THE WIND WHISTLED AROUND THE HEAVY POLYMER SHEETS that encased the scaffolding that made up the corridors of the SHIELD base several miles outside the small town of Puente Antiguo, New Mexico. The makeshift complex looked as if it had been taken from the set of the movie E.T.. In reality, that wasn't much of a stretch; those who called the base home, albeit temporarily, would have fit right in studying beings from another planet. After all, that was part of the job for the agents who made up SHIELD.
Josiah Sanchez desperately wanted to be one of those agents. While he had been taken on as a member of Team 7, he had a lot of proving to do before he would qualify as an agent. Now, he worked on his first assignment: hacking into the laptop that belonged to a man that was being held in one of the secured rooms in the center of the base. The encryption was top rate, but he bet he could break it.
Meanwhile, the man in question sat at the small table in his holding cell, shuffling a deck of cards one handed, over and over. Outwardly, Ezra Standish was calm, but mentally, he was railing against his captivity, storming around the confines of the room. It was hard to tell the passage of time in the windowless holding cell, a standard interrogation technique, but he believed he'd been here nearly sixteen hours. In those hours, he'd been questioned four times; questioned, not interrogated. Ezra knew the difference. He'd been fed, the food, thank God, better than what he'd had to bear at the penitentiary for more than three years, and he'd had access to a shower and sanitary facilities. However, he knew that could all be taken away in a second if it suited his captors.
One of those captors, Agent Vin Tanner, watched Standish via the CCTV feed on a monitor in the control room, his booted feet propped up on the counter. Each time he'd questioned Standish, the man had stuck to his story: he'd just been buying Darcy Lewis a drink, he didn't know why his grandfather's ring bore markings like those found at the Bifröst site, or what a Bifröst even was, that this was all a huge misunderstanding.
Vin had to admire the guy's composure. He'd only caught a glimmer of the trapped look in Standish's eyes, when Vin had confronted him about the ring, before it was quickly marshalled. He would bet a year's pay that Standish had a story to tell. The question was, would he make getting that story easy or hard?
VIN SLID THE TABLET ACROSS THE DESK TO CHRIS. "Standish's background check."
Pulling the tablet to him, Chris asked, "Anything interesting?"
"I think so." Chris motioned him to continue. "Ezra Preston Standish, born in 1979 to Maude and Preston Standish, in Charleston South Carolina. Father died in 1983 of cancer. Preston Standish checks out, and his family, all the way back to Reconstruction."
"Maude, her we can't verify even exists. Oh, the records we did find, they'd pass a cursory check, but not ours."
Chris sat up straighter. "Forgeries?"
"Seems like. Very good ones."
"There's something else," Chris stated, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Used her driver's license photo, ran it through facial recognition." He stopped, a smile tugging at his lips.
"Damnit, Tanner, just tell me!"
He jutted his chin towards the tablet. "Next page."
Chris slid to the next screen. There were two photos, side by side, one from Maude Standish's driver's license, and the other, an old sepia tinted photograph. The sepia photo had a notation under it, Magdala Linde, on the occasion of her wedding, 1876. He looked at Tanner, who was the epitome of the cat that ate the canary.
"Next page," he repeated, practically smirking.
Glaring, Chris did as instructed. He knew there was no dealing with Tanner when he was in this mood. This screen held the two photos from the previous page, plus one more. This was a passport photo, circa 1928, identified as Matilde Linde. "You trying to tell me these are all the same woman?"
"No—" he paused for effect "—but the computer is." Now he was grinning broadly. "Wanna take a guess as to what Standish's mom's maiden name is?"
"No," Chris snapped.
Vin shrugged, still grinning like a fool.
"It's going to take a lot more than some computer algorithm to convince me that Maude Standish may be nearly two hundred years old."
Vin nodded in agreement. "Sure will—but it's a place to start."
VIN SET A CUP OF COFFEE ON THE TABLE IN FRONT OF STANDISH, sitting down in the chair across from him. "You ever do anything with those cards but shuffle 'em?"
"On occasion," he drawled, sitting back in his chair.
"How 'bout we play a few hands?"
"Alas, you find me with nothing to wager."
Reaching into his pocket, Vin pulled out a small bag, tossing it to Standish. "How's that?"
"Reese's Pieces?" Standish looked bemused.
"Have a fondness for them," Vin admitted. "Always have a bag on me. Other guys give me hell about it." He grinned broadly. "Don't know what they're missing."
Standish sat up straight. "If you're the good cop, I can assume Agent Larabee will be arriving shortly to play his role as the bad cop."
Vin laughed. "Ain't no role, Standish. Larabee comes by it naturally."
"Indeed." He looked at Vin speculatively. "You are quite the strangest candidate for a shadowy government agency."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Just how did you end up in your present occupation?"
Shrugging, he said, "Joined the Marines, did a few tours in Afghanistan, ended up here."
"Your mother must be so proud," Standish said acerbically.
"Hope she would be proud." The smile was gone. "My ma died when I was seven, my dad was never in the picture."
Regret flashed in Standish's eyes for just a moment. "I'm sorry."
"You didn't know." He waved away the apology.
"My father died when I was four—but you'd know that, wouldn't you?—I barely remember him."
"What about your mom? She proud of you?"
Standish laughed, but it was as full of bitterness. "My mother…." He shook his head. "Let's just say that 'proud' isn't in Maude's dictionary."
"That's rough," he said sympathetically. "My ma died, but I was lucky, ended up in a great foster family when I was twelve. My foster mom's dad was Navajo, he taught me how to hunt, track, live off the land. Gave me the skills that got me into Special Ops, and eventually, to where I am now." He smiled softly, remembering his family, then gave himself a mental shake. "How about we play some poker?"
"SANCHEZ DID SOME GOOD WORK," Buck said approvingly to Chris. "Guess we'll see if we can't shake some apples from the tree with what he found on Standish's laptop."
Chris nodded as he finished reading the report their new teammate had prepared. "You think Standish might be a hostile?"
Shaking his head slowly, Buck replied, "My gut says no, but he's sure as hell hiding something."
"Your gut? I'm sure that will reassure Agent Hand," Chris said dryly of the highest-ranking agent in their section, and their direct report.
Buck smiled serenely. "Victoria is a great admirer of ol'Buckling and his gut—not to mention other fine qualities I possess." The last said with more than a touch of smugness.
Chris and Vin mouthed, "Victoria?" shaking their heads.
"And just when did you and Agent Hand end up on a first name basis?" Chris enquired of his second in command.
"We were paired up at that laser weaponry training course at the Sandbox a few months back. Had a real good time; she's one hell of an agent," Buck said admiringly. "And a mighty fine woman to boot."
"Can't send him anywhere," Vin said with a chuckle.
"Apparently not," Chris agreed.
Buck grinned, twisting the end of his moustache.
Getting back to the subject at hand, Vin said, "I agree with Buck. There's more to Standish than meets the eye."
Chris pondered for a moment, and then nodded sharply, coming to a decision. "Tanner, you've developed a relationship with him. See if you can get some answers by playing nice."
"Will do," Vin said with a tip of an imaginary hat as he left Larabee's office.
"Think he can get Standish to talk?" Buck asked.
"Standish better hope to hell he does, because he won't like the alternative."
"YOU VISIT SOME INTERESTING WEBSITES," Vin began conversationally. "Rising Tide, conspiracy sites, wherever the nuts are, seems like."
"It is not illegal," he protested.
"Nope, it's not, but some might say that what you do with the information you find there just might be."
Ezra just stared at Vin mutely.
"You have a real interest in history too. Don't tell me—you're in a Viking reenactment group." Vin grinned.
"Very droll, Agent Tanner."
"Though that might explain the photos you have saved. Not to mention your pick-up lines." Despite their best efforts, SHIELD hadn't been able to contain all material posted to the internet related to the Thor incident. Cellphone cameras were the bane of top-secret organizations everywhere. There were photos of Mjölnir in the desert, before agents had arrived to cordon off the area, of the fires and explosions caused by the Destroyer, and even, much to the chagrin of SHIELD, photos of Thor himself.
"Come on, Ezra, give me something here. What made you skip out on your parole to snoop around the New Mexico desert based on information you read on some crazy website?"
"I haven't done anything illegal," he repeated, his voice tight.
"I think the authorities back in Cheyenne would disagree with that."
Jaw set, he clenched his fists. "I had hoped to return before my absence was noted. Something, thanks you and your associates, I am now unable to accomplish."
Vin sighed, leaning forward, palms up. "Listen to me, Ezra, one way or the other, you are going to tell us what we want to know. I like you; you seem like a guy who's had some rough breaks. But you don't talk to me now, I'm telling you, it doesn't get better from here."
Running a hand through his hair, Ezra shook his head slightly. "You will never believe me."
Ezra looked like he was preparing to step off the edge of a cliff, and he took a deep breath, exhaling slowly before beginning to speak. "There is a story, one I first heard from my mother when I was a small child. A story about a place called Asgard, home of the Aesir, the gods. Except these gods, they were not myths, and Asgard was another planet. That in fact, many centuries ago, our ancestor was exiled from Asgard by Odin, the king, exiled here to our planet, which they call Midgard, doomed to live out life as a mortal, stripped of his powers. Mother would always end the story with the admonition that I must always remember the wrong done to our family, and that one day, we would find a way to return to our home, vindicated."