Down Into The Golden Lands
by Alby Mangroves and Speranza
Author's Note: any thanks to lim and astolat for story beta and to altocello and amphigoury for their art beta!
It was Thor who found him, knocked out and half buried beneath a yellow school bus that looked like it had been carelessly tossed onto a pile of rubble. He'd thought that Steve was merely trapped—entangled, leg lodged somewhere—and knelt beside him to dig him out, only belatedly seeing the blood running out of the corner of Steve's mouth. It was coming from inside, and Thor stared at Steve's pale face and only then saw the sharp metal rod protruding from Steve's chest. Not trapped, pierced. Not a sword, but might as well be.
"Cap? Come in, Cap. What the hell?" Tony was saying over the comm. "Cap, check in," Tony repeated, and then: "Anybody see—? Who was the last to see—?"
Thor felt the tiny movement as Steve's fingers brushed his, and realized that Steve's eyes were open; he was looking at Thor tiredly but smiling a little. "S'all right." Steve's voice was the barest wisp. "Let me go."
"Let me go."
Thor surprised himself by saying, "I cannot. For you are the noblest of souls, and it is not in my nature."
He heard Natasha's soft gasp, and said, turning, for there was no time to lose, "I cannot save him here. I must take him to Asgard." He heard Steve's soft, pained, "Thor," just as Natasha said, "Yes. Go. Hurry." He and Natasha lifted masonry and metal off Steve's crushed body and then, bracing himself, Thor dragged Steve off the rod that impaled him and, heaving him half onto his shoulder, raised his hammer to the sky.
When they tumbled through the gate at the top of the Bifrost, Steve was cool and still and white with death. Thor laid him down on the floor where Heimdall had placed the basket holding the golden apple and the pearl-handled knife. Thor reached for them with shaking hands and cut a slice, but Steve was far away now, and Thor ended up squeezing juice into his mouth, clumsily mashing bits of apple between his lips.
He saw the heavy brown boots of the Allfather but refused to look up. "Are you mad?" Odin said, but Thor stayed on his knees, bent over Steve, desperately pushing small pieces of apple into his mouth and feeling gratified when at last Steve's throat worked and he swallowed. "To give a prize such as this to a mortal—"
"He was half a god anyway. And he was—is—the best of men." Thor looked up, willing to bear Odin's scorn if it meant Steve would live, for he would not lose another brother. "He is worthy of it, Father."
In the still, quiet halls of healing, Mengloth and her maidens peeled Steve's battered uniform off him, washed him and attended to his wounds and dressed him in a simple white tunic, but though he breathed and his wounds closed, he did not wake. Steve slept for a day and a night and a day, and Thor stomped around a bit uselessly before he was gratefully drawn away by one thing and another: a challenge to spar in the yard, a messenger wanting a swift answer, an old friend raising a toast. When a page came running, calling that the Midgardian had finally opened his eyes, Thor set down his flagon and strode off to Steve's room, only to find the bed empty. The handmaidens pointed, nervously, to the balcony.
Steve was standing at the stone balustrade, the wind whipping his hair. He turned as Thor approached, and Thor was relieved to see that he looked well. The color had returned to his lips and his hair was shining.
"Thor. I—Where…?" Steve turned back to the windows, wide-eyed. "Thor, is this—Asgard?"
Steve sees the beauty of Asgard for the first time
"Yes." Thor went to his side, and together, they stared out at the glowing bronze fire that was Asgard in the evening: the glittering towers and spires, the ancient temples and ruins of moss-encrusted stone. The mountains were white-capped in the distance. "This is my home. You are welcome here."
Steve's mouth opened, closed, opened. Thor was moved to see him so moved. "It's beautiful," Steve managed finally. "It's astounding." He laughed; Thor had never heard joy like this in his voice. "I must have the dullest brain in the world, because just when I think I've seen everything…" Steve gestured at the view with his hand. "I'm a fool," he said. "I'm the world's biggest fool. If I had ten bucks I'd give it to you."
"I have no need of money," Thor replied, smiling. "Come, you must be hungry," he said, and clasped Steve fondly on the shoulder. "I was just going to eat. I will show you the castle," though he had to renege on that until after dinner, because it took ages even to get Steve through the hall; he kept slowing to gape at the arched ceiling and elaborately columned promenade. Then Steve went still at the door to the banqueting hall, and of course it was loud and rather warm with the enormous fires going, and Thor supposed Steve hadn't seen so many warriors together since the time of his war, and even then Steve hadn't lived to see the end of it: had never enjoyed the sight of warriors feasting in celebration. Happiness rose in Thor's chest and he dragged Steve to his table and gave him pride of place there, and called for lamb stewed in berries and a roasted goose and eggs and cheese and a magnificent plate of oysters, as well as a tankard of ale.
"Friend Steve," Thor roared, toasting him. "Welcome to my land!" and Steve awkwardly hoisted his tankard and drank.
The next morning, Thor took Steve out on a boat so that he could see the palace from every angle, and over the next few days he took Steve through room by room—the great hall and the long gallery, the enormous library with its vast mural of endless Yggdrasil spreading over the ceiling, the courtyards, staterooms, and armory, where Steve stopped to admire the elaborate filigreed suits of armor and round golden shields that protected the warriors of Asgard.
When Steve was well enough, Thor dressed him in a cloak from his own closet and gave him one of his finest horses to ride, an enormous snow-white stallion. Together they rode out through the tall golden gates and through the wild dark forest. The horses did not tire. They took the wide broad road over the mountains and came to the northern bank of the Gjoll, and picnicked there overlooking the serene and golden beauty of his mother's lands. The kitchens had packed them a lunch of roast chicken and wine, and a loaf of bread fresh from the ovens.
Steve was only half-paying attention to his food; he seemed distracted by the sunlight glinting off the shores beyond. "I wish I had my sketchbook or—I don't know if paint could even convey it."
Thor tore a piece of chicken off the bone with his teeth and considered the rippling tans and golds of the fields, and the path curving off into the mist. Truly, it was lovely, and he felt a sudden wrench of grief for his mother. Folkvangr had been hers, and she had often invited him to join her there, but he had all too rarely gone. Stupidly, he had found it dull, as if that was what mattered. Now he longed for the hours he might have spent with her there. He chewed and swallowed and said, emotion backing up in his throat, "Those lands are my mother's, and home to the bravest warriors of the nine realms—to all those who seek peace," and when Steve looked at him, Thor realized he had to explain further. "It is for worthy warriors who seek rest. Those who are killed in battle may choose between my father's house, where they can join the eternal armies of Odin, and my mother's lands, where they may build homes for themselves among the apple trees." Thor remembered climbing those trees as a small boy, remembered his mother's smiling face, upturned, looking for him. He remembered the fields of flowers, the gentle low humming of the bees.
"It looks really nice," Steve said, and the longing in his voice seemed to mirror Thor's own.
"It is, it is a marvelous place, it—where are you going?" because Steve was up and heading down the bank toward—a pier, which hadn't been there before, and the curved prow of a boat, which brought itself out of nothingness into the flowing water. Thor felt a sudden, fluttering panic in his chest and scrambled down the bank after him. "Steve," Thor said, low and urgent, but he was brought up short by the presence of a pale, dark-haired Valkyrie whose name he did not know. She gave him a deferential nod, but the true warmth of her welcome was reserved for Steve.
"Steven Grant Rogers," and the smile on her face was a sunrise, "we welcome you," and Steve's mouth fell open; he looked astounded, and Thor saw to his growing horror, a little teary. She extended her hand to him, palm up, and Steve stared at her helplessly for a moment before looking down at his own hand.
Steve is welcomed by the Valkyrie
The coin shimmered and glowed pale and iridescent like the moon—and of course Steve had the fare: he had been slain in battle and he was the worthiest warrior in all Midgard.
Before Thor knew how to stop him, Steve had placed the coin in the Valkyrie's hand. "I claim my place," Steve said, and the shimmer moved up his arm and over and across his body until he was blazing with light, his hair burnished gold. He took the hand of the Valkyrie and stepped onto the boat, and though a god, Thor had no coin and could not pass. His life hung around his neck like an anchor.
Steve turned, as if suddenly remembering he was there, and Thor was taken aback by the joy on his face. "Thor!" he cried. "Thank you! This is all kind of beyond me but—thanks!" and the boat pulled away, heading for the other shore, slicing through the water and disappearing into the silver mist.
"I'm sorry, what?" Odin said, frowning down at him from the throne.
"I didn't know it would happen!" Thor was struggling to control his own fury, because he should have known, would have known if he'd paid more attention to his mother, or even to Loki. How could he have been so stupid as to have taken a tired warrior like Steve within sight of the Folkvangr? Pride: he had only his own stupid pride to blame, and a thick skull, besides– because he had found the place dull, and so had utterly failed to see the attraction it would have for Steve. "He just—the boat came, he got on—"
"Fairly done," Odin said, shrugging the matter off. "I wish him well. Now I must speak to you about—"
"No, it is not right," Thor interrupted. "It's not right, it's—"
Odin frowned. "You said he was worthy."
"He is worthy," Thor retorted. "But he is not ready. And I am not ready to—" To lose another brother, he thought, and clenched his hands in fury, and bit his tongue. "It all happened so fast," Thor spit out finally. "He had no chance to consider, and I had not the wherewithal to speak. You know I am not silver-tongued, as my brother was. It was to Steve's great misfortune that I should be with him: I who could not explain."
His father's face had hardened at the mention of his unfortunate brother, as if it pained him to hear him so praised. Then something flickered in his expression. "You believe your friend is making a mistake," Odin said slowly. "That he has gone to his rest too early. Given in to despair and cut short the list of his deeds."
"Truly! For he is only ninety-seven!"
Odin barked out a laugh and said, with just a hint of cruelty, "Yes, well, it is always sad when a child dies." He gave Thor another hard look. "What do you propose to do?"
"What can I do?" Thor said helplessly. "I cannot cross to the Folkvangr."
"No," Odin agreed, and heaved himself up with a weary sigh. "But I will take you there if you wish."
The boat that appeared when Odin raised his hand was ten times the size of the one that had come to take Steve, splendid with gold and a large escort of Valkyries, bowing as they came aboard. But even so, Thor found the lurch of the boat under his feet strange and half-sickening. The wind off the water was warm; it made him drowsy somehow, and he had to blink his eyes to keep awake. He remembered gazing longingly behind him as a child, irritated at being pulled from the playing fields and the hunting grounds that he loved, while Loki stood at the prow, eager at their mother's side for the first sight of the golden lands.
When they stepped onto the far shore, there was no one to be seen—only the occasional flicker of a soul that had not quite faded, blurring the air like heat, like a mirage. "My son wishes to see his friend, who has just passed," Odin told the chief Valkyrie, and she smiled and said, "He has gone to the orchards," and of course he had, because Thor had been stupid enough to mention those damned apple trees to him.
"This way," Odin said, and led him through the golden fields, along a path that rustled open at his feet. It seemed to Thor that they moved through an endless dream, but the sun had moved only a little while when at last they came out of the fields and crested a hill and found the sea of white blossoms spreading before them.
A patch of cleared and level ground stood at the edge of the trees, and a large square had been marked out with stakes and twigs. A heap of large flat stones stood nearby, and another of hewn logs: the makings of a house.
"He seems to be settling in nicely," Odin said wryly, and Thor set his jaw and hurried down the hill.
"Thor!" Steve said, appearing between the trees, pushing a wheelbarrow. Thor's heart leapt into his mouth, for what he had first taken for the glistening of sweat on Steve's brow was in truth the sunlight sparkling through him: he was already beginning to wane. Steve looked otherwise healthy, though, and happy indeed. "I didn't think you could come here."
"I could not," Thor replied, "but for my father's aid. Living souls have no place in the land of the dead," he added meaningfully, but Steve did not react to this gentle hint.
"Well, I'm glad to see you anyhow," Steve replied. "Come look at this," and he drew Thor by the arm to the far side of the square, gesturing broadly. "I'm going to build the cabin so it faces right here," Steve said softly, "and then when I open my door in the morning…"
It was a fair prospect: the white blossoms of the apple trees, the river, a suggestion of the snow-capped mountains beyond. But a golden haze lay upon the land, blurry, and he felt the distance widening between them: even as Steve stood close, he was looking far away.
It was time now to speak, however the words came. "Steve, you must come back with me," Thor said. "You must leave this place and return to Midgard—to Earth."
Steve's raised his eyebrows. "But I only just got here," he said, smiling.
"My friend," Thor said urgently, "I see you long for rest, and I would gladly help you find it, but this is not the place for a— sojourn, or a holiday," he said, searching for words that Steve would understand. "This is the eternal country. Soon you will never leave again," and he saw the first flicker of doubt on Steve's face. "You must go back to your world. To your friends: to Romanov, Stark, Banner—" but this was the wrong thing to say, because Steve tightened his jaw and went back to his wheelbarrow. He began to unload rocks.
"Those guys don't need me. There's nothing I bring that they don't have in spades."
"That is not true," Thor said.
"Sure it is. Speed; strength; guts; you and Banner and Stark are damn near unstoppable, and then you've got all-around players like Natasha and Clint and Sam." Steve shook his head. "I'm past my time," he said. "Last year's model—a relic of the twentieth century. So if this is eternity," Steve said, throwing a last rock onto the pile and stopping to wipe sweat from his brow with his arm, "then all right, so be it."
Thor opened his mouth, closed it, then looked up the hill toward his father, impatiently waiting upon him. There would be no help from that quarter, and not for the first time, Thor wished for the counsel of his brother; Loki would have known what levers to pull. That gave him a thought: "You have another—friend, I believe," he said, remembering something the others had told him: that Steve, too, had had a brother: a dear friend who had been captured and bent to nefarious purpose.
"Yes, well," Steve said, hard-voiced, and then he walked away toward the orchard and stood for a few moments with his back turned. Thor could not tell if he had said the wrong thing or the right one, but he had certainly disrupted Steve's peace, which was a step in the right direction: in the direction of life.
Thor pressed onward: "You have been looking for him, but have not yet found him, they say."
When Steve turned, there was a muscle jumping in his cheek. "Yes. That's right."
Thor was suddenly inspired. "Why did you not come to me for help? Heimdall, he who guards the Bifrost—he can see all: everything in the nine realms. Come and we will ask him to find—"
"No," Steve said quietly; he was staring down at the ground. "That's not—" He bit his lip, then looked up and the words burst out of him in a torrent: "You're right: I didn't find him. But that's because he doesn't want to be found. Not by me, anyway." He flashed a quick, sad smile. "Which is only fair, right? Because what does he owe me? Nothing. Just because we were friends. what, a lifetime ago? It was a lie, don't you see? Me looking for him, finding him: me helping him. It was about me needing him. And why should he be obliged by—my need of him?" Steve shook his head. "I won't do it. He should be free, now, to make whatever life he wants for himself," and his face was all grim determination. "I'm staying here."
Thor did not know what to do. Steve had already turned back to the stones; light was dazzling through his hands. Thor climbed up the hill back to his father. "What am I to do?" he said. "He will not come!"
"No, he will not come," Odin said, looking down. "He is building his home in the golden land. When he has raised the walls and roof, and crossed the threshold within, he will pass beyond mortal existence, and never come forth again. You cannot force life upon the unwilling. I would say my goodbyes, if I were you."
"Wait, what?" Tony Stark said. "What?"
"It is true," Thor admitted. "He has asked me to tell you that he is well but he does not wish to return. He has eaten of the golden apple and now claims a home among the dead."
Clint's eyes opened wide. "Among the dead? But—"
Thor looked from one to the other of them helplessly. "He is well within his rights."
"Well, that's just fucking great," Tony burst out, hurt and angry. "Did he leave a forwarding address, the emigrating bastard? Steve Rogers, 50 Main Street, Valhalla?"
"Folkvangr. He—never mind," Thor added, when Tony glared at him.
"But he's not actually dead, though, right?" Clint asked. "I mean, if he's sending messages, he's not—"
"He's been dead for a long time," Natasha said, in that flat, calm tone she often took when she was really upset about something. "Inside. He just never took the time to fall down."
"No." Tony's face was thunderous. He pointed at her. "That's bullshit, what kind of bullshit is—"
"It's maybe only a little bullshit," Sam sighed; he and Natasha were exchanging guilty, knowing glances. "Hey, you weren't there, man," Sam protested, when Tony turned his furious face on him. "Steve was never what you'd call a lighthearted, take-it-easy kind of guy, but after the whole Winter Soldier thing, the search…" He shook his head. "It got bad." Sam looked at Natasha, who echoed, softly: "It got bad."
"It's not like Cap to give up," Clint said defensively. "On anything, let alone—"
"Is it too late?" Natasha asked Thor. "I mean, is there anything we can do?"
Thor sighed. "He is building a house in the land of the dead, and once built it will be too late: we will see him no more. I went into my mother's realm, the place beyond death, to try and persuade him." He looked sadly at each of them in turn. "I know that you would have done the same, for Steve is our leader and our heart. There is not one of us who would not walk into hell for him. But we must face the fact that—"
"—it's not us he wants," Natasha said, sucking her lip. "It's Barnes. We've got to send Barnes."
"Send Barnes to hell? First good idea you've had," Tony said.
Sam ignored him. "Send him? How the hell are we going to find him? Dude doesn't want to be found!"
"We can find him." Natasha shrugged, then glanced at Thor. "Thor can find him."
"Yes," Thor agreed. "I can."
"And if we find him, can you take him to Asgard?" Natasha asked him. "Get him to Steve?"
Thor made a face. "My father will not like it," he said, and in truth, he could not plead for James Barnes as he had for Steve Rogers. "But I shall manage. I'll smuggle him into Folkvangr if I have to."
"Let me get this straight," Tony said, crossing his arms. "You're going to find the 20th century's greatest assassin, take him to another planet and hope that he convinces Steve Rogers to leave the afterlife?"
"He's the only chance we've got," Natasha said.
"Well, these are definitely the coordinates," Natasha said, looking around. Heimdall had cast his eye over Midgard and sent them to a battered wasteland somewhere called the County of Cook. There was no sign of habitation: only a low bridge covered with graffiti, everything overgrown with weeds and covered in trash.
"Are you sure?" Clint asked, and Thor agreed it did seem unlikely, but then Sam said quietly, "This is the place."
"Because it's defensible?" Natasha asked.
"No," Sam replied grimly. "Look, just stand back. I got this," but Natasha put her hand on his arm and said, "He's dangerous—"
"What, you think I don't know that?" Sam shot back. "Because believe me, I know that. But—"
"For what it's worth," Tony said, flexing his gauntlet, "he makes one wrong move, I'm going to blast him off the face of the earth."
"Yeah, that's great, that's—y'all just stay back, all right?" and Sam walked down into the dank urine-stinking area beneath the bridge, the Widow close behind and the rest following after. Here, under the rusty overhang, were jagged blocks of concrete and broken beer bottles, an abandoned television, an overturned shopping cart, a sheet of cardboard and a lumpen and filthy floral quilt, and between one blink and the next Thor saw that a man was rolled within it. His eyes were open and gazing directly at them, but he was lying quite still—so still that Thor wondered if perhaps he were dead.
But Natasha's hands were on her stingers, and she kept her distance, putting out an arm to hold the rest of them back. Sam squatted down beside the man and said, gently, "Hey, Bucky."
The man said nothing, only stared at Sam. His face, what could be seen of it, was be-grimed with dirt, worked deep into the creases—but his blue eyes shone like gems. His gaze moved to Natasha and narrowed. He pushed up on one arm, the quilt slipping down, a flash of silver gleaming beneath as he shifted position: making ready for flight or for battle. Sam shot Natasha a warning look, then turned back. "We need your help," he said. "Steve needs your help."
"Tell him to fuck off." Barnes's voice was like gravel, disused. "I don't want to see him. Tell him—"
"If you don't come with us right now, Steve's dead," Natasha said, clear and cold, her voice ringing in echoes from the bare metal vault of the bridge.
Barnes went abruptly silent. He looked at each of them in turn, searching their faces, Thor knew not what for. Barnes looked long at Stark, whose face was hard and angry and hostile, his hands clenched around his repulsors, and then back at Sam, who only nodded once, as though to confirm that Natasha spoke the truth.
For a long moment, he did not move. Then he slowly disentangled himself from the quilt, a wave of rotting stink rising from him, and stood: filthy, every part of him dirt-encrusted. Even his skin was a grayish color, and there was something gaunt about him, as if he'd lost weight too quickly.
"Let's go," Sam said, and Barnes fell into step behind him, his head down.
Tony scowled in distaste. "Let me get this straight," he said to Sam, as they climbed the hill, towards the waiting Quinjet. "You want to send this dead guy after the other dead guy?"
"Yeah," Sam said. "I think that's how it works."
They were all of them wary of Barnes until they reached the Tower, their eyes fixed on him and their hands hovering near their weapons. Barnes himself, they discovered, was carrying no weapons, though he himself was a weapon, Thor thought. Sam tried breaking the ice a little, making cheerful small talk to which Barnes didn't reply: he seemed to have passed beyond caring and just sat there, hollow-eyed and silent, staring at his hands. He was, Thor thought, unnervingly like Steve, even as he was so different.
"I know," Natasha murmured to him, leaning in. "It's the other shoe. Dropping."
Tony demanded that Barnes strip out of everything he was wearing, "so that I can burn it," and Barnes obeyed without question: stripping down and leaving his clothes in a pile on the floor. That shut Tony up, and it wasn't just the wordless compliance, it was the scars across his skin: thick and ropey where metal had been fused to flesh, but visible elsewhere, too. James Barnes had a battle-hardened body, a warrior's body, and Thor found his respect for him much increased. They took him to shower and shave and gave him clean clothing, which he put on as unresisting as one of the dead. Then they all looked at each other.
"This whole thing creeps me out," Clint said at last. "There should be living people and dead people, none of this back and forth. And if Steve wants to stay dead, I don't know: maybe we ought to respect that."
"He is not dead," Thor objected, "because I saved him. He is choosing to be dead; that is different."
Natasha was looking critically at Barnes. "We should maybe cut his hair," she said. "Make him look more like the friend Steve remembers."
"We should maybe throw him in the brig and send Clint," Tony fired back. "Or me—give me a shot at explaining to Big Granddaddy Sadness why the fucking infinite possibilities of life are better than limbo: suspension, stasis, sameness—"
"There are worse things than stasis," Barnes said quietly.
"There are worse things than stasis."
"I think maybe you need to eat something." Sam frowned. "When was the last time you ate something?"
"There's no time," Thor said. "We must—"
"It won't do you any good if he falls down," Sam objected.
Barnes made a face that was very like a smile, but harder. "I won't fall down," he said. "I don't know how."
They all went up to the roof. The others stood back as Thor took Barnes onto the helipad and said, raising his hammer, "I will take you, but you must hold on." Barnes nodded and flexed his metal hand.
Tony stood there, bouncing slightly, though whether from anger or anxiety, Thor could not say. He knew that, despite everything, Tony wanted Barnes to succeed more than anyone, for Steve's choice offended him on a moral level: possibly because he himself had been similarly tempted and had resisted.
"Have fun storming Valhalla!" Stark burst out finally.
Thor turned to look at him. "Folkvangr," he corrected.
"Whatever!" Tony said, and then Natasha was stepping forward and calling to Barnes, in a language that was somehow different, "You have to save him. Save Steve and you might even save yourself," but Barnes shook his head and said, in the same tongue, "Too late," and then he gripped Thor's arm and up they flew.
They landed at the top of the Bifrost, and then Barnes stumbled away from him, face pale and eyes huge as he looked wildly around the observatory, at Heimdall. Thor waited patiently for him to calm himself.
Heimdall brought out a dagger and scabbard, which he held out to Barnes. Barnes shot a swift look at Thor, who nodded for him to take them. "We are bound for the land of the dead," Thor told him. "If Odin asks..."
Heimdall smiled and tilted his head. "I have seen nothing," he said. "For the dead travel fast."
Thor did not dare use Mjolnir for fear of attracting attention, but Heimdall had left horses for them. He and Barnes skirted the gates of Valhalla and rode close against its walls until they reached the cover of the ancient trees. Then Thor pressed the pace until they reached the familiar foothills of his mother's lands; then he dismounted and looked west, scanning until he found the mouth of a small cave, hidden from view behind a stand of brush.
Bucky and Thor ride for the Gjoll
"Come," he said to Barnes, and they pushed through the branches, leaving the horses behind. The torch was still where Loki had left it, and so Thor scraped Mjolnir against a rock for a spark to light the oiled rag. He blew gently and the flame caught, illuminating the black cave, their shadows flickering against the walls.
It was an hour's trudge through the darkness, the sound of the water around them, before they came to an iron gate standing across the gill head. The broken chain lay heaped on the path, glossy with spray.
"Is this what we're looking for?" Barnes asked, frowning.
"Yes. It is a place my brother showed me," for it was Loki who knew and loved all the secret places of their world, the caves and the tunnels, the hidden ways and locked doors. Thor had pulled the chain away and heaved the gate just enough to let Loki slip through and into the dark water. He came back much later, dripping and grinning and triumphant, with a golden apple shining in his hand. See? We can get into Folkvangr, whenever we wish, he had said. Thor had rolled his eyes. "Someone has to hold open the gate," he objected, and Loki had surprised him by holding the apple out to him, offering to share.
Thor turned to Barnes and said, "You must save your brother. For I could not save mine, and it rots me inside."
Barnes replied, low and intense: "Tell me what to do."
"I will raise the gate for you." Thor pointed. "The current will carry you from the mountainside and into the waters of the Gjoll. The river runs fast and there are rocks and other dangers. Still, you will have a chance to cross."
Barnes nodded. "I can make it. I'm a strong swimmer." He smiled briefly, a ghost-flicker in the torchlight. "We used to swim in the East River when we were kids," he added, the memory of dark waters in his face, and Thor nodded: remembering might well prepare him for the Gjoll.
"Once you reach the bank, follow the shore of the river until you come to a grove of apple trees in blossom," he said. "Steve is building his house overlooking the orchard and the river. Stay low, or near the flowering bushes and hedges; try to avoid being seen." In fact, he was not much worried that Barnes would attract the attention of the Valkyries or anyone else; Barnes was more than half a ghost himself. Which reminded him: "Barnes, you should prepare yourself," he said with sympathy, "for Steve may already be quite faded. He may have already built much of the house. Understand that once he finishes it, no one can help him, not even Odin: he will be one of the dead with no chance of return."
Barnes jerked a nod, tight-lipped and unhappy. "I understand."
"If you can get Steve to come with you, bring him here: I will await you and open the way for you to come back. But if Steve will not come, you must return without him," Thor said, "for—"
"—for on account of how I'm not worthy of paradise," Barnes said, smiling wryly. "Believe me; I know."
The black waters were faster and colder than he expected, dragging him down and under and through a narrow keyhole of rock before dumping him into the larger river. He gasped in a huge lungful of air and then forced his arms and legs into the familiar strokes. He began to slice diagonally through the water, carried along by the current and picking up speed, and he was more focused on the swim than on his surroundings until he sensed a black shadow looming on his left. Instinctively he flung his metal arm out, gasping and jamming his forearm into the creature's open mouth, sharp teeth scraping against the plates. The monster thrashed furiously, dragging him along by the arm—up and over and under and nearly flinging him up out of the water—but he kept his head and, groping for the dagger Heimdall had given him, gritted his teeth and kicked up in the water, arcing the dagger up and jamming it down into the creature's skull.
Bucky battles a sea monster
Together they spun, dragged around by the current and the creature's wild-eyed panic, churning up white foam all around them. The black tail thrashed and then abruptly, suddenly the monster opened its jaws and disappeared, diving, taking Heimdall's dagger with him and leaving nothing but a trail of red bloo—
Pain exploded in his head, the world flashing black and white, strobing, dimming, as the current hurled him against a rock. He went under, clumsy and awkward and needing to breathe, but the surface was too far away and he couldn't get there—he just—couldn't— The water was thick around him, sludge, concrete pulling him down, and he stared helplessly up at a blur of light and—Steve—had to get to—and he forced his limbs to move purposefully, to push, kick up, and when his face broke the surface he gobbled at the air.
The swim was harder now, his muscles aching, his blood full of poison, but eventually the currents eased and he was able to stumble, to fight his way forward and collapse onto the muddy bank on the far side. For long moments he could not move, but then the thought of Steve forced him onward, and he heaved himself up, pushed to his knees and then his feet, his clothes heavy with water. The land on this side had a kind of glimmer to it, a shine like late-afternoon sunlight. He felt quite dazzled by it, and blinked, trying to focus on his mission: river, grove of apple trees, stay low. He set off, following the curve of the shore.
The warm sun dried his clothes, his hair, as he followed the winding river around a bright orange field of marigolds, and then one of barley, and then one of some plant, strange to him: a tangle of green vines with little blue flowers. The whole place felt unreal, like wandering inside a dream. Wind fluttered through the flowers, rustling them. Voices whispered in his ear, snatches of conversation that he couldn't quite make out and didn't really want to hear. They rippled up his spine: the words of the dead. He stopped short. What was he doing here? Steve was here. He had to find Steve, and so he kept on until he saw the huge orchard of trees out in the distance, all in bloom, white with a touch of pink like Arctic ice.
It was cool under the boughs, sunlight flickering through the thickly flowered branches, and a song flickered through his head, something about sitting under an apple tree. He stilled, trying to chase down that echo of a past life. He'd known so many things once. He'd been somebody else once. It said so on the wall of the museum, in those books he'd looked into at the library. He'd looked himself up in the encyclopedia: Barnes, James Buchanan aka "Bucky" Barnes, b. March 10, 1917 d. April 14, 1945. Some of the books had pictures in them: a clean-cut boy, dark-haired and smiling. There were pictures at the museum too, and what were supposed to be his clothes put up on tailors' dummies—and to be honest, it felt like a scam, and he wouldn't have believed a word of it except for how there was this tiny little screen running a film-loop of Steve, laughing; and there was the dark-haired boy but that was Steve, laughing.
He had gone inland, had been walking steadily up the hill through the grove, and now he could see a small house through the trees, or what there was of it: four log-cabin walls, but only part of a roof and—
—Steve, at the top of a ladder, hammering. Steve looked up—and Thor had told him to stay low, and so he had, but Steve saw him immediately, had picked him out even through the thick cover of trees. It was like Steve could sense him, and maybe he could: Steve had found him three times in as many days when he'd been invisible for decades, and it had been hard hiding from him after, like Steve knew his habits, the turn of his mind. It had made him believe what they said at the museum even before his own memories came leaking back: a tiny, tough kid from Brooklyn, fast with his fists but reluctant to smile; a friend; a brother; a—
Steve let the hammer fall to the ground and then dropped down the ladder in two big jumps, coming for him—and to his surprise he was moving, stumbling forward and then running to meet him, impelled. Steve seemed—dazzling somehow, like sunlight on the ocean, or a mirage—and when he reached him he put out his hands for him and nearly fell through him, propelled by his own momentum. His legs were suddenly, shockingly weak. But Steve caught him, one hand thumping hard onto his shoulder and then shimmering and solidifying, the ripple of it going up and up as Steve's other arm came around him. He collapsed, trembling, and his metal arm was the only strong part of him, the only source of strength in him.
Except for Steve: this was Steve, Steve had him, and when they were kids it had always been the other way around: Steve on the edge of disaster. But now it was him: his knees buckling and Steve holding on with arms that were real and strong and hard like steel.
Bucky and Steve are reunited
"Bucky." Steve gripped him, shuffled, took his weight. "Buck," and Jesus, it hurt, pins and needles, like blood returning to dead flesh. He looked at Steve's face—flushed, solid—and felt shocked back into himself by the way Steve was looking at him. He was—he was the guy who Steve looked at like that. He was Bucky. He was—
"I've had no mirrors," he blurted to Steve. "I don't recognize my face in pictures," and he could have kicked himself, because what kind of thing was that to say to your best friend after all this—not even hello or how are you or I'm sorry, I am so fucking sorry. But Steve only looked at him with pained sympathy and said, "I know. I know," and then they were hugging hard, holding tight, pressed chest to chest, close enough that he could feel the rapid pounding of Steve's heart. Bucky knotted his hands in the back of Steve's shirt and pressed his closed eyes against Steve's warm face and gritted his teeth so as not to say help me help me please help me, because he couldn't do that to Steve, not when Steve was looking at him like that, like he was a turkey dinner or something.
At last Bucky felt able to relax his grip, but Steve immediately dragged him back and held on tight. So Bucky put his arms around Steve again, stroking and petting—and this was familiar, at least: holding Steve, comforting Steve. Finally Bucky said, in the steadiest voice he could manage, "Nice place you've got here," which was true: this was the most beautiful place he'd ever been. Steve had built his house in a clearing among the trees, with a view of the mountains and near a stream of running, clear water. "You want a hand with that roof?" and Steve looked at him with surprise and joy on his face, and nodded, and kissed his trembling mouth, and what the hell had he been thinking, had he really been going to yank Steve out of paradise? Hell, no. Fuck, no. He'd cut off his arm before he did that; he'd cut off his own fucking head.
"Please," Steve said finally, breaking the kiss. "It would mean everything to me if you'd—"
"Come on," Bucky said, taking Steve's arm. "Show me. Show it to me," he said.
The work went fast now there were two of them up in the rafters, maneuvering the remaining beams into place and hammering them in. They worked silently, easily, under the cloudless blue sky, stripping down to their waists under the hot sun as they began to sweat. Bucky could see that Steve was biting his lip and stealing pained glances at the scars on his chest where metal was fused to skin, and didn't know how to tell Steve that it wasn't his fault, what had happened to him: it was just the war, it was just life that had happened to him. He was stealing his own uneasy glances at Steve, who was starting to shimmer and fade again as the cabin got closer to being finished, though he didn't seem to know it.
Finally, with only one narrow gap left in the low-angled roof, Steve was damn near translucent. Bucky gripped his arm as Steve turned, hammer in hand, to drag the last small sapling into place. "Wait," Bucky said, and then, in a choked voice, "Kiss me."
Bucky asks for a last kiss before Steve finishes the house
Steve frowned but leaned in, slowly, and kissed him. Bucky closed his eyes and cupped Steve's head in his hands to keep their mouths pressed together. The kiss was like a blessing. He wanted it to last. But nothing lasts.
"Okay," Bucky said breathlessly, finally, letting go. "Now go ahead. Finish the roof."
"Buck." Steve stared at him, and then said, low and heavy, "What aren't you telling me?"
"Finish the roof first," Bucky insisted, but the hammer was falling from Steve's hand, he was letting it drop; he knew. "I can't stay," Bucky told him, barely managing to get the words out. "I'm not worthy," and he saw the hard flush on Steve's face, anger rising, and cut him off: "Steve, I'm not; you know I'm not. I've got work to do, back in the world. I've got to make amends, or try to: you don't know what I've done."
"What you did wasn't your fault," Steve scraped out.
"No. But that doesn't matter. It was the work of my hands. Christ, Steve, I'll come back," and that was an oath, a sacred promise. "I'll come back if they let me, I swear to—"
But Steve was already shaking his head at him. "You jerk," he said, and now his smile was sad, familiar, and tinged with a fondness that made Bucky's heart hurt; how could he ever have forgotten it? "I'm coming with you. It's not paradise without you. This was always second best as far as I was concerned, but—well. I thought you didn't want to see me anymore."
Bucky flinched. "Yeah, I didn't want to. No, that's—I didn't want you to see me. I won't be a goddamned burden to you, Steve; I won't—"
Steve sucked in his lower lip and shook his head. "Pride," he said, tsking. "That'll keep you out of here," and he was teasing, and then all at once he wasn't: "I'd carry you to the ends of the earth, if you'd let me. Buck, I'd carry you on my back for the rest of my—"
"I know!" Bucky exploded. "Christ, I know you would! That's why I can't let you—"
"You'd do it for me; you've done it for me. And if you won't let me love you back, I might as well be dead," and then Steve was coming close and saying, softly, "I want to go back with you, and live a whole fucking wretched life with you, and then some day we'll come back here together, all right? When we've done all the living we can stand," and then everything was blurring around them, or maybe his eyes were just full of tears, and Bucky was gripping Steve's shoulders and saying, "Help me; please help me," and Steve was hugging him and whispering, "Yes, of course I will; yes."
They walked away from the unfinished house, leaving the hole in the roof, though Steve used the tip of a blade to carve their initials into the log besides the doorframe. "We'll come back," Steve said, blowing woodshavings out of the cut and rubbing it with his thumb. "We'll get back here some day, both of us," but he walked out of the clearing without a second thought, and Bucky followed without looking back.
Initials carved into Steve and Bucky's house
They went downhill through the grove of trees, then followed the path of the winding river. "We've got to cross at the right place," Bucky said, holding his hand up against the low sun. "There was a cliff with rocks all around, big heavy boulders—we've got to dive down between them and swim back to where Thor is."
"Yeah, okay, we can do that," Steve said, but Bucky made a face and said: "There's things in the water. Fuckin'—I don't know…monsters," and Steve looked at him and then peered uncertainly into the water. And further along, Steve gripped his arm and shouted, pointing, just in time for Bucky to see something shiny and black diving down beneath the rippling waves: "I told you. It's not like I'm messing with you," and so they cut down strong branches and sharpened their ends to take with them into the water, just in case.
They made it back, gasping and dripping and shivering with cold, and found Thor grinning at them through the gate. "Friends! You made it," and then he was gritting his teeth and pulling hard at the chain, and first Steve and then Bucky slid under the heavy iron and onto the wet, glistening stone.
Steve struggled, bedraggled, to his feet and then extended his hand to Thor. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you, buddy. I don't know how you did it but—I owe you," and Bucky barked out a laugh as Thor launched himself at Steve and hugged him off the ground, then pounded him on the back so hard he staggered.
"I am gladdened at your return!" Thor exclaimed. "The land of the dead is not for you—and you were wrong to give up on your brother. You must never turn away from your brother, for fate does not give us so many."
"You're right," Steve said, and looked at Bucky. "When you're right, you're right."
"Of course I am right! I am Thor, god of thunder and prince of Asgard. Come, I will take you both back to Midgard. I will take you home," Thor said, and beamed at them.
"Wait, so hang on," Tony said, irritably, "you never said you were giving out, like, retirement property—"
Thor glared with raw, open-mouthed anger. "It is not— Folkvangr is reserved for only the very bravest warriors: those who have given their lives for their comrades in battle."
"But you're gonna let Steve's mass-murdering boyfriend in?" Tony objected.
"He is not unworthy, despite what he thinks," Thor mused. "It is only that paradise can not be gained by stealth. But he has earned his place fairly, if he wants it: he has given his life once in battle already. He is not to blame that he was made to do the work of his enemies—"
"Yeah, and not like data entry or anything," Tony pointed out. "Like, you know: killing people."
Natasha tilted her head up at him. "When it's my time, Thor," she said, with a sad little smile, "do you think there'll be a place in Asgard for me?"
"A noble warrior is always welcome in Asgard," Thor told her, and her smile widened.
"Well, I call it housing discrimination," Tony said, and took an enormous bite from an apple. "I might have to file a complaint. Have you got, like, a housing bureau or something: Valkyrie central? Can't I just slip you a few bucks, skip the paperwork and—?"
"He's just yanking your chain," Bruce said, glancing up. "What Tony means to say is that we're all really glad you helped Steve find his way back to us, because we need him."
"Huh, yeah," Tony said, chewing. "That's...just what I meant to say," and Thor held his tongue and nodded, not wishing to admit that he had not been moved to action by any concern for the Avengers, but only out of the heartfelt and perhaps misplaced determination that Steve should not despair of his life because of the loss of his brother.
When Thor returned to the gateroom, Heimdall looked at him and said, "The Allfather wishes to see you," and Thor knew that any idea he'd had that he'd deceived Odin was a delusion. He took comfort in the fact that at least Odin hadn't tried to stop him.
Odin was standing in his chambers, looking out over the fields, toward the mountains. He didn't turn when Thor came in: just stared out over Asgard and said nothing.
"I had to," Thor burst out, contrite and defiant both. "Steve did not belong among the dead—"
Odin did turn then, his hands clenched. "Did you mean what you said to him?" Odin demanded. "That he should never turn away from his brother?"
Thor thought of Loki in his arms, going gray. "Yes," he said.
"You know that his brother is an assassin," Odin said, a hard snap. "Who kills in cold blood."
Thor tilted his chin up defiantly. "Yes. I do know."
"And you brought a man like that to Asgard. You led him to your mother's sacred lands."
"Gladly, I did," Thor said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice, "for he has been badly used, Father; betrayed and abandoned to those who would bend his misery and rage to their own purpose. He was in desperate need of his brother—and his brother, of him."
Odin's jaw worked. "And is there no crime that, to your mind, would justify the abandonment of one brother by another?" and this, Thor could sense, was a test; he supposed that a true king would have some fixed and firm line of principle, but he himself did not; he had felt the loss of Loki like a limb, and would have betrayed all for Steve.
And so Thor struggled with himself, but he was not made to lie. "No," he said finally. "I might be angry, or dispirited, but I would not give up: we were given to each other, and so we must struggle with each other, and try to make of each other the best of each other. I would give anything to have my own brother back—" but the air was shimmering around them, vibrating, and through the mist, he saw the dark green robes and the high, curving gold horns, and Loki was standing there, peering at him keenly, his eyebrow raised in the question.
"Oh, you false-tongued, maggot-mouthed wretch," Thor said joyously, and punched him.