LI

Roseanne left them alone. The man's library was small, but clearly well-used. The spines of books cracked from repeated readings, the corners of their covers worn. Richard smiled at Lukas. "Back for more, eh?"

He nodded, fractionally. Perhaps he had been too hasty. But Richard only hums, fetching tomes from his shelves.

Lukas had little else to do, besides tend his growing garden. Roseanne's own collection was limited to melodramatic romance novels, which he had rather enjoyed - he had edited the endings with a few whispered words of seidr, that the heroine might lose herself in a torrid romance with the castle's groundskeeper, rather than beautiful, arrogant prince. Or, he'd switched the roles entirely, so that the lonely, neurotic and obsessive yet successful young man might fall for the cocky, overtly sensual and obnoxious older woman. Midgardian literature reflected its culture, as all forms of art are wont to do. It amused him to warp the stories so thoroughly.

The slick magazines, on the other hand, were mostly plastered over with images of mortals he did not recognize nor care to. He had grown heartily sick of the searing bright colors and bolded, nonsensical titles. Fifty Stylish Ways to Catch His Eye! Why Doesn't He Notice When You're Upset? What Does He Mean When He Says 'K'? Lukas was of the opinion that this monolithic 'He' was decidedly dim-witted and unobservant. The magazines were beginning to meet mysterious and destructive ends, by an unattended fire and an accidental soaking. And so Roseanne had called upon her neighbor, Richard, to ply him with texts that were altogether thicker, more dense, and comprised of more than just gleaming bodies.

He had accepted gratefully. Even written down his thoughts, the impulse taking him by surprise. Reams of pages, runes inked in black. Roseanne had caught him at it. Rather than explain the symbols, he'd told her he made his notes in a simple code that only he could read.

She had asked him to translate. He had done so, on a whim, sure that when she looked over the first page or two she would set them back down. Say something bland and pleasant, How interesting, Loki. And never mention them again.

Instead, she had asked, "Can I show these to someone?"

Richard gestured him forward, into a sagging leather chair stuffed between shelves in the corner. "Roseanne showed me a little piece of what you did," he said. His face was creased with easy lines, a calm sort of joviality. Brown skin weathered like the covers of his books. "I wanted your permission to read through the rest."

He could not fathom their interest in his distracted musing, but he gave Richard a spare nod. Released the pages into his keeping, sat back on the chair to rifle through a stack of volumes about something called the Bolshevik Revolution.

Richard read his manuscript over quickly. He glanced up at Lukas, looked back to the papers in his hand, then back to Lukas again. Lukas shifted underneath his stare, letting his book thump shut.

"Perhaps my assertions are too bold—" he began, but Richard cut him off.

"You read the books I gave you in three days," he said. "All of them. And then you wrote this."

Lukas nodded uncertainly.

"And you've never studied history before," Richard confirmed.

Lukas shook his head. "A casual interest, at best." He was startled when Richard burst out laughing, a booming sound full of raucous joy that had Lukas's heart clenching with a misplaced sense of familiarity.

"Boy, you gotta be one of the smartest fellas I ever had the pleasure to meet," Richard said when his fit of humor died down.

Lukas blinked. "You agree with my conclusions?" he asked slowly.

"Agree? Damn right I agree! Hell, I'm gonna send this to a colleague at my old university for him to read over and see if we can't get this submitted to a journal." He smiled at Lukas's expression. "Your reasoning is extremely unusual. The way you piece together a clear picture from the artifacts left behind. I'm not sure anyone else in the field has quite the same take as you."

He fidgeted, unsure at the thought of others reading his manuscript. Richard and Roseanne were only two, and known to him. He'd never been keen to show his work publically - Before. Few would have understood and even fewer would have appreciated it. "I merely wrote it for my own indulgence," he protested.

Richard wagged a finger at him. "Now don't sell yourself short, son. This here deserves to be read."

Though the idea was foreign, it stirred a warm feeling in his chest.

When he and Roseanne left, she had to be enlisted to help carry the pile of books Richard had bequeathed.

He cracked the covers that night, nestled in the blankets of his bed, and found something jarring. Unexpected.

Histories that spoke of Asgard, Vanaheim. Of Odin and Frigg and Freyr. In these books they were gods, and so took on the sheen of the unreal, with opaque motives, mysterious knowledge. The dead gods of a way of life long since past, gods of reavers and farmers from a harsh outcropping of rock, who spread throughout the continent with a prayer to the All-Father on their lips.

It was easier, to think of them this way. Objects of worship, of devotion. He could finally conjure them in his mind, a facet of his past, without wanting to rend the skin from his face with his nails. He no longer had to fracture his mind in two. Blot them from every memory.

His pen fell to paper, a torrent rushing through.

Richard gladly accepted every page. He liked to talk them over with Lukas, sitting in his cramped study, steaming cups of tea at their elbow. "I was a professor, you know," he explained. "At Yale, before I retired. A history professor. Now I'm just a silly old man, who still dabbles for fun."

The old man sips from his cup, fingers crawling across the words on the page. "You know, it looks like you've found your wheelhouse, with this. It seems like you just get these people, this place. These gods."

They had been his gods, once. He had held them in reverence, lights in the dark. As precious as starlight, and just as distant, as unreachable.

Lukas wrote down everything he knew. Worship and heresy both. Things he had never spoken aloud when he had been among their pantheon. Only now, after he has fallen from that great height can he paint their figures upon a paper canvas. Two dimensional beings. This way, he can bear to look upon them.

The sun was sinking outside the wooden frame of the window when Lukas and Richard spoke of honor. There was a burial uncovered in the far northern reaches of Europe. A warrior's burial. Richard shook his head, blowing ripples in the surface of his tea.

"I'm no expert on Scandinavian culture, my focus was more recent, post industrial. So what I'm having trouble understanding is the motivation - why would these men take their own lives? They're warriors, that's obvious. They've got a catalogue of old injuries and breaks that illustrate a tough life. If they survived all that, why would they just decide to die?"

Lukas peered out the window, thinking of the stiff honor of those sworn to the path of the warrior. Unbending, even facing their own demise.

"A mark of their shame, perhaps," he mused.

"Shame?"

"If they committed a dishonorable act… or failed their liege, their sworn king or lord, they could have chosen to ameliorate their mistakes, to cleanse themselves through death. A chance to enter the golden hall of kings."

"But how would that fix their mistakes? They'd just be dead."

Lukas tapped his chin, wondering how to explain the deeply rooted sense of honor – an honor he had always observed but rarely felt. The mortal was no warrior; he was a scholar. Richard could follow a clear, delineated path of logic, but the vows of a warrior followed a path that twisted and turned upon minor distinctions he himself had trouble picking apart.

"Shame is a debt," he began.

Richard's brow furrowed. "A debt owed to who?"

"To whomever they pledged their sword and service. To whom they owe their lives and loyalty to." Lukas found himself gesturing vaguely in the air as he tried to find the words, and clasped his hands behind his back instead. "By their own dishonor, they have dishonored their king. They must make amends as they can. To require themselves to sacrifice their very lives, the shame must have been acute. A terrible act committed, or a terrible failure observed."

Lukas shook his head minutely. "They dishonored their liege so greatly that the very act of still drawing breath shamed him, and so they ceased."

Richard blinked at him. When he did not move or speak, only continued blinking, Lukas became concerned. "Are you discomfited by the custom?" he hazarded a guess.

"Well, yes – of course. But I suppose I sort of see what you mean. It's just – you seem to have an impressive grasp on the intricacies of patriarchal warrior culture and their internalized standards of honor." Richard cocked his head to the side.

Lukas's heart stuttered a moment in his chest. This was not common knowledge. He had made himself a curiosity, and curiosities drew unwanted attention. He drew back a step.

But Richard only smiled warmly. "You must have done quite a lot of reading up. This is fascinating. Can you tell me more?"

"You – wish to hear my thoughts on such matters?" Lukas asked, shocked. His amateur treatises had been one thing. Richard said he liked the way Lukas was able to contextualize objects and their cultural function. But this… that the mortal was interested in something Lukas had often struggled with, at times detested and despised, something he had long pondered in an attempt to fit himself into the framework and had never quite succeeded at, was baffling. What was more baffling was that he clearly agreed with Lukas.

"Course! I myself have trouble with the concept. It's so short-sighted to me," Richard admitted. "I mean, what good does it do to go and end things when you can do more to actually make up for your mistakes while you're alive?"

The wise words felt like a sharp blow to the chest, pushing the air out of Lukas's lungs in a gust. "Perhaps – perhaps their act was so despicable there was no possible way to make amends. Perhaps taking their life was the only act likely to remedy anything. Perhaps it was better for all involved if they were to simply disappear forever. Easier to mourn one gone on to Valhalla than to forgive a criminal that kneels at your feet."

His voice was too unsteady. Lukas clenched his hands into fists to forestall any tremble and stared bleakly out the window. He could just make out Roseanne's farmhouse in the distance, a smudge of white among the frosted green fields.

Richard spoke slowly, his voice deep and careful. "Maybe that's what they thought in the moment. Maybe it seemed like the only option. But the funny thing about life is there's always something new that might pop up. You just gotta give it a little time. Like scattering seeds and waiting to see the flowers."

Lukas considered this. Unexpected options, unexpected landings. He cleared his throat and gave a noncommittal noise.

"A warrior's honor is a confounding thing," he said abruptly. Lukas turned from the window and sat heavily in the chair across from Richard. The man did not appear perturbed at the sudden change of topic. "It is a code, a set of rigid principles that rules their behavior, their thoughts, and their tactics in battle."

Richard leaned forward, his eyes alight. "What do you mean by that? Their tactics in battle?"

Lukas allowed himself a smile. "There is a tale I heard once. In my… studies. There was a man, a prince of great renown, gold of hair and powerful in bearing. The prince was known as a paragon of honor and strength, though not overburdened with intellect or cunning. This would come to serve him poorly when he was challenged to single combat one midday while two armies looked on…"

He chronicled them into history, into dust. Lukas Eld had no family, only knowledge of times that had passed.


LII

His mouth feels dry. Agent Simmons is at his side. "The Tesseract," she says. Needlessly. Lukas could sense it the moment he stepped into the base. Now it is even stronger, wrapping cold tendrils around his mind.

He stares at the pulsing blue. "Can… can you feel it?" the agent asks.

Lukas glances at her out of the corner of his eye. She flushes. "Well, I mean. I don't know. You said you could manipulate energy, and the Tesseract seems to be giving off all kinds of readings."

"Yes." Lukas steps closer. "Yes, I can."

"What does it feel like?" Her eyes are keen as she turns her gaze to the same point.

"Like…" The Void. That is his first thought. And one he cannot voice.

A whisper against his throat, like a cool hand. Lukas sucks in a breath, blinking at the glow of the Tesseract.

His seidr fluctuates this close to such a power source. Unsettling, but nothing more.

"It's difficult to explain." The scientist hums off-key, and he knows she is thinking, just as she has been since they undertook the journey to this distant desert base.

The transport from New York City had been an exercise in patience. In fraying his patience, that is.

Lukas was subject to the full force of the scientist's scrutiny, weighed and measured in her gaze until he felt like an insect trapped underneath glass. She did not ask questions. Jemma Simmons would simply turn abruptly from what she was doing, stare at him, then make a considering sound. "Hmm," she said. Or - "Ah, yes, that could…" It nearly drove him to distraction.

She would not speak during the bumpy ride, and so the young Agent Skye had taken it upon herself to act as the voice of the pair.

"Sooo… metahuman, huh?" That had been her opening gambit, to which he had only replied with a nod. Skye had then seated herself obnoxiously close to Lukas. Strapped in as he was, he could not move to avoid her. Every thirty minutes or so, it was some variation on the same.

"Okay, so at least answer me this. Not your real name, or how you got to be a metahuman. Just - where'd you come from, exactly? Where were you before you were here?" Skye had asked him just before they departed the jet, a touch too nonchalant.

"A galaxy far, far away," Lukas had drawled, unbuckling his seatbelt. The first time she'd asked, he'd said England. The time before, he'd said he had amnesia and no longer possessed any of his childhood memories. He almost plans on saying Jotunheim, when the next question comes, just to see the look on her face.

She had laughed. "Okay, okay, fine. Don't tell me."

"From a golden palace that sits high among the stars," Lukas said, with a melodramatic flourish, a grand sweeping gesture of his arm.

Skye rolled her eyes. Jemma giggled. "I said fine! Don't know why I even bothered asking, I knew you were gonna lie."

It is a lie, mortal girl, but not the one you think it is.

He can feel Jemma Simmons' eyes on the side of his face again. But she sticks to the matter at hand, at least for now. "How are you going to find the daughter portals, if any manifest?"

Lukas considers his answer. "If I am correct in assuming the Tesseract is the power source of these distortions, then it follows that they should echo some qualities of the Tesseract. The feel of it, as you said."

"You're going to feel them out?"

"I need a better sense of the Tesseract before I can do so."

"What if we subject the Tesseract to several frequencies? Then you can feel how it reacts."

"That won't be necessary. I simply need time, and quiet. And," he adds, in a warning tone, "be careful bandying about such propositions. It would not do to meddle with the Tesseract overlong." The Cube flickers in the edges of his vision. "It is powerful. Unpredictable."

"We're following all the proper containment procedures," Simmons points out.

"Clearly, you cannot contain it as well as you would like, or we would not have these distortions forming." Lukas turns to her. The painfully leashed inquisitiveness he can read on her face is more annoying than amusing now. "What is it?"

Simmons is chewing on her lower lip. "I'm sorry. I guess I just don't understand. You said you can manipulate light - or energy. So how do you know all this stuff about portals? Where's the connection? Obviously, they need an energy source to form, which you say is the Tesseract, but I don't…" she trails off.

"Everything around us possesses some form of energy." Lukas taps himself on the chest. "You and I, and the Tesseract, and all matter. We give off energy, we react to energy. We use energy. I simply make use of some unconventional avenues while doing so."

"So you're reacting to the portal energies. That's how you can feel them."

"Precisely. You cannot sense the way they twist the space around them. I can. I have always been able to."

"But you have to be in their proximity, right?"

"Yes. Which is why I need to use the Tesseract," he reiterates. His patience is in tatters, and the Tesseract's song, just below the edge of his hearing, only aggravates him more.

"How do you use something like the Tesseract?" Jemma's tongue pokes at of the corner of her lips. "How does your… sense of the portal energies work with it?"

Lukas clicks his teeth together and summons restraint. She wants to know what he will do with the Tesseract. It is not unreasonable. Irritatingly diligent, yes. Dr. Selvig himself had taken several hours of convincing to even let them near the laboratory in which the Tesseract is housed. Simmons finally had to call Coulson to circumvent his authority. At least she is willing to listen to his explanation. Willing and demonstrably eager.

The singularity that is the cube exists at all points of space. At its most essential, it is a portal, or it has the ability to be one. If he can project his will through this network of potentiality, he can feel the places in this realm where it touches another, like a double-knot in a piece of thread. He must translate this instinctive sense of the boundary, but he is not certain that one who does not possess seidr will grasp the concept.

"I can use it to feel farther," he says. "I can direct the Tesseract's unlimited energy, use it as a sort of… a sort of sensing device. Like how sound thrown back from a cave can tell an explorer how deep it extends."

"Okay. Okay - so it sort of helps you project your, um, ability. Acts like a kind of lidar."

"Lidar?"

"Basically, it's a laser. And a receiver that catches the laser's reflection. It's aimed at a surface that's being mapped. When the laser pulse bounces back from this surface, the receiver records the time it took to travel, and this gives us the distance between where the pulse emanates and the mapping surface."

Jemma points at the cube. "So, let's say the Tesseract is the energy source that produces the laser pulse." She draws her finger through the air, and then to him. "And you're the receiver that calculates the time it takes the pulse to bounce back from the portal, because you can sense the energy. You use a series of these Tesseract pulses to determine the location of any developing anomalies. Is that close enough?"

"Yes, I believe that is a fair representation," Lukas answers. In fact, it's more accurate than he would have thought possible for a human to articulate. He's more convinced than ever that Midgardian scientists are the closest relation this realm has to the mages of Asgard.

The thrill of a new problem to solve spurs him forward, closer to the cube, within inches. He reaches his magic out, deliberately this time, and sends a thread of seidr into its white heart. Shoving it outward, through the Tesseract's infinite reach, he closes his eyes and listens to the reverberations. Nothing tastes cold or metallic, he does not feel any emptiness. No nascent portal energies. Yet. He needs more time, to go into a deeper meditation, to be sure.

When he opens his eyes, Jemma is frowning. "Do you need to be in contact with the Tesseract at all times to do this? That might not be feasible."

"I may have a solution for that," Lukas says, rolling the possibilities over the tip of his tongue. "When I send a pulse through the Tesseract, it is at a certain pitch - a frequency. If it were to bounce off a distortion, and reflect this pulse back to the Tesseract, it would be at a different frequency. A specific one. If I could construct a device to alert us when the Tesseract's pitch resonates at that specific frequency, then it can serve as a warning beacon." He maps the inside edges of his teeth as he thinks. "Perhaps prone to false alarms, certainly not foolproof, but it could work without unfettered access to the Tesseract."

"Okay," she says again, slowly. "That'll be a good first step. A remote device. What do you need?"

"I can acquire most of the necessary parts on my own. But perhaps a casing. Something to contain it."

"How big?"

"The size of an egg, let's say. Hollow. That can open and close."

"Any particular material?" She gets out her phone, seems to be making notes.

"Not any alloys with iron." The resonance of ljósvaldr crystal does not interact well with iron, nor copper. He wants to ask for uru, but as far as he is aware, that metal is not known on Midgard. "But still something from the earth itself."

"Let me do some digging," she says.

"There is one more thing I need." Jemma blinks at him, waiting. "Something that has traveled through one of these distortions."

"Oh? I don't - "

"The beast. Do you still have it?"

"Beast?" Her thoughts catch up quickly. "You mean - the skeleton? The one we recovered from Mexico?"

"Yes, the skeleton." He remembers the black skull he'd seen in their lab, the sharp serrated fang. A shadow beast from Niflheim. There is no other way it could have come to be on Midgard.

"You think it traveled through?"

"It was not of this world, correct?"

"No," the agent mutters. "No, it's completely alien. You're right." Jemma Simmons fidgets, twisting her mechanical notepad back and forth in her grasp. He tilts an eyebrow at her, and she huffs a breath. "Am I that transparent?"

"A scholar's curiosity is not to be denied," Lukas offers. Generosity will get him far, no matter how it grates at him.

"You're planning on making this device yourself. I'm just… surprised, I guess. You didn't strike me as much of a tinkerer."

"I used to fashion useful little trinkets all the time." Lukas bites his tongue. He had. When such inventions were still considered intriguing, clever. After the shine had worn off, when he was no longer considered a precocious child meddling with seidr but a man indulging a perverse interest, he'd refrained from giving them away. Kept them for himself, little constructs of will and magic.

Now that she has broken her silence, he can see the questions bubbling up. "Can I just ask one thing, please?" Simmons pleads. "Where - hmm. Where were you born?"

The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents seem to be treating this as a matter of trial and error. As if Lukas will be tricked into answering the question if it is phrased differently. She has taken a lesson from Skye's failures.

Lukas waves a careless hand. "Why, how should I remember? I was only a babe at the time."

Simmons rolls her eyes. "You could ask your mother. I'm sure she would."

His smile freezes in place. Simmons bites her lip. "I mean - I'm sorry. Is she - never mind. Please, please ignore me. I'll just go and shut up now."

The agent hunches over the lab bench, buries her nose in her notes. Her skin is pink with embarrassment. The silence between them is fraught. He cannot fault her for asking. Well - he should not.

"Such a conversation is not possible," he murmurs, a belated explanation.

Hello, Mother. Where was I born? And how long after that was it when you decided to toss me out in the snow to die?

Or the reverse, which is somehow even worse, to Lukas's mind. Asking the question of a mother that was never his, not truly. Why did you tell me I was born on Asgard? Why did you let me believe that I was yours? He looks up into her clearwater eyes, and it is a child's voice that issues from his throat. Mother, why did you lie?

Lukas stares at the cold blue of the Tesseract. He struggles to put the idea out of his mind, but he can see too much in the facets of the cube. Pale as winter ice, glowing like the moon on the frost, that night in Jotunheim. Did one of the soldiers he had killed have a babe, resting in some forsaken cave, doomed to cry for milk that never came? Frost giant, and mother. The concepts themselves are enemies. Perhaps a frost giant mother can whelp so many beasts that she does not recall the faces of those she discards.

Do you even remember me? He does not know which mother he wants to answer that last question. Neither. Or both.

He clenches his fist. This is all immaterial. Lukas Eld has no mother.

"Er…" Agent Simmons clears her throat when she captures his attention. "Um. Sorry, it's just - Fitz texted me. He's finally here. Says we should come to the cafeteria right away." Simmons frowns down at her cell. "I think something's happened."

The Tesseract pulses in the corner of his eye. Lukas turns to it, wary. He had not felt any surge of energy, nothing that would indicate another distortion forming. "Lead on," he tells her, the line of his shoulders stiff.

They traverse the length in silence, reaching the hall where the agents on this base gather together and eat.

Lukas slows to a halt before entering. There are agents here now, huddled in little groups, bent over and whispering furiously to each other, in every spare corner. One knocks into him as she rushes past to join the closest trio, throwing a hasty sorry! over her shoulder.

He spies the pair adjacent to the refrigerator. The young Agent Skye and Fitz. Lukas trails Jemma's footsteps as she hurries over.

"Fitz," Agent Simmons calls out. "I just got your text. What's up?"

"I assume it is at the root of all this excitement," he says.

Skye's face lights up and she lets out a cackle that sounds too full of unholy glee to ease Lukas's apprehension. "You haven't heard either? Oh, that's fantastic. I just love seeing people's faces when I tell them!"

Fitz giggles at her side, pitched high with a slight hysteria. Jemma turns to Lukas, but doesn't quite meet his eye. "Fitz and Skye are the worst gossips in the building," she says. "They'll certainly have inside info."

Lukas nearly retreats a step at the combined intensity of Skye and Fitz's grinning expressions, but perseveres, for he detests leaving anything unanswered. "Now you've intrigued me. What is it?"

"Coulson got a special visitor last night." Agent Skye leans in, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial level. "Asked for him by name and everything. Well - actually, he asked for the guy who watched over his hammer."

A chill grips his guts in an icy fist. "Hammer?" Lukas repeats faintly.

"Yeah! You remember the file from the New Mexico Incident? A bunch of people said Coulson got hoodwinked. But this proves he was right," Skye reveals.

Lukas needs her to say it. He needs confirmation, before he loses his composure over nothing. "What exactly proves him right?" he asks tightly.

"The dude claiming to be a Norse god. He came back! Straight in front of Coulson and a dozen agents in a whirlwind, from the sky. It's all over the base! Thor is real!" Skye squeals.

This time, Lukas does lurch backward. No. Not here, not now. The ice in his stomach solidifies, colder than the hateful touch of a jotun.

His first instinct is to turn away, disappear into the ether, and never return to this cursed realm and its foolish humans. Worshiping Thor already, before they'd even met him. He should be used to it, but the thought still rankles.

He needs to know more. Why is Thor here? Has Thor come to collect him? Drag him back to Asgard, to the Allfather's judgment, to the condemnation of the entire court? Or has he only returned for his mortal woman? Then why appear to Agent Coulson?

"Lukas?" Jemma's voice jars him from the endless loop of his questions, and he returns his attention to the agents.

"Wow," Skye remarks. "I think you got a whole two shades paler. That's impressive, especially for a guy like you. Best reaction I've seen so far."

He wipes his face clean of any emotion other than shock and bemusement. "Thor – as in the god of thunder? Thor Giantsbane, wielder of Mjölnir? You can't be serious."

Fitz gasps theatrically. "I nearly forgot – you're an expert in Norse mythology! Of course – you must be having heart palpitations!"

It takes him precious seconds to construct an appropriate response, his mind buzzing white with panic.

"It is - I - it is unexpected," he stammers. Lukas jerks his head, not a nod or a shake, just a tremor. "I need to - excuse me."

He barely manages the words before his feet steer him away. Lukas bumps into the frame of the door as he hurries past, out into the hall. He needs to find somewhere isolated, hidden. Somewhere he can close his eyes and think. He can feel their gazes, raking over his back, itching, crawling under his skin, writhing.

Lukas needs to be alone.

It is an old impulse. From the time he does not acknowledge, from the prince who never was, who never should have been. The one he can see in the shadow cast by the light of the Tesseract.

Find somewhere and hide away, alone in the dark, to lick his wounds and nurse his anxieties. Thor is already driving him back. Into the past. Lukas fists his hands in his hair, pulling sharply at the roots. Wanting the pain to clarify his thoughts. It is no use. His mind jumps, skitters from one consideration to the next, unable to settle.

He pushes blindly through a door, finds himself huddled in a supply closet. A broom leans against a mop bucket. Sinking down, he presses his back against the opposite wall.

Thor. Thor is here, on Midgard. It feels like an intrusion. A foreign object pushed into an open wound. This is his place, now. He has made it his place. Lukas's place. He is valued, here, for his knowledge, his expertise.

He had been rejected from realm after realm, and finally found a corner of the world that he could claim for his own. A life he could claim.

And Thor is here to supersede that claim, as he always does. To take anything that is Lo - Lukas's and make it his own.

His fingers dig into his skull, sharp points of relief where the nails start to pierce the thin skin. When his vision starts to grey, go dim and distant, Lukas realizes he is on the verge of losing consciousness. He closes his eyes. Sucks in a deep breath, slow, now. Lukas eases his lungs into an even rhythm. Laying his forehead against his knees, he just inhales, then exhales.

Fate is a better trickster than he, as always. He dared to name her Mother, even if only in his thoughts, and thus drew her trueborn son to correct the sweet delusion.

Time stretches in the dark and the quiet. Like the Void, almost. There is something there, a pang of wanting, to go back, into the endless silence, to fall forever and never have to face Thor or Thor's cursed brother ever again. He buries it with ruthless effort.

You are Lukas. Lukas. It sounds like a lie, weak in a way that it hasn't felt for months.

He stays huddled in the closet until his phone buzzes and jolts him. Legs numb and tingling when he moves, Lukas slips the pink cell out of his pocket, half-dreading to see the name on the screen. But it is only Caroline, a text about some inane child's television show. He stares at the little colorful characters, the string of pink and purple hearts, the yellow faces in their range of expressions, jarred by their strangeness.

can u believe it

lukas!

Respond!

She calls him by his chosen name and it works like a summoning, as if she speaks words of power, as if the child has drawn a circle of seidr around him. Pulled him forth, from dark water.

The part of him that is Lukas rises to the surface, buoyed by her childish insistence. He submerges all else in the lifeless depths. Pushes Thor's brother back down, holds Frigga's second son under until he stops fighting.

Lukas wets his dry lips with his tongue. He opens his cell and types a message for Caroline as he hauls himself to his feet. She who knows nothing of other realms, of shadowed pasts and shattered bridges. He is only Lukas, to her. To Roseanne. To Clayton and Connor. Not even a metahuman, just Lukas Eld.

He pulls that mortal cloak tightly around himself. There is no need for hasty decisions, no need to run about blindly, like cornered prey. Thor will not get the better of him, he refuses. Enough of cowering, enough of fear.

He thinks of the device he has agreed to make. Yes. The mortals need him. Only him. They do not know it, but Lukas does. He is a consultant. Thor's arrival has done nothing to change that agreement.

Pushing out of the closet, he glances up and down the hall. No one is there. Good. He follows the cool thread of the Tesseract through the winding labyrinth of unchanging stone walls.

Agent Romanova awaits within, directing Simmons and Fitz in a flurry of activity. The Tesseract is bundled into a metal cage. Half-full trunks surround her feet.

"The transport will be ready in a few hours. Pack anything that needs to come with you," she tells the scientists. "But remember we'll be more cramped on the Helicarrier than we are here."

Her eyes fall on Lukas. He makes sure his hands hang at his sides, open and free. Afraid if he catches hold of anything, he will accidentally crush it in his grip. The shaky, uncertain pulse pounding through his veins is familiar to him. Like there's another edge beneath the soles of his feet. Waiting. Lukas has never fallen, and he never will, he reminds himself.

"And will I be coming with you?" he asks.

"Yes," Natasha Romanova says.

"Let me guess. Coulson would like to make use of my expertise."

Her smile is more of a quirk of lips. "You've heard about our guest."

"I believe the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D. has heard." His fingers twitch. "But I am not sure how much help I can give."

"You're better than nothing." She shrugs. "And Coulson's assembling all our experts in one place."

"Why, thank you for the stellar recommendation," he rasps, dredging up a smile.

"Very welcome." She goes to leave. Lukas takes a shallow breath.

Natasha spins around before she gets too far, leaning against the doorframe. "By the way, all those things that you're not telling us - will they put any of the agents in danger? S.H.I.E.L.D. in jeopardy?"

Lukas pauses, his lips parted. Wondering what has shown on his face. "Ah. No, I should not think any of you are in mortal peril."

She raises a brow. "Just you, then?"

He swallows, then tilts his head to give her a wry smile. "Perhaps it won't come to that."

"You know…" Natasha looks down. "Keeping your secrets isn't always a bad thing. You can rely on them. They remind you who you are, and where you come from." Her greenish eyes are piercing when she turns her gaze to him. "If they help you hold onto your identity, then keep them close."

"Speaking from experience, are we?" His voice sounds brittle to his own ears.

"Yes." Natasha doesn't blink. "Sometimes all we are is a collection of secrets and lies, memories and regrets. But they're ours. That matters. I think you understand that."

The mortal is more perceptive than he gave her credit for. "Are you advising me to remain silent?"

"I'm saying that it's up to you." Natasha tucks her hair, venomous red, red as a warning, behind her ear. "Your secrets can be sacred, but they also give people power over you. If you're not the one to tell them… the whole house of cards could come falling down before you can blink."

Lukas does not respond. Natasha Romanova leaves.

Perhaps this fragile house of cards will tumble. But Lukas is a mage, and the impossible is the province of seidr. He shall hold up this paper façade with his strength of will. With a judicious lie, a clever misdirection. As he has always done.

Thor will not linger long on Midgard. His focus is that of a mayfly, flitting about, alighting from leaf to leaf, sudden and bright and then fading fast. Thor will lose interest in these petty mortals and return to his precious Asgard, his sycophants and his golden crown.

He will remain here. In the shadows, with his sacred secrets. That is how he likes it, after all. That is who he is. A liar.

Lukas Eld has no brother.