Phantom (page 1)
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Genre: Suspense, drama
Rating: R / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, J.A.R.V.I.S., Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Summary: After Steve gets mysteriously possessed by dark magic, the Avengers must contain the situation and save their leader without losing their own lives in the process. Steve keeps escaping, however – and unerringly migrates towards Tony every time.
Written for: Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013. Story based on & inspired by the beautiful art by the talented Gabbi!
Warnings: Violence, language, some mildly sexual content between two male characters (m/m).
Disclaimer: Iron Man and Avengers, their characters and everything else belong to Marvel. The movie versions belong to Marvel Studios, Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures… in short: everyone but me. This is pure fiction, created to entertain likeminded fans, no profit made.
Feedback: Very welcome and always appreciated.
About Phantom: My first reverse bang.
Also, this story got a lot longer than it could have been, but I wanted to showcase Captain America’s bad-assery and unwillingness to be locked up.
I hope you enjoy this little rollercoaster!
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Written for Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013, inspired by Gabbi’s art!
Amazon rainforest, Brazil
Steve breathed in the humid, heavy air. He could feel a layer of moisture on his skin, mixing with the perspiration, and regardless of how alien this feeling was compared to all he had gotten to experience in his lifetime so far, he deeply enjoyed the climate.
He had briefly come into contact with an artificial version of a rainforest when the team visited Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska – to introduce Thor to Earth’s fauna, and to give Steve a glimpse of all the things he had missed. He could admit the real experience was blowing him away, and they had landed only ten minutes ago.
“Thor, please don’t wander off,” Natasha called out, dressed in long boots, shorts and a vest.
Their resident Asgardian was disappearing into the bushes, drawn by the innumerable animals and plants in their vicinity. After all, they were in the middle of the Amazon jungle, a hundred miles from the nearest city or road, and if not for the S.H.I.E.L.D. equipment and personnel, Steve might have felt truly lost in the wilderness.
Thor returned to them, looking around with wonder, and Steve agreed that it had been worth the long flight – and the extensive briefing on safety and various dangerous animals they might encounter and be subjected to. Not that Thor or Steve needed to be worried about a snake bite or infected wounds, but they had been forced to sit through the briefings anyway.
Clint was already scratching his exposed skin and swearing that whatever lurked out here had probably evolved past normal bug spray. The hand that wasn’t soothing some itch was tightly wrapped around his bow, as if that would keep unwanted insects away from him. With his aim, that might well be true.
“I cannot believe Tony and Bruce did not want to join us,” Thor mused. He crouched down on the ground suddenly, poking his finger at something that was moving across the forest floor.
“Yeah, I don’t get it either,” Clint groused, voice overflowing with sarcasm.
“You were offered the choice to stay behind. In fact, you insisted on joining us,” Agent Phil Coulson mused as he strode over, a map and some kind of device in hand that would hopefully help to guide them to their location.
“Well, someone had to come out here and make sure you don’t get stabbed to death – again – by some indigenous tribe for stepping on their holy land,” Clint muttered. Steve guessed his real reasons for coming had more to do with pride, since staying behind when Natasha and Coulson were coming down here might have made him look weak.
Steve was jerked out of his musings as he felt his phone vibrate on his belt. He fished it out, amazed that someone was able to call him in the middle of nowhere. It shouldn’t have surprised him that it was Tony, and Steve swiped his fingers across the screen to answer. He was met with a greasy face and a view of a lab in the Avengers Tower in New York City; Steve wouldn’t have been able to tell one lab apart from another, but Bruce happened to be within the range of the screen as well, and Steve recognized a few gadgets he’d seen during his last visit to the lab, shortly before they left for Brazil. “I didn’t think there would be reception out here,” he mused in a way of greeting – because people didn’t greet each other anymore, like back in his day.
“There isn’t; it’s a satellite phone,” Tony replied in his usual mannerism, as if it weren’t a big deal although Steve was pretty certain it was. “So, you haven’t been eaten by anything eight-legged yet, I take it?”
“No,” Steve smiled. “It’s amazing out here. You should have come.”
“Yeah, no,” Tony grimaced visibly, and behind him Bruce did the same.
“Have fun, though,” Bruce called out. “It’s beautiful out there, but… Well, I had my share of it.”
“Understood,” Steve said. He knew Bruce meant the time he had spent on the run from various government agencies. “Did you have something to tell us?” he asked next.
“No,” Tony replied, making it sound as if Steve had been the one to call him in the first place. Then, just as suddenly, there was a small, brief, genuine smile on his face – a smile he gave most people, but Steve thought the one directed at him was different. A good kind of different. The kind that made his insides twist and feel warmer. “We’ll call you again tomorrow, when the satellite is in position,” Tony told him, smile already gone but the feeling inside Steve’s chest persisted. He had never been so glad for his excellent photographic memory.
“Alright,” Steve nodded, and just like that the call ended and he pocketed the phone carefully, to make sure he wouldn’t lose it.
“I’m just saying,” Clint was murmuring, leaning slightly towards Natasha. “They have a thing.”
“They’re not going to act on it,” Natasha murmured back, then pulled up an innocent, uninterested expression when Steve looked at her long enough.
“Let’s go,” Coulson called from up ahead. “It’s going to be dark in a few hours and I want to make camp before that.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve said easily, picking up a few of the heavier bags. Thor did the same, already grinning excitedly. The rest of the group followed, Natasha and Clint bringing up the rear. Around them, the forest echoed with strange, exotic calls of dozens of animals and Steve cherished how he felt as much like an outsider here as each of his companions; it was a rarity in his life, and he was going to enjoy it.
Their camp stirred early the next morning. Steve was up before most, of course, but since he couldn’t go for his customary run or work-out, he simply enjoyed the breakfast provided and the heavy air – and the sight of some ancient jungle ruins they had come here to see.
The place, according to S.H.I.E.L.D., hadn’t been built by any known civilizations. The locals stayed away from it as if it were cursed, and getting information beyond that had been impossible. It also emitted some kind of faint radiation, which was suspicious and led scientists to toss up ideas about the possibility of an alien origin. That was the main reason why Thor had joined them: to see whether the Asgardian would recognize the structure and anything they found within it.
Once breakfast had been served, the scientists began to set up their gear, checking the readings from a couple machines they had set up last night. Steve watched the proceedings, again wondering why Bruce and Tony hadn’t wanted to join them for the simple pleasure of scientific research, then noticed a group gathering on the side.
“We’re going in,” Coulson noted, nodding towards a partially over-grown entrance to the structure. “Will you join us, Captain?”
“Of course,” Steve smiled cheerfully. The place didn’t look threatening, and they had more scientists than agents present, which meant this was like an exploration of some ancient location. Perhaps next time, they could go and see the pyramids in Egypt.
Strapping his shield to his back – he didn’t really know how to go around without it, even at a time like this – he joined the others as they picked a path to the doorway. Natasha cut down some of the vegetation with a machete and Clint peered inside, fingering his bow. Coulson turned on a heavy-duty flashlight and was the first to actually step forward. Thor followed him eagerly, followed by Natasha and Steve; Clint remained at the mouth of the entrance, looking distrustful.
“Is something wrong?” Steve stopped to ask him.
“This place is giving me a bad vibe,” the archer replied.
“You said that before we even got here,” Natasha shot from the darkness. “Stop being a baby!”
“Just being cautious…” Clint muttered. “Why do you think Banner didn’t want to come here? And all those local tribes, terrified of this place. And the strange radiation no one can figure out!”
“You can stand guard outside,” Steve suggested.
Clint stiffened immediately. “Stand guard against what?”
Steve shrugged. “Anything you think might be threatening us.” He tried to fight down the grin from his face and failed.
Clint narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re sickeningly cheerful about all this, Cap.”
“It’s an adventure. I like adventures,” Steve confessed and then turned and joined the others in the stuffy air inside. “How long do you think it has been since someone was in here?” he mused. “If the locals avoid this place…”
“Hard to tell,” Coulson mused. “It’s too far away for tourists or researchers to stumble upon, so save for the animals, I think it’s a fair guess to say it’s been a while.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” Clint repeated his earlier sentiment, voice echoing off the walls. He had followed them in after all, and turned on a flashlight of his own, moving the beam of light this way and that. “There are no animal nests. There are no bones, or droppings, or even bats. No sign of any life-form anywhere.”
“There are many plants here,” Thor argued, moving around the space, touching things with curiosity.
Clint muttered something like ‘evil plants’.
Steve ignored him for the time being and moved to the side, then noticed something on a far wall: moss-covered stones. He crouched down, touching them. They looked like ancient bricks, roughly square-shaped. He glanced up and spotted a hole in the wall – a hole that may have been shut with the bricks that lay beneath it.
He shifted closer and peered into the hole. A slight draft caressed his face, meaning that there was something on the other side. Experimentally he tugged at the hole, and three pieces of stone fell down to join the others.
“What was that?” Clint asked, alarmed. It showed considerable restraint from him that arrows didn’t follow his words.
“I think I found something,” Steve replied, and tugged free another few bricks. Some of them were stuck, as if someone had been intent on walling up this section, many years ago. They hadn’t finished, for whatever reason.
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch that,” Natasha mused, moving closer, offering Steve more light.
“I think there’s a tunnel,” Steve dismissed her concerns, looking inside the hole again. “It’s not very wide, but I think I can fit through.”
“No one’s crawling through anything,” Coulson joined them as well as Steve finished pulling the opening of the tunnel free of the bricks blocking it.
“Yeah; we can send in one of those robotic camera things,” Clint agreed.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Steve asked them, already unstrapping his shield from his back. He knew someone else would fit better – anyone but Thor, to be honest – but no one else seemed interested in what lay on the other side, which meant it fell to Steve to investigate.
This was like one of those Indiana Jones movies he had seen – only he didn’t suspect there were any elaborate traps left by an ancient civilization. And even if there were traps, who better to deflect them than Captain America?
“Captain,” Coulson started again.
“Phil,” Steve looked up at him, and he could almost see the hardened agent melt a little on the inside. It was wrong to use the man’s admiration for Steve against him like that, but it would work to his advantage in this situation. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. It doesn’t reach very far, by the look of it, and I have a good eye for detail.”
Coulson was still hesitating, and Steve was aware of both Natasha and Clint giving the agent some serious looks as he said nothing. Thor, on the other hand, was on the opposite wall, engrossed with perhaps another insect he had found, and offered no words of warning.
Steve took a steadying breath and then moved forward, squeezing himself into the dark, dusty tunnel. He wormed his way forward, the voices of the others momentarily drowned out as he moved. Dust and fine stone fell from the walls and ceiling as his body dragged against them, but the beam of his flashlight was already showing him something ahead – another room.
Once upon a time, Steve was fairly certain he had been claustrophobic, among other things. After becoming Captain America, however, crawling into spaces that could barely fit his new body wasn’t a problem – especially when some kind of discovery lay ahead.
When he reached the end of the tunnel, he stayed still for a moment, casting the light around, mapping out the new space the best he could. There were no plants, no lights, and for whatever reason it set his nerves on edge. Maybe Clint’s superstition was finally catching up with him.
“Cap?” he heard Natasha’s faint call.
Moving forward, he pulled himself into the room and turned around, seeing the lights coming from the other end of the tunnel. The others were perhaps 25 feet away, but it felt almost like fifty in the darkness. “I’m fine,” he called out.
“Good. I’m not coming in there to save your ass from… whatever booby-traps,” Clint replied.
“Thor found writing on the wall,” Coulson’s voice came in stronger as he was no doubt crouched down to speak directly into the tunnel. “He says they seem familiar, but he cannot read them.”
That supported the possibility that there was something Asgardian about this place. Seeing as they had been coming to Midgard for thousands of years, it wasn’t surprising. In fact, Steve kept wondering whether some of the ancient world relics were somehow related to them.
He looked around the closed space. It was perhaps ten feet across, an almost perfect rectangle. No windows, no holes; just smooth stone walls as if the room had been carved into a mountain. Steve tried to recall what lay outside the ruins and guessed this might well be inside the hill that flanked one side of the structure.
Feeling a new wave of energy take over as he contemplated why someone would go to the trouble of creating this place, and then trying to seal it off, he tried to find any foreign-looking markings on the walls, but saw nothing. He tried not to feel disappointed and kept looking for anything out of place. His foot caught on something as he crossed the room for the third time and he looked down. The floor was even, hacked into stone just like the rest of the room, but there was something on the floor, like a slab of some kind.
Kneeling down, he tugged off his gloves and traced the edges. On three sides, the slab was completely even with the floor; that was how he hadn’t noticed it before. The fourth side, however, was slightly raised, as if it hadn’t fallen into place properly, and he wondered if there was something beneath it. He wasn’t foolish enough to hope for treasure, and knew it was possible the source of the strange radiation lay beneath the slab of stone. Despite its unknown origin or qualities, the scientists had determined the radiation wasn’t dangerous, far as they could tell. Steve was confident the serum would protect him even if it was dangerous, so he curled his fingers around the edge and pulled.
The slab didn’t move.
Letting go for a moment, flexing his fingers, Steve put the flashlight in his mouth and pointed it down, sliding his hand across the slab’s surface. Beneath the dust of untold years, he could see shapes engraved into the stone. They made no sense to him, so he pulled out his phone and opened the camera function, snapping a few photographs of the markings. In the poor light they weren’t good quality, but they might do.
Pocketing his phone again, Steve curled his fingers once more around the edge and pulled as hard as he could, leaning back with his weight to add to the force of his arms. At first nothing happened, but then he could feel a slight shift, and leaned back even harder, fingers aching with the strain.
Suddenly the slab moved, making Steve fall onto his back on the floor, the stone landing half on top of him. There was no sound save for a slight trickle of sand and Steve’s own hard breaths.
“Steve?” Natasha called out again. “What are you doing?”
“Investigating,” Steve called back after plucking the flashlight from his mouth.
“Perhaps you should come back,” she mused. “We can send in a crew with proper equipment.” Why they hadn’t done that already, Steve didn’t know. Weren’t they interested in what lay here, hidden from the world?
That reminded him of his recent success, and Steve carefully set the slab of stone aside and looked at whatever he had exposed. There was a shallow indentation in the floor that had resided beneath the slab. It was so shallow there was nothing to fit there once the slab was in place, which was disappointing. Steve looked at it, moving his flashlight from side to side, but that was it: a hole matching the shape of the slab, nothing more.
Perhaps he had been looking forward to some type of treasure after all…
“Cap?” It was Coulson this time. “Perhaps you should…”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed and moved to stand up. His hand pressed against the underside of the slab as he did, and he jerked at the sudden, unexpected sensation on his skin: the stone was wet and a little sticky, as if smeared with blood or a similar substance. He directed the flashlight at it, and wondered how he hadn’t felt it before when he moved the slab to the side: almost the entire bottom surface was covered in wetness. Its color was hard to determine in the poor light, and he rubbed his fingers together, not liking the sensation. “Weird,” he muttered.
He glanced at the indentation again, but there was no sign of any wetness or even smears on the bottom of it. How could that be, when the slab fit it perfectly in size and depth? And with that much of the oozy substance, there was bound to be some sign of it on something other than the slab itself.
Steve looked down at his stained hand again, then brought it closer to his face and sniffed. It smelled very faintly of copper, but the rest of it confused his brain, as if it couldn’t pinpoint the smell and tried to replace it with something he would be familiar with. Perhaps it was the blood-like thickness of it that made him choose copper in the first place.
Deciding to be smarter than trying for a taste test, he wiped his palm on his pant leg and turned back towards the tunnel. Perhaps it would be better to see if the scientists wanted to take a look at the room, after all – and to analyze the substance.
Placing his flashlight between his teeth again, he began to squeeze through the tunnel once more. He got in a few feet before he began to feel a little weird, as if his skin were suddenly too tight. His heart began to hammer in his chest and he sweated even though the air wasn’t that hot or suffocating… He paused, trying to clear his head, then moved forward, knowing he couldn’t just lie there in the middle of the tunnel.
Each movement felt forced when he resumed moving. The tunnel seemed smaller, pressing against him, and it would have been so easy to just lie down and stay still…
No, he told himself. He couldn’t give up. He would never stay down.
With what felt like the last of his energy, he pulled his way to the other end of the tunnel and slid out with a heavy thud.
“Cap?” Clint called out and rushed over. “He doesn’t look good.”
“What happened?” Coulson moved over in alarm, crouching down beside him.
“Just… need to breathe,” Steve started, but it didn’t seem like breathing was helping. He lay on his back, trying to get his bearings, but he felt worse than he had in the tunnel, his heart thrumming, chest tight…
“Let’s get him outside,” Coulson decided.
Steve was dimly aware of arms grabbing him, lifting him off the hard floor. The sunlight was painful in his eyes and he closed them against it, a pain almost splitting his skull from the inside. The pain didn’t subside when he blocked the sunlight, and he could taste that strange coppery smell on his tongue.
“Is that blood on his hand?” Clint asked from the side.
“Did you cut yourself?” Natasha pressed.
“Something is wrong,” Thor murmured.
“Steve,” Coulson spoke up, voice urgent and trembling, just slightly. “What happened?”
Steve couldn’t speak. So many thoughts in his head – fear, anxiety, doubt – and there was noise, too; something that wasn’t words, but not tinnitus either. The noise eventually blocked out everything, like a wind in the trees, increasing without letting up.
Something vibrated against his hip, and he grasped for it with a single-minded focus which shocked him in the midst of the chaos in his body. He opened his eyes as he brought the phone in front of his face and a red-smeared finger moved across the screen. Tony’s face appeared, and it felt like someone had stuck a ladle in his chest and stirred.
“Cap? Steve? What’s going on, you look like –”
Steve could hear his voice, but he could not answer.
His vision blacked out, swallowed by a sudden wave of darkness that sprang forth from some corner of his being, drowning everything in its way.
- - -
When Steve had crawled back out of the hole in the wall and flopped onto the floor in an uncontrolled tangle of limbs that wasn’t anything like him, Clint knew they should be concerned. Their leader hadn’t looked good, eyes glassy, skin flushed and sweaty, and it looked like the palm of his left hand was covered in something that resembled blood.
They moved him outside, which appeared to be a bad idea when Steve shut his eyes against the bright light. He was conscious, clearly, but unresponsive to their questions. Thor’s murmured ‘something is wrong’ wasn’t particularly reassuring, either, because half the time when the Asgardian said something like that, things happened that no basic or special training could prepare them for.
A faint, vibrating sound made them all start.
Steve reached blindly for his belt, fishing out his phone. Considering everything, it was beyond ridiculous for him to do that, but Steve opened his eyes a fraction and swiped one red-smeared finger across the screen. Tony’s voice came forth from the speakers, alarmed at the state Steve was in – and then, suddenly, the blond’s eyes began to glow.
Clint had to blink a few times to believe it, seeing the black pupils light up with an inner glow as if someone had caused a miniature supernova inside Steve’s head. Slowly the glow spread to fill his entire eyes – the black, blue and white – leaving them emanating luminescence like some light therapy lamp. Even in the bright daylight, it looked as if the brightness was overflowing and leaking out, light particles forming clouds at the corners of Steve’s eyes.
“Captain?” Coulson’s voice snapped Clint out of staring at Steve’s face, and the strange glow of his eyes. The unblinking stare was kind of hypnotic, if you forgot about how it shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Steve twitched and sat up. The phone that was still in his hand went quiet. His face was blank, eyes remaining wide open and completely encompassed by the white glow that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“Cap?” Natasha prompted from the side, and Clint slowly moved to his feet, fingers curling around his bow in an automatic reaction to the situation.
Steve lay still for a moment – too still, and too quiet. And then, as if someone had flipped a switch, he looked at the phone in his hand, and uncurled his fingers from around it, allowing the device to fall to the ground. Clint’s eyes automatically followed the motion and noticed the screen had gone blank.
With his hands both free, Steve curled and uncurled his fingers, looking at them as if he had never seen them before. Then he lifted his head and looked to the side – at his shield, lying against the wall of the ruins; Natasha must have brought it out while Clint, Coulson and Thor had been carrying Steve outside.
“Captain Rogers, it might be best if you remained still,” Coulson started as Steve began to get up, every movement as fluid as ever. The flush had disappeared from his skin, as if everything was okay – save for the eyes and the too-blank expression.
“My friend,” Thor stepped in front of Steve, forcing him to halt or walk right into him, “you are not well.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Natasha asked.
“Can you not sense it?” Thor frowned, looking at her for a split second – and that was all it took for Steve to bring up his fist in a quick right hook that sent Thor sprawling to the ground. It happened so fast that Clint barely had time to twitch his fingers around his bow, and then Steve was moving, across the space between him and his shield, and Clint wasn’t certain whether to shoot, which made him look at Coulson for guidance, but the agent didn’t seem to have quite recovered from the suddenness of the attack either.
Natasha was the one to move, springing after Steve, catching up with him just as the man was reaching for his shield. It may have not been her smartest move, but she kicked up with her left leg, forcing Steve’s arm up and away from grasping the shield. Steve’s response was to whirl around, deceptively fast for someone his size. Natasha had fought alongside him, however, and they sparred together from time to time, so she jumped out of the way, yet not too far to lose her chance to attack should Steve go for his shield again.
Steve remained facing her, face impassive, and it was impossible to tell what was going on behind those glowing eyes – whether it was Steve at all. When Clint reached that conclusion, he snapped himself into action, reaching for an arrow. “Stand down, Captain,” he ordered. “We don’t want to hurt you, but clearly something’s amiss.”
There was no reply. He didn’t even blink; all Steve did, in the end, was move towards Natasha with the clear intention to strike her down. She dodged down and to the side, trying to sweep his legs from under him, but Steve was already moving, angling his body and moving his balance so that her attempt to make him fall was fruitless. She didn’t give up – she never did: Natasha straightened herself again, the posture of her body suggesting readiness for battle, and Clint’s fingers itched on the controls of his bow, to select an arrow. Not yet, though.
Thor had picked himself up from the ground, but instead of his customary claims for a fair fight to prove the might of Asgard, he was quiet. Clint glanced at him, noting the frown and the uncertainty in the blue eyes that didn’t belong there. Thor rarely hesitated; he and Stark had certain things in common, especially in battle, and one of them was the talent to attack headlong and somehow not get killed in the process. To see him survey the situation without making his move was forcing Clint to reconsider the circumstances all over again. Clint just wanted someone to say something that would clear things up.
Around them, the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel were moving. They didn’t have many trained soldiers with them, seeing as four Avengers had decided to accompany the expedition. Most of them would do wisely to stay out of the way – and they probably knew it as well, moving sensitive equipment further from what might yet become a battlefield if they didn’t take Cap down.
For some reason, Clint had a feeling their leader wouldn’t just lie down if they asked him nicely one more time.
“Cap,” Natasha started – and Steve moved to strike, only to miss as she bent down and elbowed the man in the stomach. It took more to actually wind the super-soldier, however, and Steve whirled around, quick and effortless, bringing his leg up in a wide arch. Natasha bent backwards to avoid the attack, barely missing it, and then she rolled backwards, over her shoulder and back to her feet, already advancing, pure intent on her face. She was going to take Steve down and apologize for it later.
Clint stayed his hand, watching, waiting, every second feeling like an eternity as Natasha launched forward, jumping up. He fully expected her to wrap her strong legs around Steve’s throat and not let go before he succumbed, but as she braced her body for the final leap, Steve moved to the side, just slightly, angling his body away, then stuck out his hand and seized her by the throat.
Natasha let out a strangled breath and her hands came up involuntarily to fight the strong grip.
Thor summoned Mjolnir from across the camp, raising it in threat.
Clint plucked an arrow, unhappy that Natasha was so close but clearly this didn’t seem like it was going to end well in any case.
“Captain, let her go!” Coulson ordered. He had a gun out, but Clint doubted he would shoot.
The glowing eyes rose, regarding them – or at least that’s what it felt like. The fingers around Natasha’s throat didn’t ease their hold, and even with all her training, she was having a hard time fighting back.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Clint agreed, “but we will if you don’t stand down.”
“We are not speaking to our friend,” Thor said suddenly. “His mind is not in control.”
Clint wasn’t sure whether to believe that. Whoever or whatever Thor thought was in control knew exactly how to use the serum-enhanced body. Each move had been pure Steve, only he hadn’t been kidding around.
“If Captain Rogers isn’t in control, then who is?” Coulson asked the obvious question.
For some reason Clint expected a reaction from Steve at that point. Maybe an evil smile, a laugh, and one of those clever, boasting one-liners the villains were often so fond of – before getting beaten to a pulp by the Hulk or humiliated by Iron Man.
None of that happened: not a sound; not even a twitch of a facial muscle. It was unnatural and deeply unsettling, because even as stone-faced as Steve Rogers could be at times, even he was alive. It felt like looking at a mask of some sort, made of flesh and blood.
Natasha shuddered and Steve suddenly let go of her, allowing her to fall to the ground, gasping for air. Clint took that as a gesture of good-will, regardless of the lack of communication.
Steve looked at them again, then turned around and began walking towards his shield once more.
“Captain, please stand down,” Coulson asked again.
“Nat, stay down,” Clint murmured as Natasha began to make her way onto her hands and knees. She was still winded and pale, shaking, but Clint knew she would be back in the fight once she got her feet under her. Against Cap, however, she needed her full strength – which she didn’t have right now – but it didn’t stop her from ignoring him and lifting herself up anyway, albeit shakily.
Further off, Steve reached his shield, lifting it up and sliding it on his arm before turning back towards them. His eyes were still glowing, and Clint knew he had to do something before Natasha made her move. So, he fired, past her shoulder, close enough to stir the red hair. It was a perfect shot, but Steve lifted the shield just in time and the electrical burst the arrow was designed to release, to incapacitate the person it hit, sparked and crackled across the vibranium surface.
“Damn it,” Clint muttered and drew another arrow, just as Natasha decided to launch forward again. Whatever she had planned on doing became irrelevant as Steve easily sidestepped her, lifted the shield and smacked her upper body with it. Natasha still tried to remain on her feet – to turn defeat into a surprise attack – but Steve followed the motion of her body and kneed her in the lower back.
With a cry, Natasha fell, not getting up.
“Enough,” Thor decided and moved forward with his customary roar. Mjolnir sparked briefly, as if preparing for impact, and Clint considered that after all this time, the god of thunder should have known better; all Steve needed to do was to brace himself and bring up the shield, and the force of Thor’s mighty weapon slammed back at all of them.
Clint hadn’t been there in person, but he had heard of the rather legendary first time it had happened, in the woods somewhere on the outskirts of Germany; reports said the impact had leveled part of a forest, and he didn’t doubt that for a moment as his body was flung back, a hot, crackling pressure unstoppable as it moved the air. Clint hit the forest floor hard, wind knocked out of him and debris flying everywhere, momentarily blocking out the sun. As the dust settled, literally, he forced his way to his knees, to enable him to shoot – but their target was gone.
To his left, Thor groaned and rolled over onto his back. He was breathing hard and had taken down two trees as he landed. His blond hair was full of roots and broken branches, face covered in dirt that still continued to rain down.
“He’s gone,” Coulson’s voice came from Clint’s right, strained but alive.
Clint forced himself to his feet, ignoring several aches and bleeding cuts. Dirt fell from his hair into his eyes and he brushed it away, surveying the surroundings.
Steve was nowhere to be seen.
“What do you mean, he ran away? And why did it take you a fucking day to call me back?!” Tony’s voice could be heard half-way across the camp. “Don’t shush me, Banner. I’m allowed to be pissed.”
“You weren’t here,” Clint muttered, pressing an ice pack against the side of his neck. It had been roughly fifteen hours since Steve got, for lack of a better term, possessed, and took off after giving them a royal ass-kicking. Well, Natasha had taken most of the heat, obviously, and she was currently lying down, her back luckily intact but giving her so much pain she couldn’t even roll over without it hurting. It was a strategic move, she had said; Steve had known that instead of breaking bones, all he needed to do was cause enough damage to slow her down for the next few weeks.
It wasn’t necessary to know her to be able to tell she deeply resented her current situation.
“How could the three of you let him just take off?” Tony demanded. “And let me come back to my earlier point: why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“What were you going to do, fly down here?” Coulson asked. He had been broody and snappy ever since they realized Steve wasn’t coming back, and they couldn’t find him. They had tried tracking him down for what was left of the daylight, with no luck, and come morning they had decided to inform the two absent members of the Avengers of what had happened.
Tony took a small moment to breathe, eyes dark and mouth tense. Bruce appeared within the screen, looking worried and reasonably tense, seeing as he had to deal with Tony in person. “Did he take any provisions?” Bruce asked. “Without food or water, he’ll have to slow down eventually – or find somewhere to get those things.”
“He took my map,” Coulson informed the scientist. “In the midst of it all, it may have been luck on his part –”
“He’s the tactician of the team,” Tony snapped. “He saw a map, he grabbed it. What else?”
“Nothing, save for his shield,” Coulson said. “He seemed pretty intent on grabbing it before fleeing the scene.”
“What does Thor have to say about all this?” Bruce asked.
“He’s been in that cave for the better part of the night and morning, trying to decipher the texts on the walls,” Clint told them. “We also sent a team to that adjacent room, and they found this slab of stone with some weird, dried goo on it. They’re analyzing it now, and if Steve didn’t cut himself, it’s possible the red stains on his hand were from that rock.”
“Send us the data when you have it. We’ll take a crack at it,” Bruce said, which surprised no one. He and Tony shared a common mistrust of someone else conducting tests on important things.
“So, he crawls into a tunnel, turns over a slab of stone, and goes berserk,” Tony recounted. “Does Thor have any ideas on how that happened?”
“He said something about Steve not being in control; that he could feel… something,” Colson said. “Beyond that, Thor has been his enigmatic self.”
“He’s been frowning a lot,” Clint added.
“That’s never a good sign,” Bruce said what they all were thinking.
“We’ll widen the search area today; hopefully we’ll get on his tracks before dark,” Coulson laid out their plan. “There’s nowhere to go, for dozens if not hundreds of miles, so we’ll be able to narrow down possible destinations.”
“He’s a super-soldier; a few hundred miles is nothing to him,” Bruce reminded them.
“Why are you sitting on your assess instead of looking for him?” Tony added. “Please tell me you have people combing the area.”
“We’re… still figuring out our options in getting local help,” Coulson said carefully.
Tony’s eyes narrowed immediately. “You haven’t told Fury?” It wasn’t really a question; he knew, as well as the rest of them, that no one wanted to give the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. the call explaining how they had managed to misplace the man who was the leader of the Avengers, a national war hero and a super-serum enhanced tactician.
- - -
Everything was distorted in his head. It felt like he was wrapped in layers upon layers of something partially see-through, thick enough that in the end he could see only the most prominent shapes, of which there were not many. Mostly it was just brilliant brightness or dark shadows, and all of it was covered in a coldness that matched his vague nightmares of the ice.
Steve couldn’t tell the passing of time. He didn’t know what was happening, where he was… but he knew where he was going. The goal was clearer in his mind than anything else, and taking into consideration where he had been, deep in the Amazon jungle… he had to get creative to reach that goal.
Therein lay the moments of clarity; when his mind worked to overcome the next obstacle, he felt almost as if he were awake… yet he could not truly see, and that troubled him greatly. The veil was in front of his eyes, muddling his thoughts, and a bottomless pit of longing grew ever stronger within him. It hadn’t been there before, and he was afraid he would get lost in it. So instead he tried to struggle against the current of despair and the cold grip of ice, and convince himself that he could outrun the abyss if he moved fast enough. If he was strong enough…
He didn’t feel weak, far from it, and Steve knew he should be glad for that. Even with his control gone, he could still keep moving and fight his way to what he felt would equal safety.
All he needed to do was find a way to get there.
First he needed to find transportation, and that led him moving through the forest. Light and dark washed over him; day and night. Brief glimpses reached his conscious mind before he appeared to sink deeper once more: Phil Coulson’s map; Manaus, the nearest city… and from there to São Paulo, hiding inside a truck.
He felt calm and methodical when he thought of ways to get back home. The grip of the ice wasn’t so firm then, and the depressing loneliness eased slightly at the thought.
His senses were not his own when he climbed a fence and waited, but he knew the timing was crucial, and if he made the wrong choice, he would find himself twice as far away from his goal than he was now. The idea of being lost even further was painful, and steeled his resolve to get where he wanted.
Soon… he would not be so alone.
Steve knew his senses were alert as he waited; he just wasn’t fully connected to them. However, when he saw the plane – the right plane – he prompted himself to move, to cross the distance and stay hidden. He distracted the men working with a well-thrown rock, slipped inside the cool cargo hold, and wedged himself deep in the shadows.
After a long while the plane took off. The air grew cooler and the pressure changed slightly.
The world was dark around him, but at least he was moving towards home…
Miami International Airport, Florida, USA
There were more people here than in São Paolo; more noise, more traffic – and more guns. They told Steve to stop when they found him, but he couldn’t do that. He was closer, he could feel it, but he still had far to go before he would be content – before he would be home.
After they had shouted at him, they shot at him.
He took them down; they were in his way, trying to stop him, and he refused to be held back.
He would never stop fighting…
There were alarms. He heard them, saw flashes, felt a brief flash of pain as electricity shot through his body whenever he made his way over another fence. They were running, trying to surround him, but he was faster and smarter, and if they got too close, he did what he had done before.
And eventually, they stopped coming.
He slipped into a departing truck and jumped out in the thick of a city, mixing into the crowd, disappearing. People looked at him, looked at him twice, but he didn’t care; they would consider him an oddity, a person better to not be remembered. They would look, but their eyes wouldn’t linger.
However, he needed clothes. It was better to blend in, to not attract attention. With no money, he had to be sneaky, so he browsed the streets, searching for stores with clothes out on display and took an item here, an item there. No hesitation; just grab it and keep walking.
When he had enough, he slipped into an alley. A broken mirror leaned against a wall, and he looked at himself once in his new clothes. Steve saw himself, yet the vision blinded him when he met his own eyes.
Everything was blank for a long time after that, his thoughts more muddled than before, thick and moving slowly. The ice seemed thicker, more confining, and his attempts to claw at it were feeble and weak. He was scared, cold, and alone. Any chance at escaping the prison he could not feel, see, taste or touch seemed impossible and elusive. He was trapped…
“… Stark will be appearing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the day after tomorrow. Barring any world-threatening incidents, the genius billionaire also known as Iron Man will be returning to his alma mater in Cambridge to once again inspire brilliant young minds. A much anticipated –”
His vision cleared as he stared at a TV screen behind a display window. The familiar smile was there, although it was just an official PR photo without the actual warmth. A front for the world to adore, but Steve saw behind it, could not be fooled by it…
Cambridge. Tony was going to be in Cambridge.
He felt the muscles of his face pull, just slightly. Steve didn’t try to meet his eyes again, remembering what had happened the last time: a flash of white and nothingness until he heard the familiar name and was pulled back from the ice. He dared to look at some of his reflection, though, and could just make out a ghost of a smile that was on his face. Unable to see his eyes, however, it looked almost scary. Out of place. Wrong.
It was all wrong… but it mattered not: he had a heading, and now he just had to reach his destination. It was time to find himself another ride.
- - -
“No way,” Natasha muttered to herself. “No fucking way.” It may have been overkill to add a half dozen curses in all the languages she knew, but then again, they were all royally fucked.
“What is it?” Coulson asked, slipping into the tent she was supposed to be resting in, but she hated feeling useless and much less being useless, so she had pulled herself over to a desk, turned on the computer and browsed through the news.
“Cap is in the States,” she informed the agent.
“What?” Coulson sounded shocked. He strode closer and leaned over her shoulder, gazing at the feed she had managed to pull from the surveillance at the Miami International Airport. It showed them a rather familiar, haggard form making his way across the airport grounds. “How did he get into the country without anyone seeing him?” Coulson asked out loud.
“Slipped into the cargo hold, if the preliminary investigation is to be trusted. Beyond that, no one has any idea – or knows how he managed to escape. He took down over thirty guards and airport workers. Three of them died of their injuries, eighteen were admitted to a hospital.” She heard Coulson draw in a careful breath.
“Where is he headed?”
“No idea. He disappeared soon after leaving the airport area. I’ve tried to track his movements, but… he knows how to avoid cameras.”
“Do the local authorities know who he is?”
“As of now, no one has said the magic words. I’m pretty sure they saw the shield, but…”
“There are hundreds, if not thousands of people carrying cheap copies of Captain America’s shield around town,” Coulson decided, standing up straight. Natasha didn’t need to look at him to know he was trying to think ahead, to plan their next move.
“There’s no way Fury won’t get the wind of this,” she finally said, knowing he knew it, but it also needed to be said out loud, at least once.
Coulson heaved a deep sigh. “I’ll arrange a plane for us; we need to get to Miami and figure out where he’s headed. Until we’re ready to move out, keep on trying to find him.”
“Yes, sir,” Natasha said automatically and turned her attention back to the screen. Not for the first time she was glad about the access to Stark International’s satellite network; it might take Fury a few hours longer to figure out how badly they had fucked up.