And now the second part of the epilogue, following on directly from the previous and conveniently hitting the nice, round number in chapter 80.
"How did the meeting with Fury junior go?" Tony asked.
"Not bad," Pepper said. "He wanted us to build helicarriers. When I said that we didn't do weapons, he pointed out SI's work with SHIELD and said that he could handle weapons. He wants just about everything else, though. And he gave us a budget, in case we decide to take the contract."
"I don't do well on budgets," Tony said.
"You'd do well on this one," Pepper said, and pulled out the cheque, handing it to Tony, who scrutinised it.
"Is this a joke?"
"He seemed pretty serious to me," Pepper said. "We can talk about it later. What are you working on?"
"My legacy," Tony said, swivelling in his chair. "Pep, look at me. Look at what I've done. I spent decades building weapons, right up until they came around to bite me. After that, yes, I became Iron Man and, well, I've done a few pretty awesome things."
"Tony, you've saved the world at least three times now," Pepper said. "You've stopped your weapons falling into the wrong hands. You've put your mom's charitable foundation into overdrive. You have, and are, making the world a better place."
"Maybe," Tony said. "But, when I found out you were pregnant…" His hand travelled to the bulge of her stomach. "I began to think. Have I really done enough? I mean, yes, I've saved the world, I've mitigated some of the damage I've done to it. But have I really made it a better place? Have I made it one where I can bring up my kid and, eventually say, look kid, this is the world your daddy's leaving behind for you, and be happy about it?" He shook his head. "No," he said. "My weapons are still out there. Not just unused ones, but mines, bombs, all sorts of things that have been laid out, things that are still taking and destroying lives."
"So what's this?" Pepper asked.
"This is my answer," Tony said. "I had plans for an Iron Legion, a bunch of drones all over the world that could end conflicts and save lives. Do what the Avengers do, basically. But after seeing JARVIS being taken over by that Zola freak, those drones that HYDRA had and the fact that they got everywhere… I decided that drones aren't the way to go. So I renamed it and redesigned it."
"'Project Rescue'," Pepper read.
"R.E.S.C.U.E.," Tony corrected.
"What does it stand for?"
"I don't know yet," Tony said. "Recovery, Extrication, Search, Containment and Universal Extraction? No idea. Acronyms are cool and legal wouldn't let me have 'International Rescue'."
"So, what is this?"
"Suits," Tony said. "Twenty suits, stripped of weaponry – even the palm repulsors will be limited. Instead of weapons, they'll have a full sensor array to detect people under rubble, weapons, mines, that sort of thing. That's just the basic load out too – they'll be modular, able to change gear as circumstances require. I'm also working on a kind of stretcher arrangement and remote control lifeboats. Basically, they'll primarily work on disaster prevention and relief, able to respond quicker and arrive quicker than any conventional response team. They'll be able to get to remote places, too – even helicopters have fairly stringent LZ requirements. A suit can land pretty much anywhere. And if it's a conflict zone? No problem. Even my early suits could take a round from a T-72 and these will be much more advanced. They'll even have shield generators, to protect themselves and civilians."
"What about the pilots?"
"Maybe I'll be recruiting from the Peacekeepers – it would probably be best if this worked with or as part of the UN, for diplomatic reasons," Tony said. "Preferably, pacifists, with a full background workup. Rhodey and me can train them." Pepper arched an eyebrow. "Probably mostly Rhodey. And I'll be drafting Charles in to make sure that there isn't some brewing psychosis or deeply hidden background as a spy, because even stripped of conventional weapons, I wouldn't want to meet one of these babies down a dark alley, much less have the specs turn up on the black market."
Pepper nodded. "Is this personal, or do you want Stark Industries to fund it?" she asked.
Tony paused and frowned. "I'm not sure," he said. "Probably me and maybe the foundation too – it'll tie in pretty heavily to the mine clearance work." He nodded decisively, a light in his eyes. "Yeah. I profited from this. Now, it's time for me to start giving back."
Wisdom was also innovating, albeit in somewhat less moral ways.
"Porton Down," Betsy said, glancing around the large complex. "I've heard stories about this place."
"Whatever those stories were, they probably don't live up to the reality," Wisdom said, as he made his way into one of the newer buildings.
"Maybe," Betsy conceded, following him into a lift. "One thing that's puzzled me is that this is where all the chemical warfare, biological warfare and weird stuff was studied. Yet despite all that, despite Captain America being based out of Britain for several years, we never tried for a super soldier."
"Just because you never heard of it, Braddock, doesn't mean it didn't happen," Wisdom said darkly, as they descended into the bowels of the Earth. "For which reason I'd keep your psychic senses on a leash for the time being – I don't know what you might pick up, but it won't be pleasant. More to the point, I need you firing on all cylinders to monitor this."
"Speaking of which… are you sure this is a good idea, sir?" Betsy asked dubiously, as they reached an observation room above an operating theatre. "I mean, we are pretty much violating every single law of nature here." She looked through enchanted glass at the dark lab and the strange, cobbled together equipment. On the operating table were two bodies, covered up. That said, a careful observer could discern that they were the exact same height. "Also, I'm getting a serious Doctor Frankenstein vibe."
"We're MI13," Wisdom said. "We violate the laws of nature for a living. Besides. Every spooky organisation worth the name has a nigh-immortal operative whose name strikes fear into just about everyone else. I think it's time that we got one. Did the equipment check out?"
"Bearing in mind that I still think that this is a terrible idea and I don't think that it's ever been done before?"
"Well, it should work. But I have no way of knowing for sure until you try it," Betsy said.
"That's good enough for me," Wisdom said. He pressed the intercom button. "Begin."
The blanket was pulled back. The two men it revealed could have been twins, if you took into account that one of them was quite obviously dead, and not in the best shape after around 8 months. If the grey pallor and rigor mortis didn't say that, the bullet holes in his head and stomach, surrounded by crusted blood, managed it quite nicely.
The equipment began to hum, and both bodies began to jerk, flopping about on the table like gaffed fish. After a few moments, the machinery began to power down and, aside from the fact that they were now splayed at odd angles, neither of the bodies seemed to have changed.
"Anything?" Wisdom asked through the intercom.
"Afraid not, sir," one of the scientists said apologetically.
Wisdom swore and turned away.
"Sir?" Betsy said.
"How do you know?"
"Well, I felt a mind in the LMD body," Betsy said conversationally. "That was a definite clue. Now there's the way that he's got up, freaked out over his old body and started beating up anyone who gets in his way."
"He managed all that in less than twenty seconds?"
"Yup. Efficient, isn't he?"
"Of course he is, that's why I brought him back from the bloody dead," Wisdom said, opening the door just as the LMD stormed up the stairs. "Can you stop him?"
"Sure," Betsy said, butterfly patterns forming on her face. The newly inhabited LMD went down like a sack of bricks and Betsy gave him a once over, gaze briefly hovering on his groin. "Well, well, someone was blessed by nature. Or mad science, I guess. Depends whether it's true to life or not. And if it isn't, it says weird things about the science department."
"Judging by his reputation, it either is, or he was good enough not to need it," Wisdom said. "Can he hear me?"
"Good," Wisdom said. "Release him. And yes, I am sure."
Betsy complied, and the man slowly stood up, eyes wary. "What the hell just happened to me?" he asked.
"What do you remember?"
"Why would I tell you?"
"Because I can get my Agent to extract it from your brain if you don't and because I'm your superior officer," Wisdom said, pulling out his ID and flicking it over.
The man examined it for a few long moments, processing this. "Wisdom. MI13," he said. "I've heard of you." He nodded. "So. I died, then. The Winter Soldier killed me and somehow you brought me back."
Wisdom cocked an eyebrow.
"Somehow you brought me back, sir," the man corrected. "How? Why?"
"You familiar with LMD's?"
"Life Model Decoys. Creepily lifelike remotely controlled robots developed by SHIELD," the man said. "Too expensive for much more than very specialised use and with too much valuable technology to risk, most of the time. In general, bloody useless."
"You're in one," Wisdom said. "The most realistic yet, a synthesis of magic and bio-technology. Everything works as it should. Someone would need a DNA analysis to be able to tell that you're anything other than human, though they might figure it out from the fact that your new body is self-repairing. And in the blink of an eye, you can look like someone else entirely."
He took out a cigarette and lit it with a blade of flame from his fingertips. "And why did I bring you back? I brought you back because you're the only person alive other than Romanova who ever got the drop on the Winter Soldier. Because you're one of the best at what you do and you don't care whether it's very nice," he said. "And because in a world like this, I need, Britain needs, a man with your talents."
"I see," the man said. "I've got one question."
"How may I serve my country, sir?"
Wisdom smiled and stuck out a hand. "Welcome to MI13, Agent Bond. I hope you survive the experience."
Mercifully, not all of Wisdom's antics were quite so ghoulish.
"King T'Challa," Wisdom said, standing up. "Pleased to meet you."
T'Challa nodded. "The pleasure is mine," he said. "I have no doubt that HYDRA resurfacing in London has made you a very busy man."
"A bit," Wisdom said. "But you're the newly minted King of Wakanda – my condolences, by the way. You're going to have more than a little to deal with yourself."
"I do," T'Challa said. "And that is why I am here today."
Wisdom's gaze went past him to the two stern looking women in well tailored suits that nevertheless probably concealed enough weapons to slaughter a platoon and the skills to use them.
"And brought your bodyguards," he said. "The Dora Milaje, roughly translated as 'Adored Ones'. Chosen at a young age, trained in the arts of war, politics and spycraft to become the ultimate bodyguards of the Wakandan King. And, traditionally, to become the wives of the King, to keep the line strong, the inbreeding related crazy out and dynastic wrangling to a minimum. Most dangerous group of women in the world, save the Red Room's Black Widows, with the advantage of generally being sane."
"Not all traditions persist," T'Challa said. "And I must admit, I am impressed. Not many do such diligent research."
"It's my job to know things," Wisdom said. "And one tradition persists, doesn't it? Wakanda being very, very protective of its Vibranium. If any leaves its borders by unorthodox means, then the thief is punished severely and the Vibranium is retrieved. And that's why you're here – you want the Vibranium that we're scraping off the Dreadnought."
"The Vibranium is stolen Wakandan property," T'Challa said. "We will, of course, pay for its transportation back to Wakanda and if required, we will help with the 'scraping off'. If nothing else, Vibranium is a very... unusual metal, and requires careful handling."
"That it is – unusual, I mean," Wisdom said. "But even if I was inclined to hand it straight back to you, HYDRA did some downright weird things to it."
"You refer to infusing it with magic?" T'Challa asked. "We know about that."
"I know you do," Wisdom said. "That's not what I'm worried about. What I'm worried about is the tinkering that their scientists did with it and how that's going to react with magic."
T'Challa gave him a long look. "You do not intend to give it up," he said eventually.
"No," Wisdom said bluntly. "In fact, if you don't mind me speaking plainly, I'd be both mad and unemployed if I did. The view in Parliament – what's left of it – is that everything in HYDRA's base or the Dreadnought is now the spoils of war. Finders keepers, essentially, possession is nine tenths of the law. And it's being taken as reparations for the damage they did. And that damage was considerable."
"Wakanda did not escape unscathed, Director."
"Your father and a few people working at the Vibranium mound were killed," Wisdom said. "And I'm sorry for that. But HYDRA killed over three thousand employees of the British government, including 97% of those MI6 members who were in Britain when HYDRA attacked MI6 at Christmas, 86% of MI13 who were in Britain during the same and nearly a hundred members of the House of Lords. The civilian casualties are still being estimated, but even with the informal evacuation prior to the battle, I'd be surprised if the number contained less than three figures. The material cost is worse. There's severe damage to the Vauxhall Cross headquarters of MI6, a number of MI13 bases, several downed fighter jets... oh, and the HMS Belfast, chock full of some of the most modern and expensive weaponry on the planet, including a job lot of Phase 2 weaponry from SHIELD, is now at the bottom of the Thames. And that's not even getting started on London."
T'Challa sat back to listen. He got the feeling that Wisdom had hit his stride and might well continue in this vein for some time.
"While Thor's kid was good enough to undo the reality warping related damage, something demonstrated by the fact that the Thames isn't on fire and there's actually still a few bridges standing over it, he didn't, couldn't, undo HYDRA's damage. So some of the most expensive real estate on the planet is now chock full of demon corpses, bullet holes, laser fire – I repear, laser fire! – and shrapnel. And that's if you're lucky. When Magneto crunched the Dreadnought, half of it ended up squashing Battersea. Chelsea Bridge collapsed yesterday. Half of the Palace of Westminster is a crater and the other isn't in all that great shape, and apparently Big Ben is about to come tumbling down any minute now," the Director continued. "The last time London underwent remodelling this big, it was the sodding Blitz!"
He sighed. "Even with heavy use of magic, loans from the US, the IMF and a lot of help from Asgard, the bill is spiralling well into the billions, maybe even tens of billions. The Stock Exchange has all but collapsed – only the promise of Asgardian help with the clean up and rebuilding is keeping it afloat. I've got the government – what's left of it – screaming at me, the Press screaming at me and just about everyone else screaming at me too, particularly if they owned – or claim that they owned – a bit of property that was damaged or destroyed."
"I see," T'Challa said. "So, returning my nation's rightful property would be... politically untenable."
"Among other things," Wisdom said. "Look, if nothing else, we bloody need that Vibranium. A lot of old and nasty things are paying attention to humanity again. And there's the young ruler of Latveria, Victor Von Doom, who bears careful watching." He let out a brief bark of grim laughter. "Sorry, Doctor Von Doom. He's touchy about that."
"I was under the impression that Latveria was a small and fairly unremarkable former Soviet state, booming economy aside," T'Challa said.
"It is. Its ruler is a different story," Wisdom said. "He's ambitious. He can back up that ambition by being one of the smartest people of the planet and a magic user powerful enough to attract a former apprentice of the Sorcerer Supreme himself, a fellow called Mordo, to teach him. Oh, and he occasionally sends robots to attack the Avengers. No one's quite sure why – he probably finds it funny in some weird despotic way. No one can prove that it's him, either, and not for lack of trying." He waved this away. "We need Vibranium to make the likes of him think twice, but that's not the immediate reason. I doubt that most of the general public have much idea that Latveria exists, much less where it is." He snorted. "They probably think that it's where Dracula has his holiday home."
"What is that reason, then?"
"Public morale," Wisdom replied. "HYDRA were hiding in the middle of our backyard, wiped out our secret service and a good portion of the government and gouged a couple of bloody big holes in our capital. We beat the bastards, with help, but if we start meekly giving up what could reasonably be considered the spoils of war... morale would go even further through the floor than it already has."
"I might argue that I need it back for exactly the same reason."
Wisdom smiled a shark's smile. "Yeah, and that's not the only one, is it?" he said. "The old Wakandan reputation for invincibility is crumbling and it has been for a while. First, that grubby little arms dealer stole some Vibranium. Klaw, right?"
"Klaue. Ulysses Klaue," T'Challa said evenly. "And he did not escape unscathed."
"But he got to keep the Vibranium he stole," Wisdom replied. "Now HYDRA, killing a Black Panther in single combat for the first time in what, two centuries, and making off with literal tons of Vibranium. Now, people are going to be looking at Wakanda and saying, 'well, they beat off colonial armies well enough, and they do have some pretty nifty tech, but they haven't kept up with the times. They're vulnerable.'"
"I assure you, Director, that if anyone comes to Wakanda looking for a fight, they will regret it," T'Challa said, voice steely.
"I'm sure you're right," Wisdom said. "But that won't matter. Up 'til recently, Wakanda had a mystique. The proud, unconquered African kingdom, with its mighty warrior kings, dealing with the world only on its own terms, beating back every attempt to challenge it. That mystique got it respect, maybe grudging, but real respect nonetheless. It made people think twice. But now... people will see vulnerability. They'll think that you haven't kept up with the times, whether that's true or not. This is politics, King T'Challa. The facts are never allowed to get in the way of a good story."
"I know this already, Director," T'Challa said. "And that is exactly why I will have the Vibranium back."
Both men stared each down.
"And what will you do if I say no?" Wisdom asked quietly. "Wakanda's a very long way away. You don't have anywhere near the firepower to take the Vibranium back by force, I'm not sure if there's a nation on Earth that does. Wakanda's isolationist history means that you don't have much global diplomatic pull, either. Untouchable mystique's all very well when you can look after yourself and you want people to stay out of your back yard, but it doesn't make many friends – you'll get no joy there. You don't trade with anyone much, so you don't have any leverage to try and get economic sanctions. And while you've got a sympathy vote in your dad being killed by HYDRA, we've got one a lot bigger than yours." He leaned back. "I'm sorry, your majesty. I really am. I like you and I've got a lot of sympathy for your position, because it's pretty much just like the one I'm in. But you've got no leg to stand on."
T'Challa's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure about that?" he asked. "Regulus?"
Wisdom's eyes widened. Then, they too narrowed. "How?" he asked, not bothering to try denial.
"Wakanda might not have as many friends as Britain, but we have our own means of finding things out," T'Challa said quietly. "And our own people whose job it is to know things."
Wisdom eyed him. "Okay," he said. "So, I don't give you the vibranium, you, what, tell my superiors? Release it to the press?"
"Probably the former, though I wouldn't rule out the latter."
Wisdom smiled. "Not bad. But there's a few flaws in that," he said. "First, my nose tells me that that's the only real piece of information on me that you've got. If that fails to inspire compliance, you've got nothing. You're bluffing on a very bad hand. Second, the Death Eaters aren't like HYDRA. They don't have brand recognition with the general public. You go public and people would just look at the tattoo and think I joined a weird gang or cult when I was a kid, then managed to get out. And that's if they even noticed, in this situation. Third, I got a royal pardon. Fourth, if I'm fired, my deputy director thinks pretty much the same way as me, and she'll be that much less inclined to play ball. You'll have played your only card for nothing. Fifth..."
He leaned forward, expression suddenly cold and hard. "How dare you," he said softly. "How dare you imply that I would put my own reputation ahead of my country. How dare you!"
T'Challa was silent for a moment as the words echoed around the room. "You are a man of many layers, Director," he said. "I misjudged you and I will not do so again."
Wisdom shrugged. "It's okay," he said. "Not many take me for a patriot. Patriotism is something that we British don't really do, in a public sort of way. Now the Americans, broadly speaking, they're all reverent of their Constitution and proud to bits to be American. 'One nation under God' and all that bollocks. But in Britain? We're quieter about it." He looked out the window. "And I came to it fairly late in life, after I became Peter Wisdom. To maintain the cover for my new identity, I had to become familiar with ordinary people, non-magical people. Then, my job took me all over Britain. And after a while, you could say that I fell in love with my own country, idiosyncrasies, contradictions, downright mad traditions and all."
"I know the feeling," T'Challa said quietly. He had spent much of his youth abroad, and when he'd finally come home... well. He'd done what Wisdom had. He had walked among his people, learned how they lived and slowly, steadily, been seduced by his homeland.
"I suppose you would," Wisdom said. He looked thoughtful. "All right, let's see if we can work out a deal. Some of the vibranium is unworked and it hasn't come into the accounting. My people can 'stumble upon it', so to speak, in a day or two, return it to you as a good will gesture. As for the rest, we don't know much about vibranium. Your people do. You lend us a few of your scientists and help us dismantle the vibranium tech and reapply it safely. That way, you know what's happening to the vibranium, where it's going and what's being done with it. On top of that, you get de facto veto rights on how it's applied – after all, how are we poor fools meant to know what's safe to do with vibranium and what isn't?"
"Interesting," T'Challa said. "But still very slanted in your favour."
"It's going to be, your majesty, no offence meant, and I suggest you get used to it," Wisdom said bluntly. "In return, we perform introductions for you, worldwide. You have diplomatic missions around the globe that your dad opened, sure, but that's just superficial stuff. You don't really have an in anywhere. You get invited to the parties, sure, but that's just politeness. We can introduce you to the global movers and shakers, the people who you want to go to work on the nitty-gritty behind the scenes, help secure a favourable whatever and talk to whenever everything's officially gone frosty but business still needs to be done. And since it's us doing the introductions... well, we're not a superpower any more, but we still have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a place at the table at NATO and the EU. And then there's the Special Relationship. Not as smooth or as even as we'd like, but it's there. Point is, people will listen. They will know that we are people who do business and take you all the more seriously as a result. It'll save you years of effort and lots of political capital."
"You make it sound like you're planning to engineer the introduction of my nation to the Mafia," T'Challa said dryly.
"Underneath the surface, the drinks parties, nice suits and smiles – all three of which you get around the better class of mobster, come to think of it – there's not that much difference, trust me," Wisdom said. "It's much easier to bend and break the law when you make it, after all. Point is – we exert what influence we have to grease the wheels help bring Wakanda out of its splendid isolation, because these days, that just doesn't work. Key point – we help you do it on your own terms and as smoothly as possible."
T'Challa was silent for a long moment. "This sounds... interesting," he said. "Though Wakanda is long used to both isolation and to honesty from its kings. My father took steps to change things, but nevertheless…"
"Old habits are hard to break," Wisdom said, nodding. "Can you work around it?"
"I believe so," T'Challa said eventually. "The return of the unworked vibranium is key. But only if I had a guarantee of all of the above, including explicit veto powers over the use of the vibranium. And, in the fullness of time, reparations for the loss of the vibranium."
"HYDRA were the ones who stole it."
"And you are the ones who now have it," T'Challa said. "Possession, as you say, is nine tenths of the law. Even of debts. Especially of debts, since you shall be reaping the benefits of that Vibranium. You have more Vibranium than has left Wakanda in a thousand years." He steepled his fingers. "I am also not a fool, Director. You said yourself that your government is in the process of seizing HYDRA's assets, many of which will be of considerable value, especially their financial assets. It can be described as our share of the spoils, as it were, but I expect it eventually."
"Could open up a precedent I don't like," Wisdom said. "I'll have to speak to my lawyers about wrapping it up to avoid leaving us open to legal challenges from other parties. But fine, in the cause of maintaining world peace. Though you might have to wait most of a couple of decades for them."
"As long as they are promised in the form of a binding contract, and perhaps a first, symbolic payment. The already promised Vibranium and perhaps a valuable artefact or two, numbers dependent on value, unearthed from HYDRA's stores, since liquid finance will be tied up in rebuilding London. If that is made in short order, then I will be content," T'Challa said. "The only issue that remains is whether your government will accept this."
"They will," Wisdom said. "I'll couch it to 'em as the result of hard negotiation – which should do your reputation some good – and the cost of doing business. And I might insinuate that it could lead to closer trade and diplomatic links with a global technological leader and a regional power. And, maybe, in the fullness of time, trade in vibranium." He raised a hand to forestall T'Challa. "I don't expect there to be any, now or ever. Don't particularly want there to be, either. As far as I'm concerned, even if we didn't have any vibranium of our own, it would be safest to keep as much of that stuff safely locked away as possible. But it's something to bait the hook with, if they're still reluctant. Jam tomorrow and all that."
"Very well," T'Challa said. "As long as we understand that the jam stays in tomorrow."
Wisdom nodded. "You have my word," he said. "Besides, they're an outgoing government; the Prime Minister's overseeing the rebuilding effort, then he's stepping down, falling on his sword for sake of party and country. If he wasn't going to jump, the poor bugger would be pushed. None of its his fault, far from it, but he carries the can. And truth be told, I think he wants a quiet retirement after the excitement of the last year or so. Once he's gone, there'll be a big old reshuffle at the top and an election, which they will probably lose. As far as they're concerned, the diplomatic coup will be theirs – a deal with Wakanda, good enough to keep a job lot of Vibranium on British soil, bringing the legendary Hidden Kingdom in from the cold? That'll be a right feather in their caps, something to wipe away some of the mess that HYDRA's left behind. The financial problems and the nitty-gritty of making it work, meanwhile, will be the next government's problem. Right now, they need a win and they've got too many other problems to question providence at the moment."
T'Challa considered this. It was probably, he thought, the best deal he was going to get. Wisdom was right – there was no way to take it back by force, little diplomatic capital to expend and no way to wrangle sanctions which would seem needlessly cruel even if they were possible to enact. While it was possible, in theory, to lean on other nations and their desire to avoid one of their rivals getting ahead, the resultant geo-political wrangle could take years to resolve and more to the point, they would look like vultures. Worse even; vultures generally had the decency to let a wounded animal die before starting in on its innards.
Both he and Wisdom needed a result now, which could be presented to their respective peoples as a victory. This way, at least, they would play a key part in deciding what's being done with it and in turn, find out more than a little about Britain's top secret projects, which were likely to be linked with SHIELD's. Knowledge, after all, is power.
And who knew? Perhaps the promised chance to take advantage of Britain's diplomatic capital and global contacts might turn out to be more valuable to Wakanda than some vibranium. In the long run, anyway.
There was, of course, every possibility that Wisdom was exaggerating the value of his wares – he had every reason to do so – and care would have to be taken to avoid being embroiled in the hawkish and interventionist foreign policy initiatives of Britain's closest ally, the United States, or further attempts to extract some Vibranium from Wakanda. As far as he was aware, the only Vibranium on the planet outside of Wakanda aside from MI13's was in the hands of that wretched arms dealer, who'd stolen it, Captain Rogers, who wielded a shield made of Vibranium that had been gifted to the United States government by his grandfather, SHIELD, who possessed the means to create a limited amount of synthetic vibranium, and Tony Stark, who had somehow synthesised an allotrope of Vibranium in his basement.
In SHIELD's case, the quantities were highly limited and not quite as formidable as the real thing, meaning that it was usually reserved for weaves in body armour used by their best agents.
In Stark's case, the quantities were downright minuscule, possessed of rather different (but still formidable) properties and only used for powering his arc reactor.
All in all, T'Challa wasn't disposed to worry. He also suspected that both of the latter cases had something to do with Howard Stark's experience of Vibranium – after all, he had been the one to create the famous shield, suggesting a talent for working Vibranium that had previously not been seen outside of Wakanda. Maybe he'd left notes for SHIELD and for his son.
But those were other matters and the problems could be dealt with as they came. This was quite clearly the best deal he was going to get.
"I will have to speak to my advisors," he said. "But provisionally speaking... yes."
"My king," one of his guards said, once they had returned to their hotel. "I do not wish to question your judgement, but surely you cannot be thinking of letting the outsiders keep any of our Vibranium."
"I am," T'Challa said. "Because we do not have any other option."
"With the right equipment –"
"A team of Dora Milaje, perhaps led by myself, with magically lightened bags, could retrieve the Vibranium?" T'Challa asked.
The guard blinked, then nodded.
"No, Nareema," T'Challa said. "Firstly, we do not know where the Vibranium is being kept. Secondly, Wisdom might have been obfuscating when he said it, but he was right that we do not know what HYDRA's scientists and sorcerers have done to it and what effects that will have. One of them came from the Norse realm of Alfheim and owned the Darkhold, wielding sorcery that is alien to any that we have seen before twice over. Thirdly, you can be sure that it will be well defended."
"MI13 is not the force it once was. And it was never greatly blessed with manpower," Nareema said.
"No, it is not the force it once was. Under Peter Wisdom, as he chooses to call himself, it is a much more dangerous creature. Wounded, perhaps, but all the more dangerous for that," T'Challa said. "He has recruited heavily from Britain's wanded wizards and from its mutant population. The former is a known factor. The latter is not. Among that latter is his Deputy Director, Jessica Drew. Little enough is known about her, likely by design, but I have discerned that she possesses superhuman strength several times greater than my own, flight and powerful blasts of bio electricity. I also suspect some degree of pheromone manipulation, judging by her unusual smell. I have no doubt that she takes the field when required, but the fact remains that he can afford to have such a powerful asset in a non-combat position. That is a statement in itself. His right hand in the field is, if anything, even more dangerous."
"Lady Elizabeth Braddock," Nareema said. "I have read her file. Until recently, she was considered to be little more than a harmless hedonist."
"Oh, she was always more than that," T'Challa said. "Though she was very good at pretending otherwise. In truth, I am not in the least surprised that she has become one of Wisdom's most formidable assets – she always had the potential."
"You know her?"
T'Challa smiled slightly. "Better than most. Her twin brother, Brian, was a colleague of mine at Oxford," he said. "It is a pity he was not born a Wakandan – he had a remarkable talent for integrating magical lore and particle physics, one that would have flourished at home, instead of being stifled by the West's ridiculous separation of science and the mystic arts. As for Elizabeth, Betsy as she prefers to be called, she was trained in the mental arts by Charles Xavier and has gone on to train Prince Harry Thorson, who, as we have seen, is quite a powerful psychic himself."
Nareema's eyebrows shot up. "How did you find that out, my king?" she asked.
"He told me," T'Challa said. "He had contacted me via Doctor Banner, and we had met before, in New York. I did a friend of his a good turn and, perhaps, him as well. His class was studying the history of the Black Panther, so I gave him a lesson. No deep secrets, but more than enough to interest a teenage boy and his teacher. We spoke a little of matters besides that, mostly of unexpected power developments, and the subject reached his teaching." He sat down. "Another thing that Wisdom was right about was the value of friendships and contacts. That is why my father sent me abroad in the first place."
"You think that the boy could be a valuable friend?" Nareema asked.
"I do not think, I know," T'Challa said. "Speaking as the King of Wakanda, I feel that cultivating a friendship with the son of Asgard's crown prince, a young man who has already developed a large network of powerful friends and family, can only be advantageous for Wakanda in the early years of this new and turbulent millennium. Speaking as merely T'Challa, I like him. He is a kind, clever and courageous boy. He possesses surprising wisdom for one his age and makes for an engaging conversationalist. While I cannot claim to know him well, I feel that he is growing into a man that in years to come I will be glad to call my friend."
"The files on him say that he possesses a volatile temper," Nareema said.
"Name me a teenage boy that doesn't," T'Challa said. "Particularly one of his life experiences. Besides, Doctor Banner is among his friends and mentors. I do not think that there is any man in the world, in any world, better qualified to teach another about how to manage and direct anger."
Nareema nodded reluctant acceptance. "Perhaps," she said. "But with his power… he could be a threat to Wakanda unlike any we have ever seen."
"Perhaps," T'Challa said softly. "But all the reports I have read concur: he died, that night at Hogwarts. And he came back. He came back from the dead." He turned to Nareema, letting this sink in. "Tell me, Nareema, how would you defeat a man who will not stay dead? And, moreover, one who returns from death with exponentially greater power than before, power that reverberates across the globe and defies all known means of containment?"
"I do not know," she admitted.
"Neither do I," T'Challa said. "How much unworked Vibranium do you think we will get back?"
"You expect Wisdom to break his word?"
"I expect Wisdom to get away with keeping as much as he can," T'Challa said. "It is not as if we know how much HYDRA worked and how much they didn't. All we can do is guess and estimate. And if we catch him out, he will simply say that that unworked Vibranium had not entered the prior accounting."
"And this doesn't anger you?" Nareema asked, astonished.
"It annoys me," T'Challa admitted. "And part of me is furious that he will almost certainly get away with it. But in truth, I cannot hold it against him: it is his job. He works for the best interests of Britain as I work for the best interests of Wakanda, and those best interests are most likely to involve skimming off as much unworked Vibranium to play with as possible. He knows that, I know that, and he knows that I know that." He looked out the window. "We are on his territory. We play a game on a board that he has prepared. Copious amounts of cheating are only to be expecting. One day, perhaps, the boot will be on the other foot. One day, perhaps, he will play a game on a board that I have prepared, on my territory. Then, matters will turn out differently. For now, however, I believe that this is the best deal we will get."
Someone else most familiar with making deals, Lex Luthor, was currently in the process of finishing checking up on Carol, Jean-Paul and Harry, to ensure that they really were all right. Mercifully, they were. The whereabouts of his girlfriend, however, were a bit of a mystery.
She, her little brother, her colleague Doctor Richards and their friend Benjamin Grimm were currently in the care of the military, having been hit by all sorts of exotic energy, which had apparently had unusual side-effects and were being monitored to see if those side-effects were harmful. This was according to Sue herself, but Lex was wondered.
His thoughts, however, were interrupted.
"Planning to start a crèche, Lex?"
Lex looked up at his father's sardonic tone and gave him a flat smile. "I think of it more as keeping an eye on a few teenagers who I happen to like, dad. Count as friends, even. And since considering what they've been through, I think they might need a little keeping an eye on. One, for instance, lost his father and got him back in very short order. Something of a shock, needless to say." He stood and went to pour himself some scotch. "Though I wouldn't expect you to understand that."
"I understand better than you would think, Lex," Lionel replied. "After all, I lost my own parents in a fire."
"And started Luthorcorp with the life insurance money," Lex replied. "I'm sure you felt many things when they died, but I somehow doubt that grief was one of them."
"You wound me, Lex."
"No, dad, I know you. There's a difference," Lex retorted. "I take it that this isn't a social call."
"No, it is not," Lionel said. "You, my son, are of an age when you should be granted greater responsibility. A chance to test your limits. I'm putting you in charge of your own plant, starting in the Fall."
"Where?" Lex asked.
"Somewhere you've been before," Lionel said. "Smallville."
"Smallville. As in, Smallville, Kansas," Lex said flatly. "Otherwise known as the back end of beyond, the middle of nowhere and disaster magnet supreme."
"It's not that bad, Lex."
"Dad, its full of radioactive extraterrestrial meteor rocks which have an unknown degree of mutagenic properties. It is very definitely that bad."
"Well you're going there, Lex," Lionel said. "Take it as a chance to prove yourself to me. It could be the making of you."
He had no idea how true those words were.
Difficult familial discussions were, as it turned out, going around.
Clint finished his sparring session with Natasha and glanced over at Carol and Steve, who were also sparring. Steve was teaching her how to get a handle on her enhanced abilities, doubtless. That was fairly normal. What wasn't normal was the fact that Bucky, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. his actual fucking grandfather, was watching the two with narrowed eyes.
Casually, he walked towards the other man. To any ordinary observer, he appeared to be completely casual, but underneath the façade, he was calculating distances, watching the other man's hands, eyes and his posture. If the Soldier was on the verge of a relapse, he wanted every moment he could get as an advantage.
Then the man glanced over at him, eyed him and chuckled quietly. "Relax," he said softly as Clint closed with him. "I'm not relapsing."
"Then what are you doing, gramps?" Clint asked irreverently, and smirked as the other man winced.
"You're awful. If I'd raised you…" He paused and grinned. "Well, you'd probably have turned out worse, to be honest."
"Grandma wouldn't have let you," Clint said dryly.
"Probably not," Bucky admitted, before his gaze drifted over to Steve and Carol. "So, she hasn't told him, then?"
Clint looked at him sharply.
"I've known about Steve's descendants for over fifty years," Bucky said. "One way or another. The Red Room don't. Nor do HYDRA. Not last time I checked."
Clint nodded slowly. "She hasn't," he said.
Bucky kicked off from the wall. "Then we'd better do it," he said. "Because if we don't and she's as much like Steve as I think she is, this will drag out forever. Besides," he added as an afterthought. "Steve already suspects."
"It would be hard for him not to," Clint said wryly, falling into step with his grandfather. "Hey, Steve!"
"Huh?" Steve said, turning and almost absently catching an opportunistic punch from Carol.
"We need to talk," Bucky said, his gaze settling meaningfully on Carol, who gulped.
"About what?" Steve asked, puzzled.
"Shall I, or shall you?" Bucky asked Carol.
Carol grimaced, then shook her head. "Uh, Steve, Captain Rogers," she said. "You know how I've got super soldier powers? And you've probably been wondering where they come from?"
"Yes," Steve said. "And I have. I assumed that it had something to do with the enhancement that that mountain spirit gave you."
"It does," Carol said awkwardly. "Sort of."
"Well… it kind of woke up what was already there," Carol said, then took a deep breath, visibly steeling herself. "I inherited the serum from you. You're my great-grandpa."
"W-what?" Steve stammered.
"That's what the tests say," Clint said. "The kids had them done in Asgard, looked over by Frigga, then repeated by Tony and Bruce down here. They're unequivocal."
"And from what I remember, Soviet intelligence reports said that from late January 1945 to June that same year, Peggy was on leave in Britain with her family, ostensibly to recover from a wound gained in taking down Schmidt's last big base," Bucky said. "And the family celebrated the birth of a daughter in May 1945. VE Day, actually."
"How?" Steve asked feebly.
"Birds and the bees, Steve," Bucky said dryly. "Do we really need to explain them to you?"
Steve was too stunned to glare.
"Grandma was twenty something when she had Uncle Jack," Carol said, watching Steve carefully. "Highschool sweetheart or something like that."
"He's in his early forties?" Steve asked, vaguely surprised. He still looked out of it.
"He went grey early," Carol explained. "And his daughter, cousin Sharon, is a SHIELD Agent which he always jokes made it worse." She hummed thoughtfully. "He's still faster than guys half his age. Stronger, too. Not exactly supersoldier, but tougher than average. And Grandma looks like she's in her forties at the latest."
Bucky nodded. "The daughter," he asked. "How old is she?"
"Twenty two," Clint commented. "She's younger than she looks and went into SHIELD Academy straight out of school. Did an Economics degree part time, somehow."
"I'll bet," Bucky said quietly, eyeing Carol. "And I'll also bet that you and she have always been a little stronger, a little faster, a little tougher than your peers and a couple of years older than you, even the boys. Always a little faster to heal, too, and, frankly, always developing earlier than the rest."
"What are you getting at, Buck?" Steve asked.
"The formula's in her blood," Bucky explained. "I've seen it before, in the children of artificially enhanced – and I mean genetically enhanced - superhumans. Most times, puberty jumpstarts it, that or a lifethreatening situation. Sometimes though, it just lurks in the back pocket of your genetics, playing a trick or two. In that case, it doesn't really do much. A little enhanced everything, even down to fertility and the immune system, but nothing really noticeable." He shrugged. "Ageing up probably kickstarted it."
Carol gave Steve an awkward half smile. "Well. Looks like I take after you, gramps," she said.
This seemed to snap Steve back to reality. He focused on Carol for a long moment, expression unreadable. Then he looked away sharply. "Excuse me," he said curtly, and pushed past Clint, Bucky and the newly arrived Tony, out the door.
"Cap?" Tony asked, frowning.
Bucky sighed, and turned to Carol who looked... well. Hurt didn't quite do it justice, but it was a good start.
"It's nothing personal," he said. "Steve was raised Catholic. Both of us were, but he always took it much more seriously than me." He grimaced. "And you could say that I've had a hard time keeping the faith for the last few decades." He shook his head. "Anyway, his mom was a first generation Irish immigrant and she was particularly religious, you see, because as a kid... well. Let's just say that Steve should probably have died a couple of dozen times over. He had asthma, allergies, heart palpitations, illness after illness. Me, I always thought he survived because he was too stubborn to die, same way you are. But to be honest, I think he felt that he owed God for surviving all that."
"So?" Tony asked, his frown having deepened.
"So he picked up a lot of the Church's teachings. He never expected anyone else to follow them that closely, but he always did," Bucky said. "Particularly the one about pre-marital sex." He folded his arms. "And, on top of all that, Steve was pretty much mister chivalry from the beginning. The thought that he knocked up the woman that he loved, then disappeared, leaving her to have and raise the child herself, pretty much becoming the sort of guy that he always hated... it's shaken him."
"What? That's bullshit," Tony said. "He was a Capsicle. She didn't know that she was pregnant, let alone him."
Clint grunted his agreement.
"You know and I know," Bucky said. "But Steve doesn't." He glanced out the door. "So he's off kicking his own ass, or close as he can get."
Tony wrinkled his nose, then turned to Carol. "Hey, kid. You okay?"
"Yeah," she said, plastering a smile on her face. "Fine."
Tony gave her a flat look, then, slowly, raised an eyebrow.
"Okay. I'm not. Happy?"
Tony nodded. "Excuse me," he said.
It did not take long for him to find Steve.
"So," Tony said.
"I don't want to talk about it," Steve said, working a punch bag, not even looking up.
"Tough," Tony said, holding the punch bag. While for most people, this would be helpful, Steve stopped, not wanting to wind up breaking both the punch bag and Tony. "We're talking about it now."
"Tony," Steve began.
"Look," Tony said, cutting across him. "I can't even begin to understand what this is like for you. It's a massive shock. So no one's expecting you to be super granddad all of a sudden."
"Then what are they expecting?" Steve asked. "It's not a total surprise, Tony. When I saw her fight at London, even before, when I heard about what the mountain did…"
"Part of you wondered," Tony said quietly.
Steve nodded. "The reality of it, though…" he said.
Tony nodded. "I can't blame you for that," he said. "But you can't just runaway and beat up punch bags. You have a responsibility to that girl whether you like it or not and I can honestly not believe that I am the one saying this to you, not the other way around."
"I know," Steve said. "It's just, when I was growing up, the Church…"
"Steve, I severely doubt that Jesus cares about one night stands, casual sex or pre-marital sex in general," Tony cut in impatiently. "If you don't believe me, ask Thor and Loki, they actually know the guy."
Steve sighed. "It's not just that, Tony," he said. "Slice it anyway you like, the fact is that I left Peggy high and dry, pregnant and alone. Society today may not be too bothered about single moms, but back then it was a very different story. I used to hate guys who did that. Turns out I'm no better than they are."
"Yeah, that's bullshit," Tony said. "We both know that you had no way of knowing that Peggy was pregnant. Hell, she didn't even know. We also both know that you had no way of knowing that you would spend several decades as a Capsicle. Furthermore, we both know that if you had been there, you'd have married Peggy and raised lots of very pretty, very noble and very badass babies together. So get the fuck over yourself. Self-loathing is not a good look, take it from someone who's seen it in the mirror."
"I chose to sleep with Peggy," Steve said doggedly. "It was my choice and -"
"It was hers too," Tony said, cutting him off again. "Takes two to tango, Steve, and Peggy was a woman more than capable of making her own choices and giving zero fucks about what other people thought. Hell, she specialised in it, you know that better than I do. If it makes your inner masochist feel better, she dealt with the consequences then, you're dealing with them now, with interest."
Steve remained unconvinced, so Tony changed tack.
"Steve: that night you had with Peggy, it gave the world two of SHIELD's best Agents, a decorated Air Force General and a genuine superhero, all of which also happen to be great people. Between them, they have saved more lives than I can count. I'm not a philosopher, but I don't think that so much good could come out of something bad," he said. "Also…"
He took a deep breath. "You're a good person, Steve. Maybe the best, morally speaking, that I have ever and will ever know. Sometimes, it's difficult to believe that you're real. Sometimes, it's difficult to be around you, knowing that it's impossible to measure up - and don't you fucking dare apologise for that. Most times, though, it's kind of inspiring, to know that people really can be that good. Your one big problem, though, is you seem to think that you should try and be perfect. You're not. No one expects you to be. Everyone fucks up now and then, and in your case, it turned out pretty fucking well. And right now, everyone accepts that there's an adjustment period. But at the very least, you owe her great-granddaughter the time of the damn day, because reading between the lines, she hasn't had many people do that for her. And speaking as someone whose own dad was distant to say the least, it's kind of shitty. You're better than that."
Steve took a deep breath, and nodded. "You're right," he said.
The resultant meeting of generations was naturally awkward.
"So," Steve said, before lapsing into silence.
"So?" Carol asked helpfully.
"I…" Steve began, then sighed. "Look," he said. "I never had much in the way of family. My dad was killed by complications from mustard gas poisoning when I was little. My mom was a nurse in a TB ward. She got hit, couldn't shake it. I never had any older or younger siblings. The closest thing I had to family was Bucky. And while I know that chronologically speaking, I'm close to ninety – as Tony loves to remind me – in terms of biology and experience, I'm in my late twenties. Back in the forties, people would have expected me to have a kid or two by now. But…"
"You didn't see kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids coming," Carol said, moving to get up. "Look, I get it, if you don't want –"
It was one word. Not even a particularly loud word. But even so, it stopped Carol cold.
"I'm not saying that I don't want anything to do with you, god no," Steve said, shaking his head. "Far from it. I always wanted kids. Never thought I'd have them, of course, back when I was a skinny little kid with more diseases than you could shake a stick at. I didn't think I'd live that long, let alone that any woman would look twice at me. The serum changed things, though. For one thing, my life expectancy went up. And sometimes, back in the war, I used to dream of having kids. With Peggy. But after I came out of the ice… I felt like that part of my life, that opportunity, had passed me by." He sighed. "Now I've found out that it did and it didn't, if you follow me. And that's a lot to take in. I need to take some time, to think and get used to it."
A number of expressions flickered across Carol's face. Then, she shrugged and stood up. "I figured," she said shortly. "I've got stuff to deal with too, so, you know. See you around."
Steve opened his mouth to say something, but didn't really have the words. And in any case, by the time he had even the beginnings of an apology, an explanation, anything, she was gone.
"Minister," Fury replied, turning to his Chinese counterpart. "You wanted a word?"
"Yes," the Minister said. "In short, my superiors are worried."
"After a scare like we just had, I really cannot blame them," Fury replied.
"Yes, Director, but it goes beyond that," the Minister replied. "Look at the population of superpowered beings. What do you see?"
"Good guys, bad guys and one hell of a lot of somewhere in between guys," Fury said.
"Yes. And the most powerful of all three are concentrated in the West," the Minister said.
"Most powerful that we know of," Fury corrected. "But I see your point. They want to know why?"
"Yes," the Minister said. "The scientists are at work trying to discover the reasons, but... I felt that SHIELD, which has watched and protected the world for much of these last seven decades, might have some insight to offer."
"It isn't something that I've ever looked into," Fury admitted. "But if I had to guess, in the US, some of it's because we succeeded in creating a superhero with Captain America and we got a taste for them. The most obvious by-product of that little obsession is the Hulk, but there are other, less obvious ones. Plus, the Allies were pretty badly rattled by HYDRA's tech and Grindelwald, and then the Winter Soldier, so that meant that supersoldiers were the order of the day. On a wider level, I think it's because we're an immigrant nation, much though certain political factions would like to deny it. Beyond that, there's the culture of individualism - people are more likely to want to stand out, so if they get powers, they're more likely to show them off." He shrugged. "Of course, that last part is armchair philosophy. All of it's speculation, really."
"Yet it holds together well enough," the Minister murmured. "Interesting. And Europe?"
"Again, this is speculation. But on a genetic level, the British Isles is probably the key contributor. It's dimensional next door neighbour is Avalon. It's closely tied to the Nevernever, lies right on top of what might well be the wellspring of Earth's magic and is chock full of leylines," Fury said. "Hence the disproportionate number of powerful magic users it produces and the HQ of the White Council being situated there." He paused. "Also, we believe that magic has mutagenic properties, boosting the likelihood of X-Gene manifestation both in the British Isles and in the US. After all, something like a third of the US population has roots in the British Isles. Beyond that, even if it doesn't mutate, well. Let's just say that the number of fairy tale monsters roaming what is a fairly small area encourages natural selection."
"And the rest of Europe?"
"Overspill of the magic, with possible influence from the number of plagues, famines and, of course, the amount of time Europeans seem to spend killing each other probably brought out some traits faster than others," Fury said.
"Adapt to survive."
"Exactly. That, plus the fact that the Asgardians, Avalonians, Frost Giants, Olympians and their allies used to spend a lot of time in Europe, particularly Britain and northern Europe, occasionally fighting wars," Fury said. "And if there's one thing that armies do well, especially in a relatively confined space..."
The Minister snorted. "Yes. The birth rate does tend to spike wherever armies go, doesn't it?" he observed. "So, supersoldier projects, a taste for heroes, magic, ad hoc genetic mixing and natural selection, individualism and a few gifts, shall we say, from the gods, along with who knows how many others." He nodded thoughtfully. "Any one factor might not bear noticeable fruit, but many put together... yes. I can see it."
"I'd advise closer study, though," Fury said. "Into the phenomenon in general. There's always the chance that I'm wrong."
"I intended to do that anyway, Director," the Minister replied. "And I most certainly do not intend to allow the copying of the mistakes of Project Pegasus."
"Thank God for that," Fury muttered. "You lot are going for supersoldiers, then?"
"Under the circumstances, can you blame us?" the Minister replied, echoing Fury's earlier comment. "Leaving all else aside, I've heard about the Ultimates project."
"Not really," Fury admitted. "And the Ultimates isn't going anywhere."
Fury grimaced. It was true. There was only so much he could do to stonewall that particular endeavour, especially after HYDRA's renaissance and the Battle of London. And then there were the things that were stirring in Russia and its environs, things that had not stirred for decades. Beyond all that, with tech and the superpowered population exploding, it wouldn't be too long before someone in Washington managed to scrape together a team to do their dirty work. And so would begin the arms race that Strange had warned him against.
This, he thought, would require some thinking.
"Keep an eye on Russia," Fury said. "We've got good intel that the Red Room is active again. And they're recruiting."
The Minister froze, then swore extensively in Mandarin. Fury was not surprised. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet Union and China had not been even close to friendly for much of the Cold War. This was something that the Red Room had reflected and, well… the enemy of my enemy. It was a possibility worth exploring.
"If this is true," he said eventually, voice soft. "Our trials have only just begun."
"Yeah, that was my reaction, more or less," Fury said grimly. "Have I answered your questions, Minister?" he asked.
"And many besides," the Minister replied, seeming to be deep in thought and with good reason. "It was a pleasure working with you, Director."
"And you, Minister. Go well."
"The same to you, Director."
Other discussions were of similar import. Namely, when Director Fury and the Avengers, among others, gathered for a very special chat.
"Doctor Strange," Fury said. "I think it's time that we had a little discussion."
"Indeed," Thor said, expression grim.
Strange cocked an eyebrow. "About what?"
"About your involvement," Fury said. "Or lack of it."
"He's right," Wanda said. "With your knowledge and your power, you could have ended this conflict before it began."
"I could," Strange said. Then, he began to quote.
"For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail."
Once he was done, he looked around. "Tell me, all of you: which do you think would have been more helpful? My acting as a knight on the field of battle, where I would do no more good than anyone else, or by acting as a travelling blacksmith, there to replace the nail and reattach the shoe and thereby change the course of destiny?"
"That might be so," Fury said. "But I think we were missing a pretty big nail or two. Like knowledge of the timing of HYDRA's theft of the Darkhold, or of their location. If we knew those two things, we'd have cleaned this problem up a long time ago."
"Yes," Strange said. "You would have. You would have crushed HYDRA in short order; another comprehensive victory for the Avengers. You would have won the battle but lost the war. Arnim Zola would have slipped through your grasp, Baron Zemo as well, their resources intact. Lucius Malfoy would have escaped with hands suspiciously clean, free to foment trouble with his reputation untarnished. Gravemoss would have likewise slipped away to the darker parts of the world, to the places where SHIELD's writ does not hold true and caused death and destruction on an untold scale for years on end. And HYDRA's infestation of SHIELD would have gone unnoticed saved by a few and entirely unproven, while secrets like the Dreadnought would have remained in the shadows. And you would have remained complacent, certain that nothing could challenge your might, and entirely unprepared for the challenges ahead."
He looked around at them. "HYDRA needed to be drawn from the shadows into the open, like a serpent from its lair or poison from a wound, to demonstrate to the governments of the world and the general public that it is not just superpowered people or aliens that are a threat to them - ordinary men and women with no powers at all can be just as bad and those are the sort who form the bulk of HYDRA's forces. They also needed to be defeated in such a comprehensive fashion that they will never again possess such a threat and to make the people of Earth understand that the Avengers are not merely superhuman policemen, but a standard to rally around, a symbol of defiance to all who would threaten this world, to make Earth once more believe in heroes, to accept their freely offered protection."
"You're sure of that?" Clint asked, eyebrow raised.
"They will," Strange said. "The subconscious remembers and it is the subconscious that needs to remember." He turned. "Furthermore, before now, the superhuman community was only vaguely linked. Now, HYDRA is exposed and all but destroyed, while Gravemoss has fled these realms and the Darkhold is returned. Now, the Phoenix has been forced to make explicit her involvement and teach the dark creatures of this world to beware. Now, the X-Men and the Avengers are bonded tighter than ever before via realised ties of blood. And that is just the tip of the iceberg."
"Please," Loki said. "Elaborate."
"Very well," Strange said. "Namor has returned to the surface world for the first time in over forty years, and as its ally rather than its enemy for the first time in over sixty. Wakanda has been forced to open up to the outside world and is under a ruler who will engage with it, one who after a harsh lesson or two will grow from a complacent cub to a powerful panther indeed. MI13 is a force to be reckoned with, possessed of a powerful superhuman defence force under a leader who knows how to weld the supernatural and the mundane, a proactive force that gains ground where the largely impotent and corrupt Ministry cedes it and the likes of MI6 have lost it due to losses and being incapable of dealing with HYDRA, thereby bypassing years of transition as the slow collective mind of government came to realise that a new form of defence was required. The secret services of various nations have gained a taste for working together in the face of a common adversary - it is not a taste they will immediately seek out, but it is one that they will not be averse to trying again. In addition, their losses mean that a new generation, savvy to the supernatural, will take the place of an older one, more conservative and sceptical."
"In the meantime, Harry is battle-proven and battle-hardened, his psychic powers well developed when otherwise they would have been embryonic, as well as having formed a core of friends, the core of the next generation of Avengers, who will follow him into any place and any battle. Without the attack of Gravemoss' agents on Harry, Diana and Uhtred, one friendship would have remained little more than an acquaintanceship and another might never have formed. Without HYDRA's attack on Bobby Drake in the Rockies, they would never have discovered their full potential or learned the unforgiving lessons of battle," he said. "In addition, Bobby would likely not have come to the attention of Professor Xavier until something permanent and tragic happened between him and his brother, likely denying the world a truly great hero. Wanda equally would not have returned to the field of battle, nor taken an apprentice, let alone one of such talent and skill, a Starborn who is by his very nature perfectly suited to the role. One under his wing, the new Great Detective, will now be exposed to wider horizons and others like him, and he will grow into his true potential. Speaking of returning to the fray, Sean Cassidy, Alexander Summers, John Constantine, Logan, Mar-Vell, the Flamels and Magneto, all are now engaged and active in the world again when they would not otherwise have been, or working with others in ways that they would not otherwise have done. Betsy Braddock would not have joined the fray, developing her true potential, were it not for MI13's drastic loss of personnel, Wisdom's ascension to the Directorship and MI6's near obliteration. Lex Luthor would come ever closer to becoming a monster fit to make the world tremble. The Fantastic Four would not even be an idea."
"Fantastic Four?" Natasha asked.
Strange smiled. "Classified," he said.
Natasha's eyes narrowed.
"They will come about in time," Strange said. "And Lady Braddock, Mister Dresden and Mister Wayne not the only ones to realise their true potential. Jean Grey now no longer takes baby steps with her powers, understandably but unwisely coddled by Charles until they took a quantum leap she is not ready for. Instead, she is aware of her true strength, Harry likewise, and as a result both have the capacity to control it. Mister Worthington has come to accept the reality of the devastating capabilities of his wings after years of fearing the ghost of it, meaning that he is now that much closer to controlling them. And the Winter Soldier has been returned to his true self where otherwise he would have fallen through the cracks. I could honestly go on, at length. But..."
He looked at them all. "In short, bonds of trust that would otherwise take years to build or rebuild were forged, or reforged, in an instant, factions that otherwise would be suspicious of each other were united. And heroes, forged in the fires of battle, were born."
"So what you're saying is that this was all, what, was meant to be training?" Steve asked, incredulous.
"Trial by fire," Loki said.
"Trial by battle," Thor said.
"And trial by ordeal," Bruce said. "All rolled into one."
"Yes," Strange said. "Great men and women are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame."
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say that you were implying you enjoyed it," Fury said.
"Pitting my wits against several evil schemers with mixed goals and an Elder God whose very existence in this reality could undo it, with everything to play for and not an inch of room for error?" Strange asked. He shrugged. "I'll admit, it's exhilarating, the same way battle is exhilarating. However, if it could have been another, less painful way, I would have done it. But that is not an option."
"Explain why, in five words or less," Tony said harshly.
"Try three: Thanos is coming."
There was dead silence.
"Thanos," Loki said carefully.
"Yes. Not now, not for at least half a dozen years to come, but he is coming nevertheless," Strange said. "In the interim, Earth will face other threats, threats you need to be ready for, threats you need to neutralise before Thanos comes. HYDRA's war and Chthon's brief return have shaken things up. The last time the Darkhold exerted its influence on the Earth in such a fashion was during the Fall of Atlantis, which led to millennia of turmoil. While such a disaster was averted, things have been stirred up, dark things, dark creatures and shadowy groups who would take advantage of the raw materials of the new Heroic Age."
"Those being?" Steve asked.
"People," Clint said grimly. "He's taking about superhumans."
"It wouldn't be the first time," Natasha observed.
"Yes," Strange said. "You and those who would be your successors need to raise the Avengers banner high, to be a beacon of light, an example to the next generation, something that transcends national interests, religions and petty geo-politics. There will be a lot of darkness to come, as those groups and dark entities, mystical and mundane alike, jockeying for power. You need to be ready for them." He turned to Fury. "Nicholas, the Young Avengers Initiative - you need it ready within a year."
"Speaking of Young Avengers," Thor said. "What about my son? You have let him go through such trials and torments, ones that you could have averted."
"He made his choices freely," Strange said. "He made the choices that he always would have done. What I have done is ensure that he will survive to make more of them."
"The Dursleys were no choice of his," Thor said. "Nor was remaining there: Albus knew nothing of the Grey family, but you did. Why did you not intervene?"
"Because it is the Grey blood in him that attracted the creature that kept him at Privet Drive, monitoring his development as part of a grand experiment," Strange said. "To place Harry with the Grey family would be to gift Jean Grey right into the clutches of that same creature. He has caused that family enough hurt without my enabling him to add to it."
Thor subsided, unhappy but aware of Strange's logic. Fury, meanwhile, was giving Strange a very long, calculating look. Strange ignored him, looking around at the Avengers and at Wanda.
"I do not pretend to be a saint," he said. "Wanda knows this, as should others among you. First and foremost, I am a doctor, which means that I must make difficult decisions, because I cannot save everyone and I would doom you all if I tried. So I save who I can, I do what I can, to make Earth better able to defend itself, to make it ready for the battles to come. If I must sacrifice a finger to save a hand, hand to save an arm, an arm to save a body, I will. I do not always do what is morally right because I do not have that luxury. Instead, I do what is necessary, necessary to protect and ready you all, and this incalculably precious little blue marble of a planet. And I shall not apologise for it."
There was a long silence as those present digested this. Then, Steve spoke. "Can we trust you?" he asked.
Strange was silent for a long time. "We have the same aims, the same goals," he said. "Much like you, Captain, I first began to act because I was sick of seeing good people die, because some bullies must be challenged, because doing nothing was unconscionable. My methods, you might dispute and hold in suspicion. But you can trust my intentions to the end of time itself."
And that, in the end, was that.
Harry, meanwhile, was happily ignorant of most of this. For once in his life, he was able to relax and simply be a teenage boy, to enjoy life. Having died and been resurrected, invaded a HYDRA base with a number of friends to free a good half of the Avengers, engaged Gravemoss and any number of deadly foes, then banished an Elder God from his mind in less than a week, it was generally agreed that he had earned a rest and time away from trouble and ominous portents. Both, however, tended to find him.
He had returned to Hogwarts to collect his things – and apologise to the castle for blowing up half of it while possessed by the Phoenix/his mother – and having rounded everything up, was telekinetically guiding his trunk down stairs. As he was about to make his way into the entrance hall, he nearly walked straight into Professor Trelawney. "Sorry," he said, rather startled. He'd never seen Trelawney outside of her usual attic classroom haunt and had been half-convinced that she never left it.
"Oh, it's quite all right, my dear," Trelawney said, in her usual misty voice. "The Inner Eye informed me that we would encounter one another."
"Is that right, Professor?" Harry asked, carefully squelching his considerable scepticism. Just because Trelawney had made one correct prophecy – which, he noted with a flash of resentment, had wound up making his life a misery – it didn't mean that she was usually right. Indeed, her only discernible talent seemed to be a knack for pronouncing capitalised letters.
Then again, a treacherous little thought added, those tarot cards of hers and their predictions… they'd started coming true. For instance, there'd been a happy reunion, both with Jean and with his mother, he'd charged into his first fight with Daken and been made to pay for it and he'd certainly stood in judgement. Others had come true too.
"Indeed," Trelawney began, then stopped, her eyes glazing over.
"Professor?" Harry asked.
Trelawney began to speak again. But this time, it was in a harsh voice not her own.
"A great evil has passed from the world, but other terrors seek to take its place. The traitor has fallen, and from his flesh and bone, the Dark Lord has been reborn. He has returned, greater and more terrible than ever before, and now he seeks the means to become greater and more terrible still."
"Right," Harry said slowly, turning away. But before he went more than step, Trewlawney's bony hand shot out and grabbed, fingers clamping shut like a vice.
"He is only the first. I see others, lurking in the shadows. A room, the walls dripping with blood, and within it, the Ageless Kingmaker, a Thief with a Thousand Faces. A Lord of Blood, seeking to break the seal of the dawn. The King of the Wild, seeking vengeance. The Queen of Darkness, seeking power that was never hers. And beyond them all, something ancient beyond telling awakens. Embers long banked now burn again. Welcomed by fools, the twisted flame spreads unchecked once more, consuming all."
Harry didn't pull away now, positively transfixed.
"But as Twilight falls, Dawn shall rise," Trewlawney continued. "The brightest shiner, the Phoenixborn, he who rises from the ash, grows in Winter's shadow. He is one of three, always three, and a sword of fire waits for his hand. He shall find the lost, rallying them to him. One, a beacon in an ocean of fallen stars, that waits to be lit. Another, a hound in chains, that waits to break free. A third, a memory in a cocoon of frozen time. Together, they shall herald the coming of the Heroic Age. But beware: for power a price must be paid and the scales must be balanced. Victory cannot come without loss and life can only be bought with life. All the while, another approaches."
Somehow, the room seemed to grow darker, the temperature dropping, and a note of fear entered Trewlawney's strange, hoarse voice.
"From beyond the stars he comes, he whose name is death. He searches for the Six, the Infinite Six, and he shall not be denied." Her eyes met Harry's, apparently boring into his very soul. "He must face his opposite, for only then shall he face his equal."
Harry watched her carefully, honestly unnerved. Professor Trelawney, misty, useless fraud with a fondness for tacky jewellery and incense, had just… well, he wasn't sure what had happened. But it sounded unnervingly like another prophecy.
Trouble, it seemed, wasn't going anywhere any time soon.
But it wasn't all there was to life.
"So..." Carol said. "You're basically Luke Skywalker."
"Oh come on: kid from apparently ordinary background discovers truths about his dad and gets supernatural powers, then saves the day," Carol said.
"That's pretty much every book ever," Harry said, before sighing. "And my life."
"There's worse things for your life to be," Carol pointed out. "Besides: your psychic stuff basically makes you a Jedi."
Harry eyed her. "I'm not a Jedi."
"You totally are."
"Look into your heart, Harry, you know it to be true!"
"You've got lots of these jokes, don't you?"
"A million and one of 'em."
"And you're going to use them for how long?"
Carol pretended to think. "Hmm... how does basically forever sound?"
"Why are we friends?" Harry asked.
"Because we're both weird and we kick butt," Carol said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. "And if we weren't, you might go all Dark Side."
"True," Harry said. "And seriously, I'm not a Jedi."
"Keep telling yourself that, Padawan."
"What does that even mean?"
"It means that I'm going to sit your royal ass in front of a tv with the box set of the films and a bowl of popcorn," Carol said firmly.
Harry smiled, his first genuinely carefree smile for what felt like a very long time. "I can live with that," he said.
And that is the end of Book I.
After 3 years and 11 months of writing, my magnum opus is finally complete. Which is why I will immediately be moving on to the sequel because, yes, I said Book I. As I've said before, there will be sequels, many sequels, and right about now, I'll be sticking up the first (short, teaser) chapter for Book II, Ghosts of the Past. Swing on over and put it on alert.
Head on over there, because more chapters will be forthcoming (just not tonight), as well as a prequel (Project Terrigen) and possibly a Snippets style series of stories, mostly scenes I couldn't fit in the main story and long bits of backstory related exposition that would just derail things (The Cutting Room Floor) – though perhaps not immediately. I have real life stuff to do, such as get ready for my last year of my Undergraduate degree (I got a 2:1 – equivalent to 3.4 – 3.7 GPA – in my second year exams, btw, and I'm gunning for a 1st a.k.a. 4.0 GPA) and prepare for a Masters Degree.
Also, two things: prophecies are absolute bastards to write and this one shouldn't be taken at face value. About two thirds of it is fairly straight forward, others carry a twist, a sting in the tail.
Other quick points: Wakanda in the comics is a bit of a Mary Suetopia. They have the cure for cancer, but won't give it to anyone else, because they don't trust anyone with it, which is a dick move however you slice it. Their computers aren't binary, so can't be hacked. So far, so fair. But they can hack binary computers all the same, which makes no sense at all. Thankfully, recent writing has dialled back on that a bit.
Here, they're not quite that level, but they're a world leader in technology and crucially, combining technology with magic. They can also compete on an even footing economically with the likes of Britain, France, Germany and Japan. They'd comfortably be part of the G7 and most definitely the pre-eminent power in the region, probably on the continent. They wouldn't have the same diplomatic links, though, or history of having them. Britain does, because we've invaded most places, discovered most others (merely living there, apparently, doesn't count) and brought the good word of capitalism to everywhere else, because if there's one thing we're good at/interested in, it's making as much money as possible. You think the Americans are bad about it? They got it from us, for the most part. I mean, we let one of the world's first (nigh cartoonishly evil at times, surprisingly progressive at others) megacorps, the East India Company, run India and most of our other interests in that region for half a century. People might not necessarily like us all that much, but they know that we do business.
Also, apropos of nothing, is it just me, or is my Peter Wisdom is starting to take on definite hints of Sam Vimes?
In any case...