I do not own any of the source material for this story (obviously).

I thought I could finish and publish this chapter back in January. I've been wrong about my writing schedule before, but this has got to be a personal record of some kind; severe writer's block, overwhelming schoolwork, and a bout of COVID will do that to you.

I confess to being supremely disappointed by Multiverse of Madness. For all its thrills and spectacle, the plot itself is a lazy, uninspired, boring mess that utterly defaces the central characters. Furthermore, the MCU's worldbuilding where the multiverse is concerned makes no sense. I'm going to ignore most of it moving forward.

Asgard, September of 2003

Harry stared into the luminous gold eyes of Asgard's gatekeeper, Heimdall, and wished dearly that he'd just kept his mouth shut. The gilded room they stood in rumbled as the domed ceiling rolled above them and the gatekeeper adjusted his posture, removing his enormous sword from its narrow pedestal to hold it point down between his legs. Poor Lavender Brown, who had never outgrown her adolescent fascination with boys, would have probably forgotten how to speak in his presence. Harry wanted to strangle him.

That thought made him freeze. He forced himself to take a series of deep breaths until his anger subsided and the Phoenix Force quieted in his mind.

"You know, I was never opposed to the idea of coming to Asgard," Harry growled, summoning the pair of unconscious super soldiers towards him with one hand and wrapping the other in flames as he extended it forward, "but this isn't what I had in mind. Give me a reason why I shouldn't blast you to dust."

"My apologies, Harry Potter, host of the Phoenix Force," Heimdall replied evenly. His voice was so powerful it seemed to resonate in Harry's bones, like the infrasound grunts of a bull elephant. "Matters on Asgard have become… complicated. No Aesir may leave the planet until they are resolved. In any case, the discussion you called for is better had here, given what you seem to be asking of us."

Harry didn't lower his guard. "And you couldn't have told me that before beaming me here?" he demanded. "I know you have ways of communicating across transgalactic distances. Is this a test, gatekeeper Heimdall? A way to see for yourself how well I can control my temper with the Phoenix Force in my head ready to explode at the slightest provocation?"

The gatekeeper smiled without showing his teeth. "As long as I am a citizen of Asgard I cannot disobey a direct order from my king," he replied evenly, as if that explained everything. His golden eyes reminded Harry of Mrs. Norris, what with the way they glowed like lamps. They made him feel as if he were being x-rayed.

Harry studied the general color of Heimdall's thoughts and emotions for a moment, then shook his head in disgust, muttering, "Of course it's a test. Bloody Asgardians and their bloody need to babysit the universe." The fire around his hand faded as he lowered his arm. "Very well," he said more loudly. "What complication is keeping Odin from leaving the planet?"

"That is for the king to explain, not I."

Harry stared at him. "I'm not going to get any useful answers from you, am I?"

Heimdall simply shrugged.

"Fine, I'll play along," Harry said. "But I don't like this."

Heimdall's posture relaxed a fraction, and Harry realized that despite his stoicism, the Asgardian had probably been even more agitated than he was. He could sense that as gatekeeper to one of the most powerful civilizations in the known universe, Heimdall was powerful enough to hold his own against the Hulk, but he'd be no match for Harry in a serious fight. Still, this was Asgard. Best not get cocky.

"Quite understandable. Now, unless you have further questions, please follow me," Heimdall said as he placed his sword in a sheath on his back. "You and the Allfather have much to discuss." He turned and strode towards the opening in the far wall.

After a moment's hesitation, Harry followed. As he moved, he summoned Rogers and Barnes to his side, synchronizing their movements to his own with a silent Mobilicorpus and layering a series of powerful protection spells over their bodies.

They came to a stop together at the exit from the observatory and looked out into the Asgardian evening.

The artificial planetoid that the Aesir had created to replace their long lost homeworld was stunningly beautiful. The Bifrost observatory, Himinbjorg Harry thought it was called, capped one end of a long bridge of prismatic crystal that spanned a great sea, which seemed to well up from the crust underneath its surface and flow outward until it cascaded into the void of space. On the other end of the bridge, a gate separated the crystal pathway from the grand city rising from the shore.

Great towers of pale stone and silver, gold, and bronze metal formed pleasing shapes, many of them dwarfing the tallest buildings on Earth. They were cradled by mountains with lush foothills dotted with estates and snowy peaks. The centerpiece was a palace several kilometers high at its peak, constructed of dozens of silver and gold towers on a single axis, merging together at their flanks as they rose in slightly curved tiers, like the pipes of a church organ. Golden light shone from every window Harry could see. It was, he had to admit, the most beautiful city he had ever laid eyes on. Judging from the riot of colors splashed across the sky and the darkness spreading steadily from beyond the mountains, Harry guessed it was evening.

A golden sky craft fashioned after a winged speed boat was descending towards the Bifrost observatory. As Harry stepped out onto the rainbow bridge, it banked smoothly and sharply, coming to a stop parallel to the right side of the prismatic structure. The single pilot was an Einherjar in gilded armor with a gold and white cape, who maintained a professional mien that was at odds with the anxiety and curiosity Harry found upon examination of his surface thoughts. The Einherjar was clearly in the know about Harry's true nature. Harry suppressed the urge to sigh as he followed Heimdall toward the aircraft.

Highland Falls, New York, September of 2003

Clint stared at Laura. "You're a SHIELD agent," he said flatly.

She nodded. "And so are you," she replied without inflection.

They were sitting together in Clint's car, which was parked outside a roadside motel in upstate New York. The sun had set hours ago, but the lights of the establishment outside provided just enough illumination for the two of them to see each other clearly. Clint had been exceedingly reluctant to take up Laura's suggestion of going on a short road trip, given his role in the underground war brewing within SHIELD, but she had insisted, and Fury had assured him that he could afford to take a few days off. Clint should have known Fury had an ulterior motive.

Phoenix had mind-whammied Alexander Pierce into becoming their spy within HYDRA, which was how the growing conspiracy of SHIELD loyalists knew which agents they could rely on. As scary as it was to think about, Pierce's fate was a boon to their cause. In addition to Maria Hill, the loyalists now had Victoria Hand, Melinda May, Anne Weaver, the Koenig brothers, and several others on their side. It was also thanks to Pierce's intel that Fury knew which students at the SHIELD academy were dirty and which could be recruited for the purpose of rebuilding the organization once HYDRA was expunged. The last Clint had heard, the recently enrolled science prodigies Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz were at the top of his list for the latter.

None of that helped Clint with his current problem: Laura.

Had his entire relationship with this woman been built on lies? The thought was more than enough to make him want to punch a wall. Had Fury set them up as a way to keep him loyal to SHIELD? He wouldn't have put it past the man. Then again, Fury wasn't heartless, for all that he liked to pretend otherwise; he always took care of his own. The relationship being a honeytrap didn't necessarily mean that it wasn't real, particularly if both agents involved were oblivious to the other's true identity. Assuming it actually was a honeytrap.

Damn you Fury, Clint thought. He studied Laura's face. She was nervous, though she was trying to hide it. "Is Laura even your real name?" he demanded, more harshly than he'd intended.

Incredibly, she laughed. "Actually, yes, it is. The mission called for me to impersonate a real nurse named Laura O'Connor, so only my surname needed to change."

"Convenient. What was the mission?"

She pursed her lips. "Evaluating a neurosurgeon to see if he's suitable for SHIELD medical."

Clint's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "You mean Stephen Strange?"

"Yeah. How'd you hear about him?"

Clint shrugged, his distrust fading into tiredness. "A friend of mine mentioned him." The last time he'd spoken to Phil, they'd gotten into a frivolous debate about Phoenix's true identity, and Phil had suggested Stephen Strange as a possible candidate. Clint had scoffed upon hearing it — what kind of family name was Strange? — but though Phil had been joking about the possible secret identity, he'd been quite serious about the name itself. Clint had done a cursory bit of research on the subject, enough to know there really was an absurdly talented neurosurgeon whose real name was indeed Stephen Vincent Strange and nothing else.

"Well, Agent Hill gave me orders to go undercover at his hospital and do a psych eval," Laura continued. "He's insanely good at what he does, and he knows it. Guy's got an ego as big as Tony Stark's bank account."

Clint scowled at her choice of words. Stark's weapons tech was useful, a necessary evil given the state of the world, but the man himself was such an arrogant, irresponsible man-child it was a miracle he hadn't already blown himself up with one of his own cruel inventions. "Let me guess," he said, voice dry as the Sahara, "Dr. Strange could be a vital asset to SHIELD medical. Stephen Strange, not recommended."

Laura smiled. "Something like that. Meeting you on my way home after my first day at work was a complete coincidence. I had no idea who you really were or who you worked for then, and I didn't find out until last week. Hence the road trip."

He raised his eyebrows. "That's quite the coincidence."

"I'm not trained for seduction, and even if I was, I wouldn't have done it by turning myself into a damsel for you to rescue. The whole thing was a stroke of luck. Imagine my surprise when I realized you were a SHIELD agent. One of the best of the best. You seemed almost too good to be true."

"I wasn't honey-trapping you," Clint said, sharply but without raising his voice. "It was just as coincidental for me as it was for you."

No one had ordered him to take a walk past the hole in the wall sandwich restaurant where he'd met Laura late one afternoon. He hadn't told anyone he was going there, and he couldn't make himself believe she was lying. If Laura had allowed herself to be knocked into the street by a stray dog and nearly run over by a car skipping a red light just so he could save her by tackling her into sending them both sprawling into an empty lane, Clint would eat a dog.

She stared at him for a long moment, her expression unreadable. Then she said "I didn't think you were. And you don't think I was doing it to you, either."

"Nah," he said, remembering how his face had inadvertently ended up in her cleavage before he'd sprung away and pulled her to her feet on the asphalt. "Just being paranoid."

Laura deflated slightly. "Can't blame you for that." Her expression became grim. "So, are we in this together?"

He nodded slowly, not needing clarification on what she meant by 'this.' "We are." He paused, then added, "But first thing's first."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "What?"

"Us."

Her expression became wooden. "What about us? Do you still want there to be an 'Us'?"

"Don't you?" he asked, unable to keep a pleading note out of his voice. "Lying about our jobs aside, what we had was honest and uncomplicated. I like you… I really, really like you."

"Well, as it happens, I really, really like you, too. Lies about our jobs aside, you make me happy." She laughed throatily, and Clint felt his heart flutter. "God, even when you looked like you were about to stab me I liked you. Not that I'd let you stab me, of course, no matter how much I like you."

"Of course," Clint chuckled. Sobering, he continued. "So, are we still us?"

She nodded, smiling. "We are."

"Even if we still have to keep secrets from each other?"

Her smile vanished. "What kind of secrets, exactly?"

Clint grimaced. "Nothing that affects us as an item. I just… know things."

She raised an eyebrow. "You just know things," she said in a voice that dripped skepticism like a melting ice cream cone.

"It isn't my secret to tell," he said stiffly. He did not dare risk getting on Phoenix's bad side if he could avoid it. Natasha had told him what happened in Siberia. The wizard might be their ally, but that didn't change the simple fact that he was the scariest man Clint had ever met. "And it doesn't affect us."

Laura looked as if she was seeing right through him. "Promise me," she said. "Promise me that this secret isn't about us."

"I promise," Clint said without hesitation.

She looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded. "Alright."

Clint smiled softly, relieved. "Good."

For a long moment the two of them said nothing, merely stared into one another's eyes. Then Clint leaned forward, his smile shifting into a wicked grin. "I think we should celebrate this milestone in our relationship," he said, his voice husky,

Laura eyed him uncomprehendingly. "Milestone?"

"We've finally aired out our dirty laundry and we're still together." Clint's grin went from wicked to predatory, and he deliberately flicked his gaze to the motel outside. "We should celebrate that before we go haring off to save the world."

Laura's eyebrows rose in understanding, and then she gave him a coy smile. "And just how do you plan on celebrating this oh so important milestone?"

He leaned towards her, one hand snaking around to cup her jaw. "I've got a few ideas." Then he kissed her, and she kissed him back fiercely, hungrily.

By the time they made it to a room, Clint had grown so impatient he had to restrain himself from tearing off his own clothes. When they finished, he tried to get up to clean them up himself, but Laura forced him to stay in bed and let her do it. Afterward he lay on his side, holding her close to his chest. After all the upheavals of recent weeks, it was good to know that what they had was real. He stroked her arm lazily, feeling more relaxed than he had since… since as long as he could remember.

I think I might love you, Laura, he thought as his eyes drifted closed.

Tokyo, Japan, September of 2003

Bruce Banner's gaze flicked from up at the neon sign to the slip of paper in his hand, to the sign, and back again. He knew enough Japanese to recognize the name of the establishment, thanks to the crash course he'd taken out of a textbook during the journey here. Oni's Fist. It looked innocent enough for a windowless hole-in-the-wall hidden in an alleyway of Tokyo's affluent Shibuya district. There was no trash in the alleyway, and most people's gazes slid right over it despite the fact that it was well lit and easy to see into from outside. The fact that it provided a shortcut across the narrow end of an irregular city block should have made it a busy path for foot traffic, but Bruce was the only person there.

His journey here had been an interesting experience. The Ancient One and Wong had provided him with magic amulets in the shape of bracelets of metal and leather. The Ancient One's black bracelet would transfigure his clothes to match his form, while Wong's brown one had allowed Bruce to disguise himself with several preset identities. Bruce had had to ask for a user manual, which Wong had provided with an impatience that suggested he was unused to dealing with those who couldn't use their own magic.

Once he'd gotten the hang of using the latter, Bruce had spent an afternoon with Harry discussing his progress, and when they finished, Harry had graciously provided him with a portal to Madripoor. From there, Bruce had assumed one of the false identities Wong had prepared for him and bought a plane ticket to Tokyo, using the journey to give himself time to familiarize himself with the language. His money came from a proxy bank account created by Harry's magic, but Harry had warned Bruce that the spells sustaining it were fragile. If Bruce tried to spend too much at once, or if anyone examined the account too closely, they would fizzle out.

Now that Bruce was here, he was beginning to have second thoughts. He was a scientist, not a fighter. Unfortunately, the Other Guy most definitely was a fighter, and Bruce's studies with Master Hamir had shown him that the green goliath had his own personality, with his own needs and wants. For his own sanity, Bruce had to learn to live with him.

Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the broad, old fashioned door of red-painted metal. Three knocks, each loud enough to override the intruding noise of the city. He had scarcely withdrawn his fist after his third when a slim sally port near the top of the door opened, revealing a pair of dark, tilted eyes set into a pale, feminine face.

The eyes studied Bruce suspiciously, and then the woman spoke in a surprisingly deep voice. "Who are you?" She spoke English perfectly despite her pronounced accent, and her clipped tone brooked no nonsense. Her suspicion was warranted, for Bruce's chosen disguise was a slightly scrawny, blonde-haired man of middle age, and he'd dressed himself like a sloppy tourist. The baggy shorts with too many pockets and the slightly oversized Hawaiian shirt weren't exactly his style, but they contributed to the believability of his false identity.

"Bruce Banner. Wong sent me." As he said it, Bruce pressed two fingers to the thin bracelet of leather and metal on his left wrist. His skin tingled slightly as his disguise faded to reveal his true appearance. It felt good to wear his own face again.

The eyes widened ever so slightly, and then the sally port slid shut. A moment later, the door swung inward to reveal a plain-featured woman with graying black hair pulled into a tight bun. She wore clothes that resembled a combination of martial arts uniform and monk's robes, and a sling ring hung from her leather belt-sash. "I was beginning to think you wouldn't show," the woman said as she ushered Bruce over the threshold.

Bruce followed her into an expansive, dimly lit hallway that could have comfortably accommodated an eighteen-wheeler. He knew that this place was one of a number of hidden magical establishments catering to the Masters of the Mystic Arts and their contemporaries in the underground community of supernatural beings. For all that, though, he knew next to nothing about the mechanics of the spells that protected the place from intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and other potential interlopers from the mundane world. Bruce had attained an understanding of the fundamental theories of the Mystic Arts, but his ability to apply those concepts on a practical level was nil.

That was alright. Bruce already had seven PhDs, which was more than twice what any reasonable academic could expect to achieve in a lifetime, genius level intellect or not. Kamar-Taj had broadened his understanding of the universe beyond his wildest expectations. More important, it had helped him understand his green alter ego, which the Ancient One had offhandedly referred to as the Hulk. That understanding had led Bruce here, to appease the rage monster's, well, rage.

The woman led Bruce to a junction chamber, and from there up an industrial metal staircase to an upper-level catwalk overlooking the heart of the complex. That heart was a circular arena easily the size of a soccer field, sunken into a pit twenty feet deep with two dozen rows of seating rising from the lip. Most of the light came from a sphere of brilliant whiteness floating in a mirror-lined aperture at the top of the domed ceiling like a miniature sun. The stands were full of spectators, many of whom didn't look remotely human, and dressed in a mixture of fashions from all over the world, mundane and mystical.

They were cheering like sports fans at a football match, and no wonder. This partially subterranean complex was a sports arena, and in the supernatural community the most popular sport was dueling.

In the arena, a hulking creature that resembled nothing so much as a man with the shaggy black fur, hooves, and head of a monstrous ram. Bruce instantly recognized the creature as a minotaur. It wore leather body armor with metal shoulder pads and held an oversized weapon in each hand: a slightly curved, single edged sword and a long-handled battle ax with a wicked half-moon blade, both made from dark metal. Despite their bestial owner, the weapons looked well-made and well maintained.

After everything he'd experienced in the last few months, Bruce was unfazed by the sight of a myth come to life. What did faze him was the minotaur's opponent in the arena. It was a severe looking man of Tibetan descent wearing the garments of a Master of the Mystic Arts, eldritch mandalas sparkling in each hand.

"Wong?" Bruce said in astonishment. The grim faced, ever serious sorcerer who had given Bruce his disguise bracelet looked quite at home, not even blinking as the minotaur charged him with a bellow that drowned out the crowd.

The minotaur's ponderous ax struck one of Wong's eldritch shields with a shower of sparks, but failed to penetrate it. He brought his sword around, but Wong blocked that one as well, then thrust both mandalas forward. They exploded into orange shockwaves that sent the minotaur flying back the way he'd come.

The minotaur rolled as he hit the ground and brought his sword up just in time to deflect a jet of light Wong hurled after him before landing in a crouch. Wong stared him down, already forming new mandalas around each hand. The minotaur clanged his weapons together, causing them to emit a green shockwave that Wong deflected by expanding one mandala shield until it was four feet across and thrusting it into the attack.

Wong's enlarged mandala held, but the other remained inert. The minotaur clanged his weapons together again, harder this time, making the green shockwave that much brighter, then leaped into the air.

The shockwave slammed into Wong's shield, which flickered but did not break. As the minotaur descended for him, Wong dismissed the shield and brought his second mandala to bear, expanding that one to the same size the first had been just in time to catch the minotaur's weapons dead center.

For a moment, the minotaur seemed to hang suspended in midair. Then Wong's shield exploded in a bright flash that sent the minotaur flying straight up into the ceiling. He ricocheted hard, dropped his weapons, and fell, hitting the arena floor right in front of Wong. His weapons landed with a clatter beside him.

Ruthlessly, Wong formed yet another spell mandala with both hands and thrust it forward before the minotaur could get to his feet. The mandala became an energy jet that struck the creature square in the face in the chest. For a fraction of a second another mandala was visible, eight feet across, and when it faded, the minotaur was gone. In his place lay a small, horned sheep wrapped in a thick layer of white wool. The crowd burst into applause.

Bruce stared, mildly horrified but unsurprised. He had seen enough of what the mystics of Kamar-Taj could do that a bit of transmutation no longer bothered him, but he was still bursting with questions and misgivings. Where had the minotaur come from? Was it intelligent enough to understand its circumstances, or was it a near-mindless beast summoned from another dimension for the sole purpose of this fight? Bruce now knew more about the supernatural community than just about anyone who wasn't actually part of it, but that wasn't really saying much in the grand scheme of things. If he ended up being pitted against a sorcerer, would he end up getting turned into something else? He had no desire to become a sheep.

Wong basked in the adulation of the crowd for several seconds, then flicked two fingers in the direction of the bewildered-looking sheep, which flared with golden light and became the minotaur once more. The creature snorted in obvious displeasure, then bent down to pick up its weapons. It made a series of grunting, growly noises that sounded vaguely like a language, and Wong said something to it that was lost in the din.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" the voice of Bruce's female guide rang out from his left. He turned to look at her.

"I don't really have a choice," he said, raising his voice to be heard. "The Other Guy needs an outlet, and this is the best place for it. Probably the only place."

She nodded, but her concerned expression did not change. "Very well." She made a complicated series of gestures with both hands, conjuring what appeared to be a gyroscope made entirely out of magic sparks. When she finished, the gyroscope became a bird made of black metal small enough to easily fit in the palm of her hand. The bird immediately took flight, and the woman said, "This will lead you to your rooms. I will get you on the roster for tomorrow's tourney."

The black metal bird circled Bruce's head for a moment, then soared away. Bruce hurried after it, turning awkwardly and walking backwards for the time it took to yell a hasty "Thank you!"

Asgard, September of 2003

Night had fallen on Asgard, but the city was so well lit that Harry could see as clearly as if it were still daytime. The sky was awash in stars and multicolored nebulae that made even the most beautiful night on Earth look dull by comparison. He stood in the chambers that had been set aside for Steve Rogers, who was still asleep thanks to Harry's magic.

The captain lay prone on a sumptuously appointed bed, his body covered by a thin maroon blanket. His combat uniform had been switched by Harry for a simple white t-shirt and khaki pants. His vibranium shield had been hung on a wall rack directly opposite the foot of the bed, while his magically cleaned uniform stood propped on a mannequin nearby. The room was small by Asgardian standards, which meant that it was roughly the size of the average American penthouse suite. Opposite the entry doors was a colonnaded balcony with thick maroon curtains, though the technology and enchantments built into the room made them redundant.

Harry felt rather creepy watching the man sleep, so he deliberately faced the balcony as he composed a letter for Rogers to read upon waking. Even knowing as he did how overwhelming it would be to wake up to an alien world, Harry struggled to place the appropriate words on the sheet of durable paper he conjured. Once the letter was done, he folded it into a rectangle and sealed it with wax like a Hogwarts letter, addressed it to Captain Rogers, and charmed it to severely burn anyone who tried to open, read, or steal it from its intended recipient.

Placing the letter on the Captain's bedside table, Harry mentally reached into his personal pocket dimension and summoned the enchanted rucksack he'd prepared for this. It, like the letter, was charmed to ensure that only Rogers could open it and carry it around, and it contained several items he thought Rogers would need: books that covered world history, politics, and scientific advancement since HYDRA's public defeat, an enchanted cell phone like those Harry had given to the SHIELD loyalists (complete with instruction manual), a copy of the Kamar-Taj library's encyclopedia on the Asgardians, a few changes of clothes, an enormous file containing all of the intelligence Harry's allies had gathered on HYDRA's current activities.

The last, and perhaps most important, item was a star-shaped silver amulet that would protect the Captain from direct magical attack. All Masters of the Mystic Arts wore such amulets on their person, and while their effects were far from foolproof, they were significantly better than nothing. Unlike typical protection amulets, this one was specifically made to protect the wearer from spells fueled by the energies of Yggdrasil itself, a category that included Aesir, Vanir, and Jotun magic. Its narrower focus, combined with the raw power Harry put into it, should make this one far more effective against Aesir magic than the standard.

The amulet had one additional special property, one that Harry hoped he'd never have to use. He'd only included it because he felt it was better to have something and never need it than to need it and not have it.

Harry had included instructions on the amulet's uses, among other things, in his letter to the Captain, but he still felt uncomfortable explaining everything in a letter. He knew that Dumbledore had done that the night he left Harry at Number 4, and it hadn't done a thing to endear him to the already insufferably bigoted Dursleys. Unfortunately, circumstances had forced Harry's hand. He trusted the Aesir to care for the super soldiers because of their culture's emphasis on honor, both in and out of battle, but experience had taught him the value of caution.

As soon as his last task was done, Harry took one last look at the chamber and the man sleeping on the bed. I'm sorry I couldn't do more, Harry thought. Good luck. With that, he swept out of the room and shut the doors with a thought. The rest was up to the Asgardians now.

Odin had been surprisingly agreeable, even accommodating, of Harry's demands. The Aesir would not only cease their direct surveillance of him and facilitate the recovery of the two Super Soldiers; they would render him any aid he asked for within reason, even protect him from any alien civilizations that might attack or exploit him for his powers. In exchange, Odin had merely asked that Harry treat the Aesir with the same consideration. He wanted to head straight for Himinbjorg and have Heimdall beam him home, but he had things to do first.

Odin, it turned out, had a very good reason for refusing to leave Asgard. It was a problem he claimed Harry could solve for him, if Harry could prove to the Allfather's satisfaction that he had mastered his powers sufficiently to confront the threat. Under normal circumstances he would have taken a demand that he prove himself to a stranger in this way as a sign of doubt in his abilities, but in this case he was willing to concede that such a test was warranted. If nothing else, he was glad that he wouldn't have to cater to an audience eager for entertainment.

That was why Harry's destination was not Himinbjorg, but the training grounds. As he strode down through a cavernous corridor lit by gold braziers, he focused his awareness on the sky dock where he'd first entered the palace and apparated. When the crushing darkness released him, he was standing at the threshold of the landing platform, just inside the invisible barrier that protected the palace interior from the elements. The small squad of Einherjar guarding the place jerked in surprise, but relaxed as soon as they recognized him, resuming their original positions with no outward signs of nervousness.

Ignoring his audience, Harry strode outside and took off, flying around the palace exterior until he spotted the training grounds. As he approached, he spotted Odin standing in the center of the largest of its many arenas and descended in his direction.

The arena itself was a rectangular sandpit the size of an American football pitch. Unlike a typical sports field, the pit was sunken thirty feet into the ground, with two layers of observation stands lining the walls, which in turn were surrounded by thick, tall hedges. Barely visible along the inner edges of the viewing stands was a golden energy barrier, no doubt meant to protect spectators from stray attacks.

The Allfather was not alone. To his right stood Queen Frigga. To his left stood his children. Harry recognized Thor and Loki instantly — they had appeared in several of Harry's prophetic dreams already — but the last was unknown to him. She was tall and lean with muscle, which was highlighted by her skin tight green and black bodysuit. She had a cascade of waist-length black hair that seemed to merge with her deep green cape like a waterfall in a field, pale skin, and shadowed green eyes. She was beautiful, but severe, even intimidating.

Harry landed gently in front of the group and looked around at them all. "You have me at a disadvantage, your majesties," he said, inclining his head in a shallow bow.

The dark-haired woman smirked. "I'm Hela," she said bluntly. "Eldest child of Odin, Goddess of War and Death, at your service."

Odin winced, just a little.

War and Death. Harry's entire life had been defined by war and death. He had been destined to kill or be killed since the day he was born — it was one of the reasons he disliked killing. "Charmed, I'm sure," he said blandly, showing no emotion in his face or in his voice.

"Are you certain you wish to do this?" Queen Frigga asked.

Harry shrugged. "My wants are irrelevant. An enemy like this is just as much a threat to bystanders as it is to you. I can't ignore something like that."

All five Asgardians gave him approving looks, and Thor said, "Your sense of duty is commendable."

When Harry didn't reply, Odin said "The test will be this. My children are all powerful and skilled warriors. There is a reason we are called gods. Show us your own power and skill by defeating each of them in combat without grasping them directly with your power or employing telepathy. You must restrict yourself to aimed attacks only."

Harry raised an eyebrow. That wasn't too bad a limitation, all things considered. "What is the win condition? First blood? Battlefield removal? Surrender?"

"Incapacitation or surrender. We all trust that you have the control to avoid causing accidental deaths. And besides, we are Aesir. It is our nature to enjoy a good fight."

"Speak for yourself," Loki muttered, just loud enough for Harry to hear. Thor and Hela both grinned.

"What about the Mirror Dimension?" Harry asked. "That counts as permanent incapacitation against any opponent who can't travel interdimensionally."

"We might not be able to travel interdimensionally," Frigga said, "but it can."

Harry nodded. "Right then. Who wants to go first?"

Loki smirked. "You're up, brother. I'll be sure to save the memory of your humiliation for later perusal."

Thor scowled at him. "Why me?"

"Because," Hela said, "you're the heir to the throne, and therefore the one in greatest need of a lesson in humility."

Thor's expression became sulky. "You are both horrible siblings," he mumbled.

"We know," they chorused.

Despite the banter, Harry sensed an underlying tension between the siblings. He thought he knew what it was. Still, he knew better than to say anything on the subject. Instead, he said, "Shall we get started?"

"Yes," Odin said. He slammed his spear, Gungnir, on the sandy floor of the arena. There was a flash of golden light, and the entire family save Thor vanished. A second flash of light drew Harry's attention to the section of the viewing stands nearest the palace. Odin, Frigga, Hela, and Loki each took seats with their backs to the giant structure.

Harry eyed them for a moment, then turned back to Thor. "Say we start fifty feet apart?" he suggested.

Thor nodded, and they took their places, equidistant from the center of the arena.

For a long moment, no one said anything. The night sky was a riot of light and color, too bright to be outshone by light pollution like Earth's. The cool air was still. Harry's breaths came smooth and calm. He didn't really want to do this, but as he'd told Frigga, his wants were irrelevant. Sometimes, it seemed to him that they always had been.

Odin's voice rang out loud, clear, and strong. "Begin!"

I wrestled with the Asgardians for a long time, but eventually decided that it would be more interesting if Odin's encounter with a Dark Phoenix had a lasting impact on him and his children. Thus, I give you a redeemed-but-not-tamed Hela and a slightly more humble Odin. There is method to this apparent madness.

Reviews and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading!