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Skýli

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"Iceland?" The look on Tony's face was… well, it was pretty funny, like he couldn't decide whether to laugh or be offended at the absurdity. He kept looking back and forth between his tablet and Director Fury like there was some kind of practical joke hidden here, if only he could find it. "Just—Iceland? Really?"

"What about it?"

"Just doesn't seem like the kind of place to stage an invasion. I mean, it's Iceland."

"That's actually what has us most concerned," said Fury, as the others collected their gear. "Not that long ago we had a couple of aliens show up who were regarded by the ancient Vikings as gods. Now the old Viking stomping grounds are reporting seeing an entire village full of people, that did not exist two weeks ago, and I can't help but wonder if the two things are connected."

"You think Thor is setting up a vacation home?"

"Or a base. And not Thor. For all we know, the flash and drama over New York was a distraction, and this is the real invasion—already established while we weren't looking."

And Steve didn't say anything in response to that, but privately he had to admit it would be a much smarter strategy, if that were the case.

They all trooped onto the plane and settled in for takeoff; Fury wanted to brief them on the way, so Nat and Clint weren't piloting this time. Tony had put up a token fuss about not being allowed to just fly there in his armor, but had taken a seat the same as the rest of them. Maybe because it would be about a six-hour flight and the jet had its own bathroom and snacks.

Fury had tablets waiting for all of them once they were settled, loaded with the information they'd gathered so far. There was also a larger display for better detail on some of the images.

"That… doesn't look like an invasion," said Hawkeye. The satellite photos had shown a compound consisting of several buildings on the shore of Lake Alftavatn, which the report assured them translated to "Swan Lake". The lake was located near a pair of mostly-dormant volcanoes whose names Steve couldn't even hope to pronounce, one of which had apparently blown its top just a little bit before Steve had come out of the ice. And those were located just southwest of the biggest glacier on the island, which supposedly covered two more mostly-dormant volcanoes. The village, or whatever it was, was the kind of thing that should have taken months to build, yet Iceland's government—and Iceland's hikers, bikers, and tourists—were all insisting it had appeared virtually overnight. There had been a couple of cold, rainy days where travel in the area was way down, and when the weather cleared and people started passing through again, there was the compound.

Fury eyed his agent, appraising. "Explain."

Clint just shrugged, and gestured at the images. "Where are the vehicles? They got what looks like a couple of boats down on the lakeshore, but they're not big enough to be troop transports. I don't see any trucks or even like the Chitauri gliders, and nothing big enough to be a hangar or a garage for them either. How are they gonna invade if they don't have any movement?"

"They got here easily enough," Natasha pointed out.

Steve leaned in for a closer look. "The buildings aren't obviously fortified," he said. "Look, they don't even have a perimeter fence."

"Could be advanced tech," said Tony. "Force fields and flying cars. If they can just appear on our planet from nowhere, they can probably get where they need to be for an attack without too much difficulty. Protect their base, too."

"Advanced tech? Hmm, yeah. They'd just about have to have something like that, because strategically this base isn't positioned well at all. It's not close enough to roads for any kind of vehicular assault, there's no airstrip or landing pad, and if they were going for stealth, they're not succeeding. I mean, 'poof, instant village' is not very covert." Clint leaned back in his seat.

"Not to mention being on a major fault line, surrounded by volcanoes." Bruce looked up from his tablet, showing a map of the area with lots of little red dots and circles on it. "The place gets seismic activity to one degree or another almost daily," said Bruce. "I mean, granted, most of it's really low-level, but I wouldn't call the place stable by any stretch."

Hawkeye shook his head again. "I don't get it."

"Yeah, but are they attacking, though?" asked Natasha absently. She stroked her fingers across her own tablet, back to one of the intelligence reports. "From the sound of things they've already had first contact with some of the locals, and every account says they've been peaceful. Sheltered a couple of hikers, came into town for supplies."

"There's women and children," said Barton suddenly, and they all looked up at the flat tone of his voice. "They got kids on site."

Steve drummed his fingers on his knee for a second. "Our goal is just recon for now?" he asked the director.

"We need a better assessment of what they have, yes."

"Nat, Bruce, and I could pose as tourists whose car broke down a little ways up the road —"

She shook her head immediately. "Too easy to verify. Fix the car and send us on our way before we've learned anything."

"Hikers, maybe," suggested Steve. "One of us didn't take the climb too well and we need a break. Maybe first aid."

"That'd be me," said Bruce. "The two of you look… ridiculously fit and healthy, for that."

Nat grinned, as Steve had expected. "We dragged our poor, unsuspecting friend along on this trip, because he works too hard and needs to get out of the office more often. We didn't pay attention to his complaining and we pushed him too hard, and now we're very sorry."

"So, just another Tuesday," said Tony, and Bruce chuckled. "You've got me and Bird-Brain on perimeter duty, long-distance monitoring, all that good stuff?"

"That was the plan," said Steve.

Tony tipped his head back and forth, weighing the idea. "Good plan," he said finally.

"We're all very glad you approve," said the director. "Finish going through those packets and let me know if you come up with anything else. We've got another five hours before we hit Iceland airspace."

None of them really bothered to ask why Fury was on the flight with them; they all knew that if this were just a routine reconnaissance mission, most of the team would not be along, much less the director himself. Steve just hoped they wouldn't really be needed.


Upon landing the larger craft, the Avengers split up and converged on the village from three directions; Nat, piloting the quinjet, had brought Bruce and Steve up from the south, along the hiking trail marked on the map. They had already landed and were making decent time on foot. Clint and the director had been dropped off to approach by car, along the road to the west of the lake, and Tony was up high, ready to come in from the northeast if they needed him.

"I can see why this trek is so popular," remarked Bruce, panting a little as they topped a rise. "The views are incredible."

"You holding up okay?" asked Steve.

"Fine, fine. Most of the places I've been have been flat and tropical. This is a nice change of pace."

In their ears, their comm units came to life and Clint's voice came through. "We're in position; I can confirm the presence of children on site."

"Hostages?"

"If they are, they don't realize it," he said. "Bunch of 'em are kicking a ball around right now. Seems pretty calm."

It was only another twenty minutes or so before they came in sight of the village themselves; immediately Steve could see what had the locals so… bemused. There was simply no way that the buildings were only two weeks old, to look at them; and the overall shape of them was pretty clearly not the typical architecture for Iceland, and possibly not even for Earth. The shape of them tended toward smooth curves and domes, or clustered hexagonal towers, tall and thin.

"Correct me if I'm wrong," he said, "but isn't it considered unwise to build anything over a couple stories high in an earthquake zone?"

"No, you're right," said Tony over the comms, "unless they have some kind of earthquake-proofing that we don't know about. Although granted, like Bruce said, more than half the earthquakes around here aren't even detectable without specialized instruments, and the ones that people can actually feel are really minor. But still. Jarvis and I still can't figure out what material they used to even build this stuff."

Steve could see what he was getting at; the roofs looked metallic, their shine a bit redder than polished copper and a bit richer than gold, in the afternoon sun. The walls of the buildings were a golden cream color with… Steve almost wanted to call it embroidery, around the door and window frames—fine lines and curls of bright metal, inset into the walls and gleaming when the light hit them right.

The architecture wasn't the only thing alien about the place.

The kids were playing with a ball, as Clint described, but instead of kicking it around, the ball was floating over their heads, and they all were clustered around it and giggling as they took turns tapping it. The ball would change shape, opening out like a blossom, then it would close again, change color, shift shape, and then open once more. The thing was like nothing Steve had ever seen in his life, and he found himself smiling in amazement.

There were other people outdoors too, as the three of them approached, mostly women with baskets on their heads or bustling from one building to the next. Steve spotted a few men, who greeted the women respectfully.

"That's a good sign," Natasha remarked.

"How so?"

"Extremists tend toward hyper-masculine behavior, and subjugate the women and children as much as possible. A more egalitarian society tends to be more likely to be nonviolent."

"That's been my experience," put in Bruce. Steve decided to take their word for it, and not ask about Bruce's experience.

Another good sign: in the village, everyone was colorfully dressed and, more to the point, Steve couldn't identify anything that looked like a uniform, or military gear, or weapons among any of them.

"What's that sound?" asked Bruce. Somewhere in the cluster of buildings, it sounded like someone was hammering on metal.

"Blacksmith's forge," said Tony.

"Seriously?"

"Sounds exactly like it, Cap. Trust me on this."

Steve wouldn't really know what a smithy was supposed to sound like, but… "Shouldn't there be smoke?" he asked. "You know, from the chimney or whatever?" The air over the little village was perfectly clear, with only the faintest hint of sulfur, which Natasha had said likely came from the volcanoes or nearby hot springs.

"I just know what I hear," said Tony.

The three of them kept walking.

"So… do we just go in?" Bruce asked, a little helplessly.

"Stick to the plan," said Nat, "although we might be able to get away with skipping the injury part."

They put their binoculars away, trusting Clint and Tony to let them know if anything changed on their hike in. At maybe a half-mile out, only a few minutes later, they watched as one of the women called to the children and they all gathered around her, collecting their floating ball and going back to kicking it across the ground, which was black where the bright green-and-pink moss had worn away. The woman picked up one of the smaller children on her hip, and they all leisurely made their way inside, the kids chattering happily. There was no sense of urgency or alarm in their movement, but Steve still couldn't shake the feeling that they'd been made.

"What do you think?" he asked the others.

Natasha shrugged. "We've probably been spotted. Keeping kids away from strangers is just good sense, or there might be some kind of school that they need to get back to."

"Doesn't look very military," said Bruce, echoing Steve's thoughts from earlier.

"Best to stay cautious," she reminded them both, and from the look on her face she was making sure Steve got it too.

By the time they were maybe a block away from the nearest building, there was no longer any doubt that they'd been spotted. A pair of women, and one of the few men on site, had gathered and were watching their approach, waiting serenely with the women's hands tucked into their sleeves and the man hooking his thumbs into his belt. The man was big, nearly Thor's height, with a short scruff of beard and his hair pulled back, except for a pair of braids that framed his face, one hanging at each temple.

"Definitely getting that Viking vibe from him," muttered Bruce. Steve had to agree. At least the guy wasn't carrying a giant hammer or anything.

"Greetings, travelers," said one of the women, possibly younger than the other, with red-brown hair. "Do you require aid?"

"Oh good, you speak English!" Natasha put on her best hi-I'm-harmless smile and let out a tired, self-deprecating little huff. "Sorry, I know that makes us sound like the worst kind of tourists…"

"Think nothing of it," said the other woman, possibly older. It was… disconcertingly hard to tell, with these two. There was something almost unnerving about their stillness, to Steve's mind. They weren't staring, or unnaturally still, or doing anything else that Steve had gotten to see from the horror movies Tony insisted he watch. They just had this, this deep well of quiet inside them, like they were halfway into one of Bruce's meditations, even when they were standing right there and talking to you.

"Oh, thanks. Well, anyway, I don't know about aid, but if there's somewhere we could stop and rest our feet for a bit, that'd sure be great. And maybe something to eat, right, honey?" She turned and batted her eyelashes up at him. Oh. Apparently they were doing the boyfriend-girlfriend routine again.

"I could use a snack, sure." He shared a quick glance with Bruce. "You?"

"I, uh, I've been starving since breakfast," said Bruce. "I didn't want to say anything, but…"

"I am sure we can accommodate you," said the maybe-older woman. Her hair was the palest blond Steve had ever seen without it going straight over into white, and hung in a long braid down her shoulder and onto one breast. She had the faintest of laugh lines at the corners of her eyes, but Steve really could not for the life of him tell whether she was actually the older of the two or not.

The three villagers led the three Avengers into an unassuming, oval building with a low roof—still with the metallic roof and decorations set into the walls, but not quite as fancy as some of the others they'd noticed—and sat them down at a long, curved table that wrapped around a central fireplace. Given that it was Iceland, and seemingly perpetually windy, even the summer days had a bit of bite to them; Steve scooted closer and let the heat sink into his bones.

"This is nice, thank you," he said. Sure, they might be here to spy, but they could still be polite. And it was nice, especially when the big man with them passed around mugs of something hot. Natasha watched and waited until the guy took a drink from his own mug before sipping from her own. It was good; thick like cocoa, but flavored more like tea with a hint of nuts to it.

The redhead sat down next to them. "Will you invite your friends to join us?" she asked, casual as you please, and Natasha froze.

"We've been aware of you since your flying machine landed," said the blonde. "And really, it was a matter of time before your people came to us with your questions."

Well. At least they weren't trying to pretend they were just regular people. Steve wasn't quite sure how they would manage to cover up something like that, but he'd seen SHIELD try to spin some pretty weird stuff before.

"There are three," said the redhead. "Two in a wheeled vehicle, and one observing from the air. His armor is most ingenious." She and the blonde both poured themselves mugs of their own, while Steve and Natasha stared. Bruce mostly looked sheepish as she continued. "The devices you are wearing, in your ears; are they not for communication? Will you not ask them to join us?"

"We're a little concerned about your intentions," said Natasha, after a moment. "Strategically it would be safer to leave them outside, if things take a turn for the worse here, for us."

The man with them smirked, but still didn't speak.

"Were our intentions hostile," said the blonde one calmly, "you would know it. But perhaps it is a matter of custom: We permitted you to pass inside our boundary, and offered you hospitality. To violate hospitality is… there is no honor in such a thing."

"Besides, we have no more than a handful of people here with any sort of training as warriors. Our business here is only peaceful, and our intention, as you put it, is to be left alone."

Natasha tilted her head at them. "You'll forgive us for not taking that at face value," she said.

"Of course. But invite your companions to join us, and we will answer whatever questions you wish to ask."


It took a bit of argument, but eventually Clint, Fury, and Tony agreed to come in and join the talk. "I am called Ingirun," said the blonde one, once the rest of the Avengers were on site. "I lead this village, insofar as we have leadership here. We are generally more communal, but the council of aldermen recognize me as their chief."

"And I am called Herkja," said the redhead. "This is my husband, Ottar."

Ottar still didn't speak, but he nodded at them amiably enough and rested a hand on Herkja's shoulder.

"I am Nicholas Fury, director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division; we're an international organization dedicated to managing threats to this world that other groups cannot."

"And if the groups you encounter are not a threat to you, Nicholas Fury, what then?" asked Ingirun, her eyes narrowing.

"That's what we're here to find out," said the director. "By all accounts, your compound here—"

"Community," said Ingirun.

"—appeared out of literally nowhere. A collection of buildings that should have taken weeks or even months to build appeared in the span of a few days. Admittedly, we've dealt with a far more hostile incursion than what you appear to be, but it was recent enough that we think it wise to err on the side of caution, where your group is concerned."

"You wish to know where we are from and why we have come, then," said Ingirun.

"That's about the sum of it, yes."

"We are of Asgard, as I think you already suspected. And we are here because our king has proven himself to be a maddened tyrant, whom we no longer trust with our safety."

They all blinked at that. "Your king," said Bruce. "Just to be clear… Thor's father?"

Herkja sniffed disdainfully. "Indeed. And much is explained as regards the crown prince's behavior over the years, now that we know how cruel his father truly is."

The Avengers all shifted in their seats, taking that in. "I think we may need a bit of background information," said Natasha.

Ingirun nodded. "Of course."

"Before we get to that, though," said Fury, "let's be clear. Odin seemed to have no problem using Earth as a dumping ground for Thor when he misbehaved back home. And more recently Loki decided our world would be a perfect playground to go on a rampaging temper tantrum, endangering millions of innocent lives. Now you're here, and I have to wonder what it is about our planet that makes slumming it here sound like such a good idea."

"It is as we have said," said Herkja. "We chose to depart Asgard because our king has revealed that he does not care equally for the welfare of all his subjects. Many of us left, a far greater number than what you have seen here, and traveled across the realms seeking sanctuary where we might. Only a fraction of those who left chose to come to Midgard; the others are elsewhere, scattered throughout Yggdrasil. We desire only to be permitted to dwell here in peace, to raise our children without fear for their safety, and possibly, if conditions in Asgard change for the better, to be permitted to return without hindrance."

"And if we must offer something in trade for that," put in Ingirun, "then perhaps we might aid your realm in small matters from time to time. Our research before coming here showed that you are not as primitive as we were led to believe, but still there is the possibility that we have knowledge which could be useful to you."

Steve could practically see Stark's ears perk up, along with Bruce's and Fury's.

Natasha, thankfully, was able to keep her head. "What happened to cause you all to flee Asgard? And given that you thought we were primitive, and you had other… realms to choose from, why come here at all?"

Ingirun and Herkja traded a glance, before Ingirun spoke. "Our prince Loki was brought before Odin for sentencing for his crimes. Not for trial. Not to speak in his own defense, nor even to be examined for signs of mental instability or defect. Only to be sentenced. And the sentence…" She actually cut off and swallowed hard, blinking rapidly as she glanced away for a moment.

"His Highness is dying," said Herkja. "Slowly, in agony, and worst of all, unintentionally. All because Odin was too wrapped up in his own hubris and wounded pride to consider the difference between his two sons. He proved to us all that he never understood or even properly saw his younger son, and was willing to lash out in his blindness and subject him to a cruel fate—and in doing so he revealed himself to be a hypocrite of the first order, for he was ostensibly punishing Loki for that very thing."

"Loki is here." That was Clint, and Steve could see the way his face went pale, but it wasn't from fear. Hawkeye looked very much like he wanted to kill somebody, the sooner the better.

Ottar crossed his arms and looked menacingly down at them all. The two women did not look any less stubborn than he did.

"He is here," said Ingirun. "We brought him to Midgard in an attempt to save his life, and every single one of us—man, woman, and child—would die to defend him. Respectfully, we would ask that you not require us to prove it."


Surprisingly, it didn't take too much to convince Ingirun and Herkja to let them see Loki. From the looks they exchanged, Steve figured the others had either been expecting a fight or were now wondering if they weren't walking into a trap. Even so, when Fury and the others had drawn weapons, the only thing that the Aesir did was look indulgently amused: Ingirun had raised her eyebrows tolerantly, while Herkja had rolled her eyes and Ottar had merely smirked.

This was not exactly reassuring, and the Avengers had traded a few more looks back and forth because of it.

"I don't get why you all would defend him," said Steve carefully, as they walked down the central pathway in the village. It couldn't properly be called a road; it was unpaved, there were no ruts, and even the moss from the surrounding countryside was mostly undisturbed, brightening up the dark earth around them. "I mean, no offense, maybe you just… don't care much about us primitive humans, but from what Thor told us before he took Loki back, he usurped the throne and tried to kill a lot of people before Thor stopped him."

"Thor." Herkja's voice fairly dripped disgust. "The bloodthirsty idiot of the pair, who was already banished when all of that took place. He has no idea what truly happened. He will believe whatever Odin tells him, and not bother to look further for truth."

"Herkja, calm yourself," said Ingirun. "These humans have no way to know any of what we know, and can only trust what they have been told."

"I know that," the redhead responded, pressing her lips together as she took a deep breath. "I do know that. But I am very angry with him, nonetheless. He failed his brother as surely as their so-called father did; his ignorance was as great, even if his malice was not. For that matter, I am not best pleased with the woman they call mother, either."

"How much of this story is relevant for us to know?" asked Clint. His fist was clenched around his bow.

"We shall tell you all of it, once you have satisfied your curiosity as to the state of His Highness's health," said Herkja. She was still pretty miffed at them, or else feeling protective of Loki. Steve had to wonder what he had done to inspire that kind of loyalty… but then again, Thor had said more than once that he still did not entirely understand why his beloved brother had changed so drastically. So maybe Steve ought to wonder instead what sort of person Loki had been before he went off the deep end and started thinking that invading other worlds was a good idea.

They came to a cluster of hexagonal buildings, arranged in a tidy group about two-thirds of the way down the path. Ottar held the door for them, still looking amused at their drawn weapons, and they all stepped into an open lobby sort of space, with women—it seemed there were more women here than men, from what Steve could see—moving about busily and otherwise completely ignoring the humans in the room. Two or three were standing at displays, almost like Tony's flat screens except there didn't seem to be a screen at all, just light; they spoke quietly to one another and occasionally swept their fingers through the glow, watching it change and then commenting on it some more.

"I want one," said Tony. No surprise there.

"Focus, Stark," said Natasha drily, and Steve held back a smile.

Through one doorway, Steve could see what looked like a classroom, maybe; older students, again nearly all women, gathered around an instructor who moved her hands gracefully as she spoke. They didn't get to see much more than that, however, because Ingirun led them through a different doorway, down a short passage, and into another room entirely.

The sound from the lobby area cut off completely; it was nearly as silent as a church here. Ingirun turned to them and spoke in hushed tones:

"You may enter and observe, so long as you keep your voices down. I will have no difficulty ejecting you forcibly if need be; I trust that will not be necessary."

"We are armed," muttered Clint in the back.

"Your weapons are of no import to me," said Ingirun. From the look on Clint's face, he hadn't expected to be overheard. "Nor to anyone else here, I would expect."

Armed or not, they stepped through a curtained alcove, and there was Loki.

The afternoon sunlight filtered through a high window, slanting across the bed where he lay. The bed itself was long and narrow, curved along the sides and raised at either end like a boat, with what looked like some kind of instrument panels along the frame and at the head and foot. A glimmering gold dome of energy encased the entire frame, making Steve think of Snow White in the glass coffin.

Loki himself didn't really detract from that impression. He lay utterly still, the blankets pulled up to his chest and his hands folded across his stomach. He was dressed in a robe of thick, quilted fabric in white or cream—it was hard to tell through the dome—that wrapped around his torso like a bathrobe. There was gold embroidery at the cuffs of the wide sleeves and along the hem, disappearing beneath the blanket.

Steve had to look closely to be certain he was even breathing.

There was another woman sitting at his side who looked up, wide-eyed, as they all trooped in. She started to rise, but Ingirun waved her down.

"The mortals have come, as we knew they would," she said quietly. "How fares the prince?"

"His session for the day is nearly finished," said the other. Her robe was similar to Loki's, but a rich brown; the gold embroidery on it was accented in pale blue and green, and it had a high collar. Her brown hair was braided and wrapped around her head like a crown. "He seemed to tolerate it a little better, but the change is barely noticeable."

"May we wait while you end it?" asked Ingirun.

The woman—Loki's doctor, maybe?—looked them all over. She, too, seemed to take in their weapons and dismiss them utterly. "If you feel you must," she said after a moment.

"The mortals only know that Loki did great harm upon this world; they wish to satisfy their curiosity that he has been truly punished by the All-Father for his crimes."

At this, the doctor scowled. "Then they do not know enough, and in addition come only to entertain themselves with the prince's suffering."

"I am aware," said Ingirun. "And once they have looked upon His Highness, we shall remove to the gathering hall and make certain they understand the entirety of the tale."

"You're wrong about us," said Bruce. "We're not… whatever you might have heard about humans in general, we're not that sadistic. We came to see how a village could appear out of nowhere, and why, and now that we know Loki is here, we just need to be sure he isn't leading another invasion to hurt our people."

The woman eyed him suspiciously for a long moment before nodding. "Very well," she said. "Give me…" she took a quick look at something on the bed frame, "…two minutes and twenty seconds, and then you may look your fill."

"Can I ask what this 'session' is that you're talking about?" Bruce asked.

"This is a healing stasis bed," said the doctor. "The patient is placed in a trance and healing energies are directed through the body. A badly injured warrior, or someone who has been poisoned—truly, any person near death—may reside in a stasis bed, sometimes for months at a time. Unfortunately, because of the nature of His Highness's injuries, he can only tolerate the energy flow for perhaps an hour at a time before it becomes painful rather than soothing, and begins to damage the very structures it is meant to heal."

She leaned forward, and brushed her fingertips across different areas of the bed, along the side and up over Loki's head. "He will not wake. He has not woken since his punishment was inflicted upon him. You will not be able to interrogate him, or whatever other nonsense you wished to achieve here. But he will come out of the trance and you will see what he must endure, without respite—indeed, what he has endured for several months now, thanks to the All-Father's cruelty. I hope you will be satisfied."

The doctor paused and closed her eyes, taking a few deep breaths in and out. Once she was calm, she touched another control, and the gold field over Loki's body flickered and vanished.

Nothing happened at first; then Loki's mouth opened and his head tilted back, and they heard him take a weak, wheezing inhale, visibly struggling for what breath he could get. His fingers twitched on the blanket, his brow furrowed, and he rolled his head slightly to the side. On the exhale, he made a soft, pained little noise.

It was a long time before the next inhale.

With the field gone, they could get a better look at Loki's face, as well; the gold light of the energy had lent him color that he didn't really have. His face was gaunt, his eyes sunken. His mouth hung open so that they could see the edges of his teeth, against lips with only the faintest blue color to them. Steve, remembering his days of pneumonia and asthma and all the rest, checked Loki's fingers again and saw that the nail beds and fingertips had the same blueish-purple tinge.

The doctor did something with her hands, not touching any of the bed controls, and Steve felt the hair on his arms stand up. She stroked Loki's face, and another field, greenish orange this time, wrapped around Loki's mouth and nose like a mask. They heard him inhale again, still too slow and weak and rasping, and again the expression of pain even in his sleep as he exhaled, but as Steve watched the color in his fingernails improved with every breath.

The doctor looked up from her work, and oh boy did Steve recognize that expression. That was the step-away-from-my-patient-before-I-deck-you face. Sure enough, the next words out of her mouth were only, "You have seen all there is to see, mortals. You are done here. Now get out."