Steve and Tony walked on either side of Bruce, who was now dressed in SHIELD sweatpants, as they made their way back to the plane. The escort formation wasn't really necessary, but it was part of the show and it kept Fury happy, which was to say 'slightly less enraged'.
"You played your parts well," said Steve, "both of you."
"Agreed," said Tony. "Huzzahs all around." He slapped Bruce on the back. "But we have got to do something about your enormous green wang."
"You want to circumcise the other guy?"
"I was thinking more of a Prince Albert," mused Tony. "No, actually, I was thinking that I know this guy who works in materials science, mainly in substances that can grow or shrink. Name's Pym. I'll give you his number. Maybe he can find a way to keep the little Hulk contained."
"Thanks. That would be…a big help, actually."
"As long as I don't have to talk to him. Guy's a little…off. And whatever you do, don't bring up bugs. He'll talk your ear off."
"I'm not much for bugs," said Bruce. "I like arthropods, though."
When they reached the plane, the others were already there, including Barton and Coulson hiding, huddled silently in the back. The staff was secured underneath the starboard jumpseats. Natasha was already in the pilot's seat, spinning up the engines, while Thor was sitting cross-legged in the aisle. He looked contemplative, even sad.
Natasha was the only one who acknowledged them. "Strap in," she said, before tapping her earpiece and addressing Jane Foster. "En route to your position, now."
The flight to New Mexico was quiet, other than the rustling and clanking sounds they made as they suited up. Everyone kept stealing glances at Coulson, who appeared singularly unconcerned with the proceedings – everyone except Clint, whose coping strategy was apparently to studiously avoid looking in Phil's direction. Even Tony fizzled out after a few abortive attempts to explain how he would improve on the design of the SHIELD jet and resigned himself to day trading via his smartphone.
When they landed in New Mexico at the coordinates provided by Dr. Foster, they were still in a somber mood. Their plan had seemed so clever, or at least adventuresome, when they had lain it out the night before. And now they were carting about a SHIELD agent who was suspended between life and death, while they were on their way to step through a wormhole and hand-deliver a devastating weapon to the prison planet of an unhinged alien god. Excitement and audacity had allowed them to ignore the dangerous and frankly unsettling aspects thus far, but after ninety minutes of downtime in the air under Coulson's unsettling gaze with the staff beneath their knees, the risks were all too apparent.
They stepped out into the dust to see a beat-up van next to a circular knotwork etching embedded into the ground. Steve carried the staff, for no reason other than the lack of better options.
"My dearest Jane," said Thor. Dr. Foster was not a short woman, but she looked very small in Thor's embrace. He was whispering something and she looked concerned briefly before she nodded and kissed him.
They separated and Jane brushed her hair behind her ears. "There's no reliable way to communicate between realms with our technology thus far, so the best solution I could come up with on short notice was to reopen the portal thirty minutes later. It'll be open for sixty seconds in the exact spot where it drops you off initially. If for some reason you miss that, Thor said that Heimdall will notice you…eventually."
"Is everyone ready?" asked Steve. It was easier to be the leader when he was in uniform. When the others nodded, Steve turned to Jane. "Then open the portal, Dr. Foster."
Jane began pressing buttons and turning knobs in a pattern that obviously meant something to her. Worryingly, one of the machines was making an irregular hissing noise and something smelled like burnt hair. There was a rising, indistinct sound, like roaring white noise as bands of color and shadow stretched down from the sky to the pattern on the ground. Steve felt as though he might well owe Director Fury another ten dollars. Bruce felt as though he ought to be taking notes.
"Step into the Bifrost!" yelled Thor over the noise.
Tony looked at Steve. "Leaders lead," he said. With the armor on, no one could see his smirk, but the tone carried his message well enough.
Steve inhaled deeply, still not entirely convinced that he was going to be able to travel through space without an air supply, and stepped into the circle. Thor followed first, then the rest. They were sucked upwards into the clouds, except up and down no longer meant anything and they certainly couldn't be said to be moving toward or away from anything. It wasn't clear that they were going anywhere but they were quite obviously moving very quickly.
It was impossible to say how long they traveled before they landed feet first in the thick grey mist that blanketed the Isle of Silence. None stumbled or fell, although they hit the ground with force, but there was no sound.
Tony stamped on the ground repeatedly, then knocked his left and right gauntlet together, but there was no noise whatsoever. It was unnerving. Steve and Natasha tried speaking and clapping with no success. Thor watched them experiment, wearing a slightly patronizing smile – even if he'd never been to this particular realm, he knew the variety of laws that governed the many worlds and so was unsurprised.
Bruce, conversely, immediately opened his knapsack to pull out a whiteboard and a marker. He tried to write his name. In fact, he was fairly certain that he did write his name, but he couldn't read what was on the board. It looked like writing, but like a foreign language. He tried producing the few words he knew in American Sign Language, but just like the writing, they looked wrong. He erased whatever he had scribed and wrote SNAP YOUR FINGERS. He held it up to Natasha. She looked at it for a moment, then shrugged and shook her head. So she couldn't read it either. Interesting. He drew a stick figure and a cartoon tree. That looked right. And Natasha could respond with body language, so it wasn't all communication that was blocked, just language and sound. If he ever returned to this place, Bruce decided, he was bringing bees to find out if they communicate through dance.
Tony responded to all of this by making a string of unrelated gestures – among them the Vulcan salute and 'these aren't the droids you're looking for' – concluding with an air guitar solo.
Unable to give verbal orders and unwilling to count on Coulson to stay with the group in his present state, Clint was standing right next to him, gripping his tie. He and Phil had never really been the holding hands type of couple to begin with, but even if they had been, Clint had no intention of taking Phil's hand right now, knowing that he wouldn't squeeze back. It would be too much like touching a corpse.
Thor beckoned to all of them and raised his hammer. He struck the ground and it trembled.
Thor struck the ground with his hammer again.
Thor raised his hammer for a third blow when the mists began to swirl and part as two thin figures approached. On the right was Loki. His skin was blue and he was wearing his leathers and cape, though his helmet was conspicuously absent. His hair was limp and stringy and he wore a resentful snarl. On the left was a thin, tall woman with hair so blonde it was almost white. Her garments could best be described as a thin satin bikini, but it had a falseness to it, giving the viewer the sense that if he just looked from the correct angle, it would disappear. She wore knee-high leather boots and she cocked her hips as she walked.
Steve was frankly glad that Tony couldn't speak.
Thor took a step toward his brother, but froze, Loki's angry scowl speaking more clearly than words. Thor's shoulders dropped, disappointment evident.
Amora approached Thor instead, placing one hand on his chest and the other on his backside, leaving the others to wonder exactly what Thor had offered to convince Amora to help. Thor's stance under her hands was almost awkward, obviously avoiding her gaze.
Amora turned to Steve and held her hand out for the staff. Clint dropped Phil's tie and pulled him forward by the sleeve of his suitcoat. Loki looked down and to the right, but he approached them as well.
She gestured for them to kneel, but Loki flicked his fingers at her in what was obviously an Asgardian rude gesture. Thor stepped up and held his brother's wrists – not harshly, but tightly enough that there was no escape. Loki knelt, and with Clint's guidance, Phil followed suit. Amora held out the staff between them and the mists seemed to turn to thick streams of liquid unbound by gravity, moving in great arcs from across the realm. They converged on the staff, causing it to tremble violently, its shape deforming with each new cascade, only to reform a moment later. Loki's expression became pained and his back arched; Thor kept hold of his arms, but he pressed his face against the back of Loki's head in hopes of offering some comfort. Coulson's gaze remained as vacant as ever.
The mists continued to batter the staff. Now, it was not so quick to return to its original shape following each blow. It was becoming weak and malformed. Loki was sweating intensely and he seemed to be gasping for breath, tears stinging his eyes.
A final geyser of the smoky liquid burst up from the solid ground, shattering the staff, its metal rending into thin strands that summarily disappeared, along with Amora.
The portal opened. It was thirty yards away. They thought they hadn't left their arrival point but with no landmarks and endless fog, it was impossible to tell.
Clint began to lift Phil – don't think of it as Phil's body, not until the mission is done – but it was obvious he would move more slowly carrying a full grown man and they only had sixty seconds to make it to the Bifrost bridge. Steve took the body and ran with Clint across the grey expanse. Bruce, Tony, and Natasha followed.
Thor knelt and touched his brother's face gently, wishing that his gratitude, his sadness, his hope could all be conveyed by a simple flexing of a hand.
Loki nodded, and Thor turned to rejoin the others.
They leapt into the Bifrost more readily this time, first Steve and Phil, followed by Clint and Bruce. Then, as Tony and Natasha were leaping forward and the portal was wavering, their sixty seconds almost over, Loki rushed past Thor, obviously seeing a chance for escape. Thor tackled his brother, throwing him soundlessly to the ground.
The portal closed.
They landed on Earth with as much force as before, but now they could hear the stuttered thuds and grunts.
Steve lay Phil's body out along the ground and felt for a pulse. "He's alive," said Steve, as Clint came running over. Bruce followed, hobbling – he must have landed wrong – with Tony and Natasha right behind him.
Clint grasped Phil's right hand in both of his own, lips moving in a silent plea or litany or prayer. "Come on, you stubborn bastard," he whispered, "you can't die getting stabbed by a god. I thought you wanted your death to be interesting." He swallowed. "Please," he said, "please."
Phil coughed weakly and brought his free hand to Clint's face. "You're using manners," he whispered. "I'm impressed."
Bruce looked around. "Where's Thor?"
Natasha said, "He was fighting with Loki when we jumped, he-"
Jane interrupted. "He knew he wasn't coming back. That's what he said to me before he left. He won't be there forever. Odin or Heimdall will do something, but for now…he said he has to, he can't just abandon his brother." Her expression was soft, a mix of wistful and proud.
Stark Tower was not quiet and peaceful, though to be fair, it had never been.
Pepper spent an unreasonable amount of time explaining to contractors that no matter what Mr. Stark said, he did not really want the a series of colored solar panels installed in the shape of the Iron Man faceplate, and no, they really weren't seeking a permit for a moat.
Tony spent what he felt was a perfectly reasonable amount of time explaining to contractors that even if they lacked a moat, there was no reason they couldn't install a perfectly serviceable drawbridge.
Natasha prided herself on her ability to cope with virtually any circumstances. She could insinuate herself with the crudest infantry and the most refined diplomats. She could, but that didn't mean she wanted to. Now she spent her days designing a new training gym, teaching Banner the basics of hand-to-hand combat, and scouting the tower security for weaknesses. And she allowed herself to be dragged along to movie nights and poker games and an unusually poorly planned attempt to collectively out-drink Steve Rogers. She could be doing almost anything, but she had to admit, she was enjoying herself.
Tony gave Bruce his own lab space, and a bedroom that looked ridiculous because he didn't have anything to put in it. Almost trying to convince himself that he was done running, he went to a library book sale and bought two dozen volumes he barely wanted, just so he could place something on a shelf and know that he was going to return to it later. It was six dollars well spent. He borrowed a phone and dialed a number he knew by heart. It went to voicemail, but that was okay.
"It's me," he said, whispering before he remembered he didn't have to whisper. "You've probably seen the news by now. It looks like I might be staying in one place for a while. I'm not suggesting that- I just, I'm okay and I thought you would like to know. You can call at this number, if you want. If you don't, that's fine too. Goodbye."
Bruce looked at his bookshelf and smiled.
Steve could see Clint and Phil sitting on the sofa, leaning on one another, watching some television program in which young people apparently competed for the chance to be mocked by a British man. They were still recovering, both of them, but they were good for each other, Steve realized. It occurred to him that the men he had known who were…gay (he made himself think the word, and not just 'like that'), he had never seen them doing that simple thing, sitting together, enjoying the other person's touch, and maybe he'd never seen it because they'd had to hide it. There were things Steve missed about the past, but maybe there were parts that he was glad to leave behind.
Clint was imitating one of the singers on TV and Phil was laughing and Steve couldn't see anything in either of them that needed to be cured.
This was a tough chapter to write because I'm definitely more of a dialogue person, so I would say that it was a poor decision for me to send my characters to a place that prohibits all speech. Oh well.
Now that I'm done with this, I'm starting on my next piece, which will be a Hawkeye backstory (incorporating some of the plot points from You Can't Spell Sniper Without Spin), tentatively titled The Hunter of Waverly, Iowa.
I will also be starting a dramatic piece focusing on the underlying psychosexual conflicts that motivate Galaga Boy. (Fact Check: No, I am not.)