Steve Rogers had wondered more than once why it was that bad guys seemed to be able to generate pocket armies of foot-soldiers no matter how isolated they happened to be – or how crazy they were. He smacked down another human version of a worker ant with the flat of his shield and then threw the shield to take out two more, catching it when it rebounded back to him just in time to block a shot from some other worker ant’s red laser weapon.
He’d also wondered why they always had seemingly limitless stockpiles of science-fiction guns at their disposal while everyone else was stuck with regular artillery. That one had never been answered to his satisfaction either.
Three more worker ants attacked him, and he fended them off and set about disabling them so they couldn’t rejoin the fight. The rest of the Avengers were doing the same, and together they were slowly pushing the latest megalomaniac’s forces away from the buildings he’d been running his evil overlord startup out of in this isolated little coastal valley that boasted steep cliffs on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.
A shot rang out, then another, and to his horror Steve saw Natasha Romanov – the assassin known as Black Widow – crumple to the ground. A flash of movement caught his eye, running toward one of the already-cleared buildings, and Steve took off after it. “Thor’s got the Widow, stay where you are Hawkeye!” he ordered over his earpiece. “I’m going after the shooter, keep your eyes open for any more surprises.”
“Go get him, Cap,” came a growl from Tony Stark, who was harrying the enemy forces from overhead in his Iron Man suit. “We’ve got this.” The Hulk roared in agreement and leaped into the middle of a group of soldiers who were trying to converge on Thor’s position, knocking them away like annoying insects. “Well, Hulk’s got this. I’ll…back him up.”
Steve snickered as he ran. He plunged into the building after the shooter, knowing full well that he wasn’t in any danger of being ambushed – not only had he cleared that building himself, but if there had been more than one shooter then everyone not wearing armor would have gotten shot. And trying to take him as a hostage…well, the bad guys had learned the hard way, over the years, that capturing an Avenger was a very bad idea. This man was alone, and running from him, a mouse to Steve’s star-spangled cat.
His earpiece beeped as he followed the man downstairs, down under the building and into the underground parking garage – too much concrete overhead equaled no signal getting through, but Steve was all right with that. Even if something unexpected did happen, like him getting pinned down, his team would come after him if he wasn’t back in radio contact within a reasonable amount of time.
They reached the lowest level of the parking garage and Steve finally cornered the shooter. In, well, a corner. The man was breathing hard, but shook his head and raised his hands when Steve started to get close; the gun was on the ground where he’d apparently tossed it, a good ten feet away. “It’s not what you think, Captain,” he panted. “I had my instructions…”
“I’m sure you did,” Steve growled. “You shot one of my teammates, I’m supposed to think that was something other than what it was? Maybe that you aren’t really a bad guy?”
“I’m not.” The man saw the disbelief and shook his head. “No really, I’m not. I just had to do something to get you to follow me. I was supposed to save you…” Steve’s eyes widened – it had been a trap, just not the kind he’d anticipated – and he whirled and ran back towards the stairs. The man cried out in panic. “No, don’t go up there! I’m with sh…”
That was when a giant impact somewhere over their heads roared through the concrete, shaking it violently, and the lights went out.
Steve came back to his senses an indefinite amount of time later - he didn’t think he’d been unconscious, but he was definitely disoriented. He was lying near the base of the stairs, actually pushed up against the side of them, and when he looked up…he saw broken daylight pouring in where there had been several levels worth of concrete earlier. He got to his feet and moved back into the garage, retrieving the discarded gun, and saw the feet of the man he’d been chasing sticking out from behind a collapsed support pillar; a closer look showed that the upper part of the pillar had collapsed on top of the man’s body, and that he was never going to be telling anybody anything ever again. He checked the body anyway, but his eyes went back to the stairs, to the daylight. Going down into the garage had cut him out of radio contact with his team, but maybe now… “Guys? Iron Man? Anyone? Can anyone hear me?”
Silence. His earpiece didn’t even give back any static. Maybe he was still too far down? He slung his shield onto his back and raced up the stairs, vaulting over debris and holes, jumping, climbing, tossing chunks of concrete aside. The farther up he got, the faster he moved. He was panicking, he knew it…but he could see the sky, he should be able to hear something other than the sounds he himself was making. But there was nothing, nothing at all.
Finally, clawing his way up onto the ground floor, he pulled himself out of the garage level and got to his feet. The building was gone, flattened into rubble. Everything else was gone too, there was nothing standing as far as he could see. In the blue sky overhead, a fading set of twin contrails streaked upwards, disappearing through the clouds, the plane that had made them long since vanished back to wherever it had come from. He stared at them, hearing the shooter again: I was supposed to save you…
And to do that, he’d shot Black Widow and lured Steve underground. He must have thought the lower level of the parking garage would be far enough down to save them both. Or maybe he’d been told it would be? Had he been planted in the garage for just that purpose, concealed to avoid their sweep of the buildings? By whoever had dropped the bomb?
I’m with sh…
Steve shoved aside growing horror. The wallet he’d taken off the shooter’s body was heavy in his pocket, but he didn’t take it out, wasn’t ready to confirm what he suspected the man had been about to confess to when the bomb had dropped. Slowly, he walked forward, toward the last place he’d seen his friends, his teammates, the other Avengers.
There were bodies, most of them unrecognizably charred, but he could tell which ones had been the enemy ground troops they’d been fighting. The one with a singed remnant of red hair, however, wasn’t. Steve scrounged a length of rebar, tore a strip off of his uniform shirt, and planted the improvised flag to mark the location of Natasha Romanov’s body. And then he started looking again.
More rebar flags went up. Bruce, his body grotesquely distorted as though he’d been caught in mid-transformation. Clint, half-buried in the rubble of the building he’d been perched on top of, his bow still in his hand. Thor, Mjolnir lying unscathed just out of his reach and his scale armor melted into a solid mass of warped silver. And Tony…Steve broke into a run when he saw the Iron Man armor, charred and partially melted but still mostly intact. The arc reactor wasn’t glowing, but he ripped off the faceplate anyway, hoping against hope, and haad subsequently been crushed by what he found underneath. He dismantled more of the suit just to check and found the once smooth and shiny surface of the arc reactor heat-warped and cracked, the flesh that had surrounded it drawn back crisp and black like overcooked bacon. Steve put the armor back together with shaking hands, and planted the last flag.
And then he pulled the billfold out of his pocket and looked inside. He was sure it was possible the ID inside could have been faked, but he didn’t think it was. He tucked the billfold away again and looked around. He didn’t think it had been a very big bomb, but it had been a hot one – he could feel the radiation on his skin like incipient sunburn. So nobody would be coming for a while, they wouldn’t be able to. He had time. Possibly he had until the next morning, maybe the morning after that, before they’d come to retrieve the only thing they’d wanted to keep.
I’m with SH…
He started to consider ways to take that away from them, then stopped. He had a day, maybe two or three – but he was going with a day, tops. And he had things he needed to do with that time, important things. Depriving this newly-revealed enemy of their serum-filled prize needed to be the last thing on that list, not the first.
He checked his flags, then walked down towards the rocky coastline. The sand was blackened but hadn’t turned to glass, confirming his supposition that the bomb hadn’t been all that big. He looked out over the waves. No ships in sight. Then he picked out a spot he liked and got to work. He was giving himself until morning, he wouldn’t count on having any more time than that.
By the time the sky had begun shading down to indigo and the moon had started to rise, five rough biers ringed a half-circle of clean-swept sand, and the remains of five heroes had been laid out in state, the makeshift flags that had marked the spots where they’d fallen re-planted in a line where the sand was black, like sentinels guarding them from the rest of the devastation the bomb had wrought. Steve came back from where he’d been pitching the remains of Tony’s suit and the arc reactor out into the sea – he’d be damned if anyone was going to ‘study’ any of it – and looked over the arrangement with a frown. He wanted to burn the bodies the rest of the way, but he was afraid that what little flammable material he’d been able to glean from the less-damaged areas of the parking garage might not be enough. For some of the others it might not be much of a problem – after all, except for Tony their bodies were pretty well burned already – but he wasn’t sure that would be good enough for Thor, considering who he was. He didn’t want to offend the Asgard or upset Thor’s family by not getting the thing done properly.
He walked over to Thor’s bier and looked down at Mjolnir, which he’d placed in the center of the fallen thunder god’s chest. He’d had a fleeting hope that the magic hammer of Asgard would do what he’d heard it had done before and raise its wielder from the dead, but that hadn’t happened. He looked up at the stars that were appearing in the creeping indigo of the night sky, picking out the constellation Thor had once pointed out to him as the location of the Bifrost, the celestial road that led home. Following some vague instinct, Steve knelt down and placed his hands on the hammer and begged it to have just a little bit of magic left, just enough to send a message. “Thor is dead. He was betrayed, but he died with honor,” he explained, hoping that somehow the ever-listening Heimdall would hear him. “I don’t have the resources to do things the way I’m sure you’d do them, but I’ll do the best I can…and leave as little as possible for those who come later to find. I don’t want them to get their hands on him, on any of them. I’ll do whatever I have to do to keep that from happening.”
And under his hands, he felt Mjolnir grow warm, and a star flared brightly in the distant sky. Steve smiled, they’d heard him. He took his hands away and went back to his gathered supplies, wondering if someone on Asgard would know once the pyre for their prince had been lit.
He had just finished kindling the small fire he’d be using to light the larger ones when blue-white light stabbed down onto the beach about a hundred feet away, flaring out into a circle and depositing a group of armed warriors. Steve got to his feet with an effort and met them halfway, bowing when they got close. “I’m glad you heard me,” he said. “I didn’t know if you’d be able to come.”
The man in the lead bowed back. “You alone survived, Captain of America?” he asked.
Steve nodded, bitter regret for that evident in his expression and voice. “A man shot Black Widow from the shelter of a building where our archer couldn’t reach him. I chased him down into the lower levels, and when I caught him he said his instructions had been to ‘save’ me by luring me away from the fight. I was trying to get back out of the building to rejoin my teammates when the bomb fell.”
The warrior scowled. “This man, did you kill him?”
“I didn’t have the chance – part of the building collapsed and crushed him,” Steve said, shaking his head. “I took what identification he had…and that was how I learned that the Avengers had been betrayed. By our own people.”
“A bitter pill for a warrior to swallow,” the other man conceded with genuine sympathy. “It is difficult to live when your comrades die, I know. But the blame lies only on those who killed them, not on those who survive.”
“I’m not sure I agree with you, but thank you anyway,” Steve replied. The other warriors had spread out, looking at the biers, the bodies, before clustering around Thor’s. “I was going to burn Mjolnir with him, I didn’t want anyone else to get hold of it.” He sighed. “I’d hoped…I’d heard it brought him back once before, but nothing happened when I put it in his hand. I’m sorry.”
“If it was our prince’s time to enter Valhalla, then it was his time,” the warrior said, moving closer and putting a hand on his shoulder. “We will…” Then he apparently realized something. “Wait, you placed Mjolnir in his hand?”
“Did I do something wrong?”
The man looked thunderstruck. “No, it was not wrong, but…” He took Steve’s arm, led him over to the bier. He seemed even more amazed to see the hammer in the center of his dead prince’s chest, the burned hands placed with care over its handle. He looked around at his fellow warriors, receiving nods of agreement to the question he did not need to voice. “Captain,” he said, sounding strained. “If you would…Mjolnir can call down the fire of the heavens, it can burn the bodies of these heroes with heat greater than any fire conjured on earth and stone. If you would take it up, and will this thing to happen, we will all then be assured that they will not be defiled in death.”
Steve was puzzled, but he shrugged. “Okay, if you want me to do it, I will.” He carefully moved Thor’s hands away from Mjolnir’s handle and wrapped his own around it, lifting it and stepping back, gesturing with his other hand for the warriors to move back as well. “Move back, I don’t want any of you to get hurt,” he warned. And then he lifted the hammer aloft, pointing it into the sky, into the stars. Words appeared in his mind, something he assumed he’d heard Thor say before. “Cleansing fire, I call you,” he whispered, closing his eyes so he could concentrate better. “Come and do that which I cannot do myself.”
Had his eyes been open, he would have seen what the openmouthed warriors of Asgard saw. Mjolnir glowed, and overhead clouds swirled into place, grey against the black sky. Then with a crack like a giant’s whip, five spears of lightning stabbed down out of the sky, igniting the five pyres and then incinerating them to ash. Steve dropped to his knees, feeling the power flow out of him like water out of a sieve. He lowered the hammer but didn’t let go of it, blinking open his eyes and seeing with relief that there was now nothing left for the people who had betrayed them to find and use.
Except for him, of course. But he’d figure out what to do about that once the Asgard warriors had left with Mjolnir.
Strong hands lifted him to his feet, and kept hold to steady him. Two of the warriors were checking the biers; they returned nodding. “The tide will carry all away at dawn,” one of them said. “It is well done.”
“Then we are finished here,” their leader, Brede, said – Steve couldn’t remember the man telling him his name, but he knew he must have because it was Brede. “Into the circle! Mjolnir shall guide us back to the Bifrost, and we shall shake the dust of cursed Midgard off our feet.”
“I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” Steve told him quietly. The others had melted away ahead of them, and now it was only Brede who kept his hand on Steve’s arm. “Just know that not all people here are bad. There are many, many people on Earth – Midgard – who would condemn what happened here if they ever found out about it.”
“That I know,” Brede assured him. “Your pardon, Captain; I meant no insult to the people your Avengers – our prince among them – found worthy of their protection. There is, however, nothing more you can do for them now.”
“I know.” It was a relief of sorts that Brede had recognized the problem. “I can’t…I wish I could avenge the deaths of my friends, but even if I fight until they kill me they’ll still have gotten what they wanted – I’m almost as valuable to them dead as I am alive. I can’t let that happen.”
“Nor can we,” Brede told him. They must have reached the circle now – Steve couldn’t tell in the dark – because they stopped walking and Brede gave the arm holding Mjolnir a little push. “Raise her, Captain, and we shall depart this place.”
Steve lifted his arm, once again pointing Mjolnir to the heavens. The others all raised their hands as well, wrapping them over and around his, and it wasn’t until he’d already thought Home at the hammer that he realized they were taking him with them. And then the power welled up and blue fire flooded over them all before he could question what was happening.
On Asgard, Odin had realized his son was dead long before any message came from Midgard to that effect; he was the All-Father, these things were known to him. He jumped from his seat and raced from the room, leaving a white-faced wife behind him as he ran with all speed for the gates of Valhalla. Those gates opened for him when he arrived, but he did not go through them. “My son, I must speak with him!” he called urgently. “Thor!”
Hel, his granddaughter and the guardian of the Ninth World, appeared beside the gates. It was not normally her job to guard them, but it was her duty to keep out those who would enter unworthily, or to call those back whose time had not been finished. “All-Father, calm yourself…”
“Hel, I felt him betrayed,” he snapped. “I must know who our vengeance is to fall upon, or if it is to fall at all. Call him!”
“No need.” Thor appeared, brushing back his red cloak. He sighed. “Father, there is nothing you can do. Those who betrayed myself and the other Avengers…they have precious little honor, but Midgard needs them. They defend her people from countless evils, both large and small.”
Odin froze. “They betrayed all of you?”
Thor nodded. “Yes, all – we were together, fighting their enemies, when they attacked us from above. Even the Man of Iron was helpless before the terrible weapon they dropped on us from the sky.” He shivered. “It burned, Father. It was a death most horrible.”
“I am sorry, my son.” Odin bowed his head, thinking, and when he raised it again his eye was placid, but determined. “Very well, I shall not punish Midgard at this time.” He drew in a breath. “But my eye will be upon them, and should they ever cease to defend those you protected…the wrath of Asgard shall fall and punish their lack of honor in the name of those whom they betrayed.”
Thor nodded. “As you say it, Father.” He smiled sadly. “I must go now. I would not see you or Mother any too soon, please – or our good captain, either. Take care of yourselves.”
“Go to your reward, my son,” Odin told him. “You have earned it, go.” Thor disappeared. Odin turned to Hel. “Thank you for holding his shade here that I might speak with him.”
“I did nothing, All-Father,” she intoned. “He waited, knowing you would come.” And then she vanished and the gates began to close. Odin stared at them for a long moment before turning away, and beginning the long walk back to his wife’s side with much to think about.
When he finally arrived back at the palace, many hours had passed – which he had expected, as time flowed differently at the gates than it did elsewhere. Frigga was waiting for him, red-eyed but calm. “Husband, there has been a development. The leader of those named the Avengers called out to Asgard; he burns the bodies of his companions that they might not fall into their betrayer’s hands.” She sighed. “I have sent Brede and his warriors four to him, to retrieve Mjolnir and to hear what tale the Captain of America has to tell of our son’s death.” She cast a wise eye over him. “Did Thor speak to you?”
“Our son waited by the gates for me to come,” he told her gravely. “He said all the Avengers were betrayed by those who defend the people of Midgard from threats both great and small. I gave him my word that I shall not call the wrath of Asgard down on them so long as they continue to protect the people in this manner. That was agreeable to him, and he bade us not to join him in Valhalla until our time of life was well ended before he departed to his reward.”
Frigga nodded. “I have already told Sif and the Warriors Three, and then had word of Thor’s death spread to the rest of Asgard and her allies,” she said. “But the feast shall not be held until Mjolnir is returned to us from Midgard.”
“As you say it,” Odin agreed, and then reached out and took her hand. And they sat in silence for a good long while, waiting.
Steve was having a hard time believing that Brede and the others had brought him to Asgard, and understanding why they insisted that he carry Thor’s hammer to Odin and present it himself. Was it because he’d been a fellow warrior who was there when Thor was killed, was this just the proper way of doing things among Thor’s people? Steve tried to walk as tall as he could, just in case, wanting anyone who saw him to know that he knew the importance of what he was carrying, hoping they would see by his example that some of the people of Earth did have honor.
Finally, they arrived at the throne room, the great doors swinging open silently to admit them. The room was full of staring people, but Steve only had eyes for the man and woman seated on thrones on the dais at the end of the room. Thor’s parents. He carried Mjolnir up to the foot of the dais and bowed. “Odin All-Father, I bring to you news of the death of your son, my shield brother. And I return Mjolnir to her home.” And he held out the hammer flat on both hands for Odin to take.
Slowly, Odin stood up and walked down the steps until he faced the mortal who had survived the betrayal his son had not. As he drew near, however, he realized that he was mistaken in thinking the boy a mortal, for mortals tended to appear somewhat diminished by the power of Asgard and this boy did not. Not to mention, he had walked in carrying Mjolnir and was even now holding it in his hands. Odin took the hammer, feeling the power running through it, letting it sing to him softly of what had occurred and the choice it had made, and then he held it back out to the boy his son had called captain – it made sense now, that Thor had included this one in his wish to not be joined in Valhalla any time soon. “Take her,” he said when Steve hesitated. “She has chosen a new wielder.”
Steve looked mystified. “But I’m not…I’m not from Asgard, I’m not one of you.”
“You are not from Asgard, but you are of Asgard,” Odin explained, frowning thoughtfully. Mjolnir was still singing. “Someone chose you, changed you. Who was it?”
A look of great sadness filled the boy’s eyes. “His name was Dr. Erskine,” he said. “He created a serum that was to be used to create supersoldiers – strong, perfect warriors. He was forced to use it on an evil man, and found that what it had been created for was not exactly what it did. It didn’t make a man perfect, it just made him more of what he truly was inside.” He swallowed. “The evil man became a monster called Red Skull, cruel and powerful and completely without humanity.”
Odin cocked his head. “And you?”
“He chose me…because I don’t like bullies,” the boy said softly. “He convinced the Army to let him give me the serum, and it worked the way he’d wanted it to…but he was killed only minutes later and the secret of the serum died with him.”
Odin nodded. “And the Red Skull?”
The boy’s spine straightened. “Once I finally managed to get there, my team and I chased him and his people all over Europe,” he said. “I finally caught up with him and we fought – it would have been to the death, but he tried to use the artifact he had aboard the ship and it…well, it sort of dissolved him, and then it sucked what was left into a portal much like the one your people use to travel to Ear…to Midgard. Thor brought you the artifact when he returned Loki to you.”
“Yes, we have it well-secured now – no one is quite sure how it came to be on Midgard in the first place,” Odin admitted. “But this man Erskine…he chose well, Mjolnir confirms it. And as her choice is made, mine must follow suit.” He frowned thoughtfully. “What is your Midgardian name? I know you only by your title as leader of the Avengers, the Captain of America, as my son called you.”
The boy blinked at him. “My name is Captain Steven Rogers, sir.”
Odin nodded, thought a moment. “That is your name on Midgard, but you are now of Asgard. I name you Stefan Erskineson, to honor the one who made you of Asgard, gave you his blessing, and sent you to defeat his enemy.” He held out the hammer again. “Take Mjolnir, she is yours to wield now.”
Steve hesitated, then reached out and took the hammer. The moment his fingers wrapped around it, something happened. He heard singing, soft and melancholy but happy at the same time, and a rush of power flowed through him like fresh water. He heard several people gasp, and realized that his torn, filthy uniform had been replaced by a laced blue shirt, black pants and tall boots, and a long grey hooded cloak. His shield was a reassuring weight on his back, and there was a hook on his belt like one he’d seen on Thor’s which was meant for holding Mjolnir. He blinked at the outfit, then back up at Odin. “I…I don’t understand.”
To his surprise, the old king smiled at him sadly. “You will,” he said. “But for now,” his voice rose, addressing the entire room, “it is time for us to honor Thor, Prince of Asgard and Defender of Midgard. His feast awaits!”
The feast for Thor was a surreal experience for Steve. First of all, he had never seen so much food in one place before in his entire life – Thor’s appetite was suddenly making a lot more sense to him. And secondly, he had been seated with Thor’s friends, Sif and the Warriors Three, and they were so much like his dead friends that he spent a good deal of the feast trying not to call any of them by someone else’s name.
The feast went on for a long, long time in Steve’s perception. There was eating, and toasting, and stories were told about Thor by pretty much everyone at the ridiculously long table. Even Steve was made to tell some stories, which he did, and was proud of himself for not breaking down into tears while he did it. He was so tired. Finally, though, the warrior called Fandral tugged on his arm and they all left the table, although it was plain that the party wasn’t anywhere near over yet.
Fandral kept hold of Steve’s arm all the way out of the feasting hall, leading him to a balcony that looked out over the city – was it a city? Steve didn’t know. There were seats there, low and comfortable, and a small firepit, and once they had all settled in a jug of mead was brought out and cups passed around. “Tell us of our shield brother,” Fandral requested. “I see stories within you that you would not share at the table, stories we would ask you to share with us. Tell us of Thor’s life on Midgard, and what he did there when he was not battling the strong that prey upon the weak.”
Steve nodded, taking a sip of his mead and then rolling the cup between his palms. “He lived with us in the tower Tony Stark – Iron Man, or as Thor called him, the Man of Iron – built,” he said. “He had his own rooms, on the floor above mine, but we all tended to get together in the family room and use the kitchen there to cook in.” A sad smile quirked one corner of his mouth. “He liked Pop Tarts, a lot. They’re a sort of pastry with something like sweet fruit jam inside of them and sugar frosting on the outside, and they don’t go bad for a very long time. Thor would usually eat a whole box at a sitting, we never were able to get him to understand that one of the six packages in the box was a serving, not the entire box at once.”
“Thor’s appetite was second only to mine,” the largest of the Three, Volstagg, boomed proudly.
“He, however, did not boast of it as though it were an achievement.” Heimdall had appeared out of the shadows; he took a seat next to Sif and held out a cup, which Fandral silently filled with mead. “I, too, would hear your stories, Stefan Erskineson,” he said quietly. “I may hear all from the Bifrost, but those are words, not tales.”
Steve nodded again, collecting his scattering thoughts. He was so tired. “I can tell you a story about my friend Thor,” he finally said. “A couple of years ago, we had just finished fighting a huge battle, and he found this little dog…”
The night had grown old and Thor’s feast had wound down, those who had attended breaking off into smaller, private groups to drink and remember on their own in comfort. Odin, however, had sought solitude, wishing to think over all the day had wrought. He stood on the wide balcony which wrapped around the side of his private chambers, leaning on the balustrade and staring up into the swath of stars that were like a brightly-lit road across the darkness of the void. Many things were on his mind, among them the boy who Mjolnir had chosen, and who he had seen taken off during the feast by Fandral and the others. He wondered if the boy was still with them; Frigga had forgotten, understandably considering the circumstances, to have the servants prepare a room for Stefan Erskineson – not that either of them knew as of yet what they were going to do with the boy in light of Mjolnir’s choosing, or where he should reside in Asgard. Odin wondered if he should send someone to find the boy, to make sure he was taken care of for the night at least.
A rustle – a deliberately made one – alerted him that he was no longer alone. “Stephan Erskineson sleeps, on a cot in Fandral’s chambers.” Heimdall glided out of the darkness and came to stand beside him. “I will have him as my apprentice.”
That surprised Odin. “You haven’t taken an apprentice in a thousand years.”
“I will take him.” Heimdall leaned on the balustrade himself, looking out over the soft lights of Asgard to the softer, brighter lights of the night sky. “Mjolnir did not just claim him, she marked him – his shield, which once bore the markings of the country of his birth, now bears a likeness of the Bifrost in silver with Midgard a star of gold in its proper place. He is the guardian of both, and I will train him in the ways of Asgard and the Bifrost.” He snorted. “He knows enough of Midgard already.”
Odin couldn’t disagree with that. “The boy had more tales than he told at the feast, did you hear them?”
Heimdall nodded. “Midgard teaches her sons to disdain tears as unmanly; he feared losing honor in our eyes as the loss is still too near for him not to feel it. His arms still ache with the weight of the bodies of his companions as he laid them to rest, his eyes still burn from the smoke of their passing.” Another glance sideways. “And although Mjolnir healed the burning in his skin from the weapon of death the betrayers used, I have told the healers to see to him when he wakes in the morning, that I might be sure he is well.”
“A good thought, and one that will reassure him as well as others,” Odin agreed. He sighed. “Asgard needs another heir.” He got another sideways look. “My wife would kill me for suggesting it, as you well know.”
Heimdall shrugged. “Then allow her to suggest it. It need not be done this night, or even this season – there is time.”
Odin smirked. “Time to train your apprentice to be to our next son what you are to me?”
A nod. “That and more, All-Father.” He was still looking at the stars. “Tonight, when you seek your bed, ask your wife what she has seen.” He waved a hand at the lights, bright and dim. “I see our future, and although it was born of loss and grief, it is nonetheless good.”
Odin sighed and leaned on the railing, looking back at the stars himself. “I will take your word for it.”
Heimdall smiled. “As it should be.”
The morning after Thor’s Feast – although Steve was given to understand that in some quarters the feast was still going on, and might be going on for a while yet –he requested to be taken to see Loki. “I should tell him what happened, since I was there,” he explained to Heimdall. “He might have questions about his brother’s death.”
“He may,” Heimdall agreed. Fandral had brought his new apprentice to him directly after breaking his fast, the physician had come and gone, and he had been showing the younger man around the chambers connected to the Gate and the Bridge and explaining how things worked. “Or he may not know that it has happened yet, as the guards tend to avoid drawing near to his cell because he mocks them while they stand there.” Not to mention, he knew Odin probably hadn’t even thought about going down to the cells himself yet to pass on that news. “I will take you, and tell the guards to allow you in to perform this honorable duty, and then we will come back here and arrange a place for you to sleep.”
The Bridge was nominally connected to the palace, so it wasn’t a very long walk to get to the entrance to the cells. Heimdall told the guards that Stefan Erskineson would go down to speak with Prince Loki regarding the death of his brother, and then he waited with them at the entrance and Steve went down alone. Which was something of a surprise to Steve, especially since he hadn’t been sure how he would find the man he was looking for, but as it turned out Loki was the only person down there and the cell was a simply furnished white room with a glass wall – probably made of magic, or at least by magic, Steve thought, because there was no door anywhere that he could see. The former prince of Asgard looked surprised to see him, then sneered to cover it up. “Soldier.”
“I was, I’m not anymore,” Steve told him. He squared his shoulders. “I thought I should be the one to tell you, because I was there…Thor is dead, Loki. SHIELD had him killed, and the rest of the Avengers too.”
One finely arched eyebrow went up. “All of them except you?”
Steve nodded. “A man shot Black Widow from the cover of a building, I chased him.” He made a face. “He went underground, I followed – I thought he was just trying to hide from me, but he wasn’t. They were dropping some kind of bomb that would kill everyone, even the Hulk. I realized too late that he’d wanted me to follow him, they wanted to retrieve me alive or at least intact enough so they could try to unlock the secret of the serum that made me…well, the way I am.”
Loki looked like he wanted to say something cutting…but then his expression changed and he shook his head. “That would have been a worse death. How did you…” And then he saw Mjolnir and his eyes widened. “You…”
“She chose me as her wielder, that’s what she says, and what your father and Heimdall say. She had me take Thor’s place as the Defender of Midgard. I’m Heimdall’s apprentice now.”
“But you’re not…” Loki cocked his head, looking again. “You are. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “I think you had other things on your mind the last time you saw me.”
It wasn’t said meanly; in fact, a slight quirk at the corner of the boy’s mouth said the remark had been humorously meant. Another surprise, although that did explain why Heimdall had taken the boy on – he rarely held grudges either, not once his opponent had been bested. Loki needed to think about this. He straightened. “I thank you for coming to tell me of Thor’s death, Captain…”
“It’s Stefan now – Stefan Erskineson. Odin said I needed an Asgardian name, because I was of Asgard. And since Dr. Erskine was the one who ‘chose me and changed me and sent me out to be his champion,’ I was named for him.”
Good lord, the boy was blushing. Loki did not smile, although he wanted to. “I thank you, Stefan Erskineson, for coming to tell me of my brother’s death – it was very kind of you. I would be alone with my thoughts now, if you don’t mind.”
Steve nodded. “Of course. And I am sorry for your loss. I know the two of you didn’t always get along, but Thor…was a good friend to me. And he often spoke of how much he missed you.”
And then he turned and walked back out the way he’d come in. Loki frowned after him thoughtfully, taking in the stylized golden image of the Bifrost on the boy’s now-black shield. His brother was dead, through betrayal no less, and his feelings about that were a tangled mess which would take him some time to sort out. His thoughts about this new situation were nearly as bad. One of the first rules of magic he’d ever been taught was that there was no such thing as a coincidence...so what could such a convoluted web of apparent coincidences possibly mean?
Weeks went by. Steve was kept busy helping to monitor things on Midgard, most especially news of anything having to do with SHIELD; Heimdall needed his new apprentice’s help to sort some of it out as he himself was not familiar with the ways of Midgard and feared he might misinterpret something important. Steve wasn’t allowed to work all the time, though. Heimdall insisted that he leave their station on the Bridge once each day. “You must come to know Asgard as a place and not merely through my words,” the older – much, much older - man insisted. “Walk the streets of the city, walk in the fields. Speak with people, or simply listen to them. See how the trees and plants grow, and how the clouds move across the sky. This is your home, Stefan, and you should get to know her.”
So Steve did. He walked the streets of the city – it was actually a city – and looked at the buildings and listened to people talk. He gradually got used to Asgardian architecture, and it stopped looking strange to him. And the people were, at the end of the day, just people. He watched them come and go, watched their children play, watched the guards change around the palace or train in the practice field. Which was how he found the horse.
His walk had taken him past the empty practice field – empty because it was drawing on toward evening and everyone had gone in to eat – and in a green bowl of a field surrounded by a fringe of trees he saw a horse and went to take a closer look. It was the first horse he’d seen on Asgard, and the way it was just standing there all alone in the field with its head hanging down made it look sad to Steve. It had six legs, but he got past that – this was Asgard, for all he knew all of the horses here had six legs. The horse raised its head when it saw him, then pawed the ground once and flicked its ears and tail. Steve had been around horses before, so he recognized that body language; the horse was trying to figure out why he was there, and determine if he was something it needed to run from or something it needed to attack. He let it sniff him, stood still while it looked him over, and then very slowly raised one hand and scratched just under an alert ear. “You’re a pretty girl,” he told her. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you. I didn’t even know they had horses here.”
The horse whickered, and it sounded like a question so he answered it. “I’m from Earth…from Midgard. We have horses there, but they don’t look like you.” That got him a sideways look. “Horses on Midgard only have four legs. I’m guessing having six makes you as fast as the wind, doesn’t it?”
In answer, the horse gave a little neigh and butted her head against his chest. Steve laughed and stroked her forelock, then scratched under her ears again. “Looks like you’re smarter than Midgardian horses, too. Too bad you can’t tell me your name.” Mjolnir hummed softly, and he cocked his head. “It’s Slep…Sleipnir? Your name is Sleipnir?”
That got an affirmative whinny, and then the horse backed away with a little prance, tossing her head. Steve had to laugh…and then he bowed. “Stefan Erskineson. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady. I should be going back to my post now, but if it’s all right I’ll come back and see you again sometime.” The questioning whicker again. “I’m Heimdall’s apprentice, but he kicks me off the Bridge once a day so I can get to know my new home.”
The horse gave him a surprisingly intense look…and then she closed back in and nuzzled his chest again. “Aw, thanks Sleipnir,” he told her, patting her neck. “I’m homesick, but I know I can’t go back to Midgard for a long, long time – maybe not ever. And Asgard is really pretty.” Another whicker-question, and he laughed again. “Yes, you’re pretty too. I really do have to go now, though, but I’ll be back if I can. You looked as lonely as I was feeling.”
Sleipnir let him go after one more nuzzle, and he was still somewhat bemused when he got back to the Gate. “Go brush off, she sheds,” Heimdall told him before he could say anything. “Sleipnir is Odin’s battle mount, but he has had little need for her of late and she is lonely. Go back to visit her paddock any time you like; so long as you do not presume to mount her, no one will care.”
Steve nodded. “I wouldn’t have tried to ride her – she’s not my horse. Do they all…”
Heimdall shook his head. “Sleipnir was born of magic, that is why she differs from other horses. Ours are the same as those on Midgard, perhaps just a bit hardier.”
“So she’s all by herself.”
“Because she does not get along with normal horses.” Heimdall smiled. “To be truthful, she does not get along with most people, either. I sometimes go to speak with her myself, though – she is a good listener.”
Steve nodded again and went to brush himself off, smiling just a little. Some people might have found it intrusive, but he thought it was nice that his boss wanted to make sure his needs were met – the emotional as well as the physical. And so after that, when he was feeling lonely or on nights when he couldn’t sleep, he went out to the field and sat with Sleipnir, leaning against her warm flank and staring up at the stars. He talked to her, told her about his nightmares, told her tales of his friends until the tears came as he grieved for them; other times he was too miserable to put his thoughts into words and she nosed his hair and nickered softly at him until the heaviness of his sorrow was lightened by her attentions and he could finally find it in himself to rest. And as she always seemed happy to see him and not so lonely as she’d looked on that first day, he thought that his visits were probably good for her, too.
SHIELD managed to suppress the news that the Avengers were dead for two entire months, and might have tried to keep things quiet longer if the UK news services hadn’t broken the story on their own right about the same time Pepper Potts released a statement that the founder of Stark Industries had been missing and was now confirmed to be dead. The UK had apparently gotten in touch with her first, and had handed over the burned helmet and gauntlet which had once been part of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit. The fact that the pieces had to be transported and kept in a lead-lined box was telling. The lie SHIELD spun about dirty bombs and missiles and the Avengers ‘sacrificing themselves’ to save everyone was hotly debated in some circles, but since most of those circles were of the paranoid conspiracy theorist variety the debate wasn’t taken nearly as seriously as it should have been.
Most, not all. Pepper was taking it very seriously, and so were certain members of the scientific community – notably Thor’s girlfriend Jane and several people who had worked with Bruce in the past. A normal bomb, even a dirty bomb, would not have been able to kill a transformed Hulk. It wouldn’t have been able to nearly incinerate the Iron Man suit, either; damage the suit, yes, but almost completely destroy it? No. Steve, Clint and Natasha would have been dead before the dust had settled, of course, but what would have happened to Thor was anyone’s guess – even Jane didn’t fully understand how either his powers or his hammer worked, and she and Dr. Selvig were the world’s top experts when it came to Asgardian technology – or magic, depending on who you were talking to.
But they did both agree that no power on Earth would have been able to destroy the hammer, and that no other person on Earth they knew of was able to pick it up. The place where the Avengers had died had been found – fairly easily, since Jarvis had known where SHIELD had last sent the Avengers and the entire area was still so radioactive you could practically see it glowing from space – and the hammer wasn’t there. Rubble was. Burned bodies were. And an unburned but partially crushed body was, far below ground in what had once been a concrete parking garage which apparently hadn’t proved to be as safe as the man had hoped it would be. There were also blood traces that didn’t belong to the dead man down there, though, blood traces that showed someone had been down there with him, survived, and climbed back out.
Or possibly flown back out, by means of a magic hammer. And then gone back home? NOAA had recorded an unusual lightning storm in the area around that time so he probably had, but why? Thor was easily the most battle-experienced of all the Avengers, he’d have known it wasn’t his ‘fault’ that he’d survived, and he would never even have thought of running away…unless the dead man had been a decoy, sent to lure him away from the others, to keep him from possibly protecting them. Unless he’d realized it was a setup, a betrayal.
Two U.S. planes had taken off from an isolated airbase right around the time the Avengers had been at that location, carrying an unknown payload. Neither pilots nor planes could be found now, and the airbase had been abandoned and stripped.
Pepper used her considerable list of contacts and the company’s even more considerable amount of financial clout to make sure every bit of evidence she got hold of was verified, analyzed, and protected from ‘accidental’ erasure. She asked MI-5 to tap her phone, making sure that the mysterious threat-texts she kept getting would be recorded by someone who wasn’t her. Especially since whoever was sending them – it was someone with SHIELD, she knew it was – kept trying to erase them from the call logs. And she started making plans to move Stark Industries to the UK, specifically to Scotland, because SHIELD had much less power there and not just MI-5 but also Parliament hated them with a passion. Apparently the UK had super double-secret agents of its own on duty, privately funded ones who thought beating the crap out of arrogant SHIELD agents was an amusing hobby. Pepper had already met one of them, a pleasant, handsome middle-aged man named Mr. Hart who had been sent to complete his organization’s investigation of the company prior to the move being approved. He’d taken a week to do it, at the end of which he’d handed her three neat lists: one of people who needed to be fired, one of people who might be easy to compromise, and one of people who he personally thought needed to be beaten daily until they stopped being arseholes – his words. And then he went over her personal security with Jarvis and saw to fixing the vulnerabilities he’d found before leaving again and vanishing back to whatever posh British super double-secret agent hiding place it was he’d come from. MI-5 had passed the first list along to the UK’s immigration service just to make sure none of those people got into the country, and they’d put a watch on the ones listed on the second – they’d recommended she replace the arsehole contingent with local IT people in Glasgow, assuring her that they could make sure she had a fully competent polite staff assembled as soon as she needed them and that they already had a young genius of a supervisor in mind for her who might be able to work with Jarvis at close to Tony’s level. Apparently Dr. Matthew McQueen was one of MI6’s research and development directors, but he was Not Happy in his current position and the agency was willing to give him up to Stark Industries rather than risk losing him entirely.
Pepper ended up hiring him and having him brought over before the move to manage the migration of Tony’s workshop and various private projects. One of his previous charges had even followed him over and taken it upon himself to provide security for that portion of things – supposedly the man was on ‘vacation’ and didn’t even have a weapon with him, but thanks to several years of being around Clint and Natasha Pepper was fairly certain he didn’t actually need one. Matthew had just rolled his eyes and made the man, whose name was James, lift and tote things he couldn’t be bothered to move himself. And bring him tea, although he claimed James was bad at it.
And then James had proved Pepper’s supposition about his skills right by taking down four American agents who tried to invade Tony’s workshop, tying them up with tape and wire and then making fun of them for being worse at their jobs than he was at making tea. Matthew had just rolled his eyes at that, gassed all four of them so they’d stop trying to get away, and then called someone to come pick them up.
The ‘someone’ who showed up ended up being a small contingent of federal agents in a flower delivery van, who had been followed not five minutes later by an angry Nick Fury. Fury had been much less than happy to see James. “Are you even supposed to be in this country?” he’d demanded. “I should call…”
“They’d tell you to piss up a rope,” James drawled, a little smirk quirking his lips. “They’re the ones who cleared my visa. I may be expendable…but Dr. McQueen is definitely not.”
Fury sneered. “You’re not ‘licensed’ over here, Bond.”
“The license no longer exists and you know it – not to mention, I don’t need it to deal with the weak excuses for agents you’ve got,” James – whose last name was apparently Bond – replied, smirk still in place. “Now get out, we’ve got work to do and I’m sure you’ve got plans for world domination that need tending. Or I suppose you could chase down the ice cream truck that’s carrying your soon-to-be very talkative agents away. I was rather surprised they went with that one instead of just using a cab – ice cream trucks can’t be very common in this area, especially not ones painted in such garish colors and playing that awful tinny song.”
Fury hadn’t come back again after that, but Matthew had kicked the move into higher gear and James had started hovering a little more obviously. Jarvis had quietly confirmed for Pepper that ‘James Bond’ had been a high-level agent with MI-6 and was now to all intents and purposes retired. Not to mention rather more than obviously attached to one Dr. Matthew McQueen, which she had to admit was kind of cute.
The unfailingly polite Mr. Hart showed up again right before Pepper was due to leave for Scotland, solicitously escorting a shaken Jane. “I’m afraid the laboratory Dr. Foster was working in met with a rather bad end,” he explained. “Luckily we were monitoring the area. But I’ll need to speak to Dr. McQueen and Mr. Bond about your security; we’ve all been looking for subtlety and they just went ham-fisted on us.” He pulled a passport and tickets out of his immaculately pressed and tailored suit jacket and handed them over. “She’ll have to go with you. I took care of the travel arrangements, but I’m afraid she’ll need to replace everything else.”
Jane nodded when Pepper looked horrified by that. “They got my apartment, too. And told my bank I was dead.”
Matthew had appeared with James in tow by that point. “I can fix that, Dr. Foster,” he assured her. “If you want to come with me to the nearest terminal, we’ll get on it right now. It’s better if these things are addressed quickly, you know…”
Pepper only had a moment to appreciate how smoothly he’d removed Jane from the upcoming discussion about how many people were now trying to kill them, and then it was down to business. James and Mr. Hart exchanged a friendly handshake. “It’s good to see you again, Bond,” Mr. Hart was saying. “Arthur thought we might have to jump in on your last assignment, that was a nasty piece of business.”
James shrugged. “It was so nasty it actually was my last assignment, they decided I’m ‘too old’ to bounce back from the field work anymore. So I’m Dr. McQueen’s security detail for the time being.”
“Consider making that arrangement permanent,” Hart suggested. “They dropped half a mountain on that base, Bond – the landslide was triggered by ‘soft explosives’, according to our people, experimental stuff nobody’s even supposed to have, much less use. SHIELD is going off the deep end.”
“Why, though?” Pepper wanted to know, and they both looked at her. “I mean, none of this makes any sense! They killed Tony and the other Avengers, and whatever happened out there made Thor head straight back home and nobody here on Earth has heard from him since. Jane was their top scientist working with Asgardian technology, and now they just tried to kill her too. Not to mention their attempt to infiltrate the Tower, trying to get hold of Tony’s projects and notes.”
Mr. Hart raised an eyebrow at James, who grimaced and shook his head. “They can’t have been his best people, not by a long shot, so my guess is he was trying to see how far in they could get before they were stopped. But I don’t think you’re wrong about Fury going off the deep end. He tried to tell me my ‘license’ wasn’t good over here.”
Pepper was surprised when Mr. Hart’s eyes widened. “But surely he knows…” And then he grimaced. “Dammit, I should have seen it before. There’s always been something wrong with that organization, but I really doubt they’ve formally brainwashed him. Played on his paranoia, do you think?”
“That would be the most likely explanation,” James agreed. “So we’ll need to be doubly on our guard now. They think Dr. Foster is dead?”
Hart nodded. “They did, but that’s not going to hold for long – hence the reason she has to fly out immediately. Someone will be here in half an hour with a small suitcase for Dr. Foster and an appropriate outfit for the flight, we want her to look like your assistant. That’s what the papers I gave you say she is. We’ll put things back the way they should be once you’re safely away in Scotland.” He shook his head. “Something is going on. I questioned Dr. Foster quite thoroughly while we were waiting for an opening to get away from the site undetected, and she said her laboratory had been experiencing quite a lot of interference lately – as in communications interference. She believes someone from Asgard may have been attempting to contact her, and SHIELD was trying to prevent that contact from occurring.”
Pepper nodded slowly. “They would have known Thor would try to contact her eventually, they must have been watching for it to happen. Maybe they want him to think she’s not answering, trying to trick him into coming back down here?”
“It’s possible,” James said, and Hart nodded his agreement as well. “It’s entirely possible they’re planning a preemptive strike against Asgard, as crazy as that sounds.”
“If they’re lost to reason enough to try it…” Hart made a face. “What am I saying, of course they are. They were insane enough to take out the Avengers; attacking a planet full of old Norse gods would seem to be the next logical step, wouldn’t it?”
“We’ll have to find a way to warn Thor,” Pepper said. “Jane can…” A little chiming noise went off, Jarvis’s way of clearing his throat to get her attention. “Yes, Jarvis?”
“Asgard is aware of the situation,” Jarvis responded. “I have received a message from them, through the array Sir had set up for that purpose before his death. They apologize for the delay in contacting you, but they did not wish to draw attention to Dr. Foster’s escape. The Defender of Midgard will be in contact to share what information they have gathered once you have both reached safety, and to assist you in any means that he may.”
Pepper’s hand went to her mouth. “Thor…”
“I have been informed that Prince Thor was killed on the island, at the same time as Sir and the others,” Jarvis corrected, somewhat apologetically. “The current holder of the position says…it is a long story.”
A year passed, and a little more, before SHIELD finally made a move to contact Asgard on their own. Mostly because they hadn’t known how to contact Asgard, because getting rid of Jane had left them with something of a knowledge deficit when it came to the Bifrost. But once they’d somehow found a way to do it again, they had put a call through saying they wished to speak to Odin about a matter of extreme importance to both their worlds, and Odin had allowed them to use their technology to access the Bridge and instructed the Keepers to escort them to the throne room for the requested audience.
Fury marched in with a dozen armed agents, standing tall at the head of the group and radiating arrogance. He hadn’t seen Steve – or if he had noticed him, he hadn’t recognized him – and his entire attention was fixed on Odin. “We come as representatives of Earth, the planet you call Midgard,” Fury declared without preamble. “We wanted to make an alliance with you.”
Mjolnir sang softly of what Fury really wanted, and Steve smirked. The All-Father was going to have fun with this.
Odin had not moved, and he did not stand – a not-so-subtle insult that was most likely going right over Fury’s head. “What do you offer Asgard?” Odin wanted to know. “What do you offer that we do not already have…or that we cannot take for ourselves?”
Fury stiffened, and some of his agents shifted nervously. “We don’t take kindly to threats, Odin,” he said. “We’re here offering to be your friends, your allies. If you’d rather be enemies, though, we can do that too.”
Odin nodded, stroking his beard. His pale blue eye was sharp, although his posture remained relaxed, even unconcerned. “You offer little, Director Fury of SHIELD,” he finally said, in a very calm voice. “And your bravado is matched only by your arrogance. Why would Asgard ally herself with a murderous traitor?”
Fury looked taken aback. Steve couldn’t tell if it was an act or not. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You were responsible for the murder of Thor, Crown Prince of Asgard and Wielder of Mjolnir,” Odin explained, and although his voice remained calm outside the sky darkened. “And of his chosen companions as well, although they counted you as an ally.”
“That was out of my hands. The Avengers were deemed too big of a threat to be allowed to keep going.” Fury dipped his head. “I’m sure your son was unaware of certain circumstances…”
“He was very aware that the Avengers were betrayed, by their own people.” Odin said, still in that eerily conversational tone. Overhead, thunder rumbled. “But at his asking I did not seek revenge on Midgard for this. I pledged to him that I would not avenge those deaths so long as you and yours continued to protect the innocents of Midgard.” He waved a hand. “Tell me, are you here in that capacity, Director Fury?”
“Yes,” Fury almost spat. “I repeat: If you aren’t our allies, you are our enemies.” His eye narrowed. “And we deal harshly with our enemies.”
“As do we.” Odin stood up. “And while I will not declare war on Midgard, I will also not ally my people with you.” This time the rumble of thunder was louder. “Asgard values honor above all, Fury. She does not ally herself with traitors.”
Fury had obviously recognized that for the insult it was. “I want to speak to Thor. Even though you’re accusing us of murdering him, you’ve obviously spoken with him, which means he’s around here somewhere.” The expression on his face twisted unpleasantly. “If he is reluctant, you might remind him that his girlfriend still lives on Earth – and that she works for us.”
“Another threat? You are bold.” Odin scowled then, and Fury twitched like he wanted to take a step back. “We have kept watch, Fury of SHIELD. Heimdall and his apprentice tell me all that happens as they listen from the Bifrost – and so I know that my son’s lady love has long been beyond your reach, protected by the woman who loved the Man of Iron, who was also murdered through your treachery. I know that from their fortress they fight you, that they rally the people against you now, as your atrocities mount and the good you do shrinks like a pile of wet leaves in a fire.”
Fury visibly gathered himself. “Let me talk to Thor.”
“Thor is dead,” Odin told him. “You had he and his companions killed with fire from the sky, you burned them alive.” The thunder rumbled louder. “My son’s shade waited for me, and told me all before going on to his rest. And Mjolnir told me more when she was returned to us.”
The other man’s face set in harsh lines. “So it was you who burned the bodies.”
“No, the sole survivor of your treachery did that.” The pale blue eye sparked with lightning, and the air shuddered with rage like a live serpent, twisting and biting. “He gathered the bodies of his companions, built their pyres with his own hands, and then called on Asgard to bear witness. Mjolnir chose him as her new wielder.”
Odin had straightened to his full height, radiating power that this time Fury did step back from; the horror on the faces of Fury’s agents showed that they had not, until that moment, truly believed in the power of Asgard. Fury, however, gathered himself in the face of that. “Where is he?” he demanded. “You have Captain Rogers here? I want him in front of me this instant! You had no right…”
And then he pulled out one of SHIELD’s energy weapons. Before he could do much more than hold it up, though, something black flashed through the air and knocked the gun from his grip. It clattered across the marble floor, sparking blue from its crushed casing, as the black blur ricocheted off a pillar to return to its owner’s hand. And Fury’s mouth dropped open in a very unusual – for him – display of shock as Stefan Erskineson strode forward with a scowl, pushing back the hood which had partially concealed his features. “Captain Rogers?!”
“Not anymore,” Steve told him. He was composed, not growling or snapping, but his blue eyes were nearly incandescent with anger. “You know, Fury, for someone who was supposedly coming here to make peace…you’re awfully quick to make war.”
Fury’s jaw clenched. “You’ve betrayed Earth, haven’t you? Turned against everything you once stood for.”
Steve just looked at him. “I burned the corpses of my friends, who you betrayed, so you wouldn’t get your filthy hands on them,” he said in a strong, clear voice. He cocked his head. “Just out of curiosity, where did you think I went? I’m sure you found the body of the guy you sent to ‘save’ me.” He fished in a pouch that hung at his belt, held up an open wallet with the SHIELD identification card plain to see. “This guy – a pillar fell on him down in the parking garage.” He tucked the wallet away again. “You know, the guy who shot Black Widow, as a distraction? He apparently thought the garage was deep enough to protect him from the bomb, but it wasn’t.” He shook his head. “I was pretty upset that I didn’t get to question him, but at least before he died he told me who he worked for and why he did what he did.” And then he scowled…and Fury’s eye widened when thunder echoed overhead. “Captain America is dead, Fury – you killed him when you murdered the other Avengers. I am Stefan Erskineson of Asgard, Wielder of Mjolnir and Defender of Midgard and the Bifrost.”
Thunder crashed and lightning flared, and this time Fury was the one who looked horrified. “You aren’t…you can’t…”
“He is of Asgard,” Odin confirmed quietly. “The one called Erskine changed him, and chose him as his champion. Mjolnir confirmed his worth by choosing him on the field of your betrayal, and Stefan has proved himself worthy in our eyes full ten times over since that day.” His eye was very intent upon Fury. “Fury of SHIELD, accept your defeat and go quietly, and we will allow your people to pass through the Bifrost and return to Midgard unharmed. My pledge to my son stands.”
Fury’s open mouth closed with a snap. “You do not have the upper hand you think you do, Odin,” he growled. “I’m holding your life in my hand right now. You’re going to undo whatever you did to Captain Rogers and give him back to us, and then you’re going to swear to an alliance with Earth. Then and only then will we go back where we came from and leave you alone.” His jaw clenched. “If you don’t agree, we’re going to level this palace with all of you in it, and then we’re going to send for reinforcements – we have them waiting – and declare war on Asgard.”
Odin looked at him like he was crazy, which was entirely possible, from Steve’s point of view. He held up his hand. “I’ve got this one, All-Father,” he said, and walked into the middle of Fury’s people, stopping in front of one of them that had been hanging towards the back. He held out his shield. “Look at the emblem,” he said quietly. “Do you know what that is?”
The man looked frightened, but he nodded. “The Tesseract Road, what you call the Bifrost.”
“Yeah. And this?” He pointed to one star that was larger than the others, and gold instead of silver. “That’s Earth, Agent, what we call Midgard. When SHIELD killed Thor, who had appointed himself the Defender of Midgard, Mjolnir,” he patted the hammer at his belt, “chose me to take his place. And I accepted, because Earth is where I was born and her people are innocent of the evil that is being done in their name.” He slung the shield onto his back. “Will you trust me to take the bomb from you?”
“You can’t,” the man told him. He was shaking. “I would, but…you can’t.”
“He’s right, you can’t – and Agent Streeter, not another word,” Fury snapped. “That’s an order.”
Steve ignored him, holding the frightened agent’s eyes. “Will you trust me?” he asked again.
Slowly, Streeter nodded. “I woke up with it…inside,” he almost whispered. “It wasn’t…it wasn’t my…”
“I know,” Steve interrupted him. “Or I wouldn’t have asked you first before I took it. Now just hold still for a minute and let me take care of it, okay? Tell me if you feel any pain.”
And then he rested his left hand on top of Mjolnir and stuck his right towards the center of the agent’s chest, his fingers sinking through cloth and flesh with a blue glow. He felt around for a moment, frowning in concentration, and then apparently grasped something. “I’d tell you to shut your eyes, but I think you need to see it come out so you know it’s gone,” he told the wide-eyed man. “Let me know if you feel anything pulling, I don’t think they connected it to anything but we’re not going to take any chances, okay?” The agent swallowed and nodded, and Steve started pulling his hand back out, slowly. The agent didn’t stop him, just stared, and a moment later Steve’s hand was between them holding the bomb, a blood-smeared metal and plastic device a little smaller than a softball and still encased by a blue glow. He met the agent’s eyes again. “Take it, and go with a guard back to the Bifrost; throw it off the side, Heimdall will show you the best place so it won’t hurt anyone,” he instructed. “We’ll send you back home in a little while, and make sure you get to someone who will protect you from SHIELD, okay?”
Streeter hesitated a moment, his mouth hanging open in shock, and then he closed it again and nodded, taking the bomb in its protective coating of magic from Steve’s hand. “So…you aren’t going to kill me?” he asked.
“Nope,” Steve assured him. “And neither will anyone else here. We don’t kill the innocent, Agent Streeter, it’s not our way.” He motioned to one of the guards and gave Streeter a little push in that direction, and the two of them walked out of the room. When he turned back to Fury, he raised an eyebrow. “Learned something nasty from the enemy, huh Fury?” he asked, an edge to his voice. “I used to see things like that done by HYDRA, only they’d use prisoners and we usually couldn’t save them.” His fingers drummed against Mjolnir’s shaft. “What happened, Fury? You used to be a good guy doing a bad job, but now you’re something else, not the man I thought I knew. What was it that turned you?”
Fury scowled. “We’re protecting Earth! You and I have been over this before, soldier, and I shouldn’t have to explain it to you again. Drastic events call for drastic measures. This,” he waved a hand at the palace – possibly at all of Asgard, “is a preemptive first-strike. These people are a threat. To. Earth.”
“Only if you threaten them first,” Steve told him. “The All-Father’s word is his bond. He promised Thor that we wouldn’t attack Midgard, that we wouldn’t seek revenge for what SHIELD did...unless SHIELD stopped defending the people of Earth and started victimizing them.” He jerked his head in the direction of the doors. “That looked an awful lot like victimization to me. Been doing that kind of thing a lot lately, for the ‘greater good’?”
“We do what’s necessary.”
“Yeah, I’d say that wasn’t necessary – because you could have implanted it in someone who was willing,” was Steve’s measured response. “And there’s always someone who is, if you look for them.”
The scowl came back, tinged with disgust. “You’re going to kill Streeter anyway.”
“No, actually we aren’t,” Steve said. “He’ll be back in a few minutes so everyone can see that we didn’t – because I knew you were going to say that.”
This time it was Fury who raised an eyebrow. “And you expect men like us, without honor, to tell everyone the truth when we go back? Really? Not to mention…” He turned back to Odin with a sneer. “Why are we dealing with this traitor to Earth instead of with you?”
Odin didn’t answer. Steve did, in a quiet voice that nonetheless had a rumble of thunder in it and froze every person it touched. “Because you’re my problem to deal with, Director Fury. I’m the Defender of Midgard, remember?”
Fury slowly turned back around. He seemed to have realized something. “You knew we were coming.” Steve just nodded. “Why didn’t you kill…oh wait, you couldn’t, because Odin made a promise. You can’t kill us, can you? Or can you only kill us if we attack you…no, not you, someone else? Someone on Earth?” He rolled his eyes. “Oh, sorry, Midgard.”
Steve ignored the sarcasm. “Those are the terms, yes. SHIELD is safe from us as long as the good that they do still outweighs the evil.” He cocked his head. “Does it still, Fury?”
“I think that depends on how you define good and evil,” Fury rebutted. “I define my actions as serving the greater good – like you used to, back before you sold out your duty for power and a cushy life on another planet.”
He had obviously expected a reaction, and he got one – just not the one he expected. Steve fought it for a moment…and then he chuckled, shaking his head. “You get points for trying, I’ll give you that,” he said. “But you’re operating under a misconception that I think we’d better straighten out right now.” His smile became hard, dangerous. “You don’t have to goad me into attacking you, Fury: I can attack you any time I want. Because you stood here and admitted that you were complicit in having my team, my friends murdered, you even tried to justify doing it.” He took a step back, flipping his cloak back over his shoulder, out of the way. He was wearing a short sword, sheathed, at his hip. “Choose your weapon.”
That caught Fury flat-footed. “What?”
“Choose your weapon. You want a fight, I’m more than happy to give you one. The blood of Thor, Tony, Clint, Natasha and Bruce is on your hands, and in their names I am challenging you right here, right now – it’s high time that their deaths were avenged, and I am the last Avenger standing. Do you accept my challenge?”
Fury considered him for a moment. “Do I look like an idiot? You have a magic hammer.”
Steve shook his head. “I wouldn’t use Mjolnir in a duel, Fury, unless my opponent had a weapon of equal power. And the choice of weapon is yours, as the one challenged.”
Caught flat-footed again, Nick Fury weighted his options. “What if I refuse your challenge?” he asked.
The man who had been Captain America shrugged. “Then you go back to Midgard with your people.”
Fury’s eye narrowed. “And?”
“And nothing. You go back to Midgard…without honor.”
Okay, that had been a slap – Fury had delivered enough of them to recognize one when it hit him. A realization hit him at the same time. “Someone is watching, aren’t they? Someone on Earth.”
“Not someone – everyone.” Steve inclined his head. “As you said, we knew you were coming. And Midgard needed to know what you had become. They do, now.”
“Yeah, and they can see what you’ve become, too,” Fury muttered. “And the challenge? What point is that going to make?” Steve drew himself up to his full height, and thunder rumbled. “Oh, that’s right – you’re the last Avenger.” Fury extracted his sidearm from its holster, moving slowly at first as though he was going to discard it…and then he quickly fired at Steve’s chest from an inexplicable angle. “You should join the rest of them, then.”
Steve just stood there, and the bullet dropped to the floor; Fury’s own people backed away from him. “It’s called ‘armor’,” Steve explained in a very reasonable voice. “You might want to pick a different weapon, something that will give you a fighting chance.”
“Against a supersoldier?”
“Considering you’re one too?” Steve smiled grimly at Fury’s look of utter shock. “I’d figured that out before you betrayed us. I had Tony track that last remaining fragment of serum down through his father’s papers, and there you were. We just didn’t say anything because we knew why it needed to be kept a secret.” The smile disappeared. “We should have been brothers, Fury, the only two men on Earth who had the original serum running through our veins. We could have saved the world together.”
“I didn’t need any help, thanks,” Fury shot back. He scowled at his agents, who had moved back so far they were blending in with the Asgardians in the room. “Looks like I’m gonna have to do some hiring when we get back.” He reached into his boot and pulled out a knife. “Fine, I accept your desire to commit suicide by my hand, Erskineson,” he sneered. “I choose knives.”
Immediately, two men moved out of the watching crowd and converged on Steve, and he handed them his sword, his shield, and his cloak. Then he placed his hammer on the floor and stepped around it, pulling a knife out of his belt as he did. “May you die with honor.”
“I won’t be the one dying.” The two men began to circle each other, Fury looking for openings he could exploit. He avoided the obvious ones, so obvious he knew they weren’t real, and feinted a few times to gauge the speed of his opponent’s reaction. Steve was doing the same, but after a few false passes the fight was on in earnest.
The two men were nearly the same size and almost equally matched in strength, and Fury had on a bulletproof vest that matched Steve’s armor for turning the thrust of a blade. Round and round they went, darting in and back, slashing and stabbing and then moving back again to look for another opening. Both of them were littered with shallow cuts, and Fury had lost his eyepatch and sported a bleeding scratch on his cheek where the strap had been sliced in two. Neither one of them appeared to be tiring, however, and it looked like the fight might be going on for a long time yet.
And then Fury lunged, Steve danced out of the way…and sped up. Suddenly Fury was on the defensive and unable to regain an equal footing. He tried every trick he knew, he even threw his knife and pulled out another weapon from inside his coat, but aside from producing a disapproving murmur from the spectators nothing helped; in fact, Steve’s knife on its next pass cut the little gun from his hand and left several fingers hanging limp and bloody in its wake. Steve dropped his own knife and closed in swinging, and all too soon Fury found himself on his back on the marble floor, choking on blood, his head ringing too much from the last punch to let him get back to his feet.
That was when Steve summoned Mjolnir into his hand, and just stood there, looking down. “Finish it,” Fury hissed through bloody teeth – he thought one or two of them might be broken, but he wasn’t sure. “Show Earth what kind of murderer you are.”
Slowly, Steve shook his head, although his expression didn’t change. “All-Father, with your permission?”
“Granted,” the old king intoned. “Exact your vengeance, Stefan Erskineson, with my blessing.”
“And mine,” came a hollow voice. Fury turned his head, and saw…a ghost, a ghost in a red cloak who had eyes only for the man with the hammer. “My friend, we are with you.”
“We’re all with you.” Another ghost had appeared, this one in jeans and a ratty t-shirt through which his glowing heart shone like a star behind clouds, and beside him appeared a man with a bow in his hand, a woman with red hair, and another man wearing glasses. “Thor came to get us,” Tony Stark’s ghost said at Steve’s look of shock. “We weren’t gonna miss this for the world.” He dipped his head, offering permission and absolution in one. “Avenge us, Captain.”
Steve turned his eyes back to Fury, who saw with shock that the man was crying, and then the hammer was raised into the air above the blond head. “Nicholas Fury, Director of SHIELD,” Steve intoned, thunder shaking the walls and vibrating through the floor. “You stand accused of betrayal and murder, and with your own tongue you have confirmed your guilt. Die as your victims did – in fire.”
Lightning came crashing down, blinding, deafening, and Nick Fury had time to scream exactly once. And then it was over, and ash was drifting across the marble floor as Steve lowered Mjolnir. The ghosts nodded acceptance and thanks, vanishing. “Justice is served,” Odin announced. He nodded to Steve. “Stefan Erskineson, you have acquitted yourself well and kept your honor intact. Guards, have the warriors of SHIELD who remain taken to the Bifrost that they may return home.”
“Behave yourselves,” Steve ordered as they left, making no move to follow. “Do not make me come down there.” He made a face as they scurried away, turning back to Odin. “I give them a year to forget and try it again, tops.”
“We will be vigilant,” Odin assured him. “With yourself and Heimdall guarding the Bifrost, no enemy will sneak into Asgard. And we will warn our allies of the treachery of Midgard, that they might not fall to treachery themselves.”
Steve swept him a bow. “With your leave, All-Father, I would return to my post.”
“You will return to your rooms, or the baths, or some other restful place,” Odin ordered. “Tomorrow you may return to your duties.”
Steve bowed again. “As you command, All-Father,” he agreed, and then turned and strode from the room.
Sleipnir, as always, was glad to see him. And in his cell far below the palace of Odin, Loki smiled to himself and dismissed the little viewing portal he’d conjured. He nodded to the two guards who had been watching with him. “He’s worthy of my daughter,” he said.
One of them raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Your daughter’s a horse, Prince Loki.”
Loki chuckled softly, shaking his head. “Only because she’s never wanted to be anything else. That may be about to change.”
And sure enough, not half an hour later, there was an explosion of power from the paddock behind the training field which rattled windows all along that side of the palace. Sitting on his throne inside the audience chamber, Odin started and would have jumped to his feet, but his wife’s hand on his arm stayed him. She smiled and shook her head. “It is nothing which should alarm you, my husband. But I think you may need to find a new horse.”
It took the All-Father a moment to gather her meaning…but once he had, he laughed.