Banner by Aadler

the Song Remains the Same
by Aadler
Copyright January 2021

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Characters from the Avengers are property of Marvel Comics and Walt Disney Studios.

Nobody knows who she is.

*               *               *

She drops from a hole in the sky, which normally would have attracted considerable attention. Today, though, there’s already a lot of that happening, and it’s easy to overlook her initial appearance. By the time she gains the notice of the still-newly-formed Avengers, she’s already made herself recognizable as an ally … by landing on one of the Chitauri sleds, ejecting the two startled warriors from five hundred feet up, and then hurtling into the battle swirling above and within the concrete canyons of New York City. She flies like she was born to it, piloting the sled with an impossible virtuosity that lets her cut Chitauri flyers from the sky with that arcane axe-halberd-polearm thing she carries before she discovers the energy weapons and opens up with them, so that she’s doing nearly as much damage in the air as Stark himself (though Thor still has them both beat by a wide margin).

By the time the sled falls apart around her, the totality of her attack pushing the alien metal beyond its maximum capacities, she’s downed dozens of the other sleds, cut nearly a hundred more dismounted Chitauri from the sides of buildings, and had her activities spotted and reported by Barton. The fighting on the ground carries her to eventually join Rogers and Natasha — they see it happening, she sees it happening, all accept it without actively choosing it — and the three form an outward-facing triangle that tears apart anything that comes close to them.

When she and Natasha go to the top of Stark Tower to try and break the field around the portal generator, it almost triggers disaster: Natasha believes only Loki’s scepter can pierce the field, the newcomer says, “Just watch,” and raises her own weapon … but something makes her pause, she stops as if hearing some silent voice, and then she says, “Yeah, I think we may have a bigger problem right now.” Whatever alerted her, the portal remains open till Stark can force the nuke up through it (and then fall back down through it himself) before that whatever-it-is of hers slices through the field and destroys the generator, and then Banner-as-Hulk bellows Stark back to life and somehow it’s all over.

As an introduction, it’s not exactly what Hollywood would describe as “meet-cute”.

She proved herself by the only yardstick that matters to them right now, so they give her respect instead of suspicion or interrogation. Still, some things have to be acknowledged, so it’s Natasha who turns in her chair at the shawarma place and says matter-of-factly, “You’re new.”

The answer is little more than a shrug. “Not from around here, no.”

The ice broken, Stark drops the pretense of nonchalance. “So, you got a name, Short Stack?”

She starts a glare that would put a glaze on unfired clay, but then that fades into a thoughtful look. “Alerys,” she says at last. “Call me Alerys.”

*               *               *

She has no record of any previous existence, anywhere on Earth. This annoys Fury, and drives Stark half-crazy; neither of them deals gracefully with not-knowing something they believe they ought to know. ‘Alerys’ gives no further information, however, and no databases can dredge up anything on anyone like her (though there are a few hits on a former soap actress before that seeming similarity has to be firmly abandoned). She takes quarters at the new Avengers headquarters, not seeming to have or desire any other living place, and she and Natasha fall into some kind of immediate rapport … consisting primarily of their willingness to sit silently and unaffected by the silence. There’s a spookiness to it that bothers everyone else (except Barton, who only smiles), and it’s hard to avoid the thought that one of the things the two women share is a pleasure in unnerving their male companions.

All the same, it becomes clear over time that each of them seems to recognize something in her. If they ever spoke to one another about it (but somehow they don’t), they might realize that these recognitions differ markedly.

Rogers recognizes the eyes of a veteran, who has seen too much death and absolutely will never speak of it.

Natasha sees a core of steel, someone who had to — or chose to — remake herself, and isn’t entirely happy with the result but won’t shrink from the road she’s set herself to walk.

Barton knows a professional when one is standing in front of him, and remains unshaken in this conviction even when he has to admit that she doesn’t fit any ‘profession’ he knows or can imagine. (The uncertainty doesn’t actually bother him; he can see that she’s solid, and that’s really all he cares about.)

Stark, determinedly non-introspective, knows on a subliminal level what he won’t let himself consider consciously: that she snarks for the same reasons he does — for pleasure, to stay in practice, and as a shield — and refuses to follow that awareness any further. Self-knowledge is the only form of knowledge he shies away from, and this blind spot protects her from an analysis that would otherwise be razor-keen.

Thor is the only one who ever actually voices his thoughts of Alerys, albeit briefly and cryptically: “This is not her world. She is alone. Her grief merits our respect.” (Which makes less than no sense: the new girl is a never-slackening font of cutting-edge slang and pop-culture references, she’s immersed in the world, Rogers and Natasha and Thor himself could be considered not-quite-in-tune but Alerys is nothing but tune … but one doesn’t tell an almost-literal god that he’s full of crap, so they let this slide.)

She and Banner are the weirdest together. There is an innate courtesy in the way they deal with each other, a planet’s worth of words unspoken that can’t be heard by anyone else but clearly is understood by both of them. What could either the shy, soft-spoken physicist, or the giant green rage monster, have in common with a bottle-blonde valley girl with a magic axe? Nothing that anyone can see … but they see it, and see each other through it, and that’s something that not even Stark is going to poke at to see what might set it off.

Not when the two of them are so careful not to do that with each other.

*               *               *

They watch her, trust her, give her space. Each of them understands her, at least a little. None of them know her.

*               *               *

Intriguingly, a considerable amount of what they come to learn about her derives not from what they see, or even what they see her see, but — which requires a considerable stretching of attention and imagination — what they see each other see when they see her.

Yes, it really is that abstract.

It mostly comes during training, and most of that from sparring. Like the elite they are, they train constantly, as much from high-energy restlessness as from keen-edged professionalism, and for all her ditzy affectations, Alerys is right with them there. Rogers, the focused tactician, never stops evaluating the people alongside him, so he’ll know what he can count on from each of them during a fight. Natasha does much the same, though in her it springs from a habitual paranoia: anyone, anywhere, even someone she regards as an ally, might prove to be an enemy in the next instant, and she maintains a constant assessment of every potential foe. Barton, just as alert, is more easy-going about it; he just likes to know things, and Alerys is a new and interesting thing to learn. So they all watch her, and each other as they deal with her.

Quite a bit to see there, of course. She has greater speed than any of them, more strength than anybody but the three heavyweights, and skill … her skill is difficult to evaluate, since she never evinces anything recognizable as a particular style, but somehow she always makes the exact move that’s most suitable for a given moment. Her situational awareness is superb, at least on par with that of the super-soldier and the two direct-action spies; more telling, her awareness of them, of the positions and capabilities and most likely next actions of her teammates, seems all but flawless.

It’s in one-on-one, though, where the next bit gradually makes itself known.

Barton and Natasha have the most experience with one another, of course, so he analyzes what he sees from that standpoint. When he and Nat go at each other in sparring, it’s all-out, nothing held back, the only compromise being that strikes that would be lethal or crippling are delivered in such a way as to do lesser damage (and they dislike even that much, because there’s a particular peril in getting accustomed to not obliterating your adversary). Barton does the same when it’s him and Rogers, giving it everything he’s got, but he knows he can’t win, he just wants to see how well he can do against the ultimate soldier; Rogers, however, is visibly careful to scale it down just enough that he doesn’t kill or maim his teammate (which is both necessary and appreciated).

When it’s Rogers and Natasha, though, all they do is spar. Cautious, technical, always withholding any real commitment. They never try more, because — it’s very clear to Barton — both of them already know the underlying truth. The strength differential between them is too great; the only way she could beat Rogers would be by killing him, and if she ever turned that loose on him, he could stop her only by killing her instead.

When Barton goes against Alerys the first time, they ramp it up gradually until they hit their final cruising speed … and he quickly sees, and likewise spots the moment that Rogers and Natasha equally realize, that for all the differences in the individuals and their capabilities and approaches, it’s essentially a replay of Barton/Rogers. On one side, no holds barred; on the other, response metered exactly to the level where the petite blonde won’t terminate the expert government assassin in a split-second.

Alerys and Natasha, same thing, except that Natasha is pushing beyond her customary maximum; she’s genuinely doing her utmost to kill her opponent, apparently and correctly assuming that even that murderous totality won’t be more than the newcomer can handle. (And, in the process, satisfying herself — because Barton knows his long-time partner well — that any true contest between them would require a sniper rifle, poison, ambush, or booby-trap. This is one of the things Nat likes to know.)

Alerys and Rogers … that’s more drawn-out, less immediately clear-cut, because their personal abilities are so similar. He can’t match her for speed, but his control of his own body is just as perfect as hers. She’s actually only slightly stronger than he is, but she can seemingly bring all her strength to bear more quickly than he can; balancing that, he has enough physical mass to direct his strength in a way different from how she has to use her own. A bout between them is a lightning-speed chess match of brute force, technical virtuosity, and unparalleled combat spirit. This has to be unprecedented for him, and he throws himself fully into it, obviously exhilarated at finally finding someone he can meet as an equal. Until the unexpected moment — and Barton sees it happen — that he spots the two spies critically observing the match, and realizes what they’re seeing: albeit much less obviously, Alerys is taking it easy with him, too.

Interesting. Chastening, for Rogers, though he immediately conceals his recognition of it, and Barton gets the definite impression that the other man can see the humor of it all even if he doesn’t let it show.

Only, it doesn’t stop there.

It’s when she gets to go against Thor that Alerys finally cuts loose, gives it her all, and her joy in being able to do so is … educational. Thor seems to relish it, too, and devotes everything except his full strength to the contest, to the immense pleasure of them both. A new recognition: Natasha and Barton are operators, Rogers is a soldier, but Thor and Alerys are warriors, and hurl themselves at each other with unrestrained glee.

Except when they use their personal weapons, hammer and halberd (though she persists in calling it a scythe). Then it’s Rogers/Natasha all over again: two killers, politely playing patty-cake because doing otherwise would inevitably mean death for one … and, genuinely, no guarantee which one.

*               *               *

For all the matter-of-factness with which Alerys promptly made herself at home, it’s easy to see that New York City is new to her, and she sets out to familiarize herself with her environment. She sees Broadway with Natasha, visits little jazz clubs with Rogers, explores the boroughs with Barton — or, less often, Banner — learns the subway system, reads the newspapers and the tourist brochures. Then she starts venturing out on her own.

Without needing to discuss the matter, the two agents set themselves to track her as best they can. Not suspicion: basic information-gathering. On her first outing, Alerys spends a couple of hours at a cyber café, and Barton naturally calls the IT people at SHIELD to pull the records of her online activities. Not especially illuminating: a few quick checks of a cheerful-sounding neighborhood in San Francisco County, which appears not to be what she was looking for because she abandoned it quickly; certain odd-sounding names that brought no results, other less exotic names that showed some matches but were checked off and discarded; further searches along certain folklore lines, and for various types of organizations in England (several bird-watchers’ councils, again impatiently clicked past and closed out); and, finally, checks of the local crime stats, with particular attention to individual crimes of direct violence.

Natasha and Barton look over the readouts, exchange a glance and a shrug. Alerys seems to have been checking various possibilities, but unrelated to each other unless there’s some common thread they aren’t seeing (nor the SHIELD analysts, either). The main point that comes through is that she didn’t get any hits that she thought worth pursuing.

Then she starts doing night outings, and things get a lot more interesting and a lot more tenuous. They’ve had time to observe the keenness of her senses; those, and her strength and quickness, make it nearly impossible for them to keep up with her without being spotted. They’re experts at this, however, and extraordinary in their own right; still, it takes all their experience, ingenuity, intuition, and tech support — from SHIELD and directly from Stark — for them to maintain a sketchy tracing of her forays through alleys and tenements and factories (and cemeteries?), and even at that it seems likely that she would have been impossible to track if she’d put actual effort into staying unseen.

(During all this, a number of muggers find their livelihood quickly and brutally disrupted, several of them with probable career-ending injuries. That seems incidental, however; the clear sense is that Alerys is seeking something else, and is if anything annoyed by having to deal with lesser distractions.)

Then it all ends, just as uninformatively as everything before. A baroque five-story building on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, windows on all sides and a large circular one centered in the front on the top floor (with a design on that window which matches no pattern-recognition anywhere in the SHIELD databases); she goes inside, stays for a very long time, exits just as the streetlights are coming up. Barton has placed a camera arrow in the corner of a cornice on the building on the other side; Natasha, well out of sight far back in a darkened room with a view, trains a focused parabolic microphone on their teammate, because they’ve learned from previous surveillance that Alerys will sometimes make little comments to herself when she believes she’s alone.

As she does now. “Montesi Formula,” she mutters, with a bitterness that’s almost venomous. “Really coulda used something like that, now, couldn’t we? But no-o-ooooo! Frickin’ Powers —” Then she’s out of range, but not so far ahead that Natasha can’t see that, for the last several steps before she turns the corner, Alerys is stomping down the sidewalk.

Back at the repurposed Stark Tower, Natasha and Barton sync the video and audio, going over the consolidated product several times until it’s clear they’ve gleaned all there is to learn. They don’t bother to discuss it; not enough there to draw any conclusions, they’ll have to get more before the different pieces might fit together to form an indicative whole. Familiar work.

Except there are no more pieces. Alerys stops her unexplained searches, her city explorations, her quasi-patrols. Whatever she found, or didn’t find, seems to have either satisfied or totally frustrated her, and her solo outings come to an abrupt end.

Unless subsequent clues come from some other direction, they’ll have to accustom themselves to living with the mystery. Fortunately, as experienced field agents, Natasha and Barton are accustomed to having an incomplete picture. Which is good, because there will never be any further explanation.

*               *               *

Rogers could see something was going on — by the way Alerys didn’t attempt to hide her personal explorations but also made no move toward explaining them, and by the way the two SHIELD agents happened to always go out right after she did — but he marked those things without pressing any of the participants. As a man who’s spent a substantial period of his life in a goldfish bowl, the center of much of the world’s attention, he has a certain predisposition toward allowing people their own space.

Still, he’s paid attention. So he sees when the pattern stops, sees the youngest member of the new team withdraw somewhat into herself, giving everyone a cheerful, casual mask but spending rather more time in solitude and setting boundaries even in the company of others. And he notices when she finally consents to let Stark do something about the wooden shaft — and stabbing-spike at the end — of her singular weapon. Stark had been insisting that he could come up with something stronger and lighter, and she repeatedly refused, but now she agrees to accept a protective titanium outer shell over that part of it.

Not a replacement, for which he forcefully argued, but something she can detach with a quick key-sequence that will let the shell fall away to leave her with the original weapon. “Why?” Stark protests. “Why go with just a bit of plating over the wood? An integrated shaft would be a lot more structurally sound, plus I could work all kinds of useful things into it.”

Alerys only shrugs. “Doesn’t look like I’ll ever need the wood again,” she admits. “But, you know what? I’d just rather not take the chance.”

A brief spark of animation, then her walls are back in place.

Rogers leaves it alone. So do the others. Even Stark, almost pathologically intrusive, seems to skitter away from this: uncharacteristic, but fortunate. Rogers spent enough time with men in wartime to spot certain familiar patterns. This one strongly resembles a soldier who just got a Dear John letter; not quite that, maybe not even close to that, but she has the look of someone who’s lost something and is still trying to figure out exactly how she’ll make her way through a new and unfamiliar future.

Maybe that’s the secret of Stark’s unusual non-pushiness. Rogers assumes that Barton and Natasha can share his recognition of someone quietly dealing with private wounds … but then, Stark has his own experiences with loss and recovery, doesn’t he? So he might — even purely on a subconscious level — be automatically avoiding something that strikes a chord with him.

If so, better to not mention it. If Stark realized his reasons, or that anyone else was aware of them, it might trigger an overreaction. Just as with Alerys and her unspoken issues, it’s best to leave such things to themselves.

And he does. Until she brings it to him.

He’s in one of the dayrooms, watching the latest in a series of documentaries he uses to familiarize himself with some of the history he missed. He knows the process will never end; even if he learns all the facts, it’s not the same as living through those events, and each new perspective fills in some aspect of the great blank canvas that covers the last seventy years. He’s aware when Alerys comes in; she doesn’t speak, so he accepts her noncommittal presence and continues his viewing.

“What’s it like for you?” she asks him suddenly. It’s unexpected, and when he glances her way, he has the feeling she may have surprised herself by asking. She doesn’t look away, though, and their gazes hold for a long moment while he considers the question and what she must mean by it.

At last he sighs. “Like I’m living on another planet,” he says. “Most of the time we don’t speak the same language; even the same words, meaning the same things, come from a different place, and half the time when I talk to somebody, we’re talking right past each other.” He shakes his head. “It isn’t like I have nothing in common with them; but there are so many places I don’t, and I know I don’t even know what all of them are, and sometimes it feels like it would be easier for me if I was on Mars.”

She nods, in a way he takes to mean Go on, so he does. “I was eleven years old when the Depression started, old enough to see how fast things changed. Practically everybody was hard-strapped, even the ones who were doing okay knew it could all go away in a moment. Today … poor people today have air conditioning and color TVs and internet access, nobody has to worry about polio or diphtheria or rickets, the whole country is so ridiculously rich and everybody just seems to take it for granted.” He shakes his head. “And that isn’t even the part that’s hardest to get used to.”

She tilts her head slightly. “So what’s the hardest?”

He catches himself, gives her a crooked smile. “Okay, I can hear me sounding like all those old men who’d stand on the stoops and lecture anyone who held still long enough: You kids got it so easy now, back in my day … No, I think I’ll let this go while I’m still ahead.”

She gives an impatient shrug. “So make it a short answer. Cryptic, if you have to, but I still want to know. What part’s the hardest?”

This is something he’s never said to anyone else, and he’ll probably regret it, but in this moment she’s reaching out, she needs truth even if it’s a truth that seems irrelevant. “Okay, then. Touring with the USO, and then when I actually started doing something useful, I spent time on military bases all over the world. It may not be in the recruiting brochures, but … any time you get large bunches of soldiers together, you also get camp followers.”

She blinks at that. “I am so of the huh? wha? huh? on this.” At his blank look, she says, “Camp followers. I don’t know what that means.”

With an inward wince — he is, after all, talking to another soldier here, but she’s still female — Rogers clarifies. “Prostitutes. Women ready to show servicemen a good time, and turn a profit from it.”

She nods understanding. “Okay, got it. And?”

Another sigh, and he finally says it. “And a lot of those prostitutes … they’d be shocked at the way so many modern women behave today.”

That raises her eyebrows. “Seriously?” Then, with a sharp look directly at him: “It’s that bad?”

“It isn’t so much what they do,” he explains. “It’s the attitudes. What women then would have called debased, a lot of women today call liberated.” He grimaces. “Even call it fulfillment. As if they’re perfectly entitled to do, or be, certain things even if they choose not to. And it makes no sense to me, I just can’t get my head around it: what could be fulfilling about behaving in a way that would embarrass a prostitute?”

He can see her understanding some of it, and can see that she’s missing a lot of it, can even see her realize that she isn’t catching it all. She lets it go, doesn’t push for detail he’s no longer willing to give. She got her answer, and she’s considering what that answer might mean.

When she speaks, it’s not a question. “You were fighting to save the world,” she says. “And you did save it, or at least big chunks of it … and your reward for that was that you lost your world. Everything you knew is gone. Everything you saved, you never got to see.” Her expression shows nothing. “That just … totally bites.”

Here, at least, the answer is easy. “I wasn’t the only one fighting. A lot of people died in that fight; it would … would be disrespectful to them, for me to complain about not having what I want when I didn’t die.”

She nods again, grimly. “Oh, I understand that part, trust me. Including where you don’t even get to feel sorry for yourself without feeling guilty about it. And now here you are, back doing the same thing all over again, the words may change but —” She breaks off abruptly, raises her eyes to his. “You’ve lost your home forever,” she says more quietly. “How do you deal with that?”

And he looks back to her, gaze steady, and his words are level and calm. “If you ever figure that out, be sure and let me know.”

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