he reversed the arrow and drove it into Clint's flesh. "Do you really believe you can win?"
Clint's knees gave way. He fell heavily. All around him, he saw images of defeat.
Stark was down, pinned by a golem, his armour buckling as the golem pressed down. Steve struggled to get to him. A golem blocked him. There were just too many of them, and Steve and his companions had already fought almost beyond the point of endurance.
Stark said something, but Steve could not hear what it was. "Thor!" Steve shouted, trying to alert him to Stark's plight. He saw Agent Barton fall, and Loki step away from him, abandoning him as worthless. Loki was everywhere, all at once. How much time had passed since Stark had activated Red Skull's weapon? Loki's human force would be recovering soon.
Was the battle already lost?
"So, you're the man out of time," Loki said.
Steve blocked a golem's blow with his shield, twisted around, and fired Stark's gun at the golem's face, hoping to reach the paper on its mouth.
Loki was there behind him, but gone when Steve tried to land a blow. "I can send you back, you know," Loki said. His voice was quiet, but seemed in that moment to be the loudest thing on the entire field of battle.
Everything else stopped inside Steve's mind. His body continued to fight. His arms moved the way they had been created to move. But he saw it all as if through a veil. Only the voice was real.
"Back to your own time," Loki said. "Home."
A time machine was impossible, Stark had said. This was forever. There would be no going home.
"And the price?" Steve asked, as his body did what it had been made for.
"Why do you think there is a price?"
Sometimes he longed for his own time with an intensity that physically hurt. Sometimes he woke breathless from dreams, convinced that he was back again, and had to relive all over again the knowledge that he was lost. But sometimes it was less simple. In his own time, he had been alone. His closest friend was dead. His duties would never allow him to court the girl he wanted to court, or leave him in a position to support a wife. Here he had… Friends? he thought. Perhaps not that, not yet. But one day, maybe…
The golem fell at last, his right hand firing true. Another took its place.
"Because there is always a price," he said. He was not being asked to make an honest choice between staying in this time and going back. This was the devil on the shoulder, trying to damn him with a false choice. Because the offer came from Loki, it was no real offer at all.
"This is not your time, Captain Rogers," Loki said. "Your new-found companions are doomed to lose. Why stay here to die?"
"Because," Steve said, as he struck at the golem with all his heart and mind, "this is my battle, too."
He fought free at last, and made it to Stark's side a moment before Thor did. Together they made the golem retreat. Stark was still alive, his armour dented but still intact. "What kept you?" he gasped. "because… ow?"
Steve was not Stark, to have the perfect final word, the glib answer that would leave them smiling. "I'm here now," was all he said.
And not going anywhere.
Natasha's hands were stained with Clint's blood. "Natasha." He grasped her wrist. "I'm fine."
He wasn't fine, of course, but she understood what he meant to convey. They had both been injured on missions before, of course, and there were some injuries that you had to ignore. You had to leave your partner where they were, and carry on doing your job, trusting in their ability to stay alive.
"Fine," she echoed. It was perhaps a question; perhaps not.
He was still gripping his bow. The arrow had gone in between his ribs, but she thought the tip had struck a bone, deflecting slantwise rather than going deeply in. He was strong, she knew. Strong usually. She had no idea what privations he had endured during his time with Loki; what sleepless nights; what haunted dreams.
"Fine," he said firmly.
And she had to be Agent Romanoff, of course. He would expect no less of her. The woman he knew, the woman he trusted, would leave him and turn her attention to the task at hand.
She set her sights on Loki. Rolling and dodging, she avoided the blows of the golems, and fired useless bullets at their heads. She showed herself to be intent on that. When Loki appeared in front of her, she gasped, almost losing her grip on her gun.
"The warrior woman," Loki said. "Natasha Romanoff. I have heard all about you from your friends."
A lie. She had no friends. The word 'friend' did not encompass what lay between Clint and herself. She let him see that he had disturbed her.
"Agent Barton followed me willingly," Loki said, "for all that might tell you otherwise." He raised his arm, his palm held flat in a forbidding gesture aimed behind him. The golems obeyed him, granting him space.
"You're lying," Natasha gasped.
"Oh no." Loki shook his head, smiling. He was loving this, of course. He was a man who preferred to shred his enemies with his wit and his words, rather than beat them with brute force. She had known many like him before. Most were dead now. "Did he tell you my design? Or is he too busy bleeding for that?"
She raised her left hand, staring in horror at the blood that smeared it.
"I mean to rule," Loki said. "It is for the best. Think of this president of yours, this pitiful prince who cowers within this white house. Your people fool yourselves into thinking that you have a voice in your governance, but you build your ruler a palace. You pretend that you can have an audience with him at any time, but as soon as his people need him, up go the barricades. He has soldiers in there who fire on anyone who approaches the gates."
"Oh God," she gasped. "You're going to kill the president."
"It is for the best." He looked sorrowful at her evident fear. "I would take good care of those who kneel before me. Is it not better than what you have now?"
She turned her head away, bringing her hands up to as to hide her weeping. "But you've killed so many people. You've killed Agent Barton."
She saw him smile between the lattice of her fingers. "A legitimate casualty of war. Are your people blameless, Natasha? You align yourself with SHIELD, murderers to a man. You fight with Tony Stark, the peddler of death. You came here with a beast, a monster, capable of smashing through those gates and tearing your precious president to pieces."
"Yes," she agreed, lowering his hands. "Yes, we did."
She turned quite calmly, and went to tell the others.
She was too late.
Hulk had found them at last. The metal giants were here, and he smashed them, toppled them, pounded them when they were down.
People were shouting. A woman was saying something, but what was a woman's voice but a tiny thing against the roaring of his rage? He saw Thor. Hulk tried to say Thor's name, but his fists were already speaking. Hulk crushed a giant's arm and sent Thor skidding backwards across the grass and hurled himself bodily at another giant and rushed forward, ever forward.
Hulk saw a man. The other guy thought he was called Loki. Loki was an enemy, too. The giants were better. The giants were retreating. Roaring victory, Hulk chased them.
The woman was still shouting. Somebody called a name, but it wasn't Hulk's name, just the other guy's name. People were stupid. The other guy wasn't him.
There were barred gates behind the giants. Hulk didn't like gates or bars or locks. He didn't like it when the other guy locked him in. He hurled himself at the gates and ripped them apart at his third attempt.
Then people were shouting things ahead of him. There was a big white house in front of him. Men were standing in the windows firing pellets at him that stung. Hulk didn't like it when people did that.
It was such a flimsy building. The things men built always were. Hulk rushed towards it. "No!" someone shouted. "Stop!"
People always shouted at Hulk. The other guy was somewhere inside him, lost. Hulk had smashed through all bars.
"Doctor Banner!" they shouted. "Banner! Listen! Banner!" Names for the other guy. Hulk was himself. The men with guns wanted to kill him. Stupid men. Hulk would crush them all.
"Hulk." It was someone speaking his name.
Hulk stopped. It was Thor, panting, clothes torn, blood on his cheek. "They are not your enemy," Thor said. "Loki is."
Loki. The other guy had known who Loki was. The other guy was faint and far away. Other voices were a cacophony, feeding his rage. Loki planned at this, someone said; words, just words. The men in the windows were trying to bring Hulk to his knees. He had to smash his way in and stop them. They had a chieftain, he dimly remembered.
Thor again. Hulk battered him away. When Thor was gone, Hulk saw Loki smiling, his eyes as cold and lifeless as the metal statues Hulk had destroyed.
Not your enemy, Hulk remembered. Loki. Loki. Loki.
Hulk changed his direction and charged. He didn't stop until Loki was shattered and silent on the ground at his feet.
"Is that it?" Tony was struggling to stay on his feet. It was easier when he was moving, the mechanisms in his suit powering his motion. Now he was just a man trying to stand inside a shell of metal. An exhausted man. A man who felt as if he had been trampled by a herd of elephants.
Which, come to think of it, was kind of what had happened to Loki. "Is it over?" Tony asked. The urgency was fading, and it was hard to summon even the energy to produce sound. But the day Tony Stark stopped talking was the day he was truly lost. "Is that all it took? Loki, the great god Loki, can be squished by one Hulk?"
Loki was just lying there, moaning a little, apparently incapable of movement. The golems were all out of commission, broken or toppled by the Hulk's raging fists. Rogers and Agent Romanoff were going from golem to golem, removing the words from their mouth. Good thinking, Tony thought. All he wanted to do was find the nearest golem and sit down on it. It wouldn't even matter if it was still alive and twitching.
"He is not dead," Thor said, his voice strange, as if he wasn't sure whether he was disappointed or desperately relieved. "This will not kill him."
"But take him out long enough for us to…" He wanted to close his eyes. Maybe he did so. "Capture him. Do… whatever we came here to do."
"Take him back to Asgard for justice," Thor said. "The bridge has gone, but Heimdall will still see glimpses of my need. My father can reach deep into his power when need is upon him. It will be enough."
"Enough," Tony echoed. He wasn't quite sure what he was saying 'enough' about. Even thinking was difficult. He wasn't a soldier, but had just spent… He looked up, his neck protesting at the movement. The sun was rising high in the sky. Mid-morning, at least. Hours, then. Hours fighting. It felt like days. It felt like mere minutes.
Rogers walked over to him. His uniform was torn, stained with blood, and his movements were less graceful than they once had been. "Loki's followers," Tony said. He looked down, but the chronometer was no longer in its setting on his breastplate. The ten minutes was probably almost up. Or already up. Or long passed, and he'd missed the bit when the army had appeared to arrest the lot of them, because he'd been sleeping at the time…
He forced his eyelids to open again. Armed men were coming out of the White House, probably intent on arresting Loki's men. Hopefully they'd limit themselves to Loki's men. Where was the Hulk? Oh well. Tony could afford the bail. He'd bail out the lot of them. Just offer them a million to let him go to sleep.
No. He couldn't sleep now. Got to… What? Something. Walk. Stay on his feet. Say things.
Oh yes. There was the Hulk. He'd returned to Loki like a cat to a discarded mouse that had turned boring by dying. If Loki moved as much as a finger, it was clear that the Hulk would beat him down. Good, Tony thought, because less work for me to do.
The others gathered around him, which was also good, because of the whole no need for Tony to walk anywhere thing. Agent Barton was on his feet, though only just. "You look like crap," Tony told him.
"Still not evil, though," Barton said, in a way that made Tony realise that they had started some sort of thing here, and he would never be allowed to forget it.
"Oh. The sonic weapon," Tony said, remembering it again. It was sitting there in the middle of the lawn, kicked around a bit by golems, but miraculously unpulped. Agent Romanoff was nearest to it. "Secure the weapon?" he suggested to her.
She was helping Agent Barton stay upright. Her face showed a very definite no.
"You wish to stop people of evil intent from using this magic ball of yours?" Thor asked.
"Hell, no," Tony said. "That is to say, yes. Yes of course. More to the point, I want to stop anyone from using this magic ball of mine. Mine." He tried to look at Rogers in a vindicated sort of fashion, but it was easier not to bother moving his head. "I was this close to putting something like this into production before I… before things happened. I've got patents."
"And Red Skull had this built a dozen years before you were born," Rogers said in that infuriating 'I am always right' way he had, which was all the more infuriating because he never actually implied it at all, but usually was. Right, that is.
"A dozen years?" Tony protested. "You think I'm that old, Cap? Must be my air of wisdom."
Rogers smiled. "Or that I was never any good at math."
"Or because you have a wicked sense of humour hidden behind that goody-goody exterior of yours." Tony let out a martyred sigh. "Just because nobody else cares about securing this priceless artefact, this dangerous weapon that could make us all incapacitated and drooling if anyone bad got their hands on it…" He started to walk towards it. It was not as difficult as he had feared. The pistons worked at the joints of his limbs, driving him on, but even they sounded tired. "There," he said. And now he was stuck with holding the damn thing, the bag having long since disappeared.
He headed back to the others. "Uh…" His steps faltered. "Uh… Guys?" Something was tugging at his throat, twisting in his stomach. The sphere vibrated in his hands. "Guys."
Barton was moving at the same time, reaching into his jacket, pressing his hand against a hidden pocket there. "The jewel," he said. "It's getting warmer."
Tony clawed at the controls. The joints of his gauntlet were stiff, and the metal was battered, giving him no real grip. "Help?" he suggested, and Rogers was there in an instant, understanding what he needed, helping him with the clasps that held the gauntlet to the arm guard.
There was blood across the back of Tony's hand, and one nail was blackened and broken. Even without the gauntlet, his joints were stiff. He worked on the controls, but it was no good. The weapon was activating. And already he was feeling the beginning of the effect; seeing it on the faces of the others. "I can't…" he gasped. He did what he could, grabbing the timer and turning it on a full minute, the maximum there was. The effects lessened, but only just. Not enough.
"Loki!" Thor raged. Loki was lying there broken, a thin smile on his face.
It destroyed cities, Tony remembered. The jewel amplified the effects of anything it was attached to. "Give me the jewel!" Tony commanded, and Barton offered it to him, but Tony jerked backwards, suddenly terrified of touching it. "No," he said. "Throw it away. Throw it away as far as you can."
Barton did so. It was not enough.
Tony wanted to sink to his knees, dragged down by the pressure in his head. "He's set up some sort of resonance between them," he said. "I can't…"
There was nothing else to do. No time for farewells. No time for words. He powered his thrusters up for one last stuttering flight, and rose high into the air, the weapon gripped to his chest. How far did he need to go? He only had… what? Half a minute? Even that much? Head to the water, he thought. Into the river. The water would muffle the sound waves. If it was still linked to the jewel, would it be enough?
His suit was on the point of failing, already driven beyond endurance. The timer ticked. It was hard to think, hard to move. He saw water below him, silver and black. He was losing altitude. No time. He turned the dial that controlled the power, but suddenly there was no resistance at all, the wheels ceasing to engage.
He tumbled. This time nothing flashed through his mind at all. It all just… ended.
end of chapter eleven
On to chapter twelve