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Loki's Apprentice

Chapter Text

The banner over the nursery doorway read "Welcome home, baby Emily!"
"She's perfect, Dan," the woman said as she bent over to lower the blanket-wrapped baby into the crib. The swaddled infant looked up at her, green eyes bright, the wisp of black hair atop her head hidden by the soft knitted cap. The woman smiled at her husband and he took her into his arms.
"Worth it?" he murmured to her, planting a kiss on her cheek.
"Every second. The paperwork...the money...the countless interviews...the time at court..." she sighed. "After the doctors told us I'd never be able to have children naturally, I thought I'd die. But...you were right."
"Adoption was definitely the way to go," Dan said, smiling down at his new daughter. "After the IVF failed..."
The woman shuddered and turned in his arms to bury her face against his shoulder. "I don't want to talk about it," she muttered, shaking her head.
"Okay, Annie," he soothed her, one hand rubbing her back in circles. He looked around at the new nursery. The walls were painted a soft shade of pink; the white lace curtains on the windows looked as clean as new clouds. The changing table stood at the end of the wooden crib, and there was a deep shelf on one wall with a line of teddy bears on it, identical except for their colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. A rocking chair sat in one corner with an enormous plush cat seated in it, a pink parasol in its soft, stuffed paws. Across the room from the crib, next to the doorway, a small night-light in the shape of a yellow lightning bug was plugged in near the base of the wall, casting a soft golden glow.
The baby in the crib yawned, her eyes fluttering shut, and Annie laughed softly. "All tuckered out from the ride home from the orphanage," she whispered, not wanting to wake the child.
"That makes two of us," Dan laughed. "Are you hungry? We sort of skipped dinner. Come on into the kitchen and I'll grill those steaks and we can open up that bottle of wine I got."
"Anything you say, Doctor Dan," Annie chuckled softly. She took one last, lingering look at her new daughter. "It's been such a wonderful day." She tilted her head up to look at her husband. "I love you so much. And I love her more than just about anything."
He smiled and the two of them turned, shutting off the light as they stepped out of the room.

--O--

 

"Have...have you noticed she never cries? Never?"
Daniel Drake looked up from the pan of sausages he was frying and turned toward his wife, sitting at the kitchen table. A faint frown marred his brow; there were dark shadows under her eyes, and the hand holding her coffee cup trembled slightly.
"I did notice she's quieter than other babies, hon," he tried to reassure her. A smile curved his lips. "Heck, most women would be overjoyed not to be woken up every two hours at night by a baby's wails."
"I just..." she set the coffee cup down and shook her head, looking up at him. "I worry there's something wrong with her. I can't sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night because it's too quiet and go in to check on her. Sometimes she's laying awake in there, just staring up at the ceiling. It's...weird."
He turned off the flame under the pan and went to sit down at the table across from her. "Now, hon...every baby develops at their own pace--"
"Yes, I know, you said," she said impatiently, "and you've checked her out a dozen times...but Dan...she didn't even cry when she got her first immunizations. Or when the light bulb blew out in her bedroom while she was in the crib. The broken glass cut her cheek, but she still didn't cry."
He shook his head helplessly. "We can take her to a different pediatrician if you think I'm missing something, sweetheart--"
"I don't," she said, looking bewildered. "You're the best doctor we know. You're so good with her, and, I don't know, I just--" Annie bit her lower lip. "It's just...not normal."
He sighed and drew her into his arms. "She's a little ahead of the development curve on every other indication, hon. Almost ready to crawl. Already on baby food. Einstein didn't even talk until he was four years old...maybe we've just..." He resisted the urge to make a face. "I'll take her with me to the office tomorrow morning and run a few tests."

--O--

 

"I found her sitting by the bookshelf in your office," Annie muttered, her eyes downcast. "She'd pulled this year's copy of the Physician's Desk Reference off the top shelf. It was too heavy for her to hold and fell. Her arm was broken. But--" She looked up defiantly, worry in her eyes. "She wasn't crying. She didn't say anything. She was..." She wetted her lips, aware that what she was about to say was bizarre. "She had the book open in her lap, Dan. Turning the pages. She was...I think she was reading it."
Dan looked at his wife, one brow raising. "Annie...she's barely two and a half years old."
"I know!" she spat. "You talk about Einstein not reading until he was four. I'm talking about prodigies like Mozart, who was writing music when he was four."
"Sweetheart," Dan said patiently. "Even if she could read this early -- and without either of us trying to teach her yet -- I can't imagine she'd be reading my PDR, with its listing of medication formularies, effects, and contraindications. More like Doctor Seuss."
The little girl watched them from her booster seat at the kitchen table, her left forearm swathed in a tiny pink cast. The plate of flower-shaped chicken nuggets and cut-up cooked carrot coins sat undisturbed in front of her...but she dipped one tiny finger in the small dollop of ketchup for dipping the chicken nuggets in, and with her tongue caught at an angle between her teeth as she concentrated, she slowly began to write.

--O--

 

I glared up at the librarian, barely able to see her over the stack of books in my arms.
"I'm sorry, little girl, but if you're under 12, you can only check out two books at a time. And they have to be from the children's library." I could see her frowning down at the top volume of the stack: John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays". I was reading my way through the Dewey Decimal System and hadn't yet got further than class 100, which was philosophy. It was difficult to get Mother to bring me here, unless Father had made arrangements in advance, and unless Mother was sufficiently medicated to ignore me for eight hours while I went through the stacks.
I set the pile of books down at my feet and rummaged in my pocket for my library card and the notarized letter from the Director of the New York Library System Father had acquired for me. He tried hard and he meant well, but he couldn't keep up with me any more than Mother could; twelve books was the most he had been able to bargain for, and I would be done with these twelve by this time tomorrow. Given that I probably couldn't convince Mother to bring me back so soon, I wouldn't be able to return for at least a week, which meant a frustrating six days of searching for educational material on the Internet -- a laughable proposition, at best. Father's clunky old desktop computer ran like a sea slug on Thorazine, although I had figured out how to disable the child-safety protocols that censured three-quarters of the really interesting sites within two weeks of learning how to use the machine.
I handed the note and card up to the librarian, who had to be new; I didn't recognize her, and all the other librarians knew me by now. Well enough to stay out of my way. I watched as she read the letter, brows rising in consternation. She looked around, almost certainly thinking she was being tricked; when she couldn't see anyone watching her, or any cameras, she looked back down at me. "I'll have to go check to make sure this is...authorized..." Her voice trailed off, no doubt at the impatient look on my face.
One day, I would be old enough to dispense with this nonsense. One day, I would find my passion.
Until then, everything else was just data collection.

--O--

 

"Is that the new Holly Black novel?"
I turned toward the girlish voice at my left, frowning. The backpack across my shoulders was full of books and heavy, threatening to drag me backward, but the other pile of books I carried in my arms helped balance me out as I turned.
The girl who had spoken looked about my own age, as did the four other girls with her. She wore the school uniform of St. Jonathan's, which was distinguished from the uniform of St. Martin's -- its closest competitor -- by the slightly darker golden hue in the yellow-and-blue tie they wore with the navy blazer and skirt and white blouses. Of course, given the rabid antagonism between the two schools, they wouldn't appreciate the idea that there was no difference between them but two shades on a Pantone scale.
"No," I answered reluctantly, dipping the pile to better show off the cover. I already knew which way this encounter was going to go. Humans! So parochial. So aggressive. So afraid of anything that was different from them. "It's Pico Della Mirandola's 'Oration on the Dignity of Man'." I had made it to the section on Religion in the library, classification 200-300 in the Dewey Decimal System.
She crinkled her nose in confusion. "What?"
I sighed. "It's the masterwork of an Italian Renaissance philosopher, a prodigy who wrote this at the age of 23, defending 900 theses on religion, philosophy, and magic against any who would argue with him. It's considered the Manifesto of the Renaissance, the key to the Hermetic Revolution."
"What?" Her brow was crunched up in puzzlement, and the other girls with her were shifting from foot to foot. Most looked uneasy. The one with the hockey stick in the athletic bag across her shoulder was starting to look eager, a dark glint in her eyes.
"Pico della Mirandola spoke in front of hostile clerics of the dignity of the liberal arts and about the dignity and glory of angels. Of these angels he spoke of three divisions in particular: the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones. These are the top three choirs in the angel hierarchy; each one embodying a different virtue. The Seraphim represent charity, and in order to obtain the status of Seraphim Mirandola declares that one must "burn with love for the Creator." The Cherubim represent intelligence. This status is obtained through contemplation and meditation. Finally, Thrones represent justice, and this is obtained by being just in ruling over 'inferior things.' Of these three, the Thrones is the lowest, Cherubim the middle, and Seraphim the highest. In this speech, Mirandola emphasizes the Cherubim and that by embodying the values of the Cherub, one can be equally prepared for "the fire of the Seraphim and the judgment of the Thrones." This deviation into the hierarchy of angels makes sense when Pico della Mirandola made his point that a philosopher "is a creature of Heaven and not of earth" because they are capable of obtaining any one of the statuses."
She gaped. I envied the Thrones, because I had no patience in dealing with inferior things. Like this lump of animate carbon.
"In the Oration, Pico justified the importance of the human quest for knowledge within a Neoplatonic framework. He writes that after God had created all creatures, he conceived of the desire for another, sentient being who would appreciate all his works, but there was no longer any room in the chain of being; all the possible slots from angels to worms had been filled. So, God created man such that he had no specific slot in the chain. Instead, men were capable of learning from and imitating any existing creature. When man philosophizes, he ascends the chain of being towards the angels, and communion with God. When he fails to exercise his intellect, he vegetates. Pico did not fail to notice that this system made philosophers like himself among the most dignified human creatures. The idea that men could ascend the chain of being through the exercise of their intellectual capacities was a profound endorsement of the dignity of human existence in this earthly life. The root of this dignity lay in his assertion that only human beings could change themselves through their own free will, whereas all other changes in nature were the result of some outside force acting on whatever it is that undergoes change. He observed from history that philosophies and institutions were always in change, making man's capacity for self-transformation the only constant. Coupled with his belief that all of creation constitutes a symbolic reflection of the divinity of God, Pico's philosophies had a profound influence on the arts, helping to elevate writers and painters from their medieval role as mere artisans to the Renaissance ideal of the artist as genius."
Their eyes were glazing over.
"It's..." I shook my head. "It's not the new Holly Black book."
"You're weird," the girl snorted, looking disdainful.
"Yes," I agreed patiently. "I have been assured of this before."
"I don't like weird," she whined petulantly. The girl with the hockey stick grinned, sliding the athletic bag off her shoulder.
"Why does this not surprise me?" I asked rhetorically. I glanced over at the other girls. One had wrapped the strap of her purse around her fist, and it swung heavily side to side. Another had pulled the chopsticks out of her hair. "Are we really going to engage in a round of undistilled and overt aggression here in public, on the library stairs?"
"...what?" the girl mumbled again.
I pulled out my cell phone and held it up for them to see. "I have the police on speed dial," I told them.
A couple of the girls looked nervous at that, but the one with the hockey stick -- which was being slid out of her athletic bag -- only grinned. "I love a challenge," she growled.

--O--

 

I blew out the ten candles on the cake. "Now can I go back to my room?" I asked, eager to get back to the book I had smuggled out of the library's rare book room. One of the librarians had left a display case carelessly unlocked, and RFID tracking tags were never inserted into anything as valuable as the 1521 edition of Le Dragon Rouge; the adhesive was sure to damage the book. The Grand Grimoire was worth too much to count, and was not planning to return it once I had finished it. Books like that one weren't meant to be kept under glass and gather dust; they needed to be read. I resented being torn away from the section on necromancy for something as superfluous as cake and ice cream. It'd taken me an entire week to learn French just so I could read it.
"Not yet, Emily," Mother said hollowly. "Don't you want to open your presents first?"
I looked at her blankly and she dipped her head. She wasn't doing very well lately; I knew she had thought that things would 'get better' once I got into school. Kindergarten had disabused her of that notion, and then there had been the parade of private tutors, until by the time I turned eight, Father had arranged for me to be homeschooled. Although that was really a misnomer; if anything, I was doing the schooling myself. The endless avalanche of books had been leavened with the occasional attempt at other forms of education: the ballet classes, the karate classes, art and music classes. I could play the violin and flute with moderate skill but no real passion, had quit the martial arts classes when I realized that I could find the pressure points to disable any bullies in my Father's medical texts...and then there had been the unfortunate incident with the Exacto knives for woodcarving class. They didn't really work well as scalpels, and Mother had needed to be sedated when she found the rat I had dissected.
So books it was.
There was just one wrapped package: rectangular, flat, mildly heavy. I carefully unfolded the wrapping paper to find a top-of-the-line laptop with all the bells and whistles, and the grin that crept over my lips made Mother blink and pull her chair back a bit.
"Thank you both!" I said politely. "This will be very useful. I...I love it." I managed not to wince at the unfamiliar word, and they both looked slightly shocked I had used it. But it was not, quite, a lie; not given that I had a long list of sites that sold rare books, and another long list of hacked credit card numbers.
Best. Gift. Ever.

--O--

 

A coin clinked into the open, empty coffee cup that sat down by my crossed knees.
I looked up, but the man who had tossed it in was already hurrying away, briefcase swinging, just another faceless member of the masses hurrying back and forth in front of the library on their way to the next part of their lives. I stuck a finger in between the pages of "Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation" by Velma Maia Thomas. I had made it to 326 in the Dewey Decimal System. It was taking longer than I had anticipated to read through the library's 53 million books.
I peered back at the man as he paused at a newsstand to buy a paper. Expensive suit. Black hair and mustache and goatee. Early 40s, I judged. It took less than a second to recognize him as Tony Stark.
I fished the coin out of the cup. It was a quarter, now damp with the dregs of my coffee, and I realized that, sitting in front of the library with my bag of books and empty cup, my jeans stained from last night's experiments with the chemistry set Father had gotten me for Christmas, he must have thought I was homeless.
"Really?" I murmured. A theoretically homeless twelve-year-old girl was worth exactly a quarter to the multibillionaire.
A theoretically homeless twelve-year-old girl was worth exactly a quarter to Iron Man. "Really?"
I turned my head and spat. Worthless scum. My respect for most of the human race got lower every day.
"Honey?"
I looked up at the sound of my father's voice. He had pulled the car up in front of the library. There was almost no brown left in his hair, and the salt there strongly outweighed the pepper. Mother wasn't with him, of course; she hadn't been out of the mental health facility in almost five months, since she had found the stash of my books behind the baseboard in my closet. Between the 1589 edition of Leonardo Vairo's 'De Fascino Libri Tres' -- one of the Renaissance's major works on demonology -- and Johannes Weirus' 'Histoires, Disputes et Discours des Illusions et Impostures des Diables' (I'd needed to learn Latin and German to follow the multileveled discourse), the unstable walls of her mind had finally collapsed. From what Father told me after his twice-weekly visits, she was doing well with finger-painting therapy these days.
"Coming," I told him flatly and gathered up my book-bag, tossing the empty coffee cup -- along with the quarter it contained -- into the trash can on the street corner before climbing into the car.

--O--

I was 15 when I came back from the library and found all my books gone.
That was when I knew I had to leave home.
Father refused to tell me where he had taken them, or whether he had destroyed them -- almost a million dollars' worth of stolen occult texts, gone.
I was not to blame for the curse that escaped my lips. I am human, and as prone to anger as anyone. Perhaps more; the psychiatrist I saw between the ages of four and seven claimed I was autistic, with OCD and anger issues. The testing they did could not properly measure my IQ, and even at the age of four I knew I had perfect photographic memory without any of their evaluations.
He locked me in my bedroom -- a futile gesture, really, given that one of the first spells I had actually discovered that really worked was one to open any lock (vastly useful at the library's rare book collection vault) -- and gone out without saying where.
My computer was gone, and he had taken my cell phone.
So I had stuffed some clothing into my backpack, along with the three or four personal journals I had hidden up above the drop ceiling panels in my bedroom. I packed my hairbrush, my toothbrush, a blanket and my pillow, a bar of soap and a washcloth, a handful of pens and pencils, some other personal hygiene products, and muttered three words in a language that was not commonly known to humans that would unlock my door.
Now I live at the library. I have ceased to read my way through the Dewey Decimal System, and concentrate mostly on those subject matters that will allow me to live my life as I please, without interference with my freedom. Chemistry. Computers. Languages. History.
And magic.
There are simple charms to bring money to me, to disable security cameras and alarms, to keep people from looking too closely at me, or for me.
My father lost his medical license a year after I left home. He reported my disappearance to the police, but they found nothing. No doubt they thought he had killed me -- perhaps even molested me, now that my Mother was not home to deal with his needs -- but they could find no proof. He began to drink, and the resultant decline in his professional behavior was enough, after awhile, for the AMA to censure him. I have no idea where he is these days.
The world has changed greatly in the last few years. Iron Men. Hulks. Even -- supposedly -- gods, walking the earth. None of that matters, although some of it is intriguing.
I simply want to be left alone to my studies in peace.
I will be left alone to study in peace...or those that interfere will pay the price.

Chapter Text

The day started innocuously enough: I woke in one of the locked-up, unused storage rooms at the Library’s main branch. There were chairs and tables and filing cabinets in there from previous office redecorations, and also a lone couch, which had been my bed for the last year. I folded up my blanket and tucked away it and my pillow, then went to wash up and change clothes in one of the staff bathrooms. When I was done, I spent a few moments renewing the few small enchantments I cast upon myself daily – a charm from the Annals of Ikonn to avoid detection by alarm systems, security cameras, or police, and a cantrip from one of the Ragadorr texts that would reflect back any mundane physical harm someone tried on me back to the attacker.

And then I went to breakfast. There was a diner two blocks down from the restaurant. I had found a lost twenty-dollar bill the night before, and it paid for coffee, bacon, pancakes, hash browns, and a jelly donut.

When breakfast was done, I went back to the library. I was halfway through one of the volumes of sorcery practiced by a west Tibetan sect two centuries ago; the spells in the book, written in ancient Ü-Tsang, were clearly derived from even older spells originally developed in one of the Dark Dimensions. It had taken weeks to master the various Tibetan languages, although a spell I had put together from various fragments of the Books of the Alludi were cutting the time it took to learn languages down to a tenth of the normal span, these days. I had added Greek, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Estonian, Bantu, Mandarin, Tagalog, Hindustani, Nepali, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Old and Middle English, Old and Middle French, Middle High German, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Korean to my repertoire, and was working on old Norse, Belgian, Faroese, Romany, Yiddish, Kurdish, and Thai.

It was a little after noon when I heard the first rumble. I glanced toward the window from my study cubicle in this tiny corner of the library’s top floor. Things were nearly deserted up here; the shelves were empty of everything but dust, and I frowned. The sky outside the window was sunny and clear. The forecast today had not predicted thunderstorms.

I went back to the book, but only for a moment. The sound of an explosion came to my ears, and I scowled. Terrorists?

Something flitted past the window outside, too large to be a bird.

Whatever it was, it was interrupting my studies.

Carefully, I slid a finger between the fragile pages of the book, closing the cover most of the way—

--just as the window exploded inward in a shower of glass.

I didn’t even bother to duck – shards of glass sliding harmlessly off me thanks to the charm I had cast when I woke – as three formidably large and completely alien humanoid figures came bursting into the room through the window on rappelling lines.

They carried long weapons of a sort I didn’t recognize, a cross between firearms and halberds. The closest one snarled at me in a tongue that was so clearly not human that I doubted that a human throat and vocal chords could reproduce it.

It didn’t matter. I knew what it was saying; the way it gestured with its weapon made it abundantly clear.

My response was equally clear.

“I’m busy,” I told it flatly. “Go away.”

It snarled again and leveled the weapon at me. I shrugged, a golden shield of mystic energy shimmering into place it a perfect globe around me as I whispered a pair of words under my breath.

The creature recoiled, then roared and pulled the trigger.

The energy beam from its weapon hit the shield and bounced back, doubled in force, tearing the creature into a dozen bloody chunks. The other two snarled and leapt at me, hitting the field. It hurled them back with force, one flying right back out the window they had come crashing through only moments before. The other one hit the wall, slid down to the ground, and did not move again.

I opened the book back up again and bent to read.

I had gotten barely five lines further when another half-dozen forms came crawling through the window. I could hear more explosions coming from outside, and felt the building shudder like a dying animal as something massive hit it from the far west side. Dust trickled down from overhead.

They didn’t bother with warnings this time, simply aimed their weapons and fired.

The energy rebounded from multiple directions, smashing them down, spraying green-black ichor in every direction. Some of the ooze splattered the shield, then dripped down to the floor.

This was getting ridiculous. Clearly something major was going on outside, and it was going to prevent me from studying further until it was over. It was equally likely that it would not be safe to try to gather my things and leave the library; the constant interruption was tiresome, but the thick stone walls provided at least a little protection from whatever was going on outside.

I strengthened my shield – all magic begins with one’s will – and shrugged. The creatures would keep coming, and if they were all stupid enough to shoot at me through the shield-spell, they would keep dying.

 

Fifteen minutes.

The pile of bodies was halfway up the height of the shield when I sensed a slow, potent uncurling of magical energy just outside my shield.

It was enough to draw my attention.

I closed the book again carefully, marking my place with a finger, before looking up.

The man who stood there looked human.

I doubted that impression was accurate.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

His voice was silk and honey. It matched his appearance: imperially slim, with straight dark hair and burning eyes, skin pale as milk, wearing archaic-looking garb in green and black with touches of gold. He carried a metallic, curving scepter with a glowing blue gem in it.

And he radiated magical power the way the sun radiated light and heat.

“My army told me there was an individual they could not defeat, holed up in this mortal building, and I came to investigate, expecting some costumed do-gooder. Instead…” he drew the word out like a spider spinning a web. “Instead I find a girl.”

“Go away,” I said flatly, trying not to bristle. “You are interrupting my studies.”

“Studies, little girl?” he purred. “And what might you be studying there, oh so intently?”

I tucked the book under the desk and frowned. Pretty – he was very pretty, for whatever that was worth – but I knew better than to trust pretty. All the beatings at the hands of prep school mean girls over the last few years, before I had started learning magic, had taught me that. “It is none of your concern.”

He laughed, and I shivered at the sound, despite myself. “Oh, I know what you’re studying, little girl,” he chuckled, the sound smooth as water running over pebbles. He reached up with one finger to tap my shield; instead of tossing him back, it rippled under his slender fingertip like milk. He towered over me; he was not excessively tall, but I was small for my age, barely five feet. “Little girl. Little witch. What leads a child like you to study magic, little mortal?”

“Loath though I am to repeat myself, I say again: it is none of your concern.”

He smiled. It was a beautiful thing, and I twitched my head downward, suddenly anxious not to meet his eyes. There was a power in them, alluring and dangerous-- power to enchant, to lull, to lure. Power to steal the will and replace it with desire...with submission...with willing enslavement.

“Afraid, little mortal girl?”

“Bored.” I sighed. “I don’t care what you and your—“ I gestured at the bodies with an impatient hand. “—minions are doing out there. I just want to be left alone to my studies.”

“You’re not out on the streets, trying to save the humans from my army. Why not?”

I made a face. “People,” I spat. “What have they ever done for me?”

He grinned. It was a dangerous smile, and he reached up with both hands, bringing them together as if praying, then tilted them horizontally and brought them to the surface of the shield.

As if he were parting a shower curtain, he swept the shield apart with a languid, easy gesture of his hands.

A chill shot through me, and I bolted up from my seat, the book clutched in my hands as he stepped forward under the dome of the shield with me, barely three steps away.

“Such weak magic, little girl,” he murmured softly. “But you’re so diligent learning it. What would you give for a chance to learn real magic?”

I caught my breath and held it. "That depends. What's the catch?"

He laughed; it was a bright sound, light, full of amusement and arrogance. "Catch? Must there be a catch? Cannot I make the offer for the simple pleasure of teaching a good student?" He smiled. "Are you a good student, little girl?"

"Not if you listen to my old tutors," I muttered. "Willful, headstrong, stubborn. Of course, that's to be expected, when the student is smarter than the teachers were, when the student was only five."

That billow of laughter came again, like motes of sunlight riding a wave of the wind. It curled around me, coaxing, teasing, enticing. I bit my lower lip until blood came.

"And what sort of student would you be if you had a teacher worthy of you, little girl?" he purred.

"Probably a very fervent one," I admitted. His smile deepened.

"What's your name?"

Alarm shot through me and I stiffened, adrenaline banishing the ease I had begun to relax into. "Please. Even the greenest novice knows that if you give a mage your real name, you give him power over you. I might be mortal, but I'm not that stupid."

"Apparently not." He nodded, looking amused. "What might a friend call you, then?"

"I don't have any friends," I said tonelessly. "But you can call me...Dragon."

He arched a brow in mock surprise. "Such a proud name. Such a ferocious name, for such a little girl."

My last name was Drake, not that I would tell him that; my choice of aliases was an acceptable synonym. "It'll do. And what do I call you?"

His lips spread wide, the color of his eyes so deep it seemed like a lake I might fall into. "I have no need to hide who I am, little girl," he purred. "I am Loki, Prince of Asgard, and soon to be King." He paused, eyes a little colder, a little prouder. "Do you know who I am? What that means? Have you heard of me, little mortal girl?"

I had. World mythology was class 201 on the Dewey Decimal System. Psychology was class 150-160: emotions was 152, mental processes and intelligence was 153, applied psychology -- which covered deviant behavior, mental illness, and abnormal psychology -- was 158.

I was standing less than two feet away from a god -- or a being that thought it was a god, anyway, with all the powers a god might have.

I was fairly certain that the creature that called himself Loki was dangerously unbalanced.

Then again, so was I.

"I have heard of you," I said flatly. "I first read the legends of the Asgardians when I was a child of ten."

"So precocious!" he laughed. "So learned! And what do the legends say of me, little girl?"

I arched a brow. "They say...you are ambitious," I said calmly. Quiet calculation had replaced frustration and anxiety. "And clever. And talented, and cunning. I see you as the earthquake that sweeps away the rotting foundations of an old house, so that a new, stronger one may be built in its place."

The smile that had built on his lips slowly faded, and was replaced by a look of wary puzzlement. He wasn't sure whether I was mocking him or sincerely complimenting him. "Do you, now." He tilted his head to one side, regarding me with an unreadable expression. "And do you not care that the earthquake might level the city, slaughter thousands of other humans?"

"What are they to me?" I asked without a qualm. "Strangers, nothing more."

"But you do not wish to rule," he stated. I shook my head.

"I want to study. I want the power to choose my own path. Nothing more."

"Ah...freedom. It is a false prize, a lure that betrays those who achieve it. Once gained, those of weak mind and stunted will shall find it only befuddles them the more."

My lips quirked in something that only superficially resembled a smile. "I said nothing about freedom, only choice. I am willing to be a slave to the learning." I paused, and a thread of yearning crept into my voice, quite against my will. "I want...to know."

"What do you wish to know, little girl?" he asked, his voice deceptively soft.

"Everything."

He was silent for what seemed like a very long time. "And is there no one here you would save? No one you love?" He swept one hand toward the city outside the window -- the explosions, the roars, the screams.

"Love is a child's tale. Adults may pretend it makes them happy, but I have seen love crack and disintegrate. Hmph. Love. Will it fill my belly? Put clothes on my back? Protect me from a knife or bullet? Put a roof over my head? Mend me when I am sick or injured? No. I have never bought into that fool's deception."

His eyes gleamed. "Surely you had parents--?"

My face twisted. "They were afraid of me."

"They didn't understand you," he breathed.

"Never," I admitted. "I haven't even seen them in more than a year, and my mother was driven to madness well before then by my difference, and my mind."

The smile bloomed on his face again, but it was different: richer, deeper.

"I understand you very well, little gi--Dragon." His voice went firm. "And if you agree to my terms, I will teach you magic such as you could never have dreamed of."

"What terms?" I asked warily.

"You will swear yourself to me: to come when I call you, to do what I demand of you. I might have errands you can accomplish for me. People to watch. Parcels to deliver. Messages to carry. In return, I will teach you everything I think you can learn."

I met his gaze, trying not to smirk, in complete awe. Of a sort, anyway. "Wow."

"Wow?" he repeated.

"You have no respect for mortals at all, do you?" I asked.

He looked, for the first time, confused. "This is true...but why do you say so?"

I ticked off points on my fingers. "A) You made no mention of how long I'd be swearing myself to you. Open-ended slavery just isn't my thing. B) I notice you carefully left out any notion of how dangerous some of these "errands" might be. I'm not about to follow any orders that will lead directly to my death. C) Also? 'Everything you think I can learn' is a nice way of saying 'You're just a stupid mortal, so I'll teach you how to tie your shoes -- MAYBE -- and call that good.' I'm not going to agree to this unless things are a good deal more clearly defined."

He scowled and let out a breath, nostrils flaring in exasperation. "Such a very fierce little dragon, for all that it could be stepped on by a much larger one and ground to paste underneath its talons. Very well, then, little girl. How would you phrase the terms?"

Such an invitation was akin to trying to word a wish that a genie couldn't twist against you, but...I was willing to give it a try. "First, a set time period. I'm willing to give this the traditional seven years."

"So generous!"

"Second: I'm willing to undertake tasks that have an element of danger to them, but I'm not going to throw myself into the abyss because you say so, no matter how funny you think it might be."

"I see." He smiled, that easy and dangerous smile again. I wanted to back out, but it was already too late. It had probably been too late from the moment he entered the room; if I'd said no, I was sure he'd have found it ridiculously easy to erase me from existence. But if I could arrange terms at least marginally in my favor, I might survive.

Might.

"Third. I will give you an accurate and rigorous accounting of what magic I am already capable of. Building on that, you will then, in exchange for my services, teach me everything I deem I am capable of learning. If it turns out, to my detriment, that I was wrong in my estimation, that falls on my head, not yours."

He bowed mockingly. "You're very generous with your terms, not to hold me accountable. And I? Am I permitted input here?"

"What did you have in mind?" I asked, trying not to wince.

"You say you will follow my orders once we have reached a bargain. And if you do not? Failure is one thing -- indeed, it is to be expected of mortals -- but should you outright refuse to at least attempt to carry out a command I have given you..."

"Yes?" Oh, this was bad.

"Then there must, of course, be some sort of penalty."

I could see how this would go. He'd tell me to do something I found I couldn't do -- most likely for moral reasons -- and then... "Of course," I said, my throat going dry. "Within limits?"

He gave me a mocking smirk. "And what limits might those be, little girl?"

"Nothing permanently damaging to body, mind, or soul," I stated coldly. "No disfigurement. No torture. No stripping of my intellect. No magical retaliation that leaves me unable to work magic myself, as that would invalidate the entire purpose of the agreement."

"And if I agree to that, you agree that you'll belong to me for the next seven years?" he said, his voice so soft it was almost inaudible. The smile on his lips was a razor that could kill.

I hesitated. What might he ask me to do? Lie? Spy on people? Steal? Hurt? Kill?

Probably.

Did I care?

"Yes."

The smile widened, lips parting like a wound opened up with a very sharp knife.

"I agree," he said, and took a single step forward, reaching up to grab me by the hair. I yelped, the book tumbling from my fingers. "Let's seal this agreement, little girl."

He bent me backward, swooping in low, and before I realized what he intended, his mouth had fastened onto mine like a hawk diving for a kill. He was strong enough to break me, if he wanted, his lips grinding bruisingly on mine, tongue forcing my mouth open and plundering inside. I went rigid with shock, scalp screaming at the pressure of his fingers tangled in my hair, his other hand caught round my waist, keeping me from trying to pull away.

I couldn't breathe.

I could feel the energy flow between us, mine to him, his to me, binding the compact without words, without blood signature on parchment, without hope. The energies sliced into me, body and soul, cutting, stabbing, changing me inside as ruthlessly as a demented surgeon.

There was no passion in the kiss whatsoever, just pain and a churning nausea that I wasn't sure I could hold back much longer. I shuddered to think what punishment I might incur if I vomited into his mouth.

I was unprepared when he let go, and toppled to the floor, gasping for air. "Get up," he barked. "Get your things. I've wasted enough time here. I have a throne to win."

I scrambled to my feet, scrabbled to grab the book I had dropped, my bookbag, my backpack, and then hurried to follow him.

Chapter Text

Loki seized me by the wrist, then, and yanked me along in his wake. I yelped at the tightness of his grip and his strength as he dragged me out the doorway and down the hall. Given his slender build, I would not have expected him to be so strong that it felt he could crush the bones in my wrist by tightening his grasp only a little more. Asgardians, I reminded myself, are not human, and then frowned.

I knew the library backward and forward, inside and out – every room, every crevice, every drawer, every shelf. We had stepped out of the reading room into the hall that led to the elevator down to the main floor, but within three steps the hallway had changed from the clean, well-lit one I knew as well as my own fingerprints to a dark, dank worked-stone passageway that smelled of woodsmoke and mildew.

“Where are we?” I ventured, curious. I still couldn’t bring myself to be afraid -- all the more so now that he had decided I might be useful to him, and I had sworn an oath to serve him -- but this was not my library.

“I have to get back to my battle, and I cannot have you underfoot,” he said mildly, but the playfulness was gone from his voice. “Therefore, I am leaving you with someone who owes me a favor – and, as it may be a few weeks before I can journey back to reclaim you – with someone who can begin your training, albeit not as well as I could.”

Interesting. I looked around as the hallway opened up into a larger chamber, with guttering torches lit every ten feet on the walls, and green tunic-wearing armored guards bearing pikestaffs alternating between each torch. I smelled metal, a strong iron odor added to the notes of smoke and mildew, and took in the scant architectural details.

This was a castle, probably built in the 1500s, if my recollection of the details in the books on European architecture I had read was correct. Moreover, the style set it somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably near the border with Russia.

“You trespass, Asgardian. Why should I not destroy you now?”

My head snapped forward. The voice was a deep baritone, but heavily altered by the thick iron mask it was filtered through. The man stood in front of an archaic throne, a hooded green cape covering the green tunic and suit of armor he wore. A chill went down my spine, because I recognized him. I had a split second to be glad he was ignoring me before Loki answered.

“As I recall, Doom, you owe me a favor,” Loki responded silkily. “I have come to claim it.”

I watched their body language carefully. The head of the man the world knew as Doctor Doom turned infinitesimally, taking me in. “And what, may I ask, would you ask as repayment of this favor?”

“I am currently engaged in the middle of some business that will require my attention for awhile.” Without warning, he shoved me forward, and – not expecting it – I lost my balance and went down hard on my knees. I could feel the sting and then the hot seep of blood that told me the rough stone floor had torn the skin right through the jeans I wore, but managed not to make a sound. “Look after my thrall until I return. Keep her from harm. Teach her, if it amuses you, the beginnings of sorcery, for she has a talent for it. I will return to reclaim her as soon as I am able.”

And he was gone, just like that.

I could feel Doom’s eyes on me as I climbed gingerly to his feet. I looked up at him and met his gaze with as much equanimity as I was capable of.

“Are you hurt, my dear?” he asked.

Well. He had better manners than Loki, that was for sure. Manners that befitted a monarch, of course.

“My knees are skinned. I’ve had worse. Thank you for asking,” I said, my tone respectful. I’d read the newspapers every day since I was three, and followed that up with plenty of magazine articles, United Nations briefs, and a book or three on Doom and the culture and government of Latveria. (I hadn’t gotten around to learning Latverian yet, but the initial inquiries I’d made showed the language to be a rough hybrid of Estonian and Romanian, with some idiom drift and odd verb cases similar to that of Georgian.) I was well aware of this man’s power – his intellect, the physical and combat capabilities of his suit of armor, his sheer physical strength even out of the armor. Not the equal of, say, the Hulk, but no doubt quite enough to crush me if he wanted to.

“I must apologize for your Master’s behavior, it seems,” he said. “Abominable. That was not the way I would have guests treated here while at Castle Doom.” He came down the steps with more grace than I would have suspected, given how much I estimated the armor weighed. “I am Victor von Doom, King of Latveria. And you are…?”

“Emi—“ I started to give him my real name, lulled by his courtesy, then caught myself. “I call myself Dragon.”

The armored mask meant I could not see his face, of course, but I am certain I could feel his smirk. “As you will.” He stopped in front of me, tilting his head slightly. “If you will accompany me, I’ll take you to get those scrapes cleaned and bandaged. Then, perhaps, you will join me for dinner.”

“Thank you, Lord Doom,” I said lightly. I could be courteous, too, when it was called for.

It was called for now.

He extended the crook of his arm and, a little bemused, I slid my hand into it, letting him lead me through the castle. I paid close attention to every door we passed, every turn of the hall, not wanting to get lost.

“So you are the Asgardian’s…thrall?” he asked, his tone hollow and cold due to the mask. Still, I could swear I heard curiosity in his words, and shrugged.

“Of a sort. Loki’s…apprentice, if you will,” I answered. Quietly, I explained the battle in New York, the way the soldiers of his army had suddenly burst into the library as I was studying. I gave him the early parameters of my life only in the most broad of strokes; if Loki intended Doom to teach me magic, then Doom, too, was a mage, and again, I was not ready to share details about myself that a mage could use to gain power over me.

“And so you have lived the last year and some weeks wholly in the library? Fascinating…but tragic. Were you Latverian, your gifts would be recognized and lauded, and you would have been selected for formal education in the magic arts,” Doom said as a door opened before us and we stepped into what looked like a school nurse’s office. There was a young woman, perhaps in her mid-20s, in a clean white uniform, who scurried forward perhaps a bit too attentively.

“Sit,” Doom instructed. “Let her tend your injury. I will return shortly. I am going to have quarters readied for you, and then I will return and we will dine.”

“You’re very kind,” I said politely. I doubted he was doing so out of the goodness of his heart, of course, but from all I had read, the Latverian monarch had his own sense of honor, one that would not allow him to harm a guest in his home to whom he had extended his hospitality.

Now, manipulating me into somehow betraying Loki, or devising a way to use me himself – these things, I imagined, were not beyond him, and as he turned and left, and the nurse came forward to see to my scrapes, I resolved to be on my guard.

I kicked off my shoe and rolled up the hem of one pants leg. The skin on my left knee was shredded, bits of grit and bloody denim threads adhering to the scrape. The nurse cleaned it with utmost gentleness and care, and in complete silence. When it was clean, she applied antibiotic ointment and a wide, square gauze pad, then taped it down.

“Do you speak English?” I inquired politely.

She looked up at me with puzzlement in her eyes, shaking her head, and murmured something in what I assumed to be Latverian. I listened attentively to her tone, the inflection of each word, the weight and placement each word had in her sentence. The quickest form of new language acquisition was total immersion, and for most people it was brutally difficult, but I suspected I would pick up the language easily enough. Other than Doom himself, it seemed likely that few others in the castle – or the country beyond it – could speak English.

When she had finished, I sat there, pondering the last hour. Whatever other gifts and magics Loki had, he had obviously mastered teleportation; there could be no other explanation for the swift journey here.
Doom returned a few moments later, and nodded when he saw me. I rose to my feet and stepped to his side.

“Dinner, then?” he inquired, once again extending his arm to me. I took it without a qualm.

“By all means,” I said respectfully. “I’m famished.”

Instead of leading me to a dining hall, he guided me up several flights of stairs, down a long hall, and stopped in front of a set of double doors, oak banded with iron. They glided open with a simple push of his gauntleted hand, and inside were shelf upon shelf of books.

“Since you will be staying for some little while, I thought it appropriate to show you my own library. Well over half the tomes here deal with magic. Tomorrow, we will begin, and I will show you such books as you may read and examine that I deem are fit for your abilities at the moment. After we dine, I will show you my sanctum, where any workings I teach you will be conducted.”

I nodded. “I thank you,” I told him. “You are dealing the task imposed upon you with great grace.”

“I am a man of my word,” he said. Did I imagine it, or was his tone a little darker, perhaps a tinge angry at the unmeant implication that he could be anything but.

“And I am a woman who keeps the oaths I take,” I said softly. “And I am willing to swear such to you, if you desire, so long as it does not conflict with the vow I have already spoken to Loki.”

He looked at me, and I could feel his intrigue. “What sort of oath?” he asked at last.

“I leave that mostly to you,” I replied. “For you alone know what is best for yourself, as I could not. But: to be a good student, to do nothing that would go against your interests, to be alert while I am here to anything that might threaten or disrupt your rule here.”

“You think anything could cause difficulty for me? For me?” he growled, and this time, I could definitely hear the anger.

“No,” I said softly, calmly. “But I think there are fools who might wish it so, and carry out acts in the hopes of such.”

He was silent for a long moment. “You…are dangerous, my dear.” He laughed, the sound hard and cold. “I wonder if the Asgardian realizes it?”

“I do not seek to be dangerous, Lord Doom. I seek only to survive, and to continue my studies. And the best way to do that, right now, is to be of service, and no threat, to the one who would teach me.”

He nodded. “So you say.” I lowered my head. “We shall see.” He shut the doors again and turned away from them. “Down the hall—“ he gestured, “at the far end is a flight of stairs. It leads up to one of the castle’s towers. Those are the quarters I have had prepared for you. I hope the injury to your knee is not so dire it will keep you from climbing steps.”

“I should think not. It’s only a scrape, Lord Doom. I thank you for your concern.”

“At least you know the proper manners for your betters,” he said, and, once I had taken his extended arm, led me back down to the ground floor.

Dinner was roast boar with all the trimmings – bread still hot from the oven, swimming in butter, rich gravy, potatoes, vegetables, sweets. Instead of milk or water, there was wine, which I sipped very carefully. Too young to indulge in the United States, I’d never had any interest in alcohol anyway, and even less interest in becoming inebriated and losing control over my facilities. All I had to keep myself in one piece were my wits, my intellect, and a very scant command of magic, which was fine for a drifter in New York, but would do me, I suspected, little good here, given that Doom was an accomplished mage himself. My charms to turn locks and evade security cameras were probably useless in this castle, and so that left me with only my mind.

“So,” he said as dessert – a savory fruit tart – was served. “Indulge my curiosity. What, precisely, did you swear to the Asgardian?”

I considered it. Although Loki would probably be irked to know it if I spoke of it, I could see little harm in telling.

“To serve him for seven years, in whichever ways he finds useful, although he is barred from sending me on tasks that would lead directly to my death. Should I disobey, he can punish me, but not in any way that will permanently damage my body, mind, or ability to wield magic – e.g. my soul. And in exchange for that, he is to teach me such magic as I deem I am capable of learning.”

“He did not dictate such specific and fair terms, I suspect?” Doom asked.

“Not quite. His original terms were both broad and vague. I required some alterations before I would agree, and he – apparently – acquiesced to them because he was in a hurry. Not that I had any chance of defeating him, but I would guess he had decided I might be useful, and thus worth making minor concessions to, rather than destroying me and wasting such potential value as I might have for him.”

“You speak very calmly of such things – of being owned, and of possibly being destroyed,” he observed.

“I am nothing if not pragmatic, Lord Doom – much more so than others in my age and situation, I suspect. Also, I’m mentally ill in ways that make it easy for me to accept such things.”

“Oh?” Just that single word, laden with curiosity.

I shrugged. “I care for one thing and one thing alone: my studies. I am willing to make almost any concessions to arrange that. When I was younger, I was diagnosed with a raft of mental illnesses: autism, OCD. I suspect I probably fall firmly within the parameters of sociopathy, as well, since I have no concern for other human beings, unless they serve some purpose for me.”

He stared at me a long time, and when he spoke, I could hear the smile in his voice.

“Oh, yes. Dangerous, indeed.”

Chapter Text

It had been a week.

“Repeat after me, then,” Doom said. “I, who have chosen the name Dragon—“

“I, who have chosen the name Dragon,” I repeated, and continued as he spoke. “—vow by my name, by the blood in my veins, by the magic that dwells in my soul, and by my given word to serve as student to Victor von Doom, to obey him in all things that do not otherwise abrogate any previous oaths I have taken, save where these acts may directly lead to my death, in return for his tutelage in the arts of magic, for such a period of time until my original teacher, Loki of Asgard, returns to reclaim me. So I swear.”

I could feel the magic run through me, almost an electrical current, mingling with the physical substance of my body to settle deeper, into my soul. Doom nodded, and I could almost sense him smile slightly behind his mask.

“Good,” he said softly, firmly. “Now the real work may begin.”

I looked around me. He had brought me into his sanctum for the oath. In the days following my arrival in Latveria, we had both kept abreast of the news out of New York: the end of the battle there, Loki’s defeat and capture by the heroes calling themselves the Avengers, and his subsequent disappearance. I considered the clock of seven years on the oath I had sworn to Loki paused until such a time as he returned – if he returned at all. The oath I had sworn to him said seven years of service, not merely seven years. I had no doubt that the god of mischief would find a way to free himself; the only real question was how long it would take him to do it.

In the meantime, I had made my offer to Doom, to swear an oath to him. After a few days, he had agreed.

“We will begin with the enchantments you will need most surely,” he said as I stepped out of the magic circle on the floor. Made of silver that had been molten when it had been poured into the grooves carved in the black marble floor, mystic sigils danced around the outside, creating a zone of protection against all ill influences and creatures so long as one stood inside its unbroken space. “You are no Asgardian, with their strength and stamina; nor do you have a suit of armor like mine. So we will begin with spells of healing.”

I nodded and he gestured to a set of seven books he had brought in and set on one counter. “I trust you speak and read languages other than English?” he asked, a slight lift to his intonation.

“Over sixty of them, Lord Doom,” I said, and enumerated them for him.

“A good start. While you are here, you will also learn Enochian and Theban,” he said. “After you have mastered those, I will instruct you in languages from other planes.” He paused. “One other thing. It is my will that, while you are learning the magical arts, you also instruct yourself in matters more mundane. So long as you are my student – and as long as you have allied yourself with the Asgardian – you will invariably find yourself in opposition to those in this world who stand against such as he and I, such as those he fought in New York. Therefore, you will familiarize yourself with their skills and exploits, to better learn how to hold your own against them – and defeat them – in advance of such time as when you meet them face to face. I keep a database of books, newspaper and magazine articles, recordings of television news stories, scientific papers by certain of them…as well as my own impressions of them.”

“As you will, Lord Doom,” I agreed. He gestured toward the stack of books.

“Get to work, then.”

--O—

“Hold out your hand,” Doom ordered.

I did so without hesitation, and he took it in his metal-gauntleted one. From a pocket in his tunic, he produced a ring. It was utterly plain, lacking ornamentation of any sort; made from a reddish gold that seemed to move, it needed no designs to make it beautiful. He slid it on my index finger.

“This is a ring of the Faltinian Flames,” he said. “I dislike trinkets; they have a tendency to misbehave when you need them most. However, this will suffice for offensive weaponry until you learn more potent spells. This bauble comes from the realm of the Dread Dormammu and the Unspeakable Umar, and can channel the hellish fires of that realm. Those fires will burn not only flesh but the victim’s soul, sapping their life-force and wearing down their will.”

“Thank you, Lord Doom,” I breathed. “It is a kingly gift, indeed.”

He tilted his head, a gesture I had come to understand could denote either interest or pleasure. “You have been a gifted student, indeed. Thus, a gift for one who is gifted. The Asgardian chose well when he took you into his keeping.”

Neither of us spoke of Loki much these days. It had been over three months, and it was apparent that we were unlikely to see my keeper any time soon. Nonetheless, I kept to the strictures of both my oaths, and devoted all my time and will to learning everything I could, both of arts magical and of the individuals who had made themselves the enemies of both my teachers. Doom’s information on those called the Fantastic Four was the most complete, and the depth of his hatred for them was boundless.

I had mastered the healing spells he had shared with me – spells to fix broken or crushed bones, torn flesh, diseases without end, parasites and animal bites, burns of fire or acid or caustic, decay and old age and withering. Because he cared for his people – in such fashion as he was capable of, as a ruler should – he had me test my skills on them. Twice a week I would go down into the village outside the castle, or travel further afield in his land, in company of his robotic guardians – and tend to the hurts and illnesses of his people. Originally, they had shunned me, coming as I did among the robotic soldiers they had learned to fear, but after experiencing the cessation of pain I brought them, their wariness had swiftly disappeared.

I had mastered the Latverian tongue quickly enough, in that place where it was the only tongue spoken, save by Doom himself. I took no pleasure in healing or aiding the villagers, but I could understand Doom’s motivation for doing so, easily enough; a healthy populace worked harder, and those that were grateful for the help were less likely to rebel, or flee his borders to less stern lands.
“How are you coming with the enchantments in the Tome of Cytorrak?” he asked.

“Well enough,” I said. “The lesser cantrips were easy enough to achieve. Currently I am practicing with the Crimson Bands; it requires both strength of will and a certain dexterity of the mind to direct the targets I want those strictures to encompass and capture.”

He nodded. “Excellent. I have faith you will master them, given time and practice.”

--O—

I could see very far from this high up.

Flying was like swimming through air, except a million times more exhilarating. There had been nothing at all in my life so far that compared with the total freedom and physical bliss that soaring through the skies woke in me. I went up, up, up, and then jack-knifed into a dive, dropping down through multiple layers of cloud until I was no more than twenty feet from the rocky, unforgiving ground.

I pulled up at last, twisting around to speed back up toward the walls of Castle Doom. The anti-aircraft guns had been programmed to recognize my bio-signature, which is all that kept them from opening fire on me as I approached.

I landed gracefully in the castle’s courtyard, eyes wide, face flushed. The spell that Doom had shown me how to cast granted the ability to fly, and made it permanent. If I had taken nothing else away from this apprenticeship, this alone would have made it worth it. But it was far from the only thing he had taught me; it was simply – so far – the best.

Doom was waiting at the bottom of the steps as I hurried toward him. “You appear to have enjoyed that,” he said dryly. I had learned to recognize the faintest nuances of tone that the mask could not alter, and nodded.

“I love flying,” I said, trying to calm myself. I was not a child any longer, after all. But it was difficult to suppress the giddiness within me. Of everything I had been taught so far – healing spells, invisibility cantrips, animal speech, the beginnings of transformation magic – this was my favorite.

“Understandably,” he said. “It represents one of the more elegant forms of freedom. Though do not forget it can be taken away at any time, by those with the power…and the desire to curtail that freedom.” I knew he was not talking about himself. “And what direction are you hoping to take your studies in next?”

“I’m looking at a couple of options,” I said, more seriously. “Most of them involve other sorts of beings. Elemental summoning; speaking with and control of the dead – specifically, ghosts; and eventually, demonology.”

He paused at the top of the stairs, turning toward me, and I could almost see him arch a brow. “You aspire to demanding and difficult heights,” he said, then nodded. “Good. I see the potential in you for such things. Great things. You might, some day, rival me.”

I shook my head. “I could only rival you if I had any interest in doing so,” I told him, honestly enough. “’Rival’ implies foe. I have no desire to be your enemy.”

He studied me for a long, silent moment, and I could not see beyond the mask to see his expression. It was the most difficult thing about the relationship – if it could be called such – that I had with him.

At last, he sighed. “That you admit such marks you as far more intelligent than some I have faced,” he said. “You realize that the longer you stay here, the more likely it is that you will be here when the Fantastic Four or others like them come trespassing. They will look at you and see, very likely, an innocent. Perhaps a prisoner. They might well seek to rescue you—“ I could hear him sneer. “And what then?”

“And then I will show them just how wrong they are,” I said simply. “Even were it not for the oath I swore to you, I have no interest in raising a hand against you. It might be said that this is because I understand your magic and other powers so far outstrip my own that you would easily strike me down. But the reality is that you have been nothing but noble and welcoming to me. The favor Loki claimed you owed him obligated you to the barest minimum of behavior, no more. But you have given me the free rein of your home and your land; you have tutored me yourself and given me more than one gift that augments my powers; you have, in short, treated me far better than was necessary. I would never betray you.”

He lifted a hand halfway to my face and then stopped. It hung there, not moving, before he finally lowered it again. “Leave me,” he said flatly.

I nodded, bowed, and walked away.

 

He watched her go, eyes narrowing thoughtfully behind the iron eyeholes of the mask he wore. Loyalty aside -- and it is satisfying to finally find someone who knows the meaning of the word, if she's sincere -- her progression in the magical arts comes much, much faster than anyone I've ever seen, save myself. A child her age learns faster than an adult, of course, but still... He shook his head. And any child of this age should be more inclined to video games and pop music than magic. And her desires are cyclical and closed: she learns magic to gain enough power to determine her own freedom so that she can be free to learn more magic. So much like my own wishes -- I have always merely wished to attain my rightful destiny without interference. But I can think of nothing to account for her skill. It might be different if I knew more about her...but she still has not even divulged her true name. The scar tissue on his face throbbed. Then again...there are other ways to learn things about people than simply by learning their name.

He turned and strode in the opposite direction. There were arrangements to be made.

—O—

Dinner was strained; as he never removed the mask in my presence to eat, but had always insisted that I joined him in the great dining hall when I took my meals, it was mostly silent except for the scrape of knife and fork against my plate. I could feel him watching me, and finally, I summoned up the courage to put my flatware down and look up at him.

“I don’t know what I have done to offend you, but I am deeply sorry for it, nonetheless. You have been an excellent teacher, and I value your mentorship more than I can say. You have been generous beyond reason with your time, gifts, and instruction. I know I will never be your equal, and know that I can never hope to be your better, but you have given me something to strive for, nonetheless. I believe if, some day, I can be even a tenth as skilled a sorcerer as you are, I will have done well for myself. But I am rightly crushed for having done something to upset you, and if you would but let me know what it is, I will do everything in my power to make it right again.”

He was quiet for a moment, and I lowered my head in humility. In the months since I had been brought here, I had very carefully observed him at all times. The psychology books I had read when I was younger had been useful. He was extremely intelligent, but I knew his history well enough, much of it from his own files. He was burdened with both paranoia and megalomania, a devastating and treacherous combination, and it made dealing with him a hazardous endeavor even in the best of times. It was necessary to downplay my own intellect, constantly acknowledge him as the better of the two of us, and defer to him in every situation. And the compliments I paid him had to be both subtle and true; he would see through obvious and excessive flattery at once, and resent it, and I would pay the price accordingly. Thus my words were mostly honest: I was sorry for whatever I had done to offend him, and I did value all he had given to me.

It was too soon in my studies to determine whether or not I might someday equal – or better – him, however. One small lie amidst a forest of truth. It didn’t matter anyway; I wasn’t after power, or world conquest, or the domination of mankind, and as far as I’m concerned, my studies were not a contest against him to see which one of us knew more.

At length, he spoke. “You did not offend me.”

I wanted to ask questions, but I knew better than to interrupt him.

“I am…unaccustomed to the sort of loyalty you demonstrate,” he said slowly. “I am much more used to treachery on all sides. I am also aware that, regretfully, when your master returns for you, I will lose a talented student. I am equally aware that, thanks to your oath to the Asgardian, he might well choose to use you against me in the future, and you would have no say in the matter.”

I raised a hand, requesting permission to speak, and he nodded. “Actually,” I said softly, “I would have some say in the matter, as my oath specifically forbade him to do, or order me to carry out, anything that would lead directly to my death. And I am well aware of what the outcome would be of any sorcerous match between you and I. He might order such a thing, but my oath would not compel me to do it, and I would not be so foolish as to attempt such a stupid thing.”

“And if he objected to your prudence?” Doom inquired mildly. “He is known to have a temper.”

“The oath also forbids him to carry out any punishment that would permanently damage me in mind, body, or soul,” I pointed out.

He threw his head back, and laughter boomed hollowly out of the iron mask, echoing through the tall rafters of the castle. I smiled, then, relaxing. When he had quieted, I spoke.

“I am glad you are not angry,” I said. “Offending you would have been a very poor way to repay your fine hospitality.”

He waved it away with one hand. “You are…very much unlike most women of your age,” he said. “I confess I find it refreshing. No interest in young men, or romance?”

I shook my head. “I…don’t really feel things the same way most people do,” I said. “I never have, and I don’t know why. The doctors said I was autistic, but that doesn’t seem to be quite accurate. I didn’t even feel any real affection for my parents – at least, not so far as I could tell.”

“You were not close to them?” he inquired.

“No.” I paused, then shrugged. “I found papers in their desk when I was eight. I was adopted. The mother was 16, the father’s name not listed. But I felt no desire to go searching for my blood mother, either. All of it seemed of no more importance than ants feel for their own parents. The older ants are important, to provide for the young ones and protect them from predators, but human affection is absent in insects. And so it is for myself.”

He went quiet again, although this time I sensed it was because he was reflecting on what I had told him, rather than out of any ire. At last, he rose from his seat. “You are finished with dinner?” I nodded, glancing down at my empty plate. “Good. Then perhaps you will come with me, as I have arranged for the necessary supplies for the next part of the training you showed an interest in.”

I rose and came around the long end of the table to join him, and he led me to the sanctum. On an old oak table in one corner were set one of the oddest arrays of items I had ever seen – a set of old dog tags, a gleaming dagger, a thin golden ring, an album of photographs, a jaunty golf cap, a rabbit’s foot.

“What are these for?” I asked.

“You said, as I recall, that you were interested in speaking with, and controlling, the ghosts of the dead. Necromancy. When a person dies, their spirit generally remains bound to the mortal realm through one of two circumstances: either they died a violent death and seek justice, or they feel they had something in their life that remained unfinished. Now, such unquiet spirits can be bound in three different ways. They may be bound to a person – for example, their killer, or a loved one they wish to watch over and protect. They may be bound to a place – the site where they died, or a home where they spent a great deal of time with those they loved. Or they can be bound to an object that had meaning for them: war medals, wedding rings, family photos. Each of the items on this table has a ghost bound to it. I will first teach you how to see and speak with them, and then I will show you how to use the item to bind them to your service.”

I beamed. “Thank you so much, Lord Doom.”

He picked up the dagger first, which looked like a vintage WWII SS dagger. “Please. Call me Victor.”

There was a burst of light and a crashing sound from overhead. Before I could so much as move, Doom threw himself across me as the skylight that led up through the castle to let the light of the full moon shine down onto the pentagram inscribed in silver on the floor, broke into a million pieces. Glass rained down onto us, and Doom’s armored form kept most of it off me. But a single razored edge the size of a playing card slashed my hand as it tumbled over me, and I winced as it hit the floor and shattered into a thousand shards, most no bigger than a grain of rice.

He rose, extending a hand to me as I muttered a healing cantrip under my breath. The gash in my hand sealed itself painlessly, and I took his outstretched hand and got to my feet. “What the devil--?”

“No devil,” he growled, his cold voice laden with anger. “Some ghosts are not happy to be bound, and will strike out in any way they can.” He regarded the dagger he had picked up, which had tumbled to the floor. “Is that not correct, Gunter?”

He let go of my hand and bent to pick the knife up. “Perhaps we should table this until tomorrow, so I may teach your soon-to-be servitor some manners,” he suggested.

“If you think that best,” I demurred. “It would be unfortunate to have a repeat of that.”

“Indeed.” He set the dagger back down on the table and turned toward me. “After breakfast, then?” I nodded. “I shall see you then. It would be best if you left now; this is apt to become…unpleasant.”

“Then I shall wish you a good evening,” I said, curtsied, and left.

—O—

Doom watched her go and shook his head. “For all her acumen, in some ways she is still very much a child.”

“But a talented one.” The voice of the SS Major’s voice was thin and hollow in ways only that of a dead man could be. “You are satisfied with how that turned out?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Doom dismissed the ghost’s question. “It went as precisely as planned. She bled, but she was not seriously hurt. And a single drop of her blood is all I need for what I have in mind.” He crouched and scanned the floor, then very carefully picked up a single shard of glass no larger than a mouse’s paw. A ruby droplet clung to it, untainted by dust or grime, and he regarded the blood calmly, then smiled.

Chapter Text

I was in the middle of practicing exercises for minor teleportation tricks when I heard the first explosion.

The entire castle rocked. Stone dust sifted down from the rafters in the sanctum’s ceiling and I looked up, alarmed, then tossed down the handful of coins I had been apporting, one by one, and ran.

Upstairs, things were in chaos. Servants ran, screaming, some of them crying. I could hear shouts and loud roars, and the sound of…rockets? Some sort of machinery. We were clearly under attack, but by whom?

I made it upstairs to the balustrade that opened onto the main courtyard. Doom stood at the center, battling it out with a man in red and yellow armor.

My jaw tightened. Iron Man.

Tony Stark.

“You are committing an act of war,” Doom stated flatly, his voice calm. “You have invaded a sovereign country and attacked its rightful monarch.” The blasters in his gauntlets met Stark’s repulsor rays blast for blast, holding him back. “As such, I order you to—“

An arrow bounced off his armor and I whipped my head toward where it had come from as gas began to seep from the arrowhead. A man in black leathers, holding a compound bow, was already aiming again, a second arrow fitted to the bow.

The metal dog tags at my throat were warm, and I could feel the weight of the SS dagger slipped into my boot. “Major Gunther. Lieutenant Hoskins. Grab those arrows. Turn them aside. Don’t let them hit Lord Doom.” My whisper was barely audible, and I saw the two ghosts slip away. “Anna Marie. Jeffrey. Catch at his fingers. Make them numb.” One of the best-known indicators of a haunted house was a cold spot. Ghosts, being dead, drained the heat from the places they stood and the things they touched. The ghosts attached to the golden wedding ring in my pocket and the rabbit’s foot that dangled from a cord around one wrist slipped away to wrap their own hands around those of the archer.

A heavy hammer came careening out of the sky and struck Doom in the chest, and I crouched down behind one of the balusters, eyes narrowing as Thor leapt down from the roof of the castle’s highest peak. The hammer knocked Doom off his feet and I hissed, sudden alarm leaping up into my throat for him. He snarled in fury, climbing to his feet as the hammer rebounded back into its owner’s hand.

I scanned the ramparts. Clearly the Avengers had decided to make Lord Doom’s defeat their current priority. I had no idea why this was so, but not only my oath but my gratitude made it imperative that I do whatever I could to stop them. I had no chance of surviving an open fight against even the weakest of them, but I didn’t need fists. I had stealth…and magic.

I didn’t see the Hulk anywhere, for which I was profoundly grateful. I doubted that the magic I had amassed had any chance of overcoming the creature. And the woman they called the Black Widow was also nowhere to be seen, which was alarming. From Doom’s records, I understood she was a former Russian spy, and extraordinarily dangerous even though she had no powers at all.

I could hear a man shouting in English from further down the courtyard and turned to look. The tall man in the red, white, and blue costume was Captain America, and he was herding the servants out of the castle, away from the danger of the battle. Two of Doom’s robotic guards turned toward him and he hurled his shield toward one. It crashed into the robot’s head, severing a vital circuitry bank, then ricocheted off it and hit the other one before careening back into the Captain’s hand. Both robots collapsed, unmoving.

The Captain lifted his head to scan the courtyard and his eyes landed on mine before I could duck behind the balustrade. I dropped low, eyes going wide.

“Mistress. He is coming up here,” said Mara, one of the other ghosts at my command. I nodded nervously and a second later, felt his gloved hand drop down onto my shoulder.

“Come on, we’ve got to get you out of here.” His voice was deep, compassionate. “Jeez, you’re just a kid. What kind of monster is Doom--?”

His mistake. I whispered three words under my breath, and even as I turned, his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell, deeply asleep. I recoiled out of the way as his shield hit the ground and rolled.

I looked down at the costumed man dispassionately. He would stay bound in that magical sleep until I – or someone else with the same skills – broke the spell. Even so, he was a threat.

My hand dropped down to my right boot, where the SS dagger was tucked. Best to take him out of the equation permanently, but... I hesitated only for a second--

“Uh-uh, kid,” I heard a woman’s voice behind me. “I don’t think so.”

Pain rocketed through the back of my head and I knew no more.

—O—

I woke with a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and absolutely no idea where I was.

I sat up slowly, carefully, wincing as a fresh throb of pain went through the back of my skull. I was sitting on a medical cot in what could have been a normal hospital room anywhere in the civilized world, except for the fact that the walls appeared to be made of clear Plexiglas. Just outside the closed door stood two uniformed and armed guards wearing the uniforms of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Oh, wonderful.

Seated in a chair across from the door was a man wearing a similar uniform. He was African-American, older, bald, with a patch over one eye. He regarded me over his folded hands, saying nothing as he got to his feet and took a single step forward to stand directly in front of the door.

“I don’t know who you are, or what you were doing at Doom’s castle. We ran your fingerprints and they came back blank.”

I silently thanked Doom for the spell he had done shortly after taking me under his wing that had completely reconfigured those tiny folds of skin on every finger and toe.

“What I do know is that my team found you at the castle of Victor von Doom, one of the worst, most bloodthirsty tyrants in the world. And when one of my men, out of the goodness of his heart, tried to get you out of there and away from the battle for your own safety, you did something to him that none of my scientists have been able to figure out. He’s in some sort of coma, but there’s absolutely no reason for him to be. And you’re going to fix that, or by God, girl, I am going to make you sorry you ever drew breath.”

I regarded him impassively. So the spell had held, even with the Captain being transported to wherever it was that we were. Good. I sat down on the edge of the bed without a word, studying the man. The fires of rage in his eyes were banked, but there to see if you knew how to look.

I listened to him rant and threaten while I calmly went over my options. I was wearing plain hospital scrubs, and they had taken my ghostly talismans and my ring of the Faltinian Flames, so those were out. But that hardly left me helpless. I let my head drop and subvocalized the words of the healing spell that would banish the pain of my headache. It vanished instantly, letting me concentrate a little better. So: minor avoidance spells (security cameras wouldn’t register me, people would look the other way without realizing they had done so); spells to open locks (would they work on the electronic locks here?); spells for luck. Flight. True invisibility. Animal speech and control. Some minor teleportation magics, but not strong enough to teleport myself out, although they would be good for bringing small items to my hands. The spells I had learned from the Tome of Cytorrak: the Crimson Bands, the Chant of True Sight, the ability to see through walls, to predict the weather, to move in perfect silence; to eavesdrop on other places and listen in to what folks said at a distance (clairvoyance and clairaudience); to alter the density of my body and pass through solid objects. The sleep spell I had used on Captain America was likely to be effective on any of them. Some minor transformation magics: not enough to change shape to an animal, but enough to minimally alter certain of my physical features so I could disguise myself as someone else.

No offensive spells that could be used to hurt people, or to fight, but plenty of ones to gather information, or to escape a place without detection. That was fine. I was good with sneaky.

I waited out his threats, and finally, he stopped. “Cat got your tongue?” he demanded.

I tilted my head to look at him and he snarled wordlessly. “If you do not think I will have you surgically dissected if that’s what it takes to return Cap—“

“Colonel! No!” I could hear the click of heels approaching at speed and turned to see a red-headed woman in black leather hurrying toward him, a worried look on her face. She reached his side, laid a calming hand on his shoulder. “She’s just a kid.”

An understandable if inaccurate estimation. I was almost 18. I just looked younger than my age, and always had; the average Joe on the street might mistake me for 14, or 15 if he was particularly observant. I watched the woman carefully, recognizing her from the photos in Doom’s files as Black Widow.

“I don’t care if she’s a squalling newborn, I—“ The colonel’s voice dimmed as she shook her head frantically and dragged him away.

I bent my head low again so my mouth could not be seen whispering the words of a spell that would let me listen in on their conversation now that they were out of sight and earshot.

“—obody’s been able to figure out what’s wrong with Cap, Natasha. I knew there wasn’t much of a chance of me scaring it out of her, but we need to do whatever it takes to fix him. You give it a try; maybe she’ll react better to honey than vinegar. If nothing else, you got Loki to talk.”

Hmmm. Interesting. He was their prisoner? I reached out mentally with mystic senses and found only the very faintest old traces of his presence. He had been here once upon a time, but no longer.

“I’ll give it a shot, Colonel. How’s he doing?”

“Unchanged. The docs call it a coma, but to me it just looks like he’s sleeping. We’ve tried everything we can think of to wake him up – movement, medication, hell, one of the docs tried sticking a pin in him. Nothing worked. If you can’t get her to talk, I’ll try everyone else on the team, one at a time. The docs had a look at her before she woke up. She’s in perfect health, and she’s not mute, so I don’t know what’s going on. Most kids her age would be crapping themselves in terror.”

“Do we know anything about why she was at Doom’s castle?”

“Naw,” the Colonel said. “Doom got away, and all the servants and folks down in the town were too terrified to say anything.”

I managed not to smile at that. It was good to know my teacher had escaped whatever they had meant for him. I’d had full confidence in it, but it was always good to have confirmation.

I heard his footsteps – heavier, longer – heading away, and hers – lighter, shorter – heading back this way. I lifted my head to watch as she returned to stand in front of the door, making sure my face was again expressionless. I could not beat this woman – or any of them – in a head-on fight. But I didn’t need to.

She stepped forward, a compassionate expression on her face. “You poor kid,” she said, her voice a gentle croon that would very likely have roused relief in most people. Too bad for her I didn’t have feelings and things. “You must have been so scared, stuck at that castle, in the middle of that fight. You’ll have to forgive Fury; he’s worried about the Captain, but we know that whatever happened to him couldn’t really have been your fault.”

Oh, she was good.

“We reviewed the videotapes from the fight that Tony’s suit took.” I suppressed a snarl, keeping my expression blank. “I mean, you didn’t even touch him. I’m sorry I hit you; I lost it a little when I saw you reaching for that knife, but I’ve thought about it since then. You had no idea what was going on or who he was, did you? You were just trying to defend yourself.”

Silence. She was perhaps the best actress I had ever seen, but I could still see the barely-masked frustration lurking at the back of her eyes.

“Why did Doom have you there? Did he kidnap you? Are you from the village?”

Nothing.

“They tried to run your fingertips so we could find your parents, but they weren’t on record.”

Nothing. She was really very good at this, and I was willing to bet that she did this sort of thing all the time. But I had no pathological need to boast, to brag, to taunt, to threaten; the only reason I was even here was because they had interrupted my studies with their attack. I had full confidence that I would be able to return to them shortly.

“You’re still pretty rattled from the fight…and from the Colonel. I can tell.” She sighed. “Why don’t I let you rest for awhile? They’ll be bringing you lunch soon, and maybe I can come back after that and we can talk.”

Mental note: make sure to scan the food for any drugs or poisons. Check. I didn’t think they’d bother with poison, but drugs to try to lower my will and make me talk seemed very likely.

I watched her walk away and contemplated my next move.

—O—

After lunch, I was visited by three ghosts.

Well, not really. But close enough.

The archer was first, bandages on his fingers. My ghosts had done their work well if they had held on so long it had caused frostbite.

He studied me in perfect silence, his eyes dead and unblinking. He made no attempt to get me to talk, and left after only a few minutes.

After him came a man I didn’t recognize – mid-thirties, a gentle smile, and dark, curly hair.

“Hello,” he said mildly. “I’m not sure why they sent me down here to talk to you. Or, rather, I’m not sure why they think you’d talk to me, but I said I’d give it a shot.” He paused, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Kinda quiet. I get that. I prefer quiet myself, even if I don’t get it nearly as often as I like.”

I tilted my head as he turned to pace a few steps, then turned and paced back. I could tell from his body language and expression alone that he was uncomfortable being here, and I wondered what they had told him. He seemed rather too kind to be the sort to go around interrogating underage prisoners. Had the Colonel called Fury told him they would be torturing me if normal questioning achieved nothing?

I wouldn’t put it past Fury, from what I had seen of him.

The man sighed, a shrug rolling his shoulders. “They say you were going to stab the Captain. Is that true?”

I said nothing, and he shook his head. “I’m not even sure what I’m doing here. Threatening kids is way out of my normal line of work.” He turned and stalked away.

After that came the one with the hammer: big, muscular, blond. Handsome, but apparently none too bright.

I knew him from Doom’s files at once. This was Thor. Loki’s brother.

“You. Girl. You should cease this ridiculous pouting silence and answer Colonel Fury’s questions. You do not want him to become any angrier than he already is.”

This? This was Loki’s bane? This simple and pompous windbag?

“Do you hear me? This petulant game is unbecoming of anyone, but all the more so of a child your age. Do you not realize the trouble you are in?”

I smiled.

It was enough to make him recoil. “Did I touch a nerve, then?” he barked, twirling the hammer in one hand, as if to reassure himself that he still held it. “No. I don’t think you’re afraid of him. But you should be afraid of me.”
Despite my intent to remain silent, this was too good a straight line to pass up.

“It is precisely because I know you that I am not afraid of you. The worst you can do is kill me.”

He froze in his tracks, eyes going wide at my words – at the mere fact that I had spoken. He stabbed a finger at one of the guards. “Fetch Fury!”

The soldier took off at a run and Thor turned back toward me. “You say you know me, girl, yet I have never laid eyes on you before the day you were captured at Doom’s castle. Where, then, do you know me from?”

But I let the smile trickle away, content with the reaction I had gotten.

I sort of wished Loki had been there to see it, too. The demigod was clearly unnerved. Did it take so little to spook him, then?

I heard running footsteps and looked over as Fury came racing around the corner, the guard a few steps behind him. “She talked?” he snapped at Thor.

“She said she knows me,” Thor said. “And she smiled.”

Fury turned toward me, automatically growling as he saw me sitting there, just as implacable as before. “Talk!” he ordered, face contorted in resolute anger. I yawned. “Where do you know Thor from?”

I ignored him. He ranted and threatened for another few moments before giving up.

“Well, I did try,” he said, more calmly. “We’ll see if you’ll talk to Stark. If that doesn’t work, I guess we’ll have to move on to something else.”

And he and the demigod marched away.

Chapter Text

I could hear footsteps – light, but not so light as the Black Widow’s – as I finished braiding my hair into twin plaits. My hair had gotten long over the last few years, past my shoulders, and I wanted it out of the way for when I finally made my escape.

I glanced up as the footsteps stopped in front of my cell, then stiffened. Tony Stark stood there, minus his armor; instead of a suit and briefcase, he wore jeans and a casual shirt, a smirk on his lips.

“So, Fury sent me to talk to you, sunshine, and—“ he stopped, frowning, eyeing me carefully. “I know you.”

I started to shake my head and he waved a finger at me. “No, yes, shut up, I do. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve seen you before, and it wasn’t in Latveria. I was too busy dancing with the Tin Man while I was there to pay any attention to murderous little girls. I guess that makes you Dorothy, huh?”

I tried not to scowl. I had not anticipated that he might remember my face from one split-second pass-by years ago. Of course…I remembered him. Perhaps I had underestimated him.

“Of course, now I have to sit down and try to remember where I saw you at. For some reason, I seem to remember you with a big book in your lap.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s it. You were on the sidewalk in front of the main branch of the New York City library. Big book, empty cup in front of you. I tossed you a quarter.”

I snorted. “Big philanthropist,” I sneered. “How noble of you, to spare an entire quarter.”

“I figured you could buy some gum with it. You were too well dressed to be homeless, sweetheart, and anyone your age with a copy of Spinoza’s lectures wasn’t too stupid to get herself un-homeless fast, even if I’d been wrong. But I wasn’t wrong, was I?” He grinned. “Manhattan. That was about, oh, six years ago. I bet if I go to the library and ask to check the records, they’ll have a record of you checking that book out. Little girl like you, big book, hell, I bet they’ll remember your name even without looking. I bet it wasn’t the only big book you checked out over the years.”

Dammit. This was going to require escalating my escape timetable significantly.

“So there’s still the $64,000 question, Dorothy: why were you at Doom’s castle?”

I smiled placidly and kept my mouth shut.

“That’s okay, don’t tell me. We know who you are now, or will, and that’s a start. And I bet that if we keep you in here long enough, you’ll tell us eventually.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and stalked away jauntily, whistling a cheerful tune.

Tonight, then.

—O—

I’d been able to discern what time it was from the guards. They had orders not to speak to me, apparently, but one of them was wearing a watch, and it was easy enough to see the dial through the transparent walls of my cell. The guard shift changed every four hours; I wondered if they were that worried that I might pull something, and made sure the guards were fresh and on their toes by rotating them often.

I had no idea how long I’d been here. Probably a few days before I’d woken. No matter. I had taken the time, after Stark left, to work out a plan in my mind. First, the spell to see things from a distance: clairvoyance. After I had whispered it so quietly that even a cat might not have heard me, I spent an hour tracing through the halls of this place in my mind. My first surprise had been in learning that we were not on any base or in any prison on land. This was one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s helicarriers, and from what I could tell, we were a good thirty thousand feet up, roughly over Connecticut. But that was all right; I could fly, after all.

So I had determined the quickest way from the door of my cell to a hatch that would lead out. Easier to go that way than through the halls, where I might be spotted at any time. My plan: first, the spell that kept the cameras from seeing me. Then, spells that rendered me invisible and intangible. I would make my way through the air ducts that the hatch opened up into, until I reached the outside, and then I would fly down to the ground.

In addition: spells to toughen my skin against arrows, guns, repulsor rays, darts; spells that would filter out any toxins in case they tried sleeping gas; the spell that would enhance my senses so I could hear people coming, feel the change in air pressure against my skin if someone was running quietly toward me.

It was a lot of magic, far more than I had juggled all at once in the past, and although I was certain I could do it, there was always an element of chance. In addition, I was being forced to leave behind the talismans and ring that Doom had given me. The ghost talismans were unfortunate but ultimately unimportant; the world was filled with items that had been precious to people now dead, and I could walk into any antique store, second-hand junk shop, or estate sale and collect more. The ring would be much, much harder to replace, but I had no idea where they were keeping it, or what security precautions I would need to subvert to get it back if I did find its location.

I had eaten dinner – again, after making sure it wasn’t drugged – and was now just waiting for the right time, seated cross-legged on my bed. I preferred it to be dark when I went; once I got outside, it would be much harder for them to see me, although if any of them had thermal vision – or, more likely, just thermal-vision goggles, which were pretty standard spy gear – it would get easier.

It was about eight o’clock when I heard footsteps approaching. I stiffened and looked up as Fury came into view around the corner and marched over to my door. He held a slim manila folder in one hand, and flipped it open as he stopped, looking me in the eye.

“Emily Morgan Drake,” he announced, and inwardly, I cursed. “Born in Manhattan. Daughter of Daniel and Anne Drake. Adopted. Possessed of a genius-level IQ that over a dozen psychologists were unable to accurately measure. Started reading at the age of two. Fluent in three languages—“ I snorted. He arched an eyebrow, then went on. “—and home-schooled after the age of eight. Disappeared in 2011. Last seen in the main branch of the New York City library shortly before the Chitauri invasion.” He closed the folder. “We don’t know much about you, little girl, but it’s a start. We’ll find out the rest. You feel like telling us how you dropped Cap?”

I met his gaze with more obdurate silence. He sighed. “I don’t necessarily think you’re a bad kid, Emily, regardless of what the Widow saw during the fight at Doom’s castle. But you’re clearly a danger to yourself and others, and you’re just going to have to stay here until you convince me why I should let you go. And until you wake Cap up, of course. That goes without saying.”

He regarded me for a long moment, his face impassive. I stared right back.

“Fine, then,” he said coldly. “Have it your way. Guess we’ll learn more in the morning.”

He turned and stalked away. Had he finally decided to go straight for the drugs, or the torture? It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be here in the morning.

 

I let the hours tick by; they went much more slowly than I would have liked. I laid down in the bed around nine and pretended to sleep, body loose and relaxed as I slowly went over the spells I would have to cast, building them in layers around me a bit at a time. Casting “hanging” spells – spells that were complete except for a single syllable of a word or a single small hand gesture, which could then be triggered well after the rest of the spell had been cast – were complicated to carry out, but had the advantage of not draining all my energy at once, or needing many hours to trigger. They were mostly already cast, and the remaining fragments needed to activate them could be said in half a breath. Another advantage was that it was immensely difficult for another magus to puzzle out what spell an opponent had just cast if they had only part of a word or gesture to try to use to identify it from.

I waited until just before the changing of the guard shift, when the guards on duty were most apt to be tired and careless and ready to be done with their jobs for the night. The spell to take out the cameras went first, and then the ones to make me invisible and intangible.

Thus enchanted, I climbed up to stand on the bed and jumped up toward the hatch directly overhead, my incorporeal body passing right through the metal and into the duct behind the grate.

I followed the shaft, already familiar with its twists and turns, as quickly as I could, expecting to hear the alarms going off any second.

They didn’t start to blare until I was almost at the end of the air shaft.

I had maybe two hundred feet left between me and the hatch at the end of the shaft that led to the outside. I could actually see stars twinkling between the bars of the grille.

And then the Black Widow dropped down into the shaft from an intersecting vertical shaft, firmly between me and the exit. Green-lensed thermal vision goggles covered her eyes.

“You want to turn around now,” she said calmly, a pair of guns aimed at me. “There’s no way we’re going to let you just walk on out of here.”

“Wasn’t planning to walk,” I said flatly. “Was planning to fly.”

Her eyes widened, just a bit, and then narrowed again. “Did you copy that, Fury? She says she can fly.”

“Copy, Widow. Watch your back.”

“Good advice,” I commented, and muttered the garbled syllable that finished the casting of an apportation spell.

All of a sudden, her guns were in my hands. She looked shocked as hell.

I smiled and aimed. “I don’t really want to kill you.”

“Then don’t,” she replied, licking her lips. Nervous?

“Then get out of my way.”

“You know I can’t do that,” she said.

“Sure you can,” I answered. “Because I’d hate to do to you what I just did your guns, and drop you out into mid-air with no parachute, this high up.”

The earpiece she was wearing squawked, and then—

PAIN.

Something hit me from behind, something hard and huge, smashing me forward, a blossom of agony blooming in the left lower side of my back. I was tossed forward into her arms, the guns flying out of my hands, blood exploding from my mouth. She caught me in hands that were gentler than I expected. I could feel things shutting down inside me, and fast. Broken fragments of bone ground against each other, stabbing jaggedly at all-too-tender organs. The look in her eyes was stunned, flickering up over my shoulder.

“Thor!”

The bastard had hit me with his hammer. Even the spell I had cast to keep me from being hurt by bullets or darts or other weapons couldn’t possibly withstand Mjolnir. I crumpled down onto the shaft floor in a rapidly-expanding puddle of my own blood. There was dread in the woman’s eyes as the demigod ran to her side.

“If she dies before fixing what’s wrong with Cap—“

“I did not think—“

“Morons,” I coughed. I whispered the words of a healing spell under my breath, feeling it drain my energy; the wholesale destruction of my skeletal system and most of my internal organs was a lot more difficult to mend than minor cuts and bruises.

“Get Fury. Hurry!” Widow snapped.

The towering figure ran, and I turned my head slowly to look at her. “Hurts,” I muttered. I clenched my teeth against the agony as the spell labored to knit bone and flesh back together. I was not entirely certain it would finish in time.

“Fine,” I breathed. “You can have him back. Just wanted. To. Be left. Alone. To finish my. Studies.”

I mumbled the words that would undo the spell on Captain America, much too quietly to be understood. She had slid her hand down to take one of mine, and I could see from the look in her eyes that she didn’t understand.

“Natasha,” Fury’s voice came loud and clear through her earpiece. “Cap’s awake.”

Her eyes widened and her gaze dropped to take me in. “She undid it!” she blurted. “Whatever it was, however she did it. She undid it from here. But I think she’s dying!”

“Not here, I’m not,” I growled, and spat out the word that triggered another hanging spell.

The grille at the end of the air duct was torn away with a groaning scream of metal, and I heaved up, shoving her off me. I had no doubt that it wouldn’t have worked under normal circumstances. But she believed I was dying, and a dying person in my condition didn’t generally have the strength – or undamaged physical ability – to toss her off. I had taken her by surprise - a situation I was willing to bet didn't happen very often.

It hurt, I’ll grant that. I dragged myself to my feet as quickly as I could and raced for the end of the shaft.

She was right behind me.

She grabbed my arm as I reached the ragged lip of the shaft, pulling me back against her. “Don’t!” she shouted.

“Just let me go!” I roared back. “I don’t want anything to do with you people! I just want to go back to my books! Can’t you just leave me in peace?”

With what was nearly the last of my strength, I hit out at her with another spell, pushing her away in the same way I had ripped the grate free from the air shaft a minute ago, and let myself fall down into open air.

Chapter Text

I fell.

Immediately I could hear things gearing up on the huge ship above me, even as the sound diminished with distance. They were probably trying to figure out how to scramble jets or helicopters to catch me.

The pain was fading now as the healing spell's work was mostly complete, but it had left me very drained. The spell’s success would be a moot point if I passed out before I hit the ground, however; no spell was good enough to put me back together if I hit the earth from this high up.

From somewhere deep within, I dredged up the energy to stay awake as I activated the permanent flight spell Doom had cast on me. My fall halted immediately, and I turned it into a controlled dive, feeling the air caress my body like a kiss. The sensation was so exhilarating it allowed me to draw on the feelings generated and harvest new energy from them, and I cast the invisibility spell that had been shielding me in the tunnel. If not for the thermal goggles the Widow had been wearing, I might have made it out of the air shaft completely unscathed – but once I had found it necessary to apport her guns into my hands, the spell dissipated with the impact, leaving me an easy target for Thor’s hammer.

There was a whoosh of air from above and I looked up to see Iron Man streaking downward from the helicarrier’s flight deck, no doubt looking for me. I cursed under my breath, quite sure that thermal vision was built into the helmet of his suit, and poured on the speed, heading for the ground as fast as I could manage. The land below wasn’t NYC, but a fairly dense forest, and I harbored the hope that I might manage to lose him in the undergrowth if I could make it to land before he caught up with me.

Very far above, now, I could see another, larger figure hurtling down from the flight deck, not flying but in what looked to be a controlled, violent fall. My enhanced senses saw moonlight flash off long, pale hair and I realized it was Thor. A shudder ran through me and I found the strength from somewhere to go faster. I had no desire to be on the target end of his hammer again. I would not survive it a second time.

Stark was getting closer, and I racked my brain, trying to think of something that would hide me from his thermal vision. I had no doubt that I shone like a small star; 98.6* F was a good deal warmer than the cooler night air at this time of the year.

My brain pored through the spells I had learned – spells to control animals, spells to predict the weather – and began to cut and splice them, tearing things apart and rebuilding them. Speech/summoning/control spells were all built along very similar, basic lines. I could control animals and ghosts, but I could only predict the weather currently, not control it. I wove the spell as fast as I dared, stripping out the animal element from the spell I knew, reweaving it with weather as its focus, and then spat out the harsh syllables of the extra-dimensional language as quickly as I could.

The air around me warmed, swiftly, spreading out in a globe, going from a temperature that I guessed was in the 50s to something more suited to late July in a matter of seconds. The sound of Stark’s suit was very close now, and as I dove toward the ground, I could only cross my fingers and hope that I had managed to jury-rig the magic in a way that wouldn’t backfire with disastrous consequences. No doubt Fury had given orders that I was to be recaptured unharmed, and that was obviously the only reason Stark's repulsors were not smashing into me and turning my internal organs into something the chunky consistency of beef stew.

A boom of thunder went off just past my ear and I managed not to scream. My gaze ripped upward toward the thunder god, ready to blame and curse, but if anything, he looked as surprised as I did. It took no time at all to realize that I was the cause; mixing hot air and cold air at such speed and in such a slapdash way was bound to affect things in ways I hadn’t predicted.

A sound like a runaway train began to build from above, and as I drove myself down the last hundred feet to the ground, the sky began to turn green. I was ready to turn a little green myself. The woods were dark and overgrown, and it looked like there was a distinct shortage of places to hide from the baby tornado that was beginning to curl and spiral overhead.

I dived toward a tangled thicket of wild grapevine, fallen trees, Virginia creeper, wild raspberry brambles, and a hole that proved to be an animal burrow of some sort. It was too large to be rabbit – perhaps badger or groundhog – and I squirmed into it, spitting at the dirt that clogged my mouth and nose, shoving myself in deeper and deeper. Only when I burrowed deep enough to find an abandoned, dry leaf-lined chamber big enough to hold me if I curled into the tightest ball I could manage did I stop digging.

I listened to the wind howl outside in the forest, listened to trees crashing down. It wound down much sooner than I would have guessed – Thor’s doing, no doubt. And then there was temporary silence.

The roar of Stark’s suit came whooshing in and stopped quite close. I invoked the still-hanging clairvoyance spell and looked outside.

He had come down about twenty feet away, and as I watched, Thor came hurtling to the ground to stand a few feet away. “Did you see where she went?”

“Sorry, big guy, too busy trying not to get blown out into the Atlantic,” Stark said, the faceplate of his helmet peeling back to show his face. “You?”

“Nay,” the thunder god demurred. “It took all I had to unravel the tornado.” His face was unreadable. “We knew she was dangerous, but I confess I had no idea of the havoc she could wreak before this.”

“Yeah, well, Natasha said she was going for a knife back in Latveria, during the battle when Cap was at her mercy. Probably meant to cut his throat.”

“I don’t think so,” came another voice. I made the spell’s vantage point swivel and tensed as I saw Captain America march into the clearing the tornado had made. A fortunate side-effect of the winds was the complete erasure of any footsteps I had made while kicking and shoving my way into the burrow, but it had also collapsed the entrance. It wouldn’t be hard to unbury myself, so long as they left and let me do it before I suffocated.

“No? You think she was going to just trim your hair, Rogers?” Stark cracked.

“I think she was scared,” the other man responded calmly. “She’s just a kid.”

“Not as young as you think,” Stark said. “I’ve had Jarvis crunching records. She’s almost 18. As old as you were when you volunteered for the “Me-Heap-Big-Man” project.”

Rogers scowled. It was clear from his expression and body language that he didn’t like the joke about his age, and I was willing to bet Stark had made it plenty of times.

“Did you see where she went, Captain?” Thor asked.

“I did.”

I froze.

“So let’s grab her then,” Stark said.

“No.”

“No?” Stark’s tone was a mixture of sarcasm and disbelief.

“No?” Thor’s was merely disbelieving.

“Is there a point in harassing her? Terrifying her?” Rogers asked.

“Uh, because she was going to kill you? Because she was working with Doctor Doom?” Stark quipped. "Because she's a threat?"

"She's a kid. Whatever she was doing there, all of a sudden there are people raining down from the sky, and explosions, and arrows, and people blasting other people with energy beams. Doesn't matter if she was Doom's daughter, there's no way she wasn't going to react badly to that."

"She's not. Doom's daughter, that is. Thank god. But she's clearly got some sort of powers, powers we can't identify, can't figure out, and we need to figure out what she's planning to do with them."

"Fury said he was calling in some sort of special consultant," the Captain said.

Thor had gone silent, brow furrowed.

"Yeah, well, what kind of consultant?" Stark asked.

"It's strange," the Captain replied.

"That's for sure," Stark snorted, turning away.

"No, I mean--" but the Captain's voice had begun to fade as they moved away. My heart was hammering in my chest, and I calculated I had maybe a minute's worth of air left before I passed out. I heard Stark's repulsors fire up again as he took off, and twisted my way around to face the burrow exit, clawing at the soft earth, kicking with my feet, worming through the dirt until I finally came back out into the wet night air once again.

They were gone.

I sat there panting like a dog and coughing up soil that tasted of groundhog piss for almost ten minutes before dragging myself to my feet once more. I had very little idea where I was, I hurt all over from the process of healing, my stomach was screaming for nutrients that had been exhausted in rebuilding my broken body, and I was tired enough to sleep for a week.

I turned in the general direction of a road I had seen while flying down and began to walk.

--O--

I found a road just as the sun was rising; the road ran north-south, so I turned left and went north arbitrarily. I was glad to have found a paved surface, despite the fact that the asphalt was faded to such a pale gray it was almost white, and cracked into chunks. It was still better than the mud, poison ivy, and thorny bushes of the forest. Now that I was out of the woods, I squeezed out a last few drops of mystic energy to cast a healing spell; my injuries were not the dire ones of my escape, but bruised and lacerated bare feet and a nasty twisted ankle.

I had been walking for almost another four hours before I spotted a single building in the distance. It was small, and as I got closer, I saw it was an abandoned, ramshackle gas station at the junction of this road with another, equally ancient. The gas station was long since closed down. But the windows were intact, there was a door still on its hinges, and I didn’t see any holes in the roof – a good thing, since the skies were starting to darken with the promise of an oncoming thunderstorm.

The door was locked – of course – but the spell to undo locks was one of the first I had ever learned, before I had met either Loki or Doom, and it was easy enough to cast.

Everything inside was covered with a thin layer of dust. I could smell old oil from the garage bay next door to the tiny room with its counter, a single chair, an old rack of roadmaps, and a Coke machine that looked as though it had been new in the 70s. There were spiderwebs in the corners of the ceiling, and dead flies littered the sill of the front picture window.

I stepped inside and shut the door behind me, relocking it from the inside. Dust motes floated in the air, spiraling on the air currents. I stepped behind the counter and bent to look under the counter. The cash register was missing, of course, but there was an old transistor radio on the counter. The batteries were long dead. Under the counter were three or four still-sealed cans of motor oil, a stack of ancient, brittle newspapers, and a small case of tools – screwdrivers, a pair of pliers, a hammer, a pocketknife, some nails, a roll of electrical tape, and a hacksaw. Nothing of use to me.

There were a pair of oil-stained overalls hanging on a hook on the back of the door that led into the attached garage bay. I took them down and gave them an experimental shake, watching as spiders dropped out of the pant legs and scurried away. They were much too large for me to wear, but they were clean enough to toss down on the floor behind the counter to soften the ground so I could nap.

I explored the garage bay before laying down. Old fan belts hung on hooks on the wall, a tin bucket next to the garage bay door held spent spark plugs, and in an empty 55-gallon oil drum being used for a trash can in one corner, I found an elderly pair of boys’ tennis shoes. One of the heels had pulled back from the sole, and neither shoe still had its lace, but I could re-attach the sole with the tape in the toolkit. The shoes looked about my size. I took them back into the main part of the garage and tucked them down onto the shelf by the toolkit.

The pile of folded, old newspapers made an adequate, if flat, pillow, and I curled up on the filthy set of coveralls and fell almost instantly to sleep.

—O—

I was woken by the sound of thunder, blindingly loud. A moment later, the sound of rain came pattering down onto the old building’s roof. I peeled my eyelids open and sat up slowly. I don’t think I’d been asleep long, but the clouds from the storm overhead were so dense it might as well have been midnight. It took a moment before my eyes could adjust to the darkness. My stomach snarled at me and I rubbed it unhappily. Unless I felt like collecting the spiders in the corners, I was not apt to find anything to fill it any time soon.

Ah, well. I taped up the shoe’s hanging sole and put the shoes on, then got to my feet, stopping in front of the old Coke machine. The chance that there was anything in the machine but dust was slim; the chance that, if by some miracle there was still soda in the machine, that it would still be edible, was almost infinitesimal.

But a girl can dream.

I cast the same spell that I’d used to unlock the door here on the pop machine door and listened to the tumblers click. The door swung open heavily, and I blinked. Row after row of dusty glass bottles gleamed in the door, every lightning flash catching their surface. I reached out and took a bottle out of the machine. It was heavy, sloshing dully as I studied it. The metal caps weren’t rusty, and the glass looked fine; hypothetically, the pop inside might be drinkable – even though it almost certainly wasn't still fizzy. It’d be warm, of course, but I was already past the 'beggars can’t be choosers' point.

I popped the cap off using the machine’s built-in bottle-cap remover. The smell of sugar rose to my nostrils, and – suppressing a grimace – I lifted the bottle to my lips and took a sip.

It was incredibly, almost painfully sweet. I almost gagged, but instead paused after a swallow to see how my stomach would handle it, even though I was so thirsty I wanted to gulp the whole room-temperature bottle. My stomach took that first swallow, thought about it, and decided everything was copacetic.

I guzzled the rest of the bottle in about as many seconds as it took to say my name.

When I had emptied the bottle, I trotted into the garage bay and dumped the old spark plugs out of their bucket and into the 55-gallon oil drum. Then I grabbed some rags out of the pocket of the coveralls I had slept on and stepped out the back door to scrub down the inside of the bucket with rainwater. When I had cleaned it as best as I could, I let the bucket fill halfway with cold rain and went back inside, stashing several more bottles of Coke in the bucket to cool.

Then I took the pocket knife out of the toolbox and cut the legs of the coveralls off at the knees. I cut the material into strips and braided it into a belt, then pulled the coveralls on, adjusting the straps as short as possible so they wouldn’t slide down my scrawny shoulders, and belted it at the waist.

Then I grabbed an old roadmap out of the rack and sat down to try and figure out, by the light of lightning flashes, just where I was.

The faded license sticker on the side of the Coke machine said the gas station stood at the corner of Route 206 and New Jersey State Highway 532. That would make the forest I had landed in the Jersey Pine Barrens. I counted myself lucky to have found my way out at all. According to the map, if I continued north on 206, I would hit the town of Red Lion in another few miles. It didn’t look like a big town, but there would at least be people there.

Which meant that now was a good time to think about the story I needed to tell. I needed clean clothes, real food, somewhere to get some sleep. Those were the immediate essentials. After that, I needed to decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. The latter half of that, of course, was easy: I wanted to continue my studies. But going back to Manhattan was pretty obviously a bad idea; it was the first place Fury and the Avengers – especially Stark – would think to look.

So the next option was any other big city – Chicago to the west, or D.C. south of me, or Boston further north. All had potential, although I had never been to any of them, and would not know my way around when I got there.

But that was a minor inconvenience; I had lived on the streets of Manhattan, more or less, for over a year. In comparison, literally almost everything else was a minor inconvenience.

So I would walk to Red Lion as soon as the storm had passed, and use the spell that made folks not notice me, and help myself to clothes and food. I would find a warm, quiet barn or some place similar and get some sleep. And then, my internal batteries recharged, I would decide where I wanted to go, and how to get there. D.C. or Boston were within flying distance, but if I chose to head for Chicago, I was probably going to have to sneak onto a train. And that wouldn’t be difficult, either, but once I got aboard the train, if the Avengers found me there, I would be semi-cornered; it would be harder to get away again.

But there was time to think about that while waiting for the storm to end.

Something hit the ground outside with such explosive force that the front windows shattered. The roar sent me tumbling to hit the back wall, and I threw myself behind the counter. Meteor strike, maybe?

In the middle of a storm?

“Girl!”

“Ah, shit,” I muttered. The voice was very clear and very loud over the suddenly-silent storm. It was also very familiar, and my entire body ached in echoes of my injuries from earlier.

Why couldn’t it have been the Captain that found me? Why Thor? I swore under my breath. Well, at least it wasn’t Stark.

I peeked cautiously over the counter.

The thunder god stood directly in front of the gas station, perhaps twenty feet from the front door. I triggered the spell that sharpened all my senses and listened carefully. I could hear him breathing, could hear his heartbeat – but only his. As nearly as I could tell, none of the others were with him. Had they split up to look for me?

“Come out, girl! Come out peacefully and I will not turn you into a floppy skin shell full of liquid and crunchy bone pulp!”

“…the fuck?”

I narrowed my eyes. Something was wrong. He had seen how hitting me with his hammer had worked last time. Not very well – at least, not if they wanted to keep me alive for questioning. Which, as far as I knew, they still did.

So either he was bluffing, or…

…or that wasn’t really Thor.

I risked a glance at the back door, but it really wasn’t a useful option. With the front window gone, it would be easier than ever to see the back door open.

Well, then. I took a moment to hope that my batteries were indeed fully recharged, whispering the greatest part of a familiar spell, leaving only the last twitch of my fingers still hanging, then got to my feet and padded out the front door.

He sneered, lips twisting in a supercilious smirk, one hand twirling the hammer casually. “Are you ready to come along and face your betters?” he demanded.

I smiled thinly. “Nope,” I replied, and curved one finger ever so slightly.

The 55-gallon oil drum came hurtling through the garage bay door in a shower of wood and crashed into him.

Or would have, if he had really been standing there.

Instead, the drum went right through the illusory image of him, dispelling it in a shimmer of light.

And then, from behind me, I felt the tip of a blade at my back.

“Did you miss me?” Loki asked.

Chapter Text

I simultaneously lurched forward two steps and spun, putting a hand-span of space between my kidneys and the point of the blade I had felt, and at the same time getting a look at who stood there.

Thor was nowhere to be seen. Loki stood there with a smarmy grin, eyes narrowed and twinkling with glee, carrying a tall, ornate spear in one hand. It didn’t glow blue like the scepter-thing he’d had when we’d first met so many months ago, but the spearhead was broad and long and looked very, very sharp. I knew my mythology well enough. If I hadn’t known better, I would have guessed he held Odin’s spear Gungnir.

But that was impossible…wasn’t it?

“Well,” I said softly. “This is a surprise.”

“You seem less than thrilled to see me, girl,” he said with a smirk. “Am I not missed, then?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said, honestly enough. “Though I’m a good bit more pleased to see you than your brother, for sure.”

“Oh?” he asked, arching an eyebrow. “Do tell.”

“Let’s just say that I was not looking forward to being the target for his hammer again, and leave it at that for the moment.”

The other eyebrow joined the first one, the look of surprise on his face almost comical. “You? He struck you with his hammer, little girl?”

“Oh, for f—Yes. Trying to stop me from escaping my prison cell on their flying fortress.” I ached all over just remembering it – not all that surprising, since it had happened less than 24 hours ago.

“Oh, this is rich,” he chortled. “My brave, noble brother, using his holy weapon to smash helpless, harmless mortal girls.”

“Not quite harmless,” I spat.

He broke into laughter. “You must tell me all about it,” he said, and the smile calmed. “But not here.”

“Where, then?” I asked warily. I had not forgotten my oath to him, far from it. And I was willing to go with him almost anywhere, if there was food and a warm bed and a hot bath waiting when I got there. But he had passed me over to Doom, and everything I had suffered in the last week had been because of that. I wanted to do what I could to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“Why, Asgard, of course!” he said with a broad grin. “Shall we?”

“Errrrr…I had sort of gotten the impression that they were…hmmm…not happy with you?”

“Nonsense,” he said, the smile still wide and infectious. “Of course, these days, I take care to be on my best behavior.” Now I was the one who arched a brow. “Or someone’s best behavior, in any event.”

He shimmered, and his form shifted, growing taller, broader, pale. The clothing turned from green and black with hints of gold to richer and more ornate robes of ivory and bronze and silver. His hair went white and shaggy, and a beard foamed around the lower half of his face.

A heavily-decorated black patch covered one eye, and I blinked. He no longer looked at all like Loki. He—

“You’re impersonating Odin,” I muttered. Despite the fact that I had never seen the Allfather before, it could be no one else.

“Such a bright little mortal girl,” he purred, and held out one hand, beckoning to me. “Now, shall we go? I won’t be able to keep Heimdall from seeing us forever.”

I gulped and stepped forward. He closed his hand round the upper part of my left arm and—

--and the world melted away around us.

It was a few moments before I could get my bearings again. I stood on a hillside, outside, and below me an ocean stretched out far ahead. In the distance, I could see tall, elegant buildings glittering gold and bright in the sun.

“Asgard,” he said. “Now. You will address me only as “Master” here. Less chance you will stumble and give the wrong name.” I nodded, then spun as I heard a whinny from behind us.

The horse was magnificent, pale-colored, with eight legs. I looked from the stallion to Loki, then back, managing not to grin. If the mythology was right, this was Sleipnir, Odin’s mount…and Loki’s son. Specifically, Loki was the horse’s mother.

I mulled this over in my head for a moment, then put it away. I doubted he would appreciate jokes, and I wasn’t in the mood to make any.

What place did a mortal girl have in a world of gods?

Loki beckoned the horse forward. It came to its mother without bridle or reins, and he put one foot in the saddle’s stirrup and climbed up with lithe ease, then reached out a hand to me. I took his hand and he hauled me up onto the horse’s back behind him.

“Hold on,” he ordered curtly, and the horse reared and then broke into a gallop.

The world blurred again, and I threw my arms around his waist and held on for dear life. I could feel the horse beneath me, the rhythmic flex of its muscles, the smell of its sweat, and buried my face against Loki’s back.

The ride ended almost as swiftly as it had begun. I felt each individual hoof gently come to rest against the ground, and risked a peek. It had landed in the courtyard of a magnificent palace. Even as I watched, a young man in what looked like servant’s livery hurried forward to thread his fingers through the mount’s mane and hold it still long enough for Loki-Odin to dismount. I pulled one leg up and swung it over the other side, dropping down from the horse’s very high back to the ground.

I landed with the bare minimum of grace necessary to keep myself from twisting an ankle or otherwise hurting myself, but overbalanced and rolled backward on my backside. The groom rolled his eyes and Loki-Odin scowled. “Get up, girl,” he snapped, his voice impatient and annoyed, and clearly used to being obeyed.

I got up, dusted off the seat of my ragged coveralls, and followed without being told to as he stalked off. The groom was not the only Asgardian in sight, and I could feel scores of eyes on me as I scurried along in the wake of the presumptive King of Asgard. We passed a trio of men seated at a fountain – one slim and golden-haired and bearded, one who looked Asian, with a thin moustache and untrusting eyes, and one built along the same lines as a battleship, with long, shaggy reddish-brown hair and beard. The big one stopped with a turkey leg halfway to his mouth as he saw me, and all three of them looked rather startled. I ducked my head, trying not to cringe, and was glad when Loki-Odin headed inside.

He still had not said a word as we headed down a long hall. There was rubble everywhere, fallen stone and scorched wooden beams, and I wondered what had happened – and so recently that they had not yet finished cleaning it up.

Loki-Odin went around a corner and almost crashed into a young woman in red and bronze, with long raven hair and snapping, dark eyes. “My King!” she blurted apologetically, dodging out of the way. Then she spotted me, and her eyes narrowed. “Who is this…mortal child?” she asked.

Loki-Odin drew himself up to his full stature, the look on his face grim. “Apparently before he died, Loki had taken a mortal apprentice,” he told her flatly.

Her eyes went wide. “But he loathed mortals,” she protested, looking stunned. “Why would he…?” She turned her glare on me and I shrank in on myself. Somehow, I doubted it would go over well if I turned my magic on her, though I had the idea that Loki might find it amusing. “Give her to me, sire. I’ll make her talk.”

“Peace, Lady Sif,” he said. “Recall, before he died, that the recreant Loki gave useful aid to my son Thor against the dark elves, though he escaped prison to do it.” I kept my mouth shut, but there were a lot of questions currently lining up in my head to ask Loki when we got to somewhere private. “I have had her brought here because Asgardian magic is not a thing best left in mortal hands. I will determine what sort of person this girl is, and then decide what must be done with her.”

“Of course, my King,” she said, half-bowing. Her hand dropped away from the hilt of the sword that hung in its sheath from her waist, and I tried not to shudder. “Does the child have a name?”

Child. I hated her, for a moment. Stupid genetics. It wasn’t my fault I was small for my age. Sometimes I wondered if I was ever going to look older than 13. It didn’t seem fair that I had all the bad parts of puberty and none of the good ones, yet. Not that I wanted to walk around with a D-cup rack like hers. I bet it made slinging that sword awkward, and I wondered if she ever gave herself a black eye with a poorly-aimed upswing.

“I have not yet determined that,” he said. “The matter of greatest import was to remove her from Midgard, where the arts she has learned could do terrible damage if used.”

Sif – the name was familiar from my studies of mythology – turned toward me. “What is your name, child?” The look on her face, as she spoke to me, was that one might bestow on a three-year-old.

I looked toward Loki-Odin, whose nod was so slight as to be imperceptible.

“I bade my master call me Dragon,” I said with as much formality as I could muster.

“Your master…? Loki?” she asked, scowling.

I nodded.

“But he is dead,” she said simply.

“Dead or alive, I am under oath to do as he told me,” I replied. She frowned and straightened up, turning toward Loki-Odin.

“She is simple, or else untrained,” she said. “Would not any oath die when he did?”

“I expect she did not know he was dead, until now,” he answered. “Come, girl. You will have no chance for malice or mischief here. You will stay in quarters where I can keep an eye on you.” He wrinkled his nose and eyed the coveralls. “And take a bath. You reek.”

My lips twisted in an unvoiced snarl, but I spared one last glance at Sif, who looked troubled, then hurried after him as he started down the hall again.

He came to a halt outside a large pair of ornately-carved double doors. Somewhere along the way, servants must have been notified, because there were already half a dozen men and women lined up outside those doors, waiting for him. He pushed the doors open to reveal a palatial set of rooms – a bed big enough for a horse, a fountain, balconies with magnificent views. And in one corner stood what was, unmistakably, a cage. It was made of gilded scrollwork, delicate and elegant, with a shimmering force-screen stretching between each bar, over the top, and along the floor. In one corner of the cage was a small cot with a green velvet coverlet and a small pillow; opposite that was a single chair and a small desk.

“Your new home,” he said, the illusionary face too regal to smirk, but I could hear it in his tone, nonetheless. He reached out and caught my wrist, dragging me along in his wake, and the servants followed. One carried an armload of clothing – plain robes in tan and beige homespun, with no ornamentation. Another carried towels and soap.

A third carried a narrow iron collar with a single loop on the front to attach a leash to.

I felt my face go hot with anger and outrage, but kept my head shoved low. The final three servants carried a round brass washtub, and they set it in the center of the room next to the fountain. The servant carrying the towels and soap dragged over a wooden bench and set it up next to the tub, setting the toiletries down on it. The servants went out and brought back water in heavy buckets, steam rising from the pails as they poured it into the brass washtub.

The clothing was draped across another bench, and the servant carrying the collar set it down atop the desk at Loki-Odin’s command.

When the tub was full, the servants left, pulling the doors shut behind them.

The look on his face was one of casual, amused malice, meant to demean and degrade. “Bathe. The clothes you have on will be burned.” He picked up the collar and held it in his hands, and I could feel magic building around it, slowly growing. I heard no words, and he made no gestures, but the magic was there, nonetheless.

I turned my back to him and unsnapped the straps of the coverall, letting it fall to the floor. I pushed the laceless shoes off, then shed the clothes I had woken in on Fury’s flying prison fortress. The air against my bare skin was cool.

“You belong to me,” he said, very softly, and from right behind me. I froze. Movement shimmered in my peripheral vision overhead and I watched as he lowered the iron collar, now opened, in front of my throat, then closed it around my neck with a click.

I felt magic twist into being around the collar’s clasp, fusing it shut without lock or hook. The metal was cold and heavy against my skin, and I turned to look at him.

The emotion in his single illusory eye was unreadable. “The oath I swore wasn’t enough?” I whispered, tilting my head back to look up at him.

“I cannot have stupid mortal mistakes jeopardizing what I am doing here,” he said coldly, bringing his hands up to settle them on my shoulders. Instead of the huge, calloused hands of the god-king, I felt his more slender, supple ones alight against my skin, and shuddered. One corner of his mouth quirked upward in a twisted smile.

“Already you shiver at your master’s touch. Good,” he murmured.

I felt my face go slack with shock, my stomach clenching into a painful and confused ball of adrenaline and nausea. “What?”

He shoved me backward, and I fell into the tub of scorching water ass-first. It splashed over the marble floor and I hissed at the stinging pain from the heat.

“Wash yourself,” he said, his tone gone cold and bored. “You stink.”

I ducked my head, pulling my legs over the lip into the tub, and reached for the soap and a washcloth even as I muttered the words of a healing charm under my breath. The pain from the first-degree burns faded, and I soaped up the cloth and began to wash. I had said I’d follow him anywhere if there was a hot bath involved, hadn’t I? I hadn’t realized it would be administered so cruelly and impartially.

“The enchantment on your collar should be undetectable to almost everyone in Asgard but myself,” he said from a corner of the room, pouring himself a goblet of something golden and alcoholic-smelling. Mead? “The one…who taught me magic is dead now.” His voice had gone quiet, and for a moment, there was nothing but silence in the room. It felt painful. Who had taught him magic? The reality was clearly different from what I’d read in myth. “The room is also shielded from Heimdall’s senses. No one is permitted to enter here without my permission. No one can see through the windows—“ he gestured toward the open-air balconies, “—unless I will it. In this room, we are alone. The oath you swore called for seven years under my tutelage. The time you spent with Doom while I was away clearly does not count toward that seven years.” He smiled, but I ignored it. I had expected as much. “Your training begins tonight.”

“Then I suppose I should tell you what I learned under my other tutor while you were away,” I said in a small voice.

He waved one hand dismissively. “Time for that tomorrow,” he said indifferently. “Tonight we will complete the ceremony that cements your oath.”

I frowned. “The oath and the collar aren’t enough? How much more do you need?” I asked, puzzled.

He smiled, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. The look on his face, in his eyes, was a cold and hungry and possessive thing, and I was certain it had very little to do with magic.

“As I said…you belong to me. Tonight I will take ownership of my property.”

I felt my mouth gape like a beached codfish, and suddenly shivered with cold despite the heat of the bathwater. I’d been finding my way around the internet since I was ten. His words, in combination with the collar and the look on his face, left no doubt as to the meaning of his words.

“You can’t—“

His eyes blazed and he crossed the room before I could blink, seizing me around the throat and lifting me out of the water with one hand. “Do not think to tell me what I can or cannot do with my property,” he hissed, rampant fury written naked on his face. “I have been stymied in my plans by gods and giants and filthy mortals for centuries. No longer!”

He hurled me across the room and I crashed up against the unyielding marble wall, tumbling down onto the floor in a puddle of water and – unsurprisingly, given the sudden ringing agony in my head – blood. I whimpered and curled into a ball, shaking. Doom would never have treated me this way. Hell, neither Stark nor Fury would have treated me like this, though Stark would have thrown me in a cell until I talked, and Fury might have tortured me for the same reasons.

And suddenly, either of those options might have been preferable.

“Finish your bath,” he sneered. “When I come back, I want you ready for what I have in mind.”

I waited until he was gone before I crumpled into a heap, sobbing for the first time in maybe my entire life as I crawled back to the washtub.

Chapter Text

            The thoughts ran around in my head like panicked elephants for ten minutes before I was able to bring them under control.

            Think!

            I can’t refuse him, not just because of the oath, but because I’m not strong enough, physically or magically, to prevent him from doing whatever he wants. He can’t damage me too much, or he’d suffer the oath’s backlash himself. It’s just sex.

            No. It’s rape.

            My brain threatened to freeze up again and I quashed it ruthlessly, relentlessly. All I wanted to do was return to my studies, but in order to do that, I had to be alive, sentient, functionally sane. I had to survive.

            Think! Don’t let all those psychology books I read go to waste! Loki is a megalomaniac. He wants everyone to bow down and worship him. He wants to be in complete control. The oath, the collar…what he proposes now. Everything that came after the oath I took is redundant; he pushes further and further to make sure I can do nothing to oppose him, to defy him. He lacks confidence that I really will submit to him.

            So I have to make it obvious that I do. Apparently even the slightest glimmer of free will is too much for him. Because rape isn't about sex. He isn’t about sex. He’s made it quite clear what he thinks of mortals, and he wouldn’t sully himself that way for mere lust. But to break my will, control me…yes, this is about control. Power.

            I can survive this. I just have to perfectly anticipate everything he wants, and give it to him.

            Because I really don’t have any other choice. I can’t defeat him even if I wasn’t bound by the oath, there’s no one here who'd care enough to help me, and I’m willing to bet that the collar prevents me from leaving the room, so running away is completely out of the question.

            Whatever he plans tonight, I have to keep my wits about me. That means, first and foremost, not letting pain steal them away. Because I’m quite sure there will be pain. And humiliation, degradation…but those I can ignore.

            I had learned any number of healing spells. Charms to vanquish disease, to halt internal bleeding, to knit together broken bones, to cure blindness or deafness or withered limbs. And one of the spells I had learned worked as anesthesia, deadening pain but leaving the victim conscious and awake.

            I finished my bath, dressed in one of the white homespun robes the servants had brought, and cast the enchantment against pain over myself. It did nothing to still my apprehension and fear, and it would not actually mend any damage he did to me, but there were other spells for that. And the oath forbade him from damaging me so much that I would be useless to him.

            I could get through this. I would get through this. I would survive.

            And some day, I would make him pay for this nightmare.

 

 

 

 

            I was ready for him when he returned.

            I stood in the middle of the room, clean and dressed, head held low, hands hanging loosely at my side. I was barefoot, my hair loose and easy to pull, and I smelled only of soap. I had chosen not to eat the dinner a servant had brought me, because I wanted nothing in my stomach if I ended up being forced to perform acts that might make me vomit. Somehow I suspected he would not appreciate it.

            I did not look up when he entered and shut the door behind him, because I had not been given permission to look at him. I did not speak, because I had not been given permission to speak. I did not move, because he had not told me to move.

            There was only one thought in my head: survive.

            “Well,” he said softly, a hint of mockery in his voice. “And here we are. At least you don’t stink now.”

            I took no offense from his words; between the escape from Fury’s prison, hiding down a burrow soaked in animal urine, and wearing ancient coveralls stained with oil, I had been filthy, and I had stunk. He was trying to get me to react, to be upset with what he said, probably so he could punish me if I spoke out of turn, but he was being honest – and I got the idea that was unusual for him. I could not afford to be offended with what he said; that was pride, and pride was an impediment to survival.

            “Look at me,” he said. I lifted my head and did so, but kept my mouth shut.

            One corner of his mouth quirked up in something halfway between a sneer and a smirk as he took a step forward, reaching out a hand to take a lock of my hair and give it an experimental tug. I did not move to flinch or pull away. I felt no pain, and even without the spell, I had suffered far worse damage at the hands of my fellow human beings.

            “Are you ready?” he asked. I said nothing, and annoyance crossed his features. “I expect you to reply when I ask you a direct question.”

            “I am ready to submit myself to whatever you require of me,” I said, as neutrally as I could. “Ask”, of course, would have been the wrong term, and “demand” would have been too close to the truth, so “require” would have to do.

            “Are you afraid?”

            “I would be stupid – well, stupider than I am – not to be,” I gave him honesty, and was rewarded with a glimmer of amusement in his eyes.

            “I could break you,” he said quietly. “I could do things to you that would not violate the oath, yet still leave you, for all practical purposes, completely destroyed.”

            It wasn’t a question, but a statement, so I said nothing. The sneer bloomed fully across his face.

            “Do you really believe I would lower myself to touch your flesh in an intimate way?” he asked, his tone leaving no room for doubt about just how revolting he found the idea.

            “I believe that you would do whatever you choose, for whatever reasons you choose, and I would have neither the ability nor the right to stop you,” I said, answering the question he had asked. “I do not believe you desire me physically or emotionally in an intimate fashion, but I accept that you might have reasons for doing such things that I would have no knowledge of.”

            His mouth twisted up again in that half-smirk. “You’re smarter than most of your ilk,” he said, and half-turned away. He began to saunter, moving around behind me, and I tried not to stiffen in apprehension. It might provoke him.

            Then again, he probably needed no provocation. One of his hands landed lightly on my shoulder, and it took everything I had not to flinch. My heart was pounding like a hammer on an anvil, hard and fast, but I kept myself as still as I could, willing my hands not to tremble.

            “You think you’re brave, don’t you?” he crooned.

            “What I think is immaterial,” I answered. “But, no. I’m terrified.”

            “You should be,” he whispered, right next to my ear. “I am King here. There is no one here to stop me, no matter what I might do to you. What do you say to that, little girl?”

            “I say that I understand, and that I will not defy you, nor violate my oath in any way. I submit completely to whatever it is that you choose to do to me.”

            Fingers tangled in my hair, clenching tight, and he threw me to the floor. Out of the corner of an eye, I could see several dark strands drift to the floor. But I felt no pain.

            “Will you scream?” he hissed.

            “Is that what you want?” I asked.

            He pulled his arm back and slapped me. It was perhaps the lightest blow he could have mustered, but it threw me across the room and into the wall above the cage. I fell down, rolling over the side, landing on the floor in a huddle of tangled and bruised limbs. I could feel the pressure and disconnect as several ribs shattered, as a tooth went loose in its socket, but I felt no pain.

            “Yes!” he snarled. “Yes, you stupid bitch, show me you’re human! Show me you’re mortal, and fragile, and weak. Scream for me, you little sow!”

            I obliged him, letting loose a peal of pure terror, tasting blood in my mouth. The spell I had cast would keep me from feeling pain, but it would not keep me from bleeding to death. As far as I could tell, I was not yet so badly injured as his brother had hurt me…but the night had just begun.

            He hurled himself toward me, landing over me, arms and knees planted around me like the bars of a cage. His head dipped low until his face was an inch from mine. "Did you enjoy that, little girl?"

            A direct question. "The oath I took...won't allow me to lie to you," I gasped, trying to breathe through a throat choked with blood and, very possibly, a deflated lung. "No. I didn't enjoy it."

            He reached out one hand, stroked the tip of an index finger down the side of my face, running it along the lower jaw that had already begun to swell and bruise where a molar wiggled loosely. "Poor little mortal girl," he murmured, gleeful light dancing madly in his eyes. "Would you like me to stop?"

            Another direct question. "Of course I would," I said, almost mechanically. "But you are my master and lord, and you will do whatever pleases you to do, and my will in the matter is unimportant."

            He snorted, rolled away, climbed to his feet. "You're starting to bore me, child," he said. Swifter than a striking adder, he drew back a foot and pistoned it into the side of my hip. I heard the echoes of shattering bone and coiled myself around that side as protectively as I could. "You don't want to bore me."

            I shuddered. The spell was not a permanent one, not perfect. Too much damage and it would break through. He hadn't given me permission to heal myself, and if I could sense magic being used, at my minimal level of training, then so could he. If I tried to heal my wounds, he would sense it...and would that count as a violation of my oath? He might deem it so.

            He crouched down next to me and I flinched inadvertently; that brought a smile to his lips, wide and full of merriment. "Poor child," he purred, sliding one hand over my shoulder and down along my arm. "Have I been awful, to mistreat you so? And for no reason! Go on, then. Show me what you've learned. Heal yourself, if you can. I give you permission, and I give you my word I won't be angry."

            Trusting his word was like trusting a rabid badger not to bite if given the chance, oath or not. I could see that now.

            I just didn't have much choice. I was pretty sure that his kick to my hip had sent enough bone fragments into my liver and kidneys that it would kill me if I didn't act fast. A slow heat was beginning to spread through my back, no doubt from internal bleeding, and a pressure was building to go with it. The pain spell would break up soon.    

            I let the words tumble and spill from my lips, fingers twitching and writhing into the necessary sigils to accompany them. Power spilled over me, flowing through me, displacing the blood and pressure and pain and filling me up with energy and strength. I shuddered as things were shifted back into the places they were supposed to be in a slow grind, as parts of my body that had been sundered were knit together again.

            I didn't cringe away when he sat down on the floor. I didn't try to pull away when he slid his hands under my shoulders and pulled my head and torso up onto his lap, and softly began to stroke my hair. But I did close my eyes, because I had an idea of what he was up to, and I wasn't sure I was strong enough, in the aftermath of the beating, not to let it show.

            "Yes, we swore an oath together, you and I," he murmured. His fingers were cool and smooth and slow on my hair. It was a calming sensation, lulling me to relax, and I did my best to steel myself against it. I could feel the most subtle tendrils of magic threading themselves in with each stroke. "And I have been betrayed before by those so close to me that no oath would have ever been necessary. And you..." One hand smoothed over my hair again, sliding through the thin strands to brush against the crook of my neck. "Tell me. Would you have simply let me beat you to death, if I hadn't stopped?"

            I opened my eyes to look up at him. A direct question. Best to answer with honesty. "I couldn't have stopped you," I said, very quietly. "But I wasn't looking forward to it."

            A faint chuckle broke from his lips, and he trailed that finger along my neck up to the hollow just under my earlobe. I fought not to tense. I remembered the pressure points from my martial arts classes and my father's medical books. A strong single-finger thrust there would punch through the skin as if were tissue paper, and rupture the aorta, and I would bleed out in under sixty seconds.

            But instead, he traced that finger around behind the curve of my ear, then threaded his fingers through my hair again. A ripple of unease sloshed through my stomach, and I didn't like the way my biochemistry was tying my guts into knots. The fight -- though it was hardly worthy of the name, since I hadn't raised a hand to defend myself -- had dumped adrenaline and a ton of other hormones into my system, and it was making it extremely hard to think straight. I was still afraid -- almost petrified that he would resume the violence -- but the soft words and softer touches, which I knew to be a lie, were short-circuiting my brain.

            He bent forward until his lips were so close to my ear that I could feel his warm breath spill and break over the side of my face, like the hair-fine legs of a million baby spiders. "I can't promise not to do that again," he said, and grimly, I could appreciate his probably-rare honesty even as I suppressed the need to cringe against the future his words likely portended. "But keep your oath and I'll make the rest of our seven years together worth living through it."

            His hand disengaged itself from my hair and slid back behind my ear, down to my neck, and then up and along the curve of my jaw again. That slow, warm swirling in my gut kicked itself into high gear again, and belatedly, I realized I was feeling something akin to physical arousal. The understanding made me sick with revulsion. This is, at its best and most noble, mere Stockholm Syndrome, I tried to argue with my endocrine system. At its worst, you are willfully deluding yourself about what his touch means. He is manipulating you, nothing more. You disgust him. You know this to be true. You are beneath him, as far beneath him as a dog is beneath a human.

            I had been right when I first met him. I knew better than to trust pretty. He was beautiful, there was no denying it -- but his true face had its most honest revelation in the beating I had endured, not the way he was petting and cosseting me just now. I knew that.

            That didn't make it any easier to keep from mewling and curling up in his lap and turning my face to his touch the way a flower turns its face to the sunlight.

            "You are going to be very important to me, little girl," he purred, one finger sliding down to trace the fragile bridge of my collarbone. He could shatter it into gravel with a flick of that finger. "I have many plans...and you will help me carry them out. Many enemies, and you will help me bring them low. Would you like that?"

            A direct question. I answered carefully. "I beg to be allowed to help you in any way you think I can, my lord," I murmured softly.

            "Ohhhhh. Begging, are you?" His voice was teasing, and that finger slid down from my collarbone to trace its slow path down the curve of my shoulder. I felt my insides clench with a sudden spasm of elevated hormones and closed my eyes with a shiver. At the moment, if I'd had the opportunity, I would have gladly magicked my reproductive system out of existence, just for the trouble it was causing me. Unfortunately, I didn't know any magic that would actually do that.

            His lips brushed my ear and I bit back a moan. "Did you like that, my little dragonling?" he purred.

            I would have preferred to bite my lips bloody rather than answer that, honestly or otherwise, but I had already had an example of how angry he got when he asked a question and I didn't reply. "Yes," I told him, my voice trembling. The higher part of my brain was arguing with my endocrine system. I knew, objectively, that what he was disgusted by what he was doing at the moment; he had as much as admitted it. Subjectively, though, my body didn't give a damn. It was taking every iota of will I had not to fall under the spell he was casting with his hands and his voice and those smoldering gazes, and no magic at all. I wanted to run away screaming and I wanted to burst into tears and I wanted to throw myself into his arms and I wanted to beg him to keep going. I had hit puberty when I turned 13 and it had been nothing but an inconvenience; the mess and pain of menses had had nothing at all of value or pleasure to balance it out. Reading books about human sexuality and the process of sexual arousal had left me cold with the mess and imprecision and untidiness of the matter.

            My disdain for the very idea of sex had given me nothing at all -- except my belief that I was above such chaos and base physicality -- as a shield against the actual feelings that someone skilled in such things could raise, and that belief was proving to be a piss-poor shield, indeed.

            Stockholm Syndrome, I tried to remind myself. First he beats you almost to death. Then he all but apologizes and starts seducing you. The mind interprets the lack of violence as kindness. He doesn't desire you, and he doesn't love you. He. Is. MANIPULATING. You.

            "Tell me, little girl...are you pure?" he murmured softly. "Have you ever known the touch of a man? Was there a boy, back in the city, who you allowed to touch you like this?"

            A direct question. I grimaced. "Never, my lord," I answered honestly. "The very idea revolted me." I swallowed hard. Let him see how much I am in his power. Let him see me enthralled. "...before."

            He smiled, lips twisting with amusement. "Well, then." A faint chuckle escaped him. "Such purity has its value. How old are you, child? Fifteen? Sixteen?"

            I calculated, as closely as I could, the days since I had been captured in Latveria. "I'll be eighteen in four days, lord."

            One brow arched and he grinned widely. "A proper virgin sacrifice," he pronounced. I could hear the faintest tinge of mockery in his tone, though I suspected he was trying to hide it. "We should see how you might profit by this." He slid me off his lap and stood up.

            I sat up, gaping at him, a little worried. I sure as hell hoped he was using the term differently than pulp fiction and the media back on Earth used it, because I really wasn't looking forward to being splayed out naked on a stone altar and having someone drive a dagger into my heart. That would certainly violate the oath he'd taken, and I couldn't see how anyone could profit by it, much less myself.

            "You had a question?" he inquired, looking down at me as I remained kneeling at his feet.

            "I did, master," I said, my tone deliberately humble, my voice small.

            "Ask it, then," he ordered.

            "Would you clarify what you mean by virgin sacrifice, master?"

            He burst into laughter. It was cold, and the mockery wasn't hidden in the slightest. From  the beating to the semi-seduction and now to this. I would get dizzy from his mood swings, which were no doubt intentionally meant to keep me off balance.

            "You fear I mean you harm?" he asked, his tone arch.

            "I fear...I will not be talented enough to succeed at what you intend, and I have no wish to fail you," I answered cautiously. "Nor, to be honest, would I look forward to the outcome of that."

            "Smart. Very smart, little mortal," he snickered. "No. There are beings of power throughout the various planes with whom one can make bargains or swear oaths. Like myself. Some of them can tap the energies that are created by certain acts...or by abstaining from certain acts. So...were you to make a pact with one that you would remain pure...your strength -- and your usefulness to me -- would grow. And whomever you made such a pact with would be able to draw on your strength, in exchange for granting you certain abilities."

            I nodded in understanding. I had read of certain cultures that believed that those who had never had intimate relations were of stronger will and greater power when it came to sorcery. I hadn't realized that the various inhabitants of other dimensions were all that interested in the sex lives -- or lack of such -- of mere humans, but it was a far preferable option than being tied down to an altar and having my heart cut out.

            Of course...if I made such a pact with someone, then Loki could no longer play his teasing little games with my hormones. Unless such energies were all the stronger for being tested and resisted?

            "Get up," he said impatiently. "Put on shoes. We're going travelling."

            I hurried to do as he commanded.

 

Chapter Text

            Before arriving at Asgard earlier in the day, I had never set foot on any dimensional plane other than Earth’s.

            Within 24 hours of coming to Asgard with Loki, I had been to half a dozen of them.

            He was not shy or diffident in attempting to sell my continued purity to the highest bidder, but apparently it was not a commodity in quite as much demand as he had originally believed. We went to planes where everything was darkness, where the inhabitants were shaped like rubber dolphins, like spiders with too many legs, like huge purple stone giants, like strangely flat weather balloons. They spoke in tongues I could not comprehend, but that Loki seemed to understand perfectly. Whatever it was that they said left him angrier and angrier, and by the time his patience had waned, I began to fear that I was going to have to endure another beating very soon.

            “One more,” he said coldly, running a hand through his hair. I said nothing in response, afraid of running afoul of his rising temper. I stayed close by his side as he once again called upon power and cast the spell necessary to shift us to yet another dimension. He had done it so many times now that I was fairly certain that, if I had enough energies and knew where I wanted to go – a puzzle in itself – I could cast the spell myself. I had watched him with tireless care, and was slowly learning to use the mystic senses I had developed over the months to feel out the unique energy signature each dimensional plane possessed; that signature was both the key and the lock, the map that led a traveler to a new plane. If something happened to him right now, as we were traveling, I felt relatively certain I could return to Earth, although I would be exhausted when I arrived. I was less certain I could find my way back to Asgard, but it was in the realm of probability; I had been there enough hours to get a feel for the place.

            But these other planes we visited – no. And given the strangeness of them, I was glad of that. The only thing I wanted was to be away from them.

            The spell complete, this plane melted away from us and we stepped forward into another. Brilliant, almost painful darkness surged and broke around us like the crashing waves of an oceanic storm, too strong to ignore. I strengthened my shield-spells and cast an enchantment to toughen my skin against the radiance, temporarily growing myself a set of inner eyelids like those of snakes and cats so I wouldn’t go blind.

            “They’re here,” Loki said softly, a faint curve to his lips. “If the degraded and tainted won’t have you, perhaps the pure ones will.”

            //Asgardian//

            It wasn’t a voice – at least, not one shaped with vocal cords, lips, and tongue. I heard the information in my head, a pattern of thoughts that my mind translated to sound.

            “I have come with one who wishes to offer a pact,” Loki said to the sudden swell of darkness and fire that had bloomed in clusters around us. They were only vaguely human-shaped, like shadows made of flame, too bright to look at directly. I caught a faint empathic resonance – nobility, purity – that hurt to even think about.

            //Why bring this taint here? Why sully our presence with Sinifer’s spawn?//

            He took a step back, and I caught the briefest flash of startlement in his eyes before it was swiftly masked.

            And then he turned that gaze on me. I caught the calculation, the speculation in that gaze.

            He smiled. I could see him thinking, weighing, plotting, before he turned back to the bright figures.

            “Of course,” he said. “We depart.”

            And I knew why.

            I just didn’t like what I had just learned about myself.

            As Loki manipulated the energies about us, I let my head drop, absorbing what the beings of that last dimension had said. They had called me “Sinifer’s Spawn”, and I had come across that name in Doom’s library, when I had initially thought to study demonology.

            Sinifer was a being from the dimension of the Faltine – the same plane where the ring Doom had given me had been created. The Faltinians were beings of energy; when they reproduced, they essentially spun off small packets of their own energy into identical clones of themselves.

            But Sinifer had created two reproductions that, for whatever reason, had not been identical to itself. Alone among all the other beings of that dimension of formless energy, they had craved matter – a cardinal sin of their kind. When they had taken on physical form, their creator had attempted to stop them…and they had destroyed it.

            Those two descendents bore the names Umar the Unspeakable…and the Dread Dormammu. And those names were known to practitioners of the mystic arts as some of the most powerful – and evil – creatures in creation. Dormammu had, according to Doom’s records, almost taken over the plane that Earth dwelled on many times, stopped only by the Sorcerer Supreme of each era he attempted to invade.

            Asgard – Loki’s chambers as Odin – melted back into view around us, and he pointed to the cage in the corner.

            “Go,” he ordered curtly. “I have much to think upon.”

            I didn’t bother trying to argue with him, or flatter him, or grovel. I went to the cage, shut the door behind me, and crawled up on the cot, sitting down with my back against the wall and wrapping my arms around my knees. I had plenty to think about myself.

            I had known for years that the people I had grown up with weren’t my real parents; I had known for years that I was adopted. I hadn’t bothered to look into finding out who my real parents were because it hadn’t mattered to me.

            But I hadn’t realized then that I was, at best, only partly human.

           

—O—

 

            It was hours before he finally roused himself to come stand in front of my cage and beckon me out with a wave of one hand.

            I hurried to roll off the bed and crawl out of the cage, kneeling in front of him in silence.

            “I require a sample of your blood,” he said at last. A knife appeared in his hand, and a small flask in the other, and he held out both to me. I took them, stifling a grimace. This was the sort of thing I had attempted to avoid in the past, but now I had no choice. I set the flask on the ground, held my hand over its mouth, and slashed the knife across the tip of one finger. Blood trickled into the flask, and when perhaps an ounce had filled it, I licked the knife clean, healed the cut, and handed both dagger and flask back to him without complaint. He looked amused.

            I watched as he stalked over to the center of the room, and made a complicated hand gesture. The flask rose into mid-air and spilled its contents out. A single word came from his lips, and slowly, the blood began to twist upon empty space, separating itself into three unequal portions – one larger than the other two, which looked about the same. The largest portion remained red. The other two portions changed colors: one to a fiery orange, the other to a dull brown. Patterns shimmered in those two smaller portions, and I watched him observe the liquid, which I was no longer certain could be called blood.

            “How very intriguing,” he purred. “You aren’t completely human.” He turned toward me and the blood, freed of his attention, splattered down onto the ground. “Did you know?”

            “My lord, I give you my word I did not,” I said, answering quickly, before his mood could turn foul. “I knew the people I called my parents had not sired or bore me; I have known I was adopted since I was much younger. But I did not know that at least one of my true parents was not human. Look into my mind, if it pleases you, and know that I hide nothing from you.”

            “I believe I shall,” he murmured cheerfully.

            The sensation of his thoughts spearing into my mind was somewhat akin to being stabbed. What followed was worse. If his mind had hands, then those hands did a masterful job of digging, probing, twisting, ripping, and turning my thoughts inside out. I found myself on the floor, spasming, twitching, biting my lips until they bled, trying very hard not to scream.

            I failed. For the first time in my life, I hurt so badly I just wanted to die to escape it. The agony was all the worse for knowing he was doing no physical damage to the tissue of my brain that a healing spell could repair.

            I had no idea how much time had passed when at last consciousness swam back to the surface of my mind. I found myself back in my cage, my clothes changed. A servant was cleaning up the splattered blood on the marble floor. Had I soiled myself?

            Loki was nowhere to be seen.

            I sat up gingerly, ready to freeze at any second if that hideous pain came roaring back. Perhaps worst was the knowledge that he had not caused the pain out of any particular malice, no desire to punish me, but simply because he was looking for information. And I had invited him to look.

            The time I had spent unconscious had not been restful. I was exhausted, my emotional defenses at a low, and part of me wanted to just bury my face in my hands and weep. But that would accomplish nothing.

            Very carefully, I swung my legs over the side of my bed and let my feet drop to the floor. The servant looked over warily, one hand straying to his belt, where a dagger was sheathed. I made no move toward the cage door, only gave him an apologetic and wistful smile, and after a moment, he turned away from me to finish cleaning. I wondered, for a moment, what he had told them about me; I knew what he had told to Sif, and that information had probably spread from her to the other nobles at court, but was it the same information the servants had? The man cleaning the floor had looked at me as if I was a dangerous monster…and if they all knew I was Loki’s apprentice, then a dangerous monster was no doubt what they believed me to be.

            I sighed. “Please, might I get some food?” I asked meekly, my voice as mild and polite as I could make it.

            He eyed me for a moment, rising to his feet with bucket and rags in hand, then turned toward the door and left, his task finished.

            “I’ll take that as a no,” I said softly. I contemplated stepping out of the cage to at least slake my thirst from the fountain, but since Loki had not given me permission to do so, I wasn’t sure if letting myself out – the cage wasn’t locked – would count as defiance to the oath.

            Perhaps best not to find out.

            It was hours before he returned. I’d had to use the chamberpot under the cot, and had dared to leave the cage after all so I could empty it down the garde-robe in one corner. Then I had returned to my bed. I was sitting cross-legged on it and listening to the symphony of my empty stomach when he returned, a broad smile on the false face he wore.

            “Good evening, my pet!” he greeted me cheerfully. “And are you recovered from my little search?”

            “Yes, my lord,” I told him quietly. “I very much hope it was fruitful for you.”

            “It was indeed!” he said brightly. The drastic change in his mood was unnerving. “I believe I know who your true parents are. If I am correct, not only has your status improved immensely – how much better, after all, not to fully be merely human, but something greater.” He paused. “I believe you said when I brought you here that you would enlighten me as to how much von Doom had taught you while you visited him. The time for that accounting is now.”

            I nodded. “Of course, my lord,” I said. It took me less than a second to organize my thoughts, and I began the litany of every spell, every charm, every enchantment and geas and curse and manipulation of arcane energies that I had learned to accomplish while I was in Latveria. I left nothing out. I included the research that Doom had bade me do upon his mortal enemies, as well. I was as thorough as I was meticulous, and when I finished, he was smiling.

            “Humans – mortals – are not among the various races of the multiverse best suited to the wielding of magic,” he said softly. “Something to do with such a vastly short lifespan, I believe. Given that it takes many of them fifty years or more to learn anything of value – if they have the talent and will for it at all – it’s quite the marvel that your plane wasn’t conquered aeons ago.” He paced from one side of the chamber to the other, then stopped before me again. “You say Doom gave you a ring of the Faltine? Where is it now?”

            “It was taken from me when I was captured by the Avengers,” I told him. “When I escaped, I didn’t know where Fury was keeping it, so I had to leave it behind.”

            He nodded. “Regrettable, but unimportant for the moment. It can be retrieved at a later time…should I decide you still need it.” His gaze pinned me like a butterfly to a piece of cardstock. “I believe there is one final test I need to perform to confirm my theory. I have, of course, your permission to proceed?” The smirk that bloomed on his lips left a ball of ice at the pit of my stomach. I was suddenly certain that what was about to follow was a potential violation of our mutual oath for him; thus the need for permission.

            The problem was that, if I said no, he would do it anyway, and damn the backlash from the oath. And if I told him no, his rage would be capable of shattering galaxies.

            “Of course,” I whispered.

            He smiled, and lashed out with one hand.

            And all of a sudden, I was on fire.

Chapter Text

            I screamed, of course.

            But even as I threw myself to the ground and rolled, even as I screamed, even as I saw the look of mirth in Loki’s eyes, I realized…I wasn’t burning.

            There was no pain.

            And no matter how much I dropped and rolled, the fire wasn’t going out.

            I shut up immediately, and after a second – hands held out before me (admittedly fearfully so) – I realized that the flames were consuming nothing. Burning nothing (except for a small scorch on the rug, which I stamped out).

            I could feel the warmth, but it didn’t hurt. I could see the flames flickering in beautiful sunset shades over my flesh, red and tangerine and amber and brick and gold.

            Somehow, they were a part of me.

            I stopped and looked up at him. I was sure my confusion showed, because his smirk widened.

            “Congratulations,” he said mockingly. “You’re at least a quarter Faltinian. Your maternal grandmother was the guilty party, unless I miss my guess.” His words ripped into me, and I couldn't manage to hide the shock on my face. There was only one person he could be referring to, and I knew her name from Doom's books. Umar the Unspeakable, 'sister' to Dormammu. That meant that, at some time, she had borne a child...and that child was my mother. He shook his head. “And your maternal grandfather was probably a Mhuuruuk.” The laugh that escaped him was no doubt due to the blank look that had taken over my face. “A race of sorcerers from another dimension that she invaded and conquered." My eyes were wide, and I couldn't mask my shock. "And that means it was your father who was human.” There was dark, capering glee in his eyes, and a gloating viciousness to his tone that I didn’t quite understand. It wasn’t aimed at me, I could tell that much. No…that malice was meant for my parents – or my father, at least.

            He caught sight of my puzzled look. “You have no idea whom I’m speaking of, do you, little mortal?” he asked, and I shook my head. He chuckled wryly. “Very well. It is of no import, for now, but I believe I would like you to quench the flames before you set the palace on fire.”

            I nodded, not bothering to ask him how. I knew well enough how magic worked by now. The fire was an innate part of me, something that came out of my metaphysical make-up. So I lowered my head, and concentrated my will.

            The fires guttered low, as if being drawn into my skin, and then winked out entirely.

            “Very good,” he murmured approvingly. “Rejoice, little girl. You have just become quite a bit more useful to me.”

            I ventured a hesitant smile, ready to pay for it, but instead he reached out and patted me on the cheek. “And you’re not nearly so loathsome to be around, now that I know you’re only half human,” he added. “As it so happens, I know your grandmother’s brother – your maternal grand-uncle.”

            “Is…is that good?” I asked cautiously, ready to pay for asking a question instead of being told to answer one. But it appeared he truly was in a good mood, because he just laughed.

            “Oh, he’s vile,” he said amusedly. “A repugnant, abhorrent tyrant who would devour everything in every realm, absorbing it into himself. You might wish to keep that in mind before you start thinking about family reunions. He would undoubtedly find you as disgusting as I did.” I nodded and let my head drop.  “But rejoice! Now that I have a tally of what magicks you already know, and now that I know you’re not some fragile mortal wretch that will fall apart if I teach you anything the least bit demanding, I am ready to teach you things that will make you of use to me. And once that has begun, then you will begin serving me.” He grinned. It was not an expression designed to incite confidence or trust. “As you swore to.”

 

—O—

 

            The next three years were brutal.

            He was a far harder taskmaster than Doom had been. The slightest hesitation or failure on my part was met with a beating; I quit counting how many there were after I hit double digits. I do not count myself as stupid, but he would demonstrate something just once, and I was expected to master it perfectly on the first attempt after that demonstration.

            Most of the time, I did.

            But sometimes, being shown just once was not enough. This became more common with the more complex high magicks he started on after the first six months. He finished teaching me the things I had only begun learning in my last weeks with Doom – necromancy, elemental control, teleportation, transformation magics. The one art he would not even speak of was weather control, I think because it impinged too closely on what his hated brother could do.

            In that three years, I left his quarters – Odin’s quarters – at the palace just five times, all times via dimensional travel to other planes. He was very careful to keep me hidden away from the other noble Asgardians, although the servants came and went at his command. I learned to speak and understand the Asgardian tongue. After awhile, they began to ignore me, to treat me as just another piece of furniture, assuming I could not understand the things they spoke of. When there were more than one in the room at the same time, they would talk to each other. Occasionally I heard them talk of things of interest. Several times over that two years, Thor returned to visit Asgard for reasons of his own, and it was always of interest to the servants when he did.

            There were days when I sat and recounted to Loki, at his command, the things that had happened to me between the time he had taken me to Latveria, and the time he had found me at that gas station. He was most interested in my captivity on Fury’s ship, and my escape from it, and seemed interested in my impressions of the heroes, especially his brother. The first time I told him of how I had found his brother to be a pompous windbag, he had laughed for several minutes. Dinner that night had been a feast.

            But most of those three years were more difficult than I had dared imagine. After a trip to Niflheim, the plane of the ice giants, where I had lost a hand to the maw of an ice beast before escaping, my command of healing magicks had been expanded. It had taken a regeneration spell from a very old tome to regrow that hand, and it still ached during cold weather.

            I grew little during those two years: half an inch taller, another five pounds spread out meanly over my already-scrawny frame. He would not suffer me to cut my hair, even in the hottest days of summer, and so it ended up falling halfway between hip and knee.

            Nor was magic the only thing he insisted on teaching me. He told me the tales of his youthful exploits among the frost giants, and of a recent battle with the Dark Elves and their lord, Malekith. He taught me how to kill with my bare hands -- even with only my flimsy human strength -- and to wield dagger, sword, and spear, though I had no interest in learning such fighting skills. Even though his normal form was more slight of frame than that of most Asgardians, his natural strength, deftness, and hardiness was far greater than my own, so that for every two slashes of the dagger or thrusts of the sword I managed to dodge or block, there was one that got through.

            I became very, very proficient with healing magicks.

            I came to yearn for the rare days when everything went right, when I mastered a particularly difficult spell or vicious twist of the knife, and earned a rare compliment, an amused pat on the head, or a bit more than a bowl of soup for dinner. On the best of days, I would lie with my head in his lap while he stroked me, and though his touches never went further than that, I craved those days like a heroin addict craves the needle. My thirst for learning had always been obsessive; honed by pain and whetted by the most uncommon of joys, it became a mania that I chased down as assiduously as a police officer might chase down the man that killed his wife.

            And yet. And yet, I had to beware of learning too much. Loki was no less paranoid than Doom, and I could not dare to be thought of as approaching his level, because it would be death if he decided I might become a threat.

            Nor did he grant me access to an enormous library of magical texts, as Doom had. I did not doubt that he had one, but rather, I could tell that he decided my topics of study were best guided by him and him alone. Books sometimes held things that might lead my thoughts in the wrong directions.

            But I learned what he taught me, whether quickly – due to natural aptitude – or more slowly, and punctuated with pain and violence. I had not yet started to count down the days until the end of my seven years; I was becoming dreadfully certain that the time of my oath might end with my death.

            My service to him had yet to begin. He had assigned me no tasks, given me no jobs to carry out for him. I was starting to wonder whether I was less his thrall and pupil, and more a toy for him to play with until it broke.

            So it went, until the day of my twenty-first birthday.

 

 

            I was sitting on the bed in my cage, cross-legged, meditating on a new spell I’d learned to control plant life in the same way I could control animals, when Loki – disguised, as he almost always was, as Odin – came stalking into his quarters with a bundle in his hand. He waved at me impatiently, and I unfolded and came out of the cage to meet him.

            He tossed the bundle – a leather messenger bag, bulging at the seams – at me. “Get dressed.”

            I pulled the beige homespun robe off over my head and draped it over a chair. There was nothing underneath. I had not bothered to turn my back to him; it was dangerous, because he might find it either insulting or defiant, and also, I had gotten over any self-consciousness about nudity in my first few months on Asgard. I had nothing to be proud of, and he had never shown any interest in me – aside from the very rare instances when he was tormenting me by running a finger down my shoulder or throat – so there was no point to trying to hide myself.

            Inside the bag were underclothes, a pair of jeans, black combat boots in my size, a plain red t-shirt, and a short-waisted black leather bolero jacket. In one of the jacket pockets was a battered leather wallet; inside it was a New York State ID card with my face – but not my real name – on it, a Social Security card with a number that wasn’t mine, and a very thick wad of cash, mostly in twenties and fifties. I pulled the clothes on quickly, braided my hair swiftly, and turned to face him.

            He nodded. “Tonight I will be returning you to Earth. There is a task I wish you to carry out for me. It requires subtlety and caution, and you may be there for some time.”

            “As you command, of course,” I said quietly.

            He snorted. “Servants are bringing food. After you have eaten, we will be on our way. Once we arrive, I will tell you what I need you to do. It has taken you long enough to gain the skills this task requires. You will be competent. You will tell no one anything of our oath. You will say nothing about me to a living soul. Do you understand?”

            “I do, my lord,” I replied.

            There was a light rap on the door and he scowled. I went to answer it, and moved aside to let the servants enter, carrying trays of food. They set the trays down on the table and departed without a word.

            “One more thing,” Loki said after they had gone. “Hold out your hand.”

            I managed not to wince. In the past, when he had said similar things, the words had been a prelude to violence. But I walked over to stand in front of him and held out my hand.

            He opened his own clenched fist over my palm, and into it, slightly warm from his flesh, was the red-gold ring of the Faltine that Doom had given me. I gaped and looked up at him. He preened.

            “Mortals are rather susceptible to any number of enchantments,” he said smugly. “The ring had been transferred into storage, and when Fury’s organization was destroyed by their foes, things at those storage bunkers began to go missing. It was simple enough to find a worker drone there with a weak mind.”

            “Thank you,” I told him, and I didn’t bother to hide the sincerity in my voice as I slid the ring on my finger.

            “How much did von Doom tell you about the ring?” he asked.

            “That it would give me command over fire, and was from the realm of the Faltines,” I said.

            “Doubtless he was unaware of your true heritage,” he said dryly. “So long as you wear the ring, you are Faltine in all the ways that matter most. Command of fire is only the smallest of those powers. You can become fire itself, a fire that sears the soul as well as the flesh, if you will it. And your capacity for magic becomes all the greater.” His gaze was distant and flat as he watched me. “Now eat.”

            I sat at his command and ate – roast boar, vegetables, all the delicacies of Asgard that I hardly ever got to taste. The smell alone was intoxicating after months of nothing but soup or gruel.

            When I had finished, and the servants had come to take away the dishes, he beckoned me over and took my hand, a saturnine smile on his face.

            “And now,” he purred, “we go.”

 

—O—

 

            It was Autumn in New York when we got there, my favorite time of year. The leaves on the trees were in the middle of changing color, and the sky was a fading purple-gray as twilight took hold.

            “For tonight, find a hotel. Tomorrow, find a place to live. Somewhere in Manhattan is best. Find a job suited to your talents and desires. The ID is enchanted; anyone running an identity check on you will find a full background, with your work and school history dictated by your experience and skills alone. The face on the ID card will change should you use magic to alter your appearance. Should your identity be compromised, burn both cards and I will have new ones brought to you, but be warned: if you are so foolish as to be identified, you will earn my wrath for such stupidity.” I tried not to cringe. “For now, I set you to watch: every hero who flies, or swings, or jets past in some stupid mortal machinery. You will watch where they go, what they do, who they pay particular attention to. Friends and lovers, if you can learn such. Be mindful in your use of magic; there are those whose attention it would draw that I do not wish to find you. I will contact you in a short time, no more than a few months. And then you will share with me what you have learned, and your tasks here will change accordingly.”

            I nodded, doing my best to hide my surprise. He was essentially cutting me loose for awhile, leaving me without his supervision. But that didn't tell me he trusted me; instead, it suggested that he knew I was well aware of how dreadful the consequences would be if I screwed up. "I will not fail," I told him quietly.

            He nodded. "Best not," he said, his tone dire. "I will be watching you."

            And then he was gone.

            I stood there for a good ten minutes, not moving, as -- very slowly -- it sunk in that he really was gone. At last, I prodded myself into motion, turning in a slow circle to take a look at the city around me. We had materialized in a wooded area in Central Park. There had been a time when I wouldn't have dared to step foot in the park -- when I wouldn't have chosen to go much further than the library without my father at my side.

            Now? Muggers and rapists didn't scare me anymore. I'd already run afoul of things much worse.

            I peered at the skyline, trying to orient myself. Many of the buildings I'd been familiar with in earlier years were changed or gone entirely -- during the Battle of New York, no doubt. But after a minute, I could see the bulk of the former Stark Tower, now branded only with a large "A". A place to stay away from, definitely -- but good enough to let me know exactly where in the city I was, and which way to go no matter where I wanted to get to.

            And speaking of Stark...I concentrated a minute, hands shaping subtle sigils, whispered words emerging from my parted lips as I changed my appearance. I had no doubt whatsoever that with the wealth of traffic cameras, security cameras, cell phone cameras, etc. in the city that it wouldn't take an hour before I inadvertently ended up with footage of me uploaded to Fury's database. Best not to wear my own face any more, at least while I was here.

            Slowly, I spun my new appearance, keeping in mind that the ID Loki had given me would change to match. Green eyes. Chocolate-colored hair, slightly wavy instead of rat's-tail straight like my own. I kept myself slender and slight, because I couldn't much change the way I moved, but I shifted some of my facial features, making my nose smaller, the cheekbones higher, the lips fuller. I didn't want Stark or Fury or any of those others to see the new me on a computer screen and think, "Hey, that sort of looks like that girl we held prisoner a few years ago..." Given my hatred of how Sif -- and others -- constantly thought of me as a child, I added womanly curves to my frame--breasts, hips, ass. Nothing extreme, but enough so that no one would mistake me for a child any longer.

            When I was finished, I ambled over to a nearby fountain and peered down at it. The only remaining resemblance was in the flat and determined look in my eyes; nothing else was the same. I had not seen my face in a mirror during my entire stay in Asgard, and I doubted my true face had changed much in that time, except to age a few years. This one was prettier -- not my intention, but simply the way the changed features ended up working together.

            I straightened up, turning, and then recoiled, nearly falling over backward into the fountain as I almost crashed into one of the three men who had come up behind me without me noticing. The closest one caught my wrist to keep me from falling back. "Careful there, baby. Wouldn't be much fun to party with if you were soaked in dirty water and pigeon shit."

            I looked from one to the other to the third. They were all bigger than me -- none were shorter than six feet, I guessed -- and pretty big. I judged their age to be in their early 20s. They wore jeans and t-shirts and jackets, and none of them were very clean; the reek of cheap beer and weed smoke rolled off them like fog. I grimaced.

            "I would like you to let me go now, please," I said quietly. They laughed.

            "Awwww, come on, honey. Don't you want to go with us and have a good time?" the one who held my wrist jeered.

            "I'm only going to ask once," I said, my tone very soft.

            He cracked up, then yanked me close, his other arm going down to wrap around my waist and drag me up against him. "Okay, you asked. Now gimme a kiss."

            "I believe the lady asked you to let her go."

            The voice came out of the darkness, and I went rigid, because I recognized it at once.

            The creeper shoved me down and I had enough presence of mind to remember my training from Loki and not fall, catching myself on the lip of the fountain. Both hands planted on the dirty concrete, I threw my weight backward and kicked up with one leg, connecting solidly with the man's lower jaw. He fell backward with a scream, hit the ground, and didn't move, and I dropped back down into a crouch, stilling myself to watch.

            The man moved through the remaining two attackers with a sparse purity of movement that was very much like poetry. He was tall -- taller than any of the men who'd had plans for me -- and broad-shouldered, and his blond hair was a bright beacon under the park's streetlamps. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved work shirt with the sleeves rolled up halfway.

            Loki had given me my task. I just hadn't realized it would start so quickly. Had my master known he would be here?

            It took a minimum of kicks and punches for him to subdue the other two, and when they were both laying on the ground out cold, he turned to me, blue eyes calm and even kind in the twilight radiance.

            He really was very pretty. And pretty, as I'd known for a long time, could not be trusted.

            "Are you all right, miss?" Captain America asked me.

Chapter Text

I swallowed hard, not afraid he would see it as suspicious. Given what had been about to happen, he would see it as nerves, nothing more. "I think so," I said, voice low and a little shaky with the burn-off from adrenaline.


Out of uniform, the shield was nowhere to be seen, and I spotted a bag of groceries on the ground maybe a hundred feet away, by the spot where the sidewalk through the park wound out of the trees. I remembered a corner store and deli a few blocks away in that direction. Apparently he had been out getting dinner.


He approached calmly and held out a hand. "Not hurt, then?"


I shook my head and took his hand, letting him help me up from where I leaned against the lip of the fountain. "They didn't get much of a chance," I said. "Thank you for stepping in."


"Happy to help," he said politely. "But it looks like you got a couple of kicks of your own in. Nice form." He paused. "Did you want to call the police on them, or should I?"

Loki hadn't given me a cellphone. I made a show of patting my pockets, then scowled. "I must have dropped my phone in the fight. My luck, it went into the fountain...ugh."


"I got it, then," he said, letting go of my hand and pulling out his own cell. "You know it's dangerous to go through this park after dark, right?" It wasn't a scolding; I could hear the very real concern in his voice, and offered him a tremulous smile in return.


"I thought I could beat the sunset," I said softly. "Looks like I was wrong." I went quiet as he spoke to the 911 operator, then hung up.


"They're sending a car and some officers to arrest them," he said, smiling as he held out his hand to shake. "I'm Steve."


I shook his hand lightly. "Bethany Clark," I gave him the name on the ID card.


"When the police get here, is there somewhere I can escort you, Miss Clark?" he asked.


"Please, just Beth," I said. "I just got into town after being away for almost five years at school." It was close enough to the truth. "I was going to get a hotel room for the night and then go apartment hunting in the morning."


"A lot's changed in the last five years," he said soberly. "You might get lost driving around."


"Oh, I came by bus," I said. "I don't drive. Never learned. Never needed to, here." I smiled. "I have to figure that the taxi drivers all still know their way around."


He laughed. "Yeah, but that'll get kinda pricey after awhile. I'd hate to hear you went bankrupt after a week." He paused, looking uncertain for a moment, then offered up a smile. "If you like, we could get together for breakfast in the morning and then I could show you around to some likely places. There's a nice little diner a couple of blocks away that makes great hotcakes and bacon."


I blinked in surprise. Had he just...asked me out on a date?


Loki would laugh so hard.


"I..." I dipped my head, feeling an unaccustomed warmth rise across my face. Just embarrassment, I felt the need to insist fiercely to myself. Nothing more. It felt very odd, indeed. I forced myself to look up. "I think I'd like that. Thank you."


He beamed, and then we turned as a police car pulled up at the nearest roadway through the park, the one most commonly used by the park's groundskeeping vehicles. The men at our feet were just starting to stir. The Captain went to pick up his bag of groceries and stopped to speak to the two uniformed officers, glancing my way as he spoke. I would probably have to give a statement to the police, and they would take down the information from my ID. I wasn't worried about that; I had every confidence that Loki's magics would withstand the closest of inspections.


I was a little more nervous about having breakfast with the Captain in the morning. And then the apartment hunt. If I found something decent, it would mean he'd know where I was living.


But then...Loki had said to keep tabs on the heroes. Was there a better way to do so than becoming friends with one? Or at least, pretending to?


He pulled away from the officers as they approached, and I watched as the men pulled out handcuffs, cuffed the idiots just starting to sit up. "They'd like you to come down to the precinct in the morning and tell them what happened."


"Before or after breakfast?" I chuckled. His smile widened.


"After, I think," he said. "I'd hate to have the bad memories spoil your appetite." He paused. "You said you were looking for a hotel?" the Captain asked. I nodded. "They tell me there's a Radisson a bit south of here. I'd be happy to walk you there, if you like."

I smiled. "Thank you. You've been very kind," I murmured.


"Just good manners, miss," he demurred. He turned, and I followed, falling into step at his side.

 


 


There was two thousand dollars in the wallet Loki had given me, $1500 in fifties (30 bills) and $500 in twenties (25 bills). I paid for a couple nights at the hotel -- the Radisson Martinique on Broadway -- knocking the amount down to just under $1600.


The Captain -- I was finding it hard to think of him as "Steve", or even just "Captain Rogers" -- accompanied me to the hotel, waiting as I registered for my room. When I had the key-card in hand and turned back to him, he nodded. "Eight o'clock?" he asked.


"That would be fine, thank you," I said. The clock on the lobby wall over the registration desk said it was a bit after seven, plenty of time to get some rest. But I wouldn't be able to get any sleep just yet; it had occurred to me that I couldn't show up for breakfast in the same clothes I had on now. Nor did I have any of the standard toiletries -- hairbrush, shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant. And a purse to carry things in. And probably a suitcase for any clothes I bought.


I was going to end up going through the two thousand bucks fairly quickly. And what then, I wondered? Well, there was always the lucky find-money spell I had mastered early on.


"I'll see you in the morning, then," he said gently, and with a smile, headed back out the door

.
I waited a good ten minutes before slipping the card-key into my wallet and heading out a different door. The Manhattan Mall was less than a block down from the motel, and it was open for a couple more hours. Plenty of time to get some clothes and the other things I needed. I hurried down and headed inside, sweeping through the various stores that sold women's clothes in less than an hour. I bought several pair of slacks (black and tan); and a second pair of jeans; a pair of warm sweaters (one cream-colored, one black); three t-shirts in plain colors (red, black, and royal blue); two tank tops (green and grey); two dressy shirts (one dove gray, the other a warm oatmeal hue); necessary underthings; a tailored black blazer; a retro-styled scarlet dress with wide shoulders, narrow waist, and a knee-length skirt that flared out at the hem; a plain black pencil skirt that fell to just past my knees; three pair of nylons (nude, black, tan); a pair of low black pumps; a pair of knee-high black leather dress boots; a cream-colored woolen scarf and matching stocking cap (winter was coming, after all); and a black London Fog trenchcoat. I didn't bother with pajamas; I could sleep in tank tops and underpants.


I was ready to cringe by the time I got to the last counter and opened the wallet. I had been paying on autopilot without keeping track, but now, as I got it out, I carefully counted out how much cash was left.


Two thousand dollars.


The look on my face as my clothes were bagged up and I was handed a receipt was probably comical. Loki hadn't said anything about the wallet replenishing its contents automatically; no doubt he hadn't felt it necessary. I stopped at a salon store to purchase shampoo, bath wash, and a new brush, and then went by a leather-goods store to get two matching suitcases, a stylish black clutch purse, and a pair of black leather gloves lined with white rabbit fur. There were other things flitting through my head that I added to a "buy later" list: a bathrobe, a swimsuit, sandals, another nice dress or two for going out. I was keeping an entirely separate list of other, larger purchases to make in the coming weeks. Loki had ordered me to find a place to live. Renting an apartment would require buying things like furniture, dishes, cleaning supplies, bed sheets and blankets and pillows, towels, blinds and curtains, and so on. There was a cell phone kiosk in the mall and I stopped long enough to pick up a phone there. The process took almost no time at all, since I had no old numbers to import.


My final stop was at the Apple store at the mall, where I picked up the slimmest, lightest tablet computer they had, one with the most memory, the fastest processor speed, the widest array of tools. I had a feeling I was going to need it.


When I was done, I caught a taxi back to the hotel, stopping in their little store in the lobby to purchase deodorant, a toothbrush, scissors, nail clippers, tweezers, soap, a hair dryer, and toothpaste at the usual elevated hotel prices, then headed on up to my suite. I stripped the clothes of their price tags and packed things into the suitcases, leaving out an outfit for tomorrow morning.


Then I took a shower, called the front desk for a 6:30 AM wake-up call, and went to bed. Tomorrow I had to be ready to act like a normal, human adult. That was probably going to be the hardest thing of all.

 


 

The phone rang, waking me out of a dream involving a million squirrels and an impending feeling of dread, and I sat up, then reached out to pick it up and drop it back into the cradle. I yawned, stretched, ran my fingers through my hair, then stalked on sleep-stiff legs into the bathroom and started the shower.


Before I even stepped into the shower, I cast my usual slate of spells -- spells of protection, of luck, and refreshed the illusion that had changed my appearance -- and then stepped under the spray of hot water.


After I had showered and dressed, I sat down at the desk and unpacked and booted up the new tablet computer. As soon as I had created myself an email account, I spent the next ten minutes online running a search of veterinary colleges on the East Coast. Then I hacked into the records database at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and built myself an educational record. Classes taken, grades received, titles of papers, scores on labs, tuition records, textbooks bought at the school's bookstore, roommates at the dorms. NCSU was one of the top five veterinary colleges in the country, and the second-best on the East Coast. (Cornell in Ithaca was the best on the coast, but I had told the Captain last night that I had been away at college. Ithaca, being in New York state, hardly classified as "away".) I liked animals. People, not so much. Animals didn't lie to you, and they generally don't have much in the way of secret agendas. Loki had said to get a job. Between all the medical books I had absorbed from my father's library, and my healing magics, I felt fully confident that I could perform the job of a veterinarian with little difficulty.


When I was done, I put in an order for a copy of my transcripts, to be delivered electronically to my email account, then I headed over to Google and ran a search for Manhattan studio apartments. The range of prices was both narrow and high, and I made a face. Leaning back in the chair, I snagged my new purse, which now held my wallet and cellphone, and pulled out the wallet to count the cash inside. There was, again, two thousand dollars. On impulse, I pulled all but twenty bucks out of it, shoved it into a separate pocket of the purse, and stuck the wallet back in the purse. I'd find a bank after breakfast and make a deposit. The wallet would replenish the cash, and I could build up a bank balance that way that would allow me to make the purchases I needed to furnish the apartment as well as paying for rent, utilities, food, and other essentials.


The purse felt heavier.

 

I blinked and opened it up, reaching automatically for the wallet.


It was full. Two thousand dollars' worth of full.


"Well, hell." Carrying this much cash around anywhere, much less New York, was a bad idea. Then again, I wasn't exactly worried about muggers, and I was going to be spending the day with Captain America.


But the bank still needed to be the first stop after breakfast.


It was getting close to that time, so I slipped on my shoes, pulled on my coat and scarf, pocketed the gloves, slung the purse over my shoulder, and headed down to the lobby.


It was ten minutes before eight. He was just coming through the front door as I emerged from the elevator, and I smiled as I saw him. He wore pressed tan slacks and a nice shirt with a blazer that matched his slacks, and if I hadn't known better, I would have thought he was ready to go out on a da--


Shit. This was a date. I needed to keep reminding myself of that.


"Good morning," he greeted me warmly as I came to a stop in front of me. "I hope you're hungry."


"I am!" I told him cheerfully. "Lead the way."


He offered me his arm -- an old-fashioned, gentlemanly gesture -- and I took it without hesitation, remembering how often Doom had done the same. It was an oddly soothing gesture. He towered over me; I barely came up to his shoulder, and that should have been intimidating, at least on a subconscious level, but it wasn't.


"After breakfast, if you don't object, I need to pick out a bank and open an account there. If I get lucky enough to find a nice apartment today, the first thing a landlord will want to do is run a credit check, and while my credit is squeaky clean, I won't get a place if I don't appear to have any money."


"No problem, Miss Clark," he said, flashing a brief smile. "There are two or three of them between here and the diner."


I placed a hand lightly on the crook of his arm my other arm was looped through. "Please, won't you call me Beth?" I asked. "When you say "Miss Clark", I automatically want to look around for my mother."


He laughed. "I'll try my best to remember," he said. "Sorry. I'm a little old-fashioned."


"Nothing wrong with that," I told him. "Sometimes I think the world could use more old-fashioned. Today's manners leave a lot to be desired."


"Well...different times, different ways, I guess," he agreed diffidently.


A shape in red and blue flashed past perhaps ten feet overhead and I jerked my head up to look, resisting the urge to duck. I caught sight of Spider-Man, one hand outstretched to sling a web onto the corner of the building across the street, several stories up, moving very fast. "Wow. I never got used to that," I said softly.


The fingers of my free hand twitched slightly, tracing out sigils, and as soon as the clairvoyance charm was cast, I developed a set of mental "eyes" that followed the hero immediately.


"Well...it's New York, you know," he said cautiously. "You're not...frightened by people like that? People with powers?"


I shrugged, choosing my words with care. "That was Spider-Man. He's one of the good guys. I know there are people out there with powers who use those gifts for bad ends, but...so long as there are good guys around to stand up against them, no, I'm not frightened." I offered him a shy smile, and he returned it with a brighter one.


"Wow."


"Wow?" I asked.


"Sorry. I'm just used to people being more cynical, I guess," he said.


"Oh, I can be cynical, when it calls for it." In my mind's eye, I was seeing Spider-Man open an apartment window on the 17th floor of a building, and go inside. The place was deserted, and as I watched, he pulled off his mask and pulled a small digital camera out of a sealed pouch on his belt. I made certain to get a good look at his face. I would recognize it again, if I saw him unmasked. And then I would find out who he was when he wasn't Spider-Man. "It just doesn't call for it 24/7. Sometimes I think people use cynicism as a shield. Or a weapon. Anything to put between them and the wonders and the horrors of the world, so they don't have to legitimately feel the emotional response those wonders and horrors would evoke."


He arched a brow. "That's deep."


"Sorry. Didn't mean to get so dark. I just think a lot of people don't really appreciate the things they get in life -- the feelings they choose not to feel, the choices they don't want to make, the chances for new experiences they ignore because new things can be scary."

 

"So what is it that you do, Mis--Beth?" he asked as we reached the diner. He let go of my arm to hold the door open for me, and I smiled.


"I just finished getting my degree in veterinary medicine," I told him. "I like animals. They don't rob banks, or mug little old ladies, or steal cars." I chuckled. "Most people are okay, but...you just always know where you stand with animals. They don't lie, pretend to be things they aren't, or come with a hidden agenda."


I was well aware of the irony of my words, of course. We found a booth and sat. The smells coming from behind the diner's counter were mouth-watering, and I glanced over a menu quickly as a waitress in a pink uniform and an apron came over to take our orders.


I got bacon, hash browns, pancakes, and tea. He ordered much more food than I did -- not surprising, given how big he was and how much faster his metabolism must run. I had read about the Super Soldier program during WWII in Doom's files. While biochemistry wasn't my strongest subject, what I'd read had intrigued me.


"So where'd you learn to fight like that?" he asked me after the waitress had dropped off his coffee and my tea. "I didn't get to see much last night, but that was a wicked kick."


"Well, I've always been on the small side." My normal height was 4'11"; after the illusionary changes, I stood at a whopping 5'1". "I tended to run into a lot of bullies as a kid." His lips thinned in displeasure, and I saw the muscles tighten in his lower jaw. "After the third or fourth time I got beat up by older girls, my father enrolled me in Tae Kwon Do classes when I was eight." That was true enough, although I wasn't planning to tell him which school it was at, in case he decided to check up on that. I doubted anyone using my current name had ever been a student there. "I also took ballet and gymnastics classes when I was younger, so I've always been somewhat agile and quick."


"Huh. I know someone with a similar background. A co-worker and friend," he said. I was willing to be he was thinking of the Black Widow.


"I haven't had to pull out the stops like that, last night, for years now. I imagine I'm kind of rusty. I'm glad you came along; I don't think I would have enjoyed what happened if you hadn't, and I hadn't been able to handle them myself."


He grimaced a little at the thought, his cheeks flushing, and I went quiet as the waitress brought the food. The smell was enticing after three years of little more than soup and gruel, and I dug in enthusiastically. The bacon was crispy perfection, the pancake syrup was real maple, and the hash browns were a crunchy golden brown. I sank into the bliss of eating good food for the first time in years, a pleased smile on my face.


"What about you?" I asked. "You throw a pretty good punch yourself. Lots of practice?"


"Well...yeah. I was smaller when I was young, myself. When I was old enough, I went into the Army," he said slowly, giving me a slightly puzzled look. I imagined he was wondering if I didn't know who he was. His identity was public, after all, and had been since WWII. His return from limbo had been pretty publicized since the Battle of New York; it was in all the papers.


I offered him a faint, crooked smile. "Something wrong?"


"I..." he hesitated, then chuckled. "You're very straightforward. You remind me of a girl I used to know. Kinda look like her a bit, too."


"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" I asked teasingly.


"I'm not sure yet," he said apologetically. "But good, I think."


I nodded. "I was teasing about the practice, Steve," I said mildly. "I was away at college, not lost in a black hole. I recognize your face from the news coverage. I know who you are."


He sat back in his seat, looking relieved. "Right," he said, finishing his last bite of sausage. "Good, then." He shifted in his seat. "I mean, uh..."


I arched a brow. "Oh dear. I hope I haven't upset you."


He shook his head vigorously. "No. Not you. I'm sorry, I just...I don't...have a lot of experience with women, and..."


"Steve." My voice was very gentle, very calm. "Why don't we start out working on seeing if we can be friends, first? I mean, I'd like that, if that's okay. I like you a lot, but it would feel wrong to rush anything. If it helps any, I..." I paused, lowered my voice, looked down. "I, ummm..." I could feel my cheeks go red. Honesty was hard enough for me, given how my life had gone so far. Honesty about something so private? Harder. Much harder. "This is the first date I've ever been on."


He looked startled. "You? But..."


I shrugged. "Old-fashioned upbringing." It wasn't really a lie; it was simply that most of my upbringing had been at my own hands. "I get that you probably have a lot of women throwing themselves at you, and I imagine that's probably rather disconcerting, especially given the time period you're more familiar with. I'm not in any hurry. Why don't we let things go at their own pace?"


He smiled, looking even more relieved, if possible, and as the waitress came over with the check, I plucked it out of her hand and grinned. "Now. I believe you offered to help me look for an apartment."

 

Chapter Text

            The stop at the bank was simple enough. There was a Bank of America branch just down the block from the diner, and we went in together. He waited while I sat down with an account officer and explained that I wanted to open an account, and that I had brought in all the cash I had saved while at college. He commended me for being frugal, reminded me of the federal laws involved in depositing untraceable sums of cash, and I obediently used a spell to dummy up documents of withdrawal from an old bank account in North Carolina. I made a mental note to create a series of false records for said account via my tablet as soon as I had a chance to sit down and do so. The officer was very obliging, opening the account with the six thousand I had – having withdrawn the entire wad of cash from my wallet yet again – and was able to provide me with an ATM card on the spot.

            Finished with that task, the Captain and I left the bank and he flagged down a taxi. I had grabbed a copy of today’s New York Times from the machine outside the diner, and spent part of the time there looking at classified ads for apartments and calling the numbers listed in each ad to set up appointments today to see them. I gave the first address to the driver, then sat back in the cab and smiled at the Captain. It was hard to think of him as “Steve”, and I remembered the first time I had ever laid eyes on him, herding screaming servants out of Doom’s castle in Latveria. It had been a noble and humane act, and I wondered now, as I had occasionally in the past, whether I would have been able to cut his throat if the Widow hadn’t intervened.

            “Penny for your thoughts?” he asked. I offered him a faint smile.

            “Oh, they aren’t worth that much,” I laughed. “Just thinking about the past, and how some things in my life have turned out. Occasionally I wish, very much, that they had gone a different way.”

            “We all have times like that,” he said softly. “But all we can really do is make the best of what we have now. It’s not like there’s a time machine we can use to go back and change things, after all.”

            I nodded. “Good point.”

            “I have a confession to make. I don’t live here in New York. My place is in D.C., and I was here visiting some friends. I’ll probably be going back to Washington at the end of the week.” There was disappointment in his eyes.

            Dammit. “Oh.” Well, I couldn’t always think of a witty response.

            “But I’ll be going back and forth between NYC and D.C. a lot in the next few months, I think,” he added. “I should be here this week to at least help you get moved in, if you find a place today or tomorrow. Have you made arrangements to get your things moved up from North Carolina?”

            “Well, I lived in the dorms the whole time I was there, so I don’t have a lot of furniture. A few bookcases. My clothes and books. I’ll be getting the essentials and having them delivered after I sign a lease for a place,” I said. “But I wouldn’t mind some help getting things up the stairs, if I end up with a place that isn’t on the ground floor, which seems likely.” I thought for a moment, then leaned forward and rapped on the cabbie’s window. “I’m apartment hunting today. Can I have you wait after we get to this address? That way, if this place doesn’t pan out, you could take us to the next and the next until I settle. I’m willing to pay more.”

            “Sure, we can do that,” the cabbie said. “No problem, dollface.”

            I chuckled. “Thanks.” I leaned back in my seat.

            “I’d be happy to help you get moved in,” the Captain – Steve – said with a smile.

            “I appreciate that.”

            “And—“ he hesitated. “Like I said, I’ll be back and forth between here and D.C. Next time I come back, would you…I’d like to see you again.”

            It was weird. There was part of me that wanted to be pleased, because it would make Loki’s task easier. But there was also some small, rusty part of me that had never reared its head to the light before, and that part was rather creakily thinking that it was nice to have someone show any kind of interest in me that didn’t involve beatings.

            “I’d like that,” I said quietly, looking up at him with a careful smile.

            He returned my smile with a brighter one, and a few minutes later, we pulled up in front of a family corner market. There was a sign in the front window indicating an apartment for rent. It turned out to be the apartment over the store, with creaking, rotting floorboards, an army of roaches, and rats bigger than most cats. I didn’t even ask about the price, just moved on to the next.

            After three hours and four more apartments, we pulled up in front of a brownstone at the edge of Greenwich village. There was a wrought-iron fence around the front yard, and roses growing up in the flowerbed to the right of the front stairs. The neighborhood in general was clean – no scattered trash everywhere, more bicycles than cars, and no rusting refrigerators up on blocks in any yards.

            “This looks promising,” Steve said mildly.

            “I agree. Danny, can you wait?” I asked the cabbie.

            “Sure thing, ma’am,” he said, pulling out his copy of the New York Daily News.

            There was an older woman sitting in the porch swing on the front porch, clad in a longer-skirted, flowered dress. Her hair was silver, and there was a sweet smile on her face. She got to her feet as Steve and I came up the stairs.

            “You’re Miss Clark?” she asked, extending her hand.

            I shook her hand gently. “I am,” I said. “This is my friend Steve. He’s volunteered to help with the heavy lifting when I move in if I like the place, and if you agree to rent it to me.”

            She laughed. “Well, right this way. I didn’t put much detail into the ad, I’m afraid. The rental is for the top two floors of the brownstone. I’m afraid I can’t get up the stairs much these days, what with my arthritis, and I hate to see the place going to waste.” She handed me a key. “Access is from the front foyer—“ she pointed to where her own front door stood locked, “—or by the stairs in back. There’s a door on the second floor, outside. Why don’t you have a look, and then come back down and let me know what you think. I’ll have tea and cookies waiting.”

            Tea and cookies. I liked her already – at least, as much as I was capable of liking anyone. “Thank you,” I said, and we headed up the stairs as she went into her own apartment. I unlocked the door at the second floor landing and we stepped inside.

            The hall was carpeted with a cream-colored runner over mellow golden hardwood floors that led down and opened up into a living room/dining room. There was a fireplace at the far left side, old brick blackened with decades of soot that stained it dark even after being cleaned. The front of the building faced out onto the street with a large picture window with stained-glass mullions in red and gold across the top. There was a deep maroon velvet window seat there, the nap of the velvet only slightly threadbare after years of use, and the floors were hardwood.

            “Not furnished,” Steve pointed out. “But it’s only on the second floor. Not too bad as far as hauling and carrying is concerned.”

            “Point. Not to mention this room is huge.” I looked up. An antique iron chandelier, painted white, hung overhead, a ceiling fan attached at the bottom of the fixture. I turned. Behind me was the front part of the building, with a hall that led down to a large bathroom with an old clawfoot bathtub, stained-glass windows, and a large towel cabinet. Past that were two bedrooms of equal size – both large – with tall windows, lots of closet space, plenty of electrical outlets, and more hardwood floors.

The kitchen was beyond the living room/dining room. There wasn’t much space, but there was a kitchenette counter with two stools, and passed that counter, the floor was white tile. A stove and refrigerator were already there, and there were hooks overhead to hang pots and pans from. A small window over the sink, to the right of the stove and fridge, had a deep sill that faced north, which would be a decent place for houseplants, if I decided I wanted any. There was a door between the side of the refrigerator and the northern wall; inside were stairs leading up to the third floor, and a small broom closet.

            “Shall we go upstairs?” I asked lightly.

            “Lead the way,” he replied. I headed up the stairs to the third floor. There was another small flight of stairs on the third floor landing that I figured led up to the attic.

            I emerged into a world of bookshelves.

            My throat went dry as I looked around. As far as I could tell, the entire floor was meant to be a parlor; there was another huge bay window at the front of the building, facing the street; there was no second fireplace here. Instead, all the walls of the main room were made up of floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and hardwood floors shone with a mellow golden gleam.

            “Oh, my,” I murmured hoarsely. “I need to live here.”

            Steve chuckled. “Then I guess we should go downstairs to ask her whatever questions you might have.”

            I nodded. “Honestly, I was ready to sign a lease as soon as I saw it didn’t have a resident menagerie of vermin,” I said, turning to go back down the stairs. “The park is close, we’re not too far out of Greenwich Village, and there was a grocery store about two blocks down. I love it.”

            When we got down to the first floor, I rapped lightly on the older woman’s door. She opened it a second later, a smile on her face, and the scent of tea and shortbread cookies wafted past me into the hall. “Come on in,” she said sweetly, and stood aside to let us enter. I stepped into her living room, which was liberally decorated with china knick-knacks, lace doilies on every chair and sofa arm, and paintings of big-eyed kids on the walls. She gestured us to the couch, sinking down into a wide-backed armchair, and picked up the china teapot on its tray on the coffee table. “Tea?”

            “Yes, please,” I said, and Steve nodded. She poured three cups, pushing a plate of warm shortbread cookies toward us.

            “Now. I’m a little old-fashioned, so I hope you two young people are planning to get married if you’re hoping to move in together,” Mrs. Calvin said. I could feel my face go red, and Steve started sputtering on the tea he’d been in the middle of drinking.

            “We’re…just friends, ma’am,” I said hastily. “At least, for now.”

            “Oh, well, that’s all right, then,” she said, beaming. “You seem like a nice young lady. I’ve never rented out part of the house before, but after Mr. Calvin passed on last year, I just haven’t been able to take care of things myself. I hope you won’t mind if I occasionally ask for help changing a light bulb or raking the back yard?”

            “I think I could manage that, ma’am,” I said. “How much were you thinking of asking for rent?”

            She looked blank at my last words. “Is…well, is $1200 a month too much?” she asked tentatively.

            I did my best to keep a good poker face. I had been expecting at least $4000 a month. “$1200 a month would be just fine, ma’am,” I assured her. “I can go and come back with a check within the hour.”

            She waved the words away. “Oh, it’s the end of the month,” she pooh-poohed. “There’s only a few days left before November. You’ll spend all that time just moving in. Just bring me the first month’s rent on November 1st. And call me Elsie. All my friends do.” She rose slowly from her chair. “Let me get you the keys. Oh, and there’s a washer and dryer in the cellar you can use, and a clothesline in the back yard to dry your wash on in the summer, if you like that fresh air scent. And if you need storage space, please feel free to store your things in the attic.” She bustled away to get the keys.

            I turned to Steve, not bothering to hide my unease. “I feel like I’m taking advantage of her,” I said, almost whispering as I snagged a cookie off the plate and dipped it in my tea.

            “She seems to know what she’s doing,” Steve said.

            “But she didn’t even ask for a deposit,” I pointed out.

            “Maybe she doesn’t feel like she’ll need one with you?” he said. “After all, you were the one who fell in love with the bookshelves. You don’t strike me as the type to have loud, crazy parties.”

            “Heh. Well, that’s true,” I chuckled. “Although…”

            “What?”

            “I wonder if she’d let me have a pet? I wouldn’t mind having a cat to keep me company. A cat wouldn’t have to be taken out multiple times a day while I’m at work, and would be mostly self-sufficient so long as I wasn’t gone for long periods of time.”

            He shrugged. “So ask her, I guess? The worst that’ll happen is she’ll say no.”

            She was coming back now, and the keys on the ring she handed me were the old-fashioned skeleton key kind, decades-old iron that no doubt had history to them.

            “Elsie, I was wondering…what’s your policy about pets? Cats, specifically?”

            “Oh, they’re sweet,” she said. “Do you like cats?”

            “Well, I like most animals. I just finished veterinarian school,” I told her. “But cats are my favorite. Would it be okay if I had a cat here?”

            “So long as you keep it cleaned up after, dear,” she said.

            “Of course,” I promised.

            She had brought paperwork back with her, an old Xerox with the City of New York seal on it, and I scanned it quickly. It was a standard lease agreement. From 1978. I filled it out for her and signed it before passing it back, and she beamed at me.

            “All right, children,” she said sweetly. “Now, I’ll be going away tomorrow to visit my sister in Buffalo, and I’ll be gone a couple days. That would probably be a good time to get your things moved in; I won’t be here to fuss over any bumping and thumping and loud noises.”

            “Thank you, Elsie,” I said. “We’ll do that.”

            “We can rent a moving van in the morning,” Steve said as we rose from the couch. “And then we can get your things and start moving in after lunch.” He extended a hand to the old woman and shook her hand gingerly. “Thank you very much, Miss Elsie. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.” She blushed like a teenaged girl, and I smiled.

            She escorted us out the front door as I stashed the keys in my purse, and we went down the front steps to where the cab was waiting for us. “Thank you,” I told the cabbie as we got in. “Can you take us back to the Radisson Martinique on Broadway?”

            “Sure thing, sugar,” he said amiably, and pulled away from the curb.

            “So how do you want to do this?” Steve asked.

            “Well, I can order a lot of the furniture I need online, and have it delivered to the apartment tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “Anything I can’t get delivered, we could pick up in the moving van. And I’ll need to go out and shop for the non-furniture necessities – cleaning supplies, sheets, towels, blankets, garbage cans, a mop and broom, lamps, etc. We can pack those into the van, too, I think. And once I’m moved in, I’ll have to go grocery shopping, but I don’t think I’ll need the van for that.” I chuckled.

            “It sounds like that leaves your evening open,” Steve ventured.

            I arched a brow. “It might, at that,” I said. “Was there a reason you were wondering?”

            He flushed a little. “I was thinking, I mean…if you were interested…would you like to get dinner and catch a show?”

            I smiled and reached out to take his hand. “I’d love to,” I said.

            It was possible that existing in such close company to Loki for so long had allowed some of his charm to wear off on me. I couldn’t think of any other reason I was managing to act like I knew how normal women behaved around men. It certainly wasn’t something I had made any studies of.

            He grinned and gave my hand a light squeeze. “Pick you up at the hotel?” he asked.

            “Sure, what time?”

            “Seven o’clock?”

            “That works for me. How should I dress for dinner?” He looked confused by the question, so I elaborated. “Something nice or something casual? And by “show”, afterward, do you mean a movie, or something on Broadway?”

            “Uhhh…a movie? I don’t know much about theater,” he said. “And…something nice.”

            I nodded. “All right, then. I’m looking forward to it.”

 

—O—

 

            After the cab dropped me off at the hotel, I had a few hours to kill before the date, so I slipped out to a salon I’d seen down the street and had my hair touched up – the singed ends trimmed away, the faint wave in my hair emphasized. I let them do make-up for me, as well, since I’d never bothered with it myself, and they went with bold red lipstick and dark retro eye makeup.

            When I got back to the hotel, I stripped out of the slacks, t-shirt, and cardigan I’d worn out today and changed into the lovely retro dress I’d picked up at the mall the other night. Its stylish lines were reminiscent of the 40s, which I could only imagine would appeal to Steve.

            Then I sat down at the desk to pull up more classified ads on my tablet – this time, the wanted ads.

            There were any number of positions that someone with a veterinary degree could fill; not just vet positions, but several openings at the local zoo, a teaching spot at a nearby college, and a fairly long list of grooming positions. The job was more for cover than for funds; Loki had seen to it that I wouldn’t go broke any time soon. While I was thinking of it, I emptied my wallet again, stashing the cash at the bottom of my purse, and let it refill. I could make another deposit at my bank in the morning before Steve got here with the moving van.

            Once I had marked down several interesting looking ads to apply to after I got moved in at the brownstone, I pulled up Amazon.com and started shopping. I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted, so far as décor was concerned; I also threw more clothing into the shopping cart – shoes, that swimsuit I needed, a bathrobe, winter boots. I hopped over to the book category and started adding new volumes to my cart – medical tomes for veterinary school, purchased second-hand so they looked like old textbooks, some of the medical books I remembered from my father’s den, a few volumes of mythology. None of the books of magic I might want to learn from would be available on Amazon, but there would be time for that sort of shopping after Steve had returned to D.C.

            After I finished my shopping spree, I took the time to create the false bank records at a North Carolina bank I would need in case the officer at the bank followed up on my statements. That took less time than the shopping did.

            I shut everything down at 6:30 and tucked the tablet into my purse, then pulled on retro pumps with ankle straps before securing a cute little cloche hat over my dark hair and pulling on my coat. Then I locked everything up and went down to the lobby to meet Steve. This might be part of Loki’s assignment, but I was finding – with no small amount of surprise – that I was enjoying myself, and I wasn’t sure why. As handsome and kind as he was, he would never be able to understand the real me, and if he knew who I really was, he would probably feel obligated to arrest me.

            Well, possibly. Maybe. I thought back to the forest, years ago, where he had known where I was hiding, and had refused to pull me out of the animal burrow, even when Stark had demanded it. I still had no real clue why he had done so; I was willing to bet that Fury hadn’t been happy when they had returned empty-handed. Fury – for sure – and no doubt Stark, the archer, and probably the Widow more than likely thought of me as a threat. But all I had wanted then was to continue my studies.

            And now? I’d had a belly full of studies with Loki over the last three years, and I had learned enough magic to make what I’d known when he first found me like a child’s alphabet.

            I was starting to wonder if the things I had wanted when Loki first stepped into the library on the day of the Battle of New York were the same things I wanted now. And I didn’t know what I was going to do if they weren’t.

            It would have been easier, perhaps, if I’d had someone I could trust to talk to about it, to bounce ideas off, to explore my own feelings – as alien as that was – and whom I trusted. For over a year, Doom had sort of filled that role. But I had no idea where he was now, and even if he had returned to his country, Latveria was very far away.

            I was afraid that my emotions were finally starting to overcome my control of them. The last few years had certainly strained my abilities to deal with the things around me. For a decade and a half, I had maintained a rigid monofocus on my studies, and they had helped block out the overwhelming cascade of the world around me: sights, smells, touches, tastes, sounds. My mother had worried that I’d never cried as a child; I’d heard her speak to my father about it before I turned two. She hadn’t understood that I didn’t cry because my broken, atypical mind just couldn’t cope with such a barrage of violent sound, even if it was self-generated. Easier just to bury things like pain and hunger and fear. Easier to build walls around them in my mind, and bolster those walls with books and words and spells. Easier—

            The elevator doors opened, and he was standing there, and he was magnificent.

            The overhead lights gleamed off his golden hair, and the smile on his face was dazzling. He wore an elegant double-breasted suit – not a tux, but somehow even better – with a blue tie that matched the color of his eyes.

            I stepped out of the elevator and took a few steps forward, watching the smile on his face melt into something that looked pole-axed and overpowered as he took me in. His mouth moved silently, no sound making it past his lips, but I had learned to read lips a long time ago. You look like her, he had said. I wondered who he was thinking of. I smiled as I stepped up and slid my arm through his.

            “Hi,” he said diffidently.

            “Hi,” I responded, my voice soft. “You look amazing.”

            “So—“ he swallowed. “So do you.”

            “Thanks,” I said, laughing quietly. “I clean up okay, I guess.”

            “More than okay,” he assured me, and clasped his hand over mine where it laced through the crook of his other arm. “Hungry?”

            “Well, we forgot about lunch, so…ravenous.”

            “Come on, then,” he said, and I let him lead me out of the hotel’s lobby.

 

 

Chapter Text

We ended up at Keens Steakhouse on 36th, and a waiter showed us to a table off to the side. Steve pulled my chair out for me as the waiter set down menus; after he had brought our drink orders, he left us alone for a few minutes to peruse the menu and decide what we wanted. The scent of prime rib and lobster wafted along the air, and I hoped no one at the nearby tables could hear my stomach growling.


I ordered the sirloin, Steve the porterhouse with a side of shrimp, and when the waiter was gone, he smiled. "So tell me a little about yourself," he said. "I know you like animals and that you just finished college, that you've had some training in martial arts and ballet and gymnastics--"


I shrugged, trying to hide my sudden discomfort. I wasn't really used to talking to people much, and talking to them about my life, which I generally kept really private, even less. Had I thought Loki's mission for me would be easy? If I had, I'd been wrong. I had to give him some things that seemed realistic, but didn’t divulge enough information about myself to violate either of the oaths I had sworn.


"Well, there's not a lot to tell," I said hesitantly. "Um. Only child. Adopted. Uhm. My mother had some mental issues, and was institutionalized when I was much younger." I tried not to fidget, not really sure what he was looking for, small talk or more specific info. "I, um. Learned to read when I was two. My dad was a doctor. Did lots of tests when I was still a baby. The results that came back put me into a small, tight little box marked "autistic", although that's not really accurate, just the closest they could get at the time. They decided I was freakishly smart, emphasis on freakishly, but I can't feel emotions properly, I freak out over weird things that normal people don't even notice, and I'm really not very good at connecting with other people, and--"

 

He reached out and put his hand down atop mine where it sat on the table's top. "Hey. It's okay. I don't think 'freakishly' is a good word to refer to you."


I shrugged, then flashed a grin. "If you say so. I imagine there are folks out there who would put two and two together -- if those two and two were my unnatural intelligence and my inability to empathize with 99% of the human race -- and say it was a pretty good background for a supervillain."


He shook his head. "I don't think you have that kind of cruelty in you," he said.


"Oh, I don't know. Some of the most powerful of them do everything from what they see as good intentions. Look at Magneto, for example: he fights because he perceives his people, mutants, are at risk of being wiped out. Just like the Jews and others that the Nazis slaughtered during the war. As motivations go, it's at least understandable, and even noble, in its way."


"For a terrorist, maybe," he said. "But you're not like that. I can't see you ever being like that." He smiled. "And you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to."


I managed a faint smile. "Thanks. I just, uh. I like you. And that kinda scares me, because I'm not really used to liking anyone -- or, at least, anyone but animals. I got used to seeing only the bad side of people growing up. I was in school for awhile, but I fit in so poorly there that my dad eventually took me out. I was tutored for awhile, then home-schooled." Why was I telling him all this? I didn't know. I had opened my mouth and chunks of my life just started spilling out. I was trying to stop it and it wasn't working. "I...you know how I told you I'd never been on a date before? I...I've never had a friend before, either."


He scooped my hand into both of his. "Then let me be your first," he said softly. I blushed, looking away nervously, and somewhere inside my head, the core chunk of gray matter that was the usual me was screaming obscenities and trying to shut me up. I felt like a leaf being hurled through the air by a tornado, shoved this way and that, overwhelmed with wind and rain and utterly swamped. Great white-hot surges of emotion were flooding through cracks in my normal mental armor and I had no idea how to deal with them whatsoever.


"I...I think I'd like that. But I can't promise I won't be a pain in the neck. Are you sure you'll be able to handle it? I don't react to most things like your average Joe off the street."


"Being a friend means I'll always be willing to try," he said.


"So tell me some things about you, now," I said, trying to deflect the conversation away from myself. I offered him a wry grin. "I know that you're older than me."


He laughed self-deprecatingly. "In a way, yeah. I was twenty-four when I joined the Army," he said. I knew he was referring to the project that had turned him into Captain America. "Two years later, I went into the ice." I grimaced. "And it's been five years since I was pulled out of the ice."


He was 31. I hadn't realized; he looked a little younger. Ten years older than me. This was turning into quite the May-December relationship.


Wait. I -- I -- was going to be in a relationship with someone. I was dating someone. My brain threatened to unmoor itself from the rest of me and go drifting in shock. I clamped down on the sudden spike of panic that had just pierced my thoughts and took a deep breath. "You know I'm just 21, don't you?" I asked calmly. "I said I was freakishly smart. I mean, I squashed four years for a pre-vet degree -- biology -- and the four years of veterinary school into five years total."


"Are you worried I'm robbing the cradle?" he asked.


"No, but I was wondering whether you were worried other folks might think that," I told him. "I don't want to cause you any trouble."


"You're of age, Beth. You've got a good head on your shoulders, and you seem to know what you want out of life. I know if you change your mind about things, you'll tell me. I promise, if that happens, we'll deal with things like responsible adults and not like kids." He smiled.


"You said I looked like someone you knew," I mentioned. That changed the expression on his face, fast; the smile faded and a sorrowful shadow filled his eyes.


"Yeah," he said after a moment. "Someone I knew before the war ended. Her name was Peggy. I worked with her during the war. I think you would have liked her."


I winced. "That long ago...so she's passed on, then."


"No," he said, and shook his head. "But she's..." A look of pain passed over his face. "I'm sorry. I don't think I can talk about this right now."


I turned my hand under his, which had cupped mine, so our palms were clasped together. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked." I calculated the years. If she was still alive, she was very, very old. And he was not. That had to hurt, especially if it had been serious.


He was saved from having to reply immediately as the waiter brought our salads, and we set to the food in a not quite peaceful silence, listening to the soft jazz music coming over the restaurant's sound system.
"I'm sorry," he said again after awhile, when his salad was finished. "I didn't mean to be brusque. I'm just...still--"


"Steve," I said quietly. "You don't have to explain. I think I can figure out why you're upset. I should have realized. Please don't apologize for what is, essentially, caring about someone."


"And here I thought you said you weren't good at connecting with people," he said after a moment. "I must have misunderstood."


I made a face. "I'm pseudo-autistic, Steve, not stupid. Let's put it behind us. It's nothing I need to know about unless and until you're ready to talk about it."

 

He slid his fingers through mine and held my hand. "You've never dated before and you've never had a friend before this? There are a lot of people in the world who are really missing out."


"Flattery will get you nowhere," I chuckled.


"What flattery? You're smart, you're pretty, you're kind--"


"Actually, that last bit, I think I'm just really good at keeping in mind what society expects of normal people," I said.


"Yeah? And if we find a half-drowned, abandoned kitten on the way home from dinner--" I could feel my face melt, and he nodded. "See? That's what I mean. You'd scoop it up and take it home. Wouldn't matter if it were covered with fleas, mud, or worse. Just because your affection is directed at animals instead of most people doesn't mean you aren't kind."

 

"Hmph," I snorted with mock annoyance. “Well, what can I say? The worst a kitten’s ever done is bite me, and it was scared when it did. Can’t blame it for that.”


“Generally, when people get scared, they react badly, too,” he pointed out gently.


“Yes, but kittens act on instinct. Human beings have bigger brains. They’re supposed to be able to use them to think, to understand right and wrong, not just react out of fear,” I sighed.


“I know.” He reached out and took my other hand also, holding them in his. “People have a history of making the wrong choices out of fear that goes back thousands of years. You can’t hold it against them.”


“Sure I can,” I quipped. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to learn from the past. You know that old quote – ‘Those that do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.’”


He laughed and held his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, I give. We’ll change the subject.”

 

I grinned. “What movie are we going to see?”


“Oh. One of the single-screen theaters down in Times Square is running a revival showing of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’. Jimmy Stewart stars, Frank Capra directs. It’s one of my favorite movies; I hope you’ll like it, too.”


“I’m looking forward to finding out,” I told him. I saw no point in telling him it’d be the first movie I ever saw in a theater; in fact, I’d seen very few on TV as a child, mostly things that had been on in the background that my parents watched as I had my nose buried in a book.

 

The waiter brought our dinner, and there was quiet for awhile as we ate. I felt no need to interrupt dinner with continuous prattle, although I found I was enjoying talking to him – odd, since I rarely cared to talk about anything other than magic and my studies. But I couldn’t exactly talk to him about those. In fact, I was slowly realizing that there were very few things we could talk about. He was a man out of time, slowly adjusting to the modern era; I had deliberately hidden myself away from the “normal”, secular world as I buried myself in my studies. That gave the two of us some things in common – mostly our utter lack of awareness of what most people these days found interesting, fun, or normal – but his focus was on the war and his past, and mine was on a world full of books and sorcery. Idly, I reflected that – ironically – the thing we had most in common was our likelihood to end up in a gym somewhere, sparring… but given his familiarity with such things, and his ability to put clues together quickly, it would probably take him only a few moments, at best, to realize that my fighting style was almost identical to Loki’s. That wouldn’t end well.


“So,” I asked as I set my fork down, my plate empty. “Tell me, Mr. Old-Fashioned. Which of us is picking up the check? Or are we splitting it?”


“I’m paying,” he said firmly. “I asked you out.” He grinned. “If you ask me out next time, you can get it.”


“Seems fair,” I said. “That’s a deal.”


“So tomorrow morning, I’ll go by the nearest U-Haul dealership and rent a truck. I think I can be at your hotel by nine A.M. Do you want to get breakfast first? Or would you rather eat before I get there?”


“I’d love to have breakfast with you again, Steve,” I said, smiling softly. “Should I meet you at the diner?”


“Sure, if you like,” he said.


“Works for me. Broad daylight, public place. It seems unlikely that someone would try to mug me twice in two days.”


“I hope not!” he laughed. The waiter came by with the dessert menu, but we both demurred; I was stuffed, and if I got hungry so quickly, there was always the option of candy or popcorn at the movie theater.


“I’ll draw up a list of addresses where we need to pick things up, then,” I said. “I was able to make some purchases online, and most of those will be delivered straight to the brownstone, but some of the local places I called for furniture couldn’t offer delivery sooner than two weeks from now, so they said it was fine if we picked those pieces up ourselves.”


“All right,” he said. The waiter returned with the check, and I looked away as he took care of it. The modern obsession with funds had always seemed vulgar to me, even when I was so poor I was all but homeless. When the waiter left, I looked back up at Steve with a smile.


“Ready?” he asked.


I nodded, and he came around to pull my chair out for me again. I stood up, putting on my coat, and took his arm as he led me out. Standing so close, his body heat flowed over me like a blanket on a cold winter night, and I could smell some clean, crisp scent that I realized must be aftershave. Most chemical perfumes burned my nostrils, but he smelled good. That realization left me close to tears, and I ducked my head down so he could not see my face.


Way down deep, I was slowly coming to realize that – for a reason I did not yet understand – I was, against all my history and aberrant neurochemistry, starting to actually feel something for him, something that was neither fear nor confusion, not anger or hate. I had no idea why a lifetime of malfunctioning emotions were choosing now to start working properly. And knowing that I was bound by oath to Loki to spy on this man, when what I really wanted to do – at least, if I was interpreting these rusty, broken emotions properly, was to simply stand in his presence, hold his hand, rest my face against his chest, maybe even kiss him – left me in a sort of vicious, savage pain that all the healing spells in the world couldn’t cure.


Why was I feeling emotions now, normal human emotions – fondness, admiration, maybe more – now? Why, when those emotions had never made themselves known before, not even for my parents? What had changed? Was it this city? Something or someone in the city? A change in the way the terms of my oath to Loki were being worked out? Some unperceived magic somewhere close that had me tangled up, unaware?


I had to find out. Had to, before it was too late, and those emotions overwhelmed me for good, stole away my sense, led me to break my oaths, and damned me for all time.


 

The movie went well. I wasn't particularly inspired by it, but patriotism has never been my strong suit. It was well-written and well-acted, however, and more entertaining was the fact that I could tell how much Steve enjoyed it. The filibuster scene, I thought, was particularly well-done. I was utterly uninterested in politics in real life, because it neither hindered nor aided my own specific interests, but I could see all the little pieces in the movie that corresponded to Steve's interests, and understood why he liked it.


I tossed my empty water bottle into the trash as we left. It had gotten colder and started to snow while we were in the theater, and I shivered as we emerged out into the chill night air. The London Fog I wore was pretty and dramatic, but not particularly well-insulated. Steve slung an arm around my shoulders and pulled me in closer to him, sharing his body heat as we waited for a cab to come by.


"So what did you think?" he asked.


I smiled up at him. "Good movie, but I think it needed more dancing," I joked.


He looked confused. "But there wasn't any dancing in it."


"Exactly!"


He laughed and threw up a hand as a cab came gliding by. It pulled over and we climbed in. I felt strangely restless, even though it was almost midnight. Once in the back seat, he slid an arm around my shoulders again and I nestled in more closely to the warmth of his body.


"Where to?" the driver asked.


Steve looked down at me. "Are you ready to go back yet?"


I made a face. "Not...not just yet. It's such a lovely night."


He nodded, smiling. "Okay." He glanced up at the cabbie. "Can you take us for a slow drive around downtown?"


"Sure thing," the driver said, and started the meter as he pulled away from the curb.


I nestled my face against Steve's shoulder and breathed in the scent of him. It sent delicious little chills through me, akin to but not the same as the ones I got whenever Loki played his little mind games and caressed me. Those times, the sensations were always laced with fear and dread to go along with the arousal, but here, with Steve, I felt utterly safe and completely unafraid. I should have been afraid -- afraid he would find out my secret, afraid my feelings would somehow violate my oath to Loki, afraid that I even had emotions now for some reason -- but I wasn't.


He took one of my hands and caressed the fingers gently. "So small," he murmured. "I keep forgetting how tiny you are."


I laughed. "I think I prefer the term 'fun-sized'," I chuckled.


He grinned. "Tonight has been fun," he said. "When I first saw you in the park the other night, I didn't expect I'd see you again. I've stepped in to stop trouble a lot of times in the past when ladies were in danger. Then you nearly kicked that man's face off and I became interested. I thought, 'here's a pint-sized girl who can hold her own against a man half again as big as she is'. That doesn't happen very often. And I wanted to know more."


"And now you do -- at least, a little bit," I said. "So, after we move my things tomorrow, did you have plans for dinner?"


"No," he said. "What did you have in mind?"


"Well, I'm going to have a house full of groceries and a new stove," I told him. "But I've never cooked before. Are you brave enough to be the guinea pig for my cooking?"


He burst out laughing. "I'm willing to try anything once," he replied. "I understand you can get any recipe you want on the internet now, and you're smart. I doubt you'll poison me if you just follow the directions."


There was a small, warm ember of pleasure in the pit of my stomach at something so unimportant and humble. I'd microwaved things for myself when I still lived with my parents, but that hardly counted as cooking. I began jotting down a groceries list at the back of my head.


The taxi drove us around for another hour, going past Times Square and the Tombs and my old stomping grounds at the Library. The Lions still stood there, regal as ever, unmarred by the Battle of New York, and I sighed and burrowed a little deeper into Steve's side. It was terrifying to realize that I was feeling something very like happiness, and over the most mundane, ordinary things in the world rather than over the progress of my studies. I was being turned into something that was not me at all, and I wasn't sure if I could find a way to stop it.


More than that, I wasn't sure I wanted to.

Chapter Text

Steve walked me into the hotel after the cab dropped us off. "See you in the morning, then?" he asked.


I nodded. "I'm looking forward to it," I said. "An entire glorious day of heavy lifting, sweating, and the occasional box dropped on my feet." I grinned.


"Oh, it won't be that bad," he said. "I'll handle the heavy lifting for you." I tilted my face back to look up at him. He reached out one hand and brushed it against the side of my cheek, leaving the skin there tingling. A flash of emotion passed through his eyes -- nervousness, uncertainty -- and then he leaned forward and kissed the spot where his hand had just touched.


A wild, delirious shiver ran through me that I could not control. My stomach decided the appropriate response was to try to turn itself inside out, as -- at a wild guess -- a couple of gallons of adrenaline and hormones dropped into it at the soft touch of his lips on my skin. I felt my face go red with heat, and a fine trembling began at all my limbs. It was almost exactly the same response I had on those rare occasions when Loki had touched me, except that I wasn't afraid that I would be beaten to a pulp by Steve if I dared look him in the eyes.


He straightened back up, a gentle smile on his face. "I'll see you in the morning," he said, and turned and walked away.


I wanted to call out his name. I wanted to call him back, to take him upstairs. I wanted -- oh, so many things that I had never done before, and all of them with him. But there were about a hundred problems with that idea.

One, although I knew -- technically -- what went on with sex, my practical knowledge of that subject consisted of very little. Also, if and when I ever did have sex, I didn't want it to be in a hotel room. I also didn't know if it would be a violation of my oath to Loki, I didn't know if it would be a violation of my oath to Doom.


I didn't know if I would like it, although I thought I probably would, once I had gotten past the pain and mess of losing my virginity.


Most of all, I didn't know why I wanted this so badly, and that thought set off alarm bells that no amount of desire could silence. I turned and pressed the button for the elevator, heading up to my suite as soon as the car arrived. Enough hoping and guessing and wondering. I knew several divination spells that might help shed light on the matter, although all of them worked better with tools that I didn't currently have. I had come from Asgard with not so much as a crystal ball, a scrying ball, a deck of cards, or even a set of dice on me. I didn't even have coins to flip, since all my purchases had been made via my debit card so far. You'd think it would have been easy to acquire runestones, of all things, in Asgard, but Loki had refused my request for any, since they had been a creation of Odin.


I let myself into my suite, shut and locked the door behind me, and flipped on the light. The main room was quiet and empty, and as I slipped off my shoes and tossed my purse onto the desk, I felt an unaccustomed pang of loneliness that I could only chalk up to the lack of any sort of companionship at all. The serenity in solitude I had so carefully cultivated while I was living in the library had evaporated bit by bit -- first, during my sojourn in Latveria, when I was with Doom a fair chunk of each day; then, during my captivity in Asgard, where Loki monitored me throughout the day. Yep, I definitely needed to get a cat. Maybe five or six of them.


I changed out of my clothes into a tank top and pair of boxers, then went into the bathroom. There were numerous plastic cups in there for water, each individually wrapped, and I unwrapped one, then went back into the main suite, over to the table where the coffee maker was. I set up the coffee maker and dumped all three packs of grounds into the filter, then ran the water through. When I had coffee, I let it cool, then ran it through again, and again, until I had coffee so dark it was black.


A bowl of ink can be used as a passable scrying mirror. I had neither bowl nor ink, but I had a cup of the blackest coffee imaginable. It would have to do. I set it down carefully on the round, marble-topped side table that I had dragged out of the corner -- removing the vase of silk flowers that had stood there -- and into the center of the room.


I sat down on the floor in front of the table, legs crossed, and unhooked my mind from my both. Meditation was one of my oldest and most reliable tools for stilling distress within my soul and seeking out answers to my problems. I let the currents of power that existed all around us in the world flow through me like rain through a river, letting go of desire, letting go of confusion, letting go of worry, letting go of fear.


After awhile, I felt myself rise in the air, the chains of gravity no longer holding me down, my body now as free and untethered as my mind. Without anxiety or passion, fury or fear, with only the clean, calm, unruffled will to know, I opened my eyes and looked down into the still black circle of emptiness that sat on the table a few inches below me.


"I am wholly and unwillingly changed.
Something has changed me.
I am constrained from my usual freedom.
Something has constrained me.
My ability to control myself has been diminished.
Something has diminished me."

I paused, gathering my will.

"I call upon the power of All-Seeing Agamotto:
show me the cause of this impairment."

The surface of the coffee clouded, as if it had suddenly been diluted with cream. Then the liquid began to ripple, and I watched as shapes began to form in the liquid. First was a mystic sigil: a circle, cross-hatched both vertically and horizontally with two parallel curving lines in each direction, much like a wavy tic-tac-toe grid. The view in the coffee expanded, showing me that this sigil was in the form of a window, set in the attic level of a very large house. The point of view then dipped, gliding lower, going level with the two streets that formed the intersection where the house sat on one corner. I could read one of the street signs: Bleecker Street.
The vision would go no further; it would not go inside the house, nor show me anyone connected with the house. I tried for another two hours to gain more information, but learned nothing.


Bleecker Street was deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. I had never been there, but I had heard of it before. Sometime in the next few days, I would have to go for a ride -- either by cab or possibly purchasing a bike -- so I could locate the house with the sigil window and try to figure out what role it -- and whoever lived there -- played in the changes that had come over me.


At last, I willed the trance to end, willed myself to drift lower until I once more sat on the floor, My wards and guards stood firm. I opened my eyes, rose to my feet, and took the cup of coffee into the bathroom to dump it down the sink, rinse out the cup, then toss the cup in the trash. It was four in the morning, and Steve would be meeting me at the diner for breakfast at nine. But before that, I had to make a trip to the bank to deposit more money; fortunately, it was on the way. If I could sleep now, I might manage three hours before getting up at seven to shower, dress, and head out to the bank. Why bother?


I cast a small cantrip to banish the effects of fatigue and weariness, then sat down at the computer with my newspaper from this morning and began drawing up a resume so I could apply for some of the jobs I had picked out.


 

I'd worn jeans and a sweater over a t-shirt this morning, since Steve and I would both be working today. I headed out of the hotel and down the block to my bank, arriving just as they unlocked the front doors at 8:30. I greeted the manager with a smile.


It took only moments to make my deposit, and then I headed back out, down another couple of blocks to the diner. As I walked, I was passed by a sleek black limo with Wakandan embassy license plates, saw Spider-Man go swinging by between buildings about thirty stories up, and watched the Fantastic Four's aerial car come in for a landing at the Baxter Building. Ah, New York.


I spotted a U-Haul truck parked a bit down the block from the diner as I approached, and smiled faintly as I strolled past it to the diner's front door. I pushed the door open, listening to the bell over the door jingle--
--and stopped in my tracks as someone shoved a gun in my face. "Come here," the man in the ski mask growled as he reached out with his other hand and grabbed me, yanking me against his chest and sticking the gun under my chin, pointing up. I moved unresistingly as he waited for the terrified-looking waitress behind the counter to pull the money out of the cash register and shove it into a paper bag. I scanned the small area of the diner; there didn't appear to be any other thieves, only a dozen customers and two other waitresses, all frozen at the sight of the gun. Steve was nowhere in sight. Carefully, I extended a tendril of mental awareness and found him at the news-stand half a block up, buying a bouquet of flowers. Sweet, but didn't it just figure.


I turned that awareness toward the man holding me, able to see him as if we were standing in front of a mirror.


The gun's safety was on.


"Idiot," I sighed. He snarled and I reached up, clasping my hand around the gun's trigger guard, trapping his fingers there, preventing him from moving them to flick off the safety. Then I yanked his hand down and twisted at the same time, hearing his wrist snap like dry kindling. I followed it up by stamping down on his left instep as hard as I could; I didn't weigh very much, but the shoes he was wearing were Converse, and the soft canvas did nothing to protect his foot as the heel of the boot I had on hit the top of his foot's arch and broke that, too.


He screamed and I whipped back with an elbow, half-twisting at the waist as I did so. The crunch as his ribs splintered was audible to the customers standing ten feet away, who looked as though they could not decide whether they were relieved to be saved, or faintly nauseous.


The man went down, and very carefully, I bent down and untangled his fingers from the gun, setting it on the diner's front counter. "Would someone care to call the police?" I asked politely. "Also, I think this man is going to need an ambulance."


The bell over the door jingled behind me and I turned to see Steve standing there, a half-dozen red roses wrapped in green paper in one hand, the smile on his face slowly melting away to a look of surprise as he took in the sobbing, curled-up man at my feet.


"Good morning, Steve," I said pleasantly. "I hope you slept well. It might be a bit before we can have breakfast, I'm afraid."


He looked from her to the man on the floor again, then back. "What just happened here?" he asked, the hand with the flowers dropping down to his side.


"He--" I nodded down at the man, "--tried to rob the place." The cook behind the kitchen window was on the phone, no doubt to the police. "I walked in just in time to become his hostage. But I didn't feel like being a hostage today, so I managed to convince him to give himself up." I smiled.


A little boy clutched in his mother's arms pumped his fist at the ceiling. "She was awesome! She took his gun away and stomped on his foot an' elbowed him inna ribs an'--" He looked about nine years old, and every bit as excited as if he'd just seen something cool on TV. His mother looked less thrilled.


"The police are on their way," the cook called out from the kitchen, hanging up the phone. "Zelda, they're going to want the security cam footage when they get here."


"On it, Al," the waitress said, bending to reach down under the diner's front counter. She did something that made a clicking and whirring sound, and then came up with what looked like an antique VCR cassette.


Steve stepped close and pulled me into his arms. "Are you okay?" he asked, his voice tense.


"Sure," I said brightly. "Not even a bruise."


He wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug. "You, Beth, are a trouble magnet," he said softly, one hand lifting to thread his fingers through my hair.


"Nah. It's just that this is New York. Things happen. It's not like he had super powers." I looked up at him with a grin, trying to defuse the worry in his eyes.


"Hey, mom, isn't that Captain Am--" the boy began, and then I wasn't paying attention anymore, because Steve had kissed me.


It was a proper kiss, on the lips, and I immediately forgot what I was saying, what I had been thinking, what had just happened. Everything. Everything but the feel of his lips on mine, soft and gentle and yet still somehow hungry. I don't know where the roses had gone, but both his hands had come up to cup the sides of my face, the ball of one thumb sliding over the outside edge of my left cheekbone, the other brushing back strands of my hair. I reached out blindly to catch him at the waist, suddenly unsteady, a bonfire roaring to life inside me, head and heart and everything I was instantly united in a starving need for more. I felt his lips move against mine, and at that moment I was ready to throw away everything that had ever given my life meaning in order to have this for as long as humanly possible.


Someone -- several someones -- were cheering. I could hear it very far away, as if the sound was coming to me from down a long hall, and abruptly, he broke the kiss and pulled away a few inches, peering down at me. The customers and one of the waitresses were the ones cheering, and they broke off as he half-turned to give them a sheepish smile.


The sound of police sirens impinged on my hearing, and he swiveled to look through the diner's plate-glass windows outside as a pair of police cars pulled up. "I'd better go talk to them," he said quickly.


"I'm going to have to talk to them, too," I said mildly. "I still haven't been in to give my witness statement about the other night."


He nodded and hurried out the door as the police officers emerged from their cars. Almost absent-mindedly, I dropped my head, twitching my fingers as I whispered the same enchantment Doom had used to alter my fingerprints. I had no idea whether the police would want my fingerprints, since I had taken the gun away from the robber, but if so, it wouldn't do to have them match the ones that had been taken while Fury had me imprisoned.


Steve came back inside with the police, who were pulling out handcuffs as they approached the injured thief, and I turned to the waitress with a smile. "I don't suppose I can get a cup of coffee, can I? It looks like it might be awhile before I can have breakfast."


She laughed. "Coming right up, hon. For you, on the house."


 

After giving two statements to the police, after breakfast, Steve and I had finally gone in the truck to make the rounds at everywhere I had ordered things. While he was manhandling a king-sized box spring, mattress, and bed frame into the back of the truck, I was in the Crate and Barrel store across the street, buying supplies for the kitchen -- dishes, pots and pans, pot-holders, silverware, a rack for washing dishes, sponges and hand towels, sink stoppers, a garbage can, a mop and broom, trash bags, dish soap, ice cube trays. When we moved on to the store I had ordered a desk and several filing cabinets from, he moved the furniture and I went to the Food Lion up the block and came back with a pot roast, potatoes, milk, butter, eggs, flour, corn on the cob, oatmeal, hamburger, carrots, soup, bread, spices, orange juice, bacon, cheese, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, maple syrup, pancake mix, cereal, muffins, steak, pork chops, chicken breasts, frozen pizza, canned chili and pasta, spaghetti noodles, pasta sauce, Parmesan cheese, sugar, coffee, tea, lemonade, apples, tortilla shells, taco seasoning, shredded cheddar, sour cream, pie crusts, laundry detergent, light bulbs, paper towels, bathroom tissue, soap, and a potted gardenia plant.


What with one trip and another, it was almost three by the time we got to the brownstone. He carried the furniture inside -- although I winced every time I watched him heft a box bigger than he was over his head -- and I unpacked things. Food went in the kitchen, things into closets, and furniture got assembled and arranged where I wanted it to go. We took a break at seven and I made pot roast with all the trimmings, baked potatoes, homemade biscuits, corn on the cob dripping with butter, and apple pie for dessert. When dinner was done, I washed the dishes and put them away while he finished bringing in the last few things, then took the truck back.


He came back on a motorcycle, an extra helmet strapped over the handlebars. "Have you ever been on a bike before?"


"Just the kind without a motor," I admitted. I had locked up the brownstone -- Elsie was, as promised, gone, and the last of the delivery trucks that had come during the day had long since gone. I needed to go to the motel for one last night so I could check out in the morning and collect my things.


And he would be heading back to D.C. tomorrow night.


I wasn't looking forward to being parted. I wasn't sure how he had suddenly become at least a part of my life.


And I wasn't sure what I was going to do when he was gone.


He smiled. "Come here, climb on."


I mounted the bike behind him and obediently strapped on the helmet when he handed it back to me.


"Okay, now just wrap your arms around my waist and hold on. When we turn, lean in the same direction I lean, as far as I lean. I'll go slow to start out."


I took a deep breath and slid my arms around his waist. I had to stretch to be able to lock my fingers together, and turned my head so I could rest it against his back, one cheek pressed between his shoulderblades. He pulled on his own helmet and started the bike up, then steered it away from the curb and out into traffic.


He drove and I huddled against him, paying rapt attention to every sensation, the warmth of his body even through the jacket he wore, the way our bodies pressed together when we leaned into a turn, the shape of him through the coat. I memorized these sensations, storing them up for later, to serve as a warm light in the darkness when he was gone.


The ride was over all too soon, and he pulled into the parking garage of the hotel and found a space. I waited until he had put down the kickstand and pulled off his helmet before taking off my own. "How much stuff do you have upstairs?" he asked.


"Too much to get on the bike, I'm afraid. I'll get a cab."


I dismounted, and he stood up, turning to sit sideways before reaching out to snag my arm and draw me in closer, so I stood between his legs. His arms slid down to wrap around my waist and I shivered.


"Cold?"


"No," I admitted. "Not at all." He smiled a little. "Sort of the exact opposite, really."


"I like you a lot, Beth," he said quietly. "And I'm really kicking myself for having to leave tomorrow, when what I'd like to do is stay longer to get to know you better. But there are some responsibilities I can't put off. Tell me you understand that."


"I do," I sighed. "And I'm not mad. This is all so new to me, after all. Maybe it's best we both get some breathing room. I won't even try to decide what's in your head, but I'm afraid I'm going to go too fast and screw things up."


I did, too. Setting my own feelings aside, there were parts of this that just didn't make sense to me. This was Captain America. There probably wasn't a woman in the country who wouldn't be happy to jump into bed with him. We had known each other for a grand total of two days, give or take a few hours. I had no experience with relationships, had started feeling -- and falling -- for him hard, and had realized there was something altering the way I was reacting to things around me. It looked like it was going to turn out to be some sort of magic.


What was his excuse?


He was decent and noble and strong. He was kind and thoughtful and patient. And he could have any woman in the country. Why was he showing so much interest in a girl ten years his junior, a girl who was, by her own admission, messed up in the head? He'd gone from stopping the muggers in the park who would have raped me to holding me on his lap in a darkened underground garage, his fingers toying with the edge of my t-shirt and the waistband of my jeans, a thumb sliding up under the hem of the shirt, fingertips drawing lines of fire along my bare skin--holy shit. The moment I registered the slow dance his fingers were doing along the skin of my back and hips, it felt like someone had dumped a load of gasoline into my bloodstream and ignited it. Not in a good way, either.


I jerked back, a low groan of pain curling out of my tightly-pressed lips as I bolted off his lap. I could feel little blisters raising where he had touched me, so hot I half expected to see tendrils of smoke raising up from black, charred spots on my hips and back. Must have strayed too close to transgressing the oath with Loki, I thought wildly. It wasn't the worst pain I'd ever been in, by far -- Loki's beatings and Thor's hammer still held the tie for that record -- but it was bad enough.


"I'm sorry--" his tone was strangled, genuinely repentant, and I shook my head, tugging my shirt down to cover the puffy line of blisters his fingers had left. I tried not to hiss as the cloth dropped across the line of water-filled circles and lines. I had no idea whether a healing spell would eradicate those; would my own admittedly-weaker magics do anything to help if the damage was caused by potentially endangering the oath? If so, how was I endangering it?


The only thing I could think of was that, with my emotions coming so strongly to the fore with Steve, my loyalties were in danger of shifting...and I might, in a moment of passion, confess just who I really was.


That would violate both my oaths. It might well kill me.


I hadn't decided yet if it would be worth it.


He rose up off the bike as I straightened stiffly. "Beth, I apologize," he said, his deep voice quiet and calm. "I shouldn't have done that. It was wrong of me." He came no closer, but as I looked up, I could see the self-blame and the pain in his eyes. "I won't ask you to forgive me--"


"No. Stop." I rubbed my face with a tired hand. The spell I had cast that morning to banish fatigue was starting to wear off. "I'm not upset at you. I'm not mad at you. I just overreacted, that's all. It took me by surprise." I gave him a weary smile. "It's been a really long day, what with the robbery this morning, and all the moving...I'm just tired. That's all."


He took a tentative step forward. "Are you sure?"


"I'm sure." I was suddenly fiercely angry, absolutely furious. Not at him. Not even at myself. But at whatever it was that had made me different from birth: cold, distant, unfeeling, inhuman. Whatever it was that had warped my soul and took away any chances for this sort of joy. Whatever it was that had left me with a desperate, obsessive lust for magic as the only option I had for controlling my own life. I wanted to find whatever had done that and destroy it. "I'm sure," I repeated quietly. But for now, that was beyond me. All I could do, for now, was to keep my oath, keep at the mission Loki had given me, and try not to let myself get too caught up in the way I was feeling. That meant calming Steve, assuring him I wasn't angry, lulling his concerns. "Will you walk me up to my room?"


"Anything you ask," he said gently. He plucked the cycle's keys from the ignition and tucked them in his pocket, then took a few slow steps until he was standing at my side. He offered his arm; instead, I reached down and slid my hand into his. The smile that bloomed on his face told me I had made the right move.


Something inside me was weeping as we climbed into the elevator and went up from the garage to my floor. I managed to keep my expression even and pleasant -- how, I'll never know -- as we walked down the hall hand in hand, finally coming to a stop in front of my suite's door.


"Would you like a hug?" he asked.


There was rage burning in my heart. Not for him, but for whatever or whoever had so warped my life, even before I was old enough to have a sense of self, that I was functionally no different than a computer. Give me instructions and I had to follow them, or else. Well, to hell with that. I was ready to fight that programming, even if I went up in smoke.


"What I would like--" My voice came out ragged, and I took a deep breath. "Do you think...would it be okay...I mean, if you don't want to..." I was rambling, stammering. I made a face. "Do you think we could...could you maybe...spend the night? Just...holding me?"


He couldn't hide the flash of surprise, and I bit back a wave of bitterness. And then he smiled.


"I'd like that very much," he said.


I shoved my hand into my purse, came out with the key-card, and opened up the suite. My shoes hit the floor before the door was even shut behind me. I tossed the purse back onto the chair, pulled off my coat, and turned to face him.


He had removed his own shoes and coat, and was just standing there, slowly surveying the suite. He hadn't been up here before. I reached out and took his hand, and unresisting, he let me lead him to the bedroom. I didn't bother taking off any of my other clothes; I wasn't looking for sex. All I wanted at the moment was the small thing I'd said I wanted: to be held and cared for, just like every other human being. It was a little enough thing to ask for.


The room was dark as I pulled back the covers and climbed into bed, rolling over onto one side, and a moment later, I felt his weight come down on the mattress behind me. He nestled in close, spooning up next to me, one arm draping over my waist and drawing me close.


I was ready for his touch to raise blisters again, but they did not come.


"Go to sleep, Beth," he whispered. "I'm here."


I closed my eyes. Without a single qualm, utterly at peace, I let go and drifted down into darkness.

Chapter Text

            The bed was warm, and comfortable, and safe.

            Until I realized that I was alone in it.

            The understanding jolted me out of sleep. Thin dawnlight was coming in through a narrow gap in the curtains. I rolled over to look at the empty space where Steve had rested with me through the night. There was a piece of paper on his pillow, and I snatched it up.

 

            Beth –

 

            Got a call from the police about the mugging in the park the other night. Had to go see what they needed. I apologize for leaving you. Lunch today? Call me.

 

            --Steve

 

            His phone number was scrawled under his name, and I rolled out of bed with the note in my hand and dutifully added the name to my cell phone’s list of numbers. I couldn’t really argue with his sense of duty, given the mugging he mentioned was the one where we had met. Oh, I wanted to – I wanted him back here with me. Selfish, I know. With a sigh, I folded the note up and slipped it into my purse. The clock on the bedside table said it was just after 7 AM. With a yawn, I stretched, then padded into the bathroom to take a shower.

            After I had showered and dressed, I packed up everything, then got a porter to bring a cart up to my room, loaded my luggage all aboard, and took it down to the lobby to check out of the hotel. There were always cabs out front, and I snagged one, got my things loaded inside, and had it take me to the brownstone.

            I tipped the cabbie well for helping me carry my things inside. Elsie was still out, so after the front door was shut and locked, I levitated my luggage up to the second floor and unpacked and put everything away. It took about two hours to go from hotel to home – such as it was – and when I was finished, I headed out to the closest big box store, a Target store that was six blocks away. I bought dishes for cat food, litter boxes and cat litter, both wet and dry cat food, scratching posts, soft kitty beds, toys, litter box liners, kitty treats, collars, a pair of pet carriers, and more toys.

            Then I called a cab and had it take me to the closest branch of the city pound.

            I paid the driver off, and as I went inside, I noticed a ‘Help Wanted” sign in the building’s front window. As I crossed over the threshold, I was assailed by the odors of bleach and rubbing alcohol – standard for any place with a lot of animals, some with medical issues.

            I stopped at the front counter. “I’d like to see about adopting a pair of cats,” I told the girl sitting there. She smiled at me.

            “Sure, let me call someone up to take you back there and have a look at our babies,” she said.

            “By the way, the sign in the front window – what sort of job is available?” I asked.

            “Oh, we’re looking for a part-time groomer,” she said. “Were you interested?”

            “Sure,” I replied. “I love animals. Could I fill out an application?”

            She passed one and a pen over the counter to me, and then picked up the phone to call a volunteer. I took a seat and filled the application out quickly, making sure to note down the veterinary degree under the section reserved for education.

            The door behind the counter opened and an older woman with curly red hair came out. I smiled up at her as I rose from the seat I had taken, handing the pen and the finished application over to the girl at the counter.

            “You wanted to see the cats available for adoption?” the older woman asked. I nodded. “Okay, follow me.”

            I passed behind the counter and followed her through the door. The chambers back here were a warren of larger rooms, smaller rooms, visitation rooms, and hallways. The scent of urine was palpable in the air, although not overpowering; they clearly did their best to keep things clean. I twitched my fingers into the specific patterns of healing magic, mumbled a few syllables, and watched as a thin layer of energy overlaid my eyes, invisible to anyone but other mages. It worked as sort of a combined x-ray machine, MRI, and other medical procedures that would detect ill health. That dog in the cage over there, for example, the Great Dane with the sad eyes, was running a bit of a fever. I was sure the facility probably didn’t have the money to test every stray they took in off the street, although I was equally certain that they did their best to observe every new stray for symptoms of illness or injury.

            As I passed each cage, each playroom, the animals came to line up at the windows or bars, as close as they could get to me, and watched me go by. I smiled at a cage full of kittens, faux-meowing at them as I passed. They mewed at me in return. Kittens were cute and cuddly and almost always got adopted; I was looking for cats that were getting older, that were less likely to be taken home, that were most likely headed for being put down. The shelter only had so much room, after all.

            “What about those two?” I asked, pausing to point to a pair of elderly cats behind a glass window. One was pure white; the other, pure black. Their white whiskers suggested they were probably at least both ten years old – equivalent for being in their 60s, if they’d been human.

            “You want to see those two?” the volunteer asked. “They’re kind of crabby and stand-offish.”

            I shrugged. “Just like everyone has a soulmate out there somewhere, there’s a perfect owner for every pet and a perfect pet for every owner, no matter how sad, mean, or ornery,” I told her. She nodded and unlocked the door to the small room, letting me in.

            The cats looked up as she shut the door behind me, letting me in. The spell over my eyes showed me age’s vicissitudes: both cats had severe arthritis, one was diabetic and untreated, the other had a torn tendon. These things were fixable.

            I sat down on the plain wooden bench and held out my fingers for the cats to sniff, my demeanor unthreatening as possible. The white one extended her head a bit, but didn’t move from where she sat. I edged over on the bench to get closer, letting her smell my hand, then slowly began to pet her head. The slow stream of an enchantment emerged from my lips in near silence. I was willing to bet both of these cats would be a lot less crabby when they weren’t in so much pain.

            The magical energies slid into her flesh, unseen to the untrained eye, banishing pain, healing old injuries, rebuilding worn bone and tissue. The cat’s eyes went wide, and then she began to lean into my stroking fingers, and the purr that came out of her was loud enough to bring tears into my eyes.

            The black one, a boy, nudged my other arm gingerly, and I began to stroke his fur also, using the same spell to mend his failing kidneys, sending warmth through his flesh as I knit up the same age-related illnesses as the other had. He climbed up onto my lap, stood on his hind legs, and put his front legs to either side of my neck, hugging me as he rubbed his muzzle all over my face, marking me with his scent glands and “claiming” me as his.

            The volunteer rapped lightly at the door and peeked in. “How’s it goi—“ Her eyes went wide as she took in the two old cats, and I looked up with a bright smile.

            “I’ll take them.”

 

—O—

 

            I set the two pet carriers down just inside the front door of the brownstone, then turned to shut the door behind me and lock it. A plaintive meow came from one of the two carriers, and I lifted them up again and carried them up to the second floor.

            The moment I had that door shut and locked, I knelt down to unhitch the doors of the carriers. “Okay, come on out,” I told them. They emerged cautiously, looked up at me, then went about the business of exploring their new surroundings. I picked one up in each arm and carried them to the back hall, where the litter boxes on this floor had been set up; there was another set up on the third floor, and I would show them those in a moment. Once I set them down, I went to put the carriers away.

            The shelter had said they would give me a call to set up an appointment for a job interview. They had been interested in seeing I held a vet’s degree. I suspected they were checking my credentials and background before making the call, and that was fine with me.

            I pulled the phone out of my purse and gave Steve a call. It rang once and was answered immediately.

            “Hello?” his voice came through calm and collected.

            “Hi, Steve, it’s Beth.”

            “Beth! How are you? Where are you?” His tone brightened instantly.

            “I got my things and checked out of the hotel, now that everything’s set up at the brownstone. Then I went and adopted a pair of cats.”

            “That was fast,” he laughed.

            “I told you I liked animals,” I said mildly. “Two is fine; they can keep each other company while I’m at work. That way they won’t get lonely. Are you in the mood for lunch?”

            “Absolutely. Do you want me to come pick you up, or should I meet you somewhere?” he asked.

            “I wouldn’t mind a pick-up, if it’s okay with you; that way I won’t have to call yet another cab.”

            “Sure thing,” he said. “I can be there in about twenty minutes, if that’s fine?”

            “Sure. See you then.” I paused. “Missed you this morning.”

            “I missed you too,” he said, his tone going lower with affection.

            I hung up, and went to go fill the cat’s food and water bowls. The names the shelter had for them were Alice and Gordon, and I didn’t feel inclined to change those and confuse them. They came running as soon as they caught the scent of wet food, and I crouched down and gave them each a scritch behind the ears.

            A tiny spark of magic allowed me to cast the spell that let me speak with animals. “All right, you two.” Their heads jerked up and they stared at me wide-eyed. “I’ll be going out for awhile in a bit. Have fun exploring. Don’t potty where you aren’t supposed to. And be good.”

            “She talks!” Gordon, the black male, purred, rubbing up against me with his whole body, tail flitting back in forth in pleasure.

            “Mama talks!” the girl, Alice, agreed, rubbing her face against my knee.

            “Yes, I talk,” I meowed to them.

            "Smell mouse! Catch mouse? Eat mouse?" Gordon asked.

            "Go for it," I told them, amused. "Mama will be back later."

            They turned their backs, ignoring me -- as cats were wont to do -- to go chase down mouse smells, and I grabbed up my purse and coat and headed down to the front porch to wait for Steve, locking the house up behind me.

            He arrived fifteen minutes later, and I went down the stairs to greet him as he put down the kickstand on the bike and rose to meet me. I threw my arms around him in a hug and basked in his warmth.

            "Hey," he said gently. "How was your morning?"

            "Fruitful," I said. "I applied for a job at the shelter where I got the cats. We'll see if they call me."

            "Which reminds me. When do I get to meet them?" he teased.

            I smiled. "After lunch?"

            "Sounds like a plan." He slid his arms down around my waist, pulling me in closer, and I tilted my face up toward him like a flower greeting the sun. His lips brushed mine -- lightly at first, then claiming them completely. My lips parted to take a breath and his tongue slid past them, tangling with my own, tasting me as I tasted him. The feelings in my gut, my heart, my head, my bloodstream all made my head swim, and I caught at his arms to keep from falling over as my knees went wobbly.

            He chuckled softly, his warm breath fanning my face, and let me go gently.

            "Those lips should be registered as a deadly weapon," I laughed softly. He grinned and mounted the bike, and I climbed on behind him, strapping on the helmet he passed back to me. Then I wrapped my arms back around his waist, leaned in close, and smiled as the bike started up and pulled away from the curb.

 


 

 

            "So...do you know if you'll be back anytime soon?" I asked wistfully. He took a bite of the slice of pizza in his hand, chewed, swallowed, set it down on his plate.

            "I hope," he finally said. "I just don't know how soon. Might not be before Thanksgiving."

            I nodded. "That's only a few weeks," I said, mulling it over in my head. I'd certainly been alone for longer, in the past.

            Back when I hadn't known what it was like to spend time with someone I actually had human emotions for.

            "Hopefully. I'd still like to call and talk to you, as often as I can," he said.

            "I'd like that." I kept to myself all the stupid words that had risen to the top of my mind like cream to the top of a bottle of milk. The thought of following him to D.C. was tempting, but totally out of the question. Aside from the fact that it would violate my oath to Loki -- he had told me to stay here, more or less -- it smacked of a stupid teenaged girl's first stalkerish obsession.

            Which wasn't a completely unrealistic way to view things.

            At least I'd managed to keep myself from blurting out anything un-take-backable yet. He hadn't compromised my willpower that much. So far.

            I took a bite of my own slice, the two of us crowded around a small table at Famous Joe's after most of the lunch rush had died down. I should have been happy to have him leaving; he was a distraction -- a very pleasant one -- and when he was gone, I would be able to get back to the mission Loki had given me: watching heroes. I would be able to find a job, the better to appear normal, and to even start my studies again, albeit in a limited way. I could visit antique shops, estate sales, yard sales, and auctions, and start collecting items with ghosts attached to them. I could go looking for the house on Bleecker Street and try to figure out how, and why, it was interfering with my essential self. There were a whole raft of things I could do when he was gone that I couldn't do while he was here, for fear of him discovering something he shouldn't.

            Then why was I so miserable?

            He reached out and took one of my hands. "Penny for your thoughts?"

            "Still not worth that much," I said automatically. "I'm just thinking how much I'm going to miss you, and how odd that feels, because I'm not used to missing anyone. And how weird it is that somehow you've become close enough to me in such a short time that I will miss you." I shrugged. "I used to know exactly what I wanted out of life. I was centered, and composed, and balanced. You knock me off balance and make me like it." I offered him a crooked smile.

            "I guess that's a good thing," he said. "And I like you too, Beth. I really wasn't expecting that when I stepped in at the park. I thought I'd never see you again after the police came. But--" he shook his head. "Somehow I couldn't walk away."

            "I'm glad you didn't," I admitted. "It's strange. I've been getting along without other people for almost my entire life. I never thought that I'd actually want to be around any."

            He smiled. "Maybe you've just been around the wrong people, all this time."

            Boy, wasn't that the truth? Well, I could see how he would think so, if he knew who I'd been spending my time with. Both Loki and Doom weren't exactly on the "Best Friends" list of people like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Doom was worth knowing; before Steve, he was the closest thing I'd ever had to a friend. And Loki? Well...he'd kept his word, so far. He was teaching me, in exchange for my service.

            And I was a woman of my word, as well. Even if I didn't want to be, any more.

            We finished up lunch and hopped on the cycle, and he took me back to the brownstone. I dismounted and smiled at him. "Come on inside, I'll introduce you to Gordon and Alice."

            He followed me in and upstairs. The cats were nowhere to be seen, so I called on the spell of animal speech, which would last for 24 hours or until I dispelled it, whichever came first. "Mama's home! Come on, babies."

            He stared. "Wow. That's the best impression of cat sounds I've ever heard."

            I merely smiled, and turned as the cats came running, scooping them both up, one in each arm. "The black one is a boy, that's Gordon. The white one is Alice."

            He held his hands out to them to sniff, which they did, then looked up at me tentatively. "Mama person?"

            "Mama friend," I told the cats. They looked blank. Perhaps cats didn't have the same concept of interpersonal relations as humans did, so I tried again. "Mama mate."

            That, they understood, and immediately started rubbing their faces on his outstretched hands and purring. I laughed.

            "Awwww, they're sweet," Steve said. "I've always been more of a dog person, myself, but these guys are really friendly."

            "Cats aren't stand-offish at all when you know how to talk to them," I said, knowing he would take it figuratively. After a moment, I set them down.

            He stepped in close, drew me into his arms. "I don't want to go," he sighed. "But I have to. It's a long drive to D.C., and I have an obligation."

            "I understand," I said reluctantly. "It doesn't keep me from wanting you to stay, but I understand."

            "I wish I could." He reached up and stroked the side of my face. "I'll call you when I get there, so you know I arrived in one piece."

            I rested my head against his chest. I could hear his heart beating. "I'd like that. I'm going to miss you, Steve. I've never had anyone to miss before."

            He slid his hands down, tilting my face up to him. "It's been a long time for me, too," he murmured, and kissed me.

            The kiss was fire and lightning and the first flowers opening in the spring. I wanted it to last forever, his lips moving on mine, his tongue twining with mine. I closed my eyes to shut out the world around us, my hands sliding up to flatten against his shoulders. One of his hands moved to tangle in my hair. The rush of hormones was doing things to me that made me feel like a candle exposed to a blowtorch. I moaned, lips parting, that small fragment of sound escaping me.

            And finally, he pulled away. There was something dark and deep and intense in his sapphire eyes as he stared into mine for a long, long moment, his hand still cupping my face.

            "Okay," he said at last, and his voice was ragged. "I'd better go. Or I won't."

            I nodded wordlessly, standing frozen as he let me go, took a step away. I could see indecision in his gaze, and some sort of unspoken pain. I realized, rather amazedly, that he really didn't want to go, and that gave me the strength to let him.

            "I'll talk to you tonight when you call," I said quietly, and he nodded. He took a deep breath, pulling himself together, and then he turned and marched out the door. I listened to his footsteps descending the stairs, listened to the front door open and close, heard it as the bike started up and pulled away from the curb, the sound diminishing until it was swallowed up by the distance.

            Only then did I turn away, shaking all over, knowing I was about ready to cry.

            "What the hell is wrong with me?"

Chapter Text

The next few days were mostly a blur: I put up curtains and blinds, covered the hardwood floors in some spots -- next to the bed, where my feet would get cold on winter mornings -- with tasteful reproductions of Persian rugs, hung some framed prints on the walls. My faux college transcripts arrived in the mail, as well as the replacement diploma I had ordered to take the place of the one I had "lost", and I went to the job interview at the shelter and was offered the job. They wanted me to start out as a groomer and cleaner, but one of their vets, an elderly man named Lee, was retiring in a month and moving to Florida, and they wanted me to take his place. I had no problems with that. The grooming job was part-time to start, 9 - 5 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which left me plenty of time for trying to get my life back into some sort of order.


Steve had indeed called Sunday night when he'd arrived in D.C., but we hadn't been able to talk long; he sounded distracted, and admitted the task they'd called him in for was even more problematic than they'd originally thought. We spoke only ten minutes, and then he'd had to go, promising to call in the next few days.


I spent Tuesday and Thursday visiting yard sales, pawn shops, and antique stores across Manhattan; by the end of the week, I had three new ghosts at my beck and call: a little boy named Tommy whose spirit was bound to his baseball mitt, a WWII-era Japanese soldier named Hiro, and a middle-aged woman who had once been a secretary to JFK before she'd died of breast cancer. I got a subscription to the newspaper and started marking down estate sales and different types of collectibles conventions; there was a Civil War memorabilia sale coming to one of the convention centers in a week that sounded promising.


I gave myself two days to collect myself after Steve left, and then Tuesday, before Elsie returned, I spent several hours moving through the house and setting up magical wards over the building to protect myself from scrying, and to keep out any mystical entities that might try to enter. I walked the perimeter of the house from outside with a bowl of enchanted water and an incense brazier; then I went inside and repeated the task, tracing magic sigils of protection on every window, every door frame, every sink tap and drain, every air vent, every fireplace and chimney, every electrical socket and light fixture. The symbols would be invisible to anyone who wasn't a mage, of course. Both Loki and Doom would be able to enter, if they chose to, by virtue of their oaths with me, and any magus stronger than myself would be able to force their way in and break the wards, if they expended enough energy, but at least garden-variety creatures like elementals, unbound ghosts, and extradimensional entities and demons weaker than I was would be kept out.


Elsie returned Tuesday night, and I had dinner with her. She told me stories of her life, lamented about the good old days being over, and asked me to do a few small chores for her -- fetching groceries, dropping some mail in the mailbox, raking up the leaves in the back yard, and washing the windows of the front door, all of which I promised to take care of after I got home from work Wednesday evening. I introduced her to the cats, and they took to her immediately.


I started work on Wednesday, and it went well. I got to shampoo and trim the nails of 7 dogs and 18 cats. I made sure that I checked the health of each one, and used magic to heal those that were hurt or ill. I spent my lunch break looking through the other animals, talking to them, and healing any others that were ill, as well. I figured it would take me about a week to have every dog and cat in the shelter at the peak of health...and happy, healthy animals were much more likely to be adopted.


And then Saturday morning I was woken by the feeling of a dimensional gate opening and closing somewhere close, and just like that, all the new emotions I had been feeling -- toward Steve, and in general -- disappeared, and I was my old self again.


"What. The. Fuck." I bolted upright in bed, and the cats, who had taken to sleeping in my bed with me instead of in their own beds, lifted their heads to peer at me sleepily.


I pulled back the covers and got out of bed. Whatever plane the dimensional gate had opened on was not familiar to me; it was hard to tell from a distance, but it didn't have the resonance, the "flavor", of any of the places Loki had taken me to.


There was a hollow place inside me where all the new emotions I'd been feeling had lived, and it took a moment to ground and center myself, trying to examine that hunger, that empty hole. I went about it with a flat, unemotional precision that was familiar to me from months ago; it literally felt like someone had pulled something out of me and disappeared with it.


The clock on my bedside table said it was just shy of 9 AM. With a sigh, I pulled on my bathrobe and went down the hall to start the coffee maker. As I put the filter in, filled it with coffee, filled the back compartment up with water, and hit the switch, my mind was trying to trace the fading essence I'd felt back to where the dimensional gate had opened, superimposing the traces -- from weakest, at a distance, near me, to its strongest point, where it had opened, over a map of Manhattan. The traces led south, toward Greenwich Village, getting stronger as they got further from me.


I went back down the hall, showered, got dressed in jeans and a sweater, then came back to the kitchen and made oatmeal to go with the coffee. Once I finished breakfast, I stuck the dishes in the dishwasher, made sure the cats' food and water bowls were full, cleaned out their litter boxes, and then grabbed my purse and keys. "Mama go out," I told the cats in their tongue. "Will return later."


Gordon looked up, tail twitching with slow, lazy joy, and purred. Alice was batting around a catnip mouse. I smiled and headed out the door.


Rather than calling a cab, I walked. I had the thread of the gate's essence firmly in mind now, and I didn't want to miss anything by speeding past something of interest while closed up in a moving metal box. The morning air was crisp and cool, the scent of fallen leaves and wood smoke dancing on the breeze, and I let the traces guide me, block after block. The Village was busy this morning, bicyclists darting past, bistros and donut shops serving morning customers, buskers playing music for coins even in the November chill.


It was a two-hour walk before I neared the end of the road. The clutter of nightclubs, tattoo shops, corner stores, and cheap bars was fading, and just past the intersection ahead, a huge old mansion loomed up out of the morning light. I came to a stop at the street corner, waiting for the light to change, and tilted my head up to read the street signs.


Bleecker Street and Fenno Place.


Well, of course.


When the WALK symbol lit up, I crossed the street and went to stand in front of the old building. This close, the huge sigil window was visible at the top floor. A tall, wrought-iron fence surrounded the building, which looked still and quiet. The gateway had opened somewhere inside the manse.


I dropped the spell that grants the magic sight I habitually used to see the layers of the world that are not visible to non-mages. Using only mundane eyesight, the difference was even more apparent; the house looked like an abandoned warehouse. A sign taped up in one dusty window proclaimed "Starbucks - Coming Soon!", but the date on the sign was 2009.


I took a step back, reactivating the True Sight spell.


No sooner had I done so than the gate opened inside the building again, and all the new emotions that had disappeared came roaring back, opening up like a black hole at the bottom of my gut. I gasped, then grabbed the nearest light post to steady myself. How did people live like this, open and exposed and raw every moment of every day? Loneliness flooded into the corners of my spirit, missing Steve, my affection for him crowding out the shadows, the fear over what was happening to me. Standing here, so close to the source, it was stronger than ever -- almost overpowering.


If I stayed, I would collapse.


I turned and ran.


It was several blocks before I could force myself to slow down and catch my breath. I was aware that people were staring, and I knew it would be a bad idea if someone got suspicious enough to call the police. I sank into a chair at a table on the front patio of a coffee shop, just long enough to calm down. A waiter came out from inside the shop to let me know that they weren't serving customers on the patio this late in the year, and I went inside and ordered the largest mocha they had, paying with one of the twenties out of my wallet. He gave me back my change and I tipped with another twenty, tucking it into the jar next to the cash register before taking a seat at one of the tables in back. Someone had left a copy of the day's New York Times on the next table over, and I snagged it and let myself turn the pages while sipping my coffee, going through the motions of mundane activity to try to recover my bearings after the shock of being so close to the gate when it opened.


Whatever was altering my emotional balance was in that building. I needed to go back, to explore it, to confront whoever or whatever was behind it. I didn't know if what was going on was an intentional attack on me, or just a side effect of something else that was taking place there, but an investigation was clearly required to find a way to learn what was going on and either end it -- or somehow come to deal with it.


My fingers had stilled on one of the newspaper's pages, and I realized I had been staring at the main headline and photo there for several minutes without actually taking it in. I focused and then blinked in surprise.

VICTOR VON DOOM RETAKES LATVERIA
FORMERLY DEPOSED MONARCH TO ADDRESS U.N.

I skimmed the story quickly. Doom had reclaimed his throne in Latveria last week, and would be coming to New York next week to speak before the United Nations in order to condemn the Avengers for their attack on his capitol and their attempted overthrow of his reign. The newspaper had few specific details, but he was supposed to address the U.N. the Saturday before Thanksgiving -- the 18th. That meant he would probably be arriving in New York no later than Friday sometime. He would undoubtedly be staying at the Latverian Embassy, rather than trusting the ridiculously lax security precautions of any hotel.


The urge to go see his speech, to see him once more, was ridiculously strong. I desperately wanted to be able to speak to someone about the magic and about what was going on in my heart and head. I'd have to leave out the fact that the someone I was interested in was Steve, but Doom was the only person I considered my equal, and he might be able to help me figure out what was going on. He might even have some ideas on how to stop it...or, failing that, on how to cope with it better.


I set the paper back down and finished my coffee. The rest of the afternoon was still free, and there were several interesting-looking shops I had passed in a hurry on the way to the site of the gate, choosing to come back to them later. Getting to the gate before the last of the traces dissolved had been more important on the trip here, but now that I had found the source of the gate, I had time to investigate.


The nearest shop was two blocks down on the other side of the street. I tossed my coffee cup and headed out of the coffee shop, hands tucked in my pockets against the chill. As the day waned, it was getting colder out; soon I would have to wear gloves and a scarf and hat any time I left the house. I was used to New York winters, but that didn't mean I enjoyed them.


I could sense a strong patina of magic draped over the store, which looked innocuous enough from the outside. The name on the sign over the door read 'Clotho's Threads', and I pushed the door open and stepped inside, then paused just over the threshold to let my eyes adjust to the low level of light.


Once I could see clearly again, my gaze swept the shop slowly. The proprietress behind the counter wore a long, rose-colored dress with a bohemian vibe, her long dark hair and tawny skin giving her a vaguely Romani look. There was a handsome but seedy blond man over in the far corner, peering at a book on a pedestal; he looked to be in his late 40s, and despite the standard non-smoking laws in all of New York, a lit cigarette was clamped between his lips. The owner at the counter was apparently ignoring it. He wore a long, stained tan trenchcoat over a white dress shirt and dark slacks. He looked up from the book as the door shut, his stare taking me in, a faint smirk curling one corner of his mouth; his cornflower-blue eyes were full of secrets and weary pain.


He and the owner -- if owner she was -- were, so far as I could tell, the only other people in the store besides myself. I drifted through the store, studying the things on the shelves. This was most definitely not the usual sort of occult supply shop. Oh, there were some standard products -- incense resins such as frankincense, myrrh, dragon's blood, and copal; beeswax candles in every color and size; essential oils in small vials with sticky labels -- but there was not a single book to be found that sported a crescent moon on the spine, and the usually ubiquitous racks of new age music CDs were gone. So were the stands of gaudy pewter jewelry. Almost everything was behind glass cases, and the warding spells on the cases were so strong I hazarded a guess that even a non-magus might have been able to feel them...if they'd been able to find and enter the store in the first place.


"You. Girl."


I looked up. The woman at the counter was beckoning me over. I ambled to the counter without any particular hurry. "Yes?"


"You're missing some part of yourself," she said quietly.


I stiffened. "You could say that of anyone," I said warily.


She rolled her eyes. "Let me ask you a question. You can answer it or not, as you like." I nodded. "Astral projection. You can't do it, can you?"


My poker face had gotten very good over the years, so I was able to keep from reacting. It was true; Doom had tried to teach me years ago, shortly after I had arrived at his castle. He had shown me the basic exercises that should have led to me being able to release my soul from my body and send it wandering to see what I would. After showing me the initial exercises, he had moved on to other things. I had never been able to master the exercises, and the frustration so infuriated and embarrassed me that I had never been able to bring myself to tell him so, because I was afraid it would lessen his opinion of me.


But I had no idea how this stranger knew that.


At last, I nodded. "No," I said, my voice low. "I've never mastered it. And I'm not sure why...I've mastered other things that should have been more difficult."


Her eyes flicked up and I half-turned. The man in the trenchcoat stood there, just behind me, passing over the book he had been looking at. "I'll have this, luv," he said, his accent a less-than-royal British one that put me in mind of dockyards and filthy pubs. I edged out of the way while she wrapped the book up for him in brown paper and twine. No money changed hands.


I waited for him to go, heard the door open and shut behind me, and watched as the woman turned her back on me, reaching out to part the beaded curtain on the rear wall. "Wait here. There is something I must fetch. Something I want to show you. Something you need." She disappeared through the beads and I sighed.


The beads hadn't even stopped clicking together when I felt a hand on my shoulder, a hand at my waist, a body pressed against my back, and a voice with a rough British accent purring in my ear. "'S a bad idea to play games with gods, luv," the blond man in the trenchcoat growled throatily. "Might be you're a bit out of your league. Maybe you should think about getting out of that nasty oath while you've still got both eyes in yer head an' your wits about you."


I shoved back, throat closing up in shock, whirled around.


There was no one there.


But the book he had taken with him now sat, still wrapped, on the floor by my feet.


My heart was pounding like a jackhammer on crack as I picked it up gingerly. It was heavier than it looked, the paper stiff and coarse as old skin, the twine already starting to unravel. There was a scent to it that I couldn't quite place, a smell of old decay, of dust and cobwebs and lost hope. This is one of those shops, isn't it? When I leave, I'll turn around and it'll be gone. I've probably inadvertently crossed over into an alternate universe or something. Best hope I can get out in one piece.


But the man -- if he had been a man and not just a projection of my subconscious -- had known about my oath to Loki. Somehow. Had he been one of Loki's illusions, a trick to shatter my confidence, something to see if I'd betray the oath? Possible, but it didn't feel like it. Loki's illusions were perfection incarnate, smooth and sublime, with no rough edges. This man had stank of cigarettes, of sweat; I'd felt the stubble on his jawline rasp along the side of my face. And his fingers on my hip had clutched strongly enough to leave bruises. Moreover, I had been able to feel him with the mystic senses I possessed: irredeemably tainted by some dark power, twisted, self-serving, but with a human soul at its core. He was, perhaps, as close to the complete opposite of Steve's nobility, selflessness, and goodness as it was possible to be.


So why was I suddenly aroused?


Maybe I just sensed something in the stranger that was kin to some similar darkness in myself.


The beads parted again and the woman emerged. Her expression changed not a whit at the sight of the stranger's book in my hands. She merely nodded for me to come round the edge of the counter. "Back here."
I followed her, still wary; the encounter with the stranger had gotten my back up, and I could sense an equivalent power in her. Part of me just wanted to run.


But the part of me that chased after magic like an aardvark going after ants would not let me retreat.


The room behind the curtain was dark, save for the pale silvery light that spilled out of the globe of chased silver-black crystal on a bronze stand at the far side of the room. Patterns like geometric lace whirled slowly inside the globe, breaking apart and coming together again, the multicolored sheen like the one seen when oil floats atop water. I could feel the energies pulsing inside it, and they were enough to take my breath away.


"The Sphere of Saphriel," she said simply.


"History says the Sphere of Saphriel was destroyed by agents of the Inquisition in 1472," I said cautiously. "Something about not wanting any witches to get their hands on an item created by one of God's Fallen."


"What the Church destroyed was the Lesser Sphere," the woman said. "Saphriel also made a Greater, and it has been hidden away for centuries. Until now."


"What's the difference between the two?" I stalled, trying not to fidget.


"The Lesser was bound by time's dominion," she said. "It could only be used to scry things that had happened in the past, or were happening in the present. The Greater Sphere will also show true things that are to happen in the future."


I glanced at her sidelong. "Even assuming I believe what you say," I said, "why would you want me to have this?"


Her expression was aloof, enigmatic. "It is something you need," she said, "and I am charged by my destiny to aid those in certain circumstances." She paused. "Make no mistake. The Sphere cannot be owned, not by a mortal. It may be used only. Eventually it will pass out of your possession, no matter how you try to hold on to it."


"I see." Just days ago, I had been lamenting the fact that I had no scrying tools. Now I was being offered one of the most powerful ones in existence. "And what will this cost me? Something I'd never miss."


She laughed. The sound was a wisp of light, vanishing too quickly, seeming not to echo in the darkened room. "I do not seek after your soul. That is a task only you can accomplish. No. I will accept the first thing your fingers touch when you thrust your hand into your handbag."


I arched an eyebrow, dubious at her words. There was little of value in my bag -- Loki's wallet was probably of moderate value, both monetarily and magically; being a thing of magic he had made, it provided a magical link back to him. Everything else -- cell phone, keys, lip balm, feminine necessities -- were mundane and easily replaced.


Still...if it was the real Sphere of Saphriel...


I shoved my hand into my purse and my fingertips skidded off paper. I wrapped my fingers around what I'd touched and pulled my hand back out.


I had dumped the change from my coffee earlier back into my purse. A single one-dollar bill sat crumpled in my hand.


She nodded and held out her hand. I shrugged and passed the dollar over, and she took it, making it disappear, then went about boxing up the Sphere and its stand, making sure to insulate it well against breakage with plenty of balled-up tissue paper. She enclosed the box into a paper bag with twine handles and passed the lot to me, then led me out of the back room.


As I fumbled in my purse to get my phone out without dropping either the bag or the book the man had left me, she spoke one last time.


"A word of advice. John left you the book for reasons of his own. I do not question them, and the book may well be helpful. But it is always ill-advised to deal lightly with demons. He is skilled at it, of course, after several decades' worth of practice. But I would caution you to think twice before making any pacts...or at least, any more pacts than you already have."


I stumbled backward from the counter, shoving the door behind me open with an elbow. A cab had just pulled up to the curb to let out its passenger, and I waved at it to wait.


The building in front of me was dusty, a 'CLOSED' sign in the window faded almost white by sunlight, and the door I had just staggered out of looked as though it had been boarded over for years.

 

 

Chapter Text

Except for giving the cab driver my brownstone address, I was completely silent on the ride home. All thought of visiting other stores, and a long walk back, had been abandoned. The encounter at the occult shop had been disquieting, even for someone like me, who was used to dealing with the outré and the unreal. It felt as though I had stepped into a very real Twilight Zone, and I didn't like it at all.


I paid the driver and tipped him well, then carried both packages inside, up the stairs to the second floor. I couldn't, of course, leave them there for Steve to see the next time he visited; for one thing, I had a sneaking suspicion the book was bound in human skin. That would set off all sorts of alarms for him that I just wasn't in any shape to deal with.


So I locked my door firmly and shut the globe and the book in my bedroom, away from the cats, then went to go open up the hatchway on the ceiling of the third floor back steps landing that led up to the attic. A ladder dropped down, old wood, but sturdy enough for me given my light weight, and I went to find a flashlight before heading up.


Elsie had described the attic as storage space, but there wasn't much up here currently. In the far end of the house, the side facing the street, was an old dressmaker's dummy; pushed up under the eaves were several stacks of old newspapers bound together with string. There were electric lights along the center rafter of the roof, so I flicked the switch and turned off the flashlight. The floorboards were smooth enough here -- not a finished floor, but not splinter-bait, either -- and a layer of dust lay thick over everything. The slanting roof was sealed well, and if there was insulation under those boards, it was tucked well away; I couldn't feel the itch from microscopic particles of fiberglass in the air. But the space was clean; I saw neither cobwebs nor mouse droppings nor bird splatter nor squirrel nests.


If I cleaned away the dust, it would do fine as a place to keep the book and globe. I had warded the roof from outside, and it would need further warding from inside, plus another Persian rug so I'd have someplace clean to sit when I meditated. Some incense and candles, perhaps...yes, it would work fine as a sanctum.


I spent the rest of the day getting things together, cleaning the attic out, and disposing of the newspapers in the nearest recycling bin. I moved the dress dummy to the storage shed in the back yard where Elsie kept the lawnmower, shovel, rakes, and an axe for cutting firewood. The attic was usable by dinner, and I took a break then to order schwarma and iskender kebap for delivery before taking the book and globe upstairs to the attic. I had to levitate both of them, not wanting to risk dropping them as I went up the ladder.


The bronze stand for the globe, which I hadn't taken a good look at in the shop, took the form of four angels standing in a circle, their arms and wings outstretched and touching wingtips and fingers in a circle. The globe itself was set into that circle. I would need to get a podium for the book, but for now, I set it on top of a throw pillow perched atop a four-legged wooden stool from the kitchen bar. I planned to look up bookstands on a library furniture website after dinner. The warding took the longest; I had to be careful, what with Elsie home now, not to disturb her with the scent of incense smoke.


I had dinner with the cats crowding round me on the couch, hoping to get treats. The stereo I had picked up Monday night on the way home from work was currently turned to an Eastern station, and hauntingly beautiful music was filling the loft at a reasonable (read: not likely to disturb Elsie) volume. Before, I'd had no appreciation for music of any sort, or poetry, or literature, or drama, or movies, or television, or art. Those things might as well have all been white noise to me, for all that I noticed them. And now I perked up whenever I heard a new song on the radio at work, back in the room where I did the grooming; or when I spotted an outdoor piece of sculpture, or a painting in a gallery window, or even something as unplanned and spontaneous as the songs of birds as they scattered across a grey autumn sky. It was like being able to see after being blind, to hear after having been deaf, and I didn't know what to make of it. It was almost certainly connected to the flood of previously dormant emotions I had experienced after returning to New York -- but though I knew where to look for that answer, I couldn't begin to comprehend the why of it.


I wrapped up the leftovers and stashed them in the fridge, rinsed off my dishes and put them in the dishwasher, and made sure there were no bits of dropped garlic or onion for the cats to get, then went up to the attic, carefully pulling the ladder up behind me. The sphere sat on its stand, and I sank down onto the floor in front of it in a lotus position, letting my mind still, my thoughts quiet, my heart calm. I'd had the basics of crystal-gazing under Doom's tutelage years ago, but hadn't so much as seen another crystal ball since then, until today.


When my mind was as motionless as a pool of still water in the depths of a cave, I let myself rise -- as I had in the hotel room with my triple-strength cup of coffee -- until I floated in mid-air, my eyes level with the crystal. I contemplated that surface, silver-black as hematite, and the patterns that floated and circled lazily within it, designed to draw the eye toward its center, where true sight resided. I was ready.


"Show me the cause of the changes to my normal emotional state."


The ball flared with silver light, thick streaks of viscous black swirling slowly through the crystal. Slowly, a third color began to emerge from the silver and black, a bright, angry streak of purple-blue fire that swiftly split, and split again, until a dozen flaming tendrils broke through the orb's darkness, coming together in a roughly oval shape, heat incarnate, fire incarnate, a blaze to scorch worlds to cinders. The oval shape manifested two brighter amber pits for eyes, a cruel dark slash of a mouth, took on streaming wisps of fire at its crown.


And then the image began to move.


"WHO--"


"Enough!" I shouted, blanking the orb, shutting it down with a thought, throwing up additional layers of wards that would almost certainly not be enough should the one I had seen in the globe choose to pursue my intrusion.


Because in that second, I had recognized the face of the Dread Dormammu, my mother's uncle, and I was afraid if he cared to track down something as weak as I was, he would recognize me, in return.


I had not expected the answer the orb had shown me. I had certainly not been prepared to learn that the onslaught of emotions that had barraged me of late had been due to the Lord of the Faltinian Flames.


But blood calls to blood, does it not? Or ichor, or whatever it was that linked us. If anyone would be able to manipulate me, a relative -- of sorts -- would find it easiest.


But how did that jibe with the house I had seen in my coffee scrying, and tracked down earlier today? Was Dormammu on earth? Did he dwell in that building?


I was afraid to reactivate the sphere and find out. I was smart enough to know that, in a battle with Dormammu, I would come away the loser.


“I can’t…” the whisper escaped from me before I realized it. “I need…” I shuddered. “Fresh air. Need fresh air.” I had to get out of the apartment for awhile.


I grabbed my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, pulled on a hat and gloves, grabbed my keys and phone. The cats were asleep on my bed, and so I did not wake them as I hurried out the door.


It was full dark outside, the hiss of the wind blowing piles of fallen leaves back and forth the most prominent sound. I headed north, up through the streets that were never empty but were, at the moment, less busy than usual. Small wonder: it was almost midnight, and it was cold out. My breath misted on the air as I walked, and the hint of ice on the breeze suggested it might snow tonight, if it felt like it. I shoved my gloved hands into the coat pockets as I walked, my purposeful stride carrying me away from home and up into the streets near Central Park.


Cold, scornful laughter echoed around me, bouncing off one building after another, and I lifted my head, eyes narrowing at the sound. I could hear no other footsteps in my wake, although the occasional car passed by. Whatever it was, I was fairly sure it was not the Dread Dormammu; I couldn’t imagine he would stoop to taunting me. If he came after me, it would be swift and without warning and utterly beyond my ability to forestall.
“Hey, pretty lady…” a voice called out, a low and mocking croon.


“Hey, baby. Hey, baby. Where you going?”


I turned in a slow circle and saw no one. Nobody skulking in recessed shop doorways, nobody hiding behind trees, no one just around corners. A hiss of frustration escaped my lips and the laughter rose again, bouncing off the buildings once more.


I finally thought to look up.


Just in time to have one of the shadowy figures come plummeting down atop me, knocking me down, sending me rolling. Cold hands grabbed at my arms, yanked me to my feet, threw me in a circle from man to man. There were six of them, sneering, smirking, eyes hollow and hungry and dead inside.


Not Dormammu, then. But nothing good.


Their hands were too cold to be human. I frowned, screeching to a halt in the center of their circle, refusing to be bounced from one human pinball bumper to another any longer.


Or – not human. They grinned, revealing sharp fangs.


“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Vampires? Really?” I didn’t bother to hide my disgust, my annoyance. But there was no fear in me.


That threw them. They looked at each other warily, clearly used to their victims’ terror, and then one snarled. “Vampires. Really. Bitch.”


“You have one chance,” I spat. “Go. Before you regret it.”


There was a moment of silence and then they burst out laughing.


And converged upon me.


I felt cold lips at my wrists, my throat. Fabric tore as they ripped open the sleeves of my coat to get at the soft spot at the inside of my elbows, where so many veins clustered.


And before I felt the touch of ivory fangs piercing my skin, I reached into myself and freed the energies of my Faltinian side.


Fire sheathed me like a glove wrapped around a hand, a fierce and angry heat that did nothing to mar my flesh but reached out hungrily for the ones who held me. They screamed, trying to let go so they could run, and discovered that the first incandescent flare had burst into their flesh and shrunk the tendons in their hands, locking their fingers into place where they held me, freezing them in place as they burned.


The stench was unbearable, but they went quickly, exploding into chunks of dying ash and embers that went cold almost immediately. I stared down at the remains of that half a dozen beings with a furious and indignant snarl curving my lips.


“Well, that was unexpected.”


The voice came from behind me, and I spun. A man stood there, tall, muscular, dark-skinned, dark-haired, eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. At night? He wore a long leather trenchcoat, black leather pants, some sort of flak vest over a dark red shirt, and too many weapons to count. There was a sleek Asian sword of some sort sheathed vertically along his back in a sheath hidden under, or built into, his coat. He wore a number of sharp-pointed, silvery stakes tucked into elastic loops in his belt and along the legs of his pants, and he carried a modified gun in each hand. The barrels of the firearms looked huge, larger than those of a shotgun. There were tribal tattoos etched into the skin over his skull along the curves of his hairline, giving him an exotic look.


“So. What are you?” he asked flatly. When he spoke, his teeth were very white, and his canines slightly pointed, though less so than those of the vampires that lay in a thin film of ash on the sidewalk.


“I could ask the same of you,” I said. “But I won’t, because that’s not my business, just like who and what I am isn’t your business.”


“Oh, I think you just made it my business, girl,” he said. “I’ve been hunting this pack all night. Here I thought they’d found some stupid woman out alone much too late at night in a part of the city that’s not wise to walk in after dark. Turns out they were the stupid ones. You’re not human, so I’ll ask again: what are you?”


“I’m human enough,” I said quietly. “Mostly human.” I tilted my head sideways to look at him. “Silver stakes. Weird weapons. Vampire hunter, eh?”


“There are a few of us,” he said blandly, his voice calm and confident. “None like me.”


“No, I expect not.” I reached out with mystic senses, True Sight veiling my eyes, showing me that he was no more fully human than I was. His flesh was cooler than mine, and those teeth… “You’re part vampire yourself.” I saw him stiffen, saw his body language change from curious to defensive, wary. “You don’t need to concern yourself with me, hunter,” I said. “I don’t hunt humans. I don’t actually hunt anyone. I just choose to defend myself when I need to.”


“That’s not good enough,” he growled, taking a step forward. “Bad enough the vampires are back when we thought we killed the last of them over a decade ago. Now you, complicating things. I can’t have you walking around loose until I know whose side you’re on.” He reached for me.


“Mine,” I said, my tone flat and deadly. I took a step back out of his reach, snarled as he suddenly exploded into movement, hurtling toward me as swiftly as a car out of control, his limbs moving in carefully-choreographed kicks, strikes.


“I don’t have the patience for this shit,” I muttered, ducking just enough for him to go sailing overhead, and whispered the short chant to turn myself invisible.


He landed, spun – and stopped, clearly taken off-guard. I stood right where I was, unsure of how acute his perceptions were, not wanting to alert him to where I was by stirring air currents if I started to walk away. A complicated twitch of my fingers further changed me, turning me intangible, and now air currents that carried movement and scent were no longer an issue. Slightly out of phase with the material plane, I would not register on a thermal-vision heat-scope or goggles.


He looked for me for a few minutes, all he could spare before the sound of sirens could be detected at the far periphery of sound. Then he turned and ran.


I followed. Do-gooder with supernatural powers. That fit Loki’s mission parameters, even if the hunter’s mission was so narrowly tailored as to be no threat to Loki (and less so, considering the gulf between their respective strengths). He hightailed it to a motorcycle parked in an alley half a block away and mounted up, tearing off into the night. I leapt into the air, flying to follow him, hovering over his bike as it threaded through the streets and alleys until it reached a seedy, abandoned warehouse on the docks. He guided it inside and I followed, flitting right through one of the walls, noting videocameras strung up at regular intervals. They could not detect me, of course, and I went inside, watching as he joined two others dressed much like he was.


“How’d it go?” the woman asked. She was pretty, about thirty, with light brown hair and a keen smile.


“Yeah, smoke any of the new bloodsuckers?” the man asked. He was maybe a few years older than the woman, brown hair, brown eyes, neat mustache and beard.


“I didn’t,” the black man said, setting his sword down on a stand. “But I ran into something out there that did.”


“Some thing?” the woman asked.


“Yeah. Looked like a girl. Turned into fire when they grabbed her. Ashed all six of them,” the hunter said curtly.


The other two looked nonplussed. “That’s…different,” the man said warily. “Maybe Johnny Storm’s girlfriend?” he cracked.


The hunter took off his glasses, revealing eyes that were distinctly inhuman, gold irises with wide pupils staring out at the other two. “I don’t think so,” he said. “She said she was “mostly human”. Then she disappeared.”


“Well, shit,” the other man said into the silence. “That doesn’t sound good.”


“Rules out mutant,” the girl pointed out. “The good ones say they’re just a different offshoot of humanity, the bad ones say they’re no relation to the ‘flatscans’ and then generally try to kill you.”


“She said she was defending herself,” the hunter said reluctantly. “And that fit what I saw. But…”


“But?” the woman prompted.


“But something about it feels off. I’m thinking maybe I need to talk to the Doc about it.”

 

The bearded man made a face. “Leave me out,” he said. “I hate that place. I always get lost in all the halls.”


“Yeah, Hannibal, but it’s safe.” The girl turned to the hunter. “Do you want me to go with you, Blade?”


“Aw, Abby…” the bearded man named Hannibal said. “Fine. We’ll all go. Safety in numbers.”


“Yeah. In the morning,” the hunter called Blade said. “Right now, get some rest.”


I had heard enough; I knew their names, knew what they were up to. They were no real threat to me unless they got the drop on me. I cast a spell of clairvoyance and tagged them with it as I had with the Spider-Man; I would see where they went in the morning, who this doctor was that they spoke to, and add that information to the rest I had gathered for Loki.


It was late, and I had work in the morning. I made a mental note to study up on vampires when I had some free time, then soared on up through the roof and went home.


 

Work went without incident on Monday. The retiring vet, Dr. Schwage, sat down with me to go over the standard procedures the shelter carried out; the majority were, of course, either neutering and spaying animals, or putting them to sleep. I silently vowed to do everything I could to lessen the number of animals that died here, and paid attention to his examples. He showed me the filing system, where we kept the pharmaceuticals, and set up an email address for me on the city.gov site for the shelter. Starting on Wednesday, I would be spending half each day with him as he took care of the new animals that came in, so he could show me the ropes.


I came home that night to a quiet house and a note from Elsie that she had gone to visit a friend in Brooklyn until Friday. I brought in her mail and left it on the side table in the hall by her door, then ordered in pizza for dinner as I sat and listened to music. Outside, fat snowflakes were whirling down from the sky in slow, lazy circles. I went up to the attic after dinner and took a seat on the mat, settling effortlessly into my usual meditation routine. I’d gotten an email notice around lunch that the book stand I’d ordered online would be delivered tomorrow – my day off – and there was an estate sale on Thursday I planned to attend. The deceased was the oldest grandson of one of the railroad barons from the Golden Age, and there was every chance that some of the items for sale might have ghosts attached to them. The three I had now had standing orders to watch over the house during the day, to keep an eye on Elsie, and to let me know when anything unusual happened while I was gone. They served as guardians for my new home, and even the most recent ghost had powers that most humans simply couldn’t withstand.


The book left for me by the man called John in the store stood on its pillow a few feet away. Attributing awareness and anthromorphisation to magickal objects was common – intelligent swords, suits of armor that would fight without anyone in them, that sort of thing. I was quite sure I could feel the book glaring at me from where it sat. I had yet to take a peek inside it, and wasn’t sure yet if I would ever be ready to so. It didn’t matter; I was quite sure there were no demons listed in the book strong enough to overcome an oath with a god…and even if there were, looking for such a thing was itself a violation of my oath. I was about halfway through my seven years with Loki. I was just hoping I could survive the remaining three and a half years with body and soul intact.

Chapter Text

Tuesday was a lazy day; the book stand arrived before 10 AM, and I had breakfast after it was delivered, scanning the newspaper over tea and double-chocolate muffins and pineapple yogurt. I needed to go by the bank today; I had paid for the pizza the night before with a pair of twenties I’d fished out of the bills at the bottom of my purse after emptying my wallet out again. My balance currently stood at over $20,000 – not enough to survive for a year in Manhattan, of course, but not pocket change, either. There were a number of estate sales listed in the classified ads for the day, and I decided it might be good to go ghost-shopping for my day off.


I was in the shower shampooing my hair when one of the ghosts, Angela, came to me to let me know that a stranger had just picked the locks of the main door downstairs, slipped inside silently, and was busy working on the lock of my second-floor door. I left the water running, but went intangible and invisible – such a handy combination – and slipped out of the shower stall to go take a look.


By the time I emerged from the bathroom, he was inside, moving silently toward the rear of the flat where the stairs up to the third floor were. I suppressed a surge of petty lust; thieves weren’t supposed to be pretty. He had long russet hair, smoldering eyes that were red irises on black whites, and wore a long brown leather trenchcoat over body armor. The eyes were most definitely not normal, and I studied him for a moment. There were no traces of magic about him, so I doubted he was something from one of the magical realms. I followed him to the rear of the flat and up to the third floor. He stopped on the stairs, then padded noiselessly into the library/parlor, looking at the books on the shelves with interest. There weren’t many yet, a few hundred, and all of them mundane. He searched the floor thoroughly, then retraced his steps to the rear of the flat.


I had no idea what he was searching for until he reached up to catch the rope pull and tugged it down to let the ladder drop into his hands. Then it hit me: he was after either the globe or the book, and I couldn’t let him have either. I floated up through the air before he could climb the ladder, coming to a stop just a few steps from the trapdoor in the floor, and turned solid, apporting my robe from the bathroom downstairs into my hand, sliding my arms into the sleeves and tying the belt at the waist as he climbed up and stopped.


“Well, hello chere,” he purred. The accent wasn’t French, or Belgian; I realized, after a moment, that it was Cajun, and shook my head.


“You've made a grave mistake, breaking into my house,” I said quietly.


“Aw, don’ be like dat,” he pouted. “I jus’ here for one little t’ing, an’ den I take off an’ leave you ‘lone.”


“Actually, no,” I sighed. “Now you’re going for a ride.” I lifted my hands.


He was fast, I’ll give him that. Before I could begin the combination of gestures and words that would put him to sleep, he had raised his hand. I had a moment to realize he was holding a playing card before it flashed scarlet, and then it was hurtling toward the air at me. He had thrown it with dexterity and speed. I lunged out of the way, off my feet, letting the air cradle me as I took flight, and the card hit the far wall and exploded.


“You son of a bitch,” I hissed.


“Guilty, chere,” he laughed. “An’ what does dat make you, eh?”


I merely smiled. I knew not to trust pretty. My fingers folded themselves into the proper gestures, the words trickling from my lips as he pulled out another card from a whole deck of them, charging it with some sort of energy. Not magical. Not mechanical, surely. Mutant, perhaps?


He hurled the card; less than half a second later, he keeled over bonelessly, deeply asleep. The spell had worked fine on Steve, when I’d first met him; I’d had no qualms that it would not work on this man.


I moved quickly, now that he was out, to contain him.

“By the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak,
Where dangers vile are found,
Still the one who did attack,
And let this thief be bound!”

Scarlet energy exploded from my fingers, wrapping itself around him from head to foot, leaving only his nose unwrapped; he had to breathe, after all. Then I touched back down on the floor and went to look at the hole he had blown in the far wall of the house. It was the size of a St. Bernard, and I had a moment to be glad Elsie was out for the day before casting a spell of repair on the old wood and brick. It rebuilt itself as I spun an illusion over the house from outside, mimicking the normal façade, preventing passers-by from seeing the hole or the magic rebuilding it.


When the hole had been repaired, I levitated his sleeping body and myself and went down the ladder to the second floor.


“Now…what am I going to do with you?”


I settled into my chair with a frown. I really wasn’t sure what to do with the thief. For one thing, I didn’t have any magic that might affect his mind; it would have been nice to have an enchantment to work that would erase his memory of the last 24 hours or so, but Loki had thus far refused to teach me anything of the sort. And I didn’t want to just kill him. Once upon a time, doing so wouldn’t have bothered me, but since the change to my emotional equilibrium, the idea was distasteful.


There was nothing to stop me from keeping him wrapped in that sleep spell forever, but eventually, without proper treatment, his body would die of starvation and dehydration. That would be less direct than simply cutting his throat, but it would still leave his blood on my hands.


I could probably open a dimensional gate and dump him somewhere, but the only place I knew well enough to dump him was Asgard, and that would go over about as well as a dog turd in a wedding punch bowl. Especially if Loki found out, which of course he would.


I could dump him in somewhere public and call 911 from a payphone, anonymously. I could even disguise myself to do the dumping, just in case I was spotted on one of the million cameras these days – traffic cams, security cameras, peoples’ cell phones. But there was no assurance someone wouldn’t try to rob him after I dumped him, and maybe kill him just to make sure he didn’t wake up.


How very inconvenient, to deal with a thief without getting blood on my hands. Most people would just have called the police and spun a story about hitting him on the head with a frying pan or something, but my name was attached to this address, and the records would find their way back to Steve somehow.


I could try to find someone to teach me the mind magics I needed to erase the man’s memory, but that was problematic. The ghosts couldn’t do it; none of them were mages. Looking for a demonic teacher in the grimoire was out of the question; there was no way I could be certain that they wouldn’t lie about what they taught me, or ask for recompense I couldn’t give in exchange for the information.


Of course…Doom was coming to the states soon.


I pondered on that for a moment. It might be possible to keep the thief alive until Doom came to the states next week. I wondered whether the Latverian embassy would divulge what day he was likely to arrive.


There was only one way to find out, and it didn’t involve calling the embassy. I thought it would be a bad idea to have the number for the embassy on my phone records, given that I was trying to keep the Beth identity separate from who I really was.


I was getting more and more paranoid the longer I carried out Loki’s mission here. I was desperate to keep anyone from learning about what I was doing – especially Steve. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have cared. Now…I couldn’t see how finding out I was the same girl who had been at Doom’s castle – and was spying for Loki – wouldn’t immediately result in the end of this newborn relationship between Steve and I. And I couldn’t just quit working for Loki, either, thanks to the oath. He had me for another three and a half years.


So it was time to double down on every caution it was possible to take. My mind threw up all sorts of nightmare scenarios. Right now, it was telling me how easy it would be for Fury to be watching anyone involved in Steve’s life, just to make sure they were on the up and up. Satellite cameras could be watching me from the moment I set foot out the door, and could track me wherever I went – including the Latverian embassy.


So I had to make certain I wasn’t seen. I pulled on my coat and shoes, grabbed my purse, then called up the chants that would render me both invisible and intangible. The cats watched me fade out with fascination. I crouched, then kicked upward, flying up and out of the building, soaring through the air, heading for Embassy Row.


I floated through the air at a lazy pace, gazing down on the city blocks as I passed over them. The morning sky was crisp and blue and cloudless.


I came to a stop in front of the embassy gates. My True Sight showed me mystic wards erected around the entire embassy, covering all the gates and walls, arching overhead into a dome above the embassy itself, and probably extending into a dome under the embassy, as well, preventing magical threats from entering from the sewers, steam lines, or old tunnels.


I landed in front of the gate and looked around. Cement barriers kept any cars from parking near the embassy, and the sidewalks were empty this morning. I reached up to pull the hood of my coat up over my head and face before finally becoming visible and solid once more. Then I reached up and pushed the buzzer button on the front post.


“Yes?” a female voice cracked through the speaker. She spoke in English that was heavily accented in Latverian.


“I was calling to inquire whether Lord von Doom was yet in residence in advance of his address at the U.N.,” I replied.


“That information is not publicly available,” the voice responded.


“Is there a shortlist of names to whom that information is available?” I asked.


“I am not permitted to divulge that.”


“That’s a yes, then,” I said. “Is the name “Dragon” on the list?”


There was a moment of silence. Then the gates buzzed and began to open.


I smiled. The world worshiped pretty, which couldn’t ever be trusted, but smart was what made the wheels of the world go around. I headed inside the gate, my expression perfectly neutral; the wards did not stop me, harm me, or kill me as I stepped past them, which meant Doom had somehow keyed them to me remotely, since I had never been at the embassy before.


I was met by Doombots two steps past the gate. “You will follow us,” the closest one said, its voice cold and mechanical. I nodded patiently and watched as they took up positions around me – in front, behind, at both sides, with the last one soaring up over my head.


The robots led me into the main building, down a long hall carpeted in red, past numerous pieces of sculpture on Dorian columns against the walls. They stopped in front of a tall pair of double doors, oak and black iron, and slowly, the doors opened.


The man standing next to a broad, long walnut table at the center of the room wore the familiar green hooded tunic and boots, his limbs and face and form sheathed in the metal armor I remembered so well. I let go of the changes I had made to my face and form, resuming my true appearance as he turned.


“Good morning, my dear,” Doom said, his voice hollow through the metal mask, but still carrying an unmistakable overtone of warmth. “It is good to see you again.”


I smiled. “It is wonderful to see you once more,” I said, settling for words when what I really wanted to do was hug him. “I have missed you.”


He gestured to one of the red velvet-cushioned chairs around the table. “Sit. I will have refreshments brought. You must tell me what has transpired with you since I saw you last.”


He spoke no command, but the door opened a few moments later and a uniformed maid entered carrying a tray that bore a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of traditional Latverian pastries. I smiled. “I am happy to tell my story,” I said. “I hope you have been well since we parted.”


“I have done better for myself than I suspect those invaders would have liked,” he said as the maid poured me a glass of lemonade, then hurriedly departed. “It is of no matter. My country is restored to me, and now that I see you are well, their blatant violence is of no concern.”


I took a sip of the lemonade, then told him of my part at the attack at his castle – directing the ghosts to attack the archer, my capture and incapacitation of Captain America, my capture by Black Widow. I described waking up on Fury’s helicarrier, facing him down silently, their demands to wake Steve, the parade of visitors – Avengers – he had brought in to try to trick or threaten me into talking. I described my escape in detail, including the hammer-attack by Thor. I couldn’t see his face when I told him that part, but I watched his body language and stance change, going from interest to fury.


I framed my releasing the spell on Steve as a gambit meant to distract them, then went on to landing in the woods, hiding, waiting until they left, making the hike to the abandoned gas station, and then the reappearance of Loki. I gave no details of my time in Asgard beyond explaining that Loki had finally begun to teach me. I had the idea that describing the many beatings I endured at Loki’s hands might well tip Doom’s fury over from silent to very, very loud.


“And now I am back in New York, because this is where he wants me, and I am at his business,” I finished calmly. My oath prevented me from divulging the details of Loki’s mission to Doom, and I knew Doom was smart enough to understand it without spelling that out and insulting his intelligence.


“You have had a…difficult few years, I gather,” he said at last. “I will have to develop plans to deal with Thor and the Black Widow. Bad enough that the woman struck you down to abduct you from my palace, but at least her use of strength was proportionate to your own size. The Asgardian will pay for nearly killing you.”


“He's of no concern to me,” I said. “I would love to see him humiliated, but he is too stupid to realize just how much of an overreaction his attack was on one of my size and scant powers.”


“Nonetheless,” Doom said flatly. “And what brings you to me now?”


“I saw in the paper that you had reclaimed your throne, and were going to address the U.N.,” I said. “As I said, I missed you. I was glad to learn you would be here, though I never had any qualms that your foes had done you any harm. They aren’t capable of overcoming your intellect or powers.”


He chuckled. “You were always the most intelligent student I’ve ever had,” he said. “Not that there were many of them. And now that you’ve returned to New York, are you still studying?”


“As much as I can on my own,” I said honestly. “The one I’m oathed to is not here at the moment. Regrettably, there’s a limit to what I can learn without a tutor, and I’ve already mostly passed it. Books that teach the most advanced of magics aren’t to be found just laying around, after all.”


“That is true,” he said. “And how far did Loki take you in your studies?”


I gave him a rigorous accounting of what I had learned at Loki’s hands. “The ghost talismans you found for me were, unfortunately, left behind when I escaped Fury,” I added. “I had no way to find out where they were keeping them, and I was not a match for the entirety of the Avengers on my own.”


“Of course not,” he said, almost absent-mindedly. “Of course, there are ghosts in abundance in this world.”


“I’ve already found three new ones,” I said in agreement, “and will continue to acquire more.”


“So it seems your teaching is deficient in certain areas,” he said, moving on. “Why has he taught you nothing of the sorceries of mind control, telepathy, illusion?”


“I don’t know,” I said. “They could certainly come in handy. Being able, for example, to erase the memory of those who might pose a danger to me, so they won’t remember me at all—“


Doom made a disgusted sound in his throat. “One of the easiest of spells,” he said. “A child could learn it.”


I tilted my head in acknowledgement. “I have no doubt I could learn it,” I said. “But not without being taught it.” I paused. “I am still under oath to you, of course.”


He threw back his head and laughed, the sound full of amusement. “Ah, so at last, you have an agenda,” he said smoothly.


“No more of an agenda than I always had, which was simply to learn magic,” I said. “As you pointed out, my knowledge is not yet complete, and is deficient in areas. I have no doubt you would have taught me that at some point, if the Avengers had not attacked your castle.”


“No doubt,” he echoed. “Are you, then, asking me to continue teaching you, while I am in New York?”


“I would be grateful, were you willing to do so,” I replied.


“My debt to Loki is paid,” he pointed out.


“So it is,” I sighed.


“Thus, if you wish me to continue, we must come to a new agreement,” he said.


“What would you ask of me?” I inquired.


He bent his head in thought for a moment, and then finally, looked up at me again.


“Your time of service to Loki is half over, correct?” he asked.


“Yes. I have precisely three years, five months, two weeks, and four days remaining,” I said. He nodded.


“Then this is what I wish, and I will not negotiate. When your service to him is finished, presuming you survive so long, you will come to me and serve me for a year and a day. Aside from the amount of time, my terms are identical to the ones Loki agreed to: I will not require you to do anything that will directly lead to your death, but should you defy me for any other reason, I will hold the right to punish you as I see fit.”


“And said punishment, again, can be nothing that will cause permanent damage to my mind, body, or soul,” I added.


“Yes.”


“I agree,” I said without hesitation. I needed the continued tutelage too much to quibble, and he would not negotiate, anyway. At this rate, I would be almost thirty by the time I was no longer in servitude to anyone, but it would be worth it. I had, after all, been learning the magic arts since I was nine – almost twelve years now. Another four and a half years of service, to continue that training, was an acceptable price to me.


“Then swear to me,” he said.


“I, Dragon, swear to serve Victor von Doom in all things, to follow his commands save where they may directly lead to my death, and in return, to accept his tutelage in the arts of magic. This period of service shall last for one earthly year and a day, directly following the period of service completed to my master, Loki. This oath I swear by my soul, my true name, and by all things I hold valuable.”


He repeated his half of the oath, and I smiled in relief. He held up one gauntleted hand and made a gesture. A leather-bound book, small but thick, and old-looking, appeared between his fingers, and he handed it to me. “This should begin your training in the magics of the mind,” he said. “The erasure of memories, manipulation of emotions, mental shielding, reading minds, and mental illusions are all contained within its pages. I trust you read old English?”


“I do,” I said. He nodded.


“You said you wish to see the address at the U.N. I can have you attend as a guest of Latveria, part of the ambassadorial entourage. What name shall I have them put down?”


I hadn’t thought about it, but I didn’t hesitate. “Emily Drake,” I told him. My prior qualms about giving him my birth name were long past. I understood magic well enough to know that it wasn’t my true name, anyway.


“Very well,” he said. “Be here at seven P.M., Saturday evening. The address will be at eight. You can accompany me to the United Nations.”


“As you wish,” I said softly. “I will enjoy going with you.”


He chuckled. “And now, I’m afraid, I have other, pressing matters.”


“Of course,” I said. “I’ll find my way out.”


I wanted to hug him. My body language probably showed something of the sort. But I restrained myself. He wasn’t a man of high emotion, and throwing myself at him would be beneath his dignity. Just seeing him again had been a good start, and for now, it was enough.


I bowed, deeply, then headed out the door.

Chapter Text

            I returned home the same way I had gone: intangible and invisible, this time with the book tucked into my coat. I materialized in the attic and immediately sank down onto the floor and opened the book to read.

            It took me four hours to get through the first chapter. The book was not only written in old English, it was also phrased in an extremely convoluted style. The first chapter was, however, sufficient to teach me how to construct magical shields to keep other mystics, mutant telepaths, or others from reading my thoughts. I spun a shield up after a few minutes of practice and felt better.

            The second chapter covered mind-reading. I almost moved on from that one to skip to the next, until it occurred to me that, once I had cast the spell to erase his memories, how would I know it had worked unless I could look into his mind to check that they were gone? I sat back dutifully and read through the chapter, committing the simple charm techniques to memory.

            It was almost suppertime; what with this morning’s break-in and all that followed, I had been on the go ever since. My stomach was complaining loudly, given that I’d had little but coffee and yogurt all day, so I went downstairs to cook dinner. The cats purred around my ankles as I made myself a bacon cheeseburger and a loaded baked potato.

            After dinner, I sat down with the book again. I had to be at work in the morning, and was not sanguine about having to leave the thief here, even if he was comatose and bound. It would be much better to erase his memory, dump him in the park, and cancel the sleep spell on him, leaving him to wake up with no idea where he was or what he had been doing.

            And I needed to think of a way to conceal the artifacts in my sanctum. If there was one thief, there might be more. I thought about it as I carefully perused the new book. It was likely I could use my intangibility spell on the sphere and the grimoire, rendering them ever so slightly out of phase with this level of reality. If that worked, then only someone who could cast the same spell would be able to make them solid again. That wouldn’t stop other mages, but most thieves were not likely to be magic-users.

            I read the start of each successive chapter only far enough to find out what that chapter’s subject was, then moved on until found what I was looking for in the fourth chapter. The spells to erase memories were not difficult, as Doom had said; there were different charms that would erase memories from a set period of time – the last day, the last week, the last month, or for a period of days at any given time in the past – or just memories relating to a particular subject. The master spell would erase a person’s mind completely, leaving them unable to talk, walk, feed themselves, or remember their own name. The counterspells that would restore erased memories were in the same chapter. I spent an hour studying the spell I needed, then went to the closet where I had stashed the bound thief and levitated his spellbound body out onto the floor.

            The words, translated from old to modern English, were easy enough; the burn of my will backing them was what gave them power.

            “Seek but you’ll never find;

            Think but you cannot know,

            Thoughts are now gone from your mind,

            Memories melted like snow.

 

            By Rugrath and Sinthor I steal

            The knowledge that once you knew;

            No power shall ever reveal

            The memories I take now from you.

 

            Forget now the last several days

            Those thoughts are now scattered like ash

            Lost like a bull in a maze,

            Erased now and gone in a flash.”

 

            The energies reached out from me, crackling like pale green light as they sank into his skull, encircling it like a crown of peridot fire, and then dissolved into nothing.

            He looked the same, of course. So the short charm and hand gestures for the spell of mind-reading came next. I was cautious in directing my thought-probe, knowing I had no practice with such, not wanting to end up with the thoughts from every mind in a five-mile radius trapped in my head. That wouldn’t end well at all. Carefully, I peered into the convoluted loops and whorls of his thoughts.

            The one closest to the surface was of waking up next to an attractive brunette in his bed. I grimaced, searched forward through the day’s memories, and finally stumbled upon a glimpse of a newspaper. The day was four days ago. It had worked.

            I sorted leisurely though the rest of his memories -- all his hopes, his dreams, all his dirty secrets. As I had suspected, he was a mutant; his name was Remy LeBeau. He was Cajun, a member of the X-Men, and the King of the Thieves’ Guild, which was apparently based in New Orleans. The woman I had seen in his memories was named Rogue, another member of the X-Men. Reading his memories was like reading a very elaborate and convoluted novel. I took my time about it; this, too, was part of the mission Loki had given me.

            It was midnight before I had picked through everything of interest. I smiled as I stood, pulling on my coat. Time to send my unexpected guest home.

 

—O—

 

            After leaving the mutant unconscious and memory-wiped on a park bench – he would wake up as soon as I was back at home and could remove the spell -- the rest of the week, and the next week, flew by quickly, as it tended to do when I focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else around me. In this case, Doom’s upcoming visit to the U.N. Work went by in a haze; I vaccinated kittens and puppies that were ready to be adopted, performed spay and neuter operations, treated fight wounds from animals brought in. At home, I read through the rest of the book Doom had lent me.

            The night before the address, I caught a cab to Saks’ Fifth Avenue to buy something appropriate to wear to the event. While it wasn’t the same as going to prom (I assumed; I had never been to prom, and had no real desire to do so), a visit to the U.N. clearly called for clothes more formal than old jeans and a t-shirt. I settled on a dark burgundy women’s suit, with a knee-high skirt and a blazer without lapels. Low pumps in the same shade and a pair of black silk stockings and garter belt completed the outfit.

            I took a half-day off from work the day of the address and was home by just after lunchtime. I ate, tended to the cats, then went to take a long bath. Doom’s book was tucked into my purse, so I could return it to him at the embassy before his speech at the U.N. After my bath, I spent time taking the appropriate grooming measures for an event of this sort; I painted my nails (dark burgundy, to match the suit), put my hair up into a sleek chignon, and then dressed before carefully doing my makeup, a skill learned from numerous YouTube videos. A towel was laid carefully over the top of the suit jacket, so I wouldn’t stain it if nervous hands dropped the lipstick or any similar problems.

            And then I nullified the spell on my appearance, trading out “Beth’s” face for my real one. I could not, after all, show up in Doom’s retinue at the U.N. as Beth; I was quite sure that Steve, Fury, and the Avengers would all, at the very least, be watching the address on TV, if not in person right there at the United Nations. But I, Emily, was already known to them to be an associate of Doom’s. I calculated that they were not likely to rush the main chamber at the U.N. to arrest me just because I had escaped the helicarrier; it would be a huge public relations nightmare for the spy agency, especially given that Doom was once again Latveria’s monarch.

            When I had finished, I carefully ate a light dinner, making sure to neither get any food on my suit nor mess up my makeup too much. Then I locked the flat up, double-checked the wards, said good-bye to the cats, grabbed my purse, and turned intangible and invisible once more for the trip to Doom’s embassy.

            The flight there was no more eventful than the first time I had visited, and as then, I materialized by the gate, the hood of my black wool winter coat – almost ankle-length – pulled up to shield my face. I pushed the button.

            “Identify yourself.”

            “I am Dragon, here at Lord Doom’s command,” I answered mildly. The gate buzzed open and I went inside.

            There was a long black limo waiting by the front door. I was escorted inside by Doombots, and Lord Doom was waiting in his office. He turned as I entered, tilting his head slightly.

            “You’re looking well,” he said. “I trust the time since we last spoke has gone well for you?”

            “It has indeed,” I said, taking out the book from my purse and handing it back to him. “I have finished with this and have brought it back to you. My thanks for its loan; it was very helpful.”

            “But of course,” he said, setting it on his desk. “I have had other volumes brought to the States from the library at Castle Doom for your use.”

            “That’s very generous of you, ”I responded. “You have my thanks.”

            “So,” he inquired, “what occurred that you had need of mind magics?”

            I sighed. “There was a break-in where I’m living. The thief was after a book I had acquired, a magical tome. He was one of the X-Men. I was able to defeat him easily enough, but simply dumping him somewhere without removing those memories would only have ensured that when he returned to steal the book, he would have been better prepared next time. Imprisoning him indefinitely was out of the question. And simply killing him would have been…” I paused to choose the exact word I wanted. “…wasteful. One never knows when someone might have use as a potential pawn.”

            He made a hmmm-ing sound. “Which X-Men was it—no, let me guess. Gambit?” I nodded. “Of course,” he said, sounding amused and disgusted in equal measure. “But I suppose he might have his uses.”

            “And it might have proven problematic to find somewhere to dump his body on short notice,” I added.

            “I am certain you would have come up with a solution,” he said, sounding only amused now. “You do realize that we may expect, at the least, numerous agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and possibly the Avengers, at tonight’s visit?”


            “Of course,” I said. “That’s why I’m wearing the face they know, not the one they aren’t familiar with. It may gall them to see me walking freely in your presence, but I doubt they can do anything at the U.N. without causing an international incident, especially without provocation. I will be especially cautious when I return home.”

            “As you should be,” he said gravely. “Though given how your talents have grown since your initial encounter with them, I have no doubt you could escape them again, if the need arose.”

            “I hope so,” I said lightly. “And I hope even more it won’t be necessary. Still…if I had to, I could shift to another dimension. Hard to keep me in a cell when I don’t even have to remain on the same plane.”

            He nodded and proffered his arm. “Shall we?”

            I took it with a brilliant smile. “Indeed.”

 

—O—

 

            The limo pulled into the United Nations’ parking garage underground. There were soldiers everywhere, wearing the U.N. peacekeeping forces’ uniform, right down to the sky-blue berets. They looked impressive until the car doors opened, disgorging a quartet of the Doombots that Lord Doom had brought along for security.

            If anyone asked, I was his aide and administrative coordinator. He had filled me in, on the ride over, on what that entailed: secretarial and financial work, arranging his appointments, keeping inventory of his artworks, real estate outside of Latveria, and other important possessions. The fictional job title and fictional responsibilities came with – I presumed – an equally fictional paycheck, but it didn’t matter. Everything he had mentioned fell squarely under the aegis of “serving him”, even if the oath I had taken with him didn’t start until my service to Loki was complete. Besides, it wasn’t as if I was exactly dirt poor, even if I was no Tony Stark.

            I emerged from the limo first, and as he climbed out, he handed me back my tablet, which he had borrowed from me for a moment. I glanced down at my tablet and found I had a new email address opened up in Gmail – Dragon.Rouge.1242. The return email address was Doom’s. I opened it up.

            Inside were the log-in information and password for a new bank account in my real name with Citibank. I clicked it and logged in to find a balance of over a million dollars.

            I glanced up at Doom, blinking in surprise. “What--?”

            “Your position with me is not an unpaid one, child,” he said. I couldn’t see past the mask, but I was certain he was smiling.

            I logged out of the account and turned the tablet off, tucking it into my purse, just a little dizzy with astonishment. A not-so-fictional paycheck, then.

            He did not extend an arm to me here, nor had I expected him to; friendship in private was perfectly acceptable, but here, in public, he was expected to be the monarch – strong, silent, private, aloof. I took up a position behind him, as he had instructed me to, and we went up in the elevator to the building’s main floor.

            A United Nations official led us through the labyrinthine corridors of the building to an entrance to the General Assembly chamber, where the ambassadors of each of the 193 member nations had their desks. I could see Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, at the main podium, tilting his head to listen to something one of his aides was whispering into his ear. The U.N. Peacekeeping soldiers pulled back from us as Doom stopped at the doorway into the chamber.

            “Stay close to me,” he murmured quietly. It was not a request. “Follow me in, and take up a position two feet behind me, to my left side.”

            “As you will,” I told him softly.

            At exactly 8:00 PM, he strode into the huge chamber, stalking up the aisle to the podium, and I followed in his footsteps, taking my place precisely where he had instructed me to.

            “Your Excellency,” he acknowledged the Secretary-General. “And Ambassadors, greetings. I am Victor von Doom, King of Latveria, and I have come here tonight to speak to you on a matter of importance that, indeed, touches upon the security of all your countries.” He had their attention; I could see faces that had previously looked bored or tired turn toward him.

            “Several years back, my country suffered an invasion by that most unlikely of foes. The Avengers, presumably guided by faulty intel from S.H.I.E.L.D., the United States espionage department, forced their way not just into my country and capitol city but my very home, injuring many, abducting vital members of my staff—“

            I realized he was referring to me, and fought to keep my expression neutral. I hadn’t realized he was going to be using the news I had shared with him of my experience after their attack on Castle Doom here in his speech. But I should have guessed as much; he was intelligent enough to use any information he could gain that would grant him emotional leverage and the advantage here.

            “—and attacking me, personally, without provocation. The history of the United States is littered with similar incidents; their use of agents provocateurs to start wars to overturn legitimate governments in countries in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America are well known. Particularly pertinent is the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in starting coups intended to install puppet governments in countries with crops, minerals, oil, or other exports valuable to the United States, especially in cases where the legitimate governments of those countries have refused to sell – or outright give – those commodities to the United States.”

            “And if this is true – as, I assure you, it is -- what, you may ask yourself, was the United States government after that I refused to cede to them? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is technology. I do not exaggerate when I confess my talent as an inventor. In the past, I have created a number of technologies which the United States would like to possess, the better to expand their own empire across the globe. That they used their spies – and worse, those individuals who are supposed to be heroes, and who claim to use their abilities for the good of us all – to invade my home to attempt to throw down my government and steal my property is unconscionable. The concomitant property damage, injury to my citizens, and atmosphere of terror generated that day by these so-called heroes is reprehensible.”

            I was listening carefully, comparing his words with what I had seen that day. Aside from the motivation of the Avengers in bursting into Castle Doom that day – since I had no real idea why they had done so – the picture he was painting matched up well with what I had seen. There had been panic among the servants in the castle, and the people living in the town. There had been property damage aplenty. I was sure that people had been injured.

            My gaze had begun to wander, even as I was still listening intently, and I realized, as my eyes wandered over the faces of the ambassadors in the audience, the U.N. Peacekeepers, and others there, that I recognized some of the faces I was seeing. The black man with the eyepatch, standing in a Peacekeepers’ uniform, was Nick Fury. The petite red-headed woman in the box with the Russian ambassadorial staff was the Black Widow. The huge, muscular blond man sitting with the Norwegian ambassador was Thor, unmistakable even in a tailored suit. One by one, I picked out the other members of the Avengers from the audience.

            I spotted Steve last. He was all the way in back, near the stairs that led out of the General Assembly chamber, wearing the uniform of a U.S. Army Captain. His gaze was fixed on Doom, at the podium, with a grim intensity.

            And then his eyes flicked to mine, and he smiled, the expression sad.

            My throat had gone dry, and I had to remind myself that it was Emily he was recognizing, the face of the girl who had put him to sleep back at Doom’s castle, not that of Beth, his friend – and someday, maybe, so much more. The girl who had almost been killed when she escaped from the helicarrier (I was quite sure he had been told about that). The girl who had freely chosen to release him from the coma he was in, even though they hadn’t been able to force her to. The girl who had hidden in a filthy animal burrow in the forest, whom he hadn’t turned in even though he knew where she was hiding.

            “And now I must point out to you that next time these so-called Avengers strike, it could be your country they invade; your government they overthrow; your home they destroy; your family they kill. These people who claim the title of heroes are no more than dogs, and it is the United States government who holds their leash. How many of you have disagreed with that government in the past? Which countries represented here have fallen afoul of the United States in the past? And which countries may have in their possession such things as oil—“ I watched the heads of well over half the ambassadors turn to look at the Iraqi ambassador “—that the U.S. may someday decide it wants badly enough to not simply invade, but send into your lands a team of inhuman, super-powered criminals to seize what they like, and international law or legitimate government be damned?”

            There were whispers around the chamber now, as the ambassadors and their staff members muttered about the truth in his words. It was truth, if twisted to present Doom’s own slant on things. Steve was shaking his head, his gaze turned toward the ground, and I stifled a frown. I wanted to ask him just why the Avengers had invaded Latveria; it was clear that there was a part of the story that I didn’t have. But there was no way to ask him about it without endangering my identity.

            “Therefore, respected ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you today not only to bring a warning, but to ask you, in your position as members of this Assembly, to take action against those who would invade the sovereignty of a country, against international law. Show these Avengers, and the government that wields them like a club, that there are repercussions for violating those laws. I ask that you bring a motion of censure against them tonight, with further penalties to be levied in the future should they repeat their gross violation of propriety and decency. Only in such actions will they learn the error of their ways.” He paused. “Ladies, Gentlemen, I thank you.”

            He stepped back from the podium, turned his back on them without fear, and strode out of the room. And I followed.

Chapter Text

            The ride back to the embassy in Doom’s limo was a quiet one. I asked no questions, and he said nothing, though I could sense he was thinking about the speech he had just given. I was careful to show nothing of the discomfort I felt at his address; I knew there had to be pieces missing, but I had no way to find out just what had really happened. While I had no illusions about the notion that Stark or the Widow or Hawkeye would fall in line like good little soldiers – mostly – despite Loki’s contempt for his brother, I knew Thor wasn’t the sort to take orders from anyone. And there was no way Steve would just invade another country for profit – at least, if that was the reason he had been given.

            When we arrived at the Latverian embassy, I exited the car in silence and waited for Doom to emerge, as well.

            “Thank you for inviting me tonight,” I told him.

            “But of course,” he said. “I will be leaving for Latveria in a few days. I will have the books I had brought over for you couriered to a drop box in your other name. The key and a note with the box location and number are already in your apartment, in the small box on your bedside table where you keep your bits of jewelry.”

            “You are very generous,” I said quietly. “I will return the books in person when I have finished with them.”

            He inclined his head in a nod, and with that, I went intangible and invisible again, and rose wordlessly from the ground to soar home. To say that I was unsettled would have been putting things mildly; though I knew better than to try to use magic to read Doom’s mind – I was not stupid, after all – I had the sense that he would be overjoyed if the Avengers were out of commission permanently. And while that wouldn’t bother me for most of them…the thought of anything bad happening to Steve made my heart hurt.

            Damn these emotions! I thought angrily as I dropped down through the walls of my attic into my apartment, becoming visible, becoming solid again, taking on the changes to my face and appearance that were my identity as Beth. I pulled my coat off, hung it up, pulled off my shoes, and went to go change clothes for bed. There had been a time, within living memory, when I cared about no one and nothing but myself. That time might not have been better, but it had been simpler. Easier.

            Now that I had been made aware – not just objectively, but subjectively – that Steve’s life was such that something terrible could happen to him at any time, tearing him away from me, I couldn’t just sit and do nothing about that. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D., working as one of the Avengers, there were people out there who would actively try to kill him any chance they got. And I could no longer stand aside and try to pretend that it wouldn’t affect me if that happened.

            With a sigh, I went upstairs to the attic to finally have a look at the book the Englishman in the shop had given me.

 

—O—

 

            I let the taxi driver bring the locked leather trunk just inside the front door, then paid and tipped him well, waiting to shut the door behind him before levitating the heavy chest up the stairs to the second floor. The Sphere had responded with unnatural clarity to my inquiry about where I needed to be next for the next step in my training, directing me to an estate sale on Long Island. The estate had belonged to Dominic Fortune, the infamous mercenary. It seemed unlikely that the soldier of fortune would have had anything to do with magic, but the Sphere wasn’t likely to be wrong. I had gotten a glimpse of the trunk in the vision the Sphere showed, so it was easy to determine what to bid on.

            Most of the rest of the items at sale had been more directly related to Fortune’s past – weapons, uniforms, souvenirs of former missions. The trunk had been listed as being full of old papers, and almost none of the mouth-breathing war aficionados had spared it a second glance. I was able to walk away with it for just six hundred dollars; I had also managed to snag myself a set of Vietnam-war era French army dogtags with a ghost attached, a colonel named Marc Drapeau – a bonus, especially at just twenty bucks.

            Once inside the flat, I shut and locked the door behind me, then set the trunk down on the floor by the couch, gesturing and waving the coffee table out of the way. The lock on the trunk yielded easily enough to one of the spells I had learned even before becoming Loki’s apprentice, and I sat down on the couch to go through the papers.

            There were old receipts, photographs, operation manuals for various types of military hardware. Dinner menus sat atop old newspapers, telegrams vied with space for letters, and at the bottom of the trunk were three leather-bound journals.

            I picked up the first of them and untied the leather thong that bound it shut. The book was old, almost ready to crumble in my fingers, and I held it carefully as I opened the cover.

            The date on the first page dated back to the end of World War II. I skimmed the pages slowly, letting my eyes jump from date to date, name to name. Mingled among the English were the occasional French and German word or name, and I reached down absent-mindedly to scritch Alice as she rubbed up against my ankles.

            Then I went still as I spotted a familiar name. The cat was momentarily forgotten as I carefully read the next few pages, biting my lower lip as I took in the information the journal’s writer had committed to the pages.

            Then I fished my cellphone out of my purse and dialed Steve’s number.

            It rang twice before he answered. “Beth, hi! How are you doing?”

            “I’m okay, Steve, but if you’re not up to your ears in work at the moment, I’ve found something I think you should see.”

            His tone instantly went serious. “What is it? Are you okay?”

            “I went to an estate sale earlier today. I thought it’d be fun to see how the other half live, you know? Came home with an old leather trunk full of what the auctioneer and estate thought were just junk papers. Except they weren’t all junk.” I paused. “I think the name Johann Schmidt is familiar to you?”

            “Where are you?” he said, and his tone had gone deadly calm.

            “My apartment,” I said quietly. “I’ll see you soon, then?”

            “Three hours,” he said, and hung up.

            It had been two weeks since Doom’s address at the United Nations. I had found the key and note he had given me, retrieved the books from the locker at the bus station where he had left them, and continued my studies. One of the tomes was on travel magic: not just flight, but speed and teleportation – always handy. The second was on elemental control: the use of fire, earth, water, and air. That one was a much tougher study, and the advanced chapters were on how to not just manipulate the elements themselves, but to summon and control elemental beings. They couldn’t grant wishes, but in most other respects, they were much like the tales I had read of the djinn: fierce, implacable fighters, only grudgingly bowing to the rule of those they considered inferior to themselves.

            The final book was on the creation of magical artifacts and talismans: rings and other jewelry, wands, weapons, armor, potions, grimoires, and other, even more esoteric items. It was the most fascinating of the three, and I had already begun to experiment with some of the lessons in the book. The opening chapters talked about some of the more simple magics that items could be imbued with: rings that would allow one to breathe water, swords that would cut through stone, potions that would change a man into an animal, wands that could shoot fire.

            I had purchased some components I would need to craft an item that I hoped would settle my worries about Steve once and for all. Now that he was coming over tonight, it was time to finish working on them so I could make a gift of the item to him and hopefully, do everything I could to ensure his safety.

 

—O—

 

            By the time the doorbell rang downstairs, I had eaten dinner and finished reading through the journal. I had also skimmed through the other two, but those had contained nothing related to what I’d found in the first one, at least as far as I could determine.

            I went down the stairs and let him in. The look in his eyes was solemn, but he still smiled when he saw me, and leaned forward to kiss my cheek. “How are you doing?” he asked as I shut the door behind him.

            “Oh, well,” I said. “Work is coming along fine. I don’t care for the winter weather, but then, I never have, so that’s no change.” I led him up the steps and inside. The cats slunk over as soon as they saw him, rubbing up against his lower legs and purring. He bent down to pet each of them for a second, then straightened and sniffed the air.

            “Is that pot roast?” he asked.

            “Yes, home-made,” I told him. “Did you have dinner?”

            “Didn’t have time,” he said. “Caught the first plane out of D.C. to get here as soon as I could.”

            “Have a seat, then,” I told him. “I’ll make you up a plate. Baked potatoes, biscuits, mixed veggies? Apple pie for dessert?”

            “That all sounds amazing,” he said, pulling a chair out from the table. “So, where did you hear that name?”

            I stepped into the kitchen and pulled the pot roast out of the refrigerator. “There were several old journals in the trunk I bought,” I told him, slicing several thick slices of roast, then adding the rest. The air was still warm and fragrant from the oven. I popped the plate into the microwave to warm it up before gathering flatware, napkins, and pouring him a tall glass of milk. “The name was mentioned in the oldest journal, in an entry that goes back to 1944.” I pulled the rest of the biscuits out of the oven, where I had stashed them in a metal bowl. The butter was melted into them, and I placed the bowl, the flatware, and the glass of milk on the table in front of him. The microwave beeped and I went to fetch his plate.

            “Whose journal was it?” he asked, grabbing a biscuit out of the bowl and taking a bite.

            “A mercenary by the name of Dominic Fortune.” I brought his plate over and set it in front of him, then went and returned with the gravy. “Apparently he worked with several OSS officers during the war, but wasn’t actually with the office.”

            "I...knew Fortune," Steve said, sounding startled. "In 1941, he foiled a plot by Nazi spies to kill me, right after I joined Project: Rebirth -- the Super Soldier project -- but before I underwent that process." He dug in to the food and I went over to where the trunk sat by the couch to retrieve the journal. I plunked myself down in the chair opposite his and turned to where I had tucked a thin slip of newsprint for a bookmark.

            “February 21, 1944. The OSS thinks they are on to yet another plot by that most hated of Nazi officers, Johann Schmidt. To call him a Nazi is almost too kind, as he is one of those members of the organization known as HYDRA that delves into topics of research and experimentation that makes even what happened in the worst parts of the camps seem sane. Most of Schmidt’s factories have been destroyed by the military already, with Captain America and his men chasing down the last of the dregs. Yet I believe what they have sent me to investigate has nothing to do with Schmidt’s weapon factories and much more to do with his survival, should he fall during his last battle.”

            Steve’s head snapped up, potatoes and gravy dripping off his fork. “What?”

            “February 23, 1944. Directed today toward a series of caves found in the French countryside near Lascaux. Not the sort of place one would expect to see HYDRA science, and yet, all the signs are there. We were led to a dump of decaying corpses at the bottom of a sinkhole in the caves. All the bodies had Schmidt’s face.”

            Steve paled. “Is he talking about—“

            “Cloning, I believe,” I finished for him. “Some of the experiments at Auschwitz leaned in that direction, although they were far too crude to be useful. But from what I understand, Schmidt was…a twisted genius. It is possible he and his underlings might have found a way to achieve it. Of course, there still would have been the issue of aging a clone to his age…and the transfer of memories…and, of course, I understand from magazine and news reports that Schmidt was…more than human.”

            He scowled. “Schmidt – the Red Skull – worked, for a time, for the scientist who created the Super Soldier serum that changed me. Before that scientist came to the United States. The Skull tested the serum on himself. The serum changed the DNA at the core of the cells…but I’m no scientist, so I don’t know whether those changes could be duplicated in a clone.” He looked both thoughtful and worried.

            “February 25, 1944. Georg went missing on patrol last night. If Schmidt’s men caught him, then they will be torturing him to learn what he knows. It is imperative we attack as soon as possible. There is, unfortunately, no time to summon reinforcements. I can only hope we will succeed.”

            Steve was eating without looking at his plate, managing not to drop bits of potatoes or meat on the table or his lap as he listened.

            “February 27, 1944. We have found his headquarters, an old barn near the cave. From the outside, it looks ready to fall over. Inside, everything is new and sturdy, but the inside is only a front hiding an entrance to more caves below ground. More soldiers than we can safely take on, so we’ll do it without safety and trust to luck. Our attack is planned for two A.M. tonight. Hopefully we’ll at least be able to find out what the bastard is planning.”

            I looked up. “All the pages after this entry have been torn out,” I said apologetically.

            “Damn,” he muttered. “This needs to be followed up on. Even without the Super Soldier serum, if a cloned Schmidt—“

            “Or Schmidts, plural,” I interrupted. He grimaced.

            “Or Schmidts, plural, do exist, the entire world could be in danger. He was a brilliant scientist even before the serum. Twisted, but brilliant. And if he figured out a way to make the genetic changes to his DNA caused by the serum transfer to a clone – or clones – then…” He trailed off. “I can’t stay.”

            His plate was empty. “I figured it might go like this,” I said, getting up and handing him the journal. “The caves of Lascaux are an anthropological masterwork. Cave paintings of Neanderthal man, in the Dordogne region of France. The paintings weren’t discovered until 1940, and weren’t made available for the public to visit until 1948. An abandoned barn in that region won’t be impossible to find; given that it’s a farming region, the trick will be in finding the right one. That’s if it wasn’t destroyed during the war, or afterward.”

            He stood up, taking the journal, and I smiled up at him. “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer,” he apologized. “I want to, very much. But—“

            “But world safety comes first, especially against that of HYDRA members and Nazis. I do understand.” I stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “But can you wait one more moment? I have something I want to give you.”

            He arched an eyebrow, but nodded, and I hurried to my bedroom and came back with a small black velvet box.

            “What’s this?” he asked as I pressed it into his hand.

            “Open it.”

            He did, and looked down at the plain silver ring inside. “I don’t understand,” he said, looking puzzled.

            I took the ring out of the box, took his left hand, and slid it onto his middle finger. “It’s what we youngsters these days call a friendship ring,” I teased him. “Of course…I’d like to be more than just friends with you, but I can wait. This doesn’t signify any sort of permanent commitment. It’s not an engagement or wedding ring. I’d just like it if…well, will you wear it? For me? Even when you go into battle?”

            He looked down at me, a searching expression on his face, and I returned his gaze without prevarication or guile. At last, he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I will.”

            “Thank you.”

            He reached down and wrapped his arms around my waist, picking me up so that my face was on a level was his. I wrapped my legs around his hips and he pulled me close, pressing his lips against mine in a kiss that deepened the longer he held it. I arched against him, enjoying the whirling storm of hormones and adrenaline that woke inside my chest and belly. I very much wanted to keep him there, but I knew I could not. All I could do was give him a good reason to come back when he could.

            At last, he broke the kiss, and I unwrapped my legs from around his waist and let him put me down. It had been impossible not to notice how he had responded to my kiss, with my groin pressed against his. I could tell from the flush on his face that he knew I had noticed.

            “Be careful, Steve,” I told him. “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

            He smiled, more confidently than I felt. “I will,” he promised. “And when this is all over, I’ll come back and we can spend at least a few days together.”

            “I’d like that,” I sighed.

            He pressed a kiss against my forehead, bent down to scritch the head of each of the cats for a brief moment, then grabbed his coat and was gone, leaving me alone in the apartment once more. The only trace of his passing was the empty dinner plate, all but licked clean.

            With a sigh, I picked it up and went to rinse it off before sticking it in the dishwasher. The ring was the culmination of my experiments after finishing the book on the creation of magical artifacts. It was possible to permanently enchant items; the spell I had fused to the ring would link Steve and I, in a way. Not to allow me to spy on him, no; it would merely let me know instantly if he was hurt or in danger. And with that notice, I could be at his side in seconds. The ring was pure silver, and I had done the spellwork under the most recent full moon.

            Of course, if he was hurt and I went to save him, that would open up an entirely new can of worms. He would certainly want to know how “Beth” could suddenly materialize at his side out of nowhere, and that was even before any powers I exhibited in, for example, healing wounds he might suffer, or fighting off his enemies.

            But he knew the girl at Doom’s castle had powers of a sort. So if I went to him, it would have to be as myself. Even so, I would have to take precautions. I wouldn’t want whoever he was fighting – be it the Red Skull, or someone else – to get a good look at my face, to possibly be able to find me that way.

            That meant…ugh. I recoiled mentally from the idea, but there really wasn’t any other choice.

            I was going to have to make myself a costume.

            I was going to have to be…a hero.

           

Chapter Text

            I didn't want to be a superhero. I especially didn't want to have to wear a silly costume.

            But assuming the first became necessary if I had to go help Steve, then the second was preferable to having everyone and their brother recognize me and hunt me down.

            So...what, then? Red and black, for Dragon Rouge? No, those were the colors of the Nazi S.S., and of Hydra. Something a little...lighter, despite how good I looked in red and black. But I wasn't going to go the red, white, and blue route of Steve's uniform.

            Well, blue and white seemed like a reasonably innocuous color combination. It was the colors of the Knights of St. John the Hospitaler, from the Crusades; those knights had been known for gathering up the wounded after a battle, and bringing them to places of healing -- thus the name "Hospital". They worked to heal those from both sides, and their livery consisted of a blue cross on a white tunic. No nasty Nazi associations.

            And what was I going to make the costume out of? Steve wore some sort of mixture of leather, chain mail, Kevlar, and Teflon; the Black Widow and Hawkeye wore leather, Iron Man had his armor. Thor wore a mix of what looked like leather and armor, not that he needed it. The Hulk seemed to get away with not much more than torn pants. I had no access to fancy technological materials, and I couldn't sew to save my life. Was I going to have to slum it in dance leotards and tights?

            Well, what if I started out with leotard and tights, and used the magic I had learned from Doom's latest tome to permanently enchant them to shield me from harm? Add in a mask of some sort, maybe a hood...that would probably work.

            And a name. Shit, I had to come up with some stupid superhero code name. Of course, all the good ones were taken, especially if they had to do with magic -- the Enchantress, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, Magik, Brother Voodoo, Doctor Druid, Morgan Le Fay, Shaman, Talisman, Wiccan. Not a lot of good codewords left to appropriate.

            So. I pulled my tablet over, opened up a tab to Amazon.com, and went to the department for women's clothing. It was easy to order a long-sleeved, full-length white spandex bodysuit, royal blue gloves, and knee-high blue leather boots in my size. The hardest part was finding an appropriate pair of flat-heeled boots; I was not going to try to fight a battle in six-inch heels. I found a bolero jacket with a hood. I ran a search for costumes and was able to find a matching blue domino mask.

            I ordered the lot with next-day delivery, then shut off the tablet. Hopefully Steve wouldn't get himself in trouble before they arrived.

            That just left a name. Maybe instead of concentrating on the magic part of it, I should think about a name that applied to what I would be doing. Which was, pretty much, saving Steve, if need be. I didn't really want to be running around catching criminals like Spider-Man or Daredevil. But...do-gooding. Healing. Hmmm. Nothing was coming to mind.

            Hopefully I wouldn't need it to.

            And would saving Steve, if it came to that, violate my oaths to either Loki or Doom? I didn't know. But if it did...

            That was something I was just going to have to deal with. Because letting him get hurt -- or die -- was just not an option.

            If helping him broke my oath, I would take the consequences, and the consequences be damned.

 

--O--

 

            I was at work and in the middle of washing a Dalmatian puppy when the first bullet hit me.

            I had one hand on the pup's shoulders to hold him still while I directed the spray of warm water coming from the showerhead at the end of a flexible hose. I managed to keep my hand from tightening down on him until bones broke, but I couldn't control the shock and pain completely; the hose went flying, water spraying everywhere, as the pain ricocheted through me. I looked down at my left shoulder, expecting to see a spreading bloodstain.

            It was only when I saw how clean and unmarred my blouse was that I realized that it was Steve's pain I was feeling.

            I hadn't expected the linkage to work quite the way it did. I had thought I would just...know if he was in trouble. I hadn't thought the spell I had woven into the ring I gave him would let me feel his pain.

            Agony blossomed in my left leg, just above the knee, hot and shredded and biting, and I realized he had been shot again. I couldn't keep the tears of pain from welling up in my eyes and running down my cheeks, and my stomach suddenly wanted to let go. I fought to keep from throwing up.

            A third impact took me in the right side, just below where my ribs ended, punching a hole in my -- his -- liver. Wheels of color and light burst behind my eyelids. The puppy was whimpering, able to smell my distress. There was a spell I had learned as part of healing work; it wouldn't heal anything, but it isolated the nerves that felt pain (as opposed to the ones that felt pressure, or heat and cold, or were used to move muscles and bones). I chanted it now, fingers moving into the appropriate positions, putting as much fervor into it as most people would into prayer.

            The pain began to fade. Somehow, I managed to maintain enough control to rinse the soap off the pup's fur and turn off the water. I picked him up and popped him, still dripping wet, into his cage, then staggered into the next office, where Marcy, the shelter director, was working on paperwork. She looked up to see why I was there and then her eyes widened as she took me in. I knew what she was seeing: hair in disarray, face as pale as paper, dark circles suddenly blooming under my eyes, my entire body shaking.

            "Migraine coming on fast," I croaked. It was as good an excuse as any. "Need to go home before I start throwing up. I'll bring a doctor's note tomorrow."

            "Go," she said. "That was your last appointment of the day anyway. Do you need me to call a taxi?"

            I shook my head crookedly. I wanted to clamp a hand down over my shoulder, my leg, my side, but I didn't have enough hands and it wouldn't have helped. It felt like I was bleeding to death. I hurried out, grabbed my purse, ran outside, and hurried down the street. I waited just long enough to duck into an alley and then triggered a hanging teleportation spell I had learned from one of the books Doom had lent me, instantly whisking me home.

            The outfit had come the day after I had ordered it, and I had enchanted it as best I could; it would withstand bullets, blades, fire, punches, and heavy impact up to getting hit by a car. But it wouldn't be impervious to everything.

            I hoped it wouldn't need to.

            I snapped my fingers and a secondary enchantment I had layered over the first took effect, instantly changing the clothes I was wearing for the costume, right down to the mask on my face. I cancelled the spell that gave me Beth's appearance, trading it for my own. Then I concentrated on the feeling I was sharing with Steve, homing in on him the way a salmon can return upstream without error to the place it was originally spawned.

            When I could feel him as well as if I were standing right next to him, I let my fingers writhe in the pattern of the teleportation spell--

            --and was gone.

 

 

            I materialized somewhere dark, where the air was cool and damp and smelled of mold and earth and blood. There was no light there, nothing electric -- not even the light from the stars. I took a deep breath and realized I was somewhere underground. The caves.

            Something swept out and hit me at ankle level and I toppled, managing only at the last second to keep from hitting the ground hard by turning my fall into flight. I spat out a few syllables under my breath and my vision sharpened, almost like a cat's, and I could see a prone form laying on the ground a few feet away, moving restlessly. The room was full of shades of gray, but after a second, I realized it was Steve. Great. He might be almost dead, but at least his reflexes are still operating on automatic.

            I knelt down on the ground next to him, reaching out with one hand. Before I could touch him, one hand shot up, grabbing me at the wrist, his grasp tight enough to crush bone if he wanted to. I winced.

            "I'm here to help, Captain Rogers," I whispered urgently. "I'm not your enemy." The smell of blood was even stronger this close, and I could see the dark smears painted across his chest, his abdomen, and his leg. The bullets must have gone in at odd angles to bypass the materials of his uniform, or been of such high caliber that they punched right through. I vaguely remembered reading something about armor-piercing ammunition for guns. There was blood on the ground, as well, under and around him, and I realized his body was operating on instinct alone; he was almost unconscious.

            "Ah, and are we no longer alone, my dear Captain?"

            The voice rang out from somewhere close, crisp and stern and strongly German-accented. I flinched at its nearness, baring my teeth and trying not to hiss. Steve hadn't released my hand yet, so I lifted my other hand up to my mouth and tugged my glove off with my teeth, then reached out with my bare hand to touch Steve's face. His eyes had rolled up in their sockets. As he lost consciousness, his grasp on my hand was slowly loosening, but not fast enough.

            "And is that a young woman I hear? You must introduce me to your friend, Captain. I am eager to know her. So dear a companion to you must equally be a companion to me as well, ja?"

            My stomach roiled as I realized it was Schmidt. Then I understood what he was so mockingly taunting Steve with, and the nausea shifted down toward fury.

            Skin to skin contact with Steve made, I bent close, until my lips almost touched his ear, and whispered the words of a healing spell. It would knit up his flesh, heal any broken bones, repair his damaged liver, urge his body to create more blood to replace that which he had lost. His cheek was cool under my fingertips, an indication of just how much blood he had lost; there were bruises I could see, shadows under the planes of his face, here and there. As my vision adjusted to the darkness, I could see broken stalactites and stalagmites littering the floor, cracks in the stone walls. It must have been an epic fight. His shield lay a few feet away by his outstretched hand, several fingers of which had clearly been broken, but were even now, before my eyes, straightening as the magic did its work.

            "Fraulein. So good of you to join us."

            The voice came from directly behind me, so close I could feel the breath used to speak those words stir the air around me.

            I spun, but not fast enough. I turned into his attack, and the hand that would have grabbed me by the back of my neck lashed out to wrap around my throat as I whirled, instead. His fingers closed tightly enough to cut off my breath at once, cutting off the magic words I might have used to bespell him. I'd had time to take a single breath; it would have to be enough. At least Loki had taught me more than just magic.

            I threw my body weight forward and up, swinging my entire frame to the right around his torso the way a stripper might twist as she slid down a long metal pole at a nightclub. His fingers shifted to accommodate my shifting weight and balance, but I wasn't trying to twist free. Instead, I locked my legs around his waist, tightening them so hard the muscles in my thighs threatened to cramp, and then jutted my head forward as quickly as I could, bashing my skull into his face.

            He howled, his fingers loosening the slightest bit. I felt the stub of his nose crumple under the onslaught of my forehead in a burst of blood, and I twisted my head sideways, jerking my head lower, then drove my mouth forward into his throat. He gagged as the strike knocked the breath from him, but that wasn't my aim. I felt the soft, warm skin of his neck against my face, and I opened my mouth and seized his throat between my teeth.

            Thor might be a noble Asgardian fighter, but Loki had taught me how to fight dirty.

            I yanked my head back, and his skin tore, blood drenching my face as I ripped out a chunk of his throat.

            He let go, then, and I dropped to the ground, spitting out the flesh I had taken from him. He staggered back a step, his hands coming up to clamp down on the wound. The injury wasn't deep enough to be fatal; I didn't have fangs, after all, just normal human teeth. I had only opened up minor veins, not his aorta or jugular. He wouldn't bleed to death, even if he didn't have any of the Super Soldier serum in his veins, which helped Steve heal quicker than normal and would do the same for him if he had it.

            I wasn't content to leave it at that. Still on my hands and knees, I swung my hips around, pistoning out with one foot, slamming my heel into the side of his knee. I heard the crunch of bone as his knee shattered, and he fell, dropping clumsily to the ground.

            Or so I thought.

            He turned the fall into an attack, whipping out with his elbow as he landed, driving it into my sternum. I heard bone crack, and pain rocketed through my chest. Before I could catch a breath, he rolled over atop me, straddling me, driving his fists down into my face.

            "Stupid. Interfering. Woman!"

            His knuckles hammered into my eyes, my nose, my mouth. I writhed under him, twisting my head, trying to keep the blows as superficial as possible. It was nearly impossible. The Super Soldier serum had apparently transferred during the cloning process, because he was far, far stronger than a normal human. His fist slammed into my right cheekbone and I felt the zygomatic arch that formed the bottom of my eye socket shatter, blood instantly flooding the flesh from ruptured blood vessels, bruises puffing up instantly.

            "You erred greatly in sticking your verdammt nose into something that doesn't concern you, fraulein," he snarled. "And you will pay the price." My lower jaw was broken in two places, my tongue nearly torn from its roots; speaking a healing spell was impossible. My eyes were swollen shut. He brought one fist back over his shoulder, preparing to deliver the blow that would shatter my skull and pulp my brain.

            It never fell.

            I heard the sound of flesh striking flesh and dimly registered that the burning, throbbing pain in my shoulder, the echo of the shot that had wounded Steve, no longer hurt. I managed to crack an eye open just as the Skull was pulled up off me. The Captain was transformed by rage, eyes narrowed, teeth bared in a growl as his fists slammed into Schmidt again and again. Blood from the damaged tissues of my face began to fill my throat, and I rolled over on my side to keep from drowning in it. I took a breath, gagged, spat out blood and several of my teeth, and dragged myself a few feet away, out from under the flailing feet and steady pulse of fists against ribs and face and gut.

            Time blurred for a second, moments trickling away as I grayed out, and I only surfaced again as a loud crack echoed through the cavern. I lifted my head long enough to look up and watched as Steve let the Skull's body drop from his hands, Schmidt's head lolling drunkenly from a broken neck.

            Steve turned toward me and walked forward quietly, crouching down. I felt him slide his arms under me at shoulders and knees, lifting me up. He shifted me forward, so that the upper half of my body rested against his shoulder, and reached around with the hand that was now free to gently pluck away the mask that covered part of my face. A gentle smile curved his lips.

            "Hello, Miss Drake."

            I let the pain take me down into darkness.

 

--O--

 

            Light. Light and warmth.

            I opened my eyes.

            Everything hurt -- my face, my head, my chest. But I could see again. Without having cast a spell to heal myself, that meant I had been unconscious long enough for normal healing to reduce some of the bruising around my eyes. Several days, at least.

            Oh, shit. Glumly, I realized there was a good chance I no longer had a job. Very carefully, I turned my head to look around. I was in a bed, the covers tucked up around my shoulders, but the bed was in what appeared to be a normal bedroom, rather than a cell with clear Plexiglas walls. I could hear music coming from somewhere nearby, violins and a pleasant male voice singing in French. I glanced down at what I was wearing. Someone had peeled me out of my costume and gotten me dressed in soft cotton hospital scrubs.

            I sat up gingerly, wincing at the pain radiating outward from my cracked breastbone. My arms and legs still seemed to work. I tried to open my mouth and found I couldn't; my jaws had been wired shut.

            But I didn't need to flap my jaws for the simplest of healing spells. I parted my lips, vocalized the few syllables that would knit flesh and bone back together again, let my fingers shape the signs that went with the words.

            There was a small cardboard box sitting on a chair next to the bed, and curiously, I picked it up and opened it. Inside were the things I had been forced to leave behind when I had escaped from the helicarrier: the German dagger, the dog tags, and my other ghost talismans. The ghosts manifested to my magical sight as I touched each one, greeting me enthusiastically. I picked up the ring and slid it onto my finger, hung the dog tags around my neck, clipped the dagger to the waistband of the hospital pants I was wearing, tucked the other things in my pockets.

            The door opened.

            Steve came into the room, a tray balanced in one hand, the smell of bacon and cheese and potatoes and coffee coming from the dishes on it. "You're awake. Good." He crossed the room, setting the tray down on the small table next to the bed, moving a small vase filled with wildflowers out of the way. "How are you feeling?"

            I discovered it was possible to talk without actually opening my jaws. "I hurt," I muttered. "But I'll get better."

            I could already feel the magic working, the pain fading, the swelling fading as the flesh healed. I could hear the crackle of calcium filling in the gaps in the broken bones, the sound transmitted through the bone itself. I watched him watch me as the black and blue marks on my flesh paled and disappeared. At last, there were only the wires threaded through holes drilled into the bones of my jaws. I had no idea where he had taken me to have the procedure done. It didn't matter; the wires had to come out.

            I concentrated, whispering under my breath, marshalling and focusing my will.

            For a moment, just a fragment of a second, I went intangible.

            The wires, excluded from the magic by my honed will, did not.

            They fell in a soft tangle of wire and pins to the bed underneath me, and I got to my feet, a little wobbly for a moment, and resolidified, picking them up and setting them aside before sitting back down.

            "That was impressive," Steve said quietly. "You've got quite an array of abilities."

            I made a face and reached for the tray of food. "I really can't talk about it," I said reluctantly. "I'm sorry."

            He smiled. "All right." He poured me a cup of coffee and passed it over. "You came to help me."

            It seemed safe enough to answer that. "Yes."

            "Why?"

            I bit a strip of bacon in half. "Can't answer that. Sorry."

            "You were at Doom's castle, years back."

            "Yes."

            "You...put me in a coma somehow."

            "Not a coma," I corrected him after a moment. "Just to sleep."

            He nodded. "And then you released me."

            "Yes."

            "Why?"

            I sighed. He was like a dog trying to wrestle a stick away from the person holding it. He obviously wasn't going to give up. But I didn't know just how much I could say without breaking my oath to Doom. I wasn't worried too much about breaking my oath to Loki if I spoke of what had happened at Doom's castle; that'd had nothing to do with Loki, after all.

            I made a face, pausing to choose my words very carefully. "I had no reason to want to hurt you," I said. "What happened at the castle...with the battle...well." I shrugged one shoulder. "Everything happened so fast. I was taken by surprise."

            "You were scared."

            "Yes. No. Not scared, not exactly. Worried."

            "That you'd get hurt?"

            "Maybe. I can heal myself, if I'm conscious." I shrugged again. "I was there for reasons I can't talk about. Nothing to do with you or your friends. Only to do with me. You bursting in there...messed it up." I paused. "I reacted badly, but at the time, my options were limited. I can do more now than I could then. If it happened today, I'd have choices in how I reacted that wouldn't have required me to put you to sleep." I met his gaze without flinching. "You and I...in a way, we were both forged in the crucible of war. Yours was decades ago, in Europe, against the Nazis and HYDRA. Mine...much more recently."

            He frowned. "War, recently? But there haven't been -- I mean, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I can't see you involved in something like that."

            I stayed silent. Already, I was close to having said too much. It would be easy for him to figure out I was referring to the Battle of New York, and Loki's "glorious" war. From there, he might figure out I was tied to Loki in some way. A warning throb of pain echoed in the back of my skull, a phantom of something big enough to turn my brain to oatmeal if he managed to unravel everything and figure out the clues I shouldn't be giving.

            "How long have we been here? How long since the battle at the cave?" I asked.

            "A week," he replied. I winced. Shit. I was definitely going to have to find a new job. I shifted and winced at the pain in my chest; I could feel the tightness of Ace bandages wound around my ribcage to stabilize my no-longer-broken sternum. I wondered if he had been the one to undress me, and against my will, I felt blood flood my face as I blushed.

            "I don't know what's going on with you, but...I want to help," Steve said. "Talk to me. Tell me what's happening. How can I help you?"

            "I can't," I sighed. "I...wish I could." It was the truth, and I didn't bother to hide it.

            "They tell me that when the Widow knocked you out, back at the battle, you were going for a knife."

            "Maybe." I managed not to wince.

            "Were you planning to kill me?" he asked mildly.

            I was silent for a moment before I answered. "I don't know," I finally said. I thought about all the things that had gone through my head back then. Very carefully, I considered the oaths I had taken. Talking about myself, about a very narrow set of topics that related only to me, would not violate those oaths, I decided. "Let me explain something," I said. "As nearly as I can tell, I was born...different. Broken, maybe. Your friends Fury and Stark figured out who I was. That means you probably have access to all sorts of records about me, including medical ones."

            He nodded. "Mental health records, you mean."

            "Yes. I've been diagnosed as autistic, with OCD. One shrink decided I was a sociopath. I don't think they're quite right, but I'm still figuring out where they're wrong. There's--" I hesitated, trying to figure out how best to explain it. "From the moment I was born, until very recently, I didn't -- couldn't -- feel normal human emotions. At all. Not love, not fear, not anger, not sorrow, nothing. I was fixated on a single goal, and everything that got in the way of that goal provoked, at most, only impatience. You can consider me handicapped because of that, if you want. Recently -- in just the last few months -- something's happened to change that. I've started having the same emotions that all normal human beings have. I quit seeing people around me as inconveniences, as obstructions to that goal of mine, and started understanding that they all had lives, loves, dreams, fears of their own. When we ran into each other at Doom's castle, that change hadn't taken place yet." I paused. "I've never killed. Not humans. Not animals. No one." Wellll...there were those vampires, I thought, but they didn't really count. After all, it was self-defense...and they were dead already.

            "That's good," he said gravely.

            "I'd like to think I'm a good person. I might have killed you back then, because back then, I couldn't see you or anyone else as separate entities with their own reality. Nothing was really real to me then. But now..."

            He took my hand. "I'm not a doctor, but I think I understand."

            I looked away, uncomfortable and ashamed. "It's hard to explain. I'm...I'm glad the Widow knocked me out."

            "Tell me something," he asked gently. "When you escaped from the helicarrier, in the tunnels...you could have done the same thing to the Widow that you did to me, couldn't you? You could have put her to sleep. Or shot her after you stole her guns."

            "Yes."

            "Or killed her after putting her to sleep, if you wanted?"

            "Yes. But like I told her, I didn't really want to kill her." I looked up at him. "I don't want to kill anyone." Although, I mused, I would have been fine with teaching Stark a lesson.

            "But instead, you...undid whatever you did to me to put me to sleep."

            "Yeah."

            "And then...now...you came to help me against the Red Skull. Why?" he asked.

            "At the bare minimum, I owed you for not digging me out of my hiding place back in the forest when I escaped the helicarrier." I made a face. "Your buddy Stark would have wanted to toss me into a jail cell and throw away the key."

            "And now we're even?" he asked, his tone holding a hint of challenge.

            "No," I demurred. "I don't think there's any such thing as 'even' between people like us. Anyway, I'm not keeping count." I finished the bacon, drained the last of the coffee. "I'm not your enemy."

            "No, but you associate with one," he said.

            "Can't be helped."

            "You could walk away from Doom if you wanted to," he said, sounding sad.

            "No, I actually can't," I said.

            "What's he got on you?" Steve asked.

            I shook my head. "Nothing I can tell you about. Nothing you could understand. And nothing you could fix." For a moment, I wished I was wrong about that. "I'm sorry. You have no idea just how sorry I am."

            "If I can't help you, maybe I know people who can," he said.

            "Doesn't matter. I can't even ask for help," I said, and got to my feet, only a little wobbly.

            He stood up also, and reached out to touch my shoulder. "Where are you going?"

            "Away. I can't stay here."

            "I can't let you leave," he said, his tone even more sorrowful.

            I smiled wistfully as I triggered the teleportation spell that would take me home. "You can't stop me."

Chapter Text

            I spent the next couple of weeks moping. A call to the vet clinic gained me the news that yes, they had -- reluctantly -- been forced to let me go when they hadn't heard from me after a week. I apologized, promised to bring in a doctor's note when I came in to pick up my things, and let it go. Thanksgiving came and went without any celebration; so far as I was concerned, I had nothing to celebrate, and no one to celebrate with. Elsie had gone to Georgia to visit her children, and I had promised to look after the building while she was gone; the warmer weather in the south was easier on her elderly joints, and she admitted she was planning to stay there at least through Christmas and the new year -- possibly as long as March and the first day of Spring.

            I hadn't heard from Steve since disappearing from his side back in France. Though he had said he would return to spend a few days with Beth before leaving with the journal she had found, all my calls to him had gone straight to voicemail. I hoped he was all right; the ring -- assuming he was still wearing it -- had given me no new hints that he was hurt or in danger.

            I hadn't bothered looking for a new job yet. I couldn't expect to get a good referral from the old one, given that I'd only been there for a few weeks and had then disappeared for a week. Most of my time had been spent at home, reading, sleeping, playing with the cats, and laying curled up in bed awake staring at the walls. Objectively, I recognized the signs of a period of depression; I had never dealt with the illness before, but it had its hooks into me deeply now.

            A lot of thinking had gone round and round in my head since returning from France. Some of it was about Steve, but most of it had been around my flaws, my obsessions, and my current complicated emotional state. There was a part of me that longingly felt it would just be much easier to go back to having no emotions at all.

            But I understood, deep down, that there was no way I could walk away from what I was feeling, from having feelings, even though right now I was hurting. And the nagging question had arisen again: why had I always been so focused on learning magic? What was the point of learning magic to ensure my freedom, if only to keep learning magic? It was a closed circle, a vicious cycle. No, the original desire to learn had been broad, as if subconsciously I was searching for something. Only when I had first stumbled across magical tomes at the library had my focus narrowed, sharpened. That meant some part of my mind recognized that magic was the tool that could potentially gain me whatever it was I was searching for.

            But I didn't know what it was that I was seeking.

            There might be a way to find out, though.

            Almost three weeks after returning from France, I dragged myself out of bed, showered, dressed, had coffee and breakfast, then headed up to the attic where the Sphere of Saphriel was. The attic was quiet, dusty, calm. I took a seat in front of the orb, slowing my breaths, stilling my emotions as best as I could. Then I spoke.

            "For over a decade now, I have sought to learn magic. Originally it was so I could control my own destiny, so I could continue to learn magic, but that makes no sense." I paused. "The woman at the shop where I acquired you said I was missing part of myself." I lowered my head, dredged my memories, trying to give the Sphere all the pieces so it could put them together. "Until very recently, I have never had human emotions. But I moved here, to this place, a few months ago, and suddenly I was feeling everything: fear, anger, affection, hope, anxiety, maybe even love." I took a deep breath. "I cannot project my astral self from my body. The woman at the shop pointed out that was connected." I tried to see how those things could all be connected, and failed. "What part of myself am I missing? Why am I suddenly feeling these emotions now? Why can't I astrally project? Why was I subconsciously driving myself so hard to learn magic?"

            There was silence for a long time, and then the surface of the silver-black sphere began to shift. Hints of other colors started to creep in, red and pale gold, white, grey, blue, shapes emerging out of nothing.

            There was a man; handsome, in his early twenties, with black hair and a slim mustache and goatee, and green eyes. There was a woman, beautiful, pale-haired. They embraced, shed clothes, and began to make love. I winced at the voyeurism of the scene, wondering what it had to do with me.

            The scene shifted: reds and pinks in darkness. Rounded blobs shifting, the viewpoint widening, and I realized I was looking at an embryo in a woman's womb. The woman with the pale hair?

            The embryo writhed, aged, grew larger, and was born. The woman endured the birth in what looked like a jail cell, bound in chains of energy, and when the child emerged, a figure stepped forward; human enough, except his head was an orb of black flame. I recognized the dread Dormammu at once, diminished to the size of a human, perhaps an avatar to walk in the human world. He reached down to the mewling, twitching, black-haired girl-babe, and his hand passed through her flesh, snagging something ephemeral and drawing it out of her.

            The scene shifted. The woman was gone. Instead, I was looking at my adoptive parents, bringing home a swaddled child: me.

            The pale-haired woman was clearly my mother -- and, from what Loki had said, was the daughter of Umar the Unspeakable. The black-haired man was my father, then -- the human half of my ancestry.

            What was it Dormammu had stolen from me? It had been barely visible, a scrap of wispy energy. Was that the reason I was striving to learn magic -- to get it back? Why I couldn't project my astral self from my body? Was that the reason I had, for so long, been able to feel nothing? Then why had the emotions come back?

            I opened my mouth to address the Sphere again and went rigid as I felt magical energies unspool behind me, their "feel" -- their resonance -- clearly signaling the opening of a dimensional portal. And the place it opened from was the only one I knew well enough to go to myself: Asgard.

            I bolted out of my chair and spun just in time for Loki's fist to come crashing into the side of my head. "You pernicious wretch!" he hissed. The impact sent me flying through the air, knocking the Sphere off its stand, crashing into the far wall. "Did you think I wouldn't find out?"

            I dragged myself up, the side of my face screaming with pain. I could feel where the bone had crumbled to chips and mush from the force of his strike. "Whhhht?" I mumbled, barely able to speak, the pain overwhelming, trying to drag me down into unconsciousness. Blood drooled from between my torn lips.

            He stepped forward, brows furled in fury, hands fisted at his side. "Your...collusion with the good Captain." He spat. "Your conspiracy. Your perfidy. The two of you, conniving against me, the intrigues woven between you. You must have known I would learn of your deceit. I told you I would be watching you. And yet, these machinations of yours...you reek of guilt." He grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, letting me dangle, pulling me close until his face was no more than an inch from my own. "How is it, that you have managed all this without breaking your oath to me? The magic should have bound you so tightly as to make it impossible."

            "Not...b'tray," I slurred, bleeding on his hand. "Didn't...take up with h'm t' plot against you. Just...h'pened."

            "Is that so?" he purred. "Just happened? How did that occur? Do tell me, little girl, little mortal, my pet."

            There was something sparkling in his eyes, an unholy glee, and he wrenched me forward, his mouth grinding down against mine in an obscene parody of a kiss. Broken bone ground against bone in my jaw as he brought his other hand up to cup the back of my skull, preventing me from even trying to pull away. Agony sang in my face as he forced my mouth open, his tongue piercing in past my lips, licking against the torn inside of my mouth. I could feel blood and tears mingling on my cheeks, but knew -- even in the sea of pain in which I swam -- that the oath we had both taken did not prevent him from doing this. The damage was bad, but nothing a healing spell wouldn't fix, if he gave me the chance to cast it.

            With a snarl, he threw me away from him, the lower half of his face painted with my blood. I hurtled away, crashing into my chair, knocking it over, and toppling to the floor. He lunged after me, one leg coming up, then down again with punishing strength on my knee where it rested against the attic's bare boards, crushing the bone and cartilage that held upper and lower legs together. I screamed, my stomach rebelling, and threw up what I had taken in for breakfast. He pulled his leg back and kicked me, pistoning his foot into my stomach, driving me back against the far opposite wall. I could feel my abdomen swelling, burning, sloshing; the kick had almost certainly burst internal organs, which bled into the cavity now.

            Somewhere, very far away, I could hear my phone ringing.

            Loki came to a stop crouched over me, reaching down to pull me up by the front of my shirt. "Just happened," he whispered, panting, eyes glittering with madness. "Just...happened. It just happened that you met him. Befriended him. Ate with him. Slept in the same bed as him. Saved his life. Kissed him. Just. Happened."

            He reached down, one of his hands curling around my left wrist, and his fingers tightened inexorably. I could hear, distantly, each of the bones in my wrist popping as he crushed them. I screamed again, but the sound was weaker, just as I was weaker. The attic walls and floor were splattered with my blood. He might end up eating the blowback from the oath, after all; I was pretty sure I was dying. The pain was fading away, replaced by a high-pitched, thin humming sound: the sound of my brain, slowly letting go of everything it had once chased after.

            "No," he breathed softly. "Not yet. You don't get away that easily, little girl." I heard syllables fall from his lips like over-ripe fruit from an old tree, dropping into my hearing the way fermenting apples might drop into an uncovered well. A spell I didn't know, but clearly a healing spell. Warmth filled my body, drop by drop, sweet and slow and languorous as warm honey, singing the pain away from flesh and bones, replacing it with sweet radiance and dense ecstasy. I sunk into it like I might sink into a bathtub full of warm water, letting it swallow me up, letting the light reshape my crushed bones, my tattered flesh, evaporating every drop of spilled blood and giving it back to me in tickling, dancing kisses. I could feel his mouth pressed to the side of my face, moving slow and softly down to my throat, down my arms, and a moan escaped my broken mouth.

            "Shhhhh," he murmured mockingly, his voice so quiet it was barely audible. "Let it...just happen."

            The lights were dancing now, shivering in a slow and sultry wave just beyond the reach of my eyes, his fingers trailing from my shoulders down along my ribcage. I tensed, waiting for the madness to warp him again, waiting for those spear-strong fingers to rip a hole in my flesh, to seize each rib and  twist it away from the cartilage that moored it to sternum and spine, to tear it out of my body and then stab me with the jagged, shattered ends.

            Instead, his fingers trailed down from my belly to my hips, following the curve of them in a delicately, fearfully slow arc. I could feel hormonal fire beginning to curl and slither in the pit of my gut.

            "No," I groaned, trying to catch his hands with my own. "Don't want--"

            "Of course you do," he chuckled, the sound deep and taunting. "Open yourself to me, little girl. Be a flower, my pet, and bloom for me."

            "Don't want--don't--"

            "Are you refusing my commands?" his voice went cold. "Do you propose to break the oath you swore to me, then?" His hands had gone still, clasped about my knees. "You know what happens if you do."

            "No," I sobbed, going limp underneath him, tears gliding in snail-trails down my bloodied face. He grinned malevolently, leaning down close, licking them one by one from my skin, the tip of his tongue drawing circles in the sticky blood beginning to dry on my cheeks.

            And he let me go. "Good," he spat, rising to his feet and stepping back. "Good that you know your place."

            I curled up into a ball on the floor, going utterly limp as I wept. The pain had disappeared, the wounds had melted away, but I felt no better for all of that.

            "And now--" he pulled up the chair that had been knocked over when he kicked me across the room, sinking down into its seat. "Tell me everything you have learned since I left you."

            I could not refuse a direct order. I could not defy the oath. He could bring me to the edge of destruction time and time again without fearing the oath's backlash so long as he healed me before death, but I could not keep silent when he commanded my speech.

            I stayed where I was on the floor, laying in a heap at his feet. "You left me at the park," I began dully. "I changed my face. Thugs came, wanting to..." I grimaced. "Assault me. Rob me." I dared to look up at him. "Captain America showed up, stopped them. That's how we met."

            "Do continue, sweetling," he purred, bending forward and reaching down to trail his fingers along the side of my face. I flinched.

            "He escorted me to a hotel. He wanted me to be safe. We had breakfast together the next day and he helped me find a place to live. You told me to find a place to live, to get a job, to fit in."

            "Why, so I did," he chuckled.

            "I've seen others. Spider-Man. Blade. One of the X-Men. I've been doing what you told me. I haven't broken my oath."

            His fingers slid under my chin, forcing my head up. "You'd better not," he growled softly. "Disobey me, and I'll hurt you again. And heal you. And do it over and over and over again. Until you beg me to kill you." He smiled, the coldest smile I had ever seen. "Now. Tell me everything. Make sure to leave out no details about your lover."

            No. He would never stop. And I could not be responsible for Steve getting hurt or killed.

            No more. No. More.

            Blinding white rage filled me from the crown of my head to the bottom of my toes, and I snarled. "Kill me, then! Go ahead! You've been promising it since the Battle of New York! I didn't want to go with you, but the choice then was that or death. But I've finally decided that I'd rather die than serve you any longer." I took a deep breath, simultaneously furious and terrified. "You want the information so you can use it against them, make it easier to kill them. I won't help you do it."

            He rose to his feet, looking down at me, his face unreadable. "The kitten finally bares its claws. Interesting. But ultimately meaningless." He crouched and reached out to touch the side of my face. I shied back, but he lunged forward with the speed of a cobra, catching me by the chin, his fingers biting into my flesh. "Do you think it is not already easy enough for me to kill them?"

            "You...haven't...managed...it yet," I ground out, forcing each word with effort through jaws he held immobile. "I won't...make it...simpler...for you."

            His eyes narrowed. "Oh, little mortal. Your lover would be so touched if he could see you now." He grinned, then, lifting his head to look around the loft, and laughed. "Then again...if he could see all this...he wouldn't care for you any longer, would he? If he knew who you really were? If he knew you'd been spying for me since the day you met him? He'd turn his back on you and walk away, leaving you to my tender mercies." Another chuckle escaped his lips. "You delude yourself. He doesn't love you. No one could love a worthless piece of garbage like you. Insignificant. Unimportant. Your life is meaningless, even to yourself. You are empty, devoid of significance, an outcast. A pariah. There is not a soul on this world who wants you or finds you of worth, save for myself. And no one would care or even notice if I erased you utterly from existence."

            I shuddered, but held firm. "Don't...care. Not right. Won't...do it."

            His gaze went from jovial to deadly in a microsecond. "Oh, you'll do it, you obstinate brat," he hissed. "Do you think I can't rip the knowledge from your head, if I choose?" He shoved me away and I tumbled to the floor. "I can, and I can make it hurt far worse than anything I've done to you previously. The fact that you've turned doxy for the good Captain won't save you. Do you really think he cares for you, anyway?"

            I could feel the bruises rising on my face where his fingers had dug in. I was abject, drained of hope, tired of pain. "I think it doesn't matter," I muttered, letting my gaze drop. "I think you'll hurt me for the joy of it even if I do give you what you want."

            He beamed. "And to think, I thought you so stupid," he laughed. "Well, you're catching on, pretty drudge. Does it gall you, to know that, for all you've learned, you can't stop me?"

            I stared up at him, so triumphant in his gladness. The thoughts in my head were boiling, racing toward the speed of light. The oath I had taken to him prevented me from disobeying or defying him--

            No.

            I was being stupid.

            The oath allowed for the fact that I might refuse to carry out his orders. It was right there in the words we both had spoken. If I refused him, he had the right to punish me. But the punishment couldn't kill me, or make me permanently incapacitated in any way. I could choose to defy him and accept that punishment -- as, indeed, I was. Not following his orders would not break the oath.

            There was something else, though. Something was nagging at the back of my brain. I got to my feet slowly; his eyes never left my face. He had asked: Do you think I can't rip the knowledge from your head, if I choose?

            But...he had never even tried to teach me telepathy. I'd had to get that information from Doom.

            What if that was because he couldn't? What if he couldn't read the minds of others himself? Not without that scepter?

            But he had done so once before, when he'd learned I wasn't completely human. I had invited him to look into my mind and see the truth. And he had...hadn't he?

            It was hard to be certain; agony was all I really remembered from those moments. Agony blooming in my mind like a poisonous, tainted rose, rotting away everything it touched. I shuddered. There were...scraps...of memory, there -- him, shouting words I didn't remember. And me, screaming. Always screaming. And a sensation like hands ripping through my mind.

            But you can't prove a negative.

            The idea came to me; I had not known I had Faltinian ancestry. If -- if -- he could read minds, he could search through my thoughts forever and not find anything. At the time, I'd had no mind magics to hide those thoughts.

            What if he had known all along that I didn't know?

            What if he couldn't read my mind? What if he had only used some magic to inflict agony for the joy of it?

            What if the only thing he'd been able to gain from that was me, shrieking again and again, that I hadn't known?

            He could hurt me. He could transform me into something nasty. He could imprison me. He could maybe even take control of my body and use me like a puppet.

 

            But all of a sudden, in an upwelling of instinct, I didn't think he could steal the knowledge I held, out of my mind, if I withstood his tortures and didn't give in.

            "No," I said calmly, standing up straight and meeting his gaze. "No, it doesn't gall me. Yes, you're a god, and I'm just a mere mortal. I can't stop you. Go ahead and take the knowledge out of my head, then. Because I won't give it to you. Hurt me. Kill me, if you're willing to suffer the damage from breaking the oath we both swore. I'll still serve you. I'll carry your packages and handle your errands, but I'm not spying on anyone else for you any longer."

            His face had gone blank, but his eyes were full to the brim with murder. My fingers writhed swiftly into specific patterns, and I whispered the seven words of the spell that would prevent me from feeling pain.

            "You have changed," he said at last, a small muscle beginning to twitch in his lower jaw. "The girl who originally swore an oath with me so many years ago would not have hesitated to do as I bade her. I do not approve of the woman you've become."

            "You aren't required to approve of her," I said, my tone low and calm.

            "I'll make you regret this, you treacherous trull," he snarled.

            "I'm sure I will," I agreed. His hand flashed up, quick as lightning, to strike out. I stood where I was, unmoving, no longer cowering, waiting for the blow.

            Seconds ticked by, and then he lowered his hand. "You. Will. Suffer," he breathed, and vanished.

            I collapsed onto the floor, wrapping my arms around myself, trying not to cry as adrenaline flooded my system. I fought the urge to race downstairs, to abandon everything I had here, to hide. It wouldn't do any good, anyway. So long as we were bound by the oath, there wasn't anywhere I could go that he wouldn't be able to find me.

            "Suffer?" I mumbled into the silence. "I already am."

            Why hadn't he killed me?

            The only thing that came to mind was that somehow, he still hoped to be able to use me. To make me do what he wanted. That he didn't want to throw away -- as I had said to Doom not long ago -- what might still be a useful pawn.

            I sat where I was, trembling, for too long to count. The light outside the window at the far end of the attic went from the new light of just after breakfast time, to the bright light of noon, deepening through the day until it went the purple of autumn's early dusk before I finally climbed to my feet.

            I reached out and grabbed the edge of the chair, pulling myself up on stiff feet, and looked around. The Sphere of Saphriel and its stand were nowhere to be seen. The woman at the shop had said it couldn't be owned by a mortal, only used, and that eventually it would pass out of my hands. Had Loki taken it with him, or had it just...moved on to its next user? I had no way of knowing. But with it gone, the answers to the questions I had been asking were out of my reach -- maybe forever.

            The book lay on the floor off to the side, splattered with my blood, looking almost plump and sated, like a lion after a kill. I reached down, picked it up, held it in shaking hands. I had only tried to look through it once before, while searching for a way to protect Steve. What I had found inside was so horrific I had immediately closed it. Lists of names of demons and devils, offerings to make to them, the elaborate rituals necessary to draw up pacts with them. But I was tired of oaths and pacts and vows. Maybe I was as weak and worthless as Loki said. But that didn't mean I had to go seeking after more power from darker sources, and further tangle myself in associations that I found vile, and would never be free of.

            I levitated off the floor a foot, so my feet were not touching the wooden boards, then shifted to my Faltinian form. Flames erupted from my flesh, wrapping around me, and then leaping to the book in my hands. I almost felt as if I could hear it scream as the flames licked at its cover, the pages crawling with obscene symbols etched in human blood.

            I waited until it had been consumed and nothing but ash remained before I took my normal form on once more, dropped back down to the floor, and turned to go back downstairs to what remained of my life.

Chapter Text

It was late by the time I cooked myself dinner that night. When I had come down from the attic, the first thing I had done was check on Alice and Gordon. It wouldn't have been beneath Loki to kill them to hurt me, and there was a moment of terror when I didn't find them in the library, but instead, they were in my bedroom on the second floor, curled up asleep on my bed, looking more than a little annoyed when I burst into the room, scooped them up, and cuddled them, wetting their fur with the tears rolling down my cheeks.


I realized it might be in their best interest to find them a new home, a new caretaker; the moment Loki realized how much I cared for them, they were in danger, and keeping them just because I would miss them -- leaving them in danger -- was the very definition of selfishness. I was certain my magics weren't strong enough to protect them; I certainly couldn't keep him out of the building, so long as he and I were still bound by the oath.


Miserably, I made myself dinner, trying to figure out how I could, if not fix the mess that my life had become lately, at least make something worthwhile from it. Loki had taunted me that no one cared whether I lived or died, that I held no worth or value to anyone. The cats needed me to feed them, take care of them, and so in that, he was wrong, but it was such a tiny truth. Other people could do the same task. I helped Elsie out when she asked, but she wasn't even in the same part of the country at present. And Loki would not cease returning, nor quit trying to bend my will to his. He wanted me to cave to his demands, to grovel before him, to do anything he desired, if only to keep him from hurting me again.


So what could I do to cheat him of the way he had made me feel -- useless, hopeless, worthless? What good was the fact of my existence when I contributed nothing to the world? Almost everything I had ever done had been self-centered, focused on my studies, resisting any responsibility to anyone or anything else but what I wanted. What good did magic do me, shut up as I was in this apartment, using it for nothing of significance? I didn't even have a job any more.


It came to me slowly as I ate, staring numbly down at the macaroni and cheese I had made. Loki thought to strike out at me by convincing me that my life had no meaning, no purpose, no importance.


So I had to do something, find some task or responsibility, that would bring purpose to my life.


And the thing that I was most suited for, and that would flout Loki's wishes the most, was to become the very thing that I had so fiercely shied away from.


The magic gave me great powers. I had said I had no desire to become a superhero. But helping people, saving lives, healing the hurts of strangers -- I could do these things, whether I liked them or not. I could give my life meaning, value, worth, by using the gifts that I had to help others. I could never tell Steve about it, but the idea occurred to me that it was the sort of thing he would approve of, if he knew.

And wouldn't it infuriate Loki, to take what he had taught me and use it to help others? He'd said he was watching me. Maybe he would try to stop me; maybe he would even kill me.


But I found I would rather die doing something worthwhile than cower in my bed, hiding, afraid he would return and hurt me again. Pain was a part of life. I'd known that from the time I pulled a book that was too heavy to lift down atop myself and broken my arm. I'd learned it again and again every time the girls I'd run into outside the library had beat me up. And Loki's maddened assaults had only driven it home. If I was going to be hurt, then I preferred to get hurt doing something that mattered, not because I was too much of a coward to do anything but hope the boogeyman finally went away and left me alone.


"Okay," I whispered, getting to my feet, putting my dinner dishes into the dishwasher. "I guess I'm doing this, then."


My costume had been left behind in France, and I still didn't have a code name. But I'd be damned if I was going to let little details like that stop me.


As for a day job...well, even if Loki disenchanted the wallet he had given me, I had the money from Doom. I could transfer that it to Beth's bank, reroute it through a million servers to keep its source hidden. Even in Manhattan, it would last for awhile, so long as I didn't get extravagant and stupid. When that was gone, I had my old money-finding spell. And that would have to be good enough.

 

It took a day to have Amazon send me duplicates of the clothing I had chosen for my costume; it would take another day to enchant everything, as I had before I'd gone to help Steve in France. As I worked on layering the spells atop each other -- spells to protect me from weapons, from fists, from fire, from electricity -- the battle against Schmidt kept replaying in my mind. It was stupid, really, that I'd been defeated so easily. Yes, he was stronger than I was, and faster, and had more experience with physical combat.


But so had the aliens at the Battle of New York, and they had never managed to touch me.


The phrase "work smarter, not harder" echoed through my head; what I needed to do, rather than work smarter, was to fight smarter, not harder. Some of the first magics I had learned on my own, before I had ever met Loki, allowed me to reflect any harm against me back on my attacker, without feeling it at all. I could spin force-fields of surprising strength. (Yes, Loki could cleave through them without effort, but he was a mage. Schmidt was no such thing.) I could teleport away from a swinging fist or an energy blast and reappear behind the one who had attacked; I could turn intangible in the blink of an eye and let such things pass harmlessly through me.
I began to weave hanging spells into the costume, leaving them invisibly dotting the fabric like gleaming jewels. Spells of teleportation, of healing, of intangibility -- all things that would help me stay unharmed in any battle I entered. I wove contingencies into some of the spells; the healing spells would trigger the moment I suffered an injury, without requiring me to speak words or make gestures; those that would numb pain were most prominent, threading themselves through the fabric of the costume like Kevlar threads. Those spells would require periodic renewal, as I went into fights and they were expended; they were not infinite, after all. They could not replace themselves without my effort, any more so than an empty carton of eggs after a marathon bout of baking could suddenly sprout new eggs without the baker going to the store to buy more.


I glanced over at the other thing I had bought from Amazon: a police-band radio. I had taken a few hours to memorize all the call codes the police and fire departments used to communicate; now I could keep tabs on what was happening in the city, and hurry to help at a moment's notice. It had been on since the moment I had taken it out of its box and set it up, but so far, all the calls coming through had been minor ones -- small robberies, speeders, purse snatchings.


I finished the spells just after midnight, hanging the costume over the back of a chair. I had been up for over twenty-four hours, had missed both lunch and dinner. Phantom echoes of pain from Loki's beating still resonated through my limbs, although the injuries he had caused had healed. I wanted a meal, a shower, and at least eight hours of sleep, in that order.


The radio crackled. "All units, all units, we have a Code 3. Witnesses reporting a 10-80 and an 11-71 at the corner of Cherry Street and FDR." An explosion and a fire. The Code 3 meant that all responding vehicles should use both emergency lights and siren. "911 call reports the fire may have been set. Please respond."


So tired. I wanted to shut the radio off. I wanted to go to bed.


So of course, I reached for the costume I had made myself, pulling it on, tying the mask over my eyes, changing my appearance from 'Beth' to 'Emily'.


And then I went intangible and invisible, and soared up through the ceiling and the roof, out into the night.


I turned toward the direction of the intersection mentioned, aiming myself like an arrow. As I got closer, I could see the brightness of flames illuminating the street, and smell the smoke that rose from the apartment building in thick, greasy pillars. It was four stories tall, and although I could hear sirens approaching, there were neither police cars nor fire trucks there yet, only a small crowd of neighbors gathered across the street, watching and wailing and weeping.


I came to a stop above the building, making myself visible and tangible once more. I was spotted immediately, and I could hear them talking, see the neighbors pointing. I ignored it, staring down at the flames. My control of elemental forces did not yet approach full mastery, but my Faltine ancestry gave me some small advantage here. Normal flames could not hurt me if I refused to allow it. I let power surge through me, mystic fire shimmering into view around me as I took on my Faltinian form. And then I reached out with my will, extending my hands down toward the burning building below me, and called out to the fire, pulling it toward me, drawing it into me as I might draw air into my lungs with a deep inhale. The fire raging through the building dimmed, fought me like a living thing, and then -- unable to withstand the force of my will -- guttered out like a candle in a tornado.


I snuffed the flames around me, feeling the energies I had taken in, and dropped down toward the building's roof. Smoke still rose in dirty spirals from the old brick and wood, but I slowed my breathing, turning intangible for a moment to phase through the roof. Words spilled from my lips as I called up a lesser spell of healing; rather than marshaling healing energies itself, it cast a veil over my eyes. Just as a doctor might perform tests or order x-rays to determine what was wrong with a patient, this spell allowed me to see the energies of life around me, even through solid matter. Rather than search the building with my normal senses only, this allowed me to detect the glow of the people trapped in the building and find them before burns or smoke inhalation snuffed out that life.


The first one was close, inside the nearest apartment. I stepped through the wall like a ghost and chased that light down, finding an elderly man on the floor in the bathroom, a wet cloth over his nose and mouth, second-degree burns on his hands and his legs. I muttered the syllables of a healing spell, reaching out to touch him, and then, even as the blisters and charring faded, dispatched him with a teleportation spell to the sidewalk across the street, where his neighbors had gathered.


Seeking out the life-force of each of the people trapped in the building was like seeing phantoms through the walls. Some of them were dimming, the smoke they had inhaled or the burns they had suffered stealing away their lives. I gave up on walking through walls and burned energy willfully, teleporting from victim to victim to save time. Each was touched with a healing spell, and each was sent outside to where -- I could sense -- fire engines, ambulances, and EMTs now waited.


Floor by floor, I cleared the building. Twice, I found people whose injuries had already claimed them -- fierce burns beyond any healing, the bodies no longer drawing breath. Their souls had gone on, but it would have been a lack of respect for the dead to leave them among the ashes; I sent them outside as I had with their living companions.


At last, I reached the first floor. There was only a single fading light here, at the back of the building. I could hear muffled shouts near the front doors, as the firefighters that had arrived hurried in with their axes and hoses, hoping to save anyone still left. My energies were nearly depleted; I could make a choice between the teleportation spell to get there quickly, or the healing spell to save the victim when I got there.


I ran faster than I ever had in my life, racing down the central hall to the apartment at the back of the building. I had no energies left to phase through the door, and as I covered the last ten feet, I threw myself into the air, curling up into a ball, and hit the door shoulder-first. It burst in as I hit it, and I tumbled through the smoky air, hit the ground, rolled, and came back up on my feet. The light shone from the rear-most room, but even as I ran, it was fading.


I shoved the door open and darted into what was a master bedroom. There was a crib in the far corner, and I swallowed hard as I caught sight of the small form curled up in it. A little girl, not even a year old, wispy dark hair on her head. The smoke in here was almost too thick to see through, and I ran, scooping her up, feeling the leaden coolness of her small frame.

"Omnipotent Oshtur now grant
Healing upon this poor soul;
Mend now all this child's hurts;
I pray you make her once more whole."

There was a moment of silence as the last magical energies flowed out of me, into her, and then she coughed, her whole body jolting as she sucked air into her lungs. I yanked off my jacket and swathed her in it, then turned and raced from the room.


The air outside was clean and sweet and cold -- it was December, after all -- and bracing after the ashen haze of smoke inside the building. Ambulances were checking out the injured I had teleported outside, and the police were fighting to restrain a man who was screaming, trying to get free of them.


"No! Let me go! My baby girl's in there!"


He was tall, heavily muscled, panic in his eyes. There were six officers struggling to hold him back, even as the firefighters trained their hoses on the building, drenching it to make certain the flames didn't spring to life again. I crossed the road with the little girl in my arms, the body heat from my jacket keeping the cold off her tiny limbs. Her face was crinkled up in displeasure at the chill, but there was not so much as a single scorch mark on her flesh.


At last, she opened her mouth and wailed, tiny fists waving. The man's head shot up and he tore free of the officers with a roar, crossing the twenty feet that separated us, his eyes glassy with tears. "Lisa! Little girl!"


I smiled up at him and transferred the child into his arms. He sobbed as he cradled her close, the baby whimpering as he rained kisses on her face. "Thank you, lady. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank God for sendin' you."


The police were eyeing me warily. I could hear whispers from the crowds that were slowly growing louder. There was soot on my costume, and the soles of my boots glowed red with heat from the burning floors; the spells I had woven into the costume kept that heat from reaching me, even though it wouldn't have harmed me.


I walked calmly over to one of the ambulances. The EMT there who was looking over the old man that had been the first victim I had rescued met my gaze with a grin. "The hero of the hour. What can I do for you, ma'am?"


"Do you have a blanket in there for that guy's little girl? I wrapped her in my jacket, but it's pretty cold out here, and I don't think that's going to keep her as warm as she needs to be."


He reached into the ambulance and handed me a folded-up blanket. "Anything for a good Samaritan," he said.


I mulled his words over as I walked over to the man with the baby. He had gotten her to stop crying, and was checking every finger and toe now. "Here," I said, "wrap her up in this. My jacket's not going to keep her warm for very long."


He transferred her from one arm to the other, carefully unwrapping my jacket from around her and instantly bundling her up in the blanket. She wiggled deeper into the blanket, sucking one of her thumbs, and I took the jacket from him with a smile. "She's going to be okay. She'd suffered some smoke inhalation, but I healed that."


"Ain't nothin' I'll ever be able to do to thank you enough, ma'am," he said, crying openly. "Lost her mother in a car crash two months ago. It's been hard raisin' her on my own, but I wouldn't give her up for the world. I thought I'd lost her."


I shook my head, smiling. "Not tonight," I told him. "You just be the best dad for that little girl you can be."


He choked back a sob and I suddenly found myself pulled into an embrace with him and the little girl. He wept as he hugged me, and I felt a strange sort of sensation unfurling at the center of my chest. It took me a moment to identify it; I'd never felt anything close to it before.


Joy.


He let me go, and I paused a moment, looking around at the people gathered on the sidewalks, the police, the firefighters, the EMTs, the people I had saved. The man and his little girl. News vans were starting to pull up in front of the building, just past the cordon the cops had set up, and I could see news cameras being hoisted onto shoulders, men and women in neat suits and perfect hair holding microphones and trying to get past the police to chase the story.


"Uhmmm..."


I turned. One of the police officers had broken away from the cordon to come to a stop in front of me, looking nervous. "I don't think I recognize you, ma'am," he said. "I don't...are you registered?"


Oh, right. The Sokovian Accords. I hid a grimace. "First thing tomorrow, officer," I said. "This is my first night out." I paused, shrugged. "But I think Captain America might vouch for me. We're friends." 


"Do you...what's your name?" he asked anxiously.


Ten minutes ago, I wouldn't have known what to tell him. But sometimes, fate provides. I nodded toward the EMT who had given me the blanket.


"He had it right," I said. "Call me Samaritan."


And then I drew on the last dregs of energy left to me and rose into the air, leaving the babble of the crowd behind, and took off for home.

Chapter Text

            Two days after the fire and I could still smell smoke. The cats could, too; they followed me around, sniffing worriedly at my heels, plunging their noses into my hair when we curled up in bed together at night. I reassured them in cat-speak that there was no more fire, that mommy was fine, that I had helped save a people-kitten from the nasty fire. That, at last, seemed to settle them -- that and lots of cat treats, of course.

            My work at the fire made the news. The first reports were of how many people I saved. I hadn't bothered counting, but the anchormen on NBC and FOX and CBS and ABC were happy to let me know the number: 17. One of the women I'd saved was pregnant, so who knows, maybe more.

            The reports that followed up the day after the fire were a little more critical. Why hadn't I registered for the Sokovian Accords? I had told the police officer I'd do it the next day, yet I hadn't shown up at any office in the city.

            The truth was, I was afraid. Stark was in contact with the people who did the registration for the Accords, and I was worried that the moment I showed up there and took off my mask -- because of course they demanded to know your secret identity -- they'd try to arrest me. I was fairly certain I could escape, of course; any measures they tried to restrain me now weren't likely to work unless they'd pinged the source of my abilities as magic, and had another mage on staff to counter what I could do. But it would force me back into inertia, into doing nothing with my gifts, into hiding.

            I couldn't allow that.

            I didn't let it stop me, though. The day after the fire, I caught up with a group of bank robbers at the Citibank on West 72nd Avenue, near the American Museum of Natural History; they had guns and hostages -- two bank tellers and a twelve-year-old kid there with his dad, who'd come to open his first savings account with his newspaper route money -- but no powers. I used the sleep spell and put them all under, using a spell of telekinesis to keep their guns from falling and possibly going off.  Only when the thieves were out cold on the floor did I make myself visible and solid again; one of the bank workers called the police to let them know the thieves had been rendered harmless. I waited until the police had arrived and handcuffed the robbers before lifting the sleep spell so the police could read them their rights; with the criminals restrained and the guns collected, I saw no reason to stay any longer.

            This morning, over breakfast and still in my pajamas, the police radio had crackled and spat out the news of the escape of a multiple rapist from the lockup in the Midtown North Precinct, just south of Central Park. I caught the name, signed online, looked the thug up on the police website, and then wove a finder spell using his name and photograph to locate him; I found him trying to hotwire a car in an underground parking garage near the same mall I had first visited after my return to the city. I lifted my hands to the level of my face, palms outward, middle and ring fingers bent inward and held down with my thumbs, and quietly recited one of the mind control spells I had learned from the book Doom had lent me. He went rigid, and I smiled as I frog-marched him away from the car -- having him lock it back up first so no one else would try to steal it -- and then down, out of the parking garage, and right back to the precinct he had escaped from. The words "The Samaritan says 'You're welcome'," tumbled from his lips at my prompting as they handcuffed the glassy-eyed man, and only when they had him restrained did I release him from the spell. The litany of curses and swear-words that erupted from him as he "woke" to find himself in jail again was educational, to say the least.

            I got up from the kitchen table to put my dishes in the dishwasher and paused as my cellphone rang. I glanced down at it where it sat and quickly put my oatmeal bowl and coffee cup back down; the number on the display was Steve's.

            "Hello?"

            "Beth! Hi! How are you doing?" His voice spilled out of the speaker, warm and bright, and I closed my eyes and basked in the sound.

            "I'm doing okay," I said. It wasn't a complete lie; things had been awful for weeks -- not hearing from him, and then Loki's unwelcome visit -- but in the last few days, I had taken steps to better things, and hearing from him now was enough to almost make me forget the pain I had felt during those terrible hours.

            "Glad to hear it," he said. "Are you at home, or at work?"

            "Home," I said, electing not to mention -- for now, at least -- the fact that I didn't currently have a paying job any more.

            "Great! I'm in town for a few days. Can I come by? I thought we could spend some time together, and go out and get some dinner later tonight."

            "Sure, that would be...wonderful," I said. A knot was growing in my throat. I thought I had realized how much I missed him, but it hadn't really hit home until just now. I hadn't seen him since France. And he didn't know it had been me there, helping. "How did things go with the journal?" I asked tentatively.

            "I'll let you know when I get to your place," he said. "I don't want to talk about it over the phone."

            "Sure, of course. National security and all that," I teased. "When should I expect you?"

            The doorbell rang.

            I froze for a moment. "Is that you?" I asked. He laughed.

            "Yeah, it is. Sorry...I couldn't wait. I missed you."

            I hung up the phone, only freaking out a little. I was still in my pajamas, hadn't yet had a shower, hair a tangled mess. I tossed the phone down onto the table and grabbed up my dishes, shoving them into the dishwasher and started it up. Then I ran to the bedroom and grabbed my bathrobe, pulling it on and tying the belt at my waist. I couldn't do anything about not having had a shower yet this morning, but I'd had one last night before bed. Quickly, I ran a brush through my hair, then squeezed a dollop of toothpaste into my mouth, swished it around, spat it back out into the sink, and rinsed the sink out.

            Then I ran for the stairs, bolting down to the front door and opening it. Estimated get-ready time: seventy-two seconds.

            He looked wonderful, of course, standing there in jeans and his brown leather jacket, cheeks flushed with the cold. A dusting of snow lay over the ground and everything outside, and there was a brown paper bag in his arms. Brightly-wrapped packages poked out from the mouth of the bag and I blinked, realizing it was just two days before Christmas.

            "Not going to leave me out here in the cold, I hope?" he chuckled.

            "What? Oh, no." Belatedly, I stepped out of the way so he could come inside, shutting and locking the door as soon as he was in. "Sorry. I haven't been awake for long yet. Come on up."

            He craned his head to glance at Elsie's door. "Is your landlady in? I brought her a fruitcake."

            I laughed. "Uh, no. She went to visit family in the south for the holidays. Too cold for her old bones here, she says. I'm keeping an eye on her apartment while she's gone -- watering her plants, bringing in the mail and sending it to her. She left pre-written checks for the water and electric, and I'm mailing those out for her on the days she specified so none of the utilities get cut off." I led the way up the stairs ahead of him, idly wondering if he was looking at my ass.

            “It’s nice of you to help her out like that,” he said as I pulled open the door to the apartment and stepped out of the way so he could come inside. He kicked off his shoes, and I shut the door behind him.

            “Eh, she’s a nice lady,” I said. “All part of the social contract, right? Besides, she doesn’t have anyone else in the city to look after her and help her out. I’d have to be a real creep not to chip in when I can.”

            He set the bag down on the kitchen table and pulled me into his arms. “Mmmm. That’s the Beth I know and care for,” he said, reaching down with one hand to tilt my face up and gently press his lips to my own.

            I melted into his embrace, suddenly starved for his affection and his touch. The warmth of his hand on the side of my jaw, gentle and sure, was worlds away from Loki’s punishing grip. I could feel his arms cradle me, as carefully as if I was breakable, fragile spun glass; he knew he could easily hurt someone, given his strength, and was very careful to make sure he didn’t.

            At last, he let me down. I could feel the warmth in my face, knew my cheeks were red and flushed, and smiled up at him. “That was nice,” I murmured.

            “That was more than nice,” he responded, brushing a stray lock of hair out of my eyes. “I’ve missed you.”

            That hurt to hear…but it was the right kind of pain. “I missed you, too,” I told him.

            “So. I don’t suppose you’ve had breakfast yet?”

            “I have,” I said. “Have you?”

            He made a face. “Nope. Just got off the plane an hour ago and came right over.”

            I smiled. “Well, I can make you breakfast, or we can go out for it. Your call,” I said.

            He reached out and took one of my hands in his. “Actually, I really like the idea of you cooking breakfast for me,” he replied, his smile deepening. “If you don’t mind. You make this place feel a little bit like home to me.”

            “If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered,” I replied. “Go ahead and have a seat. I’ve got coffee made, I’ll grab you a cup. Bacon and eggs and hash browns and pancakes okay with you?”

            “Bacon and eggs and hash browns and pancakes would be heavenly,” he answered.

            I poured him a cup of coffee and then set to work, getting out the pans, rummaging in the fridge for bacon and eggs and butter. I peeled and shredded potatoes, mixed up pancake batter as the bacon and eggs fried, and set the table for him. He leafed through the morning’s newspaper in companionable, comfortable silence as I flipped the pancakes and warmed up the bottle of real maple syrup in a saucepan of warm water on the stove.

            “So, how did the thing with the journal go?” I asked as I slid a full plate in front of him. He grinned, setting the newspaper down, reaching for the bottle of ketchup for his hash browns.

            “Well, you were right to be worried about the Skull,” he said. “He’d mastered cloning, all right. I ran into an adult clone of Schmidt with all his memories and all the power from the Serum there. I guess I should be glad that there wasn’t more than one…and frankly, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t sure there aren’t other clones scattered around the world. They’ll be looking into that. But he was better than I remembered. He’s had years since whoever – HYDRA, I guess – to improve his skills. He got the drop on me during our fight and I took several bullets. Might have died. Fortunately, I had help.”

            “Oh?” I asked, fighting to keep my tone casual.

            He nodded, taking a sip of his coffee. “An old friend,” he said. “Or, well…someone I’ve known for a few years. Someone I don’t know very well, but…I’d like to be her friend, anyway.”

            I smiled, but it felt brittle and false, and something in my stomach was knotting up painfully. I tried to figure out what I was feeling, but it was difficult; my inexperience with actual emotion made it hard to try to untangle the different strands of feeling. There was my affection for him, my fear that he might learn that Beth and Emily were the same person, the sudden hot stab of jealousy at his professed interest in Emily – never mind that we were the same damned person; he didn’t know that, after all – and the constant knife-edge of wariness I had to balance on every time I saw him, wondering if today would be the day he learned my secret. All that, to say nothing of my abject terror that Loki would choose this particular moment to return.

            It was absolutely stupid to be jealous of myself. He was here, after all, when no one was compelling him to be, instead of out looking for Emily. “So what’s her name?” I asked.

            “She’s calling herself Samaritan now, if the news channels got it right,” he said, finishing his pancakes.

            “A superhero, then?”

            “Yeah,” he said. “But she wasn’t always. The first time I met her, she was – as far as I could tell, anyway – a scared kid in a bad situation. I wanted to help her. She seemed to think she was beyond help.”

            That knot of fear had slithered out of my stomach and started to crawl up into my throat.

            “That’s sad,” I said, fighting to keep my expression appropriate to the conversation, or at least neutral. He glanced up at me with a wistful smile.

            “I thought so, too,” he sighed. “The first time I ever met her was in the middle of a battle. I was trying to get her out of danger. She spooked, and put me to sleep. Heck of a way to find out someone has powers, huh?”

            “Yeah,” I agreed, getting up to refill his coffee. I turned away from him to grab the carafe off the coffeemaker, fighting to get my face to settle down and behave. My stomach was arguing that the appropriate response to this situation was to either run away or throw up. All the adrenaline and cortisol flooding my system was making me nauseous as hell. “So what happened?”

            “Some of my teammates took her prisoner. Knocked her out, dragged her to a holding cell. Ran some tests while waiting for her to wake up. We didn’t know who she was. Her fingerprints didn’t match anything on file. I think she was about 16 then.”

            I almost corrected him, almost said “Seventeen, actually,” and bit down on my tongue as I realized what was almost about to spill out of my mouth. I tasted blood, winced, swallowed it and forced a smile as I turned back toward him with the coffee pot.

            “Did you ever find out who she was?” I asked as I poured him a second cup of coffee.

            “Yes,” he replied, finishing the last of his eggs. “It turns out Stark had seen her in her civilian identity a few years back. We were able to track her down through library records, of all things.” His gaze meandered over to the stack of books on the coffee table in front of the couch in the living room. “She was a bright kid. Big reader. Really smart.”

            I was going to scream I was going to scream I was going to scream. I held it back and turned to put the coffee pot back on the burner, switching it off so the near-empty pot wouldn’t scorch. “I see.”

            “She escaped shortly after we figured out who she was. Not without some difficulty. Some of the Avengers went after her. She got the drop on the Black Widow; used her powers to steal her guns. But she didn’t shoot her. Said she didn’t really want to hurt anyone. Then Thor hit her with his hammer.”

            I winced. “That sounds painful. It didn’t kill her?” I was pleased to be able to manage a response that was perfectly natural for anyone, under the circumstances.

            “No. But almost, I think. She managed to heal herself, somehow. Have you seen the news? She saved a bunch of people from a burning building the other day. Most of them were hurt pretty bad. Healing seems to be one of her gifts. It’s nice, really; most of us in this line of work are great at beating people up, but not so good at fixing the injuries we see.” I nodded. “Anyway, she jumped out of the helicarrier when it was pretty high up. That’s how we found out she could fly.” He took a drink of his coffee. “Iron Man and Thor followed her down to land. And so did I, because whatever she did to put me to sleep, she undid it. I don’t know why.”

            “Did you catch her?” I asked, numbly fascinated by hearing his side of the story.

            “I could have. I saw where she hid when she landed.”

            “But you didn’t,” I said.

            “No. Like I said, she was a scared kid. What was chasing her down and throwing her in jail going to do to help her?”

            “I can’t imagine your teammates appreciated that,” I said.

            “Not so much, no,” he sighed. “But maybe I should have caught her. Because then she dropped off the face of the earth for three years.”

            I arched an eyebrow. “What happened?”

            “That’s just it. We don’t know.” He looked up at me, his expression serious. “The first time I saw her again was in France. I don’t know how she knew I was there. Like I said, Schmidt had gotten the drop on me. I think I might have been dying.” I covered my mouth with a hand; he had been badly hurt, of course, but it was worse, hearing him say it. “And then she showed up out of nowhere in a costume and healed me. But then the Skull jumped her. Beat her badly. She fought him – I was surprised to see it, she held her own for a few minutes – but then he got her down. It was…ugly.” There was pain in his voice, and it hurt to hear it. “But whatever she did to heal me kicked in, and I stopped him. For good.” His tone had gone grim.

            “What happened to her then?” I asked.

            “I took her to some friends nearby; the grandson of someone I had fought with in the war. They had a bed and breakfast in the area, and the man’s wife was a doctor. They fixed her up, in private, and about a week later, she finally woke up.”

            “I wanted to help her,” he said thoughtfully. “We had taken some things from her when we first encountered her, when we had her—“

            “Under arrest?” I asked.

            “Well, something like that,” he said. “I gave them back to her. I don’t know why she had them, but I thought they might be things she needed. And they were of no use or significance to us, after all.”

            I wondered, briefly, what he would do if I told him that I’d destroyed the SS dagger after returning from France, sending the officer’s spirit on to whatever awaited him in the afterlife?

            “She healed the damage she took in the fight from Schmidt. Not just that – her jaws had been broken, and my friend’s wife had wired them shut. Once she healed the broken bones, she…” he paused to figure out a way to phrase what he wanted to say, “…she went insubstantial, like a ghost. The wires and pins holding her jaws together just…fell out.”

            “Wow.”

            “Yeah.” He sighed. “I tried to get her to open up a bit, but she wouldn’t – or, well, said she couldn’t – talk about it much. Not about her powers, or why she was where she was when I first met her.” He paused. “You saw the address the King of Latveria gave to the United Nations a few weeks back? I know it was on all the news channels.”

            “Yeah,” I said.

            “Doom talked about the Avengers invading his country. That’s where I met the girl.”

            I nodded. “Bad situation to be in. Why were you guys there?”

            “S.H.I.E.L.D. had intel from a trusted source that Doom was cooking up a virus to use against individuals with powers that came from changes to the genetic code. Mutants, people like Spider-Man. It wouldn’t have affected Doom, of course, since his armor is where he gets most of his powers, or Iron Man, or Thor, or the Widow or Hawkeye, but people like the Hulk, or me…” He trailed off.

            I felt myself go pale. Some reactions were beyond my abilities to control. My mouth had gone dry. I hadn’t known. “Did you stop him?” I whispered.

            Steve nodded. “Destroyed his labs. He got away, but…we were able to keep him from producing the virus. Now he’s got his country back, of course, and we don’t know if he’s trying to make it again. We’re doing our best to find out.”

            I no longer felt like I was going to scream, but I was at least halfway sure I was going to throw up. The oath I had taken with Doom wouldn’t take effect until after my oath to Loki was complete. Right now, for the next three years, I could act against Doom, if I could find the courage to do so. I could find out if he was working on the virus. And I – well, Samaritan – could get that information to Steve. If I dared.

            “So how did things end in France?” I asked him, forcing my voice to stay steady.

            “She told me a few things about herself. Things about—“ he paused, “—well, about her mental state, anyway. It gave me a bit of an understanding about why she was doing what she’d done, why she was who she was. I don’t think she’s evil, no matter that we found her in Doom’s castle. I think she’s been put through some really hard times, some very difficult situations, and she’d just coped as best as she could. And she said…I get the idea she wanted help. But for some reason I don’t know about, she couldn’t ask for it.” He shook his head. “But she told me, in not so many words, that she wished she could.”

            I nodded. “Did you arrest her?”

            “What? No. I had no reason to. I wanted to try to keep her there, to try to talk to her some more, to figure out a way to help her, but…she got away.”

            I was quiet for a long moment. “I’m sorry,” I said.

            “So am I.” He looked down at his empty coffee cup. “So am I.”

Chapter Text

"Well," I said after a long moment.


He smiled. "Have you done your Christmas shopping yet?"


I was grateful he had chosen to change the subject, but somewhat less thrilled by the particular topic he had chosen. Going by the parcels in his bag, he was done with his shopping, but it hadn't even occurred to me to do so. I hadn't had anything to do with the holiday since I still lived with my adoptive parents, and even then, my involvement had less to do with me celebrating the day and more to do with my parents buying me things in an attempt to make me normal. Besides...I'd spent a good chunk of the last four years in Asgard. They didn't celebrate Christmas there.

"Err...no?" I said with a lopsided, apologetic grin. "I sort of lost track of time."


He blinked. "That's right, I forgot," he said, sounding embarrassed. "You said you were estranged from your parents."


"More or less," I admitted. "We don't really understand each other. I did think to send Elsie a card," I told him. I'd found a lovely one for my landlady earlier in the month, and sent it off to her a week and a half back. But who else was there for me to share the holiday with, or care about? It had been so long since I'd seen Steve, I'd been half-convinced after returning from France that I'd never see him again.


"Didn't put up a tree or any decorations?" he asked.


For an answer, I waved my hand at the living room, which was no more decorated than it had been when I first moved in. "Seemed like a shame to cut down a living thing that produces oxygen when the rain forests are being clear-cut," I said. "And, well, a plastic one...just not a good idea overall. Pollution. Plastics come from oil, and we're running out of that..."


"You sure your last name isn't Grinch?" he teased. I laughed.


"Pretty sure," I said.


"So if you don't have a tree, where am I supposed to put your presents?" he asked cheerfully.


"Steve...you shouldn't have. I haven't gotten anything for you." I paused. "Yet. I think I need to go do some shopping."


He laughed. "You said you weren't awake very long," he said. I nodded. "Tell you what. You go take a shower and get dressed. I'll go get a tree." I opened my mouth to protest and he held up a finger. "I promise I won't kill a living tree, and I won't bring you a fake one."


I blinked. "That seems fair," I said cautiously. "So long as we can decorate it together, I guess."


"Popcorn strings and paper snowflakes?"


"Sounds like a plan," I agreed.


He grinned. "Borrow your key?" he asked. "So I can get the tree upstairs if you're still in the shower and can't answer the door?"


"Sure," I told him, and went to fish my key-ring out of my purse. Three days ago I would have refused, what with the Sphere and the book from the shop up in the attic; I would have been too worried about him wandering through the house and finding things he shouldn't have. But my costume was currently invisible and intangible, and the Sphere and tome were both gone. The only other thing it might not be wise for him to see, the police-band radio, would be easy to turn off, unplug, and stick in a closet somewhere.


I handed the key-ring over to him. "See you soon?"


"Count on it, lady," he said, pulling me close again. I smiled and he pressed a kiss against my brow. "I'm really looking forward to spending the day with my best girl."


"Heh," I chuckled softly. "Well, at least I know the others have to wait until I've had my turn."


He tilted my face up to his with gentle hands. "Beth...there aren't any others." His lips came down on mine lightly, then slowly increased their pressure, plundering my mouth, moving bit by bit, his tongue slipping out to taste me. My own lips parted and our tongues entwined, the sensation spearing fire through my heart and belly, bringing all those devastating needs roaring to the surface again. I wanted him to keep kissing me, and I wanted him to touch me, and I wanted more -- so much more, things I objectively understood from the medical books I had read and the seamier sites on the internet and the things I saw on TV from time to time. I wanted him, all of him, and I wanted him to want me in the same way, and at the same time I was afraid. If we made love, there was no going back from that; no way to undo it if things went wrong. No way to forget what had happened if things didn't work out between us.


Not to mention the fact that I was almost completely certain that Loki would slaughter me if I lost my virginity to one of his enemies. If I fell in love with one of his enemies -- oh, I was trying to delude myself. There was no 'if' about it; I had to admit it. I was in love with Steve, or at least, as much so as someone as broken as I could be in love with anyone. Enough to die for him, at least, if it came to that.


And if Loki intervened, it probably would.


He let me go at last. I clung for a second, not wanting him to step away, not wanting my skin to cool after being surrounded by the bliss of his body heat, not wanting those curling streamers of fire in my stomach to slow and sleep and end. He pressed a last light kiss on my mouth.


"Go shower," he said firmly. "I'll be back."


"You better be," I said hoarsely, but nodded. He turned away with a smile and headed down the stairs to the front door, and I sprinted for the bathroom. I raked the curtains open with one hand, turned the water on and listened to it hiss against the porcelain tub, pulled the button that started the shower. It took me just seconds to shuck off my robe and pajamas and peel off my socks, and then I was under the hot spray of the showerhead above, letting it soak me through.


Gooseflesh had risen on my arms and legs in the wake of his kisses, and I shivered. My nipples were hard, an impossible-to-prevent reaction to his nearness. I looked at my body critically; small waist, small hips, slim legs, thin arms. 'Beth's' body was more busty than my real one, but I was never going to be able to compete with Marilyn Monroe. I ran a hand experimentally from my shoulder down one arm, eyes closed, pretending it was him, and made myself shiver again.


No, no, this was a waste of time. I washed myself quickly, shampooed my hair, rinsed it, shaved my underarms and legs, then climbed out and dried off. I wrapped a towel around myself and dashed into the bedroom, pulling out comfy jeans and my favorite too-big sweater (Christmas red) and socks and underwear and a black tank top to wear under the sweater.


I dressed as quickly as I could, not bothering with make-up, then went to grab the police radio and stash it. As I stuffed it into the bottom of the closet and pulled a duffelbag over it to hide it, I spotted the burgundy suit I had worn to Doom's address at the U.N. and nearly screamed. I yanked it down off its hanger, wadded it up in a ball, and shoved it into the duffelbag on the floor, zipping the bag closed. The suit had completely escaped my mind, but Steve had been at that speech and I had no doubt at all he would recognize it if he saw it. That would be bad.


I took a moment to catch my breath, then went back out to the kitchen, gathering up old newspapers, a bottle of school glue, and some scissors, dumping them on the table. Then I grabbed several packs of no-butter microwave popcorn and popped them, one at a time, in the microwave.


The doorbell rang downstairs and I hurried to get it, tossing the door open with a mewed order at the cats to stay put. Down at the front door, Steve was just shoving the door open, and I gaped as he stepped back out on the porch and hoisted a potted evergreen tree, bringing it inside. The pot was massive, and the tree had to be at least eight feet tall, a gorgeous blue spruce with graceful branches that filled the hallway and stairs with the scent of Christmas.


I held the second-floor door open for him as he brought it upstairs. There was a removable metal mesh screen over the top of the pot to keep the cats from digging in the dirt and using the tree's pot as a spare litter box; he had thought of everything.


"Where do you want this?" he asked, without even a grunt.


"How about by the front bay window, in the living room?" I suggested. He carried it over there as I scampered downstairs to pull the front door shut and lock it. I hurried back upstairs and shut the door to my apartment behind me as he straightened up.


"What do you think?" he asked.


"I think it's gorgeous. I wouldn't have realized I could get a living tree for the holiday and keep it year-round. Thank you." I stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek and he pulled me in close for a proper kiss, sliding his fingers up into my hair. I let myself get lost in the sensation, kissing him back, wrapping my arms as far around his shoulders as I could.


He let me go at last, and we made a beeline for the kitchen. I got the popcorn out of its paper bags and dumped it into a big plastic bowl, then went searching for the sewing kit I had bought and put away. Together, the two of us spent the next four hours making big looping paper chains, strings of popcorn, cut out paper snowflakes, and decorated the tree with old-fashioned, hand-made beauty instead of expensive, breakable things of plastic and glass.


"What do you think?" he asked me.


I smiled. "I think it's gorgeous," I told him.


"Not quite finished, though," he said, and went to grab the bag of packages he had brought with him. He dug them out of the bag one by one -- there were four of them -- and tucked them underneath the tree.
"You really shouldn't have, you know," I murmured as he straightened up.


"Why not?" he asked.


"Well..." I tried to think of something to say and couldn't. It just seemed wrong for him to give me presents when I had nothing to give him in return.


He shook his head. "I'm really looking forward to seeing your face when you open them," he said.


I gave up. "I sure hope the stores are still open this close to Christmas," I said.


He shook his head. "Beth, you already gave me my present," he replied.


I looked at him quizzically. "That's funny. I don't remember wrapping anything."


He laughed and pulled me close again. "I get to spend the next few days with you. Best present I could get. Anything else would be redundant."


I felt my face go warm as I blushed. "Anyone ever tell you you're really hard to argue with?" I asked him.


"I might have heard that, once or twice," he allowed. "Any place in particular you'd like to have dinner tonight?"


"Hmmm. Wouldn't mind Keen's, in honor of our first dinner together. But I'm pretty sure there's no way in hell to get a reservation this close to Christmas."


He grinned. "Doesn't hurt to try, though," he said.


"No, it doesn't," I replied. "And the diner is fine, when they tell you no."


He pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and flipped it open, dialing the restaurant number, apparently from memory. I listened as he greeted the maitre'd by name, asked him about his family, wished him a Merry Christmas, talked about the last time we'd been there. I knew there was a bemused look on my face when he briefly covered the speaker of his phone with one hand and looked over at me. "Seven tonight okay with you?"


"Sure, why not?" I replied, shaking my head. He thanked the man and hung up, turning to smile at me. "Okay, I was wrong."


"That's okay," he chuckled. "We all have to be, once in a while."


"Right. When are you ever wrong?" I teased him.


"Oh, it's happened, once or twice," he said, wrapping his arms around my waist. "It's a couple of hours before dinner. Anything in particular you'd like to do until then?"


I looked up at him with a little smile. "I have a couple of ideas," I murmured softly.


That's how we ended up in the back yard, making a snowman. We had the first two sections rolled up and set together, and I was rolling up a third, when a snowball hit me in the back of the head. I yelped and whirled to see him packing together another one, quickly.


"Oho. Two can play at that game, Steve," I crowed, and dived behind the half-built snowman, scooping snow into my mittens and packing it together. I popped up to lob it at him and another snowball hit me in the face, knocking me back on my ass in the snow. I burst out laughing as my own snowball rolled out of my mittened hand and wandered away. My breath steamed in the air as it escaped me, but despite the cold and the stinging bits of snow melting into my eyes, I was having -- quite possibly -- more fun than I'd ever had in my life.


"Hey! You give up, over there?" he called.


"I surrender!" I replied, trying to hold back laughter. "I'd wave a white flag if I had one!" There was snow in my hair, snow melting down the back of my coat collar, snow in my boots, snow clumped and frozen to my mittens, snow soaking through the knees of my jeans. "Can I get up now?"


"I don't know, can you?" he asked, rising up from behind the half-complete snowman. "You haven't frozen to the ground, have you?"

"I don't think so," I laughed, sitting up. "Sad to think the poor snowman's going to have to go without a head, though."


For an answer, he plunked the massive ball of snow in his hand down atop the snowman's "shoulders", then picked up the two fallen twigs we had found in the yard and poked them into the sides of the middle section for arms. He followed with two dark rocks from the flowerbed for eyes and a corn-cob from the squirrel feeder for a nose.


"The squirrels are going to steal his nose, you know," I said, getting to my feet and dusting the snow off the seat of my jeans. I fished my stocking cap out of the snow where it had fallen and shook the snow out of it, then plunked it onto my head.


"He'll cope," he said gravely, and turned and scooped me up in his arms. "That was fun. I haven't had the chance to just play...in ages."


"Me either," I agreed. "But right now I think I hear a cup of hot cocoa calling me."


He grinned and carried me out of the snowy yard to the back steps, and we went up them and inside, pausing on the outside second-floor landing to stomp as much snow off our boots as we could. We hung our hats, coats, scarves, and gloves from the back-porch hooks, leaving our boots back there so the snow could melt off them instead of tracking puddles everywhere, and then went inside, where I made a pot of hot cocoa before going to get ready for dinner.

 


 

"--after that, maybe we can go dancing," he said as he opened the car door for me.


"Well...maybe," I said dubiously.


"Can't dance?" he asked, handing the keys to the valet, who went around to hop behind the steering wheel and drive the car away. The doorman got the door for us and we went inside.


I shrugged. "Something like that," I said. "Not that I'm not willing to learn, mind you."


The maitre'd greeted us warmly, and a waiter showed us to a table. Steve pulled my chair out for me and I pulled off my coat and sat down, letting the waiter take it to hang it up. I'd chosen to wear a dress of soft emerald velvet in deference to the holiday's colors, with knee-high boots of black suede keeping my legs warm and a matching shawl of fringed black velvet for my shoulders. I'd tucked my hair up in a neat knot, and eschewed most jewelry, although the ring of the Faltine was inside my purse.


Steve had fetched a bag from the car he'd rented, and taken some time in the bathroom back at my apartment. When he'd come out, he wore a black double-breasted suit that took my breath away.


We waited until the waiter had brought our drinks and left us with our menus before resuming our conversation. "So, if not dancing, then tell me," Steve said. "If you could have anything in the world, do anything you liked tonight, what would it be?"


"Oh, that's a tough one," I sighed. "Give me a second to think about it? For the most part, my wants are pretty simple, but when you expand that to 'anything'..." I let the sentence trail off and dipped my head to look at the menu. I was stalling, really; there were any number of things I wanted, but I really couldn't have any of them, even though he'd said 'anything'. Couldn't tell him the truth about who I really was, couldn't find a way to escape my oath to Loki...couldn't -- probably -- take Steve to bed tonight. Not without putting him in mortal danger, anyway.


A little tickle of magic impinged on my consciousness nearby and I automatically looked up in that direction. An older gentleman was being seated at a nearby table. His hair was jet black, with white streaks at his temples, and he had a neat mustache and Van Dyke beard. The dark suit he wore was somewhat archaic, with a raised Mandarin collar and no tie. In the place a tie might normally have gone was a round gold amulet on a matching chain. He had high cheekbones, a straight nose, and bright blue eyes, and I recognized him at once.


He was older, of course, but it would have been impossible not to know the face of the man the Sphere of Saphriel had shown me a few weeks ago.


It was my father.


And that was when all Hell broke loose. The far end of the restaurant exploded in flame, a roar of disintegrating stone and brick almost loud enough to drown out the screams from the diners seated down at that end of the building. A figure was materializing in the flame, something huge and fierce and dark, wreathed with flame and shadow.


Steve leapt across the table, bearing me to the floor as a wave of fire swept from the far end toward the doors we came in. I felt it pass overhead as we hit the floor, and winced. I hoped it hadn't touched Steve; the fire wouldn't have hurt me, after all. But I could hear moans and screams from around us, broken sounds of pain from the people at the restaurant -- employees and customers alike -- who weren't so lucky. Part of me ached for them, wanted to go to them, heal them. The urge smashed up through me, burying even the need to stay still lest Steve learn who I really was. The last control I had over my emotions was completely shattered; I only knew I needed to help the injured. What was going on here?


"Spirit assassins!" someone shouted. I strained to see, but Steve pressed me down, his arms tight around me. I craned my neck to see past the bulwark of his shoulder and spotted ghostly forms -- visible only to those with mystic sight -- swarming through the walls, converging on one person.


My father.


"I don't understand," I whimpered, confused and afraid, trying to struggle out of Steve's grasp and get to my feet.


"No, Beth," Steve whispered into my ear. "I don't know what's going on here. Stay down, you'll get hurt."


A voice like the roar of thunder wed to the crackle of flame rolled over the room, huge and alien and frightening.


"STRANGE! No longer shall this world remain free under your protection! You are weak now, after many battles, and I have come to claim this plane as my own!"


I recognized the voice and, despite the fire, went cold.


It was Dormammu.


Dimly, I heard chanting under his words, a human voice weaving a spell. Not my own voice; one I didn't recognize.

"Assassins from the Faltine,
Hidden from my sight,
Torn away your masks shall be
On this hallowed night!"

Hallowed? That's right -- tonight is the winter solstice. I recognized his spell; it was one called Munnuporr's Mask-Breaker. It destroyed illusions, invisibility, and reverted those who were shape-changed back to their normal forms.


Those like me.


I had time to scream before it crashed through the room on every level, sweeping through the invisible "spirit assassins" my father had spoken of, the ones I had seen, and turning them visible to everyone. At the same time, I felt the features of my face begin to writhe, shift, and change.


That would have been catastrophe enough, if it had ended there. But the magic resonance, felt by everyone in the restaurant who had training in magic, erupted out of me as the spell found its mark. Both my father and Dormammu's gaze turned toward me as they sensed the change. It was bad enough that I suddenly found myself becoming "Emily" under Steve's gaze, but the spell reached inside me, found the Faltinian elements of my ancestry, and woke them to life.


I had just enough time to spit out the syllables of a telekinetic spell to toss Steve off me and away a few feet before I erupted in Faltinian flame.


"What--?" my father blurted, clearly taken by surprise. No similar shock was mirrored on Dormammu's flaming face.


"YOU! I see this now for the trap it is, whelp, you and your father conspiring against me! How did you know I would be coming? Did you think if you brought me low, I would return your soul to you?"


And suddenly, every missing piece of my life's puzzle fell into place.


The wispy bit Dormammu had stolen from me at my birth: my soul. No wonder I couldn't astrally project; my spirit was already outside of my body. No wonder my emotions had always been unlike others; the soul was the seat of all feeling, and mine was far, far away indeed -- not gone, but connected by the thinnest of tethers across not just space, but far-flung dimensions; no silver cord would be sturdy enough to let me feel those emotions at such a remove.


And my father -- Dormammu had called him "Strange". I knew the name from Doom. Doctor Stephen Strange, this dimension's Sorcerer Supreme. The house on Bleecker Street had to be his sanctum. Blood called to blood, and strengthened it; the closer I got to my father, the more it strengthened that silver cord that tied me to my soul. Returning to New York once I had learned enough magic to start being aware that something inside me was missing had sent me subconsciously seeking for that blood tie, and every time I got closer to my father, his soul had reached out, knowingly or no, to strengthen mine -- thus the sudden unexpected surge of emotions I had never felt before.


Strange had spun to stare at me, looking stunned. I could feel Steve's eyes on me as well, but didn't dare to turn and look, and see the expression of outrage and betrayal I knew must be there. Only one good thing could come of this: Dormammu's invasion of our plane had revealed who I really was, but nothing I had done had broken my oaths to Loki or Doom. Steve knew, now, who I was, and he would tell Fury and the Avengers.


Maybe it was for the best. I was glad to be done with the lies.


But oh, how it hurt to know I was going to lose him.


I gritted my teeth, got to my feet, summoned my costume with a gesture and a word.


"Yes," I bit out, staring coldly at Dormammu. "Strange's whelp. Your grand-niece, Dormammu. You're wrong--this came about through no plans of mine. But I'll be happy to stand with my father and send you back to the Dark Dimension."


The demon-king snarled, raised a hand, sent a fountain of fire at me. I dodged it, throwing up a shield, letting it grow tall and wide enough to shield Steve, behind me. At the same time, I sent my awareness down through the floor, down through the bedrock underneath the restaurant's foundation, seeking one of the many ley lines filled with mystic energy that ran under the earth's crust. There were several that ran through Manhattan. I reached out, touched it with my mind, and let that clean earth energy fill me to the brim.


"Now you'll see," I snarled. I was dimly aware that Strange was chanting, addressing Dormammu, shouting accusations that were spat out in anger. I ignored them, reaching into my core, pulling up the strongest healing spell I knew, and spun it over the restaurant. It would pull energy directly from the ley line to heal anyone in the building -- other than Dormammu -- who had been hurt when he had invaded this plane.


"Steve!" I called over my shoulder. "Get everyone out of here!"


He didn't yell back that he wasn't leaving me here alone. I hadn't expected him to. But it hurt, nonetheless, not to hear his voice. As people slowly began getting up from where they had fallen -- or been hurled by the explosion of flame that heralded Dormammu's arrival on this plane -- I heard the sound of debris crunching under the soles of his boots as he got to his feet and raced to do what I had told.


My whelp? A voice reached out to touch my thoughts, and I recognized it as that of Doctor Strange. Explain. Swiftly. I am unaware of ever becoming a father. His tone was terse but not hateful, and I spared a split-second to be grateful for that.


You wouldn't be, I returned his thoughts with my own, arrowing from my mind to his. I don't have all the details, just what I saw through the Sphere of Saphriel--


You possess the Sphere?


Not any more. I had it recently, but it's since moved on. Here's what I know: you. A white-haired woman who's my mother. Made love. She became pregnant, but before you knew she was with child -- maybe even before she knew it -- she was abducted by Dormammu. She gave birth while imprisoned in his custody. He stole my soul from me at birth and, I assume, erased her memories of the entire event. I'm sure she has no more idea that she's a mother than you did that you were a father. Sorry to spring it on you like this. I didn't know who you were before now, only recognized your face tonight when you came into the restaurant, from the images in the Sphere.


Child, where have you been--?


Dormammu probably had me dumped at an orphanage. I was adopted. No knowledge of my real parentage.


At the same time our conversation was taking place mentally, in the blinks between a second split into a million shards, we were both weaving magic -- Bolts of Bedevilment, the Winds of Watoomb, the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak -- anything and everything we could spin to beat Dormammu back, to hold him at bay, to force him to return to his own dimension.


In the background, dimly, I was aware of movement -- Steve hurrying to gather the customers and restaurant workers together and herd them out of the building, out of immediate harm. It wouldn't be enough if Dormammu overcame my father and I, but hopefully we could prevent that. Strange was Sorcerer Supreme; I was nowhere near his level of skill, but I was also the strongest I had ever been in my studies since I began as a child. Together?


Our attacks crashed through Dormammu's shields, reducing them to splinters, driving him back, dimming his fires. I tried to focus, to concentrate, but something in distant memory was trying to surface through the bulwark of my will. It was distracting, and I tried to dismiss it, tried to ignore the fragment of thought that replayed from a time long ago, hidden in a burrow in a forest clearing, when I had heard Steve speak of a consultant that Fury was calling in to discuss my powers. He had said--


"It's strange--"


No. Not an adjective.


A name.


"It's Strange."


My focus shattered as I realized just what that meant, that they had known for some time that my powers were based in magic, that my father's path had crossed mine years ago without my knowing.


What more had they known?


My focus shattered, and Dormammu roared out laughter, and I felt whips of energy sear round me, and pull me in close to his towering form, and then we were gone.

Chapter Text

            I tumbled, and flailed, disoriented by the sudden shift to another plane. Sensory impressions flooded my mind; this was not one of the dimensions I had visited with Loki years back. I strained against the energy bonds that Dormammu held me with, but it was useless; he was far stronger than I was, immeasurably so.

            He came to a stop atop a chunk of rocky matter on which was mounted a throne. With a laugh, he flung me away from him. Before I could begin to catch myself in flight and speed away, the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak formed around me, binding my arms to my torso, gloving my hands in globes of red crystal that kept me from moving my fingers in arcane gestures, and shackling my legs together. A streak of scarlet energy wrapped around my mouth, gagging me, preventing me from speaking magic words.

            "There, spawn of my most hated enemy. There you are and there you shall stay. Your father will come for you, and when he does, I shall destroy him." He settled down onto his throne, a triumphant sneer visible on his face despite the flame that wreathed his features. "Long and longer has it been since I baited this trap for him, and now it has finally come to fruition."

            The spell of telepathy I had cast to speak to Strange during the battle was still active. And just where is my soul?

            He laughed. "Think you that I fear to show you, lest you steal it from me? You have not the power, stripling."

            Yes, yes, yes, I know. I'm weak, I'm unworthy of your attention, I'm not even important enough to be an annoyance. I fully acknowledge you're stronger, older, smarter than I am. I'm a stupid little girl unworthy of the energies of the Faltine that flow through my blood. Nonetheless, I'd like to see it.

            The face of fire glared at me. "If it will shut you up until your father arrives and I kill you both..." He gestured, and an opalescent light appeared in mid-air, cupped in the palm of his hand. This close, I could see the gossamer silver strand that extended from it all the way to me. My emotions were in turmoil. Never before had I been so close to that missing part of me; never before had I even realized what part of me was missing.

            He gestured again and it vanished, and I slumped to the ground a dozen yards from his throne, still bound in those crimson chains. I had no idea whether Strange actually would come to rescue me; Steve had no way of doing so, not here. He was no mage, and now, I guessed, wouldn't want to come even if he could.

            Nor was Loki going to come, though he was undoubtedly aware through our bond that I was no longer on Earth's plane. He would be able to find me, if he wished, through the link between us...but of course, after how we last parted, I was quite sure he had no such wishes. In fact, he was likely laughing his helmet off over the turn of events.

            And Doom? The oath between us had been sworn, but until my service to Loki was complete, the oath with Doom was dormant at best. He would have to hear from other sources of my disappearance, and then choose to use the black arts to track me down. But I was certain he was no match for Dormammu.

            I sighed and lifted my head, taking in the nearly hallucinogenic quality of the planar landscapes here. Pieces of unshaped matter floated in a void, some linked by stone steps, others by paths of solidified energy, and others completely unconnected. It would be easy to become lost in such a constantly-shifting place. Some of the chunks of matter moved on their own; I couldn't tell whether they were alive or simply mimicked the qualities of life. Some of them looked like living things; as I watched, a giant fanged mouth floated past, tall enough to use as a doorway, gnashing its teeth together with a terrible hunger. There was no head, no body, no eyes, no limbs, simply a set of toothed jaws that moved on their own. I shuddered. Colors swirled and shifted like a bad 60s movie depiction of a drug trip; sounds occurred randomly, some like beautiful snatches of song, some the growls of furious animals, and some like terrified screams.

            It was impossible to track the passing of time here; I simply didn't have the point of reference. Nor did there appear to be any other denizens in the area at this time; whether there were any other living things on this plane other than myself and Dormammu, I had no way of telling. I knew that his sister, Umar the Unspeakable, might be on the plane, which was no doubt as vast as the plane that Earth was part of; so too might exist servitor creatures, or the white-haired woman that was Umar's daughter and my mother.

            But if they were on this plane, they were not close enough to see.

            At length -- after an hour, or a day, or a month, I couldn't tell -- Dormammu shifted uneasily. "He has not come," he snarled. "Why has he not come for you? Why has he not come to save you?"

            Like I said before, I said, I'm unimportant. You understand I don't have value to you. But maybe I mean nothing to him, either. You kind of made it impossible for him to care about me when you took me away and had me raised by strangers. How can he care about someone he doesn't even know? I'm sure he knows this is a trap.

            Dormammu looked at me with something approaching incredulousness on his face. "The Sorcerer Supreme of your plane is supposed to concern himself with everyone under his care. All the more so for his own get."

            Ah, I see, I replied. You agree when I say that I'm unimportant, but you really expected him to think otherwise. Even I know better than that. I've known I didn't matter to anyone at all since I was a child.

            "If the trap has failed, the bait is no longer necessary," he snarled. "I have no reason to let you live any longer."

            No. You don't.

            Somehow, I had understood it would come to this from the moment he appeared at the restaurant. I'd had a few brief days to try to do something worthwhile with my life, but I should have realized it would end like this.

            I hoped Steve would at least make sure to retrieve my cats from the apartment and see that they got a good home.

            I closed my eyes as Dormammu reached out to seize me and wring the life from me. I hoped it would be quick.

            Three things happened simultaneously:

            I felt his hand close around my throat.

            Emotion burst forth within me as his touch provided the only trigger necessary for my soul to come flying back to me from wherever he had held it captive. Fear, love, rage, hope, despair, joy, and every other feeling I had previously felt not at all, or only in part and at great remove, suddenly exploded inside me as my soul escaped his control and expanded inside me like a sponge expanding after being returned to a bucket of warm water.

            And Dormammu screamed.

            I opened my eyes in shock. His hand was still clamped tightly around my throat, but he was trying to pry his fingers free with his other hand -- and failing.

          I felt a sudden supernova of energy birth itself within me -- distinct from the rush of emotion I felt at my soul's return -- as power suddenly flooded me from somewhere unfamiliar to my senses. The look on his face was one of raw, naked terror. Even as I watched, he diminished, dwindling both in power and size, and every erg of power that flowed out of him gushed into me like flood waters after a dam had broken. And fast.

            "Release me, mortal! You do not know what you do! You cannot hope to overpower me this way! I know not how you have come by this power, but if you release me I will--"

            Silence. The last spark of his power pulsed into me and he vanished like the light in the room when a switch is turned off. I felt full to the brim with energy, almost enough to explode. The spells he had bound me with had vanished when he did, and I sat there in shock for a moment, my mystic senses expanding outward with their new wealth of power. There was the sound of crackling flames, and the black aura of fire that signified the ruler of the Dark Dimensions -- formerly Dormammu himself -- flared into being atop my head.

            "What." My whisper barely made it past my lips. I had no idea what had just happened; it had been nothing of my doing. The very thought was absurd; I had never been, and likely never would have been, powerful enough to...to consume him, as he had put it.

            And as if that idea was yet another trigger, everything that he had been became mine. His knowledge of magic; his memories; his every waking thought. I gagged at the inrush of memories -- of him battling my father, of him stealing away my mother, of stealing my soul -- and groveled on the ground, fists slamming into the rock I knelt on.

            I dimly realized I could hear footsteps racing toward me, and straightened up, wild-eyed, looking around in dismay. A white-haired woman was rushing up the stairs that led to the throne, looking panicked. She came tearing to a stop as she saw me.

            For my part, I was trying not to wail. I recognized her from the images the Sphere had shown me...and now, thanks to Dormammu's memories, I knew her name.

            "Clea," I whispered.

            "How do you know me?" she asked warily, eyes going at once to the crown of Faltinian flame on my head. "And what have you done to Dormammu?" The question was not defiant but genuinely curious, as if she could not fathom how a total stranger -- not much more than a child -- could have overthrown her uncle.

            "I think he's gone," I said awkwardly. "As to the first question--" I concentrated. "You know me. Dormammu's spells are all broken now that he's gone. It's been almost twenty-two years, but..."

            She went rigid, her eyes going wide. "There...was a child."

            I nodded.

            There was a hoarse roar from some short distance away and she whirled. "Dormammu's spells are broken, yes! The barrier that held back the Mindless Ones is no more!"

            Ah, shit. I let the memories come surging up from that dark pool that had been his thoughts. Bestial monstrosities, looking like crude, huge clay men, things that did not eat, or sleep, or laugh, or love. They existed only to destroy, and while he lived, Dormammu's will had spun a barrier that kept them out of this dimension.

            Now that he was gone...

            His memories showed me what to do. I raised my arms over my head, channeling the power I had inherited when he had been consumed, and focused my will, feeling out for the borders of the plane where they met with the borders of the Mindless Ones' plane. Then I spun the mystical barrier back into place -- high, thick, wide, strong. I felt them surge forward, beating at it with unrelenting fists, but pressed onward, forcing them back, forcing them to return to their own world.

            The energies unspooled from me, on and on, leaving me hollow and empty, as if someone had cut me open, caught a loop of my innards with a hook, and pulled them out until my intestines were spread out over the street. I summoned the words Dormammu had used to set the spell, letting them tumble from my lips, so the walls of energy that separated the two realms rooted deep into the substance of both planes, too deep to be knocked over or burned down or pulled apart.

            And then I collapsed, more weary than I have ever been in my life, power stamped with my essence spread across the Dark Dimension like peanut butter smeared over far too much bread. I fell and the white-haired woman known as Clea darted forward, catching me in slim arms, lowering me gently before I hit the ground.

            I could hear voices, coming near -- one I didn't recognize. The other was Steve. Too exhausted to even think about facing him, I did the cowardly thing, and let my weariness drag me down into unconsciousness.

 

--O--

 

            I think I dreamed -- about Doom, about Loki, and about a red-skinned figure of unspeakable power. I thought at first that it was Dormammu I dreamed of, but the longer I held the vision of the being's face in mind, the more I came to recognize that it was not so. The stranger was long-haired, fanged, taloned, wearing not much more than a loincloth. High cheekbones and a widow's peak to his long scarlet hair completed the alien visage. Where I recognized Dormammu's face as a simple oval of incandescent flame, this stranger looked like a thing of unimaginable evil. And I was willing to swear in any court in the land that I did not know him.

            I woke, at last, with a cat purring, curled up next to my face, and another curled up and purring on my belly. Alice's tail twitched as I cracked open one eye and looked around. I was in my own bedroom back in my own apartment in Manhattan.

            Tentatively, I reached out with my mystic senses. It was, without question, my home; I could feel my wards still in place, see the pair of jeans that I had tossed into the laundry basket in one corner of my bedroom, smell the breakfast I had cooked for Steve -- how long ago?

            Very cautiously, I sat up. To say I was confused was a massive understatement. I had no idea how I had gotten home. The last thing I could remember was restoring the barrier between the realms of the Dark Dimension and that of the Mindless Ones, after Dormammu's...well, disappearance, if not death. Had it all been a hideous nightmare? Had Dormammu invaded our world at the restaurant at all? How was I to know that any of that had happened?

            "Good morning, sleepyhead," Steve's voice came from the bedroom door. I bolted up out of bed as he pushed the door open. The cats scattered from my bed and Steve stopped in the open doorway, a tray laden down with dishes in his arms, the scent of bacon and coffee and orange juice and toast reaching my nostrils.

            I glanced over at the chest of drawers across the room from my bed. The mirror over the top of the vanity clearly showed me that I wore my own face -- Emily's face -- rather than that of Beth.

            I groaned, the sound strangled and bereft, and backed away from the bedroom door. Steve set the tray down carefully and looked up at me, frowning. "Em -- Beth --"

            "You know," I moaned, a knot growing in my throat. "I tried so hard -- "

            "I've known since the first moment I met Beth," he said quietly.

            I blinked, not quite comprehending. "What?"

            He sighed. "You came walking out of the woods, not far from a fountain. I don't think you were alone, because I could hear you talking to someone, but I couldn't make out the voice of the other person. I recognized yours, though. And then I heard you whispering some sort of chant. I was close enough to see your face change. I backtracked while you were turning around, hid myself when you walked over to the fountain. Realized there were men just down the track doing their best to sneak up on you."

            "You...knew." I was numb, unable to move, unable to process this. Every lie I'd told, every time I hoped I'd been able to keep Emily and Beth separate from each other...every time I'd made sure there was nothing in the apartment to incriminate me before he came to visit. The trip to France, to help him. The ring I'd given him so I could keep tabs on his safety. The conversation we'd had about "Emily" in France, over breakfast, before trimming the Christmas tree he'd gotten, before the snowball fight. How concerned he'd been. "You knew."

            "Yeah," he said softly.

            Something in me felt hollow, broken. I felt light as spun glass, a thin, fragile shell with nothing but air inside. Here was the proof that all I'd been through had really happened: I had my soul back, and all the emotions with it, and they were like knives in my chest, cutting me to shreds.

            "Is this when you arrest me? Take me back to the helicarrier?" I whispered, tears welling up in my eyes and spilling down my cheeks. How clever he'd been. What a good actor. All this time, knowing who I really was, pretending to care for "Beth", pretending I was worth spending time with, when all along he'd just been spying on me for S.H.I.E.L.D., making sure I wouldn't do anything that might endanger the world and the good, honest, decent, worthwhile people in it.

            Everything I'd tried to do to change my life, to become someone he could actually care for, someone I could be proud of being, now felt as fake and corrupt as a three-dollar bill.

            His brow furrowed. "Be-- Emi-- okay, first of all, what name do you want me to call you?" he asked, sounding confused.

            I blinked. "Why does that matter?"

            "Because I want to call you the name you want to be called by?" he asked cautiously.

            It made no sense. But I had run away from him as Emily. Put him to sleep, as Emily. Thought about killing him, when I was Emily.

            I had loved him as Beth.

            Emily had never loved anyone. She'd had no friends. She'd endured beatings and torture and humiliation and terror.

            Beth had known how to feel joy.

            I didn't want to be Emily any more. Not ever again.

            "Call me Beth," I whispered.

            He smiled. "Okay." He paused and held up his hands to show they were empty. "I'm going to sit down, okay?"

            I nodded, and he sat on the edge of the bed. Alice and Gordon slunk over from where they had been hiding after I leapt out of bed, and twined around his ankles, purring as they rubbed up against his legs. He leaned down to pet them, first Gordon, then Alice, before straightening back up.

            "I'm not going to arrest you," he said. "Nobody is."

            I stood where I was, unmoving. I could objectively understand the meaning of his words, but they didn't make sense.

            "There were never any actual charges against you," he said gently. "We had questions we wanted to ask, but you weren't talking. And then you escaped and disappeared. And I know you can't talk about that, for whatever reason. You said as much, in France."

            I nodded, still almost frozen. He was being so gentle, so kind. I wanted to hope there might still be a chance...but I was afraid to hope. It would hurt so much more if I hoped and then was wrong.

            "So when I saw you in the park, earlier this fall, after we parted that night, I had to call Fury and let him know. But I told him I wasn't going to do anything. We argued. A lot. But I knew, I just knew, you weren't a threat. And finally he said that was fine, but I had to keep an eye on you." He made a face. "And I had to let them help."

            "Help...how?" I asked hollowly. He sighed.

            "Elsie is a retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent," he said. "The ad for this place was only in your copy of the newspaper you got. The news-stand seller? Another agent."

            I bit my tongue until I tasted blood. "Anything else?" I could tell by the look in his eyes he didn't want to keep going, but he did.

            "S.H.I.E.L.D. installed surveillance cameras everywhere in the attic and the second and third floors less than two hours after you signed the lease and we left, the day you looked at the place," he said. "They recorded everything that's ever happened here."

            I folded in half at my waist and bent over, rocking back and forth slowly, thin cold invading every inch of my body. Every time I had used a levitation spell to lift heavy packages up the stairs, they had seen it. When I had warded the place against evil, they had watched. When I had undressed to shower or change clothes, I'd been on tape without realizing it. When Steve and I had kissed, they'd known it.

            When Loki had beaten me almost to death a week back, they'd watched.

            And done nothing.

            A thin, high, damaged sound filled the air. It took me a moment to realize it was coming from me. Had Steve been there when Loki first arrived at the apartment? When he'd started to beat me? Had he, himself, watched as Loki almost killed me because I wouldn't give up information on Steve, wouldn't spy on him any longer, wouldn't give Loki anything that might help him kill Steve?

            Or had Fury watched while it happened, while Steve was absent, and only told him later, if at all?

            There was a harsh, sour, acidic taste building at the back of my throat as bile surged up and threatened to fill my mouth. My stomach churned, promising to erupt.

            "Everything?" I finally whispered. "Even last Friday, in the attic?"

            He looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole and die. The grief in his eyes hurt more than I'd ever seen him hurt before. "I wasn't there when it started," he said at last. "They tell me it only took about ten minutes. Fury tried calling me when it began. I was in California at the time. There was no way to get across the country that quickly. I tried calling you."

            I remembered the phone ringing as Loki beat me.

            When I looked up, there were tears sliding silently down Steve's face. "They couldn't get anyone over here fast enough," he said, his voice rough. "By the time agents -- and the Widow -- got here, he was gone."

            I didn't have to ask who Steve meant when he said the word "he". "Probably for the best," I said dully. "If they'd gotten here when he was still here, he would have killed them. Easily."

            He bolted out of his seat and crossed the room to the corner where I stood, bent over, too fast for me to react. He pulled me into his arms and cradled me close, one hand stroking my hair, the other wrapped around my waist. "Beth -- Beth -- oh, god, I'm so sorry," he choked. All the strength had run out of me, leaving me weak and boneless as an eel.

            I looked up at him, my mind adrift, no longer having any idea of how to react. I had all my emotions back and they all seemed to be doing things all at once. Was this how it was for other people? I was afraid and I was hopeful and I loved him and I hated Loki and I was filled with rage and despair and confusion and joy and terror and...I didn't know what to do. I had so little practice with actually feeling things.

            "Say something, please," he said. There was as much fear in his eyes as there was in my heart.

            "I love you," I murmured faintly.

            Judging by the look of mingled relief and joy -- and by the kiss -- it was the right choice.

Chapter Text

            He held me for a long, long time after the kiss was over. I was still trembling, and eventually he picked me up in his arms and carried me over to the bed, sitting down on its edge and pulling me onto his lap.

            "You're still afraid," he said. It was more of a statement than a question. I nodded.

            "I...can't help it," I said. "I'm sorry. Dormammu stole my soul when I was born. Remember I told you that I didn't feel emotions the way normal people did? That's why. I might as well have been a robot. And...now that I've got my soul back, now that I can feel...I'm just...so afraid of losing you."

            He pressed a kiss to my brow. "I'm not going anywhere, hon," he promised. "I know things still aren't perfect. I know there are things you can't tell me."

            "About that--"

            There was a light rap on the bedroom door and I looked up, startled. I hadn't realized there was anyone else in the apartment but me, him, and the cats.

            The door edged open a few inches and the man they called Doctor Strange peeked around the corner. "May I come in?"

            I could feel myself stiffen again, but Steve took my hands in his and somehow, I knew I could tolerate anything. Steve looked at me questioningly and I nodded.

            He came to the center of the room, a few feet away, and paused to look at me for a long moment. The gaudy red-and-gold magical cloak was gone, but he wore a round gold amulet around his throat, the one that he'd had on in the restaurant. His face was neutral and calm as he studied me, and I tried not to shake. After all, he was my father. I wondered how much Steve had told him, as their consultant; I wondered if he was judging me for how badly I had screwed up my life.

            And then he smiled, and I felt something cold and tangled and hard wither and die inside me.

            "I understand you've chosen to be called Beth," he said calmly. I nodded and he knelt, reaching out to set a hand on my knee. "I feel very badly that I didn't know I had a daughter. It isn't as though I haven't faced down Dormammu before, but something like this..." He shook his head. "Can you forgive me?"

            "Me...forgive you?" I asked, my mouth dry. "Shouldn’t it be the other way around?"

            He frowned. "Why on earth would you possibly think you needed forgiving?" he asked.

            I tensed. "Because...I'm not a very good person?"

            Steve's arms came up around me, and Strange shook his head. "That's absurd," he said. "You were unconscious for a day upon returning from the Dark Dimension. I've seen your soul under the light of the Eye of Agamotto." He reached up to touch the amulet he wore; I'd heard of the artifact, one of the most powerful magical tools in the world. The books I'd read said that no lie could live under its light, and that it revealed the truth of every situation. "You feel you have committed acts you cannot be proud of. The Eye showed me that you are under an oath that binds you to other, powerful magical people. You cannot speak of this oath, and you must obey the strictures put upon you by this oath. Why you took this oath I do not know, but--" he paused, "--I have seen much of the footage from the cameras here, including something that happened a week ago in your attic." I looked down, but not in time to avoid seeing the sudden flash of rage that came up in his eyes. So he had seen my beating at Loki's hands. I wondered what both of them would think if they knew it hadn't been the first, but just the most recent of many.

            He went on. "During that...event, you spoke of being -- well, threatened -- since the Battle of New York. So my assumption is that the oath goes back at least that far."

            Loki had told me not to speak to anyone of the oath we had sworn. Doing so would be a direct violation of his orders, and he would come to punish me. I couldn't even nod without breaking it. So I sat still.

            It didn't matter. Strange still nodded. "I thought as much. I take it part of the oath forbids you to speak of it to anyone." He took one of my hands. "Child...you seem to think you are a bad person because you have done things you are not proud of while compelled by oath. But from all I have been able to learn, you have done your level best, while under that oath, to harm no one. To help those whom you can. To stymie the malevolent desires of he who has you oath-sworn." He shook his head. "Not a good person? You are the very exemplar of good, Beth, and I am so very proud to know you are my daughter."

            His words broke something in me. I started to sob, and Steve gathered me close, my head against his shoulder, my tears soaking through his shirt. Steve stroked my back in slow circles as Strange stood up straight, looking around thoughtfully.

            "I will destroy him," Strange said aloud, his expression blank and composed, and I had no confusion at all about whom he was referring to.

            "Not just...one oath," I said at last. I was careful to speak in the most bland of terms, careful to keep from breaking the rules that had been laid down. "Two." My voice was watery and choked, but they both looked at me. Strange nodded.

            "The other?" he asked.

            My oath with Doom was not yet active. "I've been self-compelled to learn magic since I was very young. I didn't know why. But I do now. I was seeking out something that would give me a chance at getting my soul back from Dormammu." I sighed, wiping away my tears. "So I was to be taught magic. That's what I was getting out of it." I couldn’t say what I was giving in return for that teaching, of course, but it seemed as if they already knew.

            The two of them exchanged glances. "Your potential must be great indeed for Loki to have offered such a deal," my father said at last. "His opinion of mortals could not be any lower if one dug a hole and buried it."

            "Who was the other oath to, Beth?" Steve asked. "Doom?"

            I nodded miserably.

            "How long?" Strange asked.

            "The one to Doom, for a year and a day. It isn't active yet; it doesn't begin until--"

            "Let me guess," Strange said. "Until your oath to Loki is complete. Doom wouldn’t want his oath, which he would surely think was more important, to conflict with, and possibly be blocked by, an older one. And the oath to Loki started around the time of the Battle of New York, if I’m correct, so it's been almost four years now." He rubbed his chin, a thoughtful look on his face. "A year and a day is a magically significant period of time. My guess is that the oath to Loki is, as well. Hmmm. Not three years; it would be complete already. Seven?"

            I couldn't say anything, couldn't even nod, but his eyes were on me when he spoke, and he nodded, not needing me to give the answer. "Seven years, then," he said. "We have a little time. Good."

            "A little time for what, Doctor?" Steve asked.

            Strange smiled. "To find a way to nullify the oath," he said.

            I looked up at him, stunned and not a little afraid. To even sit in the same room and listen to such a thing was probably a violation of the oaths. Actively taking part in such research certainly was. “I can’t—“

            “And I would not ask you to,” Strange said. “Do you think I would do anything to bring harm to so much as one of your eyelashes, child?”

            I shook my head uncertainly.

            “You took those oaths to learn magic,” he said. “You clearly have much skill in those arts already, and much further untapped potential. And you are my child. I would like to begin teaching you myself.”

            My jaw dropped, although I should have seen it coming. Could there be a better teacher than this plane’s Sorcerer Supreme? One who would teach me of his own free will, without oaths or geas, with no punishment, no fear?

            Would it be permissible, under the oath I had taken to Loki?

            Well, the oath had certainly not disallowed me from learning from Doom; Loki himself had made those arrangements. Objectively, I had to assume Loki wanted me to learn everything I could, to be a better tool for him. And the oath I had taken to him, as opposed to the one I had taken with Doom, said nothing about not working with those he considered his foes. In fact, given that Loki’s express commands had been to learn as much as I could about all those with powers whose path I crossed, one might even say that I was specifically obeying his orders, if I chose to study with my father.

            “I…I’d like that,” I said, my voice small. “But…”

            “The oath will compel you to share with him anything I show you or teach your or tell you. Yes, I know.” He smiled, a mysterious gleam in his eyes, and I wondered if he knew of ways around that compulsion, ways to keep me from speaking, or ways of making me forget what I’d learned while in Loki’s presence. “I’d like you to move to the Sanctum with me. The house on Bleecker Street. I know you know where it is; I’ve seen you outside in the past, when you came to see it.”

            “I—“ I started. He’d known I was there, that day I came to see it. Then I stopped, seizing on the other thing he’d said. “No. I don’t want to move.”

            He blinked. “Although I can strengthen the wards on your home here a great deal, I can’t completely prevent the possibility that someone might be able to force their way past the wards and do you harm.”

            “So long as he and I are bound by oath, he can come in any time he chooses,” I said, and I knew it was no violation of the oath to say as much, because my father already knew it. “I…” I glanced at Steve and felt myself blush fiercely. “I’m never before had a reason to want my privacy, but lately…”

            “Ah,” Strange said, the single syllable full of understanding, and to my amusement, Steve blushed.

            “My only concern is my cats. I’m—“ I swallowed hard, dropped my gaze. “I’m used to pain. What you saw…” I trailed off. “It wasn’t the first time.”

            I heard a cracking sound and looked down. One of Steve’s hands had wrapped around one of the bed’s legs; the wood was now cracked along its full length. His face was as unemotional as a stone, except for his eyes. The fury that seethed and roiled in them was enough to make me very glad I was not Loki.

            Nor was my father without reaction to my words. A single muscle tic’d in the side of his jaw, and his eyes promised agony and death to the one who had hurt me so much.

            “But if someone broke in here and hurt Alice and Gordon, I…” I shook my head, not trusting my voice to stay steady. “I have a responsibility to them. I love them, and I don’t want to see something terrible happen to me because someone thinks it’ll hurt me. And it would.”

            Strange sighed. “I will see what I can do,” he said. “Though I wish you would let me take you in.”

            “I can’t. Not now, anyway,” I said, my voice a little more steady than it had been. “If things change—“ I glanced at Steve, but he shook his head fiercely, “—if they change, I’ll let you know.”

            “I suppose that will have to suffice,” my father said. “How soon do you think you can begin your lessons? Which will, I must insist, be held at my Sanctum.”

            I craned my neck to look up at Steve, an embarrassed expression on my face. “I guess they can start right away, since I, uh, kinda lost my job after being gone so long in France.”

            He chuckled. “We can find you another one if you want, sweetheart,” he said, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. “Or we can come up with something else. I can probably arrange to have you put on the consultant list for S.H.I.E.L.D.—“

            “No,” I said firmly. “Nothing that will put me in a position where I won’t have any choice but to gather information for…” I didn’t speak the name. I didn’t have to.  They both nodded.

            “There are other alternatives,” Steve said quietly, pressing a kiss against my hair.

            “Doom is…paying me. Well, paying Emily. He’s employing me, on the books, as his aide and administrative coordinator. First payment installment, about a million dollars.” They blinked. “He set it up without telling me until after the fact.” When it had first happened, I hadn’t minded. But after learning what Doom was doing that had led the Avengers to invade…I wanted no part of that money.

            Or Loki’s. I wiggled out of Steve’s lap and fetched my purse, pulling out the enchanted wallet Loki had given me. “Here,” I said, handing it to my father. “I don’t want this any more.”

            He examined it. “A very simple and basic spell for acquiring cash. The bills are probably being pulled from sources that can’t report it missing – criminal organizations, most likely the Mafia or possibly HYDRA or AIM.” He looked amused. “But because I can tell it bothers you, given where you got it, I’ll dispose of this. You know how to cast the cantrip that some novice mages call “Lorik’s Lucky Loot”?”

            The cash-finding spell I’d first learned to cast. “Yes, it kept me fed when I was homeless during my teen years,” I said. “But it’s rarely good for more than twenty dollars a day.”

            “Elsie didn’t want to charge you rent,” Steve spoke up. “We told her about your background. I’m sure she’ll be happy to just keep you on as a guest.”

            “I can’t—“

            “Sure you can,” he said. “And twenty dollars a day from your spell, at an average of thirty days a month, is six hundred dollars a month. That’ll cover your utilities and phone, at least.”

            “Please,” Strange said dismissively. “As if I’d allow my daughter to want for anything. I am quite comfortably well-off. I will be pleased to cover any financial needs you have.” He smiled, a glint of humor in his eyes. “Consider it a repayment of all the weekly allowance money I didn’t get to give you as a child.” He looked thoughtful. “And I believe there are birthday and Christmas presents to take into account, as well.”

            I gave up. “All right,” I said softly. “I can hardly say no, can I?”

            “You could,” Strange said. “I probably wouldn’t listen.” He paused. “Shall we start your teaching tomorrow, then? I rather think you would like at least the rest of today off to get your feet under you again, given how the last six weeks or so have gone.”

            “That would be fine, thank you. What time do you want me to come?”

            “Some time after breakfast will suffice,” he said. “Say, 9:00 AM? I’ll send Wong with a car and meet you outside so I can tailor the wards to you.”

            “You can tailor them to me and exclude—“

            “Your oath-keepers? Very easily,” he said, a glint in his eyes, “and believe me, it will be my pleasure to do so.”

            I nodded, sinking back down onto Steve’s lap. He looped an arm around my waist with easy grace, and I nestled back against his chest, my head barely reaching the top of his chin. Steve had mentioned, more than once, how “Beth” had looked like someone he had once known. I wanted to keep my own face, now that I had no more need of disguise. Would his affection for me dim if I no longer looked like the person he had once known? I had no way to know…and wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

            “As much as I’d like to give you the rest of the day off,” Steve said reluctantly, “there are a couple of things we need to take care of.” I tilted my head back to look at him. “The Sokovian Accords.”

            “Is an obscenity,” Strange spat. “One I wouldn’t have expected you to champion, Captain. Those of us who risk our health, sanity, and lives to aid others shouldn’t be burdened with so much mistrust from those who so envy our gifts that they expect us to willingly let our names and identities be added to lists like those in Germany during the war. I am rather surprised you can’t see the similarities.”

            “I can,” Steve said, his tone low and fierce. “And I don’t like it any more than you do. But Fury was absolutely unwilling to budge on the matter. Threatened to arrest her if I didn’t.”

            “As if he could,” Strange said vehemently. “For all that he’s a brilliant tactician and a smart man, he doesn’t understand the sort of gifts my daughter and I share—“

            “It’s okay,” I said quietly. They both went silent, turning to look at me. “I don’t mind. I understand his caution. And if the oath allows – someone – to control me, all the better that there are some precautions taken, even if they’re only minimal.” I doubted any precautions Fury could take would withstand Loki’s powers, but I understood Fury’s reasons for wanting them, anyway.

            “Beth—“ Strange began, but I shook my head.

            “I’m sorry, Beth,” Steve said. “I didn’t want this for you. But ever since what happened with Ultron, some years back—“

            “I know,” I said, wincing at the thought. I had been in Asgard at the time, but the internet was full to the brim of how hideously that had gone. How many deaths, how much property damage, and all due to Stark’s misguided attempts to fix the world.

            Which reminded me. “One thing, though,” I said, my jaw going tight. “I won’t work with Stark.” Maybe I was being stubborn, even mulish, but everything I’d been through since childhood had told me how to hold a grudge.

            Strange frowned, clearly unaware of the root of my demand. Steve just nodded. “I’ll let them know,” he said quietly, reaching up to gently squeeze my shoulder. “But you should at least talk to him…eventually. Try to work things out.”

            “Not any time soon,” I said. “But I don’t mind talking to Thor. I can forgive him for overestimating my strength and hitting me with his hammer.”

            “What?!” Strange roared, looking stunned. Steve winced.

            “It was a long time ago,” I said, trying to mollify him. “I was escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D., he knew I had powers but didn’t realize that, being magical, they didn’t really give me the sort of strength or stamina to withstand that kind of attack. If not for the healing spells I learned from Doom, I’d probably be dead.”

            “Imbecilic Asgardians—“ Strange swore.

            “Never thought I’d be grateful to Doom for anything,” Steve muttered, hugging me tight.

            “Thor didn’t know any better,” I said. “I can forgive that. But Stark—no.” Strange threw Steve a questioning look, and Steve returned it with a glance that clearly meant, “I’ll tell you later.”

            “One other thing,” Strange said. “And we can discuss it tomorrow in my sanctum. But…how did you overcome Dormammu? Clea – your mother – said he was nowhere to be seen when she found you – that you said simply that he was gone.”

            I fidgeted. “I think…” I sighed. “Well, I don’t know how it happened. It wasn’t anything I did. When he grabbed me – he was going to kill me – I think…” I looked down at the ground. “I think…I ate him.”

Chapter Text

            “What?” Strange blurted. Steve looked stunned.

            “I don’t know what happened,” I repeated plaintively. “He expected you—“ I nodded at my father, “—to come after me, to try to rescue me. He was using me as bait. I was bound with the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak; I couldn’t use magic to defend myself, or fight him physically, or flee, or try to warn you. Time passed and he got angry, because you didn’t seem to be coming.”

            “There was some sort of barrier I’d never encountered before,” my father said in a low tone. “Magical energies, from a mixture of at least two sources, barring the way to the Dark Dimensions. It took me over an hour before I figured out how to overcome it. Clearly, if Dormammu was setting a trap, the barrier was not of his doing. So I must wonder who created it.”

            “I don’t know,” I said. “But finally he decided you weren’t coming. And if you weren’t coming, he had no further use for me. He was going to kill me.” Both Steve and Strange winced. “He grabbed me by the throat – to break my neck, I think, or maybe strangle me.”

            “What happened?” Steve asked.

            “He screamed. My soul returned to me. And all of a sudden…” I looked up at them reluctantly. “His energy started to…drain into me. I don’t know why. I hadn’t done anything; I’m not familiar with any sort of spell that would do that, and even if I had been, he had me bound and gagged.” I sighed. “He tried to let me go and couldn’t; it was as if I was made of glue, and in seizing me, he found himself unable to let go.” I paused. “It shattered the spells holding me. He ordered me to let him go, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to stop it. Finally—“ I grimaced. “Finally, all the energy that made him up was…consumed.”

            “My god,” Steve blurted. My father looked grave.

            “Dormammu was one of the most powerful extradimensional entities I knew of,” he said softly. “I believe it might have been possible for someone to create a spell that would take advantage of the fact that you and he were kin – to drain his energies when he touched you, and to make it impossible for him to break the circuit between the two of you to escape and end that drainage. But I cannot think who might have created such a thing.”

            I wrapped my arms around myself. “It was…horrible,” I said. “Everything that he was became part of me – not just his energies, but his knowledge of magic and all his memories, too.”

            Strange looked startled. “That is a spell of unparalleled difficulty. It would take someone of at least my own skill level to craft it.”

            Steve looked to my father. “Is absorbing all that stuff – his memories, his…soul, for lack of a better word – going to be dangerous for her?” he asked.

            “I cannot say,” Strange said cautiously. “As I said, I have never encountered something of this nature before. There is a chance, I suppose, that his will might still exist as part of the energies she absorbed. If so, right now, it is greatly disrupted by the experience, but, given time…”

            “Yes?” Steve demanded.

            Strange sighed. “His will is almost certainly stronger than hers, at its peak. Given time, he might be able to overcome her will and possess her body, taking it over and making it his own.”

            I gaped, and Steve glared. “We’re not going to allow that, are we?” he growled.

            “By no means,” my father said. “In fact – hold still, child.”

            Obediently, I sat still on Steve’s lap as Strange took a step back. The Eye of Agamotto – the amulet he wore – opened just like a true eye would, and I was bathed in a brilliant beam of light from its core. It didn’t hurt; it was like standing in a warm breeze. My senses went still for a moment; amidst almost perfect silence, I could hear my father chanting, though I couldn’t make out what he said.

            At last, the eye closed, and the light faded. “What did you do?” Steve asked.

            “I have put restraints on any fragments of the essence of Dormammu within her that might manifest as his spirit, his will, or his personality. For now, they are bound. I was able to construct the spell in such a way that it will still allow her to access his knowledge and memory, although the greatest part of his raw power is no longer available to her. Much of it was bound up in renewing the dimensional barrier that kept the Mindless Ones out of the Dark Dimension, anyway, so you should not greatly feel its loss.”

            I nodded. “I had wanted to ask about that. So it’s the power that came from him that’s holding those creatures out, even though I’m not in that realm right now?”

            “Yes,” Strange said. “Currently, the regency of the Dark Dimension is being held by your mother…with some small aid from her mother.”

            I opened my mouth to ask a question and then shut it again, not sure I wanted to know the answer.

            “What is it, Beth?” Steve asked.

            “I…my mother,” I said, looking up at Strange. He winced.

            “You must give her time, child,” he said at last. “She was shaken to her core to regain the memories that Dormammu had kept from her for so long. To learn she had a child that she had never seen, never held…never been able to love…was difficult for her.”

            “I…understand,” I murmured softly. “She isn’t…” He waited patiently, looking concerned. “Angry at me? Doesn’t…hate me?”

            My words floored him, and he looked stunned. “Why would she hate you, Beth? If she can hold that emotion in her gentle heart for anyone, it would be for her uncle, who did the deed – not you. Never you.”

            “I…” I trailed off uncertainly, and his obvious astonishment melted away into love. He reached out to touch my cheek.

            “Your life has taught you to think nothing of yourself, and to hold yourself to impossible standards, and to hate yourself when you cannot meet them,” he said. “But no one could meet them. You must learn to give yourself a chance, my daughter, and to trust yourself, and to realize that you have done nothing to earn your own loathing.” He straightened up, and I bit my lower lip, almost hard enough to make it bleed.

            “So long as I am still under the control of others—“ I began, and he shook his head.

            “That is coming to an end, very soon,” he promised. “You have my word on it.”

            I tried to relax. My stomach was swirling with nerves, and fear, and a dozen other things that I had no idea how to handle. But Strange smiled.

            “I am going to go, now, and leave the two of you some time together, and make preparations at the Sanctum for your visit tomorrow,” he said. “You will call me at once if something happens and you need help.” It was not a request.

            “I will,” I said quietly. “I promise.”

            He nodded, and his gaze flicked to Steve. “Captain. I know you will watch out for her, in my absence.”

            “With my life, sir,” Steve said.

            Strange smiled. “I leave you in good hands, my daughter. I will see you on the morn.”

            There was a flicker of light, the resonance of magical energies enveloping him in a teleportation spell, and then he was gone.

            Steve was silent for a moment and then smiled. “That was the worst ‘What are your intentions toward my daughter, young man?’ moment I’ve ever heard of.”

            I burst out laughing. “Yeah, it kinda was, wasn’t it?” I teased. “Were you afraid he’d turn you into a frog if he didn’t like the answer?”

            “The thought crossed my mind,” he admitted sheepishly. “Fury’d be really mad.”

            “I can imagine,” I said, a little stiffly, and sighed. “Oh, well. I guess it’s time to go pay the piper, isn’t it?”

            “It won’t be that bad, Beth,” he reassured me.

            “Maybe,” I said, getting to my feet. “However, if I’m going to go beard the dragon in his den, first I’m going to have a shower, and a change of clothes…and something to eat.” I gave him a sidelong look. “As I recall, we were interrupted the other night before we could have dinner.”

            He pulled me back down onto his lap. “I am so proud of you,” he said, his voice fierce. “I could see it in your eyes, when that spell hit you and your face changed, and I saw you…you thought your world was ending. And you still put your own pain aside and used your magic to heal all those people so I could get them out of there.”

            “How many did we lose?” I asked, afraid of the answer. Between the fire and the stone debris flying through the air, I had seen so much blood…

            “Nobody, Beth,” he said, his eyes glowing with pride. “Nobody died. There were 102 diners and 31 staff members in the restaurant when Dormammu attacked. Of those 133 people, 109 were hurt -- 72 of them seriously enough, from flying glass and fire, to have died without treatment. And your magic healed them all.” He paused, savoring a secret. “The EMTs checked them out and had to ferry four of them to the hospital for further testing. Two had been undergoing chemo for cancer; one had a broken arm from a skiing accident last weekend; the last one was in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.” He paused. “Beth…you didn’t just heal the damage from the fight. You healed all of them of everything.”

            I blinked. “Oh,” was all I could finally manage.

            He kissed me, then, and I let myself melt into it, without fear for maybe the first time ever, any worries I might have had about being interrupted by Loki gone, the need to hide who I really was from Steve never to return.

            It was the sweetest thing I had ever felt.

            At last – so very reluctantly – I pulled away. My stomach was growling and I was almost lightheaded with hunger. “Can you cook breakfast this time?” I asked him.

            “Well…how about lunch?” he asked. “It’s almost two in the afternoon.”

            “Uh…lunch works for me,” I said. I hadn’t realized I’d been under so long. Hard to check the time on a watch or cellphone when one was unconscious. There had to be some sort of spell to grant a permanent and unvarying time sense that shifted to adjust to different time zones as you moved around the world.

            “Yeah, I can do that,” he said with a broad smile. “Go shower.” He grinned. “I’ll try really hard not to peek.”

            I felt it as I blushed from the roots of my hair all the way down to my toes. “What if…I want you to peek?” I asked nervously.

            The grin deepened, but he only reached out and swatted me on the backside. “There’ll be time for that soon enough,” he said softly. “Let’s not give Fury any more reasons to be angry. I can wait a little bit longer.”

            “I hope I can,” I said, but turned and hurried for the bathroom. I grabbed jeans and fresh underthings and a big, warm Irish woolen cableknit sweater from the closet and dressers on my way.

            The shower was hot and relaxing and I wanted it to last forever,  but I couldn’t shut my stomach up. As nearly as I could tell, it’d been over twenty-four hours since I had last eaten, and I’d used a lot of magic since then. Spellwork used mostly magical energies to fuel it, but it still needed my will – my brain – to guide it, and my brain ran on calories.

            I got out, turned the water off, dried off, and dressed as quickly as I could. When I was presentable, I tossed my pajamas in the laundry basket and hurried out to the kitchen, where the scents of bacon-cheeseburgers and home-fries and coffee met my nostrils.

            “Smells great!” I said as I sat down at the table. He set an overflowing plate in front of me and I dug in, relishing every bite. “I should have you cook more often.”

            He laughed. “Sure, if you like hamburgers and hot dogs,” he said.

            “Well, they go well with apple pie,” I replied.

            “Love apple pie, just can’t make it myself,” he admitted.

            “I can,” I said with a grin. He returned the smile with his own.

            “It’s a date.” He watched me eat, then took the empty dishes, rinsed them off, and put them in the dishwasher as I grabbed my coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. “You don’t mind the motorcycle, do you?”

            “No…but it’s kind of a long ride to D.C. on the back of one, isn’t it?” I asked.

            “Fury’s at the S.H.I.E.L.D. office here in Manhattan,” he answered. “Half an hour, tops.”

            “In the snow?” I asked weakly, suddenly nervous. The idea of facing Fury and registering had been a lot easier to deal with when I thought I had three or four hours to get used to it.

            “Beth, it’ll be okay,” he said gently, setting down the dish towel and coming over to take my hands. “I don’t really understand much about this magic stuff, but your father talked a lot while you were out about the abilities you’d displayed on the security cameras. He said he’d never seen someone so skilled. From what I understand, if Fury yells at you, you could turn him into a frog, couldn’t you?”

            “Well…yes,” I stammered. “But…that would be wrong.”

            He kissed me lightly. “Do you honestly think I would let anything happen to you?”

            I winced. “I wouldn’t ask you to choose between me and your loyalty to the job and country, Steve,” I told him. “That would be unfair.”

            He hugged me tightly. “And that’s why I love you.”

            My heart stopped for a moment as I realized what he had just said. No amount of control could stop the tears that suddenly welled up in my eyes and slid down my cheeks. I opened my mouth to say something – what, I don’t know – and he touched a finger lightly to my lips.

            “Shush, now,” he said. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get this over with.”

            I nodded, my eyes suddenly huge, my heart in my chest sounding as loud as thunder to my ears. I grabbed my purse and tried three times to lock the door before he took the keys gently from me and did it himself.

            Then I went down the stairs with him, out the front door, climbed on the bike behind him, and held on tight as he started the bike up and we drove off.

 

 

            The building we drove to was nowhere near as impressive as the Triskelion in D.C., which had been magnificent even after it had been destroyed during the revelation of its infiltration by HYDRA a few years ago. We drove down into the underground parking garage of a drab institutional building that looked more like a warehouse for old school books than the New York headquarters for the country’s pre-eminent spy organization.

            I held his hand on the way up in the elevator. Every so often, he turned to me and said, “Remember…frog,” and puffed out his cheeks in imitation of a stunned amphibian. I giggled every time he did it, but the laughter was the nervous, high-strung sort, not the genuine humor he was trying to provoke in me.

            The elevator door opened upon a pair of uniformed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents standing at attention at either side of the door. They both sported firearms of the sort I had seen on the helicarrier, and I swallowed anxiously, my stomach a thunderstorm of adrenaline. Steve squeezed my hand gently in reassurance, and I let him lead me down the hallway.

            We ended up stopping in front of a closed office door, and Steve lifted his hand to knock. Before his knuckles touched the wood, the door opened. The Black Widow stood just on the other side, a faint smile on her lips.

            Beyond her, standing to stare at a bank of security camera monitors that displayed various points in the parking garage, the inside of the elevator, and probably every other point in the building – as well as multiple views of the inside of my apartment – was Fury. He was clad in a long black leather trenchcoat and the expression on his face was perfectly blank.

            “A frog, huh?” he asked, turning to view me with calculation.

            I did the only thing my body left me. I threw up all over his desk.

            Widow gasped, and Steve looked simultaneously sheepish and frustrated as I scrabbled in my purse for a handkerchief to wipe my mouth with. Fury simply looked down at the remnants of my lunch, spread out all over his desk blotter. "Well, that's one way to make an impression," he said flatly.

            I waved my hand at the mess, making it disappear, and he glared. "Uh-uhn, lady. You do not do magic in my office, my building, or my presence unless I directly order you to. You got that?" he snapped.

            "I got it," I whispered, nodding numbly. I stood stiffly in front of the desk, wishing I could reach out and take Steve's hand, or -- better yet -- run, but I forced myself to stay where I was.

            "Colonel," Steve began in a low tone, but Fury's head lifted and pinpointed him with a fierce gaze.

            "Zip it, Rogers. I respect your opinion on this matter, but I don't need to hear it again. Yeah, she's had it rough. So has everybody here. You think Banner's got it easy, knowing what happens if someone pisses him off? Or Barton, with what Loki made him do when we all first met?"

            "Yes, sir," Steve bit out the words.

            Fury turned his gaze back to me. "You're on probation, little girl--" he started, and my temper flared for a moment.

            "You don't call me that," I hissed, my tone almost as cold as his. "I don't like it when He calls me that, but He gets away with it because He's got the powers of a god and I can't stop him. You're just a man."

            He looked at me for a moment, then nodded, one corner of his mouth turning up an iota in what might be called a smile if it evolved for a million years into something a little stronger. "Huh. Just a man. Well, all right. I'll give you that, Drake or Clarke or Dragon or whatever you're calling yourself today. So you can't stop Loki--" he sneered the name, "--but you think you can stop me?"

            "No," I spat. "But I can leave."

            He considered my words for a moment and nodded again. "All right. Yes, you could. And then I'd have to have everyone hunt you down, including Rogers here, because uncontrolled, you're a danger to the world. Is that what you want? Oh, maybe you don't care what happens to Nat here--" he gestured at the Widow, and I stored that piece of her name away for future contemplation, "--or me, or anyone else here, but the Captain? You want him to have to come after you, and stop you, or you stop him? Maybe you're right. Maybe your magic is more powerful than most of us. Is that what you want? To have to look in his eyes as you kill him?"

            "For god's sake, Colonel--" Steve gritted out, desperation in his eyes.

            I tilted my head for a moment, thinking. I looked at Fury, and then at Steve, and then at the Widow, who was waiting with bated breath, almost trembling with leashed tension.

            "Oh. I see."

            "You see what, girl?" Fury said contemptuously.

            "What you're doing. It didn't make sense for a minute. I'm not good with emotions." I paused. "But you said right to my face that you respect Steve's opinion. I assume that extends to respecting Steve himself." I glanced over at Steve, who looked puzzled, then back at Fury. "You're seeing how far you can push me before I explode, because you don't know just how big a threat I might be, and the responsibility for all these people rests on your shoulders, and you know you can't live with it if you misjudge me -- or anyone else -- and screw up."

            "Huh." He sat back down for a moment, meeting my gaze, his expression unreadable. "Is that what you think?"

            "Yes, that's what I think," I answered.

            "And you came to this conclusion by -- what, reading my mind?"

            "No, you said no magic in your presence without your permission," I replied. "But I'd read the entire section on psychology in the New York City Library main branch by the time I was 12. You've got a good act going. Very badass."

            The Widow covered her mouth with both hands, and I felt Steve flinch.

            "You think this is an act?" Fury snapped, surging to his feet again. His eye was dark with rage.

            I looked at him. "It can be real and still be an act, Colonel," I said politely.

            He drummed his fingers on the desktop in silence, never looking away from me. Vaguely, I could hear sounds out in the corridor at a distance, heavy impacts that were slowly getting closer. I disregarded it for a moment, because the man in front of me was more important.

            "You've changed," he said at last. "Since we had you on the ship before. Back then, you wouldn't say 'shit' if you had a mouth full of it. Now you won't shut up."

            "Would you say that's a change for the better, Colonel?" I inquired.

            "That remains to be seen," he grumped. He rummaged in one of his desk drawers and came out with a pre-printed folder full of paper forms. "Have Rogers take you to one of the empty offices and fill that out. Bring it back here when you're done. Those papers don't leave this building. There'll be photographs taken, biometric readings done, and a full psychological profile performed. By a qualified doctor," he emphasized, no doubt a jab at my comment about the psychology section of the library. "Rogers vouches for you. So does your father. So does Nat." I arched a brow and glanced over at her curiously; she offered a faint smile. "You confuse the hell out of Banner, and Thor can't decide whether to apologize to you or take you to Asgard for trial. He might not have found out without you that his brother was still alive. I'm not sure that's a good thing." He shook his head. "Barton, on the other hand, would just as soon put an arrow through your eye socket as look at you, and Stark -- "

            "Oh, look, it's Dorothy," a familiar voice sneered from behind me as the door opened.

            I went rigid.

            "Get out of here," Steve snapped, spinning around to face the man in the iron suit.

            "Why?" Stark quipped, smirking as I turned slowly to look at him. "So she can put you to sleep again? Or maybe you'd like that."

            "Guys, let's not--" the Widow started. Stark laughed and ignored her, turning to fix his gaze on me.

            "So, what's shaking, kid? Bomb any countries lately? Oh, wait, that's not right. You don't set off bombs, you just work for people who do."

            "Are you done?" I asked quietly.

            "Not. Even. Warmed. Up. Yet." The face mask of the suit was raised, his face visible, but the rest of him was clad in armor. "You, you spoiled little brat, put people I care about in danger. You pal around with one of the worst dictators this world has ever known, a maniac who doesn't care how many nameless innocents he hurts if he manages to eradicate a few annoying obstacles to his plans."

            "Do you really think I'd have had anything to do with Doom if I'd known what he was up to?" I asked, as calmly as I could manage. I was trying to keep a leash on my temper, but my temper didn't want to be leashed.

            "Sweetheart, you bitched at me years ago because I wouldn't give you any money when you were a cute little kid, so for all I know, you're in it for the cash," he sneered.

            I twitched, grimacing, my fingers wanting to curl into dangerous positions. "I could turn you inside out with a word," I muttered under my breath.

            "Oh! Yes! There's the sexy little sociopath we all know and loathe!" Stark crowed.

            I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath. He was trying to provoke me into something unforgiveable. Just like Fury had been testing me. I waited the space of a dozen heartbeats before opening my eyes again.

            "This isn't going to work," I told him steadily.

            "What, you don't want to kill us all in our sleep, sugarplum? Or would you rather we were alive when you did it so you could enjoy the look on our faces?" He took a step forward, lifting a finger to jab me in the chest. "I once told your boyfriend that everything special about him came out of a bottle," he said. I glanced over at Steve, who was white-faced with rage. I estimated he was maybe thirty seconds away from snapping, and knew I'd better end this as quickly and cleanly as I could -- without magic or violence. "I might have been wrong about him, Dorothy dear, but I'm not wrong about you. You're not special. You're a menace, and you should be locked up."

            "You're absolutely right," I said quietly.

            "You bet I--what?" he said, stumbling to a verbal halt.

            "I'm not special. I've known that since I was very young. I'm not a good person. I'm dangerous, sure. But dangerous doesn't mean special. It only means "do not trust," and "beware", and "handle with extreme caution". I'm not special, Mr. Stark, and I'm not going to pretend to be. But that doesn't mean I don't want to change the course of my life, if I can, and maybe fix some of the mistakes I've made. Not because I want your friendship, or trust. Not because of you at all. But because I can't live with myself if I don't. You don't have to worry about me going psycho and killing a bunch of people, because if I think for even a moment I'm about to lose control and take the villain's road, I'll pull the plug myself."

            "Yeah, you say that, Dorothy, but when it comes right down to it, there's not a chance in Hell you'd have the stones to back that up with action," Stark snapped.

            "Beth, no," Steve said, his voice reassuring. "Just ignore him--"

            "Don't tell her to ignore me, soldier boy," Stark snapped. "If I'm the only one here who cares to tell it like it is--"

            Oh, this is rich!

            The familiar voice insinuated itself into my mind and I went rigid. The sneering purr was unmistakably Loki, and I could feel the blood drain out of my face as I went pale.

            "Beth?" Steve asked, sounding worried. I tried to turn to look at him and found I couldn't move.

            Fury's eyes narrowed. "Something wrong, Miss Clarke?"

            Nothing has changed since I saw them last. There is still nothing between them but malice, envy, and o'erwheening pride, despite that they wish to think of themselves as heroes. I need not even lift a finger here to see them destroy each other.

            "Guys--" I managed to croak out a strangled whisper. "He's -- he's got me -- "

            Stark turned to look at me, his frown deepening. "Is there a problem, Dorothy?"

            The Widow had straightened and was fiddling with the dart-gun bracelet around one wrist.

            Ah, but then, why should I deny myself this pleasure? After all, what else are pawns for?

            "I think--" Steve began, and fell silent as I began to shudder violently. I could feel Loki inserting mental 'fingers' into the areas of my brain that would allow him to manipulate me as a puppet-master did his puppet. It was not telepathy; it was the oath, and he was using it. I fought against it, with everything in me, and each wall I threw up in my mind was smashed down; each blow I sent forth dissolved before it could reach Loki.

            "Call Strange. NOW!" Fury spat.

            The preening playboy first, I think, Loki crooned inside my head. As a favor to you, mortal girl, since you despise him so.

            "No..." I moaned. I felt my hands jerked upward, reaching out against my will, one of my hands clamping on to Stark's armored arm. He tried to shake me loose and couldn't; the muscles were locked so tight I could hear bones in my fingers breaking as he wrenched his arm this way and that trying to dislodge my grasp. Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead as I fought to prevent what was happening; I ground my teeth together, trying to lock my jaws to keep from verbalizing any spells.

            My lips parted. It was no use. Loki was going to use me, and he would have me fight until either my foes --  or I -- was destroyed. The only thing he cared about was havoc.

            But if wreaking havoc was what he wanted, then havoc he would get.

            I quit trying to fight him, bringing my gaze up to Stark's face. I could hear yells all around me, Steve trying to get in the Widow's line of fire to keep her from shooting me, Fury trying to aim around him.

            Hanging spells I had pre-cast in weeks past went off around me with the twitch of my fingers. The very first to go was a mind-control spell.

            I twisted my hand -- the one holding Stark's gauntlet -- and yanked him forward, slamming his palm directly against the center of my chest, metal touching the woolen sweater that was the only covering over my flesh.

            And barked out a single word, the full power of my mind-control spell behind it.

            "FIRE!"

            What? You can't -- no!

            I heard Loki's mental scream at the same time the repulsor blasters in Stark's armored gauntlet fired, the force smashing into my chest, through my sweater, into my flesh. Pain like a giant's hand punched me away from Stark, into the far wall. I heard ribs breaking, smelled blood, felt the lathe-and-plaster wall behind my back shatter as the repulsor rays thrust me back.

            I hit the floor in such agony that I didn't even try to fight the darkness as it claimed me.

Chapter Text

            "--liver, 1.4 kilograms. The color is good and the mass is healthy, with no apparent nodules, encrustations, or tumors."

            I was very cold. Outside and in.

            I cracked an eye open the width of an eyelash. I was laying on my back on a cold metal table, with a very bright light overhead. I could see a microphone dangling from the ceiling overhead, and just to my right stood a man in medical garb, mask over his face, a bloody scalpel in his hand. He nodded at someone I couldn't see and I heard the sound of something wet and squishy being lifted up and then dropped into something that resonated with a metallic thud.

            I had woken up in the middle of my own autopsy.

            "Next, we'll remove, examine, and weigh the heart--"

            "...gonna need that back..." I whispered, almost too softly for even myself to hear. The doctor paused.

            "Did you hear something?" he asked his assistant, who shook his head.

            I could smell iodine, and rubbing alcohol, and blood, although not very much of the latter.

            But I felt no pain. I had a moment to be thankful for that; one of the secondary hanging spells I had triggered had been the one that blocked pain; another had been a healing spell. Apparently it had needed to work overtime.

            Because I had died.

            I watched as the doctor reached down, reached into my laid-bare chest cavity, and curled his fingers around my heart prior to lifting it up and away from the veins and arteries that connected it to the rest of my body, so he could sever them and pull it out of my chest. I took a desperate breath -- or tried to -- and realized that they had already removed my lungs. No wonder I hadn't been able to speak loudly enough for them to hear me; speech requires air. There couldn’t have been much of that left saved in my pharynx.

            I tried again, this time twitching a finger just enough to trigger a hanging spell: telekinesis. The force that had once allowed me to rip the grille off the vent at the end of the duct on the helicarrier so I could make my escape now served to shove the doctor back, just enough to put me out of knife's reach. I concentrated, then, and my liver, just removed, floated up out of the pan they had stored it in after weighing it and sailed back over to my opened abdomen, seating itself down where it had once belong.

            The doctor and his assistant were screaming as they fled.

            I felt the various bits of ligament and membrane and blood vessels that had previously connected my liver with the rest of my body writhe as they reconnected. I'd been able to do that one by sound alone, hearing where they'd put my liver when they were finished with it. But I couldn't see where the rest of my internal organs were...and I needed them.

            I triggered another hanging spell with a crook of two fingers and a single softly-breathed syllable. Clairvoyance kicked in and I could suddenly see things around me from a vantage point just above me, rather than only that of directly above, where my eyes were pointing. My lungs, my stomach, my kidneys, my spleen, my uterus and ovaries, and my large and small intestines all lay in metal bowls on tables around the operating table. Once they had removed my heart, it would have been time to open up my skull and examine my brain.

            I was glad I had woken before that. It would have been much harder to coordinate what was, in essence, my own resurrection if my brain woke up in a jar of formaldehyde.

            I worked quickly to put my organs back into my body, not sure how long I had before the painkiller spell wore off. I suspected it would be much harder to finish fixing myself if I was in such agony that I couldn't think.

            The last part to restore was the front part of my ribcage, which the doctor had started with, cutting through the ribs at both sides of my chest and neatly lifting it and the attached sternum off my body and setting it aside. As I lifted it into the air with the force of my mind, I could see what had killed me -- or so close to as killed me that nobody had been able to tell the difference. There was a huge charred hole at the center of my chest where the blast of Stark's repulsors had struck, which had cut through skin, muscle, and bone.

            I frowned and directed the clairvoyance down to my still-exposed heart. It, too, was charred and damaged, though it was healing quickly now that most of my body had been put back where it was supposed to be, and I was conscious to direct the healing spell. I grimaced and guided the segment of bone and flesh back down onto my torso, fitting it neatly in place like the last piece of the puzzle.

            The door to the autopsy room burst open as Steve smashed through it. His eyes were red and watery, his face flushed, and the look on his face was both grieving and stunned as the incision on my chest the doctor had made healed itself and I sat up. He had clearly been crying.

            "Hi," I said weakly. "Did you miss me?"

            I was -- as is generally required for an autopsy -- stark naked.

            "Beth," he breathed, standing frozen a few feet away, eyes wide in shock.

            "Could use a little help here," I managed to get out.

            "Beth," he repeated, not moving.

            "Kinda cold here. Maybe, oh, I dunno, throw a lab coat over me or something?"

            "Beth."

            "Never mind, I'll get it." I looked around the room -- as much as I could without turning my head, anyway, because I was exhausted, and the anodyne spell was starting to wear off. A clean lab coat hung on a coat rack by the door and I grabbed it with my mind. It sailed through the air to me and I raised my arms limply, letting the sleeves drop down onto them, the soft mass of the garment hanging loosely over my frame.

            I could hear footsteps coming fast down the hall past the door behind Steve. Sluggishly, I pulled the lapels of the lab coat together and tied the belt, hiding my nakedness just as the door was shoved open again and the Widow, Fury, and -- unfortunately -- Stark came piling into the room.

            "Hi, folks," I muttered feebly, still cold. There was a certain amount of chill radiating from the walk-in freezer on the far side of the autopsy room where bodies were stored before and after their procedures. I was starting to shiver, and that was a sign of incipient shock. "I could really use a blanket or something."

            "Well, shit," Fury said, looking least stunned of the four of them. "And how'd you manage that little trick, girl?" he demanded.

            "Bla-blanket," I repeated dully, my body starting to shudder with cold.

            Steve looked around wildly, but -- as might be expected for an autopsy lab -- there were no blankets anywhere to be found. He took a few steps forward, ripping his shirt off. Buttons went flying and I heard the clatter as they hit the floor. He wrapped the warm flannel shirt around me, over the lab coat, and then -- as carefully as I think he could manage -- he lifted me up off the cold metal table.

            "Out of the way," he growled at the others, turning and carrying me out of the room.

            The autopsy lab was hardly the only medical facilities in the cellar of the S.H.I.E.L.D. building. Steve carried me down the hall to a medical clinic room and laid me down in a bed, grabbing a soft wool blanket off a pile of neatly-folded ones on a bench, and whipped it over my prone and unprotesting form. Then he pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down, reaching out to take one of my hands.

            “How?” was all he asked.

            “Probably going to need more information before I can answer that,” I told him softly. “How long have I been out?”

            “Almost three full days.”

            I blinked. “Well, damn,” I muttered. “No wonder Fury was nonplussed.”

            “Beth, how?” he asked again, urgently.

            I sighed. “I could feel Loki in my mind. He was using the bond of our oath to control my actions,” I said. He nodded. “And there was just no way I was going to allow him to hurt anyone – especially since nobody there but you and maybe the Widow trusted me anyway. Why give them yet another reason for all that mistrust?”

            “Okay…” he said cautiously.

            “I wasn’t strong enough to stop him. Couldn’t even really slow him down. But I found I could direct myself as far as aim was concerned. Mostly, I think, because he really didn’t think I would do what I did. The instinct against self-destruction is so strong in most people nothing can overcome it.” I gave him a self-deprecating smile. “Guess I’m not most people.”

            “What did you do? What did he want?” he asked.

            “Want? He wanted me to use my magic to kill everyone in the room, most likely …starting with Stark. So he had no reason to be alarmed when I grabbed Stark. You know who probably thought I was going to use one spell or another against him – turn him into a frog, inect him with Ebola, use telekinesis to rip his arms and legs off. You know, something gory and painful. What my…oath-keeper didn’t expect is that I’d already decided that I’d rather erase myself than someone else. Even someone else I don’t like very much.”

            “Oh, Beth,” Steve sighed, and there was a world of pain in those two words.

            “So instead I hit Stark with a mind-control spell. My oath-holder didn’t expect it because he didn’t teach it to me. I got it from Doom. For whatever reason, Thor’s brother refused to teach me any sort of mind-magic…probably because it’d give me an edge against him. Especially if I learned any sort of mental shielding. Which I did.” He nodded. “So I grabbed Stark, hit him with a mind-control spell, and made him shoot me.” I grimaced. “I confessed I hadn’t expected the intensity of the blast to be quite so powerful. I thought I’d be knocked out, probably hurt – maybe even hurt quite badly. I didn’t expect it to nearly kill me.”

            “Beth…” Steve croaked. “It didn’t nearly kill you. It did kill you. You’ve been in that cooler for three days. I made them wait in case it was a coma, or some sort of stasis. I kept hoping you’d wake up. We even got your father in to examine you.”

            “Oh, shit,” I bit out, then made a face at his expression. “Sorry. I take it he—“

            “We’re not sure where Strange is right now,” Steve said neutrally. “He…he wailed. And then he disappeared.” He paused. “Might he have gone to tell your mother?”

            “Augh, I hope not,” I whimpered. “I can try reaching him mentally as soon as I have my strength back.”

            He nodded, but he was frowning. “I don’t think you realize, Beth…you died. For real. And now you’re back.” He cleared his throat. “I know you aren’t God, so…how’d it happen?”

            “Heh.” I clenched a fold of the blanket, a little nervous. “Okay, so one of the things I can do is called a hanging spell. I can…ummm…pre-cast most of a spell and leave it unfinished except for a word or a syllable of a word, or a single gesture. Something small and fragmentary. And then the spell hangs in potentia by me, not quite existing but not…not existing…until I finish casting it. It allows me to cast many spells over a longer period of time and invest the energy for them during times I’m not actually in battle – when I’m taking a walk, or reading a book, or taking a shower, or sleeping. It allows me to have an almost infinite number of spells ready to cast within the timeframe of milliseconds. Generally there’s a fairly broad array of those – shield spells, mind-control spells, healing spells, mind-shield spells, charms of invisibility, of intangibility, and so on. When I grabbed Stark by the arm, I set off a handful of those all at once. The mind-control spell was first; it had to be, to prevent my oath-holder from doing anything worse. But I also set off several healing spells: one that would keep me from feeling any pain at all, one that would heal any physical damage I took, and one that would put me into a state so close to death that nobody could tell the difference. After all, if I was dead, I couldn’t be further controlled, and nobody would bother attacking me. Hopefully. I didn’t pre-set how long the period of stasis would be. If I ever have to do it again, next time I’ll tie the time it wears off to the amount of time it takes me to finish healing. Though I confess I hadn’t expected someone to start an autopsy. That probably slowed the healing process way down, as did being stuck in a freezer.”

            “We didn’t know,” he said, looking miserable. I gave his hand a squeeze.

            “I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You guys don’t really know what I’m capable of. I guess that’s part of registration? Of course, learning magic is an ongoing thing. The spells I know will only continue to grow as I continue to study. I’ll have to periodically update my information with the department, I guess.”

            “Good guess,” came Fury’s voice. I looked up to see him standing by the door. “That was a hell of a gambit you took.”

            “Sorry,” I said at once. “It was the only thing I could think of at short notice to immediately derail what he was trying.”

            “No, don’t apologize,” he said, and I realized his tone was a lot less hostile than it had been the last time we had spoken. I was almost prepared to think I heard a little respect in it. “I gotta admit, I wouldn’t have expected you to pull what you did. Did you know you’d survive it?”

            I made a face. “Ummmm…” I glanced at Steve. “No.”

            “Beth!” he yelped, the sound strangled.

            “Let’s just say I hoped I’d survive it,” I said quietly. “But if I didn’t…” I looked over at Steve. “I could only think of one or two people – and a couple of cats – that would miss me.”

            Fury looked thoughtful. He tilted his head to one side, rubbing his chin. “Well. That might be. And then again, maybe not.” He paused. “And maybe if that’s how it is, things need to change.” He straightened up. “You still need to finish the registration process, girl. But you go ahead and catch your breath first.” He turned and headed out of the room.

            “…huh,” I murmured, watching him go. “Okay, I didn’t expect that.”

            “Beth…why did you…do what you did?” Steve asked, his voice strained.

            “Should I have let Thor’s brother just use me to kill everyone then, Steve?” I asked mildly.

            “…no,” he said at last. “But maybe there was something in between those two extremes you could have done. You don’t have to lay down on the barbed wire and let the other guys crawl over you.”

            I arched a brow at his metaphor. “There really wasn’t any time,” I said. “And I just couldn’t think of anything else quickly enough. Believe me, I didn’t want to die, Steve. I just wasn’t willing to let you and the others die instead.”

            He leaned over and wrapped his arms around me, gently helping me rest my head on his lap. “I love you, you know that?” he said softly.

            “I think you might have said that once before, yeah,” I allowed. “Still trying to take it in. I literally couldn’t understand what love was for the longest time, Steve. And then, when I finally did, I didn’t think I deserved it from anyone. So it’s going to take some getting used to. I hope that’s okay.”

            For an answer, he bent down and pressed a kiss on my forehead. I smiled.

            “So now what?” he asked.

            “Well. Still finishing the healing process. At least I’m not freezing anymore. But although it’s magic that guides the healing process, it still works the same way that normal healing does – just a lot faster. That means it uses my body’s own resources to repair the tissue damage. I’m going to need to eat soon…and given how much damage there was to repair, I think I’m likely going to need to eat a lot.”

            “That can be arranged,” he said. “Got any preferences?"

            “Ernie’s BBQ?” I asked.

            He pulled out his cell phone. “Sure. Tell me what you want, I’ll call it in and go pick it up on my bike.”

            “Three slabs of ribs, a pound of brisket, half a dozen corn muffins, a pound of homefries, a quart of BBQ baked beans, and some coleslaw. And an apple pie.”

            He blinked. “You weren’t kidding about ‘a lot’, were you?” he asked.

            “Nope. Lot of tissue and muscle and bone damage. I’ll need a lot of protein to replace it. Oh, and can you get a gallon of milk? Gonna need a lot of calcium. They cut off the top half of my ribcage, so that’s a lot of broken bones to put back together.”

            He nodded and made the call. It was nice to lay there and rest my head on his lap and listen to his voice. He stroked my hair with one hand while he made the call, and when he finally hung up, he gently helped me to lay back on the bed.

            “I shouldn’t be gone long,” he said. “Maybe nap if you can?”

            I nodded. “After I eat, I’m going to need to shower and get some real clothes on.”

            “If you don’t mind me borrowing your keys again, I’ll run by your apartment and get you something to wear. I’ve, uh, been going by there the last few days to feed the cats. I was trying to find someone to adopt them.”

            “Because you thought I was gone,” I said softly. He nodded. “Go ahead and borrow the keys. I was thinking I should get you your own set, anyway. Although, given the fact that Elsie is S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m kinda surprised you didn’t have your own already.”

            He shook his head. “Invasion of privacy,” he said.

            “Ah, but I was a bad guy,” I pointed out.

            “Not to me,” he said. “Never to me.” He leaned down and kissed me lightly on the lips. I savored it.

            “Be back quick,” he said, and left.

            I laid back on the pillow, finally warm. The urge to sleep faded in and out, and I stared up at the ceiling, mentally running an inventory on the different parts of my body. The pain spell had worn off, and certain parts of me ached pretty badly, but nothing hurt so bad that it would keep me from functioning if I needed to.

            But there was an odd sensation, one I couldn’t put my finger on. I had never felt it before, although I could come up with a few close comparisons. The most apt felt like the times, as a child, I had lost one of my baby teeth. I could remember, until the adult teeth had started to grow in, being able to probe the empty socket with my tongue and feel that gap where there had once been a part of me that was just no longer there.

            “Hey.”

            I managed to keep from jolting myself into a sitting position; I was still sore enough that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Stark stood by the door, wearing civilian clothes – jeans and a casual shirt – and a contrite expression on his face.

            “Hey,” I said cautiously. “Something I can do for you?”

            “Sure,” he said. “You could explain.”

            I nodded hesitantly. He hadn't called me 'Dorothy'. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Had he been pushed past the point where sneering, joking nicknames were an accepable way of interacting with the enemy? “And…what is it you want me to explain?” I asked.

            “You…” he paused. “You used me to kill yourself.”

            “Not…quite,” I said, understanding. “I used you to save everyone else.”

            “Not seeing the difference,” he snapped.

            “No?” I asked, easing myself gingerly into a sitting position, pushing the pillows up behind me to support my back. “Negative versus a positive outcome. Stopped Loki from doing something unforgivable. Would have picked some other way to do it if I’d had time; it was really a split-second decision, I’m afraid. I apologize for…making you shoot me.”

            He gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding?”

            “Um…no?”

            “I shot you,” he snapped.

            “Not of your own free will,” I said. “I really didn’t like having to do it that way, but I could feel what he wanted. He wanted me to kill you, then everyone else in the room. I couldn’t allow that.”

            “You—really? I mean, you were working for him and Doom and—“ I rolled my eyes and he shut up. “What, then?”

            “I’m not sure I can explain it to you,” I said at last. “Mostly because I don't think you've ever been in that kind of position."

            "What, you don't think I've ever had it hard? Get real," he growled.

            "No. Sure, you've had it hard. Most folks have. Although, to be honest, you've had...well, a less difficult life than most of us. But no, what I meant was that...you've always been your own person."

            "And you haven't?" he asked.

            "Mr. Stark, come on. The extradimensional demon lord Dormammu stole my soul at birth. Hard to manage to be less of my own person than that. But then, feeling that I was missing my soul -- although I didn't know just what it was I was missing at the time -- drove me to study magic. And that led to being forced to choose between having an Asgardian psychopath murder me during the middle of an alien invasion, or to agree to swear an oath to him on the remote possibility he might find me useful and keep me alive. Alive and a slave, or dead. Not much of a choice, is it?"

            He frowned. "So you decided if you were alive, then maybe someday you'd learn enough to free yourself?"

            "Pretty much," I agreed. "To be honest, my big hope at the time was just not dying. I knew I was no match for him. I'm still not. I'm just less helpless than I used to be."

            "Hm. Okay. So one last question."

            "Ask," I told him.

            "Why me?" he asked. "Why pick me to stop him? To stop yourself?"

            "He knew I bore you a grudge," I said. "So he figured if anything, I'd be more likely to give in and go along with what he wanted if I got to kill you. Because that's how he thinks. He thinks everyone thinks like he does. 'So she doesn't want to kill, but she hates Stark. If I let her kill Stark first, she's much more likely to do what I want and kill everyone else, as well.' Give the puppy a doggy treat before having her go rip someone's else's throat out." I shrugged. "How better to show him that I wasn't going to do what he wanted, not ever again, by doing pretty much the exact opposite of what he wanted? Instead of killing you, I used you to kill myself." I winced. "Although I really wasn't expecting to, you know, die at the time."

            "Yeah. Had the repulsors turned up all the way. Really didn't trust you." He paused. "I had reason to believe you were a real threat."
            "Yes. You did. I was. Still am."
            "I'm not going to say I was being a dick."
            "I didn't ask you to," I replied.
            "I'm not going to say I'm sorry."
            I smiled. "You just did."

            "I did, didn't I? Shit."
            I laughed. "If it helps any, you did it in a dickish manner, so at least you're being consistent."

            He smiled. It was a snarky, asshole smile, but it was a smile. "Truce?"
            "Truce."
            "Friends?"
            "Eh, I wouldn't go that far yet, but we can work on it."
            "Fair enough." He paused. "You're still under oath."
            "I am."
            "You know I'm still going to be watching you, right?"
            "I'd be pissed if you stopped. I meant what I said. I'm dangerous. I just hope someday that'll all be aimed at the bad guys."

            "You and me both." He extended a hand to shake, looked at it, looked at me, and pulled it back. "You're not going to put another whammy on me, are you?"

            "Don't have any reason to," I said.

            "That's--"

            "That's a no," I clarified.

            "Okay, good," he said, and extended it again. I shook it and he frowned. "Jesus. Don't get into any arm-wrestling contests. Not even with Ant-Man. I hear he cheats." I laughed.

            The door opened and Steve came in, carrying a fairly big box. The smells emerging from the bags loaded inside were enough to instantly produce a growl from my stomach. Steve eyed Stark warily.

            "Everything okay here?" he asked.

            "Sure. Just asking your girlfriend some questions," Stark said.

            "It's okay, Steve," I replied. "And I mean, really okay, not 'I could turn you inside out with a word' okay."

            "Could you really do that?" Stark asked, looking doubtful.

            "Yup," I said.

            "Okay, time to go," he said. I laughed.

            "I generally don't. It's messy. And I don't know where they keep the mops here," I teased.

            "Right. Still going. Enjoy lunch. Talk to you later, kid." He made a beeline for the door and I giggled.

            Steve set the box down on one of the tray tables and looked from the closing door to me. "Seriously, no problems?" he asked.

            "No problems, Steve. I think what I did threw him for a loop. We've...uh, re-evaluated our working relationship," I said lightly. "Now. Food. Before I pass out."

            He grinned and began to unload the box.

Chapter Text

            It took over an hour before I finally pushed away my empty plate, picked-clean rib bones piled high on it. "That was excellent," I murmured, stretching slowly. I could already feel my body breaking the food down, using it to replace all the calories and nutrients I'd burned healing myself. It no longer felt like there was a vast, gaping black hole situated roughly over my gut. I looked around slowly. "Okay, where did those papers Fury had for me go?"

            "Got them right here," Steve said. We'd shared dinner; there were fewer bones on his plate, but between the two of us, we'd pretty much polished everything off. The only thing left was a single corn muffin. He passed the papers and a pen across, then got to his feet and carried away both our plates, dumping the bones, wrappings, and empty containers into the box he'd brought them in. "You're really okay with Stark now?"

            I shrugged. "I did say I didn't want to have to deal with him," I replied. "But it happened, and we came to an accommodation, and now it's behind us." I grinned mischievously. "And oh look, I must not be as much of a bitch as he clearly thought I was, because he's still breathing."

            He winced and sat down next to me, turning to take me into his arms. "Hey," he sighed. "You probably shouldn't talk like that, okay?"

            "Oh, I don't mean it, Steve," I said, chuckling. "And I don't really want him to cut me any slack, either. He's just been an ass."

            He laughed. "Nobody's perfect?" he quipped.

            "You are," I purred, resting my head against his chest.

            "Oh, no," he said. "Not even close." He paused. "I wanted to smash his face in."

            "That makes two of us," I said. "Of course, I'd just have broken my knuckles against his face-plate. You might actually only have bruised yours."

            He laughed again and put an arm around my shoulders. "Okay, let's get this done. Otherwise you'll be here all night, and neither of us wants that."

            "Wow. You've got new powers!" I chuckled.

            "What?"

            "Well, obviously you're suddenly psychic," I joked. He ruffled my hair.

            I was almost finished with the first form when there was a light rap on the open door, and I looked up to see the Widow standing there. "Okay to come in?" she asked lightly.     

            I glanced over at Steve, who was frowning, but shrugged, and carefully set the pen down. It could be used to stab someone, after all, and I didn't want anyone reacting to any sudden movements I might make -- out of nerves -- with a potential weapon.

            She stepped inside. "You okay? That was...pretty crazy."

            "I'm fine," I sighed, and she nodded. "I...uh...so...you vouched for me? You don't even know me."

            She smiled diffidently; it was a slightly lopsided expression, and then she glanced over at Steve. "I trust his judgment," she said, and then her smile bloomed into this wide, beautiful, joyful thing that nearly broke my heart. "And I've been bugging him to get a girlfriend for awhile."

            "Nat--" Steve started, but she just waved a hand to silence him.

            "You make him happy," she said simply. "But hurt him and I'll end you and you'll never see it coming."

            "Natasha!" he snapped.

            I laughed. "It's okay, Steve. She's looking out for your best interests. I actually care more about that than I do about her vouching for me." I looked back at her. "I would never, ever deliberately hurt him. And should I ever accidentally hurt him, you won't have to lift a finger, because I'll be too busy trying to figure out how to end myself."

            "With a little help from your friends?" she hedged.

            "Hopefully not," I said. "I honestly would have preferred not to have had things go that way. It's like suicide by cop: gets the job done, but it does a number on whoever you're using as the weapon, too. I hope he's going to be okay."

            "Tony?" She laughed. "If you think something like that could make a dent in his ego, you're mistaken."

            "Well, that's good, I guess," I said. I looked down at the rest of the forms waiting to be filled out, flipped through the pages and scanned the lines in passing, then set them down one at a time before putting the pen down in front of them. "Hold on a second."

            The telekinesis spell was an easy one; two quirks of my fingers, two syllables, and the pen floated into the air and began to fill out the next form on its own. Both Steve and Natasha blinked.

            "Ummm..." Nat said, looking from the pen to me, clearly discomfited. "How are you doing that?"

            "Uh, magic, of course," I said.

            "But you barely glanced at the forms!"

            "Photographic memory, immeasurable IQ. One look was all I needed. I could cheat if I wanted to, I guess, and use a clairvoyance spell to go with it, and keep an eye on the forms to make sure I wasn't writing outside the lines. But I don't really need to, and it'd be a waste of energy."

            They both goggled for a moment and then she shook her head. "You'd make one hell of a spy," she said at last, admiration in her voice.

            "Ew, no, not bullet-proof, thanks. I think I'll stick to saving people from fires and stopping the occasional bank robbery."

            Steve reached out to catch one of my hands and give it a squeeze. "Nobody's pushing you to do anything you're not comfortable with," he said.

            "Oh, I know," I said cheerfully. "I didn't take it that way. But I'm really not all that good at beating up people. I am good, very good, at healing people. I've had a lot of practice."

            "Samaritan, huh?" Natasha asked. I nodded.

            "Seemed appropriate."

            "Okay, well, I'm going to get back upstairs and take care of some things," she said. "See you later?"

            "Yeah. And Natasha--" I paused and she stopped by the door to look back at me. "Thanks for taking a chance on me."

            She grinned and headed out the door. The pen continued its scratching along the surface of the paper. Steve watched it for a second. "Is there a reason you're doing it that way?" he asked, then grinned. "Other than to maybe show off?"

            "Yup," I said. "That's a lot of papers. I don't want to get hand cramps, especially since most of my spells need hand gestures to complete them. What if we got invaded by aliens again, or something of the sort?"

            He laughed and plunked down at the end of the bed where I sat cross-legged. "You're going to be here a few more hours, though," he said. "Fury's not going to let you leave until you've finished the Registration process."

            "Hmmm. Have the cats been fed yet today?"

            "This morning, early," he said. "Just before dawn. They're greedy little brats."

            "That they are," I agreed. "Crud. It's almost five. If they aren't fed again soon, they'll start retaliating by clawing the furniture and woodwork. I really don't think it'd be fair to do that to Elsie's house."

            "Do you want me to go feed them? Half hour drive each way, I can be back before you're done with the process." He paused. "Maybe before you finish the paperwork."

            "You won't get in trouble for leaving me unattended?" I asked dubiously.

            "Sweetheart, if you think there aren't people watching you, even now..."

            "Yeah, I'm not that naive," I agreed. "Cameras everywhere, right?"

            "Well, this is a S.H.I.E.L.D. office," he said.

            "That's a big yes, in other words." I leaned over to kiss him lightly. "Yes, please? Last time I waited too long to feed them, they started clawing the wooden legs of the couch."

            "I was wondering what that was from," he said lightly. But instead of getting up to go, he pulled me back over to him, then onto his lap. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. "But before I go..."

            He drew me close and kissed me, his mouth seeking mine hungrily, ravaging my lips with the dedicated intensity of someone who'd been lost in the desert for three days, looking for water. There was an element of choice to it -- I know I could have pushed back from him if I'd wanted to -- but it was the most fierce display of desire he'd ever shown me before. I moaned into his open mouth and his tongue met mine, the two twining together like fighting snakes. At some point after the BBQ, he'd clearly popped a piece of gum into his mouth, and I could taste the light, cool taste of spearmint. I arched against him, my breasts flattening under my shirt against the hard planes of his pectoral muscles, and I felt my nipples stiffen. He growled softly between our parted mouths, his warm breath fanning my face, and I shifted on his lap to face him more fully, wrapping my legs around his waist and sitting in the cup of his lap.

            One of his hands came up to twine in my hair, tangling through the strands. His fervor made him rush, his great strength a little more unshielded than usual, and as I ran a hand up over his back and dug my nails into the smooth, bare expanse of his bicep, just past the edge of his rolled-up sleeve, he gasped and tugged my hair involuntarily. The act shot fire from my mouth all the way through my body, the lightning grounding itself in my groin. I could feel that I was wet; the hormones surging through my belly made me dizzy with swirling fire, and I knew that if I wanted, we could be together for the first time, right here, right now.

            My pen dropped from mid-air and hit the floor with a clatter as my concentration shattered. I sucked in a deep breath and pulled back, just a little. His eyes were unfocused, the dark pupils huge and dilated, and my comfortable seat on his lap was no longer quite so perfect a fit. I swallowed hard.

            "I...I want this," I said softly, my voice shaky as hell. "But at home. When the cameras are gone. Not here, where anyone can walk in at any time, and where the cameras never shut off."

            He nodded wordlessly, taking a deep breath, and shuddered, clearly trying to rein in his need. I eased myself back off his lap and onto the bed, and he stood up on not-quite-steady legs, turning a deep red as he reached down to untuck the dress shirt he wore and let the tails hang down in front of his hips. I got a glimpse of the bulge in the denim and swallowed hard, curling my hands into fists and leaving painful little nail-dents in my palms. I had always been able to rein in my impulses with an iron grip, my self-control a thing of personal pride. But I had never before needed to pit it against this.

            "Steve..." I said quietly, not able to keep my desire out of my voice. He turned to look at me. "Be quick." I paused, then smiled. "And see if you can get rid of the damn spy cameras at the apartment too, okay? I can cast magics to get around them, now that I know they're there. But I'd rather not have to."

            "Do my best, hon," he said, his baritone voice strained. And then he was gone.

            I slid down off the bed to pick up my pen and snorted, shaking my head before I tilted it back to look up at the four corners of the room, where security camera fiber-optics were likely hidden. "And I hope you enjoyed the show, you perverts."

            There was the faint crackle of a voice coming from an intercom. "Sorry, ma'am." To their credit, whichever anonymous S.H.I.E.L.D. employee was on the other end of the microphone sounded really embarrassed.

            I sat back down and re-started the telekinesis spell. Once the pen started scrawling away, I rummaged through the drawers of one of the tables and found another pen, then snatched up one of the forms the pen hadn't gotten to yet and began filling it out by hand. I hummed under my breath as I filled in all the blanks, vaguely remembering something by the Arctic Monkeys -- Do I Wanna Know? -- I'd heard on the radio awhile back. I let my mind drift as I wrote; the tune was catchy, and after a moment I realized I was singing it under my breath. I made a face and refocused on the paper in front of me.

            I had finished with the form I was working on by hand, and moved on to the next, and the enchanted pen had gone through three more, when I heard a crackle come from the intercom again. I looked up at it. "Yeah?"

            There was no answer. I frowned. "Hello?"

            Still nothing, and it was starting to bother me. After all, if they'd hit the transmit button by accident, I'd think they'd take a second to say so. I glanced up at the clock. Steve had been gone for a little more than half an hour.

            Another fragment of sound reached my ears from far away -- somewhere else in the building -- and my brow furrowed. It had been heavily muffled by the many walls and floors between me and wherever its point of origin was, but it had sounded like...

            Gunfire.

            "Shit."

            I triggered a linked clairvoyance/clairaudience spell and let my enhanced hearing and farsight sweep the building. There were bodies in uniform laying in the hall one floor up, bullet holes stitching across their chests, blood splattered across the walls and floor. "Oh, hell no," I muttered. I looked higher; Stark was nowhere to be seen. Nor Fury. Nor the Widow. And Steve was still gone.

            There were bodies everywhere I looked. Not all of them were dead; here and there I could see people tremble or twitch. But they would all bleed out quickly enough. What the hell was going on?

            The sound of running footsteps coming down the hall thundered, crashing up against my heightened sense of sound. The feedback smashed into my head like a tidal wave, like a runaway buffalo, digging holes of pain into the tissue of my brain, and I grunted, cancelling the spell. Someone was coming fast, and I cancelled the telekinesis spell. The pen dropped onto the table and I bolted up off the bed, still wearing nothing but a lab coat and Steve's shirt, tossing aside the blanket I'd been wrapped in.

            The door to the room burst open and a half-dozen men, clad in uniforms I didn't recognize, poured into the room, leveling weapons at me. Their outfits were a cross between stretchy black synthetics layered with what looked like Kevlar armor, and each man had a patch on his shoulder, some sort of octopus thing, a red skull with six tentacles.

            HYDRA.

            "We have come to take you out of here," the one in the lead stated, turning the muzzle of his weapon from me and pointing it down at the floor. "Reports of your capture came to us. You have powers, and questions, and I'm sure you'd feel more comfortable once you're no longer being held captive--"

            "Oh, fuck this," I growled, and dived at the floor, fingers twitching into the shapes needed to trigger the invisibility/intangibility spell combo. I felt myself pass through the floor, heard gunshots as they fired. Maybe I should just figure out a way to change all the command words for my spells into swear-words. 'Oh, fuck this' seems like a good enough trigger for this particular pair of spells. Maybe use 'no fucking way' for the healing spells, or 'what the shit?' for the clairvoyance/clairaudience grouping.

            I came to a stop hidden between thick cement walls a floor down, hopefully undetectable by the HYDRA agents unless they had magic of their own. So far as I was aware -- and granted, my knowledge of them was extremely limited -- they didn't use magic, just science.

            I needed to find where Fury, the Widow, and Stark had gone. I needed to heal the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that could be saved. Once I healed those that could be healed, I needed to find them a place to hide where they weren't likely to be shot again. And I had to warn Steve; he would be heading back soon, and I didn't want him to walk into a trap. It was a not-inconsequential list of tasks to accomplish, and a limited amount of time and energy to accomplish them with.

            "Someday I'm going to have an entire twenty-four hours without a catastrophe crashing down on my head," I sighed. "The shock is likely to kill me."

            I flew -- or more accurately, swam -- up through the layers of solid matter between me and the next floor, triggering the healing spell that would let me see the life-force of those that still lived. There weren't as many as I'd hoped, and most of those were in a bad way. I thought back to the healing spell I had used at the restaurant and took up a spot as close to the center of the building as I could before casting it. The energies would ripple outward in concentric circles, like the disturbances in a pond when a stone was dropped into the water.

            I felt the magic flow through me, felt it pour out into the world around me. Although it looked like the people in the building had been taken by surprise, there were certainly some agents who had managed to get off a few shots against the HYDRA forces, and so there was a chance my healing spell would restore any injured attackers to full health, as well. It was unfortunate, but it couldn't be helped; moving -- as I had at the fire -- from person to person to heal each one individually would take too long, and lives would certainly be lost.

            A spark of inspiration struck me and I acted fast, tying a chain-teleportation spell to the healing spell, grounding it in Fury's office upstairs where Steve had first taken me. The doors there were thick and easy to bar; as soon as the spell healed someone, it would instantly teleport them up to that room, out of the way of invaders, where a relatively larger force of healed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents -- I hoped -- could restrain any HYDRA forces that the spell healed, also. The spell would continue automatically until the last living S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were found and gotten out of harm's way.

            That done, I let my fingers weave into the next set of shapes, casting a spell of telepathy. I reached out with my mind and found Steve, just leaving my apartment.

            Hate to do this to you, lover, but the office is under attack by HYDRA. Lots of casualties, no sight of Fury or the Widow or Stark. I'm holding down the fort as best as I can, but I have no training in this whatsoever and I am way outnumbered. Be smart. I'm sure there are ways into the building that they don't know about. Don't walk into a trap.

            The spell not only gave me the ability to speak into his mind, it let me read his thoughts, as well. His first 'words' were clumsy -- not all that odd, given that telepathy was not a talent most folks had any facility with.

            Beth?

            Yup. Be careful. There are a lot of casualties. I'm healing and hiding the ones I can. See if you can get hold of any of the others? I can stay untouchable and unseen for quite a while, but I don't have the power to do the same for the agents here that I can find.

            Jesus, Beth...I should never have left you. I--

            No, don't start that. Don't waste time. I'll be fine. Do what you need to do. I'll do what I can. Be quick. I paused. Time to share a secret with him. The ring I gave you -- it's enchanted. It'll let me know if you get hurt or are in danger. That's how I knew to come to you in France.

            Figured something like that. Be there soon.

            His thoughts melted into this calm, detached concentration on duty, actual words giving way to instinct. I let the spell go dormant for now; I could speak to him at any time unless I canceled it, but continuing to do so now would only distract him, and neither of us could afford that.

            Three out of four tasks completed. I needed to find Fury, the Widow, and Stark. I was pretty certain Stark was gone; if he was here and fighting, the sounds from his suit would reach me even from a distance of several stories apart. But Fury and Natasha -- well, they had guns, not powers, and I had been hearing gunfire for some time now. My clairvoyant sweep had been a quick thing, and it would have been easy to miss spots.

            Finding them had its own set of problems, though. My energy was flagging, quite badly; anything I'd had before I'd died had dissipated, and what I'd had since waking -- or being reborn, a technically more accurate term -- had been split between healing myself and the spells I'd used in the fight so far, with an insignificant amount used for the telekinesis spell. It would have been nice if I'd been able to keep all Dormammu's power, but right now, even keeping myself intangible and invisible was draining what energy I had left. It would be different if I knew where my costume was; the hanging spells still embedded in the outfit would give me a great deal of latitude in what choices I took and what acts I could carry out. But since I had no idea where it was, there was no point in wasting time wishing for 'if-onlys'.

            I dropped the intangibility/invisibility spells. The hall was empty, although I could hear shouts from a distance. The gunfire had faded away, at least. I stripped out of the clothes I wore, tossing the lab coat to one side and pulling Steve's shirt back on, tying it shut with the belt from the lab coat. He was so much bigger than me that I had to roll the sleeves up to the elbow area; they still hung down to my wrists. The tails of the shirt fell nearly to my knees. The lack of multiple layers left me chilly, but it would be easier to move without the bulk of so much cloth.

            I peered through a half-open door into the room beyond. It was an empty office, one along the outside of the building; a window was set in the wall behind the desk. I was only two stories up, and it offered a quick getaway if I needed one, but I was not about to leave the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents I had relocated to Fury's office if I could help it. It was, however, a private area where I could hide while I looked for Fury and the Widow.

            I snuck inside, quietly easing the door shut and locking it. There was an easy chair in one corner, in front of the other window, and I sat down in it, curling up and wrapping my arms around my knees. The gunfire had shattered many of the windows in the inner building, and there was broken glass on the floor everywhere; the soles of my feet stung with little cuts, and if I didn't heal them and then went elsewhere, I would leave bloody footprints with every step. Glumly, I called up the weakest healing spell I could manage; it wouldn't heal the cuts completely, but in a moment, they had scabbed over thickly, the normal healing of twenty-four hours packed into five seconds. My normal spell would have healed them full up, what would take my body a week to ten days without magic.

            It would probably be a good idea to find some shoes, or I would have to keep recasting that healing spell every time I went somewhere -- at least, until this was over.

            I closed my eyes and concentrated, re-weaving the clairaudience/clairvoyance spell combination. It further drained my energies, but that couldn't be helped. At least, any communication I essayed with magic couldn't be tracked the way cell-phone calls or the intercom could be. I had that advantage on HYDRA, anyway. With a sigh, I focused my attention at the top, homing in on the roof, and started searching.

            Nothing on the roof but a HYDRA helicopter. Next floor. Fury's office with -- I counted -- twenty-three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and two HYDRA agents, both of the latter beaten into unconsciousness and handcuffed. The S.H.I.E.L.D. had quietly barricaded themselves in Fury's office, moving the furniture to bar the door, and were attempting to contact help. But their cellphones weren't working -- I suspected HYDRA had set up a cell-phone signal jammer, almost certainly on the roof where the helicopter was -- and neither was Fury's office landline.

            I let my mental gaze minutely search the rest of that floor, even the spaces between the walls, and then dropped down to the third floor, my concentration wholly consumed by the search.

            "Well, well, well. Loki's bitch."

            The words alone would have been enough to snap me out of my search, but the disgust in the tone hit me like a slap to the face. I opened my eyes.

            The window behind the office desk stood open, and the archer -- I knew now that he was called Hawkeye -- stood crouched on the desk's top, bow drawn, a razor-sharp broadhead pointed directly at me. The hatred in his gaze was palpable, and I blinked.

            "What--?" I started, and he snarled.

            "Don't fucking even," he spat. "Bad enough you worked with him, but HYDRA, too?" He shook his head. "They'll give me a medal."

            And his fingers released the string.

 

 

Chapter Text

            There was less than ten feet between us, and I was not a speedster like the one they called Quicksilver. I tried to twist out of the way even before he let go, but all that got me was an arrow through my left shoulder instead of my heart. I was willing to accept that compromise.

            I screamed as the shaft passed all the way through the muscles of my bicep, the razored tip scraping along the humerus and burying itself in the cushions of the easy chair. The pain was instantaneous; it bled, but only a bit, so long as I held still; if I tried to rip it out, or moved too much, it was likely to slash open my brachial artery.

            "Nice," he sneered, hopping down from the desk, his fingers already racing up to snatch another arrow out of the quiver and fit it to the bow. "Good reflexes. Not good enough, of course, but better than most. Not human reflexes. What, did Loki endow you with extra speed and grace so you'd be a better lay?"

            I gaped at him, not having to pretend my shock, fingers clutched about the point where the arrow transfixed my arm and was embedded in the chair. "You moron!" I spat. "Did you not get the memo? I'm on your side now!"

            He laughed. It was not a pretty sound. "Yeah, right. Last I checked, we hadn't hooked up with the Wicked Witch of the East."

            "When did you last check, asshole?" I snarled. The pain was making me aggressive, loosening my hold on my temper, and I really didn't have much energy left to heal the wound.

            He scowled. "None of your fucking business," he snapped.

            "I think it is my goddamn business if it means you're going to stick me full of so many quills I could be mistaken for a porcupine," I growled. "What the fuck is your damage?"

            He let the shaft hang loose and took two strides forward, grabbing my lower jaw and gripping it tightly, wrenching my face up to look him in the eyes. "I'll tell you what my damage is, bitch. Your boss used his magic wand prior to the Battle of New York and took over my mind. A lot of good men and women died because of that. Didn't matter how hard I fought him, nothing stopped it until Natasha rammed my head into a steel railing. And here you are, playing pitty-pat with him willingly. You make me sick."

            I met his gaze without flinching, although the pain in my arm was singing loudly enough to shatter glass. "You know fuck-all about me," I hissed. "You certainly don't know jack shit about what I was doing with Loki or what's going on now."

            "I don't care," he snapped, tossing his bow down onto the desk. He yanked down one of the curtains over the window behind the desk and tore two strips from the bottom of it. I saw what was coming and tried to duck my head, but he yanked it up by the hair, hard enough to make me yelp, and jammed one strip of fabric into my mouth, tying it in place with the other one. "Right now I need to focus on getting rid of these slimy fucks. You sit there and keep your hoodoo to yourself and I might not put an arrow through your eye."

            Oh, swell. He's psychotic, or at least, not handling things well at the moment. I sighed. At least the telepathy spell was still up, if dormant; it would expend no extra energy to use it again. I concentrated.

            Hi, Steve. It's me again. I'm afraid I have some good news and some bad news.

            Oh?

            Good news -- Hawkeye is here to help. Bad news -- he thinks I'm working for Hydra, and nailed me to a chair with an arrow.

            The words I heard him think were words I'd never heard him say -- although I'd heard most of them plenty of times from other people on the subway.

            I'm all out of magical energy. Can't put him to sleep and can't heal myself. Could only use this spell because it was still going. Office 213, second floor. Still haven't found Fury or the Widow or Stark.

            Stark is returning to the building. He left after talking with us. I haven't been able to contact Fury or Natasha; they must be using some sort of signal jammer, he "said".

            Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Are you close?

            Three blocks, sweetheart. Sit tight. I'm so sorry.

            Not your fault, I thought-sent to him. He's furious I was working for Loki. Not hard to understand, given that Loki was controlling him during the events leading up to the Battle of New York. I take it he hadn't heard I'd come in from the cold?

            No...he's been undercover for the last two months. He wouldn't have heard.

            I thought about this for a moment, frowning, and watched as the archer tore more strips off the curtains. I sat without struggling as he tied my feet at the ankle and my legs at the knee, then returned with more. I winced as he dumped them on the couch next to me and then reached toward the arrow sticking out of my arm.

            If you're going to yank that out, you need to turn it half an inch to the right or you'll sever my brachial artery.

            He recoiled from me, eyes glaring black murder. "You stay out of my fuckin' head!" he snarled.

            Don't have much choice, do I? You gagged me.

            He bared his teeth like a rabid dog and reached down, seizing the arrow by the shaft. I braced myself for pain; the arrowhead had, after all, cored an inch-and-a-half tunnel of flesh through my bicep muscle as it spun along its path; I doubted the man had a single bullet or field tip on any of the shafts in his quiver.

            But he very carefully turned the shaft the half-inch to the right I had told him to, then drew the arrow out. The wound immediately began to bleed in earnest, though the flow was a steady one rather than the pulsing spurt that would have said he'd slashed open the artery anyway. He folded up several of the strips of fabric and pressed them to the wounds on either side of my arm, tying them down tightly with another strip.

            Then he tied my arms behind my back with more strips, making sure to immobilize my fingers.

            The impromptu bandage he had bound around my arm was already starting to soak through, and I was getting woozy. Steve wasn't here yet, and I was really not looking forward to bleeding to death.

            Fight smarter, not harder.

            It came back to me in a rush, and I gritted my teeth, considering my options. I had no energy left to cast new spells.

            But one thing I could do was innate, and didn't require any energy.

            I couldn't bleed to death if I was made of fire.

            My head snapped up and Hawkeye took a few steps back. I smiled and, with no more energy or effort than it would take to blink my eyes, let my Faltinian side take control.

            The bonds burned away as my entire form was instantly transmuted to flame. He snarled and drew up an arrow to his bow. I let myself rise a few inches off the floor so I wouldn't set the building on fire -- even if my flight spell hadn't been made permanent a long time ago, fire was lighter than air -- as he loosed the arrow.

            It hit the outer edges of my form and instantly flashed away to ash, the high-carbon shaft no less flammable than a wooden one – at least, at those temperatures.

            “Shit!” he snarled, diving for the window.

            “What are you doing?” I asked politely as he clawed it open.

            He spun to glare at me. “If you think I’m staying close enough to you to let you fry me like you did that arrow—“

            “If I released all the mental and magical controls that allowed me to rein in the radius of my flame, the entire island of Manhattan would be incinerated,” I pointed out calmly. “I don’t think you can run that far, that fast.”

            He blinked, looking both stunned and desperate. “Why’d you change if you’re not planning on cooking me, then?” he snapped.

            “Because I wasn’t looking forward to bleeding to death, you idiot,” I sighed. “Now, you can go if you want. I don’t care. But I need to finish searching the building for Fury and the Widow. I have no idea if they’re in trouble. But there’s almost two dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in Fury’s office on the top floor you could keep watch over, if you want. HYDRA was pretty much shooting to kill the moment they broke in, but I was able to save and heal the ones that didn’t immediately die, and put them somewhere defensible. There’s also a couple of HYDRA agents prisoner up there.”

            “Why are you helping us?” he asked, sounding mystified.

            “Just what is it you think I should be doing?” I asked, heat shimmers in the air rolling away from the flames I was currently composed of.

            “Uhhh…killing us for Loki?” he said.

            I shook my head. “I don’t work for him any more,” I said. It was a gross oversimplification, of course, but it would have to do for now. “You coming, or what?”

            The archer stepped forward to open the office door and I soared through it, acutely aware of him following behind.

            I finished the search of the building floor by floor, office by office, hall by hall. I had no way of pinpointing Fury or the Widow mentally while my energy levels were so low, but the two of us had no problem taking down the remaining HYDRA agents we ran into. I could feel each of them before we saw them, the body heat radiating from each individual detectable to me in relationship to my own warmth. I burned far hotter, of course. After awhile, it occurred to me that I could use that perception of heat to try to find Fury and Natasha, and I extended that awareness outward.

            There was something back down in the basement, in the boiler room. Once we had finished off the last of the HYDRA agents, I flashed back down the central staircase, leaving a dissipating trail of flame in my wake in midair, and followed that body warmth to its source. The archer followed along behind me, well out of the way of my flame trail, and I came to a stop floating in the air in the boiler room, well above the concrete floor. I pointed toward the huge industrial furnace, more than big enough to hold a herd of cattle.

            “In there,” I said. He frowned, but stepped forward and held a hand against the iron side.

            “It’s cold,” he said. “Makes no sense. It’s almost January.”

            “I’d be really surprised if they didn’t switch to solar or geothermal some time back, but left this in place,” I said. “Not wind, there’s no turbines on the roof, but industry’s making some very small and discreet solar panels these days. And nobody looks twice at a big iron furnace in one of these old Manhattan cellars. Makes a good hiding place.”

            He opened the door and shone his flashlight inside. Fury and the Widow were on the floor, collapsed and unconscious, crumpled against each other. He had a bullet in his chest; she had one in her lower abdomen.

            “Ah, hell,” I sighed, taking stock of the level of my magical energies. So long as I wasn’t actively using magic, the energies would regenerate themselves bit by bit throughout the day – more often when I fed or slept. I thought, by now, I might have enough for two low-level healing spells – at least enough to stabilize them.

            “Ah hell what?” he growled.

            “I think I have just enough juice left to stabilize them,” I said. “But I’m going to have to take on my human form to do it. You think you can maybe hold yourself back from shooting me again?”

            His mouth twisted into a grimace. “Only one way to find out,” he said. “You hurt them and I will find a way to end you.”

            “Gee, I’ve never heard that one before,” I snapped. I clamped down the control over my Faltinian side and felt the flames die away. I was woozy on my feet as I dropped back down to the ground and knelt, reaching out both hands to touch them. The wound on my arm was bleeding still, but very sluggishly; the time spent out of human form had allowed the equivalent of clotting.

            I called up a bare-bones healing spell – just a bit stronger than the one I had used on my cut feet – and cast it, feeling the energies flow out of my body and into theirs. Sparkles danced in front of my eyes as I felt the energies drain away. The bloody bullet holes both of them bore began to curl closed slowly, the bleeding stopping, the skin clumping into scars.

            “Whoo. Have to sit down now,” I muttered, sinking back on my ass on the cold concrete. “They should be fine. I can do more when I’ve got more energy back – I can even take away the scars. They should rest now, though.”

            “I can’t figure you out,” he grunted. “Stone cold killer and—“

            “I beg your pardon,” I snapped. “I have never killed anyone or anything except a few vampires that were trying to turn me into dinner.”

            He rolled his eyes. “Vampires. Yeah. Right.”

            “Man, I hope you never have to realize how full of shit that sounded,” I snapped. “Although, with the bow, you’d be in a pretty good position to stake them. Assuming they didn’t get the drop on you. Those fuckers are fast.”

            He rolled his eyes. "The flight momentum on the weakest of my arrows would be enough drive it right through a human body and all the way out the other side," he sniffed. "I have to assume staking a vamp, if they existed, would require the stake to stay in the wound."

            "Yeah, I figured that out when the one you put in me went all the way through and pinned me to the chair I was sitting in." I was dizzy, and with a shake of my head, I edged back far enough from the Widow and Fury to take on Faltinian form again. "You put another hole in me and I'll return the favor, only at least I'll be nice enough to cauterize the wound for you."

            "Listen to you trying to sound badass," he snorted. "You know, little girl--"

            "All right, make sense," I sighed. "Either I'm a stone-cold killer or I'm a little girl trying to sound badass. Which is it? They sort of contradict each other, and--"

            "Will...the two of you...shut...the fuck up?" Fury groaned, his one eye flickering. "I'm getting a headache...listening to you bicker."

            "Sorry, Colonel," Hawkeye was instantly respectful. "How're you doing?"

            Fury sat up groggily, wincing, and tilted his head to look at me, hovering in mid-air, tendrils of flame radiating from around me. "Is that...Johnny Storm?" he wheezed.

            “Better check your eye, boss,” Hawkeye grunted. “Torch don’t got tits.”

            I arched a brow. "How's your wound, Colonel?" I asked more quietly. "I healed it as best I could with what I had, but my tank is pretty much on zero. The only way I'm still conscious is because I won't keep bleeding out in this form."


            Fury gingerly patted the bloody, ragged hole in his shirt where the bullet had gone through and nodded. "Feels like it's been about three or four days since I got shot," he said.

            "Closer to...an hour, maybe? I wasn't there when it happened, but it's only been a little longer than that since I started hearing gunfire. I saw the helicopter on the roof, so I assume they started up there near your office and that it took them at least ten minutes to work their way down far enough for me to be able to hear the shots through the walls and floors between us."

            He glanced at his watch. "Good guess." He looked down at the Widow. "You fix her up too?"

            "Of course," I said. "Same spell I used on you. You're both lucky the bullets didn't go all the way through. A clean in-and-out would have been fine on most limbs, but not a shot to the center of body mass. Or a headshot, of course. Bullet might have bounced around a bit inside you -- I didn't do an autopsy to try to figure out what caliber it was --" I smirked, " -- but you were both still breathing when I found you. How'd you get down here from your office after you'd been that badly wounded?"

            "The old smokestack that used to vent the fumes from this chimney was converted when we stopped using the chimney," he said, gesturing back over his shoulder with one thumb. I peered past him and saw the gleam of old brass.

            "Is that...a fireman's pole?" I asked.

            "Seemed appropriate."

            "Clever," I said. Hawkeye finally snapped.

            "Director Fury--"

            "Ah-ah-ah," Fury said, waving a finger. "Coulson's director now. Not my fault if you don't want to accept that. I'm a civilian now."

            "Right," the archer growled. "Mister Fury, then. Why are you sitting here chit-chatting with this war criminal?"

            "I am not--" I snapped, but Fury held up a hand.

            "Can it, Clark. I got this." He looked at the archer. "Barton, you might want to shut your mouth. Right now it's open so wide you're gonna get your foot stuck in it." The door came crashing open and Steve stood in the doorway. "Someone's foot, anyway."

            "Oh, come on!" Hawkeye said. "Seriously? She was working with Loki and you're just going to let her walk?"

            "She was given the choice by Loki, at the age of 16, of doing whatever the hell he told her, or dying," Steve growled.

            "Not much of a choice, if you ask me," Fury said mildly. "We've had her under continuous observation for months, Clint. She hasn't killed anyone. She wasn't involved in the Battle of New York. She's not a war criminal. I know this is a sore issue for you, but you watch the tapes, you'll see you were wrong."

            Hawkeye snarled silently, eyes narrow with rage, but shut up. I looked up at Steve. "Can you get Natasha? I did what I could to stabilize her, but I think she's going to be out for awhile yet." I grinned and threw a sidelong glance at Fury. "Only one of the two folks I found in here are as tough as old boot leather."

            "I got her," Barton snapped, breaking his bow down to holster it in his quiver, then bending down to scoop the Widow up in his arms. He stalked out of the furnace without another word.

            "Can I help you up, sir?" Steve asked Fury.

            "I got it, son," Fury said, getting to his feet very slowly. His face tightened as the healing tissue in his chest pulled against the wound, and he wobbled for a moment. Steve reached out to steady him. "Go on, get off. Help your girl there. She probably needs it more than I do."

            Steve swung around to look at me. "Clint shot you, you said?" he blurted, looking me over.

            "Yeah, but you're not going to be able to see the wound so long as I'm like this," I said. "Kinda had to. I was out of energy, and at least like this, I wasn't going to lose any more blood or get shot again. Bullets aren't really much of a threat to a living flame." I paused. "Arrows, either."

            "You're going to need more rest," he said.

            "And more food," I agreed. I glanced over at Fury, who was leaning against the furnace doorway. "And we all need to get the hell out of here. I have an idea the police will be showing up soon. There were a lot of gunshots."

            Fury frowned. "Did we lose all the agents here?"

            "Not all of them, sir," I said. "I saved the ones I could."

            "How many?" he asked.

            "Twenty-three," I told him.

            "Well, shit. Given how much lead they were spraying, I'm surprised you could help half that many. Where are they?"

            "Up in your office. Nice thick door, just the one exit -- or, well, two, if the entry to the chimney fire pole is there," I said. "Also bagged a couple of HYDRA agents for you to question."

            "Well, that's damn thoughtful of you," he said. "I always knew you'd work out just fine."

            "You did, did you?" I chuckled. "Hawkeye doesn't seem to agree with you."

            "He'll come around," he said at last. "Captain, I'd appreciate it if you'd see to it that whatever device they're using to jam phone signals got taken care of. It's probably on the roof with the helicopter. Then get on the horn to Hill and have them send some folks in for clean-up."

            "Yes, sir," Steve said.

            "I finished the paperwork for the Registration, but if we're clearing the building, I'd like permission to return home, sir," I said to Fury. "I really do need to get some food in me and get some rest, or there's a possibility I'll pass out. I'm holding onto the edge, and I honestly don't know what'd happen if I go unconscious in this form."

            "Yeah, get out of here," he grunted. "I'll let Cap here know the replacement site as soon as I get a chance. We can finish the registration there in a few days. You're not the only one who's gonna need some downtime."

            "I can finish the healing job I started on you and Nat in 12 hours or so, sir," I told him. "I just really need to recharge my batteries."

            "Go on, then, get," he said.

            "See you back at the apartment when you can, Steve?" I asked.

            He nodded. "I'd kiss you, but--"

            "But you don't want to burn your face off. Good plan. I can wait." I turned and soared up the chimney, pulling my flames in as close as I could so as not to melt the firepole. Then I arched up and out of the mouth of the smokestack, sailing across the night sky of Manhattan toward home.

Chapter Text

            Because a being of fire landing in front of a house and going inside is rather conspicuous -- not to mention stands a good chance of setting the house on fire -- I landed a block away in an alley and switched back to my normal form. I was exhausted and starving, but I managed to hobble home -- only to realize my keys, as well as everything else I'd had on me when I'd gone to with Steve for the registration process -- were back at the building I'd just left.

            "Son of a bitch," I swore tiredly. The sun was coming up in the east, over the ocean, and all I wanted to do was sleep. But I reached out, down through the soil, to tap a ley line, then cast a quick telekinesis spell and unlocked the door from the other side. I shut and locked it behind me once I was inside, then trudged up the stairs wearily, repeating the process on my own locked door.

            The cats ran to meet me and I smiled tiredly at them. "Hey, babies." I managed to totter to the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out the bottle of apple juice and the plastic gallon jug of milk. I poured myself a glass of each and drank them down; the milk would provide calcium, the juice some vitamins, and both would give me some liquids and calories. I rinsed the glasses, but left them in the sink, barely remembering to put the containers back in the refrigerator before I staggered to my bedroom and collapsed, face-down, onto the bed and fell asleep.

 


 

 

            I woke with the need to pee.

            Cats scattered left and right as I raced for the bathroom. My stomach growled fiercely as I finished and ambled back to the bedroom. I could smell bacon cooking and blinked.

            "Steve?" I called out cautiously.

            "In the kitchen," he returned my call. I smiled and grabbed my bathrobe and slippers, still wearing nothing but his buttonless shirt, held closed by the belt of the lab coat I had borrowed. When I was a bit more dressed and a little warmer, I headed for the kitchen, bed-head and all.

            "How are you feeling?" he asked as he set a full plate down on the table  in front of the chair where he usually sat. It was mounded high with bacon and sausage, hash browns topped with shredded cheddar, and pancakes. A cup of coffee and a small bowl of mixed fruit -- diced melon, grapes, chunks of apple and pear -- completed the meal.

            "Starving. But well-rested. How many days?" I asked, sitting down.

            "Two. It's two days after Christmas," he said, taking a seat across from me with his own plate.

            "How are Fury and the Widow?" I dug into my food, barely taking time to savor the flavors as I ate.

            "They're both awake. Healing normally," he said.

            I nodded. "Give me an hour and I can go finish up what I started with them." He nodded. "Any word from my father?"

            He frowned. "Not yet, I'm afraid," he said slowly. "We've called his sanctum several times, but his--er, friend? Companion?--says he's not in."

            I nodded again, more than a little concerned. I had spoken with him mind-to-mind at the restaurant, and could attempt that again. It would probably work, so long as he was conscious, not being prevented from responding, and on this dimensional plane.

            And if he didn't respond?

            A churning ball of worry was slowly forming in the pit of my stomach.

            "After I see to Fury and the Widow -- and finish the registration process -- do you think you can go with me to his sanctum?" I asked.

            He smiled. "You know I will, sweetheart," he said, reaching out to give one of my hands a gentle squeeze. It didn't dispel my anxiety, but it was a start.

            I finished breakfast and got up from the table. "I'm going to go shower and get dressed," I told him.

            "I'll feed the cats and take care of the dishes, then," he said. I paused.

            "Have you been here since I passed out?"

            "I think I got in about two hours after you left the HQ the other day," he said. "I've been keeping an eye on you while you slept, but I didn't want to wake you. I'll be honest -- I know nothing about how your magic works, and I was a little worried that, if I disturbed you while you were resting, it might make something go wrong."

            I gave him a hug, then grinned up at him a little mischievously. "Peeked in at me from time to time?" I asked him.

            "Well, yeah," he said, looking a little puzzled. "Was that wrong?"

            "No," I said, my grin widening. "But I know I didn't have the energy left to pull the covers over me when I passed out, and I wasn't wearing much...and I did note when I woke up a little while ago that the tails of your shirt had ridden up to my waist, and the belt from the lab coat had gotten untied." I kissed him on his cheek, which was rapidly turning red. "I hope you got a good look."

            "I, uh--"

            "I hope you got a good look," I repeated, my tone suggestive, trying to reassure him that I was neither upset or angry. "Because if you didn't like what you saw, it doesn't bode well for the physical side of our relationship, when we eventually get to it."

            He smiled. "Oh, I liked it," he said quietly. "Very much. But I'm not generally a peeping Tom."

            "I know. But in this situation, it was okay to peep." I turned and headed for the bedroom, grabbing an oversized, loose black cowl-neck sweater and a black ankle-length suede skirt out of the closet before heading for the bathroom to shower.

            As I passed the bed, something caught my eye, and I paused. There was something small and dark laying tangled up in the sheet near my pillow. I took a step closer and blinked; then shock reeled through me as I realized what it was.

            The collar Loki had locked onto my neck the day he brought me to Asgard years ago lay on the bed, no longer attached to me. It had stayed with me through spells of intangibility, dimensional travel, and even transformation into my Faltinian form.

            So why had it come off now?

            I threw the blanket over it so Steve wouldn't spot it and headed into the bathroom, worried. I dumped my clothes onto the long ashwood bench that sat against the wall opposite the toilet and sink, and turned on the water in the shower. Now that I realized it was gone, my throat felt naked. I shed Steve's shirt -- I would have to replace the buttons on it eventually and give it back to him -- and climbed into the shower, deeply unnerved.

            Hot water sluiced down over my head and shoulders, and I grabbed the soap and a washcloth and began washing off. My thoughts seethed with anxiety, going back and forth between my father and the collar. There was nothing I could do about my father right now, but my brain kept going back to the collar. There was something nagging at me, something I knew, something staring me right in the face, but I wasn't seeing it.

            Very carefully, I put the soap and washcloth back and let the water simply flow over me, washing away outside stimuli, leaving me standing in a cocoon of warmth and moisture and the rushing sound of the shower spray. I closed my eyes and let go of the input of the world around me, diving down into the depths of my own mind. Fight smarter, not harder.

            The collar.

            For some reason, I kept thinking of the first day Loki took me to Asgard -- the day I had got the collar. But the nagging I was seeing was not from that night, but from that first morning.

            When he -- disguised as Odin -- and I had run into Lady Sif in the hall.

            It came to me abruptly and I straightened up, eyes flying open, mouth gaping as I remembered.

            “Your master…? Loki?” she asked, scowling.

            I nodded.

            “But he is dead,” she said simply.

            “Dead or alive, I am under oath to do as he told me,” I replied. She frowned and straightened up, turning toward Loki-Odin.

            “She is simple, or else untrained,” she said. “Would not any oath die when he did?”

            "Oh my gods," I breathed.

            No, Loki hadn't died.

            I had.

            The collar lay on my bed, forevermore loosed from my throat, because the oath it was linked to had died -- as had the one with Doom -- when I did.

            "I'm free," I whispered. "Really free."

            I washed my hair quickly, rinsed off, stepped out of the shower, turned off the water, and toweled dry as fast as I could. I dressed, brushed and braided my hair back, brushed my teeth, and hurried out to the bedroom. I pulled the covers back; the collar still lay on the bed where it had been, and I scooped it up. It lay inert in my hands, not a single trace of magic remaining to it, a thing of cold metal and leather, and I concentrated, invoking the Faltinian flames around the hand that held it. The high temperatures did not melt the metal and burn the leather so much as vaporize every molecule of the thing, and I smiled.

            "Are you ready to go, hon?" Steve called out as I sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of knee-high flat-heeled black leather boots.

            "Oh, yes," I said softly. "You have no idea how much so."

            He came to stand in the doorway, one brow arched, and I smiled up at him. "I'm going to have quite a surprise for Fury when we finally get around to finishing the registration process."

            "Is...that a good thing, or a bad thing?" he asked cautiously, wrapping his arms around me.

            "Oh, very much a good thing," I said. I tilted my head up to him and stood on tiptoes... and was still not tall enough to plant a kiss on his lips. He chuckled and lifted me up, and I wrapped my arms round his shoulders and kissed him enthusiastically. With the oaths gone, I could tell them every single little detail about everything that had happened while I was in Loki's keeping. It might have no effect whatsoever, but it would be good to get it all off my chest and have it in the open.

            "Come on, then," he said softly, putting me down and letting me go. I reached up to touch his cheek lightly, brushing a loose strand of hair out of his eyes. "Soon, right?"

            He reddened again, but I heard him growl. "I hope so," he said.

            I grabbed my coat, scarf, gloves, and hat and pulled them on as he grabbed his own coat.

            "It snowed while you were asleep," he said, "too much to use the bike, so I finally went ahead and requisitioned a car from S.H.I.E.L.D."

            I nodded. "Would have been difficult to ride your motorcycle in this skirt," I said. "But you know I could take us there much quicker?"

            "You could?" he asked. I nodded. "How?"

            "Are we going to the building we were at initially?" I asked.

            "No, they've shut it down," he said. "Too much damage, not to mention all those bodies. HQ has been transferred to an alternate location."

            "Street address?" I asked him. He gave me a location in the Bronx and I quick-cast a clairvoyance spell, showing another drab old warehouse. I let the scrying spell look inside the front door and found an open foyer where a receptionist in a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform sat behind a dilapidated government-issue desk, reading this morning's issue of the New York Post.

            I reached out for his hand, and he slid it into mine without hesitation. "Like this," I said, and triggered a teleportation spell.

            We appeared in the foyer and the  S.H.I.E.L.D. agent behind the desk -- who looked like he had been on the verge of falling asleep out of boredom -- flailed and went for his gun, knocking over his cup of coffee, the newspaper thrown hastily aside.

            "Stand down, agent!" Steve barked, and the agent froze, then relaxed slowly, hesitating. Steve sighed and turned to me, cupping one side of my face in his hand. "You should probably give me some warning next time you think of doing that, sweetheart. I would have called ahead to let them know we were coming."

            "Awww, you just don't want me to show off," I said, mock-pouting, but nodded. "I did save us an hour-long drive, though."

            "Yes, you did," he said. He looked over at the agent, who had re-holstered his gun, picked up the scattered pages of the newspaper, and was carefully mopping up the spilled coffee on his desk with a roll of paper towels. "Is Fury in?"

            "Uh...yes. Medical ward, third floor. I have to let them know you're coming," the agent stammered. Steve nodded, and we waited while he cleared our visit. Then we were waved on through, and rode up in the elevator to see Steve's boss.

            "Well, well, well," Fury croaked from the hospital bed he half-lay, half-sat in as we came in. "Hail the conquering hero, and all that."

            I smiled at him. "You sound a bit better today, Colonel," I said, glancing around the room. The Widow lay in another bed, but she was asleep.

            "One more day with a heartbeat," he said sardonically. "Gotta be grateful for that, right?"

            "Something like that," I said. "Now that I've had a couple days to recharge my batteries, I came to finish healing up your wounds."

            "And suppose I don't want you to?" he asked. I blinked.

            "Well...obviously I'm not going to do it against your will, sir," I said. "But generally I would have thought you'd prefer to be in top form again."

            "That's true enough," he said. "But we don't know much about your powers, except a bit your father told us. You use magic, but where's that power coming from? You said you had to recharge your batteries...that means you're not getting the energy from any demonic pacts or the like?"

            "No, Colonel," I sighed. I should have expected such superstition, but it was still galling. "I could, but I'm not about to go running off to enslave myself to something like that now that I'm working on the side of the angels, so to speak. I was proposing to heal you using my own energies. Alternately, I could draw power from the various magical energy lines, ley lines, that criss-cross the earth. Those carry earth-based magical power the way an artery carries blood. Nothing demonic about that, any more than a tree or a rock is demonic."

            "I see," he said, nodding calmly as I explained. "Will it hurt?"

            "It shouldn't," I said. "If you're concerned it might, I have a secondary spell I can cast first; it temporarily nullifies pain signals travelling the nervous system. Like anesthesia."

            "No, that's all right. Just go ahead," he said. I glanced at Steve, who nodded.

            First I cast the spell to see where his injuries were; the energies of his body were a mass of broken lines showing tissue damage, old scars, inflammation, the loss of his eye, too many old bullet wounds to count, and a lifetime's worth of pain. When I had fully taken in everything wrong with him -- including, I was willing to bet, a few things he wasn't aware of -- I turned to him. "Here we go."

            I used the molten honey spell Loki had used on me in the attic; it was sweeter and gentler than any of the others I knew, slowly teasing the old hurts and damage of the body out and melting it away. Spent bullet fragments evaporated from inside his flesh, and whole new tissue wove itself in where blood clots and scar tissue had been previously. I heard him groan, but it was a sound like a sigh of relief, and I wondered, off-hand, if he'd consciously known how much old wounds were bothering him over the last few decades.

            "Okay," I said as I finished up. "Everything from the battle, healed. Incipient liver cancer, healed. Two decades' worth of ongoing osteoarthritis, healed. Rebuilt several old broken bones that hadn't been set right. Cleaned thirty years' worth of cholesterol out of your blood vessels; you should talk to your doctor before using any medication meant to control your blood pressure. Blood clot forming in one leg, dissolved."

            Steve was staring. Fury looked me in the face  unflinchingly. "All that, huh?" he said flatly. "Tell me: if you can fix all that, you could give me back my missing eye, too, couldn't you?"

            "Of course," I said calmly.

            "Then why didn't you?" he asked.

            "Because that's a choice you have to make for yourself," I said. "But the spell's still active. Say the word and we'll do it now."

            A minute ticked by before he shook his head. "No," he said quietly. "But thank you for not taking the choice for me...and for understanding why it was my choice."

            I smiled. "Not a problem, sir," I said.

            "Is it...my turn?" I heard the Widow's voice from the other bed off to the side.

            I pivoted toward her and smiled. "Yup," I said.

            "Think...I'll take that anesthesia you mentioned," she said weakly.

            I nodded and crossed two fingers and quirked them together, activating a hanging spell for that. She let out a sigh and relaxed against her pillows as I came over to stand at her bedside, once again casting the spell I had used with Fury. I watched as her wounds started to heal; she didn't have as many years' worth of damage as he had, but the shots she had taken in the battle with HYDRA had been worse than the wounds he had suffered, severing the abdominal aorta, puncturing the stomach, large intestine, one kidney, and her liver, and spreading intestinal bacteria through the abdominal cavity. She had been lucky not to bleed out; likewise, the doctors here had her on a significant load of antibiotics to combat sepsis. I accounted for that, banishing those drugs from her bloodstream as the spell took care of the infection, and then I concentrated on the normal intestinal fauna that controlled the digestive metabolism. Antibiotics had a tendency to kill off our good gut biota, and plenty of nutritional scientists thought that might play a role in excess weight gain.

            "Good god, that feels nice," she murmured as the spell finished knitting up her body.

            "I aim to please," I quipped.

            "Can I just keep you on my personal staff from now on?" she asked lightly, pulling herself up into a sitting position. "This would have come in handy after the Battle of New York."

            I didn't wince. "Alas, I didn't know this much magic then," I said. "But I'll always be happy to help." Behind me, I could hear Fury getting out of bed and pulling on his clothes. Prudently, I chose not to turn around.

            "You know this doesn't excuse you from finishing the registration process," Fury said.

            "Didn't think it did, sir," I said. "I was planning to finish it after stopping here to see you two."

            "I believe the clean-up teams were able to retrieve your finished paperwork at the old building," he said. "Cap can walk you through the rest of the process."

            "Of course," I said. He stepped around from behind me to stand off to my right side, and I half-turned toward him. He had finished dressing. "I'll just go get to that, then." I paused. "You're going to want to be there for the debriefing. You see...this morning I realized something. I died and spent three days in that cooler. When one of the takers of a magical oath dies, the oath is broken." I smiled. "My oaths are ended...and now I can tell you everything."

            With a smile, I headed out the door.

Chapter Text

            I told them everything.

            There were things I was embarrassed about, like Loki's habit of touching me to scramble my brain; I told them about it despite the embarrassment it caused me. "Standard human biological and psychological responses," I explained, as blandly as I could. "The nervous system responds to stimuli. Stockholm syndrome." I pretended I did not feet Steve's eyes on me as I spoke.

            I told them about the times Loki had beaten me, pausing only at the beginning so I could rack my memory to give them an accurate tally of how many times it had been. (Answer: 141.) I gave a rigorous tally of broken bones, knocked-out teeth, torn muscles, pulled ligaments, punctured cartilage, shredded tendons, pulped organs. And I pretended I did not hear Steve muttering under his breath, very softly, while he tried not to cry.

            I gave them a complete accounting of every hero I had run into, every encounter I'd had, including what had happened with the X-Man Gambit. I told them the two items I'd had that he had been there; I told them that I'd discovered during my reading of his thoughts which thing he'd been there for (the Sphere). And I told them what had happened to both items.

            Since returning to New York after Asgard, I'd read some fiction. I'd seen a couple movies. I'd watched some TV. And I'd become very, very aware of a thing that seemed to happen repeatedly in those stories. A character, for whatever reason, had secrets that could be damaging to them. And they kept those secrets, until eventually someone spilled the secrets for them, with results that were usually disastrous.

            I was not going to be that person. I was not going to be, as I saw it, Too Stupid to Be Allowed to Live.

            I told them everything, and I didn't really care that it took three days to do it in.

            If I had no secrets, they could not be used against me. If I told no lies, I could not get in trouble by someone finding out the truth.

            Afterward, I took a seat on one of the chairs down in the lobby and rubbed my eyes. It was almost seven in the evening and I was exhausted. The agent manning the front desk kept sneaking peeks over at me, and I wondered if he thought I was going to do a trick. It had been emotionally draining to give what was essentially a complete recap of every moment of my life since the Battle of New York, and a lot of ugly incidents had been dredged up. The only thing I was really proud of is that I hadn't been the one initiating those incidents; mostly, I had been on the receiving end of them.

            The elevator doors opened and Steve came out, making a beeline for where I sat. I looked up as he came to a stop in front of my chair.

            "Here," he said.

            I took the item he handed me -- an official registration card, with my code name and photo and a registration number on it, along with the necessary S.H.I.E.L.D. information. My real name was not on it.

            I tucked it into my purse and got to my feet. "Thanks," I said tiredly.

            He wrapped his arms around me in a quiet, gentle hug and bent to whisper in my ear. "You had everything against you from the moment you were born, and no matter how bad things got, you still managed to survive. Without hurting anyone. Beth, I..."

            "Shush," I murmured. "I did what I had to."

            "No." He pressed the palms of his hands to the sides of my face, tilting my eyes up to his. "Stop that. You do that all the time and I hate it."

            "Do what?"

            "Belittle yourself. Diminish what you've done. Make light of what you've been through."

            "Steve, nothing I've done has been very noble."

            "Would you say the same about all I've done?" he asked.

            I blinked. "What? No! You're about as noble as it gets. You're a decent, principled human being. You've served this country for years. You've saved too many lives to count."

            "And so have you," he said.

            "123," I said automatically.

            "I don't understand," he said.

            "Mine are countable. So far. You've been at it a bit longer." I grinned.

            He shook his head. "There you go again," he sighed.

            "I don't think I've earned the right to feel good about myself just yet," I said. "I'm sorry."

            "We'll work on it," he said, pulling me close and planting a kiss against my brow. Out of the corner of one eye, I could see the agent behind the desk trying not to watch at the same time he so clearly wanted to watch.

            "Dinner?"

            "What did you have in mind?" he asked.

            "I dunno, I'm just starving."

            "Pizza?"

            "Works for me." I pulled my coat on. Today, we had come in his car, and together, we headed down in the elevator to the underground parking garage. "Nothing from my father?"

            "No, I'm afraid not. We can go over there after we eat, if you want," he said, unlocking the dark blue Lincoln and shutting off the car alarm. I climbed in on the passenger side, locked the door, and fastened my seatbelt.

            "Yeah, I think so," I said. "If he hasn't called by now, he likely isn't there, but maybe his friend will know more."

            Instead of heading over to Famous Joe's, we picked out a sit-down pizza place and went inside. We ordered pizza and breadsticks and sodas, and completely ignored the basketball game that was playing on most of the TVs.

            "You know, the members of the Avengers that you've met were all part of the first team," Steve said quietly after they brought the breadsticks.

            I arched the brow. "Hmmm. I've read plenty about that ugly business with the robot--"

            "Ultron," he said with a nod.

            "--but a lot of your smaller missions don't get as much newsprint."

            "A lot of our smaller missions aren't as destructive," he said, a hint of bitterness in his tone. "Between the Hulk's rampage in Wakanda and the destruction of a good chunk of the capital of Sokovia, it's no wonder that it monopolized the news for months after that." He looked up. "But the raid we made on Doom's castle where you and I first met was one of the last missions we had before the Ultron affair."

            I smiled a little. "'Where we met'? Is that what we'll be celebrating if we're together long enough to start having anniversaries?" I teased.

            He laughed. "Maybe. Although I kinda like the one in the park better." He reached out to take my hands in his. "But what I was getting at was that there's a whole group of Avengers that you've never met."

            "Is that important?" I asked. "I mean, sure, I don't mind meeting them, but since you guys aren't surveilling me any longer -- much less hunting me down -- I kinda don't see the point."

            He chuckled. "There's a point," he said, giving one of my hands a squeeze. "Beth, I'm asking you to join the team."

            I nearly knocked over my drink. "But..." I said, my voice small.

            "Beth," he sighed. "You're intelligent and gifted. You've got a particular power set that would fill some fairly sizeable holes in our team's abilities. You said you'd read about the Ultron mess." I nodded. "Have you heard about the Scarlet Witch?"

            "Ummm...Sokovian, right?"

            "Right. Her abilities are mostly psionic: telekinesis, telepathy...she can cause nightmares. Some energy manipulation."

            "Interesting. And she has a twin brother, right? Quicksilver?" I asked.

            "Had," he clarified, very quietly. "He was killed during the final battle with Ultron."

            "Oh." I thought about it; I'd never had a sibling. I couldn't imagine how horrifying, how painful it would be to lose a brother or sister. And a twin, no less -- someone you'd been with since birth, someone who presumably knew you better than anyone else on earth.

            "Do you see? You downplay what you can do, and I know you have a pretty wide range of powers through your magic, but by your own admission, what you do best is heal people. We might not have lost him if you'd been with us then." He looked me squarely in the eyes. "I don't want to lose any more members of my team. Not to mention all the innocent bystanders who were hurt that day. Modern medicine, as far as it's come, can still only do so much. But I've seen you cure cancer, heal bullet wounds that should have been fatal."

            "I see." I was still thinking about Quicksilver. "Let me think about it for a day or so? It would involve some changes...and I need to talk to my father about it. I have no idea how that might impact the training he wants to do with me."

            "Fair enough," he said, although I could tell he was disappointed I hadn't immediately agreed.

            "What happened to him?"

            "To your father?"

            "To Quicksilver...well, to his body. I suppose he was buried?"

            He made a face. "Well...no. Wanda asked us to preserve his body. Just on the off chance Stark might someday come up with some gizmo that can bring him back. Unlikely, I know, but..."

            I nodded. "I'd like to see it," I said.

            He looked at me blankly as the server brought our pizza, and waited until the waitress had gone before speaking. "Why?"

            "I want to see how bad his wounds are. You say I might have been able to save him if I'd been with you. I want to see if that's true. Some wounds are instantly fatal."

            "Well...Hawkeye was there when he was shot, and he says that Pietro actually spoke before he collapsed. So I don't think it was instantly fatal."

            I took a slice of pizza. "Hmmm. You're probably right, then. If it wasn't a head shot that instantly destroyed the majority of the brain, I probably would have been able to save him."

            We ate in quiet after that.

 


 

 

            Steve parked the car across the street from the huge manor on Bleecker Street that looked like a dilapidated warehouse to uninitiated eyes. I climbed out of the car slowly, turning to look at the building. There was a fence around it, but it wasn't there to keep out the riff-raff;  it didn't need one for that.

            We crossed the street and stopped in front of the door, which opened as I lifted my hand to knock. An Asian man -- Chinese or possibly Tibetan, I thought -- stood there in traditional clothes, a faint smile on his face. He appeared to be in his early thirties, with kind eyes and a shaved hand.

            "You would be Miss Clark?" he said.

            "That's...one of the names I use, yes," I replied.

            "I am Wong, the Doctor's companion." He smiled. "I have been instructed to admit you after you perform a small task."

            "Oh?"

            He held out one hand. In it was a bronze amulet, a green gemstone gleaming from within like a rounded, unfaceted emerald. "Would you be so good as to take this for a moment?"

            I glanced at Steve, who shrugged, then turned back to Wong. "Of course," I said, and obediently scooped the amulet out of the palm of his hand with my fingers. It was cool against my skin, and as I watched, Wong seemed to ripple like water when a stone has been dropped into a pool.

            Then he vanished.

            "What?" I blurted. "Where'd he go?"

            "I'll take that," came a familiar voice. I looked up and Strange was coming down the hall, his expression perfectly neutral.

            I looked down at the pendant in my hand. It seemed almost to tingle for a moment, and I had the briefest urge to turn and run -- whatever it took to keep it.

            Then I took a deep breath and handed it to my father.

            The smile that broke out across his face was radiant, full of both pride and love. He made the amulet vanish and stepped forward, gathering me into his arms. "My child. I am so very glad to see you again."

            "I was worried. We hadn't heard from you in so long--"

            "I have...a tendency to take myself away from the world when a dire problem requires my attention. Hearing that you had died...was a dire problem. However, I was able to ascertain rather quickly that it..." he paused. "Resolved itself." His eyes went distant for a moment, then cleared. "As did, I now see, your other difficulty."

            "The oaths?" I asked. He nodded. "Yes. Oaths become null and void when one of the oath-takers die."

            He winced, a little, and let me go. I felt magical energies stir around me, swirling like a slow maelstrom, dipping to touch me for the briefest second, then retreating. I could tell by their resonance that they were not meant to harm, nor in any way restrain me or my gifts, so I gave him a questioning look.

            "The manor is attuned to you now. The wards on the building and all its defenses will give you no problems, save in the single vault I keep where the most dangerous artifacts are kept locked away. Those, I think, are too powerful and complex for you to deal with at this time, although I expect you to grow strong enough to deal with them if you must...in the future."

            "So, uh, Doctor," Steve said. "You said you wanted to train her yourself."

            "Yes, and I will begin tomorrow," Strange said. "It is enough that you have come here tonight so I could take this important step. But I know you are both very tired after the long day, and the process of her registration...not to mention the continuous conflict over the last several weeks." He put a gentle hand on my shoulder and steered me toward Steve. "Bright as my daughter is, everyone learns better on a good night's rest. Beth, I will expect you here in the morning. Nine A.M. I do not tolerate lateness."

            "Not even if I get caught up in saving someone?" I asked mildly.

            "Saving lives and helping others is the only excuse I will accept," he said. "Now...go get some sleep."

            I fought to stifle a yawn and nodded. "Thank you...father."

            He beamed and we left.

            My worry about what had happened to him had been keeping me awake and alert. Now that I knew he was home and unharmed, weariness was catching up to me quickly. I climbed into the car and buckled my seatbelt with clumsy fingers, no longer bothering to try to hide my yawns.

            I fell asleep long before we got home.

 


 

 

            I woke slowly, cradled in warmth. The blankets were wrapped round me, like a cocoon. As I gradually surfaced from the depths of sleep, I became aware of something heavy and warm draped over my torso, laying along my hip, and something behind me. I cracked one eye open and realized that Steve was spooned up behind me, one arm curled over my waist, his hand cupped along the curve of my hip.

            I felt him twitch awake, no doubt roused by my own waking, years of battle instincts bringing him to full alertness when the situation changed. I yawned. "What a lovely way to wake up," I murmured sleepily.

            "Yeah," he said, his voice husky and a little rough. "I have to agree with that."

            I rolled over to face him, snuggling into the safety of his arms, bringing one hand up to rest it gently against his chest. "We should definitely do this more often," I said.

            "I wouldn't mind that at all." His arm came up, pulling me closer, and I felt his hardness nudge my thigh. A shiver of hormonal fire rolled through me and I groaned, admiring the rolling sweep of muscles in his arms and shoulders. His teeth closed gently over my bottom lip, tugging on it a little before releasing it to nip lightly at my tongue. I moaned, and he bent lower, his tongue tracing a scorching path from the base of my jaw down to the hollow pit at the center of my throat. "Or this."

            He reached down with one hand to slide up the hem of the shirt I'd been wearing last night, lifting it up and slipping one hand underneath the pale fabric. He brushed a thumb over the crest of my left nipple, stiffened to a tiny peak under my bra, and I squeezed my eyes shut, groaning.

            There was nothing grounded left inside my head, only my need for him and the fire burning hotly through my body. He slid his hands up under the shirt and pushed it up over my shoulders. I shivered as he tossed it to the floor. He wasn't wearing much himself -- just his boxers, currently showing considerable strain given his own state of arousal. His eyes caught mine and his hands stilled on the clasp of my bra.

            "Are you sure about this?" he asked raggedly, his voice thick with emotion. "I want this, Beth, but...if you're not ready..."

            "That...may be the silliest thing I've heard you say since I met you," I muttered, reaching down to jam my thumbs into the waistband of the skirt I wore and shimmy it off over my hips. "Where did you get that insane idea?"

            He smiled, then, and there was both fierce heat and a softer, gentler emotion in his eyes as he unclasped the bra and pulled it off me. I slid my fingers down across the muscular planes of his chest, finding it hard to resist the urge to dig in my claws like a cat might, just to feel him shudder.  I arched against him once more, plastering my body against his, and covered his mouth with my own. I nibbled at his lips, my tongue darting out to taste him, and his lips parted to meet my tongue with his. I felt the muscles of his back slide and ripple under my spread fingers, his heart pounding fiercely within the cage of his chest as he reached up with one hand, threading his fingers through my hair. He groaned and I ran one hand down to the small of his back, feeling the vibrant thrum of muscle and flesh each time he moved. My hand dropped even lower, cupping his buttocks, pulling his hips closer against mine. I felt him tremble, the feeling like an earthquake going through him, and a harsh, wordless sound escaped his lips.

            “Last chance,” he grated. “Tell me to stop, and I will.” It was clearly difficult for him to say the words, and I shook my head, suddenly impatient with the delays. I reached down, tugging at the waistband of his boxers, pulling them off over his hips, and then planted a hand against his chest, rolling him over until he was flat on his back, looking a little startled at my sudden boldness.

            "I've wanted to be with you for a long time now," I murmured, slinging a leg over his waist and straddling him above his hips. I bent forward to rain small kisses against his chest, up to his throat, and with each one, I felt his manhood twitch where it pressed against the curve of my ass. The room smelled of musk and sweat, and I was glad he'd thought to shut the bedroom door last night when he'd carried me up the stairs, or the cats would have been in bed with us, investigating. "I love you, Steve. And I want this. I want you." I straightened up a little to look into his eyes. "I want you inside me."

            He blushed, but his hands came up to cup my breasts, their warmth filling his hands. I arched at his touch and inhaled sharply, shivering as he palmed their softness, then lifted his head to take one nipple into his mouth. I couldn't keep from crying out, fire running through me hot enough to burn the city down.

            "Beth," he said, very softly, "you know this is going to hurt..."

            "My adoptive father was a doctor. I read all his medical books. And I have access to the internet. Of course I know that." I smiled down at him, smiling devilishly. "To be with you? Completely worth it."

            His hands caught me at the waist, lifting me up, and then brought me down atop him. The brief stab of pain dissolved in a bright streak of desire, and I moaned, planting my hands atop his chest as he guided me back and forth, up and down, his own face contorting with ecstasy. With each stroke, the blaze of rapture inside me swirled higher, more intense, more frenetic, everything in me racing toward a blissful goal.

            Steve slowed, and before I knew what was happening, he had rolled us over and was now kneeling, dragging my hips up in his hands and pulling my legs over his shoulders. I gasped at the new angle, but instead of the frenzied rush of before, his strokes becoming more languid, more teasing, deeper. He slid one arm up and around my shoulders, pulling me closer, clearly finding it no difficulty to lift my slight weight and hold it suspended indefinitely as we moved together. I was shuddering now, caught in an earthquake of self and partner, no inch of my body left untouched by the rising tide of ecstasy that bound us together. I could hear his breathing quicken, felt my heartbeat thundering in my chest.

            The fire that tied us together left me feeling a greater rapture than Loki, with his teasing caresses and his barely-veiled loathing of mortal flesh, had ever managed to accomplish.

            We erupted together in hoarse cries and physical spasms that left us welded together, bedewed with sweat, gleaming, eyes locked in ecstasy and love, and at that moment, if I'd died of it, I would have been happy with this final experience.

            We collapsed back onto the bed tangled in each other's arms, panting, laughing, kissing, cradled together, and I never, ever wanted to let him go. "I love you, Beth," he murmured into my ear, pressing kisses against the side of my face, my throat, my jawline, my hair. My entire body ached, but it was the ache of perfect bliss, the physical understanding that nothing I'd ever experienced in my life had ever before been that wonderful.

            I reached down and caught one of his hands in mine, twining my fingers into his. "I love you, Steve. And, oh god, please tell me we can do this again tonight after I return from my father's teaching."

            He grinned. His hair was slicked back, damp with perspiration, the pupils of his eyes dilated in rapture. "Oh, yes. Count on it, sweetheart."

            I purred and wiggled against him, even now wanting more.

            And, of course, the alarm clock chose that moment to go off. Seven o'clock. Two hours to get up, shower, dress, eat breakfast, and get over to Strange's manor for the beginning of my teaching. I sighed.

            "Tonight is a promise," he said, and drew me closer, kissing me lightly on the lips. "Go on, get up. Go shower. I'll change the sheets."

            I looked down. I very much doubted the blood would wash out in the laundry. Time to buy more sheets.

            I rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom.

Chapter Text

            I got there on time.

            And spent the next five days showing my father every spell I had learned -- demonstrating by casting them. I was exhausted at the end of every day. The first day started with all the healing spells; by this time, I knew more than fifty of them: spells for broken bones, for disease, for blindness, for regrowing organs and limbs, for taking away pain, for banishing internal parasites like tapeworms, and for putting the dying into stasis. I showed him the spell Loki had used on me; it turned out to be an Asgardian spell that Strange himself could not cast, since the power variances could apparently not be manipulated by someone of wholly human ancestry.

            At the end of each day, I went home, took a long hot shower, and had dinner. I was usually tense after demonstrating my grasp of magics all day for my father. That was when I learned that Steve gave marvelous back rubs.

            "So he gave you the weekend off?" Steve asked, sounding dubious.

            "Not so much gave it to me off as 'had some things to attend to', he said," I replied, leaning back against his knees as his powerful hands gently kneaded the day's stress out of my shoulders. "I'm supposed to come back Monday morning. And I'm sorry, but he didn't change his mind about the three-month waiting period before I can join the team. He wouldn't budge on that. He said, quote, 'Given the caliber of opponents the Avengers usually face, I would be remiss in allowing my daughter to join the group immediately, before we have a good grasp on the full, current scope of her abilities,' end quote. But he did say we could work out some sort of communications set-up where, if there was an emergency while the team was on a job and needed immediate healing to save lives -- theirs, or others -- then I could teleport in, handle that, and get out again."

            "Well, I guess that's something," he said, slightly mollified.

            "He also said that he thought it'd be a good idea if I got more training in hand-to-hand combat from you and the Widow," I added. "Between him and Wong, they know something like twenty different martial arts styles, and he's going to train me in at least some of that, but he thought it'd be good if I had a wide variety of different types of fighting skills."

            He jerked back a little in his chair. "I can't teach you that, Beth," he said, sounding startled.

            "Why not?" I asked, confused.

            "What if I hurt you?"

            "Uhh...then I heal myself?" I replied, frowning. "Why is this a problem?"

            "I would never be able to forgive myself if I hurt you during sparring," he said softly.

            I sighed. "And would you be able to forgive yourself if I got hurt -- or killed -- in a fight because I didn't know some dodge or blow or kick that you could have taught me that might have saved my ass?"

            I felt him flinch. "Beth--"

            "I love you, Steve. But don't baby me. If you want me to join the Avengers -- and I can see now that might be a good idea, when my father finally approves -- you have to treat me like everyone else on the team. You can't hold back because we're in a relationship."

            His sigh echoed mine. "I...I know," he said. "But I don’t think I could live with myself if I got you hurt.”

            This was starting to get annoying. “Steve…I very much doubt you could hurt me worse than, say, Loki did. He beat me almost to death on multiple occasions.” I paused. “I mean, your own best argument for training me so I can be a member of the team is that a team member died already.” He scowled. “I’m still going to ask Nat to train me.” His expression took on a tinge of embarrassment and I shook my head. “You know, if she heard you hemming and hawing over this, she’d kick your ass.”

            “Don’t read my mind!” he snapped. I’d scored a hit, then.

            “I didn’t read your mind,” I said softly. “I read your face. Don’t play poker, Steve… you’d suck at it.” I wondered, a little sadly, if this counted as our first fight. “I love you. I do. But we have to be equals in this or it won’t work. I acknowledge you have many more years of experience with this than I do. But I know what I’m capable of…and I’m not a child that needs protecting.”

            He got up abruptly, stepping over me, and I frowned, getting to my feet. I watched his face, and watched what he was thinking as his features shifted and his expressions roiled. Fear, frustration, anger, worry…I could hardly blame him. He was a man of his time, a gentleman, and being a man of his time meant taking care of a lady. Part of it was the simple fact that he’d never seen me in a battle; oh, he’d seen the aftermath when HYDRA had attacked, and at the restaurant, but in both those cases, most of what I’d done had been healing work. I was capable of taking care of myself…but he couldn’t see that, because he had never seen it.

            And there was no way I could really show him. I couldn’t take him with me everywhere on the off chance of running into a villain and defeating him. I certainly couldn’t start a fight to do so.

            I was feeling a bit frustrated myself. “Okay, I’m going out. I need to think and clear my head.”

            He looked over at me, his expression conflicted. “I’ll go with you.”

            I chuckled, very softly, but not nastily. “Steve…this argument is the reason I need to clear my head. Taking you with me would be counterproductive.” I grabbed my coat and headed for the door, stopping before I opened it. “I love you.”

            And then I headed outside.

            Once I got out of the building, I went around to the back yard. It was dark out, and in the dark, I went intangible and invisible before soaring up into the air. I couldn’t feel the chill while intangible, but it had been crisp and clear in the seconds before I cast the spells. The clouds from earlier had cleared away, and the moon was huge, waning from being full just a couple of days earlier.

            I went south, down to the tip of Manhattan and following it back up along the eastern shore. It was not yet midnight and there were still plenty of people on the streets as I looked for trouble. But the cold was keeping people quiescent – as quiescent as New Yorkers ever got, anyway – and I was almost ready to turn and go home when I heard the sound.

            It was some sort of song, numerous voices that were high-pitched and ululating, in tones that spoke of distress and sorrow. There were no words to it, but it was loud enough to carry for at least a mile. I put on a burst of speed, following it to a distant beach.

            And there I found half a dozen whales had beached themselves.

            I touched down on the sand, making myself visible and solid once more, almost overwhelmed by the grieving, lonely wailing sounds the cetaceans made. None of them seemed hurt, but they were far enough up the shore that they could not easily return to the water.

            I cast the spell that let me speak to animals and listened. They sang of poison in the waters in which they lived, poison that accumulated in their massive bodies, corrupted their tissues, shut down their organs, and of coming to the land to die, so at least the humans they called brethren would be warned of the poisons, could see their distress, and would know not to go into those toxic waters themselves.

            There were tears streaming down my face and slowly freezing by the time I went to act. The whales didn’t know, of course, that humans were the source of all the pollution dumped into the seas – but I did. A great cold rage gripped my heart. I could heal them, but what good would that do, when the seas I returned them to would be just as poisonous when they first dragged themselves out of it?

            I was capable, by manipulating the elements, of cleansing the earth, or water, or air…within reason.

            But the oceans were so very vast

            Even so, I had to try. If I could clean even a portion of these waters, it would give them a safe place to wait once I'd healed them. Everything else could go from there.

            I took flight again, casting the spells that let me manipulate the elements. The first thing I did was to reach out to shape the earth under the waters, building a wall that stretched in a long, curving arc to hem in a section of the water here. I drew from the energies within me, reaching deep as the sands rose two feet, five feet, ten feet high, twenty, then crystallized into solid stone.

            There was sweat on my face, slowly freezing into beads of ice on my brow as I switched elements. The water here was less filthy than it was in other areas around New York, but I still wouldn’t want to drink it. The whales lived in it. So I created a field of force to act as a filter, weaving it horizontally along the seabed within the enclosed area, then lifting it up an inch at a time, filtering out the impurities, the pollution, the broken glass bottles, the beer cans, the old tires, the leaking barrels of toxic waste, the junker cars, all the detritus that littered the sea floor below.

            When the energy ‘net’ skimmed the surface of the water, I lifted it higher, higher, and higher still, and only when it was a good five hundred yards up did I let loose with a blaze of heat almost as hot as the sun to turn the whole mess to free-floating atoms that endangered nothing.

            I was exhausted already as I touched back down on the beach, but my work wasn’t done. Doggedly, dully, I moved from whale to whale, casting the Asgardian healing spell I had learned from Loki – but changing it with the first word to pass my lips. Instead of using the words he had used, I sang it in the tongue of the whales, touching each of them gently, feeling the poisons drain out of their great bodies.

            My energies were flagging horrifically as I neared the end. There was no ley line nearby to draw on, no clean earth energies I could draw from to complete the work – but the work had to be completed. I had pushed myself this far; surely I could find within myself just a little bit more. Just enough to finish.

            I healed the last of the whales, listening to their renewed and now-hopeful cries as they thrashed, still stranded on the beach. I cast the spell of telekinesis, distantly trying to judge how much each beast weighed. I recognized them from the encyclopedias I had read as a child as finback whales, the second largest creatures on earth, smaller only than the great blue whales. They ranged in length from 80 to 90 feet, and each had to weigh at least seventy tons.

            It was the last step. I couldn’t let these innocent, beautiful, trusting creatures die because I didn’t have enough left to give. With a massive effort of will, I reached out with my mind to ‘pick up’ the first of them, shaping mental hands from the telekinetic energy and slowly, agonizingly, carefully lifting it just a bare few feet up off the sands of the beach and carrying it as quickly as I could to the deepest part of the enclosure.

            I followed with the second and the third before pain began to tear in jagged spurts through my brain. I felt a pattering of wet warmth slide down from my nose to my top lip, and licked at it; the salty, coppery taste of blood met my tastebuds. With a grimace, I picked up the fourth whale, my mental grip none too steady as I guided it over the waters to where the first three were waiting.

            The agony in my head surged like a wave and drove me to my knees as I let it go, then reached out for the fifth. My eyeballs were throbbing, and the ache in my dry throat was relieved only by the now-steady stream of blood dripping from my nose as I moved the fifth one. My grip slipped as I carried it the last ten feet and dropped it, ungracefully but safely, into the water.

            There was only one whale left, but it was the largest, a huge old mother with eyes like liquid night. I felt my body screaming at me for rest, for healing, and sent out a silent, yearning prayer to anything that would listen, for the last scraps of energy I needed -- and the will to last long enough to finish this -- as I wrapped the telekinetic hands around it and lifted it with a harsh scream. I could barely keep it a foot off the ground as I moved it, a foot at a time, afraid to drop it or throw it, afraid to hurt it. The weight drove me down onto my belly and chest as I managed the last twenty feet, my face in the cold sand, one hand extended to guide it. I was no longer even able to see the whale, only going through the motions as I let it slide from my grasp into the ocean.

            As if my prayer had been answered, but far too late to help, a sudden massive surge of power bloomed in my brain and collided with the spells I had cast, reaching out to tangle and meld with my will, my desires to heal and clean, and that energy from an unknown source poured out of me, paired with the elemental control spell, and burned the poisons out of the ocean for five hundred square miles of ocean surrounding the beach.

            I heard a demanding shout and a splash of water from somewhere near, no longer able to keep my head up, and felt strong hands on my shoulders as I passed out.

 

—O—

 

            There was a wildfire raging in my brain.

            I tossed and turned, nearly blind from the inferno roaring through my mind, shuddering with the awful incendiary heat and the ravaging pain. Somewhere, far off, I could hear a deep, calm voice speaking soothing words, and felt a cool, wet compress pass over my brow. My body quaked at the clash of heat and cold, pain and balm, the opposing energies and sensations setting up dangerous riptides and anarchic currents within mind and body that threatened to tear me apart. On some level, I could tell that pushing myself as I’d done to save the whales had done serious physical damage to the tissues of my brain, but that knowledge was on a deep, subconscious level that I could not recognize in words, not even while unconscious.

            “—fever still far too high—“ I heard a snippet of worried-sounding conversation, a man’s voice, both pleasant and deep. It wasn’t Steve’s voice, or that of anyone I knew. “—no idea how it hasn’t killed her yet—“

            I shuddered in my distant rest, some part of me reaching out without magic or hope to the creatures I had helped, trying to borrow a small part of the cool wetness they lived in to soothe my fevered brow. It made no sense. I was part Faltinian, and fire never burned me. The heat raging through me should have made me as comfortable as a rabbit in its burrow, but instead the fire scorched me as much as it might an ant under a magnifying glass.

            I screamed—

            —and woke.

            The man staring down at me was raven-haired, his dark locks sleeked back from a widow’s-peak at his brow, with ivory skin and ocean-blue eyes. He was naked from the waist up, and his shoulders and chest and back and arms rippled with a musculature as impressive as Steve’s. The expression on the man’s face was a mixture of worry and impatience, and I had time to realize he held a wet washcloth in one hand before I jerked back and away from him.

           The sudden movement was enough to start those quakes of agony through my brain again, and I whimpered in pain, biting my tongue to keep from screaming a second time. He caught my wrists and held me still long enough for the seething fire in my cerebellum to dim.

            "Quiet yourself," he instructed, his tone soft for all that I sensed he usually spoke in a much more imperious voice. Those dark, angular brows were drawn down in a frown, and I gritted my teeth, letting my head droop, closing my eyes to shut away the light. Much like with a migraine, as I imposed darkness and silence on myself, the pain faded, if only a bit.

            But a bit was enough.

            I pulled my hands out of his grasp; he didn't resist, and I let my fingers twitch just enough to activate a hanging spell, one of the stronger healing charms I knew. I let out a pained groan as the energies were expended and the torn places in my brain began to mend; for all the energies I had spent in healing the whales, I was full to the brim with more - more mystical energies than I had ever before been able to muster.

            And I didn't know where it was coming from, or how I could contain it.

            Well, the latter was only partially correct. New 'places' had opened up within me -- or perhaps it was simply that my soul had grown, blossoming to let me do more, hold more, shape more. But the monstrous effort I had demanded of myself, and the tidal wave of energy that had surged into me, had forced that blossoming in a way that should properly have taken years. I had no way to tell what repercussions there might be from this change, or how long those effects, if there were any, might last.

            But it was too late to do anything about that. For now, I could only let the seconds tick away as blood clots thick as peanut butter broke down and were swept away by the blood vessels in my brain; synapses that had been torn asunder re-wove themselves; the swollen membrane between skull and brain itself thinned and cooled.

            And at last, I opened my eyes.

            I could stand to look at the man who had been tending me, now -- now that the pain had faded to a whisper, now that the fever racking my flesh had dwindled to nothing more than a caress. I let out a deep breath and studied him for a moment, spotting details I hadn't been able to take in before -- the pointed tips of his ears, the small wings at his ankles.

            I knew who he was. Doom's records had been very thorough -- and he had been both ally and foe to Doom for years.

            "I greet you, Prince Namor, and thank you for the assistance you have rendered me," I said, giving him as much of a bow as was possible from half-sitting up in bed. "I do not esteem such aid lightly, and I hereby give you my vow to return it in kind, where and when I may do so, at such time as you deem my humble gifts might be of service to you."

            It wasn't a magical oath, merely a promise, rendered in very formal manners — befitting the King of Atlantis.

            He arched one of those beautiful brows. "You have the advantage of me," he said cautiously, his tone neither grateful nor cold.

            "I am Bethany Strange," I answered.

            "Strange?" he inquired, tilting his head.

            "Daughter to Stephen Strange," I answered, since an answer was certainly what he was seeking.

            "Ah," he said flatly, a thoughtful look in his eyes. "You have...rather better manners than most surface-folk."

            "I give to those I meet the respect I deem they are deserved," I told him formally. "You are a King; that is not a thing to be taken lightly."

            He nodded, as if accepting that as no more than his due. "And you are the one that healed the whales I was told were beached? That cleansed the ocean for no small distance around where you found them, and returned them to the water?"

            "Yes," I told him. "I regret that I couldn't do more for them — or for the ocean. Cleansing as much of it as I did nearly killed me."

            "And yet you did more than millions of others have ever cared to bother," he said, and now his tone had gone...almost gentle. It did not match what I had heard of this man: arrogant, haughty, cold. But the ocean was his home, and it could not possibly sit well that surface-dwellers used it for a garbage dump.

            "I'm a healer," I said simply. "Oh, I know more magic than that, but mending the hurts of those in need is what calls to my soul. The whales were hurting, and that I could fix...but what would be the point, if I just put them back into the same pool of poisons that had left them near death in the first place?"

            "And they tell me that you sang to them in their own language," he said, his tone going even softer, his head dipping forward.

            "There are very simple spells to learn the languages of man; the speech of nonhuman creatures is more complex...and more simple, in some ways...and more beautiful. It has no words for greed, or politics, or hatred," I explained. "It is a contemptuous fool who seeks to talk to others in a language they cannot understand...and thinks that if he only shouts louder, the ones he speaks to will finally understand."

            "I could wish more — many more — surface dwellers understood so clearly as you, Bethany," he murmured, his voice flowing like the water in which he made his home. He reached out with one hand, fingers stretching, almost touching the side of my face, and then he went still. "The dolphins brought me word of their cousins' beaching. I came here to rescue them, and you have made that quite unnecessary...although they will not be content to stay in the pen you built for them."

            "It was never my intent to imprison them, of course," I explained. "But I cleansed the water in the pen, as you call it, so that once I had healed them, they would have clean water to rest in and regain their strength. My last burst of strength allowed me to cleanse the waters rather further than I had thought myself capable—" I paused, the precision of the language I was requiring myself to use with the Atlantean calling something to mind. How, exactly, had I cleansed those waters? With the smaller area, I had extracted the toxins, extracted the garbage, and destroyed it. But that last blast of energy, that energy that had come from outside of me...it had taken another path, transmuting the poisons and trash in the water into...clean water. Perfect transmutation at an atomic level.

            I was not capable of such a thing. I had never learned transmutation spellwork of that complexity...and to change such a vast amount of matter would require an amount of energy so far beyond what I could hold — much less control — that it was staggering.

            What was going on?

            "Yes?" he asked.

            "—as I said, rather further than I had thought myself capable...but by now, since that area was outside the pen, certainly the ocean currents will have mingled the waters I cleansed with the tainted waters from beyond," I finished.

            "That process has begun," he allowed, "but at the border where the two waters meet, the diffusion is slow, and nowhere near complete."

            "Hmmm..." I frowned. "It's a pity I can't see it. It might be possible to adapt the spell I used to make the cleansing effect spread."

            "Oh?" he asked, his voice gone very neutral.

            "There are laws in magic — or, well, principles. The Principle of Contagion states that two things that have been connected, or touched, in the past are still connected at a spiritual level. The cleansed waters touch the dirty ones. You've seen a demonstration in your home waters; a scared octopus releases a flood of ink in order to escape, and the ink spreads out, darkening the waters but at the same time, thinning, until it is finally so diluted, the difference can't be told between the water with ink in it, and the water without ink." My excitement was getting the better of me. "Now think of that in reverse...the water I cleansed, spreading out, and everywhere that it touches the polluted water, it cleanses it."

            "You could do that?" he asked urgently.

            "Maybe. The oceans are vast — well, I don't need to tell you that. It'd probably take years, and I'd have to continuously replenish the energies of the spell. And I'd have to be at a place where the clean waters meet the tainted ones, to modify the original spell."

            He stood and paced, back and forth, sudden need limning every muscle with tension. I looked around the room for the first time, curious about where he had brought me. The room was palatial -- a marble floor, silk hangings on the walls. The bed I half-sat in was wide enough to hold a football team, and the sheets that I lay on were soft as gossamer. I tried to remember whether Atlantis still kept an embassy in New York City. Or was this a private home of his, or some very luxurious hotel?

            "I can take you to the nearest area where the clean waters and the filthy ones mingle," he said, a faint smile on his face. "We Atlanteans produce a serum that will allow surface dwellers to breathe water for brief periods of time."

            "I appreciate the offer," I told him. "But it won't be necessary. I know enough transformation magic to give myself gills."

            His smile deepened. "You are full of surprises," he said. "I am impressed...and pleased."

            I lifted the sheet long enough to peek under it. Someone had changed me out of my winter clothes and put me into something that looked like a Grecian gown. More silk. I wondered if he had servants to do it, or if he'd changed my clothes himself.

            I tried not to wonder if I'd mind very much if I found out he'd done it himself. It was hard not to notice how attractive he was.

            "How far are we from the shore, then?" I asked.

            "A few paltry miles," he answered. I watched as he stepped to the nearest window and opened it. A chill January breeze sliced through the warmer air of the room. "If you are ready, then?"

            I pushed the sheets back and got to my feet. I felt steady enough, fully energized, my wounds completely healed. It took less than a second to bend my fingers into the appropriate shape and speak the syllables that triggered a hanging spell of transformation. It was too soon to exchange my lungs for gills, but I altered my physiology in other ways, thickening my skin, adjusting the temperature my body would be comfortable at; the ocean in winter was very cold.

            I nodded. "Yes, I'm ready."

            In answer to my words, he took a step forward and scooped me into his arms as if I weighed no more than a grain of sand, and hurled himself out the window.

Chapter Text

            The sensation of being carried was one I was familiar with, thanks to Steve, but it took on an entirely different dimension when the one doing the carrying was also flying through the air. When he had originally picked me up, I had flung my arms around his neck out of instinct; I felt no fear even though we were easily thirty stories up as he soared toward the beach. After all, I could fly, also; I did not fear falling. Nor was the chill air on my flesh an impediment, thanks to the cantrip I had enacted to attune my body's temperature to the chill.

            "I have known your father for some time now," Namor said as he flew. "He has never said he had a daughter."

            "Until very recently, he didn't know," I told him. "Would you care to hear the story?"

            "I would," he said, a faint smile on his face.

            "Very well, then," I said. "It starts almost twenty-two years ago..." I spun the tale out for him, leaving out almost nothing, but I summarized some of the more repetitious sequences -- the multiple beatings by Loki, for example. The look on his face was grim as we soared out over the ocean and finally dived into the waters.

            I had the transformation spell ready to go, and a curl of my finger was all it took for gills to sprout along the sides of my throat, for fine, pale webbing to grow between my fingers and toes. He released me and I swam alongside of him, following in his wake. To that, I added a spell of clairvoyance; Namor's eyes were no doubt well-adapted to seeing things in the dark waters that I could not, and I had no wish to be blind down here.

            I could sense several huge ley lines transversing the Atlantic, and tapped into one as we swam, pulling energy from it to replace the little bit I had used up on the transformative spells. I took care not to pull too much energy from it, though; this, too, was part of the resources of the ocean, and humans -- surface-dwellers, as Namor put it -- had already stolen far too much from this fragile ecosystem to continue the theft. But I was here by invitation, and I did not think Namor would mind that tiny bit, so long as I took no more; I was here to carry out a task for him, after all.

            "Here," he finally said, coming to a stop. Beds of kelp waved like ghostly green hands below us, and I took in a deep lungful of water. I could taste the differences; clean water met and mingled here with dirty, growing progressively less clean, until finally they were the same. I nodded.

            "I will need some time to adapt the spell," I said. "And I should not be disturbed."

            "You worry about such things as sharks?" he asked politely.

            "Sharks follow their nature. At any normal time, no, I wouldn't worry about them, because such spells as I know can make me intangible to their bites or buffeting tail. But what I was actually thinking of is that which is coming in fast from the southeast." He turned in mid-stroke. "You should be able to see it in about three minutes. It's swimming very fast."

            He scowled. "I see -- and feel -- nothing," he said. "Are you certain--"

            "It's a little more than fifty miles out yet," I said patiently, letting my body go loose in the water. I cast a chain of energy down from my feet to the ocean floor, rooting me where I was, so currents would not sweep me from this spot where clean and tainted water met. It was easier to pick a spot and not be moved on dry land, but the special measures needed were easy enough to take here.

            "Thirty miles," I said. He narrowed his eyes, looking in the direction I had given him. It was not possible yet to see the incoming threat, or feel the change in water pressure against our skin; only the clairvoyance spell gave me that slight advantage over him. "I can't see many details, but it has two heads."

            "By Neptune's Beard!" he snarled. "Tiger Shark!"

            I was vaguely familiar with the superhuman by that name, thanks to Doom's files. An old foe of Namor's, a former Olympic-level swimmer whose DNA had been merged with that of a tiger shark...and of Namor himself. Strong, swift, ferocious, predatory. And Namor had beaten him many times before.

            Having taken up my position, I began to activate hanging spells. The first to go was the shield spell which would rebound any attacks made against me onto the one who did them. The second was a force bubble, as thick as I could make it.

            I could feel the surge in water pressure now, as it got closer. "Ten miles," I told Namor. "I'm about to begin."

            "Do so," he said, having gone focused as a laser. "I will keep him off you."

            I closed my eyes and began. The threads of the cleansing spell were tangible here, visible to my mystic sight, and I reached out with my will to grasp them. Now, not exhausted from prior spellcasting and focusing only on the goal before me, I could feel the strange way the random energy surge had melded with and warped the earlier spells I had cast. It had caught up the filter spell -- the energy net -- and the incendiary spell I had used to burn off the dredged-dross, chaining them together in a way I would not have thought to do. Viewing the results, seeing the resonance and the signature of the spell, I could now recreate it, though it was nothing I had ever been taught.

            But recreating it, alone, would not be enough. What I needed to do was make it into something like a disease; so that where every single molecule of water that had been cleansed touched a molecule of dirty water, it would pass on that cleansing, "infecting" the dirty water like a virus. That was a good deal more complex an adaptation of the spell than the random merging of the spells I'd cast before.

            I heard the first impact of fists against flesh outside my force bubble, but did not open my eyes, staying tethered where I was to the spot. With a deep breath, I began with those threads of the cleansing spell I had caught up with my will, weaving new strands of energy and purpose into them, manipulating the shape of the spell, the goal of the spell, its purpose and need. I worked to modify it so that it would draw energy from every new molecule of water cleansed, to keep the spell going. It would work at a hugely slow pace, of course; the oceans are vast. It might take as much as a hundred years to complete, and that was taking into account the fact that new pollutants were dumped into the seas every day.

            My bubble rocked as I finished up the spell; something hit it, again and again, and I opened my eyes.

            A massive, two-headed man was smashing at my bubble with Namor's unconscious form.

            Well, of course.

            He wore a brown-and-gold uniform splashed with stripes like the tiger shark Namor had called him, and I could see gills opening and closing at the sides of his throat.

            "Got tired of hidin', lady?" it -- he -- sneered through teeth's as sharp-looking and nasty as a shark's. "Time to come out an' join your buddy Namor as fish food." His words and his grimace were clearly meant to terrify me.

            I contemplated my options. The force bubble would hold up to his blows, perhaps indefinitely, but each time he hit it with Namor, Namor would get hurt. Or worse. There was a wide array of options I could choose here, but since 'Fight smarter, not harder' had become my motto of late, I considered them dispassionately and selected the simplest, swiftest, and most efficient.

            "I surrender! I'm coming out! Don't hurt me!" I wailed, giving the one Namor had called Tiger Shark exactly what he wanted -- my fear.

            Not real fear, of course.

            He laughed. "Figures ol' Subby'd pick a chick that'd roll over like a whipped dog at the first fight she got into," he sneered.

            I let the force bubble drop and he hurled Namor's unconscious form away from him and seized me immediately, dragging me closer, his grip all but unbreakable. The mask he wore covered all but the bottom half of his face, and he pulled me in until his face was mere inches away from mine, making mocking kissy sounds. I reached out with my hands, as if trying to push him away; I didn't have the physical strength to repel him, and he grinned as one of my hands pressed ineffectually at his chin. "Come on, darlin', show me why he keeps you around."

            "Of course," I said flatly, and said the final syllable that triggered the hanging transformation spell I had chosen.

            And then I used it to mimic the effects of stripping the aquatic elements of his physiology out of his DNA, watching his teeth change to normal human ones, watching the gills close up for good. I couldn't change his actual DNA -- that kind of manipulation was beyond me -- but I could make alterations to his organ structures that had the same result.

            He screamed, and that meant taking in a huge lungful of water, and I watched his eyes go wide as he started to drown. He flailed at the water, his musculature shrinking to something approaching human norm, his struggles getting weaker and weaker.

            At the last minute, I recast the force bubble, this time around him, and added the filter spell, draining the water from the bubble and replacing it with air. He coughed, gagged, spat out water, and collapsed onto the bubble's floor, the costume he wore wrapped limply about his shrunken limbs.

            I felt the change in water pressure and turned in time to see Namor slicing through the water like a spear toward us, rage and consternation on his face. As he got close enough to see, the rage trickled away, leaving only surprise on his face.

            "You bested him?" he asked, looking stunned.

            "He wasn't expecting me to be able to put up any sort of resistance," I said calmly. "I took away the things that made him a threat. He's just human now."

            "The cleansing spell? Did he disrupt it?" Namor asked.

            "No, I finished it. It'll be slow, as I said -- maybe a couple feet per day. But it's set up to fuel itself, and though it'll take a long time to finish, it will finish." I shrugged, the tether to the force bubble wrapped around my hand. "I try to make good on my promises, Namor."

            "You have, indeed," he said more gently, drifting closer to where I swam in place. "I can smell and taste the subtle changes in the water already." He shook his head. "I find myself delighted to be surprised in such a fashion. The number of times I have found surface dwellers who could be trusted to keep their word have been few and far between."

            I smiled. "Glad to add to that number, then."

            He caught my unencumbered hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the back of it. "As am I."

            It was a gallant gesture, but it was also an uncomfortably intimate one. Namor was known to be a romantic -- married twice, and Doom's records had noted a number of other personal relationships, including an on-again, off-again relationship with Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four. I had no problem admitting to myself that I was attracted to him.

            But I was already involved with someone, and I wasn't about to throw that away for what was something that could best be described as "potential". And a very shaky potential, at that; after all, both his wives were dead, as were most -- if not all -- of his other lady friends.

            So I smiled, and when he tried to pull me a bit closer, I pulled back. "Namor...I am perfectly comfortable in admitting I find you very, very attractive." He smiled, and it was a tantalizing smile, inviting me in for more.

            "I am pleased to hear this," he said.

            "But I am also involved with someone right now...someone I love very much."

            He scowled, those blue eyes going dark with disappointed displeasure. "Such is my luck," he growled. "I hope it is someone worthy of you, at least...lest I be tempted to woo you away from him."

            It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him, mischievously, what made him so certain that it was a man I was with, but I resisted. "Steve Rogers."

            He looked startled, then. "Captain America?"

            I nodded, and he frowned, but the frown was less daunting than the scowl it had replaced.

            "I suppose I cannot fault your taste," he said at last. "The Captain is a good, noble man, and I am proud to have fought alongside him during the War." He reached out, brushed the side of my cheek, curled his fingers into the strands of my hair that floated in the water like black seaweed. "But...should you ever change your mind..."

            This was going to happen, wasn't it?

            He pulled me to him, his mouth descending on mine. His lips plundered mine, his tongue twining with mine, much more demanding and insistent than Steve had ever been. One arm wrapped around me, unyielding as an iron bar; the hand of his other arm had caught in my hair where the base of my skull met the top of my spine, cupping my head as gently as if it were an egg.

            It would have been easy -- so very easy -- to give in to the desire he was rousing in me. He was an excellent kisser, and his embrace was strong and gentle at the same time. His bare legs brushed mine as the water swayed us back and forth with the current. And if I had not met Steve first...I would have enjoyed giving in and being with Namor, for as long as it lasted.

            But I was with Steve. And I was not going to give in.

            Reluctantly -- I could admit to that reluctance -- I pulled away at last. The water-logged silk robe I wore was plastered against me, and I could feel that my nipples had hardened. His gaze took me in -- flushed cheeks, kiss-swollen lips -- and he smiled, looking wistful.

            "No?" he murmured. I shook my head. "Such a pity. If only I had met you first."

            "Yes, well...you didn't. And there's no way to go back in time and change that," I said quietly.

            "No?" he murmured again. He shrugged. "Victor would say different...but I think not. Not for this. Not for a choice made of your own free will. I have never needed to gainsay a woman's choice."

            I could barely hear the latter words, for my ears were still ringing from his first ones. In the middle of the ocean, my mouth had gone dry.

            "Victor?" I asked, feeling my heart stumbling along unevenly.

            "Von Doom," he clarified. "Your mentor." He smiled faintly. "He has a time machine, you know."

            No. No, I had not known that.

            And I wondered if the Avengers did.

            "I should be getting back," I said, a little hollowly. He was instantly solicitous again, the amusement gone from his expression.

            "Have I upset you?" he asked, looking unhappy.

            "Not as such," I clarified. "You're a very good kisser." That returned the amusement to his smile again. "But I don't have a good idea how many hours it's been since I healed the whales, and--"

            "You were unconscious for a day before you came to. I found you there--"

            "A day?!" I blurted, cold shock sinking its talons into me. And it had been at least four or five hours, minimum, since I had woken. Steve was going to be beside himself with worry.

            "I apologize," he said, rather stiffly. "When I found you, you were insensate and unresponsive -- bleeding from the ears and nose and eyes. I found no obvious wounds or broken bones on you, so I judged it safe to move you...but given some of the current social climate considering superhumans, I did not think it a good idea to take you to a hospital. You were clearly a superhuman, given what you had done for the whales; the last part, I saw with my own eyes." He sighed. "And you had neither ID nor a cell phone on you. So I brought you to one of my residences to rest."

            I nodded. "Give me your hand," I said. He extended it at once, and I took it. "Brace yourself."

            "What--" he said, trying to pull back, the sudden wariness in his eyes clearly signaling suspicion of some sort of treachery, but it was too late, as I triggered a hanging teleportation spell.

            We went from that spot in the middle of the ocean to the hallway outside my apartment door on the second floor landing in less time than it took to blink.

            I let go of Namor's hand and knocked on the door as the Atlantean went rigid, trying to get his bearings. "Where are we?" he demanded insistently.

            The door was flung open and Steve was there, eyes wide and then full of relief. He scooped me up in his arms at once and then startled as the water dripping from my robe soaked through the sweater and slacks he wore. "Beth, what--?" he began, and then set eyes on Namor. "Namor! What's going on here?"

            I answered before Namor could; clearly, it would be best if I told the story myself. And yes, I would tell it all, even the kiss. No secrets. No trouble. "So, uh, I went out the other night and...can I at least come into my own damn apartment and get some dry clothes on?"

            "Language," he said. It seemed to pop out automatically, and then he realized what he had said and his face scrunched up. "Sorry. Habit." He stood out of the way, letting us pass.

            I made a beeline for my bedroom, leaving a trail of drips along the floor as I headed through the door and shut it -- rather than slamming it, like I half-wanted to -- behind me. I was frustrated -- at Namor for not telling me I'd been out a day, at Steve for reacting to my return like I'd been up to something, but most of all, at myself, for not realizing that a man like Doom would obviously have built himself a time machine.

            I peeled out of the wet robe and tossed it into the bathroom sink, then turned on the shower. I could feel salt water drying on my skin and in my hair. I let myself rinse off for all of 60 seconds before turning the water back off and climbing out. I toweled dry, pulled on underthings and jeans and a sweater, and made a note to get back from Namor the clothes I had been wearing when I passed out.

            I could hear them shouting at each other as I hurried back toward the living room, knowing if I dawdled, I would likely be breaking up a fight. They stood nose to nose as I entered, fists clenched, glowering at each other.

            "Ahem."

            Steve turned to look first, the anger in his eyes washed away by relief. Namor stood rigid for a split second more, and so it was him I steered toward, taking his fists in my hands.

            "Namor. Thank you for taking care of me after I was hurt. I very much appreciate the concern you showed and the help you gave me," I said. He relaxed a trifle, not trying very hard not to preen at being addressed first. "I am in your debt."

            "On the contrary," he said, straightening to his full height. "Between what you did for the whales and what you did for the ocean, I believe it is I who am in your debt."

            I smiled. We could play this game of manners all day, but I had a goal in my crosshairs now and the exchange of niceties was slowing me down. I rattled off my address. "This is where we are now. Back in Manhattan. When you found me, the clothes I wore--"

            "--were covered in sand, ice, saltwater, and blood," he said.

            I nodded. "When it is convenient for you, would you have them returned?" I asked politely.

            He nodded. "It is the least I can do."

            "I hope you will forgive my barbarous manners," I said, "but the rigors of the last few hours have left me tired. Not so tired as I was after the whales, which is a surprise to me, but tired enough."

            "Then you will wish to rest," he said, getting the hint. "I will take my leave of you for now. I trust it is acceptable to visit in the future, as a friend?"

            "As a friend," I agreed. He bent down and kissed me on the cheek, and I half-rose on tiptoe to let him.

            Then I walked him back to the door, shut it behind him, and waited until I was certain he was gone before turning to face Steve, who looked not a little surprised.

            "What was that?" he asked flatly, as patiently as I could hope.

            "Long story. I only want to have to tell it once...and I expect Fury will want to hear it," I sighed. "Another debriefing session, fabulous."

            "I searched half of Manhattan! I let both Fury and your father know you went missing again!" he blurted.

            "I appreciate that," I said. The look of dismay on his face let me know clearer than any words that I was going to have to tell the story at least twice. Swell. Was he ever going to trust me to be able to take care of myself? Maybe if I made him a ring that let him know when I was hurt or in danger, like the one I'd given him...

            He grasped me by the shoulders lightly, and though I half expected him to shake me in sheer frustration, instead he pulled me into his arms and hugged me tightly. "Here I'm thinking you were captured by HYDRA or something--"

            "Oh, ye of little faith," I muttered.

            "--and instead you come in a day later, half-naked, soaking wet, with the biggest... horndog in the seven seas!"

            "Language," I scolded him. He reddened.

            "Beth. You can't keep doing this," he pleaded.

            "Do you trust me?" I asked him mildly.

            "Of course I do!"

            "Would you be fretting over Nat this way, if she went off for a day to handle some things on her own?"

            He glared at the coffee table, and for a moment, I wondered if he was about to kick it into splinters. "I've seen Nat in battle," he said at last. "I know what she's capable of. She can handle herself."

            "But I can't?" I asked sweetly, suddenly dangerously close to turning him into a frog.

            "I don't know," he said quietly. "Like I said before...I've never seen you in action."

            "Not my fault you got to the HYDRA attack late, mister," I sighed. "Barton's seen me in action. Maybe you should ask him how well I did."

            "Maybe," he said, though I could still hear the note of stubbornness in his tone.

            "Steve, this is ridiculous. I'm not made of glass. I'm not an infant. I survived Loki. I survived Dormammu. I survived HYDRA. At some point, you're going to have to accept the fact that that was not a coincidence."

            He was quiet for a good minute before finally sinking into a chair. "What was that you said to Namor about the whales?" he asked.

            "Okay. I'll tell you the story. Then I'll tell it again to Fury." I met his gaze. "And then I want to talk to the Scarlet Witch."

Chapter Text

            "Wanda?" Stevee asked, his eyes narrowing. "Why?"

            "Because I have a choice to make," I said. "And she has information that will help me make it."

            "About what?" he asked.

            "Steve...let me put this in the kindest way I can. The choice I need to make doesn't have anything to do with our relationship. It is, in fact, something you asked me to do. You said you wanted me to join the Avengers. So let me have my first little taste of avenging, and we'll see if it suits me well enough to want to join up for more."

            He gave me a blank look and I threw my arms up in exasperation. It was intensely frustrating to try to arrange nice surprises for him; moreso to try to do good things without him stepping in and wanting to know all the details.

            "You wanted to know about the whales," I said quietly, trying to derail his train of thoughts.

            "Yes," he said, giving me a look that let me know he hadn't been derailed at all, and that we would come back to the other topic when we were done.

            "I went out to clear my head. Flew around a lot. Didn't get into trouble. Heard this... sound."

            "What kind of sound?" he asked.

            "It turned out to be whalesong," I told him. "Half a dozen finback whales had beached themselves along the East River, across from Breezy Point. They were dying."

            "Oh," he said, an understanding note creeping into his voice.

            "They were huge. Eighty feet long and at least seventy tons each. I've mentioned before I have a spell to understand animal languages. I used that. They were crying, Steve...crying and trying to warn their brothers -- humans -- that the oceans were poisoned with pollution, and that humans should stay out of the water. We're the ones who dump the pollution there, and they don't know that, and as they were dying, they were trying to save us from it." It still hurt to think of that beautiful, sorrowful song, and I felt wetness gather in the corner of my eyes, break free, and spill over.

            "Oh. Beth--" he stepped forward and gathered me gently into his arms. "Did you put them out of their misery?"

            "What?" I pulled back. "Hell, no! What I did was build a retaining wall to contain a smaller segment of the ocean, cleansed the waters inside it of all pollution, healed all the whales, then telekinetically lifted them into that holding pen so they could restore their strength." He goggled at my vehemence, taken off-guard in a way that I'd rarely seen him be, and I tried not to be irked that he thought that the only option I would have had was to kill such magnificent creatures. "Steve...when will you realize that I am so much stronger than to have to take the easy way out?"

            He sighed, and I forced myself to relax. He kept saying he didn't know what I was capable of. Maybe that was my fault. He'd never seen me at my finest; the only time, in fact, that he'd ever seen me in action was when I'd gone to France to help him against the Red Skull -- and that time, he had needed to save me.

            But I was so much stronger now -- now, even though it had only been a month ago.

            In fact...it was a little scary, how far I'd come. And that didn't even begin to cover the strange influx of energies out on the beach, just before I'd passed out.

            No...I was lying to myself.

            I hadn't passed out. Given the physical damage to my brain tissue, I was fairly certain I'd been dying. And I hadn't had either the energies or the ability to cast a healing spell -- not even a hanging one.

            So how had I survived?

            More mysteries. They were frustrating as hell.

            I turned to Steve with a sigh. "But I'd pushed myself pretty hard, doing what I did. Strained myself worse than I should have. Namor found me...he said someone had told him about the whales. So he took me to safety while I healed. I was out for a whole day."

            Steve lifted a hand to touch the side of my face gently. "My Beth," he murmured. "You care so much about everyone and everything but your own well-being."

            "Well, I didn't overdo it on purpose," I told him. "But why would I help a human and ignore a whale?"

            "Well, they're animals, Beth. They're beautiful creatures, but--"

            "Did you miss the part where I said that they had a language? That they knew they were dying and were still trying to warn humans? Whales -- and dolphins, and porpoises -- are as intelligent as human beings. They're sentient, Steve. We just automatically think of them as less than human because they don't wear clothes and drive cars and have bank accounts." I tried to keep the anger out of my voice. "So we slaughter them by the dozens, and catch them in our tuna nets...and let the Navy strap bombs to them so we can send them to suicide-bomb enemy ships." I resisted the urge to spit in disgust. "We wouldn't do those things to babies, but somehow it's okay to do it to something else alive and intelligent because it doesn't have opposable thumbs."

            He was silent for a moment. "I didn't know you felt so strongly about this," he said at last.

            "I read my way through a sizeable chunk of the biggest library in the country by the time I was twelve, Steve. I got all the way through the encyclopedias. What humans do to whales and their cousins should be considered a crime." My face scrunched up in frustration. "It isn't just that I can speak their language. I have spells to read minds, too, Steve." I hadn't used them, but I hadn't needed to. Their pain and grief had been all too evident in their song. Reading their minds and feeling that pain might actually have driven me mad.

            He pulled me in close again and hugged me tight. "My Beth," he sighed again. "I wanted a healer. I just didn't realize that the entire world was your patient."

            I laughed a little at that, and hugged him back, feeling some of the tension drain out of me. "What you see is what you get," I said. "I can't see pain in anyone without wanting to do something about it. I guess that's what you get when your natural and adoptive fathers are both doctors."

            The thought stirred something I'd been muddling over for awhile. I had been a terrible daughter when I was younger...when I had no soul. I had literally driven my mother insane. I was responsible for my father losing his medical license. I hadn't cared about those things before, because I couldn't.

            But now I could. And it hurt to know what I had done to two people who loved me.

            And I had to do something about it.

            "What was that other thing Namor said? Something about what you did for the oceans?"

            I had to hand it to Steve. He was as tenacious as a bulldog.

            "That? Nothing big. I just created a spell that would cleanse the ocean of pollution. It's slow, but I set it up to fuel itself. In a hundred years, the waters of the seas will be so clean you could use them as a saltwater marinade for beef brisket."

            He stared at me for a moment. I had spoken lightly, trying to soothe his concerns, but it clearly hadn't worked.

            "Beth...what if it goes wrong? You're talking about the ecosystem of the entire ocean -- two-thirds of the planet."

            Well...that was a pleasant surprise. He was still upbraiding me, but at least he was worried, this time, that my spell would screw up instead of me getting myself hurt.

            "Oh, I'm sorry, should I have done nothing and let people go on treating the planet like it was disposable?" I asked sarcastically. "Or would you have preferred I did things the other way, and went around destroying the factories dumping toxic waste into the ocean, and killing the CEOs responsible? You know, like a good supervillain would?"

            "You wouldn't," he said, and there was certainty in his voice.

            "No, you're right," I said, slumping down onto the couch. "Sometimes, when I get so angry I could scream, I briefly think that some day, I might be capable of killing. But I always know I'm lying to myself."

            "I love that about you," he said softly, sitting down next to me. "It's easy to kill, Beth. I've done it. And sometimes there isn't any other choice. But it changes a person, makes them harder. And I wouldn't want to see that in you."

            I leaned my head against his shoulder. "I see pain and I have to do what I can to fix it, Steve. And every night, when I go to bed, I lie there and stare at the ceiling and ask myself if I've done enough, that day, to eradicate the pain in the world. Have I tried my hardest? Have I done everything I could? And the answer is always no."

            He slid his fingers through my hair, turned my head toward him and tilted my face up to his. "It won't always be," he murmured. "I know you well enough to be able to say that."

            "Maybe." I tried to stifle a yawn, but he saw it and laughed.

            "Come on," he said, getting to his feet and picking me up without warning. "You've exhausted yourself. No surprise there. I think we could both use some sleep."

            I let him carry me into the bedroom and cooperated tiredly as he undressed me, and then I curled up in his arms. It was sweet, to leave the arguing behind us, to revel in his warmth and the immense strength of his perfect frame, to be held and know I was loved, and loved him in return.

            I let that be the wave of gentle night that carried me down into sleep.

 


 

           "—and then I came home," I finished. Fury looked mildly amused. Steve, on the other hand, looked nearly ready to storm out and go looking for Namor. I had withheld nothing, of course, including the description of the kiss.

"He –  he –"

"Kissed me," I completed the sentence for him helpfully. "Yes, I know. He's a decent kisser...but I've had better."

"Who?" Steve demanded. I buried my face in my hands in exasperation.

"I believe the lady's referring to you, Cap," Fury said, definitely amused.

Steve looked abashed. "Oh."

"Yes, you blockhead," I growled. "You, who I live with. You, who I have repeatedly told I love. You. If I'd decided I liked him better last night, I wouldn't have come home." I threw up my hands in the air. "Men!"

"Now hey there, little lady," Fury admonished. "He's old-fashioned. Maybe a little slow. We're not all like that."

"Oh, don't you start," I snorted. "It was a general announcement of frustration, not an all-inclusive condemnation of half the human species." I took a deep breath and let it out. "Now...I need to speak with the Scarlet Witch. Preferably in private."

Fury eyed me for a moment. "In private, huh? Any particular reason for that, Strange?"

"Yeah. Because I'm going to ask her some questions about her brother and I anticipate there might be tears, and I don't think it's fair to submit anyone to that sort of grief and stress in front of an audience. I don't care if you tape the conversation, film it, whatever...but I think it'd be nice to give her some dignity."

            "Fair enough," he said, and reached out to press a button on the intercom. "Wanda, could you come down to meeting room four on level two? We have a guest who has asked to meet with you."

            "Yes, I vill be down there in a moment," came the disembodied voice over the speaker. The Sokovian accent was fairly strong; it was an interesting contrast to Doom, since Latveria shared a border with Sokovia. Doom had no accent whatsoever; his English was so perfect he might have been a newscaster.

            Fury got up and nudged Steve. "Come on, lover-boy, let's give the ladies their privacy," he said. Steve frowned, but nodded and got out of his chair.

            "I'm sorry, Beth," he said quietly. "I love you."

            I didn't need reminding of that. "I've never doubted it, Steve," I told him as he walked out the door.

            And then she was there, standing in the open doorway. She moved like a ghost -- floating, seeming to cross space without actually transversing it. Her gaze was curious as she settled herself into a chair across from me. I glanced toward the door and she gestured; the door closed.

            "And you are...?" she asked.

            She was very beautiful, but there was a sadness in her eyes the curiosity could not begin to hide. Tiny crimson embers flared and faded in the depths of her eyes.

            "Some folks call me Samaritan," I said carefully. "But my real name is Bethany Strange." Starting off with openness, honesty, felt like the right move.

            "Strange. I have heard this name. Stephen Strange, ya? There is a connection?"

            "He's my father," I said.

            She nodded. "The sorcerer."

            "Yes. As am I."

            She was silent for a moment. "Why have you asked me here?"

            "I...would like you to tell me about your brother," I said softly.

            Pain -- immediate and visceral -- flashed across her face, though it had been over two years since the Ultron matter. "Why would you, a stranger, come in here and ask me about this?" she demanded, and I could hear the grief in her voice. "Why poke at those wounds? Why tear apart my memories?"

            I started with what I had told Steve. "Captain America wants me to join the Avengers. I'm a mage, but a very large part of what I can do is healing magic. He pointed out that..." I hesitated, wishing there was an easier way to do this, "--if I had been with the team in Sokovia, your brother...might still be with us."

            She bit her lips, fingers twitching, slow tendrils of vermillion energy twining around them. "That was...you would have been just a child then," she stumbled over the words. "And that was then, and this is now, and things do not change."

            I sighed. This was one of those moments I needed to tiptoe around things. I had an outline of a plan in my mind, but...secrets. Damn secrets and the need for them. I wanted to be perfectly honest, but if Steve -- or Fury, or my father -- knew what I was contemplating, they would do whatever it took to stop me.

            And I refused to stop.

            So that meant I couldn't talk to the Witch aloud about it.

            But she could read minds.

            "I open my thoughts to you," I said telepathically. I watched her eyes go wide. "Look into my mind. I offer no resistance. See what I hope to accomplish. And then, if you will, tell me about your brother."

            She hesitated not at all. I felt her mind pierce mine with ease; I had not bothered to erect my usual mental shields before coming to the meeting, because I had known it might come to this. Had expected it, really.

            I opened my mind to her, showing her my plan, showing her what I was certain I could do.

            And she burst into tears.

            I rummaged in my purse and brought out a clean white handkerchief, passing it across to her. She took it without a word, and I waited while she got herself under control. I could hardly blame her for the sudden thunderstorm of weeping; who wouldn't react in such a way when they were offered their greatest wish?

            "Tell me about your brother," I said gently, as the sobs began to taper off. "What kind of a person was he? Tell me about the battle. Tell me about what you felt when he--" I hesitated, "--when you felt him...pass."

            "He vas...brave. And strong. And good. He alvays took care of me, even as a child." She blew her nose. "After our parents died, ve vere alone for a long time. He made sure ve had food, even vhen he had to steal it, even vhen there vas danger."

            I listened to her pour out his story, listened to the tale of the experiments HYDRA had done to them. Listened to the tale of meeting Ultron, of working with him until they learned he intended to wipe out all of humanity. Listened to her describe the battle.

            "--then the Captain said, 'If you get killed, valk it off.'"

            I winced, and was willing to bet that unfortunate choice of words kept Steve from sleeping. Probably fairly often, maybe even now.

            "...and then...I vas in the church, guarding the key...and I felt his pain. Felt his surprise. Felt him...die." She looked up at me incomprehensibly. "He just...stopped."

            Ah.

            Yes, that was what I was looking for. There it was.

            I nodded and took her hands in mine. She looked down at them for a moment, then up at me. "You can...do this?"

            "I believe so," I said. "Yes. I can. I will."

            Or I'd die trying.

            I let go of her hands and got to my feet. I could feel the rhythm of footsteps reverberating against the floor -- people coming down the hall at speed. Most likely Fury and Steve, having listened in on the conversation, wanting to know what was going on.

            I couldn't be here to tell them, unfortunately.

            I smiled down at her. "I'll be back. Soon, I hope."

            And then I teleported back to the apartment, scooped up the books I had last borrowed from Doom, and teleported again.

            Next stop: Latveria.

           

Chapter Text

            I was careful to reappear directly outside Doom's castle, and not inside it. No way of telling, after all, if he had recently altered the wards. Plus, he wouldn't appreciate the display of arrogance. Or the stupidity such arrogance implied.

            The Doombots swarmed immediately, but they didn't open fire. Instead, they took up a perimeter around me. "You will follow us. You will not deviate from our path. You will not resist." Their hollow voices were as flat and emotionless as I remembered, and I did exactly as they ordered me to, walking inside amidst them at a normal pace, making no sudden moves. To do anything else, to disobey their orders -- which were really Doom's orders -- would be to brand myself as a threat. An enemy.

            And that would completely disrupt the plan I had developed.

            They took me directly to Doom's study, as I knew they would. He stood in front of a gigantic globe of the world, fifteen feet tall, at least. The doors shut behind me as the Doombots left me there, and I held his borrowed books in my hands, and waited.

            "When we first met, though the circumstances that introduced us to each other were less than perfect, I found you to be an individual of drive, will, and foresight," the emotionless, metallic voice said at last. "As you studied and we got to know each other, I was very pleased to find that you were a young woman of matchless intellect and unrivaled loyalty." He paused. "It is very rare that I make an error in judgment." I waited. "So I must find myself wondering how it is that I can no longer sense the oath between us." He turned, the iron mask implacable and unreadable. "Perhaps it is that the woman who stands before me is not the one with whom I swore that oath? Perhaps I see only an illusion? A simulacrum? Another person, shapechanged to bear your form? Or perhaps your...owner...became jealous and found a way to break it?"

            "No," I said calmly. "I just died."

            Silence descended on the room again, for a much longer period of time. I stayed where I was, relaxed, unmoving, and let him walk around me. I could feel his eyes on me -- could feel, also, the mystic probes that tested my resonance, 'tasting' the changed flavor of my magical essence, searching for ripples in that energy that might indicate I lied. I did nothing to fend them off, or shield myself from them, or attack them. Things between he and I had changed -- in ways that he could not know, I hoped -- but for all that, I respected his intellect, his decades of study, his implacable will, and his own peculiar sense of honor.

            At last, he spoke. "I can tell you are telling the truth," he said. "I can see it in your resonance. And death breaks all oaths. But you stand here before me, oddly healthy for a dead woman."

            "I got better," I said simply.

            He laughed. It was a cold and almost bitter sound. "So it would seem." He stepped away, back toward the globe. I did not bother looking at it; if there were targets on it, there was no point in memorizing them. I had no way of knowing whether he knew the company I kept these days, or what I had told them if he did. But even if he didn't, he wouldn't be foolish enough to leave his intentions broadcast so boldly where anyone passing the open door could see them. If such things were there, they were either false...or they would be changed by the time I left here.

            "The oath was not broken by my choice," I said quietly. "I did not find it a pleasant experience, I confess. And I valued what I have learned from you." I held out the books in one hand. "I have finished these, and came to return them to you. They are not, after all, my property."

            He accepted them from my hands without a qualm, apparently unafraid that they had been magically or otherwise booby-trapped. As if anything I could do to them would represent a threat to him.

            "And so you have returned them," he said, his voice flat and neutral. "Are you here to ask for more, then?"

            "Not more books," I said. "I'm here to ask for a favor."

            "Ah." He began to pace again, never looking my way, and I didn't turn to track his progress, not even when he walked behind me. It left me open for an attack, of course, but to turn to see what he was up to would have suggested I was nervous -- and weak. And that, more than anything, would have told him how much I had changed.

            So I stood where he was until his steps brought him back around into my line of sight again.

            "So you no longer require me as a teacher?" he asked. "That would seem to imply that you have found a new one." He paused. "But not your...former owner, of course. Your oath to him would have been sundered by your death just as mine was." He didn't tilt his head, but even without a spell of telepathy, I could feel him thinking. "Who, then?" He took a step, then nodded to himself. "Of course. Your father."

            He was clearly referring to Strange. I went still. "You...knew?" I said. Then, "You knew. Obviously. For how long?"

            "Since first you were my student here," he said. "Before the Avengers came. The day when I first set out to teach you the ways of necromancy."

            I nodded. "I see. The broken glass. I cut myself. You did something with the blood. DNA analysis, just to start with, of a certainty."

            "Yes. And some mystical rituals. You know you're not fully human."

            I gave him the nod he was expecting. With truth, one never has to remember what you've said to someone. So much easier to keep straight than a cloud of lies.

            "So you want a favor. And what are you willing to trade for this favor?" he asked.

            "You'd ask that before asking what the favor is?" I questioned.

            He waved a hand. "I'll know what you want when you tell me what it's worth to you," he said.

            "Sensible," I agreed. "My time with Loki is finished. He did not treat me with the same respect or value that you did, and I have no desire to go back to that situation. My time in your service need not be ended. I offer renewal of my oath to you -- for the time I originally swore, and in addition, all the time that remained of my oath to Loki."

            I could almost hear him thinking again. "That's nearly five years," he said at last. "A princely offer. What do I have, I ask myself, that could be worth so much? I can think of only one thing you might want, though I do not know why you want the use of it, nor how you know of it."

            "The time machine."

            "As I suspected," he said. "I will require the answers to my two questions before I decide whether or not I will grant your request."

            His demand came as no surprise. "As my powers have grown, I have found myself... specializing. There is no end to the number of spells I have learned, yet I find I have a particular facility with healing spells. Perhaps it's because I've needed to use them on myself so many times in the past."

            "Go on."

            "There is one whom I would aid with my gifts...but he has passed out of the temporal reach of my magic. I cannot do anything for him...now."

            "Dead, then?"

            I nodded.

            He made a motion for me to continue, so I did. "As to where I learned it, it came up in casual conversation with an ally of yours, Namor."

            He shook his head disdainfully. "The Atlantean must needs learn prudence in when to hold his tongue," he sighed. "But it is true, he has been of service to me before, and I to him. And so have we been foes in the past, as well." I held my tongue. "And so where, and when, is it that you wish to go?"

            "The capital of Sokovia. April 30th. 2015."

            "The final battle against Ultron," he said.

            "Yes."

            "Who?"

            I shook my head. "That was not one of the questions you required an answer to. I will tell you it is no one who has ever before opposed you."

            "How kind of you to share so much," he chuckled. It wasn't a sneer, though it could have been, if he had wanted it to be. He stood, gauntleted hands clasped behind his caped back, looking -- or pretending to look -- at the skylight in the ceiling.

            "My original stipulations stand, of course; I will do nothing that will lead directly to my death. Nor will I do anything to harm those I have come to care for."

            He laughed. "Such provisions you round about your word with," he said, amused. "Whittling away such service as you offer me until it is a toothpick and not a redwood. As if you think I would throw away your life at a whim, or force you to slaughter family, friends, or lovers." He turned to look at me, and I saw the gleam in his eyes, through the slits in the metal mask. At that moment, I was willing to bet he knew a lot more about me than I wished he did -- that I had registered, that I was in love with and living with Steve, that I had been offered membership in the Avengers. I had no way to be certain, of course...but the feeling would not go away.

            "Your offer does not suffice...in its current form," he said at last. "If you wish it granted, I will ask you for one thing more."

            "And what might that be?"

            "I say, in its current form, you offer me nearly five years and mean to give it to me in one large lump...like a roast at Christmas dinner: huge, glistening with fat, but indigestible in one go. That serves me ill. I would, instead, change the details you have offered: to take that roast, instead, in thin, mouth-melting slices -- a week at a time, a day at a time, an hour at a time, until it is all served. What say you?"

            Oh. It was intolerable. I thought about it -- to stretch out the time where I could not be free, could not be honest, would be at his beck and call. It would change the practical length of my servitude out to ten years, to fifty, a hundred -- maybe more.

            But then I thought of the look on Wanda Maximoff's face when I told her what I proposed to do -- the grief in her eyes, and the hope, too. There was no other choice. I could not give her a clone. Actually raising the dead was beyond my powers.

            I had told her I could give her her brother back, and there was only one way to do so: to travel back in time to the second before his heart stopped for good, unseen and intangible there on the battlefield as I cast my spells, and freeze him in magical stasis, caught between the penultimate heartbeat and the last, feeling no pain, like I had been. Let him be thought dead; the spell would endure when they brought the body back, put it in cold to preserve it. Then to return to this time, this now, go to where they kept his body, and heal the damage to it -- mending those wounds, closing those bullet holes -- and only then lifting the spell of stasis to let him wake, alive, and returning him to his grieving sister.

            To heal him then, there, on the battlefield, might warp time in ways I could not possibly comprehend, might change things that had happened without him since then, and change them for the worse, at that. I was smart, but even I couldn't possibly calculate all the ways his presence -- or the lack of it -- might alter what had occurred. But to bring him back now, in the present: that should change nothing except to heal his body and her grief.

            I couldn't take that away from her after I had held it out to her. Could not kill him a second time. Could not let her heart be broken again. Could not let her mourning endure one second longer, if I had the power to end it.

            I looked up at Doom.

            "I agree to your price."

            He stood there for a moment, unspeaking, and then nodded.

            "I will have your oath, then."

            "On this day, the seventh of January, in the year 2018 anno domini, I, Bethany Strange, known also as Emily Drake, Beth Clark, and Dragon, do hereby bend my will to the oath I swear on this spot: for the span of four years, three months, one week, and three days, submit myself into the service of Victor von Doom, Lord of Latveria, that length of time to be paid out in such measured amounts as he deems useful and worthy. In exchange for this service, one use of his time machine, at the moment and place of my choosing. So swear I with my whole soul and my entire will."

            "On this day, the seventh of January, in the year 2018 anno domini, I, Victor von Doom, Lord of Latveria, do hereby bend my will to the oath I swear on this spot: in exchange for the services of Bethany Strange for the span of four years, three months, one week, and three days, that time to be allotted in such amounts as I deem useful and worthy, do grant her one use of my time machine, at the moment and place of her choosing. So swear I with my whole soul and my entire will."

            He waited until the last echoes of our words had gone silent among the cold stone walls of the castle, and then nodded.

            "Follow me."

            He led me down through the castle's main halls to a locked and barred door, one of the places I had never been permitted to go when I had studied her before. A robot lifted the bar away, and the door opened at his touch. Lights came on, revealing a flight of stairs going down. I followed him down a great distance, counting nine flights of stairs before I stopped. We continued to descend for another ten minutes after that, and at last, traveled down a long hallway.

            The chamber that opened up past the last door at the end of the hall was spacious. Inside was a metal plinth, atop which sat a keyboard and other electronic components. On the floor ten feet in front of the plinth was a white metal square, ten feet by ten, and Doom nodded toward it.

            "Stand there," he said. "Novi Grad, Sokovia. April 30th. 2015. Precise time?"

            I'd read the news articles. The battle had raged for over an hour, right around lunchtime. People had been evacuated away from their kitchen tables, leaving hot food still on plates or cooking on the stove. Best to go a couple hours early; Pietro's death had occurred in front of a local hospital, where evacuees had been relocated to in order to better protect them from Ultron's marauding duplicates. "Ten in the morning, local time. The Saint Maurus of Pécs Hospital on Nyitra Street."

            He nodded, and I watched him tap in the coordinates on the keyboard, his fingers oddly graceful despite the gauntlets he wore. "Prepare yourself," he said without looking up. "The transition is disorienting. Especially the first time." His hand came up to hover over the keyboard and his head tilted up to take her in. "I have set the machine to bring you back two hours after the end of the battle. That will give you some time to make certain you have finished your task."

            "I appreciate that."

            He made no response to that, only continued programming in my destination.

            I looked around the chamber; aside from the time machine, the place was curiously empty, lacking even Doombot guards, although I had no doubt that plenty of other defensive measures were concealed behind the unadorned stone walls.

            "You are ready?"

            I took a deep breath and focused on the goal. Where I was going would be dangerous -- a full-fledged battle between the Avengers and Ultron. I could not let myself be seen, or it might change time, and I definitely had no desire to get hurt. My internal batteries were full of mystic energy, and a small constellation of hanging spells orbited me like stars.

            "I'm ready," I said at last.

            His hand came down on the button, and the metal platform beneath my feet shimmered and transformed into energy, and began to rise like the bottom of an elevator car, passing intangibly through me. With every inch it ascended, every part of me below the platform vanished, although I could feel no cessation of sensation from my toes, my knees, my hips, my shoulders, my--

            And then I was somewhere else.

            Somewhen else.

            I had materialized in an alley behind the hospital. The sky was blue, filled with a few fat, puffy white clouds; birds were singing, and the smell of apple blossoms hung on the warm spring breeze. People were coming and going about their business with no idea of the horror that was about to invade their lives. In hours, the buildings about me would be rubble sheathed in smoke, the streets would be choked with broken stone and burning cars, mechanical invaders would crawl from roof to roof in search of prey, and the blood of innocents would stain the pavement.

            I let my hands writhe into the shapes necessary to set off spells quickly. Mind shield; invisibility; intangibility. Clairvoyance and clairaudience, to monitor the flow of the battle, to make sure I was in exactly the right spot at the precise second I needed to be. Finding it better to err on the side of caution, I chose spells to protect myself even though I held no physical form: the shield spell to reflect damage, the force shield. I set off a healing spell on me that would wait until I was hurt to begin regenerating any damage I might take.

            Finally, as I floated around to the front of the building where I knew Ultron would come, flying in his stolen Quinjet, strafing Hawkeye as he tried to rescue a wounded child before the last S.H.I.E.L.D. rescue airboat departed. It was there that Quicksilver would impose himself between those bullets and the child, and it was there that he had died.

            But he wasn't dead yet. And he wasn't going to be. That was the whole point of swearing my life away.

            I took up a position as close to the spot where the shooting had happened as I could determine from the articles I had read. Floating in mid-air, legs crossed in the lotus position, I hung there like a speck of dandelion fluff on the wind and waited.

 

 

            There. Gunshots.

            I opened my eyes. It had begun.

            I floated, calm, watching as things wove themselves into the ornate and tragic tapestry that fate had decreed. Watched the flashing shield of the man I loved. Watched the soaring arrows of the man who had shot me. Watched the repulsor blasts of the man who had first discovered my identity. Watched the flying hammer, the Widow's bullets, the crimson arcs of energy of the Witch.

            Watched, most of all, the blue streak of light that marked the racing path of the one I had come to save.

            I ticked off the seconds in my head, backwards, a countdown to the moment where I would step in. The robots and the people and the fleeing victims circled around me, tiny satellites revolving around the planet that was the center of their universe. The center of the city detached itself from Mother Earth and began to rise.

            And rise.

            And rise.

            The battle neared its end and I unfolded: no costume, no mask, and neither of them necessary, unseen as I was. For all those about me knew, I did not exist; at this time and this place in my own life, I was in Asgard, laboring under Loki's lessons. I had become a duality, an echo, my life a sound that rebounded backward along the track of its previous existence.

            In the sky: the Quinjet, splitting the sky into two halves as it aimed itself like the lethal projectiles it would soon spit. Hawkeye, on the S.H.I.E.L.D. airboat, ready to depart.

            I heard a whimper behind me.

            The child.

            And Hawkeye was running, leaping, dodging, his face so focused I would think he saw me if I hadn't known no one could see me.

            Coming in from the left: that blue streak of light.

            Three vectors converging on this point, this moment, this single instant in time and place and fate.

            Hawkeye saw the shots stitching their destructive seam in the pavement toward him and the burden in his arms, and he spun, putting his own flesh between the bullets and the child -- a poor sort of shield, but it was impossible at that moment not to love him a little for that.

            As Steve had said: that was the job.

            Intangible as I was, I could not feel the triple winds kicked up in the wake of the bullets, the Quinjet, and the man I had come to save. But I could see their result.

            Pietro Maximoff froze in place as the jet slammed past us all, his eyes going wide as flowers of scarlet swiftly spread across the new holes in his outfit.

            "I...didn't see that coming," he muttered hoarsely.

            Now.

            I stepped forward, thrust an intangible hand into him, and triggered the hanging stasis spell I had prepared.

            His heart -- his everything -- simply stopped, and he thudded to the earth, eyes still open and dully staring. I saw Hawkeye gape, the child safe in his arms, saw Steve come racing onto the scene.

            I bent to test the resonance of the spell, brushing my intangible fingers across the surface of the magical energy field that held him imprisoned in amber. It stood firm, unyielding, holding him suspended in that instant between life and death. Not alive. Forever undying.

            "Good," I whispered, and stepped back. My job here was finished.

            I watched them take the boy and Pietro's body to the waiting airboat. I watched as the city shuddered in its death wounds, as a last part of Ultron finally made it to the key that kept the city rising, triggered it, and sent it down. I went with it, soaring down, watching everything take place as it happened, as it had happened, as it had always been.

            Now, with one small change.

            Stark soared free of the exploding artificial meteor; the newly-arrived S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier took off with its burden of refugees and heroes; the Vision swooped down as the rubble fell, rescuing the Witch from what might have been her own doom. I flew over the expanding cloud of dust as what remained of Ultron's "meteor" fell in bits and pieces into the lake below. There were bodies in that rubble; a battle that huge would have wreaked havoc on unprotected civilians, just like the one in New York. They were as worthy of being saved as Quicksilver, but how to do so without potentially changing the future? I could only save Pietro because his body remained in storage in the present, awaiting the intervention of Stark's machines, and because before me, the team had no mage who might recognize the stasis spell I had wrapped him in.

            I wanted to help those people, the ones from the city, the ones who were hurt, lost, and maybe dying even now. But how could I do it without potentially dooming others by changing the future with my acts, and perhaps condemning even more people to death?

            Hundreds, perhaps thousands...balanced against potential millions or billions.

            It was the hardest of choices. Everything in me screamed to act, to cast the spell that let me see life forces, to spend my remaining time here flashing to those lights, to healing them, to saving them. S.H.I.E.L.D. forces were on the ground now, saving those they could...but I could do so much more.

            But I couldn't.

            For a long time, I wept, wrapping myself away from the touch of the world in my cocoon of silence and shield, afraid to reach out with my magic and my mind, and feel those lives fade and dim. I was not only failing them. I was failing myself. How could I call myself a healer when I allowed so many to die?

            But how could I act if it condemned more to death?

            At last, I descended, slowly, to a forested spot on the edge of the great crater where once the city of Novi Grad, the beautiful old-world capitol of Sokovia, a huge chunk of land simply scooped out of the planet's crust like that first scoop out of a carton of ice cream.

            "You are an anomaly."

            The cool, dry, almost relentlessly polite voice came from behind me, and I turned. The android called the Vision was floating down from the sky, that golden cape of his seemingly weightless as it drifted upon the breeze.

            He could see me, knew I was there despite the fact that I was invisible and intangible. I had read Doom's files; perhaps it was because he could become intangible himself. Very well, then. I let myself become visible and solid.

            "I am," I answered calmly.

            "Why are you here?" he asked, his tone emotionless save for a hint of curiosity. I felt his mind slide into mine, past my mental shield, going through it as if it did not exist. "You are from the future."

            "I am," I said again, and sighed. "I give you my word that I am not here to cause harm."

            "Yes. I see that. You call yourself Bethany Strange...and Samaritan...and Dragon." He tested the unfamiliar words. "You wield magic."

            "Yes."

            "He...died." His eyes were piercing, and I felt him probing and dissecting my every word, my every expression, my every thought.

            "I'm a healer. What happened here was wrong. And it was within my power to fix it."

            "At great cost to yourself," he said, a hint of fervent emphasis in his voice.

            "A cost I accept willingly."

            "How very strange. But noble."

            "As I said, I'm a healer. I can't see pain and not try to do something about it."

            He nodded, and I felt him withdraw from my mind. "I will tell no one. I perceive you believe that to do so would alter the timeline in ways that might be disastrous. I look forward to meeting you -- and working with you -- upon your return."

            "As do I." He was fascinating, this synthetic man -- not merely a robot, nor even artificial intelligence alone, but something more. Was it a soul I sensed, that made him so unique? A created thing, made rather than born, but with a will and wit and way of his own? "Soon, then."

            A shadow passed across his face. "Not so soon as either of us would wish, I think." And then, without another word, he flashed up into the sky, and was gone.

            What?

            "Well, that was charmingly ominous," I muttered. I consulted my watch and realized it had been almost two hours since the end of the battle. It was impossible, now, to return to the place Doom's time machine had sent me; that place was gone, nothing left but rubble under the surface of the lake.

            So I stood where I was, certain that his genius and his machine could track me the mile or so I had moved, and waited for the trip home.

            I didn't have to wait long. Perhaps three minutes later, that square of silvery light appeared under my feet. Slowly, it began to rise, up through my ankles, my hips, my belly.

            And then, as it passed through my heart, there was a sound like fire, a crackling, burning laughter, that echoed all around me. I tried to spin, but the energies of the machine held me fast as a brilliant flash of scarlet light collided with the time panel.

            I was spinning.

            And I was falling.

            And I was gone.

Chapter Text

            Hot.

            I was hot, and there was sand in my mouth.

            Groggily, I peeled an eye open. I lay face-down in sand, just under the overhang of a lip of rock above me. The clothes I wore -- jeans, sweater, shoes, coat -- had been shredded by...the whirling, tumultuous "fall" I had taken.

            Something had interfered with the return of Doom's time platform.

            Where was I?

            When was I?

            I sat up swiftly and yelped as I banged the top of my head against the ceiling of the low cave in which I found myself. It was barely more than a depression scraped into the rock by the wind over centuries; I rubbed the top of my head and sat crouched for a moment, trying to get my bearings.

            Far away -- maybe over the next dune -- I could hear chanting. It swelled loud and fervently, and I could almost make out what they were saying. It was so loud there had to be thousands shouting in cadence, the words coming out with a devotion that was almost religious in nature. The language was unfamiliar to me; it wasn't Latin or any of the Latin-derived Romance languages, nor English or any Germanic tongues, nor anything spoken across all of Europe -- not even artificial languages like Esperanto, Quenya, or Sindarin. It wasn't anything Asian -- neither Eastern nor Southeastern -- and it sounded wholly unlike the handful of Native American languages -- Nahuatl, Navajo, Cherokee, Apache, Cheyenne, Seminole, Lakota, Haida, Abenaki, Seneca, Mohawk, or Mohican -- that I had picked up over the years. It didn't sound like the Aboriginal tongues of Australia I had heard, although I had heard so little of that I could be wrong. And it wasn't Swahili or Zulu or any other of the Bantu tongues, the only African languages I had any familiarity with other than Coptic.

            Although...if I concentrated and listened very hard, it bore some similarities in rhythm and syllabic breakdown to that last one.

            Cautiously, I eased myself out of the cave. The sunlight was fierce and unforgiving, and the wind was hot and harsh, stinging grains of sand blasting me with every fluctuation in the breeze. I reached out for a ley line and found one immediately, bristling -- swollen -- with raw, wild, new power. Warily, I drew the energies in, banishing the small injuries, spinning a thin energy shield around me to keep my skin from being flayed away a layer at a time by the airborne sand.

            Then I made myself invisible, and floated into the air, and went to go see what the fuss was.

            I had been wrong. It was not over the next dune, or even two, or three. I had to fly almost five miles in the direction of the chanting before I came over the top of the next dune and saw a huge, vast crowd spread out in all direction, down on their knees, bowing repeatedly toward a slender figure on the dune past that one, who stood in a brown-and-gold striped hooded robe, his hands raised. His skin was an unhealthy grey color, and his lips were dark blue. Just past him, barely visible from where I floated, were four figures on horseback.

            Immense blocks of stone flew overhead in clouds, chased by entire sections of stonework that meticulously assembled themselves into what was unmistakably an Egyptian pyramid.

            No wonder the chanting had sounded like Coptic.

            I ducked back down behind the nearest dune.

            OHSHITohshitohshitohshi--

            I was not just lost, I was fucked. I recognized, more or less, that figure from Doom's files.

            I could make out the chanting now, for all the good it did me.

            "En Sabah Nur! En Sabah Nur! En Sabah Nur!"

            Very quietly -- and very goddamned intangibly -- I retreated back down the sand dune, back in the direction I had come from. I slammed a mental shield down over my thoughts, recast the shield spell that would reflect any damage back to its attacker, and worked hard at putting space -- lots of it -- between myself and what Doom's files called the First Mutant.

            I got about three miles before some of those stone blocks came soaring down, first in front of me, and then, more swiftly, all around me in a circular prison meant to keep me in place. A number of them closed off the top of the dome.

            There were any number of issues here to deal with. En Sabah Nur -- the one they called Apocalypse in my time -- was just way, way, way out of my league as far as sheer power went. Even if he was at his beginnings now, he probably had more than enough power to remove me from the playing field.

            There was also the consideration of the fact that this wasn't my time. Anything I might do here could change things in my own time. Possibly for the better, but very likely -- since this was Apocalypse -- for the worse.

            And finally, En Sabah Nur's entire motivation was 'survival of the fittest'. If he found you to be strong, he approved. If he thought you weak, he erased you. Yes, I had died once, and returned. I didn't think that would count for much in his eyes, though.

            So: fight smarter, not harder.

            Nothing I had ever read indicated he had anything to do with magic.

            So I ignored the blocks around me, and -- still intangible -- dove down through the ground like a ghost.

            In this case, 'smarter, not harder' meant continuing to put as much space between us as was physically possible. Right now, I was aiming for the other side of the planet.

            Even that might not be far enough. Doom's files said he could teleport.

            But it was worth a try, and it would give me time and breathing room to figure out what to do next. Down and down and down I went, glad that I didn't need to breathe when I wasn't solid; my molecules absorbed oxygen from my surroundings, and it entered my equally intangible bloodstream by some weird magical version of osmosis.

            I calculated longitude and latitude in my head. If I'd been somewhere in Egypt -- say, near Cairo, or where Cairo would be eventually -- when I went down, then I would come out somewhere...oops. In the South Pacific, a couple hundred miles from New Zealand.

            I adjusted my trajectory as best as I could, aiming for Fiji.

            Perhaps twenty miles down, I became aware of something or someone trying to force its way into my mind. The task, difficult enough with the mind shield, was made all the harder by the fact that I didn't have a physical brain when I was intangible. The sensation was something like being shouted at by someone a mile away; almost impossible to hear, even if you were trying.

            And I did not want to try.

            I put on a burst of speed and went faster, phasing through dense layers of stone and metal ores like a bowling ball through a wet paper towel, knowing I had over 7,870 miles to go before I popped out the other side. It would have been nice to teleport the distance, but like nearly all teleporters, no matter how great my range, I couldn't teleport to a place I couldn't see, or wasn't familiar with, in case I ended up inside a solid object.

            But...wait...

            Fight smarter, not harder.

            I wasn't solid at the moment. What might happen if I teleported while intangible? Best case scenario, I got where I was going a lot faster.

            Worst case scenario, my atoms were scattered across all of existence.

            Yeah, no, wasn't going to try that. There's experimental, and then there's suicidal.

            Between my Faltinian nature and the fact that I was currently in an insubstantial state, the fiery temperatures at the earth's core weren't likely to affect me. I was flying through the solid matter of the lithosphere at my top speed, a little over a hundred miles an hour. That was fast, but given how far I had to go to reach my destination, it meant I would be swimming through liquid rock for the next three days.

            There were very few times I envied any of the other superhumans I knew. Right now, I would have been willing to pay a pretty high price for a set of Tony Stark's armor; its flight speed topped out at over Mach 3.

            I emerged briefly from the layers of rocky crust into a small cave, formed like an air bubble in a bar of soap between layers and layers of rock. I forced myself to come to a halt and think. I couldn't teleport blind lest I materialize inside something solid, true.

            But what if I teleported into thin air miles above my chosen location on the ground? Sheer random chance dictated it was unlikely I would end up sharing the same space as a bird flying past; too much mileage of air. And this little cave gave me enough room to become solid again. Of course, there was no chance it was filled with breathable air, so I would have to hold my breath while I triggered the hanging spell to teleport me.

            I had never been to Fiji. So I concentrated on the airspace above the Jersey Pine Barrens, where I had once dived out of the torn-open hatch of an air vent aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, over half a mile up. Since New Jersey wasn't known for mountains, it seemed safe to aim at the spot where I had jumped out. I calculated altitude in my head and then cancelled the intangibility spell.

            It was hot here -- not too hot for my Faltinian side, but hot enough to be fatal for a normal human, and hot enough to be uncomfortable even for me. My fingers crooked into the shapes they needed and I exhaled a single syllable.

            And then I was in midair in a much clearer, cooler place, and I was falling.

            I stopped that at once, turning the fall into flight, and looked around. Below me were the pine barrens, the forest a good deal thicker and more dense than it was in my time. I was high enough that I could just barely see the waters of the Atlantic off to the east, glittering in the late afternoon sunlight. I took note of the details of the forest I could see below -- new buds, birds' nests in the branches, the types of birds visible that would have migrated south if it were a colder part of the year -- and estimated it was late Spring, probably early May.

            Swell. Five months ahead of my time -- and five thousand years too early.

            There was a fine layer of sand pasted to my shredded clothing with sweat, a leftover souvenir of the desert, and I brushed it off, giving my jeans and sweater a rueful look. Slowly, I soared east, flying until I reached the coast, then descending slowly to the nearest beach, where I peeled out of my clothes, rinsed the sand off them, then took a dip in the surf to clean myself. The waters were remarkably clean; there was no oil spill residue here, no garbage thrown into the water, no floating bergs made up of plastic water bottles, taco chip bags, and milk bottle caps. Seabirds weren't eating tiny particles of plastic thinking it was plankton, and starving because the waste stayed in their digestive system, unable to be broken down and excreted, and filling their stomach so they couldn't eat more. Seals weren't getting flippers or tails caught in discarded six-pack rings. Pity Namor wasn't here to see the oceans in this state; he might have died of joy.

            So. Now that I had breathing room, I waded out of the surf and sat my naked butt down on the clean sand to think. Something had interfered with the time machine's platform, knocking my return off course. Doom would, of course, search for me as soon as his monitors showed the trouble; I had become an investment for him that he would not want to carelessly discard.

            But that might take some time, and some of that time was best spent in thought. There were only two possibilities here: either the time machine had been...collided with accidentally, or something had interfered with it on purpose.

            The idea that whatever had gone wrong had happened accidentally seemed unlikely; I had every certainty that Doom had taken such things into account when he had created the machine. He wouldn't want to submit himself to such an accident, of course, and so he would have built the thing to be as free of accidental issues as possible. So, barring a second invasion of his castle by someone like the Avengers or the X-Men -- and any damage caused to the time machine in that case would not precisely be accidental, although it was unlikely that any of the heroes involved would intentional damage the machine to strand anyone using it -- then what had happened to me could only be deliberate.

            Following that: who, and why?

            Well, those were the big questions, weren't they?

            Seagulls swooped overhead, in the age-old manner of their kind, circling around me to see if I had any food they could steal. I watched them for a few minutes, amused, then turned my attention back to my calculations.

            I had no way to tell how long it would be before Doom was able to find me and pluck me back to my normal point in the timestream.

            If the castle had been attacked and the machine damaged, it would take even longer, as he would need to repair the machine.

            And if he was dead?

            Then the only way I was going to get back to my own time was the long way.

            Theoretically, given my magic, I was capable of living for the next five thousand years. I knew healing spells which would slow my aging to a crawl; no magic could stop that completely, but the most powerful of them would mean I could age only a day for every century, which meant that I would only be about seventy years old the next time I saw Steve...during World War II.

            According to my father, his master, the Ancient One, had been only the latest in a long line of Sorcerers Supreme for this plane, serving in that position for over five hundred years. That didn't rule out anyone in this time knowing enough magic to be able to send me back to my own time, but I had no idea who the current one would be, or where to find them. It wasn't impossible that whoever the Sorcerer Supreme now was still located in Kamar-Taj, but it wasn't certain, either. And even that wasn't the real problem.

            Because the real problem wasn't that I was worried about being unable to last the next five thousand years.

            The real problem was that I didn't want to have to endure the next five millennia alone, unsure of whether I was changing history, a stranger to everyone I met. My life was lonely enough with just Steve, my father, and the cats and, occasionally, Fury and Natasha, but at home in my own time, I had someone to curl up with in bed, someone to train with, someone to play with.

            And just what was I going to do with all this time on my hands? In order not to change history, I couldn't do what I loved best: I couldn't use my magic to heal people and save lives. I couldn't try to meet someone from this time and start a new relationship.

            "I could try to find someone to study with," I said softly to myself. A quiet life, a private life that interfered with nothing. I thought about historical figures reputed to be mages: Isobel Gowdie of Scotland, Morgan Le Fay of ancient England (definitely out - Doom's files on her were chilling), Merlin, John Dee, Marie Laveau. Most of those were a good deal closer to my time -- all of them yet unborn for at least three thousand years. There were a number of ancient Greek philosophers who had reputedly practiced magic; that was a bit closer to this timeframe.

            So...Greece, then? See the temples before the Christians knocked them all down, visit the Parthenon? I spoke, read, and wrote Attic, Doric, and Koine Greek (and modern Greek, of course), but those all evolved from Proto-Greek a good deal later than this time period. Still, proto-Greek shouldn't be hard to pick up.

            I went back to the big questions: who and why?

            They were, in essence, unanswerable. Who could be anyone, but enemies of Doom, most likely. Did I have enemies, yet? Not that I was aware of; most of the criminals I had dealt with had been non-powered ones. There were those that might try to harm me or maroon me here in time because of my link to Doom—

            Well. It could be Loki.

            I gnawed on that for awhile. I had no idea if he was powerful enough to alter time on his own. But to break into Doom’s castle and damage the machine? Yes, that was certainly within his abilities. I could see him doing such a thing out of revenge for refusing to spy on Steve and the others for him. The idea almost fit, except for one thing: with the breaking of the oath between us – which he had certainly felt – he was almost positively convinced I was dead.

            But who else could it be?

            Why, of course, was a different question. To solve the question of who, I was operating on the notion that it had been done out of revenge, but I supposed there were other reasons to trap me in time. What reasons those might be depended on whether the time I had been sent back to was a random choice, or deliberate.

            If it was random: perhaps experimentation by another time traveler? Perhaps a true accident?

            If it was deliberate: well, that was harder. Sending me to this time, and that place? Was I meant to oppose Apocalypse? If so, sending me here had been a fool’s errand. I was powerful enough to escape Apocalypse, but I very much doubted I was powerful enough to defeat him – and I would not try unless I had no other choice, because that would change history.

            What other reasons might there be to deliberately strand me in the past? I contemplated the small amount of fiction literature I’d read, the few movies I’d seen, the scant number of TV shows I’d watched, and grimly decided I needed to broaden my repertoire.

            But I considered it. Was I meant to see something? What would that achieve? Do something? I wouldn’t change history.

            Learn something?

            Very good.

            The voice bypassed my ears and sounded directly into my brain. Telepathy.

            I stiffened and leapt to my feet, gesturing at my drying clothes. I triggered a minor mending spell my father had taught me, warily looking around the beach.

            But I appeared to be alone.

            “So what am I supposed to learn?” I said aloud.

            There was no answer, and angrily, I contemplated not just when, but where, I had been deposited. Practically on Apocalypse’s doorstep. If I had been sent back deliberately, to learn something...

            Then presumably whatever it was I was supposed to learn was all the way back in Egypt.

            Swell.

            I was very much not looking forward to going back. Somehow, even invisible, intangible, and mind-shielded, he had realized I was there and tried to contain me. That he hadn’t been able to was mostly due to the fact that he had been unaware of the range of my abilities then.

            He had a somewhat better idea of them now, I would guess.

            But if going back and learning whatever it was I was supposed to learn was the only way I would be sent back to my own time – as the voice that had spoken into my head had confirmed – then I didn’t have much choice.

            I only hoped I could get in, learn whatever the hell it was I was supposed to learn, and get away without Apocalypse doing a much better job at capturing me a second time.

            I renewed my spells, tapped into a ley line and refilled my energy stores, re-wove several hanging spells, and then took a deep breath. Invisible, intangible, mind-shielded; a quarter-mile above the little cave where I had first found myself seemed as good a place as any to reappear. At least I knew the lay of the land there.

            With a resigned sigh, I triggered the teleportation spell.

Chapter Text

            I reappeared in the place that was both exactly the place I did and did not want to be. It was the place I had aimed for, but I so did not want to be here, intangible and invisible and shielded to the gills or not.

            I had been gone perhaps three hours. The natives were still there, chanting, even though the one they worshiped was gone.

            But the pyramid he had been building was complete.

            So. Logic dictated that, if I was here to learn something, and I had been put in this place and this time because what I was supposed to be learning was something I could only learn from – or by observing – Apocalypse, then the next step was finding where he had gone. I looked down at the natives, still face-down in the sand, calling his name out rhythmically. They might not know his ultimate destination, but unless he had masked his departure in ways similar to my own habitual ones, they would at least have seen which direction he left in.

            I cast the spell that granted me the ability to read minds and scanned the crowd, choosing a likely-looking man at the front of the crowd, closest to where En Sabah Nur had stood atop his dune. I skimmed his thoughts lightly; he and the horsemen had departed toward the North. Toward the mouth of the Nile, where it emptied into the Mediterranean.

            I followed.

            They left no tracks across the sand. I expected it of Apocalypse, who could fly; I was somewhat more startled to see the same trackless expanse of sand where his Four Horsemen had followed. From what I’d read of Doom’s files, his modern Horsemen were empowered, but I had no way of knowing if the same was true of these ancient ones. It seemed likely.

            I followed in the direction the man had seen them go until I reached a point where I was out of sight of the chanting throng. At that point, Apocalypse could have diverged in any direction, and the chances of going the wrong way and losing him increased exponentially.

            Fight smarter, not harder.

            I could rule out the idea that he had gone back in the same direction I had come from; likewise I could rule out that he had gone back in a similar but angling retroward track. That halved the choice of directions from 360* on the compass to just 180*. Not a huge improvement, but I'd take it.

            What I needed was a change of view. I had been flying about 50 feet off the ground -- more than sufficient to see certain things, but vastly insufficient to see others. What I wanted was a surveillance satellite; since such things didn't exist in this now, I had to be what I needed.

            I soared up. And higher, and higher, and higher, until I reached the lowest layer of cloud cover. Now the distance over which I could see was much greater -- hundreds of miles instead of two or three.

            And -- yes, there! Dark specks against the golden desert, five of them, one in the lead followed by four others, traveling away from the pyramid.

            I arced down like a falling star, dropping through the lower troposphere, still intangible and invisible and mind shielded to high heaven -- but that hadn't kept him from sensing me before.

            So. Since playing defense hadn't been the right move the first time I had encountered him -- oh, it had kept me from being captured, but that was all -- then perhaps I should be more bold. Was that what I was here to learn? That hiding all the time wasn't always the right move?

            I came down 100 feet behind them, landing lightly atop a dune, and the group stopped at once. Apocalypse had been flying in the lead, but now he raised a hand; the Horsemen behind him stopped, and parted down the middle for them as he flew through their midst to take the lead again.

            I let the spell of invisibility fall, and watched his eyes go thoughtful. I couldn't have presented a very impressive figure -- a small, pale girl clad in strange clothes.

            He spoke in that language I didn't understand. I had been expecting it and was focused. I let my mind take in his body language, his stance, his tone of voice, his expression, the pattern of syllables, the number of syllables, his inflection, his cadences. Faster than ever before, I forced my mind, pushed it, comparing what I heard and saw to the modern ancestor of the language. The proto-Egyptian he was speaking had some similarities to Coptic that I had noted before.

            Then again, there were a limited number of possibilities for what the first words out of his mouth were going to be.

            It clicked in my mind perhaps five seconds after he had said it. "You are the stranger who eluded me before. What is your name, and why are you here?"

            Languages had always been easy for me, although I had never before tried to push the translations this fast. And now, my answer needed to be faster still.

            'I' was inferred from 'you'. 'Name' remained unchanged. 'Is' was only a different conjugation of 'are'. I could take those from his words, and my name stayed unchanged.

            "My name is Dragon." Because, after all, there was no way I was going to give any part of my real name to someone whom I knew was still alive in my own present.

            He spoke again, and I listened with the same intensity, overclocking my brain, forcing it to run at much faster speeds than usual. The words he spoke went into the same language 'pool' as his first words, running through a filter that compared them to Coptic. Mentally, I calculated, using a complicated and esoteric formula to measure the amount of change in the 'evolution' of the words I heard him speak from this era's language to Coptic, parsing the rate of that change over the millennia.

            Then I applied that mental formula to the known language of Coptic I had picked up years ago.

            My head hurt.

            "I have been sent here by an unknown figure or force. I believe I am here to learn something." Well, it was honest, and if it revealed more than I was strictly comfortable with, it was still better than being caught in a lie. I was certain he would react badly to that; superpowered megalomaniacs were so paranoid.

            "You fled from my presence before," he stated. It was easier to understand him with every word that passed his lips; the translation machine that was my brain was working just fine now.

            "The transit was unexpected, and I was uncertain as to the reception I might find when I first arrived here."

            That got a slight smile from him. It was a sardonic one, not true humor, but the irony that a person might find in something that was, after all, no better than they had expected.

            "You possess...out-of-the-ordinary bloodseed gifts," he said again. My brain tried to parse that noun and its descriptor a dozen different ways, but finally settled for that. I wasn't entirely certain that Coptic -- much less its primitive linguistic ancestor -- had a word for 'mutant'. 'Bloodseed' was probably as close as the language could get to a word for 'genetic'.

            "Gifts, yes. Genetic, no."

            He was quiet for a moment, probably mulling over the word that I had used, then looked back up at me and shook his head.

            "No. It is as I said. Yes, I can sense that some of what you display is of a learned nature," he demurred. "But there is something of you that comes from--" here my mental translator fritzed, stumbling over a word, and finally came up with the closest equivalent it could, 'birth nature'.

            Was he telling me I was a mutant?

            The expression on my face must have given me away, because he began to laugh. That clinched it for me. I doubted he would find my surprise so amusing if he thought I had believed a lie he'd told, because his amusement in that case would tip me off that it was a lie, and that I was a fool for believing it.

            Shit.

            Shitshitshitshitshit!

            This changed...oh, so many things. I would have to update my info with the Accordds if I ever got back to my own time. Fury would need to be notified.

            But it left one giant, gaping question. If I was a mutant, then why had I never exhibited any powers? Mutants generally manifested their abilities at puberty, although some -- like Franklin Richards, the son of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman -- displayed them when they were much younger. But I had never shown any innate... powers...at all...shit.

            Something I had once overheard my mother tell my father had come swimming to the surface of my mind.

            "Yes, you're smart. You're a doctor, that takes brains. And yes, I'm not exactly stupid. But that's not an explanation. Normal children -- even smart normal children -- do not teach themselves to read at age two out of medical dictionaries!"

            It was the only thing that made sense.

            Exactly.

            It was the same voice as before, speaking directly into my head telepathically as it had done on the beach. It was not Apocalypse; having heard his actual voice, I could tell that much.

            But I still didn't know who it belonged to.

            A wave of dizziness passed through me, and I realized, distantly, that En Sabah Nur had said something -- something I had not answered -- and that his four Horsemen were charging me. Desperately, I tried to shake the dizziness off, to go airborne, to go intangible, but I could feel the world shifting around me, saw the Horsemen vanish just as they would have reached me, saw the whole world vanish--

            --and then I was falling again.

 

—O—

 

            --whirlingfallingflailingspinningturning--

            The light all around me was blue, and I was watching Loki fight Steve, fight Stark, fight Natasha, fight the other Avengers.

            The light all around me was red, and I was watching Thor and Loki fight.

            The light all around me was violet, and I was watching a group of--well, mostly people, of a sort, although one looked like a tree and the other was clearly a raccoon--fight someone I didn't know.

            The light all around me was golden, and I was watching the Avengers -- including Wanda, her brother, and someone else battle an endless horde of mechanical men. Ultrons.

            The light was green, and I was watching my father smile, and feeling the urge to run away.

            The light was orange...was orange...was orange...

            Orange, and I was falling.

            Remember.

            Orange shading into red, a fierce crimson, and laughter.

            I opened my eyes.

            I lay on a beach. It looked familiar, and I sat up slowly, spitting sand out of my mouth in a way that was getting annoyingly common. Was this Fiji? Was I still back in Apocalypse's time?

            A soccer ball bounced over my head me, hit the surf, and bobbed on the wave for a moment before a bikini-clad girl ran past me, giggling, and scooped it out of the water. I tilted my head to look up and saw a jet plane fly overhead, very far up, leaving behind its trail of water vapor in a pale line across the sky.

            So. My time, then, or close enough as to make no difference.

            I got to my feet slowly, dusting the sand off my jeans, and turned, looking around. The beach stretched out for miles, but up near the top of the hill was a snack shop, music playing tinnily from speakers, and in the distance past that, I could see the tower of a hotel. Cars went back and forth on the road past the snack shop.

            I hiked my way up the hill to the shop, plunked myself down on one of the bar stools.

            The girl behind the counter spoke, blowing a bubble and then popping it, the scent of artificial strawberry washing over me. But it wasn’t English; it was French. That alone helped narrow it down.

            “Two things,” I answered in French. “Where am I? And when am I?”

            She gave me the weird look I expected. “You must have the mother of all hangovers,” she said. “You’re in Tahiti. January 11th.”

            “What year?” I emphasized.

            She rolled her eyes at me. “Do you usually get drunk long enough to – no, never mind, I don’t care. 2018.”

            Four days. I had lost four days. I was happy it wasn’t five millennia – at least, any longer.

            I nodded and walked my way up off the beach, across the road, to the hotel. Everything was clean and beautiful. When you thought about it, Tahiti really was a magical place.

            I made my way into the restroom in the first floor lobby. It was unoccupied, and that’s all I cared about, since I’d inconveniently shown up on the island without a mask, and no longer invisible.

            I triggered a hanging teleportation spell and reappeared inside my apartment bedroom.

            “There you are,” came a horribly familiar voice from behind me.

            I turned. Loki was standing there with an all-too-unpleasant smile on his face.

            “So. Not dead after all,” he purred. “I wonder how you managed that, eh?”

            I stood very still. S.H.I.E.L.D. had removed the cameras. I couldn’t count on any help coming.

            “I died,” I said quietly. “Then I got better.”

            “Indeed.” He surveyed me coolly. “And your death ended our oath. Convenient, that.”

            “I didn’t plan it that way. I would have preferred not dying. It was painful.”

            “You think you know pain?” he hissed. “You don’t know the meaning of the word yet. But you wi—“

            I hauled off and kicked him, in the crotch, as hard as I could. I wasn't as strong as an Asgardian, but he wasn’t expecting it and he groaned, collapsing in on himself.

            I didn’t wait. I cast the lifesigns spell, spotted the cats in the library upstairs, teleported to them, snatched them up, and teleported again, right into my father’s Sanctum. If there was any place that had some chance of holding out against him, it was here, and with the oath no longer binding us, he couldn’t bypass the wards.

            Why was he in my bedroom? Why was he on Earth at all? I cuddled the cats even as I heard someone come running. I looked up and it was my father.

            “Beth!”

            “Sorry for the abrupt arrival. I went home and Loki was in my bedroom,” I croaked weakly. The cats were squirming, trying to get down and explore, seemingly unphased by the teleportation. “I need to get hold of Steve right away so he doesn’t walk in while Loki’s still there. That would be…bad.”

            “But where have you been?” he asked, astonished.

            “When have I been might be the better question,” I said. I patted my pockets, but could not find my cell phone. Great. Lost it in time. That’ll drive the archaeologists and historians crazy. “Can I use your phone?”

            He led me to one, an antique rotary-dial monstrosity on a marble pillar, and I managed not to roll my eyes like a teenager. Vintage. I told myself it was vintage, and dialed Steve’s number swiftly.

            He answered it promptly. “Hello?” His tone was cautious, and I was betting he didn’t recognize the number.

            “Steve, this is me,” I said.

            “Beth! Oh, thank God. You have got to quit disappearing like that. Fury is out of his mind about where you vanished to.”

            “Shut up and listen,” I snapped. “I came home to find Loki waiting for me in the apartment. Do not go there – at least, not alone.”

            I could hear his quickly-indrawn breath that would, for anyone else, mean he was about to swear. “Are you all right?” he asked instead.

            Oh, I loved him so much. “I’m fine. I was fast.” I paused. “Also, I kicked him in the fork as hard as I could.”

            Behind me, I heard a choking sound, and half-turned to see Strange turning red as he tried not to laugh. I smirked at him.

            “The…fork?” Steve said at last.

            “I was trying to stick to polite terms for your tender ears, dear,” I said. “Groin, crotch, nuts.”

            My father’s choked gasps turned into hastily-smothered snickers. There was silence from the other end of the phone.

            “Steve?” I asked.

            “I…uh…”

            “Hey, he’s the one that taught me that particular move, he has no one to blame but himself,” I said mildly. The snickering behind me turned to chortles and – as I turned to look – my father hurried down the hall out of earshot, no doubt to laugh much more freely.

            “Oh. Um. Okay,” Steve said at last. “I’ll let Fury know you’re back. And we’ll find a way to check the apartment building and see if it’s still standing.”

            “Probably a good idea. At least Elsie isn’t back from Florida yet.”

            “What about your cats?” he asked, suddenly sounding horrified.

            “Grabbed them before teleporting out,” I replied. “I’m at my father’s place. I need to come in to headquarters, if that’s where Stark’s keeping Pietro Maximoff’s body.”

            “Why—oh, that’s right. You said you wanted to see how bad it was, whether you could have helped him if you’d been on the team then,” Steve said.

            “Right.” Thoughts were cascading through my brain at about a million miles an hour. “And I’ve got my answer ready for your invitation to join. I want to talk to you and Fury about that.”

            “All right,” he said, sounding puzzled. “So…is that a yes?”

            “It’s a yes and a no,” I told him. “How soon can this be arranged?”

            “A couple of hours, maybe? I need to get permission from Wanda, as she is the next of kin,” he answered.

            “Was,” I muttered under my breath, too softly for him to hear. Did next of kin count if the body wasn’t really dead? “Okay. Can you call me back at this number when things are ready? I can teleport up when I hear from you.”

            “Okay, sweetheart,” he said. “Where did you go when you left Wanda?”

            “Long story. Will debrief when I see you all,” I said. “I love you.” I hung up. I wasn’t really looking forward to explaining to them all that I was once again under oath to Doom. Maybe I could get myself killed again—no, it probably wouldn’t work if it was intentional.

            Strange came back down the hall, a patient look on his face as I turned away from the phone. “Did you really kick Loki in his—“

            “Yep,” I said. “There was an immense amount of satisfaction in doing so, too, although I know I’ll pay for it somewhere down the road.” I sighed. “How have you been?”

            “Better than you, I’m guessing, from the sounds of it,” he said. “You said when.”

            “I did. Long story. I don’t suppose there’s food?”

            “We can have Wong cook something up,” he said. “Come on, let’s go sit down. It sounds like you have a couple hours to wait. Would you like some tea?”

            “Tea would be lovely,” I said, and followed him to the parlor.

Chapter Text

            With a stomach full of sheng jian bao, xiao long bao, Chongqing chicken, and spicy prawns with asparagus in ground pork with chili sauce, I sat in the parlor with Strange as my food digested and waited for Steve to call back. The cats purred, curled around my feet; they had been given strict instructions to stay in the parlor, and to only go to the bathroom in one corner of the room that...didn't seem to actually be in this exact dimension any more. I guessed that was one way to avoid having to clean out a litter box.

            "Do you want me to go with you to SHIELD?" my father asked as I sat there savoring the aftermath of the delicious and tastebud-searing dinner I'd enjoyed.

            I thought about it. "Have you been there before?" I replied.

            "Of course," he said. I nodded.

            "I'm not afraid to go alone, exactly," I said. "But I enjoy spending time with you, and I don't feel that I get to do it often enough. Besides, you'll want to hear the story, too."

            "Aside from the kicking-Loki-in-the-groin part?" he chuckled.

            "Aside from that," I agreed. I paused, looking thoughtfully at the Tibetan scroll of an ancient master fighting demons that hung on the wall across from my chair. "It was... hmmm. An eventful journey. And enlightening."

            "Enlightenment is good," he allowed.

            I nodded again. "When it doesn't kill you."

            He arched an eyebrow. "How far back did you go?" he asked. "I mean, I assume it was back..."

            "It was back. Not far enough to run into any dinosaurs. That actually might have been preferable to what I did run into."

            He winced. "Should I ask?"

            I thought about it. "I guess I won the genetic lottery. Only one parent of Homo sapiens ancestry and that's still enough to pass on enough genetic twists to make me a mutant."

            The look on his face was about what I imagine I might have gotten if I'd kneecapped him with a baseball bat. "Bethany, I'm sorr--"

            "I'm not. Don't be. It is what it is." I shrugged. "Besides, my power set is apparently my freakish intellect. I could have been born with scales. All in all, I think I got off easy. And it's not like I'm not already registered. They'll just have to make a small notation to my file." I gave him an amused grin. "This should get me into a slightly wilder class of parties than I'm used to. I wonder if I'll have to apologize to Gambit?"

            Before he could reply, the phone rang, and I bolted up out of my chair and answered it. "Hello?"

            "Beth," Steve's voice came to me from the other end. "We're ready whenever you are."

            "No problems if I bring my father along?" I asked.

            The sounds from the other end were muffled for a second, as if he'd put one hand over the receiver, and then cleared again. "No, that's fine. See you soon?"

            "Any second now." I hung up the phone and turned. My father was walking toward me, the red and gold cape floating over to drape over his shoulders. "Do you want to drive, or shall I?"

            He looked amused. "By all means, why don't you?" he said.

            I extended a hand to him and he took it. I looked over at the cats, which had hopped up into my seat the moment I'd vacated it and were currently fitting together like puzzle parts to soak up the body heat I'd left behind. "Behave, you two," I told them. They ignored me, and I crossed two fingers to trigger the hanging spell--

            --and then we were there.

            Strange reeled back from me, letting go of my hand with a startled look on his face, and I frowned. "What--?"

            "What did you do?" he asked, his voice sharp with surprise.

            "Uh...I teleported us."

            "Yes, but--" he became conscious of Steve, and Wanda, and Fury, and the Widow, and the rest of the group. "You didn't...never mind. We can discuss it later."

            "Is there a problem, Doctor?" Fury asked, polite yet still firm.

            "Just some questions I have for my daughter," Strange said stiffly. "I hardly think they can be of interest in this context."

            "Why don't you let me be the judge of that, Doctor?" Fury asked -- still polite, but the edge of insistence in his voice unmistakable.

            I met my father's gaze and nodded. "I don't mind, if that's what you're thinking," I told him.

            He sighed. "I tend to attribute to my daughter my own recalcitrance in discussing the techniques of magic with non-mages," he said. "And I forget how very open she is about everything about her." He paused, choosing his words with care. "Magic spells such as we use traditionally use hand gestures and sometimes, verbal chants to accomplish the guiding and shaping of the mystic energies to fuel them. Otherwise we would be releasing great blasts of magic energies, but of an utterly random nature, without any management of their ultimate intent. I have seldom seen her perform spells before; we are still in the very earliest days of her studies with me. I am in the midst of drawing up a catalog of the spells she tells me she is capable of performing, yet I have not asked her to show them to me yet."

            "Oh, is that all?" I asked, surprised. "I just mostly use hanging spells, that's all."

            "Hanging...spells?" He looked confused, and then, a touch put off. "I'm not sure I understand that term."

            I could feel Fury's eyes on me, and those of the others, and my father's, most of all -- not odd, since he was the most powerful sorcerer of our dimension.

            "Ummm." I was starting to feel like I had done something wrong. "Can I demonstrate?" I looked at Fury.

            "That depends, little lady," he said. "Mostly, it depends on what sort of spell you're proposing to demonstrate here. Can't have fireballs going off in the middle of Avengers headquarters."

            "Point," I acknowledged. "How about just a spell to turn me invisible? That won't affect anything negatively."

            "Go on, then," he said.

            I turned to my father. "All right. So...sometimes spells need to be cast under urgent or difficult circumstances. There might be only a split-second to react to something...or I might be mostly physically constrained...or I might be all but out of the energy I need to cast any spells. With me so far?"

            He nodded, and I continued. "Normally, to make myself invisible, I would use Ikonn's Invisibility. It requires seven different hand gestures, an eight-line chant that takes, at the quickest, seventy seconds to recite -- all those tongue-twisting extradimensional names -- and a specific, moderate amount of energy."

            "I'm familiar with the spell," Strange said.

            I felt like I was being tested. "And, well...sometimes I don't have seventy seconds. Or that much energy. Or my hands might be tied behind my back." I turned, putting my hands behind my back, crossed over each other as they might be if tied together. "So I came up with a series of...well, call them shortcuts, if you want...to simplify the process of spellcasting. I perform the hand gestures and the chants beforehand, all but a final word or syllable, all but a final fraction of the last hand gesture. I also pour all the energy needed for the spell into it beforehand. Then the spell exists in potentia -- not quite cast, but mostly cast, "hanging" within the space of my personal aura in the way a cat toy might hang from a string." He was staring now. "Then, when I need the spell, I say the final syllable, or make the final part of the gesture. It takes a fraction of the time, and the energy has already been committed to the spell by as much as days, weeks, even months earlier. I haven't discovered an upper limit yet to how long they last; I'm currently carrying around three spells with me that I originally pre-cast over two years ago. It's really only a partial manipulation of time -- like washing the dishes and then leaving them in the rack to dry, knowing that when you come back to them, they'll be mostly air-dried and only need, at best, no more than a swipe of the towel to be finished."

            I reached out and "picked up" the hanging invisibility spell I had specified, holding the globe of shaped and primed energy in the palm of my hand. It would only be visible to those with the ability to see magic, of course -- my father was probably the only one who could see it.

            I nodded, let the spell "drop" on its "string" -- the invisible connection that held it within my aura -- and then said the last syllable, made the last fragment of a gesture.

            And then I was invisible.

            My father fell back a step, the only one here to do so. The others knew what I was capable of, and some of them had seen me do this before; they did not find it odd. I had explained this procedure to Fury during the original registration process some time back, and to Steve, it had not struck them, so far as I could tell, as out of the ordinary.

            Then again, so far as I knew, what Fury and Steve understood about magic might fit in a thimble.

            I became visible again and resisted the urge to make a little bow. My father was still gaping, and finally, he spoke. "What you're talking about...is impossible." I blinked. "To do what you propose would simply result in a waste of the energy used to..."pre-cast" the spell, because it wouldn't be completed. The energy would just bleed away. It shouldn't work."

            "But it does," I said in a small voice. "I've been doing it for years."

            "Nobody told her it was impossible, Doctor," Fury said quietly. "Maybe that's why it isn't, for her."

            Strange shook his head, still looking staggered, but slowly, he nodded. "Perhaps," he said, and glanced at me. "You never mentioned this during our talks."

            "I...didn't realize it was out of the ordinary," I said apologetically. "We can discuss it more later?" He nodded.

            "Now that we've gotten past the initial surprise about how you got here, can we continue?" Fury asked dryly.

            "Yeah, I think that'd be a good idea. But first..." I looked over at Wanda. "I'd like to see your brother's body."

            "Yes," she gave permission with no small amount of urgency in her tone. "Right now, please."

            Fury arched a brow, then exchanged glances with Steve and Natasha. "And do either of you have any idea what this is about?"

            "None, sir," Steve said. "She hasn't said."

            "Sorry, Colonel," the Widow responded. "I'm out of the loop here."

            "I'm supposing that this is tied in to what the two of you were very pointedly not discussing in a way others could hear when you spoke with the Witch last time?" Fury asked me.

            "Yes."

            He sighed. "And is it going to result in any sort of damage to the facility? Or danger to the health or lives of my people here?"

            "Mr. Fury, please!" Wanda said.

            "I give you my word it won't," I told him.

            "No," a ghostly voice came from behind me. "I should think not."

            I turned. The Vision floated there, his gaze calm and steady. "Greetings," he said to me. "It is good to see you again."

            Fury paused. "I was unaware the two of you had ever met," he said cautiously.

            "It was a long time ago, relatively speaking," I replied.

            "Well, missy, he didn't exist a long time ago, relatively speaking or not," he said.

            "My brother," Wanda begged.

            Fury threw his arms up. "Oh, all right," he growled. "Let's get this over with and then we can discuss where you've been and what you've been up to."

            I glanced over at my father. Although I hadn't told him much about my visit to the past, there was a line furrowing his brow now, as if he was contemplating what might be going on.

            I felt a hand slide around mine and looked to see that Steve had stepped into place at my side and taken my hand. I smiled as he gave it a squeeze.

            "Missed you," I told him as Fury led us out of his office and down a hall to the elevator. "A lot."

            "I missed you too, Beth," he said. "Should I ask what trouble you've gotten yourself into this time?"

            I laughed. "You mean, besides kicking Loki in the nuts?"

            "Language!" he cried, even as the Widow whirled and stared at me wide-eyed. I shot her a grin.

            "People, please!" Fury scolded. "We can all discuss kicking Loki in the nuts when this visit down to the sub-cellar is complete, all right?"

            "Fine by me," I said, still smiling.

            He led us out of the elevator into a level I hadn't visited before, pausing to clear his way through handprint, retinal, and voice scans that were part of the security system. Then he stalked down to the door at the end of the hall and opened it for the lot of us.

            Wanda went through first, rushing past numerous pod-like structures to come to a halt before one. It stretched out horizontally on the floor like a coffin or a chest freezer -- apt analogies, as it were, since I could see, through a clear glass window at one end, the face of her brother.

            My father was staring at the pod with a fierce expression on his face, and I knew he could sense the still-active stasis spell I had cast years ago, the ribbons of magic weaving around the still form in the stasis pod carrying the resonance of my particular 'flavor' of magic.

            "Open it," I said.

            Fury scowled. "Last I checked, your father's name was Strange, not Frankenstein," he said. "Why in god's name would you want it open?"

            I just smiled. "So I can do what I do best."

            He stared at me for a long, long time. "You've got some questions to answer when this is through, Miss Strange."

            "I always planned to answer them, sir."

            Fury went to the keyboard at the head of the capsule and began to type. I listened to the click-click of the keys, having already chosen the spell I planned to use. It hung at my side, ready to be called up, and my fingers itched to make those last final crooked twitches that would complete it. The last word of the chant danced on my lips, aching to be spoken.

            The lid lifted off the capsule with a hiss of frosty air, and I stepped forward past Wanda, who was standing there with her hands clasped together, visibly shaking. I reached out and rested one hand on Pietro Maximoff's bloody chest.

            One syllable. "--live," I whispered.

            As we all watched, the bullet holes began to close, new skin creeping in from the edges until it met at the center, leaving no more in the way of scars than tiny white dots at their middle, smaller than the point of a pin. I watched the healing process through the veil of the lifesigns spell, watching his organs knit themselves back together, watching his body manufacture more blood to replace that which had spilled all over Sokovian ground. I watched as everything returned to the way it had been in the seconds before the bullets had pierced his flesh: strong, vibrant, healthy, alive...yet still perfectly unmoving, still held between life and...well, just in life, thanks to the stasis spell.

            "And now, for my final trick!" I announced, and snapped my fingers, dropping the stasis spell.

            And Quicksilver opened his eyes.

            Wanda cried out and threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around him as best she could while he still laid prone. He, for his part, looked around carefully, eyes wandering from his sister to the rest of us in the room.

            Natasha had thrown up one hand to cover her mouth, and Steve looked shaken. Only the Vision looked calm -- but then, he had known, more or less, what was about to happen.

            Fury's voice was very cold when he spoke. "Would you like to tell me what just happened here, Miss Strange?"

            "Yes, I vould like to know as vell," Pietro said veakly. "I think I remember dying..."

            "Nope. You never died," I said.

            "And you would know this...how?" Fury asked.

            "Because she was there," the Vision responded. Fury swiveled to glare at the android.

            "The hell she was!" he barked.

            "The hell she was, indeed," the Vision responded calmly. "I saw her there after the battle."

            Fury looked both pissed and gobsmacked. He looked from the Vision to me and back again. "Okay. You want to tell me how you managed that? By your account during the registration process, you were being held captive in Asgard by Loki then. Or was that a lie?"

            "Nope, not a lie," I said. "Time travel."

            Fury closed his eye and pinched the bridge of his nose with one finger and thumb. Then he looked up, this time at my father. "Please tell me you have not taught your daughter time travel magic."

            "You have my word that I did not, and would not," he said. Then he glanced at me and amended that. "At least, not until I was certain she was ready for such things." He paused. "And there was a need." Pause. "And I could not, for whatever reason, be there to handle such a duty myself."

            "Nobody should be messing around with time travel," Fury said, his voice low. "There's no way to tell what could change."

            "He's never been dead," I insisted, frowning. "Just...sleeping."

            "I was not talking to you," he growled.

            "Did I mention I also found out I'm a mutant?" I asked.

            He spun to look at me, eyelids narrowed, his stare as focused and deadly as a laser beam. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

            I looked over at Wanda, still hugging Pietro; he had sat up and was clearly trying to collect himself.

            "Enjoying saving lives? Enjoying healing people? Enjoying the fact that I could, and did, something that means Wanda doesn't have to spend the rest of her life grieving?" I smiled. "You're damn right I am."

            "I meant you're enjoying yanking my chain, and you damned well know that," Fury snarled.

            "Oh, that too," I laughed. "But you make it so easy, Colonel."

            "Hmph." He crossed his arms, looked at the Widow. "There's spare S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms in that closet over there. Grab him something so he can get changed. Wanda, I'm putting you in charge of your brother for now. He'll need to register, same as you did."

            "Ya, I understand," she said, her accent thickened by tears. She turned to look at me, her voice barely audible. "Thank you."

            "No," I said. "Thank you. Thank you for letting me do this for you. Thank you for letting me make a difference. Thank you for letting me matter."

            She buried her face against her brother's shoulder as he climbed out of the capsule, and carefully, she helped him past us to where Widow stood at the supply closet.

            I felt Steve's hand enclose mine again and turned to smile at him. "So, I have an answer for your request," I told him.

            "Oh?"

            "Sorry, but the Samaritan can't join the Avengers." I paused. "She's a healer, not a fighter. Well, not so much. But also, because my magic does need gestures and incantations -- even greatly abbreviated ones -- eventually, some smart bad guy would figure that out and find a way to stop me. All it takes is keeping me silent and motionless."

            "That easy, huh?" Fury snorted. "But nobody's figured out how to do it yet."

            I rolled my eyes. "However...I will always be available at a moment's notice to come heal the team -- or others -- when necessary."

            Steve looked disappointed, but nodded. "I understand. Sort of a...secret Avenger, I guess."

            "Something like that."

            "Well, I wish you'd decided differently, but if you can't--"

            "Didn't say that," I interrupted.

            Now he looked confused. "But you did. You said you couldn't--"

            "No," I said calmly. "I said the Samaritan couldn't join the Avengers. But I have a different identity in mind, with a different power set that takes absolutely no gestures or incantations because it's innate."

            "Mutant, huh?" Fury said skeptically.

            "Yes. But no. My mutant gift is my intellect. It's not normal for two-year-olds to teach themselves to read without help from anyone older -- even a second grader -- and using her father's medical textbooks as her primer. No. As I mentioned in my registration debriefing, a quarter of my genetics, my ancestry, comes from an extradimensional race, the Faltinians. Their normal state is one of pure energy, a form like fire, and I can take that form. I can become living flame, project flame, absorb it from things that are already burning. Shooting me is pointless because bullets melt before they get close enough to touch my skin. The flight spell I know was made permanent on me a long time ago. Something like what Johnny Storm does, but with a few minor alterations."

            Steve rubbed his chin and looked at Natasha, his expression thoughtful. "That... might come in handy," he said. "You'd need a name..."

            I'd been thinking about it. "Wildfire."

            Natasha stared at me as if I were crazy. "So you're seriously proposing to juggle two costumed identities?" she asked. "Or is the Samaritan going to disappear?"

            "Oh, heck no," I said. "The Samaritan is getting ready to start visiting hospitals all over the world and emptying them by curing everyone inside."

            She blinked, and I could see her trying to take that in.

            "Are you nuts?" Fury exploded. "You can't do that!"

            "Why not?" I asked mildly. "I'm not going to do it publicly. I'll go intangible and invisible, because setting up a pattern of visiting hospitals will invite villains to show up at hospitals randomly to see if I appear there so they can put the hurt on me. I have thought this through a little bit." I sighed. "Colonel. Do you need to breathe?"

            "Is that a threat?" he growled.

            "No, it's a question."

            "Of course I need to breathe!"

            "And I need to heal people. End of story."

            He clenched his fists. "I still don't know the story you promised to tell," he said, very carefully.

            "I found out Doctor Doom has a time machine."

            That got his attention.

            "WHAT?"

            "Yup. Namor told me." I nodded. "And I immediately saw the potential in that for some...rather advanced do-goodery of the sort I prefer." I glanced down to where Wanda was fussing over her brother, and he was taking it in dazed but good spirits.

            "And what did it cost you?" he asked, his voice going completely flat.

            I met his gaze without fear. "What do you think?"

            "You swore to him again, didn't you?" he demanded.

            I nodded toward Wanda. "Completely worth it."

            "Beth, no!" Steve's voice was anguished.

            "My daughter, after the turn of luck that broke you free before, I can't believe you would do this again," Strange said sorrowfully.

            "I wouldn't change a thing," I said quietly. "Sorry if that disappoints you. I look at them like this--" I gestured toward Wanda and Pietro, "--and I think him having his life back is worth a few years. If you disagree, well then, I apologize. But I'm not going to lie to you about it."

            Fury shook his head. "You're incredible," he snorted.

            "I'm guessing that's not a compliment," I said mildly.

            "Good guess." He straightened up, shut the lid on the capsule. "All right, come on...let's go upstairs and you can fill us in on all the details. Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like any of this?"

            "Because you're probably not?" I asked. With a shrug, I followed in his footsteps.

Chapter Text

            Fury dropped down into a chair and looked over at me, the scowl on his face no diminished for having moved to a meeting room. "So I probably won't like this," he said, parroting my words of ten minutes ago back at me, "but let's bring your history up-to-date for our files, shall we?"

            I nodded. The others -- Steve, my father, the Widow, Wanda and her brother, the Vision -- took up places around the table as well. A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with a tablet computer had joined us to record the conversation and take notes, and I settled down into a chair of my own and began.

            "When Steve asked me to join the Avengers, he said the reason he wanted the Samaritan on the team was because he'd already lost one good man during a battle, and that with my abilities, if I'd been with them, I could have saved him." I smiled over at Wanda and Pietro. "And that started me thinking. He was right. And I couldn't help mourning -- and obsessing over -- the one that we lost." Wanda flashed me a grateful glance from where she was seated next to her brother.

            "Go on," Fury said stolidly.

            "Then I met Namor. I haven't had a chance to relay what happened during that incident--"

            "I filled them in...well, I told them as much as I knew," Steve said quietly. "Passed on what you told me."

            "Whales, huh?" Fury said. "All the people in need on this planet and you're using your gifts on whales?"

            "Whales have as much of a right to live as we do, Colonel." It was exhausting, being forced to constantly defend my every word, act, and choice with him. But I understood why he did it; if he stopped asking, eventually someone would do something unforgiveable in the name of the greater good...or what they thought was the greater good, in any event. "Anyway. One of the things I uncovered during my meeting with Namor is that he knew Doom. And one of the things he mentioned during our conversation was that Doom had a time machine."

            "Really?" Fury said. "That must have been an interesting conversation. I'm trying to picture the conversation for that little nugget. 'Thank you for saving my whales and oh, by the way, Victor von Doom has built a time machine.'"

            I grimaced. Steve wasn't going to like this. Quietly, I sketched out what had happened, how hard I had pushed myself, how I had passed out, and how Namor had found me.

            Then I explained the spell I had done to cleanse the ocean.

            It was both interesting and alarming to watch my father's face go the color of cream cheese. Daughter...how? A spell of that magnitude should be beyond you. In fact, I am still trying to determine how the magics you used to save the whales didn't kill you. Using that much power, pushing yourself so far...you said yourself that you ended up hurting yourself when you forced yourself to finish. His voice in my mind sounded shaken, and I reached out mentally to respond even as I kept talking aloud.

            I did not take on the name Samaritan lightly, I 'said' to him. And I see no reason to confine my attentions in healing and helping just to humans. I'm not just human; I don't see the nonhuman inhabitants of this planet as second in importance. And I get really tired of people treating this planet as disposable. Yes, we know now there are other habitable worlds out there humanity could move to. We probably even have the technology to build ships to get there in a reasonable amount of time, thanks to men like Tony Stark and Reed Richards. But just because we can do a thing doesn't mean we should do it. This planet needs its ocean, period. And I'm not sorry for what I did.

            "So you took it upon yourself to take actions that would affect a major part of the world?" Fury demanded.

            "Yes," I responded, unabashed. "You like knowing the ocean was full of oil, and the chemicals that were dumped there by oil companies trying to "clean up"--" I used the finger quotes for that, "--their spills, and all sorts of other garbage? Unexploded mines and torpedoes from all the wars? Entire Sargasso Seas full of floating plastic that gets ingested by animals that then starve to death when they can't digest it and pass it out of their systems? How about the eight nuclear submarines that are currently sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor after accidents that left them beyond salvaging?"

            "I'm not saying the oceans shouldn't get cleaned up," Fury said, frowning, "but who decided you should be the one to do it?"

            "I did," I answered promptly, fiercely. "People make decisions that affect others besides themselves every single day and you don't get to decide whether they should or not for almost all of those. And, oh look, it didn't cost the U.S. government a single penny."

            "I must take a moment to point out that there is a possible outcome here that was not intended," the Vision interrupted politely. Every set of eyes in the room swung to look at him. "As I understand it, you orchestrated the spell to spread the cleansing effect from molecule to molecule of water?"

            Even as I went to say, 'yeah, so?', my brain leapt ahead, lightning-fast, to what was certainly his final point. I managed to keep my jaw from dropping. Shit. Namor got a bigger present than I thought.

            "It is worth noting that the air is, in large part, composed of water vapor...and that at almost every point in the world, the ocean touches the atmosphere. The cleansing effect will spread to the air, as well, cleaning airborne contaminants from the atmosphere."

            I felt a little dizzy.

            "Furthermore, there are a myriad of places where rivers empty into the ocean, and underground streams and springs...and the groundwater table," the Vision continued. "So the effect will spread from the ocean to freshwater sources, as well; by spreading through the groundwater table, which sits at ground level and permeates every landmass in the world, the effect will very likely result in the cleansing of pollution from the land, as well. However, it is impossible for me to calculate, at this time, how long it will take this process to be complete without more accurate information from you on the conversion rate included in the spell."

            Even Fury had gone silent at this pronouncement.

            "Everything touches everything else," I finally murmured. "Nothing on this planet exists in a vacuum." I ran the figures in my head and turned to look at the Vision, who -- alone of the people in the room -- had the same calm expression on his face as when I'd first started talking.

            "Wow," Natasha said wryly, "the corporations are going to be furious with you." She chuckled. "Also, Greenpeace. You've put them out of a job."

            "Not so long as there are still people killing whales and clubbing baby seals," I muttered.

            "Point," she acknowledged.

            "Are you crazy?" Fury sputtered. "Do you not appreciate the seriousness--"

            "Oh, I'm sorry. Should I not have saved the world?" I retorted.

            "Colonel, I'm not quite sure just why you're so vehement over this matter," Strange said. "But I want to state for the record that I am...displeased by what I see as this constant badgering of my daughter."

            "It is the magic, yes?" Wanda said, her accent giving the words an exotic intonation. "It can't be measured, or catalogued. Or understood."

            "Or controlled," I said softly. "That's it, isn't it? It's easy to point at a group of HYDRA agents and tell Steve to throw his shield, or for Thor to throw his hammer, or Stark to blast them, or Hawkeye to shoot a few arrows, or Nat to shoot them, or the Falcon to swoop past them and knock them down, or War Machine to strafe them with the guns attached to his armor. But you don't know how I do what I do, or how much more I might have learned every single time I talk to you, and most of all, you don't know how to effectively direct me to do what I do. You can't point to me in a battle and say 'Magic them!' And if you don't understand it, you how can you trust it?"

            Fury stared at me, his steely gaze pinning me to my seat and saying without words that he didn't trust it -- the magic or me. "Fine." He waved a hand, dismissing the argument...although I suspected that was only for now, and that we would be coming back to it before very long. "Get on with the story."

            I shrugged. "As you wish. Tl;dr version: I set in motion a spell to clean the oceans for all mankind. Namor expressed his thanks. Namor also expressed an interest in me."

            Steve scowled. He knew that part already, of course, but that didn't mean he liked hearing me say so.

            "I pointed out I was in a relationship with someone already and loved that person very much. He waxed wistfully on what might have been if he'd met me beforehand. I made a comment to the effect of, 'Well, you didn't, and there's no way to go back in time and change that'. To which he responded, 'Victor would say different.' To which my response was, 'Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?'"

            I'd recently seen the movie 'Despicable Me' with Steve on DVD. It amused me to copy the Minions' tone of voice. "And that's when I learned that Doom has a time machine. Happy now?"

            "You know I'm not," Fury said mildly. "Not when this whole fiasco has ended up with you under Doom's control yet again."

            "Control is far too strong a term to describe what that oath really does," I said. "I can go against the oath, if I'm willing to suffer the consequences for doing so."

            "And what might those consequences be?" Fury asked.

            "The downside of breaking an oath mostly depends on what the oath does," I explained as simply as I could. Magic was far too complex, too ambiguous, too malleable and fluid to tell him everything about it. Even I didn't know. Just telling him what I did know would take a lifetime. "It varies from oath to oath. In this case, it'd probably result in me being incapable of using any magic I learned directly from Doom. That's a not-insubstantial percentage of my knowledge base. The number of spells I learned from him is pretty high, and the spells I've learned since then from others that uses what I learned from him as a base, that builds on that, is even greater." I paused. "But really, isn't it better to have someone on the inside of Doom's organization, so to speak, who might be privy to what he was up to and be able to feed info back to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers in time for them to derail some of his plans?"

            Fury gave me a contemptuous look. "You really think he's going to tell you anything that might be useful?" he asked. "You're stupider than I thought."

            "Tell me? No. Probably not. He didn't tell me he had a time machine, after all, or about the virus he was working on. But I have ways of finding things out, nonetheless."

            "Hmph." He shook his head. "Cap, you've got the final say on who ends up on your team. But for the record, I think this is a bad idea. Don't let yourself get talked into this just because you're sleeping with her."

            Natasha and Wanda both gasped; Pietro looked shocked, and Steve and my father both looked furious. The Vision, floating off to the side, still looked imperturbable, not even a flicker of emotion crossing his flawless synthetic face.

            "You watch your mouth, Fury," Steve growled, his usual politeness gone. I winced.

            I had known the oath to Doom would be an issue, but I had thought there would be ways to deal with it. I considered suggesting they assign someone to watch me, but that would involve constantly scanning my mind to make sure I wasn't lying -- not just a waste of resources, but difficult. There were, at present, only two Avengers and an ally who could do such a thing: Wanda, the Vision, and my father. My father and Wanda -- given the fact that she seemed to think she owed me a debt -- would be automatically discounted, given the fact that their objectivity would be in question. And the Vision might be impartial, but having him tied up all day reading my thoughts was impractical.

            I considered and discarded other possible ideas. Fury was so wound up that it was no longer just a matter of whether I would be allowed on the team or not; it was starting to feel like he might suggest locking me up in case I helped Doom...which is where this whole sorry thing had started, way back on the helicarrier after the invasion of Doom's castle.

            So what did that leave?

            Hmmmm. Fight smarter, not harder.

            The oath -- all oaths -- were composed, first and foremost, of words. The energy was incidental; having energy to power an oath was meaningless without the words that shaped the intent and outcome. It was words -- my oath to Doom -- that has caused all these problems.

            What words could complicate, words could untangle.

            I knew what I had to do.

            They would hate it, but...it would work.

            I leaned back in my chair, constructing what I wanted in my mind. If I tried to do this without preparation, my father -- at the very least, since he would recognize what I was trying to do, and its potential consequences -- would try to stop me. But I knew of a spell that worked much like a ventriloquist and his dummy...not throwing a voice, precisely, but putting the sort of delay on it that TV stations often used in live broadcasts when they were afraid one of the people speaking might start swearing on-air.

            Yes, that would work. Now all I needed to do was choose my words carefully. I let my head drop, hiding my face, allowing myself to look bored as the others argued. Unseen, my lips moved, spelling out the words I had chosen, though not vocalizing them aloud; the sound they would have made poured into the time-delay spell I had cast, waiting only for the final gesture to be heard.

            Fury would be enraged, of course. He had warned me never to use magic in his presence again without his permission. But I just kept ignoring that command.

            I held up a hand to get a moment to speak, not wanting to interrupt. Fury glared at me. "This isn't first grade, Miss Strange," he snapped. "What is it?"

            I opened my mouth, crooked several fingers, murmured a single syllable. My father straightened at once.

            "Beth, what are you--"

            And then the words came pouring out in a flood, too quick to interrupt, already composed and spoken, moving as unstoppable as a landslide. At the same time, the energy conjured by those words sank its hooks deep into my soul, forging binding chains that nothing short of death could break.

            "I, Bethany Strange, known also as Emily Morgan Drake, Dragon, Bethany Clark, Samaritan, and Wildfire, do hereby swear now before these assembled witnesses that should any order I am commanded to carry out by Victor von Doom, Lord of Latveria, threaten the life, health, sanity, or peace of a single living soul other than himself, I will choose to die rather than complete it. I also swear that if I learn any information in his service that might prove dangerous to anyone, I will bring this information to the attention of Colonel Nicholas Fury, Steve Rogers, or any others of the Avengers -- or such others who might be members of superhuman teams, should the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. for any reason be unavailable. I swear this on my newly recovered soul and my happiness."

            "Beth, no!" my father howled as the words came crashing to an end. It was a hollow exclamation and he knew it, given that the speech-delay spell I'd cast meant that the words had actually been spoken several minutes ago.

            "Oh my god," Steve said, looking stunned. "Beth--"

            "Can we not be drama queens here, people?" Fury snorted. "Am I supposed to be impressed, girl? What was all that mumbo-jumbo?"

            My father rounded on Fury, eyes ablaze. "If you'd been paying attention in the past, Colonel, you'd realize what that 'mumbo-jumbo' was. The only times I ever question my daughter's sanity is when I wonder why she wants to be part of this group, given the constant demands to prove herself you heap on her shoulders--"

            "Don't get your panties in a bunch, Doctor," Fury said coldly. "I put the same demands on everyone in this group, and I fail to see why I should be concerned about some angsty teenager's gibberish."

            Steve had taken my hand, and I offered him a lopsided smile. "You wanted to make sure I wouldn't be a danger to the team, sir," I said to Fury. "And now, I literally can't be."

            "She swore an oath that she'd die before carrying out any of Doom's orders that would endanger anyone. Not just the team, but anyone in the world but Doom himself. The same oath also binds her to share any dangerous information with us that she learns from Doom. If she fails at either, she dies," my father spat. Concise and simple. "If you remember, a mage's word is more binding than human law."

            "But she didn't actually swear to anyone. I remember that from the oaths to Doom and Loki," Fury rebutted.

            "She swore it to herself," Steve said quietly.

            "That way, if I break it, I die," I said, not quite cheerfully.

            "And do you get an exemption if it gets broken because of a mistake, and not on purpose?" Fury demanded.

            "Nope. No exceptions. So I'd better be on my game, eh?"

            "You're an idiot," he snapped, glowering at me.

            "I prefer to think of myself as spontaneously and inventively helpful," I said with a grin. I was terrified.

            "I think my description is more accurate," he sighed. "Was this song and dance really necessary?"

            I shrugged. "You weren't listening, Colonel," I said. "Steve has asked me to join the team. My oath to Doom admittedly put a crimp in those plans. The other alternatives I could think of weren't practical. So. It's a drastic measure, I admit. But it'll work."

            "So would have not having you on the team," Fury said dryly.

            "True. But admit it, sir. You were already thinking past that." I prompted.

            "Oh? I was?"

            I nodded.

            "Well, then, why don't you tell me what I was thinking?" he ordered.

            "You first ran into me at Doom's castle, five years ago. I was under oath then. I woke up in a cell on the helicarrier. Tell me your thoughts weren't headed in that same direction."

            He was quiet for a moment. "I told you if you ever used your magic to read my mind, I'd--"

            "No magic thought-reading here, Colonel. I'm just getting better overall at understanding how people think." I sniffed. "I'm not sure I like it much."

            "Maybe people would think differently if other people did things differently," he said diffidently.

            "You mean like...not doing whatever was in my power to help others? Then I don't think I'd like myself much," I replied.

            He shook his head. "Well, what's done is done. No going back now, I expect. Unless you can do what you did before, and get killed, and the oaths end, and you come back? Is that an option?" he prodded.

            "Conspiring to die in order to nullify an oath would be, itself, a violation of the oath, Colonel," my father said, his voice a little calmer than it had been five minutes ago.

            "Besides, I have no idea if I could do that again," I admitted. "It was a one-in-a-million fluke last time."

            "Good to know," Fury muttered. "All right. I give up. Wildfire, huh?"

            "That was the idea. I'll need a new identity and separate registration, I expect."

            "That you will," he sighed. "Did you have a civilian name in mind?"

            "Hadn't given it the least bit of thought," I said blithely. "Or a uniform, either. I'll need something fireproof."

            He rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful. "Well, I sort of know an expert on that. Come to think of it, although you seem to have a handle on this, I haven't met a newbie yet who couldn't use some training. He can probably help you out on that."

Chapter Text

            And that was how I ended up at the Baxter Building a week later.

            I had a folder full of paperwork in the backpack slung over my shoulder -- "Wildfire's" registration papers, signed and sealed letters from Fury and Steve, the ID for my new identity/Wildfire's civilian persona. I'd spent a couple of hours putting it together, and then Fury had provided me with all the new paper to match.

            As a nice bonus, he'd had me sit down over a few days and take tests to assess just how much I actually knew. As a result, I now had almost a dozen bachelors' degrees tucked away for future need, and three masters' degrees -- one in psychology, one in history, and one in philosophy.

            From now on, as Wildfire, I would go by the name Olivia Harris. To keep things as separate as possible from Beth, the degree 'Liv' had earned was in education; I had no doubt I could teach kids at the grade school level without much difficulty. Kids could be sneaky and troublesome, but since I wouldn't actually be teaching any, it wouldn't be an issue. Liv was 22, fresh out of college -- the NYU Steinhardt School of Education -- with a backstory to match. Her powers were the result of accidental exposure to toxic waste during a chemical spill on the highway; the spill had started fires everywhere the waste had touched, even the road itself. It had been a simple thing for S.H.I.E.L.D. to arrange.

            The face and form had needed to change as well, so now I had long, wavy red hair, hazel eyes, and a shape that would have made Marilyn Monroe look anorexic and made it difficult to balance. I had to re-learn to walk. I'd used magic to change my appearance, of course, fine-tuning my new face into something that would be societally acceptable. Natasha had taken me shopping and I ended up with a couple of pairs of low-rider jeans, four midriff t-shirts, and two short skirts. In January. It made no sense.

            I'd questioned her style choices for the new 'me', but she'd only given me a smirk and a chuckle. "Now, when you get there," she'd told me, "and you meet the guy who's going to be training you, don't do anything Steve wouldn't do."

            The instructions left me mystified.

            I'd spent the last few days changing the way I talked -- using more slang, giggling, and telling jokes. 'Liv' played volleyball and soccer; 'Liv' wore make-up and perfume, even just to go grocery shopping; 'Liv' liked the music of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga; 'Liv' thought one-piece bathing suits were for old maids.

            If nothing else, the experience gave me a deeper understanding of undercover espionage work; building an entirely new identity from scratch was a lot more work than I'd thought.

            The taxi let me out in front of the building and I went inside to the ground-floor lobby, signed in, then rode up in the elevator. On the third floor from the top, there was an attractive woman seated behind the reception desk; Fury had let me know she was a hologram. Hologram or not, she looked real enough as I came to a stop in front of the desk.

            "Welcome to the Baxter Building. How may I help you?" she asked.