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Del Rion [userpic]

Chitauri Apocalypse; Chapter 24: Empty Grave

[show info]Title: Chitauri Apocalypse
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Era: Post-Avengers movie
Genre: Action, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Jane Foster, Nick Fury, Happy Hogan, J.A.R.V.I.S., Loki, Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Lady Sif and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor
(Brief/smaller appearances: Odin, Maria Hill, Darcy Lewis, The Other, Benjamin “Benny” Pollack, Erik Selvig, Jasper Sitwell, Claire Wise.)
Pairings: Happy/Pepper, Jane/Thor. Mentions of: Benny/Claire, Pepper/Tony
Summary: Iron Man never fell back through the portal. The Avengers must deal with the loss of their comrade and move on – until Earth once again comes under an attack from the Chitauri and their new-found weapons that decimate everything in their path with unmatched power and intellect. As cities and nations collapse around their decreasing resistance, the heroes of Earth must find a way to defeat their enemy before there is nothing left to avenge.
Work in progress.
Written for: Apocalypse Big Bang, Round One (apocalypsebang at LiveJournal)
Art: Imaan (insteadofdeath at dA/DW/LJ)
Warnings: Graphic description of torture, major character death, apocalypse & invasion themes (including but not limited to: mass destruction, terrorism, holocaust, death, violence and gore), brain-washing & mind-control, language (including some remarks that could be seen as racist). Serious spoilers for the ending of The Avengers (and other random spoilers for the rest of the movies in the Avengers cinematic universe).




~ ~ ~




Chapter 24: Empty Grave




Malibu, CA


As might have been expected, Fury almost blew a gasket at Bruce’s plan. However, he was a smart guy and knew he couldn’t change Bruce’s mind about it so he just gave everyone in his vicinity one of those dark looks and let it happen.

The others Avengers were almost harder to convince but since their attempts to communicate with Tony always ended in death-threats and ill words, they had to agree Bruce was perhaps the only one who had a chance at getting through to Tony. It wasn’t something Bruce was particularly proud of, seeing as he barely knew the man and had no issues with him because of that, but they were at war, facing possible extinction and he wasn’t going to put up a fuss about why he was suddenly the one all this was riding on.

Their last visit to Malibu had been a cautious one. This one was no different, although they took a Quinjet as far as they dared, to minimize the time needed for traveling. They could fend off Chitauri if they were spotted and everyone grudgingly agreed that mecha might not be attacking them right now.

It didn’t mean no one voiced concerns:

“We’re delivering him back to his own doorstep,” Clint muttered one night.

They were gathered behind a van, a small fire on the ground, the back doors of the vehicle wide open and giving them a view at Tony who sat alone in front, staring at nothing. He had been offered supper but he had yet to move over and join the rest of the group. Bruce would take him something to eat afterwards if he didn’t join them at all.

“Let’s not forget the fact that he can kill us at any time,” Natasha mused.

“Yeah, that, too,” the archer said unhappily, poking the ground with a stick. “I mean, it’s great he hasn’t gotten us killed yet but he sounded pretty determined to do so, and frankly, I would rather just shoot him dead right now –”

“Barton!” Steve barked.

Clint looked only half-chastised. “He wants you dead more than most of us, Cap.”

Steve looked grim at the words, falling silent. Bruce gave him a careful look but knew better than to say something. Sadly, Clint was right; Tony’s previously tense friendship with Steve hadn’t gotten any better in his five years of captivity and Bruce sometimes feared that alone would make him turn on them.

But he hadn’t, and Bruce had insisted that Steve should join them on their trip to Malibu.

“Why do you want to take us back into the enemy zone?” Thor asked, voice strangely hushed as if he had suddenly learned to speak quietly.

Bruce hadn’t told any of them. Not that it was a surprise, but that last stretch of the journey he and Tony would take alone. “You’ll learn about it when the time comes. For now it’s enough that you make sure we get to our destination safely.”

Rhodey, who had joined them, let out an unhappy sound. He didn’t actively protest, though. Tony had threatened to kill him less than some other people, and although there clearly had been mistrust and problems between them, Rhodey had been the War Machine and that meant something.

They finished eating and Natasha took Clint with her out on patrol, to check the area around them. Her true agenda, most likely, was to make the archer cool off before he actually did as he had threatened and killed Tony.

Bruce gathered some of the remaining food and climbed into the van, moving across it and then squeezed into the front, taking the empty driver’s seat next to Tony. “Here,” he said and offered him the plate. Tony took it wordlessly, not even looking at it, his eyes glued to the sky. There was nothing but stars, far as Bruce could see, which was reassuring.

“You would think I’ve had my fill of stars,” Tony spoke up. “They’re different here, though. I recognize them. It’s like I’ve been looking at them backwards for five years and now they make sense again.” He frowned then plucked a piece of dried meat from the plate and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing mechanically. He had told Bruce of the substance he had been forced to eat until now, most of which he’d had to figure out for himself since the Chitauri had no understanding of human physiology. Feeding himself like a machine…

“We’re close, aren’t we?” Tony asked then, turning his face to look at Bruce across the dark cabin.

“Yeah.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see tomorrow.” Bruce closed his eyes, wondering if he could sleep a few more minutes than he had in the last few nights.

“Will the others join us?”

“No,” Bruce replied.

“So, you’re taking me on a date?”

Bruce smiled. “If that’s how you want to see it, but I have to warn you, it will be the most horrible date of your life.”

“Has to be pretty horrible to top all the bad ones I’ve had,” Tony quipped back and Bruce opened his eyes to look at him. Tony had resumed watching the stars, slowly passing food from the plate to his mouth.

For a moment it was as if none of the horrors of the past few months had occurred.

Bruce knew better than to let his brain be lulled into a false sense of complacency, however – even for a second.

- - -

The next morning, as the sun was climbing and a heavy mist had settled over the open fields, Bruce and Tony separated from the group and began the last stretch of their journey on foot. The others had given them quiet looks but said nothing; they knew the Hulk would be more than capable of saving his own skin if the worst happened – not that Bruce was about to unleash the other guy. He had no idea how the monster would deal with Tony’s presence. If he even knew him…

They walked up a long paved road until finally they came to a gate. It was still standing, miraculously, creaking as Bruce pushed it open. The mist hung heavy around them, clinging to the grass and the headstones, creating a rather eerie mood although the sun was climbing higher all the time, filling the world with light.

“I have to say you’re probably the first person to bring me to a cemetery on a date,” Tony commented.

Bruce smiled and wondered how the others hadn’t figured out his plan. Well, perhaps Steve had; the others hadn’t come here that often, far as Bruce knew. “Maybe it’s a good thing this isn’t a date, then.”

“It isn’t?” Tony didn’t sound angry or upset. He looked around, almost curious, as if trying to guess Bruce’s motivation. “Are we here so you can remind me of all the lives you’ve lost because of me? Of the horrible things I’ve done? That my mortal soul will never know peace?”

“Peace is overrated,” Bruce told him. “And you know exactly what you’ve done. Eventually it will bother you, but that’s not the point of our visit. I’m not going to guilt you into seeing things our way.”

“Then what?”

“I’m here to try and explain what you’ve refused to hear so far.”

“How is that different from trying to guilt me into changing my mind?”

Bruce led the way, not answering. He knew the steps even if he had never entered the cemetery from this direction. He knew the spot, found the right path and followed it. When he stopped, Tony halted behind him, still looking around. The mist had finally yielded to the warmth in the air, dissipating somewhat. It made their surroundings look beautiful, in a way. Peaceful. No sign of destruction or the decimation of the human race.

Tony had finally clued in as to why they were here: he was staring at the headstone directly in front of Bruce – the one with his name on it. The flowers on the grave had withered away since anyone had last been here, which was a shame.

“We buried you,” Bruce said slowly. “Well, not you. It’s empty. Someone suggested we bury the last armor you used but it seemed… It didn’t feel right,” he finally decided on the easy answer. He remembered that day, in too much detail. When he tore his eyes from the stone, Tony was still looking at it.

“People mourned for you, Tony, up till the day the attacks started. We missed you afterwards, too, because we were always one step behind the enemy when you weren’t there.” The irony of it all, now that they knew why exactly they had been overpowered, could have made him laugh manically before the inevitable tears started. He held it back.

“Each year they held a big memorial in New York City, to remember the dead and the one man who made a difference in our hour of need. The entire world knew you died a hero, to save us all, and while the true recollection of the fight may have faded, that memorial made sure no one really forgot about it.

“I attended the memorial the first year but it didn’t feel right. None of those people knew you – none but a select few. I came here instead, before heading away again, and I’ve kept coming back every year since. I hated it that I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t fight it, but I never hated you for… I don’t know, calling me home.” He paused, trying to calculate what day it was. How close were they to that day? “Every year I would find that I wasn’t alone. Every single year Steve came, like clockwork, finding me here.”

Tony let out an angry breath but Bruce wasn’t going to let it go this time.

“If you bothered to look at him, you would see the guilt he carries. Natasha may have shut the portal but Steve gave the order. He made the choice. Not knowing you survived, he suffocated himself with the idea that he should have done something different. That it was his call.”

“It was his call,” Tony snapped.

“Of course it was,” Bruce didn’t back off. “Someone had to make it. But it doesn’t mean he felt good about it, that he didn’t want to change it every day. How long would you have waited if it was one of us – and don’t tell me you would have just flown up to fish that person out of the portal?”

Tony seemed to be biting the inside of his cheek and looked unhappy. “Okay, so I shouldn’t be mad at Rogers.”

“That would be a start, yes,” Bruce admitted.

Tony raised his eyes, away from the headstone and the empty grave beneath it. “Should I spare his life when I kill everyone else? Leave him as the last man standing? Would that make you happy?”

“Does it matter what makes me happy?” Bruce quirked an eyebrow in response.

“You’re here with me, trying to convince me to forgive our fearless leader.”

“He’s not fearless, Tony.”

The other man let out a deep sigh, looking annoyed. “Can we not talk about him?”

“Fine. But think about it,” Bruce implored and they started to walk back.

“Did you ever get your strut on?” Tony asked after a bit. “Because I think you have more focus now. Not that you weren’t doing badly during our first…” He fell silent mid-sentence, as if just realizing all the implications of his words; that these past couple of months he had been fighting the same people who had been, for a short while, his team. People he was supposed to trust, to rely on, and who would have had his back.

People who let him fly that damn nuke into the portal and didn’t wait for him to fall back.

Bruce felt the old anger boil inside him again and had to stop and take a deep breath. Tony halted a few steps later, turning.

“The big guy?” he asked.

“No,” Bruce shook his head. “A reminder.”

“Of?”

“Of how we let you down.” He opened his eyes and looked at Tony. He had to tell himself yet again this wasn’t a mirage, that it was too real to be a dream or a hallucination.

Tony looked away and refused to meet his eyes until Bruce felt calm enough to continue and they found their way back to the gate, walking through it as it creaked ominously once more. Bruce turned to close it which earned him a chuckle from Tony. “What?”

“The world’s ending and you’re closing the gate,” Tony mused.

Bruce fixed him with a steady look, wondering if it was too early – or too late – for what he wanted to say. He decided to say it anyway: “The end of the world depends on one thing: you. It’s hardly something that cannot be averted.”

Again Tony refused to look at him and continued in a similar fashion all the way to the car – where he got into the van and refused to talk to anyone.

“How did it go?” Steve asked quietly.

“I… really can’t tell,” Bruce sighed and clasped Steve’s upper arm for a moment, then let it go and circled the vehicle to get in so that they could drive back to the Quinjet and return to base.

- - -

Steve wasn’t certain whether there was a change in the air, or if he was simply being hopeful.

On the drive and flight back to the East Coast, he caught Tony staring at him several times. Whenever he caught the man doing it, Tony would boldly hold his gaze for a time before Steve either looked away or Tony appeared to grow bored of the entire thing – yet he would do it again, eventually. Whether he was simply plotting Steve’s death was unclear, but the super-soldier liked to at least pretend most of the open animosity was gone from the other man’s gaze.

Once they got back to base, Tony was escorted to his room. It was perhaps unnecessary but no one wanted him to wander around freely, either. Tony didn’t complain, simply lying down on his bed and ignoring the others before he was left alone.

Fury, of course, wanted news of their trip to Malibu, right alongside Pepper and everyone else who had been left behind.

“It was boring,” Clint joked mildly. “No one died.” A few tired laughs were heard in response to his words.

“Are we any closer to winning him over?” Fury asked Bruce. They all knew Bruce had so far succeeded where the rest of them had failed, more or less, which was getting close to Tony and getting him talking about things that didn’t include wiping them all off the face of the Earth.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s on our side but he’s not as far gone as we may have feared,” Bruce replied.

“Oh, good, now we can just forget how he’s responsible for the deaths of a few million or so people,” Benjamin Pollack muttered from his seat. No one told him he was wrong, because he wasn’t; he had lost people he had cared about, just like everyone else. Those crimes would not go unnoticed but Steve felt they couldn’t afford to think too far ahead at this juncture.

“What about the harness?” Fury went on. “Can it be removed?”

“No,” Bruce replied quickly and adamantly.

“Long as he’s wearing it, the Chitauri can control him, correct?” Jane clarified. “We should at least try –”

“We cannot be certain the harness is the only thing enabling the Chitauri to control him at will,” Bruce argued. “Also, we don’t have the tools to operate on that thing, and I absolutely refuse to touch it.”

“You’re not the only person who could do it,” Agent Hill reminded him.

Bruce’s face paled, just slightly, and Steve could see this conversation was going to a very bad place very fast. He stepped up, slightly between his teammate and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. “No one’s touching the harness. It might kill Tony, and after that there’s no certainty what will happen. Worst case scenario is that the mecha kill everyone, everywhere.”

Fury nodded, looking grim.

Pepper looked relieved and gave Steve a small smile of thanks.

“So all of our lives depend on how well Dr. Banner can sweet-talk him into not attacking us?” Benjamin observed.

“That may not be our most pressing concern,” a voice mused from the back and everyone turned to look at Loki, who was leaning against a wall somewhere behind Thor’s back. The God of Thunder moved, revealing his adopted brother for their scrutiny.

“What do you mean?” Fury demanded to know.

“We stole from the Chitauri their most prized weapon – or the remote to the weapon,” Loki noted. “If they are intent on destroying us, they’ll come for him. That you managed to get to Malibu and back may have been good luck, Stark working in your favor or just a happy coincidence. If they’ve extracted any information from him, which I deem likely, the Chitauri will know enough of your resistance to track you down and start digging around for their lost ally.”

Steve considered this and hated how likely it sounded. “Did you tell them anything?” he asked then, making everyone hold their breath.

Loki locked eyes with him, gaze dark and deeply unhappy. “They didn’t need me to talk, Captain. I was your enemy once; I suppose they didn’t think I had gotten so deep in your circle of trust.”

“He would not lie to us,” Thor vouched for Loki, confident in his trust.

“He better not be,” Bruce replied.

Steve had a feeling that if Loki was the one who betrayed them – and Tony – to their enemy, the God of Lies was going to wish he had never escaped the Chitauri.





to be continued…


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