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A Good Man

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Abraham Erskine: “Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

--Captain America: The First Avenger

Tony: “I don’t trust a guy without a dark side. Call me old-fashioned.”
Steve: “Well, let’s just say you haven’t seen it yet.”

--Age of Ultron

He returned his attention to Thor’s hand. “So, that’s the trick, I guess, with these damn Stones,” said Steve. “To have,” and he wove their fingers together again. “To have, but not to use. I don’t know if I could do it.”

“I do,” said Thor, and he smiled at Steve. “You would struggle. As I have. But you would do the right thing.”

--Starborn

~Brooklyn~

Steve woke to a ticklish beard nuzzling across his cheek, into the hollow of his neck. He stretched, turning as he blinked. Thor looked at him with sleepy mischief.

Between them lay Sarah. Sometime during the night, she’d crawled into bed with them. She’d been doing that a lot more since they returned to Earth for the year. It was a big change for her – going to school, trying to make friends, navigating the strange and difficult politics of the third grade.

“Hullo,” whispered Steve to Thor, his voice rough with sleep. “What time is it?” It was still dark in their room, but he could hear early morning Brooklyn traffic outside their window. For many, the day had already begun.

“I’m not certain,” said Thor, elbow bent, head resting on his hand.

The AI that controlled the apartment helpfully displayed the time right over their heads: just after four in the morning. As warm and cozy as he was, it took Steve a moment to realize that Thor probably woke him for a reason. He forced his eyes open again. Thor watched him and Sarah with searching eyes, like he was cataloguing the many details of this particular moment to remember later.

“What is it?” asked Steve, a small burst of adrenaline waking him further. It couldn’t be that urgent if Thor was lingering in bed with him.

“Oh,” said Thor, his gaze falling somewhere far away. “Valkyrie calls me back to Asgard. There appears to be unrest again between the Kree and the Xandarians. She’s received a request for assistance from the Nova Prime.”

Steve absorbed this news. While he stayed on Earth for Sarah to go to school, Thor went back and forth between Earth and Asgard, going for a week or a month as needed. But this time, there was a quality to his tone and manner that seemed different. “They’re always fighting.”

“Yes.” Thor furrowed his brow.

Usually, Asgard didn’t get involved with the many constant conflicts plaguing the universe, but Xandar was a special case. Steve knew Thor still felt guilty he couldn’t do anything to save the Nova Corps when Thanos decimated their ranks.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” said Steve. He could read all the signs on Thor. Something had upset him, but he was keeping it hidden from Steve.

Thor gave him a half smile. “It’s nothing. Just a dream I had…” Alarm bells began to ring in Steve’s head. He tried to remember his own dreams from the night before, but they were indistinct and fading. He thought he had dreamt of Sarah, maybe. Seeing his expression, Thor shook his head. “Honestly, it’s nothing.”

Steve wasn’t convinced. “Maybe we should all go back with you.”

“She has a month of school left,” said Thor, his free hand lightly caressing their daughter’s hair.

“I know, but—” Steve’s gut was yelling at him, telling him they shouldn’t part.

“And we promised her she could go to Wakanda and spend time with Mandla over the summer.” Mandla was King Anathi’s son, his only child, about the same age as Sarah. They’d taken quite a shine to each other when they met during the holiday break.” He paused. “It would upset her,” said Thor.

That won the argument. “I don’t like this,” said Steve.

“I know. Neither do I.”

Steve reached across and took Thor’s hand in his. “Maybe you stay on Asgard this time, and send the Valkyrie or the Einherjar. Or, you know, you stay here with Sarah. Send me in your stead.”

Thor gave him a look. “Ah. So that’s your purpose all along,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

This was the source of the main cause of friction between them. Valkyrie had been making the argument more and more that Thor should remain on Asgard when they came to the aid of any of the Nine Realms, or when they saw reason to step into a conflict. She insisted Thor’s place was with his people. He was King. His job was to rule, unless all of Asgard was at war. When Steve had sided with her, they’d had their first real argument.

It was entirely hypocritical of Steve. He knew it. But they couldn’t both go anymore. One of them had to stay behind. For Asgard. For Earth as well. But mostly for Sarah. Everyone said your life changed when you had a child. Steve hadn’t realized how true that would be until the first time one of the Nine Realms was threatened after Sarah was born.

He and Thor had come to a sort of take turns compromise. But Steve knew Valkyrie was right. Thor knew it as well. Asgard’s resources were no longer stretched as thin as they had been. Their numbers were growing. The Valkyrie and the Einherjar, with Steve leading them, could handle most conflicts. Thor didn’t need to go.

Except when he did. Like now, with Steve remaining on Earth with Sarah while Thor returned to Asgard.

“You can’t blame me for trying,” he said to Thor, with a smile.

Thor pursed his lips, giving him a consoling look. “It won’t be a difficult fight,” he said.

“That’s not the point,” said Steve. Thor leaned in to kiss Steve, careful not to squish Sarah between them. “And you’re trying to distract me.”

“Is it working?” asked Thor.

Steve chuckled. “Maybe.” They parted, and that look of mischief returned to Thor’s heated gaze. Steve glanced down at Sarah. She was still fast asleep. “How soon do you have to leave?”

“I can be delayed,” said Thor, leaning in to deepen the kiss. Steve felt the zing of pleasure, the slide of tongues and lips. “Hm,” said Thor, kissing Steve’s neck. “Hold that thought.”

Thor slid out of bed, scooping Sarah into his arms. He disappeared from the room but returned quickly, pausing by the wall panel near the bedroom door and pressing the command that programmed the AI to interrupt them if Sarah left her bed again.

“Where were we?” asked Thor, stripping naked in less than a second and flopping into bed.

Steve laughed, and they wrestled until Steve was on top and he could stare down at Thor and admire everything he saw. They paused, the moment becoming needy. Thor brought his arms around Steve, and held on tight.

He removed Steve’s T-shirt, warm hands skimming over Steve’s back. Steve’s pants followed, and they were both naked. Steve slid between Thor’s legs, already rock hard and pressing insistently against Thor’s hip.

“I’m going to take you,” he said, reaching for the lube.

“Take me where?” asked Thor, eyes shining. He inhaled when Steve bent down to suck and tease a nipple. Steve sensed the charge in the air, the tightening of his skin as electricity built between them. They had installed a special bed frame that grounded electricity, to keep from frying the equipment in their apartment. That one time they’d caused a citywide black out had been deeply embarrassing.

“Everywhere,” said Steve. He used the fingers of his left hand to explore and prepare Thor, watching the play of emotions cross his face, reading him like a book. Sparks flashed each time he pressed and massaged into that spot inside Thor. Steve bent down again, going lower, taking Thor into his mouth, swirling his tongue. He swallowed as much of Thor’s length as he could, listening to the noises he made.

If they’d had the time, Steve would have made Thor come like this, with his fingers, sucking until Thor pulsed in his mouth before making him hard again when Steve pushed inside. But, between Sarah most likely waking soon, and Thor needing to leave, he only allowed himself a few seconds indulgence.

Steve slicked up, positioned himself, and pressed Thor’s legs wider as he sank in slowly, smoothly, watching the flush spread across Thor’s skin.

He bent to take Thor in a kiss, thrusting into his mouth in the same rhythm he thrust into his body. He went deeper as Thor’s breathing grew ragged, stroking him until their eyes met and Thor came in long, uneven thrusts into Steve’s hand.

Thor pulled him in for another kiss, desperate and needy as Steve thrust faster until he came, shaking.

They lay together, recovering slowly, arranging limbs more comfortably. Thor kissed him again and Steve lay with his head on Thor’s chest, listening to his heart as the sky lightened outside.

One or two minutes passed, before Steve took Thor’s hand, their fingers hooked together. They could delay, but it wouldn’t make it any easier. “Come on,” he said. “Shower, before she wakes. And then you can say goodbye.”

With a release of breath, Thor obeyed, following Steve into the bathroom.

~Asgard~

Thor landed on the Bifrost site. It was late in the day on Asgard, the temperature several degrees cooler than Brooklyn. He took a moment to take a deep breath and admire the beauty of his home.

Clouds spread like a blanket over the mountains, wreathing their peaks in mystery. The wind had a sharp stinging bite. It played with the apple tree groves, swishing the branches in whispering conversations. The sea churned with peaks and valleys, choppy and unsettled.

He could never thank Rabbit enough for leading him to this planet, where he and his people made their homes. The planet had accepted the Asgardians with such grace and ease, with open arms.

The repeated use of the Bifrost on one spot had begun to change the native rock to crystal, imbued with the rainbow light. The change would continue as the years progressed, sinking deeper, spreading wider, affecting the core of the planet. Even as small and localized as the change was now, he could feel its power giving him strength, as he used to in his father’s Asgard. Inch by inch the rainbow bridge would regenerate. It would take millennia. He could do it faster, if he dared to use what he and Steve kept hidden, but he wouldn’t.

Before he sought out Valkyrie, Thor took time to gaze at the sea, employing the sight given to him by Heimdall, searching the cosmos. He saw the unrest on Xandar. He saw the Kree fleets preparing on Hala. He searched for that spot of nowhere that itched in his mind, calling to him.

Then, he turned from all that, and searched until he saw Earth, and found Steve and Sarah exiting their apartment building. Sarah was excited, bouncy and unable to walk calmly, chattering to Steve about something her teacher at school had planned for their class that day. She had clipped her golden-red hair back, the exact same color as his mother’s, with two barrettes, and he could tell she’d put them in herself because they were lopsided.

Steve was trying to keep her from skipping ahead of him. He carried her backpack, putting her snack inside it, then helping her put it on. They stopped at the first light crossing, holding hands. While they waited, Steve looked at the sky, and from across countless miles, across galaxies, it was as if their eyes met. He knew Steve could sense when he watched.

I am home, said Thor. I love you.

Steve colored. He placed a hand against his chest. Thor, he said, simply and clearly in his mind.

The light changed. It was time to cross the street. Sarah tugged on Steve’s hand, eager to get to school. They were going to be late.

Thor saw no danger near them, he saw no cause for concern. Satisfied that his family was safe, he turned and headed up the thoroughfare to the palace in search of Valkyrie. He found her ensconced in the ship hanger, using the Commodore’s scanning tech to prepare for the mission.

She took one look at him and recognized his mood. Valkyrie folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the ship console. “No Steve, I take it,” she said.

Thor didn’t answer, reviewing the star map she’d pulled up, recognizing the region of space belonging to the Nova Empire. “Talk to me.”

Valkyrie continued to study him for an uncomfortably long time, refusing to speak, as intimidating as ever in her armor, hair pulled back in an elaborate design.

Thor sighed. “Yes. Steve remains on Earth, with Sarah. She has school. He wanted to come, but… I asked him not to.”

Her nostrils flared, and she narrowed her eyes, but seemed to accept his answer. She turned to the star map, using her hands to search and focus on the right coordinates. “It’s a border dispute, basically. The Kree are claiming this region of space, along here. Problem is, these three systems have Xandarian colonies.” She pointed out the three planet systems at the heart of the dispute. “Mostly defenseless. They’re sending what Corps they have, but the Kree are better positioned. They expect heavy casualties.”

He studied the map. “Choose three of the Valkyrie to remain on Asgard, with a squadron of Einherjar.” When she didn’t immediately do as he asked, he turned to her. “Speak plainly. You think I should remain on Asgard.”

She let go a breath, then shook her head. “No, actually. I’m questioning if we should go at all.”

Thor tapped on the images of the three colony planets, bringing up their statistics. The first two had populations of just under half a million. The third colony had triple that amount.

“You can’t save them all,” she said.

“No. But I can save some. If you prefer, I’ll go alone. You and the Valkyrie can remain on Asgard.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be daft. If I let you do that—”

“Let me?” he asked, indignant.

“Yeah, Your Highness. If I let you do that, I could never look Steve in the face again. He should be here, if for no other reason than you’re impossible to deal with when he isn’t.”

Thor huffed, then closed his eyes and sighed. “I know he should. The timing of this… sucks,” he said, turning to the map again and staring at it, trying to pinpoint the source of his unrest. He turned back to Valkyrie. “But contrary to popular opinion, I don’t actually control the universe.”

She twisted her lips in a half smile. “Could have fooled me.” They fell into a not entirely comfortable silence. He wondered how much she knew or suspected. “I’ll go and get the others ready, yeah? Give me thirty minutes.”

He meant to follow her after she left, but instead, he faced the map again. He didn’t know what to search for, what coordinates were needed. With a couple of fingers, he swiped along the map until it showed an area of space he had nearly forgot about until he’d seen it in his dreams. But it was there, calling to him.

~Brooklyn~

The month passed quickly, between his work with the Avengers and Sarah’s school activities. Thor had not returned yet, the dispute between the Xandarians and the Kree dragging on. When he closed his eyes and concentrated, he sensed Thor’s frustration as well as his determination. He would not abandon the Xandarian colonists.

Steve crossed the street and entered Prospect Park, heading for the playground. His business at the Avengers’ compound had taken longer than anticipated, making him late. He’d wanted to be there for Sarah’s last day of third grade, but got stuck in a meeting with Jaina and Rahul reviewing disturbing intel they’d received from Washington D.C. Satellites in orbit had picked up strange sensor echoes and everyone was on high alert.

It didn’t matter much, in the scheme of things, but it annoyed him personally that he hadn’t been there to pick up Sarah from school. With Thor away, he’d asked Ana Barton, Shane Barton’s youngest daughter, to fetch Sarah. Sarah didn’t care either way, just as happy to have Ana pick her up. Probably preferred Ana who would buy her an ice cream and take her to the playground. Everything was new to Sarah, everything an adventure.

He entered the playground and spotted Sarah dangling from the monkey bars. He relaxed when he saw her, and the bright spot in his chest that was his daughter pulsed a little brighter. Connected to her in the same way he was connected to Thor, he would have known if she were upset or in any kind of distress, but being a visual person, and ultimately an old-fashioned one, he liked seeing her happy and having fun with his own two eyes.

She was easy to spot because she literally sparkled. Sarah had dressed herself that morning, and had chosen to wear part of her sequined, glittery dance recital costume, combined with a pair of Hulk leggings. “Excellent choice,” said Steve, pouring Sarah a glass of orange juice with her breakfast. “But don’t you want to wear some regular clothes for your last day of school?”

“No,” she said, with a one-shoulder shrug. “I want to wear this. The rules say it’s okay to wear. I checked.”

“Okay,” he said, amused. It didn’t matter to Sarah if the other kids at school made fun of her, or if she got too much attention for wearing a sparkly outfit. She didn’t register their reaction as negative. On Asgard, she was a princess. She could wear what she wanted, and if anyone else had a problem with it, that was no problem of hers. As long as she didn’t hurt anyone. And as long as it didn’t violate school policy. She might not care what people thought of her, but she did care very much about following the rules. She called them Earth rules. What did the Earth rules say? It fascinated Steve, the logic of her mind. Everything about Sarah fascinated him.

Ana Barton hovered nearby, keeping her watchful eye on Sarah. Little more than a kid herself, she’d be starting her sophomore year of college in the fall. She cheered Sarah’s progress across the bars, and then held her hand when Sarah wanted to play in the sandbox. Less obvious was Kaya, the Dora Milaje standing several feet away, whom Anathi had kindly assigned to Steve for Sarah’s protection.

A quick look around told Steve no reporters were lurking in the shadows, and his kimoyo bead scans showed no drones overhead. The whole point of bringing Sarah to Earth for the year was for her to experience third grade and playgrounds and dance recitals like a normal kid. Hard to do that if your dad was constantly being chased by reporters, or if some bozo got it into his head he could get to Steve Rogers through his daughter.

At the start of this experimental year, he and Thor had considered disguising Steve’s face using masking technology, to possibly give them a little more freedom when he was in public with Sarah. But Sarah had hated it, and didn’t understand why he had to change his face. Thor had hated it as well. “I can’t take you seriously. I might forget what you look like,” said Thor, refusing to give Steve a kiss when he looked like some random stranger.

“Daddy, take it off,” cried Sarah, covering her eyes.

“Okay, that’s a bust,” said Steve, releasing the mask. The technology had advanced considerably since the previous century when Natasha Romanoff had used it during their operation to take down Project Insight. Now, he barely felt the fabric, and it seamlessly masked his face. Too well, apparently.

“We could try the other thing,” said Thor, consolingly, taking Steve’s left hand and kissing his palm.

Their eyes met. The other thing wasn’t a real option, in Steve’s mind. He shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said to Thor. “Too risky.”

They gave up on disguising Steve in public, but instead increased security, and tried to keep it mostly in the background and out of sight. For himself, Thor sometimes used tricks of illusion when in public with Sarah, but he wasn’t on Earth as much as Steve, dividing his time between their Brooklyn apartment and Asgard.

Ana spotted him and waved. “Hey, Uncle Steve,” she said.

He waved back, and they greeted each other warmly. “How’s she doing?”

“Fine,” said Ana. She gave a quick report. Sarah was a happy kid, generally, but her natural confidence didn’t translate to making friends easily at school. She took after Steve too much: too reserved, too much an outsider. Today was a good day. Steve saw that Sarah had made friends with a girl wearing eyeglasses that made her small face look owlish, her dark hair in two pigtails. They huddled together, busy building a sand castle, digging out a moat.

It was easier on Asgard where Sarah didn’t have to try and fit in. He hoped putting her in the third grade was doing some good for her. Whenever he reminded Sarah she didn’t have to go if she didn’t want to, they could return to Asgard at any time, she shook her head vehemently. “No. I like school! I want to stay.”

He’d forgotten what playground politics could be like. Or maybe, he’d just hoped it had gotten better since the 1920s. “You worry too much,” said Thor. “Let her experience all of it, just as it is.”

“I know, I know,” muttered Steve, then he let Thor hold him.

Sarah’s bright, cheerful, “Daddy!” cut through the playground noise.

“Hi, kiddo,” said Steve. Sarah skipped over, covered in sand, and Steve hugged and kissed her slightly musty hair, since she’d skipped her bath the night before. He sent her back to the sandbox, and sat with Ana on a nearby bench to watch Sarah play.

Ana caught him up on her family. Her older sister, Maia, had the Barton genes. A gymnast and an expert markswoman, she was currently touring with a theatre company across Europe while secretly doing side work for SHIELD under the code name Hawkeye. Ana took after the Carter side of the family, trying to decide between a degree in political science or criminal justice.

“Mom’s pushing for law school, of course, but I’m still undecided.” Both of Barton’s daughters had soft brown hair and a mess of freckles across their noses, spitting images of their father, but Ana had Clint Barton’s smoky blue eyes. “Sorta leaning toward law enforcement, maybe the FBI.”

“You have time,” he said. “Don’t let Amanda rush you.”

Sarah and her friend added a second story to their castle. It was starting to look more and more like the palace on Asgard.

An argument broke out between two older boys in the playground, near the sandbox. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kaya move closer. That was his first warning. He and Ana turned as the two kids began fighting over possession of a hover board. The taller of the two shoved the other boy, hard, and he fell to the ground.

Sarah looked up from her sand castle. The kid on the ground, visibly upset, picked up his hover board and lunged. They crashed into the sandbox. Steve was on the move before he realized it, Ana right behind him. Kaya zoomed in from the other side. But they still couldn’t reach Sarah in time.

Sarah’s friend screamed in fright. Sarah moved in front of her, arms spread wide. When the two boys tumbled onto the girls, Sarah pushed them away so strongly they went flying clear across the playground. As they landed, they cried out in pain.

Gasps of shock and alarm erupted from children and adults alike. Everyone looked from Sarah to the boys and back again. A woman whom Steve assumed was the boys’ mother or guardian rushed over. They groaned, more stunned than hurt, and Steve felt instant relief. Luckily, the playground had cushioned padding covering the ground. Sarah had thrown them pretty far, but if they were moving around they couldn’t be hurt that badly. With a glance at Kaya, he asked her to check on the boys.

Sarah stood in front of her friend, horrified at what she’d done. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” She turned to Steve, her eyes wide, and ran to him, burying her face against his side, wrapping her arms around his waist. He cupped the back of her head, feeling the tension in her body.

Ana made sure Sarah’s friend was okay, and Steve turned to speak to her parents.

“Is she okay?” he asked, meaning their daughter. Their expressions changed from concern to confusion. The dad did a double take when he recognized Steve, staring dumbstruck. The mom recovered more quickly, but still didn’t manage to speak. He decided to ask the girl directly, bending slightly to speak to her. “Hey sweetheart, are you okay? Did you get hurt?”

“I’m fine. That was scary!” said the girl, her big owlish eyes staring up at him. She was an adorable little thing, her pigtails slightly askew, her glasses lopsided on her face.

“Yeah it was.” He smiled at her, then turned to Ana. “Make sure they have our info, in case they need anything.”

She nodded. He glanced at Kaya and saw she had the two boys sitting up. They each had a scrapes on their arms and knees, but that appeared to be the extent of their injuries.

He patted Sarah on her back. “You feeling up to apologizing?” he asked her.

Her arms tightened around him, her face hidden against his side, until she looked up at him and he saw that she wasn’t crying, but her eyebrows were furrowed together and her face was full of worry and heartbreak. “Did I hurt them?”

His heart bled for her. She sometimes had trouble controlling her strength, and every year she grew stronger. She was already stronger than he was. They kept her out of competitive sports for this reason. Fortunately, she loved her dance classes.

“Come on.” They walked together to where Kaya stood with the two boys. Up close, he could see they were brothers and the woman with them could only be their mother. “Sarah would like to apologize,” he said.

The mother’s face grew pinched with anger. “You shouldn’t bring a child like her onto a playground. She’s dangerous. She could really hurt—”

She abruptly stopped when she got a good look at Steve’s face. Steve had his hands covering Sarah’s ears, though he knew she would have heard everything.

“I can address your concerns privately, if you like. But right now, Sarah would like to apologize. Is that okay?” The woman stared at him, color draining from her face. He took advantage of her uncertainty, and bend closer to Sarah. “Go ahead.”

Sarah sighed with her whole body, then bravely faced the two boys. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”

The younger of the two boys was making an “It smarts! It smarts!” type of expression as Kaya got a better look at the scrape on his forearm, but the older kid tried to play it off like it was no big deal. “D’you really throw us that far?” he asked.

Sarah wrinkled her nose, grimacing. “I think so. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

Kaya took one of her kimoyo beads. “These are superficial,” she said, speaking to the boys but adding a significant look at their mother. The woman was slow to recover from her surprise at being addressed by Captain America, but clearly still very upset. Kaya activated the bead, and directed its beam at the younger boy’s scrape. It slowly disappeared, healing completely.

“Cool,” said both boys at the same time. “Do mine! Do mine!” said the older one, showing a scrape on his knee.

Seeing there wasn’t much else for him to do, Steve called Ana over to help Kaya with the boys and their mother, and then picked up Sarah in his arms to carry her back to the bench he’d been sitting on previously, settling her on his lap. She’d been holding back tears, but now that they were relatively alone, he saw her eyes start to spill over. She had never been a big crier, even as a toddler.

“You did really good,” he said to her, a hand on her back. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’m proud of you.”

“But I hurt them,” she said, in a small voice, her fingers playing with the zipper pull of his jacket.

“You were protecting your friend. That’s the important part. Remember that.”

Sarah heaved another big sigh, then raised her eyes to meet his. She had Thor’s eyes, exactly – one hazel brown, the other sky blue. He was still amazed by this. Whenever Steve had Thor and Sarah both looking at him at the same time with their matching eyes, he was sometimes rendered speechless. He’d asked Lady Eir about it once, not understanding the genetics. Thor hadn’t been born with two different colored eyes. Lady Eir had shrugged. “She must have wanted it that way,” she said.

Somehow, by Asgardian magic, Sarah had chosen those attributes she wanted most. She was a collection of all her family past and present. In looks and coloring, Sarah resembled Thor’s mother, Frigga, the most. So he was told. They had the same thick, golden red hair with caramel-like undertones, the same shape of face. But sometimes, Steve saw his own mother, Sarah’s namesake, shining through. When Sarah smiled a certain way, or when she scolded either him or Thor. When she lit up like a beacon with joy. Her mannerisms brought back memories that he had long since forgotten, of how his mother used to sit in their kitchen and drink a cup of tea. The way Sarah sighed, with her shoulders and with a slight pinch to her lips. How she scrunched her face in concentration over homework, gripping her pen. Her kindness, her dislike of causing pain – those were attributes she inherited from the first Sarah Rogers.

Thor said she took after Steve. “She has your unbreakable spirit. Your clarity of mind. She’s not often afraid or uncertain.”

Steve felt humbled by this description, and unworthy of it. He often felt plagued by doubts. “She’s got your self-confidence, though, thank God. And your sense of style.”

“Well, yes,” said Thor, strutting a little.

Sarah was slight, like he had been, but both the healers on Asgard and the doctors on Earth assured him she was one hundred percent healthy, with no sign whatsoever of the illnesses that had plagued him as a child. Physiologically, she was Asgardian. Her lifespan would match theirs. She was Odin’s grandchild, the heir to the throne of Asgard, and her powers were only now starting to show.

And with all that, she was also just an eight-year-old girl, upset that she might have hurt someone, and trying to hold back tears.

“Hey,” he said, rubbing her back. “I know something that’ll cheer you up. Where are we going tomorrow? Can you guess?”

She wiped at her eyes, then looked inquisitively at him. He saw her figure it out, brightening up with excitement. “Are we going to Wakanda?” she asked, her entire aspect changing. “I get to see Mandla?”

“Got it in one,” he said. “Now that you’re done with school, we’ll be leaving first thing. You’re going to have a lot of stories for Mandla. I know he’s looking forward to seeing you.”

“Will Papa be there?” she asked, another worry causing a crease between her eyebrows.

Steve became very still, too aware that Sarah was watching his every expression. “I hope so. He’s doing the best he can. Being a king is hard work sometimes.”

She frowned, deep in thought. He didn’t like seeing her so worried. “He’s tired,” she said. “I can feel it.”

Steve’s heart rose into this throat. There was no use in denying it. They both felt it. Steve had been trying to hide his concern from her ever since Thor had left a month ago. He didn’t want to give credence to his gut telling him something was off, but he couldn’t ignore it either. “I know.” He tickled her a little, getting her to laugh. “Remember. He’s the Mighty Thor. He’s tired because he misses us. We’ll just have to spoil him when he gets back. You know how much he loves that.”

“Yeah,” she laughed, then flung herself into Steve’s arms, and he rubbed her back some more.

Over by the sandbox, Sarah’s friend waved frantically, calling to her, trying to get her attention. “What’s your friend’s name?” he asked.

Sarah turned, smiling and waving back. “Marcella,” she said.

“Do you want to play more?” he asked. Sarah brightened, and nodded. “All right, go ahead. We’ve got a couple hours yet before dinner. Go on.”

She hopped down from his lap, running all the way back to jump into the sandbox where she and Marcella greeted each other like long-time friends, hunkering down to fix their sand castle that had gotten half-destroyed in the scuffle.

He had only one regret about Sarah, and that was that neither she nor Bucky would ever know each other. It killed him to think about it. He wished, desperately, that Bucky could be there with him, watching his daughter play in the same park they used to play in.

Ana, who had been keeping her distance and speaking with Kaya while he dealt with Sarah, came over to sit beside him. She reported that the boys were okay, and their mother somewhat mollified.

“Thank you for handling that,” he said. “Why don’t you join us for dinner tonight? It’s our last night in Brooklyn. Not sure when we’ll be back. It’ll give us more time to say goodbye.”

The invite was last minute, but his thoughts of Bucky left him feeling the need to have family with him.

She smiled, a little regretfully that their time together was ending. “I’d love that. Thanks.”

They watched Sarah and Marcella play for anther half hour. The two brothers came over to say their own apologies, offering to give the girls rides on their hover board. Sarah turned to Steve for permission, clearly very much wanting to try the hover board for herself.

“Okay,” he said, amused, feeling like he’d better go closer just in case. But the two boys had learned their lesson, and were very careful with both girls, especially Marcella, as they skated around the playground.

The older of the brothers asked Sarah to throw him across the playground again. “No!” she said, completely scandalized. “You could get hurt.”

The boy, whose name was Jordan, looked crestfallen, but got over his disappointment when she offered to push him on the hover board.

Steve invited Marcella and her parents to join him and Sarah and Ana for dinner. They were a little star struck, but slowly warmed up to him. He learned the dad, Ernie, was a construction contractor, and Marcella’s mother, Adriana, was a nurse practitioner. It was clear their daughter was the center of their world.

The girls had fun. Shane and Amanda joined them, and he convinced Kaya to stay as well. They ordered take out, and it was a large group that settled down for dinner, made unexpectedly even larger when Jaina showed up unannounced in time for dessert.

He took a moment apart from his guests, retreating so he could observe them for a moment as the adults talked, and the two girls played with Sarah’s toys. Concentrating, he called to Thor with his mind. It took longer than usual, and the entire time he waited, he tried not to panic. Then, he felt Thor’s presence, felt him seeing through Steve’s eyes. Together, they watched their daughter play with her friend. We miss you, too he said.

~Nova Empire~

Thor strode into the main hall of the Nova Corps with Valkyrie on one side and Freya on the other. Gunnvor took up the rear. When he stood before the Nova Prime, he bowed his head in deference, one leader to another. The Nova Prime returned the honor, his dark hair swept up into an elaborate style, twin streaks of white on either side of his brow.

“Nova Prime,” said Thor. “Thank you for your hospitality. Your colonies are safe, and the Kree have returned to their home world. It’s time the Valkyrie and I returned to ours.”

“I understand. As always, it’s been an honor and a privilege. On behalf of the Nova Corps, we’d like to express our profound gratitude for your help in securing the safety of our colonies. We can never thank you enough, Your Majesty.”

Thor shook his head. “Your people are safe. That’s all the thank you I need. If that’s all, we’ll be taking our leave now.” Thor turned to depart.

“There is one other item of business,” said the Nova Prime, interrupting. Thor paused. “If you would come with me?” The Nova Prime held an arm out, indicating they should proceed ahead of him.

Anxious to leave and reluctant to delay matters any further, Thor hesitated, but he knew he could not refuse. He and the Valkyrie walked toward where the Nova Prime pointed, through to an exterior hanger bay where several small vessels were docked, all in a row. Thor counted quickly and realized there were twenty ships exactly.

“What is this?” he asked.

“May I present the Pegasus. These are for you, if you will have them,” said the Nova Prime. “A small fleet of shuttlecraft-type ships, fully adjustable, customizable, and modular. You can change their shape and design as needed, and they can be combined into one larger vessel, or by twos and threes, or used as the twenty individual ships you see now. Each is just large enough for two or three occupants, or one occupant and one horse,” he added with a smile. “The Valkyrie are impressive warriors, Your Majesty. And their winged horses no less so. We know you hardly need such conventional ships. Yet, we hope these might be useful to you.”

Valkyrie and Thor exchanged looks, Valkyrie raising one eyebrow. Freya approached the first ship, placing a hand on its hull. She accessed the cockpit, and investigated the controls. The exterior began to alter and change in a fluid manner, changing both shape and color until the ship became a sleek representation of a flying horse. She smiled, shrugging like she didn’t want to be impressed but couldn’t help it.

“This is most generous of you, but we cannot accept,” said Thor.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” said the Nova Prime, clasping his hands together. “Please reconsider. It would mean a lot to us, to give this to you.”

The Nova Prime was correct in saying Asgardians hardly needed conventional ships, yet not that long ago, they had needed a ship very badly when evacuating Asgard, not to mention the devastation following Thanos’s attack on the Statesman. Perhaps before, during his father’s reign, Asgardians could keep to their traditions, but they did not have that luxury any more. And besides, he thought, enjoying the suppressed looks of excitement on Freya and Valkyrie’s faces, who said they had to stick to the old ways anyway?

In the end, he couldn’t refuse, though it complicated their return to Asgard. Thor decided he would bring the Einherjar back in shifts by Bifrost, but the Valkyrie would need to take their new ships and travel the long distance more slowly. It would take at least a day going from jump point to jump point, but the extra time would allow the Valkyrie to familiarize themselves with the new ships. They had to combine several together, for the three Valkyrie who had remained on Asgard.

He said goodbye to the sisters and the other Valkyrie, before he turned to say goodbye to Valkyrie herself. “Take care,” he said. “Don’t do anything foolish. And stay out of trouble.”

She shook her head. “Look who’s talking. Did you actually say that to me right now with a straight face? I’ll keep out of trouble if you do, all right?”

Thor grinned. “Deal,” he said, escorting her to her own ship, already changed into a form very similar to Bird, her flying horse. He hesitated a moment, but then gave her a hug, which she allowed. Valkyrie wasn’t very demonstrative to those she cared about, but she’d softened a little over the years.

She was about to climb into her cockpit when she paused. “Your Majesty,” she called to him. Her brow creased as she looked at him. “You will be all right, won’t you?”

He froze, then forced himself to smile and give her a mild look of confusion. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I mean… I don’t know what I mean.” Her expression was one of searching curiosity, seeing far more than he cared to show her. She narrowed her eyes, and he didn’t dare look away.

“Everything is fine,” he said. “Go before I give you another hug.”

“Don’t you dare,” she said, rolling her eyes. “All right, all right, I’m leaving.” She entered the cockpit and closed it. A few moments later the ship detached from the hanger bay, the others following in a loose formation.

Back on Asgard with the Einherjar safely returned, Thor spoke quickly to Nan, the Valkyrie he’d left in command in his and Valkyrie’s absence. He told her of the latest development, and why the other Valkyrie hadn’t returned with him. “Can you manage on your own for a little longer? There’s something I’d like to look into. Shouldn’t take me more than a day.”

Nan looked curiously at him, but nodded in acquiescence. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

He returned to the Bifrost site once again, breathing in the fresh air, searching across the ocean. His bones ached to remain. He hadn’t even allowed himself a moment to return to his and Steve’s rooms, for fear that if he did he wouldn’t leave. This was something he couldn’t ignore, no matter how much he wished he could.

Before he lifted Stormbreaker and called the Bifrost again, he gazed out to the sea, and then went further, until he found Steve and Sarah on Earth, exactly where they should be. For the past week, they had been in Wakanda. It was evening for Steve, and Thor could almost smell the night flowers blooming in the Wakandan palace courtyard. Sarah played with Mandla, the young prince, running around with a few other children. But it was time for bed. The children were rambunctious – he could hear the noise they made, playing a game with rules he couldn’t follow. He saw how Sarah and Mandla held hands, how careful she was with him, and how proud Mandla seemed to have her as his friend. They were inseparable, the prince and princess.

Steve managed to catch Sarah, and she protested, not wanting to go to bed. But it was Mandla’s bedtime as well. Thor watched Steve perform the bedtime rituals – giving her a bath, dressing her in pajamas, reading a book. Sarah fell asleep before Steve was done with the first page.

Do you see her, asked Steve, in his mind.

Thor pushed further with his sight, until he was gazing out of Steve’s eyes. He didn’t do this often. It was painful to be so close to him, and yet so incredibly far. Yes, he answered. I see you both.

This form of communication didn’t allow for lengthy conversations, but he managed to relay to Steve their success in defending the colonies, and that the Valkyrie were flying home in a new fleet of ships. It was a testament to the kind of man Steve was, and how well he knew Thor, that he didn’t ask the question he wanted to ask the most.

Thor answered anyway. Soon.

With a last look at his sleeping daughter through Steve’s eyes, Thor withdrew from his sight until all he saw were the waves of the ocean crashing against the cliffs.

He raised Stormbreaker, and called the Bifrost. A moment later, he landed on Knowhere.

Knowhere was dark and empty and vast. It echoed. He’d never been there before. Odin had sent Volstagg and Sif with the Aether, all those years ago, to keep it safe with the Collector. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Much of the internal structures on Knowhere had been destroyed when Thanos took the Reality Stone, along with the commerce and activity that had existed inside the severed head – its busy hive of activity gone dark. But Thor saw signs that life had returned, namely in the thin atmosphere and the sense that he was being watched. He saw movement in the shadows, and heard whispering voices. He walked cautiously among the charred and burned out glass pods.

“Hello,” he called, his voice echoing. He gripped Stormbreaker’s handle, and the blade lit up with blue fire. “Anyone here?”

No one answered. He attempted to ignore the crawling sensation that tickled along the back of his neck, the awareness that he was being followed. His skin tingled with anticipation, and with every step he expected an ambush.

He turned in a circle, the silence pressing in on him from all sides. Stormbreaker’s light led the way, and he raised its blade so he could see better. The place seemed abandoned. Perhaps this was all a false alarm. Perhaps the dream hadn’t meant anything after all.

A light beamed down on him, sudden and sharp. Then he realized, this was not normal light. He tried to raise his hand to shield his eyes but he couldn’t move, as if chains had wrapped around his wrists, binding him to the ground. Except there were no chains. Stormbreaker fell from his grip and lay before him at his feet. A great pressure, as if he’d sunk down to the bottom of a fathomless ocean, pushed him onto his knees. With a desperate cry, he tried to wrest back control, calling Stormbreaker to him. If he could just get Stormbreaker, he could break free.

The axe sparked and rose up from the ground a few inches.

“Tut tut,” said a voice, coming from a source he couldn’t see. “Let’s leave that where it is for now.”

The pressure increased, and Thor yelled, riding the edge of consciousness until the pain eased and he could breath again. Still not able to move, he turned his eyes to the side and saw that his left arm had been raised out to his side, and a machine circled around it. It zapped the skin of his forearm and hand. Zap, zap.

“What is this?” he gasped, but, with sinking dread, he realized he knew exactly what this was. He’d known all along, though he’d prayed it wasn’t so. “What do you want?” he asked anyway.

“Hm,” said the raspy, low voice. “To be honest, I didn’t think you’d fall for it, but here we are. My cousin gave me a few pointers on how to control you. So sorry for the inconvenience. And the pain. If you cooperate, the pain will end. You see, Your Majesty,” and then the man stepped into the light – white hair, that line of dark blue down the center of his bottom lip. “I know you didn’t destroy the Stones.”

He appeared from the shadows as more lights turned on. What Thor had thought was vast emptiness was actually filled with towering rows of junk and a maze of cages. The machine zapped at his left hand again as the Collector knelt in front of Thor and he got a good look into his mad eyes.

The pain in Thor’s left hand increased as the machine tried to reveal the gauntlet, and then the vise-like pressure in his head grew until he cried out.

~Wakanda~

Steve woke with Thor’s yells reverberating in his mind, doubled in its effect and echoing endlessly. His heart pounded, his left hand tingled with pain. Sweat poured off him as he gasped and caught his breath. His wedding ring vibrated, signaling Thor’s distress. Awake, adrenaline spiked his blood like a cold bath, and he shivered. He realized the stereo affect of Thor’s cries came from Sarah, screaming in her bed.

He rushed to her. She sat bolt upright, terror written on her face she looked to him. He took her into his arms, trying to smooth her trembling. “Papa,” she cried.

“I know,” he said, carrying her to a chair, settling her on his lap. She stared at him, trying to stop her tears. “Honey, I know. He’s in trouble.”

Her small face creased with worry, and she threw her arms around Steve’s neck. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

Both their hearts pounded hard against each other, his mind racing. She pulled way to look at him again, placing her two hands on either side of his face. Their breathing synced. He stared into her eyes, so similar to Thor’s. So exactly alike.

That if he concentrated.

If he let the rest of the world fall away.

He could slip into that space between seconds, and see.

His heartbeat slowed, then slowed further until there was an ocean of time between one heartbeat and the next. The room spun, and he left Wakanda, thrown across the universe until he stood before Thor.

Captured. In some kind of force field.

Steve knelt before him, and despite the pain he was clearly in, Thor’s lips stretched into the shadow of a smile as their eyes met.

“Where are you?” asked Steve, trying to convey everything he felt as he took in the details of Thor’s face, from his sweaty hair to the trace of blood on his lips where he’d bitten himself.

“Knowhere,” said Thor.

Steve turned to Thor’s encased left hand, and the machinery trying to reveal the gauntlet, then he looked around at the rows and rows of cages, the towering stacks. He saw the charred remnants of what the place used to be. He saw Stormbreaker lying on the ground. The Collector stood a few feet away, studying Thor closely. Too closely, thought Steve, recognizing the expression on the Collector’s face.

Steve turned back to Thor again, knowing they had only moments. “I’ll come for you.”

Thor breathed in and out, that small smile on his lips, his eyes welling with tears. “Okay,” he said.

Suspicious, the Collector twirled a finger in the air, signaling someone or something out of sight, and Thor began to yell again through the pain. With one last look at Steve, Thor shut his eyes, scrunching them closed, and in the next instant Steve’s consciousness was pushed back all the way across the universe and he returned to Wakanda with a sudden sharp inhale of breath. He opened his eyes with a gasp, looking at Sarah on his lap.

She was watching him closely, breathing steadily but deeply, a little too fast. Thor had closed the connection so firmly Steve could barely sense him anymore. Thor didn’t want either him or Sarah -- especially Sarah -- experiencing the pain he was in. But Steve knew Thor was alive, his wedding ring continuing to vibrate.

Then, he realized part of the pounding heartbeat he was hearing actually came from their front door. Someone was knocking forcefully and pressing on the door chime, ringing it over and over again. How long had they been knocking?

With Sarah carried on his hip, we went to answer, startled to find two guards and General Olwethe herself. One look at Olwethe’s face and he knew something very serious had happened.

“I’m sorry to disturb your sleep, Captain,” said Olwethe. “But you must come at once.” She didn’t wait for him to agree or disagree, but stepped aside so he had no choice but to follow. She didn’t stop him from bringing Sarah, and they all went together down the hallway, through the palace until they reached King Anathi in the throne room.

No tribal elders this time. Instead the room was populated with holograms. He recognized Jaina and Rahul right away, but the major attraction came from a large hologram in the center showing Earth and the immediate space around it. It only took one glance for Steve to understand the situation: several ships were in orbit right over New York.

Seeing that Steve didn’t need him to explain the immediate threat, Anathi didn’t waste any time. “They entered orbit ten minutes ago,” he said.

“The United Nations has sent a message to them but there’s been no response,” said Rahul, the current SHIELD Director. “The Avengers are on site. We need you two here in New York as soon as you can make it.”

“Steve,” said Jaina. “I think this is related to that intel from D.C we reviewed a month ago. It’s the same carrier signal. Do you recognize the ships? Do you know who they are?”

Steve let Sarah slide down to the floor, then stepped closer to look at the holograms. He felt hollow but knew the empty feeling came from shock, from the connection between him and Thor closing, and the horror of hearing his cries of pain. “The smaller ships are Necrocraft, used by Sakaarans. Mercenary types. Sometimes aligned with the Kree now, but they used to be part of Thanos's army. The third ship is using a Ravager code, but I don’t recognize the colors. Doesn’t belong to any faction I know.”

The mention of Thanos had everyone instantly on edge. “Threat level?” asked Anathi.

“For Sakaarans? High,” said Steve, looking down at the ground, releasing a breath. “Depends on the level of engagement, and their purpose for being here.”

The room fell silent.

“Hey,” he said, mustering his energy, commanding the attention of everyone in the room. “You have been preparing for something like this since Thanos. You all know what to do.”

It was Jaina who asked the question. “What of Thor? Can he help?”

Everything inside Steve twisted inward, and he was trying not to shake. Sarah took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “No,” said Steve, with a glance at his daughter. “As of ten minutes ago, and believe me I understand what that timing means, Thor was captured. I can’t go into the details. But he won’t be able to help. I’m sorry.” There was a shocked intake of breath from those present. “We should probably consider the two events related. I can maybe get word to the Valkyrie, but without the Bifrost, they won’t get here in time.”

Anathi looked like he wanted to ask further questions but changed his mind. Instead, he turned to Jaina and Rahul. “We will leave in the next ten minutes,” said Anathi, and the holograms of the other individuals disappeared. Olwethe issued a series of commands and the other Dora began at once to prepare. Everyone disbursed leaving Steve alone with Anathi and Sarah.

Anathi approached Steve. “If you have to leave to find Thor, we will understand. We can’t ask you to stay. This is your husband. Your family.”

Steve shook his head. “Besides the fact that I’m basically stranded here, at least for the moment, if this has something to do with Thor and why he was captured, I have to see it through.”

Anathi’s dark eyes were full of compassion. Steve was reminded of Anathi as a ten-year old, newly orphaned but yet so brave even then. Instead of pressing Steve for further answers, he took a bracelet from his pocket and placed it on Steve’s wrist. “I had the labs make this for you.” He activated the band, linking it to Steve’s kimoyo beads. “Tell it to go on,” he said.

It only took a second for Steve to realize what Anathi had given him. “You’re kidding,” he said, so surprised that even in the midst of his concern for Thor he smiled.

“Indeed, I am not kidding. Come on. Show me.” Anathi stepped back, waving a hand at Steve.

Steve made a simple gesture. The dark navy-colored vibranium suit immediately enclosed around him, spreading from the bracelet. He grinned at Anathi as a helmet covered half his face. “You didn’t have to do this,” he said.

Anathi shrugged. “I saw in our archives that my great great aunt Shuri designed a suit for you, but held back from offering it at the time because she felt you would refuse. I used her schematic and created this. It is long overdue. And now, my friend. We have work to do.”

Steve straightened, and then turned to kneel beside Sarah. She had a worried crease across her brow as she inspected the new helmet, feeling the texture of the suit. “Did you understand any of that?” he asked.

She nodded, glancing at the hologram of Earth. “Those are fighters. Are they the ones that took Papa?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what part they played yet.” His two hands almost encircled her torso entirely. “I don’t want to leave you. But this is probably going to be a hard fight.” He hesitated. His instinct told him he should keep her with him, but that would not be safe for her. “Are you okay staying here, in Wakanda?”

Sarah took in a deep breath, looking from the hologram to Anathi, then nodded. “Yes. I like it here,” she said. “With Mandla.”

Steve smiled, even though his unease increased. But he overrode his gut and dismissed it as worry for Thor. Wakanda was the safest place on Earth. “All right.”

She threw her arms around him, and he held her close for as long as he could before it was time to leave.

During the flight, they coordinated with the team back in New York. As much of the city had been evacuated as possible. Earth’s planetary defenses took to the skies, ready to interfere with any ordnance dropped from space, while the Avengers assembled to engage on the ground. Steve was relieved to find out Shane Barton had been called in to take up the shield again as Captain America. Before they could reach New York, the Necrocraft began shooting down the defenses, swooping into the city. Steve and Anathi arrived in the midst of battle, giving Steve strong flashbacks to 2012 as they landed the Royal Talon Flyer not far from Grand Central Station.

“So nice of you to stop by for a visit,” said Barton, and they both threw their respective shields in tandem, the uru shield and the vibranium shield colliding and sending out a shock wave that took out a hundred Sakaarans. Barton whistled. “Did we know that would happen?”

He touched his vibranium and uru fused wedding ring. It hadn’t stopped vibrating since he’d woken up to Thor’s cries of pain. Uru and vibranium appeared to feed off each other. “I could have guessed,” he said, calling Starborn back to his arm and knocking out several more soldiers.

The sky began to lighten as dawn approached. The Sakaarans emerged from the Necrocraft in vast numbers, keeping everyone fully occupied, but something nagged at the back of Steve’s mind. The enemy hadn’t stepped up their game – they seemed to only want to keep everyone busy, and no leader had come forward.

He grabbed a Sakaaran and tried to get him to speak. “What do you want? Why are you here?” But it was useless. He knew it would be.

During a lull in the fighting, Steve, Barton, and Anathi found each other, Anathi’s Black Panther helmet melting away. A moment later, Barton’s daughter Maia dropped in, dressed in her Hawkeye uniform, bow and arrow ready. Jaina and Rahul both joined as well, her dragonfang sword shining as brightly as Rahul’s Iron Man armor.

“What’s the story?” asked Jaina.

“They’re not speaking,” said Steve. He was anxious to find out what this was about, to know how it tied in with what was happening with Thor. “Any response to our messages?” he asked Jaina.

She shook her head. The latest from SHIELD was that the other ship hadn’t moved, hadn’t made any sign whatsoever, besides sending down the Sakaarans. “Nothing.”

“I don’t know, guys,” said Barton. “Something’s not right. Anyone else get the sense they’re just playing with us??

“What are you saying?” asked Steve.

“I don’t know what I’m saying, but my spidey sense tell me this is a distraction. A diversion.”

Steve straightened, every inch of him tight with tension. They fell silent. Elsewhere, tactical teams engaged the remainder of the Sakaaran soldiers. “A diversion? From what?”

Jaina’s communicator beeped, and she held out her arm with the palm up, ready to receive the message. A hologram sprang up showing a uniformed tech from the Avengers’ command center. “Sir,” he said, addressing both Jaina and Rahul. “The third ship is on the move. It’s heading due east.”

Anathi’s eyes met his. “Wakanda,” he said. “They’re heading to Wakanda.”

With a flash, Steve knew what this was about. If he hadn’t been distracted by Thor’s capture and the sudden invasion, he might have seen it earlier. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Sarah. They’re after Sarah.”

~Wakanda~

After Steve and King Anathi left, Sarah took the queen’s hand and was led to Mandla’s rooms. She felt tired and couldn’t focus on anything, but Mandla made her smile and they ate breakfast together. The queen took both children onto her lap and held them close. Sarah didn’t want to be held, but then it also felt nice, so she sat patiently.

“We must be strong and brave,” the queen said to both Sarah and Mandla, rocking them in her arms. “And soon, before you know it, your fathers will return.”

Sarah sighed, resting her head against the queen’s chest, grateful for the comfort but it made her miss Gunnvor and Valkyrie and Freya. She missed Daddy and Papa, and wished she could return to Asgard.

The queen turned to her son and spoke to him in Xhosa. Sarah understood every word, but she knew it was rude to point that out.

“She is worried about her fathers. We must show her every patience and kindness, my son. This is your particular duty today.”

“Yes, mother,” said Mandla.

The young prince took his task seriously, and after they had eaten their breakfast, they continued a game they had started before, pretending to be explorers discovering the caves underneath the palace. Sarah loved the Wakandan palace. It was so different from her own, full of secret places, caves and caverns. They crept into the dark place where the heart-shaped herb grew, to sit and watch the men and women sing songs as they tended the plants.

Mandla asked, “Do you like cats?”

She nodded. They had recently introduced cats to Asgard, to help balance the population of mice and rats. There was a barn cat she particularly liked that had white patches on his belly and four white socks.

“Come with me.” He led her out of the palace to one of the buildings on the other side of the courtyard. The words, written in Xhosa, on the front door said, “Leopard Preserve.” “This is where they keep the wild animals,” he said, his eyes bright with excitement.

But before they could go in, Mandla’s aunt, Princess Ahkona, came around the corner and caught them. “You two! What do you think you’re doing? You can’t go in there by yourself.”

“But we only wanted to go in for a minute,” said Mandla, folding his arms in protest.

Sarah hadn’t realized they were breaking the rules. “I’m sorry,” she said, but her voice sounded tight and strangled and then she couldn’t stop the tears. She bowed her head.

Mandla glared at his aunt, who looked chastened. “Oh,” said Ahkona, squeezing Sarah’s shoulder. “Chin up, little girl. If you want to see the big cats, you must come to me first. Come. I will show you.”

She took both children’s hands in hers, and led them into the enclosure, and then to the nursery. It was an open-air space, sunny and bright, with grass underfoot and leafy plants all around, a small pond and waterfall nearby. Sarah gasped when she saw the litter of spotted leopard kittens, romping all over a smaller fenced in area. Only one in the litter had the sooty black coat of a black panther.

Ahkona made them changed into long-sleeved vibranium woven tunics, to protect their arms, and gave them bracelets that gloved their hands when needed. “These will protect you,” she said. “The kittens were born two days ago, rescued from a poacher in Kenya. Go on. You can play with them. At this age they can’t hurt you.”

The cubs were curious and inquisitive, and promptly began to climb all over the children, who laughed and giggled. The cubs gamboled and frolicked, energetic and uncoordinated as they pranced here and there. Sarah threw a ball of twine and Mandla teased them with a feather. One cub began to chew on Mandla’s shoe, which made both kids fall down laughing.

An alarm blared, loud and frightening, interrupting their play. Sarah and Mandla cringed, clapping their hands over their ears. Three Dora Milaje, one of whom was Kaya, stepped out of the shadows where they had been keeping a discreet distance. Ahkona’s kimoyo beads beeped. As she looked up, she gasped, and immediately covered the children, placing them behind her body. Above their heads, the dome rippled and a large space ship decloaked right over the palace. They heard screaming, but Sarah couldn’t tell where it came from.

“Princess,” said the Kaya, speaking urgently. She addressed Ahkona but Sarah turned at the familiar title as well. “We must get you and the children to safety. Now. No questions. Come with me.”

Sarah tried to get a look at the ship but Ahkona rushed her and Mandla out of the preserve. She got a good look at it anyway as they ran across the courtyard. It fired on the dome, causing it to ripple again as the shielding readjusted to the energy surge.

“Surely the dome will hold,” said Ahkona to the Dora as they were halfway across the courtyard. But even as she spoke, four probes broke free from the ship and positioned themselves equidistant from each other around the dome. They began to emit a sharp, high-pitched noise.

Sarah clapped her hands over her ears again, and everyone cried out in pain, wincing as they ran. The probes cycled through harmonics, trying to find the right frequency. Five seconds later the shielding failed, coming down around the city.

Wakandan defenses had already begun firing. The alien ship swung and dipped. A wide energy beam shot down, depositing several aliens onto the courtyard. They were a ragtag, filthy group, no two alike. Each bore several large weapons.

Sarah recognized the type of ship. These were Ravagers, like her Uncle Groot. But not like her Uncle Groot at all.

The aliens zeroed in on Sarah, heading straight for her. Kaya and the Dora Milaje, with Ahkona, formed a line to protect the children. One of the aliens sent an energy blast, but the Dora deflected it with their spears until the aliens were close enough for hand-to-hand combat.

“Go!” yelled Ahkona to Sarah and Mandla. “Run to the palace.”

But before they could get very far, more aliens appeared to block their path. The Dora engaged on both fronts. One was knocked down, and a large ugly scarred alien raised his weapon, ready to strike.

“No,” yelled Sarah, jumping in front of the Dora. She caught the weapon with her hands. Surprised, the alien tilted his head at Sarah. She pushed as hard as she could, and the alien went flying across the courtyard, yelling and tumbling over and over again.

Sarah grabbed Mandla’s hand and ran. Kaya shouted an order and then ran with them. Sarah screamed when energy blasts flew over their heads, hitting the façade of the palace before they could enter. Rock and debris fell on top of them, blocking the entrance. Sarah pushed Mandla to the ground, shielding him with her body, letting the chunks of building hit her instead. She grunted from the pain, the rocks hurting as they hit her back. She saw Kaya had been hit on the head, and lay unconscious, possibly dead. Sarah hadn’t been able to save her too.

“Are you okay?” she asked Mandla when the debris stopped falling. Dust covered his face and hair, turning his skin gray.

“Yes,” he said, staring at her from the cocoon of space she’d created to keep him safe. “Are you?”

With effort, she panted as she pushed the heaviest of the rock off and to the side. She threw the chunks out of her way until Mandla was free. They tried to scramble out of the pile but two of the aliens reached them before they could run. Sarah picked up a piece of rock and threw it, knocking the alien down. She picked up another rock, and another, throwing them as hard as she could, but the other aliens were prepared this time, and they blasted the rocks into dust.

Sarah took hold of Mandla and carried him out of the debris pile until they reached the stone of the courtyard, where they started running again. They had to get to a side entrance. A Wakandan jet swooped in, firing on the aliens, giving the children cover. Several more Dora Milaje joined them.

“This way, my prince,” said the first Dora, but again the aliens cut through the Wakandan defenses, engaging the Dora in battle.

That same large alien from before, the one she’d thrown, managed to grab Sarah’s arm. She screamed, taking hold and twisting until she felt his bones pop. The alien yelled in pain. Sarah picked him up over her head and threw him as hard as she had ever thrown anything in her life. He crashed into the side of the palace, making a sickening wet crunching sound, his head crushed. That sound would stay with Sarah for a long time.

The aliens pressed in from all sides, and Sarah tried instinctually to keep Mandla behind her but couldn’t when they were surrounded. She heard one of the Dora cry out in warning. An alien aimed his blaster straight at Mandla. Sarah swung around, pushing Mandla back. She took the blast to her chest and went flying backward to the ground, stunned.

*

It took her several seconds to regain consciousness, the breath knocked out of her. She moved her arms and legs, trying to lift her head. Her chest hurt where the blast had hit, and her ears were ringing. She rolled onto hands and knees, then up to standing, her vision swimming.

In the few seconds she’d been knocked out, the fighting had stopped. With a pop, her hearing returned and she heard the aliens speaking to each other. “We’re not supposed to hurt her,” one hissed to another.

“What’s the difference?” said the other alien. “Who cares?”

“I care, if we don’t get paid,” said the first alien.

Sarah shook her head to clear it, searching for Mandla, and then realized he wasn’t by her side.

“Over here, princess,” said a female voice. She was taller than the rest of the aliens, and had the bright yellow skin of someone from Aakon, with a lot of tattoos, and slightly better dressed than her cohorts. The scars on her face ran diagonally from her left eye to the right corner of her mouth. She held Mandla against her body, controlling his flailing arms and legs as she pressed her blaster to his forehead. “I promise we won’t hurt your friend if you come with us.”

Breathing hard, Sarah looked around at the other Wakandans, unable to do anything that might bring further harm to their prince. Pushing through the Dora and the King’s Guard, she saw the queen emerge to stand in front. Sarah was relieved to see her safe, and to see that Ahkona was with her.

She turned back to face the aliens. With the clarity of mind she’d inherited from her fathers, she suddenly understood what the aliens wanted, why they were here. They wanted her. And to get her, they’d come to Earth and staged a false invasion to draw her father away. They had caused this destruction, and harmed these people who had been nothing but kind and generous to Sarah. All so they could capture her.

Anger flooded, spreading to all four of her limbs, filling her with rage. A wind began to blow, increasing in intensity. It howled, filled with her anger. She would push these aliens away, throw them as far as she could. As the wind blew stronger, the aliens couldn’t hold their ground, beginning to stagger backward as the wind tossed them away – but the female alien had more grit than the others.

“Princess,” she yelled through the wind. She still held Mandla, clasped against her with one arm. “You will hurt him if you don’t stop this.”

The wind immediately stopped. Sarah was breathing hard. “Let him go, and I’ll go with you,” she said.

The female alien shook her head. “I don’t think so. I need insurance you’ll behave. He comes with us, but,” she said quickly when the wind began to blow. “I won’t harm one hair of his if you behave, like a good little princess.”

Sarah dropped her gaze to look at Mandla. He struggled to free himself, kicking and swinging his arms, his face livid with anger. Then, she turned to the queen and Ahkona, as well as the Dora who had fought so bravely to protect her. She turned back to the female alien.

“If I go with you, you leave this planet. All of you leave. You leave my friends and my father alone. Or I won’t cooperate. Show me that you’re leaving.”

The female alien’s jaw tightened, irritated to be commanded by a child, and one that was meant to be cargo. But she raised her wrist to her lips. “Tell the Sakaarans to retreat. We have the girl. Wait for my signal.”

Sarah let out a breath, and then she turned again to the queen. “Tell my father I won’t let anything happen to Mandla,” she said.

She could see that Ahkona wanted to protest, but the queen stopped her. The Dora didn’t move either, but watched Sarah walk toward the female alien. None of the aliens dared touch her as she went to Mandla’s side. An energy beam shot down again from the hovering ship, wide enough to capture all the aliens plus Sarah and Mandla.

A moment later, she stood on the deck of the ship as it rose further into the air, leaving Earth.

~Wakanda~

For Steve, the time it took to fly back to Wakanda passed in a blur. Around him buzzed hurried conversations he was barely aware of as Anathi and Barton communicated with the Avengers in New York and the Wakandan forces.

Steve urged the jet to go faster, but it was already the fastest possible – in the last twenty years, the Wakandans had perfected suborbital flight. They arrived in Wakanda a half hour later. Still, no one had to tell him they would be too late. He already knew. He felt Sarah’s fear and concern. He sensed her shock and horror. When she took the blast to her chest, he nearly fell to his knees. And then he felt her anger.

Yet, he managed to lie to himself. Maybe she’d hidden? Maybe she’d outsmarted the aliens, or the Dora Milaje had prevailed, or the aliens had simply changed their minds and come to their senses.

Ravagers weren’t supposed to trade in children. That broke their code. There would be consequences for this.

The jet landed in the courtyard. Through the windshield, Steve saw the destruction of the palace façade, the signs of energy blasts. The dead were being carted away – he saw Kaya’s body escorted by her sisters. They draped a plain cloth over a large dead alien, rolling him onto a gurney.

As he stepped off the jet, he tried very hard not to strain to hear Sarah’s voice calling for him. Barton gave him worried looks, and Anathi was no better off than Steve was. Steve kept it together until he witnessed Anathi greet his queen. All they did was stand and stare at each other, her expression so full of loss that it meant Steve couldn’t hide from the truth anymore. Mandla was their only child. They must be terrified.

The Dora Milaje in charge stepped up to greet her king and General Olwethe as she gave the Wakandan salute but wouldn’t meet their eyes.

“Kumkani,” she said to her king, her voice unwavering, though still colored with emotion. “The aliens brought the shield down in less than a minute. Prince Mandla and Princess Sarah were in the leopard preserve. We tried to get them to safety. The princess…she...” Her eyes turned to meet Steve’s, then returned to her king. “They came for her. They took Prince Mandla to buy her cooperation.”

The queen spoke. “Your daughter is very brave. She said to tell you she wouldn’t let them hurt Mandla.”

Steve managed to nod, but it took the last of his composure. “She won’t let that happen,” he said, but he barely recognized his voice. He turned away. Without realizing it, he went down onto his knees as if to pray, then bowed his head to the ground. Starborn clattered against the stone, ringing to a stop.

If there was one person in the universe he was most meant to protect, it was her. And he’d failed. Inside, he screamed with mind-numbing anguish. He had felt like this twice before in his life – when Bucky fell from the train, and after the Snap.

With his left hand, he punched the stone of the courtyard so hard it cracked. He punched the stone again. It cracked further. The earth shook. He punched it a third time, and a shock wave burst free, carrying with it his anger and his fear.

“Jesus,” said Barton, bending down like he wanted to try and help, but hesitated.

Steve looked down at his hand. It was unblemished, no broken skin. The stone he had punched lay broken in pieces, nearly pulverized.

A choice lay before him, and he teetered on the edge. Right on the very edge. His anger almost shoved him over, the urge to let his emotions rule overpowering. He remembered Bruce Banner, and had never felt more kinship with him.

“Hey, man,” said Barton again, crouching so he could look at Steve. “Whatever you need, I’m here for you, okay? You want to punch something again? You want to crack this universe open like a walnut, we can do that. We’ll tear it apart, find the bastards that did this, and pull their spines out through their nostrils. Whatever you need. All right? I got your back on this. But we gotta go find my goddaughter. You with me?”

Steve took in a shuddering breath, and clutched Barton like the lifeline he was. He’s Captain America, thought Steve. Do what he says.

Barton pulled Steve to his feet by his left hand, and a spark of rainbow light, a glint of gold rippled for a moment. Barton paused, looked at Steve and at his clenched fist, then shook his head. “All right. You tell me what you need,” he said.

Steve realized how many were watching him. Anathi stood with the queen, holding hands. Steve mentally kicked himself for being selfish. They shared his pain equally.

With Barton by his side, he stood before them. “I need to make a phone call.”

~Knowhere~

Thor tried to move within the confines of the force field, but could barely manage an inch in either direction. If he made any significant progress, the pressure increased and his blood began boiling in his veins. If he called the lightning, the force field channeled the energy back into him, and then down through his legs, using him like a lightning rod. He could see the grating that lined the ground beneath him blacken and melt. Stormbreaker lay tantalizingly close.

The Collector watched him with creepy intensity, occasionally picking up a mirror to make minute adjustments to his hair, inspect his make-up. His suit was torn and tattered and had clearly seen better days, the fur trimming that had once been white now mostly yellow with use and age. Everything about the Collector – from his dress to the rows and rows of possessions – appeared decayed.

“So, you’re related to that other madman, are you?” asked Thor. “Do you force those you kidnap to fight to the death as well?”

“Please,” said the Collector, with an eye roll. “I’m far more civilized than my cousin. Well. We call each other cousins. The exact relation is unknown. He is obsessed with games and childish pursuits. I, on the other hand, know the value of what I collect.”

“You’re both insane,” said Thor, flexing his right hand. Stormbreaker’s handle twitched. Thor held his breath, hoping the Collector hadn’t noticed.

“That may very well be true,” agreed the Collector, with a wave of his hand. “I find sanity has little to offer in value.”

“If you release me now, it will go a lot better for you,” said Thor, flexing his fingers again.

The Collector blinked, then started laughing uncontrollably – a high-pitched, manic laugh that contrasted with his usual rough gravel voice. He looked around to see who laughed with him. His slaves, those that listlessly attempted to keep order among his large collection – Thor could only see a few but could sense and hear several more – all began to laugh uproariously as well.

Thor took the opening. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind, calling Stormbreaker to him. The axe rose, glowing with blue fire, spreading lightning like a web everywhere. The Collector and his minions ducked from the explosion. Thor broke free of the force field, the axe’s handle in his hand. He tore his left arm away from the machine and took two steps toward the Collector before the force field came down around him again and Stormbreaker fell from his hand. The pressure pushed him to his knees. He grunted as he resisted.

Dust rose in the answering silence. The Collector stood up, dusted his coat, and began clapping. One by one, his slaves joined him. “Bravo! Bravo!” he cried. “En Dwi did say you were a lot of fun. Formidable, yes, Asgardian. But…” the Collector shrugged. “Not a challenge.”

“You think not?” gasped Thor. The force field doubled its pressure, and he was almost blinded by the pain. “Your cousin made the same mistake.”

The Collector chuckled. Then he straightened, as if he’d just thought of something. He narrowed his gaze at Thor. “Why don’t you use the Gauntlet on me?”

It was Thor’s turn to laugh, rough and unsteady but true. He mastered his breath and pushed the pain away. His vision cleared. “Took you long enough to ask. What if I told you this was all a waste of time? I don’t have the Gauntlet.”

The Collector rose off his seat, approaching close enough that Thor could look into his mad-bright eyes. “Do you know I am as old as the Stones themselves, Asgardian? I know them, intimately. At various times in my long life I have had possession of each of them, even occasionally two or three together. But they were taken from me. Not this time. I know you didn’t destroy them. Full marks for freeing them from the mad Titan. He destroyed my collection and nearly killed me in the process – but I’ve lived too long. I have rebuilt, as you see.” He expanded his arms to indicate the chaotic mess behind him. “As long as I have something to collect, I will continue to live. So, you see? Those Stones are my lifeblood, and they belong to me. I will have them in my collection.”

Thor realized the man was a fanatic, akin to an addict, and so firmly in the grip of his obsession there would never be any reasoning with him. “I didn’t say I destroyed them. I said I don’t have them.”

“If you don’t, then who does?” asked the Collector, as if they were both in on a joke. “Come now. I’m a reasonable man. I don’t steal. I will pay you for them. A fair price. I think we’ve established our negotiations are ongoing, and until finished, you remain my guest here in my humble establishment. Never fear, I have a few more tricks up my sleeve before I resort to severing your arm. I always wanted a set of Asgardians.”

True fear spiked through Thor. “What do you mean by that? What have you done?”

“I promise you she won’t be harmed.”

Thor thrashed. He called Stormbreaker to him again, heedless of the consequences, breaking free of the force field even as it reinitiated around him. “Let me go. Now. And you might survive this.”

“Use the Gauntlet,” taunted the Collector.

“I don’t have it,” said Thor through gritted teeth. He regained his calm, and focused again on the Collector. “Let me go now, or you will not live to collect so much as dung from a bilgesnipe.”

The Collector simply shook his head no. “My dear. I have dung from a bilgesnipe. It’s over there.” He pointed behind him, over his left. Then thought about it, and pointed over his right. “Or it’s over there. I forget. What threat do you pose?”

Thor, so tired now, only smiled. “Oh. It’s not me you have to fear.”

~Space~

From where Sarah and Mandla stood, they could see the ship’s viewscreen. Earth lay below, big and round and blue, but then the ship turned smoothly away and entered a jump point. Just like that, Sarah and Mandla were thousands and thousands of miles away from home.

Two of the aliens hauled Mandla away from Sarah, toward a cargo hold on a lower deck. Mandla kicked and screamed as he desperately and frantically reached for Sarah. His cries pierced her painfully, ringing in her head. It hurt more than anything she could remember.

“Let him go,” she yelled. She ran after them and took hold of the alien carrying Mandla, wrenching his arm back until he dropped her friend. She tossed the alien away, then pushed the next one that came at her clear across the deck.

Two more tried again. One grabbed her arm, but she stepped on his foot, and then pushed them both and they slammed against a wall.

“Stop,” yelled the female alien from before. She stalked toward Sarah and Sarah backed up, her arms wide to keep Mandla behind her. The woman knelt to Sarah’s level. Up close, Sarah could see her yellow skin had a rough pattern to it, beautiful like how the wolves on Asgard were beautiful – wild and untamed.

“All right, Princess. Keep your friend. But you try anything – anything at all – and I’ll throw him out an airlock. Understood?”

Sarah didn’t nod. “Send us back before my father gets here,” she said.

The woman laughed, then all the crew laughed with her. Some even fell down to the ground, they were laughing so hard. “I’m afraid I have bad news for you. The Asgardian won’t be coming for you. He’s, ah, otherwise indisposed.”

“I didn’t mean Papa,” said Sarah. The alien crew thought that was even funnier, nearly having apoplexy in their humor. The only one not laughing was the woman, who narrowed her eyes. Sarah knew she must be the captain, the one in charge. “Send us back before he catches you.”

The woman studied Sarah, then huffed a laugh. “You’re a brave one, I’ll give you that. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

She strode off before Sarah could say anything else, and began yelling orders at her crew.

The aliens gave them furtive glances, afraid of Sarah. They argued amongst each other, muttering and whispering. “I always said children are terrifying,” said one. The other answered, “Don’t let her look you in the eyes! She’ll steal your soul!”

They bullied an older, wizened looking man into leading them to another room. He skittered away, like he was worried Sarah would touch him, ushering them into a room that turned out to be the captain’s quarters. It was small and cramped, but it was cleaner than the rest of the ship, and it had a bed. The man left and came back with a tray of food, almost spilling it in his rush to get away.

“What do we do now?” asked Mandla. They stood side-by-side, unwilling to enter the room properly.

Sarah looked at him, The first thing Sarah had noticed about Mandla when they met were his eyes – more hazel than brown, more yellow than green. “Are you scared?” she asked.

He made a face at her, crossing his eyeballs and stretching out his lips and nose with his fingers. She smiled, then he smiled in return before they both grew serious again. “Yes,” he said. “I am scared.”

She heaved a sigh. “So am I. I’m sorry. They only took you because of me.”

“I know,” he said, then took her hand, tilting his head. “I’m not sorry they took me though.”

“You’re not?”

He shook his head. “Nah. This is better than lessons.”

She giggled, but then shook her head. The captain’s quarters were cluttered with years of random things – metal devices, half-broken toys, what looked like the same kind of hover board that boy at the playground had in Brooklyn. On a shelf she saw a moving image and went closer to investigate. It was a framed photograph of a family – a mom and dad and a young girl, the same race as the captain. With a jolt, Sarah realized the young girl in the picture was the captain. In the picture she was only a little older than Sarah. What other life had this woman led? What choices had she made to lead her in this direction?

“It’s not safe here,” she said to Mandla, returning the picture to its spot. She wanted to punch through the door and had to push the urge away.

He shrugged. “I could be at home, but would not be okay knowing you were here alone, with no one. I’m glad they took me, too.”

Abruptly, she felt the sting of tears. He led her to the bed. They sat together, Mandla wrapping one arm around her. Sarah rested her head on his shoulder.

“Are you certain your father will come?” he asked. “He’s on Earth. How can he get here?”

She squeezed his hand. “He’ll come.”

~Damage Control~

They were in the Wakandan jet again, speeding back across the globe one last time, heading for Washington D.C. There wasn’t much conversation on the jet, though Barton did his best to keep everyone’s spirits up. Steve spoke with Jaina and Rahul briefly, and then took a call from Amanda.

“Actually, I might need you,” said Steve to Amanda. “Since you’re my attorney, you should know I’m probably going to…ruffle some feathers.”

“Are we going to bust into the White House?” asked Barton, a little too eagerly.

“No,” said Steve, giving Barton a look.

“Oh,” said Barton, disappointed.

“Don’t worry. We still get to bust in somewhere.” Steve bent to speak to the pilot, giving her directions and a general sense of where on the eastern seaboard he needed to go, since he didn’t know the exact location. He’d been there once before, but it had been nearly one hundred years ago.

Both Barton and Anathi crowded on either side of him, trying to see the course heading. “Oh my God,” said Barton, who figured it out before Anathi did. He whistled. “Honey,” he said to Amanda’s hologram. “Cancel ‘ruffled feathers’ and upgrade straight to ‘treason.’”

“What? Why?” she asked. “Steve, I can’t help you if I don’t know what you’re planning.”

“Damage Control,” said Steve, taking a breath and turning to Anathi and Barton. “United States Department of Damage Control, outside of D.C. I need access to their archives.”

Anathi straightened, and Steve could see he understood the gravity of what they were about to do. Being Wakandan, and a sovereign ruler, he was more protected than Barton, but Anathi still spoke to Olwethe in Xhosa, telling her to expect resistance.

“Steve,” said Barton. “Access to the Damage Control archives requires, like, nosebleed levels of security clearance, and has to be approved by the governance board, which then in turn has to apply to Congress and the United Nations. We go in without that, and they will use force against us. Even against you.”

“I know,” said Steve. “We can’t wait for that.” He turned to Amanda’s hologram again. “Whatever you can do to smooth it over, I’d appreciate it. But I won’t let anyone stop me.”

She opened her mouth to speak but then changed her mind, studying first Steve and then Barton. She and Barton were both in their sixties now, but Barton hardly seemed any older than the young man Steve met almost thirty years ago, still fit and trim, and Amanda had only gotten more distinguished as the years progressed.

“Understood,” she said, gently. “I’ll see what I can do. Try not to get arrested,” she added, speaking to both of them but looking specifically at Barton.

“Can’t make any promises,” said Barton, with a nose wrinkle. “Might be a tad late for dinner.”

“I figured. What else is new,” she said, but with a fond smile before she closed the connection.

“Shane,” started Steve as soon as Amanda ended the call. “Maybe you should stay on the jet.”

Barton stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around. “You know, it’s the darndest thing. In my old age, I’m losing my hearing. I didn’t quite catch that.”

Steve looked down at his feet. “I’m serious. They can’t arrest me or Anathi.”

He shook his head, all pretense of humor gone. “She’s my goddaughter. And you and Anathi are my friends. I’m not letting you do this on your own. Besides,” he added, smiling again, clapping Anathi on the back and giving him a side hug. “If they kick me out of the country, I’ll just seek asylum with my good buddy the king here.”

Anathi did not look amused, but he also didn’t say no. With a grudging smile, he shook Barton’s hand. Twenty minutes later, they landed the jet in front of the main building for Damage Control. Half a minute later they were striding across the lobby.

The security guard stepped out from behind his desk, a hand on his weapon. “I’m going to have to ask you folks to stay right there,” he said, before speaking to someone on the other end of an earpiece. “We got a group of unauthorized…visitors on level one.”

“I’m really sorry,” said Steve, and the guard’s entire demeanor changed when he recognized Steve. Steve didn’t stop walking, and neither did anyone else. “But we just can’t do that.”

The guard continued frantically speaking to his superiors over his comms. “It’s Captain goddamn Steve Rogers,” he said, causing Barton to give Steve a look. The guard tried to draw his handgun, but Olwethe made a smooth move with her spear, disarming him in one strike. Her second in command retrieved the gun and took it apart.

They continued, picking up the pace, and almost made it past the security desk before a series of hidden weapons appeared around the lobby aimed at them. Anathi shouted an order, and the Wakandans vibranium shielding went up just as the shooting began.

Steve took Starborn and threw it. Starborn sailed around the room, smashing into each automatic gun, then flew back to Steve.

When it looked like the firing ceased, Anathi gave the order for the shielding to be lowered.

“Hold it, hold it,” said a man running from around a corner with several guards behind him, raising his hands in the universal sign for “calm down.” “Captain Rogers,” he said, a little out of breath. He wore a lab coat and glasses and seemed flustered. Then he recognized both Shane Barton and King Anathi and did a double take. “I’m sorry for that display. The system is programmed to react to any unauthorized entry,” he said slowly, as he tried to get a read on them. “I’m Garrett Foley. Director, uh, in charge, here. This is quite the honor, and a surprise. Um…” he stalled, grinning widely, taking a breath. “What can we do for you?”

Steve eyed the guards. They each stood at attention, hands on their weapons ready to draw. “I need to look through your archive records,” he said. When Foley didn’t respond right away, Steve continued walking past him. The guards formed a tighter line, blocking his path. “This will be a lot simpler if you just let me though. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Wait,” said Foley, still gesturing for the guards to go easy. He turned to Steve, brow creased as he sighed. There was a slight edge to his expression now. “I can’t let you in there. You can appreciate that, sir. If you were anyone else…Anyone,” he repeated with a look at Anathi. “We’d shoot without asking first. You can’t get in there. Not without proper clearance.”

A growing sense of running out of time began to gnaw on Steve. He’d been counting every minute since the aliens took Sarah, not to mention the hours since Thor had been taken captive. “I’m not asking,” said Steve. “And it’ll take too long to explain. You do what you have to do. I won’t blame you. But, if you’ll excuse me, this can’t wait.”

With the others right behind him, he pushed past Foley. He began to hope that would be it, but then he sensed a change come over the guards as new orders came in: do not let them pass, use any force necessary.

He knocked out one guard, then punched two more. Barton sent one unfortunate man skidding across the floor. The Dora Milaje circled around Anathi, their spears raised. Steve sent Starborn flying around the lobby for a second time. It crashed into each wall, raining dust and debris, effectively giving them cover. When it flew back to him, he grabbed both Barton and Anathi. “Hold on,” he said.

They barreled through the rest of the guards, leaving the Dora Milaje to handle Foley and the others. The three of them together were too heavy a load for Starborn to steer properly around a tight corner, and they collided with a wall, tumbling down the hallway until they busted through a door.

It was a lab of some kind. Steve looked around and saw several stunned faces. The lab had maybe fifteen techs working at various stations, either at computer consoles or examining a piece of alien hardware on diagnostic tables.

Steve took stock of the room, and then moved to the nearest computer console. The tech at that station made a hasty retreat, scrambling away. “Access database; Battle of Wakanda, 2018,” he said to the computer.

The console beeped, asking for security clearance. He sighed, then turned to Anathi. “We need to search that database.”

Anathi took his kimoyo beads and began attempting to access the computer, but it continually beeped denial.

Steve turned to the techs, each of whom hadn’t moved, too stunned to do more than gape at Steve, dumbfounded. “I need access to that database. Can one of you help me?”

The Dora Milaje arrived, with Foley held captive. When Foley saw where they were and what they were trying to do, he went white with panic. “You’re not supposed to be in here,” he said, frantic, attempting to tug his arm free from Olwethe’s grip. “This is not authorized.”

Ignoring him, Steve asked again. “Please,” he said to the room. “It’s important.”

Only the constant hum from the equipment and lights answered him. Steve began figuring out an alternative when one man in the back of the room stood up from his seat. “I’ll help,” he said.

“Klein,” said Foley, his voice strident. “Stay out of this. You help these men, and you’ll be facing charges for treason. Do you understand?”

Klein paused, looking from Foley and then back to Steve, but he made his decision, rushing over to the console. The computer scanned his retina and voice imprint, then beeped with approval. “What did you need again?” he asked, nervously looking from Steve to Foley and then back to the computer.

Steve repeated what database he needed, getting a closer look at the young man who risked his livelihood and citizenship to help him. “Your surname is Klein?” he asked, looking at his badge. His full name was Charles Michael Klein. “Any relation to…”

“Uh, yeah,” said Klein, with a nervous laugh as the sound of more fighting came from the hallway. His hands shook as he paged through holographic data from the console. “Um, my great great parents were Sharon Carter and Cameron Klein.”

Barton made a face, tilting his head. “You’re related to my wife?”

Klein glanced at Barton like he just realized who he was. “Oh, right. She’s like my aunt, or something? Well, more like, I don’t know, third cousins? Maybe twice removed? I can never keep any of that straight. Here you go,” he said, stepping back from the console.

Steve took a moment to grip Klein’s shoulder. He was the spitting image of Sharon’s husband, Cameron: same height, same curly dark brown hair. “Thank you. I’m sorry if this causes you any trouble.”

Blushing, Klein shook his head. “It’s all right. We get the news fast here. I know about your daughter. It was a crap job anyway. What is it you’re looking for?”

“After the Snap, Carol and Rocket jury rigged a bunch of communication devices. Rocket was basically a walking junk yard.”

It was a holographic database. Klein helped him page through the millions of items catalogued and kept in deep storage. “There, go back. That’s it,” said Steve.

Klein rattled off the location. “That’s in section 004, on the north side. Warehouse eight. I better go with you.”

Steve gripped Klein’s shoulders, and cupped his face, causing the young man to blush further. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said.

He was reminded again that his faith lay in people. They constantly surprised him. It was the reason he kept returning to Earth. And why he’d wanted Sarah to make those same connections.

To Barton and Anathi, he said, “I can’t safely carry all of us. You two meet us back on the jet.”

Then, Klein yelped as Steve took him by the waist, and Starborn pulled them straight up into the air, crashing through the wall again, down the corridor and through the lobby, and then outside. Klein latched on to Steve like a koala, eyes scrunched shut. A moment later, Starborn set them down in front of one of the immense warehouses, DODC-8 stamped in large letters on the doors. Dizzy, Klein wobbled on his feet but he didn’t waste any time, and they rushed together to the access panel. He let it scan his retina, but this time it didn’t work.

Steve was on the look out for more hidden automatic weapons, raising Starborn just in time as more guns opened fire.

“Shit,” said Klein, trying again, fingers shaking. Then again. “They must have deleted my access already.”

Steve tightened his jaw. “Sorry about this,” he said, taking hold of Klein again to keep him protected underneath Starborn. They flew in a circle and then rushed toward the door, Klein yelling the entire time. They punched through the thick concrete doors.

Once inside, Steve asked, “Which way?” The warehouse was huge. It stretched on for what seemed like miles, with containers stacked on top of each other. Steve glanced behind him and saw several drones follow them inside, preparing to fire.

“To the left,” Klein said, gasping. They flew through the air at speed, Klein shouting where to go. The container was in a far corner, and fortunately one of the bottom ones. There was a layer of dust on everything, and Steve wondered when was the last time anyone had been there.

They didn’t bother with the electronic lock. Steve used Starborn to bust the door open. The container was filled with rows, stacks of bins and drawers, large and small trunks.

“Here,” said Klein, pointing to a trunk on the bottom row.

Steve broke the lock. A flood of memories overcame him as he opened bins, but he shoved those aside, and rummaged through the odds and ends. Rocket could take two random pieces of equipment that weren’t meant to go together, and figure out how to make a bomb in five minutes. But Steve didn’t need a bomb. He needed a communication device. He wasn’t finding it, and almost gave up hope, but then he saw a faint blue light glowing. “Oh my God,” he said, feeling instant relief, grabbing the device. “Thank you, Rocket.”

An alarm blared; then they heard a loudspeaker announcement, telling them they were surrounded.

Klein anxiously ducked behind a shelving unit. They could hear the armed guards stationed outside.

“Anathi,” said Steve, activating the Wakandan comms. “I’ve got it. Is everyone safe on the jet?”

“Yes. But hurry. They’ve gathered a small army outside, and they’ve brought in air support.”

“Oh Jesus,” said Klein, eyes wide.

“Let’s go,” said Steve to Klein. “I think I’ve overstayed my welcome. One last ride.”

He took hold of Klein again, and using Starborn, leapt straight up, crashing through one container, and then the next one, and the next, and then straight through the roof of the warehouse. They hovered in the air a moment, and Steve got a good look at the three helicopters circling over the jet. He swung Starborn in that direction and urged it to go fast.

Two of the helicopters tried to form a line, firing at them, the bullets deflected by Starborn. Klein yelled in fright, but Steve shielded him with his body. They landed on the roof of the jet, and a hatch opened immediately. He lowered Klein in, and then jumped in himself. A moment later, the jet lifted up into the air, ducking and swaying to avoid two rockets, the jet’s shields shimmering from the gunfire.

“Engaging cloak,” said the Dora at the helm. From the inside, Steve saw a shimmer encase the jet, and knew they had vanished from sight, leaving the three helicopters to circle around what seemed like empty air.

Steve met Anathi’s anxious gaze, and he nodded. “I got it,” he said, showing him the small, insignificant-looking piece of tech. It was an old iPhone, rigged with odd attachments and hooked up to a glowing power supply.

“When you said you needed to make a phone call, you didn’t mention it would be long distance. Just, you know, pointing that out,” said Barton. “Will that thing still work? It’s been years.”

“Don’t ask that,” said Steve. He looked at Anathi, and pushed the power button on the phone. And waited. He held it in his left hand, closing his eyes, and searched inside of himself, searching for those tender parts that were Thor and Sarah’s places in his heart, like a live wire that sparked and ached.

The phone chimed, and there was an immediate intake of breath from everyone on the jet.

Steve accessed the contacts. There was only one, and he tapped on the long string of nonsensical numbers and symbols. The phone rang, and rang and rang. The relief they’d felt when the phone still worked disappeared as no one answered the call. He hung up and tried again. The phone rang and rang.

He counted slowly, silently, unable to look at Anathi or at Barton or anyone. He kept his eyes closed until the ringing stopped, and he opened his eyes.

From the phone, a holographic image popped up of a kind face etched into wood. A creaky voice spoke. “I am Groot.”

~Avengers Compound~

They decided to wait for Groot at the Avengers headquarters.

Rahul greeted them as they exited the jet. “Do you have any idea the number of people who have shouted at me today? Any clue the kind of mayhem you’ve caused? That’s not taking into account the attack from last night. It’s not even 9:30 in the morning,” he said, barely waiting for them to disembark. “Did you really break into Damage Control?”

“It was necessary,” said Steve, as he and the others stood on the landing pad. He saw armed guards standing by.

“Well, they’re here to arrest Barton and someone named Charles Klein.” Rahul had the dual role of both Director of SHIELD and Iron Man, which he handled with a goodly amount of grace, but it did make for the occasional conflict of interest. “Hullo,” he said, noticing Klein and offering him a hand to shake. “Rahul Chaudhary, pleased to meet you.”

Klein, pale and nervous, hesitantly took Rahul’s hand. “Uh. I’m that Charles Klein you were speaking of,” he said, with an apologetic wince.

“Oh. Well there you have it,” said Rahul. He folded his arms across his chest and glared at Steve. “This has put me in a bit of an awkward spot, my friend.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” said Steve. “Amanda’s working on it. Are you going to arrest them right now?”

Rahul huffed, still glowering, and seemed to be weighing his options, deciding what to do when Anathi popped up between them. “There will be no arrests. I have granted them asylum, and they are both under my protection,” said Anathi.

Rahul brightened, happy to have an easy solution to the problem. “Convenient. Welcome, gentlemen.” He gestured for the guards to fall back, and then led everyone into the compound. They headed straight for one of the conference rooms where they found Jaina studying several holographic displays.

Jaina smirked as she greeted Barton, and they gave each other a hug. When she turned to Steve, she took him by the shoulders and studied him closely, concern written on her face. “And my little sister? Where is she?”

Steve felt his composure break, and he became blind, deaf, and mute as he let Jaina hold him. She spoke quietly in Xhosa so only he could hear, holding him steady.

The iPhone began to ring. Steve fumbled, pulling away from Jaina and wiping his eyes. He set the phone down on the conference table and answered it. Groot’s holographic face appeared. “I am Groot,” said Groot, pleasantly.

“Hi Groot. Did you get a hold of her?”

“I am Groot,” said Groot, in the affirmative.

His image flickered and faded and another appeared in its place. At first, all Steve saw was the back of someone’s head, dark hair pulled to one side, but then she turned.

“Steve? What’s going on? Why did a tree just call me?” asked Valkyrie.

Relief flooded over Steve when he saw her. “I need your help,” he said, and then told her everything. Her expression went from one of confusion and annoyance to full blown anger when he told her Thor was captured, and that Ravagers kidnapped Sarah.

“Ugh,” she said. “I knew it. The idiot. Honestly, the man is ridiculously easy to capture. I should know, having done so once myself,” she added with a smirk, then grew serious again. “He seemed off when I spoke to him last. I should never have left him. We just got back to Asgard ourselves. Nan said Thor left almost as soon as he got back, didn’t say where he was going. What’s the plan?”

They made arrangements, though Steve freely admitted he didn’t have a plan beyond bust into Knowhere and take them back. “Groot can give you the location.” He paused. “I think this calls for extra back up. Can you bring him? Both of them?”

She made a face, but nodded. “Yeah, all right. It’ll delay us a bit, but we’ll get there.”

They ended the call, and then all Steve had to do was wait, which he wasn’t good at. He sat in a chair in the conference room, opening and closing his left fist over and over again. The waiting left too much room for doubts and regrets.

“Hey,” said Barton, sitting in the chair next to him, setting a plate with a sandwich and a glass of water next to Steve. “You need to eat. Drink some water. Okay?”

Steve shook his head. “I can’t eat now.”

“I know. But you’re gonna do it anyway. You going to give me a hard time about it?”

Steve laughed, tiredly, but he shook his head. “Thanks.”

“And one more thing,” continued Shane. “I’m going with you. When that tree thing gets here.”

“Groot. Call him Groot. And I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, well too bad.” Barton shook his head. “Man, you have no idea what you look like right now.”

Steve met Barton’s eyes, and felt himself begin to fall apart, but Barton gripped him and started breathing in an exaggerated way, indicating Steve should copy him. When Steve was under control again, Barton pushed the glass of water at him, and he took a sip. Then, he took a bite from the sandwich. Slowly, methodically, he ate the whole meal.

An alarm blared, and a red light began flashing in the conference room. Steve leapt up from his seat.

“Something’s entered orbit,” said Jaina, pulling up the holographic image of a winged ship beginning its descent through the Earth’s atmosphere. “I hope it’s your friend.”

“It is. That’s Groot’s ship,” said Steve, relieved. He called to Rahul. “Make sure no one shoots down my ride, please?” Rahul shook his head, but he had the AI put calls into the White House, the UN, and the Pentagon. “Just tell ‘em I’ll be out of everyone’s hair in ten minutes.”

Rahul and Jaina followed him, Anathi, and Barton out to the landing pads. Everyone stood staring at the sky. The day had finally matured into afternoon, and the summer sun brought humidity, bugs, and the scent of green things growing nearby. So much had happened since he’d woken up in the middle of the night to Thor’s cries, it felt like days and weeks had gone by instead of mere hours. He saw the flash of light in the sky as Groot’s ship pushed through the atmosphere.

Anathi stood next to him. They glanced at each other. “Anathi,” started Steve. “Perhaps you should…”

“I know what you are going to say,” said Anathi. “But I will be going with you.”

Steve remembered that ten-year-old boy from his wedding: so serious, solemnly carrying the rings he and Thor now currently wore – the ring had not stopped vibrating since this all began. That had been almost thirty years ago. Anathi had grown into a strong, confident ruler. His people loved him. “Wakanda needs you. I’ll do everything in my power to bring Mandla back.”

Anathi turned to look at him proper. “And I thank you for that. But I am a father first, and a king second. What message would I be sending my son, and my wife, if I didn’t do everything in my power to find him when he has been taken? I will be going with you. Wakanda has my sister as temporary ruler. She is as capable as I am, perhaps even more so at this moment.”

Steve could hardly argue with that. If their positions had been reversed, he knew there was nothing and no one who would stop him from going after Sarah. “All right. Good deal,” said Steve. They gripped each other’s forearms and Barton clapped both of them hard on the back just as Groot’s ship let out a hiss and landed, the ramp opening.

“I should probably mention,” said Steve to Barton and Anathi, speaking quickly and quietly. “Groot and his crew are, well, not always on the correct side of the law.”

“Oh, great,” said Barton, with an all too knowing look. “What does that mean?”

“They sort of…skirt the edges of respectability,” said Steve. “The Ravagers that took Sarah and Mandla are kissing cousins to Groot and his crew. Space pirates, basically. Groot has his own sense of right and wrong, and taking kids is definitely in the wrong. He’s my friend, and he’ll do anything for Thor. They’re family.”

“You have interesting friends,” said Anathi.

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Steve.

Groot was so tall he had to bend in half to walk down the ramp. Once outside, he stretched, mossy brown eyes blinking as he peered around, widening slightly when he recognized Steve. Steve walked to meet him halfway, Barton and Anathi behind him.

“I am Groot,” said Groot, when they reached each other, peering down at Steve and appearing to smile. He was almost all silvery gray wood now, though threads of the strong brown wood still corded along his body and limbs, with green moss growing here and there. Groot had a flower dangling out the side of his head, and several small leaves, like body hair, all along each of his limbs. It gave him a whimsical look. Steve had no idea how long a Groot lived.

Steve nodded, shaking Groot’s hand, feeling the smooth warm wood. “It’s good to see you, too. These are my friends, Shane Barton, and King Anathi of Wakanda. That Ravager clan took his boy along with Sarah.”

Groot tilted his head to peer at Anathi. “I am Groot,” he said, standing straighter. “I am Groot.”

“He apologizes on behalf of all Ravager factions,” interpreted Steve. “We do not trade in children. The behavior of the Aakon captain is against the Ravager code.”

Anathi gave a hesitant nod in thanks.

From behind Groot, more of his crew exited his ship. Steve recognized a few from previous encounters. He shook hands with those he knew, and was introduced to the new members.

“Hello, hello,” said a young man, emerging from the ship. He was skinny and narrow in that way of youth everywhere, and looked like a human male of about eighteen years old. He was also shaved bald and had the red cybernetic fin attached to the dome of his head, proudly strutting down the ramp like a cowboy exiting a saloon, swaggering with his hips thrust out so everyone could see the arrow holstered to his belt.

Steve gave Barton and Anathi warning looks, but he knew how to handle this one. He was so similar to his grandfather, it was like Peter Quill had cloned himself. “Star Lord, I presume.”

“What? Oh yeah, that’s me,” said the kid. “Kevin Quill.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “You the one that called us?”

“Yes. Groot’s an old friend.”

“Well, all right,” said the kid. “Friendly and all. But, we should speak terms, before we go any further.”

“Terms?” asked Steve. Quill rubbed his fingers together in the universal sign for money. Steve looked at Groot who shrugged, as if to say it was out of his hands. Space pirates, Steve reminded himself. “You want payment?”

“Hey, we’re not a charity. I understand your kids have been taken. And I feel for you. Got my own family history in that regard. Just…need a little gas money, you know what I mean.”

“I suppose doing the right thing and helping out a friend, not to mention having the King of Asgard in your debt isn’t enough?”

Quill made a face, waggling his head, shaking his hand in a so-so gesture.

Steve huffed, and shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “If that’s what you care about. Where we’re going, there will be plenty of payment.”

Quill studied him, a lot savvier than his swagger let on. He grinned. “All right, then. All aboard. Let’s go get your kids. I know a short cut.”

~Knowhere~

He was walking down a battlement, high enough in the palace to command a view for several miles. Thor paused when he sensed his father’s presence beside him, and they stood together. Odin’s crows circled above their head, their cries sharp and piercing, echoing against the walls of the city.

Asgard spread in every direction, with the clear blue sky marred only occasionally by a passing cloud. The city shined, glittering in the sunlight. Sailing ships on the horizon dipped and swayed. The rainbow bridge shot out like an arrow, piercing the sea.

“Do you see the beauty of this place?” asked Odin, waving a hand from east to west, north to south. “A beauty that lies deeper than mere façade. All of this, all you see, it exists because of you, my son.”

Thor was startled. He had thought at first this was his father’s palace, and he and Odin gazed upon the Asgard of yesterday – the old, golden, destroyed Asgard. He thought he dreamed of the past. But no. As he looked more closely at the buildings and the city streets, at the distant mountains and at the sea that did not end, he realized this was his very own Asgard, the home he had built with his own two hands.

But this was not a current view. Asgard 2.0 had grown in recent years, but not to this extent – the rainbow bridge restored, the city spreading as far as his eye could see. He saw spires and towers reaching for the heavens. He saw skiffs and ships and different sorts of shuttlecraft flying in busy lanes of traffic. He saw a spacecraft, built for intergalactic travel, swivel in mid air, and land in one of several open hanger bays, each with a similar ship docked. He saw legions of Einherjar. The Valkyrie, one hundred strong, flew in winged formations.

Thor realized he was gazing upon an Asgard at least a millennium into the future, perhaps even two millennia. He could feel the altered core of the planet, changed into Bifrost crystal, and felt its power sink into his bones, giving him strength.

From where he and Odin stood, he had a view of the familiar courtyard. Troops of Einherjar practiced swordplay, the wooden swords of yesterday replaced with training weapons, the clashing rhythm so familiar, it was like the beat of his pulse.

He knew her at once. Tall, her golden red hair pulled back, Sarah wore the uniform of a commander of the Valkyrie. Beside her, he saw two who could only be his sons – fully grown but with that light of youth upon them, one was fair and golden, and the other dark-haired but with pale skin. Thor griped the edge of the stone battlement so hard it crumbled in his hands. He wanted to call to them, but couldn’t and gazed at them in wonder instead.

Sarah stood with several warriors who were not Einherjar. They reminded Thor of the Warriors Three, but different. They were more in number – perhaps five or six – and seemed to form their own tribe, wearing armor that reminded Thor of Wakanda more than anything else. With another punch to his chest, he knew, somehow, he looked upon his grandchildren, or great grand children, or perhaps even more removed than that. These men and women seemed outwardly quite old, and he knew they were of mixed heritage, both human and Asgardian.

He searched for Steve, but could not see him anywhere. A thread of panic started. His left hand and arm ached.

“In my time,” said Odin, reminding Thor of his presence. “I sought to conquer the Nine Realms, and did so with blood and death and violence, ignoring the shadow of prophecy that lay written in the face of my own child. My actions, as well as hers, lead Asgard to the brink of extinction. But you, my son, you brought it back. To this.”

Odin tilted his head, gazing down at Sarah and her brothers and their kinsmen in the courtyard. Thor grew still with a kind of waiting tension, uncertain what Odin was leading toward, his expression as unreadable as ever.

“What do you see, when you look into her face?” asked Odin, his pale blue eyes resting on Sarah, his granddaughter.

“Strength,” answered Thor, without hesitation. “In character and mind, in body and in spirit.”

“Hm,” said Odin, with a hint of a laugh, but he nodded approvingly. “She will need that strength I think.”

That’s how Thor knew this was a dream Odin. The father he remembered would never have approved of his marriage to Steve, let alone to having children with him. But then, Odin had changed in his final moments of life. So much of what Thor had thought he knew about his father turned out to be false…perhaps, it was never about approval, as he had thought in his youth.

Thor looked for Steve again, but couldn’t find him. The pain grew – in his head, in his hand, in his body, in his mind. It began to eat away at the dream, this dream of the future. He called to Steve weakly, unable to even think Steve was not with him in the future. He looked down at the wedding ring. It vibrated, calling to him. “Father, where is he?”

Odin placed his two hands on either side of Thor’s face. It calmed the pain somewhat, and Thor could think again. “From where does she get her strength?” asked Odin. “From you?”

Thor shook his head. “From him.”

Odin’s pale eyes held his. His grip on Thor’s head was firm but gentle. “From both of you, perhaps. You must find that strength inside you, for her sake, and for yours.”

“Father, please. Tell me. Where is he?”

The dream began to fade, the blue of Odin’s eyes fading into the blue of the Asgard sky fading into the blue of the ocean and the blue of the distant mountains. From behind him, a hand touched Thor’s shoulder, a familiar grip that was not his father’s. Thor’s heart soared, knowing who it must be, and he turned to see Ste---

Odin stopped him, forcibly turning Thor’s face back to look at him again. But he wasn’t Odin anymore. The mad man came in close, whispering in Thor’s ear. “Wakey, wakey.”

With a gasp, Thor woke, and nearly screamed. The Collector stood practically nose-to-nose with him. Thor could smell his breath. He wore a monocle over one eye, caressing Thor’s hair in a slow creepy way, like he was inspecting a piece of rare jewelry he was considering adding to his collection.

“You dare touch me,” said Thor, straining to inch away as much as he could.

“Shh,” said the Collector. “I thought you might want to be awake for this next part.”

The force field appeared to have no affect on the Collector. He moved to Thor’s right side, close enough to press their cheeks together. Thor growled with irritation, struggling against the hold of the force field.

“Gentle, gentle,” said the Collector again, a finger to his lips. He placed both hands on the sides of Thor’s head, echoing Odin in Thor’s dream, and forced him to look straight ahead. “They have arrived.”

Thor had both dreaded and wanted this moment, his eyes straining through the darkness for the first hint of her golden red hair. He had known they took her, and that they were bringing her here – had guessed from the Collector’s hints as much as he had known instinctually. He could shut Steve and Sarah from his mind, but not from his heart.

A Ravager ship swooped in and landed several feet away, the ramp lowering. He saw her first. Sarah brought light with her. She emerged from the ship, two large aliens escorting her on either side, and a third walked in front. Thor recognized the leader as the captain of a disenfranchised faction of the Ravagers he’d had dealings with in the past – he was the reason the Ravagers had exiled her. But he paid her no mind. He had eyes only for Sarah.

“Papa,” said Sarah when she saw him, holding Prince Mandla’s hand. They both ran together toward him.

Collector raised his cane and forced her to stop several feet away. “That’s plenty close for now, my dear,” he said.

Sarah looked at the Collector, the small crease between her eyebrows so similar to Steve whenever he confronted something he didn’t like. She turned back to Thor. “Papa,” she said again, plaintive and worried.

“Hello, darling,” he said, drinking in the sight of her. Someone in Wakanda had dressed her in a simple colorful tunic of green and gold, worn over a pair of leggings. It made her look elfin. He silently thanked that unknown person, knowing the clothing was probably woven with vibranium fibers, and was at least part of the reason she had remained unharmed. But he could see the marks on her that told the tale of her struggles. “Have you been having adventures?”

“Yeah,” she said, with a hint of tired humor in her voice that gave him comfort.

Without taking his eyes off her, he spoke to the Collector through gritted teeth. “Why did you bring the boy as well?”

The Collector looked from Thor, to Sarah and Mandla, then to the captain. “Good question. I asked for one child. Not two.”

“She was unmanageable,” said the captain, more sullen than polite. “We needed to bring him to keep her in check.” Thor guessed she was regretting her decision in taking this job. “What does it matter, anyway? Pay us and we’ll leave.”

Despite the added complication of having someone as vulnerable as Mandla mixed up in this, not to mention how terrible he felt for Anathi, Thor grinned. “Did you give them trouble, darling?”

Sarah looked indignant. “They were going to hurt Mandla. I couldn’t let that happen.”

“Of course you couldn’t,” he said.

“Did I do wrong?” she asked.

“No,” he said, his voice rough. She was far too young to understand the art of manipulation, her tender heart used against her. “You did as you thought best. Listen to me.” She had his eyes, but when she looked at him, he saw Steve more than anyone else. “You keep yourself and Mandla safe, just as you’ve done so far, through whatever happens next. Do you understand?”

She nodded. He turned his attention to the Ravager captain.

“You would do this?” he asked. The captain kept her gaze down, her head turned away from him. “Look at me,” he ordered, with the full weight of Asgard behind him. Against her will, she dragged her eyes to meet his. “You would do this? In retaliation against me?”

She didn’t answer, her jaw jutting in defiance. She held her hand out insistently toward the Collector. “My pay.”

The Collector, fascinated by the exchange, didn’t move.

Thor waited, until she couldn’t handle it any longer and her eyes met his a second time. “Know this,” he said, speaking without inflection. “There is no corner of this universe you will be able to hide in.”

“Or what?” she asked, irritated. “You’ll come after me?”

Thor huffed a laugh. “Everyone assumes I am the one you have to fear. It’s not me you should be worried about. You took her from her father. He’s the one you’ll have to face.”

She looked unnerved and confused, but shook him off, returning to her business with the Collector.

“In a hurry, my dear?” asked the Collector, who’s expression said he knew he had lost command of the situation. Thor may be bound and captive, unable to move, but he spoke as if he sat on a throne. He was a king. He could claim the attention of everyone and anyone in his sleep if he wished.

The Collector used his cane to push the Ravager captain to the side, clearly not intending to pay her anytime soon. He approached Sarah. The tension in Thor increased, and he readied to call Stormbreaker again, even if he could only do so temporarily.

“My, my,” said the Collector, admiringly. He glanced at Thor, then back at Sarah. Sarah looked disgusted and was trying not to react. Thor growled, his heart rate increasing, thunder and lightning building inside him. “This one has potential. No one will harm you, my child.”

Sarah did not look like she believed him. He made the mistake of placing a hand on her shoulder. Sarah stomped on his foot and then punched him in the groin hard enough that he skidded across the floor, crashing into a glass pod.

When the first servant tried to take hold of her, Sarah sent her sailing into the shadows and they heard a crash as she landed in the midst of the collection. A second servant grabbed Mandla, but Sarah wrenched his hand back. The servant cried out in pain, and Sarah picked him up and threw him after the other one, his cries echoing as he flew out of sight.

Thor, reacting as soon as the Collector touched his daughter, used all his strength to call Stormbreaker. He broke the hold of the force field, ready to fight but he stopped when the Collector stagger up to standing and threw something small and disk-like at Sarah. It latched onto her neck, and Thor felt his entire body clench with fear.

“Stop!” he yelled, his voice echoing around the chamber. Everyone froze. He dropped Stormbreaker, and the force field closed around him again, pushing him down to his knees. “Do not use that on her,” he said to the Collector.

Still regaining his equilibrium, the Collector hobbled over, slowly straightening. Sarah was trying to remove the disk from her neck, wincing from the stinging pain. Mandla was making sympathetic faces, also trying to help her remove it.

“What?” asked the Collector, raspy as he caught his breath. “This thing?” He showed Thor the controller in his hand. “It won’t permanently harm her.”

“Do not use that on her,” said Thor. And then, he knew what he had to do. He took a deep breath. “I’ll give you what you want.”

The Collector’s entire aspect changed, and he brightened like a schoolboy promised a lollipop. He clapped his hands, bustling over to Thor with exaggerated hand movements. “Oh, goody,” he said, then held out his palm.

“You’ll have to remove the force field,” said Thor.

The Collector froze, and then shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so.”

“You want the Gauntlet? Remove the force field.”

This was a real test for the Collector. Thor watched him battle with his own greed and obsession. The obsession won. “All right. Slowly, slowly. If you try anything, I will use this,” he said warningly, wiggling the disk controller in Thor’s face.

“Understood,” growled Thor.

The Ravager captain and her henchmen stood back, watching with their hands on their weapons, and the Collector’s slaves all held their breath, some with their hands over their mouths. The Collector made an “off” gesture and the force field immediately vanished. Thor gasped at the relief. He tore his left arm free of the contraption that kept zapping his skin, and rubbed his forearm.

Step by step the Collector came closer, his eyes glittering. He was holding the disk control between two fingers, teasing Thor with it. Thor got a grip on his anger, and with a look at Sarah, he closed his eyes, concentrating all of his strength, all of his will.

He held out his left arm. It shimmered as the gauntlet appeared – golden, the Stones glimmering in rainbow colors.

“Ahh,” cried the Collector, ecstatic, his face contorting with twisted glee, nearly speechless. “It’s marvelous. Marvelous.”

“Take it,” said Thor, goading him.

Overcome with emotion, the Collector stepped closer, the rainbow light reflecting in his mad eyes. He touched the gauntlet. It sparkled even more, and then…dissolved in a sprinkle of magic, leaving Thor’s left hand bare.

“No!” cried the Collector, turning to Thor with a rabid, wide-eyed expression.

Thor couldn’t hold back his smirk. “A little trick my brother taught me,” he said, then Stormbreaker snapped to his hand and he aimed a charge of lightning right at the Collector’s chest. He flew backward, and the control for the disk fell. Thor dove to catch it.

Those few moments cost him his freedom. The Collector, stunned but not unconscious, gestured madly. Thor had only half a second, and he used it to release the disk from Sarah’s neck. It popped off, and fell harmlessly through the grating. In the next second the force field reinitialized around him, and he dropped Stormbreaker.

“Run, Sarah,” he said, gasping through the pain.

She did as he told her, taking hold of Mandla and running for the maze-like stacks and cages.

The Collector was slower getting back onto his feet this time. He stumbled for balance, gripping the edge of a worktable. “Find her,” he said, slurring his words.

His remaining slaves scurried off, disappearing into the stacks.

The Ravager captain tried to step in front of the Collector. “I still get paid, Tivan.”

He ignored her at first, taking his time adjusting his coat, and fixing his hair. “You get paid when I have the Stones in my hands,” he said, approaching Thor again.

She made a frustrated noise, then indicated her henchmen should follow her. They fanned out, and disappeared into the maze.

More or less alone with the Collector, Thor watched him warily. The Collector didn’t speak as he had done before. Instead, he put on a pair of goggles and a rubber-looking apron before restarting the machine that encased Thor’s left arm. This time, instead of the pincer-like tools that zapped and poked at his skin, it switched to a circular saw.

“You leave me no choice,” said the Collector, the blades whirring. “I will sever your arm.”

“Don’t do this,” said Thor, struggling to free himself. He built up electricity in his hands, but the force field redirected the energy into the ground. “This won’t get you what you want.”

“What will?”

Thor shook his head. “I keep telling you, I don’t have it.”

The Collector lifted his goggles to his forehead, then took his time to look at Thor, really look at him, searching his face. “Unfortunately, I believe you. If you don’t have it, then what did you do with it?”

Thor was breathing hard from the adrenalin, the whirling blade of the machine still uncomfortably close. He didn’t trust the Collector not to use the machine on him anyway, just because he felt like it. But movement over the Collector’s shoulder caught his eye.

Out of the vast darkness surrounding Knowhere, something or someone dropped like a stone and landed silently out of sight. Using that one-inch give the force field allowed, Thor shifted to the side to see, and then he smiled so broadly his cheeks ached.

The Collector turned. His mouth fell open when a man appeared through the shadows like a dark avenger.

“He gave it to me,” said Steve Rogers, raising his gauntleted left hand, golden and rainbow colored, wiggling his fingers like he was saying, “Hi.” But he used his right fist to punch the Collector in the face.

~Knowhere~

The man crumpled to the ground in a heap of leather and dirty white fur, but Steve didn’t pay him any attention, too preoccupied with Thor, who was alive and smiling at him. He disguised the gauntlet again, altering the reality around it.

“Are you okay,” he asked, trying to figure out how to get Thor free. He couldn’t see where the force field came from – no convenient straps to break. “Where’s Sarah?”

“I’m fine,” said Thor, still beaming at him. “Now that you’re here. Sarah and Mandla ran into that mad man’s collection to hide. Don’t get too close. I don’t want you stuck in this thing, too.”

“How do I turn it off?” asked Steve, looking around for some kind of mechanism. “It’s got to have an off switch.”

“Not sure,” said Thor. “I’m so happy to see you.”

Steve paused, wanting to smile, wanting to take Thor into his arms but he couldn’t. Thor looked terrible – exhausted, his hair darkened from sweat. “I’ve got to get you out of here.”

He turned to a nearby table covered in junk. It was impossible to see anything in the mess. The Collector was a hoarder – Steve suspected whatever sanity the man used to have had been burned out of him by Thanos. Every surface of every table was cluttered with useless things.

Steve rummaged around, opening and closing drawers, and almost missed the Collector rising up to his hands and knees. Before he got to his feet, Steve grabbed him by his lapels and shook him. “Tell me how to turn this thing off. Now.”

The mad man contorted his face in an unnerving way, then he threw his head back and let out a harsh ululating cry. Immediately, several individuals emerged from hidden holes and from behind cages, running at Steve wildly, screaming as they attacked.

Steve was forced to drop the Collector, who scurried away on all fours. “Damn it,” he said, fending off three attackers at once. He spoke into comms. “Guys, what’s taking so long? I could use back up here,” he said, speaking to Groot and the others who were still on the ship.

“I am Groot,” answered Groot, unhelpfully. They’d hung back, letting Steve infiltrate first to throw off any detection buoys until the Collector had been dealt with.

“Well, hurry up.” To hell with it, he thought. He took Starborn from his back. “Thor!” he called. Thor hadn’t taken his eyes off him the entire time, struggling to get free. “Catch.”

He whispered to his shield: protect Thor. At the same time that he threw Starborn, he called Stormbreaker to him. The giant axe flew to his hand while the shield sailed the short distance to Thor. With a mighty roar, Thor broke free of the force field and caught Starborn, holding it above his head. The force field couldn’t reinitialize around Thor, deflected by the shield.

As Thor’s power grew, he changed into full Asgardian armor, the red cape flowing behind him. He channeled his power through Starborn. It glowed blue with electric fire and shot lightning like a beam, branching out in every direction.

Steve used the blunt end of the axe, swinging it, sending the Collector’s minions flying in every direction. Just then, Groot’s ship swooped in, firing, and the minions scattered. Steve breathed a sigh of relief. Thor stopped the light show, catching his breath.

“Huh,” said Steve to Thor, as they both gazed at Starborn. “It doesn’t do that for me.”

Thor grinned. Steve took a step toward him but Thor raised his hand, waiting expectantly, as if he thought the force field might return. “I’m not certain I stopped it.”

“Seems like you did,” said Steve, gently. “It’s okay. See?” he said, and stood close enough to Thor that he could cup his face with a hand. Thor offered him Starborn back, but he shook his head. “Keep it, for now.”

Barton and Anathi hurried over, followed by Groot and Quill. Groot and Thor greeted each other like family, Groot’s warm, kind face smiling as he gave Thor a prickly pat on the back. “I am Groot,” he said, in a chastising tone.

“I know, I know,” answered Thor.

“The children?” asked Anathi.

Thor heaved a big sigh, and nodded. “This way,” he said.

They started for the maze of glass pods but didn’t get very far before they came under fire. Everyone took cover, except for Groot and Thor. Thor held up Starborn, and Groot grew a nest of branches, shielding everyone.

“It’s the Aakon captain,” said Quill, a blaster in each hand. “Groot and I will take care of her. She’s a Ravager. She’s our business. The rest of you go for the kids.”

Not waiting for anyone to agree or disagree with him, Quill stepped out from behind a pod already firing, while Groot grew tendril-like branches, weaving around the captain and her henchmen, not letting them escape.

Thor and Steve gave each other a look at Quill’s cowboy act, but didn’t argue with him. “Come on,” said Steve to the others, using the cover Quill and Groot provided to go in search for their children. He didn’t care about the Aakon captain at the moment. He would deal with her later.

They followed Thor deeper into the maze, spreading out but attempting to keep within sight of each other. The further they went, the less Steve could hear Groot and Quill. There were strange noises coming from the glass pods, and Steve’s stomach turned over to see sentient beings kept in cages. He tried to sense where Sarah might be hiding.

Beside him, Barton looked around with a stunned, disgusted expression. “Jesus. The man needs to consider a garage sale every once and a while.”

Anathi called for Mandla, and then Thor and Steve did the same for Sarah. It felt like they were going deeper into the twisty corridors of the Collector’s mad mind, and if they ever got out again they might be as mad as he was.

“Daddy!” Sarah’s earnest voice cut through the eerie silence.

“Sarah, where are you?” he asked, moving in the direction where her voice came from, meeting up with Thor and the others. They turned a corner and saw her.

Sarah stood by herself in an open space, but as they ran to her, Steve realized she wasn’t alone. The Collector stepped out of the shadows, holding Mandla clasped in his arms, a hand held over the boy’s mouth. Anathi made a noise beside him, and Steve stopped him from charging forward. Mandla kicked and struggled, but the Collector had a good hold on him.

They all stood facing each other. Steve looked down at his daughter. To see her, alive and unharmed despite the current situation, was a warm balm over his entire body. Her face pinched with worry, but she still gave him a smile. “Hi, kiddo,” he said.

“Hi, Daddy. I knew you’d come.”

He smiled, then lifted his gaze to the Collector. “There’s nowhere to run,” he said. “Let the children go, and you and I can talk.”

“No, noooo,” said the Collector, shaking his head. “I have the upper hand, here. I set the terms. The Gauntlet. Off your hand. And placed on the floor. Set ten paces in front of you. And then we’ll see.”

Steve clenched his jaw. The thing was, he would do it. In a heartbeat. For Sarah, and for Mandla. They were innocent, and didn’t deserve this. He didn’t owe the universe his children.

He looked down at Sarah again. Her eyes met his, and she shook her head, just barely. Don’t do it, her eyes said. His daughter. His brave girl. Right then, he was gifted a glimpse into the long ribbon of her life – perhaps the insight came from the gauntlet, or perhaps just because. Her story continued on from this moment, and he couldn’t see its end.

He took a breath in. Knowhere’s vast loneliness weighed on him, its many millennia of decay, and he wanted to be done with this place. Steve looked to Thor on one side, and Barton and Anathi on his other. “On my mark,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Now.”

Thor and Barton threw their shields. As they collided, they sent out a shock wave. It knocked the Collector down, but the children’s vibranium clothing protected them from the blast. Steve and Anathi sprinted forward.

He reached Sarah and scooped her up as Anathi lifted Mandla way from the Collector. Just in time. Several ships descended from the darkness above, firing at them.

“Necrocraft,” he yelled to the others, Sarah in his arms. “Take cover.”

Steve turned his back to the ships, letting his new vibranium suit take the hit, shielding Sarah with his body. He felt the blows distantly, but it was her slender shoulders pressed against him, her quick breaths that centered him.

“Ugh,” said Barton, readying his shield as two of the Necrocraft deposited troops of Sakaaran soldiers. “These guys again.”

“We have to get the kids out of here,” said Steve, using Stormbreaker and knocking a Sakaaran out of his way. They were surrounded, and there was no easy way through. He called for Anathi, ready to take him and the two kids and use Stormbreaker to fly to safety, but then he heard what he thought was a trumpet call, echoing loudly all throughout Knowhere.

It wasn’t a trumpet, but more like a whinny – the sound a horse makes when they call to their friends. He looked up at the darkness that surrounded Knowhere and felt his face split with a wide smile. Beside him, Thor grinned. “The Valkyrie are here,” he said.

Emerging through the shadows came a large silver-gray ship styled like a winged Pegasus. It flew gracefully down, scattering the Necrocraft. As it swooped close, a hatch opened up in the ship’s belly, and out dropped the large white Asgardian wolf and Korg, along with half a dozen Valkyrie, their dragonfang swords glimmering.

“Hello, boys,” said Valkyrie, into comms, piloting Pegasus. “Sorry if we’re a bit late.”

“I think you’re right on time,” said Steve.

The Pegasus lifted back into the air and then split into smaller ships, engaging the Necrocraft and drawing their fire away from those on the ground.

The white wolf bounded over toward Steve, tossing Sakaarans and knocking over glass cages. He crouched before Steve, sniffing him all over.

“Hey buddy,” said Steve, taking a moment to sink his hand into the wolf’s thick wiry hair, leaning against his great big body. “Watch Sarah and Mandla,” he said. “Can you make sure they stay safe? Protect them.”

The wolf growled deep in his throat and immediately herded Sarah and Mandla away from the fight, placing them between his legs and under his belly, encircling them with his body.

Anathi hesitated, but Steve pulled him away. “He won’t let anything happen to them,” he said.

They rejoined the fight. Anathi immediately waded in, his vibranium suit lighting up with stored kinetic energy. Steve swung Stormbreaker like a bat, sending Sakaaran soldiers flying, working his way into the battle until he stood next to Korg.

“Thanks for coming,” he said to the large rock being.

“So kind of you to invite me,” answered Korg, swinging his spiked mace right at a Sakaaran’s insect-like face. “I hate these guys. They were the ones that caught me, and took me to the Grandmaster.”

“Actually, I have a job for you,” said Steve, taking Korg’s rocky arm. “The man responsible for all this, they call him the Collector. He’s like the Grandmaster. He also keeps a number of slaves as servants. They’re not responsible for their actions, and I’m worried they’re going to get hurt in all this, or left behind after. We should try to help them. And also, help the beings the Collector’s kept caged in these pods. Can you get them to safety?”

Korg straightened with purpose, eyes widening slightly. “Right-o,” he said. “Revolution!” he cried, barreling through the fight.

He stared after Korg before turning when he heard a creaky roar and saw Groot stride into the fight, swinging tree vines every which way. Quill was beside him, his arrow sewing a red thread of energy through many Sakaarans as he shot his blasters like he was heading into the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

A Sakaaran soldier charged at Steve, firing his weapon. Steve took hold of the barrel, yanking it free and tossing it aside, then he whacked the soldier hard with Stormbreaker. From across the fight, he saw lightning spray like the branches of Yggdrasil. Thor glowed with white fire, and Starborn shone on his arm.

Thor, he called with his mind. Their eyes met, and Steve raised his left hand, closed his fist. The green Time gem broke the illusion, flaring to life, and then everything stopped.

Paused, the universe put on hold. Frozen in a moment of time, except for him, and Thor. They came together across the battle to stand and face each other. Steve looked his fill of his husband. Thor was dirty and battle tired, but he looked a thousand times better than he had when he was trapped in the force field, having full use of his power rejuvenating him. His eyes were normal again. He had a soft, searching expression on his face. “Steve,” he said, full of emotion.

“Hi,” said Steve, and then he dropped Stormbreaker, and Thor dropped Starborn, and they took each other into their arms. There had been no time earlier for a reunion. Steve squeezed, and then squeezed again, pressing closer, turning his face into the comfort of Thor’s neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” he said.

“I know,” answered Thor, voice rough.

“When they took Sarah, I was so close to using it,” he confessed.

“It was my fault, for getting captured to begin with.” There was a note of remorse and self-criticism in his words as he shook his head. “I had this dream… of the Stones. It disturbed me, and I feared it was a premonition of some kind, that it foretold the future. I had to check it out. See what it was. I should have sensed it was a trap.”

Steve took a deep breath and looked down at his left hand. “He knew you would come. It was probably bound to happen at one point,” he said. The Stones were a burden, one he and Thor could choose to give up, if they dared. But they didn’t. It was their choice to keep it hidden, mask it from the universe, as it had been his choice to share the burden of the gauntlet with Thor and wear it for a time – but it wasn’t in the nature of the Stones to remain hidden forever. “Someone would make a play for it.”

“Yes,” said Thor, with a sigh.

They were both wondering how long they could safely master the Stones, how long they could control them before another episode like this one happened. Thor looked over to where the white wolf sat with Sarah and Mandla protectively held in the V of his front legs. Steve followed his gaze. The two children were huddled together, arms wrapped around each other, whispering. They had had each other, to help them through this misadventure, just as Steve and Thor had each other. Of course, he and Thor would keep trying. They would bear the burden of the Stones for as long as they could.

Thor gazed at the frozen fight, a troubled look in his eyes. Steve knew what he was thinking. There were so many who had knowledge of the gauntlet now, from the Collector to his servants, from Barton to Anathi, Groot and Quill. “You will have to remove knowledge of the Stones and the Gauntlet from everyone here,” said Thor.

Steve nodded. “I know,” he said, resigned. He already knew what he had to do. “I’ll take care of it.”

Thor gripped Steve’s shoulder and then cupped his face, and Steve came in, wanting to feel Thor’s arms around him again. They kissed, tenderly. Steve kissed Thor’s cheek and Thor sighed against Steve’s temple. They poured all the love in their hearts into that one embrace.

“Let’s finish this,” said Thor, raising Steve’s hand to his lips, kissing their wedding ring. It finally stopped vibrating. “I want to go home.”

“Okay,” said Steve, finding the strength to pull away.

Steve called Stormbreaker, and the axe snapped into his hand just as Starborn sailed smoothly onto Thor’s arm. Without breaking their stride, they both turned as the universe unfroze and continued the fight.

Unsurprisingly, it was the Valkyrie who made a swift end to the fighting. The Pegasus took care of the Necrocraft, destroying most of the ships except for two, whose pilots decided to make a strategic retreat and high-tailed it for the nearest jump point. On the ground, between Steve and Thor, plus the others and the half dozen Valkyrie who joined them, they made swift work of the Sakaarans. The fighting was over in a matter of minutes.

Valkyrie landed her ship. When she got out, she marched straight over to Thor and punched him hard in his shoulder. “Ow,” he said, wincing.

She pointed her finger at him. “You deserved that,” she said, then punched him in his shoulder again.

“Ow,” he repeated. “All right, all right. I’m sorry.”

“No you’re not. But, I’ll tell you something, you will be sorry if you ever do that again.” She tried to punch him a third time, but Thor caught her and hugged her close until she elbowed him in the gut, freeing herself. But she huffed a breath, and then hugged him of her own free will. Sarah, released from her safe spot between the wolf’s legs, ran and joined them, leaping into Thor’s arms.

It was Gunnvor and Freya who caught the Collector trying to escape and dragged him by his hair to kneel before Steve and Thor. Gunnvor’s red hair seemed even more vibrant in the gloomy light of Knowhere, as if her anger made it shine brighter. She was Sarah’s birth mother. All the Valkyrie treated Sarah like a little sister, but she and Gunnvor shared a unique relationship.

“The other one got away,” she said, with side-eye at Quill and Groot. “The Ravager captain that took Sarah from Midgard. They let her go.”

Groot shrugged, as if to say, “What are you going to do?” but Quill protested loudly. “Hey. We did not let her go,” he argued, but then looked chastised and embarrassed. “She escaped, all right. She won’t get far. Us Ravagers, we have our own code. She’ll get what’s coming to her, believe me.”

Both sisters made a disgusted noise, and Gunnvor tightened her grip on the Collector’s white hair. She held her sword at his neck, her eyes sparking with ice-cold fury, waiting for the order to cut his head off. “Say the word.”

Steve shook his head, sorry to disappoint her. “Don’t kill him,” he said. She narrowed her eyes. “Please,” he added.

She huffed, annoyed, but removed her sword from his neck. She pushed at the Collector’s head as she let him go, but remained near, her eyes overly bright like a cat threatening to pounce.

The Collector wrung his hands and made weird snuffling noises, until Steve knelt on one knee in front of him. He tried looking everywhere but at Steve and caught sight of the white wolf, taking notice of him with an avaricious gleam in his eyes.

“Hey,” said Steve, knocking him on his head. “Eyes on me.”

The Collector made a noise, and showed the first real sign of anger. But then, he appeared to change tactics, attempting to soften. “Can I see it? One last time?” he asked, speaking slowly, his voice low and gravelly.

“No,” said Steve.

A look of pain crossed his face, before he tilted his head. “How are you the master of the Stones?” asked the Collector, curious. “I don’t even know who you are.”

Steve wondered how much of his madness was an act, and how much was real. He suspected the line had blurred for Taneleer Tivan centuries ago, and there was nothing Steve could do for him.

“Oh, I’m no one important, just a regular kid from Brooklyn,” he said, a private joke with himself. He shook his head. “I’m Steve Rogers. King Thor remains the true master. I won’t kill someone I love for the right to use all six Stones. Although,” he added, “Turns out, that’s a trick the Stones play on people, meant to deter those like Thanos. These gems, well, they’re not actually sentient or anything like that, but they have their rules. They’re like… a storm, or an ocean, or like fire. Or, more accurately, they’re like the universe itself – predictable, and yet, wholly unknown. Generous, and then devastating at the same time.”

“I am not like Thanos,” said the Collector, with a look of disgust. “I don’t seek the Stones to use them. They would be part of my collection.”

“How long have you been collecting?” asked Steve.

The Collector suddenly withered into an old man right in front of everyone. “A great many years. I’ve lost count. It is what keeps me alive. It’s all I live for.”

“Yeah. I got that,” said Steve. He stood up and turned to face Groot and Quill. “I owe you both my thanks. You were there when I needed you, Groot. Thank you.”

Groot shrugged again. “I am Groot,” he said, happy to help out.

Steve looked at Quill. “You wanted payment? The Collector has drawers full of units, in that table near where he kept Thor. Take what you want. And whatever else from his collection, if you can find anything of value in there. Just leave the Collector alive. Leave him here, alone.” Both Groot and Quill perked up, already moving but Steve stopped them. “I ask only one more thing from you.”

Quill paused with an expression that said, of course there was a catch.

“I am Groot,” said Groot, expectantly.

“Korg,” called Steve. Korg ambled over, walking in his slow deliberate manner. He had gathered all of the Collector’s servants together in a group, and had been releasing the unfortunate beings kept in the Collectors’ pods. He was as kind and gentle as always, although the servants and prisoners looked more terrified of him than grateful. “Korg, this is Groot. Groot, this is Korg.”

“Hallo,” said Korg. “Pleased to meet you.”

“I am Groot,” said Groot.

“You don’t say,” answered Korg, like Groot had just said the most surprising statement.

Steve pointed to the group of servants and freed prisoners, speaking to Quill. “Everything you can carry out of here is yours. The only thing I ask is for you to transport these people off Knowhere. Take them to the Nova Empire, or anywhere they can get help. Korg, if you like, you can go with them and see it done.”

“I’d like that very much!” answered Korg. “I feel like I’m developing a real rapport with the poor souls,” he added, even as one of the Collector’s servants quivered with fear, shaking her head back and forth.

Quill and Groot conferred quietly, but soon Quill nodded, holding out his hand for Steve to take. “It’s a deal,” he said, and they shook on it.

Quill stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled, calling both his arrow and the rest of his crew. The ragtag group hustled quickly, cackling with glee, while the arrow lit the way for them.

The Collector snorted. “Do you think seeing those imbeciles paw through my collection is punishment?” he asked. “I have rebuilt from dust more times than the number of years you’ve been alive.”

Steve shook his head. “No. That’s not your punishment,” he said, facing the Collector again. “This is.” He held up his left hand, the back glowing yellow bright. The Collector’s eyes widened. He realized what Steve intended to do, and he shook his head frantically, shrinking away, but Gunnvor stopped him and held him in place.

Steve placed his palm on the Collector’s head. The yellow bright gem flared, and the Collector’s eyes turned smoky black, then yellow, then back to normal. “You will never collect anything else for the rest of your life. That part of you ends now. Maybe you can figure out how to live without it. Or maybe you’ll die. Either way, Knowhere is your home. Knowhere is where you stay. This is as good a prison as any.”

The Collector paled almost to the color of his hair. “You can’t do that.”

“I just did,” said Steve.

Without another word, he left the Collector where he sat. Thor, carrying Sarah, followed Steve, the white wolf at his side. Then Barton followed, and Anathi with Mandla, a moment later. And finally, the Valkyrie, one by one walked away, Gunnvor the last to leave.

~Asgard~

Everyone except the Valkyrie and Korg returned to Asgard by Bifrost. It was mid-morning, and in contrast to the dark, shadowy Knowhere, the sun shone brightly and the sea was a mosaic of green and purple and blue, the mountains glistening with snow-tipped peaks. Steve took in a deep breath of fresh air and felt like crying with relief to be home. He took a moment to appreciate Asgard’s welcoming beauty, tilting his face up to feel the warmth of the sun.

“Anathi, Shane,” he said, glancing at Thor to get his approval. “We can return you and Mandla to Earth now, if you prefer. Or you can be our guests for the day and return tomorrow. Allow Mandla to rest and be seen by Lady Eir, have a meal and get some sleep first.”

They were all pretty exhausted. Sarah made a small noise of protest at the suggestion she would have to part with Mandla right away, wiggling out of Thor’s arms and hurrying to hold his hand. Anathi thought about it, then nodded. “If I can send word to Wakanda?”

Thor cupped a hand around his mouth, and made a bird call. There was an answering squawk, and a large black raven swooped down to land on his shoulder. Palace servants arrived, and one of them provided Anathi with pen and paper. He wrote a quick note, Barton adding one for Amanda, and Thor tied both to the raven’s leg. Reverently, Thor stroked the raven’s elegant black neck, whispering to it.

The raven took flight, his black wings spread wide across the sky. Thor gripped Stormbreaker’s handle and then the raven disappeared in a flash of rainbow light.

While this occurred, the wolf walked to the edge of the Bifrost ring and sat on his haunches, then swelled his chest, letting out a long howl. Steve imagined he could hear an answering cry. The wolf returned to the children, sniffing them and licking both Sarah and Mandla’s faces, causing them to shriek with laughter and disgust. He sniffed at Thor’s feet, and then licked Steve’s ear.

“Thanks,” said Steve, making a face. He hugged the wolf around his neck before he stepped back, and the wolf bounded off toward the mountains and was gone.

Thor took his leave as soon as Nan showed up, looking none to pleased at her king. They had business to attend to, while Steve led everyone else to the Healing Room. Lady Eir asked the children to lie on the Soul Forge, one at a time, then spoke privately to each before she made them drink a full glass of apple juice. “They need a warm bath, food, and sleep. Your son is perfectly healthy, Your Majesty,” she said to Anathi. To Steve she said, “The princess tells me she caused a wind storm, on Midgard.”

“Really?” said Steve. It was the first he’d heard about it. Lady Eir raised an eyebrow. Sarah looked like she had been afraid to tell him, worried she’d done something wrong. He lifted her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around him. “You can tell me all about it later,” he said.

It seemed cruel to separate the children now, when they had only a short time left to be with each other. Anathi agreed that Mandla stay with Sarah in her bedroom, while he took an adjacent room. After their baths, they ate their meal together but were both tired. Sarah fell asleep first, her head drooping as she tried to finish her food.

Steve gently tugged her fork from her hand. She protested but was asleep again as soon as he carried her to her bed.

“If you want,” he whispered to Anathi. “As soon as he’s sleeping, you can take Mandla back to your room, if you prefer that.”

Anathi shook his head. “He seems fine here.” He glanced at the raven perched on a stand in Sarah’s room, a special nest provided for him and his absent brother on the windowsill. “You keep birds as nannies?” he asked.

Steve smiled and felt his ears burn. “Oh. She has a regular nanny, and the Valkyrie take charge of her often. But, the ravens keep an eye on her for us. Sarah likes to get out of bed in the middle of the night, and climb into ours. We need some kind of warning. They let us know when she wakes. Do you need anything else? I better go check on Thor.”

Anathi chuckled, very amused. “No, thank you, my friend. I will stay with the children for a short time before I, too, fall asleep with my head in my soup.”

Steve grinned, and squeezed Anathi’s hand and shoulder in gratitude before exiting the room. In the hallway, he hailed a servant and asked for a quick update: Barton was fast asleep in his rooms, already snoring peacefully, and Thor had been sequestered with Nan for a short time but he’d returned half an hour ago. The Valkyrie were on their way back, and should be home within the next few hours.

When he finally made it to his and Thor’s rooms, he found a half-eaten meal and an empty room. It seemed no one had much of an appetite. He heard the sound of water running. In the bathroom, Thor stood under the shower, letting the water run off his back. How long had he been there, unmoving? Thor turned when he heard Steve enter.

“How’s Sarah?” he asked.

“Sleeping,” said Steve. “She’s pretty tired. Fell asleep while eating.”

Thor smiled. Steve thought Thor looked tired, as well. But he knew Thor wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sleep just yet. Even with his hair plastered down around his head he looked godly, but Steve could see how pale Thor was even with the flush of heat from the shower. He knew that force field had cost him strength and energy. Thor was still hanging on to Knowhere in his thoughts.

Steve went to the large bathtub and started filling it, then he removed his vibranium suit. Thor looked curiously as the suit disappeared into its bracelet. “That’s new,” he said.

“Yeah. Anathi gave it to me,” said Steve, taking off the rest of his clothing.

He joined Thor under the shower, washing off the stink of Knowhere, taking a washcloth and doing the same for Thor. Thor sighed, starting to let go, leaning into Steve. When he finished, Steve turned the water off and led Thor by his arm to the bath.

“Get in,” he said. Thor resisted, but only so he could pull Steve in for a kiss, and then another kiss along Steve’s neck. Steve let him do it because it felt good and he had missed this, but then he pulled away. “Get in,” he insisted.

Thor raised an eyebrow, but he did as he was ordered to. As soon as he sat down in the tub, Thor closed his eyes, the hot water doing its simple magic. Something gave, inside of him, and he bowed his head. Steve knelt next to the tub and took a cloth, gently scrubbing Thor’s back, and his arms, then down his legs.

He was doing this as much for himself as for Thor. Emotions welled up, constricting his throat, tears dripped down his nose. Thor slumped to the side to be as close to Steve as he could within the confines of the bathtub. Steve washed Thor’s hair, digging his fingers into the hard muscle until Thor groaned. He carefully rinsed the soap away, not letting any of it slip into Thor’s eyes.

“Get in with me, please,” said Thor, not wishing to let Steve go.

“All right,” said Steve.

He stepped into the tub, sitting behind Thor, widening his legs so Thor could nestle between them, resting against Steve’s chest. He brought his arms around Thor. The heat felt delicious, making his limbs heavy, while his sorrow and regret, his profound relief, dissipated in the comfort of Thor’s weight against him. He took a shuddering breath, kissing Thor’s shoulder. Thor was in his arms, and they were safe on Asgard. Their daughter slept peacefully nearby. Outside, the sky was darkening into evening. He could hear birdsong through the windows, the clip clip clip of someone passing on horseback, the noisy inner workings of the palace.

Steve took the washcloth and began to lightly scrub down Thor’s neck and chest, shifting so he could reach more of him – his armpits, his sides, between his legs. He let the washcloth go, placing his hand right near Thor’s pelvic bone. Thor turned his head so his nose brushed against Steve’s cheek, nuzzling, his hips moving slightly.

The water was plenty silky with so much soap, but Steve reached for the lube and coated his hand. Steve stroked Thor in a slow, steady rhythm, enjoying how Thor’s cock lengthened and grew harder, how his breathing deepened and his body tensed. Thor tried to kiss Steve but ended up sucking on his earlobe instead. It sent a lightning bolt of arousal through Steve. He tightening his arm around Thor’s chest, grunting, pressing his face into the back of Thor’s neck as he came, sharply, his entire body tingling.

Thor was rock hard in his hand. It was difficult to move after such a powerful orgasm but Steve continued stroking him, a little faster. With his other hand, he cupped Thor’s chest, fingering his nipple, feeling it pebble to hardness. Thor arched and came with a soft, earnest noise, spilling over Steve’s fingers.

They both sank a little deeper into the water, and Steve suspected Thor fell asleep, but they weren’t in any hurry. Maybe they both dozed, he wasn’t certain. Before they pruned too badly, he coaxed Thor awake. They were both clumsy, limbs not working properly, climbing out of the tub. Steve led Thor back to the shower, to rinse again, and the cooler water woke them up. Thor pulled Steve into his arms, suddenly very amorous and needy, pressing Steve up against the wall.

“I want you,” said Thor, eyes glowing, thrusting against Steve.

“Okay, I want you, too,” said Steve, dizzy from the heat and the longing that made his chest and cock ache in tandem.

Right then, they were not coordinated enough for wall sex, barely capable of standing upright, so they stumbled back to the seating area by the soaking pools. Steve straddled Thor. He wasted no time, shaking with need to feel Thor inside him, pausing only to slick Thor’s cock, guiding it into his body. It had been long enough that Steve needed to go slowly, letting his body adjust. Steve’s nerve endings flared, too sensitive, and his skin blossomed with goosebumps. Thor breathed wetly, mouthing Steve’s neck, licking and nipping, his hands around Steve’s waist, guiding him as he sank down.

They were alive; they were together. Steve took his left hand and wove his fingers through Thor’s damp hair, aligning their breathing as rain began to fall outside.

Messy kisses, searching and hungry. Steve rode Thor, clinging as he came again. Thor held Steve through it, kissing his face, his neck. He was rock hard inside Steve. They remained joined until Thor began moving again, slowly at first then faster. Steve felt drowsy but also desperate. Thor’s hard length pressed against his prostate, sending electric sparks up his spine. He shuddered, rolling his hips, seeking that same sensation again until he hardened and came a second time.

Steve draped his arms around Thor, and laid his head down on his shoulder. Thor still hadn’t come and every movement he made sent more jolts through Steve, causing his spent cock to twitch. There was a frantic edge to Thor’s energy now, a wild look in his eyes, almost pained.

“Hey,” said Steve, stopping him. It didn’t feel right anymore. “Hey, look at me. It’s okay. It’s all right.” He held Thor’s face between his hands. There was a sadness in Thor’s eyes there, a desperate plea. It pierced Steve’s heart. “Shh, it’s okay.”

Steve wondered if maybe they rushed into sex too quickly. It seemed a natural response to the adrenaline, but maybe they should have given it more time.

“Tell me what you’re feeling,” said Steve.

Thor shook his head, so confused. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m feeling. I want to…I want to know you’re alive. Feel that you’re alive.” He placed his hand against Steve’s chest. “One part of me can sense you, and the other part is lost. It’s stupid.”

“No,” said Steve. “No, it isn’t.” He took Thor’s hand and kissed the palm. “Do that thing, when you make me see through your eyes.”

Thor looked at him curiously, but he placed his hand over Steve’s heart.

At first, it was disorienting, the double image, the twinned sensations. It blurred the lines between them, an overlap of skin and muscle and heart.

“Close your eyes,” he said to Thor, and he did the same. Thor shuddered against him, and it was Steve shuddering, as well. They remained joined, and the longer they remained like that, the more Steve felt. He felt the breeze from the open window, felt the weight of his own body, the power of Thor’s cock inside him, the small aches and pains doubled twofold. Then, he saw more. He saw Asgard, he saw the Nine Realms, the spinning blue ball of Earth. He saw the entire universe. Time and space. Dimensions. The multiverse. Everything.

It was too much, and they pulled back in a rush to just each other, the give and take of their breath. Thor’s heart that was his heart as well, beating, boom boom, boom boom.

Steve clenched, tightening around Thor’s cock, and they both shook with it, every feeling amplified as he began to rock back and forth.

I love you, he thought. Thor made a noise, pulling Steve tight into his arms. His orgasm overwhelmed him, and then overwhelmed Steve, and they were both gasping and holding each other.

It took several minutes of stillness – Steve slumped against Thor – but he did move eventually. They were a mess again, and he led Thor back to the shower to wash and rinse. In the bedroom, Steve toweled Thor dry, and then they climbed into bed.

Thor fell asleep almost immediately, but Steve lay awake beside him. He had gone past tired and into a wakeful heaviness, and began to think on everything that happened, and everything he still had to do to fix it.

His thoughts penetrated Thor’s sleep. Thor shifted as he made Steve turn to face him. “You do not have to do anything right this minute.”

“I know,” said Steve.

“If you prefer, I could—” Thor started.

“No,” he interrupted. “It’s my job. I’ll do it.”

He knew he was thinking too much, but he also knew recovery would take time, like all things. He and Thor had gotten comfortable in their hidden away life, their oasis planet. It was shocking to be reminded that even with all their strength and might, the universe was not done with them yet.

“I failed to keep her safe,” Steve confessed, finally, the one thing that pained him more than anything else. He couldn’t keep the tears away. Thor, waking fully, lifted his head up to look at him. “Damn it,” he said, pressing his fingers to his eyes.

Thor should blame him. He blamed himself.

“Yes, you did fail,” agreed Thor, but without censure. “So did I.”

Steve shook his head. “You weren’t there.” He told Thor how the Sakaarans attacked New York, and he’d left Sarah in Wakanda, thinking she would be safe there. “It was a trick, to separate us.”

“All of it was a trick,” said Thor. “You say you failed her. I failed her, too. I followed breadcrumbs and let myself get captured. If I hadn’t done that, perhaps he still would have made a play for Sarah but I wouldn’t have been trapped. You and Valkyrie are correct. My place is here, on Asgard, or with you, on Earth. But not out there, seeking adventure. I can no longer be the lone god swinging his hammer. I fought against that, and look what happened.”

Steve swiped at his eyes. “I should never have let her out of my sight.”

Thor smiled. “And for how long?” He brought Steve’s left hand his lips. “We will fail to keep her safe. How can we not? Unless we bundle her up and send her to live with the wolves in the north. They will keep her safe.”

Steve laughed. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“Do you need forgiveness?” asked Thor, kissing Steve’s forehead. “I forgive you, if you forgive me.”

Steve sighed. “Deal.”

They fell silent. Steve battled against the sense of urgency, the sudden jolts of adrenalin. The danger had passed, but his body hadn’t gotten the memo yet. “She’s a pretty spectacular kid.”

“Yes. We might have failed in keeping her safe, but you know what we did do? We made her strong. We made her brave. And she protected those more vulnerable than herself. In this way, she is as safe as anyone can be in this uncertain universe. Her own person, with her own path, and she takes after you,” he added with a laugh. “She will go recklessly into danger to do what she feels is right, and protect those she cares for. That is our fault.”

Thor’s eyes went distant, like they sometimes do when he’s seeing far across the universe. Steve felt the gauntlet shift, uneasy in its masked altered reality. He saw a flare of greenish golden light. “What do you see?” he asked.

Thor focused on him again. “I don’t see so much as instinctually know. Sarah has her own destiny to fill. I don’t think we can keep her from it. Underneath her strength, she has a soft and kind heart, and I think that will both be a comfort and a burden. But,” he shrugged. “She’s only eight now. I don’t know the future.”

Steve looked skeptically at him. The day they defeated Thanos, Thor had taken up the gauntlet, and had become master of the Stones. They were both master now. And they had both experienced its fickle nature. He lifted his left hand, the gauntlet masked but they could both see the green stone shining.

“Neither do I. But I can’t deny this thing. It sometimes shows me things, too.” He was unwilling to say it out loud, and pursed his lips. “How much did you see? All those years ago? When you first took it?”

Thor shook his head. “The future isn’t a straight line. There are many paths, and twists. Nothing is settled. I saw…glimpses. Of what might be. Nothing more.”

“Did you see us together?” It hadn’t occurred to Steve before, the possibility of countless alternate realties where he and Thor might be together, or might not be.

Thor turned pink like a ripe peach. “I think I hoped for it. And maybe…maybe the Stones showed me what could be.”

“Hoped for it, huh?”

Thor furrowed his brow, but then he pulled Steve toward him. “Yes.”

They continued to look at each other as the light in the room changed, the sun beginning to set. Steve shifted closer, needing contact, wanting to feel their bodies line up together. They were both too tired for more lovemaking, but this quiet intimacy was as needed, and as desired.

Their peace lasted another ten minutes before the raven swooped in through the window, flew in a circle over their bed, squawked in warning, then flew out again. They grinned, and then both pulled on pajamas and robes just as someone knocked on their door. Steve went to answer it, and found Valkyrie holding a grumpy Sarah in her arms.

“You’re back,” said Steve, very happy to see her. He hadn’t gotten a chance to thank her, and he wanted to check out the new ships. Maybe she would let him fly one. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, got back ‘bout forty minutes ago. Found her Majesty here in the hallway. Think she wants her papa.”

Sarah had sleep-mussed hair, pillow creases on her face, and an out-of-sorts pout. She stretched her arms, asking for Steve and he took her from Valkyrie. “Thank you,” he said, meaning for more than for bringing Sarah, more than he could say while standing awkwardly at the door.

She smirked. “Yeah. Big guy all right?” She peeked into the room as Thor came to the door. Sarah made a whiny needy noise, and launched herself from Steve’s arms into Thor’s.

“The big guy’s fine,” said Thor. “Now that I have this monkey in my arms. Hallo, darling.”

“Papa,” said Sarah, her arms thrown around Thor’s neck.

Thor carried Sarah over to the bed. Steve turned back to Valkyrie. “We’re fine. Or we will be. You?”

She shrugged. “Let him know I’m not done with him. He’s not getting off that easy.”

Steve grinned. “Promise?” he asked, glancing at Thor who stuck his tongue out at both of them, making Sarah giggle.

He said goodbye to Valkyrie, then returned to their bed. Thor was sitting up with Sarah on his lap. She spoke in a small voice, telling Thor all about Wakanda, and how Mandla and she were with the leopard kittens when the aliens came.

“They fired at the palace and made the front fall down on top of us. I covered Mandla, but Kaya was killed,” she said, clearly pained. “I couldn’t save her. And one of the aliens tried to grab me and I pushed him hard. He hit one of the buildings. I think I hurt him bad.”

Steve had taken reports from team members pretty much his entire adult life, from the moment the Howling Commandos had formed until now. But it was something entirely different to hear his own daughter recount events, report on losses, confess her actions. Her eyes flooded with tears.

“And then,” she continued. “I figured out they wanted me. That’s why they came to Earth,” she said, looking at her two fathers, and Steve wondered if she had been carrying around this guilt, not realizing that they knew already. “They brought those ships and attacked and killed those people, all because they wanted me. The captain had Mandla, was holding him. And I…I.” She looked to Steve, uncertain.

“Go ahead, you can tell him,” he said.

She turned to Thor. “I made a storm,” she said, guiltily.

Thor’s eyes widened, and Steve could feel him put effort into containing his excitement. Sarah was clearly very upset about this development. “You did?” asked Thor. “Tell me everything.”

She sighed, relieved to finally get it off her chest. “It was a lot of wind. I just wanted them all to go away, I wanted to throw them as far as I could.”

“And then what happened?” asked Thor.

“She said she’d hurt Mandla. So I stopped.”

Thor tensed beside Steve, staring with wonder at his child. “Darling,” he shook his head, searching for the right words. He shut his eyes, and Sarah, misunderstanding that as censure, hid her face against Thor’s chest and began to cry. “No, listen to me,” he said, taking her so she had to look at him. “I’m so proud of you. I know it was scary. But you saved Mandla. And when they threatened to hurt him more, you stopped the windstorm. You were able to stop. It didn’t get away from you.”

She listened, but Steve could tell it would take time for her to fully understand the meaning of what Thor said. She showed amazing control for someone so young.

“Hey,” said Steve, getting Sarah’s attention. “I’m sorry about Kaya.” She nodded, wiping her eyes. “She died protecting you and Mandla. And if she had lived, she would be the first one to thank you for what you did. You made sure Mandla was safe. That’s all that mattered in that moment.”

She nodded again, still wiping tears, and then Thor held her close as she finished crying. Steve looked at Thor, and silently they communicated, shifting to keep Sarah between them. She continued her story, relating the events of the flight from Earth to Knowhere, They knew what happened after that. Eventually, she fell silent with no more to say, and then fell asleep nestled between them.

“She’s incredible,” said Thor, speaking softly, gently warming her back.

“She’s something else, all right,” agreed Steve.

He had a suspicion that if left to her own devices, Sarah probably could have handled the entire situation herself. He looked at Thor, and saw that he was thinking the same thing, and they smiled at each other. It was both a comfort and a loss.

In a little while, Steve would carry Sarah back to her room so she could be with Mandla before he and Anathi had to return. But for now, the three of them rested, napping together.

The next day, as the afternoon began, Thor announced it was morning in Wakanda, and time for their guests to return home. Sarah frowned but she didn’t protest.

Steve and Sarah could have opted to remain behind, but they didn’t. Sarah wanted to go with Mandla, and Steve thought it only proper that the entire family be together to pay their respects.

In Wakanda, the morning light was golden and soft as they landed all together in a group in the middle of the palace courtyard. As soon as the rainbow beam was seen by lookouts, word was sent to the queen. She and Ahkona, the other tribal elders, the Dora Milaje, all emerged from the palace.

When he saw his mother, Mandla broke free and ran to her. Anathi followed at a more sedate pace, taking his wife and son and holding them in his arms. Then, they turned to face Steve and Thor.

Thor bowed to the queen. “My deepest apologies, Your Highness, for the distress this has caused.”

The queen’s expression shifted with her thoughts. She took both of Steve and Thor’s hands with hers. “I, too, apologize that we could not keep Sarah safe while a guest in our country. But it is over now, and I must thank you and I must thank Sarah, for all you did to protect Mandla. May Wakanda and Asgard be forever friends.”

Steve looked down at Sarah and Mandla, who were holding hands again. They were definitely going to have to plan intergalactic play dates.

The queen then knelt to speak with Sarah, while Thor and Anathi turned to address the Dora Milaje. Thor had brought a gift from the Valkyrie, to express their sorrow over the loss of a sister. It was a ceremonial sword, swathed in a jewel blue cape.

While the others said their goodbyes, Steve turned to Barton. “Can you get home from here?” he asked.

“I think I can manage,” said Barton with a smile. “Assuming they’ll let me back in.”

They were well versed in saying goodbye to each other now, but it never got easier for Steve. His time with Barton was running short. Barton was only in his sixties, but Steve knew how quickly time could pass. He gripped his shoulder, squeezing tight. “I couldn’t have remained sane through this without you.”

Shane blushed, and shook his head. He gave Steve a curious searching look, like he wanted to say something, almost looked down at Steve’s left hand, but changed his mind and laughed it off. “Aw, you know you’re my hero.”

Steve chuckled, and pulled Barton in for a hug. “I’ll see you soon,” he said.

Time to part at last. The two royal families faced each other and bowed. Mandla waved at Sarah. Sarah waved back. Steve picked up their daughter, and Thor put his arm around both of them, gathering into their own family circle. This moment, thought Steve, would last in his memory for a long time. Thor lifted his axe, and the Bifrost carried them back to Asgard.

 

~Epilogue One: The Avenger~

On Contraxia, she asked the bartender for another drink. “Something warm,” she added.

She hated this planet. She hated the cold, but thought it as good a place to hide in as any. It’s not like she believed the Asgardian, and it had been stupidly easy to get away from the idiot Quill and the odd tree creature. Twenty jump points later, she’d shaken any tail that was on her.

Her crew abandoned her. Cowards.

The place was crowded, but that was comforting – safety in numbers. Something banged loudly; a table fell over and she flinched, but it was just two drunks tripping over themselves, laughing at something the other had said. Their escorts laughed with them, programmed to find everything they said humorous.

The bartender set a drink down in front of her, then smiled mechanically. The drink smoked with whirls of vapor. She searched for a unit to pay with, but the bartender shook her head, her android eyes held unnaturally wide. “Compliments from the gentleman in the corner.”

What gentleman in what corner? She whirled around. Where there had been no one a moment ago, a man stood cloaked in shadow. The light caught the shield on his arm.

Scrambling backward, she tumbled from her seat, heading for the side exit. Outside, it was night, and the biting cold stripped the moisture from her lungs. The snow was slippery. The air felt like knives on her skin.

She made it out into the alley but he was there already, blocking her way. Gasping, she backtracked and went the other way.

The main street was packed with people. She ducked into the crowd, changed direction, then changed direction again. It didn’t matter. Each time she looked back, he was there, relentless. Pedestrians fled out of his way. He never changed his stride.

Had to get to her ship. Had to fly away, get to the nearest jump point. Where could she go? Her mind spun. How had he found her? Who had given her up? She changed direction one last time and ran as fast as the snow-covered street allowed.

Maybe she’d lost him? She didn’t risk looking back again, making it onto her ship. Engines on, the ship lifted into the air, and up into the atmosphere. Ten seconds later she took the first jump point, not caring where it led as long as it was away. She sighed with relief.

“There’s no place you can go,” he said.

She jumped, falling back against the controls, firing her blaster. Every shot hit his shield. She threw a knife but it was deflected, stabbing harmlessly into the deck. She grabbed anything within reach, throwing it. With a yell, she attacked him. He punched her and she went down. Stunned, it took her a moment to recover, but she crawled away, then got back on her feet and attacked him again. They fought in the confined space. He flipped her over. With a hand at her throat, he slammed her against the wall.

“Are you done?” he asked, taking her weapons, tossing them to the floor.

“What do you want?” she gasped, struggling, trying to wrench free.

The cowl covering his face retracted. The Asgardian had said it wouldn’t be him, but she hadn’t believed him. She believed him now. This man’s eyes, whoever he was, pinned her to the wall more securely than his muscle did. Anger, fury, disgust – she saw all of it in his face, could feel it in her bones.

“You kidnapped my daughter.”

She pinched her lips, squirming in his grasp. His hand gripped her throat firmly, but not so tight she couldn’t speak. “I didn’t know she was yours,” she said, by way of apology. “That mad man lied. He said she was his daughter. The Asgardian.”

Something flickered in his eyes, and he tilted his head. “She is. Sarah has two fathers.”

“I…” she swallowed, radically reassessing her situation. The Asgardian’s wrath had been expected, though she had counted on The Collector to finish him off. That the child had another parent hadn’t crossed her mind. “I didn’t know, I swear. He tricked me. He said he wouldn’t harm her…he said…”

The man squeezed her throat tighter and tighter and she couldn’t make sound any more. Couldn’t breathe. The light began to dim, the world graying from lack of oxygen.

“Even if I believed you,” he said, biting out each word. “That still leaves you willing to kidnap a child for money.”

She shook her head, mouthing the words. “Not for money.” He let her go, and she gasped for air, collapsing to the floor. “Not for money,” she repeated, her throat hurting, her voice crushed to a rasp.

“No?” he asked. “What justification do you have for kidnapping an eight year old girl from her family? Think before you answer.”

She looked up at him from her place on the floor and realized there was nothing she could say to him, absolutely nothing. He wouldn’t believe a lie, and the truth would be just as damning. She swallowed. “He had me exiled,” she said, choosing truth.

The man nodded.

At the time, she couldn’t see past her bitter anger, her resentment. She could see now, it had been foolish. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He knelt beside her. “I can’t forgive you. I won’t. Neither will Thor. The only one who can forgive you is eight years old. Funny thing is, she probably would forgive you, if you asked, and were sincere. Because she’s kinder than you deserve, and she’d want to help you. But you won’t ever see her again.”

“Are you going to kill me?” she asked.

He studied her for a long time, like he was still deciding, but then he shook his head. “Killing’s not really my style,” he said, raising his left hand. “Though it might be kinder.”

It took her a moment to see it – the burnished gold, the jewels. There had been stories of course, rumors that started years ago, before her time, but no one believed them. A scream started in the back of her throat. He clamped her mouth shut with the gauntlet.

She felt energy pass through her, and then away. Something changed inside her. He did something to her, but she didn’t know what it was. He removed his hand from her mouth. “What did you do to me?” she asked.

“From this time forward, you will not be able to fly. To navigate. To use a ship of any kind.”

She stared at him in disbelief, but felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Since he wasn’t holding her anymore, she got up, and rushed to the pilot seat. But nothing made sense, and when she tried to initiate the engine, to steer or navigate, her hands slipped. She kept reaching for the wrong instrument. Yelling in frustration, she pounded her hands against the board.

“You can’t do this,” she said, trying to get her ship moving.

“If you ask someone else to pilot for you, they will hear only gibberish. If you try and write it down, they’ll see only gibberish.”

She had learned to fly at a young age. It had been the one thing in her life that brought her joy. She turned to look at him, horrorstruck.

“If, after all that, you still manage to get on a ship, it will never find its destination. You enter a jump point, thinking you’re going one place, and you’ll end up right back where you started.”

She was really beginning to worry now. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t do this. It was monstrous. It was simply unthinkable. “Give it back.”

“You can be transported,” he said. As he approached her, he took her two wrists in his. She had been staring at him, so she didn’t realize what he was doing until she looked down and saw the restraints. It was too much to process, her thoughts dulled by shock, so it took a moment to understand what he was getting at, what the restraints meant. “You can be moved from location to location, if need be. But not of your own volition.”

“No,” she said, and she really began to fight, trying to break free. But where could she run? Where could she hide?

He made her stop fighting, twisting her arms until she cried out. “It’s not permanent,” he said, and she looked at him hopefully. “If you need to save your life, or someone else’s life, the ability will return. But only then. I suggest you try and become worthy of it.”

And with that, he dragged her forward, away from the pilot seat. She fought against him, but did not have the strength to resist. He raised his left hand and a purple energy beam shot out, hitting the console. Slowly, her ship began to burn and disintegrate. Dragging her behind him, he opened a portal and stepped through it just as her ship exploded.

They reappeared on Xandar. The cowl returned to cover his face. At first no one paid them any notice – just another odd pairing in an ever-busy intergalactic city center. But soon people began to take notice as he dragged her across the square toward the Nova Core.

When they arrived at the main building, the Nova Prime himself emerged, flanked by several officers. He looked at her captor, then at her. “Captain Rogers,” he said, at first shocked, but then recovering. “An honor, as always. The Valkyrie sent word to expect you. Is this her?”

The man yanked her forward and onto the ground at their feet. “This is her. Kidnapping of a minor.”

The Nova Prime sighed. “We heard of what happened, and can only offer our sincere regret. Of course, we accept this prisoner, on your behalf. She will be dealt with.”

The Nova Prime glanced at the officers to his right. Two stepped forward and tried to grab her but she kicked and crawled back to her captor’s feet. “No,” she cried, looking up at his face, begging. “No. Take me to Asgard. Put me in Asgard prison. Don’t leave me here. Don’t—”

She shut up when he bent and picked her up, looking into her face. She did not see hope there. He handed her to the officers. “All I ask is you don’t kill her. There are worse things than death.”

The Nova Prime looked curiously at him, but then nodded, uncertainly.

Her captor and the Nova Prime shook hands. While they weren’t looking at her, she took the opportunity to twist free of the officers’ hold. These idiots were softer than her captor. They were easier to fight. She got several feet away, but with so many she didn’t stand a chance. When they finally captured her again, and brought her back, it was to find the Nova Prime looking around with a confused expression, searching.

“He’s gone. Captain Rogers. He vanished.” Still, they searched the immediate area, as if he might have only stepped away for a moment.

But he wasn’t there. He was gone, and all hope of forgiveness went with him. The fight left her body, and she sank like a stone to the ground. Dead weight. The officers had to carry her into the building for processing.

~Epilogue Two: The Promise~

Early in the morning while it was still dark, before Sarah woke, and leaving Thor asleep in his bed, he hiked up to the top of the mountains behind the palace to watch the sunrise over Asgard – the greens and golds, pinks and yellows.

He admired the view, letting it sink in. A portal opened up behind him, and without a backward glance, he stepped through it.

This wasn’t his way of doing things. He didn’t sneak around or lurk in shadows. He was a man of action; he confronted conflicts head on. But he’d made a promise.

First, he went to each of the Collector’s slaves and prisoners. They were scattered throughout the Nova Empire. Some found their families again. Others found new purpose. A few slid back, becoming free only to latch on to another powerful master. Still, Steve was pleased to see Korg had been busy, and that Groot and Quill had kept their word – they had tried, at least, to help these people.

“Who are you?” asked a fuchsia-skinned young woman, terrified, scrambling away from Steve.

“No one,” answered Steve, though she didn’t look like she believed him. She was too used to being terrorized. “I won’t hurt you.”

He placed his hand on her head, gently. Her eyes went dark, then yellow bright, then returned to normal. It was a precaution, mostly. The Collector’s servants hadn’t fully understood his motives, and what he was after, or what the Stones were capable of. To them, the Stones were something else to add to his collection. Still, he erased all memory of the gauntlet from her mind.

It took time. He appeared to every person who had been there on Knowhere, saving those personal visits for last. Quill let out a high-pitched yell when Steve emerged from the shadows of his quarters. “Holy crap, you scared the poop out of me,” said Quill, then looked confused, pointing at Steve, then at the door, then at dark expanse of space outside. “How’d you get in here?”

“I let myself in,” he answered. “I won’t take long.”

Quill was about to shout for the others, but then stopped when understanding dawned, his eyes dropping to Steve’s left hand. He had a couple false starts at trying to speak, but then finally figured out what he wanted to say. “You know, I’m not dumb.”

“I didn’t think you were.”

Quill looked mulish for a second, but then nodded. “I mean, I know what that thing is, and I know what it did. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Steve nodded. “Let’s keep it that way,” he said. Quill backed up as Steve advanced, but all Steve did was lay his left hand on Quill’s shoulder. “You’re a good kid. I hope you know that.”

The cocky grin returned. “I’m not that good. And I’m not a kid.”

“All right,” said Steve, amicably, with a smile. “My mistake.” He squeezed Quill’s shoulder. Quill’s eyes flashed yellow. As he fell asleep, Steve caught him, guiding him to his bed.

He left Quill’s quarters, wandering the ship’s hallways until he found Groot and Korg arguing over course heading, their backs to him. He approached silently.

“I am Groot,” said Groot.

“Nah, man. We could swing by Contraxia,” said Korg. “But I don’t think she’ll be there.”

“I am Groot,” insisted Groot.

“Well, that’s true. But you know Steve. He will find her, if we don’t find her first.”

They didn’t see him. Steve touched both their shoulders. When they turned, he wasn’t there.

On Earth, he went to Anathi first. The king was rarely alone, but sometimes he liked to take long walks at sunset, slipping out of the palace when no one was looking. It was something he and his mother used to do together. As he walked, striding through the tall grass, Steve walked two steps behind him.

Under the shade of a baobab tree, Anathi turned swiftly, his suit reacting immediately, panther claws ready to strike. Steve caught his arms before they tore across his chest. “It’s just me.”

Shocked, Anathi’s suit retracted, showing his face. “Bast be upon us, what are you doing here?”

Steve shook his head. “I’m not really here.”

Anathi tried to pull free of Steve’s grip. Steve didn’t let go at first, but then he did. “What is this?” asked Anathi, confused, searching Steve’s face.

“I’m sorry,” said Steve.

“What do you have to be sorry for, my friend?” Anathi tilted his head.

Steve let a breath out. He turned to gaze upon the beauty of Wakanda at sunset. Being back here always reminded him of Bucky. Not far from where they stood was the village Bucky first stayed in during his recovery. Steve had a sudden longing to go to the Jabari, to find forgiveness in the snow and the mountains. This mission weighed on him. Using the gauntlet left a sour taste in his mouth. He was eager to finish and go home.

Anathi stepped closer to him. “Let me help you. What do you need?”

He shook his head. “What if I can’t stop it from happening again?” he asked. “What if all this is for nothing?”

This time, it was Anathi who gripped Steve’s shoulder. “Then we will fight again.”

As Steve looked at him, Anathi’s eyes turned from black to yellow and then back again. When Anathi blinked, he found himself alone, wondering whom he had been talking to, and what he had been saying.

Steve’s final visit took him to a farm. Although the house itself had changed with renovation after renovation – there had apparently been a fire at one point and the entire lower half had to be gutted and rebuilt. Barely anything of the original house remained. But it sat on the same spot, with the nearby trees, the gentle hilly landscape, the rusty-looking barn.

Steve quietly let himself in through the kitchen door. It was maybe an hour after dinner. He heard voices coming from the living room. Stepping through the shadows, he stood just out of view and watched the family scene. Both daughters were home – Ana stood near the entertainment unit, programming music, dancing a little, while Maia did handstands in the center of the living room.

There was a third person, sitting on the couch, drinking a beer. Charles Klein was laughing at his cousin’s acrobatics, egging her on. It did Steve good to see the young people hanging out together – a new generation, new friends.

He only had to wait another few minutes before both Amanda and Barton appeared. Amanda pulled her younger daughter to her and they sat on the couch. She started needling Ana about school choices and what she wanted to study. Barton offered Klein another beer. “You want another one? Honey, you want a drink? Girls?”

They all put in their orders. Barton headed for the kitchen. Before he could tap the light on, Steve shifted closer. Barton was swift, getting Steve into a headlock but he dropped him like a hot potato as soon as he realized whom it was. Steve put his finger to his lips, telling him not to make any noise. “Uhhh,” said Barton out loud, with a quirk to his eyebrows, staring at Steve as he called into the living room. “Honey, we’re out of beer. Gotta head to the…barn, for some more. Be right back.”

They left the kitchen. Outside, the mid-summer muggy air wrapped them in damp moisture. The moon had risen part way up the sky. A breeze blew, and it reminding Steve of Sarah. Barton led him a short distance away from the house so they could speak. “Hey, man,” he said, grinning at Steve. He looked at the sky, as if searching for signs of the Bifrost. “When’d you get here? Is Thor with you? Amanda’s going flip when she sees you. She’s been worried about Sarah.”

Steve shook his head. “This isn’t a social visit.”

An immediate change came over Barton. He stood straighter, and held himself at attention. “What is it?”

“No. It’s not an emergency. Just…” Steve looked down, wanting to delay the inevitable. “Are you and Charles okay? You’re allowed back in the country, I see?”

“Sort of,” he said. Barton made a face and lifted his pant leg. Steve saw the security anklet, its small light blinking. “House arrest. Barton family tradition. Charles, too. I can go as far as the property line. But, Amanda’s working on it. Might take a little time. It’s temporary.” He narrowed his eyes “What are you really here for?”

Steve sighed. Of course Barton would pick up on it. He knew Steve too well. Steve held his hand out and the gauntlet appeared. It caught the moonlight, glowing dully, the jewels sparkling.

“Shit,” said Barton, taking a step back, his eyes wide. “I kept trying to convince myself it wasn’t true. That what I saw wasn’t what I saw. Got it wrong somehow, was seeing things. Maybe I need glasses. You know, I’m getting up there in age, one’s mind starts to go. Or, I don’t know. What the fuck, man, you gotta hide that thing.”

Steve laughed. God bless Barton. He had been dreading this final visit, tearing himself up about it. It seemed cowardly, and an invasion of one of his best friends, not to mention all the family history. He could feel the ghost of Clint Barton hovering, ready to punch him out if he used the Mind Stone on his grandkid. But not thirty seconds into it, and the younger Barton already had him at ease.

“This is why I’m here. This thing…it’s too dangerous to leave knowledge of it floating around the universe.”

Barton frowned. “Is that why you look like someone ordered you to go kick a puppy?”

Steve huffed, but felt color drain from his face. “Been going around to everyone that was there. Everyone that saw, or might have seen.”

“And doing what?”

He didn’t want to answer, but he owed Barton the truth. A chorus of bugs sang in the night. Fireflies lazily circled around Amanda’s vegetable patch. A handful of stars littered the sky – never as many as on Asgard, but still a respectable showing for Earth. He could see traces of the Milky Way. “Using the Mind Stone,” he said. “Erasing knowledge of the Stones, and the Gauntlet, that they still exist and weren’t destroyed. From everyone who was there.”

“Everyone?” asked Barton, a crease between his eyes.

“Everyone but Thor. And Sarah.” Steve looked down at the gauntlet. “This will be her burden to bear one day.”

Barton nodded, studying him. Steve wanted to say Barton was the last visit, but he figured he knew that already.

“What about the one that took Sarah? Did you find her?” Their eyes met, and Steve didn’t answer. Barton figured out the truth anyway. “You did. I guess, having all the power of the universe in your left hand means there’s no place to hide, is there?”

He shook his head. “Not really.”

Steve watched Barton’s thought process. He went from thinking of the Stones as a hypothetical, a myth – something from history – to realizing just how real they were. A tool. More than a means to an end. Something powerful. Maybe even necessary. A weapon. He started thinking, what could be done with it? The people they could save. The universe shaped to his will.

Maybe it was his imagination, but Steve saw a rainbow light in Barton’s eyes. But then Barton blinked, and he grinned his usual grin, and Steve breathed easier.

Barton furrowed his brow, and scratched at his chin. He had a few days growth of beard. “Can I ask you a question? Why didn’t you use it? To get to Sarah and Thor? Would have been a lot easier. And faster.”

“Believe me, I almost did. That was a real test. And I almost failed. The only reason I didn’t was because of you.”

“Me?” asked Barton, stunned.

“Yeah,” smiled Steve. “You kept me grounded. But to answer your question, it costs too much to use it. Just doing this is tearing me apart, and this is nothing. If I’d used it to rescue Thor and Sarah, I don’t know what would have happened. Something just as terrible, or worse. It takes every time it gives.” He paused, wondering if he could say it. If he should admit it. “And I did use it. With the Collector. And with her, the one that took Sarah. I didn’t kill them, but I destroyed their lives.”

“Nah,” said Barton, shaking his head, rubbing at his scruff. “Nice try, pal. But you can’t take credit for that. They destroyed their own lives all on their own. Stop beating yourself up about this. Here.” He gripped Steve by both shoulders. “Take this thing from my mind. You can have it. Did I mention, every night since we got back from that place, I lay awake thinking about those goddamn Stones? Oh, not like that. Not because I want them, but because I know they’re fucking out there, and that you have them, and… I don’t know. I guess I can see what you mean. The damn things weigh on you. So take it. I mean, I still get to remember you, right? And what happened? You’re not erasing you from my memory?

“No, God no. Just the Stones. Just that they exist, and weren’t destroyed with Thanos.”

“Well then, all right.” He cupped Steve’s face. “It’s okay. I say it’s okay, so it’s okay. I know you won’t hurt me. I don’t have to know about this thing. Don’t want to know about it.”

Steve bowed his head, overcome. He reminded himself again, Barton was Captain America. That meant something. Meant a lot. “Thanks,” said Steve.

“You got it,” said Barton. They gripped each other, holding on. “It’s good to see you, even if you won’t come inside. Why don’t you and Thor and Sarah come for dinner? In a couple of weeks? I’m sure we have a Friday night free. The girls are home right now, and Charles is staying with us for the foreseeable future. Get Jaina up here. We’ll have a big family gathering. What do you say?”

“All right,” said Steve, agreeing easily.

“Okay. But you’ve got to get your better half to send a raven, ‘cause I have a feeling I’m not going to remember we ever had this conversation. Promise?”

Steve laughed, and then nodded. “I promise.”

“Good.” They fell silent. From inside the house, Amanda called, wondering what was taking Barton so long. “Come here,” said Barton to Steve, and they hugged.

*

The back door opened and Amanda stuck her head out. “What are you doing?” she asked, looking around. “Where you talking to someone?”

Barton turned in a circle. “I don’t know. Talking to the fireflies maybe. What was I supposed to be doing out here? I was getting something, wasn’t I?”

She stepped down to join him on the lawn. “More beer. You said we were out. But there’s plenty in the ‘fridge.”

Barton shrugged, putting his arm around his wife, kissing her cheek. “I guess I needed fresh air.”

Fifteen minutes later, as his children teased him for his failing memory, there was a flash of light, and then a raven squawked, flying around their heads in the living room, making everyone jump. Maia toppled from her handstand while Amanda knocked over a lamp. Klein spilled his beer and nearly fell out of his chair. The raven circled once more, then landed on Barton’s shoulder.

“You know, Uncle Steve and Uncle Thor should figure out a better texting plan, is all I’m saying,” said Ana, taking the note from the raven’s leg and handing it to her father.

He unrolled it. “Hm,” he said. “Apparently we’re having the Odinson-Rogers clan over for dinner in two weeks. Honey, I think we better write that into the calendar.”

He wrote a return note on another piece of paper, agreeing to the plans, then tied it to the raven’s leg. “This is some Harry Potter bullshit right here,” he said, grinning, opening the front door, and letting the bird fly away into the night.

~Epilogue Three: The Throne~

It took some convincing from the town elders, led by Lady Eir, but they finally managed to get Thor to sit on the throne of Asgard. Even so, Thor looked uncomfortable, like he sat on a bed of nails instead of a cushioned seat, and whenever he had to attend business in the throne room, to see an audience from the elders, or delegations from the south or north, or confer with the Einherjar and the Valkyrie, Steve could see him count the seconds until he could turn his back on the damn thing and go for a ride on his horse.

Steve had never seen the throne from the first Asgard, but Lady Eir described it for him. The new throne was nothing like it – less ostentatious, and made of truwood instead of gold. But pointing that out to Thor wouldn’t help.

“What is it that bothers you, exactly?” he asked, after the last of the town elders left the throne room and before Thor could bolt from his seat. Steve glanced at the royal attendant, letting him know with a gesture that the next audience would have to wait.

Thor glared. It was actually not that uncomfortable a seat. They’d made sure it was cushioned and easy to get in and out of. Steve had tried it himself, just to see what it felt like. Thor shook his head, sighing, but he didn’t storm past Steve, so Steve took that as a victory of sorts.

“It’s not the seat itself,” said Thor. “Not the physical chair, but everything that comes with it. Everything it symbolizes.”

“You’re worried you’ll become like your father?” asked Steve. He’d tried before to reassure Thor that wouldn’t happen, but it never worked. Thor saw it as an empty statement, and beside the point. Odin had sat on the throne of Asgard for millennia before Thor was even born. Thor had only ruled for a few hundred years. Who knew what the future would change him into? Ruling for that long, it would alter him, there was no way around it. Steve knew these were the thoughts that plagued him. He felt it nag at Thor, even if Thor never spoke of it out loud.

“It’s not only that,” said Thor. “My father was complicated. And secretive. Always burdened by the weight of ruling the Nine Realms. None of us could touch him, not truly. Not even my mother, and he loved her. We saw how it pained her to be with him when he couldn’t give himself to her at all. He kept himself apart, and he paid the price for it. She did as well, though she never once complained. What he did to my sister? What he did to Loki? To me? We thought he was like that due to the constant demands of being the Allfather – but I know now most of it was guilt. I used to look up to him. He was the wisest of fathers, the wisest of kings. I…. that’s what I feel when I sit here. When I was younger, I wanted the throne, so I could be like him, but I know what that means now.”

There was no easy way Steve could help Thor reason past this. He was fully justified in feeling betrayed by his father, and not wanting to repeat past mistakes. These were big emotions, millennia of family trauma that Steve had no hope of untangling. How could he heal wounds that were under so much scar tissue? He wished for a weapon that could do the job for him.

But he remembered Natasha, during that first Battle of New York, with the Chitauri swarming all around them. “Our biggest guns couldn’t touch it.”

Maybe it isn’t about guns.

Steve couldn’t control the future, or change the past, but he could do something about the present. “All right,” he said. “What if we…” he cast about for ideas. “What if we change your relationship with this chair? Find a different vocabulary.”

Thor frowned, still sitting like the throne was going to bite him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Think about it. You’re bringing thousands of years of baggage onto this thing. But it’s just a chair. It doesn’t deserve that. And frankly, neither do you. So change the conversation. When you sit on the throne, you want to be reminded of something else. Something not as heavy.”

Thor listened with a determined scowl. At least he wasn’t discounting the idea. “How would we do that?”

Steve shrugged. “Lots of ways. You and Sarah could paint it. Create a new memory that way. Or, take it out of this room for a period of time, and have everyone on Asgard sit on it. Make them rule for a day. Put rockers on it. Can you imagine taking an audience with Lady Eir, and you’re there rocking back and forth.”

Thor laughed, his mood lightening. “I like those ideas.”

“Or,” and Steve couldn’t believe what he was about to suggest. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard Tony Stark gasp in shock. His face burned even thinking about it. “We could…do things.”

The blush was a dead giveaway. Both of Thor’s eyebrows rose near to his hairline, and he looked scandalized before his eyes darkened with arousal. A soft, warm smile tugged at his lips. “What? Right here? Right now?”

Steve lifted a shoulder, just barely. “Just an idea.”

Thor smirked, trailing one hand down Steve’s chest till it caught at his waist, tugging him closer to stand between Thor’s legs. Steve lifting Thor’s chin so he could bend down and kiss him. Their lips parted, and his knees weakened.

An echoey noise reminded them of where they were and that they weren’t alone. Thor turned to the attendants that were standing several discreet feet away, and glanced at the guards stationed at each entrance to the throne room. In a ringing voice he said, “I wish to be alone with my husband. Leave us.”

The attendants gave each other looks, but they did as he asked. The doors closed on the final guard, and they were alone in the large, empty throne room.

“That was kind of hot,” said Steve.

Thor’s smile was warm. “You think so?” he asked, tugging until Steve climbed onto the throne with Thor and straddled his lap. They sat face-to-face, melting into a kiss, gentle at first, and then hungry. “You realize,” said Thor, kissing Steve’s neck, making him squirm as his beard tickled. “This will only replace one kind of discomfort with another.”

Steve grinned, passing his hands through Thor’s hair, settling his weight. “Ah. But this is something I can help you with.”

Thor pulled back and looked at him with wonder, his hand resting against Steve’s chest. Steve leaned into him. He began unfastening Thor’s pants, sliding off his lap to kneel between his legs. Thor’s length was hard, and Steve could see its outline. He tugged, peeling back Thor’s pants, lifting his gaze before taking the head into his mouth.

Each time he did this, it shocked him how much he loved it. He inhaled deeply, and opened his throat, taking all of Thor in.

Gently, Thor cupped his cheek. “Wait,” he said, with a tone that told Steve to listen to him. “Not like this.”

“Okay,” said Steve. He realized from Thor’s expression there was something about this position – Thor sitting on the throne and Steve between his legs – that he didn’t like. Thor tugged him back up to straddle his lap, then held him around the waist as he turned and made Steve sit on the throne instead. “Oh.”

He let Thor take the lead. This was for him. Whatever he wanted, that was what he got. And apparently Thor wanted their places reversed.

“More,” said Thor, impatiently pushing Steve’s pants down low enough that he could spread Steve’s legs. He handled Steve roughly, with his hands and his mouth. “I want to see you come while sitting on the throne. That’s the memory I want of this chair.”

“Christ,” said Steve, groaning, falling back on Earth slang. He thrust into Thor’s hand as Thor captured him in another kiss, his tongue delving deep, claiming him. This would be over soon, he thought wildly, as Thor bit his lip before sinking down between his legs and taking Steve into his mouth. Steve made a noise of warning, enough for Thor to look up and lock eyes with him as he came.

Thor swallowed everything, waiting for Steve to finish, licking the head and shaft before letting it fall from his mouth. He was breathing hard as he stood. Recovering, Steve raked his eyes up Thor’s body, pausing when he got to Thor’s undone pants.

Silently, without either of them having to speak, Thor stepped closer and Steve took hold of him, resuming what he had started before, taking Thor back into his mouth and opening his throat. He lifted his gaze, begging with his eyes, until Thor began to thrust. Steve was lost in the sensation, taking everything Thor gave him. He felt the tension against this tongue, and knew the moment Thor would come, shaking, knees giving out so Steve had to hold him up.

They had started out with Steve on Thor’s lap, but ended up the other way around, Thor sitting side-saddle, resting his head on Steve’s shoulder. They were really too big to sit like this, even for such a large chair, but Steve didn’t mind. He cradled Thor in his arms.

“I think that’ll help,” he said.

Thor laughed, nuzzling his neck and cheek. “I married a very wise man,” said Thor.

“And I married a good one,” said Steve, his voice breaking a little. Thor smiled again, and snuggled.

They held each other a little longer, but there were others waiting to see King Thor, and he had made them wait long enough. Presentable once again, Steve stood by Thor’s side as he sat at the throne. Using Stormbreaker like a staff, he banged on the ground, signaling that the attendants and guards could come back in.

No one dared comment about the wait, or dared give anything but the blandest of looks at Thor or Steve for the rest of the day. Only Valkyrie gave them hell about it. “In the throne room? Really?”

It did seem to help. There were times when sitting on the throne still brought on a sadness in Thor, but it never lasted long. He’d pause, look at the chair, and then grin, maybe cross his legs. If he seemed uncomfortable at times, it was nothing a quick break spent with Steve couldn’t fix.

~Epilogue Four: The Goddess of Strength and Sorrow

Steve and Thor and Sarah spent a week in the southern continent, in the same spot where they had their honeymoon. Valkyrie and Gunnvor joined them, along with their winged horses, Bird and Dis. Sarah spent every day in the water with Valkyrie and Gunnvor, swimming and playing, riding Bird or Dis. The winged horses loved the ocean. Bird, who had a tendency to get herself into trouble, spooked at the dolphins and took flight, leaving Valkyrie dumped into the water, sputtering curses at her horse while everyone laughed.

It was Sarah who called Bird home again, whistling for her. She manifested a breeze, and it carried the whistle far and wide until Bird whinnied in reply and landed down on the sand, as easy as you please, splashing back into the water as if nothing had happened.

The adults all looked at each other with raised eyebrows as Sarah, not realizing what she had done, went over and chastised Bird for being silly, then fed her an apple.

At ten years old, when Sarah sat drawing, playing with her toys, she liked to hum a tune to herself. It helped her concentrate. Without thought, she began to rise into the air, bolstered by a breeze, unaware of what was happening until Thor entered her room.

“Sarah,” he said, staring at her as she floated in mid-air.

She looked up at her papa, then gasped, and fell crashing to the floor.

At twelve years old, she got mad at Steve when he told her she couldn’t spend the entire summer with Mandla in Wakanda. The injustice of it. So unfair! She’d wanted badly to go. And she’d promised Mandla that she would, that they would have the entire summer. Promised him! How could her dad do this to her? The storm that followed tore up the tree that stood in the center of the palace courtyard, pulled up by its roots, smashing it to pieces. Everyone ducked away from the flying chucks of tree.

Afterward, she was mortified, and worried she’d hurt someone, and then devastated that she could have hurt someone or even got someone killed. All because she got angry.

“Hey,” said Steve, taking her into his arms. “Accidents happen. It’s okay. You didn’t hurt anyone, and you weren’t trying to.”

But she didn’t let herself get angry like that again.

Her teen years were chaotic. Sometimes her powers disappeared entirely, and she couldn’t do so much as kick up dust with her feet. Other times, she would wake from a dream to find all of Asgard buckled down from a sudden windstorm, trees bent this way and that, unsteady branches snapped off and tossed all over the streets. Leaves everywhere, and the sea churning in turmoil with ships breaking their moorings.

At twenty years old, she fell in love.

It wasn’t like it was a surprise to anyone. But what had been puppy love as children laid the foundation for a connection so deep and abiding no one, not even Thor, could have foreseen the effect it would have on Earth and on Asgard. Sarah loved Mandla and Mandla loved Sarah, and there was no way around that.

Steve watched the romance unfold with bittersweet concern. He would never do anything to alter it, or try to change her mind or her feelings, though he wished he could protect Sarah from the inevitable heartbreak. She was so happy, and they were both so young, even by Earth standards. It was painful how young they were. He and Thor could only watch and hope for the best.

In those early, idyllic years, Sarah and Mandla spent time together on both Earth and on Asgard. They traveled, they had adventures, and grew into their respective powers. Mandla took the mantle of the Black Panther early, and then became King when Anathi died. They made the ultimate power couple. A crime-fighting duo for the ages.

A decade passed. Then two decades. Such was the gift of the heart-shaped herb, that Mandla remained as strong and as fast as ever, but the herb didn’t stop human aging. At forty, he began to gray at his temples. It took Sarah a while to see it, to recognize the changes in Mandla’s body for what they were. She was too much Steve’s daughter, and love blinded her, until there came a day at the Avenger’s compound where she and Mandla stood side-by-side in front of a mirror, and she saw how Mandla looked middle-aged, and how she looked only twenty. She turned to him, devastated, and her heart broke right before his eyes. One day, he would leave her, and she would live millennia without him. This was the truth she had denied for so long. The injustice of it filled her with rage, and then her grief poured out of her.

On Asgard, Thor was in the middle of an audience with the fisherman’s guild when he stopped, and stood from his throne. A look came over his face, one of worry and concern. “Where’s Steve?” he asked.

Steve was training with the Valkyrie, but he knew immediately something was wrong. Very wrong. With dread and adrenaline flooding his veins, he flew back to the palace with Starborn. Thor had come out to the courtyard, looking for him.

“What is it?” he asked Thor, even before he landed on his feet.

“She’s in distress. We have to go. Now.” Thor grabbed him and didn’t waste time with the Bifrost site, but lifted Stormbreaker and called the Bifrost right there.

The storm that raged across the Avengers compound brought darkness and gale force wind. The Bifrost dropped them outside the building, and they immediately had to duck as one of the jets broke from the cables holding it in place and it slid toward them, crashing into the grounds, gouging deep furrows into the grass. People were running everywhere as the storm grew bigger. They had started evacuating the building.

Charles Klein, Director of SHIELD, spotted them and came over. “She’s in the atrium,” he said. “He’s with her. No one’s been able to get close.”

Thor and Steve gave each other grim looks. “We have to get her back to Asgard,” said Thor. “Away from here.”

They flew side-by-side into the storm. Furniture crashed into walls. Windows shattered. Even Stormbreaker and Starborn had difficulty navigating through the wind, but they landed in the atrium, barely able to stand upright. Each step closer to Sarah had them sliding backward.

Steve could see Sarah’s golden red hair, a wild mane around her. Mandla was clinging to a pillar, his panther claws the only thing keep him from being tossed by the storm.

“Sarah!” yelled Steve. He yelled with both his voice and in his mind. Beside him, Thor did the same, and they yelled together. “Sarah! Stop this!”

There was a pause in the storm as she looked to her fathers, her eyes white, her hair in flames, allowing them to get close enough. Mandla crashed to the ground. Thor wrapped his big arms around both Steve and Sarah, and called the Bifrost to carry them away.

As they landed on Asgard, the storm died completely, and Sarah was left gasping for breath, a look of slow dawning horror crossing her face. She looked from Steve to Thor. For a moment, Steve thought she might faint. But she didn’t. Instead, a wind picked her up and she flew into the air.

Steve released the breath he had been holding. “What the hell happened?”

“Mandla,” said Thor, gazing to the direction Sarah had flown to with a worried crease between his eyes. “I think she realized she would outlive him. She must not have allowed herself to know it before.”

Damn, thought Steve. He had been dreading this, but he’d had no idea she would react so violently. He looked at Thor. “I better speak with her.”

Thor was lost in thought, but he nodded. “I’ll return to Earth. See if I can help. Make sure Mandla’s okay. She caused a great deal of damage.”

“Yeah. I’ll say.” Thor shook his head, slightly amused. It was the nature of their powers, that they were tied to strong emotion. While Sarah typically had very good control, she was a mere child in the eyes of most Asgardians, though already forty years old. “Where is she?”

“At the top of the rise, in the hills behind the palace. Take care of our daughter.”

They hugged, and Steve stepped off the Bifrost ring as Thor disappeared in the beam of rainbow light.

When he landed on the hilltop. The air was still, almost with a vacuum-like lack of breathable atmosphere, and there was a halo of leaves and branches and twigs hanging suspended in mid-air around Sarah. He approached her slowly, and sat beside her on the rocky outcropping.

“Why didn’t you stop me?” she asked, without looking at him. “You should never had let me fall in love with him.”

He felt his stomach twist in on itself. This was heartache he knew intimately. “Sarah,” he said, carefully. “You have loved him since you were eight years old.”

She turned to him, and he was relieved to see her eyes were back to their regular mismatched colors. The leaves and branches and twigs fell, and the pressing stillness left. A normal breeze blew again. Sarah’s face crumpled with grief, and she curled up in her father’s arms.

He let her cry it out. It took several minutes, but her tears eventually ended. “You’ve done this before?” she asked. “How many times?”

“Oh,” he said, his throat hurting. “I can’t say.”

“Does it get easier?”

“Not really,” he said. She had seen him when Shane Barton died, followed only a year later by Amanda. Then, a few years later Anathi passed. It never got easier, but he survived each loss, and he continued to live. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it’s worth the pain of losing them to have that time.”

“Is it?” she asked. “Worth it? Tell me how. Tell me what to do.”

“I think you know what to do,” he said. He brushed her hair back, like he used to do when she was a little girl, careful not to snag on the tangles. “A good friend of mine, her name was Natasha, she once said, ‘We have what we have when we have it.’ It means, nothing lasts forever, Sarah. So while it’s there, grab hold of it. It’s cruel you don’t have eternity with Mandla. I know. But you have this time. Take it. Cherish it.”

She shook her head, her eyes glimmering. “I don’t think I’m strong enough.”

He gave her a look. “Not strong enough? Did you just actually say those words? You’re stronger than anyone. Your stronger than Papa.”

Her brow furrowed. “This isn’t the same thing.”

“Yes it is,” he said, simply, smiling at her. “You’re more than strong enough. That’s your name. Sarah Trude Rogers, daughter of Thor, Princess of Asgard. Strong. It’s who you are. It won’t be easy, but you can do it.” She watched him closely. “Because, he still has all the rest of his life, and every second of it is precious, and you will want to live it with him. Whether it’s one more day, or sixty more years.”

She sighed, resting her head again into the crook of his neck. “If you could go back in time, and make it so you never were injected with the serum, would you do it?”

He was startled by the question, but decided to answer it honestly. “If you’d asked me that a hundred and fifty years ago, I might have said yes. But I wouldn’t say that now.” He made her look at him. “Do you want me to offer Mandla the serum? They can make it from my blood. Is that what you want?”

She looked inward as she turned her gaze on Asgard, her eyes resting on the horizon. He wondered what he would do if she said yes. But, she shook her head. “He wouldn’t take it anyway.”

He pulled her against him. They sat in silence for a long time.

“Tell me more about Natasha?” she asked. “Tell me about Peggy Carter.”

And so he did. He told her what kind of women they were. He spoke about Peggy shooting him with a pistol as he hid behind his shield, and about the time Natasha jumped onto that same shield seventy years later, leaping without looking first. She knew already all about Bucky, but he told her a story from childhood, and then told her how he met Sam jogging in the wee hours of the morning. He spoke about Clint and Tony. He spoke at length about Bruce Banner. “You remind me of him sometimes,” he said. “He was one of the best men I ever knew.”

They saw the Bifrost return, and not two minutes later, Thor was landing beside them on the hilltop. He brought Mandla with him.

Steve and Sarah stood to greet them. The young couple had eyes only for each other, but Sarah turned to Thor. “How bad is it?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A few broken windows. Might need to replace some furniture. Nothing that can’t be fixed.”

“Oh, God,” she said, with a worried frown. “Did I hurt anyone?”

Steve and Thor glanced at each other, sharing a secret smile. How many times had they heard Bruce ask the same question? “No,” said Mandla, speaking up, stepping closer. He resembled T’Challa all over again. “A few cuts and bruises. Nothing more.”

There was a long awkward silence, and then Thor touched Sarah’s cheek, and gripped Mandla’s shoulder. “We’ll leave you two alone.”

They left the hilltop, but decided to take the long way down instead of flying back to the palace. Steve needed time to think, and he wanted to know if Thor and Mandla told the truth about the damage to the Avengers compound.

“No one died,” was Thor’s answer. “One serious concussion, but the outcome is hopeful. How did it go for you?”

“About what you’d expect,” he said. He told Thor the gist of his conversation with Sarah. He was beginning to second-guess himself, wondering if he had done the right thing by encouraging Sarah not to give up on Mandla. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it would be better if it ended now.”

Thor was silent beside him as they hiked down the hill and then through the small copse of trees that butted up behind the stables. “I also wish we could spare her this pain. But she would live a half-life if we did so. The time when we could have put a stop to this passed unnoticed by you or I years ago. It’s too late now, even if I wanted to change it. And I’m not sure that I do.”

“Yeah?” asked Steve, wanting to hear Thor’s reasons. He needed that reassurance. “Tell me why?”

“It makes me understand my father better – he refused to allow me to court Jane, though I did so anyway. He had good reasons. But I won’t do the same to Sarah. Mandla loves her. And she adores him. I can’t bear the thought of denying that to her, to either of them,” he said, and he looked softly at Steve, making him blush, pulling him in so their bodies were aligned.

“No, neither can I,” said Steve with a sigh as they kissed.

~Epilogue Five: The Wolf~

Years went by. Decades. No one knew how long the Asgardian wolves lived. Steve consulted with the royal gamekeeper, and he guessed they lived probably the equivalent of about 300 Earth years. To Steve, the white wolf didn’t seem to age, but he began to get thinner, and his coat turning a pure white.

The howl woke him and Thor in the dead of night. It woke the entire palace. The wolf was right outside their window. He howled a second time.

Steve got out of bed and went to the balcony. The wolf sat on his haunches, staring up at their rooms, ghostly white in the moonlight. He whined when he saw Steve. “Hey,” Steve called down. “I’m here. It’s okay. I’ll be right down.”

“What is it?” asked Thor, sitting up.

Steve returned to the room and began getting dressed, shoving boots on, and throwing a cloak over his shoulders. He picked up Starborn and locked it onto his back.

“I’m not sure. He needs something.” He sighed, and looked at Thor. “This might take a while.”

Thor nodded, sleepy-eyed. He made an inviting picture: hair tousled, bare-chested. It was not easy to leave him. “Should I go with you?” asked Thor.

So tempting, thought Steve. “No. No point in both of us losing sleep. And I don’t know how long I’ll be. I’ll try to get word to you somehow.”

Steve sat on the bed by Thor’s side. Thor smiled, a bit goofy in his sleepiness. “You look good right now,” he said, poking at Steve’s stomach, touching his hair and face.

“Thanks,” said Steve, with a grin. “You’re not so bad yourself.” The wolf whined again, loud enough that they could hear. “I better go.”

They kissed, lingering sweetly. Thor was warm, his bare skin smooth. Steve forced himself to stand and head for the balcony. He took a flying leap and jumped down to the ground.

As he landed, the wolf rose to his feet, sniffing Steve from head to toe. “What is it?” asked Steve, throwing his arms around the wolf. He could feel the tension rising off the wolf in waves as he paced, faced north, then lowered his body as close as he could to the ground. “All right,” said Steve, and climbed onto the wolf’s back.

He could fly north and back again much faster using Starborn, but that wasn’t an option right now. Grabbing handfuls of wiry white hair, he secured himself as best he could. He’d ridden wolfback a few times, but it was really something he left for the kids to do.

The wolf took a couple of steps. Steve glanced up at their balcony and saw Thor standing there, outlined by moonlight. He waved, and Thor waved back, before the wolf bounded down the promenade, heading for the mountains, and they were off.

Even with the wolf’s giant stride – at least three times faster than a horse – it would take hours over ground to reach the northern mountains. Steve resigned himself to a grueling ride. They ran through fields and forests, up hills and cliffsides, peaks and valleys. It was beautiful. He’d never seen Asgard 2.0 like this before, so strange and mysterious, with blue moonlight bathing the entire landscape.

He should have thought to pack food and water. As the sky began to lighten, and dawn approached, he felt a real need to stop. He needed to relieve himself, and stretch his legs. He was going to have to find some water soon. But the wolf seemed to know his needs better than Steve did, because not ten minutes after thinking it was time for a break, the wolf slowed down to a trot, and Steve heard a low mooing and quiet rustling. They went up another rise and on the other side, Steve saw a large herd of cattle grazing in the dawn’s light, covering an entire valley.

The cattle hustled away from the wolf as they slowed to a walk. But the wolf paid them no mind, heading with single-minded purpose to the lighted window of a cabin nearby. Hagen, who tended the northern cattle herds, came outside to greet them.

“Your Majesty,” said Hagen to Steve, eyeing the wolf warily. Even though the wolves were known to be friendly, Hagen still remembered when they used to raid. “This is unexpected.”

A lean, wild looking man, Hagen was too long used to solitude to care that his beard hung down almost to his knees. Steve always thought Hagen looked exactly what a hermit should look like.

“Hagen. I’m sorry I couldn’t send word beforehand. We left in kind of a hurry. And I actually didn’t know this was where we were heading.” He slid off the wolf’s back, trying to remember how to walk again. “Something’s got him all worked up. Showed up under our window, howling. Seemed best I go with him and find out what’s happening.”

“Aye,” said Hagen, with a nod. “They’ve been riled. The wolves howled for a solid half hour, so loud fit to crack the sky open, ‘bout midday, for the past three days.”

“You’ve heard them? Do you know what this is about?”

“No,” said Hagen, who was a man of few words. He squinted at Steve. “You look like you could use a drink. Come. If your wolf friend will let you.”

Steve turned to the wolf. “Ten minutes,” he said. “I’ll only be ten minutes.” The wolf licked Steve’s neck, then nosed him on his way.

Hagen gave him a shot of Asgardian whiskey. It curled Steve’s hair and made his entire face burn. The burn spread down to his toes, but he didn’t feel cold anymore. “Thanks. I needed that.”

He used the facilities while Hagen put a sack together – some bread and hard cheese, dried meat, a little fruit, a flagon of beer.

“Can you get word to the king?” asked Steve, after washing his hands and face, feeling slightly more human and less wolf-like. “Let him know you saw me, heading north, and that all is well?”

“Aye,” said Hagen, handing him the sack of provisions, which Steve slung onto his back along with Starborn.

It was full light when he went outside. Steve was pleased to see Hagen had given the wolf a trough of water, and a meaty bone to gnaw on. The wolf was staring moodily at the cows, but when he saw Steve he sat up, threw his head back, and howled. It was so loud, it rattled poor Hagen’s windows.

There was an answering chorus of howls, echoing over the mountains and into Hagen’s valley. Satisfied, the wolf circled around Steve, and then pointed north, lowering himself for Steve to mount.

“Thanks for everything,” said Steve, as he settled back onto the wolf’s back. “I’ll try to let you know what I find.”

But the wolf bounded off before Steve could hear Hagen’s reply. In another hour, they started the ascent over the northernmost mountains, climbing above the tree line. The wolf’s territory began on the other side of the range. The ride was harrowing and steep, the mountains sleek with ice and snow. Somehow, he reminded himself, the wolves made this trek several times a year. And he knew his wolf would never do anything to hurt him. But there were a couple of close calls, leaping over wide deep cracks in the mountain and over gorges, sliding down steep sides.

At the very top, the wolf paused, panting. They were high up in the clouds, where the air was thinner, and deathly cold. Steve could see they were not on the tallest of the mountains, thank goodness. The wolf had chosen to cross one less daunting, but it was still rather high. Steve knew icicles had formed on his hair and beard, and every breath felt like rough sandpaper in his lungs. But the view stole his breath, a winter wonderland wreathed in fog. They were too far up to see the valleys on either side. He sighed, and they began their descent again.

Though it was spring heading into summer, at this altitude the snow lingered. Eventually, they reached the tree line again and the ice disappeared. It was still very cold. The wolf didn’t take him into the sheltered valley where most of the wolves roamed, but followed a worn wolf track, hidden by trees and stone. They eventually came upon a rocky hollow.

Steve slid off the wolf’s back and walked beside him. He saw another wolf, and then another, and then realized the clearing was surrounded by wolves who kept themselves mostly hidden under the trees, their darker hides a natural camouflage. It was like a gathering of wolves, or a meeting of some kind. They’d all gathered for a purpose. His curiosity increased. What were they here for? Wolves were social creatures, but this behavior seemed odd.

Cut into the hard rock of the mountain was a type of large dwelling, almost a cave, and in it was one she-wolf lying on her side. Steve only knew it was female because several smaller wolf pups were climbing over her, and he could see teats where a couple of the pups were nursing.

Was this why? Were these his pups? And he wanted to share them with Steve? But it didn’t explain the other wolves all watching and waiting from the trees.

Then he saw it, the white wolf pup, buried under his brothers and sisters, trying to get free of them. The white pup shook himself all over and then jauntily scrambled over a rock to attack a tuft of grass.

“Oh,” he said out loud. The wolf stood beside him, watching. Steve guessed the birth of another white wolf was a big deal. “Would you look at that? There’s two of you,” he said with grin. “Is he yours?” he asked.

The wolf made a small noise that seemed to be a “yes.” He walked over to the she-wolf and they sniffed each other in greeting. By her side, he sat down on his haunches and howled. The other wolves all did the same thing, and the noise was deafening, amplified by the natural shape of the hollow.

Steve covered his ears until they finally stopped. The white wolf walked back to him, and seemed to ask for Steve to follow, so he did. The she-wolf eyed his approach, but let him hold out his hand so she could smell him. “Hello,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

The wolf pups had better things to do then to bother with the grown up wolves, but the little white pup heard the unnatural sound of a man speaking and froze mid jaunt, turning to look at Steve with an expression that said, “What is that?”

Steve grinned, kneeling down on the ground. The pups were all the size of small brown bears, with scrunched up faces that had not formed the ferocious looking features of the adult wolves yet. They looked like giant fluffy Chow dogs. “Hey, buddy,” he said, speaking low and soft.

The white pup crouched, and so did Steve. They inched toward each other, until the pup could smell him. Then, all of a sudden, the pup sprang into the air and leapt on Steve, drooling all over him. The other pups took notice, and did the same. He laughed, buried under a pile of fluff, unable to see the sky, until the white wolf huffed and nudged each pup off Steve in a way that said, “Where are your manners?”

The pups returned to scamper around their mother. Steve sat up, and the white wolf sat beside him. “You devil,” said Steve. “You didn’t tell me you had a lady friend.”

The wolf merely panted beside him, maybe giving him some side-eye. Steve laughed, burying his hand into the wolf’s thick snowy hide. The wolf rested, lowering his head, letting Steve give him a good scratch behind his ears and along his neck. Occasionally the white pup wondered back to climb all over both his father and Steve before returning to his siblings.

They sat in amicable silence, enjoying each other’s company, watching the pups play. The wolf laid his head down on Steve’s lap. One day, his friend the white wolf would leave him. It was only natural. As natural as the birth of another white wolf to carry on. But, it wouldn’t be this day, he thought, giving the wolf a good scratch under his chin.

Steve sat with the wolf and his pups for the rest of the day. Curious of Steve, the white pup brought him twigs and branches and then a rock, trying to figure out what pleased him. All of it pleased him. By the time evening settled, he and the pup were fast friends, and he fell asleep in Steve’s arms after a hard day of playing.

Eventually, it was time for Steve to leave. He was eager to return, maybe take a long hot bath. Maybe he’d let Thor give him a back rub.

He put his arms around the wolf’s neck. “Thanks for bringing me here,” he said, letting the wolf do his customary inspection of Steve from head to toe before he licked his neck. “Next time, I’ll bring Sarah. She’d love this.”

The wolf agreed with a puff of hot breath directly into Steve’s ear. Steve made a face, but laughed. Then, he took Starborn, and left the safety of the hidden hollow, shooting up into the evening sky.

~Epilogue Six: The Twins~

They waited even longer for the twins. Neither Thor nor Steve were in a hurry for more children, and it was the Asgardian way for centuries or even millennia to pass between siblings.

The twins were born in summer – two boys, as different from each other as night and day. One baby had fine golden hair that looked white in the sunlight. He came out of the womb ready to fight, his squall indignant and angry. Why had he been born? Why was he hungry? Why had someone woken him? These questions were asked at high volume. Lady Eir said there was nothing wrong with him, he just liked to cry.

The only one besides his two fathers who could calm him was his brother. When they laid him down on the bed and he cried and cried, Steve placed his brother next to him. His brother heard the crying, wrinkled his nose, and tried rolling closer. The crying stopped, both babies sighed, and then they slept.

Where the one baby cried morning, noon, and night, angry at the world, the other baby appeared as serene and as calm as a quiet sunrise. He watched and observed. Only a couple weeks old, Steve didn’t think a baby could focus his eyes yet, but this baby could. He followed both his fathers as they moved around his little world, curious each time they picked him up.

But, as different as they were to each other, they had the exact same eyes – a warm dark brown, with a hint of green. Lady Eir warned the color might change any time in their first year, but it was a mystery where in either of their families that eye color came from.

Steve frowned, considering. “You know, I think they might take after my father. I’ve never actually seen a colored photo of him, but my mother used to talk about his brown eyes. She called them selkie eyes.” At Thor’s questioning look, he explained further. “I guess you didn’t have those on Asgard. Selkies are mythological creatures that are said to be seals that change into humans when they shed their skin. It’s folklore.”

“Huh,” said Thor, staring at his sons. “Are you going to turn into seals?” he asked, tickling their bellies. The angry one made a face and grunted, like that was none of his father’s business, while the quiet one appeared to consider the question.

They hadn’t decided on names yet. With Sarah, he and Thor had spent every moment leading up to her birth in breathless anticipation, and had the name picked out months in advance. With the twins, they were just as excited – two at once! thought Steve – but chose to wait to name them, to get to know them first, to discover their funny personalities. But they couldn’t keep calling them The Angry One and The Quiet One.

Thor was making faces at the quiet one as he diapered him, trying to get him to do anything besides look at him with a slightly confused expression. “Have you chosen names yet?” he asked Steve.

Steve was patting the angry one on his back, swaying. The baby cried, but sort of half-heartedly, like he realized this crying all the time decision took too much energy but he didn’t want to appear like a quitter. “I have,” said Steve. “Have you?”

Thor switched from funny faces to ridiculous noises, succeeding in making Steve laugh but not the baby. Thor sighed, giving up for the moment. “Yes. I have.”

“Okay,” said Steve. “Who goes first?”

“You go first,” said Thor, climbing onto the bed beside his son, leaving his hand on his rounded belly. The quiet one looked up at Thor, questioningly. Why have you stopped? Continue with the funny noises, please. Thor began again.

Steve joined him on the bed with the angry one, and they put both babies between them. Sensing his brother, the angry one stopped crying. Steve helped him roll closer so he could slobber over his brother’s ear. His brother tolerated this, but his expression said he considered it very rude.

“This one,” said Steve, picking up the quiet one’s left foot, tickling the bottom. The quiet one kicked. “This one is James,” he said, bending to kiss James’s forehead. “And this one.” He picked up the angry one’s right foot, warming it in his hand, kissing his forehead as well. “His name is Samuel.”

Thor smiled, warmly. “Perfect,” he said. He touched both babies’ bellies, wiggling each of them. “Hello James, hello Samuel.”

“All right,” said Steve. “What are your names?”

“Well,” said Thor, making more faces at both boys. “James shall be Modi, which means anger, or rage. And Samuel is Magni, which means strength.”

“Wait,” laughed Steve. “Hold up, there. First of all, you named our son a name that means ‘anger?’ That kid has no hope. Second, James is the quiet one, why are you naming him ‘Anger?’ Samuel’s the angry one. Thirdly, another name meaning strength? I mean, Sarah’s name is Strength. How does this one differ?”

Thor shook his head. “Oh no,” he said, giving Samuel a raspberry. Samuel laugh-cried. “Samuel might appear to be the angry one, but he’s just expressing himself. Loudly. A lot of emotions for such a small body. Being born is quite the event. Sarah is strong, but Samuel has strength. There is a difference.”

Steve didn’t want to argue semantics with Thor, but he gave him an, “Okay, whatever you say,” expression. “And James?” he asked.

The raspberry to his belly made James wiggle, all four limbs, punching and kicking randomly. Thor did it again, and James hiccupped, which surprised him. He laughed for the first time, but then seemed resentful about it afterward, like Thor had tricked him into laughing. Thor and Steve looked delightedly at each other.

“James is a deep one,” said Thor, grinning at his son, and trying to tickle him into laughing again. “I’m not sure I trust him.”

“Thor,” said Steve. “He’s two weeks old.” They stared at their mysterious James. He was making his own noises now, like he was trying to imitate his father, smacking his lips together and making bubbles. Steve couldn’t help but think they were projecting a lot onto these babies. “Of course,” said Steve. “He does sometimes look like he’s plotting to take over the universe.”

He looked at Thor, and then they started laughing at the same time. They continued to torture the twins, playing peekaboo and giving each many raspberries.

~Epilogue Seven: The Rock and Tree~

Did Steve know what would happen, those many years ago, when he introduced Korg to Groot? He did not, though sometimes he pretended like he did, when he spoke to his sons and told them stories.

The man made of rocks and the sentient tree formed a partnership, a lasting friendship that spanned many years. Korg joined Groot’s Ravager crew, and then later became co-captain. They continued the traditions started by Peter Quill and Gamora and Rocket, guarding the galaxy from the danger that inevitably rolled around like clockwork.

The twins, James and Samuel, were quite taken by Groot and Korg, and during their rough and tumble young adult years, traveled with them and partook in their adventures, becoming members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, as they liked to call themselves. Their actions were big and small. Sometimes they saved the universe, and sometimes they saved only one seemingly insignificant life. It all mattered.

They each had their soft spots. For Groot, it was helping families. The twins liked adventure – the bigger and bolder the better, and if they saved someone along the way, all the better. For Korg, any time they came across a repressed society, or one that had slaves, he called for revolution, and came running to help, ready to hand out pamphlets.

On Centauri IV, they battled an elite Kree Starforce team with orders to destabilize the fledging government. The Centaurians had only recently begun to recover from centuries of domination by the Kree. Korg was immediately engaged, passionate about helping the Centaurians.

But the Kree were formidable opponents. Any time the Guardians went up against them, it took extra cunning, much to both Samuel’s and Korg’s frustration. Samuel preferred to fight with his hands, and make everyone behave that way, while Korg rarely understood subtlety. But James inherited Steve Rogers’s tactical skill, and the other Guardians had quickly learned to let him plan every fight. With his skill, they captured the Kree infiltrators in two days with minimal casualties.

While Samuel and Groot finished up with the Centaurian leader, arranging transport for the captured Kree to be sent back to Hala, James and Korg walked amidst the grateful crowds, returning to their ship.

“I like these people,” said Korg, smiling in his rocky way at the passing crowd that parted for him, more in terror than anything else. Only the children were brave enough to approach him. Korg said this about most people he met, so James didn’t take it seriously.

“You say that because you’re both such similar colors,” said James. “On the outside.”
Korg and the Centaurians were a complimentary blue. It made fighting the Kree rather difficult, many of whom were also blue, with three different shades of blue combating each other. Korg had blended in during the fight with the Kree and James had lost sight of him several times.

James liked to tease Korg, attempting to wind him up, but Korg never fell for it. Or more likely, he never registered James’s needling as anything other than friendly banter. This both irritated James and fascinated him. Despite this, or maybe because of it, they paired up often. Korg calmed James when not much besides Samuel could.

“Centaurians are a very handsome people,” agreed Korg, bending to pat the heads of the children who gathered around them.

Samuel’s voice interrupted their conversation, coming in over comms. “Modi, the Kree aren’t speaking, surprise surprise, but I’m pretty sure we’re missing one. We don’t have the Kree leader.”

James swore under his breath. “Thanks, Mag.”

Only he and Samuel called each other by their Asgardian names. Everyone else used James and Samuel, even their fathers and sister. It kept the names special, private only for them.

James unsheathed his sword. “Eyes up, Korg. We have a Kree on the loose.”

“On the loose and feeling puce, like a moose with a goose wearing a noose,” said Korg. Rhyming was his new hobby. He looked to James for approval. “Moose with a head full of mousse!”

James stopped and stared at him. “That was terrible. You can’t put random words together just because they rhyme. There has to be meaning.”

“What do you mean? That made perfect sense. Deuce, spruce.”

“Stop, stop. I can’t take it.” He stuck his fingers in his ears and shook his head.

Korg didn’t laugh so much as smile wider. He continued walking, rhyming nonsensically to himself. James still had his fingers in his ears, deliberately letting Korg go on without him. Korg glanced back, and his face shifted from amusement to alarm. “James, watch out,” he cried.

James turned, feeling dread. All he saw were different kinds of blue faces. In his periphery, a weapon fired. Korg pushed him out of the way and took the hit, straight to the chest. James fell to the ground, but the Kree soldier was on the run and he couldn’t let him get away. He sprang up and gave chase. Fueled by anger, he tackled the Kree to the ground, taking his sword and disarming him swiftly, then knocking him unconscious.

A crowd gathered around Korg. He hadn’t risen, and remained lying on the ground.

Securing the soldier with ropes of magic, James tapped his comms. “Magni, I need you,” he said, running back to Korg, leaving the soldier tied up on the ground. “No, no no no no.” James skidded to a halt on his knees beside Korg. The crowd moved out of his way.

Korg was alive but the blast had destabilized whatever kept his form together, and he was beginning to fall apart. Rocks popped off him, two or three at a time, but he smiled when he saw James. “Oh good, you’re okay.”

“God damn it,” said James. Desperate, he channeled what he could of his own energy. A shimmer of golden magic poured out of him and into Korg, suffusing the blue rock, helping it hold together. It seemed to work, and Korg stopped falling apart so fast.

“That’s better,” said Korg. “See, nothing to worry about.”

There was plenty to worry about. James knew it wouldn’t be enough, and he couldn’t keep it up for very long. He heard Samuel and Groot running toward him, and didn’t bother looking up. Groot’s tall form gave them shade, and he gently placed his long spindly fingers against Korg’s face. Korg looked up at his friend. “There you are.”

Groot grew vines that wrapped around Korg like bandages. Something else to keep Korg from falling apart, another temporary stay. James looked gratefully at Groot. “More,” he said.

The Kree soldier was dealt with, carried away by the Centaurians. Samuel examined the weapon he’d used.

“This would have turned your insides out,” he said to James with disgust, dismantling and breaking the weapon in two. He knelt on Korg’s other side. “What can I do?” he asked.

Their eyes met. James saw the inevitable outcome written in Samuel’s expression. There was nothing more they could do. “Call Dad.”

Samuel sighed. “Shit,” he said, then got up and accessed the comms that would patch him through to the communication array on the ship. A moment later, he was connected to Asgard, and several minutes after that, his dad came on, holographic face flickering in the sunlight.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked Steve.

“It’s Korg,” said Samuel, glancing behind him at the giant blue figure lying on the ground. “I think you and Pop better get here. Quick.”

James was tiring, and he didn’t think he could hold on much longer. The time it took to place the call to Asgard, to reach their father, and then to wait for the first sign of the Bifrost, stretched on for what seemed like hours but could only have been a few minutes. Samuel knelt back down beside him. He was less skilled with his energy than James, but he tried, and together they kept Korg with them for a little longer.

The rainbow light filled the air, and the beam landed only a few feet away, marking the earth. James and Samuel turned as their fathers appeared, bathed in light, both golden and gleaming in their armor. It was easy to forget how impressive they were until they stood together. Normally, James would have denied feeling anything but annoyance, but at that moment all he felt was relief.

Thor took in the scene, resting his gaze on each of his sons before approaching Korg. Korg focused his eyes. “Oh look,” he said, happy. “It’s Doug. Hallo Doug.”

Thor smiled, though pained. “Hello, my friend.”

Korg grinned. “Doug could use a mug…and a hug.”

The terrible rhyme was like salt thrown in James’s eyes, blinding him. Thor squeezed James’s shoulder, asking him to move. He didn’t want to, afraid if he removed his hands, then Korg would crumble to pieces. “It’s all right, James,” said his father.

With effort, James let go. Thor took his place, leaning all the way over Korg. He placed his hand against Korg’s chest, right where his heart would be if he had been mammalian. James could see the energy pour out of his father, sinking into Korg. Korg’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he said. “Thank you. Yes. That’s done it.”

“You’re made of perishable rock,” said Thor. “Did you forget?”

Korg’s eyes lingered over him, and he raised a hand, resting it on Thor’s arm. “It would have hit your boy. I couldn’t let that happen.”

Thor looked at James, and then at Steve and Samuel. Steve had placed a hand on James’s shoulder. Thor turned back to Korg. “What can we do for you? What would you like?”

“I’d like to see the quarry again. It was such a nice place. Rocky. Rockery.” He drifted off for a moment, looking up at the sky. “I like rocks. Rocks don’t need socks.”

Thor sat back, speaking to his sons, and to Steve and Groot. “He won’t survive the Bifrost. It’ll destroy him. Groot, if you could make a stretcher? Samuel, help me lift him. We will carry him to the ship, and take him that way.”

He turned to James, placing both hands on his son’s shoulders, lifting his chin. James did not want to look at his father. He did not want comfort. And he did not want to be told it wasn’t his fault. “He saved my life,” said James.

“Yes, he did,” said Thor. “We shall honor him for it. Come. Let’s all lift him.”

Groot wove together a stretcher strong enough to carry the weight of a Kronan. All four men, Steve and Thor, and their sons, lifted Korg onto the stretcher, and then each took a corner and carried him to the ship, with Groot walking beside them. The Centaurians stood on either side of the procession, watching with a solemn silence.

Samuel took charge of the ship, while everyone else remained with Korg. Steve sent messages to the other Ravager factions, letting them know what happened. It was a tense flight to the jump point, and every moment they expected Thor to tell him it was over, they were too late.

But Korg hung on with the goal of seeing Asgard again. They arrived at the jump point and then came out the other end. Thor borrowed Starborn from Steve, and went out onto the hull, using the shield to protect the ship from the singularity that guarded Asgard, and they flew harmlessly past it.

Their appearance caused a stir, and all the Valkyrie came out on their flying horses to greet them, providing winged escorts to the quarry. There was a rocky nook, shaded with a couple of trees near a small pond, with a view of the ocean. They carried him there, and sat him up so he could look on the sea and the quarry, and Asgard not far off.

“Look at that ocean, full of motion,” said Korg, with wonder.

James laughed. He couldn’t help it. “You must stop.”

He and Groot stayed by Korg’s side. The others, including his fathers and the Valkyrie, and many from the quarry, all stood in a circle around them. Samuel, always more sensitive than he let on, turned toward Steve, seeking reassurance and hiding his face against his dad’s shoulder.

Korg smiled at James. “Don’t be so angry, James,” said Korg. “Remember the puce goose. He takes off that noose.”

It was nonsense. All nonsense, thought James, desperately. “Thank you,” he said, refusing to cry, but that meant his voice strangled to a thin whisper.

Korg shifted his eyes to meet his. His body stilled, and the animation in his face left. He became nothing more than a pile of blue colored stones, shaped roughly like a man watching the ocean.

Everyone remained for a long time, the sea crashing against the cliff side. One by one, they each touched the blue rock and said goodbye, leaving only Steve and Thor, Samuel and Groot, and James.

Then it was just Groot and James. Groot grew more branches around Korg, weaving them like a bower over the blue stone. When he finished, he placed his hand on the top, on the space that used to be Korg’s head. “I am Groot,” he said.

And then, there was just James. He stayed there, by Korg’s side, for the remainder of the day.

Steve and Thor, thinking it was best to leave him alone for the time being, escorted Groot back to his ship. The other Guardians, whom Steve did not know by name, were waiting. The twins would not be returning with him. “You don’t have to leave right away. You’re welcome here, you know, any time,” said Thor. “This is your home, too.”

Groot stared back at the little grotto with the pile of blue bricks and the young man sitting beside it.

“I am Groot,” he said. I have lived too long among the stars. They are my home. He will get a Ravager funeral. He looked at Thor, and then at Steve. “I am Groot.”

Maybe one day. I will return. Or maybe not.

In the years that followed, the wood that was woven around the pile of blue stone took root. Rumors began of Korg’s Grotto being haunted, stories of angry little twigs that attacked you if you sat too long, and stole coins and baubles from the pockets of unsuspecting visitors.

The angry twigs grew, and then there was a forest of Groot who could call themselves citizens of Asgard.

The Groot on Asgard increased in number, each with a blueish cast to their roots, blue moss and blue flowers. It was not unheard of to meet a Groot when walking through the woods. King Thor gave them their own land. They were free to come and go and wander as they pleased. Many remained but many also took to the stars.

~Epilogue Eight: The Inheritors~

Sarah and Mandla married, in a beautiful ceremony on Earth, in Wakanda. Her guests included the Barton family and the Kleins, the other Avengers, her fathers, Valkyrie and the redheaded sisters Gunnvor and Freya, and her best friend, Marcella. She and Marcella had remained close since that day in Prospect Park, and it was Marcella more than anyone else who kept Sarah smiling through the elaborate ceremony.

They had four children, two boys and two girls. Though young for an Asgardian to marry, she was also half human. She made a commitment to Mandla, and that meant, for the time being, her life was spent on Earth.

Steve couldn’t quite get over the fact that he was a grandfather. There were moments when it became very surreal – he still looked like was in his late twenties, and when he stood next to Sarah, they seemed more brother and sister than father and daughter.

Mandla lived a long, full life. While he remained Black Panther, he and Sarah protected Wakanda, and Earth, with the same dedication they gave to each other. When he retired, Sarah continued as an Avenger, this time with her sons and daughters by her side. But she came home to Mandla. These later years were the happiest they shared.

It could not last. It never did. Even if they had had millennia together, as she hoped her fathers would have, the end would come. Mandla died with his entire family by his side. It was morning, with birdsong outside his window, carried in on a breeze that reminded Mandla of his great love. The last thing he looked on, as the world dimmed, was Sarah.

Sarah had already spent her rage years before. She had her children to think of. She had her fathers, wanting her to return to Asgard. Eventually, she had her brothers, as well, those two troublemakers.

Her son, Jabulani, became king. At the age of one hundred, he abdicated in favor of his daughter, Hadiya. She ruled for nearly one hundred and fifty years, but also abdicated when the time came, letting her son take over. Earth may be used to Asgardian visitors dropping in and out of history, but it was not a society that looked favorably on a ruler who could potentially live for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years.

Thor invited Jabulani to come to Asgard, to live out the remainder of his days there. He made the same offer to his other grandchildren, and to his great grand children, and so on. When they tired of Earth, they could come to Asgard. Sarah returned with Jabulani, and joined the Valkyrie.

If someone had told Steve, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, that he would live to see the day when his grandchildren, and his great grandchildren, and then his great great grandchildren would one day spread to all corners of the world, he would have thought it a good whopper of a story. A fantasy. Absurd and impossible.

The Odinson blood presented itself in strange and wonderful ways. Some were born with magic in their fingers. Most were enormously strong. One man could command water – freeze it, melt it, shape it. Another could turn into flame from head to toe, while his sister could make herself and others invisible. A few could command the weather: rainmakers and stormcallers, the most powerful of whom was a girl named Ororo Munroe.

Though there were mischief-makers among them, they each also carried a core that was good, and brave. After all, they called Steve Rogers their ancestor, and his blood was just as strong as Thor’s. They fought against injustice. They fought for the little guy, and for those that couldn’t fight for themselves. They were heroes.

The Thorsons and Thorsdottirs, as they were called, who came to Asgard had second lives there. Many married again. Some even had additional children.

Jabulani remarried, wedding the daughter of Valkyrie and Gunnvor, and the child of this union was born with the universe in her eyes. When Thor was called to look upon this new grandchild, he cooed in wonder, picking up the baby and cradling her in his arms. “Oh, look at you,” he said. She blinked at him. “You have Heimdall’s eyes.”

They named her Idun, Goddess of Rejuvenation.

And so, the children of Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson spread over Earth, and Asgard, and beyond.

~Epilogue Nine: The End (Or Maybe Somewhere in the Middle)~

Steve landed on the rainbow bridge, returning from the campaign on Niflheim chilled to the bone. After three months spent on a planet made mostly of mist, he was eager for the Asgardian sunshine. It was so good to be home. Sarah and the twins, most of the Valkyrie, Jabulani and the other Thorsons, had returned earlier. Of those, only Sarah waited for him on the Bridge, with Idun. The others had gone ahead and returned to the palace.

Or, he liked to flatter himself that Sarah waited for her dad, but he knew better. She waited for Baldur, who had insisted on remaining with Steve on Niflheim, the final two to leave.

Steve liked Baldur. He was the son of Tyr, a warrior from Vanaheim, and Nan, one of the Valkyrie, and had been raised mostly on Vanaheim. The quiet, strong sort, he had a great deal of patience, which he needed if was going to court Sarah. She no longer mourned Mandla, but she didn’t give her heart easily, as many a disappointed warrior had already found out.

“Hello, Granddad,” said Idun, with her sweet smile. Her golden, starry eyes crinkled in the corners with amusement.

It was too cumbersome to say great grandfather, or great great grandfather, or whatever the real relationship might be. Everyone in his family, besides Sarah and the twins, just called him granddad.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, kissing her cheek. Idun was the sweetest, kindest, the loveliest. She stood at the end of the rainbow bridge, dressed in her shield maiden armor over a flowing dress, with the Bifrost sword – Heimdall’s sword, carefully recreated by Eitri – held in her hands.

He glanced at Sarah and Baldur who stood to the side having a stilted conversation. Steve decided not to interfere.

Idun gave him a knowing smile. “She seems preoccupied,” she said. The wind, a sure sign that Sarah’s emotions bubbled close to the surface, picked up, tossing Idun’s curly dark hair every which way. He could see Mandla in the shape of her face, the warmth of her smile.

Steve laughed a little. “Yeah,” he said. “Your duties are done for now. Walk with me, and give me the news. Tell me everything that’s been going on.”

She grinned, and removed her sword from the mechanism that powered the Bifrost, sheathing it in the scabbard she wore crosswise across her back. “All right. I could use a break.”

Linking arms, they headed back, leaving Sarah and Baldur alone. Asgard was not recognizable to the rough and tumble settlement he had known when he first arrived over fifteen hundred years ago. Though still rooted in Asgardian tradition, it had grown beyond a mere settlement into a busy hive of commerce. The palace was twice its previous size. There were tall buildings that stretched toward the sky, and beautiful colonnades built by masons. Gardens and parks linked by cobbled streets, with hovercraft, wolves, blue-veined Groot, and horse drawn carriages dotted everywhere. The skies were full of traffic, both with offworld spacecraft coming and going as well as Asgardian skiffs shuttling around the city, or flying to the north and south. With the aid of Idun’s gift, the rainbow bridge had fully regenerated, allowing for more ease of transport to the Nine Realms and beyond. They had established trade with Earth and with Xandar, connecting to the rest of the Universe.

Steve and Idun made small talk. She always knew the good gossip. But there was really only one piece of news he was interested in. “How’s the King?”

She smiled indulgently. “Grumpy, while you’ve been away. Hopefully he’ll be much better now that you’re back.”

He felt himself blush, but Idun was too polite to comment on it. Their route to the palace took them through the tree-lined promenade. She held out her hand as they walked, so her fingers skimmed the branches, touching leaves and flowers. The trees shivered from her touch, and each appeared suddenly fuller, more green, more flowers popping up all over the place.

When they arrived at the palace, the courtyard was bursting with activity. The returning heroes and Einherjar gathered to discuss the recent battles on Niflheim, while the reserve forces practiced swordplay and martial arts. The Valkyrie swooped in with their horses, adding to the chaos. There would be a feast that night to celebrate their homecoming and victories.

Idun left him to join her parents, her aunts and uncles and cousins, gathered in the courtyard. Steve debated whether to find Thor immediately or if he should return to their rooms first to change and shower. The shower won. He could feel the lingering Niflheim mists on his skin, and wished to be clean of it before he went to Thor, grateful to remove his trusty vibranium suit at last. He hurried, and soon left their rooms in search of his husband. An attendant told him Thor could be found strolling the palace battlements.

Golden afternoon sun warmed the wood and stone of the palace battlement. He spotted Thor watching their family interact in the courtyard. For a moment, the light tricked his eyes and he thought he saw two kings standing together. But he blinked, and then there was only one king. A raven cawed above their heads.

The sight of Thor standing in the late sunshine took Steve’s breath away. It always did, like a punch to his chest. Thor looked kingly in his armor, his hair graying at the temples. At around three thousand years old, in human terms, Thor looked like he was in his mid-forties. The slight aging just made him look better, thought Steve. Fifteen hundred years of marriage certainly had its challenges, but he was as in love with Thor as the day they married. He should be used to it by now, the feeling he got when he saw his husband after any stretch of time apart, whether parted for a day or three months. It almost knocked him down, how much he loved Thor.

Thor hadn’t noticed him yet, so Steve touched his shoulder. Thor turned, and Steve saw fear and sadness on his face that quickly changed to one of relief and wonder. “Steve!” he cried, so happy to see him.

“Yeah,” said Steve, amused. “Who’d you think it would be?”

But Thor merely repeated his name, like a mantra, pulling Steve into his arms to hold him tight, giving him one of his bone-crushing hugs. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here,” said Steve, a little stunned at his reaction, and slightly concerned. This seemed more than just an eager reunion after three months apart. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Thor looked confused, and then shook his head, a far away expression in his eyes. “I think I was remembering a long ago dream, maybe? Do you ever get those feelings? As if you’ve walked through a memory? Like, recognizing a place you know you’ve never been to before?”

“Sounds like ‘déjà vu,’” said Steve, still within the circle of Thor’s arms. “What was the dream?”

“I was walking on this battlement, and my father was with me,” said Thor. That got Steve’s attention. Odin hadn’t come up in conversation in centuries. “And I thought I dreamed of the old Asgard. But it was a dream of the future. This future,” he said, and he looked down at the courtyard again, where most of their family, those that lived on Asgard, gathered.

Sarah and Baldur finally wondered back from the rainbow bridge, joined by Valkyrie. Valkyrie commanded all Asgard’s armed forces now, and was often called away on duties. But she came to hear reports of the campaign on Niflheim.

“And when I couldn’t see you with the others,” continued Thor. “I feared you weren’t here. You weren’t with me anymore.” He turned to Steve, stark relief on his face. “But you are here. You’re here.”

Why Steve felt tears sting his eyes, he couldn’t say. It was certainly a miracle that he continued to live. Every day was a gift. Long ago, Lady Eir said he would not go unchanged through the centuries. But, as it turned out, she hadn’t been entirely truthful. In looks and physical body, he looked and felt the same as ever. The serum kept chugging along, its regenerative abilities never failing. It would continue to do so as long as he had a calling and a purpose. And yet, the years had changed him. They marked his soul and his mind, they marked his heart. His family, with each new child born of his line, changed him further. And Thor had changed as well. Their marriage and friendship evolved with each passing year. Their relationship with their children – with Sarah and the twins – gave them constant challenges. Neither Steve nor Thor remained the same two superheroes that met for the first time in the dark of a forest so many years ago.

As he looked at Thor’s handsome face, Steve felt overwhelmed, and like he stood in the exact middle, with a view of the past, and a glimpse of the unknown future. He felt the ghosts of those friends that came before – the Commandos, the Avengers, the Captains America – those who started on this journey with him and Thor.

“Yeah,” he said, fighting tears. He gripped Thor’s beloved face in his hands. “I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere.”

They kissed, deeply, trying to hold each other as tight as possible.

Someone wolf whistled. “Oy,” called Valkyrie. Steve and Thor stopped their kiss, but still held each other as they looked down at their family. Valkyrie had cupped her hand around her mouth to yell at them. “Have some decency. You’re in public, you know.”

Everyone else laughed, except the twins who looked rather disgusted, and Sarah, who shook her head in long-suffering tolerance, hiding her face against Baldur’s shoulder, embarrassed at her dads. Idun smiled widely, always so enchanted with any display of love.

“What?” asked Thor, his voice booming over the stone battlements. “Do you mean this?”

He turned to Steve, his gaze crinkly and warm. Steve felt his heart beat faster as Thor pulled him in for another kiss. It started gentle until Thor pressed for entry and Steve opened for him. The kiss continued as everyone erupted into cheers, more wolf whistles, laughter and applause.