- Alternate Universe
- Science Fiction
The day of the confrontation dawned bright and cool. Steve was as nervous as he’d ever been before a battle during the war. He and Maria had spent the night together, curled up on top of the covers just talking and dozing. It was intimate, for all that there was no sex involved.
Steve was keenly aware that Maria—and the rest of the Olympians—intended to sacrifice their human existence to return Ares to Olympus. They wouldn’t die in the attempt, but they wouldn’t be able to remain on Earth. Olympus would take back her own—all of them—so that they could deal with Ares and recover from the battle. No one knew if Zeus would allow them to return to Earth, so this might be the last time any of them would be together.
It was sobering for Steve. He’d only just found Maria and the Avengers; a home and a place to belong. And while it was only the Olympians that would be leaving, they would still leave a void.
“We will see each other again,” Maria said quietly as they got ready to join the rest of the team. She lay a hand on his cheek, turning him to face her. “I will not let this be the end of us.”
“We can’t predict the future, Maria,” Steve said gently. He was wary of making promises; there was too much pain in this moment for him to even think about that. And the memory of a watery kiss with Peggy was still too fresh in his mind, even a year after he’d woken up in the future.
“I’m not predicting anything,” she said to him. Her lips turned up in a soft smile. “I intend to return for you one day, and I defy Zeus to stop me. You are mine, as much as you belong to Olympus, and to the people of the Earth. They may have you for a time, but I will return for what’s mine. I swear it.”
Steve’s heart nearly stopped for the joy that surged through it. “You will, huh? I’ll look forward to that, then.”
“It pains me to interrupt,” JARVIS said, “but Sir has requested your presence on the Avengers floor.”
“You ready?” Steve asked.
Maria smiled, but now it had a shark-like quality to it. “As I’ll ever be.”
They headed for the elevator, allowing JARVIS to take them to the Avengers floor. When they stepped out, it was to find the rest of the team waiting for them in the command center.
Coulson nodded at them as they took their place with the rest of the Avengers. Steve smiled at Bucky, standing next to Sam, his shiny new StarkTech arm flexing at his side. Steve had been grateful to his new friend for stepping up to help with Bucky. He nodded, smiling at his old friend, who winked at him from across the room.
“Alright, we all know the plan by this point,” Coulson said. “You all know your assignments. I trust you to do whatever is necessary to send Ares back to Olympus. We’ll deal with the eventual fallout within SHIELD after the battle.”
“No matter what happens today,” Maria said, looking at each one of them, “it has been a honor working with all of you. There is no place I’d rather be today than standing beside you as we walk into battle today.”
There were murmurs of agreement running through the room.
“If there are no more questions, let’s get ready to go,” Coulson said. “Wheels up in fifteen.”
It felt just like the old days with the Howling Commandos as they all headed for the locker room that Tony had set up for the team. When they stepped inside, they could see new uniforms at each locker. Steve headed straight for his, in awe of the Captain America uniform he saw waiting for him. It was just like the one he’d worn in World War II; blue, with red stripes and stars. It made his heart hurt at the same time he was so proud to wear it once again.
He turned around, looking for Tony in the crowd. He’d already donned the armor, but his faceplate was up. Steve nodded at Tony, who sketched a two-fingered salute.
They were a quiet group as they headed to the roof and the QuinJet waiting for them. Steve would have felt better if Coulson and Maria had planned to stay in New York and work the battle from the command center, but he recognized that they’d need every one of them on the ground if they were going to succeed. Even Banner was with them, prepared to Hulk out at a moment’s notice.
Clint and Natasha headed straight for the cockpit and fired up the jet as the rest settled in. Now, it was just a matter of time before they confronted Ares.
The QuinJet set down on the landing pad next to the Triskelion. The team disembarked, and Maria paused to look up at the building. Somewhere on the highest floor, Ares stood watching them, lording over all his kingdom.
She hadn’t seen the place in weeks, preferring to run SHIELD operations out of the New York office. A frisson of unease raced down her spine. She was about to essentially tear down the organization she’d dedicated her human life to, and hopefully send the monster at the head of this particular beast back where he came from. It wouldn’t be easy, but she was committed to seeing it through, no matter the cost.
They moved to the front of the building, having decided that the direct approach would be best. The Avengers had absolutely no chance of taking anyone at SHIELD by surprise, but they’d fought through aliens in defense of New York; this should be easy by comparison.
Waiting for them in the main rotunda was a team of SHIELD agents, Brock Rumlow at the front of them. She wasn’t surprised; Rumlow had been on the list of Hydra agents within SHIELD, but she’d worked with the man for years, had trusted him to have her back. It left a sour taste in her mouth.
As per their plan, she and Phil stepped to the front, Clint and Natasha flanking them. Stark, Banner, Barnes, Wilson and Steve stood behind them; they’d agreed that the Hulk didn’t need to come out until it was absolutely necessary, but Maria didn’t have any illusions that it wouldn’t be necessary.
“Agent Coulson, Agent Hill,” Rumlow said. “Can I ask what business you have here today?”
“Last I checked, we’re still both agents of SHIELD,” Phil said. “So, unless you intend to arrest us, you’re going to need to let us pass.”
“I could do that,” Rumlow said. “But the rest will have to stay here. Orders, you know.”
“Bullshit,” Clint said. “Agent Romanov and I are going with. You’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Stark flipped up his faceplate so his words could be heard clearly. “And I’ve funded most of the tech in this building, so I have a lifetime pass. But you go right ahead and try to keep us out. You’ll break Steve’s little red, white and blue heart if you don’t let him in, and I don’t think you want to do that.”
“Look, Rumlow, this can go one of two ways,” Maria said. “You can either let us pass and keep your nose intact, or you can put up a fight and I’ll break it, along with the rest of the bones in your face. Your choice, but I’d think hard about what you plan to do. I’m not in the mood to go easy on you today.”
Rumlow’s head tilted, as if he were listening to someone on his radio. He frowned, but nodded.
“Alright, let’s go,” he said. He didn’t look happy as he said it, but Maria couldn’t care less. “Don’t try anything. We’re under orders to subdue you if necessary.”
“Our fight isn’t with you, son,” Steve said.
“If your fight is with any of us, it’s with all of us, Captain,” Rumlow said ominously. “Bear that in mind.”
Stark snorted but didn’t say anything.
They split up, half of them going in one elevator with Rumlow and a few of his men, and the other half in the other elevator with the rest of Rumlow’s team. Amusingly, Steve had placed himself at Maria’s shoulder and refused to budge. Stark had just grinned at them when they were separating for the elevator ride.
The elevators shot up; Maria’s stomach lodged in her throat. They were enclosed in a small elevator with men she no longer trusted. It would be very easy for them to attack any one of them, because there was very little room to maneuver. They’d have a hard time fighting back for the risk of hitting one of their own.
Fortunately, they reached the top floor without incident. Maria didn’t fool herself into thinking that they’d passed the hard part. Getting into the Triskelion was the easy part. Getting to Ares and forcing his return to Olympus was by far the hardest part.
The elevator doors opened on Pierce’s top floor offices. Maria spared a glance back at Steve as they stepped off the car; she wondered how he felt about being there, since the last time he’d been there Pierce had essentially threatened him in an attempt to gain his cooperation.
Rumlow took the lead, and the Avengers fell into step behind him, with the rest of his men bringing up the rear. They headed for the command center on the north side of the building. Pierce was standing near the windows, no jacket, shirt sleeves rolled up and his hands tucked into his pockets. He looked like a harmless businessman, but more than anyone Maria understood how looks could be deceiving.
“You know, I wasn’t surprised when Zeus allowed you all to come here,” Pierce said without turning around. “He’s always been a bit of a screaming Mimi when it comes to those who defy his precious will. He’s lost interest in the humans over the millennia, which is a pity, really. They’re so passionate, so full of life. So violent, which is quite a sight to behold. They could give the worst of us a run for their money.”
“You’d know,” Clint said.
Pierce turned around, his gaze sweeping the entire group. His eyes landed on Barnes, and he frowned. “Well, that’s disappointing, but not surprising,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d expected our dear Captain America to want to rescue his best friend, but I was hoping I’d have the Winter Soldier a little longer. He’s such a fun toy to play with.”
“I’m nobody’s toy, Ares,” Barnes said. “If you’d paid any attention at all, you’d have known it’s dangerous to subvert the will of a Giant. If you’re lucky, I might only rip your arms off.”
“Well, isn’t that interesting,” Pierce said, his eyes widening ever so briefly as he digested that particular fact. “Orion, in the flesh. Zeus will have much to answer for.”
“Shouldn’t you have known who he was?” Steve asked. “At least known he was wearing the Cloak? Seems to me you either ignored it for your own purposes, or didn’t have the insight required to discover that fact on you own. I’m not sure which I’m hoping it was, truth be told.”
“Either way, it’s immaterial now,” Pierce said, shrugging. “He’ll always carry the scars of what’s been done to him. And I’m not responsible, you know. When I found him, he was already broken. I just… took advantage.”
“You know, I didn’t believe you when you said he was batshit,” Stark said to Clint conversationally. “I’m beginning to regret that. I’m also getting tired of the blah blah blah super villain speech. Maybe we could just skip ahead to the part where he tries to kill us?”
“I’m all for that,” Wilson said. “I didn’t get all dolled up just to stand here looking pretty.”
Clint had to smother his laughter or risk firing the arrow he had nocked and ready. “You do look great in that rig. StarkTech, right?”
“Of course,” Stark said. “Only the best for the superhero band, after all. It’s too bad Ares doesn’t have his own group. We could do some karaoke, maybe have a dance off.”
“Well, this has been amusing, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist you all leave now,” Pierce said. “You obviously have no chance of subduing me so you can return me to Olympus to face Zeus’ justice, so perhaps you should just go back to whatever secret hideout you came from and move on to the next problem that needs solving.”
“Oh, we haven’t even gotten started yet,” Stark said.
“And yet, your time’s up,” Pierce said.
He must have given some silent signal to Rumlow and his team, because they attacked all at once. Maria spun and kicked out at the nearest goon, sending him to the floor with a satisfying crunch. She turned to take on the next attacker, only to see Steve hitting him in the gut with his shield before quickly punching upward with it, hitting his goon under the chin and knocking him out cold.
She had zero time to be impressed because yet another SHIELD agent came at her. He swung sloppily at her, so she easily countered with a right cross and another kick to the middle. This time she added a bit more power behind the kick, and sent the guy skittering across the room to hit the wall with a satisfying crunch.
Maria spun in a circle, taking stock of the rest of the team. Clint and Natasha had paired off and were tag-teaming a couple of agents off to one side. Steve was a blur of motion in the middle of three men, all of whom seemed to be holding their own against him. She knew that wouldn’t hold; eventually, he’d tire of playing with them and just knock them out cold.
Barnes and Wilson seemed to have found a rhythm, bouncing a couple of burly agents between them, doing as much damage as they could. Stark, amazingly, had kept the gauntlets sheathed and was using his fists and legs to inflict maximum damage while avoiding damaging the room at large. Banner seemed to have found his way to the control console along with Phil, working their way through the SHIELD systems with JARVIS’ help, in an attempt to prevent Pierce from calling in major reinforcements.
It only took her seconds to scan the room, but on her second pass, she spotted the QuinJets headed for the building, a helicopter—no, more like two or three—incoming hot on their heels.
“Phil!” Maria shouted just as the elevator door opened to spill out more agents.
Phil and Banner looked up, both taking stock of the situation. In an instant, Banner had Hulked out and was leaping through the window, Iron Man and Falcon on his heels. Hulk took on the helicopters, while Iron Man and Falcon took the highly-maneuverable QuinJets.
Maria knocked out two more agents, checking around the room as she did. She could see Pierce standing at one end of the room, a big grin on his face as he watched the fight unfold. It made her furious, that he was so blithely spending human capital for nothing more than his own enjoyment, but she really didn’t have any more time to think about it as another wave of agents poured into the room.
“Phil!” she shouted. “Shut down the elevators to this floor. Pierce has to have a protocol for that somewhere.”
“I’ve got it,” Phil shouted back.
She heard the sound of locks on the elevator shafts engaging, breathing a small sigh of relief. At least there wouldn’t be any more agents joining the fight. Which didn’t mean there wouldn’t be any waiting for them when they were finally able to stop Ares, but she wasn’t going to worry about that just yet.
She saw Phil coming around the console, headed towards Clint and Natasha. He’d shed his jacket; he had a Kevlar vest on and his gun drawn, but he was skirting the room, picking his way through the unconscious agents on the floor.
“I’ve locked down the Triskelion,” he said as he joined her. The others had the remaining agents well in hand, so they were out of danger for the moment. “And I’ve locked Pierce out of the system, so he shouldn’t be able to call for reinforcements from offsite.”
“Which doesn’t help us with the ones still on campus,” Maria said.
“Homeland and the FBI are inbound in force,” Phil said, turning towards where Clint and Natasha were. “Once they arrive, I’ll release the building and allow them to come in and start arresting people. They can sort out friend from foe later.”
The battle, such as it was, seemed to be winding down. Steve and Barnes had a pile of bodies surrounding them, and Clint and Natasha had quite a few agents trussed up and propped up against the wall. Maria could still hear explosions outside, so apparently the Hulk, Falcon and Iron Man were still coping with some resistance, but it appeared that they’d finally cut through Ares’ defenses.
The man—god—himself was still standing at the far side of the room, a big grin on his face. He took his hands out of his pockets and applauded. “Bravo. I’m impressed. Really, I am. It’s a shame it was all for naught, though, because it was quite entertaining.”
“What does he mean, ‘it was all for naught’?” Steve asked.
Before Maria could even think about answering, she turned to see Pierce engulfed in white light. When it subsided, she saw him in his true form, no Cloak obscuring the power of Olympus radiating from him.
“Kchyortu,” Natasha said under her breath.
“He’s already shed his Cloak,” Clint said, surprised.
“Now what do we do?” Barnes asked. “Ripping the Cloak away was always going to be the easy part.”
Ares laughed. “You’ve lived in your mortal bodies for far too long. They’ve made you weak. Ineffective. You think like the humans you pretend to be. I’m really going to enjoy destroying you all. And when I’m done, I’ll take this miserable planet and bend it to my will.”
Maria knew what they had to do. She turned to look at Clint and Natasha, giving them a small nod. She closed her eyes and pushed the power of Olympus out of her core, where it was always resting just under the surface of the Cloak. She felt the moment when the Cloak gave way. It was like breaking the surface of the ocean after being held down by a massive wave. She could breathe easy for the first time in what seemed like forever.
She opened her eyes to see Clint and Natasha doing the same. The light in the room was almost blinding for the humans, but it glowed like candle light to her eyes. When she looked at Steve, he was staring at her in awe. She inclined her head to him, acknowledging him before she turned back to Ares.
“By order of Zeus, King of the Gods and ruler of Olympus, I order you to return to Olympus,” Athena said. “If you do not return willingly, we will force your return. This is not up for debate. Zeus has commanded it; we obey.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because I’m not returning,” Ares said, voice gone hard. “He can order all he wants. I like it here, so I’m staying.”
“No, you’re not.”
All eyes turned to the broken window. Hades was floating just outside the room, a dark, ethereal glow lighting him from within. The affectations of Nick Fury—the eyepatch and trench coat—were long gone. He radiated power and danger, but Ares seemed unaffected by it.
“You would betray your sister?” Ares asked. “I’m disappointed in you, Hades. There was a time, not that long ago, that your loyalty to me was a given.”
Hades floated into the room, landing lightly on his feet just inside the windows. “I’ve been on this plane of existence for a long time. In all that time, I’ve watched the humans. They’re tenacious, pernicious, full of fire and fury.”
Hermes snorted at the pun; Hades side-eyed him, but otherwise didn’t react.
“They are also entitled to guide their own destiny,” Hades continued. “They neither need nor want our help. Zeus understood this; that they have grown beyond the need for us. Now, we walk among them to learn from them; learn what makes them such bright stars in the celestial plains, so that we may one day return to that ourselves.”
“They’re children,” Ares said. “They can no more chart their own destiny than a houseplant can. Zeus turned away from them and look at what they’ve done. They’ve nearly destroyed themselves a dozen times over. They need a steady hand to guide them on the correct path, or else they’ll be lost for eternity. Destroyed by their own hand over petty disputes and foolish conquests.”
“And if that should happen, so be it,” Hades said. “We have seen many civilizations come and go for similar reasons. The humans will be no different. Our time is finished, Ares. It’s time to go home.”
“Oh, hell no,” Ares said.
He threw his hands out, waves of power radiating out from them, knocking everyone in the room over. Athena scrambled to her feet and pushed her own power out towards Ares. Hermes, Artemis and Hades did the same. But even together, they were having trouble containing Ares.
Steve was the first to figure it out. He moved closer to Athena, reaching out to lay his hands on her shoulders. She felt it instantly, the infusion of power as she pressed towards Ares. She watched as Phil and Barnes did the same, moving closer to Hermes and Artemis, lending their power to help contain Ares.
They were winning the battle, but Athena could also feel herself begin to tire. If they couldn’t contain him before they burned themselves out, Ares would get away and find someplace else to wreak havoc.
Just when she thought maybe she’d collapse from the strain, the windows and roof on the top floor blew out, the sound of shattered glass like rain on a tin roof. Athena opened her eyes to find the entire roof of the building just gone. Above them, glittering among the clouds and descending toward them like twin suns, was a sight she never thought to see in her lifetime.
Zeus and Hera, holding hands, landing on light feet in the middle of Pierce’s command center on the top floor of the Triskelion.
She let go of her power, collapsing back into Steve’s strong arms, barely aware of what was happening around her. She felt cool hands on her cheek, and opened her eyes to find her father gazing down at her, softness in his eyes.
“All will be well, daughter,” he said, voice like the wind through the tall grasses on the plains outside of Athens.
Her strength seemed to return to her, though she still felt a bit wobbly. Steve helped her to her feet, supporting her just enough to allow her to keep her dignity. She watched Zeus do the same to the others, speaking soft words and lending some small bit of power to each in turn.
When he was finished, he turned to Ares, who appeared to be trussed up himself, Zeus’ lightening crackling in a band around his middle, holding his arms at his sides so he couldn’t move.
“Ares,” Zeus said, his voice as harsh now as it had been soft before. “I am disappointed in you. You have been told time and again that the humans are off limits to you, and yet you persist in interfering in their lives.”
“They can’t survive without someone to guide them!” Ares shouted. “And you have ignored them! They turned to me because they had no one else to show them the way.”
Zeus simply shook his head. “I have not heeded their call because they are no longer children to be led around. They are beings of beauty and power that have a right to choose their own path. If that path leads to self-destruction, so be it. Societies rise and fall, and have for millennia. We must be concerned with our own affairs, as someone recently reminded me.”
“Enough!” Zeus shouted. “You will return to Olympus and answer for your crimes. I will not hear further arguments on the matter.”
“Finally,” Hermes muttered. Artemis elbowed him, but Hermes just frowned at her. “What?”
“What about the others?” Steve asked. “What will happen to them, now that Ares has been dealt with?”
Zeus looked at Steve, and Athena held her breath. It was the height of impertinence to question the King of the Gods. Lesser men than Steve had been punished or worse for the attempt.
Instead of lashing out, Zeus turned to his fellow Olympians. “What would you have me do, my brother? My children? What is your wish?”
Athena was honestly shocked, but it was Hermes who recovered first. “I don’t know about the others, but I want to stay. I have a life here that I’m happy with. When the time comes—when my human lifespan is over—I will happily return to Olympus, as long as Phil is allowed to come with.”
“I would stay as well,” Artemis said. “The humans are a joy I have rarely known in my life. I wish to spend more time observing them.”
“And I as well,” Athena said. “I have… enjoyed my time on Earth, and do not wish to see it end so soon. If you will permit it, Father.”
Zeus looked at each one, then turned to his brother. “Hades, what say you? Will you stay, or will you return to your domain? Persephone has missed your company, but has expressed a willingness to join you on Earth, should you wish it.”
Hades seemed to contemplate it for long minutes. Athena knew from her last conversation with him that he was tired of the games and in need of rest. But perhaps it was more driven by the conflict with Ares and less about the humans and the work they did on their behalf.
“I am loath to be away from my bride for much longer,” he said. “So if she is willing, I would happily welcome her to Earth for a time. I believe she would enjoy the experience.”
“Very well,” Zeus said, though he was smiling as if he’d known all along that they’d all want to stay.
Without warning, Zeus unleashed his lightning, bolts of light crackling through the room, striking each of the Olympians in the center of their chests. Athena felt it the moment the Cloak wrapped around her and she was Maria Hill again. Her knees went weak, and she nearly collapsed again, but Steve was still there, still holding her up. She smiled gratefully at him as she regained her feet.
“Take care with these fragile bodies you value so,” Zeus said. “For I will not continue to remake them should you damage or shed them again.”
“We’ll take care, Father,” Clint said.
Natasha nodded. “And thank you.”
“We’ll have some interesting stories to tell when we return to Olympus,” Fury said, a rare smile breaking over his face.
“I look forward to hearing them,” Zeus said. He turned to Hera, who had remained silent during the entire exchange. “Wife. Shall we go?”
Hera inclined her head, then turned to the rest of the group. “I thank you for what you tried to do. My son has done you terrible wrongs, and still you attempted to return him to Olympus rather than destroy him. I am indebted to you all. Please call on me should you have a need. I will answer as best I’m able.”
She joined Zeus beside Ares, the two of them taking their son’s arms and rising into the clouds. They disappeared from view, leaving the roof blown off and the Avengers and Fury staring at each other.
Clint was the first to break. He started chuckling, and before long he was bent over double, laughing so hard Maria was sure he was going to make himself sick. One by one, the others joined him until they were all laughing like loons. It felt good to let it all go. They hadn’t been able to do that in far too long.
Iron Man and Falcon landed inside the room, Tony holding on to an exhausted Bruce Banner. “Well, that was certainly far more exciting than it had a right to be.”
“Says you,” Barnes said, still fighting a chuckle or two. “I thought for sure Ares was gonna get loose and end us all.”
“Good thing he didn’t,” Banner said. “I didn’t like our odds if you guys couldn’t contain him.”
“And then Zeus rides to the rescue,” Wilson said. “I thought he was a Grade A asshole, and then he goes and does something like this.”
“Father can be reasonable,” Natasha said. “From time to time.”
“Except no one’s witnessed him being reasonable in over a thousand years,” Clint said.
“It would appear the immediate crisis is over, but we still have a lot of mop-up left to do,” Phil said. “JARVIS says Homeland and the FBI are engaging the Hydra sleeper agents as we speak.”
“We should probably go help,” Clint said. “Job’s not done until all the enemy agents have been neutralized. You taught me that.”
“I’m game,” Wilson said. “Somebody’s gotta make sure Captain Iron Pants over here doesn’t get too carried away with those gauntlets of his.”
“Hey!” Stark said, flipping up the visor on his suit. It looked slightly battered, but still functional, so Maria wasn’t worried. “I resemble that remark.”
Clint snorted. “Come on. Let’s go help clean house. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can retire to a whole vat of beer and a shower.”
“Not necessarily in that order,” Wilson said.
Maria just smiled at Steve, who smiled back at her. “You ready?”
“I’m ready,” Steve said. he squeezed her shoulder before letting go. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we can get out of here and start celebrating.”
“That an offer?” Maria asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Do you want it to be?” Steve asked. “Because I can definitely make it an offer for a private celebration.”
“And on that note, let’s get out of here,” Fury said. “I do not need to see or hear about Captain America’s love life.”
The rest of them burst into more peals of laughter as JARVIS restored the elevators and they headed downstairs to help finish what they’d started.