Resilience II: They Can't Take That Away From Me
[Author's note: Thanks to those who reviewed "A Door That Locks Behind You". Feedback makes the author work harder!]
[Author's note II: Thanks to Narknon over on Archive of Our Own, who pointed out to me that Jane Foster is a Ph.D., not a grad student!]
Thor Odinsson stood in his father's banquet hall, surrounded by his friends and the remains of a noble feast. "Great was the might of Loki's hired army," he chanted. "Greater the hearts of the Earthling defenders. Wave after wave we held the dire dragon-ships. Finally Selvig, mind-captive lore-master, broke free from Loki, undid his working. In Loki's own scepter the cunning man hid it, crafted the key to the engine's undoing. Natasha the Widow, valiant and pitiless, wielded the scepter, closed the sky-portal; Stark of the Bright Armor entered it last, bearing the fire-missile sent in despair to stop the invaders by burning their beachhead. Wild was the wailing of the Chitauri; great was our grief when Stark fell from the heavens. But then the great green beast leapt upward and caught him, cradled him carefully, brought him to earth. And as we stood mourning our fallen companion, brought back his breath with a great shout of anger. Loki awoke then, groaning and grim-faced, wondered why silence had smothered the city; woe then awaited him. Bound and disgraced, silenced and shamed he was brought back to Asgard. Hail then the heroes of Midgard, the mortals: Hawkeye the Archer, sure-sighted sentinel; lithe-limbed Natasha, the spier of secrets; Stark golden-armored, Rogers the shield-bearer, Banner the healer whose heart hides the rage-beast."
Thor sat down to general applause.
"One thing I will say for this running to and fro to the mortal realms," mused Hogun, "You do come back with good stories."
"But the poetry needs work," said Volstagg. "Also, if his own word on the matter is to be believed, Banner is not a mortal."
"True, for the poetry," admitted Thor, "and possibly true about Banner as well. It has only been a few years since his transformation, though. Too soon to know whether he still ages."
"Moreover his attempt to slay himself may have been half-hearted," Fandral put in. "We don't know what would have happened if he had leapt into a volcano."
There was a thoughtful pause.
"Actually," Thor admitted, "Rogers may not be mortal either. He lay sleeping under the ice the full span of a mortal's life, and when he awoke he had not aged."
"What tale is this?" asked Sif, sitting up straighter. "You haven't told us this one."
"Have I not?" said Thor. "Well, I have it only by hearsay, and I have made no attempt to work it into proper form. Briefly though: Rogers was born a mortal, indeed, and a slight and sickly youth as well. A great war came upon his people, and all the young men of worth set forth to the struggle. But Rogers was too weak and ill, and again and again he was turned back by the host-captains. Then a great magician spoke privately to him of an untested potion, a potion meant to make a man into an all-powerful warrior: strong, tireless, courageous and wise, a commander of armies and a hero. "Untested" I said, but in truth one man had stolen and tasted the potion. He was transformed indeed, but the transformation went awry; swift, mighty and cunning he was, but also hideously deformed. Mad, as well, but perhaps the madness had been in him from the beginning.
"The magician said to Rogers that he believed the heart must be sound before the potion could work rightly on the body; and he believed that Rogers was such a man. The youth, desperate to serve and protect his people, agreed to the trial; and though the potion and the spell it wrought filled him with agony, he bore it bravely. The potion did its work; he became a great warrior. Then the host-captains grew jealous and feared that this new hero would upset their plans and topple them from their commands. They betrayed Rogers' loyalty and courage. They ordered him to stay home among the old men, the housewives, and the children, singing boastful songs and telling great tales of courage in war without ever bearing a weapon against the enemy."
Thor's audience muttered and scowled at this injustice.
"But at last the chance arose for Rogers to do the great deeds he was destined for. Alone and unlooked-for, he raided his enemy's camp and freed a great host of captive warriors; they in turn seized the enemy's weapons and turned the tide of battle against him. The mad one fled, however, taking with him the source of his army's power: none other than that very Tesseract with which Loki so recently sought to conquer Earth."
"But how came the warrior to be frozen in the ice?" asked Sif impatiently.
"I'm getting to that," said Thor. "The madman—whose name was Red Skull—took the Tesseract in his great flying ship, meaning to destroy Rogers' homeland with its power. Rogers was able to defeat him—by the way, it was thought for many years that Rogers had slain Red Skull, but he told me it was the Tesseract itself that destroyed the madman. At any rate, the ship still obeyed the commands Red Skull had given it before his death, and would have continued on its course to destroy many cities of men, but Rogers was able to damage it and bring it down out of the sky. To spare lives, he brought it down in the frozen sea, and the ice swallowed him along with the ship. His comrades searched long years to bring him home to an honorable burial. The Tesseract they found—indeed it was Howard, the father of Anthony Stark, who found it—but Rogers was not found until a short time ago."
"Surely there was great wonder and rejoicing to find him alive," said Volstagg.
"Wonder there was—but remember, these are mortals. Many years had passed. All those who had known Rogers were long since dead, save perhaps a few who were small children at the time of his fall. And the folk of Midgard, with their short lives, grow, change, and fall as leaves in the forest. He awoke to a world he did not recognize, full of strangers, strange language and customs; rulers, cities, laws, stories—all changed."
"This is matter for a great saga," said Hogun. "You do not do it justice."
"True, true," said Thor. "The man himself will barely speak of it, and his companions shy away from it in his hearing, for truly his pain is great. It seemed to him that he fell asleep, and woke a few hours later having lost everyone and everything he had ever known. Bitter is his grief. And yet he still seeks to serve, though whether those he now protects are truly his people, neither he, nor I, nor they can tell. He has not, as Banner has, tested his mortality; but certainly he has survived blows that would have slain an ordinary mortal. And he does not age."
There was another pause, longer this time. Cups were refilled.
"Now that would be a bitter doom," said Sif. "To watch those you love wither—" she broke off abruptly as Thor turned his head away. "I crave your pardon, Odin's son," she said. "I spoke thoughtlessly."
"My doom is at least of my own choosing, " said Thor. "Rogers did not choose his, nor can he choose otherwise now."
"Can you see him, Heimdall?"
"I see him."
"What is he doing?"
"He has been traveling for many days. He does not speak often or long to the others he meets, and when he parts from them they look after him with suspicion. Some hurry away as if they fear him. Others mock him, secretly or openly."
"He should be honored!" Sif said hotly. "For his deeds and for his great sacrifice! Oh, would that the Bifrost still stood. I would—"
"Would what, Lady Sif? Petition Odin for permission to visit Midgard? He would not grant it. The Allfather has decreed that no more, except at greatest need, may those of Asgard travel to the other worlds. Nothing but chaos and war has come of it."
Sif bowed her head in acknowledgement. "You are right, of course. It was foolish of me. I am not Loki, to wreak havoc as a distraction from my own unease. Nor am I like Thor in his youth, to pursue what seems best to me at the moment without reflection." She rose. "Thank you, Heimdall."
Freya walked through her gardens, taking note of the subtle, delicate forms and textures of each flower and leaf. The destruction of the Bifrost had shaken even this place of peace, but now its calm seemed fully restored. Ash-trees rustled softly in a light breeze, and the play of water over stones made sweet, variable music, barely to be heard.
Under a pair of willows, a hooded figure sat unmoving on a seat of stone. Freya drew near and discovered it to be Sif, clad not in her usual warrior's garb, but in an unornamented grey gown and a cloak of darker grey. Sif looked up and rose to her feet at Freya's approach.
"My queen." She curtsied deeply.
"Sif. Are you well? I have not seen much of you these last days."
Sif shrugged. "How should I be unwell? There is no sickness or age that can touch any of us; I have no turn for madness; no war or conflict troubles the land. I have no rival to be jealous of, and no lover with whom I may quarrel."
Freya looked closely at her. "And yet you are not well."
Sif shook her head. "It is nothing. I...nothing, my queen."
"It is only that I am a fool."
"From good counsel even a fool can draw wisdom."
"As you say, O queen."
"Is it Thor? I had thought that you and he had reached...an understanding and an ease with each other."
"It is well between me and your son, Lady. I honor him as a man and treasure him as a friend, but nothing else. Let it be. In the passage of ages, this shall also pass."
Freya sighed, but said no more. She nodded to Sif, and passed out of the garden.
The God of Thunder flinched and sat up straighter in his chair. He had long since reached manhood, but the instinct of youth still caused him unease when his mother called him by both names. "Yes, mother?"
"Do you know where Sif is?"
"I have not seen her lately—"
"She is sitting in my garden, under the willow trees, wearing a dress."
"Sif? A dress?" He rocked back slightly, frowning.
"I don't know what is wrong with her, and she won't talk to me, but you she knows and trusts. Go and straighten it out, whatever it is. It is neither dignified nor amusing."
"At once, Mother." He rose and strode purposefully out of the hall. His steps slowed, and he detoured long enough to supply himself with a flask of mead and two cups.
"I should never have told you that tale," Thor said, shaking his head. "It was thoughtlessly done—I am sorry."
"It doesn't matter," said Sif. "You meant no ill by it, and if I have the weakness and idiocy to grieve over things I cannot help, well, it is I who suffer for it."
Thor shook his head. "You are my friend, and if I have done you an ill turn it ill behooves me to ignore it. Let me think." He topped off Sif's mead-cup and his own. They drank in silence. Finally, Thor stood. "I shall speak to the Allfather," he said.
"Thor, no! Do not challenge Odin on this matter—he is right, nothing but harm can come of meddling with the other worlds."
"I said speak to him, not challenge him. Odin's wisdom is the anchor of the realm and he sees further even than Heimdall. I will speak to him, and then I will listen. Be of good courage, Sif. I will return shortly."
Odin raised the eyebrow over his one eye. "What is it you are asking me to do? I will not sanction your return to Midgard. Not over a matter as trivial as this."
Thor nodded. "I do not ask to return to Midgard," he said. "I would have Steven Rogers come here. As my guest."
Odin cocked his head. "Interesting. How do you propose to bring him here?"
"I believe the mortals can find a way. Jane and I spoke somewhat of it, when I was explaining the Bifrost to her. Her studies have progressed since then."
"Let us consider what you are asking. I will not sanction an open door between Asgard and Midgard."
Thor winced. "Indeed not, my father," he said, picturing the chaos that had followed Loki's seizure of the Bifrost. "As I understand it, such a thing would require power far beyond the reach of the humans. Moreover the Chitauri invasion would make them even more unwilling to grant others access to their world."
"Very well," said Odin. "If the folk of Midgard can discover the means to do this, I will allow Steven Rogers, with what gear he can carry, to pass into Asgard at a mutually agreed time, and to return to his own place the same way." Odin glanced up, and a raven fluttered down to alight on his shoulder. "You may have Huginn as your messenger."
Dr. Erik Selvig was sitting outside on his deck at sunset, having coffee with Agent Barton.
"The key," said Selvig, "seems to be in the skills we possess that Loki does not. By definition, this is going to be a weak point for him in any future incident; if the target didn't have knowledge or skills Loki lacked, he wouldn't bother to take them over in the first place."
"Okay, I can see that."
"In my case, my previous work with the Tesseract, and with theoretical physics in general, created a mental space in which I could think independently. And I was able to use it to provide us with a way to shut the Tesseract down. I think your training did the same for you; you were able to handicap yourself when fighting SHIELD, without Loki being aware of it."
"I can see that the physics would be alien to him. But Loki's a fighter; he's had military experience."
"Yes; but he knows nothing of technology, and little of command or strategy. That's where I think you were able to leave him behind."
Barton frowned. "I'm not sure that's right. I didn't—well, okay, shutting down all the IT on the helicarrier, but—"
"What about the raid on Schäfer?"
Barton shook his head. "I remember shooting the guards...how did we..." he rubbed his eyes. "Why can't I remember how we got in?"
Selvig opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it.
Barton didn't notice; he'd buried his face in his hands, in pursuit of the memory. "You told him we needed iridium...and you said it was hard to find..."
Selvig watched him closely as he prompted, "And Loki asked you what you needed."
"I need a distraction," said Barton, "and—" His head jerked up suddenly, his eyes wide.
"Barton." Selvig's voice was cold and authoritative. "You are not responsible."
"How can I not be responsible? I thought it up myself!"
"The same way I'm not responsible for opening the door to the invasion fleet. What matters is what you did when you were in control. You fought back. You did everything you could to stop Loki. And you—we—succeeded. Listen," he continued, putting a hand on Barton's shoulder. "Loki is infinitely resourceful, quite powerful, and immortal. He will be back, and probably soon. We have to use whatever tools we have to be ready for him. You and I are so far the only people on earth who have managed to resist his mental domination. Neither of us is expendable."
Barton still looked haunted, but didn't protest this line of thought.
"If it's any comfort to you," Selvig continued, "Gandhi said that the value of a man's nonviolence is the amount of harm he could do if he were violent. You're capable of doing great harm. You refrain from doing so. And even when your will was overcome by superior force, you managed to find means of resistance, of sabotage. And you survived to fight another day."
"So, you're okay with this?" Barton said. "You can look at yourself in the mirror? Sleep peacefully through the night?"
"Of course not," said Selvig. "But when I'm lying awake I picture coming face to face with Loki. I can't defeat him; I can't even stop him from taking control of me again. But while I have my will, I would rather spit in his face than kneel to him. That, I can do."
Barton sighed. "You're right," he said. "Though it's a little weird getting lectured on the duty of a captive soldier by a college professor."
Selvig smiled. "Academia is less tame than you might think," he said. Then more soberly, "I don't presume to be your instructor, or even your equal. But we are colleagues. We have to be."
"You are my instructor," Barton said. "You managed to hide your intentions from Loki long enough to make his own scepter a back-door key. Can you teach me to do that? And if so, how can we hide it from Loki?"
"I think I can do both. Do you know the Memory Palace technique?"
Barton nodded. "Yeah. It's common knowledge in intelligence. If you don't have to write something down, you can't get caught with it."
"I think we can adapt the technique to conceal information behind key images Loki isn't equipped to understand—information designed to be available and useful in undermining his plans or fighting his control."
"There'd be no way to test it. And we'd have to keep it completely off the record."
"I don't envision this as a large program," said Selvig. "It would have to be taught one-on-one, and quietly, as you suggest. As for testing, let's say the technique proves ineffective. We're no worse off than we are now."
"What if Loki notices it?"
"One of two things happens—either he finds a way to break it down, which will at least waste valuable time, or he kills the person, which deprives him of their skills and, again, costs him the time to find a replacement. Speed was one of his most important assets this time; our response should be faster next time, and if his attack is significantly slower we'll have an advantage."
"It'll increase the body count."
"Not necessarily. Only four of us survived this time, and that was with only two of us putting up significant resistance, as far as I know."
As Barton was mulling this over, a raven swooped down out of the twilit sky and landed on the deck railing. It cocked its head, pulled a small roll of parchment seemingly out of nowhere with its beak, and with a bowing motion offered it to Selvig.
Barton regarded the bird suspiciously. "Well. That looks ominous. Invitation to the princess's christening? Got any old girlfriends named Lenore?"
Selvig shook his head and tentatively reached out toward the raven. Barton grabbed his wrist. "Communication from Loki?"
Selvig blanched, but then shook his head again. "If it's from anyone in Asgard, it would be Odin. The ravens are his birds."
"They don't have repro in Asgard?" said Barton.
"I don't know the term, but if you mean deception, of course they do. But since we have no way to authenticate a message in any case, it's a moot point."
Barton reluctantly released his grasp but kept his eyes locked on the raven as Selvig unrolled the little scroll.
"Looks like the Runic alphabet," he said. "I'll have to get some help translating, or transliterating it. But it's signed with Thor's Hammer, so I'm guessing that's who it's from. Or purports to be from." He looked back at the raven, which seemed to be expecting something. Selvig offered it a biscotti, which it took gracefully, without snapping. "There's water at the foot of the hill," he told the bird, "the neighbors have a koi pond." It nodded and flew off.
"You know, I just keep having to recalibrate my definition of 'weird'," said Barton. Selvig absentmindedly touched his own chest, but said nothing as he went inside for his phone.
Some online searching and an IM to the colleague of a colleague, and Selvig had his transliteration. He excused himself to make a call, this time privately. He returned and sat back down with an abstracted look.
"Anything I can do to help?" Barton asked.
"That depends. Would you consider it necessary to involve SHIELD?"
Barton shrugged. "Depends on what's going on."
"Thor wants to bring Captain America to Asgard."
"Why doesn't he just come get him?"
"The bridge between Asgard and our world has been destroyed; the Tesseract is under strict guard, and Odin has forbidden anyone to travel from there to here."
"I thought you said that was Odin's bird."
"It is. His name is Huginn, by the way; it means 'thought'. Legend has it he can understand human speech; supposedly he also speaks, but only to Odin. Odin, at Thor's request, grants us permission to send Captain America to Asgard, and to bring him back; but it has to be done from our end."
Barton's eyes widened. "You can do that?"
Selvig shrugged. "Theoretically. If we had a sufficient energy source—Tony Stark might be able to provide that. If Jane has made sufficient progress on the equations. If Capt. Rogers agrees to be a test subject. If we got enough of our data back from Agent Coulson."
"That's a lot of ifs."
Selvig nodded. Barton knit his brows.
"On the other hand, being able to come up behind Loki in a fight—priceless. You're worried Fury will shut you down?"
"Shut us down and confiscate all our data and equipment, yes. It's what they did last time, before they recruited me to work on the Tesseract. Look, if this puts you in a bad position as a SHIELD employee—"
"Agent," Barton corrected absently. "And I'm on sabbatical."
"I'll see what I can do," said Barton. He pulled out his phone, dialed. "Tasha. I'm fine. Listen, can we switch to an encrypted line? I, um, have something really personal to ask you. Uh-huh. Okay, just a second." He pressed a few keys, waited. "Good on your end? Thanks. I actually have a not-at-all personal favor to ask you. Yes. Yes. No. Good God, no. Rain check. I need you to locate Captain America for me, without letting Fury know you're doing it. Uh-huh. That's why I'm asking you. No, just find him. We'll go to him. Thanks. You too." He disconnected the call and looked back to Selvig. "She's on it."
Capt. Steven Rogers, U. S. Army (ret.) sat in a study carrel in the University of Georgia main library and pondered the document before him. It was the doctoral dissertation of Ruth M. Jacobs, published in 1984, and the title was: "Our Red-Blooded, Blue-Eyed Boy: Captain America, Hydra, and the Aryan Super-Soldier." It was the author's contention that he, Capt. Steven Rogers, "would have made an ideal poster boy for the Hitlerjugend" and that "by leading his motley band of multiethnic commandos to victory, Captain America served as an emblem of white supremacy and a signal to other nations and races that achievement comes at the price of staying in your place." He sighed and turned another page.
"Captain Rogers?" He turned to find Natasha Romanoff standing behind him, dressed in jeans, sweater, and tennis shoes, with a bookbag slung over her shoulder.
"Miss Romanoff," he said neutrally. "Do you have an assignment for me?"
"I don't," she said. "Someone else might. Or this might be something else. Would you mind walking out onto the quad with me?"
"Sure," he said. "Let me put this back. I'm done with it anyway."
He walked past the elevator and took the stairs, four stories down.
"Why the stairs and not the elevator?" Romanoff asked.
"Huh? Oh. Um, basically because I can. There were a lot of years when I couldn't. Guess the novelty hasn't worn off."
"Ah," she said noncommittally. They emerged into the lobby; Romanoff opened her bookbag for the security guard, who waved them through the gates. Rogers nodded to the guard, and they headed outside. It was a leaden-grey late-fall afternoon, the trees bare but for a sparse scattering of yellow leaves. As they exited the building, Romanoff put out a hand to stop him.
Coming up the steps towards them were the physicist Dr. Selvig; Agent Barton; and a young woman he'd never met—quite lovely, with dark eyes and straight brown hair, dressed in the same generic grad-student attire that was failing to either hide or emphasize Romanoff's striking good looks.
Barton spread his empty hands in front of him and smiled. "Nothing up my sleeves, Tasha. I figured you'd be here somewhere."
"Trust, but verify," she said. "Okay, I told you where to find him. Now let's hear what you wanted him for."
"We have an invitation for you, Capt. Rogers," said Barton. "Or rather, Dr. Selvig does. Oh, before I forget: Dr. Jane Foster—Natasha Romanoff, Captain Steve Rogers." Polite nods all around.
"Would you be the Miss Foster who, ah, found Thor on his first visit?" asked Rogers.
"That would be me," she said, ducking her head slightly. "If by 'found' you mean 'hit with an RV'."
"It's on Thor's account that we're here," said Selvig. "Shall we continue this over coffee?"
Coffee, broadly interpreted, was supplied by a nearby bar-and-grill. Barton volunteered to procure drinks as the others pulled chairs up to the largest outdoor table; in the late-afternoon gloom no one else was seated outside. He returned and distributed Foster's latte, Selvig's black coffee, a Sam Adams for Rogers, a chai for Romanoff and two draft beers. He also pulled up an additional chair, turned with its back to the table.
"Who's the other beer for?" Romanoff asked. Her question was answered by the arrival of a raven, which swooped to a neat landing on the chairback and immediately dipped its beak into the glass and tipped its head back to swallow.
Selvig nodded to the bird. "This is Huginn. He belongs to Odin. Huginn, this is Natasha Romanoff, who closed the portal of the Tesseract. This is Steven Rogers, whom Thor has invited to Asgard." He turned back toward Rogers.
Rogers blinked, started to speak, blinked again, and took a swallow of his beer.
"Wow," said Romanoff.
"The first question to be settled," Selvig continued, addressing himself to Rogers, "is whether you consider yourself to be under Director Fury's orders. We think that we can get you to Asgard, but we prefer not to involve SHIELD. They tend to be rather high-handed in matters of technology, as you have observed. We prefer not to hand over our research and equipment to them. Again."
"Officially, I'm a free agent," Rogers said. "I'm living off of SHIELD's money for now, but I consider that more of a demobilization bonus than a salary." He frowned. "I have mixed feelings about SHIELD too. No, I don't mind going around Fury."
"All right. The second question is, do you have any interest in accepting Thor's invitation? I should tell you at the outset that, although we believe we have a sound grasp of the theory of material transfer between 'realms', as Thor calls them, we have never tried to initiate such a transfer ourselves."
Rogers frowned again. "I have even more mixed feelings about being a research subject," he said. "I can see the strategic importance of the technology, though. Especially with at least one enemy who already has it." He drank a bit more and tapped a finger on the bottle for a while. "Tell you what. Let me talk to Dr. Banner. He's much better-equipped to understand the technical details, and I trust his judgment when it comes to the risks."
Huginn, who had been suavely preening himself after drinking about a quarter of his beer, suddenly cocked his head. Barton alerted to the movement instantly. "Tasha. Busker at the southwest corner has a cellphone camera pointed at us."
"So we're not in the wind," she replied. "Or not any more. Do—" She was interrupted by a harsh croak from the raven, who took flight. At once there was an answering chorus of caws as half a dozen crows scattered upward from several of the street trees, and proceeded to take turns dive-bombing the hapless busker. The man flapped his arms ineffectually at the birds, then as several more joined the flock, pocketed his phone, dropped his guitar hastily into its case and retreated under an awning. The birds continued harassing him until he fled into a record store several doors farther down the street.
"Good time to scatter," said Romanoff.
Jane Foster leaned forward. "Here's a copy of our research for each of you, in case SHIELD steps in," she said, fishing in her purse and coming out with a handful of memory sticks, which she handed out under the table. "I've come to believe in multiple offsite backups."
"I'll get hold of Tony and Dr. Banner," Romanoff volunteered. She handed Rogers a slip of paper. "This is one of Tony's shadow webmail accounts. You can check there for messages from Dr. Banner." Rogers took it with a murmur of thanks.
"I was planning to head to the Gulf Coast next," Rogers said. "Down to Pensacola. I expect Miss Romanoff can find me there."
Foster slung her purse over her shoulder and stood. "We'll head back to Albuquerque and wait to hear from everyone," she said. Selvig levered himself out of his chair, Barton left cash on the table for the tab, and the group broke up.
"Any luck with Selvig?" Romanoff asked Barton as the others left.
"We're working on it," he said. "Too soon to tell."
Stark didn't hesitate. "Build a gate from here to Asgard without SHIELD looking over my shoulder? Sure, I'm in. And Jarvis could use the practice against SHIELD's hackers."
Banner was more cautious but just as intrigued. "It's not my field, but I've read Dr. Foster's work and I think I get the fundamentals. If Capt. Rogers wants to talk with me about it, I'd be glad to give him my perspective. Can you also set up a webconference for me with Dr. Foster and Dr. Selvig?"
Selvig and Foster began working late nights. One or the other of them was in videoconference with Stark or Banner at least daily. Foster moved her RV to Selvig's yard. Selvig's house began to fill up with sketches, models, and pizza boxes.
After putting the various researchers in touch with each other, Romanoff vanished.
Barton quietly took up surveillance around Selvig's house.
Foster was in conference with Stark, going over her video and radio-frequency recordings of the atmospheric disturbance surrounding Thor's first arrival. "This is what we're now calling the Bifrost Effect," she said. "You can see there's a tremendous amount of thermal and electromagnetic energy being released. Also, take a look at this pattern left on the ground by the transfer. It may merely serve as a location marker, or it may have a more direct function. At any rate, Thor and his friends returned to the pattern before they called on Heimdall to activate the bridge."
"I see there's a lot of energy being released," said Stark, "But I can also see most of it's going to waste. If it's moving tons of air around and discharging as lightning, it's not available to fling Thor across interdimensional space. Messy. I think we can do better." He frowned, flicking through the graphs. "How does the bird do it?" he asked abruptly.
"The bird. Odin's carrier pigeon. He's back and forth between here and Asgard all the time, right? How does he do it? He can't be making a big flashy vortex, or SHIELD would have noticed something."
Foster frowned. "I have no idea."
"He's not using a pattern, either. Is he?"
"Not as far as I can tell," said Foster. "According to Dr. Selvig he just shows up. But my impression is that it's something inherent to him; he's not using a device. The Asgardians have to use an external mechanism to travel outside of Asgard—the Bifrost, the Tesseract, whatever."
"Just a thought," said Stark. "Okay. So we have two problems; knowing where we're sending Rogers, and focusing the energy to send him there. It would be useful to have something on the other side we could use as a target."
"Mjölnir," said Foster. "I'd be willing to bet it's got a pretty noticeable energy signature. If we can detect that signature, we'll know where at least one point in Asgard is. I have access to raw data from a lot of different sky surveys in various spectra. We can start there."
"Worth a shot," Stark agreed. "Thor was up on my tower with Loki for a good while. I've got a fair amount of security monitoring, all up and down the EM spectrum. Let me go over the records and see if anything looks like it's coming from Mjölnir."
"For that matter, the Tesseract and Loki's scepter were both up there too," said Foster, "and both of them are in Asgard now. We might not be able to distinguish the two at a distance, since the scepter's powered by the Tesseract—but they should be easy to distinguish from Mjölnir. It couldn't hurt to have some redundancy."
Rogers logged onto a patron computer in the tiny public library in Reidsville, Georgia and checked the webmail account Romanoff had given him. There was one message from Bruce Banner, with attachments.
I'm concerned that there's a time dilation effect that's gone unnoticed by the Asgardians. (See attached.) This is only a model. Well, not even a model, more like a metaphor. The two time-streams are parallel; that is, time seems to pass at about the same rate here and in Asgard. But there's an undetermined distance between them, in a diferent dimension. We have no idea how much subjective time it takes to pass from one time-stream to the other. And we can't detect it directly because, speaking metaphorically again, the distance between the time-streams is oriented edge-on to us.
Whether this will be a problem for you, Steve, I have no idea. I can only say that we need more data, which, I know, we're saying a lot. At any rate, I've put together a shielded packet of radioisotopes that should serve as a physical record of the relative passage of time you experience during your journey. If you go, I'd like you to take it with you and keep it on your person. It will give us at least one objective measurement. I feel very strongly that any kind of recording or data collection while you're there would be intrusive and, frankly, rude.
As Dr. Selvig put it, this isn't a voyage of exploration; it's a visit as an invited guest to a friend's home. At any rate, the only information we really need is: can we send someone back and forth between Earth and Asgard?
[Tony: since you have the sense of privacy of a rhesus monkey, I assume you'll read this at some point. So I might as well address this to you as well as to Steve. It's been a distinct relief for me to spend time in a context in which I know someone can stand up to me, and neutralize me if necessary. That's allowed me a degree of relaxation I haven't had in a long time, and I appreciate it.]
Likewise, Steve, if we manage to pull this off, I hope you give yourself permission to enjoy being surrounded by people who are your physical equals. It's likely to be a rare experience for you.
— B. B.
Thanks for the info. I agree re data collection. Will keep thinking about it.
Then he cleared the history and cache on the machine, logged off, thanked the woman at the checkout desk, and walked out, past the peeling papier-mache dinosaur, into the clammy evening.
Barton and Selvig were having coffee again, this time by the fire inside Selvig's house.
"So now that most of the theoretical work on the Gate is finished, I was thinking about our previous project," Selvig said.
"The Memory Palace thing?" asked Barton. "I had a thought about that. It may actually be testable. But our tester would be a horrible security risk; if Loki got hold of her—"
"You're thinking of Agent Romanoff?"
"Yes. If she can't get information out of someone, given time and a free hand, basically it can't be gotten."
"You plan to have her torture one of us?"
Barton shook his head. "She doesn't do that. It's not all that effective, if you're after actual intel. If you want a false confession, sure, bring out the cattle prods; a person will say whatever they think you want to hear, eventually. But interrogation is different from torture."
"Surely Loki has abilities that Agent Romanoff doesn't."
"Well, yes, of course he does. But Tasha knows me; she knows how I think, she knows what makes me tick, and she knows the kinds of things to ask. Loki doesn't."
"So you think, if you can successfully encode a plan and hide it from her—"
"Then I could hide it from Loki, yeah. But the testability may not be worth the risk. If he got hold of her, and suspected she had the key to our resistance plan, he'd tear her to shreds."
"I suspect he would tear her to shreds in any case, just to strike at you. As he would Jane, to strike at me for defying him, and to strike at Thor."
"More than likely," said Barton with a sour expression. "I'll keep thinking about it. You keep thinking about designing the thing."
By mid-November the team, having had no further word from Rogers, sent for him. Romanoff found him strolling along Mexico Beach in a light drizzle. The streetlights were beginning to come on, making dim orange halos behind the dunes.
"Cheerful weather, Capt. Rogers," she commented.
"I like it," he said. "With so few people, and visibility this low, it's a little less...alien. I think in the summertime I'd find it overwhelming."
"Is that why you came down here?"
"Partly. Part of it was just to get out of New York—stop slamming up against what it used to look like. And in the small towns at least, things are less complicated."
"The team asked me to tell you they think they'll be ready in another week or so. Time to decide: go or no-go."
Rogers gazed out over the low, slate-colored waves. "Go, I think. I need to get...further away. See if I can get enough distance to get up the nerve to come back." His distant gaze focused back on her. "Did you have a lot of trouble adjusting, when you..."
"I wouldn't put it that way. According to what little I know, it sounds more like you decided SHIELD was closer to the side you were already on."
She smiled. "It's kind of you to say so, but someone gave you the sanitized version. Fury ordered me killed, but he picked the wrong guy to do the job. When the assassin made me an offer that didn't involve dying, I took it. After the fact, I did actually find that my...I can't really use the word 'ideals'. My priorities and my understanding of how things work, were better in line with SHIELD than with my former owners. But that may only be a justification."
Rogers shook his head. "Damn. I thought I was cynical. I bow to your superior experience, Ms. Romanoff."
She raised an eyebrow. " 'Ms.', not 'Miss,' " she said.
"I'm a reasonably quick learner; it's just that the world got a seven-decade head start on me."
"Anyway, to get back to your question," she continued, "no, not really. I was already thoroughly immersed in the culture; you can't spy on someone you don't understand."
They walked a bit further in silence.
"I assume we're staging at Stark Tower; that's where the logical power source is."
"Correct. I have a plane ticket for you; out of Pensacola at 6:28 a.m. tomorrow. Dr. Banner will meet you at JFK. I can get your bike shipped wherever you'd like it to go."
"Stark Tower as well, I guess. I don't really have an address at this point." After a few more paces he said, "You're not actually involved in this project, except for being my handler, am I right?"
"Well, 'handler' is a strong word, since all I've done so far is find you and talk to you, but that's broadly correct."
"So by any chance, would you like to take my bike to New York yourself? If you don't have other plans. I won't be needing it for a while."
A slow smile lit her face. It changed her whole aspect.
"Actually, I'd like that very much."
"Good to see you again, Doctor," said Rogers, as the two shook hands in the arrival lounge.
"Likewise," said Banner. "Is this it?"
"Yes. I haven't accumulated much," said Rogers, hoisting his duffel bag on its shoulder strap. "How's Mr. Stark?"
Banner looked aside. "Let's save that for the drive," he suggested.
Once in the car—clearly one of Stark's; the valet parker nearly had to be pried out of it by force—Banner continued. "I have Tony's permission to discuss his situation with you, since it has the potential to affect you directly. Do you know much about the effects of nuclear weapons?"
"I understand the principle of fission, and I have the sort of quick-and-dirty battlefield version of the effects: vaporization zone, blast radius, fallout, and so on. But no technical details."
"That's good enough. Tony was exposed to gamma radiation from the explosion of the warhead he took through the portal. He has leukemia. I'm treating him, and his chances of recovery are good. But he is not at his peak physically or mentally. I can tell you he's lucid and focused, not confused or impaired in the ordinary sense of the word; but he's not at his usual extremely high level of function. He asked me to tell you this so you'd know you're at more risk than you would normally be, testing a piece of equipment he'd designed."
"Understood," said Rogers.
"Jarvis—that's Tony's computer, almost like his collaborator—thinks the design is sound. We can't test it, though, because Odin has put severe restrictions on our use of the device. We can't send anyone or anything, or bring anyone or anything back, but you and what you can carry. Ordinarily this would shut the whole project down, but Odin is an ally, and he is known to be able to see the future. We're confident that this means you can safely travel to Asgard; slightly less confident that you can get back. Dr. Selvig tells us that the Aesir, the people of Asgard, were said to recruit human warriors. Thor vouches for his father, of course. So it's up to you, based on how much faith you put in my clinical judgment, Tony's and Jarvis's technical skills, and Thor's good word from the other end. And the theoretical work of Dr. Selvig and Dr. Foster, of course."
Rogers was silent for a while, absorbing all this. "By Asgard's standards, I don't think I'd be worth kidnapping," he said. "Certainly I don't think Thor would have any part of it, but I suppose it's possible his father's not being straight with him." He fell silent again, gazing out the window.
"I'll take the chance," he said at last.
Five nights later, the platform atop Stark Tower gleamed wet in the reflection of the skyglow. Four chairs were set behind a table a short distance behind it, protected by a temporary awning. Banner, Foster, Selvig and Stark sat behind the table, with an array of monitors and controls in front of them. Beside Selvig's chair, Huginn perched, hunched against the damp.
Foster got out of her chair and met Rogers on his way to the platform. "Capt. Rogers. We're almost ready here. Will you take these to Thor for us?" she asked, handing him a pound bag of coffee and a leather folder.
"Sure," said Rogers. He tucked the parcels into his duffel bag, taking the opportunity for a covert glance at Stark. The inventor looked pale, with shadows under his eyes and a slightly hunched posture unlike his usual casual sprawl. Banner appeared to be keeping an eye on him as well.
"Huginn," said Selvig, "please tell Odin and Thor that Steven Rogers is on his way. And please return and tell us when he arrives." The raven launched himself into the air, circled twice, then rapidly gained altitude till he vanished in the haze. Rogers stepped up onto the platform.
"Ready?" asked Stark.
Rogers rolled his shoulders to adjust the fit of his shield and stood to attention. "Ready," he said. Stark touched the controls. There was a soft, musical hum that intensified until it began to rattle the equipment stands. A cold breeze sprang up, laced with particles of sleet. Abruptly, a bright flash of intense white light lit up the roof and the surrounding buildings, then—nothing.
The platform was empty.
Rogers stumbled, feeling as if the ground had shifted under his feet. He was standing in daylight—cool, overcast daylight—on a level stone pavement. A blond figure in a red cloak was charging towards him. He braced himself in time to meet Thor's enthusiastic backslap, which rebounded off his shield with a soft 'tonnggg'.
"Steven, my friend! Welcome to Asgard!"
"Thanks," said Rogers, then recollected himself somewhat. "I have parcels for you from Jane Foster and Erik Selvig," he said, handing them over. "And, um, it's customary with my people to bring gifts for one's hosts—one for you, and I have some for your parents as well."
"Many thanks for your courtesy. How fare you in Midgard?"
"Pretty well, thanks. It will be a long time before we finish rebuilding, of course, but the city is gradually moving in to replace the ruins."
"And our other friends? Jane, Erik, Tony Stark, Banner, Hawkeye and Natasha?"
"They're well. Tony was...somewhat injured, or I guess you might say poisoned, by the weapon he carried through the portal. He was too close to it when it exploded. But Dr. Banner's treating him, and he expects him to recover."
"Let us hope it will be so. It was a valiant deed. But you must meet my friends in Asgard. This is Heimdall, who was guardian of the Bifrost and will be again, in time."
Rogers bowed to the gigantic black man with the peculiar orange eyes, who gravely bowed back.
"And these, my friends who traveled after me to Midgard to bring me home: Fandral, Hogun, Volstagg and Sif."
Rogers shook hands with the three men, and, after a slight hesitation, with the woman as well.
"There is to be a great feast tonight to welcome you—we will have time for many tales then. But now I must take you to meet the Allfather, and my mother as well. Come!"
Rogers wasn't sure how to take Odin. His religion reserved the word "god" for one specific instance; the mental set labeled "powerful supernatural being" included only Thor and Loki, which appeared to be a pretty diverse field. He eventually settled on "my friend's father, who is also the revered ruler of a nation"—since "world ruler," for a man of his era, was entirely the wrong image.
Odin was pleased with the obsidian sculpture of a raven that Rogers had brought as a host-gift; Freya, equally pleased with a pendant of amber containing a fossil flower. Thor was already wearing his gift, a locket that held a photo of Miss Foster.
"You are welcome in our realm," said Odin, "For our son's sake, and for your own sake as well; for we have heard of your deeds and they do you honor."
"Stay as long as you will," added Freya. "It is not often that a new thing is seen in Asgard, and still less often is that new thing welcome."
"Thank you for your kindness," replied Rogers. "Your son has been a true friend to my people, and it was my honor to fight beside him."
Both parents appeared pleased by this compliment, and appeared untroubled by the unspoken and to fight against your other son.
"Take your guest to where he may find refreshment and rest before the feast, Thor," Freya admonished. "He has had a long journey." Thor bowed and gestured to Rogers to accompany him.
"I need to send Huginn back with a message, letting everyone know how long I'll be staying here," Rogers said as they walked down the palace steps. "What do you think—a month?"
"A month is no time at all!" Thor objected. "Three months at least, since we have permission only for one visit. Though I believe the Allfather may give you permission to come and go as you will, now that Erik Selvig and the others have built the Midgard Gate."
"All right," said Rogers. "We'll say three months."
"I shall send Huginn back to Midgard as soon as I show you to our guest house," said Thor.
"Thanks. By the way, I hope I was right to wear my uniform. It's the most formal thing I have, and, well—"
"Certainly," said Thor. "And if you choose to wear it to the feast as well, we would consider that fitting. But if you prefer other garments, more suited to peacetime, we have those for you also."
"That sounds good, actually," said Rogers. "I am a soldier. It's what I'm trained for, what I know. But I hope it's not all I can ever be."
"In a long life, there is time for a man to be many things," Thor said. "Tonight you shall be my honored guest, and a new friend to my friends. And I have placed you next to Sif, who has been longing to meet you."
"Thor, I have no—I've never been any good at talking to women."
"Sif is not like other women; not even other women of Asgard. More like Natasha Romanoff, and yet not so either; she is a valiant fighter, cunning and weapon-crafty, but there is no subterfuge or deceit in her at all. You are a courteous man, fair-spoken and plain-dealing. That is all that is needed. Accept Sif as she is, and speak to her frankly. She knows something of your story, and she admires you. And Steven—one thing you must remember. There are no clocks in Asgard. All of time is yours. Sif will be here for uncounted ages, and so may you be, if the Allfather grants it. There is no hurry."
Rogers found the feast an ordeal at first, between the all-too-familiar feeling of being a freak on display and the far less familiar language, clothing, food and customs. But his hosts seemed genuinely concerned for his comfort, and Rogers was too intrigued by the strange beauty of his surroundings to remain focused on his own awkwardness for long. Sif asked him about the battle of Manhattan, and her questions were astute and to the point; in detailing the events of the battle to her he almost forgot he was speaking, not only to a woman, but to an immortal and an alien.
He was surprised and gratified to find that the mead of Asgard was more than equal to his enhanced metabolism; he found it necessary to slow down lest he end the night under the table. Thor and his companions good-naturedly took this as a challenge, and the evening became somewhat raucous by the end.
"Tomorrow, my friend," said Thor, as they half-helped, half-hindered each other up the stairs, "we will show you more of Asgard. Hogun has a new gyrfalcon he's been wanting to try out—the snow geese are beginning to fly in over the marshes."
"And some night after moonset we must go hunting for bilgesnipe," said Sif. Thor waggled his eyebrows at her and she blushed and aimed a swat in his general direction. They both laughed.
The next few days were occupied with what Rogers thought of as "tourist stuff"; seeing the sights of Asgard, learning something about its customs, and meeting a bewildering variety of people, though usually in the company of Thor and one or more of his four companions. No one at any point mentioned Loki. This gradually started to make him uneasy.
"Thor," he said somewhat cautiously, "I notice that most of your people go armed most of the time. Is this customary, or have I come at a particularly bad time?"
Thor nodded. "Truly we are still somewhat unsettled. You may know that Loki recently seized the throne of Asgard when the Allfather was...indisposed?"
"And afterwards he first allowed the Jötuns to invade, and then turned the power of the Bifrost upon their realm, attempting to destroy it."
"I'd heard something about it. That was how the Bifrost was destroyed, right?"
"Yes. I shattered it to keep it from destroying Jötunheim. So, between these events and Loki's attack upon Midgard, you see us in a more warlike aspect than usual. It is customary for men to wear a blade of some sort, but usually most are content with a dagger. Most women don't bother, unless a blade is useful in their work. My mother can wield a sword at need, but she carries only a small knife, and most often uses it to cut flowers."
"But you trained as a warrior, right?"
Thor sighed. "Yes, we all did. But more as a matter of custom than with thought of actually taking the field. Our last full-scale war was with the Jötuns, when I was a child. It was a game to us; we played at combat as others might play at bowls or morris. Sif joined us not because she wished to kill, but because she finds needlework irritating, and has no skill in music. As it turned out, we found more use for our weapon-skill than we had planned." He looked thoughtful. "One favor Loki has done me, for which I remain in his debt. I have lived, however briefly, as a mortal among mortals. I know what it is to be powerless, and to face death." He looked into Rogers' eyes. "I will not soon forget that lesson."
Rogers glanced aside, uncomfortably. "I...have gone the opposite way. It was hard for me to remember, at first. Until I began leading men, ordinary men, into battle. We'd get hit. I'd get up and keep going. They...sometimes didn't."
Thor nodded. "They chose well, who armed you with a shield," he said.
"I hope so."
The subject of combat training having been brought up, Thor and his friends invited Rogers to watch them sparring in the ring. To the Earth-trained eye, their combat at first seemed terrifyingly brutal. But as he saw, again and again, the combatants shrug off apparently lethal blows and then laughingly compare notes on particularly effective attacks, he adjusted his expectations.
When Thor offhandedly mentioned that Captain America's shield had been able to ward off a blow from Mjölnir, he was persuaded to let the others try their own weapons against him. They were impressed by the result.
He begged off trying out sword, spear and bow, but was able to hold his own in knife-fighting and unarmed combat. Sif was a particularly eager opponent; she was lighter than he, but quick as a cat. He was never able to catch her with the same trick twice, and she frequently asked him to teach her techniques that were new to her, teaching him others in return.
One damp and chilly moonless night, the six of them went hunting for bilgesnipe; a particularly disagreeable and aggressive creature. "They fight each other often," said Thor, "and lay waste to the countryside in doing so. We hunt them to keep their numbers down; they are useless as game—inedible flesh, lumpy scarred hides."
"But we don't wipe them out," said Sif, "because they are at least good sport."
An hour later, as one of the creatures gnawed dedicatedly on his legs, Rogers decided that 'good sport' was not the term he would use. He mentally thanked Thor for lending him armor, and tried again to get a grip on the thing's thick neck.
The following week, almost recovered from the bruises and strains incurred on the bilgesnipe hunt, Rogers was standing on a balcony with Sif, watching the stars come out.
"Does Asgard please you, Steven?" she asked. "Or do you wish yourself home again?"
"Asgard pleases me very much," he answered, "though it is still very strange to me. But as for wishing myself home-that's not really an option."
Sif winced. "Ever it is my misfortune to speak without thinking," she said. "I crave pardon. Let us speak of other things."
"It's all right," said Rogers. "At home, when there's something big no one is acknowledging, we say it is an elephant in the room. An elephant is a very large animal, not suitable for bringing indoors," he added. "About the size of a bilgesnipe; though elephants are less vicious. They can be tamed."
"A bilgesnipe in the room," she mused, and laughed. "It is a vivid image."
"Anyway. My history, on Earth and here, is the elephant in the room. Everyone's aware of it, but nobody wants to mention it. It's okay."
"Thank you for your courtesy," said Sif. "And, of your courtesy, will you answer a question that I have?"
"Of course," said Rogers, bracing himself for another round of 'what was it like to wake up and find everyone dead' .
"Will you lie with me?"
Rogers rocked back on his heels. "Whoa. Um..."
"I am sorry," Sif said. "I have offended you. Forget that I spoke." She turned as if to go.
"No, no, wait," said Rogers. "I'm not offended. I was just, um, expecting a different question. Stay, please." He took her hands. "Before I can answer you, I need to . . . tell you some things. And ask some questions of my own."
"Very well," she said.
"First: In the time and place where I grew up, if a man slept with a woman without marrying her, she was ruined—dishonored—forever. But the man was not. I don't pretend to understand the logic, and I'm told my people don't believe that any more. It's not like that in Asgard, is it?"
"No!" said Sif, shocked. "My body is my own, to share with whom I will, and no dishonor is brought on anyone!"
"Good. And please excuse me for asking; I meant no offense."
"I take no offense. How else are you to know our ways, if you do not ask?"
"Thanks. Another thing: In the time and place where I grew up, there was no sure way not to, um, start a baby. Again, different now. But how is it in Asgard?"
"We conceive only when we wish it. And that is rarely, and after long and grave consideration. For you perceive, very seldom does one of us die; therefore seldom need another be born."
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "One more thing: I have never been with a woman. Are you willing to be very patient with me?"
She drew him close and kissed him, gently and unhurriedly. After a while she drew back and said, "I would be honored."
Three months, which at first had seemed an extravagantly long stay, flew by rapidly. The days were full. Rogers explored Asgard, climbed mountains, swam in fast, frigid rivers; hunted both game and monsters; discussed the history of both realms; listened to Asgard's poetry and music and (occasionally, in small select groups and with suitable libations) shared some of Earth's. "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "How High The Moon" entered the repertoire of Odin's bards.
The nights, too, were rich and eventful, and he spent most of them in Sif's arms.
"You'll be going back to Midgard soon. May I crave a boon?"
"What can I do for you?"
"Give me a child to remember you by."
He felt the blood rush to his heart, leaving his hands and face cold and numb. "No," he said flatly. He rose to his feet. She stood too, more slowly.
"Steven?" she said, alarmed. "What is—you look as though you'd been struck. Why—"
"I said no, Sif," he said. "No further discussion."
She flushed. "I will not be spoken to in my own house like a truant servant," she said.
"I'll be happy to leave your house, then," he said, and did so.
She gave him the rest of that day and the next to cool down. They nodded politely to each other when they passed, but did not speak. Thor and Fandral witnessed one such encounter; Fandral raised his eyebrows at Thor after the two had retreated in opposite directions. "What, have love's fires cooled already? Sif is not usually so quick to change."
"I have no idea," said Thor. "But I have, at least, learned not to stir a hornet's nest out of mere curiosity. It will pass, or if it does not, one or the other of them will say something to the rest of us."
"If they are to make peace with one another, their time is short," said Fandral, glancing at the waxing moon.
Sif decided to confront the bear in its den. She declined to take advantage of Rogers' "Come in" in response to her knock, instead opening the door but remaining outside it. "Steven. May we talk?"
"Come in, Sif," he said, standing up. "I owe you an apology."
"I think I owe you one too," she said, "though I'm not sure what my offense was."
"I'm sorry I flew off the handle at you."
"Flew off—? Wait. As the head of an axe might, if it were not well secured. I see it. Another good image. You're forgiven, though I would like to know what caused you to—fly from the haft?"
"Fly off the handle. I—overreacted. It's not your fault. I panicked."
"Is it that you do not wish a child of yours to grow up apart from you? I can understand that. Though it would lack for nothing, and be well cared for."
He frowned. "I wouldn't like it, no. I'd want to be with the child, watch it grow, help it. But that's not it."
"Tell me, then. I would understand how I hurt you, that I may not do so again."
Rogers sighed. "Sit down," he said, gesturing her to a chair. He took another. "How much has Thor told you about my life before the serum?"
"He told us that you were weak and sickly, and suffered much from having a warrior's heart in the body of a slight and frail youth."
"He has no idea. He doesn't know—he can't know—what it was like."
"I'd rather not. It will sound like whining, and in any case, it's over. But when I think of a child like me, growing up in Asgard—" He broke off and looked down at his hands, lying in his lap. They were trembling. "It would be hell, Sif," he said without looking up. "Possibly eternal hell."
"The child would have my blood also, Steven," she said quietly. "And he or she would be treasured and brought up with all care and devotion."
"Like Loki was, by Freya and Odin," he said.
Sif drew breath sharply.
"Listen to me," Rogers said. "This—" he held up an arm, flexed it, "this is not me. It's something grafted onto me. What I am is unfit, unsound, defective. I will not bring another child into this or any world, to live through what I lived through."
"Your strength is only a part of what you are—" Sif began.
"Listen to me!" Rogers cried again. "You cannot possibly understand. There are no weaklings here. There are no cripples. No born victims. No walking targets. And I will not sire a child to be the first."
She was silent for a time, watching him. "You are sorely hurt," she said. "I am sorry that I touched that wound. I wish I could bind it for you."
"I wish I could be the man you thought I was," he said, more quietly. "I can pass for one of you, Sif. But it's all a lie."
"You saved your city twice, Steven," she said. "Once at the cost of seventy years' sleep. That was not a lie."
"If you had a dog that rescued a drowning child," he said, "would that make you a hero? This body is my dog. It's not me."
"Who are you, then?"
"I'm the kid who stumbled down the sidewalk after everyone else. Who sat up all night trying to breathe, and trying not to make a noise that would wake his parents. Whose father called his mother a whore, because no son of his could be such a useless weakling."
Sif came to him, folded her arms about his shoulders and leaned her head on his. "Steven. Let the past be. This is who you are now. A leader of men. A warrior and a strategist. My lover."
Rogers swallowed and leaned slightly into her embrace. She stroked his hair and came around the chair to half-kneel in front of him. "You are the child who endured taunts and failure and bitterness without seeking revenge. Who dared risk his life to be of use to his people. Who bore pain and fear and contempt without turning back, because he refused to abandon his duty. You were a hero before you ever heard of that serum." She took his hands and pulled him to his feet, brushed his hair back from his forehead, and kissed him. "Come to bed," she whispered.
Rogers stood stock-still. "All the time I've been here, it's been such a relief. Finally, nobody needs me, I thought; nobody's trying to use me. I thought I was free." He shook his head and pulled away from her. "But it's the same here. I won't give you what you ask, so you'll find a way to take it without asking."
Sif's ringing slap rocked him so hard he stumbled back two paces. Her eyes blazed in her white face. "You are a stranger in Asgard," she said in a harsh, measured voice, "and you are the guest of my friend, and it is unworthy of my station to challenge you. But had any other man spoken such vile slander of me, I would have claimed my forfeit in his blood on the field of honor."
Rogers stood stunned. Then he began, bitterly, to laugh. He shook his head. "You can rest easy, Dad," he said. "I'm your son, all right." Slowly, like an old man, he got down on his knees. He bowed his head. "I am a coward and a fool," he said heavily. "I will say so in front of Thor and Odin and all the people of Asgard. And I will meet you on the field of honor, and you can claim your forfeit, but I will not lift a finger to uphold such a filthy lie. Sif, I am sorry."
Sif was silent for a time, her jaw still tight with anger. "Fair words," she said at last. "But I can still hear the others."
He looked up and met her eyes. "Thor said there was no deceit in you," he said. "I should have trusted his word."
"Thor said also," said Sif slowly, "that your pain was great, and that you had been cruelly betrayed. I should have marked it. A man who has once been ambushed sees the shadows move behind every tree." She reached down to help him up, not with the handclasp of a lover, but with the forearm grip she had used after knocking him down in the sparring ring. "Shall we begin again, Steven? Or shall we only forgive, and bid each other farewell as friends?"
"Your decision," he said. "Would you send a soldier back out who had failed so badly on his last mission?"
"How else would I know whether he had gained wisdom from his failure?"
"And if he hadn't?"
"The risk is mine to take. And this soldier has shown that he learns quickly, and is not easily overcome."
In the brisk and erratic morning breeze, Agent Barton was practicing, skimming cardboard disks into the wind and then shooting them back down, when Huginn called from the top of a swaying pine tree. Greeting the bird with a wave, Barton hung his quiver on a corner post of the deck and collapsed his bow. The raven glided down and perched beside the quiver, eyeing it with interest. He reached out with his beak and gently ruffled one of the fletchings with the same motion he used to preen his own feathers. Barton drew breath to object, then stopped himself. The bird gave him a sharp glance, then continued his leisurely exploration, delicately sorting through the arrows. After a time he looked up again, half-opened his wings and shook them with a rattling sound. One of the primaries on the right wing stuck out askew. The bird fussed with it for a time, then pulled it free and held it in his beak. He took three graceful hops along the railing and extended the feather to Barton. The archer took it, slid a finger along its perfectly smooth edge, and measured it by eye. The ghost of a smile touched one corner of his mouth.
"Thanks," he said, and slipped the feather carefully into a side pocket of his quiver. Then he went to tell Selvig of the messenger's arrival.
The hum, the breeze, and then the blaze of light, and Captain America was standing on the platform. It was a brilliantly sunny morning; the spire and equipment stands cast long, crisp shadows across the roof.
"Thanks for the transportation," he said. "I guess the first question is, what day is it? And is everything all right?" He looked closely at Stark. The man's color was good, and he sat easily in his chair.
"It's March 4th, 2013, and yes," said Banner. "Welcome home."
"It's good to be back," said Rogers, stepping down and opening a pouch on his belt. "I have some souvenirs for you. Dr. Banner." He held out the metal capsule that held the isotope samples, and a serrated, dark-ivory-colored tooth five inches long. "Miss Foster; Thor sends you this and says he hopes it won't be long before he can see you wearing it." He gave her a delicately formed but substantial gold bracelet set with pearls. "Mr. Stark; this is from Thor's friends, in honor of your strike against the Chitauri fleet." This last was a finely-wrought dagger in an ornately enameled sheath of red and gold. "I have gifts for Dr. Selvig, Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff too," he went on.
"They're flying in tomorrow," said Foster. "They sent their regrets for the late arrival; they're going through Dr. Selvig's house and my RV to be sure we didn't leave any interesting clues for—well, anyone who might come looking."
"So how was Asgard?" asked Stark.
Rogers shook his head. "I can't even begin to tell you," he said. "They have flying castles. It was...It's the kind of place you'd imagine would produce someone like Thor. And someone like Loki. And a lot of equally surprising people. And things."
"And what did this come from?" asked Banner, a Christmas-morning light in his eyes as he intently examined the wicked tooth.
"A thing called a bilgesnipe. I helped kill it. Actually I basically got chewed on by it and bashed it in the head with my shield, which kept it busy long enough for Thor's friend Sif to kill it. She's handy with a boar-spear."
"I give up," Romanoff said. "I might be able to find it eventually, but if we're assuming any kind of a reasonable timetable, no. You're a dead man, Clint."
Barton grinned. With the sweat pouring down his face and the dark circles under his eyes, it was more disturbing than cheerful, but none the less sincere. "Want one?" he asked her hoarsely.
"Yes, please," she said, untying his arms from the chair. "But get some sleep first. You're breaking my heart."
"Choose a sequence of images that means something to you," Selvig instructed her as he helped Barton hold a bottle of water and take a drink. "Either temporal or spatial, but it should be a detailed sequence, with a single, specific order, and one that Loki wouldn't know and can't readily look up or get from someone else. Strong emotional content is helpful. A clockwise circuit of your first-grade classroom is good; the National Mall is not. Don't tell anyone what the sequence is. We do the encoding under deep hypnosis, so until it's triggered, your ordinary consciousness is not aware that you're hiding anything. You'll choose a separate image or event that will serve as a trigger, when combined with Loki's reappearance. For example, after you've encountered Loki, the next time you hear the name 'New York' will trigger the first step of your sequence."
"So you don't even know it yourself, you bastard," said Romanoff, "and you won't until Loki comes back."
"That's right," Barton mumbled, still smiling a bit giddily. "Until Loki comes back and someone says the magic word. Or whatever..." The sentence trailed off as his eyes drifted shut and his head sagged forward. Romanoff put a hand on his chest to keep him from toppling out of the chair.
Selvig looked up at her. "Were you being completely candid with him?" he asked.
"No. I don't know what the hidden plan is, but I can tell he's carrying a suicide pill, for the first time since I've known him. And I noticed one of his arrows is different from the others. Keep that in mind, if he goes down and you're nearby."
Capt. Rogers, who had been carefully brought up, was composing a thank-you note to his host.
"Please give your parents my thanks and best regards," he wrote, "and tell Sif I miss her already." He paused to think. Then he sighed, and continued with the less conventional and more difficult part of his message.
"Dr. Banner has finished analyzing the radioisotopes he sent with me. He says they show that the transfer does involve what he calls a time dilation. To me, it seemed the trip only took a few seconds each way; and roughly the same amount of time passed here and in Asgard; I don't seem to have lost or gained any time. But the isotopes show that while I was gone I experienced a much longer physical duration—something like thirty years for the round trip. I know what this means to you, and I'm sorry. But I'm very grateful that we were able to find out this way, without putting Miss Foster at risk. Thank you again for the invitation, and take care. —Steve."
He looked into space for a few moments, then took out the key Selvig had provided him, transliterated the note, rolled it up and handed it to Huginn.
[Thanks to Maroof for the idea that became Ruth Jacobs' dissertation, and to Jen for razor-sharp beta.]