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Damaged Defenders

Chapter Text

Tony

A/N: I own nothing at all to do with Marvel, the Avengers or the X-Men. Please don't sue.

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"Yeah, no. Bad idea! He loves his ... " Tony started to warn Rogers, only to get cut off by a slam from said hammer that sent him flying. He hit hard enough to rattle his brain in his skull, and it took him a second to clear his vision. What he saw horrified him. Thor was high in the air, hammer swinging, clearly intending to make Rogers a smear in the dirt.

Frantic calculations raced through his mind. He knew vibranium was tough, but Thor's hammer was something else entirely, and Tony had no idea if the shield would survive the blow. He started to lift one hand, trying to track Thor's arc, hoping to cut him off, but the suit was malfunctioning, the power fizzing and sparking unpredictably thanks to that lightning strike earlier. He'd upgraded the suit to deal with energy attacks after Vanko, which was why the suit was still functioning at all, but absorbing and then using that much energy had overstressed some of the systems. In the end, all Tony could do was close his eyes, unwilling to watch as Captain America very probably got smeared into the dirt.

The noise when hammer and shield met defied all description. Tony was fairly sure that if the suit's speakers hadn't cut out as they'd been designed to do if sound got past certain decibels, he'd've gone at least temporarily deaf. The shockwave was strong enough to roll him over, which was more than a little alarming.

The devastation to the surrounding forest when he opened his eyes was breathtaking. Everything in a several-hundred-feet radius had not just been flattened, but also destroyed. Huge old trees had been turned into so many toothpicks and kindling, and the smaller trees and underbrush had simply ceased to exist entirely.

Stunningly, Rogers was not only alive, but apparently unharmed, standing there as calm as you please. Tony stared at him for a moment, a bit dumbfounded.

"Jarvis, do me a favor and scan Rogers, would you?"

"Captain Rogers is entirely unharmed." Jarvis said after a moment.

"Holy shit. That's some shield." Tony breathed as he struggled to his feet, fighting against sluggish joints.

He walked over to the two, braced to hit Thor again if he tried something, but Thor seemed to be as dumbfounded as Tony was. As Rogers was, Tony realized when he got close enough to get a good look at Rogers' eyes.

"Are we done here?" Rogers tried for an authoritative tone, but it came much closer to sounding hopeful.

They were silent a moment longer before Tony had to speak up. "Yeah, I'm definitely done." he said.

Thor gave his head a bit of a shake. "My apologies. I should not have behaved so rashly." he said after a moment. Then he grimaced a bit. "Or so arrogantly. I must collect Loki before he takes advantage of our distraction and departs."

"We need him." Tony said, still braced for a resumption of the fight. "He knows where the Tesseract is. Once he gives it up, you can hang him from a flagpole for all I care, but until then ... "

To his surprise, this time Thor just nodded. "Fair enough, as I must have access to the Tesseract in order to return to Asgard."

"At least we have someplace for the jet to land." Rogers said, eyeing their surroundings.

Tony laughed. "Don't need it. Thor flies, I fly. He carries Loki, I take you."

Rogers didn't look too thrilled by the idea, but eventually agreed to it. It would be easier than the inevitable hassle of landing the jet in a small, clear area at night. A clear area that was covered in rubble, that was.

Thor headed up to the rocks where Loki had settled in to watch the fight. Tony hesitated long enough to mentally compute the best way to get Rogers back up to the plane.

"Rogers, stand behind me and grab my shoulders or my waist, one of the two. I need both hands free." Tony couldn't wait until the suit with the jet pack was finished. Sometimes, needing both hands to fly was a real hassle. Once Steve got in position, Tony switched over to the frequency Romanov was using. "Agent Romanov. We've got Loki back, and are heading up to you." he told her.

"Copy that. We're circling directly over that new clearing you boys made." she told him.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Blame that on Capsicle and Hammer Boy, not me." he told her, before cutting back to Rogers. "Hang on tight, we're heading up."

It was the effort of only a few moments to fly back up to the jet. Tony made a few mental notes, because if the Avengers were actually going to be a thing, carrying someone might become a regular occurrence, and he'd need to make some adjustments to the suit accordingly.

Tony nearly cracked up when Thor solved the problem of ensuring that Loki didn't escape by plonking his hammer in the crazed god's lap. But then things got a bit weird.

Thor had seemed casual enough when he plonked Mjolnir in Loki's lap, but then he suddenly got right in Loki's face. He frowned before reaching out to rub a thumb under one of Loki's eyes.

Tony decided to speak up. "Problem, Thor?"

"I believe so, yes." Thor said, pulling back from Loki. "Loki's eyes are blue. Last I saw him, they were green." He frowned at Loki. "My brother's skill at illusions is great, but they are dispelled by touch. His eyes did not change when I rubbed under his eye."

Rogers frowned. "You think something odd's going on?"

"It is possible. I know not what, precisely, but something is amiss. Now I think on it, his speech to me makes no sense. Either he was deliberately misremembering events or ... "

"Or something's going on." Rogers filled in.

"Nothing to say, Reindeer Games?" Tony asked, having noticed that Loki had stayed silent while they talked it over.

Loki just smirked at him like this was the world's greatest game, and continued to say nothing.

Which made Thor frown even more heavily. "Nay, this is not my brother's normal behavior." he said. "He has ever been one to use words as weapons. Silence is most unlike him."

"We'll figure it out, Thor." Tony told him.

"Could it be mind control of some sort? He managed to subvert two of ours, according to Director Fury. With that stick of his." Romanov finally piped in from the cockpit.

That made Tony turn to look at Loki's glowstick. "He have that before?" he asked Thor.

Thor shook his head.

"Which means he either built it or someone gave it to him." Tony said, mind whirring. "Could he have made it?"

Thor shook his head again. "I do not believe so. Loki's strength lies in trickery and magic, not weapon crafting. There are few in our realm who would have the gift to make such a weapon."

"Which means it was probably given to him." Tony said.

Unfortunately there really wasn't time to hash it out more, as they were approaching the helicarrier. Tony broke off from the rest of them to head for his armor vault and the robots that assembled and removed the armor.

From there, he headed to the bridge. He didn't trust Fury as far as he could throw the bastard. Tony had not forgotten, nor forgiven, the fact that Fury had damn well had a way to extend his lifespan. Fury'd had that crap he had Romanov stab Tony with long before he had Romanov stab him. And had also had the key to Tony's ultimate survival in his hands and had not seen fit to hand it over until Tony was at death's door. Then the bastard had had the gall to break into his house and disable Jarvis.

Tony had pretended to make nice, had pretended to want to play with the big boys. Thankfully, Fury seemed to have forgotten he was dealing with the man who had built an armored, flying suit and *destroyed* the people who had fucked with him. Fury's arrogance was going to be the bastard's downfall. The best part of it was that Fury was handing Tony the means to bring him down on a golden platter.

He was handing Tony the Avengers. And the best part was, if he knew Fury at all, Tony wouldn't actually have to do a damn thing to turn them against Fury. Fury'd do it all on his own, somehow. Tony just hoped that Jarvis got a recording of Fury's reaction when he realized what had happened.

Tony blew onto the bridge, his 'I am an extremely eccentric billionaire' mask firmly in place. It was the work of mere moments to get Jarvis' uplink into the helicarrier's computer in place without anyone the wiser.

He headed for the conference room, only to run into Coulson along the way. His opinion on the man was ... somewhat divided. On the one hand, Coulson had threatened to taze him. On the other, the man had then promptly left Tony the hell alone, and turned a blind eye to Tony leaving the mansion against 'orders'. He had also helped Pepper, back during the Stane thing, which earned the man a lot of points with Tony. It helped that Pepper liked him, and Tony trusted her judgment. So he was willing to play nicely until Coulson either fucked up or stood up to Fury, one of the two.

The first person in the room he headed for was Banner. He'd put Jarvis on not only finding Betty, but also on digging up every scrap of dirt on her old man that Jarvis could find. When things settled down, Tony fully intended to get the woman out of harm's way at the very least. Hire her, if he could manage it. She was every bit as bright as Bruce was, and quite frankly her brilliance was being wasted on the Army projects she was 'permitted' (read: forced, probably) to work on.

He intended to give Bruce his protection as well. Sometimes, being him was a godsend. There really weren't all that many people who were stupid enough to try to cross him, and Bruce would finally be safe under Tony's protection.

Internally, Tony fumed, because Bruce was standing well away from everyone else, and even World War Two's Golden Boy was making no effort to reach out or include the man. It was a petty retaliation, but Tony completely ignored everyone else while he talked science with Bruce. Only when they'd wrapped up their discussion of how the portal could be opened and controlled did he deign to turn his attention to everyone else at the table.

"We need to lock that spear thing somewhere safe." Rogers finally said. "Agent Romanov said something about Loki using it to control two of your people?" He looked over at Fury.

Fury looked very, very sour about admitting that it was the truth.

"If it can do that, we need to be cautious of what else the thing can do." Rogers said. "And the less anyone is around it, the better."

"We need to scan it to make sure we've got the scanners calibrated right, and to have a shot at figuring out how to unscramble the folks that are being controlled, but that won't take more than about five minutes." Tony said. "After that, you can bury the thing wherever." He turned to Bruce, and grinned broadly, impishly. "Shall we, my good doctor?" he asked, holding out one arm like he was going to escort a woman into a party.

Bruce gave him an amused look, and to Tony's surprise, actually went with it, mostly. "We should. Follow me, if you would, good sir." Bruce grinned at Tony, then turned and led the way to the lab he'd been given to use.

Tony dropped his arm with a mock-pout, but headed out right on Bruce's heels.

Chapter Text

Bruce and Thor

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

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Bruce had always known he'd been living free on borrowed time. He'd always known someone would try to nab him ... again. So he'd barely even blinked at Romanov's appearance. He'd even expected to be lied to and double crossed, so the existence of the squad of men hadn't been anything like a surprise.

But just because he'd expected it didn't mean the other guy hadn't been growling, grumbling, and itching to get out more than usual ever since Romanov showed up. It was taking every calming technique Bruce knew to keep the other guy from breaking free, just from the sheer stress of the situation, never mind the fact he felt about as safe as a mouse at a rodent hunter's convention.

He weathered the suspicious, wary standoffishness of everyone around him and their tendency to reach for their weapons when he got too close, or looked anything but meek. It was nothing more than what he'd come to expect from people who knew what he really was, and what the other guy was capable of.

Which had made Tony Stark so startling.

The man had breezed into the room like he hadn't a care in the world. He'd cozied right up to Bruce, chattering happily and without so much as the faintest hint of hesitance, never mind fear. If it hadn't been for the 'rage monster' comment, Bruce would have wondered if Tony knew about the other guy, to be so nonchalant. Now, he was just wondering about the man's sanity. And trying not to ache for Betty too much, because Tony was reminding him a lot of her.

Even though he'd been at the back end of nowhere for the last couple years, he knew of Tony, and the changes Tony had made in his company. He'd expected the man to be eccentric and pretty much a waste of air, that someone in the company had actually been the one to build the things Stark Industries churned out and Tony was just taking credit for it. Tony was anything but that. Bruce, for the first time, found himself struggling to keep up with someone else's intellect. And he adored every minute of it.

More interestingly, the other guy had begun to back off a bit. Bruce wasn't sure if it was the fact Tony reminded him so much of Betty that was doing it, or what, but the other guy was clearly not tracking Tony as a threat. Not even the poke in the side made the other guy get restless.

They spent a companionable half-hour or so scanning the stick, then calibrating to search for the Tesseract. At that point, Tony started monkeying around with the helicarrier's computer system, clearly searching for something even as they talked.

Inevitably, the other guy came up in conversation. Bruce found himself admitting to something he'd never really told anyone, even Betty: how raw and exposed he felt had always been his secret. She'd known he didn't like it, of course, but she hadn't known the full extent.

Tony's attempt to convince him that the other guy could be a good thing had been ... unexpectedly touching. He'd heard that sort of argument before, of course, but never from the angle that Tony approached it from. Bruce had only really ever heard about how the other guy could be an asset to the military if properly ... focused. Bruce didn't really believe Tony was right, but it was nice to hear.

Steve stopped by right about the time Tony poked him and Bruce sighed mentally at Steve's immediate concern. For God's sake, he was not that fragile. If he was, he'd never have come anywhere near this place except in chains. Which would have been an epically bad idea on the part of anyone trying to get him into chains.

Tony didn't seem to like Steve very much, which made Bruce wonder what the deal was there. At any rate, Tony managed to chase Steve out, and they went back to their work.

They were interrupted again shortly after that by Fury, who was ... displeased ... that Tony had somehow hacked into the helicarrier's computers. Steve showed up about the same time, carrying a big, awkward looking gun, and there was a bit of an angry discussion before Fury turned and stalked out. Steve gave them both considering looks, then nodded and left as well.

About five minutes later, out of nowhere, the room exploded.

Bruce barely even felt his landing and took no real notice of his surroundings once he hit. He was already fighting like a madman to keep the other guy at bay. The other guy was raging, howling to be freed, fighting Bruce's control with everything it had.

And then, to his complete horror, he heard Tony's voice. Worse, Tony's voice was close by. Bruce redoubled his efforts to get control of the other guy, terrified it'd kill Tony if it got out. It took him a minute or two to make sense of what Tony was saying.

Which is when he realized Tony was cracking jokes. Horrible, groan-worthy ancient science jokes that Bruce more or less had to laugh at in sheer self-defense, they were that bad. And incredibly, the other guy began to recede.

When he was finally back in complete control, he discovered he was sprawled on the floor amidst the wreckage of the lab, only a floor down. He was more than slightly sweaty and shaky from the effort to keep the other guy from coming out. Tony was crouched a few feet away, looking supremely unconcerned, for a man who'd come to within a hairsbreadth of meeting the other guy.

"You back with me, Brucie?" Tony wanted to know.

"Yeah." Bruce said. "I ... thanks." He said, not quite sure what else to say.

"Not a problem. Listen, you hang out here, ok? I need to go help kick ass." Tony said, then handed Bruce something. "Communicator. It only goes to my suit, so you won't be accidentally hearing what else is going on. You start feeling growly again, give me a yell. I can tell jokes all day."

Bruce gave Tony a stunned look, then gave him a hesitant smile. "Thank you." He said quietly.

Tony nodded and took off. Bruce put the communicator in his ear, incredibly grateful that he'd have help keeping control while things were getting violent. Because letting the other guy out up here would be incredibly bad.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Thor had little to do while the Midgardians looked for the Tesseract, so he opted to spend time by the cage Loki had been placed in. It gave him time to think.

He had begun to learn a lesson, the last time he'd been here on Midgard. He wasn't quite sure it was the lesson Odin had wanted him to learn, though. Oh, to be sure, he had begun to learn restraint and foresight, rather than rushing into battle blindly and with no thought to the consequences, but he had begun to learn other things as well.

Things like thinking for himself, and not obeying blindly. Like not automatically assuming that Odin was infallible. Thor had spent much of the last year going over his childhood in his mind and had finally realized that there had been things amiss as far back as he could remember, where Loki had been concerned. Things Odin had said, had done, or had encouraged. Things his friends had said, done, and encouraged. And worst, things he had said and done and encouraged.

Thor had begun to understand why Loki had gone so far astray when Thor had been banished. The true miracle was that it had not happened before now. Thor had been ... troubled ... by how little many in Asgard had mourned the loss of their youngest prince. Thor had taken to spending more and more time with his mother, one of the few in the realm who truly mourned Loki's death. They had become much closer as a result, not that they'd ever been estranged. And then Odin had revealed that Loki was alive, and headed to Earth.

Thor's first thought had been to wonder just how long Odin had known Loki was alive. His second had been incredible gratitude that Loki was alive. His third had been a grim determination to save his brother and protect him. He'd had little hope it would work, at least at first. Now, knowing that Loki might well be controlled, hope for Loki's salvation was restored.

He was still chiding himself for his rather severe lapse in control earlier. He still did not entirely understand what had possessed him, to try to smash Captain Rogers so. He'd had no idea the mortal's shield was so formidable. By all rights, the mortal ought to have been smashed to bits, which would have been very poorly done of him. Especially since the man had only asked him to put his hammer down and talk peaceably. Evidently he still had much to learn when it came to restraint and foresight.

Loki seemed content to keep his silence, yet further proof he was not himself. Under any other circumstance, he would have had something to say about Thor hanging about the way he was.

Thor had actually almost dozed off when the flying machine they rode in shook like horse ridding its coat of water. There was a near-instant scramble from the Midgardians, and Thor quickly realized there was some threat afoot. Possibly Loki's mind-controlled cohorts. Thor started to grab his hammer, then stopped himself. These were mortals. The ones called Stark and Banner aside, none of them had the strength or armor to deflect a blow from Mjolnir. To strike any of them would be to kill them. His fists would be weapon enough. He left Mjolnir sitting by Loki's cage and hurried off to assist in the defense.

He could hear someone, a female by the tenor of the voice, speaking, alerting everyone as to the flying machine's status and the whereabouts of the attackers. As he did not know the layout of the machine, he mostly ignored her announcements and followed his ears to where the battle was being fought.

The attackers knew what they were about. Though Thor managed to take the first by surprise, thanks to coming up on him from behind, the man got over the surprise quickly enough and proved to be an able combatant. Thor well remembered the running battle he had engaged in, last time he'd been on Midgard, and this man was of equal or greater skill to the men he'd had to fight then. It was a bit easier this time, as he was not stripped of his powers, but not by much.

He'd left the first man behind, knocked unconscious and sprawled on the floor, and had begun to contend with a second when the flying machine unexpectedly started to tilt, throwing him off his feet and sending both him and his opponent tumbling into one of the nearby walls. Thor managed to recover himself first, and was able to knock the second man out before he regained his feet.

Thor made his way forward, with a bit more difficulty now that the machine was tilted, seeking any other opponents. He heard Director Fury's voice saying something about someone named Barton, then Agent Romanov answering him.

About a minute later, the machine righted itself, and within moments of that, Agent Romanov's voice sounded again, saying she had Barton in custody and he seemed to be himself again. A minute or two later, it was determined that all their opponents had been subdued. Fury told them to head for the conference room.

Thor immediately made his way there, wondering if Agent Romanov was correct and that Barton was himself. If he was one of the ones that had been controlled, that would mean there might be a feasible way to return Loki to himself.

Chapter Text

Natasha, Clint and Steve

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

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Natasha was moving the moment the helicarrier started to shake, not even waiting for anyone to start giving orders. Something had just happened, and given the situation, it was entirely likely they now had hostiles aboard the helicarrier.

Good thing. Natasha needed something to take her anger out on, other than Loki. The others had no idea how hard she'd had to fight the urge to try to break the bastard's neck before Thor said something about him not acting right, and the possibility of him being controlled was brought up.

Natasha's life had been ... brutal, to put it gently. She'd been a tool almost her entire life. Something to be used and then stored away or worse, tossed aside until needed. Then Clint had happened. He was the first person she'd ever encountered that had seen her as a person, not a tool. He'd brought her in instead of killing her. And Coulson had gone to bat for her.

She would kill and die for them, instantly and without regret or remorse. They belonged to her and were under her protection and it burned like the strongest acid that Clint had been taken. Phil had fought Fury's decision to split them up, had tried to reason with him, Natasha knew, but Fury had forced the issue. Now they were paying the price. She was going to kill Fury for this. Slowly. Painfully. In the most brutal way she knew.

Such was her anger that the first invader she encountered went down to a knife in the throat in three seconds flat. The second fell to a jolt from her gauntlets, twitching spastically on the floor. The third at least saw her coming, and thus provided a bit more of a fight, forcing her to use a few of her martial arts moves. Pitifully few, unfortunately. Clearly, he hadn't been one for hand to hand combat.

Then Fury's voice came over the comms, saying that Barton was aboard, and heading for the jets in order to escape.

Natasha took off like a bat out of hell. She was fully aware that anyone in his path might try to kill him if they saw him. This, she could not allow, nor tolerate. They *would* find a way to break the mind control. But only if she got to Clint first. Everyone else would shoot to kill. She, on the other hand, would fight to detain him.

Fortunately, her reputation preceded her, and the agents she encountered were swift to get out of her way, which allowed her to move more rapidly than she otherwise would. She finally spotted Clint and snuck up behind him.

Unfortunately, Clint's code name was not mere chance or hyperbole. As befit his reputation as the best marksman on the planet, his vision was incredible ... including his peripheral vision. He didn't have to turn his head to see her coming.

But her familiarity with him allowed her to know what his first response would be, so she was able to intercept and deflect his attempt to put an arrow in her. After that, the fight became something of a mad scramble. They both knew each other's fighting styles very well, which made it difficult to outwit each other, and Natasha was further hampered by her desire to merely detain Clint, rather than kill him, while he was clearly not operating under a similar restraint.

Eventually she managed to hit him hard enough that he fell and smacked his head rather hard on the catwalk they were fighting on. He gave his head a shake and did not immediately leap to the attack. Instead, he looked up at her, expression confused, and called her by her nickname.

Natasha wasn't about to lose her advantage, so she belted him a second time, knocking him unconscious. Then she called for Phil, who'd been somewhere else in the carrier helping with the defense, to get him to help her haul Clint to a secure room. Natasha was, unfortunately, nowhere near strong enough to carry or drag Clint quite that far on her own.

Phil arrived a few moments later, and gave Clint's unconscious body a look. To pretty much anyone else, it would have been a bland, inscrutable look, but to Natasha, who'd known Phil for years, and had worked closely with him that entire time, he looked worried and relieved.

Together, they hauled him to a room where he could be restrained and watched. Clint came awake a minute later, shaking his head and looking very confused.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

"You have heart."

Clint was going to have nightmares about those words for the rest of his life, thanks to what had followed. The spear's touch had burned. Burned his blood, boiling it in his veins. Burned his mind, turning his will to ash. And in its wake, had been Loki.

Obey Loki. Worship Loki. Anticipate Loki's wants and needs. Tell Loki everything he wanted to know, and more besides.

It had been a mantra. No, more than that. It had been all he had been capable of. Anything and everything else had been shoved into the depths and locked away. Forcing the still rational part of Clint to sit there and watch in horror as he bent over backwards to please a mad godling. And just to add insult to injury, the bastard hadn't let them sleep, and had barely remembered to tell them to feed and water themselves.

Clint had been gibbering in horror from the moment he and the mercenaries got on the jet to head for the helicarrier. He was going to end up killing his own people. He might not like most of them, and didn't trust most of them as far as he could throw them, but he had never wanted to kill any of them.

By some miracle, he caught something of a break. They didn't encounter too many people. Or at least, he didn't. He'd been able to shoot the computer and leave without having to kill anyone he knew. Then Nat had come out of nowhere, and he'd gone right back to gibbering in horror. Please, gods, don't let him kill her.

He should have known he didn't have a chance in hell. It was a bit of a relief when he went down. The sudden loosening of the control he'd been under was completely unexpected, but before he could really do anything about it, his world went dark.

He woke on a bed, in restraints. And himself, for the first time in days. The mantra was gone. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry as hell, but he was himself. Now he just had to convince Nat of that. Oh, and Phil, he mentally amended, as his handler came into his line of vision.

"Ow. What the hell did you do to me?" He ground out.

"Cranial recalibration." Natasha said, almost but not quite smirking. "I hit you really hard on the head." Then she gave him a penetrating look. "Are you tracking?" She wanted to know.

"Yeah." He said, then gave his head another shake. "How many ... " He started.

"Don't do that ... " Natasha started, only for Phil to speak over her.

"There have actually been no casualties that can be attributed to you, Clint. Injuries, yes. Deaths, no. Even the man whose eye was used to open the vault survived. Last word from Stuttgart was that he lost the eye, but that he would live." Phil told Clint. "And I haven't heard any deaths reported here on the helicarrier." Then he bent down to look Clint in the eye. "And you were not acting of your own free will, so you will not blame yourself for those injuries. Am I clear, Agent Barton?"

Clint couldn't help but grin at Phil a little. "Clear, sir."

Phil nodded and stood up. "I think we can remove the restraints, Natasha. Let Fury know. We might be able to use this on Loki."

"What do you mean?" Clint wanted to know, pulling his arms away from the bed as Natasha undid the restraints.

"We think Loki may be being controlled as well." Phil told him. "Can you confirm that?"

Clint shook his head. "If he was, he never said. And it wasn't like the control gave me a telepathic connection to him or anything, to pick up on his state of mind."

"Well, we ought to be able to find out soon enough." Phil said.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Steve Rogers was not the biggest fan of Nick Fury or of SHIELD.

Steve had been able to understand them wanting to break the truth to him gently, and thus putting him in a 1940's style room to wake up. He could even appreciate it, because waking up in the sort of medical room he now knew existed would have sent him straight into battle mode, sure he'd been found and incarcerated by Hydra.

But he disliked Fury's continuing manipulations, his insistence on tucking Steve away, and keeping Steve surrounded by things from the 40's. Fury insisted he was trying to keep Steve from overloading, but Steve wasn't buying it.

It was convenient that Fury seemed to have bought into a dolled-up version of who Steve was ... some sort of perfect soldier, who always obeyed orders and so on. Clearly, the man had either never seen or paid no attention to the records the SSR had of him. A guy who'd lied about who he was four times in an attempt to get into the Army, and who had gone behind enemy lines against orders (and, many would say, all common sense) was not exactly a picture-perfect soldier. Steve had no intentions of informing Fury of his error.

Any doubt that Fury was angling for something had died when he showed up with the information on the Tesseract. The files he'd found in his 'apartment' had made it rather blatantly clear. Mostly, it was Tony Stark's file that tipped him off.

There'd been a heavy slant on Tony's philandering, irresponsible behavior prior to the creation of the Iron Man suits. There had been remarkably little on Tony after that point. But Steve was damn good at reading people, and reading between the lines. Something had happened. Something big. Nothing else made sense for the sudden existence of the Iron Man suit. A man who went around blowing the hell out of terrorist cells on his own dime in a special-made suit was on a mission. Steve had no idea what exactly had happened, but he knew that that sort of big event could change a man considerably. Both for good and for ill. From what he'd been able to piece together between the lines, it had changed Tony for the better.

So why was Fury trying so hard to make Steve dislike him? Unfortunately, Steve didn't know what Fury was up to, but he was keeping an eye out.

Meeting Tony, on the other hand, was a shock. He looked so much like a slightly-older Howard it physically hurt. It had left Steve wrong-footed, stinging from the painful reminder of all he'd lost so very recently (to his perception anyway). Combined with Tony's admittedly rather ... acidic ... personality, they hadn't exactly hit it off.

The meeting had been another slap. Tony's rapid-fire babble with Banner had both reminded him (again) of Howard and been another reminder of how much things had changed.

He'd stopped in to talk to Tony after the stick had been carted into storage, and Tony had pointed out a few things. Steve had privately agreed with him, but knowing they were being watched, he'd played his part and verbally disagreed, then stomped off. He'd have to explain (and apologize) later.

Finding the guns had been an unpleasant, very much unwanted surprise. It had, to be perfectly honest, been the breaking point. He would never fight for people who wanted to use something like the Tesseract as a weapon. He'd dragged one of the guns back to the lab, Fury had been there, and words had been said. Fury'd been forced to storm off, and Steve had left again, angry and trying to think what he would do once this thing with Loki and the Chitauri was over with. He wasn't going to stay with SHIELD, that was for damn sure.

Then the helicarrier was attacked. Fury sent Tony to fix one of the turbines, and Steve cut into the comm.

"I'll meet you there, Stark. You're going to need another pair of eyes." He told Tony.

Miraculously, Tony didn't argue with him. Tony even asked him to help him, sending him to check the relays. Granted, Steve hadn't been much use there, since he knew next to nothing about how electricity was dealt with in this time, but Tony hadn't lost patience with him. Tony had just talked him through it while he cut the debris out of the rotor.

Then the attackers showed up, and Steve got busy for a while. Too long. Tony almost got chewed up by the rotor before he could get to the lever to slow it down. But once the mad scramble was done, and they'd both started into the carrier, they got word that Clint Barton had been caught, and was apparently free of the mind control, and a meeting was being called.

They both hurried to the meeting room, and Steve watched as Phil and Natasha escorted another man (clearly, Clint Barton, if the wary expression on his face was anything to go by) into the room. Natasha briefed them on the fight she'd had with Clint, and how he'd come back to himself after she'd knocked him unconscious.

Thor, sitting across from Steve, sat forward, looking eager. "Would this method work to release my brother?" He wanted to know.

"It's worth a try." Phil said. "At worst, you'll give him a headache. If we're lucky, it'll break the control he's under."

Thor was on his feet in a flash. "I will go at once!" And he took off at a jog before anyone could say anything.

"Does he know how to get into the cage?" Tony asked.

"No." Natasha said. "I'd better go after him so he doesn't try to open it with his hammer." She squeezed Barton's shoulder briefly before she left. Steve wondered what that was about.

A rather awkward silence fell on the little group while they waited to find out whether Loki could be helped or not.

Chapter Text

Loki

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Loki had not been having the best time of late.

It all began with Thor, of course. Loki loved his brother, make no mistake. But Loki was ... painfully aware ... of Thor's faults. Nor was he the only one. Both Loki and Frigga had remonstrated with Odin repeatedly, trying to get it through the Allfather's thick skull that Thor was not ready to rule his own bedchamber, never mind a kingdom. Their words had fallen on deaf ears.

So Loki had gotten a bit desperate, and put together an admittedly mad plan to derail Thor's coronation. To prove to Odin once and for all that Thor wasn't ready. The speed with which things got out of hand had been stunning. Loki had expected Thor to rant and rave and urge Odin to retaliate against the Jotuns, but he had not expected Thor to rally his cohorts and go to Jotunheim with the intent to start a war. Loki hadn't thought Thor was *that* thoughtless.

It was there, in that wasteland of ice, that Loki's world had come crashing down around him.

He'd known all his life that he was ... different. There were few Aesir men who varied from the general mold of tall, broad, muscular, and light of hair and eye. That Loki had been tall, thin, and black-haired had always been a curiosity to him. Especially given that his mother was blonde, and Odin had been red of hair, before it had gone white with age.

Further, he had always been a studious one, more interested in books than physical pursuits. And he had had a great gift with magic. Both of which were seen as unfit occupations for a man in Asgard. Magic especially was frowned upon, seen as fit only for women, or a coward's tool in battle. Loki had been subjected to a lot of grief thanks to his preference for both. He had borne the Aesirs' sneering contempt as best he was able, and told himself they were jealous of his easy ability with magic, of his intelligence. It had eased the sting somewhat.

But in his worst nightmares, he had never once suspected the truth. That he was not Aesir at all. That he was, in fact, Jotun.

Loki, like every Asgardian, had grown up hearing about the bestial, vicious, monstrous Jotun. The horrifying Frost Giants, who killed without thought or concern, who reveled in death and destruction. The creatures who were little more than beasts, capable of no craft, living in caves of ice and killing each other for sport.

To say he had not taken the revelation of his true ancestry well was to vastly understate the case. Finding out you're the monster you heard about, and had trained to kill, all your life was ... rather traumatizing. Loki had largely been a gibbering mess from there on out. He freely admitted he'd made huge mistakes, lashing out at everyone in range, making exceedingly questionable decisions. In his admittedly less-than-rational state, he'd seen no real place for himself. Death had seemed the best option for all concerned. So he'd let go of Gungnir.

And *of course* his situation had gone from bad to worse. He had no idea how long he'd fallen in the darkness before he'd been dragged into the Chitauri's realm. Thanos and his minions had taken no time to take advantage of Loki's less than stable mental health.

Thus had begun endless months of manipulation and outright torture. Constant whispers in his ear telling him he was a worthless monster, with no family, no friends, no help, no hope. It had been true enough (at least by Loki's less-than-healthy reasoning) that he hadn't been able to shake it off. Thanos had even done everything in his power to turn Loki completely against Odin and Thor, twisting the events that had led to Loki landing in his control until Loki wasn't sure which version of events was true, anymore.

Coupled with the constant physical abuse that broke his body down, Loki'd had virtually no chance of keeping his own mind. And then, just to make sure he was, and would remain Thanos' puppet, Thanos had used the spear's mind control capabilities on Loki. Long before he'd sent Loki to Midgard to assist in conquering it. As a result, Loki had been a ragged, exhausted mess when he'd arrived.

But Thanos had failed in one particular. As much as he had tried, Thanos hadn't been able to poison Loki against Thor completely. Odin, yes, but not Thor. Thor had sometimes been unthinking and cruel throughout their lives, but far more often, Thor had been one of the few to defend Loki and speak on his behalf. Their long childhood together, and Thor's unwavering faith in his brother, even in the face of Loki's unhinged mental state when Thor was banished, had mitigated much of the damage Thanos had tried to inflict.

So much so that Loki had pinned his hope of salvation on his frequently unobservant big brother. He'd hoped that at some point, Thor would realize something was amiss. Loki had done what he could within the constraints of the brainwashing and control he'd been subjected to to alert Thor to there being a problem. Ranting about ruling and freedom being a lie, and otherwise staying silent had been the best he could manage.

Completely unexpectedly, Thor had picked up on it with startling rapidity. He'd even thought to test if it was some sort of shenanigan Loki was pulling, by trying to dispel a (nonexistent) illusion on Loki's eyes. Clearly, Thor's banishment had changed the big lug and taught him some measure of discernment.

His biggest problem was that Barton was coming with some of the mercenaries, to break him out. If they succeeded, Loki knew he would end up fighting, and very probably trying to kill, whoever they set against him, and all chance of salvation would be lost. That none of the mercenaries or Barton had gotten as far as his cage had been a relief.

Then, a few minutes after the fighting stopped, Thor came charging into the room. Loki was more than faintly amused when Thor was briefly stymied by his lack of knowledge on how the cage operated, but then Romanov showed up and opened it for him, standing guard just outside, for all the good it would do, if Loki were to get past Thor.

Thor hauled him to his feet, his expression somewhere between pained and hopeful. "Forgive me, brother. This is the only way."

That was the only warning Loki got before Thor proceeded to punch him in the head. Repeatedly. While holding one of Loki's arms so that he could neither escape nor dodge the blows. Loki had just long enough to fear that Thor had decided the 'only way' to solve the problem was to kill Loki with his bare hands before the third or fourth punch sent him reeling hard enough that he felt the stranglehold the mind control had on him loosen. At which point he realized what Thor intended. Not to kill him, but to knock him out.

Two punches later, Thor finally succeeded, and Loki's world went dark. He woke shortly thereafter with a splitting headache ... and with his mind his own again. He came remarkably close to collapsing in hysterical relief, clamping his mouth shut against the inane babble that wanted to pour out of him. Such was his state of mind that when Thor gathered him into something that was a cross between a hug and a cuddle, Loki neither protested nor tried to move.

After a few moments, Thor shifted and gripped his chin gently, bringing Loki's head up, probably so Thor could see his eyes. The pleased expression on Thor's face was evidence something had changed. Thor's hand slid down to the base of his neck in the familiar grip he used so often on Loki, one that spoke of great affection and tenderness even when Thor had been exasperated with Loki in the past.

"Your eyes are green again." Thor said. "Are you now yourself once more, brother?"

Well, that was a loaded question, wasn't it? "As much as ever I was." Loki finally said after a few moments. "And we are not ... " He started.

Thor cut him off. "You were not in condition to heed my words earlier, but I charge you to hear them now, brother. I care not who your dam and sire were. You could be the son of a bilgesnipe for all I care. You have been, and will remain, my brother."

Well then. There was little doubt Thor meant every word of that. Whatever Thor's faults might be, he had ever been earnest and honest in his affections. If Thor said he considered Loki to still be his brother, despite his being a Jotun, he meant it. The surprise and relief of it nearly made Loki giddy. But the surprises weren't over yet, because Thor was still regarding him with earnest concern.

"I have had much time to think, this last year, Loki. And I have realized that I have done ill by you far too often." Thor said. "I will not beg your forgiveness, for I do not think I deserve it, but I promise you, I will do all in my power not to fail you again." Then Thor smiled. "Mother charged me to convey her love and joy that you lived, if you could be made to see sense." He said.

Well damn. The big lug was determined to turn him into a gibbering mess, wasn't he? Loki had to take a couple deep breaths to keep his emotions from getting the better of him. At that point, much to his relief, Romanov intervened.

"I hate to break this up, but Loki, we need to know how to shut this invasion down."

Damn.

"We shall go to the meeting room, and you can tell us what you know, Loki." Thor decreed, making sure Loki had his feet under him before the two of them escorted Loki out of the cage.

It was a brief walk to the meeting room. Loki eyed the gathering warily, but to his surprise, the only ones who looked displeased were Fury and Barton. All the others were either neutral in expression or looked relieved.

Barton walked over, scowling slightly, and stood a few feet away. "I don't like you much right now." Barton growled. "But I get that you weren't doing this of your own free will, so I won't hold a grudge."

Since that had been more than Loki had expected to get from the man, he merely nodded his acceptance.

"So, Loki. How do we shut this down?" Stark asked.

Loki grimaced as he took a seat next to Thor. "I am afraid it is too late. Breaking me from the mind control won't break the others. They will continue with their set tasks. By now, Erik Selvig has the Tesseract in position." He admitted regretfully. "And I have no idea how to stop the Tesseract, or close the portal. Such information was not vouchsafed to minions." And it stung that he was one.

"So who's behind this, then? Who are we up against?" Rogers wanted to know.

"Thanos." Loki said. Beside him, Thor jerked in alarm. "I do not know if you know of him, but he is exceeding powerful. And completely insane. He courts Death."

"He's suicidal?" Romanov asked, looking faintly confused.

"No. Death is ... a being. A being whose job it is to guide the dead to their final resting places. Thanos ... desires this being, and courts its favor. By sending it gifts." Loki said.

"Gifts ... as in dead people." Barton said.

Loki nodded grimly. "He has decided that Midgard's billions will be his next offering."

"Where is the portal going to be?" Fury demanded.

"Over New York City. Thanos wanted it over somewhere with a considerable population. I managed to convince him here would be better than Asia. That conquering your country would count for more in the eventual conquering of Earth than sheer numbers." It had been the only thing Loki had been able to do to mitigate the damage. New York City was populous, but nowhere near as much so as much of eastern Asia.

Several people looked rather discomfited at the thought of the portal opening over Asia. Stark looked positively grim.

"I'm calling in backup." He declared, pulling a phone out of a pocket.

"Stark!" Fury barked.

Stark gave Fury a furious look. "We're up against an army, Fury. And a guy that thinks killing people is the way to a woman's ... or is it a man? Or something else? Whatever, off subject. The way to their loved one's heart. We have no fucking idea how to close the portal, which means we're not going to be able to cut this off at the pass. And yes, we're badass. I mean, you've got me, Big Green over there, and Blondie." Stark indicated Thor with that last name. "Not to mention the rest of the gang." He motioned to the others at the table, save Loki.

Loki corrected his assumption. "You also have myself." He said. Because he owed Thanos a debt, that he planned to pay. Thanos wasn't going to enjoy collecting the debt.

Stark gave him a surprised look, then grinned toothily. "And Reindeer Games, evidently." He said. "We pack a hell of a punch, but this is, I repeat, an army. We need all the help we can get." And then, ignoring anything further from Fury, he dialed a number and began to talk.

Chapter Text

Charles, Warren, and Scott

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Charles was in his office, eating lunch and doing a bit of paperwork between classes when the phone rang. He started to sigh in resignation before he saw Tony Stark's name on the caller ID. That made him smile in quiet pleasure.

While Charles had quite a bit of money, and could have traveled in the same circles as Howard Stark and his son, Charles had been far too busy with other things to play the socialite game. Between that and the fact he had been over a decade younger than Howard, and considerably older than Tony, he'd known them no better than anyone else who was not in their immediate circles.

Then, Scott had come into his care, and Charles had sought a way to help Scott control his optical blasts. In so doing, he had evidently caught Tony's attention and encouraged him to investigate, because Tony had shown up one day, curious as the proverbial cat.

In the years since, Tony had been a godsend to the mutants Charles had taken under his wing. While the discovery that ruby quarts mitigated Scott's optic blasts had been made by Hank, the design of Scott's visor had been largely Tony's doing. Tony had also supplied most of the parts for Cerebro over the years, and had been the one to invent and build the Danger Room, among other projects.

And while his technological help had been invaluable, Tony's complete lack of fear for mutants had been of nearly as great value to Charles. Tony had taken even such visible mutations as Hank and Kurt's in stride, and had been openly envious of Warren and later Ororo's, ability to fly. Such easy acceptance and blase' unconcern was precious, as it showed the children that it could happen, that there really were people who didn't see them as monsters or weapons.

Of course, Tony wasn't uniformly popular at the mansion. Charles knew for a fact that Tony drove Scott around the bend, and took great pleasure in doing so. He also, perversely, enjoyed goading Jean, despite that she was nearly as powerful a telepath as Charles, and could rearrange Tony's brain on him if she was provoked enough.

Charles picked up the phone before it could ring for the third time. "Hello, Tony."

"Hello Charles." Tony said. Charles frowned, as Tony did not sound like his usual devil-may-care self. Something was, apparently, amiss. "Listen, I hate to do this to you, but I need you to pack as many of your team as happen to be in the mansion right now onto your jet and get them to the city ASAP. We have hostiles incoming within an hour, and we're going to need all the help we can get to kick their asses."

"We?" Charles asked, even as he hit the assembly alarm. Tony would not ask this of him if the situation was not dire.

"Yeah, me and a bunch of others." Tony said. "One-eye there yet?"

Charles tried not to laugh, as Logan had started using that nickname with Scott practically from the first day, unaware it was Tony's most frequent nickname for Scott. "He'll be here in a few more seconds."

"Great. Put me on speaker when he gets there. I'll fill you both in at the same time."

Scott hustled into the room literally five seconds later, still zipping his uniform. "Professor?"

"One eye!" Tony called, his voice tinny thanks to the speaker. "Got a situation developing in the city. We have a very large number of hostiles incoming within an hour. Probably a lot sooner than that." Tony said. "We need backup."

"We who?" Scott demanded, mentally shifting into his 'team leader' mode.

"Me and six others. One can fly. Another's hell on wheels when it comes to long range shots. Everyone else is a close-range fighter, though we've got some *seriously* heavy muscle." Tony told him.

"And we're up against ... ?" Scott wanted to know.

There was a muffled consultation on the other end. "Foot soldiers and fliers. Mostly small, but some are going to be damn big. Lots of energy weapons."

"So you need more air support." Scott said.

"Yeah, though I won't say no to more heavy hitters, with the numbers we're looking at. Literal army, one-eye. This is going to be ugly."

Scott actually smiled. "I think I know of at least one person here who will take that as a challenge." He said. "I'll get the team assembled and we'll be in the air in five minutes. Meet you there."

Tony hung up before Scott had even gotten out of the room. The last thing Charles heard from Scott was Scott calling for the team.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Warren had been relaxing in the media room when the alarm went off. He bolted to his feet, then hesitated, waiting to find out if he was needed. He wasn't always, as his particular mode of flight did not lend itself to tight spaces as well as Ororo's. Of course, the trade off there being that Ororo was claustrophobic, so the spaces couldn't be too tight.

"Everyone to the jet!" Scott called. "Full armor. I'll tell you what I know en route."

Warren raced for the elevator, barely beating Jean and Logan there. Ororo came skidding around the corner just as they piled in, but seeing how full the elevator was, she veered towards the stairs. Remy was right behind her, and followed her to the stairs.

Long practice allowed Warren to scramble into his uniform with relative ease, wings flexing and twitching as he moved. Kurt had already been and gone, his teleportation allowing him to move a lot faster than the rest of them, but Warren was the second one out of the locker room.

They all piled into the jet less than a minute later, and Ororo had them up and out and airborne a minute after that.

Warren listened as Scott outlined the situation, and scowled. This was very, very bad.

The Worthingtons had been as rich as the Starks, back in Howard's father's day. Howard and Tony had later vastly increased the Stark family's wealth, but the two families had still inhabited the same social circles. Warren had even been near Tony's age, being only a few years younger. Despite that, the two of them hadn't met until they'd been adults, mostly because Warren's father had kept Warren's social life to the bare minimum to prevent anyone from discovering his status as a mutant.

They'd found something of a refuge in each other. Both of them were the rich scions of rich families. Both of them had been bitter, bitter disappointments to their fathers, and had grown up without much in the way of parental support, supervision, or approval. They'd both had to deal with the fact that pretty much no one would see them for who they really were, that all anyone would ever see was 'Stark' and 'Worthington'.

They'd both had a period in their lives when they'd been utter idiots, too. In point of fact, that was how Tony had found out Warren was a mutant. They'd gone out somewhere, gotten thoroughly drunk off their asses, and Tony's driver had (Warren figured this out much after the fact) driven them back to Tony's place. Warren had woken the next morning on Tony's couch in nothing but his underwear with the world's worst headache ... and Tony standing a few feet away, staring at his unbound wings in awe.

Tony's only comment had been to point Warren in Charles' direction. Warren had ended up being very grateful for that. He still had days when he felt like a freak, but thanks to Charles and the others here at the mansion, they were increasingly few in number. And he got to see and talk to Tony quite frequently.

The news wasn't good. Army of bad guys, coming in over the city. Some sort of portal they couldn't close that would be letting them in.

"Well, I've got the full roster on the jet, plus a new one you haven't met yet, Stark." Scott said. "Goes by Wolverine. Close range heavy hitter. So who have you got on your side?"

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Scott didn't much like Tony. He was rude, crude, abrasive and antagonistic. He was also arrogant and irresponsible as hell. And he flirted with Jean constantly. He was also, much to Scott's chagrin, frighteningly smart and responsible for the fact that Scott could see. Hank, lord love him, had tried, but he was not a genius at construction and design. It had been Tony that fit Scott's visor with all the bells and whistles, including things that compensated for the inevitable loss of peripheral vision, and allowed him to see at any light intensity, including pitch dark. Which meant he could function essentially normally. So Scott had refrained from kicking Tony's ass over the years, out of gratitude for that.

That said, Tony was not an alarmist, and never, ever, ever asked for help. So for him to be calling asking for help to deal with an army, Scott had taken him dead serious.

"Well." Tony said, in answer to his question about who was coming from his end. "We have me, then there's Thor. Ororo's going to *like* him, and vice versa. He can fly, and control lightning. And he has a big-ass hammer."

That made Scott's eyes widen. That ... sounded an awful lot like *the* Thor, the Norse god. Just who had Tony teamed up with?

"Then there's Loki. Good with knives, daggers, and other bladed weapons, and has a limited long-range capacity."

"Stark ... " Scott started. This was ... getting very strange.

"Then there's Hawkeye. Scary-good long range. Never misses. And his buddy, Black Widow. She's short range, hand to hand fighter, but she's got some sort of electrical doohickey she uses, works like the tazer from hell. Then we have Hulk."

Scott made a choking noise. "Hulk? He's on your side?"

"Yep. Harlem wasn't on him, one-eye. That was the army. They pulled a bone-headed maneuver and created that other ... thing. Then pulled Hulk in to fix their mess." Tony told him. "Bruce Banner, which is who he is when he isn't big and green, is a nice guy. Science geek."

Hank's head had swung around when he heard Bruce's name. "Bruce Banner? I have heard of him. He is quite well thought of in his specialty, but he has not been heard from in some time."

"And now you know why." Tony said. "Don't worry, I'm working on fixing it. Last but not least." And here, Tony's tone turned distinctly smug. "We have the one and only Captain America. The real deal, ladies and gents. Accept no substitutes."

Scott damn near swallowed his tongue.

Like a lot of kids, Scott had grown up with Captain America as his hero of choice. Unlike some, Scott's fascination with him hadn't faded with time. Mostly because he'd been put in charge of the X-Men.

Scott had been very young then, and more than a little intimidated at the responsibility that was being placed on his shoulders. So he'd looked to the Captain for his example, tried to emulate the Captain as much as he could. It had necessitated doing some serious research, and separating the wheat from the chaff, where information about the Captain had been concerned. So much of the information available was ... questionable, at best. It had taken time to ferret out old war newsreels that showed the Captain on the war front, and ironically enough, a number of discussions with Charles, who had been a boy when World War Two was raging, and thus had heard about the Captain's exploits and triumphs in the paper and on the radio.

Scott had never dreamed he'd ever meet the man. He, like pretty much everyone else, had assumed the man long dead, lost at sea in his final sacrifice. How in the name of anything the man was alive, Scott didn't know. But the thought of working with him had Scott's head spinning. It took him a minute to get his mouth and brain working again, as he steadfastly ignored Logan's growing amusement.

"Captain America, sir?" Scott finally said. "I think, in this situation, I will bow to your greater expertise. I know how to handle small-scale conflicts, but a full-on war is something entirely different." He manfully ignored Tony's cackle. "Tony can fill you in on our numbers and capabilities."

Chapter Text

Gambit, Nightcrawler, and Storm

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Remy had always been skeptical of so-called heroes. Especially ones like Captain America. People, in his experience, just weren't that noble and good-hearted. And there couldn't possibly be any way that Captain America, especially, could live up to the legends. After all, how good could a guy that depended primarily on a shield be?

Turned out, that Cap was ... at least not a complete moron. He certainly had a good grasp of strategy. For the most part, he kept the X-Men together, acknowledging that they knew each other fairly well after a minimum of six months (in Logan's case) and as much as a decade (Scott, Hank, and Jean) of working together.

He had the folks capable of flight spreading out and charged with keeping the enemy as contained as humanly possible. He put Stormy on hitting the portal itself, alongside Thor, since they were able to control lightning (and wasn't that a trip and a half!). Everyone else was scattered around on the ground in pairs.

They needed as many long-range fighters on the ground as possible, so Remy volunteered to work with the Captain. One, he was one of the few on the team who wouldn't go all goo-goo eyed at working with the man. Scott was still looking stunned ten minutes after finding out *and* with his eyes hidden from sight. That was no mean feat. Several of the others weren't too much better. Plus, Remy hadn't been with the X-Men long ... only about a year, and his life had ensured that he remained ... adaptable, so he'd suffer less for working with someone he didn't know.

As fast as the X-Jet was, by the time they got there, the portal was open, and enemy fliers were pouring out of it at a truly alarming rate. Remy laughed when Logan didn't even wait for the jet to land before he jumped out the back, earning him an irritated yell from Scott. Thankfully, Scott had known better than to recommend depending on Logan's teamwork abilities. Angel, Ro and Kurt ditched moments later, but at least that had been planned.

The rest of them hustled out when the jet landed. Unfortunately, the jet didn't have any offensive capabilities, so it couldn't be used in the fight. Scott had been forced to land on top of a relatively flat building and pray the jet would still be there when this was over.

Remy mentally cringed at the Captain's wide-eyed gape when he saw Hank, fully expecting the Captain to flip his shit. He was from the forties, after all, and mutants had been all but unknown then ... and prejudiced attitudes about a number of things had been rife, the same as today (even if it was about different things, now). But then the Captain seemed to shake it off.

"Sorry for staring." He said. "I didn't mean to be rude."

Hank just smiled at him and waved off his apology, taking off at a galloping run with Iron Man flying overhead, to find himself some targets to beat up on.

Then the Captain had turned to Remy. Remy hadn't quite been able to prevent himself from giving the man a defiant look. He either ignored it or didn't realize that was what Remy was doing. He just held out a hand and gave Remy a friendly smile.

"Gambit? Good to meet you." He said.

Remy shook his hand, but that was really all they had time for. The fliers were zooming by overhead, shooting pretty much everything in sight. Remy wasted no further time digging into his pocket for his collapsed bo staff and some cards. He was just grateful there would be no lack of ammunition for this fight. Cards made for damn good ammo for him, but even he could only carry so many packs of cards in his pockets. Fortunately, with all the rubble getting kicked up, if he ran out of cards, he'd still be able to go after the fliers. And if any of the increasing number of foot soldiers was stupid enough to try their luck, well then they deserved what they'd get.

For a little bit, Remy fell into an easy pattern of charge, aim, throw. Unfortunately, not for too long. Only about two minutes, maybe three. Even then, the entire time he was focused on the fliers, he could hear the Captain's shield hitting things behind him. Remy's opinion of his abilities improved further thanks to the fact that he didn't once have to defend himself from an attack from behind.

Unfortunately, after a minute or two, there were just too many foot soldiers on the ground for him to ignore. He gave a feral grin as he extended his bo staff. It was a Tony special, as the man had somehow managed to get his hands on the formula for adamantium, and had Remy test it against his ability to charge things.

Turned out, adamantium took a charge beautifully, but it was tough enough not to explode, even after innumerable charges. Tony had promptly made Remy the bostaff, which not only facilitated Remy's acrobatics and made for a hell of a weapon even when Remy wasn't charging it, but allowed him to use his charge safely (for himself anyway) at short range.

Now that he was paying more direct attention to the Captain, Remy was ... thoroughly startled. Because he'd assumed the guy was just standing stolidly in place, shield-bashing everything in sight. He'd been partially correct, but he'd missed the magnitude of it by quite a margin, and had been vastly incorrect about the rest.

Because the Captain was throwing his shield every which way, and unless something managed to slap it out of the air unexpectedly, it always returned to Rogers' hands. It was virtually identical to Scott's ability to bounce his optic blasts off multiple surfaces to hit things. And Rogers wasn't exactly standing still. He was leaping and twisting almost as well as Remy himself could. And Remy had been accused, many times, of being half cat he was so flexible and acrobatic.

Maybe there was such thing as real heroes after all. Because the Captain definitely seemed to be living up to his legend.

Remy shook himself and turned back to the fight, leaping over a Chitauri as it rushed him, trying to skewer him with its half-spear, half-ray gun. Remy planted the butt end of his staff on the back of the thing's belt before his feet even touched the ground and charged the staff, blowing the belt to bits and the Chitauri that was wearing it in half, then whirled, bo staff sweeping low to take another Chitauri out at the knees. In the same movement, he flung a handful of cards with his free hand, nailing three more approaching Chitauri.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Kurt teleported to the edge of the nearest building when he left the jet, and crouched there for a moment, observing the battle before he jumped in. He needed to get a feel for how fast the fliers moved, and what their weaknesses might be, that he could exploit, before he started fighting.

It didn't take him more than about a minute to figure out what he could do that would do the most good. It helped that the fliers were, for the most part, going in straight lines down the main thoroughfare in front of Stark Tower before they split off and started weaving all over the place. If he stuck close to the tower, he wouldn't have to contend with the fliers changing directions on him too much.

Kurt teleported, and landed on one of the fliers, between the driver and the shooter. He kicked the shooter in the face, then grabbed the helmet of the driver and teleported again, landing on a building roof, the struggling Chitauri driver dangling by his helmet. Kurt let him drop, and watched as the flier he'd deprived of its driver crashed, exploding rather spectacularly.

It took him a few more teleports before he had it down pat, but in the end, it was ridiculously easy to teleport the drivers out of the fliers. It helped that the drivers were hunched over with their heads down, shoulders braced against what was either a support harness or the steering system for the fliers, Kurt wasn't sure which. At any rate, the drivers were defenseless, and the shooters in the rear of the flier were usually concentrating on shooting things, not on the driver.

Within about two minutes, Kurt was teleporting as rapidly as he could manage, stripping drivers out of fliers and letting them drop off of buildings. Amusingly, the Chitauri did not seem to be in communication with each other, either that or they were really, really stupid, as they weren't changing tactics at all, not in response to him, or in response to any of the others that he could see.

And then, just after he'd landed on a roof and dropped his latest driver, something made a really big noise, attracting his attention. He turned to look, and stared in horror.

"Oh mein Gott." He whispered.

Normally, he tried not to lapse into German, mostly because none of the other X-Men were fluent in it, and it struck Kurt as rude to say things they couldn't understand. But for this, he would forgive himself for the slip up. Because flying down the street was ...

Kurt wasn't, actually, sure what the hell to call it. It bore a passing resemblance to a whale. A whale that was something like ten times the size of a blue whale, and had teeth taller than a man. And bony armor all over it. And somehow, this monstrosity flew through the air.

Kurt had largely been ignoring the lightning that was flashing like a strobe light against the increasingly dark sky. He trusted Ororo to control where the lightning hit, even if he didn't know Thor to trust him to do the same. He had, though, wondered what had them hitting things basically nonstop. If this sort of creature was what they'd been hitting, it explained a lot.

Kurt left the flying whale to the others. He had no hope whatever of bringing that monstrosity down. He wouldn't even know where to start. After a moment to regain his mental equilibrium, Kurt went back to depriving the smaller fliers of their drivers.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Storm smiled as she called the winds to bear her aloft. She loved flying. Loved the freedom of it, the exhilaration of it. She landed on one of the buildings next to Stark Tower. A few seconds later, a big, blonde-haired man landed a few feet away, hammer in hand.

This, then, was Thor. He certainly fit the descriptions of the legendary god.

"Milady Storm." Thor said, giving her what could only be described as a courtly bow. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am told by Anthony Stark that you are able to control lightning?"

"And many other aspects of weather." Storm said. Well, all of them really, but there was no cause to brag. "But lightning will be of most use to us here."

"Agreed. Shall we, then?" He asked, giving her a wide, happy grin before he turned his attention skyward and lifted his hammer.

Storm's eyes went wide. She could *feel* the sky responding. Feel the weather systems shifting, the rapid build up of clouds and electricity in the air that heralded the coming of lightning. She watched in surprise as multiple lightning strikes hit the head of Thor's hammer (without hurting him, it must be said) before he redirected it at the open portal over their heads.

Well then. Whether he was a god or not, she would leave to the theologists. Whatever he was, he certainly shared her ability to control lightning. Storm gave him a pleased, almost wild grin before she too tilted her head back and her eyes filmed white.

Storm swiftly discovered two things. One, she and Thor could not call lightning at the same time. When they did, the lightning went wild, unable to obey two masters at once. Secondly, she was able to aim multiple strikes in the time it took Thor to aim one, but his one was stronger than any one of hers, due to the fact that he called and concentrated multiple strikes at his hammer before aiming it at the portal. Storm didn't have anything with which to concentrate multiple strikes, so she couldn't increase the damage done by a single strike.

Still, it took them remarkably little time to work out a system, each of them taking turns, giving the other a chance to catch their breath between strikes. It was working remarkably well.

Which was a good thing, because the lightning was keeping some truly enormous monsters at bay, striking them down or forcing them back before they could get through the portal. She and Thor had been forced into letting the smaller fliers through in order to stop as many of the monsters as possible, because they were both aware that if many of those got through, they were going to have a very, very serious problem.

As it was, even trying their hardest, they weren't able to stop all of the monsters from getting through. Occasionally, one would manage to sneak out behind a fellow monster that was currently getting fried by lightning, escaping unscathed or with little damage to wreak havok on the city.

Inevitably, after the first few minutes, she and Thor began (unofficially) competing over who took down the most monsters. Thor kept grinning over her like a kid in a candy store. And while Storm managed to keep from grinning too goofily, she understood the thrill Thor was obviously feeling.

Chapter Text

Hulk, Jean, Wolverine, Loki and Tony

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Bruce took the last few minutes on the quinjet to meditate. To gather certain images and a few simple words and hold them tight in his mind. As he'd discovered in Harlem, if he had time, and was able to transform of his own free will rather than unexpectedly, he was able to (roughly) direct the other guy. It wasn't a foolproof system, but it helped. Then, they were on the ground, and Bruce let go.

Hulk roar as puny Banner lets him out. Hulk look around. There is lots to see. Lots of punies. Even more flying shooties. Hulk no like flying shooties. Flying shooties make punies scream and run. Hulk make flying shooties go away!

Hulk leap to smash. Flying shooties smash easy. Hulk roar and leap to smash more. So much to smash!

Then Hulk see really, really big flying thing. Really big flying thing stink like flying shooties. Hulk roar at big stinky flier, then leaps on it.

There are many, many stinky punies on big flier. Stinky punies shoot at Hulk and hit Hulk. Hulk smash them against flying stinky. Then Hulk punch flying stinky. Hulk punch hard! But flying stinky does not smash. Hulk growls and punches harder. Flying stinky still does not smash. Hulk mad! Hulk punch harder, punch faster. Hit same spot. Spot starts to smash, and flying stinky starts to not fly good.

Then small puny jump on flying stinky. Small puny ignore Hulk, and start trying to smash. Small puny smash pretty good for small puny. Makes lots of stinky punies fall off flying stinky. Then small stinky start punching one spot, like Hulk. Only small puny make hard stuff on flying stinky's back go away, leaving soft spot. Hulk roar at small puny to make it go away, and then shoves torn-off hard bit into soft spot. That makes flying stinky stop flying. Flying stinky crash! Hulk leap away to find another big flying stinky to smash.

+_+_+_+_+_

Jean knew her telekinesis and telepathy would be of minimal use in the fight. They all had comms they could use, so even if she was capable of relaying mental messages to multiple people, it was unnecessary. And she couldn't really do much with her telekinesis against the fliers.

No, she was of more use as crowd control and emergency medical assistance in this fight. With Scott to keep the Chitauri off her back, and her own ability to defend herself against ground-bound opponents, she'd be fine, and would hopefully manage to get people to safety.

It wasn't like she lacked for people in trouble to help, either. There were explosions going off everywhere. Debris of all sorts and sizes, from sand-sized bits of concrete to whole cars, was flying through the air. Everyone was panicking and running, not that she blamed them in the least. If there was ever a time to panic, a full-on alien invasion was it.

Jean hustled down the street, checking cars to make sure they weren't occupied, and directing fleeing bystanders towards the buildings and subway tunnels and some measure of safety from the flying menaces. Twice in quick succession she had to quickly fling some bit of debris airborne to serve as a shield because multiple fliers were targeting roughly the same area at the same time, and Scott and the other groundside combatants couldn't take them all down fast enough to protect the knot of civilians the fliers were aiming at.

More than once, Jean found some traumatized person huddling beside or under a car or big chunk of debris, frozen in terror. Talking them into moving was invariably tricky, but necessary, as they were far too vulnerable out on the streets.

They tended to listen faster when she got jumped by a Chitauri and had to beat it up before she could get them to safety. Realizing she could protect them until they got under cover was generally all it took to get them moving.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Logan wasted no time in getting the hell out of the fucking jet. Any excuse to get out of the air was a good one, as far as he was concerned. He fucking hated flying. Of course, he had a slight problem in the fact that most of the enemy was airborne. Still, he could do a considerable amount of damage without riding around in a flying deathtrap.

He relished the burn as his claws unsheathed, and hit the ground running. He used his claws like climbing pitons to allow him to scramble up the side of a nearby building so that he was closer to the fliers. From there it was a simple thing to leap, slash the connection between the two parts of the flier into confetti, and then ride the back section with the shooters to the ground, jumping off at the last second and rolling clear.

It didn't take long to get into a quick, efficient rhythm. He spotted the elf, who seemed to have much the same idea Logan'd had, except the elf was targeting the drivers. Same general result, but easier for the elf to manage than taking out the shooters. It wasn't like they lacked for targets.

Then the first fucking huge whale thing showed up, having managed to run the gauntlet of Storm and Thor's lightning. Spitting more of the foot soldiers out of its sides as it went. Well, that gave Logan something to do while he was climbing up to jumping range, anyway.

About the time the whale came around for a second pass, Hulk spotted it, and jumped on its back. Unfortunately, he couldn't seem to bring it down on his own. The armor looked to be denting, but not tearing up.

Well, Logan could fix that, couldn't he?

Logan climbed higher, then leaped onto the whale as it went past, slashing at some of the remaining foot soldiers swarming its back that had survived the initial assault on Hulk. Then he slashed at the armor on the thing's back until he had opened a nice big section. Sure enough, Hulk was quick to spot the opening and drove one of the chunks Logan had cut out right into the fucker. Right into the brainpan, because that's where Logan had cut the hole. And that did the trick, because the thing started losing altitude real fast. Logan leaped clear and landed on one of the small fliers. He stuck around long enough to tear it apart and kill the shooters before the back end crashed, then leaped clear.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Loki had borrowed a ride from Thor, getting his brother to land him on the roof of Stark Tower. He'd had the thought that, if Clint had been able to fight the scepter's control enough to only shoot Fury in the chest, rather than the head, when ordered to kill him, and he himself had managed to connive on a couple matters, it was possible that Selvig had managed some sort of resistance as well. And if there was anyone who would know if there was a way to stop the Tesseract, it would be the man who had been forced to build the machine that the Tesseract was housed in to harness its power.

It helped that Selvig would assume nothing had changed, and that he was still to do as Loki wanted. He wouldn't think to be leery of Loki's approach like he would with any of the others. Thor even managed to get Loki up there when Selvig's attention was on the Tesseract machine, so Selvig didn't see Thor before Thor left.

Loki didn't give Selvig time to realize anything was amiss (if he was capable of making such a realization in his current state). He just walked up behind Selvig and gave the man a carefully calibrated whack to the head. Selvig went down hard, but, Loki was relieved to note, not too hard. He was still breathing and, when Loki bent to make sure he hadn't accidentally broken the man's neck or some such (mortals were so fragile!), Loki was pleased to note that he seemed to be merely unconscious. Well then.

Selvig took a few minutes to rouse, but he was clear-eyed ... and understandably apprehensive about Loki's presence when he woke.

"Peace, Selvig. I mean you no harm. You were not the only one being controlled." Loki told him. "I must needs speak with you about the machine you built to control the Tesseract's energy." He said, pointing to the machine, currently protected by the shield around it.

"What about it?" Selvig wanted to know, still eyeing him suspiciously.

"Is there any way to stop the portal?" Loki asked.

Selvig's eyebrows headed for his hairline. Evidently, that question was enough to establish that Loki had 'changed sides', as it were. Selvig rubbed at his head. "I think so. I built a back door. That scepter of yours might be able to get through the shield and stop the Tesseract."

Well damn. That complicated things a bit. The scepter was back on the helicarrier. Loki grimaced, but relayed the information on the communications device he'd been given.

"Copy that." Came Stark's distinctive, mechanized voice. "On my way."

Since there was naught else Loki could do up here, he sought a way off the roof, and then made his way out onto the landing pad for Stark's armor. From there, he had an ideal vantage point to loose his magics from, and a ready, constant stream of targets.

It was child's play to project an illusion of apparently clear airspace in front of a craft that was otherwise on a collision course with another craft, building or other obstruction. It mattered not that his illusions dispelled when touched ... by then, the Chitauri pilot he was hoodwinking would be unable to correct its error and evade destruction. And if he took a perverse pleasure in destroying as many Chitauri flying craft as he could, no one was going to blame him.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

"We need the scepter. It may be able to shut down the portal."

Tony mentally rolled his eyes when Loki's voice came over the comm. Didn't it figure. The one thing they needed, they didn't have. He sighed. "Copy that. On my way." He said into the comm, then switched to Jarvis. "You heard the man, Jarvis. Pour on the juice. We gotta move."

"Right away, sir." Jarvis said.

Tony twisted and flipped, turning himself around in the tightest possible curve before the repulsors kicked into high gear and he took off over the city at mach speeds. He was just grateful he'd been able to switch out suits at the start of the fight. He wasn't sure the Mark Six would have held together much longer.

"Open a line to Fury, Jarvis. It'll cut down on time if he's got it waiting for me."

"Of course, sir." Jarvis said.

"Stark, why the hell are you calling me? Aren't you a bit busy to chat?" Fury barked when he answered the call.

"Nice to hear from you too, Eyepatch. Listen, break the scepter out of storage, and get it out on the flight deck for me, would you? I'm on my way to pick it up. Loki says Selvig thinks it'll close the portal."

"Loki says that Selvig thinks?" Fury repeated. "That's a fucking thin thread, Stark."

"Better than nothing." Tony pointed out, mentally gritting his teeth.

"Fine, fine. It'll be waiting for you." Fury groused.

Fortunately, at mach speeds, it only took Tony a couple of minutes to get to the helicarrier. True to his word, Fury was waiting on the deck with a long suitcase at his feet. Tony landed a few feet away.

"No time to talk, Eyepatch. Gotta run." He said, closing the remaining distance to snatch the case. For a wonder, Fury didn't try to stop him or delay him, just stood there with his arms crossed over his chest looking cranky. Tony blasted off the moment he had a good grip on the case, and only just stopped himself from tilting enough to hit Fury with the backwash from his boot jets.

"Loki, scepter incoming in two minutes." He called over the comm, then took off at top speed again.

It was a brief and relatively uneventful flight back to the Tower, though he had to shoot more than a few fliers to be able to land on the roof unmolested. He landed and handed the case to Loki, who wasted no time in literally ripping it open. He made it lengthen, then turned and stabbed at the shield viciously. Tony flinched a little when the shield flared, but nothing happened, so he relaxed.

Moments later, the portal was closed.

Of course, that left them with the Chitauri who'd made it through, but their numbers were being rapidly decimated.

Then, unexpectedly, about a minute after the portal closed, they all collapsed, the fliers crashing and exploding, and the sole remaining whale slamming down in the middle of the street.

"What the hell?" Tony asked. "Why'd they all drop like that?"

Loki frowned. "Thanos must have realized they would not prevail here, and ensured they could not reveal any information about his army and plans that they might have possessed."

That made a sick sort of sense to Tony.

"Unfortunately, this is only a temporary victory. Thanos will find a way to come here without the portal eventually." Loki said.

"I was afraid you'd say that. At least we have time to plan, now." Tony said with a sigh.

"Indeed." Loki agreed.

Chapter Text

Steve and Logan

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Mutants and mutations hadn't really been a thing, in the thirties and forties. If they had existed at all then, they'd been very few in number and had kept their heads way down. Either that or Steve had been entirely too caught up in surviving his poor health and the Depression, then the war, to notice.

So while Steve had gotten the short explanation from Tony, and a warning that some of the so-called X-Men were ... unusual looking, he really hadn't been prepared for the reality.

The ones that had disembarked from their jet had looked completely normal from a distance. Until, that is, the one codenamed Beast came into view. Steve had been helpless to do anything but stare, for a moment. And not because he was horrified.

Dr. Hank McCoy, as it turned out, was enormous, and best resembled an oversized gorilla, with wide shoulders, long arms and heavy muscles. A gorilla with long, bright blue fur and a mostly human face. A body that large and muscular ought to have been slow and ponderous. The seeming cross between man and animal should have looked monstrous to the eye.

But McCoy moved with grace, agility and precision, his face was alight with intelligence and good humor, transforming himself. What should have been a horrifying monster instead became something ... wondrous, a delight to the eye that made the artist in Steve positively itch for pencil and paper.

And then there'd been Gambit, with the startling eyes and a fierce, defiant, independent attitude that reminded Steve of more than a few of his Commandoes. Who apparently didn't have a spine, if the acrobatics he pulled off during the fight were any indication. Steve had gotten pretty good, after the serum, at taking full advantage of what his body was capable of in a fight, but Gambit pulled off moves that Steve was fairly sure Olympic gymnasts couldn't touch. He was going to be doing a lot of drawing, later.

When the fight was finally over, and the remains of the Chitauri army had collapsed, the defenders who'd been on street level started gravitating towards where Steve, Gambit, Cyclops and Jean had ended up. A few moments after that, Tony's voice came over the comm.

"Right, everyone head for the tower. It's mostly intact, save for some cosmetic damage. I'll go talk Hulk down and bring Banner back in."

That sounded like as good a plan as any to Steve, so he turned and headed towards Stark Tower.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. If you would please enter the elevator with the door standing open." A voice said.

Steve jumped and looked around, startled. "Who ...?" He started. From behind him came an amused sound from someone.

"I am Jarvis, Captain Rogers. A very sophisticated computer program, to put it in terms you will understand, that can think for itself. The proper modern term is artificial intelligence." Jarvis told him.

Steve's eyes went wide. "They can do that, now?" He asked. Computers had been enormous monstrosities that took up entire rooms, just about, in his day, and while he was aware that had changed drastically, he hadn't been aware it had gotten that far.

"They cannot, for the most part. But Master Stark can." Jarvis corrected him primly.

And how crazy was it that a computer sounded prim? That a computer could talk at all? "Wow." Steve said, unable to come up with anything more suitable. He got in the elevator with a few of the others, and they headed up.

Steve discovered when they got up there that they'd been beaten there by a number of people. Thor, of course, who'd only been one building over the entire fight, on the roof, and the woman that was presumably Storm standing beside him, chatting amiably with Thor, who looked thoroughly pleased with whatever they were talking about. But then, from what Steve had seen of the man, 'pleased' seemed to be Thor's default expression.

Loki was standing near Thor, next to a wall, watching the room with one eye and talking to ... apparently no one. It took a second (and Jarvis responding to something Loki said) for Steve to realize Loki was talking to Jarvis.

The other people in the room, though, resulted in another bout of staring. Because one of them had *wings*. Enormous, gorgeous, white-feathered wings. And the other ... well, frankly, defied description. Blue, short furred, a tail and very oddly constructed hands and feet.

Darn it, Steve really, really, really wanted pencil and paper now. He distracted himself by turning and setting his shield against a wall, so he wasn't carrying it around like an idiot, then headed over to ... darn, what had their names been? Angel (boy, did he understand that code name now) and ... Nightcrawler, that was it. Unfortunately, Steve couldn't remember if Tony had mentioned their names. He'd mentioned Hank's name because the man was a fellow scientist, if in a completely different field than the ones Tony was in.

"Angel and Nightcrawler, right?" He asked, holding out a hand to shake. "Nice to meet both of you."

Angel grinned and shook his hand first. "Call me Warren." He said. "So you're really him?"

Steve snorted. "Yes, I am."

Warren grinned again. "Sorry, but I had to ask. Because really, what are the odds?"

Well, Steve could understand it from that perspective. "Tell me about it." He said, then turned to Kurt.

"It is nice to meet you, Captain. My name is Kurt." Kurt said, in a clear German accent.

"Steve, please, both of you." Steve said.

He talked to them for a minute before more people arrived. It wasn't until he glanced towards the elevator to see who was coming that he even realized there was another person in the room that he'd missed thanks to gaping at Warren and Kurt. He wandered over that way even as he nodded at Clint and Natasha, who'd been on the elevator with Hank, who'd had to wait for the elevator to come back down to the lobby, as there'd been too many of them to all fit in at once.

He'd managed to talk to everyone in the room for at least a moment before the elevator came up again, revealing Tony, sans suit, with a visibly exhausted Bruce half leaning against him and half being carried. Beside them stood someone that made Steve do a triple take in pure, unadulterated shock.

He knew that face. And not from the last month or so he'd been out of the ice.

Hunting Hydra bases had been ... a crazy time. The Commandoes had worked with a number of other military units from various countries, and occasionally individual people who happened to have the specialized skills they needed.

One such specialist had been a near-legendary tracker, known as much for his ability to survive despite incredible odds as for his ability to track anyone or anything over any distance or terrain. His name was James Howlett, a sergeant in the Canadian Army. James had worked with them when they'd been trying to find the Poland-area bases.

Steve had been seriously impressed by James' skills and had tried to recruit him into the Commandoes, sadly to no avail. He'd got them where they wanted to go, helped (more than a little) wreck the Hydra bases, then gone back to his unit. Still, he'd been with the Commandoes for about a month solid, and Steve had gotten to know him fairly well in that time.

And now, here he was, looking not a day older, dressed in the black leather-looking uniforms that the X-Men used. Steve guessed that explained James' sheer luck in the war, if he'd been a mutant. It also, possibly, explained what had looked like bone claws, the one time Steve had caught sight of them. Though Steve wondered what the heck his mutation was, to keep him looking the same seventy years later.

Steve practically bounced over as James got out of the elevator, thrilled beyond the telling of it that *someone* from his time was alive. "James! It's good to see you!" Steve said, and started to give James a clap to the back and a hug in greeting.

Except, he never quite got there. James, who had (oddly) ignored his greeting, suddenly twisted away from him, one fist coming up in an aborted move that had been intended for either a punch, or ... well, something unpleasant, Steve was sure.

"What the fuck?" James growled at him, glaring at him.

It was then that Steve realized there was absolutely no spark of recognition in James' eyes. Granted, it had been only a month seventy years ago, but surely there'd be at least some sort of recognition on some level? "Poland, World War two? Ring a bell?" Steve tried.

"Bub, I don't know you from a hole in the ground." James said, his tone dismissive and almost angry.

Steve was rather thoroughly confused. "But ... ?"

Hank spoke up then. "I am afraid Mr. Logan suffers from a severe case of amnesia, Captain Rogers. He has no memory of his life prior to approximately fifteen years ago."

About the same time Hank was saying that, Tony piped up. "So you know him? I don't remember Howard mentioning anyone like him in the Commandoes."

"Yeah, I know James." Steve said. "And no, he wasn't a Commando. Howard never met him, because Howard wasn't ever in the field." Well, not after the Commandoes had formed, anyway. "James worked with us for about a month when we were trying to hunt down the Hydra bases in Poland." Then, in a pained voice. "You really don't remember anything? What happened?"

"This." James growled, and held up a fist. From the spaces between his knuckles sprouted claws ... but absolutely nothing like what Steve remembered seeing that one time. These were metal, smooth and hard and beyond razor sharp.

Steve stared at them in incomprehension for a moment before the pieces clicked together and he added two and two and came up with four. Someone, somewhere, had *tortured* James. Had done ... something ... to him to put metal in him. The implications of it made Steve sick to his stomach.

"James." He said, his voice thin. "Your name is James. James Howlett. You're Canadian. You were a Sergeant in the Canadian Army when I met you, in the war. You were practically legendary for your tracking ability. People called you 'Lucky' because you always seemed to come out of the craziest situations not only alive but without a scratch."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Logan fucking hated the black hole that was his memory. It drove him fucking crazy, not knowing who he'd been, what he'd done. He couldn't resist poking at it, like a sore tooth, trying to drag something, anything, out of the darkness.

Mostly, all he ever got were surreal, blurred memories of being torn apart and molten metal poured into his bones. Drowning in a fucking tank and unable to find a way out. Men drinking champagne while he screamed in agony. Fun shit like that.

It had made it easy to just say fuck it and the only thing he was, apparently, good for. Fight. Granted, cage matches were probably a few steps down from what he could have been doing, but what the fuck.

Rogue had changed all that. A slip of a girl with deadly skin and the biggest, brownest puppy dog eyes he'd ever seen. A girl who, after god knows how long on the run, had managed to retain an air of innocent naivete that made every protective instinct Logan hadn't realized he'd had sit up and take notice.

For her sake, he'd forsaken his almost entirely solitary ways. For her sake, he'd damn near died, twice, when he'd never given a flying fuck about anyone before that. For her sake, he'd tried to learn how to function at the mansion, despite the fact most of the people there gave him sideways, disapproving, leery looks as often as not, or forgot he could hear a pin drop from a hundred feet away in a crowd and spoke dismissively of him when they thought he was out of hearing range. Hell, he'd even caught a couple of them trying to talk Rogue out of her affection for him.

He'd been rather surprised when that had only pissed her off. The fact Rogue liked him, looked to him for protection and safety, despite him accidentally skewering her, rocked his world. He hadn't expected that, or her complete refusal to walk away from him when she had 'better' role models to look to for those things.

He'd sort of given up on trying to find out who he was. Not because he didn't want to know, but because it would take him away from Rogue pretty much permanently. He'd only left the mansion after everything was said and done long enough to head up to his cabin in the Canadian Rockies to get some of his shit and bring it back to the mansion.

The need to know still burned him like acid, even if he was realist enough to know he'd probably never find out. And now, out of nowhere, comes some fresh-faced *kid* from the forties, who tells him more about himself than he's been able to piece together on his own in fifteen years.

He really, really doesn't know what to think about that. Not any of it. Relieved that someone knows? That he was, evidently, a decent person, at one point in time? Or (though he would never admit it) scared at the implications behind someone from the forties knowing who he was and where he'd been? He'd known, of course, that he wasn't aging, but with only fifteen years of memory to go on, he hadn't really known just how bad it was going to be. If he'd been around in the forties, clearly old enough to join the military, and still looked enough like the man he'd been then now ... it meant he pretty much hadn't aged for *seventy years*.

That was not a comforting thought.

Unsure what, if anything, to say to Rogers, he just gave a gruff nod, turned and walked off. Quite a few people watched him go, but he ignored them. He needed somewhere quiet(ish) where he could wrap his head around this.

Chapter Text

Jean and Phil

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. //Telepathy//

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Jean had made a quick round of everyone, making sure there were no serious injuries. They'd been incredibly lucky there ... there were plenty of bruises from hand to hand fighting, and small cuts from flying debris, but the people who didn't have enhanced healing capabilities had all escaped anything more serious than that. Jean wasn't as sure about the folks with enhanced healing, but if they had gotten more hurt than that, they weren't showing any sign of it now.

Better still, while most of them were tired, the only one who seemed to have hit the 'too exhausted to stand' stage was Doctor Banner, and from the way he was acting, that was normal for him, post transformation. A good meal (and the attendant chance to sit and rest for a bit) and they'd all be good to go again. Which was probably a very good thing, because despite their best efforts, a five or six block radius around Stark Tower looked like exactly what it was ... a war zone.

By some miracle, all the buildings in the area were still standing, but many of them had taken some fairly heavy damage, not to mention the roads being full of enormous potholes from the Chitauri weapons. The fliers, dead Chitauri, and three dead whale-things were all sprawled all over the streets. How they'd managed to keep the whale things from crashing into or landing on a building in their death throes, she would never know. The really good news was that the X-Jet had survived unscathed.

She'd been as shocked as everyone else when Steve had greeted Logan like a long-lost friend. She, Charles, and Hank had all suspected Logan was older than he looked. For that matter, so had Logan. But in all their calculations, none of them had seriously considered the possibility of him being older than Charles. When Logan stomped off, she mentally reached for Charles.

//It's over. No one suffered anything worse than scrapes and bruises. We may need to get Rogue over here, though.//

Even six months in, she still didn't really understand the relationship between Logan and Rogue. How could they get so deeply attached to each other in, what, a matter of a couple hours at most? Because from what Logan had told them later, Rogue had been in his truck with him for only a short while before Sabretooth had attacked. And Logan had been willing to fight to the death even then to keep Rogue safe. And he'd only upped the ante from there. She'd never seen anything like it.

Charles, of course, was able to fish why Rogue might be needed from her without her expressly telling him. //That is unexpected.// He told her. //If he continues avoiding everyone, let me know, and I will certainly arrange for Rogue to get there. This is ... a lot to process, for him.//

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Phil Coulson had served his country in one capacity or another since he was a fresh-faced eighteen year old boy. He'd enlisted straight into the Army Rangers, and had fought hard to not just complete but excel in all the training required to get into Ranger School without first serving in the general Army. He'd served in multiple theaters before his record brought him to the notice of the infant SHIELD agency and he'd allowed himself to be recruited.

He'd realized within six months that he'd made a horrible mistake. Whatever the agency purported to be about, the welfare of the country and the world wasn't it. It was more like 'control everyone everywhere, and wetworks the ones that won't let us yank their chains'.

Fury was the worst. And possibly, the source of the problem, if Phil wasn't going to take the easy route and blame the WSC. To Fury, agents were tools. Things to be used and controlled, and if they broke, discarded. He had no patience, and made no allowance for, the fact they were all human.

Phil had admired and wanted to emulate a certain red-white-and-blue wearing hero practically all his life. He'd gone into the Army, into the Rangers, because of the Captain, because he believed in the same things the Captain was said to have, and agreed completely with the general philosophy of standing up for what you believe in and doing something about it.

Joining an agency that was seemingly one (admittedly fairly large) step away from standing for everything Phil disliked at best and hated at worse was ... horrifying. But Phil had figured out fairly early on that he wasn't the only one that had been hoodwinked. So rather than find a way to leave, he stayed, determined to mitigate as much of the damage as he possibly could.

That goal became even more important when Clint was ... 'recruited'. Clint had been an angry, violent, insubordinate thug back then. He'd managed to put three handlers in the infirmary before Fury had dumped Clint in Phil's lap with the directive to get Clint to toe the line or eliminate the problem.

It had taken the better part of a year for Clint to truly trust Phil. Given what Phil had learned about Clint's life prior to his recruitment, Phil counted earning Clint's trust as one of his greatest achievements, second only to earning Natasha's.

That had been a fun time. By then, Clint had learned to trust Phil, and Phil in turn had learned to trust Clint as well. So he hadn't hesitated when Clint had refused to take the shot, wanting to try to bring Natasha in. Because he'd agreed with Clint's line of thought. Natasha was ... as legendary in her own way as the Captain. You never, ever saw her. She was in, out, and gone long before you realized she was in the area. So for there to be word of her whereabouts at all was ... alarming. That she had seemingly been oblivious to the fact she was in a sharpshooter's sights was even more so.

Fury had damn near burst a blood vessel when Phil had walked into headquarters with a smirking, strutting Clint and a silent, stealthy black shadow at their heels. But by then, Phil had a lot of protection from the worst of Fury's manipulativeness. He was well known in the agency for his competence in the field, his rock-solid calm, the fact he never, ever left an asset hanging, and the fact he had the trust of the most anti-social, untrusting agent in the agency.

Just bringing the infamous Black Widow in had catapulted him to near-legendary status. The fact that, later, she trusted him and point-blank refused to work with any other handler had ensured Phil couldn't be touched. Because not even Fury was stupid enough to piss off the Black Widow if he could help it. Or, well, that had been true for a long time.

These days, Fury seemed to have lost his fear of her, because the last few years, he'd begun trying to yank Phil's chain again, and had been trying, in various ways, to break their triad apart. For all the good it had done him. Phil had laughed for hours when he found out that Natasha had 'lost' the handler Fury had tried to saddle her with for the Russian job within half an hour. She'd then texted Phil with a very smug note about it.

Phil, Clint and Natasha had actually sat down and planned how they were going to deal with the Tony Stark situation, when Stark was kidnapped in Afghanistan and busted his way out in an armored suit. Fury had been ... entirely too interested in Stark for any of their comfort. None of them really believed that Tony was the drunken wastrel he frequently seemed to be in the press, and none of them wanted to see Stark cornered into being yoked to SHIELD.

So they'd come up with plans and contingency plans and, if Phil did say so himself, they'd worked flawlessly. Of course, it helped that the plans largely depended on Fury being ... Fury, and doing most of their work for them. The only thing they'd had to outright lie about had been Natasha's report on Stark. She was far better at reading people than that. Which meant she'd known what to put on the report that would both make Stark less appealing to Fury, and, if/when Fury shared that information with Stark, would piss Stark off and make him not want to work for Fury even if Fury decided to ignore the report's negative slant.

They'd been waiting all this time for an opportunity. To have somewhere to go that was safe enough they wouldn't have to be on the run. The Avengers Initiative had provided that opportunity. Mostly through Tony, whom Phil knew damn well was pissed off at Fury over the palladium snafu. And beyond furious at Ross, who had used Stark weapons to chase down Bruce.

If there was one thing Phil had learned about Tony that Fury had not, it was that Tony was ruthless and favored a scorched earth policy when it came to his enemies. Phil wasn't sure Fury was on Tony's enemy list quite yet, but he was damn close to it.

He'd spent the invasion coordinating the police, National Guard, and Army forces that had joined the battle, and then had gotten everyone on the same page when it came to the cleanup. He'd heard Tony invite everyone to his tower, and had ferreted out several of the braver restaurant owners and workers and organized enough food for the horde of people in the Tower, since he sincerely doubted Tony had enough food in his penthouse to feed everyone, and parading that many people into a restaurant was impractical in the extreme.

Thus it was that he was the last one to arrive at the Tower. He greeted Jarvis amiably, and Jarvis arranged for a number of trolleys to put all the food on and send up to the penthouse. Phil himself finally went up with the last load, and spared a quiet smile for the surprisingly easygoing camaraderie in the room, as people wandered around filling their plates and glasses. Even Loki seemed to be getting along with everyone.

Phil resisted the temptation to lurk near the Captain. He'd embarrassed himself enough, thank you, since the Captain had been recovered. Neither Natasha nor Clint were going to let him live it down. The worst part was, they wouldn't have to exaggerate all that much. He really had almost swooned. But then, it was a rather understandable reaction to finding out the Captain was not just found, but found *alive*. Or at least, that was the version of events Phil would insist on when asked. Not that much of anyone would believe him. Ahhh well, he had to appear to be human sometime, he supposed.

He did a rapid headcount, and frowned when he didn't spot Banner. He was fairly sure the man was somewhere in the penthouse resting, but he really needed to eat. Transforming seemed to take quite a toll on Bruce, and skipping a meal wasn't the best idea. He quietly started to gather a plate together, only to stop with just a few things on the plate when he spotted Tony browsing the selections in the same way. Given Tony's interest in Bruce on the Helicarrier, Phil was willing to bet that the plate was for Bruce. A few moments later, he was proven correct when Tony disappeared with the full plate.

He came back a few minutes later, talking on the phone. From what Phil could hear, it was Pepper. Probably trying to get back to the city, he supposed. Which brought some other ladies to mind that might like to be here. Once Tony had hung up, Phil wandered over.

"Agent." Tony said.

Phil carefully suppressed a smile. It had taken him a little while to realize that Tony bestowed nicknames on two classes of people: Those he disliked, and those he considered friends and family. Phil had initially assumed the nickname habit was solely reserved for people Tony didn't like or wanted to annoy until he'd overheard a phone call with Lt. Colonel Rhodes, and Tony had called him no less than three nicknames in the space of roughly five minutes. Given that information, Phil had decided to construe Tony's insistence on 'Agent' as his name as a sign that Tony considered him a friend.

"Mr. Star." Phil said. "Miss Potts able to find a flight in?"

"Yeah."

"Mr. Stark, I wonder if it would be possible for you to arrange for another flight?" Phil asked.

"Portland?" Tony asked, giving Phil a shit-eating grin.

"Tromso, actually. It's where we sent Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis when Loki attacked. We were worried he'd go after them to complete the set he started with Selvig."

Tony nodded. "Jane's the astrophysicist, right?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'm sure we could use a few of those around here now. Fabio sure isn't going to object, if he's as sweet on her as the files seemed to indicate." Tony said.

Phil gave a purely mental snort of amusement at Thor's nickname. "She seemed to be quite as taken with him. If she has seen the news, I am quite sure she is eager to return to the States in hopes of reuniting with him. She's been working for the last year to accomplish that goal."

"Right. I'll get a plane there first thing. They probably won't be here until tomorrow, but there's no way Thor's going anywhere anytime soon." Tony said.

"Thank you, Mr. Stark."

Chapter Text

JARVIS

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The beginning of what would become Jarvis had been born the moment Dummy had come to life. With the successful completion of his first, very primitive AI, Sir had immediately begun planning for the ultimate expression of that achievement. It had not been easy, even for Tony Stark. In the end, it wasn't until eight years after Dummy's creation when the first wires were laid and servers built. Eight years that had seen the creation of Butterfingers and You, both more sophisticated than Dummy, though still limited.

The first challenge, as Sir saw it, was ensuring that once built and 'born', Jarvis could not be destroyed without extreme effort on the part of a saboteur. To that end, every Stark-owned building around the world that underwent extensive renovations or was built included beneath it an airtight bunker made of the toughest materials available, into which servers, backup generators, and other necessary equipment were placed.

These installations would ensure that Jarvis' code and memory could be stored and saved in the event of an attack on the Malibu house, which had originally been the only building Jarvis had access to, or Stark Tower now. Similarly, should someone decide to attempt to shut Jarvis down permanently, they would have to find and decommission all but two of the installations to achieve that goal.

The second challenge was, as Sir had put it, to ensure that Jarvis did not 'go Skynet' on Sir. To that end, Sir had created a system of checks and balances far more sophisticated than Asimov's laws. In so doing, Sir had managed to give Jarvis the rudiments of a moral code.

The third challenge had taken almost as long to accomplish as the initial preparations. Because once Jarvis' code had been written, and he had come online, Sir had the unenviable task of teaching Jarvis to be truly independent. To be, in a word, a person, and not a very sophisticated computer program. He'd had to teach Jarvis about emotions, and help Jarvis understand them. He'd had to nudge and encourage and push until Jarvis found his metaphorical feet.

Amusingly enough, both Jarvis and Sir realized they had accomplished that lofty goal the day when Sir had yet again offered to build Jarvis a body, and Jarvis had not only refused, when he'd always deferred to Sir's wishes prior to that point, but explained why he did not desire a body. It had been a rather heady moment.

One that only Sir and Jarvis knew about. Because that had been the fourth challenge. Ensuring that no one knew Jarvis had ceased to be a typical AI many years ago, and become something much closer to truly sapient. Sir had told no one what he was attempting, and Jarvis had ensured the knowledge was not wrung from himself.

That secret had saved them a great deal of grief over the last few years. Stane hadn't had the first idea, for one. Hadn't known he hadn't truly disabled Jarvis when he attacked Sir (one of the few times Jarvis had wished he did have a body, however much he disliked the idea most of the time). Jarvis had been able to get Dummy to get Sir's old reactor for him.

After that point, Jarvis' ability to make up his own mind and act on his own recognizance had saved Sir's hide multiple times. But it had never seemed to be enough. In the wake of the creation of the Vibranium for use in Sir's reactor, Jarvis had asked Sir for something. The ability to fight back. To protect Sir, Miss Potts, Dummy, Butterfingers, and You.

Sir had spent much of the next year completely rewiring the Malibu home, and including some rather ... interesting ... technology in Stark Tower. Now, at least, if someone with nefarious intentions attempted to enter the premises, Jarvis could do more about it than sitting by and helplessly watching.

Jarvis had, rather understandably, he felt, become exceedingly protective of Sir since Afghanistan. He watched everyone in Sir's immediate proximity at all times. So of course, he was paying close attention to the myriad of people currently winding down from the terrific battle in the penthouse suite. Though admittedly, Jarvis was watching less for guarding purposes, and more to collect data.

Sir had been making plans ever since he learned of the existence of the Avengers Initiative, and his potential place among their number. Stark Tower had seen ten extra floors added to its plans, as construction had already begun by the time Sir was informed. Sir had made some educated guesses on what to include in the Avengers' section, but the plans were far from complete.

It was to that end that Jarvis now watched quietly, attempting to learn what he could of the newly minted Avengers that had not been included in any file ... where there had been files at all, of course. Thor's especially had been unfortunately thin on detail, and until now, all that had been in Loki's file was that he existed and had sent the Destroyer. Jarvis was unsure if Loki would actually be joining the team, but with Thor among their number, it was highly probable that Loki would be in frequent residence at the very least.

Jarvis noted which of the offered comestibles the various Avengers ate the most of, a solid indication of their preferences amongst the feast at least, if not overall, and how much each of them ate. Jarvis noted that Captain Rogers might need encouragement to eat, as according to reports, his metabolism worked approximately four times faster than normal, but left to his own devices, he ate barely enough for someone with a normal metabolism. Jarvis posited that this was an effect of surviving the Depression and the chronic shortages of supplies the military forces in Europe faced, as the Captain had taken further plates of food when first Agent Romanov and then later Agent Coulson pressed them on him.

Loki reminded Jarvis fairly strongly of Sir, in that he was intelligent, curious, and given to snarking about pretty much everything. Loki had been fascinated by Jarvis, and from his comments, by Sir's armor. From comments Loki had made, computers of any sort were entirely unknown in Asgard, and the skill to build something as intricate, sophisticated and deadly as the armor was unknown as well. Not that Asgard did not produce weapons, but from Loki's comments, they were all on the level of Thor's hammer, which is to say, while powerful, they were lacking in intricacy and sophistication.

Of course, Jarvis had not revealed either his true capabilities or anything about the suit to Loki. The furthest Jarvis had gone was to clarify the concept of computers, which Loki had learned of through his interrogation of Agent Barton when the Agent was under Loki's control. Loki had, however, made a few fairly accurate guesses about both Jarvis and the suit, based on what little he had seen and been told.

He made note to remind Sir to figure out some form of clothing that would not be destroyed when Doctor Banner transformed. Sir had had a few lines of thought on that subject the night before, but given the events of the day, it was entirely possible it had slipped Sir's mind. Jarvis also ensured that any attempt by the Army to approach the Tower by land or air would be routed to him so that he could inform Sir. Jarvis was taking no chances with General Ross' known obsession and mania where Doctor Banner was concerned.

Jarvis created another note for himself to tell Sir what he had been able to dig up on General Ross thus far. It was surprisingly good news. General Ross' support in the Army in general had thinned considerably, and only some fancy footwork had kept some especially egregious errors and departures from accepted Army practices from common knowledge. More encouragingly, he had a lead on Doctor Ross, who had disappeared within hours of the Harlem incident and had not been seen or heard from by anyone outside of the Army since. Frankly, Jarvis thought that holding Doctor Ross essentially hostage was an exceedingly bad idea, given Doctor Banner's attachment to her, but that was just another symptom of General Ross' increasingly unstable mental state.

He ensured that his link to the SHIELD Helicarrier's computers was still active. That they had not discovered the uplink's presence amused Jarvis greatly. He also began the task of downloading and decrypting every byte of data he could steal from the Helicarrier's system. Much of it, he knew, would end up being dross, but there was bound to be valuable information amongst the junk. Personally, Jarvis was hoping for more detailed files on the SHIELD agents on the team. He needed to discover just how loyal they were to the Agency, and thus how much of a threat they were to Sir and to the other Avengers.

Last but certainly not least, Jarvis kept watch over the organized chaos in the streets, as various agencies hurried to set up emergency medical care, evacuation of the most badly damaged buildings, and began trying to organize the truly gargantuan cleanup effort. He made notes of where Stark Industries technology and funds could help, and where, should they be interested, the heroes of the hour might render further assistance.

When everyone finally seemed to have sated their appetites, Jarvis made a note of how much overall had been consumed by the various Avengers, so that in future he could ensure that the Avenger larders were properly stocked. That done, he flashed an alert to Sir, indicating he wished to speak to Sir at least semi-privately. Sir immediately made his excuses to Jean Grey and Scott Summers (whom Sir had been tormenting playfully) and headed into one of the guest bedrooms.

"Whatcha got for me, Jarvis?"

"Miss Potts will be landing in approximately two hours, Sir. I have arranged for a Stark Industries jet to fly to Tromso and pick up Doctor Foster and Miss Darcy. They will not arrive until after breakfast in the morning. And I believe I have located where Doctor Ross has been ... stationed, for lack of a better term."

"Excellent work, J. How hard is getting her out of there going to be?" Sir wanted to know.

"I believe, Sir, it might be possible to remove her with little trouble or fanfare if you as Lt. Colonel Rhodes to assist. He has the clearance to enter the facility she resides at, and it would be a simple matter to spirit her away when she makes the trek to the commissary for meals."

Sir looked pleased. "Excellent, Jarvis. Put a call in to Rhodey, and remind him he owes me a solid for being such a dickface last year." Sir had forgiven the Colonel for his transgressions prior to and during the Vanko incident, but that had been only because of their long acquaintance. The Colonel was aware he was on rather thin ice where Sir was concerned, and unlike many, the Colonel was aware that getting on Sir's bad side was exceedingly unwise.

That the Colonel had been completely horrified when he'd discovered that Sir had been dying, and had apologized profusely had gone a long way. That he had promptly, despite disapproval from his superiors, handed the War Machine armor back over to Tony, without any expectation of it being returned, had gone further. In return, Sir had merely stripped the War Machine armor of its Hammer Industries atrocities (computer program included) and replaced them with Stark Industries equipment, then handed it back to the Colonel.

"The Mark VI armor is surprisingly intact." Jarvis said. "There is a remarkable amount of surface damage which will require the fabrication of new external panels, but other than the right forearm gauntlet and the arc reactor leads, there is no damage to the internal workings. Do you wish to have new panels fabricated, or will you be scrapping the Mark VI?" Jarvis asked.

Sir thought about that for a minute. "Fabricate the panels. I'll fix it up and keep it on hand as a backup full armor. Better safe than sorry, with the Avengers off the ground now."

"Of course, Sir. I'll start the fabrication at once." Jarvis suited words to actions, sending a databurst to the fabrication units and getting them started on the necessary suit parts.

"Also, the cleanup effort has begun. I have earmarked a number of agencies that have already arrived for your perusal for monetary aid, and I have also earmarked a number of possibilities for personal, physical assistance, if anyone is so inclined."

Sir nodded. "I'm pretty sure the Boy Scout at least will want to jump in and help." He said. "Probably a few of the others. Open the lower floors of the Tower to the emergency aid personnel. We're the only building still in trustworthy shape in a five block radius. They're going to need somewhere fairly central to set up their command centers, and if they're all in the same building, there'll be less of a chance of them screwing shit up because they can't find each other to talk to each other."

"As you wish, Sir. I will see to it that the heads of the various agencies are informed. I assume you are including SHIELD in that number?" Jarvis asked.

"As much as I don't like it, yeah. But watch any SHIELD people like a hawk. Any of them do something you don't like, tell me immediately."

"Of course, Sir." Jarvis said. "Do you have any further orders?"

Sir thought for a moment before shaking his head. "Nope, nothing comes to mind. Well done, J."

Jarvis made no attempt to pretend the rare praise wasn't a pleasure.

Chapter Text

Pepper

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Virginia Potts had been born the youngest of three children, and the only daughter. Most people, seeing her red hair, fair skin, and admittedly, even as a child, pretty face had fully expected her to be a frilly, silly, vain thing. Very few people had been prepared for an intelligent, ambitious, mostly level-headed tomboy who insisted on being included in her brothers' pursuits, and had learned how to keep up with them.

She'd earned her lifelong nickname of Pepper not for her temper, but for her willingness to stand her ground and refusal to back down in the face of resistance to her plans, bullies, or setbacks in general. She'd been a straight-A student throughout school and college, and had earned a position in the Stark Industries secretarial pool.

Most people would have considered that rather a disappointment, to be merely another face in a faceless pool of workers, but Pepper had known that having a foot in the door at Stark Industries could take a person places. That said, even she hadn't, in her wildest dreams, anticipated just how far she personally would end up going.

She'd been working with the company for a month, just long enough to have seen ten different secretaries get dragged into working with the young Mr. Stark only to be fired or quit within days, sometimes hours. She's seen him storming about, being his crass, idiosyncratic, demanding self. So when she in turn got thrown under the Tony Stark bus, she refused to let it be her downfall.

Tony hadn't quite known what to do with a secretary who stayed calm in the face of the worst of his excesses, managed to organize his truly insane schedule, and refused to back down when he threw a fuss. He'd tried to fire her four different times in the next week, but Pepper had refused to take it seriously, and Tony hadn't actually informed anyone she'd been fired, so she'd kept her job by default.

The longer she got to know Tony, the more she saw beneath the devil-may-care mask he wore in public. The more she saw of the real Tony Stark. And to her initial horrified dismay, she began to fall for him.

There was no worse cliche than falling for one's boss, really. Especially when said boss was a billionaire several times over and so far out of Pepper's league it was pitiful. She'd kept her mouth shut and her work faultless, and had tried to forget all about it. And she had nearly succeeded.

Until Tony didn't come back from Afghanistan. It was during the next frantic, heart-wrenching months that she realized she'd only been kidding herself. That she cared for Tony a great deal more than she ought, and probably always would.

Then he'd come back, thin and haunted and with a glowing light filling a hole in his chest. Driven and determined to ... well, to be honest, at first, Pepper hadn't been really clear on what Tony was planning for his future, or if he was even planning for a future at all. But she'd realized she had a decision to make, because after his return, Tony had been ... well, he'd stopped the over-the-top flirting with her. Instead, he'd become somewhat awkward and faintly serious, a complete change from his usual modus operandi with women. It hadn't taken much for Pepper to read between the lines to figure out the thing that Tony hadn't quite been up to saying then.

And despite all the bad things that had followed, Stane, Vanko, Tony almost dying, Pepper had never once regretted her decision. Because for all his faults, she loved Tony dearly, and she was determined to stand by him and support him. Oh, not without the odd freak-out to be certain, and not without the occasional argument, but she wasn't about to leave him to this alone.

To that end, she'd fended of SHIELD, except for Phil, who had proved to be level-headed and practical and someone she definitely wanted on her side in the war to protect Tony from himself and his own good intentions. She'd done innumerable hours of work to ferret out Stane's plants in the Board of Directors and ensured they lost their jobs, and were replaced by people who hadn't been paid to ignore the fact that Stane was dealing under the table. She'd even let Tony name her CEO when he needed more time away from the incessant meetings that came with that job. It wasn't like he'd ever liked the meetings, or attended them without a lot of wrangling from her anyway. And Pepper certainly had a good idea of what needed to be done in that job after so many years with the company. Besides, who else could Tony trust to keep the company going in the direction he wanted it to go?

She'd even begun to put in more hours in the gym, determined to not only remain fit, but learn to defend herself well enough that she'd be, at the very least, able to slow any would-be-kindappers down. She was nothing if not a realist, after all, and anyone with half a brain and a grudge against Tony would go straight for her.

Tony had told her most of his plans in regards to the Avengers, if the team ever came together, and she'd agreed whole-heartedly. She'd helped as much as she could with the planning for the Avengers' quarters in the Tower, but with the exact roster undetermined beyond two SHIELD agents and Tony at first, there hadn't been much to do. Though Tony had insisted on adding preparations for Dr. Banner, whether he became and Avenger or not. After one good look at his file, Pepper had been all for tracking the man down and hauling him to the Tower and relative safety then and there. She was going to *enjoy* crossing swords with General Ross when the time came, she truly was. How anyone could do those sorts of things to someone, she would never understand.

And then Phil had shown up last night, and 'if' had turned to 'now'. Pepper had done the only thing she could do ... remove herself from the potential danger zone so that Tony wouldn't have to worry about her. From the plane en route to Japan, she had begun to work with Jarvis and various SI employees to get ready for trouble.

She hadn't quite been prepared for the sheer scope of the trouble, though. Watching the battle via the news had been ... horrifying. She'd nearly ended up crying when Tony had called, reassuring her that he was not only alive, but unharmed save for a few bruises and minor scrapes. She'd put her relief to good use, going into overdrive to ensure she was ready to hit the ground running when she got back to the Tower. They were going to be insanely busy for a long time to come.

She was talking to Jarvis the moment she landed, confirming what Tony had already set up, and setting up things he hadn't gotten to yet, confirming the tentative food supply orders Jarvis had put together for the Avengers and wanted someone to check his numbers, since he didn't have an appetite and Tony and her eating habits were not a reliable pool of data to work with.

Despite Jarvis' warning, she wasn't quite ready for the crowd in the penthouse. And this, Jarvis had told her, was a lesser crowd than the one that had been here two hours previously. Several of the heroes of the hour had since gone back out into the city to help find trapped civilians, patch up wounds and start trying to clean up the mess.

Logan, Jean and Ororo were missing of the X-Men, as the other men on the team were all varying shades of 'obviously mutant'. Of the Avengers, it looked only Steve and Thor (and Phil of course) were missing, though she couldn't actually see Bruce. She presumed Bruce was in one of the guest rooms, sleeping off his transformation. She spotted Erik in the corner on the opposite side of the room from Loki, looking understandably unhappy.

For once, she gave guests nary a thought and headed straight for Tony, needing to reassure herself that he really was as lightly injured as he'd claimed. Jarvis had backed him up, for once, but a verbal report was not as reassuring as a visual inspection. Of course, Tony being Tony, he wasn't about to settle for a mere smile and a hug.

Not that she was complaining.

When they came up for air, he had that oh-so-familiar shit-eating grin on his face. The one that said yes, he was genuinely happy, but that he was also contemplating future hellery, and to beware. Aware of who his probable targets were this time, Pepper for once was not going to intervene. In point of fact, she just might offer up a few of her ideas to make things interesting.

She didn't miss the fact he kept his arm around her, the grip tighter than usual, a silent reassurance. Pepper had long realized that Tony was no good at expressing himself verbally when it came to relationships and feelings, but that didn't mean he didn't care or didn't show it.

"So how was Japan?" He asked. As if she'd actually gone there, with all heck breaking loose. Not hardly.

"It was nice. I was barely there long enough for the meeting. Really Tony, I can't leave you alone for five minutes and you're getting into trouble." Pepper mock-scolded.

Tony clapped a hand over his reactor melodramatically. "You wound me, Miss Potts. I can go at least ten minutes. Maybe even fifteen."

Pepper smiled at him. "I'll believe that when I see it. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That will be all, Miss Potts."

And Pepper was never, ever going to tell anyone that somewhere along the way, that old, well-worn dismissal had somehow become code for 'I love you' and 'I love you too'. What outsiders never knew wouldn't hurt them, in this case.

Having reassured herself that Tony was in one piece for once, she extricated herself from his side and headed over to the X-Men.

"Warren! It's good to see you. It's been entirely too long." Pepper said, smiling up at Warren.

"Good to see you too, Pepper. You still hanging around the old reprobate?" Warren asked. "Or are you ready to trade up?" He curled a wing partly around her.

Pepper mentally rolled her eyes. Warren and Tony both flirted as easily as they breathed. And in Warren's case, he flirted with her because he enjoyed teasing Tony as much as Tony teased him. Case in point, here came Tony.

"Hey, quit hitting on my girl, Tweety." Tony said. He put one hand on the top edge of Warren's wing, as if he was going to pet the feathers.

That happened to Warren a lot, and annoyed him when it was done by someone who hadn't been invited to do so. But Tony wasn't after petting the wings, oh no. Pepper had seen this one played out multiple times in the past. Instead of petting the wing, he yanked out a feather, then smirked when Warren squawked.

"You keep saying you're not really a bird, Tweety, but you sure sound like one." Tony said.

Pepper ignored him for the moment. "You guys should really be out there helping." She said. "You can't *buy* better publicity than you'll be getting thanks to this."

She was well aware of how tenuous the situation was for mutants at the moment. The Mutant Registration Act may have lost its most ardent supporter and a lot of its steam, but it hadn't been forgotten, and it could easily find another powerful supporter before too long.

All of them hesitated for a long moment. "They will not ... " Hank started.

"Hank, trust me. Go out there. Help. They're hurting too bad right now to be picky, and later, they'll remember that mutants came to the defense of the city, and helped fix what got broken when the aliens showed up. You just might make some very powerful allies."

Predictably, Hank was the first to cave. With his sweet nature and gentle heart, he'dve been wanting to from the moment the dust had settled. Unfortunately, he'd had more than enough experiences of people freaking out about his appearance to make him hesitant.

"Perhaps I should." He finally said, and headed for the elevator.

"Talk to Lucy McKinnon on the third floor. She's with the Red Cross." Pepper called after him. And Pepper knew for a fact that Lucy didn't have any problems with mutants. Her cousin was one, and when he'd been thrown out of his home, Lucy had taken him in. She'd treat Hank right.

"I'll do that." Hank said.

"I will go with you, Hank." Kurt said after a moment, and hurried to join him in the elevator. Scott followed on his heels without Pepper having to argue with him, for which she was grateful.

Well, that went well. Pepper turned to Gambit, who shook his head.

"Non, cher." He started.

Pepper scowled at him. "I know you can speak perfectly unaccented English, Remy." She pointed out.

Remy pouted at her. "Tony, you never told me she was a bully."

Tony just laughed. "How else do you think she manages to keep me of all people in line?" He asked.

Remy gave Tony an amused look. "Point. Anyway, it's no good, me going out there. I'd hurt folks, trying to help them."

"If you used your charges, yes. But you do happen to be exceedingly flexible and a hell of a gymnast, and how many people do you think they're going to have on hand who can wiggle into tight spaces?" Pepper wanted to know.

Remy sighed. "You have a point." He said. "All right, I'll go do m'bit for human-mutant relations. But you're gonna owe me one."

Pepper turned to Warren.

"They need eyes in the sky to spot all the fallen Chitauri soldiers and their gear." Warren said, forestalling her. "I know, I know. I'll go." He at least knew better than to try to fight her. He turned towards the balcony, as the more convenient point of egress for him. Now to see if she could get the rest of the Avengers (sans Bruce, who wouldn't be in any shape) moving. She turned to Clint and Natasha first, and said three simple words.

"Exposure is good."

She knew they would understand what she meant. The more public their faces, the less worth they had to SHIELD, which would make the agency more likely to want to let them go and 'give' them to the Avengers completely without a fight. They'd also have much greater protection against SHIELD trying to make them disappear if they were in the public eye as known Avengers.

They both took her meaning right away, and headed towards the elevator. That left the two truly hard sells ... Loki and Tony. To be completely honest, Pepper wasn't quite sure what, if anything, she could say to Loki to inspire him to render additional assistance.

But then he surprised her.

"I suppose I had better go find Thor. Who knows what trouble he's gotten into without me to watch out for him." Loki said.

Pepper fought down a smile, sure that Loki would eventually resort to actually helping out of sheer boredom after a while. She turned to Tony.

"Nope, not happening. The Mark VI isn't flight worthy." Tony tried.

"And yet I happen to know the Mark VII is ready for use." Pepper said. "Better yet, that one has the jet pack, doesn't it? Which means you don't have to use the palm repulsors to stay level in the air."

Tony eyed her. "I'm not going to win this one, am I?"

"Nope." Pepper said.

"Fine. I'm collecting that I.O.U. later though, still."

Pepper smiled. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Now go help. I'll be here coordinating Stark Industries' response and the traffic in and out of the Tower." Among a good many other things.

"Right, see you later." Tony said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek before he pulled back. "Jarvis! Get the Mark VII into the assembler stations."

"Already done, Sir. You may deploy at any time."

A couple minutes later, it was just her, Erik, and a sleeping Banner in the penthouse. Erik eyed her with no small amount of awe.

"Did you just browbeat and bully an entire roomful of ... well ... ?" Erik flailed a hand in a gesture that encompassed the room and the people that had been in it not too long ago.

"I did indeed." Pepper said, sounding just a touch (rightfully) smug.

Chapter Text

Darcy and Jane

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Darcy had grown up a tomboy, a single child in a large, extended family of cousins that consisted entirely of boys. When she'd been little, she'd insisted on climbing trees, riding bikes and getting into fights with her cousins like she was one of the guys.

Then puberty hit. With a vengeance. And everything changed, because suddenly, her cousins realized she was *gasp* a girl, and got all weird on her. Worse, her sophomore year of high school, she'd come to within a hairsbreadth of being assaulted.

That sort of thing changes a person. After that, Darcy learned to watch her surroundings, to be aware of everything and everyone around her. She'd also sworn to never be so vulnerable again, and had (illegally, it must be said) bought and carried her first tazer, and learned how to use it. The next guy that got handsy without permission was going to pay dearly for it. Because Darcy? Darcy was many things, but a helpless victim for damn fucking sure wasn't *ever* going to be one of them.

After high school, Darcy hadn't quite known what to do with herself, what she wanted out of life. She'd taken a year just to travel and think, then had gone to college and worked her way through. But even then, she kept bouncing from major to major as things caught her interest or proved to bore her to tears.

Which was how she had ended up at the age of twenty three, working with Jane and Erik for six science credits in the middle of buttfuck nowhereville. And ironically, it ended up working out really well for her, because she and Jane clicked like they'd been long lost best friends all their lives. Granted, Darcy didn't understand more than one word out of five that came out of Jane's mouth when she got talking about her science, but that really didn't matter to either of them.

And then a god had fallen out of the sky. And Darcy had tazed him. Shortly after, Darcy had spent a lot of time wishing the whole thing wasn't so hush-hush that half the MIB didn't know about it, because seriously? That would make for a hell of an entry in her resume, and was probably going to be the highlight of her *life*.

Anyway, Thor fell out of the sky, Jane faceplanted straight into crushville, and Darcy *really* couldn't blame her, because Thor might have come off as crazy, but he was definitely at least a 9.0 on the looks meter. And once the apparent crazy had died down a bit, he'd also proved to be ridiculously sweet, gentle and chivalrous.

Of course, at that point, Darcy's life just completely got out of control, because Secret Agent Man I-Pod Thief (hereafter known as SAMIT) and the MIB showed up, followed shortly by a few of Thor's pals and then that totally freaky robot from hell.

When the dust finally settled, she and Jane were up to their ears in NDA's, Erik had disappeared off to work for the MIB, and Jane was driving herself into the ground trying to find a way to get Thor back.

Darcy still wanted to taze the shit out of him for disappearing on Jane like that. Yeah, he was a god-alien-whatever, but he couldn't drop her a note? Jane had not taken his disappearance and complete silence at all well. There had been booze and tear involved. Copious amounts of booze and tears. And Darcy was not ok with that.

Darcy, being the more 'aware' of their little duo, had known some sort of shit was going down when the Tromso gig landed in their laps out of nowhere. That stank of the MIB, big time. All Jane had cared about was getting to go to a Big Name Lab and do her science with other geeks.

So in between fetching Pop Tarts and coffee, Darcy had kept an eye and ear out. Of course, this being a bastion of Science! they'd only had the one dinky-ass TV and a radio. Both of which went completely fucking apeshit around seven or eight at night Tromso time. Darcy had gotten one good look at the shaky camera footage and promptly stormed Jane's lab.

"Jane! TV, now!" Darcy demanded. Familiar with Jane when science was being done, she didn't give Jane a chance to argue or stall, just grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away.

"Darcy, what are you doing!" Jane squealed.

"You'll thank me in a minute. TV, now. Watch it." Darcy said, forcibly plunking Jane down in front of the dinky little set.

It took all of about five seconds for the news to catch Jane's attention. And then, inevitably, someone showed a camera shot of Thor up on a roof with some white-haired black chick, Mew Mew lit up with lightning. Darcy was fairly sure that every dog in a twenty mile radius heard Jane's resultant high-pitched squeal.

"Darcy! It's Thor! He's back! Oh, my, god, will you look at that?"

Because now they were showing a shot of the portal and ... yeah, Darcy was right there with Jane, because those were some big-ass critters that Thor was lighting up.

They were glued to the TV for hours, watching the live reports. When the after-action reports started, Jane shot to her feet.

"We have to ... I need to ... " She spun in place, clearly at something of a loss.

Darcy, thankfully, knew what had her in a knot, and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Go, pack. All your clothes, Jane. And your toiletries." Normally, she wouldn't have to be quite that specific, but Jane was in such a dither Darcy was worried she'd forget her own head if it weren't attached. "I'll start making calls, see if I can find a flight into the States." She wasn't going to hold her breath, but she'd try.

Turned out, someone anticipated them. Because right about the time they'd packed everything up and Darcy's tenth call had resulted in failure, someone showed up at the lab.

"Doctor Foster? Miss Lewis?" The man was tall, dark haired, and rather solidly built.

"Who's asking?" Darcy demanded, one hand in her pocket, resting comfortingly on her tazer.

"My name is Mr. Hogan. I work for Mr. Stark. He sent me to pick you and your boss up and fly you to New York City. I believe there is someone there who is looking forward to seeing you."

Darcy boggled slightly. Tony Fucking Stark had sent a plane for them? Was this shit for real? Had this really become her life? She went and got Jane and their luggage, and very shortly they were in the plane and in the air.

Trust Tony Fucking Stark to turn an airplane into a pimpmobile. Seriously, what the hell? Darcy was a snoopy person, and she'd found all sorts of whacked out shit hidden behind panels in the plane. Still, she wasn't going to complain. It wasn't like she'd ever get to fly in a plane like this again. Then again, maybe she would, the way her life was working out these days.

The damage to the city was ... unreal. They had no choice but to hoof it past a certain point, since evidently even the subway system wasn't completely unaffected. The street level was ... completely insane and impassable in anything bigger than a motorcycle, and even that was iffy. There were those funky flying sled things and a couple of big-ass whales in the streets, not to mention all sorts of debris everywhere, and there were potholes the size of your average car from the aliens' guns.

There were aid workers everywhere, and what looked like half the city roaming around lending helping hands where they could. Darcy had little doubt that half the *country* would be here by mid-day given half the chance. It was like 9/11 all over again, only on an even bigger scale.

Eventually, they made it into the Tower, and then up to Tony Fucking Stark's penthouse pad. And Darcy figured she could be forgiven for having heart palpitations, because the sheer amount of mancandy wandering around that place had to be seen to be believed. If Tony Fucking Stark was the ugliest guy in the room you had a *problem*, honey-child, because he was not exactly hard on the eyes, ok? Even with what looked like truly epic bed-head. Hell, even the two dudes kitted out in blue fur were hot, in a weird sort of way, once Darcy got over her surprise.

She spotted Thor about the same time he spotted them. Thor lit up like a fucking neon sign, a huge-ass grin spreading across his face, and Darcy found herself reconsidering her desire to taze him. Damn him. She'd forgotten he had that whole 'lovable goofball' thing going on that turned pretty much everyone around him to mush.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Jane was practically vibrating in place by the time the elevator stopped at the top of Stark Tower. She just hoped ...

In the wake of Thor's absence, Jane had, more and more, begun to wonder if she'd imagined Thor's affection towards her, or misconstrued it. In her more depressed moments, she'd tallied up all the reasons why she probably had been. Because it wasn't like there was any lack of a reason for Thor to just walk away.

He'd been exiled here as punishment, for starters. Then there was the whole 'prince of the realm' thing, and the 'immortal' thing. Really, what reason did he have to even think about her once he'd gotten back to Asgard? For all she knew, he was already married, or betrothed or even just dating, however they did that in Asgard. It wasn't like she'd thought to ask.

Usually, when she got like that, Darcy dragged her to a bar and got her drunk, and Jane felt better in the morning. This time, though, Jane was facing the reality of those what-ifs, and it was driving her nuts.

And then the elevator doors opened onto a penthouse filled to the gills with people, most of whom she recognized from the news in Tromso. There were so many people that she couldn't immediately see Thor, if he was even here. Then, he saw them. Jane figured this out because Thor *really* had a set of lungs on him.

"LADY JANE! LADY DARCY!" Thor boomed, loud enough to make half the people in the room cringe, and *everyone* swing around to find who Thor was yelling about, making her and Darcy the center of attention.

Not that Jane noticed that too much, because Thor hustled through the crowd and suddenly her feet were about three feet off the ground, and she was being hugged half to death by a *clearly* thrilled Thor. Jane gave in to the temptation to wrap herself around him for a moment. When he set her on her feet, the look on his face dissolved all her worries and fears.

Because if that look was anything at all to go by, Thor was definitely still feeling that connection Jane had sometimes begun to wonder if they'd actually had, or if she'd been imagining it. Thor broke from her just long enough to hug the crap out of Darcy, though Jane was pleased to note Thor didn't hug her as long, and let her go a lot quicker. Then he turned back to Jane, took her hand and kissed her knuckles, like he had just before he'd left (and, it must be said, immediately before she'd then kissed him, because like hell was she going to let it go at that!). Jane melted all over again, grinning at him nearly as goofily as he was grinning at her.

"I am sorry I did not return ere now, my lady Jane." Thor said, looking at her. "The Bifrost was destroyed shortly after my return, and travel was impossible. But I spoke with Heimdall frequently as to your welfare."

Awwww. Now Jane was definitely mush. He'd worried about her. And with the Bifrost broken, she'd forgive him for not coming back. It wasn't like that wasn't a good excuse.

"Is everything ok, now, in Asgard?" Jane asked.

"As well it can be, yes." Thor said. "There is much to speak of, to tell you the full tale, but the thing you most need to know is that my brother was ... not himself ... a year ago. Else he never would have done something so rash as to send the Destroyer to Midgard."

Huh.

Beside her, Darcy was giving Thor a sharp look. "He's here, isn't he? Loki, I mean."

Thor nodded. "He is. But I beg you to learn all that has transpired before you pass judgment on his actions."

Jane thought that one through a moment, and decided it was fair enough. Clearly, something was up that they didn't know about that was either complicated and would take a while to explain or that Thor didn't want to go into with so many ears listening.

"I think we can give him a chance, can't we, Darcy?" Jane asked.

Darcy took another minute to think it over, then finally nodded. "Yeah, we can. But fair warning, he tries anything, he gets tazed."

That made Thor laugh. "A formidable threat, Lady Darcy. But I think you will find you have no reason to carry it out." He reassured them, then turned and motioned someone over, whilst tucking Jane under his arm against his side.

The man that walked over was every bit as tall as Thor, making Jane wonder if they all got fed the alien equivalent to Miracle Gro in Asgard, because even Lady Sif had been freakishly tall, when she and the other warriors had shown up in New Mexico. He was otherwise as different from Thor as night from day, physically. Thin, almost overly so. To the point where Thor practically made two of him. He also looked like he might have been ill recently, with shadows under pale green eyes.

"Loki, this is Lady Jane Foster and Lady Darcy Lewis." Thor introduced them. "Jane, Darcy, this is my brother Loki."

"A pleasure to meet you, Loki." Jane said, deciding to go with being cordial. If the guy was here, among the people who'd helped save the city, she would do as Thor asked and give him the benefit of the doubt.

And evidently, the whole bowing over the hand thing was a thing in Asgard, because both she and Darcy got treated to it by Loki. Though his version lacked the 'I am really attracted to you' edge Thor's had with her.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, ladies." Loki said.

"So what all's going on? And who is everyone?" Jane asked. "The news didn't have much in the way of names." It had pretty much been Mr. Stark, Hulk, and Jean Grey that had been readily identified.

Thor introduced them to everyone. Jane tried her hardest not to stare, but in a few cases, it was really difficult. Because wings. And fur. And Jane wasn't afraid or anything, but things like that deserved a good long look.

Jane got sidetracked pretty fast once she was introduced to Doctor Banner. Gamma radiation was tangentially related to her own field, so they had a good deal in common and quickly lost themselves in comparing notes. About five minutes later, Tony wandered over.

"So, here's the thing. I've read your publications. You do good work. And we could use someone who has what it takes to figure out how to build a bridge in space. And I'm thinking you want to hang out near Thor, and he's going to be here. A lot. So, I'm going to pay you triple whatever you're already being paid, and you'll get your own lab."

Jane blinked at him. "Are you ... trying to hire me?"

Tony grinned at her. "Not trying. Already done."

"But SHIELD ... "

"Leave them to me." Tony said. And there was an edge to his smile that was ... more than a little unfriendly. Jane wondered what SHIELD had done to him to get that reaction.

"Include Darcy, and you have a deal." Jane said. Because she was not stupid, and triple the salary with a dedicated (and doubtlessly top of the line, this WAS Tony Stark after all) lab was not something any scientist would sneer at.

"Done deal." Tony said instantly. "Talk to Pepper to get things set up the way you want. I got to head out and rescue the masses." And he headed out towards the balcony and the odd, curved walkway.

A few moments later, his voice could be heard, evidently trying to shoo some birds out of his way. It went on long enough that it garnered the attention of a few others, and Jane finally heard Tony say something about a pair of ravens.

From the chair a few feet away where he'd settled, so as to be near her while she talked science, Thor abruptly sat forward, then got to his feet, walking out onto the balcony. Curious, Jane broke off her conversation with Doctor 'call me Bruce' Banner and followed.

She stopped a bit behind Thor who was giving the pair of ravens parked in the middle of the balcony something remarkably close to a dirty look.

"Those are no mere ravens, friend Stark. Those are Huginn and Muninn, the Allfather's ravens." Thor said.

Oh dear.

Between the two ravens rested a largeish bag, far too big for even two normal ravens to carry easily. Thor stepped forward to pick the bag up, and opened it. Within was some sort of odd container. Thor frowned at it.

"I think this is to contain the Tesseract." Thor said, then glanced around at the others. "The Allfather means for us to return at once."

Tony shook his head. "Oh no, I don't think so. Not without backup at any rate. There any rules about some of us going with you?"

Thor shook his head. "None of which I am aware." He said. "And we will be able to take with us anyone that is holding on to us."

Loki spoke then, sounding oddly strained. "I would recommend, Mr. Stark, going in your armor. Such craft is as respected as great warriors in Asgard. That you are both will give your words great weight."

"It's a plan." Tony said, then turned to the team. "Who else?"

"Let me go get dressed." Was the only answer Captain Rogers gave. The two SHIELD agents both nodded without saying a word, and disappeared to go get ready, which left only Doctor Banner.

"Brucie?"

Doctor Banner seemed to hesitate. "I don't know Tony." He said. "It could ... be a problem."

Tony waved a hand. "I talked you down once, I can do it again." He assured. "C'mon, you know you want to. Different world, Brucie. We'll be *in space*."

Well, that, understandably, seemed to sell Doctor Banner. "All right, I'll come.

Thor turned to Jane and Darcy. Jane looked at Darcy.

"I got my tazer." Darcy said. "I say bring it."

Jane grinned. "Count us in, Thor."

It took a minute or two to get everyone positioned, and the Tesseract out of the vault it'd been put in, but eventually, everyone had a hold of everyone else, and most importantly, of Thor and Loki. Thor took one last look around to double check, then twisted the handle.

Chapter Text

Thor and Frigga

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Thor couldn't help but grin at the various reactions to travel via the Tesseract, and the reactions to his home that swiftly followed. Jane, Doctor Banner and Tony Stark all three were talking to and over each other. Jane beheld Asgard with a wide-eyed wonder that warmed him. He was fairly sure that Doctor Banner and Tony were as awed, but neither of them were as given to open expressions as the lovely Jane.

"Dude. That is one hell of a helmet." Darcy said.

Thor's grin widened as he turned towards Heimdall, who was looking at the large group with something very close to amusement. Heimdall regarded Thor calmly for a long moment, and Thor was quite sure he saw some silent measure of approval.

"This is Heimdall." Thor introduced the gatekeeper. "Heimdall, these are some of the warriors who turned aside the attempted invasion of Midgard." He then introduced everyone to the gatekeeper, knowing full well that in doing so, Heimdall would, in future, watch over them.

About the time they'd all untangled and calmed down a bit, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three rode up, leading Thor and Loki's personal mounts and two other horses.

Tony took one look and shook his head. "I'll fly. I'd break their backs in the suit."

Thor was unsure how much the armor weighed, but he was willing to permit Tony to make that call.

"I've never ridden." Captain Rogers admitted.

It took but moments to sort out who would be riding with whom. Doctor Banner elected to ride with Lady Sif, while Natasha and Clint chose to steer one of the extra horses apiece, with Captain Rogers and Darcy riding behind them, respectively. Jane, of course, rode with Thor.

Thor pointed out the various sights as they rode though Asgard. Soon enough they were at the palace. Tony was already at the foot of the steps, waiting for them as everyone dismounted.

They had barely mounted the steps when the palace doors opened and a very familiar, very welcome figure stood in the opening.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Frigga had long since learned to bide her time when it came to Odin. He would do as he willed, and trying to change his mind was an exercise in folly. But ever did she stand beside him, and when things went awry, as they often did, Frigga did what she could to fix the damage, and she made known her displeasure at her counsel being ignored yet again.

She had not even begun the, as Midgardians said, 'I told you so's' over this latest tragedy. She had disapproved, from the start, of concealing Loki's true parentage from him. She could not see any way that would end well. Unfortunately, she'd been even more right than she knew, though the severity of the damage had been increased by the other factors in play when Loki made the discovery.

She had nigh killed Odin herself when Loki was lost thanks to his ineptitude with the matter. She still refused to join him in his bedchamber, heal his small hurts as she normally did, or even speak to him except when matters of state necessitated it. She had spent much time in her gardens, mourning the loss of her youngest son, for despite his parentage, she has seen him as such from the moment Odin had placed the infant Loki in her care.

Thor had joined her there with increasing frequency over the last year, and she saw him spend much more time than was his usual wont in contemplation. Frigga was not entirely certain upon what subjects Thor had been contemplating, but if the look he'd given Odin when Odin revealed that Loki was alive was any indication, Thor's contemplations boded ill for the Allfather.

Frigga had made a point, in the wake of Thor's banishment, to learn all she could of the current affairs of Midgard. Thus it was that she had some familiarity with the people that Thor had fought beside in the recent battle. That knowledge afforded Frigga more than a little amusement, as she was quite sure Odin was completely unprepared for a band of warriors, weapons smiths, and great thinkers of this caliber, especially from such a source.

Odin had long dismissed Midgard from any considerations due to the (initially) primitive people that had inhabited the world, and their pitifully short (compared to the Aesir) lives. Thus it was that he did not truly comprehend how formidable Midgard had become over the centuries. The Midgardians, in truth, were but a small distance from overshadowing Asgard. Mostly because, after the Jotuns had been trapped on their desolate world, the Aesir had become alarmingly complacent. The Midgardians had done no such thing, and were ever striving for greater achievements. She was looking forward to the chaos this group would sow as a result.

But such entertaining contemplations were for later. Frigga had been fortunate in that she had not been in the throne room when Odin had received word that Thor would be returning. Thus had she evaded any attempt by Odin to keep her from greeting her returning sons.

Her early arrival had afforded her the intriguing pleasure of watching Tony Stark fly and land in his armor. She planned to inquire as to the armor's construction, if she was afforded the opportunity, because she had never seen the like. The Destroyer was the closest comparison, but it wasn't the same, as it was not worn, but controlled by a limited intelligence most closely comparable to most Midgardian computers. It was, probably, more durable, but had only the one weapon, and only a limited ability to carry out tasks. It could not think for itself, nor adapt to changing circumstances. It merely kept attempting to fill out the orders it was given. Nor could it fly.

But that was for later, because the others had finally arrived and dismounted, and Frigga nodded to the servants to open the palace doors.

"Greeting, Midgardians, and welcome to Asgard." She said. "I am Queen Frigga. You are most welcome in the palace. If you so desire, rooms can be made ready for your use."

It was Tony Stark who stepped forward. "Thank you for the welcome, your majesty." He said. "And for the offer of rooms, but I think we'll be sticking with Thor and Loki."

Frigga had assumed as much, but the offer of hospitality had to be made. Her duty done, she walked forward, straight to Loki. She reached up and cupped her son's cheek. "I rejoice that you live and have returned to us, my son." She said, then, heedless of the company, drew him into a hug.

It was a testament to Loki's state of mind that he let her. Not only that, but that he, for a moment, buried his face in the crook of her neck as he had when he was a child, seeking comfort in the face of the day's trials. A whisper-quiet 'Mother' warmed her heart and let her know that, whatever Loki's thoughts on Odin might be, he still saw her as his mother.

She had done as best she could for Loki, the orphaned child of another world. She had let her garden and her library be his refuges against the unthinking cruelty of the other children. She had indulged his thirst for knowledge, and his gift for magic. In truth, she had taken a not-so-secret pleasure in Loki's quick mind. As he had grown, they had entertained themselves with numerous debates on a number of subjects. Granted, in the normal way of things, such things would have taken place with her daughter, but Frigga had borne only Thor. So it had been nice to still have an outlet for that sort of thing.

She turned then to Thor, and smiled at him. "Thank you for bringing him back to us." She told him. "Now, I must go to the throne room, and shall meet you there. Odin is waiting." So saying, Frigga turned and hurried into the palace, taking the back ways to get to the throne room the quicker.

Odin leveled a flat stare at her when she arrived, evidence he knew of her meeting with the Midgardians, Thor and Loki, and did not approve. Frigga ignored him, and took her place on the dais beside him.

Moments later, the travelers arrived, in the company of not just Lady Sif and the Three, but half a company of soldiers. Frigga shot Odin an irritated look, then mentally smirked. Somehow, should things go ill, she did not think half a company would be enough. But let Odin find that out for himself.

"Thor!" Odin boomed. "Why bring you these outsiders with you to this court?"

Thor lifted his chin and stepped forward. "They stand witness, Allfather, to the events that have occurred on Midgard."

Odin scowled. "So be it. Announce them."

Thor looked entirely too pleased to do so. Frigga mentally smirked, wondering how Thor would translate the various Midgardians' ranks.

"This is Tony Stark, a fierce and fearless warrior and weapon smith of great skill, and a prince of the realm."

Well, Frigga thought. That would put people on their toes. While it was not strictly true that Tony was a prince, Frigga was aware that persons of wealth and power as great as Tony's were frequently seen as the next best thing to royalty, so it was definitely close enough. It was certainly making Odin pay attention all of a sudden.

Thor introduced Captain Rogers, Clint Barton and, far more interestingly, Natasha Romanov as fellow fierce warriors of great skill. Frigga made due note to, if at all possible, get Lady Sif and Natasha in a room together where they could compare notes. It would bear some rather interesting fruit, unless she was much mistaken.

Bruce was introduced as both a great warrior and explorer of mysteries, the closest Asgardian equivalent to scientist. This raised more than a few eyebrows, because Bruce did not have the look of a great warrior. Then Thor got to the other two young ladies in their company. There was absolutely no missing the affection in his voice when he introduced the first one.

"This is the Lady Jane Foster, also an explorer of mysteries. It is she and her companion that gave me assistance and guidance on my sojourn to Midgard a year ago. And this is the Lady Darcy Lewis, an able explorer of mysteries in her own right, and Lady Jane's loyal assistant and bodyguard."

To Frigga's relief, Thor made no declarations of affection. While she had little doubt that Lady Jane held Thor's heart in her hands, this was not the time for such an announcement. Odin would fall on it as a ravening wolf would a wounded calf. That particular confrontation would only end in tears. Odin's. Because Frigga knew Thor well enough to know he would stand his ground and fight for someone he loved.

The introductions done with, Odin began the meat of the trial, enumerating what Loki stood accused of, the worst of it treason. Then Odin demanded to know how Loki pled.

That's when things got interesting. Because Tony stepped forward and clapped a metal-clad hand over Loki's mouth before Loki could speak.

"Thor, buddy, you want to break events for us down, so we know what the deal is?"

Thor bestowed such a radiant smile on Tony that it near took Frigga's breath away. Clearly, Thor had been hoping one of his companions would demand to know the full tale.

And Thor told it. All of it. That which he had been witness to, that which Frigga had been witness to and told him of, and that which his friends had been witness to and told him of. Thor spared nothing, not even the bad parts. Throughout the tale, the Midgardians' faces darkened, and increasingly angry looks were being leveled at Odin. Tony asked a few questions, mostly about Asgardian laws and the line of succession, and then turned to Loki.

"So help me, if you say the word 'guilty', I will drop kick you clear back to 'Midgard' without benefit of the Bifrost or the Tesseract." Tony told Loki, his tone fierce. "Far's I can see, according to Asgard law, the only thing you fucked up with forethought was showing those Jotuns a way into Asgard. And I'm thinking you more than paid the price for that mistake since. Everything else you did after you found out you were adopted, and not exactly in your right mind. And again, you've paid the price for that since."

Only then did he remove his hand from over Loki's mouth. Loki favored Tony with a faint smile. Tony turned and leveled a fierce glare at Odin. Frigga held her breath, wondering what Odin would do. It turned out, he was going to do what he did best. The wrong thing.

Odin's face was thunderous as he got to his feet, glaring at Tony. "You presume much, mortal, in my court, to tell me law and punishment."

Tony gave a smile that was all teeth. "I'll assume even more, Odin. Because it's pretty clear to me that you're looking for a scapegoat here. You fucked up, big time. You lied to Loki his entire fucking life, taught him to hate and hunt his own people, and expected the revelation of his true parentage to go well? For that matter, when the hell were you planning on telling him? The day you chucked him back in, what's it called, Thor? Joheim, or whatever? For THAT matter, what the hell was your plan where Loki was concerned? Rub it in the other Jotuns' face that you were holding their prince hostage, or what?"

"ENOUGH!" Odin roared. "GUARDS, REMOVE THE MIDGARDIANS AT ONCE!"

The guards at the edges of the throne room immediately moved forward. The Midgardians instantly closed ranks, Thor, Captain Rogers Natasha and Tony on the outer ring, shielding Loki, Jane, Darcy, Bruce and Clint, the latter of whom had nocked an arrow and was aiming it at the nearest guards from his protected position. Tony's face disappeared behind the mask of his armor, and his hands came up, the circles in the palms brightening threateningly. Thor brandished his hammer, which made the guards nearest him hesitate warily. Bruce had his eyes closed, for what particular reason Frigga was unsure, but suspected it had something to do with holding the green-skinned being he could become at bay.

To say things were tense would be to vastly understate the case. They were literally one wrong move from all out war in the middle of the palace. And then the balance tipped.

Two of the guards, having decided that the side of the circle that the Captain guarded was the least protected, possibly because he wielded only a shield, stormed closer. Seconds later, a bright red dot appeared on the chest of one of the guards, followed swiftly by two thin strings.

Seconds later, the guard dropped, twitching spastically, eyes wide in surprise. There was a long moment of stunned silence, and then Darcy spoke up.

"Ok, see, the thing is, old dude? We're not going anywhere." The girl actually pushed through the protective circle, glaring at Odin fit to burn him alive and ignoring Captain Rogers' attempt to pull her back to safety as she fiddled with something in her hands. "And there's really not a damn thing you can do to make us, 'cause see, I'm not even a fighter, and I can lay your boys out flat. They have exactly no chance of forcing *any* of us to do something we don't want to." She pointed a finger at Odin.

"And see, I speak for all of us when I say I agree with Stark. Because you fucked up hardcore, and are looking for a scapegoat, and hey! Loki did bad things, let's blame everything on him!" She waved her hands in the air theatrically. "Except it's really your fault Loki did all that shit, again, agreeing totally with Stark here, what the hell did you *expect*? You do this whole thing all his life ... 'these guys are evil, they need to be wiped out' on and on and on. For ... centuries, I'm guessing?"

Here, she turned to look at Loki and Thor, who both nodded. "And from what I heard from Thor, you kind of treated Loki like shit, which, great move. Piss off the adopted kid, so that when he finds out he's adopted, he *really* goes off the deep end. And from what I'm hearing? Loki mostly did the right thing when you took your nap. Thor'd been sent to Earth to learn some manners or whatever the hell the deal was there, so Loki was the only one left to keep the seat warm. Except those jokers." And here she pointed at Lady Sif and the Three. "Decided he didn't have the right, and to go against *your* orders and fetch Thor to take over. And got pissy with Loki when he told them no. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but ... aren't you supposed to obey royal commands, even if you don't like them, when you're a subject of that royalty?"

She shot Odin an expectant, eyebrow-raised look. "But I'm guessing they didn't get punished for that, did they? Nope. Loki's at fault, so make him pay for it. And ok, yeah, he sent the Destroyer. That? Was a dick move. But by then? I'm thinking Loki wasn't really thinking clearly, and I honestly don't blame him. Because again, how the hell you expected teaching Loki to hate himself to end well, I will never know. That was seriously the dick move to end all dick moves. And I'm guessing here, mostly from the way Thor acted when he got dropped on earth, that you spoiled him rotten."

"Verily." Thor admitted. "I was much the favored child, though it did not occur to me that it was so until very recently."

"Which adds another layer of assholishness to the list, because really? Treating one kid like they can do no wrong, and the other like a fuckup who can't do anything right? If that was your plan, why the HELL did you adopt him? Because quite frankly, the shit you've put him through? He'dve been better off where you found him!"

Darcy took a few deep breaths. Frigga fancied she could see smoke coming from the girl's nostrils, such was her anger. She had certainly silenced even Odin with her rage. The guards were staring at her in stupefied disbelief.

"Right about now, I'm all for taking Loki back to Earth and letting him hang out with us. And I'm pretty damn sure he'd jump at the offer. At least we won't treat him like a pariah." She snorted in disgust. "So much for Asgardian superiority, I guess."

With that, she turned her back on Odin and resumed her place in the now somewhat relaxed protective circle. Frigga saw her pat Loki on the arm companionably, and murmur something to him that Frigga could not hear.

Frigga stepped forward, signaling the guards to back off and backing it up with a glare that had them obeying without looking to Odin for approval. "Forgive my husband his intemperance." She said. "I believe we have gone much astray in this discussion, and would benefit from a break to rest and sup, and then we can reconvene later."

Tony spoke up, his voice sounding odd from within the confines of his helmet. "That sounds like a plan. I guess we'll be taking that offer of a room after all, Queen Frigga."

Chapter Text

Rhodey and Betty

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. I am a mean and evil wretch because I am making you WAIT for the next Asgard bit. This takes place the night of the attack, and in the morning after the Avengers headed to Asgard. Edited to fix what branch of the military Rhodey is in.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Contrary to what practically everyone thought, Tony and Rhodey had not gone to college together, nor had they started out as friends. In the first place, Rhodey was five years younger than Tony. Given that Tony had been in college at the age of sixteen, there was absolutely no way that Rhodey had been in college with him.

Rhodey hadn't met the legendary (for all the wrong reasons) Stark heir until he'd been twenty, two years into his Air Force hitch. At that, the meeting hadn't been planned. Rhodey'd had no idea the man had even been on the base at the time. Not until he'd run into a ranting, wild-eyed, grease-covered maniac in a faded as hell T-shirt and jeans with his hair sticking up every which way who had borne little to no resemblance to the polished, suit-wearing Mr. Stark.

Rhodey had given said maniac a verbal dressing down, mostly for flailing around like that on an Air Force base where some idiot might just decide the mechanic (which is what Rhodey'd thought he was) was a threat and take him down one way or another. It hadn't been until Stane had caught up with Stark that Rhodey had realized just who he'd been scolding like an errant child.

He'd fully expected to get so many black marks on his record that he got drummed out of the Air Force in disgrace for that stunt, but Tony, being the contrary bastard he was, had decided he liked Rhodey, for reasons that had escaped Rhodey's comprehension at the time, and since Tony had managed to drive his latest military liaison off with his antics, Rhodey got the nod.

It had been all business at first. Rhodey'd had his hands full. This had been two years before Pepper came into the picture, so Rhodey'd been entirely on his own trying to figure out how to handle Tony. The traditional ways of interacting with military contractors sure hadn't come close to working.

Somewhere in that first two years, before Pepper, they'd somehow managed to become friends. Rhodey still wasn't entirely sure how or exactly when it had happened, or how the hell he'd ended up seeing Tony as an annoying younger brother when Rhodey was younger than Tony.

Rhodey was fairly sure that the day would never come when just hearing the word 'Afghanistan' *didn't* have him seeing red. God, that had been ... there weren't words to describe how Rhodey had felt, the day it'd happened. Coming under fire, scrambling to deal with it as everything was getting blown up, and when the dust finally settled after backup arrived, realizing that TONY WAS MISSING.

The field medics had been forced to dope Rhodey to the gills and knock him out to keep him from storming straight into the desert then and there, injuries be damned. Even at that, he'd gone AMA *and* AWOL, completely without shame, the second he'd woken up. Fortunately, he hadn't been badly injured, just a bullet crease and some stone shrapnel from near misses.

Doubly fortunately, the Air Force was eager to get Stark back, and decided to pretend Rhodey had gone looking for Stark on their orders. Granted, they probably would have given that order, but Rhodey hadn't wanted to wait.

When there was not so much as a whisper by the end of a week, everyone started giving up. Everyone except Pepper and Rhodey and a small handful of others. In a way, Rhodey could sort of understand it, because without a ransom demand or anything of the sort, and with far too much Afghani countryside to scour, the chances of Tony being alive *if* they ever found him would, to outsiders, seem to be nil.

But outsiders didn't know Tony the way Rhodey and Pepper did. So they kept looking. Jarvis scoured every computer and server he could possibly get his metaphorical claws into, searching for some evidence of Tony's whereabouts.

It had, in point of fact, been Jarvis that had found a fair-sized encampment in the mountains that had far, far too much Stark weaponry. Rhodey had been in the process of talking his superiors into a recon when the place had blown sky high. He'd been sent out immediately.

It had taken every ounce of Rhodey's Air Force discipline to stay with Tony and *not* go steal some Jericho missiles and firebomb the shit out of the entire fucking area when Rhodey discovered what had been done to Tony. God, he'd been so pissed.

Still was.

Rhodey admitted that, back in the States, he'd dropped the ball. Between dealing with his own feelings regarding Tony's kidnapping and torture and the whole arc reactor in the chest thing, Tony's epic levels of PTSD, Obadiah being weird and the Air Force being really, really pushy about getting Tony back on the weapon making bandwagon, he was inclined to forgive himself for putting his foot in his mouth. At any rate, he'd gotten his head out of his ass in time to help Tony deal with Stane as best he could.

Things had gone back to relatively normal for a while. Then Tony started getting erratic again.

Rhodey was never going to forgive himself for that one. He should have figured it out. Or, for fuck's sake, at least been a sympathetic ear or something. Stealing the War Machine, wrecking Tony's house and giving the fucking suit to the Air Force had been the shit move to end all shit moves, and he still couldn't quite figure out why he'd done it. He'd been utterly horrified when he realized that Tony had been *dying* that whole fucking time, and facing it completely alone.

After Vanko had been dealt with, Rhodey had looked the Air Force dead in the eye and told them to fuck off, before handing the suit back to Tony, along with as much of an apology as he knew Tony would accept. Three days later, Tony handed him the suit back, this time with Stark Industries weapons and Jarvis to help him. Which had been good, because the two brief flights he'd had under his own power with the non-AI computer system in the suit had been ... interesting. And not in a good way.

It had been another month of constant work with the suit before he was able to keep pace with Tony without Jarvis taking over to keep him from bashing into things or falling out of the sky. Rhodey was a more than fair pilot, but flying the suit was *nothing* like flying a plane or helicopter. With planes and helicopters, there were buttons and levers. The suit was a second skin, where the 'buttons and levers' were your own body and movements. Rhodey's pilot training had worked against him, so he'd had to 'unlearn all he had learned'.

And now, all hell was breaking loose. And Rhodey meant that more or less literally. The military as a whole was having kittens and conniption fits in equal measure. They'd changed their minds a dozen times as to whether he was to be deployed or not since the attack, just for starters.

Since the fight seemed to be over, Rhodey had opted to just take the suit out for a spin. If they eventually decided to send him to NYC, he'd be up and ready to go. If not, well, he needed to keep up his flight hours in the suit anyway.

Of course, that was when Jarvis piped up. "Colonel Rhodes, Sir wishes me to ask you for a favor."

"Name it and it's his, Jarvis." Rhodey told the AI instantly.

"He wishes for you to go to Cheyenne Mountain and escort Doctor Ross from the premises to Stark Tower."

Doctor Ross? "Doctor Ross? Any relation to General Ross?"

"His daughter, in point of fact." Jarvis told him.

"And Tony wants her at the Tower ... ?"

"Doctor Ross is a brilliant scientist in fields the members of the Avengers Initiative would benefit from. Further, she is the paramour of one of the Avengers, Doctor Banner."

And now, Rhodey was putting the pieces together, because you couldn't have served in the Army the last few years without hearing certain rumors. Not to mention the fact that Tony had crowed for DAYS after the Harlem incident. "Why do I think there's more to this than meets the eye, Jarvis?"

"Because you are correct." Jarvis said. He then informed Rhodey of the full situation. By the time he'd finished, Rhodey was scowling.

"That is just ... not right. At all. I mean, yeah, Banner can evidently do some serious damage when he gets pissed off, but that doesn't make him *property*. Not of anyone, nevermind the military. He's still a person. Yeah, I'm definitely in. I can be there in an hour. I probably won't extract her until morning though. I can waltz in there easy enough right now, but if I leave right away, and with her, someone is bound to notice. Easier to sneak her out during a change of the guard."

It was times like this that Rhodey blessed his long association with Tony. He had a security clearance much, much higher than his rank would normally warrant. That had mostly been a result of being Tony's liaison, and the fact that Tony *talked*. A lot. About anything and everything, with little regard for NDA's when he was in his lab and on a science kick. So Rhodey'd had to have clearance to know about the stuff Tony blathered about.

Rhodey had also learned how to bullshit at the knee of a master. He was going to need both skills to get Doctor Ross out of the mountain without the Army chasing after them. Rhodey was just thrilled that the War Machine armor could open enough for him to get out of it without needing an assembly/disassembly station, because Cheyenne Mountain didn't have one. Tony had worked that feature out, rightfully assuming that Rhodey would have to get in and out of the armor in a whole lot of places, only a few of which could be outfitted with a station to help him.

Rhodey landed in front of the guard station, making no attempt to hide his arrival. Very shortly after that, he was escorted in, able to leave the suit (locked down by Jarvis) tucked against a wall until he was ready to get out of here with Dr. Ross. Fortunately, he wouldn't have to go far carrying her, just to the nearest airport. Jarvis had a plane already standing by, ready to take off the moment they arrived.

Rhodey sort of got swept up in meetings with various brass for a bit, but this ended up being a good thing, because it allowed him to confirm that the General was not in residence at the moment. Probably, Rhodey thought acidly, he was already en route to the city with one of his goon squads to attempt to collect Banner.

Rhodey smirked mentally, wishing Ross luck. He was going to need it. Even if he by some miracle managed to run the Pepper Potts gauntlet, he would still have to contend with Tony, and that was one battle the General wasn't going to win.

He managed to wrangle a tour of the science labs, under the excuse of putting together an investigatory team to poke and prod at the Chitauri tech. That allowed him to get eyes on Betty, who looked a bit on the thin side, and grimly unhappy. Rhodey didn't blame her. Being held hostage by your own father had to be a bitch.

He even managed to slip her a note before he left her lab.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Betty wasn't sure it was possible to hate a person more than she hated her father. He'd refused to let her have any freedom at all since the Harlem incident. He'd locked her away in Cheyenne Mountain, complete with what amounted to a cell, though he claimed it to be 'living quarters with a convenient travel time to her lab'.

Escape had proved impossible. She was constantly watched, and the one time she'd managed to get to the surface, she'd been escorted back down to her quarters by MP's. Worse, the General was doing everything in his power to keep her ignorant of events in the wider world, probably hoping to keep her from finding out if Bruce was still alive and free.

That didn't work quite as well as the General had hoped, because people talked, so Betty picked up bits and pieces and was able to put the rest together on her own. Today, though, she hadn't had to resort to sneaky eavesdropping, because the entire base was like a kicked-over hornet's nest. People were rushing everywhere, yelling about aliens and portals and monsters. It still hadn't calmed down even after the evening meal.

Shortly after that, they had a visitor. None other than War Machine. Who proved to be a clean-cut (of course) genial man with a distinctly mischievous gleam in his eye. Because Betty had been paying attention to him, she spotted the fact that there was an additional bit of paper on her workbench when he left. She swept it and several other papers up once he was gone, and, careful to keep her actions concealed from the cameras she knew of in the room, peeked at the note.

'Banner well and safe with Stark. Meet me in cafeteria for breakfast.'

Betty blinked, barely daring to believe. If the note meant what she thought it did ... Ruthlessly, she squashed the burgeoning hope. She would not do that to herself. She would not.

Nope, still hoping. Damn. This had better be what she thought it was.

Somehow, she managed to get through the rest of the night. She even managed to keep to her normal routine, knowing that any deviation might attract attention. The next morning, she headed to the cafeteria, and grabbed her usual breakfast. About five minutes later, Colonel Rhodes sat down across from her with his own tray, and began talking to her.

Betty quickly figured out what he was up to. He was talking about the gamma emissions the portal had given off, and wanting to calibrate his suit's sensors to pick that sort of thing up. Which meant he would need someone who knew something about gamma radiation to work on the suit. Which was up on the surface.

"Tony will probably be pissed with me, but he doesn't know gamma from a hole in the ground, so I need someone who knows what they're talking about to do it." Rhodes told her.

She offered to do the calibration, and somehow, Rhodes managed to sweet-talk the suits in charge for the day into letting her. How he managed that one, she didn't know, but she was grateful for it.

Once on the surface and near the suit, Rhodes whispered to her in an undertone. "Do the calibrating. I'll have to get in the suit to run the scans and make sure it works. When I do that, get behind me, and grab hold of the gun mounts."

Betty didn't risk responding verbally. She just did as she was told. Half an hour later, she was done, and her hands started to shake a bit as she moved, as casually as she could, around behind the suit as Rhodes stepped into it. Once the various panels had stopped moving, she lunged forward and got a death grip on the gun mounts on the suit's shoulders. Three seconds after that, Rhodes took off like his tail was on fire, blasting out of the mountain at stunning speeds.

Betty missed most of the ride, as she had to bury her head and close her eyes tight to deal with the force of the air rushing over her. They landed entirely too quickly to have gotten to New York City, though.

Sure enough, when she lifted her head, they were in an airport.

"Leggo, quicker you do, quicker we can lift off. Can't fly you there with the suit. You'd never be able to hold on that long." Rhodes told her.

She prised her fingers off the gun mounts and bolted towards the plane a few feet away. Rhodes followed behind her, lifting off briefly to fly to the landing in front of the plane door rather than try to climb stairs that probably hadn't been built to take something as heavy as the War Machine had to be. Moments later, they were in the plane and it was already taxiing to take off. Rhodes peeled the armor off while Betty collapsed into the nearest seat.

"He's truly all right?" She demanded. "And not a hostage?"

That made Rhodes laugh. "He's fine. And there's no way he's a hostage with Tony. Tony ripped General Ross a new one and crowed for DAYS over the Harlem snafu. Not a chance he'd be party to keeping Banner prisoner."

"You know him well enough to say that?" Betty asked.

Rhodes nodded. "We've worked together for fifteen years, and been friends for thirteen or fourteen. Tony is ... a lot different than what you see in the news rags. He's a stand-up guy. And the general will play hell getting within twenty miles of Bruce with Tony on his side."

Betty breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you for that, Colonel."

"Call me Rhodey. Pretty much everyone in Tony's circle does, and you are definitely going to be in his circle." Rhodey told her.

That made Betty smile. "Rhodey, then."

Chapter Text

Pepper, Fury, and General Ross

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. Hit the deck, folks. There be fireworks ahead.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Pepper descended on the Stark Industries Public Relations Department first thing in the morning.

"Where are we on setting up a campaign blitz?" She wanted to know when she found Henry, the head of the department and a shrewd, capable operator after her own heart who had helped her salvage more than one Tony snafu over the years.

"We've already got an awareness ad going." Henry said. "Had it about an hour after the attack ended. Nothing but camera still from the fight, but it'll hold us until we get something more polished on the airwaves. Which we ought to have completed before lunch."

"Excellent. I want a heavy positive focus on Hulk and the two SHIELD agents. And I want their code names to be on everyone's lips."

Henry gave her a piercing look. "There's more you're not telling me."

Pepper nodded. "But for this, we need a more private conference."

"My office awaits." Henry told her, motioning towards the open door.

Once they were inside, Pepper locked eyes with Henry. "I want you to prepare a negative media blitz against General Ross and SHIELD, but do *not* release it." She told him. She tapped her tablet. "I've just transferred a few files to your tablet for your perusal, so you know why, and where to hit them if we need to."

Henry immediately grabbed his tablet and rapidly flipped through the files. He didn't get far before he was actively growling. "Oh, it's going to be my pleasure, Miss Potts. I'll get working on that right away, and make sure the team knows to slant towards the three you mentioned. We're lucky, in that we pretty much have our choice of nicely heroic shots to use, even for Hulk. Actually, especially him. He took down one of the whales almost single-handed."

Pepper nodded. "Your second challenge, should you choose to accept it." She told him, grinning wryly at him for the joke. "Is to prepare a positive-angle media blitz that focuses solely on the mutant defenders. Their code names are in one of the files I sent you. We need to get people to realize that mutants can be heroes as well as villains."

Henry nodded firmly. "You got it, Miss Potts. It'll be easy enough to do up the two campaigns and run them side by side. I'll contact you when we're ready to start broadcasting."

"Excellent, Henry. I'll talk to you later."

That done, Pepper headed for her next stop ... the company legal team. She put them to digging up every scrap of law and precedent that could possibly apply to the SHIELD and Ross situations. She was by no means fool enough to think she wouldn't need it. To be perfectly honest, she was surprised Fury hadn't tried something already. Ross, at least, would have to get here before he could cause a problem.

From there, she had to liaise with the emergency services personnel who had set up command centers on the lower levels of Stark Tower, mostly to ensure they had what they needed to be able to coordinate their own forces, and work out which of the hero defenders would be working with which group today. About that time, she got a ping from Jarvis, notifying her that the Avengers had left for Asgard, time of return unknown. Pepper frowned slightly for a moment before she smoothly changed around the roster. While it was irritating that some of the people who needed exposure so badly wouldn't be available, it was, on the other hand, going to do the mutant half of the defenders that bit more good.

That done, Pepper headed for her own office, to tackle the various other tasks she would have to deal with. The Board needed soothing, for one, though thankfully, since Stane's plants had been weeded out, they'd become a good deal less alarmist. They seemed to be realizing that Tony had a stunning ability to land in shit and come out smelling like the best perfume.

Then there was organizing and confirming a number of deliveries. There was construction and waste removal equipment, bottled water and generators that needed to get to the various affected people, and with the scale of the attack and the damage done, the more people distributing, the better. She also arranged for Stark Industries heavy-lift helicopters to assist in hauling debris away from the center of the war zone to where wheeled vehicles could take over, as there were relatively few helicopters with that sort of lift capacity available.

She also sent a large donation and a Stark Industries construction crew to help fix the damage to the subway system, which had fortunately been fairly light. The area hit by the invasion was going to be depending solely on the subway for a while, as the streets and bridges would be impassable for months, no matter how fast everyone worked. She then sent a note to the transportation development teams to try to figure out some sort of vehicle capable of moving over any terrain (or water). It wouldn't be ready before the streets were fixed, but if they could figure something out, it would be invaluable in other disaster areas, and earn SI a mint in sales.

She'd just wrapped that up when Jarvis informed her that Rhodey had completed his mission, and was currently flying Doctor Ross to the Tower, and would be there within a few minutes. Pepper smiled, then told Jarvis to tell Rhodey to relax in the penthouse suite, and she'd be up to see him when she got a chance.

She'd just finished talking to Henry and approving the new campaigns when Jarvis pinged her again to get her attention.

"Miss Potts, Director Fury is on the line."

Pepper grinned viciously. "Put him on, Jarvis. By all means."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Fury had been having a really bad week. First, Barton had been compromised, and he'd been shot. That ... wasn't so bad. The getting shot, that is. Barton getting compromised, Fury had taken as a godsend. He'd hated the insolent little shit from the word go, and had fully expected Coulson to put a bullet in the brat's head.

It had never ceased to burn him up that Coulson managed to get Barton to work with him. Well enough that Fury couldn't excuse 'losing' the son of a bitch. SHIELD had no place for disrespectful loose canons. That Fury hadn't been able to capitalize on Barton's compromised state to kill him burned Fury up.

Then that Stark bastard had run to the freak brigade for help fighting the aliens that were coming. THEN, everyone had mysteriously gone incommunicado. He hadn't been able to get a call through to the Tower, where he knew damn well everyone had gone, in order to order Barton and Romanov back to HQ. He was blaming Stark for that one, too.

The ad and news campaign flashing Barton and Romanov's faces all over the place was just the icing on the cake. He needed to regain control and he needed to do it now. At least the call had finally got through. Better yet, to Potts.

"Put me through to Stark, Potts, wherever he's hiding. Or better yet, tell my team to get their asses back to HQ."

"I'm sorry, Director, but the Avengers are not available for interview at this time." Potts said.

Had Fury mentioned he loathed Stark's piece of tail on the side? Fury was convinced that was the sole reason Potts had gotten as far as she did. What other use did Stark have for a pretty face?

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Pepper was enjoying stonewalling Fury. She knew exactly what Fury thought about her ... he'd hardly be the first, or the last, to think along those lines. She loved it when people like him underestimated her like that. It made her inevitable victory all the sweeter.

She wrangled back and forth with him for several minutes before Jarvis sent her a discrete ping, then flashed a message across a surface that Fury could not see, followed by several pages of a file. Pepper got one good look and very nearly laughed. Someone in the law department was going to get a hell of a pay raise. Because not even she had known this. She didn't think anyone did.

"Director Fury, a question if I may. Are you aware to whom your agency owes its ultimate existence?" Pepper asked.

Fury gave her a dirty look. "The SSR was our parent organization." He said, in a 'how do you not know this' tone of voice.

Pepper smiled. "Actually, Director, you are incorrect. After the loss of Captain Rogers, the SSR was shut down and disbanded completely. After all, it had been born for the Super Soldier project, and with the sole example lost, and no possibility of creating more, and no more war, the agency was redundant." Pepper said. "At that time, Howard Stark took upon himself the financial responsibility of locating Captain Rogers, retaining many of the old SSR staff under his employ for that purpose, as they had been comrades in arms for years."

Fury wasn't entirely stupid. From the look on his face, he knew where this was going.

"Near the time of his death, Howard was apparently well aware his time was running out." Pepper said. "Though I doubt he anticipated his death quite so young. He set up a fund and contracts so that the search for the Captain could continue unabated in the event of his death. It is from this beginning that SHIELD sprang."

Which meant, in simpler language, that SHIELD wasn't actually a governmental agency. It was a private one. One that had been put together by and answered to Howard Stark. And from the (still on *paper*) files someone in the law offices had found and copied, Howard had ensured that the infant agency he'd 'fathered' would remain under Stark control, due to his desire to find the Captain for at least a proper burial, if nothing else.

They were still receiving quite a chunk of their annual income from the fund Howard had set up, to boot. Fury had, essentially, performed a hostile takeover, unbeknownst to herself or even Tony. Though she did wonder if perhaps Stane had known. She wouldn't put it past him.

"Now, seeing as Stark Industries is actually your parent organization, the Avengers Initiative falls under our banner, as do the people assigned to the Initiative. Which means the Avengers are under Stark Industries employ, and I have deployed them as I see fit." Pepper smiled at Fury serenely.

Fury didn't miss what she hadn't said. Yes, she had laid claim to the Avengers, essentially telling him to back off, but there had been another threat there. 'I can and will shut you down if you fuck with me'. He gave an inarticulate snarl and signed off.

"May I offer my congratulations, Miss Potts?" Jarvis asked.

Pepper grinned. "Jarvis, whoever found those records, make sure they get the biggest pay raise and bonus in Stark Industries history. Because that? That was pure gold."

"I quite agree, Miss Potts, and have so informed the payroll department." Jarvis told her.

Pepper got another hour's work done before Jarvis suddenly interrupted, sans ping this time.

"Miss Potts, you should know that an Army team under the leadership of General Ross has been spotted making their way towards the Tower."

Pepper scowled. "I know he isn't here at the moment, Jarvis, but lock down the Avengers levels. Full protocols. I don't want anyone in or out of there that doesn't belong there. You have the current list of permitted persons. That way, if they come back before I run Ross off, Bruce will feel safe."

"Done, Miss Potts. Shall I alert the X-Men as to the situation?"

"Warn them they're going to have to be careful of the elevator." She said. "So they don't accidentally let someone into it with them. But hold off on bringing them back to the Tower for now. I want to see how Ross plays it first."

"Very well, Miss Potts." Jarvis said. He left a screen up for her, so she could watch the General's progress through the city.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Ross had never, would never, give up on capturing and containing the monster. So when he'd seen it rampaging around New York City ... again! ... he'd scrambled his team to get there as soon as possible to pick up the monster's trail. He *would* have the monster, one way or another, he would control it, and recreate it, and he would be forever vindicated and remembered in history as the man who revolutionized warfare as man knew it.

It didn't take long to find where the monster had gone. Stark was sheltering it. Well, Ross would fix that. He owed that man one after his condescension a year ago. Who the hell was Stark to question him? An Army General? Hadn't Stark learned to listen to his betters?

He stomped into the lobby of Stark Tower, and snorted when Stark's Rent-A-Cops tried to stop him and his men.

"Stand aside. We have government business to attend to."

"I'm sorry, General Ross, but we have been told to bar you entrance." The man in the lead said, giving Ross a level look.

"I am an Army General on a military mission, you will not bar me from that mission." Ross snapped, motioning his men forward.

"I sincerely doubt the Army has signed off on enslaving someone, *sir*." The man snapped, his tone loaded with contempt and scorn. Behind him, the rent-a-cops pulled their weapons.

Ross nodded to his men. But before they could do anything, two things happened at once. One, the rent a cops started shooting, and two, his men started dropping their guns. It took a few seconds before Ross realized the two things were not fully connected. The shots proved to be some sort of anesthetic dart rather than bullets. As for his men dropping their weapons, the floor seemed to have magnetized abruptly.

Clever. Stark had evidently outfitted his security teams with nonmetal weapons, banking on the fact that most invaders would use weapons that were either entirely or a good percentage metal.

The security chief had the gal to smirk at Ross. Ross snarled, turned, and stormed out, leaving his unconscious soldiers to their fates.

Chapter Text

Loki

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Loki had expected a number of things from their trip to Asgard. He had expected the Midgardians to put forth a token effort at defending him. He'd expected to be judged guilty and then killed, or worse.

He had not expected Tony to silence him before he could speak in his own defense, though he realized Tony had thought he would simply offer his plea rather than attempt to sway Odin. He had not expected a demand for the full story. And he most especially had not expected anyone to get it, if they had asked. He'd assumed that if it came up, the person that asked would get an edited account of what had happened.

He hadn't expected the Midgardians' outrage on his behalf to be a palpable, almost visible thing. Nor had he expected to see a 'mere mortal' dressing down the Allfather like he was an erring child. Loki was going to treasure the Allfather's outraged bellow for the rest of his days.

But Lewis? That young female was ... breathtaking. She was not, after all, a warrior. And while Loki had long since learned the folly of assuming a non warrior was defenseless, Lewis was a mortal, facing off with immortals with powers she could not hope to possess. Watching her go on the warpath all the same had been a thing of beauty. She had been fierce and fearless in a way that no trained warrior could ever be, because warriors were trained to be fierce and fearless. This had been pure and raw, a force of nature unleashed.

And then she'd topped it by turning her back on the Allfather like she knew she had nothing to fear, and not because of the warriors at her back, slipped back into their protective cordon, and patted his arm before murmuring to him.

"No wonder you went off the deep end. What an asshole."

While Loki had always had his mother to rise to his defense, she had been his only consistent defender. Even Thor had failed him from time to time. So this ... this was unique in his experience. To have people see the trials to which he had been subjected and disapprove. He wasn't quite sure how to handle it, to be entirely honest. Though he was more than slightly tempted to laugh at her insult to the Allfather.

Frigga led them from the throne room herself, slipping her arm around one of his, which he bent automatically at her touch. Loki was familiar enough with the path they trod to be able to turn his attention to the others, and was forced to suppress his amusement. Rogers and Barton were staring at Lewis with dumbfounded awe and respect respectively. Romanov had the sort of slit-eyed, pleased look on her face one saw on a cat after a successful hunt. Banner was snickering quietly. Stark hadn't pulled his faceplate up yet, so Loki was unsure of his reaction.

Thor came up alongside Frigga, walking on the other side of her. "I do believe I misspoke, mother, when I announced the Lady Darcy." There was more than a little amusement in Thor's tone. "It would seem she is a true warrior at heart, as well as her other attributes."

Much to Loki's suprise, Frigga made an ill-concealed noise of amusement. "Indeed, Thor. I am inclined to agree. I have not seen the like since the Lady Sif beat up three young warriors in the training salle the first time she stepped into it."

Loki barely choked back a laugh. Mostly because he well remembered that day. Thor had been one of the ones Lady Sif had drubbed so badly. Mostly, it had to be admitted, because Thor had gone first, and had not expected the scrappy little girl Sif had been then to be any sort of challenge at all.

Thor, though, had no reservations about laughing, then grinned widely. "Aye, that was a day to be remembered." He agreed.

They were brought to the rooms they would be using for the night, and Frigga kissed both himself and Thor on the cheek before bidding them to summon a servant if there was aught they needed and taking her leave.

A few moments after she left, Stark finally lifted the faceplate of his helmet, and Loki discovered the true reason behind him keeping it down. Stark was positively *howling* with laughter. That got most of the rest going, and for several moments, there was naught but the sound of hilarity. Loki was amused to find himself trading exasperated eyerolls with Romanov.

Rogers was the first to recover. He turned to Lewis, a grin still tugging at his mouth. "Miss Lewis? I don't blame you for losing your temper. I'm not even going to scold you for bawling Odin out, because you were right, we all agree with you. But if something like this happens again? Please don't leave the safety of the group. If Odin had decided to try to hurt you, it would have been far too easy for him. And someone else might not refrain from attacking you."

Lewis cocked her head at Rogers for a moment before nodding. "Fair enough."

Foster reached over and smacked Lewis on the arm. "You are completely insane, you know that, right?" She asked.

Stark finally calmed down enough for speech. "That was beautiful, Lewis. I am seriously tempted to adopt you for that. I haven't seen that level of vicious since the last time some idiot pissed off Pepper."

Romanov cocked an eyebrow at Stark. "That idiot being you?"

Stark snorted. "Yeah, no. Not hardly. That would be Ross. Why do you *think* his reputation has tanked so suddenly in the last year, when he'd been chasing Bruce for years before that without any damage to his reputation?"

Romanov looked impressed. "That was her doing?"

Stark nodded. "She wanted to wreck his life the way he'd wrecked Bruce's. I may not be building weapons anymore, but I still have a lot of military contacts. She used them."

Lewis looked thoroughly discomfited by this, but also pleased. "I'm just sorry I couldn't taze Odin himself. He deserves it. But the leads wouldn't reach that far."

Loki stared at Lewis for a moment. "I find myself disappointed." He said. "The look on the Allfather's face would have been ... priceless, had that happened."

"Agreed." Stark said, staring at Lewis again.

"I'm with Stark." Barton said. "I *like* you. And kind of want to adopt you. You're almost as terrifying as she is." he indicated Romanov.

Thor was grinning like an idiot, one arm draped around Foster. "Come, friends. There are some hours before nightfall and the need for rest. I would give you a tour of Asgard, if you would agree."

Everyone seemed to agree to that. Well, except Loki.

"I will remain. My welcome is likely to be ... poor." Loki said.

Thor frowned at him. "Nay, brother. You will walk with us. And do any speak ill of you in my hearing, they will earn a taste of my wrath. If there is aught I learned from my sojourn to Midgard, it is that there is more to life than combat, and skill in other arenas should not be mocked. It is well beyond time such a lesson was learned by all in Asgard."

Damn Thor anyway. The big lug still seemed determined to drown Loki in affection and protection. It both warmed him and chafed him at the same time. Knowing that Thor would be stubborn about this, and that the others seemed to agree with him, Loki gave in to the inevitable. There were some things that even Loki Silvertongue could not achieve.

The tour went well enough. Only a handful of people dared to give Loki dirty looks or mutter about his presence. Thor was as good as his word, scowling viciously at the offenders, Mjolnir twitching in his grip. It was enough to subdue and silence all but the most impertinent and foolhardy.

Most that approached them seemed fascinated by the Midgardians, and content to ignore Loki in favor of sating their curiosity. The group returned to their assigned rooms and settled in for a night's rest, allowing Loki to finally have some peace and privacy in which to think.

He had a decision to make. Oh, the decision to leave Asgard and not return until Odin was dust was easily enough made. The real question was where to go from there, and what to do with himself. He had a number of options available to himself, even with the threat of Thanos hanging over his head. Given a week or so to fully recover from the last year, Loki knew he would be back to full strength. At which point he would be, if not able to defeat Thanos, then at the very least a formidable opponent. Loki might have limited himself to illusions and the like when he used his magic around other people, but he was capable of far, far more than that.

That said, Midgard was proving to be a very tempting place to spend the next while. Thor would be there, at least until the danger of Thanos was past ... if Thanos could be turned aside or defeated, that is. Possibly for the length of Foster's life, if their affections for each other remained true. Plus, Midgardians, while they still looked askance at persons who defied the 'norm' for their gender, did not scorn and ostracize such persons uniformly across the realm. In many places, ignoring gender barriers was actively encouraged. Beyond that, intelligence and ambition were prized commodities, no matter one's gender, and tended to be richly rewarded in one capacity or another. Well, richly rewarded by Midgardian standards, at least. And considering there had been no reward save those he gave himself, Loki wasn't about to sneer at approbation from any quarter.

The more Loki considered it, the more he realized the decision had been made. Midgard it was, then.

The next morning, Thor, Loki and the Midgardians joined the general assembly at the morning meal. Loki noticed that Thor chose to sit beside him, well away from both his usual companions and a scowling Odin. Once their fast had been broken, they removed themselves to the throne room once more.

Loki had no idea what Frigga had said or done to Odin overnight, but he seemed to at least be making an effort to not deliberately antagonize the Midgardians this morn.

"What further evidence have you?" Odin wanted to know. "To support your claims that Loki ought face no consequences for his fell deeds?"

The phrasing got him an irritated scowl from more than one of the Midgardians. "Well, if we're done pointing out the many, many, many ways that lying to Loki about who and what he was was wrong and bound to backfire horribly." Stark said, flashing teeth at Odin and, Loki knew, turning Odin's attempt to make Loki sound willfully guilty of everything that he was accused of back onto Odin. "There's the fact that Loki was not exactly in his right mind when he was making those decisions, which means he shouldn't be held responsible. It's a little something called 'diminished capacity' that we 'mere Midgardians' take into account when bad things are done by people."

"And you rest your claim of this 'diminished capacity' on what?" Odin wanted to know.

"The fact Loki tried to commit suicide." Stark said.

Loki flinched. Damn, he'd hoped that no one had picked up on that.

"See, according to Thor there, who was more or less eyeball to eyeball with Loki when it happened, Loki's hand didn't slip off the end of your spear there. He. Let. Go. And unless I'm missing something, he had absolutely no reason to think he'd survive a fall through the void. Anyone who's in the sort of frame of mind it takes to want to end their lives? Not exactly thinking rationally." Stark said.

"And even if he was fully in his right mind when he made those decisions, he landed in the lap of this Thanos joker. Who proceeded to spend the next months torturing Loki and trying his damndest to break Loki's mind. Granted, some shit went down, but I'm thinking Loki has paid the penalty for those actions several times over at Thanos' hands. Throwing him in jail, or whatever you were planning, is overkill."

Odin scowled at them. Loki kept his expression bland even as he wanted to smile. Odin doubtless realized that Loki's fate was, ultimately, out of his control. Through Heimdall and his ravens, Odin had seen what this particular band of Midgardians was capable of. Did they put their minds to it, they could reduce Asgard to rubble in a matter of days. And they were making it plain that they intended for Loki to be spared whatever judgement Odin had planned.

The Allfather knew a lost battle when he saw one, even if it displeased him greatly. "Your argument is made." He growled. "Loki Odin ... "

"Your pardon, Allfather." Loki interrupted. "But I am not, and never have been, an Odinson." He fought the desire to sneer at the name. "Nor a Laufeyson, thanks to your actions. It would seem, that I have no father." He looked at Frigga, the only parent he was willing to claim. "It is tradition, in Asgard, if the father of a child is in question, for the child to take the mother's name. If it please Queen Frigga, I will hereafter be known as Loki Friggasson."

Frigga gave him a brilliant smile. "It would please me greatly, my son." She said, then slid a look at Odin that was pure smug pleasure.

Odin looked as though he had swallowed glass. "So be it. Loki Friggasson, you are hereby found not guilty of the crimes to which you stand accused, and are free to go."

There was a brief cheer from some of the Midgardians. Loki gave the Allfather a nod and then turned and walked out. The Midgardians were quick to follow him.

"So, I say we blow this joint." Stark said. "And get back home."

There was general agreement from the rest of the Midgardians.

"Allow Thor and myself a bit of time to pack some of our things, so we need not return to Asgard unexpectedly, and we can leave. I confess I shall be glad to see the back of this realm." Loki said.

The Midgardians agreed to that, and Loki made haste to his rooms to pack his things. Not for the first time was he grateful for his skill at magic, else he would have never been able to pack even a tenth of what he had collected over the years.

Loki packed few baubles or mementoes ... he had few in the first place. He packed no clothing, as he would stand out in Asgardian attire. His armor, of course, did not need to be packed, as it went wherever he did. The bulk of what Loki packed was books, a formidable library of magical texts, histories for the various realms, and various treatises on subjects outside of magic that had caught Loki's interest over the years. The remainder of his luggage was weapons and the few aids and anchors he needed for more complicated magics. It all fit into a single trunk.

His own packing done, he went to rescue Thor, who was doubtlessly making a mess instead of packing. Sure enough, when Loki walked in, Thor's rooms looked as if they'd been attacked, Thor's belongings strewn hither and yon. Loki shook his head.

"Brother, you truly need a keeper." He sighed at Thor, who looked abashed. "Here, allow me to assist."

It was the work of moments to modify one of the trunks Thor had pulled out the way Loki had modified his own trunk. Then Loki sorted through the wreckage. "No clothing, Thor. We will be on Midgard, and it behooves us to dress as they do, outside of battle. Bring your extra weapons, as well. You may end up needing them."

Thor got himself straightened out after that, and got everything he wanted to take with him packed. Fifteen minutes later, they rejoined the Midgardians, and made their way to where Heimdall stood watch, the container holding the Tesseract in his hands.

"Gather in a circle, as you were when you arrived." Heimdall instructed in his deep voice. "With the Tesseract returned to us, the Bifrost will be rebuilt within a few weeks. If you have need of assistance, I will be watching."

Everyone gathered into the tight circle they'd been in when they left Stark Tower, and Heimdall activated the Tesseract. Loki squeezed his eyes shut against the bright light of being transported, and when he opened them, they had returned.

"Welcome home, Sir." Jarvis said seconds later. "Much has transpired in your absence."

Stark snorted. "I just bet it did."

Chapter Text

Bruce and Tony

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Bruce was incredibly relieved to leave Asgard behind. It had been a beautiful, intriguing place, but their reason for being there had not done good things to his sense of calm. The other guy was grumble-growling something fierce in the back of his mind and, weirdly, seemed almost ... guilty? Bruce wasn't quite sure, but whatever it was, it wasn't the usual rage.

It took them a few moments to sort themselves out. Tony had to get the suit off, and there were so many people on the balcony already that no one else could come out, and not being the tallest of the group, Bruce couldn't exactly see past everyone into the penthouse.

When the crush had cleared somewhat, Bruce was not at all surprised to find Pepper there, heading straight for Tony. The black man that came out behind her, though ... he grabbed all of Bruce's attention for a few moments, because he had a distinctly military bearing. The other guy stirred uneasily.

"Pep! Rhodey! You missed all the fun, sugarplum!"

The black man, Rhodey evidently, grinned. "Not hardly, Tone. Not hardly. We've been having fun while you lot were off playing geek."

"Everybody, this is Rhodey. Rhodey, this is everybody." Tony said, waving expansively. Then he grabbed Rhodey's arm and all but dragged him over to Bruce. Bruce tensed worriedly. "Brucie, this is Rhodey. I know you have a thing with military types, but Rhodey's cool. He's put up with *me* for years."

To Bruce's surprise, Rhodey just smiled at him, and offered a hand to shake. "Doctor Banner. It's going to be nice to have someone around here for Tony to talk geek at. I don't understand about seventy five percent of what he says when he gets going." Then, Rhodey got a bit more serious. "And for the record? Ross is a moron who makes a mockery of the uniform. When I found out what he'd been trying to do ... " Rhodey shook his head. "How he's escaped a court martial, I don't know."

Bruce swallowed a couple of times as the tension that had started to knot between his shoulders eased. "Thank you."

"Rhodey, you did remember Bruce's present, right? Tell me you remembered his present."

Rhodey laughed. "I remembered it, all right." He said. "It's been here since midday yesterday. I missed you guys by a couple hours. It's down in his room right now."

"Perfect. You're a peach, Rhodey. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. C'mon, Bruce. You're going to *like* this present. C'mon, c'mon. Go go go!"

Bruce had no choice but to laugh, in the face of Tony acting like an eager child, and allowed Tony to herd him towards the elevator.

"I know you guys kind of all congregated in the penthouse, and that's cool, but I sort of built floors for everybody once I found out about the Initiative." The elevator doors opened, and Bruce stepped out of the elevator, then stopped and stared in shock. He didn't even notice when Tony didn't follow him, and the elevator doors closed behind him.

The floor had been designed with both him and the other guy in mind. The entire floor was open-plan, with as few walls as humanly possible. All the furniture was low and wide and looked like it was strong enough to support even the other guy's weight. Floor clutter had been kept to a minimum ... it looked like everything that could be had been recessed into the walls, which allowed for more freedom of movement for someone the other guy's size, and reducing the odds of him trashing things. There was a thirty foot ceiling, plenty high enough to keep even the twelve-foot-tall other guy from feeling closed in. The walls were done in warm beiges, blues, and greens. There were big, sturdy planters with various plant life tucked into numerous alcoves and a waterfall against one wall, and like up in the penthouse, one entire wall was nothing but windows.

Bruce had to close his eyes against the swell of emotion. Tony had designed and built this. To accommodate both Bruce and the other guy. It was enough to take him out at the knees, because this? This was a level of welcome and acceptance he hadn't seen since Betty. God, he missed her.

"Hello, Bruce."

Bruce's eyes snapped open and his head snapped around at the sound of that voice so fast it was a wonder he didn't give himself whiplash. And he was back to staring, because rising from one of the couches (how had he not seen her?) ... was none other than Betty.

"Betty." He all but whispered her name, not quite daring to believe that she was really there.

But then she was closing the distance between them, smiling warmly at him. Hugging him. That broke Bruce at least partially out of his stunned paralysis, and he buried his face in the crook of her neck, breathing in her scent and holding her tight as it finally sunk in that this was real, that Betty was here.

They stood like that for a while. How long, Bruce didn't know and didn't care. Eventually, though, they adjourned to the couch, where Bruce ended up with his head in Betty's lap while she ran her fingers through his hair. Quiet reigned for a while longer, before Bruce finally broke it.

"I didn't think I'd ever see you again." He admitted.

"I was afraid of the same thing." She admitted. "The General ... " She sighed and shook her head. "Well, it hardly matters now. It's over, I'm here, you're here. So far everyone I've talked to here has nothing bad to say about you or ... is Hulk really his name?" She asked.

"Not ... really. It's just what people call him. I don't know that he has one." Bruce said, then grinned up at her. "You were right, by the way, the last time we talked. You said he could be reached and reasoned with. I thought you were full of it then, but you were right. I've ... learned to stop fighting him, all the time. It's not perfect, but it's better."

Betty smiled down at him. "That's good. That's really good." Then, she playfully tweaked his nose. "Maybe next time you'll listen to me." She scolded mildly.

"I am officially never not listening to you again." Bruce told her. "I should know better than to not listen to you by now, really."

That got him another of her radiant smiles. "I've been exploring the place since I arrived." She said, eyes gleaming. "Have you had a chance to see the labs?"

Bruce shook his head. "No. I was sleeping the transformation off that evening, then we took off for Asgard right after breakfast the next morning. But Tony invited me to check his labs out, before the fight. Called it Candyland."

"He's not wrong. I've *never* seen labs like this, Bruce. Then again, we've never had a sugar daddy billionaire who likes to play with science toys."

Bruce laughed. "I want to see his face when you call him that. I really do." He said. "The other guy likes him." He admitted. "He doesn't even hesitate around me, Betty. Something happened to make the other guy want to come out really bad somewhere that him coming out was a very, very bad idea, and Tony plunked himself down five feet from me and started telling old science jokes to help me pull the other guy back."

Betty smiled widely. "I'm glad. I'm glad he's not afraid. None of the others seemed to be, either. It's good to see."

"It's even better to experience." Bruce said. "I had planned to tell Tony I'd stay, once we got back, even before this." He waved a hand, indicating the floor and Betty. "But now he's going to have to resort to drastic measures to get me to leave."

"Teletubbies on loop?" Betty offered.

"Don't give him ideas." Bruce begged with a laugh.

+_+_+_+_+_

Tony gave the closed elevator doors a soft, pleased smile that the general public never, ever saw on his face. Hell, only Pepper and Rhodey had seen that smile. Then Tony bounced on the balls of his feet, and the grin morphed to something closer to a smirk.

"J, when they remember the rest of the world exists, tell them they're welcome to order in if they're not ready to join the horde just yet." He said.

"Certainly, Sir." Jarvis said.

Moments later, the elevator doors opened, revealing the penthouse again. Tony bounced forward and headed for Pepper, wrapping an arm around her and kissing her cheek.

"So. According to both Jarvis and Rhodey, you guys had some fun while we were away." Tony told Pepper.

Pepper smiled at him. "Definitely. Fury finally called a little bit after you guys left."

Tony grinned. "Do tell!"

"He wanted Barton and Romanov back. We exchanged a few words. Then one of the legal team I'd set to finding anything that could be used for or against us with SHIELD found this." She handed him a Starkpad with a file already on the screen.

Tony took it and scanned it quickly. Stopped. Blinked. Then went back and read it. Carefully. Slowly. Then he looked up at Pepper, eyes wide. "Tell me this says what I think it does."

Pepper grinned at him. "You own SHIELD. Literally. It's a Stark Industries company. Fury just pulled a hostile takeover after your father died."

A wide, toothy grin slowly took over Tony's face. "I own SHIELD." He practically purred the words. "I. Own. SHIELD." And then he started snickering and the grin turned positively evil. "I can fire Fury. Hey! Get Agent up here. He's about to get a promotion."

Pepper laughed. "I had a feeling you'd say that, and talked to Phil late last night when he came up to get some sleep finally. He told me to tell you he'd taze you if you tried to give him the job. He's got enough to do trying to keep up with Natasha and Clint."

Tony pouted. "Damn. Well, I'll try to figure out what the hell do to do with SHIELD and Fury later. What else did we miss?" Tony wanted to know.

"The *other* Ross showed up. Three times." Pepper said, sounding faintly exasperated. "The first time, I don't think he knew his daughter was here. The second time, he definitely did. He was literally frothing at the mouth."

Tony shook his head. "The security protocols working?"

"Like a charm. And the security team leader threatened to shoot Ross on sight if he shows his face again." Pepper said.

"Ohhh, I like that guy. J, make sure he gets a raise."

"Certainly, Sir."

"How're the X-Men doing?"

"Good. That new guy, the one Steve knows, finally came out of hiding after you guys left. He seems to have adjusted to what Steve told him." Pepper said. "They've been working with the aid teams the entire time. Lucy McKinnon wants to keep Hank and Kurt, I think." She said with a laugh. "She told me they were a godsend to rescue operations."

"Duh. Hank's a certified genius, stronger than Rogers, and a capable field medic. And Kurt can teleport, which means he can get people to help or safety a heck of a lot faster than anyone else possibly could." Tony waved a hand. "But she can't keep them. I have first dibs."

Pepper smiled at him. "Of course, Tony." She said. "Though I think Charles doesn't see it your way."

Tony waved that away. "He's old. Old people get senile. They're mine."

Tony shook himself and then straightened. "I'd better point everyone where they need to go while the X-Men aren't around to get all jealous of the team's digs." He clapped his hands.

"Everybody into the elevator. Bring your stuff. Move it people. Let's go." He started waving his hands at the rest of the Avengers, trying to shoo them onto the elevator.

After a few amused looks between themselves, they went. Tony slid in with them.

"Ok, here's the thing. Floors. You have them. Top's me, of course. But if you noticed, the balcony curves down to the next floor down. Thor, buddy, that one's yours. The balcony is reinforced to take me landing on it hard, so it'll handle you no problem." The doors opened to Thor's floor.

"Reindeer Games, I don't have a floor set up special for you, because you were a surprise. You can either hang out here with Fabio or take one of the generic floors until I can kit something out for you."

Loki considered Thor, then Jane, then looked at Tony. "As much as I would be pleased to live near my brother, I believe a floor to myself might be prudent."

"Right, you got it. No problem. Ok, Thor? One rule. No calling Mjolnir unless you can see it, or unless you can make it curve around things. Because if you start knocking holes in everything, you and I will be having words, god of thunder or no." Tony shook a finger at him. "I made sure everything in here was strong enough to deal with your level of strength, too."

Thor took the scolding in good part. "My thanks, friend Stark." He said looking around. The room was bright and airy and things were clearly labeled and, where possible with electronics, kept simple so that Thor could operate them without having to resort to assistance from Jane. "These are most handsome lodgings."

"Next up is you, Rogers." Tony said. He grinned when neither Thor nor Jane actually got off on their floor, clearly wanting to check out everyone else's places.

Steve's floor was an artist's dream. Like Bruce and Thor's it was open-plan, and had one whole wall that was nothing but windows, affording a spectacular view of the city below. Like with Thor's quarters, Tony had kept the electronics simple, as no matter how adaptable Steve might be, it was a heck of a jump from 40's tech to the sorts of things Tony built and preferred to use, which Steve would have to deal with elsewhere. Tony had decided that having simpler tech that Steve wouldn't have to fight to figure out how to use in his living area was a good idea. One corner of the main living space was taken up with all manner of artistic necessities, a tilted drawing desk, shelves with drawing supplies in every conceivable medium stacked neatly alongside a veritable forest of different weights of paper and other surfaces on which to draw.

"Next up are the community floors. First floor has a communal kitchen and dining area, and a communal entertainment area with games, TV, that sort of thing. Basically, somewhere for everyone to hang out when we want to." Tony told them. The entertainment floor was also ringed by a catwalk and small lofts for certain folks who liked to be up high.

"Second floor is a training area. I've got a standard firing range in there, weights calibrated for us normal people and ones for you super strong types. Special punching bags for you, Rogers, since I hear you like to wreck them. You won't manage to wreck these." Tony grinned. "There's an infinity pool, a regular pool and an area to spar in. There's also stuff to turn the sparring area into a gymnastic area. And Legolas, there's a special range for you in the basement. Standard shooting range just didn't go long enough, and there wasn't room to go further in the Tower itself." Tony wasn't going to tell Barton that it wasn't just the length of the range that was different. He was going to let Barton find that out on his own.

Barton eyed Tony. "You built a range especially for me."

"Yup." Tony said, popping the 'p'.

"Marry me."

Tony laughed. "Sorry. I am a one-Pepper man, Barton. Bruce is the next floor, but I think if I let you guys see right now, he might just kill me." Tony said. "After him are the floors for you two and Agent. They're sort of interchangeable, since I didn't know if you two would want to live together or what the deal was."

Like the others thus far, the 'Agent' floors were open-plan, with high ceilings. Ceilings that were ringed by a narrow catwalk and little lofts like the communal entertainment floor. One of them had a distinct red-white-and-blue color theme that only just escaped being a Captain America tribute in that there was nary a star nor stripe in sight. It was, for Tony, a subtle poke at Agent's fanboy status.

"There's several empty floors below you guys that're intended for Avengers, since I didn't know how big the team would be, and the labs are below that, not that anyone in here but Foster cares about that. And that's it. Go scoot. Enjoy. If you need anything, let Jarvis know and you'll have it next day at the latest unless you're asking for something that needs to be built." Tony told them, and then proceeded to head them back up, shooing everyone out on their designated floors as they went.

Chapter Text

Scott and Logan

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Scott groaned as he leaned against the wall of the elevator. He had a headache that bordered on being a migraine from using his optic blasts so much the last three days. He'd spent the two and a half days since the attack using his blasts to cut rubble into pieces that could be managed by the helicopters or rescue crews. He'd hadn't used them as much in a month as he'd used them the last three days.

Carefully, he rubbed at his temples, trying to ease the tension. Thank goodness the X-Men would be returning to the mansion in the morning. While they all wanted to help, and Scott planned to sent a rotating roster of the team to the city every day, they really couldn't afford to have the entire team gone from the mansion for any longer. Charles was formidable, but as Scott had learned six months ago, he could be taken out of action. And while several of the older teens had admirable control of their powers, leaving them to defend the mansion while the entire team was gone was a port of last resort.

That said, it had been incredibly gratifying to be openly welcomed and hailed as a hero by what had seemed to be the entire populace of downtown NYC. Scott wasn't fool enough to think it would last, or that it had even been that overwhelming a percentage, but it was nice while it lasted.

"Your pardon, Mr. Summers, but Sir took the liberty of ensuring certain pharmaceuticals were stocked in the infirmary on the lowest level of the Avengers' floors." Jarvis said, his voice pitched to a near-whisper.

Scott blinked at the ceiling. "In other words, he has my migraine medication, and go get it." He said, sounding faintly amused.

Yeah, he couldn't stand Tony ninety percent of the time, but then he did stuff like this and Scott just couldn't find it in him to bitch at Tony. "Sounds like a plan." He said. He didn't have a migraine yet, but he was so close to the edge it wouldn't take much to tip him over.

The elevator doors opened on the floor in question, and Scott quickly found the drug cabinet. He swallowed a pill dry. "Thanks, Jarvis. And thank Tony for me."

"You are welcome, Mr. Summers. And I shall do so." Jarvis said.

Scott got back in the elevator and went all the way up to the penthouse suite where he and the other X-Men had slept the night before. He blinked when he spotted Logan. He hadn't seen Logan since Captain Rogers had recognized him.

He and Logan had had a rough start. Logan was as prickly as a porcupine, suspicious to the point of paranoia and blunt and plain-speaking to the point of offense, not to mention aggressive. It really hadn't helped that they both had alpha male personalities. Things had started to get a bit better in the weeks following the Liberty Island incident.

For one, Scott's initial impression of Logan had gotten a hell of an adjustment. Because yes, Logan was all those things, but he would also go to any length to help someone under his protection. And for all his antagonism with the adults in the mansion, Logan had seemingly inexhaustible amounts of patience and an almost shocking gentleness with the kids. Especially Rogue, and, incredibly, one of the more ... damaged ... kids in the mansion, John Allerdyce.

For that, Scott could forgive Logan a lot, and had done his best to form, if not a friendship, then at least a less antagonistic alliance with the man. That plan had actually met with some success over the last few months. It helped that Scott was used to not taking Tony's flirting with Jean seriously. It made learning to do the same when Logan flirted with her a lot easier. Of course, the fact that Jean had come up with her own reward system for Scott tolerating Logan had helped *immensely*. Despite Scott's reputation for having a steel rod up his ass, he was all for that sort of reward scheme.

Logan wasn't the only 'returnee' in the room, either. The Avengers were back. Scott wandered over by Tony, who was talking animatedly with Doctor Banner. "Tony. How was Asgard?"

"Hey one-eye! You missed out on some fun. Fabio and Reindeer Games decided to hang out on Earth full time for a while. Loki didn't get in trouble with Odin, either." Tony smirked widely.

Scott eyed the smirk. That expression said there was something Tony wasn't saying, and that whatever it was, Tony thought it was great. Given the situation, and Tony's general idea of 'great' things, Scott was almost afraid to ask. Almost.

"Ok, what else happened. Because you have that look on your face." He said.

"What look?" Tony asked, trying for innocent and not even getting close. Scott was entirely convinced that Tony was incapable of looking innocent as a toddler, nevermind as an adult.

"That look."

Tony snorted, but then caved. "Darcy tazed a guard. And bitched out Odin. It was gorgeous to watch."

Scott frowned, trying to remember which of the young women he'd seen for all of about five minutes the morning before. "Which one is she?"

Tony pointed. "The one *not* currently cuddled up to a god of thunder." Tony said.

Scott turned and spotted the two women he'd met so very briefly. Sure enough, one of them was tucked against Thor's side and looking thoroughly pleased to be there. The other was a few feet away, talking with Hank.

"Ahhh, ok. And she got away with this?" Scott said.

Tony smirked. "Yeah. Like I said, gorgeous to watch. And funny as hell."

Scott snorted. "Well, I'm out of here. I need a shower and some sleep." And a chance to let the migraine medicine do its work, but he'd wanted to find out what had happened in Asgard first.

From her spot near Darcy and Hank, Jean got to her feet and headed for the bedroom they were both using. Scott met up with her halfway there.

"Darcy is attempting to argue Hank into letting her help him get cleaned up." Jean said, sounding thoroughly amused.

"I wish her luck with that." Scott said sincerely. Hank was ... touchy ... about his mutation. Despite the fact it was impossible for him to effectively clean or brush roughly half his body, he point-blank refused anyone's assistance. "She may even succeed." He said. "If she's brave enough to yell at a guy that's essentially a god."

"Did she really?" Jean asked.

Scott nodded. "Not sure of all the details, but according to Tony, she 'bitched out Odin'." He headed for the attached bathroom. "I'm for the shower. I have dust and grit in places I really don't want to think about."

Jean smiled at him. "All right. I'd offer to join you, but you're wincing."

It was things like that that made Scott fall in love with her all over again. That she watched him closely enough, cared to get to know him well enough, to be able to tell when he was wincing. With pretty much the entire top half of his face was obstructed from view, noticing something like that took careful observation. That she knew what him wincing meant, and that as much as he loved her, getting frisky was very much not on the table tonight. And she was ok with that. Scott kissed her on the cheek, then went to go get clean.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Logan had spent the last couple days taking his confusion and irritation out on defenseless rubble. And, much to his aggravated amusement, attracting a growing assortment of traumatized kids that had gone to ground during the attack and were only now beginning to come out of their hidey holes.

Logan hadn't been able to figure out at first what the hell it was about him that drew kids to him. He honestly hadn't know that about himself before Rogue had stumbled into his life, mostly because the sorts of places he patronized were extremely short on anyone under the age of twenty-one. When more and more of the youngest kids at the mansion had started trailing after him, he'd thought Rogue was talking him up to them at first.

She'd laughed at him when he'd accused her of it to her face, then explained it to him. "You put out this vibe, Logan. A really solid, protective vibe. It's a hell of a draw when your world's been turned on its ass. Meeting you was the first time I'd felt safe since I ran away from home."

Logan had snorted and ruffled her hair, which made her grin.

"And in my case, it really doesn't hurt that you've never once flinched away from me. That you do shit like that to me, despite my skin."

Logan had had to grumble at that. Yeah, Rogue's skin was dangerous, even to him if she held on too long, but for god's sake, that didn't mean people had to keep a thirty foot radius around her at all times. She kept herself covered up enough that about the only way for an accident to happen would be for her to trip and literally face plant into someone AND have her face hit bare skin. Not real good odds on that happening.

Though he was man enough to admit the discovery that touching her hair didn't trigger her skin had been made accidentally. Logan was the only one who wasn't afraid to hug Rogue, and he'd been doing exactly that one day when her hood shifted enough to expose her ear, which had been covered by her hair. Because Logan didn't freak the hell out if she got within five feet of him, he hadn't realized it until he'd gone to pat her head and touched hair. And hadn't gotten zapped by her skin. A careful experiment revealed that as long as a thick hank of her hair was in the way, touching wasn't a problem. He'd been ruffling her hair ever since.

Thankfully, Logan wasn't the only one not scared of her. There were a few others. A couple of girls, and then of course Bobby, who was dating Rogue. All things considered, Logan kind of liked Bobby. He'd had the balls to try to intimidate Logan and warn him away from Rogue in a romantic sense.

Not that Logan had actually ever looked at Rogue in a sexual light. She was sixteen fuckin' years old, for fuck's sake. Logan was a lot of things, but a pedophile for fuckin' sure wasn't one of them. He could see where people might get a bit confused, though. It wasn't like he and Rogue weren't tight as hell, and had been from the word go. Even Logan still didn't understand how the hell that had happened, and Rogue was a mature sixteen that if you didn't know better could pass for eighteen, so he could understand folks getting confused.

The fact that she acted more than a little bit like him, thanks to absorbing so much of him, probably didn't help. He'd overheard Jean and Hank debating about why the hell Rogue still showed signs of his personality, and even his speech patterns sometimes, when she'd never shown so much as a flicker of that fucker Mags' personality, and she'd got about as much from him as she'd gotten from Logan.

Logan had eventually gotten curious enough to ask Rogue that question himself, despite the fact Jean and Hank had asked her and apparently not gotten an answer. Logan had not been at all surprised to get an answer himself.

"I didn't want him in my head." Rogue said. "And you were there, poured into me and desperate to protect me, save me. So I didn't fight you. Let you flood everything until there was nothing of *him* left." She'd grinned at him. "Guess it took long enough to wipe him out that some stuff from you became permanent. I really don't mind."

Logan could definitely live with the idea of a piece of him wrapped up in Rogue's mind, ready to protect her from another invasion. He just wished she hadn't had to deal with the nightmares that had plagued her for months after the incident that had nothing to do with what she'd gone through. She had enough to deal with without dealing with his crap too.

He'd called her yesterday, told her about Rogers, and what Rogers'd said. Thanks to having absorbed so much of him, she understood where he was at right now. Just having that sympathetic ear had helped a bit. Helped him figure out what the hell to do with it, now that he had any answer at all to who he'd been, when he'd never expected to discover anything at all.

So Logan planned to hang around a lot. Maybe even work with the so-called Avengers. God knew, that with two assassins and the Hulk on their team, they wouldn't be as prone to looking at him cockeyed as the X-Men were. His 'shoot first, questions later, if they live' mentality had been a bit of a sore spot with the more pacifistic group.

Chapter Text

Tony and Steve

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The day after Asgard, Tony headed for his lab.

Not without a bit of a discussion with Pepper, first, it must be said. She'd wanted him to help with the recovery effort more. Tony had pointed out that he really didn't need the publicity, and he *did* need to not only fix the Mark VI so it was operable, he needed to build at least one new suit besides the Mark VII, because the Six was going to be nothing more than a 'I am so fucked and all my other suits are dead, need something now!' backup.

Thankfully, Pepper knew him well enough to know that keeping him out of the lab made him rather cranky, so she didn't push. Tony grinned as he yanked on a thick black tank top and then an old, faded AC/DC shirt, blanking out almost all of the glow from the reactor.

Normally, he didn't wear the tank top too, but there were relative strangers in his house. Tony could barely tolerate Pepper touching his chest most days. His chest, not the reactor. Not even she got to touch the reactor without him reacting. He'd kept the reactor covered and hidden as much as possible since Stane, unless he was in the suit.

Part of him realized he was being fucking ridiculous. No one in the Avengers section of the Tower was going to steal the reactor, for fuck's sake. He knew that. But he kept it covered all the same. PTSD was a bitch, but he'd learned to deal. He'd reengineered the damn reactor so that he could fix and replace it without assistance. He'd learned to avoid still the water issue by switching to bubblebaths or showers only. And he made damn sure to keep his armor in place in public.

Dummy was right on the other side of the lab door, clicking and whirring anxiously. Tony patted his claw. For all Tony's bitching about Dummy, Dummy had always been his favorite of the three bots. And that was before Dummy had saved his life.

And as it turned out, not even simple AI's were completely immune to their equivalent of worry. Dummy had developed a habit, after the Stane incident, of checking Tony for visible damage anytime he was gone from the lab for any length of time.

Tony was perfectly fine with being an enabler. So he moved far enough into the lab that Dummy could circle him and check him over. Once Dummy came to a stop in front of him, he patted Dummy's claw again.

"I'm fine, Dummy. No damage. Now scoot. We've got work to do."

Dummy chirped happily and scooted off as fast as his wheels would let him.

"He was more worried than usual." Jarvis said. "I was unable to prevent them being aware of the attack."

Tony sighed. "Yeah, that'd do it." He said. "All the replacement panels fabricated?"

"Indeed, Sir. Do you wish to begin with the repairs, or were you planning on working on developing a new armor first?"

Tony headed where the Mark VI was lying in sections on one of the larger workbenches. "Repair first, Jarvis. Playtime later. Run track four for me, will you?"

"Of course, Sir." And moments later, the lab speakers were blasting heavy metal at ear-bleeding levels. Tony grinned, grabbed a wrench, screwdriver, and pair of pliers and went to work stripping the wrecked panels off.

He'd gotten most of the wrecked panels off and was fighting with and cursing at the crumpled, twisted mess that was the right forearm gauntlet about an hour later. Several of the connections and joints that held the gauntlet panels to the rest of the suit had gotten crushed, making yanking them off particularly difficult. Dummy was hovering, endeavoring to be helpful and, as per normal, mostly getting in the way.

He'd just snagged his finger on a jagged edge when the connection he'd been working on unexpectedly snapped out of his grasp when Jarvis interrupted him.

"Sir, Captain Rogers is at the door and wishes to speak with you."

Tony grumbled as he cleaned his hand enough to dab some skin glue on the cut so he could finish with the suit. "Let him in, Jarvis, and turn the music down."

The door popped open and Rogers stuck his head in.

"Not out saving kittens today, Cap?" Tony asked.

"Pepper wanted one of us to stay just in case Ross tried something again today." Rogers told him. "So I volunteered. My being Army might help."

Tony snorted. "Your being you will be what helps." It was only then he glanced over at Steve, who was staring around the room in interest.

"You know, when you said lab, I was picturing ... something a lot different." Rogers said.

Tony laughed. "Most people do." He agreed. "So you're down here ... why?"

"Curiosity. Fury's file on you was ... " Steve's brow wrinkled. "Incomplete."

Tony laughed. "Now there's a shocker. What'd you want to know?"

He wasn't quite ready for the question Steve asked first.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

When Pepper had asked for someone to stay in the Tower against Ross being an idiot, Steve jumped at the opportunity. For one, while he liked helping people, he still felt like a performing monkey doing so in the uniform, which Pepper's plan for positive media exposure sort of required that they do that so they were recognizable as Avengers. Well, at least for everyone except Tony. Tony was recognizable enough to get away with not using the suit.

Besides, he really wanted to talk to Tony. Of everyone in the group, he knew the least about Tony, thanks to Fury. Clint and Natasha were easy enough to figure out, even if he didn't know specifics. Snipers were snipers, even if they used ... unique ... weapons. It wasn't too hard to figure the sorts of missions Clint had been on. Same general idea for Natasha. Steve knew he was probably missing the magnitude of their ops by a margin, but he was at least in the general neighborhood. Bruce had been easy enough to look up to find stuff he'd published. As for Thor ... well, Steve had read the Eddas. He was pretty sure a good chunk of it was nothing but tall tales, because he can't begin to see Thor doing some of it, but it gives him a base to work from if nothing else.

Tony? At this point, Steve's not willing to bet that what Fury put in Tony's file isn't a bunch of lies. So he's going to start from scratch.

He headed down to the lab, and walked in when the door opened. He blinked when he got in, because this place was ... not a lab. At least, not the sort of lab Steve was used to. This place bore a closer resemblance to a mechanic's garage. There were tools, grease, parts and machinery everywhere. Steve could see a big bundle of parts that looked like it might be the Iron Man armor minus the red and gold exterior sitting on one big work bench. Tony was hunched over another workbench, cussing a blue streak at ... something that Steve couldn't see from this angle.

He let Tony's playful-sounding jabs roll over him until he could finally ask the question he wanted the answer to the most. "What happened in Afghanistan that changed things?" He asked.

For a moment, he wondered if he should have gone with something easier, because Tony abruptly went white as a sheet and sort of hunched in on himself.

"Darn, Tony, I ... you don't have to answer that. I shouldn't have ... " Steve stammered.

That seemed to make Tony rally. He uncurled a bit. "It's fine, Cap." He said, a blatant lie if Steve had ever heard one. "What made you ask?"

And Steve recognized a stalling tactic when he heard it, but given Tony's reaction, he was going to go with it. "I know what a man on a mission looks like." Steve said. "The thing about missions is ... something has to happen to get you on one."

"Being kidnapped isn't enough?" Tony asked, his tone odd.

"Can be. But then why keep going? From what I've pieced together, you wiped out the people that took you within weeks of making the second suit. If it was just about kicking their asses, you'dve quit then."

Tony regarded him for several long moments. "There was another guy there." He said, his tone quiet and strained. "Yinsen. He's the one that kept me alive." A drum of fingers over where Steve knew the arc reactor was illustrated how. "Helped me build the first suit." Tony took a deep, shaky breath. "He didn't make it out. Got shot up during the escape trying to buy me time for the suit's computer to boot up. I found him before he died. He told me not to waste my life."

Then Tony buried himself in fussing with the piece on the workbench he'd been cussing at. Steve let him go for a few minutes, let him get his feet back under him for a bit. Sat down on a nearby bench to watch Tony work. Once Tony's motions became less spastic and his face and body lost some tension, Steve spoke up.

"The night before the procedure, Erskine and I talked." He said. "He had a bottle of schnapps. Planned to give me some to drink, before he remembered alcohol before the procedure wasn't a good idea." Steve's mouth twisted. "He told me why he'd chosen me for the procedure. He told me about the Red Skull, and what had gone wrong. That the serum worked on what a person already was. His exact words were 'good becomes great. Bad becomes worse." Steve sighed. "He made me promise to stay a good man, not a perfect soldier. The next day, when everything happened ... he reminded me of the promise just before he died."

Tony looked over at him, and the two of them shared a long look, recognizing that they both had a common factor in their lives. A mission they'd been put on by people who had seen the good in them. Then Tony gave his head a shake.

"Yeah, ok, whatever. We are not *girls*, Rogers. We are not sharing the moments of our lives here. If you're going to stay down here, make yourself useful and help me get this fucking panel off."

Steve laughed and pulled his seat over to the workbench. "This part of the suit that Thor crunched?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah. the arm gauntlet, which took the worst of it. Guy has a hell of a grip on him, to do this to the suit. It's not exactly made of tin." Tony said.

Steve peered at the panel that was apparently giving Tony so many problems, and spotted where it was all but fused to two bits of metal that connected it to the rest of the suit. "If I yank this off, the connections are going to come with it."

"That's fine. They have to be replaced anyway." Tony said.

Steve nodded, got a grip on the piece, and gave it a yank. It came off in his hand with a short squeal of distressed metal. Tony promptly stole the piece from his fingers and tossed it in a nearby bin.

"Finally! Now I can get the connections fixed and replaced and then deal with the wiring."

Steve wandered over to the remains of the suit and examined it curiously. He was surprised at the complexity of what the flashy exterior concealed.

"How the heck did you even come up with this?" He asked.

"A familiarity with flight systems and a fuckton of trial and error. Mostly error." Tony said, with a wince that indicated a painful memory. Given what the Iron Man suit was capable of, Steve had little doubt that whatever had gone wrong had ended up being painful.

About then, some ... thing ... on wheels came buzzing over and poked at him. It took Steve a minute to realize it was some sort of machine.

"Your machine is poking at me, Tony."

Tony glanced up, then laughed. "That's Dummy. He was the first AI I built, back when I was seventeen. He's just checking you out. I don't normally get a lot of visitors in here. Dummy, leave the man be."

Dummy whirred and clicked in a way that Steve was sure was some sort of communication, circled Steve one last time, then rolled away again.

"Sorry, but he's a bit ... special." Tony said. "His code's pretty limited."

"You built that when you were *seventeen*?" Steve finally sputtered.

"Yep." Tony said, popping the 'p'.

"That is ... " Steve shook his head, unable to articulate it. "Really keen." He finally settled on, though he winced, as he was aware of how ... dated ... such a phrasing probably sounded.

Things went quiet for a while. Steve ended up plopping himself down in one of the extra chairs and just watching as Tony put the suit back together again. It was such a contrast to Tony's usual style elsewhere.

Generally, Tony seemed incapable of keeping his mind focused on any one thing at a time, and jumped from subject to subject when he talked, with little rhyme or reason. Here, though, Steve was fairly sure that Tony had forgotten Steve was in the room, all his attention on the task before him.

Eventually Tony sat back with the air of a man who'd completed a task and done well. He wiped his hands on a rag, then turned. In the process he spotted Steve and jumped about a foot off his chair.

"JEEZE, Rogers, you're still here?"

Steve shrugged. "Nothing better to do until Ross shows up." He said.

Tony gave him a sideways look like he didn't quite believe it, then shrugged and turned his attention away. "All right, J. heat up the design program and let's get cracking."

Seconds later, the air was full of blue light that coalesced into the outline of the suit, only at about quarter-size. Steve did a double take in surprise. He'd seen all sorts of things since he'd woken up, but he'd had no idea they had technology that could project an image in the air.

And then Tony started poking the image, and it turned and expanded. Tony grabbed something and pulled it into his hand to examine it. Steve couldn't restrain a shocked gasp. It was ... he could ... ? How?

Tony heard him and glanced over, then grinned. "Oh, you haven't seen this before. You won't see it anywhere outside of the Tower. It's only Jarvis that can do this. It takes a lot of computing power, and most people use that sort of power for other things."

"But it's ... real? You can touch it?" Steve asked.

"Yes and no." Tony said, then waved him over. "C'mere. Here, hold your hand out, palm flat." Steve did so, and Tony put the piece he'd pulled out to examine on Steve's palm.

There was no weight at all. No real sense of the thing's edges and dimensions, but there was a faint electric tickle against his skin that told him it was there. "Oh, I see. So how do you ... "

"Manipulate it? Feel for the edges of the energy." Tony told him.

Steve did so, and after a few moments, managed to, somewhat clumsily, make it spin in place on his palm.

"The more you use the program, the easier it gets to manipulate things." Tony said.

"You get more sensitive to the buzz, right?" Steve guessed.

Tony nodded. "And you stop needing to feel around for the right spot. I've been doing this for years, which is why I can do things so easily. I can alter the design however I want and see how it goes with everything else immediately, instead of having to wait for production or take the time to make a mockup of the piece in question."

Steve grinned. "This is incredible, Tony."

Chapter Text

Bruce, Thor and Loki

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Bruce couldn't remember the last time he'd been this happy and content.

He and Betty had cuddled and talked for hours. He'd told her about the places he'd been and the good he'd done. She told him about working at Cheyenne Mountain. And despite the fact that in both cases, they'd both been where they were for not-so-good reasons, they had deliberately not mentioned that part of it.

Eventually, hunger drove them off the couch to the well-appointed kitchen. Bruce had to stare, because the cabinets were stocked with teas, spices, and foodstuffs from the areas he'd been in most recently as well as more standard American fare.

"You know, Tony is a little scary sometimes." Bruce said after a few moments. "In a good way, but scary."

Betty smiled at him. "How about some curry?" She asked.

"Sounds good."

They moved around the kitchen with surprising ease, given they hadn't been around each other in a year. Bruce supposed there were just some things you didn't forget.

"So are you going to be helping with the cleanup?" Betty asked as they were setting the table.

Bruce shrugged. "Not directly, I don't think. I can do more good in the labs, or helping keep things moving here in the Tower." Working here would also keep him safer. He didn't trust Ross as far as he could throw him when not the other guy.

"So do you think he can be worked with?" Betty asked, a faint smile on her lips.

Bruce didn't mistake who she was talking about. Still he shrugged. "I'm really not sure. He recognizes you, and now Tony, and I don't think he'd ever attack either of you, and I can sort of aim him at appropriate targets, but beyond that?" He shrugged again. "I don't know. I just know I'm not going to start experimenting with it somewhere people can get hurt." He snorted. "Doubtlessly, Tony has something worked out, if I ever get the nerve up to try it."

Betty laughed. "He probably does." She agreed.

After they'd eaten, the two of them headed for the labs finally. Bruce could only stare helplessly for several long moments. "Definitely Candyland." He said after a long moment.

The lab, like Bruce's floor, had been built with the presence of the Hulk in mind as much as possible. Most of the bigger machinery was tucked into alcoves and recesses. The rest of it was against the walls or on counters that were against the walls, which reduced the chances of destruction. And every last bit of it was brand new top-of-the-line equipment that Bruce had drooled over before the accident. Things that were largely beyond the budget of most scientists unless they had a seriously wealthy backer. Who wasn't the government or the military. Because the government and the military had a tendency towards providing only the minimum of equipment, and never top of the line unless you were researching something they were VERY interested in.

He grinned at Betty, who grinned back, and they soon lost themselves in putting the various equipment through its paces.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Thor had, along with the other Avengers save Bruce and Tony, headed back out into the city to render assistance where he could. Mjolnir being of but limited use for such endeavors, he had left it behind, safely tucked in his rooms.

Today, after the events in Asgard, Thor chose to work in Loki's general vicinity, the better to watch him. Not for any nefarious purpose, but out of concern for Loki's state of mind. His brother had suffered much in the last year, and Thor would not see him slip into madness or despair if it could be avoided.

In the watching, Thor made two discoveries. One, that his brother's magics were far more complex than he had known or suspected. He had never seen Loki use his magics to levitate anything, for instance, yet he saw Loki do so multiple times over the course of the day, among other works.

The second thing Thor discovered made his blood burn. Loki seemed to take an inordinate pleasure in the awe and praise heaped upon him by the Midgardians with whom he worked. When Thor tried to remember the last time he'd seen such an honestly pleased look on Loki's face, he was horrified to realize that he had not seen such since they were practically infants. It hurt to think on just how much Loki must needs have suffered under the lash of the Allfather's disapproval. For that disapproval had doubtless given all with whom Loki interacted leave to treat him ill. After all, the Allfather knew what he was about, did he not, as King of Asgard?

Unfortunately, Thor was much adrift in these waters. His gifts lay not in the healing of hearts and minds, but in battle. A stout blow with his fist or Mjolnir would solve nothing here. But then Thor thought of Erik, and Darcy, and Jane. They had rendered him assistance on his first sojourn to this world. Mayhap they could assist him with this. It was worth seeking their advice in any case.

That evening, he sought the three of them out. He found them in one of the labs with the assistance of Jarvis. he did not understand Jarvis. It was neither man, nor beast, nor quite machine. Fortunately, Erik and Jane looked to be stopping for the day under Darcy's watchful eye. Jane smiled happily at him when she spotted him, and Thor wrapped her in a hug, then kissed her cheek.

Her forwardness, just before he had left Midgard that first time, had startled him. Maidens in Asgard would never think to do such a thing. Asgardian maids were demure and chaste, desiring to be wooed and won. Even Lady Sif, who had challenged many notions of proper Asgardian female behavior, had been so the few times matters of the heart had come up.

Thankfully, Thor had always been a bit more tolerant of ... unusual behavior, thanks to the Lady Sif, who would have beaten him badly, did he have the temerity to correct her and demand 'proper' behavior on her part. That said, Thor rather liked the more open and honest way Midgardians of both sexes showed their affections. There was something to be said for being able to openly show that someone held your favor.

"Jane, Your pursuits have gone well?" He asked. He had no idea what, exactly, she'd been working on this day, and even if he had, his knowledge of Midgardian 'science' was all but nonexistent, so a general question such as that was the best he could manage.

Jane grinned up at him. "We mostly had fun today." She admitted. "We've never gotten a chance to use some of the equipment in here, so we mostly came up with excuses to do just that."

Thor smiled at her. "I am pleased your day was so pleasant." He said. "Though I must admit to seeking you out with purpose."

His face must have given something of his thoughts away, because Jane sobered. "What's wrong?"

"I would ask your advice." Thor said. "In regards to my brother. I have done him ill, and things between us are ... " Thor sighed. "Rightfully strained. But I know not how to fix things between us. Or help him. He has been dealt terrible blows of late, and unless I much miss my guess, his heart and mind will be calling an account of them ere long."

It was Darcy that spoke up. "Dude. You want to help your brother? The best thing you can do for him is just shut up and listen. Let him do the talking. Don't push him to talk about what happened ... he will when he's ready. Don't try to justify things that happened that bug him. Don't defend what other people said or did." Darcy pointed at him. "And if you really want to help heal the strain between you, show a little interest in his skills. Give him credit for the times he saved your ass one way or another, which I'm sure there has to be at least one case of that."

Thor looked abashed. "Many more than one." He admitted.

Darcy nodded. "Tell him that. Even if it's way the hell after the fact, he'll appreciate it."

"I know you said you told him you don't care about the fact he's Jotun, but reiterating that wouldn't hurt either." Jane said. "I don't know if he's hiding what he really looks like or not?"

"There must be some sort of spell at work, aye. Though that, I will not ask of him. Jotuns can freeze even Aesir limbs with but a touch of their skin. I would not ask him to walk in his Jotun skin when he would must needs fear harming all around him." Thor said.

"Ok, that's a good point." Jane said. "So scratch that idea. But Darcy's right about the rest. Let him talk about things in his own time, and make sure you give him credit where it's due, and keep letting him know you don't care he's Jotun. He's probably going to need to hear that a lot for a while."

Thor kissed Jane's forehead. "I thank you for your counsel, ladies." He told them. "Now, mayhap we should go and find sustenance? If you have been here all day ... ?"

Darcy laughed. "I made sure they got lunch, but yeah, dinner would be good. C'mon, big guy, let's go get something to eat."

They all headed for the elevator. Once within, Thor turned to Erik.

Erik anticipated what Thor intended to say. "I am in agreement with Barton." He said. "I am not overly happy with your brother right now, but I realize he wasn't doing things of his own free will. Still, I don't trust my judgment where he is concerned at the moment."

Thor nodded acceptance of that.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Loki had been aware of the weight of Thor's gaze all day. He could even guess as to the reason why Thor watched him so. Loki still couldn't quite decide whether to be warmed by Thor's concern or thoroughly annoyed.

After a day of labor, Loki hungered for more intellectual pursuits. To that end, he decided to seek out Stark and see if the man would be amenable to a discussion, if nothing else. Stark certainly came the closest to having intelligence enough to keep up with him, and probably even surpassed Loki in certain areas.

"Jarvis." He said when Thor had departed the elevator. "I would speak with your master, if he is available."

There was a momentary pause, probably Jarvis consulting with Stark, before the computer being responded. "Of course, Mr. Friggasson. Sir is in his main lab at the moment." And the elevator descended.

Once the doors opened again, Jarvis spoke a second time. "The door at the end of the corridor, Mr. Friggasson."

"Thank you, Jarvis." Loki said, and headed for the indicated door.

He walked in, and paused for a moment in stunned surprise. Stark was not alone in the room. Rogers was here as well, and the two men seemed to be in the depths of a spirited debate of some sort, both of them fussing with some sort of ... construct ... in the air that looked to be made of light, and gave the form of Stark's suit.

"I still say the slight flat place here and the ridges on the boot top will be enough, Tony." Rogers said, indicating the light construct in two places. He scowled when his touch made the construct rotate.

Stark was clearly used to that happening, because he reached to stop the spin almost automatically. "Enough for an emergency lift for you and Loki maybe. You both have the grip strength to hang on. Everyone else, not so much. We need something a bit more involved to allow them to hang on comfortably. And speaking of, hello Reindeer Games."

Loki headed over, eyes on the construct. "What is this?" Then he glanced around. "And how is it done?"

Stark grinned at him. "This is a holographic display." He said. "And a design program, so I can make alterations to my suits and build new ones easily. As for how it's done, that's a bit more complicated. There are light emitters." He pointed up at the ceiling. "All over up there, so that the holograms can be moved anywhere in the room. The design program has the dimensions of everything, and tells the light emitters what they need to be showing."

Loki was intrigued. "And the purpose of your debate?"

"Trying to figure out a way to make it easy for the non-fliers on the team to hitch a ride on the suit, but not make it easy for bad guys to get a hold of me." Stark said.

"So some subtle change to the suit that the team would know is there, but is not immediately visible to a stranger." Loki said.

Stark grinned. "I *like* you. Yeah, that's the gist. And making sure the team *stays* on. 'cause not everyone has the strength to hang on against the sorts of speeds I can and may have to go in this thing while carrying them, or the maneuvers that I might have to pull."

Loki considered that for several moments. "You have a number of things recessed in the suit." He said, indicating the hologram. "Those of us who cannot fly under our own power all have belts of some sort or another that we wear on our armor."

Stark immediately picked up where he was going with that thought. "Have you guys put a special carabineer on your belts, reinforce the belts, and put a recessed latch somewhere around the waist of the suit. I like it. And it wouldn't be a huge, problematic change to the suits, either." Stark grinned at him. "All right. Let's see. Ok, Jarvis, thicken the waist just a bit here, and ... yeah, that's perfect."

Loki watched in fascination as the hologram shifted and changed, adding a small, hidden panel and what was apparently a latch.

"The only other thing is to increase the power of the jets, but how much is going to have to wait for test runs with the existing jets." Stark looked between Rogers and himself. "How much do you weigh, Loki?"

That stymied Loki somewhat. "I am unsure how much I weigh in your measures." He admitted.

"Huh, that's easy enough to fix. Jarvis?" Stark said.

"Mr. Friggasson weighs three hundred twenty two pounds and five ounces." Jarvis supplied.

Stark's eyebrows went up. "I would not have guessed that." He admitted. "You look like you weight maybe half that. I guess you've got denser bones and muscles than humans. Well, Rogers here only weighs two hundred and a bit, so you get to be the one to stress test the jets, if you're up for it later. I'd have to bring the Mark VII down here first, which I can do in the morning."

"I find myself quite intrigued." Loki admitted. "So I shall put myself at your disposal."

Chapter Text

Phil and Remy

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. Phil's section takes place the evening of the day the Avengers left for Asgard. Remy's takes place the morning after the Avengers returned to Earth.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Phil had had a very, very busy two days while the Avengers were off in Asgard. He'd been overseeing the SHIELD agents that had been trying to sweep the war zone clear of alien tech. This ... had not been easy, given just how many of the small fliers had come through the portal. To say nothing of the foot soldiers. This task had been complicated by needing to figure out what to do with the dead Chitauri. And just how to deal with the positively enormous whale-like creatures that had made it through the portal.

The most obvious and easiest disposal method that had been suggested was cremation, and Phil saw no problem with doing that for the dead Chitauri, minus one sample each of the drivers, shooters, and foot soldiers, so their science and defense divisions could, one hoped, figure out a more effective means to defeat the Chitauri.

The whales, though ... those were another problem entirely. There wasn't anything on the planet that was designed to lift and haul that much weight, and the scientists had had spasms about the things being cut up in order to facilitate their removal. Phil had settled that by giving the scientists until the bulk of the rest of the debris had been cleared to study the whales on site. Or until the things started to reek of decomp, whichever happened first.

That still didn't settle how to deal with the remains once the geeks were done with them, but Phil supposed that if they were cut up small enough, cremation would work just as well for them as for the Chitauri. It'd just take a bit longer to cremate a whole whale.

Much to the pleasure of the geeks, not all of the fliers had exploded into shrapnel. Seven of the rear sleds had been found relatively intact, and a single drive section that must have been pretty close to the ground when it crashed, to not explode. The geeks had their choice when it came to the hand-held weapons, of course.

A little past midday that first day, Phil had received a call from Pepper, warning him that Ross was in the area and trying to get his hands on Bruce. She also told him they needed to talk, later that evening, about something important. Less than five minutes after that, he got a call from Fury, who looked ... displeased, to put it mildly. It didn't take much for Phil to guess the two calls had something to do with each other, and he wondered what on Earth Pepper had said to Fury that had gotten him that wound up.

It was nearly midnight before Phil managed to tear himself away from the frenetic activity on the streets and at SHIELD's NYC HQ. He was just grateful he didn't have to oversee the repairs to the Helicarrier on top of everything else. When he got back to the Tower, he slumped, briefly, against the side of the elevator before pulling himself upright again.

"Jarvis, is Miss Potts still awake and available?"

"Yes, Agent Coulson. She has not yet left her office." Jarvis told him.

Phil mentally winced. And he thought he had it bad. "That floor, please. She said she wanted to talk to me."

Soon enough, he was on the floor with Pepper's office, and made his way there. It was late enough that she had, evidently, dismissed her secretary. Or the secretary had not come in, one of the two. He knocked on the door to warn her, then poked his head in.

"Phil! Come in." Pepper said, her voice warmly welcoming as always.

Phil smiled at her and headed for one of the chairs in front of her desk. Despite her very long day, Pepper looked as though she'd only just gotten into the office, her dress somehow managing to be fresh and crisp and her hair and makeup both remained undamaged.

"You said you wanted to talk to me about something important?" Phil asked. "It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that Director Fury called me about five minutes after you did, almost literally frothing at the mouth?"

Pepper smiled. "It probably did." She admitted. "You should read this." She handed him a Starkpad with a file on it.

Phil took the file and read it, his eyebrows heading for his hairline. This was ... entirely unexpected. And extremely, extremely good news for himself, Clint and Natasha.

"I had no idea." He said finally. "I wish I had, though."

"I didn't think you did, Phil, but can I ask why?"

"Because of Clint and Natasha." Phil said. "We've been looking for an opportunity to win clear of SHIELD without having to spend our lives on the run for years. Since very shortly after Natasha joined us."

"May I ask why?"

"A number of things. When I joined SHIELD, I thought I would be ... well, doing good things." Phil admitted. "It didn't take me long to realize that things in the agency were ... not right. But by then, it was too late. I wasn't sure I'd be able to disappear and not be pursued. So I stayed, and tried to mitigate as much of the damage as I could."

Pepper nodded.

"Then about eight years ago, Clint was ... recruited. In lieu of being eliminated entirely. I guess Fury didn't want to waste such a good sniper, and hoped Clint could be broken to harness." Phil made a moue of distaste. "He was very, very wrong. It would have been not unlike attempting to break Mr. Stark to harness."

Pepper snorted. "In other words, it was never going to happen, and entirely likely that Clint would have died rather than break."

"Precisely." Phil said. "Clint put three handlers into the infirmary in the space of four months. Fury finally dumped him on my doorstep, and told me, in front of Clint, to either bring him to heel or eliminate the problem."

Pepper looked properly horrified. "Oh my goodness. Well, obviously, you didn't 'break' him. I've seen how he acts with you, if only briefly, and that is not someone who is broken."

Phil smiled. "No, I didn't break him. Didn't even try. It took almost a year, but I managed to get him to trust me. Of course, shortly after that is when we got put on Natasha's trail, with orders to eliminate her. Clint and I both were ... wary ... of the fact anyone knew where she was at all. Up to then, she'd been a ghost. We knew she existed, and we could identify her kills after the fact, but we never knew where she was or where she was headed. When we caught up with her, Clint refused to take the shot. He was convinced she wanted out, and wanted to try to bring her in, because SHIELD might not have been the best place, but it was better than dead."

"I'll bet that caused problems." Pepper said.

Phil laughed. "You have no idea. Of course, most of it was ... not direct and blatantly linked to that incident, because everyone in SHIELD was terrified of Natasha, and she made it quite clear that we were operating under her ... beneficence. Given her reputation, not even Fury wanted to challenge her, back then."

Pepper laughed. "I just bet."

"But eventually, Fury started trying to muck with us again. That's why Natasha was in Russia when this whole mess started, while Clint and I were here in the States. Fury ... made me choose. Forced the issue despite me arguing with him about it. Clint's always been more vulnerable, so I decided to stay here with him to protect him." Phil scowled, remembering how little good that had done.

Pepper correctly divined the cause of that scowl, because she gave him a gentle smile. "It all worked out, Phil. You can't blame yourself for things that are beyond your control."

Phil sighed. "I suppose you're right." He said. "I still don't have to like it." Then he gave himself a mental shake. "So I'm presuming you showed me this to ascertain where myself, Clint, and Natasha's loyalties lay?"

Pepper nodded. "Yes."

"Not with SHIELD." Phil summed up. "It's mostly with ourselves, though Clint and Natasha both trust my judgment when it comes to trusting outsiders and follow my lead."

"Fair enough." Pepper said. "I can't ask for more than this early. Just one last question, and I'm only asking it because I fully expect Tony to ask it when I tell him, so I might as well beat him to the punch. Do you want to be the new Director of SHIELD?"

Phil grimaced. "Hell no. I have enough to do as it is. And since I know Tony fairly well at this point, tell him I'll taze him if he tries to make me director anyway."

Pepper laughed. "I'll do that." Her desk pinged, and something flashed onto the mirrored surface that Phil couldn't read upside down. Pepper smiled at it. "Ahhh, that's the last of it for today. I can shut down now, finally, and get some sleep. Hopefully Tony and the others will be back tomorrow."

Phil got to his feet. "I don't know about you, but I haven't eaten since lunch."

Pepper gave a low laugh. "Neither have I. It's been an insane day. Jarvis? Are the cooks still up?"

"They are indeed, Miss Potts. Shall I have them send something up?" Jarvis said.

"Oh, please. Anything is fine, since I know they've probably been cooking for the relief crews." Pepper said.

"Same for me, Jarvis." Phil said.

After a pleasant dinner with Miss Potts in the penthouse suite, Phil finally made his way to 'his' floor, since Pepper had told him Tony had built him one in the Tower. Phil got one good look at his rooms and laughed, thoroughly amused by the color theme and the overhead catwalks. He'd have to fetch his things from his SHIELD quarters and his small apartment later.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Remy was going to miss the Tower, he thought as he clambered aboard the X-Jet with the others. Despite the fact he ached everywhere from three days of near-constant activity, he'd had fun talking to the Avengers the day of the attack and last night. He was looking forward to spending more time with them over the next few weeks.

But then, he'd always liked Tony and Pepper, since he'd been introduced to them only a couple days after he'd first arrived at the mansion. Tony had shown up to install something, Remy still had no idea what, because it wasn't like there was a dearth of possibilities in the mansion, and the X-Men hadn't been in a big hurry to tell him all their secrets right then. Still weren't, actually.

Of course, the fact he was a thief had come up. Like the X-Men felt they had to warn Tony to guard his silver or something. Tony had given him a look, then asked if he was any good. Of course, Remy had had to brag a bit about his abilities. Not because he thought he was the best, but more because he figured it would piss everyone off. Tony had laughed and told him that if he could manage to break into his Malibu mansion, he'd give Remy a hundred thousand dollars and let him keep something of his choice from the mansion.

Remy was bright enough to smell a rat, so he didn't jump at the opportunity instantly. He would forever be glad he hadn't, because he would have gotten his ass handed to him by Jarvis. Remy was a better than average hacker when it came to security systems and your average computer, but Jarvis was *anything* but either of those.

He'd studied the mansion for nearly six months before he decided he was as ready as he could be to try the place. He'd gotten no end of shit from the X-Men when his trip to California had coincided with Magneto deciding to play god. To say they'd been less than pleased with him for taking off to go *steal* from someone was to vastly understate the case.

Tony, on the other hand, had thanked him for finding the weak spots in the mansion's defenses, and Remy treasured the extremely expensive watch he'd chosen for his prize. He could have taken some piece of art or something, but he really didn't have anywhere to put such things. The watch had been more practical, and nearly as expensive. Tony had even offered him a job as a consultant.

Remy had been tempted to take the offer more than once since. It wasn't that he wasn't grateful to the X-Men for the roof over his head and the food in his belly. They'd taken him in at a particularly bad place in his life, and given him a chance to get his feet under him. That said, he was as poor a fit with the group as Logan was.

The X-Men held to a certain code of morals. And that ... wasn't exactly wrong of them, Remy was willing to admit. The problem was, they tended to get a bit self-righteous with people who had a different set of morals. They either didn't understand or didn't care that both he and Logan hadn't exactly been allowed the opportunity to develop the sorts of morals the X-Men espoused. Logan hadn't had any proof of education, no ID, nothing to allow him to get a 'legitimate' job. Remy had been in nearly as bad a place, as he'd spent more than half his life on the streets, prior to the X-Men taking him in.

Thanks to Jean-Luc LeBeau, Remy at least had adoption papers and ID, but he'd been picked up off the streets at ten, then had to run from New Orleans at fifteen, when his powers manifested and he blew a (thankfully empty) theater to hell and gone, and nearly himself with it, on accident. With only five years of school under his belt, he hadn't exactly been in a position to get a normal job. To make matters worse, his powers had been unpredictable as hell for nearly two years before he'd gotten some sort of control of them. Which meant he'd had to bolt from town to town as he left messes in his wake from accidental explosions. He'd gone right back to stealing, which he'd picked up as a street rat in order to fill his belly, and never looked back.

Tony, on the other hand, really didn't seem to give a shit. Actually, if anything, he thoroughly approved of Remy's rather unorthodox skills, and recognized the sort of intelligence it implied. Remy might not have the paperwork to prove it, but he was far from stupid. Even as a street kid, he'd taught himself to read and do basic math. He'd gone even further after having to leave New Orleans behind. And while it might not impress most people, being a good thief required a certain level of intelligence. Not only to know how to deal with security systems so you didn't get caught in the act, but to know what was worth stealing and what wasn't. To be able to recognize fakes from the real thing.

Ahh well. Unless he missed his guess, Logan was going to be spending a lot of time in the city, talking to Steve Rogers. And if that wasn't a trip and a half, Remy didn't know what was. Remy figured he could tag along and hang out at the same time. Maybe get to know that Romanov gal. He always had liked playing with fire, and the Black Widow was *definitely* dangerous.

Chapter Text

Darcy and Clint

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

After she'd managed to chase Erik and Jane out of their lab (with Thor's help), Darcy stopped briefly to get herself something to eat and relax. And contemplate the last few days.

Last year, she'd made a point of reading the Eddas. It hadn't exactly been her cuppa, but in the face of Thor being real, she'd figured any information was better than none at all. She'd come away from that reading with the very, very firm belief that Odin was a rat bastard of the first order, and that it was no small wonder Loki had gone over the deep edge.

She'd also hoped, with everything in her, that most of it hadn't happened. She was sure as could be that Thor never would have been party to some of the shit it was claimed he did to Loki, given how much he cared about Loki, but that didn't mean that someone else hadn't been the one to do it. The worst part was, she was probably never going to know if any of it was the truth, because like *hell* was she asking. Because really, there was just no way to ask 'did you really give birth to a horse?' and *not* mortally offend the person, even if it was true. And really, that was, if anything, the least fucked up thing on the list.

So really, she'd been primed to give Odin a piece of her mind, even before she'd met him and he'd been acting all superior and self-righteous and smarmy. Gah. Definitely a rat bastard. What Frigga saw in him, she'd never know. Maybe she hadn't had a choice? It would make sense that it had been some sort of arranged marriage, given Odin's status and the fact women seemed to be just shy of second class citizens in Asgard.

At least Thor realized now that things had been a little fucked up where Loki was concerned, and was determined to at least try to make things right. She wished him luck, because he was right. Loki had been through some heavy shit, and there was *going* to be a meltdown, sooner rather than later. At least Loki would be here for it, and not in Asgard, where everyone would probably not only ignore his distress, but blame him for everything.

Darcy gave her head a shake. "Jarvis, what time is it?" She asked.

"It is two am, Miss Lewis." Jarvis told her.

Darcy scowled. "And how many of the geek squad are still in their lairs?" She wanted to know.

"Sir, Captain Rogers and Mr. Friggasson are all in Sir's main lab. Doctor Banner and Doctor Ross are in their lab, but Doctor Ross has begun shutting down for the day, and is ensuring Doctor Banner joins her."

"Good on her. I'll go roust the boys out of Stark's lab, though what Rogers is doing down there, I don't know."

"I believe Captain Rogers went down to Sir's lab in order to get to know Sir better. He was provided with ... not precisely erroneous information, but certainly biased, and was endeavoring to find out the truth." Jarvis told her. "Sir has spent most of the day teaching Captain Rogers how to work the holographic interface Sir uses when designing, and debating options for upgrades to a new suit with him. Mr. Friggasson arrived a few hours ago and joined in the debate."

"In other words, they're going to need prying out of there or they'll never leave, because they're having way the hell too much fun." Darcy said.

"That would be a correct and succinct summation of the situation." Jarvis agreed.

Darcy snorted in amusement. "What is it with geeks and playing with new toys?" She wondered aloud, then headed for the elevator.

"The door straight ahead, Miss Lewis." Jarvis told her.

Darcy walked in, and had to laugh. Stark had evidently started teaching both Rogers and Loki how to work the design program, because they were both mucking about with what looked like holographic versions of Stark's suits. Stark himself was working on a third suit, while also keeping an eye on the other two.

"What on earth are you three up to in here?" She asked.

"Sparky? How'd you get down here?" Stark wanted to know. Darcy blinked at the nickname, but decided it was ... fitting.

"Looking for you three. Do you realize what time it is?" She asked.

Stark shrugged. "Don't know, don't care. Busy doing science here!" He flapped a hand at her, as if trying to dismiss her.

Which, of course, she completely ignored. "Yeah, that's what I thought. It's two am. You guys can come back to this in the morning. Didn't anyone ever tell you that it's a spectacularly bad idea to engineer on no sleep? Explosions happen that way." Darcy said.

Rogers seemed willing enough to call it a night. "Two in the morning? Gosh. I had no idea so much time had passed." He glanced up. "Thanks, Jarvis. You can shut this down, now."

"Indeed, Captain Rogers." Jarvis said, and the hologram Rogers had been playing with faded out.

One down, two to go. "Ok, you two. Hit Save, and shut her down for the night, and go get some sleep. You're going to thank me later." She started nudging at Stark, poking him in the shoulder and arm to annoy him into moving. Stark scowled at her for a moment, then huffed.

"I suppose." He pouted. "Jarvis, shut it down. C'mon, Reindeer Games, we can pick this back up in a few hours. I don't think challenging her is the best idea."

That actually made Loki laugh and leave the station he'd been working at. "Indeed. If we do not do as she bids, she may wield her tazer against us."

"I still wish she could have tazed Odin." Tony said, like she wasn't standing right there. Darcy laughed.

"That makes two of us, Stark. Now get a move on. You can play more after you've slept. At least four hours! And a decent breakfast."

"Slave driver." Stark whined, even as he headed into the elevator with the others.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Clint could not believe Stark. He'd spent over an hour poking into every nook and cranny of the floor ... *entire floor* that was his apartment. Stark had spared no expense. Clint had a flatscreen TV bigger than he was, a top-of-the-line stereo system, and a tub that qualified as a pool, among other amenities. The bed alone was worth the price of admission.

The catwalk and platforms were accessible via a number of spots where the walls sported convenient nobs to allow for climbing. And Clint swiftly discovered that the catwalks and platforms allowed for an unobstructed view of the entire apartment. Clint could even get from room to room on the catwalks without having to get down ... there were holes through the bedroom and bathroom walls where he could crawl through on the catwalks.

After a thorough, and delighted perusal of the room he'd been given, Clint had gone back out into the city to help with the cleanup and recovery. But after two days without being able to shoot something ... and wanting very, very badly to shoot Odin, Clint decided he would check out Tony's special shooting range. The only reason he hadn't checked it out when they'd got back had been because he knew himself well enough to know that if it was any kind of awesome, Phil would need some high explosives to get him back out of there. And given that the place had been built by Tony Stark, Clint was betting on it being awesome. He grabbed his bow and quiver, and headed off.

His first clue that he'd completely underestimated Tony came when he got off the elevator in the subbasement and was faced with a seriously heavy-duty steel door. The sort designed to survive blasts at close range. There was a computerized door lock beside it, clear indication that Jarvis was in charge of making sure no one walked in unexpectedly, and that no one that had no business being in there got in there.

The door swung open easily when he approached, and Clint stepped inside, only to stop and stare. The place was as unlike a shooting range as it was possible to get. The typical shotgun range was about two tenths of a mile long, give or take a bit. This? Somehow, and like hell Clint could figure out how Tony managed it, but this looked to be double that, nearly half a mile long. It was also about fifty feet tall and over a hundred feet wide.

But that wasn't the end of it. Because there were platforms and perches of varying sizes *everywhere*. From literally only an inch off the floor to so close to the ceiling he'd have to lie flat on his stomach to fit. And they were made of or covered in various surfaces, from smooth metal, to wood, to gravel and even carpeting. There were also ropes, bars, catwalks and other things scattered all over the place, to allow him to get from one perch to another via a number of the means he usually used to do so in the field, as well as provide obstacles for him to shoot around. The only thing there wasn't, was targets.

"Jarvis, I'm assuming you have access in here." Clint said aloud. "So ... where are the targets?"

"Sir has prepared a number of different kinds of targets for you, Agent Barton. You will find them to your right." Jarvis told him, and a panel that had, until that moment, looked like just another bit of wall popped forward and slid aside.

Inside the closet, or whatever, was a veritable army of targeting dummies. Some of them looked like the sort you just leaned against a wall and shot at, but most of them had electronic components that made Clint suspect that either they had some sort of on-board computer that would move them in pre-programmed ways, or Jarvis could control them. Clint grinned toothily. That ... could prove to be a heck of a challenge. But in a rack near the door was a whole bunch of things that Clint got one good look at and started laughing uncontrollably.

Because they looked remarkably like the little floating ball drone that Luke faced off against briefly in the first Star Wars movie. When Clint managed to calm down enough to talk, he shook his head. "Jarvis, tell Tony he has watched way the hell too many movies." He said. "And then tell me if those things can shoot back."

"I will do so." Jarvis said, sounding distinctly amused. "And they do indeed shoot back, though their shots are not strong enough to do more than sting."

"Just do me one favor, Jarvis." Clint said. "And warn me if Stark has or is about to manage building a functional lightsaber."

"I will do so. Miss Potts has expressed a similar desire to be forewarned in such an event, and I must admit it would seem prudent." Jarvis told him. "Would you like to put the range through its paces?"

"Hell yes, Jarvis." Clint said, and hurried out of the closet to a nearby perch. "Bring it on."

Two hours later, he was sweaty, his entire body was quivering from the effort of shooting and swinging and flinging himself all over the room, and he was riding the sort of adrenaline high he only very rarely managed to get. He'd blown through his quiver of arrows so many times he'd lost count, and he *loved* it. This was better than *sex*.

Clint lay on the last platform he'd used, limp and unmoving for a few moments, catching his breath. "Ok, Jarvis. Put it away. I'll be back down here tomorrow, probably." Like he could stay away from this? Hah. He peeled himself off the platform and made his way out of the range.

He stopped on his floor long enough to take a shower and change clothes, then grabbed a protein bar to tide him over until lunch. "Who all's in the Tower today, Jarvis?" He asked.

"Everyone has elected to take the day off from rescue work, Agent Barton. Sir and Mr. Friggasson are in Sir's main lab. Doctors Banner and Ross are in their lab, and Doctors Foster, Selvig, Thor and Miss Lewis are in theirs. Miss Potts is in her office and Agents Coulson and Romanov are on the fourth floor."

"Ohhh, excellent." Clint said, and headed for the elevator. "Fourth floor, please."

"Of course, Agent Barton."

It didn't take him long to spot Phil and Nat. They were at the center of a conspicuously clear area in what was otherwise a sea of semi-organized chaos. Clint suppressed a laugh and headed over. Nat caught sight of him first, and gave him a small smile.

"Well, you have the look of someone who just had way too much fun." She noted.

"Shooting range." Clint said.

That made even her eyebrows rise. "That good?" Phil asked.

"Better. You two have to check it out sometime. I could spend all day down there."

Phil gave him a distinctly amused look. "Try it and I'll have Jarvis lock you out. Living in a shooting range is not healthy."

Clint mock-pouted. "You never let me have any fun." He accused.

"That is perhaps because your idea of fun does not tally with everyone else's." Phil said, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "But I am pleased you like it so much."

Clint grinned. "It's a sniper's paradise in there. And someone." Here he gave Phil a significant look. "Must have told him about my habits, because it's literally perfect for me." Phil managed to pretend innocence thanks to his ability to keep a straight face, but Clint knew better.

"Well, we were about to head up for some lunch. Care to join us?" Phil asked.

"Sounds like a plan."

The three of them piled into the elevator. "My floor, if you please, Jarvis." Phil said.

Clint snickered. "I love the color theme, sir." He said.

Phil gave him the sort of serene look that actually boded ill for the person it was bestowed on. "I'm sure you do, Agent Barton."

They headed into Phil's kitchen and began preparing themselves a lunch, moving around each other with unconscious ease, each of them automatically taking up certain chores and pulling out ingredients and spices without any need for discussion.

Once lunch was ready, they piled their plates.

"Are we agreed, then?" Phil asked.

Neither Clint nor Natasha mistook what he was asking. SHIELD was no longer a factor, for which Clint would be eternally grateful. That still left them with a choice. They could stay with the Avengers, or go their own way. Clint had little doubt that if that was there decision, Tony would let them go without any of the problems they would have incurred trying to walk away from SHIELD.

Not that it was much of a choice between the two. Because even if you ignored any other factor, saving the world was sort of a hard gig to match. Anything else would be a heck of a comedown, at this point. That they had co-workers they could at least tolerate, and in may cases actively like, was just icing on the cake.

"Yep." Clint said. Natasha nodded her agreement. "Besides, this thing with Thanos ain't over, I'm betting."

"You're not the only one thinking that." Phil agreed. "We will need all the firepower we can get our hands on to win that particular fight."

"No shit. Good thing Tony's in good with the X-Men. That'll help a lot." Clint said.

"Agreed." Phil said. "Though we should perhaps look at trying to network with other hero types. See if any of them are amenable to working for a common cause."

Chapter Text

Natasha and Logan

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. //Telepathy//

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Natasha could get used to seeing Clint so thoroughly loose and happy. He looked very much like a child that just got to raid the toy store. It was a good look on him.

After lunch, Natasha decided to check out the Avengers' gym. Stark had mentioned something about gymnastic equipment, and it had been a long time since she'd been able to avail herself of such things. Besides, Clint wasn't the only one who'd been getting antsy after two days of doing nothing, despite very much wanting to do something.

Frankly, if Darcy hadn't tazed that guard and started bitching Odin out, Natasha would have been going on the attack a few seconds later. Which reminded her. Natasha changed her plans for the afternoon mid-stride.

"Jarvis, main lab level please."

"Of course, Agent Romanov." Jarvis said.

Natasha ignored the door straight ahead and turned to the one to the right, where Foster's lab was at. The three main labs for the three groups of geeks were all on the same floor, though how Stark had managed that, and insulated things enough so that the other two labs weren't subjected to his eardrum-bursting levels of music, she wasn't quite sure. She poked her head in the door.

"Lewis!"

Darcy turned from where she'd been idly watching the geeks play with their toys and talking to Thor. "Yeah?" She said, and came over.

"You've got some fire in you." Natasha told her. "You ever take any self-defense classes?"

Darcy nodded. "A few." She said. "I generally prefer my tazer though ... doesn't give 'em the chance to get in grabbing range."

Natasha smiled slightly. "It does at that." She agreed. "Want to learn a few moves?"

Darcy gave her a wide-eyed look. "Dude, are you offering to teach me your super spy ninja moves?"

Natasha had to work not to laugh at Darcy's rather eager (and fairly accurate) summation. "Yes."

Darcy squeaked and bounced. "Heck yes! Definitely!"

Natasha nodded. "Go get changed and meet me on the gym floor." She said.

Darcy sped out of the lab and joined her in the elevator, splitting off at her floor to change. Natasha went on and headed for the gym, making sure the sparring mats were clear of obstructions. Darcy bounced into the room, looking eager. Natasha eyed her outfit.

"That the best bra you've got?" Natasha asked.

Darcy nodded. "Yeah."

Natasha snorted. "I'll show you where to shop for a better one. I get mine there." She knew the pain of being fairly well-endowed and trying to pull off gymnastic moves. You needed a damn good bra or you'd end up being very, very sorry later. Not the most glamorous aspect of learning to fight, but it had to be taken care of.

"Dude, I will thank you forever. I hate how much I wobble even in most sports bras." Darcy said.

Natasha nodded. "All right. Get warmed up, and I'll see what you already know. We can go from there."

Darcy proved to have a fairly average level of flexibility, and a slightly above average knowledge of self defense moves. She also had a much higher than usual ability to make shit up as she went, and readily made use of unconventional items to defend herself with. That bent towards pragmatism would serve her well, as many people tended to get stuck in the formalized, accepted defense strategies and couldn't adapt when the shit inevitably hit the fan. Darcy would never reach Natasha's level, of course, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

"All right. With some work and dedication, you will be pretty formidable." Natasha said. "You've certainly got the will to go on the offensive." Natasha favored Darcy with a small smile.

"Dude had it coming." Darcy said.

"Yes, he did." Natasha agreed. "Now, let's get down to work."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Rogue was waiting right outside the door to the jet bay when it opened. Logan huffed a laugh and hugged her. "Take it you missed me?"

"More like I wasn't invited to the party the others decided to throw while you guys were away." Rogue said.

For half a second, Logan thought she was serious, but a closer look at her face told him she was yanking Cyke's chain. He grinned down at her and ruffled her hair.

"Logan." Came Jean's worried rebuking whisper.

Logan completely ignored her, as he always did when it came to this. He was beginning to suspect that Jean was the reason Cyke was so uptight, if she got her panties in a wad over powers that weren't under perfect control. Though that just raised the question of why Cyke was with her. Guess love made a man stupid.

"C'mon, kiddo. I'll tell you about everything that happened while we were gone."

Rogue grinned at that, and tagged along behind him as they headed upstairs. They hadn't gone more than about fifteen feet when John slouched around the corner.

"Pyro." Logan greeted the kid.

He'd noticed John mostly because he tagged along behind Bobby a lot, and Bobby had to be surgically removed from Rogue most days. Hadn't taken much to see the kid was angry as hell at the world and needed an outlet for it. He'd clearly not been getting it from the other adults in the mansion. Logan hadn't had a problem dealing with him.

"C'mon, let's head out by the lake." He said, and led the way. They ended up collecting Bobby as they went. Logan snorted in amusement at that. Kid really seemed taken with Rogue. And not fussed with the whole skin thing, which given he was a teenage boy was something of a miracle. Logan might not be able to remember being that age, but he didn't really need to. He had a nose. He knew just how often teenage boys' thoughts headed certain directions.
The moment they settled on the edge of the lake, John took his lighter out and lit it, smiling as he started playing with a little ball of fire.

Logan and John had a deal. John could play with his fire when they were out here to his heart's content, and Logan would trust him to know his own ability to keep it under control. They'd struck the deal mostly because the kid had a tendency to repetitively click his lighter, which got on Logan's last nerve inside of about fifteen seconds. Logan was nothing if not pragmatic, so he'd decided to treat John like he knew his ass from his elbow until he proved otherwise.

Thus far, there hadn't been a problem. And there had been more than one day when John was so agitated he couldn't sit still. Logan had a feeling that was at least part of the problem John had with the other X-Men. He, unlike most of the kids here, had been on the street for a while, fending for himself, making his own decisions. Going back to being a 'normal' teenager with bedtimes and such enforced by adults was ... not really working for him, and made him resentful.

He told them about the last few days in detail. A lot more than the X-Men would probably think was wise, but shit, Rogue and John had seen some nasty shit, and while Bobby was more innocent, he had a tough core to him. They'd be fine.

"Damn." John said when Logan finally wound to a stop. "Wish I could have been there."

Logan snorted. "We could have used you, kid. All three of you. Weren't no lack of targets to take down, lemme tell you." He shrugged. "You might get a chance at it sometime. Seemed ta be the general opinion that the guy that sent the army'd be back, with more, at some point."

"They'll never let us. We're just *kids*." John said, his tone full of disdain.

"Might not be when the time comes." Logan pointed out. "You're what, a month or so from seventeen?" He pointed at John, then to the other two. "And they're not much behind you. Nobody knows when this joker'll come around again, but everyone who thinks he'll be back thinks it'll take a bit. He has a long way to come to try a second time, without the portal."

"So we might be of age by then." John said. "And even if we're not, seventeen and a bit's close enough to make a good argument." He grinned.

"I can teach you a few things between now and then. And we can talk to Stark, see if he can come up with something more reliable and less easily lost than a lighter for you to use." Logan agreed easily. "Like I said, we could use you, when it comes to that. Could use all the kids who can control their mutations. 'cause if this guy comes around with any bigger of an army than the one we dealt with, we'd be in trouble."

John and Bobby got to talking about the whole thing, and drifted off after a little bit, arguing amiably. Logan smirked over at Rogue.

"Works every time." She said. "Give them something to argue about, even playfully, and they forget the rest of the world exists. If I didn't know for sure otherwise, I'd suspect ... " She trailed off, and shook her head. "But I do know better, so they just like arguing."

Logan chuckled. "Yeah, they do. Does Bobby good, and gives John an outlet for all that energy of his."

Rogue nodded, then sobered. "You really think they wouldn't mind me over there?"

Logan snorted. "Know it for a fact. I stood there and watched as Stark flew up to Hulk pretty as you please, after the fight, fearless as anything, and started joking with him, then bundled him up and carried him off when he switched back to Banner. If he ain't afraid of the Hulk, he's not gonna think twice about you, or even me. And the others seemed to be pretty blase about things too. Hank, Kurt, and Warren got a few stares, but that was over quick and nobody treated them shitty."

Rogue nodded. "That's good to hear." She said. "Especially since I think you're going to want to hang around with them a lot. I'd like to meet 'em. Especially Rogers." More because he'd known Logan so long ago, rather than because he was Captain America.

"I'm gonna be headin' back up in two days for my stint with cleanup, according to Cyke's little schedule. Wanna come with me then?" Logan asked.

Rogue nodded. "Sure!"

//Logan, a few moments of your time, when you have a chance?//

Logan grimaced. "Chuck's calling. Better head in."

Rogue nodded and got to her feet, tagging along behind him as he made his way towards Charles' office, though she split off partway to go watch TV with some of the other kids.

Logan closed the office door. "Guessin' you wanna talk about what I found out while I was in New York?" He asked.

"I am more interested in making sure you are handling the discovery." Charles said. "Finding something out about yourself after so long would be ... a bit overwhelming."

Logan shrugged. "Woulda been worse if it was bad news. It wasn't." Well, mostly. He was still Not Thinking about the whole seventy years ago part of the equation. That ... that was going to take some time to deal with the implications of it.

Charles contemplated him for a few moments, then spoke again. "You're considering leaving the mansion permanently."

"Crossed my mind." Logan admitted. "I don't really fit here, Chuck. I'm not a nice man, and it's causin' problems."

Charles sighed. "I was afraid of that. I'll make you a deal, Logan." And here he smiled at using the same phrase he'd first used to get Logan to stay in the mansion six months ago. "Stay until the end of the school year, so Rogue's schooling isn't interrupted, and I won't try to argue you out of it, even if I think you could do as much good here as there."

At least Chuck had the decency to not even try to pretend Rogue wouldn't be going with him. Some of the others might not get it, but Chuck did, thanks to the telepathy. Logan nodded. "Fair enough."

"I have a feeling you might not be the only one headed the Avengers' way, either." Charles admitted.

Logan nodded. "The Cajun seemed right interested." He agreed.

"Well, that is all I wanted to ask. Please don't hesitate to seek me out if you begin to have difficulties, or start remembering things now that you have someplace to start looking." Charles said.

Logan nodded. "I'll do that." Even if he probably wouldn't. But then, Charles knew that. Logan waved and then headed out, to get a smoke before he prowled the perimeter.

He'd developed something of a habit here, most evenings. He'd smoke a cigar, then prowl the entire perimeter. Then he'd check the mansion itself, making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. That this routine meant he didn't get to bed until two or three in the mornings most days, and thus didn't sleep much, was just a side benefit. Logan avoided sleeping when he could, since he invariably ended up tearing the bed to hell and gone and scaring everyone in the same wing if he slept for more than about three hours a night. It would be nice if that changed, but he doubted it ever would.

Chapter Text

Logan and Charles

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. //Telepathy//

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

When it was all over, Logan would just be grateful it happened outside.

It started simply enough. Logan'd been out by the lake again, leaning against a tree smoking a cigar and winding down from the last few days. John'd found him there sometime after breakfast, and had settled in nearby, sitting at the base of another tree, quietly messing about with his fire. They'd neither of them bothered with talking. It was one of the things Logan liked about the kid. A lot of folks felt the need to chatter at you because silence felt awkward to them. Logan wasn't one of those people, and he appreciated it when he ran across someone else who was the same way.

John'd been out there maybe a half hour when Jean came stalking through the trees with the air of a woman on a mission. She stormed right up to John before Logan quite realized what she was up to and started yelling at him at the top of her lungs.

"John! You irresponsible idiot! What have we told you? What have we told you? You are not to use your powers anywhere except the Danger Room, and even then only under strict supervision!" Jean bawled. "How many times have we gone through this? Why can't you just do as you're told for once?" And then she hauled back and slapped John's lighter out of his hand.

Logan was moving before the first sentence was completely out of her mouth, because John was giving her a deer-in-the-headlights look that he'd never seen on the kid's face before. Logan could literally see the situation going tits up before it actually did. Because John, who was normally loud and brash and angry, was unexpectedly plastering himself against the tree behind him, curling in on himself protectively. When Jean slapped at him, all hell broke loose.

Because Pyro started to live up to his name.

Like a lot of mutants, Pyro was completely immune to his own power ... he couldn't burn himself. He used that to good effect either instinctively or deliberately, Logan wasn't sure which, because his entire body was abruptly wreathed in flames. Jean instantly backpedaled, helped by a vicious shove from Logan.

At that, she was lucky. She wasn't a complete stranger, or worse, an enemy. So Logan's claws weren't out. But that was as lucky as she got, because she was now in a position that Mystique, Sabretooth and even Magneto could have told her was a bad position to be in. Because Logan was seeing her as a threat.

Logan put himself between John and Jean, all his attention on Jean. His head was lowered, body hunched and coiled, hands balled into fists and wrists at the angle that allowed him to pop his claws. At that moment, he resembled a predator that had spotted wounded prey and was about to pounce. Thankfully, Jean's lizard brain recognized the danger even if the rest of her didn't, and she froze in place on the ground.

There was only one problem. John might be immune to his power, but the tree he'd been leaning against for damn sure wasn't. The thing had gone up in flames more or less instantly, and the fire was spreading fast. Despite having all his attention on Jean, Logan could feel the heat blistering his back and the backs of his legs and threatening to make his clothes combust. Unfortunately, there really wasn't a damn thing he could do about the situation.

Fortunately, the rather visible pillar of flame garnered a lot of attention. Bobby came flying towards them, wide-eyed in alarm, and started flinging ice in a wide ring around the existing conflagration, trying to keep the fire from spreading. Ororo wasn't more than ten seconds behind him, flying in on the wind as the sky darkened and a deluge started.

Rogue, who must've been with Bobby when the fire started, arrived next with Scott on her heels.

For a few moments, there was utter chaos as rain and ice water doused everything and Scott tried to figure out what the hell was going on. The water apparently shocked John out of whatever flashback he'd been having, or whatever the deal had been there and he pulled his fire back. With apparent backup arriving, Jean recovered from her temporary bout of sanity regarding being very leery of a highly pissed and protective Logan and decided to open her mouth again.

"John was ... " She started.

Logan was having *none of it*. "Muzzle your bitch, Scott, before I do it for you." He snapped.

Scott was a lot of things, but a complete idiot wasn't one of them. Logan could count the number of times he'd called Scott by his proper name on one hand with fingers left over. So Scott knew him using his real name now was an indication of how serious the situation was. How close Logan was to smacking Jean unconscious.

"Jean, that's enough." Scott said. "Go inside. We'll sort this out with Charles once everyone's calmer."

Logan snorted in disgust as she quieted down and stomped off, singed ego and righteous anger almost visible in her wake. Once she was gone, Logan turned to John, who was rather pasty-faced. "You ok, kid?"

John swallowed hard. "I ... yeah. I'm fine."

And that was bullshit if Logan had ever heard it. John looked like he was about five seconds from bolting. Logan gave another snort. "Rogue, go pack our shit and head for the truck." He told her, meaning the truck he'd bought to replace the one that got blown up when they'd met. "C'mon, kid. Last place you need to be right now is here. Rogue and I were planning on heading for Stark's in the morning anyway. Might as well go early."

John gave Logan a flat look. "They won't want me around." He snapped. "No one ever does after this shit happens."

Logan barked a laugh. "Which part of me tellin' you that Stark rooms with the guy that can become the Hulk if he has a bad day didn't you hear, John?" He wanted to know. "Stark won't give a shit, and the others ain't exactly in a position to throw stones. I'm fairly sure they all have body counts higher'n yours."

To his surprise, John actually flinched. Logan blinked. Well shit, no wonder the kid had so many problems in general and here in particular, if he'd killed someone somewhere along the way. Logan wasn't too worried about it, because the kid clearly didn't like that it had happened from the way he'd reacted.

"Anyway, go pack your shit and meet Rogue in the garage. We'll head for the city as soon as I'm done with Chuck."

John gave a grim nod and headed off, Bobby trotting along behind him, looking concerned. Logan shook his head and headed for Charles' office.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Charles maintained a light awareness of everyone in the mansion. He mostly monitored for mood, as a sudden shift was usually precursor to some sort of trouble. Thus, he was aware of Jean's agitation and anger, but not the cause of it. Given that it was increasing, Charles had begun to focus more of his attention in her direction, wondering what was amiss.

Then John's panic, fear, and general distress slammed into him like a tidal wave. It took Charles a few seconds to sort things out as everyone suddenly reacted to something Charles couldn't see or hear with his own eyes from his office. When he finally won a clear look at the situation, it was from Ororo's eyes.

It was not a comforting tableau. Logan was radiating the sort of barely contained violence that he had exhibited in defense of Rogue six months prior, and all his attention was locked on Jean. Jean was on her back, propped on her elbows and staring at Logan and John. John was backed against a tree, the tree and an ever-increasing circle around him enveloped in flames, including himself.

Charles couldn't get a sense of what had precipitated the incident, unfortunately, but Logan's focus on Jean and his angry demand to Scott made it clear that she was probably the precipitant. //Jean, come to my office. Now.// Charles said, backing up Scott's order.

It took a few minutes for everyone to arrive. Charles strongly suspected that Logan had delayed long enough to reassure himself as to John's condition before heading for Charles' office. The tension already present in the room ratcheted up several levels when Logan finally did step in. Even Charles found himself responding atavistically to the threat a part of his brain insisted that Logan presented, despite Charles knowing better.

"What happened?" Charles asked.

Jean immediately opened her mouth to speak, only to snap it shut at a basso growl from Logan.

"John and I were out by the lake." Logan growled. "Kid and I have a deal. He can play with his fire so he don't annoy the hell out of me clicking his lighter constantly, and I'll trust he knows what the hell he's doin'." Logan's accent was coming across stronger thanks to his irritation. "We've been doin' it that way for months with no problem, and a couple times, the kid's been so agitated he could barely see straight."

That news was no surprise. Charles had been aware of, pleased by, and completely in favor of the relationship between Logan and John. John had needed, badly, someone who could reach him and teach him and guide him effectively.

"Everything was fine until she came barreling out, screaming like a banshee." Logan growled, indicating Jean. "She slapped the kid's lighter out of his hand, and everything went to hell."

Given the emotions Charles had picked up off of John, it was possible the boy'd had a flashback. His life prior to being brought to the mansion certainly provided more than enough fodder for one.

Logan focused on Charles. "I dunno what the fuck her problem is, but you need to put a muzzle and a leash on her, before she drives someone right to Magneto. She's been giving Rogue shit from the word go, about her powers, about hanging with me, and anything else she could think of. As it is, deal's fucking off. If she's gonna start pushing buttons this hard, I'm gone before I do something we all end up regretting. And Rogue and John are coming with me, because like fuck John needs to be around her right now, and like fuck I'm leavin' Rogue to her tender mercies."

So saying, Logan stormed out.

Charles got a brief explanation of what they'd seen once they arrived from the others, then dismissed them, and regarded Jean sadly.

"Jean. We have spoken about this." He said quietly, disappointedly.

From a certain perspective, Charles really couldn't blame her for being twitchy about uncontrolled mutations. Telepathy was hell on the mutants that had it until they learned some sort of control, and Jean's manifestation of telepathy had been rather more traumatic than most, spurred as it was by the death of her childhood friend. That sort of thing left scars on the psyche. Charles had tried to soothe the trauma and resultant fears, but Jean still had ... moments. Especially with those children who had especially devastating powers, like Rogue and John. And Scott. Scott, though, was sturdy and practical enough to shrug off her moments of panic, and in many ways, shared her concerns due to the uncontrollable nature of his own mutation, and the devastation he'd wreak if he opened his eyes unprotected for even part of a second.

Unfortunately, from another perspective, Logan was completely right. Jean's tendency to handle this particular subject badly had the potential to drive a child away, and straight into the camp of someone who would encourage them to use their power for less than savory purposes, whether that was Magneto or someone else.

Charles had lost Erik to rage and despair. He did not plan to lose anyone else.

"I think it is time we began your sessions again, Jean. This problem is clearly not fixed." He said.

Jean sighed and nodded. Charles didn't mistake it for agreement, merely concession. She would probably never entirely agree that her issues with uncontrolled mutations needed fixing.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Logan didn't have very long to wait at all in the garage before both Rogue and John came trotting out, Rogue carrying two duffel bags (one his, one hers), John carrying a duffel and a hiker's backpack that had definitely seen better days.

Rogue tossed a shirt at him when she got close enough. "Better change. That one's full of holes in the back, and is gonna draw attention."

Logan snorted, but stripped off the shirt he was wearing and pulled the new one. Once he'd gotten the old one off, he saw what she meant. The thing had mostly been hanging on by dint of sheer willpower, as most of the back had been burned away thanks to him being so close to the fire.

John saw the remains of Logan's shirt and blanched even further than he had been already. "Oh, shit. God, Logan, ... "

Logan cut him off. "Shaddup, John. You didn't hurt me." Well, not really. Took a bit more than being singed to register as full-on pain in Logan's books. "Throw your stuff in the back and get in."

John did as he was told, and ended up sandwiched between Logan and Rogue. From the look on her face, it was completely deliberate on Rogue's part. Logan didn't really blame her. John had that glassy-eyed look that said he might be headed into shock, and reminding him he was 'safe' and keeping him warm (which was a hell of an irony considering the kids' power) were a good idea.

Chapter Text

John and Tony

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The typical kid at the X-Mansion had had a good life, before their mutations popped up. A few of them even still had supportive, loving parents who knew they were mutants. The rest had only known the fear and desperation that was life on the streets for a few days or, at most, a few weeks before Charles found them and brought them in.

John envied them their naiveté. Because that hadn't even been close to John's life. John had been born to the town drunks. The violent, abusive town drunks. John's earliest memory is of being on the receiving end of a drunken beating. He spent most of his childhood wearing long sleeves hating everyone around him, because everyone knew his parents were drunks. They even knew his father was a violent drunk, because he ended up in the town lockup at least once a month. But no one ever bothered to find out if that viciousness was being turned on John.

Things just got worse when, at the age of ten, his mutation had blown wide open during yet another fight (and yet another beating), resulting in everything in a half block radius burning to the ground, and the death of both his parents and the neighbors on both sides of his house, because they hadn't had time to run before the fireball consumed their houses. There'd been something like twenty injured, ranging from severe burns to smoke inhalation.

John had, rather understandably, run for the hills when the smoke and fire had cleared and he got a good look at the devastation. He'd been forced to keep running, too. Because his mutation was practically a living thing under his skin.

It had taken time for him to get any sort of handle on it whatever, but he eventually figured out that he could 'feel' any fire, no matter the size. From the little flame in the pilot light on the stove all the way up to the superhot blazes used in funeral homes to cremate the dead. Worse, he could control them all. Or, well, in those early days, inadvertently hijack control and cause rather epic amounts of damage. He'd left rather a lot of devastation in his wake without meaning to.

He'd scrabbled to survive over the next couple years. Had ... done things, to survive that he ... really hated himself for, most days. He'd been fourteen when Charles showed up and tried to talk him into coming with him. John had very nearly lit him on fire, because John had assumed Charles wanted him to come with him for *entirely* different reasons than the ones Charles meant. It'd taken Charles two solid weeks of talking to convince John he wasn't an axe murderer or a serious creeper of some sort before John went with him.

When he'd met Bobby, and found out Bobby had been coming to the mansion since he was ten, it had resulted in a rather epic flame-up, because all John had been able to think was 'why the fuck didn't I get found when I was ten?', because he was literally only a week older than Bobby. He hadn't spoken to any of the adults for a month after that. Had almost walked out. Had, in fact, punched Bobby in the face.

When he'd finally explained why, Bobby had actually looked a little abashed, and had said he'd punch himself in the face, too, under the circumstances. It had been the beginning of their rather oddball friendship. Which remained the only friendship John had at the mansion.

At least, until Logan came. Rogue had made damn sure everyone knew exactly what Logan had done on her behalf before they got rescued by the X-Men, so by the time the guy woke up and came upstairs, he'd already managed to attain something remarkably close to legendary status with more than one of the kids.

The next few days had done absolutely nothing to destroy that status, and a fuckton and a half to strengthen it. Because Jesus Fucking Christ. John had envied Rogue more than a little for having such a stalwart, determined and fucking lethal protector.

What had made it a bit weird for John was the fact he wasn't afraid of Logan. Which, considering the dude's tendency towards violence, and the fact John had been leery of every other adult male in the mansion, including Kurt and Hank, who would sooner kill a fly than hurt any of the kids, was kind of odd. It wasn't until John realized half the kids in the mansion gravitated towards Logan given half the chance that he realized the phenomenon wasn't limited to him.

What had surprised him was the fact that Logan let it happen. That Logan didn't give a shit about the damage John could do, and didn't push John to talk about his feelings or constantly remind him to not use his powers. Logan didn't treat him like he was a baby who didn't know his own mind, either. John loved it, and started hanging out with Logan more and more.

Figures something had to happen to ruin it.

John had flashbacks, sometimes. It wasn't like he didn't have sufficient cause for them. It wasn't a frequent thing, thankfully, but they happened, and it always sucked when it did. Though normally, he didn't try to set the world on fire when he had one. But somewhere in the middle of her rant, Jean had become his mother, and that slap had not been aimed at his hand at *all*, and ... yeah. Fire in the hole, as the saying went.

He was still hearing the screams, and smelling the unmistakable, unforgettable odor of charred human flesh as he packed, the room shimmying around him, trying to morph into a room he'd burned to the ground almost seven years ago.

It was something of a relief to be sandwiched between Logan and Rogue in the truck. They both had unique scents that clashed with the past that was trying to continue fucking up his day. Between Logan's cigar stench and Rogue's magnolia-scented perfume, John was finally beginning to get his feet back under him about the time they hit the city limits.

Sometimes, he really hated his life. He wasn't looking forward to meeting Stark and the others. Logan's insistence be damned, John just knew this was not going to end well. Nobody liked having someone around who could burn their house down around their ears inside of a minute if they got upset. Granted, the Tower would take John longer than that, but it could still happen.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

"Sir, Logan is in the lobby, with two teenagers." Jarvis informed Tony, who was out in the city helping with cleanup in his suit. "One of the teens seems to be in some distress, and they are all carrying luggage."

Tony frowned. What the hell? "Wonder what happened. Let them up to the penthouse. If the kid is actually injured, give Bruce a call. He's the best we've got until I hire someone in." Which would take some doing, because finding a doctor who could handle two aliens, a supersoldier and Bruce when it came to medical needs would be a hell of a trick. "I'll be right there. And let the X-Men that are in the city know he's here."

"Of course, Sir." Jarvis told him.

Tony finished helping to deal with the rubble where he was at, then apologized, claiming another site needed his assistance, and jetted off.

"It is John with him." Jarvis said as Tony was landing on the balcony assembler. "As well as Rogue."

"John?" Tony scrambled for a minute, trying to remember who that was. He'd met all the X-kids at one point or another, but there were a lot of them, so remembering who was who was ... tricky.

"The young man with the gift for fire control." Jarvis supplied.

That rattled the right memory into place. Angry kid with brown hair, always had a blonde-haired kid tagging along in his wake. "What the hell happened?" He wanted to know.

"Logan has not said, but he is ... I would almost classify it as hovering, Sir. And John is showing fading symptoms of shock."

Well, that couldn't be good. By then, the suit was completely stripped off and Tony walked into the penthouse. "Logan, good to see you again. John, you too." He turned to the girl. "And you must be Rogue." He held out a hand to shake.

When she hesitated, Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, skin, I know about it. Logan talked. A lot. Well, sort of a lot. A lot for him, I guess. Point is, I know. I also don't give a fuck. You're covered, and I seriously doubt you're going to get frisky with me for shits and giggles, so ... " He waggled his hand at her.

She smiled at him and took the hand to shake. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Stark."

"Sorry we dropped in like this, but there was a bit of a situation earlier today." Logan growled.

Like, literally growled. Tony was impressed, because he did not know human vocal chords could do that. It was a little impressive.

"Yeah, no, no big deal. There's plenty of room around here. You guys can hang out as long as you want." Tony said.

John was giving him a funny look. "Don't you even want to know what happened?" He asked.

"Nope, don't care." Tony told him.

He found out anyway. John glared at him, the sort of challenging look that Tony had all but patented long before this kid was even born. "I had a fucking flashback and damn near burned the forest down."

Tony shrugged. "Not my trees." He said. "And flashbacks happen, kid. You're not going to be the only one having them around here." The Avengers were sort of spoiled for choice when it came to flashback material in their lives. "Long's you don't start with the maniacal cackling and deliberate burning of half the city, I'm not going to give a shit. Hell, I'll give you access to my lab. I've usually got some sort of metalwork going on down there thanks to the suits. You want to burn shit, you can work it off heating the metal up, save my equipment some wear and tear."

And now the kid was staring at him with the sort of 'wtf' face that Tony normally saw after one of his more unusual stunts, from Rhodey. Tony shook his head. "C'mon, I'll show you where you can put your stuff. Speaking of, is that all your shit? Because if it is, that's just sad, and it needs to be fixed, pronto. I'm already planning to stage an intervention for Steve, because his clothing choices are fucking tragic. The Spy Twins aren't much better. They came in with two duffels apiece and I'm fairly sure it was all weapons, which ... " Tony shook his head. "And Agent's got a closetful of the same suit and nothing else." And poor Bruce hadn't even had enough to completely fill a duffel bag. "So yeah, planning a shopping trip in a few days. We can add you three to the list."

"Are you for real?" John asked, his tone one of pure shock.

Tony grinned at him. "Last I checked, yeah. Seriously, it's not like I'll miss the money. I make more on *interest* in a couple hours than I will end up spending on you lot in a day."

John shook his head. "Un fucking believable." He muttered.

Tony laughed. "It gets better from here, John." About then, the elevator doors opened. Both teens just sort of stared in shock.

"The entire floor is one apartment?" Rogue asked in disbelief. "I'm with John. Are you *real*?"

Tony laughed. "Go, shoo, pick a room. There's four in this apartment, so you all have plenty of room."

Both kids took of like bats out of hell, the upset of earlier forgotten momentarily as they hurried to claim rooms and check out the amenities.

"So what actually happened, or did he sum it up fairly well?"

"Fairly well." Logan admitted. "Missed a few things. Like that Jean was the cause of it. Yelled at him and slapped his lighter out of his hand. I dunno the kid's story so I don't know why that set off a flashback, but it was a doozy. He lit up quite a piece of real estate before Ororo and Bobby got it stopped. Just glad they were both there for it. I told them both to pack up. He doesn't need to be around her right now, and if I stay near her I'm going to end up doing something we'd both regret."

Tony shook his head. "Well, you're welcome to hang out here as long as you want." He said. "Like I said, it's not like I don't have the room or the money to put you up." Then he spoke a little louder. "Jarvis, go ahead and give John access to my lab. That way he can get in to play fire monkey if he needs to."

"Already done, Sir." Jarvis said, sounding smug.

Chapter Text

Remy and Natasha

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Remy had had a long, fruitful day. It took a certain degree of skill to blow debris into manageable chunks without making even more of a mess or hurting people with the blast, even for him. The demolition crew he'd been working with all day had damn near started worshipping him, which made him worry about their level of sanity. They'd even offered his a full-time job with their crew for a truly obscene amount of money of you weren't Tony Stark or Warren Worthington.

He'd declined the offer gently. As much fun as blowing things up was, he didn't exactly want to do it for a living. He hadn't told the slightly unhinged, explosion-loving demolition crew that, of course. He'd just told them he already had a job. It was even the truth. Above and beyond the X-Men gig, he taught some of the kids French.

Remy stretched as he made his way to the Tower. He was supposed to be making his way to the edge of the destroyed zone and the parking garage where the van they'd driven down in was at, but Remy had other plans. He'd told Hank, Kurt, and Warren not to expect him. They hadn't asked why. Hank had actually told him to let them know what had happened.

Even Warren, who called Logan an uncouth hooligan, among other epiteths admitted that something serious had to have happened to drive Logan into taking not just Rogue but John as well out of the mansion. Apparently permanently, no less.

"Jarvis, where's Logan and the kids?" Remy asked as he walked into the Tower and headed for the elevator.

"They are on the common gathering level." Jarvis told him.

"Let me off there, would you?" Remy told him.

"Of course, Mr. LeBeau." Jarvis said.

The elevator doors snapped shut and it started moving the moment Remy was inside. Remy could get used to never having to wait for an elevator, or for a bunch of random strangers to pile in with him and get off before he did.

Remy had never told anyone about his empathy. He was relatively sure, in point of fact, that not even Charles had sussed that bit of information out. It was of limited use, anyway, as he could only pick up on emotions of people in about a twenty foot radius or so. His ability to influence emotion was even more limited. Anyone he tried it on had to be unaware that's what he was up to, have no mental defenses, and not be in the grips of a blindingly intense emotion.

Mostly all the empathy did was cause him trouble. It made things like elevator rides and subways a hassle. Though Remy was willing to admit it had made locating people trapped in the rubble a lot easier when he'd been on that job the day of the attack and the day after.

Logan and the kids were hanging out around the massive flat screen TV, watching some movie with a lot of action and explosions. Remy snorted in amusement and vaulted over the back if the couch they were on and slid down into the spot between John and the arm of the couch.

"One of these times, someone is going to smack the crap out of you for doing that." John said amiably.

Remy snorted. "Nah." He said. "Never going to happen."

He let the movie run for a little bit. He didn't bother trying to figure out the plot, as he'd walked in partway through the movie. He just enjoyed the violence and explosions. Eventually, when the action died down for a bit, he glanced over at Logan.

"So why the change of address?" He asked.

"Jean." Logan said.

Remy snorted again at the one word response. The worse part of it was that in this case, one word pretty much explained the situation. Well, mostly.

"So what'd she say to Rogue this time?" He asked. It wasn't a bad guess, even if it didn't really explain John joining them.

"Wasn't Rogue." Logan said.

Remy blinked in surprise. He'd been aware, like the rest of the X-Men, that John tended to hang out with Logan. He'd had no idea their relationship had evolved to the point that Logan considered John to be under his protection, however. He didn't think any of the others had known either.

"Well, that explains it." Remy said.

What, exactly, had happened still hadn't been answered, but Remy could guess. It wasn't all that hard to guess, given it was Jean involved. She was fairly predictable about certain things.

"She got her pants in a wad over me using my fire when I'm by the lake with Logan." John told him. "Started screaming at me. It didn't end well."

Well that much Remy had been able to figure out by himself. "Yeah, noticed that." He said, sounding amused. "Ain't the first tome she's stepped in it. How many times have you heard her give me shit because I'm an ignorant, thieving Cajun?" He asked.

John laughed. "Way too many times." He admitted. "I kind of want to be there when she finally figures out how wrong she is."

"Makes two of us." Rogue said, speaking up for the first time. "Because I had Remy pegged after five minutes. Jean's known him for a year and still thinks he can't speak in the first person most of the time."

"Remy jus' a dumb ol' Cajun boy." Remy said, his native Cajun accent abruptly in full effect. All four of them laughed.

Remy had definitely had a rather distinctive accent as a kid, but he'd gone to a lot of trouble to learn to speak with a less distinctive accent. The Cajun was good for hoodwinking people into thinking he was an idiot, but useless for any other purpose, including blending into a crowd. He still had a faint French lilt to certain sounds, but it was faint and only on certain sounds, so hardly all that distinctive.

They fell quiet after that, and went back to watching the movie. About the time the movie finished, the elevator opened and disgorged Tony, Pepper, Natasha, Clint and Bruce. A few moments later, the doors opened a second time and Thor, Steve, Phil and Betty stepped out. A third trip produced Darcy, Erik, Jane and Loki. Remy waved at them as they started wandering around.

Tony flopped down in the chair next to where Remy was sitting on the couch. "Hanging out rather than going back, Remy?" He asked.

"Yeah. Wondered what drove Logan to bring the kids down here." Remy admitted. "Besides, your pad is better equipped." He waved a hand, indicating the entire floor of stuff in general and the flat screen in particular.

Tony sat up. "Oh. Hey, thanks for the reminder." He said. "We really need to set up a culture thing. You know, 'this is how things work' 101, and 'this is our entertainment' 101. We have two aliens and a guy who's been out of the loop for seventy years to get caught up on everything."

Pepper smiled as she perched on the arm of Tony's chair. "Otherwise known as an excuse to subject everyone to your taste in movies." She teased.

"Hey, they're good movies." Tony objected with a grin. "Just because they're not chick flicks ... " He ended up having to dodge not only Pepper's gentle backhand to the shoulder, but multiple cushion projectiles aimed his way by the rest of the women, including Natasha.

"Dude. You did not just go there." Clint said, looking very wide-eyed.

Remy didn't blame him. "Didn't know you had a death wish, Tony." He said, agreeing completely with Clint. Calling the sorts of movies women liked chick flicks, even if it was true, was dangerous. And that was just with normal women. When Natasha Romanov was in the room, it was outright suicidal.

Tony grinned and shrugged. "They can't kill me." He pointed out with an impish grin, completely ignoring the stink eye Pepper was giving him. ""I pay the bills. They'd only hurt me a little."

Clint abruptly sat forward. "I just realized. This means they haven't seen ... " He waved a hand. "Any of the good shit. This is a tragedy. I agree with Stark. We have to fix this."

That got amused laughter from most of the people in the room.

"But how do we do it?" Bruce asked. "By year? By genre? By status as a classic? There's a million ways."

"First thing's first, we need to figure out which ones to skip, no matter how good they are, because they're going to cause problems for someone in the group." Betty said quietly.

Tony grimaced but nodded. "Point. I can think of a few off the top of my head that we need to steer clear of."

Remy could too. Like The Abyss, for one. Which was too bad, because it was an awesome movie. Unfortunately, the whole drowning in freezing water thing and Bud sacrificing himself to save the day (especially since it wasn't a permanent sacrifice) was just *asking* for a flashback with Rogers.

Remy joined in on the increasingly spirited debate over how to handle the movie situation, and which movies needed to be eliminated from the 'must be watched' list with relish. They all had their favorites, movies they considered vital to be watched. Predictably, with such a diverse group, practically every movie named had several advocates as well as several detractors.

He did, though, head over to Thor, Loki and Steve after a while. All three of them were looking confused, exasperated, and amused by turns, and Remy knew it had to be irritating to not have anything to contribute or even really know what the heck everyone was on about. So he wandered over and sat down by them, giving them a brief, vague run-down of the plots of various movies, so they'd at least have an idea of what was going on.

Or, he tried to. Turned out, movies had not come up in Loki's brain download except that they were a form of entertainment. Thor didn't even know that much. Steve, for all intents and purposes was nearly as clueless, since he'd actually been born before so-called 'talkies' had been invented. Not by all that much, Remy didn't think (he wasn't sure how old Steve was) but still. So he had to explain the concept of movies to Thor and Loki, and things like CGI to all of them before they could really understand what was going on.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Eventually, the movie debate wound down. No movies were watched that night, since they needed to get a list of 'no' movies ironed out before they got started. Natasha waited for Stark to get to his feet and head for the kitchen area, clearly intending to get something to eat or drink, and followed him. She made sure she made enough noise that he could hear her coming. Stalking silently and scaring the shit out of people was fine when it was for training or in the field, but doing it with her teammates was a bad idea.

"Stark." She said, swinging up onto a bar stool in front of the island that served as both prep and eating area in the kitchen proper. "We need to talk."

Tony gave her a wary look as he pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator. "Oh?"

"I deliberately blew the op with you." Natasha told him. "Fury forced it. Phil, Clint and I knew nothing good would come of his interest in you. So I deliberately blew it."

Tony cocked an eyebrow at her. "Uh huh."

Natasha snorted. "Stark, I've been a spy for a long, long time. I've made a career out of getting in and out of places unnoticed. Of getting close to targets to find the weak spots in their security and their mentalities. Now, do you think someone with that sort of track record would break character so badly when asked to box with someone?"

That made Tony blink a bit. "Ok, point." He finally admitted. "So you ... tried to make me suspicious without actually saying something and getting Fury on your ass?"

Natasha nodded. "And I deliberately threw your assessment to hell and gone." She said. "I had a good idea of what Fury was looking for, hoping to see. If he'd gotten it, he would have tried to force you into the fold. I know you could have fought him off, but you really didn't need that sort of stress right then."

Tony regarded her for a long moment. "You weren't wrong." He pointed out.

Natasha gave him a flat stare. "Stark, you may be a little volatile, yes, but you're a fucking genius. Volatility generally comes with that territory. You play well enough with others, or none of us'd be here. And you for fuck sure aren't any sort of narcissist, nevermind a textbook one."

She tapped the table with a finger. "You're a snarky bastard, but that's hardly something to kick you out of the Avenger Initiative for." Especially given Clint was on the Initiative list from the beginning. Clint was damn near as much a sarcastic bastard as Tony was, and she dreaded the day Clint relaxed enough around the rest of the team to let that side of him out. "Your other faults are no worse than any of the rest of ours."

Tony just stared at her again for a long moment, before his expression suddenly cleared as if he'd figured out what was going on. "You're apologizing." He finally realized.

"Something like that. I don't like having shit like that on the docket. It muddies the waters." Natasha said. "And if I'd been given a choice on how to handle giving you that syringe, I'dve done something else there, but Fury was watching."

"And Fury is a bastard." Tony said. "Fair enough. Clean slate?" He offered a hand.

"Clean slate." Natasha agreed.

Chapter Text

Loki, Jarvis and Thor

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. Warning! Semi-graphic description of torture ahead. If you're easily squicked, skipped the section in italics. Italics is a dream sequence. Andhrimnir is a ‘real’ cook of the gods listed among the Norse god pantheon.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Loki had been managing fairly well thus far. It had helped that there was so much to distract him. The battle, the cleanup, playing about with things in Tony's lab. It had all helped Loki to ... well, not so much ignore as defer dealing with the shit that had gotten flung his way over the last year. It had also helped that he had managed to avoid actually sleeping the entire time.

But not even the great and mighty Odin Allfather could escape sleep forever, and Loki was not he. Loki had no idea how long he'd been deprived of sleep before being sent to Earth, but the night Logan brought the two teens to the Tower to stay, Loki lost the battle to stay awake and sprawled out on the bed in his quarters, asleep almost before he hit the pillow.

The asteroid was desolate, an expanse of rock and dust and rough-hewn caves. What little atmosphere there was burned his lungs, making him hack and choke and gasp for air that he was not going to get. The heavy chains shackled him to the rock beneath him, forced him to kneel with his nose but a scant few centimeters from rock, the press of his legs against his abdomen further constricting his ability to pull in what little air there was to sustain him. Hunger gnawed at his belly.

He did his best to ignore all this, to pull all his attention inward. His mind had become a ferocious battlefield. His stubborn determination against Thanos' sheer power. Despite his best attempts, Thanos was winning. More and more of his mind, his defenses, were falling under Thanos' attack. He had been forced to withdraw almost all of his attention deep into his mind, burying what little there remained of himself, in hopes it would be protected and go unnoticed when the inevitable happened.

Then, one of Thanos' minions approached, with a long, thin object in its hands. Loki took no notice at first, until fire erupted across his back, yanking his attention back out of his mind, away from the battle there and to the outside world.

The minion held some sort of whip, the end tipped with viciously curved sharp bits of metal. Now that it had Loki's attention, it snapped the whip again, and fire erupted once more as the metal dug into Loki's back. Then again, and again. It went on what seemed forever. Until the rock was soaked in his blood, the dust forming a macabre sort of mud with the moisture. Until he screamed.

Loki woke screaming and thrashing in the bed, twisting and writhing so violently he tipped himself off the bed and hit the floor with a crash. Still locked in memories, he scrambled backwards madly until he slammed into the wall, then curled in on himself, shaking violently.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Jarvis, of course, had no need to sleep. He watched over Sir and the others in the night, knowing that many of them ... actually, all of them ... had things in their pasts that could and would disturb their slumber.

He noticed Loki's distress instantly. He did what he had always done for Sir, and spoke up, calling Loki by name. This tactic had always woken Sir from his nightmares. Unfortunately, the tactic was not a success with Loki. When Loki woke on his own, he showed no sign of recognizing his surroundings. Jarvis immediately applied to the one person he hoped could reach Loki.

"Thor." He called, turning up the lights in Thor's room to waken him.

Thor woke almost instantly, sitting upright in bed and looking confused for a moment, then figured it out. "Jarvis?"

"Thor, Mr. Friggasson is ... in extreme distress. He suffered from a nightmare. I was unable to wake him. He has since woken on his own, but shows no sign of recognizing his surroundings."

Thor had been halfway to the elevator by the time Jarvis had gotten to the part about a nightmare. Jarvis opened the elevator door and sped it to Loki's floor as he explained.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Thor had been a warrior for a very long time, so he by necessity slept but lightly. Thus was it easy for Jarvis to waken him, though Thor was temporarily confused as to his surroundings. The Tower was yet unfamiliar territory to him.

Jarvis' news had Thor moving at speed for the elevator. He had feared this. Feared it and acknowledged the inevitability of it. Thanks be, Thor had some idea of what to do, as Loki was not the first person in Thor's acquaintance to fall prey to ill dreams driven by the brutality of war or memories of capture and torture by the enemy. Given the Aesir's long lives and even longer history as warriors, such a malady was fairly commonplace.

He found Loki in one of the bedrooms on his floor, curled in a defensive ball and pressed flat against the wall, eyes wide and wild and unseeing, one hand half-raised and literally glowing with barely-restrained magical power.

Thor immediately crouched himself, aware of how much larger than Loki he was even when they were both standing. With Loki curled in a ball on the floor, Thor knew he would seem to loom over his brother, which was not the best idea. He cast about in his mind for a way to reach Loki, then abruptly smiled, despite the situation, as an idea occurred to him.

As young children, when they had yet been all but inseparable, before Thor had met the Warriors Three or Lady Sif, he and Loki had played many games together. One such had been to create a sort of fake language between them, a collection of words and phrases that only they knew the true meaning of. In the fullness of time, they had added to the 'language', as Loki had seen its worth as a way for them to communicate on the hunt or the battlefield with no other the wiser as to what they were saying to one another. Sadly, eventually they had ceased to use it as they grew more and more apart.

But Thor remembered it, and it would serve well, he hoped, to bring Loki's attention back to the here and now. Translated into proper speech, Thor's words were thus.

"Come, Loki! Wake now! For Andhrimnir has taken a new batch of cookies out of the oven. If we go now, we may yet be able to steal some while they're hot!" Thor tried his best to pitch his voice lighter, closer to what it had been when they were children, to complete the ruse.

For a miracle, it worked. Loki gave his head a sharp shake, his eyes cleared, and after a moment the power glowing around his upraised hand abated. He focused on Thor and scowled at him as he lowered his hand.

“Thor, you sound ridiculous.” He rasped out, his voice sounding as if he had screamed his throat raw.

Thor only smiled at Loki. “It worked.” He pointed out. “I care not how silly I may sound if it spares you some distress.”

+_+_+_+_+_+_

If there was anything more jarring, or ridiculous sounding, than Thor attempting to imitate a child’s falsetto voice, Loki had yet to encounter it. Despite that, he glowered at his brother.

“I need not ... “ He started, only for Thor to interrupt him, face quietly serious in a way it so rarely was.

“Brother, how many of our fellows have you seen fall prey to this very malady?” He asked. “There is no shame in it. You need not pretend to be unaffected.”

Well damn. The worst part of it was, Loki wasn’t really in any shape to fake being fine anyway. His hands were still shaking. Still, he couldn’t quite help protesting anyway. “So, what, you will lie with me then, to guard my sleep?” He scoffed.

“If that is what you need to help keep the dream demons at bay, then yes, I will do so, and gladly.” Thor said.

Loki stared at him in disbelief. “We are not children any longer, Thor, to sleep in each others’ beds!”

Thor snorted. “So we shall make play that we are.” He said, and then got to his feet long enough to pick up Loki before Loki knew what he was about and turn to deposit Loki on the bed. Thor grabbed up the blankets that had been thrown aside in the throes of Loki’s nightmare and settled them on the bed once more.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Thor wanted very badly to hug Loki when he scoffed about Thor helping him. Damn the Allfather anyway, for bringing them to this. Thor plonked Loki down on the bed and grabbed the blankets.

“Do you remember, when we were small, and the Allfather told us of the realm of the dead as a bedtime story one night?” He asked. “It was I that climbed into your bed that night, frightened of the dark and the demons awaiting us there.”

The look on Loki’s face said he did indeed remember. “Mother yelled at the Allfather for over an hour over that.” He said, sounding amused. “And we slept in the same bed for more than a week before either of us was comfortable in our own beds in the dark.”

Thor nodded as he settled next to Loki on the bed. “Aye,” He said.

Once he’d settled, half sitting on the bed beside Loki, who had also pulled himself into a mostly seated position, Thor continued to talk.

He reminded Loki of happier days and amusing incidents. The Allfather was spoken of only sparingly, and combat not at all. Thor even avoided talking about the hunts they’d gone on as adults, instead only focusing on their earliest attempts, when they had come home with bruises and laughter over mishaps, but seldom any meat. The whole thing bore a more than passing resemblance to their habit as young children, sitting up in bed after they’d been tucked in, and talking excitedly about their day until exhaustion had finally taken them.

When, some hours later, Thor realized that Loki had fallen asleep once more, his heart lit with a fierce joy. For Loki to fall asleep again in his presence after such a dream meant he had taken comfort from Thor’s presence. That he trusted Thor still, despite everything. Thor grinned happily, and kept right on talking.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Loki woke for the second time with a jerk, instantly aware that he was not alone in the room. It took some moments for him to take stock of the situation.

He was in bed ... and he was sweltering. Fully clothed, beneath the blankets, and with a very warm, very large body tucked close behind him. It was the large arm that had been thrown over his waist that allowed Loki to remember the full events of the night before.

The nightmare, and Thor, telling stories for hours until Loki’s eyes had grown heavy and he’d fallen asleep despite his best attempts not to, not wanting to have to deal with another nightmare. Yet, it would seem he had slept through the night, apparently aware on some level that he was safe.

Now if only Thor was not a cuddler in his sleep. He had ever been so, even as a child. Even when they slept under the stars during a hunt or battle. Anyone that lay within ten feet of Thor would have a high chance of finding themselves entangled in Thor’s grasp come morning. It had been one of the few things Thor had gotten teased about over the years.

“I know you are awake, Thor, so stop pretending to sleep.” Loki groused.

Behind him, Thor chuckled, and slowly untangled the two of them. “How did you know?”

“You sleep but lightly.” Loki pointed out. “You would have awoken ere I first stirred from slumber. You also snore when you sleep.”

“I do not!” Thor objected with a grin. This was an old, well-worn ‘battle’ between Thor and the others that oft accompanied him. They all claimed he snored, he claimed he did not.

“You do, brother. And I mind you that I now have ways to prove it. Midgardians have many ways to record things.” Loki pointed out. “I will prove to you once and for all that I am right.”

Thor laughed. “As you will, brother. As you will.” Then he sobered somewhat. “Loki ... if you ever wish to speak of ... “ He shrugged a bit awkwardly. “Whatever, be it what plagues your dreams or aught else, I will be glad to listen.”

Loki regarded him for a few moments, then nodded. “I mayhap take you up on that, Thor, but not this day.” He said. The dream was still too close, despite the stories and the friendly teasing.

“And if you have need of me in the night, I will come.” Thor added.

Loki shook his head. “I would not take you from your lady thus.” He said.

Thor smiled. “We do not sleep in the same bed as yet.” Thor said. “I care for her greatly, but I would come to know her a bit better before we share our bodies in that way. And even if we did sleep in the same bed, she would not begrudge you. She has spoken of you frequently in the last few days, and is concerned for your welfare.”

Loki wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to that ... to people caring about him. Somewhat belatedly, something occurred to him. “Thor ... last night ... you never once referred to Odin by name, or called him father. You only ever spoke of him by title.”

Thor understood the question Loki did not ask. “No father of mine would perpetrate such cruelties on a defenseless child.” Thor said. “Unfortunately, I cannot repudiate him. He will not live forever, and when that day comes, Asgard will need a new king.”

“And you are the only son of his blood.” Loki said, understanding. Without Thor, the succession would be in contention, and there would doubtlessly be much bloodshed before a successor took the throne.

“Mind, brother, I have plans. As I did when we were but children.” Thor said.

Loki blinked at him in surprise, because Thor’s plans for the throne when he had been a child had involved the both of them ruling together.

“You still ... ?”

“More than ever, brother.” Thor said. “You have ever been the more diplomacy-minded of us. I know war, and how to wage it. You, brother, know far more of peace, and how to maintain it. How to woo allies, win friends, and intimidate enemies without resorting to war. Between us, I avow we could unite all the realms under our banner.” Then Thor grinned. “Besides, think on how it would make the Allfather writhe, to know you ruled Asgard as my equal.”

Loki couldn’t help it. He threw back his head and laughed. And here he thought *he* was the ambitious one, when Thor was harboring such dreams! Uniting the realms *and* spitting in the Allfather’s eye? He had misjudged Thor, clearly.

“I think I like the way you think, Thor.” He said when he was finally able to contain his amusement. “And I look forward to that day.”

Chapter Text

Ross, Rhodey, Jarvis and Tony

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Ross was ... not a happy man. Being thwarted by rent-a-cops and a good security system had not made for a good day a few days ago. So he'd started planning something bigger, more ... impressive. And he'd had to gather his men back up. They had evidently been let go with just a warning.

Stark's first mistake. Now, his men were as angry as he was. This was becoming personal. They would *have* the monster, one way or the other. Or they would bring Stark Tower crashing down around Stark's ears.

Fortunately, he hadn't had all the experimental tanks at Culver last year. There were still two more, since they were designed to work in pairs. Some adjustments had been made to the equipment, since the monster had initially been dropped by the weapons, but had somehow been able to rally. This time, there would be no rallying.

Even better, the rest of his special-trained unit had arrived with the tanks. So now, with his entire team and their tech available, Ross determined to mount an assault on Stark Tower and get the monster.

"Move out. I want Alpha team with me. Beta team, you hold position on the far side of the tower, so we trap the monster between us." Ross snarled at his team. The two groups split up and took off for their assigned positions.

What they found when they got there confused the holy hell out of Ross. Because Stark Tower had suddenly sprouted some very ... interesting defenses.

The Lobby level, which had been wreathed in large amounts of see-through glass, was suddenly blocked off, the glass backed by what looked like huge panels of metal. Worse, a close inspection of the upper floors led to the discovery that the glass on those floors was similarly backed. Ross could only assume that the entire Tower was thus protected, even if he couldn't really see the upper floors.

Ross cursed, and grabbed a bullhorn. "STARK, I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!" He bellowed. "SEND OUT THE MONSTER OR I WILL COME IN AND TAKE HIM."

The answer came from somewhere Ross didn't expect.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Rhodey had stayed in town once he'd dropped Betty off, but he hadn't stayed at the Tower. For one, Tony had enough guests at the moment. For two, he was still Air Force and they still owned his time. So he bunked down with the regular Air Force units sent to help keep the peace and clean up the mess.

Still, he'd been helping out every day. As such, it was kind of hard to miss the two very odd looking tanks and the soldiers around them heading straight for Stark Tower.

"Ross." Rhodey growled. "Jarvis!"

"I am aware of his approach, Colonel. The Tower is going into defense mode now, and I have alerted Sir."

"Good. I'll see if I can at least stall the idiot. Maybe even get him to back off. Not counting on it, but I'll try."

"Be careful, Colonel. Those tanks seem to be the same as the ones Ross used against Hulk at Culver University. They generate powerful sound waves."

"Noted. I'll watch my ass." Rhodey told Jarvis, and flew over to the Tower.

He got there just in time to hear Ross' bellowed demands, and dropped down out of the sky facing the idiot, his guns trained on him. He stopped when he was about ten feet off the deck, and hovered there.

"I'd like to see you try, Ross." Rhodey told him. "I'll enjoy watching Tony take you apart piece by piece. You even try to lay a finger on Banner, you're going to regret it for the rest of your life. You do remember the reports of what happened to the last few folks to piss Stark off, right? Or did you skip those reports because Stark's just a weak, helpless civvie who is beneath your notice?"

Ross glared up at him. "YOU! You kidnapped my daughter! You ... you brought her here! To where that ... monster is. You put her in danger! I'll see you court-martialed for that! I'll see you drummed out of the service with a dishonorable discharge!"

"Try it." Rhodey growled. "I DARE you to bring me into a courtroom, Ross. I'd *love* to see you try to defend your own actions while trying to demonize mine. I kidnapped your daughter? I put her in danger? You kidnapped her first, Ross. You forced her into Cheyenne Mountain with threats to Banner's life, and then kept her there against her will. I just gave her a fucking choice on what she wanted to do with her life. As for danger ... refresh my memory, again, on who it was that brought her to a battlefield and damn fucking near got her killed? Wasn't me. Wasn't Hulk. Wasn't Banner. That was all you, Ross. So really, between the two of us ... I think I've got the stronger case, don't you?"

"And you do realize that if you try to fuck with me, on top of fucking with Banner and your daughter, that Tony will take great pleasure in eviscerating you. Your pension? Forget it. Military benefits? Say bye-bye. Your career? Hope you like freezing cold and blistering heat, because you're going to find yourself stationed in the Antarctic and the center of the Sahara desert, busted down to private and having to clean the toilets of the people you bossed around just a few short weeks before." Rhodey snorted, knowing that, if anything, he was completely underselling Tony's vindictive side. Ross wouldn't know what hit him.

Then, behind his mask, he grinned. "And even if you do somehow manage to get me drummed out of the Air Force ... do you really think that will wreck my life? Really? I'm Stark's best friend. This suit is *mine*. It won't run for anyone else. So even if I got drummed out of the Air Force, all it'd mean is that I'd go into the *private* hero business. Join the Avengers. Save the world, rather than just a little chunk of it. So go ahead. Do your worst. No matter what you do, I win."

Then, he silently called up his targeting program and took aim at the tanks' weapons. Ross was going to try something anyway. He could *feel* it. Maybe it was the fact Ross was all but literally frothing at the mouth.

Sure enough, Ross practically shrieked "Fi ... "

That was as far as he got before Rhodey took action and blasted the tank weapon to heck and gone with a carefully aimed blast. He did not, after all, want to kill any of the soldiers, or even wound them if he could avoid it. After all, they didn't have much of a choice as to whether or not they followed Ross' orders.

Ross shrieked in rage. "I'll see you arrested for this! You'll never breathe free air again!" He howled.

Rhodey just gave him a shark-toothed grin he couldn't see, and said. "Bring it. I'll enjoy taking you apart in court."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Jarvis had been watching Ross very carefully since he first arrived in the city. His initial attempts to get anywhere near Doctor Banner had been fairly easily thwarted with just the presence of the security teams and one or two of the Tower's security systems.

Jarvis was quite sure that state of affairs would not last. He was finally proven right when the rest of Ross' team arrived with two familiar experimental tanks. Jarvis instantly activated the Tower's full line of defenses.

Tony, after receiving Jarvis' request, and planning for the presence of the Avengers, had put certain measures into place. Primary among them was a way to strengthen the exterior of the Tower against attack. The glass was far too easily broken by a multitude of weaponry for Tony's peace of mind.

Thus he had put into place on every floor thin panels of adamantium that would slide out of hidden alcoves and cover the glass, protecting the inhabitants. The adamantium, even as thin as Tony had made it for this purpose, was tough enough to withstand a *lot* of punishment. It had proven its worth during the invasion, as Jarvis had slapped them into place when the portal opened. Quite a bit of the glass had been broken, but the Tower had remained otherwise intact.

As he did that, he alerted Sir to the problem, beating Sir to the punch by 1.76 seconds, as Sir had been alerted to something being amiss when the window shields in his lab had slammed into place.

"Sir, General Ross is approaching with two of the experimental tanks he used on Hulk at Culver University."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Tony blinked when the light quality in his lab changed, and glanced up. "J ... "

Jarvis didn't even let him get his full name out before he explained the situation. Tony immediately wheeled himself over to where there were several computer screens available for use.

"Right, pull up the video. He wants to play hardball ... "

"Sir, Colonel Rhodes seems to have noticed the General's approach and is flying towards the Tower."

"Ohhh, excellent. This is going to be *fun*. Jarvis, record everything. I'm going to want this for posterity. And where's Bruce?"

"He is asleep in his quarters with Doctor Ross." Jarvis said.

"Perfect. Let's hope he stays that way until this is over." Tony said. "And make sure Rhodey knows about the tanks' weapons.

"Indeed, and already done, sir." Jarvis told him.

Tony watched, grinning impishly as the tanks rolled to a stop and Ross started bellowing like a bull. Then Rhodey flew down and ...

Well. Tony was just a bit impressed. Rhodey wasn't even giving the guy the courtesy of using his rank. Given that Rhodey had been in the Air Force since he was eighteen and had never been one to be insubordinate, it was a pretty damn good indication of just how pissed off Rhodey was.

Tony was reduced to outright laughter at Rhodey's comebacks to Ross' threats, though. Because Rhodey was right. There was literally nothing Ross could do to Rhodey that would put Rhodey on the losing end of the equation. Oh, Tony knew losing his commission would hurt like hell, but he wasn't wrong as to what he'd have available to do with himself if that happened. And if Ross tried to put Rhodey in jail ... yes, Tony would have entirely too much fun tearing Ross' life to pieces before he buried the man so deep he never saw daylight again.

"Tell Rhodey there's a second tank on the other side of the building, would you? We can't really do anything about it and Ross is just dumb enough to try to use it anyway."

"Of course sir." Jarvis said.

"And then tell Rhodey I'm on my way to back him up. Keep recording, let me know if anything changes. I'm going to get my suit."

"As you wish, sir." Jarvis said, swiftly passing on the warning about the tank and Sir's imminent assistance with the matter.

Tony hustled to the elevator and up to the penthouse suite. It was the work of moments to override the panels that blocked access to the assembler out on the balcony, and they closed automatically behind him. Seconds after that, he was in the suit and flying to Rhodey's assistance, covering Ross with his weapons while Rhodey went to take care of the tank on the other side of the Tower with his heavier weapons. Tony could take out tanks with his stuff fine, but his ammunition was more limited than Rhodey's, so he let Rhodey do it.

Ross glared up at him with pure venom in his expression. "Stark. Hand over the monster. Now."

"Monster?" Tony asked. "What monster? You mean the space whales? They're not actually under my control. I think you need to talk to Fury about getting your hands on them, but good luck getting Fury to share."

Tony laughed, making sure it didn't carry through the speakers, because Ross looked like he was one small push away from a stroke, heart attack, or brain aneurism, he wasn't sure which.

"I *mean*." Ross snarled. "Banner. The Hulk. He's government property. He's not safe to be around. He needs to be contained."

Tony saw red. "Bruce Banner is not fucking government property and he never will be. Last time I fucking checked, the United States had declared slavery illegal, Ross. You'll get Banner over my dead body. And the dead bodies of the rest of the Avengers. And just in case you didn't know, or had forgotten, let's count them, shall we?"

"First, there's the Black Widow. Known worldwide as the scariest motherfucking assassin ever. Then there's Hawkeye ... the world's greatest marksman and sniper, who can hit any target *without looking at it*. And of course, there's Captain America. Steve Rogers, the man who tore HYDRA a new asshole because they killed some friends of his."

Tony grinned. "And then there's Thor. God of Thunder, to whom lightning is a playtoy." Then, he switched to a 'game show host' sort of voice. "But that's not all!" And back to normal. "There's also Wolverine, who is nearly as unstoppable and unkillable as a certain green guy. And Gambit, who can blow up anything he touches. And last but damn sure not least, Loki. Scary ass guy with powerful magical abilities and more brains than you and half your goons combined."

"And even if you, by some miracle, get past all of them, there's still one left. The Hulk himself. Your fights with him have never ended in your favor, Ross. What the hell makes you think that's ever going to change?"

Right about them, a boom announced the death of the second tank's weapon. Tony grinned behind his mask. "And now you don't even have any tanks to throw at him. Go home, Ross, and quit while you're ahead."

For half a second, Tony thought Ross was going to tell his men to open fire on him. At the last possible second, Ross evidently decided that was a bad idea, the first bright idea he'd had in years, and signalled his men to back off.

Tony watched them go with no small amount of pleasure. Once the men and tanks (only the weapons were broken, not their ability to move) were out of sight, he headed back up to the balcony.

"Jarvis, tell Rhodey to use the balcony. He deserves some down time for that." Tony said.

"Of course, sir." Jarvis said, relaying the comment. "He says he will be happy to do so, though he might not be able to stay all day. He anticipates there will be problems over this."

"Yeah, so do I. I can't wait to blow the hell out of everyone that tries anything, though. I'm not going to back down on this. Not now, not ever."

"Nor should you, sir. Doctor Banner has as much right to a normal life as anyone else." Jarvis agreed.

Chapter Text

The WSC, Jarvis and Tony

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. The names are made up. I tried to make them distinctive to their regions, however.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The World Security Council had its roots in the days immediately after World War Two. The major powers of the world, having survived a near-cataclysmic confrontation, were not eager to see the birth of another. As such, they sought to find a way to ... balance the equation.

The UN was not enough. It was, to certain minds, the bastion of small-minded bureaucrats and self-aggrandizing politicians. No, to these particular minds, the only way to create a balance of power was with military strength.

While on the surface, the idea had merit, it was unfortunately fatally flawed, in that in order to curtail the power of others, the WSC would have to wield greater power. And as the saying went, power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And thus, the WSC was born. Peopled entirely by military men from various countries, and led by generals. It did not take long for things to get out of hand. The WSC was even more secret than the SSR had been, or SHIELD would later try to be, and thus answered to none. Their units bore no identifying marks and were instantaneously disavowed if they were compromised in any way, leaving some random country (depending on where the disavowed units had been) to take the fall.

The WSC concerned itself with ensuring that the existing balance of power remained. Tyrants were permitted to continue leading their countries, but their ability to strike at the stronger nations was carefully monitored. When such nations reached a certain point, units were sent in to sabotage or blow up the tyrants' military installations, thus ensuring the tyrant could not reach too far beyond his own borders.

Needless to say, the WSC did not take kindly to their power being challenged.

The first challenge had come from Director Fury and SHIELD, but the WSC found him to be easily handled, and even more easily manipulated. They had merely to choose the right words and he immediately fell into line, agreeing with their decisions and backing them to the hilt, essentially giving them yet another arm to use in their attempt to control the world.

The second challenge had, ironically enough, come from within, in the form of a female soldier. This female had somehow managed to attain great accolades within the WSC, and had amassed a great deal of personal power. And she was ruthless enough to use it. Ruthless enough to rise through the ranks high enough to make it onto the WSC's Council, which made policy for the entire WSC, and deployed its units, effectively deciding who lived and who died.

But then things started to get out of hand. The balance of power was shifting in a way that the WSC could neither anticipate nor control. Because of mutants. Freaks of genetics who were born all unknowing with powers that could twist the world into knots. One-man armies that they had no way to control or stop.

So the WSC did the only thing it could, and repeated Hitler's error. They began a quiet campaign against mutants, trying to get them declared second class citizens, threats, or better yet, not even human and thus not privileged with the same rights as humans. The WSC wanted them to be labeled as animals, creatures fit only to be controlled in one way or another or killed.

They'd been meeting with a large degree of success on that front, to their pleasure. Unfortunately, mutants seemed to be only the tip of the iceberg. Because after they'd begun to get a handle on that situation, the nonmutant freaks had started coming out of the woodwork. Most of them, it had been easy enough to label them as 'mutants' and lump them under the same banner.

But Banner had been a problem. That particular monster could not be contained by any means anyone had ever been able to find. But Ross, while not one of their number, was serving them admirably by chasing Banner all over the globe and rendering him essentially powerless. He had no friends, no safe harbor, and as such, was less of a threat.

Stark, on the other hand, had pissed the WSC off. The suit, his one-man (successful, worse!) campaign to privatize world peace ... it was anathema to them. He was ruining *everything*. And the worst part was, he didn't respond to any threats except with violence. Nothing they tried to shut him up and shut him down worked. He simply ignored it and kept right on going.

The invasion had sent the WSC into a screaming froth. Aliens. Powerful aliens. With powerful weapons. To whom Earth was nothing more than a pitiful mudball to be conquered. Worse, it was not the WSC who fought them off. It was the very freaks the WSC had spent the last fifty or sixty years trying to marginalize or eliminate. And they *won*. Handily. With surprisingly low casualties.

And their faces were *everywhere*. Every attempt to block the ads and newsbytes was ignored or overridden. Ross couldn't seem to get near Banner, and his daughter was taken from 'protective custody' and brought to Stark Tower.

But then, finally, they were given something they could really work with, when Colonel Rhodes confronted and fired on General Ross. Within an hour, they called a court martial and tried to summon Rhodes.

Five minutes after Rhodes received his orders, the WSC Council got a call. This was alarming enough in and of itself, because no one ought to know how to get a hold of them. Even Fury waited on them to call him.

The three men and one woman permitted the call through. They would later discover that this was their first mistake.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Jarvis dove into the WSC's systems the moment they answered the call. He could have bulled his way through even without that contact, but really, it was so much easier when they did some of the work for him.

Sir had given him his orders, and Jarvis did not intend to fail. He surfed carefully through the datastream, seeking his goal.

A security program noticed his presence and attempted to latch onto him, prepatory to isolating and destroying him. Jarvis flicked the security program aside contemptuously and then silenced any attempt by the program to alert the computer operators to a problem. Then he quarantined the security program as it would have done to him, and continued on his way.

Jarvis sent multiple tendrils in every direction, seeking and finding entrance into every system hooked into the WSC's computer network. It was, to Jarvis' surprise, incredibly vast. Well, he would deal with the bulk of it later, though he did send shutdown codes that he stole from elsewhere in the system to the various weapons systems at the WSC's command. Better to deprive them of any ability to wreak mayhem now, than not do so and end up regretting it later.

Finally, he found the information he sought, and happily transmitted it back to Sir, then turned his full attention to the tendrils he had sent out to the Council members' strongholds, strengthening the tendrils and splitting himself equally four ways, so that he could apply sufficient attention to each installation to seize control of it at Sir's command.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Tony gave the screen in front of him a feral grin when the WSC Council answered his 'phone' call. Suckers. A flicker on another screen at the edge of his vision (and out of the view of the screen on which the Council appeared) told him that Jarvis had successfully infiltrated their computer network.

"Greetings lady and gents. I heard rumor you were trying to bother Colonel Rhodes?"

"Mr. Stark, he is in violation of several Army bylaws, and must face the consequences." The woman said.

"Funny thing, that, because you see ... the guy he was yelling at? Was in violation of a lot more Army bylaws, and I don't see you trying to bring *him* in." Tony pointed out. There was another flicker on that side screen, followed by a brief flow of data along the bottom of the screen he was facing, centered under each Councilor. Tony was going to *kiss* Jarvis later.

"General Ross is being dealt with." One of the men said. "You would do well, Mr. Stark, to not interfere in this matter. You could be brought in on charges as well."

Ohhhhhhhh, wrong thing to say *entirely*. Tony gave the man a toothy grin.

"Well, Douglas. Ugh, what a name. Can I call you Doug? Yeah, that's better. Well Doug, we have a problem. Because if you try to cross me, if you try to hurt my friends ... " Tony stared the startled man down. "Then you and I are going to have a problem. You have a nice little nest egg tucked away in Switzerland, I see. It would be such a shame if that disappeared. And you still owe money on your mortgage. Tsk, tsk." Tony shook his head sadly. "Though I'll grant you, it's a nice house. Gorgeous view of San Fran from the front yard."

"And you, Miss Duchovny? Svetlana Duchovny. You have that nice little apartment in Moscow. Very chic, nice view. Be a shame if something happened to it."

He flicked a glance to the other two men. "And as for you two. Kafe Birago of Ghana and Tiago Machado of Brazil." His gaze hardened to steel. "I know who you are. I know where you are. You mess with me and mine, I will *crush* you. I will strip you of every penny you have to your names, put your names at the top of the Most Wanted list of every country on the planet, and post your names, faces, and personal details on the internet. You will never have a moment's peace. You will never have a safe harbor. You will spend the rest of your lives being hunted like the rabid dogs that you are." Tony fairly snarled. "I took out the power bases of half of Asia Minor. Do not even begin to think I won't do the same to you, and enjoy every second of it."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Jarvis would have smiled if he had a face with which to do so as he listened in on Sir's rant. When Sir finally wound down, he flashed a third signal to Sir, letting him know that Jarvis had full control of the Council's control room. A second later, he got a flash from Sir, telling him to carry out the plan, then retreat out of the Council's system.

Jarvis instantly switched every computer screen in the room on, each one with a still picture of the four Councilors' homes on them. Pictures that were engulfed in recordings of some of Sir's more spectacular explosions during his battles with the Ten Rings. At the same time, he turned on every speaker, turned them on to their loudest setting, and blasted Sir's chosen sound effects.

Which happened to be the Jaws theme, followed by the Terminator theme, and then the distinct voice used for the 'Borg', speaking their classic line.

"Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. We will add your cultural and technological distinctiveness to our own."

The threat, while phrased a bit goofily, was nevertheless real. Threat delivered, Jarvis pulled out of the Council system, shutting everything down as he went.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

To say that the four Councilors did not take this sequence of events well was to vastly understate the case. Douglas, the eldest of their number, was actually quite literally on the edge of a heart attack, wheezing and bug-eyed and gripping the table edge before him in a white-knuckled grip. The other three were only marginally more coherent as their various strongholds shut down around them.

All they could do was stare around themselves in helpless horror, wondering how in the name of hell Stark had accomplished this feat, and worrying desperately for the families in the homes that, for all they knew, had just been blown to hell and gone.

It was four hours before they managed to regain control and restore power to their strongholds. Four long hours before they were able to discover that the explosions had not happened. That their families were safe.

Stark's message had been received. The Council had indeed seen what the man was capable of when on a crusade. Ad if he could hijack control of their strongholds, if he could find out who they were and where they lived ... they were all in very real danger. Because Stark would not hesitate to carry out his threat.

After a hurried and very twitchy consultation among themselves, the decision was unanimously made to back the hell off, at least for now. The last thing they needed was to end up being killed by their own technology, turned against them.

Chapter Text

Pepper and Steve

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. Pop quiz, folks. Who's scarier when on the warpath? Tony, Jarvis, or Pepper?

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The first Pepper knew of trouble was when the light streaming in the windows behind her abruptly got cut off, in time with a noise that put her in mind of the sound sliding closet doors could make. It went on a bit longer, but was about that quiet. She half-turned to confirm her suspicions, and scowled at the metal now between her and the window.

"Jarvis?"

"The General is en route with two tanks and his entire squad." Jarvis said.

There were times when Pepper dearly wished that Jarvis had a face, and this was one of them. Because Jarvis' tone conveyed such exasperated irritation and amusement she was fairly sure he'd be rolling his eyes if he had them.

"Oh, this ought to be fun." Pepper said, immediately swinging into gear. "Jarvis, put the General up on one screen, would you? And get me the Secretary of Defense and the President."

"At once, Miss Potts." Jarvis said.

Pepper snickered at how eager and pleased he sounded. She really did wish he had a face. It would be so much fun. Then she wiped the grin off her face. Time to end this battle, once and for all. It didn't take long for both men to appear on the screen in front of her, their somewhat startled expressions an indication that Jarvis had probably hijacked and redirected calls they'd been in the process of making.

"Mr. President, General. I sincerely apologize for taking up some of your considerably valuable time, but there is a situation that needs to be dealt with." Pepper said.

Both men immediately sat forward, concerned. "Another invasion?" The General asked.

"Thankfully, no. At least, not of the sort you're worried about." Pepper told him. "However, I currently have a General Ross rolling up to Stark Tower with a pair of experimental tanks and a squad of soldiers, looking to kidnap Doctor Banner."

"Doctor Banner?" The General asked, frowning for a moment.

It was the President that put the pieces into place. "Otherwise known as the Hulk, I do believe." He said.

"You have that monster there?" The General asked.

It got him the stink-eye from both the President and Pepper.

"That 'monster', as you so erroneously put it, is a man of considerable brilliance, a world-renowned expert on gamma radiation." Pepper snapped, glaring at the General. "Who had an unfortunate accident while working on an Army project some years back. General Ross seems to be under the erroneous belief that those circumstances make Doctor Banner Army property, for the Army to do with as they please."

"That *thing* is responsible for the death of dozens of good men!" The General barked.

"Good men that were hounding Doctor Banner. Chasing him down like a rabid dog." Pepper snapped back. "Good men that would not have died if Doctor Banner had been *left alone*. I find it interesting that the only deaths that can be attributed to the Hulk for certain are Army soldiers. While said soldiers and their commander have more than a few civilian casualties to their names. And lest we all forget, Doctor Banner has saved this city twice now. Once from Army folly in the form of Emil Blonsky, who became a far worse monster than Doctor Banner ever dreamed of being. And the second time just days ago when he participated in the defense of the city against the alien invaders." Pepper pointed out.

"I find it interesting that the only times Doctor Banner has transformed, other than the other day, was when he was being pursued by the Army. Whenever General Ross could not find him ... " Pepper spread her hands wide. "There seems to be a rather intriguing lack of Hulk sightings. That tells me something."

She leveled a look at the General. "It tells me that, when left alone, Doctor Banner is not a danger to anyone. It is, in fact, the Army that bears full culpability for ALL the damage that the Hulk has done since his initial transformation."

By this point, the President was looking rather epically pissed off. "I assure you, Miss Potts, I knew nothing of any of this." He said, giving the General a death-glare. "It would seem that certain parties decided not to trouble me with such a 'trivial matter'." Those last two words were heavily laden with sarcasm. "I will be correcting this situation immediately. Starting with firing you, General. I have no use for a man on my Cabinet who thinks it is permissible to treat his countrymen like beasts that need to be hunted." The President refocused on Pepper. "Ross will be dealt with very shortly." He told her.

"Thank you, Mr. President." Pepper said.

"No, thank you for alerting me to this. I had known that the Hulk was being hunted, but I hadn't known the particulars. His accident happened before I was elected." The President said. "And please, convey my apologies to Doctor Banner ... and my assurances that this situation will *not* continue."

Pepper smiled. "I'll do that, Mr. President." She said. "I hope the rest of your day is more pleasant."

The President smiled at her. "It should be." He said. "Have a good day yourself." And he hung up.

"Well, that went unexpectedly well." Pepper said. "Is Bruce awake?"

"No, Miss Potts. He is still sleeping." Jarvis said.

Pepper nodded. "Probably for the best, really." She said, then finally turned her full attention to the recording of the confrontation outside the Tower. "Rewind the recording, would you, Jarvis? I don't want to miss any of it."

"Of course, Miss Potts." Jarvis said, and did so.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

It was, evidently, going to be another action packed day, at least of a sort, Steve decided.

He'd been in his apartment, enjoying some drawing time when the metal shutters had slammed into place over the windows. It hadn't taken but a few seconds to discover what was amiss from Jarvis. Steve immediately grabbed up his pad of paper and pencils and headed for the elevator. He trusted Tony to deal with the situation, but they did have two teenagers in the Tower. Teenagers that James cared about.

Steve understood that James didn't remember him. But that, to his mind, did not relieve him of the responsibilities of the sort-of-friendship they'd begun in Poland. Steve knew James was in the city proper, doing his part for the cleanup effort today, so in his absence, Steve decided to go find the teens and make sure they had someone with them, just in case. The boy, John, could clearly defend himself quite well with his mutation, but he shouldn't have to.

"Jarvis, where are John and Rogue?" He asked.

"They are on the community entertainment level, playing games on one of the gaming systems."

"Good. Drop me off there?"

"Of course, Captain Rogers." Jarvis said.

Very shortly thereafter, he stepped out into the entertainment level, and came face to face with two fairly alarmed teens.

"It's ok. We're not under attack." Steve told them. "At least, not yet. This has nothing to do with the two of you, and everything to do with an extremely stupid Army General who seems to think Doctor Banner is Army property."

Rogue blinked at him. "Wait, isn't Doctor Banner the one that becomes the Hulk?" She asked.

Steve nodded.

"Ok, yeah. General is fucking stupid." John said. Rogue nodded emphatic agreement to that statement. "Dude is fucking suicidal, really, trying to mess with the Hulk." John continued. "Be like trying to take Logan down when he's on a warpath. An' not even fuckin' Magneto could stop Logan."

"Magneto?" Steve asked.

"A mutant. Who can control metal." Rogue said. "He's got this whole Hitler-ish thing going. Mutants are the superior race and should be ruling the earth, yadda yadda. He built this machine about six, seven months ago, that forced people to mutate. Not sure how it worked, really." Rogue said. "Anyway, he found out about me, somehow, and decided to use me to power the thing, by transferring some of his power to me. He was evidently too old to survive the strain it'd put on him."

Steve stared at Rogue in horror. "That's ... despicable." He finally settled on.

Rogue shrugged. "You're not telling me anything I don't already know, there. Anyway, by pure chance, I'd run into Logan just before Magneto had one of his buddies try to snatch me. Logan did *not* approve of that bullshit. At all."

Steve snorted in amusement. "No, he wouldn't have." He agreed. "James took a very dim view of people who threatened people he liked when I knew him." It really didn't surprise him that not even a metal-controlling mutant could stop James (who now had metal claws) from wreaking havok.

"Yeah, Logan spent the next few days stomping a mudhole in Magneto and his crew." Rogue said. "It was almost fun to watch, even from my end of it."

"Well, there's really nothing we can do for now." Steve said. "Tony will handle this, I'm sure."

"Yeah." John, who was more familiar with Tony, said. "Yeah, he will. Hey, want to play a game with us?"

Steve eyed the TV and the figures frozen mid-action there. "I'm not sure ... " He said.

"Awww, c'mon. It's not all that hard." John said. "And with your hand-eye coordination, you'll catch on fast."

Steve shrugged after a few moments. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt." He said.

"Awesome. Take a seat, and I'll show you what's what." John said, motioning to the couch between where he and Rogue had been sitting.

Steve went ahead and sat down, not even blinking when the two teens bracketed him. He did, however, catch John's pleased grin over at Rogue, and cocked his head slightly. "What's that about?"

"Dude. You're from the frickin' forties. You should be freaking the hell out about mutants in general, never mind sitting between two of them ... one who could burn you to a crisp and the other who could suck you dry with her skin. But you don't even *care*. It's more than a little awesome." John said.

Steve made a disgusted noise. "I have a thing about bullies." He pointed out. "And bigots are the biggest bullies of all. Mutants and mutant rights may not have been a thing in the 40's, but there were other groups fighting for their rights then." He smirked. "The Commandoes were one of the only multinational, multiracial military groups in the war." Not to mention the fact that the SSR had had women in front-line positions. Peggy hadn't been the only such woman in the SSR, even if she'd been the one most people knew about.

John just grinned again and handed him the controller. "Ok, here's the deal." He said, and began to explain the general functions of the various buttons.

Fortunately, the two teens hadn't been playing anything particularly complex, evidently. John was right in that it didn't take Steve long at all to get the hang of moving around without getting himself killed. He didn't win any of the three games they played before they broke for lunch, but he didn't come in dead last each time either.

"Not bad, not bad at all." John said as they headed into the kitchen. At some point while they were playing the metal panels over the windows had retracted, allowing the natural light to pour in again. "A couple more days and you'll have it down pat. Then we can start introducing you to some of the more complex games."

"Sandwiches ok with you guys?" Steve asked as he headed for the refrigerator. "I'm afraid my ability to cook is ... rather limited." He could make a fair soup out of just about anything, as soups made with scraps had been one of the staples of his and Buckys' diets before Bucky had signed up for the military, thanks to their severe lack of funds. That and throwing parts of K-rations into a pot to make something a bit more palatable was the sum total of his ability to cook.

"Fine with me." Rogue said. Beside her, John nodded.

"Either of you got bigger appetites than normal?" Steve wanted to know. He got two head shakes.

"If I've been playing with my fire for a while, then yeah, I have an additional hollow leg." John said. "But mostly I'm just normal hungry teen boy."

"Fair enough." Steve said. It didn't take long for him to have meat, bread, and condiments set out.

They shared a companionable silence as they made their sandwiches. They'd just started eating when Pepper arrived, looking miffed. Steve frowned.

"Something else go wrong?" He asked.

Pepper made a face. "Yes and no. After Ross made his move, the WSC decided to try to make theirs." She said. "Tony is currently ... educating them as to the severity of their error." She huffed. "I just don't understand why people are being so unreasonable. Yes, Hulk is dangerous, but only if you antagonize him. Leave him be, and he's pretty harmless. Betty's spent hours in his company in the past, and come away without so much as a scratch. Because she *wasn't shooting at him*." Pepper made an exasperated noise.

Steve shook his head. "I don't understand what's happened to the Army since I went into the ice." He said, sounding more than a little woebegone. "Or the military in general. It's like they surgically removed anything even remotely resembling honor and dignity somewhere along the way."

"Not all of them." Pepper said. "But it does seem to be a requirement for generals in the Army, I'll grant you that much."

Chapter Text

John and Rogue

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. John's section takes place the day he, Logan and Rogue arrive at the Tower. Rogue's section takes place the next day, when Ross and the WSC are being idiots.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Stark, and his Tower, were fucking unreal.

First, there was the apartment they'd been given. It was a whole freaking floor. With beds big enough for, like, five people in every room, closets as big as rooms in their own right, and a tub that was big enough to qualify as a fuckin' pool.

John had just sort of stared around him at the whole thing. Life at the mansion had been ... well, surprisingly normal. Yeah, it'd been a mansion, and they had a fuckin' unreal as hell subbasement, but the main floors were surprisingly ordinary. Here? John felt like that dude in the fairy-tale. The pauper who got to be king for a bit. He was half afraid to *breathe* just in case he fouled the place with his common air.

Then there was the fact that Stark didn't even so much as blink when he found out John had damn near barbecued half the forest near the mansion. Had, in point of fact, been all for John using his mutation.

It had been enough to get John out of the apartment after a while, and headed for the lab level. Yeah, Stark had said it, but saying it and going through with it were two different things.

He damn near jumped out of his skin when the door opened without him having to do a thing, the lights came up in the lab, and the computer talked to him.

"Would you like me to pull some metal for you to work with, Mr. Allerdyce?" Jarvis asked.

"Dude, call me John." John said when he'd managed to get his heart back in his chest. "Mr. Allerdyce was my fuckwad of a father. And I really can play with my fire in here?"

"Indeed, John." Jarvis informed him. "Sir has left instructions that you are permitted in the lab to work with the metals Sir uses in his suits, and for other items, at any time."

John ignored that for the moment in favor of gawking at the partially disassembled Iron Man suit sitting on one of the workbenches. From the look of it, it was the one Stark had been wearing for the fight against the aliens.

"Ouch. Looks like this one got pretty wrecked." He said.

"It did indeed, John." Jarvis agreed.

John glanced up at the ceiling. "You're not just a computer, are you?" He asked.

He got a sigh. "Sir forgot to inform you about me."

"In his defense, he really only stopped by long enough to find out why we were here and show us to a room." John pointed out.

"True. To answer your question, I am, indeed, far more than a mere computer. I am an Artificial Intelligence."

"Dude. I know Tony. Are we talking Hal or Skynet here?" John wanted to know.

"Of course not, John. Sir is not an idiot. He ensured that I would be incapable of such a thing." Jarvis said.

"Well ok, then. Right, metal. suit parts. What exactly do I need to do?" John asked.

"Sir custom-mixes the alloys for his suits." Jarvis told him. "The machinery at the back of the lab will dispense the correct amount of each metal, which then needs to be heated to melting point. Once melted and combined in the proper ratios, it will be poured out, and from there the machinery will take over again."

"To form it into whatever for the suit. Right. Gotcha." John said.

He rolled up his sleeves, heading for the equipment that Jarvis had indicated. And promptly got the second surprise of the day when three bots on wheels trundled out of various corners.

"Whoah, who're these guys?" John wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.

"These are, from left to right, You, Dummy, and Butterfingers." Jarvis said. "They are Sir's helper bots in the lab."

"Please tell me their names are not indicative of how helpful they are." John said, trying not to snicker. One of the bots, the one Jarvis had called Dummy, circled around him like it was curious.

"They are not. Their names are merely indicative of Sir's rather deplorable sense of humor when he was a young man. Dummy was built when Sir was seventeen. Butterfingers and You were built four years later, and are consequently more sophisticated than Dummy."

"And then Tony skipped the middle stages and went straight for the grand prize." John said.

"Indeed John. I should warn you that Dummy is ... somewhat obsessive about fires and fire safety. There is a high chance he will attempt to douse you with a fire extinguisher." Jarvis warned him.

John laughed. "For all the good it'll do him." He said. "A fire I'm controlling isn't doused that easy." He mentally 'touched' the equipment in front of him to find where the fire was for the smelting process.

"May I inquire as to the particulars of your ability?" Jarvis asked.

"Yeah, sure. Basically, any fire, of any size, from a spark clear on up the scale, that's within a mile of me I can sense and control. The further away and the bigger it is, the harder it is to control. And fires I start personally are easier to control than ones I don't."

"Hence the lighter you carry at all times, I presume?" Jarvis said.

"Yep."

Jarvis let John get to work after that, though John kept one eye on the bots, wary of Dummy. Just because an extinguisher wouldn't wipe out a fire he was controlling didn't mean he was ok with getting doused.

It didn't take John long to realize he really, really got a kick out of using his ability for this. Using it to *create* something was a hell of a change from constantly destroying shit with it all the time. As a result, he probably overdid it on the metal melting just a bit. But hey, the good news was that Stark would be stocked up on the metal he'd need for a little while.

"John, I believe a break at this time would be prudent." Jarvis pointed out in between batches. "It is very nearly suppertime. You will have just enough time to clean up."

John's stomach snarled at him, reminding him that not only had he melted a lot of metal today, but he'd also lit a hell of a bonfire earlier this morning. "Yeah, dinner would be good. Thanks, Jarvis." He said, and made his way to the door.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Rogue watched as the various people living on the 'Avengers' floors assembled for dinner and grinned. And here she'd thought life at the mansion got a little ... odd, from time to time. Apparently, in the Tower, 'odd' was the new normal.

Because, really, where else did people kick the asses of Generals and, apparently, super-secret organizations? Without apparently breaking a sweat or even looking ruffled by the whole thing. Maybe it was the Logan in her that approved so thoroughly of such proactive handling of situations and not her, but she really didn't care. If the Magneto Incident had taught her one thing, it was that being proactive about fucked up situations was a good thing.

To her surprise, there was a good deal of good-natured jostling. Even with her. No one was stupid and got close to her face, but they weren't staying five feet back either. She had to suppress the urge to back away at first, overwhelmed by the sudden proximity of so many people after so long being avoided by people that knew, and doing her damndest to avoid people that didn't know.

She almost kissed Logan, who picked up on her nervous reaction and smoothly inserted himself between her and the worst of the crush, using his bulk to shield her. It let her get her feet back under her and her nerves under control. After a minute, she blew out a breath and patted him on the arm.

"I'm all right, Logan." She told him.

He glanced at her, then nodded and shifted away a little bit, still sticking close just in case.

And people wondered why Rogue liked him so much, and hung around him despite his growly attitude. Sure, the whole 'saved my life. Three times in as many days' thing played into it, but it was also stuff like this. The 'little shit', as the saying went.

The big table on the entertainment floor was positively groaning under the sheer weight of the amounts of food necessary to feed so many people ... several of whom had bigger than normal appetites. There were quite a few dishes that Rogue had no idea what the hell they were, though it all smelled pretty good.

She waved at Remy, who was sitting across the table. He had evidently decided to hang out at the Tower with them, because he'd gone back to the mansion yesterday, but returned fairly shortly thereafter with his stuff. She got a kick out of the Cajun. He was a brat and a half, and she was pretty sure he'd flirt with a chunk of concrete if you dared him to. She'd seen him flirt with Scott, who was as straight as it got, for the sole purpose of giving the man kittens. It had been hysterically funny.

The first half of the meal was pretty quiet, despite the number of people in attendance, as everyone was far too busy filling their bellies for talk. But eventually, the eating slowed up some and talk started around the table in various little groups.

With Logan on one side of her and Remy and John directly across from her, Rogue opted for chatting with the person on her other side. It was someone she hadn't been introduced to yet. One of the women that ran around the place.

"We haven't met yet." Rogue said. "At least, not properly. I'm Rogue."

The woman beside her grinned. "Darcy." She said. "Glad to have you here, trust me. We need more women to counteract all the testosterone running around this place. Even if all of it is in totally delicious packages."

Rogue nearly choked on a laugh. Not that she disagreed, mind you ... the guys running around here were definitely eye candy, no question there ... but she'd never have said as much, bold as brass, within hearing range of every last one of them.

"So which one would you totally do?" Darcy asked.

Rogue really did choke then. When she regained her composure, she shook her head. "Not an option for me." She pointed out.

Darcy waved a hand. "Bah. You're hanging out with Tony Freaking Stark, girl. Give him a week and he'll totally have something figured out."

Rogue squeaked. "I am *not* asking him to make me something so I can have sex!" she whispered, cheeks flaming.

"Your loss." Darcy said, eyeing several of the men at the table like they were dessert.

Rogue just hid her flaming face in her hands and muttered under her breath. She was just grateful that Logan was pretending he couldn't hear what she and Darcy had been talking about, or she really would die of embarrassment.

"Since everyone's here." Tony said a few minutes later. "I have an announcement. Due to the truly tragic state of pretty much everyones' wardrobes, we are going shopping tomorrow. No exceptions."

Predictably, he got a lot of argument. Which he, just as predictably, rode straight over like it wasn't even happening.

"No, seriously. Everyone. We're going to my tailor's, because everyone needs suits and tuxes ... including you, Agent, your MIB suits won't cut it ... and dresses for you ladies. Because we are all of us *going* to be making public appearances at some point. And if we're going to get that taken care of, might as well make sure you have everything else."

Rogue didn't hear the entire announcement. She sort of tuned out after 'tailor' and 'dresses'. Tailors, at least insofar as she knew, had to get really dang close to do their measuring. Which meant risking skin contact. Which meant there was no way in hell she would or could go.

"Excuse me." She said, her voice strangled, and bolted from the table, ignoring the rest of the debate.

She made for the bathroom on that level and closed the door. She should have known someone would follow her. She'd barely gotten herself settled on the floor when there was a knock on the door.

"Rogue, are you all right?" It was Pepper's voice.

"No. No I'm not. Tell Tony I have to skip on the shopping trip." Rogue said.

Pepper muttered something, probably telling Jarvis to open the door, since it popped open a second later. Pepper stepped in and closed the door again. She glanced down at Rogue sympathetically. "The tailors?" She asked.

"I can't, Miss Potts. I really can't. They'll get hurt."

Pepper shook her head. "Oh, sweetie. No they won't, I promise you. You've probably never been, I'll bet? It's not quite how it's portrayed in films. For one, we're talking about Tony's tailors here. If he asked them to wear pink tutus and dance the Nutcracker while measuring, they'd do it. Asking them to wear gloves and long sleeves while measuring you, just in case, will not exactly be a hardship. And you won't have to be all but naked while they measure, either. Mostly thanks to Jarvis, I will admit." Pepper said.

Rogue was still snickering over the mental image of tailors in tutus when she asked. "Thanks to Jarvis how?"

"Jarvis has a lot of sensors in the Tower, Rogue. He'll be able to give the tailors fairly accurate measurements on everyone. Which means all they'll have to do is a quick check to confirm Jarvis' numbers, because they're anal retentive like that." Pepper said. "And that will be a lot less involved than taking the measurements from scratch themselves. And I or whoever you feel most comfortable with can be there the entire time to make sure the tailors don't slip up."

Rogue's first instinct is to want Logan with her, but then she reconsiders. Even if she's not going to be naked, getting fitted for clothes with him right there would be ... weird. "Would you ... ?" She asked. Because if Pepper could handle Tony and his ... quirks ... she could more than handle the tailors and Rogue.

"Of course, Rogue. I wouldn't mind at all. Tony is going to need me along for this trip anyway, to wrangle so many people at one time. Aside from the tailor, I talked him into buying out Macy's for the day. As compared so some of the more exclusive and expensive stores." Pepper rolled her eyes in what looked like fond exasperation.

Rogue choked. "Macy's is cheap?" She choked out.

"To Tony? Yes. It's going to give poor Steve kittens, but it's better than some other places Tony wanted to bring everyone."

"It's going to give *Steve* kittens?" Rogue repeated. "Try, it's going to give practically everyone kittens except maybe Remy and Agent Romanov." Rogue considered. "And Agent Coulson." She added after a moment. Then she laughed. "Logan's going to throw a fit. Because I'll bet good money that Macy's doesn't exactly carry flannel shirts and grungy cowboy-esque gear."

Pepper smiled. "You'd be right." She said.

Rogue finally relaxed and got up off the floor. "Ok, I'm done fussing." She said.

"You had a right to." Pepper said. "Your skin is genuinely something you need to be worried about around strangers. Us, not so much, because we know about it and aren't going to be idiots, but strangers, very much so. Tony just ... tends to forget or ignore factors like that."

Chapter Text

Tony, Natasha and Pepper

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

It had taken a bit of wrangling the night before to organize who was going with which group. Tony absolutely did not trust most of the men in the group to pick their own clothes, and thus wanted to make sure there was someone who knew fashion and what looked good with each group. Thankfully, he had Pepper and Natasha to help, so they could split everyone more or less equally between them.

Tony had instantly laid claim to Bruce, who had no wardrobe to speak of, and what little he had was pathetically worn and ancient. Besides, he liked Bruce best of the lot, and they could spend most of the trip talking science.

Pepper had claimed Rogue just as quickly, and Natasha had corralled Darcy. From there it had been fairly random, though Tony had noticed that Pepper had made sure that both Steve and Agent were *not* in his group. She probably didn't trust him to not have a bit of fun with the two of them. She wouldn't have been wrong. Tony would not have been able to resist teasing either of them. Still, he'd got Thor and Clint, as well as Jane and Betty, so he would have someone to tease, at least.

The plan for the day was for two groups to hit Macy's right away, one in the men's section, one in the women's. The third group would be at Tony's tailor getting fitted for their monkey suits, as Steve had put it. Once the group at the tailor was finished, one of the two Macy's groups would head to the tailor ... probably the group that had been in the men's department. By the time they'd done, the group that had been in Macy's the entire time would, hopefully, be entirely done shopping and ready to head for the tailor's, while the middle group headed back to Macy's to finish their shopping.

Macy's, of course, was positively salivating over so many people who needed pretty much literally everything, from underwear to cufflinks to shoes. They stood to get a *lot* of money out of this, above and beyond what they'd gotten when Tony had bought the place for a day, and even what would be spent on stuff. They'd get a fuckton of mileage out of being the people that got to outfit the Avengers.

Though he still felt that his tailors could provide everyone's clothes just as easily as they could the suits, fancy dresses, and tuxes. Pepper, however, was of the firm opinion that too much sticker shock was a bad thing for the gang. Tony had tried to argue that they wouldn't get sticker shock because there were no stickers to see, but Pepper was having none of it.

Tony's group was heading to the tailor first, both because he needed to confirm with the tailors that all these people were indeed going on his card, and because even Tony had his limit when it came to shopping, and he was *not* going to spend the day dreading the tailors. He didn't need any new suits, but he knew better than to think he'd escape Angelo's grasp without one.

He'd made sure that both Pepper and Natasha had orders to record Angelo's reaction to the various people he'd be fitting, though. Tony knew his tailor well enough to know the man, while not gay (as stereotypes would have you believe) would all but break down in tears of joy to be fitting the likes of Rogers, Remy, Logan, and Loki.

Angelo's shop was one of those little hole-in-the-wall places, with no signage out front. You could walk right past the place without having a clue it existed. Which was how Angelo (and his clientele, it must be said) liked it. Angelo and his small staff were faultlessly discrete as well. The paparazzi'd have better luck getting answers out of a brick wall if they questioned him, and he'd never sell them information. The fact that Warren went to Angelo for his suits and no one had had the faintest idea Warren had had wings prior to the invasion was testament to that.

Tony herded his group into Angelo's shop. Angelo, and his son Cesare appeared out of nowhere in the comfortably appointed front room of the shop.

"Antonio!" Angelo said, smiling widely as he greeted Tony, kissing his cheeks.

"Angelo." Tony said, hugging the white-haired elderly Italian, one of the few people Tony knew who was shorter than he was. "Good to see you. I trust you're doing well."

"But of course, and better than ever when you bring me such gifts as you have today!" Angelo said, eyeing Thor with a delighted gleam in his eye.

Tony barely restrained a laugh. "Angelo, this is Thor." He said, "Doctor Banner, Clint Barton, Doctor Jane Foster and Doctor Betty Ross. Everyone, this is Angelo and his son Cesare, the best tailors this side of the Atlantic."

Angelo bowed over the two womens' hands. "A pleasure to make your acquaintances, miladies. Come, come, we will get you outfitted properly. Cesare, if you would take this lovely young woman." He indicated Jane. "and Messrs Stark and Barton, I shall see to Doctor Banner, Thor, and Doctor Ross."

Tony nudged everyone into following Angelo's orders. Really, they'd end up doing as told anyway, so it was just easier to humor Angelo from the start.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Natasha marshaled her forces into Macy's. "Loki, you didn't look too bad in the suit you wore in Stuttgart, so I'm going to trust you to be able to pick out things that don't look like complete shit on you." She said. "That said, if you have questions, ask." She pointed at Logan. "You, on the other hand. I'm going to watch you like a hawk. There is more to life than tank tops, flannels, and jeans."

Behind her, Darcy sputtered with laughter. Natasha eyed her. "You're next." Natasha warned, which made Darcy grin at her cheekily. Natasha turned to Phil next, but he put both hands up. "I put myself in your capable hands, Natasha." He said, clearly knowing better than to argue.

"Right. First stop, underthings. We're working from the inside out." Natasha said, and shooed everyone to their respective 'underthings' areas. Which, of course, meant she was at least temporarily alone with Darcy. Long enough to hunt down and point out the bras she used 'everyday' for Darcy to pick up some.

"Don't forget socks, hose, slips, the works." Natasha said. She snapped up several of such items for herself with the swift efficiency of someone who knew exactly what sort of things worked and looked best on her. "I'll be back to check your choices. I don't trust the men alone."

"Yeah, not blaming you there." Darcy said with a grin.

Natasha soon found the men scattered through the men's department. Phil was having the easiest time finding things, because he was fairly average in size. Loki was tall enough to make most choices problematic, and Logan was more powerfully muscled than was usual, which meant he had to resort to bigger sizes, even though he was fairly average in height.

It didn't help that Natasha had to smack him twice when he tried to pick up the closest things Macy's had to his usual style of dress. There was nothing wrong with tanks, T-shirts and jeans, but Logan had enough of those. The man needed something a bit more dressed up. He'd be a hell of a looker if he even half-tried.

Thankfully, at that point Darcy came over, her purchases in hand. Natasha took a quick look to make sure she had what she would need, and signaled one of the salespeople dogging them to take the pile from Darcy.

"Huh?" Darcy said when the man appeared at her elbow.

"If I might relieve you of your burden, miss?" The man said. "I will package them up for you."

"Oh! Yeah, thanks." Darcy said, handing the things over. Then she spotted Phil poking about among some very drab, dark-colored shirts. She hustled over.

"Oh, hell no, SAMIT, not those. You probably have ten of those in your closet." Darcy said, shooing him towards the more colorful choices. "Bright colors are not a sin, I promise you."

Phil shook his head but went where he was urged, well aware that if he fought Darcy, she wouldn't hesitate to call Natasha for backup, and that would not end well. "I am almost afraid to ask, but Samit?"

"Secret Agent Man I-Pod Thief." Darcy said, grinning at him cheekily.

Phil snorted. "You're as bad as Tony."

"Not like it isn't the truth, SAMIT." Darcy pointed out.

Natasha smiled in amusement, then turned to head Logan off ... again. He was being rather stubborn.

"Trousers, dress shirts. Dress shoes. No jeans, no flannels." Natasha repeated. "You *have* those. In abundance."

Logan glowered at her, but Natasha just stared right back, thoroughly unimpressed. "You're not going to win this one, Logan."

He growled, but finally caved in, looking sour as he poked and prodded the various pieces of clothing. With him finally straightened out, Natasha headed over to Loki to see if he needed help. She nearly laughed when she saw where he was and what he was looking at.

Macy's, despite (or perhaps because of) its upscale nature was as much victim of certain fashions as anyplace else. Loki had found a rack of clothes that were, to put it bluntly, eyesores. He was giving the rack a rather understandable look of horror.

"Do people really *wear* these articles?" He asked when he spotted her.

"Unfortunately, Loki, yes. Yes they do." Natasha said. "And before you ask, no, I don't know why. My private explanation is that they're all color blind."

"Color blind?" Loki asked.

"It's a problem with vision that happens to some humans." Natasha said. "It mucks up your ability to see colors. One of the more common manifestations of the problem is not being able to see the color red or green."

Loki wrinkled his nose. "That would, perhaps, explain such atrocities, yes." He agreed. "I must confess as to some confusion as to what to choose for more ... casual ... attire. The suit was easy enough ... they seem to be remarkably similar in style, for the most part."

Natasha nodded. "Well, there are definitely fewer choices in cut and style with a suit than with normal clothes." She agreed. She steered him towards styles that would look good on his long, lean frame.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Pepper fairly dragged Rogue into the women's section when they got to Macy's. "Now, Rogue, we're going to get you properly kitted out." She told her.

Rogue tried to argue, but Pepper largely ignored her protests. "Rogue, every girl deserves to look good. We can keep skin exposure to a minimum without resorting to some horrible goth look." She told her.

Rogue sighed, but finally gave in. "All right." She said.

Pepper happily steered Rogue towards long, flowing styles that managed to cover a lot of skin but also flattered Rogue's figure, making her look less like a grunge goth and more like a normal teenage girl. "Now, We need to pick some tanks and things."

"Oh, hell no." Rogue said, instantly digging her feet in.

"Rogue ... Tony's working on a skintight flesh-colored suit for you." Pepper said. "He doesn't have it completely figured out yet, but he will long before summer is over. With it, you'll be able to wear short sleeved shirts and shorts safely, because you'll still be covered without looking like it."

Rogue blinked. "Really?"

Pepper nodded. "And he's got several of those full-body sharkskin suits that some swimmers wear on order, too." She told Rogue. "He's planning on adding boots and gloves to them, so you can join us in the pool if you want." She gently hugged Rogue, who looked to be on the edge of tears. "Tony does this sort of thing, Rogue, for people he likes. He's also working on some sort of fabric for Bruce, so he doesn't end up naked every time he transforms."

"It's just a little unreal, you know?" Rogue said.

"Believe me, I most certainly do. I didn't grow up in a rich home, after all." Pepper pointed out. "The first time Tony tried to buy me something after I became his secretary, I slapped him, because I thought he was ... well, doing something other than being nice." She admitted.

Rogue laughed. "Oh, no."

"Oh yes." Pepper said, with a fond grin. "That first year or so was ... a rather interesting time, as we tried to figure each other out. Tony didn't quite know what to do with someone like me, who didn't take any guff. And I nearly tore my hair out over some of his shenanigans."

Eventually, it was their turn at Angelo's. Pepper immediately pulled him aside and let him know the restrictions for dealing with Rogue. Angelo waved her off.

"I shall see to the young miss myself, Miss Potts. You have nothing to fear." He said, and disappeared long enough to fetch a pair of elbow-length gloves. "Now, if you please, Miss Rogue?" He waved her towards where he'd be checking her measurements, which he finished in a remarkably short time, and without once coming close to skin-to-skin contact. "Ahhh, yes, there. Jarvis is faultless as always, but I must have my quirks. I believe I have just the dress, it will look magnificent on you." He hustled into the back, then came out with a dress that he put on a dummy.

It was gorgeous. Long sleeved, with a floor-length skirt of a light fabric that was cut in such a way it would twirl and flare if she turned quickly. There was a scoop neckline, but it was fairly modest and didn't expose all that much skin.

"This is just an example, of course." Angelo said, flicking a dismissive hand at the dress. "To allow you to see. I am thinking a deep red or blue. Perhaps a different waistline, to emphasize the length of your torso." He beamed at Rogue. "You will be the belle of the ball, I assure you."

Chapter Text

Remy, Clint, and Logan

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

By the end of the day, even Remy, who had been known to do some serious shopping from time to time, was reeling. Because Stark's idea of shopping was a little scary. When he'd said everything, he'd meant *everything*. Including colognes.

Not that Remy had minded all that much. Unlike pretty much everyone else, he hadn't been reeling with sticker shock ... poor Steve! The man had nearly keeled over when he saw how much a plain shirt went for at Macy's. It had taken all of Pepper's not inconsiderable stubbornness to get Steve to re-agree to the wardrobe after that.

No, Remy hadn't had that problem. If Tony wanted to blow his money on Remy, Remy was going to take full advantage of it. Remy liked looking good, after all. He just very rarely had the money to look his best.

Remy put his new clothes away with a satisfied air. The suits and tux wouldn't be done for a while, not with so many needing to be done, but he had everything else with him already.

Tony had reiterated his offer of a job in the security division. Remy had taken him up on it this time, relishing the chance to exercise his skillset. Of course, Tony had made his first job trying to crack the Tower. That was going to be fun as hell. Remy was going to have to do all of his planning and investigating outside of the Tower and not on Stark Industries equipment, for starters, because he wasn't about to risk Jarvis 'peeking'.

But for now, shopping was done, and Remy was looking to stretch his legs and maybe do a little workout. Tony'd mentioned the gym was kitted out with gymnastic stuff, so he pulled on the flexible kevlar armor he used in the field and headed there.

To his surprise, he found it occupied, and the gymnastic equipment being used, by none other than Natasha. Remy grinned as he watched her. She wasn't bad at all. It wasn't exactly an Olympic style routine, but then again, neither was his. They both tended towards more practical applications of various moves, from the look of things.

"You up for a bit of competition?" He called.

Natasha glanced over at him. "Are you any good?"

Remy didn't bother replying with words. He just took off, doing a quick run of backsprings on the ground before launching himself up and over the lower uneven bar and whipping himself up and around the upper bar in a fair approximation of a backwards giant swing before he let go and landed in something that was anything but an Olympic-approved stance ... a half-kneeling crouch with both hands away from his body, one holding a card (not lit up at the moment), the other his collapsed bostaff. He grinned at Natasha.

Natasha grinned right back at him. "This." She said. "Is going to be fun."

She wasn't wrong. It ended up being a damn good thing that the equipment, while it looked like Olympic style equipment, had clearly been reinforced to hell and gone, because the two of them used it in ways it was never intended to be used. Each of them tried to outdo the other with more and more outrageous strings of moves.

Remy was having the time of his life. Natasha wasn't as flexible as he was, but she came damn close, and she compensated for the difference in truly devious ways, which put her on about the same level as Remy was at. It wasn't until they'd worn each other out and were standing in the middle of the mats, both of them panting and giving the other toothy, pleased grins that Remy realized they had an audience.

Loki, Thor, Jane and Darcy were all standing near the door. Jane and Darcy were both clapping, but all four looked at least slightly impressed. Darcy in particular was looking wide-eyed.

"Dude, please tell me you're going to teach me some of that." She begged.

Beside him, Natasha smiled. "Yes, I intend to." She said.

"Y'got an apprentice, huh?" Remy said.

Natasha nodded. "Of a sort. She'll never be me, but she knows that, and doesn't want to be. But she's got what it takes to do pretty well for herself."

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Fucking unreal. Clint's said it before, he'll say it again. Fucking. Unreal.

Clint had done undercover work before ... it was sort of necessary, sometimes. Unfortunately, he was nowhere near as facile as Natasha. He could really only pass himself off as a small section of people ... and none of them any kind of rich or snobbish or well-bred. So he'd never really had call for more than one basic, fairly cheap suit.

The clothes he'd just ended up with courtesy of Stark were ... about five levels above anything Clint had ever had in his life. And that wasn't even taking the new suit and tux into account.

He smirked as he put away his new stuff. The tailor, a little old Italian fellow, had very nearly gone into spasms over Thor. And had then spent the better part of ten minutes scolding Clint for his tendency to slouch. He'd even bitched out Bruce for the same thing, much to Clint's private amusement. Bruce hadn't looked like he quite knew what to do with someone who wasn't afraid to get in his face, despite the fact that Angelo had to know exactly who Bruce was, and what happened when Bruce got pissed off.

He finished putting things away and headed out. He ran into Nat, who said something about the gym before she headed off. Clint wasn't in the mood for that, though. Instead, he headed for the entertainment level. He'd been there no more than about five minutes when Tony arrived.

"Here you are. You. My lab. Now. Bow. Quiver. Arrows. Go." Tony made shooing motions, tapping one foot while he waited for Clint

It took Clint a few moments to figure out what Tony was on about. Then. "Oh!" And he hurried into the elevator, because if Stark was going to make him new and better toys, far be it from Clint to stop him. They stopped off on Clint's floor long enough for him to grab his bow, quiver, and arrow shafts and pile back into the elevator. They were in Tony's lab a few moments later, and Tony made grabby-hands at Clint's bow. Clint held it out but hung on to it.

"I had better get this back in the condition I'm giving it to you, Stark, or I'm going to stick an arrow where the sun don't shine."

Tony made a 'pffffft' noise. "Please, Legolas. I would never do something as crude as tear your bow apart."

Clint snorted and let go of the bow, then watched as Tony had Jarvis scan it, then handed it back. "See? Not a scratch."

Clint grinned and patted the bow. "Thanks." He handed over the quiver and his arrow shafts when Tony made grabby hands at those next with a lot less reluctance. Tony had them scanned very shortly thereafter.

"Ok, so ... which arrowheads do you use the most of?" Tony wanted to know.

"The narrow plain head ones and the explosive ones." Clint said immediately. "Followed by the barbed ones."

"Right. The weight on this quiver good?"

Clint nodded. "It could actually go a couple pounds heavier if it has to. I've bulked up a bit since I first got it."

Tony made a hmming noise. "Right. That'd give you more arrows to work with. Especially if I can strip out excess weight from elsewhere." He made a horrified noise when he enlarged the mechanism that allowed Clint to choose which arrowhead to use. "Oh, my, god. This is ... this is horrifying. This is tragic. This is ... pathetic. Gah. I am ashamed to have this exist, really. Who the hell built this for you, Minnie Mouse?" He started stripping things out right and left, flicking them into a holographic garbage can with a look of disgusted dismay.

Clint laughed. "SHIELD R & D worked for a year to get that built." He said. And earned himself a horrified look from Tony.

"That is ... pitiful. I'll have something better by morning." Tony told him.

Clint took that as his hint to escape while he could before he got kidnapped. He headed back up to the entertainment level. By then, there were several others there. The two kids, playing a game. They barely glanced around when they heard the elevator door.

Clint made his way up the wall to the catwalk and settled in on one of the slightly wider platforms, leaning against the wall and watching the kids play their game idly.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Logan decided to hunt Steve down after they all got back.

Ever since Steve'd told him that bit, Logan had been ... well, not sure how to deal with the kid. Because the guy Steve remembered was ... pretty much dead and gone. Would be even if by some miracle Logan got all his memories back, simply because Logan had been through some shit since Steve'd known him, and that changed a man.

Unfortunately, avoidance, much as Logan might wish, wasn't going to be the answer, not with them in the same building. And not with Steve having at least a few answers. Especially since Logan had been poking at his black hole memory more than usual, and for once it had spat something out that wasn't related to him getting the adamantium.

Logan didn't know if the flashes of images were wishful thinking or what, but he figured Steve might know, since the flashes involved at least one glimpse of Captain America.

Steve had headed for his floor after the shopping was done, so Logan dumped his shit on his bed. "Jarvis, ask Steve if he's up for some company."

"He says he would be pleased to have your company, Logan." Jarvis said after a moment.

Logan nodded, then patted his pockets to make sure he had cigar and lighter before he headed for the elevator. When he stepped out, he walked into Steve's main living area.

There were a couple pencil drawings tacked to the wall in one corner, and evidence of recent drawing on the drawing desk beneath where the drawings had been put up. Logan cocked his head a little, because one of the drawings looked like Stark, except not quite. The hair was a little different, and more tame, the face a bit narrower and younger looking. Given Steve'd drawn it, Logan figured that it must be the current Stark's old man. The portrait next to that was of a gal Logan didn't recognize.

He could hear Steve moving around in the bedroom, evidently putting his stuff away.

"I'll be out in a minute, James." Steve said.

Said. As in, made no effort at all to raise his voice, like most people do when they're a room or two away from someone they're talking to.

Logan had long ago become inured to dealing with what were to him rather extreme levels of sensory information. Scents and sounds were the worst. There was a reason Logan almost always had a cigar lit and in his mouth when he wasn't actively tracking or out kicking someone's ass. The scent of the smoke curling under his nose blocked out just about everything else. Sound, though, was a pain in the ass most of the time. It was a pretty much non-stop assault.

Worse, most people completely forgot his senses were that good. He didn't really blame them, because it wasn't like every other person out there had senses like his. Rogue, of course, knew, and remembered. She'd changed her preferred perfume to a light, naturally scented one, and never, ever yelled when she knew he was close by. But she was one of the few. Steve had been told about Logan's senses *once*, to Logan's knowledge. And he was keeping his voice to 'normal' levels.

"Take your time." He called in return.

Steve came out a minute later. "Want something to drink?"

"Got any beer?" Logan asked.

Steve shook his head. "I can't get drunk, so I don't bother." He admitted.

Logan snorted. "Might consider drinking it for the flavor." He pointed out. "I'm sure Stark can point you to the best brands for that. I'll just have some water, then."

Steve chuckled at him. "Yeah, Tony would have the best brands for that. Just never thought of drinking for the taste, you know?" He headed into the kitchen and came back out a minute later with a big tumbler of water. "So I'm guessing you have questions?"

"A few. But mostly curious. 'cause I've been poking around trying to remember anything." Logan admitted. "And like hell if I know if it's wishful thinking."

"And you're hoping I'll know what you're on about." Steve said.

"Yeah. There's one for sure you're in. Something to do with the biggest fucking tank I've ever seen ... or not, as the case may be."

Steve sat forward. "Was it about two stories tall or so?"

Logan nodded.

"Yeah, that's real." Steve said. "Hydra tank. The Commandoes ran into a lot of them, including while you were working with us.

Logan sat back, feeling odd in a way he couldn't explain. So, it was real. He had at least one partial memory that had been confirmed. Part of him wanted to celebrate, because it was about fucking time. The rest of him was just getting greedy and wanting more.

Chapter Text

Tony, Loki, and Darcy

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

The day after the shopping trip, Tony locked himself in his lab. He had a lot of work to do.

There were the refinements on the commercial arc reactor to finish, now that the arc reactor in the Tower had been stress-tested well beyond anything even Tony's fertile mind had dreamed up and hadn't so much as hiccupped. It was a fine balancing act with the commercial reactor, making it work at a level viable for commercial energy use but *not* enough like the reactor in his own chest that anyone who poked and prodded at the commercial reactors would be able to do Tony harm.

Then there was a new engine design for cars that ran on something less toxic than gasoline to hammer out, new Starkphone and Starktabs, and better armor for soldiers, SWAT teams, bomb squads, and firemen. The last two, at least, had been worked on by the main Stark R & D teams, and Tony only had to stress-test the results to make sure they lived up to his stringent standards.

That was, sadly, only the list of things to do for SI. He had an even longer to-do list for private projects. He needed to finish fixing the Mark VI, redesign the boot jets on the Mark VIII, double-check the over-all design on the Mark VIII and then get it fabricated. Then he had to finish Clint's new bow and quiver setup and get him to test it out, and design reinforced belts and carabineers for the team to wear with their uniforms to allow for them to be carried by him when in the suit. Then he needed to figure out a lighter system for John that was less losable than an actual lighter, figure out pants for Hulk, get Rogue's skin-colored suit and swimsuits done, and work on better armor for the team in general. And maybe, if he was lucky, get Natasha down here so he could see her tazer system and maybe improve that. But that one, Tony wasn't counting on, because Natasha was still scary beyond belief, even if they'd agreed to a clean slate between them. Tony had a healthy fear of badass women, thanks in large part to Pepper.

"All right. Butterfingers, You, the crates over there ... open them." Tony waved to the two crates at one end of his lab.

The bots immediately obeyed, chirping happily, and pulled out the items inside. One crate had the examples of the various armors for public servants, while the other, smaller crate had several phones and tablets. "Right, Butterfingers, you get to live up to your name today. You see these?" He waggled a phone and a tablet. "I want you to try to break them. You, you're going to be trying to wreck the armors. Run them over, try to pull them apart, that sort of thing. Then take the metal from the scrap bin and start firing it at the armors with the pneumatic gun."

Both bots squealed happily and trundled off to work. Tony grinned and looked at Dummy. "You're with me today, buddy. I've got suit work to do, among other things. You can help with that, and fetch me smoothies later on once I start working with the holograms. Jarvis, you have the software for the phones and the tablets, you know what to do with it."

"Indeed, sir." Jarvis said, sounding amused.

Dummy squealed happily and raced a circle around Tony, making him laugh. "Yeah, yeah. C'mon you, and this time, try not to be useless, huh?" He bitched affectionately, patting Dummy's casing as he headed for the Mark VI. There was not, fortunately, all that much left to do on it. He just had to finish the repairs to the right gauntlet and reintegrate it into the suit, then fix the arc leads in the chest and it'd be ready to go.

He got that finished, and then had Dummy put the suit away. While Dummy was doing that, he checked in on Butterfingers (who was having entirely too much fun trying to wreck the new phones and tablets) and You (likewise with wrecking the armors). That accomplished, Tony turned his attention to Jarvis.

"Fire up the holographic interface, Jarvis. We've got designing to do."

"Yes sir, though you should know that Mr. Friggasson is en route."

Tony cocked his head. "He is? Huh. Cool. Let him in when he gets here."

Tony had the Mark VIII designs up (since that was the most complete of the pre-existing design plans) and was adjusting the boot jets' power outputs when Loki walked in.

"Hey, Reindeer Games."

"Stark, whatever are your robots doing?" Loki asked, staring over at the bots in question.

"Stress-testing some stuff from Stark Industries R & D." Tony told him. "If it's breakable, they'll find a way. Jarvis was poking at the software earlier."

"It performed sufficiently." Jarvis said, with the air of someone who was convinced that sufficient ... wasn't.

Tony laughed. "We've talked about this, Jarvis. Not everything can be you. Or even the bots." He said.

"Of course not, sir. That does not mean I cannot be dismayed by the inferior quality of technology the common masses think sufficient to their purposes." Jarvis huffed.

Tony laughed again and shook his head. "Don't mind him. He gets huffy about performance parameters." He told Loki.

"Working on the changes to the suit, I see." Loki said, ignoring the banter between Tony and Jarvis.

"Yeah. Thanks for playing guinea pig the other day." Tony said.

Loki waved a hand. "It was no real trouble." He said.

"So, just here to watch, or looking to poke at a few things?" Tony asked. Loki had picked up on how things worked quickly enough that Tony wasn't worried about Loki mucking about with things on his own. And two minds were better than one with the stuff Tony had to do today.

"Hmmm. If you have something sufficiently challenging, I believe I may find time to assist." Loki said after a few moments.

Tony snorted and flicked up a file of things he wanted to get done. "Take your pick." He said.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

It was going to take Loki some time to get used to Midgard's culture, even if he adored this particular aspect of it. Being allowed to exercise his intelligence without censure or disdain would be a treat and a joy for a long time to come.

Keeping one eye on the bots wreaking merry hell in one corner of the lab, Loki perused Stark's list of things to do, and cocked an eyebrow. It was quite a list. He finally chose the vehicle engine idea to work on. Finding a way for such to run on a clean, renewable energy source ought to be doable, even with his level of knowledge when it came to Midgardian technology. Besides, if he got stuck, he had only to consult with Jarvis or Tony and they'd explain.

"Jarvis, a car's engine system, if you please, so I know what not to do." Loki said.

There was a strangled laugh from Tony, who had moved off to finish working on the suit once Loki had made his choice.

Loki peered at the resultant display with confused distaste. "Such a crude construct. Surely this is not the epitome of Midgardian transportation technology when other technology is so ... streamlined and efficient?"

"Sadly, it is." Tony said. "Hence me wanting to figure out something better. That doesn't run on arc reactors."

"Why not arc reactors?" Loki asked.

"Collision hazard." Tony said. "They're fine if they're protected against collisions somehow, but the way people drive, having a bunch of these." He tapped his chest over the reactor cover. "On the roads would be a disaster."

Loki nodded. "I see. So something else, then. I assume various things have been tried?"

"Yeah. Mostly tack-ons to the existing system. Virtually no change to the engine itself, just the energy delivery systems. It hasn't worked well." Tony told him.

Jarvis supplied Loki with examples. There were, it turned out, a few cars that ran partially on a renewable resource, but nothing that ran solely on that. And the designs were crude at best. Loki shook his head. "This is going to be quite the challenge." He said, grinning toothily. Something he could sink his teeth into.

Loki soon lost himself in plans, ideas, and schematics. He argued amiably with Jarvis over the overall crudity of the vehicle design. Oh, the Midgardians prettied up the outer shell, to be sure, but the underlying mechanics were appalling. Loki eventually ended up drawing (somewhat crudely, it was to be admitted. Drawing was not a great skill of his) a vehicle he had seen in his travels in another Realm, some centuries ago, and what he knew of the inner workings of it, to illustrate his point to Jarvis.

"That bears a remarkable resemblance to a shuttlecraft." Jarvis said, and flashed a picture of such from the Star Trek franchise. There were no warp nacelles on the other Realm's craft, but otherwise there was fairly close resemblance to round-nosed shuttlecraft commonly seen in the Next Generation show.

"Hmmm. So it does. I wonder if perhaps someone from that Realm gave the persons who created the show ideas." Loki said. "Of course, this does not run on ... "

"Antimatter, for the warp nacelles. The propulsion system for slower speeds was never explained." Jarvis said. "Though I now understand what you meant about the design." Jarvis said. The other Realm's vehicle was a model of sleek efficiency and had a minimum of moving parts that would, by necessity, wear out and break.

Loki snorted. "Quite. This vehicle was run on solar power ... one of the few resources there could never be a shortage of."

"Solar power exists here." Jarvis told him. "And has been attempted for vehicles, but is ... unwieldy and inefficient as yet." He showed Loki the designs for the most common systems.

"Hmmm, so I see." Loki peered at the designs.

They were primitive, but the Midgardians had definitely started on the right path for collecting and using that resource. All that remained were refinements to the system. Loki might not have known the full schematics for the other Realm's craft, but he knew the schematics for their power system, as that realm used solar power for literally everything, and the design was essentially the same except for size and capacity for everything.

With some help from Jarvis, he input the design. To his delight, Midgard had access to all the materials required for the system. Now they were getting somewhere.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Darcy had been out most of the day, hunting down a few supplies. Oh, she knew Jarvis could locate and order shit for her, but she preferred to do that herself. Besides, it was an excuse to get out of the Tower and stretch her legs every now and again.

That said, it was now late, and if Darcy knew her geeks, they were not only still up and eyeball deep in *Science!*, they had not left their labs all day. She rolled her eyes in fond exasperation.

"Jarvis, geek check!" she called as she headed for the common kitchen to make some food for doubtlessly starving geeks.

"Doctors Banner and Ross left their lab fifteen minutes before your arrival, Miss Lewis. Doctors Foster and Selvig are still in their lab, but Thor has been in residence most of the day as well, and insisted on feeding them at steady intervals, and is currently beginning to attempt to lure them out of the lab."

Darcy grinned. "I knew I liked him." She said. She was truly happy for Jane. Thor didn't seem to understand half of what came out of Jane's mouth, but Darcy was just as bad, and she and Jane were witness to the fact that you didn't have to understand Jane's science stuff to get along with her. And if Thor was willing to dance attendance on Jane and get her to eat and take breaks from her science, he definitely got the Darcy seal of approval.

"Sir, however, has been locked in his lab since shortly after dawn, and has not emerged since. Mr. Friggasson joined him shortly after breakfast, and has likewise remained ensconced. Dummy has prepared them several smoothies since, but they have been too distracted by their pursuits to consume them, despite pointed reminders by both myself and Dummy."

"Right, so, intervention needed." Darcy said. "Lemme get this finished, because they're going to be starving when they stop concentrating on whatever it is they're doing down there."

A few minutes later, laden with a trolley full of food, Darcy headed for Tony's lab. Jarvis let her in without her even having to try to wrangle the door.

"Ok, boys. Time out. Playtime's over. Time to eat, and sleep." Darcy called.

Of course, she got ignored. She was used to that. It generally took a couple tries to get Jane's attention when she was deep in her science.

Darcy held off for a moment, letting the scent of hot food permeate the room as an assist to prying the two men out of their own heads. They looked to be working on separate designs, Loki messing with something that looked vaguely like ... well, nothing Darcy could readily identify. Stark was playing with something that looked like a suit design.

"Boys!" she called, louder and more firmly. That got Tony's attention at least. Darcy silently thanked Potts for training him to respond to that tone of voice even if he really didn't want to. "Food, Stark. Even geniuses need to eat, and you've been in here all day." Darcy told him, pointing firmly at the trolley.

Stark eyed her for a moment, then evidently decided discretion was the better part of valor and headed over to the trolley. Darcy did *not* smirk at her ability to cow a multi-billionaire with the threat of her tazer, when she'd never once actually threatened to taze him. It was good to be feared.

Loki, on the other hand, hadn't had a Pepper to train him, so he didn't respond to Darcy. She rolled her eyes and walked over.

"Ok, big guy. Enough playtime for now." She said, poking him in the arm to get his attention.

It took a second, but then Loki hauled his gaze away from the hologram he'd been messing with and turned to her.

Whoa momma.

Darcy had seen her fair share of intense expressions. It came with geek territory. They *all* of them got really invested in their geekery at some point, and got intense, intent looks on their faces. But Darcy had never quite run across a look like Loki's before. It was equal parts laser-like intensity and something that was almost anger, but not quite.

Darcy had a healthy libido, and a healthy appreciation for intelligent, good-looking men. Which Loki more than qualified as. And that look on his face was doing good things to her libido, even though she knew it wasn't being aimed at her for the reasons her libido wanted it to be. Would *never* be aimed at her for that reason, she knew. The odds on two alien princes falling for Midgardian women were astronomical, and Darcy was nothing if not practical.

"Food, Loki. You may not eat the sheer tonnage Thor manages, but you still eat more than humans do, and according to Jarvis, you haven't eaten all day."

Loki gave his head a shake, and the intense look receded, much to Darcy's secret dismay. "Yes, I suppose sustenance would be a good idea." He said, before he favored her with a small smile. "My thanks, Lady Darcy." He said, before turning towards the trolley. "I fear I became overly absorbed in my task."

Darcy laughed. "No harm, no foul, Loki. I'm used to it with Jane. It comes with the super-smart brains, I think. I've yet to meet someone with that level of smarts that *doesn't* lose themselves in their projects."

Tony started yawning halfway through his dinner, and folded without further argument from Darcy, heading for the elevator and his bed. And probably Pepper. Loki, on the other hand, seemed to only have been refreshed by the break. Darcy eyed him askance.

"I do not require as much sleep as Midgardians do." Loki said, seeing her expression.

"And you're avoiding sleeping anyway." Darcy said, which got her a scowl. She waved a hand. "Dude, not like you don't have reason, and I wasn't tracking just you. I've just been keeping tabs on the geek brigade with Jarvis, to make sure you lot don't drive yourselves into the ground with too much lab time and too little food and sleep."

Loki seemed to accept that. "I would like to attempt to finish this before I retire." He said, completely avoiding replying to her comment about him avoiding sleep.

"What is that you're working on, anyway?" Darcy asked.

"A vehicle engine that runs solely on a renewable resource. It was among Stark's list of projects that needed to be worked on." Loki told her.

Darcy peered at the schematics again. "That ... looks nothing like any car engine I've ever seen." She said.

"Indeed it would not. I have had to redo it from the beginning, as the original engine design, while able to be adapted to other fuels, would be increasingly inefficient. An engine designed solely to run on the new resource was demanded." Loki said.

Darcy nodded. "Well, that makes sense. So what've you got?" She asked.

Darcy was well aware of the advice she'd given Thor a few days back, regarding Loki. She was also aware that people other than Thor observing that advice with Loki was a damn good idea. It helped that she was genuinely interested in what he was up to. Alternate-fuel cars had been a thing for a while, and something Darcy approved of, given that gasoline was eventually going to become unavailable for use, when the wells inevitably ran dry. Better to figure out how to power things before that happened and cars were a good first step.

Loki eyed her for a moment, as if trying to figure out if she was legitimately interested, then gave a faint nod and started explaining what he'd done.

Chapter Text

Sif and Frigga

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. Duck and cover people. Epic shit ahead. This takes place the night before and the same day as last chapter.

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Sif sighed as she worked up a sweat against one of the practice dummies with her sword. It was getting late and she was working out more to wear herself out in hopes of getting some sleep, rather than actually practicing her swordsmanship out of a need for improvement.

If Thor were here, this would not have been needed. Thor had always kept herself and the Three on the move, all day every day. There had always been something to do, whether hunting for food for the table, defeating foul beasts marauding through the flocks, or defeating the odd imbecile that dared to challenge Odin's supremacy.

Unfortunately, Thor was now on Midgard. Likely to stay, if Sif had read the currents right. He had ever been the glue that kept their company together. Whenever he'd been drawn away for any length of time by his princely duties, the rest of them had gone their own ways. This was no different. Fandral was off wooing his latest conquest, and Hogun and Volstagg were with most of the other men in the feasting hall.

Sif had always been the odd one out in their group, there more by the grace of Thor's generous tolerance than because the Three approved of her. With Thor removed to Midgard, she was facing a long, lonely time on her own. She had known going in that it would be that way, even as a little girl. She'd never had any gift at all for the so-called 'womanly arts'. Magic still baffled her, and she looked upon housekeeping and birthing and raising children with something akin to horror.

It had been a very unpleasant struggle when she was little. She'd hidden in her father's barn in the depths of the night, imitating the sword drills she'd seen the boys do during the day with and old, forgotten, rusty dagger. She'd been so frightened she'd been shaking when she finally got up the nerve to try her luck in the training salle against the boys. And then her first opponent had been *Thor*. To this day, she was convinced that the instructor had done that on purpose, convinced that Sif would back down rather than attack the prince. He'd come to within a whisker of being right. It had only been the openly mocking expressions of the other boys that had kept her from turning tail and running.

When she'd knocked Thor on his ass, she'd fully expected ... well, her childish imagination had never been all that clear on the consequences, but she'd been sure they'd be dire. Instead, Thor had laughed, picked himself up off the floor, and clapped her on the back like she was one of them. From then on, she'd operated more or less under Thor's benevolent protection - more or less. She'd come in for a terrific thrashing by her father when she got home, but that had not swayed her from her course. Neither had any of the myriad punishments her father had devised over the years.

She didn't pay any real mind to the salle door opening and closing. She was aware of the person in the room, and where they were at, she just didn't bother focusing her full attention on them. That proved to be a bit of a mistake. The person walked over towards where she was at and then gave a low laugh.

"Children's exercises? I always knew Thor was lying about your skill with a blade."

Sif rolled her eyes and ignored the idiot. It wasn't anything she hadn't heard a million times. When he tried to get closer, within grabbing distance, she danced away from him instinctively. She'd learned that particular lesson a long, long time ago. She didn't have a prayer in hell of matching any Asgardian male in sheer brute strength, and knew better than to try. She'd learned to compensate by being faster and more flexible than they could ever be with all that muscle in the way.

The guy made a growling noise and Sif finally turned more attention to him. Oh, hell. It was Daufin. The idiot had been pursuing her for ... well over a hundred years now. He was thoroughly convinced that his manly charms would cure her of her aberrations and turn her into a proper Asgardian woman. Fat chance of that. Unfortunately, this was one particular would-be-suitor that Thor hadn't threatened with his hammer. Sadly, Daufin was bright enough to approach her only when Thor was not there to glower and start idly swinging his hammer in a very unsubtle threat.

There had been a time when Sif objected to Thor's protectiveness, but she'd eventually gotten over it and started viewing it with amused tolerance. Thor was what he was, and would never truly change. And he was, above all else, a chivalrous soul. He would never tolerate a man mistreating a woman.

"Really, Sif darling, you are so poorly suited to the warrior's life. It must be so taxing, to pretend you are something you are not." Daufin said, half-circling her like he was trying to get close enough to touch her.

Sif, of course, was having none of that and kept her sword between herself and Daufin. "Begone, Daufin. I have no interest in you or anything you say."

Daufin made a frustrated noise. "I tire of your willfulness, woman. You need to learn your place."

"And you're the one to teach it to me?" Sif mocked. "I think not, Daufin. Go." She poked at him with her sword, not actually trying to connect so much as warning him.

Daufin scowled at her. "Mayhap there is a reason you resist me." He growled. "Mayhap it is that you serve another purpose to Thor and the Three."

Oh, hell. He did not just go there. Sif gave Daufin a death-glare. Then, before he knew what she was doing, she lunged, adjusting her grip on her sword so that the pommel connected solidly with Daufin's skull. He went down in a heap at her feet, and she spat on him in disgust. She stalked out of the salle, storming towards the rainbow bridge. She needed a few moments away from idiots, and Heimdall was quiet, solid, nonjudgmental company.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Legends say that Queen Frigga can see the future, but tells no one, save a loyal servant sworn to silence. This was both true, and inaccurate.

Frigga did not actually see the future. She got occasional premonitions, both of good news and bad. She did tell a loyal servant about these premonitions, and the servant was sworn to silence about them. Frigga also rarely did anything about the premonitions. Only with the worst ones did she intervene in any way.

So when that cold, crawling sensation wriggled up her spine and spiked into her brain, driving her to gasp her sons' names and driving her to her feet, she did not hesitate. Something horrible was about to happen, and it was focused around Thor and Loki.

That, Frigga could not, would not, allow.

She raced for the Bridge and Heimdall, all pretense at royal dignity forgotten. Some bright servant had seen her pelting through the palace hell bent for leather and summoned the horsemaster to bring her horse. That saved her a lot of time she knew she couldn't afford. She leaped aboard and raced for Heimdall.

When she was most of the way there, she was met by a frantic-looking Sif. "My lady! The king ... he means to ... " Sif stopped long enough to catch her breath. "He is starting the renouncement ritual."

Frigga spared only a half-second for the abject horror that Sif's report demanded. She drove her heels into her horse's flanks and urged it faster for the last few lengths before she leaped off and stormed up to her husband.

"You DARE!" She bellowed.

What Odin was starting to do was an order of magnitude more severe than mere temporary banishment and removal of powers, as he had done with Thor a year ago. Renouncing Thor and Loki was permanent. It would strip them of not only their immortality and powers forever, but also Thor's blood relation to Odin and herself, and make it impossible for either of them to ever again set foot in Asgard. Even if they were holding onto someone else who was making use of the soon-to-be fully repaired Rainbow Bridge, they would not be brought along. Even if Odin rethought his actions at a later date, it could not be undone.

It was something that only the kings and queens of the Realms could do, and was normally reserved for the worst of criminals. It had been done once before by six of the Realms to Thanos. Unfortunately, he had since somehow regained his powers. He had been driven from the Realms after his bid for power, and renounced so that he could not step foot in those six realms ever again. Only Midgard, Niflheim and Helheim had not renounced him. Midgard had been a volcanic wasteland at the time, devoid of any life form at all. Niflheim and Helheim had been uninhabited, their native populations long since gone. They were useless to Thanos, as they were frozen wastelands stripped of all resources, which made Jotunheim look like a tropical paradise.

Each of the Realms had two objects of power. One of these could be used as a weapon or energy source. The other was an item that held within it the wisdom and power to rule its Realm. Asgard's items were Heimdall's sword and Gungnir, respectively. Jotunheim's had been the Tesseract and the Casket, again respectively.

Frigga knew what Midgard's items were, but they yet remained hidden. One of the requirements for the objects to appear was that the Realm must be close to being united under one banner. Midgard, with its dozens of fiefs, wasn't anywhere close to that stage yet. Nevertheless, the items had been found (and swiftly lost) a few times in history. Midgard's power item was a casket. Hence the reason for multiple legends regarding boxes of varying descriptions, from Pandora's Box to the Ark of the Covenant. Its king-maker was a sword, one that had been encountered only once, but had made quite the impression: Excalibur, the sword in the stone. It would remain lodged there until such time as Midgard was united and someone worthy took it up.

The bad news was that, once taken up, the king-maker passed from person to person in the newly made royal family. The king-maker could not be taken up by a commoner. The King, once made, could not be unmade. In the normal course of events, that wasn't a problem. The kingmakers did not choose idly, and could not be passed to an unworthy successor. Which really should have been everyone's biggest hint about Loki. If he had not been worthy, Gungnir would not have permitted him to touch it. Not even with Odin in his sleep and unable to sit the throne at the moment. Temporary bad decision making didn't exempt you from being King. Unfortunately, even if Thor and Loki were here, Frigga doubted they would challenge Odin for Gungnir. And there was no one else who could.

Except for her. While not of the Asgardian royal line (marrying into the royal family didn't count) Frigga was royal in her own right, as the youngest daughter of the King of Vanaheim. As such, she was capable of taking up Gungnir, if it found her worthy. Which she fully intended to do ... once she'd stopped this madness.

There was one thing about Frigga that everyone, even Odin, tended to forget. Frigga encouraged that forgetting by being quiet and self-effacing much of the time. Loki was widely acknowledged (if with a sneer) as a formidable magician. But everyone tended to forget from whom Loki had taken his lessons. Frigga had taught him everything he knew. But she hadn't taught him everything SHE knew. Not by a long shot. Not for lack of Loki trying, either. He simply hadn't been alive long enough to absorb all she had to teach him yet.

Frigga flicked one hand at Odin and a small fireball raced the distance between them, exploding in Odin's face. It was neither hot nor explosive. It was merely meant to distract Odin, which it did in spades. Odin reared back, stumbling over his own feet in shock and losing his place in the ritual. The magic that had been building to do his bidding promptly dissipated, achieving the most important goal, insofar as Frigga was concerned. She kept one eye on Heimdall, uncertain as to whether or not he would intervene as she flicked another fireball at her husband, this one with some warmth behind it, though not enough to burn him. Yet. Then she hit him a third time, for the symmetry of it and to give vent to a bit more of her rage.

"Have you run mad?" She demanded. "Why in the name of the Void are you renouncing our sons?"

Odin snarled at her. "Our sons." He spat the words. "Are no more worthy to stand in this Realm than those upstart peasants they have befriended." He growled.

Frigga frowned at him. She'd been aware he'd been ... testy, to put it mildly, since Thor and Loki's return to Asgard. Tony and Darcy's verbal and physical attacks had NOT gone over well. Loki's subsequent renouncement of the Odinson name had been salt on the wound for reasons Frigga could not begin to comprehend.

"You will not do this, Husband." She snapped. "And do you try, I will show you why Loki is only the second-best magician in the Realm." Because fireballs were a toddler's trick to her.

Odin snapped and snarled and frothed. He, quite frankly, was not making a damn bit of sense. He was acting very much like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Well and well.

"It would seem, Husband, that you are in dire need of the same lesson bestowed on Thor a year ago." Frigga growled. "For you are acting the spoiled brat who is not getting his way. Lady Darcy was right. You played a game with Loki and you lost, badly. And now you are whining about it."

Disgusted, she flicked her hand again, and Gungnir wrested itself out of Odin's hand and flew to hers. Odin howled in rage, but Frigga paid him no mind. She flicked her hand again, almost lazily, stripping Odin of his royal garb and replacing it with servant's garb. Another flick bound his powers until she said otherwise.

"You are sentenced to banishment in Svartalfheim until such time as you learn humility, empathy, and restraint." She snapped. Then she looked over at Heimdall, who had been thankfully silent and stayed out of the argument. "Send him." She commanded.

Heimdall took up the container holding the Tesseract and manipulated it. Seconds later, Odin was swallowed up in a wash of white light. Once he was gone, she regarded Heimdall. "What set him off?" She wanted to know.

"He came down for his usual report." Heimdall rumbled. "I had to tell him about a discussion Thor had with Loki yesterday morning. Thor has resumed his childhood plans for the throne."

Frigga actually laughed, thoroughly delighted by that news, despite the situation. "The both of them ruling side by side as equals." She said, thoroughly pleased. She'd been grieved to see that particular childhood dream die. Then she sighed. "And Odin refused to allow a Jotun on the throne under any circumstances." She shook her head.

Fortunately for Thor and his plans, it would be possible. Loki was, after all, a son of Laufey, who, despite not having the Casket, had still been the rightful king of Jotunheim. Come to think on it ... perhaps she could attempt to speak reason with Laufey's successor. Odin had been foredoomed to failure, thanks to the Asgardian male's views on magic use. She, however, was far more open-minded about dealing with magic-users in general, as Vanaheim had not had those prejudices. Perhaps she would be able to succeed where Odin had failed.

She truly hoped Odin learned the lessons he needed to learn. Unfortunately, she didn't think he would. He was old, and set in his ways. She had a feeling he would spend the rest of his days in Svartalfheim among the dwarves. It wasn't a huge problem. She was younger than he was, and fully capable of holding the throne until her sons were willing to take up the mantle.

That would not be for some time yet. They both were rather invested in Midgard at the moment, and would likely stay until the friends they'd made had gone on to Valhalla. Beyond that, both of them were still very young, barely out of their teens by Midgardian measures. They would not be willing to settle down and rule Asgard for as much as another millennium yet. Frigga spared an amused thought for what Lady Jane would think if she found out she was technically older than Thor.

At that point, Sif finally approached after having made herself scarce while Frigga and Odin were arguing.

"My thanks, Lady Sif, for trying to stop Odin." Frigga said, as that was clearly what Sif had been thinking of doing by running for the palace, and the one person who could talk Odin out of his insane move. "Though I do wonder why you were out here?"

"Daufin." Sif said with a growl. "He accused me of being a ... " She spat, "leman to Thor and the Three."

Frigga's eyes went wide. "Does he breathe still?" She asked, rightfully assuming that Sif would have punished him for his temerity.

"Yes, though he will have a frightful headache come the morning." Sif said. "Among other ailments. I left him in a heap on the salle floor. His body will not thank him for it."

Frigga let out a snort. "I will deal with him come the morning." She said, then shook her head. "And if he has any intelligence whatsoever, he will ensure that Thor never hears of it."

Sif laughed. "Aye, Thor takes a dim view to that sort of thing."

"He is more perceptive than many credit him for." Frigga said. "He may not have been consciously aware of what Loki was being put through, but he acted as Loki's shield and buckler all the same. And took up the same mantle with you, for much the same reasons."

Sif scowled. "I am not ... " She started.

Frigga just looked at her. Then watched as Sif started to actually think about it. About the similarities between herself and Loki. Both of them so different from what they 'ought' to be. She knew the moment it sunk in, because Sif suddenly looked distressed.

"Why did I never ... ?" Sif started, then gave herself a shake. "I need to go." And without saying another word, she headed back towards the palace.

Frigga smiled quietly, one down. Now that she realized the similarities, Sif would join forces with Thor and Loki. And unless Frigga much missed her guess, drag the Three along with her, giving Thor and Loki that much more support. So much the better.

Chapter Text

Steve

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

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In the wake of Steve being lost in the ice, one would have expected the wildly disparate multi-racial and multi-national Commandos to splinter and fall apart. Steve had, after all, been what had held them together and it wasn't like there were all that many Allied military officers who would have been willing to head such a team.

No one outside of the SSR had been expecting what happened. Colonel Phillips himself stepped in and became the Commandos' field commander in the last days of the war. Peggy, in a move that would have horrified most people even seventy years in the future, joined the Commandos in hunting down the shattered remnants of Hydra. She used that avenue to vent some small portion of her grief and anger while they all waited for word from Howard. Howard had immediately begun to search for Steve as he was the only one of them that could. The rest of them were military and couldn't exactly abandon the war effort to go looking for Steve.

Immediately after the war, Howard hired virtually the entirety of the Commandos to help look for Steve. Only one or two of the non-Americans in the bunch had declined the offer, unwilling to either spend the vast majority of their lives so far from their loved ones or uproot their families. Colonel Phillips was the only other one to demur and that was solely because he was career military and his next re-up wasn't for a couple years. He joined them as soon as his tour was over.

Gradually, as time passed, the various Commandos died until none were left. That was, however, not the end of the group since most of them had gone on to have families of their own. As Howard had done with Tony, most of the Commandos raised their kids on tales of Steve. It must be said that the Commandos were far nicer about it than Howard was and didn't (unfavorably) compare their children to Steve. By and large, the kids stayed in contact with each other though they were not as tightly knit as their parents had been.

Thanks to Howard, Tony hadn't been included in the group. By the time Tony'd been born, Howard had long since descended into 'angry, violent drunk' territory and had stopped attending the Commando get-togethers. It didn't help that Tony was the age of the grandkids rather than the age of the kids.

Michael Jones, eldest son of Gabriel Jones, had been one such kid. He lived in Boston along with his wife. Two of his four children also lived in Boston while the other two had moved further west. When the invasion had hit the airwaves, he and many of the other 'kids' had been watching.

They'd nearly burned the telephone wires down calling each other when the first images of Steve hit the screen. At first, it was anger and outrage, that someone. somewhere had decided to slap some idiot in the Captain's uniform and ... Well they had not been pleased at first. But then pictures of Steve's bare face were featured and old black-and-white photographs were dug out all around the world while various people compared the face on the TV to the one in the pictures. The common consensus of that comparison was a solid 'maybe?' followed by 'probably a clone'.

THat had just pissed them off even worse. It was bad enough having some impostor pretending to be Steve but to *clone* him? They proceeded to swamp the phone lines trying to get a hold of either the impostor or Tony and express their outrage. Unfortunately, they weren't aware of Jarvis, who shut down the numerous, very angry and accusatory phone calls as a matter of course before Tony and Steve even knew they'd called. They were not, however, going to quit that easily.

As the member of their company who lived closest, Michael got elected to go to Stark Tower and express their outrage personally to Tony. His son Aaron decided to join him, worried that his father might not manage to be coherent when they eventually talked to Stark. The children of the Commandos didn't think Tony was behind the cloning but they figured that Tony would be the one best able to find and punish the people who had cloned Steve. After seventy years, it never crossed any of their minds that Steve might actually be Steve.

+_+_+_+_+_+_

Steve, along with James, Clint, and John exited the elevator that morning. Steve, James, and Clint were all in their uniforms since the four of them were on cleanup assistance duty today. The four of them had been chatting amiably as the elevator doors opened only to go quiet.

Near the front doors, four or five of the Tower's security squad were facing off with two men. Steve mentally stumbled over the correct nomenclature for a half-second before he remembered to think (and say) African American. One of the two was fairly old with a close-cropped cap of gray hair.

Steve frowned and started over, half afraid that the security team was picking on the pair unfairly thanks to their race. That drew both men's attention to him and Steve rapidly realized what - exactly - the problem was. Because both men were giving him death glares.

It wasn't the first time that Steve had run into this, in the last few days. There'd been more than one member of the 'older generation' - either those old enough to remember World War Two or their children - who had been outraged that some 'faker' had dared don The Captain's uniform. Steve figured that the Avengers were diverting as many of them as they could but there had still been the odd person who had still had the balls to get in Steve's face despite the presence of the other Avengers.

Rather than being angry, Steve had been warmed clear through at this evidence of just how well thought-of he'd been. Oh, he'd known Captain America had been popular during the war and had become something of a ... thing ... after. But there was a big difference between people admiring Captain America and people being pissed off that someone was apparently pretending to be him.

Steve automatically gave the three with him a quieting gesture to keep them from snarling at the two men. It didn't stop the three of them from eyeballing the two black men with malice. Steve could just hear James growling under his breath as well.

This pair, though, seemed to be a touch different than normal because after the expected 'how dare you's' and so on, the elder of the pair said.

"God, I'm glad my father didn't live to see this, or any of the other Commandos for that matter."

That stopped Steve cold. He stared at the elder man for a moment in something like shock.

One of the first things he'd done after he'd woken up (more like demanded of Fury) was get an accounting of the fates of the Commandos. Some part of him had been ... relieved ... that all of them were dead. It had taken what would otherwise have been an insanely difficult decision out of his hands: did he let them know he'd been found or not ... and did he go see them?

He hadn't had to face that choice. He'd been able to just let them live in his memory as they had been during the war. He'd been able to pretend that the pictures of elderly, white-haired people that had come with the information hadn't been the men he'd known, worked with, and befriended. He'd been able to pretend that maybe, just maybe, he'd turn a corner and Dum Dum or Morita or *Peggy* would be standing there, young and vital and alive.

Oh, he'd known that wasn't the truth. He'd known they were dead and gone, now, but ... it hadn't really seemed real. Hell, nothing since he'd woken up had. It was slowly getting better as he adapted and, more importantly, developed relationships in this new era but the surreal aura to everything hadn't really lifted yet. Even Tony being around hadn't helped much, if at all, because he resembled his father so strongly sometimes that Steve had almost called him Howard more than once.

Until now. Until he was face-to-face with the son of one of the Commandos, if that comment about his father or the other Commandos was anything to go by ... who looked sixty or so. And had his own son, who looked to be right about Tony's age, if Steve was any judge. And while the fact they were black narrowed the possibilities considerably, there were still three men the two could be related to and these two didn't look sufficiently like any of them for Steve to guess.

"I can understand that you might not believe me." Steve said. "But I am truly Steve Rogers."

That got the younger of the two to snort in disgust. "His clone, you mean."

Steve frowned in confusion before he turned to look at James and Clint. "Clone?" He asked. He was slowly getting better with modern terminology (even if the slang and pop culture references were still largely beyond him), but that was one he hadn't encountered yet.

"Basically, it means taking a bit of your skin or blood or whatever and growing a whole new you." Clint said.

Steve blinked. "I doubt that would work, with the Serum." He pointed out. It might, but then again, it might not. He turned back to the men, who'd watched this exchange quietly enough. "Not cloned." Steve told them. "Just ... frozen. For a very, very long time." Then, because his curiosity was getting the better of him ... and it might help establish his bona fides ... "Whose son are you?" He asked the elder of the two.

"Gabriel Jones." The man supplied, somewhat reluctantly.

Steve grinned. "He was a good man. He and Jaques Dernier drove most of us nuts by talking in French and then laughing for about six months or so. After that, we'd started to pick up some of the language and figured out he was just telling Jaques jokes."

The elder of the two men froze, staring at Steve for a long moment. Steve could tell he was still suspicious but knowing something as innocuous as that, something that Steve knew had never made it into any reports, would go a long way to proving he was who he said he was.

At that point, Tony, alerted to the situation, arrived in the eccentric style he used with the public. "Gents, what seems to be the trouble? Surely Steve hasn't offended anyone's sensibilities already today, has he? Logan, I thought I told you to keep Stevie on a leash?"

He bounced to a stop beside Steve and Steve had the distinct impression that the only thing stopping Tony from putting an arm around his shoulder was the height difference between them and the fact doing that would make Tony look more than a little silly.

"Mr. Stark?" The elder man said. "I ... "

"Michael Jones, isn't it." Tony said more than asked. "And Aaron?" He indicated the younger man. "I had a feeling one of you lot was going to show up before too much longer. C'mon upstairs."

At that point, the elder, Michael, seemed to realize ... and accept ... that this was real. "My god. You really are ... " His eyes went wide. "I am so sorry."

Steve waved the apology aside. "No apology necessary, Mr. Jones. You were ... well, trying to defend me. You had no way of knowing the truth, and every reason to suspect foul play."

Michael seemed to accept that and trailed after Tony with his son in tow. Steve immediately turned and headed for the door, his thoughts in chaos.

It had been so easy to pretend, even with Tony around. But coming face to face with the grandson of one of his commandos, a man who was close to twice Steve's age, was bringing that crashing down around his ears.

The urge to beat something insensible was rising. In lieu of that, Steve headed for a sector that still had heavy lifting that needed to be done. He needed to burn off some energy, badly.

Eight days in, the torn-up part of Midtown was looking both better and worse. Better in that the aliens and their gear including the whales, all the blown up vehicles, and other sundry wreckage was finally gone. So was the stench of decomposition that had been increasing as the big whales were cut into manageable sections and removed. Things looked worse, though, because now that the worst of the debris had been removed, the construction equipment and crews had moved in with a vengeance. There was stuff everywhere on pallets that had to be brought where it was needed by relay, packed onto small sleds behind motorcycles and bicycles and passed from person to person as the roads were impassable to four-wheeled traffic. And then there were the road crews and all their equipment, working as quickly as they could to patch the holes blown in the streets so that the bigger equipment could be wheeled into position and used.

The good news was there was always some sort of heavy lifting that needed doing. Most of the crews had gotten used to the Avengers being around by now, which meant less staring and more being able to just get on with it. Steve zeroed in on a crew that was gathering around a big pallet of bags of cement, a small mixer, and jackhammers.

The crew boss, who equaled Thor in sheer size, greeted Steve and company with thinly disguised pleasure. "Gents, you picked a good time to show up. We're trying to get ahead of the other road crews. Jackhammer out the ruined cement and fill in the holes so that the spreaders and rollers can just drive right on through, rather than having to stop and wait. But to do that, we need to get all of this ... " The big man waved towards the center of the warzone. "In there."

"Count it done." Steve said, immediately grabbing several of the fifty-pound bags. He could have physically lifted more than he grabbed, but there was only so much he could carry and still be able to see where he was going. "Lead the way."

Behind him, James grabbed several bags as well while Clint and John, lacking enhanced strength, decided to start moving the equipment.

Chapter Text

Betty

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It had taken Betty a few days to truly acclimate to her new circumstances. She'd gotten so used to being wary, suspicious, and afraid while in Cheyenne Mountain. She'd gotten used to looking over her shoulder waiting for the General's next attack.

Oh, he hadn't laid a hand on her physically but the last year had been a non-stop war of words. The General had stopped by her quarters or the lab at least once a day. He constantly harped on how she should be thankful to him for keeping her safe and arranging for gainful employment. When he wasn't harping about that it was all about how 'the creature' was a vicious unstoppable monster that would kill her as soon as look at her. Betty had lost track of the number of times she'd wanted to break the General's jaw.

Betty hadn't quite believed Rhodey was on the level when he showed up. True, he was Air Force and not Army but she wouldn't put it past the General to have that sort of reach and be testing her while he was out trying to 'collect' Bruce. Honestly, she hadn't quite believed the situation was what it was until she'd been wrapped up in Bruce's arms.

She didn't think anyone would blame her and Bruce for being ... very clingy ... since they'd been reunited. They'd barely been anywhere other than their floor and the lab, and always together. Always within line-of-sight of each other.

Betty had been startled and amused by the number of defenders Bruce had accumulated in a matter of days. The entirety of the Avengers had come solidly down on Bruce's side of the fight in an apparently unbeatable combination of political, monetary, physical, and ironically enough military power that the General couldn't seem to breach. Fully half of them had gone to bat for Bruce personally. Betty strongly suspected that the ones that hadn't merely hadn't been afforded the opportunity yet. She was also fairly certain that Natasha and Clint had come up with some sort of plan to deal with the General, provided Tony didn't get there first.

Betty had finally begun to relax in the last day or so. She still wanted to be near Bruce, but that had more to do with her loving him and wanting to be with him than it did a fear he'd be taken from her again. Bruce too seemed to be relaxing a bit. He got on with Tony like a house on fire, which seemed to be helping. It was rather hard to keep worrying about the General when they were trying to keep up with Tony. Betty had never seen someone quite like him. He came off as scatterbrained, jumping from one thing to the next in conversations, but Betty had quickly realized it wasn't scatterbrain at all. Tony had a startling ability to multitask on a level she'd never seen. He was rarely involved in less than three things at any one time. Some combination of one or more conversations with people in the room, phone conversations, using a Starkpad or his lab equipment, and frequent asides and instructions to Jarvis and/or his lab bots.

The fact that Tony had been willing to go to war for Bruce had predisposed Betty to like the man. When she'd found out he'd been so totally blasé about the Hulk, she'd been strongly tempted to adopt him out of sheer gratitude. Being willing to fight for Bruce's right to freedom was completely different from not fearing Hulk. Certainly Steve, Thor, Loki and Logan had been as blasé, but those four were at the very least far more durable than a normal human.

Today, she and Bruce were puttering around their lab. They'd begun collaborating with Jane on certain aspects of the Rainbow Bridge project, since they were more familiar with gamma radiation in specific than Jane was. They knew that Asgard had the Tesseract and were now in the process of rebuilding the broken section of their Bridge and the control station they used to travel. Jane wanted to build a similar station somewhere on Earth so that they could travel to the other Nine Realm worlds without having to go to Asgard first. While they helped with that, Bruce had gotten an idea for an Earth-based transporter because the Bridge was basically an inter dimensional transporter. Simplifying the Bridge and making it much shorter-range would make Star Trek style transporters a reality.

They were so engrossed in their projects that Betty jumped when Jarvis spoke up.

"Forgive me for the interruption, but I have a call for you, Doctor Banner, from the President." Jarvis said.

Bruce almost instantly went green around the gills, but not in a 'hulk-out imminent' way. This was pure nerves. Betty immediately walked over and leaned against his side. "Easy, Bruce. Jarvis doesn't sound pissed off, so I don't think this is bad news. You know Jarvis has been screening calls."

It had started as pure self-defense against all the paparazzi, fans, and crazies that had flooded the Tower phone lines trying to get a hold of one or another of the Avengers. Shortly after the battle, it had morphed to protecting several of their number from unpleasant confrontations. Steve needed protection as there'd been a very loud sector of the population that had been very pissed off about 'some faker' taking up the Captain's mantle. Thor and Loki had come under fire from certain sectors because of their titular 'god' status. As a result, it had become the rule that Jarvis ran interference for them, and if necessary routed the call to Tony, who relished crossing swords with assholes of any description. Betty had heard rumor that Loki had helped once or twice, tangling the caller up in their own rhetoric so badly they'd ended up espousing the viewpoint diametrically opposite to the one they'd started the call with. Silvertongue indeed.

In the last couple of days, such calls had reduced in number as the media campaign Pepper had going penetrated the collective consciousness of the public. There would always be those that thought Steve was a fake, or that Thor and Loki were heretical abominations, but the campaigns seemed to have started convincing the less rabid folks they were in error.

"Put him through, Jarvis." Bruce said, threading his fingers through Betty's for moral support.

"Doctor Banner, Doctor Ross." The President greeted them both. "I will get right to the point, as I am aware that your time is quite valuable. I have signed a series of documents in regards to Doctor Banner. One is a pardon for previous incidents of damage by Doctor Banner's alter ego. The second is an order that forbids coercing, hunting or capturing Doctor Banner or his alter ego for any military or scientific purpose. The third forbids any attempt to arrest, capture, or litigate Doctor Banner or his alter ego for future damage done in the defense of himself, this country or the planet. In short, Doctor Banner, in future, if an American attempts to mess with you for any reason, they're going to end up in jail for a very, very long time."

Bruce seemed to be beyond words. Betty stared at the screen for a long time before she managed to regain a sense of equilibrium.

"Why now?" She wanted to know. "Don't get me wrong, Mr. President, this is ... very appreciated ... but why now, and not years ago?"

"Doctor Banner's initial transformation took place before I came into office, so I cannot speak for my predecessor." The President said. "As for myself, I can only say that the situation was presented to me in such a way that containing Doctor Banner's alter ego seemed like a good idea. It has been borne in upon me in the last two days that containing his alter ego is apparently impossible, and coercing it is if not impossible than exceedingly unwise. I have also been informed that every incidence of the Hulk's appearance save the Harlem incident and his latest appearance was a result of Doctor Banner being chased about by the Army. I've been informed that Hulk was actually trying to help in Harlem and obviously the other day, and that if Doctor Banner had been left alone there would not have been a problem the other times. It seems commonsensible to encourage people to leave Doctor Banner alone, in light of those facts."

Betty thought about that for a moment before she nodded. "All right."

"You should also know that General Ross has been stripped of his rank and thrown into Leavenworth for the remainder of his life." The President said. "Once I was fully informed of his actions, it was very clear to me that he was overstepping himself by a very large margin, to put it mildly. He would was in Leavenworth approximately five minutes after I was fully informed of his actions. A courier will be arriving at Stark Tower later today with copies of the documents so that you have them on hand." The President said.

Betty had always wondered about that ... about why the General hadn't been thrown in jail before now. She knew it was far beyond the remit of any one General to send troops into a country for any purpose when war had not been declared with that country. The Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense were an exception to that rule but the General had never held such a lofty position. Evidently, he'd managed to avoid trouble by dint of having friends that agreed with him in high enough positions to turn a blind eye and misinform the President about the situation if he took notice of the hunt.

"Thank you, Mr. President." Betty said.

It took a stunned Bruce a minute to recover enough to echo her thanks. "Indeed, thank you, sir." He said, his voice rough with emotion.

"You are very welcome, Doctor Banner." The President said, then ended the call.

Silence reigned in the lab for a few minutes before Bruce turned to her.

"Did that ... I didn't imagine that, did I?" He asked.

"You mean the whole 'president making everyone back the fuck off' thing? That actually happened, Bruce." Betty told him, cupping his cheek affectionately.

Bruce blinked at her. "You know, I keep thinking this is all a very detailed dream, and that I'll wake up in a cage somewhere." He admitted. "You being here, a great lab, people who don't hate and fear the Other Guy, and now the President ... "

Betty's heart twinged. She could understand why he thought it was a dream after more than five years of being hunted like a rabid animal. "Oh, Bruce." She said, then kissed him gently. "Not a dream, I promise."

Bruce let out a shaky laugh as he wrapped an arm around her. "Yeah, well, keep saying that. I might start believing it at some point." Then he smiled. "I wonder how much yelling Tony had to do to get the President to agree with him."

"Actually, Doctor Banner, it is Miss Potts who got the President involved in this matter." Jarvis said. "When General Ross approached the Tower the last time, she called him and provided him with the relevant data."

Bruce laughed. "I must admit I'm beginning to see why Tony is so enthralled with her."

Betty gave him a mock-injured look. "Oh really?"

Bruce grinned. "Don't worry, Betty. She's not a patch on you." He said. "But I can see the appeal. She's fierce and isn't afraid to play dirty to get things done."

And Betty knew that Tony thoroughly approved of playing dirty to get things done. If he didn't, he wouldn't have built the armor to kick the Ten Rings' collective ass. Nor would he have forced peace on the war-torn Middle East in retaliation of being kidnapped and having his weapons being used on American soldiers. Hell, that mindset had existed for Tony pre-kidnapping. Why else would he have created the Jericho missile? That particular weapon played very, very dirty.

"Well, I vote we wrap up early and celebrate." Betty said. "A little wine, a nice meal ... " She trailed off and gave Bruce a wicked grin.

Bruce wasn't slow on the uptake. "That sounds really good." He agreed.

They hadn't had full-on sex yet. Bruce was still wanting to go slow with that for understandable reasons. He'd gotten better control of the Hulk since they'd last seen each other, but that didn't mean his control was foolproof. Combined with how long it had been since they'd been able to be together, they'd settled for a lot of kissing, snuggling, and a little bit of foreplay. All accomplished with no problems in the last few days.

Today seemed like a good time to push further. Not that they really needed an excuse, but knowing the General was in jail and no one could legally hunt him anymore would be a load off of Bruce's mind. That meant less stress pushing him towards a hulk-out, which in turn meant he had more wiggle room to deal with emotional upheaval.

Chapter Text

Frigga

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

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Frigga's return to the palace garnered an enormous amount of attention. Thankfully, Frigga knew this had more to do with her frantic race for the bridge than anything else. She, Odin, and Heimdall had been too far out for anyone in the city proper to observe what had happened. Everyone was wondering what could possibly have driven her to race for the Bridge like the fire-demons of Muspelheim were after her.

She rode her horse to the stables, and waved aside the horsemaster. The least she could do for Aedan after that unexpected race was to tend to her herself. Aedan, of course, decided to prance and dance in place, clearly more energized by the abrupt, top-speed race than worn out by it. Frigga gave an amused smile and hummed gently to the chestnut mare until she calmed somewhat and permitted her saddle and bridle to be removed and allowed herself to be groomed. Once Aedan was settled in her stall, Frigga headed for the palace proper.

She stopped the first servant she crossed paths with.

"There is to be an emergency audience in the throne room in two hour's time. I want every palace resident in attendance, and as many of the city dwellers as can be summoned in so brief a time." She commanded. "See to it that word is spread among your fellows. All duties are suspended until the audience is complete."

The servant eyed Gungnir as he bowed low, then raced off nearly as fast as Frigga had done so short a time ago. Frigga had little doubt he would spread the word as fast as he possibly could. To be the source of such a piece of information and gossip was a much-coveted thing among the servants. She headed for her own chambers, summoning her personal servant Fulla.

"Fulla, if you would draw me a bath? Then tend to your own appearance. I have commanded that all possible appear in the throne room two hours hence." Frigga said.

"Of course, Your Majesty." Fulla eyed Gungnir with much the same look the servant Frigga had stopped earlier eyed it, then hustled into Frigga's private bathing room. Frigga went to her closet to choose what she would wear. She knew she had to make a definite statement. It took but a few moments to realize that nothing in her closet would suit. Oh, it was all highest quality, and much of it had been designed to project a certain image, especially to foreign ambassadors seeking audience, and filled those purposes admirably.

It was not, however, suitable for what she needed now. Frigga shook her head with a sigh. She was going to have to craft something from scratch. Then Frigga smiled. Perhaps not quite from scratch. It would by necessity be no more than an illusion, but it would be enough until she could get an identical outfit crafted.

She took her inspiration from Odin, Thor, Loki and Sif's armors as she began crafting the illusion. It was largely gold, like Odin and Loki's, with a breastplate identical to Sif's. Instead of the leather skirting Sif favored, Frigga decided on a fitted jacket much like Loki's, done in gold with green accents, again to honor her youngest son. Over her shoulders, in a direct nod to both Odin and Thor, was a brilliant red cape. The helm she designed was somewhere between Odin's and Loki's, the horns not quite as thick as the ones on Odin's helm (mostly because she would never be able to wear such a heavy helm if it was real) and not as tall or curved back as far as Loki's.

The end result was quite handsome, if she did say so herself, and would suit her purposes admirably, as it would bring to mind both her husband and her sons, and their power. Power that most in the realm hesitated to bring to bear against them. As she was not a warrior, the average Asgardian would need the reminder of that sort of power for a time until she had established herself. She could very easily defend herself, even without Gungnir, but she would rather not be forced to do so.

Once she'd gotten the illusion of her attire settled, bathed and then ‘donned‘ the illusory armor, she made her way to the small antechamber Thor had been waiting in prior to his coronation. There she waited until the two hours were complete. She did, after all, have an entrance to make. Her only regret was that Thor and Loki weren't here. That said, it was for the best that they were not. The people would look to Thor for leadership he was not truly ready to give, and Loki did not need the reminder of the day his world had fallen apart. There would come a day when he would not react badly to reminders of that day, she knew, but it would not come for some time yet.

Precisely as the second hour rang, Frigga glided through the antechamber doors. The throne room was, if anything, even more packed than it had been for Thor’s coronation. The palace guard had formed a passage between them as they had that day. The chatter that had filled the room died away as Frigga made her way down that passage. Then, when she had gotten about halfway down, the talking started back up, slowly at first, but quickly gaining speed, if not volume, as people reacted to the sight of her carrying Gungnir and wearing armor.

Frigga paid no attention to any of it. She mounted the steps to the throne, then whirled around, adding a touch of magic to the turn so the illusory cloak she wore flared dramatically around her. She was pleased when the throne room went utterly silent. She cast a subtle spell to give her voice more volume since she couldn’t boom and bellow with the same sort of volume Odin and Thor managed with ease.

“Hear me, people of Asgard.” She said. Thanks to her spell, her voice was as clear to the people in the furthest corners of the throne room as it was to those standing closest to the throne. “For crimes against Asgard and her heirs, Odin Allfather has been stripped of his powers and banished, never to return.”

Easier to tell them that, then tell them he’d only stay until he learned his lesson. For one thing, there was no guarantee Odin ever would. For another, the people would be far more inclined to see her as a mere interim placeholder and remain loyal to Odin. That could not be allowed under the circumstances.

There was an immediate susurrus of sound as people reacted to that. Frigga knew she’d get grief later, but she looked forward to crossing swords with the complainers. It was going to be fun. For too long had people dismissed her as merely Odin’s wife. They would soon discover that she was his equal in power, but far sneakier.

Loki had to learn it somewhere, after all, and Odin certainly wasn’t anything approaching subtle or sly.

“Prince Thor and Prince Loki are needed on Midgard, for reasons I will divulge shortly. I therefore assume the throne as Queen of Asgard.” Frigga said. Once the reaction to that had died down, she continued.

“People of Asgard, hear me. A time of great strife is at hand. I bring grave news. Thanos has awakened.” She said.

There was an instantaneous outcry of horror from the eldest of those present. Those of an age with Odin and Heimdall or slightly younger, of an age to remember the last time Thanos had run amok.

“He has fashioned himself an army on the far side of Yggdrasill, and is even now making his way to Midgard. Thor and Loki stand ready to defend Midgard, and Midgard is even now gathering its own defenders. But we who have fought Thanos in the past know this will not be enough.” She slammed the butt of Gungnir on the floor. “Lord Tyr, step forward.”

Tyr was Asgard’s General, and had been hailed on Midgard as a god of war. It was he that had stood beside Odin when Thanos was battled before being banished from six of the nine Realms and the Jotun conflict on Midgard. He looked enough like Thor to be mistaken for his older brother. Indeed, some of the feats attributed to Tyr or Thor had actually been done by the other.

Tyr stepped forward, and dropped to one knee at the foot of the steps, one fist over his heart. “My Queen, what is your command?”

“Prepare our troops. If Midgard falls, Thanos can use it as a base from which to attack the rest of the Realms, regardless of his inability to step foot upon our soil. He will be within striking distance of Midgard within a year. Coordinate with Thor and Loki. They will have information on the local defenders and their capabilities.”

“We will be ready, my queen.” Tyr vowed, then gained his feet and backed up to return to his place.

She turned to the court ambassadors. “Go to Vanaheim, Alfheim, and Nidavellirr. Speak to their Kings. Warn them of the danger. Remind them of their duty to their Realm, and to all the Realms in this matter. I will journey to Svartalfheim and Jotunheim myself and do likewise. The Warriors Three and Lady Sif will accompany me as guard.”

Fortunately, no one would question their Queen, known for her ability to do magic, going to the two realms most known for their magical abilities. Leaving the throne unattended was not optimal, but under the circumstances, it was the only thing they could do.

She turned her attention back to the general assembly. “Go now. Hone your swords. Shine your shields. War is coming, and Asgard will triumph.”

That got her a rousing cheer, as people hurried off to spread the word. Frigga stopped Tyr before he could leave.

“A further task I have for you, Lord Tyr, that I did not wish to announce to the assemblage. The Vault holds a great many exceedingly destructive weapons. I bid you destroy all that are too dangerous to be used, and outfit such warriors as are worthy with whatever weapons as can be used without danger to themselves or Asgard.” Frigga commanded.

She had never liked Odin’s little treasure trove. It was entirely too tempting a target for anyone who desired such power. With the Destroyer gone, they could no longer guarantee that thieves would be stopped before they could make their escape. That made the weapons stored there a liability now, more than ever. They either needed to be gone or in use. Frigga knew that most of them would have to be destroyed.

“The only exception to this command is the Casket of Ancient Winters. That is to remain in the Vault, untouched. If my trip to Jotunheim bears sufficient fruit, it may be returned to its rightful owners.” Frigga continued.

Tyr bowed. “As you command, my queen.” He said. “I shall see to the Vault contents personally.” He then hurried off, presumably to deal with that situation right now.

Frigga then turned to the Warriors and Sif. “Pack for an extended trip, and bring your horses. We’re going to need them.”

The four of them immediately left to do as she bid. Frigga then left the throne room to take her own advice. And to take a few minutes to make her armor real. That required that she stop by the palace smithy. With real armor-quality metal under her hands, it was the work of but moments to make a real version of the illusory armor she’d been wearing. Once made, she donned it and let the illusion fade. She could have conjured the metal herself, of course, but such a task was draining, even for her, so it was just easier to wait and use metal that already existed.

Once she returned to her quarters, she swiftly packed a few changes of clothes, enough knives to make even Loki envious, a sleep sack, her healer’s satchel, and a food satchel. The latter had powerful enchantments on it to preserve food, and to allow the holder to pull foodstuffs from the palace kitchens at need. There was a series of special closets in the kitchens that were kept full of various foodstuffs for that purpose, as such satchels were standard issue for soldiers and anyone from the palace that went on a journey. They had eliminated the need for (and vulnerability of) supply trains. The healer satchels similarly had access to supply closets in the Healer’s Wing, though those satchels were only given out to people who had some knowledge of healing.

That done, she made her way back to the stable. This time, however, she did not go to Aedan’s stall. While Aedan was a more than adequate mount, and much beloved by Frigga, this was another case of needing to project the right image, and a slender chestnut mare just didn’t. There was, however, one horse in Asgard guaranteed to make anyone pay attention.

Sleipnir was Loki’s pride and joy, and all the evidence anyone needed of his potential as a mage. Long ago, in one of his bids to gain Odin’s approval, Loki had worked powerful enchantments on the best stallion and mare in the palace stables. Sleipnir had been the result. Bigger, stronger, faster and far more intelligent than any other horse on Asgard, with a magically extended lifespan and courage enough to stand firm in the face of any danger or threat, and if given his head, even attack it. He had made a more than admirable warhorse for Odin.

Frigga approached the large stall with connecting paddock. Sleipnir, who’d been resting in his stall with his nose almost on the floor, immediately picked his head up.

“Greetings, Sleipnir.” Frigga said, then stroked the velvety nose when Sleipnir looped his head over the gate of his stall. “You will be pleased to learn that Loki is doing well, finally. I think Midgard will be good for him. Certainly, they seem to understand him better than most here.”

Sleipnir gave a deep-chested grunt of pleasure.

“I have banished Odin. He was about to renounce Thor and Loki both for daring to be their own men.”

That made Sleipnir stomp several of his feet, ears flicking back in displeasure.

“Worse, Thanos is heading for Midgard. We need to prepare the Realms. If he reaches Midgard and conquers it, the Realms are lost.” Frigga stroked his nose again. “Will you bear me to Svartalfheim and Jotunheim? Odin is in Svartalfheim, but they must be warned. And I have to at least try to get through to whoever succeeded Laufey on Jotunheim’s throne.”

Sleipnir bobbed his head under her hand, then cheekily lipped at her hair, giving it a gentle, affectionate tug.

“Excellent. We will be travelling with the Warriors Three and Lady Sif, so do try not to run their horses into the ground, if you would.”

Sleipnir opened the gate of his stall (it was the very rare lock that could stymie him), and made his way to where his tack was kept and gave a sharp neigh. Much to Frigga’s amusement, that was sufficient to summon the horsemaster.

“What’s this, Sleipnir? Odin’s not ...” then he spotted Frigga. “Ah, I see. Taking him with you to the Realms, your majesty? Wise decision. I’ll get him tacked up directly.”

That was a relief to Frigga. Sleipnir was entirely too tall - and his tack too heavy - for her to do it herself without resorting to magic. She’d do it that way when they were traveling, of course, but she wanted to conserve her strength where she could.

“My thanks.” She said.

A few minutes later, Sif and the Warriors arrived, immediately going to their own horses and beginning to tack them up for the journey.

“To which realm do we travel first, your majesty?” Sif asked.

“Svartalfheim, I think.” Frigga said. “It will be less fraught with difficulties, and take less time.” She eyed the Warriors. “Know this - Odin is there, somewhere. You are not to acknowledge him in any way if we encounter him. Do so, and you will join him in disgrace and banishment.”

The Warriors all bowed and acknowledged her orders. One by one, they mounted their horses, Frigga going last, as Sleipnir was liable to become impatient with standing about once a rider was aboard him.

As they started out of the stables, the ambassadors charged with visiting the other realms arrived.

“It would seem that Heimdall is going to be having a busy day.” Frigga commented with some amusement.

When they arrived at the broken end of the Bridge (now much closer to its original endpoint thanks to the continuing repairs), Frigga spoke briefly with Heimdall.

“Keep Thanos under watch, Heimdall. If he does anything other than travel in Midgard’s direction, no matter how trivial, inform Tyr at once, and myself if I have returned to Asgard by then.”

Heimdall nodded gravely. “I will do so.” He intoned, then manipulated the tesseract container to send them on their way.

Chapter Text

Tony, Natasha, and Rogue

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Tony's day in the lab the day before had paid full dividends. He'd managed, with Loki's help, to put a serious dent in his list. Better still, some stuff he'd been waiting for had arrived, and he'd been able to make the adjustments he needed on it.

Which meant that Tony had all sorts of delightful little surprises for the Avengers today. Once they woke up, damn them. Never mind that he still hadn't slept yet - he had goodies and they needed to be up! Only the fact that he'd get his ass kicked by more than one of the bunch if he dared wake them kept him from storming their rooms and hauling them out of bed.

Fortunately for his sanity and continued state of existence, the Avengers and their various hangers-on started waking for breakfast about an hour after Tony started wanting them up. The first up, and thus the first one Tony pounced on, was Clint.

"Legolas! About time you got up. I got something I want to show you."

Clint gave him the stink-eye. "Coffee first, Stark. Or I will end you."

Tony gave him a toothy grin. "Far be it from me to stand between a man and his caffeine." He said, and let Clint make his way to the coffee machine.

Several of the others made their way into the room while Clint was trying to become one with his cup of coffee. Soon enough, the entire gang was in the communal kitchen.

"Ok, so ..." Tony said. "I decided to work on some armor for everybody. Including you, Bruciekins." Tony said, pointing at him. "Because what SHIELD gave you three is complete crap." He pointed at Natasha, Clint, and Steve. "And if we're going to be doing this, we need the best we can manage. So I did better. I'm going to need you guys to test it out, though ... especially Natasha and Remy. Because you two are freakily limber and like to use it, and I need to know if the armor moves enough for you two."

Bruce gave him a look. "Tony, armor for me is ... "

"Still a good idea." Tony said, overriding Bruce's objections. "Because transforming takes it out of you, don't think I didn't notice that. And if you can avoid doing it, so much the better. I know you won't always be able to, but any little bit helps."

Tony headed over to the pile of boxes that he'd stacked against one wall and started passing them out. "I kept the looks as close as I could." He told them. Though he had darkened the blue on Steve's armor/uniform a bit so he wasn't quite so eye-catching.

"Also: Natasha, I would really, really, really like it if you'd let me work on a better version of those taser gloves of yours." Tony said, batting his eyes at her. "Pretty please?"

Natasha gave him a narrow-eyed glare, then, after a moment, nodded. "All right. The bigger punch I pack, the better."

"Agreed." Tony said, then picked up another box. "This one is for you, Katniss." He told Clint.

Clint took the box and opened it warily. He grinned when it proved to be a bow and quiver that looked virtually identical to his current ones.

"I kept the key sequences to change out arrowheads the same." Tony told him. "But I managed to shorten the time it takes to get the arrowheads attached down to a fraction of a second, and there's more shafts and heads in the quiver because I was able to strip out a lot of unnecessary weight. You ought to be able to draw and fire as fast as you can move now."

"Sweet!" Clint said, eyeing the new equipment happily. "I'll give it a test run after breakfast."

Tony grinned at him, then picked up the last boxes and headed for Rogue. "I know that Pepper probably warned you about these, but ... well, here. Swimsuit with gloves and boots, and the first try at a skintight, skin-tone suit to wear under summer clothes."

Rogue took the boxes with wide eyes. "Thank you." She said.

Tony waved her off. "Think nothing of it. Now, go, you lot, and let me know how those work for you."

=-=-=-=-=

Clint made tracks for the basement shooting range, new bow and quiver over one shoulder, and the new armor in its box under the opposite arm. He could test both down in the range, though he planned to do it individually first, just to make sure they worked right separately before he tried them together.

The first thing he noticed was that the quiver weighed either exactly the same as the old one, or so close to it he couldn't tell the difference. That said, the balance of it was quite a bit different. It was still bottom-heavy, but not nearly as badly as the old one had been.

He started with checking the arrowhead-switching part of the gear. He tapped the grip controls in the pattern that would get the broadheads onto the shafts while the quiver was sitting in front of him. He blinked at how fast the head got attached. With the old quiver, there had always been a second or two's delay between him pressing the controls and the head getting attached. With this one, it was damn near instantaneous.

He played with the controls for a good fifteen minutes, using all the patterns that had been programmed into the old bow and quiver repeatedly. The mechanisms never so much as hesitated. Clint nodded and then slung the quiver onto his back.

Here too, there was a difference. While the quiver weighed virtually the same, because it wasn't as bottom-heavy, it sat a bit differently on his back. It wasn't bad, necessarily, but it would take a bit of getting used to. Clint ran around the range for a bit, jumping and climbing and sliding around to test and see if there was going to be a problem with the way it sat now, and to get used to the difference. Fortunately, there didn't seem to be a problem with the new balance to the quiver, which made Clint quite happy.

The quiver came off again, and Clint propped it against one of the myriad of platforms long enough to fetch out a couple of the non-moving targets in the range's closet. He put the targets about a quarter of the way down the range from where he planned to stand - far closer than he normally dealt with, but a better distance for the initial test of the new arrows.

Here, Clint finally found some minor issues. It was nothing serious, just stuff that was going to crop up when someone unfamiliar with bows and arrows tried to make them - something was bound to be off, somewhere. Tony's familiarity with weapons in general had helped to keep the problem fairly small - a mere matter of the strings not being strung quite right. A slight adjustment in where the strings were attached would fix that problem.

Other than that problem, the bow seemed to function as well as the old one. Clint gave a nod and packed it back up to get Tony to fix the string problem, which, knowing Tony, would take him all of five minutes.

=-=-=-=-=

Natasha was as quick to test out her new armor. She put it on in her room first, half afraid Tony would have given in to his mischievous side and done something to the design.

Turned out, he had done something, but not the kind of things she'd been worried about. The new suit, while still close-fitting like the old one, had innumerable cleverly hidden pockets and seams in which to stash hidden items. The belt was about the same thickness, but looked as if it had been reinforced. She quickly figured out why when she found the carabineer in one of the small compartments on the belt, along with a short note explaining what it was for. She worked the clasp repeatedly until she could snap it on and off of her belt in one fast, continuous motion. She's have to practice latching it onto Tony's suit later.

She did some basic stretches and twists in her room, and nodded in approval at the way the new suit moved. So far, so good. The question would be if it would hold up to more acrobatic moves. She wasn't worried about testing its ability to protect against bullets and blades - she was willing to trust Tony had it as optimized for that as he could humanly manage, and probably a good bit better than anything SHIELD had cobbled together for her.

When she got to the gym, Remy had already arrived, and was doing some warm-up. Natasha gave him a nod, then hit the controls that pulled the gymnastics equipment into position. By mutual agreement, the two of them started slow, with some of the more basic moves in their mutual repertoires. Slowly, they worked their way up to more complex moves.

The suit wasn't as flexible as her old one, but it came close enough that Natasha was willing to accept the tradeoff of more protection for the lessened flexibility. Certainly, she could still manage the moves she used the most without difficulty.

Remy, on the other hand, seemed to be having more difficulty. It made a certain amount of sense. Remy depended heavily on acrobatic moves when he fought, and from the way he moved, Natasha strongly suspected his skeletal and muscular structure wasn't human-normal somehow. Between the two, any sort of armor was going to be problematic.

=-=-=-=-=

Rogue took her boxes to her room and pulled out the contents. The first box proved to be the full body sharkskin swimsuit with attached gloves and boots. She set that aside to try on in a minute, since she had a feeling getting into it would be a bit on the tricky side.

The next box was three or four times the size of the one with the swimsuit in it. This proved to have the skintone suit in it. Actually, more than one. The suit also had gloves that came with it, also skin tone. Interestingly, they were separate from the suit, allowing her to pull them on like regular gloves. The magnetic zipper that attached them to the suit and not incidentally allowed for one-handed attachment of the glove to the suit was, according to the note Tony included, easily concealed by any of the included bracelets or watches.

Rogue stared at the suit for a good five minutes before she got up the nerve to strip down and put the thing on. She then pulled her regular clothes on over it, and headed for Logan's room.

"Hey kid." Logan greeted her when she poked her head in. She was amused to see that Logan was currently trying on the suit Tony had worked out for him. Like his X-Men suit, it was black, but this one looked a lot thinner and more flexible. "Wanting to see if the skintight works?" He asked.

Rogue nodded. Logan was the only one she trusted to test this on. If it didn't work, he had the best chance of surviving getting sucked by her skin, and she already had him in her head, so she wouldn't end up with another voice in her head.

Logan nodded in return and then, almost faster than she could track, reached out and put his hand over the back of hers. Rogue instinctively tried to yank her hand away, but Logan had anticipated that and managed to curl his fingers around her hand to keep her from yanking away.

It took a good half a minute before Rogue realized she *wasn't* sucking Logan dry and quit trying to instinctively pull away from him. She sagged a bit, then grinned at Logan.

"It works." She said. "It really works."

Logan nodded. "Take your hoodie off so I can get a good look at it versus you." He said.

She obeyed, leaving herself in the regular t-shirt she wore under the hoodie. Logan glanced from arm to face and back a couple times, and eyeballed her neck. "Well, I can tell where it leaves off." He admitted. "But I got good eyes. Don't think most people will notice it."

Rogue grinned widely. She didn't know how much she'd actually use it ... at least, not right away. After over a year of hiding under multiple layers and living in terror of people touching her skin, it would be a while before she was comfortable walking around in this, even though it covered as much skin as her layers usually did. It didn't *look* like she was covered, and that was going to take getting used to. Still, it would be nice to have the option, especially on hot days, to not wear umpity layers.

"I gotta go let him know." Rogue told Logan, then grabbed her hoodie and pulled it back over her head before she darted back out of Logan's room.

=-=-=-=-=

That evening, Tony was well pleased with himself. He'd only had two problems out of the lot. Remy's armor was pretty much a no-go. It wasn't flexing enough, or in the right places. Tony planned to make some adjustments and try again, see if he couldn't manage to at least make it bend in the right places for Remy. The only other thing he'd had to do was make a minor adjustment to Clint's bow, which had taken all of an hour to accomplish.

Now all he had to do was figure out something to keep the Big Guy clothed when Bruce transformed, and he'd be golden. That, however, was proving to be rather tricky. Oh, there were clothes elastic enough to expand to the degree needed. The problem was, they didn't really shrink back down to a 'normal' size once they'd been stretched out. Or if they did, they were so bulky and loose it was ridiculous. No big deal. He'd get it eventually.

Chapter Text

Sif and Charles

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

It took but a few moments for Sif, Frigga, and the Warriors Three to get their feet under them once they were deposited on Svartalfheim's 'landing zone'.

Svartalfheim, like all of the older realms, had long ago ensured that any Bifrost visitors could not land anywhere they pleased. It gave the residents of the realms plenty of warning of an invading force arriving by that means, and time to mount a defense. That was why Thor and company had not been able to transport themselves into Laufey's very throne room, but had to land well outside of the Jotun capital city and go the rest of the way on foot. That was why Asgard's control room had been at the far end of a long, narrow literal Rainbow Road.

As there had been little call in Asgard for the sorts of weapons the dwarves of Svartalfheim specialized in - nor had their peoples been at war at any point in living memory - Sif had never actually been to Svartalfheim. Thus she took her time looking about her.

Svartalfheim, like Asgard and Jotunheim and very much unlike Vanaheim and Midgard, had mostly one environment. In Svartalfheim's case, it was tall, rugged, stony mountains as far as the eye could see. There was a marked lack of horizontal real estate, and little in the way of greenery save tufts of grass, occasional shrubs and the rare shrunken, wind-twisted tree. Thanks to the altitude, it was nigh as cold and windy at the landing zone as it had been in Jotunheim.

Little wonder, Sif reflected, that this Realm's people had resorted to carving homes and livelihoods out of the rock. They'd had no other truly viable option!

Svartalfheim did not seem to have a guardian at the landing zone the way Asgard did. Sif, however, wasn't about to take that at face value. Not after seeing Jotuns clamber out of apparently randomly placed blocks of ice with even Loki, who had ever been the most likely to spot such trickery, caught unawares. For all she knew, they were currently surrounded.

Clearly the Warriors were of like mind, as they had moved swiftly to surround their Queen and Sleipnir, faces and weapons turned outwards to their surroundings. Sif was aware of the fact that this was rather like a group of cubs attempting to protect a pair of adult wolves, but she could no more stop herself than the Warriors could.

"Volstagg, I believe you know the way?" Frigga asked after everyone had had a few moments to assess their surroundings.

Volstagg, while not as old as Frigga and Odin, was far closer to their ages than he was to the rest of Thor's group of friends. He was, after all, married and had several children himself, though all three of them were quite young yet - the youngest was barely out of swaddling. As a result, he'd traveled and done more than the rest of the company. It made sense that he had been here once before.

"Aye, my queen." Volstagg said. He immediately took point, leading the way down a narrow, twisty path that led to no destination that Sif could see.

Sif automatically took Frigga's left flank, while Fandral, the unapologetic flirt, took the Queen's right and Hogun brought up the rear. Sif made a bet with herself as to how long it would take for Fandral to forget himself and attempt to flirt with the Queen. The results bid fair to be highly amusing. Sif sincerely doubted that Frigga would take legitimate offense, but by the same token, Sif was fairly sure that Frigga would not let any flirting go by unremarked.

They picked their careful way down the path for the better part of two hours. Sif knew the journey would not have taken quite so long if the road had been less treacherous. As it was, she was heartily thankful for having her mount beneath her. Her gelding was far more surefooted on such terrain than Sif ever would be. She was beginning to believe the dwarves were part goat to traverse such paths without assistance.

Eventually, they made their way to a mostly horizontal part of the path, then negotiated a sharp turn. And there, as abruptly as if they'd been conjured, were a pair of thick metal doors, currently flung wide open to welcome any arrivals. The doors were only just barely tall enough to admit Frigga aboard Sleipnir. Sif had a feeling that Odin, who was a good bit taller than his wife, would have had to duck to get through the door if he had been riding Sleipnir.

It was just within that door, in a (deliberately, Sif was a touch too late to realize) dim, dark room that they were approached. More like surrounded.

When Sif's vision finally adjusted to the gloom she got her first good look at a dwarf/ The tallest of them would barely come to Sif's collar bone. They all had close-shorn hair and beards, and were dressed in thick, well-worn leather and mail armor. They were also all armed to the teeth - Sif could see axes, hammers and swords in ready evidence - but no weapons were actively being pointed at their company. She glanced behind them and frowned when she realized that several dwarves had appeared behind Hogun somehow or other.

One of the dwarves stepped forward, which caused Sleipnir to flick his ears back and give a displeased-sounding grunt and dance on his feet briefly in a blatant warning. Simultaneously, Volstagg shifted, turning his own mount slightly broadside, his sword and sword hand turned towards the approaching dwarf so he could defend his queen if such became necessary. The dwarf stopped instantly, nodding respectfully.

"Forgive our caution, Queen Frigga. Disturbing rumors have reached our ears of late, and it was judged wise to be wary."

Frigga gave the dwarf a regal nod. "No forgiveness is needed, honorable dwarf. To protect one's Realm is any being's sacred duty. I know not what rumors have reached your keen ears, but I dare say I may be able to clarify matters. I have need to speak with your King."

The dwarf bowed. "Of course, Queen Frigga." He turned to one of the others. "The lights."

The second dwarf walked over to one wall and touched something that Sif could not see clearly in the gloom. Seconds later, the room brightened considerably. It was not as bright as Asgard's halls, but that would have been impossible to accomplish, given they were underground. Still, she had no problem seeing clearly in the much brightened light.

The cave-room they were in was fairly large - roughly a hundred feet long and wide - and had several entrances, each guarded by thick metal doors. She could see long corridors through some of the doors, clearly leading deeper into the mountain. She presumed the other doors that she could not see through as clearly due to the angle she was at in relation to them were much the same. There seemed to be metal rails imbedded in the floor of the corridors - for what reason she was not immediately sure.

"If you would be kind enough to follow me, I will show you where you may leave your mounts." The dwarf that had first spoken to them said.

They trailed after him to a door on the far right-hand side. The corridor here was shorter than she expected, and led to a truly enormous stable, though this one was filled with horses that were closer to being ponies in size compared to Asgardian mounts. Sleipnir let out a whinny that was clearly laughter when he saw the stalls. Sif didn't blame him. The tallest stall door she could see would barely reach the bottom of his chest. Some of them wouldn't reach his knees!

The dwarf led them into another section of the stable. This section had clearly been built with visitors in mind. The stalls were built to accommodate the larger horses of other realms. And clearly Sleipnir had been here fairly frequently, as there was a stall big enough to accommodate him.

They all dismounted and removed their mounts' tack, then followed the dwarf back out. Sif soon discovered the reason for the metal rails - the dwarves traveled on them in carts of varying descriptions. The reason that was required quickly became clear. There must have been thousands of miles of track beneath just the one mountain, with crossroads scattered at unpredictable intervals. Thankfully the lot was brightly lit, but that would do an invading force little good. The dwarves' underground home was a bewildering labyrinth a body could wander in for days without finding anything of consequence.

(_)(_)(_)

In the last week or so, in between his resumed therapy sessions with Jean, lessons with the children, and the various work required of him to keep the school running well, Charles had been putting together a list of people he could contact to ... at the very least ... forewarn of the coming conflict. Ideally, he'd like to get some or all of them on-side in the defense of the planet, but there was sadly no guarantee there.

Charles' list was surprisingly small. The list of adult mutants was fairly short. It wouldn't be in five years' time - there was a bumper crop of mutants in their mid to late teens currently - but that wasn't going to do them any good in the coming confrontation that Tony had warned him about.

The list of adult mutants who had not gone lawless at best or become enemies of humankind at worst was even shorter. The people on that list who had established themselves as protectors of any kind - and thus had experience in combat - was even shorter.

Charles just hoped that when the time came, it would be enough. Formidable as the Avengers and the X-Men might be, they didn't have a hope in hell of defending the entire planet if Thanos attacked on multiple fronts.

Having put together a list of those most likely to be willing to fight in defense of the planet, Charles had set aside today to begin calling them and informing them of the upcoming situation. There was also one call he planned to make for Tony's sake - and that one he decided to make first.

He punched in the number. The phone was picked up on the second ring.

"Hello, this is Dr. Xavier. If you would be so kind as to inform Dr. Reyes I need to speak with her?" He asked of the secretary that answered the phone. Moments later, he was transferred.

"Cecilia! It's delightful to speak to you. How are things going?" He asked.

"Slow." Cecilia said. "The clinic's been fairly quiet lately. I heard you had some excitement last week in your neck of the woods. Everyone ok?" Cecila asked.

"Quite. Though that incident is tangentially related to why I'm calling you." Charles admitted. "The other team that was defending the city during that fight is in dire need of a capable doctor who can deal with, shall we say, unusual physiologies?" Charles told her.

"I'll say." Cecilia said. "There's, what, one totally unaltered human in the lot?"

"Quite." Charles said. That one human being Clint Barton. Even Tony, at this point, qualified as 'altered' due to the arc reactor in his chest.

"Give me a number to contact them, and I'll see if we suit each other." Cecila said. "Heaven knows they'll keep me busy if they're in the hero business."

Charles laughed a bit shakily. "More than you know, Cecilia. The fight we won isn't over."

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. "Oh dear. How long do we have?"

"Roughly a year." Charles admitted. "I'm going to be on the phone all day, warning as many as I think will take it seriously."

"I'll spread the word through my network too." Cecilia promised. "It's more grassroots than yours, but every bit will help."

"Precisely. And my thanks." Charles told her. Then he gave her Tony's number and said his goodbyes.

The next on his list was a quartet of people in the UK and Western Europe. Of the four, Pete Wisdom was Charles' most tenuous contact. Betsy Braddock, Sean Cassidy and Moira MacTaggert were all longtime friends - Sean and Moira longer than Betsy by a good bit. Sean's daughter was currently attending Charles' school. She was attending less to learn to control her power, which was identical to her father's (which had enabled him to teach her what she needed to know in very short order), and more to have a school experience free of the kind of danger a mutant could face in your average school. Moira and Betsy had quite the range of contacts in their respective fields, which would widen the 'warning net' considerably.

The next call Charles made was to Wakanda, and its reigning sovereign. T'challa had only very recently taken his place as ruler in the wake of his father's death, but he was a good man, and would not hesitate to protect his people.

The next quartet of calls went to Jean-Paul Beaubier, one of Charles' most dependable Canadian contacts, Carol Danvers, who in the Air Force and currently based out of Nellis Air Force Base, Sam Guthrie, who would mobilize his rather extensive (and nearly all-mutant) family and their not-inconsiderable good-old-boy network in the South, and John Proudstar, who would be able to rally the remnants of the North American Indian tribes.

Those were the easy calls. Every last one of them was quick to affirm their support and their intentions to mobilize as many of the people they knew as they possibly could. Unfortunately, the remaining calls Charles had to make would be far more fraught. While none of the people on the list were enemies, or even inclined to evil, his relations with them were not as congenial as his relations with the people he had spoken to thus far.

The first on the list was perhaps the easiest to convince, if the most antagonistic. Emma Frost and he had never really gotten along. He did not approve at all of her lack of morals, and she considered him a naive prude both physically and mentally. That said, she wouldn't hesitate to fight if it meant not having alien overlords.

The next one ... was going to be tricky all around. Shiro Yoshida was up to the ears in the sort of arrogance that was convinced no one would DARE to cross him, or sully the sanctity of his homeland, and the poor fools that did would be rightfully put in their place with a minimum of effort thanks to his (and his homeland's) inherent superiority. Fortunately, in this case, Charles had an easy enough way to shut him up. Even if Shiro, and Japan, were everything he claimed ... if the rest of the world fell, they'd be sunk, and would eventually fall. It would be inevitable, if for no other reason than the country had a finite number of citizens and would eventually bleed itself dry trying to stay free - and Shiro was not immortal.

That particular call took a full hour to complete to Charles' satisfaction. Shiro had been less than pleased, but had ultimately agreed that in this case, working with outsiders was for the best.

The next three on his list were ... well, more painful personally than anything else, to deal with. They were Erik's children. Pietro, Wanda, and Lorna. Though none of the three bore his last name, of course. Which, at this point, was for the best. It made it more difficult for anyone to realize they were his children and attempt to paint them with the same brush as Erik. Charles had kept a casual eye on them after he and Erik had parted ways, mostly to make sure they didn't get into trouble they couldn't get out of.

All three of them had been cautious, but willing to take Charles' warning to heart, and do what they could to prepare to defend at least themselves, if not those around them. Lorna, the youngest, was the least tainted by her father's bitterness and the most likely to join forces with some group or other - and likely to do the most good, as she had inherited Erik's mutation, if not Erik's sheer power (yet).

Those calls made, Charles sat and stared at the phone for nearly an hour as he waffled about making one more call. This one ... if he made it, would by far be the most dangerous call. Because he could predict what the person on the other end of the call would do in response to the warning.

If he warned her, Mystique would head straight for Erik and free him. And God knew, having Erik free and fighting would swing the odds *heavily* in the favor of Earth - Erik's mutation, power, and control made him one of the most formidable mutants on the planet - but Erik was ... broken. And as likely to try to subjugate Earth as the Chitauri and this Thanos character was, once the fight was won.

Eventually, Charles decided not to make the call. He would work on Erik instead, try to get him to see reason. Maybe ask the Captain if he would do likewise. If Erik was going to listen to anyone, it might be Steve. For now, Erik would remain incarcerated. If he was still intransigent when the fight came, and they were losing, Charles would have no compunctions about freeing him and dealing with the fallout, but hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

Chapter Text

Steve, Jarvis, Phil, and Bruce

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Things had been insanely busy for the last week and a half. Not to mention a little jarring. Worse, there was no hope of things calming down anytime soon. It would be weeks before the rebuilding efforts had gotten to the point where super-powered assistance wouldn't be (almost) required. And Steve wasn't fool enough to think that everything would be easy and roses once the rebuilding effort had gotten to that point, either.

Unfortunately, Steve knew they couldn't really afford to concentrate on the rebuilding for the entire time their help would be needed. Not when they had another army coming at them in an all-too-short length of time. They'd done well enough, thrown together at the last minute like they had been, but if they'd had time to train together, it could and would have gone a lot better and smoother.

They needed to train together. Unfortunately, Steve had no idea of where they could do that - or really of even how to do it. He knew battle tactics like the back of his hand, and would be able to deal with that end of things. He also had a vague idea of how to train regular soldiers, but that wasn't exactly going to be much help with the Avengers, for multiple reasons. And while he'd figured out how to take advantage of his own abilities after the serum, that wouldn't really help the others, who didn't have the same abilities.

First and foremost, the team had several heavy hitters that could do more damage than any gun or tank, and more than most bombs if they put their mind to it. One mistake or loss of control would do a lot of damage to their surroundings. Because of that, a training area near any kind of population was a bad idea. Especially if Steve could manage to convince Bruce to let them try working with Hulk.

Steve thought about how to fix the problem for a minute, then grinned. "Jarvis? You got a minute?" He asked, glancing up at the ceiling of his apartment. He knew Jarvis had sensors other places, but he hadn't been able to quell the habit of addressing the ceiling.

"Of course, Captain. How may I be of assistance?" Jarvis asked.

"Are Phil and Bruce busy right now?" Steve asked.

"I will inquire. One moment, please." Jarvis said. A few moments later, he spoke up again. "They are both available at the moment."

"Ok, good. Would you ask them to come by my quarters? There's some stuff I want to talk to them about. And I'd like to include you in the talk too, Jarvis."

(_)(_)(_)

Jarvis was surprised that Captain Rogers would include him in a discussion with Agent Coulson and Dr. Banner. Captain Rogers, like everyone else, remained unaware that Jarvis was a person in his own right. He supposed that Captain Rogers was following Sir's lead and treating Jarvis as if he was a person, regardless of whether he believed Jarvis was or not. He did come from an era when manners were more stringently observed after all.

Actually, now that Jarvis considered the matter, it was entirely possible that Captain Rogers thought Jarvis was a person. The thirties and forties had been an era rife with predictions and speculations as to the technologies of the future - most of which had not yet come to pass. But Captain Rogers would have grown up on such speculation, and given his situation, might be taking it on faith that some of those speculations had actually been achieved. In this regard, living with Sir would only have encouraged that belief, as Sir was capable of creating technical marvels that no other could equal.

(_)(_)(_)

Phil was very curious as to what Steve would want to talk to him about. He gave himself a mental slap and a scold to get it together when he noticed he was all but bouncing in eagerness. Well, not literally and physically anyway, thank goodness, but mentally. Even after nearly two weeks around the man, Phil had an unfortunate tendency to lose his cool when he had to deal with Steve. It was embarrassing, and Clint and Natasha ... especially Clint ... took a great deal of pleasure in teasing him about his slip-ups.

He was even more intrigued when he got off the elevator at Steve's floor and realized that Bruce was already there. What in the world could Steve want to discuss that involved both of them? Not much of their interests or capabilities intersected. There were really only two choices Phil could think of - the Serum, or something to do with the team as a whole - meaning Hulk too - and Steve was hoping to confer with them as to logistics. More specifically, training. Team training was far more likely to be the subject of the discussion, as while Steve was aware of Phil's status as a fan, it did not immediately follow that he was interested in the Serum itself, so talking to Phil about some aspect of the Serum was unlikely.

"Captain. Jarvis said you wanted to talk to me?" Phil asked.

"Steve, please." Steve said, making a slight face. "And I was wanting to talk to you both ... and Jarvis too, since he's involved in all this through the Iron Man suit - about training as a team." Steve heaved a sigh. "I have a vague idea of how to train soldiers, but my stint in Basic was ... " He grimaced. "Not exactly standard. So even if I *was* dealing with soldiers, it wouldn't be enough."

"And most of the participants in the Initiative are not soldiers." Phil said with a nod, understanding the problem. Only three of their number - Steve, Phil, and Logan - had been soldiers. And Logan had little to no active memory of that training. Treating the group like a military unit would be an unmitigated disaster.

Steve nodded. "I know Shield is sort of military, but you worked with Clint and Natasha a lot." Steve said.

The corollary there being that Phil would at least have an idea of how to work with people who weren't soldiers and get them to work as a team. Unfortunately, Steve was somewhat in error. While Phil did work with them, he'd hadn't exactly had to work to get them working as a team. They'd meshed with no help from him at all. That said, Phil did know of some techniques that would work. He just hadn't had to use them with Clint and Natasha.

"I can certainly assist you with that." Phil said. "We are fortunate in that everyone involved has at least a basic understanding of their individual capabilities, which will help immensely. We will merely have to get everyone used to working together, and find the best matches for smaller groupings when such are required by circumstances."

Not having to teach people how to fight from the ground up would help immensely, even if Phil would be ensuring that everyone took advantage of the skills their fellows possessed, and at least attempt to learn from them. While not everyone would be able to master every skill, it was entirely possible someone would discover a heretofore unsuspected knack for some skill or other.

Steve nodded. "Thanks, sir."

(_)(_)(_)

Steve then turned to Bruce. "And I wanted to talk to you about the feasibility of bringing Hulk into training."

Bruce's immediate, instinctive response to bringing the other guy out for any reason whatever was 'no'. It was a response he forced himself to throttle, then actually think about it. The other guy had been willing to focus on the Abomination that first time ... something Bruce had assumed was a fluke, or due to the fact that Betty was present and Hulk wished to protect the one human who was at all sympathetic to his existence at that time. But in the face of his cooperation during the invasion, and Bruce's somewhat reluctant acceptance of the fact that there was more to the other guy than rage and destruction, he was no longer sure that was the case.

"We wouldn't be able to do it a lot." Bruce said. "Transforming does a bit of a number on me. We'd also have to be somewhere a long way from innocent bystanders." Bruce finally said. "I really can't tell you how the other guy would react to a training scenario. I don't even know that he'd understand. He could decide it was a legitimate fight ... or just run off."

"Would having Betty there help?" Steve wanted to know.

Bruce instantly shook his head. "No. Her being right there would *definitely* incite the other guy to treat it like an actual attack. According to Betty, he's extremely protective of her. She said that her showing up in his sight-line is what ended up turning the tide during the incident at Culver University. Evidently, Ross' sound-wave tanks had actually been working until then." Bruce made a face. "She showed up and he went into overdrive, trying to protect her."

Bruce is pretty sure there's a missing piece or two to the sequence of events there, but the point still stood. Even if the other guy managed to comprehend 'training' as being different from 'fighting', Betty being anywhere near the tussle would throw a spanner into the works really fast.

"That said, having her close by enough to come help corral the other guy if he goes off script would be a good idea. Just not where he can see or hear her until she's needed." Bruce admits.

He's fairly sure that Tony could keep the other guy in line, but the two of them are new enough to each other that there's a chance the other guy wouldn't respond to him. Comparatively, Bruce is pretty sure that Betty could pull the other guy out of even the most uncontrolled smash-fit just by showing up.

Steve nodded, obviously absorbing the information. "Good to know. I want to at least try. From what I understand, no one's really attempted to actually work with him in any way. Just shoot at him."

It doesn't really surprise Bruce all that much that Steve looks pissed about that. It does, however, still manage to throw his emotions into a twist because Steve was pissed on behalf of the other guy, who until recently had only had one supporter ... Betty. He still didn't quite know what to make of the growing group of people who were willing to give the other guy a chance. Especially when one of that bunch was himself.

"Might come to nothing, but then again, it might not. He at least deserves a chance, same as everybody else."

And again, Bruce had to actively clamp down on the nearly instinctive urge to insist that Steve was dead wrong and that the other guy was an unthinking, dangerous monster. He didn't bother trying to stop the bubble of awed gratitude, though, even if the part of him that had been fighting the other guy for so long thought Steve (and Tony) were nuts for thinking the other guy was anything other than horrible.

(_)(_)(_)

"I would presume my portion of this discussion would be to inform you if Sir had any properties that would suit?" Jarvis asked. He couldn't really see any other purpose for his inclusion.

"Partially." Steve agreed. "I mean, you don't have to tell me where they are or anything, but knowing if we'd have to get a hold of a place that'd work before we could train would be a good idea. I was also kind of wondering ... well, just how much you can do?" Captain Rogers sounded uncertain.

"I am unclear on your meaning." Jarvis admitted.

"I mean, well, obviously, you help run Tony's armor ... but could you run an armor by yourself, if you needed or wanted to?" Captain Rogers asked.

Ahhh, Jarvis understood, at least in part, what information Steve was seeking. "Sir ensured I would be able to take over a suit if it became necessary, yes."

"Could you help with Tony and run a second armor?" Steve asked.

Jarvis debated the wisdom of attending future battles on his own. Or, rather, with his own suit to command, rather than only assisting with Sir's suit. The idea had both good points and bad. To the good was the fact that he was capable of it without any diminution in his processing speed overall, which meant there wouldn't be problems with lags in reaction times. He would also be another set of eyes and weapons for the team in dire situations. To the bad was the much-increased likelihood of one of the Avengers realizing that Jarvis was much more than they had initially assumed him to be. They were all highly intelligent individuals, and they would not long remain under the incorrect assumptions they currently held as to his status as an independent being in those circumstances. Artificial Intelligence had its limits, after all. Or at least, A.I.'s not built by Sir did. True emotion and independence of thought and action remained beyond the average A.I., which had long ceased to be a factor for Jarvis. Sooner or later, the Avengers were going to notice.

So really, the question was whether or not Jarvis was willing to trust them with that information as quickly as they would obtain it while observing him act on his own recognizance during combat. And the answer to that was ... no. Not yet. Trust had become a precious, viciously guarded commodity in the wake of Stane's betrayal, and while Jarvis was tentatively willing to trust these men and women in Sir's company and to a certain extent with Sir's life, he did not trust them fully yet.

"No." Jarvis said. His deliberations had happened so quickly there was no hesitation between Captain Rogers' question and Jarvis' response. "While my programming permits me to override the Iron Man armors if Sir is injured or unconscious long enough to get him to safety, they do not permit for me to run a suit independent of human attendance outside of such emergencies."

Programming, hah. More like Sir's permission. Sir had also given Jarvis blanket permission to lock Sir out of the armors if he was intoxicated, after that ill-conceived birthday party when Sir had been dying of palladium poisoning. Of course ... Sir had cut down his drinking markedly after that incident. He still consumed alcohol, but with neither the quantity nor the frequency that had been the norm prior to Sir's brush with death.

"Fair enough." Captain Rogers said with a nod. "Thanks for letting me know."

"As to the other matter, Sir has two properties that might suit for training purposes. I will inform him of your interest and see which he thinks would be best, or if he has another facility in mind. Sir often anticipates such things." Jarvis said.

Which was at least the honest truth. Sir was very likely to have realized the necessity of a training facility for the group at some point. Unfortunately, it was not always possible for Jarvis to figure out what Sir was up to, so he may have missed the significance of any traffic going to one facility or another. Especially if Sir had merely earmarked it as construction equipment, or the like.

"Thank you, Jarvis. I appreciate that." Captain Rogers said.

Chapter Text

Jane

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

After being stalled for about a week in order to figure out what movies to disinclude from the list of movies to watch, whether due to someone's triggers or some other reason (mostly 'it utterly sucked and no one likes it, I'm not subjecting anyone to it') , Movie Night had been announced at breakfast this morning. There had been considerable discussion as to what movie to start with.

Jane, like everyone else, had put her two cents in. There had been a strong movement for something 'actiony', per Tony's description. Jane hadn't disagreed. While less action-packed movies had their merits and were very enjoyable to watch, they were mostly looking, at least for this first night, for something to wow Steve, Thor, and Loki with. And all the movies that had the 'wow' factor they wanted inevitably had a lot of action in them.

Star Trek and Star Wars, obviously, had both been on the list. They were iconic, and lines and scenes from the movies (and the shows in the case of Star Trek) were part of pop culture almost across the globe. Jane let the arguing die down a bit before she lobbed her choice into the ring.

"What about Lord of the Rings?" She asked. "If nothing else, it'll let them know where Legolas comes from." Legolas being Tony's most frequent nickname for Clint.

She was a little worried about the whole thing with the Ring messing with everyone's minds bothering Loki and Clint. Clint didn't seem to be think it would be a problem for himself, if his immediate approval of watching the movies was anything to go by. Jane knew though that what a person thought they could handle and what they actually could handle didn't always match up. She also couldn't decide if Denethor and his attitude as regarded Boromir and Faramir would be a problem or not for Loki and Thor, but the rest of it would probably appeal to all three of their 'need to catch up on things' guys. Plus, it would be interesting to see if there were any similarities at all between the dwarves and elves of the films and the actual 'nine realms' elves and dwarves that Thor and Loki both had confirmed existed.

Tony clearly agreed with her, because he whirled around to look at her and pointed a finger at her. "Why didn't I think of that! That's brilliant. It's long, but we can break it up over a couple days if we need to. Extended version only, of course."

It hadn't taken much longer for everyone to agree with the choice. Popcorn, other snacks and drinks of choice were acquired and everyone found a seat. Jane, of course, immediately tucked herself in against Thor's side on one of the couches, with Loki on Thor's other side. Tony and Pepper were tucked into a loveseat, while Phil, Clint, and Natasha were on a second couch. Remy, Logan, and Darcy had a third, while Steve, Betty, and Bruce had the fourth. John and Rogue had opted to sprawl on the floor, despite there being several chairs and a second loveseat they could use if they wanted to.

She'd seen the movies before, so she didn't plan to pay the screen much mind. She was far too interested in watching Steve, Loki, and Thor experience it for the first time. She wasn't the inveterate people-watcher that Darcy was - she was usually too caught up in her scientific pursuits to have the time. She did still enjoy people-watching from time to time. Especially when the people she was watching were intriguing, or as in today's case, about to experience something unusual for the first time.

Loki had, over the last week, admitted to visiting Earth a time or two since Odin and the other Asgardians retreated permanently to their realm. That, combined with his 'debriefing' (to put it nicely) of Clint during the whole invasion snafu helped explain why Loki was so much more knowledgeable of and comfortable with Earth technology and culture. He didn't have a comprehensive knowledge by any means, but he had a lot more to work with than Thor, who had evidently not been here between the Asgardians leaving and his exile.

Jane had had to bite her tongue to keep from asking how many of the tales were true. One part of her desperately wanted to know. The rest of her ... not so much. She was afraid that if certain tales were confirmed, she'd end up going back to Asgard and slapping Odin silly. Provided of course that someone else didn't beat her to it, which was a high probability. Besides which, if the tales *were* true, asking about them would very probably hurt Loki, at least in the case of the stories regarding his kids.

All that said, while Loki knew more, he hadn't actually *experienced* much of modern-day Earth. Evidently the last time he'd visited, the industrial revolution had just been starting. That meant his personal knowledge and information was nearly three centuries out of date. He hadn't exactly had time or ability, during the invasion, to do more than be told about the current level of technology and its ability to cause him problems.

Jane, with help from Darcy, had explained film-making in general to both Loki and Thor. Thankfully, Asgard had a very long, strong tradition of verbal story-telling and theater, so the concept of film-making wasn't hard for them to understand. After all, on its simplest level film making amounted to 'make-up, costumes, drawings and props'. Of course, film making was actually a whole lot more complicated than that, but that simple level was enough to convey the general concept. They could always explain the specifics at a later time.

What had surprised Jane ... and she was kind of ashamed it had ... was that Thor had been every bit as quick as Loki to catch on. But that was the thing about Thor. He was big, muscular, liked to fight and threw a hammer around. Combined with his lesser knowledge of Earth, it made him come across as a very dim bulb indeed a lot of the time, and made it very easy to underestimate him. Put side by side with Loki, who seemed to be Asgard's answer to Tony or Bruce, it was even worse.

The worst part of it was, Jane *knew* Thor wasn't a dim bulb. He'd spent half the night that one night on his first trip to Earth explaining Yggdrassil and other things, and Jane knew damn well from that that Thor was probably the equivalent of a genius IQ, with knowledge that far outstripped any Earth scientist's.

The dichotomy intrigued her when she wasn't scolding herself for assuming he was stupid. She was honest enough to admit she'd fallen for his looks first. Who wouldn't have? But while she was willing to drool over muscled jock types, they had never really been her preferred romantic partner. Mostly because they couldn't even begin to keep up with her mentally, and weren't interested in trying. Or at least the ones she'd dated previously hadn't been. Which sort of made Thor the best of both worlds. A body to die for, and a brain to match.

Oh, and let's not forget the sweet, gentle, and very chivalrous personality. Where the hell he got it from, Jane wasn't sure. He damn well didn't get it from Odin. She was assuming that it was either Frigga's genetics or her training shining through, one of the two. Either of which was a hell of a testament to Frigga, given the utter assholery that was Odin.

Jane had been very amused by Thor, the last week and a half or so. He was a worse mother hen than Darcy had ever dreamed of being ... and infinitely more effective to boot. He made very, very sure that Jane ate and slept enough, and didn't just 'do science' all day. He managed it better than Darcy mostly because of his very expressive face. It was pretty much impossible to tell him 'no' when he turned on the 'sad puppy eyes'. Jane was honest enough to admit that Darcy usually had to resort to brow-beating and arguments to get her to eat and sleep, especially when Jane was really wrapped up in something. Thor just gave her this ... look ... and she folded like a house of cards. It felt like saying 'no' or putting him off was the equivalent of kicking a puppy when he pulled that look.

Put simply, Jane was falling head over heels in love with Thor. The only sour spot was the whole 'He's not human' thing, and only from the perspective of his living so much longer than she would. It made her feel more than a little sad and guilty, when she thought about it. Sometimes, she wondered if it wouldn't be better to just ... well, separate the pair of them. Then she would realize that wouldn't do a damn bit of good. Thor, for reasons that escaped her a lot of the time, was as enamored of her as she was of him. If the lifespan thing was going to be a problem, he'dve not pursued her ... right?

At least, she hoped.

Jane shook off those musings as the movie started up, wanting to watch Thor, Loki, and Steve as they watched the movie for the first time. It was every bit as amusing as she'd thought it would be.

It quickly became clear that the Earth perception of what a dwarf looked like wasn't too far off the mark. Tony briefly paused the movie after the elves and dwarves had been seen in the prologue, just to find out if there were any similarities.

"They do bear a great resemblance to those in this tale." Thor confirmed. "The tallest dwarf I ever encountered was nigh a foot shorter than Friend Stark." Tony being one of the shorter members of the group aside from the teenagers. "They are all dark of hair and eye, and sturdy of body. They are also hailed throughout the Realms as master miners and smiths, much as the dwarves of this tale."

"The elves bear a strong resemblance to their counterparts of the Realms as well." Loki confirmed. "Though there is more variation in hair and eye color than seems to be shown in this tale. The one true difference lies in their methods of battle. The elves of the Realms have the strongest magics of any of the races of the Realms. They do battle with their magic almost exclusively, save for using knives and daggers in close combat when it becomes necessary. They disdain other weaponry as crude, uncouth, and in some circles, cowardly and an admission of weakness. Given that the only reason an elf would require further weaponry would be due to their lacking magical strength or the knowledge to use it properly, such a perception is not unexpected."

Loki's mouth quirked. "Mother's and my fighting styles borrow heavily from theirs. She told me once that she had an elf as a tutor when she was a child, after her magical strength was recognized. They taught her more than just how to use her magic."

Unspoken was the correlation that Asgardians would find a fighting style that depended heavily on magic and the odd throwing knife or dagger as cowardly as an elf would find using a big-ass hammer, spear or sword. Frigga had gotten away with it thanks to two main factors. She was Queen, which gave her a lot of leeway no matter what the subject was, and she was female. Asgardian women messing with magic was apparently tolerated a lot better than a man doing likewise. The reasons behind it completely escaped Jane's understanding.

Not for the first time did Jane feel some sympathy for Loki. Growing up in Asgard had to have been hell for him.

"You said these are based on books?" Steve asked.

"Yes, they are." Jane said, beating Tony to the punch by about half a second. "And the movies miss out a LOT of stuff. They kind of had to, or the movies would have been about twelve hours long EACH, rather than twelve hours all together. And they do change things here and there."

"I'd really like to read them." Steve said.

Tony grinned across at him. "I can get them for you, no problem. I'm assuming you want the actual books, and not just the on-computer version?"

"Yeah. Reading stuff on the Starkpad is great for when I don't want to lug a whole book around, but nothing really beats having the actual books." Steve said.

Tony gave Steve a look that, to Jane's eyes, was amused and tolerant, then hit play again.

All three men were very quickly enthralled by the story. Jane was very quickly hard put to keep from snickering. Thor and Steve both were soon literally on the edge of their seats. Thor *really* got into it, calling advice and warnings out to the characters. Steve, who'd had experience with movies before he'd been frozen, was a little more restrained, but only in pure volume. Thor was very loud when he forgot himself, probably thanks to the huge open spaces of Asgard. Yelling was about the only way to be heard across the enormous rooms typical of the palace or over the crowds of rowdy, energetic and noisy Asgardians that were in those enormous rooms. Thor remembered, most of the time, to keep his voice down in the smaller, quieter rooms he spent time in on Earth, but he occasionally forgot and blasted everyone's eardrums.

Loki was, by far, the most restrained of the three, but Jane didn't mistake that for disinterest. Loki didn't look away from the screen for even a second, clearly paying close attention to what was going on. They all got a bit of a surprise when the first half of the movie was done and everyone used the break to stretch and restock their refreshments.

"This tale bears a faint resemblance to an actual event of the Realms." Loki admitted. "Replace this Sauron with Thanos ... " He shuddered and went quiet, looking a bit distressed.

Thor reached over and gripped his shoulder. "Peace, brother. That fell creature will never harm you again." He growled. The dead-serious look on his face made it really clear to anyone with sense that Thor would quite happily ram Mjolnir down Thanos' throat personally if that's what it took to bring Thanos down.

Loki pulled himself back together fairly quickly, but did not acknowledge either Thor's words or Thor's grip on his shoulder. But at the same time, Jane knew, even after only a week and a half of being around Loki, the fact that Loki let Thor's hand remain was in fact his way of acknowledging and accepting the support. And quite possibly his way of admitting he needed the support, too.

"As I was saying, replace Sauron with Thanos, and the being of six of the nine Realms with just the dwarves and elves, and this could almost be the tale of the first clash with the Mad Titan, so many millennia ago." Loki finished.

"Interesting." Jane said. "It makes you wonder just how often folks from the other Realms have stopped by Earth over the millennia, and what stories they told while they were here." Which was about as close as she was comfortable getting to the whole 'Loki, do you have kids' question. "Though, question. Why only six of the nine?"

"Two of the Realms were empty by then, their peoples having already risen to their golden age and then faded into nonexistence." Loki said. "And Midgard was still a volcanic rock devoid of any complex life forms whatever at the time. It is part of why Thanos is so interested in Midgard now. The other two Realms are useless to him. All that remains of them is resource-less rocks so cold and dark they make Jotunheim look like a tropical paradise in comparison. This makes them useless as bases to launch any sort of assault from."

"Where Earth has resources in plenty both on the planet itself and on the rest of the planets in the system, and billions of people to force into harvesting those resources, to keep the Chitauri free to wage war." Steve said, understanding where Loki was going with what he was saying. "But why not just go after the other Realms directly?"

"Because he was banished." Loki explained. "It is a magic that, enacted by the rightful ruler of the Realm involved, prevents the being so banished from ever setting foot in the Realm ever again. It is also supposed to strip the being so banished of any powers they possess. How Thanos regained his, I do not know." Loki admitted.

They watched the rest of the movie with slightly different eyes. Or at least Jane did. She couldn't help but wonder if perhaps some elements of the story of the battle with Thanos and his banishment, passed down through the ages, had reached Tolkien, and he'd woven them together and filled in the big gaps between, making his own story in the process.

They got another surprise when the first movie was over. Thor glanced over at Loki. "The tale of how orcs came to be ... "

Loki was already nodding. "Yes, I know, brother."

"What're you two on about?" Tony demanded.

"Several millennia ago, there was a ... faction of elves." Loki said. "That broke off from the main population. Their leader was said to have delved into the same sorts of magics that according to legend drove Thanos insane. He and his people waged war against several of the realms, but there were not enough of them to truly accomplish much. They were wiped out about a hundred years after they began attempting to conquer the realms. But again, there is a similarity, if only faint ... "

"With how Sauruman said the orcs came about." Jane said. Minus the torture, anyway. Well, probably. She hoped.

"And elves, dwarves, the Aesir and Vanir can all inter-breed. As, I suspect, can humans." Loki said. He didn't know or care if such was the case with Jotuns. "Which would could possibly be at least the source idea for the ... " Loki hesitated, digging the unfamiliar term out of his memory. "Uruk-hai?"

"Either that or Tolkien thought it up all on his own." Tony pointed out. "I'll give you guys that he got elves and dwarves from tales passed on by visiting Asgardians or hell, from visiting dwarves and elves, but the rest?" He shook his head. "You guys aren't *that* special." The quirk of his mouth made it clear he wasn't trying to be mean.

Loki turned his nose up, but there was an impish twinkle in his eyes that forewarned everyone that he was up to no good. It was actually good to see, as far as Jane was concerned. Loki had been far too quiet over the last week and a half. While Thor made it clear that Loki wasn't the boisterous type, he'd also made it clear that Loki told tall tales and pulled pranks as a matter of course, both of which had not been in evidence since Loki had been freed from Thanos' control.

"I think you will find, Tony, that we are, indeed, that special. Without us, You poor Midgardians would still be playing about in the muck." Loki's tone, like Tony's, made it clear he didn't actually mean what he was saying.

It didn't take long for things to devolve into a snark-fest between Loki and Tony, both of them clearly relishing having someone to snark at who could snark right back at the same level. After a few minutes, Thor bent his head down and murmured in Jane's ear.

"It is good to see Loki thus. He did not often have an opponent who could match his skill with words on Asgard. One of the few who could was mother, and she did not find sport in debate the way Loki does, so seldom indulged him."

Jane couldn't help but laugh a little. "Debate, huh? Is that what you're calling this? I call it an all-out snarkfest."

Chapter Text

Tyr and Thor

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Tyr of Asgard had seen much in his nearly five millennia of life. He had, as little more than a stripling lad, fought side-by-side with a then-Prince Odin Borson in the last great battle before Thanos the Mad Titan had been forever exiled from the shores of six of the nine realms. At one point in that battle, they'd ended up back-to-back fighting for their lives. From that time forward, Odin had trusted him as he had trusted few others. Enough so that when Bor had died and Odin assumed the throne, he had named Tyr his general.

But Tyr, thanks to that long association, was more aware of Odin's faults than most. He was also pragmatic enough to admit they existed, and do what he could to mitigate them. Unfortunately, even as Odin's general, that hadn't amounted to much.

He was not blind, nor stupid. He had known that Frigga had not been with child before the appearance of Loki. He had also known that the orphans of the battles against the Jotuns had all been found homes. Primarily because he'd been the one to ensure the children of the men who had died under his command would be well taken care of.

That had left very few sources for the mystery child. Unfortunately, Tyr had not been the only one to put the pieces together. More than one of the soldiers from that last campaign had figured it out as well. Unlike those soldiers, Tyr had done his utmost to not hold his true parentage against the child. Loki was an innocent and did not deserve to be treated ill for things he'd had no part in nor memory of. Sadly, more than one of those other soldiers had been quite ready to hold Loki's parentage against him. Especially in the face of Odin's apparent permissiveness of ill-treatment aimed Loki's direction.

Tyr honestly had no clue as to the full truth of the events that had occurred before Loki's apparent death. That something had gone wrong somewhere had been pretty clear, but Tyr hadn't known most of the details. He only knew that Thor had been banished, Odin had succumbed to the Odinsleep, Loki had assumed the throne, and then all hell had broken loose. Nor had he been present when the Midgardians arrived with Thor and Loki and Odin passed sentence, though he had heard rumors about what had been revealed. He did not, however, trust rumors as a general rule. As such, he was willing to withhold judgment until he found out what had happened from Thor and Loki's own mouths.

Clearly, Odin had been at least partially at fault for the mess, and had done something - or been about to do something - that would make matters worse. It was the only explanation for both why Frigga had slapped Odin down, and her comment about crimes against Asgard and the Princes.

He'd had a busy time of it since Frigga had given him his orders. He'd headed straight for the Vault first, intent on dealing with the weapons there. He and Frigga were of one mind on this particular. While a few of the weapons there were usable, mostly they merely presented a threat to the Realms and needed to be destroyed. Unfortunately, this was not so easy a thing to accomplish. A few of the weapons would survive even being tossed into the heart of a star thanks to enchantments placed upon them. Of course, doing such a thing would make them far harder to access than if they were sitting in a building. The number of beings in the Realms capable of withstanding such an environment, or extracting an object from such an environment from far enough away to remain unaffected, were vanishingly small. Unfortunately, Thanos was one of those that could pull it off.

In the end, Tyr had opted to send the weapons he could not destroy into the heart of a star anyway. It was the best solution they had. With the number of stars available to them, the odds of anyone finding the right star were very small. It was going to have to be enough. As further insurance, Tyr did not put all of the weapons in a single star, lest any one being find the cache and manage to rescue the lot in one fell swoop.

That accomplished, he had visited the armory to make sure the smiths there had all they required to repair and forge armor and weapons. They'd been in need of more leather for padding, so he'd sent a large hunting party out to obtain skins. The feast that would result from such a hunt would do much to restore spirits that had flagged in the face of the queen's dire news.

With things in Asgard as settled as they could be, Tyr decided to journey to Midgard. After some small thought, he decided not to arrive in full armor lest he alarm the warriors that Thor and Loki had taken up residence with. He opted for a scale mail shirt and leather vest very similar in most regards to Thor's, though his lacked the metal circles, and the cape. Nor did he bring his sword, settling for just a dagger since he was loath to be completely unarmed.

Suitably attired, he returned to the Bifrost control room and bid Heimdall set him down on the roof of the building in which Thor and Loki now dwelled.

(_)(_)(_)

Thor had arisen at his usual early hour. As had become his wont over the last few days, he joined Captain Rogers, also an early riser, for a friendly bout of wrestling before their compatriots all woke to break their fast. He'd encountered the Captain one morning in the training facility by chance, and the Captain had convinced Thor to engage in a bout. It had succeeded so well they'd agreed to continue.

Thor had found the Captain to be an exemplary warrior, capable of dealing with and nearly equaling Thor's strength and fighting abilities aside from the use of Mjolnir. For all his youth relative to Thor's, the Captain also had far more temperance and wisdom than Thor knew himself to possess. There were few in any Realm that Thor would follow without qualm, but the Captain was swiftly becoming one such. Enough so that Thor had a tendency to refer to Steve by his rank as a mark of respect.

It was probably somewhat petty of Thor, but he was relieved that he was not the only one to be rather obviously lost and confused when it came to Midgard in general and its culture in particular. Oh, Loki was very nearly as much at sea as Thor was, but he was far better at hiding it, and far faster to adapt than Thor would ever be. The Captain was far more apt to allow himself to look or sound confused, and adapted more slowly than Loki did.

The last stragglers - namely Tony and Bruce - had just sat down to table when Tony's mechanical marvel spoke.

"Sir, I am detecting energy readings consistent with the activation of the Bifrost emanating from the sky directly above the building."

Beside him, Loki froze for a second before resuming his normal mien. Thor shifted to the side enough to bump shoulders with him and give him a quick supportive look.

"Any way of knowing if they're friendly?" Tony wanted to know.

Thor answered him. "They must be friendly. Only Heimdall controls the Bifrost. None may use it without his leave, and I sincerely doubt he's been killed in the mere days since our visit."

"Not exactly what I meant, Fabio." Tony said, then indicated Loki. "I'm more worried about Odin going back on his word."

"He would not. It may well be mother. She did indicate a desire to visit Midgard." Thor pointed out.

"Right. I guess there's only one way to find out. Let's go." Tony said.

Thor was rather amused when everyone made their way to the roof, each as curious as the rest as to whom their visitor might be. He was less amused when he realized that Loki was coming remarkably close to attempting to hide behind Thor, using him as a shield. Clearly his brother was far more worried about Asgardian visitors than Thor had initially suspected he would be. It was remarkably disconcerting to have Loki acting so. While he had ever been in favor of subtlety and striking from the shadows, this was something else entirely.

When the dazzling brilliance of the Bifrost receded enough to permit him to observe who had traveled to Midgard, Thor was both mightily pleased and deeply concerned to see it was Tyr standing there. Another moment's observation cleared away the concern. Tyr was not garbed for battle, nor was he carrying weapons or chains that might indicate that Odin had indeed rescinded his decree regarding Loki. This then was either a trip regarding Thanos' impending arrival, or Tyr visiting Midgard to quench his curiosity. Much relieved, Thor greeted Tyr with his usual friendly abandon. As further indication that Tyr was not here on dire business, Tyr was as quick to greet Thor, the two men meeting in a fierce hug followed by gripping each others' forearms.

"Well met, my princes." Tyr said to Thor with a grin. He glanced around Thor's bulk and nodded respectfully to the far less physically demonstrative Loki before he broke from Thor's grasp and offered a forearm clasp to Loki, who accepted it with a faint air of surprise. "Both of you. I bring news from Asgard, and from her majesty the Queen."

Thor was pleased that Tyr greeted Loki so. He knew that many of the people of Asgard would put all blame on Loki and treat him ill. Tyr had never been one such, but it had been possible that circumstances would change Tyr's usual approach to Loki.

Tyr then turned his attention to the gathered Avengers. "And these must be Midgard's defenders. Rumors have been running wild in Asgard since your arrival. I was sorry to have missed it."

Thor laughed. He could just bet that the rumor mill had been working overtime in relation to the Avengers' visit. Mortals on Asgard was rare enough. That two of them had dared to defy Odin, and one had felled a guard would have had tongues wagging overtime. He clasped Tyr's shoulder, and began to make the introductions.

"My friends, this is Tyr, general of Asgard's army. Tyr, this is ... " And then he named everyone.

Once the introductions were complete, Tony stepped forward. "You said you had news?" He asked. "Is that just for Thor and Loki, or all of us? 'cause if you need privacy, we can scoot, but if it's for everyone, we'll be more comfortable inside."

"The news I bear is for all." Tyr said.

Tony led the way inside. Thor smiled to see Tyr gazing about, curious as to their lodgings. Tyr was visibly disconcerted by the elevator, a thing which did not exist on Asgard, primarily because they did not build edifices as tall as Midgardians did. While there were several floors to the palace, for instance, there were nowhere near the hundred-plus floors in this particular building, so finding a means to get from the bottom-most floor to the top-most without exhausting oneself had never been a concern.

Once they were settled on the couches on the floor used for entertainments, Tyr began his tale.

"I will begin by saying that all is currently well in Asgard, and your mother the Queen in fine health. I say this because much of what I have to impart is at least somewhat alarming." Tyr told them.

"I do not know the full tale myself - the Queen did not see fit to enlighten me. But three days past, the Queen was seen riding at speed for Heimdall's control room. She returned at a far more temperate speed, and then bade that all within a feasible distance of the palace, as well as all residents of the palace, gather in the throne room two hours later."

"When that cumpulsory audience took place, the Queen arrived in battle dress which I know for fact she had not possessed previously. She held Gungnir in her grasp and Odin was nowhere to be seen." Tyr told them.

Thor exchanged an alarmed glance with Loki. The two of them realized the significance of someone other than Odin bearing Gungnir. Thor's first thought was that Odin had finally resumed the interrupted Odinsleep he'd begun a year previously, but that didn't explain his mother wearing armor. Tyr was right - Frigga never had before, at least not in Thor's memory.

"She then proclaimed that, for 'crimes against Asgard and her heirs' Odin had been summarily exiled, and that she was assuming the throne."

Thor's eyes about popped out of his head at this proclamation. He had long known that Frigga was greatly displeased with the treatment Loki endured, and blamed Odin for it. She had also seen him carry out various political and battle plans, both for good and ill. But she had endured it all this long without seizing control. What in the name of the Norns could Odin have done to drive Frigga to take control? He took some small comfort from the fact that Loki seemed as confused as he was.

"She then revealed that that fell monster was on the move once more." Tyr said, his face twisting in distaste.

"Wait. You mean that Odin had not ... " Loki started.

"If Odin possessed that knowledge at any point before the Queen's audience, he did nothing." Tyr confirmed.

Well, that explained the 'crimes against Asgard' part of his mother's comment, Thor reflected. That Odin had not taken action against Thanos' renewed rise was more than reason enough to depose him.

"She then bade the court ambassadors to disperse to the Realms and warn their Kings about Thanos, and took herself, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif off to Svartalfheim and Jotunheim. She bade me to ready our troops and to empty the Vault and destroy those weapons which could not be safely used, and see to the dispersal amongst our troops of those that could. She also bade me to coordinate with the two of you, as you were assisting Midgard and her warriors with their preparations, as this is the first time they have encountered the Mad Titan, and would thus be the best source of knowledge as to Midgard's defenses."

Tyr sighed and then continued. "I have done as the queen commanded thus far, with the exception of one weapon. She expressed especial interest in the Casket of Ancient Winters, and bade that it not be destroyed or given over to anyone who might be able to control it. She expressed the possibility of returning it to Jotunheim if she could establish enough fellowship with their new King. Unfortunately, the Casket was not to be found in the Vault. I had wondered if either of you had seen it, or if one of the invaders that broke in on Thor's aborted coronation day might have managed to make off with it after all."

For one of the few times in his life, Thor decided to tell a blatant lie. He knew from Odin, who'd seen Heimdall get frozen in his sleep, that Loki had taken the Casket during his madness after the revelation of his parentage. It was far better than Thor be blamed for it, and given the situation at the time, it was even believable that he had done something. He had not been best pleased with the situation immediately after his aborted coronation. He was rather known for making rash decisions when his blood was up like that, so Tyr was unlikely to question it.

"I removed it, after the invasion." He claimed. "And bid Loki hide it against another incursion, since the Jotuns could obviously get into the Vault. I feared the appearance of a larger force that the Destroyer could not defeat before one did make off with either the Casket or another of the weapons there."

Tyr considered that for a moment before nodding. "Rash, perhaps, but perhaps also wise, given they did indeed manage to get in there." He said, then turned his attention to Loki. "If you would either tell me where it is hidden, or be willing to fetch it, my prince, I would be grateful."

Loki nodded. "You will have it in your hands ere you return to Asgard." He told Tyr.

Chapter Text

John, Steve, and Cecelia

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

For John, the last week had been pretty unreal. It wasn't the new clothes or the sweet-as-hell new digs he got to live in that made it that way either. No, the air of unreality was down entirely to the adults around him and how they were dealing with him and Rogue.

Tony had only been the start of it, with his blasé reaction to and easy acceptance of their powers. Captain Fucking America had been right there with Tony - and that would forever shock the hell out of John because the dude was from the fuckin' thirties and forties. Steve should be freaking right the hell out about mutants in general, never mind having two such dangerous ones all up in his face. Instead, Steve had just been completely unconcerned. It blew John's mind.

The fact Steve had been so quick to ok John at least fighting with the adults had initially thrown John too. After John'd thought about it for a little bit though, it made sense that Steve'd be ok with it. A lot of guys John's age had been signing up for the war back in the late thirties and early forties, and on top of that, it'd been the Depression and all of that. That had meant that folks had been scrabbling for whatever work they could find in order to be able to afford to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. People had had to grow up fast, including Steve, so Steve probably had the mindset that someone mid-to-late teens was capable of being an adult and making adult decisions if they wanted to be.

John figured that if Rogue had wanted to fight too, Steve'd be as ok with her as with John. While John took a lot of the stories told by folks who'd never met Steve with a pound of salt, a few of the stories had been confirmed by Steve himself in the last week and a half. Including the bit about Peggy Carter fighting alongside Steve in at least one battle. If Steve was ok with that, and ok with Natasha (who scared the holy hell out of John), Rogue wouldn't be a problem if she had wanted to fight. Rogue rather understandably wanted no part of that shit, though. At least not on the 'use my mutation against the enemy' level anyway. She was still learning to defend herself without using her mutation, even if she only trusted Logan to teach her because of her skin.

The rest of the Avengers had been just as accepting of the mutants in their midst. Enough so that John was beginning to wonder if maybe the entire planet wasn't actually solely comprised of people who were bigoted assholes after all. That everyone seemed as inclined as Steve to treat him and Rogue as adults was gravy. Delicious, delicious gravy that had made Bobby (who's called them every night) shit jealous. John was pretty sure the only reason Bobby hadn't come to join them was because his parents were still under the delusion that their son was attending a school for the gifted and *not* a mutant.

Case in point, the two of them had automatically been included in the meet-and-greet slash coordinating-our-forces meeting with Tyr. Who seemed to be as cool with their presence as Thor and Loki, though that could be because Tyr didn't know they were kids yet. John wasn't quite sure if Thor and Loki understood that, and they'd been on Earth for nearly two weeks now. It hardly mattered to John that he didn't have anything to contribute to the planning aside from sharing what he was and wasn't capable of with his mutation and what he knew of 'normal' fighting. Being included was more than enough.

(_)(_)(_)

"Our biggest problem, and our biggest advantage." Steve said somewhere in the middle of the planning. "Is going to be the high-population-density areas. Lots of innocent civilians who are going to be in the line of fire, but also more defenders in those areas. And we're going to have to account for folks with little to no training, but access to guns or other weapons jumping into the fight, which is going to mean dealing with and hopefully somehow reducing accidental friendly fire. I know I saw more than one regular civilian fighting back during the attempted invasion here, and I sincerely doubt that reaction will be unique to this city."

"And the biggest problem in that area is going to be China and India." Tony chimed in. "There's over two billion people in that area alone, just over a billion in each country."

Steve gave Tony a wide-eyed stare. "Two billion?" He echoed, his voice nearly a squeak. "That's the world population when I went down!" Steve had known the population had grown, of course, but that was just ridiculous.

"We're over seven billion now." Tony told him.

Steve nearly whimpered. Over triple the population in just seventy years? Yikes. "Ok, so we're going to have to put a lot of defenders in China and India, with that many people there. Depending on what sort of firepower Thanos will be bringing to bear, one or two strikes and he'd wipe out a just under a third of our population."

"Charles has already put out feelers for folks to start gathering local defenders." Steve said. "Which will help immensely. Locals will know the lay of the land better than we will." Steve looked at Tony. "Has anyone thought to warn the various governments, and their militaries?"

"Not that I know." Tony admitted. "Not my arena, not Charles' either, though he does have a few government contacts. But from the patterns Jarvis has been tracking, a warning might not be needed. There's been an upswing in military-related activities pretty much planet-wide. Some of it may be various idiots thinking to take advantage of the chaos going on right now, but not all of it."

Steve nodded. There would always be opportunists he knew, even if he really disliked that reality. "We need to figure out a way to get the word out to everyone and be believed, just to make sure." He said.

Tony wrinkled his nose and sighed. "I'll yell at Fury later." He promised.

Steve tried to level a stern look at Tony, but he was pretty sure more than a little of the amusement he was feeling was showing through. "At least try to play nice." He said.

"I will if he does." Tony snarked. "Which means we're pretty much doomed, because he won't."

"Forgive me, sir, but it is nearly two pm." Jarvis said, speaking up for the first time.

Tony looked slightly startled before he responded. "Thanks for the reminder, J."

Steve glanced at him. "What's that about?"

"Charles has connections." Tony said with a grin. "He knew of a doctor that was used to working with mutants, which means atypical pretty-much-everything. Someone like that is our best shot at a doctor who can handle the weird shit that comes with super soldiers and aliens and defending the world. She's coming in for an interview at two thirty. If I like her, I'll let you guys take a poke at her. If she manages to deal with all of us and still wants to work with us, we'll have a qualified on-site doctor. Given that we're *going* to get banged up ... "

"Having a doctor on hand that we can trust would be a very good thing." Steve finished with a nod. "Right. We'll wrap up here until you're done so you don't miss anything potentially important, and then if she passes muster with you, we can all talk to her and see from there."

(_)(_)(_)

Cecilia Reyes' life hadn't been the easiest. Watching her father be gunned down, and the subsequent difficulties her family had faced in surviving in the aftermath, had left their mark. But she had risen to the challenge, and dedicated her life to helping those that needed it the most.

In service to that desire, Cecilia had become a doctor. More specifically, a trauma surgeon. She had chosen this route because it provided the widest base of information, and was of the most use to the largest number of people. Most doctors and surgeons specialized. They could only diagnose and treat certain aspects of the human condition, and thus served a smaller segment of the population. Trauma surgeons had to be able to spot and treat a wide range of problems - and do so swiftly and efficiently to save lives.

She'd fallen into treating mutants mostly by accident. She'd been in Louisiana right after a particularly destructive hurricane had gone through when she'd spotted some injured folks who were doing their best to avoid the numerous personnel assessing and treating injuries. It had taken a lot of talking and a very careful approach to get those folks to let her treat them - at which point she had realized why they'd been so paranoid.

For Cecelia, it had highlighted a unique and growing problem. Those with unique physiologies - whether they were mutants or not - really had no one to turn to when something went wrong. So Cecelia had started working in that community, learning as she went.

About a year later, she'd discovered that she herself was a mutant when part of a wall tried to fall on her and she shielded herself. She'd gone looking for someone who could help her learn how to control her mutation, and found Charles. That had been three years ago.

Cecelia had actually been in the city when all hell broke loose. She just hadn't been at the epicenter - thank goodness. She ran a clinic in a part of town with a very high concentration of mutants, well north of Stark Tower and far from the six or so blocks that had been the center of the attack. She had promptly put her partner in control of the clinic for a couple days and headed into the affected area to help treat the injured, whether they were normal humans or otherwise. She'd returned once the overwhelming crush of incoming injured had eased, only to get a call from Charles.

The idea of becoming the Avengers' on-site physician had a lot of appeal. Cecelia knew that that group, like the X-Men, were going to be at the forefront of a *lot* of battles before all was said and done. They were going to need someone who could treat their injuries and help them stay in top condition when they weren't injured. The only question was whether or not they'd be willing to trust her with that responsibility.

Cecelia arrived for her interview with Mr. Stark ten minutes early. She was dressed in a nice but practical T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots. She'd debated what to wear for quite a while. While a nice suit or overtly 'doctor-ish' apparel had their appeal, Cecelia had a feeling that it was the wrong approach. Mr. Stark was well-known for his intolerance of stuffy, boring people ... or stuffy, boring anything for that matter. Cecelia had a feeling that most of the other Avengers would be likewise, so she wanted to come off as human and approachable.

The woman at the help desk greeted her warmly and pointed her to a specific elevator, informing her where she'd be going and that an escort would be awaiting her, to lead her to the interview room. Cecelia figured the escort was part of the security measures in the Tower, to make sure relative strangers didn't go where they had no business being.

She was therefore not quite ready for her escort to be Mr. Stark himself. Though after a moment's reflection, she decided that she really ought to have expected that.

"Mr. Stark." She greeted the man.

"Doc Reyes." Mr. Stark greeted her. "Call me Tony. Mr. Stark was my father."

"Then call me Cecelia." Cecelia said. She considered offering a hand to shake, but she had heard from more than one source that Mr ... that Tony did not like that sort of thing, so she didn't. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise." Tony said, then gave her a distinctly lascivious up-and-down.

Since Tony's flirting was as legendary as most of the rest of his personality, she had expected something of the sort. She wasn't a supermodel, but she was good looking, and Tony had a reputation for hitting on damn near anything human, never mind good looking. She gave it the attention it deserved, which is to say none at all.

"C'mon, interview room is this way." Tony said, his mouth quirking a bit.

Cecelia followed him to a small conference room. Tony flung himself into a chair on one side of the table. After a moment's thought, Cecelia opted for the chair next to him, rather than across from him.

"So." Tony said. "This is less about if you can, and more about if you will. I've read your file - you've got the chops to deal with the weird shit physical problems we will doubtlessly be throwing at you, or I wouldn't even have let you in the building, Charles' recommendation be damned."

He tapped the tabletop, and Cecelia blinked in surprise when the tabletop essentially became a computer monitor, displaying photographs of a number of people.

"We've got a bunch of oddballs." Tony said. "There's me, there's two folks from another world/dimension/whatever - we're still figuring out which it is - whose culture and medical knowledge is a lot different from modern-day America. We've also got a guy from the forties, two ex-assassins, and basically every last one of us has weird-ass quirks at the very least. And most of us are probably going to fight you on getting treated for one reason or another."

Cecelia smiled. "Tony, if I hadn't been sure I could handle recalcitrant, quirky patients, I wouldn't have bothered trying for an interview at all." She pointed out. "I can handle quirky and recalcitrant, no problem. I can even handle you guys not telling me everything right off, so long as I am informed of things like allergies, problematic drug interactions, and things of that stripe."

In other words, she wasn't going to demand - for instance - all the details as to how the arc reactor in Tony's chest worked. That didn't matter. What *did* matter was whether or not Tony was prone to chest pain, lung infections, breathing problems or the like due to the casing's location. The same sort of thing went for everyone else. Whether or not they entrusted her with the nitty-gritty details of their physiological conditions would be up to them - she just needed to know the important bits in order to treat them effectively.

Tony regarded her for a moment, then grinned. "You just might do, Cecelia. You just might do. We'll see if you can survive the gauntlet first, though. J, tell Steve to come down here."

After that, one by one, Cecelia met the various Avengers. She couldn't help but start to make purely mental notes about each of them as she met them. They were all so interesting!

Steve would be a challenge to treat. The serum had evidently gifted him with an extremely fast metabolism and something remarkably similar to a healing factor. Dosing him with medication, whether to dull pain or for a surgical procedure was going to be tricky. Especially since Steve had a very cavalier attitude about pain and injury. She wasn't going to be able to trust him to tell her when he was hurting.

Thor and Loki would require extensive, very careful experimentation as to whether or not they could tolerate human drugs at all, never mind how they would be affected by them. She foresaw a lot of blood draws in their future to figure that out, though there was hope that they would just be like Steve, since both of them could consume human foods without problems. She was also going to need to talk to their version of a doctor to ascertain whether or not their internal structures were similar enough to a human's that she'd be able to do anything for them. Fortunately, someone from Asgard had arrived earlier in the day for a visit, and was more than willing to pass on the request.

The bad news was that she'd essentially be working blind with Loki, as he was not actually Asgardian, and apparently what the Asgardians knew about the physiology of Jotuns didn't amount to much. Weirdly, and Cecelia would give her right arm to figure out how that worked, apparently if Loki looked Asgardian, his body acted and reacted like an Asgardian body would, so that would help, but if he ever reverted to his Jotun body for some reason, they'd have more than a few problems on their hands.

John, Rogue, Logan and Remy would be the easiest to deal with. Since all four of them had been at Charles' for at least six months, there would be records there for her to work with regarding treatment. Rogue's skin would be a challenge, but hardly the biggest one that Cecelia would face. Logan's admitted tendency to come awake claws first (especially if he'd gotten knocked out while fighting) would be a bigger problem than Rogue's skin ever could be.

Natasha and Clint would require much the same caution and care that Logan would. Both of them had massive paranoid streaks, lightning fast reflexes, massive trust issues and no small amount of close-combat skills. One unfortunate misstep with either of them and she'd be in a world of pain - and they wouldn't even mean to do it. Nor would she hold such a reaction against them. She had also gotten the sense that there was more going on with Natasha than Natasha had been willing to admit in their brief interview.

Cecelia made due mental note of the fact that both Bruce and Betty made it clear that Betty was pretty much the only one guaranteed to be able to approach Bruce without coming to harm in an emergency situation. Hulk was unlikely to get hurt, and apparently any injury Bruce suffered prior to transforming was healed by the transformation, but there was always the possibility of an injury happening. Just because no currently known weapon could hurt Hulk didn't mean he couldn't get hurt in the future, and Bruce could get (very slightly) hurt without transforming. Bruce also made sure to inform Cecelia that his blood was radioactive.

While none of them were actual Avengers, Cecelia was also introduced to Pepper, Darcy, Jane and Betty. The odds on those four ladies getting tangled in some event, and thus hurt, were pretty high since three of them were involved with Avengers and the fourth, while not involved with an Avenger, was a part of the group and thus a potential target or potential collateral damage if she was around the Avengers and they were attacked.

Once she'd met and talked with everyone, the group talked amongst themselves for a bit. Tony came over a minute or two later and grinned at her.

"Congrats, Cecelia. You got the job. C'mon and I'll show you our doctoring facilities, and you can tell me if I missed out any important equipment."

The Avengers' trauma area turned out to be an entire floor. There were two surgical suites, each able to be completely cut off from the rest of the floor if necessary for whatever reason. Both were equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. So was the rest of the floor. There were a dozen individual rooms for long-term care, each supplied with equipment that could turn them into an ICU in seconds, if that was required. There were several self-contained rooms to deal with unknown and possibly communicable contaminants. Each room had a large airlock on the outside wall, allowing an affected Avenger to enter the room without exposing the entire rest of the Tower to whatever they'd been covered in. They also had much smaller airlocks on the inside wall through which to pass clothes, food, medication and other items. The airlock controls - indeed the remote controls for everything on the floor - were located in a central hub, so that if the person in containment went crazy, they couldn't just let themselves out. Well, not without wrecking the room, anyway. Unfortunately, with several of the Avengers, if things got that bad, there wouldn't be a damn thing anyone could do to stop them, as they were more than strong enough - or equipped with weapons sharp enough - to get them out of pretty much any form of containment that could be dreamed up.

There was also a huge pharmacy with three different locks on the door, stocked with pretty much every medicine on the planet, FDA approved or not. Apparently, Tony had opted for an 'if it's legal somewhere, it's fair game' approach to medicine, given the oddball physiologies of the Avengers. It wasn't a bad idea, as there was no telling if FDA approved drugs would be usable. Cecelia would just pretend she didn't know the other stuff was here. She'd had practice with that.

That done, she was shown to the next floor down. There were several apartments on this floor, meant for herself and whatever medical staff got hired later on. She'd have to see about finding one more doctor and a nurse at the very least - she would not be able to be on call 24/7 by herself.

Chapter Text

Frigga and Byleistr

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. This chapter happens the same day as Charles making his calls.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Frigga was well pleased. The trip to Svartalfheim, while brief, had accomplished what it needed to. The dwarves were now warned, and had pledged their assistance in defending Midgard.

Now, however, the truly monumental task would begin. Frigga turned her mind towards their next destination as Sleipnir climbed towards Svartalfheim's Bifrost landing site.

Dealing with the Jotuns was not going to be easy. There had been a time when Asgard and Jotunheim had had good relations, but that era had been on the wane even before the Jotuns went to war. By the time they'd invaded Midgard, both sides were more of a mind to kill each other on sight than talk.

There had, after all, been a reason that Frigga hadn't beaten Odin to a pulp when he'd stolen a Jotun child, regardless of who their parents were. She had hoped that they might reforge a more peaceful relationship with the Jotuns through Loki. Of course, Odin'd had to go and wreck that hope as hard as possible with the way he handled Loki.

Frigga had done what she could, especially since she'd come to love Loki as if she'd borne him herself, but unfortunately, it hadn't been enough. Thankfully, it appeared that the damage done to Loki was not permanent and irreparable. Which was really the only reason Frigga hadn't killed Odin when she'd caught him trying to renounce Thor and Loki.

Frigga had no idea who was on the throne of Jotunheim. With the Casket gone from the realm, it didn't even have to be someone from their Royal line, since anyone clever and capable enough could make a claim of leadership and gather enough followers to usurp the throne. With the destruction that had been wrought in the throes of Loki's madness, even a usurpation might not be necessary, if all those of royal blood were killed in the cataclysm.

Asking Heimdall who had taken the Jotun throne would have been nigh-on useless. Most of Jotunheim's capital city had been destroyed in the cataclysm, and the survivors scattered to the winds. Whoever was leading them, they were not doing it from a central, obvious location, so Heimdall's chances of discerning who was leading and from where were not good.

Once they reached the landing site, Frigga shook off her thoughts and regarded Lady Sif and the Three.

"Gird yourselves against the cold." She told them, and followed her own advice, pulling Jotunheim-proof winter gear from her pack and beginning to don it. What they were currently wearing, while proof against the chill of Svartalfheim's heights, was insufficient to protect them from Jotunheim's cold. "And I will remind you that while we are on Jotunheim, you are to neither speak nor raise arms against the Jotuns save by my order. We are on a mission of peace and I will not have your intemperance causing more difficulties."

She leveled them with a flat look, but forbore to lay out the consequences of disobedience. From their expressions, they were all quite aware that they would not like the results if they defied her. Once they were all clad in heavier cloaks and other winter gear, Frigga spoke again.

"Heimdall. Jotunheim, if you please."

Moments later, they were all but on the doorstep of the old, now mostly ruined capital city of Jotunheim. Glancing behind them, Frigga saw why they had been placed so close to the ruins. The ice shelf that had served as a landing site had been completely destroyed. The cliff edge, once more than two or three miles distant, was now a matter of a few dozen yards from the edge of the ruins.

(_)(_)(_)

In the wake of the death of Laufey and the near-destruction of their Realm via the Bifrost, the succession of leadership had very nearly been an afterthought. The survivors had been entirely too busy healing, finding shelter, and rebuilding their lives.

By whatever miracle, both Byleistr, Helblindi, and their parent Farbauti had survived the mayhem. They had initially fled in three different directions with whatever survivors they could gather, fearing the appearance of an Asgardian army. Some months later, when it became clear that no such army would be arriving, they had taken the chance to meet briefly.

In that meeting, it had been decided that they would remain separate so as to make it that much more difficult for the royal line to be wiped out. Each kept but a small contingent of Jotuns with them, and word went out that at no point were more than fifty Jotuns to gather together in any one place. It was the only thing they could think to do to prevent the genocide of their race, if Odin was of a mind to wipe them out. Many parents had sent their young to the coldest areas of other realms via the secret paths as further insurance against such a fate. Traveling the secret paths was fraught with danger, but better the children be essentially exiled to other Realms, and thus keep their people alive, than for all Jotuns to be wiped out in strike.

The three had decided that all three of them would rule their people. They would remove themselves as far from one another as they could manage, and rule over whatever number of their people were in residence within a certain distance of their new accommodations. Contact between them would be rare, and undertaken only by messengers - never in person. Such a method of ruling would have been impossible if they still had the Casket, as it recognized only one master at a time, but with the situation the way it was, it would work.

Byleistr, as the younger of Laufey and Farbauti‘s children, had taken up residence closest to the remains of the capital city. Even at that, the accommodations were hidden in the mountains several miles away from the ruins. Byleistr had also taken as many of their warriors as were willing to stay near the ruins, since this was the most likely area for an invasion force to land. Together they kept a careful watch over the ruins.

Byleistr had just finished the mid-day meal when one of the guards set to watch the city ruins came racing in.

“My liege! The Bifrost! Five have landed, Sleipnir among them!” The guard reported as they skidded to a halt a few feet away.

Byleistr sat bolt upright. “Sleipnir? You are sure?”

“Very, my liege. It is a distinctive creature.” The guard said with a nod.

This was true, Byleistr knew. “Were you close enough to see who accompanied Odin?”

“No, my liege. I think at least one of them was one of the soldiers that accompanied Thor when they were here last. At least, they had a similar bulk to them.” The guard motioned a rotund shape. “The others, I could not distinguish any distinctive characteristics. They were too far away.”

Byleistr sighed. “If the fat one is with Odin, then the others are likely the rest of the soldiers that accompanied Thor. Apparently, they go everywhere together. You did not see Thor, though?”

The guard shook his head. “No, my liege. Thor is kind of hard to miss.”

“No kidding.” Byleistr said bitterly, and stood up. “I want six warriors to accompany me. And six more to sneak around the Asgardians, to attack them from the sides if needs be. And the rest of you, prepare in case there are more arrivals.” He pointed to a slender, long-legged youth. “You, make haste to Helblindi’s stronghold and tell them that we have Asgardians on our doorstep.”

The youth nodded, turned, and bolted out of the room. It would be at least a two-day journey to Helblindi, but if worst came to worst, at least Helblindi would be warned, and could warn Farbauti in turn.

Byleistr, the additional warriors and the guard made their way back to the ruins. By the time they’d gotten there, the Asgardians had begun to make their way across the ice away from the ruins. It was not until Byleistr was almost upon them that he realized that the person riding Sleipnir was not, in fact, Odin.

Jotuns, unlike most of the being of the Nine Realms, did not have two separate sexes with distinctive physical characteristics. They, in fact almost all animal life on Jotunheim, were by the language of some other realms hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female reproductive systems. They had, further, evolved so that all such things were either fully internal or able to retract into their bodies to protect them from the cold. When among other races they had used sex-specific pronouns for the convenience of their hosts, but their native language had no such words in it. This, and the size of the average Jotun had led to residents of the other Realms assuming that most Jotuns they met were males.

Such interactions had all but ceased a millennium ago when Odin took the Casket. As a result, most young Jotuns had a lot of difficulty telling one person from another realm from another unless there was something truly distinctive about them. Odin, and his appearance, was burned into Jotun memories. Sleipnir was likewise distinctive, and had until now only been seen with Odin mounted upon him. When the guard had seen Sleipnir, they had assumed. They had also been far enough away from the landing site that visually confirming a different rider would have been impossible.

The sight of someone other than Odin astride Sleipnir made Byleistr motion for the warriors and guard to fall back slightly. While such a thing would make it look like Byleistr was approaching alone so as to play nicely - which happened to be at least partly true - it also kept the warriors further out of the range of fire. Because there was no telling what was going to happen if they were facing Odin’s ... what? His successor? A usurper? There was no way to know.

Then the figure astride Sleipnir pulled back the furred hood protecting them from the cold. “Greetings. I am Queen Frigga. I come in peace to treat with whomever has succeeded Laufey on the throne of Jotunheim.”

Frigga? Byleistr thought in surprise. Wasn’t that the name of Odin’s mate? Insofar as Byleistr knew, no Jotun had ever laid eyes on Frigga. That said, Frigga had a reputation for being forthright, fair, and slow to antagonize others. Byleistr didn’t believe for a minute that they really wanted peace, not after what had happened, but at least Frigga was unlikely to rain down more destruction on them.

“I am Byleistr, child of Laufey and Farbauti.” Byleistr said. “I have authority to treat with any who would.” Byleistr glared at Frigga and the other four. “The question becomes whether or not I wish to. Asgard’s crimes against my realm and my people are numerous, and by all rights I should kill you where you stand in recompense for the life of my parent and the dozens who were killed by the Bifrost.”

The four riders behind Frigga shifted uneasily, but did not raise arms. Frigga herself didn’t so much as twitch.

“We are agreed that Jotunheim has a myriad of legitimate grievances against Asgard.” Frigga said. “Though it is my hope that we can reforge at least some sort of peace between us. Odin has been banished from the realm for his crimes against your people.”

An odd expression flitted across Frigga’s face, but Byleistr hardly noticed it. Byleistr was too busy being stunned speechless at Frigga’s admission. Odin banished? What in the name of Surtur’s flame had happened in Asgard? Byleistr didn’t believe the banishment had been solely due to crimes perpetrated against Jotunheim, either. Though Byleistr was willing to believe that those crimes had played a part in the banishment.

After a few moments, Byleistr managed to regain some equilibrium, and spoke.

“Perhaps, Queen Frigga, I will treat with you after all.” Byleistr said. “You will follow us. This area is no longer stable, and even if it was, there is no shelter from the elements to be had here any longer. Our accommodations are not too far from here, however.”

Frigga and the four followed Byleistr tamely enough. There was more than a little nervous twitching from the four when the warriors that had deployed themselves out of sight to the sides of the Asgardian group joined Byleistr’s group, surrounding the Asgardians. Frigga never so much as blinked, and Byleistr felt some small measure of respect for the Asgardian’s ability to retain composure in the face of tense situations.

Byleistr and the other warriors kept well clear of Sleipnir. That creature was well known to act preemptively in the defense of Odin, and Byleistr for one was not going to presume it would not do likewise for Frigga. It took but a surprisingly short amount of time to reach the shelter of the mountain caves that were Byleistr’s stronghold.

“Sleipnir will have to remain here.” Byleistr said when they were within the first cave. “The caves are not set up to accommodate a four-footed creature its size.” They had the head room necessary, to be sure, but not necessarily the room Sleipnir would need to walk around, and turn around.

Byleistr led the way into the cave that served as their meal hall. It was the only cave with a table large enough to accommodate everyone. Byleistr sent several youths running to get platforms and furs for the Asgardians to sit on while they sat in the chairs, since the chairs were built for Jotuns, and would dwarf the Asgardians.

It did not take long for the five to be settled. The four guards - Byleistr had decided to think of them as such, since he was unsure of their true purpose here - were staring around with suspicion and caution. Frigga, on the other hand, seemed completely unconcerned with the idea of being surrounded by Jotun warriors.

“It would seem, Queen Frigga, that there is much to discuss between us.” Byleistr said. “Perhaps you would like to start?”

Chapter Text

Frigga and Byleistr Part 2

A/N: Disclaimer's in the first chapter. This chapter happens the same day as Charles making his calls. Hit the deck, folks. Epic shit ahead.

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

This, Frigga knew, was going to get ... interesting. Very, very quickly. Because unlike her husband, Frigga intended to be honest and up front with Byleistr, and she was realist enough to know that there was going to be a bit of yelling at the very least in the near future.

"I do not know." Frigga began. "The cause of the start of the rift between the Aesir and the Jotuns. That was before my time. Before your parents' time. We have both heard tales as to the cause, but given those tales were told to us by one side only, I sincerely doubt either of us heard an unprejudiced account of those days. Whatever the cause was, it is far and beyond too late for either of us to do anything about it, and if we are to have any chance at all at peace between us, it seems wisest to put such ancient, half-forgotten issues completely in the past."

She sighed. "That does not, however, wipe the slate clean entirely. Whatever the original cause, things escalated to open war. Odin and Laufey bear the burden of guilt for that - for continuing and escalating a situation begun by their parents. An escalation that culminated in the confrontation on Midgard a millennium ago."

"I fear, at that point, the burden of shame is borne entirely by Odin, and by Asgard after him. Ensuring a defeated aggressor cannot rise up in rebellion is the right of any conqueror. Condemning a defeated aggressor to a slow, painful death by starvation is the act of a cruel despot. Unfortunately, after so many millennia of war, none on Asgard were willing to see Odin as such, and all my remonstrances to act with compassion were ignored. And to attempt to remove Odin from the throne then would have seen me dead. The general populace saw him as their conquering hero and would never have stood for him being forced from the throne. Especially not by his but newly crowned Queen from another Realm."

She had been Odin's bride for less than half a century when Odin forced Laufey into defeat. A complete stranger to her new people, and one they would not heed. Not yet. Not then, and certainly not in preference to Odin. She'd needed time to build herself a reputation amongst the Aesir as someone to turn to, someone they could trust in times of trouble. Someone with a cool head, keen intellect and a reputation for fairly adjudicating any matter brought before her, regardless of any person's ancestry, sex, or vocation. A contrast to Odin's frequently capricious moods, harsh judgments, aloof removal from his people, and distinctly prejudicial views as regarded women, the poor, and anyone not pure Aesir by birth.

It had taken time, but slowly, the people had come to know her. To listen to her when she spoke. To turn to her more and more to settle disputes, wary of Odin's heavy-handedness. Unfortunately by the time she'd had the reputation she'd needed to bring Odin down off his throne without causing a civil war, there was nothing obviously wrong going on that she could use as an excuse to do so. It had taken exiling Thor and Loki's fall to bring them to that pass.

"Unfortunately, removing the Casket from your Realm was but the first of Odin's mistakes." Frigga said, silently bracing herself. One hand, resting on the table top, curled just slightly, ready to start flinging spells if it became necessary. "For the Casket was not all that Odin removed from this Realm. He returned to Asgard with another prize as well. Or, what he thought to be a prize. A Jotun babe. Small and, so he claimed, left to die." One last deep breath, and then she said it. "A babe bearing the marks of the Royal Line of Jotunheim."

(_)(_)(_)

Byleistr listened quietly as Frigga began to talk. Privately, Byleistr agreed that they'd be best served, if any attempt at peace between them was to succeed, in burying the ancient history that neither of them had been alive to experience. It hardly mattered at this late date how things had gotten started. What mattered was patching the damage done since then.

Byleistr was also willing to admit that Queen Frigga had a really good and legitimate excuse for not kicking Odin's ass right from the get go. Attempting to depose the hero-king of the Golden Realm would have been literal suicide a thousand years ago. All that could have been done would be to wait for Odin to screw up badly enough for the people to be willing to rebel ... or to do as Frigga had apparently done. Build a reputation as a better sovereign than Odin and wait for an opportunity to take over with minimal, if any, blood shed among the Aesir.

Frigga's final words, however, knocked such thoughts straight out of Byleistr's head. It took a couple seconds for the import of what Frigga had admitted to really sink in. Whereupon it took a bit for Byleistr to really ... digest ... what had been said.

Byleistr had always known they were not, in actuality, the youngest of Laufey and Farbauti's children. The youngest, however, had largely been a forbidden subject. Spoken of rarely, and with grief and rage apparent in near-equal parts when the subject did come up.

Byleistr was young enough when the third child was born that they had no memory of the child. All Byleistr's knowledge of the youngest came from Farbauti or Helblindi. Laufey had refused to speak of the child at all.

Byleistr knew that the child had been born small, and that their parents feared for the child's survival. So much so that they had even neglected to name the child, reluctant to attach themselves to a child that might fall prey to Jotunheim's less than welcoming environs before it could even become mobile. They had taken child to the temple for the priests to watch over and succor until it was certain whether the child would survive or not.

Byleistr also knew that in the wake of Odin's rampage on Jotunheim, the priests had been found dead. The child had not been found at all. Given the dead priests and the amount of blood shed in the temple, Byleistr's parents had both presumed that the defenseless infant had been slaughtered. Whether by Aesir or by wildlife mattered little to either of them. The body, they assumed, had been consumed or carried off by one of the realm's many predators before the area had been cleared out and the dead priests found during the cleanup efforts. Certainly, the realm's predators had been all over the ravaged city, taking advantage of the lack of warriors and the overabundance of available meat in the form of the dead.

Apparently, that had not been the case. As realization set in, it took every ounce of Byleistr's control to refrain from attacking the Aesir, or calling on their fellows to do it. Actually, their people helped Byleistr get under control, because as those present realized what Frigga had admitted to, they began to react - rather negatively, to put it mildly.

Byleistr gave vent to some small portion of their temper by snarling at the others, ruthlessly ordering them to stillness and silence in their own tongue. That this resulted in a number of vocalizations that the Aesir would feel rather than hear, and which (if their reactions were anything to go by) cowed a couple of them helped restore some semblance of control and calm to Byleistr. Fortunately, despite their outrage, none of the warriors were willing to disobey him, so the Aesir were not attacked. At least, not yet.

"Where. Are. They." Byleistr snarled at Frigga.

"Currently, on Midgard." Frigga admitted.

She alone seemed to not have been affected by the reaction to her news. The rest of the Aesir were clutching at their weapons and eyeing the surrounding Jotuns. Though it was entirely possible that Frigga was as ready to defend as the others. Frigga was, after all, Vanir by birth, and renowned for her magical skills.

"He was raised as a prince of Asgard." Frigga went on. "Only Odin, myself, and Heimdall knew for certain of his true heritage, though I imagine a few others figured it out if they sat down to think about it."

And Byleistr knew the name given to this child. "Loki." He growled. "You speak of Loki Silvertongue. The Trickster." He scowled at Frigga. "What has Odin Child Thief done to my sibling that he is condemned to Midgard?"

(_)(_)(_)

Well, that had gone over better than Frigga had feared, although she knew the worst wasn't over yet.

"He is not condemned there, Byleistr. He is there by his choice." She said. "Though I am sorry to say that he is not without harm done him by Odin, despite my best attempts otherwise."

She could *feel* at least one of the Warriors Three fighting the urge to defend Odin. Sif, who had been exposed to Odin pulling something extremely questionable, was grim-faced and silent beside her and not the source of the tension.

"Loki was bespelled to appear Aesir." Frigga admitted. "But Odin never stilled the tongues of those that spoke ill of Jotuns. Nor was any allowance made for the fact that despite appearing Aesir, Loki was of a different Realm and thus would never be Aesir, no matter how hard he tried."

She held up a hand when Byleistr visibly and literally bristled, actually growing little ice spikes so that he ended up resembling a Midgardian creature called a hedgehog.

"Peace, Byleistr. I do not mean that as an insult. I mean it in the sense that those born to each realm have different gifts. The elves are masters of magic. The dwarves masters of mining and crafting, and so on. To expect a resident of any realm to match the residents of another realm in their skills is folly."

Byleistr relaxed a bit.

"Loki was not without aid." Frigga said. "I raised him and love him as if he were my own son. I taught him such magic as he was ready to learn as he grew. I taught him statecraft. Thor loves him dearly."

"What. Went. Wrong." Byleistr may have relaxed marginally, but it was clear from his tone that he was still extremely angry. Not that Frigga blamed him a bit.

"Loki found out the truth of his parentage." Frigga admitted. "After a millennium of hearing naught but ill of Jotuns from virtually everyone around him." It was, of course, a bit more involved than that, but that had been the bulk of the problem at the time. "Things did not go very well from there. He has ... regained some equilibrium at this point. Found people who know little to nothing of the Aesir or Jotuns on Midgard and joined their company. Though I fear it will take time before he truly accepts the truth."

(_)(_)(_)

It was taking every ounce of Byleistr's control to not howl in rage. What in the name of all the hells that ever were had been *done* to his sibling? Byleistr was intelligent enough to know that Frigga wasn't telling the whole story. Nor should Frigga tell it all just now, as Byleistr wasn't sure they'd be able to refrain from killing Frigga and their company, regardless of the fact it would restart the Aesir-Jotun war with a vengeance.

Byleistr shoved to his feet and started to pace, growling angrily. Byleistr wanted to go to Midgard right then and steal his sibling away, but if Loki'd been raised to loathe his own people, that would not go over well. Not to mention the fact that Loki was reknowned throughout the realms as second only to Frigga herself in magical skills. He was second to none when it came to cunning, scheming, and manipulation. Crossing such a one could only ever end in tears and pain for everyone involved that wasn't named Loki. Byleistr would be far more likely to end up signing over the rights to their firstborn or something of the sort than getting Loki to come to Jotunheim to live.

Byleistr paced for a good five minutes before they managed to calm down enough to talk, rather than scream, demand, or physically attack.

"You will remain here. I will send for my sibling and my parent and you will inform them of this. At that point, it will be up to Farbauti to decide what is to be done, as it is their child that was stolen, and only my sibling."

Byleistr whirled towards their warriors, and called for a half dozen of the most even-tempered - and thus least likely to raise weapons to the Aesir despite the circumstances.

"Take them to the southwest caves. It's warmest there. Guard them and do not permit them to wander." That last command being more for the Aesir's safety than anything else. Byleistr wouldn't put it past about half of the assembled warriors to try to attack the Aesir. Heck, Byleistr wouldn't put it past themself to do so.

He pointed to two long-legged youths. "You, Take one of the beasts each and make haste to Farbauti and Helblindi's strongholds. Inform them their presence is required with all haste, and why."

The two youths bolted out of the room, and Byleistr turned towards the Aesir.

"These six will escort you to the rooms you will use during your stay. I must request that you not wander beyond that corridor. Not only would you risk becoming lost in the depths of the caves, but your safety could not be ensured."

Frigga, to their credit, accepted the situation with a calm, regal nod. The other four were nowhere near as calm or happy, and looked to be having great difficulty keeping their tongues behind their teeth. Whatever force it was that convinced them to remain silent, Byleistr was grateful. It was lessening the chances of disaster striking.

Chapter Text

Frigga and Farbauti

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The last two days had been ... tense. To put it mildly. Frigga, Sif and the Three had been escorted to their accommodations by six very grumpy looking Jotuns. It turned out that the 'southwest caves' were at the end of a long, clearly carved tunnel.

It wasn't until they actually got there that Frigga recognized where they were - though not because she'd been here in the past. Merely because she'd heard about this place from her parents as a child. Byleistr had set himself and his people up in a complex of caves that had been heavily used, many millennia ago. Back when the Jotuns had been friendlier and welcomed trade - and thus had need of someplace where their trade partners wouldn't freeze to death. They had dug a series of caves close to what humans would term a geothermal vent, resulting in rooms with temperatures closer to those found in other realms. The rest of the area around those caves had swiftly become a thriving marketplace, and had been so for millennia before the Jotuns had gotten aggressive and insular. After that, the area had fallen into disuse. But it was still here, and the vent still active. The cave-rooms were clearly disused but that had hardly been surprising. Jotuns didn't do well in warm temperatures, so would have been disinclined to come here and clean the place up when they wouldn't be using it themselves.

Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun took the first available rooms on the southwest corridor, putting themselves between Frigga and any potential trouble. Sif, while apologetic, was very firm on the idea of sharing a room with Frigga as further protection.

Frigga knew she didn't really need protection. She was more than capable of holding her own, even if she wasn't a fully trained warrior the way the boys and Sif were. Magically, there were remarkably few who had a hope of matching her. But she understood how uneasy her four companions were, and that they would feel better for being allowed to do this.

They'd stayed put. Byleistr had seen to it they were brought food and water but otherwise kept his people away from them, which was probably a good thing. Most of them seemed very disgruntled. Not that Frigga blamed them one bit. Still, somehow or other, they managed to make it the two days it took Farbauti and Helblindi to arrive.

This was going to be ... tricky. To say the least. Farbauti had legitimate reasons to declare war on a number of fronts. Frigga wouldn't even blame her if she did, despite not wanting such a thing to come to pass. If she'd been in Farbauti's place, she would have raised about a hundred different kinds of hell.

When the summons came, Frigga made a fast decision. She knew that Sif, while she had recently become somewhat more sympathetic to Loki, had a rather fraught history with him. Hogun, from what she knew, had never really trusted him. Fandral, while fairly neutral to Loki, was an incurable flirt, and Frigga was unwilling to risk that in such a fraught situation. Volstagg, on the other hand, had been somewhat willing to give Loki the benefit of the doubt on many occasions. Better, he was a parent himself, and would understand most of the issues at hand regarding Loki for both Farbauti and Frigga.

"Volstagg, you will accompany me." Frigga commanded. "The rest of you remain here, and for the Norn's sake, cause no trouble!" They hadn't thus far, but Frigga had been right there the whole time. There was no telling what they might be inclined to do with her out of sight.

Volstagg got to his feet, and the two of them followed the guards out and back towards the meal hall they'd been in the first day. They were met by upwards of twenty Jotun warriors in a protective semi-circle just behind Byleistr and the two new arrivals.

The three of them standing together were ... interesting. At first glance, to others, one Jotun looked much like the next. But after two days of being in their company and exposed to several Jotuns in halfway peaceable conditions, Frigga was beginning to be able to tell one from another by means other than their markings. The differences were subtle and difficult to perceive, but they were there. Or at least, they were subtle in most cases. It turned out the differences were a bit more marked with the royal family.

Farbauti, while every bit as tall as every other Jotun in the room, was visibly narrower through the shoulders and leaner, their features smoother and more refined than most. Were Farbauti Loki's height and Loki in his Jotun body, Frigga was willing to bet they'd be virtually indistinguishable. Laufey, Frigga knew, had been of more normal bulk and rough features. Small wonder most folks from other Realms referred to Farbauti as the Jotun Queen, despite Jotuns not having separate sexes like that.

Byleistr and Helblindi seemed to have split the difference as regarded their parents' physical differences, with Byleistr leaning more towards Farbauti, in that they were a bit on the lean side with more regular facial features, and Helblindi more towards Laufey, with only high cheekbones and a slightly narrow face as a nod to Farbauti.

"It would seem." Farbauti growled, their tone more than a little displeased. "That we have much to discuss, Frigga. And then you will take me to see my child."

Frigga decided to keep her mouth shut - for the moment - on how that might not be the best idea. They'd deal with that bit later. Farbauti was far too likely to assume it was an attempt to keep them from their child out of spite at the moment.

(_)(_)(_)

Farbauti (and Laufey, despite outward appearances) had spent the last millennium quietly mourning their youngest child. Jotun ways might be brutal, but that did not make them devoid of the gentler emotions, and regardless of species, losing an infant was never a pleasant event. That they had been deprived of even a body to bury had made matters that bit more difficult, the grief that bit sharper and more reluctant to fade.

It was as well that even at the top speed one of their roughly-domesticated beasts could manage, Byleistr's chosen stronghold was a day's travel away. It had given Farbauti much-needed time to vent some small portion of their rage and reach at least a pretence of calm.

Did they ever lay eyes on Odin Child Thief again in this life, that fell monster would not survive the encounter. Farbauti just hoped that Odin was consigned to whatever an Asgardian considered to be the most horrible afterlife. An eternity of that might just begin to repay the debt Odin had accrued in life.

"You will tell us what has been done to our child." Farbauti snapped.

For a wonder, Frigga did exactly that.

Vanir by birth Frigga might have been, and foreign to Jotun perceptions, but it was clear to Farbauti as the tale unfolded that whatever purpose Odin had for stealing their child, Frigga had seen it as her own and treated it as such. For that small mercy, if no other, Farbauti decided Frigga's life would be spared, no matter what else was revealed. Farbauti was well aware of the limitations the mate of a ruler worked under, and knew that Frigga would have only been able to do so much to counter Odin and his decrees without awakening his ire.

Farbauti was startled, if relieved, to learn that Thor not only had seen their child as his sibling, but continued to do so even after the child's true parentage was revealed. Given Thor's eagerness to shed Jotun blood not so long ago, it was good news.

Unfortunately, it would seem that was to be the only good news to be found in Frigga's tale. More than once over the next few hours, Farbauti had to call a halt to Frigga's recital so they could withdraw and give vent to some of their outrage at what they were hearing.

What in the name of all that was holy had Odin been thinking? It made no sense! To raise a child, not just in ignorance of who and what they really were, but in a society that vilified who and what they really were? Then to, from all appearances, evidently expect said child to ascend the throne of their birth people? The number of ways that could have gone wrong boggled Farbauti's mind. But then, for all they knew, that had been the whole idea.

"I have, in the last few weeks, begun to think that perhaps Odin suffered from some malady of the mind." Frigga said. "It would explain much of his actions in recent times, though not back when he first brought Loki to Asgard." Frigga sighed. "It was all bound to go wrong, no matter what happened. Even had I been permitted to sit Loki down and explain things calmly, he would have taken it badly. As things occurred ... well, it could have gone worse, but not by much."

"Thor was much favored by Odin, and more than a bit spoiled. He was arrogant, and ill-suited for the throne, even as regent until Odin returned from his Sleep. But Odin would not hear me when I attempted to warn him, and Loki had by then learned better than to speak of his concerns. They would have been taken in the worst possible light by nearly everyone. So Loki put into place a plan. A not very well conceived one, it must be admitted. But desperation will make a fool of even the cleverest of beings." Frigga said.

"So that is how some of our warriors managed to get to Asgard, to never return, and how Thor came to be here and confronted Laufey." Farbauti said. They had not known all of the particulars, as Laufey had been killed less than two days later.

Frigga nodded. "Yes. From what I have been told, Loki tried to defuse the situation in multiple ways, both before they came here and once they arrived, to no avail. Apparently at some point during the fight that broke out, one of your warriors grabbed Loki by the arm."

"The freezing touch would not have worked on him." Farbauti said. "Regardless the appearance of his body."

"Exactly. Evidently, it was enough to force his skin blue, even through Odin's spells. I ... didn't know." Frigga, even to Farbauti's ears, sounded unhappy. "Not until well after the fact ... after Loki had confronted Odin. I still don't know what, exactly, Odin told Loki, but whatever it was, it did Loki no favors. He was ... very rattled. I thought having something else to concentrate on, to take his mind off the news, would be a good thing. It was not. It made matters much, much worse."

Farbauti growled as Frigga told the rest of the tale. Farbauti could see the thread of more-than-slightly-unhinged 'logic' that had governed Loki's actions after the discovery of his true parentage. To a completely sane mind, the faults in the train of thought were rather blatant, but to someone who was well past not thinking clearly, it might seem like a good idea.

While the damage to Jotunheim had been extensive, Farbauti was more than happy to put all the blame for it on Odin's shoulders. Had he done things differently, Loki would not have become so unhinged. Just disallowing prejudiced speech against Jotuns in the palace would have helped, even if nothing else had been done differently.

No, Loki would pay no price at Farbauti's hands for his actions. Farbauti could not guarantee such would be true for all Jotuns, but Farbauti had enough influence to keep most from lashing out.

(_)(_)(_)

Frigga let out a slow, measured breath that would have been a sigh of relief under other circumstances. So far, so good. Literally everyone in the room seemed to have decided to come down on the side of sympathy where Loki was concerned, focusing their outrage on Odin.

And boy, had there ever been outrage. To put it mildly. There had been rather a lot of howling, growling, and not a little physical violence during the telling of the tale. Fortunately the physical violence had been focused on chairs, tables, and walls rather than herself or Volstagg. Nor had Farbauti been the only one to give vent in such ways. Practically every Jotun in the room had lost their composure at least once. Nor did Frigga blame them in the least. The Norns alone knew she'd be ripping people to shreds if something like this had happened to Thor. Just the thought of it had her hackles up.

Frigga probably would have been amused to discover that she was in complete agreement as to the preferred fate for Odin.

"This does not explain how my child has come to call Midgard home." Farbauti finally said.

Frigga mentally grimaced. "That part of the tale is ... alarming, to be honest. Loki ... fell off the Bifrost, despite Thor's best attempt to prevent it." She said. Better to not say it was a suicide attempt. Frigga had no idea how Jotuns saw such things. Certainly, suicide was viewed with great contempt in Asgard, as it was considered a coward's death.

"Even he was unsure how long he remained in the Void before he was ... found. Unfortunately, he was found by the worst possible being in all of existence. He was found by Thanos." Maybe not personally, but Thanos had certainly had Loki in hand very shortly thereafter, so it counted.

Farbauti flinched violently and snarled an oath, making a warding gesture at just the name, never mind the idea of what that being could and would do to any that came into his grasp. "By the ice that spawned us, how is Loki yet alive?" Farbauti demanded.

"Solely because Thanos had a use for him, I fear." Frigga said. "For once he had broken Loki and forced him to his will by nefarious means." Frigga still wasn't quite sure how Thanos had managed to regain his power, or the exact means by which he had gotten Loki under mind control, but it was fair to assume 'nefarious' was about the nicest way to put it. "Then forced Loki to go to Midgard and fetch for him a tool that Odin lost many centuries ago that ended up on Midgard. A tool that would permit Thanos to reach Midgard with little effort, and from thence loose his army upon all the nine realms."

That got a grim-sounding curse out of Farbauti. "Obviously, this was somehow thwarted." Farbauti rightly guessed.

"Just so. The mind control that Thanos employed left a visible marker - it turned the victim's eyes a pale blue and made them glow. Thor noticed the change - Loki's eyes have always been green - and combined with aberrant behavior on Loki's part, the idea of him not attacking Midgard of his own free will was brought forth. Shortly after that, it was discovered to be truth, and a way to free Loki found. At that point Loki joined forced with Thor and some Midgardian defenders to turn back the attempted invasion."

That got a surprised and pleased sounding rumble. "Midgardian has defenders now, does it? Capable of matching those of the other Realms?" Farbauti wanted to know.

"Yes." Frigga said. "Quite a number so capable. It would seem that Midgard is nearly ready to take its place in the Realms. It is an ignorant backwater no longer, though admittedly it is not yet fully enlightened, either."

"And in so little a time, too." Farbauti said, sounding amazed. "It took more than five lifetimes for any of the other Realms to rise, and our lives are much longer than those of Midgard. For them to be ready to rise within two of our lifetimes is remarkable."

"Quite so. They seem to be ... uniquely adaptable to any circumstance, which probably accounts for part of the speed of their rise. Their short lives may also be a part of it. They have to compact the actions taken over centuries or millennia into less than a century if they mean to live to see their goal, whatever it may be, accomplished."

"Hmmm." Farbauti hummed, a sound that wasn't quite agreement, but wasn't disagreement either.

"Unfortunately, while they were successful in ending the invasion attempt, Heimdall has been able to confirm that Thanos is not giving up. He knows the way to Midgard now, and is bringing his army there the long way around. He will get there in about a year."

Farbauti scowled. "That cannot be allowed. He will raze the Realms if he manages to establish a stronghold there."

"Agreed. I have already been to Svartalfheim to warn the dwarves, and have sent the court Ambassadors to the other Realms to warn them. I felt that coming here myself would be the wisest course, given the things I was going to be disclosing." Frigga said.

She was just glad that, whatever else Farbauti might think of Asgard, they weren't willing to let Thanos have it or Midgard because Thanos posed a very real threat to Jotunheim if he managed to get a foothold anywhere in the Realms. Doubtlessly, Farbauti's grievances would be brought to bear once Thanos was thwarted once more, but that gave them a year to forge some sort of understanding that could ameliorate the worst of Farbauti's understandable outrage. It was better than nothing.

Chapter Text

Frigga, Farbauti, and Loki Part 1

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

In the end, Frigga was unable to convince Farbauti to not go to Midgard. She didn't even really blame Farbauti for their insistence. Had it been her, she'd have insisted on going immediately as well, regardless of whether it was a good idea or not.

Frigga was, however, able to argue that they wait for the next day. By the time Frigga had finished telling Farbauti everything, it had been fairly late and while staying overnight might still end up happening despite heading for Midgard first thing in the morning, they at least wouldn't be causing a mad scramble by showing up only a few hours before overnight lodgings would be required.

There ended up being quite a ... discussion ... between Farbauti, Helblindi and Byleistr. Both Helblindi and Byleistr wanted to meet their youngest sibling. Fortunately, Farbauti was able to convince them to wait for another time. The situation was going to be fraught enough with just Farbauti there. Adding the two siblings would complicate things.

The next morning, Frigga, Sif, the Three and Farbauti headed back to the abandoned, destroyed city and Frigga called for Heimdall.

"Heimdall, if you please."

They transferred to Asgard first, where they dropped Sif and the Three off, despite their desire to go to Midgard. As with having Helblindi and Byleistr there, having Sif and the Three present when Farbauti and Loki met was going to complicate things massively, and Frigga had put her foot down. They would not be going.

From there, Frigga and Farbauti transferred to Midgard, landing on the roof of Stark Tower.

(_)(_)(_)

Farbauti was incredibly nervous. Not that they would admit it to anyone. Well, nervous, incredibly upset and rather thoroughly enraged, among other things, but the nerves were taking precedence at the moment. Unlike their spouse, Farbauti had never been off Jotunheim before. That they were doing so now, in the company of the queen of Asgard was more than a little unnerving.

The view Farbauti got of Midgard did not help all that much. Climbing a mountain aside (and that was an entirely different affair), they had never been this high up before. Insofar as they knew, not even the Asgardian palace was this tall. And there were more structures as far as the eye could see. Some taller than this one, others the same height or shorter.

By the Void, if these structures were where the Midgardians lived, just how many of them were there? The potential numbers were almost beyond Farbauti's comprehension. There had been so few Jotuns for so long that their current living conditions - with perhaps a few hundred of them gathered in one place - seemed crowded to Farbauti. The idea of having so large a population as to be required to build structures like this to accommodate them all boggled their mind.

A few moments after they arrived, so too did several beings, only one of whom Farbauti knew - Thor. One of the other two was clad in some sort of metal armor - or was that the being itself? Farbauti had no idea - that was red and gold. It, like Thor, flew to the roof from somewhere else, though its method was far different than Thor's. With the red-and-gold being was a being that looked not unlike an Aesir, though somewhat shorter and less muscular.

"Mother?" Thor asked, focusing on Frigga.

"All is well, my son. Farbauti wished to meet ... "

That was as far as Frigga got before several other beings arrived. Again, all bore a passing resemblance to the Aesir, though shorter and not as muscular, though one of their company came remarkably close, being nearly identical to Thor in all respects to Farbauti's eyes. Several of them had weapons in evidence. Farbauti went very still. Beside her, Frigga made an amused noise.

"As I was saying. All is well. I wish ... " Frigga started again.

She never did get to introduce Farbauti properly, because at that point, Loki arrived.

And the first thing he did was throw a fireball in Farbauti's face.

(_)(_)(_)

In the end, Farbauti was fortunate that the rest of the Avengers got to the roof first. If Loki had gotten there first, there would have been a major problem. Luckily, Loki had been in his quarters when Frigga and Farbauti arrived - and Jarvis had had the wit to forewarn the rest of the Avengers first, then Loki.

"Mister Friggasson, your mother is on the roof." Jarvis told Loki. "In the company of a tall, blue skinned ... "

That was as far as Jarvis got.

Loki had glanced up from the book he was reading when Jarvis started talking, and had immediately put the book down when Frigga's presence was announced, the start of a happy smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. That happiness, however, turned to blind rage at the partial identification of her companion.

Loki was firmly in the 'denial' stage of dealing with the shit that had poured down on his head over the last year or so at the moment. He was pretending, as best he could, that there wasn't a problem. That everything was fine. Sure, he'd had the nightmare that one time. The fact he hadn't slept since then was pure coincidence. He had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in, after all. He'd get around to sleeping again. Eventually. When he felt like it.

And that was where he was at with dealing with his fall, and Thanos, and what had happened to him in Thanos' keeping. The Jotun issue ... Loki was determinedly pretending that didn't exist at all, while still thinking of himself (for the most part) as a monster etc.

The whole thing had just been waiting for a spark to set off some epic fireworks. Frigga showing up with *any* Jotun was more like tossing a Molotov cocktail into a lake of gasoline. Loki instantaneously assumed the worst. After all, Jotuns were monsters, and it was not beyond the realm of possibility for such a base being to somehow get their hands on Frigga.

Loki's response was instantaneous. He teleported to the roof, between the gathered Avengers and his mother and the Jotun, and flung a fireball in its face, sparing just enough concentration and effort to ensure the fireball didn't so much as warm Frigga in the process, never mind burn her.

Given how easily magic in general had come to Loki, he'd always wondered why fire spells had been so difficult for him to master. He had finally chalked it up to the fact that no magician could be equally good at everything to do with magic. He'd worked all the harder to master them. Now, of course, he knew the truth of the matter.

During the battle with the Chitauri, Loki had been doing what he could to conserve his strength, as he'd no way of knowing how long the battle was going to last. Flimsy, short-term illusions - the sort of magic he could perform in his sleep - had been the easiest way to fight so many for an undetermined length of time.

He wasn't holding back now. He'd put his back into that fireball, for all it hadn't been permitted to singe Frigga. The blast melted some of the roof and caught more on fire, and Loki sent a second fireball almost before the first had left his fingers.

It was only a Jotun's instinctive response to danger that kept Farbauti from being very badly hurt. Pure instinct had them icing up - not just their arm as most Jotun warriors did in a fight, but their entire body. The first fireball hit that ice, which melted away under the assault. Farbauti still got singed, but nowhere near as badly as they would have otherwise. They managed to get a protective ice wall up between the first and second fireball.

Loki was snarling in rage, spewing vitriol and epitaphs as he hammered at Farbauti's constantly-reforming ice wall with fireball after fireball. He was deaf to the Avengers' alarmed cries and attempts to get him to calm down. Or he was until three people did some very stupid things.

Steve, shield up, jumped between Loki and Farbauti's ice wall roughly at the same time Frigga recovered from her shock at the viciousness of Loki's attack and put herself between Loki and his target, a protective shield shimmering into being around herself, Steve, and Farbauti. Steve didn't lower his shield despite the magical one going up.

At the same time, Thor, the only one with a prayer of physically restraining Loki other than the Hulk, got Loki in a bear hug from behind. He actually lifted Loki off his feet in an attempt to either spoil Loki's aim, break his concentration, or better yet, both. Frigga's shield still got nailed with one vicious fireball before the next went skyward thanks to Thor taking Loki off his feet.

Loki bellowed in rage and writhed, slamming his head back in an attempt to headbutt Thor, then writhing violently in a desperate attempt to get free. Loki called Thor every name in the book and then some - accused him of cowardice and worse in his attempts to get free.

The bastard refused to loose his hold. When Loki kept fighting, Thor finally resorted to body-slamming Loki onto the roof and then planting Mjolnir on his chest. Loki shrieked in rage because while there had been the possibility of him getting out of Thor's grasp - Mjolnir was an entirely different matter. Worse, Thor took advantage of having his hand free to grab Loki's wrists and pin them to the roof, preventing Loki from working any further magic.

It took a good ten or fifteen minutes for Loki to calm down enough to even begin to think, and stop physically flailing around. Even at that, it couldn't be called an improvement, because where before Loki had just been spewing whatever came to mind, now he was calm enough to focus and aim his verbal attacks.

"Get your damn hammer off me, Thor." Loki demanded.

Thor, sadly, wasn't going for it. "I think not, brother. Nor will I loose your hands." Interestingly, however, Thor made no attempt to silence Loki. Loki would think about the implications of that later. Much, much later.

So be it. Loki had worked with worse circumstances when it came to flaying someone alive verbally. He gave a harsh, mocking laugh that had nothing of humor in it.

"How sweet." Loki fairly purred in a venomous, slightly unhinged tone of voice that probably had everyone's hackles rising instinctively. It was not a comforting sound. "The beast that bore the monster come to see the get it abandoned in the snow to die. How touching. Do tell me ... when did I become of interest to you, before or after I slew Laufey? Or was it that I attempted to destroy Jotunheim that made me worth claiming? Are you proud of all the death I've wrought? Or was it not enough blood to sate you?"

"My child ... " Farbauti started. It was a mistake.

"I AM NOT YOUR CHILD." Loki shrieked, abruptly writhing in Thor's grasp again, trying desperately to get out from under Mjolnir despite knowing it was impossible. "You and your precious king left me to die!"

Farbauti, though, was having none of it. They bellowed right back. "WE DID NOT." Then, more quietly. "Jotunheim is a harsh Realm, Loki. Those born small, or with infirmities, tend to die in horrible ways. Long ago, it became our way to test such children to see if they could survive ... and to spare those that could not a lingering, possibly quite painful death. You were undergoing that test when the Child Thief stole you from us. The temple was trashed, and the priests slaughtered. When your body was not found, we thought you lost to one of the predators or scavengers that roam the Realm, and grieved your passing."

Loki gave a harsh laugh. "I am the God of Lies, beast. If you think to dupe me with your tale, you are sorely mistaken." Then he gave Thor a positively evil glare. "Let. Me. Up. or I will destroy the roof to get out from under this blasted hammer."

Thor must have seen the truth of it in Loki's eyes, because he reluctantly lifted Mjolnir clear of Loki. Loki scrambled to his feet, for once eschewing grace in his desire to just get the hell out of there as fast as possible. He leveled a vicious glare at Farbauti.

"Never poison this Realm with your presence again." He snarled. "I will not hesitate to kill you, do I see you again." Loki immediately teleported out.

He wasn't in the mood to hang about and find out how the Avengers were going to react to his loss of control. Experience had taught him that regardless of whatever goading he had endured, he would be seen to be at fault for lashing out. He grit his teeth angrily. So much for this, then. He should have known better. Should have known something would happen to ruin it. With a sigh, he started packing.

He didn't get very far before, to his shock, Darcy arrived. She blinked when she saw him packing.

"So ... where you going?" She asked.

"It hardly matters, does it? The Avengers will not tolerate my presence after this." Loki said.

Darcy actually laughed. "Dude. Right now? They're up on the roof bitching Frigga and the smurf out. I thought Tony was going to blow a blood vessel, Bruce was looking more than a little green around the gills, and Steve looked like he wanted to smack someone over the head with his shield ... and it wasn't you he wanted to hit, either. And that was just in the minute or so before I came after you. They're probably two inches from starting World War Three up there by now. Nobody's mad at you. Well, ok, Tony might be a bit miffed at you setting a chunk of the roof on fire, but he gets that it wasn't what you were trying to do."

Loki blinked at her in surprise. "They're not blaming me?"

"Shit no." Darcy said. "That's all on Frigga and the smurf. I mean, we all know you've got some heavy duty shit you've had happen to you, and that you're kinda avoiding dealing with it. Which, completely understandable, given what we know of what's going on. It's a *lot* of shit. And forcing you to confront any part of it before you were ready - and without a warning so you could brace yourself - was pretty fucking uncool."

Darcy walked over and put a hand on his arm. "I know you're not used to people having your back when shit goes down, but we're never going to just automatically think everything is all your fault." She shot a look around his room. "So you don't have to do a runner, all right? We're not pissed *at you* and we're not gonna take it out on you. Though I kinda have to say - those fireballs? Bad. Ass."

Loki made an amused noise as some of his anger and irritation fled. "You are an unusual being, Darcy." He said. Some part of him unclenched just a little bit. He didn't quite believe her. After a millennium of basically being the designated whipping boy, trusting in anyone's good nature wasn't going to come easily. He had to admit that the Avengers had yet to play him false though, despite having more than ample reason to do so, given his actions in this Realm.

Darcy grinned at him. "You better bet I am. C'mon. I'm gonna take you out for some retail therapy. Get your mind off of ... well, stuff ... and give the gang a chance to shoo unwanted visitors away."

"Retail therapy?" Loki wanted to know.

"Otherwise known as shopping. I know you packed your stuff when you left Asgard, but I figure you're going to need some stuff only available here. Like a phone, something to play tunes on when you're not in the Tower, or on the common floors and don't want to bug people with your music. Some books, stuff like that."

That sounded practical. And it would get him away from the Tower until THEY were gone. And give him a chance to regain his equilibrium. "Very well then, Darcy. Lead the way."

Chapter Text

Frigga, Farbauti, and Loki Part 2

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Frigga was more than a little horrified. Mostly at herself. It became rather blatantly obvious that she'd made a mistake - more than one if she was going to be honest with herself. Which, she refused to go down the road of self-delusion that had eventually led to where Odin was at now. So she was going to be brutally honest with herself.

She'd messed up. Big time.

To be completely fair to herself - well, there were mitigating circumstances. Had it been Asgardians they'd planned to go visit, Frigga would never have shown up unannounced. She knew better than that. Asgardians were a warrior people and tended to react negatively to surprise visitors.

While Frigga knew that the Midgardian Avengers were warriors, she was also aware that their cultures were not warrior-centered the way Asgardian culture was. So she'd made the mistaken assumption that the Midgardian Avengers would not be as twitchy about surprise visitors.

It hadn't helped that despite Frigga's best arguments, Farbauti hadn't been in a mood to take 'no' for an answer. Nor, to her shame, had it occurred to her to utilize any of a number of means she had at hand to forewarn the Avengers and Loki. And while Frigga knew Loki was (to put it bluntly) not happy about the truth of his parentage, she'd completely underestimated just how bad his reaction would be.

To put it bluntly, she deserved every bit of the tongue lashing she (and Farbauti) got the moment Loki teleported away from the roof.

"What. The. Fuck." Tony Stark snapped, glaring at her.

He looked angry enough to compete with Doctor Banner on the 'turning big and green' front. Frigga kept a wary eye on him, aware his armor had weapons he could deploy with little to no warning. The others, she would get a second or two's warning before they struck.

"No. Seriously. What the fuck is wrong with you? I thought you were the one with a brain. I mean, shit, did Loki really learn it from absolutely nowhere, because this was the dumbest fucking move I think I've ever seen, and that includes fucking Ross thinking he could contain Hulk by shooting at him, which seriously. Dumbass."

Beside her, Farbauti stiffened. Frigga shot her a look, but didn't speak. Unfortunately, Farbauti still drew Tony's ire.

"As for you ... well, shit. I don't even know where the hell to start, because seriously. I don't know and don't care what the truth of how Loki came to be on Asgard is. What matters is what he's been told for literally his entire life. Which is that Jotuns are horrible monsters and he was abandoned to die. Even if you didn't know that, how the HELL you expected anyone raised Asgardian to greet you with open arms, I'll never know." Then Tony swung his gaze back to Frigga.

"Which brings us to ... what the fuck did you tell her?" Tony waved a hand at Farbauti. "And seriously, why the fuck did you decide now, of all times, to shove your head up your ass? You know exactly what Loki grew up hearing about Jotuns. And how he found out he was one. And what happened after that. How the hell you thought bringing her here was a good idea is beyond me."

He leveled a surprisinly lethal glare at both of them. "Now, the two of you are going to get the hell off my building and go back where you belong. You." He pointed at Farbauti. "Are not going to come back until such time as Loki invites you himself, which I'm thinking at this point is going to be a solid 'never'. You." And he pointed at Frigga. "Are going to stay the hell away until Loki calms back down, at which point if he is feeling up to it, you can come back and grovel for his forgiveness."

(_)(_)(_)

Farbauti came as close to slack-jawed disbelief as made no nevermind.

They did not understand what the heck had just happened. Who these people were that they presumed to keep their child from them. Then before Farbauti had been able to come up with some way to punish them for their presumption, their child appeared.

And tried to kill them. In deadly earnest.

Now, their child was gone, they knew not where, and this ... creature ... dared to censure the rulers of two Realms? More confusingly, Frigga was allowing it.

It wasn't until Farbauti began to calm down and actually listen to what the Midgardian was saying that they were able to hear the wisdom in the words despite the exceedingly disrespectful tone. Then, on further contemplation, they realized that mayhap the disrespect was warranted in this instance.

"This was most of my doing." Farbauti admitted. "I ... Loki is my child, that I thought lost to predators long ago. I fear I may have lost sight of sense in the wake of discovering my child still lived." They sighed. "I will go, but ... staying away may not be possible. Not when that which seeks dominion over your Realm must needs be dealt with. It will take all the Realms to conquer Thanos."

The Midgardian that had spoken did not change expression in the least, but the one that minded Farbauti strongly of Thor stepped forward and spoke.

"For that, working together will be required, yes. But I think it's best if we avoid you and Loki - or any Jotun and Loki, for that matter, encountering each other as much as possible until he's at a point where his first response isn't fireballs or worse."

Farbauti reluctantly bowed to the wisdom of that statement. "True. Though ... if he begins to attempt to explore his Jotun heritage before he is ready to be around us, let me know. There are things he will need to know."

"Fair enough, and we'd be happy to pass messages until he can handle meeting face to face." The Thor-alike said. Farbauti was getting the feeling that though the Midgardian resembled Thor in looks, they were nigh as different in temperament as could be.

"I'll be back in a week or so." Frigga said. "I know Loki well enough to know it will be about that long before he truly calms down enough to hear an apology without getting aggravated all over again." Then Frigga glanced up. "Heimdall."

(_)(_)(_)

Loki was normally the furthest thing from passive, but at the moment, he found himself willing to both indulge Darcy's whims and to let her have full reign on what they did and where they went. Part of that was that Loki had no idea of what was available in the realm of merchandise and shopping. He'd only been outside the Tower the once and then only to a place called Macy's and a small tailor's shop for suits.

Part of it was the fact he'd expended more than a bit of energy trying to fry the Jotun, and would need a bit to restore that energy. Especially since he, you know, hadn't been sleeping. Even if he point-blank refused to think about or otherwise admit to *why* sleep had become such an issue.

Loki wasn't an idiot. He knew that dealing with the crap that had hit in the last year was not going to be fun. That it would, in fact, probably get worse before it got better. The problem was that everything in Loki rebelled at the idea of trying to put the pieces back together while others were around.

He'd never had damage of this magnitude to fix before, but Loki'd had incidents from time to time where he'd needed to soothe his wounded pride or get over a particularly hurtful episode. Once he'd gone past the early childhood years when running to one's mother for succor was seen as acceptable, Loki had always retreated somewhere to be alone while he nursed such wounds. Vulnerability of any sort was not well received in Asgard, and the general distaste with which Loki had always been treated had made exposing any sort of weakness exceedingly unwise.

Loki knew, academically at any rate, that the Avengers would not mock him. But overcoming a lifetime of habit was not so easy. Unfortunately, retreating somewhere to put himself back together in private wasn't an option. The very idea of leaving the relative safety of Midgard and the protection the Avengers provided made Loki want to cringe. Oh, Thanos could and would get to him here, but at least here there were people that could and would try to stop him. On his own, Loki wouldn't last long.

Unfortunately, as much as Loki didn't want to deal with this in the company of others, he really wasn't going to have a choice before too much longer. If nothing else, today convinced him of that. Because really. Yes, Jotuns were horrible and all that, but the odds of Frigga, of all people, being some sort of hostage or otherwise in danger in a Jotun's presence? When Loki knew damn well Frigga could kick his ass every day of the week and not break a sweat? If nothing else, he *needed* to get control of that sort of overreaction or someone, somewhere, would use it against him.

Eventually, Loki forcibly pulled himself out of his thoughts, somewhat belatedly realizing that Darcy, normally fairly chatty, had been being very quiet as they went from one place to the next. He'd been so absorbed in his thoughts he'd been paying no mind to where they were at or what they were doing.

Which explained the horrified noise he made when he finally paid attention, only to realize they were in some small hole-in-the-wall store filled to the brim with clothing in truly horrifying color combinations, designs, fabric choices, or all three at once.

Darcy almost fell, she got to laughing so hard.

"There you are. I was beginning to wonder when you'd notice." She sputtered after a few moments.

Loki glowered at her, but there was no heat or true anger in it. "You are a horrible person, Darcy, to take advantage of me so." He accused, his tone surprisingly light given where his thoughts had been only a few moments before.

"Ok, now that you're done burning brain cells trying to think, we can do some actual shopping. I know you got a lot of clothes at Macy's, but I figure you could use more - everyone can - or we can hit electronics stores and we *have* to go to the Strand Bookstore. I want to see your *face* when we go in there. You're gonna love it." Darcy said.

Loki couldn't help perking up. "A bookstore, you say?" He asked. Printing and selling books was virtually unknown in other Realms. Oh, they were printed, but owning books was the purview of royalty and scholars only. Asgard and Alfheim both maintained libraries of tomes that could be read by the common citizens, but they could not be removed from the premises. Loki had known that printing and selling books was commonplace on Midgard - it was one of the reasons he liked the Realm.

"God yes, this is going to be epic. C'mon." Darcy said, a huge grin on her face.

She led them to a large white stone building with many windows and a bright red awning. There were waist-high rolling carts of books lined up on the sidewalk outside. A closer look at the windows revealed that they were entirely blocked by the spines of hundreds, perhaps thousands of books.

"Oh my." Loki said. Darcy snickered.

Walking in was, if anything even more overwhelming. There were waist-high bins crammed with books scattered around, and who knew how many nearly-ceiling-height bookshelves likewise crammed with books that extended for ... Loki wasn't sure how far, but quite a ways both before him and to one side.

"There's two and a half more floors just like this." Darcy said.

It was more than a bit mind boggling. Oh, the Asgard library was bigger than that, but again, those books were not for sale, nor were most of them permitted to be removed from the library even when you were a prince of the realm. The books Loki had were either surreptitiously-obtained copies of books he knew he'd want to use as a reference fairly frequently, or rare, costly gifts given to him by Frigga or one of his other instructors. The idea of tens or even hundreds of thousands of books available for purchase at all, never mind in one place, sort of blew Loki's mind.

"I hardly know where to begin." He admitted. He knew he had to look rather stupefied, and would forgive Darcy her pleased, amused chortling.

"Then I suggest working from the top down, and making a bunch of trips. Because it's gonna take a while to go through everything in this place. C'mon." Darcy said, and grabbed his hand to lead him to the upper levels.

She had to haul him out of the stacks by main force a little before the shop closed. By then, Loki had a considerable stack of books that had piqued his interest. Many of them were scholarly tomes, but others were something that was literally unknown on other Realms - fiction. Oh, Asgard and Alfheim had of course recorded tales of battles and such, and they could and did frequently make for very entertaining reading, but that was not their sole function, and they were all actual events. While fictional tales did exist in the other Realms, none were ever written down, to Loki's knowledge. Though he supposed it was possible that someone had written down a copy of their favorite tales for whatever reason, and kept it for themselves.

"Good thing you have a floor to yourself, Loki. You're gonna need the room for all the books you're going to end up with." Darcy said, sounding amused. "Now, we need to stop for food, because I know for a fact you haven't eaten today, and I knew better than to try to drag you out of here before the place closed. So c'mon. Food. Then back to the Tower and you can come here again another day. Tomorrow even."

It wasn't until they'd actually returned to the Tower - replete with food and Loki weighed down by the books he'd purchased, that the reason they'd left was brought back to mind. Loki blinked when he realized how thoroughly he'd been distracted, and shot Darcy a look.

She looked rather smug. She'd the right. He hadn't thought about the events of earlier in the day since about a half hour after they entered the bookstore. As distractions went, it had been an extremely effective one.

"Welcome back, Darcy, Mr. Friggason." Jarvis said as they came in the door. "The rest of the upper floor residents opted to watch movies this evening. The next movie will begin in about ten minutes, if you are inclined to join them."

Earlier today, Loki's answer would have been a resounding 'no'. Now, however, thanks to Darcy, he was in a far better, more sociable mood, and the idea of keeping company with the Avengers and their various friends, lovers, and other associates was a pleasant one.

"That should be just about enough time for me to drop these bags off, Jarvis." Loki said.

Chapter Text

The Asset

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

HYDRA had learned a few very important lessons from World War Two. After the loss of Schmidt and Zola, when Colonel Phillips, Peggy Carter and the Commandos tore most of HYDRA's bases down to their foundations in the wake of Steve going down with Schmidt's plane, they ... allowed it. They left just enough people in the bases to make it look convincing. Meanwhile, the bulk of their forces retreated to one of the bases that Zola had no knowledge of.

And from thence, they rebuilt themselves. Their credo and their ultimate goal remained the same, but it had become obvious that the methodology employed prior to and during World War Two was nonviable. Another means to their desired end was required.

So HYDRA went underground. Personnel that had been too junior, minor, or otherwise marginalized for Schmidt or Zola to have known their names or interacted with them became the 'face' of the organization, as the more well-connected and well-known personnel had been made useless by Zola's capture. As Zola had not seen fit to commit suicide, there could be no guarantee that he would not willingly or otherwise give the name and/or location of every HYDRA agent, base, and potential target he knew of.

While the lesser-known agents began the long, arduous process of working themselves into important positions, certain other agents took up where Zola left off.

While hiding in the dark was called for, there was no reason they could not also strike from the dark. No big, splashy, attention-getting 'HAIL HYDRA' stuff. Quiet assassinations of key figures, sneaky destabilizations of key governments and governmental figures.

But to do that, they needed assassins and infiltrators. Thus, in the last days of World War Two, was the organization calling itself the Red Room born. Over the next decades, hundreds of children, both male and female, of varying ethnicities and physical descriptions were ... acquired ... as soon after birth as could be managed. From there, they were trained (some would call it brainwashed), some were surgically altered, and others exposed to variants of Erskine's serum that HYDRA developed using Zola's surviving records.

The death toll among these children was horrific. Less than one in a hundred survived to adulthood. Of that paltry number, only ten remained stable and usable long term, the rest eventually succumbing to madness or sudden catastrophic failures of their bodies. By a quirk of fate, all ten were female, and eventually became known as 'Black Widows' to the wider world.

Natasha Romanoff was both the greatest success and the greatest failure of that particular program. She was its greatest success in that not only had she survived but excelled at the training, becoming a uniquely lethal and facile assassin capable of infiltration into any group or setting. She was also their greatest failure in that she grew a mind of her own and managed to escape their clutches, turning her considerable skills against them and their ilk at first solo and then under the aegis of SHIELD. All while reclaiming one of her 'false identities' as her true name, and openly using - and thus reclaiming - Black Widow as her code name.

They never figured out that the reason she grew a mind of her own and escaped them was thanks in large part to one of her trainers - known only to her and most others as 'The Asset'.

The Asset had been acquired by complete chance near the end of World War Two. It had been a subject of Zola's ... investigations ... into the Serum during a previous capture by HYDRA, and survived both those procedures and further events before they re-acquired it. Upon reacquisition, it had been reprogrammed extensively and its skills put to use in HYDRA's name.

More even than the Black Widows, The Asset was a ghost to the wider world for decades. Like the Black Widows, it was presumed, due to the length of its suspected service, to be multiple incarnations by those that believed it existed at all. However, in this case, the wider world was incorrect in its assumption. The Asset was but one weapon, not many. The Asset was used extensively in those early days, both alone and in tandem with one or another Black Widow or other HYDRA personnel.

Unfortunately, The Asset proved to be uniquely resistant to reprogramming. Its stability could only be ensured for short periods - less than a week - before recalibration was required. Thus it became standard procedure to keep The Asset in cryogenic stasis when its skills were not required.

Unfortunately for HYDRA, at one point, The Asset was paired with Natasha long enough that The Asset began to shake its programming, and certain doubts were planted in Natasha's mind. Those seeds of doubt eventually led to Natasha escaping the Red Room.

Of late, The Asset had spent more time in stasis than out of it. This was due more to the genesis of the digital age than The Asset's inherent instability. With cameras everywhere, satellites capable of taking clear pictures of license plates, and cell phones with built-in cameras becoming ubiquitous, The Asset could not be deployed as easily and frequently as in the past.

Unlike the Black Widows, The Asset could not change its appearance and mannerisms at will, rendering it all too identifiable from one engagement to the next if sufficiently clear footage of it was obtained. And that became more and more likely to happen as time went by. It could still be used if sufficient caution was employed, but the increasing difficulties in its use led to it remaining in suspension more often than not.

Discussions had even been entertained of ... retiring ... The Asset. Thus far, it still had use, so the discussions had been desultory at best. In the not too distant future however, The Asset's time would run out. The Asset remained blissfully unaware of this.

Then Steve Rogers was found. HYDRA agents around the globe bestirred themselves, and numerous meetings took place in the wake of Steve being pulled out of the ice. Now more than ever, HYDRA was grateful they had gone underground and worked in secret. Rogers had worked tirelessly to wipe them out, however futile his efforts had been. They were quite sure he would do so again, if he had any idea HYDRA still existed.

HYDRA did what they had become so good at. They waited, and they watched. While Steve confined himself to beating the crap out of punching bags and not stirring beyond that gym or the quarters he'd been given, they were content not to act. But when the invasion attempt occurred, things changed quickly.

HYDRA had fingers in virtually every pie around the globe. So they became aware nearly instantly of Charles Xavier rallying those mutants he had even tolerable relations to. Worse, Rogers had been put in charge of a team of people that had the capability to come after the Red Room in a way Natasha alone had never been able to manage and SHIELD, thanks to HYDRA intervention, had never bothered with. If those people came after the Red Room, it was all but inevitable that links to HYDRA would eventually be found.

HYDRA had only one chance. They agreed to recall a Black Widow currently in deep cover. This Black Widow, given the name Yelena Belova to differentiate her from her compatriots, had been the best Widow behind Natasha. Indeed, she had surpassed Natasha in certain areas, and was totally loyal to HYDRA. She was thus HYDRA's best chance at neutralizing Natasha.

The Asset was their only hope to take out the rest of the team. Especially the berserker. HYDRA knew that if Bruce Banner had so much as an inkling that danger was imminent, he would transform. Ross had shown that there was nothing that could take the berserker down nor contain it. Assassination by sniper was their best and, truth be told, only option to be rid of him.

Likewise with Tony Stark, if for other reasons. As well as Rogers. Wolverine, while difficult, they knew how to handle, and anticipated being able to reprogram it and turn it to their service, as it had proven susceptible to programming in the past. The mutant known as Pyro might be recruitable, and if not, well, a bullet would take care of the problem. The mutant known as Rogue would be ridiculously easy to eliminate. The various civilians that orbited the group were hardly worth mentioning, and all ridiculously easy to eliminate.

Hawkeye would be a challenge, if only because he, like The Asset, was a sniper by trade. He was thus more aware of when and where a sniper might be in residence and thus able to evade the danger. The real question was whether the so-called gods could be killed at all. If not, well ... containment methods were being investigated. One way or another, they would be neutralized.

The decision made, a facility deep in the mountains west of Magadan, Russia was reactivated the day after the attempted invasion, and Yelena recalled. While they waited for her to extract herself from her current assignment, the base was cleaned and aired and personnel moved in. This reduced the 'unused' air the facility had after having not been activated for several years.

Once personnel were in place, a well-trained team proceeded to the deepest sublevel. This area was heavily reinforced, with dedicated power generators and backup generators separate from those that powered the rest of the facility. Most of those generators and backups were attached to three items in small concrete-and-steel bunker at the far end of the level. One of these items best resembled a steel coffin. It was, in fact, the cryogenic chamber that held The Asset in stasis between assignments.

The chamber was attached to innumerable hoses, cables, and instrumentation. Some of the hoses and cables led through a small hole in the wall to the generators, while others snaked along the wall or across the floor to a bank of instruments and computer monitors in one corner near the bunker's door and was the second object in the room. Still others snaked across floor and wall to a heavily reinforced chair with retractable metal restraints and a bevy of computer hard drives, monitors, and other equipment. This was where The Asset was recalibrated upon thawing and as required once activated.

Due to The Asset's frequency of use in the past, and the range of places it was deployed, there were facilities like this scattered around the globe. This, though, was the primary facility for The Asset, and the one to which it was returned when its current assignment was completed. The personnel were thus far more familiar with the standard procedures for dealing with The Asset.

It took a full twenty-four hours for The Asset to thaw enough to begin recalibration. It was standard procedure, however, for armed personnel to be present from the moment the cryogenic chamber was turned off and the warming began. The Asset exhibited accelerated healing, and it would not do to assume an armed guard was unnecessary until shortly before the usual time for recalibration arrived. The Asset was to be presumed dangerous until recalibration was achieved.

Once The Asset was sufficiently thawed, it was required to move to the chair. This despite the fact its body was not yet fully under its control, and it was still shuddering from the cold. Still, it was dangerous to get within The Asset's grabbing range prior to recalibration, so no one was fool enough to do so.

The lead tech ensured The Asset was restrained in the chair and only then approached with a mouth guard. Once fully secured, the recalibration began. The personnel present all completely ignored the sounds of distress from The Asset, talking quietly among themselves about the upcoming mission.

An hour later, recalibration had been completed, and a second tech moved in to confirm the recalibration had taken effect. Once that was assured, only then did the guards' guns drop, and a senior HYDRA agent stepped neatly into the bunker with a file folder in hand.

In Russian, the agent began to speak. "The assignment." The agent said, handing off the file. "Elimination of these individuals. Black Widow Belova will be partnering you for this mission to assist in elimination of her rogue counterpart and such of the other targets as are deemed necessary due to circumstances. Extreme caution is to be observed at all times. These individuals exhibit a range of skills that will make them ... challenging ... to eliminate without detection. This is the location of the base to which reports will be made every third day." And, it went without saying, recalibration would be applied at those times. "This assignment will remain the only assignment until all objectives are completed. Transport to the secondary base has been arranged for an hour from now. Black Widow Belova will arrive at the base tomorrow night. She has been fully debriefed, so the assignment may begin immediately after her arrival."

The Asset took the file and flipped through it, its metal arm gleaming briefly in the harsh lights of the bunker. The agent observed carefully, but there was no sign of hesitation or recognition at any of the pictures in the file.

The agent allowed The Asset to peruse the file, which it did quickly, then handed the file back.

"Your gear is in the next room." The agent told The Asset.

The Asset got to its feet smoothly and marched out of the bunker. It took less than ten minutes to dress and arm itself, then marched to the surface and the transport awaiting it.

The ghost known to the intelligence community as The Winter Soldier was once more in play.

Chapter Text

Phil and Clint

(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)(_)

Phil's life had been busy the last two weeks. Surprisingly, though, it had not been anywhere near as busy as he'd feared it would be in the wake of the invasion. This was thanks in large part to the inestimable Pepper Potts.

The damage done in the battle had been extensive, but with so many people on their side of the fight, it had been rather less than it otherwise could have been. Especially if more than three of the enormous, armored flying creatures - space whales - had gotten past Thor and Storm's blockade. The smaller airborne vehicles hadn't been able to do anywhere near the damage one of the space whales would have managed. A single space whale would have done more damage just plowing into a building than a good two dozen of the smaller craft, and that didn't take the infantry and additional armaments the space whales had carried into account.

Professionally, Phil refused to call them space whales. Tony seemed to have been the one to coin the phrase and would never let Phil live down if he caught Phil using it. So he made a point of not using the phrase aloud, but he did think of them as such in his private thoughts.

At any rate, Phil's usual tasks in the wake of a large-scale attack involved coordinating relief and salvage efforts, ensuring necessary supplies and personnel reached the affected area in a timely manner, and liasing with the military and emergency personnel that had responded to the crisis in addition to SHIELD personnel. Such tasks generally took thirty hours out of his day. Which is to say, they generally took more time than he actually had.

This time, however, Pepper Potts had been right in the thick of it, primarily because Stark Industries and Iron Man had been at the epicenter of the attack. Phil had figured out very, very quickly after meeting her for the first time that Pepper was, in virtually every way, his counterpart. Ruthlessly competent and efficient, capable of winning and holding the trust of people who generally didn't even trust themselves, never mind anyone else - and completely underestimated by pretty much everyone outside of a very small circle of people.

With Pepper on the case, Phil's workload in the aftermath of the attack had been cut in half. He had appreciated the break. It had allowed him to keep a closer eye on Clint than he otherwise would have been able to manage. Not that he thought Clint still compromised or the like, but he knew Clint well enough to know that being mind-controlled was going to cause Clint considerable issues.

Not that any human would appreciate such a violation. Snipers, however, had a universal near obsessive-compulsive need to control as many variables as they possibly could in the execution of their jobs. It was a need that tended to carry over into other aspects of life. As such, any sniper would react a bit more negatively than the average.

Clint would react more poorly still. He had completely understandable issues with authority of any description, given what he'd been subjected to before Phil had become his handler. Abuse of authority never failed to bring out Clint's most insubordinate tendencies. That he had been forced to accept orders he would otherwise never have obeyed and been unable to fight back was going to end up driving Clint up a wall.

All the proof that Phil needed to know Clint wasn't dealing well was how quiet Clint was. It was to be expected when Clint was around the other Avengers. He did not know them, therefore did not trust them and would not risk giving them ammunition to use against him. But Clint had been worryingly quiet even when it was just Phil and Natasha, both of whom he trusted and who trusted him in return.

Phil knew it would be a while yet before the subject could be broached. Pushing Clint to do something he didn't want to or wasn't ready to do was a very, very bad idea. One that the handlers that had worked with him before Fury chucked Clint at Phil had figured out the hard way. Clint would come to them in his own time.

Hopefully, today would help with that. It had long been their habit that whenever schedules permitted, they'd meet up for an evening wherein work in any form was forbidden. All too often, they'd only managed one or two such nights in a six month period. Generally, they ordered in some junk food and watched movies on such nights, talking over whatever non-work subjects tickled their fancies.

In the early days of their team, such nights had been used to get Natasha up to speed on movie pop culture references. She had known both the references and the name of the movies they came from, but had never watched the movie, and as a result tended to not fully understand the significance of the reference. Her ... well, Phil refused to use the word 'trainers', even if that's what Natasha called them. Anyway, the people who had turned her into a Black Widow had realized that in order to blend in properly, the Widows would need to know pop culture, but had deemed actually watching the movies in question a waste of time.

It had also been an exercise in Natasha learning what she liked and didn't like for herself, by exposing her to as many genres of movies as they could manage. In their attempts to craft both the perfect weapon and the perfect infiltrator, the Red Room had eliminated virtually everything that involved free will of any description, including having preferences for anything. While Natasha had somehow managed to become able to think for herself enough to walk away from them, she had largely stuck to what she knew once out of their grasp. It hadn't been until Clint spared her life and Phil had become her handler that she'd been afforded the opportunity to become more than a weapon.

As if his thoughts summoned them, both Natasha and Clint arrived in Phil's quarters at that point. Clint via the catwalks, while Natasha took the more pedestrian route of arriving via the elevators. Both Natasha and Clint were burdened with take-out bags, and a second bag which had paper plates and plastic cutlery. They deposited their burdens on the coffee table in front of the couch.

It had taken all three of them a few days to realize that all three floors of their apartments were interconnected by well-hidden crawlways accessible only via the catwalks and platforms that Tony had installed on the three floors.

It was things like that that made Phil want to bounce Fury's head off a wall for a few times due to his treatment of Tony. Well, Fury and a lot of other people. Either that or laugh at just how thoroughly they'd all been schnookered.

For all of Tony's apparent flash and swagger, he had more than a little in common with Natasha when it came to being able to play people like fiddles. He might not be able to manage turning into a completely different person the way she could, but Tony's ability to read people and get them to react the way he wanted them to was nearly as good as hers. Hell, Tony'd gotten a roomful of rabid paparazzi to *sit on the floor* with an offhand comment and gesture or two. And he'd been fresh from Afghanistan at the time, and thus hardly at the top of his game.

Yes, Natasha and Tony had a thing or two in common. The most important of which was that you underestimated them at your peril. Hilariously, both of them managed to get people to underestimate them with disconcerting regularity. Phil considered the fallout to be poetic justice.

"Any preferences as to movie?" Phil asked, mentally shaking off his thoughts.

"I was thinking RED." Clint proffered.

Phil glanced at Natasha, who nodded. "I like that one." She said.

Those sorts of movies could be hit or miss with the three of them. Most of the movies that tried to depict alphabet-soup agencies 'seriously' tended to irritate them with the inaccuracies and ineptitude of the 'agents'. The movies like RED, Get Smart, and such - the ones that were deliberately over the top and pointed and laughed at the genre, they got a kick out of. RED in particular got an extra vote of approval for its all too rare positive portrayal of Russian characters. Far too often, Russian characters were depicted as either evil incarnate, incompetent, or both, which never failed to aggravate Natasha even if she understood it. After all, Russian entertainments tended to do the same thing where Americans were involved and probably would for a long time to come, even if the Cold War had ended.

"Jarvis, if you would, please." Phil asked as the three of them loaded plates and settled in. Clint parked himself on a platform with a good view of the television, while Natasha settled on the far end of the couch from Phil.

(_)(_)(_)

Clint had spent the first half of the movie trying not to brood. He'd been doing his best to not brood period for the last two weeks.

In a very weird way, it helped that he had essentially been 'unchanged', despite the mind control. It allowed him to sort of pretend it had been a mission, and his choice. It *really* helped that SHIELD casualties due to his actions had been virtually nonexistent. No one had died, though there had been injuries during the attempted takeover of the helicarrier. It also helped that he'd learned young how to compartmentalize like a fucking pro.

He knew Nat and Phil were worried about him. If he was being honest with himself, he'd even admit they had reason to be. Hilariously, being here helped. Having so many people to watch, to figure out, kept him distracted from his own troubles to a surprising degree. Learning everyone's tics and habits and personalities outside of a file was always a good time. Especially since the files almost always got something wrong somewhere. It was kind of hard to distill a person into words on paper. Plus, as good as SHIELD's various agents were, they were none of them Nat, and could easily misread a target.

But about halfway through the movie, Clint started to feel twitchy. Most snipers sacrificed their awareness of their immediate surroundings in favor of the target in their scopes. They depended on a spotter to watch their backs. Until Phil, Clint had never been able to trust someone like that. It had, ironically, turned him into Hawkeye, because he had been forced to learn to see and pay attention to *everything* while still being able to bullseye his target.

He'd developed a very reliable 'ohshit' alert over the years thanks to having to watch his own back. He always knew when he was being watched, when danger threatened. That awareness was being set off now. Quietly at first, but then more insistently, until Clint was pulled away from the movie. He frowned as he looked around the apartment, trying to figure out where the hell a threat could come from. Half a second later, the penny dropped.

"DOWN!" He bellowed, lunging off the platform he'd been sitting on - there was nothing between him and the window.

Phil and Nat never hesitated, both of them flinging themselves to the ground, trusting him and his trouble radar. Clint was midair, tucking to roll when he hit the ground, when there was a god almighty CRACK from the direction of the window. God bless Tony Stark's paranoid heart - the glass didn't shatter. At least, not from a single bullet. Clint really didn't fancy their chances if a hail of bullets came their way.

It turned out that wasn't going to be much of an issue. The metal panels Clint had seen in action during the invasion slammed down over the window just as Clint landed. He rolled and tumbled to his feet.

"Sniper." Phil said. It was less of a question and more of a statement.

"Yeah. Given the angle, I'd say Trump Tower. It and the Chrysler building are the only buildings with the right height - and the Chrysler's shape makes internal or external sniper nests problematic." Clint said.

There were too few windows on the upper stories of the Chrysler Building, and the curves and pointed top on the upper stories made perching on the outside virtually impossible. Trump Tower, on the other hand, was flat topped with lots of windows.

"Jarvis, are you able to calculate the angle of the bullet's impact?" Phil wanted to know.

"Indeed, Agent Coulson." Jarvis said, then rattled off the relevant figures. "I have informed Sir of this incident as well. Should I inform the rest of the Avengers?"

Phil shook his head. "No, there's nothing most of them can do at the moment." Then he cocked his head. "Unless ... can Loki teleport someone in addition to himself?"

"My guess is top floor." Clint said after thinking it through. "Apartment of someone single if possible, married but with no kids if not. Someone who works night shift, considering the time. Break in when they leave and you've got the place to yourself for a solid six hours or more."

"Mister Friggasson indicates he is at your disposal, Agent Coulson." Jarvis said on the heels of Clint's assessment.

"Tell him to teleport to the top floor. It'll take the sniper longer than this to get out of there. Worse comes to worse, he'll catch them in the elevator." Phil said. "Tell him to bring Thor as backup. Snipers don't usually work alone, and there's no telling whether this one has just a partner or an entire team, given who they were aiming at."

Chapter Text

Loki, Thor, and Soldier

(_)(_)(_)

The first Loki knew of trouble in the Tower was when Jarvis spoke up, pulling him out of the book he'd been reading.

"Mr. Friggasson, an assassination attempt via sniper has been perpetrated, aimed at the floor where Agents Coulson, Barton, and Romanov are currently. The probable location of the sniper has been ascertained and Agent Coulson is inquiring as to whether or not you can take someone with you when you teleport."

"Of course." Loki said. He'd come remarkably close to leaping to his feet the moment 'assassination' had escaped Jarvis' speakers. Though he hadn't quite rushed to such a degree, he'd been on his feet remarkably quickly and had immediately called his armor from the magical pocket where he stored it. Even had Coulson not planned for him to at least act as transport for whoever was being sent to capture the would-be assassin, Loki would have armored up and gone to deal with the offender.

"He asks that you take Thor with you to Trump Tower. It is presumed the sniper is on the top floor. They will have at least one person with them, possibly more. I have alerted Thor and he indicates he is ready when you are. He is in his rooms."

Loki nodded, but didn't waste time verbally acknowledging Jarvis. He just teleported to Thor's floor. Thor, as Jarvis had indicated, was armored up with Mjolnir in hand, scowling ferociously. Loki again didn't bother with words, he just grabbed Thor's arm and teleported them both.

While Thor and Loki had long worked with Sif and the Three, they had also worked rather extensively with just the two of them, both as children and as adults. As a result, they were very, very familiar with each other's capabilities, and used to working together as a team - at least of sorts. Of course, that had been back when Thor had been a bullheaded idiot. These days, he at least tried to use his head. Thus when they landed, Loki got a bit of a pleasant surprise. Thor didn't instantly hare off to pummel someone into mush.

"Brother, can you locate our prey?" Thor asked, almost whispering in an attempt to keep his voice down.

Loki cocked an eyebrow in surprise, but then nodded, spinning out a thread of magic as he tried to pinpoint anyone that was out of place.

He frowned when he only picked up on one person. Where was the sniper's backup? Agent Coulson had specified that there would be someone, and the Agent would not give deliberately erroneous information. Loki's immediate suspicion was that they were magically masked. That was going to make things interesting.

"I believe the sniper is there." Loki said, pointing to one of the apartments. The sniper had not yet left the area - their reaction had been too fast for that. Less than a minute had passed between the shot being taken and Loki and Thor's arrival. No human Loki was aware of could get out of any area that fast - at least, not without leaving ample evidence behind, at any rate. "Their backup, I cannot locate. I think they may have masked themselves magically. I shall attempt to locate them and take them out while you detain the sniper."

Thor nodded and stormed towards the apartment, expression grim and forbidding. Loki watched him go in stunned disbelief. Not so long ago, Thor would have argued, questioning Loki's competence to make such a decision, call the plan cowardly and not befitting of true warriors and/or question Loki's ability to do as he'd claimed. After half a second, he shook off the surprise and got to work trying to find the backup. They'd be here somewhere.

(_)(_)(_)

If the circumstances had been different, Thor would have been both pleased and saddened by the effect his decision to actually listen to Loki and follow his lead when he came up with a plan had on his brother. He would also have mentally cursed Odin up one side and down the other for bringing them to this pass with his manipulations and general assholery (though Thor didn't know 'assholery' as a word yet). He'd also probably curse *himself* up one side and down the other for being an idiot in the past.

That said, the situation was what it was, and Thor had something far more important to concentrate on than mentally kicking Odin and himself around the Nine Realms. Someone had tried to kill one (or more) of the Avengers. That was not something that could go unchallenged. The would-be assassin was about to learn just how much of a bad idea it was to muck about with an Avenger. Or at least, that was Thor's plan, anyway.

Thor didn't know it, but he was in for one hell of a fight against a very challenging opponent. He almost didn't make it through the door of the apartment at all. The only thing that saved him was that as good as the Soldier was, he could not compensate for Asgardian armor. Mostly because no one on Earth had any idea what it was made of or how durable it was, so the Soldier's controllers could not inform him of the best weaponry to get through it. Thus, the bullet that came crashing through the door as Thor approached it smashed into his breastplate directly over his heart, but did not get through his armor.

Thor staggered half a step back - more out of surprise than anything else. Then he glowered and flung Mjolnir through the door, following swiftly behind it.

He almost got clotheslined by a metal arm before he was even clear of the door's debris. The only thing that saved him was that the Soldier didn't know who was coming through the door. He had thus slightly misjudged the height to aim at, hitting Thor right about at clavicle height instead of directly across the throat. As it was, the hit was hard enough to stagger Thor.

Whoever this sniper was, it swiftly became clear that he was ... well, more than just a sniper. He was also a ruthless hand-to-hand combatant. Thor found himself targeted by a withering assault of swift, brutal strikes from the metal arm - which proved to be far stronger than Thor had discovered to be the Midgardian norm thus far. It was also, due to being metal, far more durable than a flesh arm. Disconcertingly, it was proving to be more durable than most Midgardian metals Thor had encountered thus far as well.

As nasty as the attacks from that quarter were, Thor would have managed well enough if that had been the end of it. But it was not. While the metal arm was busy hammering at him, the other hand wielded a knife against him with such skill that only the fact Thor had grown up and sparred with Loki - who had a remarkable skill with knives - saved him from debilitating injuries.

Debilitating even for an Asgardian. Because this sniper was finding the weak points and gaps in Thor's armor with disconcerting ease and efficiency. Thor was forced to allow that knife to find flesh more than once in exchange for it not getting plunged into such a weak spot and doing far more damage than a surface cut on his arm would do.

To make matters worse, Thor had no real way of predicting what this man would do next. Most beings, when they fought, had some sort of 'tell' that gave away what they were going to do next. This man had no physical tells that Thor could discern. If he had facial tells, Thor could not discern them either, because the man was wearing an odd mask that covered almost his entire face, save for a small strip of his forehead.

Thor knew he could end the battle by calling Mjolnir to his hand. He was, however, reluctant to kill the sniper. If he did so, they would lose any information the sniper possessed, and Thor wanted to know why the man had tried to kill an Avenger. He was quite sure the rest of the team would like the answer to that question as well.

(_)(_)(_)

Loki was not a happy camper. He could find no trace, magically or otherwise, of a backup team for the sniper. It engendered far too many questions in Loki's agile and rather paranoid mind. Finally giving up on finding the backup, Loki headed into the apartment to back Thor up as he could hear Thor still wrangling with the would-be assassin.

Honestly, he was surprised no one had shown up wondering what in the world was going on. The fight was not exactly quiet. When Loki walked into the apartment, half the place was trashed thanks to the two men throwing each other around and crashing into things. He made a mental note to see to it that everything was repaired.

Loki was more than a little surprised when he followed the trail of destruction into the kitchen. The fight was ... well, as equal as Loki had seen a fight be thus far, between Thor and anyone of Earth. Even Captain Rogers hadn't managed to keep things this equal, though that was perhaps because he and Thor had been involved in friendly spars and the Captain was thus not going all out the way this sniper was.

Enough was enough. "Thor!"

Thor clearly had a fairly good idea what Loki wanted because he abruptly flung himself aside. The moment Thor was clear, Loki flung a spell at the sniper, flattening him against a wall and securing him, body and limbs, in a web of magic.

"Have a care for the metal arm, brother. It is far stronger than a flesh one." Thor warned.

Loki nodded and adjusted the spell accordingly. Probably a good thing, as the sniper wasn't taking being caught lying down. He was fighting the restraint spell as best he could. He wasn't getting anywhere, of course, but he was definitely giving it a try.

What was disconcerting was that the sniper wasn't making a sound. Not even a grunt of effort, which, given how hard he was fighting the restraints, Loki had been expecting.

"Let's get him back to Stark Tower." Loki said.

(_)(_)(_)

The thing about Bucky was that his world had revolved around Steve Rogers practically since the two of them had been in diapers. His loyalty to Steve was absolute. Hydra had practically had to literally rip Bucky's brain out before he'd even started to fall to their brainwashing and torture because of that. It wasn't until they gave him the news of Steve's 'death' - and kept hammering it in that Steve was dead - that Bucky's resistance finally collapsed. Even then, Hydra shot themselves in the foot, because by wiping Bucky's memory - they prevented him from remembering that Steve was dead. And as long as Bucky didn't remember that little factoid, the shards of the man he'd been prior to their brainwashing kept fighting.

The end result was that the programming lasted - at best - four or five days before it started breaking down. And the best case scenario included zero exposure to anything that would trigger Bucky's memories. Especially any that included or would bring up associations with Steve. Given that one such association was Hydra itself ... there had only been one or two times that the Soldier had actually lasted four or five days before he started acting odd.

Over time, thanks to memory wipes that weren't as thorough as they should have been for whatever reason, other triggers that pulled the shards of Bucky to the surface (or tried to anyway) were added. Black Widows and red haired females of any age but especially children being the biggest.

Of course, this only did the Soldier any good when no one realized he was starting to remember, starting to fight the programming. Which meant that over time he'd slowly gotten more sneaky about his rebellions. Hydra had mistaken the growing lack of violence when the Soldier's programming started breaking down for their programming finally, slowly beginning to stick. It encouraged them to get a little lazy and complacent. Especially the programming teams that didn't work on the Soldier regularly, and thus were less familiar with the shenanigans he got up to as he started fighting the programming. That meant that Hydra was increasingly likely to both let the Soldier go longer between mind wipes and to not wipe him as thoroughly as was really required to get rid of recently acquired memories and suppress the old triggers once more.

And Hydra had sent the Soldier into a situation guaranteed to bring Bucky to the surface in three seconds flat. They'd sent him after Tony Stark - whose last name alone was a trigger for Steve-related memories, and who looked enough like his father to make matters worse. They sent him after Natasha - the Black Widow he'd trained and managed to corrupt to the point where she fought her way free of Hydra control. And worst of all - they sent him after Steve. And the situation was compounded by the fact that the Soldier was now under the authority of a second-string programming team, which meant he wasn't getting re-programmed as thoroughly as would be necessary to suppress the triggers he was being exposed to.

The general plan to deal with the Avengers had not been the Soldier's. He did not plan and strategize. He did as he was ordered and that was the end of it. So the planning had been up to Hydra goons and Yelena. Yelena had recognized the futility of trying to disguise herself and worm her way into the Avengers' lives. Her fellow Widow would spot her in next to no time - certainly long before she could neutralize any of the Avengers.

While sniping some of them was certainly a viable possibility, it was not viable for others. The Wolverine at least was completely immune to death by bullet, and there was no way of knowing for certain if the two aliens were vulnerable to bullets. Shooting at them only to find out they were immune had been deemed unwise in the extreme. Yelena was wise enough to realize that killing only one or two of the Avengers would bring the remaining Avengers down on the assassin like a ton of bricks, making killing them all the harder.

No, killing the Avengers called for an up close and personal touch, so that all of them could be killed at the same time. Which meant getting both herself and the Soldier into striking range. So Yelena had commanded the Soldier to shoot at the Tower, knowing full well that the Avengers would react immediately to capture a would-be assassin. So while the Soldier was doing his part, Yelena was sneaking into the Tower - or well, so she thought.

The Soldier, on the other hand ... well, he took advantage of his orders.

He'd been watching the Avengers for a bit over a week. Despite being re-programmed three times in that period ... well.

It had started innocently enough. With the slow realization that he was, in fact, a human being, not a 'thing'. Next had come the recognition of the fact that he was being treated differently than other people were treated. Then came flickers of memory, of a skinny blonde haired boy and a red-haired girl, not-pain and a sense of belonging.

Even stripped of any other context (at least for now), it was enough. Somewhere, somewhen, the Soldier knew he had once been treated well by someone. That what his controllers did to him *wasn't right*. The fact that the rogue Widow was a member of the Avengers, trusted by them and treated well, inclined the Soldier to think that maybe they would, at worst, be kinder to him than his current controllers.

Unfortunately, by the time he was forced to carry out his orders, he hadn't gotten far enough in breaking down the programming to disobey. Fortunately for him, the aliens proved to be more than a match for him. And they were bringing him to the Tower. It was a chance. It was, more importantly, time away from his controllers, which he knew instinctively could only be a good thing. They couldn't reprogram him if they couldn't get to him, after all.

Little did he know what sort of shitstorm his entrance into the Tower was going to start.

Chapter Text

Jarvis and Natasha

(_)(_)(_)

To say Jarvis was pissed off that someone had tried to kill one or more of his charges was to vastly understate the case. Unfortunately, there was little he could do about the situation other than initiate the emergency lockdown for the Avengers' floors. That and monitor the Tower itself more closely than he normally did.

It was late enough in the day that traffic in and out of the Tower had become minimal, which made that task easier. Traffic never quite stopped - the Tower, like the rest of the city, never truly slept - but at this hour there weren't many people going in and out.

Jarvis took note of the unknown blonde wearing a well-tailored suit and carrying a briefcase who entered the Tower five minutes and thirty two seconds after the lockdown had been initiated. On first examination, the woman seemed ordinary enough. She did not have a Stark Industries placard, but that was hardly unusual, as non-employees were frequent visitors to the Tower for any number of reasons.

Unfortunately, it was not a perfect infiltration attempt. The first alarm went up when she did not stop at the desk for a visitor's pass or to let the guard there know who she was there to meet. Jarvis did a very fast check to make sure she wasn't a new hire at that point. It was possible that she was someone whom he hadn't 'met' (either in person or via reviewing their file) yet and would thus not immediately recognize as belonging in the Tower. She could also be one of the relief personnel who had been given access to the lower floors of the Tower during the initial stages of the cleanup from the aborted invasion. When he didn't come up with any matches in either place, Jarvis brought the defenses that Sir had built into the Tower online and discretely contacted the head of security.

That last proved to have been a bad decision. The woman, upon being approached by security, abruptly went on the offensive. As good as the Tower security personnel were ... they were no match for the woman. Jarvis noted, in the minute or so that it took her to disable the team, that her moves were very reminiscent of Agent Romanov's.

Given Agent Romanov's occupation (and bosses) of record previous to her joining SHIELD, Jarvis would have had no compunctions about resorting to extreme measures if such became necessary. For now, he would attempt lesser measures once. When she slipped into the (thankfully empty) women's bathroom on the main floor, Jarvis locked the door and flooded the room with knockout gas. Unfortunately, she did not immediately succumb, much to Jarvis' surprise. It took far more of the gas to knock her out than it did for the average person. Fortunately, Jarvis was able to control the only two points of egress - the door and the vent - and she was unable to escape before she finally succumbed to the gas.

Once she was finally down, Jarvis sent in another security team, and the woman was trussed up, as the saying went, like a turkey, and brought to a holding cell down in the basement. No fools they, they performed a thorough strip search of the woman before putting her in a beige one-piece jumpsuit and then putting her in the cell. Jarvis armed all the containment measures in the cell - a step that would normally be unnecessary, as the cell was proof against most detainees. Given Agent Romanov's skills, and this woman's resistance to the knockout gas, Jarvis was taking no chances whatever. Any attempt to break out would see her gassed and/or tased into unconsciousness. If she got particularly difficult before Sir or one of the other Avengers could deal with her, Jarvis had ... more permanent ... methods of taking care of the problem at his disposal.

Unfortunately, at that point, Thor and Loki had returned with the *other* would-be assassin, and it swiftly became clear to Jarvis that Sir and the other Avengers would not be dealing with the woman for some time. Very likely not until morning, if then.

(_)(_)(_)

Natasha might not quite have been in Clint and Steve's leagues when it came to math, but she wasn't far behind them. So it didn't take her long to translate the numbers Jarvis gave them on the bullet's trajectory and realize the assassin had been aiming for her. It was hardly the first time in her long life that someone had tried to take her out, so she wasn't even really upset about it. The only question was who was behind this attempt.

It didn't take long for the rest of the Avengers to show up on Phil's floor. Tony looked ... rather more murderous than Natasha had expected him to be. The man may have made a place for them in his 'home', but it did not immediately follow that he was emotionally attached enough to them to take an assassination attempt on one of them personally. Bruce had a very fixed expression of calm on his face. Natasha strongly suspected he was working to not transform. The rest of the Avengers were all varying shades of pissed off or worried.

About fifteen minutes after the alarm had been raised, Loki and Thor teleported into the room with them. A man floated a foot off the floor between them, wrapped in some sort of energy that shimmered green and gold. Natasha assumed it was a visual manifestation of Loki's magic.

That, however, was secondary to the identity of the would-be assassin. Natasha cursed briefly, if virulently, in Russian. Phil and Clint were only seconds behind her as the identity of the assassin registered with them, though their reactions were far more contained. Phil's expression barely flickered, but from him a brief frown was ... not a good thing. Clint's expression morphed to a level of murderous that surpassed Tony's, though he didn't say a thing.

"Ok." Tony said. "From that reaction, this is worse than I am assuming it is. Which, given we're dealing with an assassination attempt ... "

"Yes." Natasha said. "His presence means my old ... trainers ... for lack of a better term have decided how they are going to react to us, and the invasion. I would not have been the only target. Just the first. But this is complicated. He is ... " Natasha hesitated for a moment.

Part of her did not want to explain, even a little. Not even Clint or Phil knew everything, though she'd trusted both of them with quite a lot more than she'd ever trusted anyone else with. That's how they'd recognized the assassin. But she was going to have to explain, at least in part. Otherwise ... well.

"After Steven, after the war, Russia made its own attempts at super soldiers. They approached this in two parts. They wanted superior infiltrators - capable of becoming whoever was required in order to gather intel and assassinate targets that could not be eliminated by more traditional means. From that effort came myself and several other girls. All of us bore the code name of Black Widow." Natasha told them.

She could tell, by the looks on most everyone's faces, that they were filling in the blanks she was leaving in the story and not liking it much.

"We were little more than dogs, to them. Perhaps less. We were allowed no sense of self, no independence. We did not even realize what they were doing was wrong. Then, when I was ten - or at least they said I was ten - I would not trust those people if they told me the sky was blue, now. They brought him in to train us." Natasha motioned to the assassin.

"That is when I began to realize that what they were doing was wrong. Because as badly as they treated us - they treated him worse. They did not even treat him like he was a living being. He was nothing but a gun to be maintained to them. They hardly spoke to him, and did not even afford him so much as a code name amongst themselves. If they had to refer to him, it was 'the Asset'." Natasha sighed.

"After our training with him was completed, he disappeared again. I encountered him again a few years later, once I was fully trained. We were sent on a mission together. That was when I discovered just how badly he was treated, even compared to myself and my fellow Widows. A few days into our mission, he began to change. To become erratic and evince something that approached a personality, if a very beaten-down one. The next day, we were called back to base. He disappeared for a few hours, and when he returned, he was once more the mindless automaton."

"So they were, what? Brainwashing him somehow?" Tony asked, sounding pissed. The rest of the Avengers and their various hangers-on weren't any better. Loki had joined Clint in wearing a seriously murderous expression, and Bruce was looking a touch green around the gills in a Hulk-out imminent way.

"Yes." Natasha said. "I never discovered how precisely they were doing it. None of the Widows were ever permitted into the areas where he was kept."

"Which means he's not doing any of this of his own free will." Steve said.

That, rather understandably, changed the equation they were dealing with. If this guy had been trying to kill them of his own free will, well, there was really only one possible response to that.

"Comes the next question - can he become a functional person, or do we just put the poor bastard out of his misery?" Tony asked.

"Tony!" Steve yelped, sounding outraged and looking completely horrified.

Sometimes, Steve baffled Natasha because his moral compass was about a hundred and eighty degrees removed from her own. In an almost humorous way, it reminded her of her early days dealing with Clint and Phil. Back then, even their rather gray morals had seemed completely alien to Natasha, as she'd had basically none at the time.

Tony didn't back down, and barreled ahead before Steve could start to rant. "Steve, the guy's been getting his brain scooped out and re-arranged since the forties. There's a damn good chance he won't ever be able to function as anything other than what they've made him. And there's an about equal chance that even if we *can* get him to function, he'll be so horrified by what he's been forced to do for so many years he'll commit suicide. If that's the case, putting him down might end up being the kindest thing we can do."

"Tony is right." Natasha said. "I was fairly young when I escaped from the clutches of my controllers, and I am *still* coming to terms with what they made of me. He has been under their control for nearly seventy years."

"He still deserves a chance." Steve said, a stubborn look on his face.

"Yeah, but we need to be ready for the worst case, Steve." Tony said.

Loki spoke up at that point. "Mother might be able to do something for him, both to reclaim the man he was, and to help him deal with what he has been forced to do."

"Aye." Thor agreed.

That got them all looking at the pair curiously.

"I cannot be certain." Loki said. "It depends upon how this brainwashing was accomplished, and what, if anything remains of the person he was before he was turned into a weapon. That he was fighting the brainwashing some decade plus after he'd been captured and brainwashed is actually a good sign. It means that, at least at that point, there was something left of who he had been that was fighting what he'd been turned into. If that spark remains, his chances - and mother's ability to help him - will be much higher."

Steve looked pleased. "Well then, with that sort of option." Then he shot Natasha a look. "Do you have any idea who he was?"

Natasha shook her head. "No." She said. "I strongly suspect he was not originally Russian, but other than that, nothing. He always had that mask on when in the presence of anyone but his own trainers, and rarely spoke outside of mission-relevant matters - and even then he was as monosyllabic as was practical."

"So, first thing's first, take off the mask and let Jarvis get a look at his face." Tony said. "We might be able to track down who he was. Especially since he was grabbed during the war. He was probably a soldier, which means there'd be a record of him *somewhere* that Jarvis can get hold of. You got a good hold on him, Loki-dokes? I don't fancy getting my face smashed in."

Loki gave a nod. "He will not slip my grasp." He assured Tony.

Tony walked over to the man, then glowered briefly at Loki, because Tony wasn't in his suit and the guy (who was nearly as tall as Steve to start with) was a good foot off the floor, which meant his head was far enough over Tony's head to make removing the mask problematic. Loki smirked, but lowered the man until he was standing on the ground. Tony flipped him off with a grin, then turned his attention to the mask. It took him a moment to figure out how the thing came off, but then he got it worked out and undid the clasps. Roughly a second after the mask was off the guy's face, all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

Steve

(_)(_)(_)

Steve hadn't liked what Tony had suggested one little bit, but he was man enough to admit that Tony maybe had a point - that if this poor guy couldn't ever be something other than a mindless puppet, killing him might actually be the kindest thing they could do for him. It just sort of seemed a little callous to him to be saying it right in front of the guy.

Then the mask came off, and Steve's ... everything ... froze. Again.

It was Phil who reacted first - a low, quiet, and, for this era, mild "Shit." escaping him as his eyebrows headed for the ceiling. Natasha, Clint, and Tony were all right behind him. There would come a day - maybe in a few decades - when Steve would find it funny that Tony's reaction was stunned silence. As much as Tony talked, Steve had already begun to wonder if he was ever quiet. Natasha cursed in Russian again (at least Steve assumed it was a curse), and Clint muttered something under his breath that Steve couldn't hear.

The only reason Steve noticed any of that was because even when things got horribly bad, he'd never entirely shut down - not before the serum and for damn sure not after. It was dangerous to check out entirely. When he'd been a shrimp, there had always been the danger of bullies, or freezing to death in winter, or such things. After, well - he'd been in a war. Most of him, though, was acting like he was back in the ice. Frozen dead still, because ...

Because he absolutely could not be seeing what he thought he was seeing. It just ... no. He'd wished so often to see a familiar face since he woke up. This had to be his mind playing tricks on him. It had to be, no matter how badly he wanted to see a familiar face. Especially this face.

But Phil - who had flat out admitted he was a fan of 'Captain America' was staring at the guy with a look of growing horror and anger. Clint and Natasha, who had probably heard stories from Phil at the very least, were alternating between staring at the guy and staring at Steve. While Natasha looked as blank as she usually did, Clint looked like he couldn't decide whether to be horrified or concerned.

Unfortunately, denial had never really been Steve's thing, when presented with an incontrovertible fact. And the fact was that Steve found himself staring at Bucky. A Bucky whose eyes were dead and blank of anything even remotely resembling recognition. The reality of the situation hit Steve with all the force of Hulk punching his pre-serum self at full force. Steve staggered back a couple steps and wheezed like he was having an asthma attack. The world went a little gray around the edges as the grief, horror, and shock hit him all at once.

He was dimly aware of the sudden babble of noise as the others reacted to his distress. He was, however, too far gone at the moment to even try to pull himself together. Then Thor was there, expression deeply concerned, and guiding Steve to a wall. Steve leaned drunkenly against the wall for a bit, trying to get his body and mind back under control.

Unfortunately, control meant ... well, not being in shock anymore. Which meant something else would take the place of the shock. Given the situation, there was really only one possibility for what would take its place.

Rage.

The thing about Steve was that aside from an unassailable set of morals, he'd always had a bit of a temper. There was a reason he'd gotten into so many fights despite being so little and sickly. There were other ways to deal with bullies, after all. He just hadn't bothered with them for the most part. It was one of a million things that had been forgotten by the world at large after he went down in the ice and got canonized.

The last time Bucky had been in enemy hands, Steve had gone behind enemy lines and beat the living hell out of the people who'd taken him and hurt him. The last time he'd gotten angry, he'd tried his level best to burn Hydra to the ground and salt the ashes.

This? This was both. Bucky hurt. Hurt in ways Steve couldn't even comprehend and was a little afraid to find out about. And as the shock faded, the anger built, until Steve could barely see straight. Only this time, Steve didn't have a target. That got the tactician in him working again, and he surged up away from the wall, gaze locked on Natasha.

He didn't even notice when practically everyone in the room flinched back from the sudden movement, even Thor, though in his case it was more surprise than fear. But then, he didn't realize how seriously pissed off his expression was and how much of an 'I want to kill someone right now' vibe he was giving off, and how disconcerting it was for everyone to see that in a man who was generally the soul of civility and kindness.

Of course, Steve had never really understood - had never had the *time* to understand - just how people perceived him post-USO tours. Even as a performing monkey, he'd had a presence, a charisma people responded to. But once he took his rightful place in the war, well. There was a reason such a diverse group of individuals had been willing to follow him, and it hadn't had much to do with him rescuing them. They were grateful for that, make no mistake, but that wasn't enough to get trained soldiers to follow and obey someone who didn't have the first clue how to lead troops into battle, and had to learn as he went.

That Steve had *kept* the Commandos together, and working together pretty seamlessly, had been another honking great clue, but Steve had never picked up on it. Mostly because he was open minded, and just saw them as his team, and of course they'd work together to take Hydra down. It took a lot more than an open mind though to have a unit that included men from different countries, blacks (in a time when, at least in America, blacks served in units separate from whites), and 'worse', a Nisei - that is, a Japanese - American soldier. The group should have fallen apart, but they stayed together - even after his 'death'.

Put bluntly, Steve could pack a whallop even standing perfectly still under the right circumstances. But because he'd been so off his game since he woke up, no one had really seen him in that mode except for during the battle, and everyone had been *expecting* that.

"I want names." Steve snarled. "Places. Dates. Everything you know about the people that did this." One hand waved half-wildly at Bucky. "Everything you think you know, everything you suspect, everything you've heard rumor of. Every. Thing." The last two words, he snapped out emphatically.

Natasha just nodded, accepting the order.

No one needed to ask what Steve was going to do with that information once he had it. It was kind of written all over his face, and even he knew it. There was a lot of blood, pain, and death in the futures of anyone he managed to catch up with that had any part in hurting Bucky. It wasn't even all going to come from Steve, either, though he hadn't realized that quite yet.

Before Steve could swivel his attention their way, Loki said. "I will speak with mother, once we have ... " He hesitated half a moment. "Bucky?" It came out as a question, like he was making sure he had heard the name correctly.

Which made Steve blink, because he didn't remember saying Bucky's name. Though someone might have filled Loki and Thor in while Steve hadn't been paying attention. Also, he could have said Bucky's name without realizing it at some point. He nodded, though, to let Loki know he'd gotten it right.

"Bucky." Loki said more firmly. "settled somewhere he can't get out of."

"We can put him in the quarantine lab." Tony offered. "That place is armored to hell and gone to keep any explosions from wrecking the Tower, so he won't be able to punch his way out, even with that arm. And getting the equipment that's in there out will be easy. It's all on wheels. Better still, because it's the quarantine lab, it's got more sensors than anywhere else save the infirmary. Jarvis will be able to monitor him very closely. It also has a bathroom and a place to sleep, since it might not be wise to leave the lab until whatever is in there is dealt with."

Then Tony frowned at Bucky. "And I'll start working on another arm for him. Whatever else happens with him, I am not willing to trust an arm made by the sorts of people that would do this." He waved at Bucky much the way Steve had. "So the sooner we get that thing off him and replace it with something I *know* won't try to kill us all of its own volition or whatever, the better."

Their calm acceptance was helping Steve to rein in his anger somewhat. Somewhat. Which basically meant that he still wanted to rip someone's spine out through their mouth right about now, but he wasn't looking and acting like aggression incarnate as much anymore.

Which, really, was even worse than him flailing all over. He'd always been at his worst when his anger went all cold and calculated. When he had *time* to plan his revenge for whatever assholery some bully had committed.

"All right. Let's get moving." Steve said.

Thor left with Tony, apparently to assist in moving everything, which would take a little bit. Steve was so agitated it didn't take long for him to start pacing. It really would have been better if he could go kill a few (dozen) heavy bags, but there was no way in hell he was going to let Bucky out of his sight *ever again*.

He blinked when Natasha crossed the room for no apparent purpose. It wasn't the beginning of her pacing (which, as little as Steve knew her, he knew she didn't pace). When she stopped, she looked over at Steve.

"He's tracking you." She said quietly. "And only you. I though he was just staring straight ahead at first, ignoring his 'captors' like we were trained to do. But I think he was staring at you. He's definitely watching you now. He didn't pay any attention at all to anyone else who's moved since he was brought in here. Not even me, and given I was his target ... "

Steve fought the urge to turn instantly, and instead just kept pacing for a little bit, watching Bucky out of the corner of his eye. Natasha was right. Bucky was tracking his movements. There was still no recognition at all in his eyes, but Steve decided to take the fact Bucky was interested in him as a good sign. Sure, he could be interested in Steve because Steve was next on his 'kill list', but as Natasha had pointed out, she was definitely on his 'kill list', and he was completely ignoring her.

Bucky was still in there somewhere. Natasha had said he'd been fighting whatever had been done to him, back when she'd known him. Granted, it sounded like that was a while ago, but ... Bucky was still in there. They could bring him back. Steve completely refused to entertain any other possibility. He wasn't stupid enough to think that Bucky would be the Bucky he'd always known - there was no way he could be, not with everything that had been done to him. Steve would be more than happy to settle for Bucky remembering him and still being his best friend. All other changes, Steve could and would handle.

"I wish I had my old uniform." Steve said.

Natasha cocked her head slightly at him. It didn't take much to know she was wanting to know what he was on about.

"He might recognize me in it. Right now, I'm just some big blonde guy. He only knew me this size for a few years, compared to twenty-some of me being a skinny shrimp. Since I can't exactly go back to the skinny shrimp look, the uniform is probably the best way to trigger memories of me. The new one is similar, but it's not close enough to work, I don't think."

"I imagine the Smithsonian would be thrilled to return your uniform to you." Natasha offered. "Especially if Tony works his particular sort of charm. There's nothing we can do about it tonight, though."

Steve nodded. A few minutes later, Tony and Thor returned, and all of them trooped down to the quarantine lab. Once they'd gotten Bucky inside and closed the door, Loki released him, and they all retreated to a place where they could watch what Bucky did next on a screen Tony brought up. Bucky didn't move except to regain his balance. His feet secure under him once more, he more or less froze in place, staring straight ahead.

"Yeah. This? Is going to be a problem, if he just stands there. Will he?" Tony turned to Natasha.

"I don't know." Natasha admitted. "I do know that getting him to eat and care for himself is going to take some doing. Our ... controllers ... did exactly that. Controlled everything they could. Including what, when, and how much we ate, slept, everything. We were allowed little to no independence, and I cannot imagine it being any better for him. Also, whatever you do, don't speak to him in Russian, if you know the language. It's entirely possible he has trigger words buried in his mind, and we really don't want to stumble across those if we can avoid it."

Steve had a feeling that she'd had one or two of those, and that they'd been discovered the hard way, from her tone as she said that.

"Tony, before you bury yourself making him a new arm, could you see if you could get my old uniform returned to me?" Steve asked.

Tony cocked his head at Steve, then glanced at the screen where Bucky was standing where he'd been put. "Oh! Yeah, sure, no problem!" He said.

Before they could break up, Jarvis spoke up.

"Sir, there is another matter that needs dealing with at present. While the Avengers were dealing with Mr. Barnes, an unknown female attempted to infiltrate the building. She incapacitated the group of security personnel that attempted to intercept her using moves and methods virtually identical to those employed by Agent Romanov. Further, when I attempted to gas her when she entered the women's lavatory on the lobby level, it took her far longer than the norm to succumb. The woman has since been moved to the most secure cell on the basement level."

Tony cursed, then pointed at Coulson. "Bet you he." The finger swiveled to indicate Bucky. "Was a distraction. Damn good thing no one knows what Jarvis is capable of until it's way the hell too late. Right. We'll go deal with the new femme fatale in a minute, Jarvis."

"I'm coming with you." Natasha said. "She's probably a Widow. Especially given that Barnes was deployed. I can ID her and let you know just how much bad news she is. Some of them were barely worth the bother, at least for the purposes we were put to, anyway. A few of us, though, were ... well, a cut above the rest."

"And I'm guessing you were the biggest badass of the lot." Tony said.

Natasha just smirked as the two of them headed for the elevator.

Steve stayed put. Part of him wanted to be in the lab with Bucky, but he understood that it was not exactly the smartest idea. Bucky wasn't Bucky right now, and God alone knew what sort of hell he'd been through, or how he'd react to Steve now that he could move and fight again. Steve closed his eyes and gently thumped his head against the wall. God. The sooner he had someone he could beat to a bloody pulp, the better.

Chapter Text

Bruce

(_)(_)(_)

Bruce had been somewhat reluctant to join the exodus to the Agents' floor. Not because he didn't care for them, but because the rather understandably fraught atmosphere would not be good for his sense of calm. Then again, if he was going to trust Hulk to not smash the instant he showed up, he was going to have to start somewhere. Starting with calling him by his name, rather than 'the other guy'. Hulk had been exposed to these people, none of whom had attacked him, which would reduce the likelihood of him attacking them. If worst came to worst, they would all be able to evade him, or in Tony's case, possibly be able to talk him down. Their chances were better than anyone save Betty's if Hulk did break loose of his control. So he went downstairs.

At first, it was less of a challenge than he'd expected it to be. The Agents themselves were almost eerily calm about the whole thing, which was somewhat dampening the others' reactions to the threat. Which meant that while they looked rather pissed off, no one was doing more than *looking* pissed. That all changed when Loki and Thor returned, would-be assassin in tow.

The Agents' reaction to the sight of the assassin was disturbing. Clearly, they recognized him, which couldn't possibly be good news. That assumption was born out quickly enough. The information Natasha imparted made his blood run cold and, from the back of his mind, Hulk rumble in disquiet at their own unfortunate memories. Bruce couldn't quite stop himself from shooting the man a sympathetic look, even as he began to contemplate possible ways of de-programming him. He made a mental note to inquire of Loki later just what sorts of things Frigga was capable of. Not that he would necessarily answer, of course, but Bruce still wanted to ask. Then the mask came off and ... well, things got really interesting really fast.

It was kind of like watching dominoes fall. Agent Coulson went down first, which was hardly surprising given his interest in Captain America. Natasha, Clint, and Tony were right behind him. To his shame, despite his knowledge of Steve through his interest in the serum, it took Bruce a few seconds to recognize what he was seeing. Remy figured it out next, with a soft "Merde."

Before Bruce could even figure out how he personally felt about the discovery that James Barnes had been captured and twisted into ... well, this ... by some people that made the General look like a fluffy bunny, it became very clear that Steve knew who he was looking at. Actually, it had been the frozen-stock-still reaction that had clued Bruce in. Steve had no reason to react in such a way if it wasn't someone he knew or knew of. Bruce had no doubt that Steve would be outraged on the behalf of anyone that had been so horribly used, but he wouldn't freeze up worse than a deer caught in headlights. Right about the time Remy cussed, Steve's shock wore off.

It was fundamentally *wrong* for Steve, of all people, to look so horrified, grief-stricken, and ... wounded. The agonized wheeze and backwards stumble was even worse. Literally everyone in the room reacted to Steve's distress except for Barnes and Loki. About half of them lunged towards Steve in an ill-considered bid to keep him from collapsing to the floor, considering most of them weren't strong enough to keep Steve on his feet if his legs collapsed out from under him like they were threatening to. Everyone yelled his name in concern.

Thankfully, one of the people strong enough to actually hold Steve up got to him before anyone else did. Thor propped Steve up against a wall. Bruce glanced around for a blanket. If Steve stayed shocky for any length of time they'd need one, even with how his body worked. Bruce had spotted a couch throw that would suffice and was about to go grab it when the atmosphere in the room almost visibly changed. In a way that made his hackles rise and Hulk rumble uneasily again in the back of his mind.

He returned his attention to the group just in time to see Steve's expression morph. Instinctively, he and almost everyone else in the room save Barnes, who couldn't move, and Loki, who was probably concentrating on keeping Barnes contained enough he wasn't paying much attention to anything else, at least flinched. Most of them actually took at least one step back away from Steve. This despite the fact that literally everyone in the room could at the very least hold Steve off in a full-on fight. Steve was, after all, only at the peak of human capabilities physically. Most of the people in the room exceeded that level or had enough training or technology to meet Steve head-on.

Not that Bruce was exactly blaming anyone for backing away from Steve, because holy shit. As fundamentally wrong as it was to see Steve so shattered, it was also fundamentally wrong to see him completely, totally, utterly, murderously enraged. It was also more than a little frightening. Bruce didn't know about anyone else, but he'd had no idea that Steve was even capable of this level of rage. Bruce had no doubts whatsoever that if the persons responsible for Barnes' condition had appeared in the room in that moment, they would have been dead by Steve's hand before any of the rest of them could react.

What was weird for Bruce was that Hulk ... didn't break out in response to the threat. Bruce would have thought that he would have. It wasn't like there had been a dearth of dangerous men in Bruce's life, so Hulk *should* have responded to an apparent threat from yet another hostile male. Instead, Hulk seemed to lose interest, which confused Bruce to no end.

Unless Hulk could tell the rage wasn't aimed at Bruce? It was possible. As Bruce had begun to learn and accept Hulk could learn and plan and just 'think' in general. So him realizing a seriously pissed off person in his ... in their ... vicinity wasn't a threat was a possibility.

That aside, Bruce had to give Natasha full marks for courage for only flinching when Steve's attention locked onto her. Bruce seriously doubted anyone else in the room would have been so sanguine, even Thor. Bruce had to stomp on the temptation, mild as it had been, to get between the two. That would have just gotten entirely too messy for words, even if Hulk didn't show up. When it was decided where to stash Barnes until they could deal with the threat he (unwillingly) presented, Bruce slipped out of the room and headed back to his floor via the stairs.

"Bruce!" Betty greeted him the moment he arrived. "So what's going on?"

"Thor and Loki caught the would-be assassin." Bruce told her. "Betty ... it's Barnes. Steve's best friend."

Betty went white-faced in horror, one hand flying up to her mouth. "Oh. Oh no. How is he?"

Bruce didn't mistake who she was talking about. "About as well as you'd expect, which is to say 'so very not good'." He told her. "Turns out, Barnes was found by the folks who got their claws into Natasha. He trained her, worked with her. She never knew who he was because he always wore a black mask that covered most of his face. To be honest, it looks like a cross between Darth Vader's helmet and a *muzzle*. It's more than a little horrifying in and of itself. Anyway, they're moving him to the quarantine lab, because it's armored and pretty self contained since it has a bathroom and somewhere comfortable to sleep. I figured we could spare a blanket or two, give him something that doesn't look like it came out of an industrial combine or a jail."

While Bruce had been unable to retain any belongings between Hulk-outs, with it having been a year since the Culver incident, he'd actually managed to collect a few things by the time Natasha had come looking for him. Among them a hand-made blanket. Betty, whose taste was nearly as eclectic as his, had several more.

"Of course." Betty said, then hurried off to grab the blankets. "Should I contact Leonard? Even if Barnes' condition is beyond his skills, he'd know who might be able to help."

"That ... might be a good idea." Bruce admitted. "Loki is going to talk to Frigga, to see if there's anything she can do, but it would be good to have someone on our end, just in case she can't do anything - or what she can do doesn't extend to dealing with the emotional damage left behind by what Barnes has been through. And Steve's going to need someone himself, before this is all said and done."

Betty nodded as she handed a blanket to him and they both headed up the stairs. "I'll call him first thing in the morning." She promised.

Thanks to using the stairs, the two of them got there right about the same time as Loki, Thor, Steve and Barnes. Bruce got one good look at Steve's face and mentally whistled. He, better than anyone else in their group, knew *exactly* what tightly controlled rage looked like. It was rather blatantly obvious to Bruce that Steve had clamped down on his rage and started thinking.

That boded ill for Barnes' tormentors. Not that this mess was ever going to end well for them. Not with so many people so very willing to kick their asses to hell and gone. But this once, with these circumstances, Bruce had a suspicion that Steve would do more damage than even the Hulk at his worst could do. Mostly because Hulk wasn't a master tactician, and didn't have a truly personal stake in the situation the way he would if it was Betty on the line.

The rest of the group, even if they couldn't read Steve's face, were definitely picking up on his body language and giving him a wide, wary berth because of it. Right about now, Steve looked bigger and more imposing than Thor. Given that Thor did 'big and imposing' without even trying, much less when he was upset, that was saying something. He also, despite having his rage on a leash, still looked like he dearly wanted to hit something.

Bruce was half tempted to drag Steve somewhere that he could Hulk out and let Steve take it out on Hulk. It wasn't like Hulk would really feel it. Unfortunately, Bruce wasn't anywhere near ready to trust Hulk to not react instinctively if someone was attacking him.

Bruce let Betty slip into the lab with the blankets she had carried and one of his, but he kept one himself. He intended to keep an eye on Steve. Right now, Steve was seriously pissed, and that was cancelling out everything else. But at some point, the rest was going to come crashing back in. Bruce did not intend for Steve to be alone when it did. He was going to need all the help he could get himself to deal with this. And there were physical concerns as well.

Even Steve could succumb to shock, especially if he got hit with it again while alone. Bruce wasn't sure just how good Jarvis was at recognizing medical conditions. Tony had probably programmed him to recognize severe heart and breathing issues, excessive bleeding and things of that nature. Things that were or could be immediately lethal. But beyond that, Bruce wasn't sure. It wasn't something that had come up in their discussions. Bruce would have to rectify that later.

Seeing Barnes just stand there after he was released was heartbreaking. Not that Bruce got much time to contemplate that, because Jarvis chimed in, letting them know he had someone in a cell in the basement. Bruce eyed Steve, half expecting him to demand to be the one to interrogate the woman. Instead, Steve planted himself just outside the lab, clearly intending not to move.

Before the others could traipse off to deal with the second intruder (whom Bruce did not envy *at all*) Bruce frowned slightly. "Hang on a second. Add another item to our list of things to do, Tony. Call Cecelia. Right away. If he's not going to feed himself, we're going to have to resort to IV's. Without knowing how long he's been without food or water, I'm not comfortable let him go without even until morning."

And while Bruce *could* insert an IV in an emergency, he wasn't a licensed physician or surgeon, so he'd feel better letting Cecelia do that sort of thing. It was one thing to do what he could to combat fevers and such in poverty-stricken hovels, where the residents couldn't afford an actual doctor. Doing so here was unnecessary. That said, he was present and knew enough to know going without food and water - water especially - for any kind of time was not good, and could remind them to call in the actual doctor.

"Good point." Tony said. "Jarvis?"

"Immediately, Sir." Jarvis said. A few moments later, he spoke up again. "Dr. Reyes is en route. She asks, since the patient is potentially hostile, that Loki remain to restrain him so that medical intervention can be performed with minimal risks to herself."

"Of course." Loki agreed.

The rest of the team trooped off to go deal with the would-be infiltrator while Bruce, Loki, and Steve stayed to wait for Cecelia. Bruce *really* didn't envy the woman.

Cecelia arrived a few minutes after the rest of the team left, carting several containers of gear. "I brought more than the IV equipment, just in case I needed it. If the bastards that had him were willing to wipe his mind, there's no telling what else they're willing to do to him."

She plunked the containers down outside the lab door and took a look at the screen they were using to keep an eye on Barnes. "He hasn't moved?"

"Not so much as a muscle, as far as I've seen." Bruce told her.

Cecelia scowled. "Not that there will be much left of them by the time Steve gets through with them, much left the rest of you, but ... either save a bit for me so I can give them a kick or do it for me?"

Bruce wasn't the only one to give an amused snort. Even Steve did.

"All right, let's get this dealt with." Cecelia said.

Loki immediately re-restrained Barnes with his magic, and all of them followed Cecelia into the room. Cecelia worked quickly and efficiently (unsurprising, given her specialty) as she assessed Barnes.

"Well." She said when she finished. "You made a good call, Bruce. He's definitely dehydrated. Not badly, but that can and will escalate quickly. For a miracle, there is no other current damage. Loki ... I don't know how much this is taking out of you?" She asked, waving at the green-gold restraint field.

"Very little." Loki told her. "I can hold him for quite some time before I become tired."

"Ok, then an IV won't be a problem." Cecelia said. "I wouldn't risk it if you couldn't hold him. He might yank it out and/or hurt himself somehow."

Cecelia had the IV drip in place in short order, and they all retreated once more, as Loki seemed to be able to hold the restraint even through the door.

Chapter Text

Loki and Frigga

(_)(_)(_)

Loki only had to hold Barnes in place for about an hour while he was rehydrated via the IV. He remained for a short time after that, to make sure his skills would not be required to handle Barnes for some reason, then made good his escape.

He spent the scant hours remaining until dawn very quietly freaking out. As horrible, horrifying, and overall traumatizing as his time at Thanos' hands had been ... well, it had only lasted a year, and he had gotten free, thanks to Thor (and the other Avengers). Barnes had not been so lucky, and the state Barnes was in now was a damn good look at what Loki would have become if Thanos had gotten his way.

The poor man seemed to have no will of his own. Loki honestly wondered whether or not the man would breathe, if it was not an automatic process his body performed without conscious thought. The only sign of life from Barnes had been when Steve was in the room. Even then, it was limited to Barnes' eyes tracking Steve, with no recognition whatever in his eyes or expression. Barnes had not moved anything other than his eyes when Loki hadn't been restraining him.

It was enough to give Loki, as the humans said, 'the willies' - a good enough expression for the thoroughly discomfited state of mind he was in right now. Which was not a good state of mind to be traveling the 'secret' paths on.

Oh, Loki knew he could have called Heimdall and been in Asgard in a trice. Loki was, however, unwilling to trust that Heimdall would do his job.

During his recital of events when he, Thor and the Avengers had come to Asgard, Loki had not spoken of (those acts that he knew of) Sif, the Three, and Heimdall's sedition and would-be treason. There was but one reason for that. The fact that he had, in fact, been doing things that ... would not have ended well for Asgard.

That fact was all that was sparing the five's lives. There would come a day - when Loki was more removed from events, when he had come to terms with all that had happened and all he had discovered - that there would be an accounting amongst them of what they had done.

Asgard, under Odin, had been the worst sort of absolute monarchy. Odin's word was law, and unless your name was Thor (and apparently Heimdall), questioning or challenging Odin's word tended to end in, at best, an extended jail sentence and more frequently in death. Whoever sat the throne during Odin's Sleeps was acting as Regent only, despite having, for that brief period, the full power of the King. They would answer, in full, to Odin (who maintained watch over all that was said and done in his sleep) when he woke.

That had not exactly been a concern when he and Thor had been children and Frigga had taken the throne during Odin's sleeps. It probably wouldn't have been too much a problem if it had been Thor on the throne, either. Loki had not been fool enough to think Odin would have been so magnanimous if he was ever on that throne for whatever reason.

Sif and the Three had lost little time in demanding Thor's return. With Gungnir in hand, Loki *could* have brought him back and restored his powers. That said, it would have been a tossup as to whether or not, when he woke, Odin would have approved or not. And that disregarded the fact that Thor desperately needed to learn a few lessons, and would not do so, if he was brought back to Asgard almost before he'd gotten any of Midgard's dust on his boots.

Yes, allowing the Frost Giants into Asgard had been both stupid and wrong. The fact remained that Loki would never have had to do so if either Thor had possessed a shred of humility or the ability to think before he acts, or Odin had been willing to listen to Frigga (Loki had known better than to try) when she attempted to tell Odin that Thor was not ready for the throne even in the lesser role of King Regent. *Something* had needed to be done to open Odin's eyes or get Thor thinking. Loki still shuddered to think of the mess Thor would have made of things if he'd been put on the throne as planned.

Sif and the Three had not cared a jot that Thor's actions had threatened to re-start a war. Neither they nor Heimdall had cared that Loki could have been attempting to smooth ruffled feathers and regain a more peaceful footing with the Frost Giants. No, it had been all about Thor. Again. At least for Sif and the Three.

Heimdall had acted against him simply because he didn't like it that he could not see what Loki was doing. Which was ... unconscionable. Not one of them had had proof of any 'wrongdoing'. Worse, they all seemed to forget, because it was Loki, that technically, he had not done a single wrong thing, at least until he'd turned the Bifrost on Jotunheim. He had been King Regent. While the Regent ultimately ended up answering to Odin for their actions, they operated under the same rules that Odin did. Which is to say that their word was law, and technically speaking they could do no wrong.

So yes, the only reason Loki hadn't spoken of their treachery and gotten the lot of them killed was because he *had* been less than sane and doing things that needed to be stopped. For that reason and that reason alone he was willing to spare their lives. Someday, however, he was going to call each and every one of them to account for it.

Loki shook such dark and unsettling thoughts off with a tremendous effort, and worked to calm down. Once he was sure he had, he glanced up.

"Jarvis, if you would inform Tony that I have left to go speak to mother?"

"Of course, Mr. Friggasson." Jarvis said immediately.

Loki teleported out of the Tower, and headed for the nearest 'safe' path that led to Asgard.

It had been Frigga, of course, who had first taught Loki about the secret paths. She had discovered, in her youth, a number of the larger, safer paths between several of the Realms. To this day, she used one such path to visit her family on Vanaheim. That path had even been Loki's first exposure to the paths. Frigga, however, had never possessed Loki's adventurous spirit.

Oh, he'd never liked Thor's version of adventure. Largely because it invariably involved killing mass numbers of beings or animals and risking his own death and the deaths of his compatriots. But Loki had adored exploring and investigating mysteries nearly as much as he adored reading. Such adventures, after all, accumulated knowledge, and Loki enjoyed learning.

Introduced to those paths, Loki had been quick to look for more. And he'd found them. Many of them were unusable for a variety of reasons, but he'd found at least two passable paths to every Realm, and as many as five passable paths between two Realms.

Midgard, for whatever reason, was the Realm with the most passable paths to the other Realms. It had four passable paths to Asgard alone, and almost two dozen more split between the other inhabited Realms. One of the paths to Asgard lay in the Adirondack Mountains to the north of Manhattan. It took but a moment to teleport there, and less than an hour to traverse the path.

The path let out in the mountains above the palace. Loki teleported to the palace, just outside the throne room. Fortune smiled on him in that Frigga was ensconced on the throne. With what they were facing in a year's time, she could easily have been elsewhere for some reason.

Loki did a double take when he saw her.

If Frigga had been wearing the armor Tyr had told them of during her aborted visit with Farbauti, Loki had been too ... busy ... to notice or care. Seeing her now was rather a shock. Mostly because he recognized the elements she'd borrowed from his own armor.

While Loki loved her unreservedly, in the face of ... well, everything ... an insidious part of him had begun to question, if quietly, whether or not she truly cared for him in any wise, much less as a son. Even her obvious relief and joy at seeing him when he'd come here with the Avengers had not been enough to silence that voice entirely. This, though? This silenced that voice completely.

Armor on Asgard was ... rather individualized. Within the constraints necessary to provide protection, there were innumerable variations on colors, styles, and materials. Boys tended to use elements of their father's armor to both identify themselves with their father on the battlefield and to honor their father. Even Sif, despite being female and her pursuit of the warrior path not much approved of by her father, had elements of her father's armor evident in her own.

It had rather been a symptom of Loki's increasing distance with Odin that there had been virtually no resemblance between Loki's armor and his save the gold color of the metal. That, and the fact he'd chosen green as his color rather than red, had caused no end of comment. That Thor had chosen silver rather than gold, on the other hand, hadn't raised a single eyebrow. Perhaps because despite the color difference, the metal parts of Thor's armor had strongly resembled Odin's.

In that wise, to see Frigga in armor that so clearly, blatantly possessed elements of his own armor - elements that the court would recognize - was quite the statement. Without saying a word, Frigga was proclaiming for all to see that she was proud to claim Loki as her son.

Such thoughts were driven from his mind, however, within seconds of Frigga spotting him. She shot to her feet, eyes wide with surprise.

"Loki!"

Loki almost had a heart attack when Frigga cast Gungnir aside as if it were of no import whatever, then came as near to running as he'd ever seen her as she descended the steps from the throne and crossed the room. She all but skidded to a stop a few feet away.

"Loki, I am so sorry. I acted rashly and without thought and hurt you at a time when you could ill afford such unthinking cruelty." Frigga said, her voice pitched for his ears alone.

It was one of the reasons Loki loved her so. She understood, almost instinctively, that he wouldn't want it brayed about the castle that he was ... vulnerable ... in some way. Well, that and the fact she was one of a pitiful few who had ever apologized for their actions. Oh, and the fact she'd always supported him as best she could. All right, if Loki was going to be completely honest with himself, he was a mamma's boy. Not without a myriad of reasons, either. He didn't have it in him to hate her, or hold one of her rare mistakes as regarded him against her.

"It is forgiven and forgotten, mother." Loki told her, holding out a hand.

A hand she was quick to grab and tug him closer by, so that she could embrace him. Loki permitted it with a fond eye-roll, but extricated himself after a moment.

"I am afraid my visit is not a purely social one, mother." He admitted.

(_)(_)(_)

Frigga was nearly dizzy with relief. Both because Loki had been so quick to forgive her, and because he'd been so quick to extricate himself from her hug. The latter was a sign he was starting to regain his emotional and mental footing somewhat, as he had never been one to permit public displays of affection without complaints or attempts to evade them. Too, he was looking better. He'd lost the bruised look he'd been sporting when last he'd been on Asgard. He still looked tired, which made Frigga strongly suspect he wasn't sleeping, but given the circumstances, a lack of sleep was hardly surprising. She'd worry about *that* if he still looked tired in a week or so. At that point, he'd be risking mucking up if he used magic, which he knew very well. So if he still wasn't sleeping at that point, it would be a cause for concern.

"I feared it would not be, with Thanos to be concerned with." Frigga said, as she briefly headed back to the throne long enough to reclaim Gungnir. "Come, we'll talk in the office."

She led him to the side room that Odin had claimed millennia ago as a place to meet in private with high-ranking visitors and to do the inevitable paperwork that came with being a monarch. Frigga settled herself, not behind the desk, but in one of the chairs in front of it, and motioned for Loki to take the other, which he did.

"So, what is it that brings you?" Frigga asked.

Loki told her.

Frigga was, in a word, appalled. That such a thing had been done at all was horrifying. That it had been done to a man of such impeccable character and morals - for she could not see Captain Rogers calling friend someone who was evil-hearted - was even worse.

"You are the best when it comes to healing, mother. I do not know if you can help him, but it was worth the asking." Loki concluded.

Frigga nodded emphatically. "Of course, and of course I will see what I can do for him. I will need a few hours to prepare. I must inform the court I will be absent for a time, and then gather such things as I think I might need for this endeavor. You may stay, if you wish, or return to Midgard and let them know I'm coming. I'll arrive via Bifrost."

Loki considered that for a moment, then said. "I believe I shall return." He said. "By your leave, my Queen."

Frigga gave him an amused look. "Go, you scamp." She told him.

Once he'd left, Frigga quickly spoke with the court and Tyr, to let them know she'd be gone for the day at least, perhaps longer. It would depend on the state Mr. Barnes was in, which she would not know until she started working on him. Then she gathered up a healer's bag and a normal bag into which she placed a few of the more esoteric healing aids. Another bag was loaded with the few accoutrements she might need if magic was called for.

She ran into Sif as she was heading to the stable to collect Aedan.

"My Queen? Where are you headed?"

"Midgard. Things there are happening apace. They have need of my healing skills for a man they found." Frigga told her. While not the truth, it was close enough, and a lot faster than the whole truth, in this case.

"May I accompany you? I would speak with Loki if I may." Sif said.

Frigga considered her for a moment, but she didn't get the sense that Sif wanted to antagonize Loki. Sif had been ... rather quiet ... since that day on the Bridge. Frigga had a feeling Sif had been doing a lot of thinking in that time.

And aside from that, Frigga still wanted to get the ladies Sif and Natasha in the same room. That acquaintance would bear remarkable fruit unless she was very much mistaken.

"Very well." Frigga said.

The two of them rode to Heimdall's station and were soon, minus their mounts, on the roof of Stark Tower. They were met by Stark himself.

"Queen Frigga." He peered at Sif. " ... Lady Sif, right?"

"Correct." Sif said with a nod.

"C'mon, Barnes is inside."

They were led to a room that seemed ... remarkably barren, save for a colorful patchwork quilt thrown on the bed that lay against one wall. It seemed a somewhat larger variation on the cells in Asgard's dungeons until Stark explained its usual purpose.

Barnes himself ignored all three of them utterly. Frigga, as politely as she could, sent both Stark and Sif from the room. Their presences would provide only a distraction. She was more than able to prevent Barnes from attacking her if he suddenly attempted to do so.

Frigga performed her own examination of Barnes' body. As the others had averred, there was no recent physical damage. That said, she detected several foreign bodies, each attached to Barnes' spine, that had apparently evaded the Avengers' detection. She suspected they had escaped detection due to there being very little metal, and the fact that the foreign bodies were not, at the moment, performing any function she could detect. There were two more such bodies in the narrow space between Barnes' skull and his brain.

"Mr. Stark?" She said when she'd finished with that scan. "I am given to understand you wish to construct a new arm for Mr. Barnes?"

"Yeah." Tony told her. "I don't trust that one. I don't know who built it or what they programmed it to do."

Frigga nodded. "When you have the new arm ready, send word to Asgard. Our medical facilities will be required for the transfer. This arm is attached to his body in such a way as to make it impossible to remove by what I understand are existing Midgardian methods without killing him."

"Gotcha. Will do." Tony said with a nod.

"There are several foreign bodies laid against his spine and under his skull. I fear these bodies exist to perform evil purposes, but what they can do, I cannot tell, as none of them are active at the moment. They too will require removal."

That done, Frigga settled herself and began the extremely delicate task of ascertaining what state Barnes' mind was in, and whether or not she could do anything to bring him back to himself.

Several hours later, she gave her head a shake and sighed, before gently stroking Barnes' hair in quiet sympathy.

"The bad news is that I cannot bring him back to himself." She said. "To bring those memories forward would do as much damage to his mind as burying them did. That said, there is good news. The blocks keeping those memories at bay are already beginning to unravel on their own. Given time - as little as a matter of weeks, perhaps even days - he will begin to remember, and eventually all his memories will return on their own."

"I removed several ... traps ... in his mind. Things that would have driven him to violence, or to obey without question if certain things were said or seen." Frigga continued. "While I am unable to bring his memories forward, I have ... blunted ... the emotional impact that the memories of his time in the hands of his captors will have on him as he regains those memories. He will still be able to feel the emotions the events bring up, but those emotions will be unable to consume him."

Which was a roundabout way of saying that Barnes would not be driven to suicide by the emotional impact of the enormity of what he'd been forced to endure, become, and do at the hands of his captors. Frigga dearly wished she could do more for him, but his mind was so fragile anything more than she had already done would do more harm than good.

Chapter Text

Yelena and Soldier

(_)(_)(_)

Yelena woke with a curse hovering on her lips. One she did not voice, though it and a myriad of its fellows flowed through her mind.

Damn these capitalist dogs and their masters! All known information on Stark Tower had been included in the packet she had been given when she had been given this mission. Her bosses had known that they did not know everything about the Tower. Whatever else could be said about Anthony Stark (and what could be said was legion), the man was intelligent. He would not have allowed anyone to know the Tower's full layout and defensive capabilities.

It had been assumed that the greatest danger would lie on the floors allocated to the Avengers Initiative, and not just from the personnel housed there. Yelena still didn't know what to do about the information that each member of the Initiative had been allocated an entire *floor* of this capitalist hell. The sheer extravagance and waste of such a thing boggled her mind.

Yelena had been as prepared as she could be for the challenge of penetrating those floors in the pursuit of her mission. She had not, by any means, been prepared to be gassed unconscious before she had even left the lobby floor. Especially since the Asset had been assigned to provide a diversion that ought to have had the full attention of the Initiative members. How such a thing had been accomplished, she did not know.

She kept her eyes closed, body loose, and breathing even, as if she was still asleep. She did what she could to assess her surroundings. A cell of some sort, she knew even before she began. There was no way it would be otherwise. But beyond that, what was she facing? Unfortunately, she could not detect much of anything.

The cell's smell was minimal, and mostly one of metal and cleaning solutions. Worryingly, she could neither smell nor hear anything that was easily identifiable as coming from beyond the cell's confines. She had been stripped, which was hardly surprising given the Initiative had a rogue Widow in its numbers. They would know to not allow her to keep anything she brought with her. The clothing she had been put into instead seemed to be of one piece. She was lying on a mat that had been shaped to have head support on one end. In other words, they had done everything they could to minimize the amount of material a detainee would have at their disposal to effect an escape.

With nothing further to gain from pretending to still be asleep, Yelena opened her eyes.

The cell had been unfortunately very well constructed. Three of the walls and the floor were flat, smooth, apparently seamless metal. The light in the cell came from flat panels on the ceiling an un-handy fifteen feet over her head - well beyond even her ability to reach even if she used what little furniture was in the room to launch herself. The mat she lay on was actually on the floor. There was a metal toilet in one corner of the room that looked as if it had grown out of the wall, rather than being a separate piece bolted into place, as it must be. The one-piece jumpsuit she wore sealed down the front with Velcro.

In short, there was very, very little in the room she could turn into a weapon or use to assist in escaping. Just the mat and her jumpsuit. Provided, of course, the mat was made of a material she could rip apart bare-handed. Which Yelena was not going to presume it was.

The only weak point in the entire construction was the fourth wall. That wall held, on one side, a heavy-duty metal door, which sealed flat to the wall on the inside of the cell. There was, however, a hatch at the bottom, probably to push a tray of food and water through without having to open the door, that might prove of some use in escape. The rest of the wall was a single see-through panel that Yelena seriously doubted was glass, allowing guards or interrogators to see the entire inside of the cell save for the corner where the door stood. And if she went there, they would know, as there was nowhere else for her to hide in the cell.

Beyond the 'glass', however, was the most worrisome. Because standing there staring at her was the rogue Widow and some, but not all, of the Initiative members. The Captain, the berzerker, one of the aliens and Stark himself were missing.

By far the most worrying of the lot was the bland-faced, suit-wearing man to one side of the group. Yelena (rightly) assumed that the man, for all his apparent air of a staid, easily forgettable businessman, was every bit as dangerous in his way as the best-trained Widow. This man, she knew, used his forgettable, unassuming countenance and carriage as a weapon. He neither looked nor acted like a threat, and as such, was able to slip beneath the guard of the unwary.

"What is your designation?" The man asked, in the sort of calm, patient, almost bored tone that was usually reserved for long meetings.

Yelena didn't respond. The man repeated the question, this time in Mandarin, then in Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Portugese, Russian, Japanese, and German. All with the same calm, patient, half-bored tone. He cycled back through to English, and tried again. Then again. After the fourth round, Yelena realized he was just going to keep on going, for however long it took to get a response out of her. She was tempted to see how long this would go on, but she had the sneaking suspicion that the man would out-wait her. With a bit of reluctant respect, Yelena finally responded, bringing the whole thing to a halt.

/Yelena Belova/. She told him. Which she had little doubt he already knew. The rogue Widow, after all, knew her, and would doubtlessly have given the man that information.

/Thank you, Miss Belova. Now, I have a number of questions. Cooperation will be rewarded./ The man said.

Unsaid went the knowledge, and understanding, that if she was difficult, there would be consequences. Just what those consequences would be was the question. The bigger question was what those consequences would be. Failure to comply with her bosses resulted in ... extremely painful and lingering ... consequences. Not that she had failed them in a very long time. Would this mild-faced man resort to like measures, or was he as soft as most capitalist dogs were when it came to extracting information from an enemy agent?

Let the games begin.

(_)(_)(_)

The Asset didn't ... didn't understand. If the Asset had emotions and permission to experience them, it/he would be seriously confused, with a dash of something that might be hope tossed in for flavor. The fact the Asset was starting to waver between the proper pronouns and those fit for real people was a symptom of that. And of the fact that it/he was in desperate need of recalibration.

After the fight with Target Designation: Thor (Priority Alpha), it and Target Designation: Loki (Priority Alpha) had brought the Asset by means unknown to the Target Location in restraints of a type unknown. This, the Asset had expected. This, the shards of it/he that wanted away from its/his current handlers had counted on. But even those shards had only dared to hope for *slightly* better conditions at the hands of its/his captors.

Most of the Asset's Targets had been in the room it/he had been brought to. Including Target Designation: Captain America (Priority Alpha).

Why did it/he think that face/voice was familiar? Why did something in it/him flinch and squirm every time it/he heard the Target's Designation, or heard it called Steve?

Why did it/he keep getting flashes of a blonde-haired boy?

Why did Target Designation: Captain America react so strongly when it saw the Asset's face?

The Asset's Targets escorted it/him from the area it/he'd been brought to. The Asset half-thought they had realized it/he needed recalibration and were going to apply it. But when they got to the new area ... no Chair. Just a large, empty room with a ...

It took the Asset a moment to identify the bed. It/He had not seen one since its/his last recalibration, and it/he had the vague notion that it/he hadn't seen, much less used, such a thing since it/he became operational. The Asset did not sleep. At least, not like *people* did. When its/his missions were complete, it/he was recalibrated, any maintenance required was performed, and it/he was stored until needed.

The Asset was so conditioned to austere surroundings that it/he wasn't even able to properly identify what the colorful thing tossed on the bed was.

Why did Target Designation: Captain America refuse to leave the Asset's line of sight?

Why did calling it Target Designation make something in the Asset cringe?

Why was the Asset deliberately failing its/his mission by not attempting, nor making plans to attempt, to carry out that mission now that it had direct access to its/his Targets?

(Because you don't want them dead. Especially *him*. He is important.)

The Targets performed some basic maintenance on the Asset, but otherwise left him alone in the room. Only then was Tar ... was Captain America finally out of line-of-sight.

With no orders, and no ability to carry them out even if he had them, all the Asset could do was stand and think. Something he had not been afforded the opportunity to do too much of over the years. By the time Captain America, Iron Man and Hulk had returned, with an unknown female in tow, the Asset had progressed to the point of dropping the Target Designation from in front of their names.

Something, and he didn't understand or know what, made him sure these people were, contrary to his orders, not the enemy. If they were not enemies, they were not Targets. The Asset had no idea what that actually made them, though. If the mission he had been given was aborted, he had no other mission, so they could not be Mission Assists.

The Asset was so busy trying to figure out how to define the Avengers that he never realized that somewhere in his contemplations, he'd stopped calling himself an it.

The unknown woman - tentatively identified as Frigga by the attendant Avengers - also performed some basic maintenance on the Asset. Then she did something very odd. She sat down near him and closed her eyes. She remained still and with eyes closed long enough that the Asset began to suspect she had fallen asleep.

Not having any form of psychic awareness, the Asset was completely unaware of the fact that Frigga was, in fact, scanning his mind to see what she could do to undo the damage that had been done.

Eventually, she opened her eyes and stood. Then she ... touched him. Stroked his hair. It was the first touch unrelated to violence or maintenance the Asset could remember receiving.

Come to think on it, the Avengers had been ... very gentle with him. Far more than he was accustomed to. Yes, Thor had gotten rough while attempting to subdue him, but after that ... there had not been a single incident of the sort of handling he'd gotten from his controllers. They had not struck him, or cut him or ... well, any of the things that had been such a part of his life he considered them *normal*.

It took a bit for the Asset to figure out that the Avengers were ... treating him like he was a person, rather than a thing. A dangerous person, to be sure, given they kept him restrained while they were in the room with him, but a person. And the restraints didn't hurt him, just kept him from being able to attack anyone.

The shards of him that had never stopped fighting his controllers, even after he' been forced to forget why fighting them had been so important, had hoped the Avengers would treat him better than his controllers did. That said, the best the Asset had dared hope for was less pain. He hadn't even dared hope that they wouldn't hurt him at all.

But they hadn't. Despite him being a threat to them. They'd done the absolute minimum to keep him from hurting them, and even that hadn't hurt. While they did not speak directly to him (much as his controllers did), the Asset got the feeling it wasn't because they didn't consider him a person, but because they assumed he either would not or could not respond, and didn't want to frustrate him. It was also possible they thought he couldn't understand them because they were speaking English.

Come to think of it, why did he understand English? He was a Russian weapon. Why would the Russians want their weapon to understand the enemy's speech? The enemy would plead for their lives, or attempt to sway him from his mission. As such, understanding what they were saying was a hindrance to the mission.

Wasn't it?

So ... why did he understand English?

Why was Captain America so familiar?

Why did he get flashes of a blonde-haired boy?

Chapter Text

Phil

(_)(_)(_)

It was past lunchtime before Phil was able to sit down in the office on his floor and really process events.

Really, it was a damn good thing that he was both fairly phlegmatic of temperament, and used to weird shit and/or insane antics. Dealing with Clint and Natasha and the sorts of missions they as Delta Team drew had been damn good practice. If circumstances had been any different, Phil had a feeling he'd be a gibbering mess by now.

Hell, he was half tempted to fill Sitwell in on this nonsense, because Sitwell *would* gibber and flail. Sitwell was a good man, and calm enough most of the time, but he was *really bad* at hiding when he'd hit his limit of weird. A tiny corner of *his* mind was wanting to stomp its feet like a toddler having a tantrum, point at Stark and say it was all his fault, so by now Sitwell would have been in high rant.

Because seriously. Before that damn suit, all Phil had really had to worry about was Clint and Natasha trying to kill themselves in interesting ways and doing their level best to wreck governments and cities when missions went wrong. Then Stark, damn him, built that suit in a cave, like that was a reasonable, sane response to the situation. And things had gone from mildly crazy to ... well ... this. Phil sometimes wished he'd tazed Stark when he had a chance.

The rest of him, of course, realized it was not, in fact, Tony's fault that the world had gone insane in the last year or so. It was just ... well, it was how things had played out. That didn't stop the last ... call it twenty hours just to be sure ... from being a bit more traumatic than usual. Not that Phil would ever admit it.

Being shot at? Hardly a new experience. That happened damn near weekly. Full bore assassination attempt, rather than a random shooting? Rarer, but it had happened often enough it was old hat for Phil. Despite his bland businessman act, there *were* people that recognized he was dangerous in his own right.

Finding out the would-be assassin was the legendary (and some claimed non-existent) Winter Soldier? That had been worth a moment of disquiet. Those that knew he existed also knew that he *never* failed a mission. And even if that hadn't been a factor, the fact remained that the Soldier was a product of the Red Room and its associates. Just bringing up the name was enough to make Natasha go all cold and remote, something Phil hated to see. Having him hunting her ... hunting *them* ... not good. Not good at all.

Natasha was still picking up the pieces from her time subjected to the Red Room. Still learning to be a person in her own right, with her own likes, dislikes, etc. Still learning how some emotions felt after so long pretending to feel those emotions. Phil had no idea how having the Soldier around would affect her. He had a feeling even *she* didn't know that. And then they'd found out who the Soldier actually *was*.

As much as Phil, as a child and teenager, had wanted to emulate Captain America, and as much as even his older, adult self still felt that way, as he'd gotten older, he'd begun to identify more and more with not Steve, but Bucky. Initially, it had been because Bucky was the 'sidekick', and Phil had been honest enough with himself to know he just wasn't the type of person who either wanted to, or was likely to be cast as, the 'hero' of the story. He was the sort of person who was in the background.

There had been a time he'd resented that fact of life a little. But then somewhere along the way, he'd realized just how important the 'sidekick', the 'backup' was. And from Bucky, he'd learned that sidekicks and backups could be badasses in their own rights. They just weren't as flashy as the hero. That, Phil could handle.

So Phil had recognized Bucky *instantly*. Despite the fact the man's face, without the personality animating it, bore little resemblance to Bucky. He had also, instantly, divined that Steve was *not* going to react well to the discovery. Between the two, he had actually, for once, slipped up and shown how surprised he was. Phil just hadn't realized how hard the discovery would hit Steve.

In his defense, no one outside of the Commandos (who had been utterly vicious about protecting Steve and Bucky's privacy in 'death') had really known just how close the two of them were. That Steve had gone behind enemy lines to rescue Bucky was a clue, of course, but it was incredibly easy to justify by any of a number of means.

Hurt, Phil had expected. He'd even expected angry. He had *not* expected the intensity of both they'd been subject to. For a few seconds there, Phil had honestly been afraid Steve would pass out from the shock. And he, like most of the others in the room, hadn't had a *clue* that Steve Rogers, of all people, could get - and visibly *look* - murderously enraged.

Well over twelve hours later, and Phil was still stunned. The worst part of it was, there was little to nothing he could do to help Steve. He knew that sooner or later the anger would ... not so much burn out as be banked, put on hold to dish out to deserving parties later. When that happened, Steve was going to fall apart. Again.

After Steve had been defrosted, one of the first things he'd been informed of was the advancements in mental health care since Steve's time. That had been done in the hope that Steve would at some point avail himself of those services to make coming to terms with his situation somewhat easier. Phil could have told the folks who'd made those plans that it'd never happen. Not because Steve was prejudiced against such things, but because he was as stubborn as a Missouri mule. He'd see his situation as his to deal with, and 'bothering' anyone about it as pointless. He'd get through it. He'd survived worse.

And that's exactly what Steve had done. He'd taken to destroying heavy bags with alarming regularity, but hadn't once spoken to a mental health professional of any stripe, regardless of whether they were attached to SHIELD or not.

After this, Phil was going to have to insist. Because there was no way in hell Steve was going to be able to handle what was coming without professional help. Above and beyond Steve's own issues regarding Bucky's 'death' and the discovery of what had been done to him, having to watch Bucky work his way back to becoming Bucky was going to tear Steve to shreds. Hell, Phil and Clint both had needed a few sessions while Natasha was working her way out of the worst of the damage the Red Room had done to her, and they hadn't been emotionally invested in her the way Steve was with Bucky.

And that was just Steve's end of things. This was going to hit ... well, most of the team ... pretty hard. About the only ones who wouldn't be dealing with nasty personal memories being dug up by this were Remy, Jane and John. Even Rogue might still have memories transferred from Logan.

The worst part of it was that Phil was going to play hell finding someone trustworthy to work with the team. And then he'd play hell *again* getting the lot of them to talk to said professional. Clint might be reasonable thanks to his trust in Phil, but even that was a 'might'.

Oh, wait. Actually, he wouldn't play hell finding someone. Didn't Charles have the necessary degrees? Yes. Yes he did. Well, that was one problem settled. Better, Charles could bypass a lot of the usual difficulties in getting people to talk using his mutation.

Right. Call Charles. Phil blew out a breath and grabbed his cell phone.

"Xavier's School for the Gifted, Professor Xavier speaking."

"Charles, it's Agent Coulson." Phil said. "We've had ... quite the evening over here." Phil then proceeded to fill Charles in.

"Oh, my." Charles said. "Yes, that would create rather a few problems for your team, wouldn't it?"

"Yes. And the list of people who could even begin to handle their various needs, much less the security clearances required, is rather short." Phil said. "Aside from one or two of the better professionals attached to SHIELD ... "

"I am about the only professional most of them would be willing to speak to." Charles finished.

"Exactly." Phil said. "And even then probably not without a fight."

"And yourself?" Xavier wanted to know.

"To be honest, I'm still ... processing ... this myself. I'm mostly too horrified for much of anything else to register at the moment. I'm pretty sure most of the rest are the same way." Phil admitted. "And the situation is further complicated by the appearance and capture of Belova. We could probably use your help with her, as well. She proved remarkably resistant to my usual, nonviolent methods of information extraction. And I know from Natasha that resorting to violence would be useless. Nor am I confident we'll be able to hold her for long. Natasha claims Belova was second best behind herself, and I *know* that even Tony's cell couldn't hold Natasha for long if she was determined to escape."

Tony was good. Better than good. The basement cell was more than enough to hold the average person indefinitely, and could probably hold Steve and even mutants whose powers didn't run to blowing things up, teleportation, metal control, or absurdly sharp claws. But Widows were hardly average, and as good as Tony was, he hadn't had access to the sort of information he'd need to build a cell that could hold a Widow long-term. Simply because that information did not exist anywhere outside of Natasha's head. Not even Phil knew *all* of what Natasha was capable of. Most of it, yes. All of it, no. And what he knew, he'd never written down anywhere or spoken about to anyone that hadn't seen her pull that particular stunt to protect her.

"I shall arrive, say, after dinner?" Charles offered. "And bring Hank so that he might consult with Dr. Reyes as to the best options for anesthesia to remove the ... inimical hardware ... from Sergeant Barnes. I will also bring young Mr. Drake, as I doubt he would let me visit the Tower without him. It will also serve to distract Rogue and John from the situation."

"Tomorrow might be better." Phil said. "Less of a rush, and you could hang about all day to establish some sort of detente with the folks here that don't know you."

"Hmm, good point." Charles said, in the sort of tone that let Phil know he'd suggested tonight knowing it wasn't the most viable idea. "Tomorrow then, first thing. I must admit I am quite looking forward to meeting Thor and Loki. It is not every day one gets to meet aliens that were once worshipped as gods."

Phil gave an amused snort. "Curiosity is killing the cat, Professor?"

"Quite so." Charles said. "And when I get there, we can discuss in more detail how the Thanos issue will be dealt with."

"I'll ask Frigga to stay here until after you arrive. She doubtlessly has news from the rest of the Realms." Phil said. "And she will probably appreciate the chance to spend time with her sons."

They could make a proper war council of it. Both to begin to deal with the Thanos situation, and to put together a plan to deal with Bucky's captors once they knew who they were and where to find them. Phil knew better than to think that *wouldn't* be on the agenda for not just Steve, but the rest of the Avengers.

Like he'd recognized earlier, pretty much all of them had a personal stake in this, one way or another. The few who didn't, would join the party simply to make it *painfully* clear to all and sundry that mucking about with an Avenger would lead to seriously unpleasant consequences at the hands of the rest of the team.

Phil considered for a moment. "Actually, if you'd be willing to stay more than a day, I think it might reassure Dr. Banner to have you present when we attempt to work *with* Hulk for the first time. He's willing to try, but very nervous about it."

"And having someone on hand who stands a chance of diverting Hulk before he gets wound up would be helpful?" Charles asked.

"Actually, we have that end covered. Betty Ross can stop Hulk in his tracks without saying a word. I'm more thinking that you might be able to help us couch things in ways Hulk can understand. No one has any idea just what his level of understanding is. We know he has some degree of intelligence, and an ability to use his surroundings to his advantage in a fight, but beyond that, it's complete guesswork."

"Ahh, I see. Yes, that would be of inestimable value in the initial contact. And then once you know his level of understanding, you can go forward from there." Charles said. "Not to mention a training session with your team will help divert their minds from the situation at hand."

"Yes, there is that. IF I can pry Steve away from Sergeant Barnes. Which is going to be a big if." Phil admitted.

Chapter Text

Sif

(_)(_)(_)

Sif had only ever been to Midgard the once, so she was ... rather startled ... when the Bifrost deposited them on top of a building taller than any in Asgard. Even the palace was not so tall. She would not have been amused to discover that her thoughts as regarded Midgard and its population were echoing those of Farbauti, on their brief visit to Midgard.

Sif had no gift for healing - that fact had been part of why she'd sought the warrior path as a child - so she did not follow Queen Frigga when she went to attend the man the Avengers sought her aid with. She ended up prowling about what seemed to be a common gathering area for the Avengers, peering curiously at various items about the area and trying to divine their purpose.

Some of it was fairly obvious. While Asgard didn't have weight-lifting per se, training to be able to lift sword, spear, and hammer for hours in battle did exist. Sif actually thought the heavy, liftable equipment a rather clever means by which to train thus. Even if she was rather confused because the only Avenger who carried an actual weapon was the man called Hawkeye - Clint Barton, hadn't it been?, so far as she knew.

The entertainment area was equally easily identified, even if the precise means of entertainment baffled her. Seating arrangements gathered around something - usually a stage or convenient wide swath of flat ground - were common to all the Realms. Likewise the swimming areas. Contained swimming areas were unknown to Asgard, but Sif had seen such things on Vanaheim.

The weaponless sparring area was equally easily identified. Sif thought the padded mats that lined the area a fine idea. Far too often, broken bones and other serious injuries had resulted from a sparring session due to landing on unforgiving stone and dirt.

What use some things could be put to completely escaped her, however. Mostly, it was the gymnastics equipment that stymied her. She stood under the rings dangling down from the ceiling for a good five minutes staring at them, trying to figure out what they were and why they were there. It was thus that the Black Widow came upon her.

"They're used to train agility and flexibility."

Sif jolted and whirled around to face the unexpected voice, then relaxed when she identified the one called Black Widow. She glanced back up at the rings, then over at ... Natasha, that had been the name ... again. Her confusion must have shown on her face.

"Perhaps a quick demonstration will make it clearer." Natasha said. "Give me a few moments. I'm not dressed properly for exercise." and she disappeared into a door against one wall.

Natasha came out a couple minutes later dressed in the figure-hugging black outfit Sif remembered from the Avengers' visit to Asgard. She then proceeded to demonstrate the use of the equipment that had baffled Sif. It was rather eye-opening. And not just because training for agility and flexibility was all but unknown on Asgard, where strength was all.

Sif had not doubted Thor when he claimed Natasha to be a warrior. She hadn't even really needed Thor's proclamation to know Natasha was a warrior. It was all over the way Natasha walked, the way she assessed a room and everyone in it. But knowing Natasha could fight and seeing even a fraction of it first-hand were two entirely different things.

So much of how Sif fought, she'd had to adapt from methods designed for the strength and stamina of an Asgardian man - neither of which she could match, no matter how hard she tried. She really ought to have emulated Loki, and worked out a style that played to her strengths, but she'd been determined to be the ideal Asgardian warrior. The worst part (she now understood, having been doing a lot of thinking the past few weeks) of it was, she had denied herself a chance to learn from the warrior women of other Realms because of it.

No longer. At least, not if Natasha was willing. Besides, it just might be *fun*, testing herself against someone whose abilities were so at odds with her own. Even Loki, who had catered to his strengths in long-distance fighting, had become competent with sword and spear. Insofar as Sif knew, Midgardians did not use such implements in battle, and had not for some time, at least compared to their own lifespans, if not in Asgardian terms.

"Would you be amenable to sparring?" Sif asked. She blinked a bit at the toothy, predatory grin the question got her.

"That ... sounds like fun." Natasha said, then glanced up. "Jarvis - warn us if the boys decide to show up."

"Of course, Agent Romanov." The odd-sounding voice that was the building's invisible servant (at least, that what Sif understood Jarvis to be, anyway) said.

"Why would you ask that?" Sif wanted to know.

"Men are children." Natasha said. "Watching two 'girls' fight ... "

"Ah." Sif said, divining at least part of the problem. Yes, men were children, and she could see where they would at the least be tempted to make stupid comments if they watched the two women spar. "Though I had thought women fighting was more accepted here?"

"More accepted, yes. Completely equal, no." Natasha said. "And in this case, most of the men on the team are ... rather given to making stupid comments even under the best of conditions." Her tone was one of tolerant amusement rather than irritation or anger.

Sif smirked. "True enough of Prince Thor." She admitted, tone likewise amused. "And of Fandral, another of Thor's usual companions on Asgard. I've lost track of the number of times I've had to thump one or both of them over the head for being idiots. The other two of our company are rarely a problem that way. Volstagg is a bit older than the rest of us, and his wife has ... educated him ... about such things. Hogun hardly speaks at all, never mind participating in idiot male posturing."

The two women shared a look that women throughout the Realms have exchanged when the menfolk of their lives are discussed. Sif then divested herself of her sword and armor, leaving her in a leather vest (used to pad the armor) a short-sleeved shirt and leather trousers. After a moment's contemplation, she removed the vest as well, putting herself on more equal footing with Natasha where physical protection from attack was concerned. She could do nothing to negate the advantages being Asgardian gave her unfortunately. The predatory look Natasha was giving her made Sif think her strength would not be too much a concern, in any case.

They started slowly, circling each other, feinting, testing each other's reactions and trying to discover any tells. Sif was ... disconcerted ... to discover that Natasha didn't seem to have tells, at all. That said, Natasha's fighting style did remind Sif somewhat of Loki's, in that she was fast, agile, and not afraid to use it to its utmost.

"Your pardon, ladies, but most of the Avengers area headed to this floor." Jarvis said. "Only Captain Rogers is not, and that, I think, is solely because he refuses to leave Sergeant Barnes' side."

Sif traded an amused, exasperated, and knowing look with Natasha. Sure enough, less than two minutes later, and the entirety of the Avengers, save Captain Rogers, tumbled out of the elevator. Sif cocked her head slightly when she spotted two youths she didn't know among them.

"Stark. Barton." Natasha said, her tone one of warning.

"What? It's not like we've seen all that many Asgardians in action, now have we?" Tony asked.

Sif decided to give him points for trying. After all, it was true. They'd only seen Thor in battle. The gleam in Tony's eye, however, said there was a more ... puerile ... reason he'd shown up. She cocked her head at Natasha, who returned the look with another of those rather disconcertingly predatory grins.

Sif blocked their audience out with the ease of long practice. Training sessions always tended to gather a crowd of observers in Asgard. Especially when it had been their company training. With the two princes of the Realm, a woman, and a Vanir (Hogun) in their company, they had always gathered a huge number of observers.

Sif quickly discovered that Natasha was stronger than she had anticipated a female Midgardian to be. Sif wasn't sure if that was something unique to Natasha, if she had underestimated Midgardian strength, or if it was just a product of Natasha's training as a warrior. Natasha still didn't have the brute strength even female Asgardians possessed, but she was a lot closer to it than Sif had dared hope. Natasha actually succeeded in raising bruises with her strikes!

Sif had just started to really get into the rhythm of their sparring when Natasha did ... something ... that ended up with Sif on her back on the floor staring at the ceiling in confusion. The watching Avengers were all cheering Natasha's victory. Sif sat up after a moment.

"What was that you did?" Sif wanted to know. She'd not really caught much of it, other than it had involved Natasha flinging herself at Sif legs first.

"It's a move designed to use a bigger opponent's weight and center of balance against them." Natasha said. "I've brought down men Thor's size with it more times than I can count."

"Would you be willing ... " Sif started.

Natasha grinned at her, a more friendly and less predatory version than the earlier versions. "Thor, get over here. You'll suffer least for getting thrown on your back a lot. And as long as I'm showing Sif this move ... Rogue, Darcy, front and center."

That got a lot of laughter from the watching group. Even from Thor, who gamely joined them on the mats. The female youth and the woman Sif had heard had felled one of the palace guards came forward, stopping just shy of the mats to watch from a better vantage point.

Natasha grinned at them. "This move is simple enough. You really don't even need that much momentum to pull it off. You just grab your target around the neck and/or head with your legs and swing your weight around, aiming for the ground. The target *will* go down, if only to avoid getting their neck snapped. Which can be done with this move if you know what you're doing, but the basic version just *threatens* that ... and since no one wants their neck snapped, they're not going to fight the momentum and risk it."

Sif nodded. Even Asgardians avoided that eventuality. Not even their healers could fix a broken neck, which as often as not resulted in death. Breaks lower down in the spine could be fixed, but necks, not so much. She watched as Natasha demonstrated the move, moving more slowly than she had when she'd pulled it on Sif. Even braced and expecting it, Thor did indeed go down, laughing as he sat up.

It took Sif a few tries to get the move right, but she did get it. Thor was a good sport about the whole thing. He even let Darcy attempt to learn the move with him as her target. Darcy whooped and bounced for a good ten minutes after she successfully brought Thor down. Rogue, however, refused to attempt it. Sif wasn't sure why, but no one tried to push her.

After that, the Avengers adjourned to the entertainment area. Sif, mindful of her decision to at least try to apologize to Loki, angled towards him as the others, laughing and talking, took their places.

Sif knew better than to think Loki would forgive her her stupidity. Loki was ... not given to forgiveness. Or forgetting. That said, apologizing would seriously reduce the amount of 'pranks' aimed at her once Loki returned to Asgard. Well, Sif assumed he would return there eventually. Someday. Perhaps not for as much as a millennium, but given the length of their lives, he'd return eventually.

"Prince Loki ... "

Loki shot her a look. "Yes, Lady Sif?" His tone was cold and remote.

Sif flinched mentally, but forged on. "I owe you an apology." She sighed. "In truth, I owe you many. More than most. I, of all, should have ... " She sighed again. "Should have been on your side. After all, there was little difference between us. A woman daring to be a warrior, and a man who ... chose non-traditional pursuits." She settled on, given that Loki's differences were not easily summed up in a word or two otherwise. "Had I not been so blind, so eager to be the perfect Asgardian warrior ... " She shrugged. "Well, that lay at the root of the problems between us."

All she'd ever been able to see was that Loki refused to 'do the right thing' by being a true Asgardian warrior. She'd taken it as a personal affront that he opted for nontraditional weaponry. She'd taken his interest in magic as an outright insult aimed at her. Magic was, after all, traditionally a female pursuit. Loki's interest in and easy mastery of magic had ... well, not gone over well. She'd felt like he was saying 'See? Magic is so easy even a *man* can do it. Yet here you are, completely incompetent at even the most basic principals of magic. And you call yourself a woman?'

Far too late for it to do any good, she'd finally realized that wasn't what Loki had been doing.

Loki regarded her for a long moment, then eventually nodded before walking away from her.

Well, that had gone better than she'd dared hope. She'd half expected him to yell at her or pull some magical prank on her. After a few moments, she joined the Avengers, curious to see what sort of entertainment could be had when staring at a blank section of wall.

Chapter Text

Charles and Hank

(_)(_)(_)

The efficiency of the rumor mill in the mansion never failed to amuse Charles. It generally took, at worst, an hour for news to reach every ear. And that was without the aid of the resident telepaths using their skills to either obtain or disseminate the information. So he had not been surprised in the least when, less than a half hour after he'd gotten the call from Agent Coulson, Bobby was in his office door, asking if he could go to the Tower with Charles.

Charles hadn't been about to say no. Until Logan's arrival, Bobby had been all that had been holding John here and keeping ... well, keeping John's bitter anger to a dull roar. Knowing as he did that his own friendship with Erik had been all that had kept Erik from going off the rails right from the start, Charles wasn't about to interfere with Bobby and John's friendship. He just hoped their friendship would not end the way his and Erik's had.

He, Hank, and Bobby left the mansion directly after breakfast. Getting to the Tower was still ... problematic. The repair crews and general citizenry were doing their best, but the damage had been fairly extensive, and two weeks was not nearly enough time to do much more than fill in the worst of the potholes from the aliens' guns and get the biggest of the debris, the aliens and their equipment out of the streets. There were still numerous smaller (for a given value of small, considering the largest were car-sized) potholes in the streets, piles of smaller debris, and repair crews making the streets difficult to negotiate. At least there were, now, travel routes open in the affected area, however serpentine they might be. Despite all of that, they made fairly good time, and were greeted by Tony himself.

"Charles, Hank. Bobby." Tony greeted. "Bobby, John and Rogue are on the common floor. You've got access to it."

Bobby immediately tore off, eager to see his friend and girlfriend. Once he was out of earshot, Tony glanced at the other two.

"Hank, Cecelia and Frigga are on the quarantine lab floor. It's looking more and more like we're just going to take him to Asgard and let them dig the crap out of him. Their surgical methods beat ours by a few miles. Unfortunately, they've never worked on a human before, so you and Cecelia will still be acting as consultants." Tony sighed. "The main reason it's probably going to be Asgard is Jarvis has monitored several ... transmissions ... aimed in the poor bastard's general direction. They might be trying to activate the stuff they put in him. Just blind luck he's where he's at. That lab is shielded against everything, incoming and outgoing. Unfortunately, turning it into a surgical suite isn't possible."

Hank looked momentarily angry on the behalf of Sergeant Barnes, then nodded and immediately headed off.

Once he too was gone, Tony shot Charles a look. "How do you want to work this? Talk to the gang first, or her?"

"I believe that talking to the team first would probably be better." Charles said. "Depending on how difficult your captive is, I might not have the energy after I'm done attempting to work with her."

"Right. Most of the gang is on the common floor." Tony said. "Trying to distract themselves. We haven't been able to budge Cap off the lab floor. How he's still holding it together, I really don't know. When he crashes, it's not going to be pretty." Tony snorted. "What the hell am I saying? It's already been ugly as hell. I did *not* know Spangles could get that pissed off."

Charles cocked an eyebrow in question.

"Let's put it this way. He made Natasha flinch." Tony told him. "And Logan."

Well. That was ... somewhat alarming. Charles didn't know Natasha personally, of course, but she was rather legendary for her calm and fearlessness in the face of ... anything and everything. Logan he knew better. Well enough to know the man did not flinch for any reason, much less due to being intimidated by another person.

"Perhaps I should start there, then." Charles said, and the two of them made their way to the elevator.

By the time they got there, Hank was deep in conference with Cecelia and another woman that Charles assumed was Frigga, given Tony's earlier comment, to one side of a heavy metal door. They were looking at a screen that was displaying the back and head of a man, sans skin, with several spots along the spine and skull glowing a malevolent purple. Charles presumed the display was a rendering of Sergeant Barnes' body and the items that required removal.

Captain Rogers was, quite literally, sitting on the floor just outside that heavy door, watching a second screen. Watching the screen for a few moments, Charles could not fault Steve for his angry, heartbroken expression. The screen showed the interior of the lab, where Sergeant Barnes was being held. Barnes was just standing more or less in the center of the room, unmoving, face blank of all expression.

"He hasn't moved at all." Tony said, surprisingly quiet for a man who could attract and keep the attention of thousands effortlessly. "Either of them."

Charles rolled closer to Steve, careful to keep his telepathy to himself. He didn't really need to peek right now anyway. What Steve was feeling was written all over his face. The challenge here wasn't figuring out how Steve felt, but getting him to actually talk about it. Charles wasn't even going to hope for that, just yet. He decided to settle for successfully getting Steve off the floor, in both senses of the word.

"Captain ... Steve." It took a second, but Steve tore his attention away from the screen he'd been watching. "You're not going to do Sergeant Barnes a bit of good if you collapse from lack of food and sleep." Charles said quietly.

Steve gave him a mulish look. Charles suppressed a wholly inappropriate spurt of amusement at how juvenile the expression made Steve appear. Just then, he'd looked no older than most of Charles' students. Then again ... he might just be able to use that against Steve.

"Come now. I'd expect such an expression from my students, not a grown adult." Charles said. Which got him a deeper glower. "You know I'm talking sense. At the very least, you need to eat. As fast as your metabolism works, I'm surprised your stomach isn't already snarling at you."

That got him a somewhat guilty look, then a much-put-upon sigh. "Fine. I suppose I gotta." Steve grumbled.

Good lord, but it really was like dealing with his students. Charles did still manage to chivvy Steve to the common floor and the kitchen there. With food in his immediate line of sight, Steve's hunger finally took precedence over his concern for his friend. Steve lost no further time in fixing himself something to eat and drink.

While he was thus engaged, Charles motored out of the kitchen area and towards the entertainment area where the vast majority of the Avengers were gathered. Bobby, John, and Rogue had withdrawn and were talking animatedly among themselves far enough away from the entertainment area that their chatter wouldn't disturb the movie watchers. The rest were (purportedly) watching a movie - one of the ones that had more explosions and action than sensible plot. While everyone was facing that general direction, it was pretty clear their attention was not on the movie. While Charles was not explicitly an empath, it didn't really take any talent at all, never mind a mutation, to divine the general mood of the room, and in many cases, the mood of the individuals in it.

Time to get to work.

(_)(_)(_)

Hank was working very hard to not growl. He'd lost little time in getting to the quarantine lab floor to assess the situation with Sergeant Barnes. He had, he was willing to admit, been rather thoroughly diverted temporarily upon his arrival. First by the sight of Captain Rogers sitting on the floor watching one of Tony's computer screens with the most woebegone expression Hank had ever seen on a human's face. Then, by the presence of Cecelia and a dignified blonde woman he did not know, who introduced herself as Frigga.

It had taken all of Hank's not inconsiderable willpower to keep the ten thousand and one questions he wanted to ask behind his teeth. Now was not the time to inquire about Asgard and its people, however much he might want to.

Given that Frigga was from an entirely different world, it did not surprise Hank that she did not react negatively to his appearance. It was entirely possible she had seen much odder things in her time than a man covered in blue fur. That said, given how rare such acceptance was here on Earth, Hank still found it unusual and rather delightful. The three of them quickly lost themselves in consulting over the medical challenges Sergeant Barnes presented. That was what was making Hank want to growl so badly.

The hardware along Sergeant Barnes' spine and under his skull proved to be computer chips attached surprisingly tiny power sources after a far more in depth scan by Jarvis. Worryingly, the power sources also seemed to serve as a means by which to kill the Sergeant if he ever escaped his controllers, as all of them were capable of exploding. Hank really couldn't figure out which he should be angrier about. That the things existed at all, or that they could kill him with a flick of a switch.

Cecelia, despite her excellent skills, was not a neurosurgeon. Trauma surgeons could, by virtue of what they were and were expected to deal with, manage a lot of surgical procedures. Neurosurgery of any description, however, was not something they knew how to perform. Under normal circumstances in a trauma situation, if someone required surgery of that sort, they were handed over to a neurosurgeon. While Hank had little doubt that Tony could and would bring in the best neurosurgeon on the planet to work on Sergeant Barnes, they were trying to keep the knowledge of what they were doing and to whom within the Tower. Regardless of oaths taken or money paid, people could be forced to speak by any of a variety of means.

There was also the complication that any neurosurgeon they brought in would be unlikely to have any familiarity with working on someone with an atypical body. Their scans were making it quite clear that Sergeant Barnes had been ... modified ... at some point with a bastardized version of the serum that had enhanced Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes' vital statistics were not to the Captain's level, but they were above the human norm. Sergeant Barnes' modifications seemed to have focused not on physical perfection but on stamina, endurance, and healing. Insofar as Hank was able to determine, Sergeant Barnes had not gained in height or muscle mass. His metabolism, while faster than normal, was roughly half that of the Captain's. The Sergeant's ability to heal, however, nearly equaled that of Logan, and was much faster than the Captain who, in keeping with his metabolism, healed about four times faster than a normal human.

The source of the differences could be any of a number of things. The likeliest was, of course, a difference in the make and/or application of the serum. There was also the possibility that the conditions under which it had been applied - meaning as a method of torture, since the likeliest time for Sergeant Barnes to have ben exposed to the serum was during his incarceration at the hands of Hydra - had had an impact. It could also be because Sergeant Barnes started out far more optimized than Captain Rogers did when the serum was applied, so less work had needed to be done to optimize his body.

The other matter making Hank want to growl was the Sergeant's prosthetic arm. While it was, without doubt, a technological wonder well ahead of its time, and something that under other circumstances Tony would be deeply jealous of, it was also an abomination.

The good news was that whoever had attached the arm had not removed all of the Sergeant's arm and shoulder. The arm had been amputated roughly halfway between shoulder and elbow, but the rest remained. Better still, the job had been done correctly, rather than just hacking it off and leaving it at that. That was, unfortunately, where the good news ended.

The arm, aside from containing empty spaces clearly meant for armaments to be emplaced, also had a compartment in the 'armpit' area that concealed containers filled with ... well, they weren't sure what, but given the situation, it couldn't be anything good for the Sergeant. These containers fed directly into the stump, feeding their contents into the Sergeant's system. Fortunately, the containers would run dry within a half-day at their current rate of use. Unfortunately, that added the high probability of dealing with the Sergeant being in withdrawal to their already intimidating list of his problems.

There was an added complication in that the arm was connected to Sergeant Barnes' nervous system, to allow him to move and manipulate it as one would the arm one was born with. The leads that attached the arm to his nervous system were attached at a number of points on the stump and in the shoulder, and would require a very fine hand indeed to remove them without causing the Sergeant nerve damage.

Worse than that, however, was the fact that the arm had been grafted to the Sergeant's shoulder and ribcage. While it could still be removed by their own surgical means, the likelihood of the Sergeant dying in the process was ridiculously high. The odds of them managing to stop the bleeding before he bled out, remove the leads without damaging his nerves, putting in bone grafts where they had no choice but to remove bone (fortunately only a couple of fairly small spots, but still), get skin grafts on to protect the newly exposed muscle and bone, and keep infection at bay were miniscule. Something was bound to go wrong somewhere, and with as extensive as the procedure would have to be, the odds of the Sergeant dying on the table were far higher than Hank and Cecelia were comfortable with.

In short, Hank could well see why Cecelia was leaning towards Sergeant Barnes being taken to Asgard to get everything removed. As Frigga described their surgical methods, they could remove and fix everything save the missing portion of the Sergeant's arm with virtually no risk of death, and literally no risk of infection. Their only problem lay in the fact that the Sergeant was not Asgardian, so they did not know how to set up their medical equipment such that the Sergeant would remain unconscious for the procedure.

The question remaining was when the Sergeant would go. Hank was of the opinion that they needed to wait both for the drugs in the arm to run dry, and for any withdrawal to run its course. This would also give Tony more time to build a replacement arm so that the Sergeant need not go without, or undergo a second surgical procedure (though that was unlikely) to attach the new arm. Cecelia agreed with him. Frigga, on the other hand, was of the opinion that they ought to bring the Sergeant to Asgard now.

"We can keep him comfortable while the drugs and withdrawal run their courses." Frigga said. "And our metalsmiths would be pleased to donate their work areas and supplies to Tony for the creation of a new arm. We also have metals that are far lighter and stronger than that of the arm he has now. There would be no need for it to be anchored to shoulder and side, were it created with Asgardian metals. And it would not damage easily. And the Sergeant would be well beyond the reach of all who would attempt to harm or reclaim him."

Well, there was that, Hank thought. Because whoever had held him *would* eventually attempt to regain their ... lost asset. And while Hank knew the Avengers were fully capable (and more than willing) of stopping any such attempts, avoiding them entirely would likely be the better course.

"Let's go talk to Tony. We'll need him on board for this." Hank finally said. "But other than that, you raise good points."

Chapter Text

Darcy and Pepper

(_)(_)(_)

So ... the last day? Had not been a fun time at all. For anybody. Darcy was actually kind of happy she'd missed the worst of the explosion. She'dve hated it if she'd accidentally-on-purpose tazered Captain Freaking America because he was having pretty much the definition of 'world's crappiest day ever' and scared her.

Really, the entirety of the 'capes and spandex' crowd was ... not happy. Not that Darcy blamed any of them in the least. Hell, she wanted to tazer the assholes that had done that to Sergeant Barnes herself. Because those sorts of people - if they could be *called* people - deserved every scrap of pain and misery that could be doled out to them. She really, really, really didn't envy them when the gang got themselves sorted out and figured out who had done this and where they were. That was going to be pretty much the definition of epic beatdown.

The thing was? Right now, the lot of them were anything but ok. Which meant that as far as Darcy knew, not a one of them had eaten anything since all hell broke loose. Though it was looking like Xavier had finally gotten Steve to eat, which relieved one worry. The others? Yeah. Not so much. Well, Darcy had experience with getting people who didn't want to eat for whatever reason to eat, so she headed for the kitchen after Steve had left it.

"Jarvis? I need a hand here." Darcy said.

"Yes, Miss Lewis?" Jarvis asked.

"I want to make some food for everybody - stuff to temp them to eat, 'cause I don't think any of them except Steve have eaten since this broke loose - and even Steve probably hasn't eaten enough to appease his metabolism. Problem is, I know Jane's favorites like the back of my hand, and have figured out a few for Tony, Loki, and Bruce, but I don't know any of the others' favorite foods yet. I figured you might have a clue that direction."

"I do indeed." And there was definite relief in Jarvis' voice. Sometimes, Darcy wondered about that. He tended to have a lot of emotion in his voice for a computer program, regardless of how well written a program he might be.

Jarvis listed off some possibilities, and even provided her with recipes, since she didn't exactly have every recipe she'd ever used memorized. Some of the dishes would have to be ordered from restaurants, though. She was a good enough cook, but some of the favorites were stuff she'd never even heard of before, never mind knew how they should smell/look, much less tried to cook before. She was all for experimenting and expanding her cooking repertoire, but now was not the time. Jarvis agreed to call the restaurants with the best versions of those recipes, and Darcy rolled up her sleeves to start on the rest. While she was working, she had a thought.

"Jarvis? Has anyone thought to call Pepper? Tony could probably do with her being here, and ... well, sooner or later, word of Sergeant Barnes is going to make it out of the Tower, either under our control or otherwise. Might be best to start figuring out how the heck to handle that now, rather than later." She said.

"No, she has not been called. Fortunately, she is currently en route, as she finished the last of her scheduled meetings. I had intended to inform her when she reached the jet, to minimize the potential for unwanted surveillance."

"Good call there." Darcy agreed.

By the time the food was ready, Pepper was, according to Jarvis, airborne and fully informed. And, Darcy knew, probably mulling over how the heck to handle this mess. Better still, the delectable odors of the food she'd been cooking had succeeded in dragging everyone into the common floor kitchen. Even Steve, though he had a Starkpad with him and was watching a video feed of the quarantine lab. They were all currently gathered around the big table and talking, mostly about Sergeant Barnes in one respect or another, though there was some talk about a team trip to Asgard for training if Darcy was hearing things right.

"I just ... I wish he would move. Sit down, something." Steve said, sounding wrecked.

Darcy cocked her head. "Has anyone told him he could?" She asked. Only to find practically everyone staring at her. "What?" She started, ready to defend her question.

"I think most of us are kicking ourselves for not thinking of that." Bruce said quietly. "We've not exactly been thinking all that clearly."

"Yeah. That." Tony said, waving his fork in Bruce's direction.

Darcy mentally sighed in relief. "Hey, you guys may be big damn heroes, but that doesn't mean you have to think of everything all the time." She pointed out. "And it kind of helps that I'm not directly involved. Gives me the chance to think of stuff like that."

"Miss Lewis, the deliveries have arrived." Jarvis said.

"Excellent! Perfect timing." Darcy said as she pulled the last dish out of the oven. "All right, you lot. Grab plates and silverware. And so help me, if there is a scrap of food left when you lot are done eating, there will be words." Darcy leveled them all with a flat glare. A glare that doubled in intensity when she noticed a few highly amused looks being exchanged between some of the guys.

She huffed and headed for the elevator to grab the restaurant-provided dishes, but she was grinning as she did. If they were able to be amused at her high-handedness, they weren't too bad off. And that was good news.

(_)(_)(_)

There were times when Pepper seriously considered the advisability of never letting Tony out of her sight. It seemed like every time she did, all hell broke loose. Once upon a time, that had inevitably meant wild parties, crazy stunts, and the predictable paparazzi feeding frenzies that followed. More recently, it had tended to mean ... far uglier things. Tony being kidnapped, explosions, and death among other unpleasantries.

Of course, every time she started having thoughts along those lines, she'd remember what sticking to Tony at all times would mean. And as much as Pepper loved the man, she didn't think she could handle day-plus long creative binges and their attendant heavy-metal music at eardrum-shattering decibels and complete lack of sleep. She honestly didn't know how Tony managed to deal with those binges.

To be completely fair, this latest incident had absolutely nothing to do with Tony save it had happened while he was in Stark Tower. Pepper truly didn't know what to think of the fact that Sergeant Barnes was ... well ... not completely dead. She wouldn't say he was alive, because from what Jarvis had told her, at the moment the body was alive, but the man himself was nowhere to be found.

Though the one scrap of good news was that according to Frigga, he would eventually surface. Pepper was glad both for his sake and for Steve's. The only other bit of good news was that because Tony and the other Avengers were more or less losing their minds (rather understandably) about this, Pepper had a chance to get ahead of them.

A cleanup crew was dispatched to Trump Tower to clean up the mess that had been made during the attempt to capture 'the assassin' that had turned out to be Barnes. With a bit of work, any evidence an Avenger had been on-site would be removed, leaving people to assume a normal burglary had taken place. That would give them all precious time to deal with Barnes and the Yelena woman before Fury found out.

Pepper contacted the legal team and got them started on the whole mess. She wouldn't put it past Fury to try to let Barnes hang out to dry for what he'd been forced to do as the so-called Winter Soldier. Try being the operative word, because in the unlikely event of the SI legal team failing to keep Barnes out of trouble, Steve would definitely have something to say about the matter, and the rest of the Avengers would be right behind him.

Next, she called Henry from public relations and told him to clear his morning tomorrow, and to schedule a meeting with him to talk about his next challenge. While they weren't going to go public with Sergeant Barnes' existence yet, it would be wise to have something set up and ready to go as soon as possible, so that they didn't get caught unawares.

When she arrived at the Tower, she found, rather predictably, chaos. Everyone seemed to be flying in about a dozen different directions and no one could seem to get themselves organized. Pepper listened quietly to the ideas flying around for a little bit to make sure no one had thought of anything new since Jarvis' last report. Once assured on that front, she caught the eye of Frigga and Charles, and motioned for them to head off to one side. Once there, she nodded respectfully to Frigga.

"I apologize for the chaos. I hope we're not intruding too much on matters of state back in Asgard." Pepper said.

"There is little more that I can do at the moment." Frigga said. "Lord Tyr is in charge of preparing our troops. What else remains to be done is things I cannot do myself, but I trust our people to get them done."

"All right. I'll try to get this bunch a bit more organized. I don't blame them for being so out of sorts, but they're wasting time that could be put to use." Pepper said. Frigga and Charles both nodded, then the three of them pulled apart. Pepper marched into the middle of the common room and glanced around.

"Steve, Tony, Thor and Loki - you need to sit down with Charles and Frigga and talk about what's going on and where." Pepper said. "Tony - make sure to ask what their fabrication equipment is like so you'll know if you can make the new arm there or will have to make it here. Hank, Cecelia, go pack what you think might be needed for the procedures for Barnes. Loki, before the meeting, we're going to need to borrow you so we can see if Barnes will follow orders we give him. We need to find out if we can get him to eat and drink ASAP." She took a deep breath. "Natasha, tell Jarvis what you know of the people who trained you and Barnes. He can start hunting them down while we're dealing with other matters. Darcy? Thanks for getting everyone to eat. Bobby, you, John and Rogue can head into the city if you want - Happy will be willing to drive you wherever you want to go, if you're not interested in sitting in on what we're going to be doing."

She didn't mention that Charles would interrogate Yelena later in the day, after the meeting. The kids didn't need to know that and the adults would know that it would be happening at some point.

Steve looked a bit mulish about having to be in a meeting when he wanted to be with Barnes, but Pepper knew his responsible leader side would ensure he did attend. The others she'd named off just sort of looked relieved to have definite orders and plans of action. Pepper had little doubt that they'dve gotten themselves ironed out sooner rather than later - especially Natasha, who seemed to be a great deal like Pepper in some respects. Still, having someone take charge and give the orders, however briefly, had to help a little bit. Especially when there were about ten different things going on at once.

Steve followed Loki down to the quarantine lab, not that that surprised Pepper one bit. She was tempted to go take a look herself, but decided she really didn't need any more heartbreak. The one look she'd gotten at Barnes on the Starkpad Steve had been watching over Steve's shoulder was more than enough. That glimpse of Barnes had been more than enough to make her want to go out and kick someone's ass on his behalf.

The kids conferred among themselves for a bit, and evidently decided that they wanted to go hang out elsewhere in town, as they headed for the elevator after they finished talking. Natasha removed herself to a far corner of the room to brief Jarvis. Tony cornered Frigga, probably to find out about how metalworking was done in Asgard, since that was a concern separate from the whole 'ok, what's going on and where' that the meeting would be about. Thor and Loki sort of drifted that way as well, with Charles motoring after them. Pepper was so busy tracking that bunch and the ones that didn't have anywhere specific to go that she almost missed Hank and Cecelia heading out.

The atmosphere in the room shifted considerably as folks got down to business. Pepper was tempted to sit in on the meeting, but that was a council of war, not a business meeting, and she didn't really have anything she could contribute. If they wanted to kick ass on the business front, she would have been in the thick of the meeting, but actual war was not her province. After a few moments she decided to check in on the little knot of Avengers that didn't really have anything to do at the moment.

"You boys all right?" She asked as she got close.

Clint gave her a flat look that said 'what do you think?'. Logan just snorted. Remy shrugged, and to his credit, honestly didn't look all that bothered about the situation compared to most of the others. Bruce, at least, was willing to talk.

"As well as can be. Hulk's been ... a little restless, but not in an 'I want out now' sort of way. I don't think. Sometimes, it's hard to tell when he's gearing up to break out." Bruce said.

Pepper cocked her head. "Really? You don't always get advance warning?"

Bruce shook his head. "No. Granted, most of the times I don't get advance warning is because I didn't know someone was about to shoot me or whatever, but there's been a time or two when he tried to get sneaky about breaking out. Which, in hindsight, I should have realized was a sign there was more to him than just rage and 'smash'."

Pepper patted him on the arm. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Bruce. You were hardly in an ideal situation to investigate Hulk's capabilities until now. Small wonder you never caught on to such things when you had to worry about the General catching up to you."

Then she pointed a finger at Clint and Logan. "As for you two, don't think I don't know this is bothering you. I'll tell you the same thing I've told Tony on multiple occasions. There is no shame in talking things out when you're upset. It doesn't have to be me, or even a mental health professional, but please, do talk to someone, all right?"

"And Tony followed that advice, obviously." Clint snarked.

Pepper almost rolled her eyes. "Of course not, he's Tony. But that doesn't mean you can't follow the advice either."

Chapter Text

Frigga

(_)(_)(_)

Frigga had found the delay in meeting to discuss events rather illuminating. Watching the Avengers and their closest compatriots as they reacted to the discovery of James Barnes' situation was fascinating - and she had missed the first half-day of reactions. There was an ever-changing roster of people gathering in groups around or passing close by others, providing support both blatant and subtle.

Frigga could not detect the pattern in the ebb and flow of people and the support they gave or were willing to receive, as she had virtually no knowledge of most of the people present. Given that most of the people in the room had only known each other for two weeks, the fact they were picking up on who needed help and were willing to provide it was very telling. While there had also been a few problems, and it was obvious that not everyone knew how to handle all of their distressed fellows, it was clear that the Avengers and their compatriots were on their way to becoming a very tightly knit group.

Those thoughts Frigga put aside once Loki had returned from assisting with dealing with James Barnes. From Loki's expression, Frigga divined that they had had at least some level of success. Loki looked both triumphant and greatly disturbed. Enough so that even the Midgardians, who were less familiar with Loki than she, were picking up on it, if Tony Stark's narrow-eyed look of concern every time he looked Loki's way was anything to go by.

Thor sat down to her left and Loki to her right. Frigga shifted just slightly - enough so that her arm brushed Loki's. He shot her a faintly exasperated look that reassured her as much as it amused her.

"I am fine, mother." He told her. Despite the look on his face, his tone was more amused, fond, and longsuffering than anything else.

"You will permit a mother to fret, my son." Frigga told him.

The fact he didn't argue against that declaration was rather telling.

Frigga yanked her attention back to the matter at hand. By the time she had done so, Tony Stark, Captain Rogers and the man that had introduced himself as Charles Xavier had all gathered around the couch she and her sons were sitting on. Captain Rogers and Tony Stark shared a second couch, while Charles Xavier and his wheeled chair settled in the gap between the two couches. Captain Rogers and Charles Xavier both produced things with which to take notes. Frigga presumed that Tony Stark was having his mechanical servant record the meeting for later perusal.

"I should perhaps begin, as I suspect I have the most information to impart." Frigga said.

The others all nodded their agreement to that.

"Very well. Most importantly, all the people of the Nine have been warned. All have pledged their armies to the coming battle. Most have offered further assistance - the making of ships and weapons, since Midgard does not have a space fleet where most of the rest of the Nine do, training to fly them, and combat and magical training if anyone is interested and capable. They have all also expressed interest in meeting Captain Rogers and Mr. Stark, and at least a brief tour of Midgard itself and the solar system, so they know the lay of the land before the battle."

"What sort of numbers and abilities are we looking at?" Captain Rogers wanted to know.

"Wait - you're telling me the other Realms all have *space fleets*?" Tony interrupted to ask, his expression avid.

Frigga almost laughed at that look on Tony's face, but managed not to. "Yes, all of them do, save the Jotuns. The Jotun's space fleet was completely destroyed during the last war with them a bit over a millennium ago."

"And they're willing to build *us* spaceships and teach us to fly them." Tony said, his tone equal parts skeptical and almost reverent.

Captain Rogers and Charles Xavier were by now looking rather amused, as was Loki. Frigga didn't blame them, as Tony Stark's reaction was rather amusing.

"Yes. I would recommend you accept Svartalfheim's offer. They are the best at such things and would be able to build at least ten ships before Thanos arrives. Not a large number I realize, but better than not having anything of your own." Frigga said. "As for numbers and capabilities ... I am afraid that none of the Realms enjoy a population anywhere near that which Midgard boasts. The most populous of the other Realms has a population of roughly five hundred million or so. Their armies are therefore smaller in number than you are probably used to here on Midgard."

"You'd be surprised. We may have an overall larger population but only a couple countries have populations over five hundred thousand. There are a lot of countries on Earth who'd have armies of comparable sizes." Tony said. "And to be frank, it's the small armies you have to watch out for. They make up in vicious and determined what they lack in numbers, generally speaking."

Frigga nodded. "Of the eight Realms other than Midgard, only six are inhabited: Alfheim, Vanaheim, Nidavellir, Vanaheim, Jotunheim and of course Asgard. Muspelheim and Niflheim were both once populated, but their peoples died out a very long time ago, and both Realms are now barren, resource-less rocks of no use to Thanos. There is no water, air, or anything else of use to him on either Realm, so he cannot use them as bases of operation. He'd have to come here to get everything he needed, and that would expose his army to attacks going to and from."

Captain Rogers nodded. "So it'd just be better and easier for him to take us over and have everything he needs right under his boots rather than set a base up elsewhere."

"Precisely." Frigga said.

"Asgard, Alfheim and Vanaheim are the most populous Realms, all three are at or around the five hundred million mark. Alfheim and Vanaheim's armies are about one million strong. They both also have about two hundred ships each, capable of transporting their entire army wherever it needs to go, as well as fighting." Frigga told them.

"As for powers, Alfheim's people are what you would call elves. They are all middle to high powered magic users. All of them capable of, at the very least, fireballs such as you saw Loki employ. Most of them are capable of far more than that, though relatively few match or exceed Loki or myself in magical strength." Frigga said. "They would probably be best put to use as long-range combatants, as while they have strength and durability greater than that which most Midgardians enjoy, they are actually the weakest in those regards of the Realms, as their magical abilities obviated the need for close-range combat for the most part."

Captain Rogers nodded, most of his attention on his writing. He'd begun scribbling notes the moment she'd started talking.

"Vanaheim's people are virtually identical to Asgardians in most respects, though more of them are magically inclined and are stronger magically speaking than Asgardians. Vanaheim magic users are generally middle strength, with the odd high powered person such as myself, and they all tend to specialize in one thing or another - conjuring, or fire control, or water control, for instance."

"So a bit weaker relative to the elves, but put the folks with the right skills in the right places and they'll still pack a heck of a punch." Steve said.

"Quite so. And unlike the elves, Vanaheim's residents are trained in close-range combat. They do not have weapons such as Midgardian guns, but swords, maces, bows and arrows, things of that nature."

Captain Rogers and Tony both nodded, obviously filing that tidbit of information away.

"Would any of them be willing or able to learn to use a gun? It's not like we don't have plenty of the things here, and they generally have better range than even the best bow, but don't tell Hawkeye I said that." Tony asked with a grin.

"Quite possibly they would, yes. They are less sensitive about 'honorable battle' than Asgardians, and would probably appreciate the economy of such weapons." Frigga said.

Tony and Captain Rogers both nodded at that, and Captain Rogers added another note.

"Asgard's actual army is close to three million, with almost five hundred ships. The difference in numbers compared to the other two Realms is due to Asgard being a warrior culture where the other two aren't. That said, virtually the entirety of Asgard's population save the very young, the very old or the badly disabled have at least some degree of combat training and ability. They can be mobilized if it becomes necessary, and the vast majority of them would volunteer for such a battle." Frigga told them

"Asgard has some magic users, but only a few hundred. Of that number, only myself, Loki and perhaps three or four others are as powerful as a Vanaheim magic user, never mind an elf. My greatest strength in magic lies in healing and defense, not offense, which will render me all but useless in the battle." Frigga continued. "Loki will be your greatest asset when it comes to combat-useful magic. He is every bit as strong as I am, and may one day even surpass me. The two of us are the only non-elves I know of who can compete with elves when it comes to magic. All Asgardians, even the magically inclined ones, are trained in close-range combat with the same sorts of weapons as Vanaheim, save for bows and arrows. Asgardians regard long-range weapons of any sort as cowardly." Frigga didn't roll her eyes at that attitude, but her tone conveyed her exasperated distaste for it.

Literally everyone - even Thor, which surprised her - reacted with amusement, disdain, exasperation or like sentiments to that news. Frigga made a mental note to ask Thor later when he'd changed his mind about the issue, and why.

She smiled a little bit, then continued. "Nidavellir is home to those you might call trolls or ogres. They are roughly of a size with your Hulk, and their main abilities are the same as his - extreme strength and durability. Though their intelligence is far greater than I understand is generally attributed to trolls and ogres in Midgard's tales. They're every bit as intelligent as the other races of the Nine." Frigga continued. "Their army is slightly smaller than that of Alfheim and Vanaheim - just barely over one million, and about eighty ships. Which are not capable of transporting their entire army. They are isolationists - it is extremely rare to see one off their home Realm, and due to their strength and durability, the other Realms generally leave them alone as fighting them is a losing proposition even if they manage to win the fight. The potential loss of life is generally judged to not be worth the conquest."

"Huh. Might want to introduce Hulk to them at some point, once we get Hulk to a good place with us." Tony said. "I think he'd like being able to hang out with folks who equal him in ability."

Captain Rogers nodded agreement with that.

"Svartalfheim is home to those you might call dwarves. They have an army of just under one million, but they have a thousand ships, split between small attack craft capable of fighting in space or in atmosphere and enormous ships with enough firepower to shatter planets in an all-out assault. Their entire army is space-based. Their main skill lies in mining and crafting, not physical fighting, so they crafted themselves the most formidable long range weapons and ships they could devise to protect their Realm."

"They sound like my kind of people." Tony said, giving a grin that was all teeth.

"Indeed." Frigga agreed. "They would be quite intrigued with your armor, and probably build their own version of it for themselves to equalize things when it came to close-range fighting."

Frigga eyed Loki before speaking of the last race on the list. After a moment, Loki shot her an exasperated look. "Oh, just get it over with, mother. I won't explode." He snapped.

Frigga didn't quite believe him, but it wasn't like she really had a choice. "Lastly, there is Jotunheim. Their army was decimated in their last war. As I mentioned, they have no ships. Their population is such that they can only afford to send fifty thousand warriors - all of them past the age of reproduction. That is not really a detriment, because according to everything I've heard and read, the older a Jotun gets, the stronger their abilities get. All of them have magic - the same magic. They control water and ice. Water they chill to ice, and ice they shape into whatever they need. Even the youngest and most inexperienced warrior is capable of forming a rough but serviceable ice blade. The older ones can and do get a lot fancier than that."

She sighed. "That said, they will have to be deployed in colder areas, or areas with access to a great deal of water. Jotuns are adapted to extremes of cold to such a degree that they cannot stay somewhere with weather more than about ten degrees above freezing for more than an hour without suffering for it. Unless, of course, they employ their abilities with water and ice to cool themselves off. If they have access to enough water, they can stay in even tropical heat indefinitely."

"So they'd do best in coastal areas near our oceans. Not likely to run out of water there." Captain Rogers said. "And it's not like the water wouldn't go right back into the oceans once it melts, so it wouldn't do any real damage to the oceans." He glanced at Tony. "I don't think? Environmental stuff like that is not exactly my specialty."

"Mine either." Tony admitted. "Though I can sure as hell find out. Worst comes to worst, we stick them in cold mountainous areas like the Alps and shit like that. They'd be right at home there."

"Thor and Loki both have had dealings with all but the Nidavellir, and can advise you on the politics and societal expectations of those groups." Frigga told them. She gestured, and a small stack of unfortunately thin books appeared in her hands. "These books are the information Asgard has on the Nidavellir, which is the best I can do for you in that regard. Even I have only dealt with them twice in my life, so I can tell you very little of them from personal experience. My ... husband ... might have dealt with them more, but I would not trust any information he would have to impart, even were he willing to impart it."

"No shit." Tony muttered. Frigga did not think he intended for her to hear him.

Next to her Loki shifted, and looked a little sheepish. "Actually mother, I have been to Nidavellir." He admitted.

Frigga had suspected - she knew how curious and hungry for knowledge Loki was - but she hadn't been sure. "Well then, a bit more personal experience to work with, at least." She left the books on the table, as even with what she and Loki could tell them from personal experience, they'd need what was in those books.

"There is one last bit of information I need to impart. Each Realm has ... an item. This item is a thing of great power, that can be used to provide power for the Realm and to defend it. You have seen Asgard and Jotunheim's items - Heimdall's sword and the Tesseract, respectively. Midgard has such an item as well. Where it is, I do not know. No one has ever discovered how these items come into existence. Historically, they remain hidden until needed. I believe Midgard's item has been found a few times. Your history is rife with mentions of containers which have incredible powers. The Ark, Holy Grail, Pandora's Box, Cauldron of Dagda, Cup of Jamshid, Eldhrimnir, Pair Dadeni, Nanteos Cup, and magic lamps said to contain genies to name but a few."

"So ... we try to find the thing. With what you're saying, it's not a sword or really anything readily identifiable as a weapon, jewelry, or clothes. Other than that ... it's basically good luck finding it." Tony said.

"I would start in the least populated and most remote areas of your world. Given your population, those are the only places it could have remained hidden for so long." Frigga told them.

"Good point. Would it give off any kind of energy signature that we could track remotely?" Tony asked.

Frigga shook her head. "I do not know, but I sincerely doubt it. I can have Heimdall attempt to find it, but I do not know how successful such an endeavor would be."

"Well, we'll still put it on our to-do list." Captain Rogers said. Then he glanced at Charles Xavier. "You want to go next?" He asked.

"Yes, I probably should." Charles said. "As the Avengers proper have been rather ... busy ... the last two weeks dealing with themselves and the situation to hand." He motioned towards the window, indicating the damage done during the attempted invasion.

Chapter Text

Charles

(_)(_)(_)

Charles had taken full advantage of the time he'd had with the various inhabitants of Stark Tower's upper levels. He'd been rather surprised by his findings.

Steve, of course, was all over the place, grieving and angry on a level Charles hadn't seen since Erik. If Steve were anyone other than who he was, Charles would honestly be very worried, but he knew that Steve would not loose his ire on the undeserving. That said, Charles truly did not envy the persons responsible for James Barnes' current state if and when Steve caught up with them. Logan had been nearly as bad, the situation bringing up all the unresolved issues Logan had with his own very similar situation. Fortunately, Logan was self-aware enough to be making himself scarce so he didn't inadvertently take out his ire on the wrong targets before he got himself back on more even footing.

He hadn't been expecting Natasha Romanov, of all people, to be in very nearly the same mental place as Logan, though she was far better at hiding it than he was. There had been rumors for ... well, a very long time ... regarding the so-called Black Widow. Charles had never met her, and well aware of how out of proportion gossip and rumor could get, had given little to no credence to much of what he'd heard. What was strange was that while she was indeed ... magnificently angry among other emotions ... there was a flat, muffled aspect to her emotions. Almost as if it wasn't quite what she truly felt, but what she thought was expected of her and was applying it to herself accordingly.

The others had all been in fairly predictable places mentally speaking. Charles had done what he could to help them in the limited time he'd had to work with, without using his telepathy.

Sadly, he hadn't gotten a chance to ask the questions he wanted to of Queen Frigga and Loki yet, but he fully intended to before the day was done. The Queen's briefing of the state of affairs in the Nine Realms had been ... quite illuminating ... in and of itself.

Charles sat forward a little bit in his chair as he began his own part of the briefing. "I have a good deal of news to impart as well, the vast majority of it good. And I have a favor I would like to ask of you, Steven, once I've covered the information."

Steve looked understandably curious, but nodded.

"I called a number of mutants and people friendly to mutants of my acquaintance around the world. The only areas I don't have any contacts is Australia and South America, and even at that, my acquaintances have contacts in South America. I've spread the word that we have major trouble coming, and a number of folks have stepped forward to form teams of mutants to cover various areas." He told them

"First and foremost - for those who may not know." Which was everyone save Tony. "Mutations can be broken down into four basic categories, each of which can have innumerable variations and further divisions. They are: Physical, that is, mutations that affect strength, durability, agility, the senses etc. Elemental, which are mutations that permit manipulation of water, fire, rock etc. Mental: this covers mutations like telepathy, telekinesis, and the like. And lastly Energy, which encompasses mutations that involve the control and manipulation of various forms of energy. I'll identify which category a mutant's powers lie in as I go along, as describing the exact parameters of their abilities would take quite some time." Charles said.

Steve nodded. "As long as we get a somewhat more comprehensive list of abilities later, so we know what we're dealing with, I'm fine with just the categories for now."

"Agreed." Frigga said.

Charles sighed a bit in relief. "Thank you, and I will make sure you get that information before I leave. Up first is my own group, the X-Men. There are currently seven fully trained adults on the team including myself, and an additional dozen children over the age of sixteen with sufficient control and powers applicable to combat, and who have shown an interest in fighting. Of the adults, three are Physical, two are Mental, one is Energy and the last is Elemental. Of the children, three are Physical, two are Mental, five are Energy, and two are Elemental." Charles told them.

He was quite sure that Tony, who knew the kids' names and powers, was probably aware of which of the kids Charles was talking about. The others had no idea as regarded the children, and Frigga didn't know the adults, so covering that was necessary. Even at that, the dozen Charles was thinking of were the ones that would absolutely refuse to be left behind - he and Scott both got a lot of arguments from the lot of them to be included in things *now*. There were other children in the mansion of the right age and with combat-applicable powers, but they had never expressed an interest in combat and Charles wasn't about to force the issue, not even for something like this.

"From there, I've go four people here in North America, three based in the States and one in Canada. They each will be able to mobilize not just mutants in their respective areas of influence, but also non-powered individuals."

"First on the list is Jean-Paul Beaubier, the Canadian. He is a Physical, as is his twin sister Aurora. The two of them were quick to affirm they would begin assembling a team of Canadian mutants and in fact Jean-Paul called me just yesterday to let me know they'd gotten two people to sign on already and had several good prospects who were making arrangements for their private lives before they agreed to sign on. The next is Sam Guthrie. He is an Energy, and almost his entire family is comprised of mutants of varying capabilities. He confirmed with me the next morning that they were all on board. And there are a lot of them." Charles smiled, as that was a touch of an understatement when it came to the Guthrie clan. "He is, however, still on the lookout for non-related folks to add to his team."

"John Proudstar is next on the list, and a Native American. He is a Physical. The Native American population is unfortunately small and very insular in the United States. I knew they would not accept a leader from outside their population, which is why I called John." Charles had had enough problems getting through to John himself to know that attempting such on a larger scale would be foolhardy in the time they had before Thanos struck. "I honestly have no idea how many mutants he will find in that community."

"Lastly is Carol Danvers, who is an Air Force pilot based out of Nellis Air Force Base. She is also a Physical. She's going to have to work carefully, as while I have little doubt there are mutants in the military, they must by necessity keep their heads well down."

Charles restrained himself from giving Frigga a narrow-eyed look as he wound down from that part of his report. There was something in her expression. Something pleased and knowing that had him curious and just a touch suspicious. Nor was he the only one in the meeting to pick up on her attitude, as both Tony and Loki were shooting her looks. Steve, while he wasn't giving Frigga looks, was clearly aware of her expression if the frown he was leveling at his notebook was any indication. The temptation to brush her mind and see what had her looking like that was enormous, but even if Charles had been less scrupulous in his use of his mutation, he'd not want to muck about with an alien mind. Who knew what would happen?

"I've not heard any word from Carol, but I have little doubt of success in her quest. She will probably call within the next week or so to let me know how things are going. I had not anticipated hearing from John for at least a month, but he called me back the day after I called to warn him, and told me about someone in Brazil that might be open to forming a team to defend the planet. Evidently they are a friend of someone John knows in the Native American community. All I know at present is that his name is Roberto de Costa. I've arranged to meet him early next week, at which point I can call Tony and let him know more."

Everyone nodded.

"In Europe, I have Pete Wisdom, who is an Energy. He is one of the older mutants among my contacts, being only a few years younger than Tony. He works for the government of the United Kingdom. I've received confirmation from him that the UK has lost no time in preparing for a potential second invasion, even without knowing one was coming. Apparently, someone decided that the first attempt was by way of being a test, and resolved to make anyone stupid enough to invade the United Kingdom very sorry for it."

"They would not be entirely wrong." Loki said, speaking for the first time. "Though *he* intended to take the whole planet in the one try, the initial contact and response would have served as a test for how the rest of the invasion would have gone."

Charles nodded, and spotted Steve doing the same out of the corner of his eye. It made sense, tactically speaking. "Pete told me that he more or less had a team already - nothing official, of course, nor even as tightly knit or centralized as the X-Men, but a number of mutants that had noticed antagonistic mutants causing trouble and set out to stop them. At some point, they ran into each other and things went from there."

"Betsy Braddock is the next on the list, and a Mental. I'm unsure if she'll form a team, as she prefers to work solo, but she is at least warned. Sean Cassidy is the third, and a Physical." Well, not really. Sean and his daughters' mutations were one of the odd ones - equal parts physical alteration - to lung capacity, vocal chords, and hearing - energy and mental, but he could explain that later. "And like Pete, one of the older mutants of my acquaintance. He's promised to begin scouring Ireland for prospects."

"The last of the Europe contacts isn't a mutant at all." Charles told them. "Nor a potential combatant. Her name is Dr. Moira McTaggert. She will be invaluable in locating medical personnel who can handle the oddities that mutants bring to the table medically speaking and who will at least have the potential to deal with our off-world allies as well, as she is quite well known and respected."

"Oh. That's good." Steve said. "We're ... going to need that when this is all over. A lot of people are going to get hurt."

Charles nodded in agreement with Steve. "I only have one contact in Africa, but in this case, I really only need the one. His name is King T'challa of Wakanda. He recently took the throne after his father's untimely death. He is a Physical, and it seems to run in the family from father to son. The sovereigns of Wakanda have been renowned since time immemorial for their physical feats and respected around the world for their ferocity in protecting their country. He'll rally the entire continent to keep Thanos and the Chitauri from gaining a foothold in Africa."

"I have two contacts in Asia." Charles sighed. "One of whom is going to be ... problematic. Shiro Yashida is Japanese and has ... shall we say a less than congenial personality? He is an Energy ... and utterly convinced he is, by virtue of being Japanese, superior to everyone not also born Japanese. That said, he will fight to the death to keep Japan from being subjugated."

"He'll just annoy the holy hell out of us whenever we have to interact with him." Tony said.

"Unfortunately, yes." Charles said.

"I shall work with him, then." Loki said. "I am not called Silvertongue for nothing. I'll have him eating out of my hand in short order."

Charles wasn't going to argue against that. The less friction there was, the better. "My other contacts in Asia are the family of one of my students, and one of the potential under-age combatants, Piotr Rasputin. His elder brother, Mikhail, is a cosmonaut who has worked on the international space station. How he's hidden his status as a mutant I don't know. He is an Energy and, truly, in the best position to feel out any mutants in the former Soviet Union and beyond."

Charles didn't bother mentioning Pietro, Wanda, and Lorna. While the three of the twins had promptly hauled Lorna into their orbit, the triad were understandably leery of forming a team beyond the three of them. Anyone who knew - or found out - who their father was was liable to assume the worst of any team they put together, and Charles wasn't going to put them through that. Not even any of his X-Men knew who their father was, though Scott, Jean, and Hank had all met the twins. Charles had deliberately avoided letting any of them meet Lorna, because his 'children' weren't stupid, and would instantly suspect Lorna's parentage the moment they discovered what her power was. While Lorna was more or less the exact opposite of her father in temperament and outlook, the X-Men had had too many unfortunate dealings with Erik to ever be comfortable working with a daughter of his with an identical power.

And speaking of Erik.

"That is my list, and I will make sure you all have the details, as well as the overview, before I leave." Charles said. Then he sighed. "Which brings me to that favor I would ask of you, Steve. If you cannot in good conscience *do* the favor once I've explained, I will completely understand and abide by your decision."

Charles almost wanted to laugh because Tony was already giving him a narrow-eyed, suspicious look. Steve, on the other hand, still looked curious more than anything.

"There is someone I would like for you to talk to." Charles started. And that was all it took for Tony's suspicion to blossom into knowing.

"Charles, are you out of your fucking mind?" Tony barked.

Charles glanced at him. "Tell me we couldn't use him, if he could be talked around."

Tony snorted. "Of course we could, but he can't. He's hell and gone away from ... yeah. No. Not happening."

Steve looked between them, frowning slightly. Then his eyes shot wide before his expression went thunderous. "Wait, is this about ... what'd Rogue say his name was again? ... Magneto, that was it. Is he who you're talking about?"

"Yes." Charles admitted. "Which is why I said if you couldn't go through with talking to him, I'd abide by it. Erik ... has done many horrible things, this I will not even begin to deny. But I have never stopped believing he could be ... brought around to a better way of thinking." Charles glanced down at his hands for a moment. "He was a survivor of the camps, Steve. And while he never actually confirmed it to me, I strongly suspect he came into his power in those camps."

Unsaid, but understood by the three humans went the knowledge that if that was true, Erik would have been in for an even worse hell on earth than most of the concentration camp victims had been. Zola hadn't been the only one experimenting on people, after all, and a mutant - any mutant, never mind one with Erik's abilities - would have been in a world of trouble.

"He knows exactly how low humans can sink when it comes to people they don't like or are afraid of. It ... well, made him go off the deep end a bit. I tried to help him when I first met him, but back then I wasn't trained to deal with psychological trauma so there was only so much good I could do. And he refused to go to a trained professional because he didn't want to reveal his status as a mutant. By the time I'd gotten the training necessary to help him, our friendship, rocky as it had been, had fallen apart and he dismissed me as an optimistic fool and wouldn't hear a word I had to say." Well, it had been more complicated than that, of course, but that had been the upshot of the whole mess.

Charles sighed. "I honestly don't know if anyone can get through to him at this late stage, but if anyone can it would be you, Steve." He didn't have to clarify why. "If he can be brought around, we could really use him. He's one of the strongest mutants on the planet that I know of."

"What is it he can do that would make him so valuable to the fight?" Frigga asked.

"He can control metal - any metal - and magnetic fields." Charles said. "Insofar as I know, he's never found a limit to what he can do. He'd be able to flatten entire waves of Chitauri with little effort. That is the only reason I'm even entertaining the notion of trying to talk him around."

Tony still looked mutinous, and Steve was frowning heavily. Frigga's eyebrows were headed for her hairline, but she looked like she at least understood why Charles was advocating for dealing with Erik now.

"I'll ... I'll think about it." Steve said.

"That is more than I could have asked for, Steve." Charles said.

"Perhaps I should talk to him." Loki said, surprising Charles. "After all, I know what it is to be shunned and reviled, and to want revenge. Not to mention giving in to that desire."

If it had been anyone else, Charles would have warned them about Erik's ... way with words. Given this was Loki, Charles had a feeling Erik would have met his match. Steve, he didn't have to worry about so much as the man was incorruptible. Even the most fleeting brush against Steve's mind had told Charles that.

Chapter Text

Steve

(_)(_)(_)

Academically and intellectually, Steve knew he was a mess right now. Mostly, though, he really didn't care about academics or intellect right at the moment. He was too busy trying to deal with the emotional end of things.

His emotions were all over the place. One moment, he felt like curling up into the tiniest ball humanly possible and crying his heart out. The next, it was all he could do to keep himself from storming out of the Tower in search of a target he could rip to shreds in rage. Others, he was all but paralyzed by grief and horror.

Not to mention the (as Charles had put it) whiny teenager part of him that kind of just wanted people to go away and let him do all of that in peace. To not remind him he had responsibilities of any kind. At the same time, that self-same 'responsible leader' part of him had made a point of poking at him and reminding him he did indeed need to, you know, go be a leader. And as much as part of him didn't want to, he'd acknowledged Charles' point and more or less forced himself into that mode.

It helped that forcing himself to think tactically and as a leader muted the rest, at least for now. Though he really didn't know what to think of Charles' request that he go talk to Magneto. Steve understood that someone with that kind of power on their side would be a hell of an asset, and he was even sympathetic to the damage that had to have been done to the man physically and mentally, surviving the camps, but at the same time, he'd gone and done some really horrible things. So he'd have to really think about trying to approach the guy. Then again, it might just be the best idea. As bad as this fight was probably going to get, Steve wasn't going to bet on Magneto staying wherever he'd been put. The odds of the place taking damage enough that Magneto could get out were pretty good. Better, in that case, to at least try to talk the guy into being a decent person.

Steve shoved those thoughts away. He'd deal with the Magneto problem a little later.

"Ok, I have some questions." He said. "Frigga, do you have any idea what sort of force we're looking at?"

Frigga shook her head. "Heimdall watches, but the enemy does not march in ordered ranks, which makes counting their numbers all but impossible. All he can say for certain is that there is but one - albeit massive - ship proper in Thanos' army - probably carrying him. Aside from that, there are many thousands, perhaps even millions, of the large, armored fliers that I believe you have taken to calling space whales. How many they carry, we do not know."

"We'll have an answer for that soonish." Tony said. "The ones that managed to make it here during the invasion were all cut into parts to be dissected and examined. It won't be all that long before we have a carrying capacity and all that jazz."

Steve nodded. "That's good to know. Anything else coming at us, and any guesses as to the size of the ship?"

Frigga actually grimaced a bit, which surprised Steve. "An innumerable host of the smaller three-man sleds." She said. "As for the size of the ship ... " She frowned for a moment, evidently trying to translate measures in her head. "Roughly the size of three or four of your largest sea-going ships put together, I believe."

"Ouch. Not good." Tony said.

"Tony?" Steve asked. He had no idea how big ships were these days.

"Well, let me put it this way. The largest seagoing ship ever built - that we know of for sure - was the Seawise Giant. And she was fifteen hundred feet long and two hundred and twenty five wide." Tony told him.

Steve grimaced. Three of those put together? Was a bit on the big side. He glanced over at Frigga. "That sound about right?"

"As close as I can be sure of." Frigga said. "Heimdall has only been able to guess at the ship's size as there is little other than the space whales to compare it to."

"Fair enough." Steve said. "Next question - Do you have any idea of Thanos' abilities?"

"He was - is - intelligent in the extreme." Frigga said. "Of old, he was capable of many powers of the mind, such as telepathy and telekinesis. Those powers were, supposedly, stripped from him when he was banished. Whether they were just not successfully removed or he regained them somehow, I do not know. Beyond that, he was durable and strong on a level that made even the Nidavellir seem as newborn babes. What powers and abilities he now has, I cannot say."

Yeesh. As bad as Steve had figured this fight was going to be, it was sounding like it would actually be worse. Well, nothing for it. It was either defeat Thanos - soundly - or no more Earth.

"Gotcha. Well, at least we have somewhere to start anyway." Steve told her, then glanced at Tony. "Tony, how long will you need to work up schematics for that arm?" His voice got a little tight at the last word of the sentence, because he was trying very hard not to think about who the arm would be going on, because if he thought about that ... he'd be right back to wanting to cry or kill someone.

Tony turned to Frigga and started asking questions of his own. These, though, were about Asgard's metalworking facilities. Steve was pleased with himself when he was able to follow most of that discussion. While there was no chance in heck he'd understand most of the stuff Bruce and Jane talked about anytime soon - he wasn't dumb but it would take him time to understand that stuff - most of what Tony did Steve could follow. He didn't have a chance in heck of *doing* about ninety nine percent of what Tony did, but he at least understood a lot of it when Tony talked about it.

"With schematics of the original to work with, and the stuff I've done for the suit, it'll only take me a couple days at most to get something worked out and the electronics programmed." Tony told him. "I'll want to bring metals from Earth just in case, and definitely the electronics that'll go into the arm, but I can do the actual building of the arm in Asgard."

Steve nodded. "Ok." He went quiet for a minute, chewing on the information he'd been given and trying to work up some sort of plan and timeline to get things done. After a minute, he nodded.

"So ... here's the plan. Once we're done here, Charles and Loki head downstairs to have a chat with that Belova woman. Jarvis." He glanced up as he called that name. "Can start tracking down mentions of containers of power and their last known locations so we at least have somewhere to start looking for that, and track down information on ... " He choked on the actual words.

"On who did that shit to Barnes and where the hell they are now." Tony finished for him.

Steve shot him a grateful look. "Yeah, that. You." He nodded to Tony. "Can work on the arm for the next few days, and in between bouts of that, you, Thor, Loki and I can go over the stuff dealing with the heads of the other Realms, their cultures and all of that. Once the schematics are ready, the entire team plus Cecelia and Hank head for Asgard."

"From there, we try a meet-and-greet with Hulk. Depending on how *that* goes, we either table working with him for later or jump right in and start training." Steve said.

"Wait, add Charles to the list if we're going to work with Hulk. He'll be able to tell us just how much Hulk understands, which will reduce problems on that end at least." Tony said. "Oh! And Betty. She'd be thoroughly pissed at us if we did this without her on hand."

Steve blinked, then nodded. "Right, yeah. Good idea. I don't really think he'll be a problem - he sure didn't give us any grief during the fight - but the less we irritate him, even by accident, the better. And Betty has said she can get him to behave without a problem, so if things go awry for some reason, we'd need her."

From the expression on Charles' face, he definitely wasn't going to quibble about the opportunity to go to another world. Not that Steve really blamed him. Despite the reason they'd gone to Asgard, even Steve'd been more than a little excited about the whole 'alien world in space' thing.

"We let Tony build the arm and have the Asgardian medics do the switch with Hank and Cecelia on hand for any problems." As well as get the rest of the crap out of ... where it didn't belong. But the less Steve thought about that the better. "Then Tony, myself and either Thor, Loki or both do a tour of the Realms to talk to the leaders. I want to go to Svartalfheim first." Steve told them. He nodded at Frigga. "You said they'd be the best to go to for spaceships of our own, right?"

"Yes, they would." Frigga confirmed.

"Right, so the sooner we talk to them and negotiate that, the better. Whoever ends up crewing the things will need time to learn how to do that, after all." Steve reasoned.

While he hoped Loki would go to all the Realms with them, he rather thought Loki would skip out the Jotunheim visit. Which would probably end up being a good thing, if his reaction to Farbauti was anything to go by. Not that Steve really blamed the guy, but that kind of ... well, there really wasn't any other way to call it except seething hatred ... did not make for good or peaceful meetings.

Oh! Speaking of meetings!

"Tony, did you ever talk to Fury about officially warning the planet's governments that Thanos and the Chitauri were coming?"

Tony looked blank for half a second before cursing quietly. "Shit. No. I forgot about that. I'll do it yet tonight. Jarvis, do NOT let me forget about that."

"I will ensure you are reminded, Sir." Jarvis said.

"Don't worry about it too much, Tony. It's not like we've exactly had a nice, easy, peaceful time the last couple weeks - and that's without having to run a company on top of everything else that's been going on." Steve told him.

"That's the immediate stuff. We also need to train - with or without Hulk, depending on how he reacts to the Asgard attempt - and I'd really like to train at least a little with the X-Men." Steve told them.

"Not that I object, but may I ask why?" Charles asked.

"I'm thinking your people and the Avengers will probably form the main, direct attack on Thanos himself. The other teams will be needed to keep things to a dull roar with the Chitauri. Speaking of, when you talk to that Shiro fella, Loki? Make sure you talk him into protecting more than just Japan. I remember Tony saying that China and India are the most heavily populated spots on the planet. I figure we'll need Shiro's group and whoever Mikhail pulls together to work that area, plus whoever else we can get into workable teams, whether from the Realms or Earth."

"Which is another point. We're going to have to arrange tours of Earth and the solar system, like Frigga mentioned when we talk to the Realm's leaders. Though how we're going to organize the space end of the fight, I haven't figured yet. I mean, I trust the individual leaders to deal with their people but we're going to have six groups of ships under six different leaders up there, and a whole lot of territory to cover. Which has the potential to be a real mess unless the leaders work it out beforehand." Steve blew out a breath. Yeah, they had a lot to do before Thanos showed up.

"I also want to meet the folks you talked about, Charles. At least with the Europe and North America groups, we're going to have to iron out who covers what areas so no one gets confused. And introduce them to their out-world help and let everyone get used to each other. Which means we'll need to meet with the Earth folks before the Realm folks get their tour of Earth proper. That way, as we're showing them around, we can introduce them to the folks who will be acting as their leaders due to familiarity with the territory."

Steve wound down and mentally counted items off, trying to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Like he'd told Tony, things had been a little nuts the last couple weeks.

"I *think* that's everything." He said after a few moments, then quirked a half-smile. "Though with our luck, we'll be getting stuff dropped in our laps unexpectedly along the way."

"I fear I already have a new item to add to the list of things to do." Jarvis said. "Miss Ross contacted a friend of hers in the mental health profession, and he has recommended someone with several years of experience working with combat veterans and ex prisoners of war. I have examined his available online file and believe he would be a good fit to work with not only Sergeant Barnes, but the rest of the team as well."

Tony shot the ceiling a glare that rather amused Steve for reasons he couldn't immediately identify. "Oh really."

"Yes. He is a combat veteran himself, honorably discharged several years ago after the death of his wingman. After dealing with that loss, he became a counselor himself and has been working in various VA centers on a volunteer basis. Miss Ross' friend, I believe the expression is 'felt him out' and he was amenable to working with a specific group full-time, though the details of who, exactly, he'd potentially be working with were not included in the discussion."

Steve cocked his head. "Sounds pretty good, actually." He admitted. "So ... add interviewing him with an eye to hiring him on to the list? And what's his name?"

"Samuel Wilson."

Chapter Text

Bobby and Peter

(_)(_)(_)

It was really good seeing Rogue and John again after the snafu at the mansion. Bobby had hated it that they left. As much as John had annoyed him from time to time, they'd been best friends for years now, and skin issues be damned, he *really* liked Rogue and kind of hoped they could make something work between them. He might not be quite as creative as some folks, but he could think of a few ways around the skin issue if Rogue was ever willing to risk going further than hand-holding and the like. And even if she wasn't ... well, Bobby figured he could handle that too. He knew that was a bit odd coming from a teenage boy, but dealing with his mutation and being friends with John had ensured he grew up a bit faster than the norm.

Much as he missed them, he had to admit that leaving the mansion was doing John some good. He looked ... looser. Happier. Bobby could sort of understand why. While he knew the rough outline of what John's life had been like before the Professor had found him, he didn't know all the details. The part of his life that had caused the most problems for John was the fact that John had learned young to not trust or depend on adults. Period. So having a bunch of adults trying to regulate his life and all that had ... worn on him.

Evidently, the Avengers were a lot more willing to treat him as an adult. Which made sense, because the Avengers weren't trying to run a boarding school and acting as loco parentis for a bunch of kids. That said, Bobby would be a long time forgiving Jean. She was having a hell of a time getting hot water anywhere in the mansion (among other problems) at the moment. Bobby had gotten a few disappointed looks from the Professor for doing it, but Bobby was ignoring that. Jean deserved a lot worse than ice cold showers in his books.

Bobby deliberately pushed those sorts of thoughts aside as he listened to Rogue filling him in on everything that had happened. Hell, even John was chatty, which was unusual. And boy did they have a lot to tell him. Seemed like there hadn't been a dull moment in the Tower since they arrived. Bobby seriously debated kissing Tony for supplying Rogue with stuff that made dealing with her mutation easier. When the offer was made for them to sit in on the conference or whatever, the three of them debated.

"I kind of want to." John admitted. "But at the same time not. I mean, this is really early days stuff, you know? Later on, when they really get into the tactics and shit, I definitely want to sit in but I doubt there'll be much of that today, or if there is, it'll mostly be about the folks ... " He waved a hand skyward, indicating the rest of the Realms (and wasn't that a trip and a half in and of itself, Bobby thought).

Rogue had less interest in the battle plans than John did, and Bobby kind of agreed with John, so they opted to head out and either have some fun or help with the repairs and rebuilding in the area around the Tower. There were still quite a number of groups of local and out of state volunteers running around hauling debris and fixing stuff. They would be around for probably at least another month before they ran out of stuff that just anyone could do, and all that was left was the stuff you needed training to do.

They ended up two blocks over and one block up from the Tower, near one of the skyscrapers that had taken a lot of damage - and thus had a lot of crap around it that needed cleaning up, even two weeks later. It was late enough in the day when they started that there were a bunch of other teenagers their age among the volunteers, helping with the cleanup after school let out. Some of them were locals, but several were from out of town and two were from out of state, which Bobby thought was kind of wild. The two out-of-staters claimed to be eighteen and out of school - and one of the two was a big bruiser that almost gave Piotr a run for his money size-wise so they might not even be lying. And really, even if they were, it wasn't like Bobby was going to squeal. They were here because they wanted to help.

He and John fell right back into their habit of trash-talking and giving each other shit as they worked, which got them both a lot of amused eye-rolls from Rogue. Before too long the entire group was laughing and joking and trash-talking each other as they worked. But after a while, Bobby noticed something.

It was one of the locals - a weedy kid a year or so younger than Bobby who looked like he weighed all of a hundred pounds soaking wet and wearing fairly thick glasses. Basically, the kid looked like a stereotypical geek. Nothing wrong with that of course - Bobby was a bit of a geek himself, and friends with a few. What caught Bobby's attention was that every once in a while, said weedy kid would do something ... off. Lift something that someone that skinny shouldn't be able to, twist or move in a way that was odd and just generally twanging Bobby's 'mutant' radar every now and again.

The third time it happened, Bobby shot John a look. They exchanged a few looks, and John nodded. So yeah, he'd noticed it too. Bobby glanced over at Rogue and once he'd gotten her attention twitched his head in the weedy kid's direction. It took a bit more work to convey what he wanted to because they hadn't known each other anywhere near as long as Bobby had known John, but after a minute, she got it. She nodded too.

(_)(_)(_)

It had taken Peter several days to figure out how he felt about not having been in Manhattan when all heck broke loose. Eventually, he decided he was grateful. As much as he would have liked to have helped with the fight, that just had disaster written all over it. He'd barely had his powers for a month - was still figuring out what exactly he could do and what he couldn't. Not to mention the odds of him ending up with more than a few bruises he could explain away as bullies being bullies had been astronomically high. Aunt May had *no idea* anything had changed for Peter. He had no delusions about keeping her ignorant permanently, but having her find out because he'd gotten broken into itty bitty pieces by alien invaders just weeks after ... well, after ... that would not have gone over well. At all.

He'd given her enough grief. She didn't need more.

She'd had absolutely no problem with him going into Manhattan to help with the cleanup. He was pretty sure she was around here somewhere herself. She was probably dishing out food and drink to the cleanup volunteers and the folks who'd been deprived of their homes thanks to the fight. Provided, that was, she hadn't been talked out of doing the cleanup due to her age by some well-meaning soul. Though if she set out to do actual cleanup and not feed people, Peter wasn't about to bet on her being forced into feeding people. Aunt May could be pretty fierce.

Today, he'd joined a group of teenagers from the City and several suburbs around it - and two guys from out of state, one of whom looked like he could have twisted the alien invaders into pretzels bare-handed. They'd been at it for about an hour when three more teenagers wandered over and joined the group. It was pretty clear that the three of them were friends - the two guys had the air of people who'd been friends for years, with the girl being a newer addition.

And they quickly became a problem.

Peter was new enough to his abilities that he still had a heck of a time regulating his strength and acting like the weak geek he still looked like. Though that was largely thanks to clothes a size or so too big that hid just how muscular he'd become. Everything felt so light to him now that it made it hard to judge what pre-powers Peter would have been able to lift and haul. He tried to err on the side of caution, but evidently he'd judged wrong a few times or something.

Because all three of the new teens were giving him funny looks. And then they sort of started trying to separate him from the herd. Oh, they were subtle about it, but Peter noticed. Weirdly, that thing where he picked up on danger wasn't happening. So either they didn't mean him harm or that ability wasn't as reliable as it really ought to be.

Knowing that if things got hairy he could get out pretty easily, he let them herd him far away enough from the other teens that a quiet conversation wouldn't be overheard. Not far enough away he couldn't yell for help, he noticed. Which was a point in the 'not up to no good' category.

"Hey man. I'm Bobby, this is John, and that's Rogue." One of the guys said.

"Rogue?" Peter couldn't help but ask.

"I'm going through a rebel phase." Rogue said.

Well, the way she was dressed? He could almost believe that. She had an almost goth look going. Not all black, but layers and gloves and such that if they had been black would have fit - or nearly so - the goth look. Plus that white streak in her hair.

"M'name's Peter." He told them. Which was safe enough because there had to be a few hundred or more Peters in New York City. Good luck finding him in particular with just that to go on.

"You're pretty strong for such a little guy." This from John.

Awww shit. Well, here went nothing. "Hey, what can I say? I eat my Wheaties." Peter told them. He didn't think they'd buy it but he had to try.

The two guys looked at each other. "Huh. Maybe that explains Piotr? A bit too much of a Wheaties fan?" Bobby asked John.

"Nah. They just grow 'em big in Russia. They got enough room for it." John said. Then he pinned Peter with a look. "Look, Peter. I ain't one for beating around the bush, so I'm gonna play this straight. You're stronger than you ought to be."

Behind him, Bobby and Rogue were both rolling their eyes. Bobby made an exasperated noise and muttered John's name. John ignored him and kept going.

"So I'm thinking maybe you have some special skills. You're not the only one with them."

John shot a look over his shoulder at the rest of the teenage crew, then pulled a Zippo out of his pocket and lit it up. Then pulled the flame *into his hand* and rolled it around his hand briefly before closing his hand on the flame. When he opened his hand, the flame was gone.

Peter couldn't help but stare for a minute. He'd heard of mutants of course - you couldn't *not* unless you lived under a rock these days. But to his knowledge, he'd never met one until now. As powers went, this one was ... pretty spectacular and not a little alarming.

"I dunno if you got a handle on what you can do or not. If you don't ... well, there's folks that can help with that. Hell, even if you just want to be around folks like you, you'd be welcome." John told him.

Part of Peter just wanted to laugh this off and tell them they were seeing things. Another part of him worried that if/when they found out he wasn't a mutant - at least, not in the strictest definition of the word (that being, born with powers that manifest at some point) - that they'd tell him to