Crimson and Viridian:

Everything Burns

Rating: R
Characters/Pairings: FrostIron (Loki/Tony), canongirl!Tony Stark(i.e. Natasha Stark), and the rest of the Avengers movie cast.

Warnings: For moar violence, and fresh romancin'. Also, movie spoilers, obviously, and in a major way. Spoilers for various events throughout the comic-verse, including Civil War, Dark Reign, and Siege.
Disclaimer: None of this is mine. Well, except Earth-199990, but that's pretty useless to me without all these great Marvel characters.
Notes: Trickster.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Underneath This Skin There's a Human

(Buried Deep Within There's a Human)

There was no question about it: the Masters had come prepared with upgrades and a hunger for vengeance.

This was going to be tough.

Which is why she is not all surprised when War Machine appears under the night sky, illuminated by the floodlights that had been triggered throughout the smelting plant the moment Amora had appeared and alerted her men to the potential danger—just seconds before S.H.I.E.L.D. swarmed in to confirm her words.

Natasha grins behind her faceplate, but the sky is alight with stray energy bursts from one-man HYDRA aircrafts, modded with what Natasha suspected was Chitauri technology, and there is no time to pay her old friend a proper greeting. It is very much like being caught in a swarm of locust; the aircrafts, while small, and very similar in likeness to the Chitauri vessels, are large enough that, when clustered in a formation while actively firing at her, gave the impression being impenetrable.

Scanning and analyzing the HYDRA technology was a quicker and more efficient process with Extremis; JARVIS, by comparison, was a bumbling fool to her enhanced processing power, and so she relied upon him only to govern the other suits, allowing her to focus her attentions on calculating a strong offensive against HYDRA.

The incoming energy bursts from a squad of HYDRA vessels cut across her vision. She barely avoids having a good chunk of her armor vaporized by throwing back her head and kicking out her boots so that her thrusters would repel her in the opposite direction. The bursts, meant for her, strike into a mound of debris, exploding it from the side into a filthy cloud of glittering shrapnel that fizzles with the unnatural energy, and then disintegrates like dying wisps of light. Natasha records every second of the series of reactions in her mind, immediately running through a query of known elements that might elicit that sort of response.

As she does this, a tight formation of HYDRA fighter vessels seem to appear from the horizon to join the fray, approaching from the direction of the Hudson River.

Natasha scowls and curses. "This is ridiculous. "

"Looks like business is good today," Rhodey chuckles over the private COM channel she had opened up between them.

Natasha's mouth is opened to respond, when no sooner she finds herself ducking to avoid a barrage of plasma fire.

"This is definitely Chitauri," she huffs to herself, twisting and spinning out of the line of fire, using whatever opportunity she could to blast an engine or two out of the sky. "These assholes have their hands on everything."

"Natasha, look out. Bogey comin' your way," Rhodey murmurs calmly.

Her HUD is more a distraction than any help, but she sees the alert and twists in the air to meet the burst with a Pulse Bolt, neutralizing the magnetic field and disabling the plasma burst entirely.

"Thanks." She had long lost track of his position amid the dozens of HYDRA vessels swarming the sky, but his voice in her ear was a welcome comfort.

There is only a brief reprieve from the vessels' attacks, but it's enough for her to remember her original target. Shaking her head at the chaos that had become of their operation, she ignites the thrusters on her boots and rockets into the sky, far enough away from the vantage of any HYDRA fliers and high enough to grant her a bird's-eye view of the situation.

S.H.I.E.L.D. had called in their anti-aircraft specialists the moment Amora had arrived, bringing with her a literal fleet. Fury's men, however, were sorely outmatched, and would continue to be, until—

"Hell yeah. That's what I'm talkin' about!"

Natasha blinks, and looks directly ahead of her, observing the specs in the distance rocketing in their direction.


But not for HYDRA.

Natasha grins. "Looks like the kids are here."

There are a least three dozen different Iron Women ready to join the fight and ready to start evacuating the nearest residential areas.

"You've been busy," Rhodey chuckles, appreciatively.

With everything going on, her mind tapped into every piece of technology bearing Stark-tech, she feels too detached from herself and her body to maintain her usual banter with Rhodey. A plasma burst streaks past her, which she dodges instinctively but without really observing it, and she reacts by sending out a repulsor charge in the direction the attack had originated from.

Her body seems to be moving on autopilot, well apart from the commands of her mind.

"Ma'am," JARVIS cautions her privately. "Perhaps you need a moment …"

All of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents currently active on the field were spamming her HUD with constant checks on their bio-monitors. She knew what it meant. Every injury and every life lost appeared as an angry red or orange mark on her HUD—reminding her that there were people down there, fighting for their lives so that the Avengers might have even the slightest hope for a victory.

She blocks them all.

It doesn't do much to dilute the flood of data crushing into her skull. Time seemed simultaneously too slow and too fast, Exremis having enhanced her processing abilities to a degree that meant she was capable of thinking and reacting faster than a normal human brain. Natasha's mind is racing as she absorbs the tactical situation, but her still all too human comprehension, though greatly above average, meant that she is left horribly disoriented, feeling as if she'd been strapped to the backside of a comet and sent hurtling through a collopsar.

She is absorbing the details of everything around her, but the speed at which her mind was doing so was almost too much, causing her vision to shift back and forth between haziness and clarity. But her body still reacts and it responds—or the suit does?—and she is aware, somehow, that she is accurately targeting and neutralizing enemies without completely understanding how. Her ability of sight abandons her, though she knows that this cannot be the case because the information is in her head—she knows where everything is and knows precisely the number of Chitauri—no—HYDRA—surrounding her. So she can see—but she can't. Everything is a haze, as if she were being spun viciously until the world became one great blur.

Natasha gasps. "What … is—?"

JARVIS—or was it her?—activates her motion sensors, boosting the range to max, but controlling the input so that only the Avengers were displayed across the HUD. Not S.H.I.E.L.D. Not HYDRA.

Suddenly, she can see again.

She takes a slow, steadying breath and uses the Avengers as her focal point.

"Thanks, buddy," she whispers breathlessly to JARVIS.

"My pleasure, ma'am."

Below her, an explosion buffets a HYDRA vessel in her direction. As she dodges it, she observes patches of the black armored hull has heated and bubbled away as a result of friendly plasma fire. She follows the trajectory of the vessel back to find War Machine on the street below, surrounded from above by a halo formation of fliers. The thin energy glaze coating the War Machine armor flickers with every shot; she can see the armor glowing steadily brighter in spots and feels her stomach coil in anxiety. In addition to the plasma fire, the mounted operatives level him with assault rifles; War Machine's arms are out, using his repulsors to block what plasma bursts he can while he responds to the oncoming attacks with the ballistic cannon mounted on his back.

"Having a party without me?" Natasha huffs humorlessly behind her HUD.

"Well, it's no ladies allowed, so you're welcome to join."

Natasha snorts. "Well, then—"

She drops from her height in a dive, trading her altitude for acceleration, and then ignites her thrusters to propel her through the barrage of plasma bursts that are suddenly being aimed at her.

She directs herself to land on her feet, and her boots connect with a HYDRA operative, propelling him with her as her momentum carries her forward into a somersault. She steadies herself in a half-crouch, one knee pinning the operative to the asphalt as she extends out her arms to release two simultaneous repulsor blasts. The blasts, aimed at pre-calculated targets, connect with two vessels, repelling them at a velocity and angle that sends them directly into four other fliers. Rhodey follows their movements and delivers a series of shots from his ballistic cannon, erupting at least three of the vessels and creating what appears like a sea of fire at the end of the street where other HYDRA vessels had begun to collect.

From one of the warehouses, a small company of ground operatives are headed their way, armed with heavy weapons. There were three remaining fliers and they tracked War Machine's position while she straightened to aim her repulsors to the oncoming operatives.

Within their chamber, the cannons flared hot—and then fired.

War Machine's thrusters propel him into the air a second before impact, and the ground where he'd stood explodes, debris knocking into Natasha's side, which she braces herself against by crouching. The smoke momentarily fogs her vision—before she switches to thermals and releases her repulsors on the company of HYDRA operatives, scattering the frontline and disrupting the formation. She ignites her thrusters with a short burst that carries her the distance to the operatives, where she lands heavily directly at the center of their group. As the operatives who'd been knocked to the ground begin slowly rising, she releases an entire chamber of magnetic rounds, from her vambraces, pivoting to cover the range of them, incapacitating them as her repulsors recharge.

Something chirps in her ear—and then she hears Barton say, "Okay. I'm in. No serious encryption. Accessing their system … now—"

Something strikes her back powerfully and sends her headlong through the brick wall of a warehouse and into the side of a live furnace. The metal bends beneath the weight of her impact and she feels an immediate warmth begin to spread down her back, instantly adhering her in place. Several feet in front of her is Captain America, groaning as he rolls off his back and to his feet.

"Sorry—that was—" He grunts, shaking his head to gather his bearings. He looks up, and she can read the horror on his expression clearly through his half mask. "Natasha!"

She knows.

"JARVIS," she grunts, struggling to tug her upper body away from the furnace. "Send—anyone."

Molten iron pulses out languidly from the crack she'd caused in the furnace, flowing down her backside and fusing her to the furnace as it reacts to her shields.

Captain America takes a step forward, as if to aid her, but falters, twisting to check behind where their entrance had left a gaping hole through the masonry. The Black Knight sits, mounted on his steed, just outside the warehouse, lance aimed at them.

"Go!" Natasha snaps impatiently, glaring at Cap through her visor.

He doesn't linger, rushing out, shield raised. The Black Knight doesn't succeed in releasing his attack, intercepted by a repulsor blast from one of Natasha's Iron Women—which he swiftly incapacitates by piercing the suit through the shoulder and whipping it in the direction of Cap, knocking the super soldier once more to the ground.

"Jesus Christ—" Natasha grunts. On her HUD, her shield reading is dropping drastically and she feels the suit begin to heat uncomfortably at her neck.

Eyes darting to the suit lying next to Cap, she grits her teeth when she observes the critical damage it has taken.

"You need to get out of there!" Cap shouts.

"I kn—just cover me!"

She releases the suit's locking seals from the front and lurches forward, seeking to place as much distance between herself and the furnace as possible. Within seconds, the Black Knight has opened fire on her from the chain gun modded into his lance and Natasha curls herself to a tight ball, trusting Cap, who immediately places himself in front of her, shield drawn. Bullets ping off the vibranium shield in a series, ricocheting off into the walls and burying themselves in cement and brick. The Black Knight's horse brays vehemently and she hears the weighted sound of its wings flap as the horseman takes to the sky. He seems to be followed by the sound of gunfire. War Machine, no doubt.

Cap shifts and she uncurls, realizing his free hand is clutching her shoulder fiercely when her hand begins to tingle from lack of circulation. She blinks, rolling her shoulder to dislodge his hand, and looks up to meet his frightened eyes with a short, breathless laugh.

"That was exciting."

He stares at her, shaking his head as his worry transforms into bewilderment.

With a sigh, he looks away to observe the situation, then stands, extending his hand to her. "We need to get you to a s—"

His words are interrupted by the arrival of the Silver Centurion. She smiles as she takes Cap's hand and stands.

Silver Centurion was waiting for her just outside the warehouse, popped open like a person-shaped clam. Jogging to it, she pivots, then backs into the suit, calling out to the Captain, "How's the perimeter holding up?"

He'd stepped up to the hole in the wall to watch her back and ensure nobody might try to attack while the suit assembled itself into place. "I knew Amora was building herself an army, but I don't think I was prepared for this. S.H.I.E.L.D. is working with the NYPD to clear out the civilians from the area. We're containing this as best we can, but—" He looks to her, suddenly, frowning. "Did you know this was going to happen? Was this part of your plan?"

Silver Centurion settled into place, Natasha turns to face Cap. "No, of course not. I thought we could draw out Amora and the Masters, but I wasn't expecting HYDRA to show up armed as if they were ready to take on the nation. It's—" She turns back to observe the damage the smelting plant had sustained; it was nearly entirely leveled. "It's suspicious."

"Were we missing something?"

"We've always been missing something," she mutters.

"And Loki?"

She feels her stomach twist nervously and her heart stutter in her chest.

Quietly, she says, "He'll be here."

Amora had grown to observe the universe from a vantage at which all appeared as microscopic points of light in the distance, and each point, in fact: galaxies and systems in which life thrived just as it did on Asgard—each point came together in a performance of fluctuating and undulating colors and blooming nebulae, and in her youth, she had perceived all of this as beautiful and wonderful. A part of her had yearned to explore—to discover—but in her time as Karnilla's ward, her ambitious heart had been exposed to the truth.

Outside the realms of the Eternal Court existed Midgard, a land governed by time and death. The brilliance of the universe had exposed its true self, and on her first visit to the Mortal's Realm, she had witnessed only the blood-spattered canvas of a creature born only for destruction. In Midgard, she had seen the true ugliness of the universe. It had been as if a shroud had befallen her, clinging until her very skin seemed to tighten and stiffen with the limitations of Mortality. Light appeared dimmer, color less vibrant, and the air was stale and putrid with decay. The All-Father's lifeblood had gone into the creation of the Midgardians, yet now Amora could understand why even he had grown tired of their lot, returning to the Kingdom established by his forefathers and forgetting whatever affection might have alighted his heart for his creation—before he, too, realized that no Realm and no creature could compare to the magnitude and glory of Asgard.

Midgard had been the first in many disappointments, each carefully tearing at her girlish delusions that the universe was a fine and glorious place.

There was no beauty to be found on Midgard. No beauty to be found in all the Realms, but Asgard.

Yet, that can change.

With a guiding hand and a warm heart, the glory of Asgard and its Realms could be reestablished. With the right King.

Amora was ready to sacrifice everything to see it so.

"I am impressed," says Loki, a dullness to his words that brings a smile to her lips as she twists around to watch him approach. His Asgardian armor is as pristine as she has ever seen it, golden helm gleaming under the swirling vapors of her magic, which hovers above them like a miasma. "I did not think you capable of gathering such an army."

Loki's eyes are on the smooth waters of the enchanted fountain, through which could be observed the Lady of Iron, where she fought alongside the other armor-clad warrior against the combined might of the Black Knight and the Baron's forces. Loki's expression reflects nothing, though she studies it with avid interest. His handsome profile is illuminated by the green glow of the pool, filling his already green eyes with the color, so that they appear to sparkle with unnatural energy.

Stepping closer to him, she murmurs, "Is everything going as you hoped it would?"

"It will keep them busy. And it will buy me more time."

Her eyes shift to the water to see Iron Woman take a powerful blow from the Black Knight. "How do you know they won't all be killed?"

"I don't."

There is something about his tone that Amora can't place. As she lowers herself to the lip of the fountain, she faces him so that she can continue to watch his expression and perhaps understand even a fragment of his thoughts. Casually, she observes, "Are not things much simpler when we work together, My Prince? You should have spoken to me sooner of your plans. I never meant for you to be my enemy."

Loki's gaze does not waver from the image of the mortals. "Yet you tried to kill Natasha Stark."

"What of it? She's Mortal. Mortals die," Amora sniffs delicately, rolling her eyes. She reaches behind her without looking, dipping her fingers into the pool so that the image transforms to that of the Thunderer, where he battles against the Melter and Radioactive Man. "Whether I kill her, or another—or Time—it's all the same, is it not?"

Loki doesn't answer, scowling at the image of his brother and looking at last to her.

Amora smiles. "Come, now—can we not be friends?" At Loki's hardened expression, her smile widens. She reaches out, grasping his hand and taking it between both of hers tenderly. "You are so very severe with me. I do not understand what I ever did to deserve your animosity."

"You tried to kill me."

She chuckles quietly, patting his hand once and then releasing it with a shrug. "Yes, but only because you threatened me."

Loki bends so that their faces are level, sneering. "Then, perhaps you should not have made attempt against my—" He catches himself, expression faltering for only a second. He stares back at her hard, challenging, and mutters, "Against Natasha Stark."

"No—" She stands abruptly, forcing him to straighten so that he can regain some position of dominance. "Tell me. Your what? What is she to you that you put forth such efforts in deceiving her?"

Loki flashes a grin, quick and insincere. "I have not deceived her."

"Well—we shall see if your Mortal agrees, then, when she discovers you betrayed her and her comrades to me." Amora turns back to the fountain, waving a hand above the pool to shift the image back to Iron Woman. "But you are deceiving yourself, just as you deceive her."

"Your mistake, Amora, in targeting me through Natasha, was in believing that she was my weakness. She is not."

"No?" Amora grins, glancing back to him. "Your eyes betray you, Trickster."

Loki is unmoved. "And what is it that you seek to gain? I've told you my purpose. How does Amora benefit in all this?" He smiles, viciously, as if he knows precisely where he might press to hurt her. "Is it all for Thor? To ensure he takes the crown? Are you so worried that his fondness for these Mortals has blinded him to his duties as future King?"

Amora frowns, humor gone as she turns back to face the Trickster. "Thor does not belong to Midgard. His right is to rule and protect all Nine Realms—not merely the one."

Loki sneers, "Are you certain it is not jealousy that guides you?"

She hardens herself against the accusation, inhaling deeply to gather her courage as she raises her face to him fully in an impression of his haughtiness. "Yes, I love him. There is no shame in it—though I know his heart belongs to another. He is a man like no other—whose greatness surpasses anything you can ever understand. Where you see arrogance and oafishness, I see a true heart. The heart of one with power sufficient to rule and take as he wills—but that would sooner empathize with those weaker and see the good where you only see wickedness."

She sees that he is affected, loathing flickering behind his darkening expression. Loki snickers, stepping into her space with the intention of intimidating her. "What is it, then? You think you are undeserving of such a man?"

"Of course not," she scoffs, crossing her arms. "But it's not a matter of deserving him. It's not a matter of compatibility or worth. I love him. He does not love me. For all that our kind may conceive with our powers, love is the one thing that cannot be manufactured—nor would I desire to do so, had I the ability." As he ponders her words, she mimics his malicious smirk, reaching out to caress his cheek. "But how could you understand that? You know only how to love yourself."

Loki jerks his face from her in disgust, pacing away. Amora scowls at his back.

"You think you are better than me. You think I am weak. You think because I care for him that I will lose—but you are wrong." She shakes her head furiously, clenching her hands to fists as she looks to the fountain to study the futile efforts of the mortals. Quietly, she murmurs, "What manner of fool you must think me to be—that I would wage war for the sake of a man's heart. You know nothing."

Loki looks back to her, sneering, "Do tell."

"Why? So you may mock me?" She scoffs, glowering at him. "Asgard is my home—something you would understand if you were not so blinded by your own arrogance."

"So, everything that you've done—" His gaze flickers almost absently to the fountain, betraying his interest. "It was all for Asgard? And I am to believe that?"

Loki infuriates her, it is true. He has committed unforgivable crimes against herself and Asgard, but Amora had known him before all this—before whatever darkness now gripped him had fully consumed his heart. They had never been quite friends, but to know him as an enemy still saddened her. She wants to reclaim some semblance of what they once had, if for no other reason than because he was all that she would have left of Thor in the coming days.

"Tell me—what would you do? If you knew what I knew, what would you do?" Amora steps away from the fountain, forcing herself to relinquish her frustration. "Given the choice, would you betray the love and trust of those you hold dearest, though they may never forgive you, if you knew that you could protect them from a fate worse than anything the greatest and most villainous mind could concoct?"

Loki's expression becomes indiscernible. She doesn't know whether there is any point in trying to appeal to him—doesn't know if there remains enough of his heart to care—but she is not quite so cynical as she'd like to think herself to be and so she tries.

"I know things—dark and terrible things—" She whispers earnestly, hearing the words linger in the otherwise silence between them. Inhaling steadily, she tries not to allow her mind to dwell on the visions she has witnessed. "I have seen the ancient roots of Yggdrasil set aflame by a malevolence and power so great that creations burn and all that we know is lost—and our Realm—our home—falls into a chasm of darkness."

The Trickster's eyes narrow, undecided, and she struggles to control her fear from escaping the careful prison she has crafted for it.

"Loki, I have seen a fate worse than Ragnarok and I know—I know the weight of silence that falls when the last screams of the universe have been swallowed into the eternity. I do what I must—though I know it means I might never see my affections returned by the man I love—and I play the villain because I know I am strong—stronger than Thor. Strong enough to choose the lives of our people, rather than risk all to protect one, though it will break my heart."

Though she does not seek to quarrel with him, Amora also knows she can never speak to him of the truth.

Not so long as Natasha Stark retained any degree of importance to Loki's schemes.

The blast from the Black Knight's lance sends her hurtling back towards a wall. Natasha utilizes the propulsion of her boots to fight against her momentum, hits the wall, then braces a foot back against the masonry, kicking off with an explosion of her thrusters. She rockets herself headlong into a cluster of HYDRA operatives, scattering them to the ground, then continues forward as two HYDRA fliers descend, leveling with her to fire their charged cannons. Twisting her body mid-flight, she spins herself out of the trajectory of the plasma bursts—knows they've struck one of their own vehicles when an explosion sounds and buffets her forward, giving her body an additional push that she rides, straightening herself vertically, palms out with ready repulsors. As her boots connect with the hood of one flier, for only a moment, she blasts the second out of the air while the first wobbles under her weight, then spins out of control the moment she's leapt back into the air.

Natasha lands on a catwalk—sees approaching operatives from one end and blasts them back with a repulsor charge, then peers below where War Machine is struggling to shake a company of HYDRA.

"Iron Woman! I'm pinned down! I need you to—"

"I see you, buddy," Natasha murmurs, curling her hands to fists and taking aim.

Her HUD flares with alarms and she checks her back—her instincts clearly flawed; she should be getting away, not lingering—to see a plasma burst headed her way. She catches the rail with a hand and hurtles her body over, seconds before the plasma strikes and causes an explosion that propels her a little faster towards the ground—and towards War Machine. Targeting system still locked on the operatives surrounding Rhodey, she releases a volley of concussion rounds, landing on her feet and skidding to a halt as she simultaneously pivots her body around to face the flier that had targeted her on the catwalk. She raises a palm, fingers flared, and repulsor charged—but it isn't a flier. It's the Black Knight.

The area isn't ideal. The Black Knight hovers in the air, atop his winged horse, but the warehouse structures rise around them to create a clustered and narrow set of pathways, not easily navigable.

As the Black Knight prepares to engage, Natasha steadies her stance and War Machine takes her flank.

"We're going dark," Natasha says into the main COMs.

Rhodey doesn't ask.

In a different part of the plant, an Iron Woman loses an arm as she is directed to sever the power to the main complex.

The Black Knight dives for them, lance extended and charging. The floodlights illuminating the area go out, bathing them all in darkness.

"Switching to thermal," War Machine says, habitually.

"Switching to thermal," Natasha replies, finding comfort in the procedural method of Rhodey's conduct.

Their thrusters ignite shortly to provide them with a quick burst of speed that gets them out of the way as the Knight's plasma attack is released from the lance, illuminating its trajectory before it strikes the vacant space where they'd stood.

Natasha finds herself under the catwalk with War Machine when something seems to drop out of the sky and dump itself across her back, sliding off, then dropping to the ground. She blinks down at it, toeing the lump with her boot. It's a man.

Then, realizing, Natasha steps back. "Oh—shit—is he dead?"

"Nah. I think he's just resting his eyes," War Machine replies blithely. Natasha bends to get a better look at the guy's face. Rhodey smacks her across the back of the head, grabbing her by the shoulder to straighten her. "Of course he's fucking dead."

Natasha doesn't reply, her attention immediately drawn to the clicking of hooves on cement—then the heavy thump of a man in medieval armor dismounting. She observes his shape on her HUD, feeling anxious—and then swiftly feeling a sort of calm. There's no need to panic. She knows what she's doing.

War Machine's ballistic cannon is arranging itself on his shoulder as it locks onto its target; her hands curled to fists, Natasha aims the mini rail guns installed into her vambraces.

"What—no 'hail HYDRA!'?" Natasha calls out to the Knight, earning herself a 'tsk' from Rhodey. "I thought you guys were all about that. It was all over the reels."

"I do not serve HYDRA," the Black Knight scoffs—perhaps the first time she can recall a proper response from the man.

"Now, are you sure about that?" Natasha asks, slowly stepping away from War Machine, as he does the same, cautiously moving to place distance between them so as not to provide the Knight with a single target.

"You think you are the heroes, don't you?" the Black Knight utters gravely, keeping his lance directed forward. She's not sure what he can see, but she's willing to guess that if he has the tech to equip his lance with all manner of advanced weaponry, he has the tech to track them in the dark. The firefight has dimmed in the distance, however, so at least S.H.I.E.L.D. was no longer providing itself as an open target to HYDRA. She hoped she'd bought at least some people some time with the darkness.

"You saying you're not the enemy?" War Machine asks conversationally, pausing when his back is neither exposed, nor cornered against a wall. He has his ballistic cannon and the guns built into his vambraces locked on the Black Knight. "Because we can work with that."

"You have no idea what is coming. You have no idea what you're fighting to protect," the Black Knight says. "When this war ends, the world will have to pay the price for the avarice of your kind."

"Our kind?" Natasha huffs.

"People like you, Natasha Stark."

Natasha rolls her eyes. Of course. "You know what? Maybe you should just stand down. Don't think. Just do it."

"It's not a bad idea," Rhodey says. "Then, maybe, you can tell us all about how you people are really the good guys. I'd love to hear all about what noble mission justifies the deaths—"

"Or, we can just pass on all that—because I really don't care," Natasha grunts, firing from her rail gun and catching the Knight in the shoulder, before he throws himself into a roll to dodge out of the way.

A figure drops down from above her, landing in a crouch and knocking her targeting arm out of the way while fluidly darting under her arm to twist it across her back in a maneuver that forces her to bend forward awkwardly. Something sharp pierces between the blades of armor, low on her back, where the plating is not as dense. It doesn't burying itself too deep, and the blade slides out with a soft screech of resisting metal as a palm shoves at the back of her skull, forcing her into a stumble—where she is met with the hilt-end of the Black Knight's lance, directly across her temple.

Natasha tastes blood as she hits the ground—listens to the rattling of War Machine's guns as he unleashes on both assailants. As her undersheath stitches itself beneath the armor, closing over the wound, Natasha forces herself back onto her feet, even while the world is still spinning unsteadily before her eyes. Her HUD locks on the figure that isn't the Black Knight, but she has a hard time getting a reading—discovers that he has somehow shielded himself from her tracking system and has to rely on the shifting silhouette of his image in the dark. Suddenly, cutting the power didn't seem like quite the brightest idea.

A fist connects with her middle, surprisingly strong for its lack of armor, and Natasha uses this to calculate his position, striking out with a fist to where she gauges his sternum to be—hears the scraping of metal against her forearm and glimpses a silhouette of an arcing blade—

"Grim Reaper," Natasha realizes as the blade in question cuts out diagonally for her neck.

Her boot thrusters ignite in a short burst that she uses to flip over the Reaper, catching him in a waist-lock from behind while she is still airborne, then bringing him over her head in a flip that has him landing on his upper back. He's upside down, but he drops his knees behind his head immediately so that he's rolling onto his feet, even as she straightens out of the stance; and then her knee connects brutally with his jaw. He remains standing, though he spins a few times and stumbles—and then he whips out the arm fitted with the scythe as if to balance himself, lashing out with the blade and catching her wrist as she extends her hand with a ready repulsor. The blast is sent in another direction as he charges her, the steel of his scythe glinting in the distant city light.

"What the fuck—are you? How are—you still—" Natasha throws her arms up, throwing her hips back to avoid a slash at her middle. "—standing? Jesus—" The blade comes down vertically, aimed for her shoulder. "—Christ—" Natasha pivots so that her opposite side is facing him, "—what is—" waits for the blade to miss, "—Amora—" then brings her leg around for a roundhouse to his gut. "—feeding you guys?"

The Reaper rolls with the kick, hitting the ground, and then rising to his feet.

"I can play. Wanna play? I can play," Natasha mutters to herself a little hysterically, shaking out her fists and then straightening her arms along her sides. Telescoped into her vambraces, twin super-cavitation swords extend 36 centimeters out from above the knuckles of her gauntlets.

Natasha moves in close with a burst of speed from her thrusters and cuts at the Reaper with her left blade. He catches the edge with his scythe in an outward swing, diverting its path, and she brings up her right blade on the uppercut swing of a fist. The reaper exchanges the balance of his feet, kicking out and catching her breastplate to knock her back a step. He follows the move immediately with a backwards swipe of his scythe, catching her on the underside of her chin, which throws her head back as her shields momentarily flare in her vision. Natasha recovers quickly, dropping her weight into a crouch, right side facing him and left blade striking out to meet him as he charges her with an upswing of his scythe. She catches his blade against hers, simultaneously retreating a step to put space between them. The Reaper pivots so his reverse side if facing her, the curving swoop of his blade coming at her side from an angle. She braces her right blade against her opposite forearm, receiving the full weight of his swing, then tugging when she feels the half-second where scythe's curve catches on her straightedge, forcing the Reaper to stumble forward into a knee to his chest.

She uses the space to breathe and look around for War Machine—glimpses him dodging a flurry of plasma bursts and realizes that he is outnumbered against the Black Knight and several additional HYDRA operatives.

Without consideration for anything other than ensuring the safety of her friend, Natasha moves further back away from the Reaper to better analyze the scene. Her body is on autopilot again when the Reaper closes in on her; her mind is preoccupied issuing a series of commands that she directs to the War Machine's command center. As she does this, she initiates a diagnostic of the armor, feeling paranoid and preferring to err on the side of caution. The scan provides her with a render on her HUD, where she can see he has taken some fire to the suit, creating discolored patches of black and still-hot red. Further analysis conveys damage to his hydrostatic subsystem, which could limit his movement and agility severely.

Natasha knows that her command to the armor has been processed when, with no further warning, War Machine, formerly in the midst of peppering the HYDRA formation with his mounted ballistic cannon, releases an array of accurately targeted bullets. The bullets, with their trajectory calculated by Natasha, all work in sync to throw off the oncoming fire of the operatives, giving War Machine the opening to burst into the air, palm-repulsors glowing white with a charge.

"What the—"

The Black Knight, somehow observing that she is perhaps responsible for the shift in War Machine's tactics, turns on her, releasing a burst of energy from his lance that she dodges—straight into the Reaper's kick. She hears War Machine clear out the grunts, and only the Black Knight and Reaper remain as close targets on her HUD as she spins herself out of the momentum of the Reaper's kick. She rushes him, bringing up her left blade over her head to block his as it comes down at her in an arc, then striking out with her right blade and nicking his flank. The Reaper only recoils from the pain for a second, immediately lashing out with his real hand in a fist, which she blocks with her right arm in the process of pulling away from the strike only an instant before.

War Machine drops down in front of the Black Knight, diagonal to her position. Natasha catches the Reaper's scythe and tugs him forward, retracting her right blade and striking out with a sloppy fist that's meant for his head but catches his shoulder. In close quarters, the Black Knight is forced to rely on his secondary weapons and completely discard his lance; War Machine leaves no room for its use, his suit striking out with efficiency calculated by Natasha and Extremis. Keeping War Machine in her peripheral, Natasha slowly maneuvers both of their armors so that they have led the Black Knight and Grim Reaper between them. She doesn't listen to Rhodey's bemused and anxious complaints, her mind set by an objective.

Cornered between Natasha and War Machine, when he dodges back to avoid her blade, the Reaper twists immediately to strike out at War Machine before Rhodey can do the same. War Machine ducks under the scythe's high path, shoulders rolling so that as he's straightening, his hand is extended with a ready repulsor. Natasha, meanwhile, is blocking the Black Knight's fist to her head, then pivoting to her reverse side to block another fist, and then responding with a sidekick to his sternum, which—in combination with the repulsor blast that strikes the Reaper, who then collides into the Black Knight, both are sent crushing through the masonry of a wall into the warehouse behind them.

"Alright," Natasha gasps, winded. "I think—"

A hand catches her shoulder, twisting her harshly to face the furious expression of the man behind the War Machine mask.

Natasha blinks, startled. "What gives—?"

"I should be asking you that!" Rhodey all but snarls at her, dropping his hands to his sides, fists clenching and unclenching dangerously. He's shaking his head in disbelief, regarding her with wide, livid eyes, nostrils flaring.

Natasha's blade hums as it slides back into her vambrace; neutrally, she ask, "What are you talking about?"

"You know what I'm talking about!" Rhodey snaps. He jabs a finger at her chest, their armor's clinking. "That was you. How did you do that? You got into my head—"

There was no point in lying. Not to Rhodey. She holds his gaze steadily and gives nothing away by her expression. "Not your head. Just the suit," she says without her usual flippancy. "Relax. It's not that big of a—"

"Relax? That is a complete breach in priv—"

She frowns—and then drops her faceplate when she realizes she is still hiding behind Iron Woman. Crossing her arms, she says, "Hey, don't forget that's my tech you're wearing. I was helping you."

Rhodey looks at her, incredulous and outraged, and then shakes his head, dropping his visor and turning away.

Natasha drops her visor as he blasts into the sky, calling into their COM, "Where are you going?" No answer. "Rhodey! Where—" With a curse, Natasha ignites her thrusters and rockets into the sky. At a certain height, she remains stationary, watching War Machine's retreating figure. He's headed towards where her HUD was reading Ant-Man and the Wasp. Shaking her head, Natasha blasts off in the opposite direction, scanning the ground for Avengers. She mutters into their private COM, "Seriously? Are you mad at me for saving your ass?"

Rhodey ignores her. Natasha is momentarily distracted when two fliers join her in the air and attempt to gun her down. She makes quick work of them, then swoops down, knocking off operatives from the rooftops as she navigates through the labyrinth of catwalks, cranes and buildings.

"It's getting out of hand," Rhodey says after some time, sounding a little out of breath. She can hear explosions in the distance, but she can't say for sure it has anything to do with him.

"Rhodey ..." Natasha murmurs, locating the Hulk and helping him clear out the area of HYDRA. "Listen—"

"All these experiments—all these suits and all this tech—you say its to help us. To give us a fighting chance. But it seems more like you're just doing this for yourself."

Natasha scowls, releasing a repulsor burst on a crowd of HYDRA. "I am helping people. I'm doing this for people. To protect them."

"You got in my head, Natasha. That's not protection. That's an invasion. And you don't even see how that's wrong—"

Behind her, the Hulk roars as he pummels his fists into a HYDRA ground vehicle. Judging that the creature has the situation under control, she takes off in search of another Avenger. "I'm helping people. But I can't help them if I'm just—" Her mind is running diagnostics on her suit, simultaneously doing the same on the bio-monitors attached to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the field. "Rhodey, I can do so much more—I can be so much more! I am Iron Woman, now. Not just Natasha Stark."

Rhodey snaps, "And what the hell is wrong with being just Natasha Stark?"

She answers easily, "Natasha Stark is just a person. I want to be more."

" … Because that worked out so well for Obadiah."

Natasha falters, stunned by the accusation in his words.

A plasma burst strikes her shoulder and sends her spiraling out of the sky and through the roof of a warehouse. She hits the ground and masonry rains down around her, each heavy brick striking her body in a way that echoes within the suit. There's dust and dirt everywhere. Her vision goes dark for a moment. Her breathing is ragged—echoing in her ears.

Below her, debris hugs her body, holding her in place.

"You should have told me," Rhodey mutters, oblivious to her situation.

Natasha coughs—tastes blood, but can't tell how long that taste has been in her mouth. She grunts, " … I am telling you."

There is a warm trickle at her back where the Reaper's scythe first struck her. Her shoulder burns, but she feels paralyzed, her body suddenly a deadweight of exhaustion.

JARVIS, she thinks. She needs a new suit. This one—

"You think I'm an idiot?" Rhodey is saying, his rage not quite dampened by his concern. "You're like my sister, Natasha. I know you a hell of a lot better than most people, and I know you asked me to carry on wearing this suit—being War Machine—and I was cool with it. Because it's right. And you're my friend. You're family—"

With a grunt, Natasha forces herself to sit up, dropping her faceplate for a breath of fresh air. She rests her weight forward with her elbows on her knees, then sighs, curling further into herself and burying her face in her hands, the metal of her gauntlets cool against her feverish flesh.

"But—but this—whatever this is—" Rhodey continues. "I don't want anything to do with whatever you're getting yourself into. I'm the guy on the front lines, but I'm not a pawn."

Natasha mutes her end of the COM, groaning into her palms.

"Nothing to say?" Rhodey huffs. "Well, at least you won't insult me by denying the truth."

Above her, Heartbreaker appears, as delivered by JARVIS. The suit drops down the hole she'd made through the roof, opening itself up to her. With another groan, she pulls herself away from the debris and stands—the Silver Centurion remaining in place as she extracts herself and stumbles into Heartbreaker.

"I wish I could blame Loki. But I know you too well." Rhodey says as her armor locks into place. "You've been playing God with people's lives long before you became Iron Woman."

Her HUD blinks to life in front of her eyes when the visor drops.

"I just hope that you can remember that the rest of us little people—we're human, too. We're people, with thoughts and intelligence."

Her expression completely slack, but for the slightest of pinches at her brow, Natasha surveys the damage to Heartbreaker from the suit's exposure to whatever conflict it had encountered.

"Iron Woman is something you wear. It's a tool," Rhodey says. "You're the engineer, Natasha. Don't confuse arrogance for wisdom."

"Heartbreaker's power is at seventy-eight percent," JARVIS confirms what she sees on her HUD.

She nods—and as her thrusters ignite, Rhodey sighs into the COM and says:

"Don't make the mistake of becoming the machine."

Clint grunts as Black Widow's back knocks into his as she ducks away from a shot, nearly causing him to lose his grip on the tablet. She doesn't offer an apology, standing to momentarily confuse her shooter by responding from a higher position as she peers back out around the side of the building, releasing a series of precise shots.

Without looking, she reaches behind herself with an open hand. "Clip."

Clint was already in the process of procuring one from his pack. He drops it into her hand and turns back to his task, scowling down at the information scrolling across his screen. "So—we have a problem. The files are all protected with an asymmetric encryption algorithm."

Widow jerks her head back to avoid getting shot and grunts, "Sounds like Stark-speak."

"That's because it is."

"I thought you wanted to avoid involving Stark?"

"Doesn't really look like I've got much of a choice," Clint mutters, reaching for his ear to open his third channel, which is linked to Stark.

"What?" comes the irritable response. Clint blinks, surprised. Stark sounds like she's in a mood.

"What's with you?" he sniffs, smirking.

"Don't worry about it. What do you need?"

Clint rolls his eyes. "I'm sending you a file. Can you get in?"

An explosion in the air draws Clint's attention. He looks up to see Iron Woman and Thor taking on several HYDRA fliers and drones. With a little strain in her words, Stark mutters, "You don't normally ask me for favors, Legolas. What's this about?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. business," he replies shortly, his eyes on her and the God. "Can you break the encryption or not?"

Iron Woman takes a dive towards some unseen assailant, muttering distractedly, "It's done."

Surprised by her swiftness, Clint offers a salute to her figure in the distance—remembering, belatedly, that it might not even be her up there, but some other Iron Woman. He frowns, shaking his head, then refocuses his attention to the tablet. "Thanks. Talk to you later. Bye."

Beside him, Widow takes a rest to reload another clip. There's something about her silence and the peculiar quirk of her lips that has him frowning when he glances to her—a habit formed in the interest of ensuring his partner was still all in one piece.

He frowns. "What?"

She shrugs. "Nothing."

That's not a 'nothing' tone.

Rolling his eyes, Clint turns back to his tablet. "Sure. Look—I get Stark can help, but the more access we give her to our databases the easier it is for her to break into our systems."

"You say that as if you think it would even pose a challenge for her."

"Well, we shouldn't make it easier for her—" Clint's earpiece chirps and he hears Stark cursing into his ear. "Stark? What is it?"

"Those files you wanted decrypted—"

Clint groans. "Oh—Stark! Do you not understand what confidentiality—"

"Yeah, yeah—I know. But—" Her COM cuts out for a second, then, "I recognized—a name—it—"

Clint straightens, exchanging a look with Widow, who had lowered herself next to him to listen in on her own earpiece.

"What is it?" Widow asks calmly.

"The Green Goblin."

"You are distracted, Lady of Iron!" Thor bellows over the sound of his electricity striking the ground and carving a path in the direction of Radioactive Man.

"With good reason," Iron Woman calls back, slamming a fist into the Melter's head, then a kick and an immediate repulsor blast to his chest. He slumps, unconscious, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. team immediately moves in to cuff the man and deactivate the harness across his chest which controlled his abilities.

Thor sees Radioactive Man take a knee under the brunt of Mjolnir's might and grins, peering over his shoulder to share his victory with Iron Woman—and finds Loki standing between them, instead.

There is a strange vacancy in his stare—like Loki's mind is elsewhere—and as Iron Woman turns, finding him standing behind her, she does not respond in a telling way, expression concealed behind the mask of her suit.

"Brother!" Thor declares, forcing himself not to allow his doubts to overshadow his joy of sharing, once more, a battlefield with the Trickster.

Without addressing Loki, Iron Woman steps directly through him, dropping her visor as the projection shimmers and then reshapes itself behind her. She focuses her eyes on Thor, face as unreadable as her mask's.

"I need to meet up with Black Widow and her team. You got this?"

Thor nods, bemused, and as she rockets herself into the air, he turns back to the illusion of his brother fretfully.

"Why do you conceal yourself behind enchantments, brother?"

Loki smirks.

And then vanishes.

Loki listens to the impatient pacing of Amora behind him. She is troubled by the next phase of her plan, but as Loki observes the enchanted fountain, watching as Natasha disregards his projection, seeing right through its guise, he observes that his own schemes have come together quite nicely.

"How long before your enchantment takes hold?" Loki wonders out loud, the pool rippling, then smoothing to present him a new image. It is of the Hulk—still very much in control of its own faculties. For the moment.

"It—" Amora sighs, exasperated, and joins him. "It will not be long." She frowns, replacing the image to bring back the one of Natasha. "She knows something, doesn't she?"

Loki merely looks up at her, smiling.

She scowls. "She knows you are not with them. She saw directly through your illusions."

"She did," Loki agrees, entertained by her growing frustration at his lack of concern.

"This is no time for your reckless arrogance," Amora snaps. "I do not care for whatever petty revenge you might have in store for her—"

"Revenge?" Loki chuckles. "Why do you presume I seek revenge?"

Amora falters, studying his eyes, searching. The expression interests Loki, and he sobers, sensing that there is something Amora is not saying. A knowledge, pertaining to himself and Natasha, perhaps, that he has not yet been made privy to.

Before Loki can question her, a disembodied voice calls out to them:

"You know the thing about the Destroyer Armor—"

Behind Amora, emerging from the darkness as if given form by the shadows, is the Destroyer Armor Natasha had assigned to him.

"It's basically the Chaos Armor. With upgrades," Iron Woman's mechanical voice continues, speaking through the armor.

Amora gasps, stunned into a stupor of silence.

As the armor looms closer, Loki looks back to the fountain, carding his fingers through the pool with a sly smile across his lips.

"One of those upgrades is this neat camo feature. Renders it nearly completely undetectable. Another neat feature—"

Suddenly, the armor seems to cave into itself, breaking off into segments, startling Amora. The segments come alive, then, propelled by tiny thrusters. They launch themselves at the Enchantress, clasping over her figure until she seems to be devoured beneath the white-gold of the suit. The armor, with the trapped Enchantress within, pivots to face Loki.

Amora's eyes are wide with fear and anger, framed by the helmet of the suit. She snarls, "You—!"

"Trickster?" Loki arches a brow and grins.

The visor drops and her words are muffled without the audio output to project her voice.

"Yes," Natasha says, speaking through the Destroyer Armor. "He is."

End Notes: Holy shit, you guys. You're all saints. How did you get through Part I of CV? Jesus? I was skimming through, fact-checking and the like—and holy baby Christmas, it all just makes me cringe.

Anyway, this battle is not even close to being over, so, buckle up guys. It's a bumpy ride. Sorry for the short chapter, but this is what got mostly cut out of the last chapter. Which, by the way, thanks for the comments you guys sent me for the last chapter. This chapter is owing to those of you who took the time to share your encouraging words with me.

OH YEAH! Check out my profile if you want to look at some art and stuff I've done for this fic. I just put up the links per request so thar ya go!