Chapter 1: Thor
He comes to her in a waking dream. There is no small talk this time, no enquires of her health and the state of Helheim. The silver tongue is stilled, and she sees the shadow of a gag against his lips.
“Punish them,” he croons in her ear, all paternal. “I want them to hurt.”
She says nothing, stays silent, but he reads something that is not there.
“Break their minds, my daughter,” he commands. “Let them confront their dead and forgotten pasts. Let their mourning cries ring out through your halls, and let their bitter tears awash away a touch of my pain. I want them to suffer as I suffer in the All-Fathers prison. Bring their souls to Helheim, dear daughter. Break them.”
Hel stays silent, as silent as the empty tomb, but the madness that lies behind her fathers eyes sees acquiescence where none lies.
“Good,” he hisses, before the dream dissolves and she is alone once more. What it cost him to send his shade a-walking through dreams, she does not know. She does know that he will not soon return to see the fruits of his scheme. He trusts her filial devotion.
But although she loves her father, she knows his madness. Why should she torment those who may yet be responsible for returning the papa of her childhood?
Here in the Halls of the Dead, she is the Ruler. She is Mercy. She is Justice. And she does not like obligations hanging over her head.
She will call the Avengers to Helheim, but for her own reasons, not those of her father.
She seeks out Thor first. While it is easy for her to call mortal souls, for Asgardians she must gain permission. While there may be few in her halls that Thor would wish to speak to, perhaps he would simply be happy to spend time with his niece.
Mortals have shaped her path and so she ascends through fire and smoke and drifting ash, an insubstantial wraith.
Her uncle is not hard to find, his Asgardian soul blindingly bright among the Midgardians. She touches it briefly, a warming gesture, before she materialises at his side.
To his credit, Thor does not flinch at her, nor does he shy away from her appearance. Instead, he engulfs her in a bear hug, arms tight, his chin resting on her hair. After a few seconds he realises her, pushes her back, and studies her.
“You look hale,” he states.
Its a kind thing for him to say, but Hel knows that he means it.
“So what brings my favourite niece to Midgard?” he asks.
“Your only niece,” she replies hoarsely and dryly. “My father visited me, and made certain demands. I am here to fulfil them, in my own way.”
She watches as the wariness clouds his expression but can still see traces of the pained love he bears for Loki beneath.
“He wanted me to show his conquerors those in my realm who would cause them pain. He seeks to break them, uncle.”
She does not look to Mjolnir as she continues, pretending not to see the way her uncles fingers reach for it. For all his family feelings, Hel suspects that if she truly meant harm to those called the Avengers, Thor would strike her down.
“But how can I be cruel to those who saved my father from grievous error? Those who prevented his madness tinged alliance from bearing dreadful fruit. I would thank them in my poor way.”
“Noble Hel,” Thor says quietly, and rests his hand on her shoulder. “And I shall come and sit beside you, tell you more tales of Asgard, and your fathers younger days.”
“If it please you, uncle,” she replies.
“It is always a pleasure to spend time with you,” and his tone is clearly affectionate. He touches her ruined cheek with one hand, and takes her fair hand with the other.
Her realm may be cheerless, but Thor brightens it immeasurably, if only for a short while.
While he settles himself, she reaches out and tugs. She fells the connection straight away, and slowly, gently, draws the soul to her. Once she is satisfied that it is moving, Hel focuses back on Thor.
“Tell me, Hel, if you know, where might I find one Phil Coulson? I would talk with him also, while I am here.”
The name is unfamiliar to her, and she frowns.
“The Soul of Coul stood against my brother during the attack. He died not a moons turn ago.”
“There is no Son of Coul in these halls, uncle. Nor would there be if he fell in glorious combat. The Valkyries would have him in Valhalla.”
“He was indeed a most courageous warrior,” Thor agreed.
Hel smiled. “You will not find him in Valhalla though, Thor. His name is not inscribed in the book of the dead. The Son of Coul you seek still yet lives.”
The chill air of her home crackles now with the ozone of Thor’s emotions, as he frowns.
“I would not question your words, Hel, but the leader above stated that Loki felled the warrior Coulson. And yet he does not abide here?”
“No,” Hel says. She does not take umbrage at Thor’s words. “The leader you spoke of may not know the truth himself. You can bear the glad tidings yourself.”
“Aye, and see if his deceit extends even unto this!”
Hel wonders if a new name would soon be written in her tome.
As Thor grumbles quietly to himself, Hel feels the approaching soul grow near. It is time.
Chapter 2: Steve
He walks through shifting grey mist, following a silent call that tugs at his heartstrings. Steve Rogers considers himself to be a practical man, not given to wild theories and fancies. He is well practised at suspending his disbelief though, considering who he works with. This call wraps round his mind, numbing any disbelief that tries to leak through.
His footsteps do not echo, and the mist does not drift with his movements. There is no path to the front, nor any indication of where he has come from. He walks alone, but can feel non-threatening eyes watching him.
He wonders if he should be more concerned about this, but can't find the need within himself to worry. He'll deal with things has they happen, as he does. Why make a plan for the unknown?
Ahead of him now is a door, set into a wall. It hadn't been there before, but now it seems like it has always been there. Wings whisper overhead as he turns the handle.
“Captain!” Thor greets him warmly. Steve blinks, taking in his surroundings.
Thor is seated on a stout chair, looking relaxed. Seated next to him is a lady. Half of her body is as fair a dame as Steve has seen, but the other half is dead and rotting.
“Thor, what's going on?” he asks.
“Welcome to Helheim, home to my niece, Hel, daughter of Loki.”
The tension that seeps through Steve is automatic, but Hel shakes her head.
“No need for that, Captain,” she says, and her voice is hoarse and dry. “I only wish to thank you for aiding in the capture of my father. Perhaps now his madness can be cured.”
Steve forces himself to relax, and Hel nods approvingly.
“I rule here in Helheim, and the souls of the dead answer to my command. Is there not someone parted from you by death you would talk with again?”
There is one name that springs to his lips, one person he wishes he could set things right with.
“There are no strings, Captain, Hel is true to her word,” Thor tries to reassure.
“Aye, a gift of free speech with your past for each of those called the Avengers, then time here till all are done. Thence to return to the places from whence you came, unharmed and unhurt. This, I oath.”
Steve Rogers straightens.
“Thank you, Hel,” he begins. “I would like to talk to James Barnes again.”
Once more, Hel frowns.
“Would that I could, Captain,” she says softly. “But no-one of that name dwells in these halls.”
The slow burn of hope that had risen in Steve's stomach turns to the rancid bile of despair.
“Do not despair, Captain, I do not deny your request because it pleases me, but because your fallen brother still yet lives. How and where I cannot say, but he is alive.”
Despair drained away as swiftly as it had come, and raging joy filled his veins. He could feel his lips spreading in a broad smile. Bucky was still alive!
Thor believed Hel, and Steve believed Thor. Bucky was alive, and when they truened, Stve would turn over ever damn rock till he round Bucky again.
“Peggy Carter,” he says through his smile. “We never did get our dance.”
Hel nods, and gestures with her fair hand. The mist thickens around Steve's feet, and twists upwards, eddying in unfelt winds. Just on the edge of hearing, there are whispers, soft, almost imperceptible cadences that simultaneously attracts and repels him.
Steve doesn't know how Peggy will appear, if she will be young, old or somewhere inbetween. As the mist rises up around him, forming a constantly shifting wall, he waits.
Ahead of him now, there comes a light. Its soft, fading in and out, drifting. It comes closer towards him, and with it comes the sound of laughter, familiar laughter, that tears at his heart. The last time that he heard her voice, it was choked with tears, and he was filled with fear. Now, there is no fear, there are no tears, there is only joy.
The mist parts, and there stands a nebulous figure. In its glowing shape, Steve can see the young woman that he knew, and shadows of the older woman that she grew into. She is Peggy of all times, and of no times, and he loves her more in this one moment that he did in the short time that they spent together.
As the mist wraps around her form, she starts to take shape, thickening from a glowing wraith to a flesh and blood woman. Her eyes are old and haunted in the depths, but she smiles warmly at Steve, pale skin giving way to a nearly healthy flush. As soon as the glow recedes from her hands, she steps close to Steve, and salutes, pride etched in her bearing.
Steve can't believe that it is her, that Peggy is standing in front of him. He returns the salute almost by reflex, before grabbing her for a hug. He's mindful of his strength (and can his strength hurt the already dead?), but he needs to hold her so badly, prove to his mind that she is as real in this moment as he is.
She doesn't dissolve in his arms, doesn't fade away into mist, is as solid and real as she ever was. She even smells the same way, the lavender fragrance drifting up from her uniform. He buries his head in the crook of her neck and just inhales, feeling her body pressed tight against his.
Peggy just chuckles, the feeling vibrating through her frame. “I always had faith in you, Steve,” she says gently.
“More than I had in myself,” he mutters into her neck.
They stand like that for a minute, locked together in an embrace that spans the ages. For Steve, it was like coming home. For the first time since he had awoken in the twenty-first century, he felt at peace, in his place.
Slowly, reluctantly, Steve raises his head, and loosens his grip. He slides his arms from around Peggy's back, but reaches for one hand, just to keep contact. Hel didn't say if there was a time limit for this meeting, but Steve is not going to take chances.
“May I have this dance, Ms Carter?” he asks, and her laughter is like bright bells in this dark place. Somewhere behind the mist that gives them privacy, music starts to flow, shaped by his will and the will of the Ruler of the dead.
Its a waltz, and Steve steps forward, resting his hand on her hip as she wraps her arm across his shoulders. Step by step they move in the old familiar pattern, as if they have done this half a hundred times before. As he guides her around the floor, mist and music swirling around them, Steve feels tears coming unbidden to his eyes. This was his dream, and it has haunted him since he awoke from the ice. Not a night goes by that he doesn't whisper a goodnight to Peggy before he sleeps for as long as the serum will let him.
He will have new dreams tonight.
Chapter 3: Clint
Clint never remembered his dreams. He wasn't even certain if he did dream. Nightmares were another matter. Every nightmare could be recalled in picture perfect clarity. It had only become worse since Loki. So when he found himself walking through a grey misted hallway, he took a deep breath and steeled himself.
“Bring on the horrors,” he muttered.
There was a familiar sense to this place, perhaps a smell or even more nebulous, a taste. It lingered in his lungs and the familiarity itched at him. But there was no threat. That was the strange thing. The familiar urged him to be wary, the unfamiliar to relax.
Dark wings swept by overhead, and Clint dove to the ground and rolled, coming up in a defensive crouch. Hanging in the air, hovering with sweeps of its great wings, was an eagle, eyes boring into Clint's own.
“Well, aren't you a gorgeous fellow,” Clint breathed, but not relaxing. Anything could happen in a nightmare. The eagle hovered for a moment more before moving again, gliding in a circle around Clint before drifting off again. A mournful cry echoed, sounding uncannily like 'follow'.
There was nothing to lose by following. One path was much the same as another in a nightmare. Clint stayed wary though, following the whisper of wings.
There was a high wall ahead, visible through the shifting fog. The wings called him onwards, till he reached the door set therein. The eagle was perched on a projecting bracket ,and simply watched. As Clint approached, it looked at the handle, and back to Clint.
“I can take a hint, even if it is from a bird.” Clint said wryly, and turned the handle.
Inside was much the same as outside, full of a roiling mist. But Clint could now hear voices, familiar ones. That was almost expected in a nightmare, but what was not expected was the happy tones. Cautiously, Clint approached.
“The Archer draws near,” a female voice spoke, power dripping from every syllable. Clint almost flinched at the familiar thrum, but it was tempered by something else.
Love, a distant part of his mind whispered. Love and power.
“Hawkeye?” Thor asked.
“Do we know any other archers?” Steve laughed.
“Clint!” and the movement drew Clint's eye. Thor stood to the right in an archway. He beckoned. “Come, my friend, my niece wishes to thank you for your valiant part in our battle against Loki.”
So this was how the nightmare began.
“No nightmare,” the female voice spoke again, and she moved to stand beside Thor. “The shadow of my fathers borrowed power still lies over you. His grip is broken, but fear remains. Come, brave archer, courageous Hawkeye. Come.”
That last word was an order, and Clint felt his feet moving of their own accord, turning towards the archway. Thor clapped his hand on Clint's shoulder as he passed. Half in shadow, half in light, the woman took Clint's hands.
“I am Hel, daughter to Loki. Would that I could do more for you, brave warrior, for it was you my father most wronged. But with all the good will, I have not the power. My power lies in the dead, and so that is all I can offer you. A chance to make peace with a shadow from your past.”
He felt a hook give way in his soul, screaming blue fleeing into the mist, as his fear lightened. Redemption was not possible for him, his ledger too stained with red, but there might yet be forgiveness.
“I ask to speak to Phil Coulson.”
Hel raised a fair brow.
“Would that I had met this man to see what inspires such loyalty,” she said quietly. “But the warrior martyred by the father has not yet seen Death, and still draws breath. Join my uncle and the Captain in seeking him amongst the living.
Coulson was not dead! That thought tore through the fog of his mind. That was one death he was not responsible for. But in the absence of begging forgiveness from Coulson, he still knew who he had to speak to.
He stayed silent though, and a frown drew across Thor's face.
“Do you refuse my niece's gift?” the thunderer asked.
“Not exactly,” Clint said, trying to find the right words. “You know I don't remember much of what I did under Loki's control. I only found out later how many agents died because of me. How can I just choose one to speak to? Agent Grey, who kept asking for tips on the range? Agent Cody, who loved his coffee? Agents del Toro, Ramirez, Sauls, Rankins? Who?”
Hel nodded slowly. “Leave this archway, and step to the centre of the hall,” she told him. “No choice needs to be made.”
Well, that was a short trip. Gnawing at the inside of his lip, not wanting to see the presumably disappointed looks on the faces of his teammates, Clint backtracked from the archway. Perhaps he could have changed his mind, but why? His parents were long dead, and they would not know the man he had become, the man who had forged his own path. His faint memories of them would be left untarnished, if they disapproved of their son, the paid killer.
Natasha was still alive, as was Coulson. The only people left to seek forgiveness from, penance from, were the dead.
The mist had swallowed him in his inattentive thoughts. It surrounded him, cocooned him, encased it. It was warm against his face, smoke rather than water droplets, caressing his skin like a friend, or a lover.
Shadows moved, and ravens called, their hoarse cries echoing through the hallway, amplifying up until Clint’s hearing rang with their noise.
He was no longer alone.
Dead, but not dead they stood before him, veiled only by a thin sheet of mist between them. They were dressed as they were when they fell, SHIELD uniforms perfect and unmarred. Their faces were calm and solemn as they regarded him with their not dead eyes. Every face there was one from his file, every name one he recited in his head before he slept.
Those who died because of him.
Finally being here in front of his victims stole all his pretty words from his tongue. Gone was the snark, gone was the backtalk. Everything that made Clint, Clint, everything that he had thrown up as a barrier against his violation was stripped away in the murky halls, laid bare before these spectres that did not judge him, although they should.
One moved. It was Cody, from the range, a familiar face, someone he had thought of a friend. Someone he had killed. As if he could hear Clint’s thoughts, Cody shook his head.
“Well, this is a bit of a fuck-up, isn’t it?” he said simply.
His voice wasn’t any different. He didn’t look any different. And he still spoke with that same understatement that he always had.
Something came loose in Clint then, something that he tried to keep tight hold of. It was not manly to cry, it was not proper behaviour for a proper man. But at the familiar teasing banter, the blockage came lose, yanked away by the prevalent mists, and Clint fell to his knees, speaking out his words, his begging in a torrent. His chest heaved with sobs, but his eyes remained dry as he begged these spectres for their understanding, for their forgiveness. Any penance they would name, he would do, to take the memories of their broken faces from his imagination.
Slowly, they closed ranks around him, falling to their knees in a circle, hands reaching out. Dead flesh touched living flesh, soft words and soft hands joined together.
Perhaps now there was a little less red.
Chapter 4: Tony
He hasn't always been the most confident of men. But time and experience have shown Tony Stark that confidence and arrogance get you places nine times out of ten. His mask is only a half mask, natural exuberance turned up to eleven.
So when he awakes in a strange place, rather than shrink back, he chose to step boldly forward.
It was a dreary place, all grey and cobwebby. It really could have done with a splash of colour. In between strides, he found himself in the Iron Man suit, red and gold gleaming under their own private spotlight.
A woman laughed. “My compliments, Mr Stark. There are not many who understand how to change the form of the soul, here in my realm.”
“Seemed easy enough,” Tony said casually, as the faceplate of the armour retracted.
As he got a proper view, he almost brought his repulsors up out of reflex. She was fair and foul, a half beautiful zombie with haunting, ancient eyes. He knew his myths. He had actually looked them up to refresh his memory in other to tease Thor.
“Hel Lokisdottir,” he said.
There were two reason he had not attacked. One was that he felt unthreatened by her .He was used to judging people, to analysing them. She was dangerous, but not to him. The second reason was because Thor was standing behind her, giving a demonstration of hammer throwing. Steve looked interested, while Clint was thoughtful.
How Tony hadn't seen then before though, was the qustion.
“Distance is what I choose it to be, iron-souled one,” Hel said. Tony had either spoke aloud, or she had read his mind.
“So, what's with the party? Normally I'm good with any parties, but your décor really isn't that festive. No offence.”
“None was taken,” and Hel sounded amused. “You are invited here for the same reason as your comrades in arms. To choose one of the dead to speak with, as a thank you for your deeds.”
Tony opened his mouth.
“Don't ask about Agent Coulson,” Steve said, and Tony promptly closed his mouth again.
“Turns out he's not as dead as we all thought,” Clint added.
Tony considered this. Bar Coulson, there was no-one who sprang straight to his mind. As much as he would have liked to see Yinsen again, it would just dig up old woulds that Tony wasn't ready for.
At the thought of old wounds, another name sprang to his mind. Someone to whom Tony had been nothing but a disappointment, someone who had been cold and distant.
At least until Tony had seen that video recording.
“Does everyone have to watch these reunions?” he asked Hel.
“There will be only you, and whoever you choose,” Hel assured him.
Tony leaned in close.
“Howard Stark,” he whispered.
Then he was falling down and down into seething fog. His feet remained firmly anchored to the ground, but still he fell. Nowhere was up or down, left and right were vague concepts. Fog was all about him.
Finally, everything was still again. Tony gathered himself, checking the readouts.
Through the still opened faceplate, he saw a light in the distance, diffuse and wavering. Without conscious thought, he found himself in his old wife-beater again, and many pocketed khakis.
It was strange watching the light slowly starting to take on a human form. This wasn't the Howard that he remembered, the old and neglectful father. This was the young, exuberant man, top of his field, with his whole life stretching out before him. No cares, no worries.
He reminded Tony of himself. The family resemblance was there, nearly eerie. Tony had not seen it, had not wanted to see it in the older man, but there was no denying it in the younger.
Howard stopped about a metre from Tony, face set into severe lines, eyes seeming to be unable to see through the light mist. Then suddenly, his face lit up.
Tony watched in some confusion and astonishment as Howard wavered like a mirage, his father appearing, eyes crinkled at the edges, mouth curving into a totally unaffected smile.
“Well, this is new,” Tony said. “Grinning like a loon is different. I was expecting the usual disappointment.”
Howard actually flinched. He had apparently settled on his old and familiar form.
“I mean, why would you stop now, just because you're dead.”
There was something quite cathartic, almost pleasurable about letting the bitterness trip off his tongue. There was a peculiar power in seeing the look in Howards eyes, at finally getting to say everything the child had wanted to say.
“I mean, I found your message. 'Your greatest creation'. Even when trying to be nice, it was still all about you.”
Howard met his eyes straight on. Tony considered what to throw at Howard next, what else to get off his chest, when the other man spoke.
“I am so very proud of you, Tony.”
Tony's train of thought was momentarily derailed. His mouth hung open a little as he looked at his father. Howard actually sounded sincere, sounded like he meant it. That was unusual.
Tony took the last step that covered the distance between them, and poked his father's chest with one finger.
“I'm real, son,” Howard said, with a faint echo of Tony's own smirk on his face.
Tony stepped back and folded his arms.
“Howard never called me 'son'. Who are you, and why did Hel think I had to talk to you?”
“When I was alive, I never really thought about dying. Death was something that happened to other people, not to Howard Stark. I never thought about the afterlife, of what would happen. I never considered that I had a soul,” the maybe Howard began.
Tony wasn't certain whether he should encourage the imposter to get to the point.
“There aren't the words in any tongue to describe what happens. Everything that makes you who you thought you were gets stripped away. Like peeling an onion, layer after layer gets ripped away. You live your life again, seeing everything as it was. Every victory, every mistake, every triumph, every failure. And nothing hurt more than seeing how I failed you, son.”
“There you go with the 'son', again.”
“In the Halls of the Dead, we have nothing but time. We are dead, but we can still change. And having your life dissected encourages change.”
“You still haven't told me who you are, yet,” Tony pointed out.
“I should have called you son. I should have shown you how much you were loved, how much I cared about you.”
“Now I really know that you're not my father. Seriously, is this Hel's idea of a practical joke? Because if it is, her sense of humour sucks.”
“Anthony Edward Stark, will you stop trying to be funny, and listen to me,” and there was that familiar note of authority, but underneath it, was that pain?
“Well, you've got the growl down right. So, if you are Howard, tell me something only you and I would know.”
The maybe Howard thought about this, and Tony tried not to bite his lip at the expression. That was the look of a man deep in thought, that was the look of the man that was not to be disturbed. That was Father, who was busy saving the country, and didn't have time to be bothered by a little boy.
“You were four. Maria was away with friends, and your nanny was ill. You had a nightmare. Even at four, you didn't want to come to me. You were curled up in your bed, head buried in your pillow, trying not to cry too loudly.”
As Howard spoke, Tony could almost see it again. The wind howling outside his bedroom window, the remainders of the monsters clouding his mind. The soft feel of the pillow against his face, and the rub of the quilt on his back. He had shivered and tried not to cry, acutely aware of the man just down the hallway.
A light had flicked on underneath the door, and Tony had scrunched down further into his bed, pressing his face fully into his pillow. Footsteps down the hall, getting louder and louder, and then the squeak of the hinge on his bedroom door.
Tony had held his breath, stiff and solid beneath the covers, trying to pretend that he wasn't there, that he had never been there.
“I was angry at being woken up, and I only checked to make sure that you were quiet. There was an important meeting in the morning, and I knew that I needed my sleep. If I had been any sort of decent father, I would have come into you, but I didn't. I left, and let you lie awake.”
There was regret in Howard's voice. There was pain. And this was Howard, Tony was now sure. Tony had never told anyone about his nightmares, and Howard was never the sort of man to talk about his child with anyone.
But there was something that Howard had said there, that was making his curiosity itch. Beneath the anger, the spark that made him try to build a A.I into a toaster, was stretching.
“You had a meeting? Ob...Stane said that you had drinking,” and Tony has to remember to censor the affectionate nickname. Assholes that try to kill him don't deserve any form of affection.
“Son of a bitch,” Howard cursed under his breath. That spark was expanding further, highlighting Stane's actions, and contrasting them with Howards actual behaviour.
“I can't blame Stane, as much as I might want to,” Howard said. “He did his part, but if I had been any sort of father at all, he wouldn't have got the chance. If I had just tried to see you as my son, instead of as this little toddler, something, someone that couldn't understand me.”
Irrationally, Tony was angry. Tony would have given his right arm to have his father actually be a father, be a Dad. Instead, Tony was stuck with Stane, who would eventually try to kill him. For father figures, Tony was doing badly.
“So, what now? Am I supposed to fall into your arms and burst into tears? Are we meant to have a Hallmark moment?” he asked, finding refuge in his sharp tongue.
Howard ignored him, which was nothing new. “You are your greatest creation, son. I realise now, far too late, just how things must have seemed to you. It doesn't matter that I couldn't stop boasting about you at work. It doesn't matter now that I bragged about every little thing that you did. It doesn't matter that I was proud to be your father. All that matters is that I failed you.”
The information struck Tony like a hammer blow. His harsh words dissolved on the edge of his tongue, and he felt numb. That familiar face opposite him was creased with distress and pain. This was not the stoic father, this was not Howard. This was Dad, this was Father, this was the man that Tony had wished for, had dreamed of.
This was his father, naked and vulnerable. This was his father standing before him, admitting his mistakes. This was Dad, finally telling Tony what he had wanted to hear, all down the long years.
“I'm so sorry,” and Howard's voice broke, as his eyes started to glisten. “I thought that I had all the time in the world to spend with you. When you got a little older, when we could talk, man to man. You were so bright, so brilliant, and I was so proud of you. I kept a scrapbook of everything that you did, every award that you won.”
Howards words were tumbling out over each other as Tony stood there numb and unresponsive. Bright tears were gathering now in the older mans eyes, threatening to spill over.
“I should have been there for you. I wanted, needed to talk to you, to apologise. I can't ask you to forgive me, I can't even forgive myself. But I needed, wanted to tell you how proud I am to be able to call you my son. Iron Man! Tony Stark of Stark International! A member of the Avengers! And you did it all yourself. You did everything yourself.”
There was no space between them. It seemed like the easiest thing in the world to extend his arms, and wrap them around his father. It felt awkward, it felt wrong.
Until, suddenly, it didn't. It felt right.
Paper masks tore, mental walls began to crumble and fall.
It wasn't a happy ending. It wasn't the fairytale of forgiveness.
But it was a beginning.
I want to give full credit to this thread at AvengerKink, for giving me a headcanon for Tony and Howard Stark.
Chapter 5: Natasha
I borrowed bits and pieces of Natasha's background from the comics (as read on the Marvel Wikipedia). To the best of my knowledge, her father is never specifically named, so he's an Original Character (ish)
The voices called to her. They sighed her name, a name that she had tried to cast aside with the remnants of her brainwashing in the Red Room.
Something within in her stirred though at the name. Her core, before she knew what strength was, before pain, before pleasure. When she had been young and innocent. A childs name, a childs memories.
Natasha had not been a child for a very long time.
It was snowing outside the window. A thich white curtain that blotted everything out, closing her in. She felt safe and warm, caught between the fire and the ice, dancing across a knife edge of memories. Tonight, as the voices called, there was no soot in the air, no ash on her tongue, no arms carrying her into the snow.
It was a memory, and not a memory. Instead of the warm flannel nightgown, worn and well washed, she was in uniform. Instead of little Zaychek in the crook of her arm with his floppy ears patched with black thread, there was a holster for a knife.
Reality and unreality clashed in Natasha's mind as she uncurled from the window seat, stretching gracefully.
There were worse places in her memory for a visit. Here she was Natalia Alianovna Romanova, safe in her own room before the screams and the burning. The voices whispered again, one rising clear and strong above the others. She still couldn't make out the words, but she knew the tone oh so very well. How many nights had she lain on the edge of sleep, hearing that rumbling baritone, soothing her.
Natasha found herself moving across her old bedroom floor, slow and stealthy. She moved like a child scared to be caught out of bed, like an assassin creeping towards a sleeping mark.
She was the Black Widow, and the night belonged to her.
Step by cautious step she crossed the old wooden floorboards, easing open the door just enough to slip through. The voice was louder now, words just on the edge of being recognisable. The rough carpet rasped against her boots as she slowly crept down the stairs.
The kitchen was full of light, spilling out of the doorway and into the hall. Natasha slid from candle shadow to shadow till she could peer around and into the room.
Ilya Romanova was a bear of a man. Broad shouldered, he was tall, a towering giant, a mountain. But his heart was gentle and her inner child ached to see him cradling her cuddly rabbit.
Smoke obscured her vision and sparks burned on her cheeks. Pained, despairing screams echoed in her ears. Ash and snow clotted in her chest, and only the frame under her grasping fingers kept her anchored.
Splinters under the skin drew her back into herself, back into this memory that wasn't a memory.
Alive and while, her father sat in the kitchen, unburnt and unbroken. He smiled at her, rising from the heirloom chair before the stove. His arms were as gentle as ever, cradling her like a precious flower as she flung herself into his chest.
What use were words? Her trembling body spoke enough, long leashed tears soaking into his shirt. His hands brought comfort, marking out smooth and reassuring circles on her back. She could stand for an eternity like this, caught forever as a child, as an adult. She was Natasha, Natalia, herself.
The hug had to end as the tears dried. Reality was unreality and explanations would be nice. Tension flared in her spine. Ilya couldn't miss it. With a thump, he sat down back into the chair, puling Natasha down with him. She twisted to adjust herself, sitting on his lap, leaning against his chest. It could have, should have felt awkward, but it felt the same as it had done when she was a child.
Where no-one had sat before, across the table sat a young woman. With her rabbit in her hands, Natasha simply smiled.
“This is not a memory, though it is drawn from your past,” the woman said. “You brought my father down, and I owe you thanks. Of all the dead, your soul sought your father. You are real, he is real. You are alive, he walks among the dead. But you are together again now for this short span of time. Use it wisely.”
The Black Widow would have asked questions, demanded answers, frittered away every precious second.
Natasha Romanoff would study every angle for a trap, a snare, and lose nearly everything.
Natalia Romanova was simply content to be close to her Papa again. Stalingrad had not been attacked, her home had not been burnt to ashes, along with her family. That was then, and this was now.
“I love you, Papa,” she whispered contentedly.
“My Natalia,” and he pressed a gentle kiss to the top of her head.
Love was for children.
Chapter 6: Bruce
The first thing he realised was that he couldn't feel the Other Guy. There was no seething anger beneath the surface, nothing waiting to wash the world in virulent green. For the first time in years, Dr Bruce Banner was alone in his skull.
It was both pleasant and alarming. No Other Guy meant no more worries about his temper, no more worries about hurting those he cared about, no more fears if he lost control. It was everything that he wanted. But where was the Other Guy? Was this separation real or just a cruel dream? Was this some new trick of Loki's?
“He is a manifestation of your mind,” a female voice said kindly. “Here, it is only your soul that walks. Your mind, and your other half, sleeps.”
“She knows what she's talking about, big guy,” Tony spoke, appearing to his left.
“Welcome to the party, Banner,” and Clint came in from the right.
“Are you trying to terrorise him?” Steve asked mildly from behind.
Bruce kept turning his head as one by one, his team-mates appeared. They were not there, and then they had always been there. Bruce also suspected Natasha of lurking near the ceiling.
Thor stepped out to the front, escorting a woman whose appearance made the scientist in Bruce itch. The woman spoke again.
“Of all those who no longer walk the world of Midgard, who would you choose to speak with again, if a choice was to be made.”
“Coulson lives,” came Natasha's voices, and Bruce felt a touch of pride and amusement. Ceiling, called it.
It was an easy question to answer though.
“My mother,” he said simply. “Why?”
“Lady Hel is offering a gift, a chance to speak with your past,” Thor said.
It wasn't hard for Bruce to realise that he was the last, there was a sense that all the others had already done their confrontations.
Bruce wasn't interested in a confrontation, but judging by the look on Thors face as the silence stretched out, something was going wrong.
Hel was frowning now, her mouth framing odd shapes as she spoke to someone only she could see.
Tony came in from the side, and wrapped one arm around Bruce's shoulder.
“So, your mom. Nice lady?”
“Is there no privacy for this meeting?” Bruce asked instead of answering.
“None shall be present save thee and thy mother,” Thor assured him.
“You can't just leave us in peace, can you, you little monster?” snarled a voice that Bruce thought he had left in his past. Hel raised a hand, but Bruce shook his head.
“Hello, Dad,” he said calmly. Underneath the calmness, he could feel his own anger coiling. There was no fear here of loosening his control a little.
“Your father answers Hel's call?” Thor asked.
“Dad is...was, a controlling man,” Bruce explained. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that things would go wrong for him. His whole life had been spent reeling from bad event to bad events, from a very young age. Just because he was temporarily free of the Other Guy, it didn't mean that things were going to go well.
But Bruce was not the frightened and angry child that he had been.
Behind Thor now was the familiar form of Dr Brian David Banner, long dead, unchanged even down to the black scowl on his face. Behind him a light flickered and danced nervously, only rarely coming together with the face of Rebecca Banner.
Hel turned. “You have no place here,” she said sternly. “You were unsummoned.”
She was ignored as Brian Banner brushed rudely past Thor, and stood up close to Bruce, still scowling. Bruce found himself slightly amused to note that now he was taller than his father now.
There was many things that Bruce knew he should be feeling at the moment. He should be feeling mortified that his new friends were seeing this. He should be ashamed, all the old pus boiling to the surface, ashamed of being a monster, of being a disappointment to his father. He should be running, fearful.
But he is not the child that he was. He is not even the man that was fleeing for his life. In a short span of time he has found friends, allies, people that he thinks he might just be able to trust. And they don't care about the Other Guy, they accept him, despite that. Even because of it.
And finally, here in this realm of the dead, he can see his father for what he really is. A bully.
“Why couldn't you just stay away from us?” Brian asked sharply, venom in his tone. “You should have been strangled at birth, you little freak!”
Bruce might not have the strength of his passenger, but he knows how to throw a punch. It is a beautiful, textbook right hook, catching his fathers left cheek.
“Shut. Up.” Bruce said calmly, firmly, even as Brian staggered back into the wall that was Thor.
“You're dead. Long dead and turned to dust, a corpse fit for nothing but wormfood,” and Bruce is impressed by the spite in his own voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Clint looking approvingly on, and Tony with a mixture of pain and pride. Yes, those would be the two to approve.
“You wanted something impossible, you wanted something that you could control. And when nothing I did lived up to your expectations, you chose to blame me, rather than yourself. And believe me, the blame was all on you.”
How many nights did he rehearse this speech, how many times did he wonder just what he would say if he had to face his father again? But all the anger and hatred was for nothing, just so long as the Other Guy rode between his ears. Bruce could not and would not endanger anyone by letting his emotions get the better of him. But in this time, and this place, Bruce could finally let himself go.
Brian struggled against the iron grip of Thor, his face purpling with rage, his mouth forming shapes, but with only an inarticulate spluttering sound emerging.
“You abused me, you abused my mother, and you hid things so well that everyone thought you were a model citizen. A little crazy about your experiments, but never an abuser. And you made us think that it was our fault, made us believe that you really just wanted the best for us. Or you threatened me, in order to keep mom in line. You really are a piece of shit.”
Night after night he had scoured through his childhood, trying to find excuses, reasons for his fathers behaviour. After all, he had the Other Guy, he really was a monster, his father wasn't wrong. But, as it turned out, his father was oh so very wrong.
“Your sperm may have created me, but I am not your son,” Bruce said finally. “You are nothing, even here in the realm of the dead. Go away, Brian. There's nothing more I have to say to you.”
Hel smiled coldly, and the ground trembled.
“He has come unsummoned, but he is a shade of your past,” she addressed Bruce. “He comes to your soul-light. I could dispatch him back into the depths of the hall, but I ask your permission to send him a little deeper. There he may reflect for eternity on what he has done, alone.”
Bruce nodded. He considered turning his back, but he wanted to see this. Not out of an inate sense of cruelty, but of a desire to see the thing finished.
Hel looked to Thor, who released his grip on Brian, and stepped back. He hefted Mjolnir from his belt.
The form of his father shattered after the first blow, leaving only the dancing, flickering cloud that was his soul at its base form. The second blow tattered the cloud, tearing away pieces and sending them screaming into the misty darkness. The third blow blew away all that remained, until there was nothing left.
It was fitting, thought Bruce, as he watched his mother materialise, and opened his arms to her.
No more monsters.
Well, that's that! (well, apart from the epilogue that is itching at my fingertips). Thank you to everyone who has commented, or left kudos, it means a lot to me that so many people like that I've written, and it was great encouragement when the plot bunnies were being awkward.
To the prompter on AvengerKink, thank you for coming up with something wonderful, and I hope that you like what's come of it.
Chapter 7: Fury
In their celebrations, Hel had slipped away unnoticed. The euphoria of closing their past at least in part had engulfed them, and she knew that the Avengers did not need her. Yes, they would have gladly accepted her presence as the facilitator, the instigator, but she was still Loki's daughter. And while her father was still fettered by madness not of his making, she had no stomach for celebrations.
She had not been entirely truthful when speaking of the one they all spoke of, the man named Coulson. This was a name that she had not known, but she had seen his soul fluttering through the realms, and an unreadable name fading in and out in the Book of the Dead. His soul was ever stuck, rising and falling, failing or growing stronger. It had puzzled her, and intrigued her. Now Hel had her answers. She could feel the pull of the soul, caught on the cusp of life or death. It was not difficult to follow, to let herself dissolve and fade after it. It was not hard to travel the realms following one iridescent thread to Midgard.
Hel was not ignorant of Midgard, and knew that this Coulson would be under the care of healers, struggling to keep life within him. His souls trail led to a white enclosed room, no windows and only a single occupied chair beside the bed.
Coulson was an unremarkable man, a pale shadow of a man that would be forgettable even when awake and vibrant. She supposed this was useful to him. He lay in the bed, vulnerable and young seeming, wrapped in hospital white. A looming shadow filled the chair, dark and brooding with a soul that screamed fury. His single eye was fixed on the rhythmic rising and falling of Coulsons chest and in that moment the man reminded her of grandfather Odin.
Insubstantial as she was, invisible and unseen, she could feel his presence and power. She slowly allowed herself to become visible and the room sprang into focus. All her attention though was focused on the end of the gun barrel that was aimed straight at her, and the odd feeling of dislocation in her heart.
She had barely seen the man move as he had come out of the chair and turned in one fluid motion. She was insubstantial, unable to be hurt, but her pulse pounded in her ears. The bullet had passed straight through her insubstantial heart, setting the smoke of her being to warping and dancing.
Slowly, she lifted her hands a little from her sides and spread her fingers, catching her breath as her substance began to settle again.
“I am unarmed and come in peace,” she said, turning to present her fair side to him.
Fury said nothing.
“You watch over him?”
Fury's eye did not flicker to the bed, but remained focused on her.
“Please?” she tried. There was nothing. She sighed.
“Would that I had brought Thor with me to vouch for my sincerity,” she said. “But I will fill the silence nevertheless, even if you remain silent.”
Hel watched Fury's face. He was truly implacable as he stared at her, defending his friend.
“I am Hel, daughter of Loki, and I owe you a debt of thanks for your actions towards my father. Maybe now his madness will be cured. Those you name the Avengers have spoken highly of this Coulson, this martyred warrior that fell to my fathers twisted schemes. They thought him dead.”
Fury barely moved, barely tensed, but he was listening closely now, Hel was sure of it, where before he was merely tolerant.
“They sought him in the realm of the dead, in my home, Helheim. He was not there to be found, and they knew that he yet lives. And thus is my gift to you, the man who my uncle says lives only for the present and the future. A warning. The Avengers know that the son of Coul lives, and they are displeased at your lies.”
He did not say anything, his features carved of stone. She wondered why she expected something from him, but she still bows her head in respect. Feeling the pull of her home, she began to let herself fade out of the mortal world again.
Caught between seen and unseen, she saw Fury shift.
“There were no lies,” he said quietly, still watching her.
She halted in her transit, waiting.
“He died on the floor in front of me. The medics barely managed to get his heart started again, through the trauma.”
Hel came back to visible and watched as Fury lowered the gun and holstered it, tension draining away from his stance. He looked away from her for the first time, and to the bed.
“Why tell me?” she asked him quietly.
“Someone needs to know the truth of it.”
“Why not tell the Avengers, surely they would welcome the tale?”
Hel saw the glitter of calculation in the single eye of Fury before it vanished behind a mask that she couldn't identify. She let herself become borderline solid in the room, fair and foul both. Fury did not offer her the chair, and so she settled for leaning against the wall, ignoring the coldness that tried to seep into her nearly substantial flesh.
“They needed a push. They needed something to pull them together, to make them the team that we needed. Coulson would have been the first one to suggest using his apparent death as that catalyst,” Fury said, and sank back down into the seat beside the bed, and watched her again.
Hel considered her words carefully. “That would seem cruel.”
“Crueller than giving them hope that could be taken away again?” he countered. “He died again on the operating table.”
“And though he lies healing, there is still that chance that he may yet fade away to my realm, correct?”
That made a kind of sense to Hel. She had seen the proof of the soul caught on the cusp, and even now could sense it approaching her realm only to be pulled back again by the healing flesh.
“Will you tell them this when they seek you out?” she asked.
Fury stared at her for a moment, before answering. “No,” he said simply.
“I do not understand,” she replied.
“You don't need to. Just understand this, Hel, daughter of Loki. I do what I have to do to protect the people. The Avengers are part of that protection.”
“You do what you have to do,” she repeated softly. “I do not understand now, but perhaps, in time, I will. I have done what I came to do, and I thank you for the courtesy of your explanation. Not a word will I say to the Avengers of this meeting between us, or of the words you have given to me.”
He said nothing more as Hel let herself go and vanished back to her own realm.
Later, she would hear back from her uncle, hear the story of how the man of iron had tracked down the son of Coul where he lay in grievous pain. How the archer had tried to strike the man of Fury but had been blocked by the doctor. How America's Captain and himself had surrounded the son of Coul and vowed their protection. How the Black Widow had warned them that now they could not trust SHIELD to have their interests at heart.
And Hel had smiled silently inside, half distracted while listening, as she felt the soul of Coulson finally stop its wandering journey and sink back into the flesh that housed it.
This time it really is the end :D