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13 November 2015 @ 05:45 pm
The Ice Demon and the Spider, 9/?  

Luke presented his brand new passport to the attendant at airport check-in with a broad grin. "It's new. Today," he told her. "I got to be a citizen and everything. It was so exciting."

She smiled at him. "Congratulations. But you're leaving so soon?"

"But then I get to come back," he told her with relish, and she laughed.

"Enjoy your flight, Mister Rendell. We hope to see you home soon."

At the jetway entrance, Luke turned around to look back. "I feel as though I am abandoning her again," he murmured.

"Her?" Natasha repeated.

He took a moment to answer. "Arendelle."

Natasha wasn't sure he'd meant a personification of the country or someone in particular, but either way his mood shifted as soon as he saw the seats. "This?" he asked her dubiously. "This is where we are to sit?"

She looked at him; he sounded like he'd never been on a plane before. But in case she was misunderstanding, she pointed, "Here. Eleven-D and E. You can have the aisle since you have long legs."

"But these are so small," he complained.

Heaving a sigh, she sat down in the window seat. "It's coach class. And you didn't pay for it, so sit down."

He finally took the seat, and he sat very tense during taxi. His fingers clutched the arms of the chair when the grinding noise of the flaps going down vibrated through their seats.

She leaned closer. "Are you afraid of flying?" she asked, trying not to be mocking but clearly failing by the incensed look on his face.

"This... craft is primitive," he bit out, "and noisy. Barely improved upon a design from sixty years ago. It is amazing they fly at all."

Her lips twitched into a smile. "You're scared."

"I am not. I am quite logically concerned that we will plummet to the ground and die."

Chuckling, she laid a hand over his very tense one. "It's okay. I can hold your hand if you like. We'll be fine. It's very safe to fly these days."

"Safe. Primitive death contraptions," he muttered.

"So curmudgeonly," she teased lightly. "It's a short flight, Luke, we'll be in Paris soon."

"And then we'll have to fly another of these monstrosities to Seville," he pointed out and sounded a bit plaintive. But before she could answer, the engines revved up and they were taking off.

His grip on armrest tightened beneath her hand, and she rubbed the back of his hand as the plane lifted up in the air. "We're on the way."

To her surprise he didn't seem to have a problem looking through the window, as they followed the coast for a little while. His problem wasn't fear of heights, only the plane itself. "The land doesn't change," he murmured. "Politics, people, these things are similar, but they do change. But the land is the same."

"You've been to Arendelle before."

"In my youth."

"That's why you came back. Were you born there?" She knew he'd told Arendelle that he'd been born in Genovia, but that was obviously a lie.

He shook his head. "No. A place not that dissimilar," he murmured. "But far less welcoming."

A northern or mountainous European country with dubious politics or war, she translated silently. He had to be near her age, born after 1980, in the Soviet bloc perhaps, with a youthful visit to Arendelle as soon as the borders opened? Or perhaps he had visited with parents who were diplomats or performers. Arendelle kept good records, so she would have SHIELD analysts figure out some possibles. There couldn't be that many.

She was gradually narrowing down his identity, and yet, as they approached Paris and he downed his second gin-and-tonic, she glanced at her companion and remembered Fury's interest. What did Luke know about the 'lightning' that wasn't? And was he involved with it?

Were all these hints he was giving her just more stories to mislead her from the truth that he wasn't from Earth at all?

But no, that was ridiculous. He'd been shot and she'd seen his blood was just as red as hers. He was hiding something, but in the end, it would have a terrestrial explanation.

* * *

SHIELD beat them to Seville, as she saw Sitwell through the glass outside the small border enforcement and customs area. Seville was also a military base, and likely a quinjet was parked there, out of the way. Luckily Luke was still at passport control and didn't see Sitwell, but she wanted to roll her eyes or stab an irritated text message about how he shouldn't be in view in case Luke could recognize him.

But thankfully Sitwell moved off before Luke joined her, and she was all smiles. She rented a cute car, so small Luke's knees touched the dash with the passenger seat as far back as it would go, and drove it straight to the university.

They found their way to the office of Professor Randolph. He did not appear to be there, and Natasha picked the lock when Luke seemed as if he was about to crash it open.

The office was small, hemmed in by full bookshelves, and cold from the air conditioner being on in such a confined space. There was a single window and a large desk with a computer and piles of papers.

There were photographs of larger statues and carved stones and a dagger on a display stand on the shelf by the door. Near the desk was a whole shelf of similar books -- all copies in different languages of "The Rabbit's Guide to the Universe." Luke swept a finger down the shelf, looking at all the copies, and he turned his attention to books with older bindings, looking at each one before tossing it to the surface of the desk.

"What are we looking for?" she asked.

"The original," he answered curtly. "He has it. He must. I want it."

"Are we stealing it?" She didn't particularly care either way, but she was curious what Luke's answer would be.

"He is returning it to its rightful owner," Luke answered. Five minutes later, it was plainly not there. She surveyed the mess they'd made of the office.

She suggested, "Perhaps it's at his home. Or in the university library. But it's not here."

"I will have to ask him where it is." Luke's voice was calm and resolute, with an undertone of cold threat to it that suggested he was not going to tolerate resistance or objection. She didn't offer any, either, but made sure she was with him to keep him from injuring the professor in his search.

It turned out the professor lived in an apartment in one of the walk-ups not far from the university. Getting in the gate was easy enough, and they went up the stairs to find 313.

Natasha knocked on the door loudly and made sure to stand in the fisheye.

"Quien esta?" the professor called from within.

But Luke didn't wait; he put a hand on the door and pushed. With a terrible screech of metal, the deadbolt was shoved right through the wooden housing of the door as if the wood was cardboard. Natasha was momentarily stunned by the display of strength -- he hadn't even seemed to exert himself. How strong was he?

Luke sauntered through the open doorway. "Professor Randolph. It is time you and I spoke."

Natasha didn't know what she expected but the balding man pressed up against the wall, was not it. He wasn't Spanish, but probably German originally. And he stared at Luke with wide eyes, terrified of this person who crashed through his front door.

When Luke got a good view of him, he stopped and said, "Oh. Now I see. Professor of Norse Mythology. Very droll." He paused and lifted his chin, squaring his shoulders, and seemed to fill the hallway. "Do you know who I am?" he demanded, in a voice grown haughty and cold.

"I… do." Professor Randolph closed his eyes, brows knitting, before his whole manner collapsed into defeat. Then he straighted up from the wall, put one fist across his chest in a salute, and bowed his head. "My prince."

Natasha barely kept her eyebrows from climbing into her hair at the title. Prince? Prince of what?

Luke seemed to take it as expected that the professor would call him that. "Excellent. You have something of mine. I want it back."

Randolph didn't need to be told what that was. "I… didn't think you would return," Randolph explained, and started down the narrow hall.

"It was something of a surprise to me, as well," Luke said dryly as he followed the professor, leaving Natasha to shut the door as best she could. The hall opened up in a large main room, with several windows and a balcony overlooking the back garden of the building, and a high ceiling. There were so many books on the shelves that lined the inner walls: some arranged neatly, others more haphazardly.

The professor peered at her curiously, frowning. "You are… not one."

"No, she's not. This is Natalya; she helped me get here. We've been keeping secrets from each other," Luke introduced her, and she almost choked on how true that was. So he did know something was up. But Luke didn't pursue that, instead asking Randolph, "Where did you get it?"

"It appeared during a rare books auction," he explained. "No one else knew what it was. So I bought it."

"It belongs to Arendelle," Loki said harshly. "Not you."

"Nazis would've looted and destroyed it," Randolph protested. "I kept it safe."

Nazis? She frowned at him skeptically, but Luke didn't seem to notice anything odd.

Randolph opened a safe hidden inside one section of shelves and pulled out a leather-bound book that he handed to Luke. The binding didn't seem familiar to Luke, who took it frowning, until he opened it. "Oh." He drew in a sharp ragged breath, and touched the page gently with his fingers. His knees buckled and he thumped down on the edge of the sofa, too enraptured by the sight of the page to remain standing. "I thought it was lost," he whispered, and his eyes grew wet. His fingers trembled, caressing the page. "This is the only thing on this world left of her."

She figured it out then; the book was connected to his daughter, who had died. It wasn't the content that was important, it was sentimental because of who had owned it.

"I know," Randolph said gently. "That was why I had to save it."

Luke bit his lip, and gasped out a sobbing breath, holding back tears. Natasha remembered the grief he'd shown in the valley and knew this was a part of that. She moved up closer to see that this book, unlike the printed copies, appeared to be written by hand in runic letters and with small ink illustrations.

"Can I get you coffee?" Randolph asked her in a soft voice, trying to let Luke be. "I made some, just before you arrived."

"Yes, thank you," she said. Randolph nodded his head and went into the adjoining kitchen to bang around with cups and sugar bowls.

Natasha set a gentle hand on Luke's shoulder. "You all right?"

Luke nodded and sniffed. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, breathing more easily. "She was so happy when she saw this."

Randolph returned with a tray which he set down on the side table, at Luke's elbow. Natasha made Luke's coffee with two sugar cubes, and handed it to him. He gave her an absent muttered thank you and sipped at it once, before putting it aside, still focused on the precious book on his lap. Natasha sat beside him with her own coffee.

"According to the inscription, you wrote this yourself," Randolph said, seating himself in the armchair opposite. "Is that true?"

"She wanted me to make my own book," Luke murmured, drawing a finger across the page. "So I did. I gave it to her and her daughter. It infuriates me to see copies of it lying on a shelf as if they're worthless."

'Her and her daughter' – his daughter's mother? But he should have said 'our' daughter, in that case. Perhaps the daughter was not his by blood.

But that was not the only mystery in the words. Luke had written the book himself? Those precisely inked runic letters were his hand? She was having trouble believing that. The book looked ancient.

"Not worthless," Randolph corrected. "It's not worthless to disseminate information. You taught me that."

Luke's face lifted sharply, surprised right out of his mourning. "What?"

Randolph gave a tentative smile. "We were correspondents for a time. I was a student at Paris, Rolf Eremus."

Luke's gaze slid sideways as he frowned, trying to recall, then he had it, exclaiming, "He was you?" He burst into laughter. Randolph's smile widened and he relaxed, seeing that Luke wasn't angry. "You knew who I was?"

"Not at first. I thought you were an extraordinarily gifted scholar. We were supposed to meet in Paris, if you recall. I saw you, before you saw me, and then, yes, I recognized you."

"Yet you avoided me. The only one of your own kind on Midgard. Why?"

'own kind' – that was odd phrasing. In conjunction with calling Luke a prince, were they part of a government or people in exile? There were many groups who had suffered under the Nazis and the Soviets, too.

Natasha stayed out of their direct notice, so they would keep talking and reveal to each other what they would not reveal to her.

"I was terrified," Randolph admitted. "I feared you'd force me back."

"Why would I do that?"

"Because I… am a deserter. I came with the Beserker army," he admitted. "I left them to stay here."

"Then?" Luke asked, sounding astonished. "You came then? That was the Kree Incursion, yes? You have been on this dull realm so long?"

"It isn't dull, my lord. Not to me. I was a stonemason before I joined the army. That was dull. But here, there is so much change. So much of interest to learn and to teach. I wanted to stay."

Luke glanced down at the book, frowning as he pondered. "Well, even if I were in a position to force you back, I would not," Luke said, rising to his feet, the book clasped against his chest. "You saved Birgitte's book, and for that you have my gratitude. It is a pity you did not reveal yourself to me in Paris; I would have liked to know I was not alone."

He stepped away and she saw the flash of realization hit him, as his eyes flickered to one side and then a grin spread across his face. "Of course!" he laughed. "The Warrior who Stayed! Was you!" Randolph nodded agreement reluctantly.

"It was. But I am no warrior, now. I took up arts of peace long ago."

"No wonder you stayed here," Luke said and shook his head, still chuckling. "So I am not the only one with a legend. It never occurred to me to consider the source of that tale. I was more interested in the future than the past." Then he narrowed his eyes at Randolph. "Is it you I should blame for all the ridiculous tales they tell of me?"

Randolph flared back in worry and fear, raising his hands defensively. "No, my prince! I swear, my task has been more of true translations and history. I invented no tales, only collected them."

Luke seemed a bit dubious of that, but let it go. "I hope so."

Natasha knew at that point that there was no ordinary story that would explain everything they were saying. There was something very strange about both of them.

Luke set down the book carefully and wandered over to look at the shelves, either curious or bored, or both. "Are these your own scribings? These collections with other names?"

Randolph chuckled. "Yes, some of them. As many as I can find from previous lives. A scholar is expected to have books, so it never seemed much risk."

Luke made a sort of non-committal noise, and kept prowling the books. Natasha watched him, with a sense of rueful affection. At least there were not so many books as at the library.

She reviewed what she had heard so far, but she wasn't sure how it all fit together. Arendelle, some military action called the "Kree Incursion" which she'd never heard of, Nazis… She needed to look at some of the books on the shelves herself, or at least pull out her phone and search some terms, but then Luke stopped, and tucked his hands behind his back as he looked at something on the shelf.

"You followed my exploits I see," he said eventually. Natasha stepped away from the shelf to give herself more room to maneuver. His tone had changed, grown more controlled. He was angry and danger had crept into this room suddenly.

Randolph didn't notice. He stood up, face lightening with eagerness. "How could I not? Once I knew who you were, it became a passion of mine, to trace where you were. There are hints you went to the Far East, I have a Persian travel account...." He flipped through a pile of small, leather bound books on his table, looking for one in particular.

Luke drew a hand along the front of the shelves holding books with yellowed dust jackets. "Who else had access to this research before 1940?" he asked, his voice still pleasant but now taking on a chilly edge.

That, Randolph noticed and understood. He backed into the table, clutching one of the books. "No one."

Luke didn't believe him, stalking toward him, a panther with prey in his sights. "Rolf Eresmus. You used that name again, on those books over there. Published in the 20's, in German. An expert in Germanic history and the sagas, which the Nazis adored so very much." He stopped, looking down at the professor, and his face was pure cold rage. "I will ask you one more time -- who had access to your research on me?"

Randolph folded. "He came to me in '35," Randolph whispered, hands clasped together. "Schmidt. And his henchman. Because I knew Old Norse and the old gods. He had heard of you and wanted to know more. I… didn't understand what he was, not at first. He seemed just a scholar."

Schmidt. Natasha felt cold, because that name she knew. The Red Skull of Hydra. And there was another name associated with Schmidt-- the Ice Demon.

Luke Rendell. Lukas of Arendelle. He was the Ice Demon.

The dagger from Randolph's office was in Luke's hand, held reversed so the blade was hidden along his sleeve. She hadn't seen him take it. He accused Randolph, "You told him it was true. You told him about Arendelle."

"I said you were gone!" Randolph protested. "I told him you left when the Snow Queen died and the empty plate tradition was only a ceremony. That no one really expected you back! But he refused to believe me."

Luke was utterly still, listening to this with a frozen expression that did not at all hide the rage building within him. "He went to Arendelle because of you. He knew to find the tesseract there because of you. I thought he figured it out himself, that I left all those footprints for him to follow, but he didn't have to because you did it for him!" He held his dagger out, as Randolph cowered backwards, holding his hands up.

"Luke!" Natasha said.

"This man got my people killed, Natalya." His hand was shaking, barely holding back.

Randolph fell to his knees, bowing his head. "Please, my lord, I meant no harm," he stammered and he added something in a language she didn't understand, something pleading and heartfelt. And then he fell silent and waited.

"Luke." She came up to his other side, readying a hand to stop him, but he was hesitating, so she thought she should try words first. "If you kill him now, it's murder. You don't want to do that."

"It's an execution," he corrected. His left hand grabbed Randolph's hair and pulled his head back so he could put his dagger blade to Randolph's throat. "Justice for his betrayal."

"He saved the book," she reminded him, hand on his back ready to take him down. "He saved her book. Grant him mercy. You can do that."

He hesitated, hand shaking, before he pulled the blade away, with an angry, frustrated exclamation. Randolph slumped, letting out a breath of relief.

"She's right. You saved the book," Luke said. "For that, you live." The dagger slipped back under his coat. "But know this, if I find out you were a member of Hydra-- if I find out you told him how to capture me--"

"No! My prince, no, I swear!"

"And if you ever help my enemies again, I will see you dead. I will find you and tear you apart so nothing remains to find Valhalla, this I swear." He turned away and picked up the book and cradled it to his chest, heading for the door.

She followed, leaving Randolph on the floor, and they headed out into the street. "Luke."

He didn't stop, keeping a quick pace, and corrected her with a snort, "Lukas. You know who I am. And now you can tell your friends."

"Friends?" she repeated.

He whipped around, smile on his lips a vicious slash. "The ones you work for. The ones who listen to us on your phone."

She couldn't help a blink at that revelation. "You knew? When did you know?"

"I don't have all my powers, but I can still sense when there is an open EM signal near me," he said with no little scorn. "And none of the bullets were aimed at you."

He knew that? He had been able to track the bullets' actual trajectories? That, in addition to being able to sense when her phone was broadcasting and the strength he'd displayed shoving open the door. And he'd let none of it show. She felt a stirring of admiration in the midst of her consternation. "You were playing me the whole time?"

He rolled his eyes. "You mortals, always so sure you know everything. When you know nothing."

"Why did you go with me then?"

"I wanted to see what you would do. Plus, I had no money and you were willing to take me where I wanted to go. It seemed convenient."

She shook her head with a rueful smile. "I warned them not to underestimate you."

"You are not with the Russians, though your accent is good. SHIELD, I assume."

It felt odd to be admitting this in the open, but her best play right now was honesty. "I'm with SHIELD," she confirmed. "The successor organization to the SSR. Which you should be familiar with. If you're actually..." she paused, unable to quite believe what she knew to be true, "Lukas Onsdag?"

He snorted. "If Randolph was not verification enough I have nothing better. Though I suppose you could look at that absurd statue in Arendelle market square; the likeness is surprisingly good."

She hadn't looked at the statue closely, since most post-war bronze statues tended to be the same generic celebrations of victory or the dead. More amusing, there were pictures all over SHIELD offices of the Howling Commandos, but apparently the system hadn't compared a single one of them. "Facial recognition didn't look at old enough files," she said.

"Since you didn't know who I am, what was your mission?"

"To observe and identify you. Keep civilians safe. You were a hostile unknown presence."

"--Because SHIELD invaded Arendelle--"

"They were investigating phenomenon that you brought." When he didn't deny that, she figured it was true.

It was all true. He was the Ice Demon. And Fury had suspected, obviously. Not enough to say it straight out, but he had guessed who her target actually was. "Director Fury specifically wanted you investigated, not subdued. He suspected it was a misunderstanding. But no one was sure, so… that's why the play. They wanted to know your intentions, and keep others safe." He seemed to accept her explanation, giving a nod of understanding. "So what are your intentions, now that it's all in the open?"

Lukas held up the book. "To take this to a safe home in Arendelle. After that? Surely something will present itself."

"Something like SHIELD?" she asked.

But he frowned. "I am no more eager to involve myself in the military now than I was then."

That seemed odd, when everything she knew about him suggested he had been associated with the military. "But you--"

He waved a hand dismissively. "My goals and the SSR's aligned briefly, but I never intended to stay with them." He looked at the book. "There was a time when Arendelle was home to me. I would like to see if it could be again. But with my identity already revealed, I doubt it is possible."

Surprising herself, she felt some pity for him. "Just because SHIELD knows, or will, doesn't mean everyone has to."

He said dryly, "Yet I think they are more than enough."

"Probably true, I'm sorry to say. But Director Fury did say we weren't supposed to offend or anger the, uh, alien power, so I don't think he'll try to push you too hard." Which wasn't to say he wasn't going to try to push at all, because she had the suspicion that Fury had the Ice Demon in mind for the Avengers Initiative, and he was going to be very reluctant to hear a refusal. "Speaking of," she took out her phone, "I need to report this." She held up the phone ready to call, hesitating only to see if he would object or try to stop her. He hesitated as if he might try, but then gestured with his free hand to go ahead with a grimace of resignation. His secret was now out, and he had no way to keep her, or Randolph, from spilling it.

She called Maria directly. "Agent Hill here. Go ahead, Agent Romanoff."

Lukas was leafing through the precious book, pretending not to listen, as Natasha spoke. "I have confirmation and positive i.d. that Luke Rendell is an alias for Lukas Onsdag, the Ice Demon."

There was a moment of silence and then with admirable control, Maria asked, "The same person who fought with Captain America and the Howling Commandos in World War II?"

"The same."

"Are you sure?" Maria asked. But she answered her own question, apparently calling up a photo, because Natasha heard a quiet, "Damn. It is him. Not a day older."

Happy that Maria was expressing the amazement that Natasha couldn't, she reported, "He knows I'm SHIELD. He pegged it as a setup from the start." Admitting that to Maria made Natasha want to cringe with embarrassment. It was not often that her targets made her first.

Luckily Maria had enough class and professionalism not to get on Natasha's case for it. At least not on an open line. "Well, the director hoped he'd be an asset. Appears that might be true. What's the plan?"

"Lukas found a book, a lost relic from Arendelle, and he wants to return it."

"A book?" Maria chuckled. "Does it get more innocuous? Tag along with him for now. I'll report to the Director and get back to you about transportation options. Good work. Hill out."

Natasha ended the call and put her phone back in her pocket, turning to Lukas. "You heard? So while we wait, you want to walk around? I've never been to Seville."

"I was here," he answered. "Though in 1753 it was much more exciting." He was watching her with glimmering eyes and a mouth ready to grin with delight, waiting for the incredulity, so she didn't give it to him.

Instead she held out her hand and he reflexively offered his arm for her to take, very courtly, and she requested, "Show me?"

He smiled, but with less mischief and more genuine pleasure that she wasn't shocked or afraid, and she wanted his knowledge. "If you like."

He pointed out the places ships had once docked and showed her the Moorish palace and then, because it was warm, they got ice cream and ambled through the narrow streets of the older city, while he told her what had once stood there.

"You remember it well, for something that happened so long ago. Do you have perfect recall?" she asked curiously.

"If I wish to," he answered. "Midgard is easier to remember. Time feels different here." He frowned, looking thoughtful. "I tend not to remember people, but structures endure."

In front of one of the university buildings and thinking that he had once stood in this place centuries ago when the building had been something else, she had to ask, "The Ice Demon. Are the stories true?"

He shrugged. "Not knowing the stories you refer to, I would guess probably not."

"You stood in this spot three hundred years ago and you're not from Earth. That part's true."

He didn't answer for a moment before admitting, "Yes. Though I am here to stay, at least for the near future."

"And you have more than human strength, tearing through the professor's door like that."

He gave a shrug. "Odin All-father bound most of my powers before sending me here, so I am akin to mortal now."

"Akin". Not mortal, but like one. "So you're immortal?"

"Technically, no. I age and eventually will die." He finished off his ice cream and flipped the stick into the bin without looking. "But my lifespan is measured in centuries and millennia, and with full powers, I am all but invulnerable. There is a reason your kind thought us gods."

At first she had nothing to say. An immortal being from another world was nothing she had ever planned for, or even imagined. She shook her head in wonder. "Your truth makes so much more sense than the elaborate story I kept trying to concoct to explain you."

His smile widened. "But I bet yours was more fun."

"Than an alien from another planet? No."

"Not an alien." He whipped out his red Arendelle passport to hold up in front of her face. "I am a citizen."

The combination of his proud announcement, his pose, and the ridiculous, surreal nature of the truth, was calculated to make her smile, so she did. She wondered what she was doing; spy training had never covered meeting myths come to life, or finding out her target was immortal.

But then again, he was just a man right now, and that she knew how to handle.

(part ten)