It was cold out here. Dark too; far darker than it had ever been in Asgard. The skies stretched out into eternity, unlit even by stars. Each day here served to remind Lucifer just how much he’d lost. Every passing second was a painful marker of just how long it had been since the Morningstar had fallen; since he’d been branded Liesmith; Deceiver; Prince of the Pit; since he had been cast from Asgard for loving his home too much. And now he was trapped here, ruling over this vast expanse of cold, dark torment. His ears rang day and night with the screams of the damned, a noise that he’d wearied of all too soon. Lucifer Laufeyson, once beloved of Odin, once brother of Mikhail, now ruler of Niflhel and the souls of the wicked. Lucifer Laufeyson, known only as the evil, corrupt son who had fought in the highest halls of Asgard for his father’s approval. Loki, they called him, or just Lucifer. His name was black throughout the nine worlds.
And he was cold, so cold.
One of his dearest crawled to his throne, whispering sibilantly in his ear. A smile stretched thinly across his lips.
The demon nodded, whispering again. Lucifer’s smile widened, teeth showing in a wolf’s grin.
‘Well then, I think we should get started. This is going to be one hell of a party.’
The demon’s sycophantic laughter rose to accompany Lucifer’s smirk. The Lord of Niflhel looked out across the darkness, knowing that soon it would be nothing but a distant memory.
Robert Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., had a headache. Jody Mills was showing him around one of their research facilities and currently had left him with Dr Ash Selvig, who was explaining something about the Tesseract device that had been around since John Stark’s time. Apparently there were new readings from it or something, but as far as Bobby could tell, none of these idjits had half a clue what it really did. And to top it off, Agent Barton was up in some stupid little hidey hole in the ceiling instead of being on the floor, like he should have been. Goddamn Gabriel and his insane fixation with heights. That boy might have been a crack shot and master assassin, but he was still a pain in the ass. Bobby fought the urge to order Barton down from his ‘nest’ or whatever it was, and tried to pay attention to Selvig. It didn’t help the headache.
Neither did the light show that the Tesseract started to put on, nor the sudden appearance of some idjit all dressed in leather and metal, who looked like he was a runaway from one of those Goth concerts. Then said idjit started taking out S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
‘Balls’, Bobby said.
Things didn’t improve.
It turned out that the visitor’s name was Lucifer Laufeyson – better known as Loki. He just so happened to be the same son of a bitch who’d burned up half of some town in New Mexico last year. The one with that brother who’d caused all that trouble for Coulson. By comparison, the other brother looked like a piece of cake.
Lucifer gave some sob story speech that made Bobby want to give him a good ass-kicking, picked up the Tesseract, put some mojo on Ash Selvig and Barton, and took off. He left one seriously pissed Robert Fury and a collapsing underground research facility behind him.
The good news was that they evacuated almost all S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel. The bad news… that list was a little longer. Topping it off, Bobby now had a migraine.
‘Balls’, he said.
Somewhere in Russia, Anael Romanoff (better known as Anna) was tied to a chair with an angry Russian general posturing in front of her. To say she was bored was an understatement. Still, she had a job to do, and at least this one was going without a hitch. In a couple more minutes she’d have everything she needed. It was bizarre really, how wearing a dress that hugged in all the right places and acting like a scared little girl seemed to make men think they had everything under control.
The tongue removal was an unexpected twist, but at least it served to make things a little more interesting. Then her phone rang.
Her primary emotion was annoyance. Whatever Coulson – because it could only be him –had said to the general, it was enough to make him compliant and that probably meant that her cover was blown. And then to ask her to pull out of the mission? Definitely not ok.
‘Look, you can’t pull me out of this right now-’
‘Anna, Barton’s been compromised.’ Inias’s voice was serious, his words sending a lead weight into the pit of her stomach. A hundred possible scenarios ran through her mind, each worse than the last.
‘Let me put you on hold’, she said after a moment.
Five minutes later she was walking out of the building, shoes in hand and another mission ahead of her. Boredom was looking like a distant memory now.
Sam Banner was not at all what Anna expected, despite her briefing. For starters, while they had his height on paper, the numbers were very different in reality. She’d watched him bend almost double to get under the low door frame and here in the house, he seemed almost permanently stooped, like a giant in a dolls’ house. He had to be closer to 6’4” than 6’3”, and he was big with it, strong muscular arms clear under the sleeves of his shirt.
Strangely though, it felt like he was trying to make himself smaller all time – like he was trying to shrink inside himself, away from the world. The feeling prevailed throughout their encounter, except for the one moment where he let go, a hint of the monster inside showing in his eyes.
The fear in her eyes wasn’t faked. Neither was the amusement in his. From the looks of things, Sam had her measure a lot better than she had his. She wondered – oh she wondered – just how big of a risk they were taking with him. Was the Tesseract really worth bringing someone as clearly unstable as Banner into the midst of S.H.I.E.L.D. and potentially putting large numbers of people in danger? Was Gabriel worth it?
That question she could answer.
Not for the first time, Bobby Fury wondered how the council managed to be made up of such a bunch of spineless idjits. Anyone would think he was talking to a bunch of petty college kids from the way they seemed to disagree with everything he said just for the sake of it. And seeing as none of them seemed to have any field experience worth a damn, he wasn’t sure why he had to listen to them in the first place. Still, he finally managed to get them to sign off on the Avengers Initiative, which made his job a lot easier than his other course of action: re-starting the Avengers Initiative anyway, the consequences be damned.
Thankfully, snaring Captain America proved to be considerably less difficult.
‘Trouble sleeping?’ Bobby asked, moving from the shadows where he’d been watching Castiel from for the last five minutes.
‘I slept for seventy years, sir. I think I’ve had my fill.’
‘Then you should be out, celebrating. Seein’ the world.’
Castiel frowned. ‘When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.’
That spoke volumes about Castiel Rogers – a man out of time who somehow still thought of himself as a soldier and still believed he needed to help save the world. Hell, the fact that he was beating the crap out a punch bag at 4am said a lot too.
Bobby liked Rogers. Sure, he didn’t look like your typical army officer – something about those too intense blue eyes, all laser focus and old as the hills – but he knew how to follow orders and how to rip up the rulebook. He was built for combat, in his character as well as his physical strength; his compassion and kindness gave him a sense of balance that Bobby believed the Avengers Initiative would badly need.
Admittedly, Castiel was a fish out of water in this day and age. He didn’t get at least half the pop culture references floating around in modern language, let alone things like mobile phones. Bobby had a feeling it didn’t matter though; after all, it was Captain America that he wanted, not Dean goddam Stark.
And aside from the bitterness Castiel clearly felt about being ripped from his own time, Bobby was sure he was the man for the job.
‘How does it look?’
‘Like Christmas… but with more…me.’
That. That right there said pretty much everything there was to say about Dean Stark. Jo rolled her eyes and waited for him to come inside, no doubt swaggering with every step. God knew she loved Dean a lot, but he really was an insufferably arrogant asshole most of the time. Still, she supposed that if you were a genius like Dean, being like that probably came as part of the package.
He walked into the room, cocky as ever, arguing with CROWLEY.
‘Grow a spine CROWLEY, I’ve got a date’, Dean said with a smirk.
Jo threw a ball of paper at him. ‘If you’re about to magic up one of your tacky girls from somewhere, I’m leaving.’
Dean raised an eyebrow at her, grinning charmingly. ‘Jo, sweetheart, you are my date.’
She snorted. ‘Sure. And pigs can fly.’ She raised an eyebrow of her own, stopping him in his tracks before he could say a word. ‘No Dean, I don’t want to hear about how you have scientists genetically grafting wings on to pigs. Anyway, what does CROWLEY want?’
‘That guy Coulson is on the phone. Apparently it’s urgent or something. But whatever. I’ve got champagne, I’ve got my best girl and I’ve just successfully upgraded Stark Tower to run on full renewable energy. He can wait.’ He swaggered over to the champagne, popping the cork in a spray of fizz. ‘Right now, we’re going to drink this, sit back and enjoy the moment. Our baby is a success.’
Jo chose to ignore the fact that Dean was turning down a call from S.H.I.E.L.D., and focussed on the more important matter at hand. ‘Our baby? Since when did it become ours? I thought you said this was my baby earlier.’
Dean shrugged. ‘Well, in fairness, I did do most of the heavy lifting - literally. So yeah, our baby. Now shut up and drink your champagne before you kill the moment. I thought we talked about this, Jo.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Why Mr Stark, you’re such a charmer.’
‘You know it!’ Dean handed her a glass of champagne and pressed a kiss on her cheek. ‘C’mon Jo, we’re celebrating!’
‘You know, the next building is going to say ‘Potts’ on it in big letters. In fact, it’s going to say ‘Potts’ on the lease.’
Dean smirked. ‘You wish, sweetheart. Now seriously, drink the champagne! I got the good stuff and everything.’
Jo was just about to make a snarky remark about how Dean always got the good stuff except for when it came to women, when CROWLEY cut in sounding as pissed off and British as ever. ‘The telephone’s going. My bloody protocols are being overridden.’ Inias Coulson’s face came up on the screen of Dean’s mobile.
‘Mr Stark, we need to talk.’ Dean rolled his eyes and picked up the phone, putting his face into a neutral expression. Jo giggled despite herself, knowing what was coming next.
‘You have reached the life model decoy of Dean Stark. Please leave a message.’
‘Sir, this is urgent.’
‘Then leave it urgently.’
The elevator doors opened, revealing Inias standing with a phone to his ear and a dossier under his arm.
‘Security breach!’ Dean sounded petulant. Jo smiled – every now and again, it was good for Dean not to get his way.
‘Inias, come in! She stood up and walked over to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, glass of champagne in hand.
‘Oh, I can’t stay’, he said, looking as tired as ever. Jo absently wondered if he was getting enough sleep. ‘But Mr Stark, I need you to look this over.’
Dean made a face. Jo stepped in before he had a chance to speak. ‘Well Dean isn’t much good at being handed things, but I am, so let’s trade.’ She swapped her champagne flute for the dossier, then took Dean’s and passed the dossier to him. He made another face. She smiled sweetly at him. ‘That was for the ‘our’ comment’, she said.
She could tell he was debating sticking his tongue out at her. In the end, he decided to go with his usual behaviour; namely, being a dick. ‘Official consulting hours are between eight and five every other Thursday’, he said snarkily.
‘This isn’t a consultation’, Inias replied, as serious as ever.
‘Is it about the Avengers?’ Jo asked. Hurriedly she added, ‘Not that I know anything about that. Or the fact that the suit qualifies, but Dean doesn’t.’ Dean shot her a bitchy look as he walked over to his computer. She grinned back at him. Inias hid a smile.
‘The Avengers was scrapped, Jo. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t qualify, or that Singer told me I was volatile, self-obsessed and that I don’t play well with others.’
‘Ah, see I knew that’, she replied. This time he pulled what could only be classed (in his words) as ‘an epic bitchface’. She watched as he opened the dossier and started tapping at one of his computer screens. ‘I’ll be back in a second’, she said to Inias before wandering over to Dean. ‘So what’s going on?’
‘You tell me. Since when is Agent Coulson ‘Inias’? I didn’t even know he had a first name.’ Jo gave him a patented Potts look – so she and Dean had dated for five minutes once upon a time, whatever. That didn’t give him the right to pull the whole jealous ex thing. Dean knew it too, and he backed off, holding up his hands in surrender. ‘Ok, ok! And this is… well it’s this.’ He pulled up the files so they hung in the air, clips of film and blocks of text running across all of them. After a moment, Jo handed him back his flute of champagne.
‘Looks like our celebration will have to wait.’ She pressed a kiss on his cheek. ‘Make sure to get some sleep, ok? The last thing I want is to find you drooling on the floor tomorrow morning. It never gets any less gross despite the fact you keep doing it.’
‘Jo, you really are your mother’s daughter, you know that right?’
Jo grinned at him. ‘I sure am. Now go do your homework. I’ll see you in the morning.’ She turned away and headed back over to Inias. ‘Any chance of a lift?’
‘Sure.’ He smiled and she smiled back as they walked towards the elevator together.
‘Great!’ She looked across at him as they stood and waited for the elevator doors to close. As casually as possible she said, ‘So tell me, what’s going on with the cellist? Is that still on?’
Castiel didn’t understand the reference that Coulson just made, and it must have shown because the agent fumblingly tried to explain himself. But then Coulson stepped back, a look of pleased wonder on his face.
‘I have to say, it’s an honour to meet you, officially.’ Castiel smiled despite himself, because this? This he understood. This didn’t make him feel like a fish out of water. Instead, it made him feel warm, despite Inias’s bumbling words about watching him sleep. It felt good to know that people still remembered him and what he did. It felt good to know that he was still respected; still thought of as worthy. Within himself, he hadn’t felt that way in a long time.
‘You know it’s really, it’s really just a huge honour to have you on board.’
Castiel couldn’t help himself when he said, ‘Well I hope I’m the man for the job.’
Inias’s eyes were full of conviction. ‘Oh you are, absolutely.’ He paused. ‘Uh, we made some modifications to the uniform. I had a little design input.’ His eyes shone with pride.
Castiel was surprised, and let it show. ‘Aren’t the stars and stripes a little…old-fashioned?’ Like me, he thought, but didn’t say out loud.
Inias looked at him, his face serious. ‘With everything that’s happening and everything that’s about to come to light, people might just…need a little old-fashioned.’ The same conviction as before was still present and for a minute or two, Castiel let himself believe that he might have a place in this world after all.
One of Lucifer’s favoured demons contacted him during a quiet moment in his activities to tell him that things were going smoothly in Niflhel. His skin crawled at the demon’s fawning, but he promised favour and good fortune. He was not as lenient with the next demon - not his ally and far from fawning.
‘I was a prince’, he roared. ‘The rightful prince, cast down for being too loyal.’ He curled his lip at the hell spawn in front of him. ‘I can see that you would never have that problem.’
He killed the demon with his own two hands.
Despite the fact he called her ‘ma’am’, Anna decided that she liked Rogers. Still, she decided to test him just a little anyway.
‘There was quite the buzz around here, finding you in the ice. I thought Coulson was going to swoon’, she said drily.
Castiel gave a small smile that was somehow both rueful and amused. Anna pushed a little further. ‘Did he ask you to sign his Captain America trading cards yet?’
Now the smile was a little wider and a little less rueful, but somehow more surprised. ‘Trading cards?’
She shrugged. ‘They’re vintage. He’s very proud.’ They both stopped to watch Sam Banner wandering somewhat awkwardly around an F12, rubbing his hands together in a gesture that Anna recognised from their meeting in Calcutta.
‘Dr Banner!’ Castiel called him over and stretched out his hand. Banner took it, clearly surprised.
‘Oh, hi. They told me you’d be coming.’ Sam looked wary. Anna didn’t blame him.
Rogers seemed to choose to ignore this. ‘Word is you can find the cube.’
‘Is that the only word on me?’ Anna sensed vulnerability there and wondered just how long it had been since Banner had been around people who weren’t trying to kill him.
‘It's the only word I care about.’ And the funny thing was that Castiel genuinely seemed to mean it.
Perhaps it was this that made Banner look around and say, ‘This must seem strange to you’, as if now he was the one trying to put someone at ease. Castiel smiled.
‘Well, this is actually kind of familiar.’
Anna let them talk for another few minutes, interested to see how quickly the two of them seemed to settle into one another’s company. They made an unusual pair: Banner stood a good two or three inches taller than Rogers, yet it Castiel’s presence dominated his completely, radiating confidence and self-assurance possibly because he was on something like home ground here. Still, they seemed to get along well and she felt relieved. If Singer’s plans were put in place, they just might need someone who Banner called ‘friend’.
Then she heard the whir of engines and allowed a small feeling of pride as she said, ‘Gentlemen, you might want to step inside in a minute. It’s gonna get a little hard to breath.’
And yes, watching their eyes widen as they realised that no, it wasn’t a submarine was pretty funny. So was Castiel handing over ten bucks to Director Singer as they arrived on the bridge. Yeah, she definitely liked Rogers.
Sam Banner was not enjoying himself at all. Being on a giant airship thousands of feet above the Earth with a lot of other people was really not helping his ability to remain calm.
‘Dr Banner, thank you for coming.’ Director Robert Singer stuck out his hand. Sam shook it, somewhat reluctantly.
‘Thanks for asking nicely’, he said, somewhat resignedly. ‘So, uh, how long am I staying?’
Singer’s face was clearly meant to be reassuring, although the eye patch and the scars didn’t really make that work. ‘Once we get our hands on the Tesseract, you’re free.’
Sam nodded. ‘So where are you with that?’
Coulson began listing off their tracking methods so far, clearly more than a little proud. But Agent Romanoff was right when she said it wasn’t going to be fast enough. Sam thought for a second.
‘How many spectrometers do you have access to?’ he asked. Singer looked slightly bemused.
‘How many are there?’ he asked.
And at last, Sam was in his element. With an internal sigh of relief he trained his thoughts on how to track gamma radiation, reeling off a list of things that they could do. ‘Do you have somewhere for me to work?’ he said finally, unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt and beginning to roll up his sleeves. Singer nodded with a grin.
‘Agent Romanoff, would you show Dr Banner to his laboratory, please?’
‘So I hear one of your guys is missing?’
Romanoff’s face gave little away, but Sam still noticed the subtle flicker of distress in her eyes. She nodded.
‘Yes. Agent Barton. Gabriel.’
‘You know him?’
The flicker of distress was stronger this time. ‘Yes. We’ve worked together on a number of missions.’ She paused. ‘He was the one who recruited me to S.H.I.E.L.D.’
‘He’s your friend, isn’t he?’ Sam knew he was pushing, but it was hard, so hard, to keep control here, knowing that he was trapped in a metal container in the sky. The more he distracted himself, the easier it was not to let go.
‘Yes. Well… yes.’ Romanoff frowned, as if unsure how to proceed. Finally, as they stopped outside the door to what could only be ‘his’ lab, she looked up at him, eyes filled with something like desperation. ‘He’s like a brother to me. Dr Banner… Sam, whatever you can do to find him, please do it fast. This guy Lucifer isn’t the sentimental type – if we wait too long, Gabe’s going to outlive his usefulness. I can’t let that happen. So please, do whatever you can. And do it quickly.’
Ash Selvig was a pain in the ass, if Gabriel was being honest. Ever since Lucifer had put him to work on the Tesseract, Ash had been singing its praises like some twelve year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Admittedly, he was pretty cool for a scientist, but that didn’t stop Gabriel wishing he could do his job away from Selvig. People person or no, he was starting to get tetchy.
Still, Lucifer had ordered that he work with the doctor, so that was what he’d do. He ignored Ash’s babble about how the Tesseract had showed him the ‘truth’ or whatever, waiting until Lucifer addressed him.
‘What did the Tesseract show you, Agent Barton?’
It felt strange to be called that now – S.H.I.E.L.D. was such a distant memory now, his loyalty to it entirely gone. He shook the feeling off and replied, ‘My next target.’
‘What do you need?’ Lucifer was accommodating. Gabriel liked that.
He walked to his bow case and took out his bow. ‘A distraction’, he said. ‘And an eyeball.’
Finally, it was time for the hawk to hunt.
‘I mean, if it’s not too much trouble.’
Castiel was still amazed that a man like Inias Coulson – who could probably kill you in ten different ways with his thumb and a piece of paper – was struck by anything as mundane as hero worship. And yet here Inias was, blustering slightly and giving off this slightly awed aura any time that he was alone with Castiel. It was strangely endearing.
Castiel smiled. ‘No, it’s no trouble.’
Inias smiled back. ‘It’s a vintage set’, he said, his voice full of pride. ‘It took me a couple of years to collect them all.’ There was a pause, because Castiel really had no idea what to say to that. ‘Near mint’, Inias continued. ‘Slight foxing around the edges.’
‘We got a hit!’ And thankfully, Castiel was saved from an in-depth description about trading cards with his face on them. He looked at the monitor, taking in the sharp, almost vulpine face of the man pictured there. He was tall and strong-looking, with very blonde hair and eyes almost intense as Castiel’s own. But there was a cruelty to him too.
‘Captain, you’re up’, Singer said from somewhere behind him. Castiel wondered just exactly what he was up against.
In three separate locations, three different men were all feeling a sense of relief at being in their element again. Castiel put on his suit slowly, taking in the way it shaped itself to his body and how much more comfortable it was than the one he’d had in the forties. It seemed like some things had improved while he’d been away. Lucifer strolled through the streets of Stuttgart, cane in hand. His clothes were fine, and a pleasant change from his armour. He’d always enjoyed this kind of deception, ever since he was a child. And this… well this was on a whole new scale. Gabriel, on the other hand, was relishing the simple pleasure of a clean kill – of taking men out like target practice. After too long cooped up inside, it felt far too good to be flying free with a mission to complete.
From there, everything happened rather fast. Lucifer took no small pleasure in smacking the guard with his cane or in taking the eyeball of the man Barton had said they needed. These Midgardians were a petty, puny race. If he got to maim and kill a few of them before the battle began, he was not going to pass up on the chance. He watched, amused, as they fled before him like ants scattering around a boot in their path. His little bit of sorcery was just for fun really. He liked how easily they got scared.
In fact, it was all going beautifully until one old man dared to stand, no doubt thinking he would somehow inspire courage in the others. Then, worse still, some cocksure American appeared out of nowhere, preventing the old man from being obliterated and having the audacity to believe that he could take on a god. Despite the plan, Lucifer decided that he was going to have a little fun with this brash young man.
Anna watched from the ship, slightly worried by what she saw. Rogers was strong, she knew that – she’d seen him working out in the gym – but Loki was more than human in a way that Castiel couldn’t begin to compete with. She tried to get a lock on Lucifer, hoping to put a quick end to things, but he was all over the place.
Then she heard music. And she knew for a fact that she wasn’t going to like what came next.
‘Agent Romanoff, you miss me?’ Then AC/DC’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’ was blaring through the sound system and Dean Stark had knocked Lucifer off his feet. Annoying though Dean was, Anna decided that just this once she’d try not to kick his ass.
The atmosphere in the jet was strained. Lucifer remained silent. Behind her, Anna could hear Dean and Castiel arguing. The tension between them had been crazy from the first and if she wasn’t mistaken Dean was actually flirting with Castiel – not that you’d have known if you didn’t understand that when it came to sex, Dean was still that little boy pulling pigtails in the playground. She smiled to herself, wondering how that one was going to work out, especially as Castiel probably wouldn’t know a pick-up line if it danced naked in front of him.
Out of nowhere, a lightning storm struck.
She heard Castiel say scornfully, ‘What’s the matter, scared of a little lightning?’ She thought he was baiting Stark.
Then Lucifer replied. ‘I’m not overly fond of what follows.’ And it was then that she knew they had a problem.
‘Incoming!’ she shouted just as something hit the top of the jet.
It was over in less than a minute. Typically, Stark opened the door to the jet to go and play outside, which let Thor in, who took Loki and jumped out of the plane, shortly followed by Stark. So maybe she would be kicking Dean’s ass later after all.
‘I’d hang back on this one’, Anna called to Castiel, watching as he grabbed a parachute. ‘These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods!’
‘There’s only one god ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.’
It was only the fact that she was a grown woman and internationally renowned spy that kept Anna from muttering, ‘Boys’, darkly.
Although nobody would say for certain who started the fight, everyone agreed that Castiel had been the one who ended it. Anna had a sneaking suspicion that Director Fury was not going to be a happy man when he returned to the bridge. She also had a feeling that talking to Lucifer first wasn’t going to help his temper either.
Sitting around the briefing table at the bridge felt strange, especially without Gabriel. Watching as the world’s ‘heroes’ took in Loki’s words was even stranger. She didn’t miss the fleeting look of pain that crossed Sam Banner’s features when Loki took a dig at him, and she filed away that particular piece of information for later.
‘So, Thor what’s his play?’ Castiel asked when the broadcast was finished.
Thor frowned. ‘I go by Mikhail mostly, although I supposed Michael is how your people would say it. And I cannot be sure, but I believe he means to bring about Ragnarok here on Earth.’
‘Ragnarok? What is that? Isn’t that some kind of Norse mythology?’ Stark looked mildly confused. Anna guessed it was a new state for him.
‘We’re talking to a Norse god, Stark. What did you expect – Moses?’
‘Always a pleasure working with you, Anna’, he shot back.
‘Can the pair of you quit fighting so Thor – sorry – Michael can explain this Ragnarok to us?’ Castiel looked so disapproving that surprisingly, they both went quiet. Michael nodded his thanks.
‘In the myths of your people, Ragnarok is the last great battle of the gods, where most of the old order dies, along with the majority of humanity. Your world is submerged in water, but rises anew to be populated again, with new gods in the place of the old. In reality, the truth is a little more complex. Ragnarok is the final battle, but it’s not just the fate of your world that lies in the balance – it is the fate of all of the nine worlds. Earth as you know it will be ruined, as will the other worlds. The gods will be destroyed.’ He paused, frowning. ‘Lucifer is my brother and I love him dearly, but I believe he means to kill or enslave us all and take your planet for his own. His plans must be stopped.’
‘And what exactly are those plans?’ Directory Fury walked on to the bridge, his face stern.
Michael shrugged, his face serious. ‘As far as I am aware, Lucifer means to use the Tesseract to open a portal between this realm and Niflhel, which you would call Hell. He has an army there.’
‘A portal?’ Sam Banner looked up. ‘That must be what he needs Dr Selvig for.’
Michael looked at him, frowning. ‘Selvig? Ash Selvig? Lucifer has him?’
Anna nodded. ‘Yeah, he’s got Selvig. One of ours too.’ She met Banner’s eye briefly, saw the sympathy there and looked away. ‘Do you know Selvig?’ she asked Michael.
He nodded. ‘Yes, he’s a friend. What is he doing with Lucifer?’
Anna shrugged. ‘He’s under some kind of spell. Do you know anything about that?’
‘It makes the eyes turn black’, Director Singer said. Michael looked at him sharply.
‘It’s no spell. I suppose your word would be ‘possession’. This is grave news.’
‘Not as grave as what Lucifer has planned’, Banner said. ‘He’s crazy as a bag of cats. You can smell it on him.’ At this, Michael looked unhappy.
‘Have care how you speak, Banner. Lucifer is of Asgard and is my brother. Despite his plans, he is still my kin and I will not stand for you slighting him in this way.’
‘Fine. No ‘slighting’ of Lucifer.’ Banner shrugged. ‘But what do they need the iridium for?’
It’s a stabilising agent’, Dean said, speaking for the first time in a few minutes. ‘My guess is that he’ll use it to stabilise this portal he wants to create.’ Then he started being his usual self and Anna tuned him out – she’d had enough of Stark being an arrogant asshole to last her a lifetime. Briefly, she wondered where Gabriel was and what he was doing – she knew the guards killed in Stuttgart had been his work and she worried that he’d kill more before they found him.
She returned to the present just in time to see Dean shake Sam’s hand and say, ‘And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.’
Sam made a face at that. ‘Thanks.’
‘Dr Banner is only here to track the cube.’ Director Fury looked sharply at Dean. ‘I was hoping you might join him.’
‘Let’s start with that stick of his’, Castiel said. ‘It may be magical, but it works an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon.’
‘I don’t know about that, but it is powered by the cube’, Fury said. ‘And I’d like to know how Lucifer used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys.’
Michael looked confused. ‘Monkeys? I do not understand.’
‘I do!’ Castiel cut in, looking pleased with himself. ‘I – I understood that reference.’ Most people around the table looked exasperated. Anna noticed that Dean looked gently amused. Oh he definitely had a thing for Castiel.
Dean smiled. ‘Shall we play, Dr?’
Sam nodded at him. ‘Sure. Right this way.’ Together, they headed out of the room towards the science lab.
From the corner of her eye, Anna noticed that the guy Stark had pointed out earlier was playing Galaga again.
Sam was pleasantly surprised to find that he actually liked Dean Stark. Sure, the guy could be kind of an ass, but Sam sensed that underneath it all, he was a lot more emotional than he let on. And besides, it had been a long time since Sam had been around anyone who could match him on an intellectual level. It made a pleasant surprise.
He didn’t even mind when Dean started poking him with things. Apparently Castiel Rogers did.
‘Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn’t funny’, Castiel said to Dean. ‘No offence, Doctor.’
Sam smiled, feeling strangely relaxed for the first time in a while. ‘Uh, it’s alright. I wouldn’t have come aboard if I couldn’t handle pointy things. Or Stark being a jerk.’
Dean grinned at him. ‘Whatever, bitch.’
Castiel’s eyebrows practically disappeared into his hair. Dean shrugged and looked at Sam. ‘You’re tiptoeing, big man. You need to strut.’
‘And you need to focus on the problem!’ Castiel said angrily. Sam stopped paying attention for a few minutes after that; caught up in examining Lucifer’s spear and busy ignoring the raging unresolved sexual tension between Castiel and Dean.
‘You think Fury’s hiding something?’ That brought Sam’s attention back.
‘Captain, he’s a spy. He’s the spy. His secrets have secrets.’ Dean popped a blueberry in his mouth. ‘It’s bugging him too’, he said, pointing at Sam. ‘Isn’t it?’
Sam busied himself instinctively, trying to avoid conflict. ‘Uh, umm, I just want to finish my work here…’
Castiel looked at him intently. ‘Doctor?' Sam sighed.
‘Yeah. I guess. I mean, if S.H.I.E.L.D. really is looking into creating clean energy, why didn’t they bring Dean into consult? Everyone knows about his ARC reactor and how it’s going to power Stark Tower for what, a year? So what are they really going to use the Tesseract for?’
Dean smirked a little. ‘See, Cas? And once my decryption program – which CROWLEY has been running since I hit the bridge – gets through their firewalls, well, we’ll know everything.’
Sam tuned out after that again, because Dean and Castiel started exchanging these intense looks and arguing with each other again, which got old really quickly.
He only stepped in when Dean started resorting to personal jabs – he could tell those weren’t going to go down well.
‘Castiel, tell me none of this smells a little funky to you’, he said.
Castiel shot once last look at Dean, then turned to leave. ‘Just find the cube.’
Dean rolled his eyes after he was gone. ‘That’s the guy my dad never shut up about? I’m wondering if they shouldn’t have kept him on ice.’ Sam grinned to himself. Then he frowned.
‘The guy’s not wrong about Lucifer. He’s got the jump on us.’
Dean snorted. ‘Whatever, man. He’s got a stick of dynamite that’s gonna blow up in his face. And I plan to be there to see it.’
‘I’ll read all about it’, Sam said, slightly ruefully.
Or you’ll be suiting up with the rest of us.’
Sam shook his head. ‘Ah, you see, I don’t get a suit of armour. I’m exposed, like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.’
Dean looked at him strangely for a moment. ‘You know, I’ve got a cluster of shrapnel, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart. This stops it’, he said, tapping the circle of light Sam could just see through his Black Sabbath t-shirt. ‘This little circle of light, it’s part of me. It’s not just armour. It’s a terrible… privilege.’
Sam met his gaze, shaking his head. ‘But you can control it.’
‘Only because I’ve learned how.’
Dean swiped away the charts they were looking at, so it was just them, face to face through the glass screen. ‘Hey. I read all about your ‘accident’. That much gamma exposure should have killed you.’
‘So you’re saying that the Hulk… the other guy… saved my life?’ Sam’s mouth twisted. ‘That’s nice. That’s a nice sentiment. Saved it for… what?’
Dean smiled, just a little. ‘I guess we’ll find out.’ Then he walked away, back to his own screen.
‘You may not enjoy that’, Sam said.
‘And you just might.’
Somehow, Sam realised that for the first time in longer than he could remember, it seemed like he had someone who cared about him.
Anna knew that Director Fury planned to try and use Michael to get information out of Lucifer – to capitalise on Michael’s love for humanity and guilt over the sins of his brother. It was a good plan. She just didn’t think it would work.
That was why she was standing outside the monster’s cage, getting ready to poke the hornet’s nest with a stick.
‘There’s not many people who can sneak up on me’, Lucifer said, turning to face her with a grin.
‘But you figured I’d come.’ It was a statement rather than a question.
‘After. After whatever tortures Fury can concoct. You would appear as a friend; as a balm. And I would cooperate.’
‘I want to know what you’ve done to Agent Barton.’
Lucifer grinned, all predatory intent and insanity. ‘I’d say I’ve expanded his mind.’
Anna fought the burning hatred inside her, keeping her face neutral. ‘And once you’ve won; once you’re king of the mountain – what happens to his mind?’
‘Is this love, Agent Romanoff?’ His tone was teasing – playful almost. It made her skin crawl. Still, she held her ground, determined to give nothing away.
‘Love is for children. I owe him a debt.’
That seemed to intrigue Lucifer. He backed away to the bench on the other side of the prison, stretching his hands out. ‘Tell me?’
Anna mirrored him, taking a seat of her own. ‘Before I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. I, uh, well I made a name for myself. I have a very specific skill-set. I didn’t care who I used it for, or on. I got on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call.’ As ever, the story made her emotional. She let it show.
‘And what will you do if I vow to spare him?’
She smiled. ‘Not let you out.’
He grinned back at her. ‘Oh no, but I like this - your world in the balance and you bargain for one man.’
She shrugged. ‘Regimes fall every day. I tend not to weep over that, I’m Russian. Or I was.’ And she saw it, that glint of interest in his eye as he asked:
‘And what are you now?’
Anna shrugged, standing up and walking over to the glass. ‘It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger – I’d like to wipe it out.’
Lucifer’s eyes fixed on hers as he stalked towards her. ‘Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakhov’s daughter? Sao Paulo? The hospital fire?’ He paused, watching her, watching as she fell apart before his eyes – so controlled on the surface but so tormented beneath. ‘Barton told me everything.’ And that… that was him twisting the knife, just to watch her bleed.
‘Your ledger is dripping – it’s gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality – this is a child at prayer! Pathetic! You lie and kill, in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate – to have your own code; something that makes up for the horrors. But they’re part of you and they will never go away. ‘
Lucifer’s fist slammed against the glass, making Anna jump despite herself. ‘I won’t touch Barton – not until after I’ve made him kill you, slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear. And then he’ll wake just long enough to see his good work. And when he screams I’ll split his skull!’ She turned away with tear-filled eyes and shaking hands. He couldn’t see the expression on her face as he hissed, ‘This is my bargain, you mewling quim!’
‘You’re a monster’, Anna said, voice unsteady and fearful.
Behind her, Lucifer chuckled gleefully. ‘Oh no – you brought the monster.’
Gotcha, she thought.
She turned, a slight hint of a smile on her lips. ‘So, Banner. That’s your play.’
‘Lucifer means to unleash the Hulk’, she said into her earpiece as she headed towards the door. ‘Keep Banner in the lab – I’m on my way. Send Thor as well.’ As she reached the door, she turned to him, eyes mocking. ‘Thank you for your cooperation’, she said.
The trouble was that Anna’s warning seemed to come just too late.
The science lab became the centre of a playground spat between some of the world’s most dangerous people. It would almost have been funny if it wasn’t so potentially life-threatening for the rest of the crew – and the world beyond the ship.
And it went on. Admittedly, watching Castiel and Dean go toe to toe was pretty funny, if only for the raging sexual tension between them, but all in all the whole thing was as volatile as a powder keg and a match. Michael’s comment about them all being ‘petty and tiny’ didn’t go down well either.
By the time Sam Banner had Loki’s sceptre in his hand Anna was convinced that this was how it was going to end – crushed one by one under the Hulk’s huge fist, leaving nobody to stand in Lucifer’s way. Her hand might have been on her gun, but she knew that it was only instinct that put it there – a bullet would be about as effective as a gnat if Sam hulked out on board.
And then, just when Anna thought nothing could get any worse, everything went completely to shit.
There were very few positive things that could be said about Lucifer’s minions invading the ship. After all, they’d all nearly died at various points throughout the fight, and the Hulk and Michael’s whereabouts were unknown, not to mention Lucifer’s. And they’d lost Inias…
There had been more than a few bright eyes on board at news of his death. Castiel had looked so murderous that it took a couple of rounds in the gym with Dean in the suit before he could speak without gritting his teeth. It seemed like they’d bonded during the invasion or something, so when Dean took Castiel off somewhere for a while after that, Anna wasn’t about to question his motives.
For her own part, she was doing her mourning with Gabriel. Gabriel, who was awake and himself again; who understood exactly what Inias had meant to her – the agent had been one of Gabriel’s best friends too.
They didn’t talk about how Gabriel had tried to kill her – and everyone else on board too – or how he’d killed those men in Stuttgart. Gabriel had tried, but Anna refused point blank, knowing that it would do him no good to be allowed to stew in his guilt. That wasn’t how you got through a life like theirs.
It was a relief when Castiel appeared in the door with news and a mission. It was even more of a relief when he trusted her judgement about Gabriel.
‘You got a suit?’ he asked. Gabriel nodded. Castiel nodded in return. ‘Alright then. Suit up.’
The battle was longer and harder than any of them had expected, fought against an enemy who proved to be both cunning and difficult to kill. There was an unspoken expectation from all of them that this might be it; might be where they took their last stand. It would have been frightening had there been any time to be scared.
However, as Dean took hold of the nuke that was sent to decimate Manhattan, Castiel felt a very real fear growing in his chest. It lightened somewhat when he saw that Dean had made it through the portal, but at the sight of the explosion rushing towards Earth, it grew leaden again. He shared a look with Michael and he knew what he had to do.
Despairingly, he told Anna, ‘Close it.’ He looked away as the beam of light from Stark Tower began to dwindle and then looked up again, hope soaring in his heart as he saw the distinctive shape of the Iron Man suit falling through the sky. ‘Son of a gun’, he whispered, happy for no reason he could explain. Again though, the relief lasted mere seconds.
‘He’s not slowing down!’ Michael said, starting to spin his hammer. But instinctively Castiel knew that he would be too slow – that they’d all be too slow. The Hulk took them all by surprise.
Castiel was running before the Hulk hit the ground, Michael at his side. The god pulled off Dean’s mask without hesitation, flinging it aside. Castiel hurriedly moved to listen for signs of breath. He found none. The reactor in Dean’s chest was dull too, its familiar light gone. Too late, a voice in Castiel’s head whispered. Always too late.
The Hulk roared, something like grief in his cry. And in some kind of modern-day miracle, Dean woke up. This time, the Hulk’s bellow was triumphant as he shouted at the skies.
Castiel knew his face was split from ear to ear in a grin because he could see the same happiness mirrored on Michael’s face. Dean looked at them with wide, confused eyes.
‘What the hell? What just happened?’ He looked at Castiel, eyes pleading. ‘Tell me neither of them kissed me.’ Castiel ignored the flush climbing under his skin at the subtext of Dean’s words and nodded, sitting down on the ground with a sigh of relief.
‘We won’, he said breathlessly. Dean’s grin was pained, but still very much there.
‘Alright, yay! Alright, good job guys.’ He winced slightly. ‘Let’s just not come in tomorrow – let’s just… take a day.’ He craned his neck a little to look at Castiel more intently. ‘Have you ever tried Shawarma? There’s a Shawarma joint about two blocks from here; I don’t know what it is, but I want to try it.’
Michael’s smile faded a little. ‘We are not finished yet’, he said.
Dean nodded, his eyes as hopeful as a puppy’s. ‘And then Shawarma after, yeah?’ He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. ‘Do you think they serve pie?’
Castiel couldn’t help the laughter that broke out of him. Neither could Michael, it seemed. So they stood there in the middle of a ruined street, laughing until none of them could breathe. And then they got to work.
‘Where are the Avengers?’
Bobby shrugged, his face neutral as he lied through his teeth to the council. ‘I’m not currently tracking their whereabouts; I’d say they’ve earned a leave of absence.’
‘And what of the Tesseract?’
‘The Tesseract is where it belongs – out of our reach.’ In fact, as he spoke it was probably being taken back to Asgard by Michael.
‘That’s not your call to make, Director.’
‘I didn’t make it’, Bobby said levelly. ‘I just didn’t argue with the god that did.’ He resisted the urge to say ‘idjits’.
‘So you let him take it, and the war criminal Lucifer, who should be answering for his crime.’
Bobby resisted a different urge – to roll his eyes. ‘Oh I think he will be.’
‘I don’t think you understand what you’ve started, letting the Avengers loose on this world. They’re dangerous.’
‘They sure are, and the whole world knows it. Every world knows it.’
‘Was that the plan, or a statement?’
‘A promise.’ And at that, Bobby decided he’d had enough and left the room to go and find Jody Mills and have a cup of coffee – preferably Irish.
‘Bobby, how does it work now? They’ve gone their separate ways – some of them pretty damn far.’ Jody paused, frowning at her coffee cup. ‘We get into a situation like this again, what happens then?’
‘They’ll come back!’
‘Are you sure about that?’
She looked up, meeting his eye, intrigued. ‘Why?’
‘Because we’ll need them to.’
And from the small smile on her face, Bobby knew that had been the right answer.