the Song Remains the Same
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.
Despite how well the entire group seemed to mesh, even from the beginning it’s been clear that the teamwork between Barton and Natasha operates on an entirely different level. It’s as if they’re a single entity, interfacing with the others but themselves united in perception and focus and understanding. Alerys makes an idle comment on it one day, in a relaxed moment, and the two agents trade expressionless glances before Natasha acknowledges almost grudgingly, “We were a team before this team, going back years now. With SHIELD.”
Natasha, however private she might be about specific details of her past, has made no attempt to conceal the broad strokes, so this elicits a raised eyebrow from Alerys. “I guess Fury has more imagination than I gave him credit for.”
This time it’s Barton who admits, “It wasn’t exactly Fury’s idea.” Which brings another raised eyebrow, so Natasha repeats the familiar summary: “During some of the various … upheavals in Russia, there was question as to whether I had become an independent operator, and various people decided my skill-set made it too dangerous to wait and find out. SHIELD sent Barton to terminate me. Instead he recruited me.”
Now both eyebrows are up. “Wow,” Alerys observes. “That must have been one interesting mission debrief.”
This time there’s no need for traded glances, as both agents remember the aftermath all too well. Natasha simply says nothing, while Barton murmurs, “Yeah, you could say that.”
What neither of them mentions is something they likewise never express to each other, because each of the two knows one part but isn’t completely sure of the rest (though each suspects):
He recruited her because she had a chance to kill him, and didn’t. She accepted recruitment because he had a chance to kill her, and didn’t. But she didn’t kill him because she failed in a way she simply doesn’t fail, and he didn’t kill her because he missed a shot he couldn’t possibly have missed, and each regarded his/her own non-death as something that might have been an opening overture, and negotiated from there. The result has been a partnership closer than many marriages, but still it all began with impossibility.
Neither believes in divine intervention (even with a demigod fighting alongside them), and neither can afford to entertain the possibility of having been redirected by his/her own subconscious, because this could undermine self-confidence in a way that can’t be countenanced for a moment. So each puts it down to stupendously unlikely chance, and tries determinedly to never think about it at all.
Sometimes, in bleak, pessimistic moments, that’s particularly difficult. But they try hard.
* * *
In a similar fashion, slowly growing awareness of the various things they don’t talk about with Alerys starts each of the others to paying some (mostly unwilling) attention to the things they don’t talk about with each other. Particularly when Alerys herself touches on a sore point without intending to or even knowing she has. (Because, even to have an inkling of just what it is she doesn’t know, she’d need to already have more knowledge of them than she possesses.)
Rogers finds himself remembering, back in the argument aboard the SHIELD helicarrier before attack shunted them into a different course, how close he came to using his knowledge of Howard Stark to make a cutting comparison to his deceased sponsor’s apparently even more brilliant (and apparently even more extravagantly amoral) offspring. The words were almost on his lips, he doesn’t even know what held him back from using them; he and Stark are working fairly well together now, there’s even something growing there that might come to resemble friendship, but in retrospect it’s terrifyingly clear that what he didn’t quite say (but it was there, wanting so badly to jump out) would have obliterated any such possibility. Like Barton and Natasha, he doesn’t want to think about this unwelcome recognition, and like them he keeps having it come back into his thoughts.
Stark, in turn, finds himself uneasily wondering if the last few walls between him and Pepper (because those are still there, even with the both of them doing their utmost to get past them) might be because of his strained relationship with his father: he could never escape the feeling that he was a disappointment, even when he was deliberately going over the top in defiant rebellion, and now a part of him worries that he might do even worse than Howard at being a father. He hates introspection, and tries to push it away, but he knows this one will keep returning because … because he needs to deal with it. And he hates that, too.
Thor, more aware than the others of the essential aloneness of Alerys in her new home (for not even the Bifrost can locate her old one), has that awareness push him to unwanted recognition of how carefully he’s been not-thinking of the inescapably temporary nature of his current relationship with Jane Foster. However beloved she may be to him (and he at least knows that he is earnest in this), the limits of her lifespan mean that her remaining years, even if he spends every moment with her, will pass like the blink of an eye. It can’t be helped, but it’s almost as impossible to face. Nor, he is gloomily conscious, would immortality necessarily be a remedy (he and Sif spent much of a millennium getting past the aftershocks of something that had looked so promising at first); he knows of only one marriage between immortals that has proven both enduring and happy, and he can hope to be as successful as his parents someday but cannot by any means be sure such success will come to him.
… what Banner never says is about Alerys herself.
She gets along well with all of them, but the nature of that affinity is different for each. She relaxes most with Natasha and with him; but with Nat, it’s two people who have a number of common interests (and some common capabilities), and with him, it’s two people who … feel each other.
She’s hopeless in chess, even though she keeps trying and is a cheerful good sport in every massacre he perpetrates on her. Unsurprisingly, she excels at Go, the less linear and more open-ended aspect of the game structure seeming to give free play to unparalleled combat instincts. And they both laugh about it, which he suspects wouldn’t be possible with anyone else except as carefully crafted pretense.
They can relax with each other because each knows the other knows just how much ferocity has to be kept in check. Buried deeper in her than in him, but just as perceptible to the instincts he’s so meticulously crafted over the years. They can trust one another as neither can ever trust the others … because none of the others can truly understand what she, and he, can see so clearly in themselves.
None of the others truly know what berserker means.
* * *
Alerys is one of only two female Avengers, but there are other women involved with the team (or perhaps with some of the team members). She meets with most of the inner core at one time or another, and finally there’s a casual get-together arranged for all of them at a restaurant for which Stark — true to form — bought out all the evening’s reservations, so that the women have the place to themselves. Pepper Potts was the one to arrange it, but several of them quietly suspect it was Maria Hill who found a way to subtly plant the idea … because Fury has never quite given up on trying to learn what he can about the group’s still-mysterious seventh member.
If so, Hill behaves herself, joining freely in the girl-talk and in-group gossip and professional badinage, and giving every impression of being happy to let her hair down. Pepper, always chairman of the board but with a social touch that utterly dwarfs Stark’s, deftly facilitates the individual interactions till everyone is in a comfortable place and everything is moving smoothly, then she relaxes and settles in with it herself.
As happens so frequently, quite a bit of what’s most interesting in this oh-so-impromptu get-together (uh-huh, right) comes from the ways Alerys reacts to the personalities around her.
She responds to Jane Foster’s occasional science-focused off-tangent babbling with what seems to be recognition and fondness, though she doesn’t attempt to participate. Her reaction to the bizarre logic-jumps and pop-culture segues of Darcy Lewis is just as positive but completely different: she dives right in, grinning hugely, and the two youngest women play off each other to see who can escalate to the most outlandish levels, in what quickly becomes a comedy-club version of Dueling Banjos.
She basks in Pepper’s regard, as if this is the closest she comes to ever feeling at home, but uses that as a base from which to interact with everyone else; similarly, since she spends so much time with Natasha anyhow, she deals with her here only when she and Nat and Hill get into a quick armaments discussion. To wit (mostly curiosity from Hill’s side), why Alerys resists using firearms of any type. “A gun won’t go any faster than a gun goes,” she explains to Hill. “It just doesn’t, it is what it is and that’s that. Basic hand-weapon, though — especially the Scythe — I can make it go as fast as I go. Totally better rhythm in a fight.”
Hill argues, Natasha watches with amusement, there’s high-level discussion of small-group tactics and weapons load-outs and assessing/dominating the battle-space (whatever it might turn out to be), and at one point Alerys mutters, “Boy, you and Sam would get along great.” Hill sees Natasha watching, tries not to show her automatic internal response (add cross-reference to Sam or Samuel in aggregate database), and waves for another pitcher of margaritas.
Surprisingly, it was fun, genuinely fun. They all promise to do it again. More surprisingly, they actually do.
* * *
Rogers is in his personal quarters one evening when there’s a quick tap at the door. Not startled, he’s nonetheless a bit surprised, most people use Stark’s intercom system to call ahead. When he answers, it’s Alerys. “Hello,” he says. “Did you need something?”
She shrugs, makes a vague gesture toward the inside of his room; he’s turned down the sound, but left it on. “Heard the music, got curious. That’s your kind of thing?”
Forties music, of course (though some left over from the late Thirties), of the type that orchestras and swing bands would have played in the little clubs in Brooklyn and London. “Not really,” he answers. “I mean, yes, it’s familiar, and I like to relax to it sometimes, but I don’t … I don’t play it for listening.”
Her eyes show a spark of interest, quickly hidden. “So what kind of stuff do you use for listening?”
“I like quite a bit of modern music,” he tells her. “Jim Reeves, Natalie Imbruglia, Al Stewart —”
She laughs at that, and after a moment he realizes that she thinks it’s funny to use ‘modern’ to describe those artists. Ah, the thoughtless, inflexible conservatism of the very young! It amuses rather than offends him, and he adds, “Relatively speaking, I guess.”
She steps into the room (one of several small quirks about her, she never requests or offers an invitation to entry), her eyes on the state-of-the-future-art stereo setup Stark insisted on foisting on him. “What I was hearing, it reminds me of stuff my mom used to pull out every couple of years, and play on that old turntable she’d always have to dust off. From her parents, probably, or maybe even her grandparents. It was part of her memories of them … and now it’s one of my memories of her.”
Rogers nods at that, waiting. It’s unusual for her to reveal anything personal, even something so seemingly trivial. The selection ends and another starts, and they listen together for a minute. Then, “Dance music?”, she asks him.
“People danced to it,” he agrees. “But they also played it just to hear.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Her eyes are on nothing. “What was it like to dance to?”
“I wouldn’t know.” She looks to him at that, and he explains. “My mother tried to teach me the steps a few times, but I … wasn’t very coordinated then.” He finds his own gaze going to something that isn’t anywhere in the room. “Later, after everything changed for me … I had a dance waiting, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to keep that appointment.”
She gives no sign of being aware of what he’s not saying, but somehow he doesn’t think she missed it. She continues staring at the stereo, the rich sounds of alto sax floating like velvet in the air around them, and then she gives him a quick glance. “Can you teach me?”
The thought of Steve Rogers teaching someone to dance is comical … but in his new incarnation he understands movement, pattern, purpose, and the girl in front of him is every bit his equal in that. He shows her the foxtrot, probably the simplest of the basic steps that he understands, and they move together smoothly as a combat kata. He’s a foot taller than she is, even in those ridiculous heels she always wears, but neither that nor her initial unfamiliarity nor his memories of past awkwardness hinder them in the slightest.
When the piece ends, he lets go of her and moves to turn off the stereo. Right now, he couldn’t bear to listen to another, he just couldn’t. They stand together in the silence, each focused on some invisible world (but not the same world). “Thanks,” she says at last, her voice faint and brittle. “I’ll … I’ll see you.”
He holds the door for her, closes it behind her, then goes to the nearest chair and sits down heavily.
She left very suddenly. He thinks maybe she was about to cry. Or — just as possible — she can’t do that any more than he can.
* * *
Fury has waited longer than anyone ever expected, but finally his habitually short patience is exhausted beyond any possibility of further postponement. He and Alerys have met previously a few times when it was the entire group gathered for one briefing or another, and even then his dissatisfaction was made plain in pointed, acid side-comments; now, he’s set aside time for just the two of them, and she arrives in the meeting-room Stark set up, with an air of sang-froid he’s never experienced from anyone who knew the least bit about him. (Stark overreacts, but he reacts; Rogers and Natasha are perfectly self-controlled, but it is self-control, and necessary. Alerys shows no sign of even being aware — or, if aware, of caring in the least — about the raw aggression Fury can exude at will, and is now doing.)
“Miss Alerys —” he begins in a biting, ominous burlesque of formality.
“Just Alerys,” she cuts in cheerfully.
He nods at that. “Right. ’Cause you either won’t give a surname, or won’t say whether that is your surname.” He scowls at her. “As for ‘Alerys’, that’s not as enigmatic as you might like to think.”
Her answering smile is sunny and unconcerned. “I yam what I yam,” she says to him. “And, trust me, my life has drummed it into me that I’ll never be able to leave that behind. Here, at least, I can do what I do without having to keep answering to a title I got tired of a long time ago.”
He marks that down, knowing it wasn’t a slip, and continues. “Uh-huh. Well, it all keeps coming back to the same thing: you’re too much of an unknown quantity. You made a hell of a debut, and the others stand up for you, and that all counts for a great deal, so I’ve let this go on for too long already. At the end of the day, though, I have to know everything I can about the people working under me.”
This smile is even easier, and the amusement seems genuine; it’s entirely possible she’s been preparing herself for this meeting for as long as he has. “Under you? Wow, did I ever manage to miss that memo.”
Fury finds himself going with instinct now that battle has been joined, knowing full well that she’s doing the same. “You and the others have been taking SHIELD’s sponsorship for granted. A lot of that has been earned, and I won’t say your bunch has abused the privilege. But it is not limitless.”
She shrugs that away. “Be real, you’re lucky the Avengers are willing to work with you. We’ve got three guys who could each single-handedly take on any army you tried to throw against them, and our leader is someone who swore allegiance to America, not to SHIELD. And your two agents … if it came to a choice, by now, can you really be sure which side they’d take?”
Fury shakes his head. “What you’re talking about is something I’m dead-set on avoiding at any cost. This team is more than our heavy strike force: it’s turning into the organization’s conscience, and you can’t know how much we need that. Which is why you can’t keep up the woman-of-mystery act.” He lets himself loom over her. “I have to know who you are. I have to know I can predict which way you’ll jump. You’re a loose wheel in a delicately balanced mechanism, and we have to know where you can be made to fit the balance.”
He didn’t expect her to be intimidated by the empty display of physical dominance; what he wanted was to see her response to it. Which can be summed up as nonexistent. “Two things,” she observes matter-of-factly. “First, if you ever did find out anything about me? ever find anybody in the world who knows me, or who I know? You’d instantly be my new best friend forever, I’d rub your back and peel your potatoes and wind up your cat any time you wanted. It just isn’t going to happen, no matter how much I wish it could.” She sighs, then shakes away the inexplicable mood-shift. “Second thing, you just have NO idea how un-mixy I am with all the military baloney.”
That brings an unplanned laugh. “Military? Little girl, I am so much worse than that. I’m spymaster, spook, shadow ops. I’m one of the cold-blooded bastards who use soldiers as pawns, and right now I’m just about the best in the world at it.” (Though there are a couple of guys in China he’s watching closely, and an old South African who keeps fading out of view and can’t be kept under reliable surveillance …) “I’m the sleeveful of aces when you need them, and the enemy you’ll never see coming if I should decide you’re an enemy.”
For the first time she seems to study him seriously, and that lasts for nearly ten seconds. Then the smile is back. “Nah,” she says, all flippant confidence. “You’re a good guy. You may not think of yourself that way, but you are.” She leans toward him, and whispers conspiratorially, “You could destroy us. I know that. Guys like you, you always have protocols in place.” Then she steps back, still smiling. “But you’ll never activate them, because we’re just too darn useful.”
She turns to leave, twirling that weird-ass halberd in a fashion that doesn’t even try to be threatening, it’s just something she does as absently as whistling a tune. “As for deciding I’m an enemy?” she tosses back over one shoulder. “You’d really want to make sure you did that before I decided the same thing about you.”
And that isn’t a threat, either. Still, he stands for some time after she’s gone, body motionless and mind moving swiftly and forcefully, before turning in a flamboyant swirl of leather coat to stride out to the waiting hovercraft.
* * *
It was always inevitable, but somehow nobody sees it coming. In fact, there really wasn’t any way it could have been foreseen, since the central figure was unaware of it herself … yet, still, ultimately it was inevitable.
The overall tasking (too low-level even to be called a mission or an operation) was supposed to be routine: check out some reports, some possibilities, suggestions of an activist cell calling itself Cold Force and looking less like a criminal organization and more like the beginnings of something larger. That naturally falls within Barton’s and Natasha’s usual field of activity, but Rogers asks to be included because even the whispers sound uncomfortably similar to the Hydra organization he and the Commandoes spent so many months eradicating, and Alerys opts to come along because it’s something to do. Thor is away from Earth at the time, Stark is too high-profile in the suit, and Banner’s alter-ego isn’t something you bring out unless there’s something big that needs indiscriminate smashing, so it’s just the four lowest-powered members of the group, and they even carry out their scout-recon in civvies.
Nobody knows what goes wrong, which different departments or agencies might have screwed up or even IF there was a screw-up, but it all turns bad before anyone realizes the bad has even begun. Natasha and Alerys are on one rooftop, Barton on another a block away, and Rogers reporting from ground level a half-block in the other direction, when the two women hear shots and screams from a building they hadn’t even got around to checking. They react in the same instant, Natasha a running-jump-and-tumble to the next rooftop and Alerys simply launching herself in a massive leap that drops her straight down through the skylight, with Natasha doing a grip-and-swing past the shattered glass a bare second behind her.
Not being actually superhuman, Natasha has to bounce off a couple of things on the way down rather than taking a direct fall, but she lands with both pistols out and a freeze-frame grasp of the basic situation: twenty-some armed men in matching quasi-uniform outfits, dozens of civilians (hostages? accidental bystanders? unexpected obstacles?), something must have tipped off their quarry or spooked them and they tried to flee through (or barricade themselves in) this building, and something else went wrong and the shots were when the Cold Force men lost control and started firing into the inside crowd.
And Alerys … freezes.
The hesitation is barely perceptible; anyone less seasoned than Natasha or Barton or Rogers wouldn’t have perceived it, and then only because they know their teammate’s normal reaction speed. It unquestionably IS a hesitation, however, and Natasha is already taking down targets when Alerys unfreezes and moves, from which point she proceeds with unswerving, merciless surety of purpose.
The result is — there is no other way to describe it — pure, brutal slaughter.
Natasha can shoot (barely) faster than Alerys can move, but the aggressors and the innocents are so intermixed as to make direct fire chancy, and Alerys is right in among them, scythe flashing and slashing, the youngest Avenger blazing through all opposition like a bolt of lethal, terrible lightning. In seconds — seconds! — every one of the Cold Force ‘soldiers’ is down, and Natasha knows full well only three of them were from her own shots. With the last of the gunfire gone, the only sounds are screams and gurgles … and the bulk of the screams are from the civilians, because blood is everywhere, and most of it not theirs.
Alerys didn’t kill all the Cold Force men, Natasha notes clinically: some, she removed as a threat by cutting off their hands or arms. The same clinical dispassion tells her that most of those will bleed out before they can be saved.
Rogers and Barton arrive in the next seconds, with police a minute later and EMTs a few more minutes behind that. “It was necessary,” Natasha tells the two men in those first moments, and that’s the message that keeps being repeated as more support arrives. “They were shooting the hostages, and there was no time to go easy on them.” A hasty triage stabilizes some of the wounded civilians, though several never had a chance, and a quick call to SHIELD gets the four of them out — and an oversight team in — before the whole thing can turn into an all-out circus.
Throughout the aftermath, Alerys is controlled, silent, expressionless. Hair and clothes splashed with blood, she could easily be a victim herself, but nobody mistakes her for one. They just don’t. Natasha exercises some kind of mythical female prerogative, takes Alerys to a private place in the briefing center where they landed and sponges away the blood, while someone else brings clean clothing (hospital scrubs, not a tactical uniform) to replace the blonde girl’s soaked, ruined apparel. Neither of them speaks; Natasha would answer if Alerys made an overture, but that doesn’t happen, and Natasha has already decided that this goes beyond her.
A glance in Barton’s direction when they emerge, and he moves in to take over, steering Alerys smoothly away while Natasha remains to watch with a puzzled Rogers as the other two find a spot, Barton speaking quietly and Alerys beginning to respond with an occasional frozen, tentative nod. Rogers clearly doesn’t understand; Natasha barely understands only a very little, but that ‘barely’ carries a world of unwelcome meaning.
“I don’t get it,” Rogers admits, his eyes still on the distant pair. “I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but that … that was always with new soldiers, the ones who had only just found out the ugly reality of war, that the people on the other side are people, too, and that still doesn’t change what you have to do to fight them. This, here, this doesn’t match what we’ve seen of her. The way she went through the Chitauri, when she first arrived: you just don’t get that good at killing unless you’ve done a lot of it, and she was every bit that good. Why this, why now?”
Natasha’s not sure herself (though an odd, vagrant part of her attention can recall how easy it was to fight the Chitauri, to not have to turn off the side of her mind that would register killing actual people). Even so, she knows the signs of someone who just crossed a line she’d always stood on the other side of before: maybe sworn she’d never make that crossing, maybe didn’t even realize that she could do it till it was already done. It makes no more sense to her than it does to Rogers, but she can trust her perceptions without understanding how they could be true, and even more she trusts Barton’s. “I don’t know,” she admits. “But I don’t have to know. Clint will look after her. He’s good at that. Probably take her to the farm …”
Rogers shoots her a sharp glance. “I got that reference … I think. Is this anything like what they mean by sending someone to the cornfield —?”
Natasha smiles at that. “No,” she says. “Different thing entirely. But he’ll handle this. He’s done it before.”
Now the man’s expression shows that he knows what that means, but he only asks, “How long do you think it will take?” He’s polite enough to not-say Compared to how long it took with you?
“As a guess?” She shakes her head. “A month, at least. Probably less than two, unless there’s something more in there that we don’t know about.”
He opens his mouth, closes it without speaking. (Right. They didn’t know about this one, till they did.)
Seeing Alerys facing that process takes Natasha back to when it was thrust on her: when she had to come to terms with what she had done — who she had been — before she could even try to become anything else. That was what Loki had touched on, and tried to use against her, when she was ‘interrogating’ him on the Helicarrier … and he had reached deeper than she let on, than she had wanted to admit. That was why she had tossed in the last brusque Thank you for your cooperation: unprofessional, a self-indulgence, she could have (should have) acted on his information without letting him know he’d been played, in case she ever needed to repeat the trick on him. She’d never have allowed such a lapse unless he had gotten to her and she’d needed to get some of her own back.
Even after all this time, some of the original wounds are still raw.
“A month, maybe two,” Rogers repeats, nodding approval. “Let’s hope that’s enough for a full recovery.”
“He really is good at this,” Natasha assures him.
And she’s probably not as far gone as I was, she adds to herself.
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