Yes, I am back, and at a relatively quick rate. Not as quick as I'd have liked, but hey. Anyway, chapter 70! Yay! Also Father's Day. Unfortunately, this chapter is not the most earth-shaking, or Father's Day relevant, I will admit. However, it has Harry settling down more thoughtfully, a lot more Clint, a bit of an info dump, some of which is foreshadowing and other bits of fleshing out, and a fair bit of calling back to things and tying up loose ends. Also, Asgardian politics! Yes, Asgardians other than Thor and Loki for the first time in ages.

Oh, and the Monica bit will make much more sense if you've read Unfinished Business.

Anyhow, all part of the steady winding down of this book, and winding up for the next. I won't put a chapter estimate of when this one will end, because I'm not stupid, I never meet my estimates. I hope you enjoy it.

Some Guy: Thank you very much indeed! Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. The imagery takes work (and sometimes I fear I repeat myself), but I am glad that is held in such high regard.

Thanks – I felt it only made sense that Bucky would insist on telling the Weasleys (he's not as stubbornly righteous as Steve, who only counselled against it because he's got a massive blind spot when it comes to protecting Bucky, but he's got some stern principles), and Hermione… that's a fun one to play with.

It's been a trial and a tribulation at times, and at others, it has been an utter delight.

Harry had much to think about. Given his tendency towards overthinking and second-guessing (when he didn't jump straight in – it tended to be one extreme or the other), this could have been a problem. He was, in Clint's opinion, likely to brood over Hermione and Ron, and perhaps set his reactions to whatever the Twins might do to Bucky to a hair-trigger.

While that wasn't likely to be problem, given his intellectual understanding of the situation and time to adjust to it, it was a possible one, and one best headed off. As Loki had put it in a recent conversation, "over the last year or so my nephew has developed unfortunate reflexes, a somewhat unforgiving temperament, and a questionable fondness for sharp objects."

Clint had to admit, there were worse summaries. Personally, though he would have added, "terrifyingly overprotective" to that list. So, he took steps. While he was no Natasha, he'd picked up more than a few tricks in his time as an Agent, and deftly changed the subject before Harry could start brooding. This neatly allowed the true meaning of the conversation to settle in unimpeded, while also covering more ground.

This included a sketched summary of just where the hell he'd been for the last few months, having been away more than most would expect.

"SHIELD is rebuilding and restructuring, but after what HYDRA did, we're still pretty short on numbers," he explained. "We're also missing a fair bit of credibility. Fury sent me to help out Coulson's new regional command in the Midwest to try and cover up both." He shrugged. "Being an Avenger doesn't mean you count for more than one, but it makes people think you do."

"Why the Midwest?" Carol asked, surprised. "I mean, I wouldn't have thought that it was a priority. In the US alone, there's New Orleans, and outside, there's Britain, Russia, Eastern Europe… probably a lot of other places. Especially after New Orleans."

"Britain's got MI13," Clint said. "SHIELD doesn't need much of a presence as a result, and it's having a hard time getting one for that exact reason. Wisdom's a pragmatist at heart, but he doesn't want anything more than a very nominal SHIELD presence, for reasons both good and bad – he's ambitious, untrusting even by spy standards, and touchier than a shaved cat." He folded his arms. "Russia and Eastern Europe are a mess, and SHIELD is pouring a lot of energy into trying to hunt down Red Room weapons and researchers before they fall into the wrong hands. Not many actual Red Room agents and direct affiliates are still around, of course."

He forbore to mention that this was because Loki had murdered most of them. Nevertheless, he got the feeling that the kids could read between the lines well enough.

"But it's like the fall of the Soviet Union all over again – far too many dangerous things falling into the hands of people like the Mafiya," he continued. "Part of the problem is that the country itself is halfway to disintegration – the Red Room decapitated the old regime, then got decapitated themselves, and there was no clear path of succession. A lot of regional governors and mayors are feathering their nests and arming up to defend their fiefdoms, and a whole lot of other people, some ordinary and some not, are looking to get their own piece of the pie. Western Russia's a bit more stable, but that's because of Victor von Doom."

"He's taking over?" Harry asked, startled.

"Not in so many words," Clint said. "But he's filling the kind of gaps that the Kremlin and the Red Room normally would have; lots of finance and weapons tech is moving out of Latveria and into Russia through third parties. The same thing is happening to one extent or another in a lot of the other places caught up in the Twelve Day Empire, from the Black Sea and the Med to the Arctic Circle. Plus, there was a big gap in dealing with magical bad actors already, after the Red Court took down the White Council's base at Archangel – Doom's stepping in there, too, though whether he's just eliminating or outright recruiting is uncertain."

"That's why he helped us with Dracula," Harry said quietly.

Clint nodded. "Dracula was his big rival on the supernatural end in that part of the world, and the mundane part, to an extent, via thralls and integrated vampires," he said. "Now, the Grey Court is crippled, and their usual replacements, the Red Court, are gone, thanks to Strange. Doom's not the only player in that part of the world, not by a long shot, and he has enough limits that he's being cautious, but he has the upper hand."

"Okay," Carol said. "But, 'scuse me if I'm being stupid, why the Midwest?"

"Chicago," Harry said suddenly. "Chicago and Smallville."

Clint, who had absent-mindedly opened a packet of cookies, flicked one over in a blur, and smirked as Harry caught it.

"Full marks," he said.

Harry rolled his eyes, but took a bite, before rapidly fumbling with both hands and telekinesis when it crumbled rather faster than he'd expected. Clint hid a smile. Carol, meanwhile, had no such compunctions – she pointed and laughed.

"Anyway," he said, as Harry rolled his eyes again, this time rather more extravagantly, at Carol. "Chicago's been a trouble spot for a little while. It's got Dresden, a Knight of the Cross, and a bunch of their associates sitting on top of it, and now sometimes Wanda too. It's also been a magnet for high end supernatural trouble in recent years, and it's within striking distance of the most hardcore magical supermax on the planet. I don't know exactly what's down there, but the general summary of its prisoners is 'Lovecraft' – and what isn't Lovecraft is near as bad, or worse. Either way, it was built by Merlin and Strange, the counter-measure to any escape is meant to be an explosion big enough to wipe out Illinois and most of the states around it, Great Lakes included, and even Nimue wasn't willing to crack it open. It's the sort of place you keep an eye on."

"And you keep an eye on Chicago, because if something goes wrong there, the knock-on effects might break it open," Carol deduced.

"Yup," Clint agreed.

"And Smallville," she added carefully. "That's… where the meteor shower was."

"And where one of his distant cousins is living," Clint said calmly, nodding at Harry. "Since he came down in that meteor shower."

That got two gratifyingly shocked expressions.

"The kid's my cousin, too, you know," he said. "I've got a personal interest."

"What," Harry said flatly.

"First cousin," Clint confirmed, amused. "By adoption, obviously, twice over. My mom's maiden name was Edith Kent. Supposedly the Kents are distant relatives of my grandma, Minerva McGonagall, though if they are, it's distant enough that it's not really relevant. They certainly wouldn't be my first thought, if I was her and looking for someone to adopt a kid."

"Strange," Harry predicted, rolling his eyes.

"Probably," Clint agreed. "Another little way to give me, and the Avengers, a reason to find out about the kid and keep an eye on him. Call it one of his back up plans."

"Ugh," Carol said, a single syllable speaking volumes. "Seriously. Does it never end?"

"Sometimes, I wonder," Harry muttered.

"I find it's best not to think about it," Clint said. "It's happened, it's done, so we live with it. However it happened, the kid's family, in a roundabout kind of way."

Carol stared at him, then at Harry. "Your weird family tree bullshit is infectious," she said.

"You aren't one to talk."

"Mine is perfectly straightforward. The people involved, not so much, but the family tree? Normal. Yours? His? Not so much."

"Like he said: blame Strange."

"I do. For everything."

Clint watched the byplay with tolerant amusement, before clearing his throat.

"I was the obvious pick, for those in the know about Smallville," he said. "Which is mostly just Coulson and Fury. However, a bit more obvious is Chicago."

"Why – oh. You're Wanda's ex," Carol said. That got a surprised blink from Harry, before he nodded thoughtfully, apparently just remembering this. Clint didn't hold it against him. In truth, he was actually a little surprised that Carol knew.

"We know each other pretty well, and we get on," he agreed. "Enough to work together."

"And her current boyfriend isn't bothered about this at all?" Harry asked, eyebrow raised.

"Dresden's fine with it," Clint said casually. "Me, him, and a couple of his buddies had a few beers and hashed it out. We both know where we stand, and it suits us fine."

What he didn't add was that one of those buddies had been Thomas Raith. No one was entirely sure what his deal was. White Court vampire, bastard son of the White King himself, much smarter than he pretended to be, and powerful by the standards of the breed, even if the more esoteric aspects of Clint's sight told him that his demon was a bit underfed. Yet he was considered profoundly weird by both his peers and analysts, behaving in ways that didn't really make sense for a supernatural predator.

Demonstrating a conscience, going out of his way to help people, being comfortable with open combat, and attaching himself Harry Dresden, someone who attracted trouble nearly as reliably as his namesake… none of those tracked for a White Court vamp, even if one was benevolently inclined. The general thinking was that he was just odd, with a strain of 'he's up to something'. Clint thought differently. In every other White Court vampire he'd met, the demon was stronger than the person. They might be the most human breed, but it was just camouflage. In this one, it was genuine. The man was stronger than the monster.

As for Dresden, there was plenty of speculation there, especially since the two had spent some time shacked up together. If you took a detached look at things, Dresden might make a good meal ticket, particularly with his increased connections. Perhaps this vampire was just cannier than most, one who had hitched himself to a rising star. But that still didn't track for Clint, especially since Wanda, who'd be wise to such a thing, hadn't moved to deal with him. And when Raith had taken Clint aside for a private chat to establish his intentions, he hadn't used any powers, or shown any sign of a predator whose territory was being infringed upon. He'd just been trying to watch his friend's back.

Oh, Clint was sure that there was more to it, even if it wasn't sexual. Vampires weren't his area of expertise, but he knew enough to know that White Court plotted as they breathed, and the files had been helpful enough. Thomas Raith might have ended up an outcast shortly after his association with Harry Dresden began, but he'd also survived several things he shouldn't have. His father, whose male offspring were notorious for dying in 'accidents', had been reduced to the status of a harmless puppet. On the strings of someone far more dangerous, perhaps, but not to Raith himself.

That was it. The simplest, most obvious, and most overlooked explanation of all: they were friends. Dresden had needed help, so Raith bailed him out, and vice versa. Raith had been chucked out, so Dresden had offered his couch. They were friends, and friends helped each other.

In any case, Clint was glad that they'd managed to get that one sorted pretty quickly. An insecure Harry Dresden could have been a problem, but hardly insurmountable. A hostile Thomas Raith, as near to a male Natasha as he'd met, would have been a much, much bigger one. Plus, he seemed like a good guy to get a beer with, and Clint could always do with another one of those.

It had also been convenient as it hadn't gummed up something else he'd been doing with them.

"We've been trying to trace a few things that seem to have fallen off the back of a truck," he said. "Remember that dragon you took down?"

"Vividly," Harry said. "Apparently granddad requisitioned the head."

"What for, to stick it on the fridge like a certificate?" Carol asked.

"Closer than you'd think," Harry said. "Apparently, he put it on display in the palace to make a point. Somewhere discreet, but relatively easy to find, according to dad. And no, I have absolutely no idea how you can possibly make a head the size of a battleship 'discreet'."

"That still left a lot to carve up," Clint said. "Most of it was done on-site, at the Lighthouse – the mining and educational facility Strange built into the mountain that dragon created. It had some pretty big vaults pre-installed."

"It's been getting a lot of visitors," Harry remarked. "Goblins, people from all of the place, wizards, witches, and ordinary people alike, to study it and figure out the mine. Strange and Dumbledore want it to be a full on magical university, funded by the stuff they're digging out."

"Which the British magical government doesn't like," Clint remarked. "They haven't confronted Wisdom so far when he's ignored their rules and their authority, but that much money slipping through their fingers is going to sting."

"My heart bleeds," Harry said, rolling his eyes.

"Your brain should think," Clint warned him. "They've been pushed into a corner, and they're ready to lash out. If Fudge decides that Dumbledore is with Wisdom, not him, then Hogwarts might get caught in the crossfire."

"That," Harry said, after a moment. "Would be a mistake."

"Desperate people make mistakes," Clint replied. "And they can do a lot of damage before they're stopped." He punctuated that with a pointed look, and Harry tipped his head in acknowledgement. "However," Clint continued. "The dragon –"

"'Dave'," Harry chipped in helpfully. When Carol looked at him like he was insane, he grinned at her. "Well, he was coming out with all sorts of dramatic names, I decided that I wanted something short, easy to remember…"

"… and extremely annoying."

"Exactly. So I went with Dave."

"You have been spending far too much time around Tony. And your uncle. And Strange."

"Again, you aren't one to talk."

"Takes one to know one, sweetie. You are not the only one with an infectiously snarky uncle."

Harry went pink. "'Sweetie'?" he squeaked.

"Yes," Carol said, and patted his cheek. "Especially when you blush."

Harry went red. Clint smothered laughter.

"The dragon," he said pointedly. "Was too large for the dissection to be done easily, even with the vaults, and the storage was insufficient for long term. As a result, bits were taken away for study and disposal. This involved a lot of magical and muggle contractors, especially since MI13 are still busy recruiting and the Ministry are short on personnel, and a number of pieces have gone missing."

"Okay, I get why everyone's hot and bothered about Vibranium and, I cannot believe that I am saying this, Mithril," Carol said. "Very useful, very fancy, whatever. But bits of dead dragon?"

"Some magical creatures are very valuable," Harry said, frowning. "Even 'ordinary' dragon heartstrings, unicorn hair, and phoenix feathers make pretty powerful wands."

"Something like that dragon would be way more so," Carol guessed.

"A lot more so," Clint said significantly.

"How valuable are we talking?"

Harry shot her a side-glance. "You know that jacket and trousers I got you?"

"The tailored to fit ones?" Carol asked, smirking.

Harry flushed. "Those ones," he said.

"Yeah. What about them? Other than that they make me look fantastic."

"You'd look fantastic in anything," Harry said gallantly.

"Even a trash-bag?"

"You look good in black."

"A burlap sack?"

"Rough, tough, and likely to outlast the end of the world?" Harry smiled a winning smile. "Sounds like a list of your best qualities."

"Hmm," Carol said, mock-thoughtfully tapping her lips. "How about… a space-suit?"

"That would just make it easier for me to show you the stars."

"You are a ginormous sap."

"So?"

"So it should not be as much of a turn-on as it is."

Clint coughed an amused and pointed cough, reminding them of his presence. Both Carol and Harry flushed with utter mortification as they realised just what she'd said and around whom she had said it.

"Not that this isn't entertaining," he said. "But the point that Harry was getting at was that those clothes, if they could be replicated, would represent the greatest advance in light body armour since SHIELD figured out a synthetic Vibranium weave. Blades, high calibre military grade rounds, shrapnel, a significant amount of impact absorption, and the majority of magic and other energy attacks? It shrugs them all off. And given the rarity? You're looking at about $10 million, at a conservative estimate."

Carol's jaw dropped as Harry flushed under her astonished gaze.

"The skin and scales are probably the least valuable parts," Clint continued. "Scientists and alchemists from across the world are working on samples, and even the redacted data I got was pretty impressive."

"End of the world impressive?" Harry asked, somewhat fatalistically.

Clint shrugged. "You could probably turn some of it into a bomb," he said. "But some of the Chinese contingent, plus a couple who I'm pretty sure used to be called Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel –"

"Who?" Carol asked, puzzled.

"Alchemists," Harry said. "They invented the Philosopher's Stone. It's… well, Strange used it to turn a volcano into a mountain of Vibranium. And Mithril. It's also the source of the Elixir of Life."

"Wait," Carol said. "I've heard of that. Doesn't that give you immortality?"

"If you take it enough," Harry said. "It could also have given Voldemort his body back, which is why they destroyed it years ago, to keep it out of the wrong hands."

"But Strange – oh. Time travel. Never mind."

"Yeah," Harry said. He turned to Clint. "They were going to run out of Elixir and die."

"Fury made them a better offer," Clint said. "The Elixir of Life was kind of a predecessor of the super soldier serum, one of the early experiments in human enhancement. A prototype, kind of. Though, more accurately, it was a prototype of the Infinity Formula."

"Infinity Formula?" Harry asked.

"Russian spin-off of the research into replicating the serum," Clint said. "It's not even in the same class of physical enhancement, topping out at the very highest end of normal human potential, but it still does one hell of a lot. The main bonus is rejuvenation, and a vastly extended lifespan. Natasha has it. And it's what the Red Room used to stabilise Bucky's enhancements."

"Bucky," Carol said, pausing for a moment. "Your grandfather. By way of Harry's scary badass Transfiguration teacher."

"Yep," Clint said easily, showing no sign of any discomfort or inner turmoil.

"No offence, but that is still weird to think about," Carol said, shaking her head. "On the other hand, it does help explain Steve's reaction to, well, me, so there's that."

"Anyway," Clint said. Someone else might have got annoyed at shepherding the conversation back into line away from the tangents, but as a sniper, Clint was well used to things, and people, veering away from where he wanted. Sometimes it was a matter of waiting 'til they veered back, and sometimes it took a bit of a nudge. Plus, the back and forth was amusing. Amusing and, if he was honest, kind of cute. "The Flamels and the Chinese contingent thought that it had a lot more potential. Ordinary dragon's blood can do a lot, and this had exponentially more potential. Dragons like this have been found before, but most were long since dead, pretty much fossilised, and everything down to the dust on their bones has been scraped off. This is fresh off the slab, meat and blood rather than just bone. Some groups, some very dangerous groups, are very interested in something like that."

"What kind of groups?" Harry asked.

"Well, HYDRA are the obvious one," Clint said. "If only to sell it on. Nicodemus is supposed to be interested, though again, probably for sell on value, since he's running Madripoor."

"Nicodemus?" Carol asked, puzzled.

"Two thousand year old psychopath with a healing factor like Wolverine, a brain like pre-reform Loki, and a Fallen Angel riding shotgun," Clint said. "Wanda once dropped a satellite on his head."

"And he just walked it off."

"Mostly, he just seemed pissed that it ruined his suit," Clint said. "His endgame seems to be the collapse of civilisation as we know it, and in the meantime, he tries his hand at pretty much every form of crime imaginable. Now, he's in charge of Madripoor." At two slightly puzzled looks, he added, "it's Vegas meets Mos Eisley and Tortuga, the one from those pirate movies. Except less respectable. Everything goes there, including half the narcotics trade east of Africa. It is, as far as we can tell, to most of the criminal underworld what London is to the Russians, all the money they can't immediately launder goes there. It has no extradition laws, and a ready market for the higher and darker end of private security, making it a convenient bolt-hole for criminals of all kinds. Including, recently, the core of HYDRA's survivors from the Battle of London. Hell, even Magneto ruled it for a little while back in 80s, back when he was less… family friendly."

"And no one noticed?" Harry said, disbelieving.

"It was the late Cold War, regimes were rising and falling like jenga towers," Clint said, shrugging. "And Cold War or no Cold War, Madripoor changes governments the way most people change socks, it always has. No one pays attention any more, even when they should. Besides, Magneto didn't exactly go full King of the Mutants. He took over by subtlety, not force – an EMP, use of a couple of telepaths on his payroll, plus Mystique, the most dangerous shapeshifter on the planet, and that was it. He pretty much walked in. No one particularly wanted to take it back, and after he made a few examples, most people were willing to back off."

"A few examples being…"

"He turned an entire Soviet battlegroup to scrap, sank an American nuclear sub, and fried Chinese and Indian recon flights," Clint said. "After that, the general idea was that pissing off the most powerful man in the world might be a bad idea."

"Wasn't Alan Scott, my predecessor, on call for exactly that sort of thing?" Carol asked.

"Sure. And if he'd gone in, the resultant brawl would have wrecked the capital and killed hundreds of thousands of people," Clint said. "It would have revealed mutants and the supernatural to the world in the single worst possible way, worse even than the Battle of New York. Plus, he wasn't alone. Magneto used to run a group usually known as the Brotherhood, though sometimes people called them the Acolytes. They were his supporters, his counter X-Men, primarily but not exclusively mutants. All of them were dangerous, and a lot of them were seriously powerful. And some, the ones usually called Acolytes, were downright fanatical."

"Dangerous combination," Harry murmured. He didn't sound surprised.

"Magneto might not have been sane, but he was charismatic," Clint said. "And that time… I'd argue that was as dark as he got. If he'd just been in charge, most would have cut their losses. Madripoor was a mess, and frankly, Magneto actually cleaned it up. He was an iron-fisted shadow dictator, but he crushed the cartels, triads, the Russian Mafiya, and pretty much everyone else, if only because they were potential rivals. Plus, they controlled a lot of the public utilities – like the Mob and waste management. Including the water supply. Magneto, for reasons of his own, didn't think the mutant population was growing fast enough. He thought they would be too easy to find and pick off before they could grow – a bit like Nimue, actually, if what I heard was correct."

"What, that she was batshit insane and turned everyone with a scrap of magical potential into the sorcerer's apprentice?" Carol asked. "Yeah. That's correct."

"Well, his solution was pretty similar, too, but more scientific," Clint said. "He dumped something called the Legacy Virus into the civic water supply. It was a retrovirus, designed to essentially give mutant DNA the kick in the pants it needs to wake up. Variations on it have been used ever since by everyone from government organisations to home brew super soldier projects."

"Like the one that created Deadpool?" Carol asked shrewdly.

"Exactly like," Clint said, nodding. "The effects could get messy. Sometimes, the mutation went into overdrive, especially if it was already active. Sometimes, it just went wrong, because the X-Gene wasn't fully developed. Some people just reacted badly to it. Either way… people were changed. And people died. And Magneto was planning to worldwide, once the test run was complete. Since Madripoor was, and is, smuggling central and the centre of Asia's narcotics trade, with routes running down to Australia and over to East Africa and the Middle East, it would have been easy. So, despite the risks, a team was sent in. X-Men, SHIELD, even the Red Room, working together to get him out and take out the virus. I'm pretty sure Natasha was involved in the op." He glanced at Carol. "So was your grandma, actually. The Black and White Widows, working together."

He shook his head.

"I don't know much about the details," he said. "Even what I've told you, what I know, is classified to hell and back, though the point for it is pretty moot by now. As far as I know, Xavier wiped a lot of memories, SHIELD wiped a lot of tapes, and supposedly, Magneto realised just how far gone he was. Given that Alan Scott put him in the prison ICU, he certainly had time to think about it. He broke out, of course, but he didn't try anything like that again."

He looked at the two, dumbfounded by this lesson in secret history.

"My point is that an immortal psycho powered up by one of the Fallen isn't going to do much to lower property values, let alone attract notice," Clint said. "The other group that might want dragon bits is one that might rival even Nicodemus for control, and has had its claws into Madripoor for a while: Yami no Te. Otherwise known as the Hand. Incredibly secretive, supposedly ancient, more myth than fact, they're somewhere between an eastern version of HYDRA and the Triads or the Yakuza – and just as vicious as that implies. Also, like both HYDRA and the criminals, who they supposedly sometimes operate through, they get everywhere. Literally everywhere, if you believe the stories. One of the few things that has been pinned down is an interest in alchemy."

"Which means immortality," Harry said. "And… something different the elixir of life, which isn't exactly good or bad, by itself. That just rejuvenates you and keeps you going."

Clint nodded. "Their kind is more about complete immortality; not just long life, but the sort where you come back from everything except decapitation, even resurrection, where it strays right into necromancy."

"And when people come back, part of them is missing," Harry said sombrely. "It's black magic, it twists them more and more each time. I've read about this, in some of the books Strange gave me. It involves blood magic – usually, human sacrifice."

"That, supposedly is just the start. And it doesn't just require blood, but also dragon bits," Clint said. "Maybe that kind of dragon in particular, I don't know. Either way, according to the Flamels and the other alchemy experts, they're among the top candidates to either be stealing dead bits of super dragon, or buying from whoever did."

There was a long pause.

"Well," Carol said. "They sound… awful."

"They sound like they'll be on my schedule some time in the next couple of years," Harry said gloomily. "Especially with Surtur coming up. If they're on something made of his super minions, that gives him a route of control – direct, as in literal control, or indirect, through offering power. He's done both before."

"That's one of the angles we're investigating," Clint said. "Especially with Loki trying to track down those 'Great Captains' of his."

Carol stared at them both, then hooked an arm through Harry's. "Okay, thanks for the catch up and info dump, but we've got some other follow up to do," she said. "Which isn't so relentlessly horrifying and depressing."

"We do?"

"Yes."

"Is that a euphemism?"

"No."

"Damn."

OoOoO

"Well," Harry said, frowning. "This isn't depressing. Or relentlessly horrifying."

"Gee," Monica said flatly. "Thanks."

"In-joke, Mon," Carol explained.

Monica eyed her, then shrugged. "All I can say is that Strange said you knew something about my powers," she said. "That you had half the answers."

"You already have the other half?" Carol asked curiously. "I won't lie, I've been wondering where they came from."

"Yeah, Strange told me," Monica said. "First of all, he said that I hadn't even touched the full scope of what I could do, and I'd know what that meant when I told you about the source. Apparently, when mom was a test pilot, she worked with some prototype engines that Pegasus put together. They were powered by something called the... Tesselect?"

"Tesseract?" Harry said sharply.

"Right, that," Monica said. "Which is… significant? Anyway, she was exposed to its energy, which somehow changed me into someone who can, apparently, do a lot. I mean, I thought it was just popping open locks and starting engines, but now it turns out I can break spells and seal ginormous magical rifts."

"And probably much, much more than that," Harry said, running his hand through his hair. "Holy shit. Holy fucking shit."

"Harry," Carol said.

"Sorry, it's just," Harry began, then exhaled. "It's big."

"I can see that," Monica muttered, masking wariness as best she could.

"The Tesseract is a ridiculously powerful cosmic artefact," Harry said. "I don't know very much about it, if I'm honest, but it's one of a set of six, called the Infinity Stones. They're not exactly science, but they're not exactly magic, either. It's like they're beyond both. Each has power over a certain aspect of the universe. The Tesseract is the Space Stone. It was what opened the portal for the Chitauri at the Battle of London, and HYDRA used it as a battery for their super-weapons back in WWII. Which, believe me, is the very least of what it is supposed to be able to do."

He rubbed his jaw.

"See, the stones are also supposed to be sentient," he said. "Well, they might be. They react to people is the best way that I can put it. Or at least, that's what I've heard, I've barely got the basics on them. However, at least one of them can definitely think. It's been proven to act on its own. This might make two."

"Wait, you're saying that the Tesseract changed Monica's mom to give Monica powers?" Carol asked.

"I wouldn't bet against it," Harry said. "It's been done before, if a bit differently."

"Hold on, I am very confused," Monica said, laced with irritation. "Omnipotent magic stones, fine. Mom got irradiated, I got powers, fine. It sounds like a 60s comicbook, but fine. But it did it on purpose? And what's this about it being done before?"

"Strange," Carol said. "He's the one it happened to. According to him, one of the other stones, Time, did a deal with him. It ended up turning him into what he is now: an immortal time traveller who can see practically every future."

"The so-called Lord of Time," Harry said, nodding. "Among other names. The gifts it gave him were fairly subtle, enhancing what was already there – magical people live longer, so he lived indefinitely. He had a knack for seeing the future and manipulating time, both of those were taken to a whole new level. They might not have looked like much, at first, compared to what it could have done to him, sure. But in the long run, with practise and creativity, it made him the most dangerous man in the universe."

His gaze, calculating now, swept over Monica.

"He said that you hadn't touched the full scope of what you could do," he said. "I think that's one hell of an understatement. What you can do might not be the most flashy power up in the world, but…" He let out a low whistle and shook his head. "This is big. Too big for me. Uncle Loki might be able to help, Jane and Doctor Selvig too – they've actually studied the damn thing, and Loki knows as much about the history of the Infinity Stones as anyone. Maybe Wanda, too – if Strange isn't talking, then his libraries will probably have answers. Professor Dumbledore, too."

"Your headteacher?" Carol asked, surprised.

"He went up against HYDRA in WWII," Harry reminded her. "That included dealing with all kinds of Tesseract powered weaponry, magic too. He's also kind of a genius. He might have some insight." He paused, then added, "also, while you were busy in New Orleans, he mopped the floor with someone, or something, with powers kind of like a mini Tesseract. So…"

"Fair point."

"Wait, your teacher used to fight HYDRA?" Monica broke in, surfacing from her shock.

"A couple of them, actually," Harry said. "They did it again at the Battle of London."

Monica blinked. "Jesus, your teachers are hardcore."

"Well –" Harry began, hedging.

"They are, Harry," Carol said. "Dumbledore's weird but badass, and McGonagall scares the bejeezus out of me. Own it and move on."

"Speaking of moving on, which is not something I'm going to be able to do for a while, I'm sorry," Monica said. "My mom was transformed by magic space jewellery to give me weird, badly defined, and by the sounds of things, really fucking ominous superpowers? I need to process this."

"If you swap 'space jewellery' for 'cosmic entity', then believe me, I know exactly how you feel," Harry observed, both wry and sympathetic.

Monica grimaced, then shot a glance at Carol, who nodded confirmation.

"If you want to talk," Harry added. "I'm happy to listen. Alternatively, I know a great therapist."

"Professor Xavier or Doctor Moonstar?" Carol queried.

"Dani," Harry said. "The Professor's brilliant, but he's… busy. I mean, leave the rest of them aside, he's got Maddie."

Carol winced. "Good point," she said, then turned to Monica. "Dani, Doctor Moonstar, is his therapist. She's brilliant."

"Yes, I can actually put on a semblance of sanity nowadays," Harry said dryly.

Carol rolled her eyes and drove an elbow into his kidneys. "Shut up," she grumbled over his theatrical wheeze. "Point is, she can handle his weirdness. If she can do that, yours won't be a problem."

"I'll think about it," Monica said. "I mean… thanks, but I'm gonna need to do a lot of thinking. And talking to mom." She made a face. "More talking to mom. She didn't take it all well."

"You told her everything?" Carol asked, surprised. "I mean, kudos for honesty, but that's a lot to dump on even someone like your mom."

"I didn't," Monica grumbled. "Well, I did, but only after your uncle threatened to rat me out. Turns out that him and mom were buddies back in the Air Force."

"He might not have followed through, you know," Carol said. "He covered for me after the Battle of London." She made a face. "Okay, so he gave me an earful about it – two, actually – but he did cover for me. Not that there was much point in that, in the end."

"Yeah, but he's your uncle," Monica pointed out.

"… good point."

"Mostly, he just seemed pissed that I'd got caught up in it," Monica added. "The rest of us, too. Mom definitely was. She wanted to tear Strange a new asshole."

"The queue for that is a long one, believe me," Carol said.

Harry made a noise of agreement, then looked up. He'd been thinking. "What was the other part?" he asked. "You said 'first of all', then left it at that. There's something else that Strange thought I knew, about your powers."

"Yeah," Monica said. "He said that you needed to remember where you'd first heard my name."

"And now we're back to the cryptic bullshit," Carol grumbled.

Harry frowned and sat back. "Cryptic, maybe, but not bullshit," he said. "Monica's name does ring a bell. Ever since I first met you, actually…"

"Carol mentioned me?" Monica suggested half-heartedly.

"Too simple," Harry said, waving it away. "No, this is… oh. Oh, of course." He leapt up, pulling his phone out. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, Mr Thorson?"

"Please, JARVIS, use my name," Harry said. "Also, sorry for interrupting, but I have a question for you."

"Who the hell," Monica began under her breath.

"Tony's AI," Carol replied quietly. "Knows practically everything, can hack into everything else, cooler than most people."

"You have access to SHIELD's files, right?" Harry asked, ignoring the other two.

"I do."

"Excellent. Can you find me a file about replacements or successors for the Avengers? It might be filed under 'Young Avengers', and it'll have a number of personnel files attached, including mine and Carol's."

There was a moment of silence, then the phone pinged. Harry flicked open the file, scanned through it, then nodded grimly.

"Thanks," he said, before shutting it down and pocketing it.

"So?" Monica asked. "Is there something in the file? Also, why would I be in SHIELD's files? My powers, opposite of flashy."

"But your mother was tied to SHIELD," Harry countered. "She was exposed to energy from something that SHIELD had a particular interested in. And…"

"… and Pegasus was all about enhancement," Carol said. "After what went down the first time, they probably did follow-ups, checking for any lasting side-effects."

"Okay," Monica said. "So they figured out I might have powers."

"They knew you did," Harry corrected. "They didn't know all of what they might be able to do, but the fact that you had Tesseract energy running through your body? That marked you out as something special. They'd earmarked you for espionage work, at minimum. Someone who can break through any lock, any security measure? That's useful. A few other notations, though, suggested that they thought your powers might have wider applications."

"Which we now know," Monica said, folding her arms. "So, SHIELD had an eye on me. So what?"

"And why you?" Carol asked. "No offence, but grandma would know more about this than you."

"None taken," Harry said, taking a seat. "I know why Strange specifically told you to ask me, Monica. It's not about what. It's about who."

"Who showed you the file," Carol said sharply, and Harry nodded.

"I remember it pretty well, now that I think about it," he said. "Not for particularly pleasant reasons, either. Monica, I remember your name because you were mentioned specifically. Carol and a few others too, including Gambit. And this was last Easter or so, months before I met Gambit."

"Harry," Monica said. "Tell me. Who was this?"

Harry met her gaze. "Alexander Pierce. Former Secretary of International Defence, member of the World Security Council, overseer of SHIELD… and one of the two Heads of HYDRA."

Monica sat down with a thump.

"Well, shit."

OoOoO

Once Harry and Carol had all but frog-marched a still understandably shocked Monica to Natasha, calling Loki and Alison Carter on the way, Harry was met with another couple of visitors. This meeting took place without Carol, since she had remained with Monica as emotional and if necessary, physical support, but since it included visitors from Asgard, it was hardly alone – for one thing, Thor had been present to drop them off, pull his son into a tight one armed hug and expression of pride, before disappearing for a conversation with Wanda.

It was also hardly unwelcome, since it was Fandral and Sif, if a little surprising.

"I intend to visit my students," Sif explained, referring to Uhtred and Diana, still at the Xavier Institute, before favouring him with a smile. "I also wished to see how you were getting along. I had a… suggestion."

"A suggestion?" Harry asked, noticing the pause and deciding not to make anything of it yet.

"To expand your skills," Sif said. "To see how well you adapted to handling two weapons. Twin blades, perhaps, though the basic principles would also apply to your wand, or even magic in general."

"It would give you a greater range of options, test your coordination, and, I believe, demonstrate that your dexterity is sufficient to master it," Fandral agreed.

"Well, replacing your weak arm a couple of times certainly gives you perspective," Harry observed. "Especially when it comes to adjusting to a new one. Sounds interesting." He paused. "This suggestion. Is it your suggestion? Or someone else's?"

Sif hesitated, then sighed. "Are we that obvious?" she asked.

"No," Harry said, with a sigh of his own. "I just recognise the style."

"Well, thank goodness for that," Fandral muttered.

"My presence is in earnest," Sif added, rolling her eyes at him. "I would like to assess your progress, and I have more experience than Fandral in wielding multiple weapons simultaneously."

Harry nodded. "Then I would be glad to learn, Lady Sif," he said, dipping his head respectfully.

After repairing to the gym and walking him through several exercises – and debating between the two which exercises were most appropriate for his level and style – Sif and Fandral stood back to let Harry practise on his own. In this case, against a freshly delivered Uhtred, who was both enjoying one of the bonuses of a boyfriend with super speed, and the opportunity to help train his liege, and a freshly arrived Diana, who could arrive at her own quite considerable speed just as she wished, thank you very much.

"How does he?" Sif asked, once the students had settled into a sparring rhythm.

"In my estimation, he will stand among the great masters of the sword, should he wish to," Fandral said. "He is talented now, and if he keeps up his training, within a century there will be few living even amongst the great masters who will wish to cross blades with him."

"So soon?" Sif asked, surprised.

"As I said, he is talented," Fandral said, shrugging. "He is also fast, rarely balanced, and he has a good eye." He cast a professional eye over the practising Harry. "And unlike most swordsmen, he is not over-reliant on the blade. The Red Room are vermin, and what they did to him can never be forgiven. Yet I will give them this much: they know how to train a warrior."

"A killer," Sif said quietly. "They trained killers, Fandral, killers with no will of their own. Warriors are different."

Fandral soberly nodded his agreement. "You are right, of course," he said.

"As are you," Sif replied. "However brutally or cruelly they did it, they trained him in many of the warrior's arts and they did it well. All their creatures were superb fighters, and our Prince was meant to be the jewel in their crown." Her gaze shifted to Bucky, who was also supervising. "And Master Barnes, their most exemplary killer, reinforces those skills."

"With kindness and consideration," Fandral said carefully. "Yes."

Sif smiled faintly. "Peace, Fandral," she said. "I despise how Harry acquired those skills, the suffering and violations he endured. Nevertheless, he has them, and I can see their many uses clearly. I also understand that only Lady Natasha would equal Master Barnes in ability to teach Harry how to use them, and compassion to accept them."

Fandral relaxed slightly. "Indeed," he said, a hint of relief in his voice. "Anyway, he has those skills, and they shall be why others fear to cross blades with him."

"Greater technical mastery and experience with blades alone does not win battles," Sif said, nodding her understanding. "Supreme sword-skill is only worth so much when your opponent is not willing to fight only as a swordsman. As they say in this realm, 'everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.'" She nodded again. "His speed, strength, his mind, and his other battle-skills will serve him well."

This, she thought privately, would include an absolute lack of scruples in pitched battle, to an extent that his father would baulk at. While Thor was a most practical fighter, Harry had more than a shadow of his uncle's ruthlessness.

Fandral nodded. "What do you think his progression is like?" he asked.

"Are you not the one training him?" Sif asked, amused.

"I am," Fandral said easily. "And I could tell you that he has speed rarely seen, a sharp eye for vulnerabilities, a mind for unconventional tactics, and a caution that hard experience has taught him, all of which serve him well. However, all that would do is confirm what I have said and what you suspect. I, my dear Lady Sif, am merely a humble swords-master. I defer to the judgement of the Goddess of War."

Sif snorted. "You, good Fandral, have never been a humble anything," she said.

Fandral grinned. "Can I be blamed if I rarely have reason to be so?" he asked mischievously, before shaking his head. "I know you, Sif. Your skills are more rounded than mine, your instincts sharper, and your studies and duties will have given you answers that I cannot. Neither of us is a seer, but here, you are closer."

Sif nodded. "I have spoken to the Queen, and Eir," she said. "Prince Harry's parentage complicates matters. Demigods are… unpredictable. Many factors can affect their development. Harry has more than most and is more unpredictable than most. However, based on his current rate of development and the incident last year when he and several of his friends were briefly made adult, it is believed that once he is done growing, he will have at most three-quarters of his father's strength and resilience, and be far more agile and fleet of foot."

"Standing neatly between father and uncle, then," Fandral mused. "That would make sense."

Sif shot him a look for interrupting, then continued. "Barring any changes in his condition, he should be where he would be expected to be if he were fully Asgardian in five years, after which it will slow," she said. "For my part, I believe that his telepathy, even passive, means that he will continue to acquire skills faster even than others of the blood for years to come."

"Not so fast as you, naturally," Fandral said playfully.

"Naturally," Sif said, smirking, before frowning.

"Sif?"

"There is something else about him that I believe," she said quietly. "Tell me, Fandral: when you look at him, what do you see?"

Fandral frowned, then looked back at his student. "I see a gifted swordsman, a talented warrior, and a hero born," he said. "One with the resourcefulness, ruthlessness, and dedication to achieve his aims, as well as the courage to face whatever or whoever would stand in his way. I see hot blood and a cool mind, blazing passion married to cold cunning. I see someone who protests a desire for peace, yet leaps into battle with relief. I see someone who keeps the peace-lovers at a distance and the warriors by his side. I see someone who would die for those he loves in a moment, and kill for them in two. And of those he loves, perhaps the one he loves best is a girl who was born for the battlefield."

Sif listened. It was easy, and tempting, to ignore Fandral when he decided to employ his facility for language. Loki was the one who had earned the nickname 'silvertongue', yet not for lack of eloquence on Fandral's part. Loki could be both concise and precise (until he got excited, she thought a little fondly, and then he tended to babble). By contrast, Fandral's main problem was that he talked too much and said too little.

Yet over the centuries, she had come to recognise that his speech was much like his sword. The apparently purposeless flourishes served to lull and distract and smooth their owner's path to getting exactly what he wanted, whether that was an opening in his opponent's guard, or an opening in his partner's dress.

His charm did not work on her, blunted both by centuries of fond friendship and wry awareness that it usually meant he was after something. That did not mean that she had not learned to listen to what he was really saying. In this case, under all the flowery language, it was to the best of her knowledge, a fairly accurate assessment. And yet, it was missing something.

"That is not what I see," she said softly. "Not all."

Fandral cocked his head, questioning.

"I look at him, Fandral, and see much of what you speak of," Sif said quietly. "And I see something else, something that has been whispering at my instincts ever since I met him. Only now is it obvious: I see a weapon. One carefully forged from the finest materials, honed with exquisite care, and perfectly balanced, as all things should be."

Her eyes narrowed, her expression turned grim.

"A weapon," she finished, as her gaze settled on another observer of Harry's practise, one who was apparently entirely oblivious of their conversation, and who was almost certainly nothing of the kind. "That is wielded by a master."

Fandral followed her gaze and swore softly.

"Doctor Strange," he said. He didn't question her assessment for a moment; in matters such as these, no one, least of all him, questioned the instincts of the Goddess of War. "He is everything that we once feared Loki was, and far more."

"He is," Sif agreed.

"You know, sometimes I wonder why the Allfather has not made him pay a fitting price for his meddling."

"Because he cannot," Sif said plainly. "Because Strange is too useful. And because he is too dangerous."

Fandral blinked in surprise, opening his mouth to protest, and Sif tossed him an impatient look.

"He spent countless centuries as Midgard's Sorcerer Supreme, and fought countless horrors as mighty as Odin and many far more so," she said. "He knows our history better than we do. He has mastered magic in a way that even the greatest of our sorcerers have not. And I think he is quite mad."

She cut Fandral off with a wave of a hand.

"Loki is afraid of him, Fandral," she said seriously. "So is Thor. They will not say it, but they are. They fear him, they hate him, they pity him, and they admire him."

"Surely not the Allfather too, though," Fandral protested.

"I do not know," Sif said. "I think our King's fear is reserved for what will happen when Strange dies. Mine certainly is. But I do know that he is at least wary. We have been discussing Asgard's defences recently, changing and improving even the strongest, and the Allfather made it plain to me that none of our defences, no matter the skill or secrecy or strength, is proof against Strange. He treated it as an offhand remark, about how an irritating sorcerer could get anywhere, but…"

She shook her head. "Queen Frigga told me that if Strange ever told me to do anything, then I should listen, and consider his words carefully. He cannot lie, but he makes the truth dance like none other, and he chooses each word as we do our weapons." She turned to Fandral. "He spoke to me before I came here," she said. "He suggested that Harry also be taught to wield two blades, long and short. He put it lightly, as if to suggest simply rounding Harry's training, but… as always with him, there is doubtless more to it. I think it is a good idea, but I cannot help but wonder what he means by it."

Fandral exhaled slowly. "So, we have a mad sorcerer who terrifies even the mightiest among us, and we allow him to counsel us and teach our youngest Prince?" he said lightly. "Asgard must be desperate."

"More than you know," Sif said. Fandral shot her a sharp look, and she shook her head. "It can wait until Loki briefs the Allfather's Council."

"About where he has been?" Fandral said, inflecting it into a question. Sif could have left it with a nod, or even a meaningful silence, but added confirmation.

"Yes. He has been hunting Surtur's creatures," she said. "For some of the time, I have been with him. Other times… in order to go unnoticed, he has had to go on alone."

Fandral exhaled. "Well, I am glad that my tasks from Loki have not been so onerous," he said.

Sif frowned. "What tasks?"

"Loki is, I now recognise, a master of playing to one's expertise. As he played to yours in taking you along with him, hunting Surtur's monsters in what I presume to be the corners of the Nine Realms, and likely other realms long forgotten, he played to the rest of us in other matters," Fandral said. "In my case, and the cases of Volstagg and Hogun, he wished to take the temperature of society in the Higher Realms."

"He sent you to be a charming, foppish dandy, and tell him all you heard," Sif said accurately. "While Volstagg was the bluff and guileless old soldier of noble stock, welcome in the mead halls of the high and the taverns of the low, and Hogun was… himself, as much as he always is – reticent and blunt and admired for both."

Fandral flashed her a winning smile. "Exactly," he said. "Though he did give me a few pieces of guidance, certain subjects he wanted to hear about. One of them was, naturally, Surtur, and another was Svartalfheim. Little of use was said on either account – those who do know rarely discuss such things in the kind of light atmosphere that I sought and cultivated. The other was, well…" He nodded over towards Harry.

Sif frowned. It made sense. Harry had only been revealed a little over a year before, and his one trip outside Asgard's capital had been to Nornheim. By necessity, that had not been a social visit, or a very public one. While she had come to realise that scandals and fads passed by in mere days or weeks in Midgard, with a few exceptions, the Higher Realms were older and moved at a correspondingly slower pace.

That meant that those realms were still deciding what to think of a young Prince whose mere presence had suddenly made the succession more secure than it had been in centuries. He had quickly set about establishing a formidable reputation, defying easy classification by changing every time one turned around, and apparently shrouding himself in mystery.

"What was said?" she asked.

"A few questions about his suitability, given that he is half mortal," Fandral said. "Though such questions are few and far between now, given his demonstrations of power and skill, which silence all but token grumbles."

"For now," Sif corrected. "They are few and far between for now."

Harry, she knew, was likely to face questions like that for a very long time. Not open, not obvious… but there. Oh, how she knew that.

Fandral shot her a look, grimaced in acknowledgement of the point she was making and remembrance of it.

"For now," he agreed. "The main subject of discussion seems to be betrothal."

Sif choked on air. "Betrothal?!"

"Betrothal," Fandral confirmed.

Sif stared at him with mixed incredulity and horror. "Fandral, he is fourteen."

"He is also likely to be Crown Prince of Asgard and heir presumptive before he turns twenty," Fandral pointed out calmly. "He is half-mortal, his father is likely to marry another mortal, Jane Foster, who it is presumed will be made Asgardian too, and Loki…" He smiled faintly. "Well, Sif, even if Loki was not believed an extremely unlikely prospect for the throne, he is believed to be pledged to you."

Sif spluttered. "I, we, that is ridiculous," she managed.

Fandral looked at her, expression pained. "Please tell me that you two aren't trying to deny your feelings again," he said.

Sif shook her head sharply. "No," she said. "I just think it a little premature to consider us 'pledged' to one another."

"And I might agree with you," Fandral said, in tones that said he absolutely did not, but also absolutely did not want to be beaten up by Sif. She instead settled for glowering at him. "However, the great and the good – or at least, the great – of the Nine Realms take it as read."

His tone softened.

"Sif, you have been one of Loki's dearest friends since we were children. It is not unknown that you have had feelings for both Thor and Loki, and while gossip is often wrong, it is not wrong when it says that your heart has rested on the latter for a while now. While it may be early steps for you, and for him, it is not without reason that others think that what follows is a formality." He raised a hand. "And I was asked to bring news of what others said, not my own opinions."

Sif sighed. "Very well," she said. "But he is still a child. Surely it is premature? Especially given that Thor is likely to have other children."

"Normally, I would agree," Fandral said. "Though the burnishing of his reputation and his somewhat rapid ascent to power would draw plenty of interest. But look at it more widely, Sif: the succession is apparently sealed, for the next five millennia. The next Queen seems to be all but chosen. The question turns to who will be Queen thereafter."

"A question that could surely wait," Sif said, with a sinking feeling that belied her words. She knew both long term planning and court politics, for all that she disdained the latter.

Being of a relatively lowly background, she had had to learn carefully how to move in courtly society, to understand all the little behaviours that the highborn learnt in the cradle. Loki had been an effective guide and teacher even then, though she had not been a particularly good student thanks to both that disdain and wounded pride, which had mixed poorly with his own touchiness and tendency to take that disdain personally. Eventually, it had fallen to Frigga to smooth her courtly graces, as much as Sif was willing to smooth them.

No, the powers at the Courts of the Higher Realms would be jockeying for position, watching one another and the young Prince. They would be watching his rise and looking to gain advantage before someone else did.

"Discussing betrothal offers still seems premature," she commented. "Considering what you say, I have no doubt that many would be considering who to offer as a future bride. But moving to make open offers? Surely few would wish to show their hand so early, or to be seen to scramble?"

Fandral smiled thinly. "In that you are right," he said. "No one wants to be seen to grab. And yet, they are, with urgency, because everything has changed. A mere handful of years ago, both Thor and Loki were young and brash, and clearly unattached, both with claims to the throne and neither with an apparent living heir. Now, in all eyes, both are tempered and wise, both are as near to betrothed as does not matter, and Thor has an exceptionally powerful heir who is already carving out a legend to rival his father's. Opportunities that could be waited for have vanished before their eyes."

"So they snatch for what is left," Sif said, low and angry.

"Indeed," Fandral said. "For in their eyes, it will not end there. You see, they think that Odin already has betrothal plans of his own." The smile turned wry. "It is not everyone who receives an uru weapon from the forges of Nidavaellir with the Allfather's own blessing, after all."

Sif's jaw dropped.

"The match makes sense, when you think about it," Fandral said reflectively. "Lady Carol is young, but has carved out a reputation of her own, wielding the Ring of the Green Lantern in the fiercest battle since the Frost Giant Wars, then was entrusted with deciding its fate after another battle with realm-wide repercussions. She has inherited in full measure the enhancements of her ancestor, Captain Rogers, a hero of high renown whose leadership of both Thor and Loki is unquestioned. She is a close companion of Diana Herculeis, Princess of Themyscira, and Uhtred Ullrson, your protégé and Sworn Sword of our young Prince. And Midgardians are far more fertile than we, of course, which is always good for the succession."

As Sif bridled, he shrugged, as if to say, 'it is distasteful to discuss, but it is true.' Which, as it happened, it was.

"Rumours have spread – of their mental connection, of the blood he shared to save her almost at the cost of his own life…" He smiled wryly. "And you must admit, dear Sif, that it is hard to look at them without seeing what is quite obvious."

"And as you must admit, good Fandral, that young love does not always last," Sif said evenly. "Or if it does, it may take a different form."

Fandral nodded. "So some tried to assure themselves," he said. "Likewise, they hope that it is a passing infatuation, and even if it is not, he will be turned to more suitable matches. But many remember that the Allfather and the Queen, along with Lord Kal-El, banned formally arranged marriages. They fear Asgard's youngest Prince may ignore any attempt at influence, if not bridle against it."

"In that, they are not wrong," Sif muttered.

Fandral smiled wryly.

"Indeed they are not," he said. "They fear that instead, he may act precipitately, that he will leave his heart in the realm he was born, even if it is not with her. And that if he does, it will not face royal objections. After all, Midgard is a realm in rapid ascent, in power and royal favour. Thor has closer ties to this realm than any Prince in centuries, other than his own son. Loki's fate is also entwined with it, if in a more peculiar fashion. Both have been changed by it, and that has not gone unnoticed. The changes, most concede, are for the better. Their consequences?"

He shook his head.

"The thinking goes that while the Allfather is not officially arranging a marriage alliance with Midgard, he is nevertheless opening the possibility of one with the heir to one of its most prominent families, in line with a general favourable shift in policy towards it. One, moreover, who has already demonstrated that she can handle the power of the gods, and more."

Sif had to concede that it did make a certain degree of sense, especially from the point of view of the sort of fools who played games with thrones. And, a small part of her added, a weapon such as that which Odin had given Carol Danvers was no small gift. Such gifts were not made lightly, least of all by the Allfather, who acted with deliberation in all things. Perhaps… perhaps he did have plans.

"I do not think it likely," she said. "It could just as easily be a tie of loyalty between Asgard and a potentially powerful ally. The Allfather would not gamble so much on young love alone. She has proved a capable of wielder of his gift, remarkably so – it could merely be, on this earliest evidence, an excellent investment, and an example of his fine strategic judgement."

"He would not," Fandral agreed. "And it is that, if nothing else. But…"

"But," Sif realised, following his train of thought. "There is no reason it could not be both."

Fandral nodded. "It is a relatively fringe theory at the moment," he said. "But it is one that is gaining popularity. The conventional belief is that the King and Queen brought Princess Diana into their household as a future bride for their grandson, but that doesn't leave them any more reassured."

Sif sighed. "I am glad that Loki gave this assignment to you. Twisting my mind through all the contortions of these grasping power grubbers, even summarised at second-hand, makes me feel dirty."

"Whereas I am entirely comfortable with deception," Fandral said lightly, and, as Sif made to apologise, added, "and as many… contortions as my Prince requires."

This, punctuated with a comical leer, broke the gloom and sent Sif into a peal of laughter.

"Fandral, you goat."

"A happily contorted goat, no less."

"I am sure that Loki will appreciate your contortions," she said. "Though I am equally sure that he will have more for you."

"Such is my duty to the throne," Fandral said, all mock piety.

Such duty indeed, Sif thought as she cuffed at his head, knowing she would miss. Duty that included duty to the boy who practised the art of the sword, who had been forced to bear far too much, far too young. A boy who was at least ignorant of such scheming that surrounded him.

"One fewer burden for over-burdened shoulders," she murmured.

Or so she hoped.

Yeah, it's a little bit of filler, but some loose ends are tied up, some elaborations are made, and a few more bases covered. Also, slowly, steadily, moving the plot forward as I wind down this book. See you next time!