sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2012-10-04 04:51 am

Avengers: Better To Reign In Hell 1/4

Title: Better To Reign In Hell
Rating: PG-13 for swears and violence
Summary: Loki has known since childhood that he was Jotun. He's been told all his life that he was a fosterling sent to Asgard to cement the bonds between their realms. He's been led to believe one day he would ascend the throne of Jotunheim. Loki has been lied to.
Warnings: Violence, mainly. Instances of familial dysfunction (rejection, disownment).
Notes: I'm not one for apologia when it comes to Loki. In the canon he's a mass-murdering dick, and in this story he is certainly not always a nice person. But I do love playing with how different circumstances change people.
BETA CREDIT JESUS: [livejournal.com profile] neifile7 and [livejournal.com profile] kallaneboi fixed many things.

Here on AO3.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.
--Lucifer, Paradise Lost, Milton

***

Loki had heard the whispers since he was a child. Unnatural, they said. The ice child, they called him. The pretender prince.

Frigga always told him to pay no attention to the whispers and the gossip. She told him that his foster father loved him and so did she. And he had his foster brother Thor, and their father told them great stories of battles with other realms. Though never with Jotunheim, which was a shame -- Loki would have liked to have heard about his home realm, even if it was stories of his kinsmen at war with Asgard.

Loki had great expectations of returning to Jotunheim one day, strengthening the uneasy truce by ascending the throne. With his brother on the throne in Asgard, they could unite their realms in friendship and enlarge their glory together.

In the meantime he went into battle at Thor's side, joined in hunts with the Lady Sif, and feasted and joked with the Warriors Three -- though perhaps never as boisterously as they did. He was a prince, after all.

"When we are kings together," he told Thor, a few days before the ceremony that would declare his brother crown prince in the eyes of the realm, "we should go hunting in Jotunheim. I am sure they must have great beasts there. We are giants, after all."

"Are you now?" Thor asked, grinning down at him.

"Someday I will assume my true form, and then we shall see who wins in a contest of arms," Loki replied loftily.

"I shall never fight you when we are kings," Thor said. "But I will go hunting with you in Jotunheim. And I am certain I will bring back more trophies than my little foster brother."

"Arrogant ass." Loki grinned at him.

"I am to be king, and so are you. Why shouldn't we be arrogant? Kings must be strong to rule."

Indeed they must, Loki thought, as he slipped down the hallways of his foster father's palace, hurrying towards the passage he'd marked out a year ago, when the planning had begun for Thor's presentation to the court. He had sent a message to Jotunheim, unsure it would pass through, but he would know today if it did. His kinsmen would be waiting for him to open the gates between realms, and he would meet the first true Jotuns he had ever known.

Wouldn't his foster parents be pleased and excited with his surprise? An envoy from Jotunheim, their son's first foray into diplomacy, and a great honor for his brother Thor.

***

"Well," Loki said, standing with Thor in the throne room. "That went not at all to plan."

"What did you do that for?" Thor asked. In front of them, half a dozen palace guards were standing over the kneeling form of a single Jotun. The others had been sent home, abruptly and with no returning gifts nor any acknowledgement, and Laufey had been sent for. Loki couldn't contain his trembling.

"I wanted an envoy of my kinsmen to see you crowned prince," he said, still a little bewildered by what had happened.

"Why didn't you tell father?"

Loki shrugged. "I wanted it to be a surprise."

"Well, it certainly was that," Thor remarked.

If only the Jotuns had sent better emissaries, Loki thought. If only one of them hadn't snuck off to try and rob the treasure vault, or if he'd kept a closer eye on them -- and now Laufey was coming, his father whom he'd never seen, coming to chastise the thief and perhaps take his son away from Asgard. He wasn't certain if what he felt was terror or excitement. Perhaps today he would go home. Even if it was in shame, as a punishment -- Odin still loved him, he must, and Loki knew Thor did. This would not break the fragile peace. It could not.

That was why Loki existed: to unite the kingdoms. If he had failed in that --

"King Laufey of Jotunheim," the herald announced, and the room grew cold. Loki looked down; his skin had taken on a slight blue tinge. Seeing it sent a little frisson of pleasure through him.

He kept his eyes forward as Laufey stalked down the carpeted path, armed Aesir on either side, and presented himself before the throne. He was tall, Loki thought, but difficult to look at -- all spikes and crenellations, glittering edges, sharp curves and angles.

"I am sent for like an errant child over matters I have had no concern in," he said, before Odin could speak. "Pray tell me, Allfather, why this insult to Jotunheim?"

"No insult to Jotunheim," Odin replied. "Except to say that one of your court is a thief."

Laufey glanced backwards at the kneeling Jotun. "I think, Allfather, he did not take anything that was not stolen from us."

"The spoils of war are not theft, nor is tribute from a conquered nation," Odin replied sharply.

"Conquered!" Loki said, and every eye fell on him. "You are under treaty to Jotunheim."

Odin didn't answer, but Laufey studied him only briefly before saying, "Your whelp, Allfather?"

"No, yours," Loki snapped, stung. "Or do you not recognize your son, Laufey of Jotunheim?"

The entire court went still. Laufey reached out and Loki stood still, proud, as a chill finger traced its way down his cheek. It left a stiff, cold sensation in its wake.

"This boy is a Jotun," Laufey said, turning to Odin.

"I am your son," Loki insisted. "Do you not remember?"

"I remember a son lost to the war," Laufey said. "I know of no other son you could be."

"No, this is wrong!" Loki said, appealing to Odin. "I am your foster child. I am to be king of Jotunheim -- "

"King?" Laufey snorted. "You who have worn an Aesir form all these many years?"

Loki felt his face heat. "I am the crown prince of Jotunheim."

"You have brothers. Sisters, too. My children who know their place," Laufey said carelessly. "Jotunheim does not want for a king."

Loki turned to Odin. "I was told I would rule. Was this not true, father?"

"You even call him father," Laufey sneered.

"Am I your foster son, freely given?" Loki demanded. "Am I the prince meant to unite the realms, Allfather? Or am I your hostage and prisoner?"

Odin didn't answer immediately, which was in the end all the answer Loki needed.

"You were not given," Laufey said. "You were taken. We are not under truce; we are under durance. Do you not tell your children proudly who won the war, Odin? Do you not brag of your subjugation of my people and your theft of our treasure?"

"You lied to me," Loki snarled. Odin growled. "You both lied to me!" he added, turning to his foster mother.

"Loki," Frigga began. "We only meant to -- "

"How many others knew?" he interrupted, turning to the court. "How many of you knew and did not see fit to tell the prince of Jotunheim he was a prisoner of Asgard?" He looked to Thor. "Did you know?"

"You cannot believe I did," Thor said, low, intense. "You cannot believe I would deceive you, Loki, my brother."

"I am not your brother!" Loki shouted, voice rising, even as shame at his undisciplined behavior washed over him. "I am neither a son of the Allfather nor of Laufey, not anymore."

"You may return to Jotunheim," Laufey said, glancing at Odin. "You may, in time, be acknowledged a prince."

"I will not be a prince of a realm where I should rule! And I will not," he added, whirling back to Odin, "be a prisoner of Asgard for no crime of my own."

"Mind your tongue, my son, before it causes you grief," Odin warned.

"Mind my tongue! You denied me my true form, my heritage -- you've stolen my throne from me! Why should I mind my tongue, when I am neither Aesir nor Jotun? Why, pray, Allfather, should I keep my peace? Have I not imprisonment to repay with crimes? I repudiate your paternity, great Laufey, and I repudiate your realm, great Allfather. Your war has done this to me -- "

Odin snarled wordlessly and stood, staff pounding on the ground. Loki fell silent, startled.

"If you do not care for Asgard any longer, there are other realms," he bellowed, and reached for Loki. He ducked away, shocked, but Odin grasped one of the horns of his helmet and tugged. It was ripped from his head, and Loki stumbled backwards.

"I strip you of your princehood," Odin said, and Laufey did nothing. "I strip you of your place in court and I banish you. If you will not serve as a prince, die as a mortal on Midgard."

"Father, no -- " Thor started forward, but Odin had already grabbed Loki by his collar, thrusting him sideways, into the swirling vortex that formed in the throne room. He heard Thor's cry of anger as he fell, but it was the last of Asgard he heard.

***

In a dark, sterile guest room in Tony Stark's Malibu mansion, sometime after two in the morning, Phil Coulson's phone rang.

He groaned and rolled over, groping for it. He'd been out most of the afternoon and all of the evening, chasing down old west coast cold cases, trusting Natasha to either mind Stark or give him his head. He'd returned to find Stark ferreting around in his basement workshop, apparently being productive, and so he'd pulled rank for once, commandeering a guest room in the mansion and intending to speak to Stark in the morning about his little trip.

"Coulson," he mumbled into the phone.

"There's been a crashdown in New Mexico," Fury's voice said in his ear. Coulson sat upright.

"Alien origin?" he asked.

"Scientists seem to think so. I'm pulling you off Stark."

"Thank Christ," Phil muttered. "Send me the coordinates?"

"Already sent. There's a team on the way. You're on a noon flight tomorrow to Almagordo. There'll be a rental car waiting for you."

"Where in New Mexico?"

"Puente Antiguo. Population two thousand."

"Oh. Good," Phil sighed.

"It's not all bad. Think of it like a vacation."

"Yes, that's what you said about Malibu."

Fury laughed down the line. "Before you consider offing me and taking over SHIELD, bear in mind I did send Hawkeye with the team."

"That's supposed to make me happy?" Phil asked, but he was smiling. "I'll call in with a prelim when I get there."

"Enjoy the Land of Enchantment," Fury said, and hung up.

***

Loki awoke in a very white room, whiter than anything he'd ever seen. He was wearing a ceremonial robe of some sort, and his wrists were bound to the bed.

He'd heard stories about Midgard. They practiced ritual sacrifice, it was said. This all seemed very...sacrificial.

"I beg your pardon, novice," he said, to the man in green vestments standing over him. He had a metal square in one hand, and he jumped in surprise when Loki spoke.

"Oh, you're awake!" the man exclaimed. Loki fought an eyeroll.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"You're in the hospital. You had a nasty run-in with a van. How are you feeling?"

"Constricted," Loki replied. He wondered what religious order was running the hospital.

"Sorry, when they brought you in they thought you might be having some...issues," the man replied.

"Would you mind terribly...?" Loki asked, smiling charmingly.

"Sorry, I can't," the man replied. "Listen, we don't have a name for you. Can you tell me your name?"

"Is that vital?"

"Well, we like to have it. If you're indigent, we have a program, you won't have to pay anything. Besides, you're the one that got hit."

"Yes, I suppose I am," Loki murmured.

"Your name?"

"Loki -- " he started, and then stopped. There was a time he would have said Loki son of Laufey, foster prince of Asgard, but neither title suited him anymore.

"Lucky, huh? Yeah, I'd say so. From the sound of it you took a pretty bad pounding from the van that hit you, but your vitals are all good," the man said cheerily.

"Not Lucky. Loki," he said sharply. "Loki...of Midgard."

"Loki Ofmidgard. Huh. Norwegian?"

"I do not know what that means," Loki said. "I really would like to be released. My nose itches."

"Well, you seem pretty lucid," the man said, but he made no move to unbind Loki's wrists. "We need to get a psychiatric consult in here."

"Please?" Loki asked. "It does itch so. Just one hand; swear I shan't tell."

The man looked dubious. Loki put on his saddest face. It wasn't difficult.

"Fine, but only for a minute, then I have to restrain you again," the man said.

"My thanks, novice. What's your name?" Loki asked, as the man bent to uncuff his right wrist.

"I'm Darrel," the man replied.

"Darrel, I am quite sorry," Loki said, and his right hand darted up, grasping Darrel by the throat. He threw the man sideways into the wall with enough force to knock him unconscious, sending one of the many machines surrounding the bed crashing down off its little wheeled cart. Loki unbuckled the other restraint quickly, rolled out of the bed, and pressed himself up against the wall next to the door. When the expected novices burst in -- two huge burly men in the same green vestments -- he raised a hand and whispered low, casting a spell that would fill the room with mist.

The mist dramatically failed to appear.

Loki frowned, looked down at his hands, and cast it again. The novices turned to glare at him.

"Damn," he said feelingly, and legged it.

This was not a place of healing so much as a labyrinth, he thought, as he ran full-out through the corridors, skidding around corners and pulling empty beds (clearly the resting places of the so-called hospital's last sacrificial victims) down behind him to block the way. Not for nothing was he called a trickster, though; he managed to get enough distance that when he turned another corner, nobody would see where he went. He burst through a door, dodged left, and darted into one of the many rooms in the empty hallway.

There was a small child on a large bed in the room. The child had no hair, and the room was filled with gaily colored artwork.

"Hello," the child said. It was probably a girl. "Are you the clown?"

"What, pray, is a clown?" Loki asked.

"They're horrible. They come to try and cheer us up. I hate clowns," she replied.

"I am definitely not a clown," Loki replied firmly.

"Then why are you here?"

"I am escaping the novices," Loki said. "Are they planning to sacrifice you, too?"

"I hope not. I'm just here for chemo," she replied.

"Are chemos like clowns?"

She laughed. "You're funny."

"Thank you. Does your window open?"

She waved at it, and he fumbled with the strange latch for a moment before lifting it and pushing out the screen. He was about ten feet off the ground; not a difficult jump. He got halfway out and then turned back to her. "Would you care to come with me?"

"I'd better not. Mom wouldn't like it."

"Well, I wish you all luck in avoiding clowns," he said, and jumped.

He landed on his feet, stumbled, and started to run again. The robe they'd swaddled him in was hardly sufficient for escaping, and it gaped something fierce in the nether regions, but he'd done more with less. There was a large flat stretch of stone in front of him, populated with what looked like very small metal houses, and he could probably steal some clothing from one of them.

He was just peering into one, plotting the easiest way to break the glass window and wondering about the purpose of the circular device inside, when something collided with him. There was a squeal, and one of the houses -- which apparently could move quite quickly -- stopped abruptly right next to his head.

"I swear I'm not doing this on purpose!" said a voice, and Loki pushed himself up on his elbows.

"You hit me with your tiny house!" he said indignantly.

"He's definitely crazy," a second voice said. Midgardian women, he realized.

"Quick, hide me," he said, because he could hear yelling from inside the hospital.

"Are you sure you don't need -- "

"They'll kill me!" Loki said.

The women exchanged glances.

"You hit me with your house, you owe me," Loki added.

"He's cute for being so crazy," one of the women said.

"Come on," said a new voice, belonging to a Midgardian man standing behind the two women. He opened one wall of the house and Loki crawled into it. It was warm, and had very soft carpeting. "Jane, drive."

"But he -- "

"Jane!"

Loki lay back on the carpeting, stared at the ceiling, and took a few short, calming breaths. He was nearly naked, apparently without magic, and this house was moving very fast.

***

Coulson arrived at the site of the crashdown after a night spent in a cheap motel just outside Puente Antiguo, trying to sleep in one bed while Hawkeye sawed logs in the other. They really should have gone out to the site as soon as they arrived, but he'd been exhausted by then; only half the SHIELD caravan was ready, anyway. And he hadn't counted on this.

Down in the crater, easily two dozen men were gathered, and a handwritten sign screaming TRY YOUR STRENGTH AGAINST THE ALIEN SPACE SATELLITE $5 was propped against a table. Below it in slightly smaller letters was BREAKFAST $4. BEER $8. Someone was cooking sausages on a camp stove nearby.

"Highway robbery," Hawkeye said, nodding at the price for beer.

"Depends what's on tap," Coulson replied. "Flag down the transport and get them started on clearing the yahoos out. I'll let Fury know we found it."

Director Fury was a busy man, and the call didn't last too long. Hawkeye was just leading the transport off the road and down to the lip of the crater when Coulson elbowed his way through the crowd around the artifact and took five dollars out of his wallet. The men, most of them a head taller than him and all of them heavier, laughed. Still, one took his money and gestured for him to give it a try.

The artifact was gleaming even under the desert dust, an iridescent gold that was hypnotic to look at. Coulson studied it. An empty circlet, simple and smooth, with two long protrusions sticking up from one side like horns. The horns tapered to points so sharp that one sliced easily into his finger when he tested it. The blood dripped down onto the burnished gold and disappeared. Well, nothing ventured...

He tightened a hand on each horn, locked his elbows, and lifted.

It was like trying to move carved stone. It didn't even budge, didn't give an inch. One of the men muttered, Sorry, buddy.

"Me too," Coulson said, taking his badge wallet out of his inside pocket. "My name is Agent Coulson. I'm with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. We're a federal agency tasked with recovery of fallen satellites."

"Aw, shit," one of them said. A few others, who had the look of men who'd done time, were already backing away. The enterprising beer-and-breakfast salesman had begun shoving his implements haphazardly into the back of a pickup truck.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you gentlemen to clear the area," Coulson added.

"It's a cover-up," one of them said, getting right up in Coulson's face. "You can't just sweep this under the rug."

"I assure you, it's safer for all concerned -- "

"Bullshit! I saw that movie about Roswell!"

Coulson sighed. Seventy years, and a god damned weather balloon was still giving law enforcement headaches.

"If you don't leave, we'll be forced to evacuate you using any legal means at our disposal," Coulson said. He could see SHIELD agents appearing at the rim of the crater, but this could get ugly fast.

"You ain't gonna push us around," the man replied, and shoved Coulson hard in the shoulder.

Well, tried to. Coulson twisted, gripped the man's arm, and flipped three hundred pounds of redneck to the ground effortlessly.

"You're welcome to try," he told a couple of the others who looked like they were about to start something. "But I charge more than five dollars."

A series of soft clicks from the ridge made the crowd look up. Half a dozen trained SHIELD agents were aiming very large guns at them.

Coulson smiled.

***

It turned out that the small moving houses were actually called 'vans' or 'cars', and were rather like enclosed chariots. The Midgardians who'd rescued Loki took him to their actual home, a smallish hut on the outskirts of a village, and gave him a pair of trousers that hung low on his hips and a shirt with a very ill-conceived drawing of a winged horse on it. Apparently the horse's name was Fluttershy.

They introduced themselves as well. The driver of the van was called Jane, clearly a fosterling like himself -- or like he'd thought he was. The smaller woman, who wore dark-tinted glasses, was named Darcy ("Darcy Lewis." "Darcy Llews." "No, Lewis. Loooooooooooewis." "Darcy Looooooo'is! I shall remember that.") and the man was called Erikselvig. Now that was a proper name.

"And I am Loki," he said, accepting a small box from Darcy.

"Yeah you are," she replied. He sighed.

"Loki, not Lucky."

"Whatever, Lucky. Eat up."

He studied the box. She took it from him, opened two flaps in the top, and took out a silvery package. She opened that too, and offered him two flat wafers from within. When she made an encouraging gesture, he took one and bit into it. It was rather like some sort of fruit jam wrapped in thick paper. Still, she didn't warn him not to eat the papery substance, so he ate both of the wafers to show polite and then demurred when she offered him a second package.

"Yeah, I don't blame you. Hey! Erik!"

"Yes!" Erik called, from where he was in unsubtle consultation with Jane about Loki.

"Let's get something to eat, I'm starving and Lucky doesn't like Pop Tarts."

The feasting halls on Midgard were extremely small, but Loki couldn't deny they were generally cleaner than those on Asgard. And they had some marvelous drinks.

"I like this!" he said, draining the cup of thick, dark, hot liquid the serving woman had placed before him. He offered it to her with a smile. "May I have another?"

"Well, you're crazy with manners, at least," Jane sighed. Loki accepted the refilled cup from the serving woman and had just sipped and set it down when Darcy grabbed his arm.

"I like your ink," she said, turning his left arm over. "What is that, some kind of gamer thing?"

Loki stared down at his wrist, appalled. There was a symbol inked in dark red right below the heel of his hand: three interlocked triangles, elegant and complex.

"What's on your other wrist?" Darcy asked, and Loki turned his other hand over, comparing the two. Inked into his right wrist in blue was a multi-pointed star, one point longer than the others.

"This is the symbol of Odin Allfather, the royal insignia of Asgard," he said, pulling his wrist out of her grip. Darcy looked at him blankly, but he saw Erik sit up a little straighter. "And this is the sign of Jotunheim, Laufey's shieldblazon. They are the realms of my birth and upbringing."

"Uh, okaaaay," Darcy said. "Are you like...really into heavy metal or something?"

He didn't know what that was, but it seemed safest to agree. "Yes," he said gravely. "Indeed I am."

"Well, nobody's perfect," Darcy sighed.

"Can you tell me," Loki said, ignoring that, "how I came to be in the place of 'healing'?"

"The hospital?" Jane asked.

"Yes, that place. From which you most graciously rescued me," he added, with his most charming smile.

"Jane hit you with the van," Darcy said.

"He jumped in front of it!" Jane hissed.

"You did hit him a little," Erik put in.

"There was an atmospheric disturbance we were studying," Jane insisted. "We had very limited visibility. You came out of nowhere and just -- wham, right into the van."

"So," Loki said delicately, "twice you have struck me with your van?"

"I'm not doing it intentionally," Jane replied. "Do you remember any of it?"

"I do not," Loki said. "The last memory I have is of being cast from Asgard. I knew not where I landed, except that I am now in the realm of Midgard."

"Actually, you're in New Mexico," Jane said.

"I was not aware of that particular realm," Loki said, concerned now. "Is this not Midgard?"

"It is," Erik said, and clearly the two women weren't expecting him to say that. More interesting by the moment. "New Mexico...lies within the realm. Though I don't know that I should be indulging your psychosis to that extent."

"Excellent," Loki said. "A start. Who is the king of Midgard?"

"Is that a riddle?" Jane asked.

"Is it?" Loki countered.

"Erik, what's he talking about?"

"Not now, Jane," Erik replied.

"I would be satisfied with the lord of New Mexico, if that would be more appropriate," Loki offered. He looked up as a handful of large, sun-darkened men walked in.

"Usual please, Izzy," one of them said, settling on a stool at the long table in front of the kitchen. "You missed the excitement this morning."

"I told you nothing good wouldn't come outta going down to that crater," the woman called Izzy scolded. Loki noticed one of the men sporting an impressive bruise on the side of his face. "I'll get you some ice, sugar."

"Benny here decided to tell the Fed who showed up that he knew alllll about Roswell, didn't you, Benny?" the man said. His companions snickered.

"He was a little guy, how'd I know he was some kinda judo master?" Benny said.

"What were y'all getting up to that you got the attention of the federal government?" Izzy asked. Loki flicked his eyes to his companions and saw that Jane and Darcy were both watching the little drama play out with interest.

Erikselvig was still watching Loki.

"There was a satellite crashed down," one man said.

"It was alien," Benny said sulkily, as Izzy handed him a bag of ice.

"Excuse me," Jane said. "A satellite?"

"Sure. Bout twenty miles west of here."

"What did it look like?" Erik asked, turning around.

"Oh, I dunno. Circular thing about yea big," one of the men said, making a circle with his hands. "Two big curved antenna stickin' up. It's stuck in the ground pretty hard."

Loki felt himself go very still, but otherwise he didn't react. It sounded like his helm; the Allfather had ripped it from his head, but perhaps he'd cast it into the void after him. A sort of parting shot. The helm was Uru, and could be drawn upon for magical workings, if he could recover it.

"Anyway, feds're all over it now," he continued. "Benny, you're a lucky sumbitch that suit didn't stamp your ass Postage paid to Gitmo."

"Well," Loki said, and Erik and Jane and Darcy all turned back to him. "This has been, if I may say so, an enlightening treat. Truly, the hospitality of New Mexico shall be known far and wide. If you will excuse me, however, I should not like to trespass any more on your time."

He stood, and he was already out the door and halfway down the street when Darcy the Persistent caught up with him.

"So where are you going?" she asked. "I mean, do you have a place to stay?"

Loki lifted his face, shielding his eyes. "West," he said.

"Lemme guess. About twenty miles?"

"Truly, you possess exceeding wisdom," he drawled.

"Smartass. What do you want with a satellite? The place is surrounded by Feds."

"Are Feds like clowns?" he asked.

"What?"

"I fear no creature. How large is a Fed? If I had a horse and a good spear I should make short work of them."

"You can't go around spearing Feds!"

"Why?" he asked. "Are they sacred to Midgard?"

"You are grade-A crazy, Lucky."

"May I borrow your van?" he asked.

"Do you have a license?"

"Yes," he said. "I certainly do."

"He can't have our van," Jane said, catching up to them as well.

"Excellent, a committee," Loki sighed, and then blinked. A van had driven past -- "Is that not your van?" he asked, following it with his eyes.

"What -- HEY!" Jane yelled, and then they were all running past him, up to the hut where they lived.

***

"So," Coulson said, studying the artifact as Hawkeye jogged up to him. "Any interesting intel?"

"Yeah, one or two nibbles," Hawkeye replied. "One of the guys we ran off was trying to be real helpful."

Coulson sighed.

"No, honestly, I didn't do anything to him. He said there's a scientist in the nearest town who studies, and I quote, clouds and shit," Hawkeye said. "She's got a bunch of atmospheric survey equipment. Apparently right before the crashdown there was a big storm around here. He said he was sure she'd've been out in it."

"You get a name?"

"Dr. Jane Foster. Working with a Dr. Erik Selvig."

Coulson glanced at him. "Selvig? Where do we know that name from?"

"Known associate of Dr. Bruce Banner, sir; astrophysicist."

"Ah. Anything else?"

"Well, some of the guys said they thought this was a sacred indian burial ground but I can't see myself how that'd be relevant."

"If the furniture starts to move on its own, we'll revisit that theory. In the meantime..."

"Going to pay a visit to Dr. Foster?"

"I really do think we should," Coulson agreed.

The moment he saw Foster's setup in town, Coulson knew things would get unpleasant. He'd brought a couple of cars and a truck, just in case, and was now glad he had. Foster had an ideal arrangement of equipment for monitoring readings on the artifact, and at any rate she couldn't be allowed to investigate the crashdown further. He put a team on documenting and confiscating her equipment, and they were nearly done when the doctor herself showed up.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. Right on cue, the Unpleasantness. Coulson genuinely took no joy from upending a person's life, and disliked confrontation; still, it seemed unavoidable. The older man with her, who was wisely trying to restrain her, that would be Selvig; there was also a younger woman who was probably some kind of assistant, if her defense of the machinery was anything to go by, and a young, extremely pale man who watched it all with a strangely detached air.

"I can't just buy replacements at Radio Shack," Dr. Foster insisted, crumpling the check Coulson handed her. Nobody ever accepted checks; he blamed conspiracy-theory thriller films full of noble self-sacrificing heroes. "I made most of this myself!"

"Then I'm sure you can do it again," he replied, trying to keep her talking so that she wouldn't interfere with his agents' work.

"And I'm sure I can sue you for violating my constitutional rights!"

"I'm sorry, Dr. Foster, but we're the good guys," he tried.

"So are we! I'm on the verge of understanding something extraordinary, and everything I know about the phenomenon is either in this lab or in this book, and you can't just take this awa -- "

Coulson tried not to smile as the book was snatched out of her hand. Really, it gave him no pleasure, it was just...funny timing.

The agent shoved her back when she tried to recover the book, but Coulson was distracted by a scuffle in the corner; Jane's young assistant had her arms wrapped around the thick bicep of Sullivan, one of the biggest guys in the squad. Her hands were firmly gripping her StarkPod.

"Gimme that back, I just put like thirty new songs on it!" she cried. Coulson crossed the floor hurriedly to help untangle her. Before he knew what was happening, a slim set of fingers had gripped his wrist with iron force.

"Unhand the lady Darcy."

It was the pale, detached man who had come up with them, no longer an uninterested bystander. Sullivan stopped moving, the woman kept struggling, and Coulson froze -- his hand on Darcy's elbow, the man's hand tight around his wrist.

"I'm going to need you to take your hand off me," Coulson said calmly.

"Release Darcy Loooo'is and I will consider it," the man replied. His eyes were blazing, an almost unearthly green. Coulson lifted his other hand, ready to compress the man's ulnar nerve and free himself, but the man moved with uncanny speed, intercepting him and blocking his movement. Coulson glanced sideways to find Selvig restraining Foster, and several agents reaching for their sidearms.

"And you are?" he asked, spreading the fingers of his free hand, a subtle signal for the agents to keep their weapons holstered.

"My name is Loki," the man replied. "I am the guest of these people and will not see them robbed or injured."

Coulson twisted his hand, flexing his wrist, but Loki's grip was like iron.

"Release Darcy and return her...device," the man said, "and you will come to no harm."

"Is that so," Coulson said, and there was a soft, wet thwap. Loki's eyes rolled up in his head and Coulson caught him by the collar of his t-shirt before he could hit the ground.

"Oh my God," Darcy yelled, releasing Sullivan. "Is that an arrow?"

"It's only a sedative dart," Coulson said, tugging the hypodermic out of Loki's shoulder and handing it to Sullivan, who nodded and tossed it into the truck along with the StarkPod. "I'm afraid this man is going to have to come with us. Ah-ah," he added, when Darcy moved forward. An actual arrow landed at her feet, sticking at an angle in the cement floor. She froze.

Coulson hoisted the man over his shoulder. "Thank you for your cooperation," he said, and began loading his prisoner into the one remaining car. Hawkeye was sitting on the roof, looking innocent, his bow, blowgun, and quiver already stashed in the trunk.

"Kidnapping a civ? That's like nine pages of paperwork," he said, amiably helping Coulson load the man in the backseat before sliding into the passenger's side.

"He's not a civilian."

"What is he?"

"An anomaly," Coulson said, starting the car.

"You do hate anomalies." Hawkeye glanced over his shoulder at the unconscious man. "He's got good taste in shirts. Though I'm a Rainbow Dash man myself."

"Do I want to know what that means?"

"I'll loan you the DVDs."

"Please don't," Coulson said, and pulled out onto the highway, heading for the site.

Chapter Two

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