A long night.
Dark Angel pauses as he puts the key into the first lock on his door. Maybe he should go to the boss and try to straighten things out. But what could he say? It wouldn't be like him to go on a three-day bender, and he doesn't have any bruises or bumps to make a stay in the hospital sound believable...
Wait! That's it! Turning on his booted heel, Dark returns to the world outside. Searching. For anyone which can land him in the hospital long enough to save his job and his pride. This is gonna hurt, he figures, but not as much as writing home to his folks that he lost the best hope they ever had of retirement. Mom had worked so hard in the factory all those years. She, at least, deserved some peace. And he was going to make damned sure he wasn't the one who let her down.
Dark Angel flew himself to South Side Seaport, resolute in his plan to get himself injured. A few hefty sailors ought to do the trick. Now which insult best to use...? Spying a few surly types below, Dark landed in a nearby alley and prepared to get himself ko'd.
Jumping vigorously out onto the sidewalk, he thrust one of his hips to the side, and placed a hand on his own waist. Next came the attempted come-on, "Hiya partner, wanna have some fun?". He knew just how livid a come-on from a gay man could make a red-blooded American male.
Two of the three sailors looked at him like he was a freak, while the third eyeballed him with interest. Directing his attention to the ones who seemed less-than-likely to take him up on his offer, Dark tried again. "What's the matter fellas? Are ya virgins?"
"Where'd you find that get'up, man? It's hip!"
"Huh?" Dark Angel looked down and realized he was still in disguise. This would not do much for his secret identity, he thought, and felt something sinking in the pit of his belly.
"The clothes, man! Let us have 'em! I bet we could pick up a lot of babes with those duds." The three men advanced on him, and Dark took a protective step back.
"I-I" _think fast_ "Sorry, pardners, but the clothes ain't for sale." No sense being rude, he figured.
"Hold 'em, Jim! I'll get the super-duds off the pansy!"
But when Jim reached out to grab the bewildered Dark Angel something happened. Something he never could have expected. He hit them. It was all reflexive, of course, but none-the-less, they were the ones lying on the pavement in various states of broken uncomfortable-ness, not he.
"Damn! Are you all right?" He asked, but was only met with a whimper and a groan. It had all happened to fast. And now what was he supposed to do?
"Change first, then try again," he sighed, and made his way back home for the second time that evening.
After finding a more suitable outfit to get beaten up in, Sam Stern made his way on foot around the various seedy parts of the city. His next chosen assailants were bikers in Central Park. A whole mess of bikers at a rally, or something like. There must've been close to fifty. Harleys and all.
Letting out a deep breath and taking in another, Sam stepped into the middle of their party. "Hi." He looked around. You could have heard a pin drop. And then he noticed their t-shirts. They were all alike. Where "Hell's Angels" should have been emblazoned, instead there were yellow crosses and the words, "Bikers for Jesus".
"Awwww!" Sam actually whined. "Why couldn't you be normal???"
That raised some eyebrows, but nobody seemed much inclined to beat him up over it.
Taking that as his cue to leave, Sam stalked temperamentally out of their circle. As he moved through the park he heard the softly sung strains of a religious medley floating behind him.
Muttering his frustration, Sam wandered the city for several hours before huddled on a park bench, just for a minute. Just to rest ... Where was Captain America when he needed him? And with that thought he fell asleep.
Samuel Stern, in his pajamas, walks barefoot down a dark, wide, bitterly cold corridor, the stone floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling made from large, irregular blocks of gray rock. There are no windows or lights, and yet Stern can see clearly as he moves inexorably forward. Suddenly, he is at the end of the corridor, facing a winding, stone stairwell ascending upwards into darkness. Stern feels a dread chill at his back, a chill that is more than a matter of degrees Fahrenheit, but instead is a coldness that seems to sap the heat from his body. Turning, he sees an inky cloud, wavering, changing, sometimes amorphous, sometimes almost humanoid.
"Climb," the cloud commands with a grim, lifeless voice.
Dark Angel turns back to face the stairs, black wings folding against his powerful back. He places a chalk white foot on the first stair and then is at the top of the spiral ascent facing a massive, ancient oaken door. Dull orange light flickers around the door's edges.
"Open it," the voice orders.
Dark Angel extends a pale hand and swings the door inward to reveal a large, circular room lit by dozens of torches. In the center of the chamber, in the center of a glowing pentacle, are three men. One, a wizened Asian man, is bound to a crudely fashioned stone altar. His eyes shine with fear. The other two stand at his side, facing the doorway, but seemingly unaware of Dark Angel's entrance.
"Come, Stephen," says the older, heavier set man, his oily black hair and beard glistening in the grim torchlight, his voice thick with an accent that might be German. "Strike and sorcery supreme will be ours."
The other man, a younger, dignified fellow, also with dark hair, and a thin moustache and neatly trimmed beard, nods, lifting a razor-edged dagger overhead. "Yes, Karl. I see now. I see what we must do."
Dark Angel watches helplessly, paralyzed, unable to move or call out or to look away, as Stephen, with surgical deftness, removes the old man's heart and lifts it to his lips.
And then Samuel Stern wakes up choking on a scream.
The sounds of morning traffic and the click-click of pedestrian heels do nothing to erase the horrid images from Sam's mind. The crick in his neck from the night spent on the park bench is nothing in comparison to the nausea he feels as the bile rises in his throat. Finding a nearby trash can, he relieves the scant contents of his stomach, sputtering the acrid drops from his lips. Wiping his mouth with the flannel sleeve of his shirt, he glances at his surroundings.
Paper bags, discarded liquor bottles, and worn patches of grass and dirt surround the battered bench. The Plaza hotel looms above the scraggly trees and their surrounding piles of graffiti-laden boulders. _What an ugly place_ he thinks for the first time since arriving in the city. The excitement of a new job now deflated, Sam slumps his shoulders and stares at the depressing gray-green-brown patch of ground at his feet. His shoes are scuffed, and his laces frayed. It doesn't matter. Nothing does.
After a while hunger returns, and Sam makes his way slowly down the path to Park Avenue. Heading south, he seeks out a common diner near the Empire State building. Even the wondrous building he had longed to glimpse close-up since arriving in the city does nothing to salve the deep despair covering his entire being. With leaden slowness Sam consumes his breakfast and spends the rest of the time before his meeting staring into the murky darkness of his coffee cup.
The young man's head swims, straining to take in all the events of the past days, the past months. The warm updrafts of the city below do little to smooth his tangled thoughts. Numbly, he banks over Central park, coming in at angle invisible to anyone on the streets below, alighting on an upscale apartment building and enters the rooftop greenhouse. Through a heavy iron hatchway and down a disused elevator shaft, he flies, exiting into a cramped, windowless flat.
The living room is bathed in cold flickering light from the static on the after-signoff TV screen. A man lies sleeping on the couch.
"Doc?", he calls softly, his huge shadow falling across the sleeping man's face.
"Hmh? Oh. You're back." the older man rubs his eyes as he sits up with one hand, fetching his glasses off the coffee table with the other. "I was beginning to worry. So, Where've you been?"
Cap is silent for a moment, amazed at his friend's casual tone. He'd expected (half-hoped, maybe) Doc to be worried sick about him. Ah, well, considering what they'd been through nothing would ever likely seem particularly alarming again.
"Where've I been? Oh, nowhere. Just Asgard. Went toe-to-toe with the god of thunder. Met the father of the gods. Rescued the hostages from the raid the other day. Not a bad little trip, really. We have any cold cuts?"
"So," the older man asks, fully awake now, "does he know yet?"
Cap pauses, his hand on the icebox handle. "Before I went in against Thor, I had this feeling I might not make it out of the fight alive. I called...", the young man's voice quavers for a heartbeat's time, "I called Rick Jones, the one calling himself Emerald, I called him 'Rick' and wished him luck. Y'know he's like, my biggest connection to this reality, and I just wanted him to maybe remember who I was if I died."
"What did he say?"
"He didn't even seem to notice. Too much other stuff going on at the time, I guess." Cap snaps out of his momentary reverie and proceeds to raid the refrigerator's contents with enthusiasm.
"But I've decided I'm definitely going to tell them the whole story.", his voice echoes out of the interior of the big GE," I've already been through too much with these folks not to trust them , and this whole 'raid of the gods' thing goes to show that just 'cause the Savior and his forces are in another dimension doesn't mean we're safe here. The threat could be a very real one. And the Avengers are the only ones here who'd stand a chance of doing anything about it."
"The who?" asks the scientist.
"The Avengers, that's what we're calling ourselves. Boss name, huh? Not sure which one of us said it first, but it kinda stuck. We're meeting again, and I think maybe you should come along. There's no way I could explain all the scientific stuff about alternate timelines and quantum disruptions and all that," Cap says around bites of a sizeable Dagwood," plus I think you, Stark, and Dumas might hit it off. Brainy types."
"OK Rick, I'll be there."
"Great Bruce, I think we may really need you."
"You have your own car?" Dumas asks. "I guess I shouldn't be so surprised, you seem very independent." He smiles chauvinistically at her. "I guess I'm just not used to seeing that these days, but it is the sixties now and we live in...what is it that they say...liberated times." He remembers. "Yes, liberated times where a woman wears a mighty suit of battle armor and does not run from combat. Indeed, it is new times." He sees that he is talking to much.
"I apologize for speaking out loud. Shall we go?" He asked.
Aegis can't help herself; she starts laughing. Just for a moment, seeing that aristocratic glower returning, before she controls herself. "Sorry," she manages, her shoulders shaking, repeats it more seriously. "I am sorry, Dr. Dumas. Sometimes I forget what others see when they look at me.... You're right, these are different days than they once were, though I'm told that I'm more than a bit odd, even so." Her grin is undiluted Irish mischief. "I take it Tony didn't tell you what I do here at Stark?"
"Security or something like that...." He says.
"Ah. 'Something like that,'" Bethany agrees, still grinning. She gestures at the armor. "This isn't exactly in keeping with being inconspicuous. Let me get changed and I'll meet you in the lot? It's the blue '58 Ford with a dent in the left fender." She can imagine what kind of car Dumas drives. After losing one too many, she'd given up and bought one that would attract fewer rough types when she had to visit the less pleasant parts of town.
He purses his lips as if he was going to say something else, but then changes his words. "Right. I'll...uh...meet you there."
A few minutes later she's pushing the doors open and heading out into the chill autumn night, the armor's smooth leather case in one hand, just in case -- it's surprisingly light, she thinks for the hundredth timeand her purse over her shoulder, where she can feel the comforting weight of her revolver. _Technical miracles are all well and good, but there's still something nice about plain old steel._
Twenty minutes later, Dumas heads out to the parking lot. Having never been there, he starts to search for her car amongst the hundreds there.
"Oh dear. A '58 Ford? How am I to know the difference between a '58 and a 59' and all these American cars seem to have dents or at least are in need of a good scrubbing. Did she say blue?" He asks out loud.
He was soon lost in the parking lot wandering around looking for a car with a woman in it. "Why are so many people working here at night? Don't they sleep? Why would Tony hire people to work at night?" He asks himself as he keeps on searching.
It takes her few moments to spot him wandering around and wave him over to the somewhat beat-up vehicle. "Sorry. Should have been more specific, I guess. There's usually fewer people here by the time I leave." Hard to believe it's not the same night, but the moon has changed and the air has a faintly different feel. "This shouldn't take too long." In fact, she strongly hopes that this is going to turn out to be a waste of time.
Victor looks at her before getting in and feels the need to offer his services. "Would you like me to drive you there... Bethany?" Obviously not used to being driven by a woman. He feels its almost impolite of himself to have her do so.
"That's all right," she demurs with a shrug. "I don't mind."
She drives fast but not dangerously, and it's not too long before they reach Connors' neighborhood. The lights are onlots of them, which is strange at this hour.... Bethany pulls over a few blocks down the street, surveying the area for anyone who might be staking the place out.
"You are an excellent driver." He feels the need to break the silence. "Where did you learn to do this?" He asks.
"Drive?" She's thinking about other things by then, and the question comes as something of a surprise. "While I was at school. How long have you been in the U.S., if you don't mind my asking?"
Somewhat belatedly she realizes that if there is a problem, they still don't have a good excuse for being in the area. _Cross that bridge when we get to it, I guess_.
Victor waits quietly. Then speaks after a few moments. "Perhaps I should try a little obfuscation and check things out?" He asks Bethany for her opinion.
"We could both go, I could phase you in your armor as well?"
"Hm." Though she's curious to know what the world is like when one is 'phased,' she doesn't want to blow the situation out of proportion, either. The house appears quiet from the street; it's odd to see so many lights at this hour of the night, but that might mean nothing at all. And if something is up, walking into it armed for bear might make things worse rather than better.
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© 1999 Mark L. Chance et al