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Observer Effect

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Natasha had made a mistake.

She’d made lots of them over her life, little ones and big ones, some that slipped through her fingers, forgotten and lost and some that still haunted her and some she still sought to repent for. The worst of her mistakes had ended in death, had ended in unacceptable collateral damage, had ended in blood on her hands, blood up to her elbows.

People had died but always other people. She’d made it out alive, over and over again. She’d come out bloody but breathing, broken but surviving. She had made choices based on the most basic of instincts: survival.

She had killed and let others die and through it all, she had survived.

But now, Natasha had made a mistake.

A fatal one.

The darkness swallowed everything in the hallway but the Soldier still fired at her, the firecracker of light from the gunshots were a couple of hard flashes that would’ve dazzled Natasha if she hadn’t immediately tucked and rolled. She’d gone towards him instead of away, thinking he wouldn’t have expected that. Her knees collided with something hard, the sharp corner of the open door, and she twisted around.

Natasha had been trained to fight in all situations, including blindfolded, including in the dark, and she fell back on that instinct as she fought the Soldier. She heard the chatter of metal on metal as she managed to kick the gun from his hand and send it clattering down the hallway. Then the Soldier’s hand was on her leg and Natasha had to struggle to free the limb. Getting caught was the surest way for her to be killed so she prioritized escape over attacking.

The Soldier fought without speaking, without even a sound beyond his breath and grunts of exertion. Natasha knew that she’d have to inflict a lot of damage to get him to stop, possibly even more than she was capable of doing in the dark. Still, she kept her head down and drew her knife into her hand and she struggled in the darkness to fight against and survive the Soldier.

Sparks showered the darkness as her blade scraped along his left arm, the metal one. She twisted her wrist, sending the tip skittering across metal plating, searching for an entrance. Just as she felt her knife catch, she heard the creak of leather, and she lurched to the side. Natasha felt fingers catch along her side, slipping over her vest, and then there was an abrupt yank and she was pulled back into reach. Natasha’s breath left her in a rush as the hand that grabbed her by the strap of her vest brought her chest first into a solid knee. She saw stars in the darkness and curled up, dropping out of the follow-up grab for her head.

The Soldier adjusted and lashed out with his leg again, this time his boot. She felt his heel on her knee and desperately tried to slide her foot back, out of the way.

Her own heel hit the wall and Natasha’s heart jumped right into her throat. Was the wall right behind her? No- She had to move-

There was a crack that sounded more like a pop as the Soldier’s heel connected with Natasha’s kneecap. She hissed and turned her knife hand around. The blade scored over the Soldier’s arm and hand, the one that held her side still, while her other hand rose instinctively for a block. She managed to fend of his metal arm by blocking forearm to forearm but he had her pinned and they both knew it.

Natasha bit back a cry as the heavy heel of the Soldier’s boot went for her lower leg, smashing into the side of it and then kicking at her ankle. She struggled still, twisting her hips, bringing her knees up, using his arm that held her as a support as she ran her own feet up his other leg. She felt him turn back, pulling his side out of reach, opening up the cage his limbs made around her and, with a hard jab with her knife, she cut the strap to her vest that he was holding. She slid from his grip, along the wall and down, tucking her knees up tight- well at least the good one obeyed her completely- and rolling. Natasha banged her shoulder hard against wall or door, she wasn’t sure which, and came back to her feet, wobbling to steady herself on her one good leg.

“I’m going to need help,” she panted out, hoping that with the power out NOBODY could still hear her, “If I don’t have help, I won’t be able to get Tony out of here.”

Speaking was a risk. In the darkness, they had to strain all their senses to find each other, but Natasha’s words made it easier for the Soldier to find her. Natasha scrambled backward as she heard him approach, trying to keep the distance between them. She knew already she wasn’t going to get past him on her own. She had a busted leg barely keeping up her weight and she’d not managed to hurt him enough to slow him down.

Natasha’s heel caught on something uneven on the floor that moved when she touched it -the gun? It had to be- and she bit her tongue as her ankle rolled at the unexpected item. She managed to keep from falling, but the moment of distraction, the scrape of the gun on the floor and her sharp hiss of breath must have been enough for the Soldier to find her. In the next moment, he was there, a deeper darkness in the blackness of the hallway as Natasha’s brain desperately sought to see something.

He struck out with his metal arm, fist slamming into Natasha’s forearm with enough force to rock her on her heels. The hit was heavy, heavier than his heel, and she knew her bones wouldn’t be able to take another one. Adrenaline kept her from feeling the pain too strongly, but she feared she’d already gotten a fracture. She ducked under the next swinging arm, instinct singing through her as she heard the whistle of air around metal above her head. Her elbows caught the knee he brought up to follow his left hand and struck the nerve in her right arm hard enough to make it tingle to her fingertips.

Natasha winced and turned, pivoting on her bad ankle and switching her blade to her other hand so her numb fingers wouldn’t drop it. She anticipated another strike with his knee and this time brought her arm swinging down as hard as she could. Cloth parted under the sharp point of her knife and it sank deep into flesh. The Soldier grunted and moved back, pulling the knife from Natasha’s grip.

She reached for more knives, prepared to stab each one of them deep into the bastard’s flesh when the lights kicked on.

Natasha cursed, eyes momentarily blinded, and she flinched back. She blinked furiously, willing her eyes to adjust, and looked up, searching for the Soldier. He held her knife in his hand, the edge of it red with blood and she couldn’t tell exactly where he’d pulled it from. Clearly, it had been nowhere that vital because he’d pulled the blade free. They stared at each other for one long second. Then Natasha saw the Soldier’s legs shift and she moved.

She’d ended up back near a wall again and she had to get out. So she ran forward and dropped down, sliding past him on her hip. The Soldier lashed out with a kick but it went over Natasha’s head. He spun around and went after her, his eyes adjusted now and clear with the intent to stop her no matter what. His kick was followed by her knife flying through the air at her. Natasha deflected it with her second blade now in her hand and sent it clattering to the side.

The Soldier didn’t seem bothered by attacking her barehanded, weaponless, as she rolled back to her feet with a knife in either hand. She tested her left leg again, winced at the pain that lanced up the side and knew that it was broken in several places. The pain was begging to get to her, too, slowing her down and fogging the edges of her vision. Natasha grit her teeth and refocused on the Soldier.

He might be better than her, stronger and faster, a harder-edged weapon, but she couldn’t stop now. The power was back on so whatever they were going to do to Tony was likely to start back up again. The Soldier was just here to delay her. She had to get past him.

Don’t be stupid, girl, Natasha thought grimly in the back of her mind, You’re going to die under his heel. The Soldier crushes the Spider.

They clashed in the hallway again. The Soldier used his metal arm like it was a battering tool as much as he used it like a hand. He swatted away one of her arms with a backswing, caught her knife in the fist of metal fingers and twisted it, pulling it free of her hand. His flesh hand wasn’t much weaker, either. She caught a fist on one hastily upraised arm and barely escaped his grasp on her wrist.

Fear crept up into her chest as they fell into an almost sort of routine to their fight. With the lights on, she could see the small ways he telegraphed his movements. Even with her injuries, she had enough attention to notice the twists and turns he made, the steps, the movements. It was familiar. It was achingly familiar.

Natasha forced herself to look at his face again, to look for something more than the movement in his eyes to see where he was looking and tried to remember. If there was anything that she could remember from fighting him before, anything that could help her now-

It came to her in one horrifying moment as she ducked down, crouching for a moment as his fist, the metal one, swung overhead and slammed into the wall above her. The shift in perspective- looking up at him instead of eye to eye-

He’d been her teacher.

In the Red Room.

He had taught her how to fight. How to shoot. How to aim a gun. How to toss and roll and duck. How to fight. How to kill. How to survive. He had taught her .

Natasha froze up.

In all the years she’d spent running from the Red Room, she’d known somewhere in the back of her mind that she would never really be able to escape it. There was no way. It had unmade her and then reshaped her in its image. And now it stood before her in physical form and she knew that this was it.

The metal fist of the Soldier- the Winter Soldier, she remembered that now- hit her across the ribs and there was no forgiveness, no gentleness, no remembrance in the blow. Natasha’s breath left her as her bones cracked and her body lifted off the ground. Her back hit the glass with a shattering that rang out like a crystal bell around her head. Natasha fell to the ground, breathless and bleeding, surrounded with broken glass on all sides, in some room that Hydra used to torture people like Tony in an underground base where no one would ever know where she disappeared to.

She was going to die here. She had brought Clint to die here.

She wasn’t going to be able to save Tony.

Natasha pushed herself up on one elbow, glass digging into the cloth of her outfit and her fingers as she tried to sit up. The Winter Soldier appeared in the frame of the window, cold blue eyes looking at her and then the window, searching for the best way into the room. He used his metal arm to knock out the rest of the glass that Natasha’s body hadn’t pulled down and then gripped the sill and vaulted into the room with ease.

He held his gun again in his right hand. Natasha looked at it and then up at him. She tasted blood in her mouth and it was bitter with her fear.

But she didn’t tremble, she didn’t shake, and for that she was glad. At least she’d die with a little bit of dignity intact.

The Winter Soldier loomed above her. His left hand crossed to his right and he methodically cocked the gun, pulling a round into the chamber. Natasha looked up at him, chin lifted, breath weak in her lungs, blood on her lips and the fear seeping out of her with it. She shifted on the glass and the Soldier moved too, keeping her perfectly out of reach. At least he treated her like she could still be a threat. Broken and battered as she was, he respected her ability.

Natasha met his cool, empty blue eyes and wondered if he remembered her.

A flicker of movement past the window pulled at Natasha’s attention but she restrained from looking directly at it. Her body tensed without her say-so, but it was already disobeying her in other ways. The Soldier paused in leveling the gun at her head and then he abruptly turned. His metal hand snapped up and caught the shaft of the arrow that had headed for his back just behind the arrow’s point. For a second, nothing happened and Natasha just stared in shock at the arrow, realizing that it had to be Clint who fired it- Clint who was there now, who would see her die, who would get killed himself-

And then the head of the arrow flipped down with a tink as it touched the Soldier’s metal arm and a surge of electricity discharged. She saw the Soldier’s muscle seize up and instinctively she flung herself back and to the side as fast as she could. His flesh hand tightened on the gun and fired several times, the bullets going wild as his muscles spasmed. She saw the Soldier fight for control of his own body, eyes blazing and mask distorting as his mouth opened in a wordless growl. He managed to drop the gun to the ground and reach with his flesh hand to the metal one, fingers shaking, muscles jerking, as he strived to free himself from the arrow.

The electrical surge only lasted a few seconds, though, and with a jerk he suddenly was free of it, throwing the arrow to the side. Natasha panted harshly, eyes on the Soldier’s arm in amazement. His fingers still twitched like he couldn’t quite control them and she could smell something burnt, something plastic or metal, not flesh.

Suddenly, the door to the room they were in was kicked open with a tremendous roar. Natasha flinched back, startled to see Thor thunder into the room. The Soldier ducked Thor’s initial grab, but the Norseman moved faster than either of them expected and turned, looping one massive arm around the Soldier’s waist from behind. With another shout and a wild grin, Thor turned,   picked him up, and chucked him back through the window.

Thor laughed. Natasha stared.

Thor looked to her and said, “Rest yourself, mighty huntress! I shall avenge your wounds and fight this unfrozen soldier!” And then he ran back out through the door.

“What the fuck,” Natasha whispered with an incredible amount of feeling.

“I know right,” Clint said, dropping down from out of nowhere to appear at her side, “He’s still a little off his rocker but Nobody gave us the scoop on what you were up against and he seemed really keen to throw down.” Clint’s hands work as his mouth does and Natasha relaxes slightly as he checks her over for injuries. She’s got a pretty good idea what he’s going to see and it’s not pretty. Adrenaline has kept her going pretty well so far but she’ll slip into shock sooner rather than later now that the Soldier is distracted.

The furrow grows between Clint’s eyebrows as his hands move from her arm to her leg, “Nat-”

“We’ve got to get to Tony,” she said, “While Thor has the Soldier distracted, we need to get past him and get Tony out of danger.”

“You’re kidding, right? I don’t think you can even walk without support right now,” Clint said, “We’re going to get you somewhere safe and then come back for him.”

Natasha grabbed the front of Clint’s armored vest and shook him, “Listen to me, Clint. Tony is just down the hall. We have to get him out of here if we want to leave.”

“Nat,  you’re not thinking straight. Your leg is fucked up . We’re getting you out of here and then we’ll come back for Stark.” Clint shook his head. He tried to pull her hands free but Natasha dug in.

You’re not thinking this all the way through, Clint,” Natasha said, “We came here for Tony, we’re not leaving without him-”

“I’m sorry but your safety kind of matters more to me than some billionaire,” Clint said, interrupting her, “This isn’t a proper mission, Nat, we don’t have to-”

“We will not physically be able to leave the building if we don’t get Tony first,” Natasha shook him again, harder. She had to stop and cough after she spoke, her own blood touching her lips when she did so. Still, Clint opened his mouth to argue and Natasha rode over his words with her own, “I don’t think we’ll be able to leave this fucking floor, Clint. If we leave him behind, his AI won’t let us leave.”

“That’s crazy,” Clint said.

“That’s correct,” NOBODY said.

Natasha knew that Clint heard the AI speak at the same time she did because he stiffened and his face went white. He glanced to the side and hissed, “Are you fucking serious? You can’t lock us in here! You can’t even access the tier three doors!”

“The base’s servers shut off with that blackout,” NOBODY informed them, “And we utilized that moment to leverage ourselves into the mainframe. I now have access to all locks, cameras, speakers and anything else digitally connected to the server. However, the machine that they are attempting to use on Father is not digitally connected because it is an independent machine that uses electricity to function. The most we can do is manage the amount of power they’re able to pull. They’re tripping breakers but it’s only a temporary solution.”

Clint closed his eyes. Natasha pat him on the shoulder, “You have to go bust that billionaire out of trouble, Clint. Just give me that gun,” she pointed as he opened her eyes questioningly, “and lean me against the wall. I’ll wait here for you to return and we’ll all leave together.”

“Fucking AI,” Clint muttered.

“Clint,” Natasha insisted.

He nodded though and helped her sit up properly. His boots crunched shards of glass as he dragged her over to the wall and propped her up. He fetched the gun and handed it to her with a grim expression. “Don’t shoot Thor by accident,” he said.

“Hurry back,” Natasha said back.

Then Clint was up and through the door, moving quickly. Natasha leaned back, gun held in her better hand, which had once been the one numbed by a kick, and listened to the fight between the Soldier and Thor. From the sound of his roaring and shouting, she thought he was probably having a good time.

At least one of them was.

 

 


 

 

Clint knocked one arrow to his bow, held another one on standby between two fingers and shifted his weight to one leg. He’d already tested the handle of the door and eased it open slightly so that this next move would be more spectacular. Clint kicked with his right foot, knocking the door open with a bang that startled the four men inside of the room. His bow came up and he drew back and shot the first two arrows in moments. Both of them were taserbolts and brought down both guards to the floor.

Fortunately, they weren’t the same kind of inhuman soldier as the one that had beat the hell out of Natasha so they crumpled in a twitching mess to the floor while Clint drew the third arrow and knocked it back. “Hey motherfucker,” he grinned broadly, “Turns out I can’t leave this fucking hole in the ground without him,” he jerked his head towards Stark, strapped to the chair, “So I’ll be taking him now. Thanks for your cooperation.”

The scientist stared at him, eyes huge behind round glasses and mouth hanging open. “How?” He cried, “How did you get past the Asset! He is undefeatable!”

“Easy,” Clint said, “I brought a bigger fighter. Now, cut Stark free or-”

“Never!” the man shouted, gripping the handle of the machine beside him, “I’ll kill him before I let you have him back! His brain belongs to me!” He laughed maniacally as he flipped the switch.

The lights dimmed in the room and there was an odd mechanical whine. Somewhere nearby, maybe down the hall or the next room over, Clint heard something pop and explode and glass shower the ground. The scientist lost his shit.

“How!” He screamed, jerking the switch up and down several times, “How is he doing this! How does he thwart me, even now!” Then, wordlessly, he flung himself at Stark.

Clint let the arrow fly. It hit the man right on target, dead center on his right eye and deep into his skull. He stumbled, hands going to his face as he hit the side of the chair Stark was strapped into. One hand curled around the shaft of the arrow as he slid down to his knees. He took surprisingly long to die, but it went faster when Clint walked over and grabbed the arrow. He turned his wrist once, making the scientist shudder and cry out, and then pulled it free with a pop.

He shook the arrow free of blood and brain matter and wiped it off on the white lab coat. Clint checked the scientist’s pulse, nodded when he couldn’t find it, and put the arrow away. Clint straightened up.

Stark lay strapped into the chair, arms and legs and head bound with thick leather straps. He was pale under the overhead light and sweating. Clint could smell blood and sweat on him, even underneath the ozone smell in the air. He’d thought, at first, that Stark wore a white shirt but up close he could see it was just layers of bandage cloth. Clint shouldered his bow and brought out his short, sharp knife. Stark stared at him with creepy brown and glowing orange eyes, breathing hard in and out through his nose, but he didn’t struggle as Clint cut the straps off his body.

Clint worked quickly. He could still hear Thor and that crazy soldier fighting out in the hallways and didn’t know how long that fight would last. If he had to go help, and god that sounded like a really terrible idea, he wanted to be able to do it as soon as he could. They had to get the hell out of here.

When he’d freed one hand, Stark reached up and began to pull the electrodes that were still stuck to him off. He pulled free the gag and tossed it aside. “Where’s Natasha?” were Stark’s first words.

Clint didn’t immediately forgive him for everything he’d done for saying that, but it was the right first step in his book. He jerked his head towards the door, “She fought some maniac soldier one on one for a while. He beat her up real good but then Thor stepped in. Can you walk?”

“Yes,” Stark said, “This isn’t exactly my first rodeo.”

Clint vaguely remembered something about Stark and a desert or something, but he just shrugged and nodded. He didn’t care if Stark was trained or not. He just wanted the guy to walk so they could get the hell out of here.

“Barton,” NOBODY’s voice was suddenly in his ear, “Give your earpiece to Father so that I might speak with him.”

Clint hesitated. He liked being able to keep tabs on the AI, or at least feel like he was. He knew it could probably keep him out of any information loop it wanted to, but the illusion of control was a comforting one. Still, he knew better than to keep the thing from its ‘father’. So he pulled out the communication device and held it out to Stark. “Your bot wants you,” he said.

Stark took it and put it in his ear with a confused wrinkle in his forehead. The expression immediately smoothed out and Clint rolled his eyes. Of course, the thing wouldn’t be a bitch to Stark. It was his little mad machine after all.

He got the last of the straps free and helped Stark down off of the chair. Stark winced when he stood but didn’t fall over or anything. He was trembling and deliberately not looking down where the scientist’s blood was pooling around the base of the chair, but Clint didn’t give a shit about that. There were still plenty of newbie Shield brats who got queasy when they saw a corpse. Stark’s delicate sensibilities weren’t anything special.

“What about the Tesseract?” Stark said, clearly talking to his bot. He frowned at whatever her answer was. Clint motioned towards the door and he nodded. Clint pushed through, bow drawn again. He swept his gaze up and down the hall for any guards, but there was nothing.

“Can you bring it down?” Stark said, speaking quietly, “Safely?”

Clint glanced at him. That was a weird fucking thing to say. Stark didn’t meet his gaze. Just frowned at the wall.

“Are they all Hydra?” was the next question. Whatever NOBODY said, Stark closed his eyes in reaction to it. “Do it,” he said.

Clint put a hand out and Stark stopped just short of walking into it. Orange glowing eyes looked at him. Clint told himself that Stark was just a regular human, that the eyes didn’t mean jack shit, that no one could prove Stark’s eyes had changed anything about him and stared him down. “What did you just do?” he asked.

“What I had to do,” Stark replied. “Let’s not waste time here. We need to go before help gets here, their help, not ours.”

“Why would help be coming?” Clint asked, “Did your bots manage to let an SOS out?”

Stark shook his head, “It was in response to my capture. The guy you arrowed in the face? Apparently, he was supposed to just hold onto me here until the big dogs showed up to decide what to do with me. But there’s a reason they shut him up in some tiny little base in the middle of the desert, Chair or no Chair. He was a loose cannon and abused his authority constantly.”

“So whatever he did to you, he did it without permission,” Clint said.

Stark nodded.

“And something worse is coming now to what, deal with you?”

Another nod.

“Jesus. I knew Nat was bored with Shield but this is too much,” Clint hissed. He dropped his hand from barring Stark’s way.

Something darkly amused twisted over Stark’s features but he just shrugged.

Despite his limping, Stark kept up with Clint as he hurried back down the hallway. The sound of fighting had finally stopped and Clint had his bow knocked with another taserbolt, wishing he’d brought some of the exploding ones, even if he was in close quarters. If he rounded the corner and found that fucking soldier there, or standing over Nat with a gun again-

Clint slowed his steps as he reached the area where Thor had last been seen fighting. He swept his gaze up and down the hall and then saw a glint of blonde through that shattered window. He went towards it and peered in. “Nat?”

A wet cough answered him, “Clint,” she called a moment after. Thor crouched beside her, his face a stormcloud as he looked up at Clint. He looked bruised and cut up in a few places and there was a red bleeding wound on his shoulder that looked suspiciously like a gunshot, but he didn’t seem bothered by his injuries. He was close to Natasha, who opened her eyes when she heard Clint. She looked grim and pale in the bright overhead light. Clint’s stomach settled somewhere around his knees.

He vaulted through the window and hurried over to her. He ignored the way Thor straightened up, looking past him to where Stark was probably looking in from the hallway. Clint’s attention was all for Natasha. “Hey,” he said, “I got the moron free.” He crouched down beside Natasha, whispering to her, “Now let’s get the fuck out of here, okay?”

Natasha nodded. She lifted one hand, “Help me up.”

He did so, gripping her wrist as she grabbed his and pulling her up to her feet. Natasha swayed and then found her balance. Her face was still deathly pale and she gripped Clint’s forearm with fingers of iron. He grunted and shifted his arm around her, taking more of her weight. “Your leg is really fucked up, Nat.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered.

“We’re about to see reinforcements for the bad guys?” Clint said.

“Nobody told me that,” she said.

He opened his mouth to say that he’d just found out, but then remembered the bot was named NOBODY and felt annoyed about it all over again. “Well, good,” he said instead, “Now you can see that we’ve got to get you out of here.”

Glass crunched under their feet as they walked to the door. Thor had gone past them and stood near Stark in the hallway. His big hand was on Stark’s shoulder and he spoke in a low tone. Clint was glad to see the big guy had the drugs beat out of his system though it unnerved him to see the alien getting on so well with Stark. It also was weird to hear Thor talk softly. Clint hadn’t thought him capable of anything less than a blustering shout.

When they reached the hallway, Stark looked hard at Natasha. Then he tapped Thor on the forearm with one hand. Clint noticed, for the first time, that Stark’s fingertips were dark red with dried blood and scabbing. “Thor, would you carry Natasha? Natasha, would you let him carry you? We need to get out of here quickly.”

Natasha nodded. Clint supported her until Thor came over and, more carefully than Clint had expected of him, picked her up. She looked small in Thor’s arms, half curled up with her head bowed and her arms across her chest. Thor shifted his arms around her and then straightened, bearing her weight with apparent ease.

“Barton,” Stark said, “Would you run point? Nobody has the elevators running for us. We should have a clear shot up to the first floor, where we might hit some resistance.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Clint said, drawing his bow. He knocked an arrow and led the way.

He didn’t threaten Thor to treat Natasha carefully like he wanted to. He didn’t take Stark by the arm and demand answers from him like he wanted to. He didn’t demand an earpiece back, for that semblance of control it gave him, like he wanted to. He just grit his teeth and did his job.

Because now that he’d turned his back on Shield, Clint had a strong feeling he was going to end up hitched to this bloody billionaire’s boat, one way or another.

Pissed off or not, Clint was a professional and he’d get the job done.

 

 


 

 

Thor walked with a clear head for the first time in several hours.

He’d come to his senses with a headache and a bitter taste in the back of his mouth, only vaguely aware of what had transpired while he was under the influence of the Midgardian chemicals. He thought that they might have been intended to put him to sleep, but his Asgardian constitution had thwarted the chemicals true intent.

Once more in a cell, Thor had quickly introduced himself to the Midgardian Clint Barton, who became most helpful. He was there to free Thor from his unjust imprisonment and, as it turned out, bring Thor to a righteous and thrilling battle.

They had gone together deeper into this dungeon, where they rescued Clint’s companion and fellow hunter the Lady Natasha from an unnatural death. Though Thor had fought on many a battlefield, it was only during the bloodlust of fighting that the killing blow should be struck- a fact that he knew well. Those that were left wounded on the field were to be taken as prisoners or left to their own kind.

The death in the stillness after the battle held no glory in it; not in the giving of death or of the receiving of it.

Gladly, he had engaged in battle with the man with the metal arm. He was a strong fighter, a fierce one, who used knives in ways that Thor thought even Loki would appreciate and did not flinch even when Thor bested his strength with his own. The battle was a good one. Thor’s blood ran hot, burning his fatigue from his limbs and the ache from his head. He shouted and bantered with the silent man, no simple guardsman despite his reluctance to let Thor pass.

His metal hand was an efficient weapon and Thor would sport many bruises from the heavy hits he had endured. Each one he gained he gave that and more in return, until they were both destined to be black and blue across their skin.

The man fought well. Not entirely honorably, using the debris around him in order to try and best Thor, but well enough despite that. Thor was more used to the sneaky tactics than he might otherwise be, if his own brother were not so devious in his ways. Still, as it was between Thor and Loki, Thor knew himself the better fighter than this man and he triumphed in the end.

That end came when Thor wrenched metal apart with his bare hands and used that same metal hand to knock him about the head. Any tool in Thor’s hand was a weapon and even the heavy, broken arm he held became such. It made sense to Thor, who was without his hammer in this King’s quest, to turn his enemy’s weapon into his own. There was no other choice, really.

He did not keep the arm once the man it belonged to lay out on the floor, senseless to the world but still breathing. Nor did he do as the man would have done, most likely, if it had been Thor knocked senseless to the world.

Instead of killing him, Thor had returned to the Lady Natasha, wounded and vulnerable, and waited until the return of their other companions.

He had been filled with much joy to see Tony alive as his memory had led him to believe that both of his previous companions, Tony and Clement, had perished. While there was no sign yet of Clement, Tony was there, looking drawn and pale, but living. Thor approached him with a light heart that became heavier the closer he got.

The drawn features were not simply exhaustion and the pale skin not an attribute of fear. Thor saw bandages and smelled blood and, regrettably, he knew the signs of torture that Tony bore upon his hands. He cautiously placed his hand on Tony’s shoulder, one place where he saw no red of wounds upon his skin and the bandages were thinner. “Tony, my friend, it grieves me to see you wounded thusly. Would that you had been better treated by our captors. Tell me, how do you fair?”

“Our hosts did get a little carried away, but I’ll manage for now,” Tony said with a wry smile. His hand briefly rose then drifted away, as though the idea of touching someone wasn’t strong enough to do it with his damaged fingers, “How are you? Are you okay? I heard you were thrown for a bit of a loop there, big guy.”

“My malady has passed,” Thor said, “And I fought a thrilling battle here with a man with one metal arm. He was quite fierce, but he has been laid low for now.”

Tony glanced over his shoulder, “You didn’t kill him?”

“I did not. Perhaps he shall recover and regain his strength, that we might face each other once more upon the battlefield.”

Tony relaxed in a way that suggested he might know the one-armed man. Thor didn’t ask him about it now, though, as it didn’t seem prudent. After all, the man had attempted to kill Lady Natasha and had fought viciously against Thor himself. He was wounded but not unbearably so. He could recover enough to make a second attempt to battle if they did not hurry.

“We need to get out of here,” Tony said. It was good they were of a similar mind, though Thor was unsurprised. Tony was a natural Midgardian leader. “Thor, would you be willing to carry Natasha?” He looked to the others, a crease forming between his brows, “Natasha, would you be willing to be carried?”

He had been and so had she, which was how Thor ended up with the armful of broken, delicate Midgardian while Tony limped right ahead of him and Clint cleared the way for their escape.

It was not the glorious escape that Thor had imagined it would be, but not every battle was filled with glory during the moment. Many of them gained their shine during the retelling, where the hard bits of injuries taken and pain felt could be glossed over with the skill of a wordsmith. Many a ballad included traveling to and fro places without much description of the endless riding that to-ing and fro-ing generally entailed.

But it was an escape, and as they headed to the main travel road in the unexpected chill of the night, with the stars of Midgard blazing above them, Thor could see the glory of their survival.

This would become a good story, one of survival and strength, and Thor would be glad to tell the tale.

 

 


 

 

Tony had Natasha’s phone to his ear because his phone hadn’t turned up in their escape and Clint’s phone didn’t have an active AI installed. Tony hadn’t even bothered asking him for it, considering the side-eye he was getting from the archer.

Tony hadn’t exactly forgotten what Clint had said, about NOBODY holding him and Natasha hostage so that they would be forced to save Tony, but he would have to deal with that later. Right now there were far more important things to do, like make phone calls and arrangements and make sure that the people who had escaped weren’t about to get captured again.

Kletka got him in touch with JARVIS who patched him through to Jane, the first of his phone calls.

Jane picked up with a rushed greeting, “Hello? Who is this?”

“Relax, Jane,” he said immediately, “It’s me, Tony. How are you doing?”

“How am I doing?” Jane asked incredulously. “How are you doing? I heard you got kidnapped!  Are your kidnappers making you call me? What’s going on?”

“I’m not calling for anything like that,” Tony said, “I wouldn’t involve you in something like that if I could help it. I’m calling because I’m safe, now, and I need to know how you and Erik and Darcy are doing.”

There was a fumbling sound and then Darcy’s voice came over the phone. It was distant sounding like Jane had put the phone on speaker. “Tony, my dude, is that really you? Holy shit, did you really get kidnapped?”

“Yes, it’s me. Yes, I got kidnapped,” Tony said. He ignored the look he got from Clint from the corner of his eye, like he shouldn’t be admitting these things. “And I’m fine.”

“We were rather concerned about you, Dr. Stark,” Erik said from somewhere in the background. “Where are you now? Are you somewhere safe?”

“More or less,” Tony said, “We’re headed somewhere to get medical treatment. Don’t worry about all that, let me worry about it. I called to talk to you guys about your research and the data and what we need to do next.”

“Did you get it back?” Jane asked. “What about the equipment?”

“I have good news and bad news,” he said, “Which do you want first?”

“The good news,” Jane said.

“Good news is,” Tony said with a grin, “I have the data. Or rather I have access to the backups of the data. Bad news, all the equipment exploded.”

“Holy shit,”   Darcy said.

“What do you mean exploded?” Erik asked.

“I mean as in they were overclocked and overheated as a result of that and went boom. All the tech is gone.” Tony said. He made an exploding motion with his hand, even though they couldn’t see it.

“You’re kidding me,” Clint said under his breath. Tony ignored that too.

“All of it?” Jane sounded like she was about to faint.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Tony said. “But this isn’t the end of the world. Far from it in fact! And that leads me to the better news and worse news. Which do you want first?”

“The better news?” Darcy asked.

“Better news is I have similar machines set up at another location. They’re sort of in use but I’m sure we could come to some arrangement for you three to be able to use them as well. Worse news is that they’re not going anywhere so you’ll have to leave New Mexico to continue the work.” Tony said. He stared out the window, watching the nightscape of the desert pass them by. He was pretty sure that Clint was driving at least twenty miles over the speed limit but if they got pulled over, he’d take care of it, so he didn’t care.

He wanted to get Natasha to a hospital as much as Clint did.

“Where would we have to go?” Erik asked hesitantly.

“Montana,” Tony said. “I’ve got a partner working on some space stuff up there in a facility. If you don’t mind a brooding Russian with a pet bird, I think we could work out an arrangement. A temporary one while we figure out a more permanent solution.”

There was some whispering going on, it sounded like Erik and Jane in the background. It wasn’t easy to hear because Darcy started asking questions, “What kind of space stuff? And who is the Russian? Is it someone famous in space studies? Isn’t Montana like, really cold and empty? What even is in Montana? Couldn’t we go somewhere else? Didn’t you say you had a Colorado place that one time?”

“Satellite space stuff,” Tony said, “And Erik’s met the Russian, his name is Ivan. He’s not famous but he probably should be. And Montana is only cold in the winter, just like any other midwest state and it is relatively empty but it’s perfect. There are ranchers in Montana, you’ll love the hamburgers there. And no, Colorado isn’t outfitted for the kind of work you're helping Jane with. It’s more chemical based.”

“How many places have you got?” Darcy asked, “Do you do tours?”

Tony laughed.

“Darcy, give me that,” Jane said. There were muffled sounds of the phone being handed over and then Jane’s voice again, much more clear than before. “Erik says that he thinks the Russian you’re talking about is the man that he met in your tower, Ivan Vanko. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s him,” Tony confirmed.

“The word is that he runs Stark Industries Space Labs Division, even though he’s not an astrophysicist.”

“He’s got a passion for space,” Tony said, “And maybe he isn’t officially, but with how much he’s been reading up and working in the area, I’m confident in his abilities.” After all, not one of Ivan’s satellites had fallen out of orbit yet.

“Would he be willing to work with us? I’m not going to just give up my research and do whatever projects he has. You’re not my boss, Mr. Stark. You’re my patron.” Jane said firmly. Tony smiled.

“I know,” he said gently, “And I’m not talking about you ending your work. I just want to give you a temporary location to do it where no one will bother you.”

“Do you expect people to bother me?”

“I expect that the people who had me in their hands won’t be very happy that I’ve left them,” Tony said, “And they’ll cast as wide a net as they need to in order to bring me back.”

Jane sucked in a sharp breath. She was silent for a moment, in which Tony glanced over his shoulder to the back seat. Thor looked up from where he frowned down at the pale and shallowly breathing Natasha to meet Tony’s gaze. The fun-loving warrior looked much more somber in the gloom and bore a grim expression.

Tony turned to face the front again.

“Are you sure they even know about us? Maybe they’ll ignore us since… No, that wouldn’t work. You interact with us on a personal level, if we were just employees, you wouldn’t do that,” Jane’s voice drifted to a mutter. “They’ll come for us eventually, won’t they?”

“Sorry,” Tony said, and he was, too. Sorry about her. Sorry about Natasha. Sorry about the Winter Soldier, even. This wasn’t supposed to be like this at all. He’d really truly fucked with the timeline. “If it helps, I can get you transport out of there in a matter of hours-”

“No offense, Mr. Stark, but unless you personally can be there to assure whoever it is you send to us is actually you, I’m not getting in any plane or car or anything with any stranger,” Jane said. “Not while people might kidnap me or Darcy or Erik just to get to you. You want us to go to Montana? Fine. Send us the location and we’ll drive up there ourselves. The truck still goes fine and I have your Cadillac still. It can’t be more than a couple of days and you know that no one will expect us to run away practically on foot.”

Tony closed his eyes and rubbed them. “All right,” he said, “I can tell you won’t be convinced otherwise. Take whatever you need and get going as soon as you can. Jarvis will give you the address.”

“Got it,” Jane said, “Take care of yourself, Mr. Stark. You can’t change the world like you keep saying you want to if you get yourself kidnapped.”

He let out a sharp laugh, “Right. Of course. Drive safe, Jane. Don’t lose track of each other. Don’t get into any accidents. Call me if you need anything.”

“Goodbye,” she said. Tony murmured the word back and ended the call. He sat there for a while, looking at his phone in silence.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when a warm hand pat him on the shoulder. Tony looked back to see Thor giving him a supportive smile. “It is natural to be concerned for the wellbeing of one’s companions and vassals. My father tells me that when one leads, one must make the best choices for all of their people, not just the ones that they would choose for themselves. Sometimes, that choice is to allow them to do what they think best in the situation.”

He looked serious about his words and his expression didn’t falter even a little bit when Clint snorted and muttered something about Tony’s leadership skills under his breath. Tony gave Thor a little smile. “Thanks,” he said, “It’s just… hard not to worry.” He looked down and away.

The moment was broken by a bright flash of light and Clint’s sudden swearing as he swerved the car. Tony felt the repetitive thumping as the tires found the edge of the road and the grooves in the asphalt bounced and jolted the car. Clint swore again, louder, and swerved back.

“Where the hell did that truck come from?” Clint shouted. Tony stared out the window, surprised by the sudden cloud of darkness. It hadn’t looked like the headlights of a truck, but he’d been distracted and hadn’t really seen the source of the light. “Where the hell did it go?” Clint looked quickly over his shoulder as if the mysterious truck would appear.

Tony saw the shape on the road ahead of them only a second before the hit it. It was tall and shadowy and if he wasn’t absolutely certain they were on a highway, he would’ve sworn it was a cactus. But then they hit the thing- they hit a person- and the mystery was solved in an instant as a familiar pale face appeared briefly pressed against the front windshield.

Clint braked hard, snarling with something that was probably both rage and fear while Tony gaped at the now empty space on the hood of the SUV. It was Thor who spoke the name that he was thinking- Thor who shouted in surprise and delight as he opened his door before Clint had fully stopped the SUV.

“Loki!” Thor cried, “Brother!”

Tony closed his eyes.

It seemed nothing that had to do with Thor would be easy after all.