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Lingua Fracta

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***

Clint considered the decrepit cabin’s sagging, weathervane-encrusted roof line and said, "I'm pretty sure this is the weirdest anything we've been sent to yet."

In his ear piece, Rhodes replied, "That spaceship buried in the Rockies was pretty weird.”

“Yeah but you can’t compare E.T.-weird to Earth-weird. It’s a different scale. Apples and oranges.”

“Apples and oranges are both fruit.”

Clint snorted and resumed picking his way through a collection of raised garden beds. To go by the thick mat of withered and decaying plants, they’d probably been quite productive at one point. Now, only stems of rusted rebar bearing overturned glass bottles of numerous shapes, sizes, and colors (brown, gold, blue, green) sprouted from the ground.

Rhodes and Stark were working on one of the more functional-looking satellite dishes in the small array corralled along the south side of the structure. Clint was ostensibly checking the perimeter, though in truth it was quiet and there seemed to be nothing of interest. (Even the graveyard of decomposing machinery—cars, tractors, motorcycles, a combine—was thoroughly mundane, contrary to every movie he’d ever seen with one.) Thor, Natasha, and Wilson had the dubious honor of poking around inside, but hadn’t reported anything special.

"By ‘weird’ I assume you two mean ‘amazing’,” Stark said. “That ship had an actual, probably-at-one-point functional hyperdrive."

Natasha’s audio feed hissed and buzzed as she joined the conversation. "Which you wanted to get working again by bloodletting Thor.”

“Splice that one," Rhodes said.

“Got it.” After a pause, Stark continued. “His blood plasma has compounds in it the machinery needs that I won’t be able to replicate without years of research. Also, let the record show I was not going to blood let him. I just needed a small donation."

Clint could hear Natasha’s dry tone despite the interference. "Ten liters small.”

Stark sniffed. "It was for interstellar travel. There is no worthier cause."

“I can think of a few.”

The conversation meandered on, and Clint half-listened while finishing his survey of the cabin’s grounds. Stands of white-barked trees (aspen? birch?) formed the hideaway’s borders, and some sort of big, purple and red bush with fluffy bits was doing a fantastic job of concealing the dirt and gravel road that wound south to the interstate. To the north and west, dry, long-needled pines swayed in summer winds under a thunderhead-strewn sky. (Thor had offered to send the clouds off, but Rhodes said to leave them; he didn't like Thor messing with the weather unless it was absolutely necessary.) The flowers which had laid claim to the unkempt yard were a battlefield for bickering hummingbirds as they rocketed back and forth, and huge, black ravens observed the goings-on from high perches. One had been brave enough to land on the Quinjet after their arrival; it now studied Rhodes and Stark with a shrewd, dark eye. Clint made a face at it, and it croaked in response.

He started to pay attention to Stark and Natasha again. Natasha was saying, "...rather wait for Dr. Foster to finish her wormhole machine."

Stark sighed. "Always the limited vision with you guys. How exactly do you expect us to get around in space on the other side of a wormhole?"

Finally.”

Rhodes’ exclamation signaled an end to the discussion. There was a long stretch of silence, then Stark said, “Looks like this is where the feed was going to. Really not a half-bad job for custom mountain-cabin-hippy work.”

“Probably was a nice array when it was all functioning. I wonder what else they were using it to pick up.” Clint came around the corner of the house and saw Rhodes nudge a small, three-foot-wide dish that had a third of its panels missing.

“Hey that terminal Natasha found just lit up,” Wilson said. His feed had the same faint interference hers did.

Stark and Rhodes made their way out of the array and towards the front of the house with Clint in tow. “Found their server room yet?” Stark asked.

Wilson sounded hesitant. “Not exactly.”

***

The building looked like it could barely handle two more people tromping around in it, much less a pair of Stark’s suits, so Rhodes remained outside while Stark went in with just his headset. This gave Rhodes an opportunity to relay everything they’d found so far to Rogers, Hill, and Banner back at the Tower.

Inside it was your average run-down cabin of cast-off furniture and marginally-maintained wood floors. Everything had a uniform coating of dust, thick enough to suggest at least a few weeks of abandonment; it kicked up now and again when someone moved, turning the late afternoon light coming in the windows into cloudy gold beams. Threadbare, indoor/outdoor rugs in dull colors muted their footsteps as they went between the bedrooms, bathroom, and great room. The olive drab kitchen appliances were probably older than anyone present (except Thor), and an eclectic art collection consisting of decorative tiles, stained glass panels, several styles of paintings, and mixed-media prints covered the walls.

Wilson and Natasha had found the only two real items of note: a modest computer terminal sitting on the kitchen table, and a narrow, crooked door with peeling blue paint and a chain latch hidden behind a Led Zeppelin wall-hanging. Now that Rhodes and Stark’s handiwork had enabled the terminal, Natasha was working at it, her fingers flying over the keyboard as she dug through the cabin’s network.

Stark took a moment to watch over her shoulder before approaching the door. He spent a few seconds examining it with his headset. “Not reading any security systems, just some faint electrical.”

“Not the server room then?” Wilson asked. Stark shrugged.

“Could be shielded. One way to find out.”

Clint shifted his stance; he saw Thor do the same out of the corner of his eye. Natasha straightened up from the terminal, wary. Wilson moved so he could flank anything that might emerge.

Stark was either oblivious to all of this or trusted them enough to not be concerned, because he didn’t even pause to check if they were ready before pulling off the latch and yanking the door open.

A breath of cold, dank air swept into the room. Nothing else happened. Light from the main floor illuminated the start of a staircase with a wrought-iron handrail bolted into the left wall, and a few feet down Clint could see the wood siding of the house gave way to cement.

Wilson said, “Cellar?”

“Maybe.” Stark leaned in, peering on either side of the door frame, and flipped something. A few uncertain seconds later a naked CFL sprang to life, bathing the subroom entrance in blue-white light. The stairs ran down to a landing, then continued from there to the right. From his position Clint couldn’t see what might be at the bottom.

Thor stepped forward, and everyone watched him as he moved. He stopped next to Stark and gazed down into the room, adjusting his grip on the hammer. “There is a strange sense about this place.”

Ho boy. “A smell?”

Thor moved back so Wilson could look in. “No. Something...else.”

Clint felt a flash of relief. He saw Natasha relax, and suspected they’d been harboring the same concern: bodies. “I say we let a probe investigate it,” he said.

Stark rolled his eyes and moved past Wilson onto the landing. It creaked, but not dangerously. “Please.” He paused there. “Still not reading any life signs or a significant amount of tech. A lot of interference, though. Rhodey are you getting this?”

“Yeah. My suit hasn’t pinned down a source.”

Stark squinted against something. “Jay, what’ve you got?”

“If we recalibrate the headset’s sensors, sir, we might be able to—”

“Do it.”

“Working on it now, sir.”

Wilson nodded at Clint and said, “Definitely should send a probe.”

“Or we can just go look.” Stark gestured at Thor and made down the steps. “Come on, Hamlet.”

Clint waited with Wilson at the doorway. Natasha went back to working on the terminal. “I think I know why we can’t find their server room,” she commented.

“Let me guess,” Stark said. His and Thor’s cautious steps echoed over the feed. “They’re using a data center somewhere.”

“Got it in one.”

Rhodes said, “Can you tell what data center?”

“Give me a few minutes. They were being careful about covering their tracks.”

“Okay, we’re here,” Stark said. Now even his feed had that same staticky whine. “No server room, no monsters, no corpses. Just...stuff. Oh, Thor just found a couple more terminals.” Something went click, and a series of CFLs flickered to life, bathing the room below the stairs in cold light. Around the landing, all Clint could see were the tops of furniture.

“Stuff?”

“Come down and look, it’s fine. Dusty and (elch) moldy in a few spots, but, fine.”

Natasha left off the terminal. “Sam, stay up here and keep an eye out,” she said, then gestured at Clint and went down the stairs.

Wilson gave Clint a sympathetic look. Clint sighed and followed her.

***

Stark’s idea of ‘stuff’ was even more general than Clint’s, but Clint put that down to Stark classifying anything not high-tech as ‘stuff’. At the very least, Clint would have specified that it was ‘random’ stuff.

There were bookcases, shelves, and tables everywhere, from your standard IKEA fare to cinder block and 2x4 hardware store specials to scarred and stained antiques. The bookcases were crammed full of enough books and journals to run a chain of book stores. Reams of notes and design schematics covered the tables, and scattered amongst the paper were half- to three-quarters-finished hardware projects and their progeny of spare parts. Varying-sized canning jars perched precariously on the shelves, containing all manner of objects: buttons, safety pins, twist-ties, rubber bands, various rocks, and also more practical hardware like screws, nuts, and bolts.

Clint wondered aloud, “Did these guys just never throw anything away?” He tugged a water-stained copy of War and Peace off a shelf. Some of the pages were bookmarked and dogeared, but he couldn’t tell why.

“Sure seems that way,” Natasha said. She’d settled in at the terminals, which had been hiding under a bedsheet (probably to keep dust off), and gone back to working with Rhodes on tracking down the occupants’ data center. “Some of this software’s almost as old as Stark.”

Stark ignored her. He was examining all the furniture against the walls and sections of the floor, probably searching for signs of any more hidden rooms. Thor had taken a great deal of interest in a collection of random knickknacks arranged on a sideboard table. A pair of tall, half-melted beeswax candles flanked several effigies made from cloth and straw, a dozen or so soapstone carvings, and a series of shallow dishes filled with dried plants and small rocks. A stained-glass wall-hanging depicting a complex knotwork of what Clint guessed might be animals in a jungle or forest hung over the table, reflecting the room in distorted colors and shapes.

Clint paused at the table as his path around the room brought him to it. “Found something?” he asked, and Thor looked askance at him before returning his attention to display. He tapped a smooth, black pebble in one of the dishes, holding himself like he expected something to happen, but nothing did.

Thor shook his head. “I do not think so. I thought perhaps I had sensed something earlier, but I must have been mistaken.”

Clint thought of the interference on their comms. “Like what?”

Stark’s voice interrupted whatever response Thor might have made. “Jackpot.” He thumped the top a large desk with one hand while pulling on an edge with another, and a secret drawer popped open. “What have we here...”

Rhodes, who had to be bored out of his skull by now, said, "Anything interesting?"

Stark made a disappointed face. "Just some sticks." Clint heard rattling as Stark shoved them about; judging by the sound there had to be a dozen. He took one out and held it up, though it wasn't really a 'stick' so much as a short baton. It was roughly a foot long, as thick as Clint’s thumb, and made of a purple-red wood, sanded and finished. A single, dark vein of something black wound along it in a spiral. One end was tapered and capped with a dark gray, metal tip.

Clint left Thor to his contemplation of the stained glass and approached the desk, and Stark tossed the wand to him. He caught it and ran his thumbnail along the black streak. The work was impressive, and seemed too perfect and dark to be a stain. Yet if it was two types of wood there was no evidence of a seam.

Clint turned it over in his hands. "Someone liked Harry Potter a little too much," he said with a smirk.

Joking or not, Rhodes apparently thought the idea had merit. “Have Thor take a look at it.”

Stark moved on to a large bureau, pulling open the drawers and rifling their contents. Clint went back to Thor, who was still poking at the items littering the table. “Hey, Thor. Any idea what this might be?”

Clint offered the stick, and Thor reached for it with his free hand before turning to look at what Clint was handing him. Then his eyes landed on the wand, and he made to jerk his hand back.

Not, apparently, anywhere near fast enough.

The blast was all force and light, with no heat and little sound; it blinded Clint at the same moment it threw him. He felt himself fly several feet before connecting with something hard and unmoving. The universe seemed to spin around him, and then he landed on a stable surface which was blessedly still. There was noise in his head, maybe people talking in the earpiece or maybe his brain trying to sort itself; he couldn’t be sure.

The smell of dusty concrete told him he was on the floor. He clung to it and informed himself that he would not be throwing up, no, he just wouldn’t. Shortly there was a hand under his arm helping him sit up against the wall, and Natasha’s voice said, “You alright?”

“As long as I don’t throw up.” He took a few steadying breathes and waited for the static in his head to subside. He felt Natasha check him over, quickly and efficiently, and wondered at his luck that nothing seemed to be broken and that his head hadn’t struck anything. “What about you?” he asked.

“I was under the table checking out their wiring. All I saw was a flash.”

“That’s not fair. I call dibs on crawling under the furniture next time.” Clint rubbed at his eyes. The room was carved in sharp, black shadows cast by the furniture between brilliant flashes of white and blue.

Rhodes’ voice buzzed in Clint’s commlink. “Are you guys okay in there? I just got a big reading.”

At nearly the same time there was thumping overhead, and from the top of the steps Wilson called out, “Hey, what was that? The whole cabin just shook.”

"Yeah. What, the hell, was that," Stark ground out. He shoved a dresser drawer off himself and climbed to his feet with the help of a table. He was disheveled but otherwise looked unharmed, and eyed the wand as he dusted himself off. It had landed in on open space on the floor, and showed no outward signs of having just exploded.

Natasha said, “Not sure. Stark found some sticks, and one of them—detonated somehow. We’re fine. I think.”

“You think?” Wilson echoed.

When Clint’s vision fully cleared he could see the reason for Natasha’s hesitation. Thor had been slammed into the altar and stained glass, hard enough to smash both and leave a depression in the wall with cracks that radiated out several feet. Shards of glass and crushed bits of the table and its former contents littered the floor around him, and he was gripping his head with his free hand. Lightning coiled along the hammer and partway up his arm.

“You okay?” Natasha asked him. Thor shook his head and blinked, then scowled at the wand where it lay on the ground. He gestured with his hammer and said something—and Clint had to replay it in his mind a half-dozen times before he realized he couldn’t understand a word of it.

“Come again?” Stark said. Thor looked up from the wand and stared at Stark. He repeated what he’d said, to judge by the cadence and sound, but Clint still couldn’t recognize any of the words.

Stark looked from Natasha to Clint. “I’m not the only one hearing this, right?”

“No,” Natasha said, then gestured at his hammer. “Can you—”

Thor tracked the motion of Natasha’s hand. After a notable pause he nodded, and the lightning dissipated, leaving them with the wane glow of the overhead CFLs. He said something, and again, it wasn’t anything Clint could parse.

He braced himself against the wall and struggled to his feet. “Holy shit that thing broke Thor.”

“It what?” Rhodes asked.

Stark groaned and threw up his arms. “You have got to be kidding me.” He leaned over, reaching for the stick, and Thor said something in a hard, sharp tone and snagged him by the wrist. He moved so fast even Natasha seemed surprised.

“Hey!” Stark shouted.

Wilson said, “Guys, what’s going on?”

“I think we have a problem,” Clint answered, leaving Thor and Stark to Natasha while he worked on staying upright. “Thor doesn’t seem to be able to understand what we’re saying.”

Sounding confused, Wilson said, “What, the explosion deafened him?”

“No, he can hear us, and he’s talking, we just have no idea what he’s saying. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what we’re saying either.”

“Alright,” Rhodes said, and his frustration was a palpable thing, “everyone, get out of there. Now.”

“Ah, sure, soon as we clear up the current misunderstanding.”

“What misunderstanding?”

“To be honest, Colonel, I really have no idea.”

“Just give us a second,” Natasha said.

Thor seemed to be trying to pull Stark back. Natasha had taken on that perfectly calm and precise bearing she reserved for delicate situations which were seconds from turning deadly. “I don’t think he wants you to touch it,” she said to Stark. Thor glanced from Natasha to Stark. Stark was attempting to pry Thor’s fingers loose and getting nowhere.

“Can’t he just—would you let go?”

Natasha held out a hand to Thor, and he watched her warily. She pointed at the wand, then shook her head. Thor’s brow furrowed. Natasha tried again, this time gesturing at all three of them, pointing at the wand, and shaking her head. Thor’s expression eased. He said something and nodded, and Clint listened to the unfamiliar consonants and vowels. Some tones rolled, others were sharper than he expected, and still others he didn’t recognize from any human language he knew.

Natasha indicated Thor’s hand, which was still holding Stark firm. Thor gave Stark a hard look and let go. Stark yanked his arm back and cursed under his breath.

They stared at Thor, and Thor stared at them.

“Well,” Clint said. “Now what?”

***

With a great deal of pantomiming and meaningful looks (and some unhelpful commentary from Stark) they worked out that Thor didn’t want anyone but him to touch the wands. He made numerous gestures and concentrated a lot, and there were a few more flares from the hammer. He also examined the detritus of the altar, muttering and making faces as he shoved bits and pieces around. Stark observed the whole process with his headset, though if the set of his jaw was any indication he wasn’t getting much out of it.

Eventually the hammer went completely dark, and Thor gathered up the wands—those still in the desk as well as the offending one from its place on the floor—and tucked them somewhere into his armor. Thankfully there were no additional explosions.

They filed out of the cellar and found Rhodes out of his suit and waiting for them with Wilson.

“Okay, let me get this straight,” he said, and approached Thor. He pointed at himself. “You can’t understand me?”

Thor studied Rhodes intently. He seemed to give up and grimaced, pointing at his temple and saying something too long and complex to be a single word answer. Clint watched Rhodes and Wilson listen to the words with no more comprehension than the rest of them.

“Wow,” Wilson said. “Okay, are you—” He paused, then gripped one arm with the other hand and made a pained face. He gestured at Thor, from head to foot, and Thor seemed to think Wilson’s movements over before shaking his head.

“So he’s not physically wounded,” Rhodes said.

“Assuming he understood what I was trying to get at.” Wilson peered at Thor, and Thor tensed. He didn’t relax until Wilson left off his scrutiny. “I don’t see anything obvious, but maybe there’s something internal.”

“He left a pretty big dent in that wall,” Natasha said.

Clint sighed. “So how do we fix him so he can talk to us again?”

“Who knows,” Stark said, and started for the front door. “Let’s go, before anything worse happens. I’ll get the drones and they can do the rest. We’ll fix him on the flight home.”

Wilson and Clint exchanged a brief ‘we told them so’ glance as everyone quit the cabin.

***

Thor laid on his back in the cargo area for most of the flight to the Tower, the hammer by his aide and his hands folded on his chest. Clint thought he could see a faint, shimmering, blue light outlining him if he watched from his peripheral vision, but looking directly revealed nothing out of the ordinary. When they landed Thor snapped awake and rubbed his head, but the situation was unchanged.

Rhodes explained what had happened to Banner and Rogers while they were in flight, and they agreed to convene in the Tower’s great room as soon as they were back. Banner was already there when they arrived, but Rogers lagged behind, saying he wanted to fetch something. In the mean time they managed to get Thor situated on the sectional, and Natasha took a seat next to him, her tablet to hand. Everyone else remained standing (or, in Stark’s case, pacing).

“Okay, what about runes?” Rhodes gestured at the hammer, which was resting on its side on the coffee table, and Thor frowned. “Those look a lot like old Germanic runes. Maybe the ones here on Earth are close enough we could get by on those?”

Natasha started loading up websites. “Worth a shot,” she said. Clint leaned against the back of the sectional and watched her work. Thor said something—maybe a question, given his expression and the way his voice rose—and Natasha replied, “We’re going to try these.” She pointed at the inscription on the hammer, careful not to actually touch it, and Thor’s frown faded. He said something else and chased it with a nod.

It was a good thing Natasha was unfazed by pressure, because anyone not looking at Thor was watching her. The loaded silence became too much for Clint, and he was thinking of breaking it with an offer to get glasses of water (or maybe bourbon) when Rogers arrived with a drawing pad and a pencil. He held them up, and Thor tilted his head at him.

Rogers said, “I’m not going to write.” He mimed writing on the page and shook his head for emphasis. “I figure that’s probably not working either. Instead, let’s try something simpler.” And he sat down on the other side of Thor and started to draw.

Rogers was good with art, like why-are-you-not-in-art-school good, and Clint started to feel like they might have a temporary solution. In a few seconds he’d sketched the rough makings of a broken arm bone. He pointed at the picture, then Thor’s head. Thor sat up and nodded.

“So it is an injury,” Banner said.

Stark didn’t look convinced. “How can language magic get ‘injured’?”

Banner shrugged. “Could be some sort of metaphysiological damage.”

“’Metaphysiological damage’ is not a thing. You made that up.”

“He’s an alien species, we may occasionally have to make things up when we’re describing him.”

“Sure, but not—”

“Do you guys mind?” Rogers’ voice cut through their argument despite its mild tone. He was drawing again. “I’m trying to have a conversation here.”

Stark snorted and folded his arms. Rogers held out the page to Thor; now it had another piece of bone, this one unbroken, along with a clock and a question mark. Rogers drew an arrow from the broken bone to the whole one and pointed at the clock, then the question mark. Thor ran a finger over the punctuation, muttering something and looking confused. Rogers shook his head and erased the question mark, and pointed at the clock. He tapped the big hand and traced a finger around the clock’s face. Understanding lit Thor’s face briefly, only to be doused by resignation. He touched his temple, shook his head, and spoke in that odd, sharp and rolling language of his.

Slowly, Stark said, “What...does that mean.”

“Best guess, that he doesn’t know how long until it heals,” Banner said.

“Or if it will.” Wilson’s somber tone matched Banner’s expression.

Into the ensuing silence, Natasha said, “Found a rune translator. I think this covers the ones closest to the inscription on the hammer.” She held the tablet between herself and Thor and said to Rogers, “Can you draw a horse?”

Rogers got to work while Natasha pulled up translations for ‘horse’ in no less than a half-dozen runic alphabets. Once Rogers was done, Natasha presented Thor with the tablet and pointed from Rogers’ drawing pad to the words.

Thor went through all of them, occasionally touching the tablet’s screen and murmuring under his breath, but in the end he handed the tablet back to Natasha and shook his head. She contemplated the screen thoughtfully, and Clint wondered what she was thinking.

Stark groaned and ran a hand over his face. “This is unbelievable.” He did a circuit of the couch. “Ask him if he can just,” he waved his hand overhead, “catch a ride home and go to Asgardian Urgent Care.”

Rogers started drawing again, and Thor watched. While they waited, Rhodes said, “That might not actually be a good idea.”

Stark spread his hands. “Why not?”

“Because that wand is from Earth, and was made with human magic.” Stark glared at him, and Rhodes waved the censure aside with a gesture. "Science. Technology. Whatever. Point is, humans made it. We made it."

“So?”

“So, it just blew up in the face of our most foreign dignitary when he touched it, and injured him in a not-insignificant manner which we don’t know how to fix.”

Banner rubbed at his eyes. "And let's not forget what happened last time we messed with powerful technology that got the attention of anyone outside our planet."

Thor's eyes darted between Rhodes, Stark, and Banner as they spoke, then back to Rogers, who was offering him a new drawing. It wasn’t a half-bad rendition of the Bifröst landing site in New Mexico, Clint had to admit, especially given Rogers hadn’t ever seen it in person.

Thor looked at all of them, winced, and shook his head. He pointed at Rhodes, Banner, and Stark, saying something and gesturing at Rogers' pencil.

“I think he wants to know what they were saying,” Natasha said. Rogers sighed and got to work.

This drawing was more bare-bones cartoon style, and not for the first time Clint wondered if Rogers had ever considered a side-gig in web comics. (Not that he really needed the money.) He drew the Earth, a simple human figure working at an anvil, and another, similar figure holding a wand in a sort of ‘tah-dah’ pose. Next came a comical rendition of the wand exploding in Thor’s hand, and an injured Thor. As soon as he added an arrow from Earth to the figure making the wand, and from there to injured-Thor, Thor looked at Rhodes and nodded.

“Could this possibly get worse?” Stark asked no one in particular.

Clint said, “Yeah, it could—he might not recover. Gonna be pretty hard to keep a lid on that.”

Stark rolled his eyes. “Next time I ask if something could be worse, you’re barred from answering.”

Rogers tapped Thor’s arm to get his attention and held up his hands in a helpless gesture. Thor touched the clock and made the same circular motion around the face Rogers had.

“We wait to see if it heals,” Natasha translated.

Wilson added, “And someone explains all of this to Dr. Foster.”

“I’ll do it,” Banner said, and headed for the hall. “Give me a few minutes, then bring him by the lab.”

***

It took Rogers several attempts to draw Banner detailing the situation to Foster in a way that Thor understood. On the final cartoon Thor appeared to get the general idea, or he’d decided to stop torturing Rogers by making him come up with new ways to draw Foster and Banner. At that point Clint tapped him on the shoulder, jerked his head for Thor to follow, and started towards the labs.

As they drew close to the entrance Clint could hear Banner and Foster’s conversation through the open door. It sounded like they’d spent most of the time talking shop, because Foster was going on and Banner was only just getting to the heart of the problem.

“But I was thinking, maybe if we could get the ratios right, we could improve the harvesting efficiency by another five—”

“Listen, Jane.”

“Or, we could not do that, I know it’s a lot of material—”

“There was kind of an accident.” Clint could only imagine the look on Dr. Foster’s face, because Banner immediately continued with, “No, he’s fine. I mean—basically. He’s okay. For the...most part.”

What happened.” Oh boy, did she sound pissed.

“He can’t understand what we’re saying anymore. And we can’t understand him.”

“The language magic isn’t working?”

“That appears to be the case.”

Clint and Thor stepped into the lab then, and Foster shot up from her desk and went to Thor. He gave her a smile that was somewhere between apologetic and rueful, and she stopped a few feet short of him. Pointing at herself, she said, “So you can’t understand what I’m saying?”

He said something in a low, private voice. Foster stared, blinking, for some seconds, maybe as she tried to find anything comprehensible in what he’d said. Then she sighed explosively.

“How did you manage to do this to yourself.” She didn’t actually sound upset with him, just exasperated. Thor looked taken aback, and Foster stepped closer, saying, “Come here.” She reached up and Thor leaned over. Clint braced himself for a public display of affection, except it never happened; instead, Foster dragged Thor down by the back of the neck and started a thorough inspection of his head. He submitted to it readily enough, though there was some muttering as she combed through his hair and prodded at his scalp.

She let him straighten and studied him. “So it’s an injury, but not a physical one.”

Thor glanced at Clint. Banner said, “Seems that way. It could be internal, but I’m not sure how we’d know what to check for. We know next to nothing about his physiology or if it’s even relevant to his magic.”

“And how can he meaningfully consent to tests if we can’t properly describe them to him and be reasonably certain he understands.” Foster bit her lip. “Shouldn’t we have Heimdall take him back to Asgard so they can heal him?”

“We were thinking that’s not a hot idea,” Clint said.

Foster raised her eyebrows. Banner said, “It was a human-made device that did this.”

“...oh.” Foster considered Thor. Thor scrutinized their faces as they spoke, and Clint thought he might have been trying to repeat some of the words to himself. “They might not be happy with us about that,” she said. “Especially since it means we have a weapon we could use against them.”

Clint snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Exactly.”

“Then we just wait for it to heal?”

Banner nodded. “If his ability to decipher Steve’s art and our ability to read his reactions aren’t completely off base, that’s what he seems to want.”

Foster blew out a breath and took Thor by the hand. “Come on,” she said. “All three of you. I need lunch, and a complete explanation of what happened. Right now.”

***

Over pho take out Clint described their ill-fated trip into the cabin’s cellar from his perspective, after which Banner detailed the subsequent ‘conversations’ and Natasha’s attempts with runes. Jane peppered them with questions and clarifications. Thor listened with an intense focus which suggested he was trying to memorize their patterns of speech.

The meal was a fascinating study in how well Foster knew Thor compared to the rest of them. They communicated using only the most basic gestures and sounds—nuh-uh, uh-huh, mmhmm, nudges, prodding, shoving things at one another. They weren’t trading complex ideas, of course, yet there wasn’t a single misunderstanding involving Sriracha, basil, Vietnamese coffee, rice noodles, or cream puffs.

After they’d cleaned up, Foster took Thor back to the lab along with Banner, and Clint went to find Natasha. She’d been gathering more information on runes and runology; Clint settled in to help so she could go back to tracking down anything they could about the cabin’s mysterious (and apparently dangerous) occupants.

Later that day Clint came across Foster talking to Rogers in the kitchen. “So he just, sleeps, and that’s what heals him?” he asked Foster.

“Sort of. He calls it sleep, but I think of it more like a regeneration state.” Foster was doctoring a mug of coffee while Rogers worked on a sandwich.

Clint dug his lox and cream cheese out of their hiding place in the fridge and pulled a pack of bagels out of the cupboard. As he cut the bagel he asked over his shoulder, “Will that take care of whatever’s wrong?”

“Hopefully. Maybe Heimdall can send one of their more discrete healers if it doesn’t clear up fast.” She sipped experimentally from her coffee, then took a longer drink.

“You seemed to be doing okay with him at lunch.”

“Yeah, because we’ve been sharing the same living space for what, almost a year now?” Foster leaned against the counter. “It may look pretty smooth but trust me—there was a lot of misunderstood significant looks and random noises those first few weeks. Especially in the morning.” She gestured at Rogers with her mug. “The drawing seems to work pretty well, though.”

Clint brought his bagel to the counter. “It’s fine for here, but in the field that’s not gonna cut it.” Also, there was the looming fact that Rogers and Wilson had been planning to head for Panama in a couple of days to check another lead on Barnes.

If that particular delay was bothering Rogers, it wasn’t obvious. He made a face in response to Clint’s comment. “Yeah. If something comes up before he’s healed, he’s not going to like being benched.”

“He’ll cope,” Foster said, her tone light. “He can put his spare time to use getting better and figuring out how those wands work.”

Rogers’ mouth twitched in an almost-smile. Clint was dead certain Thor would be busy for days after he could speak again, explaining everything to Foster (and Stark and Banner, but mostly Foster).

Foster’s phone hummed on the counter, and she scooped it up. “Data’s ready,” she said, and whisked back to the lab.

***

The atmosphere in the Tower varied from frazzled to on-edge for several days as everyone got used to the situation. They set aside a corner of Foster’s lab for Thor to work on the wands, and since he couldn’t do much else he largely stuck to that, spending long hours with them and his hammer. Sometimes Foster and Banner would watch, murmuring to one another in low voices and trading notes on tablets.

Stark, on the other hand, was incapable of just watching. He tried to insist on being involved somehow, and attempted numerous halting and difficult charade-conversations with Thor to express this. Conversational or not, Thor was having none of it, and wouldn’t let Stark near them. Observation was fine; touching was out of the question. More than once Stark stalked away to work on another project until he calmed down. When Rogers and Foster inquired via cartoon as to Thor’s strict hands-off policy, the most they could get out of him was that he needed to explain or do something too complicated to express via their current methods of communication.

On the fifth day, Rhodes pulled Stark aside and suggested he back off about the wands before he pissed off Thor enough that a fight ensued. (Clint hadn’t meant to spy on their conversation, just he was already on the roof and then they’d come out, and since he’d been there first he saw no reason to be the one to leave.) Rhodes was concerned that Stark was trying to act like everything was business as usual when it most definitely wasn’t. Thor was wary around anyone but Foster now that he had no idea what they were saying and had only body language and Rogers’ drawings to go on. Rhodes argued that since Thor and Stark had a whole back and forth dynamic that could be precarious even when they did know what one another was getting at, Stark was going to need to dial it down some until the situation was resolved. They debated the risks of just sending Thor to Asgard for the necessary repairs, as well as the problem of letting someone not human mess with human magic wands. Rhodes won, and they went back inside.

Clint resumed his contemplation of the New York skyline and tried not to think about the worst case scenario he’d proposed a few days ago. He didn’t want to find out first hand how intergalactic diplomatic incidents played out.

On the eighth day, Wilson made a suggestion: ad hoc alien language therapy.

“We can’t do all of the usual things,” he said. Rogers had arrayed a series of small note cards across the breakfast bar, on which he’d drawn a wide variety of subjects: animals, people, weather, land features, tools, household items, plants, food. “You know, sentence filling, verb conjugation, aphasia workbooks. But if he just goes over words and phrases with flashcards, maybe it’ll help. Definitely can’t hurt.”

Thor was examining the cards while they spoke to Foster, which was the current norm. Clint observed from a seat on the counter.

“And I can draw a lot more than just these,” Rogers said. “This is just what I had time for in the last few days. So if you have suggestions, just let me know.”

Foster picked up a card featuring a mountain range. “Steve, these are amazing.”

Rogers shifted uncomfortably. Wilson and Clint both smirked at him. “Thanks,” he said. “Think he’ll do it?”

“Definitely.” Foster collected the set and offered them to Thor. He accepted the deck with a look of expectation. Foster took one from the stack—a tree—and held it up. She tapped the image and raised her eyebrows.

Thor said something that was long enough to be a sentence. Foster shook her head and tapped the tree again. Thor hesitated, then said something much shorter and sharper. Foster smiled and gave him the card back.

Thor ran his fingers over the cards. He nodded at Rogers and Wilson and said what Clint had come to suspect was a thank you of some kind.

Wilson pointed at the cards. “Every day,” he said. “The whole set.”

“No cheating,” Rogers added. “And no skipping any.”

Thor looked to Foster, and she told them, “I’ll make sure.”

***

The days ticked by more easily after that. Lewis, Foster’s sometimes-here-sometimes-in-London-with-Selvig lab manager, scanned the flashcards into image files and whipped up a little program for Thor to use on a tablet. She also began to harass Stark about getting Rogers some kind of device called a Cintiq. (Lewis pestering Stark was some of the best free entertainment to be had, so Clint lurked in corners and doorways to catch their latest back and forth.) She reasoned that since he was doing this to aid a coworker, it shouldn’t come out of his personal money. Stark countered that Rogers would need to join the Stark Industries communications department for that to be a reasonable use of company funds. Lewis went around him to Potts. Clint saw Rogers using a drawing tablet a few days later (though he stuck to the pencil and pad for Thor).

Thor seemed to take Wilson’s cue and extend the language therapy on his own. Of course, none of them had any idea what he was saying when he recited to himself while practicing or sparring, though they sounded like poems or songs by how he pronounced them. He also took to using singular words or short phrases that had more obvious applications; thanks, apologies, yes, no.

Despite their efforts, there was no clear progress. Natasha couldn’t find any runes he could read, though she kept researching it in her spare time. Wilson was more than a little concerned, and said as much to Rhodes and Rogers, but they’d agreed to let Foster advise them on when to bite the bullet and have Thor go to Asgard. Stark, who’d turned his energy into finding a way to fix Thor (probably because it was the surest way to get access to the wands), floated the idea of drumming up some of SHIELD’s now-scattered linguists. Foster put that kibosh on that one; she was, Clint had come to realize, fiercely protective of letting people ‘study’ Thor in any way. Banner backed her up on that one, and Stark went back to giving Thor’s work area in Foster’s lab hungry, impatient looks.

So they waited. Clint continued to dread the inevitable mission where they’d need to ground Thor, in particular the top-of—everyone’s-lungs, weather-battered argument which would no-doubt ensue. Rogers went through drawing pads at an unbelievable rate. (Any time he tried to throw a page out either Wilson or Natasha rescued it from the trash. Banner saw them comparing their collections one night and demanded to be let in on the action.) Every now and then Thor pronounced an English word better, or followed a conversation a little more closely.

The more mundane realities of Tower life crept back in as the days wore on. Thor trained each morning like usual with whoever was willing. He watched whatever TV show or movie was selected, whispering to himself like he was trying to copy the dialogue. He ate whatever Foster presented him with, and she used it as an opportunity to try and teach him the human words for things. He struggled around his accent, but did learn a handful of English words and everyone’s names, which helped. It was awkward at times, but they managed. Mostly.

***

By the end of the third week Clint was starting to wonder about Rogers’ plans to get back to the search for Barnes. They were a little less reliant on his cartoons than they had been at first, yet it would still be tricky to get by without him. There was no way Rogers wasn’t acutely aware of this.

It turned out Clint wasn’t the only one thinking about this.

Clint, Wilson, Thor, and Rogers were resting between matches one morning when Thor tapped Rogers’ arm to get his attention. He placed a finger on Rogers’ shoulder and drew an unmistakable five-pointed shape.

Wilson raised his eyebrows. “Is he asking you about Barnes?”

“I think so.” Rogers pulled up his drawing pad and tapped the surface with his pencil, gaze distant. Then he started sketching, his movements efficient and light: him and Wilson, leaving the tower in a plane. Thor nodded, and seemed to ask a question. Rogers bit his lip.

“He wants to know why we haven’t gone back out,” Wilson said.

“Or if we’re going to.”

Clint said, “Or if you want to.”

Thor’s eyes searched Rogers’ face, awaiting a response. Rogers sighed and shook his head, and drew another cartoon: their universal symbol for Thor getting better, a broken arm bone followed by a mended one, with an arrow between them. Once he’d finished, he pointed at Thor’s head.

Thor sat back. His features betrayed a mix of reactions: regret, apology, frustration. He nodded and glanced away, and Rogers poked him with his pencil. When Thor looked back, Rogers said, “Hey. None of that. Anyone else was injured I’d still be here making sure everything was okay before we went back out.” He huffed a laugh. “Bucky’d be pretty pissed at me if he found out I left any of you in a bind just to track him down.”

Thor studied Rogers, and as he did so, some of his frustration bled away. He muttered a few phrases that included something Clint was certain was an apology, and Rogers clapped him on the shoulder.

“Don’t sweat it. Seriously.”

Thor huffed a breath and stood. He jerked his head at the mat, and Rogers put his drawing pad and pencil aside.

Clint and Wilson remained sprawled on the bench. As they watched Rogers and Thor spar, Clint asked him, “How much longer does Foster want to wait?”

“She said to give it to the end of next week.” Wilson folded his arms. “Anyways, Panama was a bust—Natasha had a contact look into it since we couldn’t go down there. So we have to go back over everything again regardless.”

Clint made a low sound. They watched the rest of the match in silence.

***

That night, over salted caramel gelato and beer with Natasha and Hill, Clint said, “How do you think that language magic works, anyways?”

He’d directed the question to Natasha, since she’d been spending a lot of her free time talking to Foster and trying to work out the runes on the hammer. Thor was cagey about letting people (Stark, really) mess with it while they couldn’t communicate, but he’d been okay with Natasha taking some photos.

Natasha said, “When I discussed it with Foster, it sounded a lot like software.”

Hill toyed with her spoon. “Does it work with non-verbal languages?” she asked, and Clint gestured at her with his beer bottle.

“It does on his end. I saw him talk to a deaf person that way. But someone else had to sign for him—he said it would take him a while to learn sign, sort of like how he’s had to practice to learn how to write.”

“Which, I’ll note, he also can’t seem to do at the moment,” Hill said.

Natasha nodded at them and turned her pilsner glass in her hands. “It’s like the magic decodes what he encounters into his own language, and then when he talks, it produces something we can understand. A sort of, lower-level language, maybe. Our minds translate it to whatever we’d expect.” She took a drink of beer.

Panic flashed through Clint. “What, wait—he’s reading our minds?” In his peripheral vision he saw Hill narrow her eyes at him.

But Natasha shook her head. “Not the way we think of it. I asked him about that once,” he saw something flicker across her features, and he knew why she’d asked (Loki), “and according to him, it takes a lot of skill with mind magic to do that. And mind magic isn’t really his thing.”

Hill mmmm’d. “If it was, half our current problem would be gone.”

Clint relaxed and stared into his beer, and told himself his heart rate had not been doing double-time a second ago. Hill was right—even if Clint had thought Thor’s actions in the past might have suggested someone who could read minds, the certainly didn’t now.

Natasha tapped the counter. “Foster talks about Asgardian magic like it’s another sense. That might mean a basic use gives him a rough impression of the surface of other minds. The language magic could use that to figure out what to produce.”

Hill said, “So, our minds have a sort of, exterior interface? Something that advertises how to communicate with us?”

“That was my take on it.” Natasha shrugged. "I could have it all wrong. But Foster was pretty explicit on the not being able to read minds part. So was he."

Hill’s expression turned thoughtful. Clint tried not to think about Loki and the scepter. (He thought he saw Hill give him another sideways glance.) Hill said, “So maybe this really is a neurological injury?”

“Could be.” Natasha had a spoonful of gelato. “Banner thinks it could be something else entirely, because we don’t know that his magic tracks with any kind pf physical part of him. Software can become corrupted without hardware damage. When that happens, you sometimes have to remove and reinstall it. Maybe that’s what he’s doing.”

“What happens if he doesn’t have a good enough backup?”

Natasha pointed up. Clint sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“I hope his backups are better than mine.”

“Still doing them yearly?” Natasha asked with a droll little smile.

Hill laughed. “Really, Barton? Yearly?”

Clint made a face at them.

***

The following day wound up being the day Clint had hoped wouldn’t come. There were rock monsters rampaging in Brazil, awakened (or released or enraged—the reports weren’t clear) by a coal mine cave-in. Just the sort of thing it was good to have Banner and Thor along for, except for how they were going to have to leave Thor at the Tower.

The sky was still dark when Hill roused everyone and summoned them to the briefing room. Thor wasn’t there when Clint showed up, but everyone else was. Potts had provided donuts and tea and coffee to encourage wakefulness in anyone who’d been asleep.

Clint decided it would be better to just get it out in the open. Sitting on the edge of the table and eyeing a French cruller, he said, “So. Who’s going to tell him?”

All the other low, murmured conversations died. Rhodes, Hill, and Rogers looked among one another. Rogers folded his arms and said, “I will.”

Stark snagged a chocolate cake donut coated in sprinkles. “I have a better idea. How about he catches a ride on the rainbow escalator and goes to the doctor? I bet if they’re quick about it, he can be back in time to join us in Brazil.”

“Tony,” Rhodes said, his tone carrying a note of warning. Stark was not, it seemed, on his first cup of coffee, because he barreled onward in between huge bites of the donut.

“No,” a third of the donut disappeared, “I’m serious,” and another, “this is ridiculous. We’ll deal with whatever alien diplomatic fallout there is after he can talk again. Sentient rocks has ‘Banner and Thor’ written all over it.” And the rest. Donut gone, he chased it with the remains of a cup of coffee. “Oh and there’s the part where we still don’t know anything about the wands, because he can’t tell us.”

Thor came into the room just then, looking freshly showered and with a mug of coffee in hand. He moved to stand next to Clint, and Stark pointed at him. “And until he can talk again—I mean, in a way that doesn’t involve a lot of nodding and gesturing and making noises and Rogers drawing on every available surface—we’re running a risk just sitting on them while he waves his hands and says who knows what.” Thor seemed about to speak, but Stark turned to face Rogers again. Thor’s attention drifted to the box of donuts instead.

“Morning,” Clint said. He shoved the box towards Thor. “There’s donuts.”

Thor nodded at him and murmured something, and chose a glazed twist.

It took a second for Clint to realize what Thor had said was, “Thank you.” Not the Asgardian syllables that Clint had come to associate with ‘thank you’, and not his heavily accented, stilted English variant of ‘thank you’, but “Thank you” in clear and plain (to Clint’s ears) English.

He was about to let his reaction out when Natasha’s hand brushed his. He glanced at her, and she gave him a minute shake of her head. Clint turned his attention back to the argument and said nothing. Thor was eating his donut in between sips of coffee, and appeared oblivious to Natasha and Clint’s silent agreement.

Rogers said, “Look, he seems to think it’s better to keep them under wraps until we can communicate again. Since he’s the only one here with experience with this kind of tech, that’s the best plan of action.”

“Sure, I’d just like to have any idea what it is he’s doing.” Stark faced Thor. Donut finished, Thor brushed off his hands and tilted his head at Stark. Stark said, “I realize it’s pointless for me to say anything to you, but I’m going to because it makes me feel better, and I harbor faint hope that my body language will convey to you how deeply frustrated I am. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that we found what appear to be real ‘magic’ wands, made by humans, and I’d like to know what you’re doing to them and what you’re finding out. Because they’re ours, and it’s our right to know about them. That’s all. And I know you’ll tell me all of this as soon as you can talk again, but I can feel the seconds of my life ticking away. We’ve tried everything short of letting linguists have their way with you, and nothing seems to be working. And now,” he waved his hand at the briefing materials, “we have rocks coming to life in Brazil.”

By the time Stark stopped talking, Thor appeared highly entertained, and Rogers paused in the act of picking up his drawing pad. Thor and Stark engaged in a brief staring match, then Stark put his hands on his hips and ducked his head.

“You ah, can understand us now, can’t you.”

Thor made them wait for it. Rhodes covered his mouth with a hand. Natasha gave Hill a small, secretive smile. Wilson raised his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Thor said. “I can.”

Stark made a frustrated sound and shoved away from the briefing table and said, “Of course you can.”

***

Brazil was chaos of the highest order. Stark called their problem ‘mine monsters’; Thor referred to them as ‘earth elementals’. It was three days of coping with coal seam fires, trapped miners, and homicidal rocks, and by the end of it, the thing with the wand seemed like a distant, irritating memory. Stark informed everyone they would be rinsing off in whatever way possible before they got back on the Quinjet, because he didn’t want coal dust and dirt all over the seats. They were exhausted and grimy on the way home, and all eager for real showers, yet despite these things the emotional high of having Thor conversational again buoyed the mood.

Stark wasn’t particularly interested in spending a lot of time debriefing about the mine monsters. He wanted to talk about the wands, which he made clear later that evening as they all surrounded the briefing room table, cleaned up and fed. Foster joined them, bringing the wands with her in the foam-lined case Thor had been using to store them.

Thor took them out of the case and arrayed them in alternating directions. Clint was surprised to see their colors and designs, taken all-together, formed a pattern similar to the one from the stained glass wall hanging. There were fifteen all told.

“I have shielded them so they will not react to external magic. The shielding makes no change to their nature; it merely contains them, much like your containment structures here.” He nodded at one of the fume hoods. “It should not have an effect on your studies of them.” He picked up one—some kind of black bamboo with colorful red and green and blue symbols painted on it—and Clint flinched, but nothing happened. He thought he saw Thor flick a wry glance at him before continuing with his explanation. “The magic in them is poorly balanced, so they are fluctuating in ways they should not. This is why that one,” he gestured at the ill-behaved purple and black wand, “lashed out at me.” Thor set the bamboo wand down and took up another, a pale one that appeared to be interlocking segments of a light wood, mother-of-pearl, and bone. "They are focusing power sources, similar to Mjölnir, though weaker due to their source materials and the abilities of those who produced them.” He offered the wand to Rhodes, who peered at it, then handed it to Rogers. Rogers only gave it a cursory once over before passing it to Banner; he pulled on his glasses and inspected it. When he was done he gave it to Foster. Stark tracked the wand’s movements between them with an unrepentant gleam in his eyes.

“So these weren’t necessarily weapons?” Hill asked.

“They are weapons in the same way Mjölnir or Steven’s shield are weapons—they have only their nature. The will and purpose to direct their use must come from a wielder.” His expression darkened. “I do not believe we will find their makers. If they have not revealed themselves by now, after we have taken their artifacts and rifled their belongings, then they are either dead, or gone somewhere from which they will not return soon, if ever.”

Rhodes folded his arms. “Think they were messing in things a little outside their reach?”

Clint saw Rogers grimace at the question, and couldn’t help but think of the cube as well. Thor said, “Yes. These focuses were dangerously unstable.” His gaze shifted to the wands, and he said, “It is possible they attempted to forge another which destroyed them.”

Stark had just taken the pale wand from Foster; now he blinked down at it in his hand. “Destroyed?”

Wilson’s eyes widened. “You mean like, vaporized them?”

“Yes.”

Wilson surreptitiously edged away from the table. Clint tried to be casual about straightening so he wasn’t learning against it anymore and said, “That’s creepy.”

“Clean, though.” Natasha considering the wands with renewed interest. “There wasn’t a trace of them anywhere.”

Banner’s featured tightened. “How...nice. For us.”

Thor looked out over all of them, waiting until he had everyone’s attention (even Stark’s, though Foster had to poke him). “Now that I have encountered human magic, I will be able to recognize it as such. I give you my word this will not happen again.” He seemed defeated, somehow, for a second, then squared his shoulders. “This would not have happened if I had taken greater care. You all have my sincerest apologies.”

Foster rubbed one of Thor’s arms and leaned into him. Rogers said, “Just show us how to scan for this kind of thing and we’ll call it even.” He smiled, though it was self-deprecating. “I kind of needed the drawing practice anyways.”

Despite Rogers’ light-hearted response, Thor’s demeanor remained earnest. “Your skills made the ordeal much easier to bear, Steven. I regret that you spent time managing my folly which should have gone to searching for your friend. If I can repay your generosity in some manner, tell me what it is, and I will see it done.”

Rogers let out a short breath and nodded. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Thor turned to Wilson. “The learning exercises did, I believe, aid in repairing the damage. I am indebted to you as well, Sam, Son of Will.”

Wilson grinned, looking immensely satisfied with himself. “Don’t mention it. I’m just glad it helped.”

“On the contrary, I shall speak of it a great deal to any who care to listen,” Thor assured him, and Wilson laughed.

Natasha ran a finger along a crooked wand with a warped grain (burl wood, probably). “I was able to translate the runes on your hammer—maybe not exactly, but it’s close. But you couldn’t read anything I translated in a human runic alphabet. Why not?”

“The Allspeak is not separate from the fundamental way in which my people use language. It is an intrinsic part of it.”

Banner rubbed his chin. “So damage to it damages all of your language processing?”

Thor nodded. Foster said, “Which is why you couldn’t just use the Latin script you already knew.” Another nod. She raised her eyebrows. “Does that mean you were lucky you could talk at all?”

“Yes. If not for Mjölnir I suspect we would have had no choice but to return me to Asgard. My injuries would have been much too severe to heal on their own.”

Foster reached over to pat the hammer where it hung against Thor’s hip. Stark returned the pale wand to its place among the others. “So, I’m clear to do whatever I want with these?”

“They are of human make, and so they are yours to do with as you see fit. I will lend aid should you require it.” Thor’s gaze swept over all of them, including everyone in the declaration, then settled on Stark. “I would advise you to be careful, and to examine whatever writings these artifacts’ creators have left behind.” To Rhodes and Rogers specifically, he added, “And I will not discuss their existence with others. Midgard and her people should be left to explore and define magic in their own way, without interference from Asgard, or anyone else.”

Rhodes and Rogers nodded. Stark clapped his hands together. “Excellent. First we’ll—what are you doing?” Banner was tucking the wands back into the foam-lined case. “What is this?”

“Before we do a single thing to these, we’re going over their notes, just like he suggested.” He closed the lid and snapped it shut.

“But half their notes are encrypted. Even the written ones are. And they were probably using a dozen data centers scattered all over the planet, it’ll be months before we—”

Rhodes said, “Then I guess you should get to work helping Romanoff find them.”

Stark glared at him and followed Banner as he set the case into one of the containment hoods. “Are you serious with this?”

Banner shut the hood’s shield a little harder than necessary and turned to face Stark. Pointing at Thor, he said, “He just spent almost a month unable to talk to us because he touched one of these things. I am completely serious.” Stark pulled back, and Banner pressed his advantage. “He made detailed renders. We’ll use those.”

Stark’s mulishness gave way to resignation. “Fine. We’ll see what Hill can come up with for decrypting everything.” Hill took out her tablet and started making notes. “And Colonel Rhodes,” he squinted at Rhodes, who smiled in response, “can assist Romanoff and I in tracking down the data centers.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rogers said. He clapped Thor on the back. “It’s good to have you talking again.”

“I am glad for it as well. Though your drawings were interesting, I have missed our conversations.”

Rogers grinned and quit the room. Wilson, Hill, and Natasha went with him, but Clint lingered in the doorway to listen.

“It’s good that you’ve missed conversing, because you’re about to do a whole lot of it,” Stark said as he pulled up a holodisplay of the wands. “Starting with telling me and Foster and Banner all about how these things work. Right now.”

Thor smiled. “And if I say that they are magic?”

Stark tapped here and there on the interface. “I’ll have Banner make up a new word.”

“What if I want to call them magic?” Banner picked up the rendering of the burl wood wand Natasha had been interested in.

“No. It has to be a new word.”

Foster took the black bamboo wand and turned it this way and that; readings and measurements drew out from it as she did so. “What if the new word just means ‘magic’?”

Stark closed his eyes briefly, like he was praying for strength. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” He grabbed the pale wand’s image and pointed it at Thor. “Start talking.”