Fandoms: The Avengers
Characters/Relationships: Tony, Steve, Bruce, Thor, Clint, Natasha, Maria Hill
Word count: 28,728
Spoilers: Uses elements up to The Avengers.
Content Advisory: Action/Adventure, medical emergency
A/N: The second half of this story written for wipbigbang (first 11k written in 2013, last 17k finished in 2017). Amazing art by ensign_c. Also on Tumblr here. Thanks to brighteyed_jill for betaing!
Art: Amazing art by ensign_c can be found here.
Summary: The Avengers Initiative is assembling: The Thunderer - Tony Stark, Iron Man - Thor Odinsson, Captain America - Natasha Romanov, and The Black Widow(er) - Steve Rogers are being thrown together to go after one Clint Barton, who can become a rage monster known as the Hulk, and his bow-wielding protector, the radiation scientist Dr. Bruce Banner. Together these six people might just be able to save themselves and the world they've taken by storm.
On Ao3 or below the cut
The Helicarrier did not fail to impress, a floating behemoth held up with roaring engines larger than some small towns, with air-masked technicians and pilots tethered on running safety lines as they tended to different aircraft secured to the deck. Inside, it was even more advanced, the space more generous than a sea-going vessel, the corridors large enough to not induce claustrophobia, the main command deck looking like something out of a science fiction movie, with screens and floating holographs allowing the dozens of agents to tend to their duties in style. Despite the bustle and the fact that everyone was armed, Clint didn’t feel the reflexive wariness that had become part of his life for so long. Maybe because it was the lack of the usual military uniforms, or the fact that while no one was obviously running ahead and clearing the corridors, no one was giving him the side-eye of “I wonder how fast I can put a bullet in this guy’s brain?” No ostentatious, or even subtle, guards around him. People were looking at him, so he wasn’t being deliberately ignored, but they were also looking at Tony and Thor, Natasha and Bruce too. Even Steve, though that was with more respect and familiarity. The glances were neither hostile nor cheerily welcome, but just reserved and respectful.
Clint hadn’t felt respected by people at large in a while.
They were meeting on the command deck, at a huge round table right behind the commander’s station. Standing there when they arrived was a woman maybe a few years older than Natasha, fit and strong, dark hair pulled back in a no-nonsense knot, her uniform similar to Steve’s, with a quiet SHIELD logo on her shoulder.
“Director Hill,” Steve said, nodding. She turned around and looked at each of them in the eyes before gesturing to the table.
“Stark, Banner, the lab’s that way if you want to-” Hill didn’t even get the rest of her statement out before Tony and Bruce exchanged a look and popped out of their seats to the lab visible through the glass wall behind them.
“It’s been a while since he’s had a real lab,” Clint said. He shot a look at Natasha and stopped trying to slouch. This wasn’t the Army. He didn’t need to slump and hide his profile from cameras, at least for now.
“I figured. Barton, thank you for helping with the Destroyer.”
“What was I supposed to do? Just let it burn up Canada?”
“I know this wasn’t your first choice of life path,” she said, and that actually made Clint smile a little. “But that’s not what we’re here for. Let me show you what happened up here. Stark and Banner are getting a similar play-back in their lab.”
A screen dropped down from the ceiling, and a scene of security footage started playing. It started with a long shot of the Destroyer, along with accompanying audio of people watching it approach, trying to warn it off, firing warning shots, and finally firing shots meant to destroy the unknown bogey. The hits did nothing more than deflect it slightly, and the Destroyer abruptly flew in right to one of the firing turrets. The scene switched to inside as the walls cracked, some people getting crushed or sucked out, others clinging to parts of the room desperately.
“In the name of Loki, King of Asgard, where are the Avengers?” it thundered, the voice metallic and loud enough to hurt people’s ears, judging by the wincing on tape. When no one answered in a way it liked, it pushed its way further in, making another person lose their grip and go flying out into the sky. It focused on the remaining agents, a peculiar green light coming from some device clamped to its shoulder and back. The sound went wonky for several long minutes, and one of the agents’ mouths was seen working as his eyes stared dully. The Destroyer finally stood, then leaned forward and plucked every one of the remaining agents from their perches and threw them out the hole it had created. Then it turned and blasted away.
The Hulk stirred in Clint’s subconscious, and he thought very fiercely, when we find who’s responsible for this, we are going to smash them so hard. The Hulk gave a wave of fierce assent, and Clint was able to turn his attention back to the others. The others looked very grim, Director Hill most of all as she split the screen so Bruce and Tony could be seen from the lab.
“Damn. Who sent the death-package? I don’t think it was Loki, no matter what the Destoyer said. My memories of him don’t exactly have him going in for direct confrontations like this. Also, never even met the guy personally, and the rest of you he doesn’t know from Adam, so I have no idea why he’d want the rest of you or anyone in SHIELD dead. It’s not like the rest of you have any beef with Asgard or any other of the Nine Realms.”
“Indeed, this does not have the stamp of my brother’s work,” Thor said thoughtfully.
“Expand on that?” Steve prompted.
“Loki,” Thor said, “my brother is known for his cunning, intelligence, and clever words. He is a skilled magician as well as a warrior, but when in battle, he is far more subtle than this. He would be more likely to concoct a ruse to have us fight and eliminate each other, had that been his aim.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said softly. “If whoever is behind this wanted us dead, finding something to set off Clint and then making sure all of you were nearby… Maybe Tony could have given the Hulk a run for his money, but Thor, even you wouldn’t last long against him. No offense.”
“Having seen him in the flesh, I doubt it not,” Thor said, nodding at Clint.
Clint could only shrug. It was a sound tactic, and had it been someone other than him, it would have been an easy call to make. Much better to have your enemies eliminate each other.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go up against him either. Ever caught a baseball thrown by a professional without a mitt? I felt something like that even through Mjölnir’s haft when I hit the Destroyer after the Hulk tossed him up. A punch straight from him would definitely not make my day. Your boy’s got talent, Banner.”
“…thanks, I think,” Bruce said, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m right here,” Clint said, but he didn’t mind them talking over him. At least he knew they gave a crap.
“More importantly, the Destroyer has no ability to extract information. It is like an attack dog. You tell it of its target, and it destroys it. It does not bargain and threaten and read thoughts,” Thor said. “Nor would my brother announce it, I think. If he truly desired our destruction, and had planned it out as he does all things, he would have wished to see the fruits of his labor.” He waved his gauntleted hand. “We are alone.”
“Are we?” Natasha asked. Steve raised an eyebrow, but nodded.
“We didn’t have overwatch for this mission, no,” he said.
“Heimdall could have found us from Asgard with no need to use Midgardian sources,” Thor said. “If there was anyone of Asgard directly involved.”
In the background of the lab cam, Bruce carefully separated something from the main mass of melted electronics, compared it to something on another screen, and brought Tony over to look. “These look like…” he trailed off, then locked eyes with Clint, “sonic cannons, but modified. Ross tried to use some of those against Clint.”
Clint breathed in and out through his nose, nodding tersely. His memories of being the Hulk were always very foggy and fragmented, but he remembered the sounds that had nearly flattened him at Culver College.
“They’re supposed to be non-lethal crowd control, but there were some theories if you could focus them, certain sound waves could be used for a lot more versatile purposes. Most of which would have been banned by the Geneva Convention, which is why the sonic cannons were shelved,” Bruce said, looking like he was trying very hard not glare at Tony when this was clearly a surprise to everyone.
“Stark Industries did shelve them. Ross pulled out a bunch of experimental crap after he raided the black-bag budget when he was trying to run down Bruce and Clint. Pepper about melted people’s ears off when we saw our stuff on the Culver College footage. Thing is, is this Ross?” Tony asked.
Bruce very reluctantly shook his head. “How could he have known about Loki? Or you, Tony? Or any of the rest of you?”
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but I haven’t exactly been keeping a low profile. I’ve kept Mjölnir out of my public appearances, but that’s about it. Now, for Mr. Black-Ops, here, that’s another story.”
Steve just gave Tony a look. “My public profile is best by being non-existent.”
“Someone knows about Asgard, enough to get one of its weapons out of storage, and enough about us to get our location just as we’re assembling. This is more than just wanting to break us up, this is an opening salvo of war,” Natasha said.
“Then we need lines of communication open,” Hill said, and looked at Thor. “Is there a way to get to Asgard?”
Thor looked at Tony, who set Mjölnir on the lab table with a heavy metallic thud. “Yeah, there is. Get us back on the ground, and let’s go see what the king has to say.”
“What about that tech?” Steve asked. “If we already have sonic mind-control on the table, it would be really damn useful to know who has their hands on that. No one who has that is going to stop using it.”
“Baseline is Stark Tech, but it’s definitely been modified, and whoever did it was no slouch. I can think of a half-dozen names off the bat to check,” Tony said with confidence. “And I can have a countersignal made within a couple hours. Until then, use earplugs.
“Give the names to me,” Hill said. “We’ve had a few other incidents world-wide that now suddenly make a lot more sense. I’ll get Fury, Coulson, and May to spearhead the teams to check out your possibles while you’re abroad.”
“Steve mentioned those,” Natasha said quickly, seeing the way Hill shifted meant she was about to turn them loose. And they hadn’t gotten nearly enough answers yet. “What incidents?”
“Taken separately, small glitches. Operatives gone rogue. Double agents turned triple. By the time Rogers had them pegged as something more coordinated and less typical than our usual suspects, well, we had more things to worry about.” She made a small wave at Thor and Tony and Clint.
“But now what were anomalies suddenly make sense,” Steve said, picking up the thread. “What had been audio interference or something else that could be explained away now fits.”
“With Stark and Dr. Banner’s counter-signal for us to stop any further uses of that tech, we need you all to check out Asgard and figure out who’s trying to start a war between worlds,” Hill said decisively.
“Why all?” Natasha said, watching Hill closely. Steve, at least, would outwardly be of much better use here.
“Because if someone comes for us again, best we not be here,” Clint said flatly.
Hill’s nod let him know he was right on target. “So, get off my planet. And see if the king of Asgard has any answers for us.”
When the cascade of rainbow light and wind had finally left them standing on a golden floor in a room that looked like the inside of a Faberge egg, Natasha made sure to stand as straight as she could, nodding to the golden-eyed man unsheathing a huge sword from the center of the room.
She would not be intimidated by anyone, not even interdimensional gatekeepers from another dimension. Also she would definitely not lose her lunch on Asgard’s golden floor.
“Heimdall!” Thor said cheerfully, his faceplate popping open. “Long has it been since I’ve seen you, my friend.”
“And longer since I’ve seen you.” Though Heimdall’s voice was resonant and deep, it still sounded somewhat faint. Possibly because Tony was standing just to Thor’s side, casually tossing Mjölnir from hand to hand, and whistling. Her eyebrows raised a moment later as she realized the tune was, “It’s a Small World, After All.”
Even though it had been written after her time she had heard that song far too much after some well-meaning SHIELD agent took her on a tour of the country that had included a stint at all the major theme parks. Unfortunately she couldn’t kick Tony from this angle.
Rogers looked like he was utterly unaware of Tony, but that was part of his job. Banner was either ignorant, or a really good actor. Barton was desperately trying to not laugh.
“Indeed,” Heimdall said finally. “Things have been interesting here since you left--”
“’Interesting’ isn’t the word for it,” Tony said. “I ended up with this lovely lady,” he patted Mjölnir fondly, “instead of Thor here, he ended up joining me in a new job, both of us got recruited by Super Spy and a frozen national icon, picked up a pair of fugitives who can give all of us a run for our money, and then we get blindsided by an Asgard vault guardian who engaged in a little recreational murder and mind-reading before dropping by to try to kill us. Oh, and he did it in your king’s name.”
Tony just raised an eyebrow to punctuate the sentence, waiting for Heimdall to make the next move.
“The king is waiting for you. The answers you seek are his, not mine.”
“And my father?” Thor asked, his voice a little softer.
“Still sleeps. It has been long since he has been in the Odinsleep,” Heimdal said. “Your mother watches over him. And your brother has been ruling aptly.” Heimdal paused, and then looked over at everyone else. “There is transportation waiting for you outside.” He gestured to the glittering rainbow road that lead from the chamber, and Natasha could just see a glimpse of blue sky and fantastical golden buildings outside. Banner was looking antsy, though Barton less so. Maybe being in a place so big felt less confining for the Hulk. She shot a glance at Rogers, and he started to move them out, her following a breath behind. This place had protocol, and they already had violated it by merely existing, she suspected. Natasha was not going to risk an incident on another world, nor intruding in on Thor’s family questions.
“Have we done something to anger him?” Thor asked, his voice echoing down the chamber tunnel.
“Not you,” Heimdall said, and then his voice faded away to a murmur. Tony stomped out a second later, subsiding his irritation into interest as he saw the red and gold winged… open-topped planes? that were apparently their transport. He jumped into one, his hands moving slowly at first over the controls, and then with sudden confidence.
“Come on,” he said, waving them in. “Between Mjölnir’s help and their very nicely intuitive interface, I can have us to the palace in no time.”
Natasha looked over at the bewildering array of buttons, flashing panels, incomprehensible labels, glowing floating shapes, and hovering bits of metal, back up at Tony, and sighed.
“Tony,” Banner said, shaking his head, “when you have an automatically-translating Asgard-to-
English dictionary in your head…”
“-I could still outfly you,” Tony said without missing a beat. “But I dearly look forward to you proving me wrong, later.”
Rogers turned his head away to hide a bit of a smirk. Thor emerged from the Bifrost gateway a moment later, looking solemn, and sat down beside the others without a word.
“Let us go. We have much to discuss with my brother.”
“I don’t see much family resemblance,” Rogers murmured, sotto voce so as not to be overheard by any of the Asgardian court.
Natasha didn’t say anything in response, but she agreed with him. Loki was built on much more slender lines than his brother, far more lithe and fox-faced, clean-shaved with long dark hair. Despite the armor and elaborate helmet, he didn’t look like nearly as much of a fighter as Thor. But if what Thor had told them was true, between Loki’s magic and the weapons of Asgard, he didn’t need to be.
“Well met, brother. I see Midgard has been kind to you,” Loki said. His voice gave away nothing.
“But Asgard has not. What of the Destroyer?” Thor demaned, his armor flashing under the throne room’s lights. They’d all been given Asgardian court dress before being allowed into the throne room, and Thor was in something that must have been close to his princely armor before he’d been exiled. Natasha could see where the design for the Iron Man armor had come from.
“Not sent by my hand or will,” Loki said. He tapped his staff twice on the ground, and the crowd of courtiers abruptly filed out, leaving them alone. “I would have alerted you to the theft from the vaults, brother, but things had become rather complicated.”
Tony scowled darkly as Loki’s eyes slid over to him. “Sorry to rain on your parade, but Mjölnir made the choice, not me. If you’ve had tall, dark, and golden-eyed spying on my every move since Afghanistan, then you damn well knew where to drop a letter, Fresh Prince.”
“What theft?” Barton asked urgently, his voice skipping over a chuckle. Likely that was another reference to add to the list.
“The Destroyer itself. Which would not have gone, if someone had not had the means to move it, then take it over.” Loki pointed his staff at the floor between them, and an image of the vault appeared, strange artifacts in alcoves, some glowing, some floating, with the Destroyer at the end of the room, solid and implacable. And then it glowed blue as a perfect circle appeared, sucking it through backwards into a void, a brilliant pale blue that left Natasha’s face bloodless.
“The cube,” she whispered, and Loki looked up sharply.
“The woman out of time,” he said, nodding. Another gesture with the staff, and an image of a glowing blue cube appeared, floating in mid-air. “The Tesseract. It had been hidden on Midgard for many centuries. Until your time. Then it was lost again, until the Destroyer was taken.”
Rogers was looking at her sharply, but Natasha would have to explain later. “Why couldn’t you find it?!”
“Things such as that defy finding. They sometimes have minds of their own. You know just a fraction of its power. Its wielder is unknown to me.” It seemed to pain him to admit the last.
“The Tesseract? That… holy crap, Dad worked on that thing. That’s what Red Skull was using to fuel Hydra tech,” Tony said. “I thought you dumped it in the ocean.”
“I did,” Natasha said tersely. “It was too powerful for any person to have, and if it hadn’t dropped right through the deckplates of the Valkyrie I would have probably chucked it in myself.”
“Back up,” Rogers said, palms out. “Forget this Tesseract thing for a minute. How did whoever has it on Earth know about Asgard, the Destroyer, the vaults, and you? Why tell everyone it was doing everything in your name?”
“One of your people?” Banner asked.
“Possible. More interesting to me is that it declared its intentions and forced information out of those who would have refused. The Destroyer was adaptable and self-repairing, but it does not speak, has no will, and cannot control the mind.”
“That, we figured.” Tony said. “Someone co-oped some of my tech, then added their own twist. We’ve got a few names we’re running down.”
“It also narrows our suspects. The crossover between who knows enough about the Asgardian vaults to get out its protector, and only that--” Natasha said.
“Nothing else was taken? You don’t break into the local equivalent of Fort Knox and not take any gold,” Clint said, shaking his head.
“No one would care to know that more than I,” Loki said. “But why attempt to start some conflict with Midgard? You offer little challenge.”
Tony looked ready to jump in at that, but the last thing they needed was to get into a pissing match with the ruler of Asgard. Luckily Barton broke in before Natasha had to intervene.
“Did offer little challenge,” Barton said. The others turned to look at him. “Between all of us, we took down something I don’t think the Army could have even dealt with. That’s no damn coincidence. It wanted us dead, and if we’d happened to be somewhere populated, I don’t think it would have even hesitated about casualties.”
“There must be some way to see if someone has left Asgard for Earth other than Thor, or if someone communicated with someone here,” Steve said. His fingers flexed, and Natasha knew he was itching for a way to connect to the Asgardian databases, anything to get the answers they needed.
“Then allow me to scry. There are ways of seeing into the past that I can invoke – they are not done lightly or easily, but it is clear this had moved beyond just the concern of Asgard. I will call for your return when I have managed to find what I can.”
Loki’s guards guided them to several side chambers, warning them that it would be several hours before Loki could complete his work. Tony was examining some Asgardian… something-or-other in one of the outer chambers, a thing of hovering bits of metal and light that moved in strange patterns. Natasha wasn’t sure if it was a scientific device or a child’s toy, only that it was well out of her range of knowledge. Bruce had pulled Steve aside for an intense discussion while Clint was hovering nearby, putting in a pointed comment every few moments. Whatever they were talking about, it didn’t look like an argument, and Natasha let them be. Likely both of them had a lot of questions for Steve about SHIELD, and he was by far the best to answer them, despite his secrecy that had to be a reflex by now. But Thor had gone to a balcony overlooking a garden below, and Natasha joined him. She wasn’t likely to get a view like this many times in her life, even as strange a life as it had been.
“They have much to discuss, all to the better, I think,” Thor said, nodding in the general direction of Clint and the others.
“They deserve answers. Both of them have been working without a net for too long,” Natasha said. Steve was likely a fantastic liar when he had to be, he couldn’t have been what he was without that skill, but here, out of the range of any Earth surveillance, she hoped he could drop his habitual caution and get Bruce and Clint all the answers they needed.
“This journey, it is likely to mean something very different at the end, for all of us. Like Clint said, our power has been acknowledged. Soon more than our enemies will know.”
“And everything will change,” Natasha said, leaning on the balcony next to him.
“We are all changed. Tony is… changed,” Thor said, looking out over the balcony meditatively. “He went through great tribulations in his captivity, and that would be enough to make any man or woman change their outlook. If Mjölnir had not chosen him, and if he had survived, I believe eventually he would have conceived of this armor and power source on his own, and used it to rectify the wrong in the world. But he was indeed found worthy, and changed in other ways.” Thor looked at his hand, and drew the dagger at his side. Of all of them, he looked most at home in the vaguely medieval clothing and weapons they’d been offered to wear. He scored his arm lightly through the gaps in his armor before Natasha could protest, and beads of blood welled up.
“When I was cast from Asgard, I was stripped of the powers of my people, not just of Mjölnir, but the abilities of any Aesir. The flesh of my people is dense, and a normal Midgard blade or projectile would not bother us in the slightest. We have the All-Speech, and can understand any language spoken, and be understood in return. And we live a very long time. I had not kept close track of what was happening on Midgard when I was young, but from what I do remember, and why my friend Jane Foster had determined, I am over a thousand of your years old. Maybe far older than that, but the calendars of Asgard don’t correlate well with Midgard. And now I find myself as a Midgardian. Blades cut, bullets hurt, even a skilled fist or something as simple as a taser can lay me low. There are tongues I do not know on Midgard, and now in coming back to Asgard, find I cannot understand some of my own people. And I know I will grow old, that I will age and die in what will be the twinkling of an eye for my brother, my mother, my father.”
Natasha would have found Thor’s explanation unbearably sad if he hadn’t been so calm, so matter-of-fact. She knew he was a man of great passion, but for other things, he took a long view that betrayed his real age.
“All of this I learned when I realized Mjölnir was in the hands of another, and all that I no longer had, I mourned for and was able to eventually let go. Then, I met Tony. And realized he had gained what had changed in me. I do not say lost, for I have received gifts as a Midgardian I would have not been able to as an Aesir. But Tony doesn’t always understand what has happened to him. He is mighty and strong, very hard to hurt, but Mjölnir has also planted within him some of the knowledge given to any Aesir, taken from my memories so that he would understand who had chosen him, and why. He is very different, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Not that any of this has made him less. Indeed, I think it has made him a great deal better as a person. But very few around him understand what has happened to him.”
“I think we might,” Natasha said. She looked at Thor sideways, and took off one of the decorative sashes on her dress, prompting him to turn towards her as she wrapped the slight wound on his arm. “All of us have been changed, for a lot of reasons.”
“And that is why this initiative, this gathering of heroes, will work. We have much in common. I even think that in some ways, I am the opposite of you.”
She looked up at him, and raised an eyebrow of inquiry.
“You had determination and heart, but not much power, and were given it to protect your people. I had great power, and used it at the end for my own pride. It was taken from me, and I had to learn humility and compassion, and find a new way to protect the people I had come to care for. It is a journey I don’t think I would wish on anyone-.”
“But you’re glad it happened to you anyway,” Natasha said, putting her hand back on his arm, above the bandage. Thor put his hand over hers lightly, covering it completely. Having seen what Tony could do, she could guess that Thor must have been utterly terrifying with Mjölnir at his side.
“Yes. I believe fate drew me here.”
“I’m starting to believe in fate,” Natasha said. “I wake up from something that should have killed me only to find out that the Cube is suddenly active? If I didn’t see something at work there, I’d be an idiot.”
“And you are not that, Natasha,” Thor said. “You are our inspiration. And my friend.” He leaned down and took her hand, gently kissing the back of it. She kept ahold of his hand for another moment, then slowly let go, the heat of it lingering.
“When things get a little less hectic, let’s talk about that some more,” she said. It had been a very long time since 1945. And longer than that since she’d had the freedom to think of more than survival.
“I would care for that very much.” He tilted his head back towards the doors as one of the attendants opened them. “Let us see if the searches have borne fruit.”
“What are we looking at?” Steve demanded.
“A viewing of the past. It seems the Tesseract was within a Midgard facility for quite some time.” Loki’s voice was calm as he stretched out his hands over a pool of water that had appeared in the throne room since they had left.
Shadowy images swam in the bottom of the pool, and Steve pressed his lips together. “I know that place, more by reputation than anything else. It’s a top-secret communications array parked out in the desert in New Mexico.”
“Someone was experimenting with it, attempting to withdraw power from it, as it had been before.”
“Replicating Schmidt and Zola’s weapons,” Natasha said, with venom in her voice.
“However, at a recent point, the experiments became a great deal more focused. The power was being withdrawn for something more specific. Around that time, the Destroyer was taken. It was taken some months before the six of you all met.”
“That’s disconcerting,” Bruce muttered.
“There were patterns to the power, and though I can’t track the Tesseract directly, I can track how the power flows. See here.” Loki twisted his hand, and lines of glowing blue threaded up into the outline of a vaguely humanoid figure with a glowing blue heart…
“Someone was making blueprints,” Tony said decisively. He blinked once, and then said, “Oh, man.”
“If they were making copies of the Destroyer…” Natasha said, appalled at the idea of a legion of those things on Earth.
“They succeeded, because they sent the Destroyer after us. Which means what they have isn’t quite as strong, or isn’t ready yet, but they have all the information they need. They just couldn’t wait to field-test. Or they wanted to make sure people wouldn’t be looking to Earth for the source of the problem,” Bruce said.
“How, though? If this thing and the person were in a SHIELD facility, they still have to be getting in supplies to make their destroyer-bots. That stuff doesn’t come cheap,” Clint pointed out.
“Have you ever seen SHIELD’s budget?” Steve said.
“How did whoever did this know about the Destroyer at all?”
“Because during their experimentation, they found the true purpose of the Tesseract,” Loki said. “It is meant to transport things, to pierce the walls between worlds. Including Asgard. They were able to contact someone here who told them.”
Loki looked over at Thor, his expression suddenly softening. “Your exile was hard on many, you realize. Some never got over your absence.”
“Who?” Thor demanded.
Loki nodded to one of the distant guards, and he returned in a moment with a woman in armor, her hands shackled in front of her in elaborate gold-colored manacles. Her long dark hair was tied back tightly, and her expression could have been carved from stone. When she caught sight of Thor, she blanched, and Thor looked stricken.
“Lady Sif,” Loki said, very gently.
Tony’s expression said very clearly, oh shit, and he leaned over to give a quick whispered explanation of, “One of Thor’s closest friends before he was exiled.”
Oh shit indeed.
“Why?” Thor asked, taking a few steps towards her, but stopping himself abruptly. “Sif, what would possess you to do this?”
Loki just looked at her, not willing to give her any relief, and she finally caught Thor’s eyes. “You left us.”
“It was my own fault, my own arrogance. My father was right to punish me so,” Thor said, his eyes glistening with tears. “I tried to do something unforgivable.”
“Why couldn’t you find Mjölnir again? Why did you stop trying to get home? You know how dangerous that power could be in the hands of a Midgardian.”
Tony’s mouth opened, and Bruce put a hand on his wrist and shook his head. As Natasha had expected, that didn’t stop him. “Lady, I know in ways I didn’t even know were possible before a few years ago. I’ve been trying to stop violence, not give some guys on Earth blueprints to a nearly-indestructible death machine.”
Sif shot him a hate-filled glare. “And before that? You reveled in death. In your hands, we could have seen Mjölnir battering down the gates of Asgard.”
The insult stung, Natasha could tell, but Thor rallied quickly before Tony could speak. “Because she found Tony worthy and chose him, not I, to wield her.” Unexpectedly, Thor took a few steps back and flung his arms around everyone, urging them forward. “My friend, my path on Midgard lead me to these people, each of whom is fighting for justice in their own way. We have all endured our trials of fire or ice, betrayal or exile, and I believe we were brought together by fate. We will avenge Midgard, if we must, from those who would see it destroyed.”
Sif looked down as Natasha could see the others standing straighter. “I… did not know. The ones I conversed with betrayed me, went back on the vows we swore. How was I to know your new friends wouldn’t do the same?”
“Who did you talk to?” Bruce asked. He stepped forward until he was a few feet from Sif, and Natasha could see Clint trying to edge forward without seeming too obvious. Manacled, guarded, or not, Sif was Aesir and could probably break Bruce with a single punch.
But apparently Sif had seen something in Thor and the other Avengers.
“One was a scientist who worked with the long-lost Tesseract. His name was Killian,” she said, barely looking up. “The other was a warlord, a general. His name was Ross.”
Bruce and Clint’s expression went fairly murderous, and Natasha didn’t blame them. Steve jerked his head slightly in surprise, and Tony looked furious. Ross. Despite his failure to capture Clint or Bruce, the man still had plenty of power within the government and the Army. She didn’t know how. She suspected blackmail. If Ross didn’t end up behind bars or worse after this, she was going to get Steve to find out why.
But the other name…
“Killian…” Tony said, shaking his head.
“Aldrich Killian?” Steve asked. “Advanced Idea Mechanics? He took some of SHIELD research contracts for weapons development when Stark Industries bowed out.”
“No good deed, or bad one, goes unpunished. I snubbed the hell out of him some dozen years back when I was drunk off my ass and he approached me with some wild theories. I barely remember that night, to be honest, but when AIM went public a few years ago, he did a nice, polite ‘screw you’ to me in public. Brought some of that back. That was right before Afghanistan.” Tony looked torn between embarrassment and anger.
“And after, since Stark Industries stopped making weapons, AIM ended up getting real tight with some of SHIELD’s R&D,” Steve pointed out.
“Ross would sure like to work with someone who hated your guts, because that would get him what he wanted too,” Bruce said.
“It seems that Asgard, in this cavalcade of villains, is little more than a convenient scapegoat for their ambitions,” Loki said thoughtfully. “A source of information and power, perhaps even a place to work, but more a distraction for you than anything else. They would likely need someplace out of Midgard to make enough of these Tesseract-fueled Destroyer-copies without being detected. That amount of power would draw too much attention. They could be brought to Midgard—”
“In numbers and force as soon as they’re ready with their endgame,” Natasha finished.
“Which is… what?” Bruce asked.
“World domination?” Clint said sarcastically. Loki nodded, and Clint blinked at him.
“They are working with the Tesseract. It tends to warp one’s view unless one has very exceptional protection.” His eyes slid over to Lady Sif for a moment. “If you are unprepared, it can turn your whole world inside out.”
“Is the Tesseract still on Earth? Can you tell that much?” Natasha demanded. Her heart sped up and her stomach sank. They’d gone from a walk to a sprint in a matter of seconds.
“I believe so. We of Asgard will try to find where they are building these copies.”
“And we shall find the Tesseract and those abusing it. If they attempt to open a pathway, it will be obvious, yes?” Thor said, looking over at everyone else.
“Now that we know what we’re looking for, plain as the sun in the sky,” Tony said. “Damn, we need to get back, now.”
“Heimdall is ready for you,” Loki said, as the images in the pool subsided into nothingness again. As everyone was filing out as quickly as they could, Loki called out, “Best of luck, brother!”