SUMMARY: What had been a perfectly sturdy building full of office workers toiling away at their dull office jobs, was, in the space of an instant, reduced to a nightmarish scene of death and devastation.
RATING: PG-13 (for swears)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: So, you know how I said it was going to be eight chapters? Yeah, not so much. It's looking like nine now. Possibly plus an epilogue. Oops.
“There is, of course, no such thing in practice as an ideal fluid. All fluids are to some extent compressible, and all fluids are to some extent viscous, so that adjacent fluid elements exert both normal and tangential forces on one another across their common interface.”
The extent of the cataclysm was difficult to process. What had been a perfectly sturdy building full of office workers toiling away at their dull office jobs, was, in the space of an instant, reduced to a nightmarish scene of death and devastation.
Tony took one look at it and called Bruce.
“I’m watching it on TV now,” Bruce said when he picked up. “It’s horrific.”
“You should see it close up.” Tony grunted as he lifted a large piece of twisted metal so two EMTs could pull a woman out of the rubble. “Get down here, we need you.”
“No,” Bruce said. “You really don’t.”
Tony shot up into the air and alighted next to a piece of what looked like it had once been a part of the roof, and was now wedged beneath a portion of the toppled crane. “You’re right,” he said, straining to shift the stubborn chunk of debris. “We need the other guy.”
“You definitely do not need him.”
“There are people trapped in there, Banner. People who are still alive. But they won’t be for much longer and there aren’t enough of us with the strength to get to them. It’s taking too long. The Hulk could do it, he could get to them.”
“He could kill them,” Bruce said, sounding scared. “He could make it worse. So much worse.”
Rogers bounded up and landed heavily beside Tony. Between the two of them, they managed to move the chunk of roof out of the way. Beneath it was another piece of debris, almost as large. Sticking out from under that was a bloodied hand. The hand had a wedding ring on it.
“He could help,” Tony said grimly. Then he cut the connection and reached for the next piece of rubble.
Clint wasn’t strong, not like Thor or Iron Man or Captain America, but he was agile, thanks to his acrobat training, and his compact size made it relatively easy for him to scale the wreckage, moving swiftly and nimbly over the rubble without disturbing it. Even in the failing light, his keen eyesight made him adept at spotting signs of survivors so he could guide one of the rescue teams to them.
“A little more to the left,” Clint called up to Thor, who was muscling a large chunk of debris out of the way.
The Norse god grunted and the debris shifted to the side, opening up a gap just wide enough to allow Clint to reach the woman trapped behind it. He sprang forward, his hand moving to her throat to search for a pulse. He was relieved when he felt it throbbing beneath his fingers, strong and steady.
Her eyelids fluttered open. “Am I dead?” she whispered horsely.
Clint smiled at her. “Not today, you’re not.”
Thor had always been a warrior. That was his role—his purpose. He had never given much thought to helping people, outside of the help he rendered by keeping the realm safe from its enemies. Recently, he had come to realize that he had been blind to much of the suffering around him. He had always taken his privilege for granted, had exercised very little compassion, offered no succor to the wretched and the weak. It filled him with shame to think of it.
Perhaps if he had been a different man, a better man, his brother would not have turned on him.
Now, he looked with very different eyes upon these mortals who had been caught in the midst of a terrible and unexpected tragedy. He saw all of their pain and their fear and their limitless courage, and he opened his heart to it.
Clint emerged from a narrow maw in the wreckage cradling an injured woman in his arms. Thor bent down to take her from him.
She was young, close to the same age as Jane. And tiny, as small and fragile as a bird. Blood streamed from a gash on her head and one of her arms was badly broken. He heard her whimper in pain as he gathered her into his arms, but her eyes were clear and bright as they looked up at him.
“You’re the Avengers, aren’t you?” she asked. Her voice was thin, weak.
“You came back to save us. I knew you would.”
Thor felt his eyes well with tears as he carried her to safety.
Natasha wriggled through a narrow fissure in the rubble. She found the foot she’d seen from above, and felt her way up the leg to the body of the man it belonged to. His skin was cold to the touch, and she wasn’t surprised when she was unable to find any signs of life.
“Is anyone down here?” she called out loudly. “Shout if you can hear me.” She shined her light around the cramped space, looking signs of survivors while she listened for a response. There was nothing.
She squeezed her way back out through the gap and shook her head at Steve, who was waiting for her above. He extended an arm and levered her up to where he was standing.
“Over here!” one of the rescue workers called out, waving them over. “I think I heard someone under there!”
Natasha and Steve hurried over. There was a large section of collapsed wall pinned beneath a twisted length of girder. At one end was a narrow gap leading down into yawning blackness.
“You think you can fit through there?” Steve asked dubiously.
“Only one way to find out,” Natasha said.
The passage was tight—even tighter than the last one had been—but she managed to squeeze her way though it. Once she was in she was pleased to discover it opened up into a larger space so she had some room to move around. “Anyone here?” she called out.
She heard a muffled moan in response and made her way towards the sound. She had to dig down into the debris, but eventually she found him. He was conscious—barely—but one of his legs was badly broken and he was bleeding profusely from a wound in his abdomen.
“Widow? What’s your status?” Steve asked over the comms.
“He’s here, I’ve got him,” she answered, putting pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding. “But he’s badly injured. You’re going to have to widen that opening so we can get a stretcher down here.”
“Copy that,” Steve said.
A moment later she heard the sound of metal groaning and the section of wall overhead shifted. Plaster and dust rained down from above and she did her best to shield the injured man’s body with her own. When the shower was over she glanced at the opening, but it was no wider than it had been before.
“It’s stuck,” Steve reported. “I need to get some help. Hold on.”
“Hurry,” Natasha said. Her hands were covered in the man’s blood, which was still flowing freely despite her efforts to staunch it. He didn’t have much time.
All of a sudden there was a scream of metal scraping against metal and the collapsed wall overhead was flung aside. The beam of a halogen construction light shined down on her, blinding her in the sudden brightness. She looked up, blinking to clear her vision, and saw the Hulk looming over her.
Steve’s head popped into view beside him. “I found help,” he said, grinning down at her.
Absurdly, Steve had a children’s nursery rhyme stuck in his head.
Ring-a-round a rosie, a pocket full of posies.
He couldn’t seem to shake the cursed thing, no matter how hard he tried to think about other things. Like for instance the crumpled, bloodied remains of some poor soul being carried away by paramedics.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
“I need some help!” a man cried out, waving to him. Steve hurried over to lend his assistance.
“Over there,” the man said, pointing. He was bloodied and bruised, holding his arm against his chest as if it were injured, but he appeared to be one of the lucky ones. “I heard a call for help when I was making my way out. Back in that direction.”
The area he’d indicated was close to the dead center of the wreckage, a place where the rescue crews hadn’t yet reached. Steve couldn’t even imagine how the man had managed to climb so far on his own with only one good arm. It was miraculous.
The Hulk was working with Thor, tossing the heaviest chunks of debris out of the way, so Steve motioned to Natasha and the two of them began picking their way over to the area the man had indicated. It was slow and precarious going, and not for the first time Steve cursed the fact that he couldn’t fly like Iron Man or Thor. For all his super soldier strength, sometimes he still couldn’t do enough. There always seemed to be things he couldn’t lift, places he couldn’t reach. People he couldn’t save.
Natasha was far lighter and more fleet-footed, so she was able to make better progress over the wreckage than he was. She was a good thirty yards out in front of him when she stopped and shouted back that she’d found someone.
Which was when Steve felt a shiver run through the rubble beneath him. There was chilling groan from deep within the wreckage, and then the world began to tilt.
“Fall back!” he heard someone shout behind him. “Everyone move, now!”
“Widow!” he shouted into the comm. “Get out of there!”
The piece of debris Steve was standing on was sliding beneath him. He jumped, landed unsteadily, and felt his new perch begin to shift as well. Summoning all his strength, he jumped again, propelling himself towards solid ground. He just barely managed to make it to safety as the spot he’d been standing seconds before caved in completely, the disturbance radiating outward through the debris pile like a shockwave.
And Natasha was still stuck out there, struggling for purchase as everything around her slid inexorably towards the growing crater.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Natasha felt the tremor run through the wreckage and had just enough time to grab hold of something relatively solid before the world began to shift underneath her.
She was only vaguely aware of Rogers shouting in her ear as the piece of rubble she was clinging to lurched precariously, threatening to spill her off. She launched herself into the air, twisting and landing on another, higher perch, but as soon as she’d gotten a handhold it, too, began to slide. Her eyes scanned desperately for a path to safety, but everything around her was shifting and contorting as the wreckage collapsed under its own weight.
Dust ballooned up around her and she felt a faint twinge of pain in her leg as she half jumped, half tumbled onto a broad, flat piece of rubble that might once have been part of a load-bearing wall. She scrabbled for a better grip, a safer position, but there was simply nothing stable to hold onto; nowhere she could go.
And then she heard a familiar electronic hum. There was a rush of warm air and the next thing she knew Stark had ahold of her and was flying her up and over the collapsing pile of rubble. He slowed down just enough to drop her on solid ground before arcing up and away to buzz the surface of the rubble again, looking for more people to pluck from danger.
Clint and Steve hurried over, looking worried. “You okay?” Clint asked, and she managed a curt nod as she coughed dust out of her lungs.
“There’s someone trapped in there,” she managed horsely. “He was still alive. I heard him, but I couldn’t get to him. We have to go back in.”
“It’s too dangerous right now,” the chief of one of the fire rescue crews told them, shaking his head. “Whole pile’s gone unstable. We’ve got to get that crane moved off of there, take some of the weight off first.”
“Iron Man, you hear that?” Steve said into the comm.
“On it,” Tony answered. “Thor, see if you can find some chains and we’ll see how the Hulk likes playing tug-o-war.”
“That looks pretty bad,” Steve said, gesturing at Natasha’s leg.
She looked down. Blood was streaming from a laceration in her calf. “I’m fine,” she said. It was nothing, she could deal with it later herself.
But Steve had already flagged down a paramedic. She waited impatiently while he cleaned and bandaged the wound. All she could think about was that voice she’d heard, weak and frightened, calling out for help. Unanswered.
“Where’s Barton?” she asked suddenly.
“He was right here…” Steve said, casting his eyes around.
But Natasha had already spotted Clint, right where she was afraid he’d be. Picking his way across the wreckage, heading down into the newly formed crater.
“Hawkeye, fall back,” Steve barked into the comm. “That’s an order.”
The only response was silence. Clint had disappeared over the lip of the crater and was out of sight. Natasha started forward but Steve grabbed hold of her arm. “The pile’s unstable. You try to go out there with him, and you’re liable to make it worse.”
“I found him,” Clint said finally. “He’s here and he’s still alive.”
“Iron Man, Hawkeye needs an assist,” Steve said into the comm. “He’s found another survivor.”
“Little busy right now,” Stark gritted out. He was hovering in the air above the crane, trying to lever it up off the wreckage. Below him, Thor and the Hulk were straining to pull on several lengths of heavy chain that they had managed to wrap around the body of the crane. They were making progress, but it was slow going.
“Hold position, Hawkeye,” Steve ordered. “It’s going to to be a few minutes before I can get you an airlift out of there.”
“Copy that,” Clint replied. “He seems stable for the moment. Awaiting assistance.”
Natasha watched tensely as, bit by bit, Stark and the others moved the crane off the rubble. They’d almost gotten it all the way onto solid ground when there was a gut-churning screech from deep within the wreckage and the rubble started to shift again, sending an avalanche of debris crashing down into the crater where Clint was.
She surged forward, but Steve grabbed her and held her back.
“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
She struggled against him, but her heart wasn’t in it. She knew he was right.
Natasha sagged in Steve’s arms, watching numbly as Clint was buried beneath the rubble.