Bruce paused at the bottom of the jet's staircase. When the drones remained motionless, he walked the short distance into the cathedral and laid Tony down on the central plinth. The thud of the armor echoed in the still morning air. Ultron's drones shifted their circle to surround the outside of the rundown building and seemingly turned to stone. They stood as silent guards, not engaging but leaving no room for escape.
So, Ultron was going to make this a personal visit. Hopefully it wouldn't take too long – Tony's heart could only beat undetected for so long before actually stopping. Minutes ticked by and Bruce heard explosions in the distance, and though they were beyond his sight he knew it had to be from Clint and Natasha. It certainly wasn't part of Steve's plan, and SHIELD knew not to directly interfere, so there was nobody else left to do something that reckless.
A tower of the fortress exploded and Bruce felt his heart racing. Was that explosion meant to happen? Is Owen still in there? One of the drones finally spoke.
"You didn't say you were bringing company," it said, annoyed. "They should join us and explain why they're interfering with your well thought out plan."
Through the smoke of the smoldering tower he saw the Quinjet glide to the ground, guided by drones crawling all over and under it. It soared closer and closer, raking the tops of the higher buildings until finally it hit the ground and skidded to a deafening stop in the street in front of the cathedral.
The residents had woken up at the first explosions and were now out of bed to see why a jet crashed in the middle of their town. A few of the drones raided the jet but the others, including Bruce's ring of guards, began shooting the nearest homes and effectively causing a stampede.
Clint and Natasha walked, or rather limped out from behind the jet to stand a short distance away from Bruce with their escorts. If they were surprised to see the crushed Iron Man suit they didn't show it. There had been no way to securely contact them about the new plan, so they didn't know about the serum. Or Vision. Or the Maximoffs.
Everyone looked up as Ultron's master form finally flew in to land with a foot poised on Tony's chest, like a hunter with his trophy kill. "I'm sure improvisation usually works for you two, but this is my arena. You took a serious risk with someone else's prize. A prize, I'm sure, he would like to collect undamaged."
Bruce's mouth was dry. He swallowed and hoarsely replied to Ultron's thinly veiled threat. "I brought you Tony, now give me my son."
"Well, a deal is a deal. You held up your end of the bargain, so I suppose I should hold up mine..."
It waved its hand and a drone emerged from behind a pillar with its arms wrapped around Owen. Before Bruce could take a step the church was filled with a sickening groan – the same groan he heard when Vision reshaped the suit on the plane.
"You disappoint me, Bruce. Did you really think you could fool me with this?" Ultron asked, carefully pressing a metal shard closer to Tony's heart with its foot. "His heart may be slow but I can still hear it beating. I asked for Stark's corpse, yet you bring him to me still alive. So what should I do with your son, who I promised to deliver unharmed?"
Bruce shook with rage. He could transform in the blink of an eye and rip that drone apart without harming a hair on Owen's head, but it wouldn't be fast enough.
"I'm just kidding," Ultron said with a laugh. The laughter was more unsettling than the peoples' screams in the distance. "You've given me a gift! I get to kill Tony Stark any way I want. So for that, I'm giving you a gift: a choice."
A chill ran up Bruce's spine. He saw Natasha's cold mask crack as she figured out Ultron's meaning, but he couldn't think.
"You can choose to save your son… or your wife."
Abigail was fighting the two drones that were now hauling her up the stairs, trying furiously to free her arms from their viselike grip.
Bruce was speechless but Owen screamed "Mommy!" and gave Abigail new strength. She actually broke free from one of the drones before Ultron walked over and lifted her by the throat.
"This seems familiar," it said, carrying Abigail to the pillar a few spaces past her son. "Oh, I remember now. This is what happened last time we met. You fought me, I choked you, and then I took your son away."
Ultron let her drop but the drones quickly picked her up and pinned her to the pillar. It returned to stand with a foot on Tony's chest as Abigail coughed violently. Bruce took slow and careful steps past Ultron to check on her, using all his strength to keep from changing into the other guy.
The drones did nothing to stop him. In fact, it seemed like Ultron wanted to watch them together. He cupped her face in his hands and asked the question that had been torturing him.
"Sophie, is she–"
"Alive! She pulled through, her and Michael are safe," Abigail rasped. Relief washed over him and he even managed a small laugh. She's alive! Bruce was so overcome by happiness that he forgot for just a moment that the fight had not even begun. His wife's voice brought him back to reality. "Bruce, you have to choose Owen."
Bruce looked at her face and saw the fear in her eyes. Rage swelled up in his chest and he turned to look at Ultron, then at Tony. He made a quick decision.
"I'm getting you both out of here. I'm tired of playing games," Bruce whispered darkly.
"Tired of playing games?" Ultron questioned. It tilted its head and crushed Tony's suit further. "We're just getting started."
Bruce fully expected FRIDAY's emergency protocols to activate and fly Tony out of the church. He didn't expect the explosion that tore apart the Quinjet.
Natasha's leg wasn't hurt as bad as Clint's, but she still played up the limp to conceal the detonator she had shoved in her boot before the jet was boarded. She wanted nothing more than to trigger a grenade on the jet with a click of her heels and take out the few drones still searching the cabin, but that idea was temporarily scrapped when she saw Tony on the ground in mangled armor.
He looked dead. If he met the Hulk head-on in New York there was a good chance he really was dead. But Bruce's body language was more nervous than distraught, which made Natasha suspect it was just a ploy to distract Ultron. Alive or dead the suit would still protect him, so Natasha was again ready to detonate until Owen was brought out.
If Ultron still had Owen, then Abbey either didn't make it to the fortress or had been captured inside. Natasha refused to believe she had been killed; Ultron wouldn't waste an added opportunity to break Bruce. Her hunch proved right when they dragged Abigail out and Bruce nearly lost control.
Natasha then considered setting off the bomb while Ultron gloated some more, but Clint caught her eye and shook his head, staring intently over her shoulder at the jet or something near it. The drones guarding them looked in the same direction but found nothing.
Natasha frowned. This was taking too long. If Ultron wanted to simply kill everyone, he would have done so already. If he wanted to torture them, they should be screaming in pain. This was something else. This was wrong. A robot – no, simply a program – manipulating humans to put them through mental and emotional anguish was sickening.
She had witnessed, experienced, and inflicted this kind of pain before and Natasha shivered at the memories. This had to stop.
Without warning Clint muttered, "There's no place like home." Natasha smirked and clicked her heels.
She did it again.
Still nothing happened.
Finally Natasha stomped her foot and was yanked to the ground by Clint a split second before a series of grenades detonated in the back of the Quinjet. Once the rubble stopped raining down she looked up to see one hell of a sight.
Tony was gone. Owen was gone. A pink man had its hands on Ultron's head and Abbey fled as the rest of the drones poured in to attack the newcomer. Bruce was starting to transform but he threw something in her direction before going completely green.
Clint reached out and passed it to her. It was an adrenaline shot, the same kind used on Fury to counteract the heart-slowing serum. So that's how they did it, she thought, switching it out with the detonator in her boot.
Steve spoke in her ear. "Take Abigail and head east. Stark is at a plane that will take her and her son to safety. You need to give him that shot in the next ten minutes."
Natasha looked over at Clint. His leg was in bad shape. She helped him stand and considered staying until he shook his head. She placed the detonator in his hand, bringing a frown to his face, and confirmed her orders with Steve.
"They're on a delay, you know. You only had to click once!" Clint complained as she ran after Abigail. She could readily imagine the rest of his complaints about the damage to his jet without having to hear them.
What she didn't have to imagine was his reaction to the city breaking apart and flying in the air. His "What the hell?!" was audible even ten blocks away.
Pietro paced the length of the small charter plane as slowly as he could, feeling Wanda's eyes on him at all times. Despite being the best equipped to face Ultron, the Maximoffs were on backup duty, stuck waiting on the plane until something went wrong. Pietro knew something would eventually go wrong, but he hated waiting.
With a sigh he threw himself across a row of seats and looked up at the roof of the plane. Wanda sat down in the row in front of him.
"Be patient, Pietro. Our time will come," she said quietly. She brushed a curl of hair away from his eyes so she could see them clearly.
He impatiently sighed again. This was their fight; they knew the town, knew Ultron's plans, and knew the fortress. The only thing Pietro didn't know was why they had to wait for so long.
"We are not Avengers," Wanda replied. "They do not trust us. We must look at the bigger picture and–"
"Bigger picture?" Pietro sat up and scowled at his sister. "And what about our little picture? Our family, our life, are we to just leave it all behind and forget what Tony Stark did to us?"
Wanda returned his glare. "If we die today there will be no picture big or little. Whatever happens, we must survive this day. I could not stand to lose you."
Pietro relented under her worried stare and held out his hand. She held it in both of hers, squeezing it tightly, and smiled at his unvoiced apology. They never quarreled for long. Even if they had, it would have been cut short this time.
"Ultron knows our play. I need backup here now; they took Banner's son and wife hostage," Steve said over the comms.
Pietro wordlessly picked up Wanda and darted between screaming people to get to the lookout point. He kept to back alleys and made it to Steve's side in under a minute. The lookout point was a vacant apartment on the sixth floor of the building across the street from the church, which meant they could see inside through the damaged roof and watch everything unfold without being spotted.
Steve held out his binoculars and Pietro took them. He could see Ultron and Tony in the center with everyone else spread out like marks on a clock face: Bruce was at the three, the wife at six, the son at nine, and at twelve were Clint and Natasha. A dozen robots positioned in a circle outside the building completed the clock.
"Ultron always admired symmetry," Wanda muttered, examining the scene through her brother's eyes.
Pietro looked around and saw people still fleeing in the distance. Too bad there's nowhere safe for them to run to, he thought irritably. Refocusing on the church, he noticed the damaged Quinjet and Tony's plane, the latter of which was positioned between the building they were in and the church.
"Why is the Vision not acting?" he asked, trying to point out an obvious answer to their current problem.
"Because that's not his job," Steve replied.
Pietro huffed and looked through the binoculars again. He stared at the blonde little boy struggling to return to his family. He was very aware that Wanda was reading his mind and likely to stop him if he focused too much on the idea, so without really thinking it through Pietro ran down to hide next to the Quinjet.
Here he was on the exact opposite side of the church and had a different, albeit obstructed, viewpoint of the clock. It wasn't safe for him to speak over the comms at anything more than a whisper, but that didn't keep his sister from demanding he return to the lookout.
Pietro ignored her, peeking around the side of the jet to see that he was very near Clint and Natasha. Perfect.
"You didn't see that coming?" he whispered, hoping Clint would hear and understand his meaning.
Clint raised his chin slightly to confirm he did and glanced around until he found Pietro. He gave a signal to Natasha but Pietro hid himself from view to avoid detection.
This was the kind of waiting he could do. Being in the middle of the battlefield, on the brink of a fight was the only time he could stand still for any length of time. He looked in the church and made his plan quickly. He would disable the drones holding the wife and continue on to take the boy out to safety. They wouldn't know what hit them until he was already gone, and by that time Steve's plan could really begin.
"There's no place like home," Clint said.
Pietro took that as a signal and ran. He heard explosions go off slowly as he ripped the robots' arms out of their sockets to free the woman. The robot holding the boy had begun to tighten its grip but Pietro just shook his head. He pulled this one's arms out too, easily catching the boy before he could fall an inch, and bolted from the church.
With no better place in mind, he returned to his sister and Steve. Wanda was relieved to have him back. Pietro decided to keep holding the boy just in case he needed to carry him somewhere else, but he shifted his hold on him to free a hand for her to grasp.
The boy blinked repeatedly and looked around to try and figure out what happened to him.
"It is disorienting at first, but your mind will soon catch up my little friend," Pietro said reassuringly. The boy focused on his face and blinked more.
Steve's eyes were glued to the scene below but he spoke without sounding distracted. "You're safe now, Owen. These people are gonna help get you and your mom out of here."
Owen turned to stare at Steve before looking back up at Pietro.
"You're fast," he gasped, clinging to Pietro's shirt.
Pietro nodded proudly. "Very fast."
"Well, 'very fast' needs to go. Natasha is going to lead Abigail to the plane and will need you to show the way," Steve said. He gave Natasha an order and Pietro rolled his eyes at the time limit. They would reach Tony in two minutes even at a slow pace, so there was no real hurry.
"You wanted to run, so run," Wanda chided him. She chose not to comment on his other thoughts concerning Tony Stark.
He looked at Owen and quietly told him to hold on and close his eyes. Once his eyes were shut, Pietro took off and soon found Abigail. With tears streaming down her face she took Owen in her arms and hugged him tightly.
Pietro gave them a little space. That they both escaped from Ultron relatively unharmed was a miracle, and he let them enjoy it in private. Natasha found them quickly, though, so the group continued towards the stolen plane until the ground started shaking.
"Earthquake?" Abigail asked hopefully. Owen whimpered.
Pietro shook his head. "Ultron."
Suddenly they were flung to the ground as a section of the city broke free from the earth and shot up into the sky. Pietro's earpiece was flooded with voices but he only understood Clint's exclamation of "What the hell?!"
Finally Steve took control. "Enough! Ultron is going to send this rock back down to trigger a planet wide massacre. We need to get all civilians to safety and figure out how to disable this device. Stark, I need you in the church now. Tony, do you read me?"
Natasha and Pietro's eyes met and looked in the original direction of the plane and Tony – both of which were now 10,000 feet below them.
"Mr. Stark is still unconscious," FRIDAY replied. "Should I bring him up to you?"
A familiar voice prevented Steve's answer. "No, allow me."