Thor doesn't mind that Steve doesn't believe in him. Most people nowadays don't. The Aesir never noticed very much; whether they were believed in or not, paid obeisance to and sacrified to or not, was never the point.
Loki has a theory, something he told Thor once, that the gods were just really creations of mankind. "They created us because they needed us," he said, and then it was, "They created us because they wanted us." It kept Loki up nights when he was younger, wondering if he was just something made of the hopes and fears of the humans, if he could change or blink out of existence without ever knowing. Thor thinks that perhaps this strange childhood fear was behind his desire to rule the Earth. The need for attention, for love, for existing.
Thor never worried about that sort of thing. For one thing, even if it was true, what could you do about it? For another thing, he simply didn't think it was true. Loki may not have known where he came from, but Thor knew; he came from Odin and Frigg, all-father and earth-mother, and he was shaped out of cloud and thunder, lightning and oak, wind and rain. These were all things that would never go away.
But he is curious about Steve's god, and so he engages him in spirited conversation one day, over a cup of the Midgard drink called coffee.
Steve tells him a tale of a gentle, kind god who was murdered by a liar who he thought loved him, and who will rise again one day when the world begins its twilight.
"He reminds me of my brother Baldir," Thor says, and Steve laughs nervously.
"I'm sure they're not really the same," he says. "Anyway, most people don't really believe in the end-of-the world stuff anymore. Or they don't tell anyone that they do."
"Whereas Ragnarok is a foregone conclusion," Thor attests. "I have been through it many times, although I do not remember it, and I will go through it many more times."
This seems to upset Steve, and he starts telling Thor about a people called the Jews, who seem to be a race of scholars and merchants, and who believe only in the father of Steve's god, and not the son. "I got in a fight over that, once," he says. "I was a little kid, and I was pretty stupid--I socked this kid for saying Jesus didn't exist. My mom told me that that was wrong, that nobody could help what they believed in, and it wasn't right to blame them for it." He looks off into the distance. "I felt even worse about that years later," he says vaguely, and then looks down at his coffeecup.
"I miss my mom," he says. He stirs his coffee, and Thor waits for him to speak. He has much more to say about the twilight of the gods, stories to tell of Odin's glory and Frigg's beauty, but he has all the time in the world to tell those stories. Steve only has decades. "I was Protestant--well, you wouldn't know what that means. But after she died, I'd go to this Catholic church around the corner and pray to Mary, even though in my type of Christianity, you're not supposed to. She was the mother of Jesus," he explains, "but she was a--a mortal. Just a normal woman who had something really special happen to her."
This reminds Thor of Zeus and his fondness for mortal women. He fathered many demigods on unsuspecting mortals (some suspecting). The Olympians are one of the few other pantheons the Aesir are friendly with. Thor remembers a century-long party on Mount Olympus, of the drinking contest with Dionysius that left him with the first and last hangover he would ever have, of Loki and Eris having a prank war that ended in the sinking of a rather pretty continent, of flirting with a short-haired young woman with a bow and nearly having his intimate parts cut off for his impudence.
"She reminded me of my mom," Steve said. "She was so loving. She wasn't judgmental. Not like the Father. I felt like I could tell her anything, and she wouldn't care. See..." He drains his cup. "That's the thing about being a Christian. It's important to act like Christ would, to be good to other people and not judge them. And I guess that's his mom." He chuckles a little. "But his dad isn't really the nicest guy. The Jews have all this stuff they have to do--they can't even eat ham. Not ever. You can, if you're a Christian--it's complicated--but there are still things you can't do. Even if they don't hurt anybody. You just can't."
Steve drains his cup of coffee, and the look in his eyes tells Thor that he's not seeing what's in front of him anymore, at least for a moment.
"Where does this Father live?" Thor asks at last.
"Oh." Steve returns to earth. "Well...that's the tricky part. See, he's nowhere...and all around us...and kind of up in heaven..." He gestures vaguely to the ceiling, and looks up. Then he looks back at his coffee, as though God were to be found at the bottom of his cup, and laughs uncomfortably again. "It sounds kind of silly when I've got the, um, the 'God of Thunder' sitting across from me. Eating pastries."
Later, Thor pays a visit to Tony's workshop. Tony was afraid when he first asked to see it, he knows. Thunder is not known for its subtlety, and Thor is not known for his delicacy, and Tony was afraid that he would run amok and break the delicate things. As it is, he became impatient when he had to explain things to Thor--first the intricacies of the metal gauntlet he was working on, then the concept of computers, and then the concept of electricity himself.
It's not that Thor doesn't understand what Tony is doing. It's simply that the words are unfamiliar, the way Tony sees things--he puts names and numbers to elemental forces Thor knows no words for, only knows in his bones. But when he learns the words, suddenly he understands, and he realizes that Tony is very clever. He catches lightning and puts it to work, creates it from lodestones and copper wires, and he makes it think.
As Thor enters, Tony is staring at a complicated metal skeleton of an arm. He drops it, and it moves, and Tony jerks his head back as though he is surprised. "That shouldn't have worked," he says. "How do you do that? I mean, I know I'm a genius, but I can't do magic. The resistors weren't even connected yet. And you come in and this thing just goes all Skynet on me." He picks up the arm and stares at it. "Do you think it's possessed? Can we exorcise a robot?"
Thor shrugs. "It's made well, Shaper of Metal," he says, and he touches Mjolnir. The other Avengers don't seem to realize, or don't seem to care, that his hammer is not only an instrument of war. Mjolnir shapes, it builds, it calls. Sometimes it does seem as though it has a mind of its own.
"Deus Mechanicus," Tony says, and he pats the arm. "So, Thunderblast, what's up? Are giant centipedes eating holes in reality again? Because I don't want to do that, if that's happening. That was weird. It was kind of like the time I tried 'shrooms. I don't want to fight a living bad trip."
Thor didn't like the centipedes either. "There is no battle today," he says. "The Captain and I had a most interesting conversation, and I would that you'd shed some light on it."
"Shoot," Tony says. He straddles a chair and props his chin on his crossed hands, waiting.
Thor fiddles with Mjolnir, wondering how to word the question. He has never been good with words, or delicacy, and the way Steve spoke about his gods, it was as though he didn't really want to talk of those things. "What are your gods?" he asks. "The gods of the people of this city, of the land."
Tony sits up straight. "Did Clint loan you 'American Gods'?" he asks, sounding only slightly concerned. "Because that's a good book, good read, Gaiman is a great guy, love his hair, but that would really, really not be a good book for you to read."
Thor shakes his head, but he makes a mental note to ask Clint for the book later. "I was talking with Steve," he says. "His god is everywhere and nowhere at once, and his son died thousands of years ago in a far-off land. His mother seems nice," he adds, "but they seem like they don't belong to this land at all."
"Oh." Tony thinks about this. "Well, the relationship between America and Christianity is, um. It's complicated. Protestant work ethic, Westboro Baptist Church, everything in between. But if you want to know who the real gods of this land are?"
He shows Thor pictures on his StarkPhone, one of a dark-haired man in a white, bejeweled suit, and one of four men walking across a street in single file. "Elvis Presley," Tony says, "the once and future king of rock 'n' roll. And the Beatles. They were bigger than Jesus." He presses a button, and music begins to play.
They listen to the music for a while. It's discordant, but somehow beautiful. The singer speaks of love, of knowing, of surrenduring to a shining void, of the color of dreams.
"Not exactly my thing, personally, but if you want to look for what people worship, it begins here." Tony shuts off the music. "I was always more of a Stones guy. Sympathy for the Devil, that's me all over."
Thor nods. "Steve spoke briefly of the devil."
Tony snorts. "Yeah. It's kind of a made-up thing to scare people into behaving, if you ask me."
"It's tragic," Thor says firmly. "The best beloved of the Father, cast to Earth for defiance, doomed to torment those who the Father loved more than him." He finds that he is tearing up, and wipes his eyes. "It seems that these stories are all familiar, in some ways. The details are different, but the patterns are the same."
Tony sticks his hands in his pockets and leans against his workbench. "Yeah, well. Some people think that's because they're all just made up. Stories people had before they had science to explain why the lightning struck--I mean, shit, I don't know, why the sun rose. And stuff. And people have the same things happen to them wherever they are, so they tell the same kinds of stories all over."
"And do you believe in these stories?" Thor asks softly. "You, who know so much of how the world truly works? You, who can bend my lightning to your will?"
"I believe that other people believe," Tony says. "I really don't know any more than that."
The actual designated center of the contiguous United States is in Lebanon, Kansas. I changed it to Smallville because COMICS.
The summer lay heavy upon the city of New York. Thor had looked forward to the sea breezes cooling the island, but the concrete and steel of the city killed the wind nearly as soon as it reached the shore, and the city lay simmering in the heat that rose in waves from the sidewalk. The Avengers mansion was shut tight against the humidity, the central air turned on as high as it would go, but even in the artificial climate, the temptation to lie still and suffer overrode any sense of urgency or boredom.
But New York did not know the worst of it.
Thor joined Steve one morning to watch the Weather Channel, which held peculiar interest for him. The Captain was watching as pictures of blighted ground and burning suns scrolled across the screen.
"The drought in the Midwest," Steve explained, as Thor poured himself a cup of hot, black coffee. The ever-present coffeepot had not been entirely replaced by the huge jug of iced tea which sat in the refrigerator, but Thor had noticed that there was far more coffee for him in the mornings now. "It's been horrible for the farmers ever since that heat wave in March. Then the frost set in, and now..." He gulped down a spoonful of oatmeal and stared gloomily at the TV screen.
Thor bit into a Pop-Tart. They were not as delightful when cold; he relished the sting of the hot jam on the roof of his mouth. "A tragedy for the men of the field," Thor agreed.
"I tried to get Tony to seed the clouds over in the Midwest," Steve said, "but there aren't even any clouds to seed." He sighed gloomily. "I know it's just weather patterns, but it's a problem, and nobody can really do anything about it. I can defend America against alien invaders, mad scientists, Nazis, sure...but I can't defend it against the forces of nature."
Thor licked the Pop-Tart crumbs from his fingers and then poured the last of the coffee into his mouth. "But there are those who can," he said. "Captain Steve Rogers, I will show you something great this day."
They pored over maps on the Google. Thor got Steve to show him the center of the affected area, and then the center of America. "When I was a kid," Steve said casually, "you'd have to do a lot of work with a ruler and a map and a pin to figure this out." He made the map on the screen move around in a circle, centering around the place they'd marked with the mouse. "Now all you do is type it in. Smallville, Kansas," he read from the screen. "There's even a picture. Look." Steve double-clicked, and they looked at the picture on the screen. It looked like a neatly arranged pile of rocks in a cornfield.
"Let us go, then," Thor said. "If we hurry, we can be back before lunchtime. The lady Natasha has promised to make gazpacho. It sounds refreshing."
Steve winced. "Cold tomato soup doesn't sound like my idea of a good meal," he said.
Thor could fly at the speed of lightning if he wishes to, but it would be too much work now to summon it. Instead, he summons the thunder from atop the spire of Stark Tower, Mjolnir held high.
Steve stood beside him in uniform, one hand clutching his shield, one hand around the tree-trunk waist of Thor, as Thor had specified. "Thor, what are you doing?" The Captain's blue eyes, honest and wide behind his mask, glanced up at the sky. Thor smiled. Where there had previously been the sickly blue-white of a drought sky, there was now a spiral of mare's-tail clouds. Thor did not need the storm to travel, but traveling was easier when backed by something substantial.
Thor began to whirl Mjolnir around, slow at first, but then faster and faster. "Flying," he cried triumphantly, and then the thunder hit with a bone-rattling slam, and they were aloft.
From far enough in the sky, the people disappear, and the only thing visible is the curves of the land--the rilling mountains and hills, the glistening rivers, the rich loam of the fields carved into colored squares by the men who work it. The terrain seems kind, gentle. It is not at all like the lands Thor is used to, the craggy mountains, the forbidding fjords, the austere plains of ice. Scandinavia is old and it is unkind to the weak, impatient and intolerant of those who would seek to shape it.
"She's so beautiful," Steve murmured. His eyes were fixed on the terrain rushing past them, the far curve of the horizon beyond. He clung to Thor comfortably, never seeming to fear that the god would let him slip. Thor wondered what it was Steve was seeing--welcoming, unchallenging curves of the land, or something far greater?
At last, they reached the place Steve had said was the heart of America--a patch of grass just outside of a stubbled cornfield in Smallville, Kansas, with a rock cairn with a flagpole stuck in it and a small plaque bolted on. Thor landed beside the cairn and allowed Steve to slip off his shoulder.
Thor had been to worlds shaped like discs, where the outer edge dropped off beneath your feet if you weren't careful, where the spinning of the world at the center meant that a day could go by in a second. Those were worlds you could feel, could chart your position by the way your stomach lurched in time with the stars. He doubted very much that this cornfield was the center of anything.
Steve seemed to feel different. He'd put his cowl on, facing the cornfields as its Captain, but he still seemed overwhelmed, staring at the sky and then the horizon with awe. Thor, struck by a sudden thought, turned to him and asked, "Can you feel it?"
"Feel what?" Steve asked cautiously.
"Something I cannot," Thor said.
Steve shrugged. "Maybe." He regarded the sky, almost white at the edges, fading into a painfully bright blue. "It's funny, they call this the Heartland, but I never liked being out here much. I'm used to tall buildings, skyscrapers, a lot of people...in New York, you always know where you are. Here, you really don't. You could be anywhere. It all looks the same."
Thor took one more look around, then walked to the edge of the cornfield and placed his hands on the ground. The earth was dry and crumbly under his fingers, but he could tell that it had once been rich, dark loam, the moisture sucked out of it by the cruel eyes of the sun.
The dry skin of a woman, lain out in the sun for too long, cracked and sore and gasping. It hurts her to be touched, but she welcomes Thor's hands anyway, the promise of relief. Deep beneath her skin, he can hear her great heart, beating slowly.
Thor stood up, brushed his hands on his trousers, and turned to Steve. "Come here. Touch her."
Steve blinked in confusion, but he walked forward anyway, kneeling at the edge of the cornfield as Thor had. He peeled off one glove and placed one hand on the bare earth gingerly. Before he could bring his hand up, Thor placed his own over Steve's, pressing his hand into the earth.
Kneel like you kneeled in front of your Queen of Heaven, her veil the noon sky and her crown the stars. This is a Queen of Earth, and she is bare for you, wanting you. Feel her skin, her heart.
Steve yanked his hand away, blushing, and stood up. "You'd better do what you came here to do," he said to Thor. "Let me know how I can help."
"She is your land," Thor said, "and you should be the one to know more of her." He hefted Mjolnir in his hand and pointed to the cairn. "Climb up on that, and tell me what you see, what you smell."
Steve sighed and climbed up onto the cairn. The sides were steep but the stones rough, and soon he was on top of the cairn, balancing carefully on the flagpole. He sniffed. "It smells like baking bread," he said. "And cowshit." He licked his index finger and held it up to the air. "Practically no breeze. I think it's coming from the southwest, but it's hard to tell."
He peered into the distance, trying to see anything but endless, dull waves of amber grain. The cairn was nearly as tall as the Norse god himself, but the land was flat, and the land was accomodating--
This is the heart of the continent and the belly and the womb all at the same time, and she arches her back for them, letting them see her in all of her glory. Here are miles of grain, and of flat rustling dark leaves, and the wet darkness between her legs, where life is born. Here are the flat deserts where life teems and the sun loves the earth. Here are the forests that cover her, and here are the green hills, her breasts, round and sensual. Here are mountains, forbidding and beautiful, hostile and proud. Here are the great sparkling rivers that span her body, muddy water flowing through the troughs like blood through her veins. She has been clothed in stone and wood, in metal and rust, in skyscrapers and farmhouses, but she is still so naked.
"I can see everything," Steve said, his voice far away. He reached out, as if to touch the air, the land that lay before him.
"Then stay," Thor said, "and witness the true might of a god."
Thor planted his feet firmly in the land, Mjolnir held upright above his head. He began to swing it clockwise around his head, slow and lazy at first, but then faster and faster, the gleaming shaft elongating on each swing. Above their heads, clouds began to form. They were only faint white spots in the sky at first, but they began to grow as he swung, the water collecting and finding itself.
His center is here at the center of America, with Steve, but his true body, his true form, is so much larger. He rides on the wind, seeking out every place that is dry, every place gasping for cool water. The drought is hundreds of miles wide. He seeks out the perimeter, the place where the flat lands turn into mountains, turn into swamps, turn into the sea. He strews seedlings of clouds there, gleaming crystals impossible to see with the naked eye.
The clouds above their heads began to grow, mare's tails of vapor streaking off like the arms of a spiral galaxy. Thor was aware of Steve clinging to the flagpole, his mouth open in amazement.
He is the wind now, rushing through the stalks of corn, blowing gently over the earth. He can feel every inch of her body, and she is open to him. She is used to this, used to wind that blows fierce, to clouds that span miles. Her body is gentle, yes, but her weather is as fierce, her temper strong and deadly. Her tornadoes kill with deadly accuracy, her blizzards freeze so hard that they burn. The floods of her rivers sweep over the land for miles. When she sulks, her stifled tears are oppressive, sap the will from everything living. When she shakes in anger, she splits herself open down to the quick.
The sky was darker now, the clouds round and huge, swelled with their burden of water. Lightning sparked in their depths, gathering like the water, the energy jumping from cloud to cloud. They stood in the center of the storm, a blanket of spinning clouds hundreds of miles wide.
She wants it bad, needs it. Her skin is electrified, the leaves and grass standing on end, energy crackling up and down her spine. The turning clouds excite her, the God of the Storm crackling with lightning, wetness, wind. He touches her everywhere, soothing her, cooling her, even as the energy pools inside of him, begging for release.
It was time, the clouds too heavy to soar, the lightning too great to rein in. Even Thor's normal voice could not have been heard over the howling of the wind, and so he let it carry to Steve, a breeze wrapping around his body, whispering to him. "It is time. Do not be afraid. I swear that whatever happens, you will not be hurt."
It happened so slowly. The clouds above Steve glowed, and Thor could feel the flagpole under his friend's fingers start to hum, start to tingle. The storm was turning by itself now, Mjolnir unnecessary, and the hammer returned to its true weight. It was part of him, as the flagpole was part of him, as the wind and the clouds were part of him.
And Thor raised Mjolnir above his head, and with a roar he smote the ground--
And with a clap of thunder the lightning drove itself into the earth--
And the God of the Storm drove himself into the core of the Goddess Columbia, unleashing his orgasm as she cried in bliss--
The rain pattered down upon the ground. At first it was light droplets, raising puffs of dust from the baked surface of the plain. And then it became a shower, and then it came down hard, wet, bountiful.
Thor sat heavily beside the cairn, his energy expended. Steve dropped down beside him and sat as well, holding his shield over his head. They did not speak for a time, simply watching the rain kiss the land, feeling the land settle and rest beneath them.
Steve was the first one to speak. "I felt the lightning strike. It didn't hurt at all."
"How did it feel?" Thor asked.
"Amazing," Steve said simply. "I think I didn't exist for a second. I forgot who I was."
They came home on an arc of lightning that leapt from cloud to cloud, depositing them on the roof of Stark Tower. The clouds over New York were lighter than the clouds in the Heartland, giving forth a desultory drizzle that slicked the streets and cooled the panting, gasping crowds of the city.
The Weather Channel was still playing on the little TV in the kitchen. The anchor was talking about a mysterious hurricane that had appeared in the Midwest. It had caused minor wind damage and a few small fires from lightning strikes, but no reported casualties. Steve switched it off.
"I want to show you something," he said.
They sat on his bed while he flipped through a sketchbook. "Here," he said, and showed the drawing to Thor.
It was of a woman with dark skin and high cheekbones, dark eyes and a loving smile. Her hair was jet black and straight at the roots, but curled in places. The ends of her hair were leaves and strands of wheat, falling over her shoulders. She wore a dress that exposed one craggy, mountainous breast, her other bosom covered by grass. Her waist was belted by a river, and Steve had carefully drawn trees on her skirt, the hems scalloped bays and swamps.
"I drew that the day they gave me the serum," he said. "While I was in that contraption, I think I blacked out for a second. I had a dream about her."
"What did she do?" Thor asked.
"She was just there," Steve said. "She put her hand on me and blessed my body. She told me to go in service of her and she would watch over me." He looked down at the sketchbook in his lap. "I thought it was a dream, or a hallucination," he said. "A nice one. But then...sometimes it was like she was there. I never saw her again, not like she was, but it was like she was all around me, and I knew she was there. I don't know how I knew it, but I knew."
He closed the sketchbook. "I looked her up. I guess they called her Columbia. I thought she was just a symbol, like Uncle Sam. I never thought she'd be real."
"She is," Thor said, "as I am. As you are."
Steve laughed. "Yeah, but I'm not someone something made up to represent something. I'm..." He looked down at himself, seemed to consider his body. "Maybe I am."
"Maybe," Thor said softly. "Maybe we all are." He put his hand on Steve's body, and this time there was no lightning and no rain, no corn and no earth, only skin against skin.