"Maybe you should let the English kid talk to him."
Coulson glanced up from his file, which was telling him as little as the Nordic blond powerhouse in the hastily thrown-together detention room. Clint was still looking speculatively through the one way mirrors, where their guest was muttering to thin air, so he didn't see Coulson's dubious look. "Why would I do that?" he asked.
"I don't know," Clint shrugged. "Confuse the guy into submission? I saw him earlier, just after we brought him in - he took one look at mister muscles and muttered something about how godlike aliens never clean the kitchen. Ever."
Coulson blinked. He had taken an amnesia case as his personal assistant three months ago on the logical assumption that a man with no past was less likely to have an agenda. And it was true that "Arthur" (if he still was Arthur - since he couldn't remember his own name he tended to cycle through as many as he could to try and find one that felt right) was one of the most efficient and unflappable assistants Coulson had ever had - almost as unflappable as Coulson himself, which gave the right public impression. But he was a little strange sometimes. And when SHIELD's doctors had tried to verify whether he had brain damage, the CAT scan had shown solid mass all the way through, like he was made of plastic. Arthur had suggested a few different tests they could perform (and been pleased to discover a history in medicine), but nothing had been able to penetrate the mystery - which was the other reason Coulson had decided to keep him close.
"He thinks this guy is an alien, then?" he asked blandly. It was hardly an unusual conclusion for Arthur to reach, though he seemed to find it at least as funny as anyone else when he did.
"I don't know. He got that look he gets when he thinks he's about to remember something, but then doesn't. I felt bad for him."
"It could be worse. He could still be convinced he's a time travelling Centurion."
"Legatus," Clint corrected with a half smile. "He was a legatus."
But it was Coulson's turn to look pensively through the mirrored glass at the 'prisoner' who only stayed because they had asked politely - he could fight his way out as easily as he had fought his way in. He was looking stricken, sitting alone in the room, and his face reminded Coulson so strongly of his army days; having to bring news to the families, I'm so sorry, your father-husband-brother-son is dead. He wondered why.
"Maybe you're right," he murmured. "Maybe Arthur is exactly what we need to get through to this guy." He folded the files back into their manila folder and nodded. "Send a runner to find him, will you? Give me a buzz when he gets here."
He opened the door into the detention room just in time to hear the prisoner say a tearful "Goodbye." Yeah, maybe Arthur could make some sense out of him.
"So. Please don't be offended or anything, but I'm pretty sure you're an alien."
Coulson's heart sank at the tactless opening. But this was the whole reason he invited Arthur to take over the interrogation. He had to at least appear to have complete faith in his assistant, which was why he was watching from the other side of the mirrors. The prisoner blinked in surprise, and Coulson mirrored that act as an odd look crossed his features. Something like shock, wonder and... guilt? No. No way. Arthur nodded gravely.
"That's a 'yes', I think. My name's Arthur, by the way."
Coulson expected the prisoner to stonewall again, but after a moment's hesitation he responded, "Is it?"
"Of course it is!" Arthur muscled past the uninviting tone by protesting too hard, and paused. "Well, no, it's probably not. But I don't actually remember my real name so it's not because I'm trying to lie to you. I'm not."
"I am glad," said the man dully. Arthur hesitated in that very personal way he had that he referred to as dithering - more awkward than just hesitating, he assured Coulson - and held out the plastic cup he had brought in.
"I got you this," he said. "It's coffee. I wasn't sure whether you could have coffee, with the whole... alien theory and everything, but... here."
"I can drink coffee." He fixed his gaze on the floor. "But I will not accept."
"There's nothing in it," Arthur assured him. "Look-" He took a small sip and held it out again. "I mean- I don't want to give you the idea that SHIELD is the kind of place that does that, because it's not. As an organisation, it's really cutting back on the scary government things it does, so please don't think I would try to drug you." Coulson would have winced if he had been alone. After this, Arthur was never going near an interrogation room again.
Except, somehow, the awkward little English boy routine was getting through. The prisoner looked up at Arthur from where he had slouched over in pain, and slowly straightened. "Why is a man like you here? With SHIELD?"
"Oh, I'm not one of them," Arthur said casually, and Coulson lifted an eyebrow. "I'm just here until I remember what I was supposed to be doing. It was something important, I know that, but..." He spread one hand. Then he held the coffee out again. "Please, take it, it's burning my fingers."
The prisoner looked down again. "I will not accept your cup, Arthur, because I do not deserve it."
That brought Arthur to a full stop. "Do, er..." He cleared his throat. "Is that something you want to talk about?" The prisoner didn't speak and Arthur looked immeasurably relieved. Coulson made a mental note to remind him that interrogations are places where you want the other person to talk. "But, the thing is," he continued as if he hadn't interrupted himself, "what I was doing before was important, but SHIELD... SHIELD would be the defenders of the planet, if we weren't stuck in a collapsing universe."
Coulson swallowed. Arthur often talked like that, and didn't even notice he'd said anything strange. He believed in stars, believed in them so thoroughly it didn't occur to him that there were no such things. "There's not much up there right now, but your people must have noticed it too - maybe it's just you and us left in a dying universe, but SHIELD are still protecting our planet from whatever we need to. It's all running around, poking at things we don't understand and saving the world as often as possible. And that's noble. And really familiar to me, so I stick around."
He set the coffee cup on the ground, and reached over to place his hand on the prisoner's arm. "We're the good guys. I promise. If you need it, we can help you."
The prisoner's next breath was shaky. Arthur waited, and Coulson let him - he could cut the interrogation short, but they had time. "Who are you?" Arthur asked gently. No answer. "Okay, then, just your name?"
The prisoner was slow to answer this one, but Coulson was impressed to see that Arthur knew when to be patient as well as chatty. "...Thor." The man looked up as he spoke, meeting Arthur's eye. "My name is Thor."
Arthur nodded as if that was a perfectly normal thing to say. Sometimes Coulson suspected that the difference between Arthur's unbreakable calm and his own was that, to Arthur, that was perfectly normal. "So you're a god then?" Thor nodded. "So - this thunderstorm?" He pointed up at the lightning clouds still looming overhead.
"Caused by Mjolnir."
"Your hammer. That's what fell?"
"I am... Unworthy to lift her." Thor hung his head again. "Undeserving of her power. I will never wield her again."
"Oh," said Arthur. "...oh. Right, well. Um, if the hammer is actually yours... Let me have a quick word with my boss. Thor. We'll figure something out."
Coulson caught the quick flash across Thor's face of pure misery, where perhaps Arthur missed it. Thor might not want to lift the hammer again - and Coulson was not even a little bit convinced that he wanted to let him. Not yet. But Arthur stood up. "Oh, and hey-" He picked up the coffee from the floor by his feet. "If you think you don't deserve the hammer... I think you're allowed to give yourself a break about the coffee."
This time, with a chagrined smile, Thor took the coffee. Coulson rethought his stance on Arthur's interrogation skills.
Before he could say anything, though, Agent Sitwell touched his wrist. "He's got a visitor," he said, nodding towards the mirrors.
"Who is it," Coulson asked, "Odin?"
"What? No." Obviously Sitwell had only just arrived. "It's that physicist from before, the Swedish one, Selvig. Says he's here to pick up his friend. Who is also a physicist." Sitwell's tone of voice said that he believed that story just as much as Coulson did.
But. If he could find out why the mighty Thor might not be interested in taking back his hammer... "Tell him I'll be right out."
"Mister Stark." Tony looked up to find a slightly beaky, still pretty young brunet looking down at him disapprovingly. "I'm going to be generous and assume you forgot about your appointment with Agent Coulson this morning. Consider this me politely reminding you."
"Hey, if it isn't my favourite nameless English SHIELD peon!" Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Pepper looking amused. Betrayal. He swept some of the more secret projects on the desk underneath some less incriminating paperwork. With anyone else he wouldn't bother, but with Coulson's assistant there was always the looming possibility he would understand it. There didn't seem to be any pattern to the things he might suddenly turn out to be an expert in - the medical profession, weird areas of history, theoretical physics. Tony preferred not to take chances with the guy. "Is it still Quentin?"
"Actually it's Richard right now, mister Stark." Richard's eyes followed the shuffle of papers, but he didn't say anything.
"On to the R's, huh? Methodical, I like that." Tony pushed himself back from the desk and headed to the closest workbench, picking up a random piece of complicated-looking scrap metal and a soldering iron. "I think I knew a Richard once. He was an asshole."
Richard casually plucked the iron out of his hand before he had a chance to pretend to solder anything. "Actually, Richard feels closer to right than anything I've tried so far. Mister Stark, we need to debrief you properly. You know this is national security?" Tony let him set the soldering iron back on the bench and wandered over to the digital rendering table, punching up a schematic for the iron man suit.
"So you debrief me," he said.
"I debrief you." Richard sounded distinctly unimpressed, a voice he might have copied straight off Pepper.
"You debrief me. I'm here, you're here..."
Richard switched off the table at the base and Tony's unsaved changes vanished. "I'm not debriefing you myself."
Tony shrugged. His unsaved changes were junk anyway. He picked up a power glove and a screwdriver from a nearby bench. "Better you than Coulson. I always think that guy's going to flip out and kill me."
"I wonder why," muttered Richard under his breath, watching Tony poke the mechanics of the glove aimlessly. "You know, death's not as big a deal as people pretend it is. You only have to do it a couple of times and then it's over."
Tony stopped working the screwdriver and blinked, not looking up. Pepper cleared her throat. "Richard, sweetie... You're doing it again."
Richard chuckled. "Thanks for the catch, but that was on purpose." He frowned, caught by something. "Wait, what did you call me?"
"No, when you said... Um. Thought I was remembering something. Never- never mind." He reached for the glove in Tony's hand and Tony held it out of reach. "Mister Sta- Mister Stark. You'll like this debriefing. We're introducing you to a god today, a real one."
"Oh?" said Tony, distracted. "What kind of a god?"
A well timed lunge landed Richard's hand on the glove and Tony surrendered it easily. "A thunder god. You'd like him. God of putting electricity into things that shouldn't have electricity in them. This is a glove."
"Hey, you wear that glove, you can crush iron in your fist. That's gold, there."
Richard rolled his eyes expressively and looked beseechingly at Pepper. Pepper shrugged and didn't bother to hide the grin. He's your problem right now Tony knew there was a reason she was his world. He made a show of studying a set of blueprints tacked up to the wall.
Richard pressed his lips together, then darted back to the desk to unearth the papers Tony had hidden. "Hey, hey," Tony started, moving to intercept him, but Richard held the project specs out of reach and frowned.
"You're using sonic modulation to effect a miniaturised area of extreme temperature change?" he asked, and something in his voice made Tony pause. Maybe the poorly hidden disdain. "You are thinking way too small. Way too small."
Tony reached futilely for the paper as Richard held him at arm's length. "Hey, believe me, I know what the implications could be for tech like that. It could replace every triggering mechanism currently on the market, it could be used in medicine to make scalpels a thing of the past - I'm not building a fancy welding torch here."
"Really? Because one of the suggested uses on this list is cigarette lighter."
"There are other suggestions. Give that back, it's proprietary." Tony made another grab for the specs, and Richard held on tight enough to crease the paper.
"Yes, I can see the other suggestions. I'm glad you're looking into sonic modulation as a thing, mister Stark, but you've missed out things like subatomic restructuring of physical materials, reading atmospheric irregularities, intercepting and modifying electromagnetic signals... little things, you know?"
Tony stilled. It was possible Richard was talking bullshit. It was probable that Richard was talking bullshit. His R&D department had given him no reason to expect this kind of technology could do any of those things, but... Richard's hidden memory was a weird and wonderful place and the implication that he was close to a device that could intercept and then modify anything sent over a wireless connection was staggering. Tony saw stars.
Richard was studying the specs idly. He didn't look impressed, but he had the look of a man who was used to not being impressed."And the best part is that it would just be a matter of programming in the right settings - get the hardware sorted and it would be the ultimate multi tool. Like a screwdriver, use it for anything. Mostly unlocking things - you could unlock anything short of a deadbolt seal."
"What's a deadbolt- Okay, are you fucking with me? Because you sound like you're fucking with me."
Richard crossed his arms and flashed Tony a triumphant grin. "Come to the debriefing and I'll tell you," he said. "Maybe."
Tony narrowed his eyes. "You don't know anything." Richard brandished the sonic modulator specs.
"Consider your decision carefully, mister Stark, because I will eat this piece of paper if I have to."
There was a long pause between the two of them, during which Pepper probably strained something by rolling her eyes too hard. "When does this meeting start?" Tony aimed for nonchalance.
"Three hours ago, mister Stark."
"Huh. So I'll be a little late?"
"Hm." Richard couldn't entirely hide the smile. "I'll drive you."
A few of the interns at SHIELD kept a running list of odd things Coulson's assistant said or did. They offered it to him, suggesting he could use it to figure out who he was. A man who could speak perfect Latin, correctly prescribe anti coagulants, and knew everything there was to know about renaissance Venice. He thanked them politely, but declined.
- January third -
Loki animates every anatomy skeleton in every classroom in NYC, and equips them with swords. Mid-battle with the Avengers, R picks up a gladius - defeats eight skeletons by himself.
- February tenth -
"You know, when there were stars, people used to paint pictures in them. They'd point at a lump of little lights and say, that's a lion. It never looked very much like a lion to me."
- March eighth -
Talks for fifteen minutes with Black Widow in conversational Latin. Doesn't seem to realise he's speaking a dead language until B.W. mispronounces eheu and has to explain that it's because she's never heard the word spoken aloud
- March twenty sixth -
"Dying is easy. It's the staying dead that I've always found more difficult."
- April first -
Loki transports the Avengers through time, April fools! R goes with, and speaks Chaucer's English to the locals. Acts like he's lived in 1142 his whole life.
- April nineteenth -
(On seeing a picture of the Mona Lisa) "You know, she didn't look anything like that in real life. Bigger teeth."
- June fifth -
"I don't know, it's a bit refreshing. I was beginning the think every trickster in the history of the universe was the same man. Granted, I think I like him better than Loki, but maybe he'd be happy to see he's not alone."
- June seventh -
Loki is taken prisoner, after kidnapping Hawkeye. While H is still missing, L is interrogated - R refuses to leave any interrogator alone with him, afraid for his safety. Either can't or won't explain why, only says that "Humans can't be trusted when we're afraid."
- June thirtieth -
When propositioned by the Enchantress, R declines, claims he is engaged to be married. He's as surprised as we are, guys! When asked when the wedding is, says "Soon. I just have to make it through the end of the world first."
- July fourteenth -
(Discussing funerals) "I think mine should have one of those... clapper boards. You know, take four - everyone know their lines? Let's get it right this time. And... action!"
"It's called the Pandorica." Coulson pointed the remote to bring up a picture on the display of a box. It was very definitely a box - nicely decorated, solid looking, but a box. Natasha kept her reservedly fascinated expression in place and waited for the other shoe to drop. "Its history is sketchy in places, but we know it's at least nineteen hundred years old. There are records that place it at Stonehenge circa one hundred A.D."
"Roman occupied Britain?" asked Stark. "Has anyone asked Robert to look at it? It is still Robert, right? Russell?" He turned to speak aside to Steve, who shrugged and paid attention to Coulson.
"Robert's off base right now," Coulson answered shortly. "Classified. If you're done...? The Pandorica is part of a collection being moved to the British museum this week, and SHIELD has been asked to aid in the security. We were originally contacted regarding some star cult memorabilia, and not about the Pandorica at all, but our researchers turned up something interesting."
He clicked the remote again, bringing up a slideshow of old-looking woodcuts that Natasha knew for a fact were the same ones he used during briefings about obscure pieces of Norse mythology. They had nothing to do with the subject matter, but they looked sufficiently mythic. Natasha had always suspected Robert of being behind them, but if he was off base then maybe she had to re evaluate Coulson as the guilty party.
"There are legends in several parts of the world that indicate the Pandorica was built to be a prison. The stories are about a trickster, a creature who fell from the sky and destroyed everything it touched. There are a lot of variations on the myth, but they all agree that once the trickster was trapped in this thing, it was never getting out."
Thor let out a low growl. "If you think to use this Pandorica to contain my brother, you should know that he is resourceful. Loki is the most powerful trickster in all the three realms - I do not think he can ever be held." His expression was closed off, angry, and Natasha wondered if he knew how much he still acted like Loki's protective older brother. She didn't blame him; he always did his part to combat his brother, but it interested Natasha anyway. It was possible that someday she'd be called on to end this, so it was important to her.
Coulson held up a hand to placate him. "That's not it, exactly," he said. "See, according to most sources, the Pandorica is already occupied."
Natasha sat up straighter, and saw Steve and Clint do the same. If there was another trickster god out there as dangerous as Loki...
"That's mine," came a sudden voice from the doorway. Surprised, Natasha turned to look, but Robert was standing there in shock, like he didn't understand the words coming out of his own mouth. He stared at the display of the ancient, mysterious iron box like he had seen an impossible thing, a haunting.
With a hand over his mouth, he made a strange noise, and Natasha was astonished to realise that those were tears he was swallowing.
"...Robert?" Coulson set down the remote, concerned. "I didn't expect you."
"Finished early," Robert said weakly, still staring. "hard copy report's on your desk, secure emailed, password protected on the public drive - What is that? No, don't-- it's mine."
He sat heavily on the edge of the table nearest to the door, and covered his eyes with one hand. "God, what did I do? I don't remember! It was dark and I was afraid, and... I held her while I watched all the stars go out." The assembled Avengers looked at each other uncertainly as the man they didn't know at all struggled to stop shaking.
"The Pandorica," he said at last. "That's the Pandorica, and I should never have left it behind. I think... Oh, I remember a fire. He told me, you'll live forever but you won't heal, and stay away from fire... But what else could I do when the Pandorica was burning?" Natasha's fingers twitched against the dossier Coulson had provided. The Pandorica had fallen into the hands of the British government following a fire in a private collection during the London Blitz. Seventy years ago. Robert shook his head despairingly. "She forgot me once, and I promised myself I would never... and then I did."
He looked so wrecked that Natasha physically couldn't help crossing the room to his side and touching his arm. He startled at the touch, then looked deeply embarrassed. "I, er... I think it's time for me to go." He forced a laugh. "I don't suppose anyone wants to help me plan a museum heist?"
Coulson coughed. "Robert," he started, then tried again. "The Avengers have been contacted by the British Museum to protect this exhibit. From museum heists. If you have anything to say, now would be the time to say it."
Robert winced. "Right. Bad taste. Er, it was a joke. Hah, if I did steal it, where would - where would I keep...?" He cleared his throat and stood, slipping away from Natasha. "Maybe not. Listen, I should, er, I should go."
He turned on his heel and made to leave the room. "Robert," Coulson called after him.
"It's actually Rory now." Robert turned back with a bright, perfectly fake smile and a little wave. "Hi."
Coulson hesitated, a slight tightness at the mouth the most sign of his uncertainty. "Rory. Of course. I'll speak to you later?"
Rory nodded, looking relieved, and walked out.
Natasha watched him go. She had never seen Rory, or Robert, or Richard, Marcus, James, look so spooked before. She had never seen Coulson pass up an on-the-spot debriefing with someone who so clearly knew more than they were letting on, and who may be planning actual criminal activity. She'd never known Phil Coulson to have an assistant whose wellbeing meant more to him than the mission at hand.
Two days later, Rory had vanished from SHIELD, leaving nothing behind.
When Steve saw Rory in the British museum, his heart sank. They'd all known what it probably meant when he announced his plans to steal the Pandorica and then dropped off the map, but they'd all put a lot of work into convincing themselves it didn't mean anything of the sort. Rory was the most reasonable of all of them except Coulson. The calmest, at least. Steve had once seen him defeat crazy evil by making it a cup of tea and asking it what was the matter. And then, a week ago he had dropped the bomb that he was an immortal amnesiac, and run away to plot a museum heist.
They had considered that he might try to contact some of the Avengers' unnervingly extensive rogues gallery for help. If he really did intend to steal the Pandorica from the British Museum, he might look there for help. There was even the panicked theory that he might go to Loki since they'd had almost-friendly contact once, but Thor said that his brother had interpreted Rory's treatment of him as the product of a simple mind, and wouldn't feel any obligation.
Out of all of them, the only one remotely equipped to deal with Rory as a criminal was Thor.
But the Avengers were here to protect the exhibit, including the Pandorica, and if that meant they had to work against their friend, well... They still had their orders.
Rory was wearing a museum guard's uniform, sitting in a chair by the exhibit door and drinking coffee. Or pretending to drink coffee like he always did. There was a radio walkie-talkie on his hip, and a set of keys. He didn't look dangerous. He didn't look half so lost as he had when Steve had seen him last, but he didn't look dangerous. He just looked like the friend who'd vanished from America a week ago without a word.
First plan of action, bring him home. Stopping him would have to be plan B.
"So," he said casually sidling up next to the guard's chair. "If a guy was planning a museum heist around here, where do you think he'd start?"
The brief spark of guilty panic in Rory's eyes was swallowed up immediately and convincingly in a pleased grin. "Captain!" he exclaimed. "You're here!" He scrambled gracelessly out of the chair, taking Steve's offered hand without hesitation. "I should have expected that, really. I should probably start by saying that I'm not here to stage a daring robbery."
"Oh, well, then. I guess the rest of us can go home."
Rory grinned. "I meant what I said before. Where would I keep it? My flat doesn't have space, not on a museum guard's wages. Better to leave it in here, where I can keep an eye."
"The Pandorica, you mean?" Rory nodded once, what else? Steve shook his head. "Listen, uh... hey, is it still Rory?"
Rory grinned like he'd been waiting for that question. "It is!" he said happily. "It is still Rory. Rory Williams. Because that's my name."
"Your name...? You've remembered!" Steve was torn between the urge to congratulate his friend and the sudden fear of what Rory might remember.
"Mostly," beamed Rory. "Not everything. I don't know all the whys or the hows, but I at least know the what - I remembered where I'm supposed to be." He tugged on the key card, attached to his belt by elastic, and showed it to Steve. "I'm a legitimate guard. Pay's rubbish, but..."
Steve peered at the card. "This says your name is Mark Taggart."
Rory looked sheepish. "Right. Well, almost legitimate. When I'm the night guard the ID says Rory Williams. I just needed a fake name to get both jobs. No one pays any attention during the shift change, or notices I'm always around -- the security here is awful, actually."
"Better now you're around?" Steve smiled. Rory grinned back.
"Better now I'm--" He broke off to whistle sharply at a group of children. "Hey! Don't touch! It's right there on a sign on a little stand, do not touch the two thousand year old exhibit. You know why they didn't stick that sign on the Pandorica? Because you're not supposed to touch!"
"Is it dangerous to touch?" asked Steve while the children filed quickly away from the velvet rope.
"Very dangerous," answered Rory. "If anyone touches the Pandorica, I beat them up."
Steve looked at him sidelong, the quirky British secretary whose job had been to corral superheroes, who got them where they needed to be on time, and who could handle a gladius with more brutal grace than anyone Steve had ever seen. "How much do you remember? About why the Pandorica's important?"
Rory shrugged, and Steve noticed he evaded his eye. "Not everything," he repeated. "But. I've had some help - come take a look."
He led him over to a wall of the exhibit hall, a few feet away. Natasha was already there, reading a printed timeline on a plaque next to a dark TV screen. As they approached and Rory's reflection appeared in the screen, she tensed. "This is you, isn't it?" she asked without inflection. "The lone centurion. Coulson told me you had some remnant delusion that you were a Roman."
"Not a delusion," Rory said softly. "Actually, I was a Legatus. People today don't know the difference, but Legati had better hats. Helmets. But it's just an urban legend, and I suppose Lone Legatus doesn't sound as good."
Bewildered, Steve looked up at the wall. The Pandorica, seen through time, he read. It was similar to the timeline they'd been shown - donated to the Vatican during the Roman occupation of Britain, moved around, stolen, lost, found - except for the second, more temporary looking wall display next to it. This one had details of a legendary figure that followed the Pandorica, guarded it from harm, and warned off people who tried to open it. The Lone Centurion.
"So, what is it?" asked Natasha, turning around. "The Centurion is an inherited title? Some kind of sect, passed down through generations?" She nodded at the wall, at a sketchy picture of a box and a Roman soldier in a landslide. "People don't live through this much, and they don't last this long. There's no way this is all--"
"It's all me." He interruption was brusque and hasty, and not entirely Rory. "There's nothing else but me." He pressed his lips together. "Sorry. Sorry - But this is me. It took a decade to figure it all out, and it's not fair to argue with me when I can't remember properly."
"This is all you?" asked Steve. He ran his eye from the top of the timeline to the bottom. There were centurions right back to the beginning, before 200 AD. "How old are you?"
Rory looked up at the timeline, muttered a few calculations - "Eighteen hundred and ninety four."
"You were born the same day the Pandorica appeared?" Steve expected Rory to laugh and revise his estimate, but he didn't crack a smile.
"Yes." He pointed at an entry, near the top of the timeline. "Look, I remember this. In the Vatican? They put the Pandorica in a back room, and I sat on top of it for two hundred years. Didn't sleep, didn't eat, didn't move from the spot. I had to talk them out of burning me as a witch. And here -" he pointed to a passage of writing, designed to look like an old document, "- here's Samuel's diary, he wrote about me back in the sixteen-sixties."
Samuel Pepys. Rory had some famous friends. Steve perused the timeline. "The last entry here is from the London Blitz. You were around in the thirties?"
Rory nodded with a sheepish grin. "I bought a printing press and distributed leaflets. DON'T LISTEN TO HITLER, HE'S RUBBISH." The smile slipped, a little. "I saved a little girl in a baker's shop, back in the Great Fire of London," he said, in a weird non sequitur. "Told myself that made it okay, how much nothing I did the rest of the time."
For a second Steve wanted to say something, to tell Rory he understood how it felt to stand that close to an atrocity and not stop it, but he couldn't. And Natasha was speaking again, "So, what? This is about time travel again?"
"Um. No?" Rory frowned. "No, this is something more complicated than time travel, if I could only remember it... This is two thousand years spent travelling the slow road while the universe collapses in on every point in history. I haven't got much time left, but I have got forever. As long as I have to wait, then we'll have to run..." He offered an awkward smile, almost apologetic. "There's actually more running than you would think, being an immortal roman guard."
He reached out a hand, ran his fingertips over the wall display. He fixed Steve with a look, a sparkle in his eye, and said, "I just outlived my own legend, I suppose."
Steve's hand dropped to the ID card at his belt, the card that said Captain America instead of Steve Rogers. If Natasha noticed the movement (and Steve had no doubt she had noticed the movement) she didn't say anything, just lay a hand on Rory's arm. "I think we need some answers, don't you?"
Captain America, the Black Widow and the Lone Centurion sat in the museum cafeteria, drinking rubbish coffee and talking about the gods.
"The question we need to answer," Natasha said, "is whether there really is a trickster god trapped inside that box downstairs."
"There isn't," said Rory immediately. "The perfect prison couldn't hold him; that's the whole point about being the actual cleverest person in the universe. He just waited until he figured out how to escape, then went back in time and told himself how. Then escaped, and went back in time... he's allowed to do those things, see."
"So there's a trickster god free in the-- wait, it was just that easy?" Steve blinked. Natasha threw him a sardonic glance to say, easy?
Rory shrugged. "Well, he had help. And, no, he's not free in the universe. Not exactly - see, after he escaped from the Pandorica, he skipped ahead to the end of the world. So I think he doesn't actually exist until then."
Steve wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he latched on to what he did know - he had help meant accomplices. Hunt them down, they would find the trickster, like digging out Nazis in wartime Europe. "So who helped him?" he asked.
"Oh," Rory blinked. "I did."
Next to him, Natasha leaned back and slowly moved her hands from the table. "You broke into the most perfect prison in the history of the world and released the prisoner inside?"
Rory nodded. "Breaking in turned out to be easier than breaking out. Sonic screwdriver, setting eight-four-nine dash apprehension." He gave them a sardonic smile. "Key codes are different for a race of telepaths and empaths."
Steve worried at his bottom lip. "Rory. You're not making it easy to believe that you're not a threat here. Give us something. Good guy or bad guy?" Rory sighed, dragging a hand across his face.
"Neither. Both. Good guy, or I want to be, but... Narrow focus guy. I didn't have room to think about good or bad or tricksters or the thousand-year death of the universe. I needed the Pandorica. Because nothing inside it can get out. Everything was dying and the Pandorica was the safest place in existence." Rory's brow creased as he struggled to remember something Steve didn't know if he could even comprehend. "And I needed... him."
"The trickster?" Natasha asked.
"The Doctor. I needed the Doctor. And I didn't believe the things they said about him."
Steve held his breath, trying to imagine a man faced with the end of the world, someone who had seen stars and knew they were real. Rory had watched the stars fade away, and all he thought about was a safe place and a doctor. "Rory," he asked, "what's in the Pandorica now?"
Rory shrugged off the question uncomfortably. "Okay, so he drops out of the sky and disaster follows him, that's true. But if it wasn't following him it would just go somewhere else. It's not the Doctor's fault any more than Loki is Thor's." His mouth turned downwards. "But people got scared and locked him away, and now the whole universe is dying."
"How long?" asked Natasha in a low voice. "Is this something that will come in our lifetime, and can we stop it?"
"He'll stop it. The Doctor. He probably has some big plan, it's just... there's something he needed to wait for. And because time is his playground, he didn't bother with waiting - he's gone straight there. So, yeah, when we see the Doctor again it'll be bad but he promised me he could fix it, so..."
We, thought Steve. "Rory," he said again, more firmly this time. "Rory, who's in the Pandorica?"
The breath that forced its way from Rory's throat shook, and Rory slumped like a puppet whose strings had been cut. "...Amelia Pond." He swallowed, and straightened his shoulders like speaking the name aloud had been the hardest part. "My Amy," he said. "We were going to be married. A long, long time ago in the future. Pretend that makes sense. She's-- she was... Protecting her was supposed to be my most important job, you see, and... I killed her."
His voice, a thin reed, broke on the last word and he dipped his head to hide the obvious tears that threatened to spill. "I'm sorry," he muttered, blinking furiously. Steve reached out to touch his hand, just as he moved it to swipe at his eyes. When he looked up they were bright but mostly dry. "I didn't mean to do it," he said, "and it probably wasn't really my fault, but... I stopped making excuses about fifty years after I realised I was the only one listening to myself. I killed the woman I love. But if I can make it to the end of the world, then I can see her again.
"As long as she's in the Pandorica she's not really dead. Or she is dead, and that thought drives me crazy again and again... but if I can carry her to the end of the world, along the slow road like this, then he can bring her back. He promised me."
Rory Williams watched the middle distance as he spoke. He was a creature of myth and shadow like this. His back straight, his head held up and the vastness of his task written in pain on his face. He was every fairytale of atonement and enduring love, and Steve felt like something small sitting next to him. Rory dropped his eyes to the tabletop with a tired sigh.
"And then, once he fixes her, he can save everything else. Maybe even me, as if that matters."
The silence drew out until Natasha said quietly, "You said that you held her while the stars went out."
Rory swallowed. "I didn't need the stars any more. Not without her."
They said their goodbyes, and left him to guard the Pandorica alone, as he always had. He wanted to stay in touch. They'd helped him get back to her, back to his watch when he would have just walked the world in oblivion, so he was grateful. But the end was coming so close now, and it wasn't long before his friends stopped returning his calls. So Rory Williams the Lone Centurion walked his rounds about the museum. He sat in the CCTV room making tea and letting it go cold as the end of the world pulled in around that tiny circle of light called Amy.
And one day he heard a familiar grinding gasping sound in the heart of the sun, and he knew. It was time to run again.