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The average-sized house in suburban Anaheim didn’t look like the kind of place a limo would pull up to - maybe around prom season, but not in the middle of a regular Saturday in August. So the fact that a limo had pulled up in front of that particular house was a matter of great and sudden interest to all of the neighbors, several of whom abruptly decided that 98 degrees really wasn’t too hot for going out to weed the front flower bed after all, or that they really should go out and say hi to their neighbor who was inexplicably weeding on such a hot, sunny day.

The limo’s driver got out and opened the rear door, offering his hand to assist a tall blonde woman in a stylish business suit and heels and then closing the door and conferring with her for a moment before taking up a waiting position beside the vehicle. The woman walked up the sidewalk leading to the door, mostly ignoring her fascinated audience from the surrounding houses - except for one neighbor who accidentally caught her eye and received a polite nod that shamed him into actually doing some weeding. She straightened when she reached the porch, adjusting the things she was holding, and rang the doorbell.

The woman who answered the door was about average height, shorter than Pepper by several natural inches and one pair of three-inch heels, but the family resemblance was unmistakable; Max definitely took after his mother. “Mrs. Tegan,” Pepper greeted her with a polite smile. “My name is Pepper Potts, I’m the CEO of Stark Industries. I was hoping you’d have a few minutes for us to talk about your son?” She indicated one of the things she was holding, a largish photo album. “I brought pictures.”

The inside of the house was just like the outside, neat but comfortably worn from several decades of family life. The living room’s entirely superfluous fireplace had been converted into a candle-place instead, and the mantle over it held an arrangement of somewhat dusty silk flowers and a few framed pictures of Max and his sister. The most recent picture of Max was still an old one, and Pepper shook her head over it. Max had slimmed down a lot since then, and she said so. His father raised an eyebrow at that, looking worried. “Is he…sick?”

Pepper just managed not to roll her eyes. “No, of course not. But his husband has to stay in shape, so he does too. And Blake’s aunt got married last month in Manhattan, so they’d both been working hard to keep fitting into their formal clothes for the wedding party.” She opened the album and flipped to a picture she’d taken right before they’d all left the Tower to go to Haven that night, holding the album out so they could see. “It paid off, but Blake and their friend Josie both said Max was absolutely miserable from all the dieting.” She pointed out another picture. “That’s Josie Noonan, she works with them at FindLove. The man beside her is her fiance, Captain Rogers - she met him at Max and Blake’s wedding at Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu.” She gave them a politely apologetic smile. “We had to keep your daughter from taking pictures of the other guests for security reasons, I’m sure you understand. That’s actually the reason I decided to stop by while I was here on the West Coast. ‘The kids’, as Mr. Stark calls them, don’t have the necessary clearance to share their photos or tell you about a lot of the things that have gone on, at the wedding or since, but I do. So, I’ll leave it up to you: What would you like to know?”

Mrs. Tegan had gone wide-eyed; possibly she’d only just now made the connection. “Mr. Stark knows Max?”

Pepper nodded. “As I said, he and Blake were married at Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu, and they all stayed at Avengers Tower for Blake’s aunt’s wedding last month. And Captain Rogers and Agent Barton live in the Tower - Agent Barton is engaged to one of Blake’s cousins, they’re getting married next month.” She smiled again. “Max says that if the current level of interrelationships keeps up, eventually they’ll all be related.” She flipped to the next page, which was a picture of the entire wedding party, and started pointing people out. “Blake’s family was at both weddings, of course. That’s his Aunt Allison and her husband Seth. There are Agent Barton and Blake’s cousin Amanda, his cousin Rhonda with her boyfriend Cougar, his other cousin Todji with his partner Jake, and his Aunt Elise, the director and CEO of FindLove.net where Max, Blake and Josie all work. Mr. Stark is also an investor in that company.”

Mr. Tegan blinked. “Max never told us his company was so…well-connected.”

Pepper pretended to think about that. “Let’s see, we became investors…right after Thanksgiving, not quite two years ago. I remember because it was hearing Max talk about his company that convinced us it would be worth investing in.” She shrugged. “And probably because Dr. Doom attacked the city that afternoon. He really should have known better than to try something on a holiday - these people all take their family time very seriously. Dr. Richards and his wife invested in the company after that too, they absolutely adore Max. He was protecting their son during the attack that day, he handled himself very well - especially considering it was the first battle he’d ever been involved in.” She leaned forward again, pointing out Reed and Sue. “That’s Dr. Richards and his wife. She and her brother are related to Captain Rogers.”

Max’s parents shared a look. “He…didn’t tell us about any of this,” Mrs. Tegan ventured. “He did call after Thanksgiving, but we didn’t talk for very long.”

“And he certainly didn’t mention anything about a battle or having been with a bunch of superheroes,” Mr. Tegan said. He was giving Pepper a shrewd look. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

She shrugged. “I knew he hadn’t been able to share classified information with you. As far as what he did tell you, I only know about that because Blake’s aunt told me. The way I understood it, the family doesn’t have a problem with you standing by your beliefs. They only had a problem with you not respecting your son when he stood up for his.”

Mrs. Tegan cleared her throat. “Our pastor says…”

Pepper held up one hand. “I don’t care, Mrs. Tegan. I’m not here to try to challenge your beliefs, or to talk you into reconciling with your son; I’m just here to share what amounts to a great deal of classified information because leaving you in the dark about certain things at this point could lead to trouble for everyone down the road. That picture,” she indicated the group wedding photo, “is considered classified. Mr. Stark and the other Avengers and the Fantastic Four were all there, along with several other groups whose names you wouldn’t know - because you aren’t supposed to.” A slightly cooler smile. “Josie told me she had a ‘minor freakout’ when she realized her friend Max was marrying into the real-world equivalent to the Wayne family and he’d invited her to the wedding. Max’s sister, on the other hand, made it quite clear that she only attended because she felt obligated to put in an appearance on behalf of your family. I’m afraid she didn’t make a very good impression. She’s a grown woman, though, so that’s her problem to sort out.” She turned the page, revealing a photo of a lot of people from the previous photos lounging around in the Avengers’ family room. “These pictures are from the day after Allison’s wedding. The wedding party was attacked by someone who was trying to take out Earth’s first line of defense all at once, and things got pretty ugly. Max was still tired, so we ended up making them stay another night instead of flying back home that afternoon.”

Mr. Tegan swallowed; his wife’s eyes had gone round again. “Our son…fought?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Pepper temporized. “He saved everyone at the wedding, I can tell you that much, and possibly the rest of the world because of it. And then he went with his husband and Captain Rogers and a few other people to rescue a friend who was being held prisoner, and after that there was a huge meeting to discuss what had happened and what everyone needed to be doing about it…the poor thing, he was exhausted.”

“Why…why is he wearing a patch over his eye?” Mrs. Tegan looked like she really was afraid of what answer she was going to get. “He was…hurt?”

“He lost his sight in his left eye,” Pepper told her, gently but matter-of-factly, and ignored the dual gasps she got anyway. “A friend of ours who’s a doctor took a look that night, but there isn’t anything that can be done. The eye itself is fine, but his optic nerve on that side is completely unresponsive.” She smiled, though. “Max said he should probably get a parrot to complete the look, but he’s afraid their cat would eat it.”

Mr. Tegan swallowed again. “It happened last month, why didn’t he tell us?”  

“He couldn’t,” Pepper reiterated. “That particular…well, series of incidents is classified so tightly we couldn’t even tell the government agent who came to get a report that night about everything that had gone on.” Not to mention, Max had gotten so sad when someone had asked him how he was going to explain the eyepatch to his parents and he’d said they weren’t speaking to him - and that he didn’t dare try to start talking to them again now, because he was afraid he might slip and try to change the way they felt - that everyone had just told him they were sure eventually it would all work itself out and not to worry about it.

And Pepper had decided that on her next business trip to Malibu she needed to take a detour through Anaheim, because if she hadn’t Tony probably would have and that would have been disastrous - she loved him, but he had less of a filter than Max’s bitchy, immature sister did and a situation like this one called for a more delicate touch. She couldn’t pretend she understood Max’s parents, even after reading the dossier she’d gotten on the family courtesy of Elise, but she did have a certain amount of sympathy for them. Their son was a member of the superhero community now, after all, and knowing that was not going to be easy on them - safer, which was the other reason Pepper had come to talk to them, but definitely not easier than believing he was just working in an office in L.A. while living his life in a way they didn’t approve of. Pepper was sure the Tegans would be afraid of the news now - afraid to watch it, but afraid not to - because they couldn’t be sure if one of those news stories about a world-threatening villain being defeated was actually about their practically disowned son going out to fight said villain. And even worse, knowing that if the worst happened they would be the last to know, not the first…and that was if anyone bothered to notify them at all.

She let them look at the pictures for a little bit longer, let them have this little glimpse into their son’s life, and then she took the album back and handed Mr. Tegan the flat package wrapped in plain brown paper she’d also been carrying. “This one is for you to keep,” she said. “The photos have been edited to protect everyone, I’m sure you understand why we had to do that. But I thought you’d probably want to have some better pictures than the ones your daughter was able to take of Max and Blake’s wedding, and some of the more current ones too.” She stood up. “Oh, and FindLove may be relocating their headquarters to the East Coast next year, so the boys will probably be moving if and when their company does. Please don’t try to pump them for information about that if you talk to them, though, they aren’t allowed to discuss the proposed expansion until all of the details have been worked out and confirmed. Competition in that industry can be pretty fierce, you know.”

Quite obviously they hadn’t, not to mention they had other things on their minds right then, but they didn’t ask any more questions even thought she knew they probably wanted to - they were overwhelmed, but Pepper didn’t think that was a bad thing. If they wanted more answers, they could talk to their son. Mr. Tegan got up and walked her to the door, politely if somewhat awkwardly shaking her hand when she offered it, and then closed and locked the door once she’d stepped off the porch. Pepper made her way back down the sidewalk to the limo, the driver of which hurried over from the neighbor’s yard to open the door for her. She raised an eyebrow at him, he appeared suitably flustered, and then he closed the door and got in himself to drive them away. He waited until they’d left the block before glancing back in the mirror. “Neighbors all know now, that gossip is gonna spread fast. Apparently some of them had wondered about Max not comin’ around anymore, his folks would only say he was real busy at work. Of course some of the neighbors’ kids grew up with him and his sister, so there were rumors already goin’ around about just what kind of ‘busy’ he might be.” Clint grinned. “They were all pretty happy to find out he was married now; that one fat guy who was pretending to prune his wife’s roses said he and his wife had always hoped Max would settle down with someone good. And they were real impressed when I told them he’d married the youngest son of a rich, connected family from New York that thinks he’s the greatest son-in-law ever.”

Pepper snickered. “I told Max’s parents he’d married into the real-life equivalent of the Wayne family - Josie does say he married Batman.”

“So did they…”

“I didn’t give them a chance. His mother tried to bring their pastor’s bullshit into it, I wouldn’t let her.” She shook her head. “Maybe I’m just jaded thanks to all the crazy and potentially world-ending things that tend to happen around us on a regular basis, but I just can’t understand being that…hidebound, from an ideological standpoint.”

Clint shrugged. “Someone told me once that it was because the people who believe that way are afraid to die. You know, the whole heaven and hell thing - the older they get, the more worried they get that they’ll do somethin’ to piss God off and won’t get a chance to make up for it before he judges the crap out of them. It’s how those kinds of preachers keep butts in the seats and money in the collection plate every Sunday, after all, by keepin’ them all scared.”

“I guess so.” She snorted softly. “I’m wondering what they’ll all do once the invasion actually starts. Hopefully not side with the invaders. Is anyone checking the leaders of those big, divisive churches to make sure they’re not Skrulls?”

He nodded. “The Botos are on it. The ones they’re really worried about are the Scientologists, though - some of the nastier shit that goes on in that group made Max and Josie suspect Skrulls might have a hand in some of it.”

Pepper shivered. “Be sure to keep me posted on that one, they’re lawyer-happy. Find out anything else from the neighbors?”

Clint shrugged again. “Not really. Nobody was going to come right out and call Max’s sister a bitch in front of a stranger, but they hinted around so much they really didn’t need to. I guess the way she was actin’ at the wedding was pretty restrained, for her.” 

“It’s good she has some self-control.” She frowned out the window, mentally going over the photos she’d seen on the mantel. “Her current boyfriend?”

“A Kindlin’ hookup, just like Max thought. He seems okay, no indications that he’s anything but what his profile says he is. It’s probably not gonna last too much longer, though.” He grinned at her in the mirror. “He’s a personal trainer, and some of the pictures he’s posted of the two of them online since he hooked up with her make it seem like he might have been lookin’ for a before-and-after project, not a girlfriend. He’s done it before.” 

“Does Max know?”

“Blake’s the one that told me, so yeah. He wasn’t worried, he said none of the guy’s past projects seem to have been upset about it.”

“Hmm.” She supposed they wouldn’t have been, since the trainer had made it good for them, so to speak- probably in more ways than one - but obviously not good enough that they didn’t think they could do better. “Doesn’t Blake hate Max’s sister, though?”

That made Clint snicker. “No, not really. He doesn’t like her all that much, but Max takes her in stride so he does too. Although he apparently manages to scare the hell out of her somehow every single time they see her.”

Pepper smiled. “Good.”

Chapter Text

Tony was on the Tower’s roof, nervously waiting for their visitors to arrive. Unlike on a ‘normal’ day, today he was dressed to the nines - perfectly fitted dark suit, Italian leather shoes polished to an unobtrusive shine, and no grease under his fingernails. Because today, royalty was coming to visit.

From another planet, no less.

Thor was also there, of course, standing a step behind Tony. Having Rhodey present hadn’t been an option because things might happen that the Air Force couldn’t be told about yet, so Clay was filling in for him in full dress uniform decorated with an impressive amount of ribbons and brass. Pepper was currently on the other side of the country - which was exactly where Tony wanted her to be if ‘Odin’ turned out to be Loki in disguise - and everyone else had at least temporarily gotten out of the way. Although not too far out of the way, just in case.

At the appointed time, the symbols Thor had used his hammer to draw in the center of the landing pad started to glow blue. Clouds swirled overhead, a beam of light broke through them and spread the symbols out like a kaleidescope pattern expanding…and then two people were standing in the center of it. The man was white-haired and white-bearded, a commanding set to his slightly stooped shoulders, and his visible eye was the same intense blue as his son’s. The woman beside him was dressed in a simple white gown, and her barely silvering dark golden hair was braided into an intricate crown around her head. Her bearing was no less regal than her husband’s; she was exactly what Tony would have expected a goddess to look like, down to the kind, knowing look in her blue eyes, and he swallowed the lump in his throat and bowed. “Your Majesties, welcome to Avengers Tower.”

Thor immediately stepped forward with a short bow of his own. “Mother, Father…may I present to you Tony Stark, the Man of Iron, master of this tower. Tony Stark, my parents, the rulers of Asgard, Odin and Frigga.”

“Well met, Tony Stark,” Odin said. Surprisingly, his voice was a slightly gruff tenor rather than the booming bass Tony had expected. “It has been many centuries since we last traveled to Midgard.”

Tony nodded. “If this were an official visit, I’d offer to show you around the city,” he said. “Unfortunately today we don’t have that luxury.” He indicated Clay. “This is Colonel Clay, the administrative leader of the Avengers Initiative.”

“Your Majesties,” Clay acknowledged with a curt bow of his own. “We should probably go inside. We’ve kept our satellites from seeing what’s going on here today, but there isn’t a way to stop people from just looking.”

“Of course,” Odin agreed at once, offering his wife his arm. She took it, and Tony led them down off the roof into a small conference room which was a lot more formal-looking than the one the Avengers usually used, all subdued neutral walls and polished wood and unobtrusive tech. It also had a really impressive view of the city and the ocean beyond from its privacy-tempered windows.

Steve was there, also in his dress uniform, along with Josie and Jane. Who was visibly upset, and just as soon as Tony had made the rest of the introductions Frigga swept over to her with a look of consternation on her face. “My son told me this witch’s dream had caused you distress, but this I did not expect,” she said. “Thor!”

“I could not tell you all, Mother, as our communications may not have been secure,” he apologized, joining them. “In our part of this shared vision, Asgard was invaded. I left Jane with you, that she might be safe while I fought, but they breached the palace…and you were killed.”

Jane nodded. “You were protecting me,” she said. “I…don’t know how to fight.”

It was an apology, and Frigga immediately pulled the younger woman into a motherly embrace. “Oh child, of course you do not,” she said. “I was trained from my childhood, but that is the way of Asgard. I would not expect you to have that knowledge, it is all right.” Tiny blue sparks flickered around her fingers, barely visible in the room’s bright light, and her expression darkened. “Where is the witch who did this?”

“Imprisoned,” Clay answered. “In a place called the Netherworld.” He nodded to Odin, who was now looking horrified himself. “The witch was working for someone called Thanos. She was being sent from universe to universe to disable those who might fight him most effectively - taking out as many heroes as she could, and clearing the way for a full invasion. Which is the other reason we were being so careful, because we found out during this incident that the Skrulls were already here, already active. We weren’t sure if they had infiltrated Asgard or not yet, hence all the half-truths we told to get you down here. Your son assures me that you can’t be impersonated.”

Odin nodded slowly. “It would be nearly impossible for one of them to replace us, that is true. They can assume a form, but not the power that goes with it. For all their other…gifts, the creatures known as Skrulls are still mortal.”

“That we knew,” Clay told him, raising an eyebrow at the older - much, much older - man’s visible surprise. “The dream was…a little too detailed, you might say. The witch was overconfident and she miscalculated, gave us too much information.”

“I did not see her,” Thor disclaimed when his father looked to him for confirmation of that. “Jane and I were on Asgard during all that time. And then Ragnarok came.”

“That tale was why I agreed to make the journey to Midgard,” Odin said. He took a chair and sat down in it, a little heavily; his wife had already taken a seat of her own, putting Jane in the chair beside her. “My wife?”

“The witch made them live a lie,” Frigga told him. “Treachery upon treachery, and then an attack on Asgard which killed many, including myself.” He winced. “Thor, have you spoken to Lady Jane’s parents?”

Her tone was scolding, and this time Thor was the one who winced. “No, Mother, not as of yet. Here, it is the custom to speak to the lady first and obtain her agreement, and before speaking to her I would have needed to speak to you and Father. In the dream-world, that was my reason for taking her with me to visit Asgard. I should have attempted to do so again, but the current situation required immediate attention. Those who understand the structure of the multiverse better than I concur that the Witch had to have seen the coming of Ragnarok somewhere. It is all our hope that she did not see it anywhere near our own universe.”

“She could not see the future?” Frigga asked, and everyone present shook their head. “That is a relief, but perhaps not so much of one as you might think. The seed of Ragnarok is present in all worlds, waiting only to be awakened. The one here sleeps, but restlessly.”

“That makes sense to me,” Tony told her. “One thing we really excel at is engineering our own destruction, unfortunately.”

“That is common to all the races,” Odin allowed. “Did Ragnarok come to Midgard as well in this dream?”

“Not that we know of,” Clay said. “And I did ask Thor, none of the signs were there.”

Odin steepled his fingers, thinking about that. “Curious. Could it have been an illusion?”

Thor shrugged. “It seemed real enough to me, but we were in a dream at the time. And the Witch did put others into different realities.”

“She did it to one of my friends,” Josie told him, seeing that he still didn’t look convinced. “He was fighting her, fighting the dream, and when she caught on she started dropping him into one nightmare scenario after another, each one worse than the last. He finally made it back to reality, and that let the rest of us wake up.”

Odin was very interested in that. “He has the power to pierce illusion?”

She shook her head. “Not the way you’re thinking, no. He just realized he was dreaming, and made himself a way in the dream to know if he was awake or not.”

“Does he have magic?”

“No, our magic expert is the Sorcerer Supreme,” Clay told him. “Who isn’t here right now, but if we need to have him in this meeting we can call him.”

Odin’s eyebrow went up. “Why is he not here already?”

“It wasn’t possible to have him come here today,” Tony said, not taking offense. It was a valid question. “He was injured in the incident, he’s still recuperating at home. If we need to ask him something, I’ll video-call him.”

That didn’t appear to appease the god-king of Asgard. “And this other man, the one who defeated the witch?”

“Oh, I can have him here in a few minutes,” Josie said brightly, before Tony - or Clay - could say anything. “Did you want to see if he could make you drop your illusion?” That got a reaction from just about everyone at the table, but she held up her hand. This was the reason she and Steve were at this meeting, after all. “No, this isn’t the same situation Thor and Jane found in their part of the dream. Lady Frigga knows this isn’t her husband. The real Odin is…missing.”

“He is,” Frigga admitted placidly. “It speaks well of this Initiative that a truth-hearer is willing to lend them her talents. This deception may be something you saw in the witch’s dream, but the reality is not as you experienced it. Odin went through the Gates, leaving behind no reason for his journey, but Hel confirms that he went alone and went with purpose. Time runs differently there, and when he did not return I tasked Loki with taking his place.” She aimed a warning look at Thor, who was already opening his mouth to protest. “No, you will listen to me. Your brother has realized his error in placing himself under the aegis of the being called Thanos.”

“Did I ever.” ‘Odin’ rippled, and then a much younger-appearing man with long dark hair, two blue eyes and smoothly handsome features was sitting in his place. What looked like a narrow collar of black metal with a series of soft blue lights set into it was just barely visible around the base of his throat. “I don’t know why Father went to the Gates,” he said. “I didn’t even know he’d gone until Mother came down to my cell and put an illusion in my place so I could take his. We don’t dare let anyone on Asgard know he hasn’t come back, there’s been some…unrest in certain quarters.” He inclined his head to his scowling brother. “Which is why she couldn’t summon you home, it would have looked suspicious. When you called us, we were honestly hoping it was because you’d heard something.”

Thor glowered at him. “You expect me to believe you want Father to return?”

Loki shrugged. “What I want doesn’t enter into this, we need him to return. And I expect you to believe Mother, not me.” He scowled, though. “Although you know damned good and well I’d never hurt her.”

“He wouldn’t,” Josie confirmed when Thor looked to her. “And he’s telling the truth, he doesn’t know why your father went to that place. He’s worried.”

“I am,” Loki admitted. “We’ve more enemies than just the Frost Giants, and lately some of them have also been…oddly restless.” He returned his attention to Tony and Clay. “Thanos has been spreading his web throughout the galaxy, one strand at a time - one individual at a time. I don’t know what he is, no one does, but he seems to have power to spare, and a knack for finding those who are…desperate.”

Clay raised an eyebrow. “Our sources say that’s not why the Skrulls threw in with him.”

“Your sources are right, up to a point. But he did gain the loyalty of the Skrulls by giving them something they were desperate for, and that was war. He was able to offer them an unending supply.” This time he nodded at Clay. “You do know that they can’t be taken prisoner, correct?”

The other man nodded. “Our sources warned us about that, too. Apparently one of the other Earths tried it, negotiation, and found out the hard way that the Skrulls…don’t think like us.”

“That they do not,” Loki agreed. “The Chitauri are a similar species with some similar mindsets, but with one huge difference: the Chitauri are slaves to Thanos, he conquered their people and they are now forced to do his bidding. They have very little will of their own.”

“That does explain some things I saw when they were here.” Steve sat back in his chair. “Are they savable?”

Loki shook his head. “An admirable idea, but it wouldn’t work. Thanos basically made them into drones, they won’t turn against him because they can’t. The Skrulls, on the other hand, are purely mercenary; they work for him because he’s paying them, and because he’s stronger than they are. If they’re ever given reason to see him as weakening, though, he could have a problem on his hands.”

“Haven’t been able to come up with anything?” Steve wanted to know, and when Loki shook his head again he sighed. “Yet another thing we need to put aside to work on later, I guess. Let us know if you come up with something, we’ve got enough resources now that we might be able to help.”

Dumbfounded, Tony decided, was a good look on Loki. And Frigga was hiding a smile. “It appears you may at that,” she agreed. “This Initiative has come far from its origins, I believe even Odin would be pleased to call you our allies.” She folded her hands on top of the table’s polished surface. “So, it is possible that our many small problems are all part of one larger one. The King of Asgard is missing, albeit of his own free will, and that at a time when both our allies and our enemies are…restless. At this same time, you have been attacked by one working for Thanos, and discovered his servants in your midst. You say other parts of the multiverse are also being affected?”

“They are,” Clay confirmed. “A lot of them, apparently. Another version of our Sorcerer Supreme noticed something funny going on in a universe near his, and it seemed to be destabilizing other nearby realms so he went over there and fixed it. And in doing so, he found out that whatever was causing the problem seemed to be making a concerted effort to take out the lynchpin in every version of that reality it could reach. So he started contacting other versions of himself, and that led to them all realizing that this was a concerted takeover attempt, not just of one or two worlds but of the multiverse. Or at least, all the parts of it Thanos could reach. I’m guessing he’s just trying to grab whatever he can, or maybe take control of a particular section.”

“Thanos is a multidimensional being,” Frigga told him. “His reach could be considerable.”

“I would even say unfathomable,” Loki put in. “I don’t believe most of the science on Midgard has…expanded, shall we say, enough to be able to comprehend the relative size of the multiverse.”

“Relative because it’s constantly expanding?” Tony asked, and he nodded. “Since the Sorcerer Supremes seem to be able to find their way around in it, though, I’m guessing this might be an area where magic works better than science?”

“It’s an area where they both must work together,” Loki corrected. “Science provides the structure, like a trellis the magic can use to support itself as it grows.” He saw Jane’s eyes light up and he smiled, just slightly. “Yes, that is what you would have seen on Asgard, dream or not - magic and science working together in a symbiotic relationship. Past a certain point they’ll supposedly become indistinguishable, perhaps even merge, but that is a point no one has ever reached that we know of.”        

“But on Asgard…”

“Not even close, I assure you, Lady Jane,” Loki cut her off, albeit politely. “Really, I know what Asgard must have looked like to Midgardian eyes, but we’re not that much more advanced than you.”

“We are not,” Thor agreed. “The path our sciences advanced along simply diverged from that of Midgard, at least partially because of our use of magic. But that is a discussion for another time. You truly have no idea why Father might have passed the Gates, Mother?”

Frigga made a face. “I have a suspicion, but it is just that - a suspicion, not knowledge. Odin has been troubled of late, and he would speak his thoughts to no one. Heimdall says he had been spending much time on the Bridge, walking and listening in silence but with a look of concern upon his face. After what I have heard here,” she waved a graceful hand, “I believe Odin may have heard whispers of Ragnarok in the unrest which now spreads across world after world. My suspicion is that he may have gone in search of Tyr, a great warrior who withdrew to Niflheim long ago.”

“Niflheim is the realm on the other side of the Gates,” Loki put in quietly for the benefit of the confused non-Asgardians; Thor had stiffened at their mother’s words. “The Gates are…well, a sort of portal to another realm, and Hel guards them much the same way Heimdall guards the Bridge. Asgardians have been known to go there if they fear death from sickness or age, but it’s also the place where the…shall we say, disaffected sometimes take themselves off to. Time runs differently on the other side of the Gates, and sometimes even in their general vicinity, so it isn’t unusual for someone to go there and not be heard from for hours or days or even years.”

“When I went to speak with Hel, I did so only for what seemed a handful of minutes in the early morning, but I did not return to the palace until nightfall,” Frigga confirmed. “Hel’s own magic keeps it from affecting her in that manner.”

Clay was frowning. “Was Tyr one of the disaffected, by any chance?”

Frigga nodded. “Tyr left because he felt betrayed by Odin, and Odin may have gone to try to make amends, fearing he would need Tyr’s help if a great war was coming.” She sighed. “Which it does seem to be. Curse the man’s stubbornness; had he confided in me, or in Heimdall, we might now have information which would be of value.”

Clay couldn’t help but notice that both Thor and Loki looked like they thought this was just par for the course where their father was concerned. He’d ask Josie what else she’d ‘heard’ about that after the meeting was over and their guests - and Thor - were out of the Tower; he had a strong suspicion that what she’d have to tell him wasn’t going to be good. He looked down the table at Thor. “Is there something we need to know about Tyr? It seems like maybe you aren’t sure pulling him out of hiding is a good idea.”

Thor made a face. “Tyr was one of the greatest warriors in the history of Asgard, on Midgard he was known as the God of War. It would be logical, given the potential size of the coming conflict, that Odin might wish to have his assistance.”

Uh-oh - ‘Odin’ not ‘Father’. But before Clay could say anything else, Frigga spoke up. “Tyr is also the eldest son of Odin, formerly the Heir of Asgard…and quite possibly Loki’s father as well.” Both of her sons gave her dirty looks, and she shook her head at them. “That is a truth which will become known regardless of whether it is told or not; I would prefer to share it now rather than explain it later. Thor, as I have said, suspicions are all I have in this, not true knowledge; I do not know your father’s mind as he did not confide in me. And Loki knows he will always be the son of my heart, regardless of his true parentage. As for Tyr…if he returns with Odin, then we will see what comes of it. Borrowing trouble when greater problems are brewing would be foolish in the extreme.”

That had been another scold, and Thor dipped his head. “Very true. My apologies for that lapse, I shall not allow pride to lead me astray again.”

Clay cleared his throat to break the silence -  proud in Frigga’s case, surprised in Loki’s, and varying levels of shocked in everyone else’s because the Avengers all tended to forget that Thor had originally been exiled to Earth. “We can cross that bridge when we come to it,” he agreed. “For now, in the real Odin’s absence, I’d say what we need are contingency plans. The Avengers Initiative is already making arrangements to move our headquarters to a more secure location, and we will of course share that information with you once everything is settled. It’s my understanding that if the Bifrost is damaged you aren’t able to use it for transport?” Frigga nodded. “We have methods of transportation available to us now which can get around that, if necessary - one tech-based, one magic-based, and one demonic.”

“We’re still working out some bugs in the portal generator,” Tony put in. “But we expect to have it fully functional soon.”

Loki’s eyes went wide. “You’ve developed portal technology?”

Tony was surprised by his surprise. “Dr. Richards did, yes - and he saw what happens when you don’t work the bugs out first in the dream world, so he’s being extremely careful with the real-world version.”

“Yes, portal travel can be horrifically dangerous if one isn’t careful,” Loki agreed. “And the demon?”

“Not a captive,” Josie said quickly. “We wouldn’t do that. It’s my friend and his husband’s cat.”

Tony was starting to think Loki was just going to spend most of the meeting looking astonished. “Your friend and his husband are keeping a demonic cat as a pet?”

“The Sorcerer Supreme gave Blue to them when she was a kitten,” she explained. “She’s…”

“Spoiled rotten.” Stephen Strange had appeared in the doorway. He stepped in and bowed. “Lady Frigga, Lord Loki. Dr. Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, at your service. My apologies for not being here when you arrived.”

“We explained why you weren’t,” Clay told him, standing up to pull out a chair. “You could have just called.”

“Some things are better attended to in person,” Stephen told him, sweeping his red velvet cloak to one side and settling himself in the chair. “And Blue needs the exercise - not that I don’t think she’s been popping off to the Netherworld to hunt, because I’m sure she has, but transporting people around on this plane is a different kind of stretch for her.” He smoothed down the front of his embroidered indigo vest, which appeared to be just slightly too large for him. “Blue has bonded to her caretakers,” he explained to the Asgardians. “So long as you don’t wish harm on either of them, she’s perfectly safe to be around. And yes, she could easily evacuate someone from Asgard, or deliver someone to Asgard, if it were necessary.”

“She is still here?” Loki asked, and Stephen nodded. “Would it be possible for you to introduce her to Mother before we return home? If things degrade to the point where a strategic retreat is necessary…”

“Loki!”

He frowned. “Mother, with Odin missing and Thor here on Midgard, we do not dare let a situation arise where you might be captured. A threat to your life would bring Asgard to its knees.”

Tony saw that Frigga still wasn’t liking the idea of being ‘evacuated’. “Your Majesty, I understand,” he told her. “I may not be a ruler, but I am the head of a multinational corporation and one of the wealthiest men on this planet, so I have had to deal with similar issues. I may not like the idea that in some situations my people may be safer if I retreat, but I’ve had to accept it.”

Frigga raised an eyebrow. “Your people would not die to protect you?”

The billionaire flinched. “People have died trying to protect me - or just by being with me. And while I was not in control of those situations and I honor their sacrifice, I will not create a situation where such a sacrifice is necessary if I can at all avoid it.”

Clay was just slightly concerned that Frigga wasn’t going to take that very well - depending on how you looked at it, Tony might have just questioned her willingness to create such a situation herself - but to his relief the frown on her face was more thoughtful than angry, and he was seeing some concern there too. Which made more sense when Steve suddenly spoke up. “She’d never heard that story, Lady Frigga.”

Josie, who Clay saw now had gone really pale - he really needed to have a long talk with her sooner and not later, they couldn’t just keep blindsiding her with this stuff when it came up in - shook her head and swallowed. “I’m sorry, that just…took me by surprise.”

Loki’s eyes had widened again; he looked horrified. “Wait, you’re not…oh by all the gods. Mother, she’s not trained.”

Frigga gasped, and this time Stephen shook his head. “Because her gift is one none of us have ever seen before,” he explained. “It manifested a few years ago and grew in strength gradually, and during the dream she learned to use it because she had to. None of my research so far - and I’ve had to go about it very carefully so as not to expose her - has turned up any information we can use. Thor thought you might know something, Lady Frigga, but first we had to be sure all was well on Asgard.”

“Even if it were not, I would aid you with this,” Frigga told him. “There has not been a truth-hearer born to Asgard in centuries, so I can tell you little more than that I know they will serve only those they believe…and that the gift is a danger to them, not only from those who wish to silence the truth, but also from the pain the hearing of some truths can cause.”        

“I am learning to…tune things out,” Josie said. “I had to. The Skrulls get…well, just really disturbingly happy about playing with us and then killing us. Killing isn’t just what they do, it’s what they love.”

Frigga got a very singular look on her face. “This man who stopped the Witch…it was he who told you that?” When Josie nodded, she stood up, which made everyone else stand up as well, but a wave of her hand kept them in their places…and spread little blue lights across the room, brighter now as they danced through the air, their glow echoed in her eyes. “My husband in his arrogance is a bigger fool than I had thought. If that calling is come again, then we have worse to fear than merely Ragnarok. A great evil is dawning, a great good rises to fight it, and the loss of those champions would see the very stones and air become our enemies and the seas rise up to drown us.”

Josie gasped, one hand going to her mouth. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even think of that.”

“You no doubt thought it a tale for children,” Frigga allowed. “Most would, even on Asgard, but it is no tale. And also no truth we should tell, lest it come to the wrong ears and all be lost.” She considered for a moment, then put her palms flat against the polished tabletop. “Asgard pledges full alliance with the Avengers Initiative,” she declared formally, making both of her sons jump. They sat back down when she did, though, and although the looks passing between the two of them spoke volumes they both kept their mouths shut. Frigga folded her hands in front of her again. “Now, we have plans to make. I shall search the archives when I return home to see if there exists any information on truth-hearers which may be of help to Lady Josie. And I respect your honesty in correcting me, Tony Stark,” she allowed with a nod. “Pride is not only the failing of my sons and my husband. I will meet this demon cat, and consent to a strategic retreat if a threat appears which warrants it.”

Loki visibly relaxed, as did Thor, and Clay hid a smile; whatever their other differences, the two brothers were apparently on the same page when it came to their mother’s safety. Tony nodded. “We can introduce you to Blue today, and once our other two methods of transport are on-line we’ll make those arrangements as well. Lord Loki, do we need to include you in that?”

Loki shook his head. “If someone tries to capture ‘Odin’, they’ll expect him to stand and fight - if Mother and I both disappear that would tip our hand, especially as it might send them down into the cells thinking to find an imprisoned prince to use as a hostage instead.” He saw the raised eyebrows and smiled. “Yes, I am anticipating that any who try to attack us will be that stupid - if they were not they wouldn’t try to attack Asgard at all, because they would know that we are a warrior culture and to meet us on our own ground is a suicidally stupid plan.”

That made Thor frown. “I did see it happen, though, in the dream. Which means that in some other version of Asgard it has happened.”

His brother steepled his fingers in front of him, also frowning. “Do you remember how it started?” Thor shook his head. “It is possible there could be a weakness in our defenses - not likely, but possible. I’ll go over them again with Heimdall when we return home, and perhaps ask Lady Sif to assist him - she almost came to blows with Volstagg the other day, it would probably be for the best if she were too occupied with other matters to become that annoyed with him again.”     

“I will speak with him the next time I have a chance,” Thor promised with a sigh. “Or you may send him down to Midgard for a time - we have much work to do, I can keep him occupied and perhaps make him see his error.”

Loki was nodding. “That would actually be a good plan. We can send him down with Hogun, and Fandral can help Sif and Heimdall. That way you will also have a guard for Lady Jane.”

Jane was surprised by this. “I need…why would I need a guard?”

“Because if someone is going after Asgard, their prince’s girlfriend would look like a nice easy target,” Clay told her. “Not to mention there are also people here - Skrulls included - who might decide your security clearance with SHIELD would make you worth getting hold of. We’ve had Amanda’s security-camera program watching you the same way we’ve had it watching Josie, just in case.”

Jane huffed, and Josie rolled her eyes. “Oh please, like you didn’t already have cameras on you at work everywhere but the bathroom?” she challenged. “If I’m not complaining, you don’t get to. And if you want to be more in control of that situation, get someone to teach you self defense.” She cocked an eyebrow at Thor. “Hogun could probably do that, couldn’t he?”

Thor opened his mouth…and then closed it again, and after a moment’s thought he nodded. “Yes, that would be well. If Jane is in agreement, of course.”

He said it the way a man does who has learned the hard way to ask instead of telling, and Jane acknowledged that with a small smile. “I’d agree to that,” she said slowly. “I remember Hogun, he’s the quiet one.”

“He is, yes,” Frigga confirmed. “Still waters run deep, as they say. He is of the Vanir, a proud and peaceful race. Some call him grim, but he is a good man and kind in his way, although his sense of humor can be…sharp.”

Loki appeared to think of something. “Tony Stark, my apologies; we should ask your permission before sending down a warrior such as Volstagg.” Thor looked like he wanted to take offense at that, but his brother - and his mother - both gave him a look and he closed his mouth again. “Volstagg is also a good man, and a great warrior,” Loki continued. “But he has…an affliction, shall we say. His appetite is superhuman, even by Asgardian standards.”

Tony considered that, then nodded. “That’s fine, we can accommodate him. In fact, we may have something that could help him with that. Some of our athletes here on Earth need more protein than they can take in by eating regular food, so we’ve developed protein supplements in a variety of forms that they can use to make up the difference, so to speak. Captain Rogers uses them sometimes, and so does Thor.”

Thor nodded. “I do, as meat can be quite costly on Midgard. It is…odd, to be as satisfied by a small glass as by a serving of roast boar, but I believe the substance I use might be to Volstagg’s liking. And if it is not, there are many other varieties for him to choose from.”

“And if those don’t work well enough, we can ask Dr. Richards about creating one that will,” Stephen added. “Or I could possibly find a source elsewhere. Do you know why his appetite is so large?”

Frigga shook her head. “As Loki says, it is unusual even for a man of Asgard, and it is often quite troubling to Volstagg as well. Those who do not know him are wont to perceive his seeming excesses as mere gluttony, and he fears that his children may also develop this affliction and be unfairly judged by it as well.”

Tony’s eyebrows went up. “Wait, he’s married? Is he going to want to come down here while his family stays up there?”

Loki snickered. “His wife won’t mind, believe me. Food isn’t the only one of his appetites that tends to be a bit…outsized.”

“Loki!”

This time, however, Thor was also snickering. “Mother, it is true. Do not worry, Tony Stark; Lady Svanhildr will not be upset by his absence as a Midgardian wife would. Indeed, if he is become so annoying as to provoke Sif into attacking him, his wife is doubtless ready to push him off the Bifrost.”

“As long as you’re sure,” Tony allowed. He folded his hands on the table much the way Frigga had. “All right, so that’s settled. Now what other plans do we need to make? I’m thinking working out a more secure method of communication would be a good idea…”

 

They spent a few more hours going over different situations which might occur, including a very intense conversation between Stephen and Loki about whether or not Thanos might be able to find and release the Scarlet Witch from her prison in the Netherworld and what could be done to stop her if she attacked them again. They also had lunch, and Frigga liked the wine so much that Tony had someone bring up two more bottles for her to take back to Asgard as she and Loki were getting ready to depart. “It was a great pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty,” he told her. “I hope the next time we see you many of these problems will have been solved, and we can enjoy a more social visit.” 

“I hope so as well,” she told him. “Someday, when it is safe, I should like to show you and your lady the hospitality of Asgard.”

“Pepper would love that,” he agreed. “She’s never been off-planet before.”

Loki had resumed his illusion, and he raised his visible eyebrow when he saw the way Josie was looking at him. “No, I really did deserve my punishment. Don’t feel sorry for me.”

Josie shook her head. “I don’t, not really - you made your own decisions. But I do respect your strength of will, and your love for your mother.” She cocked her head. “May I see your other form?”

Loki-as-Odin looked taken aback for a moment, and then he sighed. “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m probably all but screaming it to your ears, aren’t I?” He concentrated for a moment…and then what looked like another illusory change ate its way across his skin, turning it a deep blue etched with white. His hair was white as well, as were his eyes. “The other half of my heritage,” he offered simply, ignoring his brother’s horrified gasp. “One of my birth parents was a Frost Giant. I found out in, shall we say, a most inopportune way.”

Josie took in his changed appearance, then sighed herself. “That…is just not fair,” she said. “Is it just an Asgardian thing, that you’re all beautiful no matter what?”

Loki actually started…and then he laughed and resumed the appearance of his adoptive father, the King of Asgard. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Asgardian genetics do favor symmetry,” he confirmed. “And if I were the type of god who could give a blessing, my lady, you’d have one for that little gift of honesty. Captain Rogers…” he held out his hand, and Steve took it. “You may be the bravest man I’ve ever met.”

Steve quirked a smile. “I think I’m probably one of the luckiest,” was his response. “No matter what I do, my wife is never going to have to ask me what the hell I was thinking.” ‘Odin’ laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Be careful,” the supersoldier said before releasing his hand. “I’m sure Thanos doesn’t let go easily.”

“At all, from what I understand,” was the reply. “One of the reasons I was quite content to stay in my cell, you know - it was designed to prevent magic from getting either in or out.” That made his brother frown, and he sighed. “Thor…be well, and be careful. Lady Jane is not the only pretty target which may draw the enemies of Asgard, nor am I the only prince they may think to try to capture.”

Thor seemed to consider that…and then he wrapped his ‘father’ in a warm embrace. “My brother, I have missed you. And I am sorry for my part in our differences. I hope you will also be well, and be careful.”

“I will do my best, as you will,” Loki told him. His visible eye was suspiciously shiny. “And for what it's worth…I am also sorry. You’re not the only son of Odin who has allowed his arrogance to override his sense.”

“An arrogant man raises sons with the same failing,” Frigga told them both. She too hugged Thor, and then Jane as well. “Child, if you really wish to keep this pretty but stubborn son of mine for your own, you have my blessing. We will speak of the traditions of Asgard with regard to such joinings when the situation of both our worlds is less precarious, and you will tell me of the traditions of Midgard also. Your mother is still living?” Jane nodded. “Then I will look forward to sharing the planning of the ceremonies with her. She approves of this joining?”

Jane had to smile. “She wants grandchildren.”

“As do we all,” Frigga assured her, which made her son turn quite a violent shade of red. “Please convey my good wishes to her.”

She took the snickering ‘Odin’s’ arm and they stepped back into the circle, and within seconds there was a flash of light and they were both gone. Steve slapped the still-blushing Thor on the shoulder. “Josie’s mom is already asking how many children we plan to have,” he told his friend. “At least your mother is willing to wait until after you’re married.”

“Todji’s mother seems to think I can make her one with magic,” Stephen chimed in. “So if you thought being gay gets you out of it, the answer is no, it doesn’t.”

“Thank god I don’t have to deal with that,” Tony said, loosening his tie. “Jarvis, how many times has Fury tried to call?”

“Five, sir.” A pause. “Now six. Do you wish to speak with him?”

“Sure.” They went down to the Avengers’ own conference room this time, leaving Stephen and Josie in the penthouse so Fury wouldn’t see them - not like he had any way of knowing either of them was there, thanks to their use of the Kitty Express. Tony plopped into his usual chair, smirking up at the scowling SHIELD director on the screen. “What? Nothing is attacking the city, I checked.”

Fury rolled his eye. “There were energy signatures from the top of the Tower indicating that someone either left for Asgard and came back or the other way around. What the hell are you doing over there?!”

“Talking to Thor’s parents about him marrying Dr. Foster,” Tony told him, and smiled a little more widely when the man spluttered. “Oh come on, he’s the crown prince of his planet, it’s not like they can run off to Vegas and do it in a drive-through with Elvis presiding. So, everyone’s blessing was obtained and some preliminary negotiations were completed. Oh, and we had a nice lunch, because I do know how to be a good host when VIPs are involved.”

Fury scowled. “And I wasn’t notified of these ‘negotiations’ why?”

Clay sat back in his chair, stretching out his legs. “Because they had nothing to do with you. Or with the government, if that’s what you’re working yourself up about. Dr. Foster works for you, you don’t own her.” Fury opened his mouth. “You’d better not be about to invoke her contract, because we have copies of it on file - if you turn up with a different one, the Botos are likely to come back to their old office to look into that.”

That got a sneer. “They’d be arrested for trespassing, then. And I won’t hire them back.”

“You didn’t hire them last time,” Clay reminded him. “Speaking of which, Clarke said to tell you to keep an eye on the new director you did hire, apparently she has a low tolerance for alcohol and…questionable taste in bedpartners.”

“Hey, do not insult Bucky that way,” Steve complained. “He just thought she was some corporate type out for a good time, he had no idea she worked for SHIELD until she started telling him aaall about it after a few drinks and…well, other things.”

Fury’s jaw set. “I’ll look into it. Now I want to know what you were talking about with the Asgardians.”

“Whether or not my mother was okay with me marrying Thor, and the possibility of grandchildren,” Jane told him. She didn’t stick out her tongue, but it was a near thing. “If you’re about to discriminate against me for considering starting a family…”

“…Then I have some lawyers who would love to talk to you,” Tony finished for her. “Now was that all you wanted? Because entertaining royalty who just happen to be gods is tiring and we had a big lunch, I want to go take a nap now.”

Fury huffed out a frustrated breath between clenched teeth. “Did they leave anything behind?”

“Yes,” Thor said. “Me.”

Dumbfounded, Tony decided, was an even better look on Fury than it had been on Loki.

Chapter Text

Blake was more than a little worried about his husband. So much had gone on, not just at the wedding some six weeks previous, but since. Elise was pushing them really hard on training, and even though he and Max and Josie all understood why, they were all still exhausted. They were also all suffering from varying degrees of PTSD, and on top of that Max was trying to adjust to living in the non-dream world with one eye - and hadn’t that caused some drama at work when he’d shown up at the office after the wedding wearing the patch - as well as trying to learn to live with powers he hadn’t had before that tended to slip out when he was overtired and stressed out from carrying a whole bunch of secrets he still couldn’t share with anybody.

Blake knew more than anyone else, of course, but even he didn’t know all of it. Not because Max didn’t want to tell him, but because it apparently wasn’t safe for him to know. For anyone to know. And so Blake would wake up in the middle of the night to find his husband crying into their cat’s glowing blue fur because he was just overwhelmed by it all. Blake didn’t blame his aunt for this, far from it; he’d talked to Josie, and she’d talked to him, and they knew how scared Elise really was. Fury’s watchers were already in L.A., had been before they’d gotten back from the wedding, even. The target had been painted and it was already drawing bad things into the area, things they weren’t prepared for because they just hadn’t had enough time to get there. And then there was the ‘corporate expansion’ on top of that, and the work they were trying to do to figure out where the Skrulls were…well, Elise was close to the breaking point.

They all were, honestly. And Blake knew it had to stop before someone got all the way there.

He also thought he knew how to make that happen. It was risky, yes, but it was going to have to be done.

So, he waited. Until someone had a protest, which he didn’t have to wait very long for because they were in L.A. and someone was always protesting something. And then he reserved a room in a by-the-hour hotel right by the protest, took his husband there and made him let it out. All of it. And Max was able to, because he knew he wasn’t going to be hurting anyone - giving the other couples in the hotel a little boost, maybe, but he wasn’t causing anything to happen that wasn’t already going to. And the overflow calmed down the protest, stopping it from getting violent.

Blake felt like he’d caught cooties from using the rent-by-the-hour room, but it was worth it to see his husband relax for the first time in weeks. And then they went home and Max ran a bath for them to share to get rid of the imaginary cooties, which was a lot of fun too. “You were holding it in too hard,” Blake told him while they were relaxing in the bubbles. “I think we all are.” His phone rang with the specific arrangement of chimes that meant Josie, and he picked it up. “You know I’m right,” he said.

Silence. Then, “Yes, I do. Elise is still going to kill you.”

“No killing,” Max said sleepily, nuzzling Blake’s hair. “Make love not war.”

More silence. “Oh shit. We already fucked up, didn’t we?”

“No, we let ourselves get scared because…because everything seems so urgent,” Blake told her. “It’s..it’s understandable. But it had to stop.”

“Oh, you stopped it.” He could hear her smile. “It’s probably the most interesting protest anyone has ever seen down there, they went from trying to tip over a car to holding hands and trying to sing a song. There was a lot of hugging, too, and a few of them banded together to pick up litter on the street. My guess is the news people will attribute it to drugs.”

“Or to the riot cops having a new secret weapon.” Blake snickered. “Maybe we should just start following the riot cops around, we could convince everyone that they have…have magical powers.”

That made Max laugh. “Then Stephen would kill us. But now that I can think a little more clearly…maybe we need to tackle training differently. I know we all need to work out, but everyone already said it: Our team is different.” He yawned. “I’m sorry if it seems like I’ve been avoiding you at work, Josie. I was trying not to ‘tell’ you things you aren’t supposed to know.”

“I know, it’s okay.” She yawned too. She’d been back and forth between L.A. and New York more than once lately, using her ‘talent’ to help the Avengers Initiative - which the Kestrels were considered a part of. “And I can’t ‘hear’ most of that part, so don’t worry about it. I can hear you, but not…that.”

“That’s a relief.” His phone dinged, but Blake had put it on the other side of the bathroom so he wouldn’t be able to get to it. “I bet that’s Elise.”

“Conferencing her in,” Blake said. “Fuck. No,” he told her when the call connected. “We’re comfortable and happily bliss…blissed out right now. We can have a meeting tomorrow, because I’ve been…I’ve been thinking, we’re going about this all wrong.”

Elise was quiet for a moment, but then she said, “You know, I think you’re right. Finding out the agents were already in place when we got back…he moved faster than I expected, it threw me. ”

“With good reason,” Josie told her. She yawned again. “Sorry. Max was yawning, it’s contagious.”

“We’re all tired,” Blake said. “Everyone, go to sleep. We all…we all need it.”

“We do,” Elise agreed. “Turning my phone off, because as soon as someone in New York sees the news we’re going to be getting calls.”

“I can make them sleepy and happy too,” Max said. He rubbed his eyes with one hand; the patch was on the other side of the room with his phone. “Blake, I love you. You’re so…so smart.”

Blake didn’t dare reply to that; he didn’t want Josie to hear what he was feeling. Although he thought she probably already knew.

Chapter Text

Elise was on her second bowl of ice cream when the shop’s owner strolled over to the door, locked it, turned the Closed sign, and then took a chair across from her. “Interesting riot we didn’t quite have last night.”

“It was, wasn’t it.” She swirled the top of the ice cream with her spoon. “I was pushing them too hard. My nephew decided that was the best way to…release the pressure.”

“Your nephew didn’t do that,” the man said bluntly. He had a moderately thick Eastern European accent. “Which means his husband did.”  She glared at him, and he rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, you know there aren’t any bugs in here except the ones I planted myself.”

This time she rolled her eyes at him. “I also know Drummer is only a slight improvement over his protege, and twice as bad as the man he ‘replaced’. Oh, and while I’m thinking of it: Clay knows where that body isn’t supposed to be buried if you ever need leverage.”

The older man smirked. “Clay had better be thankful SHIELD pissed all over that fancy tower before he got there, or he’d have already had Drummer in his face demanding favors.”

“Drummer would get his ass handed to him,” she observed. “The Botos moved in one floor down from the Avengers, and half of the Losers live there too. Fury can’t even get in now unless someone invites him.”

That made him laugh. “Like a vampire? He dresses like one.”

“He does.” She ate another bite of ice cream with a sigh. “I thought I was mostly out of the game, Trench. Helping you every once in a while and keeping up Blake’s training, that was it. But now…”

“Now we’re looking at a foothold situation leading up to the end of the world,” he finished for her. “And it’s all hands on deck.” He sat back in his chair, which creaked just a little - he’d lost some bulk as he got older, but he was still a big man. “Yin and I were retired too, you know. Even Barney knows he’s getting too old for this shit.” He snorted. “Luckily most of the people falling for SHIELD’s fake breadcrumb trail are stupid - the smart ones remembered Belinda and got as far away from L.A. as they could, word is they thought it was a setup to take them all out.”

“Thank god for small favors, anyway.” She ate another bite. “I called Blake last night, after I realized what must have happened at that riot, and he told me off,” she admitted. “I knew they needed to be trained differently, I even went head-to-head with Clay over it…and then we got back and Fury’s watchers were already in place and the trap was already set, and I panicked. Josie is nowhere near able to protect herself, even from the stupid ones. Blake is, of course, but Max…the minute he has to actually defend himself without a gun we’re in trouble, because that news is going to spread like wildfire. Oh, and did I mention that during the…incident six weeks ago, Blake was being mentored by the Winter Soldier?” He choked, and she raised her spoon to him. “That’s one bright spot, anyway. If Drummer tries to sneak up on Blake, he’s going to be joining Church.”

“Holy shit.” A smaller Asian man came out of the back, wiping his hands on his apron. “Did you hear that, Yin? The Winter Soldier was training Belinda’s son.”

“I heard. Hopefully Drummer will try to sneak up on him. I have spot all picked out to dig that hole.” Yin grabbed himself a brownie from the case and plopped down at the table with them, splitting the brownie with his partner. “I had an idea, while I was listening to you from the back,” he said. “You going about training all wrong. Your team is support, not ops. You not used to that, most of us were ops. So get Barney to come in and train you how to run support, and let Lee work with Belinda’s son.” He snorted. “Is about time he took some responsibility for that anyway.”

“It’s not like he knows,” Elise pointed out. “And Blake doesn’t either, for that matter.” She considered it, eating some more of her ice cream while the two retired mercenaries shared their brownie. Josie wouldn’t be able to tell that Lee Christmas was Blake’s father, because Lee didn’t know himself; Elise only knew because Belinda had told she and Allison just in case everything had gone to shit - which it almost had - and they’d needed a fallback guardian to protect Blake. And if it did come out…well, Blake already knew that his mother hadn’t told his father about him, so there wasn’t going to be any drama from his end. Lee might have some, but Barney could handle that. “I think it’s actually a good idea,” she finally said. “I’m too close anyway. If Barney pushes Max and Josie too hard, they’ll push back against him the way they won’t against me.”

“True,” Trench agreed. “How much training did the little redhead get during the incident?”

“No hand-to-hand, but she’s a dead shot now, just like Max. And watching her work with Captain Rogers to interrogate someone almost made Clay cry - they were that good, and that in sync as a team, he could tell they’d done it multiple times before.” She ate the last bite of ice cream, swirled her spoon through the dregs of chocolate in the bottom of the bowl. “She and Max and Blake all have a healthy dose of battle fatigue going, that was the other thing Blake was trying to get a handle on last night.”

“Again, something Barney knows how to handle,” Yin observed. “May be good for him to work with Blake too, sounds like the instincts to lead are there.”

“I never thought they would be,” she admitted. “I was wrong, though. He’d never be able to manage something like the Avengers, but a small team like ours…with a little more work, he’d be able to take over leading the Kestrels for me.”

“Good,” Trench told her. “Because the end of the world is coming, and none of us are getting any younger.”

Chapter Text

Lee Christmas was sitting in his usual spot at his usual bar, scowling into his beer. “Your face is gonna freeze that way,” his friend Barney Ross told him. “And then that’s it for those boyish good looks.”

Lee rolled his eyes. “I have a thirty-year-old son, Barney; the boyish good looks are all with him now.”

“He’s adorable,” Barney agreed, taking the nearest seat. “Cuter than you ever were.” He took a drink of his own beer. “He’s got a lot of his mother in him.”

“Yeah, and apparently I got just enough of me in her,” Lee shot back. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me.”

Barney shrugged. “I asked Elise about it, she said Belinda only ever told her and Allison. You were her backup plan, in case they all got taken out.” He took another drink. “Almost happened, too.”

“Yeah.” Lee had been on the track of Belinda’s killer himself at the time, but Elise and Allison had gotten there first. “Does that one bar still have the guy’s ear mounted on the wall?”

“Do you really care?” Barney raised an eyebrow at him. He was a muscular man with craggy features and hair that was still mostly black, and Chicago had at some point left an indelible mark on his gravelly voice - practically the exact opposite of his companion, who had smoother skin and a shaved head and whose accent was distinctly and rather disarmingly British. “She’s dead. Her son isn’t, and you’re his father. Not his dad,” he cautioned. “He’s never had a dad, he wouldn’t know what to do with that if you handed it to him. You can let him know that you know, though, and you can teach him what you know.” He chuckled. “Although you should probably stick to knife stuff and whatever the SAS taught you, because Barnes has already got the rest of it covered and a half.”

“The kid is near-lethal,” Lee agreed. “I guess he was all the way there during the incident, but as he puts it ‘the muscle he earned didn’t follow him back’.” He cast a sidelong look at his friend, raising an eyebrow of his own. “Speakin’ of which, I need to go pay someone a little visit. Hear he’s down in Inglewood, livin’ in a shithole. I know Blake messed him up pretty good, but that didn’t stop him tryin’ it again and that time Todji Wong stepped in to teach him a lesson. I can make that lesson stick.”

“Now that is a fatherly thing to do,” Barney approved. “Like the new son-in-law, huh?”

Lee snorted. “It’d be pretty hard not to - most men don’t grin and compliment your technique when you knock them on their ass. If I didn’t know better I’d think he wasn’t taking it all seriously.”

“Yeah, but we know better.” Did they ever. Max wasn’t a brawler and never would be, but Elise had taught him to use his size- and weight-advantage to hold his own and a year in a war zone had taught him to defend himself first and ask questions after. One of the dumbasses had popped up during training one day, and Max had knocked him down and then done…something that left the idiot on his knees and in tears. ‘His mother would be very disappointed’ was the way Max had explained it. Barney and Lee had ended up dropping the idiot off at a random bar so he could drink it away and telling him to leave town the next day. The guy had tried to hug them, it had been kind of scary. “He still feels bad about usin’ his thing to protect himself, though, we need to work with him on that. Maybe figure out a way for him to do it that’s a little…gentler.”

That made Lee snort a laugh into his beer. “Yeah, some finesse would probably help. Right now I think he’s just kind of throwin’ it out there. It works, but he can do better.” A smirk. “Never thought we’d be trainin’ superheroes.”

“We’ve just got the regular heroes, the support team,” Barney disagreed. “Elise said we’ll have Josie’s fiancé out here to play with next week, though.”

That got Lee’s head up. “Really?”

Barney nodded. “Really. Maybe you can teach him some knife tricks too - since you won’t have time to show him the right way to land a plane.”

This time the laugh was more relaxed, and Barney smiled. It would throw any man to suddenly find out he had a son, but suddenly realizing it a few weeks into training with the man who happens to be that son was a pretty rough landing. Honestly, Barney had been pretty well thrown by it too. They’d all known Blake existed, of course, but nobody had ever thought to do the math to try to figure out whose kid he was. Except for Yin, apparently, and he’d kept it mostly to himself, probably out of respect for Belinda. They’d all had a lot of respect for Belinda.

Which was why pieces of the asshole who’d killed her were on display all over the planet, of course. Maybe someday they should take Blake around to all those places, show him how much his mother had meant to everyone.

Starting with that one bar where Lee Christmas had used his favorite knife to pin the guy’s ear to the wall.

Chapter Text

Martin was at the bar he liked, having his post-workout beer, when someone came in who made a lot of the bar go kind of quiet. He kept his head down. He’d learned, in jail, that anyone bad enough to make people spontaneously shut up was not someone he should make eye contact with. So he applied himself to his beer, cursing internally when whoever it was came up to the bar. Martin glanced up at the bartender, a no-nonsense middle-aged guy, and saw him swallow. “Hey, Mr…Mr. Christmas. What brings you down to our neck of the woods?”

Christmas? The badass’s name was Christmas? “Had a message I needed to deliver to someone in person,” the man apparently named after a holiday said in an inexplicably British accent. “Don’t worry, this won’t take long.” And then he sat down on the stool right next to Martin. “Will it, Martin?”

Martin almost choked on his beer. He looked up, and saw an older bald man with pale blue eyes looking back at him. “I…do I know you?”

“Nope,” the man called Christmas told him. “If you knew me, you’d already be out of town. I hear the Midwest is nice - less concerned with bein’ pretty than they are here.” He folded his hands on the scuffed bar top. “So, are we out of the tire iron business, Martin?” Martin swallowed and nodded. “How about the billy club business, have we gotten out of that one too?”

Martin blinked. “Which one of them sent you?”

“Them?” the man repeated. “Oh, there’s no ‘them’, Martin - there’s just me. And you. And a little discussion we need to have about how much of a chickenshit coward you are. Because see, I know your old cellmate Harry. And Harry tells me that when you start shootin’ off your mouth after you’ve had a few, you’ve still got a real hard-on for goin’ after Max Tegan - you know, the civvie you attacked with the tire iron because you were pissed at your boss. Harry didn’t think much of that. I don’t either.”

“What do you…”

“Want?” The man called Mr. Christmas smiled. “I wanted to talk to you, Martin. We needed to have this talk, from what Harry says, because one of the things he says is that you aren’t all that smart - you’re one of those people who just keeps makin’ the same mistakes over and over again.” He appeared to consider for a moment, then shook his head. “Yeah, I can only think of two ways to fix that. One would be I take you out behind the bar and kick your ass. That way would be personally satisfying to me, but I’m not sure you’d learn anything from it in the long run so it might be a waste of my time. Because I’d probably have to come back and do it, what, once a month?” He shook his head. “I don’t like wastin’ my time, so that’s no good. Now the other way lets you go out like a smart man, so I’d be doin’ you a favor by lettin’ you pick that one. I’m not sure I want to do you a favor, though, Martin. Because, you know, you’re a chickenshit coward who blindsided a civvie in a parking lot with a tire iron because your boss was mad at you. Probably because you knew if you’d gone after her she’d have handed you your ass in a sack.” The bartender raised an eyebrow, and Christmas nodded at him. “That would be Gomez, the one who retired downtown? Martin here…displeased her.”

The man’s eyes widened. “He stayed in her territory after that?”

“He even went back for seconds - and that time Todji Wong caught him.” Christmas nodded again when the man swallowed. “Yeah. They’re all workin’ together again now, by the way - not sure exactly what the hell has been goin’ on, but whatever it is…it’s bad.”

“Bad…”

“The Badgers are now the Botos, and they’re active again.”

“Shit.” The bartender looked at Martin, shook his head. “He’s a dumbass, Mr. Christmas - he sits here and trash-talks his old boss and that Tegan guy, I had no idea…”

“He don’t either, from what I understand,” Christmas told him. “Tegan's married to Belinda's son." That got a gasp, and he nodded. "Yeah. Oh, and Gomez hooked up with Clay again about two months ago, too, so that’s also the Losers in it. We for damn sure don’t want them out here, they’re messy.”

“Holy shit yeah they’re messy.” The bartender wiped a nervous hand down his face. “There’ve been some stories…”

Christmas shook his head. “Just keep your head down and your eyes open, that’s all I’m goin’ to say. This is higher-level bad shit, from what I understand - whoever’s doin’ it, they tried to take out the Avengers and all the other supers all in one night and almost made it, they even damn near killed the Sorcerer Supreme.”

“Holy crap. So the Expendables…?”

“We’re here if shit goes down, you know that. So far it’s just little shit. If you hear about anything that sounds like it might be big shit brewing, though, call Ross as fast as you can - spread the word on that, too.” He fished a card out of his pocket, putting it face-down on the bar, then returned his attention to Martin. “Now, where were we? Oh yeah, I was about to offer you option number two. I really don’t want to, but since I don’t wanna annoy myself by trackin’ you down every month, here it is: You forget about Tegan and Gomez and all your pitiful little revenge plans, and you go live your life someplace else. That’s not too hard, right? You just get out and stay out, and I will forget you like yesterday’s shit. Think you can do that?”

Martin swallowed. “I’m…I can’t move, I’m on parole.”

“Oh, your parole office will be happy to transfer your chickenshit ass to another jurisdiction,” Christmas told him. “You just tell him the truth, that you bein’ stupid again got you into trouble and you think you’d be safer someplace else.” He stood back up. “Pick a nice place, since you’re gonna be stayin’ there for a while. Like I already said, I hear the Midwest is good - lower cost of living, too. I’m givin’ you a month to get your shit squared away and get out, Martin, and if you’re still in L.A. thirty-one days from now I am going to come find you. And once I find you, I am going to beat the shit out of you and then put you on a bus, and the first shithole town you land on is gonna be your new home. But I’m pretty sure you’ll be gone in a month, won’t you? Because if you aren’t, I’m gonna be annoyed. And if I’m annoyed and I have to come find you, you’re going to think that beat-down you got from the vigilante downtown was a friendly wrestling match on your mama’s lawn. We understand each other?” Martin managed a nod. “Good. I don’t ever want to see you again. Try to make better choices in your new life.”

Martin watched him walk out, then picked up his beer and drained the rest of it. When he pushed it forward to request a refill, however, the bartender took it and put it down behind the bar. “No,” the man said. “Get out, don’t come back. You aren’t welcome in this establishment.”

His hand was still under the bar, which was also where the baseball bat was kept, so Martin stood up. He was getting a lot of sideways looks from the other patrons, people who had always ignored him before. He was kind of wishing they still were, because the looks weren’t friendly in the least. “Who was that guy?”

“Santa Clause,” the bartender told him. “And he just let everyone know you’re on the naughty list.”

 

Thirty-three days later, Martin woke up on a dirty bus. He knew it was dirty because he could smell it, a stomach-churning miasma of burning oil, sweat, piss, and cigarette smoke compounded into almost physical presence by the stuffy heat. That was what had woken him up, in fact - someone had opened the door, and the fresh air had all but slapped him in the face. He straightened up in his seat slowly. His entire body hurt, one of his eyes was swollen almost shut, and his clothes were dirty and torn. There was a ratty-looking knapsack in his lap, looped around one arm so it wouldn’t fall off, and a bus ticket was pinned to the front of his shirt the way you’d pin field-trip money to a schoolchild. “Whu?”

Holy shit, was he missing teeth? The bus driver had already turned halfway around, though, and he looked annoyed, so Martin didn’t have a chance to figure out just how many teeth he might be missing. “This is your stop, scumbag. Get your piss-soaked crackhead ass off my fucking bus.”

It took Martin two tries to get up out of his seat, and then he staggered to the open door and looked out. “This is the middle of fucking nowhere!”

“Yeah, well, this is where your ticket says you belong, so welcome home. Now get off before I shove you off.”

Martin considered refusing, but another look at the driver convinced him not to. The guy was huge, and bulging with so much muscle that the buttons on his sweat-streaked uniform shirt were straining to contain his chest. He was also an older guy and kind of rough-looking, so he probably wouldn’t hesitate to remove what he thought was a crackhead from his bus by any means necessary. “Where am I?”

“Get off and I’ll tell you.” Martin stepped down, and the guy chuckled. His makeshift nametag said T. Road, which was a pretty ironic name for a bus driver. “Kansas, Dorothy, you’re in Kansas. Have a nice life.” And then the folding doors slammed shut and the bus lurched into motion, throwing up a cloud of dust that made Martin choke.

Once it cleared, he found himself looking across the two-lane road at a dilapidated gas station and a few other equally run-down, dusty buildings strung out in front of a seemingly endless swath of yellow-brown fields. An older, bearded man in a tan uniform came striding out of one of the buildings, walking straight across the road and right up to Martin…and then he held out his hand. But when Martin tried to put his own hand out, the man scowled at him, shaking his head. “Your paperwork,” he ordered crisply. “I’m Sheriff Booker…your new parole officer. If you straighten up and fly right, maybe I’ll eventually welcome you to town.”

Martin found his papers in his pocket and handed them over. “What…what town is this?” The man gave him a sharp look, and he swallowed. “Sir?”

“Lone Wolf, Kansas.” The sheriff finished perusing the papers, then folded them back up and tucked them into his own pocket; a jerk of his head told Martin to follow him, and he turned and walked back across the road. A long brown snake started to cross at the same time, tail making a rattling noise, but when Booker got close it slithered off in the opposite direction as fast as it could go; Booker didn’t even seem to notice. “Your previous parole officer says you have a problem with impulse control, Martin,” he called back over his shoulder. “And apparently not following directions, too. I can fix that.”

Martin swallowed again and hurried to catch up, clutching the knapsack that he didn’t recognize but which was apparently his. He was really wishing he’d taken being on Santa’s naughty list a little more seriously…