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Valhalla Blues

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The pain is blinding white; Phil sees it before he feels it.

It hovers for a moment at the edges of his vision, and then explodes through his body in agonizingly slow motion. He almost wonders if that's part of the spell, a little extra viciousness on top of all the rest — making sure he gets the chance to feel every single pain receptor firing, one after the other, to trace the vicious edge of every nerve as it cascades. Each synapse bursting into blossoms of white flame, spreading and spreading until they cover everything, and then falling beneath the rising tide of indistinctive pain. He's certain he's not meant to actually feel every damaged cell screaming as it dies, nor experience his organs shutting down, one at a time.

This isn't quite how he expected his death to be. Phil always assumed that when he went down, it would be via a bomb or a bullet, or at the hands of some monster unleashed upon mankind. In his very darkest moments, lying awake at 3am while his husband slept peacefully by his side, Phil prayed that he might be spared a long, drawn-out death from torture. He prayed that he would be allowed to keep his mind until the end. That he would die with honor, in the service of his country, of the world. Of his team.

He never quite figured out who he thought would listen.

But this is a good death, all things considered. Phil just never thought he'd go out on the end of some bastard's pointy stick. It's quick and clean, though, going to be over fast, and he manages to keep his head for long enough to get a shot in of his own, to knock the shifty fucker right out of the goddamn hull.

Maybe his death will buy his team some time to rally. Maybe it will give them something to rally behind.

Oxygen streams out the hole in his chest, carrying away the one thing that his body most craves. He can't get a breath, but this has to be a spell because he can still name every single brain function as it begins to fade, and how is there even a he left, after all? But the pain is fading now, nerves and receptors dying, and Phil can't be anything but grateful; though he knows that, objectively-speaking, it's a bad sign.

He looks up at his friend (yes, friend, after so many years) and ruefully thinks that, as dashing as Nick Fury might be, this isn't the face he wishes he was seeing. He wishes that Clint could be here, wishes he could stick around to witness his husband's anger when they finally pry Clint's mind free from Loki's grasp. (Phil knows it will happen. He has faith in the team. He has faith in Natasha. If everyone else fails, she'll get Clint back.)

He wishes he could tell Clint that he loved him, one last time. Phil consoles himself with the reminder that Clint ought to damn well know it, whether he ever hears the words again or not.

Phil's hand is on his wedding band. It's warm and smooth, and slick with blood.

The sense of touch is the last thing to fade away.

----

When Phil wakes up again, he's in a very white room lying on some kind of comfortable mattress. (What is that, fur?) There's a woman standing over him, far enough away to seem unthreatening. She reminds him a little of Natasha, less in the specific details of her appearance, than in the way she moves and stands. On her head is a metal helmet adorned with wings, which look a little like the wings on Thor's helmet. The woman is dressed in a leather tunic, sandals, and short leggings. In her hand is a tall spear which she rests upon the floor, and she carries a small round shield forged out of metal.

Somehow, Phil gets the feeling that this is not a hospital.

He sits up, and his body doesn't hurt, at all. Not anywhere. He twists around and looks at his shoulder, presses his other hand against it, but there's no gaping hole. No blood, no damage — there's not even a scar.

He looks down at his hand, and frowns. The old scar at the base of his left thumb is missing, as is the one that slashed across his palm. Also missing are all of his hard-earned calluses, the ones from guns and pens, as well as cello and guitar. He's dressed in soft, loose clothing that he's never seen before.

His wedding band is gone.

The woman gives him a small, friendly smile. He looks around the room, assessing possible weapons, but the walls are blank and bare and there's no furniture besides his pallet. It doesn't matter; even unarmed, Phil can account himself well against any opponent, though the woman is well-muscled and the spear looks deadly sharp. He won't give up without a battle, even if he's dead.

Especially if he's dead.

But the woman makes no threatening move; she keeps the butt of the spear resting on the floor, and stays her distance. She begins to speak and her voice is low and throaty, with strange undertones that sound like the ringing of a bell.

"Phillip John Coulson," she says, and the words that follow sound ancient, like Phil has heard them many times before. "Valiant warrior, knight of SHIELD, loyal son and husband, doer of mighty deeds, protector of all Midgard and servant of humankind, who died with great honor in the course of battle. Be thou most welcome in Valhalla."

He stares at her, and finds himself speechless. His mind races. Is this a trick? Perhaps a trap of Loki's? But the wound is definitely gone, and every other scar on his body seems to be gone, too.

He rises to his feet. It's easy, and his knee isn't sore, and these days Phil's knee is always sore when he first stands up. Ever since Vienna.

And he's pretty sure he died for real, back there with Loki. So maybe this really is Valhalla?

Well, when in doubt, seek out more information. He looks up at the woman — the valkyrie, his mind supplies helpfully, a greeter and attendant of the dead in Norse mythology. And Loki and Thor and Odin all exist, so maybe it makes sense that this part is also true?

"Alright," he says. "So what happens now? And, if you don't mind, where is my ring? I would really like it back, please."

Phil might be imagining things, but it seems like the woman's smile grows a little wider. "I regret this fact, honored Coulson," she says, "but none of the artifacts of your mortal existence can cross into Valhalla. It is simply the nature of this world. You left Midgard behind, sacrificed your life nobly, and now you have been brought to your reward."

Phil frowns and searches through his mind, trying to dig up every fact he knows about Valhalla. He did his research after they met Thor, read both of the Eddas and many of the sagas. Valhalla is the abode of brave warriors who die in battle, he remembers that much. The valkyries carry them to Valhalla, where they are supposed to hang out until Ragnarok. And the warriors are meant to pass their time in fighting and boasting and drinking, taking advantage of a literally endless supply of meat and mead.

In general, it seems like an afterlife well-suited to people like Thor, and his noble companions. Phil Coulson, maybe not so much.

He thinks back on what he's seen of Thor's eating habits, and has to suppress a shudder. He wonders if they carry pizza and donuts in Valhalla, nowadays.

And he still wants his goddamned ring back.

The valkyrie continues. "As to what comes next, honored Coulson: if you will follow me, I will show you to the room that will be yours from this day onward, and instruct you on how to create whatever you may need."

"Can I create my wedding band?" The question is un-Phil-like, spoken in haste and without thinking. He feels justified in being off his game; after all, he died today. Really died, and then woke up in Valhalla, in an afterlife that he'd never thought was real.

She smiles wider, again. "Your loyalty to your husband and shieldmate is a great virtue. Please, come with me, honored Coulson, and we can speak more during the journey. I will attempt to answer all of your questions along the way."

She goes to the doorway (which he swears wasn't there a second ago) and pushes aside the red fabric, gesturing for Phil to follow. He doesn't know what else to do, so he goes along.

And thus does Phillip John Coulson, valiant warrior, enter the gates of Valhalla for the twenty-second time, in the year of (by his reckoning) two thousand and twelve.

Valhalla doesn't know what it's getting itself into.

Chapter Text

The halls of Valhalla seem to go on forever. The endless expanse of each gleaming white wall is broken up by a neatly-spaced row of wooden doors; the halls seem to continue onward to infinity.

Phil traipses along behind the valkyrie as they turn again and again, left and right and left, losing every sense of direction amid the maze of identical corridors. He wonders if Valhalla is modeled after a fortress, intentionally designed to be disorienting.

There is one (and only one) differentiating factor: each door is marked with a complex design traced out in rich crimson, royal blue and forest green. As far as Phil can tell, every pattern is unique. He asks the valkyrie about them and she glides to a halt, her feet hovering a few inches above the floor. She gives him an intense look, and gestures toward the nearest door.

"Look closer. Look with your full sight."

What the hell does that mean? Phil thinks, but he obeys, studying the interwoven angles of the pattern. At first he doesn't see anything but abstraction, the riot of colors and knots and angles making his vision swim and his head grow oddly dizzy. But as he traces the path of a bright blue line, his vision suddenly flips like in one of those Magic Eye illusions, and a pattern emerges from what looked like only chaos.

Meaning unrolls before his eyes, and Phil realizes that the pattern is writing... well, sort-of writing, in that it conveys meaning, though it's not alphabetical and linear like the writing that he's used to. Rather, meaning is encoded in the arrangement and color of each line within the rune.

This particular door, when Phil reads it, says, "Abraham Joseph Hanssen (1894)." Ah, so these doorways must lead into people's rooms, and presumably his own room is somewhere here among them.

The rune continues, in thinner lines full of bright color: "Provider and protector, loyal son, husband, and father, guardian of his people's welfare and servant of the land. Beloved healer to animals, who saved the lives of more than two hundred noble beasts in his day." Phil takes a moment to translate the overblown Asgardian language, and then he turns to the valkyrie and raises an eyebrow.

"A veterinarian?"

She nods. "Honored Hanssen is a noble man who has preserved many lives, both of beloved animal companions, and of the noble pack beasts that enabled his people to sustain their livelihoods."

"So... yeah, I'm sure, that's wonderful, but I thought that Valhalla was for warriors who died in battle? I mean, that's what the myth says..."

He trails off as a woman strides by them, guided by another valkyrie. The woman looks resigned, and a little bit scared. She is middle-aged in appearance, tall and dark-skinned, with short, cropped hair. Despite her obvious distress she nods at them politely, pushing her finger against her nose like she is used to wearing glasses.

She is wearing another of those colorful runes on a pendant around her neck, similar to the ones on the doors. It seems to work the same way, and Phil finds that it's much easier to read this time, even quickly and in passing. He skims the patterns, and discovers that the woman's name is Adjoa Dibi-Thompson and that in life she was a doctor of obstetrics. Newly dead in a car crash, she saved the lives of many women during childbirth, and brought over 1000 children safely into the world.

Well. Apparently Valhalla isn't just for warriors.

His valkyrie guide speaks, once the other pair is past. "I am familiar with those myths of which you speak. But you must understand that the people who passed them down saw Valhalla through the lens of their own culture. They had a very specific set of values, esteeming war and battle above all else, and so they interpreted the requirements in accordance with their own beliefs on social status. But in truth, the gateways of Valhalla are much wider and more numerous."

"Right, okay. So what is Valhalla actually, then? Just a generic sort of heaven?"

The valkyrie looks at him, tilting her head to the side as if she's thinking. After a long moment, she responds, "There are many different destinations after the end of life, one for each type of person. But Valhalla is the reward for everyone who selflessly dedicated her life to serving others, even when it required great sacrifice. Honored Abraham Hassen sacrificed his health and comfort to care for his people's livestock, even in the bitter heart of winter, when he was tired and old. Honored Adjoa Dibi-Thompson, who we just met, sacrificed the approval of her family to pursue a medical degree, and then sacrificed the ideal of bearing her own children to look after and safeguard the children of others."

"There are many ways and forms of sacrifice, each one equally noble. One may have the heart of a warrior without ever knowing war."

Phil nods and falls silent as they tread the endless halls, but inside, he feels lightheaded with relief. If that's true, if the requirement to enter Valhalla is not a death in battle but rather a life of service and sacrifice... Well, Phil knows many people who could meet those criteria a hundred times and still have sacrifice left over. He rejoices at the thought of seeing his friends again.

One man in particular will be in for a very enthusiastic reunion, no matter how long Phil has to wait.

-------

Finally, they come to a door which is blank on the outside, and has no handle. The valkyrie draws to a stop.

"Here we are, honored Coulson," she says. "This will be your chambers while you remain with us, yours to outfit and furnish as you choose."

"Wait, 'while I remain with you'? What does that mean?"

She looks solemn. "Change is the law of the universe, honored Coulson —"

"Please, seriously, call me Phil," he breaks in. It's rude and Phil instantly feels bad for interrupting, but he doesn't think he can hear the phrase "honored Coulson" one more time without needing to hit something.

The valkyrie's mouth twists in what just might be annoyance, and Phil feels guilty. The woman... the interdimensional being is only doing her job, after all. "Sorry. It's just... It's been a long day, that's all."

She inclines her head at him, in a manner that manages to look both solemn and incredibly gracious. He feels like he should be taking notes, until Phil remembers that there's no longer anyone he needs to intimidate.

"Very well, honored Phillip."

Eh. He supposes that it's close enough.

"As I was saying, no being can be forced to remain anywhere forever, not even in Valhalla. In time, many people choose to return."

"Wait, return? To Earth? What, like reincarnation?"

"Yes. It is possible to return and be reborn, though of course those who choose that route are not permitted to remember Valhalla, or anything that came before. But noble men and women are always sorely needed in Midgard, and no one who truly wishes to return is denied."

"So I could just... sign up for another tour of duty?"

"Indeed. But not just yet, for the gods, in their infinite wisdom, have determined that true heroes, with their self-sacrificing nature, would never allow themselves to rest if they were given the opportunity to continue serving. Therefore, they decree that no one may be reborn until his memory is also dead."

"His... memory? I'm sorry, I don't quite follow."

"I will speak more plainly. What I mean is this: as long as there remains one single living person, be it man, woman, or child, who knows of the name and existence of Phillip Coulson, you may not return. Only when your name has been wiped from the mortal histories, only when your face is lost to the sands of time, only then may you ponder a return to Midgard."

"Until then, you must rest and make sport in Valhalla, and be merry, and refresh your spirit here."

Phil thinks of Natasha, of Nick Fury, of his fellow agents. He thinks of the Avengers, of Tony Stark, and of the Captain. He thinks of Clint, his husband; and Phil knows that it will be a long time before his name is forgotten.

Well, if Phil is going to be stuck here in Valhalla for quite some time, he might as well make the best of the situation.

He looks up at the door. "Alright, let's see these chambers. And by the way, do you have a name?" It never hurts to make friends, especially with interdimensional beings of unknown power.

The valkyrie looks faintly surprised for a moment. "You may call me Brunhild. And now give to me your pendant, honored Phillip." Brunhild holds out her hand.

Phil looks down at himself, and there hanging around his neck is one of those runic pendants, of the same type worn by Dr. Dibi-Thompson. He's also noticed them hanging around the necks of other people in the hallways, each one brightly carved and intricately painted.

He slips it over his head and passes it to her. Brunhild takes the pendant in her hand and sets it flat against the surface of the door, right in the center. What looked like solid wood suddenly ripples, as if she has dropped a small object into some kind of viscous fluid. Then part of the door moves, extrudes itself outward into a flat panel shaped with what looks like a cast of a handprint.

Phil knows instinctively that if he set his palm against it, his hand would match up with the hollows perfectly.

Meanwhile, in the blank center of the door, colors burst into brightness and spiral outward in interlocking lines. A rune appears, identical to the one on Phil's pendant.

When Phil looks into the rune to read it, this time he sees his own name. "Phillip John Coulson (2012). Valiant warrior, knight of SHIELD, loyal son and husband, doer of mighty deeds, protector of all Midgard and servant of humankind, who sacrificed his life to defend his noble kindred."

Internally, Phil groans. So this is what everyone is going to see when they look at him from now on? Yikes. He's never been terribly comfortable with praise, and this is just going to be awkward. He consoles himself that at least everyone else here has to put up with the same thing.

Brunhild is waiting, handing him the pendant, so he slips it back around his neck and lays his palm against the plate. What looks like hard metal feels strangely warm beneath his fingers, almost as if it's living. As expected, his hand fits the print exactly.

The door swings upon, and Phil follows Brunhild inside.

Chapter Text

Today

Phil kneels on the floor in the corner of his bedroom, in front of his Source, and stares at the small metal band.

He turns the ring over and over in his hand, studying the surface. This is his fifth attempt; the first four rings that he created were soon after returned to the Source, to dissolve back into Yggdrasil from whence they came. None of them had been quite right. There was always something off, some subtlety of shape or color, some blandness of texture or misplaced line among the carvings.

Both of Clint and Phil's wedding bands had been engraved with a subtle pattern that seemed to be abstract, unless you knew what you were looking for. Anyone in a very small and select group of people — meaning Clint, Phil, Natasha, and somehow Nick, because Nick knew everything — would be able to make out the image of a stylized hawk, wings outstretched, wrapped around a bass clef. Clint had designed it himself, showing off a previously unknown artistic talent.

Now, it's like Phil just can't quite get the lines right.

You'd think it wouldn't be this hard, re-creating something that he's seen every day for two years. But in a way, that's exactly the problem. Anything that he creates now will be only a fake, a clever mimic — an attempt to regain something that should never have been gone in the first place. No matter how close Phil gets it, it still isn't going to feel right.

He knows that he shouldn't blame himself for letting his wedding band be taken away. It seems to be one of the laws of this realm: nothing physical can be brought in alongside your... soul? (Or whatever.) At any rate, Brunhild explained very firmly that it was impossible for mortal materials to be carried from Midgard into Valhalla. So Phil knows that he has no reason to feel guilty, and no cause to think that he's letting Clint down.

He still does, though.

He sighs again and stares down at the ring, the Damascus steel gleaming brightly in his palm. This latest attempt is very nearly perfect.

He closes his palm around the band for minute, lets his eyes fall shut, and allow himself to pretend that he's back on Midgard, back with Clint. That his husband just handed him his wedding band, smiling that devious smile that always makes Phil's heart melt. Clint would look at him through his eyelashes and smirk — because his default expression is a smirk — and say, "Here, old man, I saved this for you. I thought you might need something to remind you that you're married, now that you're getting old and senile." (Their ten-year age difference has always been a source of great amusement for Clint.)

He opens his eyes and dumps the ring back into the basin. He can wait. When Clint comes, they'll create new bands, together.

Phil gives the ring a little push with his mind, like Brunhild taught him, and feels it dissolve back into the formless golden energy from whence it came.

-----

Yesterday

His first thought, when Phil enters the room that will be his for the foreseeable future, is that it looks like a cell. The room is completely empty, nothing but those gleaming white walls, ceiling and floor all the same material. A six-sided box, perfectly square and empty.

There's only one distinguishing feature, over in the corner. Phil thinks that it's a faucet and basin. A small pipe juts directly out from the wall, about a foot above the ground, with a sort of jeweled handle that he assumes must be the tap. Below the pipe is a shallow basin made out of highly-polished metal, so smooth that Phil can see Brunhild's reflection from across the room. The whole arrangement seems weirdly ornate, compared to the rest of the painfully stark room.

He turns to Brunhild to voice a protest — Phil's slept on the floor many a time, and worse, but he has no desire to do so for the rest of his existence. Or are beds simply not considered heroic enough for noble warriors?

Brunhild smiles that tiny smile, just the corners of her mouth lifted, and holds up a finger for silence. She glides over to the weird, polished basin and kneels down before it, beckoning for Phil to do the same. Brunhild lifts the jeweled handle and Phil expects to see a stream of water, but instead what falls from the spout is a sort of golden, glowing... not exactly liquid. It drifts down into the basin slowly, in a way that suggests that it is moving downward only because that's the desired behavior, and not because it is bound by anything so mundane as gravity.

"Honored Phillip," says Brunhild. "This is your connection to the Source."

She swirls a finger in the golden liquid, and when she draws it out, the stuff clings to her finger. It wobbles and phases in a way that makes Phil's eyes hurt, for a moment; and then there is a little jeweled frog with a wind-up key on its back, cradled carefully in Brunhild's palm. An ornate toy, suited for a prince or princess.

The corners of Brunhild's mouth lift another centimeter, and she strokes a finger down the little frog's back before twisting the key three times. The frog opens its mouth, but instead of a ribbit, a sound like flute music comes out, playing a wistful melody.

When the song winds down, Brunhild raises her palm over the basin and tips the jeweled frog inside. Then she makes a gesture with her left hand, like a fist, and the frog dissolves back into that same golden liquid, swirling away into nothing. Phil is left staring at the basin.

Brunhild seems take pity on his confusion. "What you have here, honored Phillip, is a thing that many mortal men would kill for. This is a direct tap into the main trunk of Yggdrasil, which carries all of the Nine Realms in its boughs. This is infinite energy, infinite potential; all of it yours, to shape and create with, as you please."

"You can make rooms for yourself, as many as you desire, for the Source gives you the ability to manipulate space. Some of the Noble Dead choose to make for themselves vast palaces, while others are content with a handful of rooms. You can create a bedchamber and destroy it the next day, and build yourself another one the following night. Likewise, whatever furnishings you need, and any other object that you desire, be it for necessity or pleasure — you only have to wish and imagine, and it is yours."

Phil's mind goes immediately to Clint. "Anything?"

"There are a couple of limitations." And Brunhild must be getting to know him, because she gives him a serious look and says, "These are not limitations by fiat, honored Phillip, nor by the word of any god. They are natural laws, inherent in the very structure of Yggdrasil."

He has the feeling she's about to dash all of his hopes.

"The Source will not allow you to create a living being. All things that live must be born; it would be an abomination to create one." Phil wonders what she would think of JARVIS. "Nothing that you create will possess the spark of life; you would get only a cold, unmoving statue, or perhaps an automaton, if you were truly clever."

"The second limitation is this: you may use the Source to create food and drink, and it will be exactly what you desire. You may consume it with enjoyment, and without fear of harm. However, it will not provide true nourishment. It will simply melt into illusion when it passes into your stomach."

Alright, that's not so bad. At least Phil can mimic a good pizza, when he's in the mood.

That brings up an obvious question, but before Phil can ask it, Brunhild continues. He wonders how many times she's delivered this same speech. "To maintain your health and good cheer, you must come to dine and drink at one of the feasting halls, which are found all over Valhalla. There will be one very close to anywhere that you are. Simply walk down the hallway until you see an open room with the rune of eating set above it. There you may obtain meat and mead, or any other food that you desire."

"Anything?"

"Simply name for the cooks what it is that would please you, and they will prepare it. I promise, honored Phillip, you will not be disappointed. It is with reason that Valhalla is known for its feasting, and the mead here is the best in any of the Nine Worlds."

"Okay, got it. And how do I get back to here, then?"

She nods at him. "The pathways of Valhalla are numerous and winding, growing ever more so with time, as the number of the Noble Dead increases. But the pendant around your neck will guide you back to your own chambers. Simply hold it in your palm and direct it to return you, and it will lead you where you want to go."

Phil nods, and Brunhild takes her leave then, suggesting that he begin to architect his chambers. He waves goodbye to her, and settles on his knees in front of the mirrored basin.

Item number one on Phil's list: a proper suit and tie.

-----

Today

As the last traces of his latest creation melt into nothing, Phil hears a knocking at his door. "Come in!" he calls, and rises smoothly to his feet. The door cracks open and Pierre peaks his head around, followed by Henry.

Phil met these gentlemen yesterday, when he took Brunhild's advice and made his way to the nearest feasting hall. (The pizza was in fact delicious, with a delicate crust of just the perfect thickness, creamy cheese, flavorful mushrooms, and perfectly-seasoned sauce. Phil hasn't yet worked up the courage to try the mead.)

Pierre and Henry are, apparently, knights from the 1300s, who fought on opposite sides during the Hundred Years War. After death, they met, and became the best of friends. (Or perhaps a bit more than that — Phil hasn't quite determined the exact nature of their relationship.)

Henry had spotted Phil sitting alone and proceeded to take the next chair and strike up a conversation. Pierre followed shortly after. When the two knights discovered that Phil was a type of soldier, highly trained in the combat techniques of his day, they were both completely thrilled. They got into a long conversation that started with Phil attempting to explain unmanned drones, and ended with Pierre and Henry inviting Phil to spar with them tomorrow.

Apparently Henry was friends with a 17th century Shaolin monk known only as Mr. Yu, who was training the two knights in his own style of hand-to-hand combat. They both spoke highly of the master, and the thought of practicing with a Shaolin monk was certainly intriguing, so Phil agreed to go along.

It's not like he has any other time commitments.

"Hey, Phil!" Pierre booms, in his rough, low voice, and Phil wonders suddenly about language. He is fluent in French, of course — along with five other tongues — but not necessarily in medieval French. Furthermore, he hears Pierre as if the man is speaking English, right down to the use of common slang and idioms. There seems to be some kind of universal translation in play, which is certainly convenient. (Because he's secretly a nerd, Phil has to resist the urge to check his ear for a Babel fish.)

"Are you ready to go? Mr. Yu will be waiting," Henry asks. Phil looks down, waves his hand, and transforms his comfortable suit and tie into a set of workout clothing. When he looks up, Henry is examining his room with great interest. (Phil wonders what the rooms of a 14th century French knight might look like, and resolves to get himself invited into one at the first opportunity.)

"It feels like a barracks in here," the English knight teases. His gaze settles on the guitar and cello that lean on their stands against the wall, and his eyes light up with interest. "Do you play these instruments?" Phil looks at them, and sighs.

The cello: Phil's first love, with lessons every week from the time he was six years old until he turned eighteen. Because the Coulsons were that kind of family, with private music tutors, and all of his relatives lined up in their Sunday best at his recitals, stiffly applauding. Only much later did he take up the guitar.

In fact, he'd only started playing it for Clint, long before they ever considered dating. His then-partner insisted on teaching him during a particularly long and tedious mission, when they were both holed up in some godawful apartment in deep cover, with nothing to do but wait. Clint wouldn't take "no" for a response, and Phil found out that he enjoyed it.

He closes his eyes, remembering the tattered brown curtains, the stained yellow rug, the broken stove — the long hours they'd spent together, talking and laughing, practicing guitar. (Clint later informed him that that mission was the first time he'd ever seen Phil laugh. Phil responded that it was the first time he saw Clint as a human being and not some kind of quirky, arrow-launching robot.)

Phil never stopped loving the cello, still practiced it every day that he was able, but Clint had expanded his horizons. In music, as in so many other things.

He looks up at Henry, and says, "Not anymore."

Phil suddenly craves the feel of flesh parting beneath his knuckles, and that state of hyper-focus that will draw his mind away.

"Let's go spar."

Chapter Text

Coulson avoids the leg sweep and rolls hard to the side, dodging the follow-up arm chop. He's managed to stay clear so far, but this is his fourth fight of the evening, and he's beginning to tire. Yu, on the other hand, is fresh and seemingly indefatigable.

As Coulson flips back onto his feet, Yu rushes him, grabbing him on one side and flipping him onto his back. Again Coulson tries to roll out and regain his footing, but Yu is just too fast for him. The Shaolin master is as fast as Natasha, moving so that his arms and legs are just a blur as he catches Coulson up in a vise-like grip. Somehow, Phil ends up on his feet with his arms twisted and entwined behind his back, in such a position that any movement on his part would put pressure on his arms in a way likely to break them. It's a hold which is completely painless as long as Phil doesn't move, which also makes it nearly impossible to escape.

Phil is impressed. That move would have come in handy in Earth, especially that time in Sao Paulo. He resolves to learn it, as soon as he can bribe or persuade Yu Shen to show him.

He goes limp and raises a hand, accepting his defeat. Henry and Pierre, observing from the edge of the room, are both cheering and applauding now, caught up in the intensity of the fight. Phil hopes that he has acquitted himself well, at least.

Yu drops Phil's arms and spins away, a move obviously designed to protect him should Phil attempt to lash out, now that the match is over. Coulson, of course, would never exhibit such poor sportsmanship, but it speaks to Yu's experience in real combat situations.

He turns to Yu and bows, in the way that he remembers being taught by his old trainers. (None of them were of this particular school, but he hopes that the customs are roughly the same.) Yu returns the bow, and smiles a broad smile. The master is a surprisingly young man, about as tall as Phil but incredibly thin and wiry, with the ability of a true martial artist to fling his body through the air in impossible configurations, cause incredible amounts of damage, and still land on his feet.

Phil spares a moment to wish that he could watch Yu and Natasha fight together. Now that would be a match-up for the ages.

"Well fought, Phillip Coulson," Mr. Yu says.

"Thank you, sensei," Phil replies. "It was an honor to fight with you, and I hope to be granted that honor again in the future."

Upon hearing that Phil had training in unarmed combat, Yu set him against Pierre to gauge his skill. When he took down the stout, muscular knight within minutes, Yu sent him against Henry, with similar results.

The next challenge was both of them together, which was a little bit trickier to resolve; but the knights obviously had no training in supporting each other, and ended up working at cross-purposes more often than not. (Phil has several suggestions for improvement, which he intends to share with the two men later.) Henry got in a good hit that sent Phil flying across the mats, but he regained his footing quickly and took both of them down.

At that point Yu offered to spar with Phil himself, which he happily accepted.

He's feeling better now, just as he expected — the cleansing fire and focus of close-quarters combat burning away his prior melancholy. The adrenaline in his blood makes everything seem bright and sharp-edged, and faraway. And Clint would want this for him, wouldn't want him to just sit around and mope. He would expect Phil to keep moving, to stay in practice and keep his mind and body sharp. So Phil will do it.

He would hate for his husband to arrive and then be disappointed.

The jocular English knight claps him on the back, so hard that Phil almost staggers forward. "Yes indeed, that was a rousing match! I don't think I've ever seen two people move so fast, in all of my existence." He leans in a little closer, and lowers his voice to what is probably supposed to be a whisper, though Phil has no doubt that the other two men in the room can still hear everything that he's saying. "Honestly, I think you're almost as good as Yu is. With a little bit of training, I think that you could beat him!"

Phil glances sideways at Yu, in time to catch the brief smirk that flickers over the man's face. He wonders how much Yu was actually holding back during their match. Phil suspects that it will be longer than Henry thinks, before he can dream of defeating the sensei.

"Food and drink, guys, what do you say? I'm famished," Pierre states. He is plainspoken, less jovial than Henry, with an honest face that shows every emotion. Phil decides that Henry is most like a shorter and less-godly Thor, whereas Pierre reminds him of an older Steve Rogers, without the Captain's air of painful sincerity.

"Sounds like a great plan!" Henry enthuses, and slings his arm around Pierre's shoulders. "How about it, Shen? Phil? Care to join us?"

Yu nods. "Only if you promise to show me more of those deliciou meats from your homeland, Pierre."

"Absolutely. Phil?"

He doesn't have to think too long before he nods his acceptance. The sparring has really worked up his appetite, and the thought of dining in good company seems quite appealing.

-----

"So you were married, then?" Yu asks Phil, picking at the charcuterie plate provided by Pierre. "I was married too, on Earth." He takes a sip of his mead. Before Phil can respond, he continues, "Oh, try this meat here, it's delicious. What is this called?"

"That's paupiette, Shen. It's made of veal."

Phil is somewhat taken aback by the casual tone of Yu Shen's question, but he supposes that the other man has had a long time to adjust. "Yes. As a matter of fact, I am married." He carefully emphasizes the present tense. "My husband's name is Clint Barton and he's also a warrior, specializing in archery. He's alive, right now." His three table companions look at him with expressions of curiosity, as if Phil's said something surprising. He has to bite back the urge to snap at them.

He consoles himself by daring a potentially awkward question. "What happened to your wife, then? Is she here in Valhalla, as well?"

Yu takes another sip of his mead, and shrugs. "I don't know. I haven't really seen her since I died. She was a brave and honorable woman, so I wouldn't be surprised if she's around, somewhere."

Phil is taken aback. "You mean you haven't even tried to find her?" Yu just shrugs, and takes a long pull from his tankard, throat muscles moving as he gulps the amber liquid.

Well, maybe they didn't have a very good relationship. Phil knows people, back on earth, who could wish their (usually former) spouses all manner of happiness but still have no desire to see them ever again, given the choice. It's unfortunate, but it does happen.

He turns to Pierre, who he knows he can trust to give a full and honest answer. "How about you, Pierre? I know that you weren't married, but do you have any kin here in Valhalla? Siblings, parents, old friends?"

Pierre takes a sip of his mead before responding. "I saw my father, once. He was a brave and noble warrior, who taught me about knighthood and how to conduct myself upon the field of battle. I was unsurprised to see him in Valhalla."

"Oh, that's great, I'm glad to hear it." Then the implications of Pierre's words catch up. "Wait, hang on a second. You saw him once? What happened after that? Why didn't you guys stay in touch?"

Pierre shrugs, and takes another drink of mead. "I don't know what you mean. We had a wonderful discussion about the glories of battles past, and then he went on his way, as I did mine."

"You didn't want to see him again? I mean... your father?" Phil can't entirely hide his shock and disbelief.

But Pierre simply says, "No."

What the fuck.

In desperation, Phil turns to Henry. "Henry. Surely there were people from your lifetime that you loved. Tell me about your friends and family."

Henry picks up his tankard and drains it, before replying. "When I was alive, my most beloved kin was my brother, William, who was my elder by ten years. He was a blacksmith of great skill and prowess. When I was a child, I would play at shaping iron, with a stick for my hammer and a rock for my anvil, so much did I want to be just like him. It was the happiest day of my life when his children — twins, Margaret and John — were born."

"And you have news of them, right? Your brother, your niece and nephew, you know where they are now? What happened to them?"

Henry studies his tankard, looking disappointed that it is empty. "William passed on before me, when I was just fifteen. He died nobly, defending his family from bandits. He drove them off, but took an arrow to his shoulder, which became infected. Three days later, he died of fever."

"That certainly is a noble death. So he's here, right? In Valhalla?"

Henry shrugs. "That, I do not know."

Over his long and illustrious career, first as a soldier and then as a SHIELD agent, Phil Coulson has learned to listen to his instincts when they say that something's wrong. Right now, all of those instincts are screaming.

Something is very, very wrong with this picture. If it was only one person speaking about their lost loved ones with such apathy and detachment, Phil could chalk it up to personal trauma, or just a naturally cold personality. But that doesn't fit with what Phil has seen of Henry and Pierre; they seem warm and friendly, and display obvious affection toward one another. He doesn't know Yu Shen as well, but the sensei doesn't strike him as a particularly antisocial person. A truly unfeeling person would make a poor teacher, and Yu seems like a very fine one — disciplined and stern, yes, but not uncaring.

So it's not that these people are particularly damaged. Furthermore the detachment seems very specific, applying only to relationships that existed during their lives. That implies some sort of external influence, a force working on these men's minds, to... What? Suppress their emotions? They seem to remember their loved ones just fine, but they don't seem to really care.

What could cause such a thing? And why would the Valhallans allow it?

Phil blanches when his mind digs up a possible answer.

There was a time in his life when Phil went to college, and for a month or two he'd planned to major in Classical Studies. This was post-army and pre-SHIELD, when he'd seriously considered giving up fighting to pursue the life of an academic. (He'd only changed his mind because Nick had convinced him of how badly the human race needed Phil's particular skillset — and Fury wasn't talking about fluency in Latin.) So he's very familiar with the Greek and Roman myths.

He remembers Brunhild's words: that the myths were passed down through the lenses of human culture. And surely it was not just the Norsemen who had contact; surely there were truths in the other stories, too.

He remembers Greek mythology, the rivers of Hades. The River Lethe, which makes the dead forget. A scene from Virgil's Aeneid: the throng of spirits gathered, waiting to drink the water, to take away the painful memories of their old lives.

Myths that hold the seeds of truth. The waters of Lethe, that make you forget.

In Valhalla, you can get any type of food you want, but there's only ever mead to drink. And Yu and Pierre and Henry all tipping back their tankards, every time they were forced to remember past attachments. A suspicion is growing in Phil's mind, the connections lining up. And he doesn't particularly like his conclusions.

He rises from the table. "Please excuse me, gentlemen," he says, and is proud that his voice remains calm.

"Oh, must you go already?" says Henry, looking earnestly disappointed. "But your plate is still full, and you haven't touched your drink at all!"

Phil barely holds back a shudder. "I'm sorry. I just remembered something that I have to do. I have to go now." As excuses go it's a lame one, but they seem to take it at face value, and wave him away.

"We will spar again tomorrow!" Yu Shen calls out, to his retreating back.

Maybe they will, and maybe not. Phil has higher concerns just now than learning a new arm hold.

He refuses to just give up on his kindred — both his blood relations, and his family of choice. He absolutely refuses to forget Clint. It is completely unacceptable, unthinkable, the idea of never seeing his husband again. Of never knowing what has happened to his friends.

If this is heaven, then Phil has some serious questions. And if there's one thing Phil Coulson is good at, it's getting answers.

-----

After wandering the hallways for several hours, Phil is starting to rethink his options. Perhaps he should return to his chambers, for now. Perhaps the Source could help him, perhaps he could create some kind of communications unit...

Just then, he sees the back of a tall blonde woman, wearing a winged helmet and carrying a spear. Phil nearly trips over himself in his rush to reach her. "Brunhild!" he calls out, sprinting down the hallway. "Brunhild, wait! I need to speak with you!"

The valkyrie turns and frowns at him, and Phil draws to a halt. The hair and body are identical, but the face is subtly different, the eyes darker, the nose a different shape. This woman and Brunhild could be twins, but they are not the same.

"I'm sorry, ma'am." There's no harm, and often benefit, in being polite. "I'm looking for Brunhild, the valkyrie. Do you know where I can find her?"

Her frown deepens. "For what purpose do you seek my sister Brunhild?" Her voice is higher-pitched than Brunhild's, though her diction and accent are equally formal.

Phil holds his hands up in front of himself, feigning harmless confusion. "I only want to ask her a question about Valhalla. She's the one who greeted me, you see, and there's something I forgot to ask her at the time." It's close enough to pass for truth, but the valkyrie just looks down at him, unimpressed.

Then the newly-dead woman shifts awkwardly and clears her throat, which seems to make the valkyrie impatient. "If you insist on disturbing my sister at her rest, then I suggest you seek her within the Hall of Thor, at the very center of Valhalla, where all of the shield-maidens dwell when we are not serving." Having delivered this message, she turns, and they resume their journey.

Phil stares after them, mouth agape, and roundly chastises himself for being a complete moron.

Of course. Thor.

Chapter Text

For a day and two days, and three days after that, Phillip Coulson, Agent of SHIELD, walks the halls of Valhalla seeking wisdom. Watch him: he follows no map, keeps no reckoning of distance, and cares not where he lays his head at night. Ever he goes, ever he seeks, calling out along the way. He cries out for anyone who can tell him of Thor, and Thor's Hall Bilskirnir, in the center of Valhalla.

See Phillip the Brave as he walks through uncounted branching passageways, which seem to split and tangle and pass through one another in ways that surely must defy the laws of physics. (Do the laws of physics even apply here? Phillip wonders.) He passes by uncounted doorways, one after another, stretching onward to infinity. He eats with strangers and speaks with everyone he sees, always asking about the Hall of Thor, seeking anyone who has seen it with his or her own eyes. Always he receives only shrugs and swigs of mead, for a response.

When he sleeps, he sleeps in theatres and libraries, in sparring-halls and jousting halls, and once, on the sidelines of an archery range. (It is the best night of sleep Phillip has had since he died.) All of the time that he is not sleeping or eating, Phillip the Brave walks the halls of Valhalla, seeking wisdom.

-----

He crouches down before the Source, and thinks carefully before he turns the tap. "Create for me a map of Valhalla, with Bilskirnir clearly marked."

The golden light forms into a sheet of parchment paper, and a spiderweb of fine black lines appear in one corner, entwining and intersecting. In the rough center of the tangle is a red circle, marked with Phil's rune. He waits expectantly for the lines to expand outward and fill the page with corridors, but they remain stubbornly small, limited to the area right around Phil's chambers.

In the vast empty space in the middle of the page, there appears the word "Bilskirnir", writ large and slanting, with no marker to indicate even vaguely where the hall might be.

Phil frowns at the source. Always before, it has cooperated with his wishes; why the sudden refusal now?

He thinks back to Brunhild's words: "Anything that you can imagine, anything at all, can be created by the Source. Only hold the image of your desire firmly in your mind, and it will form into existence." He has been so focused on the "anything" part that maybe he has neglected to consider the limitations.

The valkyrie said "anything that you can imagine", anything for which he could hold an image firmly in his mind. And of course, Phil hasn't been to Bilskirnir, doesn't know the corridors and rooms along the way. It seems that what he knows, the Source knows too — and nothing more. Hence the vast blank spots upon the map.

It's quite a dilemma.

Phil decides to employ one of his common strategies for solving a tough problem: he goes for a run. (He's never been in better shape than in that period of time right before he and Clint finally started dating.) He changes his suit into workout clothes, and sets off without a specific route in mind. His feet pound the endless corridors of Valhalla, flying past row upon row of brightly-runed doors. He passes other runners, and greets them with the small nod that seems to be universal runners' code for "You are one of us".

After ten or twelve miles, when his breath is short in his lungs and his back slick with sweat, no solution has yet presented itself. To simply set off into the corridors would be madness; if the map's scale is at all accurate, Valhalla is thousands of miles across. (As it would have to be, to contain the worthy dead from the entire history of humankind.) Phil could wander for ages, and he doesn't have ages, he needs to get some answers soon, he needs Clint...

He cuts off that train of thought.

At least he wouldn't have to worry about starving, with feasting-halls dotting the corridors. And he could always find his way back to his own rooms, no matter how far he wandered, because of the pendant...

The pendant.

Phil comes to a halt, nearly colliding with three tall, slender African runners who blow past him like the wind. He steps to the side of the corridor and pulls his pendant out, cradling it in his palm.

Immediately, the familiar tugging is there, like a magnetic field prickling at his skin, pushing and pulling him in the right direction, toward home. Though he ran without planning, taking random junctions and pounding down unknown hallways, though he has no conscious idea of to how to get back, still the pendant can always bring him home.

There's an idea, there.

-----

The second time Phil kneels before the Source, he forms an image very carefully in his mind of a compass, heavy needle slowly turning. The compass has no direction-marks, no north or south or west; instead, it points only toward Thor's Hall. Phil thinks the word Bilskirnir, hoping that it will be enough to set the needle straight.

The round shape forms in his hands and so does the needle, but the destination-point at the top remains stubbornly blank. The needle aimlessly rotates.

It's the same limitation as the map: Phil had hoped otherwise, but Bilskirnir is just a word, not a destination. Without a strong image to back it, it's just a meaningless string of syllables.

Phil frowns, and looks down at his pendant. The bright rune on the necklace is his own, is him, in a way that no string of Latin letters ever was. The rune is him, his image and his essence, and it captures him and ties him to this place. It is full of meaning.

What he needs is Thor's rune, the rune that contains the essence of Bilskirnir in the deeper language of this place. Only then can he inscribe the compass; only then can he make it work.

But this is progress! Surely it will be possible to find documentation of Thor's rune, or someone who has been to Bilskirnir and seen it, who can teach it to him. Surely in a hall full of warriors, there will be wandering women and curious men, who have come across Thor's Hall on their journeys.

Surely someone can show him the way.

-----

For six days, as the legends tell us, Phil wanders through the halls of Valhalla, asking about Thor's Hall to everyone he meets. Everywhere, he is met with well-wishes and shrugs, and apologies that the people cannot help him.

It seems that few people see the need to wander in Valhalla, when they have everything that they need right where they are.

On the seventh day of walking, Phil is treading the thousandth identical corridor when he passes by a woman. She is handsome, with dark hair and kind eyes, dressed in a sort of military grey jacket and a knee-length skirt, and something about her seems very familiar.

Phil stops, turns, and studies her retreating back, flipping through his mental file of faces. A former SHIELD colleague? No, not quite.

Someone he served with in the Army? Also no, but it feels closer... She's definitely military, has the bearing of a soldier. But that old-fashioned skirt...

Phil blinks rapidly, and scratches behind his ear. Could it actually be? He clears his throat, his heart all aflutter, and calls out after the woman.

"Agent Carter? Margaret Carter?"

The woman spins around in a smooth single motion. In her hand is a tiny gun that wasn't there a minute ago, its unblinking black eye pointed steadily at Phil. He lifts his hands skyward, slowly, displaying empty palms.

He knows that Carter cannot really hurt him — even a direct headshot would heal overnight, here — but he has no desire to be incapacitated and thus delay his mission.

The woman's eyes narrow. "I have told you bastards a million times, I will not do it. You cannot make me forget, no matter how much you chase me. Tell your little friends this: keep coming after me, and I'll keep shooting you. I can play this game all day." She cocks the pistol, and the click of the hammer sounds loud in the suddenly-empty hall.

Phil chooses his words carefully, drawing on his years of experience with negotiations. "Agent Carter, I'm not here to make you do anything. I wish you no harm. I don't know who you think I am, but I'm not one of the people who are hunting you, I promise. I'm just Phil Coulson, a human being. I recognized you from the Captain America comics."

Peggy gives him a long, cool look, taking in his bland expression, his empty hands, and the bedraggled clothing that he hasn't recently bothered to repair. She slowly lowers the gun to her side, but Phil notes with approval that she keeps her finger firmly on the trigger.

"Really?" she says. "Those silly comics? I was barely in them... And besides, they got my hair all wrong."

Phil scratches behind one ear and might, just slightly, blush. "I, ah, I'm very, very familiar with the comics, Agent Carter." And he knows better than to say it, but her hair looks pretty accurate to him.

Peggy shifts her stance slightly. "Okay. Well, then maybe you can help me."

"I'm trying to find Steve."

-----

Telling Peggy Carter that Steve Rodgers is still alive is one of the saddest things that Phil has ever done.

"You mean, he... he was alive, this entire time? Just, frozen, under the ice?" Phil nods, and Peggy sinks down to her knees. "My god." She cradles her head in her hands. "My god, all of this time... and he was always alive..."

She looks up at Phil. "When I woke up here, you know, I was so happy, because I knew that if Valhalla was real, if there was actually an afterlife where soldiers and brave people went, then that meant that I could finally be with Steve again. Because of course he would be here, no question; no one deserved Valhalla more than him. I knew that if I could only find him —" her voice breaks, and she covers her eyes with her hand. Phil gives her space, uncertain what to say.

After a moment, she collects herself enough to speak again. "You know about the mead?" Phil nods.

"Oh, thank God. I thought I was the only one to figure it out, or maybe the only one to care, and that would just be horrible." She gives a weird little hiccup, like she's biting back a sob. "Right. So what year did they figure out that Steve was still alive?"

"2011," Phil answers. "Not too long before I died, in 2012."

"2011. Jesus." Peggy shakes her head. "I missed him by six years. Just six years... and he still must be a young man, right?" Phil nods again, unsure of how to make this easier on her. "So even if we'd met, I would have been an old woman."

"Jesus," she says again. "And here I've been, walking for the past six years, running from the Guardians and searching for him everywhere, and he isn't even here. He isn't even here, my God. This place, it's wrong, it's cruel and just... wrong..." She breaks down again. Phil hesitantly lays a hand on her arm, which she doesn't acknowledge.

After a few minutes of quiet sobbing, she wipes her eyes and speaks through her sniffles. "What did you say that your name was again?"

"Phil." He extends his hand, and Carter takes it in a firm grip. "Senior Agent Phillip John Coulson, formerly of SHIELD."

"Ah, SHIELD," she nods. "I had dealings with them after they were founded. Good people, if somewhat over-fond of secrecy." Phil can't help but agree, thinking of the lengths to which Clint and he went to keep their relationship private.

"So, wait," she continues. "If you're with SHIELD, did you... Did you actually meet Steve?"

Phil blushes again, and can't hold back a small grin. "I... Yes, yes I did. I was honored to be able to work with him, in fact. We were working an op together when I was killed by Loki."

Peggy finally vanishes the gun back to wherever it came from. "So he's still fighting the good fight, then?" She smiles proudly. "Of course he is. That's Steve, all the way — frozen in ice for what, 70 years? And he still wakes up every inch the soldier."

"He's amazing," Phil nods. "He's been my inspiration, a huge role model ever since I was a little boy, playing "free the prisoners" and pretending to punch Nazis."

Peggy sits smiling for a moment, obviously lost in fond remembrance. Then she shakes herself and executes one of the abrupt pivots that seem define her conversational style. "Did you say that you were fighting Loki? As in, the actual god Loki? Do gods walk the earth, then, in 2012?"

Phil shrugs. He's forgotten how weird that could sound, to someone who wasn't used to Thor and Loki. "Walk, crash-land on, fly-over being pulled by a large hammer... Sure. Take your pick."

He remembers back to a rainy night in New Mexico, a then-unknown intruder, Clint's voice cracking jokes through his earpiece. "I think I'm starting to root for him, sir." He has to suppress a sharp, sudden pang of longing. This isn't the time for it, and as much as he misses his husband, Peggy's been missing Steve for far, far longer.

"In fact, both Cap... Steve and I were working alongside Thor, Loki's brother, on the mission to neutralize him. And you'll be proud to hear that Steve could definitely hold his own, even against the literal God of Thunder."

Peggy is clearly struggling to push down her emotions. "Wait a second. You know Thor? As in, owner of the bloody great hall right in the middle of Valhalla, Thor? And you personally know him?"

Phil nods. "Yes! I've been trying to find him, as a matter of fact. Have you been there? Have you seen Thor's Hall?"

"Sure, I passed it, I think, a year or so back. It's impossible to forget, believe me, bloody great separate building inside Valhalla, with these hundreds and hundreds of doors and pillars covered in gold, all marked with the rune of Thor."

"Fantastic!" Phil allows himself to get a little bit excited. "Oh, this is great news. Surely Thor will be able to help them, figure out how to reunite Phil with Clint, and Peggy with Steve again. "Do you know the rune, could you draw it for me?"

"Of course. Just get me a brush and paper, and I'll show you."

"Peggy, you're amazing. That's the best news I've heard since I died." Phil waylays a passerby, a woman who lives in the area, and begs her to borrow some markers and a paper.

As they wait for her to return, Peggy asks the question that Phil has been dreading. "So, who are you missing? Who's that important to you, that you're willing to forsake the sweet forgetfulness?"

Phil answers simply. "My husband." Peggy's eyes narrow slightly at the word "husband", but she refrains from comment. "His name is Clint Barton, and he's..." Phil falters.

He was about to say that Clint was still among the living, but... If Steve could be alive and Peggy not know it, then all of his assumptions about Valhalla could be wrong. Could Clint have died at the hands of Loki or his minions? Could he be here, in Valhalla, right at this moment, separated from Phil, and neither of them even know it? Could he already have forgotten Phil?

Ever since he arrived here, Phil has believed as an article of faith that he would know it, if anyone close to him died and arrived here. But that may not be at all true.

Peggy has been searching in vain for six years.

"...he's very dear to my heart," Phil finishes. In a sudden and atypical display of passion, he adds, "And I would burn the branches of Yggdrasil, tear apart Valhalla brick by brick, and go to war against the gods themselves, to get him back."

Peggy rises to her feet, standing straight-backed and proud, loose and confident, and extends her hand. One soldier to another.

"I want to help. Tell me what I can do, and if I can, I'll do it."

Chapter Text

Many turns, many traps, and many obstacles did Phillip the Brave and Proud Margaret face, on the road to Bilskirnir. They walked until their feet were tired and sore, until blisters rose and fell again, until their eyes grew heavy and the weapons trembled in their hands. And still they walked, never ceasing; and still the compass drew them onward.

-----

Two weeks into their long journey to Bilskirnir, Phil and Peggy are attacked.

They're in a feasting-hall that looks just like every other feasting-hall, with the cook who look identical to the cook in every other feasting-hall. They are dining and chatting with a couple of friendly old Icelandic fishermen when the hall around them falls silent, and the back of Phil's neck prickles. He looks up to see three men standing in the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the room's single exit.

At least, they look like men, until Phil takes another look and notices that their faces are frozen and absolutely identical, down to the smallest curves and wrinkles.

Masks.

Peggy is already rising to her feet, pulling her pistol out of its hidden pocket. She slides sideways, moving to get her back against the wall. In perfect, uncanny, mechanical unison, the mask-men swivel their heads to track her.

One of them speaks — or maybe all three of them together, Phil cannot quite tell. "Margaret Elizabeth Carter, we require you to come with us. Do not resist, and no one will get hurt." His (or possibly their) voice is perfectly flat and perfectly final.

Phil wonders if they have the capacity to process argument, or if they're more like mindless robots. Maybe they're a Valhallan version of the Hammer drones that became such an annoyance back on Earth.

Why would such a thing even be necessary, here?

Phil looks over at Peggy. Her eyes are wide, but her aim is perfectly steady as she points her gun at the closest mask-man, aiming for the head. Her voice is loud and clear.

"No."

She cocks the hammer.

Phil looks around. Everyone else in the feasting-hall is staring at them silently, with these stupefied, blank looks on their faces. He wonders what sort of control the mask-men have over these people — brave warriors, one and all. No one got to Valhalla by being the type to sit idly by when someone is in trouble, but there's obviously no help to be had from them right now.

"Agent Carter, do you need some help?" he calls out, calmly. The three mask-men swivel their heads back to stare at him. Their eyes have no pupils, and the irises gleam with a sickly green light that calls to mind the color of Loki's magic. Phil has to fight down a chill as it crawls down his spine.

He has questions for Peggy, so many questions — but they can wait until their lives are not in danger.

"Yes, please, Agent Coulson," Peggy replies, her voice perfectly level. Only the terse tone gives away that she might be in trouble.

Phil rises to his feet, just as the mask-men swivel back toward Peggy. In that same creepy unison, they open their mouths into perfectly round O's, and from each mouth extends something that looks like a cross between a tongue and a gun-barrel. It telescopes outward until it forms a tube about six inches long, and then the tip of it begins to glow green. Phil finds that he doesn't really want to find out what the organs actually do.

Peggy shoots first. Phil shoots last.

-----

When Phil stops moving, there are three tables overturned, and the diners are all cowering beneath the remaining tables. The bodies of three definitely-inhuman beings are piled in the doorway of the feasting-hall, dribbling silver liquid from multiple exit wounds. Phil walks calmly to Peggy, to give her a hand up from where she is crouching, behind a serving-platter that she used as a makeshift shield.

As Phil guessed, the mask-men weren't too intelligent. Whether they were biological, mechanical, or magical in origin, or some uncanny combination thereof, they seemed to be programmed with one goal: to capture Peggy. As a result, they seemed to ignore everyone but her. They didn't even start to defend themselves against Phil until he'd already disarmed two of them with neat, precise shots right down the barrels of their tongue-guns.

He is quite pleased that his guess about their weak point not only proved correct, but caused a satisfying little series of explosions down the length of the mask-men's bodies. (No one can say that Phil lacks a sense of style, in his own very specific way.)

As Peggy rises to her feet, Phil notices that somewhere along the way, her old-fashioned skirt has transformed into long grey trousers. Convenient, that.

Peggy turns to examine the bodies, nudging one with the edge of her boot, and then nods toward the door. Now that the danger has passed, her pants shimmer and flow together, becoming a skirt once more.

Boy, would SHIELD ever love to get their hands on that technology.

Phil turns and nods politely at the terrified diners. "You can probably come out of there now. It's us they're after, and we're just leaving." He gives them all a little wave. "Enjoy your meals."

Phil and Peggy step over the bodies together, arm in arm, keeping one other's balance. Once in the hallway, they both shift into a fast jog and make their exit, without saying a word.

Once they've put a few miles between themselves and the mask-men, Phil slows to a walk and turns to Peggy. "Okay, spill. Why are there robots with guns in their mouths trying to kill you?"

Peggy flushes a little and looks down, avoiding Phil's gaze. It's the first time he's seen her look embarrassed since they met. "I may have, erm... I sabotaged one of the feasting-halls."

"What? Why?"

"Tactical error." She kicks the ground idly. "You know how all of the cooks are the same? I don't know what they are, but they're definitely not human, and not sentient like the valkyries are. So I cooked up some explosives, and took him out."

"I thought that if I could cut off the supply of Lethe and force the people around me to remember, they would get angry and, basically, rise up in revolt. I hoped to create a rebellion that would spread throughout Valhalla and eventually draw the attention of, I dunno, Thor maybe. Or whoever's in charge."

"Ah. A bold plan."

"Yes, and a rather stupid one, as I quickly came to realize. You see, I was drawing the wrong lessons from history. The people here aren't downtrodden under the heels of some foreign oppressor, just waiting for somebody to organize them so that they can rise up and throw off the shackles, etcetera."

"No, for the most part they're quite happy with things the way they are. They don't care about what they've lost, because they don't actually feel it. They don't feel anything but positive sensations; why would anyone want to change that? What kind of fool would want to remember, to relive the pain of separation and loss over and over again?"

Phil opens his mouth to protest, and then closes it again when no words come to him.

"I was right about one thing: they did get angry, just not at the powers controlling Valhalla. Instead, they got angry at me. A bunch of them barricaded me inside my chambers, and some other went running to the valkyries and basically ratted me out as a traitor."

"I was able to escape, but I've had the Guardians after me ever since. Those are the, ah, robots with gun-mouths, as you say. They've always come just one at a time, though. This is the first time I've ever seen three of them together. So that's a bit concerning."

"I'm not quite sure how they're tracking me, or if they even are. They might just have been random encounters. But I seem to run into a Guardian once every three weeks or thereabouts, so unless they're getting smarter, we should be safe for awhile."

"I see. Well, let's hope that they're not getting smarter."

Phil thinks of Brunhild and the way she'd smiled at the little jeweled frog, and he feels sad. He's always assumed that Brunhild was friendly, that she would help him or at least provide some honest answers, if he could find her. But if the valkyries are complicit in maintaining the current system, that may not be the case.

Then Phil has a thought that chills him to the bone. What if Thor, himself, is complicit? What if he agrees with things the way they are?

What if they successfully find him and make their cases, and he turns them away? Or, worse, hands them over to the Guardians? Thor is a Prince of Asgard, after all; it's his responsibility to uphold the law. And Peggy is wanted, and Phil probably is too by now, after having taken out three of the Guardians.

What they're doing is a bit like wanted criminals handing themselves over to the highest authorities.

No.

Phil can't think that. He can't allow himself to think that. Thor is on their side, he will be. He must be. Otherwise they might as well just give up hope — and that's just not a possibility.

-----

Forty days after they start walking, the tugging of the compass stops, suddenly and without warning. The pull that has guided Phil for weeks disappears, leaving him unbalanced and directionless. It feels a bit like losing one of his senses, like that time he was blinded for three days by a flash grenade.

Phil pulls out the compass and frowns down at it, hoping desperately that it isn't broken. What if the Guardians have somehow found a way to interfere with it? The rune is still there, and the needle still points forward; everything looks okay.

He takes the tried and true path when dealing with malfunctioning gadgets, and smacks the back of it with his palm. Nothing changes.

Peggy is walking ahead of him, pistol in her hand like it always is, these days. She rounds the corner before he thinks to call out, and then Phil hears her gasp. He drops the compass and takes off at a fast run, drawing one of his guns and barreling around the corner. He's ready for anything from valkyries to Guardians.

Anything, that is, except for the sight that greets him.

Peggy is standing and staring, with her hand over her mouth, at the largest open space that Phil has ever seen in Valhalla. There's a gigantic courtyard garden open to the sky, filled with silver birches, flowing willows, and spreading elm trees, with graceful fountains, and flowers everywhere.

Birds sing in the trees, the first birds that Phil has heard in Valhalla, and a large tawny cat the size of a panther lays across the path, sunning itself. Oddly enough, several gigantic, horse-sized goats are grazing in one of the flowerbeds.

In the middle of the courtyard, down a long pathway edged with statues of male and female warriors, is an absolutely enormous building. It reminds Phil a little of the Palace of Versailles, but even more beautiful and graceful and perfect, with rows of golden pillars and gracefully arched doorways. Each pillar is painted with the now-familiar rune of Thor.

It is a sight to make any architect cry tears of joy.

No doubt about it: this is Bilskirnir. They have arrived.

Phil and Peggy draw to a halt and sink down on a bench beneath a perfect willow, staring at the massive building in silence. Neither of them knows quite what to say, after so much time and effort spent in pursuit of this moment.

Peggy is the first to speak, after several minutes. "So, what now?"

"You know," says Phil, "I've given that a lot of thought, and I just keep getting stuck on the fact that I know next to nothing about Thor's Hall. There's very little detail in the myths, and we haven't found anyone who's been inside. I find that I lack sufficient information to make adequate contingency plans."

"And I'll bet that irritates the piss out of you, doesn't it?" says Peggy, with a smirk.

Phil just shrugs. "Well, at the very least, I do know one thing that I'm not planning, and that's to foment rebellion amongst the natives. Last time someone I know tried that, they got themselves hunted by a bunch of creepy robot cops, and had to get rescued by their partner." Peggy gives an unladylike snort, and elbows him in the side.

Peggy and Phil have gotten on well since the beginning, but ever since the encounter with the Guardians they've fallen into this sort of easy camaraderie. Peggy likes to tease Phil about his orderly and methodical nature; he, in return, takes every opportunity to subtly mock her impulsiveness.

Phil has the sudden thought that, if things go very wrong for them now, he's going to miss this. After a month of travel, Phil and Peggy have developed a closeness and an ease with one another that Phil has only ever had with a few very good friends.

Peggy has become like a younger sister to him — which is funny, because she's actually twice as old as he is. (Perhaps Phil is just used to playing the responsible adult.) It's really amazing how well they work together.

And he really, really pities anyone who gains Peggy as an enemy.

But now they've arrived at their destination, and who knows what's going to happen? Thor might solve all of their problems, or betray them, or they might be captured while trying to get in to see him. The only certain thing is that their afterlives will never be the same again.

"Well, I suppose we ought to just go knock on the door," Peggy says. "C'mon, let's go find out how screwed we really are."

Phil nods, and rises to his feet.

Chapter Text

In the halls of Bilskirnir the heroes entered, with great striving and commotion. Then came the oldest of the Sisters, who spoke and battled with the heroes, and taught them wisdom.

Phil pushes open one of the many doors and pokes his head inside cautiously. Peggy stays outside, covering his back. He looks first to the right, and notes that he is in a long, wide hallway, stretching off in both directions. Then he looks to the left, and finds himself nose-to-nose with another Brunhild lookalike, who angles her spear down toward his neck.

"State your business," she demands gruffly.

"Ah, hello." Phil steps fully into the hallway, taking in the polished arches, the great tapestries, the gleaming marble floor covered with a crimson rug. He is careful to show the valkyrie that his hands are empty. "I'm Phil Coulson. Can I ask what your name is?"

The valkyrie frowns at him. "It doesn't matter. I guard the Hall of Thor; that is all that matters. Now, state your business."

"Alright. I'm here to speak with Thor."

"Our Prince is not receiving visitors at the moment."

"Ah, I see. Well, I'm a personal friend of his, so if you could just tell him that Phil Coulson is here –"

"No."

"No?"

The valkyrie seems to have decided that she's said enough, and remains silent.

"Well, I'm certain that if you would just let him know –"

"Look, dead warrior," she snaps. "Milord Thor is in mourning, and has not left his chambers during the past month except for to attend court with Odin. All of the servants are forbidden to disturb him. So, no, I will not be passing milord any messages from dead warriors who claim to know him."

"Thor's in mourning?" Phil's first thought is, Who else is dead? "Who is the Prince mourning?"

"No one that you know, and nothing that concerns you. Now move along. Go home."

Phil purses his lips together, trying to find another angle of persuasion. He knows, he just knows that if he could get a message to Thor, the Prince would see him. Even if Thor is in mourning for some mysterious reason, surely he would be willing to meet with Coulson, if only for old times' sake.

Peggy choses that moment to poke her head around the door. "Everything alright in here?" Phil instinctively tries to step back and hide Peggy's face from the valkyrie.

What they need to do right now is leave, and work out a different plan of attack; surely there's a back entrance, a gate for servants, or some way to get inside unnoticed.

He's too late, though. The warrior maiden has already caught a glimpse of Peggy, and her eyes narrow. Phil steps backward, trying to move closer to the door, but the valkyrie darts around him and grabs Peggy by the arm.

"Margaret Elizabeth Carter," she pronounces, "you are sought for judgment." Phil pulls out his gun, but the valkyrie has pushed Peggy in between them, and she's yelling a word at the top of her lungs. It definitely isn't English, full of harsh unfamiliar consonants that Valhalla's language-magic refuses to translate. Whatever it is, the sound causes the tapestries on the other side of the hallway to part, the fabric drawing back as if on pulleys. From beneath each tapestry a small door opens, and out steps a Guardian.

Within seconds they're surrounded by at least twenty of the Guardians, and five or six other valkyries are running toward them. A part of Phil's mind comments that this would have made an excellent diversion, opening up several holes in the guard rotation. If only Phil and Peggy had been smart enough to arrange for things like accomplices, and a real plan...

Never has Phil missed the Avengers as much as he does at this moment.

The Guardians' mouth-guns are emerging, growing and glowing brighter and brighter green. Phil shuts his eyes and prepares to be shot. But right before the weapons are fully-charged, a familiar voice rings out.

"Sigrun? Sigrun! What are you doing?" This is followed by another untranslatable command-word.

Phil cracks an eye open, and the Guardians are all standing as if frozen, their mouth-guns dark. They stare at him througg identical eyes, and then swivel their heads to look behind him.

Phil twists around to see, and lets out a sigh of relief. There behind Sigrun is Brunhild the valkyrie, flying toward them down the hallway at top speed, with her long golden hair and crimson cloak trailing behind her. "Sigrun!" she cries out, once more.

The valkyrie holding Peggy releases her, and touches a fist to her heart, bowing her head slightly. "Elder Sister." The movement is reminiscent of a salute. Phil wonders if the valkyries are actually ranked by age, or whether "Elder Sister" is a ceremonial title. Perhaps Brunhild is something like this valkyrie's commanding officer — in which case, good luck for them.

Assuming, of course, that Brunhild is sympathetic.

"Sigrun, why did you summon the Guardians?"

Sigrun reaches out and retakes Peggy's arm, as if recalling why she was holding it in the first place. "This woman, Margaret Carter, is a madwoman and a traitor. She destroyed one of the Andhrimnir-cooks, and since our Mother can no longer repair him, an entire feasting-hall has been lost. She has also single-handedly destroyed 27 Guardians, and the man beside her has already destroyed three. Both of them are berserkers who refuse to drink the Lethe; instead they cling to their pain and rage, and madness, and they must be stopped now, before their rampage consumes any more of our brothers!" Sigrun bangs the butt of her spear against the ground, in emphasis.

Phil catches Peggy's eye, but her expression is unreadable. He's never seen her face get so closed-off before. It worries him, a little.

Brunhild studies them for a long moment, before she turns away and addresses Sigrun again. "This man, Phillip John Coulson, was one of my charges when he first arrived in Valhalla. As such, I have a claim to him. Do you have any claim on the woman?"

Sigrun frowns, clearly displeased, but shakes her head in negation.

"Then I will take responsibility for them, and deal with them from here." Oh, thank God. Phil allows himself to relax a little.

"What will you do with them? They are wily and dangerous — they cannot be allowed to roam free!"

"Younger Sister, it is not your place to question my decisions," Brunhild snaps, and Sigrun immediately bows her head in contrition.

"Forgive me, Elder Sister," she murmurs, touching her fist to her heart again. It's a motion that Phil has seen Thor make, once or twice; obviously it signals obedience and respect.

Brunhild's face softens at Sigrun's apology. "You are forgiven, Younger Sister. I know that you care deeply for your charges, and for Valhalla. And you are correct; these people cannot simply be allowed to run free." Phil tenses up again. Shit.

"What I plan to do is speak with them, and attempt to ascertain the nature of their grievance."

"They are mad, though! What is the point in conversing with a madman?"

"Perhaps they are mad, and perhaps not. Has not our Mother taught us how many problems may be resolved with a few well-chosen words? Is our ability to think and speak not the reason we are ranked above the Guardians, even though we were born later?"

"Yes, Elder Sister, of course."

"Very well then. Let me speak with Phillip Coulson and Margaret Carter in private, and we will see what becomes of it all. For now, return the Guardians to their places, and all of you go back to your posts, too. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted from our duties."

The Guardians begin to disperse, and the other valkyries fly off again. Sigrun returns to her station by the door, standing stiffly, with her spear gripped tightly at her side. She looks annoyed, and Phil can't help but feel grateful to Brunhild. Whatever she has planned for them, it can't be any worse than what Sigrun was doing.

Brunhild grabs both of their shoulders and pushes them along in front of her. They walk down the hallway until they come to a large door, and then Phil and Peggy finally enter Bilskirnir proper.

-----

The valkyrie's chambers are something like the inside of a Viking longhouse, all low ceilings and stone walls. The room is oriented around a giant fireplace, in which a spit of pig-meat turns, under its own power. The walls are decorated with swords and spears and shields, and one or two things that Phil's trying really hard to pretend are masks, and not actual human skulls. (Though a few of them looks like human skulls with ram's horns growing out of the top, so he's not quite sure what to make of that.)

The only furniture is a grouping of low platforms. Some of them are covered in furs and meant for sitting, and others are intended to be used as tables. There are no beds; perhaps sleeping is done elsewhere, or perhaps the valkyries do not need to sleep.

Brunhild motions Phil and Peggy to sit on one platform, while she arranges herself on another. Then Brunhild studies the pair in silence, for a long moment.

Finally she speaks. "Noble Phillip," she says, inclining her head toward Coulson. "I am saddened to see that you have fallen into such disreputable company."

Beside him, Peggy bristles; Phil speaks quickly to cut off whatever she might say. "I respectfully disagree with that assessment. Peggy is a brave and noble companion, and I believe that our actions have been just. I have no regrets about joining my cause with hers."

"Yes, is that so?" Brunhild tilts her head and studies him again, as if trying to read his mind. "I see."

She sighs. "You are a noble man, Honored Phillip, and yet my Younger Sister calls you a traitor. I find myself not knowing what to think." She pauses. "Let me tell you a short tale."

"As part of my duties, every single day I greet one hundred new arrivals to Valhalla. One hundred men and women, every single day, year after year. Out of those millions of people — every one of them a brave and valiant warrior — do you know how often someone asks my name?"

"It happens once in a decade, at best."

"But you, Phillip Coulson, you asked for my name before we even entered your chambers. Even in the hour of your death, when most of the newly-dead can barely function, you saw me as a person, and extended what courtesy you could. From that, I know for certain that you are a noble and a brave man."

"Now, answer me this riddle. If you are a noble man, how can you also be a traitor? And why would someone so courteous keep company with a madwoman?"

Before Phil can speak, Peggy chimes in. "Look, I didn't mean to actually harm anyone. I mean, those cook-things aren't actually living, right?" Brunhild's posture stiffens at that statement; Phil gets the impression that she takes offense. "And I made sure that no humans were in the feasting-hall before I blew it up. All that I wanted to do was cut off the supply of mead, so that people would remember! It's not right, the way you force them to stop caring about the people that they love!"

Brunhild narrows her eyes at Peggy. "You are referring to the Lethe — the sweet draught that takes away all suffering. How is this wrong? Why would anyone refuse it?"

"Because it brainwashes you! It messes with your mind, makes you forget about everything important, like your friends and family!"

"But the Einheriar make new friends and build new families, here in the company of the other noble warriors. Why would you wish to cling to old relationships with people that you will never see again?"

Phil cuts in. "See, that's just the thing. Why shouldn't we ever see them again?" Here it is — the crux of the matter. "Why does Valhalla go to such lengths to make people forget about the ones that they love, instead of simply allowing them to be reunited?"

"Of course not everyone will end up here after death, and perhaps the Lethe should be an option for those who desire it. But it should be just that — an option, taken with the full knowledge of its effects. Not something forced on people unknowingly, like it is now!" His voice has started rising, and he takes a deep slow breath to calm down.

"When new people enter Valhalla, why don't you put them with their friends and family that are already here? Then their pain would be reduced, and you wouldn't have to resort to drugging everyone to make them happy."

"Ah." Brunhild nods, and looks sad. "I see now what you are asking."

"Unfortunately, what you want is impossible."

"There was a time, even up to a thousand years ago, when Valhalla was much smaller than it is now. In the age of the people you call Vikings, Valhalla was still the size of a large city, with ten large feasting-halls and only twenty courtyards. In those days, a man could run from one end of Valhalla to the other between sunup and sundown, if he was quick about it."

"At that time, things were as you describe: those who were shield-mates found each another, husbands and wives fell into one another's embrace, and fathers and sons feasted together once again. And many men and women chose against the Lethe, for their suffering was already relieved by the presence of their loved ones."

"As the number of your kind kept growing and growing, so did the number of the Noble Dead. And Valhalla grew to accommodate them, as it was designed to by our Mother, the Master Shaper, following the wishes of Odin Himself."

"As Valhalla grew, sprouting ever-more hallways and courtyards and feasting-halls, it became more and more difficult for the dead to find one another. It became a problem, which grew over time into a crisis. It reached the point where many of the Einheriar were suffering from grief over the loss of their loved ones, rather than fighting and feasting as they should be. Eventually, Odin All-Father Himself became aware of the problem."

"The All-Father was greatly disturbed that his warriors were unhappy. So he considered the issue, and determined that the kindest solution was to remove the feelings that caused such distress. At that point the order was given to provide Lethe to all of the Einheriar, daily; and thus it has continued for a thousand years, and more."

"And still Valhalla continues to grow larger, at an ever-increasing rate. There are more and more Einheriar every day, and so few of those who take the Lethe ever choose to be reborn. It's gotten to the point where only Valhalla's innate connections to Yggdrasil keep it going; for surely at this point, it has grown beyond even the Shaper's ability to understand or control."

"So there you have it: what you want is now impossible. There is no map of Valhalla, and no census. Such a task would be impossible, when the structure changes every day. There is no way to predict where new chambers will be created, or where new corridors will rise up among the old ones."

"Praise the All-Father for the seeking-runes — without them, even the valkyries wouldn't be able to navigate at all."

"Honored Phillip and honored Margaret, I must once again implore you: partake of the Lethe, allow it to relieve your pain, and go build new lives in Valhalla. You can even stay together if you wish, though the Lethe will make all of your travels seem strange and distant, like something from a dream."

"Please, listen to reason. You are a noble man, and I do not wish to see you come to harm. Only drink, and walk out of here free, with all of your crimes forgotten. I can even return you both to Phillip's chambers, if you wish it." Brunhild waits for their response.

There's no possibility of accepting her offer. Phil tries to calculate the likelihood of successfully faking a drink of Lethe so that they can get out and find another plan, but every trick he considers seems unlikely to work.

Very well, then — when in doubt, bluff.

"I'm afraid that we cannot accept your offer," Phil says, "for even if we cannot be reunited with our loved ones, we still have another purpose that drives us. Peggy and I have agreed not to rest until this task is completed." He's proud of that last rhetorical flourish; he thinks he's starting to get the hang of the Asgardian style of speaking. (And wouldn't Clint laugh, to hear him proclaiming like that? Phil wouldn't hear the end of it for days.)

"That's right," Peggy chimes in, picking up his tactics. "We've sworn a solemn oath never to return to our homes until we speak with Thor, who is a really old friend of Phil's. They've known each other forever, they practically grew up together." That's laying it on a bit thick. Phil kicks Peggy's ankle, and hopes that Brunhild doesn't notice.

"You wouldn't want to make us into oathbreakers, would you?"

"Certainly not," Brunhild replies, but she looks uneasy.

"How about this," Phil says. "Let's make a bargain. You take us to see Thor, and if he agrees that it's completely impossible for us to be reunited with our loved ones — I with my husband, Clint Barton, and Peggy with her great love, Steve Rogers — then we'll both take the Lethe, and return to our chambers peacefully."

If Thor won't cooperate, they'll have to come up with something else, but at least this buys some precious time.

Brunhild still doesn't look convinced. "Truly? You care about these living mortals so much that you would risk Thor's rage?" Phil and Peggy both nod.

"I cannot say I understand any of this," Brunhild continues, "but your devotion moves me, nonetheless. Still, I cannot intrude upon Thor's chambers uninvited. The responsibilities of my office do not allow it."

Phil deflates. He really thought they were getting somewhere, for a minute.

But Brunhild isn't done yet. "There is one possible loophole — though for your sakes, I hate to admit it."

"What?" Peggy says eagerly. "What is it?"

"You could fight me," says Brunhild.

"If one of you were to defeat me in single combat, then you could demand that I take you to Thor, as your victory-prize. I would have to comply or risk dishonor. If something like that were to happen, the responsibility would fall onto you and you alone, and I would be justified in bringing you to see him."

Brunhild stands, and draws herself up to her full, regal height, lifting her thick spear easily in one hand. "What say you, noble warriors? Will one of you fight me?"

Phil sizes her up. He understands that she's doing them a favor by mentioning this loophole; he also fully understands that Brunhild won't hold back in any battle. The valkyrie is tall, her arms and legs solid with muscle, and Phil has seen how quickly she can move. It's not for nothing that the valkyries are called fierce warriors.

Still, this might be their best chance. He pulls his gun from its holster and lays it on the bench, preparing to accept her challenge.

Before he can speak, though, Peggy once again chimes in. "I'll do it."

Phil looks between Peggy and the valkyrie. "Are you certain?"

Peggy is an excellent marksman and definitely has good instincts, but she lacks serious training in hand-to-hand combat; it wasn't something that was really taught to women, in her time. She's no Natasha. And there's no avoiding the fact that she's smaller than he is, and much smaller than Brunhild.

Phil hopes that this isn't a terrible idea.

"Yes." Peggy looks up at Brunhild with blank eyes, and smiles a cold smile that Phil finds a bit disturbing. "You could say I have some anger to work out against you and your kind. So yes, I'll fight you, valkyrie, and I will take you down."

Brunhild looks at Phil. "Phillip Coulson, do you name this woman, Margaret Elizabeth Carter, as your champion?"

Phil looks at Peggy, and she gives him a small nod. He takes a deep breath, and does his best to trust Peggy. He sure hopes she knows what she is doing.

"I do."

"Very well, then. Let us go out to the courtyard, and we will duel."

Chapter Text

There is a ring of statues in the center of the wide, grassy courtyard, marking off a circle of bare earth. The dirt inside the ring is flat and well-packed, marred here and there with splashes of faded silver. Phil remembers the silver blood of the Guardians, and has to suppress a shudder.

Peggy rifles through her pockets, palming something. Then she removes her jacket and hands it over to Phil, who folds it carefully over his arm. Her skirt shimmers and re-forms into pants, and her blouse changes into a thick long-sleeved tunic. She looks up and steps into the ring, coming to stand opposite Brunhild, who has been silently watching her preparations.

Brunhild speaks. "Let us now claim our weapons for this duel. I, Brunhild, will fight you with my spear." She lofts the thick spear, practically a tree-trunk, in a sort of salute.

"Oh, okay, that's how it works?" says Peggy. "Well, in that case, I choose guns." She pulls out her little pistol and lifts it in a sketchy salute of her own.

Huh. Phil hadn't thought that firearms would be accepted in this duel, but apparently Brunhild is confident enough in her abilities to face an armed opponent with only her spear.

That doesn't really make Phil feel any better.

He reminds himself that they're already dead, and that all wounds heal quickly in Valhalla. It doesn't help very much.

Brunhild nods to Peggy. "My spear versus your gun. So the contest is named!" She looks to Phil. "Honored Phillip, will you give us the word to begin?"

Phil nods back, and Brunhild drops into a crouch, preparing to leap at Peggy. Peggy, for her part, takes up a shooter's stance, legs spread for stability, and raises her pistol. Phil inhales slowly, pauses for a moment, and then projects his voice outward. "Begin!"

At the word, a shimmering field rises up around the ring, cutting off the combatants from any bystanders. Phil is quite certain that it will stay in place until the contest is ended, one way or another.

Immediately Peggy pulls the trigger of her Beretta, squeezing off three shots in quick succession. Brunhild moves so quickly that her arms blur, whipping her spear around in front of her to deflect the first shot, spinning it to the side to block another, and then carrying the motion around in an arc and bringing the butt of the spear forward to knock the third bullet aside.

The deflected bullets collide with the shimmering force field and fall to the ground, leaving spiderwebs of bright light at every point of impact.

Then Brunhild moves to attack, causing Peggy's fourth shot to go wide. After that, all of Phil's worst fears begin to come true. The valkyrie leaps forward in a great bound, so swift and high that it looks like she's flying, and lands atop of Peggy. She easily knocks Peggy down and gets her full weight on top of her — which, for a smaller and lighter opponent, is the worst thing that can happen.

Brunhild twists Peggy's wrist viciously, and Phil winces at the awful sound of bones snapping. Peggy grunts and her pistol falls to the ground; Brunhild quickly kicks it away, across the ring.

Peggy tries to roll and toss Brunhild off, but the valkyrie's weight advantage keeps her down. Even now, Phil can see a move or two that Peggy could use to escape Brunhild, but he knows that Peggy doesn't know them. As Brunhild leaps back on top and straddles Peggy, Phil has a moment of heartwrenching regret that he never bothered to spar with Peggy during their journey. At least he could have taught her a few moves that might have saved her life, now.

Why in the hell did he let her fight Brunhild? If Phil had been the one to do it, they might have had a chance at winning — a small chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Peggy kicks and sinks her teeth into the valkyrie's arm, but Brunhild swats her away like she's a mosquito, jabbing a knee deep into Peggy's stomach. Peggy doubles up, and Phil's gut clenches in sympathy.

He doesn't want to watch any longer, but it feels dishonorable to look away; after all, this situation is entirely his fault. He's supposed to be a trainer and a tactician, but it's his lack of proper planning that got them into this situation, and he never even thought about teaching Peggy any hand-to-hand combat skills. He's been so focused on his own problems, on finding Thor and a way back to Clint, that he's allowed himself to become careless and sloppy.

He might as well be beating Peggy with his own hands.

Brunhild rears back and smashes the butt of her spear against Peggy's face, once and then again. His friend can no longer hold back her cry of pain, and Phil's eyes fall shut of their own volition. He just can't do it; it's too horrible. He can't watch this any longer.

Because of this, he doesn't see what happens next.

Phil hears Peggy cry out again, and then a long moment of silence. He counts out the seconds in his mind. One... two... three... And then comes Brunhild's voice, demanding that Peggy yield. Four... five...

A gunshot rings out with a loud bang, echoing off the nearby buildings.

Phil cracks open an eye to see Brunhild reared back, with a look of shock on her face and both hands clenched to her chest. Silver liquid trickles out between her fingers and flows down the front of her breastplate, making it look incongruously polished and new.

Peggy is staring up at the valkyrie, her face smeared with her own blood. In her left hand is a gun, one that Phil has never seen before — it looks like a Walther of some kind, a distant relative to the pistol that he remembers Peggy using in the comics. She keeps it pointed firmly, grip unwavering even in her non-dominant hand.

It seems like the next things happen in slow-motion. Phil can see Peggy's finger tighten on the trigger once again, the millimeters of pressure slowly increasing. He hears the click as the hammer strikes, and then the loud bang as a second bullet explodes out of the barrel. He follows the path of the bullet with his eyes, watching as the air parts around it. He sees the buckling and tearing caused as the bullet rips through Brunhild's armor; he sees the way her body stiffens as it passes into her chest, and then falls forward as it exits out her back, leaving a spray of silver blood behind it.

Only as the last drop hits the ground does the world regain its normal pace.

Brunhild slumps backward and howls in pain, her voice rising through the octaves into an inhuman screech. It shakes Phil's bones, and makes his ears ring. Peggy pushes the valkyrie off and away, rolling and staggering to her knees. Brunhild reaches weakly for her spear; her hand slides along the shaft, leaving a smear of silver, but she can no longer lift it.

Peggy lifts the Walther again and aims it straight at Brunhild's head. "Yield!" she calls out.

Brunhild makes a desperate effort to throw herself toward Peggy, but she only gains a couple of inches before she collapses to the ground, unable to summon the strength to continue. "Vile deceiver!" she spits at Peggy, her eyes full of rage.

Peggy's eyes flash, but she keeps the gun level and trained on Brunhild's head, using the forearm with the broken wrist to stabilize it. "Yield to me!" she demands again.

Brunhild lifts her head, and shoots Peggy an incendiary glare. Then, as if this expression of hatred has used up the last of her strength, she shuts her eyes and her head slumps to the ground.

"I yield," she whispers. "Though your victory is dishonorable and you are nothing but a traitor, unworthy to even sweep the floors of Valhalla."

Peggy just shrugs. "Hey, at the beginning I clearly said guns. You didn't seem to have a problem with it then."

Phil searches his memory, and realizes that she's right. She did in fact say that her weapon would be "guns", and Brunhild did not object. And naturally she would have more than one such weapon concealed about her person.

Phil is in no way gullible, but he was so caught up in his own ideas of how a duel should work that Peggy still managed to misdirect him. But that's nothing, compared to the way she completely and utterly played Brunhild.

It's a simple scheme, elegant in its brutality. Peggy allowed herself to take a beating until the valkyrie let her guard down, then she struck when Brunhild wasn't prepared to block the shot. Phil is impressed — though he still plans to have some choice words for Peggy later, once she is clean and safe.

The forcefield around the ring flickers and fades away, and as it does, Peggy drops the gun and doubles over, shaking with adrenaline and moaning with suppressed pain. Phil steps into the ring and strides to her side, sinking to his knees. He frantically pushes her hair back from her face, trying to determine what is bleeding, and what is broken.

Even as his fingers gently probe the skin, he can feel the cartilage of her nose snapping back into place, her cheekbones knitting together. The cuts on her face close up before his eyes, becoming angry red scars that slowly fade to pink. Peggy cradles her wrist to her chest with a gasp as the bones snap together and the hand straightens; a minute later, she shakes it out and wiggles the fingers, moving once again with ease.

Thank god.

Phil looks over at Brunhild. The valkyrie has risen and is sitting, the holes in her armor visibly mending, like it is a part of her skin. (Who knows? Perhaps it is.) The gushes of silver liquid have slowed to a trickle, and as Phil watches, they stop entirely. Brunhild heaves a great sigh and pushes herself to her feet, lumbering unsteadily toward them.

Phil quickly moves to put himself between her and Peggy, uncertain what the valkyrie intends. He knows only that he won't allow Peggy to come to any more harm today. Brunhild just looks past him, though, and extends her hand to Peggy, pulling the woman up onto her feet.

"Well fought," she says. She nods respectfully at Peggy, who nods back.

"I retract my accusations of dishonor. If our Mother has taught me anything, it is that words are weapons, to be handled with the utmost care. It was my own failure, that I neglected the particulars of your claim. I allowed myself to be caught off-guard; for accomplishing that alone, you deserve your victory."

She smiles at Peggy, who uncertainly grins back, still wiping half-dried blood from her face. Brunhild continues, "Truly, I wish that you could meet Mother. I feel that Loki would appreciate your tactics, for he often fights in a similar way."

Phil stiffens. Did he just hear that right?

Peggy picks up on it, as well. "Did you say Loki?" she questions, looking sideways at Phil.

Brunhild nods. "Indeed. Loki is the Mother of all of the valkyries, as well as the Guardians before us. They are earlier children, from when Loki was younger and not as skilled. Because of this, they are not as capable as we are, lacking the capacity for thought and independent speech. But Loki loves all of her children equally, and thus we valkyries are charged to care for our Older Brothers. That is why Sigrun was so angry with you, earlier."

She looks at them. "You seem surprised by this. Were you not aware that Loki is the Master Shaper? It was he who designed Valhalla, at Odin's request; it was he who drove it deeply into the heart of Yggdrasil, so that Valhalla could continue to grow endlessly, without limit."

Phil finds himself at a loss for words.

He knew, of course, that Loki was thousands of years old, and that he must have done many things in his life before he ever decided to come and torment Midgard. But Phil hadn't realized, even after reading the myths, the true extent of the mischief-god's skill in magic. To have created all of this, a work of such scope and complexity; to have founded two entire races of beings...

It seems a far cry from the man Phil remembers, with his mad sneer and wild eyes. The Loki that Phil remembered was powerful, yes, had ended Phil's life with his own hands, but Phil had shot him, and he had fallen. (Granted it was a big gun, but still.)

The Loki that Phil remembered was petty, cruel, and taunting. That Loki exuded pain and exhaustion, even through his ever-present mask of pride and anger. Phil's having trouble reconciling that Loki, Thor's murderous and arrogant but ultimately pathetic little brother, with this tale of the god who fathered (or mothered) valkyries, and who designed Valhalla itself.

Fortunately, Peggy's there to pick up the conversational slack. "Why do you keep calling him your mother? Isn't Loki a man?"

Brunhild shrugs. "Loki is Loki, and changing her identity is as easy as breathing. Loki is whatever serves her purpose at the time, or often whatever merely excites his whim. For instance, he once spent several days as an elm-tree, just to find out what it was like to taste sunlight."

"Loki killed me." Phil bursts in. He didn't mean to say it, exactly, but the statement just comes out of him.

Brunhild looks at him askance. "What do you mean, Loki killed you? Mother does not concern himself with the lives of mortals. She has greater things to do with her time."

"You're wrong." Phil leans back against one of the statues, steadying himself. "Your 'mother' tried to invade my realm at the head of an alien army, to conquer my planet and enslave its people. Your Lord, Thor, was working with us to stop him. And he stabbed me through the chest from behind, with his... staff thing. That's how I died."

Brunhild stares. "Mother would not do such a thing. He is no coward, to stab an enemy from behind."

"It's true. Did you not look into my death, when you welcomed me to this realm?"

Brunhild shakes her head. "No, I do not have time to look so deeply into everyone that comes. I only saw that you died bravely in battle, against a dangerous foe."

"Yes, and that dangerous foe was Loki. Here, read my death now, and you'll see that I am telling the truth." Phil holds up his pendant; Brunhild steps forward and looks deeply into the rune, her pupils scanning back and forth.

Her face whitens, and her lips part in shock. She drops the necklace and backs away, shaking her head slowly. "It is true. I never would have thought it.... What has happened to Mother?" She covers her face with her hand. "Oh, this is awful."

"But that explains so much, now," she continues. "That explains why Mother has not been around to make repairs to the damaged rooms, or to fix the broken Guardians." She glances at Peggy, who looks away. "And that also explains why the Prince has been in mourning. To think of it, having to battle against his own brother, when they have been close since time's beginning. How terrible!"

"Is Loki dead?" Peggy asks.

"I... I do not know," Brunhild replies. "The Prince could tell you."

She raises her chin, then, and straightens to her full and formidable height. "Well, Margaret Carter, you have defeated me; now it falls to you to name your victory-prize. What would you have from me?"

"I want you to take Phil and me to see Thor," Peggy says.

"Right after we clean up," Phil interjects. He would not like anyone to see Peggy and Brunhild as they are now, both of them coated head-to-toe in mud, and splashed with red and silver blood.

Brunhild nods her acquiescence. "Come back to my quarters and we shall wash ourselves, and take refreshments. Then I will conduct you to see the Prince."

Chapter Text

The door to Thor's personal chambers is gigantic, stretching from floor to ceiling of the massive hall. Every inch of it is carved and painted with runes, epic scenes of battle, and intricate patterns of animals and vines. It's incredibly beautiful, and would be the prize of any museum's collection back on Earth.

Brunhild tugs on the handle without a second look, and the door swings slowly open. Phil holds his breath, and then he sees Thor. The god is sitting on a thronelike chair and staring into the enormous fireplace, with Mjollnir resting on the table by his side. He looks around at them, and for a moment his face twists up in rage.

The Prince looks rough, unshaven — his once-flowing hair has been chopped short without any care or skill, and now hangs ragged around his ears. He is dressed simply, in a grey tunic and trousers, without armor or a cloak; his eyes are reddened and ringed with deep shadows. He opens his mouth and half-rises from the chair, as if to hurl angry words at Brunhild, or perhaps even his hammer.

Then Thor looks past the valkyrie and spots Phil. His entire demeanor immediately changes.

Phil watches Thor's face as it moves through a series of blatant emotions, starting with confusion, moving through shock to understanding, end ending on a look of pure joy. He gives one of his trademark blinding smiles — Phil's always secretly wanted a poster of Thor smiling — and barrels toward them, easily knocking Brunhild aside.

"Son of Coul!" he bellows, sweeping Phil up in a bear hug that lifts him off the ground. "Most noble warrior! It is truly magnificent to see your face again!"

Phil flails for a second until his toes touch the ground again, and then he gingerly reaches around and pats Thor on the back. "You too, Thor. You too." He feels a small grin growing across his own face, but even Thor's exuberance can't stop him from asking the first thing that's on his mind.

"Clint?"

"The hawk-eyed archer is well, Agent Coulson. Since the Lady Widow released his mind, he has been in good health, and quickly returned to the battle against evil!" Thor pauses, and becomes more solemn. "We all could see that he mourns you, though, Agent. I was not aware, before, that the two of you were sworn to one another."

"Yeah, we kind of kept that to ourselves."

Thor nodded. "The Lady Natasha informed us, and there was much sadness on noble Clinton's behalf. I tried to tell them that you would be here, in Valhalla, but I fear that they did not believe me. The Man of Iron had the gall to tell me that Valhalla was a falsehood! Imagine, he dared call it a tale to placate children — the very place where I have my own hall! I fear we had to exchange words after that, though the Captain would not allow me to properly defend my honor."

He grins again, then. "But now I shall tell them that I have spoken with you directly, and it will cheer the hawk-eyed archer greatly!"

The god releases Phil then and turns to Peggy, giving a sort of half-bow that really should be awkward but instead ends up looking totally awesome. Phil, not for the first time, wonders how Thor does it.

"Milady," says Thor, touching his lips briefly to Peggy's hand. "Son of Coul, you must introduce me to your lovely companion!" Peggy giggles and blushes.

Seriously, how does he do that?

"This is Peggy Carter," Phil says. "She is a great warrior in her own right, who just defeated one of your eldest valkyries. And she was a close companion and beloved of Steve Rogers, before he was frozen."

"Ah," Thor immediately looks serious. He bows again to Peggy, in a less flirtatious manner. "You are the Lady Carter, of whom the good Captain speaks. He has told us much about you, of your courage and your wisdom. In truth, from what he says, I am not surprised that you were able to defeat even the strongest and wisest of valkyries."

"Steve's mentioned me?"

"Oh yes, indeed, many times. I daresay all of the Avengers have heard the tragic tale of how you and the noble Captain were separated. As Clinton mourns the Son of Coul, so does Steve mourn for you, though more subtly."

Peggy shuts her eyes for a minute, and when she opens them again they shine with tears.

"But come!" Thor booms, gesturing to the other massive chairs which are pulled haphazardly around the fire. "Be seated, and we will dine together! For there are many tales to tell on both sides, since I saw you last!"

 

********

"...So you can't just take us back to Midgard, even for a really short visit?"

Thor gives Peggy his kicked puppydog look, which never fails to charm, and shakes his head. His ragged hair swings side-to-side. "I'm afraid not, Lady Margaret. The forms you inhabit here in Valhalla could not survive on Midgard. They require the power of Yggdrasil for their ongoing shape and existence, and that power is much lessened in Midgard, which has very little native magic."

"The only way for someone to return to Midgard is to be reborn; and that can only happen when you are no longer remembered, which certainly does not apply to either of you, yet. I can carry messages from you to your kinsmen, but I'm afraid that is the best that I can do."

Peggy's face falls, and Phil feels a pang of disappointment. Of course he can't just spring them from Valhalla. That would have been far too easy for this devilish afterlife.

Still, that does not deter Phil from his own question. "Okay, so given that, let's talk about what happens after death."

"Your valkyrie, Brunhild, told us that Valhalla started out small and manageable, so that people could find each other, but now it's grown larger and larger over time, and people cannot. Now we can only drink the mead and forget, or have to live with the loss of our friends and family." He looks up at Thor. "Does that seem right to you? Does that seem honorable, or noble?"

Thor shifts uncomfortably in his chair. "Aye, Phillip, you speak wisdom. It has never quite sat easily within my heart, this idea that the best of warriors should be separated from their shieldmates and kin. For good companions are like the sole of a boot: if they are solid and true, they will protect you from harm and carry you ever forward along your destined path!" Phil finds himself raising his water-filled tankard in a toast, before he even realizes that he's doing it.

Gods. He rolls his eyes at Peggy, who bites her lip hard, trying not to laugh.

Thor pauses, then, and looks down at his plate of bread and meat. "Unfortunately, there seems to be no good solution to this problem. If Odin and my brother could not find a way to fix things, as skilled as they are in wisdom and in magic, then I fail to see what I could do to help." He looks at Phil. "I am a warrior, Agent Coulson, as you well know. I am at my best when surrounded by enemies, smiting them with the power of Mjollnir. It is my purpose and my function." Thor pats the handle of the hammer that never leaves his side. "I have come to realize, over the past few years, that I lack an aptitude for those classes of problems that require subtlety."

"Those things have always been the domain of my father and my brother." Thor sighs. "Truly, I do not know what I can do to aid you."

"So, hey, I don't know Loki or Odin at all," Peggy cuts in. "But Phil's told me a little about Loki, and I remember some of the stories about Odin, which Phil says contain at least shadows of the truth. And, no offense, but I just have to say that neither of them seems like the best person to be dealing with any sort of problem involving interpersonal relationships."

Thor's face falls blank, and Phil holds his breath. Don't piss off the God of Thunder, Peggy he thinks as loudly as he can, wishing that telepathy was one of the powers granted in Valhalla.

"I mean, it kinda seems like your Dad and brother sat down and said, 'Okay, are the things that warriors need to be happy? Let's make a list.'" She holds up her fingers and counts them off, for emphasis. "'A place to sleep — check. A place to fight — check, and people to fight with — check. Food and beverage service — double-check. Okay, we're done!'"

"And no further thought was given to anything else, like, oh, I dunno... Friendship, or love, or family." She stares at Thor defiantly, her hands balled into fists.

"'Oh, just feed them all mead, and let them forget.' Honestly? To me, that just sounds lazy. If one of my officers in the Science Corps brought that to me as a plan, I would give them privy duty for a week, and tell them to bring me three better ideas by tomorrow. I mean, did Odin even really try to fix the problem? It sure doesn't sound that way to me."

Phil tenses, and once again prepares to throw himself between Peggy and an angry mythological creature. (How did this become my job? he wonders.)

Thor is actually struck speechless for a moment, and Phil wonders if he's ever heard anyone criticize Odin so openly, in his long life. Asgard doesn't seem big on freedom of speech, or an independent press. It looks like the god doesn't quite know how to deal with Peggy's accusations.

Then Thor's face twitches, the corners of his eyelids wrinkle, and his mouth grows into one of his trademark smiles. The god begins to chuckle and then to belly-laugh, finally doubling over with great deep guffaws and slapping his hand against the table. (Phil has to dive to save his utensils before they slide over the edge.)

Peggy relents and cracks a grin, her anger reduced by Thor's ever-potent charm. Phil finds himself laughing along, while simultaneously wondering what's so funny.

"Food and beverage service... ahaha," Thor wipes away tears from his eyes. "My Lady Margaret, you do have a way with words. You have captured the essence of my father and brother very well."

He ceases laughing, finally, and sits gasping for breath. "Sometimes I think that they both find warriors to be overly simple, even as they praise and elevate them. As if those who are eager for battle truly require nothing more, as you say, than a place to sleep, a place to fight, and food to fill our faces. As if we have no minds, no love, no loyalty to our kin."

"Sometimes I think that my father needs warriors to carry out his commands, but at the same time he does not trust them. Though I fear I have, at times, supported that belief with my own actions."

Ouch. Phil stays silent. He has no urge whatsoever to get involved in the gods' family issues.

"Be that as it may, none of it aids you in your quest to be reunited with your loved ones," Thor says, after he's fully calmed down.

"Well, one quick thing you could do is call off the Guardians," Phil said. "Not having to fend them off constantly would be a big help."

"Unfortunately, I cannot do that either. I can speak with the valkyries on your behalf, but I have no power over the Guardians. They answer only to Odin and to my brother, Loki."

Phil can't believe that he's about to say this. "Well, what about Loki, then? Is there any way you could bribe or threaten him to call them off?"

Thor's face falls, and he looks like a kicked puppy once again. "Alas, my brother has been imprisoned in a great cavern deep among the roots of Yggdrasil, with all of the serpents and Nidhogg, the great dragon. He has been bound hand and foot with unbreakable bonds, and stripped of every drop of magic."

"

He is sentenced to remain in that place until this universe ends, for his crimes against Jotunheim, Midgard, and Asgard. His sentence was declared by Odin himself. And I shall probably never see my brother again." Thor bows his head, and his hacked-off hair falls forward, covering his eyes. Clearly he has taken the loss of Loki hard, but Phil is having an extremely hard time summoning up any sympathy.

After all, if they don't figure something out, he might never see Clint again either. It sounds to him like Loki got just what he deserved.

It's time to bring out the heavy guns. "Look, Thor." Phil leans close to the god, and puts his hand against Thor's shoulder. "Forget about Loki for the moment; we don't need him. Aren't you the son of Odin?"

Thor looks up at him, and straightens. "Of course I am," he booms.

"Are you not the Crown Prince of Asgard?"

"Indeed I am," Thor asserts.

"Then you can help us," Phil says.

"Thor, I come to you as a friend, as someone who has fought by your side... And as someone who was slain by your own brother. You know the story. Loki tricked me with illusions and stabbed me from behind, so that I couldn't even defend myself against him, and my lifeblood spilled out onto the floor of the Helicarrier."

Thor looks devastated at the reminder of Loki's sins, and Phil feels a little bad — but not bad enough to reconsider his tactics. "We come asking for any help that you can provide us, any magic, any wisdom, any power... anything at all. You have great status, great wealth, and great connections. Surely you can think of something that could help us reunite with our loved ones."

Phil pauses, and then strikes the killing blow. "If you can help us, Peggy and I, then the stain of my death will be lifted from the House of Odin. I will take it as full recompense for your brother's actions, and will make no further claim against your honor."

Peggy looks at him, eyebrows raised; Phil just shrugs. If that doesn't get to Thor, then nothing will.

Thor looks down at Mjollnir, lifting it from the ground and tossing it over and over in his hands like a child's plaything. After a moment of staring and pondering, he looks up at Phil.

"I spoke the truth, before, when I said that there was not much aid that I could give you. I may dwell in Valhalla when I am in Asgard, but I rarely travel outside of Bilskirnir, and the workings of this place have always been mysterious to me. I can carry messages to Clinton and Steven when I next return to Midgard, but I fear there's little else that I can do to help your quest."

Phil feels his heart sink. It cannot be true — Thor will not turn them away.

The god continues, "However, as you said, I am the Prince of Asgard, and that does bring with it a certain status and connections. I happen to know the exact person who could provide you with the help that you desire."

He rises from his chair, towering over them in the firelit dimness. "Fortunately, that person is my father, Odin."

Thor extends his left hand to Peggy, and the other one to Phil. "Come and join me, Lady Margaret, Agent Phillip! I will take you to the Hall of Odin-King, where you can plead your case before the All-Father himself."

Chapter Text

Phil's first impression when they come to Odin's Hall is one of sheer, vast, mind-boggling scale. The ceiling is so high above them that Phil can't make out any details, only a general impression of glowing silver, reflecting Asgard's golden light. Massive columns line the path, each one as wide around as a normal-sized house; the walkway itself, from the massive doors to Odin's Throne, is nearly a mile long. Every single aspect of the Hall of Odin seems carefully designed to make people feel insignificant and incredibly tiny.

Phil would love to find the whole thing tacky. It's all very over-the-top, the way Thor can be sometimes, but without the counterweight of Thor's warmth and easy charm. The hall is practically screaming "bow before the eternal might of Odin, oh tiny and insignificant worm!" He really wishes that he could laugh about that and brush it off, the way he's always ignored the affectations of rich men. (See: Tony Stark.) But the truth is, the grand architecture is doing its job quite well.

Phil feels humbled, shaken, and filled with awe — and he doesn't like it one bit. He's all in favor of feeling small under the right circumstances, but not when it's engineered like this. This is just a fake feeling, designed to serve someone else's purposes.

It doesn't help that Phil and Peggy's forms are both weakened, because Odin's Hall is further away from the heart of Yggdrasil. They are a little less tangible here, their bodies slightly translucent, like ghosts. Phil surreptitiously pokes at his arm; it feels solid enough to him. He's a bit nervous to try and touch anything else, though.

He's not sure that he can handle the sight of his hand passing through a solid object. He's just not that well-adapted to the afterlife, yet.

As they approach the Throne, Odin notices them, and rises to his feet. Phil looks up at the god-king, and thinks Well, this is it. This is him, the Big Kahuna — Odin All-father, the Head Honcho of this whole entire realm, and Phil and Peggy's last resort.

Finally, after what feels like an hour of walking, they reach the area in front of the throne. Thor gracefully falls to one knee, bowing his head before he looks up and smiles. "Father! I have brought with me some brave warriors of Valhalla, who come seeking your assistance for a noble quest!"

Phil has never before had cause to ponder the protocol of meeting a Head of State who is also, for all intents and purposes, a god. He can't quite bring himself to bend his knee like Thor, so he settles for a half-bow, bending forward from the waist. (Odin isn't his King, after all.) Peggy watches him sideways and then drops an awkward curtsey. Odin just stares down at them with his one good eye, in silence.

They stand there for what feels like several weeks. Phil has the urge to cross his arms and tap a foot, but he resists. He knows this game, has played it from the other side. It's called, "keep them waiting, as a display of power," and he has absolutely no desire to play along.

"Thor, why have you brought these spirits into my throne room?" Odin finally asks, turning to his son.

Wow, he really doesn't listen to Thor, does he?

Thor just gives another one of those industrial-strength grins. "As I said, Father, they are here to request your assistance in their quest."

"What sort of aid could possibly be needed by a couple of warrior spirits? Valhalla has everything that such as these could possibly need: food and drink, the company of fellow warriors, and any type of physical possessions that they might desire." Peggy moves slightly beside him, and Phil wants to facepalm.

Personally he'd been willing to give Odin the benefit of the doubt, but it seems that Peggy was correct. Odin doesn't seem to believe that there is really any problem, at all.

"Do they find some flaw in the affairs of Valhalla?" Odin continues.

Before Thor can respond, Peggy calls out "Yes!"

I'm not getting in front of you, this time, Phil thinks. My quota's met. You're on your own.

Odin turns his head slightly to examine her. "Ah," he says, shortly. "I see that the female spirit wishes to speak. Very well," he moves his arm in a sweeping gesture that manages to be simultaneously grand and patronizing. "Step forward and address the King of Asgard. Tell me about this quest for which you seek my assistance." His voice sounds doubtful.

Phil discreetly puts a hand on Peggy's shoulder, and steps forward himself. He bows slightly again, not as low this time. "Your Highness," he says, making a wild guess at a correct form of address. (This part really wasn't covered in the myths.) "My name is Phil Coulson, and I know your son, Thor, from when I was alive. We fought side-by-side in the recent battle to stop the invasion plans of your other son, Loki.  It was on the end of Loki's spear that I met my death."

Whispers travel up and down the hall, among the gathered Aesir.

"Is this true?" Odin calls out to Thor.

"Indeed, Father," the Prince replies. "The Son of Coul is a mighty warrior, and on Midgard he commanded many men."

"And women!" Peggy added.

Thor visibly takes a steadying breath. "And it's also true that he was slain by my brother's hand, in the midst of a great and glorious battle."

Odin looks at Phil with something that almost seems like grudging respect. "Very well. Please continue."

Phil continues. "During the course of that battle, I died and was taken up to Asgard, leaving behind many shield-mates and good friends. Foremost among these was my sworn mate, Clint Barton, who is also a warrior."

Thor butts in again. "Noble Clinton is a highly-skilled archer. He is said to possess vision as keen as the eyes of Vethrfolnir, the hawk that sits atop the eagle that sits atop the very highest branches of Yggdrasil!"

A hawk that sits atop a... Phil blinks. Norse mythology is weird.

"Yes, that's true", Phil says, "he is sometimes called Hawkeye. Anyway, when I came to Valhalla, I consoled myself by telling myself that my husband and I would be reunited when he died, because he is a brave man who has sacrificed much, and there was no doubt in my mind that he would also be brought here. I clung to this hope, whispered it to myself when I lay awake at night, and reminded myself of it whenever I started to grieve too deeply."

"A few days later, I found out that I was wrong. I found out that I would forget, and cease to care, and that my beloved and all of my friends would be lost to me. I decided that I could not accept this, and so I set out in search of my friend Thor, hoping that he could help me find a way to return to my beloved. Along the way, I met my companion, Peggy Carter, who also has a love among the living."

Peggy steps forward. "That's right. I thought that the love of my life, a man named Steve Rogers, who is as brave and good and wonderful a person as you've ever known, was here in Valhalla. I walked the halls for six years, searching for him, asking everyone I met whether they had seen his face."

"When I met Phil that I found out that Steve wasn't even here — that he is, as a matter of fact, still alive, when I had thought him long-dead." She crosses her arms. "For six years I walked the hallways of Valhalla, never sleeping in a bed, and all for nothing. All because you people can't get your shit together and run Valhalla properly!"

"What are you saying, little spirit? Do you think that you could do a better job than the All-Father at running Valhalla?" Odin's voice is soft and level. Dangerous.

This time it's Phil's turn to blurt out exactly what he thinks. "Yes!" He stares up at Odin, defiantly.

The word seems to hang in the air for longer than is physically possible. Phil's "yes" echoes back and forth, down the long hall, and nobody shuffles their feet or takes a breath. All eyes are upon Odin, waiting to see what the All-Father will do next, how he will respond to this challenge.

The weighty silence is broken by the thud of Odin's staff hitting against the marble floor. The echo of it is loud and final, like the sound of a heavy book slamming shut. It sounds like the slam of a cell door, closing forever; like the clanging of a spear against a shield before a battle; like the thud of a body as it swings against the gallows.

The god rises to his feet and a wind blows around him; the wind is cold as ice, and smells of blood and death. Odin takes a step forward, and then another. Phil shuts his eyes, and waits to be struck from existence, or worse.

Nothing happens; he opens them again. Odin is still studying him intently, like someone might study an unusual bug while they figure out whether to step on it or not.

"Your actions are bold," Odin says. "Sometimes I favor boldness, when the results suit me. You wish to rule over Valhalla, and maybe I will help you."

Wait, I never said...

"But first, you must be tested, and prove yourselves worthy."

Uh-oh. Phil's starting to feel like he recognizes this story.

Odin raises his voice and addresses the entire hall. "These warrior spirits wish to become the new rulers of Valhalla! They claim that they can do a better job of it than Odin-King who designed it, at the beginning of all worlds!" Indignant mutters and whispers rumble up and down the hall, and Phil senses that he's one word away from becoming an Aesir pincushion.

Odin continues. "I am of a mind to allow this!" The mutters change to noises of surprise. "Let these two try their hand at running Valhalla, and prove or disprove their claims by the fruits of their work. But first they must be tested, and prove themselves worthy of this great task!"

"I propose that there shall be three trials: a Trial of Mind, a Trial of Spirit, and a Trial of the Body, in that order. Because I am a fair King, there shall be three days between each test, to give the claimants time to rest."

"If they manage to pass my trials, then I will give these spirits — Phillip Coulson, Margaret Carter — the title of Lord and Lady of Valhalla, and command over all of the Guardians and the valkyries. Furthermore, I will provide them with advisors from among the Aesir, and the use of any books or artifacts we own that might be useful in their task. All of these things, wise Odin will provide, so that these two can make their attempt at remaking Valhalla to suit their liking."

"If, on the other hand, they fail any of my trials, then I will have both of them bound to me as servants, to fetch my meals and sweep my floors, and they will never see Valhalla between now and Ragnarok."

Oh, that sneaky bastard. Either way, Odin comes out ahead. If they lose, he gets some entertainment for the Aesir and a couple of new servants. If they win, he no longer has to deal with Valhalla's problems, nor face any blame for his handling of the situation.

"Wow," Peggy leans over to him and whispers. "Odin is kind of a dick." Phil nods.

Loki may be adopted, but Phil is starting to see where he got some of his character traits.

Well, at least Odin's giving them time to prepare.

"We will begin right now with the first trial, which is the Trial of Mind."

Ah, crap.

-----

Odin returns to his chair and bangs his staff against the floor again. This time it just sounds like metal hitting stone, instead of like a harbinger of certain doom. Phil isn't sure if that should make him more or less concerned.

"Hear now the terms of the first trial, which is the Trial of Mind!" Odin proclaims. "Phillip and Margaret, if you wish to rule Valhalla, you must first prove that you know the people you seek to rule over!"

Phil grits his teeth. He's never desired to rule over anything less than he does right now.

"I challenge the two of you, here before the court, to list and name one hundred of the Einheriar, and tell the circumstances under which each one died!" He bangs his staff against the ground once more. "Begin!"

Okay. Okay. This is doable. It could be a lot worse.

If Phil lived like most of the Einheriar, keeping to his local section of Valhalla and only interacting with those who happened to live around him, he might be in trouble right now. But he's been traveling for weeks, and he's met and talked to a lot of people in that time.

Fortunately, he has an excellent memory for names.

Phil rolls his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and begins. "One: Dr. Adjoa Dibi-Thompson, who died in a car crash, specifically due to massive blunt trauma and head injury. Two: Abraham Joseph Hanssen, who died of hypothermia and exposure. Three: Sir Henry Son of Richard, who died in battle when his lungs were pierced by a lance. Four: Sir Pierre Pellart, who died from an infection of wounds received in battle. Five: Mr. Yu Shen, who died of a burst appendix."

On and on the names roll, as Phil squints his eyes and dredges up every last face that he can remember, from every dining hall and every sparring room that he's ever visited. As he says each name, he pictures that person's rune, and recalls the manner of their death.

"...who died of drowning, when a storm capsized his ship." When he's exhausted his memory, they're up to person number sixty-seven.

He trails off, and Peggy steps forward and takes over. "Sixty-eight: Jean Collins, died in childbirth. Sixty-nine..." Phil watches her recite, with a look of intense concentration on her face. He counts upward, and hopes.

84... 85... 86...

For the first time, the significance of what they're doing really sinks in. Wagering what amounts to their immortal souls, in a game where Odin sets all of the rules, probably wasn't a very smart plan.

Though it's not like they were given a chance to decline.

87... 88...

The idea of servitude doesn't bother Phil nearly so much as the loss of whatever freedom he has left. He's used to tedious, repetitive work; but if he becomes indentured to Odin, that would permanently destroy his chances of ever seeing Clint again.

93... 94... 95...

If we fail, at least I gave it my all, he thinks. At Clint will know that.

96... 97...

At least he will know that I did every single thing that I could think of, all the way to taking on Odin himself.

"Ninety-eight: Naito Azumi, died from torture, in an attempt to make her confess to a crime that she did not commit." With that, Peggy grinds to a halt. Her mouth moves, but nothing comes out.

Phil holds his breath, as the look on her face grows increasingly more frantic. No. No no no, not like this. Not so close. They only need two more names to pass the first trial, and then Phil can go home and sleep, and be solid again.

Come on, just two more...

Oh.

Phil decides that he's a moron.

He smiles widely, and looks up at Odin. He lifts his voice proudly, and says, "Ninety-nine: Margaret Elizabeth Carter, died of lung cancer at an advanced age."

Peggy actually facepalms, but when she looks up again, she's grinning. She clears her throat and lets it fly, in a high, clear tone that rings out across Asgard. "One hundred: Phillip John Coulson, died of chest trauma and blood loss, in the course of saving Midgard from an invasion led by your former Prince — Loki, son of Odin!" Her voice grows louder with every word, until she's practically yelling.

Phil gets the sense that she really wants to stamp her foot and stick her tongue out at Odin, but fortunately for their public image, she refrains. They stand together, side-by-side with their arms crossed, looking at Odin. Your move, old man, Phil thinks, and then he squeezes his eyes shut and wonders when Clint became a voice inside his mind.

Odin nods to them sharply, just a brief inclination of the head, and Phil feels almost as giddy as he did the first time he shook Steve Rogers' hand.

"We did it!" He really wants to hug Peggy. He even wants to hug Thor. But all of that will have to wait until they get back to Valhalla.

"The first trial is concluded in favor of Phillip and Margaret!" Odin booms. "They have demonstrated attention and knowledge of their would-be subjects." Phil wrinkles his nose at the mention of subjects.

"We will meet again in three days time for the second trial, which is the Trial of Spirit. Until then, Phillip and Margaret, well-met!" Odin thumps his staff against the floor one last time, and Thor takes Phil and Peggy firmly by the shoulders and leads them out.

As he makes his way back down the hall, Phil tries to figure out whether ruling Valhalla would be more annoying or less annoying than coordinating the Avengers Initiative was.

Chapter Text

Well-rested, Phil makes his way down the hall from his borrowed room in Bilskirnir. His eyelids are still heavy with sleep, and he's not quite sure what time it is. He must have slept for at least 10 hours, and the rest was sorely needed.

He rounds a corner, and comes to a stop. A few feet ahead in the corridor, there is a narrow window running from floor to ceiling, with cheerful sunlight streaming through. Peggy is standing in front of it, staring out into the distance. She turns her head and smiles, but the smile doesn't reach her eyes.

She inclines her head in greeting. "Sleep okay?"

"Yes, wonderfully." He joins her beside the window.

The view overlooks the massive central courtyard, which is practically a park in its own right. Phil has a clear view of Thor's gigantic goats, apathetically grazing on another flowerbed. (The flowers seem to regenerate overnight — or for all Phil knows, there's some servant whose entire job is to go out every day and replant them. However it works, the goats are always eating, and yet the landscaping always remains perfect and pristine.) "And yourself?"

Peggy just shrugs.

Phil turns to look at her, leaning back against the wall. "How are you doing?"

She's silent for a moment. Just as Phil is starting to think that she's not ready to talk, she opens her mouth. "So, ruler of Valhalla, huh?"

Phil makes a little grimace. "It's a little bit crazy, isn't it? Still... if Odin's bargaining in good faith, there's always the possibility that we could succeed. And if Odin provides us the help that he's promised, I think that we could actually have a real chance of fixing this."

He looks out the window, at the perfect trees and wonderful fountains; he thinks about beauty, and the things that beauty hides. "Just think of all of the people here in Valhalla who... They may not be suffering, quite, but how many of them would have made other choices if they could? How many of them would give up their detachment to be reunited with their family and friends, if they had the choice?"

"How could I walk away from the chance to make that happen — not just for you, not just for myself, but for every single person like us, here in Valhalla?" His words hang heavy, like a glove thrown down in challenge.

Peggy waves a hand, as if to brush them away. "Not for myself," she corrects him. "For every single person in Valhalla... but not for me."

"How do you mean?"

She leans her head forward, letting it rest against the window, and sighs. "You know very well what I mean. You guys found Steve in what, 2011? And his plane crashed in 1943."

She stares out the window, looking far away. "That's almost 70 years, Phil. And you said he hadn't aged." Phil is just opening his mouth to say something bland and reassuring, when she cuts him off.

"He might not ever die, is what I'm saying, Phil." Phil bites his lip, unsure of what to say.

"He might not ever die," she repeats. "And I should be happy about that, I really should." She lets her head fall back against the window with a thud. "What kind of monster wouldn't be happy that the person they love might never die?"

Phil doesn't know what to say, so he resorts to a factual statement. "We don't know that."

"But it's likely. You said it yourself, he doesn't age. So even if we follow through with all of this nonsense, even if we play along with Odin's game and agree to clean up the mess that he created, even if we succeed, and fix Valhalla, and make paradise back into paradise again..." She kicks the wall, sharply. "I still might never get to see him."

Peggy looks up at Phil, and a challenge blazes in her eyes. "Is it worth it? I know that it's the right thing, the heroic to do, to keep going despite no guarantee of personal gain. But can you honestly look me in the eyes and tell me that it will be worth it, in the end? Should I just keep giving my all for decades and centuries — hell, millennia — for some faint glimmer of a hope of ever seeing Steve again?"

They stare at one another for a long time, and Phil can lie when necessary, but he won't do that to his friends.

"No. I can't tell you that."

Her shoulders sag and she turns away, hiding her face against the wall. Phil stands there for a moment, feeling deeply at a loss. He slowly backs away, in silence.

As he walks along the hall to the dining room, Phil thinks that he's never before been so happy that his husband is purely and simply mortal. Just a plain old human being, just like him.

I'll take that over gods and superpowers, any day.

-----

Phil is tucking into a massive platter of bacon and eggs, when Thor comes striding into the hall. "Son of Coul!" he booms. Phil rolls his eyes. No matter how many times he corrects Thor, the god seems determined to stick to his archaic and slightly nonsensical phrasing.

"I have news of the next trial!"

"Oh?" Phil nudges his massive platter to the side, indicating that Thor should join him at the table. "Do tell."

"Yes!" Thor's voice drops to a stage whisper, and he ducks his head down next to Phil's. (Phil has no doubt that everything Thor says is still perfectly audible all up and down the massive table. Stealth is not Thor's strong point.) "While feasting with the court, I paid close attention to the conversation of my parents, and overheard them discussing the matter of the trial. I do not believe they thought that I would listen."

"Way to go, Thor!" Phil holds up his hand for a high-give. He drops it awkwardly back down when Thor stares at him, confused. "What did Odin say?"

"He was speaking to my mother, Frigga. It seems that she will be the judge of the next trial — but it will not be so easy as simply appealing to her reason. Rather, as befits a Trial of Spirit, it shall test your ability to command emotion."

Oh boy. Public speaking has never really been Phil's strong point. It's one of the reasons his career path went the way it did; he's always been more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He'll take case of whatever business you have, but he's never seen the need to make a big to-do about it.

Thor continues, "The challenge of the next trial shall be to make the Lady Frigga cry."

Phil stares at Thor. "You've got to be kidding me."

The god shakes his head. "Indeed, I speak the plainest truth. This shall be the task set before you."

"To make Frigga cry."

"Yes."

He considers. "Does she cry easily?"

Thor looks at him, and the god is very solemn. "My mother, while kind and just, is a mighty queen. She could not be seen to weep at every sad tale that comes along. I have seen the Lady Frigga cry, but only on the rarest of occasions, at the most tragic of tales."

"Odin would not give you this challenge if it were an easy task."

Phil stretches his arms out on the table, and lays his head across them. "Fuck. How in the hell am I supposed to make Frigga cry? I'm not an actor, or a poet. I have no great skill with words, to make someone else feel joy or sadness."

"I understand what you are saying, Phillip. I am much the same way — unlike my brother, who could spin a tale of rainbows and still bring tears to a Frost Giant's eyes." His massive hand rests lightly on Phil's shoulder for a moment. "All I can think of is to consider what skills you do have, and maybe find a way to employ them in the service of your tale."

Thor rises to his feet. "All of the resources of my hall are at your disposal. Only let me know, if there's anything you need."

Phil turns his back to watch Thor leave, and his ringing footsteps sounds like a portent of doom. Before his first cup of coffee, he's faced Peggy's despair, and now this.

How on earth — or in Valhalla — am I supposed to make a goddess cry?

He lays his head back down on the table, and shuts his eyes. His breakfast slowly grows cold.

-----

"Phillip? You said that you required my assistance?"

"Yes. I need to go to my own chambers. There's something there that I need."

Thor inclines his head. "Absolutely. Tell any of the valkyries, they should be able to take you rapidly. Tell them they have my permission to fly with you. Does Peggy need to travel, too?"

Phil looks down at the floor. "Not that I'm aware of, no." He hasn't seen her since their hallway conversation.

"Alright. Well..." Thor trails off, sounding awkward. The god can obviously tell that something's wrong, but he doesn't seem to be quite certain what it is. (Phil isn't completely sure he understands it, himself.) "Brunhild should be in her office. Just down the corridor to the left."

Phil nods abruptly. "Thanks."

-----

The strings rub and cut at Phil's fingers — it's been that long since he's played. But a skill learned over decades is not easily forgotten, and his fingers quickly pick up the familiar shapes and motions.

He's running on two days of practice, a hastily-assembled selection of music, and not a lot of hope.

Thor was right: this is the skill that he has, and he intends to use it, but he doesn't really think that it will do the trick. He's good — but good enough to make a goddess cry? He doesn't think so. He's no poet, no great performer; he's just someone who's practiced a lot. Still, in 3 days, this was the best thing that he could come up with.

Peggy is still missing when the summons arrives, and that fact hurts Phil more than blistered fingers. The pathway up to Odin's throne seems twice as long, now that he walks it alone. Still, the cello case in his hand anchors him, makes him feel more solid. It was one of the first things that he made when he arrived here, and it seems more real to him now than anything else around him.

Phil speaks not a word as Odin announces the second trial, and names the conditions that Phil already knows. The goddess herself steps up then, and ascends the golden throne. She arranges herself comfortably, looking perfectly at home in the great chair, and tips a gracious nod to Phil. He bows in return, and then takes up the bow.

The first note is long and low, like the moan of someone weeping. It bounces through the rafters of Odin's hall, and the sound is changed amid the shadows. When it echoes back, it sounds like a winter wind: wailing through the windows, chilling everything it touches. He holds it as long as he can, and then some more.

Right when the sound begins to lose its sharp edge, he switches into a simple, repetitive song. It's a children's song, a learning-tune, and one of the first things that Phil ever learned to play. He repeats the short melody over and over again, fingers dancing across the strings in arrangements that he knows as well as the lines of his right palm. This time, when the echoes return, they sound like carefree children's laughter.

The sound waves bounce back slightly offset each time, and Phil starts to play with them, building up the melody in loops and layers upon itself, until it sounds like an entire orchestra playing. He bows more quickly and the song sprouts improvisations, constantly increasing in complexity and speed. He runs riffs and variations, flourishes and trills, but all of them remain centered around that same initial tune.

This is Phil, growing up.

But when repeated enough times, even what starts out clever and exciting quickly becomes tedious and dull. Phil pushes the melody right up to that edge, continuing to harp over the same riffs, and watches Frigga's face as it morphs from delight into dislike.

This is Phil, growing older, unchanging. Alone.

With a flourish of the bow, he plays a complex figure and then dampens the strings suddenly, cutting off all sound. Silence rings out, but it's an expectant pause, the hush of something waiting to be born. Phil lets it hang there as long as he can, remembering a red desert and a brightly starlit sky, a difficult decision — and then a kiss.

When he starts to play again, he slides into an arrangement of a song that Clint first taught him on guitar. It's meant to be a duet, one that they used to play together; it's simple enough for a beginning guitarist, but the two parts weave together into a beautiful whole.

The arrangement that he makes of it now is one-sided. Phil leaves spaces between the notes, plays for a while and then pauses, as if waiting for someone else to take their turn. He hopes that the Aesir can hear it like he does, just the edges of absent harmonies, and hints of missing notes. He hopes that it sounds incomplete.

This is what they were; and this is what is missing.

He looks up to check on Frigga, who is watching him intently. She seems caught up in the music, which is a positive sign; but she looks more interested than emotionally moved.

Phil is quickly approaching his last chance.

In the middle of a measure, he slips in a discordant note, and then another. Here is Loki, sowing discord, weaving his trap. Slowly the tune falls apart, disintegrating into a mess of jangling, atonal noise. Phil saws at the strings without regard for form, and the resulting screeches are horrible. Now the echoes from the rafters sound like jeering laughter, and the scraping of the bow seems like whispers, foretelling doom. The entire room is caught up in this tempest, and a flicker of distress shows up in even Frigga's hooded eyes.

Phil takes this as his cue; he deftly swaps the bow into his left hand and slaps his palm down against the body of the cello, hard. He does it again, and then a third time. Three booming sounds like great claps of thunder roll out over the crowd. The impact of them is almost like being physically struck.

Here is the staff, stabbed through the heart.

Phil doesn't have a song for the thing that directly follows. He lets silence tell the story of his death.

The final movement of this piece needs to tell the story of Phil's afterlife — the tale of his waking in Valhalla, and of his quest. But every time he's practiced, every time he tried to pick a tune, his hands grew still and the strings fell silent. How can he capture the sense of endless separation? How can he put into a song the hope that rose up in him when he opened his eyes, and the vast, crushing disillusionment that followed after, when he realized that what seemed like paradise, was not?

He is no Mozart, no Bach. He's just a soldier, really — good at death and paperwork, and little else. Who does he think that he is?

Failure is not an option, though. He has to at least try.

The last movement starts off as a mournful air. It's vast and deep and ancient, the sort of thing one might expect to hear echoing from a far-off hillside just as evening falls, on the day before Midsummer. It sounds like mystery and distance, like old tunes newly remembered.

It sounds like a glimpse of hope, right before it fades away.

When Phil hears footsteps approaching, he thinks at first that it is just another echo, the hall itself playing along with his tune. Then the footsteps grow louder, and clearer. Phil looks to the side, still playing, and sees Brunhild coming up the walk.

Behind Brunhild is Peggy, standing tall with her hands clasped behind her back.

They come closer, and Phil realizes that behind Peggy there are three other people, none of whom he knows. They are two women and one man, dressed in varied styles of clothing. Peggy meets his eyes and mouths "I'm sorry", as Brunhild kneels and then steps off to the side.

Peggy steps forward, and begins to speak. Her words ring out high and clear, over top of Phil's music. "You challenged us to bring the Queen to tears, with the power of our tale. But here's the thing: neither Phil's story nor mine is particularly unique."

She does not sing, but her words blend together with the music, and are elevated by it. The rough edges of her voice are smoothed off, the dull spots brightened, until even her plain speech sounds like a poet's song. "Our stories — a man separated by death from his husband, a woman endlessly searching for her lover — are the stories shared by almost every single person in Valhalla. Our quest is their quest."

"So if you weep, my Lady, do not weep for us, alone. Mourn, instead, for those millions of deserving souls who have been unjustly separated from the ones they love."

Peggy bows her head and steps back, motioning the three strangers to come forward. One of the women opens her mouth and begins to tell her tale. Phil will never, afterward, be able to recall the particular words that are spoken; only that there is death, and love, and hope mixed with great sadness.

The music takes over, and his playing and the storyteller's speaking all combine into one coherent whole. It's a song, and it's also a tale, and the tale is the most heart-wrenchingly tragic thing that anyone has ever heard. All of sadness is held in it, and every kind of loss — for it is, at its heart, the tale of death, which is the universal constant.

Like every good song, the tale repeats itself in verses, each one similarly structured but with subtle variations. First the teller is a woman, then a man, and then a woman once again; the missing person first a husband, then a brother, then a son. Phil doesn't particularly notice when one stops speaking and another starts. He only plays, and knows not what he's playing — only that it is beautiful and sad, and truer than any music that he will ever make again.

At the end of the third chorus, the last woman falls silent. Phil turns the tune around and ends on the very first note, drawing it out once again, long and mournful, slowly trailing into silence. He keeps his eyes closed, until even the echoes fade away.

Then he looks down, and realizes that he is bleeding, the blood from his fingertips darkening the strings of his cello. As he watches, a bright drop falls onto the pale marble, soon joined by another. Two spots of crimson, they glisten dark against the wide expanse of whiteness.

He looks up just in time to see two pale tears fall from the Lady Frigga's eyes. They drop onto the red carpet beneath her, splattering pale and shimmering like jewels against the fabric. "A winner!" Odin's voice rings out. Phil doesn't bother looking over, so mesmerized is he by the shine of Frigga's tears. "The spirits have caused the Lady Frigga to weep!"

As Phil watches, a man dressed in dull clothing — probably a servant — darts up beside the Throne with a little knife. He carefully slices out the square of carpet holding Frigga's tears. The servant clasps it to his stomach like it is something precious, and rushes away again.

Meanwhile, Odin is still proclaiming. "Since the spirits have prevailed, we shall proceed to the third and final trial, which is a Trial of the Body," he says. "If they win it, as they have these other two, they will gain my blessing and the right to rule Valhalla!"

He lowers his voice, and speaks to Phil and Peggy directly. "Because it is such a momentous occasion, I thought that we might do something more... special, for the last trial." Odin smiles, showing teeth like a shark. Phil doesn't like that smile one bit.

"I know that you, in particular," Odin nods at Phil, "claim a blood-debt against a former member of my household. It is only just, I think, to give you a fair chance to repay it. And the attempt will certainly test your skill in battle."

He bangs his staff against the floor, and speaks again to the whole hall. "Let it be known that we shall gather again in three days time, and on that appointed day, the spirit known as Phillip Coulson will do battle with Loki, son of Laufey!"

Shocked murmurs run up and down the hall. Peggy gasps, but Phil just squares his shoulders and looks Odin in the eyes. "Bring it," he says, mostly speaking to himself.

The last time he battled Loki, it did not go so well for him. But this time, Phil will be prepared.

He clenches his bloody hand into a fist.

This time, things will be different.

Chapter Text

His friends are gathered back in the room where Phil first sparred with Henry and Pierre. Sitting in a circle, perched on the benches, are Phil, Peggy, Thor, Brunhild, Henry, Pierre, and Mr. Yu. Peggy has just finished describing Odin's third challenge.

"Alright." Phil folds his hands together, and wraps them around his knees. "Thanks, Peggy. Now that we're all up-to-date, I'd like to ask each of you whether you'd be willing to help me prepare for this duel. Henry, Pierre — I understand that this isn't your battle, but you are both skilled fighters, and I would appreciate it very much if you two would help me train. Mr. Yu," he nods to the teacher, "from what I know of Loki's fighting style, it seems similar to yours. I'm hoping that you can show me some techniques to use against him."

The monk nods back. "Of course. If you're going into danger, then it's my duty to teach you everything that I know, that might help you survive." Pierre and Henry both nod their agreement. Phil smiles at them. As a trainer himself, he understands Yu's sentiment well.

"Peggy. You're really sneaky..."

"Aw, Phil, you great flatterer." Peggy fakes embarrassment, and Phil smiles.

"... and that's a very useful trait, since we have to deal with Loki. I want you to help me run scenarios and figure out how to counter Loki's attacks. I need to have my own set of tricks to rely on."

"Aye, Captain." She nods.

"...And please don't ever call me that again."

He turns to the remaining members of the group. "Thor and Brunhild, more than anything I need your insight. Both of you have known Loki for a long time, longer than almost anyone. I need you guys to tell me everything that you know about Loki: his fighting style, his favorite moves, any tricks that he might use. I want to hear every little detail that you can remember, however small. Can you guys do that for me?"

Thor's face, usually so expressive, is oddly blank. He hesitates, and since when does Thor ever hesitate? Finally, he speaks. "Phillip, could I talk with you outside?"

"Sure, Thor." Phil motions toward the door.

Out in the hallway, Phil casually leans against the wall. "Is everything okay?"

Thor looks at the ground. "Yes. Well..." he sighs, and finally meets Phil's eyes. "I find myself unsure of the correct course of action. On the one hand, I want you to succeed in your quest. But at the same time, I cannot be a party to the killing of my brother." Thor clenches his fists. "Bad enough that he must be imprisoned forever. I will not be the one who delivers him up to his death."

"I see." Phil really does. "Are those the terms of this contest? Is killing Loki the only way to win?"

Thor shrugs. "Technically, no. If he were to yield to you, then you would be the winner. Or if you were to injure him so badly that he could not continue fighting. Though at that point, the blow to his honor would be so great that the noble thing to do would be to go ahead and slay him."

"Well, look, " Phil says. "I'm not from around here, so I don't really care about Aesir ideas of honor. Let's just set that part aside for a minute."

"Very well." Thor looks uncomfortable, but obliges. "Still, it would not be simple to pull off such a victory. My brother is nothing if not stubborn, and I believe that he will fight you for as long as he has breath."

"So I'd have to do just enough damage to disable him, without actually killing." Phil shakes his head. "That does sound difficult."

"Quite."

"So, what are you saying, then? Do you want me to lose?"

Thor shakes his head. "No, certainly not. I would not see you bound in servitude until the end of days." He leans against the wall, mimicking Phil. "As I said, my mind is torn. There seems to be no good solution."

"Well, how about this?" Phil takes a deep breath, and hopes that he won't regret what he's about to offer. "I will give you my word that I will do everything in my power to avoid killing Loki, if there's any way that I can do so while still protecting my own life." It will make things more difficult, but Phil needs Thor's knowledge if he's to have any chance of winning.

"I suppose that will have to be do," Thor rumbles. "If anyone could carry out such a vow, it would be you."

The god straightens up, and looks very solemn. He clasps Phil's hand in his own. "Give me your word right now. Swear it..." he hesitates. "Swear it upon the heart of Clint Barton, that you will do everything in your power to avoid killing my brother."

Damn. That's a hard-hitting oath. Sometimes Thor shows these unexpected flashes of insight, reminding Phil that he is truly Odin's son.

"Alright. I swear upon the heart of Clint Barton, my husband." Phil gets a little chill as he utters the words. "I will do everything in my power to avoid killing Loki, unless I must do so to protect my own life."

Thor drops his hand. "Very well. Let's go back inside, and I will tell you what I know."

When they rejoin the others on the benches, Thor begins. "Now listen closely. They will not dare to unbind Loki's magic, for fear of the wrath that he could bring down upon them. This will make your task more possible. You will not have to deal with his favored tactic of casting false illusions, and neither will he be able to summon weapons for himself."

"That does not mean, however, that the fight will be easy, for even without his magic, my brother is fast and strong, and clever. And though he will not call himself a warrior," — here there is a hint of bafflement in Thor's voice — "he has been trained in combat since his youth, like all men of Asgard. I have fought against Loki in practice a thousand times..." he trails off.

...and in real battles, twice. Phil mentally fills in.

"Furthermore," Thor continues, "Loki's silver tongue is not a gift of magic. It comes purely from his natural skill and inclination."

"He will not hesitate to use everything he knows about you to drive you into a blind rage, or to distract you. Nothing will be sacred, nothing will be off-limits, and it is safe to assume that he knows your every weakness." Thor looks very grave. "If sound were not such an important cue in battle, I would suggest that you stop your ears with cloth so that you would not have to hear him."

"Now, given his choice of weapon, he will likely use a spear. But he will also have throwing knives secreted about his person, as well as at least one dagger. He likes to make use of a move where he sweeps the spear around to trip you, and then throws a knife from his other hand, so that when you come up you walk right into it..."

Thor continues, outlining everything that he remembers of Loki's fighting tactics. Brunhild chimes in occasionally, sharing things that her mother showed her while teaching her to fight. Peggy pulls out a pad of paper and starts jotting down notes, chewing on the tip of the pen as she brainstorms defenses. Yu just listens, his eyes narrowed and intent, taking in the information.

If there's a way for me to win this, Phil thinks, these people will help me do it.

-----

Phil ducks and rolls as Yu brings the spear around in a vicious sweep. He comes up into a crouch about four feet away, where he intends to deliver one of his own blunted practice knives into his attacker's shoulder. Aim to disable the left arm, he reminds himself, recalling Peggy's suggestion. It seems that, while Loki is ambidextrous, he tends to lead with his left side when spear-fighting.

Just as he brings his hand out to throw the knife, a loud crash rings out right next to his head. Phil jumps, just a little, and the knife misses its target.

He is forced to scurry backward awkwardly as Yu comes at him, spear held high. Phil braces himself and blocks the downstroke with his padded forearm, though the impact is so hard that it jars the bone.

He is so focused on the spear that he completely misses the dagger in Yu's other hand. The sensei moves with expert precision, tapping the tip of the knife against Phil's stomach before he even sees it. Yu calls out, "Gut-wound!" Phil obediently curls over, frantically reaching for another knife. He may be "disabled" by the rules of their sparring, but it's possible that he could still get his own blow in...

Yu straightens up and taps his spear against the floor, signaling an end to the match. "Stop!" he says, and Phil relaxes.

"A gut-wound is not an acceptable outcome. I hope that you agree."

Phil nods and rises, brushing himself off. He twists around to glare at Henry, who is still holding the pair of cymbals that he just clanged together in Phil's ear. Henry gives him an apologetic shrug.

"Do you know what your mistake was?" Yu asks.

"I let myself be distracted," Phil replies.

"Correct. You were on a good path before that moment. Tell me what you were planning to do with the throwing knife." Phil tells him, and Yu nods in approval. "That might have worked. Remember, the quicker you can disable or wound Loki, the easier the rest of the fight will go. You want to wear him down over time, exhaust him until he starts making mistakes. That gives you the best chance of disabling without killing."

Yu looks over and motions to Pierre, who is observing. "This time, you and Henry both cause distractions. Pretty much anything is fair game. Try to mix up the timing as much as you can."

He points at Phil. "You: try not to let them."

Phil and Yu return to opposite sides of the mat. Yu calls out, "Begin!"

-----

It's half an hour before the appointed time for the duel, and the hall is more crowded than it ever was before. Phil thinks that all of Asgard must be in attendance. All of Asgard — and also Loki.

Phil looks across the hall to where his opponent is standing. Loki stares blankly at the ground, ignoring everything around him. He is still muzzled, and his hands and feet are chained. Presumably he won't be released until just before the duel.

The last time Phil saw Loki, aboard the Helicarrier, he looked ill and exhausted, stretched thin, with dark circles under his eyes. But Loki was also haughty, his body packed with wiry muscle, dressed in intricate armor, holding his magic staff. He still exuded power and control, even as a prisoner.

Loki now looks much worse than he did then.

For the first time Phil finds himself wondering about the conditions of Loki's prison. The god's skin is so pale from lack of light that Phil can see the blue veins beneath it, and Loki's body looks wasted and thin, as if he hasn't been getting enough food. Most startlingly, the god's head has been shaved, all of his long dark hair removed completely.

With his bald head and skinny frame, Loki looks more like a cancer patient than a dangerous war criminal.

But no less dangerous, for all of that, Phil reminds himself. He cannot allow himself to feel pity for his opponent, lest it make him slow to strike.

As if sensing the thought, Loki looks up, and their eyes meet. This one thing, at least, is no different: Loki's eyes still gleam with that vivid, unnatural green light.

Loki's face wrinkles, like he is smiling behind the mask. His eyes go all big and mockingly round, and then he looks down and places his bound hands over his chest, just to the right of his heart, as if grabbing at something. Right over the place where he stabbed Phil, the last time that they met.

Loki looks behind him, and mimes an exaggerated expression of shock and dismay. Then looks back at Phil and his eyelid drops in a slow, lazy wink. Any pity that Phil was feeling quickly fades away.

Fuck you, too he thinks. Then he looks away, and sternly reminds himself not to engage.

His thoughts are interrupted by a nudge against his side, and an unfamiliar voice whispering, "Sir! Sir..."

Phil turns, and there is a short, thin man standing behind him. The man is slightly translucent, just like Phil is — a spirit. He's dressed in the dull colors of a servant.

"Yes? Can I help you?"

The man bows. "The Lady Frigga sends her regards, and wishes you good fortune in your upcoming battle." He holds out his hand to Phil and Phil, uncertain of protocol, clasps it. He feels something small pressed into his hand, and then the servant pretends to stumble and puts his mouth next to Phil's ear.

"Keep the Lady's Tear around your neck, close to your skin," he says. "Do not remove it. It will protect you." Then he straightens, slips away, and disappears into the crowd.

Phil looks down into his hand, careful to keep the object in it hidden. He sees a delicate golden chain, as thin and strong as a strand of spiderweb. Suspended from the chain is a tiny crystal vial, full of shining, white-blue liquid.

The Lady's Tear.

Well, it certainly can't hurt, to have a goddess' favor. He casually slips the chain around his neck, and conceals the vial underneath his shirt. It feels slightly warm against his skin. He wonders how, exactly, what it can do to protect him.

-----

The force field springs up, and the duel begins.

Phil rushes at Loki, trying to quickly disarm him. As expected, Loki has chosen a long spear to fight with. After a long discussion with Yu, Phil has chosen two large daggers, along with a full set of throwing knives. (He's still disappointed that firearms, as well as magical weapons of all sorts, were unequivocally barred from this duel.)

Loki dodges his rush, flowing away from him like water. The god crouches across the ring and smiles at Phil, baring his teeth. "It's good to see you again, Coulson!" he calls out. Phil chucks a throwing knife at him, trying to be stealthy; Loki avoids it easily. "I must say, you're looking much better than your dear Hawkeye did, when I was finished with him!"

He's lying, Phil reminds himself. Thor said that Clint is fine.

Loki's hand flashes, almost too quickly to see. Phil throws himself to the side just in time, as one of Loki's wicked sharp little throwing daggers whistles past.

"Tell me: what was it like, dying? Did it hurt very badly?" Loki feints to the side, and Phil steps back in response, and then curses himself for taking the bait. He needs to settle down and focus.

Still, he can't help responding. "A little. Did it hurt when I shot you?"

Before his lips close around the last word, Loki is upon him, rushing forward. Phil braces, preparing himself to grab Loki and throw him. At the last minute, though, Loki sidesteps and slips to one side. He brings the butt of his spear around and over, trying to smash it against Phil's head. Because of the fake-out, Phil is poorly positioned to dodge; he catches the blow upon his forearm, which is already sore and bruised from days of sparring.

The vibration seems to travel throughout his entire body, but miraculously the bone doesn't break. He wriggles his fingers. They all move easily, but the hand tingles with an unpleasant feeling, like pins and needles. His whole left arm feels sort of heavy and numb.

It's not a disabling blow, but it will slow him. Payment, he supposes, for taking Loki's bait.

They circle one another, each fighter looking for his opening. They feint and dodge, trying to psych one another out. Loki is constantly moving, pressing in toward Phil's left, trying to get at him on the side where he is weaker. Phil spins and dodges, darting forward in his own counterattacks, trying to catch Loki off-balance.

There's another flash of metal, just milliseconds worth of warning, and Phil moves to dodge another knife. But this time, he misjudges.

He expects only one knife, but this time Loki launches three knives, all together. The sharp little points fan out in a deadly triangle. Phil's movements are enough to carry him away from two of them, but the last one lands solidly against his right thigh, directly over the femoral artery.

Phil braces, expecting a wave of pain; but it never comes. Instead, he feels a strange tingle, like static electricity, and for a second the air around him crackles with blue energy that makes his hairs all stand on end.

The burst of energy is centered on his leg, where it sparks bright blue-white, like a welding torch. The dagger strikes against it and clatters harmlessly to the floor, as the vial beneath Phil's shirt gives off an intense flare of heat.

So that's how it protects me. Phil instinctively clutches at the amulet.

Loki notices Phil's movement, and his eyes narrow, like he's trying to figure something out. Then they widen, as the god comes to his conclusion. For just a brief second, Loki's face flashes with a terrible expression of shock and betrayal.

It stuns Phil. What could have caused the trickster such surprise?

The expression disappears as quickly as it came, replaced by a contorted snarl of rage. Loki reaches up and claws at his own neck, with rigid fingers. The god's expression is terrible to behold as he rips something away and throws it down onto the floor. Phil gets just a brief glimpse of a small crystal vial on a thin gold chain, exactly identical to his own.

Right. Frigga wept two Tears.

Loki brings his foot down hard, smashing the vial into thousands of tiny pieces. He grinds it against the marble, until all that remains is a smear of opalescent liquid on the bottom of his boot.

Phil doesn't understand it. Why would Frigga give one of her Tears to each opponent, thus ensuring that neither side could win? And why would Loki smash his own amulet, willingly putting himself at a disadvantage?

He doesn't have much time to ponder before Loki rushes at him, shouting incoherent curses. Until now, the god fought always with sly, calculated movements, each one directed toward some ultimate goal. But now Loki staggers, casts his spear to the side, draws two wicked curved daggers from his belt, and flies at Phil like a berserker.

The god's speed is still his greatest asset. He falls on Phil like a whirlwind, twin daggers flashing through the air as he kicks and whirls. There is nothing of subtlety in this attack, no longer any attempt at misdirection. Now Loki is fighting more like Thor, trying to simply overwhelm and crush Phil. But Loki isn't Thor, and sheer physical power has never been the trickster's strong point.

Phil has pushed Loki into the one thing that everyone feared Phil would fall prey to: a blind rage. He just wishes that he understood how he did it.

Despite the wild nature of his movements, Loki still manages to land several hits that would, at the very least, have caused Phil a lot of pain. But the Lady's Tear blocks them all, blue energy springing up like a second skin between him and every blade.

Every time this happens, the amulet flares hotter and hotter against Phil's chest. It burns into his flesh, searing like a brand, but he forces himself to keep it against his skin. He'll take a burn scar over bleeding out from knife wounds, any day.

Loki's movements are starting to slow, his berserker rage draining away, and eventually Phil manages to shake his grasp completely. Loki comes right after him, staying on him, but Phil has an idea now.

A phrase from Peggy's notes flashes across his mind. Your enemy's weapon can be your best friend.

Slowly he makes his way across the ring, drawing Loki onward, until he has the god right where he wants him. The next time Loki attacks, Phil crouches low, and manages to toss Loki over his shoulders.

Loki lands on his feet and instantly darts forward, but the toss was only misdirection. Phil uses the god's moment of distraction to snatch up Loki's spear from where it lies on the ground, discarded and forgotten.

He rises and brings the spear up as he whirls to meet Loki, all in one fluid motion. Time slows, and Phil can see the god's eyes widen in surprise. Loki, caught off guard, flails and tries to backpedal, but there just isn't enough space to slow his momentum.

He stumbles and falls forward, as Phil pushes the spear up.

The long blade impales him, piercing Loki's slender body in a spray of blood and tissue. The blade slices through his chest, toward his right shoulder, just to the side of where his heart would be, if he were human.

It's almost exactly same place where Loki once impaled Phil.

Oh, that's poetic.

The impact jars Phil's bones, and sends shockwaves up and down his arms. The spear drops from his numbed hands; Loki tips backward, and collapses on the ground. Phil leaps forward and jumps on top of the wounded god, pinning both of his arms down. Loki doubles over, gasping, the front of his tunic becoming stained with blood.

When he straightens up again, the god is smiling. His smile looks mad, all teeth and narrowed lips, and his eyes have faded to a dull, cloudy grey. There is no longer any trace of green, in either iris.

Loki continues to smile as Phil presses a razor-sharp dagger to his neck.

"Yield." Phil's voice is low and dangerous. "Yield, or I will slit your throat right now."

Loki looks up at him, and the god's face seem to clear. He blinks, and his eyes flash green once more. "Phil, oh Phil." His smile stretches impossibly wider. "You put up a better fight than your dear Clint did, but I have to say, it was much more fun being pinned underneath him."

Phil grits his teeth. "Shut up." He presses the knife in harder, until it draws a thin line of blood across the god's neck.

Loki doesn't stop. "Just think: all of this effort you're going through, just to get at my leftovers! Shall I tell you of the things we did together? I must say I found his personality tiresome, but then, I imagine that's not really why you like him. Once I forbade him from speaking, he proved to be endlessly entertaining."

"No." The whisper comes out, despite Phil's best intentions.

"Oh, yes." Loki crows. "Your sweet archer is quite flexible, for one thing. And he also..."

All that Phil can think of is putting all of his weight against the knife and pressing it downward, until it hits the floor. Slicing through skin, through muscle, through bone, until Loki's chattering tongue is finally silenced. He would do anything to close that evil mouth forever; anything, to make him stop spewing these vile statements.

Phil wants to blot out the sound of Loki's words with his own blood.

Then Loki says something that catches Phil's attention. "... he told me that he never loved you. He said that he would leave you in a heartbeat for someone more beautiful, and younger."

Bullshit.

Phil knows, without a doubt, that Clint would not have said that. Not of his own free will. Certainly, the archer always had his share of willing offers — but their marriage was solid.

He's lying.

The knowledge hits him like a blow from Thor's hammer, and then Phil finally understands.

Loki wants to die.

He wants Phil to slit his throat, and kill him.

Phil looks down and says, "I don't believe you." He lifts the knife away from Loki's neck, and watches the god's face, alert for any sign that this might be a trap.

Loki falls silent, and his mad smile fades away. All that is left on his face is despair and devastation, a great and terrible sadness that would move anyone to tears. He whispers, his mouth barely moving. "Kill me. Please, don't make me go back there."

He looks up at Phil, and his eyes are wide and pleading. "You've won. I beg of you, just kill me."

Phil considers him. Can he trust this, or is it just another trick? With Loki, it's impossible to tell.

Still, he doesn't have to think very hard about his answer. "No."

Phil springs up and away, twisting like Yu showed him, just in case it's all a lie. But Loki just lays there, looking broken and defeated, bleeding from the spear-wound in his chest. Phil studies him, trying to figure out what to do next.

The audience has been still and quiet this whole time, but now there's a stir of movement outside the ring. Phil looks up to see the crowd part, making a path for Odin as he approaches the ring.

The old god draws to a halt, studying Loki. Phil cannot interpret the expression on his face.

Odin turns to Phil. "Your killer is at your mercy. Why do you not slay him? Do you not wish to repay your blood-debt?"

"No, I do." Phil looks at Loki: at the line of weeping red across his neck, at his emaciated body, at his chest still impaled by his own spear. Phil remembers the look on Loki's face when the god saw that he also wore Frigga's Tear. He remembers his oath to Thor, and Loki begging him to kill him; and he remembers Brunhild, who calls Loki "mother", and speaks of her childhood with love and delight.

Phil can't forgive Loki his many murders, or forget the horrors he inflicted on Earth. Not yet. But then he thinks about Valhalla and its intricate design — all of which is about to become his responsibility, and none of which he fully understands. Meanwhile, right here is the being who designed it.

"I think there's a better way to repay that debt. So, no, I'm not going to kill Loki."

Phil looks up at the father, and then back down to the son.

"I want to hire him."

Chapter Text

For three long days, Loki does not move or speak. The wounded god lies on his pallet in Bilskirnir, attended only by valkyries, healing.

Phil sees him only once during that time, when Loki is brought to Valhalla and settled into a room. As Brunhild bandages her mother's shoulder, Phil orders that Loki's muzzle and shackles be removed. The Aesir had insisted on re-attaching them after the duel, though Loki wasn't even conscious at the time.

"Better safe than sorry," they'd said. And also, "You can't trust that one. For all that we know, he could be faking it, as part of some scheme."

Phil nods at Brunhild when the bonds are taken off. Then he leaves, locking Loki's door behind him.

Meanwhile, out in Asgard, fierce arguments are raging. Advisors of Odin stand forth to argue that Loki cannot be trusted — that no matter what kinds of vows he swears, he will always be plotting and planning, deep down where no one else can see it.

And then one day, in the dark, will come the knife.

Phil and Thor and Peggy and Brunhild stand across the table, and retort that Odin promised them advisors, and who better to fill the role than the designer of Valhalla? Peggy points out that Loki has no incentive to misbehave. He will know that if he does, he will be sent back to his prison, this time with even less chance of pardon or escape. Thor and Brunhild remind the advisors that Valhalla, because of its position deep inside the heart of Yggdrasil, is as secure as the safest prison. The only exit usable by living beings comes directly into Asgard — so if Loki ran, he would only be running back into the arms of his captors.

Odin listens to all of this without speaking. After three days of discussion, when all of the words on both sides have run dry, he tips his head and tells everyone to leave him. An hour later, he summons them all back. Standing at the head of the long table, he speaks three simple words, that nonetheless carry as much weight as three blows from Mjollnir.

"He is yours."

Odin nods at Phil and Peggy. "Tomorrow we will have a ceremony to proclaim the two of you the new Jarl and..." He looks at Peggy. "...other Jarl, I suppose, of Valhalla. At that time, I will give Loki into your keeping. From that point onward, both Valhalla and Loki shall be your responsibility alone."

"Good," says Peggy curtly. "You do that."

As they're returning, she says, "Why do I get the feeling that even though we won, it's Odin who really got the best end of this bargain? I mean, he just managed to offload two of his biggest problems, by giving both of them to us."

Phil only nods, and says nothing. He's had this thought before, but he still can't bring himself to regret any of their actions.

-----

The "coronation" ceremony is no grand affair. It has the look and feel of something hastily slapped together from bits and pieces of other rituals. Phil doesn't mind that one bit; he just wants to get the whole thing over with so that he can get to work.

He and Peggy come and stand on the dais in Odin's Hall, while Odin says a few flowery phrases about prevailing through trials and proving their worth. Then one of the servants brings up two large medallions resting on a satin pillow, each one carved with a distinctive rune. Odin stands before Phil and takes up the first medallion, settling it over Phil's head. It's heavier than Phil expected.

Odin rests a hand on each of Phil's shoulders, and says, "Phillip John Coulson, formerly of Midgard, by my name as Odin All-Father and my power as the King of Asgard, I do bestow upon you the title of Jarl of Valhalla, and all of the responsibilities and privileges thereof."

"– Governor," says Phil. Odin stops, obviously surprised at being interrupted.

"Excuse me?" The god-king demands.

"Governor of Valhalla. Not Jarl, that sounds ridiculous. There's no way I'm ever going to be called Jarl Coulson."

The way Phil sees it, Odin owes them now. The least that he can do is give them a title that Phil likes.

Odin frowns severely. "Jarl is the title that I'm offering."

Peggy speaks up. "Yeah, I'm with Phil on this one. Governor Carter sounds pretty decent, but Jarl Carter just sounds silly. Besides, I've always been a commoner, and I always will be one." She folds her arms over her chest. "No two ways about it."

Odin sighs, and looks very put upon. "Very well. I bestow upon you the title of Governor of Valhalla — even though that is a Midgardian concept that has no history or meaning here — and all of the responsibilities and privileges thereof. Is that better?"

Phil nods, and touches the heavy medallion around his neck. "I accept."

Get used to it, he thinks.

Odin says the same thing to Peggy, and she responds as Phil did. Odin turns them both to face the assembled crowd, which is much, much smaller than the crowd for Phil and Loki's duel. "I proclaim these spirits, Phillip Coulson and Margaret Carter, both formerly of Midgard, to be the new Jar..." He fumbles, but recovers quickly. "...Co-Governors of Valhalla!" The crowd all bow their heads and touch their fists to their hearts, though they do not bow at the knee as they do for Odin.

Loki is brought up to the platform, then. He looks a bit better: still bandaged and bruised, half-carried by two valkyries, but at least he's conscious and walking. Odin says, "Loki, son of Laufey the Jotunn, I give you the title of Chief Advisor to the Co-Governors of Valhalla."

He pauses, and his eyes narrow. "Their word shall be your law, and your conduct their responsibility from this day onward. Any freedom you have will be granted by them, and likewise, any imprisonment or punishment that they name will be enforced. Do you understand this?"

For a long time, Loki doesn't move or speak. Phil fights down the urge to go over and check that he's still conscious. Finally Loki, without looking at Odin, nods once: just a quick jerk of his head, up and down, giving the bare minimum of required movement.

"It is done," Odin proclaims. "He's yours."

Unexpectedly, for just a second the god's face seems to soften. "I wish you luck," he says to them, quietly. "Perhaps you can do something with him, where I could not."

Phil wonders whether "do something" means "put him to work", or "help him". Knowing Odin, it's probably a mix of both.

-----

After the public ceremony, Thor draws Peggy aside. They speak together for a long minute in low voices, and when they part, Peggy's eyes are shining. She wipes at them surreptitiously, and Phil looks away.

Thor comes over to him, then. "The time has come for me to return to Midgard. Truthfully, I have put off a visit for too long, thinking that I had no reason to return." He smiles at Phil. "Now, of course, I have two reasons."

Thor lowers his voice — with limited success, as always. "Tell me your message, and I will pass it on to Hawkeye. I swear, I will do my utmost to remember it exactly, word for word."

Phil nods. He's been thinking for several days about what he wants to say. The message must be simple, easily passed on by a third party. He isn't willing to trust Thor with lengthy declarations, and he also knows how suspicious Clint can be. He needs to send a message that could only come from him.

From the beginning, they've had a code word established.

"Tell Clint that I said 'Orion'." Phil remembers the desert. "And tell him... Tell him that I still do everything for the same reason."

Thor nods, and repeats the sentence back to him word for word. "I swear upon my life, I will tell him this when I see him."

"Thank you, Thor." Phil smiles. "I know that you will." He leans in to give Thor a hug; Thor, enthusiastic as ever, sweeps Phil up into a hearty embrace. Phil kicks his feet, and genuinely laughs.

Clint will know that I'm still here, that I exist. Thank god, at least he'll know now.

He looks over Thor's shoulder and sees Loki leaning on his valkyrie, behind them. The trickster god is staring at Phil and Thor with an intent expression on his face, eyes narrowed. When he notices Phil looking at him, Loki quickly looks away.

Uh-oh. What is he up to?

-----

When they get back to Valhalla, Phil follows Loki into his room, and stands watch while the valkyries arrange him on his bed. Despite the bandages wrapping his chest, the god is starting to look better. The Aesir seem to heal at a rate almost as fast as the spirits in Valhalla. Already the small cuts that covered on Loki's face and arms are gone.

The valkyries leave, but Phil stays, saying nothing. Loki stares at him, obviously waiting for him to speak, but Phil remains silent.

After a minute, Loki rolls his eyes and flops over to face the wall, drawing his blankets around him as if to hide himself from Phil's gaze. Phil watches for awhile longer, but the god makes no movement, and does not speak.

Okay, Phil thinks. Okay. I've got time, now, to figure you out. He pivots on his heel and starts to turn the doorknob.

Behind him, Loki clears his throat. Phil freezes at the sound.

The god's voice is raspy, full of gravel from going three days without speaking. "My brother is a moron," Loki grits out, and then he falls silent.

Phil's hand tightens on the doorknob, but he doesn't say anything. After a minute, he goes out.

-----

On his first day as Governor of Valhalla, Phil asks whether he can bring Loki breakfast, in place of the valkyrie that normally attends him. At the god's door, laden down with a heavy tray of food, Phil enters without knocking — at which point, he gets a surprise.

Loki is blue.

The god is sitting up on the edge of bed, staring at his hands. His bandages have been removed and piled on the bedside table; the wound in his chest has closed, leaving only an ugly, puckered scar. But far more notable than any of that is the fact that every visible inch of Loki's skin is colored a bright blue. His body is covered in darker, raised markings; his face is still the same shape, roughly, but his eyes gleam a bright, inhuman red.

Phil can't hold back a startled breath.

Loki looks up, and shock flits across his face. He turns his head, and his skin rapidly fades back to its normal pale color. The tribal markings vanish, and when he looks up, his eyes are once more white and black and green.

Shapeshifter, Phil reminds himself.

When he looks normal again, Loki straightens his back and looks at Phil, crossing his arms defiantly. He seems to be expecting something to happen, but Phil isn't quite sure what. He can tell that something is going on here, but he also knows that he doesn't understand it. Not yet.

As before, Phil lets silence speak for him. And, as before, Loki breaks first.

His words, though, are unexpected. "I'm sorry," he bites out, sounding like every syllable costs him dearly. "It won't happen again."

Huh?

"What won't?" asks Phil, uncrossing his arms.

Loki looks back at him, his face a blank mask. "Oh, come, Jarl Coulson. Surely my brother has told you." He spits the word 'brother' with painful, fierce anger. Phil wonders, not for the first time, what sort of history is there.

"It's Governor Coulson. And, told me what?" Phil says, keeping his voice level, patient, and polite. This isn't the first time he's interrogated a god, as strange as that fact still seems.

Loki looks down at his hands again, flexing and turning them, examining them as if they are something strange. "That I am a monster," he says flatly, not looking at Phil.

I knew that as soon as you brainwashed Clint, Phil thinks, but he keeps it to himself. Now isn't the time to have that conversation.

"That I am a Jotunn," Loki continues, "and that my parents were Jotunn — what the Aesir call Frost Giants. That I was taken as a baby, claimed as a prize of war, and brought to Asgard for a purpose that I was never even deemed worthy to serve."

"What you saw was my true appearance, not this Aesir skin." Loki looks up at Phil, and in his eyes shines a bright challenge. "You see, I am an abomination."

Phil can't tell if the fire in Loki's eyes is fueled by reason or madness. Perhaps it doesn't even matter. The fact remains that Loki is his charge now, and Phil needs him. Valhalla needs him, and furthermore, Valhalla needs him sane.

They can't risk letting a madman access the power of Yggdrasil.

"Look, Loki," he says. "You know that I'm from Midgard, right?" Loki nods, and gives a reflexive sneer. "Right. So this whole thing with Jotunn, Frost Giants, whatever" — Phil waves his hands — "it doesn't really mean all that much to me, okay?" He does remember what the myths had to say about Frost Giants, but who knows what of those things is really true?

"Whatever happened between you and Odin, whatever happened between Frost Giants and the Aesir... I really couldn't honestly care less." Phil leans against the wall, dangling Loki's breakfast tray, trying to project an air of unconcern. "Your heritage doesn't make you an abomination, not here. Not to me," he says.

Your actions do, though, he thinks, but does not say.

"You can go around blue and spiky, or pale and green-eyed, or in the shape of a fish or a bird; it's all the same to me. I honestly don't care."

Loki opens his mouth and closes it again. Without warning, between one second and the next, he shifts. Blue quickly overtakes his skin, ridged patterns rise up from his flesh, and his eyes once again become burning red embers. Phil can't help but feel a shudder down his spine; the form that faces him now is thoroughly alien, unlike the superficially human-seeming Aesir.

Still. Phil's met the Hulk.

Loki sits there in Jotunn blue, and every muscle in the god's body is tensed, as if he's perched on the edge of fleeing. As if he expects to be attacked.

Do not pity him, Phil reminds himself firmly. That way lies only danger.

He unfolds himself and walks over to the chair beside the bed. The god flinches at his approach, though Loki tries to hide it. Phil pulls out the chair and sits down, handing Loki the heavy dish of food. He tries not to notice how Loki grabs at it and guards it, with the intensity of someone who has spent a long time hungry.

He sits back and watches as the god begins to shovel food into his mouth. "So. Tell me something about the making of Valhalla."

When Loki begins to tell the story of the design and creation of Valhalla, fitting his words around bites of bread and meat and fruit, it's like the god becomes a different being. His red eyes light up with something that is not anger; he gestures with the hand holding the fork and speaks in long, winding sentences, describing the elegant simplicity of Valhalla's initial design.

He walks Phil through the way he was able to, after much study and great effort, combine raw magic with physical materials to form sensors and triggers, so that Valhalla would automatically grow new rooms and paths and dining halls as they were needed. Phil understands about one word out of three, but he can't help but be drawn in by Loki's obvious passion for the topic.

"It's like a tree," Loki says, tracing invisible lines onto the blanket with his finger, "that can keep growing forever, adding new leaves and branches. Like Yggdrasil itself, eternal and self-sustaining."

To Phil, Loki's description of magic-working sounds like a combination of computer programming, architecture, gardening, and meditation, all rolled up together. He realizes again just how much skill Loki must have, and how hard he must have worked at it, to learn and train it.

Loki has moved on to the way the conduits and taps from Yggdrasil were woven throughout the halls, so that everyone could have one. His blue face has a very strange expression on it; Phil has never seen him look this way before. When Loki describes the near-orgasmic rush of working directly with the raw power of Yggdrasil , Phil finally realizes what is different.

Loki's face shows no trace of grief or pain, right at this moment. That fact alone is enough to make him look like a different person.

Unfortunately, the transformation doesn't last. With Loki's very next sentence, the same old bitterness creeps back into his face. "When I was finished, I was so proud of the thing that I had made. To create an entire, self-sustaining realm, to design and build it all from scratch — especially since I was still so very young. I was scarcely more than a child, at the time; and I was proud as a child, too, of what I had created."

Loki shakes his head, and for the first time in his retelling, his red eyes fall closed. "I was so certain, then, that I had won myself the kingship. After all, what had Thor accomplished, compared to Valhalla? Compared to my pride and joy?" He laughs bitterly. "But of course, that could not be. I did not fully understand it at the time, why the Aesir turned me away, overlooking all of my achievements. Odin even gave Thor his hall right in the middle of Valhalla, my creation! Meanwhile I was ordered to return to Asgard, and be content with my childhood bedchamber."

The god stirs restlessly, clenching at his blunted bread-knife with white knuckles. Phil subtly brushes the handle of his revolver. One can never be too cautious.

"Of course, now I know why." Loki gestures to himself with the knife, and something in the action makes Phil's skin crawl.

There it comes again: the temptation to pity Loki. He keeps wanting to feel sympathy for the fallen trickster.

"It is, of course, because I am a Jotunn and a monster, and a sorcerer besides. Of course I never would have been entrusted with the throne." Loki slams the bread-knife into a block of cheese, and when he lets go, his hand is shaking.

"Why did you want it?" Phil asks.

Loki looks up at him, and the look on his face is one of total incomprehension. He speaks slowly, as one might talk to a person who is stupid. "Why would I not want it? I had been told that to rule was my destiny, ever since I was a child."

Phil shifts and reaches over toward Loki, removing the block of cheese from the tray and cutting himself a slice. He puts it in his mouth and chews reflectively. He swallows before he continues.

"I don't buy it."

"Hm?" Loki looks genuinely shocked.

(Phil thinks that maybe he should start giving himself a point for every honest facial expression that he can pull from Loki. This would make three, now.)

"I don't buy it," he repeats. "Since when do you do what you're told, or obey anyone just for the sake of obeying?"

Loki raises his chin. "Not ever," he says haughtily.

Gotcha. Phil points the bread-knife at him. "Exactly. You're Loki; you do what you want. Everyone knows that."

"So why did you care so much about becoming king? Obviously you have some pretty intense feelings about it. I mean, this happened, what, more than a thousand years ago? And it still obviously has a lot of power to piss you off."

He leans forward, resting his chin against his hand. "So tell me, Loki. What was the real reason? Why did you so badly want to become king? No offense, but it doesn't seem like you exactly have the attitude or inclination to devote your life to public service. So, why then?"

Loki is silent. He drops a piece of bread and meat back on the platter, and stares at his blue hands again, as he was doing when Phil enters. He clenches them, studying the fingers, turning them over and under.

Without warning, the blue once again fades away and Loki shifts back to looking pale, black-haired, and green-eyed.  Like an Aesir.

"Alright. Alright, fine, I lied before," he says, looking up at Phil. "Do you want to know the truth?"

Phil nods.

"The truth is that I knew that I was a monster long before I ever learned that I was Jotunn. My whole life," he gestures with his elegant hands, "I have not been right. In so many different ways."

He starts to count off on his fingers. "I was not a warrior. I was small and dark and slender, instead of big and blond and strong. I did magic, and preferred it over fighting. I spent time as a woman and bore children, of which the Guardians and the valkyries are not the only ones. And I liked things that I should not, and people that I should not. And I was never right."

"I was never, ever right."

Loki looks at Phil. "Can you imagine what it's like, to grow up surrounded by people that you know would despise you, if they found out who you really were? Do you have any idea what it's like for a child, to sit in the midst of her friends and relations and know that every one of them would hate her if she let her mask slip for even a single instant? If she spoke a too-true word, or took any honest action?"

Loki's choice of pronoun does not escape Phil's notice.

He thinks back to his aunts and uncles and cousins, sitting in a row all dressed in their Sunday best, backs straight, unsmiling. And he remembers how he wrestled and agonized and wept, over those first few schoolboy crushes.

Maybe I can imagine it better than you realize.

Phil always had escapes, though — into movies and comics, and into his music. It sounds like Loki was not even granted that much.

The god continues. "But when I was king... ah, then everything would be different. This was always foremost in my mind, when I was a child. It was my favorite daydream: that one day I would be king, and all of Asgard would bow down before me. And they would love me."

"They would have to love me, for who could speak against me? Who, when I was king, could tell me that I was wrong?" Loki's green eyes flash with a familiar madness, and his entire body trembles. "No one. For all Aesir must love the king."

"Oh."

It's the only sound that Phil can make. It sounds like several large puzzle-pieces falling into place, and Phil realizing that he doesn't much enjoy the shape they're making. After a minute, he takes the empty tray and stands to leave.

He has some things to think about.

At the door, Phil turns back and looks at Loki. The god is still sitting on the bed; he hasn't moved since his last outburst. Phil clears his throat, but Loki doesn't look up.

"I'd like to ask a favor," he says.

Loki's face twitches, in a way that Phil can't interpret. "You are my Jarl," he says, and everything about him is resentment. "You can order me to do anything you like."

"I'd like to ask you," Phil emphasizes, "to consider the idea that you weren't an abomination — and that you could choose to not be one, again. Consider the possibility that the things you said — being small, working magic, living as a woman, liking things that you should not — that none of those things make your existence 'wrong'."

"Maybe instead, it's the Aesir who are wrong."

Phil hopes that this idea will appeal to Loki. It serves Phil's purpose for the god to blame his woes on Asgard. (And never mind that Phil truly believes everything he said to Loki. Never mind that he would stand behind all of it, if quoted.)

"Maybe you don't have to believe them, not here. Not anymore." He pauses.

"Just consider it, okay?"

Phil closes the door before Loki can respond.

Chapter Text

"Alright!" Peggy is standing on a table and using her best drill-sergeant voice. She projects loudly across the entire dining hall, which is packed full with hundreds of valkyries. Only a skeleton crew remains on duty.

"Anybody who doesn't have a scanner, hold up your hand!" she bellows. A cluster of hands go up in the corner, and Phil heads toward them at a jog.

The scanners are step one in Phil and Peggy's plan. Originally Phil wanted to go for something more all-purpose, like the Blackberry to which he was once surgically tethered, but the limitations of the Source stopped them once again. It turns out that it isn't enough to simply envision a Blackberry; one has to fully imagine every program on it, with all of their options and features, and how they should respond to every type of input.

Phil has the computer skills required of every SHIELD agent, but he's no programmer. And the last time Peggy programmed, it was in FORTRAN 66, with punch cards. In the end, they went with something simpler, a single-purpose tool — the rune-scanner.

Each scanner has a flat, round indentation on one side, exactly the size of the pendant that everyone receives upon arrival. Whenever a pendant is set into the indentation, the device scans and records it — both the physical design, and all of the personal information that it carries. It stores a copy of every rune that's been scanned. The information from each scanner can then be uploaded into a central server, which is basically a screen attached to a keyboard. The keyboard can be used to search the catalog of runes by name, date of death, and geographical location.

Figuring out the search function had been the most difficult part, taking them several tries to imagine the necessary detail. For the first time across all of life and death, Phil finds himself wishing that Tony Stark was here.

Still, it's a step. Starting today, every new entrant into Valhalla will be recorded and catalogued. Those who ask will be brought to the central console, where they can search and check whether a particular person has come in. And since the valkyries can find any room based on its rune, they can take those who do find a match, to meet that person.

Of course, this does nothing for the billions of people who are already in Valhalla. That's a more difficult problem, and one that Phil badly wants to consult Loki about. Too bad he hasn't seen the god since yesterday morning's conversation.

Up on the table, Peggy is demonstrating how to set the medallion into the scanner, and how to know when it's finished scanning. Then she has the valkyries practice with their own medallions. Most of them pick it up without any trouble, although there are a few incidents of valkyries forgetting their own strength and pressing the scan button with so much force that the case cracks. (Luckily, Phil has extras.)

He makes a note to himself to chose a heavier material for the next model. No wonder everything here in Asgard is made of metal!

When the demonstration is complete, Peggy motions to Phil, who jogs to the front of the room and leaps up onto the table in one smooth motion. "Hi, everyone," he says, giving a little wave. "There's one other new thing that we're going to have you guys do, okay?"

He pulls out a thick sheaf of papers from his bag. "Here we have the new Mead of Forgetfulness Consent Form, or MFC form for short. This will inform new entrants about the mental and emotional effects of the Mead of Forgetfulness, aka Lethe. What I need you to do is go over this form with every new person who enters Valhalla. I'm told that the it should automatically appear in the correct language for everyone."

"They need to sign their runemark here" - he indicates one of several blanks – "indicating that they understand the information presented. Then have them sign either Subform A, indicating that they choose to consume Lethe in full awareness of its effects, or" – he flips the page over – "Subform B, indicating that they refuse. Then put your own runemark here, and add the date. Got it?"

The valkyries are looking at one another, confused. Phil sighs. Okay. We'll get there.

"Peggy, would you hand out papers to everyone? Let's all practice filling out our MFC forms."

As Phil jumps down from the table to assist the nearest group of valkyries, he turns his head and sees Loki staring at him from the doorway. The god looks normal — no. Phil shakes his head and corrects himself. The god looks Aesir and male, today.

He gives Loki a thin smile, but the god just looks away.

-----

Thor has been tremendously gracious, giving Phil and Peggy full run of Bilskirnir while he's away. Phil has commandeered a cloakroom for his office — cloakroom being, in this case, not at all a euphemism. The walls of the small chamber are lined with hooks, and from each one hangs an identical bright red cloak. There must be several hundred of them in here.

Peggy has taken for her office a similar chamber down the hallway, lined with shelf upon shelf of identical winged helmets.

Phil shakes his head. He'll never understand the Aesir sense of style. But he supposes that when you live for thousands of years, finding something new to wear every day might come to seem like a pointless task.

His thoughts are interrupted by a soft knock at the door. "Come in!" he calls out. He straightens in his chair, expecting Peggy, or maybe Brunhild. Instead, Loki slinks into the office, trailed by the valkyrie that Phil has assigned to watch him. (Phil is trying to be merciful, but that doesn't mean he's stupid.)

"Loki. What can I help you with?" he says, masking his surprise.

Loki stares at him for a moment. The god's shaved hair is just starting to grow in, and a layer of thick black stubble now covers his head. (Never his chin, though — the god seems to have no natural facial hair.) He's gained a little bit of weight during the past week, too, and is beginning to look less skeletal. Having seen what he eats for breakfast, Phil is not surprised.

The god leans back against the door, crossing his arms. "I don't understand you," he proclaims.

Good, is Phil's first thought. "What do you mean?" he says aloud, keeping his voice mild.

The god purses his lips, as if puzzling at something. "You.." he starts, and gestures with his hands, as if trying to grasp something. "You and the archer, you lay together, did you not?"

"You mean my husband, Clint? Yes, of course, though it's really no business of yours."

Loki ignores him. "You are argr, you... you laid with him, and he laid with you, as a man lies with a woman."

Phil chooses not to give that a response.

"Yet, everyone listens to you. The Avengers, SHIELD, they obviously respected you, allowed you to command many men."

"And women," Phil interjects, thinking of Peggy.

"Still, that could be written off as a result of the decadent Midgard culture. But now..." Loki's voice rises, both in pitch and volume. "Now even Odin and Frigga recognize your command; now, even the valkyries obey you. Here you are, two new rulers of Valhalla — an ergi and an unmarried female!"

Loki stops and takes a breath. "This is what I don't understand," he continues. "If I did not know better, I would accuse you of sorcery. I wish to know how you accomplished this. How did you, being as you are, turn Odin and my mother to your side?"

Huh. After their last conversation, Phil thinks he understands what the god is really asking. "Why you? Why did you succeed where I failed?"

He picks his words with caution. "I don't completely have an answer for that. Part of it, no doubt, is distance — sometimes people are capable of accepting things in strangers that they could never take from their own children. There's a lot of pressure in being a parent, I imagine, especially if one is also a king." Loki scowls. Phil hurriedly continues, "Part of it, as you said, is that I am foreign. So there's the whole 'decadent Midgard culture' thing, which maybe makes it easier to accept... different ways, different lifestyles."

"What it really comes down to, though, is that Odin saw a way that he could use me and Peggy, so he did. Much like you, as a matter of fact: he once thought that he could use you, even though you were Jotunn, so he brought you into Asgard. Isn't that right?"

Come on, work with me here, Phil thinks. Regardless of the truth of Odin's motivations, Phil needs Loki on his side now, and if playing himself against Odin is the way, he'll do it gladly. (He suspects that his accusations are mostly correct, anyhow.)

"Regardless of all that," he continues, "I'm Co-Governor of Valhalla now, and I say that we won't have any of that here. No prejudice against women or against... against 'ergi', as you say. I want — no, I need people to be able to do what they're good at, what suits them, if this whole thing is going to work. Why would I turn anyone away who wants to help?"

The god has no response to that.

After a silence, Loki changes the subject. "I have been thinking about what you said yesterday," he says. "About some of the beliefs of my people being... being wrong." He seems to have some trouble getting the words out. "About being able to choose my course of action."

"Good." Phil smiles at Loki, and it almost feels genuine. "What are you thinking?"

"I am thinking that choice is not a concept with which I'm terribly familiar."

"How do you mean?"

The god looks at the floor for a minute. When he looks back up, his eyes are full of green fire. "When, in all of my existence, have I ever had a choice? I had no choice to be born Jotunn, nor to be so small and weak that my real father did not want me. I had no choice in being brought to Asgard, and I had no choice in growing up thinking that I was a failure of an Aesir. I had no choice in being treated always secondary to my brother. I had no choice in being gifted in magic more than in battle." Phil nods.

"I had no choice but to try to destroy Jotunheim," Loki continues, "for in what other way could I possibly prove my loyalty after I discovered my true heritage? And then, when I fell and kept on falling, I had no choice but to ally with the Chitauri, for in what other way could I survive the void?"

Phil wants to argue. He really, really wants to argue.

He knows that what the god is saying isn't right, but the dangerous thing about Loki is that Phil can almost see it. He can almost understand what it might feel like to be driven, always driven, and never understood. Without a true friend to turn to; always having to guard his mask.

How crazy might thousands of years of such pressure make someone? How paranoid?

How mad?

Phil is understanding more and more clearly that there's something deeply broken in Loki's mind. Conversing with the god is like walking barefoot on a floor covered in broken glass — you never know when a stray remark is going to turn and cut you.

He folds his hands together, and considers. "But you did have a choice, at least on those last occasions," he finally says, keeping his voice level. "Take Jotunheim. You could have chosen, for example, to leave Asgard and seek your fortune elsewhere. You didn't have to resort to mass murder."

"Oh, well, death," Loki gestures dismissively. "What of it? A brief moment of pain, and then you wake up in Valhalla. Or in Niflheim, if you're Jotunn. I hardly see how any of that is as awful as being outcast from one's own kind."

Wow. Phil is shocked speechless. It's easy to forget sometimes that, beneath that too-human appearance, Loki and the Aesir are alien. Too easy, until one of them says something that brings the strangeness home.

A brief moment of pain, and then you wake up in Valhalla. From that point of view, killing someone is practically doing them a favor. How must it change someone's view of dying, if he has sure and certain knowledge that there is an afterlife?

That still doesn't make it right, though.

Carefully, carefully, he thinks.

"Again, we come back to choice," he says. "Look at it this way. When you felt like you had no choice, that was unpleasant, right? You wanted to lash out at those who took your choices away from you; you wanted those choices back. Am I correct?"

Loki nods, curtly.

"Well, by murdering someone else, you are doing the exact same thing to them as Odin did when he sentenced you to prison. You are taking away their ability to choose the course of their life. Even if they end up in Valhalla, even if we fix Valhalla and make it into Paradise, those people that you murdered still didn't choose to come here."

"It's wrong to take away someone else's choices like that. Do you understand? No one has the right to do that — human, Aesir, Jotunn, or whatever. That's why murder is wrong, Loki."

He can't believe he just said that. He can't believe he needed to say it.

Loki doesn't respond, but he doesn't lash out, either. Phil takes that as a good sign. He imagines that this must be a lot to take in, when you've lived your whole life with basically no moral framework.

Finally Loki says, "You Midgardians place a high value on choice." His voice is flat. "This seems to be a feature of your culture."

Phil nods. "Where I'm from it is, sure."

"It seems like such a burden. How does one ever know what to do? How does anything ever get done? In Asgard, there is the King, who chooses, and then there are the subjects, who follow his commands. It's simple and efficient. But this... There is no order to it, no certainty! Why would anyone ever want to live in such a fashion?"

"But you do."

"I'm sorry?"

"You do, Loki, deep down inside. Think about it. Think about your imprisonment, down among the roots of Yggdrasil, with the serpents and the dragon." The god blanches. "What was that, really, except for the ultimate removal of choice? But even then, you struggled against it. Even then, you found a way to control your fate."

Loki's hands are trembling. Phil tenses, one hand on his revolver, but he presses onward.

"When we were fighting, you found a way to control your fate. You could have kept Frigga's Tear and probably won the duel, and then gone back to your prison. Or even after that, you could have yielded... and, once again, gone back to your prison. But you chose otherwise. Didn't you?" Phil looks at Loki. "You chose to die."

"You chose to die rather than to be imprisoned for eternity. And that was... " He can't believe he's about to say this. "That was brave of you. Noble, even."

Loki slides down the wall to the floor. He sits with his knees bent, arms wrapped around them.

"And then I made my own choice: to spare your life, and to bring you here. See? We both exercised our will, there." Time to bring the point home. "And I hope you'll agree that the result has been preferable to either death, or an eternity in jail."

Loki looks up at him. "Was your choice to spare me also brave and noble?"

"Yes. I think it was." Phil takes a deep breath, in and out. "I put the good of Valhalla ahead of my own wishes, because I knew that you could really help here. Not just for myself, but for millions of other people." Phil digs his fingers slightly into his knees.

His voice is hard and flat, lacking any pleasantry. "You see, I really, really wanted to kill you."

Loki's face is completely blank. After a long, unmoving moment, he rises to his feet and walks away. His valkyrie guard follows, closing the door behind her without any sound.

Phil hopes he didn't just do irreparable damage to his cause.

-----

Phil comes to a halt in the empty hallway, hearing Peggy's voice drifting out from her open office door.

"...but I still managed to accomplish a lot. I mean, sure, it was harder because I was a woman, but the things I did with the Strategic Scientific Reserve, and then with the French Resistance, and later in Defence Intelligence... I mean, even aside from defeating the Nazis, I think I was able to do a lot of good over the course of my career. Plus, I knocked down some barriers for other women, you know?"

He shouldn't eavesdrop, he knows, but he's curious about who's gotten her to open up about her life. Despite their months of work together, he still knows very little about her past, other than bare facts.

To his great surprise, it's Loki who responds. "But surely all of these things would have been easier if you were a man. You had no choice in the matter, I realize, but can you honestly say that you would not have been male, if you had the option?"

A pause. Phil finds that he's holding his breath.

"No, actually, I don't think I would."

"Truly?"

"Truly. It might have made certain things easier, but who's to say that I would have liked it as much, then? Who's to say that I would have gotten as far as I did, without the motivation of proving people wrong? And I might not have enjoyed my successes as much, if I hadn't fought so hard to achieve them."

"...Interesting."

"Plus, like I said, I may have made it a little easier for women who came later. So yeah, no. I don't think that I would choose to be male, even if it were an easy change to make."

Peggy's voice grows gentle. "Not all of us have as many choices as you do, Loki. Most of us have to work within the life that we're given — gender, appearance, family, and all. We can't become something different every day, like you can. We can only choose how to deal with our circumstances, and try not to let them keep us down."

Phil silently blesses Peggy's wisdom.

"I see. Thank you, Lady Carter. This has been very enlightening." Loki's voice sounds unusually pleasant.

Then there's the sound of a chair being pushed back, and Phil scurries into his office before Loki can emerge and catch him.

-----

Phil is looking over his morning reports as he stirs a spoonful of sugar into his coffee. All around him, the feasting hall is bustling with valkyries, getting ready to start their daily rounds.

The rune-scanners seem to be having an impact — 90,000 runes were scanned in and catalogued yesterday. Four devices malfunctioned, causing several hundred runes to be lost; Phil makes a note to have Peggy take a look, if she hasn't picked them up already.

Approximately 65% of new entrants refused the use of Lethe, once informed of its effects. And three people, upon arrival in Valhalla, asked to use the central console; two of them found loved ones who died at the same time, and both of those were successfully reunited.

It's a tiny thing, but it's a start.

Someone sits down across the table from him. Phil looks up, setting his pen down. It's Loki, with a sly grin on his — no, on her face. Today the god looks like an Aesir female.

It's amazing how little difference the gender swap actually makes. The only changes to Loki's appearance are a slight rounding of the face, a subtle curve to her body, and the fact that her hair is once again long and black. It's done up in some kind of elaborate braid that manages to suggest the shape of horns, without actually containing any.

Loki's grin is just as wicked as before, and Phil distrusts it just as much.

"Yes, Loki?" he says blandly. A look of disappointment flashes across the god's face.

Oh, I'm sorry, were you expecting a reaction? Phil thinks. Such a drama queen.

"What do you think of this form? I rather like it." She spread her hands. Her voice is still low and smooth, resonant. There's something about it, a power that makes you want to listen.

"I think that you're fishing for either compliments or outrage, and I don't really know or care which one. I already told you, your appearance doesn't matter." Phil sips his coffee.

One thing Valhalla has going for it, in a big way, is perfect coffee.

He looks up to see a different smile on Loki's face. It's less sly, more... almost genuine. If he didn't know better, he'd swear the god looked happy.

Loki speaks, and the smile slips back to that sly grin. "Jarl Coulson, I came to tell you that I have chosen something."

"For the last time, it's Governor." Phil sighs. He can tell he made a mistake in correcting Loki. Now that she knows the title bothers him, he expects he'll be hearing a lot of 'Jarl Coulson'. "But okay, sure. What have you chosen?"

"I have chosen to tell you why my brother is a moron. Are you ready?"

Oh for god's sake. It's too early for Loki.

"Does my answer really matter?"

She cocks her head, and shrugs. "I suppose not. But I think you will want to hear this."

"Fine," he snaps. Seriously, he wants to make an Executive Order. (Can Governors do that? Well, they can now.)

Executive Order #1: No Loki before my second cup of coffee.

She rests her chin in her palm, and grins at him, showing her teeth. They're very white, and very sharp. "People from Valhalla can travel into Asgard. You did so, for my duel."

"Correct. The valkyries can take us."

Where is this going?

"Tell me, Jarl Coulson, what does Asgard possess? Perhaps a thing that was recently repaired? Perhaps a means of transportation between, say, Asgard and Midgard?"

What...

"The Bifrost!"

"Precisely." Her smile becomes wider. "So. You can go to Asgard... and people from Midgard can also come to Asgard." She spreads her hands, obviously waiting for him to come to a conclusion.

Holy shit.

"Clint!"

Loki mockingly bows.

Phil spills coffee onto his shirt, swears, and struggles to his feet. He bolts toward the door, dodging valkyries and Aesir servants. "Brunhild! Where is Brunhild?!"

Chapter Text

The next seven days pass by in a total blur. There are reports and assignments, and meeting after meeting. Phil and Peggy and Brunhild, often joined by Loki, spend hours trying to figure out how to map Valhalla. They brainstorm, and then discard, hundreds of possible ways to make a census of Valhalla's existing residents.

Phil leaves each meeting with a larger sense of despair. It seems more and more like they're talking in circles, forever going nowhere. How can anyone map a landscape that is constantly changing, and that exists in something like twelve dimensions? Even if they accomplished the task once, their data would be obsolete in hours.

At the end of one particularly frustrating meeting, Loki proclaims, "Your human-shaped minds literally cannot comprehend the scale and layout of Valhalla. It will always be invisible to you, no matter what I do or say." Phil decides that he believes him.

To make matters worse, he knows that he's not giving the problem his full attention. And he's pretty confident that Peggy is the same. On the fifth day, he walks out of a discussion to realize that he can't remember a single word that was spoken.

All that he can think of is Clint, Clint, Clint.

Seven days. That's how long it would take, according to the message that Thor gave to Brunhild, for the god to wrap up his business on Midgard and get everything set up so that he could return, bringing both Clint and Steve up for a visit. And since it will be the first visit of live humans to Asgard, there are many logistical details to work out.

There's the necessity to seek permission from Odin, to negotiate the length of time and the conditions of their visit, to ensure that they will have appropriate privacy for their reunion. Reassurances must be sought from Earth authorities (in this case, that seems to mean SHIELD) that Clint and Steve won't get up to anything untoward. And the men themselves must be briefed on Aesir culture, geography, and politics.

Apparently, this visit will mark a big step forward in the Midgard/Asgard diplomatic alliance.

Phil couldn't care less about any of that. He just wants to see Clint, now.

At the end of his long message, Thor had appended: "Please tell my brother that I salute his cleverness. It was admirable and wise of him to think of this solution." When Brunhild recited these lines in front of Loki, the god's face turned an even darker, colder shade of blue.

Phil assumes that was the Jotunn equivalent of blushing.

Loki has been appearing in his Jotunn form more and more, over these past couple of days. He (or she — Phil can't tell in this form, and perhaps there is no difference) seems to be gathering his courage slowly. He still flinches a little whenever a strange person enters the room, as if he expects to be attacked on sight.

Perhaps, among the Aesir, that fear would be well-founded.

Everyone notices this, but politely pretends to ignore it. Phil, for his part, can't help feeling a little proud. It's impossible to say what's really going on with Loki, but at the very least the god seems to be coming to terms with his heritage.

Phil tells the valkyries to bring a large mirror and put it in Loki's room. Let the god spend some honest time with his reflection, he thinks. Maybe it will help.

Finally, finally, after seven sleepless nights, after tossing and turning and slipping in and out of fevered nightmares where Clint slips through his hands, falling down into a neverending abyss... Finally, the appointed day arrives. Brunhild is to escort Phil and Peggy to a particular meadow on the outskirts of Asgard, where there is plenty of privacy — and no chance of the visitors having to interact with any unexpecting Aesir. (Entrance to the city itself will be revisited later.) Thor will fly the two mortals over as soon as he arrives, and then...

And then.

And then Phil will get to hold his husband, who he'd honestly believed that he might never see again. They've been apart for months, and in something like an hour, Phil will get to see Clint's face, hear his voice, touch his skin. His husband will be real to Phil again, not just a dream and a myth to push him onward.

Real Clint, all flesh and blood and wiry muscle and sarcasm. Exactly as Phil likes him.

-----

In Asgard they are given horses, actual horses — though these ones have only four legs. (Which is fine; Phil would feel very strange about riding on the back of Loki's most famous son.)

Phil is once again bemused by the widely varying levels of Aesir technology. On the one hand, they journey via wormhole and command literal magic. On the other hand, they still use spears and horses. Really, they're a bit like the Amish: they seem to pick and choose carefully what tools they will develop, while still adhering closely to tradition.

Perhaps a little too closely, at times.

Phil and Peggy and Brunhild ride out of the city, following a broad, straight, silver road. The path becomes narrower and more twisted as they pass through the outer walls, moving further and further away from Asgard's central glow. Here, the golden light that emanates from Odin's Hall is faded and dim.

In the silent meadows on the outskirts of Valhalla, the sky is always the color of the hour before dawn, and the stars shine down all day long, never setting.

Brunhild leads them to the place described by Thor. They dismount, and then she rides away, taking their horses with her. Phil and Peggy settle in to wait beneath the branches of an elm tree, giant leaves casting shadows against the star-bright sky.

Within just a couple of year-long minutes, a particularly bright star streaks through the sky, outshining every meteor and dancing constellation. Seconds later, Thor plummets to the ground, landing with a heavy thud that shakes the field around them. Clinging tightly to Thor's back is Steve Rogers, in civilian clothing but with his shield strapped to his back. And there in front, with Thor's arms wrapped around tightly around his stomach, is someone else, someone dressed casually in blue jeans and a very familiar hoodie.

It's Clint Barton — very shaken, and looking slightly ill.

Hawkeye pulls away from Thor's grasp and bends over, setting his hands on his knees. Thor looks at Phil and shrugs in apology, as Steve hops down from his back, looking none the worse for wear. "I fear that Bifrost travel does not sit will with your beloved, Jarl Coulson."

Upon hearing Phil's name, Clint looks up, and quickly rises to his feet. His gaze connects unerringly with Phil's, and Phil's awareness of everything around him falls away. The world narrows to Clint's voice, Clint's face, Clint's beautiful, amazing presence.

Clint runs toward him, and Phil is running as well, and then they fall together in a close embrace, sweeping around one another so tightly that they both sink to their knees. They cling together like one being: arms around each other, neck laid against neck, body to body, chest to chest, kneeling with their legs woven together. Someone is sobbing loudly, in great unsubtle heaves; after a minute, Phil realizes that it's him.

Clint cries in perfect silence, as always.

His husband leans his mouth up to Phil's ear and whispers, "God, I've missed you. You don't know how much I've missed you."

Phil squeezes his eyes shut, and holds him tighter, heart to heart, just breathing. "I know. I know. I'm here," he replies, over and over again.

It takes an hour to disentangle themselves long enough to kiss.

-----

At some point they sunk to the ground completely, and now lie entwined together on soft grass. Phil's left hand fell asleep quite some time ago, but he hasn't bothered to move it and restore the circulation. He stares up at the stars, framed by waving strands of Clint's hair, which has gotten longer than Phil has ever seen it. There are strands of grey woven through it, too, and new lines carved into the corners of Clint's face.

Phil does his best to kiss every one of them, to apologize for his own role in putting those marks there.

Clint looks up at the sky, his face relaxed in a moment of peaceful, almost childlike wonder. Phil watches him, and feels his heart overflowing. There's love, yes, and longing, but above all a fierce joy at finally, finally being reunited. This is proof, in a way, that he was right — that everything he's done in these past months has served a purpose, because it brought him to this moment.

The joy is not unmixed, of course. It's cut through with a subtle undercurrent of grief that they will soon once again have to part. This is merely a temporary reunion, just a day of grace beneath primeval constellations. Anything more permanent will have to wait.

There are tears in Clint's eyes again, although his face remains perfectly still. Phil leans over and kisses him upside-down, lingering for a long moment in the familiar softness and sweetness of his husband's lips. He whispers, because whispering seems appropriate to the stillness of the moment.

"What are you thinking about?"

Clint looks up to the sky, and gestures upward. "Look at these." His voice is shaking. "All of these fucking ridiculous stars, all of these worlds, more than I can count, more than my brain can even really understand. Right? All of these, and how many lives, around all of these worlds, go on, and are born and live and die and pass into the next life, without ever finding something like we've had? Some person who fits together with you like an arrow fits a bow? How many of them never get to know what it feels like to feel love inside your bones, so strong that it changes you, so deep that you literally can't imagine existing without it?"

He shakes his head. "How many? And me, of all people, fucking smartass jerkoff circus orphan Clint Barton — I somehow got to be one of the ones who did. Out of all the sheer random chaos of the universe, I was lucky enough that my path crossed with yours. And not only did I love you, but against all odds you chose to love me back."

Phil bites his lip and hugs Clint tighter. He hates it when his husband talks down on himself, as he's sometimes inclined to do.

"And then you died," Clint continues, sounding close to breaking. "You died, and I understood for the first time how those other people might actually be the lucky ones. Because suddenly I had to be without you, had to try to figure out how to continue, and it felt like all of my bones were being ripped out, one by one. Like trying to shoot without a bow, while missing my right hand. And I wanted to die. I..." Finally, an audible sob escapes him, and he shakes within Phil's arms. "I wanted to die, after you, and after Loki. I was so lost, after everything that happened, I was so hopeless, I didn't know how I could go on. I'd betrayed my team, I'd lost you. There was nothing left." He looks at Phil, and the depth of anguish that Phil sees makes him want to go hunt down Loki.

"There was nothing left. I even stopped shooting. I didn't touch my bow for weeks."

Yes. Hunt Loki down and quarter him, string him limb from limb.

Clint takes a deep breath, and then another. "But weeks passed, and then a month, two months, and I was still alive. And my pain didn't lessen, but it became, over time, easier to ignore. It's like I learned how to breathe through it, like you can with any pain." Phil understands him perfectly. "So I started to shoot again, spent days and weeks retraining. I let it take over, like I've done sometimes before. Then I made myself sit through a shit-ton of psych evals, and rejoined the Avengers."

"I owe Tasha more than ever. She's the one who talked me into coming back, and then talked them into letting me come back. She said that it would give me something to focus on, a way to feel like my life wasn't completely over. She said that, even if I never felt completely whole again, I could still justify my existence by the fact that I was helping people, in some way that maybe only I could do. And she was right."

"She usually is." Phil decides he needs to see about bringing Natasha up to Asgard for a visit. Not only does he miss her, but he owes her a great deal. (Besides, she and Peggy would get along like a house on fire.)

"I pretty much threw myself into my work after that, more than ever before. Every week, when I went to visit your grave, I told you all about the missions I had helped out with and the people I'd helped save."

Phil gets a little chill from that statement. He hadn't really considered that before, that his body must be buried somewhere, literally rotting in the ground. He shudders. Weird.

"I told myself that, even though you were gone, you would have been proud of me. That made things just a little more okay. I thought of those stupid trading cards, and of all the people that you considered heroes; I thought of how, more than anything, they never gave up. They always just went on doing what they needed to be doing, despite the odds, despite all obstacles. And that's what you would have wanted me to do: to go on, to keep going, to continue helping people for as long as I was able. I wouldn't have been worthy of your memory if I'd just given up."

"So I didn't."

"And then, just over a week ago, Thor came back, and told me that he had seen you. He said that he had spoken with you, in the halls of Valhalla, which oh by the way is totally real. And he gave me your message."

"After all of that, after all that I'd been through, he said that you weren't actually gone. That you still existed, still Phil Coulson, even if in a different body — which I have several questions about, by the way, but we can go there later."

"Ah." Phil's afraid he knows where this is going. "What did you do?"

"I thought he was lying. I tried to punch him, is what I did."

"And what did he do?"

"Nothing, because Natasha got there first. And believe me, she knocked him a good one. He actually looked a bit surprised."

Phil laughs, and it feels open and honest to do so. It feels easy, like he can finally breathe. "Good for her. I suppose you eventually figured out that he wasn't lying."

"Yeah, he finally got around to telling me 'Orion.'"

Phil rolls his eyes. There was a reason he'd told Thor to say that first.

"So yeah, then I was pretty much in shock, just trying to process it all, and there were some meetings and stuff that I don't really remember, and then I was here. And here you are."

"And here I am," Phil agrees. He pulls Clint up and leans against him, smiling into his neck and pressing their legs together. "And here we are."

"Damn straight." Clint snorts, and it sounds like music to Phil's ears. "Or, you know, not."

"But yeah, like I was saying... I basically won the lottery already, getting to meet you and love you and marry you once. And then you died, like legitimately died." He takes a breath.

"And then a Norse god intervened, and now we're here in fucking Asgard, looking up at this beautiful mess," he gestures to the array of stars again, "and my life is so goddamn weird that I can't deal with it right now, I'm just going along with the whole thing because it's all that I can do."

"But I was just thinking about how, among all those trillions of lives, on all of those millions of worlds, I must be the luckiest goddamn bastard of them all."

Those words settle in the air around them as Clint and Phil cling together, holding one another until their tears are dried. Then Phil moves against Clint, and Clint slides down his body, and suddenly everything is hands and skin and tongues.

Phil throws his head back to look at strange, bright constellations, and thinks, No. I am.

-----

They're supposed to have twelve hours together, before Thor returns. Phil has no idea how much time has passed; the stars above them don't seem to actually move, the way they do on Earth.

They lie together, and then walk around the meadow speaking of their lives; they sit together beneath the elm tree, spinning new names and stories for these new constellations; then they lie together again, trying to write their love onto one another's bodies in that primal alphabet that predates humankind.

It's a symptom of how overwrought he must be, that Phil doesn't notice the dark line around Clint's finger until they are dressing one another for the second time. He catches up his husband's hand, and examines it closely. It's a tattoo, a plain and simple band around his left ring finger.

Clint smiles at him, sadly. "I got this when I rejoined the Avengers. It meant... I stopped wearing the actual ring, because it was one of those things that I needed, to let go. But I still wanted to remember, so I got this tattoo. It's kind of a placeholder, like a shadow of what was missing. It meant that you would always be there, even though you were gone."

Phil remembers the hours he'd spent upon arrival, trying desperately to reforge his wedding band. "What happened to my ring?"

"It was buried with you."

"Ah, okay." He thinks for a minute. "You know what? I'll get one too."

"Hm?"

"When I get back to Valhalla, I'll get a tattoo just like that one. So that we can match again, and it won't be just a shadow, anymore. They'll be our wedding rings until we can make new ones, together."

Clint weaves their hands together, studying their interlocking fingers. He nods. "Yeah. I like it." He smiles. "Until we make new ones, together."

Phil opens his mouth to start telling Clint about his arrival in Valhalla, about Yu and Henry and Pierre, about how he tried and failed to reforge his wedding band. Before he can start, though, a brightness fills the air, and then a red blur smacks into the dirt.

It's Thor.

Surely it cannot be twelve hours already?

The god looks up, and there is something frantic in his expression. "Phillip," he says, nodding curtly. "You must return to Valhalla with me immediately. Clint, stay here — a valkyrie will come to escort you to the Bifrost."

"What?" "Why?"

Their cries of surprise and dismay intermingle.

Thor looks at them, and on his face there is great sadness. "Loki is missing."

-----

Phil barely has time to embrace Clint once more and give a quick promise that they'll see each other soon, before Thor picks him up and whisks him back to Valhalla. When they land, the courtyard of Bilskirnir is in an uproar, with valkyries and Guardians scurrying everywhere.

Phil turns to Thor. "Okay, what happened?"

"After I left Clinton and Steven in the meadow, I returned here to Bilskirnir. I wished to see my brother, to congratulate him in person for his insight, that not only found a clever way for you to be together, but also helped to strengthen the relationship between Midgard and Asgard."

"I went to his chambers, and he was not present. I inquired among the valkyries, and none of them had seen him. Together we sought the valkyrie that was assigned to guard him." Thor pauses, and looks regretful. "She was found tied up beneath Loki's bed, having been fed a potion that caused her to fall unconscious. The last thing she remembered was bringing my brother his breakfast this morning."

Shit. This is looking less and less like some kind of harmless misunderstanding.

"Okay. Okay. So he's been missing for, what? How many hours?"

"About ten hours."

"Great. Awesome." And Phil thought they'd been making progress. That just shows him what he gets for trusting Loki, doesn't it? "And where have you had people searching?"

"All through Bilskirnir, and in its gardens, and in surrounding rooms and courtyards. But Phillip — Loki is a shapeshifter. He could be anything, a bee, a leaf, an ant... We would have no way of knowing."

"Okay, right. Okay." Worse and worse. "Is there anyone in Asgard who could help us find him? Another shapeshifter, a sorcerer, anything? Any kind of..." Phil waves his hands vaguely "... magic stuff?"

Thor looks skeptical. "Perhaps my mother, Frigga. She is the strongest sorceress among the Aesir, and there is a chance she might be able to detect him. But... though my brother became quite skilled at Aesir magic, his own power is strange and different. Perhaps this is because of his Jotunn heritage, but Mother told me once that Loki's magic works in ways that even she cannot fully comprehend." He pauses. "The shapeshifting ability may not even be magic, as we Aesir recognize it."

"Well, it's something. Go to Odin and Frigga; they'll listen to you. See if she will come."

Thor nods, and touches his fist to his chest. "Very well. I go now." He takes off, crossing paths with Brunhild, who flies in at top speed carrying Peggy in her arms. Peggy looks out of breath and rumpled. Phil feels a pang of regret on her behalf, that her long-sought reunion should be so rudely interrupted.

He's feeling a lot less inclined toward mercy, this time around.

-----

Frigga arrives with Thor, about half an hour later. Phil and Peggy have joined in the search, sending valkyries into each room in Bilskirnir simultaneously, on the off-chance that Loki is still inside the hall. Phil has the foreboding sense that it's a fruitless task, though.

Loki has well and truly played them all.

Phil thinks of Peggy when she fought Brunhild — how she let the valkyrie think she'd won completely, let her relax her guard, and waited until then to strike. Loki, that rat bastard, has done the exact same thing. He'd gotten Phil and Peggy on his side, and then neatly arranged for them them both to be away — and now he's vanished.

For what purpose? No one knows. But Phil can't imagine that it's anything harmless.

When Frigga steps through the wide doors of Bilskirnir, her face is drawn and white, her movements carefully controlled. In her hand she carries an odd-looking device that looks something like a telescope, and something like a wand. She gives Phil and Peggy a regal nod. "Take me to my son's chambers," she orders. "Let us begin there. Perhaps there will be some traces, some clues that I can find."

The four of them crowd into Loki's small sleeping chamber, where he'd been spending most of his time. The bed is overturned from rescuing the valkyrie, sheets and pillows tangled and torn upon the floor. Phil is in the back, so his view is mostly blocked, but as far as he can see, everything else looks normal.

Frigga seems to feel otherwise. She spins around slowly, hands outstretched, head lifted, eyes focused far away. Then she comes to a halt and whirls around to face the mirror, where it hangs on the wall above a dressing-table. She holds the telescope/wand to her eye and leans forward, tapping the device against the smooth glass surface.

When the point makes impact, the surface darkens for a moment; then it clears. The normal reflection shifts and changes, revealing a portal into dimness, with something bright and golden shining just outside the view. Then the surface ripples and fuzzes in a way that makes Phil's head hurt, and changes back into a mirror once again.

Frigga turns to them, and her face is very white. "What sort of nithing gave Loki a mirror?" she demands, in a high-pitched voice. "Do you not know that mirror-magic is one of his strongest talents?"

Fuck.

"I thought that his magic was bound!" exclaims Peggy, glancing sideways at Phil.

"It was! He must have somehow found a way to release it!" Frigga cries.

Phil clears his throat. "I ordered the valkyries to bring him the mirror," he admits. "He was spending so much of his time as a Jotunn, and I thought that it might help himself to be able to see his own reflection honestly. I thought..." He puts his hands over his face. "I thought he was improving. I thought that he was making progress. I should have known better."

"Wait. What do you mean, he was spending time as a Jotunn?" Frigga sounds honestly baffled.

"I mean, you know. Blue and... ridgy. Red eyes. That whole deal."

"Oh. Oh no." Frigga's voice is suddenly very quiet. Her head drops, hanging low.

"What?" demands Peggy.

Frigga's response is almost a whisper. "The way they are tied, to his skin and to his blood... The bonds on his magic might not hold in such a form. They would hold against a false form, but I suppose... I suppose this is a second true form, in a way. This is not a thing that I considered."

"Well, why the fuck not?" Peggy explodes.

Frigga looks up, and her eyes burn like stars. "I should foresee that my son would willingly adopt the form of a Jotunn? Such a thing is inconceivable, even if it were permitted." She glares at Peggy and Phil.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

"So he, what, went into the mirror?" Phil interjects, trying to get them back on track. They can assign blame later, after they find Loki. "Can we figure out where, or follow him somehow?"

Frigga cocks her head to the side, thinking, and then she extends the wand back to the mirror. Once again it shimmers black, and clears. The portal brightens and expands, to show a long, dark passageway and again that golden glow, just out of sight.

A realization strikes, and makes Phil shudder. The glow is the color of a Source, but ten times brighter.

Frigga moves the wand in a complicated pattern, biting her lip in fierce concentration, and the edges of mirror-portal widen, pulling apart until it is the size of a small door. She nods sideways at Phil, not taking her eyes off of the portal. "Go on," she grinds out. "Go through."

Phil leaps up onto the table and vaults through the portal, with Peggy close behind. He lands in a crouch, and touches the ground with one finger.

It's tree-bark. The whole passageway is paved in gnarled wood, as black and hard as iron.

Thor follows them, and Frigga slides through after. The portal slams shut behind her and the light-source is cut off, leaving them with only the golden glow to follow. Phil is already running toward it, praying that his thoughts are incorrect.

He dashes around the corner and then skids to a halt, Peggy flailing against his back. There, yawning just a few feet in front of them, is a vast, deep pool of golden liquid. It's a Source, the largest one that Phil has ever seen. It's the power behind Valhalla, an entire lake of sap from Yggdrasil.

They must be somewhere deep beneath Bilskirnir, in a place of power, where the sap bubbles to the surface. It has the feel of an ancient temple, a holy place, long undisturbed.

Loki, of course, created Valhalla. It's quite possible that this is the place where he did his workings.

On the other side of the pool, facing them with his arms clasped calmly behind his back, is the missing god himself. Loki is dressed in ornate Aesir robes, but his skin is Jotunn-blue. He smiles at them thinly, green fire flashing in his eyes.

"Oh good," he drawls. "I'm so glad that you finally chose to join me."

"Loki!" Frigga cries out from behind Phil, her voice full of dismay. "What are you doing?"

The god looks at her, and his eyes widen. "Mother. You came." He inclines his head toward her. "I had hoped you might, but I had not dared to expect it."

"Enough." Peggy's voice cracks like a whip. Phil looks over to see her pistol trained at Loki, cocked and ready. "Put your hands up and step away from that pool."

Phil lifts and aims his own revolver, silently backing up her statement.

"Oh, I think not." Loki winks at Peggy.

"Brother, please," Thor calls out. "Whatever you are doing, please reconsider. Whatever you are upset about, we can fix it, I swear. Just, please, come back to Bilskirnir. Let's talk about this."

Loki gives a short, sharp bark of laughter. From the corner of his eye, Phil can see Peggy's trigger finger tighten; despite himself, he winces. There's the sharp crack of a gunshot and a flash of green fire, and then the bullet hangs suspended above the Source pool, slowly turning in midair.

"No." Loki says again, quite calmly. Then he looks behind Phil and a tightness enters his voice, as if he's exerting great control.

"Mother, Thor. I have only one thing to say to both of you."

Beside him, Phil can see Thor stiffen. "What is that, brother?" he says, and his voice sounds more afraid than Phil has ever heard it.

Loki looks Thor in the eye, and smiles. "I forgive you." He steps forward and, in a single fluid motion, falls face-forward into the churning golden pool.

"Loki! No!" Frigga's shriek rings through the air, echoing more times than should be possible. The tree-trunk all around them begins to shake and tremble.

As the god's body meets the glowing surface, it begins to disintegrate, one layer at a time. First the clothing burns away, leaving only a naked body, full of scars and over-thin. Next the skin and hair go, showing underlying muscle.

Loki screams, and his cries of agony mingles with his mother's. The reverberating sound makes Phil's ears ring. He falls to his knees and squeezes his eyes shut, clasping his hands to his ears to try to block out the awful noise.

The death-scream of a god, a distant part of him observes. How many people have heard that? It's like an echo, back through time from Ragnarok.

The screaming stops abruptly, and the ground stops shaking. Phil opens his eyes and looks up, just in time to see the Source begin to hiss and bubble. A darkness spreads beneath the surface, like a bloodstain. The golden light flickers once, twice, three times...

And then the Source goes black.

Chapter Text

So this is what it feels like to be buried.

Phil can feel an instinctive, animal panic gathering in his chest. Without the light cast by the Source, the chamber where they stand is pitch black — darker than the darkest night up on the surface.

He can hear Peggy's loud breathing right behind him, and Thor and Frigga just a little further back. Peggy's hand gropes for his shoulder, and he grabs it in his own. Then there's a string of weird, melodious syllables from Frigga, and a small globe of blue-white light bursts into being, casting long shadows everywhere.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Peggy breathes.

"Awesome," says Phil. "Thank you, Frigga. Now, how do we get out of here?"

Just as the last word leaves his mouth, a flash of blinding white light explodes into the chamber, so bright that it gives Phil an instant headache. He squeezes his eyes shut and rubs them, hoping that they're not permanently damaged.

After a few seconds, the glow through his eyelids dims and fades away. He cracks one eye open and looks out, blinking away the sunspots that linger. The bright light has died away, but now the entire Source below them has been transformed. It burns with an uncanny green flame, a fire that leaps and ripples and throws out bursts of cold sparks. Strange, dark shadows can be seen, moving slowly beneath the surface.

After a minute, Phil notices that the fire seems to be dying down, as if it's slowly using up the fuel. The flames, which at first covered the entire surface, fade and gather into isolated islands. In the places between, where the flames are not, gold light shows through. As more and more of the green fades away, more and more of the Source looks like it did before.

Eventually, only one or two little flames remain, dancing and leaping over the surface of the restored Source. They die out in one place and spring up again in another, undaunted. They almost seem to be playing, as they leap and spin about.

The four who are gathered stare down at the surface for a long time, watching them.

Phil clears his throat. "So, um, who wants to tell me what just happened?"

Silence. He looks around at Thor and Frigga; they both look at one another, and slowly shake their heads. Peggy sighs.

"Okay, whatever. We can figure that out later." says Phil. "Back to my earlier question, how do we get out of here? Can we go back through the mirror again?"

Frigga shakes her head once again. "I'm afraid that was a one-way portal," she says. "It cannot be reestablished from the other side."

"What?" says Peggy, and there's a frightened tone to her voice that Phil completely understands. "So we're just stuck here?"

"We don't know that yet," says Phil. "We're sort of... inside Yggdrasil, right? Beneath the bark, as it were? Somewhere down in the heartwood?"

Frigga nods.

"Okay. Wouldn't this," he gestures around them, "hole in the wood, or whatever, have to be accessible from Valhalla, in order for Loki to have found his way down here in the first place?"

Thor nods. "That is true. But the path may be well-hidden, and extremely treacherous. The odds of us finding the correct way by chance alone are slim."

"And if we choose wrongly, we shall only find ourselves wandering ever-deeper into Yggdrasil," Frigga chimes in. "The Tree has many reaches which have never been explored or mapped. I know of no one who has gone deep into the heartwood, and returned."

"Awesome." Phil says, again. Then a thought strikes him. "Hang on just a second, though. We might not need a map..."

He takes out his rune-pendant and holds it in his hand, concentrating. Show me the way, he thinks, and prays that the system will work this far outside Valhalla. I wish to return to my chambers. Lead me there.

He feels the familiar tugging, a subtle pull at the edges of his mind, and breathes a vast sigh of relief.

"Okay. Hey Peggy, can you do me a favor? Try to ask your pendant the way back."

"Oh!" Peggy says, and pulls out her necklace. She holds it in her palm, and scrunches her eyes shut; then she smiles, and nods. "It says that way," she reports, pointing into the gloom on the other side of the Source.

"Good, good. That's what mine says, too. Our chambers are pretty far apart, so as long as both pendants lead us in the same direction, that implies that there's a single path out. One that can take us back to Valhalla."

"Wonderful!" booms Thor. "We shall make our way to the surface with all due haste!"

Only Thor could make walking through a cave sound so exciting.

The whole system of runes and pendants is one of the things that Loki got right, and now it's saving their collective asses. As they walk in single file around the edge of the Source, Phil looks down at the wisps of green fire and whispers, "Thank you."

-----

After several hours of walking, they find themselves squeezing themselves through smaller and smaller passageway. Eventually they have to crawl forward on their hands and knees.

Phil is starting to feel claustrophobic, as if the Great Tree is trying to bury him alive. (Or bury him undead, anyway.) He keeps thinking of coffins and headstones and worms, and a body that used to be his, rotting away somewhere beneath another earth.

Right when he feels unable to restrain his urge to scream any longer, they come to an open chamber just large enough for all of them to fit inside. Even better, there's a ceiling high enough that they can stand. (Well, Phil and Peggy can almost stand; Thor and Frigga have to crouch.)

Best of all, there's a little hole in the ceiling, no bigger than Phil's fist. From that hole streams a beam of familiar, pleasant sunlight.

They've made it back.

Thor gives a mighty roar and thrusts upward with Mjollnir, bashing through the thin layer of dirt and bark that covers the cavern. When the opening is as wide as his shoulders, he pokes his head through it and looks around. When he looks back down at them, he is smiling broadly.

"We are in the herb-gardens of Bilskirnir!" he announces, with evident delight. He throws an arms around Peggy, who squeaks in an undignified fashion, and then he tosses Mjollnir up and grabs the handle, letting it pull the two of them up and out. A few seconds later both of their heads are peering down over the rim, arms reaching for Phil and Frigga to lift them out.

When Phil is lifted onto his feet, he has the overwhelming urge to kneel and kiss the dirt of what does, indeed, appear to be herb-gardens. He refrains, though.

They're not all clear just yet.

A valkyrie has spotted them and sent a signal; more valkyries descend from all directions, clamoring with questions and demands. Finally Brunhild flies up, red-faced and breathing heavily. Phil has never seen her look so exhausted before.

She quickly calms the Younger Sisters, shouting orders at them to be silent. "Did you find Mother? Where is she?" Brunhild demands.

Phil doesn't know where to begin.

Finally Frigga speaks. "We did indeed find Loki," she says slowly, "but he is not with us." The valkyries begin to chatter again, until Brunhild silences them with a sharp glance.

"We have a tale to tell, though the ending is not yet clear," proclaims Thor.

"And I, for one, would like to tell it while sitting down, ideally with a cup of tea," Peggy adds. "Let's go inside."

-----

After they recount the day's events, the valkyries leave them, chattering among themselves. Many of them seem upset, unable to understand their mother's actions. Join the club, Phil thinks.

Phil, Peggy, Thor, and Lady Frigga retire to Thor's personal chambers, where they take seats around the large fireplace and stare dully at the crackling flames. Phil is tired; he wants nothing more than to lie down and sleep for ten or eleven hours.

When he last slept, his head was full of Clint. Their meeting seems like it took place ages ago, but it was only one long day.

Before Phil can collapse, though, there's one task that still remains.

He pulls himself to his feet, which immediately protest by starting a dull ache. He asks Thor, "Do you have a Source?"

Thor points to a far corner, where Phil sees the familiar tap and basin. "I have not used it in a very long time," Thor admits, "for I already have everything that I need."

Phil makes his way around piles of weapons, armor, furs, and other Thorish bric-a-brac. After a few seconds, everyone else gets up and follows. "Do you think it's safe?" Peggy asks. "What if he... did something to it? Poisoned it, or something?"

Thor shrugs. "If he did that, then all of Valhalla is doomed, for the Sources are all that keep this place going," he points out. "It is better to know than to not know, at any rate."

Phil nods, and turns the tap open. He holds his breath, praying for golden glowing liquid.

If it works, he's going to use it to make a cup of coffee.

For a long moment, nothing happens. The tap sputters and coughs, but no liquid comes out. Then it shoots out a handful of golden sparks, which fade away in mid-air before they can even touch the basin.

Without warning, as the last spark vanishes, a great volume of green fire begins pouring from the tap. It gushes into the basin, overflowing the sides in only a few seconds. Phil curses and tries to turn the tap back, but it seems to be stuck.

More and more of the fire pours out, filling the air all around them with little wisps of flame. Frigga curses and raises her wand, then curses again as it is lifted from her hands and pulled away. Thor jumps after it, but it is whisked up to the far ceiling, where it hovers out of reach.

Phil throws his full weight against the tap, trying to cut off the flow. Finally, when the very air around them is all green, it gives way. Phil slams it shut, and the gush of flame is stoppered.

The flames around them begin to join together, one by one. They form up into a single boiling column that whirls faster and faster, like a miniature tornado.

Acting on a very un-Phil-like whim, Phil sticks out his hand and brushes it against the pillar. The cold fire leaves a tingle in his fingers, a little bit like an electric shock, but it doesn't burn him. When he touches it, the column stops spinning, and the flame coalesces and condenses.

It takes on color, solidity, form — and then it develops into hair and eyes and skin.

It's Loki.

She frowns at Phil, looking disgruntled, and rubs at her right arm. "That hurt, you cretin," she says. "Did no one ever teach you manners?"

Phil stares and stares, and then he bursts out laughing.

He laughs until tears stream from his eyes; he laughs until he is bent over, semi-hysterical, sides heaving helplessly, chest shaking with half-muffled guffaws. He laughs until his lungs hurt and his eyes are full of water.

Everyone else in the room just stares at both of them, Loki and Phil. Peggy's eyes are so wide and round that they look like quarters; Frigga's hands are shaking.

Finally Phil is able to calm himself a little. He wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes, straightens up, and points a trembling finger at Loki. "You," he says accusingly, still trying to keep the hysterical giggles from his voice. "You died. How are you here?"

Loki shrugs. "You died. How are you here?" she retorts.

"No. No no no no. No," Peggy butts in. Once again, she has her pistol out and aimed at Loki. "I am exhausted, and I am not amused, and so help me god I will shoot you right now if you don't tell me what in the bloody hell is happening."

Loki smiles at Peggy, and nods. "It's good to see you again too, Lady Margaret."

"I mean it!" Peggy grits out.

"Very well, very well," Loki raises a placating hand. "Never fear, you've already proven your willingness to shoot me. Just put your toy weapon away, and give me a moment to explain." Peggy huffs, but lowers the gun.

Phil crosses his arms, and does his best to look appropriately stern — which is difficult, since he is still blinking back tears of laughter.

"Yes, I died. Bravo," Loki says. "Well-observed."

She spreads her hands to indicate her form, which at this moment looks as tangible as ever. "This is not my body."

Frigga takes a step forward, staring at Loki with wide eyes. She shows no reaction to the gender change; she's too busy examining Loki's form closely. "It's made of Source-material," she reports. "Like them." She gestures to Phil and Peggy.

"How can this be?" exclaims Thor. "This is not what happens to the Aesir when we die!"

"Okay, one," Loki holds up an elegant finger, "I'm biologically Jotunn, remember? So technically I would go to Niflheim, which frankly sounds boring and awful. But that's not what happened, at all." She spreads her hands in a showman-like gesture. "When I came in contact with the Source, I asked it to receive me... sort of as a favor between old friends, if you will. It saw me and it knew me, and it accepted me in. My body was destroyed, of course, but all of my magic and all of my consciousness were joined with the Source."

She smiles, and it looks like a real smile, neither murderous nor despairing. "I am Valhalla, now."

"You're Valhalla," Peggy says, disbelieving.

Oh, wonderful, Phil thinks.

"Well," she waves a hand, "To be more accurate, I'm like a billionth of one atom of the Source. But if I choose to, I can gather the pieces of myself together, and become Loki. Or, if I choose, I can spread myself throughout the Source — seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears, and knowing everything that it knows."

"I can be here, like this... Or I can be everywhere."

Frigga interjects. "But why? Why would you do this?" The goddess looks troubled. "I thought that you were dead. I never wanted you to be dead."

Loki inclines her head. "I know, Mother. And I'm sorry for causing you worry. But the truth is, it was the only way."

"The only way to what?"

"...To solve our problem. To map Valhalla."

Loki smiles again, and turns up a palm. On top of her hand an image appears, three-dimensional and translucent, like a hologram.

It looks like a solid sphere, until Phil looks closer and realize that it's made up of many, many densely-packed strands, like fibers or rhizomes. They're knitted and curled closely together in intricate patterns; he tries to follow one strand with his eyes, but quickly gives up in confusion.

Even as he watches, new fibers appear, pushing aside some old ones and connecting up with others.

"This is, of course, a condensed representation collapsed into 3D space, so that the mere humans among us can understand it. But this is, in a certain sense, a topographical map of Valhalla."

"Here we are, in Bilskirnir," Loki says, and a point in the very center of the sphere lights up, pulsing with a dull red light. "Here is Phil's chambers," another point lights up, an inch in from the edge of the ball, "and here is Peggy's." Another point lights up, further in toward the center, and half a hemisphere away.

Loki gives the condensed representation of Valhalla a spin, and twirls it on her finger like a basketball. "Ask me anything," she challenges. "Do you want to know the dwelling-places of all woman named Ingrid who died between 1640 and 1659?" She snaps her fingers, and a constellation of points lights up in one particular segment of the sphere.

"Ooh, I know, how about people who died from being attacked by monkeys? That's always a fun one." She snaps again, and sparse handfuls of lights flicker on throughout the sphere.

"Or maybe you'd like to find a man named Amit Patel" — lights all over the globe go on — "who died in 1984" — most of the lights flicker out, leaving only a handful — "as an innocent bystander during an armed robbery gone wrong?"

One light is left, gently pulsing in the upper left hemisphere of the globe.

Wow.

Phil has to admit, that is, indeed, incredibly helpful. Incredibly, incredibly helpful. Nonetheless....

"That's wonderful, Loki," Peggy says, "but you shouldn't have to give your life up for it. We would have found a way. There might have been technologies, things that we could use. Phil was going to bring Howard Stark's son up to consult. We would have figured it out, eventually. You didn't have to go and... and do this."

Loki makes a face. "Odin save us from Tony Stark," she says, with an exaggerated shudder.

"No, I think not. I understand the problem much better than you do. Trust me when I say that this was the only way to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish." There's a calm certainty in her voice that causes Phil to remain silent.

After a minute, Loki inclines her head to them. "I would like to speak with my mother for a moment, alone." Frigga looks at her, and it almost breaks Phil's heart to see the hope shining in the Lady's eyes. Good luck, he thinks, remembering Loki's words.

"I forgive you," he'd said.

Maybe it's a start.

In the hallway, they all stare at one another, unsure of what to do or say. It seems that Loki has, for once, rendered even Peggy speechless.

Finally, she breaks the silence. "Well, I'm going to bed," she says.

Thor nods at her. "Sleep well, Lady Margaret," he says, and turns to Phil. "I feel this strange desire for solitude," he proclaims. "I believe I shall go and take a walk in the gardens."

Phil raises his hand. "Good night, guys. I think I'm going to go get that cup of coffee."

At least the coffee is still perfect in Valhalla.

-----

Phil is walking slowly back to his bedchamber, coffee mug clutched tightly in one hand, when ahead of him the door to Thor's chamber creaks open. Frigga slips out, sees him, and nods. The Lady's eyes are reddened, as if she has been weeping; she looks very tired.

As she brushes past him in the hallway, she stops and says in a low voice, "Governor Coulson. I would speak with you tomorrow." Phil nods politely, and Frigga slips away.

Phil wonders what she's going to tell Odin.

He reaches Thor's open door, and pauses. His bed calls to him, but still... He thinks a minute, looks around, and slips inside.

Loki is still standing there, one hand on the mantel, leaning forward and gazing into the fire. Phil approaches as quietly as he can, but when he's a couple of feet away, Loki says, "Jarl Coulson. I thought you might return."

He crosses his arms. "I want to know why you really did it."

She turns. "What? Are you not grateful? I accomplished your task for you. I mapped Valhalla. You should be thanking me, not pestering me with questions."

"We would have found another way."

"Maybe, maybe not," Loki says. "As I said, I find it unlikely."

"Even so. I refuse to believe that's the whole of it. Your little game today reminded me not to ever take anything that you do or say at face value. That was very cleverly done, by the way — using the one thing that we wouldn't question to get both me and Peggy out of the way."

The corners of her lips quirk upward, just a little. "I do apologize for that, but you see, you would have tried to stop me. You're both always poking your nose in, wanting to talk. Trying to understand me."

"Yeah, well, I really fell down there, I guess."

Loki shrugs. "Don't hold it against yourself. Even I have never understood me." She turns back to the fire and stares into it; her gaze is somewhere very far away.

After a minute, she says, "I owe you a debt, Phillip Coulson. You and the Lady Margaret. You both helped me realize something about myself."

"What's that?" Phil asks.

"That I had a great flaw. I do not know if it was from my upbringing or just by nature, but I looked back over the time that I lived, and I saw that there was something missing. An absent piece of myself, that everyone else seems to possess. Would you like to hear what it is?"

Your conscience? Phil thinks. "Sure," he says.

"I could not understand the mind of another. I could take their form, and I could even take their mind and make it my plaything, but I could not understand it, not really. You people — you can put your mind in the place of another, and understand them, while still keeping your own thoughts. I could never do that."

Oh. You actually do mean your conscience.

"You're talking about empathy. The ability to take on someone else's perspective."

Loki shrugs. "Perhaps." She looks at him, and her eyes flash. "Do you know how intolerable that was to me, to learn that there were things that I could never understand? I, Loki, the clever one? The master of all magic?"

She looks back at the flames, and slumps a little. "Once I saw this flaw in myself, I could not stop worrying at it."

"But you could have worked on that," Phil argues. "Peggy and I would have helped you, not to mention Thor, and Brunhild. You could have practiced having empathy, worked up to it piece by piece. I still don't see why you thought you had to die."

When Loki speaks again, her voice sounds strange, as if it's echoing through a space larger than the one they're in. "This is the fascinating thing about you humans, Phillip. On the outside, you remain always the same, never changing much, just disintegrating over time. But on the inside, ah..." She gives a bark of laughter. "On the inside, you can change from one day to the next."

She turns her head to look at Phil, and her eyes are very green. "You can become another person inside, just by willing it to be so."

"I underestimated this in the Avengers, to my eternal discredit. I thought that they could never become people who would work together." She pauses. "And even the Aesir, if they are young enough, can change. Thor has shown that."

"I, on the other hand — I could always alter my appearance as I chose." As she says it, her outline blurs and flickers, running rapidly through a series of transformations. There is a bear, an eagle, a salmon, a horse, and many more. Form upon form, piling up on top of one another, becoming blurred and indistinct.

After a moment, they collapse back into Loki, the man. "But I could never change who I was inside," he says.

"Loki is Loki, always. Only that."

"And now?"

He holds up his hands, examines them closely as if they fascinate him. Then he looks up at Phil and smiles, and holds one out as if showing him something. "Now I am everything, and I understand everything. I inhabit every form; I can recite every story. I am part of Yggdrasil, and I know what the Tree knows. The Tree which passes through all realms, and sees everything."

"But you can't leave, right? You're stuck here like me, bound to Valhalla."

Loki laughs, and sets his hand on Phil's shoulder. "Leave it to a human to be concerned with that." He steps back and opens both of his arms wide, looking down at himself. "I am a planet." He laughs, and it sounds giddy, like a child. "I am a planet!"

"Phillip, tell me.  Does the Earth yearn to leave its orbit and go spinning off into the emptiness of space?"

"...I suppose not."

"Precisely. It stays close to the sun and glories in its light, just as I glory in the light and wisdom of Yggdrasil." Loki's face softens. "It's what I always wanted, you know. To be wholly accepted."

"To have a place where I was secure, where I belonged. And to know that no one could ever take that away. Ever." He looks fierce, for a moment. "Now I have that."

"Death is a small price to pay for what I've gained."

Phil has nothing to say to that.

After a minute he bumps his fist against his heart, and nods to Loki. Then he turns and stumbles off to bed.

-----

"Well, I mean, we can't just copy you a billion times and put a Loki in every dining hall... Can we?" says Peggy.

"Ah. No, I'm afraid not," Loki says. "It's difficult enough for me to keep my consciousness solid in only one location. Keeping myself together in millions of different places at the same time? Quite impossible. I would simply give up and melt back into the Source."

"What we need, then," says Phil, "is some way to store your knowledge. Like in a machine, or something, and every day you come and somehow update it with changes. And then there are copies, and the update gets transmitted out to all of them on every update, so that the directory is never any more than one day old. Every dining hall gets a copy, with instructions for its use. And after they're installed, we swap the Lethe with water for... what? Five days?"

Brunhild nods. "Five days should be enough for the emotion-dampening effects to wear off."

"Right. So then people who want to, can use this catalogue thing to find people, and the other ones can start the mead again, but we'll make sure that everyone understands it first."

"How will all of these people get to one another, though?" Peggy asks. "I mean, we're talking about a ridiculously huge migration, here. Possibly billions of people, all going from their homes to somewhere else, all at once. It could be chaos in the hallways!"

"They'll all need food, directions, a place to sleep... I mean, it could take some of them years to get to where they're going."

"Hmm. That's true. It's a logistical nightmare." Phil steeples his fingers together, and smiles.

Logistical nightmares are kind of his thing.

He's just beginning to consider the issue when there's a rapping at the door, and a valkyrie pokes her head in. Herja, Phil thinks.

He's finally starting to be able to tell all 300 of them apart.

"Governer Coulson," the valkyrie says. "The Lady Frigga requests your attendance. If you will come with me, I will take you to her."

-----

Phil is taken to a room in Frigga's outer chambers that, oddly enough, reminds him of Tony's workshop. Long tables line the walls, each one covered in Stuff.  All of it is arcane, some of it is obviously broken, and there's not a single thing there that Phil could name.

There are tiny little bottles full of multi-colored liquids; there are strange interlocking wheels, all covered in tiny carvings; there are half-completed tapestries with strange, glowing beads woven in intricate patterns among the strands of silk. Phil sees a broken staff that looks a lot like Loki's staff, and shudders.

Now that's a memory that will never completely leave him.

Frigga sweeps forward and clasps Phil's hand in both of hers. "Governor Coulson," she says. "I'm so pleased that you could join me." She guides him to a relatively organized area that contains a small, plush couch.

When they are seated, she turns to Phil and says, "I owe you a great deal, Governor. Not only have you lifted a great weight from the back of my husband and resolved a problem that has bedeviled us for centuries; you have also, in a very real way, redeemed my son."

Phil opens his mouth to protest, though he's not sure which item he wants to tackle first. Frigga holds up a hand to stop him. "It is true," she insists. "I have seen the change in Loki. He is much happier, now, than I have seen him in a long while." She smiles sadly. "Valhalla and its denizens were always his favorite, out of all his projects."

Phil nods, and bites back the first, sharp retort that comes to mind. Frigga may not have always been the best mother, but she seems to at least be trying, now.

Perhaps, in time, she can even bring Odin along.

"What I could never figure out how to do, you have accomplished," she continues. He gets the feeling that she's still talking about Loki. "And I wish to reward you for it, in the best way that I can."

Frigga takes a deep breath, and looks Phil in the eyes. She takes both of his hands in her own. "Phillip John Coulson," she says, "I would like to adopt you."

Okay, that's not what he was expecting.

"What? You want to adopt me?" Phil realizes that he isn't being diplomatic, and forces himself to lower his voice. "As a son?"

Frigga shrugs. "It would be something more like a distant cousin, technically. But the important thing is this: you would become one of the Aesir. You could have a real body again, not just this projection," she waves at Phil, indicating the way the pattern of the couch shows through his body. "You would have all of the power of a god."

"And..." She leans forward and smiles. "You could visit Earth again, any time that you wanted."

Clint.

Phil leans back against the back of the couch, and thinks carefully for a long minute. It's tempting, certainly. But on the other hand...

If he says yes, he'll become a god, and Clint will still be mortal. As a student of Classics, he knows how well those relationships typically go. Besides, he never really wanted to be a god or a superhero.

Regular heroism is good enough for him.

Then Phil thinks back to a conversation in a hallway in Bilskirnir, several weeks ago. He remembers Peggy resting her head against the window, and her voice, full of quiet despair. "Should I just keep going?" she'd asked. "For centuries, millennia..."

He already knows someone whose lover is not mortal.

With that thought, his mind is made up. He straightens and takes both of Frigga's hands again, respectfully inclining his head.

"I accept," he says. "On one condition."

"What is that?"

"That you permit me to accept, not on my own behalf, but for another person."

Frigga frowns. "You wish me to adopt someone else, instead?"

"Yes."

She frowns further. "I cannot accept just anyone into the Aesir. They must be proven worthy."

"Oh, she is."

"I must know who you mean before I can give you my answer."

Phil takes a deep breath. "I want you to adopt Peggy Carter."

Frigga blinks, and then the Lady smiles slowly. "Yes. Yes, I see what you are saying. You are a good friend, Phillip Coulson. A good friend indeed." She nods, and there is something final about it.

"Very well. Provided that she consents, I am willing to adopt Peggy Carter and accept her into the ranks of the Aesir, with all of the rights and powers thereof."

Wow, Phil thinks. Odin's really going to hate this.

Chapter Text

Phil has his mornings down to a routine.

The first thing he always does is brew a perfect cup of coffee in his usual mug. Then he drinks it while sitting in his favorite chair — the plush one by the big bay window, which he's set to display a picture of a sunrise over mountains. He sits there every morning, in his boxers and dressing-gown, and mentally gets ready for the day. He looks through his morning reports, and goes through his Sourcemail messages.

Today, as for the past ten days, one small detail has been wrong: Phil left his slippers in the Asgard apartment. He wiggles his bare feet and looks at them for a minute. He could make new ones, but he'd rather just wait the twenty days and get them back, the next time Clint comes to visit.

The Asgard apartment isn't much, really. It's just three small rooms attached to Peggy's Hall, but it's their place, his and Clint's. Roughly once a month, barring any major catastrophe, they get to spend a day there together. Once a month, for almost ten years.

It isn't much, but it's enough.

Phil looks down at the tattoo around his ring finger and smiles. He remembers Clint pressing his lips against it, as he does every time they say farewell. The act has become a promise; it says, "I will see you again, no matter what."

The archer has been tossing around the idea of a job change, lately. Clint hates it, of course, but the truth is that his kind of work takes a toll on the body, especially for someone without any super healing powers. He's starting to slow down, and he's honest enough to know that he'll have to address it before it becomes a danger to the team.

Phil's been turning the issue over in his mind, trying to come up with a role that Clint could move into, that would allow him to use his abilities without further destroying his body. He's having a hard time coming up with much, though. Clint's great at on-the-fly tactical decisions, but he just isn't cut out for office work, and he definitely doesn't have the right personality to become a trainer.

Still, they'll figure something out.

Twenty days. Just twenty days...

He flips a page. His morning report is a thick printed sheaf of spreadsheets and manifests. It tracks empty rooms, rates of Lethe usage, migration patterns, successful reunions, and many other important indicators.

Today is a big day for everyone in the Valhallan government — it's the first day of the final sector migration. Today about 100,000 people will leave their homes in Sector Z999. Within about two months, as long as everything goes smoothly, all of them will be resettled in new locations across Valhalla, closer to friends, family, and spouses. Their old living quarters will be returned to the Source, the space and energy from them reallocated to serve new inhabitants.

Phil leans back in his chair and stretches.

This is it, really. After ten years of planning and effort, managing more than 25,000 separate sector migrations and the reunions of literally billions of people... this is it. In two months, when the last migrator reaches his or her destination, Valhalla will be just about as fixed as it can get.

Phil is thinking about taking a vacation to celebrate, although his destinations are somewhat limited. Loki told him about an intriguing project taking place in R19, where a whole group of people have banded together to design and create some kind of incredible, physics-defying water park. That's a thing that Phil might like to see.

Over the past ten years, the decline in Lethe usage has caused an explosion of creativity in Valhalla. These days, Loki is constantly reporting on various large-scale projects, people banding together to petition the god for spaces to design and build various things. There have been theatres, amusement parks, strange art installations, forested gardens, and at least one nude beach.

One sector that happens to have a large population of engineers has just finished creating a sort of trolley system throughout its hallways. Of course, this being Valhalla, the trolleys move nearly at the speed of sound. Phil has a meeting with those engineers on Wednesday, to discuss a possible wider adoption.

Yes, things are definitely changing, here where nothing has changed for a very long time. Loki, in particular, seems pleased and enthralled by the newfound inventiveness of Valhalla's citizens. Phil wonders if he finds in them a sort of kindred spirit.

Phil flips another page, and draws a yellow underline under one particular number with his pen. Reincarnation rates have ticked up another 0.1% in the past month. Good, good. More and more people are choosing to return and go another round, in hopes that they can once again be useful.

Valhalla knows the Earth needs all the help that it can get.

Peggy's in charge of the Reincarnation Awareness and Promotion project, so she'll be happy to see those numbers. She should be back today, so Phil sets the page aside to show her.

These days, Peggy spends about half of her time on Earth with Steve, and the other half here, helping Phil to run Valhalla. She seems happy. As she becomes more comfortable with her new powers, she's even begun doing some work for the Avengers.

Peggy, Natasha, and Pepper — Senator Potts, these past six years now — have all bonded in a big way. Apparently they like to go out and get pedicures together, while discussing light topics such as political and military strategy. (Recently they had to get their pedicurist a top-secret clearance, after she overheard a few too many state secrets. Clint told Phil the story with great amusement. Phil just hopes that the woman is well-paid.)

He flips the page again, and glances at his watch. It's almost time to get dressed and head out. Phil moved back to his own house nine years ago, after the initial chaos settled down a little and the sector-based migrations were up and running smoothly. These days, he commutes via valkyrie every morning. There are some perks to being Governor, after all.

Just one more page...

A subtle change in air pressure makes Phil look up. The air shimmers and twists, and an avatar of Loki appears in Phil's bedroom. He looks around curiously, then winks at Phil and whistles. "Nice boxers, Your Grace," he says with an exaggerated leer. "Purple is really your color."

Phil snatches his dressing gown closed and frowns. "What do you want?" he demands. "I told you never to Apparate in here." (Phil insists on calling it that because Loki doesn't get the reference, and Phil will take his small amusements where he can.)

Loki gets serious, and drops his attempt to tease. "Something has happened," he says.

Uh-oh. Phil immediately rises and walks over to put on his suit, which is laid out neatly on the bed. He already has one leg in his trousers when Loki says, "Your husband, Clint Barton, has arrived in Valhalla."

"What?" Phil yelps, and nearly topples over. He twists around to land safely on the bed, and scrabbles to pull the other leg of his pants on.

The air crackles with electricity, and a second avatar of Loki appears next to the first, this one female. (Loki has been getting better lately at splitting hir consciousness across multiple copies. It makes Phil nervous, but it can be useful for quick information-sharing.)

Female-Loki looks at male-Loki and says, "There are more of them."

"What do you mean, more?" Phil demands, stumbling to his feet.

"You separated too quickly," she says, still speaking to male-Loki. "We have two more matches from the Jarl's personal contact list, both of whom arrived within five minutes of Barton. They are the Black Widow woman, and also one Pepper Potts. Both arrived in Sector T23. They're being brought to Bilskirnir now, along with Hawkeye."

Male-Loki nods and reaches out his hand to touch the female avatar. With a headache-inducing twist of space, they overlap and merge together, until only one Loki is standing there again. She turns to Phil and says, "A valkyrie has just arrived to fetch you." She smiles, and it looks genuine. "Congratulations."

Phil dashes out the door and into the arms of the waiting valkyrie.

-----
He's here. He's actually here.

Clint, Natasha, and Pepper are huddled together in the main courtyard of Bilskirnir, watched over by three alert valkyries. Natasha has her arm around Clint, who is leaning heavily against her. Both of them are standing in front of Pepper, who is sitting on the ground with arms wrapped around her knees, head lowered. Phil can't see her face.

The valkyrie sets Phil down with a jarring thud, not bothering to soften the landing. As soon as his feet touch gravel, he sprints over.

Natasha raises her head and smiles; Clint raises a weary hand. Pepper looks up and nods.

"What happened?" Phil demands.

Natasha takes a deep breath. When she speaks, it's with those rounded Russian vowels that only come out in times of stress. "I believe there was a car bomb," she says succinctly. "We were in Vienna. Hawkeye and I were escorting the Senator to the last day of negotiations for the RESTART treaty."

Pepper lifts her head and straightens her back. "It's a nuclear arms control treaty," she explains. "Very important, and naturally, very controversial in certain circles. The culprit could be any number of parties — rogue nations who oppose the treaty, terrorist organizations, or even certain... heavily invested corporate entities. Our security was guaranteed by the host country, but obviously..." She trails off, and lowers her head again.

"Are you guys all right?" Phil asks, and then immediately feels stupid for asking. Dying is always a shock, to everyone.

He wishes that he'd made a plan for this occasion.

Clint straightens and stretches his arms overhead. Some of the blankness in his eyes falls away, and he turns to Phil. "Well, I'm a lot better than I was ten minutes ago," he says, and smiles the ghost of a smile. "Hell, nothing hurts anymore. I feel like a kid again." He beckons. "Come here, you."

Phil strides over, and they embrace tightly. "I didn't want it to happen like this," Phil whispers, "but I'm so, so incredibly glad to see you."

"Well, you know me," Clint responds. "I'm so impatient, I just couldn't wait twenty more days."

Phil smiles against Clint's neck, and tightens his arms around his husband, feeling the rise and fall of Clint's chest with every precious, imaginary breath. They may be ghosts, but Clint feels solid enough to him.

He reaches down and squeezes a buttock, just to test. "Hey!" Clint laughingly protests.

Yup. Plenty solid.

"Getting feisty, sir. Watch out, you might cause a political scandal." Natasha's voice.

She strides over and wraps her arms around both of them, hugging them tightly. "It's very good to see you again, Phil," she says, laying her head against his shoulder.

He extracts one arm from Clint's waist and puts it around her. "Likewise. Three years is far too long."

She tilts her head up to whisper in his ear. "I thought you'd want to know that it was over quickly," she murmurs, too quietly for Pepper to hear. "None of us suffered."

Phil nods. Thank you, he thinks. He knows he doesn't need to say it.

He lifts his head up out of their three-way embrace and looks at Pepper. The former Senator is still sitting on the ground, watching them.

Phil likes Pepper a lot; they've always got on well. He thinks that in some ways they have similar talents, although Pepper seems a bit more drawn to the spotlight. He last saw her five years ago, when she took part in the first Midgardian state visit to Asgard. As a top foreign policy advisor, she'd accompanied the President and the Secretary of State, along with officials from the EU, China, India, and Brazil.

By all accounts, the meetings had been productive, but what Phil most remembered was the night he, Pepper, and Steve Rogers — who was along as a "cultural icon" — spent getting drunk in a rowdy Asgard pub. Steve had a few stories to tell that rather changed Phil's perceptions of his life-long hero. (Not in a very negative way, of course. They only helped Phil to realize that Steve is human, even if he is effectively immortal.)

Phil smiles at Pepper and jerks his head toward the group, inviting her over. After a second, she gracefully rises to her feet and approaches, her high heels clicking against the flagstones of the courtyard. Phil disentangles from Natasha to make space for Pepper in the circle.

For several minutes, the four of them all cling together in one giant, reassuring mass of limbs. We're all here, Phil thinks. I've got you. I've caught you. It's going to be okay.

How much difference it can make, to be surrounded by old friends.

After several long minutes of drawing comfort from one another's presence, the group separates. Pepper steps back, followed by Natasha. Phil keeps one arm around Clint's waist.

"So, what happens now?" Natasha asks. "Nice of you to dress up for us, by the way," she adds.

Phil looks down and realizes that he's not wearing a shirt. He can feel his face getting warm. "Hey, I got some big news and had to leave in a rush," he defends.

Judging by Clint's mischievous grin, he noticed Phil's (lack of) attire a while ago. Even Pepper keeps looking at him sideways.

Phil blushes harder, and gratefully changes the subject. "What happens now is that you guys get assigned to living quarters, and get taught how to use the Source. After that, you can do pretty much whatever you like."

"Is there any way I can send a message back to Midgard?" Pepper asks. "The most delicate negotiations on RESTART have already been resolved, but there are several key items —"

"Pepper!" A call rings out from behind them. "Natasha! Oh my goodness, I just heard..." Phil turns and there is Peggy, scurrying toward them. "I was just calling on Heimdall when I heard about what happened! Is everyone okay?" She sweeps Pepper and Natasha into an embrace, and lays a hand against Clint's shoulder. Her eyes narrow, and she adds, "Don't you worry, we'll get those bastards! Bruce is already analyzing the explosives to determine their manufacture."

"It was a car bomb, then?" Clint asks. Peggy nods.

Pepper steps forward. "And the negotiations?" she asks.

"Still going forward, as far as I know. Steve said that the Defense Secretary has stepped in to take your place," Peggy says.

Pepper nods. "Will is a good man. I'm sure it will be fine. Still..." She trails off, thinking. "Could you carry a message to the Secretary for me? There are several things that he needs to be aware of, and I suspect that the Iranian ambassador is up to something."

"I can do one better," Peggy says, smiling. "If he's willing, I can bring him up to Asgard for a meeting. That's a clause of the new treaty, you know: intra-realm communication in emergency situations. Just give me names."

"Well, we probably can't get Will on such short notice, but several of his aides might be available within the next hour..."

Peggy, Pepper, and Natasha wander off toward the front door of Bilskirnir, engrossed in an animated discussion. Phil gets the sense that Pepper fully intends to continue overseeing her negotiations from Valhalla. Becoming a Senator hasn't changed her at all; she's still just as hyper-responsible as ever.

Phil knew there was a reason that he liked her.

Phil and Clint are left alone, exchanging suddenly-awkward glances. They've seen each other often enough that this isn't the same type of dramatic reunion as, for example, their first meeting in Asgard. Still, now that they're alone together, Phil is finding it difficult to know what to say.

"So this is it, huh?" Clint raises his hands, looking around at the lush green courtyard. "Not too shabby, Your Highness. The landscaping's definitely nicer than at SHIELD headquarters, anyhow." He grins. "I guess it's about time you let me visit you at work. I was starting to think you were embarrassed to show me off to your loyal subjects," he teases.

Phil shifts and pulls Clint closer, so that he can feel the warmth of the archer's body against his side. "Never," he murmurs. "Never embarrassed about you."

"Ooh, that sounds like a challenge." Clint grins. "Hey, remember that one maintenance closet at SHEILD HQ, the one without any security cameras?" Clint runs a hand down Phil's bare side. "You got anything like that here?"

Phil smiles and, just for fun, grabs Clint's ass again. "Actually, I thought you might like to visit your new home," he says into Clint's ear. Then he hesitates, as a sudden worry strikes him. "That is, assuming that you still want to live with me..."

Clint punches his arm lightly. "Don't be dumb, of course I want to live with you. Isn't that the point of all of this?" He leans up and brushes his lips against Phil's. "I can't wait to wake up beside you every morning," he says softly.

"Let's go. Take me home."

-----

As soon as Phil pulls the door shut, Clint has him crowded up against the wall. Phil takes a moment to enjoy the novelty of making out with his husband in his — their — own home. But when Clint starts to curl his fingers around Phil's belt, Phil gently grabs his wrist.

"Hang on," he whispers. "There's something else we need to do, first."

"Oh, man..." Clint pulls back slightly. "C'mon, I just got my youthful stamina back! Now you want to wait?" He pouts. "This had better be worth it."

Phil grabs his hand and pulls him over to the Source. He clasps Clint's left hand in his own and holds it up, studying the twin black tattoos where they cross over one another. "Before we do anything else, we have to do our rings," he says.

"Ohhh, right." Clint kneels down to the Source. "Okay, let's do it. Show me how to work this contraption."

Phil turns the tap and, for a demonstration, creates a perfect arrow. It's based on one of Clint's favorite models, with a wicked barbed head, careful fletching, and a shaft that's perfectly straight down to the microscopic level.

Clint whistles lowly. "That's cool as hell," he admits. "So you can literally make anything with this?"

Phil lets the arrow dissolve and then he talks Clint through the entire process, describing how to hold an image firmly in his mind and use it to program the Source. The archer picks up the skill just as quickly as Phil had expected.

Soon enough there are two steel rings gently spinning in the basin, formed out of solid light. Phil runs his finger around one, feeling the smooth texture of the swirled metal.

Yes, this is perfect. This feels like it belongs on his finger.

"Would you like to do the same design again?" he asks Clint. "With the bird wings, and the bass clef?"

Clint nods, and narrows his eyes in concentration. Orange sparks appear and then fade into black lines, forming into abstract flowing patterns. The whole design takes only a few seconds to complete.

Phil smiles at his ring; it looks exactly how he remembers. When he looks up, though, Clint is frowning.

"What?" Phil asks.

"It's not quite right," Clint says. "It needs..." He frowns. "Something else. There should be something different about it. Things are different now, and these rings ought to reflect that."

"Hmm. That's a good point." Phil thinks for a minute, considering and discarding possibilities. "Mind if I take a shot?"

"Go for it."

Phil raises his hands carefully, and concentrates. After a few seconds, a swooping figure-eight appears on each ring, circling around the rest of the design. Guarding the lines and spirals, keeping them together and safe.

It's an infinity symbol.

"Huh," says Clint. "Yeah. You know what? I think that works." He slips an arm around Phil's waist, where they kneel together.

"We've earned it," Phil says. "I think we've definitely earned it." They lean on one another for a moment, staring down at the rings.

This is it, Phil thinks. This is what I've fought for, every moment of the past ten years. And now that it's here, nothing will ever be the same.

"But some things are always constant," he says aloud, scooping up the other ring.

As he slips it onto Clint's finger, Phil thinks back to a cramped city office in Boston. He looks up at Clint, and smiles. "With this ring, I thee... continue to be married to, just in a different realm," he says, his mouth quirking at the awkward phrasing.

Clint grins broadly and slips the other ring onto Phil's finger. "With this ring, I thee continue to be married to, just in a different realm," he repeats.

Phil pulls him in and they curl up together, right there on the floor. They wrap their arms around one another and twine their legs together, soaking in the moment.

There's no rush, now. They have all of the time in the universe.

After awhile, Phil brushes his lips against Clint's neck and trails his hand across the archer's stomach.

"So, about that youthful stamina..."

Chapter Text

1000 years later

The Excelsior is certainly an impressive starship.

Not only is it lushly appointed, with thick carpets, intricately-carved wooden panels, and tastefully-concealed light sources that mimic natural sunshine — it's also equipped with a cutting-edge jump drive, the workings of which are so complex that only a handful of people can pilot it safely. The ship is a masterpiece of that legendary Stark Intergalactic craftsmanship.

It will make an impressive setting for Ravi's upcoming treaty negotiations with the Su'o and the Sanchee.

He turns to Admiral Rogers. "She's lovely, sir. Thank you very much for the tour." The Admiral smiles. He has a likable face, very open and honest — unusual for a military man who occupies such a high position of power.

The Admiral's appearance is made strange by his light, straw-colored hair. It's a color that apparently once was common among humans, but it's rarely seen, these days. Rogers must be from an unusual genetic background.

"We still have one more stop, Ambassador," the Admiral says. "I thought you might like to see the navigation room, and meet our pilot."

"Oh, I'd love to."

"Good." The Admiral smiles even wider. "I think that you two might get along." He gestures to Ravi to follow him down the narrow corridor.

"Oh, Steve, thank goodness!" The voice comes from behind Ravi, making him jump. "I was afraid I'd missed it."

Ravi whirls around and there, standing behind him, is a very pale-skinned woman, dressed in the black suit of a medic. Ravi could swear that he didn't hear any footsteps or sense any movement in the corridor, before the woman appeared.

"There you are!" Admiral Rogers responds. "Ravi, this is my wife, Dr. Carter. She's the Head Surgeon of this ship."

The carpet must have muffled her footsteps, Ravi supposes. And he was paying such close attention to Admiral Rogers that he simply didn't notice her walking up behind him. Yes, that must be it.

He reminds himself to pay closer attention to his surroundings. It doesn't do to become lax.

"Well, let's go!" Dr. Carter exclaims. "The Ambassador has a pilot to meet!"

They both seem oddly keen on this idea.

When the doors to the navigation room swish open, Ravi stops wondering why. There in the midst of glowing consoles and displays, hunched in concentration over a navigation table, is the most beautiful man that Ravi has ever seen. He has dark skin, finely-carved features, and a halo of curly black hair that Ravi immediately wants to curl his fingers into. On the man's face is a look of intense concentration that Ravi finds irresistibly sexy.

The pilot looks vaguely familiar. Ravi realizes that he's read about this man — he must have seen a profile in a magazine, or something. Tey Alonssou, that's his name, from Bargha City. He's some kind of boy wonder, with a savant-like ability to intuitively calculate motion through space.

Alonssou is said to be the best pilot in Twelve Systems. Ravi had not been aware that he would be piloting the Excelsior during this voyage.

He's suddenly grateful that he took time after boarding to put on his favorite suit.

Admiral Rogers clears his throat. "Ambassador Kesan, I'd like you to meet our Chief Navigator, Tey Alonssou. Tey, this is Ravi Kesan, the new Special Envoy to the Beliqat System." The pilot straightens and looks up at Ravi. The corner of his mouth quirks up in a smile, and Ravi gets a little bit weak in the knees.

What is this? Ravi's never been affected like this before — not by anyone, no matter how attractive he might be.

"So, you're the reason we're making this voyage," Tey says, stepping out from behind his console and sauntering toward them. "Wow. What, are they hiring Ambassadors right out of school, now?"

Ravi feels flustered. "Oh, come, I'm twenty-five, that's hardly fresh from school. Besides, you're one to speak. Graduated top of the Academy, youngest pilot ever to navigate a Behemoth-Class starship, given your first command at age 26. Am I right?" Tey grins at him, showing white teeth in a look of great amusement.

Ravi thinks that he would say anything, do anything, even make himself look like a fool, just to see that smile again.

"Someone's done his homework. Well, I know a little something about you too, Ambassador. Is it true that you speak ten languages?"

"Yes. I'm working on my eleventh, actually."

"Well, I'm fluent in three: Standard, math, and physics." Tey leans back against the navigation table, stretching in a way that shows off compact, wiry muscle. "Wanna see something cool, kiddo?"

Ravi rolls his eyes, but doesn't rise to the bait. "Sure."

"Come on up here, and I'll show you how my jump drive works." Somehow, the pilot's voice manages to load the innocent phrase with layers of insinuation. Ravi feels himself blushing, and hopes that it doesn't show.

Behind him, the doors whoosh open and shut, and Admiral Rogers and Dr. Carter are gone.

As Ravi walks up the ramp to the navigation platform, he can feel Tey's eyes roaming over his body. The pilot makes no attempt whatsoever to be subtle in his ogling, but at least he seems to be pleased with what he finds.

Ravi walks up beside him and leans against the nav table. Daringly, he situates himself just slightly inside Tey's personal space. He finds it very gratifying that the pilot doesn't pull away.

"So, what does that thing do?" Ravi says, pointing out a glyph at random. Tey brushes his shoulder against Ravi's arm as he leans over to point at something, showing off a very, very shapely backside.

It's going to be a long voyage to Beliqat. For the first time, Ravi doesn't mind that fact one bit.

-----

Outside in the corridor, Peggy turns to Steve. "Do you think they recognized each other?" she asks softly.

"On some level, definitely. Anyway, they've got four months to hit it off, before we get to Beliqat."

They both hear a muffled thump from the room behind them, and then something that sounds suspiciously like a moan.

Peggy smirks. "Either they're killing one another, or they've just set a new record in getting down to business."

"Knowing Tey, my money's on the second," Steve replies. He smiles down at Peggy, who takes his hand.

"I love that Phil gets to be the younger one, this time," Peggy remarks. "Though it won't stop Clint from teasing."

"You know, I never found anything that would."

They stroll through the corridor slowly, arm-in-arm.

For this one moment, everyone is happy, and everything is in its rightful place.

 

THE END