Iron Man descended from the heavens on a pillar of fire. Just above him came Thor, one powerful arm gripping the thong of Mjolnir, the other securely holding the dazed and weakened form of Wonder Man, ionic energies crackling all about him.
The three heroes settled to the ground near the former A.I.M base and entered through the jagged "doorway" Thor had provided earlier in the day. Dead A.I.M. agents, their yellow "beekeeper" outfits in tatters, still lay everywhere--some of Ultron's earlier victims, during his takeover of the facility.
Iron Man surveyed the damage to the base--clearly, no one, A.I.M. or otherwise, would be getting much good out of this place for some time to come, and not without a big repair bill as well.
In one corner, the smoking remains of the Jocasta/Super Adaptoid had been propped up against a wall, and Pym and the Beast were poking and prodding it carefully.
Across the room, the Vision bent over the Scarlet Witch, seemingly offering sympathy and assistance for her many cuts and bruises.
And finally, at the communications console where Ultron had manipulated so many, good and bad, for so long, Captain America and Hawkeye were on the line with SHIELD and the Government, briefing them on the events.
That's the Avengers, Iron Man couldn't help but think. We find time to lick our wounds, here and there, but we also get our business taken care of. With Cap around, could it be otherwise? Tony laughed softly to himself.
Wanda looked up, past the Vision, and saw Thor following Iron Man inside, with Wonder Man still supported at his side. "Simon!" She was up and running before Thor could even set him down.
The Vision watched Wanda race across the room to Simon's side, his eyes narrowing slightly, but said nothing. He merely followed, at a much slower pace. The Beast and Henry Pym arrived moments later.
"What happened?" Wanda asked frantically.
"I'm...I'm okay, Wanda," he whispered hoarsely.
"Simon Williams did comport himself as well as any hero of legend," Thor told her in his booming voice. "Verily should we all be proud of him this day."
"We got him away from Ultron and siphoned some of his power," Iron Man explained, "but he's still not what I'd call terribly stable."
The Beast studied the energy crackling around Simon Williams's body closely. "Hmm. Indeed. We need to get him back to the lab immediately."
"SHIELD will be here any moment," Cap informed them. "I'll stand guard till then." He nodded to Simon. "Get him home."
Somewhere, somewhen else, the timeline shifted and branched--though no one would know it for quite some time to come.
It began when a certain old acquaintance of the Avengers fled an unexpected betrayal, and hurled himself blindly into a time portal--a portal which snapped shut behind him.
As he tumbled through the time stream, he reached certain conclusions, and thereby found himself setting his course for New York City, present-day, and a particularly famous address in that city...
In the immortal realm of Asgard, the All-Father, Odin, watched from on high as events played themselves out--just as he knew they must.
He had been a fool. He hated to admit that to himself, but it was nonetheless true. He had made a grave error, and the time had arrived for him to rectify that mistake.
Not quite yet, but soon... Soon, he would have to make his appearance--an appearance that would, no doubt, shock the mortals (and his son as well) tremendously.
He actually found the prospect not entirely unpleasant...
Royal laughter boomed out from the throne room.
"Take it easy, Simon," the Beast was saying. "Just have a seat in this chair, and we'll start the analysis."
Wonder Man settled into the big metal chair as Pym and Beast switched on the various controls and began to study the readouts.
"Y'know guys," Wondy said as they attached leads to his face and arms, "the last time you did this kind of thing to me, we were attacked by the Lethal Legion.* Sooo... whatever you did wrong that time-- let's try to get it right this time, okay?" He grinned.
* In AVENGERS #164 --Van.
"Yeah, yeah," the Beast muttered as he continued setting up the system.
"Like we had anything to do with that," Pym added.
"In fact," Beast started, "we--" He blinked.
Both looked up, at each other, then at Wonder Man.
"You-- you remember that?"
Slowly, Simon nodded. "Yeah. I do. I do!"
Beast bounded in the air and landed directly in front of Simon, meeting him eye to eye. "Remember anything else-- or just the things you wanna blame on us?"
Simon laughed again. "I'm remembering a whole lot, actually--it's all coming back to me!"
Pym studied the readouts. "As I suspected, Beast-- we gathered a lot of extraneous energy when we 'vacuumed' Simon up, from orbit. All that extra energy--"
"Yes... it must have interfered with Simon's own ionic energies."
"In effect, it scrambled his brain a little."
"And with the excess siphoned away--"
Simon nearly leapt up, almost ripping the leads away. "--I'm back!"
Pym and Beast exchanged a high-five. "Welcome back, Simon," Pym told him.
Beast clapped him on the back. "Yeah. Welcome back."
Simon Williams, Wonder Man, nodded firmly. "It's good to be back."
"You don't think it's good that he's back, do you?"
The Vision frowned, his hands clasped behind his back, as he peered out the window of the Scarlet Witch's bedroom.
"Wanda, I believe you are mischaracterizing my sentiments."
Wanda Maximoff, her back to the Vision, brushed at her thick hair absently. "Alright, then-- you're glad he's back, as an Avenger, but...what? You don't want the competition? You think I'm in love with him or something?"
"No. I have said no such thing." The Vision bowed his head, struggling to cope with Wanda's words, and with his own feelings. "I know that you are no longer mine, and I accept that."
"Yes. But-- the presence of Simon Williams has rarely brought the two of us--in whatever capacity-- much more than grief. Surely you must see that."
"And whose fault is that? Mine? Yours? Simon's? Whose?"
The Vision studied his feet. "I suppose the fault, as you say, lies with each of us. With all of us."
"Look at me, Vision."
Slowly, the Vision turned, raising his head. He beheld his former wife, the beauteous Scarlet Witch, standing before him in her red costume and cape--and he felt the feelings he'd felt so many times before, washing over him. How did humans cope with such things, he wondered? From childhood--from infancy!--they faced an unending onslaught of emotional turmoil. If he, one of the mightiest beings on Earth, could scarcely deal with such things, then... how did anyone?
"You're simply jealous."
"You still love me."
"Tell me it's not true."
The Vision stared at her for a long moment. "I... I..."
He whirled, his yellow cape flaring behind him, and strode quickly out the door.
Behind him, Wanda gripped the back of her chair until her nails nearly sank into the wood.
They're both here now, she thought to herself, bitterly, and neither of them is who I want them to be. Am I just that selfish, or...?
No. I'm just a human being, who wants a little happiness in her life. And, one way or another, I'm going to find it.
Time had branched.
In the new timeline: Spat out of his time portal, the wounded figure slowly made his way up the sidewalk and to the door of Avengers Mansion. Sparks still flew from gashes in his armor, flaring out from beneath the green and purple cloth which covered it.
And then he did the one thing he had never thought he would ever do, at this place: He knocked.
In the current timeline: Spat out of his time portal, the regal figure strode purposefully to the door of Avengers Mansion. Standing tall and proud, he smoothed his immaculate green and purple suit which covered his familiar thin armor. He contemplated once more the plans which would begin to fall into place as soon as he stepped inside. Then, nodding once to himself, he knocked.
The conference room: Cap, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Wasp sat around the table, looking over the files of all their currently active members.
"We're getting 'unmanageable' again," Cap was saying, "and while that's a good thing when dealing with threats like Ultron, I don't know that I'd want us to go day-to-day with this number."
Iron Man nodded. "Surely we won't be facing threats of that magnitude every day. Surely we can get away with scaling back to, say, seven or eight members."
"Absolutely," the Wasp agreed. "I like a houseful of burly men as much as the next girl, but...!"
Hawkeye snorted. "And it's not like, say, Kang is about to show up, or anything."
The intercom beeped. Cap pressed the button. "Yes?"
"Jarvis, sir. I was about to announce that dinner is served, but... I'm afraid...someone is here to see you."
In the sub-basement lab, the intercom beeped, and Jan's voice crackled out. "Hank?"
"Yes?" They both answered at once.
"Both of you-- and Simon, too, if he's able. You want to get up here."
The Beast frowned. "We're sort of busy at the moment--what's going on?"
Jan returned the frown, glancing back over her shoulder for a moment. "We--we're having dinner."
Beast sighed. "Yeah. So?"
Beast hadn't known before that his jaw could actually hit the console top.
As the blue, furry form of the Beast bounded up the stairs and around the corner, the elevator opened and Pym and Simon stepped out. Together, the three Avengers approached the dining room cautiously. Almost comically, they stuck their heads around the corner.
The table was laid out beautifully, as always.
Jarvis was holding a gravy boat.
The team members were arrayed colorfully along both sides of the long table.
At one end sat Captain America, sipping water.
At the other end sat Kang the Conqueror.
"I've seen it all now," Simon muttered.
"It's those frozen burritos," the Beast mumbled. "It has to be. I knew they were putting crack in them." He raised one furry hand solemnly. "No more frozen burritos. I swear."
"Gentlemen, have a seat," Cap told them. "It seems we have a guest."
Kang the Conqueror rose regally from his seat, and gestured to the empty chairs to one side. "By all means. I want you all present." His blue-masked face smiled. "We have to talk."
"I can't wait to hear this," Hawkeye muttered.
"Alright, Kang--we're all here," Cap told him, "and we've agreed to a truce--for now. Speak your peace."
Kang seated himself once more, looked over the assemblage, and nodded. "Avengers," he stated flatly, "I need your help."
Iron Man actually laughed. "You-- you need our help? With what?"
"With the ludicrous replicas of me running around the
universe, committing insane acts in my name. Something must be done."
He smiled again--a sight that did nothing to relieve the tension at
the table. "And above all others, you people are
most adept at dispatching Kangs...!"
Harris begins his epic run on AVENGERS--
Hope everyone enjoyed this much-expanded and slightly-revised version of my final issue of AVENGERS. As a side note, I'm proud to say that the appearance of Kang in this issue won the MV1 award for "surprise moment of the year" or somesuch. Very cool.
Also note that I took the opportunity to go ahead and set up the Odin bit from Scott's later issues. That was all his idea, though--I just figured a little foreshadowing would be nice, while the opportunity presented itself. Hope he approves.
Now go check out "I, KANG," and then come back for Scott's cool run with the Assemblers.
--Van the Man