Chapter Six: Last Call
Xao’s nose was undoubtedly red. It was numbed by the near blinding wind and snow, though he ignored it as much as possible. The CEO of Wai-Go Industries adjusted his heavy jacket, shifting the hood to offer more protection and walked to the edge of the platform. He scanned the work being done before him as best he could through his goggles.
From his perspective, the myriad of workers and technicians looked almost like ants as they crawled all over complicated metal and machinery. Small bursts of light that flashed like candles were actually the fire of acetylene torches as the railway was welded together.
He knew that the portal generator was almost completely assembled. The stolen scrapes of science and technical savvy that had been taken from Phineas Randall a half century ago was finally paying off. Of course, as opposed to the generators that the mechanical and engineering genius had invented, theirs had to piggyback off of the mystical energies that were let loose when the different Cities aligned to Earth.
“Sir,” a masked HYDRA agent said as he came up behind his leader. He had a portable computer with him, opening it up and showing the screen to the Chinese man that had turned to face him. He could see that Xao was not happy, something that freaked him out to no end. Even a happy Xao didn’t do much to calm his usually nervous disposition.
He didn’t get paid enough to have to deal directly with the boss. And he didn’t even get full dental.
“What is it?” Xao said, not knowing exactly which one of his men was standing before him. They all ended up looking the same when in the uniform. Part of the mystique, and a source of fear when they descended en masse upon their enemies. Of course, this one in particular had a rather dumb expression on his face, as much as could be made out at least.
“Davos wishes to speak to you.” The Hydra agent pushed a button on the keyboard, making a small window appear on the screen. On it was Davos, static making it hard to see him, but not enough to keep it from being obvious that he was as displeased as he usually was.
“What is the status of the project?” Davos demanded, face filling the video window. There was a slight delay for the audio, his words slightly out of sync with his glower. That the Iron Fist, the other Iron Fist, had not fallen to his hand angered him greatly. Enough time had passed for him to get over it, mostly at least. He would face the boy soon enough, and there was his vengeance upon all of K’un-L’un to consider.
“Two legions of HYDRA troops have arrived and two more will arrive before the deadline,” Xao said, keeping a calm expression on his face. He imagined that his actual feelings were hidden. Despite the fact that the machinery was almost fully assembled, it was still two weeks behind schedule. There were supposed to be some tests to ensure that the individual parts worked and to tune the generator, but those would have to be dropped to ensure completion by the deadline.
“Will it be finished on time?” The Steel Serpent questioned, not buying Xao’s assurances. He could easily see through the HYDRA sub-boss’ claims. He glared at Xao, unblinking.
“Yes.” Xao nodded, trying to keep himself from acting nervous. It was no use, and the HYDRA man knew it. But, as someone that was more than a faceless HYDRA goon, he had to at least try. Davos was not the leader of all of HYDRA, despite the segments that he may be allowed to command. Of course, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t a threat.
Davos scoffed at the short answer. He continued to stare at Xao through the video link, watching Xao’s continuing anxiety. In another situation it might even have pleased him. “See that it is.”
The window went dark after that, leaving no time for a response.
Xao swallowed apprehensively, turning away and dismissing the underling with the computer with a wave of a hand. This was not his usual role. And while he often administrated HYDRA tasks and special projects, it was never like this. The usual business deals that he handled did not usually involve such things as risks to his own life.
He’d just have to make sure that the portal to K’un-L’un and onward to the other Cities of Heaven was completed on time. He had no choice.
“You have fun last night?” Colleen asked, shoveling another mouthful of eggs in her mouth. She chewed it quickly, watching the boy before her as he looked out the window of the diner. It was one of her favorite breakfast places in the city, and after a night out it was a great spot to get breakfast. It opened early, and its coffee was always strong.
Xander nodded, picking at his own food. He wasn’t feeling that hungry, and though the pancakes looked and smelled really good, he didn’t find it in him to eat. Which was odd and depressing in and of itself. “Yeah. Lot of…people.”
The woman shrugged, smiling briefly as she continued to eat. She could tell that Xander was preoccupied with something, and from what she knew about the Tournament from her father’s work, he had every right to be. “More of your type than you might think. Especially in a city like this. Eight and change in the city alone, whole lot of space for certain types to slip through the cracks. Nets me a lot of work at any rate. Not to mention what the law and order types throw me because of it.”
“And the supernatural types?” Xander asked, finally cutting off a wedge of pancakes and chewing it slowly. The maple syrup and powdered sugar made it especially sweet, though he found that he could hardly taste it. He looked over at the woman.
“Takes all sorts. I hear there’s some type of demon doing the vigilante thing in Hell’s Kitchen. Never seen him myself, and the artist renderings in the papers ain’t worth a thing,” Colleen threw out flippantly. She shrugged again, eight million in the city, there were enough tall tales for anyone. “I hear there’s even some type of vampire hunter running around. Half-breed dhampir type. Nomad hunter, I hear he’s been in LA, Prague, Moscow, here. Supposed to be in Detroit right now.”
“Dhampir?” Xander asked, the rumor having piqued his interest. “Half-human half-vampire? Thought vampires couldn’t have kids.”
“Different types,” Colleen suggested, she didn’t really know herself. With all the rumors and stories that were told, it was near impossible to lock anything down. “That’s the story anyway. Of course, I also heard that his mother was bit while she was pregnant. Delivered the baby before she died and was fully turned.”
“I’m trusting you with a lot here you know.” Xander got serious, locking eyes with the young woman seated across the booth from him. He was going by his gut, feeling his way through things, and while it hadn’t been bad so far, he was accumulating too many people to be able to play things like that.
“I know,” Colleen said, getting equally serious. Something she actually didn’t do all that often. The world was serious enough as it was. “Way the world works for people like us. Can’t exactly ask for a list of references.”
Xander sniffed once in amusement. “I suppose so, but you gotta know, anything you write down, no names, nothing to identify any of us. We don’t exist.”
“Even that lawyer chick you got?” Colleen asked.
“Don’t trust her.” Xander shook his head. “I don’t trust her. You, your father, you guys know some stuff. I trust you enough for that. We all have secrets we have, and I suppose that we can’t live our lives thinking that everyone wants to use us. Or that sharing some of those secrets is the worst thing in the world. Still, I got my people to protect. Same as you I suppose.”
“I guess I have to agree,” Colleen said, taking another bite from her breakfast. “Yummy.”
“Just so we get each other.” Xander nodded. “How’s your father? I mean, ninja comes in, you’re not going to be around if they decide to come back for it.”
“I got it cleared up,” Colleen said, though she kept it somewhat vague. Like Xander said, she had her own people to protect. And, while he had met Luke last night, Xander didn’t fully know what the large black man could do. “Thanks for asking though.”
Agent Coulson sighed, shaking his head as he read the new report that had popped up on his monitor. There had been another act of gun violence in Boston the same night as that of the earlier hit. It had originally been marked as unrelated, but similarities in damage had come up in his search routine. Disappointment in police record keeping would be a moot point.
The physical evidence didn’t exactly match, coming up with 9x19mm Parabellum shell casings, instead of the other types that were used in the warehouse firefight. That said, it matched up to other missing weaponry coming out of Sunnydale. He didn’t know why the officers at the depot there were incompetent enough to let it go undiscovered so long. More than that, he questioned why there had been little pressure from any other agencies on looking into the case. No MP or ATF investigation started to look at where the weapons had gone, and no pressure on the commanders of the depot as to how the break-in and theft had happened.
It looked almost political, but as usual, he was reluctant to speculate without some type of evidence to base it on. Things didn’t get much better as he dug in to it more. Though the DRI program was still in its opening stages and nowhere near operational, the initial personnel requisitions had already been turned in. And from what sources on the Hill told him, most of the military spots would eventually be fulfilled from onsite resources. Meaning that the same less than quality representatives of the United States army would be assigned to a defense agency that nobody at SHIELD really believed was up to the task.
He made sure to make a mark to put in a request for the Boston PD’s records on the latest incidence of interest before moving on to his next report. He still had a few to glance through before meeting up with Tony, the requested samples having arrived a little while ago.
“I swear, I don’t know anything,” Willy beseeched rather unconvincingly. He looked between the two Slayers, not seeing a sympathetic eye amongst the two. The other blonde in the room, standing back to let the Slayers do their thing didn’t look like she believed a thing he was saying either.
“Do you really want to play it like this?” Buffy asked exasperatedly, tightening her grip on the weasely man’s collar. “We’ve both done this dance a bunch of times before. You deny, I threaten to pound you into the ground, and you give. I really don’t want to mess up my nails on you.”
“I could just pound him,” Kendra suggested, looking especially mean, and getting into the whole good cop bad cop routine really well.
“Okay, okay,” Willy said quickly, smiling supportively. “All I know is that what with you guys being so good and all, there’s a lot less going on. But, I hear there’s this crew, planning on boosting a load of artifacts. From the museum or some art gallery or something.”
“What crew?” Buffy asked, getting tired of having to threaten the snitch. Still, it was the way the game was played, and they all had to play their parts.
“I don’t have everybody on it,” Willy exclaimed as best as he could. “I hear this demon named Menlo put them together. M. James Menlo. Demon of some type. Don’t know what kind. Pale, ugly skin. Wrinkled and mottled or something. Long grey hair.”
“What else?” Kendra asked, glancing toward the door. The bar was technically closed, but it wasn’t like the door was locked. And, they wouldn’t want to be interrupted.
“Vyasa. His muscle,” Willy gave up, gulping as he saw the Jamaican Slayer’s glare. He wracked his brain for details. He had too many fingers in too many pies, and was beginning to forget some of the details. “Big guy, super strong. I hear he pulled a guy’s head off for looking at him funny. I don’t know what he looks like. That’s it. That’s all I know.”
Buffy shook him once, not completely convinced. She pulled him closer, hearing him gag a little. “Where are they staying?”
“I don’t know,” Willy admitted, hoping they would believe him. “I don’t think they’re in town yet. They haven’t been in here, that’s for sure. That’s it, I swear.”
“Believe him?” Buffy asked, looking at her fellow Slayer.
Kendra just shrugged. She tended to not believe that the man told them everything that he knew. He usually didn’t. Still, there was only so far they could push him, given that he was still proving to be of use for them in terms of information.
“How about you?” Buffy said, glancing behind her towards the witch.
Amy squinted at the man who was looking as if he was trying to look honest and was failing miserably at it. It wasn’t a spell so much as magically enhanced intuition. Truth spells were notoriously fickle. “Yeah. I think he’s told us everything he knows. About this anyway.”
“Fine,” Buffy said, letting the man go. The bartender fell down behind the bar, clutching at his rumbled collar. He smoothed it out and stood up, taking a step backwards.
“They come in here or you hear anything else, make sure that you let us know,” Buffy said as she turned to leave. The other two girls took her lead. “You know what’d happen if you don’t.”
The trio of girls didn’t bother for a response as they headed out the door.
“Connie, over here!” Colleen shouted, waving a hand as she looked past Xander towards the door as it opened to let someone in.
Xander turned around, wondering who Colleen was hailing down. He watched a tall and pretty dark haired woman smile as she noted Colleen’s hand, and strode over to the table. It wasn’t exactly what he had in mind for breakfast. What with him trying to keep a low profile and all. He hadn’t even pulled upon his chi in the city, well except for that one incident in the hotel room. He made sure to keep a pleasant expression on his face as the woman, Connie, sat down next to Colleen. Grimacing would probably draw attention. As would a strong glare.
“Connie, this is Xander,” Colleen said, smiling brightly as she pointed a hand in his general direction. “She’s one of the people over at the DA’s office that I mentioned. An assistant district attorney, to be exact.”
“Nice to meet you,” Xander said lightly, shaking her hand as he stood up briefly. Although being this close to the law wasn’t exactly making him feel comfortable, he did his best to be personable. He kept it as internal as possible though, making sure that he didn’t appear that he had anything to hide. That he didn’t have a number of highly illegal firearms, which would undoubtedly result in multiple felonies if discovered, in his hotel room at this very moment.
He glanced at Colleen, staring at her for a moment and inclining his head nearly imperceptibly at the attractive black haired woman. She got it immediately and Colleen shrugged a little in response to his unasked question. Evidently she wasn’t in the know about everything, but did know something about the type of world they really lived in. Then again, with the events in the past year that had made it into the newspapers, people had started to suspect that there was more to the world than what they could see around them.
“So what is it that you do?” Connie asked, looking up briefly to accept a menu from the waitress that had just walked by their table. She opened it up and laid it in front of her, not taking her eyes off of the young man that was on the other side of the booth. He seemed a little young to be there with Colleen.
“Month or so, senior year,” Xander said truthfully, a slight smirk on his face.
“Xander was here looking at colleges,” Colleen inserted helpfully. “He has quite an interest in Chinese culture and came here to talk with my father.”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded in agreement. It was close enough to the truth. “The whole road trip thing. Columbia has a great campus. Have to put it on the list.”
“Spending your summer to look at campuses?” Connie asked, somewhat surprised that Xander was younger than she had pegged him. Certainly not Colleen’s date or anything, given that he was probably not even eighteen yet.
Xander shrugged. “Better to get it out of the way. So how do you two know each other?”
“High school,” Colleen said, looking at the woman sitting next to her. She got a lot of the odd cases thrown her way, having demonstrated a particular knack at coming up with useful information in such investigations. Of course, she sometimes had to massage the data into something that the official representatives would believe or be able to use in a courtroom. “I guess we reconnected after she got assigned to the DA’s office and I started doing investigative work.”
“A boon for us,” Connie added, smiling brightly. “She’s really good at it.”
“Ah, that’s nice,” Xander said simply. He had to make some effort to not allow his eyes to drop from her face as she ordered her food. The ADA was wearing a rather sharp suit, which showed some amount of cleavage as she leaned against the table. Of course, it didn’t much help given her extremely pretty face and large expressive eyes. She kind of looked like Jenny that way, which didn’t exactly make him not feel guilty. Though he was young, and he supposed he could look, if it was only that. Which also did nothing to make him feel less guilty about it. “So, uh, lawyer. I was wondering if you could do a favor for me?”
“Same as last time,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair. He looked up at the dull looking man who looked at him emotionlessly. He still wondered about Phil. Nobody could be that boring in real life. “Whatever caused the damage last time, caused the damage this time. Interesting thing though, the bullet has more of this specific energy signature than the metal fragments you gave me. This time or the last.”
Agent Coulson looked at the holographic display projected above the work table. The blue lights of the display proved what he had suspected. Although, the implications were something that he had not considered. “What would be the cause?”
Tony shrugged, scratching at his short and well-defined beard. He reached over to the table and picked up his glass, taking a sip, the ice cubes in his scotch clinking against the side of the glass. The cold liquid burned as it slid down his throat. “Somehow, this energy was used in the manufacture of the specific bullets. Energized metal of some sort? Some type of energy booster? Take your pick. You’d have to find this guy and ask him to figure it out. Course, that’s what you’re trying to do. Still, it’s confirmed. Same person as last time, if it’s unique to a person. You really needed to pull me out of a conference call to handle this?”
Despite the publicity he had garnered by coming out as Iron Man, he had yet to be able to fully retake his company. Purchasing enough shares of stock for a controlling interest had proven to be a more time consuming process than he had initially theorized. A move which had had to wait until he had been able to defeat the injunction that had removed him from power in the first place. That had taken months itself.
“Thank you,” Agent Coulson said, reaching into his pocket as his phone rang. He opened it up after he had checked the display on the front, and put it to his ear. “Yes, sir?”
The SHIELD agent nodded as information was relayed to him quickly. “Yes, sir. He’s right here and I’ll be sure to brief him.”
Phil flipped the phone closed and shoved it back into his pocket. He picked up the evidence bags and carefully placed the samples that they had been working with back into the bags, making sure not to contaminate them.
“What is it?” Tony asked, looking over at the man. He was as unemotional as ever.
“That was Director Fury. SHIELD satellite has picked up a gamma spike in Montana,” Agent Coulson replied as he sealed the bags and placed them into a large envelope. It had not been a surprising call. There had been more a number of such incidents in increasing frequency during the last year or so. The result had been a menagerie of mutated creatures, the latest of which was a pack of gamma-enhanced canines. The key suspect behind the creation of such beasts was the still-missing Dr. Samuel Sterns. The remnants of experiments left behind in his New York laboratory showed that the scientist had some grasp of utilizing gamma radiation to produce biological enhancements. For what end was something that was still in question. “Helicopter is en-route carrying Dr. Banner. You need to suit up. I’ll be accompanying you and will brief you in flight.”
“I can get there faster by myself.” Tony smirked as he stood up and took off his jacket it and placed it on the chair he had been sitting on.
“It’s a large burst,” Phil stated, watching as Tony took off his tie and shirt. He was just glad that Tony had only had a sip of his drink. He only hoped that it was the first of the day. He took a step forward and picked up the glass as stealthily as possible, placing it on another table behind some random machinery. “The director wants both you and Dr. Banner there together.”
He didn’t bother to give him the other reason that Tony was supposed to take the flight. Nick had wanted to ensure that Tony was sober for what would likely be a fight. And as SHIELD liaison, it was one of his duties to ensure that the pair of them was stable enough for battlefield conditions. Which meant that he was responsible for making sure that Dr. Banner, codenamed The Hulk, did not go berserk on civilians or civilian property, and that Stark, codenamed Iron Man, did not engage in his suit while intoxicated.
One of the more difficult of his duties. One of the others was keeping such battles out of the public eye. Something that was difficult enough as it was, and only compounded by the two superpowered individuals’ tendency toward flashy displays.
“Menlo and Vyasa?” Giles repeated as he took a seat at the desk in the main room of his apartment. He shook his head at the two Slayers that were seated there as well. Willow and Amy were there also, the summer not giving either girl much else to do. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of them.”
“Maybe there’s something in the books?” Willow suggested enthusiastically. She had been feeling a little left out of late. With Amy making with the magic, she had been relegated to doing research. Something that had become increasingly less important with the decrease in unique threats. She wished that Oz was back, but he was on a gig and wouldn’t be back for a couple of days.
The Watcher shook his head. “Unless they’re ancient, nothing in my library would be of use. The texts are more helpful with ancient prophecies and the strengths and weaknesses of specific species of demons. If you had the types, we could look into it, but we don’t have that information.”
Buffy nodded to verify, discouraged by the lack of progress. She had gotten used to Giles having all of the answers somewhere in his books.
“I believe you will all need to increase your patrols then. Especially in areas that we know tend to attract demons,” Giles continued, directing his instructions towards the Slayers. He turned to Willow as he spoke again, “I believe that you can help with researching new shipments to the museum and art galleries on the computer. We might be able to develop a list of potential targets. That would help to refine our search area.”
“Okay,” Willow said happily, glad that she would be able to get involved. “I can even check the university network; it has an extensive collection of artifacts as well.”
Amy said nothing, her skills would not be helpful without more information or something to use to work her magic on. She couldn’t wait until they found something. The whole superhero thing was actually rather fun.
“Hmmm,” Xander muttered, looking down at the book in front of him. He struggled a little to flip the page while keeping the flashlight on it. He could have used the Iron Fist to light their way, but he was still hesitant to be to be so flippant with the power. Jenny had had some time to review the papers he had taken from Lilah’s hotel room in Boston, but not everything had been analyzed yet.
It had been a unique method of finding him, but he couldn’t come up with a defense until he fully understood how it had happened in the first place.
“What is it?” Jenny said, coming up behind Xander. She looked over his shoulder at the hand drawn map that he was looking at. Given the time that had passed since it had been created it was no wonder that they were having a hard time finding the destination.
“I think, it’s that way.” Xander looked up and shone the light done one of the long since abandoned train tunnels that led into the station that they were standing in. One of many that wormed their way around under the streets of New York City.
Jenny followed as he started walking toward it, frowning slightly as she saw a few rats run away from them. Dust covered everything and the air was stale. She didn’t know quite what they were supposed to find, but she could only imagine that it had been long forgotten. Xander had been unusually tightlipped about it.
“You think you can trust her?” Jenny remarked after a few silent minutes in the dark. Her own flashlight played off of the stone walls of the tunnel, reflecting enough light that she could see Xander in front of her. “And where are we going?”
“I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.” Xander shrugged, not bothering to turn around. He kept walking. “From the journal, it looks like it was a warehouse or something for Orson’s father. Maybe a lab or something. It’s not really specific. I wish it had been more organized.”
He ran his light over the walls, as if looking for something that he wasn’t finding. Xander frowned slightly as he opened the journal again, making sure that they were still going in the right direction. They’d been underground for an hour already, and he wasn’t sure how much time he should be wasting on this. As it was, he had tried to avoid it ever since he had discovered the location in Phineas’ journal. Something that was coming back on him now that the hours were ticking by.
“How come you didn’t ask the others to come with us?” Jenny asked, as she hopped lightly over a large hole on the floor. That there were still intact rail tracks leading through the tunnels that they had walked down was something of a surprise. Age had not treated the place too badly, although it still bore the weight of its years.
“I think this is something I’d like to keep personal until I know more,” Xander replied. It didn’t completely contradict what he had told the others in Texas. However, the growing number of people in the group had become a concern. He wouldn’t keep things secret unnecessarily, but he wanted to check into things before revealing everything. Something that was especially important given Diana’s, and perhaps Faith’s, mixed loyalties.
Besides, it would be too suspicious to pull certain people away in order to fill them in on everything.
“You don’t trust them?” Jenny asked lightly, pausing to wipe her brow. Though they were underground, the temperature in the tunnels was still rather high. She wasn’t exactly sure why that was, but had noticed the increase once they had entered into that section of the underground.
“Diana works for the Council. Faith is her charge. And, Lilah can’t be trusted at all,” Xander explained his reasoning, as he stepped into a larger area. It was some type of crossroads where a number of tunnels ended at. Looking up, he could see that the ceiling almost went up to street level. Given that they had headed downhill for parts of their journey made that a rather significant height. “Colleen, well I didn’t tell her much more than what she had known from her father’s stuff.”
“You think you’re a little too open with what you are? With who you are?” Jenny asked, tilting her head slightly as the questions drew Xander up short. She waited for him to turn around, lowering her flashlight so that it wouldn’t shine in his eyes.
“Yeah,” Xander admitted with a defeated shrug. He looked away. “Probably. Maybe. But, it’s a little hard to just leave these people behind. Or you know…”
“True, but you’ve been lucky that the people that you’ve met have been fairly trustworthy. Really lucky,” Jenny replied. She crossed her arms over her chest, the beam from her flashlight playing over the stone walls of the chamber. “As for Lilah…”
“Well, I’m having someone review the contract that Lilah came up with,” Xander inserted, looking back at his girlfriend. “She’s supposed to be pretty good according to Colleen.”
“She?” Jenny remarked, a slight smile playing on her lips.
“I know,” Xander admitted, with another shrug. He smiled a little. “Story of my life. There’s a distinct lack of males in my circle. And given how good looking these women tend to be, it’s ironic that I happen to be taken.”
Jenny poked him playfully in the ribs at that remark. “So we’re in agreement about Lilah…”
“Yeah.” Xander nodded, still smiling. “I don’t trust her farther than I can throw her. Which, now, is actually pretty far.”
“And on that note,” Jenny rolled her eyes, gasping slightly as she saw what her flashlight was illuminating. She turned to face it, playing the light over a large painted dragon on the wall. “Xander, look at this.”
Xander shifted his flashlight over the symbol of the Iron Fist as well, walking towards it. It was huge, over twenty five feet tall as far as he could tell. He stared at it intently, wondering when the last time someone had stood in that room was. It had likely been Orson, or one of his old group.
Maybe not though. It was clear that Orson hadn’t had the heart to go over all of his father’s belongings. That didn’t explain the symbol though.
The pangs of pain and loss that went through him were markedly reduced from what he had felt when he thought about his mentor in the days and weeks after his death. It had gotten easier, but he didn’t know if he would ever get over it completely. He hadn’t completely gotten over Jesse’s death yet either.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, Xander opened up the journal again and flipped through it, reading through the instructions that were there. Satisfied that he had gotten it all, he slipped the journal back into his shoulder bag.
“What is it?” Jenny asked, walking up behind him.
“A lock, I think,” Xander replied, biting his lip as he concentrated on the symbol. “With a very special and unique key.”
Raising his hand, and placing it over the end of the dragon’s tail, Xander pulled upon his chi, sending it into the wall. Though his fist was glowing bright orange, nothing happened for a moment. He was about to give up, but the painted dragon started to glow, increasing in intensity, forcing the two of them to shield their eyes.
The light stopped quickly enough, and when they looked upon the wall, it had disappeared, presenting an opening into the next chamber.
“Any updates?” Tony said, shifting slightly in his seat. He made sure to be careful, as he was fully suited up, save for the helmet. The Iron Man armor, though incredibly mobile, was still a little large for the cramped quarters of the helicopter that they were now flying in. It had been a quick helicopter ride to an airfield, which took them to Montana. This helo ride would take them to the incident site.
He made a mental note to come up with a way of transporting the armor efficiently and to be able to put it on without the complicated setup he had at home.
Agent Coulson looked up and turned his laptop computer around. He showed Tony what he had been working on. “A keyhole satellite was diverted to Montana when the incident was first reported. It’s in range and the first images are coming in now.”
“That’s not good,” Bruce said, leaning in closer from his seat nearby. He watched the black and white image of a forest near a river. Or rather, what used to be a forest. The FLIR image didn’t exactly help. “What is that?”
“Yellowstone National Park,” Agent Coulson answered calmly. He pressed a button, having to reach around the screen to reach it. The window pixilated slightly as the video was zoomed in. He knew what was there, having seen it already. A large section of the forest had been utterly destroyed, trees knocked down and broken like toothpicks. “Evacuation is already in place, with the closest areas already free of civilians. When you guys land, you’ll have weapons free status.”
“What?” Bruce asked, shifting his gaze up to the SHIELD agent as Phil changed to a color view.
“You’ll have authorization to act as you see fit when you engage this target,” Coulson answered. He looked the two men before him in the eye. “However, I expect that you act responsibly. This is a protected landmark, and we would prefer that you damage the area as little as possible. Given the season, fire is an obvious concern.”
Tony smirked at the ultra-serious government agent. “When have you known us to be anything but discreet?”
Phil didn’t bother to answer, instead turning the computer around as he heard a beep sound from it, indicating a new e-mail. Bringing up the application, Agent Coulson quickly copied and pasted the coordinates signified into the satellite window, shifting the view onto a new section of forest. He saw in barely delayed time as the forest was ripped up. Zooming in and magnifying, Agent Coulson caught another area as it was being destroyed. He captured a few stills from the video, frowning slightly as he saw the results.
Despite the advancements over the last half century in spy satellite technology, the Keyhole could only big up objects with a certain amount of resolution, and the best resolution and contrast was black and white. Still, the screen captures got the point across.
Spinning the computer around again, Agent Coulson pushed it closer to the other men. “This is what you’re up against. Latest imagery points towards one target only.”
Bruce looked at it closely, furrowing his brow as he tried to make sense of the image. The washed out picture was not helpful in identifying what it was. Of course, with gamma radiation, the original form could have been twisted to nonrecognition. And it appeared to have unique manifestations in different subjects. “What is it?”
“There’s a seventy five percent probability that it’s a gamma enhanced grizzly bear,” Agent Coulson replied. Though grizzlies only stood around eight feet at most, this one was at least twice that, if not more.
“And the other twenty five?” Tony asked, glancing at the picture. He wished he had a drink right now, but evidently there was no alcohol allowed on board the helicopter. The helo was not a Stark Tech model, that was for sure.
“Gamma irradiated black bear,” Phil answered, turning to the other man. “We can expect that standard ursine behavior is not going to be in effect. The damage we’ve seen is consistent with a minimum of class eleven strength. That’s coupled with the fifteen to twenty foot projected height.”
“That’s almost as strong as The Hulk…I…am,” Bruce said, staring at the computer screen. He gulped slightly, feeling his pulse rise slightly. It was something he was always cognizant of, even if it was less of a concern now. “And twice as big.”
“Yes, that’s what we’ve come up with too,” Phil confirmed, letting in a little bit of sympathy in his voice. “Be careful, we don’t know exactly how fast and intelligent this creature is.”
“I guess I have the high ground then,” Tony said, watching the mutated bear rip out another tree and toss it at least a few hundred feet. He wished Jim was here. Unfortunately, he was on his own operation at the moment. “Hopefully very very high.”
Agent Coulson was about to say something else, but a voice called over the intercom.
“Five minutes to target,” the pilot stated, slight static coming in over the line.
Phil nodded, turning the computer around and placing it on the seat next to him. He leaned down and pulled out a black bag from beneath his seat and held it out to Bruce. “Here, the boys in the lab came up with this. It’s smaller than what you were using before.”
Bruce took the bag and unzipped it, pulling out what looked to be an extremely large headset. The speakers were sized a little large for him, but the metal connector would fit his head. Though there was some type of slide on the top of the metal. The mouthpiece was extremely large. That was relative however, as it would be a good fit for him when he transformed. It was the perfect size for a creature nine feet tall and built like a linebacker. Still, he looked at it skeptically, it was a little thin.
“It’s a carbonadium alloy,” Agent Coulson explained, easily identifying the doctor’s skepticism. Bruce, or rather The Hulk, had destroyed a number of com sets in the normal course of operation. “It’s supposed to be pretty rugged. And, it has an expanding function, so the headset will grow with you.”
“Okay,” Bruce said, hanging it from the waistband of his sweatpants. He would have liked to wear something better, but it was the only thing that covered up his unmentionables when he transformed. He’d still have to remove his shirt and shoes before he dropped though.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Tony said, the last part of his reassurance coming in slightly computerized as the Iron Man locked his face mask into place.
“I’ll be with you two every step of the way,” Agent Coulson answered, placing a headset over his own head. He moved to the side slightly, allowing Tony to unstrap himself from his seat and head toward the side door. There was already a man there, ready to open the door as the helicopter flew over the jump site. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Coulson busied himself in the last few minutes with scanning the latest data feeds, glancing up every once in a while to see Iron Man run a systems and control surface check on his suit and Bruce sit cross-legged awkwardly in his seat with his eyes closed, meditating.
They all prepared in their own ways, and none of it was surprise anymore. It was almost tradition at this point. This wasn’t their first time to the rodeo.
“Thirty seconds,” a voice spoke out over the intercom, the doorman, taking his cue to unlock and slide the hatch back.
Iron Man walked forward, stopping at the edge. He’d have to duck down to get through, and make sure that he didn’t engage his flight repulsors until he was well away from the chopper. Backwash could be a killer.
Bruce was right behind him, no parachute on him, though he now had the newly crafted headset around his neck. He was breathing in and out rhythmically, keeping his calm. It was cold, the wind whipping over his bare chest. The metal of the helicopter’s floor was cold to his feet as well.
He reached over to his wrist and unstrapped the pulse monitor that he usually wore. He placed it into the doorman’s hand as he yelled out the ten second mark. “Keep this for me.”
The door man nodded, grasping the monitor in his gloved hand. That was part of the tradition as well. He waited until the light above the door turned green as the chopper settled into a hover, tapping Iron Man on his armored shoulder. “Go. Go. Go.”
Iron Man nodded and leapt forward, out of the helicopter and away from it. He kept his limbs tight, trying to gain distance as quickly as possible.
The door man watched as Tony Stark cleared the area, turning and tapping Dr. Banner on the shoulder as well. “Go. Go. Go.”
Bruce nodded, smirking slightly as his eyes started to glow green, the headset already over his head. He leapt forward from the chopper, feeling the wind flow past him as he flew past on his rapid descent to the ground. The Hulk could feel pain in his muscles as they expanded, his bones growing awkwardly to support the new mass.
“Good luck,” Phil spoke into his comset, as he monitored the movements of both members of his team as well as their target.
“What is this place?” Jenny asked, shining her light over what looked to be a railway station. Only it was much larger and on many more levels than one would expect. There was a great deal more machinery there too, as if the railway was used to support a specific function.
Small lights turned on automatically as they walked further in. Lines of them were attached to the walls, their incandescence not having been used in decades. Jenny and Xander turned off their flashlights.
There were multiple levels as well, with stairways and ramps leading up to them. The pair walked up one in silence, only hearing the dust shift and the low rumbling of subway trains in surrounding tunnels. The stairway lead to a large stone platform, upon it rested old and rusted machinery of unknown design. What was clear was that it was not similar to anything that was in current use. Not even as a precursor as far as they could tell.
Xander stopped in front of a large asymmetrical block that was covered by a yellowed and cracked canvas sheet. He pulled it off, coughing as a plume of dust was raised. It was some type of computer, or at least what an eighteenth century technician might have created if he had the knowledge but only eighteenth century materials to work with.
“There’s nothing here,” Xander said with a sigh, turning around. He had scanned the area quickly, but it was more of a gut feeling than anything else. Jenny had stepped to a few of the other machines, examining them closely.
“What were you looking for?” Jenny asked turning around from an old boiler she had been looking at. It had been attached to some type of sensor device. She couldn’t tell for what purpose however.
“I don’t know,” Xander said, looking at her. “Answers. Ones I’m not going to find here. It’s just, Orson’s dead, and his father’s work…there’s no one to remember that they even existed. That they even tried to make the world better. Except us.”
“You think there should be more?” Jenny inquired, suddenly struck by how young Xander really was. It usually wasn’t noticeable in the way he acted. “It’s the fate of most people in the world. That they did, or tried more than most doesn’t really play into it. We remember. That’s enough.”
“It’s Five Points Station. It was meant to be the crown jewel of Phineas’ empire of hypothetical science. He meant to save, or just better, the world. Now, it’s just…rust and forgotten metal. But, you’re probably right.” Xander walked over to the edge of the platform, looking out over the dead expanse. Whatever mystical and technological devices that had been invented by the mad genius of Phineas Randall, it was the past. There was nothing left for him there. “Giles has been great, for what’s it’s been…when he’s had the time. But, Orson was the closest thing I had to a father, a real one anyway. Just doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s not.” Jenny came up behind him, putting her arms around his waist and pulling him close. “But, we remember.”
“Just remember where this is, there might be something dangerous still around. Just in case.” Xander remarked pragmatically, still looking forward into the dim light.
“It’s in order, for what it’s worth,” Connie said, passing the folder to the man on the opposite side of the booth. Xander took it and put it into his shoulder bag, taking a sip of coffee before speaking. “Thanks. You ever run into them before?”
“Not personally, not yet at least. But, they have something of a reputation,” the assistant district attorney replied. She had reviewed the contract carefully as a favor to Colleen. She knew how detailed and crafty Wolfram and Hart lawyers could be. There was more than one prosecutor that cursed their name down at the courthouse.
Still, it was one of the oddest legal documents she had ever read. The fact that there were parts blacked out, unnecessary for meaning according to Xander, did nothing to make it less odd.
“Yeah, that about sums it up.” Xander checked his watch, the hour was getting near and he was still rather uncertain how the groups would break down. “If anything weird happens, involving them or not, and you need help…more help than what Colleen can provide, she can put you in touch with me. When we get back, of course.”
It might not have been the smartest thing to do, but he did owe the assistant district attorney.
“Thanks,” Connie said, nodding. She still wasn’t sure exactly what Xander was into, but Colleen had vouched for him. And what little she knew about how things really worked meant that she understood that the best of people could look less than ideal to the powers that were.
Xander hesitated, wondering what else he should say. “And be careful, they play for keeps. I need to go…just remember what I said. Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you. Not on my account.”
Xander stood up and tossed a few bills onto the table, heading towards the door.
“I’ve never seen you fight,” Lilah said, as she stood over the fax machine in the hotel’s business facility. It was delivering a copy of the contract that had just been signed to the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart. That Xander was technically underage wasn’t strictly applicable to the situation, something she wondered if he had thought to use as a way to go around the contract. Then again, he had more to gain with it than not.
“You know what goes on in the Tournament?” Xander asked, leaning against the countertop. He glanced over at the immaculately dressed woman beside him. Whatever the circumstances, she was always dressed attractively and professionally. In an incredibly creepy sort of way.
“Yes,” Lilah answered simply. “I’ve been briefed.”
“You honestly think I’d enter this thing if I wasn’t planning on walking out alive?” Xander asked rhetorically. He turned back, looking at the empty room. “Just remember, after we finish this, Wolfram and Hart doesn’t touch me. This is a one shot deal, and I walk away clean from the company. And they walk clean from me and mine.”
Lilah just smirked at him, not saying anything. He knew what she was doing and what it meant though. Those that had a taste of the dark side of power usually weren’t willing to just let it go. Wolfram and Hart never had to trick people into their service. They just needed to present the opportunity for people to damn themselves into it.
“Aren’t there other things you should be doing?” Vi asked, as she got back to her feet. She was glad that they were still using padding on the ground. Practicing like Xander did in Sunnydale wasn’t something she was ready for. And likely wouldn’t ever be, even if she did become the Slayer. It would hurt too much.
“Everything’s taken care of,” Xander replied, wiping his brow with his shirt. Colleen had a training facility set up, or at least a place she went to herself, a place that she had offered up for as long as they needed. From the look of it, especially the weight machines with abnormally high max weight limits, it was used by those that would be considered more than human. “This is more important.”
“For me maybe, but what about you,” Vi asked, moving over to a bench that was lying against one of the walls and sat down. She reached over to a duffle bag she had brought and took out a bottle of water, taking a sip from it.
“I’ve learned all I’m going to, nothing I do in these last couple of hours is going to mean the difference between me surviving and me not,” Xander replied, walking over to the wall. He had been all over the place that day. He hadn’t really had any time to relax, something that had surprised him to some degree. Last day on Earth; he would have thought that he would have wanted to spend it doing something a lot more fun. Of course, he knew that he was just putting his house in order, just in case. “Tell me about you and Faith.”
“What about her?” Vi looked up at him, noting his knowing look. She had to wonder sometimes. He could be remarkably cognizant of what she, and they were feeling, but at other times, he was rather blind.
“You don’t like her,” Xander said, not really needing to ask.
“It’s not that,” Vi said, wavering a little. She looked away from his gaze.
“She’s different,” Xander said, taking a seat next to her. “You’re wondering how you measure up?”
Vi shrugged. It was different with Buffy and Kendra. They were already Slayers, so it wasn’t hard to accept how good they were. Faith was a potential, and while she had originally been enthusiastic about meeting her, she couldn’t help but compare herself to the Boston potential.
“I’m not going to tell you whether you’re good or not,” Xander said, looking across the room. He wondered what the purpose of the gym was. There were more than just weight machines and floor mats. It probably wasn’t used by potentials as far as he knew, but he wondered who it was that utilized the place. People like Colleen and Elsa, or demons and the like. Could be a mix of both as well. “If you have to ask, you aren’t enough.”
“It’s not that, it’s just…” Vi wondered exactly how she would phrase it. She wasn’t so much jealous, and she knew that Xander wasn’t interested in either of them, but there was something about the dark haired potential.
“She’s different. That makes her no better or worse than you. Same with Buffy and Kendra,” Xander reassured her. “You all start at different places, and though there’s some similarities, you all bring yourself to it. That’s the way I see it anyway. But, what do I know?”
He shrugged, it wasn’t like he was an expert on the Slayers and the potentials. But, by this point, he had probably gotten to know more of them than even most Watchers. “Besides, you and Faith, there’s nothing you need to feel less than about. There’s more to her than even she’s letting on.”
“She’s covering something,” Vi remarked. She could tell that for all of the bravado and forwardness that was part of Faith’s character, there was something else there as well. Vulnerability.
“Yeah, I know.” Xander stood up, and looked back at her. It was deeper than that with Faith, but he didn’t have time to worry about that now. It wasn’t something to discuss with Vi at any rate, given how personal it likely was. And he was pretty sure that even if Faith’s Watcher knew, she wouldn’t be so forthcoming to him. Not yet at least. “We should go.”
“They’re still slow.” Coulson took a seat in front of the workstation. He ignored the mechanical sounds behind him. The technicians were going over the final checks on the helicopter they had taken out. Also, Tony was going over his armor, making sure that the damage was only superficial. And Bruce, well, he was probably getting something to eat.
The science behind it was something that he didn’t fully understand yet, but for some reason Dr. Banner did need to eat to replace the energy and mass that was used when he became the Hulk. Of course, where it went in the meantime was something not yet fully explained.
“They haven’t worked together that long yet,” Director Fury said, frowning due to the fact that even he didn’t fully buy that line. Even taking into account that Tony Stark and Bruce Banner were hardly trained soldiers, they had to do better. He didn’t believe that overwhelming strength, whether technological or biological in nature, was an adequate solution to all of the conflicts that they would inevitably be called upon to combat. That was a lesson that history continually hammered home, whether it was learned or not.
“They need someone on the ground to lead them,” Agent Coulson continued, reaching out and adjusting the bubble cam that rested on the monitor. While he was able to direct them for the most part, the delay and imperfect information that occurred due to his position away from the battlefield would ultimately become a problem. Even the most advanced satellites and telepresence technologies could not do away with the fact that he was still using satellite and AWACS telemetry while seated thousands of feet above the fight. A ground commander would ultimately be necessary, especially in urban situations. “James Rhodes has worked Stark before…”
“He’s on deployment. That won’t be possible for some time,” Fury replied, avoiding specifics. Despite the secured line, and that Coulson had top secret clearance, Lt. Colonel Rhodes’ current assignment was higher than the agent’s pay grade. And it was extremely likely that Tony would not be very pleased with what he was working on.
“We need somebody else then,” Coulson continued, pausing to take a sip of coffee. It was his belief, backed up by some not yet actionable intelligence, that there were major threats brewing. Iron Man’s actions in Gulmira had not done that much to weaken the Ten Rings, and the events of that day further demonstrated that the gamma situation was not going to end any time soon.
“We’re working on it,” Fury nearly grunted out. He waved a hand, dismissing the subject. It was one that they had discussed a number of times before. The after action reports did indicate that it was going to be increasingly important, but for now there was nothing that they could do. Nobody with enough leadership experience had the necessary skillset to make it in the same fights that the current Avenger duo got into. “Anything from this latest incident?”
Phil shook his head. “There were tracks. There are agents on site checking, but with the terrain, I don’t think it’s going to lead to anything. Whoever is behind this, is being careful. And quite adept at not exposing himself.”
Director Fury frowned. His bosses were hamstringing his efforts at expanding the organization, and the threat level did not look to be going down any time soon. Such was the nature of national security.
Xander turned away briefly at the bright light that crackled in front of him. He had taken the group up to the roof of the building, high enough to be out of range of eyes. He shifted his bag higher up on his shoulder, looking down at his shirt. He had worn the turtleneck once more, the symbol of the Iron Fist present for all to see. No mask though, not yet.
The car had been placed in long term storage, and other arrangements had been made for their trip away. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it was supposed to take, but he would be back before the month was over, or not at all. Either way, he had made sure that the people he cared about would be taken care of.
“It’s time,” The Thunderer said, as the light that signified his method of travel dimmed and disappeared. He frowned slightly at the number of people that were surrounding the young man that carried the mantle of the Iron Fist. Both the number of people, and the fact that there was at least one less than there should have been.
“Yeah,” Xander said morosely, staring up at the masked face of the war master of K’un-L’un. He could tell the distaste with which he viewed the array of women around him. It hadn’t exactly been his choice, but he had to admit that he felt better knowing that they would be going with him. “I guess we should be going now.”
Lei-Kung strode forward, motioning towards Xander that he should follow. They walked to the edge of the building, the wind making their conversation private. “Where’s Orson.”
“He…he didn’t make it,” Xander said, looking out at the city lights. It was nothing like Sunnydale, and he hadn’t exactly had the best view in Phoenix nor Boston. There was something strikingly lonely about the whole thing. “Davos…The Steel Serpent killed him.”
“Davos,” Lei-Kung repeated. It would seem that all of their pasts ended up coming back to them.
Xander turned slightly, looking at the larger and more stoic man in wonder. He had heard, or thought he did, emotion in that word. In that name. Something he hadn’t expected. “Who is he?”
Lei-Kung said nothing for a moment, instead looking at the bright lights of the city below. He could hear the traffic from the streets below, and though he had experience on this plane of existence, it was always something of a shock. “A citizen of K’un-L’un who lost his way. He wanted to be the one to face Shou-Lao the Undying, but he was judged not to be worthy. Both in contest and in character. He left the city long ago.”
“What else,” Xander asked, his stomach twisting in knots at the origins of the man that had murdered his mentor. “He had HYDRA minions or agents working for him. I haven’t had much luck tracking them down. Just one of a number of mercenary groups.”
“HYDRA?” Lei-Kung echoed. There was much about the Earth that he did not know, despite his age. “There’s nothing I can tell you about them. But, I doubt that’s what you’re asking me about.”
“True,” Xander remarked, much more calmly than he would have thought himself capable of. Orson’s lessons about controlling his emotions had had some effect it would seem.
Lei-Kung said nothing for a while. In his long life he had trained harder than all of his peers. Rose quickly through the ranks to become the trainer of those that would endeavor to face the dragon. It had never been his destiny to so face it himself. He knew that, and accepted it. To be the teacher of those that sought to was honor enough. Honor enough for himself and his family.
But, in his long life there were things less noble, things he had done and things he had permitted. Dishonor, perhaps, but none so great as what he had allowed. Not as the war master and trainer to the men of K’un-L’un. But, in the capacity of another station. “He is my son.”
Xander could not say whether he was surprised or not. Just numb. “Why?”
“He wanted to be the Iron Fist, to have that honor, that glory, for himself,” the Thunderer stated, taking comfort in his position. “If he came after Orson, and you now, then he most likely feels that by defeating the Iron Fist, that he can prove that it should have been him.”
“Did you know what he was doing?” Xander asked, hating himself for having to ask the question. The war master had already proven himself as an ally.
Lei-Kung shook his head. “No, he escaped to this planet years ago. I suppose, I suppose that I turned my back on him as well. But, I never gave up hope that he would…learn from his mistakes. Perhaps I was too indulgent. I did not think he would take these measures.”
“I suppose I know what it is to have shame in one’s family,” Xander spoke, knowing that despite the impassive expression on the man’s face, Lei-Kung must have been in pain. Despite his generally emotionless demeanor, Lei-Kung had a heart. He had been the one to let Orson escape so many years ago after all. “We should probably go. I’m sorry.”
“As am I, Xander.” Lei-Kung turned and walked back towards the center of the roof. He pointed, and a crack of energy sounded the arrival of another portal, linking them back to K’un-L’un. Such was within his power as the herald of the Tournament for the city of K’un-L’un.
Xander looked at the green crackling energy vortex as it stabilized. He felt his hand being squeezed, knowing that it was Janna. He smiled briefly at her, soaking in her beautiful face conveying her concern for him, before turning and looking out at the city once more. It wasn’t Sunnydale, but he felt more at home at that moment than he had for quite a while. Odd that.
“What is it?” Jenny asked softly.
The Iron Fist did not respond as he stared out at the city before him. There were millions of people and other beings there that had no idea what was about to be fought for. Would never know who won and who lost. Who would be merely beaten and who would lose their lives. Would never know if it was worth it. “I guess…I guess I just needed to say goodbye.”