Marcus L. Rowland
A week after the Chitauri invasion Manhattan was still a mess, but somehow Steve Rogers felt more at home than he had at any time since arriving in the twenty-first century. He'd come from a war, chaos was natural to him. In his spare time he was helping with the reconstruction, aiding anyone who needed an extra pair of hands or a strong back, and learning his way around the city again. He'd worried about being recognised but casual clothes, a baseball cap and glasses seemed to be enough to deflect attention. Well, if it worked for Clark Kent...
A few blocks from Stark Tower the road had already been cleared, and several teams of workmen were repairing windows and the façades of buildings damaged by the attack. They seemed to be well-equipped, and didn't look like they needed any help. Then he noticed the teenaged girl kneeling on the sidewalk, at the base of a tree that was leaning at a steep angle, and said "Hey, careful, if that goes over the roots will probably hit you."
"It's okay, the ropes will hold it. If you're worried lend the boys a hand." She pointed past the tree then turned back to the roots and carefully trimmed off a damaged section, painting grey paste over the cut.
Ropes around the upper branches led back to pulleys tied to a heavy concrete bench. Two bored-looking teenagers stood by it, next to a mound of earth on a tarp, some two by fours, and a couple of spades and a tool box, making sure that nobody tampered with the ropes or their equipment. One of them smiled a little warily at Steve, who said "Need a hand?"
"Thanks! We'll be ready to finish off in a few minutes, if you can help with that it'll be great."
"Glad to. I'm Steve."
"Ronan," said the other boy, with a strong Irish accent.
"And I'm Kit." He had a slight Latino accent. "Nita shouldn't be long, then we can haul the tree back upright and get the roots buried properly."
"What's she doing?"
"She's patching up some damage to the roots, and painting on some hormone gunk that'll encourage them to grow back again. With a little luck it'll recover, she's a real wizard with plants."
Steve glanced back at the girl and noticed she was speaking softly as she worked, in a musical language he didn't understand, but thought sounded slightly familiar. Most people wouldn't have heard her, but the Super-Soldier serum had boosted his senses as well as his body.
"What damaged the tree? Is it left over from the Chitauri attack?"
"The alien guys?" Kit looked appraisingly at Steve, obviously wondering how he knew the name, which hadn't been publicised. "Kinda. One of those turtle-whale things crashed in the street, did a lot of damage to the sewers and water pipes. That washed out soil from under some of the trees and the roots have started to give. We're trying to fix the worst of them before the City decides that they're a safety problem and it'll be cheaper to get rid of them, like they did with Dutch Elm Disease."
Steve remembered the slow spread of the disease before the war. It hadn't meant much to him then, but there had been trees on the street where he lived; when he'd revisited the neighbourhood a couple of weeks before the Chitauri attack they were all gone.
"Is it something your high school is doing?"
"No, we live out in the suburbs, and Ronan's from out of town, but we're all free this weekend so we came in to lend a hand. There's a charity that gives out work assignments and supplies equipment."
"That's very civic-minded."
Kit looked embarrassed. "It's the right thing to do."
"Maybe you could give me the charity's name, there might be some projects I can help with."
"Great!" Kit rattled off the name and URL, and Steve carefully jotted it onto the back of his hand with a ball-point pen. For convenience it beat the hell out of the fountain and stylographic pens he'd used before he was frozen, though he still preferred a nib for art work.
"That's weird..." said Nita.
"What's up?" asked Ronan.
"There's something buried here... feels like metal."
"Careful," said Ronan, moving to see, "it could be a power line or something."
Nita held out her hand. On it was a small sharp-finned cylinder, a tiny rocket. "I think it's some kid's toy."
"Don't move!" said Steve. "That's not a toy. Stay as still as you can, let me take it from you."
Nita gingerly did as she was told, and Steve took the rocket and gently put it down on the ground. "Okay, back off a few feet." He got out his phone, took a picture, then backed away from the tiny missile, entered a number, and said "Jarvis, put me through to Stark."
"Tony Stark?" asked Kit.
Steve made a "not now" gesture then said "Stark, this is Rogers. A kid just found one of your toys." He uploaded the photo.
"Crap. Is he okay?"
"She's fine. What should I do?"
"Just keep people back, I'll be there in about five minutes."
"Okay, the location is..."
"Don't bother, I know exactly where you are."
"Really? Good to know." Steve made a mental note to get another phone, and not give Stark the number.
"On my way. Stark out."
"Was that Tony Stark you were talking to?" Kit asked excitedly.
"Yes. He should be here soon."
"I thought you looked familiar," said Nita, her eyes wide. "My dad's a big fan. Me too."
Four minutes later there was a rushing noise, rapidly getting louder, and a flying figure appeared overhead and descended towards them. Iron Man landed a few yards away, and through his external speaker said "Where is it?"
"Just there." Steve pointed, and Stark squatted for a closer look, holding his hand near the tiny missile.
"Yeah, that's one of mine. Damn! Jarvis, can you interrogate its chip?"
Another voice said "Naturally. What did you want to know?"
"Check when it was fired, then run through your log of the battle and see if you can figure out what happened to it."
"Who's Jarvis?" Ronan whispered.
"A computer," said Steve.
"The missile was fired in the volley you launched as you were doing your Jonah impression," said Jarvis.
"Why didn't it detonate?"
"You were too close for safe detonation when it hit the digestive system of the creature, and it emerged before the safety interlock disengaged. The self-destruct didn't operate."
"That's not good. What's the current status?"
"Still armed, but insufficient power for detonation. There are anomalous readings, the control circuitry may be faulty."
"Which could mean it's still got plenty of power. How many others failed to detonate?"
"You fired thirty-two missiles in that encounter, I recorded twenty-two detonations and five self-destructs. The others may have been masked by the creature or other factors."
"Frack. If there's one like this, there might be more. We'll have to get this area shut down and sweep for explosives. It could take days." He backed away from the missile, and opened his helmet to reveal his face.
A crowd was starting to gather, and Steve noticed that the teenagers seemed nervous. Stark produced a metal ball from somewhere in his armour and threw it up into the air. A glowing circle about thirty feet wide appeared around them, traced by a laser in the hovering globe. Jarvis' amplified voice said "For your own safety please stay outside the circle. For your own..." The message repeated endlessly.
Kit said "Maybe there's a way to find them quickly."
"No, Kit!" Nita scowled at him angrily.
"Nita, we can't risk someone getting hurt. It's not like being a wi... a mutant is illegal..."
"Good grief." Nita scratched her head. "Okay, if Kit finds them for you, can you keep us off the record?"
"This I have to see," said Stark.
"We need your word," said Nita. "That goes for both of you, and your computer, and anyone else that's listening. People at school don't know about Kit, we want to keep it that way."
"Okay," said Stark. "Yes, before someone gets hurt."
"Of course," said Steve.
"All right then," said Kit. "Let me get this straight, all of the missiles you're missing are identical to this one? Come from the same batch?"
"That appears to be the case. I have full telemetry on the other missiles you fired during the battle, they are the only ones not accounted for."
"Then this ought to work." Kit spread a spade-full of earth on the sidewalk, dug into a pocket and pulled out an old-fashioned telescopic radio antenna, and began to trace the street layout as lines in the dirt, muttering as he worked. Again, it was the musical language Steve didn't recognize. As Kit continued the lines started to glow, shifting to an exact map of the area.
Someone in the crowd shouted "Fricking mutant!" and Steve and Ronan moved to stand in front of Kit. There were more catcalls and insults, but on the whole it was good-natured crowd, and nobody threw anything. Steve's bulky presence might have dissuaded them. He noticed that several people were trying to take photos with their cell phones but didn't seem to be having much success, and guessed that one of Stark's gadgets was interfering with the electronics.
"Okay," said Kit, pointing at three pulsing spots of light that had appeared. "One somewhere in that apartment building. I think it's high up, maybe on the roof. There's another further down the block, feels like it's below ground level. Maybe down a sewer grating? And there's one down that way. It's moving, coming towards us slowly. I think someone's carrying it."
"Then that's the one we look for first. Steve, keep your camera on the map, I'll go after it."
Steve pointed his cell phone at the map and dialled Stark again, as Stark took off and flew down the street towards the Bronx. Suddenly he swooped down, and through his phone Steve heard him say "Hey kid, where did you get that cool rocket?"
"That's one," said Nita.
Stark roared back a couple of minutes later, left a second missile with the one Nita has found, and said "Little bastard shook me down for fifty bucks."
"You can afford it," said Steve.
"Not the point."
"Where do you keep money in that thing?"
"You don't want to know. Where's the next one?" Stark checked the map and flew off towards the apartment building Kit had indicated, scanned the roof, swooped down, and came back a minute later with a third missile. "Stuck in the roof of a pigeon coop."
"What about the last one?" asked Steve.
"Might have to dig up the road. Let's take a closer look." He flew to the grating and landed, then lowered something down it, a thick cable of some sort. More onlookers quickly gathered around him. Over the phone his voice said "It's somewhere down in the mud, I think." The screen showed a fish-eye view of the bottom of the drain, and its less than attractive contents.
"You need some sort of grab," said Steve. "Do you have anything in there that can do it?"
"Who do you think I am, Inspector Gadget?"
"We've got to get you up to speed on popular culture. Let's see, I can magnetise the end of the probe, there isn't much iron in the rockets but it might be enough."
There was a loud explosion, the ground shook, and a mixture of water, mud, and other contaminants sprayed over Stark and the onlookers who had followed him to the drain. "Well," said the phone, "that's one way to fix it."
"Are you okay?" said Steve.
"Peachy. Stinky, but peachy."
Stark flew back to them, and Nita said "Ewww!" as he landed.
"You're right," said Steve, "definitely stinky."
"Good thing I had the faceplate closed," said Stark. "Good work, kid. I need to get these back to the lab; where do you want me to send the reward?"
"Reward?" said Kit.
"You've found Stark Industries property, maybe saved a couple of lives. Five thousand dollars sound about right?"
"Make it ten," said Steve.
Kit, Ronan and Nita whispered for a moment - again Steve heard the musical language - then Kit said "I can't take it."
"Why not?" asked Steve.
"We came here to help, it'd be wrong to make money from it. Give it to charity, or pay for more damage to be fixed."
"Plus you don't want to give me your address," said Stark.
"Nope." Kit grinned at him.
"You're a smart kid," said Stark. A square of pasteboard extruded from a slot in the armour; a card with a telephone number. "You ever need a job or a favour, call that number, someone should be able to help."
Stark picked up the remaining missiles, carefully put them into a compartment of his armour, said "I'd better get these back to the lab," and rose into the air, grabbing his globe as he passed it, and flew off towards Stark Tower. The remainder of the crowd slowly dispersed. Fortunately the most vocal mutant-haters had followed Stark when he investigated the drain, and gone away wet and smelly.
"We'd better finish with the tree," said Steve, "then if you want it, lunch is on me."
"What do you think, guys?" asked Kit.
"I guess we'll be pretty hungry by the time we're done," said Nita, kneeling by the roots and carrying on with her work. "Okay."
Ronan nodded his agreement.
"One thing... if I know Stark, there's a transmitter or something in that card, you might want to write down the number rather than keeping it. And if you really don't want him to know where you live, if you ever call him use a phone that can't be traced back to you."
Kit frowned and held it up to the light, then said "You're right, there's a transponder chip." He tapped it with the old antenna, and there was a blue spark and a faint smell of ozone. "There was, anyway. Thanks again."
Twenty minutes later Nita was done, and they slowly winched the tree upright again, buried the roots, then nailed the two by fours to the trunk to prop the tree upright.
"Doesn't it need water?" asked Steve.
"The ground's pretty soggy underneath, and we want the roots to go down, not up. It'll be fine."
Kit made a phone call, and a few minutes later a camper-van arrived and a cheerful-looking black woman took their equipment. "Done for the day?"
"Something came up," Kit said apologetically, "We're going to have to leave it for now."
"Well, you've done a great job. It looks healthier already."
"The damage wasn't too bad," said Nita. "The roots are mostly okay, I think it'll be fine."
"Okay. Better wash before you head home, there's a basin in the van."
When she'd driven off Steve said "Any preferences for food?"
"There's a good food court in Grand Central Station," said Kit. "We'll be heading home that way anyway."
"Works for me," said Steve, starting to walk in that direction. "Something I meant to ask... what was that language you were using?"
"Language?" asked Ronan.
"When Nita was working on the roots, and when Kit found the missiles."
"Oh... That language." The teenagers glanced at each other.
Steve added "I'm sure I've heard it before somewhere."
"Any idea where?" asked Nita.
Steve thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Stuttgart."
"Germany?" asked Kit. It didn't seem to mean anything to him.
"Loki confronted a crowd there, and told them he was their master. There was an old man who stood up to him..." Steve shook his head, trying to reconcile his memories, and went on "It's odd. I remember him saying that he wouldn't bow down to a man like him. But at the same time, I remember that language, I didn't understand it but I know he was saying something about defiance."
"Let me guess," said Kit. Then in the musical language, which Steve somehow understood: "Eldest, fairest, and fallen... greetings and defiance!"
"Now that's just borrowin' trouble," said Ronan. "It's just askin' for the man to tap ye' on the shoulder."
"That's exactly what I heard," said Steve. "'Eldest, fairest, and fallen'? I went to Catholic school. Lucifer?"
"That's one of Its names," said Ronan. "Though it prefers the dark to the light. I hadn't heard that Loki was one of Its vessels."
"We'd better check," said Nita, "he's probably in the Manual."
"Food first," said Kit.
Soon they were sat around one of the booths in the food court. Kit was eating chilli, Nita and Ronan pizza, while Steve tried a bowl of clam chowder. A small black cat trotted across the food court, dodging feet, and hid under the table, rubbing against Steve's legs and purring. He scratched its head, and Ronan gave it a piece of pepperoni. Nita had a small book open, which somehow seemed to contain an impossibly large number of pages. She leafed through, read a couple of pages, and shook her head. "Okay, I guess it was a natural mistake. The old guy was Gerber, he's Senior for Southern Germany."
"Senior?" asked Steve.
"Senior wizard," said Kit. "I kinda lied about the mutant thing."
Steve shrugged, somehow not surprised. "Actually you didn't; you said that being a mutant wasn't illegal, and let me draw my own conclusions. It really doesn't matter to me. But I thought that guy in Greenwich Village was the senior wizard... no, the Supreme Sorcerer, something like that."
Kit rolled his eyes, and Nita glared at him. "There's nothing funny about that poor deluded man." She turned to Steve. "He's actually pretty powerful, fought the Lone Power to a draw. But he came out of it with some damage, and the delusion that he was Earth's main magical guardian. People have tried to help him but he seems pretty happy that way and does quite a lot of good, so mostly we leave him to get on with it."
"Okay," said Steve. "So what's the real situation?"
"There are a lot of wizards, mostly we work behind the scenes to fix problems like pollution. Occasionally we get to fight things like the Lone Power. It isn't really very showy, and there's not much in the way of glory; it's just... well, it needs doing, and we can do it. The Lone Power doesn't want things improved, so it targets wizards when it can."
"Gerber went to the opera that evening, when Loki turned up he thought he was having another run-in with the Lone Power. So naturally he defied him. But Loki didn't have any idea what he was talking about. Gerber got a pretty good reading on him; he's not its puppet, probably not under its influence at all, so he can't claim the devil made him do it."
"What I don't understand," said Kit, "is how you understand Speech." The last word was a trill of the liquid language, which Steve still understood.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Ronan. At their blank looks he added, in a deep voice, "'Ye're a wizard, Harry!'"
Steve asked "Who's Harry?"
All three teenagers looked puzzled, and Kit said "Harry Potter."
"He's a boy wizard in some books and movies. I thought everyone knew about him."
"I guess they were written after the forties."
"Then you're really the original?" asked Nita, awe in her eyes. "Some sort of time portal?"
"I was in a plane crash, froze to death but it didn't quite stick."
"That shouldn't be possible," said Kit, "ice crystals would - oww!"
Steve guessed that someone had kicked him.
"Sorry," said Nita. "Okay... getting back on topic, you can understand the Speech, that means you could potentially be a wizard. Did you ever read something like this?" She handed him the book.
There was a neat block of text, centred on the page, beginning "In Life's name and for Life's sake, I assert that I will employ the Art which is its gift in Life's service alone. I will guard growth..."
"I'm not sure," said Steve, passing it back to her. "It feels familiar, somehow." He searched through his memories. "Before everything, while I was trying to join the Army, I found a book on the subway, on my way to the Stark Expo. I remember glancing inside and reading a couple of pages, something about wizards. I think that was part of it."
"What did you do with the book?"
"Handed it in at the lost property office. Then I ran into Doctor Erskine at the Expo, he got me into the army, and I never really thought about it again."
"A couple of pages?" said Kit.
"Maybe," said Nita. "How old were you?"
"That's old... I've never heard of a human wizard who started that late. Let's see..." She flicked through her book and showed it to them, her finger against a block of text near the bottom of the page:
"What does that mean?" asked Steve.
ROGERS, Steven (AKA Captain America)
C/0 Stark Tower, NYC
Novice Rating (RL +7.6 +/- .3)
"It means that everything that's happened to you since then has been part of your Ordeal," said Kit. "You could have been a wizard, a strong one, but for some reason the Powers didn't want that. All of it - becoming Captain America, fighting the Nazis and Hydra - it's all connected. Maybe the magic helped you survive the treatment and being frozen, maybe the way you fight with that shield uses magic in some way. Whatever, it isn't over. Sooner or later you're going to be up against the Lone Power. Maybe you have been, and didn't know it, but it isn't over."
"Hydra," guessed Steve. "They're still around, it could be that whoever leads them now is the one."
"It seems likely," said Kit. "But don't ignore other possibilities. It could be someone else that's under its influence. My guess, you'll know when it happens."
"And don't assume it has to be a fight," said Nita. "It looks that way, you pretty much define the word 'warrior,' but maybe your role will be completely different."
"Can't you look it up in your book, find out more?"
"The Powers prefer free will," said Kit, "and a lot of what the Lone Power does is hidden from us anyway. The other Powers usually tell you enough to find out the truth for yourself, but nothing more. And they're being really cagey about this one; there wasn't even an entry for you in the book the last time I looked at that page, we can only see it now because we know about you."
"There seemed to be a lot of names, why would you even notice if I was there or not?"
"This isn't just a directory," said Nita; "We use it to find out if other wizards are available when we need their help, or just to check that they're okay. It just happens that Kit's on the same page, and I think we would have noticed if Captain America was there. It isn't just that anyway; they haven't given you a copy of the Manual, or any other way to learn about magic, my guess is that they want you to find your own path."
"The way we met today could be an indicator," said Kit. "Maybe we'll be your guides at some point, or help you in some other way when you need it."
"Okay. How do I contact you?"
"Come to Grand Central," said Nita, "Rhiow will keep an eye open for you."
The cat dug a claw into his knee. "Down here." It was a purred version of the musical language, but somehow Steve understood it.
"Rhiow's one of the wizards that keeps the magical part of the Station operational. She can get help fast if you need it, or lend a hand..."
"Claw," said Rhiow.
"Okay, lend a claw if she can."
Kit hesitated, then said "If that isn't an option, you'd better call me." He wrote 'Christopher Rodriguez' and a Nassau County phone number on a scrap of paper napkin. "If I'm not there someone can take a message, my family are used to weird calls. But please keep the number to yourself."
Steve read it, spent a moment memorizing the number, and handed it back. "Okay, I've got it."
Ronan nodded. "That's a good sign. The best wizards can keep a lot in their heads."
"We'll try to find out more, of course," said Nita. "We can check with more senior wizards, now we know there's something to look for."
"That would be good," said Steve.
"Can we ask a big favour? People don't cope with magic very well. You've seen how they react to mutants, it isn't much different to that, and a lot of people think that if you know any sort of magic you're in league with the devil, regardless of what you do with it. We try to lend a hand if we can, but it would help if you don't say too much about this. Nobody needs a witch hunt."
"Okay. I can see the sense in that, especially if I'm some sort of wizard myself."
Kit glanced at his watch. "I'm sorry to dump all this on you and run, but Nita's dad won't be happy if we're too late. We're going to have to make a move."
Nita nodded apologetically. "He's right, we're going to have to split. It's been great meeting you." The teenagers shook hands with him, then hurried out towards the trains.
Rhiow jumped up onto his lap and dabbed a paw towards the remains of the chowder, and Steve grinned and put the bowl down where she could reach it.
"Thanks!" Rhow began to lap up the food. After a couple of minutes she yawned, said "See you around," and ran off between the legs of the passing commuters.
"Did you get an address for those kids?" asked Tony Stark, when Steve met him in one of the workshops an hour later.
Steve shook his head. "They were scared of being outed to their friends, I guess."
"One of these days we'll have to do something about that. Okay, they weren't dangerous, but it's stupid having a load of people running around with powers that nobody understands. Some of them are pretty dangerous. There ought to be some sort of registration scheme, with penalties for anyone who tried to avoid registering."
"And who'd run it? Who'd stop it being used to round up the mutants, or whoever the administrators don't like?"
"I'm sure I can come up with something," said Tony. "I managed to privatise world peace."
"I guess," said Steve, wondering how Stark could possibly think that the continued state of near-war and terrorism was peace. He watched Stark thoughtfully, and after a moment, without conscious thought, said "Eldest, fairest, and fallen... greetings and defiance!"
Stark stood very still, and for a moment it seemed that something ancient, reptilian and evil seemed to stare out through his eyes. Then he blinked, and the impression was gone. "What was that?"
"Okay," said Stark, picking up one of his repulsors and slipping it onto his hand, "but it was something."
"Something I heard this afternoon, can't seem to get it out of my head."
"Maybe I can help with that." Without any warning he began to fire repulsor blasts at Steve, shattering equipment and windows as Steve ducked and rolled for cover, and wished with all his heart that he'd been wrong.
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